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Oct. 23rd, 2009

Title: Everything The War Calls Out Of Us 2/2
Authors: foxtales & cocking_about
Artist: kikiriki23
Fandom: Top Gear
Genre: Gen, WWI AU
Characters: Richard, James & Jeremy
Rating: R
Word Count: ~17,000
Warnings: Language, violence and gore.
Disclaimer: Although an attempt was made to be somewhat historically accurate regarding the major events surrounding the Battle of Bourlon Wood, this is a fictionalised account and cannot be taken as truth. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is totally intentional but completely unauthorised. No money is being made from their names and likenesses.

Summary: Jeremy laid back as well, his head spinning a bit and not just from his wound. Greasy, tasteless food, toxic mud, an enemy that could stumble across them at any moment, seam squirrels and rats and flies and stench, and milk tablets, for god's sake. He wasn't a religious man, but he found himself praying they found the Allied lines, and soon.

Authors' notes: Enormous thanks to the mods of rpf_big_bang for all their hard work in putting this challenge together! foxtales and I also want to thank tarteaucitron so, so much for her excellent beta work and Britpick (even though Top Gear's hardly her favourite), and elmathelas and msilverstar for the additional and invaluable help in the beta department.

Link To Art: The perfect companion art.

Part One

Jeremy had stayed almost exactly as they'd left him, unable to manage much beyond painful crawling by himself. The only difference was that now he was holding a Webley pistol up, his grip wavering.

"Put that down before you take out the shrubbery, you fucking twat," Hammond said, shaking his head.

Jeremy's eyes closed as he took his finger off the trigger and set the gun down as carefully as he could. "Thought you chaps might have been diverted."

"We told you we wouldn't leave you behind," May said, without heat.

"That's not what I meant," Jeremy objected. "Even if you'd been found by friendlies, they would have wanted you to go back with them, not have to follow you up here to get my old carcass."

"Well, lucky for you, then, we weren't diverted. It just took us a bit to cobble together a stretcher for you," Hammond said, gesturing at the litter as May dragged it over.

Jeremy eyed it, opened his mouth and then thought better of it. Instead he said, "I'll just roll onto it, shall I?"

"It would be best if you could, but we also know the leg has got to be hurting you, so we can move you if you'd rather," May replied.

Jeremy swallowed loudly. "Let me try it first."

"Or you roll and we push it under you same time," Hammond suggested.

"All right," Jeremy agreed, dread of the whole endeavour curling sourly in his belly. "On three, then. One, two...three--" On three, he rolled his left side up so that May could slide the edge of the litter under him, and then pushed himself sideways with his good leg until he was all the way on it. He heard a low groaning noise, and it took him several moments until he realised it was he himself making the sound. He clapped his hand over his mouth, biting down on his knuckles to try and block it. "S-sorry, chaps," he panted, a few moments later.

Hammond and May shared a look of concern. "You've nothing to apologise for," May said firmly. "We'll have you to the medics in no time. They keep all the good drugs for whingers like you."

"Promises, promises," Jeremy said through clenched teeth.

"This is going to hurt, man; I'm terribly sorry, but there's nothing for it." Hammond said, then swore explosively. "Fuck! If only I had some morphine in my pack!"

"I know," Jeremy replied, gripping the rails of the ersatz stretcher. "Just get on with it."

Hammond grabbed the back of the makeshift litter and May the front. They lifted as quickly as they could and both winced at Jeremy's groan of pain. As Hammond had said, though, there was nothing for it, so they began to move as best they could over the uneven ground, trying not to jostle the wounded man too much.

Richard ducked as Clarkson pulled out his Webley again, brandishing it with a wavering flourish, and he made a grab for it. Clarkson refused to give it up, announcing, "If anything comes up behind, I can shoot at them."

"I'm coming up behind!" Richard protested, flinching every time the muzzle of the gun wandered past his nose. "Put it down, goddammit."

"I'm the senior officer here--" Clarkson said stubbornly, ignoring the indignant noises from the other two, "--so you'd better follow my orders. I'm keeping my pistol, and I'm watching your backs. Fritz won't sneak up on you as long as Jez Clarkson's on watch."

Richard rolled his eyes. "For fuck's sake, you giant oaf, keep it in hand if it makes you feel better, but stop waving it about!" He was relieved to see Clarkson relax his arm, resting it on the stretcher. He just hoped the idiot didn't drop the pistol into the mud in his exhaustion--they'd never find it again, and the stark reality was that they might still have need of it. As he'd pointed out earlier, they were far from home free. He was concerned they hadn't come across any Allies yet, but kept his misgivings to himself; at least they hadn't run into any Germans, either.

For the next half-hour, Hammond and May slogged through the mutilated landscape, hauling Jeremy on his stretcher closer and closer to medical attention. Finally, though, Hammond had to call a halt for a rest, his arms visibly trembling from the effort of carrying Jeremy's sixteen-odd stone over such difficult terrain. He and May put the litter down as gently as they could, and Hammond collapsed beside him, massaging his arms. "What do they feed you at that fancy aerodrome of yours, anyway?" he teased Jeremy, who was feeling embarrassed and irritable and bullish. "Cream teas and beef Wellington, I'll wager."

