London wasn't a fun place to be, even at the best of times. For one, what with it coming down from the rise of industry, there was a horrendous smell and haze in the air. It was a safe enough place in as much as it was well policed, but then of course there was the incident from a couple of weeks prior. Nigh on five hundred shots fired, one policeman and one child dead and a couple dozen other injuries. The point was, though, it felt safe.
It was the sort of place that, if a person were not used to a more urban lifestyle, they'd either immediately love it or despise it. The poet Wordsworth had once been to London and immediately fallen in love with the place, promptly lying through his teeth about it in a piece of shite poetry.
Generally speaking, Kenny did not have a great love of poetry, that much was certain. The works of Lords Byron and Tennyson were tolerable, but that was about it. But even after seeing a copy of Wordsworth's Composed upon Westminster Bridge once, he knew from experience that it was mostly lies.
Kenny himself was one of those people who'd grown up in London, and as such could barely imagine life outside the city. That being said, he was an orphan, and that was the sort of life that didn't lend much to speak of. He didn't know who his father was, and all he knew of his mother was that she was called Carol and she'd died bringing his sister into the world. He didn't even know if his father and her father were the same person. He'd been two at the time.
The only thing he remembered besides that was the hair. Shining red hair.
Not at all like his dirty blonde mop, or Karen's unremarkable brown one. Instead, there was a vivid cardinal red. But beyond that, he couldn't remember his mother.
So, for lack of parents, Kenny and Karen lived together in the same orphanage. Despite what people generally thought of orphanages, it wasn't an entirely bad place. Of course it was strict, there were regular beatings for getting back late at night, or making noise after bed time, failing to say prayers and such. One of Kenny's favourite sights was whenever anyone was caught using foul language, the matron would get a bar of soap, have two urchins pin the offender down and hold their mouth open, then she would flake the soap into their mouth, generating enough froth that they looked rabid.
It was amusing to watch, but as he'd found out many times over his (almost) thirteen years, it was not entirely amusing to be the offender.
He wasn't especially close to anyone in his orphanage, barring his sister. They were all people who had their own gangs and their own friends and Kenny was fine with that. He'd had to defend himself in fights on occasion, he'd also had to defend Karen, and every time he earned himself a beating. But of course, every time it was worth it.
Karen was Kenny's only family, after all. She was his world. He'd have given his life if it kept her safe. When she was sad, he was sad. It was all admirable. After a long period of convincing, the matron had even allowed Karen to be in Kenny's dorm, and the people who'd objected to having a girl in a boys' room had quickly found out that Kenny could pack a punch.
That had earned him a caning and lavatory cleaning duty for a week. It had been worth it.
So nobody touched Karen, nobody messed with Kenny. That was the way they both liked it.
There were some half—hearted attempts at education made in that orphanage. Those who could be arsed to pay attention for longer than five seconds were taught how to read, how to write, and basic arithmetic. The McCormick children were among those who did bother. Karen did rather well. Kenny not so much.
The difference was Karen could write fairly legibly. Her spelling wasn't great, but it was readable. Kenny, though, wrote in a horrible and messy script that made sense to him and his sister, but to his mentors could easily have been anywhere between random scribbles, lewd drawings, and fluent Persian.
With regards to reading both were average for their age whenever the assigned poetry was bearable, and on arithmetic Karen was average while Kenny was below. As such Karen got more attention than Kenny did. That seemed about right to him. She had more potential, she should be the one to get the extra effort put in.
Broadly speaking, the days that varied greatly from the norm were rare. Monday through Saturday, the matron either had them learning or doing some manner of chores for most of the day, and Sunday was generally a day off. Breakfast was provided, and sometimes an evening meal. Every child got a minor allowance that they could do with as they saw fit during the day, the benefit of an opulent orphanage owner. As for free time, nobody gave a toss what anyone did.
All in all, it was a rather unremarkable living, but Kenny didn't plan on changing it any time soon. It could certainly have been worse. An ordinary day for him and his sister would go as such.
It was early 1909 and it was snowing outside. Kenny was awake, listening for the nearest clock tower to signal seven thirty. The orphanage wasn't exactly in the City of London — it was a bit further north, in Hackney. Sometimes on a quiet morning the deeper chimes of the Big Ben bell would sift through, but most mornings Kenny was reliant on a more local church tower.
He always preferred to at least be awake, because the matron's method of waking people up wasn't precisely tranquil. It involved two pans and a lot of shouting.
The bells went off. Kenny swivelled out of bed—he could already hear the thumping of feet on the stairs. At least they were the third door down from the staircase — they had a couple of minutes. He moved over to his sister's bed. She had the corner, and he was right next to her so that nobody could screw around with the only girl in the room.
He started shaking her gently. She hated being awoken by loud noises. It was sort of a phobia for her. Not crippling or anything, it just always scared her. "Karen," he whispered as loudly as he could. He felt her stir under him. "Karen," he repeated.
"What?" Karen drawled out sleepily. She wasn't the best wake—upper in the world. If by some chance they were to become opulent enough to afford an alarm clock between them, Kenny suspected she'd be less the type to listen to it, get out of bed and face the day with a bright smile, and instead opt to hurl it out of the window and onto the head of a poor stray cat.
With that in mind, Kenny didn't stop shaking her just because she was lucid.
"Matron's coming with the pans," he informed her quietly.
"Oh," she sighed, rolling onto her back and pushing her way up to a sitting position. The thing was, while an alarm clock could be stopped, Matron could not. She, or even the threat of her, was the most effective alarm clock for Karen. "Thanks, Kenny."
"Any time." Kenny started changing out of his night clothes into something a bit more presentable.
He heard the door to the opposite dorm crash open and the horrendous din of the clattering of old kitchen utensils through the walls, and hurriedly made himself decent before the matron got the chance to admonish him for not looking entirely healthy. In record time he had his trousers up and shirt buttoned acceptably, and was just throwing on his tatty old jacket when the crashing stopped. That meant this room was next.
5... 4... 3... 2... 1...
The door slammed open and the horrible BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG of the pans and the ear slaughteringly loud "WAKEY WAAAAAAKEEEEEEY!" from the matron was met with a chorus of eighteen sleepy boys, in unison, groaning in protest. Kenny smirked at Karen.
So here it began, another boring day. The McCormicks left immediately for the dinner hall, leaving the others to get over the splitting headaches that their failure to wake up before half past seven had caused.
Breakfast consisted of a weak porridge of the approximate consistency of vomit, like normal. It was the sort of taste that required a lifetime of acquiring to qualify as merely bad. It also took quite a bit of time to learn that there would be no criticising of the cooking in the house, or out came the cane.
Kenny and Karen had usual seats. The children sat on two long cheap tables that could just about manage everyone present, and while most people would change seats every day the McCormicks sat opposite each other at one end of the one on the right of the entrance to the room, which the matron always referred to as the dining room but was at best a mess hall in every sense of the words.
The bowls were set out when they got there. That was the other advantage of waking up early—if they were down there quickly, the bowls of questionable porridge didn't have much chance to cool down, and they were marginally more stomachable when hot.
"Do you know what we're doing today?" Karen asked quietly over the meal. She always spoke quietly. She was painfully shy. She spent most of her time hiding behind Kenny, and when Kenny wasn't there she'd just keep herself to herself.
Kenny shook his head, forcing down a disgusting mouthful. "Afraid not. It's Sunday, though, so unless she's in a bad mood we should be having the day off." That seemed to be the routine, anyway.
Karen smiled weakly, before returning to her food. Kenny smiled back. There wasn't anyone else in the hall and he'd stomached as much as he could, so he picked his bowl up and scooped the remainder into Karen's.
Matron may have frowned on it, but she'd never actively stopped them from doing it and Karen needed it more than he did.
Once again, she smiled.
Somehow the world always seemed to be a little bit lighter when Karen McCormick was smiling. Kenny could never help but smile back at her. If that helped reassure her or not he didn't know. But he liked to think that his crooked and fucked up smile made Karen's world a little bit brighter too.
Kenny leaned back to a normal sitting position once his bowl was empty, and a few seconds later the next early riser entered the hall, picking the seat as far away from them as possible. Kenny waited.
He waited through the food hall filling with the sixty odd orphan children who lived there and the sound of life around him being as usual and dull as normal. Sometimes a fight would break out somewhere and Kenny could join in cheering the fighters on until the matron came along and broke it up, then halved the food supplied at the next meal as punishment for nobody sorting it out themselves.
Really, that was half the reason nobody did take it upon themselves to break the fights up. They didn't want to be a buzz kill, obviously, but also any excuse to not have to eat the absolute tripe that was called food was welcomed by all. When matron threatened to throw the food out for the pigeons, nobody ever objected. It was really that bad.
Unfortunately, today there were no fights. There was just life progressing normally. People talking. Nothing worth Kenny's attention.
That is until the matron arrived.
The matron was only referred to by the kids as Matron when she was being addressed, or the matron when she was being referred to. The name Jessica just didn't seem to do her justice. She was the type of woman that should have had a name like Eileen or Agnes—a scary name for a fucking terrifying woman.
She was the type who rarely if ever smiled. She smoked near perpetually, she was taller than most men, she was burly, she was the kind of woman that children who had never met or even seen her still had nightmares about.
And her name was Jessica.
It just didn't really work, Kenny thought. Hence why he always just called her Matron.
She strode forward between the two tables, meeting as many stares as she could before she got to the front. Kenny was thankfully on the wrong side of the table to be facing her, and Karen had been looking into her lap where she was fidgeting with her hands, so she hadn't gotten a glare either. Some days they weren't so lucky. Most days, though, they were.
The matron reached the front of the hall and turned. "Children," she boomed—and Kenny didn't use that word to describe her way of speech lightly. It wasn't just a loud voice, it was a loud voice that had all the tone of a hammer striking a giant wooden block. "It's Sunday so you have no tasks to do today, other than ensuring your rooms are clean. Inspection shortly before lights out, and no disturbing me unless somebody is dead. That is all. You may leave when ready." Then she sat down at the head table and dug into her own, presumably rather nicer breakfast.
As soon as she was sat down, Kenny and Karen both stood up and left. First in, first out. That's the way they liked it. They headed straight back to their dormitory.
At their beds, Kenny turned to Karen. "We should do this straight off."
"Why?" Karen asked.
Kenny put his best reassuring smile on his face, and sure enough Karen smiled back. Everything was alright. "Because if we do it now we don't have to worry about it later. All we have to do is make sure the beds are made and there's no rubbish in our areas. It'll take, like, five minutes, then we have all day to mess around, yeah?"
Karen nodded. She didn't reply verbally, instead just turning to her bed and starting to straighten out the sheets. Kenny did likewise. There was a major difference between Karen and him, though—while Karen could just make sure the sheets were all straight and even, he had to take the extra effort and make absolutely sure that there were no wet patches on show too. Matron would all but have him castrated if she found out what he did at night, and then afterwards she'd give him a squeakier bed to make sure he couldn't do it so discreetly.
That's pretty much what happened to the last poor kid who'd been caught wanking, anyway. Fortunately, Kenny also had to keep it from Karen for what he felt to be obvious reasons, so he was more adept at keeping it hidden.
Once that was done, Kenny took Karen outside. There was a very light flutter of snow still drifting down between the buildings, which created a very satisfying underfoot crunch as the siblings stepped into the street. Of course, the side effect of the snow was that it was rather nippy out, and Kenny felt the chill rather quickly. Karen seemed alright, though, so he stayed with her rather than bolting straight back indoors.
Karen stepped ahead slightly, and Kenny followed. He could take an educated guess at where she was taking him. She had a favourite place to go just north of their home, and she was almost always a little more confident in her step when she was headed there.
The orphanage was only a few hundred yards away from Victoria Park, a five minute walk at even the slowest of paces and shortest of strides. Karen liked a spot in the open space, in one corner between two hedges. There was an old ash tree standing there that she was partial to sitting against. When she'd been younger she'd sat on Kenny's lap, but now they sat next to each other with legs splayed out on the grass, shielded from the snow even though the tree was bare.
As soon as Karen was in sight of her tree she started to run, and Kenny picked his pace up too. He watched her dive into the snow drift underneath the branches and back up to the trunk to sit and watch the park. Kenny sat next to her, and almost immediately felt her head rest on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her and laid his palm against her temple, holding her.
That was how it always went. That was how they liked it to go.
"Everything okay today?" Kenny asked quietly. He felt Karen's head shifting in a nod. That was about the extent of the conversation, really. Only when Karen wasn't feeling all well did they ever discuss anything, and such a conversation would only ever revolve around what was wrong and how Kenny could help fix it.
Today was not such a day, so they fell silent.
He felt Karen's breathing slowly even out and slowly, he came to the realisation she'd fallen back asleep. Not that he blamed her, of course—most mornings he himself would be woken up an hour or two before he'd have liked.
On the edge of the park he saw a few of the other children from the orphanage bringing their ball. Kenny always avoided such games. He'd always claim that his bodily co—ordination was awful in order to dodge having to join in, but the truth was he just wasn't particularly interested. Plus the ball was heavy and Kenny wasn't the best of kickers anyway.
As the other people started kicking around, Kenny started to feel himself drifting off to sleep as well. Slowly, his eyes drifted shut and the tendrils of unconsciousness began surrounding him.
At which point—or, given that with the sun being perpetually obscured by the snow clouds there was little way to gauge time, it could have been a while later and he'd just been asleep—he was rudely awoken through the medium of football to the head. He collapsed to the ground with a yelp, and immediately rolled over to see whose fault that was.
The first thing he was aware of was that Karen was laughing her little head off. The second was that everyone else was as well, even as they came to retrieve their ball.
"Was that you?" he asked Karen through a groan of pain. Karen nodded shyly. Kenny sat up from where he'd fallen and rubbed the spot where the ball had hit him. There wasn't any skin breakage, but he guessed there'd be a nasty bruise there within a few days.
He'd had worse, though, so he chose to forget about it.
He picked the ball up—and it really was far too heavy to be kicked around even by adults, so how the other children from the orphanage were able to do it without breaking rather important parts of their body was an absolute marvel to him—and threw it back at Karen.
Somehow, somehow, Karen was able to catch it and she rolled it back to the players. Who, Kenny noticed, were also laughing at him. He didn't particularly mind being laughed at, being as nobody generally bothered him about it after the fact, but maybe it was that it was his little sister's fault that made him feel a little uncomfortable.
Karen sat down next to him again, still tittering away. Kenny huffed. "Do you mind not laughing?" he asked.
"Nope," she replied, still laughing.
Kenny sank a little where he was sitting. Apparently Karen wasn't about to let him live this one down too easily. The good news was, though, that he did know his sister very well. Specifically, he knew what sort of thing he could bribe her with.
"Stop laughing and I can get us chips on the way back."
Immediately, Karen stopped laughing, though a smile far too broad for her face remained. "Really?"
"Yes, just please stop laughing at me. It wasn't that funny."
She started chuckling again. "You did take a football straight to the face," she reminded him.
Kenny closed his eyes and exhaled. "Side of the head," he protested.
"Fine, just... It wasn't that funny."
"Yes it was," she contested, more to herself than to Kenny. The brief surge of confidence she'd had from making people laugh was apparently slinking away, to be replaced by her usual shyness.
Kenny turned to face her. "Do you want these chips or not?"
"I do," she replied.
Kenny smirked. "Well, you've got to stop laughing then, okay?"
"That's not fair."
"It's going to cost me most of the money I've got saved up right now," Kenny informed her. "I could find something more constructive to spend it on."
Karen immediately wrapped her arms around his midriff. "Pleeeeeease?"
Of course, Kenny had no intention of not getting the damn chips now that he'd told her he was going to. That would just be plain cruel. On top of which, he suspected Karen knew he wouldn't do that to her, so there was no point being a dick about it.
"Alright," he faux—conceded, "we'll swing by that place down on Grove Road on the way back, okay?"
Karen nodded, beaming. "Thanks, Kenny." The stop off would add about fifteen minutes to the walk back, but it was to make Karen happy. She wouldn't mind, so Kenny didn't mind.
They could arc back around to the orphanage, eating on the way of course since the matron wouldn't approve of the extra meal, and arrive back well before curfew. The room would be empty because everyone would be out screwing around outside, so they wouldn't be bothered by anyone. Maybe Kenny could read a story to her or something. He'd read it badly, sure, but Karen never seemed to care when he stumbled on a tricky word, no matter how often he did it.
Or if the books weren't available today—all four of them—they could always improvise something inane just to pass the time until the sun went sufficiently down that it was possible to sleep. A game or just a chat. Anything to pass the time, as long as he could do it with Karen.
That was how it would always go. And Kenny wouldn't have changed it for the world.
While the matron certainly understood the issues of a seventeen year old finding work when most places didn't actually take anyone under the age of eighteen, she still didn't smile upon idleness. The trouble was, Kenny was far past the age where he could pass himself off as a prepubescent and shine shoes on a street corner for thruppence a crack.
There came a point when one had to find real work, that point usually being marked by a breaking of the voice and a growth spurt. People didn't really trust teenage ruffians, and of course the more middle class people were probably in school.
He didn't really want to incur the wrath of the matron, though. The trouble was that he was also getting to the sort of age where he was on the prime kick—out list for whenever a fresh bed was needed.
At the very least, if he could get a bit of money in and be less of a drain on the orphanage owner's coffers then he might at least survive a few kick outs before being forced out himself, and he didn't particularly want to lose Karen, after all.
So when it came down to the choice between getting kicked out onto the streets and running the risk of getting done for vagrancy and lying about his age to get work, there wasn't really that great a choice.
Hence he'd gone browsing to find out which of the many production lines that Hackney had to offer had the lowest risk to pay ratio. That was his main objective, anyway—not getting his limbs sliced off by dangerous machinery and half decent pay were paramount. After that came reasonable and flexible hours, but he was willing to write that one off first. The day he got a job that couldn't be construed as some manner of slavery was going to be the day he had sunshine and rainbows coming out of his arse.
He'd pinged around a few places but most of the foremen he'd spoken to had either outright not talked to him further than telling him to piss off, and the ones that had been any measure of polite had told him that there wasn't any room on their assembly lines right now and to check back in a few weeks. In other words: piss off.
So on Kenny trundled through the streets. If he found nothing today then there would always be tomorrow, of course, it wasn't as if there was a permanent uncontrollable influx of orphan children looking to swipe his bed out from beneath him, but he figured that the sooner he could get a nice steady—ish job the better.
He passed his next target, and the fact there was someone standing outside the doors putting up vacancy posters gave him a bit of a boost. Apparently they were desperate or efficient. Kenny walked up to the man, who paused his adornment of the walls.
"Afternoon," he greeted the man. "Do you represent this place?"
"Yes. You're not looking work, by any chance?" Kenny nodded once. "That's good. We just had five blokes run off to join the army, it's left us with a bit of a gap in the lines, so to speak."
Kenny nodded again. "What precisely is it this factory produces?" he asked.
The man shrugged and tilted his head back and forth, in that way that meant he wasn't so sure how to answer. Surely it was an easy enough question. "A bit of everything, really. General parts that get bought by other places for their lines."
"Good enough. Work's work," Kenny thought aloud.
The poster man resumed putting up the flyers and adverts. "Go inside, speak to the foreman. He'll give you a yay or nay, and if you get the yay he'll give you your hours and your wage." He turned back to Kenny and glanced him up and down. "To be honest, there shouldn't be any reason to turn you down. You look capable enough and you don't look like a swindler."
Kenny really didn't know how to respond to that. He guessed it was a compliment, but then it also implied that he might have been out swindling, and he couldn't help taking some offence at that implication. "...okay, thanks," he finally opted for. He headed inside.
The foreman, Kenny guessed, was the man walking around making sure everyone was doing their jobs. He didn't look that into it. Bored, even. He noticed Kenny standing around doing nothing and approached him.
"You don't work here, do you?" he asked disinterestedly, in a nice thick Cockney accent that sounded in a very odd way to be somewhere between friendly and outright threatening.
"No," Kenny replied.
"Do you want to?"
Kenny was on the verge of correcting the man and saying seventeen, but he quickly thought better of it. He managed not to miss a beat in replying "Yes."
"You'd be fine with a low skill job?"
"You're shown how to do one thing and you do that over and over again ad nauseam."
"Oh." So, exactly what was on the tin then. Kenny didn't need to think about the offer for particularly long—he immediately followed up with a "Yes."
Thus was the extent of the job interview. Kenny walked out of there with instructions to turn up the next day at seven in the morning, where he'd be shown to his station and what to do, and with the warning of any trouble from him and there'd be a horde of unemployed slobs willing to take his place.
At the very least it was nice to know exactly how much the foreman thought (or, more accurately, didn't think) of him.
He walked through the narrow roads, dodging horses, carriages and the occasional car to get back to the orphanage relatively quickly—he had no idea how long it was going to be until curfew and he'd be locked out.
Fortunately the doors were wide open when he got back, and he was about to go straight upstairs and begin a nice session of doing not a whole lot when a harsh voice came from behind him.
"Kenneth McCormick," said the matron. Kenny turned to acknowledge her. "I take it you've still not gotten any useful role in society?"
"Actually," Kenny contradicted, "I have." The matron cocked her head and waited for him to continue. "Tomorrow morning I start a factory job."
"Hmm," she replied. "About bloody time. Well done, I suppose." She continued about her business.
After he was certain that at least two doors had closed between her and him, Kenny muttered "Thanks I suppose," in reply to what was, in fairness, the nicest thing she'd ever deigned to say to him at a time at which he was not bawling his eyes out back when he was small, then ran back up to his dormitory before he could get any confirmation as to whether she'd heard that or not.
The next day, at five to seven, Kenny was waiting outside the factory for someone to unlock the doors. He'd been there for a few minutes, and was thankful that it wasn't raining despite a threatening sky.
The door opened from the inside, and the foreman from the day before was there. "You're the new guy, right?"
"Yes," Kenny confirmed.
"Right," he replied. "In you come, let's get this over with." The tone with which he spoke made Kenny think that maybe he'd done this more than a few times recently.
He led Kenny into the factory. With it empty Kenny looked around a little bit to get a feel for the place. Big windows meant the place was generously lit, but there was some electric lighting as well that all in all made very little difference. Maybe they're for the winter months Kenny thought. There were banks of desks at which manual labour could be carried out, and around the edges of the building were heavier devices, presumably designed for tougher jobs, that all looked a little bit lethal. Kenny prayed he wasn't being put at any of those.
The foreman led him to the middle of the room, then towards the left side from the door. "This is you," he replied. The machine he had was hand operated by the look of it, and had a worryingly large sharp drill bit at the end of it.
"Here's what you do," the foreman explained. "You'll be receiving metal bars, what you do is you unscrew this—" He took hold of the handle on the machine and span it, screwing it out as far as it would go. As it span, the drill looking thing rose considerably. "—and place the bar here on its end." He indicated the main platform, below the huge pointy thing that was still putting Kenny in a slightly fearful mood.
"Then you just screw it back in. It'll be tough the first few times, it's boring a hole in the metal. Making the bar into a tube. But when you get used to it, it shouldn't be that much of a strain. Basically it's just easy to forget how much effort you need to get boring." He glanced up to Kenny. "Easy enough, right?"
"I guess," Kenny acknowledged.
Kenny thought for a moment, eyeing the very, very sharp drill thing. "Has anyone died using this machine?"
The foreman considered for a second. "Um. Not this particular one, I believe."
Kenny sighed at the narrowness of the answer. "Brilliant." No information on other similar machines, no information upon injuries. Not even a concrete answer. That was all but a yes.
"Shift starts at half past, amuse yourself however you like until then. Just don't touch anything you shouldn't." The foreman turned and disappeared off somewhere, maybe to smoke or something.
Well, then, Kenny thought. His job consisted of boring holes into metal rods in order to make metal tubes. How dull. Maybe he could entertain himself while on shift by guessing what the tube was for, but a quick think through of all the possibilities only turned up pipes, plumbing and cannons of various sizes, and somehow Kenny didn't really think plumbing was up for mass production.
Still, it kept him in a bed. And it wasn't exactly like he could injure himself unless he deliberately put any of his appendages in the path of the drill. It wasn't like he was going to quit and lose the roof over his head just because it was slightly boring.
How bad could this possibly get?
That was the announcement.
Menial factory jobs weren't the greatest position on the grapevine to be, and Kenny knew it. Fortunately, he didn't give too much of a shit—he wasn't huge on the news, but there were some days where he just couldn't step outside with some annoying little prick wearing a sandwich board with today's front page shouting read all about it in his face, in a pointless test of his patience.
And today, it was war.
So, inevitably, war was the day's conversational topic at the factory.
"Do you know anything about it?" Kenny asked the boy next to him.
Kenny used the word "boy" to describe this person with good reason. He'd also lied about his age to get a job—although that being said, Kenny was technically old enough now. The factory owner had a very strict eighteen—and—over—only policy on his workers, Kenny had learned, and Leopold Stotch didn't hit that milestone until September. On top of that, Kenny had learned that he wasn't actually that great a liar.
Fortunately the foremen seemed to not give enough shits to spend too much time worrying about it, and the factory owner trusted his foremen. Hence Kenny's lie to get his own job seemed somewhat pointless.
What an incredible system.
Leopold had a nervous disposition, Kenny had learned very quickly. He was the kind who fidgeted at the best of times and had what were basically seizures at the worst. How he'd managed to pass himself off as eighteen without giving himself away, Kenny had no idea. A series of nervous blunders early on, mostly just dropping tools and such but on one occasion almost drilling a hole into his own hand, had quickly earned him the nickname Butterfingers. A nickname Kenny used in lieu of Leopold now—he'd known a different Leopold at the orphanage, and that guy had been a complete and utter twat.
He'd further learned that Butterfingers had only gotten a job in the first place because his father had made him. He seemed to have the life that people who'd never been to an orphanage in their life seemed to think orphans had. His father had some minor job in the government, though, so it wasn't exactly like they needed the money. Maybe it was just his dad's idea of good parenting.
"Uh, I don't know much," Butterfingers replied slowly. "Dad doesn't talk so much about his work, but, uh..." He glanced around nervously, like he was expecting the foreman to turn up at any moment to slap him round the head for no good reason.
"Yes?" Kenny pressed.
"Well, uh, it's something like Germany are trying to invade France, but they're going through Belgium, and we've got some kind of agreement with Belgium that says we help them out if they get invaded. That's about the extent of it that I know, anyway."
Kenny smiled down at the boy. Butterfingers was a few inches shorter than him, but aside from that they looked fairly similar. Maybe Butterfingers had a slightly rounder face and was a bit more well nourished, and maybe his blonde mop was a shade or two lighter than Kenny's, but they could really be passed off as brothers.
"Now, how hard was that?" he asked, polishing off his latest item and putting it to one side. "It's more than I knew, anyway." He loaded up the bore again.
Division of labour, Kenny had decided, was at the same time a manipulative and a marvellous system. It gave everybody a single task to repeat over and over again, meaning they could be good at that one thing, earn their wage and buzzing off to sleep for the night, and it gave a huge boost to factory output over other methods. While Kenny had had to cover for a few other stations in the factory, his primary station was the bore. And he'd never gotten around to asking anyone exactly what the components were for.
That was how it worked. They didn't ask questions, they just did their job. They were paid by output, not by the hour, and Kenny's guess of cannon was good enough for him.
"I'll be honest with you, Ken, I'm kinda thinking of signing up," Butterfingers announced.
Kenny's eyes widened for the second it took to look at Butterfingers to make sure he wasn't having him on. "What?"
"Well, my dad said I have to have a job and this place is nice enough, I guess—" Ha bloody ha. "—but it doesn't pay so great and it gets real hot and sticky here and... You know, I just think it'd be nicer to have an open air line of work."
"In which you get shot at?" Kenny filled in, heavily sceptical. Okay, factory work was crowded and all the machinery and people did generate quite a lot of heat, but that hadn't been enough to dislodge Kenny when his bed was at stake, let alone his life.
Butterfingers shrugged. "I know it's a risk, but I'd be up for it. And hey, king and country, right?"
Kenny thought about retorting. This was life and death Butterfingers was talking about, after all, plus he'd never shown a glimmer of patriotism before. And he was Kenny's friend. But then, Kenny hardly had any right to say he could or could not do something. He wasn't going to stand in the way.
But he didn't particularly want to lose his friend either.
What the hell was he supposed to say to something like that? What was he supposed to do? He couldn't tell Butterfingers 'No, you can't go, I forbid it', but he couldn't exactly just send him off to possible death waving a hat at him as he disappeared over the horizon either.
Kenny fell silent, ticking everything over in his head for a good few minutes.
"Leopold?" he said after careful consideration.
Butterfingers, being so used to getting called by his nickname, was a bit surprised, so it was his turn to look up at the other with wide eyes.
"If you want to sign up, I'll come with you."
A broad smile hit his face. "You'd do that?"
In the split second for which Kenny hesitated, he had considered a number of things into his response. He didn't particularly want to sign up himself, he was making do with the factory wages he was earning. Soon enough he'd have enough to rent a place out — he wouldn't exactly get a palace, but a place to stay come his inevitable eviction from the orphanage, at least. Plus signing up meant leaving London — and therefore Karen—behind him for a number of years.
Kenny wasn't sure if he could do that. It wasn't himself he was worried about, of course, he had enough confidence in his own abilities to survive alone. It was Karen. She was old enough to take responsibility, but what Kenny was worried about was that he'd always been there. She'd never had to take responsibility because he'd always been there to catch her.
That was his own fault, really, but then he'd never planned on disappearing without warning. Could he abandon Karen?
But then, could he abandon Butterfingers? He was his friend. And he knew Butterfingers had few of those. He wasn't great at making new friends, since the first impression everyone seemed to get of him was 'Dweeb not worth my time' and moved on. Kenny had persevered because he felt bad for the poor boy and had gone so far as to ask the foreman to put him next to his own station. Several decent conversations and a few after hours drinks later and now they were best buddies. Kenny wasn't abandoning him to have to go through all that shit again, let alone with army types.
And, of course, there was his looming eviction from the orphanage to get around too. He was only still there because of Karen, and she was going to be out soon enough too. The factory pay meant they had a little money stored up, but an army salary was probably juicier. It couldn't be much less, that was for damn sure.
It might even have been enough to keep Karen alone under a roof on a permanent basis.
So he answered with "You're my only real friend, you know," Kenny said, shrugging that off. "If you're going to do something stupid, I'm doing it too."
Butterfingers' face started to redden slightly. "Well, thanks, Ken, you're a great buddy." He finished boring and threw the piece into his basket. "I mean, I've not made a definite decision yet, but it's nice to know you'd be with me. I'd hate doing all that alone."
"Well," Kenny said, keeping a small smile on his face, "you won't have to."
That was the last they talked of it for that day, and Kenny was grateful for that. He didn't really want to think about leaving Karen behind. Until they clocked off, they just kept to talking about insignificant things like their home lives and the weather.
Kenny knew what it was that had finally made up Butterfingers' mind.
It was that damn Opinion cover, the one of Lord Kitchener pointing at people.
Now, Kenny did admit it was pretty clever. There was something about the big moustached face wearing some manner of military cap pointing at people and appealing to them directly that had even made him feel a surge of pride that he personally was wanted, even though he maintained that it was a stupid idea to willingly submit himself to get shot at for the purposes of some war that he had little to no greater context for and didn't particularly care about.
But still. That advert was pretty clever.
It had made Butterfingers intercept Kenny on the way back from work the day prior, announce his intentions, and of course today off they'd gone to the nearest recruiting station that was open—unfortunately, a bit of a trek given that it was a Sunday. Most places closed on a Sunday. Their factory didn't. What luck.
Counter to that, though, their factory hours being what they were meant they were masters of waking up at stupid o'clock in the morning, so they got to an open place fairly early—only behind around twenty or so other men waiting to do their bit for the war efforts.
It also meant they'd be waiting for the best part of an hour.
And that was after a twenty minute power walk to get from Shacklewell to Westminster, too—they'd gotten halfway across London before finding a place that was open.
Nowhere was open on a Sunday.
"You're sure about this, Butterfingers?" Kenny asked after a while. They queue had built up behind them some, and two chimes of Big Ben told him they'd been there at least fifteen minutes.
Butterfingers nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure. I'll be honest, Ken, I just want to get away from my dad. He's got real great expectations for me and I really don't think I'm going to be living up to them. He's a real slave driver, that man."
"You said he was a minister or something?" Kenny asked, having forgotten.
"Nah," Butterfingers clarified, shaking his head. "He works in the Palace of Westminster, sure, but he's just, like, someone's secretary or something. He doesn't talk about it much but he's one of those unimportant people, really."
Kenny understood. "The type who think that a job in the Palace automatically gives them the right to boss everyone around?" Kenny didn't want to use the term 'pompous condescending bollock—lord', appropriate as it was. Butterfingers being his friend and all.
"Kinda. I wouldn't say it in front of him, but he's an arrogant dickhead."
Kenny did notice that Butterfingers even looked around for a brief second before saying that. He found it slightly funny. The boy was averse to profanity at the best of times, so he must really have meant it. "I mean," Butterfingers continued, "a lot of people at our factory know the name of the prime minister and that's about it, you say 'Herbert Asquith' and they know who you're talking about. Say 'Stephen Stotch' and they'll think you're trying to get someone else's attention or something. But because he's got a job at the Houses of Parliament he thinks he's so much better than everyone else, he thinks everyone should know who he is and it pisses him off when they don't."
Kenny chuckled. While pissing off the matron had been rather fun, he'd always suffered for it back in the orphanage. Pissing her off was funny because she had a bit of power, but credit to her she never really let it get to her head. Pissing off someone who thought they had power but didn't, now that would have been a golden opportunity that a younger Kenny would leap upon.
A younger Kenny would be charging into the Palace with mischief on his mind already, come to that.
Big Ben chimed again. Quarter to the hour.
The queue grew behind them. Kenny started leaning on the barrier at the side of the road that separated them from the north bank from the Thames. He was used to being on his feet for hours on end, of course, factory work being what it was, but here he had nothing to do to distract him from the aching in his thighs.
