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Missing in Action

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

Niltar doesn’t move when she hears knuckles rapping on her door. She doesn’t move even when the lock chirps and the door slides back, despite the fact that she’s lying half-dressed in bed, the bedclothes in chaos around her, her pillows stained with tears and her sheets stained with blood.

“Hey, you, our UC instructor is starting to ge— oh, fuck, holy fuck, Nili—!”

Niltar doesn’t respond as he slams the door and runs to her side. “Nili? Nili, please tell me you’re okay…”

“Sh-she’s gone, Liv,” is all Niltar says as Livkir yanks open a cupboard and starts searching frantically through a pile of canvases and unwashed clothes.

“Where’s— shit, Nili, you’re supposed to have a first-aid kit in here—”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter!? You know who’s on dorm duty this quarter.” Livkir slams the cupboard, pulling open a drawer at random. “Oh, thank fuck.”

Niltar just keeps staring at the ceiling as Livkir pulls open the kit and begins digging through for supplies; doesn’t even react to the sting of the disinfectant on her wounds as he prepares to bandage them up. “Stars, Nili, why didn’t you call for me? Fuck, some of these are really deep—”

“Doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore.”

“Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare give up on me, Niltar Sarsheti Tegvari.” Livkir pauses to touch her on the cheek, turns her head slightly to look her in the eye; she doesn’t resist, just lies there limply. “When Cas gets back—”

“What if she’s not coming back?” Tears are welling up again in Niltar’s eyes. “It’s been two whole days. No word. No nothing. Th-they just took her away—”

“That doesn’t mean she’s not coming back. That doesn’t mean we can’t get her back.” Livkir unwinds a self-stick tape spool and slices off a length, then presses a sterile pad against the worst of Niltar’s wounds and expertly begins to wrap the tape around it. “It is way too early to throw in the towel, okay, Nili?”

She just shrugs. He reaches for another bandage, then pauses, and leans forward, pulling back her eyelids with a thumb. Her pupils are pinpricks, and Livkir swallows hard. “Nili, how much did you take?”

“I don’t fucking know.”

“Did you drink any alcohol? Any other drugs?”

After a pause, she ruefully mumbles, “Don’t have any.” Livkir sighs.

“Thank fuck for that at least. Nili, you are going to be the death of me.”

“Why don’t you just go then. Just abandon me like everyone else.”

“No fucking chance in Haven. I am not going to abandon you, and Cas sure as fuck hasn’t abandoned you either.” He finishes bandaging her left arm, then starts on her right. “I don’t care how many times I have to patch you up.”

“Why? What’s the fucking point?”

“The fucking point, Nili,” Livkir replies, punching her gently in the shoulder, “is getting to see how happy you’ll be when she comes back and holds you again. Okay? Hold that bandage, will you?”

Slowly and reluctantly, she complies. Livkir finishes tying the last pad in place, and releases her arm. “Fuck. Okay. There. No more open wounds.” He exhales raggedly. “Now we just need to get your sheets washed, and your kit restocked. Again.” He sits down next to her. “Where’s the knife?”

“What do you mean.”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Nili. Where’s your knife?”

“I don’t fucking know.”

Livkir sighs, and reaches under her pillow, pulling out the little serrated flick knife Niltar always carries. “Thank you for being as predictable as usual, Nil,” he says, ruffling her hair and clipping the knife to his robe. She scowls.

“That’s mine.”

“And you can have it back when I’m sure you’re not going to do anything stupid with it. —Trying to fight me for it counts as stupid, Nili,” he adds, as she swings a weak blow at him; he easily catches her wrist and pins her arm to the bed. “We both know how that ends.”

Niltar just crumples, rolling over on her side away from him and starting to sob again. Livkir strokes her back and pulls her gently into a sitting position; she collapses against his side, and he holds her close as she trembles quietly in his arms.

