Chapter One

"War grows out of the desire of the individual to gain advantage at the expense of his fellow man."
Napoleon Hill


The receiver crackled in Cern's hand, static stretching over a long five seconds. He growled – damn rookies.

"I said, status."

"…ition…ow secure, sir."

Cern pressed at the side of his head – about time. "Repeat that."

"I said, position is now secure sir."

"What's your name, soldier?"

The voice hesitated. "…Fridell, sir."

"Half rations tomorrow."

"But, sir–"

"What's that? Did you say you wanted half rations for two days, Freud? Give me intel."

"…Sir. Target 'bonfire' is surrounded and in our sights. There appear to be at least twenty-three people gathered here – scouts are searching the outlying areas to make sure. None of them appear to be armed."

The captain glanced to the logistical officer sitting next to him. "You getting this?" All he got as a response was a nod, the scritch-scratch of transcription faintly heard from behind a clipboard. Cern nodded in kind, returning his attention to the radio. "And the s'mores?"

"We've narrowed down the possible pantries to a few buildings near the center. No one's making any right now either, and probably won't for an hour at least."

"Okay. Here's how we're going to play this." He studied the map spread on the crate next to him. "Your team and Team Kumbayah are going to wait for backup squads to reach your positions. Once they're in place, the both of you head straight for the bonfire, pincer style – pick up insurance as you go. Main priority is to extract the s'mores from any and all pantries, to be picked up by the recons we have waiting on the borders. If you come under fire, we have artillery in place to provide support."

"Sir, with all due respect–"

"Support is in place, Freud. Just because it's a picnic doesn't mean we get to act sloppy. That's all."

"Permission to speak freely, commander?"

"Make it quick."

"These codenames are really dumb."

Beat. "Astute observation. Make sure you get your full rations tomorrow."

"Sir, yes sir!"

Cern waved behind him offhand, sending two groups of ten infantry rushing past him and out his command tent. He wasn't taking any chances. Not this time. Not ever.

Once upon much better times, when, as Cern liked to put it, "the world made much less sense than it does now", he was, in fact, Captain Cern of the Elentian Tristan Mobile Knight Corps, one of the forward battlegroups of Elentius' military armored element. Nowadays, neither rank nor designation mattered a great deal to him, not when trying to keep an entire regiment fed and clothed was more important. His dark hair roughly divided into long, nearly chin-length bangs, the uniform he wore loose and unbuttoned, Cern looked a bit haggard…perhaps too haggard to resemble the man in his mid-twenties that he was supposed to be. But few actually wondered where his youthfulness went; everyone knew the meteors had slammed it out of him.

Even as he leaned back on the metallic chair he was sitting on inside the command tent four kilometers outside the combat zone, Cern twisted his head just slightly towards a nearby mission clock. The minute hand showed that this operation had been in effect for around ten minutes now…which meant he had better be receiving results soon.

The radio crackled a bit before a clear female voice could be heard. "Cern, can you pop onto the engineering channel for a bit?"

Cern twisted the dial to the appropriate channel before speaking. "Make it quick."

The voice on the other end sounded playfully, although good-naturedly bemused. "Did you forget to tell them that about a fourth of our artillery pieces are actually inoperable?"

Playful, good-natured, and bemused would not be the words that could be used to describe the tone in which Cern irritably changed the subject. "What's the situation on the repairs?" he drawled in a deadpan voice that insinuated he was in no mood for humor.

"We've managed to salvage three of the pieces. And by 'salvage', I mean they're barely shooting as it is. We need to make some major repairs if we're going to be shooting long distances, but I can promise accuracy for any target three kilometers out."

"You're going to have to give me four kilometers, Cybil," Cern pressed.

"We've got eight guns good for that, unless you also want the three slightly faulty others to make eleven serviceable pieces. Unfortunately, four of them are still undergoing heavy repairs. We won't be able to make any rapid progress unless I get those parts I asked for."

"You'll get them if we're lucky here and if you stop bugging me about it every ten minutes. Is the artillery ready to fire right now if the boys do need support?"

"Range issues aside, all eleven of them." Cybil sounded cheerful at that.

"Get over here thirty seconds ago, then. I want you commanding artillery from the tent if they're needed."

