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11 December 2009 @ 12:51 am
devil's arcade - part II  
They receive the order on the morning on the 23rd. Desmond hasn’t finished his book. He hopes he will have some time to do it after this is over, and that’s pretty much all that he allows himself to do as he realizes that it’s time.

He takes a look at the others’ faces.

Charlie is pale but when Desmond raises an eyebrow in his direction he sort of smiles and says that it was bloody time. Sawyer lights another cigarette after a single, heartfelt fuck. Gault is around speaking to anyone who has questions but hey, he’s a corporal, he’s adjusted to this stuff. Faraday adjusts a band with a red cross on his arm. Sayid sits on the ground and looks perfectly calm and collected.

Desmond envies him.

--

It’s not quite the time for the fireworks to start when Desmond first hears heavy fire in the not-too-far distance, but it’s not the point; that’s just the Australians shooting in order to make some diversion. It’s not time yet. They’ll know when it comes. It’s 9.20. He can almost feel a clock ticking inside his head, every single bloody second; the night is clear, the moon is full and up in the sky, the visual is perfect.

Well, he’ll have hand it to whoever decided it was going to be today; the weather couldn’t have been better. He shakes his head and takes a breath. His pack is suddenly too heavy and his hands are sweating, but really, it isn’t the time or the place. Charlie stands next to him along with twenty other people (they’re supposed to go straight for the mines and clear the way for the tanks); the only other person he knows is Sayid, who is presumably carrying the communications equipment. He’s still collected. Desmond still envies him.

“How can you be so bloody calm?” he hisses, the heavy fire still going on but not loud enough to prevent hearing.

“It’s what I always do. Losing your head will not help, unless you want to die at all costs. Also, maybe it might help you to think that we have the upper hand.”

“Do we?”

“We outnumber them, and that is not something you should underestimate. Rommel is not even here from what I gather, which I guess is why they chose to attack now. Also, you cannot see it from here, but down on the left there’s a depression. It is pretty deep and you cannot use heavy machinery in there. If they get there, they will just be trapped. I believe there are good chances of pulling through.”

“Guess you’d know better than I would. Well, if you’re right I’ll offer you a bloody beer after. If you drink at all,” Desmond adds, remembering that maybe he doesn’t.

“A coffee would do,” Sayid answers before moving a bit forward. Desmond looks at Charlie, who’s in the infantry group, supposed to cover him and the others who have the dubiously honour of clearing the mines. He nods at him, wipes the sweat from his hands on his uniform and waits.

At 9.40, the real fire starts.

For a second, the earth trembles under Desmond’s feet. Then he raises his eyes up to the sky and there’s a moment in which he thinks that fire must have erupted from it because it’s all so loud and bright as the first bombs fell on the other side of the line, and the shooting is not stopping and he hadn’t expected this, but then he falls back on earth and takes a deep, deep breath. He’ll wait for an order and then they’ll start.

Twenty minutes later, they do.

--

The sky keeps on dripping fire and sand gets in his mouth as he proceeds; the mines, runs through his head, and thank God they’re being covered. He nods at the private next to him, ignores the way the earth shakes and the air suddenly burns as he breathes it. He thinks he can see Charlie in the distance, far ahead, but it’s probably an hallucination.

--

It’s dawn, on the morning of October 24th and this isn’t bloody going as it was fucking planned. Desmond and other fifteen privates whose name he didn’t manage to catch, along with everyone else trained to do so, have been clearing bloody mines for hours (and if he ever meets the bloke who invented the darned torpedo they’re forced to use., he’s so going to do something nasty to him) and they should have cleared a lot more of the path. And they haven’t, because mines are too fucking deep and this is going to slow them down, a lot. It’s not like Desmond can do anything about it, really, it’s already enough that only one of them is dead for now (and he’s thankful that he was very, very far from Desmond when a bullet shot right through his neck). He finds Sayid working with another group and shouts at him to warn whoever gives the orders that things might slow here; then he gets back on the clearing. Sodding mines.

