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Title: Everything The War Calls Out Of Us 1/2
Authors: [livejournal.com profile] foxtales & [livejournal.com profile] cocking_about
Artist: [livejournal.com profile] 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: Written for [livejournal.com profile] rpf_big_bang 2009. [livejournal.com profile] foxtales and I want to thank [livejournal.com profile] tarteaucitron so, so much for her excellent beta work and Britpick (even though Top Gear's hardly her favourite), and [livejournal.com profile] elmathelas and [livejournal.com profile] msilverstar for the additional and invaluable help in the beta department. Any errors left are solely the fault of the authors.

Link To Art: The perfect companion art.









20 November 1917 SW of Cambrai, the Somme, France.


James heard the distinct squelch of limbs being pulled free of the infernal mud. "Bugger," he muttered. Someone was coming in his direction and he had no way to know whether it was friend or foe without giving away his own position. He flattened himself against the side of the trench and shouldered his rifle, ready to defend himself should it become necessary. He just hoped that in the darkness, he'd see the other man before he was spotted himself.

Seconds later, a flailing body came sliding down the muddy slope and splashed into the filthy, fetid water in the bottom of the trench.

"Fucking 'ell!" came a distinctly English voice.

"Shut up, you idiot," James whispered fiercely, reaching down to help haul the man up to huddle beside him.

"May?"

James peered at the man next to him, astonished that a fellow officer from his own company had literally stumbled upon him, and that it was his mate Hammond, no less. "Christ, Hammond, wasn't your unit in the middle of Bourlon Wood? How far have you come?" They spoke in low, hushed voices.

"Jesus, May, I don't believe it's you." Hammond stared at him, then shook his head. "You couldn't navigate your way out of a potato sack, could you? You're headed in the wrong direction, man."

"Bugger," James said again, frowning. "I was certain I had the right of it."

"Mate, there could be a lighted sign saying 'Allies this way!' with an arrow pointing to our lines and you'd bypass it somehow," Hammond murmured, chuckling. "Nice digs you have here, by the way. Redecorated recently?"

James suppressed a snort. "Courtesy of Big Bertha," he breathed. The German howitzers had churned up the landscape until it was a morass of mud pock-marked with shell holes. He straightened his flat-brimmed steel helmet and his fingers automatically wiped the mud away from the bolt of his rifle.

"Ah. Lovely girl, Bertha." Hammond's grin gleamed in the dark. "Ample arse and a great pair of--"

"Yes, yes, all right," James whispered irritably.

Hammond's grin widened. "Would you prefer to hear about the long, thick barrel, leaping forward and shooting its load--"

"Cock," James muttered.

"Well, yes, obviously." Hammond snickered quietly.

James huffed a laugh, suddenly glad Hammond had, against all the odds, managed to find him amongst the sea of shell holes, fox holes, and craters littering the edge of the battered Bourlon Wood. "I can't believe they let you in the army."

"Let me?" Hammond whispered, scratching at the collar of his uniform before adjusting his pack with one hand and a twitch of his shoulder. "Begged me, they did."

James held up his hand, and both men went silent, hearing straining.


***


20 November 1917 10 Miles NW of Cambrai, France.

Jeremy craned his neck for a good look as he flew his RE8 over the German III Corps. They were getting entirely too close to Cambrai, where they would resupply their beleaguered troops. He checked his fuel level and swore loudly. There were other planes in the area, but none anywhere near this particular line. He didn't really have the fuel to do much--he'd already be landing on fumes as it was--but he couldn't just let them march unhindered into Cambrai, not when his own countrymen would be the ones who suffered. He turned his head to the side and bellowed to the cockpit behind him, "Tanner, we're going to have to--"

The first shots hit the upper back fuselage and Jeremy swore again as the plane shuddered. "Tanner!" When there was no answer, he took the chance and turned his upper body around to find his observer slumped forward against the Scarff ring.

"Oh, fucking hell!" he shouted in rage as the next volley of ammunition fire from the ground caught the undercarriage and the bottom of the rudder. Another line of fire caught his left wing, and when he was certain that he wouldn't be making it back, he made a split-second decision. "Think I'm not going to take a few of you bastards with me? You've shot down the wrong fucking Englishman."

He turned the plane and made a low run over the line again, heedless of the shots that peppered the plane as he got nearer. He got as close as he could and began his own strafing run, his .303-inch Vickers machine gun churning away into the mass of humanity and metal on the ground below him. Once he'd done what damage he could, he turned in the direction of the Allied forces and rode the disabled plane down.


***


"Fuck," Richard whispered, elbowing May in the ribs as the voices carried clearly across the crater-strewn battlefield again. German. "What do you want to do?"

"Well, we can hardly ask them directions," May replied quietly, as another spate of German echoed around them.

"Listen. They're not even trying to keep their voices down."

"That certainly doesn't bode well for us," May muttered. "More than likely, their counterattack has pushed back our advance from this morning."

"And now we're behind enemy lines." Dread sliced through Richard even as he said the words. Behind the lines with who knows how many miles between them and the nearest friendly forces. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "What do you want to do?" he repeated flatly.

"Stay ahead of the Germans until we find the line," May said, shrugging one shoulder. "How hard can it be?"


