The boys end up in a - seemingly - deserted town. The horrors are many.
They were tired and drained, but happy. So, so happy. In that precise instant, they were the most powerful and important and the most pure beings on earth. Nothing else mattered: everything else, from war to loss to pain had lost its importance. Everything was small compared to their bond, and to what had happened there, that night, in that moonlit pool.
Iero looked up at him, smiled back.
Gerard felt the very essence of his being burst with pure, inexplicable joy at the sight of the happiness in the man he loved's eyes. He laughed, couldn't help it. He physically felt the urge to do so, to let it all out. Explode along with his body, and the scream he'd muffled only moments before, and Frank's eyes glimmering in the darkness and his breath on his neck and his warmth inside of him. Explode along with Michael - alive and happy and smiling - and the pool and the moon shining down on them, explode along with Lindsay and Bandit and Jamia.
Boom, boom, boom, burn it all. Watch it all crumble and set yourself free.
“What's so funny?”
Frank's voice was slightly raspy. Worn, but in a good way.
“Nothing. Everything. Life.”
“The fact that I just fucked your brains out on the banks of a lake in the middle of France?”
“I'm just happy.”
“That's all I needed to hear.”
Frank propped himself up on his elbow and kissed Gerard, kissed his shoulder and his lips and his eyes, before the other man laced his fingers behind Iero's neck and drew him closer. He licked Frank's lips, and then his hands slowly started caressing his back.
“You taste salty, Anthony.”
Iero rolled his eyes, and it made Gerard laugh once more.
“Maybe it's because you taste salty, Ar. Thur.”
Gerard stuck his tongue out at Iero.
“Oh, stop it!”
Iero started tickling Way. The other man yelped, squirmed and tried to wriggle out of Frank's arms, but Frank had him trapped, pinned to the ground.
“Let me go.”
He buried his face into Gerard's neck, breathed his scent in.
Cold suddenly bit into Way's wet body. He shivered, involuntarily, against Iero.
Along with the cold came the sounds of the other men waking up, not so far from them.
They listened for a moment, eyes slightly shut, and then Frank rolled off of him.
“Wait. Come back.”
“We should get dressed.”
But Iero was already on top of the hill. The sun was starting to rise, and it made his still partially naked body glimmer with a brighter, richer light than the one the moon had cast earlier. His eyes shined golden.
He was beautiful, simple as that, and Gerard suddenly imagined him and Frank just running off, away from the war and the pain. Running off into the darkness and the unknown. Starting afresh. Anew. Pretending they were dead, so Jamia and Lyn would've organized a sweet little funeral in the US while they were living a perfect life in France. Being themselves, finally free. They could've opened a bookstore and called it Michael, or Michelle – it sounded more French - and nobody there would've ever known why. It would've been perfect.
He felt the light hit him, and he was still lying down on the ground, the ghost of Frank's body still lingering on his skin. The sun filled him. He drank its warmth, while digging his fingers into the shore's sandy ground, and then he breathed in the fresh morning air, and he knew that, in that moment, he was the only person who was truly, completely and utterly alive.
“You know what, Frankie?”
“If I make it back home, I want to open a bookstore.”
JUNE 18th, 1944
UNNAMED TOWN NEAR VALOGNES, FRANCE
It was empty. Cold and silent and empty, and it being so empty was so so so wrong.
They were ghosts. Walking through an abandoned town, and watching their backs, and knowing exactly what had happened but preferring not to think about it.
Sometimes the truth is painful. Sometimes it's easier to just ignore it.
But they were terrified of seeing something, of hearing something.
A baby crying, or bodies, or God knew what else.
“Although they usually bury the bodies. After they shoot, they bury them. They're always fucking precise about this stuff, Christ, they're German. They clean up after themselves--”
Nobody was really listening to Gerard, and he wasn't really paying attention to what he was saying.
“--So we're not gonna see anything. There's a real small chance we will. Just as long as we don't stop, just as long as we don't listen nor pay attention to whatever's happening here. Just as long as we do that, everything's gonna work out just fin--”
“Christ, Way, shut the fuck up.”
