III.

Three weeks later, Misha was in her office late again. She was alone this time — she had called it off with Aaron — and she didn’t like the silence of the room.

            She was reading the latest exploratory report and it said everything they already knew. She set it down and massaged her temples. She and Aaron didn’t speak anymore and Spice was training for an assignment. She could leave her office, but what would she do?

            “You look tired,” a voice observed.

            Misha looked up to see Roman leaning against the wall of her office. She tensed. “How did you get in here?”

            “I have certain talents,” he said with a smile. Misha didn’t think she had ever seen him smile before; she really had no reason to. It made him look roguish.

            Misha liked his smile, but she hadn’t completely lost her mind. There was a tiny button under her desk and if she pressed it, a guard would enter her office. The nearest guard was two hallways over and she had to time this perfectly.

            “Why are you here?” she asked.

            “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

            She frowned. “A lot can happen in three weeks.”

            “It’s hard for me to get away.”

            “I imagine.”

            He smiled again.

            “Well, Roman, as you can see, I am fine. Thank you for your concern.” She met his eyes for a moment. “Now, you have forty five seconds to get the hell out of here, or the guard who comes through that door will shoot you on sight.”

His smile grew. He crossed the room, took her hand, and raised it to his lips.

 “Goodbye, Kennedy,” he said.

            The doorknob turned — she had overestimated his time — and a guard stepped inside. But when Misha turned back, Roman was gone.

            “Sorry,” she said with a guilty smile. “I must have pressed the button with my knee on accident.”

            The guard looked unhappy, but nodded curtly and stepped back outside.

            Misha picked up her phone and dialed the General.

            Fifteen minutes later, she was standing in the General’s office. Aaron — called by their superior, not Misha — was sitting next to her.

            “He washere?” Aaron was seething.

            Misha nodded, biting back her smile. “In my office.”

            Aaron watched her, but the General looked thoughtful. “It appears we have underestimated him.”

            “Did he do anything to you?” Aaron demanded.

            Misha shrugged. “He asked me if I was okay. That’s all.”

            Aaron’s eyes narrowed.

            “It’s interesting that he came, that he didn’t send a soldier,” observed the General.

            She shrugged again. “It’s like I said, sir, nothing really happened, I just wanted you to know.” She turned and headed for the door.

            “But....she — he......he,” Aaron sputtered.

            The General pursed his lips. “I don’t like it any more than you do, Levy, and you can be sure that security will increase around here, but if he didn’t behave violently, and without any more evidence that he was here, there isn’t that much we can do without threatening a violation of the truce.”

            Aaron tightened his face and left the office as well. A young soldier had stopped Misha and he waited while she answered the simple question. “How can you be so calm?” he hissed in her ear while they walked through the office cubicles.

            “He’s really not that bad.”

            “That’s because he’s got a crush on you!”

            Misha rolled her eyes. “Be serious, Aaron.” She stepped inside her office and left Aaron on the other side.

            The next day there was a skirmish on the inside of the Gates. Several men returned wounded. Misha was put on patrol that night and assigned a briefing in the morning. It was her combat troop’s turn again and she would be heading into the forest the following evening.

            Another attack came during the day and a special meeting was called to determine the validity of the truce. When one soldier died in the infirmary, the General called off the combat troop.

            Misha sat with her team, awaiting orders. From their position in the hall, Misha could see out the door, to the metal gate and into the forest. She swore she saw movement in the trees. Standing, she walked over the entrance and peered across the street and through the iron fence.

            “You aren’t going out there,” Aaron said, coming up behind her.

            “I think I should,” she said, turning to him. “If this truce is going to hold, we’ve got to have some trust. There should be some sort of emissary —”

            “Maybe,” he said. “But not you.”

            “It’s safest for me to go! You saw Roman —”

            Aaron shook his head. “You’re not going.”

            The General suspended all combat troops indefinitely. The following day, another scout was found dead and the General suspended all exploratory missions as well. The next day, Misha asked to become an ambassador to the Stone City. The General fired her.

            The next week passed with the military in turmoil. Not, of course, that Misha would have known. She spent the next four days inside her apartment, unpacking boxes she’d never touched before and organizing the things she never used. At the base, soldiers were working to combat an outbreak of hostile behavior — as well as locate the files and forms generally provided by Misha.

            On the fourth night, he came.

            Misha was arranging books she had never read on a bookshelf when she heard the door open. She turned to see Roman, looking distraught.

            “Kennedy,” he said. She nodded. “I thought — I heard....”

            “That I’d been let go?” she asked, standing up and brushing dust off her pajama bottoms. “It’s true.”

            “Thank God,” he said, closing his eyes.

Misha narrowed hers. “I’m not quite as happy about it.”

