It Could Be Worse

Episode 1: Best of the Best

By Sulia Serafine

[1-14-01. A Protector of the Small fanfic set in an alternate universe; all credit goes to Tamora Pierce. I'm broke, so you can't sue me.

Oh, one more thing: BAD LANGUAGE (I. E. cursing, swearing…). You have been warned!

I'd also like to thank those who gave me help with the character descriptions. If anyone else want to help me, please e-mail me at silverwLng@aol.com, okay? I'm finally getting around to working on my tiny website, and there's a new section for my Tortall stories. I'll tell you the address when I deem it worthy to be seen by you. Enjoy the chapter, I know you've been waiting for it! Please, tell me what you think. I'd also like to once again thank those who made ALLO a success. This one's for you.]

Keladry Mindelan, a first class officer of the Dominion Jewel Protection Force (otherwise known as DJPF), briskly traveled down the headquarters' main walk heading for the mess hall. At first glance, a person would be sure not to mess with her unless they were looking for a black eye. On second glance, a person could almost see past her expressionless mask and detect a sense of warmth only shared with close friends. Her light brown hair had become filled with little bits of blonde and even red from working out on the field the last few months and her hazel eyes had obvious glints of intelligence if anything at all. Her uniform was as all uniforms were, except each officer had their choice of colors. Keladry preferred blue and gray, a basically calm color that didn't provoke stares, as did other female officers' uniforms that were bright pink or yellow.

After a short time, she made it to the mess hall. The doors slid open thanks to sensors in the floor and she entered casually, looking for the table with her friends. Two young men were seated at the far end, drinking blue liquids from flashy aluminum cans. She moved past other tables filled with other officers or DJPF employees and took her seat.

"Hey, Kel!" One of the men grinned. His curly brown hair was uncombed and messy while his gray eyes laughed at everyone who wanted to look. "I was just telling Neal about what I overheard from Commissioner Wyldon!"

"Oh? And just what is that?" she asked in a monotone voice. Her mask began to fall in the presence of the two enthusiastic young men. The taller one, with brown hair swept back from a widow's peak and dancing emerald green eyes, clapped her on the shoulder.

"You won't believe it!"

"I just might, Neal, if you two tell me what it is," she narrowed her eyes.

Owen snickered. "Well, in that case… I heard Commissioner Wyldon say he was sending two First Class B officers to quell the rebel forces in Carthak City. And, since, we are the only three B officers currently unassigned while visiting at headquarters…"

Neal stuck his tongue out at Owen. "You just barely became a first class officer. Why do you think you would be one of them?"

"I'm not saying that I was, dummy!" the younger, shorter one replied. He sighed. "I also overheard that they were going to transfer me to A district. I won't be a B officer soon."

"What!" Neal exclaimed. "They can't divide the three of us up! Don't they know what they're missing out on here? True friendship, true--"

"Goofiness," Keladry smirked. "Maybe they want to keep you from becoming too childish. Separate the children just like a mother would, and they'll concentrate on their work."

Neal folded his arms. "Well I still think it's unfair." He turned to Owen. "I'm going to miss you, buddy. Who else will accompany me when I go to the lounge to pick up chicks?"

Kel thumped him on the back. He let out a startled cry. "Don't call women chicks, Nealan."

"Yes, mother," he groaned sarcastically. "Besides, no one compares to the rough n' tough Keladry Mindelan!" He took her hand in both of his and looked at her with the most fake look of adoration possible. "Oh, please, Miss Tough Stuff, will you be my chick?!"

Owen burst out laughing. Keladry smiled and started to chuckle. Neal let go and scratched his head. "Now, see? This is just the kind of thing I was talking about! They can't separate friends like this."

"I have to agree with you there, Neal-buddy," Owen tried to stop laughing, only ended up grasping his sides. "Oh, boy. That was funny." He looked over his shoulder at the digital clock on the wall beside the holo-screen. "We should report in. Lunch break is almost over for us."