Robert - a quiet, reserved boy from Chicago - had flipped around to face Gerard and had finally snapped.
Way's voice died away, and he stopped in his tracks, uneasy.
Even Frank surprised himself saying a quick, almost embarrassed 'thank you' under his breath. Gerard's nervousness was getting the best of them all.
Bob's voice had echoed abruptly through the silence, and all seven men – him, Frank, Toro, Gerard, plus Harry (who had apparently enrolled in the army following a brawl in a New Orleans bar) and their lieutenant – stopped walking for a moment. They let the echo slip away. For some reason, walking in something that wasn't complete and utter silence somehow felt sacrilegious.
Silence. They owed it to them. To whoever had lived there. To whatever they had endured.
Toro was the first to hear it.
Haunting, and delicate. Almost inaudible. Brought to his ears by a slight breeze that made the bells attached to a doorway chime, it echoed through the empty streets and rang inside his skull, making his blood freeze and his mouth suddenly go dry.
Somebody was playing the piano.
There was someone else there. Someone alive.
Someone alive enough to be able to play something. Someone who had survived whatever had happened.
Oh God. My God.
Ray knew his hands were shaking.
Somebody. A living, breathing creature.
“Is it worth it?”
His voice sounded somehow wrong after so much silence. But, on the other hand, so did the piano.
The lieutenant glared at him. After he'd punched Mikey, Ray wasn't completely accepted or liked.
Toro preferred to ignore that fact. Thinking about what he'd done to Frank was already enough guilt to endure.
“Is what worth it, Toro?”
It was Frank who'd spoken. He'd hissed Ray's last name, almost as if it were physically painful for him to acknowledge the other man's existence.
“To go and look for whoever's playing--”
“But nobody's playing, Toro. There's no one left.”
“Wait, I hear it too.”
Gerard placed a hand on Frank's shoulder.
“There's a piano somewhere.”
And the other men tried to listen, too. And Ray could see the fear and the shock (the same he'd felt only minutes before) blossom in their eyes.
They followed the sound like bloodhounds following a scent. Maybe they were somehow fascinated by what they'd heard, maybe they were curious, maybe they really did want to help.
Or maybe they just needed to know that someone had made it.
White walls stained with red. Sickly, pale brown where the blood was already starting to dry.
It was a church.
That's where they'd shot them. Not all of them, at least, because there was a tree right there, next to that big building, and they'd hung somebody to it.
Harry whistled loudly.
He was terrified.
A man and two children and a woman.
Frank felt his knees go weak. He crumbled to the ground, but Gerard caught him just in time.
“They're girls. They're baby girls.”
Frank couldn't tear his eyes away from them.
Their skin was grey and bruised yellow, blue and black. Their hands were outstretched towards their mother's, those thin, little arms desperately reaching for the last embrace.
“They're Lily and Cherry's age, Gerard.”
“I know, Frank. I know.”
His voice was low, and he was pale.
“They hung them. Little girls.”
They're all dead. They had a life and hopes and dreams and now they're all dead.
Gerard covered his face with his hands.
My God. This was pointless.
They just wanted to do it. Just to prove that they're still powerful, that they're still scary.
But maybe the most painful thing was the fact that he desperately needed to hold Frank, and he couldn't. He needed him, and he was so close, and he couldn't hold him.
Gerard helped Frank stand up.
Ray was next to the door, which had been caved in by somebody kicking it to enter. He didn't dare look behind him, but he had heard Frank and Gerard's voices.
The piano was louder now. He could feel his heart beat faster at the idea of having to enter. It was almost painful, and it was hard to decipher the notes over the sound of the blood pumping in his ears.
My God, it had been weeks since he'd touched an instrument, and his fingers danced a moment in the air, finding old notes he thought he'd forgotten.
But you need to go in. Go in and see.
I'm not going in alone.
He peered through what remained of the door. The Nazis had probably used the place as their headquarters while they were there: windows were smashed, so were benches. Most of the books had been ripped apart and the pages thrown around, trampled on, used to light cigarettes.
