Chapter 1

“Hello?” Alex greeted, having no idea who was on the other end of the line. He didn’t think he was expecting any calls. No one had any reason to be looking for him. He’d been roused from a nap by Mrs. Hawthorne hollering for him up the stairs, but no one had bothered to tell him who had called him. Although, he supposed, perhaps no one knew.

Am I speaking to Alexander Grimminger?” The person on the other end sounded either very important or very self-important. He had a gruff, authoritative voice that violently reminded Alex of Mr. Jameson, the old headmaster of the orphanage.

“Yea,” he replied, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Who is this?”

Sergeant Hans Landau,” came the reply, and Alex froze, eyes widening a fraction. He’d forgotten about that. It’d taken them so long to get back to him, he had been expecting to receive a letter telling him that he wasn’t up to par. “I’m calling to inform you that your application into the army has been accepted. You’re expected to report for duty at Fort Festeint in the west this coming Monday. Will you be there?

Alex had only a vague idea of where Fort Festeint was, but he could look it up later. Monday was five days away. It wouldn’t take that long to get there, he didn’t think. He could take a bus. Mrs. Hawthorne would give him money for that. She’d be overjoyed at any opportunity to get rid of him.

“Yes, sir, I can be there.” He replied calmly, despite the fluttering of anxiety in his stomach.

Excellent,” Sergeant Landau said promptly, and Alex could faintly hear the sound of papers being moved around. “You’ll report to me as soon as you get here. Whoever is manning the gate when you arrive will tell you where to find me. Have a good day.

“Thank you, sir.” With a resounding click, the call was ended from the other side. Alex lowered the phone from his ear and handed it to Mrs. Hawthorne, who set it back in it’s charger. The older woman looked at him expectantly, and for a moment he wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

“Who was that?” She demanded to know.

He absentmindedly wrapped an arm around his midsection, staring at the phone for a few seconds longer. “Sergeant Hans Landau,” he quietly told her. “I have to report for duty by Monday.”

Alex didn’t know what exactly he’d been expecting, as Mrs. Hawthorne didn’t like him at all, despite the false compassion she sometimes showed. He couldn’t have counted the number of times she’d lectured him about things he hadn’t done with that sickeningly sweet smile, all the while she was squeezing his shoulder so hard she left bruises. He wasn’t the only kid she had it out for, but the fact really didn’t make him feel any better.

“Oh!” She exclaimed, the agitation in her eyes disappearing in an instant. She smiled brightly at him, and for once it looked genuine. “That’s wonderful news, Alex! Do you have a way to get there? Are you going to need bus fare?”

He sort of wanted to hit her. “Yea,” he answered her dully. “I’m gonna need bus fare. To Fort Festeint.” Wherever that is.

She nodded, still wearing that awful smile, and turned to her computer. “I’ll take care of it, don’t you worry.”

I bet you will.

“Thank you, Mrs. Hawthorne.” He said politely, not bothering to excuse himself as he left. He headed up the stairs towards his room, dodging and weaving past the other kids as they ran up and down the stairs past him.

“Haha, dude, what are you doing?”

Alex stopped three steps from the doorway to his room. Aaren was in his room, which meant that Jack was as well. He tried to make a point to avoid Aaren and Jack, as they were a set of particularly awful bullies who also had it out for him. Aaren was the younger and slighter of the two, and he generally preferred to spectate and make snide comments while Jack broke and trashed other kids’ things. The two were nearly inseparable, and Alex loathed both of them.

“What do you think?” Jack’s unmistakeable voice floated out of the room, “I mean, really, take a guess.”

Before Aaren had even bothered to reply, Alex heard the distinct sound of ripping paper. He didn’t really want to walk into his room and try to make them leave. That would be an exercise in futility. They were bigger and older than him, and they knew he wouldn’t actually try to fight them. They’d been taking advantage of that fact since he was about nine. And he knew that Mrs. Hawthorne wouldn’t do anything about it, because she didn’t care what the kids did so long as they didn’t break anything that belonged to the orphanage.

