Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
They didn’t beat Adrian’s group to the end, but it didn’t matter. Theirs was the only group that managed to negotiate the course with every member of the squad having participated in the exercise. Taylor made sure of it. It was laborious at first, but after Eddie managed to teach Taylor his method—a task that was sheer comedy to witness as he tripped over himself in such close quarters— the two of them managed to keep the class moving, each cadet taking their turn as their friends laughed and joked and shared advice behind them.
Kazen smiled. It might have been the first time he or any of the others had actually enjoyed their training. Dinner had followed its normal brisk form, but even in the midst of the rush there had been room to gloat. Adrian’s group had been made to backtrack through the course, closing all the holes they’d left open behind them, only to repeat the exercise, while their group had been dismissed early to enjoy a few minutes rest in the IB before dinner. He felt a little bad for Mal, dragged through the ordeal through no real fault of her own.
Now she sat across from him at a table in the study room, exhausted.
“Maybe I should have said something.”
“What could you do? It’s not like anyone was actually in charge. There was no jump leader. They haven’t even picked the groups yet.”
She shook her head and frowned.
“I’m not so sure about that. Have you read the academy manual yet?”
“The whole thing?”
“Most of it.”
Mallory leaned forward.
“Kelly Company is a hundred and twenty cadets. They had us divided into ten groups of twelve. That’s the exact same size as a fighting unit.”
Kazen scrunched up his nose.
“Eww. That would mean you’re in the same jump as Grath.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Maybe it’s just for practice. You know, so we get used to the structure.”
“I hope so.”
She looked glum. Kazen looked across the little room. Taylor was there, across from Eddie. They were recapping the day’s lesson. They were all tired, but she insisted on the extra study. Kazen smiled inwardly at the two of them. She didn’t know how to slow down, and Eddie was going out of his mind keeping pace.
Mallory cracked a little smile and whispered.
“He still hasn’t given up.”
“He’s working harder now than he ever has in his life. She’s a good influence.”
“I’m more worried about the influence he’ll have on her.”
Kazen shook his head with a chuckle.
“No way. She’s a rock. Probably already flagged for jump leader.”
Mallory went quiet. Kazen paused.
She took a breath, letting go of whatever it was.
Kazen had known her too long to fall for that.
“Come on. What is it?”
She shook her head, bringing up her hand. She regarded the Double-F on her finger with disappointment.
“I’m just a little frustrated. All through high school I never had to struggle like this.”
She leaned back.
“I guess I’m just used to being top of the class.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
She gave him a sceptical look. He went on.
“I mean it. None of us are used to this. Almost nobody passes the test for military service. Not a single one of us was prepared.”
“Except for Taylor.”
“Except for Taylor.”
“You seem to be doing fine.”
“Are you kidding? I barely got through that last exercise. Besides, you said you did fine once Adrian backed off. Right?”
She nodded grudgingly. Kazen leaned forward.
“Mallory, you’re the smartest person I know. So you’re a little out of your element. We all are. But give yourself some credit. There’s no one I trust to succeed more than you.”
She perked up a little at that.
“You mean it?”
“Sure. You used to tutor Eddie and I all the time, remember? If you hadn’t we never would have made it through school.”
“Well, it looks like you don’t need my help anymore.”
Kazen shook his head.
“I got lucky.”
“You have a gift.”
He reached forward and pointed at her forehead.
“So do you.”
“What do you suppose they’re talking about?”
“I don’t know. Probably the exercise.”
Eddie craned his neck.
“Doesn’t look like the exercise to me.”
“Then you shouldn’t be eavesdropping.”
Taylor put a hand and grabbed his chin. She turned his head back to the table. He zoned out. It wasn’t the first time. He’d been doing his best not to break out in a cold sweat from the moment they’d sat down.
It was actually kind of cute.
Unfortunately it was also getting in the way of their studies. She’d managed to get through the PTE, but she hadn’t exactly distinguished herself.
It was unacceptable.
She didn’t have any illusions about being the best in every aspect of military work. People didn’t work that way. The military didn’t work that way either, but that exercise hadn’t been some specialized training course. It was a basic lesson, and she’d struggled to accomplish it. She was still struggling with it.
She hadn’t been working hard enough.
That was going to change starting tonight, and if this man could help her get over even one of those hurdles, she was willing to tolerate a few awkward conversations.
She snapped a finger in front of his face and he recovered himself. She turned back to the manual open in front of her. They’d given them out at the end of the exercise in yet another breach of ordinary protocol. Classroom materials were supposed to be given out before exercises in conjunction with classroom lectures prior to any practical training.
Eddie looked at the book. It was late and he was starting to falter over the text.
He rubbed his eyes.
“It would be easier to just show you.”
She shook her head.
“It’s against SOP to use magic in the dorms.”
“What does that even mean!”
She gave him a flat look.
“It stands for ‘standard operating procedure.’ We’ve been here for a week and you don’t even know that?”
“Procedure is overrated.”
“You’re in the military!”
He held up a finger.
“True. But we’re supposed to be adaptable, right? Improvise? That’s a military thing.”
He leaned forward.
“Come on. You want to study. I want to help you. Why can’t we have a little fun along the way?”
Like she said. Cute.
She cracked a smile in spite of herself.
“Alright,” she said. “We’ll use the table.”
“Okay. Give me your hand.”
Kazen shut off the light.
“Quite a day.”
“Is it true we have tomorrow off?”
“Six days on; one day off, at least according to Taylor.”
Eddie groaned as he lay down.
“It’s probably true then, but I’m too tired to stay up.”
Kazen lay down as well.
“Speaking of Taylor…”
“You two seemed to be getting along alright.”
His friend grumbled.
“Don’t remind me. That girl is all business.”
“Really? I thought I saw you holding hands.”
“We were practicing fabrication.”
“In the IB? Isn’t that against regulations?”
“I was able to convince her.”
“You’re a bad influence.”
“Was it at least productive?”
“Well, maybe that’s a start.”
He heard Eddie sit up.
“I guess I’m used to faster women.”
“I’m sure there are some around.”
Eddie shook his head.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m up for that.”
Kazen sat up.
“You really are smitten aren’t you?”
He had to stop himself laughing.
“Maybe she’ll turn out to be a good influence on you after all.”
“Mal and I were talking about it.”
“Yeah? How’s she doing?”
“A little frustrated. Thinks she should be doing better.”
“In three weeks she’ll be so far ahead they’ll have to bump her to second year.”
“That’s what I told her.”
Eddie lay back down.
“She’ll certainly have an easier time of it than me.”
Kazen lifted an eyebrow.
“I figured you’d have more confidence after today.”
“Maybe, but not enough. I can already see it. Crappy results on the live-fire exercise and a knack for fabrication. I’ve got initiator written all over me.”
“What’s wrong with that? You heard what they said. The military couldn’t function without initiators.”
“Yeah, but you don’t exactly hear them talking about their high-ranking initiator friends.”
“The instructor today was a major, and since when have you cared about rank?”
Eddie rolled over without answering. Kazen didn’t press. Eddie could be a pretty private guy when something was bothering him. He would talk when he was ready. Kazen frowned.
And the day had started out so well.
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