Note: If anyone is interested, the set piece for this chapter is Arvo Parts Silentium.

So, The Rain Is Falling.

0-17

Axis

Shame.

There was no other word for the bitterness that bit the back of his throat. His whole body aching, his heartbeat too quick. The screaming in his ears undiluted. A pounding running through his brain. He thought he should be used to pain. Obviously he was wrong.

How had he lost control of himself so easily? A gentle touch, some kindness, and he acted like… like… a starved dog. Greedy, wanting. Unable to keep his hands from Sam's skin. Tasting the salt of his sweat, feeling the hitch of his breath, and the rapid beat of his pulse beneath his mouth. And seeing the want in Sam's eyes, the want Sam didn't seem to truly recognise. A rapture, a thrall, looking at his enemy. Fuck. What was he doing? What in hell had he done?

God forgive him.

Like a zombie, he walked thought the house. The same path Sam had taken, only a minute before. His thudding boot steps little more than dull, distant banging beneath the ringing in his head. He had to keep a hand against the wall to walk in a straight line. Struggling to keep himself upright, now that he was alone. Struggling not to let himself curl into a ball on the floor and surrender.

He almost staggered, stopping in a darkened doorway. The room beyond was barely more than shadows, and a jolt went down his spine to see a figure in the darkness. He froze, staring. Unable to understand what he was seeing. A pale body, dirty, bruised. He stepped forward, reaching out an unsteady hand, and touched the surface of the mirror. Searching the face he knew must be his own in the reflection. He could recognise nothing of himself. Could not see himself in the flint cold eyes that stared back at him. Darkened by shadows, the bones of his face crisply defined. A mouth that was stiff and hard.

He looked like Emery. It was hard to reconcile…that this was who he was. This dead eyed spectre of a dead man. Cold, dead eyes that did not look all human. As when Emery returned from Russia. All cheer and smiles while Delia kissed his cheeks again and again. While his son had played at his feet. But Emil had seen… Emil had known. When darkness and silence settled, he had woken to his brother at the foot of the bed. He'd sat with the Luger in his hand, and seemed to know he was being watched.

'Nec Metu, Nec Spe.' He had said. 'Do you know what that means?'

'Yes.' Emil had nodded, and sat. Disturbed, somehow, but the stillness of his body. Riveted by the tone of his voice. Leaning closer to hear what he had to say. 'Without fear. Without hope.'

Emery turned to him. A half shadowed, half hollow man. And his eyes had been like ice. The pupils blown with darkness, an eclipsed moon. Black ringed by a sliver of grey. Deep, peeling black. That stared and sliced the skin from his face. To look within his very mind. And Emery had held his eyes. Held his breath. Held everything that he was.

'You do not know what we are. But I do.' His voice had been not a whisper, not spoken. Deep and still and at some perfect volume to sit on the cold air. And Emil could not look away from the darkness. 'I have seen what we are. I have become it. And I will tell you what it is.'

For a moment, Emery had looked away. So, so far away. To something distant. To something awful, and Emil's blood had run cold. This was no longer the Emery he knew. And Emil had been unable to break free of the silence that gripped them. Waiting, unbreathing, for Emery to tell.

'The darkness is deep. When you fall, it is a very, very long way.' Emery returned to his face and reached forward. His hand had been cold on the back of Emil's neck. His cheek had been cold pressed against his own. His words little more than a lick to the air. 'And it is cold, and you think you will die of it… But we… do not succumb. We are consumed. We are…reformed. And we rise again as darkness. And it drips from our skin and our tongues and fills our eyes. Emil…'

Emery had pulled back, and pressed a palm to Emil's chest. Held it there. Piercing with his empty, icy stare. Dead. The living dead. '…We are darkness. Some men are not but we… We carry it in our blood. To our name… We are… we are…' A light seemed to go out of Emery's face. He retreated from his skin and left it empty. Truly empty. His last word a mutter to the night before he rose like a man in shock and walked away. '…Darkness.'

It had been the last word he'd ever heard from Emery. He'd shipped out the very next morning. Every word had sounded insane. Unhinged. But Emil was beginning to understand. That the things he had seen and done altered him. His very soul. Brutally and irrevocably. The blood he'd spilled stained his soul. It bled in through his pores and stained his retina. Cold, cruelty. Darkness. Emil could see it on his own face. Knew it in his own thoughts. In his fingers. In his gun-callused hands. Knew it when he thought of Sam… Of Sam's eyes. Of Sam's light.

