Bitters was an angry child. That was what his mother had told him, back when she was alive, before her foot had stepped on the landmine. She’d chuckled at his scowls, poking him until his expression softened. Said that he looked too bitter, and that wasn’t how you honored the family name.
He didn’t often tell her what was wrong. He’d been a quiet child as well.
He hadn’t thrown tantrums, hadn’t yelled or screamed to get his will.
He’d clutched his hatred instead, biting down on his lip and narrowing his eyes, holding on to his grudge like his brother would hug his teddy bear.
His mother had told him to breathe, to wipe the frown off his face because she preferred his dimples. Breathe and count. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. All better. Now go play.
Anger evaporating, like the smoke from the day their house burned.
It’d been easier to distract himself, back then. A kid’s brain finding something else to focus on, a game or a toy, parents preaching forgiveness and whispers of hope before being tucked in at night, kiss on his forehead.
Later, when that was all gone, replaced with ruins and graves and a rifle in his hands, he’d learn to hate again, to use the anger to his advantage. “You guys really have to use whatever you have available,” Felix had told them. “Rocks, cheap grenades, pent-up emotions – just throw it at them before you get shot.”
But the hatred hadn’t helped when the bullets had started to fly through the air, when his first squad had been ambushed, that day in the jungle, and the soldiers had fallen like flies. They’d been ten, then nine when the sniper revealed itself, eight and seven before they’d even turned around, and then came the grenade – six and five and four – and they’d shot back but not fast enough, three and two, and then the last Fed had fallen, and Bitters had been the only one standing. One.
So Bitters had driven the Warthog back home by himself, counting under his breath – four, three, two, one, zero – keeping his breathing calm and expression neutral when he reported the losses, washed the blood off his armor and joined a new squad.
Moving on was easy when you didn’t have anything to hold on to. Except the anger that he let grow inside his chest, warm and smoldering, like embers matching the color of his trims.
They were still burning, now, when they were no long supposed to shoot at the Feds. Now when Felix had been revealed and the Captains had returned, surprisingly, alive.
It was that hatred, quiet yet burning, that brought him to this situation.
“So the malfunctioning guns and flooded toilets?” Grif asked him. “Totally not your fault?”
His captain sighed, leaning back in his seat. “Bitters,” he sighed, tsk-ing. “Shit on the floor is always a quick way to ruin your day, but I find your lack of creativity disappointing.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this. I didn’t sabotage the Feds’ quarters.”
“Good. ‘cause in ten minutes I have to go tell Kimball that it definitely isn’t someone from Gold Team who’s stirring up trouble.”
Bitters crossed his arms and counted. Ten, nine, eight, seven and he was ready to answer dryly, “Things must be easy for you then.”
“Yep. I mean, all I have to do is figure out what to do with that security footage of you sneaking into the Feds’ quarters.”
He raised an eyebrow, waiting.
Bitters had to reach zero before he spoke, and even then he didn’t have an answer. “Maybe someone stole my armor.”
“True. Gotta find that person to remind him that Gold Team doesn’t do sabotage unless a reward has been promised.”
“Maybe that person thought the Feds’ screams would be a reward in itself.”
“And maybe that person is sounding a little bit dark.” Grif snorted. His expression was hard to read, as usual. “Tucker is already referring to you as the emo kid, so maybe knock it down a notch. Look, I’m not gonna rat you out to Kimball but drop that shit before someone decides to give you wedgie.”
“You don’t get it.”
Grif threw his feet onto the table between them. “Probably not. But I know a thing or two about being stuck with a bunch of assholes that you don’t like. I get that. And sometimes you’ll have the days where you stare at them and you realize how much you hate them, like, how badly the sight of them and their stupid southern accent infuriates you. And then you suck it up, ‘cause life isn’t your bitch, so you better get used to it.”
Bitters thought of the landmine, of the grenades and the bullets and the graves he’d dug. “For some reason, I don’t think Sarge killed your family.”
“Only because he doesn’t hit girls.”
“So you guys got screwed over pretty fucking bad. So did the Feds. You want revenge – go for Felix. Flood his toilet. Hell, I’ll pay you do that, actually. What I am saying is – don’t go piss off the guys you might count on to take a bullet for you later.”
“They won’t do that.” He knew this, as a fact, because he was a Rebel and they’re Feds, and there were years of war and blood and bodies between them. Who even took a bullet for anyone anymore?
