(2006) No infringement upon the rightful owners
of "Combat!" and the characters thereof is intended. This piece of fan fiction
is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from
Author's Note: This story is a response to the 12-1-06 fanfic board challenge.
"Grey Dawn Breaking"
by Thompson Girl
Lt. Hanley awoke to darkness. He lay on his back, eyes open but unable to see anything. Was it night? The remnants of unconsciousness? Something far worse? But the need to remember was overridden by more urgent concerns, like the vicious unrelenting cold. It burned at his toes and feet even through two pairs of socks and boots, at gloved fingers, and especially at the exposed skin of his face. Cold so searing the hurt from it made him gasp aloud, unable to stop the reaction. And with that awakening came the other pain: the deep bone-crushing ache that spread through his chest and legs. The weight trapping him against the frozen ground was so heavy that just to draw the icy air into his lungs was a struggle.
Small arms fire chattered somewhere -- not more than a half mile away. He tried to remember what had happened, where the squad was, but it seemed less important than moving and getting blood flowing to frozen extremities again.
Legs... move the legs.
But his legs wouldn't budge at all, and then he felt the fear. It raced on spider web threads through his frozen body, netting him in an embrace of cold, darkness, and pain. His arms flew up, and he almost sobbed in relief when his gloved fingers touched his cheeks. Not paralyzed then, not entirely. Not blinded either; he could make out the shape of his arms silhouetted against the night sky. He made fists repeatedly with his hands, his fingers curling in agonizing slowness, then he rubbed at his chin, cheeks, nose, ears trying to stave off the cold. But he still couldn't move his legs, nor could he sit up. He reached down to touch his legs, and his hands smacked into something solid right on top of him.
No wonder he couldn't move, couldn't breathe. Something was pinning him down. He touched the shape with his gloved fingers until understanding struck him. It was the body of a large man, lying slanted across him, cold, but not yet stiff. Someone that big.... He swallowed.
The name snapped into his mind, along with an image of the private. But no.... His fear faded. No, it wasn't Littlejohn. Littlejohn had been out on the flank, hadn't been near him. Slowly, it came back: the squad strung out through the woods in the deep of night... advancing, beating through the Kraut resistance... a farmhouse.... They had been trying to win through to the farmhouse.
"Lieutenant!" The voice stabbing out of the darkness to his left... the urgency. The crushing weight of someone tackling him and the stutter of a German machine gun -- too loud, too close. The body jolting and jerking unnaturally even as it bore him down. Falling hard.
No, not Littlejohn -- Carmichael. Private R. Carmichael. Replacement arrived that morning. He remembered then. Remembered the private had seen the hidden machine gun nest and he had not. Remembered Carmichael had been leaping to shove him out of the way even as he'd shouted his warning and the Kraut bullets cut him in half.
But what Hanley couldn't remember was the man's face. He'd met him only that morning, and he couldn't remember his face. He had bits and images -- the gold of a cross Carmichael had worn around his neck, massive shoulders beneath a field jacket a size too small, Kirby trying to get takers on a wager for the new man to arm wrestle Littlejohn -- but when he tried to mesh them into a mental photograph of this man who had saved his life, the images slipped away, the way the soldier's life had slipped away.
Because he hadn't tried to see the man that morning, couldn't be bothered with fixing a face in his mind, not when so many came and went. The crosshatch on a map had been more important.
And the guilt that thought provoked hurt worse than the cold.
It was always a dual-layered guilt: first that he didn't try to know these men, and then second, that he didn't feel more guilty for the first. It was the second guilt that haunted his nights. Deep inside he knew that if the war kept going much longer, he'd wrap his heart and conscience in layers of ice so thick no sun would ever melt them. Understanding that he couldn't afford to really see the men placed under his command if he wanted to do his job, didn't help. Understanding that if he did his job right he could save more men, didn't help. Sometimes a moment still caught him unawares and exposed the flawed balance sheet of his humanity.
He scrabbled with his memories again. Not out of want or curiosity, but out of an overwhelming desperate need. Need to make the disparate pieces fit, to grasp the whole, and remember what this one man had looked like.
A single raw sob escaped his throat. For a faceless man. For himself. For guilt and expedience and the necessity that made the irreplaceable replaceable. And from that came the truth -- that it was a gift he had received that night, the most humbling one that could be offered. Not even guilt could bury the value of that.
It gave him renewed strength, and he shoved hard at the cold stiffening body, pushing and shifting until he gained enough leverage to roll the dead man off him. He fell on his back again, exhausted from the effort, sucking in deep breaths and watching the fleeting clouds of steam pearl against the sky on each exhale.
After a moment, he tried to stand, but his legs, pressed straight for so long, refused to bend properly. He staggered, gasping against the new pain, and collapsed beside the corpse. He rubbed at his legs, then looked up, drawn to the watery brightness in the eastern sky. Dawn was coming, he realized. The dawn of Christmas morning, and with it enough light to see by, to rectify one wrong.
Tugging off one glove, he reached over and removed Carmichael's dog tags, the metal slowly warming against his palm and fingers as he settled down beside the body to wait.