Chapter 3: Instinct
11y, 1m AV
Rooney’s Bar, Folctha, Cimbrean
Staff Sergeant Adam (Warhorse) Arés
“So Blaczynski gets it in his head that what he really wants is a tattoo of a mustache on his dick, right? I mean, he was pretty fuckin’ drunk and it was like three in the morning, and I was pretty fuckin’ drunk too, so we’re bouncing around Berlin looking for a tattoo parlor that’s open—don’t even fuckin’ ask me how I thought we’d find one, an’—”
“Hah, that sounds like a good night so far. But…?”
“Said he wanted to give two mustache rides at once.”
It wasn’t clear who was more entertaining to watch; Righteous spinning his tall tale, the expressions crossing ‘Horse’s face as he listened, or the men watching them both. It was the last free weekend before the new SOR inductees arrived, shortly before the Whitecrest Brothers did as well. It would be an extremely busy year ahead, all things considered, so one last celebration was in order before the team grew for the first of many times.
“Bro! I mean, you talked him outta it, so…but Jesus! Right on your dick? That…” He shuddered at the thought.
“Could be worse,” said Firth with a smile. “We could do the fuckin’ Sistine Chapel on yours.”
Adam raised an eyebrow and snorted in mock indignation. “Bro, you’re hardly one to talk. You’re just as big as me! I mean,” he grinned suddenly, “It always amazes me how the other two swinging-dick dudes on the team are the most obsessed—”
“Don’t drag me into this, Hoss!” John chuckled into his beer.
Adam giggled in reply. “Hey! You’re the reason I got my callsign in the first place. What’s the fuckin’ deal, man? Yer’ about the same as I am!”
“Hah,” chuckled John ruefully, “Man, I’m a fuckin’ pants monster and I’m a full goddamn inch shorter, bro. Don’t even pretend like I’m in the same league as you.”
“Dude,” sighed Adam ruefully, “It isn’t that big…”
“Yeah it is.” Firth grinned a smug grin. “You and I are the only real men on the team, fuckin’ man up to it, bro.” His playful smirk was met with a quiet snort of annoyed humor from Murray, and jeers and rolling-eye insults from everyone else. “Any bigger, you an’ I wouldn’t ever get laid, man. But I’m also, like, damn near a foot taller than you an’ I don’t parade around every morning pokin’ everyone’s eyes out. That kinda dick on a shortstack like you should be a licensed fuckin’ weapon.”
Everyone at the table burst out laughing while Adam grumbled in faux indignation.
“Wait, hol’ up.” drawled Sikes, “How do y’all know who is bigger? I ain’t exactly seen an up-close comparison.”
Raised eyebrows around the table. Both the Protectors shrugged in unison. “We were bored one night. And drunk. Oh, and Firth was also kinda loopy ‘cuz he was heaving his guts up all night and was pro’ly low on blood sugar.”
“Bad sushi.” He frowned a bit at the memory.
The men chuckled into their beer, not overly surprised. Time served in a military, after all, was so full of indignities both minor and extreme, that one either lost all sense of propriety with his battle-buddies, or one could never cope with the stress.
“Okay, fine. So…” Sikes couldn’t hide his grin; making Adam gently squirm was practically a team hobby.
He sighed. “Close enough between me and Firth it don’t really matter,” he said, and took another pull of his beer. “But if you gotta have a winner, it’s me.” He couldn’t hide the sheepish pride in his voice. “Slightly thicker.”
“Eh, maybe.” Firth wasn’t one to go down without qualification. “I still say I’d win with a few hours of warmup. Nothin’ like a woman to inspire!” A good eyebrow waggle completed the image.
“Maybe,” Adam retorted with a smirk, “But I’m still the biggest, until you can prove it.”
“I bet my nuts are bigger.”
“Not going there,” laughed Adam. “Fuck, you don’t let anything go, do you?”
Firth stoically nodded his agreement, then smirked a lecherous grin, “Nope.” This triggered another round of teasing and highly improbable stories, all of which served to induce that special embarrassed pride to which Adam was strangely vulnerable. The men jeered along raucously and attracted the rolling eyes and smiles of the pub regulars. Their antics were well-understood by this point.
“Yup. Biggest and strongest on the team in every way that matters,” Adam grumbled good-naturedly, “Now, as for tall fucks like you,” he gestured towards the rest of the team, “My perfectly sensible height gives me much better leverage and that makes me even stronger. Deal with it.”
“Still need a stool to reach the top shelf in the cupboards, though.”