No sooner had he finished the sentence did the flaps to the command tent suddenly open, and Cern found himself looking at his second-in-command. With shoulder-length and unadorned red hair, coupled with green eyes and a short, pointed nose, Cybil was effectively one of the youngest members of the regiment in her early twenties, but having had the rank of Lieutenant prior to the meteors due to her being in command of an engineering company was sufficient to place her as Cern's executive officer.

Even as Cybil entered the tent, she donned a relatively playful expression, which was returned by a somewhat irritably incredulous look from Cern, but before any of the two could comment, gunfire echoed in the distance, sounds of assault rifles and machine guns going off a few kilometers away. Cybil turned towards the direction of the sound as she paused at the entrance of the tent while neither Cern nor his logistical officer seemed terribly concerned, although the sound did allow Cern to produce a grimace and an irritated sigh as he thumbed his nearby radio. "Teams Kumbayah, Yeshua, I hear gunfire all the way from here. Do I have to say 'I told you so' and provide artillery support? Or are you quite fine celebrating the New Year where you are?"

"No need, sir. We're just meeting light resistance. Small arms fire. Backup squads ran into them. Wait one…" a slightly lengthy pause, enough a time for Cybil to place her own radio on the table and lean against the table, then the staccato crack of an assault rifle burst was clearly heard from Cern's radio speaker before the voice finished, "…Hostile down. Alright, we're clear. Backup squads and APCs are with us at the RZ, sir; do we proceed?"

"You have a go, and keep APCs out of the crossfire or else," Cern lazily told teams Kumbayah and Yeshua before redirecting his attention to Cybil, "Were you radioing me right outside my bloody tent?" He sounded appropriately cranky.

Cybil shrugged. "We're on no shortage of batteries. We'll probably get more once this is done. Battle going well?"

"Well, you've heard. Light resistance, but it shouldn't be anything they can't deal with. They're starting to shoot stuff. Should be easy in, easy–"

"Base, this is Team Hallelujah." Team Hallelujah was supposed to initiate a flanking maneuver in conjunction with the main attack force; while teams Kumbayah and Yeshua conducted a pincer maneuver on the main target, team Hallelujah would set up shop to ambush any attempt on part of the enemy to smuggle precious resources – the reason why the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps were even here in the first place – out of the town from the routes Cern had pointed out during the briefing, the routes he felt was likely to play host to an escaping convoy, if the enemy commander thought that far ahead.

"Go ahead."

"We're already on the other side of town. Managed to put down an escaping truck."

Looks like his bet was right on the money after all. The enemy commander was smart enough to try to evacuate his supplies elsewhere, but Cern was just one step ahead. "What's inside?" he asked. Hopefully, fuel, water, food, material that Cybil needed for repairs…and beer, if Cern was lucky. Some of it really would help those long, painful nights, but alcohol was a commodity that was becoming increasingly hard to come by.

There was a slight hesitation on the other end that Cern attributed to the soldier doing a quick check as to what was inside the truck, at least until the radioman for team Halleljuah on the other end replied in a clearly uncertain manner, "Women and children, sir."

Cern actually had to blink twice at that, a motion that was not missed by his logistics officer, who raised his eyebrows and looked at his commanding officer from over the top of the clipboard; a glare from the captain was enough to divert the man's attention back to scribbling notes across the paper. Cybil was staring too, but Cern didn't preoccupy himself with her reaction. "Women and children," he repeated.

"Yes, sir. It looks like they were being evacuated just as the battle started. What do we do with them?"

A thoughtful pause was spared before Cern gave his orders. "Whatever you want. We're not feeding them or taking them with us, though."

There was an almost an equally lengthy pause from Team Hallelujah before the radioman replied, with a slightly audible attempt to control the tone in his voice, "Yes, sir."

No matter how far they had sunk into desperation, how often they had sleepless nights and waking nightmares, how many innocents they had killed, Cern had always held onto the general belief that his men, the men of the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps, were pretty decent fellows, not complete monsters or heartless bastards. He honestly did not believe that, despite the stress and despite the spite that the men of team Hallelujah were going through, any of them men would willingly shoot defenseless women and children without a good reason, even if it was a mercy kill to prevent them from starving to death. But the soldiers, after all, were men, many of them who had not seen a woman in months. And Cybil was very clearly off-limits, so they had to release their pent up frustrations elsewhere…by other means.