He looked around a bit, taking in the view. There was a slightly acrid haze in the air that offended his nose somewhat, and the river looked to have the consistency of sludge. Of course there was the great sodding clock tower on his right, waiting patiently to let everyone who was trying to get some bloody sleep within five miles know what the time was every fifteen fucking minutes, and beyond that the Palace of Westminster, the huge dirty yellow home of British parliament, something Kenny enjoyed having as little to do with as possible.
Over to the left was Charing Cross and Hungerford Bridge, then Waterloo Bridge beyond. More bridges, more sludge river. That was the city to Kenny. It was all more of the same. More factories, more packed together housing, more chimneys pumping more fumes into the air, more of the same boring industrial shit.
It was a dull familiarity that the sane side of Kenny was all but ready to consign his life away to keeping with. But he was still young. Part of him thought that maybe getting shot at a few times might do wonders for his more adventurous side. And the war couldn't be too bad, right? The thought was that they'd have Berlin taken over before Christmas. How bad could it possibly be?
It was all for Butterfingers' sake, Kenny reminded himself. Maybe it would do him some good, but primarily, before all else, he was doing this for his friend.
"What if they turn me down?" Butterfingers suddenly asked. Kenny knew the tone in his voice. He was at that stage of nervousness where he was certain something was going to go wrong in the worst possible way.
"Butterfingers, listen. You're perfectly healthy, you're of age, you—"
"SH!" Kenny hushed. It was true that they were both underage by several months, as technically they had to be nineteen for deployment and the pay boon that resulted, but Butterfingers had lied about his age before, after all. Kenny had confidence in him. Besides, they looked old enough and in the absence of contradictory information, who was ever going to know?
People were talking amongst themselves so Kenny spoke quietly, just under the noise. "I know you're not eighteen for a few more days, but right now you're nineteen, okay? We both are."
Butterfingers nodded uncertainly.
"They have no reason to turn either of us down. It'll be fine. Alright?"
Another uncertain nod. "Yeah, if you say so, Ken."
"Good." Kenny softened a little. Maybe he'd been a bit harsh on Butterfingers, but the thing was it was hard not to be. It was the easiest way of getting him calm—he needed someone to tell him that things were okay, or what to do. He'd make quite a good soldier, come to think of it. "It's going to be alright, Butterfingers."
He smiled at Kenny, not happily or sadly but one of those appreciative ones that say 'You're making me feel a bit better, keep going.' It was one of those ones that reminded him ever so slightly of Karen's smiles. "Promise?"
"I promise. It'll all be okay, Butterfingers." Maybe he could introduce the two of them to each other at some point. It wasn't exactly like they were polar opposites, and he did have a habit of constantly talking about them to each other. Whenever there was nothing worth talking about over the manual labour, he'd constantly talk to Butterfingers about Karen's life, and conversely he'd brought up Butterfingers under the ash tree several times when Karen had nothing to talk about.
They'd always liked the sound of each other. They'd get along rather well, Kenny thought.
Then the bell chimed again. Seven o'clock in the morning precisely on the first hour chime. After the seventh, the queue began shuffling forward. Kenny made sure Butterfingers was ahead in the queue, so that if he needed reassuring he'd know exactly where Kenny was looking.
They entered the building. It wasn't particularly grand, considering the area. Of course, that was still pretty amazing by the standards of two factory workers. There was wooden flooring and a few small chandeliers in lieu of more practical light fixtures, that sort of thing, but at the same time there wasn't exactly an air of opulence in the place. Kenny couldn't place it. Maybe it just hadn't been cleaned in a while or something.
In any event it wasn't too alienating, so neither he nor Butterfingers felt too out of place.
The line progressed to a series of tables to one side of the lobby, behind which four people in army uniforms were sitting with stacks of papers next to them. Looking at them was slightly odd — from left to right there was a black haired one, a brown haired one, a red haired one and a blonde one. It could only have been deliberate.
Slowly but surely, the queue shuffled forwards. Butterfingers looked back a couple of times, and Kenny always gave him a nod of reassurance. It kept him under control until, eventually, they were at the front of the queue.
"Next!" shouted one of the officers — the black haired one. Once again, Butterfingers glanced back. Once again, Kenny nodded reassuringly.
He waited behind while Butterfingers stepped forward. There was a quick glance back at Kenny as he moved to the guess. Kenny smiled and nodded once. Then Butterfingers turned to the man behind the desk.
"Good morning," he was greeted. "Here to enlist?" No shit, Kenny couldn't help thinking.
"Uh, yeah," Butterfingers replied.
"Good. Good for you." The man behind the desk pulled a form out. "Name?"
Butterfingers hesitated. "Uh, Leopold Stotch. But everyone calls me Butterfingers." The officer glanced up from the paper for a few seconds, gauging whether this person was trying to be clever. He came to a conclusion.
"Leopold 'Butterfingers' Stotch," he read aloud as he wrote it down. "No middle names." It was an assumption, but as far as Kenny was aware it was a correct one, and Butterfingers didn't correct him so on he went. "Age?"
Kenny felt himself swallowing. This was where it was won or lost for Butterfingers. Too much hesitation before he answered and—
"Nineteen, sir," Butterfingers replied without missing any beats at all.
"Nineteen," the officer repeated, writing that down. Kenny made a mental note to give Butterfingers a bit more credit. The boy could fib when he had to, that was for damn sure. "You wouldn't happen to know your height, would you?"
"Uh... No, I don't. Sorry."
The officer shrugged. "Don't worry. If you could come over here?"
Kenny was going to watch what happened at Butterfingers' being measured, but then there was a "Next!" from the next desk along, and up Kenny went. He'd gotten the brown haired officer. "Name?"
The man looked up. "McCormick? You're not Irish by any chance?" he asked. It sounded conversational, and to be fair the officer behind the desk had the lilt himself. But, unfortunately for this particular line of conversation, Kenny didn't know, what with the lack of parents and all.
"Don't know, I'm afraid. I don't know my dad and my mother died before I was old enough to maintain a conversation."
The officer looked down. "Shame. I always love it when I get another Irish guy here, and we can talk about the old place." He filled the top two boxes of the form in. "Tell you something, the superiors hate it. Slows down the line or something... Anyway. Middle names?"
"James Daniel." Another box got filled in.
"Nineteen." Kenny glanced towards Butterfingers' height exam, which was just finishing up. What was he, five seven? Maybe six and a half? Was that enough?
He saw Butterfingers smile. Tall enough.
"Would you know your height, by any chance?" Kenny's officer asked.
Kenny glanced to Butterfingers' sheet. Five feet, six and a half inches. And what Kenny did know was that all told he had round about half a foot on him. "About six foot, ish. Maybe."
"You don't know precisely?"
"I'm afraid not," Kenny responded with a shake of the head.
"No worries, if you could come over here." And so it was Kenny's turn for a measurement. He stood up against the measure on the wall, and the officer pressed his hand down on Kenny's head to flatten his messy hair. Kenny stood away. "Six foot precisely. Okay, fair enough." Back to the table they went.
The officer filled the next box in—six feet, zero inches. "Should probably just take your word for it next time." Kenny forced a chuckle in acknowledgement. "Next question, do you want regular service or short service?"
Kenny's eyes narrowed a bit. "What's the difference?"
"Regular service, you sign up for seven years, then you spend five years in the reserves. So you can get called back up. Short service, basically you get three years service, then after that three years, if we're still at war you stay until the end."
Kenny considered. "Uh... Butterfingers?"
"Yeah?" came the reply from the next table.
"Short or regular service?"
"Uh, I went for short service, I don't think we'd be gone longer than seven years, so..." Butterfingers shrugged, not knowing exactly how to finish that sentence.
Kenny turned back to the officer. "Short service it is."
"Joining up with friends, are we?" the officer asked as he checked a box.
Kenny tightened his face a little. "Well, a friend. He wanted to join up, I'm going with. That's about the extent of it."
The officer didn't respond, instead filling a few extra boxes in. Kenny wasn't sure what it was, but he decided it would probably be best to just write it off as administrative nonsense and not worry about it.
"Okay, you'll have to pass a physical before you can be sent to boot camp. The situation being what it is, you're going to be accelerated through your basic training. I'd expect there be a little less emphasis on the stupid stuff like keeping your uniform presentable and how to march correctly. Since we're looking at either immediate or as soon as is humanly possible shipping, you're more likely to be jammed through to combat readiness as quickly as possible, and—"
"Dara," the black haired officer on the left said in an overly faux—bored voice, interrupting Kenny's officer as Butterfingers left, "you're waffling again."
"Oh, sorry." He scrunched his eyes shut as he corrected his train of thought and got back to the matter at hand. "Well, Mr. McCormick, welcome to His Majesty's army. Report to boot camp at Haggerston in three days for your physical examination, if you pass then you'll get further instructions as and when. Once in training uniform and room and board will be provided, look forward to working with you et cetera." The officer held out one hand. Kenny shook it and smiled warmly.
"Thank you, sir."
Kenny pivoted and left the building as the officer shouted "Next!" Butterfingers was waiting for him just outside.
"So," Kenny said, slapping the smaller boy on the back as they walked back to their homes. "Wasn't so bad now, was it?"
Butterfingers smiled awkwardly and looked down at the pavement. "Yeah, I guess not. I mean, it's not like I'm going to fail the physical, right Ken?"
"Of course you won't," Kenny confirmed.
Butterfingers nodded. "So, uh, are you coming to work?"
"Nah." Kenny started walking a little more briskly. "If you're going then let the foreman know I quit. Me, I've got to let Karen know what's happening."
"Oh, yeah." Butterfingers seemed to have forgotten about that. Kenny didn't really blame him, though, Karen wasn't his sister after all. "You did tell her before, right?"
Kenny nodded. "I let her know that it might be happening, when you first mentioned it. I'll have to tell her it's definite though."
"She'll be okay with it, right?" Butterfingers asked.
"Should be," he replied brightly, just in order to mask that he really didn't know.
Buckling up the meagre bag of stuff that was all he felt essential to take with him, Kenny looked around his room. Even though he was technically too old to be at an orphanage now, Karen had made a very good case, through the medium of uncontrollable crying, to keep him around until she was old enough to be kicked out too. As harsh as she could get, the matron did have a soft spot, and Kenny was bringing money in too.
He'd lived most of his life here. It wasn't a place he felt he should miss, really. It wasn't exactly cosy or nice. The room was shared with nineteen other people, of which one was his sister and eighteen others were people who had dedicated as much of their time as they could to keeping him up at night.
But it was just what he was used to. And now he was moving on.
He was taking the first wobbly steps into the adult world. He wasn't going to get everything spoon fed to him any more.
Karen was there, too. Even though she was getting older too, she was latched around Kenny's midriff, refusing to let go. Kenny didn't particularly want her to let go, come to that, but he just kind of had a place he needed to be.
"You'll be back, right, Kenny?" she asked, sniffling into his chest.
Kenny nodded. "Course I will. I mean, I'm only down the road for a few weeks, you can come watch me." Down the road, incidentally, meant about a mile and a half. While there were certainly recruiting stations on damn near every street corner by now, boot camps were a bit more sparse. But a mile and a half wasn't exactly the other end of the country either—he suspected Karen would be fine with it.
He felt rather than saw Karen nodding. "But then you'll be gone, won't you?" she asked glumly.
She had him there, but Kenny wasn't going to just let that go. "I won't be gone," he tried. "I'll just be away. You'll see." He sniffed himself—he was starting to crack up. It wasn't the situation of him leaving that was doing it, it was more that Karen was sad.
He hated seeing Karen sad.
"Tell you what, Karen," he said finally, "when I get there I'll write to you, okay? I'm sure there'll be time."
"You'll do it every week?" Karen asked, perking up a little. Kenny hesitated.
"Um." He wasn't sure what his schedule was going to be, but the military being what it was meant he wasn't ready to put too much money down on it being flexible. "No promises," he replied honestly. Karen's face started to fall. "I'll do my best though. At least every month."
"Okay," she agreed, nodding slightly.
"I mean, you know me, I won't write much, but I'll write all the same." Kenny gently pushed Karen away, and, placated, she did disengage herself from the hug. "It'll all be okay. I promise."
Karen looked up at him. "Kenny?"
"Before you go, could you read to me again?"
Kenny dithered. He really had to go. But it wasn't like he was going to say no, was it?
"Just a little, you know I've got to go, like, right now."
Kenny chuckled. "I did say yes, you know," he teased, deliberately trying to lighten the mood. He didn't go for the books in the room then, though, as perhaps Karen had intended. He already knew what he was going to read, and he had it memorised. "You remember Lady Clara, don't you?" he asked. Karen liked that poem, and it was one of the Tennysons that Kenny was able to tolerate.
Karen nodded. "Clara, Clara Vere de Vere," she began. She was only reciting the last verse—that was merciful on his time constraint, at least.
"If time be heavy on your hands," Kenny continued. "Are there no beggars at your gate, nor any poor about your lands?" Halfway through now, Karen started reciting with him.
"O, teach the orphan—boy to read,
Or teach the orphan—girl to sew;
Pray Heaven for a human heart,
And let the foolish yeoman go."
They let the silence stand for a second. Between the two of them, they'd found that poem, in particular that final stanza, rather appropriate for them.
"Thank you," Karen whispered, hugging him again.
Kenny nodded in acknowledgement. "You know I've got to go now," he pressed reluctantly.
Karen nodded, pulling back. "Okay. Good luck to you."
"And to you in whatever mischief you get up to while I'm away."
Finally, Karen smiled. And everything seemed okay again. "Bye, Kenny."
"Goodbye, Karen." Kenny slung the bag with everything of his that was worth keeping over his shoulder and headed for the door.
One last smile passed between the siblings before Kenny made for the exit and his new, military life.
A month of highly accelerated basic training had passed, and all things considered Kenny and Butterfingers had come out of it pretty well.
Of course, they'd been informed that they'd have to pick correct uniform maintenance up on the fly — right now they needed soldiers who could shoot straight and follow their orders.
Hence basic training had consisted of a lot of target practice, a lot of walking in circles and stabbing hay bales, a little bit of learning basic tactics (which consisted primarily of standing in a line and firing at the enemy and hoping that they fell over first) and a little history on war, which mostly took the form of old veterans describing their experiences in every war between Crimea and Boer and informing the new recruits of what seemed to work and what didn't.
Then after training, the troops had been deployed almost immediately. Kenny had managed to secure sufficient time to give Karen a final goodbye and on he'd gone.
The journey across the water had been at best uneventful and at worst a downright bore. Kenny and Butterfingers had slept through the ferrying across, as they'd be marching to their stations. Trenches, apparently. Their sleep was better than some got—one poor bastard spent the entire journey noisily relocating his evening meal from his stomach to the Channel.
The marching itself was alright once Kenny had gotten the feel of his boots. They'd rubbed and caused more than a couple of blisters at first, but once he'd gotten used to tying them extra tight it was pretty much okay.
Plus, once in the rhythm of the march, it got to a point where it ached more to stay still than it did to move. Whether that was the point, or the officers in charge knew that and just didn't particularly care, was not for Kenny to say, but damn if it didn't encourage him to keep moving.
Butterfingers was a few rows behind Kenny in the march, but he was doing alright. He was a little better, after training. He was still naturally nervous, of course, but getting shouted at a lot seemed to have an effect on that. A positive one.
It was a number of days before they reached their stations. Kenny and Butterfingers had landed the same company, so they got to share a trench. It was recently built, of course, and not in the best position. Hearsay along the column of men was that the Germans had trenched up first, and as such had had first pick for position. They had high ground and, at best guess, more stable trench walls.
Kenny entered the trench down a ramp—obviously he wasn't expected to just jump down eight feet. The first thing he noticed was about ten inches of water at the bottom of the trench, with a plank system running across the top that was presumably what passed for a walkway here. "Oh, joy," he muttered to himself.
He and his friend were assigned the front line, because of course they were going to get the most dangerous job there was to be assigned to. To get there they had to navigate through two layers of trenches—they obviously couldn't just jump into the front line trench in plain sight of an enemy machine gun, or they'd all get slaughtered before they had a chance to even settle in.
It took fifteen minutes and three wrong turns to get to their position, where two soldiers were waiting for them, looking very thoroughly bored.
"Took you long enough," the taller one of them, a redhead, groaned. "Privates McCormick and Stotch, right?"
Kenny nodded, as did Butterfingers. He glanced at the three downward pointing chevrons on the speaker's arm. "Sergeant Brovlowski?"
"Broflovski," the man corrected. Polish ancestry, maybe? Kenny had been mulling that since he'd first seen the name. He took him in. Pretty wild curly hair, about five eleven, hazel eyes and a smattering of freckles.
Kenny nodded. "And that makes you the corporal?"
"Stan Marsh," the other man—five ten (with a bit of generous rounding), black hair, dull blue eyes, overall not too interesting to look at—introduced himself. "Fair warning, we don't really give a shit about the ranks. We're just Stan and Kyle, least while the lieutenant's not around."
Kenny gave a sigh of relief. "Thank Christ. This lieutenant a stickler for procedure?"
Stan hesitated. "Sometimes..." he drawled out uncertainly. "I mean, it really depends on his mood. Most of the time he's alright. Only problem is it's impossible to tell what his mood is until you're a bit too late."
"Well, great," Kenny muttered. "Well, I'm Kenny McCormick, this here's Butterfingers."
Kyle raised an eyebrow high enough that it went into his helmet. "Butterfingers?"
Butterfingers shrugged. "Well, it's kinda true... And I prefer it over Leopold, so yeah, that's my name."
Kyle shook his head disdainfully. "No, no, the whole reason we don't call each other by our damn surnames is so that Stan doesn't have to say 'Sergeant Broflovski' every fucking time he wants my attention. I'm not calling him Butterfingers, three syllables is too much and four is just extravagant."
Kenny pondered whether Kyle had a point or was being offensive for a second, but then Butterfingers beat him to the punch. "Well, I could shorten it if you like?"
Kyle smirked a little. "Consider it an order."
"Well, how about 'Butters'?" Butterfingers tried uncertainly.
Stan and Kyle glanced at each other, then in unison turned to the two blondes and smiled. "See?" Stan said with a little shrug. "Wasn't so bad now, was it?"
Butterfingers shrugged. "I guess not."
Stan stood up straight from where he'd been leaning against the side of the trench. "Come in," he invited, heading towards a makeshift doorway consisting of a wooden frame around a hole in the front wall that led down some steps. "Might as well show you where you'll be sleeping."
The room inside was cramped, but not exactly uncomfortable either, at least by Kenny's standards. The walls and ceiling were all planked over so there'd be little chance of them falling in without an artillery shell or two to prompt them along the way, and about half of the floor was covered too. There was a table, a few crates here and there on which other stuff was kept, and of course the beds. Cramped but manageable. Kenny had grown up in an orphanage, he was used to that.
"It was a bitch getting the water out," Kyle lamented, "but we managed it eventually. We've been here for a few weeks now, basically the first here. Digging it out was the main problem, then bailing all the water out was the next one. Got to finish covering the floor too. But it's not bad, is it?"
Kenny shook his head. "Not at all." A look around confirmed there to be six bunks. "Who are the other two?"
Stan's tone dropped. "Well, we've got the lieutenant. He's alright, keeps himself to himself—"
"He's an arsehole," Kyle added.
Stan paused. "Well...yes, he is a bit of a git sometimes, but as long as you don't piss him off too much he's neutral enough. Then the sixth, we're still waiting on him." He checked a sheet of paper on the table at the centre of the room. "Volunteer like you but he's going through a bit of extra training, coming in as a lance corporal. Clyde Donovan. He's due tomorrow." He stepped towards his bed.
Butters narrowed his eyes slightly out of confusion. "I thought you said he was going through extra training. How's he arriving right after us?"
"Well..." Stan's face furrowed a little. He froze midstride. Then he did a smart turn and bee—lined for straight back for the table in the middle of the room, where he looked at that piece of paper again in confusion. "Okay, when did you guys volunteer?"
"Uh, six weeks back," Butters provided. "We were accelerated through training and shipped straight here."
"There you go," Stan said, happy that discrepancy had been accounted for. "He volunteered early. Basically as soon as it opened up after the war announcement, start of August."
"Right," Kenny said, throwing everything he'd been carrying onto one of the emptier looking mattresses, then he sat down. "Does it get exciting at all here?"
Kyle shook his head. "Not really. We wait for orders, orders don't come. Until they do, we just rotate in and out of watch."
"Uh," Butters interrupted, "what exactly does 'watch' constitute, Sergeant Broflo—"
"Kyle," Kyle snapped. "Were you not listening to what I was saying, like, a minute ago?"
Butters yelped and began to fret. "Oh, god, sorry Kyle, it's just, back at boot camp, they really got mad when you didn't address them right, and—"
"It's fine, it's fine," Kyle groaned. "Just, remember the correct method of address is Kyle, alright?"
"Uh, okay, Kyle," Butters finally replied, calming slightly. "But what is watch like, anyway?"
Before Kyle could even respond, there was a knock at the door.
"Fuck, here he is..." Kyle moaned. Does he seriously knock?
"If I'm not interrupting anything," came a droning voice from the door. Kenny turned first, shedding his helmet onto the crate next to his bed. He looked at the door. Another man was standing there. Two stars on his shoulder—the mysterious lieutenant.
"Tucker," Kyle acknowledged.
"Kyle." Tucker looked at the new arrivals. "So these are...?"
"I'm Kenny, that's Butterfin— Butters," Kenny clarified. Tucker blinked once and swivelled his head.
"Butters?" he asked, waiting for some sort of punch line by the sound of it.
"Nickname," Butters muttered.
"Oh. Well, I'm Craig Tucker, your commanding officer, and..." He trailed off. He took in a breath, trying to continue, but then he sighed instead, slumping down ever so slightly. "You know what, I can't do this right now." He moved towards his own bunk, throwing his helmet onto his pillow and sitting down. He began fuming in what was the most nonchalant way Kenny had ever heard. "The trench wall collapsed in on itself again because we didn't have enough fucking wood to support the damn thing, so I've had to supervise the fucking cleanup for three goddamn hours. For fuck's sake I'm a soldier, not an engineer. Right now I just can't be arsed."
Kenny took a guess at a few things. Craig Tucker, probably Scottish descent but his accent was fairly neutral. About six one or six two. Black hair, probably cut with clippers a few months before but getting messy now. That said, the same could be said of the others. Kyle's looked fairly messy naturally, like Kenny's but with curls instead of straight strands that just tangled up within five minutes of being combed, and the lack of comb in the dugout meant that Stan's was getting to the point where it was starting to look actively unkempt.
Kyle was right about Craig, too. Kenny couldn't get any kind of an emotional read on the man.
"When's Clyde Donovan getting here?" Craig asked.
"Tomorrow," Stan filled in.
"Thank fucking Christ. I'm not preparing for him today."
"That bad, Craig?" Stan asked.
Kenny glanced between Stan and Craig. "So... Correct form of address is Craig?"
In unison, Stan and Craig both responded "Yeah."
Kenny cocked his head at Craig. "You know that up to now, every officer I've passed has had a rod up their arse?"
"Most of them do," Craig confirmed.
"So it doesn't bother—"
"Kenny," Craig interrupted. "I really don't give a damn, okay? You can call me Lieutenant Thundercunt if it makes you happy, I'll respond to it." Then, seeing Kyle opening his mouth, Craig immediately turned and pointed. "Say nothing," he warned.
He pivoted around on his bed so he was lying down. "If you don't mind I need to sleep. Don't you new guys worry, I sleep like the dead so you can get to know each other or whatever it is you do in your free time." And with that, the conversation was over.
Kenny turned to Kyle. "Well, he's not that bad," he mouthed.
"Yes he is," Kyle mouthed back. Then he started talking. "Well, we might as well show you around your home for the next few months. You've already called bunks and seen your glorious royal fucking apartment, so..." Kyle went outside. Kenny shrugged towards Butters and followed.
Kyle took extreme care to stay on the planking system. "Trench normally has at least a few inches of water in it. We don't have enough wood to keep the walls up and have a proper floor so we have to make do with this, and even this isn't enough to keep us above water sometimes. Wet feet are disgusting." They reached a station where there was a periscope and a machine gun mounted on the top of the trench, with a soldier on each. They exchanged nods with Kyle.
"Here's one of our watch stations, this is where you'll normally be when on duty. That's what our squad normally does. Occasionally we'll get to do the odd patrol or inventory, but it's mostly this. Not a whole lot happens here. Normally it's one of us, one of the guys from the next dugout along. They take the gun, we take the watch." Kyle paused, then turned. "If they get a bit pissy at you, just take it."
Kenny cocked his head. "Why's that?"
"We have the nicer dugout. Since we have an officer and all, ours got a bit more effort put into it. We have an actual room. Planked over walls, ceiling. They've basically got a fucking mud corridor with beds."
"Oh." That did sound horrid.
"Surely they wouldn't have any room to move around in there?" Butters thought aloud.
"They don't. But even then at least they have a dugout, some guys just have to sleep outside. If the Bosche come along while they're asleep, it's goodnight fucking Vienna for them," Kyle said, in what to Kenny was a bit of an offhand manner. "Anyway, that's about the extent of it. Let's go back."
"Well, that's horrible," Butters muttered.
Kenny tapped Kyle's shoulder. "You've been in the army for a while, haven't you?"
"Since Boer," Kyle filled in. "Got picked up from a bar in Birmingham. They have shooting ranges for practice in there and I was a decent shot. There was a recruitment guy in there, I needed a job. Lied about my age."
"You and us both," Kenny replied, nodding. He heard a short gasp from Butters at that admission. Kyle turned to glance between the two of them, and nodded.
"Sort of guessed, actually. How many months short are you?"
Kyle turned to Butters. "You?"
Butters fidgeted a little. "Uh, eleven..."
Kyle's eyebrows shot up. "Wow," he said, dumbfounded at that difference. "I thought eight months was bad."
The fidgeting got a little more intense. "You're not going to—"
"Of course not," Kyle reassured them. "I'm many things but I'm not a hypocrite. Besides, I've seen sixteen year olds pass for enlistment and I said nothing then. Now." Kyle looked up at the watch station. "You'll be aware of all your shifts at least a week in advance, barring your first few, obviously. Most of the time you'll just be on watch stations, but occasionally someone is needed to keep an eye on the dumps in the rearward trenches. The good news is most of the time that means most of us will be in the dugout, it'll be really rare that we end up with most people being out doing stuff."
"Not bad," Kenny agreed.
"This'll be your home for ages, so you might as well settle in until we get transfer orders." Kyle started to walk back towards the dugout. "Or shot."
Kenny caught a glance from Butters at that. He forced a smile out. "Don't worry," he whispered under his breath, so that Kyle wouldn't hear. "He's just messing." They went back to the dugout and acquainted themselves with their beds.
The next day Kenny woke up to find that only Stan was in the dugout with him.
"The hell is everyone?" Kenny asked.
Stan was reading a book on his bed, so looked up. "Oh, hey Kenny. Butters had the early shift and Craig and Kyle are out back."
Kenny screwed his face up a bit as he sat up. "Out the back of where?"
"The trenches." Kenny's face scrunched up even further. "Basically, after you guys got lost yesterday Craig decided to go out to get Clyde before he could do the same thing."
"And since he wanted a proper welcome party for some reason, he didn't really explain himself, he took the next highest ranking person—that is, Kyle—with him. So they're off to fetch him." Stan almost returned to his book, but then looked back over. "Oh, also Craig put you down for the next shift. When Butters gets back."
Kenny nodded, and stood up to stretch. "Thanks for letting me know."
Kenny held his chest out and bent his arms back until he heard and felt a few satisfying cracks and pops. Then he reached for his uniform. Since there was a new guy coming and all, he figured he might as well make himself presentable. He picked his jacket up off the floor and slung it over his back, shrugging it on until it was comfortable. He flattened his collar and pulled his trousers on.
He looked himself down once his boots were on. Dull green really wasn't his colour—he'd always preferred orange himself. It brought his hair out. Green just wasn't nice to look at. His trousers were crumpled up from his not hanging them up, instead having left them on the floor, and he hadn't bothered buttoning his jacket up, leaving a white undershirt on open display.
"Fuck it, that'll do..." Kenny muttered to himself. "How long until I'm on shift?" he asked Stan.
"Few hours. Butters hasn't been out for that long."
Kenny nodded, and lay back down for lack of other things to do. He didn't know how long he was there for—it didn't seem like that long—until Kyle's voice interrupted the sound of Stan's rustling pages. "He's here."
Kenny swivelled around and stood up, as did Stan. He heard a voice in the trench.
No, wait. That was two voices. Was it?
"Listen," Kyle said quietly. "Whatever you say, don't imply they sound the same. Tucker won't take it well."
At which point, the two of them walked into the dugout, Craig entering first with who was presumably Clyde Donovan behind him. Kenny took stock. Five ten, brown hair recently cut, lance corporal. Nothing too special.
"Okay, squad," Craig announced, "this here is the new lance cor— Kenny, you're an absolute mess.
"Sorry," Kenny replied, not actually apologising at all. Craig rolled his eyes, but let it slide.
"Anyway, this is our new lance corporal." He gestured towards the shorter man.
"Hi, guys," Clyde said in a remarkably similar drone to Craig's, giving a half—committed wave.
Kenny disregarded Kyle's advice. "You know, you two sound like each other."
Craig blinked at him. "I don't sound like Clyde," he defended. Kenny suppressed the laugh badly. "Shut up. He has a fucking northern accent." Okay, maybe that was true. But it was very slight.
From that defence, with no perceptible change in tone or emotion whatsoever, Craig continued. "Now, Clyde signed up as soon as war was declared and underwent a few more weeks training than you and Butters did, so he comes in with a rank."
Kenny nodded. Kyle huffed. "He can see the chevron, Tucker."
Craig let that slide too. "In any event the difference is pretty minimal, and we're all friends here."
Clyde turned to him. "Where's the butter guy?" he asked.
"He's on duty," Craig answered.
Kenny shook his head. "Really, guys, if you coloured Clyde's hair black you could be—"
"Shut up," Craig repeated.
"He's right though," Kyle shot. Of course, Kyle wouldn't be able to help throwing his own opinion into it all despite the voluminous hypocrisy.
"Next person I tell to shut up is having their boots thrown in the fucking water." There was silence. Craig smirked briefly. "Clyde, your bunk is that one. Have fun here. First shift after Kenny's."
Clyde headed to his bunk, which was the one between Kenny and Craig. Kenny started memorising exactly where everyone was, just for posterity. On the left of the entrance as he would have walked in there was Craig, who got the whole wall to himself. Then it was Clyde against the back wall, then him, then Butters, with Stan and Kyle on the right hand wall.
This couldn't be too bad, then.
Kenny pulled a blank piece of paper from the middle of the table and he began writing. He'd made a promise, after all.
Karen he wrote.
I've arrived in France. I landed a spot on the front lines, possibly unfortunately. So did Butters, actually, I think because we signed up together someone made sure to keep us together. Sure was nice of them.
There are six people here in my dugout, and I think they're to be considered my squad too. There's me, Butters, this guy Clyde who I've not really gotten to know yet, he's new too. There's Stan and Kyle, from what I gather they're both people who were already in the army. Stan's pretty much alright, but Kyle's got a temper. He keeps getting into arguments with Craig—they've had at least five since I arrived yesterday. Craig is our commander, and Kyle doesn't like him. I guess I can see why he might not like him, but he's not that bad.
I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Kyle gets some horrible duties at some point, the way he's been going the last couple of days. Or maybe Craig is used to it.
I don't know how long this letter is going to take to get home. I'll write if anything interesting happens or every month, whichever is sooner. If it takes ages then I promise it's not my fault.
I'll write again soon.
He dated the letter and enveloped it up, addressed it and put it aside. "Uh, Stan?" he asked.
"How does the post work?"
Stan glanced over. "Uh, just leave it on the crate by the door. There should be a couple there already. Whenever someone's going out of the trenches, or in that direction, they take them with."
"Okay. Thanks." Kenny dropped the letter on top of the others and returned to bed. Stan was letting him borrow his book that was just about all that there was to do, so he set about reading that.
After a few hours, as Stan had predicted, Butters got back and Kenny had to button his jacket up to go out on watch duty.
"How bad is it?" he asked.
Butters shrugged. "It's kind of boring, just sitting out there, but you can chat with the other guys to pass the time. It's not too bad, I guess."
"Good. That's good." Kenny started slinging rifle and webbing over his shoulders. "See you in a few hours then, guys." He got everything between goodbyes and disinterested hums if acknowledgement in response as he headed out.
Kenny stood stock still. Craig inspected him over. "Chest out a bit more." Kenny did so. Something caught Craig's eye and he rubbed one of the buttons of Kenny's jacket with the cuff of his sleeve. "Almost presentable," he commented.
"Is all this really necessary?"
"Yup," Craig replied shortly.
"This must be what having an overbearing mother is like," Kenny huffed. "Butters didn't get all this shit."
"Butters," Craig retorted roughly, "is unusually good at making himself look presentable. You're borderline awful at best."
Kenny shot Butters a glare, but Butters was far too busy beaming at the floor like he did whenever he got the slightest modicum of praise. Christ, how does he survive being that shy?
"Well, my dad, he was always insisting I look my best, so—"
"Didn't ask for your life story, Butters," Craig clarified needlessly. He really did sound rough — sore throat, maybe?
"Boot camp's changed a lot since I was there," Craig muttered, making more minor adjustments to Kenny's uniform. "Time was, the first week was all uniform inspections."
Kenny shrugged. "I think we skipped that part. That and the specifics of marching and standing correctly, we just kind of had to pick that up ourselves. They just wanted people who could shoot straight, use a bayonet and do what they were told." Craig hummed. "I think I only ever saw one person get done for bad uniform and he had his trousers on backwards."
"That explains it," Craig said through a heavy sigh. "Do try a bit harder in future though. If you look bad it looks bad on me." He glanced at Clyde, who was just finishing suiting up. "Clyde can do it, so you can fucking do it too."
"Thanks," Clyde said offhandedly.
Kenny shut up. Okay, so he was the least presentable person here, that was something he could live with. It wasn't like he'd ever had to look particularly good before, so he'd never made any effort to. He just wasn't going to be good at it.
"What's all this in aid of, anyway?" Butters asked. "I mean, if this general's as reasonable as you say he is, he'd understand if we looked a bit off. We could just pass it off as the cold getting to us or something."
