Xerek uncovers Karl's dirty little secret. Literally. Best if read after "War Stories" and other fics following.
"Noted, Lawson. Keep walking."
"Sir, are we sure this is a good idea?"
"Are you questioning orders, Janesha?"
"No Sir, just the solidness of the ice."
Julian rolled his eyes and trudged on. The bridge that had once spanned the river separating one German hamlet from another had been either bombed or blasted with dynamite, leaving only truncated heaps of stone facing each other from opposite ends of the river. Because it was January the once swiftly-flowing water had frozen over, leaving a white and slippery stretch between the banks. Rather than waste hours hiking up and down the shore looking for an unexploded bridge (unlikely in the extreme) Julian had decided to take the minor risk of just walking across. The men had agreed to this, but now that they were passing over the halfway point they had begun to think seriously about how much they had eaten last and the 45lb packs on their backs. The ice creaked slightly underfoot but appeared solid enough. Walking as lightly as possible, they hurried toward the opposite bank.
"How's Straussen coming along?" Julian called back over his shoulder. Karl, at a little over half the size of most of the men, had some difficulty keeping pace and usually hung towards the rear of the group.
"Coming along, Sir," Cox answered for him. "We're all getting a bit tired."
That was a subtle hint that the shorter man's legs needed a rest. Karl never complained about being made to march so fast or so far, but it did seem a little unfair that he should have to walk double-time all day just to keep up.
"Very good. Once we get across we'll find a place to stop." He cast a wary eye at the cold, gray clouds above. Snow had begun to flit down from them. "I'm not sure we can outrun the weather."
"C'mon, Old Man," he heard Cox say with a rustle of fabric and gear, "have a lift on the ferry."
It took Julian a minute to figure out what Cox had meant by that. Eyes wide he turned just in time to see Cox hoist Karl onto his shoulders above his rucksack. He opened his mouth but too late, the ice shattered and the two men fell through.
"Oh bloody hell!" Julian shouted, unstrapping his pack and hurling it onto the bank. Running back he flung himself on his belly, reaching into the icy water.
"HELP ME!" he bellowed over his shoulder. He needn't have shouted. The others had already discarded their packs and were sliding on their bellies towards him. MacDonnel grabbed his ankles, Max his, and so on with Janesha standing safely, anchoring everyone at the rear. It took Julian a few disquieting heartbeats before he latched hold of regulation fabric. Grabbing a handful, he gave the order to pull back. To his mild surprise he realized he'd laid hold of Cox's ruck. Cox, mercifully, was still attached. Julian undid the clasps as quickly as he could, his fingers numbed by the cold water. Shoving the pack away and onto the ice, he grabbed Cox under the arms and gave the order to pull. Once he had him up on the ice, Max obligingly dragged him back to the bank. Meanwhile, Julian reached in again after Karl. He'd had no pack, he should not have sunk as deeply as Cox, unless... Struck by sudden inspiration he reached around under the edges of the hole in the ice. There. There he was. Julian pulled and hoisted Karl out from under the ice by the hair of his head. Karl was too busy spluttering ice water to protest being handled in such a way. Once out from under the ice, Julian seized him by the jacket and pulled him out.
"CAMP. NOW," he barked. "Find a place to get a fire going and for heaven sake get Cox out of those wet things before he freezes solid!"
The boys had anticipated his commands. MacDonnel and Janesha were already putting a fire together while Max and John set up the tents and Lawson struggled to get Cox out of his waterlogged fatigues. Julian saw to Karl himself.
The smaller man had become rather blue with cold but at least he was breathing. He drew shuddered, shivering breathes, struggling for heat he no longer possessed. Julian took a precious second to yank his bedroll from its place above his ruck and unrolled it with a single-handed snap. A drier garment now ready and waiting, he hurried to get Karl out of his sodden uniform.
The fact that the situation was life-or-death did not make it any less awkward. The boys were at least otherwise engaged and Karl's modesty would not suffer any more than it had to. Once he had the smaller man undressed Julian pulled at the buttons of his own jacket and yanked his shirt up out of the way. The wind bit at his skin but proved to be less icy than Karl's half-frozen flesh. He didn't quite repress a grunt and winced as he hugged his friend close. Karl, half wrapped in the blanket, said nothing, only huddled against him. Julian rubbed his shoulders a bit, hoping to work some life back into his limbs.
"Just sick close, the boys will have a fire ready in- "
Good Lord, where had THAT come from?
" -a minute," he finished without pausing in the slightest. He couldn't help staring. Karl sat tucked up on his lap facing him, his head resting on his shoulder much the same way Julian's youngest brother had once done. In the midst of his attempts to get the blood going again in his friend's arms, the coarse wool blanket had slipped off one shoulder. Julian had had occasion to see the smaller man shirtless; the picnic and swimming trip with the girls that one summer, as well as the countless times they'd had to clean one another up after "do gooding" with E, for instance. Good grief, E. He shook his head. Now was not the time to concern himself with that. The bottom line was that in all that time, Karl's back had been unmarked. Such was not the case now. A crudely modeled blue swastika had been etched into the rear of his left shoulder. Carved, it seemed, into the very muscle, for the lines were stretched and poorly healed leaving wide and ugly scars. Julian got the distinct impression that the curious embellishment had not been Karl's idea.
By the time Karl woke up the boys had already made things quite snug for a field encampment. Max and John had invented a trick of hooking the small, two-man tents together to form a larger, communal shelter that was far better at conserving their collective heat. The canvas shelter had been set up in the lee of a bombed-out building, the remaining shards of floors above helping to dissipate the smoke of the small fire. Cox had not passed out but had taken a much-needed nap for the last hour or so and now sat huddled in his own borrowed bedroll, Max and John close on either side of him incase he still felt chilly. His and Karl's uniforms hung damply from an improvised clothesline while their gear lay scattered about the tent interior doing some drying off of its own.
Karl reached and groped for his glasses before even opening his eyes. Julian supposed he had reason for this and handed the spectacles to him. Karl put them on, sat up, and tried to wake up a bit more. A look of panic stole across his face as he realized he wasn't dressed to regulation standards. He gave Julian a fearful look. Karl had always been a little shy but Julian had a feeling he was more worried about the others taking note of his body art rather than his lack of pants. Julian returned the expression with one of confusion. Karl blinked, shook his head, and turned away. Both men mentally added the instance to the list of Things Not To Be Discussed Ever Again.
"Here," Cox said, his voice intruding slightly on the quiet of the silently snapping fire and falling snow. He flung a brown coat to Karl who held it up for examination. Julian raised his eyebrows slightly at the gift. Cox had thrown him a British jacket, the name tag and stripes removed and replaced with those and the red crosses from Karl's storm trooper jacket. The coat was small, none of them could have put it on except perhaps Max and it would have been a bit tight for him. The boy it had once belonged to must have been a skinny little fellow. Still, it was easily three or four sizes too big for Karl.
"S'a bit long," Cox apologized, noting Karl's bewildered expression, "but you can roll the sleeves back and you can wear it overtop your grays so you'll be that much warmer."
Cox grinned sheepishly at the gift and amazingly, as much as he could, Karl briefly returned the smile.