“I promise you, I’m gonna—” he begins, but stops short at the sound of a faint, hesitant knock on the door. Niltar flinches, eyes suddenly fearful.

“They’re coming for me,” she whispers, clinging to him. “They’re coming for me too.”

“Shhh.” Livkir hugs her tight. “I don’t think they’d be so polite as to knock. I’ll go take care of it, whoever it is.”

He opens the door to find a young, short boy in a robe as golden as his fluffy, short-cropped hair standing outside the dormitory. The boy looks up in surprise, eyes widening with recognition.

“O-oh! C-comrade L-Livkir, sir,” he stammers, “I— I thought— I’m so s-sorry, I was, um, I was looking for Niltar—?”

“You found her, this is her room, I’m just checking up on her. —I’m so sorry, I don’t think I know you?” Livkir grins ruefully. “I think I’ve seen you in one of my classes, maybe—?”

“Oh, uh, yes, w-we have Firearms together, um.” The boy bows awkwardly. “M-my name is Shalcas, s-sir—”

Livkir pats him gently on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay, you don’t need to be so formal. It’s good to meet you, Shalcas. Are you a friend of Niltar’s?”

“Um, I— not really, I don’t, um, don’t really know many… many people here, uh, yet.” Shalcas hesitates. “I’m— I’m so sorry if I’m interrupting, it’s just— well— I, um, it’s this Geography project, I got assigned to work with Cassil, only, well, she hasn’t shown up to class in days, the instructor didn’t know where she was, um— she said Niltar might—?”

Livkir takes a deep breath. “Maybe you should come in,” he says, opening the door and stepping back. Shalcas hesitantly steps over the threshold, and gasps sharply when he sees Niltar.

“Oh— oh, no, stars and skies, did— did something happen—?”

Livkir quietly shuts the door behind him. “Nili, this is Shalcas, he’s a friend of Cas. Looks like we’re not the only ones trying to find her.”

“Trying to find—?” Shalcas stares up at Livkir, eyes wide. “Wh-what do you mean?”

Livkir pulls out a chair, lifting some underwear and painting supplies off of it to make room. “Why don’t you have a seat.”

“O-okay. Um.” Shalcas gingerly seats himself on the edge of the chair, clasping his hands in his lap. Livkir sits back down on the bed, pulling Niltar back into his arms. She buries her head in his shoulder, quietly crying.

“So, Shalcas, I— I kind of have bad news.” Livkir strokes the crying girl’s back as he speaks, doing his best to comfort her. “Um— as far as we can tell, Cas got arrested early in the morning a couple days ago. We barely saw it go down, she was just marched out of her dorm in handcuffs by— by these people in a uniform I’ve never fucking seen before.”

Shalcas’ eyes widen. “C-can you— can you describe the uniform?”

“Uh, yeah.” Livkir purses his lips, pausing for a moment to think. “It was… very green. Dark green. Lots of leather, black boots and gauntlets. They were armed, too. And they just walked straight through all the security locks like they weren’t even there. Definitely not Homeguard, they were way too slick— I guess that means something to you, huh?”

Shalcas is nodding slowly. “That… sounds like exactly who I was afraid it was. Stars and skies, what did Cassil even do to get the Shevran on her case? She’s only, what, seventeen?”

“Seventeen, yeah. Hang on, the Shevran?” Livkir stares. “You mean, as in, like — the Shevran Shevran? The fucking Control Council Shevran?”

“Y-yeah, um.” Shalcas fiddles with his hands nervously. “Did they have, like— black armbands, weird symbol on one of them?”

“Yeah, that’s— fuck. Okay. Hoooly fuck.” Livkir rubs his forehead. “Okay. I— I was not prepared for this.”

“I’m— I’m so sorry, Livkir, sir, I didn’t mean to—”

“Nonono! It’s okay, it’s okay!” Livkir exclaims as Shalcas starts to stand. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You’ve been super helpful, actually. And please, call me Liv.”