Craig shook his head. "Yardale's reasonable, and he'd buy that as an excuse. It's the other guy I'm worried about." He pulled Kenny's jacket down, straightening it out a bit. "The brigadier, you see, is a sadistic fuck nugget." Taking a step back, Craig took Kenny in. "That'll have to do. Anyway, he has a thing for dishing out punishments for the most ridiculous things. Sometimes — hell, most of the time—Yardale will overrule him but..."
"But he can technically get away with it?" Clyde asked lowly. Craig hummed. "Shit."
"Yup." Craig picked up his baton. "Okay, all of you in a line, stand at attention. I'm not up for shouting today. I'll announce them when they come, salute them when they enter." He glared at Kenny again. "You do know how to do that, right?"
Kenny immediately swivelled his arm around at the shoulder, holding his hand to his forehead with palm facing towards Craig.
"Thank god for that," Craig muttered, more to himself than to anyone else in particular. "Now stop showing off and behave."
"Someone's snippy today, hm?" Kenny observed, smirking.
It was a couple of minutes before there was thumping outside. Two people running towards the dugout. Craig turned towards the entrants as they arrived. It was only Stan and Kyle, so Kenny didn't really acknowledge them.
"They're coming!" Stan announced through heavy breaths. "We've got about five minutes before they get to here, they're stopping at the major's place first, then the captain's, and our platoon's closest to him."
"Okay," Craig acknowledged. "In line." Kyle and Stan stood next to Clyde, so that they were standing in order of rank, and Craig headed outside to wait.
The first indication of the approaching officers was a raspy voice talking in what sounded like a conversational tone. "Really, General, that could have been a court martial offence if he'd gone much further. You should have punished him for it with, like, latrine duty at the very least."
A much more reserved voice answered. "I fought with the captain back in Boer, Eric, he's a good officer. He wouldn't question me if he didn't have an exceptionally good reason."
"Hate to break it to you," said the raspy voice, "But he's gone mad."
"I'll hear no more about it," the reserved person said, thoroughly ending the conversation. Kenny therefore guessed that that had to be the general, and sent a mental thanks to whichever god had prevented the inverse being the case. "Lieutenant!"
Craig's nasal voice drifted through. "General. Brigadier."
Kenny heard what sounded like a sneer. "You're getting sloppy, Tucker."
"Front line duty does that to a man, Brigadier."
"That brigadier sounds horrible," Butters whispered under the conversation outside. Kenny hushed him. "What if he just yells at us all?" he fretted. "Oh, gee—" Kenny hushed him slightly louder this time. Butters managed shut up.
Craig came back in. "Lieutenant General Sir Gregory Timothy Carlton Richardson of Yardale—" Kenny had to keep himself from sniggering at that ridiculous name. "—and Brigadier Eric Theodore Cartman." Everyone immediately saluted.
The general came in first. He was something to look at. Tall, easily six four, with swept back blonde hair, almost hypnotic blue eyes, and the crown and crossed sabre and baton insignia he'd have had on his cuff was neatly covered up by a dull green trench coat, which looked rather well padded too—so he was probably nice and warm. At the very least he was clever, then. At the rank he was he'd have to be at least forty, more than likely over fifty, and he looked thirty three at most. All told, the man was pretty impressive. This was, of course, completely offset by the second man.
He had his insignia—a crown above three stars — on open display on his wrists. Not even on his shoulder, on his wrists. Rather than being tall and lean like Yardale, he was about Butters' height but more... Well, Kenny couldn't put it any nice way, he was more spherical. Where Yardale had thick and swept blonde hair, the brigadier had scraggly brown hair that looked ready to spring up and turn into a mess were it not flattened by either water or some manner of styling product. Kenny knew he couldn't really complain about people having messy hair, of course, but at least his own mop was thick enough that the look sort of worked on him. Brigadier Cartman's was most certainly not.
"At ease," Yardale said. Cartman began glaring and grinning at something that only he could fathom. Through his peripheral vision, Kenny saw Kyle doing his best to not look like he was glaring. Yardale spoke again. "Good afternoon, gentlemen. Lieutenant Tucker, Sergeant Broflovski, Corporal Marsh, it's good to see you back on the front lines."
With the at ease order, Kenny got the opportunity to see exactly what it was Cartman was smirking at. It most certainly was Kyle. And Kyle, having given up all effort to hide it, was glaring back at him.
"I've certainly missed my favourite Jew," the brigadier chipped in. He really did have a horrid voice to have to listen to. Kenny heard Kyle's exhalation, and saw his expression harden. "Still plotting to take over the world? How's it gone in the last ten years?"
"Now now, Eric," Yardale interrupted brightly. "We're here to meet the newcomers, you can catch up with your friend when you're both off duty."
"With permission, General?" Kyle grated out. Yardale nodded. "If you would recall exactly what happened in Boer, he's not my friend."
Yardale cocked his head as he remembered. "Hm. I guess not. Still." He walked down the row to Clyde, but before he could talk Cartman was speaking again.
"General, he's disrespecting a superior officer. One of us should issue discipline for that."
Yardale turned. "I'm sure you're bitter about the incident, Eric, but as badly as he beat you, may I remind you that firstly you're the one who punched Sergeant Broflovski in the head after the verbal exchange, and secondly he has already received his punishment for that?" Cartman's brow furrowed but he nodded. "If I can be perfectly frank you deserved every hit you received, given the words you used."
Kyle smirked at Cartman just faintly enough that it wouldn't pass as the aforementioned disrespect. Yardale turned back. "Inspect them, Brigadier."
Cartman stepped forward and started making a huge show of taking in every detail of every uniform. Kenny sort of knew the look. Back at his orphanage, the matron occasionally had that look when she looked around the rooms on a bad day. It was the look that she gave when she was actively looking for something to whine about.
Fuck, did he hate those sorts of days.
For a few minutes, Cartman's eyes drilled into every aspect of their apparel—into where the creases were, into the shine of their buttons, even spending a couple of minutes admiring his reflection in Kyle's boots. Kenny made the note that there was some serious history between those two, and the addendum that perhaps he should never bring it up in conversation.
Eventually, and Kenny was proud that he'd managed to not flinch during his inspection, Cartman stepped back. When he spoke, the tone was highly begrudged. Craig seemed to have outmanoeuvred him. "Well," he said, "they're...adequate, for the most part. Save one thing." He looked at Craig. "Lieutenant Tucker, surely you know that as an officer your rank patch is to be worn on your cuff, not your shoulder?"
Craig tilted his head slightly in mock confusion. "I am, sir."
Cartman smirked. "So what, pray tell, is it doing on your shoulder?"
One thing Kenny had to grant Craig, he certainly kept his tone professional and detached in the face of what the brigadier clearly thought was a very devastating question. Then again, Craig had yet to prove he actually had many other tones for his voice to take.
"Thus far, the wearing of officer rank patches on the wrist has proven to be detrimental to the officer's life expectancy. Wearing them on the shoulder makes the patch less obvious to snipers. Second Lieutenant Lanskin almost lost a respectable portion of his head barely a couple of weeks ago since he had refused to change the position of his rank patch. He has since done so. Sir."
"He's got a point," Yardale mentioned. Cartman nodded, almost succeeding in hiding his disappointment. Apparently with no reason to punish anyone he was actually pretty disappointed. What were the words Craig had used? Sadistic fuck? Still, now he had the threat of snipers over him for the duration of his visit. Kenny found it hard to not chuckle. "Now. Lance Corporal Clyde Donovan, correct?"
"Yes sir," Clyde replied.
"You signed up almost immediately after the declaration of war. I must say, it is good to see such a surge of patriotism from a young man such as yourself."
"Thank you, sir," Clyde replied.
Yardale beamed. "I'm sure when the time comes you'll fight well." He moved down to Kenny, and the more cynical side of Kenny, in his head, muttered that the speed at which that conversation ended really showed how little of a shit the commanding officers gave for the lackeys who actually got shit done. Kenny did a mental hand wave to shoo that thought—he didn't want to be thinking bad thoughts about his superior when said superior was now standing directly in front of him. "Private....?"
Kenny remembered to keep his gaze directly ahead, rather than actually making eye contact with Yardale. That meant he had an eyeful of the general's neck. Fuck, he's tall. "Kenny McCormick, sir."
"Full name," Cartman demanded.
"Eric," Yardale admonished gently, smoothly cutting Kenny off. "If Kenny wants to be called Kenny then he can be called Kenny. You signed up at the same time as young..." There was a second's hesitation from the general as he remembered the names. "Leopold here, correct?"
"I signed up because he did, sir."
Yardale nodded. "That's good. Loyalty. I can see why you two wanted to serve together. I'll let you in on a secret, I had to stop Eric there from splitting you up."
Cartman groaned. "My assignment system was perfectly fine as it was."
"I'm sure it was, Eric, but it kept splitting up people who signed up together."
"The Army isn't a place for friendly regiments, sir."
Yardale reluctantly nodded in agreement. "But still, no need for cruelty, is there? Now, Kenny, your answer poses another question." He turned his beaming towards Butters. "Why did young Leopold sign up for service?"
At the silence, Kenny glanced down. Butters was shaking a little bit, emitting only short unsure sounds. He was flustered. Kenny had expected that.
"Answer the general," Cartman pressed.
Kenny stepped in. "I'm afraid Private Stotch is of a nervous disposition, sir. He's easily perturbed. I think the presence of a general might be making him a little on edge."
Cartman stepped forward. "Are you implying it's the general's fault?" he asked, grinning.
Kenny shrugged. "I'm merely stating, sir, that poor Butters doesn't function so well in the face of such a magnificent example of humanity."
Before Cartman got a chance to respond with a question as to what a butters was, or to demand the extra 'sir' on the end of the sentence, Yardale once again cut in. "Eric, be quiet. Private, excellent save. So why did Leopold sign up?"
"King and country, sir," Kenny immediately lied. Then an idea came to him in the form of a small voice at the back of his head. Latch it on to what the general was saying it told him. He'll buy it like it's plated in gold and going for thruppence. "Just like Clyde here."
"Excellent!" Yardale exclaimed. "Well, everything seems to be in order here. You have a fine squad here, Lieutenant, I pray you take care of them when the time comes for the push."
"Of course, sir." Yardale gave the squad one last beam and then hopped out to continue his inspection. Cartman gave them a last glare before forcing his way through the door to follow. As soon as they were gone, Craig groaned and threw away every loose item he was carrying—amounting to the baton, the helmet and probably would have included his webbing if he'd actually had it on. "I fucking hate inspections."
The line broke, with three people going straight for their bed and the others sitting at the table. Kyle was the one who shot back—as usual—as soon as he'd sat on his bed and started unbuttoning his jacket, even against what Kenny thought was an uncomfortably low temperature. "You seem to enjoy giving inspections."
"A certain amount of taking care of one's platoon is in the job description," Craig responded. "But if I could do it less often I fucking would. All it amounts to is superior officers reminding their lackeys that they exist."
Without any way to disprove that, Kyle didn't respond.
"And aren't you on shift now?" Craig added as he pulled a cigarette out. Kyle paused his unbuttoning, groaned, and started buttoning straight back up. He hauled his equipment on and headed out, muttering under his breath. Clyde immediately followed. Apparently he also had duties to do somewhere.
"Actually I need to get some air," Kenny announced. "I'll be back." He followed Clyde, tightened the strap of his helmet and stepped into the open, inhaling the filthy air. The outdoor air wasn't much better than indoors, really, but the sight of a sky made Kenny feel ever so slightly better. He heard the planks creaking behind him as a fourth person left the dugout.
"Everything okay, Ken?" Butters asked.
Kenny turned to face his friend. "Yeah. Everything's fine."
"It's not," Butters asserted. "I know when you're feeling bad, and you're feeling bad right now. What's wrong?"
Kenny chuckled a little. "You worry too much, Butters." He stepped out a little, then onto one of the support beams that was holding the planks up to let a couple of other guys through. Butters stepped back into the dugout for the same purpose.
"But you're right. I guess I've just been worrying a lot. Like... Did we make the right choice?"
Butters took a while to consider that. He looked between Kenny and the ground several times, each time opening his mouth to respond but always closing it again and averting his gaze again. The silence said enough for Kenny.
Whatever Butters was going to say, he'd either been thinking the same thing or had enough doubts that he was thinking it now.
"Well," Butters replied finally, "I think we did. Like, it's not as nice as what we had in London—"
"I'd be getting kicked out of the orphanage in a few months," Kenny cut in. "Along with Karen."
Butters paused. "Oh, yeah. You had to leave her behind too." He thought for a long second, just while Kenny managed to suppress the rude response he really wanted to give. "Okay, so maybe it's better than being completely homeless, but still, this was a step down. But hey, we're getting paid for this. So, you know, we're going to get some recompense, right? And you can send some of it back for Karen too, it's not all bad."
"If we don't blow it all when we're on leave, anyway," Kenny muttered. Butters immediately seemed to detect that Kenny wasn't feeling particularly confident about his ability to budget well.
"Well, I'm careful so, uh, maybe you should be too. That way you'll have something to take back, right?"
Kenny chuckled. "Since when have you admonished me?"
Butters' eyes rolled upwards as he thought through his response. "Since you admitted you might waste all your money before you even get home. If you set some aside each time you get your pay and hold that to be sacred, like, you don't touch that, then you're going to have some to send home whenever you send a letter back, right?" Kenny nodded. It wasn't entirely hard to see where he was coming from. "Point is, we might not have made the best choice, but there were worse things we could have done than this, right?"
"Right," Kenny agreed. That was a nice way of thinking about it—it could indeed be a lot worse than it was.
Kenny took one last deep breath of stale air before making back for the dugout door. "We got a deck of cards in recently, if you want a game of something?"
"Uh, I don't know any card games," Butters said in response, ashamedly. "My dad never had a deck, he always said they were only good for gambling, and, uh, he didn't like that."
Kenny grinned at him. Maybe it was because in the middle of the trenches it was nice to have the reminder that Butters still hadn't changed, but something about that exchange made Kenny's mood rise a little. "You know something?"
"Neither do I." Kenny's grin widened. "Maybe Craig or Stan knows something we can learn. Come on, at least we'll be a bit warmer in there." Butters smiled back briefly. Then he turned back indoors, and Kenny, all ready to embarrass himself playing games he didn't know, followed.
"Fifteen?" Kenny asked.
Butters was mumbling under his breath as he counted. "Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Yeah." Kenny struck that off the list he had.
"Good, now, there should be..." He checked the next item—thankfully the penultimate one. "Eight. Eight shells, how many are there?" The list that the major had provided them with had been none too specific as to what type of shells were there. Kenny's guess was that since inventory was only ever taken of one supply dump by one team, they probably didn't worry too much.
"Eight. Various types, mind you, if that's going to be a problem or something."
"It's fine, it just says shells." Kenny struck the item off. "Doesn't specify explosive or shrapnel or incendiary, just 'shells'. Someone's useless."
"Yeah," Butters concurred in a way that reeked slightly of not actually having listened to what it was that Kenny had said.
"Last thing, first aid kits," Kenny continued. "Twenty three?"
Butters set about looking through all the pouches, setting them aside as he counted. "Seventeen, eighteen, uh..." Kenny waited patiently.
As much as he liked to do something a little different from all the watch, then sleep, then watch, then sleep, over and over again until the day the sun turned magenta and whiskey rained from the skies, inventory taking was an awfully dull task to do. And that was just when the path to the assigned supply dump wasn't blocked by where an enemy shell explosion had blown the trench wall in, much to Craig's chagrin. As such, what would normally have been a ten minute walk had a twenty detour to the next point at which they could move back to the supply lines attached. Factoring in the extra time Kenny had been taking to make sure his feet stayed dry, the journey took three quarters of an hour in all.
"Uh, I count twenty four."
"What?" Kenny asked. Not that he hadn't heard or he'd misunderstood, he just wanted confirmation.
Butters stood up to full unimpressive height, double checking Kenny's list. "I double counted the first aid kits, there's twenty four there. Not twenty three."
Kenny dropped the sheet of paper he was holding and he started counting too. It wasn't beyond Butters to miscount, he hadn't earned the nickname Butterfingers just because he kept dropping things when he got nervous.
But on this occasion he was right. They were one up on first aid kits.
"Okay," Kenny said slowly. "At least we've got more than we thought, and not less."
Butters was starting to shudder slightly. "Major's still going to murder us for it," he gibbered. "And if I get murdered, dad's going to kill me and—"
"Butters," Kenny interrupted softly.
Butters fell silent for a second and took a deep breath. He stopped shuddering. "Sorry." Kenny had long since learned that it was best to interrupt his gibbering both early on and not too harshly. Anything else made it much more difficult to calm him down.
"We'll run it by someone before we leave, see if there's something that's been missed. Come on." Kenny stepped back outside into the open, treading carefully on the wooden planks. The planks were more like a pavement back here, being as they weren't so susceptible to being shelled into oblivion every couple of weeks, hence more resources could be expended on it. And also there were more likely to be higher ranking officers back here, Kenny didn't have too much doubt that that had something to do with it.
He turned to the corporal who was standing outside the dump. "Corporal?" he asked. He got a low and disinterested hum in response. "We're up one first aid kit for some reason."
"Oh, yes, that," the corporal said through a sigh. "Should have told you when you went in, sorry. It came from the German side."
"What?" Butters asked, cutting Kenny very neatly off before he could say the same thing. "The Germans sent a first aid kit over?"
"Among other things. We double checked them a few times before we threw it in there, obviously, and there seemed to be nothing wrong with it. No booby traps or anything."
"So..." Butters continued. "Just to be completely clear here, the Germans sent us first aid kits?"
"Among other things," the corporal repeated. "There's stories coming down the lines that this sort of thing's been happening in other places too. Gift exchanges. Functional stuff like bandages, and a few luxuries too. Cigarettes, that kind of thing."
Kenny stood mouth agape. "Exchanges?"
The corporal shrugged. "It is Christmas coming up, you know."
Kenny didn't have an answer to that. "Okay," he said awkwardly. "Well, if you'll excuse us we need to get back to our posts." Without saying any more, he turned and started walking briskly. Butters followed.
"Gift exchanges?" Butters asked once they were well out of earshot of the supply dump.
"Don't ask me, Butters, I don't know anything. I'm going to run this by Craig soon as we get back."
Kenny sighed. "I do not know." He made the left turn into the passage forward in the trench, towards the artillery lines. "It just smells a bit whiffy to me."
"I think it's kind of nice," Butters retorted. "I mean, I know there's a war on and all but come on, it is Christmas after all. We don't have to be killing each other all the time, do we?"
Kenny turned to face Butters for a second. "If you'll recall correctly, we've seen no action at all. Every German advance gets repelled by our machine guns and we haven't been advancing back, least not on our stretch of the front line. Between us we have a net kill count of zero." He continued walking. "We're not precisely killing anyone."
Since Kenny was ahead of Butters, he didn't see the look that he'd had shot at him. "I know what you mean, Kenny, but I think you know what I mean too. I wasn't just talking about us two, I'm talking about everyone who's fighting."
Kenny hummed in response, not wanting to over think it too much before he could get the opinion of someone a little more experienced in the army. They made the remainder of the walk back to the front line dugout in silence, mostly because the planks got sparser and sparser the closer to the front lines they got and they had to concentrate on their balance more than allowed for conversation.
Being in front, Kenny got to the dugout first. "Craig?" he asked immediately upon entering the room.
Craig had been in the middle of a chat with Clyde and Stan, and so turned with a slightly peeved look gracing his face. "What?"
Kenny was about to ask straight out but held himself back. This one was a little too out of the ordinary to just ask outright. "This might sound like a weird question," he qualified, "but do you know anything about gift exchanges?"
Craig blinked once. "How'd you find out about that?"
Stan looked between the two of them. "Is this a Christmas thing or something?"
"It might be," Kenny replied. He waved his hand between himself and Butters, who had just gotten in and sat straight down on his bed. "We were taking an inventory, as you know."
"Counted one first aid kit too many. The guy who was there said one of them was, like, a gift from the Germans or something." Kenny caught Clyde's eyes narrowing slightly. "Apparently stuff like this is happening a lot."
Craig blinked a couple of times. "Wow."
"You knew about this, Craig?" Stan asked.
Craig nodded, and Kenny caught the glare Stan immediately sent in the lieutenant's direction that would need several thorough soap scrubs to qualify as being only filthy. Fortunately for him, Craig had already turned to face Kenny when Stan sent it so did not see. "I made a couple of inferences based on that my cigarette rations for this week were a little more German than they usually are." He'd pulled out a packet of the things from one pocket, and threw them towards Kenny. He caught the packet and immediately made the same inference as Craig apparently had the moment he saw the words on the box were definitely not English or French. "I checked with a couple of higher ups to see if this was a widespread thing," Craig continued. "Apparently it is."
Clyde cocked his head slightly. "And you didn't tell us because?"
"Because I think it's a stupid thing to do and, being as my original plan of keeping you in the dark about it so you don't do anything silly has been thoroughly ruined, I am as of right now barring you all from taking part in any such exchanges."
Even across the room Kenny heard the gasp Butters gave out. Clyde's expression hadn't changed much, and neither had Stan's, though he'd probably be used to this sort of thing from Craig.
"Not big on Christmas, Craig?" Clyde asked.
"Also, how can you say that when you're smoking German?" Kenny added. He felt that maybe Kyle would have put it better and more scathingly, but Kyle wasn't there, was he?
Craig turned to Kenny. "I do not control what cigarettes come in my rations. German's not a great deal different from British or French, it's good enough for me." Then he turned back to Clyde. "Not really, no. If you guys are, good for you, and I'd say go ahead. But there are two reasons I'm not allowing this. Firstly, if someone takes advantage and booby traps something and one of you die then I'm getting roasted by Yardale the first opportunity he gets, then Cartman will have his leftovers. Secondly, I'm going to get roasted by him anyway if we start aiding the enemy." He looked around his men with a hard expression. "So there will be no exchanging things with the opposing army. I will be reporting you to the major if you do, and requesting court martial. If someone could pass this onto Kyle, that would be swell."
Kenny watched as everyone — Butters and Stan with some glumness—nodded.
"Verbal acknowledgement please," Craig requested.
"Exchanging items with the Germans over Christmas is not allowed," Clyde acknowledged straight away.
"Not allowed," Kenny concurred.
Stan's shoulders dropped a little, but through a heavy exhalation he said "Not allowed."
Craig nodded and turned to the corner of the room, where Butters was staring at him doe eyed. "Butters, acknowledge the order."
"Craig..." Butters tried. "Come on. It's Christmas."
Even with his head turned away from him, Kenny could feel that Craig's glare had hardened by several orders of magnitude. "Private Stotch, you will acknowledge the order," Craig stated.
"Craig," Butters pleaded, drawing the word out.
Butters looked towards Kenny for a second. He was looking for support. The same sort of look he'd give if he was getting slightly too ganged up on back in the factory. He was looking for backup.
Kenny nodded. Butters immediately looked down at the floor and sighed. "Yes, sir," he muttered.
Craig nodded. "Good."
Christmas Day came. It was approaching evening, but at such a late stage in the year that meant it was already dark. The weather was merciful — the sky was clear and the stars were out in full force.
In the distance, Allied and Central Powers soldiers were talking and laughing, exchanging little gifts and playing football. No guns sounded—not any revolver, not any artillery cannon. For one night, the Western Front was completely silent. Not that there had been much action in the past few weeks, of course—it just all came to a head tonight .
Lieutenant Craig Tucker's squad was still in their trench. Craig had made clear that anyone who wished to join them could, and while he could technically stop them he wasn't going to. What he also made clear was that he'd consider it his duty to have them punished for it afterwards. Unsurprisingly nobody had taken him up on the offer.
Instead they were just sitting down on various boxes and ledges, basically wherever there was room to sit on the ridiculous planking system over where there was normally a rancid body of water. There was no merriment, there was no cheer. There was only light breathing, the occasional glow of Craig's cigarette, and a heavy, awkward silence that none of them wanted to be the one to break, but all of them wanted broken.
"You're a dick, Craig, you know that?" Kyle informed the lieutenant, downcast. Someone had to say something, after all.
"Why can't you be nice on Christmas, anyway?"
Craig turned to Kyle, and exhaled a cloud of smoke through his nose loudly. "You're Jewish."
Kyle snorted. "Hanukkah can coincide with Christmas," he muttered.
"It ended four days ago," Craig droned. "Didn't it?"
Kyle glared, but didn't retort. Kenny took that to mean that Craig was right. Having no knowledge of Judaism himself, he couldn't comment so kept his trap shut. Craig smirked a little. "Give me some credit, Broflovski, I do make a point of knowing when my squad will be available." The angry exhalation Kyle let out carried to where Kenny was sitting even over the noises drifting down from no man's land.
"Sounds like they're having real fun out there," Butters mumbled after a few minutes of quiet listening. "Sure wish you'd let us join them. We'd be able to move around, keep ourselves a bit warmer."
Craig didn't respond. The tip of his cigarette glowed ever so slightly more vividly as he inhaled silently.
"We could always have our own celebration," Stan said with forced brightness. Kenny had to give him points for trying, at least.
"How?" Clyde asked. "We're on rations as it is, we've got nothing to do."
"I've given you the night off," Craig reminded them.
"Yeah, but to do what?" Clyde asked. "If we can't join in the fun and all."
Nobody had an answer to that, save for another sigh from Butters. Kenny patted his back a couple of times for the comfort, but then again there was the heavy silence.
A minute or so passed before said silence was broken by the thumping of boots. Someone was running towards them. Kenny saw Craig stand up to see who it was, and Kenny leaned out to see who it was, but before he could distinguish anything other than dark skin colour, Craig had him identified fully. "Major?" he asked.
"Lieutenant," replied the major. "I'm..." He looked around everyone who was assembled, counting the heads. "Well, I'm glad to see your squad hasn't buggered off."
"I take it most of the troops have gone over?" Craig asked.
"Yes." The major, who Kenny noticed when he turned towards him was wearing neither jacket nor helmet, had his tie tied only in the very loosest sense of the word, and had his shirt untucked, groaned slightly through that word. He looked behind him, back where he'd come from. "Must be about two thirds, maybe three quarters have disappeared. Including one of the other lieutenants. From your platoon, it's just Lanskin's squad and yours that haven't done it so far."
"And we're the last dugout from my platoon. But with the greatest respect, major," Craig protested, "it's not exactly my fault."
The major shrugged. "I don't blame you. Hell, I couldn't really blame you if I wanted to. Not a whole lot you can do when most of your platoon just does a mass mutiny on you. Best I can do is take a head count and if anything comes of this I can pass the list of who's guilty on to whoever's asking. Hence why I'm running through the trench." The man looked down for a second. "Glad it's dry for once, really."
"Mhm. Call it a Christmas present from the weather," Craig replied dryly. "Still cold though."
The major glanced around. "You've got matches, right? Can't you light a fire?"
"And burn the only thing keeping our boots dry?" Craig asked. "It's about the only solid fuel we've got aside from whatever comes on the supply train, and we're trying to save that for when Stan cooks." The major frowned, but nodded.
"Well," the major announced, I've got to get on with it." weaving his way through the squad. "As you were, I suppose." He started running again.
Once the boots thumping had faded away, consumed by the sound of the sound of the cheer in no man's land, Craig exhaled an annoyed groan. "Two squads. Two. Out of the whole damn platoon."
"Some people have a sense of fun," Kyle muttered.
"Some people are cunts," Clyde replied, shrugging.
Kenny did his best to ignore the shrivel he felt from Butters. As much as he didn't want to pick up on what Clyde had said for want of not being the buzz kill, Butters was still his friend. Of all people, he didn't deserve to be called that. Least of all at Christmas. Still, though, Clyde's words were hard.
Fortunately Kenny didn't have to say anything—Stan was the one to protest. He leaned forward with a scowl on his face and glared directly at Clyde. For the briefest of seconds the thought flashed through Kenny's head that he was glad they had left all their weapons inside. "Clyde, that's real fucking out of order," Stan snapped.
Clyde nodded once. "Sorry, it's just—"
"No, don't try and justify yourself!" Stan stood up and strode the full two paces it took to get to Clyde. "I don't give two shits what you think of me but you're going to apologise to Bu—"
Everyone looked towards Butters, Stan's eyes still radiating pure death and decay at him.
"Guys, can we not do this? Least of all not today?" Stan glared but backed down. "I know Craig's got his reasons for not letting us joining in out there, much as I want to. But can we do without the drama back here too?"
Kenny was impressed by the outburst. What impressed him further was that Stan actually did sit back down, though in a considerable huff.
"Butters," Clyde said. Butters turned. "I'm sorry. You're not a cunt, it's just..." Instinctively he held his hand up in Stan's direction before he could get up and start shouting again. "You've got to see it's a pretty stupid thing to do."
"Yeah..." Butters concurred with reluctance.
After a few more seconds silence, Craig started talking. "There's a very simple reason you're not going over."
"What is it?" Kenny asked, coinciding with the same question from everyone else.
"Think about it this way," Craig said. "This night being all nice and peaceful relies on mutual co—operation, yes?" Kenny caught a nod from a couple of people. "But it would be more beneficial for one side to screw the others over. In the middle of a ceasefire they could just massacre everyone. They have the advantage then."
"Wouldn't you prefer to think people are better than that?" Kyle challenged.
Craig turned to him. "I really would. But we're four months into what might be the worst war I've seen. Sort of makes it difficult."
"True," Kyle conceded. What the hell is it with Kyle? Kenny thought.
"Furthermore," Craig continued, "if an order comes to advance I don't think soldiers who have met, joked and shared little gift wraps with the people they're meant to be shooting at are going to be particularly effective at their jobs. Do you really think you could shoot someone you might have been trading cigarettes with the day before?"
"You're the only smoker here, Craig," Clyde mentioned.
Craig sighed. "Or whatever, in any event it's detrimental to your performance as a squad."
"But you're not actually big on Christmas anyway, are you?" Clyde asked.
Craig turned. "What makes you say that?"
"If you were, you'd be out there."
With a fair helping of reluctance, Craig did have to concede that point. Maybe he would have gone out there, but he had to admit he was a minor Scrooge. "Good thing I'm not then." Clyde simply hummed in response.
It took Kenny a good couple of seconds to realise the silence was coming back, so he decided to take immediate action to stop that from happening. "Nice to see team same voice isn't blowing up over this, anyway."
Immediately, Craig turned. "I don't—"
"Yes you do," Kyle interrupted.
Stan chuckled to himself. "You really do."
Once again, in the face of the overwhelming opinion, Craig had to concede the point, barring one single point that he was not letting go. "I don't have a northern accent."
"Well, Clyde barely does," Butters observed. "You know, if we ever get the chance we ought to get you to record your voices, I'd bet anything you'd not be able to tell who said what."
"You?" Kenny asked before Craig could get a response in. "Betting?"
"Well, figure of speech, obviously," Butters chuckled, "but you know what I mean, right?"
"Nope," Craig announced. "You said you'd bet anything, you're going to have to stand by that now. And yes, that's an order."
Butters' mouth hung for a second as Kenny and Stan started chuckling at his expense. "Ah, shit," he muttered. Kyle and Clyde joined in the laughing, and even Craig managed to crack a smile. For a moment, everything was alright.
Then the laughter died down and the silence almost made another unwelcome reappearance before Craig stopped it with another announcement.
"If it's any consolation for you," he said, "I was able to wrangle some leave for the full squad. Rest and recreation, that sort of thing. Yardale was ready to give you all a fortnight, but the good brigadier convinced him that a week would be sufficient. But still."
"How was he so open to the idea?" Kyle immediately challenged. Kenny could tell he was just doing that because it was Craig and any reason to challenge him was good enough for Kyle, but he could also tell that he was doing his best to suppress a smile.
Craig lit a fresh cigarette as he explained. "I told him that half of my squad had joined on the idea that they would be celebrating Christmas on the streets of Berlin. We haven't made it to Berlin, we haven't gotten to Bonn, Cologne, Stuttgart, we haven't even gotten out of fucking France yet. I told him that a few days R&R might not go entirely unappreciated. Good for morale and such. And he was receptive to the idea. Yardale's a nice guy, it's Cartman who got pissy about it and talked him down to a week."
"So we're getting out for a week?" Butters asked excitedly.
"Yup. Don't expect to be shipped home or anything, but you get to go back a few miles, get some rest, play some cricket or whatever it is you do when you have down time."
Kenny picked up on Craig's wording a little. "Just us?" he asked, seeking some clarification.
"Just you." Craig sucked on the cigarette for a moment before continuing. "Yardale may take my idea and apply it to other squads and maybe even whole platoons at some point, but until then, though I may not have much of a platoon left to keep in order once the major's done sending those plebs—" He jerked one thumb over the trench, indicating to where the sounds of peace were emanating from. "—off to court martial or otherwise more menial posts, I will still have to make sure that Lanskin doesn't do anything moronic."
"Still don't trust him, hm?" Clyde asked.
"Well, thanks a lot, Craig," Butters said brightly, mood thoroughly lifted. "Any idea when it's going to be?"
"Late January, most likely. But nothing's really set yet." Craig threw his cigarette, burned to the stub, into the trench where it wasn't his problem any more. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm getting a little tired."
"I think we all are," Kyle added. Nobody was willing to contest that. "We've all had slightly lighter shifts recently, after all. And it's got to be, what, midnight by now?"
"Closer to eleven, but yeah," Stan confirmed, checking his watch.
Kyle nodded. "Yeah, I'm turning in too." He followed Craig back inside, quickly followed by Stan and Clyde. Butters shrugged and went inside too, leaving Kenny alone outside the dugout.
Come to think of it, he was pretty tired himself. He took one last listen to what was going on over the top, a final glance to the clear skies, then headed inside himself. It was late, and as peaceful as things were, Craig's cynicism had gotten through to Kenny slightly. It wasn't going to last.
But it was a nice break from the usual threat of a German advance. There was that, at least.
Things have quietened down since Christmas, or rather, livened back up to how it was before. The ceasefire was nice enough while it lasted but we're back to having to sleep with the constant pounding of the artillery doing its damndest to keep us up. Shame.