How could Sam look at him, how could Sam see what he was, and still….

He had to get away.

Away from Sam, away from his enemies. He had no place here. The desire to be amongst his brothers burned in his gut. This was not where he should be. Fraternising. Shaming himself, his country. All he thought he stood for. Strength, resilience, self control. Instead he staggered and simpered and leaned on the shoulder of his enemy. Learned his name and met his friends. Spoke with him, touched him. Kissed him.

Loved him.

A shudder, involuntary and violent, shook him from the mirror. Scrubbing both hands through his damp hair and covering his ears. As though that would block out the hollow ringing. The pain in his head. He had to leave Sam. He had to get away. Had to abandon him, there wasn't another choice. How could he even let things go this far? Sam was under his skin, buried in his mind. His heart. But god, it would be hard. Like extricating a bullet when the wound had healed over. The last thing he wanted to do was run from Sam. On the contrary. Run to him. Take his hand, drag him away from soldiers and battlefields. From all people and their eyes. The invisible borders and lines. Just the two of them, perfectly alone. Without though, or guilt or any kind of pain.

But, a tiny voice at the back of his mind reminded him, they could never truly be alone. The God of his mother's religion would know, and he would know. He'd know he was abandoning his brothers. That the war raged whether he was part of it or not. How could he wash his hands of that? How could he leave his hands idle while good men died? For an enemy?

For Sam.

His father had spoken to him many a time about sacrifice. The sacrifices they made every day, in the name of blood. In the name of country and kin. Emil though he knew where he stood. That nothing was greater than protecting his country. The house in which his sisters lived. The church in which his mother prayed. The parks and woods his nephew played. All the things he knew were good. Were worth protecting. He'd sacrifice himself for them. His life. But dying would be easy compared to this. This decision, and the pain he knew it would bring. To himself, but worse, to Sam.

Sam who was good, too. Sam who was kind. Who he owed his life, the little it was worth.

But that was the nature of true sacrifice. It's definition. It was not meant to be easy.

Closing his eyes, he took three slow, deep breaths. Counting backwards from ten, and when his knees still wanted to buckle, from fifty. This weakness, this softness of heart and mind, needed to be banished. It needed to be destroyed. He needed to look at Sam and feel nothing. Look at him as he would any enemy. A target in his crosshairs. An American.

The very thought made his stomach twist. His heart beat faster. His breath catch. And he felt it. The darkness that Emery had spoken of. The chasm. The one he'd been standing at for months and had not truly recognised. The darkness that coiled on his tongue and tasted like blood in his throat. The darkness that, strangely, reassured him. Knowing his resolve was weak, and would crumble the moment he looked into Sam's face. Knowing that if Sam were to touch him, were to say a thing, he would fall as easily as France. Knowing that, from these things, he had to turn away.

Sam found him in that room, his back to the mirror. He had heard Sam's footsteps as dull noise through the ringing. It was almost a relief that he had not come alone. The Private, Bubbles, had a bundle of clothes beneath his arms. Talking indistinct, indistinguishable garble to his Sergeant.

He snatched the uniform from the Private's hand. The fabric heavy, musky with another soldiers sweat, but cleaner than his own blood drenched, ripped, ruined uniform. Shrugging away from Sam's eagre, helping hands, his concern, he dressed himself. Unable, unwilling, to look Sam in the face. It took his back for Sam to get the message. Emil watched him step away from the corner of his eyes. His hands restlessly idle. Almost pacing on the spot.

Sam was not going to understand what he was about to do. It would seem cruel. It was cruel, but he'd be a fool to even think there had ever been another option. The urge to apologise, again, was biting at his lips. Words he swallowed, forcing himself to stand straight. His palms uselessly tugging at the creases in his dirty new clothes. This was the right thing to do. This was the right thing to do. The right thing didn't always feel that way, he'd learned that many times over, but there was a greater purpose. There was more than himself, and in the long run, this would be what was best for them both….