He bit his tongue momentarily before taking the couple of steps forward to stand in the doorway. Jack had ripped a lot the pages out of his favorite book, and they littered the floor at his feet. The brunet looked up from his task when Alex stopped in the doorway, and smirked broadly.

“Hey there, halfling,” Jack greeted, tearing a few more pages out. “What’s up?”

Hi there, savage. How are you?

“Give it back,” was all he ended up saying in reply as he stepped further into the room, not bothering to mention his “nickname.” Telling the people he lived with to not call him a halfling was like telling paint on a wall to stop drying. He knew they wouldn’t stop. They didn’t want him to forget for an instant that he wasn’t “one of them,” even though his mother’s taste in men absolutely wasn’t his fault.

Aaren snorted from where he was seated on Alex’s bed, leaning back on his hands. “No ‘please?'” He drawled. “Were you raised in a barn?”

No, but I heard you hail from a gutter.

The half-Warghan bit his tongue, holding back the heated reply that immediately appeared at the forefront of his mind, and eyed the destruction Aaren and Jack had wrought upon his belongings. Basically everything he owned was on the floor, looking as though it’d all be kicked around and stepped on multiple times.

Jack chuckled, “Probably. I doubt his mom could’ve afforded anything more luxurious.”

“Shut up,” Alex half-heartedly snapped. “Give me back my book.”

Both of them laughed outright at that. “Yea, man, sure,” Jack replied. He ripped out a few more pages, letting them fall to the floor, before tossing the book into the trashcan that sat in the corner by the door. He didn’t take his eyes off Alex for a moment.

“Whoops!” He exclaimed, wearing an expression of mock-surprise. “I missed! Sorry, man. It’s no big deal, though, that thing was trash anyway, right?”

Jack looked over at his friend, who nodded in agreement. “Yea, you shouldn’t be so hard on your stuff, halfling.” Aaren said, adopting a smirk of his own. “Your room’s a damn mess.”

“Get out,” Alex gestured towards the door. “I’m busy.”

Jack raised an eyebrow, “Busy with what? What do you have to do?”

At first, he didn’t reply. He didn’t even know why they were asking. It was probable that they were looking for one more reason to pick on him, though he wasn’t sure how his acceptance into the military could turn against him. After a moment of thought, however, he recalled that Jack had tried to get in before, only to be kicked out and sent back to the orphanage within a week on account of his problem with authority. Knowing that Alex – annoying, unlikeable, halfling Alex – had been accepted in the army could either be a great moment of gloating or the end of his life.

“It’s definitely none of your business.” He stated flatly after he’d decided the best course of action, “Get out.”

Jack gave him a look one might normally reserve for a particularly disgusting slug. He took a step forward, leaning forward and pointedly invading Alex’s personal bubble. “What was that, halfling?”

Are you deaf?

Before he could think of a witty reply that was less likely to get him punched, Jack looked over his shoulder and abruptly straightened up, which prompted Alex to turn so he could see who else was coming into his room. Mrs. Hawthorne stood in there doorway, her scrawny yet ridiculously strong hands on either side of the door frame. Her gray eyes swept over the mess on the floor, disdain written all over her face, before she looked up at Alex.

“Your bus leaves at eleven tomorrow morning, Alex,” She told him after plastering her fake smile onto her face, “Make sure you’re all set to go by then, I’ll drive you to the station. And this room had best be spotless before you’re gone.”

He wanted to tell her that Jack was the one responsible for the mess in his room, but he knew it would be pointless. She knew it was Jack and Aaren. She always knew. She just didn’t care. His room, his problem. The point was that he kept it mess free. It didn’t matter who was at fault for the wreckage. She was like that with everyone about their rooms, which was one of the primary reasons Jack liked to wandered around and trash everyone’s things.

“Yea,” the halfling replied quietly. “I’ll take care of it.”

Her smile widened, “Very good.”

“What bus?” Jack suddenly interjected, sounding highly irritated. “He’s going somewhere?”

