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Memorial

Hollow Man part 2

 

It rained. Not hard, but enough to make Joe shake with the memory of the unrelenting cold of Paudang, while the drums rattled and the black draping on the planes fluttered in the damp wind. Like anyone else who'd ever been in a war, the slow rhythm was familiar and Joe's feet fell into step with it as he paced the length of the mourning field.

The Legion had never any call for this kind of thing before; they'd always been too busy fighting to mourn beyond a glass of whisky, a toast to the dead and private tears. With the war winding down and the Legion pulled back for refit, something needed to be done to recognize those who'd lost their lives defending freedom, the innocent and the Legion. So, Joe walked past the empty planes, feeling like he was strangling in his formal dress and listened to the somber rattle of the drums. Who knew that three of the RAF pilots and two of Dex's German mechanics played military drums?

Beyond the planes were the ranks of the Legion, still a patchwork of color: US tan, German navy, RAF gray, even China Joe in an approximation of a Japanese dress uniform. The sight of it from the corner of Joe's eye made him flinch. They all saluted as he passed. Beyond them were the civilians brought by plane, train and automobile at the Legion's cost and invitation. Joe wanted them here; they were a reminder of why the Legion fought and died.

Joe's aide-de-camp offered him the first package from the stack: a leather flight jacket - sleeves marked with Aero Italiano wings and the Legion patch - an Italian flag folded beneath and a small box. It was all that was left of Carlo Giovanno, his wingman and Sayla Giovanno's husband. He offered her the armful, stepped back and saluted: body, heart and soul rigid in the face of her sudden sobs. Joe moved on.

His bad shoulder burned as the cold rain soaked his dress jacket and it wasn't until he reached Ben Freer's widow that Joe felt the first crack in his armor. The flight jacket was brand new, of course; Ben's had been lost when he'd gone down. He handed over the stack, fingers catching on the red-white-and-blue silk of the American flag of Ben's homeland. As Bonnie took the pile from him with shaking hands and downcast --though dry--face, the white ace's scarf fluttered free to wrap around Bonnie's dark hands, clinging in the rain.

"He--" Joe said painfully. "He made ace, in Nanjing before…."

He couldn't finish and stepped back to salute her and the two little Negro boys behind her. A flag, a coat and a scarf; Joe closed his eyes briefly. Not much replacement for a husband and father. After that, each stack seemed heavier than the last. The drums thundered in Joe's ears and all he wanted was for this to be over--and hated himself for the numbness he felt.

The rain followed him through the rest of the day, until Joe was lying on his bed listening to it in the dark. He was still cold. Moving like an old man, body sending little pings of hurt that he ignored from months of practice, he dug out his winter union suit and pulled it on then burrowed back under his blankets. The watery light, rippling like the sea, followed him into sleep.

Auugh! Joe screamed, falling to his knees in the red dust of Paudang. Tears blurred his eyes but he bared his teeth at the ground in fierce delight. Even with his arms wrenched behind his back and tied to a pole hammered between two posts, he smiled. Hungry, sick, exhausted and probably in for another beating, Joe smiled. They'd made it. Kiro and Johnny, the crazy German guy and the two Korean girls. It had been three days since they'd escaped and if the stiff rage in the eyes of their captors meant anything, they were still free. Joe tried to quell the flicker of hope; the thought that perhaps one of them would get word to the Brits or the Legion and he'd be free before the end of the war but it stirred in him none-the-less.

His breath steamed in the icy pre-dawn air as Ben was thrust down next to him and bound to the same crosspiece. The rest of the prisoners were herded out to stand a little ways away, coughing, shivering, some of them wounded. There was no talking.

"Morning, Joe," Ben said breathlessly.

"Morning, Ben," Joe said casually, as if the both of them weren't kneeling with their arms wrenched behind their back and laced up to the crosspiece behind them, helpless in the face of their captor's anger. His hands were already mostly numb from the rawhide lacing and Joe could feel a warm trickle of blood from his back, which didn't want to heal. "Sleep well?"

"Oh, could've been better," Ben said. "My down pillow was a little flat."

"Mmm - best get the staff on that then."

They fell silent, bravado leaking away at the crisp sound of boots approaching. It was Commander Takeshi, ranking officer of Paudang and master of their lives. Skin crawling with terror, Joe watched the man's legs circle them. In one hand, Takeshi carried a pair of tinsnips. Joe dropped his head, beginning to shake; he was a pilot, if he lost his fingers he'd never fly again. Beside him Ben's breathing was hard and quick.

"So, " Commander Takeshi said in his Oxford trained English. "Celebration is in order, is it not? A daring escape, freedom for your comrades. Hope." He tapped the tinsnips on his thigh idly. "I must admit that the chances of catching those prisoners is quite slim at this point. Excellent work indeed, such cooperation for the good of so few."

Takeshi walked behind them and Joe gritted his teeth.

"A little reminder, my good men," Takeshi paused and Ben groaned, twitching then--a sharp crunch--screamed. A brown finger, trailing blood, bounced under Joe's nose. Ben was rearing and howling while Joe kicked at the dust, bucked against his bonds and screamed curses and Ben's name. "There -"

-another snip. Ben was screaming like an animal now, "--are--"

-and another "--always--"

-and another "--consequences."

Joe screamed himself awake and threw himself out of bed, slamming onto the floor and fighting his sheets in a fit of terror and rage. Dizzy and still only half awake, Joe stumbled for his private bath and hunched over the loo, retching until his sides ached. He was safe--at home. Paudang was over. Joe slumped onto the floor, shaking, unable to cry, hardly able to move. He held himself in the dark, on the cold floor, and moaned. It didn't feel over. It didn't feel like it would ever be over.