We came so close to getting sent to some menial assignment a hundred miles away from anywhere we'd be useful, even though we personally didn't do anything. Yardale was on the verge of sending the entire company away. I guess we got lucky that Major Black, our company's commanding officer, actually saw us on Christmas night and could personally vouch that we didn't do anything improper. I guess Craig saved our skins—about two thirds of the company have been replaced.
So everything's back to normal, and it's warming back up. We're still waiting for an order to advance to come through so I can still write for the foreseeable future.
I really miss you.
Kenny walked into the dugout and made straight for his bed, immediately kicking his left boot off and into the wall next to his bed, and then yanked his sock off and almost punched it into the boot.
"Someone's in a bad mood," Stan noted from the table. Kyle looked up from his bed at the observation.
"No shit," Kenny retorted.
Kenny looked up at him. He fancied, as he tilted his head, that there was a tangible black cloud of seething doom in the air where he'd been walking, maybe with a couple of sparks of lightning in there just to hammer the point home that he wasn't entirely happy today.
"Well," Kenny began, "you know the guy from the next dugout who's a bitter little twat?"
"The Scottish guy?" Kyle asked. "You got shift with him?"
"Yup." Kenny hung his sock up to dry and sat on his bed, setting about unbuttoning his jacket. "That I can and have handled. I accept we have the better place to sleep, and he's Scottish and therefore hates me because I'm English. That's par for the course."
"But?" Stan pressed.
"Well, also because it was raining when I went out I had to go through most of the shift soaked to the fucking bone. Oh, and I slipped off the fucking path on the way out so I had a wet foot for the whole damn shift. You know how well these boots let water out?"
"Not at all?" Kyle asked.
"Bingo." Kenny huffed. "Those damn boots can keep water out but they sure as all fuck keep it in as well."
"It happens to everyone, you'll kind of just have to get used to it. It's happened to me enough times."
Reluctantly, Kenny nodded. "The hell is everyone, anyway?"
The two men glanced towards each other, and Kenny wasn't entirely sure what it was that passed between them but at some point they mutually decided that Stan was going to respond. That happened with those two sometimes.
"Craig's out on inspections."
Kenny raised his eyebrows a little. "He's been doing that a lot, huh? Even though—" Kenny tightened the back of his throat, blocking off the air to his nose to put on a nice nasal voice. "—I hate inspections." Stan didn't find it too funny, but the impression had Kyle suppressing a guffaw so Kenny decided to consider it a success.
"He only trusts Lanskin as far as he can spit. To be fair I don't blame him, like..." Stan exhaled as he thought. "Well, he's a new officer who's an absolute stickler for procedure, or so I've been told. Uniform and bed inspections twice a day for the guys in his squad, makes them march absolutely buttfucking everywhere, that sort of thing."
Kyle glanced over. "It's called 'trying so hard to get a promotion you're guaranteeing that it'll never fucking happen'." He turned back to whatever it was he was doing on the table—maybe he was writing home? Kenny didn't know. "Isn't it, Stan?"
"Shut up what?" Craig asked as he arrived. Kenny had learned to discern between him and Clyde by now — while they both had really low and really nasal voice, Clyde's had the additional quality of sounding like his nose was perpetually blocked by about a pint of gunk.
Kyle turned to Craig. "I was just reminding Corporal Marsh of how he was when he joined the Army."
"Ah." Craig nodded. He leaned against the frame of the door and folded his arms. "He was an insufferable bell end."
"Shut up," Stan repeated, face going pink.
"He was actually held back from promotion. He signed up at the same time as Kyle, they met up in the recruitment office and both landed my platoon. By all accounts they should both be sergeants, but he missed out the first round of promotions because?"
Stan sighed. "Because Craig wanted to prove a point, that point being that my being such a stickler made me horrible to have to work with."
"I only gave him the promotion to corporal because my own promotion to full lieutenant was threatened if I didn't. My contempt for him back then wasn't exactly unknown." Craig was on the verge of continuing but then he was interrupted.
"Excuse me," came a much more timid voice from behind Craig. Craig stood aside and Butters made his way into the room, followed closely by Clyde.
"Where the fuck have you guys been?" Craig asked.
"The major came round while you were out and, uh, he was asking for help taking an inventory. Stan and Kyle were asleep at the time so, uh, we went to do it." Kenny recognised the change in Butters' expression. He was getting jumpy. "Were we supposed to stay here or something? Oh, heck, we left the—"
"Butters, it's fine. If the major asked you to do it then you're fine." Craig moved to his bed and sat on the crate he used for a table just by the pillow, and Clyde and Butters sat with Kyle at the table. "So yeah, I wanted to hold him back but instead I had to slap him out of the habit of shouting everything at me, ending it all with the word sir and always standing like he had a rod up his arse every time I got near."
Butters and Clyde shared a glance, and Kenny had to chuckle. It was Clyde who asked "Sorry, what are we talking about?"
"Stan from about fifteen years ago," Kyle clarified.
Craig sighed. "And now I've got to deal with the same shit from that fuck Lanskin. God give me the strength to snap his neck, and failing that then the strength to snap my own."
Kenny leaned forward a little. "So you three," he asked, pointing between Kyle, Stan and Craig, "You fought together in... What was it, Boer?"
"Yup," Craig replied simply.
"Technically our time in the military should have been up," Kyle added, "but the thing is once you've done your time you get put into the reserves for about a decade afterwards. Hence we got reactivated."
Stan added further. "That is, minus the guys who've died in the mean time. Or gotten fat."
"The brigadier's pretty fat," Clyde droned.
"Yardale likes him," Craig clarified. "He's a bit of a suck up."
The silence hung in the air for a few seconds. It was rare that everyone was in and awake — most of the time at least one of them were out doing things, and besides that their sleep schedules didn't match up much. "So why'd you join up, Craig?" Kenny asked.
Kenny scratched his head slightly. "Well, I know that Kyle signed up because he needed a job, and I signed up because Butters did. I'm just wondering about the rest of you guys. We've been working together for damn near half a year now, this is the sort of thing that we should know about each other."
Craig shook his head. "You wonder too much." Still, he did continue. "My dad was in the army. He pretty much groomed me from birth. He was real disappointed when I didn't stay on after Boer, though. He told me that labouring at a dock was not befitting of a Tucker." He leaned back against the wall and chuckled ever so slightly under his breath. "If I can be honest, when alcohol killed him I was not entirely sad." Very suddenly, he changed the subject. "Anyone want a smoke?"
Only Kenny raised his hand.
"Huh. Expected more of you to." Come to that, so had Kenny. Generosity was not a common thing for Craig to indulge in, Kenny had thought more would take advantage of that kind of thing.
Craig pulled a pack of cigarettes out from his belongings. "As much as I hated having to cut down on these, we get rationed here."
"You don't smoke, Ken," Butters stated, slightly confused.
Kenny shrugged. "I do now." It had been something that he'd always wanted to at least try, but the matron had always frowned upon it. Besides that, there had always been better things to spend money on.
Craig struck a match and lit two cigarettes, passing one over to Kenny. "Put the end that's not on fire in your mouth and breathe deep," he advised. Kenny followed the instructions and dragged deeply on the cigarette. The moment the acrid smoke got to his throat, he coughed it straight back out, then hacked a bit more just because it fucking burned.
He wheezed and let a few tears drop before trying again.
"You're really trying again?" Kyle asked through the chuckles and laughs that he and everyone else in the room were directing at him.
Kenny nodded as he did so. This time he managed to keep it down, though he was seriously fighting the urge to not choke to death on his own air.
"You'll get used to it," Craig shrugged, smoking his own with absolute ease. "So yeah, all in all dad was real disappointed in me. What about you guys?"
Clyde spoke first. "I lost a bet."
Kenny turned to stare, slightly startled by that. "What?" Clyde didn't answer. "I thought you were super patriotic or something."
When Kyle spoke next and Kenny turned to look at him, he noticed that Clyde had everyone's attention now. Nobody seemed to have seen that coming. "Didn't Yardale say you were all patriotic and that?"
"Yeah," Clyde confirmed. "I didn't want to object, really."
Kyle turned his whole body to face Clyde. "So, what was it actually?"
"Well, my friends back in Hyde, we had a bet when things started heating up. They said there'd be a war and promised that they'd be first in the recruitment station the moment shit headed fanwards. I disagreed. So, they challenged me to a bet and I took them up on it. The bet was that if war broke out I'd have to sign up with them."
"And if it didn't?" Butters pried.
"They all buy me a pint." Clyde looked down and started picking at the table. "Hence here I am. I asked if there was any extra training I could go through so that I could avoid having to put up with their shit all the way to France, and given the choice between a few extra weeks to come in as a lance corporal and the best part of a year's officer training, I went for the first one. Turns out it was long enough time difference that I got sent to a completely different battalion." He shrugged, still concentrating on the table. "I do kind of miss them, though.
"And Yardale, when he passed through here, he thought I was one of them. King and country, one of those types. I guess he could have been more wrong, but still, that's just not me," he finished. He looked back up, having finished talking. Kenny knew what he'd done—it was a lot easier opening up a little when you weren't looking at faces of people you knew.
"Huh." Stan had made that noise. "Well, I joined up for king and country and all that." While Kenny thought that maybe there was a hint of pride in there somewhere, it didn't sound especially boastful. Maybe he didn't go in for that so much any more.
"Queen," Kyle corrected.
Kyle looked over at Stan. "When you joined up it would have been queen and country."
Stan ticked that over. "Nineteen hundred...yeah, Victoria, you're right. Anyway, it was part that and part I kind of needed the work. Almost left when they said I had to grow a fucking moustache."
Kyle almost choked. "You know they only changed that policy a couple of months after we joined? First three months of service I had my fucking pay docked because I couldn't produce upper lip hair."
"You're not exactly producing now," Craig noted.
Kyle glared. "Well, I'm fucking shaving now, aren't I?" Craig didn't respond, so Kyle huffed and returned his gaze to directly in front of him, where Butters was sitting. "So what about you, Butters?"
Despite that the conversation had been on this topic for a good few minutes now, it still caught Butters off guard. "Huh?" he asked.
"How does someone with a nickname like Butterfingers end up in the army?"
Butters looked down. Kenny saw his hands going for each other under the table. He'd sort of expected that — Butters never was good at being on the spot. "Well, same as you guys, I guess, I kind of needed the work. I mean, me and Ken, we, uh, had jobs in this factory for a while, but we signed up together."
"Yeah, we know," Kyle pressed. "Kenny said he signed up because you did. Why did you?"
"Well..." Butters glanced at Kenny. He nodded. "I, uh, I wanted to get away from my dad."
Kyle's eyes widened by a very fair margin as he made a connection. "Oh. Sorry, I didn't—"
"It's okay," Butters clarified as soon as he detected what Kyle was getting at. "He wasn't, like... He wasn't bad or anything, just real strict and, you know, I can't live all my life with that." The fidgeting upped itself by a couple of orders of magnitude. "I'll be honest, I just didn't like him that much, he was expecting way too much from me and, well, I just needed to get away."
Kyle nodded. "Okay, well that I can relate to. My mother was sort of the same. I think that comes with a hyper—religious disposal. She always wanted the best for me, but she had a very firm idea of what 'the best for me' actually was." Kyle scratched his hair and furrowed his brow in thought. "I never thought about it but I guess I kind of needed to get away from her for a while."
"Sounds like my dad," Butters confirmed.
"Like..." Kyle continued. "I'm Jewish. I get it. But that mad cow was ramming it down my throat every chance she got. 'Kyle, you have to keep your head covered,' she'd say. 'Kyle, you mustn't mix meat and dairy.' 'Kyle, if you lift a finger to do any work on a Saturday then God Almighty will smite you down so hard you'll be shitting pure agony for a year.' She never fucking let up."
"You do shifts on Saturday," Stan said, with a hint of questioning in his voice.
"Doesn't mean I'm not Jewish," Kyle muttered bitterly. He glanced between everyone present. "Whose shift is it, anyway?"
Craig tilted his head back to look up at the ceiling, and clicked his tongue a few times as he recalled. "Umm... Kenny just came back, right?"
"Right," Kenny confirmed. He'd been out when Craig had left—that made sense.
"I think it's Clyde's then." Clyde sighed and stood up, slinging his rifle on his back and stepped out. "And if you guys don't mind keeping it down a little, I need some sleep."
Kyle chuckled. "Hundreds of shells are being fired every day barely two hundred yards away, and us talking is what keeps you up at night?"
Craig didn't grace Kyle with any sort of verbal response, instead choosing to remove his helmet and hurl it discus style at Kyle's face. A neat duck from Kyle meant that it just grazed his wild hair—a perfectly safe distance away from his actual head — and left a sizable indent in the wall.
Kyle promptly shut up.
Kenny had learned over the six months they'd been in the trench that Craig was somewhat used to getting his way, and also that in fifteen years Kyle hadn't quite centralised that fact yet.
"Not much keeps him up anyway," Stan muttered.
"I got to sleep too," Kenny announced, swivelling around on his backside so that he was lying down.
"Alright," he heard Butters acknowledge. "So Stan, what's your family like?" he asked.
Kenny heard an exhalation. "My mother's pretty much alright, but you should see my dad. I mean, he's..." Kenny shut the conversation out a little. The clear words became a fuzzied drone in the background, and within a few minutes Kenny was unconscious.
A dream about racing Karen through the busy vegetable markets at Covent Garden took something of a nightmarish turn when a grubby looking man trying to shift some potatoes started banging on his stall. "McCormick!" he shouted.
A worried glance towards Karen was all Kenny could manage before the dream vaporised and he was waking up in his bunk with the smell of damp in the air and a very annoyed looking lieutenant whacking the crate next to his bed with his baton, generating a repulsive din.
Kenny shot up, banged his head on the low ceiling above his bunk, swore, and sank straight back down.
"Now that I have your attention," Craig said, reverting to his more customary drone, "we've got transfer orders. All of us."
"What?" Kenny asked, his head being mostly occupied with protesting at being awake and at being hit with the ceiling.
"What, what?" Craig asked, glaring. Kenny squinted at him for a second before it all processed. He's on an off day he told himself, and as such he made the necessary mental adjustments.
"What, lieutenant?" Kenny corrected himself.
"Better." Craig stepped to the middle of the room. Kenny checked around for everyone else. Kyle and Stan were sat on their bunks, Clyde was leaning against the door, and Butters was sat on a crate in the corner lacing up his boots. "Now, listen up."
Craig produced a letter from the recesses of his pocket. "Major Black delivered this to me this morning, direct from Yardale. In light of a renewed offensive by the Germans at Gravenstafel, the line at Ypres is being reinforced and we're heading up there until the threat of imminent danger has passed. Any questions?" Stan was the one to raise his hand. "Marsh?"
"Exactly how bad was the offensive at Gravenstal, sir?"
"Gravenstafel." Craig took a deep breath before continuing. "Five thousand allied casualties, all within quarter of an hour."
The reactions Craig's statement got ranged from Kyle giving a pronounced gasp to Butters yelping and muttering "Oh, heck..." not quite under his breath enough for Kenny to not hear.
"From what I know," Craig continued, "this mass slaughter was achieved by some form of gas attack. The report from the site is that a yellowish gas got carried from the German lines by the wind. Spilled into our trenches, killed a lot of men in a very short time. While our soldiers were in disarray the Germans attacked, a fall back was forced."
"Yardale is organising the reinforcement of those lines and our battalion is heading up there. The good news is our assignment is a mile or so back. We're stationed in a small village just behind the lines when we're on duty, and we get to go as far back as Ypres when we're not. The other good news is we don't have to march up there due to the immediacy of it all. A march would take up to a week, whereas if we go by train—freight train, unfortunately—we can be there within a day. Further good news being, as you should all know, it's barely a mile from this dugout to the nearest train stop."
Craig put the transfer orders back on the table. "We leave in three hours, I want you all looking your best. If Yardale, or even worse, Cartman is there, and you look like, I don't know, you've just spent six months sitting in a goddamn watery hole in the ground being shot at with everything between Lugers and the fucking Bosche artillery that is far bigger than can possibly be necessary, I'm the one who's going to get court martialed for letting my men look like shit."
Kyle groaned. "Craig—"
"Lieutenant," Craig insisted.
"Craig." Kyle glared at him. "One of these days, you might want to try folding the word 'please' into your vocabulary. People are more likely to do the stuff you ask them to do if you use that one."
Craig glared back for a few seconds, before swinging his baton up very precisely into the side of Kyle's helmet, managing to not hit Kyle but send the helmet flying gracelessly out of the door. Despite the precision, Kyle ducked away what would have been a little too late to save his skull from any nasty fractures. Craig turned to Clyde. "Rain check, lance corporal?"
Clyde leaned out of the door, then back in. "Dry, sir. Trenches aren't even flooded so bad."
"Shame." Craig reverted to his previous state of glaring at Kyle, and pointed out of the door with his baton. "Go get it, sergeant."
Kyle held Craig's glare for a number of tense seconds, hazel eyes drilling into brown, but when Craig waggled his baton a couple of times in Kyle's general direction he huffed in defeat. Kenny detected a couple of curses under his breath, and went outside.
"I'm going to inform the rest of the platoon," Craig announced while Kyle was gone. "If I get back and you aren't ready, I'll reserve a wet weather duty for you for if and when we get back from this." Craig left, passing Kyle wordlessly in the doorway. As soon as he was out, Kyle exploded.
"God, he is such a twat!" he shouted. "I swear if we ever get out of the army and I find him again I'm going to—"
"You're going to what?" Craig asked, having rematerialised at the door. Kyle glared at the man, but didn't continue. "You'll do well to remember, Sergeant Broflovski, that earshot and line of sight are not the same thing." Then he left for the second time.
Clyde glanced at Kyle and obviously suppressed a laugh. Kenny did see the funny side, even through his not so splitting any more headache. Even Stan was chuckling.
"Shut up, the lot of you," Kyle fumed, his face getting close to the colour of his hair. Kenny waited for the steam to come out of his ears. "I swear to god I will make it an order," he warned through teeth grit like he was trying to crush them into dust for inhaling as some sort of makeshift narcotic.
Kenny finally stood up, getting off the bed and reaching for his trousers and jacket. "Three hours, did he say?" Butters nodded. "Plenty of time." He started pulling his clothes on and made sure all his equipment was in reach. Once that was done, and the dugout had reverted to as quiet as it was going to get between brushing down of uniforms and the good sergeant venting under his breath, Kenny reached for the pen and paper he'd been planning on saving for a few weeks.
He started writing in his usual illegible scrawl.
This may be the last letter I can send for a while. Our platoon is being transferred up north and I don't know how good the post is up there. Frankly it's about time we got some orders, though. Even if it was to hurl ourselves at the German machine guns wearing bright orange clothes it'd be better than sitting around in a muddy scab on the bare arse of France.
Not a whole lot to report besides. We're all still in good health. Kyle continues to hate the lieutenant with all his heart, Clyde is still the same as he always is and we still mock him for it on occasion, et cetera et cetera et cetera.
Will write again as soon as I get access to a reliable post system.
"You know," Stan said, leaning over Kenny's shoulder, "I don't know if Karen would be able to read that—"
"She would," Kenny said immediately.
"—but even so you could try writing a bit more. She must like hearing from you, what's she going to say when she only gets like one paragraph?"
Surprisingly enough it was Butters who cut in. "Don't worry about it, Stan, that's just how Kenny writes. He's not exactly verbose, no offence Ken, he just says what needs saying."
Stan nodded unsurely, then returned to getting his stuff ready. Kenny nodded to Butters, Butters flushed a little but smiled back, before reverting to waiting. He'd gotten ready fairly quickly, although he had been on duty today if Kenny remembered right.
Kenny folded up the letter and put it in the nearest available envelope. "Butters?" he asked.
As much as Stan was wrong about Karen not being able to read Kenny's scribble, he was right about it being god awful and unreadable to most people. Hence he needed someone else to write the address down so that whichever postman picked up the letter wouldn't just have to deliver to a random house and hope he got it right, as had apparently happened with the first couple of letters.
So Butters was the one who wrote the address on the envelope. His writing was significantly better than Kenny's, and he had the address memorised.
Presently Craig returned and said "We're ahead of schedule. Two hours." He glanced around. "Although it looks like you're all ready anyway." Kenny pointedly laced his boots up a little quicker than he already was, and set about throwing his webbing on.
"Request, sir," Clyde piped up.
"What is it?"
"Can we just go now?"
"Well," Stan interrupted, in clear assent with Clyde, "I think I can speak for everyone, sir, when I say we fucking hate this trench."
Craig smirked a little. "You think correctly." He moved to the door. "We'll be joined by the rest of the company outside the trenches. From there it's all in the hands of the major. The rest of the battalion, fuck if I know." He looked back at them. "Squad fall out."
The six men, equipment slung over various limbs, made their way through the trench, before turning left to turn back away from the front line and towards the artillery lines and supply dumps, then beyond that the way out to where their transports were. Fifteen minutes later and they were climbing out of the trenches and heading to the thirteen or so men standing in makeshift formation before the train station, which was both closed to the public and had a locomotive with three cattle trucks attached
Craig approached the men. The major, made clear by the rank insignia of a single crown, was standing in front of the formation. "Lieutenant Tucker," he greeted them.
"Major Black," Craig responded. "What's our itinerary?"
"As soon as everyone arrives, we load up and move out." Black sighed. "And 'everyone' may or may not include Yardale and Cartman."
"Yeah, they need to officially give us the order or something. No idea when they're coming here."
Craig shook his head. "Bad luck, Token."
Token frowned and nodded. "Yeah. God give me the strength to not whack that stupid brigadier in the face... Anyway, fall in, your platoon will be in the centre. Leave room for your second, he should be—"
"On the right," Craig finished. He turned around and started considering where to put everyone. "McCormick, behind me. Stotch, on his right. Marsh, behind McCormick. Broflovski, behind Stotch. Donovan, on Broflovski's right. Fall in, stand easy, entertain yourselves for a while."
Everyone stood in their assigned places. Token raised an eyebrow. "Any particular reason?" he asked. Craig promptly shrugged, giving no actual verbal response.
They had to stand for a half hour, so it was rather fortunate that it was clouded over. It was not that it was threatening to rain, but it wasn't uncomfortably warm either, as it might have been in direct sunlight. What was also fortunate was that nobody gave a shit about all the soldiers chatting amongst themselves quietly while they waited.
Slowly more squads and groups joined the formation, joining the platoons headed by their lieutenants at the front left of each block. Three in total, maybe thirty men each, organised into six by five blocks, eighteen by five when standing together.
The various conversations were only interrupted twice. The first time was by a voice carrying from behind them, shouting in an annoying, overly thick Tottenham accent "Left! Right! Left! Right! Left! Right..." Craig closed his eyes, looked down, then rolled his eyes at Token half in annoyance and half in apology. Token nodded sympathetically. Kenny guessed he'd had to deal with the stickler type before.
Then, as the shouting got louder, Craig turned around to Kyle and mouthed the words "You could have worse than me" at him. Kyle tightened his mouth but nodded once. This was one time that he had to admit, Craig was completely right.
Craig's second lieutenant shouted "Squad halt!" There was a loud thump as six boots hit the ground. "Squad will stand in line with tallest on the left, shortest on the right!" Lanskin yelled. Craig closed his eyes and mentally made the effort to not go red out of embarrassment. "You two, switch!"
Everyone was staring at them now, except for Craig who was huffing to himself a little too much to go unnoticed. Eventually he opened his eyes and mouthed to Token "Permission to intervene?" Token nodded.
Lanskin had started yelling again, but Craig was padding silently through the growing ranks to where Lanskin was looking in the wrong direction to see him coming. Midway through Lanskin's shouted order, Craig grabbed him by one ear—aided nicely by a five inch height difference in Craig's favour—and started dragging him towards the block.
"Second Lieutenant Corey Lanskin," he said lowly, and with an amazing volume of self—restraint, "I am hereby ordering you to shut the fuck up and get the fuck into formation immediately before I strap you to the muzzle of the fucking artillery and use whatever survives of your skeletal structure as grapeshot. The rest of you, just find a spot and fucking take it." He shoved Lanskin into the empty spot in front of Butters, and resumed his position.
"Everything under control there, Tucker?" Token asked. Craig nodded, and thus conversation resumed.
The second interruption came with two honks of a horn and the rattle of an engine. Token glanced back and saw the car, carrying one blonde man and one obese man in the back. He turned to the company. "They're coming, shut up!" he shouted.
All sound ceased.
"Listen very closely to me, if Cartman finds anything wrong with any of you, it's my arse that's going to get skewered for it. Him being how he is. So please don't fuck anything up. And where the hell is the captain?" Everyone looked around for a couple of seconds, but there was no sign of him.
The car pulled up in front of the platform. Token sighed. "I'm going to kill that bastard..." He straightened out his jacket and got into commanding officer mode. "Company!" he shouted as the car approached. "Attention!" In unison, everyone stamped the ground with their right foot, standing feet together, pencil straight and stock still.
Kenny kept his eyes forward, easy enough since Craig's head was directly ahead of him, but he kept his attention on the car. Yardale vaulted over the door to his side of the car while Cartman shuffled out of his. "Glad to see you've got everyone here, Major," Yardale announced on approach, with Cartman approaching from behind.
"No salute?" Cartman sneered. "Maybe you've forgotten procedure, black man, but—"
"Enough, Brigadier," Yardale cut him off brusquely. "No need for that sort of thing now. Now," he continued, like nothing had happened. Kenny saw Token's face setting slightly. "As you may or may not have been told, you are to be transferred approximately fifty miles..." He trailed a little and looked past the company. Though he couldn't look back, Kenny could hear a panting and rattling on the edge of earshot. Token rolled his eyes in a way Craig was very recently familiar with.
"Apologies for this, General," Token muttered, as a shortish blonde man arrived looking an absolute mess. His jacket wasn't even buttoned up right, and his webbing could accurately be described as a moderate natural disaster, and that was putting it nicely. Three Bath stars on his shoulder indicated that this had to be Token's captain. Kenny noted a very smug look on Cartman's face as the man approached. "Captain," Token said lowly, waiting for the explanation.
"I'm sorry, Major," the captain fretted, "I overslept, then I couldn't get my jacket done and I couldn't find my stuff, please don't hit me for it!"
Token huffed. "Get over here." The captain yelped a bit—Kenny noticed he was shaking as he stepped forward. Token reached out, pulled the jacket open with far more roughness than could possibly have been necessary, and started doing it correctly. "I swear to god, you are a total mess," he muttered. "Whatever has happened to you since Boer, I don't know what it is, but you should never have been recalled, you are clearly not right in the head."
The captain looked downcast at that. Harsh as it was, though, Kenny did have to agree. Nobody who was right in the head could possibly shake around that much.
Token finished buttoning him up. "We're having words about this later, Tweek. Stand over there and for the sake of all that is holy, please at least try to stay still." Then he turned back to Yardale, as Tweek stood a few feet behind him and looked forlornly at his boots. "General, if I can be frank, I really think Captain Tweak shouldn't be here, I do not consider him fit for duty."
"Nonsense," Yardale said happily, brushing Token off, "just because he's a bit..." The general's smile briefly faltered as he checked Tweek over a couple of times. "...shaky this morning doesn't mean he's unfit for duty. And we both know how he excelled in Boer. Believe me when I say that he'll be fine."
Token sighed in defeat. He wasn't going to argue with the general in front of his entire company. "If you say so, sir..."
Kenny couldn't help but think Yardale's immediate brushing off of Token had been a little bit harsh. Firstly, Token had clearly spent time with Tweek. He had the better insight. Clearly he thought whatever the problem was was bad enough that it impaired his ability to perform duties sufficiently badly that he should just be discharged and sent home. Token had the experience of being around Tweek long enough to know that. Yardale did not. Surely Token's opinion should have counted for more.
"Anyway," Yardale continued. "You're being transferred just over fifty miles north into Belgium. As marching would take far too long given the immediacy of the situation you are to be taken up there by rail." All old information for Kenny. "There has been a nasty attack by the Germans at the salient around Ypres, you will be reinforcing the lines there. That's about the nub of it. Have I missed anything, Brigadier?" Cartman opened his mouth, but got cut off immediately. "No? Good. Now, load up and off you go. God save the King." Yardale returned to the car. Cartman sighed, apparently deprived of his fun, but returned too. Kenny heard a quiet juddered exhalation from round about where Kyle would be standing.
Token spoke as soon as the car had pulled away. "You'll remain with your platoon for transit. Each one will occupy one of the cars. Lieutenant Mitchell, your platoon take the front car. Lieutenant Tucker, your platoon take the middle one. Lieutenant Thorn, your platoon will take the rear one. Get to it."
The formation broke as Token turned to Tweek and dragged him towards the frontmost car, whispering hurriedly to him. After he'd given the pre requisite toxic glare to Lanskin, Craig headed towards the second truck in line and climbed straight into it, followed by Kyle who did a headcount as everyone entered.
Kenny muttered a small thank you to whatever god there was that Lanskin went to the other side of the car, and then sat down between Butters and an empty spot that Kyle was presumably going to take. Before too long, everyone was aboard, and the locomotive chugged into life. Northwards they went.
The journey took about two hours in total, taking so long in order to save on coal for the boiler, over which time a grand total of not a lot happened. Unimportant stories were traded with the other squads in the truck, Kyle bitched and moaned about Craig for a while until Craig had started listening and had glared Kyle into shutting his mouth. All rather usual stuff.
When they got there, everyone disembarked quickly—as nice as open air was after months of trench air, it was much more appreciable when not cramped in with twenty nine other men. Kenny accepted that that view was a little harsh, but still, twenty nine other people in a single compartment.
Really, that was just gross.
"My squad!" Craig shouted, walking away from Token who was dishing out pieces of paper. "We've got our living arrangements," he announced overly grandiosely just as Clyde got close enough to hear. "We're on the east side of Ypres, what in peacetime was a hotel has been requisitioned for our use."
Stan leaned forward. "A hotel? With running water?"
"Yes, with running water." Craig's brow immediately furrowed. "Wipe those stupid smiles off your faces. It's not fucking Windsor Castle."
"But it's got running water," Stan countered.
"But shut your fucking mouth," Craig counter—countered. It was good to see his mood had improved since departure. Maybe in a few days Kenny could ask what had been wrong... Actually, no. That was a monolith among monolithic bad ideas. "Rooms assigned as follows. Privates McCormick and Stotch, you're sharing. Corporal Marsh and Sergeant Broflovski, you're sharing. Corporal Donovan, you're with me. Now, follow me."
They all followed Craig to a three storey building a ways away from the train station. It wasn't exactly great, and when Craig went inside it seemed to be pretty much abandoned (requisitioned, Kenny reminded himself). Craig took them up to the first floor.
"Myself and Clyde, room four. Kyle and Stan, room five. Kenny and Butters, room six. Toilets are at the end of the hall, there is one shower in there that you'll all have to share, though I'm sure just it being there will be enough to keep you all happy forever. Duty starts tomorrow at three, meet me downstairs at one and we can head to our stations, they're about two miles east of here. The rota is eight hours on, sixteen hours off, we have the evening shift. I advise you all get sleep before we go. With that in mind, good fuckity bye."
Craig walked into his room. Clyde shrugged at the others and followed. Kenny and Butters immediately retired to their own room.
"I call left," Kenny said straight away, dumping all his stuff onto the bed on the left. Butters followed suit with the right bed. There was about three feet of clearance between the two beds, one cupboard and one window.
Again he had landed a cramped place. Again, he wasn't going to miss what he'd never had, so again he didn't complain.
"So what are you going to do before we head out tomorrow?" Butters asked. "I'm sure we could probably find a pack of cards or something, or if you just want to sleep..."
Kenny shook his head and smiled. "No thanks, I need to shower."
"You can shower tomorrow," Butters protested.
Kenny shook his head. "No, I need to shower, like, right now."
Butters' eyes narrowed. "Surely not right now?"
Kenny sighed. "Okay, let me be clear. I've been in a trench for over half a year, always with at least one other guy around, usually at least two. I have certain needs that have gone neglected."
Butters narrowed his eyes as he tried to fathom exactly what it was Kenny was talking about. "Uuuuhh..."
Kenny dropped his head a bit. "Butters. Don't tell me you've never cracked one off."
"Never cracked a what off?" Butters asked. He really didn't know.
"Had a wank?"
Butters flinched back a bit at the word. "Oh, heck, no, my dad always said I'd get hairy hands and I'd go blind."
Kenny blinked once, taking the considerable requisite time to process that information. Firstly, that Butters had never tried something that Kenny had basically grown up doing, but also that given Butters' none too secret opinion on his father he'd actually just gone ahead and taken that patent misinformation at face value.
He decided to remind Butters of some base facts. "Your father is a self righteous cockhead, remember."
Butters' face tightened a bit. "Well, yeah, but—"
"Forget it!" Kenny stood up in surrender. Now was not the time for giving the talk. "I'll be in the shower. If I go blind and get hairy palms then let it be known on my record that it was fucking worth it." He made for the door. "Six fucking months in a trench, god knows how the rest of the guys get by..." The door shut, leaving a semi—disgusted Butters behind him.
The next day the squad was walking towards their assigned place. By all accounts they probably should have been marching, but Craig just didn't give a shit. So instead they idled along, briskly enough but none too formally. Nobody was really in a mood to talk that morning bar Stan, and since decent conversation needed two people they walked in silence.
The journey took an hour and a half in all. The place they were assigned was a smallish village with squads from the other two platoons in the company also standing there, consisting of people that Kenny vaguely recognised, and a few squads besides from other companies. All in all there were possibly two platoons worth of men — the three squads plus Craig, who technically wasn't the squad commander but was of a higher rank and was around them most of the time, made sixteen, so Kenny guessed there must have been eight or so squads from other companies. Pretty well fortified for a small village.
Craig turned around to face his squad. "Remember, we're here as guards, not attackers, so stay within the village. If the Germans come, shoot first and ask later. If they don't, then we get the easy job. Stay alert, no going off alone. Any questions?" Craig continued without allowing sufficient time for anyone to ask any questions. "No? Good. Now let's go."
The group started patrolling. Although, in Kenny's opinion, 'patrol' was a little too grand a word for it. It was basically just milling around the village, staying in the squad and only pausing for a few minutes here and there to rest their legs from the hours of walking around. Within the first two hours, Kenny had given up on carrying his rifle and instead was keeping it slung over his shoulder.
