Or, Three Things They Don't Teach You in COMSUBIN
1. How to deal with annoying newbies
Lal has had her share of noisy idiots before – people who think that war is the best goddamned thing since ever; people who like to run around, wasting bullets and getting shot in the knee, because for some reason they think that makes them heroes; people who watched too many action flicks and thought it was romantic, dying with dirt all over one's face, lying on a comrade's lap. Their delusions don't last very long under her command, but she thinks that isn't her fault so much as it is reality's.
Colonello just might be worse than all the others though – twice as reckless, twice as likely to laugh at the most inappropriate times. He stalks into the practice room with his bandanna slung low over his eyes, yawning because it's four in the morning. He picks up the gun and holds it so awkwardly he might as well be holding a plucked chicken. Lal is already done with her round of weights, and she observes him with disapproval for a full minute before walking up to him and snapping his hands into the right position, rough and angry because of his sloppiness.
"Hey, thanks, coach," he half-yawns-half-says, the appreciative smile entirely lost on her.
She glares at him, and when he only looks blearily back, not moving, not shrinking away, she barks, "What are you looking at?"
"You," he replies, not at all apologetic. Like this answer is the most natural, obvious thing in the world.
2. How to say good luck
It pains her to admit, ten weeks later, that Colonello is the most promising bastard in the bunch, and most likely to be awesome without even trying. Lal has a thing against people with natural talent, even when they work hard – it just doesn't seem fair. (Somebody might tell her that she is too young and too skinny to be anyone's instructor, that if anyone is a natural born soldier, it's Lal Mirch, but by then she'll be pointing at the game of tic tac toe that various scars have played on her skin, asking them, does that look natural to you?) (And it's not really fair, but that's not how you play in the military; certainly not how Lal Mirch plays.)
He hasn't grown on her. That would be implying that she cares, now, and Lal isn't the type of instructor who abides by favoritism. Her own trainers used to do that to her, and she hated them for it – how they'd call her out for being a woman, then eye her when she wasn't looking, grip her arm more aggressively and longer than they needed to. There were a lot of nights when her only consolation was imagining how she'd one day be able to freely punch them in the gut. By the time that day came she had enough power to dispose of them by (mostly) legitimate means; seeing the pride drain from their pale faces had been the sweetest victory.
They did teach her one thing, though, and that is how to not get attached. As she concludes her tactical explanation and orders them to leave, she is uncomfortably aware of how Colonello hangs around in the back of the tent with his hands in his pockets. She put him in the second squad; the first would mean he'd race too quickly ahead, but there's no use putting him in third form, either, where the fighting reaches last. She herself, of course, is in the first squad. Somebody needs to keep all these new kids in check, and besides, there are mines that she needs to detect.
"Yes? Do you have a question?" Exasperation is quickly becoming her default tone with him. She sweeps the hair out of her eyes, a gesture which hopefully shows how little time she has for this.
"Why don't you put me in the first group? You know I can handle a rifle much better than a lot of those guys." He still has a smile on his face, but it's confident and a little challenging, not dopey. She's somewhat jolted when she realizes that maybe it was never dopey, she just didn't want to see it any other way. Well. Cheeky isn't on her list of admirable attitudes.
"There's a strategy to this. It's not about putting all the best soldiers in the front –" she catches the compliment, hates herself for letting it slip, but he doesn't even seem to notice. "It's about pacing the flow of people so that we don't spread ourselves too thin on one end."
He looks thoughtful. "Okay. So why don't I take your place in first, then?"
Lal crosses her arms, anger flaring through her. "Are you implying that you can take my place?"
"I'd be happy to, if you'd let me," he answers, entirely good-natured.
She doesn't hit him. Afterwards, she's proud of herself for that restraint. It's much later – when he steps in to absorb the Curse that they both have to live through anyway – when she realizes that it's not ambition talking, but something simpler, more pure. A longing to protect. A desire not to be the one left behind. Why Colonello cares, she still doesn't know, but it's that kind side of him that haunts her long after they've moved into more dangerous territory.
