The first time he saw her, he thought she was an angel sent from heaven. Something that made his fellow trainees laugh, until they realized he was dead serious.
Especially after a week of the Commander's "Special Training Session", aka the Week From Hell for everyone.
Lal Mirch was a no nonsense woman who didn't accept back talk or whining, but when they actually did something right she was equally quick to praise them. And they could tell it was real praise.
She was a total hard ass, according to the others, but there was something about her that made it hard for them to complain too much. Sure, she didn't accept excuses unless they were damn good ones, but unlike the other instructors when she asked for your best, it was because she genuinely believed you were capable of it.
And when she smiled... dear god that smile alone would have made him work twice as hard just to see it again.
Most of his fellow trainees had long since lost their crush on their rather hot instructor beaten out of them. Lal Mirch was too professional to allow a brief fling ruin her career and theirs, and was far too pleased to make sure they damn well knew it.
In the end, only Colonello lasted an entire month with her and opted to stay under her command, rather than transfer out the first chance he had.
Most of his fellow trainees had jumped ship the second they could, because Lal Mirch was one of the hardest instructors on base. If you survived her you could survive damn near anything thrown at you. Or at least have a damn good reason not to screw up, because she would be on you like white on rice.
Her slaps hurt, but they were full of love, as she almost joked.
It was debatable whether the woman even had a sense of humor under that prickly exterior.
"So this is the trainee who survived and decided to stick with it? Got some balls on him, or perhaps he's too stupid to pick a new instructor," joked Greg. He was another instructor.
As the lone student under Lal Mirch's personal supervision, Colonello was being given the rare opportunity to join in on a training exercise he would normally have to wait a few years for. It was something the higher ups did to keep their own skills sharp. That and to get away from the whiny "brats" that had just started.
Colonello grinned at the man, his very posture loose, but still respectful.
He didn't complain once as he hauled most of the tents (he was the rookie, after all) up the mountain. At least Lal let him take a few minutes to recover with some water.
It wasn't until nightfall that they ran into a snag.
Namely that the only tent with enough room to house the extra... was Lal Mirch.
Colonello wondered why the older instructors suddenly looked rather panicked. It wasn't like he'd take advantage of her, after all.
Finally Greg put one arm around Colonello and told him with a dead serious expression.
"Son, I'm only going to tell you this once. There's no shame in sleeping outside."
Colonello eyes the clouds above, which looked like rain.
"I think I'll take my chances," he said jovially.
He didn't realize what the actual problem was until around three in the morning, when the storm outside was raging quite loudly. No way in hell was he sleeping outside in that!
He noticed Lal was sitting up, eyes unfocused and perfectly still. At first he thought she was awake for some reason, until he saw it. With a crack of lightning, there was the unmistakable movement of her trying to gut someone with a knife she didn't have. There was a silent snarl, and suddenly he had an epiphany of why the older man told him there was no shame in sleeping outside with this weather.
Lal had PTSD. A severe case of it, from what he could tell. She couldn't tell friend from foe and would attack anything that got in her way.
He heard rumors that some days she became as territorial and vicious as an enraged Cloud, but he had no idea this was what they meant.
Colonello wasn't stupid. If he got near her in this state, she was sure to attack him without even realizing it. However there was so much pain on her face that there was no way he could just leave her like this.
So with slow, exaggerated movements, he cautiously got out of his sleeping bag. He made sure Lal saw what he was about to do and was slow enough that not even her trapped mind would register him as a threat. Once he was close enough, h wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.
Lal snarled... and struggled a bit inside his arms. He didn't let go, and he gradually released his hold on his Flames. It was part of the reason he had been recommended to COMSUBIN in the first place.
There was a brief moment when Lal started to really panic, and he frowned. Rain Flames were supposed to bring tranquility, which calmed people down.
Yet the way she reacted, it was as if he was attacking her.
He let go of his Flames and just held her tight. The rain began to let up, and when it did he noticed she was starting to relax in his arms. Colonello made sure to keep a loose grip around her. She could easily escape, but at the same time he was comforting her.
There was a choked sob, and she almost started crying. Colonello didn't let up, but he felt relief when she slowly fell back asleep. He didn't crawl back into his own sleeping bag until he was sure she wouldn't fall back into another episode. It felt nice, holding her in his arms.
By morning, she wasn't the only one exhausted. So was he.
"I take it she had another episode?" asked Greg tiredly.
Colonello stared at him.
"Of course we knew! Trying to keep our skills sharp is just the excuse we give the rookies and the idiots not in the know! It's easier to take her out here where she can break down in peace around people who understand than to scare the rookies off," said Greg offended.
Well, that made a lot more sense than having a mini vacation.
"Why haven't the higher ups treated it?"
"We've tried. She refuses to become dependent on medication and despite her episodes it doesn't actually hinder her professional life. It just makes her beyond a nightmare to deal with. Honestly, we were more surprised that she never had an episode during those times of the month," said Greg irritably.
"So how do they last?"
"She didn't attack you did she?"
He was quick to shake his head.
"Any idea why she freaked out over Flames?"
Greg winced. He knew the guy was a Rain, but using Flames when she was in the middle of an episode was damn near suicide... especially when it involved flaring.
According to her medical records, she had heavy flame scars on her soul. None but the most hardened Suns could go near her with their Flames because the sheer amount of damage done to her soul was so bad it made them violently ill. And that was before her aversion to healing kicked in.