Clearly the Germans weren’t going to just stand and watch.

When a couple of bullets pass mere inches over Desmond’s head, he ducks and his hand reaches for the rifle. There are fucking tanks in the distance shooting at them; well, damn, they’re not going to get much work done for today.

He starts shooting as everyone else does. The sun is barely up in the sky and he already feels fire burning at him from the inside.

--

He’s bloody glad that he’s out of the tanks’ way, he thinks hours later, when the sun has already started to set (and he’s hungry, he has barely drank any water today and at least he feels awake, maybe because he knows that if he closes his eyes he might not open them again) as he keeps on clearing. They don’t make much progress. Somewhere near them, their tanks are shooting savagely at the Germans’, and the reverse. He’s thankful he can barely distinguish what’s going on: the noise is enough to make him want to throw up.

Suddenly a bullet hits the neck of someone from the next group; he falls down, dead on the spot, blood dripping everywhere, and the sand soaking it like some bloody sponge. Desmond turns before he gets sick, moves forward a bit and brings his part of the torpedo along.

Planes fly above them and Desmond feels very, very lucky, since no one dropped a bomb on his head still; he sees bombs being dropped on the other side, though.

--

By the 25th, Desmond thinks they have cleared no more than six miles, which is fucking not enough. He got two hours of sleep during the night when it was obvious that they weren’t going to come forward and the Germans weren’t going to advance either; right now, they’re at this goddarned depression (is this desert full of depressions or what?), still shooting because Germans are defending themselves pretty much fucking fine here. Faraday is fixing the arm of a kid a few feet behind them, Charlie is visible some feet ahead of Desmond and suddenly Sayid is crouched next to him, quick and pretty much silent as he aims with a smoothness that Desmond is definitely envying him

“Any news?”

“Rumors,” Sayid shouts over the sound of the bullets as he recharges before starting to shoot again. “From some prisoner they captured a couple of hours ago.”

“What ‘bout?”

“Seems like their commander is dead.”

Rommel’s substitute, huh? Desmond nods and gets back to the action again.

“Does that mean that Rommel’s coming back?” Desmond shouts, realizing that if it happens then they might face some trouble here.

Sayid just nods and Desmond decides it’s not time for talking. He catches Sawyer standing somewhere behind them. He still looks in one piece.

Good for him.

--

October 26th almost drives him crazy.

Because while German tanks suddenly fall in number, every time they try to advance more, at least enough to have some coverage so they can keep on clearing the path, they’re attacked with heavy fire and that’s it, they’re fucking stalled there and the sun beats down on him so hard that Desmond thinks he might want to faint right there and then. Except that he can’t allow himself that, so he barely drinks some of his water, eats a bit of the food he has with him when he has thirty free seconds, saves Charlie from at least five good German shots aimed mostly at his head and thinks that his nerves are going to snap.

It’s not that it was Charlie who should have been covering him; it’s that five times is five times too many and he already needs to worry about not getting shot himself. And he sincerely doesn’t want to witness the death of anyone he knows.

Doesn’t really change things. He shouts at Charlie to duck as the sixth shot brushes past his temple.

His nerves are definitely going to snap.

--

October 27th is even worse than October 26th. It’s way, way bloody worse than the 26th.

It’s the first time in three days that Desmond manages to take an actual look at everything, and it happens when at least ten flies won’t leave him alone; it’s then that he realizes that whenever he looks, he sees flies. They’re everywhere, fucking everywhere, and of course they would; dead bodies are always in sight, not to mention that it’s not only dead meat they’re attracted to. There isn’t anyone whose face isn’t covered in dust caked in blood (theirs or someone else’s) and while if their communications officers have the right information the main action isn’t where they are, it doesn’t mean that the fire stops for one single second. At least six people who were in Desmond’s proximity die or get wounded, and at one point he ends up giving Faraday the morphine he had on him because the doctor doesn’t have it anymore. Meanwhile, the sand is quivering with heat and there’s nothing that Desmond wants more than getting out of his pit; he’s sweating so much that he doesn’t even know where it came from since he’s not drinking much. The stench is insufferable by this point, but he tries to aim the right way and not to think about it.