Without looking back, he left the house. Long strides jolting pain through his battered body. Pushing into the dark, wet cul-de-sac. Teeming with soldiers. Corpses sprawled on the cobbles. Bodies being carried in blood drenched sheets. The dead and wounded laid out like meat. His eyes sought out a certain face amongst shadowed men, a helmet decorated by a red cross. Afraid to move too slowly, afraid of Sam catching up. Turning him around, forcing eye contact. Afraid of his own weakness in the face of those blue eyes.

The head beams of idling trucks cut through the night, catching drops of rain until they looked like tiny shards of glass. Morgan was moving amongst the dead and wounded, the light caught on one side of his face. His fingers deftly checking pulses, and plucking tags from throats where he found none. His own voice booming inside his head, Emil shouted his name. "Morgan!"

Morgan looked up, and rose to greet him. A warm, blood stained hand clapping his shoulder like Emil were not the enemy. His ever earnest face crossed with concern. His mouth moved, but Emil could barely make out the sound of his voice above the ringing.

"Morgan. I need to be put with the prisoners. Take me to them." His voice strung low, urgent.

The medic was silent for the briefest moment. A moment in which Emil held his breath and prayed he would understand. This was what needed to be done. This was what should have happened from the beginning. He nodded, his lips moving around the words 'Follow me.'

It looked far better being led by a medic. He followed Morgan, quick at his heels, around the side of the church. The handful of surviving men corralled into the ancient graveyard, towards the church door. Guarded by the armed enemy. Unhelmeted. Cold.

He did not have to find a place amongst the prisoners. Meino grabbed his arm and pulled him into the line. Emil fell in, as easy as breathing, catching the snipers eye in a sidewards glance. Meino's nod was near imperceptible. His cool smile a flash that hardly passed, but it was enough. Emil turned his eyes forward, shoulders almost touching on either side, and smiled. Grim, black. There were no words for the bleak satisfaction that rose in his chest. No means to describe the depth of it. Like religious fever. Like profound love and profound hate. Like all things collected, smashed, melted and twisted into one. The knowledge that he'd killed with this man. That they had stood and murdered side by side. That they had been prepared to die. This was his brother. And he had no doubt in his mind that this was where he belonged. It gave him the strength, the resolve, to move.

They stepped forward, two at a time, to the church door. Checked again for weapons, papers. Items of value. As he walked beneath the shadow of the wall, he saw Sam from the corner of his eye. Sam, with Morgan's hand on his sleeve. Sam, staring straight at him. Hurt clear on his face.

Emil breathed, forced his eyes forward, and stepped into the darkness of the stone. He could not think on it. Could not carry it with him. Staring at flagstone floors, the candled alcoves, and long wooden pews. It smelled like candle wax and wood polish. As all churches seemed to smell, and he breathed deep. Conflicted with nostalgia and revulsion.

He could not think of Sam.

A jolt shook his bones as a hand landed on his shoulder. He spun towards Meino, on reflex, but the sniper did not flinch. Unwavering in his level stare. Demure eyes deceiving.

"I cannot hear."

Meino accepted this with silence, and slung an arm around Emil's shoulder. He did not want to admit how welcome it was. Even forced between the pews by armed soldiers, it felt like a burden lifted from his back. Replaced only by the aching in his chest. They were thrown dirty blankets, directed to lay them out at the front of the Church, and allowed to rest. To sleep. It felt like the first time in months that he had closed his eyes. His back pressed against Meino's for warmth, another German on his other side. Exhaustion should have taken him. He should have welcomed nothing more than sleep, but the screaming in his ears felt endless, and one thought ran vicious, painful loops around his mind.

Sam.

VVV

The silence was intense. His hands chill. Frozen, despite the thick red gloves. Frozen. Despite the shearling lined coat, and thick, furred hat. His breath seemed icy, passing over his lips. The cold of the snow seeping through every layer of his clothes, radiating off the rifle he held.

Despite this, he felt alert. Vivid. The white world crisp before his face. Fixed on the shadows that passed between distant, naked trees. He was aware of his father's eyes on him. Aware of the man's imposing presence at his left. Aware, keenly, of the pressure he was under. He would not fail. Watching the tree line with the alertness of a wolf on the hunt. Where shadows flicked and flirted in the mist that shrouded naked trees.

He took a slow, deep breath and lifted the scope to his eye. Circular vision, bisected by fine, black lines. Detail and clarity that could make him shiver in appreciation of such beautiful, deadly technology.

Today, he would kill.