After he'd done it and Craig had said nothing, Stan and Clyde followed suit.
"Is this it?" Kyle huffed.
"Yup," Craig replied.
"We were transferred however many miles—"
"Fifty," Craig reminded him.
"—to just walk around this godforsaken village for however many hours at a time—"
"The line's been under attack in this area," Craig filled in, repeating the explanation that Kenny thought had already been given. "Yardale thinks this is a vulnerable area. Hence we're here."
Kyle huffed again. "Wasn't it a gas attack?"
"Well what good is hurling all the troops we can going to do against a fucking gas cloud?"
Craig didn't respond. Clyde spoke up. "You know, Kyle's got a point there."
"Thank you!" Kyle acknowledged loudly. "And also, if a gas attack happens here, what the hell do we do?"
"Don't breathe it in?" Kenny quipped.
Kyle turned to glare at Kenny just in time to miss Craig turning to say "Basically."
As such, Kyle snapped his head back to face Craig. "What?
Kenny felt, rather than saw, Butters starting to have one of his minor panic attacks. "What, we don't have a plan for a gas attack? Oh, god, oh god oh god oh god oh—"
"Butters, shut up," Craig ordered. Kenny hung back a little to calm Butters down some, whispering reassurances to him and keeping a hand on his shoulder for a few minutes, while the scare went away. The best part of a year in the army, and he was still a nervous little shit. "But that's the extent of it," Craig continued. "It's not exactly like we've had to deal with opposing forces turning the very air against us before."
"So what do we do?" Stan asked, before Kyle could throw any more scathing comments into the conversation and jeopardise his good night's sleep even further.
Craig thought. "Well, what we know is that the gas, I forget what it's called, is not invisible. So if you happen to see any piss yellow clouds on the horizon and the wind might be blowing it towards us, feel free to raise the alarm. Do not inhale it, do not touch it if you can help it. Stop here, take five."
The squad stopped. Kenny and Butters immediately sat down against a building, with Clyde quickly doing likewise. The others just leaned against the building and watched a couple of other squads down the road as they went about their business. The thumping of boots carried along the air in the brief moments of silence, which was at least bearable. More so than dead silence, anyway. And, in the distance, they could just about hear the pounding of artillery.
"So..." Clyde said. "After the gas?"
Once again, everyone looked towards Craig. "Well, if what they did the one time thus far is anything to go by, they used the confusion caused by the gas attack as cover for an advance. Some people might call that ungentlemanly warfare, but there's no denying we'd be doing it if we'd thought of it first."
"How bad was it?" Stan asked.
Craig shrugged. "Not a complete disaster. The gas had a lot of our guys clutching at their chests and rasping for air as they—"
"Craig," Kenny interjected. Craig looked towards him, and Kenny pointed at Butters, who was in the process of fighting back tears at that description.
To his credit, Craig didn't continue with that description. Of course he didn't apologise, though. "In any event, while they were inconvenienced the Bosche advanced and tried to overrun our lines. In that much they were successful, but what they seemed to forget is that the air in the trench—the air with the yellow gas of death in it, the yellow gas of death that they put there in the first place that bears no allegiance to any faction—is also the air that they have to breathe in."
"Ah," Clyde muttered under his breath.
"So they slightly shot themselves in the foot on that occasion. My guess would be that they're going to be a bit more careful next time. Stay behind the death cloud." Craig glanced to Butters to make sure he was okay with that. The threat of open blubbing seemed to have receded, though, so he continued. "So provided we can manage to not breathe it in and incapacitate ourselves, they might not expect any reasonable resistance."
"Assuming—" Kyle began. Craig promptly cut him off.
"Assuming that we can take on however many Germans are coming, of course. So, that's that." Craig glanced up to look at the sun, but the sky was a solid pale grey. There wasn't much point trying to gauge the time today. "Let's move on," he said shortly, pushing away from the wall and starting to walk, followed by Stan, then Kyle. The others got up to follow.
A couple of weeks into the new assignment, Kenny was thoroughly bored with Belgium. Aside from the step up in sleeping arrangements, not a whole lot was much better. Walking through open air was quite the relief after months and months in the trenches at first, but having to walk miles every day immediately on waking up on a fresh sleep schedule wasn't the most enjoyable of trade offs.
Even that would have been bearable if something interesting had happened. One raised alarm, one check up from someone higher up the chain than Token, maybe even one decent argument between Craig and Kyle would have made things easier, but none of their occasional back and forths ever escalated to any interesting level.
A small part of Kenny even thought that maybe it wouldn't be entirely bad to have someone shooting at them again. Just for something to happen.
He couldn't take walking around the same village for eight hours a day when the village had barely two dozen buildings on three or four streets—Kenny wasn't even sure if the fourth one counted as a street, it was more like a footpath with houses attached.
It was dull. In a factory at least he had something to do and there was a nice constant supply of news and gossip about people. Here he was just walking around and occasionally exchanging pleasantries with other equally bored patrols and guards as they passed by.
Craig dropped his rifle at the edge of the footpath road and sat down. "Take five."
Everyone leaned against the wall. They'd learned that it was actually much better to stand up than it was to sit down during their rest breaks. They'd also found that it wasn't worth eating all their rations in one go, or they'd find themselves with stitches within about a minute of setting back off.
Nobody talked—there wasn't anything to talk about. Five minutes passed. Craig pushed off the wall, slung his rifle back over his shoulder and took a couple of steps forward. "Time up, let's mo—" He stopped dead mid word.
The uncharacteristically sudden silence caught everyone's attention. Kenny being at the back of the group, he got quite the view of everyone staring at Craig, who in turn was staring down the street off to the left.
"What is it?" Clyde asked.
Craig turned around. Even through his usual stoic mask it was clear to see that he was now deadly serious. "Everyone get inside immediately and go upstairs."
"Uh, why's that?" Butters asked.
Kenny waited for the challenge from Kyle, and so was rather surprised when Kyle didn't actually say anything, instead opting to try the nearest available door. It opened—the village was pretty much abandoned by all who weren't military, so all the permanent stations were set up inside buildings. Those buildings that had not been accessible on arrival had since been broken into, so nowhere was off limits.
Craig hurried everyone inside before locking the door behind him. "I want every window closed and every door barred. Go."
"What is this in aid of?" Stan asked. Craig turned to glare.
"Go upstairs and look to the east and you'll see what this is in aid of."
Stan promptly did so, followed closely by Kenny. They climbed the stairs and moved directly to the opposite window. Of course they knew the village itself, the layout and such, and they could see a few other squads that were on duty running indoors too.
What was new was the distinct yellow mist that was both directly upwind from them and coming from the direction of the German lines.
Stan promptly slammed the window shutters shut. "Fuck."
Kenny heard a few further slams from downstairs, before pulling himself together and setting about shutting the upstairs windows—four spread between three rooms—before anyone could come up and ask why the hell they were dicking around and not setting about shutting the poison cloud out.
"Are we sealed in?" Craig shouted from downstairs.
"Yes!" Stan replied. Kenny turned as the others arrived upstairs and dropped their equipment on the floor. Craig stepped forward.
"I want you standing by the eastward window, check on the gas cloud every two minutes."
Kenny cocked his head. "Won't that—"
"No. Reports were that the cloud flowed into the trench, it was heavier than air. Should stay close to the ground." Craig hesitated. "That said, try to keep the window shut as much as you can."
"Awesome," Kenny droned. He moved through to the appropriate room, the spare bedroom, and cracked open the shutters. "It's in the village!" he shouted. "Way past the eastward trenches!"
"Brilliant." There was a pause. "Can you guess on how long it's going to be before it's passed?"
Kenny cracked the shutters open again. "Rear edge of the cloud's maybe a mile away, but it looks like it's less thick further back. If you're interested I can't see the sides of the cloud."
Kenny opened the shutters further and poked his head out, looking both ways before shutting them again. "It extends over the horizon lengthways."
"Fuck." Another pause. "Keep me posted, okay?"
Through the shutters, Kenny could hear a few muffled sounds. They started off as just coughing, but quickly progressed to a painful wet hacking. Somewhere in the back of his mind he pictured the people in the streets, who maybe hadn't had the time or presence of mind to dive into a building and hide until the cloud passed. With blood spewing from their mouths, chemical burns turning up on their skin—
With a lot of difficulty, Kenny waved the image away. He cracked the shutters open again—there was nobody to see, at least.
Wait. Wasn't there?
"Craig?" Kenny shouted.
"There's movement behind the cloud," he informed him.
"Fuck!" Something in the other room crashed. "How's the cloud?" Kenny looked down.
"Seems to be dissipating a little. Not going to get much further than here, that's for damn sure."
"How's its height?" Craig clarified, sounding exasperated.
"You were right, it's staying close to ground. It's not coming in the upstairs windows, or at least not enough to be of any effect."
"Get in here." Kenny obeyed, returning to the others in the main bedroom. Craig was pacing back and forth, Stan was looking slightly worried, Butters was on the verge of a freak out with Clyde doing his best to keep that from happening, and Kyle was checking his weapon.
"Okay, so the Germans are advancing behind the cloud. Same as before." Craig sighed for a second. "I need options."
Kyle immediately spoke up. "You and I are the best shots here. We take the window, when they get close we can take pot shots."
Craig nodded. "Not bad. Potential drain on ammunition though, remember we're going to need to defend when they arrive too. Alternatives?"
Kenny glanced between them. "Run away as soon as it's safe to. We're only—"
He was cut off by a very pointed rumble from outside. Everyone was silent for a second, then they heard a faint whistling followed by another rumble.
Clyde glanced to Craig. "Is shelling their own army a standard German tactic?"
"Shelling a mile ahead might be," Craig muttered. "Synchronising artillery aim with the advancement of the infantry, not that hard to do. There's not enough of us here to reasonably survive a direct confrontation. Kyle, take the window. Open it enough to get your rifle out, thin out their line a little. The moment the gas is clear, we're falling back."
Kyle raised one eyebrow as he picked the rifle up. "You know that could be considered cowardice, right?"
"Given that we are being gassed, shelled, and advanced upon by... How big was that line, Kenny?"
"Dense. Hundreds, probably. I think there were some advance parties too." Kenny caught the slightest shit from Butters.
"Hundreds of enemy troops," Craig continued, "I am making the tactical decision to withdraw and not throw the lives of six soldiers away and instead preserve them for a later battle where they may yet be useful."
Kyle's eyes widened a little, but then he nodded and moved. Within a few seconds, the first cracks of his rifle were sounding through the village.
"Exactly how good a shot is he?" Clyde asked.
Stan looked up. "Still conditions, he could have the handle off a teacup at three hundred yards."
The shots were steady, as were the rumbles of the artillery. Those rumbles were also getting uncomfortably loud, almost at the level of actual bangs. One even shook the house slightly.
Several tense minutes passed. Kenny had to remind himself to relax his grip on his rifle several times, but he had nothing on Butters. He was actively shaking. Clyde and Craig were keeping their cool, and Stan was just about managing it, but the situation was clearly getting to him too.
"Ken?" Butters asked through his shakes.
"They're not going to find us, right?"
"No," he replied, before anyone else could butt in. "By the time the Germans get here, we'll be long gone, isn't that right?" He looked up to Craig, who gave a none too reassuring nod.
"What if they follow us though?" Butters asked.
Kenny considered, during which time he heard Kyle shoot twice.
"Well, think about it this way. In order to effect a nice hasty retreat, we're going to have to leave a lot of heavy stuff behind. This village was practically an outpost. Right?"
"Plus it's fortified along one side, there's trenches along the east border, right?"
"Yeah?" Butters repeated.
"So," Kenny continued, "given that it's pre—fortified, they're going to want to concentrate on capturing this village, aren't they?"
Butters nodded. "I guess," he conceded, though his grip on his rifle didn't loosen in the slightest.
"They'd be way more interested in that than chasing five random soldiers and one low ranking officer down the road towards where they might have an army waiting, anyway," Kenny finished. "So they won't follow us. Okay?"
Again, Butters nodded. "Okay."
The cracks from the next room stopped. "Cloud gone!" came Kyle's holler.
"Move out!" Craig snapped. Everyone immediately moved. They headed straight outside and towards the main road. At the sight of three people lying in the road, Kenny heard Butters gagging. He had to suppress a gag himself.
"Don't look," he whispered. He saw the nod, though Butters' quickened breathing didn't make any point of slowing down, and so on they ran. Kenny kept reminding himself to not look, and to just concentrate on getting out.
"Against the wall!" Craig shouted as they approached one of the crossroads, between a side road and the footpath road. Everyone flattened themselves. Craig peeked around the corner, then shot backward. "Side road, go!"
Down the side road they went. It was something of a diversion from the most direct route out of the village, not to mention it wasn't really a proper road. It was wide enough for a few people to fit down at once, but it still wasn't paved.
"They coming?" Kyle asked as Craig slowed the run down to a brisk walk.
"Road's out. Shelled. Unreasonable obstacle." They approached the end of the road. "Wait here. Clyde, check the road, is it clear and can we go down it?" Clyde leaned out, then straight back in.
"Advance party on the road, three men coming for us." Clyde informed them. Craig grit his teeth, pointed to Stan and then Kyle, then to the edge of the building. Clyde stepped back and raised his rifle, as Stan and Kyle stood to one side of him and did likewise.
Kenny braced himself, and saw Butters covering his ears as the guns went off with deafening bangs. Two of the Germans fell. The third had time to turn around and raise his own rifle before Craig shot him down. "You're fucking useless, Marsh," he muttered.
Craig peeked round the corner, and was promptly met with a steadily advancing horizontal green line coming from the Germans' direction, combing across the muddy landscape and presumably seeking out things to take over or otherwise shoot. They were maybe a quarter mile away and moving at a steady pace.
"What's happening?" Butters asked from the back of the line.
"Half the German army advancing. That was some dense enemy line you saw there, Kenny." Kenny shrugged, not having the time or willpower to properly protest that he hadn't been able to discern exactly how many were coming. Craig did the mental calculations, then pointed back in Butters' direction, where a thin bush—lined trail led between two of the houses and back to the road back towards Ypres. "That way should be quickest. Go."
With Butters now in the lead, the squad started running towards the end of the side road, onto the main road past the village. Butters paused at the edge of the road, then suddenly pressed his back to the wall. Kenny hurriedly did likewise, and a series of thumps behind him confirmed everyone else had too.
"What is it?" Kenny hissed.
Butters glanced back nervously, tightening the grip he had on his rifle to the point of his knuckles whitening. "Thought I heard something down the street."
Everyone strained to listen. There was nothing except for the slightest of tramp tramp tramps in the distance.
"It's nothing," Craig asserted, "just go."
Uncertainly, Butters nodded. Then he ran out into the road. Kenny waited a couple of seconds, took a deep breath and then followed his friend.
He managed to take a grand total of two steps before, between himself and Butters, the ground erupted in a cloud of dust, cobbling and mortar, and he just about had enough time to see Butters go flying forward, sprawling out in midair and flipping forwards uncontrollably.
That was when Kenny's own eardrums burst from the tremendous sound and he too was hurled backward off his feet.
He didn't feel when he hit the ground, and he wasn't even entirely sure how long he was there. Faintly, on the edge of vision, he heard Craig's nasal voice shouting "Shell!" He managed to roll over onto his front. He wasn't winded at least, but fuck was he aching.
He forced his way onto his hands and knees, then onto his feet. His legs were shaking, but he was staying up. He turned around to where Butters had—
Kenny stumbled forward, tripping in the fresh hole in the road to where Butters was. He hadn't gotten up.
"Butters?" Kenny asked, not even hearing his own voice. The ringing in his ears was deafening him.
He rolled Butters onto his back. He was hit badly. There was blood everywhere, coming from so many places — where he'd scraped along the road, where shrapnel had cut through his uniform...
Kenny lifted Butters into a sitting position, his hand unconsciously grabbing a fistful of sticky, bloody hair. "Butters!"
He was still breathing. His eyes were closed but he was still breathing.
He heard footsteps behind him. There was a nasal voice just on the edge of hearing. "Kyle, Stan, you guys take him. Clyde, you help Kenny. We have to go now!" He saw Kyle and Stan pick up Butters by the arms and start carrying him away. Then he felt another set of arms helping him up.
"Come on, Kenny," he heard Clyde say. "I'm going to need your help here."
Kenny started stumbling forwards, Clyde always catching him when he should have fallen. He needed to catch up to Butters.
He could see his eyes cracking open. They were dull. Bloodshot. Shit.
With an extra burst of energy, Kenny forced his way forwards, and Clyde helped. "Butters!" Kenny shouted when they were close, just a few feet away.
With his hearing still impaired, he couldn't hear the response Butters gave, but his lips seemed to say 'Ken'.
"I'm here!" Clyde helped Kenny forward even further. "Butters, I'm here!"
"What happened?" He could just about hear the weak voice.
Kenny tried to force a smile, but he ached far too much for it to look genuine. "Got a bit close to a German shell," he informed him.
"Hurry up!" shouted Craig from the front. "Field hospital, one mile. Double time it!"
The squad's pace increased. The sounds of shells and what battle there was faded into background noise, the village now gone from sight. They were making some serious progress.
"How bad is it?" Butters asked. Once again, Kenny tried to force a smile, and once again he failed.
"It's not that bad. Just a few cuts and scrapes. You got blown off your feet, nothing more."
Butters looked up. "It's wet. Feels like it's raining." Kenny squinted, not understanding at all. "But it's not..."
The blood was spreading.
"Butters," Kenny said, almost pleading with the man. "Listen to me."
"You're going to be fine. I promise."
"It's all going to be alright, Ken?"
"Yeah." Butters had Kenny's full attention and so when they reached the main road almost tripped, but Clyde caught him. "Everything's going to be alright. You'll be all better, you'll be fine, I swear it'll be fine, you hear me?"
"D'you mind shutting up back there?" Craig shouted. "You're wasting energy!"
Kenny shut up, just throwing weak and none—too—convincing smiles in Butters' direction whenever his eyes were open. And it felt like they were closed far too much.
It seemed to take forever but they got to the field hospital, which was just a glorified house just off the road that had a big red cross hanging off the side. Outside, there were two soldiers—who had apparently seen them from far up the road—and one nurse. Craig spoke first, as soon as he was close. "What's your name, nurse?"
"Gwendolyn Testaburger," she replied. Craig just slumped at the stupid name. The nurse huffed slightly. "You can use Wendy if that's too much. What happened?"
Craig swung his arm back, indicating the two victims. "Shell. Two injuries, one serious. I think McCormick is just a bit dazed, Stotch is looking a lot worse."
Wendy nodded, and turned to the men flanking her. "Take Stotch back there, I'll deal with McCormick." The two soldiers took Butters from Stan and Kyle, and made towards the building.
"It'll be okay," Kenny managed quietly as he passed.
Wendy took him over to a tent in front of the building. "Sit down." Kenny did so. Wendy undid his jacket and lifted his shirt up, and started feeling around. Kenny couldn't help the wincing and flinching every time she passed over a painful spot.
The examination, in as much as it could be called that, went on for a minute or two before Wendy fully removed all of the clothes on his upper half. "You seem to be largely okay," she explained, pulling his shirt over his head. "You're going to have some bruises and aches for a few days, possibly a concussion too. Best if you can lie down for a while. The worst of it, I think you've got two, maybe three ribs broken, so I'm going to bandage your ribs really tight to keep them in place."
Kenny nodded as the nurse started to bandage him up. "You've got cuts, too, but they'll heal themselves. Just do your best to keep them clean, you don't want infection setting in."
Once again, Kenny just nodded dumbly.
Wendy pulled tightly on the bandage while roughly pushing Kenny's side away from her, then tied it off. "Change it every so often, make sure it's on tight, keep them for at least two months. I also recommend you take it easy. Now, if you'll excuse me I need to attend to your friend."
"Thank you," Kenny said, nodding. Wendy stood up and headed to the building, leaving Kenny to redress himself. His chest ached as he pulled his shirt and jacket back on.
He stood up. He could feel his ribs creaking as he moved, but he didn't feel particularly broken. Wendy was certainly right. Most of it seemed to be just flesh wounds.
No worries. At least not for him.
Kenny walked outside, slowly. He was still ever so slightly giddy, and so stumbled on his way to join the rest of the squad.
"Kenny, you're alright?" Stan asked.
Kenny nodded. "Butters?" he asked lowly—weakly.
"In there," Clyde informed him. "What I got told was they're trying to patch him up enough to get to a proper hospital."
"We're waiting for word on him." Stan forced a brief smile. "I'm sure he'll be fine."
"Yeah..." Kenny couldn't manage any more.
While the others say against the wall, Kenny paced back and forth. He'd never been one for biting his fingernails, but he was more than making up for a lifetime of not doing it now. It was all he could do.
He fretted, he shook, he couldn't stay still. All his thoughts were occupied by Butters. He'll be fine. He has to be fine. God wouldn't be that cruel.
"Private McCormick?" asked someone. Kenny turned around—Wendy was back outside.
"How's it going?" he asked, a little too quickly.
Wendy blinked slowly, and exhaled. He's going to be alright. "Private Stotch suffered serious injury. Not just the shell itself, there was also fragmentation. Aside from the blast damage from the shell physically exploding, he was hit by shards of metal from the shell, not to mention bits of road that would have been kicked up."
"So?" he asked.
"Well..." Wendy slumped a little. He's got to be alright. "We couldn't stop all the bleeding. He tried, he really fought, but..."
Kenny felt his gut drop like someone had just thrown a cannon into it. He was aware that his mouth had opened, and that he too had slumped. For a few seconds, it really felt like his heart had stopped, that his lungs were filled with lead, and that he was going to fall apart at every one of his joints.
He was dead.
Butters was dead.
Butterfingers was dead.
Kenny sat on his bunk, staring across at the bed. The empty bed. The one where Butters should be sleeping. Butters who was dead.
Kenny hadn't even gotten to say goodbye. The last thing he'd said to him was that he'd be alright.
And now he was dead.
How much Kenny wanted to be wrong. To have been lied to. He wanted the door to open, he wanted his friend to walk in. He wanted to see the light playing through his bright blonde hair. He wanted to see those eyes that were the colour of the sunrise sky. He wanted to hear the stuttering unsure voice talk about menial, unimportant things like the weather or a letter from home.
He wanted his friend to walk through the door and act like nothing had happened.
Instead he had this.
The last memory he had of his friend.
Hair dulled and matted by dirt, destroyed road and clotting, drying blood. His blood.
Eyes darkened and vacant.
Asking for Kenny like he wasn't even sure he was there.
His friend dying in some foreign road while Kenny promised him that everything was going to be alright.
How was anything ever going to be alright now?
And what was he going to tell Karen? When he wrote home, could he tell her that?
Butters was dead.
Of all the people, did it have to be Butters? Kenny would never wish death upon anyone, but surely of the people who'd been there—of Kyle, Stan, Craig, Clyde, Butters and himself, surely Butters couldn't deserve death more than anyone else.
But then, was it for Kenny to understand why? People who didn't deserve death died all the time. Kenny couldn't comprehend how the world decided who lived and who died. Maybe it wasn't fair. Five seconds either way, and Butters would still be alive.
But he was dead.
How could that ever be fair?
There was a knock at the door. Kenny said nothing so the knocker walked straight in. "Hey," came the monotonous voice. Kenny didn't look up or acknowledge Craig. Craig said nothing, instead stepping inside and sitting down opposite Kenny.
"Please don't sit there, Craig," Kenny said lowly. Craig immediately stood up and straightened the sheets out, before sitting on the table.
Kenny finally looked at Craig. He hadn't made an effort for appearance. His jacket was undone and he wasn't even wearing his tie. But that was still more effort than Kenny had made.
"If you're here to say sorry for my loss, please don't," Kenny requested, having had to live down that shit from everyone else. He'd returned to staring at Butters' bed. Maybe he thought that if he could will him back into existence...
"I'm not," Craig said. "Soldiers die all the time and if I had to console every single one of their friends every single time it happened, I'd go mad." Kenny said nothing. "I'm here to tell you we're being rotated back into our dugout in two days. Yardale has decided to cut our losses given the failure of all the attempted counter attacks, and is moving troops back to where they were before. Minus some who are staying in the event of another push, but that's not us." Craig looked at Kenny for a second, then sat next to him. When Kenny didn't protest this time, he spoke again. "Are you feeling alright?"
Kenny slowly turned to Craig. "I thought you said you're not here to console me."
"You misunderstand me," Craig said, not meeting Kenny's glare. "You're in my chain, I have to make sure all my soldiers are fit for combat. If you're not in a fit condition to fight then I'd have to recommend to Major Black that you be given a week to recuperate."
"I'm fine," Kenny replied.
"You don't sound it."
Craig stared for a few seconds. "On your own head." He got up to leave but then Kenny's second and third visitors arrived. Sergeant Broflovski stormed in, tin helmet in hand, shortly followed by a worried looking Stan.
"Broflovski," Craig started, but Kyle shoved him back towards the wall before he could continue.
"You fuck!" Kyle shouted. Craig stumbled back, but retained his balance. He grabbed Kyle's arm as the punch came, but made no move to counter. Kyle's anger was not contained. "You fucking got him killed!"
Craig stayed calm. Relatively speaking, at least. "Did you really expect me to—"
"You're supposed to keep your damn soldiers safe!" Kyle seethed, spitting through his teeth. "And instead you fucking got Butters—Butters — you fucking got him killed!"
"And look what it's done to Kenny!" Kyle shouted, waving an arm at Kenny, who still hadn't looked up. He's dead. He's gone. Could he ever process that thought? "He's a fucking wreck! You're going to send him back to the front fucking line in that state?"
"I'm fine," Kenny droned, but Kyle ignored him.
"Kyle—" Stan tried to interrupt, pulling at his arm.
"This is your damn fault," Kyle spat. Kenny heard an exhalation from Craig that he could only describe as angry. "If it weren't for you and your stupid order, Butters would still be fucking alive!"
"If it weren't for me," Craig repeated firmly—he was getting angry. "You would all already be dead, so—"
That was as far as he got. Between his starting his defence and getting to the word "so", Kyle's helmet had found its way from his left hand to his right, and he'd used it to backhand Craig across the face. There was a sharp BONG at impact, then Craig fell, clutching at his jaw.
"Kyle!" Stan shouted, pulling Kyle back before he could get a second hit in. "Can I talk to you alone, please?"
Kyle focused his glare on Stan, huffed, then made his way out. Stan glanced worriedly between Kenny and the lieutenant before following. Once they were gone, Craig forced his way up.
"I could have him court martialed for that..." he groaned, rubbing his jaw. "Probably would if he weren't a decent soldier."
Kenny didn't reply. He just stared at where Butters should have been.
Craig got ready to leave. "I'll talk to Yardale before we transfer back. See if there's anything he can do for you."
Kenny nodded. Craig, not having much further to say, stepped out and away from where Kyle and Stan were bickering.
Throughout the journey back to France, Kenny said little. He sat alone, never letting anyone take the seats next to him, always saying that they were for an absent friend.
When they arrived and marched back to their dugout, Kenny hung behind a little, leaving enough space for another soldier to slip into the gap.
When they got back he stared at the empty bed next to his.
Craig talked about the duty rotas and Kenny stared at the bed, waiting for Butters to arrive back at the dugout, from duty or from just a step out to get some fresh air or something.
Clyde left to man the watch station and Kenny rolled over, facing the wall and saying nothing.
Life went on and Kenny cried himself to sleep.
Today was the day.
The empty bed in the dugout was about to be filled. Someone was going to come along and take Butters' place.
Kenny was sat on one of the crates, staring at the bed. Some private, fresh from boot camp, had been assigned to their platoon to fill the void left by Butters' death. He had to remind himself that this person—Phillip, his name was—wouldn't know. It wasn't his fault that he'd ended up here.
He couldn't help thinking that having someone coming to fill the bed sort of erased Butters out a bit. And Butters meaning what he did to Kenny, he wasn't exactly pleased to have a brand new friend to keep him company while defiling that memory.
"Kenny," Clyde said, stepping in between him and the bed, "listen. I know you're still hurting over Butters—"
"No shit, Sherlock," Kenny growled, not even bothering to look up.
Clyde sighed. "But. You're going to have to at least move on."
This time, Kenny looked up to meet Clyde's gaze. "You think I don't know that?"
"No." Clyde sat down opposite Kenny, on the bed. "God knows we all know you know that."
"Don't sit there."
"What the fuck did I just say?" Clyde asked, not standing up. He didn't make any point of sounding angry, something Kenny couldn't help but appreciate. He couldn't do with people being angry right now. "Someone's living in this bed, you're going to tell them to fuck off every time they want to get a bit of sleep?"
Kenny didn't have an answer to that. "For your own sake, Kenny, move on," Clyde pleaded. "Or—"
With conversation quite thoroughly terminated by the appearance of Craig, both Clyde and Kenny turned towards the door. He was standing with a blonde man behind him, with neatly combed back hair and a very annoying smile. For a second Kenny even thought that it might have been Butters, but a closer look showed he clearly wasn't. The hair was similar, the eyes were almost identical, but the face was far more angular.
"I've got two things for you all. Here's our new squad mate, Phillip—"
"Pip," interrupted the man behind him cheerily.
"—Pirrup. Don't be afraid to tell him to shut up because believe me, he can be an annoying fuck and taking offence seems to be completely beyond him, but other than that I want you treating him like you'd have treated Butters." Kenny's eyes narrowed a little at that comment. Craig didn't make eye contact with him, and very pointedly so.
"Secondly, good news for you two." Craig glanced at Clyde and Kenny—still not making eye contact. "After what happened in Belgium, and also after the nine or so months of what I consider to be acceptably good conduct I ran a request by Yardale to have the lot of you bumped up the promotion list."
Kyle raised an eyebrow. "Everyone?"
"Yup. He took a bit of convincing, and I may have embellished facts a little, but—"
"Is this your way of making up for getting Butters killed?" demanded the sergeant. Craig levelled a glare at him. Kyle managed to maintain it for a few seconds, but as Kenny had learned in his time there, Craig was a king at maintaining death glares.
He did note, however, that Craig had not denied the accusation.
"Donovan, you've been promoted to the rank of full corporal." Clyde managed a brief smile, but no more than that. Craig fished in his jacket pocket for a few seconds before pulling out fresh chevrons for him. "Get that sewn onto your shoulder as soon as you can."
Craig turned to Kenny. "McCormick, you've been promoted to the rank of lance corporal." Craig rummaged again and pulled out a single chevron. "Once again, sew that on as soon as you can." Kenny nodded, but said nothing. "Marsh, Broflovski, I couldn't convince Yardale to bump you guys up far enough for immediate promotion, but if he has any sense of honour, which being a soldier who spends his time fifty miles behind the front line where he fucking should be means he does not, he's said he'll keep an eye on you."
Stan raised a hand. "He has to keep an eye on tens of thousands of men."
Craig nodded. "Yes. He does. He's probably already forgotten. But I will be taking any excuse to remind him that he kind of promised. Hint hint."
Even Kyle's glare managed to soften a little. Phillip, or Pip or whatever, came in as soon as Craig was out of the doorway, and made his way to Butters' bed. Kenny consciously made the effort not to stare him down, instead opting to go back to his own bed and start writing a letter. Besides it having been a while since he last wrote, it was about time Karen knew.
Sorry it's been a while. I've had to get over something horrible. You remember Butterfingers, my friend from the factory who I signed up with. Well, unfortunately he is... Kenny paused. He sighed, and listened to the chirpy young man who was sitting on his bed now, telling everyone about his story. A Staffordshire boy, from what he'd heard.
Move on he told himself. His brain told him that using Clyde's voice, much to his own annoyance.
dead he wrote. I wish I were able to say it was a heroic death, or that he died for something, but I can't. He ran into the path of a shell and that was it. His replacement has just arrived.
On a slightly lighter note I've been promoted to lance corporal. From what I can tell, it doesn't mean much. All it means really is I get to pull rank on this new guy occasionally and get a pay rise, but other than that it's largely symbolic. Aside from that, not a whole lot has happened that's worth talking about. Kyle continues to give Craig excuses to court martial him, et cetera.
Will write again soon.
Kenny folded the paper up. "Stan!" Kenny shouted, before he got outside to go on duty.
"What?" he asked.
"While you're out, could you take this to whoever sorts mail?"
Stan picked the letter up. "No address, dude."
That had been Butters' job, too. "Shit." Kenny took the letter back and, on the back, in the neatest scrawl he could manage, wrote out the address. "Here."
Once again, Stan took the letter. "Alright. See you guys later." Stan left again, this time without interruption.
With little better to do, Kenny turned his attention to the story of the newcomer.
"...doing archery, so when it came to sharpshooting I wasn't entirely bad," Pip was saying with a level of brightness that was a nice enough thing as it was, damp as the mood had been for the last month or so, but Kenny anticipated it becoming a primary source of rage for him in the imminent future.
"Isn't a bow and arrow a bit different from a rifle?" Kenny asked. As he said it he realised that maybe it was coming off a little too acidic in tone to be considered civil, and both Craig and Kyle shot him warning glares. Pip, though, didn't actually seem to notice.
"Oh, yes," he agreed. "But the whole aiming thing is pretty much the same. Following the line of the arrow, following the line of the sights, it's kind of similar."
"No it's not," Kenny contested.
Pip looked down briefly. "I guess not. But the point was I turned out to be not too bad. Almost failed the physical test, mind you, I couldn't run a hundred yards if there was fifty quid glazed in chocolate sauce in it for me when I started training."
Kenny nodded. "So why did you do archery, exactly?"
"He went to a private school," Craig replied. "Posh place. Archery's on their curriculum up in Staffordshire, apparently."
Kenny cocked his head back towards Pip. "So why'd you sign up?"
"Oh, all the lads did as soon as they were old enough. School was pretty much barren. I'm pretty much the youngest, that's why it's been so long, but I've been getting letters from most of them since they joined up. They've been saying it's an awful lot of fun out here"
They lied Kenny thought, but he made a point of not vocalising the sentiment.
"Well, in any event," Craig said, "no matter why you signed up we're glad to have you here." Craig glanced towards Kenny. "Aren't we?"
"Yes, sir," Kenny replied blankly.