Honestly it was easier for everyone involved to bring her out of the training grounds to get her Cloud instincts out in a safe setting with trained professionals. PTSD in a Flame User, especially someone who had such a strong Cloud secondary was serious.
Clouds were bad enough on a good day. Adding in such stress was a recipe for nothing but a monumental disaster.
Lal looked rather... confused, to say the least. Like she knew she had an episode, but for some reason wasn't feeling the way she usually did about it.
"Hardly, that damn lightning woke me up."
The next night was the same, except this time Colonello came prepared. He was a little bit closer to his teacher when she jolted up. Once again, he slowly made his way to her side of the tent, and made sure she saw him when he wrapped his arms around her.
He felt her tense, but this time she didn't try to fight him like before. Then again he didn't make the mistake of using his Flames this time.
He just sat there, letting her get used to his arms around her, holding her tight.
Her breathing patterns evened out after half an hour, and she slowly started to nod back off to real sleep. Her head bumped into his chest, and he heard the softest snore.
It was nice, holding the "demon instructor" in his arms like this. He doubted anyone else had the brains to think of just holding her when she had an episode.
The other instructors had a good idea, getting her away from all those active Flames, but they didn't try to cut off her pain at the source. Her nightmares.
By morning Colonello could tell Lal was actually rested for once.
Greg was eyeing her oddly, and by extension him.
"Okay, I'll bite. How the hell did you cut it off?" asked Greg baffled. By this point Lal Mirch was usually undergoing some nasty Cloud tendencies and driving her friends and colleagues up the wall.
This time though, she seemed only slightly exhausted, but not biting their heads off.
"Uh, cut what off?"
"Don't play coy with me. She's always in fight or die mode by this point. There's a reason we schedule our outings around her panic attacks."
Colonello looked very sheepish.
"I hugged her."
"You... hugged her."
"Yeah, I made sure she saw what I was doing and just held her while she started panicking. Once she realized I was a new element it seemed to help," said Colonello helplessly.
"Son of a bitch! Why didn't we think of that?!" said Greg annoyed. Seriously, how did they not think of that?
"Considering you did admit that you sparred with her during her episodes, she might not react well to you."
Lal was one hell of a strong woman, and he didn't think she'd be this traumatized by anything short of being in a war. It certainly explained why she went in the military... she probably hoped being around other soldiers would make it easier, or at least keep people from asking about her habits.
The fact she let him get that close and didn't really fight him when he held her through the nightmares was a good sign. It meant she didn't register him as a threat, though she would definitely be pissed if she realized what he was doing while awake.
By the end of the week, it had become very clear that Colonello was either the bravest man on the planet, getting near the demon trainer when she was having an episode when she wasn't awake enough to register who was holding her, or he was some sort of idiot savant.
At least he figured out that if he increased his Flames by small increments, instead of a steady rise, that Lal wouldn't react so badly to being around them. She knew how to use her Flames, but she didn't like being around anyone who was active. At all.
"You're a hundred years too early to pick me up!" said Lal irate.
It had been almost two months since she had a panic attack, and she was edgy. She didn't like it when her routine got disrupted, especially something as dangerous as one of her episodes.
And yes, she knew perfectly well why they went to the mountains ever couple of months and it had nothing to do with training. It was pretty damn obvious when her presence at the hike was made mandatory by the higher ups.
She was a good soldier, a damn good trainer and she was above all a professional. Three things that any military would love.
If not for that minor incident when that idiot flared near her and revealed her PTSD, she might have been promoted even further. Instead she was stuck as a trainer, not that she cared.
She had found her place after her hellish childhood, and she liked where she was now. This was her home.
Colonello merely laughed off the slap to the head. He was the only one brave (read: suicidal to everyone else) enough to remain under her personal supervision, when any other soldier would have transferred out.
And he never hid his interest in her, far from it. The cheesy pick up lines were beyond ridiculous, and the less said about his flirting the better.
Then again he was the only human on the base who consistently kept bothering her about dates, when most gave up after a few months of her "winning" personality.
Generally speaking people didn't like having to wade through god knows how many thorns just to make a connection with someone.
"Get slapped again, Colonello?" laughed his fellow trainees. Colonello didn't even bat an eye.
"Aw, you know she loves me!" he laughed back. Which only set Lal off.
Not that he minded. He could tell she was instinctively pulling her punches so that while he might end up a little bruises, she wouldn't seriously hurt him. His ego would take a hit, but underneath her prickly exterior she was a total softy who loved her students.
After all he had seen her punch a concrete block into powder once with her Cloud flames. If she really wanted to hurt him she'd kick his ass and he'd be unable to stop it.
Besides... he could see past the veil of raven black (almost dark blue with the way the sun hit it) hair to see her monumental blush. She was so cute when she was embarrassed.
"Oi! Dumbass! She done beating you yet! We have an assignment for you!" shouted Greg.
Lal kicked him in the ass to the older man's direction, then went off to torture...er, train some of the stronger rookies.
Seeing grown men cry at the mere sight of her being annoyed was great. It made her wonder how her old potions teacher would have reacted if he could see her now.
Snape wouldn't know what hit him, and she barely refrained from her more evil cackling.
She'd save it for when she brought out the robotic bees. Expensive as hell to buy, but just as good as the real thing without the irritation of a potential lawsuit from allergic reactions.
Ah, the sound of grown men screaming in fear of her was music to her ears...