Matthews would. Bitters knew that as a fact as well, because his teammate had talked about it, wondered if they’d give him a statue if he saved Captain Grif’s life. “I’d totally do it,” Matthews had said. “Too late to think about that,” Bitters had told him, ignoring the tears in Matthews eyes, because Kimball had given them the news that morning – their Captains dead, because they couldn’t wait for them to become good enough.
“I know that there’s like, tons of emotional touchy trauma shit you all should probably work through but here’s my tip – don’t. Don’t talk about that. The – emotions. All that bullshit. Why? ‘cause it makes people feel awkward. And you don’t need awkward. You need to stay alive ‘cause there’s no snack cakes in hell, so you suck it up and make it work.”
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Tree. Two. One. Zero. Bitters counted and kept his breathing calm and didn’t feel any better. “You don’t give a shit about all this.”
“Uhm, pretty sure my title says otherwise. ‘Captain of Chorus’. Remember?”
“Only because Kimball made you,” Bitters spat, reminding him of the fact. “And you bailed on us. Remember?”
“And we came back.”
“’cause you don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Grif threw up his hands but his expression didn’t change. “Geez. What the fuck is up with the sudden hate club?”
“Stop pretending to give a shit when you don’t!”
“I have literally never given this much shit in my life! I have a very limited amount of shit to give and I’m only spending them sparely and being in the middle of a fucking real war seems like a very good reason, so why the fuck are we yelling?!”
“If you fucking cared, you’d understand.” He’d left his chair, already turning for the doorway. Grif had never required a salute when a conversation ended. “Next time you leave ‘cause we suck, at least warn Matthews beforehand. It took him like fours hour to stop crying.”
It was one of the reasons why Bitters tried not to care. He’d rather die than shed tears in front of any of these assholes he was stuck with.
Bitters counted on his way back to his shared quarters, reaching zero four times, and his expression was still the same, and the hard angry knot was still burning in his chest, and he thought about the Feds and he thought about Grif telling him to forget and forgive, and Bitters decided to stop counting.
“Want to talk about it?” Matthews asked when Bitters slammed the door shut.
Bitters burrowed his head in his pillow, once again wondering why Grif would not just make Matthews his Lieutenant.
“So, Jensen almost ran me over today,” Matthews told him from his upper bunk. “Her braking skills have really improved!”
Hidden by the pillow, Bitters’ lips moved upwards in the smallest smile.
He played sick the next day. “Measles. The plague. Just come up with something,” Bitters had ordered Matthews while sending fake coughs in his direction.
Whatever lie Matthews had managed to stutter to their Captain had worked, because no one appeared to shove him out of bed, and no one stopped him when he snuck out of his room, towards the abandoned closet on level four where Grif had his hidden snack stash.
Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. He stuffed the snack cakes into his mouth and there were none left, and he wondered if perhaps this would make Grif yell at him.
He slowly worked through the rest of the stash, even though he felt sick and his stomach protested. When he could feel the bile in the back of his throat, he filled his pockets instead.
And finally the box was empty. He stood up, prepared to leave now when the work was done, and he put his helmet back on the hide the chocolate stains on his lips.
“-ters? Please pick up. Please-“
“Bitters? You didn’t answer before- I- I called you- The procedure said to always wear helmets between 6am and-“
He could hear the tears floating between the rambling words.
Bitters felt the chocolate twist in his full stomach. Five, four, three, two, one, zero, until his body had calmed down. He could not throw up – not now when he was wearing a helmet. “What happened?”
He marched down the hallways, knowing he was the only one who could calm down Matthews when he was sobbing, the only one who knew how to deal with the asthma and panic attacks – those that had grown more and more frequent since his family home had been blown up.
“He- he did- He shouldn’t-“ The whine was back in Matthew’s hiccupped breathing. “-He took it for me!”
Bitters was slammed against the wall, almost run over by the medical team that suddenly pushed the doors open, a gurney between them.
When he looked, he saw the flashes of orange and the red staining it.
He took a step forward.
Then he was pushed aside by the soldier in maroon, struggling to keep up with the gurney that quickly disappeared down the hall, leaving a trail of red drops behind.
Ten, nine, eight-
Bitters froze, wondering what he had tried to do. As if they’d allowed him with them in the first place. Seven, six, five, four – And he wondered if anyone knew that yesterday he’d yelled at Grif, and that now the fact made him squirm. But it didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. People yelled at each other all the time now. The argument yesterday was nothing special.
He liked his lips and it tasted bitter.
Three, two, one.
Hitting zero, Bitters supposed, echoed inside his head like the sound of the flatline.
So he turned around and told himself how good it felt to not care.