1 week later

Joe glanced up from the Legion roster, one hand pressed to his sore stomach, to see Dr. Kalinov's thin, disapproving face in his doorway. "Good afternoon, Doctor."

"Yes," Dr. Kalinov looked more disapproving that usual, though it was hard to tell on his face. Joe didn't think he'd ever seen the man smile, not even when the Legion had fought their way to the battlefield hospital to find the doctor fending off a Japanese attack with three nurses and any of the walking wounded that could still hold gun. "I thought that perhaps I would come by and discuss my remarkable morning with you, Captain."

Joe set aside the roster with a frown. Kalinov wasn't one for idle visits. "Right then, go on."

"Just this past morning, the medic from the Blue-B squadron RAF messaged me--" Kalinov said in his glottal Russian accent, while Joe's aching stomach sank-- "to check on your status. I found myself in the unenviable position informing him I had no idea since I had not seen you since your return. The medic expressed some opinions on my skills, competence and ancestry, and lieutenant Cook had some choice comments as well."

"Conveniently," Kalinov said with a thin smile, "My office is just down the hall and I have an available time--now, if you please."

"Doctor--"

Kalinov simply held up an imperious hand and opened the door, standing beside it until Joe got up and followed him out. The rumor was; Dr. Kalinov had been the doctor for the Czar and his family until the Bolshevik revolution. Sometimes Joe wondered if Kalinov wasn't one of the Czar's family with the way he acted. Like many of the men in the Legion, whatever Kalinov's history, he had never volunteered it.

Kalinov took his weight and other measurements in silence and despite Joe's fierce scowl, handed him a hospital scrub and turned away to make notes in those damnable doctor's charts while Joe stripped. "You have lost weight, Captain."

"Six months in a prison camp will do that," Joe said with imitation lightness.

"No," Dr. Kalinov turned around to eye him, leaving Joe with the longing for his flight jacket, his plane and about 5,000 miles between him and those cold gray eyes. "You have lost weight since you returned from the RAF hospital. The doctor there was kind enough to dictate your records to me. Have you been eating?"

"Yes," Joe muttered, shivering a little in the chilly office. "Just get on with it, will you?"

"Hm." Kalinov stalked around him as if looking for weakness and Joe's shoulders hunched. "Arms out, Captain. If you please."

Joe stretched his arms out, jaw set and rebellion glinting in his eyes. The doctor pulled on his left suddenly and Joe couldn't hold back the startled yell of pain. He jerked away, holding his arm to his side as his back and shoulder protested with a stab of sharp pain. "Bloody Hell! Quite the bedside manner, doctor."

"Hm," Dr. Kalinov moved behind him and untied the gown, pushing it off Joe's shoulders as he stiffened. Joe twitched at a light touch on his back, on the still sore scars, sweat breaking on his forehead. At least Kalinov didn't gasp or curse or stare in frozen silence like others had. Instead he pressed long, unrelenting fingers to the savage ache below Joe's shoulder, holding him still with a hard grip on his arm. "Do not move."

Joe hissed between his teeth as the burn rose, rose, like Kalinov was burrowing into his flesh with a hot poker and gave a sobbing gasp of relief when he stopped. Hunching over and squinting at his naked knees, Joe ignored whatever the doctor was saying until the throbbing behind his eyes eased.

"--you are not healing properly," he was saying.

"I wonder why not, with you sticking your hand into me," Joe snapped, wiping his lip with a shaky hand. "Are we done? I have work to do."

"No."

Joe glared at Kalinov, who remained unmoved.

"That wound is not healing well," Kalinov said, back to Joe as he searched through the locked supply cabinet against the far wall. "There may still be shrapnel working it's way out. You should not have flown back here, the hours in the cockpit put stress on the healing skin and muscle."

He turned back with two bottles of pills setting them with a small clink on the table next to Joe's bare thigh. "Penicillin, two times a day, with meals. Morphine, at night only--"

"No," Joe said flatly. No pilots flew if they were prescribed morphine; it was an German rule that the Legion had adopted without hesitation. He was never going to get his touch back if he was grounded. "No morphine."

Dr. Kalinov met Joe's angry eyes without flinching, and with no sign of retreat. Joe had offered Kalinov the job of chief medical officers because he wouldn't back down in the face of flyboy temper tantrums and he was regretting it now. This was the first time he'd been on this side of the doctor's care and he didn't like it one bit.

"Captain," Kalinov said severely. "You must take care of these injuries or they will cripple you. If you stress the scar tissue to soon, it will keloid and limit your ability to move. The back wound is infected--"

"It's been bloody infected for seven months," Joe snarled, sore and sick and feeling the prison of the ground closing around him again. "Since my plane canopy punched a hole in me. What damned difference does it make now?"

"If the infection enters your blood, you may well die," Kalinov went on as if Joe hadn't spoken. "I cannot amputate your back if the wound goes gangrenous."

Joe felt a sudden chill hit him and he stared fixedly at Dr. Kalinov, face going gray, choking on the antiseptic air and on memories. He could smell it again, the dust and hear the agony ringing in his ears--and feel his own helplessness. "You aren't c-cutting a thing off of me!"

He surged to his feet with a wildness that had Kalinov stepping back in surprise. Joe snatched up his clothes, yanking a shirt and pants on even as he headed out the door, stumbling in his haste and the dizzy after effects of Kalinov's exam.

"Captain," Kalinov called harshly after him. "Stay out of your plane, or I will officially ground you."

Joe spun around, the doctor's words like another blow, shaking him to the core. He needed the air, even if he couldn't feel it, even if he wasn't sure he'd ever really feel it again. The thought of losing it entirely--Joe couldn't stand it. He wasn't meant for the ground; without the sky he was nothing. He yanked his shirt closed, tearing a button in his shaky haste. "You aren't--aren't touching me again!"

TBC (101504)