by Kougyoku (紅玉)
illustrated by beili
He first appears one morning when they’re on parade.
They’re in the middle of a dry, scrubby piece of ground, just on the outskirts of a tiny French village whose name Charlie can’t pronounce. The place is far enough from the front lines that it’s not even possible to hear the gunfire. It’s almost peaceful. For the past two weeks, the mud of the trenches and the constant bombardment from Kaiser Bill’s German army has been nothing more than a bad memory.
The sun is hot for the time of the year, making most of the men restless as they stand to attention, waiting for their commanding officer to arrive.
“Here,” whispers Private Greening as he stands beside Charlie, “d’you see him?”
Charlie looks around. “Who?”
Greening jerks his head towards the end of the line. “New chap,” he says. “Not seen him before.”
Charlie strains to see, but he’s stopped by the arrival of the officer and a bark of orders.
They don’t parade for long. The officers are as tired of the heat as the men are. Charlie tries to get a look at the newcomer as they’re marched back and forth, but all he gets is a glimpse of broad shoulders and a blank expression.
Finally, the parade is called to an end with the command to rest well; they’ll be marching back out to the trenches that evening.
It’s too bright to sleep. Charlie knows he’ll feel rough as anything if he doesn’t get any sleep at all, but they’ve been too well-rested the past while, with fresh air during the days and a large barn full of dry straw at night. After all that, Charlie’s not used to sleeping at one o’clock in the afternoon any more.
With a sigh, he rises. Brushing himself down, he tosses his jacket onto his kit bag, rolls up his shirt sleeves, and picks his way through the sleeping bodies and out into the sunshine.
Most of the lads who are awake are sat outside the village’s only tavern: a half-timbered building with an overhanging second storey that provides some blessed shade. They’re at a table beneath it, with a game of cards spread out in front of them.
“Fenton!” greets Private Collins as Charlie wanders over. “I thought you were sleeping.”
“Not any more.” Charlie grins. “I gave it up as a bad job.” He looks over the cards. “What are you playing for? Anything good?”
Greening smiles toothily. “Cigarettes,” he says. “Want us to deal you in on the next round?”
Charlie wrinkles his nose in disappointment. “I’ve got enough cigarettes already.” He scratches at the back of his neck where it itches in the heat. “If–”
“Look!” hisses Private Down, nodding in the direction of the barn. “New chap’s up!”
As one, they follow his gaze to see a man wandering down the cobbled lane towards them.
Charlie watches, curious. “Who is he? Have you met him?”
“Not yet,” says Greening with a shrug.
“Did you hear, though?” says Down, eyes gleaming. “Apparently he’s just come back from one of the convalescent camps. I heard he’s been sent to join our battalion because most of his got killed a few weeks back.”
“Oh,” says Collins quietly. “Poor man.”
“Poor man?” Greening snorts. “Lucky bastard, more like, if he’s one of the ones still alive!”
There’s a round of laughter, but it’s quickly shushed by Collins as the new private draws closer.
Down schools a snigger into a cough. “Hello there!” he calls with a wave. “Want to join in on a game? We’re playing for cigarettes if you have any.”
The new private walks over. He’s a big man, wide-shouldered and black-haired. His brows are drawn down over dark eyes, mouth set in a thin line. “I don’t care for cards.”
Charlie has to fight down the instinct to be insulted by the man’s expression and tries to start the conversation on a different tack instead. “I’m Charlie Fenton,” he says, making introductions, “and this is Down, Greening, Collins.”
The new private casts his gaze over the company then looks up at Charlie. “John Taylor.”
“Nice to meet you.” Charlie gives him a smile. It’s not returned.
“Here,” says Greening, rubbing at his nose, “are you sure you don’t want to play? It beats lying around and not being able to sleep in this heat, anyhow.”
“Was it this hot where you were at the convalescent camp?” asks Down. “Were you there for long?”
Taylor sticks his hands in his pockets. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I can imagine,” says Collins. “Our regiment’s had it easy from the sounds of it. I’ve got a cousin stationed up in Belgium and if you heard some of the–”
“I said, I don’t want to talk about it.” Taylor’s face darkens. “Especially not with a little, weasel-faced p–”
“Watch it!” Down throws his cards onto the table. “Collins is only trying to be polite. There’s no need to start throwing around insults.”
Taylor scowls, taking a step forward. “And you’re no better than he is. I didn’t ask to get stationed with a group of prying, impolite–”
“Oi!” Down jumps to his feet, puffs out his chest, and it’s only a matter of seconds before Taylor lunges towards him with his fists out. Charlie acts without thinking. Before he knows it, he’s got Taylor by the arm, dragging him away, Taylor’s knuckles missing Down’s nose by barely an inch.
Taylor struggles, boots scuffing against the dusty cobbles, muscles straining against Charlie’s grip, but Charlie has strength enough to hold his own. Collins and Greening hold Down back as Charlie manhandles Taylor away from the table and rounds to look him in the eye.
“Look here,” says Charlie, as Taylor stares straight back at him, “I don’t know what it was like where you’ve come from, but you don’t start on any of us. Do you hear?”
Taylor snarls, and Charlie has to block him with a shoulder to stop him from surging forward again. The press of flesh is horribly hot in the midday sun.