Craig stared for a minute, gauging his tone. "Good."
In the silence that followed, Kenny couldn't help noticing that Pip was glancing between the two of them. "Uhhh..." he monotoned. "Is everything okay between you chaps?"
"Fine," Kenny immediately replied. Craig, though, was a little less abrupt in his response.
"I'm afraid that the reason you were assigned to this squad was because of the death of another member of it. That member was the person who Kenny signed up with, and had been acquainted with for..." He looked towards Kenny for the figure.
"Eight months," Kenny informed him.
"Eight months before the outbreak of the war. As you can imagine, he is not entirely happy with this turn of events."
Pip nodded. "Well, I'm sorry for your loss, Kenny."
"I'm sure," he muttered.
Craig sighed. "Kenny, if you're not going to be civil to your new squad mate, please go and be somewhere else."
"Oh, come on," Pip interjected, "he's not being that bad. I mean, I can see why he'd be a bit peeved, being as his friend just died and all—"
"Excuse me," Kenny announced, running straight outside of the room. He needed a minute alone.
Immediately, he was followed by Pip. "Everything alright?" he asked. Kenny did not turn to acknowledge him.
"Fine, I'd like to be left alone please," Kenny said through grit teeth.
While Kenny couldn't see it, Pip had cocked his head. "Did I say something?"
Kenny sighed and span around, which on the wet wood almost made him lose his balance and fall into the trench. "Listen. Clyde hasn't been letting me hear the end of this, so I want to be absolutely clear with you on something, alright?"
"Uh...okay?" Pip replied uncertainly.
"You haven't done anything to piss me off. I'm sure you're a very pleasant person to be around, and I'm sure we could be good friends."
"Thank you!" Pip beamed.
"But," Kenny continued, "you're arriving to replace who I could very easily rank as the best friend I've ever had, who I watched die a very horrible death that he absolutely did not deserve. So... Just so you understand that if I'm a little short with you, it's nothing that you've done, okay?"
Pip nodded. "I understand, old bean." Then he paused. "Well, I don't understand, really, I've not had that happen to me, but I get why you're a bit off." Kenny nodded thankfully. Pip was really reasonable, at least. "If it helps," he continued, "I can tell Lieutenant Tucker not to be too hard on you if you get into one of your off moods?"
Kenny nodded. "That'd be great. Thank you." Pip turned to head back inside. "Oh, Pip?"
Kenny forced what was a very fake smile out. "Welcome to the squad."
"Thank you," Pip acknowledged.
Once he was inside, Kenny closed his eyes and exhaled. Reminding himself to behave himself and be nice, he followed him. He didn't catch Craig's glare as he headed to his bunk. Keeping the thought It's not Pip's fault firmly in his mind, he fell asleep to the sound of Pip entertaining the rest of the squad with his life story.
Yet another dull day on the front line. It was raining outside, not that that was anything new. What was unusual was that it was torrential, so the trench outside was empty of all those who weren't obliged by shifts to be out in it—Kenny had to pity poor Kyle, who always seemed to get the worst of the weather. It also meant the trench had flooded over the plank bridge again. The door to the dugout had been sandbagged up, so it was reasonably dry in there.
Kenny was busy writing a letter to Karen in silence, Stan was cleaning his equipment, Craig was lying on his bed awake, Clyde was reading a two month old newspaper that had managed to filter through to the front line, and Pip was asleep. There wasn't any talking today, what with the occasional thunderclap and constant thumping and occasional whistling of shells either being fired or landing nearby.
It was all rather usual affair for them, at least for when they were all doing their own things and nobody had any decent stories from back home.
The silence was broken by the field phone ringing. Craig glanced to Kenny. "How's the battery on it?"
"Wound it up yesterday, should be good."
Craig nodded and picked the box up. "I'll be right back then." He stepped over the sandbags and very pointedly did not step much further. Kenny couldn't blame him. Wet feet were revolting. The ringing stopped. "Lieutenant Tucker," he said into the receiver. Kenny and Stan had both paused their activities that they could listen in.
"Brigadier," Craig continued. That sounded like an acknowledgement more than anything. Cartman wanted something. That wasn't good news. Generally speaking Yardale dealt with good news personally, and gave any bad news that had to be dealt out to Cartman.
"Yes sir... What, now?" Stan leaned over so he could hear better. Kenny was already in a decent enough position, but Stan was in the corner of the wall with the door in it, so he couldn't quite hear so well. "Well, it's not such a great time, the trenches are flooded through, so—" The abruptness of the end of Craig's talking made it sound like he'd been cut off.
A heavy sigh came through. "Fine. Yes sir." Craig stepped back inside. "The good brigadier is to be plaguing us with his presence as soon as is possible. An hour maximum. I'd recommend you all make yourself presentable." He glanced to Pip. "If the lance corporal could wake up the private?"
"Yes sir," Kenny acknowledged, grinning. He pulled his revolver out of its holster and shot into the wall.
Pip promptly woke up with a start and fell out of bed.
"We're having visitors soon, Pippy," Kenny informed Pip brightly. "Get your uniform on."
"Visitors?" Pip asked, looking up from his new and uncomfortable looking position on the floor cocooned in the ratty bed sheets bar one leg that was still on the bed. "The general?"
"The general's pet brigadier, unfortunately," Clyde clarified.
Pip sprang to action. Kenny had to give him something, he certainly knew when danger was imminent.
Forty minutes later, all five present men were fully uniformed, with Craig keeping watch outside and the others waiting with dread at what Cartman could possibly want this time.
"D'you think it's just, like, a routine inspection or something?" Clyde asked. Nobody wanted to answer. That was the best case scenario. He'd find something wrong with all of them and the worst offender would be given some arbitrary and cruel punishment just to fulfil Cartman's sadistic needs, that Craig would overrule the moment they were sure he'd gone.
Before anyone could hazard a guess, though, Craig stepped in with his military face on. "Attention!" he barked. In unison, four right feet stamped onto the ground. "On the order, squad will salute." Craig then turned back into the doorway and nodded. Turning back and standing to attention himself, he barked again. "Squad salute!"
As the rotund brigadier forced his way through the slightly too narrow doorway, all five men wheeled their right arms around and held their hands to their forehead, palms out.
Cartman grinned for a second. "Stand easy, men," he ordered brightly. Kenny had to stop himself from cocking his head slightly as he parted his legs slightly and put his arms behind his back. He was actually sounding happy. "Where's the Jew?" he asked.
"As you well know, Brigadier, Sergeant Broflovski is currently on watch," Craig informed him. "You wrote the current rota yourself."
"That's true, isn't it?" Cartman mused. "Such a shame, he'd fucking love this." He leaned back on his heels for a second, putting his generous belly out. What he was doing was either an impression of severe lockjaw, severe cocaine overdose, or absolute nirvana. Kenny couldn't tell which. He started pacing slowly towards Craig.
What the fuck had him so happy?
"Lieutenant Craig Bradley Tucker, it is my distinct pleasure to place you under arrest for blatant disregard for your orders." Wait, what? "You will accompany me back to the Chateau where you will stand trial at court martial, incidentally in which I will be presenting the substantial case against you."
Craig said nothing. He didn't move, he didn't twitch, he didn't even blink. At some point over that sentence he'd engaged into a glare—down with Cartman, and Kenny knew that Craig could hold down a stare.
It was a tense few seconds, but Cartman turned away deliberately and made back for the door, as if nothing had happened. "Corporal Marsh, at your earliest convenience please inform Lanskin that he's been promoted to the rank of lieutenant and will be taking over Tucker's duties." He pivoted back around at the door. "Tucker, you come with me."
Craig's only acknowledgement was to follow him. There were no words.
"Any questions?" Cartman asked.
Kenny took a deep breath—he wasn't sure whether now was the best or the worst time to try his luck with Cartman, but he wanted to know. "Might I be permitted to be present at the court martial?"
Everyone in the room turned to stare at Kenny. Cartman scratched his head. "Why are you concerned for this arsehole?" he asked.
Kenny blinked, and looked down at the floor for a second. He hadn't thought about it before, but it was a logical response. "Because he is my friend." Nonetheless he couldn't believe he'd just said that.
The brigadier stared at Kenny, trying to detect the bullshit that wasn't there. It took a few seconds for him to reach a conclusion. "The martial is a private affair. However, Lieutenant Tucker does require a defence counsel. As someone who has shared a dugout with him for eighteen months you may be well qualified to defend him."
"In which event, Brigadier, I would like to submit my candidacy for the role," Kenny announced.
Cartman considered for a few seconds. "Very well. I'll send a car for you in two days."
"Thank you, sir."
Cartman turned back to Craig. "Well. Off we go," he grinned. And indeed, off they went. As soon as the sloshing of boots in water faded away, the four remaining men glanced between each other.
"So..." Pip tried.
"Did you really just volunteer to be a sodding barrister?" Stan asked. Kenny nodded. "Have you ever actually done anything closely related to that before?"
Kenny's mood immediately fell.
"Well, it certainly explains the lack of orders," Clyde mused. He returned to his bunk. "I'm not looking forward to taking orders from Lanskin. Craig could overrule him but that guy can be a real fucking slave driver. At least Craig..."
Kenny tuned out. Why the hell had he just landed himself the task of being a lawyer?
Crucified fuck Christ.
If he fucked this up Craig could end up facing a firing squad.
"Good luck, Kenny," Stan muttered at the precise wrong time for Kenny's nerves.
The car pulled up outside the Chateau. Kenny had been there a couple of times before, usually accompanying Craig, so he was able to show himself in. He walked up to the captain at the desk.
"Yes?" the bored looking person drawled.
"Lance Corporal McCormick, I'm here to see General Richardson."
The captain shuffled his papers up and pulled one out, seemingly at random. "Good, he's expecting you. Go on in." Kenny walked past the desk, straightened out his jacket, and knocked.
"Come," came the friendly voice. Kenny walked inside. "McCormick," Yardale said, beaming. "Here to visit Tucker, are we?"
Kenny nodded. "Yes sir."
"Good. I'll show you to him." Yardale got up and started walking—towards the stairs to the cellars, Kenny noticed. "It's slightly irregular, having such a low ranking soldier being a counsel at a court martialling, but Brigadier Cartman said you'd been rather eager."
Kenny wasn't so sure about the wording. He wasn't entirely surprised that Cartman might have misrepresented his position on it. "I asked to be considered, sir."
"Well, nobody else did," Yardale filled in. "So I suppose you're it. Still, you have a decent amount of knowledge of what was going on, I suppose it could be alright." He leaned down to the doors to what was likely a wine cellar, pulled a heavy bolt back and opened the flaps, which protested ear—gratingly. "We didn't have any real cells so we're just using this. We rarely have multiple cases at once. It's not even that bad a room," Yardale waffled. Kenny didn't acknowledge him, instead stepping over the threshold onto the stairs.
"When will the martial be, sir?" Kenny asked.
"Tomorrow. We like to get these things over with as quickly as is possible, so it's a quick process. I'll be presiding, by the way." He beamed at Kenny for a second. "Good luck to you. I'll leave the door open for when you need to go. Obviously I don't need to say don't try—"
"You don't, sir."
"Good." Yardale went back inside. Kenny made his way down the stairs.
The cellar wasn't lit very brightly. There was a single bulb in the middle of what was actually a large room, and one small window near the ceiling of one wall. But it was bright enough to see a raven haired man sitting against one wall.
"McCormick," Craig greeted him lowly.
"Lieutenant." Spying a stool on his right, Kenny dragged it over to the far side of the room and sat down facing Craig. He waited for Craig to speak.
After five minutes he mentally slapped himself on the admission that waiting for Craig to initiate a conversation was going to be a futile endeavour. "You disregarded orders?" Craig said nothing. "Why?"
Craig looked down, then back up at Kenny. He was thinking carefully about his response. Kenny knew the signs.
"You said I was your friend," he finally said. Kenny nodded. "Do you know how many people have ever said that about me before?" he asked lowly. Kenny remained silent. "None. You're the first."
Kenny nodded slightly. "Is this your way of thanking me?"
"If you want it to be," he droned. It was always a drone, Kenny hated Craig's drone. At the very least he should have registered some kind of emotion in the face of probable death, but all that seemed to happen was the impenetrable monotone had dropped a little. "You don't have any tobacco on you, do you?"
Kenny shook his head. "Bit hard for a lance corporal like me to get my hands on such luxuries. Sorry."
"Well, damn." Craig exhaled, resting his head against the wall. He stared at the bulb, which was just behind Kenny's blonde mess. It gave Kenny kind of a halo. It was kind of weird, looking at it. "I disregarded my orders because they were suicide," he finally stated.
"How so?" Kenny inquired.
"The orders were to send the entire fucking platoon advancing at once. In a phalanx, like. You wouldn't know because you weren't in the army before all this, but old tactics were basically to square off against the other army, fire and hope all their guys fall over before all your guys do."
Somehow, Kenny detected that Craig was waiting for him to pry. "Well, we went through rudimentary tactics in basic training. That was there." Kenny took a deep breath. "So I'm detecting a 'but' somewhere."
"But" Craig continued, "at the start of the war we were trying that same tactic against enemies who were A, entrenched, B, on high ground, and C, had fucking machine guns. This is a tactic that works against enemies that take a few seconds to reload, not against ones that can just mow down hundreds at once. Five hundred men squaring off against an entrenched machine gun on higher ground, I know who I'd put money on."
Craig paused for a second while Kenny thought about that. Craig was a lot smarter than he'd taken him for, even after this much time.
"So, when the orders came to advance on the enemy immediately, I made the decision to overrule them on the basis that such orders were at best counterproductive," Craig said, shrugging like it was nothing. "I'm not sure how that defence would stand in court, but that's the extent of it. I wouldn't follow an order that would only serve to get a hundred men killed for literally no gain."
Kenny nodded. All your care, what did it do to help Butters, hm? asked the more cynical side of him. For a second, that image went through his head. Blood stained hair. Dull eyes. Unsureness in his voice.
Kenny looked down at the floor while he worked through that memory, but then he found himself grinning. Then he was laughing.
"What?" Craig asked.
Through a chuckle, Kenny explained himself. "What you said, before Kyle twatted you. No shit, huh?"
Craig gave a brief grin at the memory. "You should know me by now, Kenny. I do not lie. If I say something I mean it." The grin fell away then, though. "I did disobey orders, and by all accounts I should face the firing squad. All I can hope is that you can convince Yardale that I was acting out of concern for my soldiers, not out of contempt or insubordination or cowardice, he can at least take pity." Kenny nodded solemnly. "I don't particularly want to die, but I would respect that sentence. Anything less—cashiering or prison or anything like that—is a victory."
Kenny leaned forward and put one hand on Craig's shoulder. Craig shrugged it off before Kenny even started talking. "Craig," he said, forcing the smile. Again, there was the memory. "You're not going to die. I promise. Cartman may be the most erect of dicks, but if there's any general that can give you a lighter sentence, it's Yardale."
Craig nodded. "Well, all that needs saying has been said. You know the extent of my defence and I won't ask you to commit perjury." He leaned back, staring at the bulb again. "I'd like to be left alone now." Kenny nodded once and left, without so much as a goodbye.
The next day rolled around and Kenny accompanied Craig into one of the fancier rooms, where a makeshift court had been made. There were two varnished and expensive looking tables at the front of the room, in front of a longer equally impressive bench where eight officers were sitting. Cartman had already arrived. It seemed that they could begin imminently.
Kenny sat down on the table on the right of the entrance. He spared a glance to the brigadier, who was smirking at Craig but not saying anything. It seemed he was intent on keeping this nice and professional.
One of the officers, a colonel, stood up. "All rise," he announced. Everyone in the room stood up as Yardale walked in and sat at the centre of the bench, with four officers flanking each side.
"Be seated," Yardale said. "Let's make this a quick one. The case before us today, the Crown versus Lieutenant Craig Bradley Tucker, on charge of insubordination. Brigadier Eric Theodore Cartman is prosecuting, Lance Corporal Kenneth James Daniel McCormick defending, Lieutenant General Sir Gregory Timothy Carlton Richardson of Yardale presiding." Yardale glanced across the room to the two officers who were taking the minutes, scribbling furiously to keep up with all the inconsiderately long names.
The scribes nodded after a few seconds, and Yardale continued. "How does the accused plea?"
Kenny stood up. It was a toss up, really. Of course, they could plead guilty inasmuch as it was true, but then they'd go straight to sentencing. "Not guilty, General."
"Not guilty plea entered, with a defence counsel who's never sat on a case before in his life," Cartman mused. Kenny turned to glare. "This could get interesting."
"This was your idea," Kenny reminded him.
"Good one, wasn't it?" Cartman commented. "Surprised you went along with it, some enlisted soldier taking on a major ins—"
"Some order would not go unappreciated, thank you," Yardale interrupted before sparks could fly too far. "Now. Corporal, please make opening statements for the defence."
"Well, General," Kenny started, "what I will make clear immediately is that what is not in question here is if Lieutenant Tucker failed to act on his orders." Through his peripheral vision Kenny saw Cartman snap his head around. "What I will attempt to prove is that his choice to disregard his orders was a justifiable and, if I may be frank, correct one."
Kenny sat down, and Cartman stood up. "Well, General, the, uh, prosecution will... We'll attempt to prove that it was not a justifiable decision." Kenny smirked at Cartman as he sat down. Somehow, Kenny guessed that Cartman had been expecting them to try and argue that Craig had either followed orders or not received them. What they were doing instead was not what he was ready for.
That was one thing, anyway.
"May I just clarify," Yardale requested, leaning forward at Kenny, "you're saying he did disregard the orders to advance on the enemy, but you are pleading not guilty?"
Kenny inhaled deeply and slowly to mask his requiring time to think. "I am saying that he did not disregard them out of contempt for the chain of command, nor out of cowardice, nor out of negligence. A guilty plea would consign him to the firing squad and I believe he doesn't deserve that."
Yardale blinked. Then he blinked again. He took his cap off, he looked between the other presiding officers, he shuffled his note paper until he had a blank sheet on top with one hand and rubbed his eyes with the other, and he sighed. "Very well," he finally decided, "but be aware you'll have to make a stellar case though."
"Duly noted, General."
Yardale considered for a moment. "Brigadier Cartman, present your case."
Cartman stood up and shambled his way out from behind the table. "Well, General, as you well know the order to advance on enemy lines has been something of a standing order since 1914. While Lieutenant Tucker and his platoon has seen a transfer for the battle at Ypres last year, in which his men performed admirably, in their position on the front line they have been idle for the entirety of their time there."
Yardale nodded. "Are you able to verify this?"
"Of course. I'd like to bring Captain Tweek Tweak out." Kenny looked towards the door as it opened.
The blonde he'd last seen before being transferred to Ypres was being escorted in. Kenny noted he was still shaking like he was expecting death at any second, and that once again he'd failed to button his jacket up correctly.
"Captain," Cartman greeted with a grin. Tweek managed a twitch in response. "If you could take the stand." He did so, and Cartman approached him.
"You are Captain Tweek Tweak, are you not?"
"I am," Tweek confirmed.
"Can you verify for us that Lieutenant Tucker received the advance order?"
Kenny noted Tweek's glance to Craig before he responded. It looked almost apologetic. Kenny thought he could see the shaking upping itself a notch or two. But then, Tweek turned straight back to Cartman.
"I informed him of the order myself. As soON as it came through." A slight jerk of the shoulder made the word 'soon' more of a screech than any kind of comprehensible language.
"And what was his response?" Cartman continued.
"His response was 'Understood', sir."
Cartman nodded. "May I also know where this exchange took place?"
"It was a general briefing for all three lieutenants." Tweek had to take a deep breath after that sentence. Kenny noted that it seemed to subdue him ever so slightly. "Just outside the trenches. They'd be able to corroborate this."
"Thank you, Captain." Cartman glanced towards Kenny, who glanced towards Craig. Craig shook his head. Kenny shrugged. "As the defence seems to not have any objections you may leave." Tweek sank a little in a relieved sigh, then bolted for the door muttering something about pressure. "So, the court has heard that the second—in—command of the company, Captain Tweek Tweak, clearly gave Lieutenant Tucker the order to advance."
Yardale nodded. "And now can you verify that the lieutenant failed to follow through that order?"
Cartman smiled and nodded. "I can. I'd like to call a second witness. Private Malkinson, who is in Lieutenant Tucker's platoon, if we could get him in here?"
A second person was escorted in, someone Kenny had seen around in the platoon but never actually bothered to talk to. Short like Tweek, brown hair, freckled, also looking worried. He was significantly calmer than the captain, though that wasn't really saying much. He just looked really nervous.
Malkinson took the stand. "Private Scott Malkinson?"
"Yes, sir." The man spoke with a pronounced lisp. Every s sound came out as a th, like his tongue was too large for his mouth.
"Were you ever given the order to advance?" Cartman asked.
"Three weeks ago by Captain Tweak, sir. He seemed surprised we hadn't gotten the order already."
"Why was that?" Cartman pressed.
"He said he'd informed our platoon commander of the order to advance nearly eighteen months ago. I said I'd always been told that aside from the transfer to Ypres we had been without orders."
"Thank you, Private." Cartman turned to Yardale as Scott left. "So from Malkinson's testimony we know that Tucker did not pass on the order."
"Any objections, McCormick?" Yardale asked. Kenny shook his head.
"In which case," Cartman said, rounding up, "given that we know that Tucker received the order but did not pass it on, I really can't see how the defence can possibly enter a not guilty plea here."
Kenny stood up. "With the greatest respect, Brigadier, I remind you that the lieutenant doesn't deny that he disregarded the order."
"Well, whatever," Cartman said, waving his hand like he was trying to get a fly to go away, "I've said everything I need to. The prosecution rests, General." Kenny sat back down.
"Very well," Yardale said, nodding and writing more down in his notes. He glanced up at the scribes, who nodded to indicate they'd noted everything that they were interested in down too, then turned to Kenny. "Lance Corporal, if you would like to present the defence case."
Kenny stood back up, and fought the urge to gulp. He could feel his shirt sticking to his back, and he could feel his heart doing its best to fracture some of his ribs. Don't fuck this up, Kenny he thought to himself.
"General Richardson," he started, "as previously stated we do not deny that Lieutenant Tucker did not obey the general order to advance. He acted of his own volition and not in the face of mutiny from his platoon, I myself will attest to that, and that I was never aware of any order to advance."
Kenny took a deep breath. "The reason he did not pass on this order is because such a course of action is, or certainly was at the time, fundamentally idiotic." Yardale perked a little at that. "Before you throw the book at me too," Kenny continued before anyone could interrupt, "allow me to explain. I'll run a comparison to another battle.
"In the war in Crimea, there was a battle. The battle of Balaclava, if I recall correctly. In which what was once described to me as the most disastrous manoeuvre in British military history was made."
"You refer to the Light Brigade?" Yardale asked.
"I do, General."
Yardale nodded. "I'm familiar with the disaster, one of my old superiors was there when it happened."
Kenny thought for a second. "For completeness I will describe, as I understand it, what happened to the court."
Yardale considered. Kenny waited for the decision. This was going to be vital—if Yardale said no, he was going to have trouble explaining. Doubtless everyone knew what had happened in Crimea, but he needed the completeness here.
Kenny smiled. "Thank you."
"In the battle of Balaclava, the Light Brigade, a cavalry unit consisting of around six hundred men with sabres, was part way through the battle given the order by Lord Raglan to harass some retreating Russian artillery, the sort of task a light cavalry is supposed to do. At some point between the order being given and the order getting to the Brigade, though, this turned into 'get the guns', without specifying that they were referring to the retreating ones, rather than the active ones in the valley."
"General, he's waffling," Cartman interjected.
Yardale nodded. "This better be going somewhere, McCormick."
"I promise you it is," Kenny assured them. "The Brigade charged the active guns in the valley, thinking that was the order. An order that would be fundamentally idiotic for that sort of unit, and everyone knew it. I believe one of the Russian generals thought that the Brigade must have been collectively drunk." Kenny paused to allow some breathing time.
"Nonetheless the charge happened and a sixth of the Brigade was slaughtered, nearly a quarter besides was wounded. My point being, had someone taken the time to ask 'One second, what is the likelihood of our coming out of this having accomplished our goals, or at the very least alive?' they might have not been horribly slaughtered."
Yardale nodded. "'Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,'" he recited.
Kenny perked up slightly—he knew that one. "Lord Tennyson," he recognised aloud.
Gregory nodded. "Nice catch," he confirmed. "Never took you for the type, corporal. But please bear in mind that I'm still waiting to see where you're going with this."
Kenny mentally corrected his train of thought. "Well, sending a light cavalry unit against live artillery is suicidal, is it not?" he asked.
"It is," Yardale agreed.
"So would you not say they would be within their rights to disregard those orders on the basis of the chance of coming out intact, never mind succeeding in the mission they had been given, are nil?"
Yardale had a hard time considering that. Kenny could tell from the humming and erring. Eventually he spoke: "I suppose so. Recklessness is frowned upon, after all."
Kenny nodded. "Now, here's where I was going with that. The standard order to advance that was given involves advancing as an entire platoon, or even a whole company. Just as a huge phalanx. Square off against the enemy and fire. As a tactic, this is equally suicidal in these circumstances."
"Enlighten us to the circumstances, corporal," Cartman demanded from Kenny's left.
"Advancing upon an entrenched enemy on higher ground, with machine guns. That is the principle difference between now and the last time we had to engage in a war of this scale—the enemy have the means to systematically mow down a lot of people in a short amount of time. So the tactics we are familiar with would have little to no effect on the enemy, and be suicidal besides.
"Lieutenant Tucker's decision came as a result of consideration of the potential risk and potential gain. In his opinion, risking the lives of his entire platoon was not an acceptable risk in return for a net land gain of eight square feet spread across a five hundred mile front." Kenny sat down, preparing to wind down. "He made the decision to disregard his orders because such orders would be suicide for both him and his platoon, and he was not willing to consign fifty men to their deaths." Kenny sat down. "He made the decision because he thought it was the right one to make."
Yardale blinked a few times. "Well... Thank you, Lance Corporal. Brigadier, do you wish to bother cross examining, given that none of your points are being contested?"
Cartman shook his head.
"Very well. We shall now retire to consider." Yardale stood up.
"All rise!" said that colonel again. Everybody rose as the officers left.
Kenny turned to Craig. "Do we have to wait here?"
"Only I'm busting for a pi—"
"Number one," Craig whispered harshly, cutting off Kenny, "too much fucking information. Number two, it was not that nerve wracking, you just talked out of your arse for ten minutes to Yardale. If it was—" Craig nodded behind Kenny, indicating Cartman. "I'd understand, but it was fucking Yardale. Number three, you've gone longer without. So no. Sit down and shut up."
Kenny glared, but nodded. "Yes, Lieutenant."
They sat down in their seats again. Craig huffed a little. "That being said," he conceded, "yapping on about Crimea might actually work."
"Hm?" Kenny asked.
Craig leaned back. "Those were all old—ish officers, after all. Wouldn't say any of them were actually there but at least a few of them might know someone who was. An old superior, in Yardale's case." He turned to Kenny. "While I don't contest that that defence was an absolute piece of arse, and if I get away and I'm still superior rank to you I'm actually going to order you to never do anything remotely similar to this again, it could work."
Kenny stared blankly for a second. "Uhm..." he said quietly. "Thanks, I suppose?"
"Stow it until I'm not put in front of a firing squad."
"Which you will be," Cartman added from his desk. "Now if you don't mind shutting up?"
As there wasn't really much they could do when someone of far superior rank told them to shut up, they had to sit in silence for a long time. Kenny spent his time wringing his hands under the table, while Craig—somehow—managed to keep his cool very easily. While that didn't really surprise Kenny any more, it did still impress him.
Not that Craig's calm—or the smirk from Cartman that he kept catching in the corner of his vision — helped Kenny at all.
It must have been at least two unbearable hours, possibly even three, before the doors opened again. The colonel stepped through first and made the announcement.
The officers, including Yardale, returned to the bench and sat down. Yardale spoke. "We have deliberated on the matter before us and have reached a verdict by majority, six to three." Yardale looked at Craig.
"Lieutenant Tucker, you have been found guilty on the count of insubordination."
In unison, Craig and Kenny sighed and looked down into their laps, more to avoid the smirk they both knew Cartman would be sending their way.
"Normally, the sentence for this would be death. However, in light of the defence presented, the court has suspended this sentence."
Both of them perked up. For once, for the first time, Kenny caught Craig genuinely grinning. Hell, he was doing it himself. A suspended sentence was a good result.
"You will return to your duties on the front line, in your previous position, with the sentence of death by firing squad suspended for the remainder of the war. If you are court martialled for anything else and found guilty, even if it carries a lesser sentence, you will be executed. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," Craig replied.
"Very well." Yardale stood up. "This court rests."
"All rise," announced the colonel. Everyone stood up as Yardale left. Then, as soon as the general was out, everyone started making about departing. Kenny immediately made for the exit, before Cartman could intercept him. He anticipated bullshit and bullshit was not something he was going to take today, especially not from that fat fuck.
He stepped outside. It was raining again, so he stayed in the porch area of the Chateau, which was open air but had a roof. He inhaled the musty air, still fresh in comparison to the muddy stuff he had to breathe back in the trenches. He listened to the light patter of the rain against the gravel.
He'd done it.
He'd actually saved Craig from the squad.
Kenny didn't cheer or whoop, because he wasn't the type to do that. But he was seriously considering it. It seemed appropriate, more so than the occasion only being marked by his heart rate returning to normal and a few relieved exhalations.
"Kenny," he heard behind him. Kenny turned in time to get caught in a massive bear hug from Craig. He stumbled back slightly, but managed to keep himself from falling back into the wet. He wrapped his arms back around Craig awkwardly. He felt Craig's hands clawing at his uniform, even feeling his nails through the multiple layers of fabric.
"Thank you," he heard Craig whisper. He tightened his clutch on Kenny slightly before he broke off.
"Um, you're welcome," Kenny replied, fixing his uniform. Once that was done he shrugged and gave an awkward smile. "What can I say? You're my friend."
Craig smiled at that, and looked down at the floor while he let it out. When he looked back up at Kenny his usual blank, stoic expression was back. "Tell anyone that I hugged you and you're sleeping out in the trench for a week."
"Yes sir," Kenny chuckled. Craig glared back.
"I think we're staying here for the night, returning to the front line tomorrow," Craig informed him, turning back to the doors.
Kenny breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, I really fucking need the toilet."
"Lovely," Craig muttered. "Be up for nine o'clock tomorrow morning. Hopefully that git Lanskin hasn't fucked everything up too much."
The trenches had drained slightly, and the bridging system was back above the water level. Kenny was used to walking on the planks, and only slipped once on a particularly rotted section that could have done with replacing. Craig was following behind him.
"Go ahead," Craig said once they were at the frontmost trench, "I'm going to do a few rounds. I don't trust Lanskin."
He got to their dugout and hopped over the sandbags to get inside. Everyone was in bar Pip, and Clyde was the first to speak.
"Kenny," he said, relieved. Kenny made a great show of slumping against the wall. He kept Clyde's face in his peripheral vision, just to see it fall. He could see Kyle and Stan glancing at each other nervously.
"How did it go?" Clyde asked worriedly. Kenny didn't reply, instead walking in what he hoped was a dejected manner to his bunk and crashing down in it, grinding his face into his palms to hide the grin he couldn't keep back.
"Kenny?" Kyle asked. "Is everything alright?"
Now was the time. Kenny couldn't keep the act up much longer. "Sergeant," he said grimly, into his palms because he couldn't keep that damn smile away. "You will be sorry to hear that Lieutenant Tucker..." Kenny trailed off. While he wasn't any manner of actor, he could act sad easily enough. He had the requisite experience, after all.
"No..." he heard Stan breathe from his bunk.
"Lieutenant Tucker will be returning to the dugout to continue duties shortly," Kenny finished, dropping the act and looking up at Kyle. "I apologise for any inconvenience this might cause you."
Kyle pulled a face at Kenny. It went slowly from expressing a 'wha?' to abject disgust. "Oh... You little shit!" he shouted. Kenny could see the smile breaking through, even though Kyle was trying his best to be angry. "You fucking had me thinking..." But Kyle couldn't carry on.
For a few glorious seconds, maybe even a minute, the four men, stuck in a trench in the middle of France, on the front line of a bloodbath, were able to laugh. Kenny ended up piled under three bodies, all trying to hug him. He allowed himself to even think that maybe he deserved it.
It couldn't last, of course, but right now it was all that mattered.
A voice came from the door. His voice.
"While I'm none too sure of specific regulation regarding homosexual orgies while on duty," Craig droned, as if nothing had happened at all, "I'd prefer them to not happen." Everyone piled off Kenny, who immediately took the deepest breath his lungs would allow. Three men were heavy. "This is the front line of a war, not the fall of Rome."
"He got you off?" Clyde asked excitedly, looking at Craig's intact rank patches.
Craig tightened his lips a bit, and then glanced towards Kenny. "Not quite. That is, in as much as I've been found guilty of defying orders. Kenny just convinced them to suspend the death sentence. So until this war is over I have to be extra special good because I've got a firing squad hanging over me." Another glance towards Kenny, and Craig's expression softened slightly. "Although I didn't even expect him to manage that. I would give him a week of lighter duties but considering he just spent the best part of a week in a nice bed back at the Chateau I think he's already had one."
Kenny made an overly exaggerated groan. Then he made his best puppy face, allocating the entirety of his willpower to making his pupils dilate.
"Oh, shut up," Craig muttered, deliberately turning so he didn't have to see Kenny's feeble attempt. "You've got watch duty to catch up on." Even though he wasn't looking at Kenny, he grinned. "Now off you fuck."
Kenny was sat at the watch station with some new addition to the next dugout over manning the gun. As ever, they were frightfully bored. Half of the time Kenny kind of wanted to see a German attack just so that something interesting would happen.
"Just signed up?" Kenny asked, playing with the bell that was kept for the alarms.
"Made to." Kenny looked up at the guy in confusion. "Conscription. They've started doing that."
"Ah." Somehow, Kenny just wasn't that surprised.