***


Jeremy came to groggily, automatically stifling a groan. He knew it was crucial to be quiet, although for the life of him, he couldn't quite remember why. After a moment, he opened his eyes.

The sight of the torn canvas, snapped wire, and splintered wood covering him brought his memory trickling slowly back. He'd strafed the German III Corps and then, his plane trailing smoke and flame, had crash-landed somewhere northwest of Graincourt. He hadn't expected to survive; it was rather a shock to discover that, barring a very sore head and a bullet wound to his leg, he seemed to be in one piece. "Fucking Fritz, can't even kill me properly," he muttered under his breath as he began disentangling himself from the wreckage. "Goddamn Boche bastards."

He shifted the remains of one wing out of the way and with a start came face-to-face with the blank-eyed corpse of his observer, Sergeant Tanner. Jeremy let out a shaky breath and reached out to close Tanner's eyes. "You're well out of it, lad," he murmured, then turned to the side and vomited.


***


"Don't say that," Hammond hissed, alarmed. "The last time you said 'how hard can it be?', I ended up at the bottom of a pile of bodies, and I was the only one that still had all four limbs."

"It wasn't my fault Colonel Anderson didn't know his arse from his artillery," James grumbled, although quietly.

"No, but it was your fault we went west instead of east," Hammond accused. "I don't know how you can find your own fucking cock with both hands, sometimes. Look, we're just south of Bourlon Wood, right?"

"What's left of it, yes."

"All right. I was looking at the maps the other day with Captain Kinney. If we go..." He closed his eyes, obviously trying to call up a mental image of the map of the area. "If we head west-south-west, we'll either come across the 51st, who can tell us where the rest of our fucking battalion got to, or we'll hit the Canal du Nord, and we can follow it back to our lines."

James nodded and absently scratched the seam down the side of his trousers. "Glad the guns haven't rattled your noggin yet. I'd say we have two hours before we'll need to hunker down again. Think you can get us around that working party we heard?"

"I am stealth personified," Hammond declared. He eased off his pack and prepared to climb up to the rim of the crater. "If I get my head shot off, the coast is not clear."

"However shall I decode that signal?" James muttered. "Idiot."

"James," he said sweetly. "I didn't know you cared."

"What I do care about is having your brain, however tiny it may be, splashed all over my person, Hammond, so be careful for God's sake."

Hammond shook his head, still grinning, before biting his lip and lifting himself up to poke his head over the rim. There were no gunshots or German voices coming in their direction, so James supposed the coast was indeed clear, a fact which Hammond verified as he slid back down.

"I didn't see anyone out there, though we can still hear them, so my guess is that they're in the trenches sticking their toothpicks into bodies to make sure they're dead. We're going to have to get out of here quickly. And May--you're not going to like this, but we're going to have to muddy ourselves up so our skin doesn't give us away."


***


Recovering slowly, Jeremy wiped his mouth, then pulled the scarf from around his neck and wrapped it around his left thigh to cover the bullet hole there. He knew he had other wounds, but that one was the worst and most immediate. His head hurt like the dickens, but he had no way to know where or how bad that injury was, or even if there were more than one. He rummaged in his jacket's inner breast pocket and realised his flask had somehow survived the crash as well; he took a long and grateful swallow of gin.

Thus fortified, he took a deep breath, pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and very nearly vomited again. He stayed still, dizzy from the pain, until his vision cleared again. Another deep breath and he pulled himself to his feet, stumbling badly as his left leg gave out. He caught himself on the twisted fuselage and leaned heavily for a moment, gathering his strength. There was no option but to move, so move he would.

Jeremy didn't like leaving Tanner exposed, but there was no help for it. He was in no shape to dig even the shallowest of graves, and likely there were already Germans out looking for the plane in case of survivors. He grabbed and pocketed one of Tanner's identification tags and his pistol, then stumbled into the darkness.


***


James smeared mud on his cheek with distaste. "I'm probably rubbing some poor bugger's putrid innards all over my face. This is the most foul, disgusting--"

"Yes, yes," Hammond cut him off. "Best not to think about it. Here, you missed a spot." He scooped up a gout of slimy mud and slathered it along James's jawline.

"Thanks ever so," James muttered darkly.

Hammond snorted. "Would you rather Fritz find you? Apparently in their POW camps you're fed dirty water, mouldy black bread, and Belgian babies."

"Utter bollocks."

"Undoubtedly, but I'd rather not find out personally, thank you very much." Hammond shouldered his pack again and picked up his rifle, making sure the firing action was clear of mud. "Ready, old man?" He held out his hand.

James took it, giving it a firm shake. "Ready, old chap. Tally ho, et cetera." He began crawling up to the lip of the crater.

Hammond laughed almost soundlessly as he struggled to follow James up the slimy slope. "'Tally ho', he says. What a fucking twat."


***


Jeremy crawled on, exhausted, doing his best to keep his wounded leg out of the mud; God only knew what horrific diseases he'd catch from the blood-soaked, corpse-strewn, rat-infested sludge. There were many reasons he'd chosen the Royal Flying Corps rather than the vast British Army, and not having to live mired to his knees in filth and mud every day was very near the top of the list.