Oh, crap.

Mrs. Hawthorne blinked, looking surprised for a moment as she looked between the three of them. “Oh, did you not tell anyone yet?” Alex would’ve replied to that question if he’d been given the opportunity, but he wasn’t, so he didn’t. “He was accepted in to the military. He’s leaving in the morning.” She simpered. He wished she would spontaneously combust.

She smiled at him one last time, before she stepped back from the door and strode off, snapping and snarling at the rowdier kids as she walked down the hall. Alex stared after her for a moment, wanting with every fiber of his being for her to have a heart attack on her way down the stairs. He really hated her. He really hated pretty much everyone and everything in the orphanage. He couldn’t wait to be gone.

“The military?” Jack fumed almost as soon as Mrs. Hawthorne was out of earshot, breaking Alex out of his thoughts. He turned back around to face the taller boy, who looked pretty furious. Aaren was still sitting on his bed, observing with raised eyebrows and a smirk. He looked extremely amused by the whole situation.

Bastard.

“Yea,” He conceded after a moment, wrapping an arm around his middle. “They called earlier.”

“The fuck?” The brunet snapped, looking much more offended than he had any right to be. “They turned me down, but they wanted some scrawny bitch like you?”

Alex stared at him for a moment, before he dryly replied. “Apparently my ability to follow basic instructions without giving attitude is slightly more important than my physique.”

In an instant, the moderate irritation that had been showing on Jack’s face twisted into something positively enraged. He grabbed a fistful Alex’s shirt and yanked him forward, his other hand rising as he reared back to punch him. The slighter of the two squeezed his eyes shut, shrinking back and bracing himself from the incoming blow.

“Jack,” Aaren’s voice cut into what was about to become the scene of a murder, reminding both individuals that he was still in the room. “If you hit him, you’re gonna get thrown in solitary.”

Jack stiffened, and was very still for a moment as he weighed his options. He could let go of Alex and not get in trouble, or he could go through with socking him in the mouth and end up spending at least a day or two in solitary.

It took the older boy about a minute and a half of deep consideration before he finally lowered his arm and settled for shoving Alex hard enough to send him falling to the floor. If it didn’t leave a mark, it didn’t count as violence, because it couldn’t be proven to Mrs. Hawthorne. Jack was at least smart enough to know how to get away with hurting people.

“C’mon, Aaren.” The bully grunted sourly. Alex jerked his hand out of the way when Jack started walking past him, knowing that if he left it on the floor the brunet would absolutely step on it. Aaren, who had apparently stood up before he’d reminded the other inhabitants of the room of his presence, hummed in affirmation and started after him.

Aaren stopped in the doorway, turning to look back into the room as Alex was standing up. “You might wanna skip dinner tonight, halfling,” The black-haired boy told him quietly, glancing out the door as if he thought Jack might not approve of his commands. “I sure as hell ain’t gonna get between you two again. If he punches you, it’s you guys’ fault, not mine.”

I hate you, especially.

Alex’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t say anything. Aaren’s trademark smirk widened slightly, and he winked before disappearing around the door frame. He stood there for a long moment, his heart still hammering from earlier. Jack had never come that close to actually hitting him before. The guy was a jerk, but he was very careful to avoid getting in trouble. Aaren was usually the one who wound up running his mouth at Mrs. Hawthorne and getting himself thrown in solitary for hours on end.

He gave his door a push to shut it, before walking over to the pages littering the floor. With a heavy sigh, Alex crouched down and started picking them up, crumpling them into one ball and throwing them into the trash with the rest of the book. Everything else he was able to salvage, though the spines of four different books had been broken. He could tape them back together later.

Once he had everything squared away in a duffel bag he’d found in his closet, Alex fell back onto his bed and closed his eyes. He was tired. He was always tired, but dealing with Jack and Aaren always took all of what little energy he had to spare.

“Dinner!!”