The soldiers might do something stupid. They might not. It didn't matter to Cern either way, though. Not anymore.

More gunfire was heard, clearly a rather rapid exchange this time. Even from afar, Cern could tell just by the sounds that his men were winning; enemy fire, coming from simple rifles and handguns had been sporadic and messy at first, as contrary to the clean, conservative bursts of his own men's assault rifles, but while the three-round bursts of Tristan's assault rifles remained steady, sounds of enemy fire thinned out over the course of the minute. Enemy resistance was weakening, and as it was, Cern's radio began picking up what sounded like an attempt by the enemy to broadcast their pleas.

"…shooting at us!" came the desperate voice from over the radio, "We're a civilian population here – repeat, a civilian population! We've got women and children here! Please, whoever's out there, stop the killing! Please, we don't mean any harm! Stop…"

The commanding officer of the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps lazily thumbed the radio as he overrode the transmission, cutting it from their communications, and spoke directly to his three teams out in the field. "Disregard that transmission. Continue with the mission. All teams, acknowledge."

"Team Yeshua, copy."

"Team Kumbayah, copy."

"Team Hallelujah, copy."

Cern turned to Cybil, annoyance clear on his face. "Damn civilians are becoming more heavily armed and equipped by the day. This better not by that asshole Yuri's work."

Cybil shrugged. "Yuri wouldn't tell you who he's selling to, if you intend on getting that information out of him. Customer privacy and all."

"Customer privacy my ass."

"You're bothered by this?" Cybil almost seemed amused.

"I'm bothered by the fact that, one day, one of the boys might hit the dust because of this shit," Cern muttered, paused, then shrugged, "Well, at least that means less burden on the supplies problem."

Cybil chose not to respond to that even as the sounds of distant gunfire died down, and, shortly afterwards, Cern's radio crackled once more. "Sir, Team Kumbayah here. Resistance around the bonfire has been silenced. Scouts indicate that all enemy elements have retreated to two, maybe three large buildings, in sector two-five. We're in the clear for now."

"You're at the bonfire?"

"Yes, sir. The s'mores are here. Do you want a preliminary inventory now?"

"Well, let's see. Can my recons get over there and start picking up the s'mores without worrying about getting shot at?"

"Can't say that with confidence, sir. The buildings that the hostiles have retreated to offer some pretty good vantage points, and I'm sure one of the baddies had a rifle. Could be risky, especially if they have armor-piercing. Do you want us to sweep and clear the building, sir?"

A thoughtful pause as Cern evaluated his options. "No, you boys back off and keep your distance. Just keep the s'mores safe; we'll let the artillery guys take over from here…" then, looking at Cybil, nodded, "…What are you waiting for? He said sector two-five. Get the artillery on it."

Cybil sighed, shrugged, sat down in another fold-up chair as she reached for the radio she brought in on the table. "Teams Kumbayah and Yeshua, I'll be coordinating artillery fire with you. Check in when target buildings are destroyed; we're low on artillery shells as is, and I don't want to be using more than I…" And Cybil took charge of everything else from there even as Cern tuned himself out with anything concerning the mission, sitting back and leaning against the back of his chair, stretching as he allowed his mind to go blank for a moment and allowing his gaze to wander up to the ceiling of the tent.

Did it bother Cern? Did it bother him that Cybil was possibly disapproving of this? Cybil was actually the least of Cern's worries, in all honesty; whenever the going got tough, she would always remain steadfastly loyal, which, along with her competence, was why she was essentially second-in-command of the whole regiment, and was in no immediate danger of being replaced. There would be talks and there would be faces exchanged, but, in the end, Cybil, for all her cheerfulness and optimism, knew what was at stake and how close they were to the breaking point. It probably bothered Cybil to some extent, but she could be relied on to keep her disapproval to herself.

But did it bother Cern? Did it bother him that he was effectively killing armed men whose only guilt was that they possessed supplies the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps needed by pounding them with artillery which they remained helpless against? Did it bother him that he was taking these supplies by force? Did it bother him that he was dooming an innocent civilian population to starvation? Did it bother him that he was willing to turn a blind eye to whatever his soldiers would or would not do to surviving women and children?

Of course it bothered him. It bothered him all the time. He was the commanding officer of a knight corps, after all; that was supposed to say something – almost everything – about his morality.