"With buttered peas and cakes for pudding," May added, sprawling heedlessly on the muddy ground to rest.

Jeremy threw his good arm over his eyes. "No one eats buttered peas for pudding," he grumbled, trying to let them jolly him out of his mortification. "Eggs and sausages for breakfast, though."

"I could eat a dozen rashers right now," Hammond moaned, clapping a hand to his stomach. "Two dozen."

"I could eat an entire goose with nothing more than my bare hands," May said almost dreamily. "With mash and gravy. Who wants iron rations?"

Jeremy groaned a weak laugh.

"I'd eat my own boots right now," Hammond said with a mournful little sigh. "Crack 'em open, May."

After a moment, May sat up and dug out the package. Tearing open the waterproof wrappings of the so-called emergency rations, he tossed the tin of bully beef over to land on Hammond's stomach. "Can you pull your knife trick on that one? I always muck it up." He opened the flat pack of biscuits and handed one to Jeremy. "Here, have that for starters; there's another one left for pudding."

Jeremy took the biscuit and chewed slowly at one corner. His mouth was parched, but he knew they didn't have much water left. No point in wasting any of it on a walking corpse. He knew he was done for; he could see it in their eyes. Stubborn bastard Tommies would never hear of leaving him behind, though, he knew that as well, and his gratitude nearly choked him.

Richard opened the tin of bully beef and ate half before passing it over to May. He felt bad in not giving any to Clarkson, but Clarkson wouldn't need it for energy like he and May would, and that had to be the priority right now. Whilst May wolfed down his half of the meat, Richard went for the second biscuit.

"Here," Clarkson said, breaking off the corner he'd eaten from and holding the rest out to Richard. "You'll need it more than I will."


"I think we all know that I'm..." he trailed off. "That I can't hold much down after earlier. Besides, I'm not doing any of the work, am I?"

Richard looked away from Clarkson's direct gaze. He couldn't bring himself to say anything more on the subject either. He took the biscuit and handed the whole one over to May, who took it also without saying a word.

They ate quickly and stayed down for another fifteen minutes, resting, before Richard and May took their positions and once again lifted Clarkson between them. They didn't get very far, however, before they had to stop again.

Clarkson's eyes had been closed the entire time he'd been carried, and he sighed as they set him down again. "Chaps, I think you should leave me here. Just set me in whatever shelter there is and go and find the lines."

"We've already--" May began.

"Yes, yes," Clarkson said impatiently, dismissing the words with a wave of his hand. "I'm not going to get any lighter and the two of you are not going to get any stronger. Find me a spot that's sheltered, leave me with the Webley and find some Allies."

"And shall we take one of your tags with us to save us the trip back?" Richard demanded accusingly, rage flaring sharp and bright. "We've fucking brought you this far, don't you even think about making that for naught."

"And don't think I won't remember that for the rest of my life!" Clarkson snapped back, low and clipped. "The problem is that the rest of my life is going to be significantly shorter than either of yours." He paused. "I order you to go on without me."

"Do you want to be left out here to die alone? What if there's a chance to save you and you toss it away? For fuck's sake, Clarkson, what are you going to do? Bring us up on charges if we keep on carrying you?"

"Hammond--Richard--" Clarkson tried again. He made a visible effort to control his fear. "Of course I don't want to die, you fucking hamster-brain. But the odds are distinctly against me, and I don't want you to die. Either of you. Not on my account."

James had had enough and, vexed, he threw his hands up in the air. "Enough! That's the biggest load of limp-wristed twaddle I've heard in all my three years in the trenches," he said disgustedly. "Two blokes don't leave an injured mate behind--even less so if he's badly injured! So shut your gob, you overgrown, oxygen-deprived, bullet-addled, cock-brained pillock, and let us get on with it!"

Clarkson gaped at the previously mild-mannered James. He glanced at Hammond in shock, but one look at Clarkson's face sent Hammond into paroxysms of laughter, which he quickly stifled with his fist. Clarkson cleared his throat. "At least agree that if--"

James cut him off. "If you pop your clogs, we'll take your tags and go on without your sorry carcass. But that's not going to happen, is that understood? If the situation gets truly dire, one of us will wait with you and the other will go on to get help. Take it or leave it, Clarkson, but that's what's going to happen, and there's not one bloody thing you can do about it, so I suggest you lie back, close your eyes, and think about getting back to your poor, long-suffering wife, though why she'd want you back is more than I can fathom." He glared at Clarkson, and when the other man meekly closed his eyes and resettled himself on the stretcher, James shot Hammond a tight grin. "Shall we, old chap?"

Hammond was still laughing, his sleeve jammed over his mouth, but there was a frantic light in his eye that James had seen before.

"Steady, man," he murmured, taking a few steps to crouch beside Hammond, and gripped the dark head between his two hands. "Steady, now. We'll just get the old man to safety, let the doctors patch him up, and then we'll have a bit of a rest, eh?"

"A bit less of the 'old man', if you please," Clarkson croaked, and reached out his good arm to grip Hammond's tunic in clenched fingers. "Come on, Hammond, what are you--a hamster or a mouse?"