It was part of the ritual, that each must be teased for their essential quality. Arés for his enormous size and strength coupled with his relatively short stature, Firth for his (mostly) stoic reservation, Blaczynski for his wild, lampshade-on-head attitude to life, Vandenberg for his resolute engineer’s worldview, and so forth.
A thought seemed to hit Arés as he took a drink. “Wait, dude. Why not you? Your back’s actually wider than mine. You should have the Sistine Chapel. Think of how much detail they could put in!”
Firth chuckled, “Nah, my body is a temple and all that.” He took a pull of his beer and considered the idea. “I mean, it’d be awesome…but a tattoo that big would take forever. And be expensive.”
There was a general nodding in agreement. “Yeah. Definitely a lot of canvas to work with. Oh, wait! Horse’s is more like a topo map. He should do a map of the town! Dude! And he could add to it as the town grows!”
Akiyama snorted. “Pull double-duty for tourists. You are here,” he suggested and flexed extravagantly. Several nearby people turned to watch.
Burgess piled on. “And you’re practically never wearing a shirt, so it’d work!”
“Just ‘cuz I’m pretty and I ain’t covered in acres of that curly bullshit you call hair…” Adam shot back, breaking out his trademark toothy, puppy-like grin.
“Nah, a Horse-map wouldn’t work,” Sikes commented. “We’d have ta’ re-landscape the town to match them muscles. Take years.”
Adam rolled his eyes and grinned. He…liked the teasing, found it very comfortable. He was, perhaps, not as glib or as clever as some of the others but he could fire back at need. It was the affection it represented that mattered.
Something changed slightly in Murray’s attitude. He was always the quiet one, and always looking around at whatever was going on nearby, but that much was normal—he was always paying attention even when not looking at his friends. But everybody could tell when something grabbed his full attention.
“Woah,” he grunted, which was about the first thing he’d said all night.
Firth followed Murray’s gaze and a flash of…something crossed the big man’s face, so fast it almost wasn’t there at all. It was hard to read exactly what emotion had visited him so briefly, but whatever it was, it had been ape-ancient and intense, and clearly not civilized.
He got like that sometimes. Every so often, when he was relaxed and happy and his control maybe needed a split-second to catch up, one saw glimpses of something much older and darker beneath Firth’s generally phlegmatic exterior. He was a very primal man. They all were, of course. One could not do a job like theirs without some familiarity with the primitive, animal side of oneself. Firth, though, he was definitely more in touch with his own aggressive nature, and he showed it just a bit more.
Adam wasn’t particularly bothered by that. He could see the emotion, understand it viscerally, but the nature or origin of it wasn’t something he pondered. Firth was a good guy, after all; a reliable friend, adored puppies and children, and was an excellent combatives instructor.
The object of Murray’s uncharacteristic verbosity was sidling up to the bar wearing a blue dress and high heels in the company of some friends, and it took Adam a moment to recognize her and quite why Firth’s response had been so intense.
“Is that…Deacon?” Akiyama asked. “Never seen her in a skirt before.”
“Yuh.” Firth grunted and grabbed his beer. Corporal Briar Deacon was one of his two suit technicians, which meant automatically that her technical training was far in advance of any of the Operators’, and that she was deceptively strong. Techs had to be—getting their Operators in and out of their EV-MASS systems involved plenty of hauling and shoving. Between her feminine strength, butterscotch hair and hazel eyes, she looked good in uniform. Out of uniform, she was stunning.
Murray finished his beer and in one easy, flexible and silent movement he slithered upright from being reclined sideways across a chair. “My round.” he announced.
“But you just got the last—?” Akiyama raised a hand to object, but Murray was having none of it.
“My. Round.” He grinned, and stepped around and through the crowd with an easy dexterity that completely belied his enormous size. He was easily the largest man in the room outside his friends—legitimately huge, in fact—but the other men of SOR were bigger still. Murray was in fact the smallest man on the team besides Powell. Firth, Burgess, and Arés? Those three were absolute giants.
Some minutes later he returned with several beers and no Deacon.
“Struck out?” Firth asked.
“Ah, she has to be all bloody sensible, an’ doesn’t mix business and pleasure.” Murray grumbled good-naturedly.
“She said that?”
“She said ‘Sorry Murray, I don’t shit where I eat.’ Charming lass.”
Firth snorted in approval and his eyes twinkled as he looked at her. There was none of the dark flicker from before. It was all mirth, and perhaps a bit of admiration.