“I said,” repeats Charlie, breathless, “no fighting.” He meets Taylor’s gaze. “Now, some of the boys may have been a little impolite, and maybe none of us know what you’ve been through, but you have to see that we’re in enough of a rum job as it is without fighting amongst ourselves, alright?”
Taylor glares and tugs himself free from Charlie’s grasp. “I didn’t ask to be here,” he growls, then turns and throws a contemptuous glance over at the table before stalking away.
They don’t see Taylor for the rest of the day. Charlie stays to play a round of cards, but no-one is in the mood to have much fun after their incident. When the game is over, Charlie heads back to the barn and tries to sleep, but as he lies there in the straw, with the sounds of the day around him, he can’t stop thinking about what happened.
Taylor had been strong enough to put Charlie to the test, and the situation could easily have turned out a lot worse. Charlie doesn’t feel any better from knowing that no-one was hurt. Taylor is possibly the most dislikeable man he’s met and Charlie’s not sure he wants to know what it is that has made Taylor that way.
Turning over, Charlie thinks of heat and anger and dark, sullen eyes.
It’s a long time before he’s able to fall asleep.
After a few hours’ rest, just before the evening light begins to fade, the men are roused to begin their march. They assemble in their makeshift parade ground.
Charlie settles his helmet on his head, hefts his pack and his rifle onto his back and gets into line.
“Look,” says Down from beside him, “bastard’s back.”
Charlie turns around to see Taylor readying himself to join the ranks, staunchly avoiding the eyes of those around him.
“Where do you think he’s been all day?” asks Down. “Starting more fights?”
Charlie sighs. “We’ll do well to ignore him, Down. Don’t you let him rile you up.”
“Did you see?” Greening jogs over to join them. “Taylor’s back.”
“Who are you talking about?” asks Private Cooper from where he stands in front of Charlie, turning around to face them. “Did I miss something while I was asleep?”
Greening grins. “The new private.” He nods in Taylor’s direction. “Nasty piece of work, that one. Tried to start a fight this afternoon.”
Cooper peers over at Taylor with undisguised interest. “What happened?”
“He nearly punched me!” exclaims Down. “I’d have given as good as I’d got, too, if Fenton hadn’t broken it up.”
Charlie grimaces. “And I’d rather not have to break up any more fights, neither,” he says, trying to believe his own words. He gives Down a steady look. “So ignore him.”
They’re silent for a moment, until Greening chuckles. “We never did find out what happened to the rest of his battalion, you know.”
A smile tugs at Down’s mouth. “You don’t mean–”
“Who’s to say it was the Germans who got them? Maybe the violence came from their own ranks.” Greening leers in Taylor’s direction. “And maybe there’s a reason why Taylor was the only one left alive.”
Down and Greening dissolve into laughter at that. Charlie has to try hard not to join in.
The march, when they get underway, is a long and tiring one. It starts off pleasantly enough, with the cool of the evening a welcome relief from the heat of the day, but soon the dirt road becomes pitted with craters, a legacy from the shifting position of the front line. Dodging and leaping to get around the craters is no easy task. A few hours later, in the darkness, things are confounded further when it starts to rain.
Charlie takes his waterproof sheet out of his pack and pulls around his shoulders, but it doesn’t help to keep his legs dry; not when the rain turns from a light patter into a heavy downpour.
The way grows more and more difficult as they go, with the road turning to mud beneath their feet, boots slipping against the soft ground as they navigate the pocked terrain.
After three hours of this, any high spirits that the company may have had have disappeared completely, and the march has degenerated into straggling lines of weary men trudging through the darkness.
Distant noises and flashes of light over to their left signal the start of a bombardment of shells and machine-gun fire on the lines. It grows louder and louder as they near the trenches and Charlie listens with a heavy heart. He’d been enjoying life in the village too much; it’s made him soft. The last time they were posted in the trenches had been weeks ago and Charlie doesn’t want to go back.
As the dawn begins to break and the rain lightens, the march comes to a halt. Their commanding officer leads them into a bedraggled paddock adjoining the road and they’re told to rest there until the afternoon.
Sleeping on the wet grass is not pleasant, but it’s possible to at least keep the rain off by sleeping in pairs and joining their waterproof sheets together to form a makeshift tent.
Charlie dumps his pack on the ground, and looks around himself as the other men set to constructing shelters. He’s about to find one of his friends to pair up with when he looks down the paddock and sees that there, alone and sodden at the edge of the company, is Taylor.
After yesterday’s incident it’s no surprise that nobody wants to share with him. Charlie himself had warned people not to get too close to Taylor for fear of causing trouble, but Charlie can’t help but feel a little bad for it now. Here in the gloom and the damp, Taylor looks just as miserable and exhausted as the rest of them.
With a sigh, Charlie picks up his pack and wanders over.
Taylor gives him a wary glance as he approaches, and stands up straighter, but Charlie doesn’t have the energy to argue.
“We’re sharing a shelter.” Charlie drops his pack and his rifle and takes up his waterproof sheet. “Come on.”
Surprisingly, Taylor doesn’t complain. He’s silent as he and Charlie put the shelter together, and once it’s done, he crawls inside without a word, wrapping his overcoat around himself and closing his eyes.
Charlie does the same, resting his head alongside Taylor’s boots. For a moment he considers saying something about their earlier confrontation but, from this angle, Charlie can see the strength in a muscular calf and the long line of Taylor’s back; Taylor is not someone to be taken lightly, and it’s possible that talking about it might only make things worse.