But, in the end, he didn't care. Because whatever else happened, keeping his regiment fed and rolling was the first and only thing that mattered.

"Well, Cern, I've got good news and I've got bad news."

Cern never liked it when people told him that, especially in that particular order. It generally meant that whatever was "bad" was going to outweigh the "good". The fact that it was Cybil – known for being optimistic, seeing the bright things in damn near everything, and having a habit of provoking an irritated response out of Cern – who was saying there was bad news, combined with the fact that they were just about to start conducting the trade in the outskirts of what was effectively a ruined city, did not help his mood any. "Hit me," Cern muttered.

A small column of armored personnel carriers, the ones that they had taken with them on the operation in case they were needed, rumbled past them across bleak, desolate, lifeless terrain. "Good news is that we've what we came for," Cybil replied, her eyes darting across an inventory list attached to her clipboard even as she sat beside Cern in a reconnaissance jeep, riding shotgun while giving her report, "Enough food to last us for about two months, plus, I guess, almost two weeks worth of water we're getting from the trade. Which should keep us going for a while until we have to resort to reserves. We're looking good on that department."

Well, that was actually pretty good news. "So we won't starve. The bad news?"

"Bad news is that the buildings resistance had retreated to where they kept their ammunition."

The commanding officer of the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps couldn't help but make a face. "And we blasted that to smithereens, didn't we?"

"Yup." Cybil sounded strangely cheerful for someone who was confirming they were not successful in procuring extra ammunition.

"Nothing we can salvage?"

"We might be able to give one of our companies a bullet each."

Cern scowled, leaning back against the driver's seat as he looked out into the meteor-ruined wasteland. The lack of sun and blue skies, replaced only by a great brown-and-gray canopy of dust that blocked the heavens, did not do anything to improve his mood. "Alright, I get the point. We're short on ammo and the situation won't be improving anytime soon."

"Plus they didn't have any parts we can use to fix anything. At best, I managed to convert some truck components for tank use, but that's barely holding together as is, and there were only enough parts for one of them. I want to get real tank parts as soon as possible. We can get the artillery rolling out of here, but as for the tanks that are damaged…" Cybil flipped through the documents on her clipboard to double-check her figures, "…I think we have to leave about six, seven tanks behind. They're non-serviceable, and I can't really do anything about them. We have no way to tow them or fix them."

"Can't we trade some machine parts from these assholes?"

"New Madison's trading inventory doesn't have them on the list. They may be hiding it and not giving to us, but my gut feeling says they really don't' have it. I think we may have to pay Yuri another visit."

"Fat bastard."

"Some of the men say you're quite fond of Yuri."

"I'm sure these are the same assholes who say I'm fond of you," Cern scowled as he turned to an approaching Private, whom Cern impatiently cut off just as soon as the young soldier saluted as he stopped beside the open window on the driver's side, "What do you want?"

"Sir," the Private dropped his salute, "You asked for an update as soon as Team Hallelujah returned. All members have been accounted for, including one casualty."

Cern blinked, then scowled again. "Casualty?"

"Yes, sir. Popeye was shot."

"How the hell was he shot?"

"One of the women, uh, panicked, sir. Took his gun and shot at him."

"Well, is he okay? Where was he hit?"

The Private was not entirely successful in stifling a grin. "His ass, sir. In-and-out one buttock, in-and-out another. He's fine, sir; it was just a flesh wound. Medics are taking care of him right now."

Pathetic disbelief seemed to describe Cern's expression more than actual astonishment. "His ass," he repeated in a voice that was flat.

"Er…yes, sir."

It dawned on Cern a moment later that, for some reason, he suddenly felt like he had a migraine as he raised a hand up and buried his face into it. Sighing and trying to get the absurdity out of his system, he then turned to the Private with a surprisingly neutral expression – which scared the Private a bit, knowing that Cern rarely seemed anything but annoyed or irritated – and spoke quite calmly, "Well, then, be sure that Popeye gets all the medical attention he needs. And tell him he's on latrine duty when he recovers."

The Private made a forced smile even as he took off, the effect of the age-old regimental joke somewhat diminished at how well Cern seemed to be taking the news, which was certainly a bit unusual, if not a bit scary. There was, of course, no latrine duty. There was no latrine to begin with.

