And there went out another horse that was red:
and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth,
and that they should kill one another:
and there was given unto him a great sword
- King James Bible, 1611
Twenty-five thousand feet above Kampinos Forest, Lieutenant Castiel Novak sees nothing but a sea of gray. Smoke obscures the treetops. If he’s very lucky, that same smoke will obscure the sight of his plane from the ground.
Angel Eyes is one of a hundred and eight Boeing B-17’s flying into Warsaw, protected by a handful of Mustang fighters as they deliver supplies to the city. It’s a risky mission--they’re flying over occupied territory in broad daylight, for one thing--but the situation in the Polish capital is dire, and the knowledge that things will only get worse without their help makes it a little easier to push through the ever-present fear and get the job done.
There are ten of them on board; Castiel, his co-pilot Daniel Fisher, their navigator Rufus Turner, bombardier Alfie Johnson, radio operator Chuck Shurley, flight engineer and top turret gunner Gabriel Sugarman, ball turret gunner Frank Devereux, waist gunners Andy Gallagher and Theo Pike, and tail gunner Bartholomew Messinger.
All but Johnson, Devereux and Turner have been together since they left US soil. For a year, these men have been Castiel’s only companions. He thinks of them as brothers.
It’s a nice thought, or it would be under different circumstances.
Their cargo hold is stacked high with rations and medical supplies, and the plan is to sweep in, make the drop, and be well on their way back to the Allied base in London before the occupying forces have a chance to do a damned thing about it. The general consensus for the likelihood of things actually going that way seems to be fat chance, but they’re getting close to the drop zone now and somehow haven’t been fired upon once. It’s only serving to make things more tense.
There’s a kind of murky, anxious energy in the air, and with every jolt of turbulence, Castiel feels himself flinch. He gets like this, sometimes. When it’s been too long since they engaged the enemy, though it’s not that he actually wants to be caught in the middle of another dogfight.
It’s more like the kind of dreadful anticipation that comes when watching someone overfill a balloon. Every moment that it doesn’t burst means the moment when it will is just a little bit closer. Any second, any second, any second-- boom.
With the steady roar of the engines filling his head, Castiel pushes the anxious feeling down. He chances another glance at the endless smoke below, and finds himself remembering the fire-and-brimstone scripture of his childhood. The Book of Revelation, he recalls, spoke of War riding a red horse. After spending the past year in the thick of it, Castiel has added this idea to the list of things his family’s church got terribly wrong.
Because as Castiel sees it, War does not ride a red horse, but a gray one.
It is bleak and crushing, a fog that won't stop rolling in. Like the ash that is left behind after another town is razed. Like the skin of those lost; faded and dull.
Red might be the color of blood and fire, but both mean life as much as anything else. Red is flushed cheeks. Flowers in window-boxes. Wine and song and sunsets. Red is everything that war is not.
No, he thinks as he steadies his gaze on their lead plane and presses the button on his interphone. Red is far too great a color for War.
“How long to the drop zone, Turner?”
“Half an hour, give or take,” the navigator replies, his voice tinny and distant despite him sitting barely twelve feet away.
No sooner than the words have left his mouth there’s the high-pitched whine of an approaching rocket, and Gabriel’s voice comes through the interphone with something that sounds a lot like those bastards, and the Mustang Castiel had been tailing is knocked clean out of the sky in a burst of flame.
The B-17 above it is hit by shrapnel, and though the whole thing lurches with the impact, it keeps on keeping on.
There’s a reason these planes get called flying fortresses.
Despite the sudden ambush, there’s little Castiel can do but keep going. He grips the yoke tightly as his men scramble to locate the source of the rocket, and Andy manages to fire in the right direction twice before Angel Eyes is hit square in the nose by a cannon shell.
The impact knocks them off course, but they pull back quickly, and when Castiel asks if anyone is hurt he gets eight replies in the negative. The ninth never comes.
The static on the interphone is broken by another burst of gunfire.
“Johnson?” Castiel asks, voice wary. Thirty tense seconds pass before Turner manages to crawl over to Johnson’s turret, and then his voice is crackling in Castiel’s ear.
“He’s hit,” Turner gasps. “Shit, he’s bleeding bad. Plexiglas shattered.”
Castiel’s stomach lurches. He tastes bile. Johnson is only nineteen years old. Castiel is just barely twenty-five himself, and it’s at times like this that he remembers it.
