Franca got up to an indistinct yet familiar shouting. "Oh, no," she said as she opened the door and the voice of Calvaro Rodriguez, their drill instructor at Lanseal, became clear, shouting at the sleepy soldiers as they got ready for the morning drills.
"Some of you maggots might remember me if you graduate from Lanseal," the drill instructor said.
"Difficult to forget," Nichol muttered.
At the end of the exhausting drills, Franca was walking back when Imran ran up to her and Nichol looking annoyed. Imran didn't have to do drills because he would be in the leader's room planning their advances for the day.
"There's someone here to see you two," he said, walking back to the leader's room with them.
Franca opened the door and saw there were already some people in the room - a man who looked to be in his fifties, Ricardo and to her surprise, Nahum Dryer, one of her and Nichol's classmate's at Lanseal.
As Franca, Nichol and Imran sat down the older man began speaking. "I would not have come here if it wasn't a matter of absolute necessity. I am sorry if this decision causes you any inconvenience, but first, I trust you know my nephew Nahum here?"
Franca nodded, Nichol muttered an almost indistinct, 'yes' and Ricardo said, "I've shot at him once or twice in drills." Nahum looked indignantly at the latter so the old man started speaking hurriedly again.
"I know this is a hard time for Gallia - yet another war. But things are not going well in the Kingdom of Dryer either. Nahum's father is a strong and just ruler, but some people oppose him and want to depose him in any way possible - most likely by murdering or imprisoning him - and put Nahum in his place. Nahum is young and has not learnt all the disciplines of being a ruler yet, and they wish to control Dryer by forcing Nahum to do as they command him to; they seek to become the indirect rulers of Dryer. But they will not dare depose Nahum's father unless they have Nahum captive ready for the throne, otherwise there would be anarchy in Dryer."
"So you want us to keep Nahum in Gallia so that the Dryeran revolutionaries can't find him?" Franca said, guessing at the rest of his plan.
The man nodded. "Exactly. Relations between Gallia and Dryer have always been friendly, and Nahum has fought alongside you before. There is no safer place for him. In return, Nahum will fight alongside you again."
"Don't know why you're offering that, Nahum must be a terrible soldier. That's why he's in Class G, that bunch of sore losers," Ricardo said, leaning back lazily.
"Shut up," Franca snapped. "Class G didn't choke in the Levatain finals like you did."
The digs they were having each other got more and more threatening until Nichol instinctively put a hand of Franca's arm to calm her down... and removed it as soon as he put it there, embarassed at the slightest contact between them and hoping no one else had seen his gesture. It didn't seem anyone had, not even Franca, but then again he wasn't looking up.
Nahum ended up in their squad that way. He was a mediocre soldier in the start, having been out of form for a while, and to top it off he was constantly demanding all sorts of luxuries that Gallian soldiers couldn't expect. He'd also have a habit of treating the male soldiers like servants and suddenly telling some of the female ones, Franca included, that he'd like to take them back to Dryer as his queens. The latter always refused.
Then on one of their three man scouting missions, Nichol, Imran and Nahum got stranded. Actually only Imran and Nichol were supposed to go and find the enemy positions in the forest they were in, but Imran insisted on bringing a shocktrooper along and (Nichol suspected) picked Nahum simply to annoy him. And it worked. In fact, Nahum was so frustrated at being brought on a scouting mission that he wouldn't stay hidden and even at night the Federation scouts spotted him and took up positions in the forest. The three of them fled and got lost.
"Now look what you did!" Imran hissed furiously, jabbing his finger in Nahum's chest.
"You're the one who wanted to take me along in the first place. And I won't stand for that kind of misbehaviour from the likes of you," Nahum said.
"Just be quieter now," Imran said. "You're making enough noise to wake the dead and we're already being hunted by those Feds."
They stayed where they were with their guns at the ready. Imran sat well away from Nahum, and Nahum was ignoring him too. Nichol, who was friendlier with Imran even though he'd known Nahum longer, settled down next to the former.
After a long silence Imran finally spoke, "I suppose they'll be out there searching for us by now."
"I hope so," Nichol said. "This wouldn't be the place I'd pick to stay the night."
"Why're you always so quiet around Franca?"
Nichol was surprised by this sudden question. "What do you mean?" he said.
"Well, come on. All the pressure she puts on you, and you're still like a mouse around her. I don't know how I'd put up with that. Besides, you both are so different. Sometimes I can't even believe you're siblings."
Nichol felt uneasy since he hadn't told anyone except Avan that they weren't siblings, but Imran wasn't the rumour-spreading type, so he decided to tell him. Haltingly, he told him how he'd overheard his parents saying they weren't real siblings, even though Franca thought of him as her brother.
Imran didn't say anything at the end.
" ... Did I just tell you too much?" Nichol asked.
"Uh, so what you're trying to tell me is that you're in love with your sister?" Imran said.
"Did you even listen?" Nichol said exasperatedly, half-annoyed that Imran was so blunt and half-hoping Imran would answer no even though it was a rhetorical question.
Imran was quiet again and then asked. "Does she know you're not related by blood?"
Nichol was regretting telling Imran even this much, but he decided to still be honest.
"No. I'm hoping I can prove myself to her and keep her safe, then I'll tell her," Nichol said.
"Well so far, neither of us two have been heroes much, you and me," Imran said. "In fact, I won't be surprised if Franca goes pro on me and becomes the leader. I wouldn't really mind, I'm only leading us now because there wasn't anyone else in the squad who wanted to do it."
Nichol got the idea that Imran was trying to change the subject and thankfully seized the opportunity. They spent a long time talking about who the new leader would be if Imran was demoted, who would be strict enough to become the drill instructor if Rodriguez left (both of them again thought it would be Franca) and how best to return Nahum to Dryer. They had an enjoyable time proposing absurd schemes on the latter subject.
"Finally!" Nahum said as the rumbling of an APC got closer. "It took them long enough. I will complain to my father about this," he got up, but Imran pulled him back into cover. "It could be a Federation APC, you idiot!" he said in a fierce whisper.
"Nichol!" came Franca's worried voice.
"I'm here," Nichol said, getting up.
"Then hurry up! The Feds could be anywhere."
They found their way to the APC and endured a lecture by Franca all the way back.
"Imran, that was really immature of you," she began.
"Me? What did I do? Nahum's the one who messed up," Imran said.
"And you took him along just to annoy him."
Imran didn't deny that.
Still, when they were back at camp and Nichol went to bed, a while later Franca came and hugged him. "I'm glad you didn't end up in pieces today," she whispered. Of course she thought he was asleep. When a stern person acts as human as everyone else it's because they think the only person within earshot isn't listening. Nichol felt happier though, while the warmth of her body stayed there. Then he finally dozed off.