"I always told him his fat ass was going to get in the way," Cern sighed as soon as the Private was out of earshot, leaning back against the driver's seat again.

"I'm surprised you're not handling the deal yourself," Cybil noted after smiling at Cern's quip. She gazed one hundred meters ahead, where, against the backdrop of ruined, derelict, half-destroyed downtown skyscrapers of what used to be the city of New Madison, APCs of the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps were lined up against cargo trucks belonging to the civilian populace hiding within the walls of New Madison. Both trade delegations tried to keep themselves as small as possible, two teams of ten from either side surveying the supplies in the other faction's vehicles to verify the quantity and quality of the supplies brought. Everyone was armed for their own safety.

Cern grunted. "It was a good haul. These assholes tend not to be as thrifty when there's more on the table, so I don't need to pound them into better rates. We can leave it to Detlef. I'm surprised you're not there; I'd have thought you wanted to be the first to receive the children."

Cybil smiled, perhaps a bit wistfully. "I'd like to give them some time alone, honestly. Especially Christian. I think puberty's kicking in; he's becoming more rebellious lately."

"Little snot has always been rebellious."

Cybil gave Cern a bit of a bemused, you-know-better look before returning her attention to the trade. Apparently, both sides were satisfied with the supplies they were trading, and, already, crates and boxes were being exchanged and changed between vehicles. It was the kind of business that the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps did nowadays, taking supplies from other populations and armies to trade with other populations and armies. Most of their customers were civilian populations; Tristan was, as far as Cern and Cybil knew, the largest armed group in the county. The irony that they were taking supplies from what was effectively their own populace, Elentian soldiers taking vital foodstuffs from Elentian civilians, was not lost upon any of the corps, but it was a necessity. Tristan must roll on.

And, of course, while other civilian populations they did trade with were more than happy to conduct an exchange for supplies they needed, by no means did trust factor anywhere near. The population of New Madison, just like the population anywhere around here, knew very well that, should a contract given to the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps be lucrative enough, Cern and Cybil would probably attack them next for their supplies. Anyone would. That's why, despite not having trained soldiers, the populace of New Madison, like most populaces that could afford them, were usually armed with military-grade weapons. That's why they always conducted trade outside the ruins of their city, not within it. Everyone wanted to keep their secrets.

A separate pickup truck rolled out this time from behind the skyscrapers, and Cern brought a pair of binoculars up to his eyes, surveying the pickup. Paranoia at its best, he was personally worried at any deviation from plan or schedule, but, not at all unexpectedly, he found only a driver ferrying five children in the back, no weapons or anything out of the ordinary. "They're back," Cern muttered to Cybil, who, despite not having a set of binoculars herself and possessing eyesight inferior to Cern's own, seemed to have come to the same conclusion and merely nodded, casually opening the door to the passenger side of the recon, but not quite getting out of it yet.

Against Cern's wishes, although he had actually gotten used to it and eventually came to accept it, Cybil had moreorless adopted five children throughout nearly three years since the meteors, orphans found homeless and astray across the battlefield. Christian and Lavinia were found first, followed shortly afterwards by Tyrone. Last came Kimmy and, many months after that, Carey. It was with Carey were Cern drew the line, saying under no condition would he accept Cybil taking in more children. Food and supplies were scarce as they were, and the regiment didn't need that much of a drain when only Christian and Tyrone could actually do any useful work for the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps.

The pickup truck pulled up against the congregation of supply trucks and APCs, where the children jumped out; Kimmy had to provide a bit of support and helped Lavinia off. Largely ignoring everyone else outside the trade delegation from Tristan, with whom they exchanged a few courtesy waves and greetings, the five children walked the last one hundred meters between the trading spot and the recon where Cybil finally slipped out from her seat and out the recon, waving towards the children to catch their attention. Cern remained largely indifferent, remaining in his seat and simply watching the children approach.

Trust was a commodity that didn't exist in this new world, so everyone needed some form of guarantee that a contract would be honored. For the Tristan Mobile Knight Corps, it was generally the fact that they had more guns and more men to man them with. For civilian populaces, however, Cybil offered her children. It was, in her opinion, mutually beneficial; the civilians felt safer, holding onto potential hostages should the deal go south, while Cybil felt more at ease, allowing the children to mingle with civilian populations as they were supposed to and keeping them off the battlefield. She always entertained the idea that perhaps there were other children or teenagers there that her boys and girls could play with. Optimism on her part, perhaps, but she could hope. The rules, of course, were simple: Don't cause trouble, play nice...and the children came supplied with their own food. It was highly unlikely that any civilian populace that was temporarily "babysitting" the five teenagers were willing to spare them any of their already dwindling stockpile of foodstuffs.

