Cutting his hair short and removing his piercings was the hardest part of signing up. He sold the car and added the money to his bank account, put most of his stuff in storage, and showed up to catch the bus to basic training feeling naked without any rings on his fingers, or piercings in his ears and tongue. Solan’s ear cuff he’d hidden carefully in a small inside pocket of his backpack until he could figure out a way to get around the regulations or until he finished basic training and had more leeway.
He showed his ID to the stern-looking soldier at the foot of the bus steps and went all the way to the back of the bus when he was waved on. The bus filled up slowly and chatter filled the air, but he only looked out the window, ignoring the slightly nervous conversation around him both while the bus filled and during the trip to Saint Brandon, where the training school was located.
The rest of the day was a whirlwind of receiving provisions and being sorted into a unit, then being introduced to their unit command, DI Ermey, who shouted them into ragged formation and lectured them on what was expected of them at the top of his lungs. Kyr tuned most of it out, keeping his face in the neutral expression he’d perfected through hundreds of boring classes, and snuck glances at his fellow recruits. He thought he recognized one or two of them from school but most of them were strangers; boys around his age and a little older, and he’d bet good money that most of them hadn’t passed high school.
They were taken on a run just before sunset, while DI Ermey screamed at them until his face went nearly purple, and didn’t come back until it had gone dark, most of the boys straggling back into camp footsore and exhausted. Kyr himself only felt a little tired, used to running long distances, though he had a feeling that he should’ve done some weight training on his runs as well. He followed the rest of the unit into the barracks and found a bunk in the corner, hauling himself up onto the top mattress and stretching out with his hands behind his head. What remained of his hair felt stiff and prickly against his skin and he rolled over, scratching absently at it.
The young man who had taken the bunk below him was one of the ones that looked intelligent enough to have actually finished high school; attractive in an angular, still slightly gangly way, his scrub of hair sandy blond. He had a smattering of freckles across his nose and eyes so pale brown they looked almost golden in the light, and the hand he offered Kyr to shake was strong and callused.
“I’m Torin,” he said as they shook.
“Kyr.” Kyr let go of his hand and rolled onto his back again.
“Not talkative?” Torin asked.
“Got the hint.” The lower bunk creaked as Torin settled down on it. “Sleep well, I guess.”
“Sure.” Kyr closed his eyes and listened to the rest of the unit settle into their bunks. The lights soon went off and silence descended, broken only by an occasional muffled snicker and, after a while, various different registers of snoring. Gradually Kyr dozed off and slept dreamlessly until they were yelled out of bed the next morning at dawn.
The days stretched out, bookended morning and night by DI Ermey shouting them out of bed, shouting them through breakfast and drill and training, and shouting them back to bed long after dark. By the end of the first week Kyr was exhausted and pissed off, enough to be snappy with anyone who tried to talk to him. Even lectures on getting along with his fellow recruits in order to form themselves into a cohesive unit didn’t make much of an impression and a few times into the second and third weeks he was sent to the Motivation Centre to get straightened out.
On the Sunday before the fourth week, as he was coming back from a shower and concentrating more on where he was putting his feet in the dark than on what was around him, a couple of the other guys from his unit jumped him, yanking him off the path and back behind one of the buildings. He kicked one of them in the stomach and caught another in the nose with his elbow before his arms were pinned behind his back and he was shoved up against the brick wall hard enough to scrape his cheek. Someone patted him down for weapons, their hands brief and informal, then he was spun around again.
In the dim lights from the buildings, he recognized their faces if not their names, a group of boys who had banded together because they had more muscle than brains. They were grinning—all except the boy he’d elbowed in the nose, who was still wiping blood off his face—a little nervously, like small dogs getting ready to bite. His arms were still held but he could spit and did, right in the face of the boy opposite him, wiping the twitchy little grin right off his face.
