Big Guns Never Tire
New Years Resolutions 2012 apologia for grey_sw since we hadn't managed a true Larkin/Bragg romance in the first attempt.
The lush green fields before the high walls of Tanith Magna glowed with vitality and abundance in the high noon sunshine. The wandering nalwood forests were nowhere to be seen, having embarked on their yearly migration to the south as the cooler seasons descended upon the region. In their place, the evergreen trees had been cleared and rows of grey-green tents and prefab barracks now covered the flattened land. Men in black uniforms, still stiff with newness, walked the dirt paths between the temporary buildings, or sat in small groups, enjoying the sun and their lunch.
Over six thousand men were gathered there on the Founding Fields. Volunteers, militiamen, the pious and the suspected criminal - from all over Tanith's biggest cities to its forest cabins, they came to be a part of this historic event. Whatever their reason, each man was there with the intention of signing on to the Imperial Guard, to march under the proud colours of the Tanith First.
At one end of a cleared field, wooden targets had been set up for live fire exercises where recruits lined up and were tested for lasgun handling and aim. Only two people were left on the field at this hour, an instructor with one hand raised and a giant of a recruit. The instructor shouted and dropped his hand. There was a crack, a beam of light, and a pile of shrubbery and leftover particle boards to the right of the targets exploded in a scattering of scrap and splinters. Drill Instructor Ennes slapped a hand over his eyes in disbelief.
"Try again, Bragg," Ennes said. Bragg nodded, and raised the lasgun again. It looked ridiculous in his large hands, a tiny stick held delicately against arms that were equal to its length and twice its width. Bragg's thick finger barely fit in the trigger guard. He took aim again, squinted and fired.
There was another crack, and a tree to the side of the range lost a branch.
"One more time?" Bragg asked, sheepishly. The shooting range was devastation wrought by lasfire - lines of burnt grass, grooves scorched into bark, black starbursts of heat energy glancing off plasteel siding. All the targets, however, stood clean and unmarked.
Ennes sighed. "No, mess call was half an hour ago. You'd best get going."
"Thank you, sir," Bragg said. slinging his lasgun and saluting smartly. "I'll do better next time."
"Sure you don't want to join an artillery crew instead, son? They could use a big guy like you," said Ennes, looking up at Bragg.
"Nah, my friends are infantry," Bragg said, smiling, "I want to stay with them."
Ennes shook his head. "If you don't pass basic, they won't sign you on, you know that. And if you can't hit these targets..." Ennes shrugged. "There won't be a try-again against the enemy."
Bragg nodded, a pensive look on his face. "Thank you sir, I'll keep that in mind," Bragg said. He ambled back to the camp, whistling a cheerful marching tune.
Ennes watched as Bragg walked off, waving to people he knew on his way to the mess hall, then he looked at the pristine targets again. If he didn't know that Bragg was as honest a recruit as you could find, he'd be tempted to think the man was missing targets on purpose in order to avoid Guard duty. But Bragg came to the shooting range dutifully every day to improve his aim, and according to Major Garth had passed all other requirements easily. It would be a feth-damned shame if the Imperium lost a good lasman simply because he couldn't shoot straight.
Corbec, Rawne, and Larkin were sitting in front of their tent when Bragg came over with a fresh pot of recaf. He offered it them and they held out their cups as he poured. Larkin scooted over on his log to let Bragg sit down, then returned to polishing the custom nalwood stock of his long-las.
"Oh!" Bragg said, and stood again. He reached into his uniform vest and pulled out a small, somewhat squished, square parcel. "I got this for you," he said, handing it to Larkin and sitting down again, a little closer.
"Uh, thanks?" said Larkin. He put aside his long-las and polish cloth and unwrapped the waxed paper to reveal a brownie from Mamzel's, a famous bakery in Magna.
"None for me?" Corbec joked.
"This is for Larkin," Bragg said, smiling as he watched Larkin bite into the treat. "I got you recaf."
Corbec chuckled. "Well, I wish someone brought me sweets," he said, elbowing Rawne and jostling his arm. Rawne's spoon rattled against his mess-tin and he glared at Corbec. Corbec pointed his bearded chin at Larkin and Bragg.
"You can get your own," Rawne said, "for a price. If you're that interested." His smile was cold as a snake's.
"No thanks," Corbec said quickly. He didn't know quite what to make of Rawne yet, he was a handsome devil, but he knew well enough to avoid getting involved with his sort. "So Bragg," Corbec said, changing the subject, "How'd it go today?"
"Same as yesterday," Bragg said, sounding not at all disappointed or worried. He was still looking at Larkin with a dopey expression.