“O-oh!” Shalcas offers him a fragile smile, blushing faintly. “W-well then, um— m-my friends— well— people used to call me Shay?”

“Shay it is then.” Livkir takes a deep breath. “So, like— how do you know all this stuff? —And what do you mean, used to call you?”

“Oh. Y-you know I’m… not originally from here, right?”

“I totally didn’t, but… yeah, that would explain some things.” Livkir frowns. “Do you, like— really not have any friends in Tegvar?”

“I— I mostly keep to myself. When I can.” Shalcas looks down.

“…that sounds lonely.”

“It… it is. Could be worse, though,” he adds darkly.

“I’m so sorry.” Livkir touches him gently on the shoulder. “You’re such a kind, cute, thoughtful kind of guy. If you need help, you know, meeting people, I’m happy to introduce you to some people.” He squeezes Niltar tightly. “You know, after— after we track Cas down and get her back.”

Shalcas blushes even deeper. “Th-tha-that’s so kind of you, Livki—uh, Liv. Um. Is— is there any way I can help?”

Livkir hesitates. “Fuck if I know?” he says finally, “but skies above, I have no fucking idea what’s going on or what to do about it and it sounds like you know a thing or two about the Shevran, so… if anyone can help us, it’s probably you, Shay.”

“I’d— I’d be happy to do anything I can! It— it sounds like she means a lot to you.”

Livkir nods solemnly. “And even more to Nili.”

“I wondered why I didn’t see her in UC the other day,” Shalcas murmurs. “I’m… I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

“I guess you probably don’t know Cas that well, then?”

“N-not really, no. Just that she’s very, um. Very commanding?” He lets out a quiet, sorrowful laugh. “I… I’ve always been kind of scared of her, honestly.”

Livkir smiles sadly. "That’s our Cas, alright. I bet she whipped you all into shape pretty fast.”

Shalcas nodded. “One guy in the group tried to take charge and she just steamrolled him. After that… I was just too terrified to do anything but follow orders. So it just completely fell apart when she… disappeared.”

“She’s… pretty fucking terrifying,” murmurs Niltar, though it’s clear she’s struggling to speak. “And I… I’ve never known anyone so passionate. There was so much shit she thought was beneath her but… she gets so fired up when she finds something worth her time.” Her voice starts to tremble. “Or… s-someone. I guess.”

“Is… is she y-your partner, Niltar?” Shalcas asks softly. Niltar’s head droops.

“She’s a lot more than that,” she replies in a hollow, broken voice.

“Cassil’s Nili’s vartash,” Livkir murmurs. Shalcas’ eyes widen.

“Oh! Oh, that— that makes sense. Oh, wow. Niltar, I’m so sorry — I can only imagine what you’re going through.” He clasps his hands in front of his chest. “I… I really hope we can track her down and get her ba—”

He’s interrupted by a loud, sharp rap on the door, and Livkir’s blood freezes instantly.

“No, no, no,” he hisses. “Not now of all times, damn you—”

The bolt shoots back with an electronic chirp and the door slams open.

“On your feet, comrades.” A tall, red-haired girl in bright crimson robes strides into the room, her untied sash drifting lazily behind her. Livkir glowers as he gets to his feet, and Niltar balls her fists.

“Nili—” Livkir whispers worriedly.

“What have we here?” The girl in red walks straight up to Livkir, carelessly violating his personal space. Her lips are practically close enough to his to kiss. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find you reprobates conspiring in here. Oh, but—” She turns to Niltar. “—where in all Haven is dear little Cassi? She’s been skulking around avoiding me for days. I really did expect I’d find her here.” She turns. “So where is she, Liv? Hiding under the bed like the brave leader she is?”

“Lisi,” Livkir murmurs, “this is really not a good time—”

Lisuan laughs. “Oh, didn’t you have enough time to tidy up? Surely three of you should be enough to make even Niltar’s dorm look respectable. Oh, but that would require something resembling actual work, wouldn’t it? Goodness knows you’re certainly too good for that.”