With a huff, Charlie turns over and tries to go to sleep instead.
Afternoon arrives before Charlie even realises it. He wakes up to the noise and bustle of the company rising and dismantling their makeshift shelters. Inside his own shelter, Charlie is alone.
Wearily, he crawls out into the open, stretches, and brushes himself down. His shoulder aches from where it has been pressed into the ground and the back of his overcoat is damp, but it’s not raining anymore, and he’s woken up feeling far worse than this.
Taylor is beside their shelter, rummaging through his kit bag.
Charlie gives him a nod. “Good afternoon.”
Taylor doesn’t reply.
With a sigh, Charlie sets about reclaiming his waterproof sheet, then heads off in search of breakfast and company.
When the men have eaten, they’re assembled into lines once more and marched on.
They don’t have far to travel this time. Out of the paddock, they’re led down the road a little way before turning off and through what was once a field but is now a ragged, shell-marked piece of ground. From here, it’s only a short march before they reach the reserve trench where they’re to be stationed.
The bombardments that they’d heard the previous night have stopped and, except for some machine-gun fire in the distance, the air is quiet. In pairs, the men climb over the sandbag parapet and down into the trench.
Charlie wrinkles his nose at the dank smell as he clambers down. The night’s rain has made the mud walls of the trench slick and soft, and the wooden duckboards underfoot squelch in the sodden ground.
There are a few minutes spent waiting around and then Charlie’s company are sent further down the trench to be stationed. He follows dutifully, dumps his pack in the dugout that they’re shown to, and tries not to think about the days ahead.
They don’t have much time to get settled though; the light is already fading, and it’s not long before the call to stand-to is sounded along the trench. With the rest of the men, Charlie kits himself out, readies his rifle, and waits for the word of an attack coming from the front line.
The day, however, is a quiet one. No noise comes from the enemy lines and the time ticks slowly away. After only an hour, the call to stand-down is given and the company relax. The men begin to remove their bayonets and there’s an amount of hushed conversation.
Charlie lowers his rifle, scratches at his ear, and awaits orders.
That night, when darkness has fallen completely, Charlie’s company is split into fatigue parties and they spend their time on errands, travelling through the narrow communication trenches to fetch and carry things to and from the front line.
Among Charlie’s party are Down, Cooper, and, to their dismay, Taylor.
Luckily, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Taylor is quiet and sullen, but he plays his part efficiently and without complaint. After two hours of work, with neither Taylor nor Down starting on each other, Charlie can almost believe that the previous day’s incident won’t be repeated.
On their next journey they’re tasked with carrying large rolls of barbed wire from the reserve trench to the front line. The rolls are more awkward than they are heavy and need to be carried with a man at each end, but the work is easy enough if they’re careful.
They’re just passing down one of the communication trenches when the calm of the night is broken by the flash of a shell to the north. Cooper jumps, just a small little thing, but it’s enough to make him fumble the roll that he’s carrying with Taylor.
The roll crashes to the floor between them, catching Taylor’s hand on the way and startling him into a furious yelp of pain.
In the next instant, before any of them know what’s happening, Taylor has caught Cooper up by his collar and laid a fist into his jaw.
Down and Charlie scramble forward and pull Taylor from Cooper before he hits him again, but it’s Charlie alone who hustles Taylor away, using his weight to heave Taylor into the sandbags that make up the wall of the trench.
Taylor glowers and struggles, breathing heavily, the whites of his eyes flashing in the dark of the night.
Charlie holds him where he is, a hand on Taylor’s arm and Taylor’s chest heaving, warm, beneath his shoulder. “What do you think you’re fucking doing, Taylor? We’ve got enough to worry about without you–”
Taylor throws himself forwards, grabbing at Charlie’s jacket, and Charlie punches him full in the face without a second’s thought.
Charlie takes a deep breath, arms trembling and jaw tight, as Taylor stumbles back against the sandbags. “Start any more trouble and I’ll report you to the commanding officer. I don’t care what I have to say to him; I will see you court-m–” Charlie’s stopped, suddenly, by a thin, ringing noise, and his stomach jumps when he realises what it is.
The gas gongs are sounding out from the front-line trench.
Swearing, Charlie tugs out his gas mask and scrabbles to put it on. The others do the same, Taylor included, and standing still and alert, they wait for the sounds of an attack.
The air in the mask is sharp and bitter in Charlie’s mouth. He looks to Taylor, who’s panting, cupping his cheek through the rubber; but Taylor doesn’t move from where he stands and is seemingly as tense as the rest of them.
After fifteen minutes, the order comes to remove their masks with word that the gas gongs had been sounded in false-alarm. Charlie packs away his mask quickly, cautious that their fight will start again now that the threat is over, but Taylor merely huffs, picks up his end of the barbed wire, and doesn’t say anything when Cooper does the same.
Charlie tries not to feel disappointed at that.
Once the night is done and the men have waited out the morning stand-to, Charlie’s company are tasked with carrying breakfast to the front-line trench. After that they return to the reserve trench and are left to occupy themselves.
Charlie sleeps for the most part, crawling into a small, muddy dugout and bundling his overcoat around himself to keep out the damp. His dreams, when they come, are confused, disjointed things, full of bright eyes and snarling mouths and the temptation of a body close to his own.
When he wakes, groggy and flushed, Charlie finds Down and Cooper excitedly telling the others about the night’s events. Taylor, however, is nowhere to be found.
