EPISODE 50: THE FINALS

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Alinore Valmont. Lunday, Taurus 11th 2348. 7:27. Athenaeum (West Dining Hall).

Lin and Hace met at the dining hall at more or less the same time. She arrived just as Hace was walking out. The hall was mostly quiet with the campus on break. Most of the crowd consisted of older aspirants whose commitments would keep them on campus over the break. With any luck, I’ll be among them soon.

“I hope you aren’t planning on fighting me with a full stomach.” She said to Hace.

Hace smirked and shook his head.

“I’m not about to hand you a handicap. Just got some water and a piece of fruit.” Hace squinted at her. “You sleep alright?”

Lin pinkened. Athren was busy the entire weekend, so she didn’t have an opportunity to spar with him as she had hoped. Instead, she had stayed up late working on visualization exercises and retired to fitful sleep. She barely managed to get in five and a half hours.

“Well enough,” she said testily.

If Hace was sleep-deprived, he certainly didn’t show it. If anything, he seemed to be brimming with energy. Bright-eyed. Confident. Lin tried to loosen up and started stretching her neck.

Mercifully, Glem arrived less than a minute later. And looking sharp. He wore a tasteful, light grey vest that segued into a subtly flared waist cape. Beneath that, he wore a maroon button-up that accentuated his lean figure, without being too tight. He rounded things out with coal slacks, oxblood loafers… And are those argyle socks?

“Aren’t you supposed to wear your uniform on campus?” Hace asked.

Ugh. You utter troglodyte.

Glem answered with a forced, mechanical laugh. “We are on a break, Hace. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. The soldier-boy thing works for you; I get that—I respect it—but it really isn’t my vibe. I fancy bein’ fancy on my own time.”

“I think you look quite dapper,” Lin said and gestured, “Eye candy. Respectfully.”

Glem burst into a smile and curtsied.

“Why, thank you, Alinore! It’s refreshing to be appreciated.”

Hace rolled his eyes and made a jerking off gesture. After that lovely display, I’m completely ready to beat the shit out of you! Lin turned and walked back into the dining hall. Hace and Glem followed, bantering about something. Lin didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but they caught up to her on the stairs.

“You tell Sen you’re meeting another girl in secret?”

“Oh, fuck off,” Hace said, sounding genuinely annoyed.

“Where’s the lie though?” Glem asked.

“Are you and Senice together?” Lin asked, surprised.

Hace blushed, which was actually quite adorable. His dark red hair made him look like the top of a thermometer. But that also should have been obvious, Lin. She’s in his entourage. But for some reason I always thought he was with… Her mind blanked. Who else would he be with? Her head had been full of those odd little hiccups lately.

“We just started seeing each other,” Hace admitted, a cute little smile scribbled on his face.

“Aw. Ain’t he precious?”

Glem looped an arm around his shoulder, and pinched his opposite cheek. Hace elbowed him in the gut, stone faced. Lin giggled throughout.

“No! Uh, good for you two. Really,” Lin said. And for some odd reason she meant it.

If nothing else, gossip is like meth to Pensey. She’ll be high on this for a week. And if she was being entirely honest with herself, she was excited. There had been little sparks throughout their cohort. Kids allegedly skipping curfew together or stealing kisses at dances, but no real relationships yet. And now we’re off to the races. She thought of Drav and shoved him out of her head in the same picosecond. There’s no telling what will come of this, either.

Lin punched in the code to the roof access and the door opened up. They stepped out onto the roof, and the morning chill seemed to intensify, even before she shrugged off her uniform jacket. Then she shivered. Am I scared?

Yeah. I am.

“Limber up.” Glem called. “If you’re gonna do something stupid, at least be smart about it.”

Lin exhaled heavily as she started to stretch out her muscles. If I win… I have redemption. But what if I lose? Lin looked down. At least I will know where I stand. She looked over her shoulder at Matthews, who was humming something to himself as he stretched. Is he putting up a front? Just his way of focusing? Or is he really so confident that he’ll win? Lin knit her brow, then turned away before he could notice her looking. Pride before a fall, Matthews.

Lin forced the thoughts out of her head, one punch and kick at a time. Then she began to work her wyrd. She fished a length of rope out of her uniform, making it rigid, tying it into a knot, and doing other basic kinetic exercises. And by the end of her routine, her head was clear. Hace finished more or less at the same time. She noticed that he liked to work out his wyrd and body simultaneously.

