For once Ermey didn’t shout. He only sat them down on the barracks floor in a semi-circle and gave them the information he thought they needed and nothing more. Kyr listened quietly, aware of Torin’s shoulder pressed gently against his on one side and the sound of the entire unit breathing almost in unison, feeling numb. When the DI was finished he switched right back into bellowing and ordered them out for an early-morning run, driving them up and down the roads until they were stumbling with exhaustion. After lunch they were herded out onto the obstacle course and run through it for another few hours before finally being allowed to go back to the barracks to clean gear until dinner.
Kyr listened to the quiet conversation around him, centered mostly on speculation over the wild Fae army, though he heard a few complaints about sore feet and pulled muscles. Beside him Torin worked silently on his boots, scrubbing the leather and polishing them until they shone. His pale near-gold eyes were distant and he frowned a little as he worked the conditioner into the boot’s creases, his long fingers working in steady motions.
“You nervous?” Kyr asked softly.
“Me?” Torin glanced at him briefly and a slight smile touched his mouth. “Scared fucking shitless.”
“Me too.” Kyr set aside the boot he was working on and picked up the other one. “My... I heard they’re cannibals. Blood sacrifice and everything.”
“Half of them are probably immortal,” the guy on his other side—Kyr thought his name was Akiva—put in. “I didn’t sign up to go fight a bunch of fuckers who don’t die.”
“What did you sign up for then, asshole?” Torin asked mildly, re-lacing his boots and setting them aside. “We knew it was a possibility.”
“Yeah, but not a big one.” Akiva shook his head.
Kyr frowned. “What brought them out? Just figured it was time to come fuck us up? Tor, what’d they say on the radio? Anything about a town called Arian Mawr?”
“Nothing about any towns. Just that they were coming down out of the mountains and there’s a fuckton of them. I hear the army’s gonna try and cut them off before they reach their more civilized buddies, but it’s a long shot. Might just end up getting caught between them if they’re not careful, and wouldn’t that be a royal fuck-up.” Torin picked up his rifle and disassembled it to clean it.
“Ain’t nothing civilized about Fae,” Akiva snorted. “Just assholes and bigger assholes. Can’t wait to get out of this shit and start fucking them up.”
“Better be careful they don’t fuck you up instead,” Kyr said.
“You’d know, Damascus, wouldn’t you? Hear you got tangled up with one last year.”
“Not as much as your mother.”
“Knock it off, you two,” Torin said absently. “I don’t have the energy to do more push-ups because you’re squabbling like little kids.”
Shrugging, Kyr turned back to his gear, refusing to let himself think of Solan, or of last night’s dream. He’d slipped the cuff back in his pack while he was pulling on his clothes and wasn’t sure when—or if—he wanted to put it back on again. He turned his attention back to his boots, pulling them back on and lacing them up after a quick look at the time. A few minutes later Ermey yelled them up into formation and marched them over to the mess hall for dinner.
Kyr lay on his back in his bunk that night after lights out, staring up at the ceiling and trying to fall asleep. He was so exhausted his eyes burned, but sleep refused to come no matter how often he tossed and turned. After a couple of especially violent tosses, he felt Torin punch the mattress underneath him, growling at him to knock it off and go to sleep. He tried, twisting his shirt just to keep his fingers occupied, then sat up and swung his legs over the side, sliding down to the floor.
“Where you going?” Torin whispered.
“A run or something.” He lifted a hand to the guy patrolling on fire watch and shoved his feet into his boots. “I’m going to go insane if I don’t do something.”
“You’re already insane.” He heard the slight creak of Torin’s bed as Torin got up. “I’ll come with you.”
“And interrupt your beauty sleep? Fuck, man, you need everything you can get.”
“Suck a dick.” Torin fell into step beside him for the silent walk past the DI’s quarters to the back door. “We get caught, Ermey’s going to hang us up by our balls.”
“Keep your wet dreams to yourself.” Kyr eased the door open, checked for patrols, and slipped out into the cool night air.
They ran in silence broken only by the sound of their breathing and the muffled thump of their feet hitting the dirt track. Once or twice Torin yawned but they didn’t speak, circling the track over and over again until Kyr let himself slow to a walk, head hanging.
