Clipped Wings: Chapter 6

A series of rapid cracks and bangs filled the air as the Marines on the firing range opened up at the paper silhouette targets set one hundred meters away from their shooting line. Larkins was second from the end of the line between Mathis and Lucero, wielding the M39 submachine gun that was technically her official-issue weapon. She fired in quick three-round bursts and the full metal jacket rounds, which were used for training purposes only, successively punched more and more holes in her paper target. Although she preferred her Mossberg 590, which she owned, Sloan never allowed personal firearms on the range. Larkins was lucky she was allowed to have the shotgun at all. Besides, even with slug rounds it wouldn’t have been the most appropriate weapon for qualifying at a hundred meters.

On her right, Lucero was firing his M933P carbine in semiautomatic mode, shooting at a fast, steady pace and keeping each round as close to the center of the target as he could. On her left, Mathis was doing a much poorer job. She was hitting the target reliably, but while her groupings would have been considered decent if done by a conventional Marine, they were poor by RIFT standards. Larkins shook her head slightly and resumed firing, keeping her own shots in tight, even groupings. When the magazine was empty, she removed it from the gun, set the gun on the bench in front of herself facing downrange, and placed the magazine next to it perpendicular to the magazine well.

A few moments later, the other Marines ran out of ammunition and made their own weapons safe before waiting for Sloan to walk down the line and inspect their targets. The sergeant stalked behind them, stopping behind each Marine to look over their shoulders at their target with a pair of binoculars. She said nothing if they had done well, but if they weren’t performing satisfactorily they got a harshly-worded sarcastic remark. Larkins forced herself not to move as Sloan approached her, inspected her target, and moved on to Mathis. There was silence for a moment before Sloan asked, “Private Mathis, do you consider yourself a Marine?”

Larkins cringed, knowing what was about to happen. She had been on the receiving end of this before, but not in years. Hesitantly, Mathis answered, “Um… yes, ma’am.”

“Then what the fuck do you call that, grunt?!” Sloan exploded, stabbing her finger in the direction of Mathis’ target. “I’ll tell you what I call that! Cheap! Sloppy! Half-assed! I could get better groupings strapped in my seat in the middle of a drop! If I had the authority I’d kick you out of the fucking Corps right this second, you worthless piece of shit! What do you have to say to that?!”

Mathis stood dumbly, and Larkins could see the tears glistening in her eyes. As much as she disliked Mathis, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for the young woman. Sloan expected near-perfection in everything her Marines did, especially target practice, and she would get particularly abusive if they failed at that.

“Speak, damn you!” Sloan demanded.

Mathis was clenching her fists, clearly trying not to let the tears fall as she sobbed, “I’m sorry, ma’am!”

“Sorry?!” Sloan’s voice rose to a higher pitch than Larkins had ever heard before. “Sorry, you pathetic excuse for a rat’s ass?! I don’t care if you’re sorry, I’ll tell you one thing you’re definitely not, and that’s a Marine! Go on! Say it! Say you’re not a Marine!”

“I’m…” Mathis hiccupped as she sobbed again, the tears beginning to run down her cheeks, “I’m not a Marine, ma’am!”

Sloan changed course so quickly that even Larkins was startled as the sergeant roared, “The fuck you aren’t, you airheaded fuckwit! You are whatever the fuck I say you are! Stand up straight and look me in the eye!”

Larkins swallowed. Sloan never held back on the insults or curse words, but this time she seemed particularly enraged. Although Larkins didn’t think she would actually become violent with one of her own, she never felt like she could trust Sloan around weapons when she was in a bad temper. She didn’t know what was about to happen, but she didn’t want it to fall on Mathis. She looked around for a way to intervene and saw the remaining loaded magazines for her M39 sitting on the bench just a few inches away. Sloan’s back was still turned, so Larkins took a deep breath and nudged one of the magazines just enough to knock it to the ground. The clatter as it struck the concrete pad underfoot cut through Sloan’s tirade just as effectively as a gunshot.

