The holster was an awkward weight on my right leg that would definitely take some getting used to. I paused on the doorstep and took a deep breath. I'd always hated lying to my parents, and while this wasn't lying, it wasn't quite telling the truth either, and it made me feel uncomfortable.
I shook my head to clear those thoughts away, and brushed my bangs out of my face. I opened the door. The entryway was empty, which was odd. Usually our dogs, Maggie and Marley, were standing vigil, ready to greet anyone who walked in. I looked up at the silver clock hanging on the wall. It was seven. Dinnertime. Which was why there was no one, animal or human, in the entryway. They'd all be at the back of the house in the dining room, halfway through dinner. I took a deep breath and readjusted my shirt over the gun, even though it was already well hidden.
The sound of silverware that had been in our family for generations clinked against china that'd been my mother's wedding present. I paused again outside the dining room, listening to the laughter and warm tones that filled the room. It would be hard to laugh and talk lightly with the weight pressed against my shoulders. I brushed my bangs away from my eyes again, then stepped into the room. Slowly, the room fell silent and the two dogs lifted their heads and fell out of their begging positions to see why everything had stopped.
“I'm home,” I said softly. I'd imagined saying those words for months during training, but never thought I'd get to say them this soon. Or that they'd feel so awkward in my mouth.
The dogs were the first to react. With a series of yapping barks, they stumbled over each other and the floor to reach and greet me. I knelt down and let them sniff my hands and rubbed their heads.
“We didn't think you'd be home so soon,” my father said as he stood.
I stood again and pushed the dogs away from my feet. “I didn't either. Achor and I, we surpassed our recruitment group and were allowed to graduate with another. It all happened so fast, I didn't have a chance to get word to you,” I tried to explain.
My father wrapped me in a tight hug. “We were so worried. We know the training can be tough, and so can the Fox and his rules. We didn't know what had happened or was happening to you.”
A big wave of guilt washed over and threatened to crush me. “I'm home and safe now,” I finally managed to say.
“But not for long, apparently,” my mother said. “We received a letter telling us of your promotion today. You'll be gone for long periods of time, right?” she asked.
I nodded, tears welling up in my eyes. “But that's how it is for any soldier,” I said, trying to brush off the crushing guilt and sudden loneliness. Why had I chosen a soldier's life? I could've been a shopkeeper and been able to stay with my family.
“Well, we have you for tonight,” my father said, wiping tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. “And tonight we will celebrate!” he declared.
My younger brother and sister moved aside their chairs so I could sit. The laughter began again as a fresh plate was placed in front of me. But the laughter was forced this time. It made me think of the night when my brother had come home on leave three years ago. He'd been a high ranking official, and we all knew that he was in danger at home. We all were. But he was tired and refused to listen to his companions. That night, an assassin from the Niger Manus Manus snuck into his room and killed him. To avenge his death is the reason I became a soldier.
After Bentley, my youngest brother, was born, Aaron was promoted to having his own room. He took my old room. I moved into Jet's room. I was the first person to walk in there since the morning we found him dead. To honor his memory, I never changed any of the decor or anything else in the room, save replacing the bed. There are some things that are too sacred to mess with.
Having Jet's room makes me feel closer to him. I closed the door behind me and closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. The room still smelled like him, even after three years. Though I spend most of my time in here, I never defile it with my perfumes and lotions or anything that isn't his. All of my clothes are down the hall in my sister's, Haley’s, room, sitting in a box on top of her closet. All of Jet's clothes are still hanging in the closet, and his old blankets are still covering my mattress, waiting for the soldier who will never come home again.
Reluctant to break the illusion that my brother is still alive, I slowly open my eyes and turn on the lamp beside me, which covers the room in a soft yellow-white warm glow. I sink onto my bed and unlace my boots.
“Remember the day you first came home in your uniform?” I asked my brother's memory. “Mom was so happy, she took so many pictures of you in it. 'So proud to have a son serving the Kingdom,' she said.” I laughed. “But then you gave the ultimate sacrifice for the Kingdom. We all did. Things got really hard after you were gone, but you probably know that, right? I almost had to drop out of school to help dad at the shop. I would've flunked out of school if it weren't for Achor helping me with my studies at night.”
I pulled the leather boots off and set them on the ground, then laid back, falling into the warm blankets. “So even if I can't tell mom and dad, or anyone else, I can still talk to you about it. I'm not really just another kit. Or just another fox-in-training like you were. I'm a Vixen.” I paused. “Yeah, they do exist. And so does the Per Calla. And so does the Niger Manus Manus. Well, you already knew that part. But it's all real, and I get to protect the royal family. It seems pretty crazy, doesn't it?” I asked as I rolled over on my side and looked at his picture on the nightstand. “You gone before you turned twenty, and me part of a military branch that isn't supposed to exist.”
His picture doesn't answer, just continues staring straight ahead at mom as she took another picture of him in his uniform.
“I sure miss you, Jet. But I promise that I'll find the assassin that killed you, and I'll make them pay for all the pain and suffering they've caused,” I whispered to his picture.
I reached over and turned out the light. “Goodnight, Jet.”