FM 8-50: Bandaging and Splinting.

"Hey, Motta."

She looks up from her aid bag, "Yes, Sergeant?"

"What's the one thing you can't do in Kuwait?" you're already smiling.

"I don't know, Sergeant."

"You can't Kuwait, to get the hell out of here," you burst into string of giggles. Motta gives you a very unimpressed look that makes you laugh even harder. "Come on, you know the rules. When Sergeant Pierce makes a joke…"

"Ha, ha, ha," she obliges dryly, but you see tiny smile curl at the corner of her mouth and it's better than nothing.

"What's so funny?" Quinn asks as she walks up.

"Training," you pat the spot next to you in invitation.

You've commandeered a cot in the back of the igloo for some medical training with PVT Motta. Quinn sits and picks up your skill book, flipping through the pages. Motta redirects her focus on her aid bag. You think Quinn kind of scares her.

"Sterile packaging and procedure," Quinn quotes out of the books, "sounds like a real comedy show."

"Come on, Quinn," you elbow her side, "if a clean package can't make you smile, then I don't know what to say because us medics don't do the dirty."

Motta's laugh is genuine this time, but she tries to choke it down behind her hand. Quinn's eyes slide to the soldier, who shuts up immediately. You give Quinn another nudge and a warning look. If she's going to sit in on your training she has to play nice. She rolls her eyes in agreement and goes back to looking through your book.

You turn to your soldier, "Alright, let's get started."

Under your instruction, Motta inventories her aid bag with you. She points to each supply pocket and shows you what she keeps where, and she explains what she would use each item for. It's basic, dull, and monotonous work, but you want to know that she knows.

"This is where all my airway stuff is," she points to a compartment. "I got NPAs and King LTs, for advanced airway control."

"That's a lot of plastic to shove down someone's throat," Quinn rubs her neck, wincing.

"Which is why we don't use them unless…" you prompt, looking to Motta.

"The patient is unconscious," she answers correctly, "and we have lube."

"What can you use if you don't have surgical lube?"

"Water?" Motta loses a bit of her confidence. "Spit?"

"You can also use blood," you explain, "but makes sure it's the patient's own blood and that it doesn't get in the tube because if it coagulates it will seal the tube and then it's useless."

"That's gross," Motta nods, "but, I understand, Sergeant."

"What did you use?"

Your eyes slide away from Motta's to find your friend staring at a gruesome picture in your medical book. She doesn't even have to be any more specific than that, the tenor in her voice is unmistakable. Without missing a beat, you answer very plainly, "Blood."

Then you turn back to Motta and prompt her to continue like your insides aren't suddenly made of ice.

Quinn always catches you off guard with questions like that—specifics, about that day. She barely even acknowledges that it happened and then she'll suddenly throw a tire iron into your normal brain function. You're confused, wondering if this is progress or if it would be better that she not be thinking about the time she almost died. All you know is that you can't push her about it or else she'll shut you out completely.

You'll have to be very careful about this.

Motta's just finishing going through her aid bag and you steal your book back from Quinn, flipping to the scenarios in the back.

"Hey, did you want a volunteer?" Quinn asks.

"Um, we didn't really need—"

"I'll be right back."

You can hear the smirk in her voice so you look up from the book, watching her walk away. It's not hard to figure out where she's headed. Out of all the women in this tent, some playing cards, some watching movies, there's only one that's sleeping. Quinn would never call anyone out that wasn't in her platoon, so it's just bad luck you guess. Or Quinn being Quinn.

"Are you bored, Lopez?"

SPC Lopez jerks awake as the suspiciously docile tones of her Platoon Sergeant float into her ear. She scrambles into a sitting position when she finds Quinn looming over her, arms crossed and head tilted to the side. You sort of feel bad, because Quinn is your best friend and if she was giving you that same look you would still be nervous. You sort of feel bad but you're still enjoying the show, just a little bit.

"Um," Lopez trips over her answer, not really sure what Quinn wants to hear. She gives your friend a sturdy, "Good morning, Sergeant."

Quinn glances at her watch, "It's two in the afternoon."

You bite the inside of your cheek, trying to keep from smiling at her face. She's still trying to wake up, figure out why her Platoon Sergeant suddenly changed the rules about sleeping during the day, and why she's getting crap for it. She doesn't know how to answer, so she goes with the very original response, "Yes, Sergeant."

Quinn looks so very impressed with her answer and taps her toe against the leg of the cot, "I need a volunteer. Get up, let's go."

"Moving, Sergeant," Lopez stands a little too quickly, you see her wobble on her feet as she hurries to follow Quinn.

"I found a subject for your medical experiments," Quinn smiles, pleased with herself. You know she's not trying to pick on Lopez. She knows that this kind of training, even if it's a medic's job, is good information. She's hoping Lopez will learn a thing or two just by playing a dummy for Motta.

You give the soldier a friendly smile, trying to let her know she's not being punished, "Awesome. Thank you for volunteering, Specialist Lopez."

"Yeah, anytime, Sergeant," she rubs her face, looking around and trying to get up to speed.

"Ready, Motta?"

"Gonna save some ass, Sergeant."

"Lopez, if you would be so kind as to collapse in the middle of that space there," you say it sweetly, like she's doing you the biggest favor.

And she sort of is. You know she doesn't have a choice really, but she lays on the ground and let's Motta apply tourniquets to her arms and legs. She doesn't make a fuss when Motta pokes and prods to simulate searching for wounds and she only makes a small grumble when the junior medic wraps a bandage around her head to treat a fake an eye injury.

"Why do you have to cover both eyes?" Lopez frowns, speaking for the first time since she got roped into this.

You're about to answer when Motta beats you to it, "Because I want to keep your eyes from moving and I can't stop one without covering the other."

Lopez is quiet for a moment, then she snorts, "That makes a stupid amount of sense."

