Arthur goes to battle school at the age of six. His mother cries and his brothers all stare at him with a mix of envy and respect as he lines up with the rest of the boys to board the ship. His father pats him on the back and says we're so proud.
Zero gravity makes him feel ill all the way down to the sneakers that don't fit him as well as they should, but at least his blue jumpsuit remains vomit-free the whole ride, unlike Yusuf's next to him. Arthur helps him clean himself, and somehow, by the end of the trip, he makes a friend.
The bigger kids are jerks, which is nothing to be surprised about. One shoves him on his first day to the mess hall, and Arthur nearly breaks his arm as he goes down. An older boy- Cobb, his nametag says, stitched over his heart in his white battle suit- catches him and yells down the hall in a strange sort of jargon Arthur can't really understand.
"You okay?" Cobb asks. Arthur shrugs.
"Is everyone here crazy?" He asks. Cobb laughs and guides him to the mess hall, watching other big kids as they go by.
"A little crazy helps," he says. "Stay clear, kid. Maybe I see you in Ferret Army. Teach you how good crazy can be." He smiles like Arthur's brothers, and for the first time since leaving Kansas, Arthur feels homesick.
For two years, Arthur plays his games and goes to classes. He accels in maths, but spends long nights pouring over advanced sciences with Yusuf. Biology he understands, chemistry he doesn't. Anatomy of Formics scares him into dreamless sleeps at night in his bunk, which is better than the dreams of their souless, uniform faces staring at him accusingly.
Occasionally, he sees Cobb in the halls or in the gameroom, doing his duties with grim determination. If he remembers Arthur at all, he never shows it. He's already a commander, and Arthur thinks he'll be gone to Support or Tactical school before Arthur even gets into an army at all.
At eight years and four months, Arthur gets orders to pack up his things and to move into the Spider barracks. The colors are brown-black-brown, and he is expected to leave immediately.
"Have you been assigned?" He asks Yusuf as he palms open his small locker. All he owns is his computer and his uniform. There is no such thing as belongings here.
"Ferret Army," Yusuf says. Arthur feels a pang of sadness. He'd like to switch, or even just have Yusuf with him, but orders are orders, and there's nothing he can do about it. "You'll be missed."
"You too, Yusuf," Arthur says. Then, he heads for his new room.
The lightstrips on the wall flash brown-black-brown when he touches them, leading him around the spacestation to the barracks. He's never really gotten used to the rounded floors or the pull of false gravity, and he finds himself walking faster than he needs to on a downslope. The spacestaion's nothing but recycled water and recycled air and recycled gravity. Sometimes, when he's half asleep at his gameboards, Arthur wonders if it's made of recycled children too.
Spider Army is filled with loud, rambunctious boys that are only half dressed at best. There are forty boys that are eight and ten and eleven and twelve, all of them wearing matching grins. He's new meat, and that means he's going to have to be on his toes for the rest of the week, waiting for them to strike. At the head of them all, the biggest boy sits on the bunk at the closest to the door, smiling away.
"Hullo," he says, accent thick. Arthur's surprised for a moment. Most boys lose their accents early, giving in to the muddle of slang instead. "Arthur, is it? Welcome to Spider Army."
The boy is most likely twelve, his arms and legs a little too long, his middle sleek except for where puppy fat clings to his hips. He sits proudly naked on his bunk, legs crossed at the ankles. Arthur's gotten used to nudity since launch, but the boy wears his skin better than anyone else Arthur's ever seen.
"My name is Eames, and I'll be your commander for your stay," the boy says. "Your bunk is bottom twenty. Prove yourself useful, maybe you'll bump up to the top. Your toon leader is Saito. In my absence, he is your god. You're still a launchy. Make me believe you're a soldier."
So, Arthur does.
There's a boy dead in Salamander, killed in a fight in the showers. It's unofficial knowledge, but everyone down to the greenho launchies knows about it. Arthur is ten.
Eames calls a day off of the battle room, his voice tight. He'd eaten at mess with the commander that had died every day for years. At fourteen, he looks very tired.
Arthur spends his free afternoon in a battle room anyway, floating in nullo and running over strategies in the back of his mind. He's heard about this Ender kid, a total tactical mastermind, and he itches to see him in battle, to know what he knows.
"You miss when I said no practice?" Eames asks as he hops into the room. He jerks for a second in midair before weaving his way through the room. He's still wearing his battle uniform, helmet and all.
"I like it in here," Arthur says as he reaches a wall. They float for a long time, listening to the silence around them.
As Arthur reorients himself to enter the hall, he hears Eames behind him say, "Yeah. Me too."