“Fenton!” crows Down, when he sees that Charlie’s awake. “I was just saying how you gave Taylor his just deserts!”
Charlie grimaces and lies, “I didn’t enjoy it.”
Greening grins. “Modest as always, Fenton.” He glances around. “From the looks of it, I’d say you’ve given Taylor something to think about and no mistake.”
Charlie coughs and straightens his helmet. “Where is he, anyway?”
“No idea,” says Cooper. “He just walked off. Licking his wounds, probably.” He smiles. “I wouldn’t mind if he decides not to come back at all.”
Greening and Down both agree. Charlie looks along the trench, but he can’t see Taylor anywhere.
That night, shortly after darkness falls, Charlie’s company hears that it’s being posted to the front-line trench. The news is no surprise; they’d known it was going to happen sooner or later. It’s with a weary resignation that Charlie collects up his kit and follows the others to their new positions, watching as the troops they’re replacing file back down the communication trench and away.
Taylor had appeared at some time before dusk, but he had kept to himself and none of the men had made an effort to break the silence. Now in the front-line trench, the commanding officer places Taylor on sentry duty while the rest of the company go about their work.
Charlie finds himself assigned to man the gas gong with Collins. It’s a tedious job at the best of times, waiting for the first sight or smell of gas, but Charlie always dislikes these moments most of all: the first few hours in the front-line trench, when the anticipation of an attack is bright and sharp his mind. Later, he knows, it’ll dull down to a familiar, gnawing concern that can be ignored, but for now, he waits with his heart tight in his chest.
With nothing to draw his attention away from his anxiety, Charlie finds himself glancing around, his gaze lighting on Taylor more often than not.
Standing up on the mud ledge that serves for the fire-step, with his head above the sandbag parapet, Taylor betrays none of the fear that Charlie feels. Whether it plagues Taylor or not is anyone’s guess, but standing there as he is, silent and determined, he looks brave. It’s almost commendable. If Charlie didn’t know what Taylor was like as a person, he’d smile to see him.
As it is, Charlie does nothing, and quietly goes about his next task when he and Collins are relieved from their post.
The rest of the night is uneventful. There’s some shelling further down the lines and a little machine gun fire, but it’s nothing to worry about. The noise continues through the morning stand-to and then eases off with the rising of the sun.
Wearily, Charlie lines up with the others for the morning’s tot of rum, then he heads off to a dugout and tries to catch some sleep before breakfast.
Charlie spends the rest of the day writing letters, cleaning his rifle, and sleeping some more. A few of the men have been posted on sentry duty but there’s little for the rest of them to do; their lot is only to wait, bored, in the front-line trench for whatever the day will bring.
The weather is mild but humid, with a small amount of rain at midday bringing out the cloying smell of the mud and the latrines. It’s unpleasant, but not enough to disturb Charlie’s appetite, and he’s happy to eat when the food is brought around.
Greening, sitting on the fire-step beside Charlie, makes a face around a mouthful of his bread and butter. “When can we have something nice to eat again?”
“Here, Fenton,” says Down, sat on Greening’s other side, “you should get your sister to send us another cake. I like the chocolate ones.”
Collins, standing nearby, sighs and waves his bread in the air. “I’d rather a bar of chocolate. Real chocolate. Fry’s would be nice.”
Cooper laughs loudly beside him and pulls a bar out of his pocket with a flourish. “You mean a bar of chocolate like this?”
Collins gasps. “How long have you had that?”
Cooper smiles and clutches the bar in his fingers. “I’ve been saving it. My uncle sent it to me.”
“I’ll play you for it.” Greening swallows the last of his bread and leans over to elbow Down in the ribs. “Down, have you got your cards?”
“What’s in it for me?” Cooper frowns as Down rummages in his pack. “What if I win?”
“You get a sense of achievement. And five bob from each of us.”
Cooper laughs in delight at that, but Greening is met with several complaints from the others about extortionate prices.
As they get ready, Charlie finishes off his meal and looks down the trench. He can see Taylor eating a few paces away, crouched on the duckboards and staring at his knees. They’ve not spoken to him since the previous day and Taylor’s not said anything in return. Resolutely, Charlie decides to extend an olive branch.
“Taylor,” he calls over, “want to play? There’s a chocolate bar and a pound in it for the winner.”
“Oi,” says Down, pushing Charlie in the shoulder. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Charlie shrugs. “Trying to be nice. You could try it too.”
“No,” says Cooper. “The less I have to do with him the better.”
“He nearly punched you, Fenton.” Down leers in Taylor’s direction and raises his voice. “He’s worse than a rabid dog, the way he starts on people.”
Before Down’s even finished, Taylor’s up and striding towards them. “The way you’re starting on me?” His face is red, the tendons on his neck straining.
Charlie’s pulse skips. “No,” he says firmly, scrambling to his feet to block Taylor’s path and holding up his hands. He looks Taylor in the eye. “No.”
Taylor glares at him.
Charlie holds his gaze. “We’re not fighting again.” And Charlie glances back at Down for good measure.
Taylor stares at Charlie for a few moments more, long enough to make Charlie’s breath catch in his throat, then he turns and stalks away with a snarl. “Next time you want to talk to me, Fenton, just fuck off.”
Charlie sighs, relief and regret curling through him in equal amounts. “Down, you need to learn to shut up.”