Quinn catches your eye, impressed with your medic's work. That makes you feel awesome. She squeezes your shoulder when she stands, "I'm going to check in with the boys before dinner, I'll bright you back a plate?"

"Sure, alright," you glance at your watch, not realizing that so much time had passed. You noticed Motta's friends are getting ready to head out to. "Hey, Motta, go ahead and take off for dinner, I'll clean up here."

"Really?" she tries to sound hesitant but she's already dropping everything in her hands.

"Yeah, get lost," you wave her on. "Good job today."

"Thanks, Sergeant," she snatches her uniform top and cap just in time to leave with SPC Chang and the other Second Platoon females.

"Fine then," Lopez sits up and calls after her, "just abandon your blind patient, whatever!"

"Oh, hush," you slide off the cot and take a seat next to Lopez on the floor. She turns towards the sound of your voice, her hands reaching for the bandages covering her eyes.

You stop them.

Her fingers curl into fists under your touch.

The tent is quiet, the only noise being the conversations and footsteps in the gravel from outside. You're the last two people here. It's not exactly the result of your planning. If you had realized, maybe you wouldn't have let Motta leave so soon.


"Let me, it's taped down," you gently push her hands back down. She lets them settle in her lap and tangles her fingers together until her knuckles are white. You think she's nervous because she doesn't know who else is in the tent, so she doesn't know the rules. She's vulnerable. You try to sooth her, "Relax, will ya?"

You're not sure who you're trying to calm down.

Would it be too forward to tell her that you're alone?

It's not something you want to say outright; it's okay, we're alone.

Okay for what, exactly?

It's okay to break all the rules, cross all the lines, and forget all the consequences just because you're alone?

No, you can't say that out loud.

Instead, you start peeling back the tape and say, "Thanks, for playing along."

Lopez shrugs, her lips tucking to one side, "I bet Sergeant Fabray could have come up with something worse if she really wanted to."

"That is one hundred percent true," you chuckle.

You can't stop looking at her. For one moment, you can look without needing to worry that she'll catch you—or worse, someone else. Maybe if you memorize her now, you won't be so tempted to catch a glimpse at every second of every day. Is it possible to get a year's worth of stares in the span of seconds?

"Did you learn anything?" you were trying to keep it from getting awkwardly quiet, but then, you realize your gaze.

You didn't ask to hear the answer, you asked to watch her lips move as she says it. Your fingers are careful with the bandage, unwrapping it purposefully slow, you try to draw it out. Stretching time the way air thins in your chest, there's just not enough.

And it starts with a smile, a tiny upturn at the corners of her lips.

"You mean, besides the cover both eyes thing? Um…" she draws her bottom lip into her mouth, thinking. You mimic her, imagining. "I didn't know that if someone's guts fall out, you should put them back in."

"A lot of people argue about that one."

The tail of the bandage falls from around her ears. SPC Lopez blinks a few times to get used to the light and when her eyes fall on yours, you don't know why you tried to cover them for so long. You look away, because your time is up, putting the rolled bandage into PVT Motta's aid bag. A warmth flairs up over your chest and shoulders, a prickling itch.

"I mean, piling the guts on top of their stomach and wrapping them in a wet dressing would still work," you mumble. "It really depends on what you're comfortable with. Never force anything into the body cavity."

Her laugh makes you glance back. Her eyes are sparkling, the smirk set so perfectly on her lips, and then you get it.

"Oh my god," you roll your eyes, trying not to laugh at the innuendo, "shut up."

"No, no," she assures you between giggles, "you're the medical expert, I would never doubt your professional opinion."

You feel the warmth creeping up your neck, down your arms. You shake your head to try to ignore it and her comment, "You're horrible."

"I think I've been hanging out with Evans too much," she sighs, still smiling. "Stop that."

You didn't realize you were scratching the back of your neck until she says it. You try not to look embarrassed and, because you need something to do with your hands, start unwrapping a pressure dressing Motta applied to her bicep. She doesn't try to fight you to do it herself. She sits patiently and watches your hands work.

"Do you like being a medic?"

"It's why I joined the Army, to help people."

"But do you like it?" she repeats herself, ducking her head to catch your eyes. "I guess, to me, it seems like a lot of pressure. So many things can go wrong and like, there's only so much you can do."

You think of Quinn, and how wrong things went.

You think of the first time you realized that your best wasn't enough.

You look away from her and toss the pressure dressing in the aid bag, "That's why we train, so when we're given an opportunity to help, we don't mess it up."

She touches your wrist, careful of the crawling speckles of heat rash on your arms, her voice soft, "I'm sorry."

It's uncertain if she's apologizing for asking insensitive questions, if she thinks she's pushed too far, or maybe… she realizes why your eyes are watering and she's sorry. Sorry for things she can't understand, has never lived through, but can offer genuine sympathy for all the same.

You cough, blinking away the emotion haze and find a laugh somewhere in your soul, "Am I keeping you from dinner?"

"I can't go to the chow hall without a battle buddy," she doesn't look too torn up about it either.

"And I can't leave all these weapons without a guard," you tilt your head to the stack of crew serve rifles in the corner. "You know the rule, last one up watches the weapons."

"Then I guess we're stuck," Lopez pulls Motta's aid bag towards her, examining the supplies inside. She could always walk over to the male tent and try to find a battle buddy there, you both know that. You could ask yourselves why a few moments alone seem so precious, but instead, she asks the important question, "Why does she have twenty packets of surgical lubrication in here?"

It's weird to be back.

Maybe you've stepped into a time machine, because absolutely nothing has changed. The land is barren, pastel and gross. The air harsh, sweltering, and also gross. These are the same dirty concrete walls you sat against over a year ago. They're the same tents with the same mothball smell. You spent so many months of your last deployments wanting nothing more than to go home and now you're back. Absolutely nothing has changed, it's a comfort and a curse.

And it's only the beginning.