The hulking woman whirled around, looking for the source of the disturbance. When she saw the magazine lying on the ground, she seemed to completely forget Mathis as all her rage refocused on Larkins. “Larkins, what the hell do you think you’re doing, shithead?!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Larkins said, trying to keep her voice even. “I bumped it off.”

“Bumped it off?! I’d bump you the fuck off for two fucking cents! I’m getting close to the end of what tiny amount of patience I have left for you, Larkins! You walk around with the shittiest attitude problems I’ve ever seen from someone who wears the uniform, you’re lazy, insubordinate, a fucking drunk, and now this! I said I’d make you into a Marine and if you thought I was fucking around with you, think again! Get down on the fucking ground!”

All the attention was solidly on Larkins now. She could feel the other Marines behind her, staring silently as they waited to see what would happen. Even Mathis had stopped crying and was watching, still sniffling loudly. Larkins obediently lay down on the ground and a moment later she felt Sloan’s boot on her back, pressing her downwards.

“Push-ups, grunt!” Sloan ordered. “Until I’m satisfied.”

She continued pressing down on Larkins’ back with her boot and the unfortunate corporal had no choice but to fight the powerful downward pressure as she forced herself up into the first push-up. “One,” she counted out loud, gasping slightly as she gritted the word out between her teeth.

“Did I give you permission to speak, Corporal? Shut the fuck up!”

Larkins compliantly said nothing, merely lowering herself down to the ground and then pushing herself back up into the second push-up, still fighting against Sloan’s foot on her back. She continued going, the entire range silent except for the rustle of her uniform and her heavy breathing. Far too quickly, her arms began to get tired and she could feel herself lagging. Her breath was coming in increasingly short, hoarse gasps as Sloan continued pushing down mercilessly.

Then to her surprise, she heard Collins ask, her voice soft and nervous, “Ma’am? Are you sure you aren’t going a bit too far with this?”

“Corporal Collins,” Sloan replied mockingly, “I can do this all day if I like. Would you like to be on the ground next to her right now or would you prefer to wait until my foot is free for you?”

Collins backed down immediately, whispering just loudly enough for Larkins to hear, “No, ma’am.”

“Excuse me?!” Sloan shouted. “I can’t hear you!”

“No, ma’am.” Collins repeated in a normal speaking voice.

“I can’t hear you!” Sloan yelled, her voice louder this time.

“No, ma’am!” Collins exclaimed crisply.

“Still can’t fucking hear you!” was the sadistic sergeant’s reply, but Larkins was barely listening. Her arms were burning and felt like they might give up at any moment now. However, she still had no choice but to continue the involuntary exercise, forcing herself to lift her body up again and again as Collins shouted loudly, “No, ma’am!”

Sloan made her repeat it several more times until finally declaring, “Then keep your dumbass mouth shut and your idiot opinions to yourself, Corporal! And don’t you ever defy me in front of my subordinates again or I’ll make sure they put you away in a place where you’ll never see the fucking sun again!”

She forced her foot down hard, slamming Larkins face-first into the concrete pad. Larkins felt something explode in her nose and immediately was almost overwhelmed by pain and the smell of blood; a moment later she caught the harsh, metallic taste in her mouth.

“That’s enough, grunt,” Sloan said, not even looking down at her. “Just stay there. Don’t move until the rest of us have gone inside. Then get up, clear your table, put your shit away, and hit the showers. I want you in the mess hall for dinner in ten minutes.”

Humiliated, Larkins had no choice but to lie perfectly still as the other Marines gathered up their weapons and magazines and made their way to the armory. She rolled over and sat up slowly, feeling the blood begin to pour down her face from her nose. She fumbled around for something to stop the bleeding but came up empty. There were no rags or cloths around, so she settled for taking off one of her boots and the sock underneath. Holding the sock to her nose as best she could with one hand, Larkins gently felt her nose with the other. It didn’t seem to be broken, which was a relief, although when she ran her tongue over her lips, she could feel that they were definitely split and bleeding in several places. She sat still, the stifling heat almost suffocating her as she breathed through her mouth and waited for the bleeding to stop.

