I paced across the living room while biting the tip of my thumb.  The start of military recruit training was only a day away.

            The door opened and Ramona walked in with a bag over her shoulder.  She stopped when she saw me walking circles.

            “Are you alright?” she asked.

            I paused, looking up at her.  “What am I doing?” I replied.  “Why was this my decision?”  I rushed her, clinging to her arms.  “There are so many easier jobs I could have chosen.  Why did I pick this one?”

            Ramona stared back at me with a raised brow.  “Dax, it is too late to turn back now.”

            “I know that!”  I immediately resumed my pacing, crossing my arms this time instead of gnawing my fingers.

            “Are you packed?” she asked.

            “No point.  All uniforms are distributed.”

            “Weldkfsmahendfskthidjfmksdgjhidjmsked.”

            Ramona was wandering over to the bookshelf behind her armchair when Leslie peeked their head in around the door.  “You have about five sedonsjehdnfsdy.  I am starving.”

            “Leslie, why am I doing this?!” I cried.  “This is a big mistake, isn’t it?!  I’m completely glitching.”

            Leslie gave me a perplexed look, then glanced at Ramona.

            “She’s nervous,” I heard Ramona say.

            “Ah.”  Leslie walked in, resting an arm across my shoulders.  As if my heart needed to race any more.

            “It’s normal to be nervous,” they said, gently nudging me toward the open door.  “But tonight, we celebrate your acceptance into the Illagwen military force.  We’ll geitjedhfsmdkthirjndahtoemrjhfine.”

            “Uh-huh,” I muttered.

            “We’ll meet you there,” Leslie called to Ramona as we walked out.

            The restaurant we went to was next door to our apartments and I was still gnawing at one of my knuckles by the time we got our food.

            “Dax, relax,” Leslie said.  “As long as you don’t have drill sergeant Gil, everything will be fine.”

            “What?”

            Leslie leaned across the table conspiratorially.  “Gil is one of the most brutal, most fierce, and most difficult to please trainers in existence.”

            I downed a shot of rum.

            Ramona playfully smacked their arm.  “Stop scaring her,” she chided.  “She’sjeuhfsjdthfdnshrfls.”

            “I’m just sharing my own experiences with him,” Leslie replied.

            “Why were you trained by a military officer?” I asked.

            “Classified,” they responded with a mischievous wink.

            Ramona slammed a hand on the table.  “There is nothing classified about what you and the Strokes do!” she cried.  “Jushtjedmfslkhtfndsnher.  And Gil is their cousin, by the way, he trained Leslie as a favor.”

            “Killjoy,” Leslie muttered.  “But, that’s just what you hear about, sweetheart.”  And with that, the two of them entered yet another argument about what the Strokes should and shouldn’t be doing.

            The Strokes, I’d learned, was the government organization that Leslie worked for whose main goal was to free the System, among others.  But I was still confused what Ramona expected Leslie to do about her various complaints.

            “Alright!” she exclaimed after we’d finished our meal, lining up the table with shots.  “Let’s play a game, Dax.  Evjehefijdmsjtefewm, you take a shot.  Andhyejwfmewjdhfislkefekmfdot.”

            “You realize I have to be up bright and early, right?” I asked.

            “So?!”

            “Ramona, you’ve had enough,” Leslie said, placing a hand over the bottle mouth.

            “Ugh, fine.”  She placed paper money on the table and rose from her seat with Leslie’s help.

            Eventually, we made it back to the apartments.  I watched as Leslie lugged Ramona onto her bed – she was already fast asleep.

            “Gods, the girl can drink,” they commented.

            I chuckled.  “That’s what makes her fun.”

            “Glad you had a good time.  Well, good night,” they said, followed by a hug and kiss on the cheek.

            I jumped.  It was a common farewell in Illagu among family and friends, but not at all what I had been expecting at that moment.

            Almost immediately, Leslie stepped back, their eyes wide.   “I’m sorry,” they said as their entire face turned red.  “I, uh, forgot you don’t do that in the System.”

            “But I didn’t – ”

            “Good lfudmsajhgfijmtehdfonashreiofdslrite,” they muttered as they rushed out of the apartment.

            “ – mind,” I finished with a sigh.

To be continued…

Episode 8