The stag was moving just beyond the trees. A dark shape, shifting in the white, just visible in the hairs of his scope. He waited, frozen, chilled to the bones, but ever patient under father's eyes. His father's judgement.

It seemed to melt from the mist. Solidifying ,yet, oddly liquid. Then there was not one, but many. Many shapes. So many shapes, that were not deer. Men emerging from the darkness, crouched low, their weapons in their hands. And the stag. The stag had not been a stag at all. He knew that face, he knew those eyes in his crosshairs.

Blue.

The gun was dropped like it burned hot. Then he remembered his father and recoiled. Twisted with fear to face the man, and saw the rage on his face. The darkness. The craters of his pupils and twisted lines of his snarl.

Emil woke with a jolt. Sitting bolt upright. Someone moved beside him, mirroring his motion. Meino, scanning the flickering dark with a hunter's intensity. As though he sensed Emil's racing heart and sweating palms, and it yanked him from his sleep.

His chest was heaving, he realised. Dragging deep on cold lungfuls of air that made his bruised ribs ache. He made a conscious effort to stop. His fists clenching convulsively at the filthy blanket spread over his legs. The German beside him lay a hand on his shoulder. A gesture he knew was supposed to be comforting, but only turned his lip in a sneer. He shrugged Meino away, his eyes on the shadowed guards and their guns, lurking in the corners of the church. Not as thought they were needed. Not as though the beaten, broken, shadows of men they guarded would try to fight free.

VVV

They marched.

The dawn was sheeted grey, thick, dark clouds building battlements against the horizon. Mid-morning was icy, afternoon frozen.

His body hurt. Dead eyes set against the back of the next soldiers head. Sunken in the tramping rhythm of relentless feet. The rhythm he knew to his bones. Then the rain begun. Sleeting in sideways. Liquid ice that slid across his scalp, beneath the collar at his throat, to drench his very skin

He was never going to be dry.

That thought ran loops through his head.

This was the rest of his life. Ice, and wet and cold. Endless months, and months. Of mud. Slush. Blood. And as he so often did, a dour prayer for mercy touched his lips, and was sucked into the wind. Blue burnt into the back of his retina. Calm, summer blue water. Far, stretching blue sky. Blue eyes. The warmth of Sam's skin. The roughness of his palms. The roughness of stubble on his cheeks.

With every truck that passed, every Yank helmet, he found his eyes drawn. Searching. Like a compulsion. Obsession. Addiction. He'd force his eyes forward, but always too late. The weakness was there, ever pressing, tugging at his gut, the part of him that screamed No. it cannot be over.

Convoys merged. They meshed with another hundred or so men. Germans. Filthy, stinking, beginning to starve. Bowed forward as they pushed into the weather, forced their feet to keep on marching.

His hearing was returning. In slow increments, though he knew that incessant ring would never leave completely. His father was sent in to rages by the very sound, he knew. He'd talk about the bomb that bit the trench and killed his brother, the Uncle that Emil had never known. He'd talk about the walls they made of corpses. Of horses meat and pouring over the line. He'd talk about the day he lay on his back, the world nothing but white noise, and saw the first flimsy fleet of German planes.

The men around him began to sing. He could hear that. The mesh of male voices, lifting Lili Marleen into the biting rain and winters early darkness. It carried memories. So many. So many fronts, so many faces of men he'd met and would never meet again. His brother. Catching Delia in a spin, singing.

His eyes set against the back of a soldiers head, he joined in. "Wie einst Lili Marleen."

VVV

They marched.

On the third day, he tasted the change in the air. They left the fields. Pines rising like sentinels on either side of their mud slick road. The clouds thick and black, the world eerily silent, but for that incessant ring. Meino constantly tipped his face back, watching the sky for many hours. The reverb of fighters distant and thin. When he returned to earth, he took Emil's arm and leaned close to speak. "It will snow."

It did. In silence. Thick white flakes falling through the evergreen. In a fine sprinkle that patterned the frozen earth. Then in a sheet that swallowed the darkness. Snow.

He could see the dread. On the faces of every man.

Snow.