When it finally did, Larkins tucked the bloody sock in her pocket, pulled her boot onto her bare foot, and got up gingerly, hoping the bleeding wouldn’t start up again. When it didn’t, she began gathering up her M39 and magazines to take back to the armory. Her nose and her face hurt terribly. The one comfort was that she had saved Mathis from an equal or worse punishment, but that still did little to ease the pain. Then she remembered the bottle of whiskey hidden in her quarters and realized she knew exactly what kind of painkiller she wanted tonight. Once again, there was a little voice inside her whispering that it was a bad idea, but the hurting, irrational part of her silenced the voice as brutally as if she had slit its throat. “Clean up, shower, and dinner,” she muttered to herself as she made her way to the armory. “Then I’m going to find somewhere quiet to settle down and get as drunk as I possibly can.”

A searing pain lanced through Larkins’ head as she opened her eyes, and she squeezed them shut again, moaning in agony as the pain increased. She rolled over and was surprised to feel something soft underneath herself. She cautiously opened one eye, groaning again at the bright light. She looked around, realizing she was in her bed. Now that she knew where she was, Larkins lay back and shut both her eyes again, trying to remember the night before. She remembered settling into one of her hiding places in a storage room and beginning to gulp down the contents of the whiskey bottle. She remembered feeling the pain of the alcohol burning its way down her throat and loving every second of it. All along, she had been wrong every time she tried cutting or scratching herself. This was the pain she had been looking for from the beginning: that choking, fiery sensation that eventually gave way to a numbness which blotted out the aching in her heart. She remembered ranting furiously, drunkenly, against Sloan, Mathis, and anyone and everyone else in her life she had a complaint against.

But how had the night ended? She didn’t remember returning to her bed. Had someone found her and carried her there? Who would do that? Larkins sat up slowly and immediately regretted it as her stomach rebelled violently. She clutched at her stomach, trying to hold back the urge to vomit. Her head was pounding so badly it felt like an entire Marine battalion was engaged in a heavy firefight inside, and she wondered for a moment if the sunlight streaming in through the open blinds was really burning her eyes or not.

The nausea gradually faded just enough for her to feel it was under control, although the pain in her head remained the same. Queasily, Larkins dropped out of bed to the floor, noting that her three roommates had already left. They couldn’t have been up for long. If she was late for breakfast, Sloan would have already come in demanding to know what she was doing. Larkins spent the next several minutes cursing and swearing as she managed to dizzily fumble with the zipper on her pants, every button on her jacket, and the laces on both her boots. After what felt like hours, she was fully dressed. She wished she could put on her sunglasses to guard herself from the painfully bright light, but that would be a dead giveaway that she was suffering from a hangover. She could just imagine Sloan’s eyes lighting up with cruel, ruthless glee if she caught on, although that was probably inevitable.

Just keeping a straight, even pace down the hallway to the mess hall was an accomplishment for Larkins. When she arrived, she found she was just in time, as Mathis was just leaving the serving counter with her tray of food while everyone else was sitting at the table.

Offering a crisp “Good morning, ma’am,” to Sloan, Larkins kept her head down and hastily shoveled food onto a plate without even noticing what it was she had taken. She sat down in her usual place and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible while waiting for the bomb to drop. She was a mess and she knew it. There was no way Sloan wasn’t going to notice her condition.

But strangely, nothing happened. Sloan seemed to pay her no attention as the team ate. When everyone had finished, the sergeant ordered them all outside for inspection. Larkins wanted to scream when she stepped out into the direct sunlight, but she choked the sound back to a faint whimper of pain that she hoped no one had heard as she took her place in the line. Sloan paced up and down the line of Marines, eyeing them closely. As much pain as she was in, Larkins was still focused enough to be surprised when the sergeant passed right over her and onto Mathis, saying to the younger woman, “Your hair’s getting out of regs, grunt. Get it cut. Today.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mathis replied timidly as Sloan moved onto Reverdin. The sergeant walked up and down the line two more times before stopping front of Larkins, who tried to keep her face and composure as straight and even as she could.

Sloan smirked at her from around the lit cigarette in her mouth. “Corporal Larkins, do you consider yourself a fun person?”