He swallows against the sick feeling in his throat. He has no time for his own encroaching panic. His men need him.
“Can you stop it?” he asks.
“It’s bad,” Turner says again. “I don’t know if I can--”
“Get him out of the turret, then return to your station,” Castiel instructs him firmly. “Chuck--”
“I’m on it,” Shurley says, voice determined and ready to help the young bombardier as soon as Turner gets him out of his turret.
“Andy, Theo, keep your--”
Castiel’s jaw shuts with a clack when they’re grazed by another shell, and ahead, three B-17’s are hit, one after the other in rapid succession. Two of them drop right out of the sky, and the other lists slowly to the side, trailing smoke.
Castiel sends up a silent prayer for the safety of its crew. Angel Eyes’ own right side is struck again by another cannon shell before he’s even reached amen.
This time, an engine is lost along with a decent chunk of fuselage.
The plane lurches violently as Castiel struggles to keep it airborne. He can’t hear a damned thing over the roar of wind undercut by the insistent crack of cannon fire, but he can sense his men scrambling away from the hole in the fuselage. He pulls hard on the yoke as the plane dips lower.
It’s no use.
The damage is too much to fight against, and the plane tilts dangerously despite his and Daniel’s best efforts. Another strike to the underside cuts off the gunfire that Devereux had been responsible for, and the impact sends Shurley and Johnson tumbling from the plane before anyone can react.
Castiel feels like he might vomit. They’re losing altitude, fast, and their chances of getting out of range of the enemy and landing before they crash into the dense forest are slim to none. Time to decide, he thinks, and takes a deep breath. It’s a no-brainer, in the end.
“Chutes ready,” he shouts over the interphone. “We’re bailing out!”
Daniel is shouting something at him as he struggles with the harness on his flak suit, but the interphone is a mess of garbled static, and the sound of rushing wind and the roar of the single remaining engine as it works overtime drowns out whatever it is he’s saying.
Castiel can’t tell if his head is spinning from panic or a lack of clean air, though something tells him it’s likely both.
He waits for the rest of the crew to jump first, helps Gabriel to fasten his chute when the gunner can’t get the connector to stick. Gabriel winks at Castiel before he jumps, his expression as cocky as ever despite the fear in his eyes. A pain in the ass to the very end, is Gabriel. Castiel hopes desperately that he’ll get to see his face again, if only so he can slap it.
Smoke and freezing air billow in the cargo hold, and Daniel pats Castiel twice on the cheek, wild-eyed, before he leaps out into open air.
Castiel follows him moments later, watching for the chutes of his men below him. He doesn’t see a single one. He hopes it’s just because of the smoke.
He counts down as he falls, gropes around his chest with awkward fingers for his ripcord and yanks at it as soon as he gets to zero. His whole body jerks painfully when the chute opens, his teeth clicking hard together with the abrupt change in speed. The taste of blood fills his mouth, hot and tinny and vile how it mixes with the sour taste of fear that hasn’t faded.
He’s still falling when he hears the thud-crash-roar of Angel Eyes slamming into the earth below.
For a moment, time feels suspended, and then he feels heat roll over him as a fireball lights up the rapidly approaching treetops.
One second, the trees seem miles away. The next he’s hitting them. Hard.
The branches scrape his skin, gouge into his cheek as his chute tangles itself in the trees. He aches all over. His face stings. He looks at his blood where it’s smeared on the damp leaves and heaves in a breath, wiping at his face with a gloved hand.
Pain has never felt so good. So grounding. It’s proof that he’s still alive. Proof that he made it.
He only hopes that his crew were so lucky.
For a long, trembling moment, he grips the rain-damp bough nearest to him and listens for voices while he catches his breath. There’s nothing beyond the drip of old rain, and the shift of leaves in the breeze, and further off, the persistent pop of gunfire. Every now and then, he hears the crash of another plane being hit. He tries not to wonder if it’s one of theirs.
He pulls his first glove off with his teeth, then the other, and jams them into the breast pocket of his flight jacket before using his pocketknife to cut himself free of the parachute lines wrapped around his torso. Once he’s free he climbs carefully down to the ground. His crew would laugh at him, he thinks, for how careful he’s being.
As he sees it, though, he’s just survived falling from the sky: it would be a waste of his good fortune if he were to go and break his neck leaping from the tree that caught him.