When Sawyer had said that this stunk, well, he didn’t know how right he was, Desmond thinks at two in the afternoon as he crouches in blood-covered sand.

He doesn’t complain about it. Blood is the least of the evils. He doesn’t spare a look for all the destroyed tanks in the distance, mines or not mines.

There’s smoke everywhere.

--

The next time they receive orders is not much later; seemingly, there’s a plan to break through on November 1st and Desmond is just glad he knows. Maybe they’ll even get a change of scenery and he can drink some clean water, and if he won’t ever wash the stench off himself, then fine. He’ll live with it, as long as he lives. Meanwhile he sleeps in his pit when he can, then moves to a trench someone managed to build a bit farther, gives Faraday his scissors and the bandages he had on him, too, and as soon as the fire dies for a couple of minutes they proceed with the clearing. If the breakthrough is to be on the 1st then they need to get back to doing this, no matter that now there are Italians shooting at them too. Or so Desmond has figured and people say, he really can’t distinguish anything by this point.

He wishes it would rain for just five minutes, but the sun still burns bright up there in the sky and the more time it passes the more his pack feels heavy.

He doesn’t even care anymore about how much his uniform reeks .

Also, on October 28th he manages to get Charlie out of the way of another couple of bullets. That’s so not something he can do forever, though.

--

On October 29th the Australians standing just north of their division fail whatever operation they were intended to accomplish.

Desmond is still clearing mines.

Someone says that almost all of the Italian gunners are dead, but there’s no confirmation. Desmond wishes he had time to have an opinion about it, but he doesn’t and at least most of the dead bodies behind them were recovered. Not that the flies have gone with them; they’re all still here.

Every time he looks at the sand beneath him, he sees it being bright red. It’s probably a trick of the light, or it’s him going crazy. Either option is better than what it would imply if it one of them wasn’t but the truth.

--

He gets a respite on October 30th when finally new people arrive. Right, he has had some breaks especially in between the 24th and the 25th and the 28th and the 29th, but they’re short on people and there have been times where he was at the frontline for an entire day. He can do with a serious break. He doesn’t get back to the camp, it’s too far anyway, but someone is there at his place with a clean uniform and Desmond can just crawl into a trench which is out of the fire line, where wounded are kept to get some immediate treatment; at least he can get some sleep and eat something that he won’t risk throwing up. He’s given a re-stock of morphine and bandages, but as soon as Faraday is around he hands them directly at him. He wouldn’t know what to make with them anyway. The smell of blood doesn’t even sicken him anymore; the worst is the moans and the screaming and the whimpering, but if he closes his eyes he manages to shut everything out for a bit of time. The time he needs to catch some sleep at least, anyway.

Sawyer is around too, a bullet wound in his shoulder but very much alive and very much smoking; Desmond asks how long he had been there.

“Two days. The son of a bitch passed right through it, but I might be back in line tomorrow. Wasn’t that bad. Christ, this stinks so much.”

“Can’t really argue with that, brother. So, got any news we don’t have?”

“Me? The fuck, not really. I mean, ‘s true ‘bout the Italians. There were some five of them here yesterday, all wounded. Just twenty surviving out of the whole group, shit. Wouldn’t wanna be them, really. They say that on their side they’re outta fuel, or close to it. And our friend the Desert Fox’s back and that’s all I fuckin’ know.”

Desmond nods and is tempted to light up a cigarette himself, but after all the smoke he has inhaled in the last three days? That’s a bit of a killer.

--

He gets back on the line during the night of the 31st. Seemingly they’re not shooting so much at them anymore and they can proceed with the clearing. Bloody deep mines, Desmond thinks, but if they actually have some respite they might do it.

Even though he doesn’t fucking want to eat any more dust after this is over, when it’s over, if he’s still alive. It tastes like a lot of things he’d rather not ever taste, and blood isn’t the worst.