Murray looked back at her with a not dissimilar expression, and both men froze solid. A second later, with rather better reflexes than Firth, he was on his feet again and, via whatever ninja magic powered him, all but teleported to the bar and tapped firmly on the shoulder of a young man who was standing next to Deacon with his arms folded on the bartop, apparently minding his own business.
Firth remained where he was. Barely. Nobody else had seen what happened, but Adam was good at reading people. On Murray, there was no humor, only deadly serious intent. On Deacon, there was confusion and then a shocked inspection of her cocktail. On the young man, there was…desperation and a pantomime of innocence.
On Firth, there was murder. Anyone could have read it. Many did, and backed away. He was practically trembling in place, clenching his fists, his massive leg bouncing angrily in lieu of action.
The bar’s security had already seen the trouble and were moving to deal with it. By now, SOR and the security folks had a very solid mutual understanding and respect, and so any sudden movement by any of the operators was enough to alert the team.
Firth’s seat creaked slightly as he leaned sideways to whisper to Adam. “Horse,” he croaked. “Get me the fuck outta here before I do somethin’ stupid.”
“…Okay.” Being those days an irredeemable meathead, Adam thought of the best remedy he could. “Go lift? Punching bag?”
“Yeah. Anything. Whatever.”
“Yeah. Let’s go. Maybe wrestling—”
“No. Not that. Punching bag sounds good.”
“…Okay. Let’s go to my gym though. It’s private.”
Firth grunted in reply. They parted the group (who didn’t ask questions), stepped outside, shucked off their nice shoes and socks, rolled up their slacks, knocked fists and set off at a jog, warming their muscles for the coming exertion and cleaning the alcohol from their minds.
It always rained at night in Folctha. The local weather pattern was so stable that the colonists sometimes joked about the time being “half past fog” or “twenty minutes to drizzle.” Whether that would change as the imported deathworld life took over and corrupted, killed and supplanted the native biomes remained to be seen, but for now night meant rain, and Cimbrean wasn’t a warm planet. The rain was skin-tighteningly cold. Just the way they liked it.
It made for lonely streets, also good. Together, Adam and Firth hit their stride round about the time they reached West Bridge, pounding over it with each slamming footfall making its wires and steel structure produce a dull ring. In the dark, the river that rushed below them was black and invisible. They wheeled left and ran along beside the river as they went, the cold rain soaking them through and the puddles splashing pleasantly as they stomped their way through Midtown, onto Demeter Way, and picked up the pace to an outright run for the last kilometer.
Normally, this was all something Adam would enjoy. When he was exercising his body, his mind could disconnect from the reality of his exertions. Fueled by the rush of blood and endorphins, he could contemplate matters in a more clear-headed way than was his resting experience. He craved exercise for exactly that reason. He quite literally felt more aware, more intelligent. He could observe, and meditate on the landscape, and think.
The light exercise didn’t seem to have much effect on Firth’s mood. This was different. It wasn’t like his normal stoic calm, with an amused smirk and a friendly yet mildly intimidating sense of his own superiority. Nor was it like his occasional outbursts of exuberant joy at cute internet videos, or perhaps an impressive athletic achievement by himself, or anyone else for that matter. Nor was it the quiet, intense happiness he radiated when something warmed him, like watching the children playing in the park; recently a couple of Gaoian cubs joined the human children under the watchful eyes of parents and caretakers.
And it definitely wasn’t the dark, primal feelings that very occasionally flashed across his face, like Adam had seen tonight. No. Christian Firth was brooding, and he was quiet. This was the silence of bubbling rage.
They arrived at the building Adam co-owned with Akiyama on Demeter Way, then thumped upstairs to change and to mix a quick pre-workout drink. Without needing a word they shucked off their nice, soaked clothing, threw that into the washing machine, changed into their usual almost-not-there gym attire—Adam loaned Christian a pair of the ever-reliable ranger shorts—and back down the stairs they went, both slamming down the pre-workout as they went. This was a special formulation of Adam’s and SOR medical’s design. It was a heavy stimulant, amongst other things, dosed for hyper-fit and strong men pushing many hundreds of pounds of dense, conditioned muscle. A normal person consuming it would almost certainly experience distress. For Adam and Christian? It just got the blood moving a bit more.
They went straight down the stairs, ignored the ground floor, and grabbed a gallon of electrolyte water from the stand next to the basement doorway. The gym wasn’t open to the public yet as the process of starting a business, hiring staff and installing equipment was slow and needed to be done with care. However, the basement was complete, and that was designed for only the most hardcore lifters. Titan may have owned it on paper, and eventually it would be open (invitation-only) to the public. But it belonged to Horse, and Base, and now Righteous.