VVV

They almost hit the Belgian border. It sunk in just how far their fronts were being pushed. Insane to think how months ago he'd crossed these very lines. As a soldier, not a prisoner, almost keen to taste the thrum of battle. Alert, as he had never experienced in his life. Ready to drink in every ghastly experience of war. He still did. Unable to avert his eyes from the grizzly, garish or horrific, but it had changed. Those images had carved themselves into his bones. He could taste death on the air, and feel his senses flare at the prospect, but all contained within a shell of ice. There was no passion there. Only cold.

They passed a crossroads in the woods. The metal sign on the path they took read St. Vith. Snow capped its post, ice hung from the barbed wire coils that blocked one turn. American's smoked at their station, waving trucks and jeeps and light armour through the dark slush of the road. Emil could taste the nicotine on the air. He saw the longing way in which his brothers turned towards it. Meino no exception, his lips parted on the chill he breathed.

Though they hardly spoke, Meino had not left his side. They kept unconscious pace together, so it was a surprise when Meino suddenly veered from their ranks towards the Americans. The men flinched, but Meino had his hands raised to placate, and the smile on his face could only be called disarming. Emil stopped to watch.

"Peace. I mean no harm." He spoke English, eyes downcast. Deceivingly humble and abashed. "Can I beg from you a cigarette?"

It surprised Emil that he understood. Everything save the word 'beg', and that was easy enough to guess. The American's glanced at one another, before one man rolled his shoulders in a shrug. "Yeah sure, Gerry. My good deed for the day."

"Thank you." They lingered while the American lit his cigarette behind a cupped palm, then Meino turned back into the line. The smile replaced by a self satisfied smirk.

Emil could only arch an eyebrow, to see Meino's smirk grow. Pulling a deep lungful of smoke. "What? Surprised the country idiot speaks English?"

"Now, little surprises me." Emil commented dryly. It earned him a quiet laugh. Meino draping an arm across his shoulder. For once, Emil did not shove the touch away. It was too fucking cold.

"Good answer. Smoke?" He offered a drag from the cigarette, but Emil shook his head. "Now. Little surprises me, either. Don't drink?"

"No."

"Don't fuck?"

The comment turned his eyes sidewards, and it was his turn to smirk. Meino did not know what he was asking. "What man doesn't fuck?"

Meino sighed, and gestured vaguely around him. "Men without bitches."

What he did not know… Emil tried not to think about Sam. Tried, and came to the conclusion it was unavoidable. Impossible not to think about the man, about things that might have been. How his hand had felt at the back of his neck. The intensity of that single kiss that had consumed him. Snapped his boundaries, driven him from the edge of self control.

Weak.

His lip twitched, and he suddenly found Meino's arm unbearable. Pushing his away.

The countryman did not seem to mind, tipping his head skywards, as he so often did, to drag on the cigarette. Already half burned. "It's going to snow, again."

VVV

The town was larger than the last. Alost intact. Only a few buildings crumbled at their mortar. Snow coating ruined furniture and ruined floors. People still lived here. They still scuttled and hurried. Nurses flashed between buildings, their white aprons stained red. Women with covered heads pulled children from the path of soldiers. Old, old men stared from the mountainous crags of their faces and smoked.

It was cold. It had been cold for so long, but this cold was real. The kind of cold that seemed to steal oxygen from the air. Still and perverse. Seeping in beneath every article of clothing. Between every wall and window. The constant noise of boots dulled by the snowfall. Trucks becoming trapped in the slush of mud and ice. Booted feet slipping on treacherous sheets that covered the cobbles.

Their teeth chattered in their skulls. Darkness falling swift and early, their hours of daylight feeling so sparse. Emil's whole body shivered. Involuntary, uncontrollable spasms that plagued not only him, but his brothers at arms. The snow had slowed the entire marching column to a crawl, and they were amongst the last to shuffle down the stone streets. Right on the Belgian border, at the edge of the Ardennes.

Emil had tried to make a habit of watching the Americans at knee-height. It spoke against his instincts not to search men's faces, but there was a face amongst these men he dreaded, and hoped, to see. It happened as they were ferried towards a gutted building. Wrapped in barbed wire and guarded. A line of soldiers pulled heavy crates from a truck bed. Their bodies bowed with the weight of what they carried.

Emil saw Sam's boots. He did now know how, but he knew. And before he could think, before his brain could register, he had looked up. Sam, unhelmeted. Dark, dirt stiff hair a mess. His sleeves rolled up despite the cold, bent single minded into work. Emil had to watch, knowing he should not. His head turning as they moved.

