In Which There Is a Reunion
A group of people had congregated around the docks, awaiting the arrival of the airships. A young boy stood with his parents, blue eyes fixed on the sky, fidgeting impatiently. His mother laid hand on his shoulder, but he brushed it away. Then, he saw them, four red airships flying through the sky towards the crowd.
“Look! There they are! They’re here!” he cried, pointing at the vehicles. A moment later, he’d taken off through the crowd, squirming between people as he struggled to reach the front.
Torn felt the familiar lurch as the airship began its decent and reached down to grab his pack from its place on the floor. Hefting the heavy bag in one hand, Torn rose, one hand braced against the wall of the airship.
“What are you doing?” another boy asked. “You’re not supposed to be standing when we land. It’s dangerous!”
Torn rolled his eyes and walked, somewhat unsteadily, towards the window at the back of the airship. There wasn’t much to see, just Haven’s walls and the water of the port. Still, it was better than the boring interior of the transport. The airship shuddered once and Torn staggered, momentarily thrown off balance.
“See?” the other boy insisted. “It’s not safe! Now sit down.”
Sighing with resignation, Torn slipped back to his spot on the bench, purposely elbowing the boy in the ribs as he sat once more. He dropped his pack to the floor where it landed with a reverberating thump and used his legs to tuck it safely away under the bench again. He took a moment to look at the other nine occupants of the transport. They’d spent the last two months together at one of the Krimzon Guard training camps. Most of them he’d met before, during previous years, but there’d been a couple new faces this time out. The camps were popular with slummer families because they were cheap; most parents sent their kids to them to get whipped into shape. It was a good deal for both parties, the KG could identify possible recruits at an early age, and the families had somewhere to send their children for the summer. Torn had started going when he was ten – four years ago. He’d reached a conclusion this summer, but wasn’t at all sure about how it would go over with his parents. He was going to enlist.
The engines of the airship slowed and the transport spun around, the view from the back window changing from one of the city wall to the group of people gathered on the port. The transport docked and, with a slight hiss, the back door swung down forming a ramp. Torn reached beneath his seat and yanked his pack out once more. He stood and slung the bag quickly over his shoulders, grunting slightly at the weight on his back. His eyes scanned quickly through the crowd as he reached the top of the ramp, searching for one particular figure. There. Squinting into the sun, one hand shielding his eyes was Ripp.
Torn’s travelling companions were beginning to move, some of them heading down to the group of people ahead of him. He hung back a little, watching and waiting, pale eyes trained on his brother. The opening he’d been hoping for presented itself soon enough. Ripp turned and looked over his shoulder into the crowd of people, just for a moment. Torn picked that moment to strike. He darted down the ramp and seized Ripp in a headlock, ruffling his hair mercilessly.
“Hey, you little monster, how’s it hangin’?”
Ripp let out a shocked squeal. “Torn, lemme go! Lemme go!” he cried, struggling against the headlock “Come on, no fair!”
Laughing, Torn released him and was almost immediately seized around the middle in a tight hug. He grinned and hugged his brother back. “I missed you, sport.”
Ripp’s only response was to cling tighter, arms squeezing Torn’s sides, face pressed so hard against Torn’s chest that it almost hurt.
“Ripp! There you are!” Both boys looked up at the sound of their mother’s voice. The woman was gently pushing her way through the group of people, her husband in tow. “Don’t you run off like that again, young man.”
Torn held out a placating hand. “Mom, he’s just a kid.”
She huffed at that statement, crossing her arms under her breasts. “All the more reason to keep him supervised. Ripp’s too young to go running off through crowds like that. What if someone had kidnapped him?”
“And what a shame that would’ve been,” Torn’s father said, tone half sarcastic. “Torn’s right, Juska. Besides, Ripp’s fine.”
The woman sighed. “I suppose you’re right, Simius.” She sighed once more before looking at Torn. “How was it?”
Torn released Ripp and made a noncommittal hand flick. “Ah…y’know. Same old, same old. The instructors were hard-asses, the food was terrible and the guys I was rooming with wouldn’t shut up.” He laughed dryly at the look on his mother’s face. “I’m kidding, Mom. It was great.” He grinned. “Erol hurt himself this year. It was hilarious. He tripped over this log and sprained his ankle. You should’ve seen the look on his face. It was priceless.” He broke of as he noticed Juska watching him. “What?”