James was surprised into a laugh, and gave Clarkson a grateful nod as Hammond made a strangled noise and raised his head. He was pale, and his hands were shaking, but he managed a shuddery, "Fuck off, Jez." One hand wrapped around Clarkson's forearm, the other around James', and he held on tightly.

After a few minutes for Hammond to get his feet under him again, the two able-bodied men picked up the stretcher once more and slowly made their way in the direction of Bapaume, the division's central headquarters in the area.

Twenty minutes later, they had reached a slight incline. After having been on light rations and very little sleep over the past four days, it seemed an impossibility to get up the gently sloping rise before them. James looked back at Hammond, whose shadowed eyes blinked back at him several times before Hammond bit his lip and shook his head. They set Clarkson down as gently as they could.

"Why have we stopped?" Clarkson asked quietly.

"There's a bit of a hill..." James replied, not really sure how to go on with the rest after his outburst earlier.

"Ah. I'm too heavy."

"I'm afraid so, mate. This is where one of us stays with you whilst the other goes to look for the lines. Hammond, you'll stay with Clarkson. I'll go and get help."

That Hammond only nodded and sat down next to Clarkson spoke to his weariness. James looked down at Clarkson, pale but for mottled patches of red on his cheeks, his eyes still closed; it took James a moment to realise the bitter taste in his mouth came from defeat. They'd gambled and lost, and now it was time to settle the chit. He pulled himself up at that point and fought down the defeatist thoughts. It wasn't over yet; Clarkson was still alive and there was still a chance--if he could find help quickly enough. "Right. Back in a few hours, chaps."

James climbed to the top of the rise and looked around, carefully taking note of his bearings and the few stricken landmarks that remained; there was no point in going for help if he couldn't lead them back here. He turned and looked down at the two he was leaving behind, and raised his hand a few inches in farewell. He saw Hammond repeat the gesture. Hitching his pack up on his shoulders, James turned and resumed the slog towards Bapaume.

Richard sat for a few minutes with his head on his grubby knees, fingers automatically plucking at his puttees. Finally he raised his head, forced a smile he was far from feeling, and said, "Time to hand over the Webley, Clarkson. I'll take first watch and you get some rest." He left it unsaid that the first watch would be the only watch; Clarkson would know it as well as he did.

Clarkson unclenched his fingers from around the grip, letting Richard take it from his hand. He clumsily scratched at his side. "Fucking lousy coat you've put me on, I'm bloody itchy now."

"Welcome to the British Army, mate," Richard said wryly.

Clarkson was silent for a bit. When he spoke, his voice was weary, raspy. "Thought I'd be all right, in the Royal Flying Corps. Up there above it all, clean petrol-scented air and a quick death if my number came up. Should've known. I don't have that sort of luck."

"You've done better than you would have if you'd been down here," Richard mused, lying down with his pack under his head. "You'd have had to walk on your knees in the trenches to avoid getting your head shot off. You wouldn't have lasted a week. Are all you pilots so bloody tall?"

Clarkson's laugh was no more than a breath. "There are a few of us long blokes, but no, most of them are under six foot. Still taller than you, though."

Richard looked over, encouraged to see a smile on the man's face, but all he said was, "Pillock. I'll have you know I topped the height requirement by four inches."

"And how much did that bribe cost you?" The smile slid from his face, though, before Richard could respond. "Hammond. Right breast pocket." His good hand came up to fumble uselessly at the button. "Letter to m' wife, and a photo. Get it for me."

Richard sat up and leaned over to open the pocket, withdrawing a creased envelope. Inside it were two folded sheets of thin paper and a photograph. Leaving the letter in the envelope, he withdrew the picture and looked at it. "This your wife?" He held it where Clarkson could see it.

He opened his eyes, then took the photograph between two gentle fingers and gazed at it. "That's my Francie. Pissed off as hell that I can fly and she can't. Threatened to take up ambulance driving, but the kids aren't old enough to fend for themselves, and Francie wouldn't put the family out by asking anyone else to take them. She was sorely tempted, though."

Richard sat back, and despite knowing it would be better for Clarkson to be quiet and rest, he let the man talk, low and rambling. If nothing else, it might help stave off the fear that was etching lines on his grey-tinged face. "Tell me about your kids," he suggested softly, and listened to Jeremy for a long time.

James swore, panting. The land had been on a steady downward slope for a while now, and the mud was getting thicker, wetter, more glutinous. More treacherous, and more exhausting to labour through. Wiping his forehead with his filthy sleeve, he once more scraped the enormous, heavy gouts of mud from his boots with his entrenching tool. Too tired to divide his attention between shaking the clay from the shovel and watching where he was going, he stumbled, slid, and then slithered into a shell hole. Quickly jamming his trench shovel into the side of the small crater to keep from sliding into the water, where he would very likely get stuck and drown, he managed to halt his descent long enough to dig his boots in.

"Bollocks," he said loudly, his patience pushed beyond the breaking point. "I bloody well hate France. It's the most godforsaken, ruinous, ridiculous, disgusting place I've ever had the misfortune to encounter. I hate France. Loathe it. I absolutely fucking despise it."

He stopped abruptly, his heart in his throat, at the distinct sound of laughter coming from very near by.

"Is that Lieutenant James bloody May down there?" A cheerful voice called down. James tipped his head back and was simultaneously relieved and annoyed to see, incredibly, the grinning face of a sergeant from his own unit.