The question left Larkins completely bewildered. “M-ma’am?” she stammered, confused.

The smirk remained frozen on Sloan’s face as the sergeant answered, “I was only asking what you think of yourself, Corporal. I think you seem like a really fun person. I bet you like going out to parties, don’t you? Is that it, Corporal? Are you a party girl?”

“I… d-don’t understand, ma’am.” Even if she hadn’t been hungover to the point of barely being able to function, Larkins didn’t think she’d know what to say.

Sloan gave her a friendly slap on the shoulder. “That’s okay, Corporal. I can see you’re not exactly feeling well right now. But you know what? I bet you had a really good time last night. I can see in your eyes that you had fun. I could use some time with someone who knows to have fun. Tell you what, once we’re done here, you can come spend some time with me in my office.”

Larkins’ confusion was replaced with dread as Sloan finished her last stroll to the end of the line. Sloan did know. She was playing another fucking game and probably laughing her ass off inside. “Shit,” she mumbled softly to herself. She had been under Sloan’s foot long enough to know the sergeant’s moods and what they meant. There was bad-tempered and silent, bad-tempered and insulting, then angry, raging, and lastly so angry that she pretended to be in a good mood. Larkins had only seen the last a few times and it never, ever meant anything good in the slightest shape or form. The nausea began to build with her anxiety and she felt herself trembling as she realized just how much trouble she was in. I’m totally fucked. Seriously, completely, absolutely fucked.

Sloan turned to the assembled Marines and called out, “Corporal Collins, I’ll be in my office for the rest of the day. You’re in charge for now. You know the drill; keep these lazy slobs in line as best as your pathetic leadership skills will allow.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Collins answered firmly, although Larkins could hear a crack in her voice and despite everything she felt a moment of sadness for the unfortunate corporal. But her sorrow only lasted until Sloan turned to her, still grinning. “Come on, party girl. Let’s go hang out together.”

So terrified that her hands and feet were beginning to feel numb, Larkins answered weakly, “Yes, ma’am,” and fell into step beside Sloan. She felt as if she was falling out of herself as she walked beside the sergeant back into the main building and down the hall to Sloan’s office. Once inside, the older woman turned to Larkins, her voice still upbeat and cheery. “So, I take it you had quite the night last night, am I right, Skye?”

Larkins felt the hair on her arms and neck stand up as Sloan said her first name. She had never heard Sloan refer to anyone by their first name before. There was something disgusting about the way the word rolled from the sergeant’s tongue, like she was polluting the name just by saying it. She opened her mouth hesitantly, thinking Sloan expected an answer, but the sergeant continued in that same hideously happy tone, “I figured we’d have a party in here, just you and me. Would you like that?”

“I…” Larkins froze for a moment, knowing that she had become a victim of one of Sloan’s trick questions for the millionth time. But if she was going to get fucked over either way, she might as well be compliant and try to minimize the punishment. “Yes, ma’am.”

Sloan’s grin only grew wider. “I thought so. Come on then, party girl. Would you like a drink?”

She stepped to the small refrigerator that she kept her personal stash of drinks in, taking something out. Larkins stared in surprise, recognizing the bottle of Black Frost vodka that Sloan had confiscated from her before. She thought that Sloan would have either drunk it or thrown it away. “Want some?” Sloan asked, giving the bottle a little shake as she held it up.

“Um, no thank you, ma’am.” Larkins shifted her weight nervously from one foot to the other.

“Come on, are you sure? Think about it, and oh, don’t forget to stand at attention around me, Corporal. Just because we’re having a party doesn’t mean rules and regs go out the window, does it?”

“No, ma’am,” Larkins replied, pulling herself together enough to force her unwilling body into the “at attention” stance before continuing, “And I’d really rather not, ma’am.”

“Oh? Did you have enough last night?” The happy tone was tainted by the first hints of dangerous rage, although the sadistic smirk remained fixed on Sloan’s face as she approached Larkins. The redheaded corporal winced. This was it.

“Yes, ma’am, I-I-I think I did.”

