Frank bended over, panting.
“Jesus, fucking, Christ.”
It was boiling hot. He could feel his shirt and his jacket stick to his skin, his legs were dripping.
He took his helmet off, ran a hand through his disgusting, matted hair.
Behind him, Gerard laughed as the others walked by.
Fran took a swing from his water bottle. He smiled: he liked to see that Way's mood had improved during the day.
“What's so funny?”
“You're a Jersey boy, Frankie. You should be used to the heat.”
“Well, fuck the heat.”
They both laughed, and then Gerard patted his back.
“Come on, soldier. Let's get you on your feet. ”
“It's just – Frank stood up too fast, his head spun for a moment – Jesus. I think it's the uniform: it's so damn heavy.”
Gerard pressed his lips against Frank's ear, grinning.
“I've said it a million times: you look better without it.”
Frank blushed and pulled away from him. He smiled though, as he put his helmet back on.
“Don't deny you like it when I make you scream, you greaseball faggot.”
“What is wrong with you, Way?”
Gerard was about to answer, when Bob's voice (“Fucking move it, you assholes!”) grabbed their attention.
Gerard winked and gave Iero's shoulder a little squeeze.
“Let's go save the world, Frankie-boy.”
He licked his lips, and then they ran towards the others, still smiling.
Outskirts of Valognes, France
June 20th, 1944
Gerard huddled himself against Frank. Iero's gaze was lost in the bonfire burning in front of them. Ray was sitting next to Bob, who was wolfing his way through a can of beans. The others were sprawled around.
They were tired. They were nervous.
Frank felt the weight on his right shoulder increase as Gerard slowly but surely fell asleep. A light, nervous sleep, but sleep nonetheless. He smiled and lighted a cigarette using one of the embers.
He had started coming to the realization that his life was nothing but waiting.
Waiting for the chance that never came of managing to get out of Belleville, of 'making it big'.
Tricking himself into waiting for the right woman, finding Jamia instead. Who wasn't perfect, but knew about his secret.
Waiting for the one man that would've set him free. Finding him, loving him. Realizing he would've had to let him go, sooner or later. For the first time, Iero found himself thinking - really thinking - about him and Gerard.
And about how he was going to handle the situation once they were back home.
If he could've been able to handle it at all.
If they would've ever made it home.
He started to, absent-mindedly, rub his fingertips against his temples.
This made Gerard stir and wake up again. He blinked a few times.
Their lieutenant came back from behind the bushes, zipping his pants up.
“We're going to reach Valognes either today or tomorrow. Then we'll make our way up to Paris. It's gonna take a while. We'll obviously meet up with the rest of the division sooner or later.”
The other men didn't reply. They were all too tired (and maybe the lieutenant knew this, maybe he'd spoken just to give himself something to do): even though nothing major had happened during the day, walking in the heat was excruciating.
Way nodded towards Frank, smiling.
“Mind sharing a cig, buddy?”
Frank handed him the entire packet. Gerard ran a hand through his hair. The back of his throat burned. He stood up, stretched his back and walked a few feet, away from the campfire, slipping away into darkness. He rummaged for his matchbox and lighted a match.
And, almost instantly, something moved in the bushes in front of him. Someone. Something.
And there was the distinct snap of someone stepping on a dry branch. Someone he could, barely, make out moving through the trees.
Gerard Way suddenly went numb. Or better, he felt every little inch of his entire body freeze in complete horror and fear. He snuffed the match out, reached for his rifle.
His rifle wasn't there. His rifle wasn't there and there was a human being somewhere. A human being that might've killed him. A human being he was supposed to shoot.
A human being he knew so damn well he couldn't bring himself to kill.
He acted on impulse, lighted another match. For some reason, he wanted to face whatever was coming at him.
He wanted to see it. He wanted to know what he was facing. And maybe, what was going to kill him.
The light hit a boy, no younger than twenty-seven. Blue eyes, blond hair.
German soldier insignia.
Their gazes met, and Gerard realized he was just as scared as he was.
Only that, differently from him, the boy was armed. And maybe he wasn't as scared as he looked. Maybe he was just acting on impulse. On the other hand, Gerard would've done the same.