"Sergeant Kingston, how lovely of you to remember me."

"Couldn't forget you, Lieutenant; the artillery spanners have been in a mess of a pile since you left. Miltie was ready to head out and search for you, he was that frantic to find the spanner for the eighteen pounder. He refuses to make do with anything else."

"So pleased to hear I've been missed," James said dryly. "Now I'd rather like to get out of this fucking shell hole, if you don't mind."

"Not at all," the Sergeant grinned, but then he grew matter-of-fact. "You wounded, Lieutenant? We can get you out of there in a jiff--"

"Not wounded, no. Just bloody exhausted." James took a deep breath, let it out, and rolled onto his stomach for the climb out of the crater. As soon as he neared the broken rim, Kingston was joined by Private Baker, and between the two of them, they pulled him safely up the rest of the muddy slope and out of the shell hole. James wearily lifted his head to see Private Wentworth and Lieutenant Collishaw made up the rest of the party. "Lieutenant," he nodded at Collishaw, then said, "Thanks, chaps."

"Is it just you, then May?" Collishaw asked as the two officers shook hands.

"Two more I had to leave to find help quickly. Hammond and one other."

"Dickson?" Kingston asked. "We've not been able to account for him yet."

"I'm afraid he didn't make it. I saw him on the way out of Bourlon. No, the bloke we picked up is, of all things, an RFC pilot who was shot down. Fritz apparently gave him a miss afterwards, which is bloody hard to do seeing as he's at least six foot five and sixteen stone. Hammond and I have been carrying him on a makeshift stretcher but it got too heavy so we had to..." James realised he was babbling and shook his head. "Right. We've got a badly wounded lieutenant who will have to be carried back."

"That's all right, sir," Kingston put in. "If I'd been stuck behind enemy lines with Lieutenant Hammond, I'd be a right mess as well."

The men chuckled and James had to smile as well. Hammond was a favourite among the men, but he could talk some rubbish sometimes.

"Right," Collishaw said, taking command of the situation. "We're patrolling against any further advances by Fritz, so we'll just divert a bit to get your men and see what's going on over on that side. We saw them toss a star shell last night; the Captain wasn't sure exactly what they were doing since we didn't have any trench-raiding parties out, but we figured we'd send up one of our own. I'm assuming they've probably kept to themselves after that."

"They were looking for us," James said, sighing as they turned back around and headed back in the direction he'd come. "Hammond had to take out a sentry in order for us to make our crossing of the canal. When you threw up that flare, you saved our lives. I've no doubt about that."

"Well, you know us, sir, we live to serve," Baker said, chuckling.

"At least you live, Baker, that's good enough for me."

James led them towards where he'd left Hammond and Clarkson. He missed them by a bit--a fact which surprised none of his fellow West Yorkies--but after a brief stop and a determined study of the landscape, James managed to back-track and find them only a few minutes later.

Hammond looked up, utter relief writ plain on his face. "Time to wake up," he said cheerfully, giving Clarkson's uninjured shoulder a gentle poke. "Salvation is at hand. Collishaw, I see you found May and took him in for me. Poor bastard couldn't find England with a map and a compass; frankly, I hadn't expected to be found anytime this week."

"Good to see you, too, Hammond," Collishaw chuckled.

"Clarkson," Hammond said again, gently squeezing this time.

Clarkson's eyes barely opened, and James wondered how far gone the man was at this point.

"Christ, sir," Wentworth exclaimed, "is he worth the carry back?"

"Yes, he is, Private," Hammond hissed, glaring at Wentworth. "He's made it this far and he'll do just fucking fine as soon as you stop gawping and get him to a doctor."

Wentworth looked abashed, but he still glanced at Collishaw for confirmation. Collishaw nodded and the two privates moved to pick up the makeshift litter.

James saw that Clarkson roused slightly as the stretcher was lifted, and he moved to his side. "Hang in there, Jezza, mate. You'll be in the hands of the medics in no time."

"Better their hands than...than yours," Clarkson mumbled. "They've got...morphine. You've got...fake meat. Where's Hamster?"

As James grinned down at Clarkson, Hammond scrambled to his feet. "You said you wouldn't call me that in front of the others, you lying bastard," he complained. "Obviously I can carry you further than I can trust you."

Clarkson's face twitched with a ghost of a smile. "Got my letter?"

"Yes, I have it," Hammond said, patting his tunic breast pocket. "But you can give it to Francie yourself when you get back to Blighty, stubborn git that you are."

Collishaw cleared his throat and with a sly grin said, "All right, Hamst--I mean, Hammond, let's get your mate home, shall we?"

Hammond groaned loudly. "I knew it. I knew it! Clarkson, you're going to live to regret that." He gripped Jeremy's good hand in his, giving it a brief but tight squeeze. "Do you hear me? You're going to live to regret that."

Clarkson's laugh was weak but audible, and after a moment, both James and Hammond began to chuckle as well.