He'd been on the move for almost twenty-four hours. A bit of sleep had been snatched in a shallow shell-hole when the daylight was at its brightest, but for the most part luck had been with him. He heard the Allied heavy artillery off to his left and German machine guns behind and to his right, but he seemed to be alone in this corner of the apocalyptic landscape. It had been incredibly slow going, but Jeremy was as confident as he could be that he was headed towards the Canal du Nord, and from his flight over the landscape before the crash, he knew that was where he needed to be. He'd already come about a mile, and by his reckoning, he had a just under a mile or so left to go. With any luck, he'd be at the Canal before dawn.

A star shell lit up the sky, and Jeremy froze. The bright white light picked every contour out in detail, and the smallest movement became obvious. He strained his hearing, listening for a patrol, but couldn't catch anything. After the shell light had faded, he flattened himself to the muddy earth and waited for his heart to stop pounding.




For the last few hours every movement Jeremy had made had been accompanied by muffled grunts and groans. His eyes felt gritty and burned and there wasn't anywhere on his entire body that didn't hurt in some way. He wasn't sure how much further he had to go to reach the canal, but the sky was lightening and he was going to have to rest, or he'd get caught out in the open with no energy to fight, should it come to that.

No man had ever been so glad to find a shelled-out trench in his life as he was when he almost toppled into the ruins of one. The metallic tang of blood and the sickly sweet scent of death hung in the humid air, and he was very nearly sick again. He managed to find a crater up-wind of the trench itself and huddled as best he could in what meagre shelter it offered him, trying very hard not to look at the body that was half in and half out of the crater. He was too weak to move it, at any rate.

He leaned against the muddy slope and closed his eyes, praying that he wouldn't be discovered by the enemy whilst he was sleeping.


***


"May, you're going to get us killed," Richard hissed. "It's almost fucking dawn, we should be in that goddamned trench!"

"I'm not spending the day up to my waist in rotting corpses," May insisted.

"In another twenty minutes we're going to be rotting corpses, you arse!"

"No wonder the brass hats back at Amiens sent you up to the front lines, if you go into such hysterics at the slightest difficulty," May smirked.

"Hysterics?" Richard squeaked, quietly for such a high sound. He wanted nothing more than to shout at him, and he couldn't even raise his voice. "You bloody bastard, we got sent up here because you went on a rant in front of General fucking Pritchard! Now can we please get into that damned trench before the Hun decide to go for a morning stroll?"

"No, but we can get into this shell hole," May whispered calmly. He slithered over the lip of the crater, rolling to the side to prevent Hammond landing boot-first on his head when he slid down. They came to rest side by side. "See? Only a couple of landowners in here, instead of twenty." He gestured to the body closest to them, stretched out on the side of the small shell hole. "He doesn't even pong yet."

"That's because he's not dead yet, you daft fucking squaddie," the body groaned, and rolled over.

"Christ on a toasting fork!" Richard scrambled up on his elbows.

May had immediately raised his rifle, but the accent and the smooth-fronted RFC uniform made him slowly lower it again. "Christ, what the hell are you doing here, man?"

"Fucking Boche bastards shot down my bus." The pilot tried to shift his position, but the movement clearly caused him pain, and he hissed through his teeth. "You two get lost, did you?"

"Part of the assault on Bourlon Wood," May said shortly.

The man nodded. "Lucky Tommies, then."

Richard began working his way around the slope of the crater towards the pilot. "Lucky, my arse," he said, digging his boots into the clay mud for purchase. He pulled out his first aid kit. "If we were lucky, would we be here?"

"Could be worse," May pointed out, settling back again. "At least we're not in a stiff's paddock."

Richard carefully untied the rudimentary bandage from around the wounded man's thigh. "Looks like you got yourself a Blighty one, then, eh?"

"I bloody hope so," he muttered. "I haven't seen home in six months. Fucking green pilots won't stay alive long enough for me to get some leave."

Richard dug around in his belt pouch and produced a small tin. "Have any alcohol on you?"

"Why?" The question was asked with suspicion.

"Because unless you want to risk losing this leg, that wound needs to be cleaned," he said reasonably.

The pilot swore and pulled out his flask with a look of disgust. "I'd at least like to know who I'm giving the last of my gin to," he said pointedly.

"Sorry, mate. Lieutenant Richard Hammond, and that's Lieutenant James May. We're with the Prince of Wales' Own, West Yorks. Wherever they may now be."

"Lieutenant Jeremy Clarkson," he muttered. "Number 12 Squadron. What's left of it."

"This'll hurt, but keep quiet, Clarkson," Richard warned. "I've come this far without meeting up with Fritz; I'd like to keep it that way." He gave Clarkson a minute to brace himself, and then poured the gin over the leg wound. The man stiffened and groaned, but made no further noise. Working quickly, Richard opened his tin of iodoform, sprinkling it generously over the injury and the surrounding tissue, and then opened one of the packets containing gauze and a length of bandage. He bound up Clarkson's leg tightly, then lightly and carefully dirtied the bright white cotton with a bit of mud.

"Any others, then?"

Clarkson held out his left arm and fingered the tear in his uniform just over his bicep. "One winged me. It's not bad."