She held her arms out. “I believe you owe me something.”
Torn sighed melodramatically. “Oh fine.” And he stepped forward to embrace his mother. When he broke away he was almost immediately caught around the shoulders in a hug from his father. “Hey, Dad.” He slung his arm similarly around his father’s shoulders and gave him a quick squeeze. It was then that he noticed the way his mother was looking at him. “Mom, what?”
Her expression was appraising. “You’ve grown,” she said, “quite a lot too.”
“Oh. Well if that’s all…” Torn rolled his eyes. The way she’d been looking at him, anyone would have thought that he’d sprouted an extra head over the summer. He looked around; the crowd already seemed to be thinning as families left. “We’re not going to hang around here all day, are we? I’m kinda ready to go home.”
Simius and Juska exchanged looks.
“What? I am.” Torn paused and looked at Ripp, catching him by the back of the shirt so he could give his hair another furious ruffling. “I need to make sure that the little terror here hasn’t gone messing around with my stuff."
Ripp turned around and stuck his tongue out at Torn. “I didn’t touch your stupid stuff. It’s probably all dusty and gross now cause no one’s touched it in so long and you’re not around to clean it.”
Torn smirked and gave the seven-year-old a gentle punch in the shoulder. “Well, one thing certainly hasn’t changed while I’ve been gone.”
“What?” Ripp asked.
“You’re still a terrible liar.”
Ripp pouted. An action with earned him further hair mussing, which, in turn, only led to an even sulkier look. Torn looked at his parents rather hopefully.
“So we can go now, right?”
Simius chuckled. “Yes, we certainly can. I can take your bag, if you--”
“Thanks but I’ve got it,” Torn interrupted quickly. The last thing he wanted was his father commenting on the weight and asking awkward follow-up questions about the contents of his pack. He wasn’t sure how to answer them yet. He also hadn’t come up with a good way to tell his parents about his interest in enlisting in the KG; Simius would likely be all for it, but Juska… Torn shuddered to think what her reaction would be, but that would be a bridge he’d cross later. There were other things to worry about first.
When the family got home, the brothers headed straight up to Torn’s room, Ripp taking a seat on the bed while Torn closed the door behind him. The teen flicked the lights on, then seemed to change his mind and flipped the switch off once more. He slipped his pack off, holding it in one hand as he walked to the middle of his room. He set his bag slowly on the floor, taking care not to make it rattle or thump too loudly and attract the attention of his parents. Torn shook his hand a couple times after he set the bag down, grimacing.
“Damn that’s heavy.” He dropped to the floor, motioning for Ripp to join him. “C’mere. I’ve got something cool to show you.”
Ripp was quick enough to hop off the bed and take up a seat on the floor. He leaned forward expectantly, looking at Torn.
“You’ve got to promise not to tell though, alright? It’s a secret. For the moment.”
Ripp nodded enthusiastically. “I promise. On my honour. And if I ever tell, may I be eaten by a crocadog and my remains burned in the Precursor fires of creation. May a metalhead stomp upon the ashes and--” His oath was broken by Torn leaning forward and flicking him in the forehead.
“Enough. You promised. Good enough for me. Besides, temporary secrets don’t need oaths.” He couldn’t help laughing at the disappointed look on Ripp’s face, then he grinned and raised a finger to his lips. “Quiet, okay?”
Ripp clapped both hands over his mouth and nodded. Torn merely rolled his eyes and reached for his bag. He dragged it closer and hunted around for the pull tab on the zipper for a moment. That done, Torn opened the bag, grinning.
There was a little bit of light coming in through his curtains, but otherwise Torn’s room was barely lit, allowing the strange yellow glow coming from his bag to be easily seen. Nestled neatly inside his backpack were forty-seven metalhead skull gems. A gasp whistled in between Ripp’s fingers.
“What are they?” he breathed.