It might have been coincidence, it might have been that Sam the eyes on his skin. But he looked up. Looked up and snapped Emil's gaze like it were magnetized. He had just passed a crate, and good thing too, for his whole body seemed to stop. Some fathomless expression on his face. Pain. Definitely pain. The same sort that was making it difficult for Emil to breathe.

Then.

And then he did the worst thing he could.

Smiled. Smiled soft and hesitant. A half twitch of his lips that Emil could see, even with the distance. Smiled and raised his hand in a weak wave.

Emil almost bit his tongue, clenching his jaw and forcing his eyes away. His hand, unconsciously, curling around the wound at his side, even though it did not hurt. Did it? His body ached. His insides ached. His chest felt constricted, and the buildings seemed to slide before his face. If Meino had not caught his shoulders, he would have hit the icy stones. "Are you alright?"

No. "Yes."

"Your face is white."

"I'm okay, Meino. Let it lie." Emil breathed through his teeth. Knew, just knew that Sam was watching him. Knew he hoped for a smile back. A little recognition. Something. Anything. Knew he could not give it. Though he wanted to…God, to see Sam's true smile. The bright one that felt like god-damned sunshine. Meino's hands were icy on his shoulders. "Get the fuck off me."

"Okay, okay. I'm just being nice." The man seemed infuriatingly unfazed. Thumping Emil too hard on the back, knocking the wind from his lungs. Emil was thankful for it. Saw on Meino's face that the man understood, on some level, and responded as such. He looked mellow, demure, and spoke like a farmhand, but it was a well kept mask. An image that made him unthreatening and hid the sharp intelligence Emil was beginning to see. He found the mask irritating, but every now and then he saw the sniper. The fellow hunter, and it drew him to Meino's side. As he was sure Meino was drawn to him. Brothers.

They were put to a building. It might have been a small office space, once. Gutted then filled with ragged prisoners of war. Food was served outside. A slop spooned sparingly from one huge, steaming pot. Barley enough to quell the hunger pangs. Standing in the queue, Emil was envious of the young men stood by the gas burner. The guards that extended their hands into the steam and drank its warmth.

Meino was noisy, stamping his feet and blowing on his fingers. They had passed out cigarettes, and he smoked. As they stood, it again began to snow. More fat, lazy flakes that looked grey against the backdrop of the town. They caught in the yellow beams of a streetlight. Dark, listless dancers that swirled to the sidewalk. Emil could not rid his brain of Sam. Of his half smile. It had been all he needed to see to know he was forgiven. Fucking stupid. Stupid, stupid, good Sam. He did not deserve forgiveness.

"Hey. Hey, Emil."

"What do you want?"

"Do you know how to cuss in English?" Meino was suddenly close at his back. Something black to his tone. Emil glanced sideways to see his face. Those false, soft eyes gone flint cold as he watched the Americans raise their flag beside the French and Belgian. The sniper. Emil knew what Meino was seeing. He knew the crosshairs. The explosion of brain matter. The way their bodies would crumble. The way their blood would pool.

"Fucking pigs. Fucking yankee swine." English. His voice low, hot with vehemence. "At least we know we are slaves to an Empire. Roosevelt waves his fucking flag and they fall in to the slaughter. In the name of fuckingfreedom."

The words licked against his ear. Cruel. Licentious. Emil could do nothing but listen. Fixated. Cataloguing each breath, each syllable. Captivated by the darkness that swamped Meino's voice. His teeth clenching, his fists curling. "Bitch. Asshole. Mother –fucker. Fuck you. Fuck your whore mother. Stupid, ignorant pigs."Meino leaned close in the darkness, inky eyes sparking the reflection of his cigarette. Sharp with something blacker than joy. Something darker than glee. That lit his face from beneath and sparked like flames in his pupils. His breath was heavy with smoke, Emil could feel it against his face, and was strangely riveted. Absorbed into Meino's gravity, the strange rapture he commanded. "Cunt."

Like he had said nothing, Meino snapped away. His back half turned. Dragging heavy on his cigarette with a stress to his shoulders that Emil had not seen. It was contagious. The tone to Meino's voice had left his strung. Jolted through his muscles like voltage to turn him rigid. Twitching in the line. Impatient for something he could not see but taste. For the first time, the barbed wire and the guns felt like a prison. Felt like the cage they were supposed to be. Trapped. Fucking trapped.

