Of Tea and Soup

"A good meal ought to begin with hunger." - French proverb

Too different. Too English.

He tugged his scarf closer in the frigid weather and cast another glance at the figure down the line.

Too standoffish. Too rude.

In his two weeks here at the camp he'd already witnessed the man insult countless people. With the Germans it was mildly amusing. But among the prisoners it bordered on bullying, especially when it came to the chemist. Every little thing seemed to crawl under his skin, the slightest comment set him off like a bomb.

In the Englishman's defense, he considered, the man was ill, plagued by a lingering cough and flush of fever he couldn't seem to shake. Many of them were sick or weakened from the unrelenting cold and the bad food, but the Englishman - thinly built to begin with - had been whittled practically skeletal by it all.

Too weak. Too fragile.

He looked down the line again, closer this time, and wished he hadn't. The man truly didn't look well, almost frail as if a good wind could blow him back into the building, body hunched against the cold as if sheer willpower alone kept him on his feet. Each gust of wind sent a tremor through him. LeBeau felt a faint rush of...pity.

He reasoned that emotion inwardly. The Englishman - Newkirk, he amended - had done nothing to warrant sympathy. His meager attempts to be friendly had been rewarded with scathing looks and muttered insults.

Too prickly. Too quick to take offence. Too...

He was still checking off his disdain when the guard finished counting the men and with a brisk "Dismissed!" from the Kommandant, the prisoners unstiffened themselves and hurried indoors. All except Newkirk. Despite himself, LeBeau couldn't help but watch with concern as the Englishman stumbled slowly into their barracks and practically collapsed on the nearest cot, lacking the strength to drag himself up to his own bunk or even to pull himself entirely onto the thin mattress. Even within the few feet of the stove he still trembled and LeBeau could see the blue - tinged color of his face and hands.

Carter - he needed to learn the chemist's first name - was the first to react, coming up alongside the cot and pulling a couple of the ragged blankets over the huddled figure. It was a testimony to how sick the man was that he didn't snap out a harsh remark. In fact he didn't even open his eyes, only curling into himself and shaking harder than before.

The tall man standing in the corner - Kinchloe, he remembered, although the soldier was so quiet he'd hardly noticed him- stepped up behind Carter and placed a hand on the Englishman's forehead before shaking his head.

"He's worse, Colonel."

The Colonel was next, and an enigma to the Frenchman. The officer spent more time in the Kommandant's office than he did with the other prisoners, and something in LeBeau's suspicious nature wondered at the possibility of a traitor, even in a colonel. And yet he seemed to care deeply about his men, wheedling extra rations, pitiful as they were, and more wood for the stove.

He was grateful for the man's efforts, even though he knew he shouldn't complain. There were far worse P.O.W. camps in Germany, and as bad as the food and heat were, they never starved or froze.

The Colonel checked the fever before stripping out of his bomber jacket and wrapping it around Newkirk's thin shoulders.

"How long since he's eaten?" There was concern in the Colonel's voice, a doubt usually wrapped so tightly in self-confidence LeBeau had suspected the man never faltered.

"Since yesterday, Colonel...sir." Carter piped up, brow furrowed. "I tried to get him to eat but he said he wasn't hungry."

LeBeau cast a sharp glance at the motionless figure. Even wrapped under the blankets and coat he was pitifully thin, little more than skin and bones. He doubted the Englishman hadn't been hungry for months, if not longer.

"He needs nourishment."

Three heads turned his in direction, two registering surprise. The Colonel only appraised him with an odd look. He cleared his throat before going on.

"Colonel, if you could get me some...supplies, I could cook some clear soup for Newkirk." The name tasted strange in his accent, stilted and horribly English. He shoved that thought aside. "And tea." He detested the stuff himself, weak and bland liquid that it was. But he'd heard Newkirk speak longingly of it more than once in the past two weeks.

There was a quick nod from the Colonel and without a word he headed out of the barracks and toward the Kommandant's office. LeBeau crossed the room to the cot, standing motionless for a full five seconds before speaking.

"Newkirk." The name was still peculiar to him. He looked up at Kinch. "What is his first name?"

"Me name's Peter." It was barely above a hoarse whisper but he heard it. The man's eyes were open a slit, greenish color stark against the flush of his skin.

LeBeau situated his beret before perching on the edge of the bunk beside him.

"Mine is Louis."

The eyes slid closed, effort taxing the ill man. He took off his scarf and added it to the growing mound covering the Englishman.

The Colonel returned before Newkirk had drifted to sleep, arms piled with enough ingredients for a pot of soup to feed all the men, and a coveted box of tea. LeBeau didn't ask, simply accepted the food and went to work on the stove.

It took him quicker than he'd expected to prepare the tea and soup, the familiar feel of the pots and ingredients coming back to him as if he was in his kitchen at home. The smell seemed to rouse Newkirk somewhat but he didn't open his eyes or attempt to get up.

When he'd finished he carried the bowl and cup over to the sick man, waiting for Newkirk to prop himself up on an elbow before offering him either.

The man managed a sip of the tea, the liquid scalding his throat but burning into the fever. His hand wavered as he reached for the soup, falling weakly to his side.

Without pausing, LeBeau dipped a spoonful and held it in front of Newkirk's lips. He opened his mouth as if to protest, then snapped it shut before opening it again. The Frenchman was reminded of the Ortolans in nests he'd seen back home, opening their beaks for food.

The Englishman tasted the soup - French soup, LeBeau thought warily, bracing himself for the slur against his country. But when Newkirk spoke his voice was quiet.

"It's..." He hesitated as if he'd forgotten how to give a compliment. "It's ruddy good, Louis."

It struck the Frenchman that his name sounded as odd in Newkirk's mouth as the Englishman's did in his. Yet not so odd that he couldn't grow accustomed to the sound.

He smiled, the first real smile since he'd come to Stalag 13.

"In that case, Pierre, I will make more."

"Nos amis, les enn'mis." ("Our friends, the enemy".) - Pierre-Jean de BĂ©ranger