“That’s right. You probably did. All that partying by yourself. You know, it’s not good for you, Larkins. But you know what? I understand wanting to relax and have fun, so here, have some more. And remember, stay at attention. I wouldn’t want to have to punish you for being disrespectful around me.” Sloan took the cap off the bottle and stopped in front of Larkins. To the corporal’s shock, Sloan reached out and placed the mouth of the bottle under the collar of Larkins’ jacket, tipping it up and beginning to pour. Larkins gasped as the cold liquid flooded down her front, immediately drenching her jacket, undershirt, and utility bra and then streaming down to soak her underwear and pants before splattering into a pool around her feet. She shivered, but the painfully cold sensation was quickly replaced by the burning feeling of humiliation as what had happened sunk into her still-dazed mind. The potent odor of the drink filled the room, harshly assaulting Larkins’ sense of smell.

Sloan looked up and down Larkins’ soaked uniform silently and burst out laughing. “Now I think you’ve really had enough, Larkins! Come on, with all your experience you should have more control over yourself, party girl!”

In that moment, Larkins wished more than ever in her entire life that they were in deep space and there was an airlock ready for her to flush herself out into the vacuum and emptiness. She wanted to give up right then and there, but she couldn’t. And Sloan wasn’t done. “Now, let’s play a little party game. It’s called ‘Stand Still’. See, the way it works is I go over to my desk and sit down and relax,” her voice changed and all trace of false happiness disappeared, replaced by scornful, sneering disgust as she continued, “And your wretched, moronic rat-ass remains standing right there at attention until I give you permission to move. Now, try to muster up just one single functioning brain cell, Corporal, and tell me, do you understand my directions crystal fucking clear, exactly as I’ve said them?”

Numb with shame and humiliation, Larkins forced herself to parrot, “Yes, ma’am. I understand your directions crystal fucking clear, exactly as you said them.”

“Good. Now just stand there and be a good grunt, ahem, party girl, until I give you permission to make a movement other than breathing.” Sloan looked as if she was about to turn away, but then she took the remaining stump of her cigarette from between her lips and looked at it. “Hmm. Larkins, hold out your hand. Palm up.”

Larkins’ heart began racing as she realized what Sloan was about to do, but she didn’t dare disobey. Shaking, she held her hand out.

“Don’t move,” Sloan ordered cruelly. “Don’t even whimper.”

She brought the cigarette down onto Larkins’ palm, forcing the glowing end against the corporal’s skin. A searing pain shot through Larkins’ hand and up her arm, and it took every bit of self-control she had not to scream. She forced herself to remain perfectly still until Sloan pulled the cigarette away and tossed it in her trash can as she sat down at her desk, turned on the desk fan, and made a big show of beginning to focus on the paperwork in front of her and ignoring Larkins.

As soon as she was really sure Sloan wasn’t fully paying attention to her, Larkins looked down at her hand and saw there was a red patch with a large blister in the middle of her palm. Knowing there was nothing she could do to treat it, she dropped her hand to her side and let free the two large tears that had been trying to force their way out of her eyes for several moments. They rolled down her cheeks, hanging on her chin for a moment before dropping to the ground. For the first time in her life, she closed her eyes and begged, “God, if you really do exist, take me now. I can’t do this anymore.”

But either there was no God or if there was, he still had a good reason to keep her around. When Larkins realized a moment later that she hadn’t been struck by lightning or whisked away on the spot, that was the only thought that gave her any comfort at all. Maybe somehow, some way, there was still a purpose for her life. A reason not to end her suffering right now.

Larkins held onto that thought as she remained perfectly rigid, not daring to even twitch. She knew that although Sloan wasn’t looking at her, any further movement could draw the sergeant’s attention and rage. Minutes passed and Larkins felt sweat beginning to form on her arms and run down her face. She still smelled strongly of alcohol and it was making the nausea stronger. She realized that she was incredibly thirsty, but she didn’t dare ask for a drink. The headache which she had been distracted from was returning in full force and the constant heat was beginning to wrap around her again, smothering her in its stifling embrace as she continued to sweat. The stinging pain from the burn on her palm was still running up her arm to well past her elbow, and the forming sweat that trickled across it made the pain worse.