You can't say that your time here has been starting off like field of daisies. Your skin hates you. Angry and itching rashes have been keeping you awake for the past three nights. Finally you decided that lying in your sleeping bag with your hands twisted up in your shirt to keep from itching was more aggravating than simply not trying to sleep at all. You have better things to do with your time than to try to keep from twitching too loudly.

Even this late at night, the camp isn't as peaceful as one would think. You can hear truck engines and gravel crunching under tires. More than one plane has taken off or landed in the nearby air field and you wonder if the soldiers are going or coming. It would be nice if they were going home, but you wish them luck anyway.

Floodlights buzz above you and the concrete wall against your back is still warm from the day's heat. It's a nice night. The stars are out and even in a foreign sky, they're very pretty.

Abruptly, and without hesitancy, your mind forgets everything and focuses on the footsteps to your left. Not even a month in country and you're already reunited with the basic suspicions of war. Your eyes are quick to follow and while you don't find a traditional threat, you have to remind yourself that some wolves wear sheep's clothing.

Or grey Army shirts and sleepy looks on their faces.

SPC Lopez stops a few feet from you, squinting around for the logic, "What are you doing out here?"

You look up at her, trying to keep a smile off your face. Her hair bun is barely in regulation and you're pretty sure half her shirt is untucked from her shorts. She looks adorable. You can't help but tease her, "Where's your reflective belt? You know you're supposed to wear it at night for safety."

"Yeah, because I'm totally gonna get hit by a truck in a porta-john," she grumbles, rolling her eyes.

"Dems da rules, Lopez."

She squints even harder at you, crossing her arms over her chest like she can mean mug you into explaining what you're up to. She tries again, "You left the tent like two hours ago and never came back."

Whatever throwaway remark you were about to say dies on your lips. Instead you say, "I didn't mean to wake you."

You didn't mean to worry her, is what you want to say. Her eyes un-squint themselves just enough for you to know she understands. Without further prompting she takes the last few steps and sits against the wall next to you.

"What's with the arts and crafts?" she nods to the coil of paracord in your lap.

"I couldn't sleep," you lift one of your arms and look towards your elbow. The harsh floodlights cast tiny shadows of each little bump on your arm. "This heat rash is kicking my butt and I didn't want to lay there and keep everyone up with my scratching. It helps if my hands are busy."

"Hm," she purses her lips, studying her sneakers. "That sucks. Isn't there some medication you can take?"

"My skin doesn't react well to the cream and Benadryl turns me into a zombie."

"Won't not sleeping turn you into a zombie?"

"Yes, but a more pleasant one," you send her a reassuring smile and take up your craft again. She watches you resume braiding the black and blue strands of cord. "I'll probably head in as soon as I'm finished with this."

"Is that one of those Ranger bracelets?"

You chuckle, "I guess, but really it's just 550 cord. I've never actually seen a Ranger wear one of these. I usually get a whole bunch of colors before deployment. It's something to do to pass the time."

Lopez picks up a stray piece of cord, studying its frosted blue threads, "Yeah, I didn't realize how much time we would spend staring at walls here."

"Just wait," you warn softly, "soon you'll be begging for a day off."

She falls silent, crossing her legs at the ankle. You feel her questions and uncertainties bubble next to you. She has so many things she wants to know but only so many insecurities she's willing to expose. You know the feeling and what it's like to be thrown into a world unknown, trying to keep a brave face.

A plane tears through the night sky above you.

"How are you doing?"

She shifts a little, "I'm fine."

You glance at her from the corner of your eye.

"Really," she meets your eyes for only a moment, "I'm alright."

Quietly, you prod, "Have you talked to anyone back home?"

She shakes her head, her eyebrows tightening a little.

"I don't call home until after a few weeks. Need to build up a scab first, you know?"

"Yeah," she agrees in a breath.

"But after those first weeks, there's no excuse. I have to call my mother at least once every three weeks," you smile at the memory. "One time I didn't call home for like, a month or something and, I don't know how or what she was thinking, but my mom called my commander and told him to tell me to call her."

"I bet that went over well," she laughs a little at that, and you're glad to have broken the dull mood.

"She was still on active duty at the time," you roll your eyes, "and you know how officers just love following rules."

"Yeah," her heel digs into the gravel. "Speaking of breaking the rules, your mom was pretty cool back at Campbell."

Your fingers stop braiding for a moment. You try not to betray your curiosity as you edge her on, "Oh yeah?"

She explains how she found your mom trying to pry the company's display case open with a car key. Lopez looks terribly amused as she continues, "So I asked her, ma'am, do you need help with something? And that was my polite way of asking, what the hell are you doing, but she looked me dead in the eye and said, sweetheart, if you can get me that photograph, I'll give you twenty bucks."

You really like the smile on her face mostly because you don't think she realizes that she's smiling. It's candid, and charming, and coaxes out the cutest dimples on her cheeks. There's a significance that you're trying to ignore, how talking about your mom makes her smile like this, and how it makes you feel closer to them both.

"When exactly did you realize she was my mom?"

"Like, as soon as she started talking to me," she admits, shrugging, without hesitating she reaches over and pushes your hand away from the place on your arm you had been scratching. "It was a pretty easy match."

"Only because her name is on that ridiculous flight jacket," you justify, a blush rising on your face.

Lopez gives you this look like you're crazy, "Excuse me, I think you mean the fight jacket that make her look like a total badass."

"Christ, you're worse than Quinn," you mumble under your breath. Louder you say, "I'm calling BS on that, there's no way you knew we're related so quickly."

"I'm sorry to burst your bubble but you two have the exact same," she uses one accusatory finger to gesture from your head to your toes and back, "thing going on."

Your brows furrow, "What thing?"

"The thing," she laughs, looking embarrassed about having to explain it. "You know."

"No, I have no idea."

She blinks a few times, looking to the sky for the answer, a silly smile on her face, "I don't know, like, do you really think I was after twenty bucks?"