"You do know I'm out of favours to call on, right?" Corbec had pulled a few strings to get Larkin cleared for duty. It helped that those who were good enough for a lanyard were always in high demand, and that Merrt had agreed to hold back. Plenty of opportunities to get one later, Corbec thought cynically. Except for the younger men, nobody had any illusions about the lifespan of the average guardsman.
"I'll keep trying," Bragg said.
"Don't know why you're so desperate to join," Rawne said, carefully spooning up the last of his midday rations from his mess-tin. "It's not like one man more or less will make a difference."
"Pretty sure it makes a difference to the Emperor," Bragg replied. "Least, that's what Colonel Forth says."
Rawne snorted. "Forth says a lot of things."
"Hey, I have an idea," Corbec said, before they all ended up on latrine duty or worse. "Larks, why don't you give Bragg some tips? You've trained marksmen before, should be even easier than teaching someone to tag a fly on a shoggy." He winked at Bragg and ignored Rawne's eyeroll.
"Me, teach 'Try-Again' Bragg to shoot?" Larkin laughed, a reedy sound from a reedy man. "I'm not a miracle worker, Colm." He turned apologetically to Bragg, "No offense."
"None taken," Bragg said. There was a gleam in his eyes. "I'd be happy to learn from you if it's not a bother, though."
Larkin finished off the brownie, sucking chocolate off his thumb. "S'not a bother, but I don't think I can teach you any better than your instructors."
"Won't know till you try," Bragg said. "Maybe I'll get it better if it's you." Larkin blinked and worried the edges of the empty waxed paper wrapper with his thin fingers. Crumbs jumped into the air and stuck to his uniform. Bragg gently brushed them off. Larkin froze.
"Oh feth," Rawne said to Corbec, "not this again." Rawne stood and gathered the mess-tins, a rare event. "I'll be drowning myself in the river," he said, "see you at afternoon drills." He walked off, lasgun and camo-cloak slung over one shoulder like a model guardsman in the Primer.
"Sounds like a plan to me," said Corbec. He added hastily, "Not the drowning thing, though I can't say that wouldn't be a crying shame either." He was ignored as Larkin and Bragg continued their strange courtship. There wasn't a better way to describe it, Corbec thought ruefully. He left them to it.
At first, Larkin figured that Bragg was just unfamiliar with the new lasguns. Poor training and a bit of mental disconnect weren't so uncommon - a good number of recruits struggled with what they were told versus the actual reality of shooting a gun. Larkin had never suffered this himself. He knew how to introduce himself to a gun, how to build a rapport between them. He knew his newly issued long-las better than most barring a techpriest. Larkin was very careful not to mention to anyone that one late night conversation while on vegetable scrubbing duty, whispering illicit things about modifications and jury rigs. Larkin still felt a terrifying thrill when he thought of it.
He watched Bragg perform the Litany of Cleanliness and Unjamming, and saw no faults or hesitancy in his handling of the lasgun. Bragg's lasgun was straight and true, and the machine gods were compliant. The environment was dry, moderately sunny, without wind, glare, or fog. Ideal conditions.
Maybe it was something as simple as Bragg's posture, then? Except, as they stood on the shooting range, Bragg's stance was no different than any other trained lasman.
Perhaps some hidden well of pacifism? Bragg neither closed his eyes nor flinched when firing. He was a gentle man, but not one that shied from violence.
Did his height throw off his aim? Lifting the target didn't change his hit rate. Shots flew wide in every direction with no discernible pattern, so Bragg wasn't favoring one side or overcompensating on another. It certainly wasn't because Bragg was more used to tracking targets like a few of the other recruits. A moving target had the same fail ratio as a stationary one, though perhaps that could be blamed on the pulley system they'd jury-rigged for the occasion.
Was it Bragg's eyes? A cursory check revealed that Bragg had blue eyes, like most Tanith. Clear, softly emoting blue eyes that stared at him with an expression that made Larkin all sorts of awkward and warm as he peered into them. Their faces were very close, noses almost touching as Larkin stroked a calloused finger over Bragg's eyebrow.
He broke away, covering himself with a cough. Bragg's expression didn't change. Larkin coughed again and squinted at the targets. "Do you remember getting hit on the head a lot as a child? Do you have trouble grabbing things sometimes?"
"I passed the physical and I can see you fine," said Bragg, staring at him intently. Larkin tried not to notice. "Really fine."
Larkin loosened his collar, feeling a little strangled. He was getting fat. He'd been eating too many of the rich, meaty lunches Bragg kept bringing him - and where was he finding the venisons, stews, and savory things on sticks, when they were all so busy with training? Even Rawne, with his sketchy, black ways, had little time to be up to the no-good business he was neck-deep in. "Alright," Larkin said, and repeated what so many others had already said, "Go on. Try again, Bragg."