"Good to see you back, kids," Cybil smiled at her children as soon as they were within earshot. The teenagers, aged seventeen to thirteen, gave what amounted to tired greetings in returned with varying enthusiasm. Kimmy, supporting a rather pale Lavinia, gave a shy smile to Cybil in return, while Lavinia and Tyrone gave curt, polite nods. Tyrone had the decidedly cheerful smile, a contrast to Christian's sullen grunt.

It was to Lavinia that Cybil first turned her attention to, the pale teenage girl, the oldest at age seventeen. Without a doctor instead of the regiment medic, Cybil could never be sure of whatever illness was plaguing Lavinia or how to treat it. Lavinia herself admitted that she had always been of weak constitution, but the lands that have been ravaged by famine, dust, and diseases had undoubtedly taken its toll on her. Despite that, though, she was decidedly wise beyond her years, quiet and considerate, although a bit distant. Lavinia had known Christian for a while, who seemed to begrudgingly hold her words with more weight than from anyone else, so that automatically made her useful, if not her holding what was effectively the status of "team mom" among the five children. Having Lavinia around was usually good enough an assurance for Cybil when she had to leave the children alone.

"Lavinia," Cybil addressed the calm, composed black-haired girl first even as she slowly made her way up, "You seem paler than usual. Are you alright?"

Supported slightly by Kimmy, it was clear that Lavinia was not quite alright at all, her already light skin tone now a ghostly color, but nevertheless, she forced herself to answer in what was effectively a strong voice, "Yes, Miss Cybil." Beside Lavinia, Kimmy silently begged to disagree, giving highly nervous and anxious looks at the other girl as she pressed herself close. Regardless, she stayed silent…a shared sentiment amongst the other children, Cybil noticed. Cybil figured she'd have to coax a story out of Tyrone or Carey soon, see what had really happened.

For now, though, she'd let the issue drop. Now was neither the time nor place to instill a sense of anxiety amongst her children. "Did you have fun?" Cybil asked. A courtesy question, of course, and, admittedly, a stupid one. There was very little room for fun in their generation, their childhood predominated by days of ruin that calculated their worth by the sweat of their brow. She knew the answer without even asking; Tyrone and Lavinia nodded for the sake of being polite, Kimmy and Carey made their respective faces, and Christian generated a rude sound which was his equivalent of a sarcastic snicker. Another sound was heard, a sound similar to that which Christian made, but Cybil swiftly realized that it was actually an impatient grunt from Cern, a cue indicating that she should start moving things on and getting the children back to the APC. He was clearly in no mood to entertain children while a supply exchange was going on.

"Alright," Cybil clapped her hands together once, "Why don't you all drop into your APC first? I'll check up on you all later when business is done."

The children were surprisingly compliant with Cybil's request; with little fuss and a few courtesy remarks exchanged along the way, the five returned to their designated armored personnel carrier a few meters behind Cern's recon jeep. Although Cybil tried her best to shield them from the horrors of this new godforsaken world, it was clear that the children were well aware that survival was now almost impossible on one's own, and they were quite willing to simply stay out of everyone's way as long as they were clothed and fed. It was what made them, at least, tolerable in Cern's eyes.

"You're impatient today," Cybil remarked as soon as the children had left, and she slipped back into her seat, keeping the door beside her open. The air was stale and there was little wind, but the habit of leaving her door open when the car wasn't moving had stayed. Cern personally wish Cybil would grow out of that; a skilled sniper could ricochet a bullet through the open door and kill everyone inside.

Cern was appropriately irate even as he watched the last of the crates and boxes being exchanged between the two groups up ahead. They would be ready to leave soon. "I've never been a children person," he grunted.

"Sure," Cybil chimed.

"And you know my stance on you keeping them around."

"You're just jealous I'm showering my affections on them instead of on you."

Scowling, Cern swiveled his head towards Cybil, and caught her smiling.