Excerpt for "You're leaving?" "For Sleipnir." by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Louis concludes as alarms blare around him, systems turning red, that maybe this isn’t the brightest idea he’s ever hatched. Piles of debris crash against his fighter plane, cracking several inches of thick silica nanofiber, damaging the wings beyond repair. He hears stories about it all the time, how when you’re running on your last seconds of life, you cling to your memories, sifting through love and pain and everything in between for some form of salvation.

Bullshit. The only thing Louis is thinking of is how vicious the base of the pit looks, ripped with jagged rocks, sharp enough to impale him like a tender piece of steak. He clenches his guts.

The pain doesn’t come as he expects. Instead, a blunt force slams against his head and spots appear in his vision. Or are those the gaps between the rocks? Louis isn’t sure. The last thing he registers is the shadow of a giant bird beneath him, swooping up, up, then the taste of the bright desert sky on his tongue…

*

Louis stirs to a burning pain in his right temple. He groans, trying to make sense of his surroundings. There’s only a white light at first, then a shape, an unmistakably human form bobbing before him. Warm palms on his back. Louis registers the sound of medicjets, their old-fashioned wings beating in the desert heat.

“Foot,” Louis mumbles. Shadows around him begin to gain definition. Rows of cacti stoic as bookshelves, the man holding him in a flight suit, dark hair, shaven at the back.

The man glances down and his eyes widen, enough that Louis makes out the dark brown of his irises and his chapped lips peeling from thirst. There’s something in his face that reminds Louis of himself sometimes, wasted on Heineken, rinsing the vomit off his chin in the bathroom. The man’s pace slows—Louis is thankful. The slight jolts of his jog had been agitating a bruise on Louis's back.

“Foot?” the man asks. He pauses just so that his head blocks the scorching sun from Louis’s eyes. Beams of light forge a halo around his hair, luminescent.

Louis says nothing more. He scrabbles for purchase on something—he doesn’t know it’s the man’s arm as it’s practically the size of a tire. He kicks, trying to adjust the blood flow to his ankle. The nettles stinging his toes subside. By then, he realizes he’s in the shade of the jet. His head is resting on the lap of the morose faced man, the brown fizzing out of his eyes as the doors to the jet slide close. Dim, cold. They haunt Louis in the brief moment before everything fades to black.

*

Louis is told that his name is Lieutenant Jay Lefevre.

Lieutenant Lefevre had been on a scouting mission when he saw an ally fighter plane taking a nosedive that was definitely not intentional. Louis hears the full story only when he’s made a full recovery, ironing his uniform out in the cadets’ common room. In the space of a few minutes, the lieutenant had slammed his boosters until his plane was right beneath Louis’s, the upthrust of his emergency engine reducing the terminal crash speed of Louis’s vessel. The pressure would have been impossible to handle, but Lefevre did it nonetheless, propelling them to an outcropping where he nursed him for several days until the medicjets received their coordinates.

It hits Louis while he’s lying in bed, taking comfort in oiling his gun, that he’s never had a chance to thank the lieutenant. In fact, he hasn’t seen him once since that day in the infirmary. Even then, Louis had been straggling between fitful periods of sleep. All he’d known from the encounter was the lieutenant's straight-backed posture, the hard contours of his face. Like Louis’s father, he was gone.

Gone? Louis wonders, glancing at the tarp of sand dunes outside his window. Perhaps it had been the desert creating strange creatures in his mind. Louis doesn’t think he’ll ever find out.

Until his second year, in which Lieutenant Lefevre is no longer lieutenant. The cadets salute him as he strides through the hallways. He nods curtly in response, but something has changed about him. Something other than the twin medals he had been awarded in the past year.

Louis finds himself in a holding cell. The silhouette of the man behind the window is unmistakable. It churns his stomach to think that the man who had saved his life would be the same one to expel him from flight school.

When Captain Lefevre enters, Louis lowers his head and stares at the edge of the white table. He tries to muster as much dignity as possible.

“You want to tell me how you got into this?” Lefevre asks, not unkindly.

“Not really,” Louis doesn’t know where this is bravery, or stupidity, is coming from.

Lefevre crosses his arms on the table. He tilts his head until Louis can see his furrowed brows, a question on his lips. They aren’t chapped anymore, Louis notices.