They stood up, put their cans in the recycling bin, and walked out. Neal and Owen continued to crack jokes with each other while Keladry half-listened, half-day dreamed of the mission that she was rumored to receive.

All her life, she wanted to be a great officer, just like her role model, Alanna Olau Trebond. When Keladry was little, she would hear of all the heroic things the female DJPF first class AA officer had done. She was one of the first female officers to ever gain fame like that for her valiant life. But by the time Keladry got into the academy, Alanna had retired from the DJPF and took a job as an advisor to the president Jonathan Conté. If memory served her right, Alanna's husband George P. Swoop was also one of the president's advisors. Keladry wanted to be famous like that. Maybe one day she could meet the her idol.

"Kel? Earth to Kel, come in, Kel," Neal waved his hand in front of her face. She blinked.

"Oh, sorry. You were saying something?"

Owen pointed to her right wrist. "Your pager is blinking. You would have known about it if you didn't turn the sound off."

"Right. Thanks," she muttered and pressed a button on the right corner to receive her message. Yellow words appeared on the tiny screen of the wristband. It wasn't a page, but an incoming call from the Commissioner himself. Surprised, she answered the call. "Sir?"

The voice of the aged commissioner floated out to her and the other two officers looking at her wrist. "First Class B Officer Mindelan, report to my office tomorrow at 1500 hours." There was a pause. "I assume that Officers Jesslaw and Queenscove are with you?"

"Yes, sir," she confirmed.

"Tell them to report to my office as well. That is all." There was a soft beep as the call ended. Keladry switched her pager sound back on and lowered her wrist.

"Well, I guess you know what this means," Owen sighed. "You two are going to get to go to Carthak while I'm switched to the A district." He kicked the floor. "This is so unfair."

"We do what we're told, Owen. That's why we're the DJPF," Keladry reminded. He nodded.

"Yeah. I guess so." He smiled. "Maybe I should go to the lounge and see if I can meet some A officers. Find a new set of boneheads like you, eh?" He elbowed Neal and Keladry.

"Boneheads!" Neal exclaimed. "Oh, now you're asking for it, Jesslaw! And by the way, you'll never be able to replace the two of us, right Kel?"

She nodded. The two guys could be hilarious at times, mostly melodramatic, and definitely goofy. She scratched her head and glanced at her wrist again. "I think I'm going to the training center and do some exercises to pass the time. You guys didn't have any plans, did you?"

The two of them exchanged looks. "Uh, not really. We'll probably take one last patrol shift in the city before dinner," Owen shrugged. He shoved his hands in his pocket. "It will be the last time we patrol in B district, so near headquarters. Then I'll be in A district, the farthest district from headquarters in this gigantic metropolis!"

"Don't let it get to you. At least you're not going to miserable Carthak," Neal consoled. He folded his arms. "Carthak is a giant place, too, but not half as beautifully kept as Tortall."

"So? You two get an adventure," the younger man whined. His eyes became misty. "I can see it now. The rebels launching attacks at the governor's ancient mansion while the two of you rush in to save the day for our great country, Mithros. You'll get promoted to AA, while I'm in first class."

Keladry glared at him. "First class is good, Owen. We're the best of the best. Despite your attitude, you have to remember that you're young and have plenty of time to rise up through the ranks once again."

Neal clapped while pretending to wipe a tear from his eye. "Oh, please, give us another speech, Miss Mindelan! Can I also hear about the record you hold for least time at the academy and DJPF apprenticeship? Oh, please?"

"Shut up," she said. "So what if I did? I was determined to get here."

"And you have been for the last two years, "Owen rolled his eyes. He nodded. "Yeah, I guess the three of us are lucky. Usually people don't enter the first class-- if they enter at all-- until they're at least in their very late twenties, early thirties."