They took turns holding him so they could all get their hits in, but he fought back as hard as he could, kicking out at them when they were stupid enough to get in range. When they drove him down on his knees, his mouth full of blood, he headbutted one of them in the groin, sending him into a moaning heap in the dirt. After that all he could do was curl up and try to protect his face and belly, squeezing his eyes shut against each blow and trying not to make any noise no matter how much it hurt.
He was honestly beginning to think they meant to kill him when he heard the sound of footsteps coming around the corner of the building. His attackers scattered and he dragged himself up against the wall, sitting with his back pressed against it and pinching the bridge of his nose to try and stop the bleeding. Someone said his name and just for an instant he thought it was Solan, come to find him somehow, until he squinted and saw sandy blond hair in the dim light.
“Shit, you got your ass worked over good, huh?” Gentle hands tilted his head up towards the light. “Can you get up and walk? If you can, we can go sneak into the med centre. If not, I’m gonna have to call someone.”
“I can walk.” It came out a little slurred and he nearly fell over again in his first attempt to get back to his feet, but Torin caught him gently under the arms and slung an arm around his waist to steady him for the painful walk to the medical building.
Torin picked the lock to get in and helped Kyr to sit on one of the cots, telling him to stay still and wait. Kyr bit back a sharp retort and just did as he was told, picking at his bloody shirt and wondering how he was going to explain the mess to DI Ermey. By the time Torin returned with a steaming bowl of water, a pack of ice, and one of the big first-aid kits from the cabinet, Kyr had a pounding headache and just wanted to go lie down somewhere dark and cool to sleep it off.
“Nuh-uh, no sleeping yet.” Torin caught his shoulder and propped him upright. “Think you got concussion? ‘Cause you should probably see a real doctor.”
“Only if they’re cute. Look at me.” Torin caught his chin and studied his eyes, frowning slightly. “Your pupils look okay. Follow my finger.” He waved his finger slowly back and forth in front of Kyr’s face. “Good. Your head’s probably not going to explode tonight.”
“Small favours,” Kyr muttered.
“Want a piece of advice?” Torin asked as he dunked a cloth into the bowl of water.
“Sucks to be your ass, you’re getting it anyway. You need to start getting along with people.” Torin’s touch was gentle as he cleaned the blood from Kyr’s face, though his voice was rough. “You walk around here like your shit don’t stink and it pisses people the fuck off. Whatever problems you got, nobody here cares, ‘cause nobody cares about you. You’re supposed to be a guy I can trust my life to, and right now, I gotta say, I wouldn’t trust you with my dirty laundry. So you get what happened tonight, a bunch of cowfuckers who think they’re going to teach you a lesson by beating the shit out of you.”
“They’re not the only ones who can wait in the dark.”
“No.” Torin smacked him in the forehead with the palm of one hand, hard enough to make him wince. “Wrong way to think.”
“So I’m supposed to just let them get away with it? You said yourself they’re just a bunch of cowfuckers.”
“Yeah, but you go about revenge now, and that’s all that’s going to happen until the DI gets wind of it and kills all of you. You want to spend the next couple months over in the MC, shovelling sand from one spot to another with a teaspoon? In your mouth?”
Kyr laughed despite himself, even though it hurt his jaw. “Fine. I’ll wait.”
“Meantime, try and stop acting like you’re better than everyone else. ‘Cause we’re all in the shit together here.” Torin dropped the bloody cloth in the bowl and handed Kyr the icepack. “Slap that wherever hurts the most.”
Kyr did as he was told, watching Torin cross the room again to dump the bowl of bloody water and rinse out the towel. “Why are you helping me?”
“Obviously somebody needs to watch your back.”
“So you just decided to volunteer for the position?”
“Like I said, we’re in this together. And you’re the one causing most of the problem. So maybe if you’ve got someone to tell you what a fucking idiot you’re being, you’ll stop being one, and we can all get through this merry little trip with a minimum of push-ups.” He set the bowl to dry and came back over, wrapping strong fingers around Kyr’s wrist to pull his hand, and the ice, away from his face. “You’re going to be real pretty by tomorrow morning, but I don’t think there’s gonna be any lasting damage. Let me slap on a couple bandages and we can go sleep for a few hours.”
