On the first day of spring, Solan found himself hauled out of bed—and away from a dream of Kyr—just after dawn and told to put some clothes on then get down to the kitchen. He went to use the bathroom without really opening his eyes, dressed with just one eye cracked to make sure he wasn’t putting his pants on backwards, and stumbled down the stairs to find both Ceridwen and Lokan standing in the kitchen, sipping coffee and looking disgustingly awake. Solan slumped down in one of the chairs and accepted the mug of coffee Ceridwen pushed into his hands, yelping a bit when the first sip burned his mouth.
“Guess what you get to do today,” Ceridwen said brightly.
“Sleep?” he muttered.
“You can sleep when you’re dead, little Fae. Today Lokan’s going to teach you how to fight.”
“I know how to fight.”
“No,” Lokan said. “You know how to flail around with your fists and sometimes your feet. There’s a difference.”
“You’ll enjoy this.” Ceridwen grinned and gave Solan a smack on the shoulder that nearly caused him to spill coffee all over his lap. “I’m off to work with some of the newer recruits. See you at dinner.”
She left before Solan could protest, letting the door slam behind her. Solan grunted and finished his coffee, studying Lokan out of the corner of his eye. He’d asked more than once to be allowed to leave as winter waned, and each time Lokan had refused, until Solan had given up out of sheer frustration. An uneasy truce had fallen between them, enough that they could politely exist in the same house, but he’d heard from a reliable source that Ceridwen had started taking bets on when the tension between them would blow up in their faces.
“Ready to go?” Lokan asked, setting his coffee mug down on the counter.
“Mmm.” Solan hauled himself to his feet and put both his mug and Lokan’s in the dishwasher, frowning a little at the amused look Lokan gave him. “What?”
“Nothing.” Lokan gave a slight bow and gestured for Solan to go ahead of him out of the kitchen.
They drove over to the base in silence and Solan trailed along behind Lokan into one of the buildings, past guards who saluted him with the same respect as they saluted Lokan. He’d asked Ceridwen why a few nights past, when she’d dragged him down to The Drunk Unicorn for a beer, and she’d laughed before telling him that most of the grunts considered him an extension of Lokan’s authority. When she gotten a little more drunk, she’d informed him that he was like a pet. He’d been more than a little offended at the time, but it had put an idea into his head; if the guards on the base thought he had Lokan’s authority, then maybe the border guards would too.
Lokan led him into an empty gym at the end of the building, the floors at one end covered with dark blue rubber mats. Weight-lifting and fitness equipment was arranged neatly at the other end, and somebody had stuck a poster to the wall that read, ‘Do some fucking weights.’ Solan studied it for a bemused moment, then looked at Lokan when Lokan said his name.
“First thing,” Lokan said, stripping off his shirt and tossing it on a bench sitting against the wall, “is that you want to take your opponent out as quickly as possible. Especially if they’re bigger than you. Hit them hard enough and early enough, and the fight’s over before it started. Try and hit me.”
Solan looked at him for a moment then took a half-hearted swing. An instant later he was flat on his back, the wind knocked out of his lungs, and Lokan was standing over him looking amused. Groaning, Solan accepted the hand Lokan offered to help him back to his feet and rubbed at the back of his head where it had impacted the mat.
“Take it seriously, Solan. I’m not doing this for my own entertainment.” Lokan rocked his weight onto the balls of his feet, spreading his hands. “Again.”
Solan kicked out this time, a lot harder and aiming for Lokan’s knee. Lokan blocked it easily but he grinned as he did, the first time Solan had ever seen him really smile. While his guard seemed to be down, Solan took a swing at his face, only to have Lokan catch his hand and yank him around, twisting his arm up behind his back.
“Second,” Lokan said in his ear, “if you can’t knock someone down immediately, put them in a hold. You can try and soften them up a little first, but then they’ll be trying to do the same to you.”
“What if they’re trying to put me in a hold at the same time?”
“That’s why I’m doing this.” Lokan released him. “Show me your defensive position.”
“I feel like an idiot,” Solan muttered, bringing his fists up in front of him.
“You look like one too. Like this.” Lokan pushed him into a more balanced position, adjusting his arms and legs until he seemed satisfied. “You need to protect your vulnerable parts. Face, throat, stomach, groin, knees. Someone lands a hard enough blow there and you’re just down if you’re lucky. Broken bones and pissing blood if you’re not.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“Yes.” Lokan adjusted his fist then turned his hand up and tapped the ring around his finger. “You can do yourself some damage wearing this in a fight if you’re not careful. Punch wrong and you’ve got a broken finger.”