“You ever regret signing up?” he asked finally.
“Sometimes. Usually when I’m getting screamed at. It’ll be different once we’re out there.”
“Out there shooting people and getting shot at.”
“I hear that’s what happens in a war.” Torin caught his arm and made him stop. “You going to go squirrel on me?”
“I signed up same as you did. It was a dumbass decision, but I’m in it now. We’ve got what, less than a month left?” Kyr scratched at his head and offered a grin. “I’ll be glad just to let my hair grow out a bit more.”
Torin just studied his face, his expression unreadable in the shadows. After a moment he squeezed Kyr’s arm and let him go. “Can we go sleep now? I think the army frowns on it when you fucking fall asleep in your neon scrambled eggs.”
“Yeah.” Kyr rolled his shoulders and headed back towards the barracks. “Can’t wait to get the fuck out of here.”
“You and me both.” Torin opened the back door and peeked inside. “Clear. Shake your ass.”
Kyr ducked inside and hurried over to his bed, toeing his boots off and pulling himself up onto the top bunk. He heard Torin settle down on the bunk beneath him and soon after the deep, even sound of his breathing going into sleep. Rolling over onto his side, Kyr buried his face in his pillow and soon drifted off.
Another week passed and the news filtered down that despite the army’s efforts, the wild Fae had reached their target, creating one big army that outnumbered the humans. The battles raged back and forth and the number of casualties slowly grew, on both sides. Kyr listened to the radio when he was able to, usually huddled around a table with the rest of the unit crammed in around him, listening to the list of towns falling on both sides. Torin didn’t often listen with them, and just smiled and shrugged when Kyr asked him why. Tempers flared throughout the unit and they spent a lot of time doing push-ups while Ermey screamed at them about standards and success that hinged on the cohesion of their unit.
The week before graduation, they were sent to clear the mess hall of the battered tables and chairs, and set up better-looking ones for an officers’ meeting. Kyr found himself moving tables out into the hall with Norwalk, one of the recruits who had given him the beating a month into boot camp, a heavyset redhead with a face full of freckles and a permanent sneer to his mouth. For the first few minutes they ignored each other, carrying the tables out into the hall in silence, then Norwalk grinned and said, “So when you bend over for Torin, does he at least do the courtesy of a reach-around?”
Kyr looked at him for a moment, eyes narrowed, then suddenly shoved the edge of the table into Norwalk’s stomach, doubling him over with a grunt. Dropping his end yanked the table out of Norwalk’s hands as well and it landed on the tiled floor with a loud bang. Kyr was already moving past it as it fell, grabbing Norwalk by the shoulders and headbutting him hard enough to break his nose. He took a step back then someone slammed him in the lower back, just over his kidneys, driving him down onto his knees with a grunt of pain. Around him he heard yelling and a series of crashes, then Ermey’s voice rising even above the din, bellowing at them to fall in.
He ignored it, scrambling back to his feet and kicking out at the person behind him. For a few moments he grappled with one of Norwalk’s buddies, then Torin grabbed him and pulled him away, wrapping both arms around his chest and nearly lifting him right off his feet as he struggled to get free. Torin slammed him up against the wall and held him there, blocking him off from Norwalk and his buddies until the chaos had subsided and Ermey stormed over, nearly quivering with rage, to scream in his face for a few minutes and then haul him off to the MC.
He spent the rest of the evening shovelling sand from one end of a long room to the other, under Torin’s silent supervision. Dimly he could hear people moving around through the halls outside; the occasional burst of laughter, quiet conversation, muffled yelling in the strident tone the DIs excelled at. Inside the room he heard only the ticking of the clock, the gentle slide of sand, and his own footsteps as he walked back and forth over and over again.
“What’d I tell you about getting along?” Torin asked finally, breaking the silence. “We’ve only got one fucking week left.”
“Fuck off.” Kyr dumped another shovelful of sand into the pile at the end of the room.
“No, you fuck off. What’d he do, insult your mother or something?”
“Then what? What was so bad that you had to flip out like that?”
“He insulted you,” Kyr muttered.