Richard tore the fabric to see the wound better. "I dare say you don't even notice that one, not compared to the leg, eh?" Protected by Clarkson's uniform, the wound was fairly clean, so Richard merely sprinkled more iodoform on it and quickly bandaged it up. A swift, deft job with his sewing kit roughly repaired the uniform to keep the arm clean, but also to hide the bright white bandage.

"Somewhere on my head as well. It bloody hurts, but I've no idea whether it's only got bumped in the crash or if something else is there."

Richard nodded and moved to look at Clarkson's head. "May, do us a favour and hold the kit, will you?"

May came to kneel next to Richard, looking down at Clarkson's head. The first wound was obvious--a furrow dug through his scalp from behind his left ear up to the mid-back of his head.

"Fucking hell, mate, you copped a packet, you did," Richard exclaimed, his eyes widening as he examined the trail the bullet had taken. He looked up to meet May's disbelieving gaze.

"What?" Clarkson demanded, looking back and forth between the two of them.

"You've a furrow up the back of your head, Clarkson," May said, shaking his head. "In fact, I'd wager that if you weren't the luckiest bastard in this war, you'd not only have got yourself a plot in the rest camp, you'd have no head left on your shoulders. Christ, I can see your skull in places."

Clarkson immediately reached up, and Richard slapped his dirty hand away. "Don't you even think about it. You'll have to wait until we get back to our own before you get to see your beauty mark."

"You've also managed a lovely bump to the head. Quite the collector you are," May said, poking gently at the large lump on Clarkson's head.

"Ow, you fucking foot-slogger!" Clarkson hissed. "If you hadn't noticed, that's my head you're poking at."

"Keep it down, both of you," Richard whispered with some heat. Both Clarkson and May fell silent. Richard looked at his dwindling supply of iodoform with a feeling of foreboding and then back at Clarkson. "Look, Clarkson, I can't really do anything else for you. There's not enough iodoform to cover it all, and I think we need to keep what's left for the rest of the trek."

"Fine. More than likely, I've already been fatally infected with some form of rot, what does one more day matter?"

"Doing it up a bit dramatic, don't you think?" May queried, eyebrows raised.

"Says the man with no open wounds that have been dragged through this infernal mud," Clarkson muttered.

"Says the man who's only dealt with this 'infernal mud' for one day," May scoffed.

"Says--"

"For the love of God, please," Richard interjected, imploring. "I don't want to have the abandon the pair of you to your fate at the hands of the Hun, but I will; I swear I will."

Clarkson tried to muffle his laughter with his sleeve.

"You're mad," May said, until he looked over at Richard and laughter bubbled up in his throat.

"You're both mad," Richard said, shaking his head, knowing his resigned hangdog look was the cause of their amusement.

Clarkson attempted to copy Richard's expression, his eyes widening as the corners of his mouth drew downward, but when May cackled, he couldn't hold it and guffawed before clapping his hands over his mouth.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Richard hissed, only half joking. "Both of you shut your fucking gobs right now, or I'll shoot you myself." He re-packed what was left of his first aid kit, stowing it in the breast pocket of his tunic. "Clarkson, when was the last time you ate something?"

"What day is it?" he asked wryly, but he had lowered his voice.

"Right." Richard scratched at his stomach, then dug in his pack, pulling out two tins, one round and one square-ish. "I've got one meat and veg, and a tin of bully beef. May, what have you got left?"

"One tin of emergency rations, one hard biscuit, and some milk tablets."

"A fucking feast, to be sure," Clarkson muttered. "Not to sound ungrateful, but how are you chaps even still alive, having to eat that godawful shit?"

May shrugged. "It's better than a bullet in the head," he said philosophically.

"As unappetising as it may be to you, Clarkson, if you want to make it back to our lines, you're going to need something in your belly. Meat and veg, or bully beef?" Richard held them out, waiting.

Clarkson glared at them, but finally grumbled, "Meat and veg."

Richard put the bully beef back in his pack and pulled out his service knife. Undoing one button on his tunic, he wiped the knife on the relatively clean interior, then stabbed the side of the tin several times, creating a long slit big enough to bend open. He wiped his knife again, this time on his puttees, and put it back in its holster. Taking the spoon that May held out, he scooped up some of the stew-like rations and cheerfully ate it before passing the tin and spoon to Clarkson.

Clarkson sniffed the contents of the tin and recoiled. "Do they ever mention what kind of meat, by chance?" He ate two spoonfuls, though, before passing it on to May.

"Nix. And we don't ask." Richard grinned. He went to do up the button on his tunic again, then looked more closely at the material. "Damn. Guess I'd best spend some time chatting whilst you blokes are having a kip." He laughed quietly at the look on Clarkson's face. "Small game hunting. Seam squirrels, they're the plague of the trenches. Well, those and rats." He ran his thumb along the seam of his jacket, sending lice scurrying in all directions. Richard caught several between thumb and forefinger and pinched tightly to kill them. "Once we reach our lines I'll burn them out, but I'm not risking lighting matches here."

May and Richard had both eaten some of the rations, but left the lion's share for Clarkson. May also portioned out the hard biscuit, half to Clarkson and a quarter each for himself and Richard. When they'd all finished eating, May crumpled the tin up and put it back in his pack. "No sense in advertising the fact that there's a bunch of Tommies about. Clarkson, Hammond, get some sleep. I'll take first watch."