Torn reached into the bag and withdrew one of the gems. “Metalhead skull gems. These babies just pop out when a metalhead dies. Here, hold out your hands.”
Ripp obediently offered Torn his hands, palm up. His small fingers curled around the gem and his arms sagged slightly under the weight of the jewel. “Cool.”
“I know, right? And they’re valuable too. Good thing or I’d probably never be able to get into the academy.”
Ripp nearly dropped the skull gem. “What? But what about med school?”
Torn shrugged. “I changed my mind.” He reached out to take the gem away from Ripp, who sighed in disappointment. “Sorry, kiddo, but you can’t keep it. I’m going to need them. However…” Torn began feeling the other pockets on his backpack before choosing one to unzip. “This you do get to keep.” He withdrew something and pressed it into Ripp’s still outstretched hands.
Ripp picked it up, wrinkling his nose. “Is this a necklace?” he asked in a flat voice as he examined the present. It was a light grey fang attached to a silver chain. Torn looked sheepish and reached out to ruffle Ripp’s hair. Ripp yelped and batted his brother’s hands away. “Quit it! Why do you keep doing that?”
“Because I haven’t been able to do it all summer. Obviously.” He made a face like he was trying very hard to be serious and failing. “Don’t make that face at your present. That’s a manly piece of jewelry.”
Ripp let out a snort of laughter. “But it’s a necklace!” He grinned and lifted up the fang to better examine it. “What kind of tooth is this anyway?”
“Metalhead canine from a grunt. It’s from the first one I killed.”
“What?” Ripp’s eyes were wide; his was voice little more than an awed whisper.
Torn nodded grimly. “There were a lot in the area this year. It was bad. You remember when I was telling Mom about Erol?” He waited for Ripp’s nod before continuing. “Yeah, at the time, it really wasn’t that funny. We were doing one of those stupid navigation race things. It was an overnight one. You know what I’m talking about, right?”
Ripp nodded. “That thing where you’re in pairs and you have to try and get to a certain spot before the other groups. Right?”
It was Torn’s turn to nod. “Yeah. That. Anyway,” he stretched and winced slightly, hand going to his right shoulder, “This one was a supposed to take us a couple days, so there was some overnight stuff. It must’ve been about one in the morning, I was on watch for the second time; it was Erol’s turn to sleep. And then that thing found us.”
Ripp was leaning forward; eyes fixed upon his brother, the white of his teeth just visible where he was biting his lip, his hands unconsciously clenched around the necklace he still held.
“I woke Erol up and we ran like hell, friggin’ heavy packs and everything. And then he tripped. And it was one of the scariest moments of my life. He was reaching for his pistol, foot trapped by the log, and he was screaming… And that thing kept coming, charging towards us, its eyes and gem glowing like Mar forsaken beacons in that damn dark forest.” Torn paused and shuddered. “I nearly let it have him.”
Ripp gasped. His hands had gone white and were shaking slightly as he stared at Torn, a mixture of fear and morbid curiosity in his eyes. “And then what happened…?”
“I turned to run. But I couldn’t do it. Not when he was screaming like that. So I grabbed my own pistol and fired. I missed. Three times. My hands were shaking so bad. Then I finally hit it. I emptied the rest of my clip before I decided it was really dead.” Torn sighed. “So then I pulled the gem out and took that fang. And then we ran. And we didn’t stop for anything. I had Erol’s pack on top of mine and I barely felt it. He didn’t even realize that his ankle hurt until after we got back. It wasn’t funny at the time, but since we were both okay, we could look back on it and laugh…”
The younger boy was awestruck. He stared at the necklace in his hands. And then, in a voice so quiet it was barely audible, he said, “But that was only one…”
“Yeah, it was. A few days later they ambushed the camp. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that metalheads are mindless monsters. Cause they’re not. I was terrified. But I kept shooting. And then one bit me. I thought I was going to die right there. I was so… All I could think about was you, and Mom, and Dad, and how I couldn’t die there.” He gave his head a shake. “Since then, I’ve been thinking. “I didn’t like it, but it felt right. What I was doing, it was getting easier… there was less hesitation. I was still scared out of my mind, but I knew what to do. And I think that’s a big part of what being in the Krimzon Guard’s about. Not being fearless, but knowing what to do through that fear. I think it’s where I belong.”