They stayed near the stretcher as the party made its slow, laborious way through the crater-strewn mud towards their company. As they walked, James, Hammond, Collishaw, and Sergeant Kingston filled each other in on the happenings immediately after the battle at Bourlon Wood, trying to determine how James and Richard had been left in the shattered remains of the wood. There was no real solution to the problem of men being left behind after an attack and retreat; there was too much chaos and terror, too much gunfire and shellfire, too many bodies strewn on the ground. Worst of all, communication beyond a shout to those within hearing distance was impossible.

Clarkson cleared his throat, and though his voice rasped, he managed, "May was prob'ly too busy looking for a...a shellhole with no bodies in. Fastidious twat. Din't realise...everyone else was pulling back."

"Ha bloody ha," James said dryly. "I didn't hear any complaints about my fastidiousness when you were eating those nice clean biccies."

After a while, the men all fell silent; it was too hard a slog through the mire to waste breath on idle conversation. Richard and James, though, took turns speaking briefly with Clarkson, keeping him conscious and aware without taxing him further.

When they finally reached the temporary headquarters at the rear, the party headed immediately to the Advanced Dressing Station. Clarkson was set down on the ground next to the sandbags that surrounded the entrance to the dugout, and Richard crouched beside him. "Bet you a quid you'll be on the next ship for England," he grinned.

"I'll take that bet," Clarkson mumbled, and Richard's grin faded as he realised the man didn't believe he'd be going anywhere but in the ground.

"Doctor Wilman, we've got one for you," Kingston said as the doctor came up out of the dugout to take a look at the soldier that had been brought to him.

Wilman's eyebrow rose as he glanced down at Clarkson. "He surely wasn't in the trenches; Christ, he'd have had his head shot off."

"RFC. Shot down," Clarkson said hoarsely. "Now are you going to give me some fucking morphine or will I have to get it myself?"

"I'd like to see you try," Wilman said with a snort. One glance at Clarkson's leg, and then Richard's face, though, had him barking orders even as he headed straight back into the dugout. "Bring him in--put him on table two."

Richard and May, determined to see Clarkson through as far as they could, carried him in and the entire stretcher was laid on the glorified sawhorse that served as an examination table. Quarters were cramped in the narrow, low dugout, however, and they were quickly shooed back outside to make room for the two doctors and three medics that immediately gathered over Clarkson. Richard, one foot on the rough steps out, turned back to call, "He's a bloody stubborn bastard and likely the world's worst patient, but do your best anyway."

One of the medics leaned over Clarkson, then looked up at Richard with a grin. "He says fuck you, too, sir."

Richard climbed out of the dugout to find Lieutenant Collishaw had already waved his men back towards their unit. "Got a fag?" he asked. When Collishaw handed several cigarettes each to both him and May, Richard tucked one behind his ear, put one in the tin in his breast pocket, and the last went between his lips. He tried to light it with the lucifer May handed him, but his hands were shaking so badly, he burned himself with the flame and dropped it, swearing.

"Here," May murmured, lit another of the matches with his thumbnail, and held it out.

Richard lit his fag, not meeting May's eyes.

"Do either of you need medical attention?" Collishaw asked, his gaze flicking back and forth between them.

"No," Richard answered sharply, and leaned against one of the sandbag walls.

May shook his head as well. "No, we're fine. Just need a bit of sleep. It's surprising how hard it is to catch a few winks when you're on Fritz's side of the lines."

Collishaw smiled grimly. "Of that I have no doubt. Come with me, I'll show you where Colonel Fulton has set up shop; you can report in and he'll likely give you a forty-eight hour pass. You can go to the baths and then sleep it off in Amiens."

"No," Richard immediately said, shaking his head. "I have to stay here. Need to make sure Clarkson's going to make it."

Collishaw's eyebrow rose. "You've done all you can do, Hammond. It's time to let the doctors look after him, and for you to report in."

Fear rose in Richard's chest, nearly choking him. He knew it was illogical, but he also knew with utter certainty that if he wasn't there to look out for him, Jeremy would die. "No, I'm staying here." He took a long draw on his fag.

May drew him to the side. "Hammond," he said quietly. "We can't linger for long."

"I can't leave until I know what Wilman says about Jez," Richard hissed, his shaking hand clutching May's forearm tightly. "I have to stay here, James. I have to."

May gripped Richard's shoulder. "All right. You stay; I'll go and report in to Fulton. I'll make it sound like you're getting a scratch patched up, or something. Once he's given me our orders, I'll come back and get you. But Richard--" May gave him a little shake, "--we may not get leave. If we don't, we'll have no choice but to get back into the line."

Richard nodded rapidly, eager to agree to a solution that would allow him to remain near Clarkson for at least a little longer. "Yeah, I know. Okay, you go and let 'em know we're alive, and I'll stick with Jez. I'll be here. Come find me when you're done."

"I will. And Hammond..." May trailed off, then simply said, "I'll be back soon."

As James followed Collishaw to report in to their commanding officer, he wondered what had passed between Hammond and Clarkson whilst they'd waited for him to return. Obviously they'd talked, made some sort of connection. But he also knew that Hammond was walking the ragged edge right now, and his fear for Clarkson could well be paranoia finding a superstitious outlet. Either way, James hoped that both his mates would turn out all right.