"Don't mind if I do," Richard grinned, and then yawned. "I'm fucking chin-strapped, I am. Night-night, chaps." He jammed the heels of his boots into the mud several times to make a bit of a shelf so he wouldn't slide down the slope, tipped his steel helmet over his face, and was asleep in moments.



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. He was exhausted, though, and a few minutes later, was dead to the world.



When Richard and May were both awake next--the changing of the guard so that May could grab a precious few hours of sleep--they decided not to wake Clarkson up during the day unless they absolutely had to do so. He needed the rest more than anything else right now.

"His leg is badly off," Richard said, grimacing as he shook his head.

"It's a miracle he made it this far; I doubt he'll be going much further than this, though. Shame that. I truly enjoyed his ability to mock you, Hammond."

"And I very much enjoyed the way he verbally sparred with you, May."

"You call that pitiful display sparring? That was me coddling him because he's injured," May scoffed.

"Ah yes," Richard replied, grinning. "How sporting of you, James, to let the sick man 'win'."

May flipped Richard two fingers whilst Richard laughed softly. "I'm for getting some sleep," he said, not even bothering to move, simply leaning his head back and tipping down his helmet.



Four hours later, James woke. Exhausted as he was, it took him a few moments to come to full awareness. Eventually he sat up and nodded at Hammond, who lay back, closed his eyes, and was asleep again within minutes. If there was one thing a bloke learnt in the British Army, it was to sleep wherever and whenever one could.

James looked over at Clarkson again, thinking how amazing it was that he had come so far. The Germans should have had him long before he'd reached this trench--either at the site of the crash or at some point as Clarkson had been dragging his tall body through the mud and God only knew whatever else. The man had to have left a trail as he'd gone, but apparently Fritz had ignored it. He and Hammond had been lucky as well, able to keep their heads down and out of sight of the enemy as they passed by them--sometimes within a few yards.

Luck may have been with Clarkson in getting away, but not with his injuries. The sides of the entrance wound had been an angry red; Hammond had cleaned it as best he could, considering their circumstances, but that wasn't saying much. And that wasn't the only one. Hammond had held back on using the last of the powder and that didn't bode well at all. If it were up to Clarkson's will to survive, he would most assuredly pull through. Unfortunately, his body was beginning to show signs of betraying him on that count.

James shook his head and wondered how much longer any of their luck would hold.



Jeremy woke with a start, just managing to suppress his instinctive reaction to shout. He discovered Hammond leaning over him, shaking his arm, and a murky twilight seemed to have fallen.

"Come on, time to rise and shine, you lumbering bus jockey," Hammond said.

All at once every ache in Jeremy's body clamoured to be heard, his head was pounding, and his leg felt like it was on fire. He let out a quiet groan.

"Still amongst the living, then," May said, rather over-optimistically, Jeremy thought. "Take a few minutes to pull yourself together, we'll have a bite to eat, and then we'll be off. Hammond thinks we'll make the canal tonight, and if we have any luck at all, we might even find some friendly faces before dawn."

"As long as the bloody Boche haven't pushed on to Paris," Hammond snorted, looking down at him. "How are you feeling, man?"

Jeremy struggled to sit up. "Like I've been shot and crashed my Harry Tate and crawled eighty bloody miles through waist-deep mud--"

Hammond suddenly held up a hand to indicate silence, and listened intently. Jeremy couldn't hear a thing, but Hammond hissed, "It's a Fokker. Jerry up!"

May threw himself face first into the mud and assumed an inelegant sprawl, his arms tucked underneath him. Jeremy didn't have time to protest being manhandled as Hammond shoved him over onto his stomach and put his own helmet over the back of Jeremy's head, before flattening himself into a similarly awkward position as May and putting his pack on his head.

"Give a chap some warning before you push him face first into the muck," Jeremy complained, albeit in a whisper, from under the steel brim of the helmet.

"Just keep still and do your best to look deceased," May advised in a soft voice. "They only do target practice if they're bored, so if we're lucky, some of your mates are up there to keep them occupied."

"Target practice?" Jeremy repeated, sickly sure he already knew what that meant.

"Shooting the bodies on the ground to make sure they're dead," Hammond said grimly. "Hopefully the light's too far gone for them to see much down here."

Jeremy lay perfectly motionless, his heart thudding uncomfortably in his chest. He'd never done it before--this so-called 'target practice'--but he'd heard other blokes talking in the aerodrome's mess hall and knew it was occasionally done by his own side as well. He vowed that no one in his squadron would ever joke about 'target practice' again.

The sound grew closer, and it was soon obvious that their run of good luck had ended; the clackata-clackata of the MG08 machine guns could be heard as the planes began to strafe the ground around them. Jeremy didn't think he'd ever forget his fear as high-calibre bullets tore into the mud around them, nor the sight of the body near them twitching and jerking as it was hit multiple times. He felt sick, but managed to keep it together.

He closed his eyes and prayed to survive this nightmare he'd found himself in. He easily included Hammond and May in his desperate plea to the Almighty, wanting all of them to get out of this horrific situation as safely and quickly as possible. He kept his eyes closed, even though the sight of that spasming corpse replayed itself in his mind. He thought he'd see this day in his dreams for the rest of his life--however long that turned out to be.

