So, um... sorry about the wait! I have so much ready and planned, and I'm totally excited to get back into this little Veraverse of mine. I hope you guys are too. ;-)
As always, a million thanks to the wonderful Kay. x
"East flank, stragglers. Shoot!"
"They're retreating, save your bullets…"
Roderich thought he'd be terrified by battle. After all, he'd been terrified by everything else out here, as much as he tried to hide it. But hunched against this deep trench wall amidst this onslaught of commotion, Roderich felt nothing but overwhelming, head-spinning confusion. This place was too mad for him to fathom; too unreal for him to think. This was all too strange for Roderich to feel fear.
"Reload, fast, they won't take long to regroup."
"I need more ammo, here!"
"We all need more ammo, pal."
The shouts were muffled in Roderich's ears. Nearby explosions rattled the lines of wire overhead; ear-splitting whistles pierced the smoky sky. Groups of men stretched along the dirty ditch, on steps cut into the wall, aiming weapons over a blockade of broken doors and tables. But it was the captain whom Roderich could not take his eyes from.
"Run, assholes! Cut 'em down, soldiers!" Captain Zwingli stood on an upturned cart above the trench, a cigarette between his teeth, grinning madly as he emptied another magazine of ammunition into the foggy air. Four bullet cases lay empty at his feet. Even as enemy fire shattered the wooden barricade around him, Zwingli looked like he was having the time of his life. When his rifle finally emptied he simply tossed it to the ground, took another from his back, and kept shooting.
"Holy Mother of God." Roderich startled at the exclamation, then choked back an embarrassing gasp of relief to see Gilbert make his way back through a pile of packs and weapons. He sat heavily onto the step beside Roderich, flicked a cigarette butt to the ground, and glanced up at Zwingli spraying bullets into the air. "This bastard is fucking insane."
"Yep." Oxenstierna drew back his rifle and crouched beside them. His blue eyes were like steel behind his glasses. "He's finishin' off the wounded."
Roderich's already queasy stomach churned at the words. Gilbert just reloaded his rifle, shaking his head suspiciously. "How the hell has he not been shot? Crazy fuck should be dead by now." He slammed the steel bolt into place, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and fixed Oxenstierna with a concentrated stare. "I managed to get a look at our left flank. They've come close, but they're just looking for weak spots. I'd say this advance is only a distraction before the main assault."
"They're massing in the trees. I can make out a dozen or so from here." Feliks dropped to the ground from the crate he was using to scout over the trench. He tucked his binoculars into his belt and reached for his rifle instead. "You all right there, Fred?"
Roderich was not all right. Roderich was lost and disoriented and simply more confused than he had ever been in his entire life. He was also determined not to show it. "I'm perfectly fine." He tried to straighten up. Gilbert immediately pushed him back down.
"Keep your goddamn head down, how many times do I have to tell you! Oxenstierna, you keeping an eye on those SS bastards?"
Oxenstierna answered before Roderich could even think to feel insulted. "Hesse's got a pistol. 's'in his belt."
"A pistol?" Gilbert's eyes gleamed red. "Now, where did our old friend get his filthy hands on one of those?"
Feliks shot a narrow glare at the team a few feet further down the trench. "Same place he got that machine gun, probably."
Roderich followed the blatantly hostile stares. The team beside them consisted of Hesse, the sergeant Gilbert had provoked in the transport truck, and Saxon, the former SS officer whose cigarettes Gilbert was currently chain-smoking. Unlike the other men in the unit, they were using one gun between them. It rested on a tripod and was much bigger than the rifles the unit had been armed with that morning. Roderich's own rifle was slung over his shoulder, unused. He still did not know what to do with it, and Gilbert seemed intent on refusing him the chance to find out.
"They're shootin' too often," said Oxenstierna, his normally blank expression tinged with disdain. "Gonna overheat th'barrel."
Gilbert spat at the ground. Roderich glanced away in disgust. "They don't know what the hell they're doing. We've gotta get that gun off them."
Oxenstierna raised an eyebrow, cautiously intrigued. "'f we take't, we'll start a fight."
Gilbert looked delighted by the possibility. "Probably, yeah."
Oxenstierna's lip curled slightly upwards, his eyes flashing calculatedly. "Not a good idea."
Gilbert grinned and winked. "Probably not."
"Another wave, incoming!" Captain Zwingli's voice boomed down from above. Roderich looked up to see him rip a grenade from his belt, tear the pin out with his teeth, and hurl it into the field. He spat the pin into the trench. "Am I defending this village by myself? Prepare for incoming, you idiots!"
Gilbert and Oxenstierna hastened to their feet as a flurry of activity erupted around them, orders shouted down the line while men scrambled to their positions. Roderich's stomach fell and his spine turned cold. Incoming? What did that mean? Were the Russians advancing? What was he supposed to do? Roderich could see nothing outside of this narrow trench. He tried stretching his neck to make out what was going on, but Gilbert just pushed him down again.
"Head DOWN little prince!"