“Alright,” Glem said. “I’m not gonna go too deep into ground rules. You both know how far you should or should not go. Just know that if you go overboard, I will judge you for it, vocally, for the rest of your lives.”

Hace and Lin both nodded, turned to face each other and bowed, then took up positions at opposite sides of the roof’s central gravel rectangle. The only obstacles were two AC units evenly spaced from the middle of the center of the roof. Looking at them gave Lin a mild headache. She remembered a fight with a green-haired girl in flashes. She remembered flinging her, back first, into one of the units. But there’s no dent. Shouldn’t there be a dent there? By the time Lin thought to question the thought, it was already fading into nothingness.

Clear your head. Focus. Lin breathed deep, lungs and wyrd.

“Prepare!” Glem called.

Hace and Lin settled into low stances and raised their fists.

“Begin!”

Hace and Lin stared each other down for several seconds. Hace advanced just before Lin got impatient, which put her on her backstep. He used glamours to leave after-images of himself to cover his approach. He has a talent for sorcery I don’t. Elemental magic. Glamours. But my kinetic sorcery is more focused, and I’m better at metaphysics and psychic attacks. Stick to your strengths. Lin feinted a backstep, as if she was overwhelmed, then abruptly launched herself forward, catching the real Hace in the stomach with a right hook.

Before she could capitalize on the contact with a sorcerous follow-up, he caught her hand at the wrist and yanked her off balance into a well-executed headbutt; his forehead struck the bridge of her nose, crunching its cartilage and leaving her dizzy. Then he was moving again. The shadow glamours were much harder to track after his strike. Something kicked her behind her left knee. A blistering blow grazed the right of her chin.

Lin countered with a burst of sorcery, halting Hace’s assault, albeit momentarily. She followed up by yanking at the gravel beneath his feet. Hace felt the ripple, and assumed she was aiming at his ankles, but fell on his ass as the gravel flew out from beneath his feet. Instead of releasing the gravel, Lin created a telekinetic chord of the stone shards, resulting in a makeshift whip. As Hace stood, Lin snapped the chord sharply into his right temple. He swore, shaken by the shockingly sharp pain.

Before she could get off a second slash, Hace closed the distance between them and clapped his hands. A plume of smoke erupted, enveloping them both, but since the smoke was saturated with Hace’s wyrd, he had a perfect sense of where Lin stood while her vision was completely obscured. She released her gravel whip, dropped into a crouch, projected a tight telekinetic dome around herself, and waited for Hace’s assault.

He likes to hit and run. Smoke and mirrors. I just need to catch him as he attacks and… A basketball sized orb of fire cut through the smoke. Lin switched the polarity of her sorcerous barrier at the last possible instant, channeling it to protect her from heat rather than pure force. The blast still sent her sailing onto her back, coughing. Smart. Mixing things up with a hard-hitting ranged attack. She sprang back up to her feet before Glem could start a count.

Hace lunged as soon as she got up, arm cocked back for a haymaker, wreathed in sorcerous fire. Lin narrowly rolled out of the way and his knuckles struck her hair bun instead of her head, tearing the tie and net she used to hold it in place. As Hace tried to recover his balance from the heavy strike, Lin kicked the base of his ankle with a sweeping, sorcery assisted kick. He used sorcery to flip himself over rather than falling.

The two of them squared off as the early morning wind whipped Lin’s hair in her face. Shit. This is going to absolutely destroy my sightlines. Sure enough, Hace darted toward her obscured right eye. Lin raised her guard… and Hace’s fist struck her square in her left eye. The world flashed white. He used another double! God damn it!

As his fists thudded against her guard, she thought of Carroll and his many maxims. What’s applicable to this situation? There was no simple answer for a fight, of course, and she had no time to reflect on more involved lessons. But one quote stuck in her head:

“In a world full of hammers, be a scalpel.”

—Hace|7:42—

Lin withdrew from Hace’s assault by creating a half dome of force between them and jumping backwards. Can’t let you get any breathing room. Hace pursued her, but she had enough time to retaliate with a roundhouse. He blocked it, but the sorcerous strength behind the blow was enough to send him skidding backwards on the gravel.