--

They work during all of that day. And the following one. Germans fire at them all the time, but less than before and they have good cover; someone brings orders and it seems like the New Zealand division which Desmond thinks is a mile or two below them should break first. Fine. Their path is almost all cleared by now. He catches maybe two hours of sleep in another pit under that bloody burning sun and then he gets back to the others and the torpedo. At least they’re going forward.

--

It starts again at 1 AM, November 2nd. Planes from their side suddenly flash across the sky and for the next seven hours Desmond frantically clears mines along with people from his brigade, some of the New Zealanders, another brigade from his same division, some Australians and definitely more people in general than they ever had. They also have tanks backing them up now, which is an advantage, thank you so very bloody much.

He keeps on clearing and the planes keep on dropping bombs on the other side; the sky blazes again and again and again but at least the sand doesn’t burn, it’s the dead of night after all, and they’re finally covered and Desmond can’t believe he’s able to do this shit with some relative ease. Well, it’s not easy, but at least he doesn’t have to defend himself meanwhile. They work quick, they are fast and while bullets still fly past their heads Desmond is lucky and isn’t one of the relatively few people that don’t make it. The New Zealanders arrive first and Desmond can see tanks going towards the path they cleared; good. They are breaking through, or so it seems. He brings his attention back to his job. By dawn they reached their target and when the sun rises he knows that tanks are going to charge. He takes a breath, deep, wondering if it’ll be one of the last he takes, and licks dust away from his lips.

Time to charge.

--

Someway, he finds himself next to Charlie, and well, it’s kind of good to find yourself next to someone you know. They were moved from their positions at Kidney Ridge and they’re currently trying to charge at some place where he’s been told blood was copiously shed some days before; they’re against Italians, again, but Desmond can see with his bare eye that there’s no match between their forces and he feels pretty confident for the first time in ages. They attack, again, and he doesn’t know how many times he recharges, but they do break through and then he realizes that Charlie is right in the way of another flying bullet and he pushes him down quick enough to avoid a fatal would, but the thing gets stuck right in Charlie’s stomach.

Fuck, Desmond shouts as he puts pressure to the wound and calls for a doctor, even though he doesn’t think it means that Charlie is a goner. One can work with stomach wounds for a while, he thinks he remembers, as long as the bullet isn’t in any vital place and it doesn’t seem like it is, but still, the seconds stretching between the first time he calls and the moment Faraday arrives, his hands twitchy and bloody, his beard way longer than Desmond remembered and black circles under his eyes, they tick in excruciating slowness, and when Faraday nods at him and proceeds to do what he can with the wound, Desmond grips his rifle again.

His hands are bloody on the trigger.

For a second he feels like throwing up for the first time in three days, then he turns his back on the scene hoping that Charlie makes it fucking through and runs on. He thinks there’s where they can set a base, if they manage to clear it. Or so are the orders he was told.

An Italian ends up kneeling in front of him shouting that he surrenders with a pronunciation that’s barely intelligible. Desmond feels sick again, then he nods and tells him to stand the fuck up, and he has an idea that the poor bastard understood it just by the tone of his voice.

--

Fresh units come that night and Desmond stays at the base, letting some private from Leechester take his place. He sleeps for a slightly longer while this time, then helps setting things up since at least this area is fully cleared; when he manages to finally wash his hands, he realizes that the surface is completely sunburnt, the skin peeling away. It doesn’t even hurt, even though flexing his fingers does. Everyone around him is from the New Zealand brigade, except for people he doesn’t know; he wishes he could just get back and see how is Charlie, but the fact that they have fresh people to take his place doesn’t mean that he won’t be needed to take someone else’s place still if there’s the need, so he stays put and refills his pack with new bandages.

For now he just stays alert.

--

It turns out that for him, it ends here. For the next three days people come and go, both wounded and not, both prisoners and not, and Desmond wonders why the hell they’re mostly Italians and that’s when someone says that Germans retreated and left the Italians to cover, he figures he has a plausible enough answer. Whenever he looks at the desert surrounding him he just sees broken tanks, pieces of weapons, dead bodies and the sand drinking up blood.

