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Amid A Crowd Of Stars

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August 1940

“Stop screaming, Soldier.”

His voice was so soft in my ear that I thought it was a dream.

Was I screaming?

I couldn’t remember.

My whole body ached distantly -- I could feel the pain rising, everywhere, waiting for me, and nothing made sense.

When I opened my eyes, all I saw was colour. Rough shapes of it: the stained hospital sheets that covered my legs, the dark red curtain pulled closed around my bed. There were blurs and moving shadows thrown by the kerosene lamp burning low on the nightstand. And the doctor sitting in the chair beside it. A smudge of dark hair, a blurry warm-toned face with a square jaw, the long narrow olive tie and matching shirt of his uniform, just visible under the dim white of his doctor’s coat.

The pain hit me suddenly. I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t ready.

It burst like a flame. That’s the only way I can describe it. My skin was gunpowder, and the pain burned its way from the tip of my left foot up, shooting through the calf and thigh and twisting around my hip, scattering and sparking across my ribcage. I was nothing but burns and weeping blisters and parched, raw new skin scraping against the bandages wrapped around my leg and bare chest.

And if I hadn’t been screaming before, I was now. All I wanted was to get away from the pain, even if it meant going back to the dark, even if it meant ripping my skin right off. Moving just hurt more.

Burns always burn even when the fire is out. And fuck, if I wasn’t feeling every ring of Hell under those scratchy sheets.

Maybe that was just a dream, too.

Another burn sparked in the crook of my right elbow, but it was the pinch of a needle. The doctor bent over me, rubbing the spot where he’d injected morphine with his fingers to get it moving through my veins.

The pain dimmed slowly. A couple of hot coals instead of a bonfire.

I slumped back against my pillows, sweat beading on my forehead.

“Parles-tu français?” the doctor asked softly. “Tu souviens-tu?”

My throat was hoarse. “I have... I have no fucking clue what you’re saying.”

“You’re American.” The doctor’s words lilted with surprise and a thick British accent. “Oh-- I’m sorry. Your uniform was French.”

The blurry shape of his long torso blocked the kerosene lamp’s light when he leaned over. For a moment, I was in the dark; then he came back to me with a glass of water. I took a long sip, as slow as I could force myself, and my hands weren’t shaking so bad after a few minutes.

“My mother is from Avignon.” I cleared my throat, the words slow and sluggish in my mouth. “Used... Used my dual passport to get over here. I wanted to fly.”

The doctor sat down on the edge of my bed and examined me: the minor burns and scrapes visible around my chest dressings, the sore parts of my face. He tilted my chin up with one finger, and his touch was gentle.

“So you remember that you’re a pilot?” he asked.

“Of course I fuckin’ do,” I mumbled, my jaw in his grip.

“Good,” he said. And then he stared at my eyes, drawing closer and watching my pupils dilate with the shifting light.

I stared back. Too tired and too confused to flinch away from how close he was.

The closer he came, the more I saw. The British Medical Corps insignia on his collar. The way his dark hair escaped from where he’d slicked it back, and fell across his forehead. The dark stubble on his cheek that gave way to freckles, so many freckles scattered across his cheeks and along the bridge of his nose.

And those eyes, staring so intent and warm. Hazel and gold in the shifting light from the kerosene lamp.

We stared at each other until he was done looking at my pupils and just looking at me. I could feel my face growing hot under his touch-- but then he let go, and sat back down in the seat beside the bed.

“Do you remember your crash?” he asked, his voice hushed.

He’d backed away so that I could have space. So that when he asked this question, and my eyes widened so far they started to sting-- so that when the expression on my face changed, and my fingers curled into fists full of the bedsheets...

I remembered everything but the crash itself.

The way the sky looked with the moon so thin, and how routine our mission was, and how no one was bothering to keep formation of our planes.

The way the German fighter jets had come out of the clouds, and how they matched their metal to the shadows. The only way to tell when one was coming was the swastika like a target on the side.

The sound of the gunfire hitting my plane, and how it sounded just like a tin can does when you shoot it with a BB gun. The smell of leaking gas and the crash of crumpling metal and the way everything was shaking, and I was shaking, too.

The smell of burning hair. The sparks catching in the gaslines where the bullets had bit through, roaring into flames and eating their way into my cockpit.

I remembered the way it felt to fall out of the sky.

And that moment right before the fall, when I knew I was going down, and the transmission with the rest of my formation had gone dead -- that moment when one of the German fighter planes drew level with mine in the sky.