Roderich's hands clenched in frustration, anger heating the cold anxiety in his veins. How could he know what to do when no one told him anything? "But… but there must be something I can…"
"You can sit there and you can shut up." Gilbert did not even look at Roderich as he said it.
Now Roderich was insulted. That was too far. That was too far, and this was too much, too fast, and his head was spinning, and… "Hi, Fred." Feliks crouched beside Roderich, smiling, and took an unlit cigarette from his mouth. "How are you going?"
Roderich had never been asked a more complicated question in his life. "I… I thought you didn't smoke."
Feliks looked at the cigarette. "Oh, I don't light it. I just like to have something in my mouth."
Roderich had to close his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, Feliks was extending a little green packet towards him. Roderich just stared at it.
"You can hold my mints if you like," said Feliks cheerfully.
"I…" There was nothing to say. Roderich took the small roll carefully.
Feliks continued unfazed. "I remember my first battle." He raised his eyes to the sky and whistled. "Now that was really crazy, yeah? We weren't lucky enough to have a trench. We had nothing but a bombed out street, a few broken walls, and a thousand Englishman armed with grenades. I didn't know what to do. I didn't even know we were supposed to be fighting the English."
Roderich swallowed another wave of nausea. Feliks seemed to know exactly what he was doing, and to have no idea at the same time. He also seemed completely unperturbed by this entire situation. "What did you do?" Roderich asked hesitantly.
"I shot 'em."
Roderich suppressed his surprise. "Oh."
"I don't like killing people, Fred. But you've gotta remember - they're trying to kill us. And if it's them or me…" Feliks shrugged bluntly. "I choose me. You're lucky you've got someone looking out for you. Sir Gil is totally hot."
Roderich struggled to keep up with this erratic dialogue. He could not think how to respond to something so ridiculous. "Do, uh… do you think so?"
"Um, are you, like, blind, Fred?" Feliks giggled and nudged Roderich's shoulder. "And he must really like you."
Roderich paused for the briefest second, his gaze turning almost unconsciously upwards. Gilbert leant over his rifle, deep in conversation with Oxenstierna, his entire attitude one of complete confidence. Why did the German insist on trying to keep Roderich safe? Surely… "No." Roderich shook his head firmly. He could not begin to fathom why Gilbert was intent on protecting him, but it was quite obvious the man despised him. "No, Feliks, that's not it."
Feliks did not look convinced. "Well, whatever, just keep doing what he says. I've been out here long enough to know that his orders are worth following."
A heated explosion erupted nearby and Gilbert shouted abruptly. "Feliks!"
"Excuse me, Fred." Feliks replaced the unlit cigarette in his mouth, stood, and set his rifle beside the others.
Roderich ran a shaking hand over his head and watched the three soldiers aim their weapons. "Take your time," said Gilbert, his voice steady despite the chaos. "Make each shot count." It suddenly occurred to Roderich that he was the only one experiencing this tremendous confusion. These men knew how to defend a position, knew how to fire at an enemy. For the first time, Roderich felt just a little ashamed of how useless he was out here.
But when the shooting started, the shame vanished. Roderich's head turned light; his breath came too fast. The sound of fifty rifles firing, of the machine gun blasting, of the explosions outside the trench; it all drove like knives into his skull, a dissonant cacophony he could not comprehend. All Roderich knew was that he should not be here. This was still too dreamlike, too bizarre to be real. Yet here he was, burning with cold sweat in a filthy uniform, huddled in a dirty ditch with a group of murdering criminals. Forced to rely on a dim Pole, a silent Swede, the most unfathomable German he'd ever met, and an insane captain who seemed intent on getting them all killed. He should not be here. He was better than this. Roderich was better than this, yet here he was.
The attack did not last long this time. A short barrage of deafening gunfire, a final shattering burst from the machine gun, and silence fell again. When Gilbert turned and fell against the wall, Roderich could only raise a quizzical glance. "Retreated," Gilbert explained gruffly.
But it was over so fast... "Why do they keep charging?"
"They've got enough men to waste." Gilbert loaded a magazine of ammunition into his rifle. He didn't seem flustered by any of this. He switched easily between a sort of stern vigilance, and disdainful cavalierism. Roderich supposed after four years, the German had probably seen worse.
Along the trench, chatter broke out amongst the men. Some sat and reloaded; others remained watching over the barricade. Oxenstierna handed Feliks a canteen of water as they leant against the wall. Everything seemed to slow, and calm, until a green-suited figure jumped heavily into the trench before them. Captain Zwingli grinned broadly at the team of four, a rifle in one hand and a small black carry-case in the other. He was breathing heavily, but he looked positively gleeful. "How goes it, boys?"
Gilbert gave a small wave in reply. "Marvellous, sir."
Zwingli swung the rifle onto his shoulder and bounced once on his heels. "Wonderful."
"I just have one question," said Gilbert airily, removing his helmet and smoothing back his hair.
Zwingli arched an eyebrow.
"How are you not dead?"