When he reaches the ground, he finds it thick with fallen leaves and pine-needles. He breathes in deeply as he pulls off his now-useless parachute harness.
The air is sweet with decay and rainwater.
It’s cool among the trees, foggy and dark, and the only light he sees comes from a fire to the north. His plane. From here he can see what’s left of her nose--the painted angel missing most of her face and the curling script below cutting off halfway through.
Walking toward the wreckage would be incredibly foolish, but he still takes a few steps that way before he stops. They’d been flying south-east and his men jumped before he did. If he’s to find any of them, it will be north-west of here. He starts walking and finds Daniel almost forty minutes later, hanging from his parachute lines in a huge pine.
His neck is tangled in the cord, his hands limp and dark with blood at his sides, and when Castiel gets close enough he can make out scratches on his neck where he must have been trying to break himself free. In the dirt below Daniel’s feet, his gloves lay beside his pocketknife, useless and bloody where he must have dropped it in his desperation to free himself.
Castiel can’t hold back. He retches into the leaves, slumped onto the ground on his hands and knees, and wheezes in the cold once his stomach is empty and his throat is raw with the acidic burn of vomit.
Since they’d shipped out, Castiel had opened up to very few of his fellow troops, but Daniel had been good. Kind. A man who simply wanted to help, to be done with this godawful war so he could return home to his twin sister, Adina. When Daniel had learned of some of Castiel’s less commonly accepted qualities, he had promised not to breathe a word. Just clapped him on the shoulder and smiled with warmth.
Now, he is gone.
The tree has no low branches for Castiel to climb, no way for him to reach his friend and cut him down. He can’t even get his tags to return to Adina. He’s not even sure of where she lives.
“I’m so sorry, Daniel,” he says aloud, and the forest swallows his words.
Without any other option, he leaves Daniel and makes his way through the trees. He doesn’t find any of the others. Sees no sign of another soul beyond a few stray boot prints that look too old to be of any use, and a dark smear of long-since dried blood on the trunk of a white birch.
The late afternoon sun turns the sky pink and gold, making the forest far more beautiful than it has any business being on such a day, and he trudges onward as the mud grows thicker. Turns to sticky sludge that slows him down and pulls at his feet. He wants to lie down and let it claim him. He keeps on walking.
It’s getting dark when the trees begin to thin out, and through them Castiel sees a village. He stops at the edge of the tree line to survey it.
A low stone wall shows signs of previous attack where it’s crumbled in on itself. The charcoal remains of a few buildings stand like skeletons to the right. At first glance, he thinks the town has been deserted, but there’s a thin curl of smoke rising from one cottage’s chimney, and he crouches down behind a fallen oak to wait. To watch and see if anyone emerges.
He’s still watching when he hears a twig snap behind him, and with nothing but his pocket knife to protect himself he jerks upright, ready to confront whoever is there.
A dozen or so feet from him stands a thin man with watery gray eyes. He must be in his fifties, and is not dressed in military uniform, but he carries a rifle over his shoulder, and he eyes Castiel’s coat. Castiel stands a little straighter. Grips his knife, just in case.
“You are American?” the man asks, his Polish accent distinct and thick. When Castiel nods the man’s posture relaxes a little. Castiel finds himself doing the same. “You are hurt.”
Looking down at himself, Castiel sees no sign of injury, but when he glances up at the man he finds him gesturing toward his cheek. A touch brings away a bright smear of blood. He’d forgotten. Now, having had attention drawn to it, the torn skin stings and burns.
“My plane was--” Castiel starts, but has to stop. Has to swallow back bile at the memory of plummeting, of finding Daniel. The man seems to understand, though. He shifts the firewood in his arms to pat once on his own chest.
“Bartłomiej,” the man says, and looks at Castiel in question.
“Bah-tlo-mee,” Castiel repeats carefully, and when the man nods Castiel gestures to himself. “Castiel.”
Without another word, the man steps forward to pass half the wood over for him to carry, and heads toward the house Castiel had been watching.
“You will follow,” Bartłomiej says over his shoulder, and Castiel does.
The house is warm inside, and the shock of it makes his hands tingle.
In a doorway leading into a tiny kitchen, a woman whom he guesses is Bartłomiej’s wife stands tense and uneasy, a slight girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen hiding just behind her. The girl eyes Castiel warily through dark, heavy bangs.