I remembered looking over and thinking, this is it. This guy will blast me right into the goddamned sunrise. I remembered the pilot, and how blonde he was, how big he looked shoved into the cockpit. I remembered how dark his eyes were when he stared right back at me.

He was scared.

No one tells you that the enemy will be as scared as you are.

I remembered wondering if he was my age.

And for some reason, I remembered wondering if I’d seen him before.

But it was just a second, half a thought, and then I was falling, and my eyes were torn away, and the details of the ground became clearer the closer I got, just like the doctor’s warm brown eyes, and I remembered the burning, the flames shooting up the pant leg of my uniform and the safety belts around my chest holding me in the fire like a goddamned skewer, and that fire, biting and hungry and devouring the fabric of my jumpsuit and my uniform underneath, and taking my body with it, and I was dying, desperate--

“It’s alright,” the doctor whispered to me. “Shh, it’s alright, then.”

My chest was heaving again, my breath fast and short and desperate, and my eyes were screwed shut tight. I listened to his voice until it soothed me. Until I opened my eyes again, and looked at him, and could breathe again.

“Sorry.” I swallowed hard. “I-- did I scream again?”

It sounded stupid to ask, but I didn’t trust myself. Maybe this was a dream, too.

“Quite alright, mate,” he said. “You’ve been terribly quiet the last few days. I’m happy to hear you, even if no one else is. And your fever’s broken,” he added, smiling slightly.

“Days?” I asked.

“I’ve had them keep you under with morphine,” he explained gently. “Your burns kill most men, but here you are.”

“Oh,” was all I said.

Here I was, he said.

I wasn’t sure where I was, but the doctor seemed convinced. He seemed to sense my hesitation. He seemed to understand.

“Today,” he said with another smile,” is the twenty ninth of August, and--” he tugged at the sleeve of his coat to check his wristwatch. “--0200 hours.”

Four days since it happened.

The doctor had freckles on his hands, too.

My head was swimming and picking up three thoughts at once, cloudy with exhaustion and morphine and that dim burning pain. I felt the sparks and hisses of it under my skin, threatening to engulf me again, and I was terrified, but my eyes kept sliding closed--

The doctor took my hand. My right one, the one not burnt; he laced his fingers through mine and rested them on the bed held tight. When he squeezed my hand, I squeezed back. Weak, but I squeezed back, and held on.

I didn’t know why.

It was so comforting, for a moment my eyes stung with tears. It felt like a familiar gesture -- a movement we had shared a thousand times without giving it a second thought.

But I didn’t even know his name.

I didn’t know anything, then.

“Try to stay,” he ordered softly. “Tell me something.”

My throat felt thick. “What... what do you want to hear?”

“Tell me about your family.” His arm blocked the light again -- my eyes drooped in that moment of darkness -- but the light was back, and he’d taken a damp washcloth from the bowl of water on the nightstand.

He pressed the cool cloth to my forehead. “Do you have any siblings?”

“Brother.” I was forcing myself to stay awake now. “He’s... Eren.”

“Older or younger?” the doctor murmured. When a trickle of water ran down my face, he wiped it away with his thumb.

That simple touch. Again, that feeling of familiarity tightening in my stomach. It was overwhelming for a moment.

But I was high off my ass and burning on the inside and out. I was weak and I was struggling to stay awake. Anything I was feeling could just be chalked up to exhaustion.

“Younger,” I mumbled in response. “One.. One year.”

There were more questions, but his voice was a steady lull, a soothing note that made it hard to fight the morphine. That’s why it was so surprising when I asked him a question.

My words were slurring, and I had no idea what I was saying, hovering on the edge of that deep black lake of consciousness, treading the surface and feeling it lap up closer and closer to submerging me completely.

But I asked him. I didn’t know where it came from.

“Have...” I swallowed, my tongue feeling heavy. “Have we met before?”

I remember his eyes in that moment. I remember how they looked in the kerosene light. And I remember that he hadn’t let go of my hand.

I remember how soft his voice was.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Or maybe he didn’t answer at all, and I imagined it. I was blacking out a few moments later, letting myself slip back beneath the surface.

Maybe it was all just a dream.

 

+

 

Or maybe we had almost met a thousand times.

Maybe the familiarity was real. Maybe I’d walked past him my whole life, and only caught those moments in passing -- the way he moved, the gentleness of his calloused hands, his voice soft in my ear. Maybe they only made sense the first time I saw his eyes, and everything came together. Every part of a memory bound into one.