Torin laughed. “Me? Fuck, Kyr, who gives a shit? Let a little cowfucker like Norwalk say whatever he wants. At the end of the day, he’s still going to be a cowfucker. You, on the other hand, might’ve put yourself back a week.”
“What do you want me to do? Sorry. I fucked up.”
“Unfuck yourself. I’m leaving in a week and I plan on bringing your stupid ass with me, so smarten the fuck up.” Torin pushed himself up from leaning against the wall and glanced at the clock, then looked out into the hall. “Heads up, here comes the DI.”
Kyr moved to stand at attention as the DI entered. Ermey looked him over and snorted in disdain, then dismissed them both, ordering them straight back to their bunks in the barracks. As they passed the mess hall, Kyr took a peek inside and saw the officers mingling in little groups, drinking and eating little sandwiches. He exchanged a glance with Torin and they both rolled their eyes before continuing on to the barracks.
The rest of the week passed almost too quickly, and Kyr woke up on the morning of graduation day feeling so nervous he thought he might throw up. Ermey gathered them around to hand out their assigned battalions, placing Kyr with Torin in infantry. After a lecture on supporting each other and obeying the commands of their leaders, they were dismissed to the mess hall for breakfast.
Kyr barely ate, picking at his food until Torin slapped him lightly upside the head and told him to build his strength up. He swallowed a few mouthfuls of eggs that tasted suspiciously like paste, washed them down with a glass of orange juice, and gave his bacon to the person sitting next to him, then sat fidgeting until Ermey came to collect them for one last run before the graduation ceremony. Afterwards they showered, dressed neatly in their dress uniforms, and marched out to the training field to show off for the assembled crowds.
Most of the ceremony passed in a blur and Kyr felt himself zoning out, moving through the motions automatically and letting Torin pull him away after to meet his parents. Kyr thought of the Yorkes and had to force a smile as he shook hands with them, slipping away in a quiet moment to find the phone banks and place a call.
Mrs. Yorke answered on the first ring, her voice cautious, and she was silent for so long after Kyr identified himself that he thought he’d lost the connection. He nervously said hello again and sighed in relief when she answered, though she sounded reserved.
“I can’t talk long, Kyr, I’m sorry,” she said.
“But you’re okay? With the wild Fae coming down... No trouble in town?” He glanced down the hall to make sure nobody was around to listen in.
“Just the usual, between human and Fae.” Her laugh sounded brittle. “Have you... heard anything from Solan?”
“No, I’ve been... busy. You haven’t?”
“No, nothing.” She sighed. “I am glad to hear your voice, Kyr. I’m glad to know you’re all right, at least. I just wish... If Solan was all right, he would call.”
Kyr hesitated, glancing up and down the hall again. “I’ve dreamed of him a couple times. He seems okay, if they’re, you know, real dreams. And if the wild Fae are down from the mountains, maybe that means he is too.”
“Maybe. I have to go. Take care of yourself, Kyr.”
“You too,” he said, but he was talking to dead air. Hanging up the phone, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders before heading out again, mustering a smile when Torin caught up to him and told him they were going out for lunch with his parents.
He sat quietly in the restaurant, feeling uncomfortable out in public in his dress uniform, and answered questions when he was spoken to without actually contributing much to the conversation. Torin’s father waved him off when he tried to help pay and gave them a ride back to camp before he and Torin’s mother had to start back home. After a round of hugs outside the camp’s gates and promises to write and call more often, Torin saw them off and came back to Kyr with a slightly sheepish smile.
“You okay?” he asked. “You looked kind of miserable all through lunch. My parents aren’t that bad, are they?”
“Nah, they’re fine. Just a lot on my mind.” Kyr grinned a little. “And these pants are kind of riding up my ass.”
“Yeah, mine too. Let’s change. You want to go into town later and get drunk, before we ship out tomorrow?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Kyr fell into step beside him on the walk back to the barracks and gratefully changed into jeans and a tank top, hanging his uniform up neatly in the locker next to his bed, ready for the next morning. The rest of the unit was wandering in and out and they received a few invitations to go out for dinner or to a movie but Kyr shook his head and Torin said they already had plans.