Zwingli laughed manically. "Not my time, Prussian. Not my time. Polack!"
Feliks swallowed his water heavily and spluttered a reply. "Sir?"
Zwingli nodded at Feliks' weapon. "I see you know which end of a rifle to point. That's slightly more than I expected, and deserves praise. How's that Mosin holding up, Oxenstierna?"
Oxenstierna grunted in response.
"Prussian, teach this man German. Héderváry! What are you doing down there?"
Roderich managed to feel annoyed when Gilbert answered for him. "He's staying out of the way."
"I see." Roderich shrunk from Zwingli's piercing stare. This change from the captain's disturbingly blank demeanour was mildly terrifying. "Tell me, Austrian," Zwingli continued, "You might be useless, but you can talk, yes?"
Useless. Roderich let out a short, resigned breath. After all, what was the point in feeling offended all the time? "Yes," he replied flatly. "I can talk."
"Here." Zwingli dropped the black case onto the wooden step. Despite himself, Roderich regarded it curiously. A small silver plaque was embedded into the black leather, engraved with random words beside each letter of the alphabet. Zwingli fell to one knee and clicked the case open to reveal a telephone with a list of numbers. "When I give the order, get on to HQ and call down an artillery strike on the coordinates I give you. You can use this any time you need to call in support, understand?"
Roderich was so tired of not comprehending a word anyone said. He drew his eyebrows together and slowly met Zwingli's eyes level with his own. "No, I… I don't think I understand."
Zwingli took a deep breath through his nose, closed his eyes, and muttered something unintelligible. It sounded oddly like he was counting. Then he swiftly turned his head away. "You will."
The moment Zwingli stood, a runner raced up beside them. Zwingli turned to the soldier, rubbed his palms together, and barked, "Right. Who's dead?"
The soldier replied breathlessly. "Two from the left flank. Grenade."
"Good." Zwingli nodded shortly before marching off. "Get me their ammo. And their boots."
Roderich looked down at the strange phone in the black case. It was as unfamiliar and confusing as the unused rifle on his back; as this entire insufferable situation. Why had Zwingli even given it to him? Roderich was useless. He put a hand to his head, wanting to steady it, then with a flush of heat noticed Gilbert staring at him. Roderich immediately straightened his shoulders and tried to shake this helpless feeling away. The last thing he needed was another of Gilbert's insults. He reached for the rifle across his shoulder. "Well, um… what else can I do?"
Strangely, Gilbert's eyes softened. He knelt on the step and took Roderich's hand from his rifle. "Stop, you don't even know how to hold it. It's not your fault the military gave you no training. When we make it out of this, I'll teach you to shoot."
Roderich's cold hand burned where Gilbert touched it. He quickly snatched it away. "You'll teach me?"
"Yeah. But right now, for Christ's sake…" Gilbert's eyes hardened again as he stood. "Stay down."
Gilbert kept his head low and his Karabiner rifle covered as he surveyed the flat, tree-bordered expanse before the trench. The barren battlefield was dotted with smoking shell-holes, with mounds of dirt, with lifeless Russian bodies caught in barbed wire and strewn across the ground. He'd seen better, but hell, he'd seen a lot worse. Maybe this wasn't exactly the hopeless situation they'd been led to expect.
"Yer doin' good, Héderváry."
Oxenstierna's quiet mumble broke Gilbert's fixed attention from the terrain. He blinked down to see the Swede take a seat beside the Austrian, carefully organising cartridges of ammunition into the clips on his belt. Gilbert actually liked this Lion of the North. He was quiet, he did as he was told, he unwittingly intimidated the majority of fellow prisoners, and he had one of the best aims Gilbert had ever seen. As for Roderich...
"I'm not doing anything." Roderich sounded impatient as he answered. He sat with his shoulders tensed, his arms folded and his gaze set straight forward. "And I am not a coward."
Gilbert gritted his teeth. Of course this was the hopeless situation he'd been led to expect.
Oxenstierna's expression barely changed. If anything, he looked faintly amused. His Mosin-Nagant rested over his shoulder – that photograph remained in place always, even when he fired the weapon. "Never said ye were."
Roderich paused. He darted his eyes to the side, bit his lip, took a deep breath. Finally, he answered, "…No. Sorry. And... thank you, Oxenstierna."
Gilbert's eyebrows shot up and his cigarette nearly fell from his teeth. Had Roderich really just apologised and expressed gratitude in the same breath? Gilbert felt the sudden urge to clean his ear out with a fingertip. Oxenstierna simply replied, "Ye can call me Berwald if ye like."
"Oh." Roderich slowly brushed the hair from his forehead. How the hell did it manage to stay so clean in this dust, anyway? "Yes. Very well, all right. And, uh... you may call me Roderich. Or Fred, I suppose, if you must."
