I didn't ask anyone to guess which yuletide story I wrote, but if you had suspicions, let me know. I'm posting it here as well, for archival purposes.
Hair Today by Halrloprillalar
Ender's Game, Ender & Alai, G, 1000 words precisely.
Alai, Ender, and the space between.
Thanks to kestrelsan for beta and handholding and such.
There are no scissors in Battle School. Maybe they're afraid of accidents, the kind where your hand slips and someone else bleeds. Even the knives in the mess hall are dull.
Without scissors, you can let your hair grow or you can shave it off. Alai lets his grow.
He is passing through the corridors, back from a physical -- every ninety days, no exceptions -- and he sees Ender in the barber shop.
There are no barbers in Battle School either. Just mirrors and clippers, a few chairs. Ender is standing in front of a mirror, clippers in hand, staring at his reflection.
Ender turns to Alai and there's a flicker of emotion on his face that on anyone else would be a smile. "Ho, Alai." There's a purpling bruise on the side of Ender's face. Alai can't help staring at it. "You should see the other guy," Ender says.
Alai did see the other guy. Frankie Mento, his own toon leader. Battles move too fast to see everything that happens while it's happening, but Alai brings it to mind now, clicks through every fraction of a second until he sees Frankie and Ender colliding in mid-air. He sees Ender flying off to land against the wall, firing the whole way, Frankie thrown back frozen into another toon, scattering the formation. Two minutes later, the battle was over.
Now Frankie's clavicle is cracked and their commander is very pissed off. "You getting careless," Alai says. "Banging around like that."
"I guess I didn't correctly calculate for human stupidity." Ender runs his fingers through his hair. It's soft and spiky, flattened a little on the crown, as long as he ever allows it to get. "My brain is overheating."
"You cut your hair, you look like a baby."
"Cuts down on friction," Ender says. "You should try it. Then you might not be as slow as a slug in molasses."
"Lucky you got no hair anywhere else, Ender." Alai has school work to do, he has to meet Chen in the games room. But he takes a chair and pushes it up to Ender. "Sit your ass down. You too little to make yourself ugly."
"Guess you're the expert on ugly," Ender says and he sits. Alai holds out his hand for the clippers and Ender passes them over. Alai turns them on and cups Ender's skull in one hand, runs the clippers over it with the other.
When Alai cuts Chen's hair, Chen closes his eyes, almost goes off to sleep. Ender's eyes are open, watching. He watches Alai in the mirror, watches his back, the open door, the boys passing in the corridor. But bit by bit, Alai feels him ease. His shoulders drop a little. His eyes move more slowly. He swings one leg, almost too short to touch the ground.
The clippers buzz in Alai's ears, hum against his palm like a handful of bees. He likes the way it feels. He takes Ender's hair off in strips, forehead to crown, nape to crown.
Ender is maybe 95% relaxed right now. He will never relax all the way. He will always be ready, deep inside. Alai knows this and Ender knows that Alai knows and Alai knows that Ender knows that he knows, and so on, back and forth forever, like they are standing between two mirrors.
But 95% is more than Ender will relax with anyone else.
Nobody talks about home, nobody thinks about home, but right now Alai does. If he were a normal kid in a normal school and Ender were in a desk beside him. If they played soccer after class. If Ender didn't have to watch his back.
"Hold still," Alai says and tilts Ender's head down to get the nape of his neck. If they played soccer after class, Ender's team would always win.
The hair slides under the clippers, through Alai's fingers, over Ender's shoulders and down to the floor. Alai wonders what happens to it. They recycle the water in here, they recycle everything they can. What can they do with hair from a boy's head?
"Better clean up all that hair," Alai says. "Otherwise someone take it for a curse on you."
"I knew you wanted it for something," Ender says and their eyes meet in the mirror.
"Sure, I trade it for extra desserts at dinner." Alai wants Ender to relax all the way, to laugh with him the way the other boys do. But even if they were down on Earth playing soccer, Ender would still be watching his back.
Then the hair is gone, down to a bare few millimetres, and Ender's head is both soft and prickly when Alai runs his hand over it.
Ender stands, brushes off his shoulders. "Thank you."
"What, no tip, you fart-eater?"
"Here's a tip," Ender says. "Don't eat yellow snow."
Alai laughs and Ender smiles and it's been years since either of them saw any snow at all.
"Sit down, I'll cut your hair," Ender says. "You'll be faster without it."
"I'd rather be pretty."
"Then better not look in the mirror." Ender moves his head over his head again, rubbing back and forth. "Or you'll start to cry." His drops his arms to his sides. "I've got practice." And he leaves.
Alai looks in the mirror. His own hair is thick, curling tightly, and when he pulls it straight, it's as long as the palm of his hand. He yanks out a few strands and they spring back into curls between his fingers.
He remembers a story he read, years ago, about two boys who cut their wrists and clasped their arms so that their blood ran together. But there are no knives in Battle School.
Some towels are hanging on the wall. Alai tears a strip off one of them. He puts his hair and some of Ender's into it, knots it, ties it around his wrist.
Two weeks later, he loses it.