Alex rolled onto his side, wrapping his arms around his middle and drawing his knees to his chest. He hated it. He hated everyone he lived with. He hated everything about the place he lived. He hated the people who were supposedly taking care of him. He hated his life as a whole.

He couldn’t wait to be gone.

“Do you have any questions?” Sergeant Landau asked, looking like he was very much ready to be done with his day. It was only two in the afternoon. He looked very world-weary, so Alex could imagine that he probably lived a busy, draining lifestyle. He was the boot camp instructor, so he dealt with trainees all day, too. He didn’t envy Sergeant Landau for a second.

“No, sir,” Alex replied promptly, his voice rather monotonous. He had barely gotten any sleep, what with the fluttering of anxiety alongside the nauseating hunger. All around him was entirely too much noise. The other cadets were rather rowdy. Then again, everyone seemed to be pretty rowdy to Alex.

The sergeant hummed offhandedly a good minute after Alex had replied. He was glancing down at the clipboard he’d been carrying around for the first time all morning, very obviously not paying attention. After a brief lapse in conversation, he looked up again, nodding curtly at the fresh cadet.

“You’ll be expected to rise at 5 in the morning, cadet. Don’t be late.” He stated blandly, completely blowing off Alex’s heartfelt gratitude.

I’m so cynical sometimes.

“Yes, sir.” He answered. He’d decided ahead of time to avoid speaking too much. No one in his life had ever seemed to like it when he talked, so he couldn’t expect anyone else to be any different. Better to be silent and ignored than talkative and ostracized.

With another nod, the sergeant took his leave wordlessly, leaving Alex standing beside the head of his new bed in an entirely too noisy warehouse of a room. Part of him had been hoping that perhaps the change of scenery would be quieter, but he should’ve known better. A bunch of guys in their late teens to early twenties? They were going to be even worse than the six year-olds at the orphanage.

He slid his duffel bag off his shoulder, swinging it onto the bed as someone ran past him at breakneck speed. He glanced over his shoulder after them, eyebrows knitting together as he observed the guy sprinting across the room as if the legions of darkness were after him. He sighed, losing interest quickly, and turned back towards his bed in time for another person to go barreling past him, their shoulders colliding roughly with his.

He managed to retain his footing only barely. “Haha, sorry, dude, are you okay?” The stranger was apologizing to him before Alex had even looked up. When he did raise his head and glance towards the dark-haired guy, he looked genuinely apologetic. He didn’t normally get sincere apologies. He normally got threats to keep his mouth shut.

“I’m fine,” he responded after a beat. The guy gave him a strange look. He didn’t look like he wanted to leave it at that, which was odd. Normally, when he told people he was fine, they bought it whether it was true or not. “Really, I’ve had worse.” He reiterated.

The guy nodded after a pause and smiled broadly, “Welcome aboard, dude. See you around!” He said, and Alex nodded silently. Without another word, the guy turned and took off in the direction he’d originally been heading, yelling after someone along the way.

Alex watched him go for a moment. That was the first civil conversation he’d had in a long time. Usually, anyone and everyone he spoke to either wanted to hit him or was planning to hit him. Usually, he was trying to convince people that he was hurt, not trying to reassure them that he wasn’t. The guy seemed nice enough. Alex almost hoped he’d be run into again.

“If you get run into twice, you’re probably in the way of traffic, Alex. Next time, be more careful.”

He sighed again, shoving his hands into his pockets and heading out of the dorm area. He’d gotten used to the people he’d grown up with to the point that, when he wasn’t being yelled at or insulted, he didn’t really know how to react. It was sort of depressing to think that he’d been conditioned to behave a certain way by a pack of abusive kids around his own age.

He supposed he’d have to work on that. He didn’t want to let himself be walked all over anymore. It wasn’t fun, and it hadn’t done much to keep him out of trouble. If anything, it’d made everything worse. He’d try to be tougher. He couldn’t bring himself to care about enough for confrontation and advocating for himself didn’t come naturally, but he needed to learn somehow.

I’ll try, anyway. Whether or not I succeed is debatable.