He felt the sudden pull of cloth as a bullet tore through his trouser leg, and Hammond's helmet deflected another with a metallic clang. As suddenly as it had started, though, the shooting stopped as the planes flew out of range.

Jeremy let out a muted sound that was suspiciously close to a whimper. He could only hope he had muffled it enough against his arm that neither Hammond nor May had heard it.



Richard breathed a sigh of relief as the planes continued on rather than returning for another strafing run. Had the pilots decided to circle back around, there would have been no hope for them. He pushed himself up slightly, the thick mud oozing off his filthy uniform.

"All right?" he asked the other two men softly.

"I've been better," May replied, sitting up and fingering holes in his uniform over the shoulder and arm. "I've been pipped, but better a scratch than a hole."

"That was entirely too fucking close," Clarkson said quietly as he handed Hammond's helmet back. He ran his hand over the new hole in his trouser leg, just above where they tightened in at the knee.

"If we're lucky, that'll be the only air patrol in the area," Richard said evenly, "but the closer we get to the lines, the more frequent the patrols--both land and air."

May nodded and then crawled over to Clarkson. "Heard the tin hat catch one," he said as he examined Clarkson's head. "Blast it, there's dirt in the furrow," he added, sighing.

"That's my plot being dug in the stiff's paddock, then, isn't it?" Clarkson said, matter of fact.

"Oh, don't be so melodramatic," May said dryly.

"Don't be melodramatic, says the man without God only knows what sorts of infections running through him," Clarkson muttered under his breath.

"Oi, knock it off," Richard ordered when May opened his mouth to retort in kind. "We have enough to deal with without the two of you bickering like an old married couple."

May spluttered indignantly whilst Clarkson snorted, "I have a wife already, thanks ever so much."

"If you want to see her again, I would suggest you get smart and shut the fuck up."

Clarkson immediately sobered, clearly thinking about not seeing his wife again. "I have a letter for her, should I not make it back from this alive. Please, if it comes down to it, would one of you send it for me?"

"We'll just have to make certain it doesn't come down to that," May said quietly whilst he awkwardly patted Clarkson's shoulder.

Clarkson nodded, looking down and blowing out a heavy breath. "All right then, chaps--onward it is."

Richard nodded and saw May do so as well. They all got on their hands and knees and began to crawl in the direction of the canal, trying as best they could to keep from looking at any of the freshly mutilated corpses.



"It's this way," Richard hissed, pointing ten degrees to the left.

"It's not, you bloody trench rat, it's this way," Clarkson argued sotto voce, gesturing twenty degrees to the right.

"No offence, old chap," May put in mildly to Jeremy, "But you've taken a bullet to the head. Besides, Hammond's sense of direction in this wasteland is uncanny. Trust him."

"'Trust him', he says," Clarkson grumbled, falling in behind Richard again as they continued to crawl forwards through what had been the British rear lines until a few days ago.

They were approaching the German reserve lines, though, and Richard was leading them away from the obvious troop placements as best he could, whilst not going too far out of their way. If they didn't reach the canal before dawn, their chances of survival--or at least of evading capture--were next to nil. Luckily the Germans were busy digging in and moving up their guns under cover of darkness, leaving few snipers on the lookout. The patrols were mostly concerned with watching for Allied counterattacks and raiding parties, and the three Englishmen were able to snake their way through the gaps between the companies.

Their progress was slow--it felt like the Germans were everywhere--but they reached the canal at a little past three in the morning. They picked their way down the embankment to the water, searching as best they could in the darkness for trip wires or other kinds of traps.

Fifteen long minutes later, they were crouched in the churned-up mud at the side of the canal grinning at each other like fools, shaking hands and congratulating each other.

May looked down at the water. "I've been looking forward to a bath for a week."

"I know, May," Richard said softly, "We've done well just getting here, but we're not in the clear yet, so a swim isn't an option at this point."

"Well, where would you suggest crossing, then, Hammond?" Clarkson asked.

"If I recall correctly, there should be a bend about a mile from here. We should do it there."

"A mile?" May demanded quietly. "How many more Germans do you think we can evade, Hammond? No, we should go here and do it whilst Clarkson still has the strength."

"They'll be able to hear us if we cross here," Richard argued. "At any point and time, the fucking Hun could come and there we'd be, sitting ducks in the middle of the water. Is that how you want this to end?"

"No, but I also don't want this to end with fucking Fritz putting a bullet in my head and marching you off to one of their prison camps," Clarkson replied. "And May is right--I don't have much left in the tank. I don't know that I can make another mile and then cross the water. If you're dead set on it, perhaps it's for the best if we part ways here."

"I'm crossing here," May put in stubbornly.

Richard's eyes narrowed as he frowned. "You can't just cross, James, it could be deep here; if that's the case, Clarkson still may not make it across."

"Or it could still be deep a mile down at your theoretical bend and then he won't make it across for certain."

They heard a soft splash and turned to see Clarkson wading into the water.

"God-damned bus jockey," Richard muttered whilst May laughed under his breath.