"You don't know what you're saying, you cocky little bastard. Get some more experience before you think of trying to one-up me." Lal pauses on her way out of the tent, to add over her shoulder, "I'm not going to be the one picking pieces of you off the battlefield later."
3. How to make chicken soup
She only takes it upon herself because no one else in this blasted place has the balls to go near the stove, and the cook came down with pneumonia the other day. Lal isn't fond of cooking, in the same way that she isn't fond of sewing (hence the patchy stitches on most of her clothes) and cleaning and nursing others to health. It's not on her job description, but this is her dinner too, so she pours in cream and adds some cut up mushrooms that had popped up in spite of the first layer of frost, and wonders just how stupid she'll look when she brings this out on a tray.
No one pays her any attention, though, and it's mostly her own heart pounding that betrays her embarrassment when she finally makes it into the makeshift clinic. Colonello is propped up in bed, playing with a handheld game console; his eyes slide over to her, languidly, and they widen because clearly she is not who he expects. To his credit he only says, "Is that dinner?"
"Yes," she says, and sets it on the table next to his bed, pointedly sticking the spoon in so that he knows he has to feed himself. After all this time, she still doesn't want him getting any ideas. He flicks off the GameBoy and turns to the food eagerly.
"I thought Donnie was down with a cold," he says, but doesn't push further when Lal just clears her throat. He ignores the spoon and lifts the bowl to his mouth, slurping the soup down. "Ah, nice and warm," he says, like he's in some kind of commercial for Campbell's. Lal feels a grin twitching across her lips, and manages to maneuver it into a pout instead.
"How are you feeling?" She asks. Not too tentative. Just give me a report, soldier. Her eyes settle on the bruises running down his left arm, a watercolor purple that reminds her what a miracle it is, that his bones are intact beneath the skin. The detonated bomb had thrown them both backwards – Colonello had been knocked back against the far wall, dropping down to his arm, to three cracked ribs and bits of bomb digging into his knees. Lal only got deep scratches across her calf, mostly from the flying debris; one other man had been blown half apart.
The battlefield is a grisly place to scale things against it. Lal doesn't know what she's grateful for; if gratitude is even the right feeling to have.
"Okay," he answers. "And you?"
"Fine. They were only scratches." She looks around and there's nowhere to sit at, and she doesn't want to seem like she's inviting herself to stay, so she paces instead, down to the corner where someone left in the middle of sorting some medical supplies. "Look, I'm not trying to be preachy or anything, but I think you have to be a little more careful next time. I'm thinking of naming you as my candidate, and I can't have you screwing that up." She didn't plan on revealing it to him so soon – they're not going to begin the tests for the new instructors until March – but it's almost a relief, now that she's said it. She can't keep pretending she doesn't notice his skill. Besides, the letter from CEDEF arrived in the mail today, the seal gleaming in the sun as the paper shook in her grasp.
Colonello tilts his head to the side. "You worried about me?"
Of course the conversation would amount to this. She nearly forgot what an idiot he could be, all because he got himself bashed in a little – stupid of her. She moves to pick up the tray, and feels Colonello's fingers closing around her wrist. The pressure is soft, his hand still warm from touching the soup bowl, and it's almost like she hasn't felt anything so gentle in ages. The shock is enough to make her stop, for a moment, and when she moves her head to face him she really isn't sure anymore, what her eyes are asking. Let me go, or maybe, what do you want, Colonello? What do you want from me? Why would you want anything from me?
You're too young to know what you want, what you could do – so stop it. Why don't you just stop it?
There is a future neither of them know yet, when this question will be asked, again and again. By that time someone else will be holding the playing cards, and Lal will have scars across her face, and they will both have pacifiers around their necks.
But his answer this time, as it will be every other time, is not to let her go. Throw himself in the way of things, because she's too hotheaded and he can do the job, so really, there's nothing to worry about! Lal seizes his hand with hers, intending to drop it away from her, but when their fingers lace together she just lets it stay that way. And waits.
"Hey, everything is going to be fine," he says. She doesn't nod – doesn't tell him he's wrong – but she closes her eyes against the knowledge that she'll give in, the way she always does, and sighs, right before his lips brush over her knuckles.