The somewhat old-fashioned clarion call that signalled the beginning of the day rang out loud and defiant. Kenneth, never a heavy sleeper, was up, brushed up, dressed and ready for breakfast before most of the other trainees in the barracks had even moved out from under their blankets. He sat on the edge of his bunk, fingers tapping so impatiently and quickly on the mattress that a few of them were beginning to poke new holes through the cover.
Oliver was the first of his two friends to be ready. Kenneth was almost always impressed with just how disciplined and dedicated Oliver was; the guy was a natural fit for the military life, which made it all the more tragic that he was a Dudder as well. Still, Oliver was no pushover; even now, after the few weeks of combat and weapon training that the troops had gone through, Oliver could still occasionally beat Kenneth in a one-on-one fight with Kenneth using his abilities.
“You may be fast, but you’re still too predictable, friend,” he would say in those moments. He hadn’t had as many opportunities to say those words in the more recent days though.
Kenneth greeted him as he walked past Kenneth’s bunk.
“Is Anthony ready yet?” asked Oliver.
Kenneth shook his head. “You’d think he would have adjusted to the routine by now, but he still has the odd late morning or two.”
“There’s still plenty of time for him to adjust though,” said Oliver calmly, “I wouldn’t worry. Ah, there he is!”
The two of them walked over to Anthony, who was still fiddling around with his cap. As he saw them approach, he broke into a wide grin.
“Good morning, boys! Didn’t keep you waiting long, did I?”
“You always keep me waiting a long time, Anthony,” cracked Kenneth, “But it wasn’t so bad today, I think.”
“Let’s go before the good rations are snatched up, shall we?” asked Oliver.
The three of them briskly jogged over to the canteen hall. The morning was still in the process of slipping off its own blanket, so the sky was a deep, enigmatic blue. A fine mist hung around in the air, the little droplets of water tickling their faces as they proceeded along the well-trodden path to the hall.
“I hope Mortanny’s going to be warmer than this when we finally get there,” muttered Anthony.
“It’s not that cold, Anthony,” said Kenneth.
“Well, not all of us can take a pause every now and then to quickly jog in place and warm themselves up like you, Kenneth,” accused Anthony, more jokingly than not.
“True, I guess beaming yourself won’t really have the same effect, would it,” pondered Kenneth.
“I can’t control them that precisely, so no, I’d rather not blow a hole through my stomach just to stay warm, thank you very much,” said Anthony, the sarcasm slicing through the misty air, “I’ve never been a fan of this part of the year for this very reason. You’d think, with all the factories and industrial districts in the city, that the place could heat up a bit more.”
“Most of Anglos is a lot like here, climate wise,” said Oliver, “so it’s probably going to be just as cold over there, Anthony. Better get used to it.”
“Blegh,” said Anthony, wiping the thin layer of water that had collected on his lips.
The rations at the camp left a lot to be desired in terms of flavour, but at least they were warm. They also had that peculiar ability of not becoming progressively worse with each serving, but instead spiralling into a sort of mediocre blandness that was neither offensive nor particularly attractive. It just was, whatever the menu for the day happened to be.
“Sergeant Chambers said the new recruits would be joining our platoon today,” said Oliver as he munched away at his bread bun.
“The more powers we have, the merrier, I’d say,” said Anthony, “No offense, Oliver.”
“Some taken, Anthony. Some taken,” said Oliver, in a tone of voice that left Anthony in plenty of doubt as to how hurt his friend actually was.
“Powers or not, we’ll need all the help we can get,” said Kenneth, who was trying very hard not to speed eat his way through his food. It wasn’t that his body couldn’t handle the rapid influx of nutrition; it was more that if he ate too quickly, a majority of meal time was spent watching everyone else eating, and the lack of activity on his part tended to make him irritable. Not to mention, he had deformed two table tops already with his impatient tapping.
“I hope there won’t be more blaster types, we’re already quite full up with them,” said Anthony, who was probably one of the few soldiers who still liked the taste of the food.