It’s late afternoon when Charlie is given the orders: he’s going to be part of a night-time patrol to the enemy lines. The team he’s joining is to be six-strong, made up of Charlie, Greening, an officer, two more privates, and Taylor.
Charlie is silent as he listens to their briefing. As patrols go, there’s nothing unusual about this one: they’re to head out across no man’s land to the German trenches, to find out what they’re up to.
It still fills him with dread.
He’s not scared, as such. Charlie’s been on patrols before and he knows he can handle himself on the field; that’s why he’s been chosen for this one, after all. But there’s no getting around the fact that patrols are dangerous, and there’s nothing quite like the knowledge that this might be your last few hours alive.
They spend the rest of the day getting everything ready. The privates on the team are issued with revolvers, which they’re tasked with cleaning and charging. All superfluous kit is removed and stowed away.
Charlie tries not to think about what’s ahead of him.
Greening gives him a pat on the back and a smile. Charlie smiles in return, and looks over to Taylor, who’s crouched on the duckboards, busy oiling his gun.
It’ll be dangerous for all of them if they don’t work together. Fights in the trenches are one thing; fights in the middle of no man’s land are another. The sensible part of Charlie knows that to leave things as they are, with Taylor liable to go off at any moment, is a dead-man’s game. It’s with that knowledge that Charlie resolves to go and make amends.
He walks over to Taylor and stands beside him but Taylor doesn’t even look up.
Taking a breath, Charlie sticks his hands in his pockets. “I’m sorry for what happened earlier.”
Taylor says nothing, focusing instead on the work in front of him. His fingers are strong and deft, handling the parts of the revolver with skill.
Charlie licks his lips. “I don’t want to fight you. I want to make that clear.”
Taylor gives a long exhale.
Charlie doesn’t know what to make of that. He scuffs his toe along the wall of the trench. “I want this to be a successful patrol.”
Taylor’s mouth twists. He lifts the barrel of the revolver and looks down it in a way that makes Charlie’s heart jump in his throat. “It will be.”
“Good,” says Charlie, voice catching, but Taylor ignores him in favour of his gun. Breathing out carefully, Charlie walks away.
Darkness slowly falls. After the dusk stand-to, they wait for an hour before setting off.
The patrol has been given as much help as possible: they know that their lines won’t be giving any fire until they’re back, and a hole in the barbed wire has already been cut for them.
With his heart hammering in his chest, Charlie adjusts his helmet and his equipment, and waits with Greening and the others for the order to set off.
Taylor seems just as silent and determined as he was while he was on sentry duty. Charlie watches him and wonders if he really is just as nervous as the rest of them. He doesn’t look it, but Charlie knows how deceptive appearances can be. There’s not long to think about it, though, because shortly the officer gives his signal and they take it in turns to scramble up the sandbags, over the side of the trench, and out into no man’s land.
Crawling on their bellies like animals over the uneven mud and patchy grass, they make it through the hole in the barbed wire with no trouble. The officer splits the team into pairs and sets Charlie and Taylor out on the left flank, Greening and another of the privates on the right. Then, they inch forward, as close to the ground as they can, and make their way towards the enemy lines.
Without the guns going off, it’s pitch-black and eerily quiet out there in the open. What grass there is, is damp and sweet from the earlier rain, and the wet strands of it cling to Charlie’s clothes as he makes his way along.
His heart pounds. At any moment, if they’re seen, they could be picked off by sniper fire. Even if they’re not seen, they could be hit by a shell. Charlie is tense enough that the hairs on his arms are standing on end, but luck is on their side, because the enemy lines are as quiet as their own.
It’s hard to see anything in the darkness. Charlie can just make out the dim shapes of his teammates, but his lack of sight is made up for in hearing. Listening, Charlie can hear his teammates all around him, their limbs moving through the grass, Taylor breathing fast and rough at his side.
They make it a good way across no man’s land with no incident, travelling slowly to check that the way is clear before carrying on.
It’s only when they’re halfway to the German lines that it happens.
A shell explodes, a good way away, but it gives enough light that, for a moment, everything around them is illuminated. And there, only two arm’s lengths from Charlie, is a German soldier.
Everything happens in an instant: Charlie’s eyes widen. So do the German’s. Charlie scrabbles to aim his revolver, but before he can, a shot rings out, shatteringly loud in the darkness.
It takes Charlie a moment or two to realise that he’s not been hit. Beside him, the German is as still and silent as a dead man. Taylor touches Charlie on the shoulder and only then does it dawn on Charlie where that shot came from.
With it clear that a German patrol is also abroad, the officer gives orders to abort the mission. They wait, as quietly as they can, to hear if there are any more enemy soldiers nearby, and when the coast is clear, they head back to their own lines as fast as they dare, stopping every other yard to wait and listen.
It’s only when they reach their own barbed wire, with no further trouble on the way, that Charlie realises just how much he owes Taylor his life.
By the time they scrabble back down into the trench, Charlie’s shaking.
It’s quickly clear that the German patrol must have made its own way back to safety too, as a flare shoots into the sky from the enemy lines, bright for a few, dazzling seconds. Taylor’s eyes are wide in the light of it.
The German guns start up.
“Taylor.” Charlie’s voice is weak. He tries to catch his breath, and puts his hand on Taylor’s back.
Taylor turns to look at him.