Maybe we’d walked past each other and never noticed, because he was reading a book and I was staring at the sky. Sat on opposite sides of a train car and never made eye contact. Maybe one of us missed a bus in London by a few seconds, while the other one sat with a vacant seat beside him that he didn’t understand.

How do you understand when you just don’t know?

My theories were wrong. I had never been to London, and he had never been anywhere in France that wasn’t a vacation spot or a field hospital in the middle of nowhere. But they felt right.

I didn’t know. I didn’t know the truth, then.

When I came up from the darkness every so often -- a few minutes here or there -- I remembered his hands.

 

+

 

The next time I woke up, the chair beside my bed was empty.

I couldn’t tell if the doctor with the freckles had just been a dream. There was no one to ask; the curtain was still pulled closed around my bed, casting shadows across the strange gnarled shapes of my bandaged legs under the blankets. The watery sunlight drifted over the top of the curtain, but it didn’t reach me. I could hear the hospital alive and working around me -- the nurses’ low heels clicking hollow on the dirt floor, the clatter of ceramic bedpans, the hushed voices of some of the soldiers talking to each other, the moans of the ones beyond words.

I lay in my bed, wishing for water and for someone to realize that I was alive, feeling the flames curling and itching under my skin and on top of it at the same goddamned time.

They teach you to take the pain, in the French air force. They teach you to accept it and work through it. They don’t tell you how to deal with it when you feel like you’ll be on fire for the rest of your life.

And they don’t tell you what to do when the thing you’re most desperate for is for the freckled doctor who might have been a dream to come back and hold your hand. But then again, they don’t talk about that kind of thing anywhere.

My head was pounding as the rest of the morphine worked its way out of my system, and when a nurse finally ripped the curtain open, the sudden light and noise made me shudder in pain.

“Sorry about that,” the nurse said, looking almost cheerful to see me shrink away. I groaned when I tried to lift my burnt arm to cover my eyes, and she seemed to find it funny.

She was business like with my body. She drew the bedsheets back and ignored my near nudity, the long boxers the only thing I could wear without bothering my bandages. But then, she saw half-dead men all the time, and her hands moved across my body -- checking my pulse, touching bruises, massaging to feel for internal bleeding and any fractures she might have missed -- in a rough and accepting sort of way.

She had dark hair and freckles on her face too, but it wasn’t the same. I tried to stay silent as she worked, only seething when she pulled back the dressings on my chest and took a few pieces of cracked skin with it.

“This is what happens when you let Frenchman in plane.” Her English was heavy with a Scandinavian accent. She dabbed at my burns.

“Nurse,” I said through gritted teeth. “I speak English.”

I expected her to flinch with embarrassment, but she just smiled slightly at me. “Good. Now you know how stupid I think you are.”

“What, did I crash my plane on purpose?” Anger burned through me like bile. Like fire.

“Would not surprise me,” she said lightly as she peeled away more dressings. They were tacky and stiff with dried blood. My blood.

I focused on being angry. “Do you blame all the fucking soldiers for their injuries?”

“Only you,” the nurse said with satisfaction. “This will sting.”

From the depth of her pocket in her apron, the nurse produced gloves and a jar of burn salve. She twisted the cap off and unceremoniously scooped a finger full of it out of the jar, planting it right in the middle of my chest and rubbing it in.

That one was the ninth ring. Or maybe the fifteenth. However far deep into Hell you have to go to feel that stinging pain so harsh it had me trembling.

And that nurse, I swear to God, was almost enjoying it.

I was so furious that I refused to give her the satisfaction of crying like a goddamned baby over how bad it hurt. I nearly bit a hole through my cheek trying to keep my face straight, and when I spoke, the words were strained and forced between gritted teeth. “Why... me?”

“Because we thought you were dead,” the nurse said simply. “And instead, here you are, wishing me dead, talking like a living man, wiggling around like a child. The best way to watch a man live is to get him angry.”

Unorthodox as she was, I couldn’t disagree. I felt more conscious, more present, even with the pain. I was still pissed off at her, though.

“You like making men angry?” I growled, my breath hitching when she started to rub salve into my left thigh.

“Not as much as I like making women happy,” she said slyly, her fingers moving in deft circular motions and working the salve across the charred skin.

The burns on my calf and knee were the worst, and when she reached those, her touch was a little more merciful. It didn’t matter, though; tears still sprung to my eyes when the dressings on my ankle were pulled back and the cool air hit the burns.

