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The Siege of Tobruk

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Zaf had made long practice of sweeping a room for danger before entering it, but sometimes the danger outside was more pressing. He practically fell down the stone steps of the cellar as the street outside was lit by the blast.

"It's polite to knock first," said the voice from the darkness as he righted himself and barricaded the door behind him.

"Sorry," he said. "Forgive me."

The woman crawled out from under the table where she'd been sheltering. "Any good visuals?"

In the intermittent light from outside, he could see she had a camera in both hands. British journalists, the only part of the war worse than the cliche. Zaf wanted to laugh.

"Not a chance," he said. "Too much smoke."

The woman cursed, disappearing back under the table. He made a cursory search of the room for a radio or something, but he didn't really expect to find anything. He'd have to sit tight, find Carter again once it was all over. He could hear her doing something with the camera. Then the crunch of another bomb, much closer this time, and he couldn't hear anything for a while.

"Pardon?"

"Are they bombing the city?" she asked again.

"Harbour."

She made a derisive sound. "Not very good, are they."

"Not very."

"Here, catch."

Zaf put out his hand for the dark shape she rolled across the floor, expecting a weapon, instead catching a flask of whisky. He tossed her his cigarettes in repayment. She crowed with delight. "Where have you been the last few weeks of my life. Couldn't get my hands on any, bloody terrible."

Zaf laughed again, out loud this time. "BBC?" he asked.

"Is it so obvious? SIS?"

Another blast saved Zaf from answering, and when the noise died down she'd obviously decided it wasn't judicious phrasing. "What's your excuse for not being in khaki, then?" she asked instead.

Zaf showed her his leg. She grunted in response.

"Is that why they left you behind?"

"No," Zaf said, faintly surprised.

"You wanted to stay?"

"Yes."

"Me too."

She sounded calm, droll even, but he caught a look at her in the next flash of a blast and she was much younger than he'd thought, her lips drawn taut, her eyes burning.

"What's your name?" he asked, when it was dark again.

She snorted. "You going to tell me yours?"

"If you like."

Then the whole world shook, and dust flew at them through the cracks in the walls, and Zaf reached out to protect her and she pushed him away with surprising strength. Her hands were shaking.

"Fuck," she said, when it was quiet again. "Oh balls. Broke my lens. Give us that bottle."

Zaf passed it over without a word.