Chapter 3

He really, honestly, truly did not enjoy them, but they calmed his nerves (even though they also made his chest and throat ache).

Alex took another drag off his cigarette, ignoring the pull that came up the back of his throat from the immense amount of chemicals he was inhaling. He’d been told he would get use to it about 60-something days ago, and he supposed that if he had been smoking more he would have, but at his current rate of cigarette consumption, he might never get used to it.

Although, he was definitely smoking a couple more per day than he had when he’d started. He would get used to it. It would just take a while.

The sun was out, and he wished that it wasn’t. It wasn’t necessarily hot out, but he didn’t like the sunlight. There weren’t enough shady spots on the base that he could sit and smoke. It wasn’t so bad when it was breezy out, but today the air was as still as it was sticky.

Alex glanced to his right as the familiar sound of rowdy cadets reached him, spotting a group of them laughing and chatting as they made their way across the field to the mess hall. He hadn’t seen Raf in a few days. He hadn’t heard about him being deployed anywhere (and he knew he would have, because Raf knew everyone), so his best guess was that Raf was avoiding him.

In the half a year since his first adventure on the battlefield (the sickening sound of a head shot), his depression hadn’t gotten any better. The episodes in which he was really depressed didn’t usually last as long as the one he had been trying to fend off for the past couple hundred days. His baseline was depressed; he already knew that. But his baseline was not that depressed.

He was relatively certain that his moodiness and fatigue and general attitude of “I hate everything and everyone in existence” had chased Raf off. For the majority of the past 250 or so days, the brunette had been dutifully getting him out of bed in the morning, making sure he ate at least once a day, and doing his best to keep Alex from sinking too far into his apathy.

It was a losing battle.

So, since he had seen neither hide nor hair of his “friend,” he could only presume that he had successfully wrecked their relationship. People could only take so much snarling and cursing from the those they considered friends before they got fed up and left. He supposed there were worse things in life than being lonely.

It sure doesn’t feel like it right now.

He sucked in another lungful of smoke and sank back into the bench he was sitting on as his eyes slipped shut. He was tired. He was always tired anymore. If it wasn’t for how annoyingly loud the other cadets were in the morning, he would never have woken up for training in the wee hours of the morning, even though he often went to bed anywhere between 17:00 and 19:00. As it was, it took a lot of his willpower and almost all his energy to get himself to actually get up and get dressed and go to wherever he needed to be.

The amount of effort he was putting into anything and everything had dwindled to an all-time low. He didn’t even have it in him to feel guilty about it.

“Did you go and die on me? On this bench? That’s kind of lame, dude.”

Alex opened his eyes, dazed by his fatigue and slightly confused as to whether or not he was being spoken to. No one else was sitting on the bench with him, and the voice had come from way too close to be someone talking to another person on a different bench. He tilted his head to the side and found himself staring at Raf.

Raf, whom he hadn’t seen in four days.

He was standing beside another cadet – one that Alex was not familiar with – and he was wearing a triumphant, very excited smile. Alex wasn’t sure what to make of it. The guy Raf had brought with him looked friendly enough, but there was something about him that the half-Warghan didn’t like. Although that very well may have just been his amazing trust issues and the fact that he was meeting new company for no discernible reason.

He was just considering what might be an appropriate greeting when Raf suddenly started talking a mile a minute. “So, I told you a hundred years ago that I would see if I could find someone who could recommend something that might help you out, which is what I’ve been kind of obsessively doing for… way too long, and, well, this is Sven.” His friend paused only long enough to take a breath before continuing, “His mom’s super depressed too, but she was referred to this lady doc by a friend of her’s and apparently this lady doc prescribes this kick ass antidepressants, and so Sven said he’d get in touch with her for us and introduce the two of you.”

Alex was caught somewhere between disbelief and alarm. Firstly, he hadn’t actually expected Raf to really find someone with any kind of recommendations. He wasn’t sure if he was happy that his friend had gone so far out of his way to make himself useful or if he was annoyed that Raf had run his mouth to everyone on the base about Alex’s depression. He was thankful for the gesture, but he wasn’t sure how comfortable he was trusting a complete stranger.

On the other hand, who exactly was Sven and why had he been trusted with any amount of information regarding anything about Alex? There was a reason he hadn’t made any friends aside from Raf. No one else had taken a look at him and seen something worth investigating. No one else had wondered if he might be interesting to talk to. No one else seemed to be interested in him or approve of him at all. He had, in fact, overheard a couple conversations between people complaining that he hadn’t been thrown out of the military yet.