“Kto to jest?” the woman asks, eyes wide as she looks from the man to Castiel and back again, and Castiel tries to look as nonthreatening as possible.
The woman relaxes a little and looks at Castiel.
“Ma na imię Castiel,” Bartłomiej says, looking back at Castiel as if to check that he got the name right. It comes out more like Cah-steel, but it’s close enough. Castiel nods. Bartłomiej gives a small smile, gesturing for Castiel to come into the room properly.
He does, holding out his hand for the woman to shake.
“Lieutenant Castiel Novak,” he says, and tries for a smile. “Call me Cas.”
“Cas,” she repeats, squeezing his hand briefly before letting go. “Agata is my name.”
“Thank you for allowing me into your home,” he says, though he wonders if any of them speak enough English for the phrase to mean much.
“Zobacz jaki ma podarty płaszcz,” Agata says to Bartłomiej, and they both look at Castiel for a long moment before she holds out her hands.
“Your, ęh... wihajster...” Bartłomiej clicks his fingers as he tries to think of the word, and gestures at Castiel’s flight jacket. “Your coat. Agata will fix.”
Looking down, Castiel notices the tear in the fabric for the first time.
“Very good sewing,” Agata says, patting her own chest and nodding enthusiastically. “Please.”
“Thank you,” Castiel says, shrugging out of it and handing it over. Their daughter stares at him as he sits down in the wooden chair Bartłomiej points him toward, and keeps staring as he’s given a cloth and a bowl of water to wash the blood from his face and the dirt from his hands. He smiles at her again when his face is clean, and she sends a timid smile back. Bartłomiej laughs.
“Chodź się przywitać, aniolku,” he tells her, and she tugs at her hair, looking down at the floor. Bartłomiej looks back at Castiel. “Hannah is very shy.”
“Tato, przestań!” she exclaims, blushing deeply. Castiel’s Polish might be rudimentary at best, but he knows an embarrassed kid when he sees one.
“My sister was much the same,” Castiel says, and Agata emerges from the other room, holding out a long strand of red cotton.
“Tie,” she says, and gestures until Castiel dutifully takes it from her, tying a knot in one end. She takes it back and sits down opposite him, carefully threading the thread through the eye of her needle.
“Have you had much trouble here?” Castiel asks, dipping his head in gratitude as Bartłomiej trades the bowl of dirty water for a mug of hot tea.
As he drinks the tea slowly, watching Agata repair the hole in his jacket, Bartłomiej tells him how the main village of Sieraków to the north was attacked, and how their home and the few around it were targeted shortly after. He describes the days before Warsaw was captured. How the Axis forces had made their way through the forests nearby.
“We live through this. Lose great friend, family. We will not lose our home,” Bartłomiej says firmly.
“Co to?” Hannah asks, finally finding her voice as she touches a fingertip to a pin on the collar of Castiel’s jacket.
“That,” Castiel says, “is a bluebird.”
Hannah tilts her head to get a closer look.
“I’ll tell you what,” Castiel says, pulling the coat closer and working the pin free. “I’ll make you a gift of it.”
He holds it out. Hannah stares up at him with wide eyes, and glances toward her father.
“A gift?” she repeats.
“Please,” Castiel smiles, pushing it toward her. “Your family has been very kind to me.”
She only takes it after Bartłomiej nods at her with a smile.
Castiel sleeps on the floor that night, draped in a loveworn quilt, and in the morning before he leaves, Agata hands him his jacket.
The tear on the front is sewn up flawlessly, but on the breast around his name, three-quarters of a circle has been stitched in red. A short length of thread hangs from the end. He touches it with his thumb.
“A blessing, to find miłośc,” Agata says, pressing her hand over Castiel’s heart, and looks to her husband for help with the corresponding word in English.
“Your sweetheart,” Bartłomiej tells him, and Agata smiles as she explains that she has sewn good luck into his coat. If he is lonesome, she tells him, he needs only complete the circle to find his way back to his sweetheart.
She looks at him with such warmth that he doesn’t have the heart to tell her he doesn’t have one, and likely never will.
“That’s a lovely thought,” he says instead, and she beams.
“When you need each other, this will be your way home.”
Over the days that follow, his fingertips are drawn to that loose thread over and over as he trudges through the forest.
It’s a full two days before he finds another Allied soldier, and a week later he’s up in the air again, flying a new plane into gray cloud.
The war goes on.