“Let me guess, you don’t feel all that special with half the team already projectile beaming ice and heat and all sorts of energies?” teased Kenneth.
“No!... well, that too,” admitted Anthony, and the other two chuckled, “but really, shouldn’t we have more variety in the team abilities-wise? So we’re more adaptable to different situations? The way I see it, we need to balance out our unit with more Supers with abilities like super strength or hardened skin, who can get up close and personal with those Zombie freaks while the rest of us ranged guys attack from a distance.”
“Warfare isn’t as up-close-and-personal as it used to be, Anthony,” said Oliver, “Especially against Zombies. The more people we have who can take them out from afar, the better.”
“Or who can beat them up and run away before they can even react,” added Kenneth, indulging in a little self-praise, “I wouldn’t mind partnering up with another speedster and zipping through the battlefield. Imagine just how cool that would be!”
“That would be hell for us blasters though, trying not to hit you – “ began Anthony, before his focus was immediately whipped away from his food, “Hey, do you think those are the new recruits who just walked in?”
“They’re new faces, that’s for sure,” said Oliver, as Kenneth turned around to look, “A lot of women too. That’s interesting…”
“Watch it there, Theodore,” said Kenneth, referencing the popular stage actor known for having many promiscuous relationships within his mostly female fan club, “We didn’t join the Crusades to make love, we’re here to – no bloody way!”
Anthony and Oliver jumped.
“What is it, Kenneth, do you know any of them?” asked Oliver.
“I certainly wouldn’t mind getting to know that slim girl with the short wavy hair,” began Anthony, “She’s got a cute pixie-ish look about her. Too bad she’s made friends with that Indian-looking girl though. At least she doesn’t look like she’s completely Indian, thank God for that. The last thing we need is - ”
“Choose your next words very, very carefully, Anthony,” interrupted Kenneth icily, “That ‘Indian-looking’ girl is my sister.”
As his friend immediately hushed up, Kenneth continued to eye daggers at Katherine Kenway. What was she doing here? Had she seriously joined the Crusades as well? Just to ‘be there for him’?
“She doesn’t look anything like you, Kenneth,” hazarded Oliver.
“She’s adopted,” muttered Kenneth, putting as little care into those words as he possibly could; his mind was focused elsewhere.
Katherine and her petite friend got their rations from the serving counter, and were now beginning to look around for a place to sit. Kenneth almost dared her to find him, to come and awkwardly try to explain what she was doing here; he wondered what excuse she would use to cover up the real reason she was here.
Her warm brown eyes found his icy hazel ones, and he braced himself for the encounter. But to his surprise, she simply smiled a very brief, almost complacent smile and then looked elsewhere. She then walked over to another empty table with the other recruits she was with.
“I take it you two aren’t close?” asked Oliver when the tension seemed to have wandered off for a coffee break.
“You couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Kenneth, returning to his food, “We’re probably even closer to each other than most blood siblings are.”
“And that’s a big part of the problem,” he added darkly. His two friends returned blank looks with a touch of confusion on them.
“She’s elder to me by a year or so,” began Kenneth, “so she’s always treated me like a kid brother growing up, like I’m incapable of looking after myself. It was especially bad when she got her abilities on time and I got mine very late. It’s like, she has this protector complex where she has to keep an eye on me and save me whenever I’m in even a hint of trouble. It’s annoying!”
“So, she’s like a guardian angel of sorts?” asked Anthony, “I would have liked one of those growing up – “
“As long as she’s not too Indian?” snapped Kenneth, and Anthony wisely chose not to reply. “Sure, it may sound great, but see how you like when she’s constantly buzzing around you, not allowing you to make even a single mistake before swooping in to clean up the mess. And now she’s here too – I can’t even leave the country as a fully grown man and set off on the Crusades without her chasing behind me either!”
“I guess she didn’t have much else to do for a living either,” said Oliver.
“No, she’s been working as a journalist for the Weekly Nex for more than a year now,” said Kenneth, the rest of his food remaining untouched and unloved, “and as far as I know, they don’t do stories about the Crusades. So she’s definitely here because she signed up like the rest of us. God, I told her to leave me alone!”