Crack. Wood smoldered, tree branches were scorched from their trunks. Crack. Metal support struts burned red-hot and entire swaths of field were stripped up and sent flying through the air in clumps. Crack.
Bragg eventually hit the paper target Larkin had set up on a metal frame in an empty field, incinerating it with the last three blasts in his lasgun; not due to any improvement in his marksmanship but because there simply wasn't anything else to hit by that point.
Larkin took off his cap and scratched at his brow, perplexed. If Bragg weren't so obviously trying with everything he had, he'd wonder if Bragg was simply unmotivated.
Larkin patted Bragg's large arm, watching as the muscles of his arm rippled beneath his tattoos. "Don't worry. We'll have another go tomorrow."
"I'll bring those breaded chicken pieces you like," Bragg said, nodding.
"Uh, no need," Larkin said as he put his cap back on. "My belt's too tight already for a man in training. Someone's going to start asking why I'm gaining weight instead of losing it, and it can't be easy grabbing - where are you getting all the food anyways? We haven't been let off grounds for awhile and... Rawne's not selling you stuff, is he?"
"No!" said Bragg, though he didn't elaborate further. He just looked at Larkin pathetically, all wide-eyed and pout-mouthed. It was an expression that should be ridiculous on a man Bragg's size but it still made Larkin feel like he'd just shot someone's pet larisel.
"Oh," Larkin said. "Well, I guess if you really want to."
"I really do," said Bragg enthusiastically. Far too enthusiastically. Feeling awkward, Larkin just nodded, patted Bragg on the arm again and called it a day.
Three days later, Larkin was full as a stuffed pig and Bragg still wasn't hitting any targets.
Four more days, and Larkin was still full, to the point of nausea, but Bragg was finally hitting targets. It was no cause for celebration though. Larkin had staggered seven of them against each other and lined them up in two alternating rows. If Bragg hadn't been able to hit something with that set-up, he would have been a completely lost cause. As it was, it wasn't exactly something to be proud of, and it wouldn't be good enough to pass muster.
"Eh, maybe you weren't meant for the Guard, you know?" Larkin murmured in the nicest way possible.
Suddenly angry, Bragg said, "I am. I'll get in."
"Does your Da want you to? Is that why?" There were quite a few younger boys joining up due to family expectation, determined to bring their name honor in service to the Emperor.
As usual, when pressed for his reasons behind his determination to make the cut, Bragg was silent. He was trying hard, but determination would only serve if he could harness it into actual results. The testing phase would be starting soon and Larkin had run out of advice. He wasn't even sure why Bragg was having such difficulty when, to all appearances, he was going through the right motions.
"I'll get in," Bragg said, as he'd done many other times, stubbornly.
Unhappily, Larkin said, "Nobody wants a guardsman who can't hit the enemy whether they're standing still or moving."
Bragg's brow knotted as he thought. It was one of the reasons others thought the man was slower than he was. Larkin knew he wasn't. Bragg was quiet and liked to take his time, was all, a woodsman to the core. One of the burned, smoking target frames fell over and knocked into its neighbor, one after another until all seven hit the ground with a loud series of thumps. The dry grass caught on fire.
Bragg grinned. "Hey," he said. "How about this? If I can get into the Guard, you'll give me something."
"If I pass the test and become a Guardsman, you'll give me something I want," Bragg repeated.
Larkin scratched the back of his neck. Doubtfully, he said, "Alright. I don't have much of anything though, 'cept for my long-las and my lanyard, but if you want anything else..."
"Anything?" Bragg asked, a bit too eagerly.
Startled, Larkin tilted his head back and lost his cap. He bent and picked it up again. He slapped it against his leg, knocking dust off it before placing it back on his head. "Dunno what you'd want but, sure. I'm not rich," he warned.
"I'll think of something."
Larkin lived by his instincts. There was danger you couldn't avoid but run, and danger you couldn't avoid but fight. Turtle up and kill whatever it was with a handy shot between the eyes. Warning sirens were going off in the back of Larkin's mind, and it felt like he was caught in someone's crosshairs, but it was only Bragg. He couldn't shoot Bragg. It was ridiculous that he felt like scurrying up the nearest tree with his long-las.
He readjusted his hat and muttered, "Well, think about destroying those targets first."
Smoke billowed as more of the dried brush and grass caught fire. Troopers and sergeants were yelling in the distance. The fire brigand sirens started to howl. Caught up in their own thoughts, neither of them noticed.
Larkin scanned the grounds nervously. He liked Bragg. He was a nice kid, just with terrible aim. But if he failed this test, what could they do?