Several more minutes passed before Larkins realized that Sloan had no intention of letting her relax any time soon. She was going to be stuck here for a long time, probably until she collapsed. Sloan would show her no mercy this time. And so with nothing else to do or say, Larkins once again retreated back into the relative safety of her own mind. But even there, she couldn’t find any peace. She had failed herself. Sloan had predicted her behavior with perfect accuracy. “You’re a fucking liar. You haven’t learned anything. You’re weak, Larkins. You always have been. Eventually, you’re going to cave. Now that you’ve been down that road once, you’re not going to stop.”

It was all true. Up until the day they returned from their last mission, Larkins had restrained herself. She drank occasionally, but never much. Never enough to actually get drunk before. But after just one time, the experience had been so addicting she couldn’t let it go. She wanted more. She couldn’t control her own emotions anymore. That meant she was weak. If she could just drink and make the emotions go away, she’d be strong again. She could be the woman, the Marine, her team needed. She couldn’t give up no matter what Sloan tried to do to her. She had a duty to her team and a vow to fulfill until her last breath, and she was going to hold herself to that duty and that vow no matter what it cost her. She remembered what she had heard Stein say when she listened in on his conversation with Mathis. “What you need to understand about Larkins is that she doesn’t care about anything or anyone besides herself. She’s completely focused on herself, and that’s it.”

If only he knew. If only they all knew, they’d appreciate her more. If they knew the lengths she was willing to go to and the pain she was prepared to endure on their behalf, none of them would ever look at her the same way. It’s not that I don’t care about your value as humans. It’s just that I don’t want anything to do with getting personally involved with any of you. I still want to protect you. And damn it, I’m going to do that for as long as I can, Sloan or not. I made that promise and if I can’t keep it, I’m nothing. I’m worthless. And I don’t want to be worthless. I want to do something good with my life. So I’m going to do it for all of you.

Despite the hell of her current situation, Larkins had managed to raise her spirits a little bit with that internal monologue. She felt a bit stronger and more resolved. She was going to win this. She could beat Sloan. She could outlast the sadist.

But as more and more time dragged on, Larkins’ mood slowly sank again. Her feet were beginning to get sore and her back was starting to hurt. She also realized that her neck was stiffening up and the headache and thirst were both becoming worse.

Finally, Sloan looked up from her paperwork. “I’m impressed, Larkins,” she said, the condescending sneer back on her face. “It’s 1000. You’ve actually made it a whole three hours without moving once.”

Three hours? Larkins could hardly believe it. Had she really been trapped there, immobile, for three hours? How had she lasted that long?

Sloan got up and walked over to the refrigerator again, saying, “I’m thirsty. I think I’ll have some cool, refreshing water.”

She took out a pitcher and poured herself a glass. Larkins couldn’t resist the temptation to look at it, and she licked her dry lips with her equally dry tongue in a vain attempt to moisten them. “Would you like anything, Larkins?” Sloan asked casually, but then added, “Oh, wait, I forgot, you’ve been standing there for so long because you’re being punished. We don’t reward bad behavior around here, Corporal.”

She sat back down at her desk with the glass, leaving Larkins cursing and raging internally at her own helplessness. This is torture. She’s gone too far before, but this time she’s really done it. Someone needs to know. Someone has to help us all and stop this. Lock her up in a cage or put a bullet in her head. Something has to be done before she kills another one of us, unintentionally or not.

She could do it. She could make a break for it and run out of the room, down the hall to her quarters and grab her personal gun. Sloan would follow after her and run right into an ambush. Right into justice, swift and sweet.

But it was only a thought. A dream. Larkins could think about it, but never do it. She couldn’t commit murder. For all her detached, cool, even calloused-seeming attitude, she was missing something inside of herself that she would need to do that. Was it because she was weak? That, or taking the moral high ground. Moral what? Larkins almost laughed out loud at that thought. After the way she had treated everyone else who ever crossed her path in life, she was the last person in the world who had any right to even use the words “moral high ground” in a sentence. You know, for all your talk, Skye, you don’t have a lot of action to back up your big mouth. Maybe it’s because it’s all a front.