I closed my eyes tight and I saw nothing but the doctor holding my hand.

It made it a little easier to breathe, having something to focus on. And it gave me something to ask her; I was comforted by the fact that she already thought I was a waste of space, so if I asked her a strange question -- did I hallucinate an entire conversation? -- she would just disregard me.

I choked the words out. “There’s -- there’s a doctor...”

“There are lots of doctors,” the nurse replied, unravelling fresh bandages from their rolls. “Which one, soldier?”

“Freckles,” was all I could manage. She’d pressed the start of the bandage to the skin just above the burns on my calf, but even that skin was tender.

“Captain Bodt,” she said immediately. “He works nights.”

“Bodt?”

She glanced up at me, sour. “Did you see him during the night?”

“I-- ugh, Christ, ow -- I-- Yeah.”

“Well then, Captain Bodt.”

“Can I speak to him?” I was practically wheezing, she was wrapping those bandages so tight all the way up to the top of my thigh.

The nurse nodded once for yes, but made sure she finished the rest of the bandages and bound up my leg and chest before she stood up.

I would have curled up around myself once she left me alone, the way I used to when I was little, crumpling up like the pill bugs my brother and I found in our backyard. But the nurse had bound my leg so tight it was nearly splinted straight, and I didn’t have the energy anyway. I was fading fast, feeling the weight of the darkness at the edge of my vision and trying to force it back, determined to see if it really was just a dream or if this was the person who I’d almost remembered, maybe from when I was young, from another place or time or when I was someone else--

Blackness.

 

+

 

Surfacing every so often. Feeling the flames. The curtain was drawn, and no one knew when I was awake, or even if I was waking up at all.

I didn’t quite know, either.

Dreams.

Every so often, more images than dreams. Dreams of bright purple skies and libraries that were really cramped flats with laundry hung on twine from window to window. A river that was really an ocean. They didn’t make sense.

Sometimes, the doctor. The Captain whose name I didn’t know.

Then darkness again.

 

+

 

Morphine was my friend. My obsessive, grasping, tender friend. I couldn’t be without it -- every length of time I went without it left me with just my burns and my itching skin, me in my cockpit falling out of the sky, me and the smell of my goddamned singed leg hair.

But I didn’t want it. It knocked me out for hours at a time and straight through every night, and I could never force myself awake long enough to see if the Captain ever came back at two in the morning.

When you’re in that much pain, you hold onto something. You grab onto whatever makes you feel better. Anything. Anything that could make it not feel so humiliating and terrifying.

And I held onto that doctor, and his stupid freckles, and the way he held my hand.

It was a good thing and a bad thing.

They decreased my morphine dosage after a week because of the medical corps’ regulations and shortages. A bad and a good, too.

Bad, because I woke up in the middle of the night with my whole body feeling like I was lying face-down on the beach in the middle of summer, just pressing my skin into the burning sand.

Good, because the Captain was sitting in the chair beside my bed again. And I knew it wasn’t a dream, because I had never seen him sleeping. But there he was, his head leaning in his hand where he’d dozed off, a packet of cigarettes nearly sliding out of his lap.

I watched him sleep for a long moment. It was the most conscious I’d been since my accident, and I didn’t want to push it; I didn’t want to slip back again. So I just watched his eyelashes flush, the fingers on his free hand twitching in his lap. He was sound asleep, slumping into his chair and looking so young -- my age, maybe a few years older -- and so tired. I wondered what he looked like in something other than a uniform.

My throat was gritty, and I thought of the burning sandy beach again.

“Hey,” I called to him. “Hey.”

Captain Bodt shuddered awake, his eyes so wide that he had to blink violently just to be able to see. He looked over his shoulder at the small opening in the curtain but he wasn’t seeing anything, just listening for the emergency, trying to figure out who had called his name--

“Can I bum a cigarette?” I asked.

He looked up at me then, and slowly -- very slowly, because I could see the whites of his knuckles even when he relaxed back into his chair -- he was calm again.

“You’re awake,” he said after a while. “Hello.”

“Hi,” I said. “Can I bum one?”

The Captain glanced down at the packet in his lap, then looked up at me again.

He smiled slightly. “I would have thought you of all people would be afraid of open flames.”

“Living on the edge,” I intoned. He was right; I was afraid of it, and two seconds away from asking him to light one for me so I didn’t have to look at the lighter. But my skin was itching and everything hurt, and I hadn’t seen a cigarette in weeks.