"Yeah! The rest of our graduating class from the academy are third class officers," Neal chimed in. He grinned. "We're lucky, all right." He started to chuckle to himself.

She shook her head. "Luck had nothing to do with it. Ambition did."

"Whatever you say, Miss Tough Stuff."

"Stop that. I hate that nickname."

"We know," the two men said simultaneously. Neal continued. "Well, if we're going to patrol, we should go now. See you later, Kel!"

"Bye, Kel!" Owen waved.

Keladry waved back and went to the nearest elevator. It was near the center of the floor, where one could look over the side of a walkway and see the other floors beneath it. Other walkways criss-crossed in the open center of the building. She waited for the elevator door to slide open and walked into the clear, tube shaped shaft. There were no walls, only a stainless steel floor and a holo-screen fixed on the top of a stand in the back. She pressed the coordinates for the training center and stepped back.

The elevator began to move down to the second floor of the vast DJPF Headquarters. Keladry watched each floor pass her, observing all the different people walking around. She even spied a couple of elevators and people inside them from her own. Finally, she reached the second floor. Instead of the usually clear door sliding open to admit her exit of the tube shaft, another door, previously unseen slid open on the side. The floor beneath her moved out of the shaft and she stepped onto the moving walkway waiting for her. The moving walkways were separate from the independent walkways she was on earlier. That was the trick to putting in coordinates on the elevator.

Keladry looked over her shoulder and watched the elevator floor slide back into the shaft and go back up for another person. She leaned on the metal rail that moved with the walkway and decided to relax until she reached her destination.

When she finally arrived, she stepped off the moving walkway. The large neon light sign said 'Training Center' and was above the entrance. The clear doors once again slid open as she and two other second class officers entered. There was a second set of doors, this time, black instead of clear. Keladry moved off the side and held up her wrist pager screen to meet the screen on the wall. The screen flashed MINDELAN- 1B and then the words ENTRANCE GRANTED. She lowered her wrist and proceeded past the black doors. The other two officers repeated what she did, and were also granted access.

Inside the training center, various exercise machines were set up along the walls and the middle of the floor. A guy named Warric and a girl named Uline from her academy's graduating class waved to her as they stood beside Nariko, the instructor in charge of the training center. She waved back and proceeded to the far end where the sparring rings and punching bags were. There, an aged-- but not old-- woman and a man in his early thirties were sparring and demonstrating to an apprentice. Keladry sat on a stainless steel stool outside of the ring and watched in amusement as Eda Bell flipped Hakuin Seastone over her shoulder and onto the mat.

"Is the Wildcat giving you another sore day?" she asked Hakuin with a smirk on her face. Hakuin tilted his head back from where he lay on his back to see her.

"Ah, Mindelan. It's good to see you. And yes, she's giving me another sore day. All in the name of teaching, so she says." They laughed. "Anyway, what about you? Back to brush up on your skills?"

"I guess," she replied.

Eda Bell helped Hakuin up and turned to Keladry. "Hello, Mindelan. Maybe you'd like to help us train Hakuin's apprentice, huh?"

"Apprentice?" she snickered. She went between the ropes enclosing the ring and held a hand out to the young woman who was the apprentice. The girl looked like Keladry's sister Oranie, but only about 19 years old. Keladry was an apprentice at 17 and an officer at 18, a record that no one had ever broken. Neal and Owen had been at the academy with her, but she arrived three years after them and managed to catch up and graduate with them. Keladry shook hands with the girl. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" the girl asked, clearly confused at the sentence.

Keladry leaned toward her and whispered. "For being apprentice to Seastone, that's what."

The girl giggled. Hakuin huffed. "Very funny, Mindelan. Get over here. I'll wipe that smirk off your face."

"I don't have my practice clothes on yet."

"Then go put them on. I'll wait here." She obliged while Eda Bell stood back and laughed.