“You fucking bitch,” Niltar growls. “I bet you’re the one who fucking got her taken away.”

“Nili—”

“‘Taken away’?” Lisuan clicks her tongue. “Really, now, the ceshvol makes you enough of a wild animal without adding paranoid delusions to the mix. Have you met with your counselor yet this decade, Nili dear?”

“Don’t call me that.” Niltar’s voice rises and she moves into a combat stance. “Don’t fucking call me that. Don’t you fucking dare pretend you know me.”

“Nili!” Livkir grabs her by the shoulder, trying to pull her back. “She didn’t mean anything by it. Did you, Lisi?”

“So, you, uh. Know each other,” Shalcas murmured.

“Shali!” Lisuan rounds on him and pats him on the cheek, idly cracking her knuckles with her other hand. “So delightful to run into you! How was class today?”

Shalcas looks away. “F-fine,” he mumbles.

“Oh, good for you!” Lisuan exclaims, beaming. “I guess after repeating a level three times something’s bound to finally stick. But Shali, I have to admit, I’m worried about you — this is bad crowd for someone so young and impressionable to be running with, you know.”

“Lisi.” Livkir clears his throat. “What do you want?”

“Just doing my civic duty,” Lisuan purrs, “making sure poor Nili still has enough sense left in that feral little brain of hers to keep her dorm up to regulation.” She glances around, and clicks her tongue. “Which, by the look of things, she doesn’t.” She reaches for the small slate clipped at her waist. “Oh, don’t fret, dear,” she adds, ruffling Niltar’s hair. “I’m sure no matter how many lashes you earn this time you’ll just go crying to your virtash to get out of it. As always.”

“Don’t you fucking touch me—!” Livkir has to grab Niltar by the arm to stop her from taking a swing at Lisuan. “Liv, let go of me! Bitch, I am going to—”

“Calm down and be civil, right, Nili?” Livkir looks up desperately at Lisuan. “Lisi, please, you don’t need to keep escalating. Not right now.”

Lisuan steps closer, leaning down until her face is less than an inch from Niltar’s. “Is that right, Nili?” she murmurs. “Am I being a bother?” She takes Niltar’s chin between her thumb and forefinger. “Should I leave you to mourn your precious girlfriend in peace?”

Niltar spits in her face, yanking away. “Fuck you. Fuck both of you. Go suck off a rakewyrm, Lisuan. I sincerely hope you die in pain.”

Lisuan straightens her back and smirks, casually wiping the spit from her face. “When I do,” she says, holding up the slate and tapping idly at the screen, “it will be in service of the People. I’m sorry you won’t be able to say the same — but we all know you’re just going to spend the rest of your life limping along in Cassi’s shadow, you poor thing. I doubt very much you’ll even make citizen, if this—” She gestures about the room, pausing to yank open a cupboard and click her tongue in disapproval. “—is the sort of discipline you’re capable of.” She clears her throat. “Unwashed clothing in dormitory, three demerits. Clothing on the floor, three demerits. Blocked walkways, two demerits. Unmade bed, two demerits. Disorganized cabinets, one demerit. Disobedience to dorm monitor, ten demerits. Poor posture, one demerit. Total, twenty-two demerits, which is, I believe, a new record for this quarter.” She beams at Niltar. “Congratulations, dear. And as for you—” She turns to face Shalcas. “I’ll be most curious to see what your new rating is in class tomorrow,” she purrs. “Later, boys~”

Livkir releases Niltar as the door closes behind Lisuan and she immediately rounds on him. “Why the fuck wouldn’t you let go of me?” she cries out, punching him in the shoulder, and he stumbles back. “The fuck is wrong with you? I was going to break her smug fucking face!”

“She would have kicked your ass, Nili!” Livkir blurts, backing away. “She’s at the top of our cohort for UC. I saved you a beating!”