Ripp stared at him. His lower lip quivered and his hands still shook. His nostrils flared as he tried to regain some semblance of control over his breathing. Torn sighed and held out his arms.
Ripp practically leapt into his lap, burying his face in Torn’s shoulder. His small hands grabbed fistfuls of Torn’s long hair as his arms encircled the teen’s neck. Torn simply held the boy, cheek resting against Ripp’s head.
They stayed that way for a while before Ripp suddenly straightened up and Torn was surprised to note that there were no tear tracks on his cheeks. It seemed that a thought had just occurred to Ripp.
“Where’d you get bit?”
Torn laughed and disentangled himself from his brother, pulling the right sleeve of his shirt up so his bicep was visible. There were long puckered red marks on the skin there and it didn’t look at all like a proper bite mark. “It barely grazed me. Nearly healed now. The councilor who patched me up said the scars should fade away pretty fast; they’ll be gone by the time I’m twenty.”
Ripp nodded absently. “So… You’re sure you want to join the guard?”
“Yeah. And look on the bright side,” Torn said giving Ripp’s hair yet another affectionate ruffling, “You can use that med school fund Mom and Dad have set up, if you keep going the way you are, you’ll probably make better use of it than I would. Besides, all those summers at the camp can be put towards my tuition, and with the gems… I should be pretty well covered.”
Again, Ripp nodded. He slid his arms from around Torn’s neck and looked at the necklace, still clutched in his hand.
“See? Everything’s going to work out fine.” Torn smiled and gently pried Ripp’s hand open, taking the necklace. “Here, let’s see how this looks on you.” Without waiting for permission, he reached around Ripp’s neck and, after fumbling with the clasp for a moment, had it securely fastened. “What do you think?”
Ripp took the fang in his hand and examined it. “I think I like it.”
That night at dinner, Torn picked at his food, despite his hunger. He was still figuring out how to mention his changed career path. It wasn’t something he could put off for too long. His answers to his parents’ probing questions were monosyllabic and usually preceded by a surprised “What?”
“Torn, is something wrong?” Juska asked, noticing the way he was watching his half eaten steak.
“Mm? What? Oh. Just thinking,” he replied, not bothering to look up.
“Haven’t you ever heard of multitasking, Torn? You can eat and think at the same time,” Simius chided, reaching across the table for a second helping of salad.
“Leave him alone, he’s got a lot on his mind,” Ripp piped up. He was quickly silenced by a pointed look from his father and grabbed his glass of milk, cowering slightly.
Abruptly, Torn threw his fork down, sending it clattering to his plate to join his half eaten dinner. He stood, his chair screeching against the floor. His jaw was set, eyes determined.
“I’m going to join the Krimzon Guard,” he announced, folding his arms over his chest, daring his parents to argue the point. For a moment, the kitchen was dead silent.
Simius spoke first, just ahead of his wife. “Wonderful! That’s my boy!”
Juska’s horrified cry, however, nearly drowned out his words. “Absolutely not! I won’t stand for it.
Simius grimaced, enthusiasm suddenly culled. “Torn, as proud as I would be to have my son in the guard, we need to think realistically here. We don’t have the kind of money to put you in the academy. We can’t just use your med school fund because you’ve changed your mind for the moment.”
Torn nodded. He’d anticipated this. As slummers they were fairly well off, but they were still slummers, barely above Haven’s poverty line. The reality of their financial situation was one that he was all too familiar with. He cringed inwardly, thinking of how bad things had been before – when Ripp had been born.
Juska’s already weak immune system had begun to fail her shortly before giving birth to Ripp, forcing her to quit her job. The loss of Juska’s income had put a strain on everything and her health had continued to decline. There had been the hope that once Ripp was born, she would begin to get better, but she didn’t. The medication she’d needed had been expensive, throwing the family far behind on rent. They’d barely avoided eviction. Simius had worked day and night; Juska had been in and out of the hospital, leaving Torn alone as the infant Ripp’s caregiver.