“It’s not coming off,” Solan said. “You’re supposed to be teaching me how to punch properly anyway.”
“Point taken.” Lokan adjusted the position of his shoulders again and stepped back. “Ready to start learning?”
“Go for it,” Solan said, grinning a bit.
Lokan was a harsh teacher—Solan walked out of the gym limping and feeling like his bruises had bruises—but he was fair, and he stopped to explain anything Solan didn’t understand. Despite himself Solan started to enjoy the feel of stretching out his muscles, even when Lokan caught him off-guard and added to his burgeoning collection of bruises. He landed on the mats so many times he joked that he should take them out to dinner, and was rewarded by another flash of Lokan’s rare grin. He finished the lesson soaked in sweat and starving, his stomach growling so audibly that Lokan raised an eyebrow at him.
“Later, I’ll show you how to shoot.” Lokan tossed him his shirt and led the way towards the showers.
“You think that’s a good idea? I don’t... I don’t really want to handle a gun,” Solan said, tagging along behind him.
“It’s not really a matter of what you want.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Solan muttered.
He spent a long time standing under the spray, trying to loosen up sore muscles that were already getting stiff, then washed quickly and went to grab a towel, leaving Lokan still rinsing himself off. Drying quickly, he pulled on his jeans again, grimaced at the sweaty state of his shirt, and went to sit outside in the hallway to wait for Lokan to finish, absently rolling his sore shoulders.
“Please tell me lunch is the next stop on this carnival ride,” he said when Lokan came out, hearing shades of Kyr in his own voice and unable to stop it. “Because I’m starving.”
“I said we’d meet Ceridwen at that pub she likes.”
“Works for me.” Solan got to his feet and walked at Lokan’s side on the way out. “You know, most of what I know about you, Ceridwen’s told me.”
“So maybe if you talked a little more, I could actually decide if I like you even though you’re holding me prisoner, or if you really are just a giant asshole.” Solan made himself shut his mouth before he said anything else, not even sure why he’d said that in the first place, except that he was tired enough he couldn’t keep his frustration down.
“What do you want to know?” Lokan said after a moment.
“I dunno. Parents?”
“My father died in battle before I was born. My mother lives further up into the mountains and visits occasionally.”
Solan looked him over. “How old are you anyway?”
“Age only matters to teenagers.” Lokan opened the truck’s passenger side door for him. “Old enough.”
“Anybody ever tell you that you’re really frustrating?” Solan climbed in. “Because you really are.”
“It’s not my fault you get frustrated so easily.” Lokan slammed the door shut and moved around to the driver’s side.
Solan fought the urge to roll his eyes and lost, crossing his arms over his chest—where goosebumps had risen on his bare skin during the short walk from building to truck—as Lokan started the engine and pulled smoothly out of the parking lot. “All right, what do you do for fun?”
“Kidnap annoying teenagers.”
That surprised a bark of laughter out of Solan and he covered his mouth with one hand, feeling the tips of his ears go red. “Seriously.”
“I don’t have time for fun. You might have noticed the army I’m building. It’s a little hard to miss.”
“Even soldiers and kings are allowed to have fun. Otherwise they get all withdrawn and sarcastic.”
“Your advice is noted.”
“Mmm.” Lokan pulled into the driveway of his house. “Go get a clean shirt so we can meet Ceridwen.”
“Going out to a pub for lunch can be considered fun,” Solan pointed out as he pushed the door open.
“If you don’t hurry up, it’ll be dinner.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Solan shut the door and jogged into the house, briefly checking the kitchen for any notes from Ceridwen before heading up the stairs to find clean clothes. It felt so normal that he was halfway up before he realized how much he was beginning to settle into the routine here, and he tripped over the next step, landing himself hard on one knee. Swearing under his breath, he picked himself up, rubbed at his knee until the pain faded, and limped the rest of the way up to the guest room where he’d been sleeping.
He pulled on a nicer pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, ducking into the bathroom quickly to pull a brush through his hair. Looking at himself in the mirror reminded him he’d been here long enough to need a haircut and he rubbed his thumb over the ring on his finger, wondering if Kyr was still waiting. Ceridwen’s startling way of waking him up had tattered most of his dream into gossamer shreds but he was sure Kyr had promised to wait for him.