It was warm outside, despite the overcast skies. There was a distinct threat of rain in the distance, dark clouds looming over the faraway mountains. He probably had an hour or two before the rain would arrive. He could wander the base for a while in the meantime.

Alex strolled around, memorizing buildings and their relation to one another (the mess hall was across the training field from the dorms, which were to the right of the officers’ quarters…), and wondering offhandedly if anything interesting would’ve been happening at the orphanage. His absence probably wasn’t that noticeable. When he hadn’t been being blamed for things he didn’t do or being picked on because of his heritage, he’d been basically invisible.

He couldn’t help wondering if they were throwing a going-away party. Without him.

It didn’t matter. Not really. He’d never liked anyone there, and they’d never liked him. He was sure he’d miss Jack and Aaren about as much as he’d miss a weed in a field. He hadn’t interacted with much of anyone else in that entire orphanage, and the few that did talk to him never did more than spit insults at him.

“Haha! Jackie, bro, what are you doing?”

“Haha, dude, what are you doing?”

The half-Warghan looked up from the ground a few feet ahead of him, alarmed. His shoulders stiffened as he searched inconspicuously for the owner of the voice. That couldn’t be Aaren, he was relatively certain, and Jack wasn’t in the army. He had been kicked out. He wasn’t going to be let back in because he was too much of a jerk for even the military. Aaren had no interest in dying for anyone who wasn’t himself or Jack, and even if he did join, he wouldn’t have gotten in on the exact same day as Alex without him knowing.

He spotted the four guys he’d overheard as they went scurrying around the side of a building. They looked like they had just done something that was going to get them into a lot of trouble as they looked over their shoulders and tried to muffle their voices. There was a loud yell from around the building they had come from, and the four of them laughed uproariously before someone came tearing around the building, never so much as sparing the innocent bystander a glance.

The four guys (obviously cadets) took off, laughing even harder at the guy sprinting after them at full speed. The four split up into different directions, the guy who chasing them going after the one who continued straight, a look on his face that suggested he was going to murder the fellow he was after. Alex watched them go for a moment, before he returned his attention to the ground in front of him.

There was a deep rumbling from the sky a few moments later, and he looked up. He’d been out too long. He was going to get rained on before he got back, he was sure. He turned on his heel and started back the way he’d come, eying the buildings as he passed them, committing their locations to memory. There were men running around, yelling at one another, goofing off, fighting, laughing. They all seemed to get along pretty well. He wondered if he would manage to fit in for once, or if he’d be doomed to alienation for the rest of eternity.

Alex sighed. Those four guys had startled him by addressing one of their own as “Jackie,” which was what Mrs. Hawthorne used to call Jack when they’d been kids. He didn’t know why it had startled him, though, and that bothered him. The half-Warghan (halfling) wasn’t scared of Jack and Aaren. He just wanted them to be permanently gone from his life. That wasn’t really all that much to ask for, and there was no reason for him to ever see them again, but he couldn’t seem to help his anxiety.

He was going to have to train himself to not think about the orphanage, and Mrs. Hawthorne, and Jack, and Aaren, and everyone else. Every time he remembered them, he was hit with a shock of anxiety that flipped his stomach like a pancake. It didn’t make him feel better to imagine that he was free from that hellhole and they weren’t. It didn’t help to think that Jack and Aaren probably switched their focus to some other unsuspecting individual. He didn’t want to remember that he’d ever been there in the first place.

If anything, thinking about them dragged him back there. It made him paranoid. He’d spent the entire bus ride thinking over and over and over about whether or not he should expect to wake up to the sound of Mrs. Hawthorne screeching up the stairs for him because she thought he’d broken something he had never even seen before. He had continuously had to steer his mind away from wondering what Jack would’ve done to him if he’d missed his bus and had to go back for one more day. Aaren’s well-concealed threats had echoed around in his head all morning, even as he’d tried to concentrate on what the sergeant had been saying to him.