“So, you’re saying she gave up a pretty steady job and safe lifestyle in the city to join the Crusades, apparently one of the most lethal career prospects out there, all so she could keep an eye on you?” asked Oliver.
Kenneth gave him a weary look.
“Stop making her sound like she’s doing me a big favour and try to see it from my point of view!” he said exasperatedly, before getting up from the bench. “I don’t feel like eating anymore. I’m heading off to the training grounds early; I’ll see you there.”
As he zipped out of the canteen hall with a sullen whoosh, Anthony grabbed at the remainder of Kenneth’s rations. He replied Oliver’s judging look with a “What? It shouldn’t go to waste,” before digging into them.
It was amazing how unflappably energetic Sergeant Colin Chambers could be on a daily basis. It was as if the man actively fought tooth and nail against bouts of low energy the same way he fought against Zombies back in his younger days. Or perhaps his impressive moustache also doubled as a reserve energy source for him. The recruits understandably hadn’t asked him about this, of course.
“Listen up, recruits!” he bellowed, “Today, your ranks will be bolstered by these fine men and women to my right. They have just as much potential as you lot did back when you first began, so do not doubt their capabilities for even one second! Now, remember that the best soldiers are those who trust and support their fellow men and women one hundred percent. So fight with each other, eat with each other, sleep with each other, and do everything else with each other, because in battle, you will be relying on each other for your very survival, so you had better know each other damned well by then! So make this lot feel at home, you hear me?”
“And the same goes for you, new recruits!” he boomed, now turning towards the faces on his right, “You have signed up for what will most likely be the most exciting, most adventurous, most gruesome and most violent experience you will ever have in your lives! So you had better not go into it without knowing and trusting your fellow soldiers, because otherwise you will not come back out of it! Now, fall behind these fine men and woman, and all of you proceed to the drills for today! MOVE OUT!”
The drills didn’t give Katherine and Kenneth much opportunity to talk to each other, which was the way Kenneth preferred it. Even in the few brief moments when they could have exchanged a greeting or a quick few comments, Kenneth remained sullenly silent. Katherine, to her credit, didn’t exactly try to push for much conversation either.
The first proper conversation took place in-between two of the drills. Since they were mostly fitness and movement-based, the resulting dialogue was punctuated by a fair amount of deep breaths.
“So you registered after all, didn’t you?” asked Kenneth.
“It’s not what you think, Kenneth,” began Katherine, “the editors at the Nex had this idea for a story – “
“Please, Katherine, spare me your excuses, I’ve been your brother long enough to see through them,” snapped Kenneth with a huff.
“It’s not an excuse, Kenneth, it was an opportunity – “ began Katherine, but then Sergeant Chambers began the next drill, and their conversation was quickly (and thankfully, the way Kenneth saw it) cut short before it could get more unpleasant.
Lunchtime provided the opportunity for a more populated conversation, and a longer one to boot. As Kenneth, Anthony and Oliver found a spot to sit at, Katherine and her friend approached them.
“Mind if we join you?” she asked, and then sat down beside them anyway even though only Oliver had given any indication of a welcome.
“So, Kenneth tells us you’re his elder sister,” began Oliver, before the silence was allowed to become too unnerving, “Kathleen, was it?”
“Katherine, actually,” she replied, almost with relief, “and this is Lizbeth. Kenneth mentioned the two of you. Are you Anthony?”
“No, I’m Oliver. That’s Anthony,” he indicated the unusually frosty friend to his right, “who is usually not so – “
“So, Lizbeth,” cut in Anthony, with the subtlety of a battle-axe, “what’s your ability? I can shoot energy beams from my hands.” His hand began to glow as though in demonstration.
“I’m a teleporter,” replied Lizbeth, with a voice that was huskier than her slim frame suggested, “You’re not going to blow a hole through this table, are you?”
“We all hope not, I would assume,” said Kenneth, eyeing Anthony askance before turning his attention to Lizbeth as well, “So, a teleporter, eh? Cool! How far can you teleport?”