What? Gilbert just about spluttered in indignation. Why was this prissy Austrian able to attempt civility with everyone but him? Gilbert blew out an angry breath of smoke. It wasn't like he cared, after all. This was a goddamn battle; he had more important things to care about. Like Roderich's inability to shoot, to fight, to do anything really but sit looking indecently pretty and annoyingly vulnerable. Or like the fact Gilbert had just offered to teach him to shoot a rifle, as though the delicate prince could even lift it. Or like…
The bone-rattling sound of a blasting MG42 abruptly punctured the relative calm. Like that machine gun, for instance. How the hell had Hesse and Saxon, of all men, ended up in control of the only heavy machine gun in this unit's possession? Hesse was currently firing the weapon at nothing, erratically letting it off in short, sharp bursts, while Saxon leant beside him, laughing inanely. Gilbert exchanged a brief look with Oxenstierna, who raised a single eyebrow. Gilbert could see the Swede's thoughts perfectly - that gun was the best hope this unit had, and it was in the hands of idiots who didn't know how to use it.
"Psst. Sir Gil." Feliks motioned Gilbert closer from the floor of the trench.
Gilbert crouched so they were eye level. "What's the problem?"
Feliks leant forward, lowered his helmet, and muttered softly. "They're, like, totally doing it wrong. The MG42 operations manual specifies one hundred and fifty rounds before changing the barrel. That gun is going to jam. Plus, they're shooting at nothing, and totally wasting ammo."
Gilbert didn't know whether to be amused or impressed. "Operations manual?"
Feliks gestured vaguely. "I had to teach myself these things."
"Don't worry." Gilbert winked and flicked his cigarette to the ground. "I'm gonna get us that gun. The pistol, too." Gilbert briefly regarded the growing mountain of Aviatik butts at his feet. "And their cigarettes."
Feliks' face brightened and he gave a tiny salute. "Good work, sir. I'm right behind you. Can we take their mints, too?"
Gilbert bit his tongue to keep from laughing. Sure, Feliks was a little slow on some things and his whistling sort of got on Gilbert's nerves and he had an almost pathological obsession with Vivil mints, but it was a nice change to have someone around who wasn't so damned serious all the time.
"Sure thing, Feliks. Now, the plan is…" Gilbert broke off abruptly. Shit, what was the plan? He glanced desperately past Feliks' expectant expression, and instantly spotted his answer. The plan was marching past them down the trench. "Sir!"
Zwingli stopped in his tracks when Gilbert scrambled to the ground and offered him a cigarette. "There's only one machine gun."
Zwingli sighed heavily, took the cigarette, and placed it behind his ear. "Prussian, what did I ever do without you around to point out the goddamn bleeding obvious?"
Gilbert ignored him. "Listen, if those incompetent arseholes keep on the way they are, they're gonna use up all our ammo - if they don't overheat..."
Zwingli interrupted. "Is this leading to something, Corporal? Because as fascinating as this little chat is, you do realise there's about three thousand Russians out there right now, all about to come charging towards this trench screaming 'Urrah' and intent on blowing your Fascist brains out in the name of the Motherland."
Well, Gilbert had to admire his honesty. "Which is why I need that machine gun."
As though to prove his point, another deafening round fired from the weapon in question. Zwingli immediately spun on his heel and bellowed, "Hesse, you fucking idiot! Hold your fire before I jam that barrel up your arse, if Private Saxon hasn't got there already. Off the gun, it's going to Team Fairy."
Gilbert was starting to like this crazy captain. He snorted with laughter while Feliks broke into outright giggles behind him. Hesse and Saxon reacted immediately to the order, their expressions furiously incredulous. Saxon tore off his helmet, his long, blond hair matted to his forehead. "What?" he spat.
Hesse took a step into the trench, his stance threatening and his scarred face red with anger. "You're giving it to Beilschmidt? Why?!"
Nearby soldiers turned to watch – even in a besieged trench they seemed to sense potential violence, and hunger for it. Zwingli's hard, calculating gaze swept carefully over the prisoners before settling on the two gunners. He approached them slowly, his head tilted dangerously. "Are you questioning me?" He did not stop until he stood inches from the ex-sergeant, a full head shorter.
"You bet I…" Hesse got no further. In one swift movement, Zwingli tore the pistol from Hesse's belt, slammed it viciously against his ear, and struck him to his knees.
Not much really shocked Gilbert anymore. But this fairly small captain incapacitating a much larger man with one bloody, unexpected blow was, at the very least, surprising. Saxon took a wary step back; nothing but stunned silence came from the watching men.
"I said," Zwingli continued, his voice low and coldly controlled as he stood over the subdued German, "off the fucking gun."
Gilbert was really starting to like this crazy captain. "You heard the man." Gilbert flashed a grin as Hesse fought to pull himself to his feet. "Off you go."
Saxon took a threatening step forward, but Zwingli broke in before he could respond. "Swap positions, now. The rest of you – is this a battle or a fucking sideshow? Eyes forward, soldiers!"
The men quickly turned back to their weapons. Hesse and Saxon glanced at each other, picked up their packs, and moved reluctantly down the line. Hesse passed too close, hand pressed to his bleeding ear, his sneering face inches from Gilbert's own. "You wait, Beilschmidt."