It infuriated him, made his heart ache.
But he'd finally found the source of the music: an old record player.
The song had come to an end, the record was spinning with a low whiz that slowly filled the air.
Ray lost himself in the white sound, his eyes were absent-mindedly taking everything in. Watching without really seeing.
But then something did catch his eye, and it took him an instant to make out what it was.
It was a hand.
A pretty, thin hand. Grey with dust and caked with blood and grime, shaking ever so slightly. It tried to fix the record player's needle, put it back to the start.
But it couldn't. The trembling was growing every instant, making every movement painstakingly hard.
Ray had to clasp a hand over his mouth to avoid screaming.
The hand tried once more, then fell to the ground with a slight thump.
The hand's owner moaned, too tired and drained to be able to sob.
Ray simply followed his instincts.
He stepped in, cautiously avoiding the rubble, until he reached the record player.
He froze a moment.
He knew, as soon as he stepped into it, that there was blood on the floor. Puddled around the player, on the benches. Drenching the books.
And there was the hand. And an arm, equally thin. A shoulder and a neck and full, beautiful lips.
And eyes so feverish and desperate Ray wanted to scream.
It was a girl. Maybe even younger than sixteen. So tiny, so frail.
The sound of footsteps behind him signaled that the other men had entered, too.
But Toro gestured for silence. Way peered over his shoulder, and his already pale face became even whiter.
“Christ. Is she--is she--”
The question hung in the shadows. He couldn't bring himself to finish it.
“No, she isn't.”
The girl's eyes met Ray's.
He saw fear pool in them. Fear: ancestral, deep, all-consuming. She moaned again.
But there was hope, too.
You're here to save me, right?
It was gut-wrenching.
He looked for the source – or sources - of the bleeding.
It was all too clear that she'd been tortured, and brutally: deep cuts that ran along her chest and breasts met the ones on her stomach and on her legs. There were bruises on her arms.
She'd been stabbed between her legs, too. That was where most of the blood came from.
Her wounds were horrifying.
Sadistic little bastards.
Bastards. Bastards. Bastards.
God she's nothing but a kid.
Tears of rage and pain. The other men lowered their eyes, uneasy.
“Well...we can't stay here and stare at her forever – it was their lieutenant speaking, breaking an uneasy silence – we gotta do something.”
He crouched down and touched her shoulder. Ray knew, immediately, that it was the worst thing to do.
She started moaning and sobbing and screaming, desperately trying to escape the man's grasp. Her fear and shock had exploded with ear-splitting force, and she couldn't control it.
The dam had been opened. Her pain came flooding back. So did her trauma.
Frank knew his knees would've given out again, sooner or later.
Oh my God.
Oh my God, you didn't deserve this.
All this pain.
Screaming whenever she was touched.
His screaming, when Jamia tried to take him in her arms the first time, before Poe's friends realized what he'd done.
Before they decided to take action. Before they decided to teach him a lesson.
The same pitch, the same desperate intensity. Scream and fill your mind, so you don't have to listen to the screaming inside.
He sat on the nearest bench and dug his nails in his arms and scratched himself, hoping that nobody would notice.
But it didn't stop her voice from exploding. She screamed, because the pain was too much.
“Leave her, sir.”
Even Ray was surprised by the firmness in his own voice.
She's suffered enough. She doesn't need more pain.
“I can help. I'm a medic – he looked at her once more, and his heart missed a beat - But I need to do this alone.”
It's the fact that we're soldiers. It's the uniforms and the guns.
“I'm not leaving you alone with her, Toro.”
Hearing what Ray had just said had made Frank suddenly snap back into reality.
He stood up, stupidly thinking that Ray was there to hurt the girl. Stupidly believing that he could've saved her.
He wasn't able to see past his own pain.
Gerard caught a glimpse of scratches, fresh and deep and bloodied, but they were quickly hidden under his sleeves.
“Not after what you've done.”
No. I could never hurt her.
I could never hurt you, either.