“You were for a while.” He shuffled a lighter out of the pocket of his trousers and pulled a cigarette from the packet, placing it between his lips to light it. He knew to keep the flame away from me even without me asking, and he didn’t comment when I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to watch it flicker.

I only opened my eyes again when the violent sterile smell of the hospital was replaced with cigarette smoke. He handed me the cigarette, and I took it with one hand and tried to sit up in bed with the other--

The pain that sparked across my chest had me seeing stars.

Suddenly, there were hands.

With one, he held me up. His arm slipped around my shoulders and pulled me towards him, and I leaned heavily in his grip, humiliated but trembling so bad it was the only thing I could do. By the time he’d yanked the pillows behind me into a better position, my face was buried in his shoulder, and all I could do was try not to sink into the darkness again.

“It’s alright.” His voice was soft and muffled in my hair. “It’s alright, then. Look, here we are.”

He let me slowly sink into the pillows, and waited until I wasn’t breathing so hard before he sat down again. I hadn’t noticed him pull the cigarette out of my fingers, but it smoldered on the nightstand beside me, poorly rolled and puffing out a strange blue-coloured smoke.

I reached out for it with clumsy hands and took a deep drag, feeling the tight coolness expanding in my lungs. The shaking stopped after a few more breaths.

The Captain had a strange look on his face when I finally got over my embarrassment long enough to glance at him. Distant. Like he couldn’t see me anymore.

“Thanks,” I mumbled after a long silence.

He looked up at me. “Hmm?”

“Thanks. For the cigarette. And for... For the help.”

“Not at all.” He put the packet of them on the nightstand. “You’re enjoying them more than I ever do, anyway.”

The smoke streamed out through my nostrils when I bit my lip. “Are you here every night?”

It was dark, and the lamp smoldering away next to my bed cast strange colours, but I could tell that his face had flushed bright red. “You’re one of the quietest,” he said quickly. “And you don’t mind if I just stay a few minutes, do you?”

For the first time in a long time, I smiled. I could feel him squirming, and if that wasn’t a goddamned excuse, then I didn’t know what was anymore.

“Nope,” I said. “So you sleep through your rounds every night?”

“I do my rounds then sleep--” he caught himself, blushing darker. “Nap. A few minutes, maybe. You’re not going to send a letter to the Queen, are you?”

“I’ll think about it.” After another long drag of the smoke, I told the truth. “I’m glad.”

“You’re glad to see the decline of Britain’s medical force?”

“I’m glad someone knows I’m alive,” I said.

Every time I’d come in and out of the darkness, I was alone, and that red curtain might as well have been a stone fortress.

The Captain rubbed his eyes. “I’m glad to know you’re alive.”

He turned away for a minute, twisting in his chair to light another cigarette without me seeing the flame. It was only then that I noticed he’d taken his boots off, and his thick grey socks made me snort.

He looked over at me immediately, startled by the loud noise, thinking I was choking or something-- I pointed the cigarette weakly at his toes.

“My CO,” I said slowly, “would have kicked your ass for that.”

He took a deep breath of his cigarette and let the smoke out with a smile. “I’m the CO for most around here, I suppose I’ll have to kick my own.”

We were quiet for a long moment. I just watched him smoke. My cigarette had withered and put itself out at the end, and I dropped it on the floor; when I looked up again, he was watching me.

The familiarity of the worry in his eyes. It had my stomach aching. I didn’t understand it.

I figured, if I asked, then maybe he could tell me something to explain it.

“What’s your name?” I asked quietly.

“Captain Bodt--” he started.

“No. Your first name.”

“Patients and medical staff aren’t permitted first name basis here,” he said softly.

I nodded slowly and lowered my eyes. The darkness at the edge of my vision was returning again, ebbing like a wave and pulling me a little bit farther under every time. I couldn’t stop it, and the itching and the dull crackling pain was getting worse.

“Marco,” he said.

“...What?” my voice was groggy, and my eyes were closing again.

“My name is Marco.”

Blackness.

 

+

 

Marco.

I said it to myself every time I woke up after that. In my head. Once out loud, because I knew no one could hear me through the curtain.

I tested it out. I tried to see if I felt that deja vu feeling from his name. But I was still weaning off the morphine and dizzy from the pain half the time, dead to the world for the rest of it.

I said his name out loud quietly.

I said it out loud, but all I felt was tired and stupid.

Marco.

I held onto it. A beacon in the dark. A safe word, for when things got too much.