It's a rhetorical question, you know she didn't want the money. As for her true motivations, you know a thing or two about SPC Lopez, so you guess, "You wanted to do it just to prove that you could."

"Prove to her, that I could do it."

You didn't expect something so frank. You're still sort of stunned when she stands, brushing sand off her shorts.

Lopez looks you right in the eye, bold in the night, "I don't know what you want to call it, but you got something that makes soldiers wanna shine their boots and jump on grenades all at the same time."

And you remember how she kidnapped an underage drinker before they get caught by First Sergeant. How she stepped in front of paintballs. How she kept quiet about Quinn's late night rides and the breakdown you had on the side of the road. How she's always followed your rules and played along with the games dictated by you.

When her hips turn and her feet start to take her back towards the tents, you scramble for anything to keep her there. To keep talking to you. Nothing comes.

"Have a good night, Sergeant," she calls over her shoulder.

You wonder how many grenades she's jumped on for you.

The buzzing under your pillow shakes your skull. Knowing it's four in the morning doesn't make it any easier to open your eyes, so you keep them closed and click off the alarm clock. For a second you try to pretend that you're back at home. You think of warm sheets instead of the synthetic cloth of this sleeping bag. With enough imagination you can turn this canvas cot into a queen sized mattress. You think of the breakfast you're going to eat when you finally get up, after the sun finally becomes too bright to ignore.

The sun here is much too bright.

Thankfully it won't be up for another hour so and that makes getting out of this rickety cot easier. Not by much, but it's something, and it's important to appreciate the little things. You stretch your arms out wide and the rest of the women around you sleep—some more quietly than others. Lady snores always make you smile.

With a tiny bit of regret, you sit on the edge of Quinn's cot. You nudge her shoulder gently, smiling when her head sinks off her pillow and disappears into her sleeping bag. Quinn curls when she wakes, groaning against the early hour and over air-conditioning.

"It's four-thirty," you tell her softly, shaking her shoulder one more time.

"That's shit."

"Who makes the platoon schedule?"

She sits up, running her hands through her hair, mumbling, "Some bitch."

Together you get into your PT gear and slip out of the housing igloo. You don't understand how Quinn can smoke soon after brushing her teeth but she does and you wait by her side as she finishes.

"So what did Sylvester find out about our mission?"

Quinn rubs the last bit of sleep from her eyes, a stream of smoke slips from her smirk, "What makes you think I know?"

"Because she'd tell you before she tells the Operation Sergeants."

"Looks like babysitting," she shrugs. "We'll be working security for supply convoys and probably help out with base security."

"Sounds nice and boring," you're not sure how you feel about it yet.

"Yeah, we'll see about that," she snubs out her cigarette on the side of a concrete barrier and tosses it in the bin. "Will you wake up the third platoon females? I'm going to make sure the guys are getting up."

"I'll send them down to the gym."


You make your way back inside the female tent. They're all still asleep. Dreaming little soldiers, for once in their lives, quiet. You put your fingers around the lens of your tiny flashlight to hide most of the light. Most of Third Platoon's females are in the back left corner. Quinn thinks it's funny that they wanted to get as far away from her as possible. You can't blame them, the housing tents are supposed to be a safe place, somewhere they can relax. Soldiers never like feeling their Platoon Sergeant's eyes on them, looking over their shoulders and getting in their business.

After shaking a few pair of feet you cross over to the other side of the tent. There's only one more person that needs to wake up. The dim glow of your flashlight shines over the combat vests leaning neatly against the feet of cots until you find the one that matters and the thick block lettering written across the chest—Lopez.

You turn off the flashlight.

You're not sure what the right answer is here. Maybe it's too early to care or maybe standing in this dark room, nothing more than another shadow, makes it easier to forget. Reaching for that soft dip between her ribs and her hip, you give her side a tiny squeeze. You feel the muscle coil when her legs shift. Her shape is lost in the dim room but without any hesitation or hindrance, you find her shoulder and you squeeze that too.

"Time to get up. PT, come on."

Lopez stirs enough for you to deem her awake.

Tent life hasn't been as difficult as you had thought it might become. Dressing and undressing are formalities handled with care. You never face each other. You never take advantage. Not for a glance or a glimpse. That's a line you won't cross.

Not that you need to watch.

It makes you burn just listening to the fabric of her shirt slide against her skin. A gentle rustle of cloth, snap of a sports bra, scuff of sneakers. Your hands fumble with the strap of your rucksack when you try to tuck away your flashlight.

"Pierce?" Quinn's not so quiet whisper cuts through the tent, her silhouette in the doorway.

"Yeah, coming."

You're quick to leave the tent, scratching absently at your arm. Quinn's waiting, ready to get this over with. Lieutenant Berry is at her side, looking surprisingly alert in the early hour.

"Good morning, ma'am."

"Sergeant Pierce," she smiles in reply. Too brightly for Quinn who gives her an odd look. Berry doesn't notice, and if she does she ignores it. She asks you about your running. "I hear you're a runner, do you run marathons?"

"Oh, no," you shake your head and snort, "those take like four hours, I think I would get bored in the middle of it and just stop."

You like running. It's simple, easy, one foot in front of the other. Running on a treadmill is even easier because you don't even have to worry about picking a direction. All you need to do is run and breathe. You've always used running as an escape, a place to drain all the frustrated energy that might be buzzing under your skin. Doctors once told you that you have an attention deficit disorder. They wanted to give you Ritalin, your mom said no. She took you on a run instead.

To this day, running keeps you steady, keeps you focused.

It keeps your body from ripping itself apart at the seams.

You entertain the young officer's conversation until you enter the gym, which is huge. It has somewhere near thirty treadmills in a row. Behind that is the same number of elliptical machines. All of the cardio equipment is surrounded by weight machines and racks of barbells. Third Platoon ambles into the gym squad by squad, each has their own workout plan and idea of what they're going to do. Quinn's easy like that, she keeps the micromanaging to a minimum. She doesn't care what they're doing as long as it's making them sweat.