"Maybe it's for the best," Corbec said though no one had verbalized the thought. Behind him, Rawne lazed against the wooden fence like a poisonous snake sunning himself. He yawned widely.
Larkin shook him head and turned his attention back to watching the recruits as they went through retrials. Lasfire echoed across the field as one line after another of stragglers being retested either passed or failed. Most of them, a sorry and uninspired lot, failed.
Bragg's name was called. For a moment, there was no answer. Larkin wasn't sure why he was disappointed.
"Here," came Bragg's deep voice from across the field.
Larkin twisted his head around, heard Corbec mutter under his breath. Rawne, who had been staring downfield with a bored expression, straightened up.
Who he had begged, borrowed, or sat on to get hold of a heavy bolter, Larkin had no idea, but Bragg carried what was meant to be a two-man tripod-mounted gun with a frightening ease. It looked perfectly at home cradled in his large hands the way a lasgun hadn't.
Bragg trudged past the gaping Drill Sergeant Ennes and let loose a prolonged burst from the bolter. Spent shells rained down as Bragg fed the machine with with one hand and gripped with the other. The hail of firepower tore craters into sod and blasted through every standing structure within range. Dirt was kicked up and wooden shrapnel flew in every direction.
The bolter chamber cycled empty with a petulant whine as Bragg stopped firing. All fell silent and the dust settled; not a single target was left standing.
Not much of anything was left standing.
Ennes laughed, his harsh voice barking too loudly in the shocked aftermath. "Pass."
He called for break. The field needed to be cleared and new targets set up for the remaining recruits. Bragg relinquished the heavy bolter to Ennes' charge and sauntered over to where Larkin stood with Corbec and Rawne. Bragg's usually placid expression was smug.
Larkin looked up at Bragg, not sure whether he should be proud or affronted as a marksman at the workaround.
Almost as if he'd read Larkin's mind, Bragg said happily, "I hit the target."
"Yeah," Larkin allowed, "Yeah, you did." They shared a grin.
Bragg brought over several loaves of sweet, currant-studded cakes to their tent and showed off his newly issued Tanith cap badge.
"Oh, you look like a real guardsman now," Rawne said, helping himself to a slice. Bragg beamed. The silver blades on the badge glinted.
"Glad you're going to join us," Corbec said, scattering crumbs in his beard as he wolfed down a piece. He then clasped one hand around Bragg's forearm and slapped his shoulder with the other. "Really glad, Bragg."
"That was clever," Larkin said grudgingly. Bragg offered Larkin a loaf that looked more like a cluster of currant with a bit of cake holding it together, than currant cake. Larkin felt slightly queasy at the thought of eating anything. Bragg had been handing him food all day. The others didn't share his problem and Larkin slipped his extras onto Corbec and Rawne's plates when Bragg wasn't looking.
Later, Rawne was speaking obliquely to Corbec about something involving business no one wanted to know too much about. Corbec was combing his beard and making attentive sounds in all the right places.
While they were occupied, Bragg leaned in close to Larkin and said, "I'd like to collect my prize."
Larkin looked up from cleaning his scope lens. "Eh?" Suddenly his vision was filled with Bragg's thick thighs as the other man moved to loom over him. He had to tilt back to see his face.
"The prize like you said, if I could hit the targets and pass the test. You said I could have anything."
"Close your eyes."
Bragg bent down and kissed him.
Eventually, Larkin pulled it together enough to kiss him back, and with his greater age and experience, quickly moved them along to the next logical step. There was nothing wrong with a bit of logic. Especially when it involved things like strapping young men lifting him so he could wrap his legs around their waists. The Emperor provides and all that.
Neither noticed when their tent-mates slipped away.
Outside, Rawne complained, "Do they have to go about their business in our tent?" It was dusk and he looked young and deceptively innocent with mussed hair and a bed roll clutched to his chest. The illusion was dispelled when he looked at Corbec, his hooded gaze knowing and sly, promising darker things.
Shuddering, Corbec looked away and slung his own bed roll over his shoulder. "Well, that depends. You've got the best marksman and the most destructive heavy weapons trooper of the Founding here, and they're going to be the ones at your back when you run into battle. You can interrupt them now, but do you really want to?"
Rawne thought for a moment. "No."
That cold, damp night, Corbec and Rawne camped in the bushes.
As for the details surrounding the Tanith Founding - We figured that each world had their own methods of recruitment and training. Somehow the Tanith seemed a bit more homey than other planets... Like a mountain hometown militia as opposed to a strict group like the Bluebloods. So we envisioned their training structure to be a lot more flexible and in some ways, laid back. Especially since this was to be their Founding day. They'd send in their best for the first batch. There's probably a primer somewhere that covers this very topic, but we don't have it. So we apologize for any mistakes.