Kail slipped out the back door and strode across the lawn, back straight and eyes forward. Don't let them see anything wrong at all, don't let them know what was going on in his head, just get to the safety of the trees. No one would follow him there.

The trees welcomed him, leaves rustling quietly in the gentle breeze. He felt tension draining from his shoulders as he entered the familiar grove, cool and pleasant smelling in the afternoon sunlight. The trees were old friends of his and never let him down.

They never demanded impossible things of him, either. Kail shot a resentful look back at the house, then found a seat on a root that might have grown just for that purpose. He'd brought home decent marks, why couldn't someone see that? All his family could see was that he wasn't good enough. Well, okay, be fair here—it was his father and his eldest brother that were the real culprits. Mother and his other three siblings didn't much care, and little Tylla in particular thought he was wonderful no matter what. But it was his father who'd just ripped into him for not being good enough.

Kail leaned back against the tree trunk, eyes closed. Sometimes it seemed like he'd never be good enough for his father. Of course, Arlen was always just perfect as far as their father was concerned, which was a good thing since he was going to inherit the company. Coreward Express Shipping and Imports, a rather large and definitely prosperous business, had been in the family for three generations now. Kail was rather relieved he wasn't expected to do anything with the company—business was just so boring. He'd rather be a pilot.

He patted his pocket, but couldn't feel the reassuring crackle he expected. So he reached in, relieved when he felt the flier he'd tucked in there for safekeeping. He pulled it out and read it once again. Beneath the standard recruitment hype, he could see something that excited and intrigued him in the advertisement for the Imperial Academy: opportnity for advancement. Which translated, quite simply, into an opportunity to rise or fall by his own actions, something that would never happen here at home. The Imperial Fleet was looking better and better.

He heard the faint sound of the back door slamming and twisted around to look. Tylla was running towards him, blond hair shining in the sun. He smiled and went out to meet her, catching her under the arms and swinging her around until she squealed with delight. Then he put her down and messed up her hair.

"What're you doing out here, runt? Aren't you supposed to be inside?"

"Nope, Mommy said I could come out here with you." She smiled.

Tylla was too cute for her own good, and she knew it, even though she was only five years old. Kail smiled back at her and took her hand. "Come on, then," and he led her back to his tree.

"Whatcha doing out here, brudder?" She knew how to say brother properly, but she'd always called him that. "Playing a game?"

"Not really." Kail sat down in the place he'd just vacated and picked up his flier from the ground. "Been thinking about stuff."

"Boooo-ring," Tylla said, making a face.

"Maybe for you, runt," Kail said, with another swipe at her hair. The light dimmed for a moment and he looked up. Through the trees, he could see high clouds drifting over the sun. "What would you think if I went away to become a soldier?"

"Away? You mean like Arlen did?"

"Yeah. I'd come home sometimes," he added hastily, seeing her expressive face twisting with sadness. "But I couldn't be a soldier and stay at home."

"Why would you want to do that? Go away, I mean. Don't you like it here?"

"Of course I like it here," Kail said. Most of the time, anyway, but she doesn't need to know about the bad stuff. "But I'm a big boy now, not just a little kid anymore. You know that."

She made a face at him and plopped down in his lap. "You're just going to turn into a grown-up, like Arlen did," she accused.

Kail laughed and hugged her. "It happens to all of us, Tylla. Kids grow up. You will too, someday."

"Won't," she said with certainty. "Grownups are boring."

Kail felt an odd chill at that, but put it down to a larger cloud obscuring the sun. The wind was picking up, too. Maybe they'd better think about going back inside... for Tylla's sake, anyway. He'd rather stay out of the house for a while. "Boring or not, all kids become grownups eventually. So would you be mad at me if I went away?"

"I could never be mad at you, brudder," she said, with another one of those sweet smiles.

"Tylla! Time to come inside!"

Their mother's voice rang out across the backyard. Tylla sighed theatrically. "I don't wanna," she complained. "She's just gonna make me go back to lessons. Why do I have to do lessons now, anyway? I didn't before."

"You've got a lot to learn, that's why." Kail gave her a gentle shove to get her moving. "Off with you, now. You know Mommy won't like it if she has to come looking for you."

"Okay," Tylla said heavily, and trudged most unwillingly towards the house. Kail bit back on a laugh, watching her. She really was cute, and not at all the pest his other sister was.

With Tylla gone, his mind returned to the question of the future. He was sixteen now, or would be next month anyways, and according to the recruiting officer that'd given him the flier that was old enough to enlist and transmit his application to the Academy. He opened the already battered flier again, looking at the pictures and trying to picture himself in them. The recruiting officer had looked so sharp in his uniform. And what was more, he'd looked like he had a purpose. Kail was old enough to know there was more to life than what you saw on the surface, and was smart enough not to make life-altering decisions based on appearance alone, but it didn't hurt that all this Imperial Fleet stuff looked so... impressive. And again, purposeful, which meant a lot to him. He was the third son, utterly superfluous as far as his father was concerned. Father had his "heir and a spare," as the old saying ran. The only need he had for yet another son was to distinguish the family name, and it was obvious from how critical he was that Kail wasn't doing good enough at that to make him happy.

Kail sighed heavily. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that wasn't really fair. His father cared about him, he wanted the best for all his children. He was just a very demanding man, and not sure what to do with his moody son. But even though he knew this, Kail still was resentful about his earlier treatment and not inclined to charitable thoughts right now. Maybe his grades weren't good enough to make his father happy, but they certainly had impressed the recruiting officer. He'd even encouraged Kail to transmit his application early, before his birthday, so he could get in as soon as possible. He hadn't shown the slightest doubt that Kail would be accepted to the Academy.

The Academy... Kail looked at the flier again. If he did it, if he went ahead and enlisted in the Fleet, he was going to do it right and go for the top. Make a name for himself in the military, since he wasn't going to get that chance here... and the Fleet didn't give a damn if he wasn't good enough for his father. The Fleet only cared about performance and how well its soldiers obeyed orders.

"Right, then," Kail said aloud, standing up decisively. "I'll give it a go."

If nothing else, at least being in the military would give him something useful to do with his life.