It’s the sickest image that ever passed through his head.

--

“It’s done,” Sawyer tells him on the 5th when most of their unit is finally back in one place. Gault’s arm is bandaged and Sawyer’s isn’t, or so it seems; everyone is as clean as it goes. Desmond is alive and uninjured.

That’s way more than he had expected.

“If you wanna know, your friend’s in Cairo.”

“What?”

“The midget. Charlie. Whatever. There’s a military hospital there, I heard most people from this division who could use it were brought there. Also, seems like we got four days’ leave.”

“Guess I’ll have a trip to Cairo, then. You comin’, brother?”

“I think I’ll just avoid Cairo for a while. See you when you get back.”

Desmond shrugs wondering why the fuck would someone stay here rather than go to Cairo because seriously, if he breathes sand for another while he’s going to throw up for good; whatever. Sawyer’s problem. He retrieves his things, asks around, nods when they say there’s a bunch of people leaving in trucks in about half an hour. He’s about to go straight to the meeting place, it’s at the base he’s been staying at since the 2nd anyway, when he sees Sayid carefully closing his pack and goes in his direction. Sayid nods at him and stands up; Desmond checks for a second. No injures. That’s good.

“So, you got leave too?”

“Yes.”

“Were you plannin’ on doing anything special?”

“Me? No, I was going to go back to the main camp.”

“Well, brother, seems like you were right and I owe you a drink. Whatever you fancy, ‘m not really strict on that. And I’ve got a friend in Cairo to visit, so what ‘bout it if I offered you one there?”

Sayid looks at him for one second, his expression unreadable, but then nods softly.

“All right. I have not been there in... a long time.”

Desmond nods and they go towards the meeting place. The sun still beats hard on his back.

They won and he doesn’t feel like things have changed much.

--

“So you’re sayin’ that the bloke basically told you to either go or go, except that if you said aye they were goin’ to be nice to you and if you said nay they weren’t?”

Sayid sips at some weird tea thing that he’s having as they sit in this bar at sometime like five in the afternoon and nods.

“It was a... let’s say a bit more complicated than that, but that would be the general idea, yes.”

Desmond takes a good drink from his glass, filled with actually decent whiskey, which he hadn’t exactly planned to find. Ah, well, better for him.

“What about you?”

“Me? Way less interesting. Y’know ‘bout the Blitz, I hope.”

“England occupies my country, Desmond. Yes, I do know about it.”

“Good. Well, briefly, I’m from Scotland and unfortunately from the only town which got bloody bombed until maybe three houses stood up. When it happened, I was in a nearby city for work. And when I got back, the house wasn’t up and everyone in it was dead. And so I decided that I might as well go avenge them and enrolled. The end.”

Sayid nods and takes a drink, looking at him with a certain kind of understanding that makes Desmond feel at ease. It’s fine enough. He doesn’t need Sayid to say anything.

--

Desmond tries not to stare too much as he walks through the aisles of a four-storey building that is now a hospital; he’s wearing a new uniform (clean, and he’s thankful for that; he got it just before leaving) and he feels self-conscious and observed, and of course he is; everyone else comes from where he comes, except that he was lucky and they weren’t. Which is why he can’t actually bring himself to look anyone in the eyes. Except that now he really has to hurry and find Charlie because seriously, it can’t be that hard, even if they just told him that he was in between the recovering ones; pity that it’s at least two hundred people. He’s already starting to think he should just leave and wait for Charlie to get back to camp when he hears a familiar voice.

“Bloody rice again?”