The other guy didn't make any effort to elaborate beyond that, so that was it for that conversation. Kenny kept looking through the periscope. Nothing was happening. Nothing ever happened. It was a dull brown landscape, devoid of all life since between them the German and Allied artilleries had eradicated everything that could be considered alive.
Kenny sighed. "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with N."
"Yup." Kenny didn't even know why he bothered. Just once, he wished he'd see something. Even if it was just a tuft of grass in the split second before it got shelled into oblivion.
For a second he let his mind drift. He couldn't take staring at a muddy field all day much more. He needed to distract himself. He leaned back and allowed himself to fall into a daydream.
He was there, back in Victoria Park under his ash tree. He could feel rough bark against his back, and between his fingers was the glorious texture of dewy grass. It was a clear day, an azure sky shone down on him. There were a few fluffy little clouds here and there, and from the look of the place it was late spring, possibly even early summer. There was a patch of daisies just springing up near his feet, and here and there were groups of clovers, not too distinct against the grass but still visible. They were beautiful.
Everyone was there, too. Kyle and Stan were sat against a hedge, talking about the weather or something unimportant, something that didn't belong in. Clyde was sleeping with the sun beating down on him, lighting up even his dull brown hair. Craig was a few yards away from him, picking dandelions.
Butters was there too, grass stains all over him, rolling around without a care in the world. Kenny watched him, and his childlike delight at something so inane as just rolling around in a field. He wanted to just go over there and join him, reliving the old days before all this. Before...
No. Not now.
He turned from his position, standing at one edge, and there was Karen. Standing there, looking at him and beaming at him with the smile he'd never forget, with the bright blue eyes that made his own light up like they hadn't in so long. No words were said. No words were needed.
Just seeing her, even in just this heavenly vision he was having, made him realise how much he missed her. And how much he wanted to just run away, to go back and see her again. It had been far too long.
And oh, the smell!
He could see the sun shining down on the grass, making its glorious odour rise out and fill his lungs with sweet, sweet...
Kenny reached for the bag at his waist with one hand, and the bell by his station with the other.
"GAS! GAS!" he shouted, ringing the bell, as the reek of gas started to claw at him. He needed to cough, but he held it back—if he started coughing, he wouldn't stop. Instead, holding his breath until the last second, he pulled the bag of the PH helmet over his head, got the breather in his mouth and pulled the band around his neck.
It didn't give him much air, but it was clean. He cursed whoever hadn't decided to deliver the newer small box respirator masks to their trench yet as. Still, Kenny breathed as deeply as he could, and turned to the other guy, also bagged up. "Stay here, if they come scare them off."
"Yes, sir," said the man, muffled by the gas mask. Kenny ran down the trench, slipping into the water that was perpetually stagnating beneath the planks more than once. He kept ringing the bell until he could hear other bells echoing down the trench. He got to his dugout. "Guys!"
The five men in there, all bagged up, had their rifles ready. Kenny made room for them as they poured out. "They'll be coming," Craig muttered. "Everyone ready." They all pointed their guns to the lip of the trench and waited.
From down the trench, a machine gun, then two more, started rattling away. Kenny held his breath.
Ten seconds passed. Then twenty. Then thirty.
A German jumped into the trench right between Kenny and Pip. Pip shot on reflex, and promptly missed. Before the German could get a shot in, Kenny turned and cracked him over the head with the butt of his gun. He heard an uerk accompanied by a squelch behind him but he ignored it, instead concentrating on disarming the German while he was down.
There wasn't any need to kill him now.
"Prisoner?" Craig asked.
Satisfied that all the German's weapons had been confiscated, Kenny turned back to the others.
Stan was leaning against the wall of the trench breathing heavily, the bayonet on the end of his gun dripping red. On the floor was a second German, blood still gurgling from a fresh stab wound. Kenny looked between the two of them. Well, that explains the squelch.
"Stan?" Kyle asked. Stan didn't respond. "It was him or you. You had to. You did good." Stan didn't respond.
After a few seconds, he just said "Shit," through the heavy breaths.
There was silence for a second, before Craig spoke. "Pip, take him—" He pointed to the German, who was just stirring from the crack to the head "—back somewhere where he's not our problem."
"Alright," Pip acknowledged, keeping his rifle pointed at the man.
"Rest of you, we wait for the all clear."
Pip started half—pulling the German, who was very clear about the situation and had his hands over his head, towards the way back to the less interesting trenches, with the supply dumps and more appropriate areas to keep captive enemy soldiers.
Craig glanced to his left, where Stan was still shaking a bit. With the PH helmet on he could even pass himself off as Captain Tweak with the shaking, allowing for a minor height and uniform difference,
"God dammit... Stan, get your arse inside, you won't hit a fucking elephant like that. Rest of you, spread out." Stan nodded thankfully and ran inside their dugout. Kenny kept his rifle pointing upwards.
A tense few minutes—maybe even a decent portion of an hour—passed before a voice shouted down the trench at them. "All clear!"
Kenny breathed a heavy sigh of relief before pulling his helmet off. "All clear!" he heard Craig shout behind him. Whew. "Good catch, Kenny," he added.
"Was it a shell or...?" Kyle asked, putting his mask back into his belt and making for the door.
"No, just carried on the wind. Must have emptied cylinders of the stuff from their side. I caught the smell of it." Kenny shook himself as he sat on his bunk and ground his palms into his forehead. "Might be a bit sick tomorrow, mind you. Not sure how much I breathed in."
"Well then," Clyde chipped in, breathing heavily after the exertion, "you'll be good to finish your shift on watch then. I'm sure as hell not taking over for you, I only finished mine five hours back and I just had my sleep interrupted."
Kenny looked pleadingly to Craig.
Craig shrugged, ever so slightly apologetically. "He is right. Return to your station, Kenny."
Kenny dropped his shoulders dejectedly. "After all I've done for you?"
"Now." Kenny bolted.
He managed to stay on the planks this time, the wetness from the last few stumbles still present in his boots giving him the reminder that his sense of balance was only as good as he allowed it to be. At the watch station, he took his position at the periscope again. Even though he was pretty sure the Germans wouldn't be rushing to attack again after the calamity of that last attempt. No matter how many people that were sent to charge the entrenched machine gun, the machine gun had the advantage while it was cool enough and loaded enough to fire.
It was a few minutes before the fresh private from the next dugout over returned to take his position too. After that brief interlude, though, the rest of the day went very boringly. As Kenny had predicted, no more Germans bothered to try an advance on this segment of the lines—it seemed to be just a single attempt on a single stretch, probably some overeager officer on the enemy side or something. He didn't know, nor did he particularly care. The hours passed excruciatingly slowly but eventually Kyle came as his relief.
He returned to his dugout and went to bed.
When he woke up, the sun had long since gone down. He took a quick look around. Stan was back in bed and sleeping fitfully so shifts had changed, that meant at least a few hours had passed.
Kenny swivelled around into a sitting position. Aside Pip who was on shift if Kenny remembered right, everyone bar Kyle was asleep. Joy. "Evening, Kyle," he muttered.
"Kenny," Kyle acknowledged. He was sat at the table, left foot up on a crate and right foot stretched out on the floor, and generally looking really bored.
"Nope. And there's nothing else to do, so here I am. Soon as Pip comes back I'm out there, but that's three hours away."
Kenny nodded. Then he joined Kyle at the table, put his feet up and sat back. "What time is it?"
"My watch is off, I'm afraid." Kyle checked it anyway. "You go to sleep straight after you came back?"
"Well, you were out for about seven hours. If that helps." Four in the morning then. "Certainly explains why you can't sleep, you're not fucking tired any more."
Kenny nodded. "I think I'm behind today. The rate we're burning through artillery shells, inventories need to be done about every three seconds so we know how long it'll be before we're dry."
"And how long before you have to go?" Kyle asked.
"Um..." Kenny dithered. "I think about six hours," he replied, his tone getting slowly more and more depressed as he went on.
"So..." Kyle said, drawing it out for as long as he could get away with, "it's just us for three hours?"
"Doesn't have to be," Kenny replied. He slowly widened his mouth into a grin. Kyle's brow furrowed, but as soon as he caught the meaning he cracked a grin too.
"Craig?" Kyle asked hopefully.
"Clyde," Kenny replied. And before Kyle could look away pitifully and frown in a pointless attempt to get Kenny to change his mind, he qualified his choice. "Two reasons, Kyle, and it's not that I want to make you disappointed. Firstly, Craig can have us at the least punished and at worst court martialed if we give him a rude awakening—"
"Which would be fucking rich, coming from him," Kyle mentioned. Kenny didn't go out of his way to acknowledge it.
"And secondly if I'm right, Clyde has been asleep since the attack. On top of that, he was asleep before that. He fucking needs an alarm call."
Kyle nodded then looked around again. "Loud noises are right out, or we wake everyone up."
Kenny hummed in agreement. Then he grinned. "Helmet." He reached back towards his bet and picked up his helmet and tossed it in the air a couple of times. "Any objections?" he asked, noting Kyle's worried face.
"Just don't break anything, okay?" he asked. "Equipment or body parts."
"Noted, sergeant," Kenny chirped. He threw the helmet underarm at the highest angle he could manage without the thing bouncing from the ceiling. It arced and span through the air for the top of the helmet to connect very neatly with the side of Clyde's skull with a worryingly loud BONG!
The helmet bounced into the wall and slipped into the side of Clyde's bunk. Clyde, though, aside from the movement from the helmet smacking him, didn't move.
Kenny looked to Kyle, who glared back. "If you've hurt him I'm blaming you," Kyle muttered as he got up. He walked over and grabbed Clyde by the shoulders. "Clyde. Wake up." He started shaking gently. Clyde still didn't move. "Christ..."
"Try shouting a little more?" Kenny tried.
Kyle nodded and turned straight back. "Corporal! Wake the fuck up!" he hush—shouted at Clyde. He still didn't move. Kyle glared at Kenny, before knocking on Clyde's forehead. Then he thumped on Clyde's chest twice, then finally slapped him across the face, before retracting his palm extremely quickly.
"Not good?" Kenny asked, all mirth gone from his voice. At some point between Kyle striking Clyde and him completing the recoil, Kenny had managed to get his feet down and lean forward in his chair.
"He's fucking cold, Kenny." Kyle took hold of Clyde's head and tilted it to the side. "Shit, he's spitting blood." Kyle immediately turned to the others, eyes widened. "GUYS!"
Stan woke up from his fitful sleep immediately, while Craig made a very sharp point of groaning in protest first. "What is it?" Stan asked.
"Clyde's in trouble."
Stan rolled out of bed and hurried over, but immediately upon taking the sight of Clyde in he recoiled with a yelp. Like he'd been hit in the gut. He turned away, and Kenny stood up to see to him. "Everything alright?"
"I can't see it," Stan cried. Kenny looked closer—that was actual crying. "I can't!"
"The blood, man! It's horrible, it—"
"Stan!" Craig interrupted firmly. "You're a goddamn soldier, you've seen blood before." When Stan's gibbering only got worse, Craig huffed. "Words later. Kyle, Kenny, boots on and help me here."
Kenny nodded, but turned back briefly. "Stan," he said quietly, in the friendliest tone he could muster given the situation, "go back to bed. Just... Calm down, okay?" The moment the first glimmer of understanding passed through his eyes, Kenny turned to help the others out.
Between the three of them—Kyle holding Clyde's arms, Kenny holding his legs and Craig leading the way shouting at people to make room for them to pass—they dragged him through the trenches, out through the supply lines and the artillery lines, back and out to the triage station, not much more than a few tents and one hut a ways away from the entrance.
Craig looked around briefly. The station looked fairly abandoned, but then all the tents were closed. "Doctor?" Craig asked loudly enough that it would carry into all the tents. It didn't seem urgent enough to Kenny, given the circumstances, but got the attention he needed.
"Doctor's asleep," came a female voice from one of the closer tents. "What's the issue?"
Craig took a couple of steps towards the tent where the voice was coming from. "Corporal Donovan here was spitting blood. He's really clammy too."
The nurse came out, someone Kenny could not help but notice was a real looker. Frizzy blonde hair, lean enough face, even through the uniform he detected an hourglass figure, and—
"Stop perving," she ordered, glaring at Kenny as she crouched over where they'd laid Clyde down.
She turned straight back to Clyde, and took a quick look at him. "Is he actually alive?" she asked immediately. Craig's face set a little, then he turned back to Kyle and Kenny. Kyle shrugged, and Kenny shook his head unknowingly. The nurse blinked, then her shoulders sank slightly. "You didn't actually bother to check if he was alive before bringing him out here?"
Craig exhaled a little. Flatly, he replied. "I had assumed that Sergeant Broflovski and Corporal McCormick had checked for that. It seems they did not."
"Well, they're total morons then," the nurse muttered. Kenny looked away awkwardly. "He looks like he's not been breathing for maybe a few hours." She stepped forward and put her hand to Clyde's neck, checking for the pulse. After a few seconds she nodded. "Yup. He's dead," she said nonchalantly. "How'd you find him?"
"Uh," Kyle stuttered, "I hit his chest a couple of times, slapped him, blood came out of his mouth." He paused for a second. "I thought he was just asleep."
"Blood accumulation in the lungs," the nurse immediately deduced. "Was he caught up in the gas attack, by any chance?"
"Yes, but he had his gas mask on," Craig said, defensive of his squad mate.
The nurse nodded. "Didn't get it on fast enough then," she muttered absently.
"We all got them on at the same time," Craig protested.
The nurse sighed impatiently. "Well, whatever. Phosgene poisoning is my best guess. If you want to leave him here, we can at least afford him a decent enough burial. More than a lot of people get."
Craig nodded and gestured. Kyle and Kenny dropped Clyde off with the nurse. Kyle turned away straight away, but Kenny took a few seconds. Clyde was gone now.
Now that he'd been exposed to death a little, he didn't really feel so awful this time. But still, he'd lost another friend.
Fuck, did that sting.
He sighed and turned away, leaving Clyde's corpse in the hands of the nurse.
"Thank you for your help," Craig muttered as he started walking away. Kenny saw the nurse nod before he followed.
The three of them returned to the dugout, with significantly less urgency than with which they had left. Clyde's face—his pale dead face—was playing on Kenny's mind all the way back.
"If it helps," Kyle whispered to him, "at least he died in his sleep." Kenny only hummed.
"Kyle," Craig said, turning back. "If you could inform Pip of our squadmates' demise before you return to the dugout."
"Why me?" Kyle challenged immediately, seemingly on reflex.
"You're wearing most of your uniform," Craig replied. "Myself and Kenny did not have time to get our jackets on." Kenny snickered, to an immediate glare from Craig. "Don't laugh, Kenny, your friend just died."
"Sorry," Kenny apologised. "Just..." He met Craig's gaze before he was able to continue with his justification that maybe now was an appropriate time for some mood lightening, and immediately stopped himself. "Sorry," he repeated, quieter.
They returned to the dugout, with Kyle splitting off. Stan wasn't asleep yet, though he'd calmed down some. He was still breathing heavy, but at least he wasn't gibbering any more. That made Kenny feel a bit better.
"Well?" he asked.
Kenny and Craig glanced at each other for a second, before Kenny turned straight back to Stan. "Clyde's dead."
Stan's jaw fell slightly, before he consciously set it back into place. He nodded slowly, then sank, burying his face into his
Craig moved straight to Clyde's bed and started throwing his stuff around, searching it. It took a few moments but then he pulled out Clyde's PH helmet and started very meticulously examining it. Stan glanced at Kenny.
"Nurse said it was the gas," Kenny explained, shrugging. "I think—"
"Here," Craig growled. He stormed over and showed Kenny and Stan what he'd found. He pulled the fabric of the mask taut and both of them could see a very clear hole in the seam. "First gas attack since we had these new masks, right?" he asked.
Kenny thought about that. "I... I think so, yes."
Craig nodded. "Thought so. Apparently the new batch skipped quality control and Clyde landed the one that had the hole in it."
"Wouldn't he have noticed?" Stan asked. "Shortness of breath or something? Any of the symptoms?"
"I don't know. You generally get short breath anyway if you're not getting much air, hard to notice the difference. Apparently he didn't notice." Craig dropped the mask onto the floor and sighed. Then he kicked it full force across the room and screamed, to a jolt from the others present, "Fuck!"
It was by far the most emotion anyone there had seen Craig display. Everyone was silent for a few seconds, just to see if Craig would do anything else.
"He masked up, he should have been safe..." he muttered. "This is fucking ridiculous."
Stan sat up a little. "Didn't he notice then, that there was gas coming in?"
Craig shrugged. "I'm not a fucking chemist." Kyle returned as he lamented. "Maybe there was enough to kill him but not enough that he could smell it or something, how the fuck should I know?"
Nobody answered. Craig crashed onto his bed. "I'm going back to sleep, I don't want any interruptions until I wake up."
Kenny glanced at Stan, who shrugged.
"So..." Kenny said, trying to relieve the silence. "What exactly happened to you earlier?"
Stan's eyes briefly narrowed, but then he remembered. "Oh, uh..." Kenny watched as Stan's eyes scrunched up as tightly as they'd go, and he shook his head erratically. After a few seconds of that, he looked back up. "Sorry, I just didn't want to... I don't know."
"You could have just said you didn't know," Kenny mused.
Stan shook his head. "No, just you talking about it made me think about it, and that was... I'm keeping my head occupied with other thoughts right now, okay? Like, nice things. Like cats. Anything so I don't think about that."
Kenny nodded. "So you don't know what happened then?"
"No. I just saw what had happened to Clyde and I kind of panicked. Hell, I think I was dry heaving at one point, I was about ten seconds away from throwing up."
Stan sighed. "I don't know. I'm just... I'm going to go back to sleep now, alright?"
"Okay," Kenny said, letting it drop. As Stan swivelled back round on his bunk, Kyle returned. "Hey, Kyle."
"Hi, Kenny. Stan." Kyle sat down on his own bed. "Pip took it pretty well."
Kenny nodded. "Of course he did." He checked his watch. "I know I'm early, but I need to distract myself. I'm going to head back now."
Kenny started slinging the rest of his uniform on. "I'm on an inventory duty, remember?"
"Oh. Yeah. That's going to leave me with nothing to do, you know. I'm going to need a distraction too, our friend did just die."
Kenny turned. "You're really casual about it, huh?"
"Not the first time it's happened to me," Kyle informed him. When Kenny cocked his head in confusion, he added "I was in the army before, remember."
"But I'd still like to not have to think about it," Kyle reminded him. Kenny took a quick look around and pulled the playing cards out from one of the crates, throwing them onto the table.
"They might help," he said. Kyle glared up at him. "What?" Kenny asked defensively. "Not my fault I have duty now."
Kyle continued glaring. "You couldn't have gotten me something else? Something to read, maybe?"
Kenny slung his rifle over his shoulder and put his helmet firmly on his head. "If you care that much, get it yourself." He made for the door. He heard Kyle call him a dick on the way out, but didn't react.
Right now, he just wanted to get to inventory duty. It would be boring as all hell, of course, but he just wanted the distraction right now. Something that would make him not have to think about the fact that somewhere behind the lines, within a couple of days, Clyde would be in the ground, decomposing, and still dead.
He couldn't think about that. Not now, not ever. For now he just wanted to count items and recite numbers.
It was just easier.
A scream from Stan woke Kenny up.
This was getting far too common. Two o'clock at night, and Stan would wake everyone up in the middle of some horrid nightmare. It wouldn't even be so disturbing if he didn't stay asleep throughout the whole damn episode.
Kenny groaned and sat up, looking first towards the thrashing and sweating Stan, then towards Pip. Pip nodded. They'd set up a rota as for who would have to get out of bed and wake Stan up, it was that bad, and today was Pip's turn. He peeled his covers back, rubbed his eyes, then stood up. He walked across the room and took hold of Stan's shoulder.
"Don't be afraid to be a bit violent," Kenny advised as Pip started shaking against Stan's thrashing. Pip apparently paid no heed at all.
He shook gently enough that it made little effect at all. "Stan?" he asked quietly. "Stan, old chap? You're doing it again." This, of course, did nothing to quell the shaking and gibbering. "Stan?" Pip asked again, drawing the syllable out. Kenny groaned—Pip was fucking useless.
"STAN!" he shouted from his bed. That did the trick—Stan gave a final yelp and woke up.
"What?" he asked immediately, but then seeing Pip right next to the bed and the annoyed look Kenny was doing his best to not give him. He sighed. "I was doing it again, wasn't I?"
"Stan," Pip said gently, "I know you're really feeling bad about what happened, but you've really got to stop doing this at night."
Stan rubbed his palms on his face, coating them in sweat. "You know damn well I would if I could, Pip," he protested.
"You can't blame yourself," Pip tried. "It's not like you had any choice back there, he all but jumped right onto your bayo—"
"You think I don't know?" Stan snapped. He immediately shrivelled a little at the sight of the flinch Pip gave. "Sorry, just—"
"Don't be," Pip smiled, untensing himself. Even though the smile looked warm and genuine enough, it had been long enough for Kenny to tell otherwise. As good as Pip was at appearing chirpy, and as indistinguishable as his acting was from when he was actually happy, Kenny had learned the little signs, and without fail they were all appearing—Pip was forcing it.
Something about that was admirable, but there was something about it that was also kind of scary. Kenny had never taken that great an interest in Pip so maybe there was a reason. Kenny really didn't want to ask after a year and a half of them sharing a dugout, too, because he always thought that questions regarding why people were the way that they were should be among the first things that were established, not the subject of cursory questions over a year into acquaintance.
In any event, if Stan noticed too then he didn't show it—he just nodded. "But I see it every night," he muttered in response. "I know damn well he just jumped and speared himself, but..."
"But?" Pip pressed. When Stan didn't reply, instead continuing to stare at an unremarkable patch of floor, he continued. "It might help to talk about it."
Kenny chuckled bitterly. "You've been saying that for two bloody months," he reminded Pip.
"I've never bayoneted a man before," Stan continued after a few seconds. "I've never had to look into his—"
"Spare the bullshit," Craig said harshly from the door. Everyone looked towards him and his angrier than usual entrance. Usually nobody noticed him until he was sitting down to join the conversation, or even before he was already asleep on his bed — only when he had business did he announce his coming. "We've got problems," he informed them.
"What is it?" Pip immediately asked.
Craig walked inwards and sat on the table, all eyes on him. "Sergeant Broflovski did not make it to his shift today."
Stan was the one who perked up the most. "He's not—"
"No," Craig replied, cutting him off. "Or at least, in any event there's no body. There has been no gunfire since he went out so the odds of him disappearing over the top are nil, and his record is as close to spotless as it gets so I doubt he's run away. Simply put, he's vanished. Nothing. Somewhere between here and our watch station, he ceased to be."
There was what Kenny thought should have been a stunned silence then, that maybe should have lasted a good few seconds. Instead, there was only a single second before Stan very worriedly shouted "What?"
Slowly, Craig turned his head to Stan. "I believe I made myself abundantly clear. Sergeant Broflovski has gone."
Kenny watched Stan tick that news over. "So..." he muttered.
Craig rolled his eyes and threw his arms out. "Gone," he repeated exasperatedly. "Absent. Not here."
Stan slumped again—first nightmares and now this, Kenny was glad he wasn't Corporal Marsh right now. "Fuck."
"I've put out a message to a few of the soldiers, to spread it around. Look around for a sergeant with bright red frizzy hair who may or may not be in serious trouble." Craig slumped a little himself. Kenny could understand slightly. He'd worked with Kyle for over two years now and he was worried sick. These guys had been in the same unit for over a decade. It must have been damn near torturous. "In the meantime, I will be taking over Kyle's shifts."
Pip raised his eyebrows a little. "That's not a good idea, Craig."
"Why not?" Craig immediately asked.
"Well," Pip explained, "you're an officer. I mean, first of all, you're not supposed to just go out and put yourself in the line of fire—"
"Which overlooks that German pressure on this section of the lines is practically nonexistent at this point in time," Craig countered.
"Didn't save Clyde," Stan muttered bitterly.
Pip nodded. "That's right. Secondly, you've got other stuff that you have to do being in command of an entire platoon."
"I can give some of those responsibilities to Lanskin," Craig replied. "He's a lieutenant too, still waiting for a platoon of his own. He could use the practice."
"But you hate him," Pip reminded him. Craig had no response to that, so Pip continued. "You're very eager to remind us all at every opportunity that he is a stickler for regulation to the point of nausea even if such stickling isn't an advisable thing to do given certain circumstances, and that you're of the opinion that he's the worst thing to come out of officer training this century."
Craig glared at Pip for a few seconds. Kenny was waiting for him to throw something at him. Instead, Craig kept his calm. "Allow me to make this abundantly clear," he began. "I am the commanding officer of this platoon, not only do I outrank you all but I'm directly in your chains of command. This is how I, as platoon commander, have decided to respond to the disappearance of one of my most capable men. None of you are to tell Kyle I said that about him, by the way, if he should ever have the decency to turn up again." He spent a good few seconds making eye contact with everyone, and dishing out his finest ice melting glare in glacier melting volumes. "Have I made myself clear?"
Slowly, everyone nodded.
"Good." Craig moved for the door. "If anyone hears any news on the sergeant they are to inform me immediately even if the Bosche are attacking and they have been ripped limb from limb." With that, he left, presumably to cover Kyle's shift.
Pip turned to Kenny. "So do you think he was aware I was right there?"
"Yup," Kenny nodded.
"Why do you think he used the 'I am the CO, I can do this so I'm going to' argument?" Stan asked. "Saying 'That's an order' in the face of being questioned by your men is like the ultimate in admitting that you're in the wrong." He stared after Craig. "He only does that when he gets emotional."
"He gets emotional?" Pip asked through a stifled laugh.
Stan nodded. "You'd be surprised."
"I wouldn't," Kenny muttered.
"Anyway, I've got six hours until I'm out there," Stan informed them, pulling his blanket back up. "I'm going to try to get some more sleep."
Kenny leaned down to face Stan. "Stan, I know this could sound sarcastic or cynical but really, honestly..." Kenny paused for a second. "Do you really think you'll get more rest when you're asleep or if you stayed awake?"
Stan averted his gaze by rolling onto his side, facing the wall. "I'd rather not go out tired, Kenny. Just in case."
"Well," Kenny replied, not wanting to press the issue of the persistent nightmares that Stan was having, "on your own head I guess." He saw the black mop move slightly—a nod. Kenny sighed and stood back up.
He was on the verge of moving back to his own bed before deciding not to bother. Stan was only going to wake him within an hour anyway, and he'd barely just come off shift. He could afford a few more waking hours.
He picked one of his cigarettes up from his bedside and lit up. Craig had taken to splitting his ration with him seventy thirty, which Kenny considered pretty generous.
"I do worry about Stan, you know," Pip said needlessly.
Kenny turned, exhaling as he did so. "I think everyone does." He glanced towards Stan briefly. Right now he actually looked peaceful, and that was rare these days. "I don't think I'm going to get a whole lot of sleep right now so I'm going to go out and take a walk, if anyone asks that's where I've gone, okay?"
"Of course," Pip acknowledged with a nod. Kenny grabbed his jacket and rifle—just to be safe. "You could ask some people about Kyle too," Pip added. Kenny simply nodded and left.
Kenny was always on edge slightly when he was on duty. The slightest sudden movement from anywhere and he'd always jump ever so slightly. Any major sudden movement and he'd even yelp.
What he hated, and as such his more regular partners had picked up on this after a while, was when he got touched. A slight tap and he'd jump clean out of his skin and, on more than one occasion, fall into the water that would be inevitably stagnating in the trench and have to finish the shift freezing cold.
He had to stop himself reflexively just lashing out whenever it happened. Punching, kicking, a crack over the head with his rifle butt, he'd stopped himself from dishing all of them out.
So when he got the tap on the shoulder, he came very close to punching the guy next to him. He was only saved by someone completely different's voice coming from the other side of him getting his attention.
"Kenny," Craig said. Kenny managed to turn before he could dish out any screams and yells of protest to his apparently innocent partner for scaring him again. "Come back to the dugout. I, uh, I have an announcement."
"In the middle of shift?" Kenny asked sceptically. "Is this a test, lieutenant?"
Kenny turned away from the periscope and faced Craig. "Are you going to yell at me if I leave my assigned post or something?" Craig blinked, ticking over the implication behind that. "Because if you are," Kenny continued, "I'm going to kill you."
"That's a court martial offence right there," Craig informed him flatly. "Threatening your superior officer. If I were in a bad mood I could probably have you in front of a firing squad."
"Says you?" Kenny asked pointedly. "About me?"
Craig opened his mouth to respond, then immediately stopped. Kenny took his glare as a victory. "In answer to your question," he eventually said slowly, "no. I'm aware it's inconvenient, but I already got the other guys assembled."
"Oh. Okay. Sure." He turned to the other guy—he hadn't bothered to learn anything about him. "Excuse me."
He dropped onto the planks and followed Craig back through the trench, almost slipping into the perpetual canal beneath the planks at one point, back to the dugout where everyone was assembled, with Craig in the corner of the room. "Okay, thank you for coming, Kenny." He took a deep breath.
"I have three things I need to tell you all." Craig looked between Pip, Stan and Kenny. "All three of you," he added sardonically. "Firstly, our replacement—" Kenny winced at Craig's choice of words. "—for Clyde has been dispatched, and will be here within the month."
"Could you not use the word 'replacement'?" Kenny asked.
"That's what he is," Craig replied, shrugging.
Pip nodded at Craig. "Kenny's got a point, though. It seems a bit off to say you can just replace someone, you know?"
Craig hummed. "In any event, he's on his way. Whatever you may wish to call him. I'll pass further details on to you as they come."
"Secondly," he continued through a very heavy sigh, "on Sergeant Broflovski."
Kenny leaned forward. "They've found him?" he asked, not nearly eagerly enough to give any impression that he had hope.
"I'm afraid not," Craig replied in the exact same low tone. "But what I have done is I've asked Yardale if he can track him down at some point. I've talked with Stan—" Stan nodded in confirmation. "—and we've come to the conclusion that he can't have just disappeared. He certainly wouldn't just blunder into no man's land, he's far more shrewd than that. Likewise he would not simply go absent without leave. Yardale might have gotten a report at some point. I don't know. But the request is there."
"And thirdly, this is the main thing I wanted to tell you. I've been given orders."
Pip perked up. "Finally going to do something, are we?"
"Not us, Pip," Craig said, shaking his head slowly. "Me."
The silence was just a little too heavy for Kenny's liking. He felt Craig was about to drop some bombshell. For a few seconds, there was a worrying thought at the back of his head that maybe the brigadier had come up with a way of giving Craig a death sentence anyway — some sort of suicide mission or something. Kenny wouldn't have put that past the fat bastard.
"I," Craig announced lowly, "and I alone, have been given a transfer order."
Nobody really wanted to fill the silence that followed. After a few seconds and realising that nobody had anything to say, he continued. "For what it may be worth I will not be a huge distance away. Though of course I will no longer be attached to this company."
"Same battalion?" Kenny asked.
Craig thought for a second. "I... I think so. But certainly a different company. I'm being moved a few miles south. There'll be a new lieutenant coming in to take my place, what with the..." Craig let the faintest of smirks through. "...unfortunate...loss of Lieutenant Lanskin."
Stan glared. "Someone's death is nothing to be happy about, Craig."
"I'm aware of that," Craig immediately clarified. "What I am happy about, Stan, is that he is no longer in a position in which he can fuck things up. His loss is a tragedy, but hardly a disaster."
"Still not nice of you," Kenny mumbled. He wasn't sure if Craig actually heard him, because he immediately continued.
"I depart in one week. As this dugout is practically the Ritz compared to some of the holes I've seen, my replacement may well end up here, or you might land another transfer. Or another fresh private. I don't know, I haven't been told."
There was another of those repulsive heavy silences, or, what may have been a silence if it weren't for the dull thud of a shell exploding some distance away. When it verged on the unbearable, Stan sighed. "Doesn't seem right," he muttered.
Stan looked up. There was quite a long silence, though not so heavy and pulling this time. Since Stan had only really said that to generate some noise to fill the horrid quiet, he hadn't really been expecting to have to elaborate. "Well..." he drew out, playing for a little more thinking time. "Well, think about it," he explained. "You, me, Kyle, we've been in your squad since long before all this. You leaving now, especially with Kyle having disappeared and everything, it's just... It's not right, Craig."
"A lot's not right any more," Craig replied solemnly. Or, as solemnly as his monotone allowed. "Clyde's gone. Kyle's disappeared to god knows where. You do everything you can to avoid sleep and scream at the slightest drop of—"
"Craig," Pip interrupted. "Best not say the word. Could send him reeling."
Craig took a brief glance at Stan, already screwing his face up in a grimace, and nodded. "Everything's changed. And almost uniformly for the worst." He sighed. "And now we're getting split up."
"Fuck this noise," Stan muttered. Craig could only hum in response. That horrid silence that everybody didn't know how to fill made an unwelcome comeback. Craig leaving wasn't a pleasant thought, even if Craig wasn't the most pleasant of people. At least Kenny knew Craig wasn't an idiot. He'd risked death to defy suicidal orders, as paradoxical as that was. Another commanding officer might not be so wise, or unwise, or whatever what Craig had done had been.
Kenny stood up, not wanting to think about what might be and worst case scenarios. "If you'll excuse me, I'm supposed to be on watch."
"Of course," Craig muttered. Kenny stood up, Pip stood aside and he stepped out back into the trenches.
A week passed quickly.
For the most part, nobody talked about it, mostly because Craig never brought it up. He wasn't the type to make a huge fuss about it. Whenever someone—usually Pip—tried to bring it up, Craig would dodge the subject or answer evasively. Nobody was actually sure if Craig was doing that because he was Craig or because there was some level of classification on his reassignment.
Come the day of his departure, by a cruel chance, Token had picked Stan out for what was definitely a classified mission somewhere south along the lines. All he'd been able to say was that it was in preparation for something that was going on down there and he'd be gone for about a week.
Kenny was worried for Stan, what with his recent condition being how it was, but the major had spoken so he couldn't really argue.
With that, Kyle still being absent and Pip out on watch, that left a farewell party of one to see Craig off.
Kenny waited with him outside the dugout. Craig was fishing through his pockets for his cigarettes, while Kenny just leaned against the wall. Silence was much easier than trying to keep a conversation with Craig going.