He increased the traction on his feet with sorcery—a technique he had practiced ever since Azmuir hit him with that frictionless hex—and charged forward. Lin had been working on something complicated, but she surprised him by abandoning the sorcery and meeting him mid-dash. As he threw what was to be the first of many punches, she gracefully ducked beneath his arm, caught it, threw her back into his chest, and threw him over her shoulder. Hace managed to use sorcery to buffer the impact and rolled to his feet at an angle. If he actually hit the gravel, it would have been a fight-ending blow. As it was, the abrupt flip sent a rill of pain through his newly healed ribs. Or maybe not-so-healed after all.

As Hace tried to regain his footing, Lin launched an axe kick at his shoulder. He caught her heel with his palms, and forced her leg sharply upward, hoping to pull her hamstring. But Lin used a current of sorcery to flip backwards and landed five paces away.

Hace clapped his hands together, creating another smoke screen and showering Lin with gravel. She’s going to beat me in an endurance battle. Got to end this quick. My wyrd is all warmed up. Time to sing a lullaby.

He crafted the sorcerous spell faster than he ever had before, but his work was clean. He did a series of arcane gestures and whispered syllables typically associated with contract magic, though he found that they could be used to structure sorcery somewhat as well. His lullaby was easily as complex as most contracts, and it had two parts. The first was a containment field which actually expanded prior to the blast to protect him from backlash while creating an echo chamber around the target. The second part of the spell was all sedative energy and concussive force. The problem was stabilizing the complex sorcery without a contract. If he tried to fling the spell like a grenade, it would either lose potency or dissipate before hitting his target. Which means I have to get close.

Hace emerged from his own smoke screen, clutching the orb-shaped knot of energy in his right hand, leading with his left shoulder. Lin had backed away from the smoke—probably working on an involved technique on her own—and Hace launched a left jab to try and break her concentration. She caught his fist in her hand… but her opposite guard was weak. Too late! He thrust the orb-like spell into Lin’s opposite shoulder.

Not as good as a headshot, but it will have to—Hace’s world seemed to explode. Deafening bang. Suffocating sense of smoke. Extreme pain. It was like he hit himself with his own spell.

Since it was essentially a close-range bomb—albeit one crafted to be mostly self-contained—some degree of backlash was inevitable. But this was a complete backfire and I know I got the spell off…

Lin let go of his left fist, and as he stumbled back, he realized what had happened. She used her direct contact to funnel psychic magic into me and shared lullaby’s impact with me. Or more like, she borrowed part of my mind and nervous system to buffer the shock. A damn good counter. And to pull that off so quickly…

The lullaby hadn’t left her unscathed though. She was dizzy, breathing hard, torso swaying limply. Hace advanced, hoping to put her over the edge with another solid hit. Lin strafed him with more speed than he thought she had left, pelting him in the right obliques with a nasty kinetic bolt, about as hard as a solid softball pitch. One of his newly injured ribs cracked. Breathing didn’t hurt, but quick movements were agony. Hairline fracture. I hope.

Lin went back on the offensive and Hace turtled as she laid into him. She hits harder than Drav. As hard as… The girl with green hair again, in a flicker. Smirking at me. Laughing with me. Sparring against me. Then she was gone. Hace protected his injured rib at the expense of taking a punch to the face, before he finally landed a counter jab.

It was enough to break Lin’s rhythm. Holding his hand over his rib to dull the pain, Hace roared and launched a spinning back kick that scored a solid hit against Lin’s torso. She fell to the ground in a hard shoulder roll and emerged on her feet.

Hace was on her, no longer giving a damn about the lightning-like pain in his chest. He punched her once, twice, and again. Keep at it! He dodged to the left before she could get used to his rhythm. She went into full retreat and gathered her wyrd to protect her body.

I just have to break through it! Hace threw a right straight backed by a freight-train of sorcerous force on the follow-through. And the focused hit was enough to break her barrier. He felt the odd, etheric snap as her wall cracked and the cushion behind it gave way. That must have bruised her wyrd as well.

She fell to the ground in a heap. Her arms shook as she tried to push herself up, and eventually gave out beneath her.

Stay down. Hace was practically snarling with every breath. He felt his wyrd boiling. Symbols flashed in front of his eyes. Voices whispered in his ear. The girl with green hair. He couldn’t make out what she was saying. And for some reason, that infuriated him. Why can’t I hear you anymore? Where did you go?

When he saw Lin start to rise, Hace nearly unleashed all his anger on her in that moment. The only thing that stayed his hand was Glem’s expression. He held a hand up, signaling for Hace to back off while he started the count, but his eyes were terrified. It reminded him of Sera’s expression after his fight. Not only fear, but disapproval. Hace tamped down on the blaze that threatened to burn his mind apart and breathed as deep as he could despite the crack in his rib.