Firth didn’t even bother with a proper warm-up. He simply walked up to the specially-designed punching bag and started beating on it like he was genuinely trying to murder the poor thing. It was a very heavy bag, as heavy as Arés, and it was hard, so hard that a man could break their fists punching it. Nonetheless Firth had it swinging violently in mere seconds and the ceiling support groaned under the strain of restraint.
Adam approached, alarmed. “Hey, wait! Don’t smash up my shit, let me hold the damn thing.”
Christian paused and glared a death-stare almost right through Adam’s head. “Yeah. Okay.”
Adam had a sudden insight and realized this workout didn’t call for a zen-like approach. This would be a special session, past even the eerie calm of the Protector’s working sets and well beyond what the other team members could and would put themselves through. For tonight, Adam unlocked his Hate.
Adam could still remember a time when he hadn’t known the real fundamentals of exercise, including the critical distinction between strength and performance. The latter wasn’t so much one category as a library of forms, all geared to a specific type of action, activity, or performance, but beneath and fundamental to any athletic performance lay strength.
As the foundation on which all aspects of the body depended, no amount of flexibility, technique or precision would help if the athlete was not strong or enduring enough in the first place. Strength contributed greatly to general health, to mental awareness, and perhaps counter-intuitively to all aspects of kinesthetic control. All serious athletic training involved getting strong, and to get strong, the single most effective exercise was to lift, and lift hard.
But lifting was challenging. Some movements, like the deadlift, engaged virtually every muscle of the body in a lift that, at high weights, required enormous strength, immense body control, flawless technique and an absolute will to succeed. The measure of success was brutally simple: did the athlete lift the bar and reach a fully upright posture? If not, they had failed. No gray areas, no degrees: just a man, a goal, and a heavy object that would brook nothing but perfection.
Adam, John, Christian—all of the SOR—had those aforementioned qualities in spades. But there was a definite spread amongst the men on where their emphasis lie. The Aggressors trained for strength, of course. Adam would not permit them otherwise, even if they weren’t already perfectly willing and interested. But most of their time was spent in performance training, because their function on the team required them to move and twist through the environment in ways that would awe any Kung-fu stuntmen, dabblers in parkour, or the actual combat athletes of modern militaries. The Aggressors were trained to the point that, to them, the world was a massive, effortless jungle gym. Even while burdened by well over one hundred pounds of EV-MASS suit, and at least another hundred or so in ammo and weapons.
Defenders were much more interested in their strength training. Their jobs required them to remain mobile and bouncing around under heavier armor and heavier loads, and they also needed a functional endurance that was different from the Aggressors; where the latter needed lasting speed, the former required endless power. As the Defenders didn’t need quite the acrobatic ability and none of the speed of the Aggressors, their extra time was spent in the gym with the Protectors. As a result every Defender was substantially stronger than any of the Aggressors…except Firth. He was like Burgess and Arés. He took strength to another level.
And of course the Protectors, more than anyone else, needed absolutely insane strength and endurance. Nobody else had such heavy, tightly crushing versions of EV-MASS. Nobody else wore thick and dense ceramic plating on top of that to compensate for their need to sit still while treating patients. Nobody else had such an irreducibly heavy and bulky pile of mission gear, most of which they must have on their person at all times. Nobody else needed to maneuver through the battlespace with Aggressor-like speed as if all that mass weren’t there, to carry and climb and hump it all over long distances, and sometimes with their fallen comrades and their gear as well through a three-dimensional rescue environment. The Protectors were supreme.
Their needs went so far beyond the Defenders that it proved nearly impossible to recruit individuals with the required genetics, aptitude, ability, and force of personality to reach such superman levels of ability. In retrospect, the SOR had seriously lucked out with Adam and John; they had the Right Stuff for the job like (so far) only one other candidate had.
The Right Stuff was many things, but ultimately it came down to willpower, which was the true difference between the the Protectors, Defenders, and Aggressors. The Aggressors treated the weights like any serious athlete. It was something they did to grow stronger and enable their stunning performance. The Defenders? They were substantially more interested in raw power, so their attitude was much like that of a dedicated gym rat. Where the Aggressors would grunt and growl and swear to get through their sets, Defenders would yell, taunt, rage, and snarl, anything at all to get their adrenaline and endorphins flowing and their blood pumping.