Because the German boy fired, and missed Way by a heartbeat. And Gerard cursed between his teeth and he flipped around and he ran. He ran faster than he could ever imagine and Frank grabbed him before he stumbled.
Their eyes met for a fraction of an instant. They grasped onto each other's gaze, and it gave them space to breathe. Way took a few seconds to look around.
They were all weary-eyed, standing. Blood pumping, oxygen flowing.
Adrenaline was starting to rush into their bloodstream.
Gerard quickly grabbed a gun. His breath was barely audible, but it hurt as it cut through his lungs.
They waited for what seemed hours, but knew was nothing but a few minutes.
They waited, barely moving, listening to every whisper.
They waited, fearing the worst. Hoping for the best.
They waited until the first enemy bullet whizzed through the air and hit Harry in the middle of the eyes. He gasped for a moment as it cut through his skin, muscle and skull, as it cut through his grey matter and hit the center, most vital portion of the brain. He gasped, and then toppled to the ground.
He was dead.
Frank's eyes widened. He swallowed.
He could feel fear start to ebb from inside his belly into the rest of his body. He could feel it paralyze his limbs.
He could feel it swirl and slither and bloat in the very air they breathed. Fear raped the oxygen inside their lungs, it crushed them, had them in its grasp.
They waited for Hell to break loose.
Hell was announced by a few hushed whispers, and the sound of men moving beyond the terrifying boundaries of the darkness enveloping them all.
Hell was the sudden but somehow expected crack of rifles being fired.
Hell was feeling air nocked out of your lungs as the man you love grabs you and drags you behind a fallen tree.
Hell is desperately holding onto the ring around your neck. Hell is thinking about your wife (and best friend)'s smile. Hell is thinking about seeing your sleeping baby twin daughters for the last time.
Hell is the blood on your hands and the screams in your ears.
Hell is knowing you're going to have to kill other human beings. Hell is knowing you're probably all going to die.
Hell is feeling your lover's arms around you. It's only an instant, but you know it means the world.
Hell is the first explosion, and the heat as a grenade is fired.
Hell is realizing life isn't a fucking joke anymore.
Hell is seeing your comrades fall.
Hell is praying for a miracle you know is never gonna come.
Frank's heart was clawing at his ribcage. It beat and screamed and exploded, begging to burst.
But he couldn't let it burst. He couldn't let it phase him. Just as it wasn't phasing Gerard.
Gerard, who was firing blindly through the smoke and the sound and the bodies of others.
Gerard, who was screaming because he didn't want to listen to the scream inside.
Gerard, who was seeing his brother's empty, hollow eyes in the eyes of every man he killed.
Gerard, who was fighting just so he could see Frank smile for another day.
They were relatively safe for the moment. The tree was working as a makeshift trench. It also somehow managed to keep them hidden.
Ray ran through the smoke. His hands were already dirtied with the blood of far too many men. Somehow, his panic-stricken, adrenaline-ridden brain managed to come up with a coherent thought that didn't involve stitching a man's wounds, or tying a bandage.
For some reason, he wondered how so few men could manage to hold on for so long.
He wondered why they weren't all dead yet.
He wondered and ran and occasionally shot, and memories of Mikey were there, and were ever present, mixing with the whizz of bullets and the heat of flames, mixing with the perfect summer night unfolding around them, mixing with a night that had been violated by man's folly.
Frank had started shooting. He'd unplugged his brain and managed to break away his conscience from what he was seeing. He'd tried to forget that the ones he was killing were human beings.
He thought of the girl.
He thought of the twins, their bodies left rotting in the sun.
And recalling the smell of dead flesh melting off of their bones because of the heat made his mind spark with anger.
Frank started shooting, and felt his humanity ebb away.
Ray's mouth tasted of bile. The smoke was making his eyes water, and he delved behind an old rotten tree.
Gerard and Frank were already there.
He leaned his head back for a second, his chest rising and falling at hysterical speed.
Calm it down, calm it all down. For a ludicrous, painful moment he saw one of his childhood memories flash before him, a rodeo when he was a little boy, he had seen a man trying to tame a crazed bull. But panic morphed his mind. His memory became a nightmare, and the sound of the bulls' hooves met with the sound of bullets, and the sound of bullets was nothing but the other men's screams.