Charlie smiles. “Thank y–”
A shell explodes a little way down the line, shaking them both to the floor. Charlie looks up as mud and debris rains down upon them.
He doesn’t have time to see the next shell.
Something’s not quite right. Charlie can’t relax because something’s niggling at him, gnawing at him. It’s too loud and too quiet and too uncomfortable. The niggle grows and grows, nagging for attention, and finally blooms into a sensation that Charlie realises he’s felt for some time but has only just put a name to.
In his head. His throat. His right shoulder, surging downwards.
Noises. People moving around. A cough.
Charlie opens his eyes and finds himself looking at a broad canvas roof above him. He’s lying in a bed, and it’s a real bed too; not just a filthy dugout or straw in a barn, but an iron bed with a mattress and clean sheets. A glance around shows that he’s not the only one; there are twenty or so beds in the large tent, each filled with men in various stages of recovery.
Swallowing dryly, Charlie lifts a hand and rubs at his eyes. He’s wearing a pair of blue pyjamas, but his right sleeve is rolled up to accommodate a mass of bandages that covers his right hand and forearm.
Lifting his head, Charlie calls for a nurse.
The one that arrives is a slim lady in a clean, white cap and apron. “Oh, you’re awake.” She heads off, returning a few moments later with a cup of milk.
Charlie drinks it down gratefully. “I take it I’m in hospital. I don’t remember what happened.”
The nurse takes his cup and sets it down, then checks his chart. “We had a lot of men come in on the night you arrived. There was some heavy shelling on our lines.” She looks up.
There are a number of questions that Charlie wants to ask, but he’s not sure he wants to know the answer to any of them. He takes a deep breath and says, “What happened to me?”
“Shrapnel wounds in your arm. They grazed your head too.” She smiles. “You’ll pull through though, a strong lad like you. You’re already looking far better than you did when you arrived.”
Charlie smiles in return. He nods at his bandages. “And my arm?”
“Intact. You won’t lose it.” She straightens and Charlie’s stomach sinks at the look in her eye. “But… you’ll be lucky if you can ever use that hand again.” She presses at the bandages. “Can you feel it?”
Charlie’s throat aches. “The arm hurts, but my hand…” He takes a deep breath. “What about the rest of my company? Was I the only one who got wounded?”
Her expression softens. “From what I gather, there weren’t many survivors. Apart from yourself I only know of one othe–”
Something inside Charlie turns upside down. “Private Greening?”
She shakes her head.
Charlie’s left hand trembles. “Private Down? Private Collins? Private Cooper?”
The pain in Charlie’s body doubles as the first sob pushes its way through him. He feels too parched to cry, but the tears that don’t fall weigh down on his chest instead, scraping him from the inside out until his throat and his mouth feel red raw from it, his head hollow.
It’s quieter than it was earlier when Charlie wakes up for the second time. He feels weary all over, a dull ache starting up in his chest when he remembers what happened. For a while he just lies there listening to the silence, too drained to cry again.
When he finally opens his eyes, Charlie realises that it’s quiet because it’s night-time. The room is dark around him.
He sighs, pushes himself to sit up, and discovers that he’s not alone.
There’s someone standing at the end of his bed
The person turns and begins to walk away as soon as Charlie moves, but Charlie catches the briefest of glances before they go, eyes shining in the darkness. It’s then that Charlie realises who it is.
“Taylor!” hisses Charlie, but Taylor doesn’t stop; he walks down the tent and through the entrance, out into the night.
Cursing quietly, Charlie heaves himself out of bed to follow him. Charlie’s legs feel weaker than normal, trembling a little as he sets his bare feet on the wooden floor, but he has enough strength left in them to make his way past the other beds and out into the open.
It’s cooler outside, pleasantly so, with patchy grass underfoot. The night is a clear one, the stars bright in the sky, and it’s not hard for Charlie to see the rows of canvas tents standing silently around him; it feels like a million miles from the cramped, dank mud of the trenches.
A little way off, Taylor turns and disappears between two of the tents.
“Taylor!” Charlie scrambles after him, his chest aching with the strain of it.
The two tents look like more hospital wards. Taylor walks down past one of them and then turns off beside a wooden hut.
“Dammit, Taylor, stop! I want to talk to you!” Charlie’s nearly out of breath by the time he turns the corner, but he finds that Taylor has done as he’s asked and is standing, waiting for him to catch up.
Taylor’s eyes are bright in the moonlight, and Charlie can see that he’s in pyjamas too, a bandage wrapped under his jaw and up over his cheek.
“Go back to bed.” Taylor’s eyes dart down to Charlie’s arm. “You shouldn’t be up.”
Charlie has to pause a moment to catch his breath and he leans back against the hut for support. He looks at Taylor. “Did you hear? About what happened to our company? Are we really the only ones who–?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But…” Charlie stops and, at the look on Taylor’s face, decides not to pursue it further. “What about you? Is it just your cheek that–?”
“I said: I don’t want to talk about it.” Taylor’s teeth glint in a sneer. “Go back to bed, Fenton.”
“Wait, Taylor,” Charlie takes a breath, “when we were out on patrol–”
Without warning, Taylor pins Charlie back against the wall of the hut with a surprising force, pressing him down with a forearm against Charlie’s collarbones. It’s not much different from their previous encounters, only this time, Charlie doesn’t have the strength in his body to fight back. His pulse races, and it’s not necessarily with fear.