The symbols receded. The voice faded. The girl with the green hair vanished once more.

—Lin|7:43—

Get up. Get up, get up, get up, get up, goddamn you, get up! As Lin struggled to stand, she remembered a technique. One she had thought up weeks ago—though she couldn’t remember when. Did I dream it?

Instead of bolstering her strength, or using a broad current of sorcery to help herself stand, Lin imagined herself as a puppet, and pulled herself back to her feet with two invisible strands of force.

It was a more efficient use of wyrd, for Lin at least, than broader, brute force applications of telekinesis. Lin tried to hide the strings as she pushed herself up, and Glem finished his count at eight. Last round. And this time, you’re going down, Matthews.

If I use strands of force to pull and torque my body, I can get both strength and speed. I just need to wait for him to go for another knockout….

As soon as Lin gave her approval to Glem to restart the match, Hace launched into another brutal combo of light blows, peppering her guard, and then wound up for a sledgehammer kick.

Bingo.

Lin plucked her body away from the strike with a pair of strands pulling her back by the shoulders. Hace’s kick struck empty air. With another pluck of her strings, Lin was behind him. And before he could recover from his kick, she used another kinetic strand to pull her fist directly into his liver.

He cried out and stumbled forward, his rhythm completely disrupted. Lin blasted him with a simple orb of kinetic force, again targeting his liver. Instead of retreating, he tried to turn quickly and counterattack. But the strings made Lin too quick. He turned to face her just in time to catch a perfectly plucked punch to his jaw. The shot knocked him on his hands and chest. And judging from that scream, I’m guessing you have a broken rib.

Yield, Matthews. I don’t want to hurt you.

After a five count, he pushed himself to a kneeling position, and then to a standing position by count seven. He didn’t raise his guard, but nodded when Glem asked if he was ready to continue. Lin briefly considered trying to end it there, but something about the way he caught himself raised her hackles. He’s baiting me.  

—Hace|7:43—

She isn’t taking the bait. But that’s fine. Gives me a chance to catch my breath. The gravel had cut a gash in his forehead, and Hace took the opportunity to wipe the blood from his brow. Kind of her to give me a break. But this is very bad. It’s like her speed and force doubled… But I’ve seen this before.

Strings. Lin’s using her own body like a puppet. Not drafts of force, but directed chords pulling her body. Hace blinked. Wait. When? Where did I see her—

Lin charged at him. Learn her rhythm. Come up with a counter. Now that he knew to look for them, he could detect the strands as she threaded their trajectory through the air. It’s like she’s sewing, except dexterity isn’t a rate-limiter. She can sew as fast as she can think. As Hace tried to work out a pattern, he ended up taking two shots to his abs. His rib cage bit him like a beartrap with each impact. He was pretty sure more than one of his ribs were reinjured.

But getting bit is the best way to make sure she takes the bait.

Sure enough, Lin pulled back for a bigger hit. The second she yanked herself with the string, Hace sent a guillotine of disruptive sorcery perpendicular to the strand. Through the etheric ripples, he felt his counter hit home. The string snapped, and the abrupt change in momentum made Lin stumble.

Hace was ready. He launched a powerful uppercut that hit her square in the chin, lifting her off her feet. She fell heavily to the ground, but before Glem could start the count, Lin yanked herself back up with strings. Just as planned. Again, Hace severed the invisible strings with his own invisible slash. Lin teetered on her feet and Hace launched a side kick directly into her guard, grounding her yet again.

And now she’s rolling to her feet. How. How the hell does she still have gas left in the tank?

Hace pressed his advantage, expecting her to retreat. Lin summoned another pair of strings—just as planned. But when Hace slashed, she surprised him by taking a step forward, and slamming the heel of her palm into his stomach. He wretched foamy spit and staggered back. She can thread the strings without plucking them.

Christ, now she’s using them to feint!

Hace shifted to a brute force assault. Punches, kinetic bolts, and he got a few hits in. But Lin feinted again, acting like she was going to string a volley of punches. Instead, she spun herself like a rip-cord top, launching a vicious spinning kick at his flank. The blow struck home, and he struck the gravel.

Yup. Now all my ribs are definitely rebroken.

It hurt to breathe.

I’m probably running on adrenaline at this point.