And then everything fell apart.
And fire screamed and destroyed and scorched the air around them. And everything ebbed away as the grenade exploded, and Frank screamed and so did Gerard and the earth itself was pulled away from under their feet.
And Ray, who was the nearest, felt his skin burn off his bones, and he became nothing but pain.
Frank woke up almost immediately, knew he'd passed out for only a few minutes. It had just been a heartbeat, but the fighting was gone, it had moved elsewhere.
They were alone.
His brain latched events together (the shooting, Ray joining them, the explosion) and he immediately sat up, and his voice croaked and a pathetic little squeak came out because something snapped in his back, and made him cringe.
He moaned a silent fuck and shuddered every time he breathed. Something was probably broken, or at least battered.
He looked around.
His voice echoed, brushed against trees.
“We—we're over here.”
The fact that he could hear him but couldn't make out where he was was driving him out of his mind.
“Over here. By the ditch.”
Frank managed to localize the ditch, and limped towards it.
Gerard was leaning against a tree.
“Are you hurt?”
Way smiled at Iero, weak.
“I'm fine, Frankie-boy. Ray's hurt though. He's really, fucking hurt.”
“What do you mean he's-”
And then his gaze fell onto Ray, who was huddled next to Gerard's feet and shaking and wide-eyed.
Frank's stomach hiccuped as his eyes made out something he wished was just an optical illusion of some sorts, but knew damn well was real.
“Oh God. Oh. God. God. Oh my fucking God.”
Ray's entire being was on fire.
He could feel the pain, and the darkness. The pain exploding in sharp and slow, excruciating waves with every heart beat. The darkness, weighing him down, filling his nose, his mouth, his ears.
A low throb in his mind, born from what he thought was his right shoulder, was steadily making its way across his skin. It was acid.
Acid, it corroded the very essence of his being, sulphuric acid clogging his burned lungs. Sulphuric acid clogging his mind.
He couldn't think. The pain wouldn't let him think.
And then somebody's voice brushed against the thin barrier his consciousness had slipped behind to try and protect itself from what his body was now enduring.
There was something somewhere that was whispering that everything would've been okay, and his brain answered that he was still human, maybe, but all he knew was pain.
There was no body anymore. No Ray. No eyes, no lips, no nose.
He had become pain. He was the feeling of acid burning his skin, he was the throb in the back of his neck.
Pain tasted of death, he realized.
Pain was the sparks rushing through his cheeks as Frank's hands grabbed his face, and then this little bit of consciousness that was still there told his left arm (the one that hurt less) to rush up and reach out and grab hold of Iero, grab hold of this other thriving, breathing creature. He needed to know there was still a world outside the red film that seemed to coat everything every time he tried to focus on something else.
He needed to know there was a world outside of his body. His body that was no longer there. His body, which had burned.
Frank grabbed hold of Ray's face. He had no idea why he was acting that way, because there was this big, black wolf inside of him that was telling him to leave Ray there. Leave him there, and laugh.
But he grabbed his face, and looked at him.
The explosion had hit Ray first, and had done the most damage.
Frank couldn't really see, it was so dark, but he knew that Toro's right arm was stuck under something very, very heavy, probably a huge chunk of rock.
Frank breathed in once, twice. He looked at Ray, then at Gerard, who had been staring at them the whole time.
“I'm gonna try and move him.”
“Frank, shouldn't we--”
But Frank was already pushing against the object hurting Ray, trying to see if it would budge. Ray screamed, but he didn't stop.
“It's okay, buddy. We're gonna get you out of here.”
Gerard's voice was full of panic and concern.
There was a crunch that sounded so, so wrong, and Gerard grabbed Iero's shoulder.
“Just shut the fuck up, Way!”
Suddenly there was a snap, a sickly, blood-chilling snap coming from Ray's arm, who recoiled as much as he could and moaned and started sobbing.
Frank let go, panting.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
“Jesus, Frank. Jesus.”
Gerard let go of Frank's shoulder.