The Protectors? They’d been doing that since they had turned seventeen and began their radical Crue-D regimens. Endless pain and training was something they’ve known their entire adult lives. To them, it went beyond simple experience. They learned how to detach from the suffering, to treat it as an abstract thought. It was almost a meditation, in fact. So rather than yell and curse and jump about, they simply went about their business, quietly and with little expression. Their only noises were those their bodies demanded.
It was an eerie and disconcerting thing to watch. While the others understood it—they all came from serious special operations disciplines, after all—none were as motivated by duty, job function, and a sense of self-worth as the Protectors to be strong. All the others shied away when Adam and John entered their meditative lifting trance, where they wordlessly exercised until muscles visibly bruised.
Everyone was uncomfortable about it. Everyone except for Firth. He alone shared their dedication. What exactly drove him Arés did not know, only that, some months before Capitol Station, Firth approached them and asked to be shown how he could grow strong like the Protectors. Adam and John stumbled through their explanation—they’d never really discussed what they do, only intuited it—and before long Firth, too, had discovered the secret of it. His weight sessions were still shorter than the Protectors but he executed them with the same terrifying efficiency.
And combined with his newfound appetite, his strength and mass shot through the roof. He was always a big man—at least a few inches taller than anyone else on a team of enormous men, and so naturally tall and broad that his head and shoulders brushed doorframes, even before his very first dose of Crue-D. He was, in fact, so naturally large and powerful that when the team first came together, he was both bigger and stronger than either of the Protectors. Their strength shot past his in pretty quick order, of course, as the team roles crystallized and everyone’s training emphasized different things.
Falling behind clearly didn’t sit well with Firth. Until Capitol Station he could still claim he was the biggest and easily the fastest man on the team—and anywhere else, for that matter—even if his strength had been quickly surpassed. But a few months before that incident, both Adam and John had beaten him in those measures, too. Their masses had steadily grown to the point where they easily surpassed Firth, and of course their strength was in a league all its own. And they were still growing across all dimensions at a breakneck pace.
Adam had always thought that may have bothered Christian on a deep level, and the recent months served as confirmation. He was the single most competitive man anyone on the team had ever met. And so, in the soundproof basement of Adam’s building, Firth unleashed his rage against the bag. Adam held the bag steady, and responded with his Hate.
He didn’t know the source of it, not really. What he did know is that, beyond zen, past pain and meditation and calm, there was a nuclear white-hot ball of absolute motivation within him. It hurt, and he didn’t quite understand it, but he knew that if he looked at it, Hated the universe and thought of nothing but his desire to spite the source of the Hate, he could do things not even Burgess could match. And Firth, then and there, was in the same headspace.
The first sign of weakness either of them gave came a few minutes into the onslaught. Firth hit the bag with a wild, powerful haymaker, one so violent that Adam actually had to take a step back and re-plant his enormous feet on the mat. Christian, seeing this, grinned a savage grin and upped his efforts until Adam had to grit his teeth and hold on tight. He didn’t get a chance to settle himself properly again. He could only put his shoulder to it and fight back, almost as if Firth was unloading into his ribs rather than a bag. It became a proxy battle between them; Arés withstanding the assault through cold, hard Hatred, and Firth pressing the attack through a roaring bout of kicking, punching, boundless animal rage.
It could not last. Firth wobbled, but before he fell he attacked one more time with such savagery that the bag finally ripped open, spilling sand, sawdust, and buckshot everywhere. He yelled in triumph and then collapsed to the floor. Adam, with no strength left and no bag to support himself against, fell as well. Firth still had some aggressive energy in him and so he weakly tackled Adam and wrestled him into a pin, but this was not in anger. It was affectionate, born of a desperate need to connect, perhaps to apologize…Adam could not say. In fact, he was too tired and punch-drunk to resist anyway. Firth pinned, and hugged, and they rested.
There was a long moment full of nothing but two exhausted men trying to recover their breath, then Firth propped himself up on wobbly arms and took a good look at Adam, checking he was alright.
Adam recovered some of his wind first. “Are…you okay?”
“Yuh, thanks.” Firth panted a bit more. “You?”
“Uh-huh. That help?” Adam tried, unsuccessfully, to roll out of Firth’s hug-pin. Firth chuckled and flopped off, too spent to continue.
“Oh…God yes. Thanks. You’re…the best bro, man.” He barely managed to grunt it out between desperate draws of air.
“Are…you good?” Adam also caught his breath, still a bit too stunned to process what happened.
“Yah.” Firth nodded, then allowed himself to fall over backward and put an arm on his forehead to ward off the light as he lay on the cool mat. “…No. I dunno. Yeah. I’m good now, feel me?”