He shook his head.  “I thought that you might have been caught in one of the skirmishes--”

            Her face froze. “What skirmishes?”

            Roman hesitated, but explained the events of the past few days. Misha’s eyes widened. She moved towards the phone. “I’ve got to —”

            Roman flashed next to her and caught her outstretched hand. “Don’t call them.”

            “Ihaveto.”

            “You don’t work for them anymore.”

            “If I don’t, my friends will die.”

            “We had a truce, Kennedy,” Roman said. His eyes were pleading. “I can’t keep that truce if your friends keep attacking my people.” 

            Misha snatched her hand back. “My friends attackingyourpeople?” She took a step away from him. “Do you know how many of those friends have died at the hands of your soldiers?”

            “Too many, I know. But — please.” Roman looked up with clear eyes. Misha had always thought his eyes were black, but now she saw they were the darkest blue. “My friends are dying too.”

            Misha’s voice was soft. “I can’t help you win this war. People I know— people Ilove —are being attacked.”

            He looked at her levelly, but his voice was as soft as hers. “The attacks are coming from both sides, Kennedy.”

            “I’ve been attacked.”

            Roman closed his eyes and exhaled. He took the final step towards her. “And for that, I am sorry.  I tried to prevent it when I could.”

            Misha furrowed her eyebrows.

            “‘The Stone City?’” he reminded her, using a tone that suggested he found their nickname unimaginative. “You can’t think that was all luck.”

            “No,” Misha said, shaking her head. She began to think back to all her previous missions and battles. She hadn’t been attacked since their expedition to the palace — when she had met Roman for the first time.

            He watched her thoughts play out on her face.

            “But I don’t think I can believe this scenario either.”

            He smiled.

            Suddenly, Misha was very tired. “What do you want?” she asked softly, on an exhale.

            He stepped closer still. His head bent to be level with hers, his eyes serious. “I want you to come with me.”

            “Where?”

            “The Palace.”

            Misha said nothing.

            Roman took her hand and pulled her over to the sitting area. He set her on the couch and sat in the chair across the table himself.

            “I heard what you did,” he said. “Asking to become an emissary? An ambassador?”

            Misha said nothing, only stared at the pattern on the couch.

            “We’d be open to such an idea, if they’d only ask.”

            Roman stopped speaking and the silence held until Misha grew frustrated enough to break it. “Well, they won’t,” she said. “They won’t ask. They firedmefor asking.”

            Roman stood abruptly. “They fired you forthat?”

            Misha blinked. “You didn’t know? I thought that was why you were here.”

            Roman shook his head, running a hand through his hair. “No, I was.....well, I didn’t know.” He walked over to the windows. Misha followed. He watched outside before he turned slightly. “I would have come sooner if I had known that was the reason.”

            “I thought it was hard for you to get away.”’

            Roman’s face stayed serious. He turned to her fully and took her hand. “Come with me.”

            “I can’t.”         

            “Why not?”

            “I don’t even know you,” she replied. “I’ve been fighting against you my entire life.”

            “Why?”

            Misha said nothing and Roman arced around her. “Because of Aaron?” Misha shot him a glare. “A sense of duty?” he tried. She said nothing. “Or because everyone has been telling you for as long as you can remember?”

            Misha remained stationary.

            Roman laughed softly and without cheer. “I know all the stories, Kennedy. Every tale, every legend, everylie.”

           “Don’t,” she whispered.

            Roman stopped and tilted his head.

            “Don’t act like this is all in our heads,” she continued. “Everything is exaggerated in war, but it was your side that started this.”

            “Nivah?” Roman’s voice was quiet, but the ire in it was clear. “It wasn’t myside! It was one goblin!” He raked another hand through his hair. It was beginning to stand at odd angles. “That’s one story, one criminal, and your side allows it to define us all.”

            Misha continued to look out the window. In the distance, she could see the base, the wall running along either side of it for miles.

            When Roman spoke again, he had returned to the chair, falling into it with exhaustion. “Do you know the causalities since then?” Misha wouldn’t look at him. “Of course you do,” he answered himself. “We’ve paid for one man’s sins. When will it be enough?”

            Misha moved to sit on the couch again quietly.

            “Come with me,” Roman pleaded. “Help us to figure a way out of this mess.”

            She looked up and met his gaze. There was no one for her there. She had no parents or siblings and Aaron was gone now too. There was Spice, but Spice loved fighting — she didn’t even approve of the truce. Spice wouldn’t want peace.

            Looking around at her unused apartment, she didn’t see one piece of furniture she wanted to keep. There were no mementos or heirlooms. She could walk away from the apartment, from the city, from her life, and not feel a thing.

            Roman sat perfectly still. He did not attempt to coerce or coax her. He watched her calmly and awaited her answer.

            “Okay,” she said finally.

The End

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