You stick with Quinn who knows you'll want to be running. She points you towards a pair of treadmills located where she can watch most of her platoon pretend they're body builders. You think it's funny how as soon as these guys get to the desert all they care about is getting more muscles. It's a craze. Soon you'll see them buying that weird protein powder and drinking muscle milk and thinking they're all that. You don't pay them any mind, whatever keeps them busy.

What you do pay mind to is the woman walking with the rest of second squad.

The treadmill whirls under your feet and you shake off the last the sleep shakes out of your system in the first quarter mile. Running is mindless, yet so very mindful. Not needing to think about what you're doing gives you so much time to think about everything else. You think about the strangest things. Your eyes stay on the wide screen TV across the gym, your focus is somewhere between the wall it's mounted to and the sound of your own feet.

The air conditioning in the gym is decent for a building this size, occupied with so many gym rats and soldiers that might not shower as much as they should. Quinn's pace nearly matches yours. She says you're a better runner because of your height—you don't really care who's better as long as she's running too.

Then they walk over to the weight machines right in front of you. Anderson, Evans, and Lopez. Evans and Anderson look far more interested in the weights than Lopez does, who's under the impression that simply standing in the gym is enough physical strain to constitute exercise. She doesn't look like much of a morning person. Then again, five AM doesn't exactly agree with a lot of people.

You smile to yourself and keep running.

The longer they work out in front of you the harder it is to pretend you're watching the television. Not that you can really call it a work out, their attention is evenly split between the weight machines and the mirrors on the wall. It's hilarious, five reps earns them five minutes of fussing.

"I don't wanna work chest too much," Lopez tells her friend as she studies herself in the mirror. You don't know which view you enjoy more, the back or the front. She's not sure either, she twists that the waist and lifts onto her toes—her calves are very pretty.

You try to focus on the sounds of Quinn's feet. Their steady cadence. Always so steady. Heat prickles along your arms and across your shoulders. You're nearly through a mile but you don't feel like you've gotten anywhere. There's still a horrible tension between your shoulders, a heaviness you're used to leaving behind during a run. This morning you can't focus on becoming unfocused. Not when you're so in tune with one member of your surroundings.

"Why not?" Evans has his eyes tied up in his own bicep while he curls a dumbbell.

Her nose scrunches, fingers pulling her shirt a hair tighter against her ribs, "I read that when girls build up their pecs their boobs can shrink."

No matter how much you like to say that running is mindless, when you actually lose all sense of cognizant thought, running proves to be far above your skill level.

Your toe catches your heel and your haphazard grab for the arm bar only helps to lay you out flat. The treadmill takes your feet out from under you, tumbling into a heaping mess on the gym floor. Quinn shouts, but you can't make out what she's saying over the throbbing in your head and the stinging pain in your knee and elbow. You just ate dirt so hard. The entire gym is looking at you.

Your skin burns and it's not road rash and it's not heat rash.

Quinn's crouching next to you, asking questions you can't hear. Other—too many—people surround you. Quinn's hands help you sit, brushing your bangs away from your eyes. She tries to get you to look at her, but you can't. You feel a tug in a different direction, every masochistic cell in your body pulling you to look and for a horrifying instant you catch dark eyes from across the gym.

Lopez is watching, worried and concerned.

She steps towards you. She steps away from Evans and takes a step towards you and the commotion you've created. Her attention never strays.

Her brow knits and her eyes ask the question her lips mime, "Are you okay?"

Are you okay?

Are you okay?

You sort of want to disappear. Hell, you'd go back in time if you could, take back three lingering voyeuristic moments where you let everything get away from you. How could you be too busy checking her out to even keep your feet on the track? How does that even happen? A sharp pinch around your foot is too painful to ignore. You shift off the foot you had sort of been sitting on and glance down—your shoelace is undone, one string of your left foot pulled tight and uncomfortably constricting. You don't remember—

"Is she alright?"

The gym's MWR employee has made it down to you with a first aid kit.

"Tripped on a shoelace," Quinn tells him definitively. Her voice leaves no room for questions.

The world is moving too quickly, you feel like you're about to be knocked off another treadmill.

"I'm fine," you push the man's hands away when he goes for his first aid kit. "Don't waste your supplies."

"Come on, you need to do something about that knee."

Your embarrassment is wrapping up in your nerves and some self-inflicted anger, "Don't tell me what I need to do with my own damn—"

"Hey," Quinn cuts you off shortly. She's still kneeling over you, her hand on your shoulder feels heavier than it should. "Fix your shoelace and let's go."

There's no way you're arguing with her right now. Quinn stands and gives you room to fix your shoe. There are still eyes on you; random soldiers you'll never see again, the Third Platoon kids that might be laughing about this later, and her. Quinn watches you too. She sees you wince and hobble when you get to your feet. Her hand hovers by your side, ready to catch you if necessary. Thankfully, you're able to make it out of the gym without further humiliation.

The walk back to the tent is longer than you remember it being. The entire time you're expecting her to break the silence. You're expecting her to shatter you.

When you're about to turn the corner to get to your tent she stops walking. She's always so abrupt, always so rash. You stop a step ahead and turn back halfway. The sun is just coming up, a deep auburn color spreading into the milky darkness. Your hands are shaking.

What if Quinn does it? What if she asks? What if she calls you out?

"I wish you would take your own advice sometimes."

This isn't how the scenario went down in your head. Because you know she won't continue without encouragement you ask quietly, "What do you mean?"

"When you give me lectures about acting tough," Quinn puts her hands on her hips and looks around. She looks too comfortable in this warzone and it kills you. "I know you haven't been sleeping at night because of your skin stuff, Britt. If it's that bad that you're falling asleep while running, you should have taken this morning off."

She thinks you were too tired to stay on the treadmill. Your shoulders collapse in, broken with relief.