After reporting in and--true to Collishaw's guess--receiving leave, James headed back towards Hammond. He knew it could be hours yet before any word came back on Clarkson, but he'd got the impression that Hammond wasn't about to leave the area, not even to get as clean as one possibly could at the front, until he had some news. And frankly, James didn't want to leave his mate alone any longer than he had to right now. He found Hammond exactly where he'd been when James had left, the fag long spent, his fingers tapping out unknown melodies on his soiled uniform.


"May. What's the word, then?"

"We have forty-eight hours leave, mate, but we're supposed to head for Amiens."

"And we can, just as soon as I collect the quid that Clarkson will owe me for surviving."


"No, James, you weren't there to hear him talk about his wife and family, so you don't know how fucking important this is. He thinks he's going to die--he's so fucking sure of it that he's practically given up already--and if... Fuck, this sounds as if I'm crazy, I know it does, but if I--we--leave him now, he won't make it."

James didn't know what exactly to think about that, but for Hammond's peace of mind, he settled down on the sand bag and struck another lucifer to light up a cigarette, holding it out for Hammond as well. They both took deep pulls on their fags before James sighed.

"He's going to make it, Richard. He's come too far to give up now."

"You didn't see him, mate. He doesn't believe that. He needs us to believe it for him, until he wakes up."

"Then that is exactly what we shall do," James replied, laying his hand briefly on Hammond's shoulder. Hammond looked over at him and nodded.

As news spread of their removal from the list of missing men, soldiers from their unit who were passing during the course of their duties came to find them and chat, keeping both exhausted men awake and aware until one of the medics poked his head up the stairs.

"Surgery's over and he's still with us," he reported, having been told the two men were waiting to hear the fate of their friend.

"And his leg?" Richard asked, scrambling to his feet.

"We did as he asked and cut out the necrotic tissue rather than amputating, but I have to tell you, Lieutenant, I think it's going to wind up coming off in the end. That'll be for the surgeons at Étaples, though. He's being transferred there in the morning, if he's still alive."

"Can we talk to him?"

"Bloody hell, mate, he won't wake up for hours yet. Likely not until tonight, in fact." He disappeared back into the dugout.

Richard's stomach twisted. He ran a trembling hand through his hair, feeling lost. He started when May dropped an arm over his shoulders.

"Come on, Hammond," he said bracingly. "Let's go and get that bath and clean uniform, maybe some egg and chips. We'll sack out for the night, then get back here first thing in the morning to catch Clarkson before he's shipped off."

Richard nodded jerkily, and stood, following May, hoping desperately that during the night Clarkson would continue to prove as stubborn as he had been up to this point.

The estaminet wasn't very full, a fact which James appreciated greatly. He and Hammond were digging into their egg and chips, a bottle of cheap, probably watered-down wine open between them. They were both silent for a while, concentrating on eating the fresh, plain food to assuage the worst of their hunger pains. In the trenches one got used to eating quickly, and it was a hard habit to break.

Finally James slowed down. Hammond was still shovelling the food in at a prodigious rate, so James waved at the older French woman who ran the small café, pointing to their plates in a request for a bit more. She nodded and turned back to the open stove.

James sighed contentedly and drank some of the wine. "God, but it feels good to be clean again. I've never been so glad to see a brewer's vat in my life, and that's saying something."

Hammond grinned at him and spoke around a mouthful. "I never thought I'd see the day when you shared dirty bathwater with five other men. Oh, how the mighty have fallen."

James snorted. "Needs must when the devil drives, Hammond. And the devil most certainly drives in this bloody place."

There was a sudden sharp, clanging rattle as several pots were knocked off a shelf by a rather soused sergeant in a kilt, and Hammond jumped as if he'd been shot. When he realised what had happened, he leapt to his feet, his eyes dark and his hands clenched into fists. "What the fuck are you playing at, you gormless goddamned pissant?" he shouted at the Highlander, shoving his chair back.

"Hammond--Richard," James barked swiftly, half rising out of his own chair. When Hammond's wild glare met his gaze, James pointed at the chair and ordered, "Sit. Down. Now." He waited, nearly holding his breath, to find out if this was the snapping point.

Hammond stared at him, and then, a shudder going through his body, dropped into the chair. He raked a visibly trembling hand through his hair. "Christ," he muttered. "Christ."

James refilled the battered tin cup that Hammond was drinking from and pushed it across the table to him. He waited until Richard had picked it up before rising and going over to the proprietress. He paid her for their food and drink, and thanks to his rudimentary French and some hand signs, managed to get their second helping of chips wrapped in newspaper. Returning to Hammond, he stood by the table, drained his own cup of wine, and quietly said, "Let's go. It's not far to our billet."

Hammond trailed outside after him, then leaned against the side of the building, his hands in his hair. "I don't know what just happened in there," he whispered.

"We're tired," James said, wanting to get them both somewhere quieter before continuing the conversation.

Hammond laughed mirthlessly. "I suppose that's one way of putting it."

James squeezed Hammond's shoulder. "Come on. There's actual beds we can sleep in tonight. No standing watches."

"Don't know what I'll do with myself," Hammond mumbled as they started walking again.

"Probably sleep right on through," James smiled. "Let's go and see if we remember how the hell to do that."

It didn't take them long to reach their billet--two small cots in a cramped attic above a closed-up shop--and hand over their paperwork to the owner. They were lucky this time; their last billet, alongside eight other men, had been some mostly clean straw in a stable. At least the bodies and the thin horse in the stall next to them had helped keep the air warm.