“Saved me a—” Niltar shakes her head wildly. “At least I would have stood up to her!”

“You can’t solve everything with violence—”

“And you can’t solve everything by laying down and spreading your legs!” Niltar spits at his feet. “Not that it stops you from trying. ‘Lisi,’ now?” she adds mockingly. “How long has she owned you, huh?”

“She isn’t— I’m not—” Livkir raises his hands. “Nili, why do you have to be this way? Novas above, she’s not wrong, it really is like you go feral when Cas isn’t around. I don’t know how she keeps you under control!”

“I’ll show you feral!” Niltar’s fist moves with ferocious speed and Livkir recoils, clutching at his stomach. “You’re unbelievable! First you want to lay down for Lisuan fucking Tegvari, then you go and try to make me bend over for her, what’s next, huh?” She slaps his cheek with enough force to send him stumbling. “The Empire? You gonna crawl on all fours and beg the Empress to flog you?”

“G-guys—” Shalcas tries feebly to interject. Niltar ignores him.

“She’s a bully, Nili!” Livkir dodges a third blow and grabs her wrist. “What do you think she was doing? She came over looking for a fight!”

Nili struggles to break Livkir’s grip. “And I would have fucking given her one, you wet fucking doormat—”

“You were going to give her exactly what she wanted! You can’t beat her at her own game!” Livkir catches Niltar in a headlock. “You’re not going to hurt her with your fists — even you did, she’d probably enjoy it!”

“You’d fucking know, you’re apparently her bitch now—” Niltar digs her nails into Livkir’s arm. “Let go of me!”

Livkir winces. “N-not until you calm down!”

“She’s gone, Liv!” Niltar’s voice starts to quiver. “She’s fucking gone and that bitch did nothing but smirk and run her bitch mouth and I— and I—”

Niltar starts to sob.

Livkir glances up at Shalcas. “I’m sorry about all that,” he murmurs.

Shalcas looks shaken, but he nods. “I-it’s okay; it’s okay. Take your time.”

“Thank you,” Livkir mouths, starting to release Niltar, but she clings to him.

“She’s… she’s the f— the first p-person who’s lasted more than— more than a month.”

“I know.” Livkir gently guides Niltar back to her bed. “I know, Nili.”

“I never thought— after everything— I never thought—”

“It’s okay.”

“And now she’s gone too!” Niltar wails. “The first person who stayed and they took her from me!”

“Shh. It’s okay.” Livkir hugs her tightly. “We’re gonna get her back, Nili. We have to.”

“I’m so sorry!” she blurts out. “I got so angry, and I— I never meant to— please, don’t you leave me too—”

“Hey, if I left every friend who threw a punch at me, I wouldn’t have any friends left.” Livkir takes her hands in his, kissing her wrist reassuringly. “I mean it, Nili. We’re gonna get her back. And I’m not going anywhere, okay?”

Niltar buries her head in his chest. “I don’t deserve this. After everything I’ve done—”

“You’re my friend. You’re always going to be my friend, and there’s nothing you can do to change that, no matter how much you might try.” He ruffles her hair affectionately. “And you know how much Cas loves you. This isn’t the end of the world, I promise.”

Shalcas hesitantly draws closer as Livkir pulls Niltar into his lap. “I— I don’t mean to pry,” he murmurs, “but, I— I don’t— wh-what was that all about?”

“Niltar has ceshvol,” Livkir answers quietly. “A really bad case. Lisuan likes to… to toy with her to get a reaction out of Cas.” He sighs. “Lisi really likes to start fights. Because she knows she’s always going to win.”

“Oh, jeez.” Shalcas seats himself gingerly on the edge of the bed. “I— I knew she was strict, but— this—”

“Yeah. Lisi’s real sharp and she has her good points, I swear, but… she can be very cruel sometimes.” Livkir looks up, meeting Shalcas’ gaze, and the boy’s cheeks redden slightly. But he doesn’t look away. “She likes to punish people and yeah, she really, really doesn’t like disobedience. And— well, you know Cas.”