It only worries Quinn more. She throws her arms around you and holds you tight, "We're gonna be okay. You and me."

You hug her back, desperate for a comfort you can't have.

"Three points of contact up there!"

No matter how many times you say it there'll still be soldiers climbing around on top of these trucks like monkeys. The MRAPs are huge. MaxxPros, they're called, are monsters in the shapes of trucks. The big wigs say that these things will keep soldiers safe from IEDs, car bombs, and small arms fire—maybe even a bazooka or two. You've seen enough of them in chard and smoldering heaps of scrap to know better. There is no such thing as safe out here.

All you can do is try to be safer and the first thing you want to do is make sure no one falls off the stupid things. Really, they're like 10 feet tall and soldiers are swinging around their turrets like it's a playground. The company is going through its own version of driver's education. You'll be assigned vehicles like this when you get to Iraq. You'll take them on missions and use them to escort even bigger trucks around the Iraqi supply routes. It's very important that everyone knows how to drive them.

Standing in the shade of an overhang, you watch the Platoons divvy up the training vehicles and layout all the equipment they'll need to be familiar with. Each squad has four trucks, each team in that squad is responsible for their own truck. Gunners are on top of the trucks, making sure they can work the weapon mounts and that they understand the harness system. Drivers have been taking turns with instructors on the large driving course nearby. Most of the Sergeants are standing nearby, supervising.

Quinn is roaming around with LT Berry, supervising the supervising. That's really what the Army is all about, watching other people work. You, in turn, watch them until they pass by SGT Anderson and his team. Then your eyes seamlessly refocus. You always pick her out, find her in a crowd, ensure that she still exists, and somehow convince yourself that it's normal behavior.

Insistently keeping tabs on one particular solider doesn't mean anything.

You're curious, that's all.

And it's your job to make sure all the young soldiers are adjusting to their first deployment. It's completely justified to be concerned about her—their welfare. So what if you happen to start your company morale assessment with a certain Specialist and circle back to her when you're finished… and probably check in again somewhere in the middle of the roster… but who's counting?

She loops into your thoughts like the latest Top 40s hit—so catchy you can't help but play it every ten minutes.

Out of the corner of you eye you watch her and Evans drag equipment out of their truck and organize it on the hard, packed gravel. They're joking about something, you see the smirk on her face that she gets when she's being sassy. You would have liked to hear the jab because even Anderson is laughing. This is a good team, you can feel their chemistry, and you know they appreciate each other in a way that's rare. You're happy for them. It will make this deployment easier in a small way.

SPC Lopez looks around the oversized parking lot. She's sly about it, or at least you can tell she's trying to be. Holding her arms above her head, she twists at the waist to stretch, eyes searching.

They find you.

It's only after she smiles that you realize she found you watching her. The skin at the back of your neck prickles in the day's heat. You don't look away.

She takes it as an invitation.

Maybe you meant it as one, but you make sure to keep from watching her cross gravel lot. That would be entirely too obvious. So you stand, with your hands on your hips, observing a team of soldiers from First Platoon, and just waiting for her footsteps in the gravel.

"Afternoon, Sergeant Pierce."

Only when you're addressed do you turn to her, finding her pulling a water bottle of out a cooler.

"Lopez," you let yourself smile, just a little, "how are you?"

"Kind of sweaty," she takes off her patrol cap and wipes her forehead with her sleeve, "but alright."

"Then I'm glad you're being responsible and drinking water."

"Well, I did listen to your brief about proper hydration," Lopez offers casually, taking effortless steps towards you.

Chuckling, you roll your eyes, "I'm glad someone paid attention."

"So um," she looks around, "do you know what kind of mission were gonna get?"

You raise an eyebrow to that, "What makes you think I know?"

Lopez shrugs with this little snort, like the answer to your question is so obvious, "Because you and Fabray know everything."

That makes you laugh, "Oh, yeah?"

"Come on, Sergeant," she squints at you, "if Sylvester told anyone it would be Sergeant Fabray and she would have told you… so."

Lopez trails into a little voice, her eyes falling to the water bottle in her hand. Sylvester would tell her favorite Platoon Sergeant, Quinn would tell her best friend, and if you're going to tell a soldier, yes, of course it would be her. You can see her, picking at the cheap label on her water bottle, hoping she's right.

"Convoy security," you tell her, so easily.

She looks up, "Really?"

"That's why they're making us learn everything there is about these trucks," you wave around, "because we'll be living in them for the next year."

"Do you know where we'll actually be living?"

"No," you shake your head with a smile, "so I'm guessing Sylvester doesn't know either."

She lets out this tiny laugh, "I'd put money on it."

Trucks growl around you, moving from one side of the bay to another. Sitting inside these trucks is going to make up about a third of your entire existence in this country.

You just can't wait.

Realistically it should be a pretty boring time. You'll spend hours and hours on the road waiting for something to happen, but that doesn't mean that it will. You'll spend days and days waiting for it to happen, on edge, anticipating, watching miles and miles of desert go by as you daydream about all the worst possible scenarios. And then something will finally happen while you're daydreaming, only half paying attention to the world around you. When you're distracted by what ifs and what thens.

Sometimes it's so quick, but feels strangely slow.

"Hey, throw me up that water will ya?"

The voice draws your attention. You see PFC Hudson, his lumbering body standing on top of his team's oversized truck. His friend tosses him a bottle of water with horrible aim, overshooting. Hudson reaches for it, letting go of the turret wall to go raise to his toes.

His boot catches an antenna mount.

Sometimes things go wrong and there's nothing you can do about it. Your mind rationalizes realities before you have the physically ability to react.

Hudson is caught off guard, his balance wavering, he panics. Arms flailing, he scrambles for a hand hold, losing his footing on a rounded edge. Your boots dig into the gravel as you start running.

Hudson falls.

Maybe it's because she was closer than you, she had time to react, time to move. Maybe it's because Quinn is drawn to disasters. It's as if she can almost predict them. So she's there, running towards Hudson too, but she's so much closer and she looks so determined and you shout, "No!"

