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In Sickness

Chapter 3.

One minute digging in, the next on the move. Orders issued and countermanded, the confusion deepening. The Intelligence officer had hysterics in what currently served as the mess, predicting they might as well sprint across the wire and have just as much chance of survival. An orderly retreat it was not.

'We're being mucked about by experts,' Doyle muttered to himself. Reluctantly, he was eating what served as food. The shadows under his eyes and cheekbones, combined with the muttering and expressions of great distaste, gave him the look of a prophet one step away from raving.

'What'd you expect? We're in the army, chum.' Bodie descended to the empty munitions crate by his side, cheerful despite everything, having again scrounged more than his share.

Paleness had long since become pallor, shocking against badly shaved cheeks and oily hair, but the fighter was still there, laughing blue eyes begging for an excuse to engage. In the encroachin g defeat, Bodie's callous pleasure in the small things was almost unholy, demonic. But on the field Bodie only killed like a killer, mechanical with bayonet or gun, because it was his job, never adding cruelty or particular emphasis to the task. If some maliciousness truly did possess him, it alternated between tormenting or coaxing Doyle to rage or laughter; whatever the others said about him, Doyle never believed Bodie kept a body count.

Doyle's spoon scraped tin too soon. With a show of reluctance, heaving sighs and rolling eyes, Bodie pushed his own plate across.

Doyle glared, ashamed. 'It's a waste. You eat it.'

'I reckon I'll be the only bastard who comes out of the trenches weighing more than before. I filched it for you.'

'It'll just come out again!'

'You have to try. Not like we've got salts or fruit, is it? You got enough water?'

Anything to stop the nursemaiding attempt. Doyle stirred the soggy meal on Bodie's plate, not meeting his eyes. 'So what d'you get out of the Intelligence officer? I saw you playing strongarm when he tried to take chunks out of the MO.'

'The route. Miles and miles of bugger all cover and potshotting all the way.'

Doyle paused in his response, then abruptly pushed away the plate. Speech was suddenly too difficult even to air his excuses. He rose, slow and careful, to commence the familiar and unhappy trudge down a route far too well worn, already sweating with pain and awful anticipation.

There were seven of them in the back of the truck, in a jumbled mess of rifles, packs, web equipment, tin hats, petrol and water. They lost Murph at one chaotic exchange with mortars over their heads, all racked and blinded by the gas, but they picked him up again at the second skirmish, bloody and wild-eyed. At the third they lost Tommy to the fog and never saw him again. They retreated and ran, rocky and shaken and worn with every passing day, only t he pretence to sustain them.

Doyle made fists at his side where no one could see, hunched on the floor with Bodie sitting at his back and hanging on for the both of them, sturdy muscle doing what the truck's suspension did not.

'Where're we going now, corp?' Mac tried to sound world-weary instead of simply tired, as if the answer could change things.

'Don't know. Don't give a fucking continental what route he's taking.'

'They'll be waiting at the beach,' Lucas, thready and tense. 'What're they doing to us? What the hell are they doing?'

The questions felt like threats. 'Shut up, just shut up.'

Bodie, always cheerful. 'Now, lads, mother's having an episode. So unless you've got some lavender for her pillows and a hot water bottle for the cramps—'

Cursing, Doyle clawed his way around and prepared to lay into Bodie, but instead of the mocking he'd expected he saw sympathy crinkling the skin by Bodie's eyes. The back of a truck bore no room for cosseting.

'Dysentery bothering you again, Doyle?'

Doyle fought for control of his mouth, which quivered unforgivably. 'Can't stand it. I just can't, not one minute longer.'

The tarpaulin penned in the dust and greasy petrol smell, the unwashed and the dust and the bloody guns, the small space spinning clockwise in Doyle's head, fuzzy at the edges. Bodie's hands were all over him, the scarred twisted one and the fine.

'You're wet through,' accusing, as though this was Doyle's fault. 'I'm sorry. You know we can't stop. For all we know they're right on our tails. Can't afford the risk.'

'Right. I'll just,' Doyle rubbed the sweat-dust from his cheeks, looking at the mud on his fingers. 'Just let me hop out then, I'll catch you up like Murph did—'

The pain chose that moment to hit, rippling and dire and he nearly hit the tray, scrabbling against his panic for control.

'Jesus, Ray, I admire your guts, but—'

But it was too late. Hysteria hit the others, Bodie protesting his innocence— him! with that arched eyebrow and ever-smug satisfaction at his timing. Even Doyle, fighting for breath against the pain, his own laughter just another torment atop the other, wringing him limp and wet.

'Come on, then, up you get,' Bodie took him from the rattling road, on his knees and bringing Doyle to his own.

'What are you— You can't get off too. You'll never make it back! I refuse to let you get off.'

'Like you could make it back, shaking like a leaf and not a drop of water left in you?' Bodie shook Doyle gently. 'You didn't come through all that just to sit out the rest of the war in a prison camp. Sit up on the bloody tailboard. I'll hold your legs.'

A creeping horror whitened Doyle's cheeks, not so sure it wasn't just his guts dropping out of him now, whatever his desperate control. He studied Bodie intently, eyes as fever-bright as his own, finding no trace of a smile or mockery or anything, except—

Earnest and flushed, Bodie caught Doyle by the chin and pressed a broad sloppy kiss into his dirty cheek. Doyle's belated spluttering at the wetness, automatic and half intended for their audience, his friendly and familiar you mad bastard, all of it died when he saw his friend's earnest expression yet unchanged and unguarded. More than embarrassment behind the flush, eyes dropping and rising again, tongue touched to the corner of his mouth in advance consideration of his delivery.

'So long as you live, Ray, you'll need never feel ashamed of anything again. Never.'

'But you can't—' Harsh, low, just another rumble in the war-ripped sky and rattling wagon. The back of a truck was not the time. But nor would it be during a frantic run across a gunshot French beach, or demob in Liverpool, the welfare queue in South London afterwards, if there was even a government left to care about welfare. There would never be a time, not anywhere in the world. So here it might as well be, before the pain left him incoherent and moaning on Bodie's shoulder. 'Not ashamed. Not of you, of any of it—' His eyes were burning, not even enough fluid left for his nose to drip. The monster in his gut clawed into his chest, battering against his ribs, such pain to get through for the so-brief relief after; still his heart kept hungering.

'Yeah, you are. But it's all right.' Bodie's grin blossomed, shy and proud, thumb rough on Doyle's cheek, palm on his chin. 'You'll get over it. Now please take your trousers down and hang on to my shoulders. But as these bastards are my witness, Raymond Doyle, I am not going to wipe your sodding backside.'

February 2012, complete.

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