“You never listen, do you?” Taylor snarls, his face in Charlie’s. “You’re always so arrogant. You always think you know what’s best.”
Charlie looks him in the eye, defiant. “Are you going to punch me now you have a chance?” He almost smiles. “After all, I did punch you.”
Taylor stares at him, breathing heavily, his brows drawn low, and for a heart-stopping moment, Charlie thinks that he really is going to do it. But then Taylor’s eyes flicker down, and when they come back up, something very cold and very metallic presses up beneath Charlie’s jaw.
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” Charlie jerks upwards, scrambling to get away, but he can’t move with the entirety of Taylor’s weight holding him in place. “Jesus, Taylor, how on Earth have you still got that revolver?”
Taylor smiles and the world sharpens to a painful clarity. Charlie can feel the wood of the hut against his free hand, the grass at his feet, Taylor’s breath on his chin. The barrel of the revolver presses closer, hard against the soft flesh. “Maybe I should teach you a lesson.”
Charlie gasps, both terrified and exhilarated. “You wouldn’t. I know you wouldn’t.”
Taylor says nothing, merely cocks the gun.
“Oh, fuck!” Charlie’s shoulders tremble, the terror winning out. He stares at Taylor, his heart pounding in his chest, his body alive but helpless.
Taylor stares back, and pressed close as they are, Charlie can feel Taylor’s heart racing too. With each second that ticks away, Charlie can feel the gun pushing up under his jaw, the metal beginning to warm to the same temperature as his skin but still pressing hard, all the more noticeable when he swallows.
They stay like that for what seems like an unbearably long time, Taylor’s forearm warm against Charlie’s collarbones, Taylor’s gaze sharp, Charlie’s life in his hands.
Then Taylor shifts his weight a little, moves a foot forwards, and despite the gun, Charlie’s closing the distance between them and kissing Taylor before he even realises it.
Taylor gasps, pulls his head back and his forearm shivers against Charlie’s shoulders. The gun presses up further, hard enough that Charlie has to tilt his head back because of it, his scalp scraping against the wood behind him.
Charlie breathes hard and closes his eyes; bites his lip where it tingles from the contact.
Taylor shifts his weight again, leaning on Charlie harder, his thigh brushing Charlie’s, and they’re so close that it’s more than easy for Charlie to reach his good hand across and feel that Taylor is as stiff in his pyjamas as Charlie is himself.
The breath that Taylor takes is so deep that Charlie can feel it huff out over his skin, down to the base of his neck. Taylor doesn’t remove the gun when Charlie begins to stroke him through the cotton, but he doesn’t pull the trigger either, and Charlie’s heart is galloping in his throat, his limbs clenching tight.
Charlie’s chest aches against its confines. He can’t catch his breath and he can’t make a sound and when he strains to look, all he can see are Taylor’s eyes, wide and wild and half-terrified as Charlie slips his hand under the waistband of Taylor’s pyjamas and clutches at him, warm and hard against Charlie’s palm.
The pressure of the gun releases slightly, and Charlie looks down just in time for Taylor to kiss him, panicked and brutal with it, Taylor’s tongue pressing into his mouth.
Charlie shudders. The barrel of the gun runs across his neck, over the pulse point, and he squeezes Taylor hard enough to hurt, stroking fast and jagged, hot skin beneath his fingers.
Taylor breaks the kiss to pant against Charlie’s cheek, rocking his hips closer, and it’s terribly easy for Charlie to push his own hips up to meet Taylor’s thigh and rub against him, achingly good and just right in all the wrong ways.
The movement makes the gun tremble, and it shudders down to the base of Charlie’s neck, the danger no less bright and heady for its new position, making Charlie gasp and roll his hips, tilt his head back as Taylor thrusts up to meet him. Taylor grows stickier beneath Charlie’s palm. Charlie bites his lip and gasps out into the cold air.
The world around them twists tighter and brighter until Charlie can only feel the fear and the heat and the metal and the pleasure and suddenly Taylor thrusts hard, shaking, a whimper in his throat and the evidence of their exertions coating Charlie’s hand.
Taylor pulls back in an instant and Charlie has to hold in a sob as the gun falls away from his skin.
The night air is suddenly cold between them.
Taylor’s eyes are wide. He glances at Charlie, wary and wild, then turns and stalks away, off down between the tents, the revolver still clutched tightly in his hand.
Charlie shudders all over. He collapses to the ground, gasping for breath, and it only takes one touch of his sticky hand beneath his own waistband to topple him over the edge.
It’s some moments before Charlie can move again. He cleans himself off as best he can in the grass and staggers back to the ward, but he’s still shaking, even when he crawls back into bed.
The next morning, Charlie wakes to the sound of his own heart pounding in his chest, and he has to take a few deep breaths to calm himself before he can open his eyes.
When he does, he quickly sits up and swings his feet onto the floor, but a nurse is on hand and she’s ushering him back into bed before he has a chance to move.
“Private Taylor,” protests Charlie. “John Taylor. I have to go see him.”
The nurse tells him to wait where he is and heads off. It takes all of Charlie’s effort to do as he’s told.
She returns a few minutes later, looking slightly troubled. “Private Taylor is being discharged in an hour.” She pauses and glances down at her hands. “He said he is too busy with his preparations to see anyone.”
Charlie’s stomach jumps. “Is he being sent back to the lines?”