“Thanks,” Kyr said after a few moments of sitting silently, waiting for Torin to finish applying butterfly stitches to a cut above his eyebrow. “Even though now you’re going to be a target too.”
“Maybe.” Torin slapped another bandage onto his cheek. “Probably not. I’ve been friendly. And if one of those cowfuckers does try it on with me, I used to be a state champ boxer. He’ll be down before he even knows what hit him. Kinda like to avoid it though. I fucking hate push-ups.”
He offered a hand and after a slight hesitation, Kyr took it, letting Torin pull him up to his feet. He weaved a bit with the sudden change in elevation, caught himself on Torin’s sturdy shoulder, and let Torin help him back out into the night air. They made it back to the barracks without any of the night patrols spotting them and snuck in through the back door, weaving their way through the bunks in the dark until they reached their own. Kyr winced looking up at his bunk and gratefully accepted Torin’s boost up onto the mattress, gingerly curling up and pulling the blanket over himself. He muttered something in response to Torin’s good night, and quickly fell into a dreamless, exhausted sleep.
DI Ermey screamed him out of bed much too early the next morning and he wobbled when his feet hit the floor, just barely managing to lock his knees in time to keep upright. Beside him Torin stood stiffly at attention, eyes straight ahead. Kyr glanced quickly at him then faced forward, trying not to flinch in the face of the DI’s wrath over the state of his face and his bloody shirt.
“Fell down coming back from shower, sir!” he barked in response to the DI’s demand to know what had happened, and thought he heard someone breathe out a sigh of relief. It turned into an almost silent groan when the DI screamed them all down onto the floor for push-ups, and Kyr had to turn all his attention to the sore muscles in his arms so he wouldn’t end up on his face.
After pushups they were yelled into uniform and marched down to the mess hall for breakfast. Kyr picked at his scrambled eggs, sure that they weren’t supposed to be nearly orange, and ate the limp bacon only because it was a normal colour. The toast was the best part, and he was looking forlornly at the crumbs left on his plate when Torin slid his own piece of toast over, one eye on Ermey, who was talking to the DI in charge of another unit.
“Shut up and eat it,” Torin muttered before Kyr could say anything. “You look like you need it more than I do.”
“When are you going to start asking for stuff in return?” Kyr asked, trying to fight down a feeling of wariness. “Gonna try and take it out of my ass later or something?”
Torin gave him a long, cold look and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, swallowing hard against a sudden nervous feeling. “Don’t insult me, Kyr. I’m just trying to help this unit work. Eat your fucking toast.”
“Yessir.” He took a bite of the toast to keep from saying anything else, realizing with sudden perfect clarity that while he’d probably never make it past the rank of Private—assuming he even made it that far—Torin was headed for a leadership position. He glanced quickly at Torin out of the corner of his eye and was relieved to see Torin grinning at some story the boy across the table was telling, his posture completely relaxed.
The rest of the day passed as most of the days previously had: work, drill, more work, more drill, and the constant soundtrack of DI Ermey’s bellowing. Kyr did his best to be polite if not exactly friendly to the rest of the unit, resisting the urge during their evening run to trip one of the boys who had beat him up and send him into a patch of poison ivy. Gradually, as the days passed, his bruises faded and his cuts healed. He got stronger and learned how to defend himself and others, to shoot and drive a heavy army truck; learned to adjust to Torin shoving him into a place within the unit, and to get along with his fellow recruits, even though there were a handful of them that he would have cheerfully shoved off a cliff.