"Looks like Clarkson has made up our minds for us," May said, still grinning as he turned for the water. "Do join us, Hammond."

Undecided, Richard stood and debated with himself for a few moments over crossing now or pressing on by himself. At the least, he knew he had to wait another few minutes before he crossed to ensure the other two had made it to the other side--assuming he could spot them in a brief wash of moonlight as the clouds rolled past. They certainly wouldn't be able to send him a signal that they'd made it.

His eyes slid shut as he heard the approach of German soldiers. He clenched his hands into tight fists, knowing it was up to him to distract the soldiers, however many there were. He quietly blew out a tense breath and as slowly as he could manage, poked his head up to check out the situation. He was relieved to discover there were only two; that was within his capabilities.

He crept towards the two soldiers who were sharing a smoke and talking quietly together. Richard couldn't believe his luck when one headed back towards the encampment. He waited, silent and unmoving, until the smoking soldier wandered closer and turned towards the water. Richard could tell the moment the soldier's attention sharpened; he stood up straighter and reached for the weapon that had been hanging loosely across his back and shoulder. Richard reckoned one of his mates had been spotted, so he quickly and quietly moved behind the soldier, pulled out his pistol and brought it down--hard--right behind the German's ear. The soldier crumpled immediately into an ungainly pile, and Richard left him, running in a low crouch towards the canal. As he entered the frigid water, he took a deep breath and went under, swimming hard.

When he had to breathe again, he let his pack carry his lower body down, and only his face emerged into the air. Breathing deeply, he let the slow current push him along while he gulped in the oxygen his muscles craved, before submerging once more and swimming far enough beneath the surface that his pack stayed underwater. He hadn't yet heard any rifle fire, and prayed it meant that none of the three of them had been spotted. One more ascent for air, a few more yards swum, and he'd reached the far side of the canal. Floating in on his belly like a corpse, he kept his head turned to the side so he could breathe and to try and spot May or Clarkson in the darkness. When nothing moved, he slowly turned his head to the other side, and again looked down the pock-marked bank. After a few moments, he caught faint movement from the water up onto the mud about fifteen yards down. Gritting his teeth, hoping that after everything he wasn't about to deliver himself straight into the Germans' arms, Richard crawled on his stomach down towards where he'd seen the movement. When his greeting of two soft clicks and a faint whistle was returned, he hurriedly wormed over to where May was sprawled, once more impersonating a corpse. A brief lift of his head revealed Clarkson on May's other side.

"Glad you could make it," May breathed. "Nice night for a swim, eh?"

"Lovely," Richard agreed, reaching over to clasp May's shoulder in utter relief. "Crawl to the top, and let's see what we can see. Fritz was patrolling their side, so with any luck we're on friendly soil, but keep your head down and move slowly, or they'll be able to pick us off one by one. We're not home free yet, chaps. Clarkson, have you had enough chance to rest, or do you need a bit longer?"

"What I need is a cup of tea and a shot of morphine, not necessarily in that order," Clarkson said, keeping his voice as low as the other two had. "Let's go and find them."

"Right. Spread out," May said, and he moved straight ahead, working his way slowly up the embankment.



Jeremy closed his eyes, trying to gird himself for what was sure to be a painful climb up the rise. He wasn't about to admit to his fear that he wouldn't be able to move even once more, let alone all the way up and over, then however far they needed to travel on the other side. His left leg hung uselessly behind him, unable to catch a foothold in the climb, and he'd never hurt so much nor been so exhausted in his entire life. Still, he'd never given up before and he wasn't about to start now. Not when so much was on the line.

He bit at his lip as he pushed himself forward, trying to keep any sounds to a minimum, but he couldn't stop them entirely. Every time he reached up and pulled, his arm and shoulder burned, and with his left leg simply hanging, his right leg was taxed double when he pushed up. He tried to bend it and, stomach roiling, he released it again, blinking away the dizziness of the pain.

He chanced a look up and, in the patch of moonlight that showed through the clouds, he could see May reach the top of the embankment and slip over. Jeremy was certain that Hammond was not far behind May, and he leaned his forehead against the damp soil and released a sobbing breath, staying still until the clouds once again covered the moon.



Slithering over the rough edge of the embankment, Richard looked down the rise and then pushed himself backwards to settle in beside May.

"I think Clarkson's had it," he said, sighing. "He's still pretty far down by the water. He must be having trouble climbing with that leg of his; he's had to push it too far. We don't have much time; whilst you two were taking the waters, I had to take care of a sentry. I'm afraid it won't be too much longer before he's found and this whole sector is lit up."

"Hammond, we can't just leave him down there."

"If we're going to go down there again, James, we're going to have to go now and we'll not be able to hide ourselves. One of us will have to take his arms, the other will be underneath him to support the bad leg and boost the good one. They will see us and they will shoot at us, and it might be that none of us get out of this alive."

May heaved a heavy sigh. "We have to try."

Richard nodded and swung himself back over the edge. "I'll get his legs then. Quick as you can, May," he said as he started shambling down the embankment. It only took him seconds to reach the clearly exhausted Clarkson. "Need a hand, mate?"

Clarkson's head jerked up. "What are you doing here? You'll get us all killed!"