“You’re the worst at introductions, Faust.” Sven remarked, shaking his head and chuckling. “Absolutely terrible. You’re Grimminger, right?” Alex slowly nodded, wondering offhandedly if Raf was the only person on the base to refer to people by first name. “I’m Schlimme. I heard about your crazy tank stunt. Pretty rad if you ask me, man.”

“Uh, thanks.” The half-Warghan replied awkwardly. He wasn’t entirely sure what else to say. Should he ask questions? Or should he just assume that he didn’t need to be particularly conversational during the course of his interaction with Raf and his new friend?

“You heard about it?” Raf snorted, “Sven is one of the guys who saved your life, Alex. Y’know, when you were bleeding to death in that tank.”

Alex blinked, looking between the two of them. That would certainly explain how Raf had met the guy. He wasn’t entirely sure how he ought to be reacting to that bit of information. If Sven had assisted in saving his life, that meant he had to be part of the Medical Corps. If anyone was going to be able to recommend him something, it was probably going to be someone from there.

The only thing he wanted to know was what Sven was getting out of offering his services. Had he been promised something? Or was he just another nice guy, like Raf? Or had Raf just made himself as pathetic as possible as a persuasion tactic? It wasn’t like the brunette actually ever did that, but he supposed there was a first for everything.

“Well, I wasn’t going to pull that card the first time I met you,” Sven said with a long-suffering sigh. “In case you thought I might try to guilt you into something. But yea, I’m part of the Medical Corps. Faust said you were having a rough time with depression?”

Alex’s gaze flickered over to Raf’s brightly smiling face briefly before he returned his attention to Sven. He nodded silently as he took a drag off his cigarette, relatively certain that he didn’t want to tell this person anything more than Raf already had. Especially since he wasn’t sure just how much Raf had told the guy. He should’ve declined his friend’s offer of assistance when it first come up a couple hundred days ago. He knew better than anyone that his depression was a recurring thing and that it didn’t need to be fretted about.

“Well, like Faust said, I know an off-base doctor who prescribes antidepressants,” Sven explained with a friendly smile. “I don’t remember off the top of my head what they’re called. They’re not yet on the regular market yet, because they’re still in the trial stage of development, but they work wonders, man. My mom takes them as well, and she’s had no problems with them at all.”

“Who prescribes them?” Alex questioned, still distrusting. The guy seemed nice enough. Maybe he didn’t have to worry so much about people tricking him or using him or abusing him out in the real world. Maybe there were more decent people in the world than he had originally thought. Maybe Sven could become another friend.

“Oh, no, I was just playing you. Don’t get so upset. You have to look on the bright side, halfling. At least I had fun, right? Other peoples’ happiness is so much more important than yours.”

Then again, he had thought the same thing about Aaren.

“Dr. Helena Fleischer. She’s super nice,” Sven answered, his smile never wavering.

Alex nodded, absentmindedly taking a drag off his cigarette. Sven was part of the Medical Corps. He probably knew more about it than the half-Warghan did. What was the worst thing that could happen?

Well, he thought dryly. I could end up getting poisoned.

“I think… I will take you up on that offer,” Alex said slowly. Raf, who had been surprisingly quiet throughout the exchange, grinned broadly. Sven’s smile also widened, and he extended a hand, which Alex took and shook.

“I’ll give her a ring and come find you when I’ve got something set up,” the red-headed Warghan assured.

Alex nodded, managing a slight, tired smile. Sven turned to Raf then, clapping him on the shoulder, “I gotta get back to work. Jaeger’s probably looking for me by now.”

Raf nodded in reply, “Yea, man, no problem. Thanks for everything. I’ll see you around.”

“You bet,” Sven answered brightly, and headed off to wherever he was going. Alex watched him go for a few minutes, whilst Raf took a seat beside him.

“So this is where you’ve been? Looking for a magical cure for me?” Alex asked, glancing over at his friend. Raf looked over at him, his overjoyed expression sobering a bit. The half-Warghan wondered faintly if that was because of how terrible he looked or how bothered his tone of voice was.

“Yea,” the brunette replied. “What, did you not believe that I’d find anything?”

At that, Alex directed his attention to his cigarette again. He took another puff off of it, exhaling the smoke in a cloud in front of him. “Honestly? No, I didn’t think you’d find anything. I’m kind of a pessimist.”

“Oh man,” Raf chuckled, smiling again. This time, though, the expression was saddened. “I guess I never told you, Alex. When I really want something, I make it happen. It’s just something I’m good at.”

“That’s a useful skill.” Alex responded. “Is he really that trustworthy?”