On the Saturday of the fifth week they were all given an evening pass as a reward for making it through a third of the camp without any grievous injuries. The entire unit spent the day on their best behaviour, even the usual little squabbles set aside under the threat of losing their passes and not getting another one for the rest of their training. By the time the DI dismissed them, Kyr was almost quivering with the tension of behaving, despite a double set of runs both in the morning and just before dinner, and an afternoon spent scrubbing the mess hall’s floor with a toothbrush.
“I feel like you’re going to take off like a firework,” Torin said with some amusement as they walked back from dinner to the barracks to change. “Breathe.”
“Five weeks I’ve been busting my ass here. Finally I get to go do what I want, and you’re acting like it’s no big deal?” Kyr ran both hands back over his short hair, pausing just a moment on the space across his ear where Solan’s cuff should have been. He realized abruptly that in the entire five weeks he’d been here, he hadn’t dreamed of Solan once; had, in fact, been so exhausted most of the time that Solan hadn’t even crossed his mind.
“What?” Torin asked. “You look like someone just squeezed your balls.”
“Just thought of... someone I hadn’t thought of in a while.”
“Someone you left behind?”
“Something like that.” Kyr pushed open the door to the barracks. “It’s a long and complicated story.”
“You and me both.” Torin gave a playful punch in the shoulder to one of the other recruits as they passed by. “You coming to the movie tonight?”
“Am I getting a choice?”
“Of course you get a choice. As long as you make the right one.”
Kyr thought of Solan asking if he would ever get to make his own decisions and laughed despite himself, though the sound was a little angry. “Thinking about a friend again. I must have pissed him the fuck off so many times, ‘cause you’re pissing me the fuck off.”
Torin paused in stripping his shirt over his head and looked him over, eyes unreadable. “Sorry,” he said after a minute. “You’re right, it’s your time. Do whatever you want with it.” The corner of his mouth turned up in a crooked grin. “But if you want to come, I hear the movie’s pretty good.”
“Yeah, who said?”
“Turner wouldn’t know good if it shit in his hand and made him eat it.” Kyr dug through his pack to find a pair of jeans and a shirt. “But I guess I’ll come anyway.”
“You’ll enjoy it.” Torin changed into his own jeans and a tank top, laying his uniform out neatly on his bunk. “Ready? Truck’ll leave without us if we’re slow.”
“One sec.” Kyr dug through his pack until he found Solan’s cuff and slipped it onto his ear. “Okay, let’s go.”
Torin raised an eyebrow slightly but didn’t say anything on the way out to the truck. They piled into the back along with half the unit—the half Torin jokingly referred to as single but not desperate enough for sheep—and held on for the ride into nearby Saint Brandon. Kyr tuned out most of the conversation, only offering the occasional absent smile, and watched the countryside instead. They’d gone into the hottest part of summer and he could feel sweat already trickling down his back under his shirt, though the wind from the truck’s movement helped. Walking into the air conditioning of the theatre brought happy sighs from the entire group and they spread out to buy popcorn, candy, and pop from the concession stand before trickling into the theatre to watch the movie.
Kyr leaned back in his seat once they were settled, tossing chocolate drops into the air and catching them in his mouth as the previews played. Beside him Torin closed his eyes, his breathing evening out almost into sleep before Kyr elbowed him at the opening credits. The movie was good, recommended by Turner or not; full of explosions, violence, and a particular scene that had most of the group alternately cringing and laughing. By the time the end credits rolled and Kyr got up to shuffle along the row of seats to the aisle, he was feeling a lot better.
“Still got an hour before we have to go back,” Torin said as they walked out. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going back until I absolutely have to. Want to grab some food or a coffee or something?”
“I could go for a burger,” Kyr said, dropping back from the group headed towards the truck. “Not making this a group activity so we can braid each other’s hair and shit?”
“Considering this,” Torin scrubbed his knuckles across the top of Kyr’s head, “I don’t know what hair you’re planning on braiding. Turner’s back, maybe.”
Kyr made a face. “Gross. Now I’m not hungry.”
“Come on,” Torin said, laughing. “I’ll even treat you.”