Quinn makes brash choices and thinks little of her safety.

She makes you so angry and so very proud.

Hudson falls, hard and heavy and on top of Quinn. There's no way she could truly brake his fall, she's half his size and just didn't have time to get in the best position. That part doesn't matter, she was able to catch his head and shoulders under her and when you get to them you know it saved him from a cracked skull.

That reality doesn't keep him from screaming. His leg is buckled unnaturally underneath him. His face pale, pained and disoriented. Quinn is cross-eyed and breathing heavy but she inches out from under the soldier steady enough. You work quickly, easing him into a resting position.

Flanagan appears by your elbow, "Sergeant, what do you need?"

"Roll his pant leg up. I'll keep the foot from moving."

You send a soldier off for your aid bag, telling him to make sure First Sergeant knows what happened. There's a collective groan from the onlooking soldiers when Flanagan exposes Hudson's shin.

"That's a nasty fracture," you mumble, noticing the obvious deformity just above the ankle joint, a twisted knot of bone pressing against the skin. "Through and through, Tib-Fib. We're lucky it didn't break the skin."

With someone from Third Platoon trying their best to keep Hudson calm, you and Flanagan examine the leg.

"Here's your bag, Sergeant."

You thank the soldier and tell Hudson, "We're going to splint your leg, alright? Try to hold still."

Flanagan is already getting the splinting material out of your aid bag. He works quickly and doesn't need much prompting.

"Figure eight around the ankle, then we'll put on a U to immobilize the long bones."

"Are they gonna send me home?"

You glance up from his broken leg to the broken expression on his face. He's scared that he's letting everyone down, his team, his squad. He's disappointed, so many months of training just to be pulled from the fight so soon. He won't be the big war hero he dreamed about, now he's that klutz that fell off a truck.

"Yes, Hudson we're sending you home."

He's heart broken and you've seen it all before.

"A break like this can take months to heal properly with physical therapy to get you back up to full strength," you tell him, shifting your hands so Flanagan can secure an ace wrap around the splint. "But if you listen to your doctors, and take your therapy seriously, maybe you'll be able to redeploy in six months."

"You think?"

"I do," you give him confident smile, trying to reassure him. There's nothing wrong with a little hope. "You gotta listen to your doctors, though. Make sure you take their advice seriously. You can't be walking on it before they say you can."

"I'll follow the rules, Sergeant," Hudson is determined, "I'm gonna be back."

"Good man."

By the time Hudson is wrapped up a field ambulance is pulls up nearby. You talk to the medic in charge while Flanagan helps the others get Hudson into the back. Hudson's Squad Leader disappear into the back too.

"Hey," you put your hand on Flanagan's shoulder. "Go with them. Keep Hudson calm and make sure they get him what he needs. Don't let those medics brush you off. He's one of our guys and we'll be with him until they send him home."

"I'll take care of him, Sergeant," he looks a little nervous to have this sort of mission but emboldened all at the same time. He jumps into the ambulance like he belongs there and it makes you proud.

Then again, this never should have happened. Someone should have been reminding the troops about safety concerns.

Someone should have been paying attention.

Complacency kills.

That's not some stupid tagline on a PSA poster.

It's real.

When you lose focus, people will get hurt.

Today a soldier broke his leg. Tomorrow, who knows?

But it will be your fault.

You need to find Quinn.

"Sergeant Pierce."

You hear the voice but you don't stop looking around, hands working quickly to pack up your aid bag. Quinn will be hiding somewhere, trying to keep people from seeing her in pain.


She was hurting, you could see it. Quinn tries so hard to keep her weaknesses from showing but she's never been able to keep them from you. That drop might have thrown out her back again. She's needed to be terribly careful with her back ever since—

"Sergeant Pierce."

"What?" you snap, throwing your bag over one shoulder, your boots kick up gravel as you stand and spin towards the person insisting that you have time for them. Then the scowl falls right off your face, "…can I do for you, First Sergeant?"

First Sergeant Sylvester gives you a hard look, "You can explain what happened here."

"Hudson fell off the truck, broke his leg," you wave to the truck like it's evidence. "I sent him to the medical center with his Squad Leader and Flanagan. He's going to need a medevac, First Sergeant, maybe even surgery when he gets back to the states."

She swears under her breath. This is not a great way to start off a deployment. Now the company has one less soldier and one too many detrimental incidents on its record. You can see the higher ups putting their brains together over by the front of the truck. LT Berry catches your eye from the huddle, she's worried. She's missing her Platoon Sergeant and it reminds you that you really need to be finding Quinn.

"He was the only one hurt?"

You give her a very careful, very confident, "Yes, First Sergeant."

There's nothing else you can say.

Protecting Quinn includes her pride.

Sylvester scrutinizes you from head to toe and somehow you're able to cock your hip and twist your face into a bored expression like she's not keeping you from something incredibly important. Eventually she walks away, probably assuming that if you're lying to her she's bound to find out anyway. It's a very likely assumption.

You make a casual pass by the Captain Schuester and the rest of the senior members of the company. LT Berry finds your eyes again and makes a significant glance towards an equipment shed near the back of the compound. It's a lot harder to stay casual after she gives you that clue, but you make it to the shed without looking crazy.



She's speaking from between her teeth, quiet and strained. Enough light slips through the cracks in the tin roof to find her shadow, leaning heavily on a wooden crate in the corner of the room. You don't ask how she's feeling, you know the answer to that. You don't ask if she's in pain, it's obvious that she is. The real question is how much.

"Scale of one to ten?"

Quinn's grunt is less than believable, "'Bout a three."

"Don't lie to me," you set your aid bag down on the crate and take her face in your hands. You feel a sweat on her skin, a tremble in her jaw. The dim light doesn't hide the fear in her eyes.

"A seven. My toes are numb."