He heard Glem call “six” though the sound was muffled and the words were slow… or he was processing them slowly. Yeah. I’ve got to forfeit. Too much pain to keep fighting her like—

Wait.

Hace spat gravel and forced himself to stand with muscles and wyrd. Teetering on his feet, he started circling Lin, conserving his wyrd, and waiting for her to start stringing something elaborate.

She obliged. This is it. She’s going in for the kill. I have one shot at this. A spiderweb of cords extended from her body, allowing her to pluck herself in any direction she wanted. But before she could launch her attack, Hace pulsed his wyrd outward rather than gathering it around himself to guard. As his wyrd enveloped her strands, he traced his own strands of force alongside them, and pulled everything as tight as he could.

—Lin| 7:44—

Lin was ready to launch her coup de gras: an aerial axe kick to Hace’s head. But just before she could flip herself into the air, every strand stemming from her body went completely taut.

Hace held one hand out, grunting with effort, wyrd flickering wildly, dancing on the very edge of exus. Then he twisted his hands, and Lin’s limbs contorted. He’s pulling my strands?! Lin tried to dispel them, but it was no use. What’s happening?!

She tried to slice herself free frantically, but—something slammed into her right check. Then her left. Then her chin again. Lin lost a couple seconds. She felt herself falling, but didn’t hit the ground. He caught me? No… I’m on my chest.

He had eased her to the gravel and pinned her left arm behind her back. His boot was on her right shoulder, and his right hand was pressed against the small of her back.

“Yield, Lin.” Hace said. His voice was fucked up. His throat sounded broken.

She struggled on punch-drunk reflex. But he exerted a gentle, steady, and completely implacable pressure on her shoulder joint. At the same time, he used what had to be the last of his wyrd to send a sedative pulse into her body. A wave of exhaustion left Lin lightheaded and her limbs leaden. Her momentum was utterly broken.

This is an arrest position. Form seven.

He arrested me. God damn it. I had him. He was barely standing. He’s still barely standing… She felt him gathering strength—albeit falteringly—for a second surge of sedation. Lin tried to move her arms. The best she managed was a weak wiggle.

I can’t fight back physically because of the fucking arrest position… and my wyrd… When Hace landed that straight punch that penetrated her guard, it left a nasty bruise in her wyrd. And the fatigue of the injury had caught up to her.

The best I can do is lose with dignity.

“I yield.”

Hace immediately relaxed the sorcerous sedative pressure, reversing its polarity to wake her back up. Oh yeah. I probably have a concussion.

He collapsed, crying out from the impact. His urdic pressure faded instantly, like he had passed out.

Wait. You probably have a concussion too! Lin impotently tried to roll over to slap Hace awake, when a pair of strong, gentle hands scooped her up, carefully supporting her neck and spine, and laid her down on the gravel. By the time Lin realized it was Glem, he had already moved onto Hace, probing his body gently with his wyrd.

“God damn it, man…” Glem said.

“…Did I win…Coach?” Hace asked with a delirious, bloody grin.

“Yeah, you’re asshole of the year,” Glem muttered as he continued to probe Hace’s body.  “Christ. I don’t know how we are gonna move you out of here. Three of your ribs are broken. One of your ribs is badly broken. Your lungs are probably both intact, somehow…” he shook his head. “I knew this was a bad idea.”

“Glem, I am so sor—” Lin began.

“The hell you are,” He snapped. “Both of you are fucking psychotic. In fact, I need both of you to make me a promise right now.”

“What is it?” Lin and Hace asked, both slurring.

“Fight Club is over. Outside of training—and I mean official, supervised training—you two don’t lift a hand against each other, or anybody else on this campus. If you are both already capable of what I just saw… nobody stands a chance. If they fuck with you…. Tie them up with invisible strings. Disappear in a crowd of shadow glamours or something. I don’t know. Y’all are terrifying. I honestly don’t know where to begin.”

“I promise,” Hace said.

“Self-defense only, no maiming,” Lin confirmed.

Glem tightened his gaze on Lin for a moment, and then gestured ‘close enough.’

“So. I’m going to go get you both a trauma team,” Glem said pleasantly. Before Lin could object, he pointed at her accusatorily: “You are badly concussed! He’s got a broken ribcage, and is at least mildly concussed!”

“What the hell are you going to tell them? Cause I can’t do the talking,” Hace said.

“Oh yes, you can. You are both going to tell them the truth. This was a perfectly reasonable and fully sanctioned duel. You have Master Carroll’s permission, after all.”