The nurse shakes her head. “He didn’t say. But his injuries were only very minor.”
Charlie sits up and ignores the nurse as she tries to get him to lie back down. “I need to see him.” Charlie stands.
“But you aren’t well enough to–”
“No,” says Charlie, desperate. “No. He’s the only man left of my company. I need to see him.”
The nurse offers no more resistance, and Charlie is already lurching out of the ward on unsteady feet.
Charlie has to try several of the wards before he finds the right one. Taylor’s bed is at the far end of the tent and Taylor himself is sitting on it, in uniform, winding the long strips of his puttees around his calves. A kit bag is on the floor beside him.
Charlie tries not to let his heart race as he walks over. “Taylor, I–”
Taylor stands abruptly, eyes widening and nose wrinkling. The bandage over his cheek has gone, revealing a swollen, red mark in its place. “I don’t want to talk to you,” he says, crouching down to the floor with his back to Charlie and finishing with his puttees.
Charlie sits on the bed, his legs grateful for the rest. He swallows. “The nurse says you’re being discharged.” Charlie looks at the top of Taylor’s head. “Are you being sent back to the lines?”
“That’s none of your business. Your war is as good as over, Fenton.”
“I should think it is my business.” Charlie clenches his jaw. “You’re all I have left now. And I’m all you ha–”
“I said I don’t want to talk to you.” Taylor stands and turns around to face Charlie, brows lowered. “Leave me alone. Go back to bed.”
Charlie’s pulse spikes, but he holds Taylor’s gaze. “No.”
Taylor’s shoulders rise and his mouth tightens into a thin line. Charlie balls his free hand into a fist. For several moments they do nothing more than eye each other.
Finally Charlie says, tersely, “I’m not going to pretend that yesterday didn’t happen.”
Taylor’s face pales at that. He turns away and stares at the canvas walls of the ward. After a few seconds he exhales noisily and says, “What the fuck do you want? Going to threaten me with a court-martial again?”
“No.” Charlie looks at him, and decides to tell the truth. “What I want, if I could, is to do it again.”
Taylor’s neck tenses visibly. He paces in a quick circle then turns and sits down heavily on the bed. His face is red as he leans across to bring his mouth close to Charlie’s ear. In a low, tight voice he says, “I nearly fucking shot you, Fenton.”
Charlie swallows. From this distance he can hear Taylor’s shallow breathing. “You could have shot me,” says Charlie, struggling to keep his own voice just as low, “but you didn’t, did you? You did something else instead.”
Beside him, Taylor stills.
“And I’d do it again,” repeats Charlie.
Taylor’s shoulder is shivering from where he’s leaning all his weight on it. Charlie hears Taylor’s lips part beside his ear. Then Taylor closes his mouth, turns away, and says, “Fuck it.”
Charlie exhales. His heart is pounding. He looks down to Taylor’s kit bag on the floor. “Do you still have it with you?” he asks.
Taylor’s next breath comes out in a huff. He leans close again and hisses, “You’re a fucking madman, Fenton.”
Charlie turns to look at him, incredulous. “And you’re not?”
Taylor opens his mouth to say something but Charlie talks over him. “Write to me.”
Leaning back, Taylor stares at him, brows lowered into a frown.
“You’re going to out to the lines, now, aren’t you?” asks Charlie. He looks down at the bandages on his right arm and tries to take a steady breath. “And I’m going home, most likely, so I want you to write to me to let me know how you’re going on.”
“I don’t–” starts Taylor.
“And when you’re on leave,” says Charlie, looking Taylor in the eye, “you’re going to come visit me and tell me how you are in person, one madman to another.”
Taylor snorts. “What makes you think that I–”
Charlie makes an exasperated noise. “I have had it with you pretending that you don’t fucking care about anyone!” he snaps. “I saw you yesterday. How many nights have you been in my ward while I was out, waiting for me to wake up?”
Taylor says nothing, just glowers.
Charlie leans closer, forearm trembling beneath him. “You saved my life on that patrol when you didn’t have to. You’re not the heartless bastard that you want to be.” Charlie takes an angry breath. “Goddammit, Taylor, I’m all you have left and you’re all I have left, and you know you need me as much as I bloody well need you.”
Taylor looks at him with narrowed eyes, then he turns and looks out across the ward, the muscles of his jaw twitching. After a moment, he stands and, breathing out forcefully, brushes down his sleeves, adjusts his belt and busies himself with straightening the rest of his uniform. He doesn’t look at Charlie once.
It’s only when he’s done that Taylor rolls his shoulders and huffs. “You’re a fucking arrogant bastard, Fenton.”
“Taylor–” starts Charlie.
Taking a heavy breath, Taylor stoops down and picks up his kit bag, swinging it onto his back. He straightens and looks out to the sunlight shining in through the entrance to the ward, then he turns and looks down at the bandages on Charlie’s arm.
“Fine.” Taylor meets Charlie’s eyes. “I’ll write to you. If you write to me in return.”
Charlie’s heart is pounding again. “I will,” he says, and swallows. “I swear it; I will.”
Taylor’s lips twitch and, for the briefest of moments, it almost looks like a smile. Then, wrinkling his nose, he turns and heads off without stopping, walking down between the beds and out into the daylight.
“Goodbye,” calls Charlie after him.
send the author or illustrator a comment directly (you must be logged in)
see this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.