They walked down the sidewalk another block or two and ducked into a 24-hour dinner, finding a booth at the back to sit and look over the menu. Kyr ordered a burger and fries when the waitress wandered over, thinking of the diner back in Aldeen, and Torin asked for a sandwich and coffee, watching the waitress walk away with a measuring look.
“Too young for you,” Kyr said. “Probably jailbait.”
“Probably.” Torin leaned against the back of the booth, glancing absently at his watch. “So who’d you leave behind before you joined the happy family here?”
Kyr felt his smile fade and looked down at his hands for a few moments, chewing on his bottom lip and trying to decide if he could trust Torin. “I was... dating this guy I went to school with,” he said finally. “We got into some trouble and he disappeared. I waited for him for a while, then when he didn’t come back, I went stupid and ended up here.” He glanced up and forced a smile. “I shared. Your turn.”
“Education, mostly. I come from a little town out in the middle of nowhere, and I fucked around too much in school so getting in anywhere on my own was pretty impossible. Then my girlfriend thought she was pregnant and went running to her parents, her dad threatened to shoot me, and I figured all things being equal, maybe I was safer in boot camp.” Torin shrugged, giving the waitress a smile as she brought their food over and making her blush before she turned away to deal with other customers. “She wasn’t pregnant but I didn’t find that out til the morning I came to get on the damn bus, so joke’s on me.”
“Still talk to her?”
“We write sometimes. We were kinda losing interest in each other anyway. And that’s my story, exciting as it is.” Torin took a big bite of his sandwich and Kyr took the cue to stop talking and start eating.
They took a cab back to the base and ducked into the barracks with seconds to spare before curfew. Kyr stripped out of his civilian clothes and put them neatly away before hauling himself onto the top bunk, settling in under the blankets as the lights went off. He was already almost asleep when he remembered he was still wearing Solan’s ear cuff, but he slipped all the way into sleep before he could reach up to remove it.
He dreamed of meeting Solan in a sunny field thick with wildflowers and grass. The sky above was the brazen blue of midsummer, the sun a disc of molten gold, and the air was full of the sound of insects and the smell of clover. Solan stood in grass up to his knees, arms crossed over his chest, watching Kyr without expression. He looked older, his face more angled, and he’d put on more muscle in his arms and across his shoulders. A scar marked his cheek just under his left eye.
“You joined the army,” he said flatly before Kyr could even say anything, and when Kyr looked down, he saw he was dressed in uniform.
“Because you... You didn’t come back. You still haven’t. I call your mom sometimes and she says you’re still gone.”
“So you, what, thought it’d be a good idea to learn how to kill people like me? Hunt me down that way?”
“No, but... I dunno, maybe I thought I could find you this way.” Kyr reached out towards him but dropped his hand in the face of Solan’s glare. “I’m sorry. I got in a big fight with Magdalin and fucked up. Now I can’t get out.”
“Better hope we don’t run into each other.” Solan stepped back, away from him, then turned and walked away. In the distance Kyr saw the buck appear, ducking its head towards Solan as he approached it. Kyr felt a flash of rage and lunged towards them, but before he got more than a few steps the dream tattered away into Torin shaking him and telling him to wake up.
“What?” he muttered, still half-asleep and squinting in the shadows to try and see Torin’s face. “Izzit even fuckin’ dawn yet?”
“No, but get your ass out of bed anyway. Ermey’s probably going to be in here any second.” Torin pulled away from him and yanked his uniform pants up over his legs. All around Kyr saw the rest of the unit either stumbling into uniform or waking up still sleeping comrades.
“The fuck is going on?” Kyr asked, sliding down from the top bunk with a thump. “Somebody die?”
“Not yet.” Torin buckled his belt around his hips, then looked up and gave Kyr a grin that was half reckless and half terrified. “Scouts spotted the frontrunners of an army coming down from the mountains. The wild Fae are coming.”