They took a cab back into town and spent a while just wandering around, stopping to get ice cream during the worst heat of the afternoon. Sitting outside under an awning and eating his sundae, Kyr watched people walk by, thinking how normal it all looked, as though they weren’t in the midst of a war. The majority of the fighting was still a lot further south and east, but he couldn’t help feeling like it was unnatural to see pretty teenage girls walking by in short sundresses, sometimes holding hands with each other or with guys in shorts and sandals. It looked like any other town heading towards the dog days of summer, and all he heard in the air was the buzzing of flies and distant music.
Dinner was burgers and fries bought from a truck and eaten as they walked through a park, trying to avoid the crowds of children running around screaming happily. Neither of them spoke much but Kyr didn’t mind, enjoying the quiet time after months of little rest and constant yelling. When the sun started to set, they wandered over to a bar they’d been to before, during a weekend leave, and brought their drinks over to a table in the corner.
“To Ermey,” Torin said when they’d sat down, holding his beer bottle in the air. “And to never seeing his fucking bulldog’s asshole of a face again.”
Snorting laughter, Kyr clinked his bottle against Torin’s and drank deeply, setting it back down on the table only half-full. “And to not getting our balls blown off.”
“I will always drink to that.”
Time passed as they drank and swapped stories about their childhoods and life before boot camp, the lies getting more outrageous the more alcohol they consumed. Halfway through, when the bar started to get crowded, they moved unsteadily down a few blocks to a quieter place, taking seats at the bar itself and ordering another round. Kyr slouched down against the counter, swirling the beer in his glass, and watched Torin talk, laughing helplessly even though he’d heard the story at least three times already.
“All right,” Torin said when he was done and their giggles had trailed off. He squinted at the clock then turned back to Kyr, grinning a bit. “I’ve got a dumb question but I figure now’s the time for stupid questions and stupid things, but not if you’re going to get all weird, ‘cause mostly I’m just curious.”
Kyr paused a moment to untangle that sentence. “Okay. Won’t get weird. Probably.”
“Okay. Good.” Torin glanced around and leaned in, dropping his voice. “So, um, can I kiss you then? To see what it’s like?”
Kyr bit his lip against a sudden attack of giggles. “Really? I need to get you drunk more often.”
“Is that a yes?” The corner of Torin’s mouth curved up in a grin, drawing Kyr’s attention to his lips.
“Um, sure.” Kyr fought the urge to laugh again, closing his eyes as Torin slid a hand across the back of his neck and leaned in again.
The kiss was hesitant at first, Torin’s mouth light against his, then deepened when Kyr kissed back. Torin’s fingers were warm against the back of his neck and he tasted of beer mixed with a little bit of the shot he’d tried before the latest round. Kyr rested a hand on his forearm where he leaned on the bar and just went with it, enjoying being kissed if nothing else.
Torin pulled back after a little while, laughing a bit. “That was interesting. You?”
“Top marks for effort.” Kyr grinned. “Nothing mind-blowing though.”
“Hey, I’m a little insulted.” Torin downed the rest of his beer. “I thought I was pretty good.”
“I did give you top marks. Curiosity satisfied?”
“Yeah. I’ll take a bullet for you, dickhead, but I’m not all that interested in your ass.” He put the glass carefully on the counter. “And we should probably head back. The last thing I want is to see Turner’s fuckin’ face with a hangover and no sleep. You done?”
“Uh-huh.” Kyr pushed himself carefully up, bracing himself on the counter until the room stopped see-sawing back and forth. “Why’d I let you talk me into this?”
“Because you love me.” Torin slung an arm around his waist and together they made their way out onto the sidewalk, hailing down one of the cabs waiting there. They leaned against each other in the back seat as the cabbie drove them back to camp, occasionally laughing but mostly just sitting quietly to unwind.
Settling into his bunk for the last time, Kyr listened to the sounds of the rest of the unit getting into bed, trying to get used to the thought that he’d never have to see half of them again, unless their paths crossed out in the field. Beneath him Torin’s bed creaked as Torin shifted around to get comfortable, and across the room someone started to snore. Closing his eyes, Kyr took a deep breath and let it out slowly, drifting off into a dreamless sleep.