Torn had nearly had to leave second grade as he struggled with the sudden burden of parental responsibility. He couldn’t go to class, instead he relied on Erol to bring his schoolwork and explain the new information that had been covered in class. On weekends Erol would drop by to relieve Torn and give him a chance to do anything from catching up on sleep to running quick errands.
The memories of that time still haunted Torn. He had no desire to send his family back to that. Ever. He’d have to show the ace up his sleeve or risk losing his chance of ever going to the academy.
“I can pay for some of it. Most of it. Maybe even all of it.”
Simius snorted. “Torn, do you have any idea how expensive a private school like the academy is?” His words were reinforced by Juska’s emphatic nodding. “There’s no way you’ve got enough to pay for it.”
Near silently, unnoticed by his parents, Ripp slipped off his chair and crept out of the kitchen. When he returned moments later he had one of Torn’s skull gems clutched in his hands. This, he lay in the middle of the table before taking his seat once more.
Torn’s hand met his forehead while his parents gaped open mouthed at the item that now lay in the middle of their kitchen table. Torn winked once at Ripp, to ensure that the younger boy knew that he wasn’t mad at him, as he waited for his parents to digest the sight before them. He allowed them a couple minutes before he decided to speak.
“I don’t just mean to pay with one; I’ve got a whole load more upstairs.” He paused, then added, “Think they’d accept straight gems, or would it be better to take them to a jeweler first?”
Simius turned his granite eyes upon Torn, as though he were only just seeing him properly. “You have more of these?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but Juska cut him off. She stood, slamming a hand to the tabletop. “I don’t care how many he has! He’s not going! I won’t allow it! My son is not going to become some expendable military dog to follow our ruler’s very whim!”
Torn scowled, his eyebrows drawing together in the middle. “It’s my choice, dammit! This is the only part of my life I get to control, don’t you dare try to tell me what I can and cannot do with it!”
“Why you--” That was as far as Juska got. Colour drained from her face and she started to shake before she collapsed back into her chair. A horrified Torn clapped his hands over his mouth, eyes wide.
“Ripp, Torn, out!” Simius bellowed at his sons. Ripp had bolted in an instant. Torn lingered for a moment, taking longer to leave the kitchen, he watched over his shoulder as Simius hovered nervously over Juska’s pale form.
He bit his lip as he left, following Ripp to his brother’s room. He should’ve known better than to get his mother riled up. He did know better… Pushing the door to Ripp’s room open wider, Torn slipped inside.
Ripp jumped off his bed and hastily grabbed a red-stained shirt from its spot on the floor and tossed it into his laundry hamper. Torn didn’t pay this action any attention. He dropped to the floor, back against the wall and drew his knees up to his chest.
“Oh, I’ve killed her,” Torn groaned. “I’m such an idiot…”
“No you’re not,” Ripp said.
Torn stared up at the ceiling, shaking his head slightly. “She’s gonna get sick again. And it’s gonna be my fault this time.” He was slightly surprised when Ripp burrowed against him, pressing up close. One of his small hands found its way into Torn’s, squeezing slightly. His gaze was unfocused and when he spoke his voice was soft. “It won’t be your fault. It’ll be hers for overreacting.”
Torn opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and watched his little brother for a moment. He tugged his hand out of Ripp’s and stretched out his legs, pulling Ripp into his lap.
“Who said you were allowed to get so mature?”
Ripp laid his head against Torn’s chest, running a finger along the collar of his brother’s shirt. He shrugged once. “No one. But someone’s got to tell you not to worry and stuff… And I can do that. So don’t worry.”
Torn let out a wry laugh. “I wish it was that easy, Ripp. I really do. You’re too little to remember, but… Every time Mom needs medicine, I get scared that we’ll wind up like we were before, like we were when you were born.”
Ripp’s hand worked its way to Torn’s arm and gave it a squeeze. Torn looked down into Ripp’s blue eyes, so like his own and gripped him in a tight embrace. He was shaking, and he knew Ripp could feel his trembling limbs, but he didn’t care. He didn’t know why he felt on the verge of tears, or why he’d suddenly hugged Ripp the way he did, all he knew was that it felt undeniably right.