That night, Keladry went back to her dorm room on the higher levels completely exhausted. Hakuin had defeated her, true, but he was older and more experienced. She, of course, didn't make it easy for him. Hakuin would be hurting come morning. She changed out of her clothes and took a quick shower. Then she sat down to watch the news on her holo screen.

Her phone rang. She reached over her tiny table and picked up the communication screen off the top of her refrigerator. She tapped the yellow button in the corner and Neal's face appeared.

"Hey, Miss Tough Stuff. How's it hangin'?"

"I really ought to get you off that slang. First class officers don't do that," she chided.

"Well, excuse me! Did you eat dinner yet?"

"I was just about to. Why?"

He shrugged. "Owen and I were wondering if you wanted to come down to the lounge and grab a bite with us."

"Sorry. Completely exhausted," she said and scratched her neck. "You two go ahead. I'll see you tomorrow at the Commissioner's Office. Okay?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Neal saluted with a grin on his face.

"And don't bother the poor girls at the lounge who happen to catch your fancy!" she warned.

"Aww!"

"I mean it, officer."

"Yes, ma'am," he sighed. Then he sneezed. It was then that Keladry realized how pale Neal looked.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm… I'm f-- ACHOO!" he sneezed again, this time, almost causing him to drop his communication screen. "Aww, man. I can't get sick now!"

She shook her head. "Go down to the infirmary and talk to your father. He can give you some cold medicine right away without waiting in line, right?"

"Yeah," Neal muttered. "I guess so. No beautiful girls to bother-- I mean, flirt with tonight. Bye, Kel."

"Bye," she replied and pressed the off button.

~~

The next day at 1500 hours, Keladry reported to Commissioner Wyldon's office. It was located on the fifth floor, where most of the important offices were located. She flashed her ID from her pager screen again and entered the closed off section. Secretaries and other officers passed her in the narrow hall as she headed to the far end where Commissioner Wyldon was. She pressed the button on the intercom.

"Come in," a voice from the intercom said. The door slid open and she entered.

"Have a seat," Commissioner Wyldon said. He gestured to the office chair in front of his smooth brown desk. Keladry sat down, feeling comfortable when most people her age would feel intimidated by the man of power in front of her. Lord Wyldon had been very kind to her when others made fun of her age. Just because she was the youngest 1B officer in history, Wyldon said, it was no reason that she couldn't do just as well.

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Yes. But I'll wait until Officers Jesslaw and Queenscove get here," he said and sat back. "How have things been, Mindelan?"

"Very well, sir."

"Good. That's very good."

A buzz came from the intercom on his desk. He pressed the button again and said, "Come in."

The door opened. Owen came in and had a seat where the commissioner gestured for him to sit. Keladry turned to Owen. "Where is Neal?"

"I don't know," Owen replied. "I thought he would be here since there was no answer when I went to his dorm room today."

The commissioner stroked his chin. "I see."

The intercom buzzed. It was his secretary. "Sir, there's an incoming call from Officer Queenscove."

"I'll take it," he answered and activated his communications screen. Owen and Kel could see Neal, looking worse than he did last night. His hair was mussed and he was sickly pale. The commissioner frowned.

"Queenscove! Where are you?"

"The…The… ACHOO!" Neal sneezed. "Sorry, Sir. I'm at the infirmary."

"You're ill? How ill, officer?" There was a look of concern on the man's face.

"Um… I don't know." A voice in the background called Neal's attention. "Sir, my father would like to talk to you."

"Very well. Dr. Baird?"

Dr. Baird, Neal's father, resembled his son very much and had a dignified air about him. Keladry and Owen used to visit him with his son on their lunch break. The doctor sighed while glancing over at Neal. "I'm sorry, Commissioner, but my son has come down with the Copper Flu. He won't recover for another four months."

"Four months!" Owen and Keladry exclaimed. Commissioner Wyldon ignored them.

"Well, then, I guess I'll have to take him off the mission."

"No!" Neal cried out in the background. The screen switched over to him. "I'm missing out on a mission? I haven't been on one in so long, sir!"