“Your eyes are red. Not from crying.”

Louis groans. “All right, I went into town and smoked weed. I smuggled some into the dorm for my friends, which is against the cadet rulebook, and this is my third offense, so I'm expelled. Happy?”

“Your other offenses?”

“I beat someone up in my first year.” Louis pauses.

The tinge of disapproval on the captain’s face snares him, a double punch to his ego. The captain is still waiting.

“The other wasn’t really an offense,” Louis finishes, his voice cracking a little. He clears his throat as if to get rid of an aftertaste.

“What happened to you?”

“I’m done here,” Louis sighs. His head has begun throbbing, from the interrogation or the weed, he isn’t sure. “I fucked myself up, I get it. I don’t need to be telling you shit, captain.”

Lefevre gives no response. It’s like the interrogation is doing itself.

“…m’ sorry, Sir.”

Lefevre stands. “Walk with me.”

Louis expects to be whittled to the core as they stroll around the perimeter of the building. But Lefevre only makes small talk about the desert, the history of the cadet academy and his own adventures beyond the dunes. Louis finds that his thoughts have drifted away from the day’s shitty events. Lefevre only pushes the topic when their walk comes to an end. Louis wishes it never did.

“I know about you,” he begins, eyes trained on the grey walls of the Institution and the specks of sand dunes beyond. He stows one hand in his pocket. “I read your files while you were recuperating, to try and figure out what you were doing all the way out there. Everyone speculated that you were just being your reckless self—but you love planes, don’t you? No true born pilot would crash a plane like that.”

“No,” Louis murmurs, his voice a bare suggestion of itself. “I suppose not.”

The Institution is floored by talented pilots each year. If Lefevre hadn’t been there, if Louis had found his peace in the rocky fangs of the crater, no one would’ve cared. He would have…

Lefevre turns to face him. He places a hand on Louis’s shoulder. Louis doesn’t shrug him off. Doesn’t want to, for some reason. “You have so much potential, Louis. I’m sorry that I read your files without your permission, but I know you haven’t come from the best of homes. That doesn’t have to define you. You can make something for yourself, and I promise that I’ll help you in any way I can.”

“I’m not going to be expelled?”

Lefevre offers him a slight smile. “Let this be a new start.”

Louis bites his lip as he walks back to the dormitory that night. Tears scald the very back of his eyes.

*

Louis turns into a first class pilot. He aces all his theory exams and his professors are shocked by the change. It’s as if someone has swapped him out overnight. The Council sends him a letter requesting him to give a speech at the end of the year to motivate the younger students. The thought of having to speak in front of everyone scares him to death. So of course he turns it down. In any case, he hasn't graduated yet, so celebration isn't the first thing on his mind.

On Christmas night, Louis is alone in his dorm room. His roommates are out partying or visiting friends and family. Sometimes, it does tug at him when he listens to them chirp about their aunts and nephews, going home to roasted turkey and sparkling garlands. For the most part, he shoves the thoughts away by tucking into bed with a mug of hot chocolate and a retro shooting game. The hallways are silent enough to invite ghosts. This is as close as he'll get to the total isolation, his favored habitat.

Someone knocks on his door. He pauses the game and stands, unsure if he should answer while he's in his jogging pants and a V-neck. It can’t be anyone important, so he lifts a finger. The system catches the command and the door slides open. He almost drops his mug. The man in the doorway is none other than Captain Lefevre.

"Sir," Louis utters, unable to say anything else. The jogging pants feel entirely inappropriate now.

"You're here alone?"

“Could say the same for you,” Louis replies. Lefevre offers him a wry smile.

As Lefevre is three years his senior, they don’t see each other often. Louis never explicitly asks for his help, but Lefevre sometimes drops by in the library carrying stacks of incomprehensible engineering books, the thickness of which rivals Louis's head, and slips into the seat next to him. Lefevre notices when a mechanics question ties his younger companion into a simmering knot. The ease with which he solves questions is always equal parts impressive and infuriating. And if they end up staying long after class hours, neither of them mention it.

Louis stands aside to let Lefevre in while he rummages through his belongings. Lefevre frowns when he pulls out a gin tonic.