He came to the end of the line, a bowl shoved into his hands. Staring at the soup boy as he ladled. The soup boy stared back. His face was pale and thin, his hair ginger and lank against his forehead.

Emil's mouth curled in a sneer. No taller than the soldier before him, but suddenly more powerful. Drawing his shoulders straight. "Fucking yank."

The young soldier said nothing, but the man beside him snarled like a dog. Barrelled into Emil's space and growled into his face. "The fuck did you just say!"

"Fucking." Emil bit the word. Didn't know its meaning but knew its effect. Knew the sound of it, knew how it felt on his tongue. "Cunt. Yank." And smashed his bowl into the soldiers face. "Fucking stupid pigs."

He was knocked to the floor, pain flaring through his face as he was hit squarely on cheek. The noise sudden, but brief. He could hear laughing. Cold, gleeful laughter, and knew it was Meino. Someone kept the Americans from pummelling him to death, and Meino helped him to his feet. Suddenly surrounded by Germans. Men who put themselves between him and their enemy.

"Emil!" Meino was grinning. "You are fucking dog." A grin split his face, and though his lip stung and bled, Emil was grinning too. A vicious victory that burned through his core and heated his insides. Satisfied with the violence. Satisfied with himself, with the rush of blood through his body. With the affirmation that this was where he belonged. No doubt, no guilt.

The bruise was worth it. The empty bowl was worth it. He shared the bread of his brothers and slept warm beside them.

But he did not sleep free. He dreamed.

And the dreams were dark.

VVV

Morgan came to him. Two fingers wrapped around the barbed wire coil as he scanned the prisoner's faces. Their gaze met, and the American guards waved Morgan through to the pen. With a muttered excuse, and an exaggerated limp, Emil stood and met the medic halfway. Aware, distinctly, of Meino's eyes at his back. In silence, he greeted Morgan with a stiff nod. They moved away from both German and American ears, for Emil to lean his back against the wall.

The motives behind Morgan's actions were clear. Emil knew this was not about medicine, or anything so honourable. It was about Sam. Morgan was here because Sam had asked him to come, and Emil met him halfway for the same reason. Some deep, sick masochism that refused him to forget his American. A need to have even third party contact. That smile unforgotten. "Sam has sent you?"

Morgan nodded once, his lips pursed. Emil let his back slide down the wall to sit against a wood stump, and Morgan crouched before him. Emil found himself unable to look away from Morgan's face. The unflinching, earnest brevity behind the rich darkness of his eyes. It was clear that Morgan had nothing of himself to hide. So enviably sure of his moral stance. So secure in the knowledge of himself. "Emil…I cannot know what is between you, but he needs to hear you are okay. And-"

"Then tell him it is so."

"And I, in good faith, need also to know. But you are not…"

A low, quiet laugh bit its way from Emil's chest. Icy and humourless. "Fucking stupid cunts." He spat in English, sickly pleased by the way Morgan seemed to recoil. Until something like pity softened his face. "For that I will forgive you, but you have answered my question."

Emil felt his face go blank. Stiff. Hollow and empty. Aware that his eyes would never look as Morgan's did. "Sam… Is Sam okay?"

"He is not injured, if that is what you mean… But Okay? I don't know."

Sam.

Emil had known from the moment he'd turned his back what he was doing, but to hear it still burned. A raw, seething guilt. Regret. He tried to recall the vicious strength he'd felt two days before, cussing at the American, but here… it was weak. It faded. Felt false without the other Germans at his side. Instead there sat the frail, shivering need of a person that could not be himself. A person that would belly crawl through the mud, and lay, prostrate, to kiss the toes of Sam's boots. He wanted to ask so many things, but bit them behind his teeth, and waited. Morgan continued.

"I think…he has pinned some hope to you. I cannot explain. I think he might believe that if you are well…all will be well."

He could look Morgan in the face no more. Dropping his head into his hands as thought it weighed a ton. The cold of the wall was burning through his back. He would begin to shiver soon. "So stupid. So stupid."