He watched Craig find the box and flick it open. There were two left. He picked one out, struck a match and lit up.
"Don't suppose I could have that last one?" Kenny asked.
Craig looked between it and him. "I need it for the road," he protested.
"But I'm not going to be getting any for a while," Kenny reminded him. "Without officer rations and all."
"I'm not getting fresh ones until next week," Craig huffed.
Kenny could see Craig was debating it—or, rather, trying not to debate it because there was only ever going to be one outcome.
"God dammit," Craig muttered. The match was still lit, the flame approaching Craig's fingers, so he lit his last cigarette, passed it to Kenny, and threw the match into the trench water. Kenny couldn't help a smile.
"I probably wouldn't tell the other guys this," Kenny said before he dragged on the smoke, inhaling the burning cloud and letting it bake in his lungs for a few seconds.
"Yes?" Craig asked as Kenny blew the smoke out and almost passed the cigarette over on reflex, before he reminded himself that Craig had his own.
"Well, I am going to miss you, Craig."
Craig was too busy inhaling at the time to respond. He calmly held it in him then blew it up, over the trench and into no man's land. "Well, as long as it's honesty hour. I don't think the others will miss me that greatly. Stan and Kyle would probably only consider me a colleague. You're the only person who has ever said that they're my friend."
"You got on well with Clyde, surely?"
"Better than with the others, maybe," Craig agreed, holding a second drag in while passing the cigarette back, "but still. I don't think he'd have called me a friend."
"Also," Kenny continued, carrying on that previous train of thought, "why exactly don't Stan and Kyle like you?"
Craig turned to him and offered his finest 'seriously?' stare, blowing the smoke out through his nose. "I'm not what you'd call likeable, am I?"
"Mm. There's something else though, isn't there?"
"Nope," Craig replied. Kenny sagged slightly. "Maybe it was something to do with Stan's early days. Holding him back from promotion and all that because he was a little shit. Him and Kyle always got on really well."
"And Kyle had a temper streak," Kenny filled in needlessly.
Craig sighed. "Believe it or not, he was even worse back then. I think he really got to know Stan well when they were off duty, they clicked somehow. It wouldn't surprise me if he decided he didn't like me when I snapped at him. Nowadays he'd just yell at me, but literally all he said to me for the following three months was acknowledgements."
Kenny nodded needlessly, passing what was left of the cigarette back to Craig. "How long?"
"Any second now," Craig droned.
Kenny sighed. "Shame Pip and Stan aren't here. You need a proper send off."
"I don't need anything. But thank you for the sentiment." He dropped the stub into the waters in the trench, just as two people approached them—Yardale and a colonel Kenny recognised from Craig's court martial.
"Lieutenant," the colonel greeted. For once, Yardale didn't seem interested in saying anything.
"You're ready for your new assignment?"
"Of course," Craig replied.
"Well then. Shall we?"
Craig nodded, and then turned to Kenny. "Kenny," he said simply.
"Craig," Kenny replied.
With nothing else to say, or that needed saying, Craig turned around and followed the other two officers away from the dugout and round the leftward bend, along to the way out. Kenny sighed and looked down briefly at the cigarette butt in the trench, then shook himself and walked alone back into the dugout.
The six man dugout now had three empty beds. And there was still no word either from or about Kyle.
It was getting emptier and emptier. Still, there were new people on the way. The place wouldn't be empty in perpetuity at least.
Kenny was curled up on his bed, trying to get a couple of hours more sleep before pulling a double shift due to the lack of people there. Pip was nice and gentle when it came to wake ups and of course any sleep was a luxury, with intermittent booms from shells going off filtering down into the dugout.
But sleep wasn't coming. Kenny had tried everything—making his mind go blank, then counting enough sheep to populate Wales, then moving onto cows and horses before giving up on the counting farmyard animals of varying descriptions tactic altogether.
Pulling his pillow over his face to black out his vision failed because he could still hear the shells, pulling his pillow also over his ears failed because that took effort and kept him awake.
After however long had passed, Kenny hadn't really been keeping track of time that well, he gave up. With a deliberately loud groan, he sat up and swivelled round to get his feet back on the floor.
"You can't sleep either?" Stan asked from the table.
"No." Kenny reached for his trousers. "Though for a very different reason than you."
Stan chuckled a little. Kenny was kind of glad that he could joke about it, even if it did all keep him up at night. Stan's new strategy to avoid the nightmares seemed to be to be awake for as long as possible, then sleep for as little as he could get away with. Kenny was none too sure of the wisdom behind that, especially being as the new sleep schedule left Stan with permanent baggy eyes, but then in the muddy and dirty environment it didn't really show, besides which it wasn't that out of the ordinary any more for people to be perpetually tired.
"How long until Pip gets back?" Kenny asked once he was more or less dressed.
Stan thought for a second. "He's only been gone a couple of hours, I think."
"Fuck." Kenny stood up and had to physically stop himself from bashing his head against the beam over his bed. "So I've got to amuse myself for four hours?"
Kenny huffed. He glanced around for a second, before pulling on his webbing and slinging his rifle over his shoulder. "I'm going to take a walk, okay?"
"Sure, whatever." Kenny stepped out, and turned right. Since the watch station was off to the left, it was very rare that he went that way, except to head back to the rearward lines. Kenny turned left again and immediately came face to face with the captain, who was in his usual mess. Tweek yelped.
"McCormick!" he said once he'd recomposed himself as much as he was going to be able to.
"Uh, do you mind doing something for me?" Kenny nodded. Through the occasional twitch and spasm, Tweek continued. "I need you to pass a message onto your squad, you're all in the same place aren't you?" Again, Kenny nodded. "General Richardson's coming to pay you a visit in the next two hours so—"
Kenny felt the need to interrupt to remind Tweek of something. "I'm afraid Private Pirrup is going to be on duty, if that's an issue."
"Uh..." Tweek juddered as he considered that. "No, I think it was Marsh he wanted to see. But maybe you should get him anyway, just to be sure, if he did want to see Pirrup and he's going to kill me and—"
"Fine," Kenny interrupted, before Tweek could have a full on seizure. "I'll let him know. Is there anything else, Captain?"
Tweek shook his head and turned away. Kenny sighed and, with his head clearing walk thoroughly cut short, went straight back to the dugout in even more of a huff than when he had left.
"That was quick," Stan noted.
"Intercepted," Kenny growled. "Captain Tweak wanted me to pass a message on to you. Yardale's coming to see you at some point."
"Cartman?" Stan immediately asked.
Kenny sagged. "Never checked."
Stan scratched his head. "Any reason why?"
"I don't know." Kenny sat down opposite Stan. "I guess if Tweek knew he'd have probably told me. But he's coming in the next few hours, so... I guess maybe we should suit up?"
Very pointedly, Stan looked down first at himself, then at Kenny. "Considering that I look perfectly presentable and you've barely done your jacket up, I guess maybe you should suit up."
Kenny sighed. "You're a prick."
"And you look like a vagrant," Stan countered. "Don't make me order you to tidy up."
One order and a thorough tidying up later, Kenny and Stan were once again sitting at the table, now actually looking like two soldiers rather than one soldier and one bad imitation. They waited.
While Tweek had given it a couple of hours, they were only waiting twenty minutes all told before they got a knock on the door. The major stepped in.
Stan stood up and saluted. "Major," he acknowledged.
Token nodded. "Save the formalities for Yardale, he's here in under five. I'm just warning you what he's here for."
"Yes?" Kenny asked.
"He's coming to assess Corporal Marsh." Stan narrowed his eyes slightly. Token glanced to him sympathetically "If he believes it to be the correct thing to do, he formally relieve you of your duties."
Kenny stared at Stan for a second, mouth agape. Stan stared at Token with the exact same expression on his face. "...what?" he asked.
"Well, before his departure, Lieutenant Tucker informed me, and I thought it necessary to refer it up, that you had developed...uh..." Token grasped for the correct word to use for Stan's ailment. "An issue. Restless nights, frightened to death of the sight of blood, and the like."
Kenny caught the judder that Stan gave even at the word, so spoke up. "That's very much true, Major."
Token nodded. "I saw it too, McCormick, you don't have to convince me. But, well, Yardale is coming personally to make sure."
"For every foot soldier?" Kenny asked. "He'd have a job, the amount of people who pretend to be nutty around here."
Token nodded again. "Exactly. That's why he's taken to checking some of the more specific cases. If it's just a case of the soldier has taken to wearing their pants on their head and stuffing pencils up their nose, he tells them in much more formal words to fuck off. Or at least, so I hear."
"And for more convincing cases?" Stan asked.
"He checks personally," Token explained. "And if, in his opinion, the soldier in question is shell shocked or otherwise affected to a sufficient extent that they are no longer able to continue serving as an effective soldier, he approves their relief. Moves those people to a more backwater duty. In some cases he has them discharged altogether."
Kenny shared a very worried glance with Stan."A clean discharge, right?" Stan asked.
"Of course," Token replied. "Not dishonourable at any rate. And that's just if you do actually get a discharge. Like I say, you could just get reassigned behind the lines some."
Stan nodded. Then, there was a knock at the door. Before anyone could invite the knocker in, the giant blonde general stepped in. Everyone immediately saluted.
"At ease," Yardale announced. Everyone loosened up. He immediately turned to Stan. "Corporal, I've heard you're not feeling so well these days."
Stan nodded uncertainly. "In a manner of speaking, sir."
"What is the nature of the ailment?" Yardale asked.
Stan dithered. He briefly looked to Token, who nodded and offered a sympathetic smile. Then he looked to Kenny, who also gave a nod. Stan sighed, then he turned back to face Yardale. "Well, sir, I have real trouble sleeping at night. I have nightmares, I always wake up in a cold sweat, I get maybe one or two hours at a time at best."
Yardale cocked his head. "I don't find that particularly hard to believe, looking at you."
"And... Well, I can't..." Stan visibly braced himself. "Blood, sir. I can't look at it any more, I can barely even think about it without..." Again, Stan trailed off. He took a breath and began explaining. "Every time I see it, I see this German I bayoneted a couple of months back. That close, I saw his face, I saw the stuff gushing out around... oh god..." Without realising, he'd started shaking.
Kenny was the one to step forward and take a very gentle hold of Stan. "Easy, Stan. I'm sure the general wouldn't want you to have a breakdown, now."
"How much is needed to set off one of these...episodes?" Yardale pressed.
Kenny turned. "Well, you can see what the thought of it does to him, sir. Pirrup gave himself a paper cut on a letter from home a few months ago, that got a more violent reaction—"
"I'm still right here," Stan protested shakily.
Yardale sighed. "Only one way to find out, I suppose." He rolled the sleeves of his coat, jacket and shirt half way up his forearm. "McCormick, your bayonet please."
Yardale didn't offer a reply, so Kenny put the numerous doubts that he had as far back in his mind as they would go without springing straight back up and picked his rifle up. He detached the bayonet and passed it to the general, who immediately held the edge to his arm.
"Wait, what are you doing?" Stan asked, his voice jumping an octave.
Yardale eyed Stan carefully. He watched every tremor, every judder, every slight change in facial expression. He grit his teeth audibly, pushed down on the blade some and made a neat two inch cut in his skin, just enough to get a trickle of blood running from the lower end of the damage.
Even before the blade had left his flesh, Stan had completely lost it.
"No!" he shouted, turning away and smashing his face into one of the mattresses. "God, no! Why would..." That was all that could be heard of it before the bed muffled his voice into indecipherable screams. Yardale, even before pulling his sleeve down, was sharing a glance with Token.
Stan was hyperventilating into the bed. In between the screams, Kenny heard ragged intakes of air that sounded almost like he was choking.
"Outside, Major," Yardale said. Token left, and Yardale followed, presumably for a private chat, leaving Kenny alone with the broken Stan.
"Stan," Kenny said loudly, to get over the crying. "Stan, he's gone, it's okay." The single muffled scream that he got in return begged to differ. Even with his face buried in the bed, he was shaking beyond control, and the damp circles on the fabric expanding from Stan's eyes gave away that at least some of that was from crying.
The problem was, Kenny didn't know what to say. The other times Stan had had a major event like this, either Kenny had been out on duty or someone else had been there to do this. Kenny himself was rather helpless, so all he could do was try to hold him still and remind him everything was okay.
Much good it did him—Stan wrestled his way out of Kenny's hands, turned to the floor and, in between his heavy stuttered breaths, ejected the contents of his stomach into the corner. Kenny stepped back, naturally.
All my friends are gone. Clyde and Kyle you know about, Craig was transferred. Stan left for health issues. I guess I've still got Pip, but is he really a friend? He'd certainly say so, but I don't think I ever got past the thought of him replacing Butters.
I don't know. Though I do know I'd rather like to be out of here soon. I'm not even sure I made the right choice signing up in the first place. I think I should have tried to talk him out of it instead.
I really hope you're doing better than I am.
"So how'd you sign up?" someone asked.
"Conscripted," someone replied. Kenny tuned out. He'd heard the conversation a billion times, so didn't pay much attention any more. Sometimes Pip could bring up one of the newcomers in their conversations but Kenny didn't care much any more.
Everyone was gone, one way or another. Transferred, sent home, disappeared or killed.
"What I heard on the way here..."
"I signed up..."
"Trained up in Poole..."
It was all too much. Kenny didn't bother listening or learning.
Instead he just waited for Pip to get back so he could escape. At least on duty there was only ever one person to distract him.
Had all the newcomers come one by one maybe he wouldn't be so distant, but with Kyle, Clyde, Stan and Craig all leaving in some manner at around the same time, they'd landed four new faces within about a week, and Kenny couldn't quite take that. Given what had happened to the last batch of fresh faces, Kenny had made the decision to not get to know them. If and when they disappeared too, it wouldn't be so bad.
It was cold, especially for Kenny. And it had lead to a few minor run ins.
"What's up with him?" one of them had asked at one point.
Kenny hadn't been watching. He didn't know who'd been talking, and he was trying his best not to care either. "I don't know, he doesn't say much. Just sleeps, reads, occasionally writes letters home. Maybe he's shell shocked or something," had been the reply.
"Didn't the shell shocked guy leave though?" Kenny had had to keep himself from lashing out. He'd very deliberately stopped listening at that point.
In his unpleasant reverie he'd inadvertently tuned back into the discussions. "...came to replace some sergeant who went missing," one of them was saying.
"Oh!" someone else said. Did Kenny care about differentiating the four voices? Not really. "He turned up, actually! Some failure to communicate somewhere, maybe a carrier pigeon got lost or something, but he was taken slightly ill."
Kenny turned his head slightly to listen.
"What happened?" said yet another person.
"Trench foot," came the reply. "Poor bastard just collapsed in the middle of the trench on his way to his post. Had to be dragged out to the medics, who then sent him to the field hospital, word didn't get through until now."
"How bad was it?" Kenny asked quietly. There was a silence that followed that Kenny guessed may have been a stunned one. He never really took part in the conversations.
"Well," the man telling the story said uncertainly, since he didn't know enough about Kenny to gauge his emotions at this point, "they managed to save one of his feet. Other one was too far gone, it had to come off. Lucky bastard got out because of that."
Kenny turned away again, pressing his teeth together to cracking point if it meant he didn't give a defensive response to that.
"I was transferred down from Belgium to take his place, and he was put on the first ferry back..." Kenny stopped listening.
'Lucky bastard', he'd said.
How could it be considered lucky for Kyle to have gotten out of the war with only most of the appendages that he'd come with?
In what sane universe was that lucky?
But then, was this a sane universe any more?
A universe where over a million shells had been fired at the Germans, who for Kenny were all but a faceless enemy that he had very little quarrel with (and that was only because of what they'd done to Butters), and there was still no sign of a decisive victory on the horizon.?
A universe where gas attacks were almost routine to the point where the response was no longer unbridled panic, but instead groans of minor annoyance?
A universe where half a generation were being sent into the war on the front lines by law?
That wasn't sane any more.
Where had it gone wrong?
Of course, Kenny knew it had gone wrong now, now that all his friends had disappeared, but he felt that maybe it had gone wrong before that.
What was he thinking? Of course it had. It had started going wrong the moment Butters had gone and stepped into the path of a German shell.
Even that seemed really distant now. Butters, Kenny's best friend, was so close to becoming just another casualty in the face of an endless fight.
How was a universe where Kenny didn't care about Butters any more sane?
He felt someone shaking him. "Kenny, old chap," Pip said, "your shift."
Kenny nodded and forced his way over the bed into a sitting position. He stood up, slung his equipment on and started buttoning his jacket up on the way out to the watch station. Even to Pip, who wasn't even a new face for Kenny, he was a lot colder these days.
But really, Kenny asked himself, where had things gone from bearable to unbearable? There had to be a transition point somewhere, didn't there?
Or was it just a constant gradient that at some point stops being bearable but doesn't quite make it to unbearable for a while yet?
What the hell was he thinking?
The thoughts consumed him to the point that his foot slipped and he had to catch himself on the trench wall to avoid having to do shift with a wet foot. For a brief moment he had a little clarity on the environment. The air reeked of smoke. There was the constant booming of Allied shells being fired and Central Powers shells blowing holes in their ground. The sky was threatening a rainy day.
It didn't matter—Kenny shook it off and proceeded to his station.
"You're late," muttered his watch partner for the day.
"Bite me," Kenny responded blankly as he took his position by the periscope.
His partner—Bertie, was it? Bernard? It always seemed to be someone different—turned to give him a good looking at. "You're in a mood today."
"Bite me," Kenny repeated.
"You know, if something's up that might—"
"Look, fuck off!" Kenny snapped. "Just don't give me any shit today, I am very close to cracking here."
At the lack of response, he thought about maybe qualifying his position slightly. He didn't want to be thought of as a grouchy little shit or anything. But then, he didn't really care if he wasn't going to have to live it down. He just had to keep himself to himself off shift and it wouldn't be a problem.
Conversation had ground to a halt. Kenny took to looking forward and waiting for the advance that wasn't coming.
Pip was dead.
He'd been drafted for a mission in no man's land. Just reconnaissance. Nothing particularly special, just a semi—routine look around, seeing if there were any gaps to exploit. He'd promptly trodden on a landmine. The report, once filtered through a few people, had reached Kenny in the form of 'he was rained down across fifty square yards'.
Not long after his replacement came they'd been reassigned again, to broadly speaking the same place as last time, for broadly speaking the opposite reason. While the other five — the new lieutenant, the new sergeant, whoever else was there—shared stories and jokes and drinks, Kenny stayed on his bunk.
With Pip gone, that was the last person he'd even slightly cared for. The others, he didn't know. Whenever he wasn't on duty he was curled on his bed, facing the wall in silence when he was awake and sleeping when he wasn't.
They'd been loaded onto cattle trucks and sent by rail back north, back to there, where his friend had died, but this time for an offensive operation as opposed to the failed attempt at a defensive operation that had happened last time. Kenny had just sat in silence in a corner of the truck.
He'd changed his mind. Kyle was lucky. He'd gotten out alive and sane. That was enough. Frankly, he'd had even better than Stan. Kyle had only lost a foot. Stan had lost part of his mind.
When they arrived back at Ypres, Kenny's memory of the place—despite what had happened there—was positively utopian compared to what he saw before him now. The place was practically a ruin. The place had seen heavy shelling, that was for damn sure. There wasn't a single building Kenny could see that hadn't taken some amount of damage, ranging between collapsed walls, shattered windows, and total destruction.
Kenny didn't care.
They didn't get a hotel with running water this time. They got a new trench, a new dugout. It was barely worthy of the word room. There were six bunks, set into the wall in two structures three beds high. Kenny didn't contest being assigned one of the lowest beds.
The new lieutenant prattled off the new orders. Kenny listened only to know what he was doing. They were going to be woken up and taken off to the company, who would be given their orders for the advance. Kenny took the opportunity to sleep when he could.
The morning came. Kenny was woken up, and the squad joined the company, from where they began marching eastward.
As hard as he was trying to keep himself apart from everything around him, Kenny couldn't help noticing the differences since the last time he'd been in Belgium. There were obvious differences, of course, such as the ruin of the city and the severe loss of foliage for miles around, a side effect of the mass shelling, but there were more subtle differences too.
The air wasn't so fresh any more. With dirt being kicked up into the air with every shell, plus the sulphuric smell that came from the explosions themselves, it smelled just like the air back in the trenches in France.
There were, of course, the layers of reinforcement around the city. Aside from the rows and rows of trenches around the eastern edge of the city, there were more artillery points than Kenny could be bothered to count and what must have been at least three of the new tank battalions. Even a few months ago, Kenny may have been impressed by how thirty tons of metal could be reasonably and reliably used in a combat situation to transport eight soldiers and two cannons to where they might be more useful, but now it just didn't register.
On they marched. Dull green soldiers flanked by dull green vehicles advancing through a dull brown landscape, slowly approaching their targets.
As they advanced, Kenny was aware of their lieutenant checking his watch every few seconds. It made sense — he didn't want to be marching directly into the path of their own artillery.
Being stuck in this stupid situation was bad enough, being killed by friendly fire would just be insulting.
"Halt!" someone shouted. It was repeated a few times here and there, and slowly everyone ground to a halt. With the half tramping, half squelching of the march stopped, the only sound now was the rattle of the engines of the tanks, and the regular pounding of exploding shells ahead of them, throwing up a brownish—grey haze from where the shells hit.
A minute went by. Then two minutes. Kenny waited.
The pounding stopped. The pitch of the tank engines perked up somewhat. Kenny readied himself.
The lieutenant checked his watch. "Advance!" he shouted again.
On they marched. Ahead, through the ranks and the smoke and the dirt, Kenny could see the thin scars in the ground marking the German lines. He fancied even from this distance, he could see the small points where watch posts and machine guns would be placed.
And now all he had to do was wait for the order.
Three. Two. One.
"Advance at will!" came the order. Everyone broke ranks and ran towards the trenches.
The guns started firing from both sides. Single shots came from the soldiers surrounding Kenny, punctuated by the more deafening bangs from the tank cannons, while the entrenched Germans fired machine guns, mowing down entire groups of allied soldiers in a matter of seconds.
He saw a few people who managed to evade the machine guns dive into the trench and immediately get shot or bayoneted. One or two of them managed to get a shot off before they were taken down, but the effect that the Allied advance was having seemed so negligible.
There was no point. Everyone was just falling.
Everything seemed to fade into background noise. It was all just bangs and shouts and squelches, with Kenny running in the middle of it with no way out.
Superior numbers against superior firepower—a perfect recipe for unending bloodshed.
What was it all for?
Why the fuck was he even here?
What difference could he alone possibly make to this total clusterfuck?
Then, Kenny felt two searing jabs of pain rip first through his gut, and then his chest. His body flinched backwards, his step failed, and he crumpled face first into the muck, screaming in pain.
It burned. The two places on his body—through his body—where he'd been hit felt like two white hot pokers melting in his insides. He could feel the uniform around those points sticking to him with the blood—his blood.
He managed to turn his head so at least he could see more than Belgian mud. On his left he saw three more fallen soldiers, doubtless with dozens more behind. A boot came down so close to his face he could almost smell the polish on them, then lifted again.
Then he saw them.
The bodies weren't just faceless any more. He could see, even through the muddy and matted hair, and the blood streaming down their faces, three people he knew.
There was Pip, the long and neatly combed back hair he'd always taken such good care of even at the worst of times ruined, clotting together with the blood that was running down into his wide open eyes, blotting them out. The smallest trickle of that horrid red fluid dripped out of his mouth, spilling onto the ground that was already awash with it.
Behind him, Kenny couldn't quite see the face, but the chocolate coloured hair was enough of a giveaway. He didn't need to see the slightly podgy face that was beneath, or the glimpse he had of bright brown eyes, or the two chevrons on his shoulder to confirm that it was Clyde.
And then behind him, Kenny could only see the back of a head, but the mop—the mop that should have been bright platinum blonde but was dripping red—was enough. He couldn't see that face again. He didn't want to cry now.
Then another boot came down and in the time it took for it to disappear, his friends had gone and there were just three men there. Faces and features he hadn't known, and never would. But in place of his friends, there was something else.
A girl stood there. A girl with light brown hair and dark brown eyes.
Karen stared at him.
Kenny couldn't do anything but stare back. He couldn't move his head far enough to break eye contact.
He couldn't hear what she was saying to him, but he could read her lips easily enough. He had to.
Please come back she said to him.
He'd abandoned her.
Then one of the advancing tanks passed between the two of them. By the time it passed, she too had disappeared, and Kenny was left alone.
Through the corners of his failing vision, he saw other men falling. But he saw more of them making it to the trench.
But to do what? Kill the Germans?
Even now, Kenny thought, through muddied eyes and slowing brain, even now that wasn't any better.
He felt his breathing getting slower. More ragged. He felt his mouth slowly filling with a warm, sticky liquid that he didn't even need to ask once what it might have been.
Whatever minor movements he might have managed before, he couldn't make them any more.
Kenny dropped his head on the ground.
He stopped trying.
He let his limbs go limp.
He waited for the end.
He just gave up.
The blood pooling in his mouth finally spilled out.
A final, shallow breath escaped his lips.
There, on a muddy Belgian field, surrounded by hundreds of soldiers who passed by him without any notice, like they were doing so with so many other of their fallen comrades, with the sound of gunfire and artillery shells reverberating through the air, Kenny died.
Just one of many.
Epilogue — August 1924
The rope flew from the boat to the dock, and he could see them on it. Craig Tucker and Stan Marsh. Two old bunker mates. Strange.
None of them had ranks any more. They'd all bailed on the military as soon as they could. Craig had at least been made captain before the end of it—Stan had found out that that was why he'd been transferred away. And when given the option to continue service once his new foot had been broken in Kyle had been told he was top the list for promotions too, but a crown for his chevrons wasn't enough to convince him to stay.
The gangway was extended and off they came. Craig was first off, with Stan following slightly behind. Kyle nodded to Craig. Craig nodded back. They were both aware of the contempt they had for each other, and they both had no intention of letting it get in the way of what they were here for.
"Stan," Kyle greeted. "How have you been?"
Stan nodded, keeping his eyes on the jetty but sounding sincere. "Getting better. I don't think about it so much any more."
"Took me ages to convince him to come back here," Craig noted. "But here we are."
Kyle nodded, then took Craig in for a second. "That coat works on you."
Craig glanced down. The coat in question was an old black trench that he kept undone. Craig had managed to pilfer it before he retired. It was heavy, but warm. "Thank you."
The three men began walking towards the bus stop, where they could be taken closer to the Belgian border. "I don't think I told you yet but my father died last year," Kyle said as conversational filler.
"I'm sorry," Stan said on reflex.
"How?" Craig asked, ever the tactician.
Kyle shrugged. "It was a long time coming, he's had breathing problems for years. Ever since he got chlorined."
"He was fighting?" Stan asked, a bit shocked. "How old was he?"
"Technically too old but he got called up later. After conscription and all. He was edging fifty at the time. But he was Navy, actually."
"How," Craig droned, "does one get hit by chlorine gas in the middle of the sodding ocean?"
Kyle tightened his lips but let it slide. "In the most embarrassing way possible." The silence carried for a second, so Kyle continued. "He was on the HMS K1."
"Oh." Craig knew the story, apparently.
"Yeah," Kyle acknowledged. They were at the bus stop, thankfully not too far from the docks at all. Kyle wasn't so good with long distance walking, what with being on one artificial foot and all. They sat down on the bench, with Stan strategically placed between Craig and Kyle. Just as a precaution. "You probably know the K class was an unmitigated disaster, mainly because they were steam driven so needed funnels and they were fucking submarines. Well, it had to do a manoeuvre to avoid a cruiser, water comes down the funnels, puts the boilers out and shorted the battery. That made chlorine, don't ask me how, and dad was just right there."
Craig finished the story. "The K4 then hit K1, the HMS Blonde had to rescue the crew and then they blew the shit out of K1 because it was such an awful fucking vessel."
Kyle glared at Craig—some things just never changed. "They wanted to stop the Germans capturing it, thank you very much."
"Because they would obviously want to copy the Kalamity class," came the inevitable monotonous quip.
As the bus arrived, honking the horn to get their attention, Kyle could only retort with a weak "Fuck you, Tucker." He couldn't deny it, though—that had been the nickname the K class had earned. It really was a submarine that could only be worsened by being made out of bread.
"Anyway, sorry about your dad," Craig added half heartedly. Even though it didn't carry punishment any more, them being out of the army and all, Kyle did consciously hold himself back from punching Craig in his stupid head.
They remained silent on the bus to the graveyard, which was quite the journey to make from the coast — the graves were rather deep into France. When they got there, Craig pulled a note out of his pocket. "They're buried together," he announced. "Not sure how they managed it, I think there must have been some exhumations. Second field, five rows back, columns fourteen through sixteen. Pip got sent to another cemetery, I'm afraid."
They entered the graveyard, past a great stone monument engraved with THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE. It was brilliant white, and the sun reflecting off it was almost blinding.
On they walked, past the swathes of graves. Kyle thought for a moment—each one of those graves had a person in it, and each person had a story behind them just like his. Except they never got out of the war before it killed them. Kyle could feel the clamps on his left leg, where his body ended and the prosthesis began. He'd gotten out lucky.
He wouldn't have said that at the time, but faced with the sea of white headstones he couldn't really deny it now. One foot wasn't a great price.
"Here," Craig droned, turning into one of the rows. Kyle turned with him, still engaged in thought.
If they'd survived, would they be like Stan? Suffering shell shock, turning into a gibbering wreck at the very sight of blood for the next half a decade? Or would they be like Kyle, getting out with life but not limb?
Maybe they'd even have gotten out intact like Craig.
"Twelve, thirteen... Here we are," Craig said, stopping in front of one of the stones. Kyle looked at it and sighed. From a distance there was nothing to distinguish it from any of the other stones here, but the inscription on it made all the difference. Everyone else was just so much filler. Other people. This one, these three graves, were people Kyle had known personally. Maybe every grave deserved equal grievance but Kyle couldn't help it, could he?
10th APRIL 1895—17th OCTOBER 1916
THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT
"Reunited at long last," Craig said lowly. The six guys from the front line. "Deserves a bit more celebration."
"It was horrible," Stan mused. "All of them. What did they die for?"
Nobody had the heart to answer.
Kyle remembered Clyde, of course. His helmet sailing through the air and just bouncing off Clyde's head. No reaction coming from the lifeless corpse. He wasn't killed by an enemy gas attack—it was the mask that had killed him. Someone on some production line somewhere in Britain had killed Clyde Donovan. For them it would be just another minor mistake. For Kyle, it was a friend lost.
Kyle's gaze shifted along to the next grave. This one was worse, in ways. Clyde had been in the army by his own volition, he'd wanted to join up. He'd been the first to join at the outbreak, and he'd joined for king and country. Or, at least, by association. Not just for the work.
He read the inscription.
11th SEPTEMBER 1897—MAY 25th 1915
THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT
He remembered. The day in Ypres. Butters stepping out into the road at the worst possible time. Watching him get blown off his feet. Watching one heart break as another bled.
Kyle wished he could say Butters' death hadn't been in vain, that he'd died accomplishing something to advance the war. That he'd played some form of pivotal role in the battle. But no. He'd been hit by a shell from a German cannon that could have been, for all Kyle knew, in the next town over. The operators of it wouldn't even know what they'd done.
Butters Stotch had bled out in a field hospital for nothing. Yardale had called the death heroic, but Kyle knew what that was. It was all empty words. A rehearsed speech that he'd probably given dozens, even hundreds of times over the course of the war, to hundreds of men who'd lost their friends in equally empty and pointless circumstances. As nice a person as Yardale was, he didn't care. Not like Kyle, Stan or even Craig did.
The final grave was the worst, of course. Not for cause or the person inside it—it was the worst because it was the one for which Kyle hadn't been there, for which nobody had been there. He hated to feel like it was his fault. It wasn't, he'd had to leave minus a foot. It hadn't been his fault he'd gotten to leave.
He just hated to think that here, in this random plot in the middle of France, in the middle of hundreds of other near—identical plots, lay a person—his friend—who could have died alone. Dying for nothing in such a pointless way was bad enough, but Butters and Clyde had at least had their friends there with them.
Who had he had?
22nd MARCH 1896—AUGUST 16th 1917
THEIR GLORY SHALL NOT BE BLOTTED OUT
"He saved my life," Craig muttered. "I don't think he ever even once raised his weapon against anyone, at least not the muzzle end."
"He deserved better," Kyle agreed. "Hell, Karen deserved to have her brother back. Even if he was like me, or like you," he mused, tapping Stan, "she at least deserved him back. She's a really sweet girl."
"How is she these days?" Stan enquired.
"Good. Her and Ike, they're expecting a second."
"They had a first?"
"Yeah, a son." Kyle stifled the smallest of chuckles. "Three guesses what they called him. So yeah, I'm an uncle now."
Craig spoke, not looking up from the grave. "Do you mind leaving us alone for a second?"
Kyle and Stan looked at each other for a second, before Kyle chose to respond. "He was our friend too, Craig," he said with more than a bit of steel behind it, "you don't get a monop—"
Kyle was very cleanly shut up. He shared another glance with Stan, then turned back. Craig still wasn't meeting their gazes. Stan gave a half hearted shrug and started walking back through the row, resting his hand on the three headstones before leaving. Kyle sighed, but followed.
They waited at the edge of the block of graves.
"Do you think he really meant that much to him?" Stan asked while they waited. The sun was starting to set, and they needed to get to town before the hotels locked up for the night. Then another visit tomorrow, and back on the boat for England in time for tea.
Kyle looked back at Craig. Craig who was kneeling on the ground, hunched over. Craig whose head was resting on the only paltry lasting evidence that Kenny McCormick had ever existed. Craig whose shoulders were shaking, whose hands were pressed against his face, who was using his coat to blow his nose into.
Craig who was crying at the grave of his friend.
A friend who'd saved his life.
Kyle looked back at Stan. Then back to Craig. Then back to Stan. And for all the bad things he thought and wanted to say and had indeed said about Craig Tucker, there was one thing he couldn't deny; that maybe, underneath the shell, there was actually a human being there.
A human being who Kenny McCormick had meant an awful lot, if not everything to.
"I think so."