“As far as I can see,” said Lizbeth, a little suspicious of all the attention she was getting, “I haven’t tried teleporting to places I can’t see yet – I’ve heard some horror stories about Supers who tried that and ended up stuck in walls, or worse, inside other people.”
“It would be useful though, being able to teleport into a closed off place we can’t get into otherwise,” said Anthony, “Maybe they’ll train you to do that at the specialized drills here!”
“We should have a race sometime,” jumped in Kenneth, “I’ve got super speed, and I’ve always wondered if teleporting is faster than my running speed.”
“You’d need a really long distance to be able to tell the difference though,” said Lizbeth sceptically, “and I haven’t seen anything that long in this training camp so far.”
“So, Kenneth says the two of you are close,” said Oliver to Katherine, “but I really don’t see it, to be honest.”
“That’s because right now, he’s pissed off at me because he thinks I joined the Crusades just to look after him,” said Katherine loudly, so that Kenneth could hear her.
“So hold on, you didn’t tell him about the Weekly Nex story?” asked Lizbeth, her head twirling between their two faces.
“I tried to,” said Katherine, a little more roughly than she would have liked.
“What story?” asked Oliver.
“The editors at the Weekly Nex wanted to do a series of articles about the experience of fighting in the Crusades these days,” said Katherine, “so they needed someone who would sign up, fight with the other soldiers in Mortanny for about a month or so and then come back and write about the experience. They picked me for the task.”
“How convenient,” said Kenneth darkly, “They pick the one person who would have volunteered for it anyway.”
“Kenneth, friend, don’t you think you’re taking this a little too harshly?” asked Oliver.
“You don’t know her like I do, Oliver!” burst out Kenneth, “She probably came up with the idea in the first place just to keep tabs on me here!”
“That’s not what happened, Kenneth, how many times do I have to tell you!” snapped back Katherine, her voice raised in frustration, “Why the hell won’t you believe me?”
“Because I know it’s just another excuse of yours, Katherine!” retaliated Kenneth, his voice rising too, “Because you won’t stop treating me like I’m your little brother!”
“You are my little brother, Kenneth!”
“I’m a fully grown man now, Katherine, not a child for you to babysit!”
“Well, for a fully grown man, you sure throw a tantrum like a child!”
“Oooh, you would love that, wouldn’t you, another excuse for you to be the bossy elder sister you’ve always been!”
“I wouldn’t have to boss you around at all if you’d stop being so irrational like you’re being right now!”
“I’m irrational for calling out your lies!?”
“You’re irrational for thinking that they’re lies!”
“FRIENDS!” yelled Lizbeth, finally breaking through the heated argument, “You’re causing a scene!”
It was true; the conversations near their table had died down to a spectating silence. Row upon row of recruits were staring at the two of them, who had unconsciously gotten to their feet during the argument. Katherine had even enlarged herself without realizing it.
“Well, congratulations,” said Kenneth, the edge still very sharp in his growling, “You wanted to be the big sister fussing over her baby brother, and now you’ve got what you wanted. I hope you’re happy.”
Before anyone could interrupt, he zipped out of the hall, almost knocking over his plate and a few other onlookers in the process.
Katherine reduced herself back to her usual average height, sat back down and waited until the rest of the hall had gone back to their other conversations before trusting herself to speak again.
“Well, I can’t say I didn’t expect that to happen,” she said morosely, “But I was hoping he wouldn’t take it that badly.”
“I was wondering why you didn’t tell him that you volunteered,” said Lizbeth, “I guess I know why now.”
“Wait, you volunteered?” asked Oliver.
“So Kenneth was telling the truth,” added Anthony; he may as well have had a sign on his back with his bias against Katherine painted all over it.
“No, he wasn’t,” said Katherine tersely, “I’m not here to look after him, I’m here to write the story for the Weekly Nex. Look, I just saw it as a good opportunity to be around if he needed me, you know? If he wanted some family to turn to for any reason. I’ve always had his back before this, I figured, why stop now if I don’t have to?”