He was going to have to at least pretend that he was attempting to do his best in the army. He couldn’t let himself get kicked out. He didn’t want to have to see that place again. He didn’t want to have to see those people again. Jack would tear him to shreds if he returned, and he was sure Mrs. Hawthorne would do nothing to protect him as vengeance for failing to get himself killed while he was enlisted.

Alex really didn’t want to be sent back. He’d rather jump out a third-floor window into a bed of thorns. He had to try.

Or try to try.

Or pretend that he was trying to try.

Or try to pretend that he was trying to pretend that he was trying.

And so on.

He wasn’t entirely sure why he hadn’t been thrown out yet. He wasn’t putting forth any effort at all. He supposed it was possible that the only thing keeping him enlisted was the efficient strategies he kept coming up with on their written tests. After all, being a solider was more than just pointing and shooting. If any of them could be expected to be remotely useful, they needed to be at least somewhat intelligent as well.

Six of his fellow cadets had been sent home. Two of them had been trying much harder than he, three of them had started a brawl in the mess hall (they would’ve gotten eight others kicked out if everyone involved hadn’t pointed fingers at the original offenders), and the sixth had resigned by way of cursing out Sergeant Landau.

Alex propped his head up with one arm, using the other to pick at his dinner. He was hungry, but he didn’t feel like eating. On the other side of the mess hall, there were several groups of friends, each group chatting louder than the last. Coupled with the impressive acoustics in the room, the noise level was rather ridiculous. Most of the other cadets had already wandered off to do whatever it was they did.

Alex was sitting at a table in the far corner of the room, as he always did. As expected, he didn’t have anyone to talk to, nor did he have the wherewithal to seek out those he could stand out of the crowd of loud, obnoxious men. It was entirely possible that there wasn’t anyone he could stand to be around.

It was fine, though. He was used to being alone.

“Hey there,” the guy’s voice was much too close to be directed at anyone else nearby, so Alex took a chance and looked up in time to see the guy who had run into him on his first day sitting down across the table. “How’s it going?”

He stared at the guy for a moment, uncertain as to how he ought to respond. He turned his gaze back to his tray, digging his fork into a pudding cup without any intent to actually eat it. “Fine, I guess.” He answered after a beat. He sounded as tired as he felt.

The guy watched him for a moment. “I’m Faust. Raf Faust.”

The halfling looked up again, unable to stop his eyebrows from knitting together. “Alex Grimminger,” he told the guy. Why was he being spoken to? He’d been a cadet for a month and he hadn’t made any friends. He hadn’t made any enemies, either, which he was thankful for, but really, Raf had absolutely no reason to be talking to him.

What do you want?

“You always sit over here by yourself?” Raf asked him. His good-natured smile was suspicious. Or maybe it wasn’t. Alex couldn’t tell. He seemed sincere enough, but he had no reason to suspect that Raf wanted anything more to do with him than anyone else ever had. He didn’t understand why he was being spoken to. He just didn’t get it.

“Yea,” The half-Warghan replied, looking down at his food again. “Got nothing better to do?”

Raf didn’t reply right away, and that prompted him to look up at him again. He was wearing an unreadable expression, and Alex didn’t like it. Unreadable was never a good sign. Usually, that meant he was either being judged or needed to brace himself for either a slew of insults or a swinging fist. He felt his shoulders stiffen, resisting the urge to direct his attention elsewhere as he waited for the answer to his question.

Finally, Raf smiled. It looked sort of deflated compared to his previous smiles, and Alex didn’t know why. “Are you always like that?”

He frowned. “Like what?”

“Apathetic.” Came the unexpected answer. “You look really bored all the time. Is that how you really feel, or are you faking it?”

Alex stared at Raf for a long moment before looking back down at the table between them. Why did it matter to this guy whether or not he was bored? Why did anything about him matter to Raf? There was nothing about him (aside from his exceptional ability to be a verbal punching bag) that had ever caught anyone’s attention. Why was this random, outgoing, obviously well-liked person going out of his way to interact with him? He had nothing to offer.