"Oh..." Gilbert narrowed his eyes into a threatening glare. "I really can't." Then he smirked. "And that's Corporal to you, Private."
"Shut it, Prussian." Zwingli gestured firmly with the pistol. "Move it, I've got no time for this shit."
Gilbert laughed softly, motioned for his team to follow, and promptly forgot about the two unimportant soldiers who threw him furious backward glares. Before he left, Zwingli grabbed Gilbert roughly by the wrist and pressed something into his hand. "I'd be a little more careful about making enemies, if I were you."
Gilbert looked down at the pistol Zwingli had taken from Hesse's belt – a good old Dreyse 1907. Pistols were hard to come by out here. Why was Zwingli giving him this one? When Gilbert lifted his gaze curiously, the captain was already marching away. "Tell me to be careful, crazy bastard." But Gilbert placed the pistol carefully in his jacket.
Feliks dumped his pack and put his hands on his hips, glancing around the new position appraisingly. "Well, this is nice."
Roderich hovered uncertainly, lost and unsure as he clung to the field phone case. "Should I… um…"
Gilbert pointed at the step. "Sit."
"Right, Feliks, you said you've read the manual." Gilbert swung himself onto the step and whistled as he inspected the MG42, perched on a rather battered Lafette 42 tripod. Now this would do more damage than a clapped-out old Karabiner. "Can you reload one of these things?"
Feliks leapt up beside him, rolling his eyes as though insulted. "I was in a combat unit, you know. I can change that barrel in four seconds flat."
Berwald gave Feliks a skeptical glance and rested his rifle gently on the parapet. "Four s'conds?"
Feliks raised his chin superiorly. "Four seconds."
Berwald did not look convinced. "Never seen one loaded under six."
Feliks shrugged offhandedly. "Yeah, well, you were fighting in Finland and it's so cold up there."
"Shut up, I'm thinking." Gilbert ran a quick eye over the supplies – not too many bullets, but enough grenades if the fighting got too close. "Right, Feliks, you're on reloading duty. Oxenstierna, I'm gonna need you to feed the ammo belt, but don't be shy with that rifle if you need it. Roderich, keep your goddamn head down."
A sharp whistle pierced the air and Gilbert reacted instinctively. He took control of the gun, just as a thick line of Russians advanced from the trees across the field. Shouts roared down the line as rifles started to fire. Feliks dove for the barrel case on his right; Berwald took hold of the ammo belt on his left. For one brief moment Gilbert's eyes flicked to Roderich, hunched into the step with his arms across his chest. But then that familiar Russian war cry twisted Gilbert's stomach in knots and forced his head into narrow focus. This was a battle, and he had more important things to care about.
Gilbert's hands steadied, his heartbeat even and controlled. "All right." He carefully tucked a cigarette behind his ear, his eyes fixed on a charging target. "Here we go."
The machine gun sawed through Roderich's head like a drill, driving all other sound from his ears, trapping his senses in harsh, relentless cacophony. He could feel it in his bones; taste it in his teeth. The very ground shook with that disorienting, unbearable noise. His team, however, barely seemed to notice. Roderich could not understand it. How did Gilbert not even flinch as he fired? How did Feliks know when to open the gun and replace the metal cartridge and slam the latch shut? How did Berwald manage to scan the field with binoculars, feed a line of bullets into the weapon, and occasionally fire a shot from his rifle without a moment's delay? And how did they seem so calm as they did it?
"How long was that?" Gilbert called during a brief lull, leaning back slightly as Feliks replaced another cartridge with lightning speed.
Berwald lowered his binoculars and shouted to be heard. "Five seconds."
Feliks shouted back indignantly. "It was totally four!"
Berwald shook his head, unmoved. "Five."
"Still under six!" Feliks shot back.
Gilbert nodded. "It was under six."
Berwald lifted his rifle and fired a single shot. "Still not four."
Again, Roderich could only watch his team, with no way to see the enemy. Again, it was over so fast, and all he could do was lower his head and breathe in relief. At least his bewildered confusion was finally fading – it was simply too tiring to maintain.
The guns barely fell silent before Gilbert sat heavily on the step beside him. Roderich glanced sideways, and his chest turned strangely when he realised Gilbert's hands were shaking. Gilbert noticed at the same time, and quickly busied them by reaching behind his ear for yet another cigarette. He seemed to rely on them somehow. To his surprise, Roderich did not actually mind the smell. What he really minded was this deep relief he felt every time Gilbert sat beside him.
"You are going to run out of those at this rate." Roderich nodded at the cigarette.
Gilbert did not appear worried. "I'll find more. Always do."
Roderich slowly looked away. It seemed an unending cycle; once again, soldiers along the line reloaded rifles and filled ammunition pouches. Once again, it was astonishingly quiet after such violent noise. These small bursts of fighting were utterly bizarre – just as Roderich got used to the chaos, this silence fell again. It was like a constant controlled anxiety in his head and in his gut, occasionally rising and peaking, only to subside once again. "I did not expect these periods of..."