“Just...Christ.” Frank shut his eyes and hugged himself. Ray's sobbing was a constant, gut wrenching sound that filled the darkness.
He swallowed and opened his eyes and lighted a match.
He placed it close to the right side of Toro's body. His arm was crumpled between part of the log they'd been hiding behind and the rock edge of the ditch. He could barely see it, but realized that the snap they'd heard earlier was a bone breaking and puncturing the skin: he saw it glisten in the darkness, wet with blood. Most of the arm had been ripped from the shoulder by the explosion, though. From what he could see, it hung loosely, and Frank hoped he hadn't worsened the situation by pulling the fucking log. But he doubted it.
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. The situation was scarily similar to what had happened with the girl, only that now it wasn't some heartbreaking stranger, it was a person he'd know all his life, with whom he'd shared love and pain and everything in between, and even though he didn't really know if he could've ever been able to trust him again, Ray was still part of his world.
Frank stood up. His back groaned and he bit his tongue to avoid yelping.
“I...Just – he walked a few feet and kicked a tree - Fuck!”
He looked at Ray. The man was staring into space, skin wet with sweat, eyes so far and distant the only way Gerard and Frank could tell he was still alive was thanks to his chest, quickly rising and falling.
“It's fucked. His arm's fucked.”
Frank leaned against his knees and coughed a few times.
“I don't know what to do.”
Gerard rested his hand on Iero's back.
“Because we can't leave him like that. It's inhuman, to leave him like that. We could...fuck. I don't know. I don't know, Gerard.”
“Do you know how much damage there is?”
“It's been nearly ripped off. We manage to pull that shit log off of him, he's still got a screwed up arm. But it might hurt less. A bone's broken. - His breathing was getting conceited and hysterical – And it punctured his skin. Either way, they're going to have to chop it off.”
Frank's mouth went dry.
“But it might take a while until they find us again.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Gerard moaned.
Frank licked his lips. He wanted to cry, and scream, and throw a fit.
“Wanna try moving it again?”
Gerard threw his rifle to the ground and grabbed one end of the log.
Okay. Okay. Here it goes.
Frank positioned himself on the other side.
They bit the inside of their cheeks and pushed, and pushed, and pushed.
It slightly budged, and there was another horrible pop.
Ray's mind went aflame. It screamed and squealed and contorted, desperately trying to escape the Hell its existence had become.
He screamed, because it was the only thing he could do.
Frank let go of the log abruptly.
Gerard stood back up. Ray had started sobbing harder now.
They both sighed.
“I wanna at least help.” Frank said, before crouching back in front of Ray. He hesitated a moment, then pulled out his knife.
“You're not thinking of—”
Frank smiled, wearily.
“Do you see any other way?”
Ray's mind was silent. The screaming inside of it had stopped. There was nothing, the pain had managed to snuff that out too. He couldn't think.
He didn't want to think, because thinking meant becoming aware, and becoming aware meant the pain was going to become so much worse.
He just wanted it all to stop.
Frank brushed sweaty hair out of Ray's eyes.
He smiled and grabbed his handkerchief.
“See this, Toro? I want you to bight it as hard as you can, okay?”
He was talking softly, like when comforting a little kid who's hurt his knee.
He stuffed the cloth into Toro's mouth.
Frank's hands were shaking.
Is it really fucking necessary?
He didn't know. But he couldn't see any other way out.
He shut his eyes, counted until four.
He knew Gerard was standing behind him, and prayed for some sort of miracle. He prayed for Ray to be okay, or for it all to be a dream.
A bad dream, a nightmare.
It's now or never. He caressed Ray's cheek, turned towards his shoulder and choked back a tear.
“It's going to be okay, buddy.”
He turned towards Gerard once more.
“Can I have your belt?”
He tied the belt just above the beginning of Ray's arm, keeping it tight by pulling it with his teeth.
He wiped sweat out of his face, tried to calm his shaking hands.
The knife cut through flesh so easily it gave him chills, as if he were cutting through butter.
Ray started shaking and convulsing, desperate. He couldn't think, he couldn't breathe, his bones, his flesh, his mind, all was pain, all was suffering.
