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One Time

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Prologue 

There’s nothing to be nervous about, Emil told himself as he rolled up another shirt, stuffing it into the duffel bag that sat at the end of his bed. Then he looked down at the open bag bursting with half of his wardrobe and swore.

“Why am I packing all this?” he asked the empty room at large. Dragging a hand through the hair hanging in his eyes, he let out a long string of curses that described a few things that not even Sigrun would dare do to a troll, and then he began pulling the clothes back out. “Aunt Siv already told you they prepared new uniforms,” he muttered to himself as he pulled a warm sweater out the bag and dropped it back into the trunk at the foot of the bed. “What are you going to do with a whole bag of clothes that won’t fit in the tank?”

At least no one else was here to see him acting like an idiot. Two of the other three cleansers he shared a room with had gotten the hell out of Östersund the moment they got their winter leave. Pers was still in town somewhere, but he certainly wasn’t wasting their precious leave sitting around inside the barracks on one of the last clear days of autumn. Kissekatt was the only one to witness his idiocy and luckily she would not be telling anyone. She was too busy napping in a bar of sunshine coming through the window to wonder why her human was furiously stuffing clothing into the trunk he had only just taken it from.

It had been a long season. Their division had been working on the line between Östersund and Mora for the past three months—the very same line, in fact, that Emil would be taking the next morning to reach Mora. Before that, they had spent the early summer widening the perimeter around the mines in Skellefteå. The entire squadron was exhausted, and Emil should have been more exhausted than most. After all, he’d volunteered to accompany the cat corps in the spring as well. He hadn’t had more than a weekend of leave in the eight months since he’d returned to the Swedish military. And he had liked it that way. He couldn’t imagine any more weeks like the ones he had spent in the hospital in Mora, with nothing to distract him from his memories.

Emil slammed the lid of his trunk shut and flipped the clasps shut, letting his hands rest upon the top of the leather for a moment. He folded to the ground, his head sagging down to land on his forearms as he kneeled in front of the trunk. If only he could fold up his thoughts and lock them away as easily as he did his clothes. He'd done his best to do just that for the past ten months, but he had failed. The memories still came to him at the oddest times: brushing against his waking mind like a feather-light figure slipping past him in the narrow confines of a steel tank, their shoulders meeting and touching for the briefest of moments. And the dreams...

The dreams were even worse.

He would be seeing the whole crew again in less than 48 hours. The thought made something in the region of his heart squeeze. Would it be the same? Did he want it to be? Emil dropped his arms to his sides and let his head bang down upon the top of the trunk’s lid. He turned his face so that his cheek pressed against the leather. It felt cool compared to his flushed face. He wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight. It was the last night that he could believe in his memories and cling to the possibilities they held. His last night to try to tell himself that there was some good reason why Lalli had left Sweden without even a word to him. Tomorrow the journey began and he would have to face whatever reality was waiting for him, because he was going back. Back to the Silent World.