“For what it’s worth, I admire what you’re doing,” said Lizbeth, giving Anthony a dark look that made him immediately regret his earlier words, “I’d do anything to have an elder brother or sister be there for me on a quest like this!”
“Hey, I haven’t exactly been reserved by Kenneth,” said Katherine jokingly, “I’m there for you if you need the company, Lizbeth. Didn’t the Sergeant say we had to trust each other? Rely on each other if we wanted to survive?”
“That’s right,” said Oliver, “and I agree with Lizbeth; I really respect your decision to be here for Kenneth. I’m sure Anthony would as well, if he wasn’t having so much trouble getting over his racism.”
“Hey, that was uncalled for!” retorted Anthony.
“You have something against Indians? Really?” asked Lizbeth in a tone of voice so judgmental, it might as well have come accompanied by a gavel and a wig.
Anthony was desperately looking for a way to dodge the very uncomfortable spotlight that was now burning him with its piercing glare.
“I… look, I have family who live outside of Central Imperica, with Cowboys,” he said, hesitantly at first, “They’re seen and heard about some really terrible things that the Indians out there have done. If you heard the stories… well, I have, so excuse me if I’m not so willing to trust someone with Indian blood in them.”
“Ugh, I really don’t have the energy to deal with this right now,” said Katherine, burying her face in hands that had been a little enlarged for the purpose of a snugger fit than usual.
“Seriously, Anthony? Katherine’s not even completely Indian, she’s barely even half, if that,” said Lizbeth.
“You’re not really helping, Lizbeth,” came Katherine’s muffled voice from inside her hands.
“Look, when we’re out there in Mortanny, the Zombies aren’t going to care how Indian or Cowboy or whatever we are when they try to hack us to pieces, so neither should we,” said Oliver, “and that’s why we need to get over these superficial differences, alright? Like Sergeant Chambers said, if we want to survive out there, we need to work together, which means we need to trust each other.”
“I’m just saying, if you want me to trust you, you’re going to have to earn it – “ began Anthony.
The clarion that signalled the end of the lunch break called out in its wheedling voice. Lizbeth sighed with relief.
“Finally! Come on, let’s go do some drills!” she said, bouncing out of her seat, “They can’t possibly be more painful than this conversation.”
“You might have just jinxed us there, Lizbeth,” said Katherine, “You coming, boys?”
“Of course we are,” said Oliver, getting up, “Don’t make us late, Anthony.”
“Shouldn’t we maybe go find Kenneth?” asked Anthony as he removed his slightly stodgy frame from the bench.
“I’m sure he’s already at the grounds, you know how he is,” said Oliver, “Look, if you want to, go and look for him, but I’m going to report for training like we should be doing.”
“Fine, fine, let’s go,” grumbled Anthony as the two of them jogged over to join Katherine and Lizbeth, who were already at the exit of the hall.
That night, as Katherine was about to tuck herself to sleep, her body feeling like a slab of thoroughly kneaded dough after the day’s training, she had a familiar visitor at her bunk.
“Hey,” said Kenneth awkwardly, “Can we talk?”
“Always, Kenneth,” said Katherine, as she began to reach for an overcoat, “Let’s go outside for this, shall we?”
“It’s pretty cold outside, though, if you didn’t already know,” said Kenneth, who zipped off and came back with his own overcoat on before Katherine could even put an arm through the sleeve of hers.
“Then let’s try not to take too long,” said Katherine with a faint smile.
The two of them strode out of the barracks and into the dimly lit, bracing air of the night. Katherine pulled her coat in closer, but it didn’t really help.
“About today, at lunch…” began Kenneth when they were out of earshot of the rest of the troops inside the barracks.
Katherine simply looked at his hazel eyes in that lean face with the thick, short topping of brown hair. This was far from the first time they’d had one of these conversations.
“The things I said,” said Kenneth slowly, as though he was rolling each word thoroughly inside his mouth before allowing it to come out, “the things I accused you of doing… I was way out of line, and I let my temper get the better of me. I’m sorry I yelled at you and made a scene.”