“Fucking Christ! Way!”
Frank turned towards Gerard.
“Don't just fucking stand there! DO SOMETHING!”
Gerard didn't budge, wide-eyed.
He swallowed and finally came over, grabbed Ray from behind, tried to keep him still.
“Shhh...calm down, Ray. - He hugged him - Everything's fine. Frankie-boy's gonna do this, and then it'll all be better, okay?”
Ray didn't reply, he was sobbing too hard.
Frank tightened the belt with his teeth again and continued cutting, ignoring the screams, ignoring Toro's wincing which was making his job much, much harder, ignoring the sickly vibration his knife sent when it hit the bone. Frank immediately realized the blade was too dull to be able to slice through it.
He breathed a quick fuck, before stopping to think.
“Okay. Okay. Gerard, I need you to hold him really, fucking still. And don't let go, no matter how hard he screams or he thrashes. I need to do a thing.”
“I need to break his shoulder so that it's pulled out of the socket.”
Gerard went pale.
Frank cracked his knuckles and then addressed Ray.
“Ray...Ray. Toro. Can you hear me?”
Ray slightly nodded.
He'd heard him. His mind was coming back. Or at least, what was left of it.
“I want you to shut your eyes real tight, okay? Can you do this for me?”
The other man nodded.
“And this is going to hurt a little, but it's going to be the last thing I'll do that's really, really painful, okay?”
Frank grabbed the upper right part of Ray's chest, near the collar bone, and what little he could see of the arm.
He applied all of the pressure he could, pushed and pushed and pushed.
There was a snap unlike anything he'd ever heard.
Ray screamed again. And it was terrifying.
It was something deep, something visceral, something born from the very core of Ray's being, something desperate. He screamed and screamed and screamed.
He was being torn apart. Demons with fiery eyes and red teeth were tearing him apart, were burning him, scorching him.
Frank tightened the belt again, tried to limit the blood loss.
He finished cutting. The arm came off relatively smoothly, cut clean from the shoulder down. When it did, Frank felt a sweet, much anticipated tug of relief inside of him.
But Ray wasn't moving anymore. He hadn't moved for a while.
His eyes were open wide, and he was staring into space. His chest was barely moving, but they could hear the wheezing coming from his open mouth.
Frank used the knife to cut a few extra holes into the belt, so that it could be tight without having him to bight it.
He knew his hands were shaking. His entire being was shaking. He looked at his hands and didn't recognize them.
It felt as if something was missing, all of a sudden.
He felt empty.
Empty, empty, empty. He looked at Ray, looked at Gerard.
He surprised himself crawling towards Ray, and cradling him.
Ray's left hand grabbed his, squeezed it.
This was enough to make Frank start to sob, hysterically. He sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, he sobbed into Ray's sweat and blood-stained shoulder, cradling him.
“You've been so, so, brave Ray. So brave.”
He looked up at Toro, bur Ray didn't look at him. He was still miles and miles away.
He knew Gerard had let go of Ray. He thought he'd heard him vomit in the bushes nearby, but he wasn't sure. He didn't care.
He was drained. He was nothing. He couldn't even muster up the energy to call out when he heard Bob and their lieutenant's voices call them.
Gerard was the one who answered. He felt footsteps, people trudging through dead leaves.
And then somebody whispered“Jesus!”, and Gerard's arms scooped him up and carried him a few feet away as the others tended to Ray.
He felt Gerard's cool lips against his forehead.
“You are an amazing man.”
He didn't reply.
“You saved his life, Frank. You're a hero.”
Frank smiled. His heart was still beating fast, his ears still rang from Ray's screams.
But everything felt more dream-like than anything. He couldn't really remember what had just happened.
“I'm thirsty” he suddenly said, as physical feelings came back, and so did the pain in his back.
Gerard slowly and delicatley made him drink.
He coughed a few times, and then shut his eyes. He was tired, dead tired.
Without even giving it much thought, he realized he'd somehow started to forgive Ray. Sweet Ray, brave Ray, who'd suffered more than anyone.
And with that last thought lingering on the tip of his tongue, he slowly slipped into sleep.
The sun began to rise.