"Maybe…But it cannot be helped. Sam is a good friend. A good man." Morgan shifted his weight, his boots grinding on the stone beneath the snow. "I told you not to hurt him, but you have. It might have been inevitable. I should have known sooner. You should not have…"

"No. All along I should have been here. With prisoners." He should have died. He would not voice it, but that thought still lingered like poison in the back of his mind. Like a nightmare that did not truly leave with waking.

A silence fell. Long and stifled. In which Emil could not lift his head. The cold seemed like a permanent fixture to his body. To his bones and stiffened joints. Always fucking cold. He heard Morgan take a deep breath, and thought he might leave. Hoped, almost, so that this weakness in his chest could not be fed.

"Emil…why are you here?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean…Look at me. Look me in the eye." He touched Emil's shoulder, just a brush, but there was something in his voice that compelled Emil to oblige. Hit, once again, by the Morgan's sincerity. His open honesty. "Why are you here? Why do you fight?"

Another stupid question. But this time, Emil did not laugh. The answer felt cold. It felt like lead on his chest. "Because we must."

A short answer. A half answer. Little words that encompassed so much more. So much that sat, unspoken, like a bloated rat in the winters foodstore. But it seemed enough. Emil saw understanding in Morgan's face. He nodded his head, once, and gripped the back of Emil's hand. "He begge- He asked me to get you out…To see him. Would you… like to?"

Emil exhaled sharply. It felt like a slap to the chest, the weakness filling every crevice of his lungs. His resolve so fragile it trembled like a child. That option… he thought he had taken it away. He thought, at least, he might have the strength to refuse, but Sam… he wanted to see him. He needed to, so horrifically. Like he needed to see the sun. Just for a touch of its warmth, the comfort. But the word, the acceptance changed and burned itself in a brittle whisper across his tongue.

"No." Clipped, dead. Not his own voice but that of another man. A man stronger than himself. He pulled his hand from beneath Morgan's grip, and raised his shoulders. One hand, unconsciously, settled itself over the near healed wound in his gut. He had to force it to his side.

Morgan seemed surprise. Tensely pensive, lines carved between his eyes, as though he did not understand. He was not going to repeat himself. The decision was done, though it burned like ice through his veins. If he saw Sam, if he agreed to this…. "No."

Morgan nodded, slowly. He patted Emil's shoulder and left him with kind words that fell upon deaf ears. Emil could not look at him. Did not watch him leave. It felt impossible to hold his posture. Impossible to keep his face plastic, immobile. Not when he was alone. Not when shivers began to chase their way through his bones, and every breath of frozen air burned. Not when his gut ached and his bruises throbbed. Not with Sam burned into his retina. Clenching his teeth on the noise, the name, that threatened to break from his chest, he refused to let himself curl forward. Fingers curling into firsts, every breath dragged through clenched teeth.

Weak. Weak and cold.

…So cold. Fighting to keep his breathing slow. Fighting the hitch at the back of his throat.

He would not break. He would not break…. "Oh God. Oh god, oh god, oh god." His voice was no more than a shiver on the air. Bereft of steel or strength. Weak. A frail whisper. Shivering in mist before his face. "Domine I-iesu, dimitte nobis d-debita nostra…" Gasping a breath on his hollow prayer, to finally break beneath the weight that bore down on his shoulders. Bending. Cradling his heavy head in his hands. "Salva nos ab igne inferiori, perduc in caelum omnes animas, praesertim eas, quae misericordiae tuae maxime indigent… Have mercy."

Note: No excuse for the time this took me (except that it was being a bitch) but this chapter is a little longer than usual. Here's hoping you beautiful people will forgive me. If you guys care to leave me a review, I'd like to know what people think of Meino. And if Emil attempting (he fails, don't worry) to break ties with Sam seems like..well…him. I hope it does :/

Oh and how many people know which very significant ww2 battle is up and coming in this story? Just out of curiosity.

Anyway, here's hoping you enjoyed. Again, I'm gonna try get a chapter up within a month, this time, but with…count em… four assignments coming up in the next few weeks, don't hold your breath. I LOVE YOU GUYS. You are all awesome and amazing and I want to bear you children (Woo! Assbabies!)

Risu- To answer your question. Yes, he was topless. I thought I had updated that chapter. Obviously not.

I actually based the tag content off a pair of ww1 tags I have. Didn't bother to look the ww2 tags up until later. I'm not going to edit that part of the story yet, too much effort, but yes. If I ever re-write, that'll be something I'll change.