The sound of a horn outside startled him out of his thoughts and he hurried back downstairs and out the door, shutting it firmly behind him before climbing back into the truck. Lokan said nothing and they drove down to the pub in silence, parking around the back in a gravel lot that was already half-full with trucks, a number of which Solan recognized as army vehicles. They were greeted with shouts and invitations to sit down as soon as they went through the front door, but Lokan politely refused, placing a hand between Solan’s shoulderblades to guide him through the maze of tables until they found Ceridwen sitting in a booth at the back, already eating.
“Figured you two got lost,” she said in between bites, “so I decided not to starve myself waiting for you to show up. Did you have fun?” She looked Solan over and snorted. “You look like shit. Didn’t I tell you to take it easy on our city boy, old man?”
“I did,” Lokan said, sliding into the seat opposite her. Solan joined him, folding his arms on the table in front of him and trying not to blush.
“That’s okay.” Ceridwen reached over to pat Solan’s hand. “I had one of our younger recruits somehow managed to smack himself in the face today. I don’t even know how that happens. I guess I should just be happy nobody got shot.”
“Does that happen often?” Solan asked.
“Sometimes. Helps cull the herd.” She pointed to her empty glass when the waiter wandered over. “Water me, I’m dry.”
“Will do.” The waiter scribbled on his pad, then took Lokan’s and Solan’s order, promising to bring it over as soon as possible.
“How many have you already had?” Lokan asked, tipping Ceridwen’s glass up and sniffing at it.
“Am I supposed to be doing anything this evening?”
“Are you capable of doing anything this evening?”
“There’s your answer. And if you don’t like it, you can go work with the latest idiots and I’ll go wrestle our little Fae.”
“As long as you can get home under your own power. I’m not carrying you again.” Lokan set the glass back straight as the waiter came over again and accepted his own pint.
Solan took his own drink—just water—in silence and let the conversation around the pub wash over him. A woman at a nearby table, still dressed in uniform though she’d unbuttoned her jacket, was telling a story about a raid she went on that had her companions nearly in tears from laughter. Near her a man was complaining about kids coming in his store and stealing things, and how he was going to set up a security camera to catch them in the act. Up by the bar he caught a few snatches of conversation about the war, but not much more than that; the line of Fae—mostly old men with one or two old women—talking about it kept their voices low and spent a lot of time nodding to each other and drinking. In the corner he caught sight of a woman with such pale skin and hair that she seemed to almost glow in the shadows, her cheeks scarred by blood-red lines and swirls. She sat alone, playing a game of Solitaire and occasionally sipping from the glass that sat by her elbow.
“Don’t stare.” Ceridwen leaned over the table to turn his face away. “Daoine Sidhe aren’t big fans of being gawked at.”
“What’s on her face?” Solan asked, unconsciously lowering his voice.
“Cursemarks,” Lokan said. “Their warriors often have them.”
“Means she’s pissed someone or multiple someones off, and survived,” Ceridwen added.
Solan snuck another quick glance, then sat back to let the waiter slide Lokan’s meal across and put his own down in front of him. He said thanks and all conversation died for a little while to let them eat, though from the bursts of laughter nearby, other patrons were only just settling in. The food was a little greasy but good, and Solan packed it away so fast he nearly got the hiccups, finally settling his growling stomach. When he was stuffed, he pushed the plate away and leaned back against the back of the booth, half-closing his eyes and letting his muscles relax.
He dozed a little and woke to Lokan shoving his shoulder, gesturing for him to get out of the way. He hauled himself out of the booth and idly watched Lokan maneuver through the crowd towards the washrooms at the back, then slid across to take his seat. When he looked up, Ceridwen was watching him, her chin propped on her hand and the corner of her mouth curved up in a smile.
“What?” he asked. “Something on my face?”
“Just thinking how it’s nice Lokan has someone to take under his wing.”
“Play another tune, Solan, that one’s old.” She drained the rest of her glass. “And I’m the one who insisted on bringing you along anyway.”
“And he’s the one who said no when I wanted to leave,” Solan said sharply. “I like you guys, surprisingly, but I want to go home.”
“I know.” She signalled the waiter. “Have patience.”