“If you complain then you aren’t that bad off,” another voice answers, and Desmond turns on his right. He’ll be damned. Charlie is sitting on a bed, looking at his meal with a sort of distaste (and really, Desmond admires him; during that bloody battle he’d have eaten whatever thing they shoved in his hands if it meant eating) while next to him there stands a young man, wearing mostly white clothes even if they’re dirty or pink-stained in a lot of places (maybe it was too much blood to wash away); he’s young, early twenties, nice height, short hair, a red cross sewn into his shirt and the two most ridiculously huge blue eyes Desmond has ever seen his whole life. He stares at them for a second before Charlie shouts a Des, mate! that probably makes aware of his presence the three people who weren’t before.

“Sounds like they didn’t get you too bad, aye?” Desmond asks as he gets closer.

“If everyone was like him, half of the people in here would be elsewhere,” the nurse mutters, glaring in Charlie’s direction. “Eat that thing. I might agree that it isn’t exactly tasty, but that’s what we get and believe me, I don’t have all day. Even if I wish I did,” he adds then, even if he’s sort of smirking as he glares. Then he turns at Desmond.

“I gather you’re the Desmond guy who made sure he ended up here and not six feet under?”

“Aye,” Desmond answer, kind of surprise. “What, am I famous?”

“You don’t even wanna know,” comes the answer in a soft voice. The accent is definitely American, Desmond thinks. “I’m Boone, by the way.”

“Red Cross, huh?”

“Yeah. And I’ll probably end up following the whole lot of you. Right now I’m stationed here but some of us are going along whenever you start chasing our German friends out of Africa and after six months here, I definitely need a change of air. And you, eat that.”

Charlie looks at them for a second, then mutters just because you bloody ask that so nicely and starts eating, not that he doesn’t finish the plate.

“How long until he gets back?”

“Uh. We’ll dismiss him in a couple days at the latest. Thankfully there aren’t many wounded coming at this point and whoever comes, they bring them directly to Alexandria. Which is good because here? No space at all. Anyway, sorry. I wasn’t exactly wanting to rant at you but y’know, you can’t rant at them.”

“Good point. Well then, I need to get back to the camp so guess I’ll see you both ‘round. And Charlie, next time just pay some bloody attention, won’t you?”

He throws him half a smile and gets out of the hospital; he isn’t too surprised when he finds Sayid sitting outside.

“What are you doin’ here? I figured you’d go.”

“Yes, but I met an acquaintance of mine and he left five minutes ago. At that point I might as well have waited for you. How is he?”

“Better than me and you put together, surely. Any news?”

Sayid hands him a copy of the Times, which is at least four days old but has VICTORY, bold and everything, for a headline. He doesn’t even read it and hands it to Sayid.

They get back to the meeting point in silence. At least this is over.

Interlude I
 
 
feeling: okayokay
 
 
 
Shona: lost - charlietoestastegood on December 15th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)
Oh my gosh, that depiction of the battle is harrowing and depressing. I mean that as the highest possible compliment, of course. All of the details and the sense of atmosphere were so claustrophobic and you really brought across the sense of pointless levels of death.

And, of course, you then helped to mend my heart by having Boone and Charlie connecting in the hospital. Red Cross Boone = yesssss.
the female ghost of tom joad: lost charliejanie_tangerine on December 15th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you so much! Really, I'm so glad you liked the battle part. I think it's hands down the hardest thing I ever wrote my whole life so it's great to hear that it did work in the sense I wanted. I was totally aiming for depressing.

And heee, I was sure you were going to appreciate the last bit. ;) I wasn't really going to put Boone in any danger but Red Cross looked like a good option, I'm so glad you liked it!
janellla: des praysjanellla on April 1st, 2010 12:34 am (UTC)
Hi--I'm coming around to read this way late--but I just have to ask--because I'm loving this novella of yours!--how did you get such an incredible grasp on the dtails?? Are you just a history lover or is there more to it?
I haven't finished reading yet, but couldn't wait to contact you.
the female ghost of tom joad: lost desmond GUHjanie_tangerine on April 1st, 2010 06:28 am (UTC)
Aw, thank you so much, I'm so glad you're liking it!

And nah, I'm not an historian but I'm a history lover with research obsession and a pretty decent knowledge of the time in question. ;)