It was an accident, Frank.
“I can help.”
“No. You can't.”
“I can, Iero.”
Please. I need to do this.
I need to do this because the guilt devours me every single day.
I let Michael die.
I hurt you.
I need to help her. I need to.
They both looked towards the lieutenant. He had stood up again, and his gaze met Ray's, and he gave him a little nod.
“Toro gets to help the girl. As of you – and he glared towards Frank specifically – follow me outside.”
“But what, Iero? Did Toro here do something to you specifically so that you think he's not the only one who can somehow help this poor creature?”
Little freak. They must never ever know.
“--No. Toro did nothing.”
He swallowed and lowered his gaze, chewing on his lip.
“Nothing at all.”
The lieutenant smiled bitterly, and turned towards Ray again.
Toro nodded, and they left.
He listened to their last footsteps dying, and then he sighed.
He was alone. And that hit him.
The church was enormous, and he felt so, so tiny.
Tiny compared to the tall, unmerciful crucifix behind the altar.
Tiny compared to her pain.
He'd just noticed the enormous wooden cross. And, for some reason, it filled him with rage, seeing it up there, unmoved. Still.
You always said you'd defend us. You always said you loved us.
He found himself shaking with rage. Rage that made his knuckles white as he clenched his fists. Rage that made his entire being tremble violently.
You don't exist. You never did.
The things he was saying in those five minutes were enough to damn him to Hell eternally, but he needed to let the guilt go. He needed to yell and scream at something.
“Because if you did, if you fucking did, she'd be OK. SHE'D BE LAUGHING AND RUNNING THROUGH A FILED, NOT THINKING ABOUT THE PAIN BURNING THROUGH HER BODY, NOT WISHING SHE WERE DEAD!”
He screamed and grabbed the nearest Bible and threw it, threw it hard.
He let the scream tear through his throat and his lungs. It exploded and made him light-headed. He closed his eyes.
Fuck. FUCK FUCK FUCK--
She moaned, clearly distressed. The sound hardly reached him, it was so weak.
He was at peace now, because hearing that made him realize that what he was about to do was the most human thing possible.
Ray crouched down next to the girl. She was still shaking with heavy, tearless sobs. There was nearly no energy left, because her thrashing had opened old wounds and the bleeding had started again.
Ray quickly took his helmet off and pushed his rifle away.
He had a little revolver hidden in his sleeve, and he was sure that would've been enough.
“Hey, little one.”
Her chest was heaving quickly.
Little one was a painful reminder of Mikey, but he brushed it aside.
Keep your head clear. Keep your nerves in check.
He smiled at her, sadly.
“Hey, baby girl...”
She moved her hand, ever so slightly.
He grabbed it, and squeezed it.
“Do...do you want your music?”
He knew he was starting to choke up again. He didn't wait for an answer – he knew she didn't understand him – and placed the record player's needle at the beginning.
The music started again.
“Do you like it? - he started caressing her cheek, puffy and blue with bruises – That—that's good. That's really good... that you like it, I mean. Not that you're hurt.”
He pulled the gun out and tried to control the trembling that had taken over of his hands. She saw it and her eyes widened. It would've almost been comical, if the circumstances had been completely different.
“No – he whispered – no, baby, it's OK. I'll do this, and the pain is gonna go away, OK?”
Somehow, he realized she understood. And that hurt him even more.
She's so young. She's so young, but she accepts it.
He covered her eyes with his left hand.
“You didn't deserve to die like this.”
No. You deserved sunlight and happiness and a puppy. You deserved long walks in the park and eating chocolate and reading great books. You deserved to grow up, and to fall in love.
He closed his eyes, and pointed the gun at her head.
And she feels the warmth of the sweet man's hand over her eyes, and she knows she'll feel the pain one last time. And inside, she's smiling. And she knows it won't hurt, or maybe just for a moment.
And she's flying, finally, and her limbs aren't strapped down by the fire burning through her anymore.
And she's flying, and she knows she can finally laugh again, and dance again.
She's finally free.