“How long? Years? You want to teach me to fight, he wants to teach me to shoot, sounds like neither of you are actually planning on letting me walk out.”
“Look around you, Solan. This is a war. And you’re in an army town, under the care of a king, whether you like it or not. Teaching you how to fight and how to shoot is teaching you how to take care of yourself. You run into trouble anywhere, you think they’re going to care that you don’t really know how to fight or shoot straight? Those cops care when they tried to shoot you down like a rabid dog?”
She punched his bad shoulder, the one that still ached most mornings and was already sending pain signals through his arm from the sparring with Lokan. “These scars are never going to go away. Neither are mine, and neither are Lokan’s. You can talk about your human boyfriend all you like, but ninety-nine percent of humans are going to see you as something to avoid at best and something to shoot at worst. So until we can all live in a world of rainbows and puppies, stop your bitching and actually learn something.” She held her glass up to the waiter, standing awkwardly beside the table. “And that concludes today’s lecture. Want a drink?”
Feeling suddenly like he needed one, Solan silently held up his empty water glass and let the waiter fill it to the brim with beer, then downed half of it in one go. When Lokan returned, Ceridwen excused herself to get some fresh air and walked unsteadily towards the door. One of the drunker men nearby tried to give her a swat on the butt and she decked him so hard he hit the floor and stayed there, to the amusement of his companions.
“How’d you get your scars?” Solan asked when Lokan had sat back down beside him and reached over to get his own half-full glass.
“The ones on your neck. And the one on your arm too.”
Lokan looked at him steadily, violet eyes expressionless, for so long that Solan began to wish he’d never asked, then shrugged. He held his arm up and pushed his sleeve back to show the twisting scar running up his forearm from elbow to wrist. “This was a knife, when I was younger than you. I got caught out by a hunter who thought he’d seen a real buck.” His mouth twisted in a smile that was a little wry and a little bitter. “Got my arm aiming for my face.”
“How’d you get away?”
“He’d left his rifle on the ground and I grabbed it. Shot him in the leg then ran for it. My neck...” He ran his fingers across his jaw and down his neck, to where the scars disappeared under the collar of his shirt. In the gym, when he’d had his shirt off, Solan had seen the scars curved all the way around his shoulder as well before tapering off. “Shrapnel, a few years back.”
Solan almost asked from what, then took another look at the twist to Lokan’s mouth and the hard light in his eyes and decided not to. Instead he tried to muster a smile and said, “I think I kind of pissed Ceridwen off. Sorry. Think I should go talk to her?”
“No. Let her be for a while. She’ll come back in when she’s ready.” He signalled the waiter for a refill on his drink, and Solan decided to let both topics die.
Ceridwen returned after a few minutes, looking as cheerful as she ever did, and Solan sat back to watch as she and Lokan proceeded to get drunk. The alcohol didn’t loosen Lokan’s tongue any, but he relaxed back into the seat after a few pints and smiled a little more at Ceridwen’s chatter. By the time the pub began to clear out, the sun had set and Solan walked between Lokan and Ceridwen out to the parking lot, letting Ceridwen lean on his shoulder. Lokan ignored his offer of a hand out to the truck, but did hand over the keys once they reached it before helping Ceridwen into the back seat.
Solan drove carefully, feeling the effects of his own drinking, though he’d only had a few. He pulled into the driveway safely and breathed a sigh of relief before getting out to give Ceridwen a hand into the house. Lokan followed behind them and slumped down on the couch, his head nodding under the weight of his antlers, as Solan walked Ceridwen up the stairs and down to her room. She kissed his cheek briefly before going inside and shutting the door, leaving him standing awkwardly in the hallway for a moment before he went back down to check on Lokan.
Lokan had stretched out on the couch, his legs pulled up to fit, and fallen asleep with his head resting on his arm and his antlers pressed against the armrest. In sleep he looked a lot younger, his features relaxed and not so worn. Solan reached out despite himself to brush a lock of blue-black hair off Lokan’s face, resisting the urge to touch his antlers, and instead found a blanket to drape over him, tucking it gently in around his broad shoulders.
He was moving towards the door before he really thought about what he was doing, slipping his feet into his boots and sliding his hand into his pocket to make sure the truck’s keys were still there. At the door he hesitated, looking back at Lokan asleep on the couch, then he quietly opened the door and walked back out into the darkness.