"I know that, Queenscove, but if you're sick, you're sick." He shook his head and turned to the two officers sitting before him. "Jesslaw?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Just because Queenscove is sick does not mean you will replace him on this mission. You will still be transferred to A district."

Owen was crestfallen. "Yes, sir. As you wish, sir."

"As for you, Mindelan," he started. "I was going to have you and Queenscove travel to Carthak and help with the rebel forces that threaten the government."

"Is the mission canceled?" she asked in a quiet, but calm voice.

He gazed at her, seeming to examine her. "No. No, I don't think so." He started to stroke his chin again. "You are an exceptional officer, Mindelan. That has been proven. Perhaps one of my best 1B officers here. No, you're still going to Carthak, but the mission is changed."

"Changed, sir?" She didn't like the gleam in the commissioner's eye.

"Yes, yes. I'm going to send for one of my special operatives in Tusaine. He's been idle for a bit, and I need him to do something." He paused. "So, the two of you will become partners and capture OzorneTasikhe, the rebel leader."

Keladry was at a loss of words. Owen just gaped. But Neal's mouth was quite functional.

"Wow! Kel, that is so cool! That's a big mission! And you're working with a guy from Tusaine? Even cooler! I wish I could go!"

"Quiet, Queenscove!"

"Err, sorry sir."

"Sir?" Keladry found her voice.

"There's nothing to discuss, Mindelan. Your new partner will arrive from Tusaine in four days and you will be briefed then. Jesslaw, report to the Assigning Office and get your files in order. That is all." And with that, the commissioner stood up from his desk and exited the office, leaving the three 1B officers in bewilderment.

"Sir!" Keladry called back and jumped to her feet She stopped the door from closing.

"Yes, officer?" he turned around.

"What's the name of my new partner?"

"Joren Stone. Now, dismissed, officer."

Keladry went back into the office and sat down, completely perplexed. Neal sneezed again, all the while staring at Keladry from the communications screen. She glanced back and forth from each friend. "What? Is something wrong?"

Owen winced. "Uh… well, Joren Stone? Is that what the commissioner said?"

Neal shook his head. "Joren Stone…"

"What? Who is it? What aren't you two telling me?" she demanded.

Neal scratched the back of his head. "Well, Joren Stone was at the academy with us before you came along, right Owen?"

"Right," Owen nodded.

"Yeah. He graduated early, just before you came, but he wasn't sent to Headquarters for apprenticing. They put him in the field, and I guess he eventually became a special operative."

Keladry narrowed her eyes. "There's something else. Now spill it."

"Hey, I thought you didn't like slang--"

"Neal!"

"Okay, okay!" Neal held up his hands in defense. "So, uh, Joren should be something like 23 or 24 right now, compared to your 20. Uh… you both set some mean records on age, heheh. I mean, look at Owen and me! I'm 25 and--"

"I'm 21, just newly a 1B," Owen nodded. "Let me continue, Neal. So, Joren is a bit…"

"Stoic," Neal supplied.

"And overly professional."

"Stubborn."

"Non-social."

"Inconsiderate."

"Has a big problem with authority."

"Somewhat ruthless…"

"And well…"

"He's a jerk," they said in unison.

Keladry groaned. "Oh, you're kidding me. I'm going to be stuck for the next couple of weeks with a guy like that as my partner?"

"Yes," they said again simultaneously."

"Great," she muttered. "Just great…"

~~

Author: And so we begin our new series, It Could Be Worse. I hope you enjoy it as much as ALLO. Please, I'd like to hear all comments and criticisms.

Closing Credits:

Special thanks to those who helped me with descriptions:

( Note: these people are VERY cool. Do not mess with them.)

Kestrel

Erin (Hyper Girl to the Rescue)

Sullychkk4

And if anyone is good with fixing web pages, please e-mail me. My e-mail is listed at top.