Maybe that was it. Maybe she had been lying to herself the whole time. She didn’t treat people well because she didn’t want to. She didn’t back up her thoughts and actions because she couldn’t. Because you’re selfish. You’re a coward. Selfish, weak-willed, arrogant, cowardly bitch. Larkins remembered the last time she had thought of someone as a “cowardly bitch”. Collins. But she was a bigger coward. Collins had tried to help other people and been beaten down for it. Larkins had never really tried to begin with. After all this time and all her scorn and dislike of the other corporal, Larkins realized that Collins was the better of the two of them. They were both shitty examples of Marines, but if either one of them was even slightly more worthy than the other to wear the uniform and the stripes of a corporal, it was Collins. Larkins’ second-worst enemy in the world had been better than she was the whole time.

And you’re too arrogant to admit that to anyone but yourself. You should go to her on your knees and grovel for forgiveness but you’re too fucking proud to do it. You don’t want to let anyone know that you know she’s better than you because that would spoil your precious tough girl reputation, wouldn’t it? You’ve got yourself wrapped up in such a tight web of lies, false personality, and self-deception you can take any dreams of ever getting out of it and give them a sweet goodbye kiss right on the lips. You did all of this to yourself and now you’ve got to live with it.

A soft, static-like numbness was beginning to drown out the voices in Larkins’ head, making her lose focus. She felt something inside herself begin to drift away as everything she had ever thought she knew about herself crumbled and collapsed. Now she was nothing. She didn’t even have her persona to put up as a shield to protect herself because she understood now what a lie it was.

Larkins had no idea how long she stood there, adrift in the static, but she was brought out of it by Sloan picking up the phone on her desk. “Bishop? I’ll be taking my lunch in my office. You can bring it in to me now.”

Lunch. Larkins suddenly realized that her stomach had been screaming and begging for food for some time. She also recognized that the pounding headache wasn’t just a hangover, it was severe dehydration. She was covered in sweat, while her mouth felt like sandpaper. Her tongue was dry and swollen and she could feel her lips were cracking.

Bishop came in a few minutes later with a tray of food and set it down on the desk. He looked briefly at Larkins and she swore she could see something like concern on his features, but he gave another look back at Sloan and then left without saying a word. Larkins knew that he was well aware there was nothing he could do, so she couldn’t even be upset at him.

Sloan began eating her lunch, taunting Larkins by making exaggerated noises of enjoyment as if it was the best meal of her life and she was savoring every particle of it. Finally, she finished and looked up at Larkins. “You don’t look so good, party girl. Maybe we should get you some water so you don’t pass out. Would you like that?”

Larkins knew “some water” probably meant she’d be getting a glass of water dumped over her head, but she was too far gone to care so she croaked, “Yes, ma’am.”

To her surprise, Sloan poured a glass of water, brought it over, and held it up to Larkins’ lips. “Don’t try to take the glass,” Sloan directed. “Stay at attention. Drink.”

She tilted the glass back as Larkins began to drink, desperately gulping down the water until the glass was empty. Setting the glass on the table and sitting down, Sloan looked at her. “Don’t think I’m being kind to you, Larkins. There are only two reasons I did that and neither of them were kindness or pity. One, I don’t want you passing the fuck out in the middle of your punishment. Especially not in my office. Two, you’ve been well behaved for the past several hours and I want you to see that good behavior gets rewarded around here. Maybe someday you’ll learn to be an obedient Marine and follow the rules. Right now, you really don’t seem like much of a Marine at all to me. By the way, you never even said a ‘thank you’ to me.”

The water had revived Larkins enough for her to clearly say, “Thank you, ma’am.”

Sloan nodded approvingly. “You’re welcome. Now remember, the game’s not over yet. Keep standing perfectly still until I tell you.” She turned her attention back to her paperwork yet again, and Larkins searched for that comforting, numbing static again. When she finally found it, she slipped willingly in like it was a pool of cool water and let herself drift, unaware of time or her surroundings.

Chapter 5……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 7

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