His friend blinked, looking surprised. “Yea, dude. He’s totally trustworthy. I’ve been talking to him off and on for like, 200 days or something. I don’t see him too often because he’s always busy, but I managed to catch him during his lunch break and we had a deep, meaningful discussion.”

Alex nodded slowly. “Oh,” was all he said.

“Have you eaten yet today?” Raf asked. The half-Warghan looked over at him briefly before directing his attention elsewhere.

“No,” he replied blandly. His friend stood up immediately, gesturing for him to rise as well. “Can I finish my cig first?” Alex requested with raised eyebrows.

Raf shook his head, “Absolutely not. Let’s go. You can finish it on the way.”

“I don’t like smoking while walking.” Was his stubborn reply.

“Well, there’s no better time to get used to it than now. Let’s go.” Came Raf’s equally stubborn response. Alex let out a loud, long-suffering sigh and stood up, taking one last puff before dropping the lit cigarette on the ground and stomping it out.

Raf grinned, looking highly satisfied, and started walking towards the mess hall. Alex followed after him, his steps heavy with fatigue. He wanted to go to bed. He had been planning on going to bed as soon as he’d finished smoking (even though it had only been going on 18:00 when he’d first come outside for his smoke break).

Oh well, he thought tiredly. I’ll go to bed after.

He had to admit, he was pretty surprised.

It wasn’t necessarily that he’d had absolutely no faith (he had more faith than everyone on that base combined), but rather that Alex had been so depressed, Raf hadn’t thought that it would be possible to get him completely back to normal. Or at least, he hadn’t thought it would be as simple as some medication.

And maybe it wasn’t as simple as some medication. Maybe it was only a temporary fix. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Alex had required counseling or something on top of the medication in order to manage his depression. Raf had never known anyone to be as depressed as Alex had been for the past couple hundred days. It had been painful to watch, and even more agonizing to wonder if there was anything he could do about it.

He’d managed to prevent the guy from being thrown out by making sure to get him up every morning, but his marks had suffered a lot and Raf had had to suck up to a lot of people to keep Alex enlisted. He had spent dozens of days doing everything in his power to keep the higher ups from kicking Alex out – everything from reminding them about how intelligent the guy was and how useful that intelligence could be, to preforming various favors for Sergeant Landau.

So, when Raf woke up late on Sunday (the only day off they ever got) and saw that Alex wasn’t in the dorms, he was immediately curious, if not a bit worried. He made sure to scan every inch of the large warehouse of a room, the corners of his mouth pulling into a frown as he finally made his way outside. It was bright and sunny for a change, so that was nice.

He checked Alex’s usual smoke stop (he still didn’t know how the guy had developed that habit), but nothing. He hadn’t thought for a moment that Alex would be in the mess hall, specifically because he never ate anything unless Raf made him, but there weren’t any other places to look. So, he made his way to the mess hall.

It was pretty noisy in there, as it always was. Several of the guys he knew waved and called out their greetings as he walked into the large room, and he flashed them a grin and waved in reply, even as he was scanning the room for Alex.

Then, he spotted the familiar spark of green, clear on the other side of the room (as usual). His eyes widened slightly, and he started towards his best friend at a brisk pace.

“Hey man,” he greeted, somewhat in awe. Alex looked up at him from where he’d been shoveling pancakes into his mouth, and blinked. They hadn’t seen each other much for a few days, largely because Raf was being called on frequently to do a load of nonsense for all of the people he’d been asking to keep Alex enlisted.

But that was all irrelevant in the moment, because Alex was eating. Without prompting, without nagging, without any form of resistance. And he was eating a healthy amount, too. He wasn’t picking at his food, or staring at it apathetically, or complaining that he wasn’t hungry and didn’t feel like eating. He was just shoveling food into his mouth.

Alex swallowed the evidently very large mouthful he’d been chewing on and smiled at him. Smiled. “Hey, Raf. How goes it?”

Raf almost wanted to sob hysterically or laugh loudly or cheer obnoxiously or all of the above. He grinned instead, holding back the rest of his reactions, lest he embarrass his best friend. “Not much, dude. Hungry?”

Starving.” The green-haired cadet replied as he used his fork to slice into another chunk of pancake. “I feel like I could eat everything in the kitchen right now.”

“You’re gonna get fat if you do that,” Raf teased. “Big, round Alex, who would let me roll him down a hill for fun.”

Alex snorted, “Absolutely. Put a slope on the way and I could do a jump.”

At that, Raf laughed. “Let’s do it. I’ll get you the rest of the kitchen.”

