“I’m only going to be gone for a few days,” Race muttered out of the corner of his mouth as he and Spot stood guard on either side of a grand set of double doors.
“Yeah,” Spot grumbled back subtly. “A few days in the northern territory. You know as well as I do how dangerous it is out there. I still don’t know why they’re sending you.”
“Because I’m good at my job.”
They both stared straight ahead, keeping an alert watch on the corridor to make sure that the meeting through the doors behind them wasn’t interrupted. Even without looking, Race knew that Spot was rolling his eyes. “No offence, but-” Footsteps clicked down the hallway in their direction and they both shut up as a maid passed them in the direction of the guest wing carrying a tray of drinks and small snacks. As soon as she turned the corner and they could no longer hear the clacking of her shoes on the marble floors, Spot continued. “No offense, but you’re not even a ranking officer. They’re just sending you out there as cannon fodder.”
Race shushed him, sparing a warning glance in Spot’s direction. “You can’t say shit like that. You’re a captain- they need you here to run the place.”
“And you’re a palace guard, not a regular soldier. You're not the one they should be sending out to fight.”
“It’s a recon mission,” Race said sheepishly. He knew that Spot wouldn’t take this as an answer, but he was actually proud to be chosen. It was an honor.
Spot didn’t like that. “You’re not a spy!” he snapped, too loudly.
Race shot out an arm and hit Spot lightly on the shoulder. “Shut up,” he hissed. “They can hear you.”
“I don’t care. They’re sending you out there to die.”
Gritting his teeth, Race shrugged. “Then I die.” He paused. “Seriously. Have a little faith. I’m not totally useless.”
Spot didn’t respond. For the rest of their guard shift, he stood in stony silence as Race periodically prodded him to say something. When the prince and cabinet came out of the room and they were dismissed, Spot strode purposefully away from Race to the captains’ lounge, where he knew Race couldn’t follow him.
The next day, Race was too busy to go looking for Spot. He had his regular guard duties, as well as several briefing sessions on their upcoming mission, for which they would leave in the morning. The squad that had been assembled was mostly soldiers with no upper rankings, all of whom had been promised the possibility of promotion upon completing the mission. For some, including Race, a promotion could change everything. Being a basic palace guard wasn’t exactly the most lucrative profession, compared to the officers.
They were being sent to collect information on the movements of Lord Delancey, a cousin of the late queen’s, who some deep within the palace suspected may be mobilizing troops against the royal family. The northern territory was known for its widespread and sometimes violent unrest. If they had more resources and organization, it wouldn’t be hard to mobilize against the crown. It was only planned to be a three day mission- get in, get as much information as you can, and get out before anyone could figure out what was happening. The guards were being sent instead of the spies because they needed to be able to integrate themselves into a militia setting, which would most likely be more difficult for the spies.
After they were dismissed for the night, Race went looking for Spot. He wasn’t in the barracks, and he wasn’t on his usual night duty. “Hey,” Race said to a guard standing in Spot’s normal patrol area. “Where’s Conlon?”
“DaSilva’s sick, so he took his shift.”
DaSilva always took watch around this time by the stables, so Race turned and made his way down the hilly grounds towards the stable, which was lit only by a lamppost by the paddock and the lights on inside. Silhouetted against a window, he could see Spot standing alert. Race approached quietly. He knew better than to call out to Spot. Palace guards were not allowed to have relationships. At all. It didn’t matter if you were dating another guard or if you had a girlfriend three hundred miles away. Romantic relationships were distractions, and they were forbidden.
“Spot. Hey, Spot,” Race said as soon as he was close enough that eavesdroppers wouldn’t hear.
“Go away, Race.” Spot stared straight ahead, refusing to even look at Race.
“Are you avoiding me? Did you take DaSilva’s shift so you wouldn’t have to see me?” Spot shrugged. “There’s no escaping me, babe. I’m inevitable.”
“Go to bed.”
“No!” Race crossed his arms, staring down a few inches to Spot. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”
Spot was quiet for a moment, staring at a place somewhere just past Race’s left ear. Finally, he replied in a low, demanding voice. “Higgins, I am your commanding officer. Get to bed. That’s an order.”
“Fuck you,” Race spat. “Don’t try to pull rank on me right now. What is your problem?” Spot reached for the radio on his belt, ready to call for someone, and Race grabbed his hand to stop them. “Is this because of the mission? Are you doing that thing again?”