Battle is like war. Their bodies are the ships, the giant wooden boxes arranged through the battle room stars, their flashers missiles. Arthur's whip thin and full of growing pains alongside aching muscle strain from hours and hours of training. He's still small for his age, stuck in time while everyone else grows around him, but he adjusts and uses his smallness to his advantage.
There's nothing quite like it. The adrenaline, the knowledge that the enemy is coming. That Ender kid has flipped all the rules, and formations and formalities are now a thing of the past. A toon and B toon shoot out to the stars in the middle of the room, and C toon- Arthur's toon- skims the walls, floating along beside them.
Navigating in zero gravity is like navigating in water. Arthur jack-knifes his torso and flies across the room, legs drawn up to block his chest. A shot from an enemy's flasher will immobilize his battle suit, and he can still maneuver without his legs. A chest shot is end game.
Someone sees him in the dim light and shoots.
Arthur raises his own flasher and stabilizes it on his forearm, aiming at the enemy's entry gate. He shoots and immobilizes two soldiers. Beside him, D toon opens wild fire, taking out a section of Ferret army like flies.
Arthur feels his shoulder graze something, and is surprised when he sees a face blinking up at him through the face shield of a helmet. He acts before he thinks, reaching out and grasping the soldier's arm. He twists it, swinging around, and smashes his helmet into the kid's shoulder. The soldier's flasher floats free for a moment before Arthur snatches it up, shooting the kid before bouncing off a wall.
With two flashers, he's twice as deadly. Spider Army wins with twenty mobile soldiers left.
"Impressive," Eames says later, standing next to Arthur's bunk. It's top ten. Eames had kept his word. "Got any more ideas?" Arthur shrugs, but when Eames smiles at him, his stomach goes fluttery and he lays out a tactical plan for disarmament. "Keep it up, love. You'll make a good commander one day."
They pass Cobb on the way out, and Eames shakes his hand. Arthur looks at the ruin of Cobb's army and thinks for the first time that he's under the right commander after all.
Eames goes to Tactical school three weeks later. He collects his things, salutes, and hugs every one of them like the giant softie he is. When he reaches Arthur, he presses a kiss to his temple and says, "You'll be old enough for it to matter when you reach Tactical."
Arthur is eleven, and it already means more than it should.
Arthur takes over Spider Army. He runs them like Eames for a month, and then he runs them like his own. They're all trained in hand-to-hand combat in null gravity, and Arthur feels proud when he wins his first battle on his own tactics.
At thirteen, they ship him to Tactical school with honors. He's ahead of his class, and he prides himself on it. When they fight the war, he can be a part of it. He can lead them to victory if they just give him the chance.
At Tactical school, there is no more battle room. Arthur misses it sorely, misses the feeling of weightlessness and the rush of victory and the fire of defeat. The joy of it is replaced with maps and charts and graphs and brains. Arthur still trains on his own, working his body until he falls over with cramps, in hopes of anything coming his way.
It takes three weeks to see Eames again. Sixteen looks good on him. The baby fat that had hung at his middle has been replaced with lean muscle, his shoulders strong and his jaw stronger.
"Nice to see you again," Eames says at mess. "Now shove over and tell me all about your new self."
So Arthur tells him about his battles and how he revamped Spider Army, and all about the newest batch of launchies. Eames listens and smiles and makes snide comments about everything that sound more fond than anything else. He repays Arthur with horror stories about classes and the feeds on the war, and he tells Arthur all about Ender, the youngest kid ever to go to Command school.
They spend a year trading stories and scars, planning theoretical battles all through the night in the barracks, each one more developed than the last. Arthur's got a knack for details, but Eames can see the whole picture, and together they bring plan after plan to the IF, swallowing down their praise like starving children.
Eames pulls Arthur from room to room, showing him off like a prize. I found this, and he's better than anything you lot will ever see. It pisses Arthur off as much as it makes his chest go tight and fluttery. Eames smiles like the stars, bright and full and never-ending, and Arthur plays to him, pushing harder and harder. Eames matches him step for step.
They're in class when the announcement comes. The war is over. Ender Wiggin and his old battle school army won it for the entire world.
The relief is felt through the school. Classes are dismissed for the rest of the day, and Arthur and Eames hole up in an empty room, breathing in the knowledge that it was all over.
"It's kind of disappointing, isn't it?" Eames asks. "We spend our whole lives learning to be soldiers, and then have no war to fight." Arthur stares at the ceiling and goes limp.
"Guess we'll have to find a new war," he says. Eames grins and leans forward, his nose bumping Arthur's.
"Did I ever tell you I like the way you think?" He asks, voice like sugar. Arthur shrugs and kisses him. The war is over, but their lives aren't.
When they're sent back Earth-side, two men corner them at the shuttle. They present to them an offer of a new battle to fight, and Eames smiles for the both of them and says yes, please. We'll take it.