His best friend let out a breath of laughter, shaking his head and shoving another forkful of pancakes into his mouth. Raf really was in awe of what he was seeing. He’d never seen his friend in such a good mood. He’d never seen his eyes so bright, or his smile so wide. He’d never heard such a genuine laugh from him, nor had he ever bantered with him and enjoyed it so much. Lately, half the time Alex didn’t respond to his jokes and quips at all. So for him to be as engaged as he was, as happy as he was…

It was really, really nice.

“Are you gonna eat?” Alex asked, drawing him out of his thoughts. He blinked, slightly surprised by the question, and smiled.

“Of course,” he replied with a wink, standing up again. “Be right back.”

Alex nodded, but didn’t say anything as he shoveled more food into his mouth. Raf was almost at a loss for words regarding his friend’s mental state. He sort of wanted to ask about it, but at the same time, he didn’t feel like it was necessary. The fact that Alex was eating and smiling and enjoying banter with Raf said enough all by itself.

Apparently, those antidepressants Sven had recommended had really done the trick. They were working much better than Raf had anticipated, and he was thankful for it. He had done hours of research, spent too much time talking to people he barely knew, interrogated so many on-base nurses and doctors, and had consultations with psychiatrists and psychologists off the base.

He had done a lot. He had no intention of telling Alex how much he’d done, because he was sure that it would make the guy feel amazingly guilty, and that was the last thing he wanted. He hoped that his friend never found out how far he’d gone to keep him enlisted and get him mentally healthy. He didn’t want him to feel indebted. Alex had bad enough trust issues as it was; he didn’t need to start thinking that Raf had done all of those things so he’d owe the brunet a favor.

When he returned to the table, Alex was still waiting for him, and he’d already finished his breakfast and dealt with his tray. The green-haired cadet smiled at him in greeting, and he returned the gesture.

They were quiet for only a short while before Alex spoke. “Hey, Raf.”

“Hmm?” The brunet replied around a mouthful of toast.

His friend chuckled, and continued. “I just wanted to say… thanks. You’ve done a lot. I really appreciate it. I don’t think I could put how thankful I am in words. You’re a bro.”

Raf stared at him for a long moment, eyes wide. Then, he swallowed the mouthful of toast he’d been chewing and grinned broadly. “Dude, of course. You don’t even have to thank me. I meant it when I said we were friends, and I look out for my friends.”

Alex smiled again, almost shyly. “I’ve never had a friend before.” He said quietly.

“Well,” Raf immediately responded. “I guess I’m gonna have to teach you the ropes.”

Alex laughed at that, and it brought a brighter smile to the brunet’s face. Raf was beyond ecstatic that he could talk to the green-haired cadet without feeling like he was annoying him or harassing him. He had basically forced himself upon the guy from the start, and he’d been consistently pestering him to keep him healthy and enlisted. If Alex had had his way, he would’ve starved to death a long time ago because he would never have gotten out of bed.

More important that any of that, though, was the fact that his best friend was happy. Things could only get better from there.

The first thing he noticed, was that the color was wrong. It was as though he were wearing red-tinted glasses. Everything was shaded the color of blood, and there weren’t any particular features around him that formed any solid objects. Was he dreaming? Was that what was going on? He frowned, looking around at his surroundings. He wasn’t entirely sure where he was.

It was like a red sheet of paper. His hands felt like they were thousands of miles away. His head was buzzing and his mouth was dry. He looked around, confused and nervous, clenching and unclenching his fists. He didn’t know what was going on, but he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it.

Then, the haze cleared somewhat. The red color shifted, turning darker in some spots, a little brighter in others, as visible shapes began to form. It was an office he was standing in. There was a familiar woman sitting at the large desk, typing away at her computer. He recognized her. He realized where he was. He felt sick.

Mrs. Hawthorne turned to him and scowled. A burst of anxiety shot through him, and in a sense it sort of infuriated him. He wasn’t her charge anymore. He was a soldier. He wasn’t scared of her. He wasn’t scared of her. He wasn’t scared of her. He wasn’t-…

She stood up and stalked around her desk, and he instinctively flinched backwards. The disapproving look in her eyes only intensified as she grabbed his shoulder with a bruising grip. He pulled back automatically, but she only increased her crushing grip and yanked him forward.

“I’m disappointed in you, Alex,” she hissed, marching him across her sizable office. He didn’t know why he wasn’t resisting. He couldn’t get his body to move the way he was telling it to. She walked him over to the door to the basement, pulled it open, and tugged him along down the stairs.

“What are you talking about?” His voice was small, and it didn’t really sound like his own. He wasn’t sure why. It just sounded wrong. “What did I do?”