“The thing where you back off whenever you think something bad’s about to happen.”
Spot bit the inside of his lip. It was a subtle movement, a nervous tic, but Race always saw. He noticed everything about Spot. “Just go to bed,” Spot answered slowly, breaking his attention to stare down at his boots. “You’ve got an early morning.”
“Fine.” Race released Spot’s hand. “I have to be up at four AM tomorrow. I love you.” Spot didn’t respond. “I’m going to come back. Don’t worry about me. You break out when you worry too much.”
Early the next morning, well before sunrise, Race and his squad were woken up. They had all packed the night before and dressed slowly, tired fingers fumbling while tying their boots. They were each handed a few power bars to eat for breakfast on the road and walked, zombie-like, toward the loading area from which they would leave.
Race rubbed his eyes as he walked, vision still blurry from sleep. His finger came away with a bit of sleep dust. “Higgins!” A voice barked from the doorway of a storage shed nearby. Race turned slowly, concealing his surprised expression when he saw Spot there, waving him over. “I need a hand!”
Race split away from the group and stepped into the shed following Spot. Spot reached past him and closed the door behind them, leaving them washed in dim, yellow light from a single old light bulb hanging from the ceiling. “What?” Race asked, still irritated from the night before.
“Don’t go,” Spot replied. He would never beg- Spot Conlon was above that. But he couldn’t help but let a pleading note creep into his voice.
Race sighed, leaning toward Spot. He was afraid. He wasn’t going to admit it, but he was. Because Spot was right- he and his squad were untrained in reconnaissance, and they were about to walk into extremely dangerous territory. But at least he didn’t have to go thinking that he and Spot were fighting. “I have to go.”
Spot grabbed both sides of Race’s face, pulled him down, and kissed him with a type of urgency that was unusual in their relationship. “If you don’t come back,” he said as he breathlessly pulled away. “I will track you down and I will rip off your ears and then kill you and then, you know what? I’ll make sure your headstone talks about what an animal lover you are and how much you love women.”
Spot straightened Race’s hair where it was still sticking up from bedhead. “Just come home. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” Spot handed Race a heavy stack of meal rations. “What’s this for?”
“I said I needed a hand with something. Now go.” He slapped Race on the ass and opened the door.
Spot couldn’t watch Race leave. He had planned to, but he didn’t have it in him. As they loaded into the cars, he turned sharply on his heel and walked as fast as he could in the opposite direction. The sound of the engine cranking to life echoed in his ears for the rest of the day, and he only felt like about ten percent of his attention was available there in the castle. The rest was on the black car that pulled out that morning, and on the northern territory, and on the messy morning hair of the reckless idiot he loved.
By dinnertime, people had started to notice. “You okay, Conlon?” another captain asked. “You look like hell.” Spot looked up from his plate, which was mostly untouched.
“Not feeling good,” he grunted. “I think I got what DaSilva has.”
“Just go to bed,” the other captain said. “You’re not going to be good for anything with that shit. Meyers can cover for you tonight.”
Spot nodded. Three days, he thought. It was only three days. It had already been almost an entire day. He could do this. He headed back to the captains’ quarters, where he laid down in his bunk, staring at the wall. In a move that had essentially become a reflex, he reached one hand into his pillowcase, fingers brushing against the soft fabric of an old shirt that Race had given him. He flopped onto his stomach, one arm still inside the pillow case, the other clutching the pillow close. By the time he woke up, it will have been twenty-five hours. Time flies when you’re miserable.
In the morning, the barracks were way too cheerful. Spot woke with a vengeance and made his bed aggressively, accidentally yanking the sheets off of the mattress more than once. Whenever anyone tried to say anything to him, he snapped, telling them to fuck off or get back to work. His fellow guards were used to Spot’s moods. He could be volatile on a good day. They all knew to avoid him when he got in one of those moods, and to do anything they could to avoid pissing him off further.
“DaSilva!” Spot snapped as he went through inspections. DaSilva’s red hair was barely visible poking out from his blankets. “Get up!”
“He’s sick,” a passing cadet explained.
“I don’t care. Out of bed.”
DaSilva slowly got out of bed, looking clammy and paler than usual. There were dark circles under his eyes and he shivered slightly. “I’m really not feeling good,” he said. “Doc said I have a fever and everything.”