Your thumbs wipe away the moisture under her eyes that isn't sweat, "How long?"

"I think I tweaked something when Hudson crashed into me," she explains, her voice hollow and detached. "They started tingling three minutes after that and now, now I can't…"

"Turn around, let me see your back."

She complies, putting her hands on the crate in front of her and hanging her head tiredly. You're careful, gentle, when you slide your hand under her uniform top. Your fingers explore the length of her spine, examining the placement of each disk. They test the ridges of her bones and try, you try, to ignore the divots and dimples of scar tissue.

Heat erupts over your arms, prickling angrily around your arms and shoulders. It bites at your neck and crawls down your back. You feel the sun, even in the darkness of this roof. You feel the sun beat against your face, you feel the ground shake and the air thin. You remember the day you looked at Quinn's back and saw her spine, pasty exposed bone covered in endless streams of blood and—

Today you find nothing out of place. Her skin is warm to the touch. You imagine her tendons and muscles starting to swell, trying to heal themselves from the recent trauma. Swelling could be pinching one of her nerves. Get the swelling under control and it might solve her numb toes.

"Undo your belt," you pull your hands away to open your aid bag. "I'm gonna give you a shot."

"No narcotics," she eyes your injection pack, the way you're twisting a needle onto a syringe prefabricated for a single dose.

"Anti-inflammatory," you touch her shoulder to get her to turn. "The belt, let's go."

"You're fucking kidding me."

"I don't joke about your health. You know that."

Quinn sighs, she does know. So she loosens her belt and resigns herself to whatever humiliation she might get from letting you push her pants down a few inches.

"I hate this," Quinn grumbles. You're not sure if she's talking about her back problems or if getting shots in the ass cheek but you hate this too. You hate that she's too scared of being pulled from active duty to acknowledge that she's gambling with something so precious.

"We'll have to ice your back tonight," you pull up her pants and recap the needle. "The meds should help with your pain but Sylvester was asking questions, so make sure you have your game face on in front of her."

Her eyes search your face, "Did you say anything to her?"

You're torn, but resolute, "No."

"What's the news on Hudson?"

"Berry was arraigning his trip back to the states, I think he'll need surgery."

She grumbles off about the platoon and what this is going to mean for her soldiers. You're not listening. You lost focus out there and you won't do it again. The icepack is startling, it makes your fingers hurt to be so cold when the rest of your body is sweating. The air in the shed is too thick, stale, and hot. You wipe the moisture from your forehead and put the icepack in place with your other hand.

You gave her a shot, but you wish you could do more. Quinn's pain reaches deeper than any medication could ever touch.

Quinn leans further forward and tries to keep the discomfort from showing on her face. Seeing her like this, laid out and hurting, brings up memories you'd both like to forget.

She hurt her back once before.

In a faraway place. A rabbit hole. A nightmare.

You feel yourself tumbling down, trickling in lines of red, choking on uncirculated boiling air.

It wasn't her fault, you remind yourself.

Quinn makes tough decisions, she never weighs her own odds. She's so quick, finding the problem and the best solution in a mere breath. She never thinks of herself. She's not even a factor in the equation. There's only what needs to be done. There's only the mission and her soldiers.

And you remember hating her for it.

Footsteps on the floorboards. Somber sounds circled you.

Each step radiated into your kneecaps as you knelt on the floor, trying everything you knew, using every tool you had, wishing on every ounce of hope.

You remember him—that Chaplin, the minster—you remember him circling your friend like a vulture, just waiting for it to happen. You remember working so hard your entire uniform was drenched with a mix of sand, sweat, and blood—her blood. It was everywhere. On the floor, on the stretcher, it was in your hair and smeared across your face where you had tried to keep the sweat from your eyes. Your shoulders screamed. Your arms burned with effort, trying to apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding.

You realized, there was much too much blood puddled onto the floor. Too much. Each new droplet added to the pool at your feet was one more lost scrap of confidence. The others, medics like you, had already given up. Their movements were mechanic and burdened, they were already detaching.

You were letting her down.

She was dying.

And the Chaplin kept circling.

The only thing you could do was press the bandages into her back harder and hope that the bleeding will stop, that the helicopter would get here in time. You just want it to be okay. You only want her to live.

You fucking want that Chaplin to fuck off and when he reached for her—

"Don't touch her!"

You snapped.

Only this time you're not in an aid station, you're in a shed.

It's not an insensitive Chaplin's wrist you're twisting, it's a frightened Lieutenant Berry's.

And Quinn's not dying, she's fine. Shaken and hurting, but she's fine. She's talking to you, trying to check you back into reality but her words muffled under the sound of your breath and the beating of your heart. You're too hot. You're burning, skin crawling, blistering under the weight of a searing memory.

The sun is near blinding when you break out of the shed but the air is cooler by a few degrees and it's enough to put your feet on the ground. Somehow you find your way to a latrine. You nearly break the sink's knob turning on the water. Your uniform top falls to the floor and the fresh air blesses your skin. The water chills your anxieties. You spread it over your arms, letting it sooth you. Breathing comes easier, your heart rate returns to normal.

You wash it all away.

The door opens and this set of boot falls doesn't sound anything like a death march.

"Taking a bath?"

You look up and find your distraction in the mirror.

SPC Lopez teeters in the doorway, unsure if she's welcome and always, always willing to wait for your signal.

With a dry throat you say, "You're letting the cold air out."

She steps into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. She glances at the stalls and makes sure that you're the only two people in the trailer. She notices how the water soaks your shirtsleeves and heat rash has claimed most of your arms. The way she walks to the sink next to yours, turns on the tap, and lets the water run over her hands is unexpectedly calming.

Standing with you, watching water. Washing it all away.

"Feels good," she admits quietly, turning her hands over and letting the stream touch her palms.

You realize how easy it is to drown in a desert.

AN: i'm writing this for me. i'm writing this for my girlfriend. i'm writing this to wash it away.