Shalcas nods, biting his lip. “I… I see. I’m… I’m really sorry all this happened.”

“Thanks.” Livkir strokes the back of Niltar’s neck as she lies back down, and pulls the blankets up over her. “Nili and Cas are the only reason each other are alive at this point.”

“You’re one of the reasons she’s alive too,” Niltar says quietly. “Did the same thing for her she did for me.”

Livkir’s cheeks redden slightly. “Oh — really, it wasn’t the same at all— I just, I just made a medevac call, was all, nothing impressive. Anyway—” He turns back to Shalcas, eager to change the subject. “Cas took care of Nili when the rest of our cohort wrote her off as damaged goods. It scares me that the Shevran would just take her away like that. Don’t they care? It’s all there in the records, it’s all official, they should know Cas is her guardian.”

Shalcas looks away. “The Shevran are… they are a complicated agency.”

“You seem to know a lot about them.”

The boy nods slowly. “I’m… I’m really not supposed to talk about this, but, well— they evacuated me when I was young. From… where I lived before here. It was kind of a big deal when it went down. And they… they saved me from some… really bad stuff. There was this one officer who probably saved my life. I just… I’m really grateful to them for that, and I really admire them, I think they’re good people, truly, it’s just…” He clasps his hands in his lap. “They’re not part of the normal world. The Shevran doesn’t come in unless the normal world has stopped working and needs to be… beaten back into shape. Every single agent who talked to me— they were all so kind and caring and strong, every single one of them, but… I— I don’t really know how to put this into words.”

He gazes out the window for a moment. “I guess it’s kinda like… they’re used to playing by such different rules. They do things very differently, and they’re… they’re very forceful, and they’re very strict. The kind of people who always use the val pronoun and never ever say elen,’ you know what I mean? They come in from the outside and they impose a new order, and they don’t always think very much about the one that was already in place. Or they don’t trust it. Or something. They… they expect total submission from everyone at all times. And they’re incredibly powerful, so one way or another… they’ll get it.”

Livkir reaches out and rests a hand on Shalcas’ shoulder. “Thank you for talking to us about this, Shay,” he murmurs. “It sounds like it’s not easy.”

“Yeah. Don’t really like thinking about those days.” Shalcas squeezes his legs together and sighs. “The drugs my counselor has me on help with the nightmares at least, even if they do make me all dizzy in the morning. —S-sorry, I— I didn’t mean to go and make this all about me, I—”

“It’s okay, it’s okay. You didn’t do anything of the sort.” Livkir pats him on the back. “…you look like you could use a hug.”

Shalcas blushes brightly, staring down into his lap. “I— I’m, I’m— it’s— I’m—”

“Come here.” Livkir puts an arm around Shalcas’ waist, and as Shalcas turns, struggling to meet Livkir’s gaze, embraces him gently. Shalcas stammers for a moment before falling silent and resting his head on Livkir’s shoulder.

“…th-thank you,” he manages in a small voice.

“Any time.” Livkir ruffles his hair as Shalcas reluctantly withdraws. “Isn’t that what friends are for?”

Shalcas smiles timidly up at him. “Friends? Just like that?”

Livkir pats him on the shoulder. “Of course. You sat straight through a genuine Niltar breakdown, that makes you one of us whether you like it or not.”

“Fuck you!” Niltar’s voice is muffled by a pillow.

“Wow, really? I’m… that means so much to me.” Shalcas stares up at Livkir, eyes full of gratitude. “The cliques are usually so hard to get into here.”

“You’re helping us get Cas back.” Niltar sits up, glaring at him. “Of course you’re our friend now, are you shitting me?”

“Speaking of which,” Livkir murmurs, “do you have any suggestion for… for where we go from here?”

Shalcas nods slowly, licking his dry lips. “I… Yes. I think… I think I might.”