Spot was about to say that he didn’t care when another officer marched by. “Back to bed, DaSilva. Conlon, a word.” Spot followed him out into the hall. “What’s your problem today?”
“I don’t have a problem,” Spot grumbled.
“Yeah,” the officer, Kelly, replied. “You’re a ray of sunshine. Seriously, man. I know you’re just sort of a dick, but this is ridiculous. DaSilva looked like he was either about to pass out or puke just now.” Spot shrugged. “Is this about Higgins?”
With a loud shushing, Spot clapped a hand over Kelly’s mouth. “Shut the hell up,” he hissed. Kelly was the only other person who knew about Spot and Race. He walked in on them one day and had been sworn to absolute secrecy.
Kelly licked Spot’s hand, which Spot yanked away in disgust. “Why is your hand so salty?” Kelly asked. “Seriously, are your palms just that sweaty? Do you have some kind of hormonal imbalance? It’s really weird.”
“Get to the point.”
Kelly shrugged. “I’m not going to tell people- relax. But is that it? It is, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Spot wiped his hand off on his pants.
Kelly leaned against the wall. “Yeah, I’m not worried. No skin off my back. I’m just curious, is all. It’s him, yeah?”
“I’m not talking about this with you.”
“Okay,” Kelly said, holding his hands up in surrender. “Whatever. But if you’re just pissed off because your boyfriend is off on assignment, you need to internalize that shit and stop taking it out on the cadets.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
By the evening of day three, Spot’s nerves were shot. He hadn’t heard any updates since Race and the squad left, and had begun to count down the hours until seventy-six hours would be up. A few officers were called in for a meeting, from which Spot was excused as he was covering for the guard duties of a few sick cadets. Apparently, DaSilva’s illness had been more contagious than he thought.
He stood stoically at attention at his post near the guest wing, listening for any movement other than the handful of palace guests who were staying there. Most of them had gone to dinner, so there wasn’t really much to guard at the moment. To distract himself, he threw himself into work, standing guard far more diligently than he usually did- which was saying something, as Spot was one of the best guards on the force.
Only about half an hour into his shift, Kelly tracked Spot down. “It was a short meeting,” Kelly said, without bothering to say hello. “They just wanted all of the officers to know that we’ve lost contact with the recon squad. They might be back tonight, they might not be. If we don’t hear from them by tomorrow night, they’ll be sending another group out to look.”
Spot spun to face Kelly, feeling as though he had been punched in the gut. “Send me,” he urged.
Kelly shook his head. “They’re sending me and some of my boys.”
“Switch with me!”
There was an awkward pause. “I, uh,” Kelly paused, fiddling with a button on his jacket. “I already did. They were going to send you.”
With that, Spot lunged toward Kelly, pinning him by his shoulder against the wall. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Kelly squirmed, trying to break free. “Nothing. You wouldn’t be able to focus. You’re a wreck, man.”
“Yeah,” Kelly replied dryly, looking pointedly to the hand straining against his shoulder. “You seem fine. Now let me go.” Reluctantly, Spot pulled his hand back. Kelly reached back, brushing dust off of his jacket. “I’ll keep you updated. I mean, it could be nothing. Maybe they just haven’t had time to get in touch.”
The next few hours were excruciating. After Spot was relieved of his duties, he made his way out onto the palace wall, leaning against a short wall and staring down the road, praying for headlights. At one point, a car pulled up and Spot’s heart leapt into his throat, but it was just a couple of tourists trying to take a picture with the palace gates. “Hey, you down there!” Spot yelled from his perch atop the wall. “Clear out of here. This is palace property.” The tourists hurriedly got back into their car and sped away.
He sat up there all night. Periodically, he checked his watch, only to see that it was only about two minutes past since the last time he checked. The closer he got to four AM, the official three day mark, the more sick he felt. As his watch beeped to mark the passing of the hour without sight of any approaching cars, Spot slumped against the wall.
Around five AM, he thought he saw headlights way off in the distance. It was actually just the eyes of a fox glowing from the light from the palace.
At six thirty, the sun began to rise. Spot’s eyes sagged and his stomach rumbled. Another guard passed on his way to a shift on one of the turrets. “You okay?” the guard asked.
“Fine. Keep moving, cadet.”