On the other side of the nearly pitch black basement, she threw open the door to solitary and shoved him inside.

“Dishonorable discharge, Alex,” she snarled furiously. “What did you think you did?”

His stomach dropped as she slammed the door in his face, and he heard the familiar sound of the padlock being latched on the other side. In solitary, it was completely black. It was completely silent. He hated it. He’d been thrown in solitary only a handful of times, but he hated it. Being so completely alone, in such total silence, was the most terrifying thing Mrs. Hawthorne could do to him.

His eyes were burning. He wanted to wake up. He knew he was dreaming. He had to be. He was a soldier, a cadet, enlisted in the army. His best friend’s name was Raf. He wasn’t alone anymore. He was doing alright. He was fine. He wasn’t in Kneller’s anymore. He wasn’t in Kneller’s anymore.

Something wet and slimy wrapped around his ankle and he made a sound that he wasn’t sure he could’ve described in words. Everything was bleeding back into red, and he didn’t want to look down to see what was touching him. A tremor was starting in his shoulders and spreading throughout his whole body as he struggled to regulate his breathing and wake himself up.

Alex,” He heard a vaguely familiar voice coming from the floor below him, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “Alex…”

Look at me, love,” the voice continued, and he was relatively certain that he was either going to throw up or hyperventilate as he slowly looked down at the ground by his feet.

The floor was completely black, as though there wasn’t a floor at all. He could see a white hand wrapped around his leg, rotted to the bone in some places. Black claws dug into his skin, drawing blood, and he winced at the pain. He wanted to take a step back and try to pull himself free but he was rooted to the spot.

Another hand shot up out of the blackness below him and grabbed his wrist, pulling hard. He resisted, panic spreading through him, and the thing used him as leverage to haul itself up out of the darkness.

Completely black eyes, hair falling out in patches, rotting flesh, maggots crawling out of open sores and festering wounds, and a wide, ugly smile filled with broken teeth greeted him. She giggled, the sound wet with the blood that spilled out of her mouth. His heart stopped, and somehow, he recognized her.

“Your mother, Kaelyn Grimminger, has been killed in action.”

I’m so disappointed in you…”

Alex sat up with a start, eyes wide. He pressed a hand over his mouth in an effort to contain the urge to vomit. He took in several shaky breaths, swallowing hard, and looked around. It was still really dark in the dorm. No one was awake yet. He didn’t know what time it was, but it couldn’t be later than 2:00. How long had he slept?

He leaned forward, resisting the urge to draw his knees to his head, and rubbed his forehead to combat the pounding in his head. He wanted a cigarette, so he swung his legs out of bed, quietly pulling on the nearest pair of pants he could find in the darkness. He then grabbed his package of cigarettes and lighter from the bag under his bed and carefully made his way through the darkened warehouse of a room.

“Oi.”

Alex very nearly jumped out of his skin at the random voice that spoke up. Then, he recalled that he was on a base and there were guards in some of the most ridiculous places, such as the doors on the way out of the dorms. He directed his attention towards the small light source to the right of the door, where the two guards had a table and a pair of chairs to lounge in. They were supposed to stand around the door, but when the Sergeant wasn’t around, they didn’t bother.

“Where are you headed?” One of them asked somewhat suspiciously. Alex resisted the urge to sigh loudly as he held up the package of cigarettes he’d been carrying.

“Smoke break,” he clarified. The guard frowned at him and glanced at his partner. The partner shrugged disinterestedly.

“Alright,” the first one waved him off. “Go on. Don’t take too long.”

“Yea.” He replied tiredly, letting his arm drop and quietly exiting the large building.

The outside air was crisp and cool. He shivered, wishing he’d had the common sense to grab at least a shirt. He also wished it was later. If ever there had been a time that he wanted to talk to Raf, right then was that time. He could use the distraction. It was easier for him to censor his thoughts when he had someone to talk to.

He took a drag, and then another, and then another, essentially inhaling the entire cigarette in only a few moments. He’d have one more and then try to get in another hour or so of sleep before he had to get up. He repeated the same action – pull out cigarette, light cigarette, inhale cigarette in a single drag – twice, before he realized that he’d smoked three cigarettes in less than half an hour.

He stopped himself from pulling out a fourth as he stamped out the third, and headed back inside. He felt a fair amount better, if not slightly high from the amount of nicotine he’d just consumed. Once he had gotten into it, his bed seemed exceptionally comfortable and warm, especially after being out in the chilly air with practically no clothes on.

It took him a bit longer to fall back asleep than he would’ve liked, but he eventually managed to find comfort and drift back off to sleep.

I’m so disappointed in you…”

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