Adam, well-conditioned to exertion at this level, caught his wind a bit quicker and more completely. “Somethin’s eatin’ you, man. I’ve never seen you…like that, before.” He paused, unsure of how to proceed.
“I don’t much like lettin’ that guy out.”
Adam listened, for his own reasons beyond helping a friend. He had the knack of pulling more out of people with silence much like his father did.
Firth sighed and sat up, taking a moment to wedge himself into a cross-legged seat and wince in exertion. “Like…the fucking viking, or caveman, or whatever the fuck he is.” Christian leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I gotta beat that motherfucker down. Every. Fuckin’. Day. Sometimes, it’s so bad I gotta…like right now. He’s the bit of me that fuckin’ loves hurtin’ people, and…Christ.”
Adam sensed he needed to be brave. “That look I saw earlier tonight. You do that with everyone?”
“…yeah. Everyone. Even people I would never ever hurt. Usually it’s just in my head but sometimes it shows through.” He looked down, grabbed at his big feet and sighed, “And I fuckin’ hate it, man. I hate it because…I dunno. Part of me really likes the feeling.”
“So that thing with Deacon tonight…and the creep.”
“Ugh, that piece of shit…” Firth’s fist clenched, he glared at it, and relaxed his hand again. “You wanna know the disgustin’ fuckin’ truth, man? I get scum like him, ‘cuz I got some pretty wild and sick thoughts runnin’ in my head.”
“…yeah. The psychologists tell me I’m a well-balanced extreme warrior personality, or something. I don’t buy it. Normal people don’t constantly fantasize about slowly tearing the limbs off their enemies or…overpowering people, or…” His face screwed up in a pained expression.
Adam sat silent for a while.
“But you don’t do what he did. And you’re the best dude with kids I’ve ever seen.”
Firth snorted contemptuously. “Bro. Do you have any idea how much that fucks with me? Like, ever think why I didn’t keep a steady girl before Freya? When I did…had an actual relationship, I mean. Not jus’ gettin’ laid, right? Lauren was her name. Didn’t go well at all. Had to end it before…like, a part of me would wanna just snuggle her all day long, and another part wanted to…”
He couldn’t voice it. A flash of deep, unabiding sorrow crossed his face along with a swallow. Adam watched Christian’s big adam’s apple bob and his eyes blink away tears furiously. Firth was in pain just thinking of Lauren.
Adam tried a different tactic. “Okay. But you’e not had ‘em with Freya.”
“…No. Not with her.”
“…I dunno.” Christian was suddenly paying rapt attention to Adam.
“So you think you protected Lauren. By dumping her and living alone.”
Firth looked up in stunned silence which Adam filled by pressing on. “You’re full of bullshit, man. I don’t really care about what you think. What I care about is what you actually do. So you’ve got these urges? Well how long have you had ‘em?”
“Since, oh, about twelve or so. Earlier. Uh…around when I noticed girls were awesome, I guess. I mean, really noticed them, not just puppy love shit.”
“Fine. You ever acted on any of that?”
“You ever gonna?”
“Fuck no! No!”
“I rest my case.”
“Dude. It ain’t that simple! What if…what if I wind up like that piece of shit at the bar? What if I lose control? I mean, okay. Right now it’s just, like, a thought that flicks through my head, y’know? But what if one took hold? What if I got obsessed? What if I actually…did something?”
Adam gave him the most deadly serious look he could muster. “Then I would stop you. And you’ve got friends here who would do the same.”
He stood up and grabbed a couple of towels off the rack. “This is why you got so mad though, isn’t it? Cause you saw that guy being weak.”
“Yes.” Firth said with such cold fury, such absolute disgust, that there could be no doubting his sincerity. “I could see myself in him. I’m afraid of that.”
“Nah, that’s what you hate, bro. That’s what…look at you, you’re fucking shaking right now. You did that to my bag—” he gestured to its mangled remains. “And not even ‘Base could do that. Hell, I couldn’t do that. That’s genuinely impressive. And why did you do it? Because you hate the caveman, right? And that right there tells me I’m never GONNA have to stop you. You’re one’a the good guys.”
Firth paused and more of his stoic resolve cracked. His eyes watered very slightly. “…Thanks. Really. I mean that. I’ll…try an’ prove you right, I promise.”
Adam felt the need to inject a small amount of levity into the situation. “Well, you gotta, man. I mean, you’re a master sergeant and I’m s’posed to look up to you…there’s a height joke in there, I know it.”