Of course Gilbert would misunderstand. Roderich explained, "Silence."
"You need to stop expecting, Roderich. Ain't nothing gonna be like you expected." Gilbert paused to light his cigarette. "But yeah. There's a lot of that out here. Endless stretches of bored silence, interrupted by flashes of fire, which pass almost before you realise they've been. It's like life, really. You spend so long waiting for something to happen, then when it does, it's over so fast you barely notice. But it's those brief moments that matter."
Roderich was speechless. Whenever he decided Gilbert was nothing but an uneducated brute, the German came out with something like that. But what really disturbed Roderich, was the realisation – he could not remember a single moment of his life that really mattered. "Do you…" Roderich asked without thinking. "I mean... You've had many moments like that?"
Gilbert breathed out a swift lungful of smoke. "Enough to fill a lifetime." His lips turned in a tiny smile. "Why d'you think I ain't afraid to die?"
Roderich was not even sure why he asked it, or why Gilbert answered. When their eyes met, Roderich shivered, and for the first time he realised just how utterly freezing it was out here.
Feliks fell abruptly between them and reached for his canteen. "I wonder when we'll get leave in this unit."
Gilbert raised an eyebrow. "Really, Feliks?"
Berwald crouched on the floor and accepted the water from Feliks. He almost looked fondly amused. "Won't be gettin' leave fer a long, long time."
Gilbert rested back against the trench wall, one hand behind his head. "It's been too long since I went on leave. Early '42. Paris. I went to this movie theatre, in an alley off the Boulevard Saint-Michel. You know the type – small, dark, suspiciously stained seats. Naturally, I was really disappointed when they just showed some American rubbish called Citizen Kane."
"Any good?" asked Feliks eagerly.
"It was his sled."
Feliks tilted his head. "Huh?"
Gilbert took a draw on his cigarette. "Nothing."
"I liked Casablanca." Feliks leant on the phone case beside Roderich, looked up at him with a small smile and pleading eyes, and spoke in perfect English. "Play it once, Sam. For old time's sake."
Berwald made a small noise, which might have been a laugh. "He don't know what y'mean, Miss Feliks."
Feliks flashed Berwald a wide grin, genuinely delighted. "Play it, Fred," he continued with a dramatic sigh. "Play… 'As Time Goes By.'"
Roderich discreetly edged away. He hadn't the slightest idea what they were on about, and in all honesty was starting to wonder if they'd gone a bit strange. Gilbert snorted derisively. "Sappy American crap."
Feliks sat bolt upright and put an indignant hand to his chest. "How dare you!" he gasped. "Casablanca was totally romantic!"
Gilbert's lip curled in disgust. "Romantic? He didn't even get the girl!"
Feliks groaned and flopped backwards against the wall. "He loved her enough to let her go," he explained slowly, as though exasperated Gilbert could not understand.
"Bullshit," spat Gilbert, gesturing emphatically with his cigarette. "It's all bullshit. Like that other one, that Gone With the Wind. The only thing that made those three hours bearable was..."
Berwald finished for him. "Clark Gable."
There was a silent moment of mutual appreciation.
"Who is Clark Gable?"
Three pairs of wide eyes regarded Roderich in silent disapproval. Feliks looked frankly horrified. "Bad Fred. What sort of homosexual are you?"
Heat rose to Roderich's face, his stomach twisting uneasily. "I'm... why would you… what makes you think…" By now Roderich was quite aware of these men's personal preferences. As for his own, it was something he'd refused to think of, and this was hardly the time to start. He searched helplessly for an explanation. "I'm married!"
Gilbert snickered knowingly and pointed a thumb at Berwald. "So's he."
Feliks ignored Roderich's spluttered protest. "Clark Gable," he breathed expressively, "is the second most beautiful man in the world."
"Second?" Roderich asked it to draw attention from himself, though he had to wonder why he was even participating in this inane conversation. "Who's the first?"
Gilbert straightened his collar, grinning. "Me."
Feliks tossed a mint at Gilbert's head. Gilbert caught it easily and put it in his mouth. "You're gonna run out at this rate," he said, winking at Roderich.
"Kociak gave me his."
"What a gentleman."
Roderich had to look away, at the other soldiers also sitting and talking, furious gunfire forgotten. It almost felt normal - well, as normal as anything could out here. A few men kept watch over the trench with binoculars and ready weapons, but this did not feel like the same frantic battleground as earlier.
Until a single shot shattered the fragile calm. A sentry soldier down the line jerked backwards and fell to the ground, dead. Roderich barely registered the sight before the cry rang out. "Sniper!"
Feliks and Berwald dropped. Roderich's mind went blank when Gilbert grabbed him by the shoulder, pulled him off the step, and threw him to the ground. Pain thudded down Roderich's spine as he hit the floor.
"Get down!" Zwingli's bellowing voice carried over a barrage of disordered shouts and nervous bursts of gunfire. "Sniper alert, get down!"