At eight fifteen, Kelly brought Spot a muffin from the kitchen, which he handed over without a word.
Around noon, the sun was beating down on him as he kept up his watch. The lack of sleep was catching up with him and he was feeling dizzy and ill. But still, he stayed. At three o’clock, Kelly came back. “We’re packing up to go,” he said. “We’re giving them a little while to get here, but the plan is to leave at seven.”
“Okay,” Spot replied. “Where are we meeting?”
“ We’re not meeting anywhere. My squad is going, and you’re staying here.”
Spot crossed his arms and stood up, facing Kelly. Even drawn to his full height, Kelly was still a full head taller. Before he could say something, Kelly held out a hand. “If you go you’re just going to blow your cover, and then Higgins is going to get sent off to a new assignment, and it might be out on the front lines, and then you’ll be distracted all the time so you’ll probably get fired, and then you’ll end up starving in the streets or something because you don’t have a job and Higgins will be… I don’t know. Dead or something. Idiot would probably walk into a trap.”
“Shut up ,” Spot growled.
Kelly shrugged. “Maybe that was a bit dramatic. But he’d definitely get reassigned. You know the drill.”
Spot did know the drill. Reassignment was the best case scenario. A lot of times, guards were fired outright. In extreme cases, they could go to prison for secret relationships. “Get out of here,” Spot grumbled.
The rest of the afternoon passed at a glacial pace. Spot went to his post and tiredly watched, all the while keeping an eye on the window, which overlooked the long driveway that the guards would drive up when they arrived. Around six thirty, Kelly and his squad passed by, backpacks slung over shoulders, weapons packed by their sides.
Spot waited a few moments for them to get a head start before following the group. On the way, he grabbed a passing cadet. “Where are you headed?” he asked.
“Uh, I was going to go to the library,” the cadet replied. “It’s my break.”
“Take your break later,” Spot snapped. “Go patrol the south corridor. Your relief should be there in an hour.” The cadet hesitated. “That’s an order.” The sandy-haired young man jolted clumsily to attention before dashing down the hallway to his new post.
Leaving his post felt wrong. Spot never left. But this was more important. He hurried to catch up with Kelly, staying just far enough back that they didn’t notice him. The squad turned to the left, ready to go check out before leaving. Spot didn’t turn. He passed them, making his way to the cars outside, which they would load into later. They were still unattended, and he opened the trunk of one as quietly as he could, and slipped inside.
After being plunged into total darkness, Spot’s rational side kicked in.
Kelly’s group had gear. They had bags and weapons.
They would have to put those bags and weapons somewhere.
Probably the trunk.
He sighed, letting his head flop back in frustration, which was short lived as the back of his head knocked against the wheel well behind him. Spot cursed and, still unable to see anything, started feeling around for the inside handle to let himself out. He’d just have to figure something else out.
Just after Spot climbed out of the trunk, as he smoothed his clothes, another black car pulled up, parking next to the one he was near. Spot stooped to inspect the underside of the wheel well in an attempt to look like he was actually doing something. It took a while for the driver to leave, but finally he locked the car and headed back into the palace garages, leaving Spot alone.
He turned and marched inside, hoping to come up with another idea, but the situation looked bleak. Kelly wasn’t going to let him tag along, and he couldn’t stow away anywhere good. It was with a heavy heart that he stomped his way back toward his post to relieve the kid who he had forced to cover for him. “Alright, you’re good,” he said tiredly to the back of the boy’s head, sandy-colored hair poking out from beneath his hat.
The boy turned around, but it wasn’t the awkward little cadet.
“ Race .”
Race grinned. He had a small cut on his cheek, but looked to be in one piece. “You almost scared the piss out of that kid,” he said. “I saved him.”
“What are you doing here?” It was taking everything Spot had in him not to grab Race right there, but it was too public. No matter how much relief was currently coursing through Spot, they had to control themselves.
“I work here,” Race replied cheekily as he leaned against the stone wall. Spot rolled his eyes. “We rolled in about an hour ago but we had to come in the entrance near the infirmary because a couple of the guys are hurt- don’t worry, they’re fine. They’ll just get some time off, lucky bastards.”
Spot shrugged. “Want me to shoot you in the foot? Totally non-lethal, will probably heal mostly okay.”
“I think I’ll pass for now, but I appreciate the offer.”
Spot nodded. “You’re late,” he finally said.