Something that was half a laugh and half a sob burst out of Firth. “You asshole!”
“Mhmm.” Adam nodded vigorously. “…Y’know what? Let’s go upstairs. Good movie night, just us. I got a huge couch, big enough for you, me, even Baseball!”
“Heh.” They wobbled over to the stairway and tiredly thumped their way up to the penthouse. The new door had a palm lock on it—carrying keys in ranger shorts was pretty much impossible—and Adam paused at the ledge.
“Y’know what? Here.” He entered a code. “Stick your palm there.” Firth did and the lock beeped in acceptance. “You ever need to come over, you can, okay? No need to ask beforehand. Just, uh, don’t barge in if it sounds like I’m havin’ fun, heh.”
Firth just nodded, and they let themselves in. The penthouse was more bachelor party-pad than luxury home, and it showed—and smelled. Despite the best efforts of the cleaners Adam had in twice a week, there was a lingering beer-and-sex musk that never quite went away.
Firth gave a good sniff. “Heh, smells like my old apartment!”
Adam rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, at least it’s clean. Also, what? Dude, were you a caveman before all this?”
“Bro, you know exactly what kinda dude I was. I’ve always been a big boy.” He said it with that same smug, slightly friendly-superior smirk that was his trademark, the one that was part joke, part ego. He was back to normal.
“So, movie…” Adam tried to recall what he wanted to see, “Oh, yeah. Big Hero Six?”
“I ain’t never seen numbers one through five.”
“There aren’t one through five—oh. Fine, laugh it up, wiseass.” Adam rolled his eyes and prepped the required movie snacks, while Christian bounced about the apartment, inspecting everything with a mild grin of approval. The building was constructed well; one could hardly feel Adam or Christian’s movement across the floor.
They started the movie and snuggled up like they would back in the barracks, with a huge bowl of popcorn, growlers of beer, and a massive pile of homemade beef jerky. The couch wasn’t quite as large as the one in the barracks, but as promised it was big and extremely comfortable, and it easily swallowed them both up into its soft depths. They had neglected to shower, sadly; the cleaners would not be pleased.
They watched the opening in silence for a long while, munching their snacks in peace. But it quickly became apparent that Firth wasn’t actually watching the movie; he clearly had something on his mind that he was chewing over.
“Yo…what’s your guy like?” he asked. His expression was suddenly very earnest and intense.
“Uh?” Adam frowned at him.
“Like, I’ve got my caveman guy…who’ve you got?”
“…I never thought of a dude.” Adam said. “Like, there’s not like a different Adam in there. There’s just…The Hate.”
It was Christian’s turn to listen silently and intently, and Adam learned that his trick worked just fine on him in return.
“This is gonna sound so fuckin’ emo. Look, just…think of all the shit I went through. Y’know?”
“Dude. I just confessed to rape fantasies and implied a hell of a lot worse. You can’t scare me.”
Adam didn’t reply to that. He paused the movie and stared through the static image on the screen for a second, gathering his words. “Mom and dad divorced when I was ten. Custody hearing went Mom’s way, never mind that she was an alcoholic and DCFS was involved all the time. At fifteen I had to call in a SWAT team because some dude was about to shoot up the roller derby arena I was at on my first date with…with Ava. Dad comes with, gets shot, permanent nerve damage. He starts recovering, me and Ava are going steady, we go over to Orlando for vacation, and we’re getting ice cream at Universal Studios when we heard the big news.”
He put his beer down. “I just…two million dead. Two. Fucking. Million. My mom, my aunt and cousins, all my friends, my school, the…the whole thing.”
Firth swallowed uncomfortably, then nudged closer.
“Shit, dude. I didn’t really, uh, think about it. Fuck. I’m sorry.” He meant it, and dragged Adam across the couch and swallowed him up in a full-body hug, with arms around shoulders, legs around waist, head nuzzled against head, and everything pressed together with an incredible force only Adam could comfortably bear. The extremes of emotion Firth could experience were easily the wildest on the team. That, if anything, was Adam’s lesson tonight.
Adam, meanwhile, spoke quietly. He just kept talking, going steadily quieter and more monotone while firth hugged tighter and tighter. “I don’t even remember it, not really. It’s like a dream. I was just sitting in the hotel room… watching. Like, everyone knew the world was changed, but mine was gone. Just like that. I don’t really remember what we were doing for… months. Until we jumped here, to Cimbrean that first time.”
“…fuck.” Firth took a big swig of beer and handed Adam some jerky. The hug never loosened.