Lin withered, and Hace swore.

—Hace | 10:47 AM—

Hace got his chest wrapped in alchemical bandages enchanted to speed recovery. He wasn’t sure if they would do any additional good on top of his half-fae heritage, but figured it was worth a try. As he checked out of the campus medical center, he saw Lin outside, leaning against one of the pillars, with her left arm in a sling.

She waited for me?

“What happened to your arm?” Hace asked, confused.

Lin considered it as if she had forgotten she had an arm altogether.

“I have no idea. They tell me I strained it but I only realized it was hurting when I got it looked at. Not sure when it happened, but probably when you pulled the strings tight.”

Hace nodded and grinned. He got injured without realizing it all the time.

“Honestly, you seem worse for wear. What are you going to tell Senice?” Lin asked.

Really, Lin?

“I’m half-fae. The fuck do you think I’m gonna tell her?”

Lin’s mouth made a small ‘o,’ and she gestured a hasty apology. He gestured for her to forget about it. He sat down on the steps to the medical building.

“No getting around it, but I’m not exactly eager to share the news.”

Lin lingered in silence for a few seconds as Hace started to dwell on his new dilemma, and then she asked:

“Do you have any advice? Tips?”

What? Are you a fucking automaton? Also, how the hell do you answer that? ‘Git good’? Hace’s mouth hung open for a full second before he could think of a response at all.

“Lin, that fight could have gone either—”

“Please don’t act like this was a coinflip to be modest, Matthews. If it came to a reckless knockout? Sure. Maybe that’s too close to call. But you managed to restrain me with my own technique. I’ve never even used it before. Not throughout the entire kumite.”

Hace frowned. I could have sworn I saw you do the string thing at least once before. Or maybe I dreamed it… But if it had been a dream, the memory had already faded to cinders.

“Were you saving it?” Hace asked.

Lin knit her brow.

“I suppose. Something I thought up on my own. This is just the first time I tried it.”

“Maybe that’s why I was able to counter it then,” Hace said, deflecting. “And you got a lot of hits on me before I figured out what to do.”

“But how did you figure out I was using threads in the first place?” she asked.

I swear to gods, it’s because I saw you do it before! Hace sensed she’d murder him if he corrected her though, so he shook his head and tried to reverse engineer how he managed it:

“The way you moved. Once I figured out you were pulling your body, I guessed the strands’ angles and cut them with my own wyrd. But when you started feinting, I was overwhelmed. And I was shot to shit. All I could do to win was try to reverse your technique.”

Lin shook her head smiling.

“Remarkable,” her smile faded. “But how did you learn to do that?”

Hace grinned, smug to have made her wonder:

“Well, I did a long reach with my wyrd, then immediately used it to trace your threads—”

“Yes. I understood that much,” Lin said, annoyed. “I meant… how did you learn to adapt so quickly? Or improvise? No, that’s not it. I don’t even know what you call it. Your ability to play with a concept as soon as you see it. To turn it completely on its head…”

What? If Lin was making a point, Hace couldn’t see it. From where he stood, it seemed like she was implying he had some kind of natural talent that made this easier for him than her. I am fighting for my mom’s life. What the hell are you fighting for? Daddy’s attention?

“I’m doing my damnedest here, Lin. Same as you. I don’t have some kind of secret cheat code that makes this easier for me. I developed my opus early, same as you. I’m training and studying in my off hours too. I’m not doping. I was just—”

“Hungrier,” Lin concluded, hollow. “You wanted it more than I did.”

I was going to say ‘trying my hardest.’ But sure. Fuck it. Hace gestured acceptance even though he was fairly certain that wasn’t it either.

When Hace stood up, Lin extended her hand, all business. She had attempted to re-bun her hair, but more of it hung free than usual. She has nice hair. Even more surprising was her figure beneath her uniform jacket. Hace stopped gawking just quickly enough to avoid her notice, and shook her hand.

Just as Hace started to pull away, her grip strength tightened; not quite hard enough to make him retaliate, but…close.

“Watch your back, Matthews. I’m gonna catch up.”

Her expression was fierce. Murderous, to the average observer. But Hace had a feeling he was beginning to understand Alinore Valmont by the merest margin. And that horrifying smile is as close as she gets to looking happy. Driven. Manic. And more than a little pissed off. Hace smiled. Guess we’ve got that in common too. Hace tightened his grip to match hers.

“Do your best, Valmont.”

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