Roderich fought to breathe from the sudden shock of impact. His head pounded, hazy and unreal. It took a few white, spinning moments to realise that Gilbert was lying over him, arms over his head, lips moving and red eyes blazing into his own. "… all right? Roderich, answer me, are you all right?"
No. No, I am not all right. Roderich could not speak, but he forced himself to nod.
Gilbert twisted his head. His breath brushed Roderich's cheek. "Feliks?"
"Fine, Sir Gil."
"Right, good. Both of you, stay down until we know what's going on."
The edgy gunfire stuttered to a halt as the shouts gradually quieted. Roderich could not move, Gilbert's body pinning his to the ground. He could feel Gilbert's heartbeat against his skin. Roderich realised, with a sickening lurch of his chest, that he actually felt safer like this. Oh, God, no, that was too much right now…
Thankfully, Gilbert abruptly pushed himself away and leant against the firing step. Finally able to breathe, Roderich gulped air into his lungs. The heavy silence became almost unbearable, until…
"I like Cary Grant, too," said Feliks casually.
"Is he number one?" asked Gilbert, his voice a little rough.
"No, he's number four."
"What'bout Errol Flynn?" asked Berwald evenly.
"Ew, no, you're totally not serious!"
Roderich stared up at the grey afternoon sky in disbelief. How could they possibly chat so calmly at a time like this? He did not dare to move, but he hissed, "What are we doing?"
Gilbert answered like it was obvious. "Waiting for her to give away her position."
Roderich must have misheard. "Her?"
"Probably. Oxenstierna, catch." Roderich watched as a red Aviatik packet flew over his head. Gilbert continued lightly, "These Russian snipers are usually women."
Roderich turned his head at that, horrified. Just when he thought things could not get more barbaric... "Women fight out here?"
Astoundingly, Gilbert managed to look amused. "Of course. Look at Feliks, he's doing a marvellous job."
Roderich narrowed his eyes. "That was very rude, Gilbert."
Feliks replied brightly. "Oh, I consider it a compliment."
The sound of a match flared, then Berwald muttered, "She's keepin' us down t'give em a chance t'advance. Gotta get her position."
"Yeah, I know, just..." Gilbert broke off mid-sentence.
Roderich's chest twisted anxiously. "What?"
A sharp, punctuated trilling pierced the eerie silence. Gilbert spoke slowly, distantly, as though remembering something. "I know that sound…"
Roderich suppressed his rising panic. "What? What is it?"
The high trilling turned to a clear, chirping noise. Just as Roderich realised, Feliks cried, "Oh! It's a bird!"
Gilbert's eyes narrowed in concentration, his forehead furrowed as he listened intently. He spoke to himself. "A canary – a Belgian Waterslager. Male, probably around two years old. Definitely domesticated. He's in distress…"
Roderich was actually a little intrigued. Birds - of all things... "How can you possibly…"
"Shut up." Gilbert raised a hand, listening to the frantic chirping. "He's about ten metres in front of the trench, to the right. Must be caught in the barbed wire."
An uneasy dread grew in Roderich's mind. He began to push himself up from the ground. "Gilbert, what are you…"
"Get on the field telephone," Gilbert interrupted, staring directly into Roderich's eyes. His own were blazing red. Roderich was starting to recognise that look, and it sent a chill of alarm down his spine. "Call down artillery on the sniper's position."
Roderich had to choke out a response. "Zwingli said to wait until he gave the order..."
Berwald's normally blank voice sounded unusually wary. "Beilschmidt, we don't know th'position yet."
Gilbert drew himself into a crouch against the wall and took his rifle from his shoulder. "Come on, Oxenstierna," he grinned. "You can give it a guess." He put his helmet on the rifle-end and raised it just above the trench line. "And I'm giving the order." A shot to the helmet sent it spinning. Gilbert immediately dropped the rifle, jumped onto the step, and threw himself over the trench.
"NO!" Roderich cried out, unthinking, and tried to scramble to his feet. Feliks immediately grabbed him by the belt and pulled him back. The silence shattered as all hell broke loose. Confused shouts echoed down the line, bursts of cover fire tore through the air; Berwald was on his feet and firing over the barricade in seconds. Roderich could not think through cold, choking terror. "Where... what... no..."
Feliks pushed Roderich heavily to the ground and shouted in his ear. "Call it down, Fred!"
"Where did he go?" Roderich shouted frantically, struggling against Feliks' hold and ignoring his words. "What is he doing? Oh God what's..."
"Listen!" Feliks gripped Roderich by the shoulders and shook him firmly. The grim urgency in his eyes was enough to snap Roderich back into focus. "Calm down, now. You need to get on the phone and call down a strike on that sniper."
Roderich nodded, forced back his fear, and reached for the phone case on the step. He could do this. He had to do this. But when he fumbled open the phone case, the numbers swam before his eyes. Roderich's blood froze in terrified confusion. "I don't know how!"