They sat on their beds to eat the food they'd brought from the estaminet, although Hammond ate considerably less than James would have liked, picking at the food he'd been shovelling in before. He said nothing, deciding to see how Hammond was tomorrow after a solid night's sleep.

Richard pulled his coat tighter around himself in the early morning chill. He and May had got up early to catch a supply cart back to the lines so they could see Clarkson off on the small, horse-drawn railway to Étaples. They sat on the remains of a stone wall, all that was left of the old post office, judging by the battered sign in the rubble.

Richard was anxious to get going. Where the fuck was the supply cart? If they missed seeing Clarkson, he'd never forgive himself. If the man was even still alive, of course. His foot began to jiggle, and he chewed on the edge of his thumb. A moment later, he hopped off the wall and began to pace.

"What happened out there, Hammond?" May asked quietly, and Richard looked over to see a look of grave concern on his face.

"What? Where?" He looked around, trying to determine what May had seen.

"Bourlon Wood."

Richard flinched. He resumed pacing. "You bloody well know what happened. It was a fucking disaster."

"I mean--" May paused, and then let out a heavy sigh. "I mean what happened to you? What was it, Richard?"

He turned his back on May, staring unseeingly down the road, willing the cart to appear. "Much the same as happened to you, I should imagine."

"I know full well that that's not true. Tell me."

Some men went numb after a while, Richard knew. They'd told him so. He desperately wished he would go numb; as dreadful as it would be, it would still be a thousand times better than this anxious, noxious fear that had been growing steadily ever since the horrors in the Wood. The sounds were especially unnerving, becoming more disturbing by the day despite the fact that his hearing was half what it used to be, thanks to the artillery. The sounds of shells (he knew what type by the whine they made in the air), of Lewis guns and rifles and Mills bombs and trench mortars and men's cries as they were wounded, as they lay dying, blood bubbling from their mouths, the glutinous mud sucking them under, crying for their mothers, their sweethearts, for the Mother of God--

"Hammond." May spoke sharply, urgently, although he hadn't moved from his position on the wall.

Richard jerked back to the present, breathing as hard as if he'd run all the way from Bourlon Wood. "You--you were on the end of the line."

"Yes. Closer to Fontaine than Bourlon. You were in the Wood itself."

"They gassed us. Mustard gas. Just poured it into the wood, then shelled the hell out of us. Men dived into the foxholes to escape the shrapnel, and the gas was waiting, coating everything, more pouring in every minute." Richard could see the scene in his mind; indeed, he was horribly afraid he'd never, ever forget it.

"How did you escape being burned?" May asked quietly.

"I stayed up on the back side of the trench. The gas sank into the low spots. I thought I'd rather take my chances with the shrapnel than risk being burned like that." He shuddered. "I shouted to the others to find a protected high spot if they could, but...instinct tells you to get low. Do you remember Dicky Price?"

May was silent for a moment, then said, "Young lad, large nose?"

"That's him. He slid down into the crater the mine had left behind. It had a foot of water at the bottom, and he splashed right down into it. Most of the chaps didn't start to feel the itching and burning for six or seven hours, but within an hour he was screaming. Screaming, James," Richard said, his voice shaking. "Two hours after that he was coughing up yellow...slime. Then all hell broke loose and the shells were coming down in a hailstorm. Landing all around us, and it was so goddamned fucking loud, James. One hit a crater nearby, and Fred Whatley and Jimmy Brown were blown to bits right before my eyes. And the whole time the shells were exploding and the guns were thundering and Dicky Price was screaming in my ear--" He cut himself off before he started screaming himself.

"You need to ask for leave, Richard," May murmured. "Rest leave in London. A month of proper sleep and food away from the front, away from the guns. You'll be all right."

"I'm not asking to run home to Mummy," Richard snapped, and started pacing back and forth again. "I'm no fucking coward, May."

"If anyone knows that, it's me, Hammond," May assured him. "I don't think asking for leave makes you a coward."

"And you don't think anyone else in our unit needs a rest? What about Kingston or Baker, eh? Collishaw? You? We've all seen and heard horrors, May, every last man still fighting."

"It's not the same and you well know it. Hammond--"

"Fucking finally," Richard interjected as the clop clop of horseshoes could be heard nearing them. He could feel his frustration turning to anger, and the last thing either of them needed right now was a full-out row.

May tried again. "Look, mate, if you don't--"

Richard whirled on him. "If you finish that sentence, I'm going to punch you right in the face. Right in the face, you bloody pillock."

May dropped his head, appearing to concede defeat, but Richard doubted he'd heard the last of the issue, and he turned again to watch the cart approach, muttering a string of profanities under his breath all the while.

Jeremy watched them approach, and he was just conscious enough to wonder about the tension on Hammond's face. "Bloody...foot-sloggers," he managed to croak. "What're you...doing back here?"

"Come to see you off, old man," Hammond said cheerfully, his voice at odds with the uneasy darting of his eyes. "Off to Étaples and then home to Blighty, eh?"

"Not home...for a while. Hospital in Étaples for a month at least...so they say."