"Got to get you up top, old man," Richard replied as he got beneath Clarkson. He arranged his right shoulder under Clarkson's good leg and pushed up as May grabbed Clarkson's outstretched arms.

Suddenly, there were shouts across the canal as the sentry Richard had immobilised was found.

"Oh, cock," May bit out as he pulled harder. They had no more time to get themselves over the lip of the rise than what it took for the Germans to find and send up a star shell before they were seen and killed.

Working as quickly as they could, they got Clarkson over the top of the embankment.

"It isn't over yet," Richard said urgently. "We've got to get to those shrubs and I mean now."

They crawled towards the tattered, low-lying bushes as quickly as they could, May and Richard pulling Clarkson by his arms the last few feet. His left leg was still hanging out when they heard the launch of the star shell.

"Sorry, mate," Richard whispered, as he pulled Clarkson's leg into the cover of the bushes.

Clarkson bit through his lower lip as he was racked with pain. A moment later he rolled onto his side and began to heave, spewing out bile.

The star shell exploded, the magnesium flare lighting up the sky as Richard and May did their best to brace Clarkson and hold him still. They did have the cover of the shrubbery, but Richard didn't know if it was enough. Before the light had drifted to earth on its parachute, another flare was fired, this time a bit further back and from behind them.

"Yes," Richard hissed, clenching his fist. "Bless whichever unit is fucking with Fritz right now! They'll think it's a raiding party and stay concentrated on their side of the canal."

May sighed softly, releasing Clarkson's now limp form and carefully raising himself to have a look. There were Germans teeming around the bank, guns at the ready as they searched the area, crouched down so as to not attract the attentions of the non-existent raiding party. Luckily for the three Allies, their own footprints had long been obliterated.

"They've bought it," May said, shaking his head as he lowered himself back to the ground.

"Excellent," Richard replied, his hand gently patting Clarkson on his uninjured shoulder. "Don't you worry, Clarkson. With Fritz occupied trying to flush out a fake raiding party, we'll get you to a Dressing Station in no time."

"Don't think I can go further than this." Even Clarkson's voice was weak.

"Nonsense," May said, dismissing his fears. "We'll not be leaving you behind, haven't you got that through your scuffed-up skull yet?"

"We're too close to getting to our division, damn it. We'll fucking carry you if we have to," Richard put in, clenching his hand into a fist, feeling an odd anger rising in his chest.

"It may well come to that," Clarkson muttered, sounding appalled and humiliated by his infirmity.

"We can do it," May said firmly. "Trust us, all right?"

Clarkson looked between the two of them. "You're mad. That's like a--a hamster and a guinea pig dragging a gorilla around, for fuck's sake, how in the world--"

"Hamster?" Richard squeaked, incensed. "You utter cock!"



James snickered quietly at the outrage on Hammond's face. The Germans having been taken in by the star shell ruse, he decided he and Hammond could work their way back to the ruined trench about twenty yards behind them and see what they could scrounge up to fashion some sort of temporary stretcher. Clarkson was too far gone to walk out, even with one of them under each shoulder, so a stretcher it would have to be; his height precluded any other way. "Hammond and I will cobble together a litter and carry you out," he explained, injecting confidence into his voice. "Stay here. We'll be back in a jiff."

"Not like I can go anywhere," Clarkson grumbled, but relief was writ plain on his face.

Hammond, despite the 'hamster' comment, nonetheless gave Clarkson's shoulder another firm squeeze. "Lucky for us. Who knows what trouble you'd get us into otherwise?" He shrugged his pack off his shoulders and put it under Clarkson's head, then gestured to James to precede him.

James nodded and crawled back from the tattered shrubs towards the remains of the shell-bombed trench, knowing Hammond was following closely in his tracks. He slid down into the mud, shattered duckboards and dugouts, debris, and bodies. In another day or two when things had settled down and the stalemate with the enemy resumed, both sides would collect their dead and bury them in mass graves, but for now the stench was overwhelming.



Richard slid down to land lightly on his feet beside May. "Bloody hell," he muttered, looking up and down the ditch. "Right, what are you thinking? Duckboards for rails, but what for the sling?"

"We might get lucky and find a blanket or tarpaulin from the dugouts, but if not, we'll have to collect a greatcoat. Maybe two--Clarkson's a big oaf."

Richard made a face. "The things we do for our mates."

May glanced at him, but gave him a half-smile. "Indeed. Why don't you start the frame; I'll see if I can find something not currently being worn by these poor sods."

Richard collected a number of the longer pieces of wooden rails strewn about. Duckboards were nothing more elaborate than planks of wood nailed to these support timbers to create raised walkways through the mud and slime that lined the bottom of the trenches in wet weather--which had seemed to be all year in this part of the Somme. In many places they were downright essential; men had been known to fall into the mud and not be able to free themselves from its sucking grasp, drowning in the mire where they fell.

Richard chose the two rails that looked the sturdiest and were nearest in length, and set them to the side. Only a few minutes later, May returned with a somewhat tattered piece of oilcloth and a muddy, bloody British greatcoat.

"Don't ask," he said, settling on the other side of the wood from Hammond. "Let's just get this contraption rigged and get the hell out of here."

They worked together, and within a few more minutes, they had what they hoped would be a serviceable litter.



Part Two
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