“Thought you turned a new leaf,” Lefevre says, sitting by the edge of Louis’s bed. Louis chuckles. He pulls out a glass and pops a few ice cubes from the mini fridge. Then he pours the gin, fingers wiry and elegant as a seasoned bartender’s, and tops it off with a slice of lime.

Louis hands him the drink. “This is from old times. I haven’t had anything but fraps to cope. And the occasional cig.”

“The occasional cig,” Lefevre mumbles, but he relaxes upon the sting of the gin. Louis perches next to him, swirling his mug of chocolate. They’re a quiet pair, but Louis has noticed that silence is different when he shares it with Lefevre.

“Well done on your finals,” the captain says, turning to face him. “A toast to your success?”

Louis doesn’t reply for a moment. He just watches Lefevre’s stoic expression, the slight upward curve of his lip, his lax shoulders hinting to his lowered guard.

“Hardly,” Louis says, but he raises the mug. Their glasses clink, ringing high and thin in the air, and Lefevre throws the gin down the chute of his throat. Louis only presses his lip against the rim of his mug.

“I wouldn’t be here without you,” Louis murmurs. “I mean, literally and figuratively. You’ve saved me more than once…and for nothing in return.”

They had a similar conversation a couple weeks back, when Lefevre had agreed to observe and critique him in the Flight Sim. They were walking back in the rain when Louis started going on about how bad he felt for lugging Lefevre around like his personal mentor.

People have started to look at Lefevre differently since he began training Louis more. Louis, the charity case. Lefevre, the try-hard.

It stings Louis more than he’d ever admit.

“It’s not like that,” Lefevre responds, finally. He sets his glass down on the bedside desk. “I’m proud of you. For how far you’ve come, how far you’ll go.” Then he adds, with a little smirk, “Your surly attitude is enough of a reward.”

Louis doesn’t roll his eyes. He places the mug next to Lefevre’s glass and sucks in a deep breath. The chocolate surface spins to a standstill. “Do you get what you mean to me at all?”

Lefevre doesn’t reply. Louis exhales through gritted teeth. His annoyance permeates through the air; it’s something they’ve always had, the ability to speak without speaking, to just know what the other feels. In mere moments, Lefevre realizes where this is going.

“You don’t…”

Louis glares at him. “I do. You know I do. I always have.”

Louis recalls how he walked into the gym one day and saw Lefevre in there lifting weights, doing push-ups with one arm across his back. He’d never gone in there again because it just clicked. Something as simple as watching Lefevre lost in his daily routine had snared him. The thought had popped into his head and it never left again, always rooted in the back of his mind, hoping, each time Lefevre broke out in genuine laughter, smirked when he teased Louis, that someday, sometime…

Louis closes his eyes, his knuckles turning white around the sheets. He laughs, a brittle sound. “Forget what I said. I need some fresh air.”

Lefevre doesn’t follow Louis as he leaves his own room. Louis goes as far as the Institution permits him, at the overhang of a rubicund cliff, a cigarette lit between his trembling fingers. He’s only had maybe two, maybe three in the last few months. Louis looks at it, winds his arm back and flings it into the horizon. It sparks like a comet through the midnight sky.

*

“You’re leaving?”

“For Sleipnir.”

They’re standing at the perimeter of the wall, where they’d walked to from the holding cell all those months ago. Louis feels the air sucked out of his lungs. He’s in his graduation garbs, and it takes all the strength he has to muster out his next words.

“Congratulations, captain.”

His chest wrenches when Lefevre pulls him into an embrace—not assuring, like he would hold a younger cadet, but gentle, loving. Louis presses his cheek against Lefevre’s chest and listens to his heart beat, the rapid thudding of a truth Lefevre had spoken, the question Louis thought he’d never see answered. Louis pulls back, cursing under his breath, and is about to start on a rant when Lefevre places a kiss on his cheek. Louis calls him an asshole and they ram their mouths together. Jay, Louis gasps. It is the first time he has ever called Lefevre by his given name, the taste of it like wood smoke on his tongue, raw and real.

Several months later, Louis is running through a maintenance check of his plane when his system beeps and a hologram appears before him. The Sleipnir Mission has been labelled code red and there is no information on the whereabouts of its explorers.


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