May nodded. "Just want to make sure you can manage that horrifically long, dangerous, rough, twenty-mile jaunt across the Channel, soft oaf that you are."

Jeremy huffed a laugh, glad they'd come to see him. "Think...they're more worried about the...horses being taxed than...the Channel at this point."

"So they should be," May agreed. "You're not exactly a small bloke, you know."

"Not like...Hamster."

"I'll save the medics some trouble and kick you onto the cart if you call me that again," Hammond warned. "And by the way, you owe me a quid."

"A quid?" Jeremy blinked slowly, trying to remember.

"You took my bet yesterday that you'd survive. It was for a quid."

Jeremy vaguely recalled something of the sort. "I'll have to...send it to you. When...m' pay catches up to me."

Hammond immediately withdrew a stub of a pencil out of one pocket, and Jeremy's own letter out of another. Turning it over, he scribbled something on the back of the envelope, then tucked it under the shoulder of the cotton vest the medics had dressed Jeremy in for his journey. "My directions. I'm onto you, Clarkson."

Jeremy wheezed a laugh. "Damn. Suppose I'll have to...actually send it...now."

"Too bloody right, you will," Hammond declared. He hesitated, then gave Jeremy's shoulder a squeeze. "Take care, old man, yeah? Don't make me have to desert to come to Étaples and kick your arse."

"As if you could." Jeremy met and held Hammond's eyes, but the words just wouldn't come. How did you thank a man for refusing to give up on you when you were ready to give up on yourself? "Hammond...Richard."

Hammond looked touched, but uncomfortable. "Save it. When all this is over, you're taking May and me on the biggest piss-up London has ever seen."

Jeremy grasped his hand as tightly as he could. "That's a...deal." He turned his head slightly. "May?"

May moved closer, clasping his hand as soon as Jeremy had released Hammond's. "Clarkson," he said equably. "Do try not to annoy the nurses into smothering you with your own pillow."

"Do my best," Jeremy chuckled. "Look after Hamster, eh? Make sure the git doesn't...get himself killed." He searched May's eyes, and when he saw comprehension dawn there, he sighed in relief.

"Oi!" Hammond objected. "I'm right here, you know."

May ignored the outburst. "Don't worry, Jez," he said, his voice even but gentle. Too low for Hammond to hear, he murmured, "I'll not let it take him down."

Jeremy nodded. "Good man." Having trouble keeping his eyes open now, he mumbled, "Be careful...lads. Tell Fritz to...go and fuck himself. And I'll see you in London."

His rail cart readied, two medics lifted him up onto it, and then the injured but ambulatory soldiers began to climb on. Several of them had been blinded by gas attacks, but they were all guided by a wounded man who still had his sight. Within minutes, the horses were urged to move, and the cartwheels began to turn. Jeremy turned his head, and the last thing he saw before his heavy eyelids closed was Hammond and May lifting their hands in a little wave, holding them for a long moment, then turning to walk back to the front lines.

James dropped his hand, watching Clarkson disappear down the railway lines. "Come on, then, Hammond," he said quietly. "He'll be in good hands soon enough." He turned, waited for Hammond to join him, and they walked away from the Clearing Station.

"You think he'll be all right?" Hammond asked, chewing on the side of his thumb.

James thought about it for a moment. "I do, actually," he said slowly, nodding. "It's going to take time, and he may yet lose that leg, but he'll make it, will Jez. He's too bloody-minded not to."

Hammond looked slightly reassured. "He is a stubborn bastard, it's true."

James clapped him on the back. "He's not the only one. We've got nearly twenty-four hours left before we have to be back in our trench. Let's catch a lift to Amiens, get some nosh, and sleep for about eighteen of those hours, shall we?"

Hammond sighed and then nodded. "Yeah, let's do that. I'm tired, y'know?"

"I know, Richard. I know. I am too."

They went in search of transport, and being told there was a lorry that would be leaving within a half-hour, they sat down to have a fag or two and wait. James surreptitiously studied Hammond, who was quiet now, his eyes fixed on some obscure point in the distance. He'd promised Clarkson he'd look after Hammond, but the words hadn't truly been necessary; he'd already sworn to himself he'd see Richard through the cataclysm, if it was the last thing he ever did. Even if it meant turning him in to their C.O. as a shell-shock case. Hammond might never forgive him if he did that, but at least he'd be alive and in England, getting some treatment to bring him back to his old self. As close to his old self as he could get, anyway. None of them would ever be the same again after what they'd been through, but once they got home--

"You're thinking too loudly, May. I'll be fine." Richard's voice was wry, but even.

James started, and then the corner of his mouth quirked. "I know you will, Hamster." He twisted sideways, chuckling, when Hammond dug him in the side with a sharp elbow. "Fuck off, you cock."

"At least I can find mine with both hands," Hammond shot back. They grinned at each other for a moment, and then turned towards the rudimentary road again to continue the wait for the lorry.

This time, however, the silence was comfortable, companionable. Despite everything, James couldn't help but smile.



Oct. 23rd, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed it! But believe me, it wouldn't be half the story it is without my dear co-author, foxtales. You are most welcome to friend this fic journal, but I'm afraid that (so far) this is the only story on here she's written with me. If I'm lucky, there will be many more in future. :)