“He’s a doormat, trust me. Just watch, he’ll let you do whatever you want to him and he won’t tell Mrs. Hawthorne.”

His stomach dropped. Was that it? Was Raf another one of those kinds of people who was looking for someone to walk all over? Was he picking out someone to manipulate into a lapdog? He didn’t come across as the type, but neither had Aaren before he’d befriended Jack.

Alex didn’t know how to reply. The silence stretching between them felt awkward and stifling, and he sort of wanted to just get up and leave.

“Okay, my bad,” Raf suddenly said, pulling him out of his thoughts. “I’m sorry, that was kind of a dick thing to say. I don’t mean it like that, you just seemed really lonely. If you want, I’ll go away.”

No, don’t go.

“It’s… it’s fine,” he said after a beat. “I got lost in thought.”

Raf didn’t look like he particularly believed that, but he didn’t pursue the subject. There was a moment in which Alex continued to poke and prod his dinner, Raf observing him in silence. He didn’t look up at the guy again, not wanting to give himself away. He wished he’d told him to just go away. It would probably turn out that he was just another one in the long list of people who wanted to use or abuse (or both) Alex.

“Not hungry?” Raf questioned, sounding genuinely curious. He couldn’t tell if it was an act or not.

Alex shrugged, “Don’t feel like eating.”

Raf chuckled. “That’s not very healthy. After a day like the one we just had, I’d have thought you’d inhale your dinner like I did.”

“I have a weird relationship with food,” he replied absently. “But I’m glad to know that it found love with you, instead.”

At that, the guy laughed. “Well, you’ve certainly got a great sense of humor. Why didn’t I know this before now?”

“Probably the off-putting vibe and obnoxiously green hair,” the halfling retorted.

“I dunno, dude,” Raf teased. “It totally compliments your eyes.”

Alex snorted, unable to mask the smile that appeared on his face. He didn’t know what exactly the expression on his face was reflecting, but when he looked up at Raf again, the guy looked endlessly pleased with himself. He found himself raising a wary eyebrow, at which the overly-friendly brunet winked.

“You smiled!” He said, mock-shocked. “The world must be coming to an end, right?”

“See, look,” Alex joked in reply. “You made me bring about the apocalypse. I hope you’re happy.”

Raf laughed even harder at that. Talking to him was surprisingly comfortable, and very refreshing. He hadn’t had a full-length conversation with anyone in a long time, it seemed. The new kids at the orphanage would talk to him, but it never lasted. It was never long before they got the hint and went about ostracizing Alex like everyone else. It was what the cool kids did, after all.

Alex’s stomach twisted just slightly. He needed to stop thinking about that.

“I’m not bored,” he said, just loudly enough for Raf to hear him. The guy blinked, looking a little surprised. “I’m… I guess you hit the nail on the head when you said ‘apathetic.’ I can’t seem to bring myself to care about any of… this.” He waved his fork around, vaguely indicating the entire base. “I don’t know why I bothered. They’re gonna throw me out soon enough.”

He cared a lot more than he let on. He didn’t want to go back. If they sent him back to that orphanage, he was literally going to kill himself. He didn’t think he could’ve expressed to anyone how happy he’d been to leave. He didn’t think he could put his hatred towards that entire orphanage into words. He didn’t think he could possibly explain to anyone just who Jack, Aaren, and Mrs. Hawthorne were to him.

“Oh man,” Raf sounded sympathetic. Alex almost wanted to hit him. He didn’t need anyone’s pity, and he most certainly didn’t want it from this random stranger who had taken an interest in him for no discernible reason. “You can’t think of this stuff like that. Why did you join the army?”

Alex didn’t reply right away, uncertain as to whether or not he wanted to reveal the real reason why he’d joined. He didn’t know if it was a good reason or not, to other people. It was a good reason for him, though he was sure that whatever he said to explain it would result in a pity party of one. He didn’t want that at all.