“I’m sorry too, little brother,” said Katherine, gently placing a hand on his arm, “You weren’t the only one who lost their head in there.”
“It’s just… Sometimes it feels like you just don’t understand what I’m trying to do here, how I feel about this,” said Kenneth, looking at the shadowy figures of the other camp buildings in the shoddily lit distance for a moment before continuing, “I’ve always been under your shadow, your little brother, and not really just myself as a person, you know? And this, this was my chance to be just me, without any safety nets and strings attached. And I can’t do that if you’re there too.”
“Why not, Kenneth?” asked Katherine, as sincerely as she could, “I’ve tried not to be in your way ever since you got abilities, and I haven’t stopped trying. What am I doing wrong? What have I been doing wrong?”
“You’ve been there, always only a few feet away from me,” said Kenneth, “Always able to come help me or fix me when I’m in trouble. And I’ve always appreciated that about you, Katherine, you should know that by now, but… I can’t keep relying on other people to stand me on my own two feet, you know? I want to be able to do it on my own, mistakes and all. I want to know that I can be independent and make things work for myself!”
“Oh, Kenneth,” said Katherine, half-embracing him both out of affection and a need to stay warm, “I want that for you too! Nothing would make me happier than to see you fighting your battles by yourself, to see you accomplish your dreams on your own accord! Don’t you see that’s why I’m here? To be there and see it for myself when it happens?”
“No, I don’t see that, Katherine,” said Kenneth, “Why is this time going to be any different from all the other times you’ve carried me through whatever troubles I had to deal with?”
“Because of two things,” said Katherine, before dramatically raising a finger up, “One, I’m on a main quest of my own for the Weekly Nex which is going to keep me occupied enough to not be able to be there for you all the time.” She raised a second finger. “Two, I refuse to help you in any way whatsoever unless you ask me to. It’s very strongly going against my elder sibling instincts, but like you said, you’re not going to be your own man if I’m a safety net for you.”
“And you’re really going to do that?” asked Kenneth with a hint of incredulity, “You’re really going to stay out of my way even if I’m in the middle of a bad situation?”
“I promise you, cross my heart,” said Katherine, “It’s going to be a hard challenge for me though, but if that’s what it takes to get you to believe in me, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“There you go again, making me look bad by comparison,” said Kenneth with a chuckle, “But if you’re so insistent on not interfering with me, why did you join the squadron I was in?”
“It wasn’t my choice,” said Katherine, “and believe me, I tried to argue against it. But the higher ups in this place, they apparently felt that since the two of us have known each other all our lives, that we’d have a tactical advantage working together in battle. Which, much as you probably hate to admit it, makes a lot of sense.”
“I can’t imagine you arguing that convincingly against it, for some reason,” said Kenneth neutrally.
Katherine glanced at him for a moment before saying, “Hey, I just made a big and important promise to you, and I intend to uphold it. Cut me some slack here, will you?”
“I’ll cut you some slack when I have more than your word to go by,” said Kenneth, “It’s a little hard to shake off years of experience based on a single promise, you know.”
“Fine, fine,” said Katherine, now rubbing her arms, “Let’s go back in, shall we?”
“I was about to say the same,” said Kenneth, smiling.
“You know, that bit you said about the years of experience, it reminded me a lot of your friend Anthony,” said Katherine as the two of them walked back into the barracks, “I’m not going to go easy on him if he’s going to continue to be a racist asshat to me, squad-mate or no.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to let him off easy either,” said Kenneth, glaring in the general direction of Anthony’s bunk for effect, “But maybe he just needs some time to adjust to you, to see that you’re not the threat to him that he thinks you are.”
“It’s funny you say that; he’s not the only one who needs time,” said Katherine as they neared her bunk, “Good night, little brother.”
“You know, I’d believe your intentions a lot more if you didn’t keep calling me little brother,” pointed out Kenneth.
“Hey, it’s a force of habit, don’t take it personally,” said Katherine, halfway into her sheets, “Anyway, sleep well, Kenneth.”
“You too, Katherine,” said Kenneth, before zipping away to his own bunk.