"Here." Feliks dove past Roderich for the case, swiftly turned the small black winder, and held out the receiver. Roderich took it with shaking hands. Bullets churned up the dirt above their heads. If Gilbert didn't make it back… Roderich felt violently ill as a voice answered over the phone line.
"HQ, go ahead."
"Good afternoon, yes, um, I would like to request an artillery strike, if possible… please…" Roderich spoke in a rush, unsure what he was saying.
The operator's voice replied sarcastically. "Why certainly sir, no trouble in the slightest! If you would be so kind as to supply me with co-ordinates for the strike, if possible... please?"
Roderich could barely hear over the cacophonous noise, but it was insultingly obvious the phone operator was mocking him. Feliks still gripped Roderich's arm, as though worried he would try again to run. Roderich was simply bewildered... how was he supposed to answer? Before he could panic, Berwald jerked back his rifle, snapped his head and shouted down at him. "Position, A-Brava-K, four-eight-two. Fire for effect."
Roderich repeated Berwald's strange words into the phone, his pulse thrumming in his ears.
"Copy that, prepare for incoming. Good day, sir!"
Roderich hung up on the operator's laughter. Almost simultaneously, Berwald reached over the parapet, grabbed Gilbert's arm, and pulled him into the trench. Roderich's world turned briefly black as the German immediately fell beside him, laughing breathlessly and clutching something carefully between his hands.
Feliks released Roderich's arm and sat back with an almighty sigh; Berwald crouched to his knees, his forehead drenched with sweat. Roderich was simply struck still. He'd never experienced such a sensation of relief in his life. It was all over so fast it didn't feel real; but through the relief, Roderich was utterly furious.
"That was not okay, Sir Gil." Even Feliks sounded rather annoyed. "You, like, scared the shit out of me. How did you even do that?"
Gilbert just grinned, and Roderich's blood boiled at such infuriating arrogance. The mad German was not troubled in the slightest. "These snipers are all the same. It takes 'em a moment to make that second shot. You just gotta judge the time then hit the dirt, roll, feint left, and bolt."
Berwald shook his head. "'t's not that simple." His steely expression faltered slightly, both angry and impressed. "How'd ye know t'feint left not right?"
Gilbert shrugged. "Fifty-fifty, ain't it?"
"Oh my God." Feliks pushed his tangled hair from his forehead. "You should totally be dead."
"Nah. It won't be a sniper that gets me, will it, little bird?" Gilbert opened his hands. There, sitting perfectly still on his palm, was a little yellow canary. Feliks froze. Roderich blinked in stunned silence. Berwald leant forward curiously. The bird gave a tiny chirp.
"Aw," said Feliks, his eyes softening. "He's cute."
Roderich couldn't believe this. He could not handle this. A bird. He stared for a moment more before finally exploding. "A bird? A BIRD? You IDIOT! What the hell was that? You just... you just... you just risked your life for a BIRD, Gilbert! You COMPLETE and UTTER FOOL!"
Roderich was quite sure he'd never yelled so loud in his life; sure he'd never felt such strong emotion as this horrified anger mixed with this bone-weakening relief. But Gilbert was too focused on inspecting the canary to notice. When he seemed satisfied, he placed the little bird on his shoulder, where it immediately settled into the cloth. "Steady on, Roddy. You'll hurt his feelings."
"I won't steady on! That was the single stupidest thing I have ever witnessed! What am I supposed to do out here if you..." Roderich forced himself to stop. He took deep gulps of air, his hands clutching his sides. In the descending calm, he fully understood just how scared he'd been that Gilbert wouldn't come back. That he would leave him alone. After only a few days, Roderich was completely reliant on this mad German... and it was terrifying.
"Calm down, the lot of you," laughed Gilbert. "I'm too smart to be taken down by a sniper. Isn't that right, my little friend?" The bird warbled in reply.
"Here, Fred." Feliks pushed a canteen of water into Roderich's shaking hand, his expression concerned. "You're, like, totally white."
"I'm fine," Roderich snapped, though he took a long steadying gulp of water. He refused to look at Gilbert. Seconds later, a massive explosion tore through the air.
"There you are, little prince, it all worked out in the end." Gilbert slapped Roderich on the shoulder, a wide grin on his face. "Good work."
Roderich flinched from his touch. Once again, he was completely confused. He was certain he couldn't stand this man. He was also suddenly, painfully certain that he could not survive this war without him. He tried to form a response. "I did not do anything. It was Berwald who gave me the coordinates, and Feliks who..." Roderich trailed off when the little bird flapped its wings, turned a quick circle, and settled back onto Gilbert's shoulder. Roderich narrowed his eyes at it. It chirped back.
"A bird." Roderich actually laughed, this clash of shock and relief and still constant confusion overwhelming his senses. He fell back against the wall and put a hand to his head, sweat dripping from his hair. Gilbert sat back beside him, and their shoulders brushed.
"You're doin' all right, Roderich."
Roderich did not respond. The guns were still, and he needed this moment of silence. But slowly, low and rising and rumbling in the distance, the ground began to shake.
To be continued…