The gesture seemed to bring some life back to Adam’s face, and he even managed a weak smile. “We started putting it back together, y’know? You never saw this place in the early days, man, before the real building work got started. It was like a, a camp or a village or something. We were all in these little portable chalet things, dirt roads, the trees came right up to the river… I made new friends, went to a new school. Made…made a really good friend. Kinda naive, but…”
“Oh, shit,” Firth realized suddenly, “It was her.” He gave Adam a genuinely sad, apologetic look. As if to say I didn’t mean to bring this up.
Adam wiped off his face with both hands. “…You know the fuckin’ rest, man. I can’t…Life just keeps shitting on me.”
Firth kept hugging and unpaused the movie, but neither were watching. “That’s your motivation, isn’t it? It’s your…fuck. Now I understand. I’ve seen you when you think you’re lifting alone, man. It’s…bro, can I make another confession?”
Adam looked up and waited.
“You’re the only man I’ve ever met that scares me.”
Adam’s silence this time wasn’t an inviting one, it was the thoughtful one he used when corralling his words.
“…I have two options.” he said, at last. “I can despair, or I can hate. I can look at all the shit that’s happened and all the beautiful people it shouldn’ta happened to, and…and I can say ‘no. Not on my watch. Over my dead body.’ That right there is The Hate, bro. I hate…I hate everything for not caring about us, and I kinda hate myself because I know that no matter what I do, I’ll never be strong enough to protect everyone…I’m not even strong enough to protect myself.”
Firth pondered that for a long while. He finished his beer, contemplated the empty growler, then arrived at a decision. “Bullshit, man. Just like you called on me. You’re, like…DUDE. You have a team of dudes who ain’t gonna ever let you do this shit alone, y’hear? NOT EVER. And…” He built his resolve. “I’m not gonna let you do this alone, man. I’ve seen the shit we’re gettin’ into. This is a big fight. I wanna murder these fuckers, dude. And I’m special like you, I think. I’m pretty sure I can do what you do. Just…I don’t really know how. Not like you.”
He detangled and stood up, and rose to his full, impressive height. “Make me strong enough to help. Make me strong enough to kill them all.”
Adam gave him a long, slow appraisal. “It’s a double-edged sword.” he said. “I pushed Ava away, doing this. You sure you want that?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “I need this. I need to be for something, man. What better thing can there be than to save humanity from extinction?”
Adam shrugged. “Bein’ human?” he suggested.
Firth smiled ruefully. “Heh. Well…maybe we can figure that out along the way. Deal?”
Adam extended his hand. They shook on it, then pulled each other back into another body-slamming hug. “Deal.”
They enjoyed each other’s company quietly through the evening, drinking all the beer and doing another workout, that one heavy, long, raw, and brutally intense. They thumped back upstairs without any concern for anything except each other, plopped directly back onto the couch and binge-watched crappy animé. They ordered more beer and four extra-large pizzas each and ate it all. Finally, they fell asleep on the couch to awful pay-per-view, blissed out and entangled like zonked-out puppies, drunk, happy, lazy with full bellies…and at peace.
The next morning, Adam awoke to Firth detangling himself from Adam’s sleepy deathgrip-bearhug and worming off the couch. Muzzy-headed, Adam asked, “Bro, where ‘you goin’? It’s, like, four in the morning.” Firth had already pulled off his shorts, thrown them in the washer, and was headed toward the shower.
“Yuh, I know. I just like to pray alone.”
Adam sat up, mildly surprised. “Really?”
“Mhmm. It clears my head. Helps me…I guess, just, y’know, it’s comforting.”
“I didn’t think you were the religious type.”
“Um,” he fidgeted uncomfortably. “Always kinda was…Remember our talk? ‘Bout me at thirteen?”
“I, uh, sorta knew I needed a strong hand from the beginning. There was this priest, Father Jacob. He was…he seemed to get me. And I’ve always sorta just enjoyed the prayer. It’s calming.” He grinned, “Mom an’ dad always said I was a good boy until the end of the week. Father Jacob joked it was the devil found me out again, heh.”
“That important, huh?”
“Eh, it is to me. It’s kinda like, um…I don’t think God’s anything like he’s written, yeah? It’s all just, uh, us trying to understand.”
Adam paused thoughtfully. “I can dig it.”
“Heh.” Firth made to leave. “I’ll be back later to help clean up. And…thanks.”
Adam paused for a moment.
“…maybe I should come?”
“…I’d like that.”
Adam showered after Firth, dressed appropriately, and followed.