“To get away from… the place I grew up.” He finally muttered after a long silence. “I hated everyone there. I just wanted to get away from them. Now it’s looking like this whole episode was utterly pointless.”

“Dude,” Raf cut in. “Don’t be such a negative Nancy. Hey, listen to me,” he said seriously. His eyes seemed brighter, passion burning in them. Alex stared at him dully, wondering if he was about to be lectured. Judging by his expression, probably. “I’ll be honest; that was a trick question. It doesn’t matter why you decided to join. What matters is that you had a reason, and you thought it was a good reason. And if you still feel that way, even now, then you need to stick with your choice and get in it to win it.”

Alex watched him for another moment, wishing he could be that optimistic, that he could see life in such a bright light. He wish that he could look another person dead in the eye and tell them that it would get better without feeling like he’d lied. He wished he could be that passionate, that committed to living the life he’d been given.

“Now, eat your dinner,” Raf commanded in such an authoritative voice, Alex couldn’t help but look up at him cynically. “I mean it. Don’t make me give you mouth to mouth.”

At that, he let out a breath of laughter. “I’m fine, really. I’ve been getting along by myself for a long time now.”

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Raf argued. “Loneliness can kill a person. Do you know that? It’s toxic. Terrible for your lungs.”

“Why does it matter?” He asked seriously, setting his fork down for the first time since he’d sat down. “Honestly. You don’t even know me. What if I’m actually a giant asshole?”

“Well, if you were, you wouldn’t have said that,” was the annoyingly cunning reply. “And I guess it doesn’t really matter. But hey, I’m lonely too, so I figured we were like kindred spirits. Destined to be bros, y’know?”

Alex shook his head in disbelief. The guy really was ridiculous. “You’re not lonely. You’ve got tons of friends. I see you with them all the time.”

Raf frowned. “Just because I spend time with them doesn’t mean I consider them friends,” he replied, voice slightly quieter. “They’re a bunch of shallow dicks, to be honest.”

“So you’re looking for a deeper, more meaningful relationship.” the half-Warghan deadpanned.

“Yes, absolutely,” Raf agreed with a grin. “Do you think I should put an ad in the paper?” He chuckled when Alex only shook his head in disbelief. “Really, though. If you want me to go away, I will. I’ll never pester you again.”

For a long moment, Alex stared at the table. Once again, he wasn’t sure how to reply. He didn’t really want Raf to go away. He was a fun person to talk to, and Alex was so lonely. On the other hand, he didn’t want to trust that the guy was sincere. He was aware of the fact that it was probably extremely unfair of him to be so presumptuous, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone strung him along simply to find the most damaging way to injure him.

He couldn’t imagine anything appealing enough about himself to warrant such a nice person coming forward and talking to him of his own volition. Alex wasn’t nice. He wasn’t gentle-spirited. He wasn’t pleasant-mannered. He wasn’t a good person. He had dark thoughts. He contemplated homicide frequently. He was a complete mess. He wasn’t even fully Warghan. He didn’t deserve to have such a nice person as a friend. He had no reason to expect that it would end well for him, but he wanted to try and see what happened.

He was so lonely.

“It’s… it’s fine,” he reassured yet again. “You’re right. I am pretty lonely.”

Raf’s face split into a wide grin, which prompted Alex to offer a slight smile in return. “That’s the spirit! We’ll work on your motivation too, yea? I can’t just sit back and watch you get yourself kicked out.”

Alex looked down at the table again, still smiling. He felt sick with anxiety, but he pushed it down. Raf wasn’t like that. The light that shone in his eyes was bright and wild and warm. It was nothing like the cold, malicious spark that had danced in Aaren’s and Jack’s eyes. Raf was a completely different person from them. He just wasn’t the type to be a backstabber.

Alex was sure of it.

“I’ll leave myself in your capable hands, then,” Alex replied after a beat.

“Don’t worry,” the strange brunet reassured, his lip-line expanding as his face split into an even wider grin. “I’m a professional.”

The half-Warghan let out a breath of laughter. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Next Chapter

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