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No Man's Land

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It was cold, wet, and miserable in the trenches, more so than usual. It had rained only the night before, and even though all the men had been huddled underneath tarps as best they could, the water had risen to their ankles, then to their calves, and no one had had the energy to muck it all out. Down the way, someone was coughing again, worse than before. He didn’t sound good.

It was Christmas Eve. Charles was incredulous to realize it. Had he really been here four months already? Had it really been two weeks since they lost Darwin, shot through the heart trying to ascertain the enemy position? Could it really be Christmas in a hell like this?

Folding his arms tightly around himself, he shivered in the darkness to try to keep warm. It was a futile effort; he didn’t think he even remembered what it was to be warm. His toes were stiff in his boots, and he wiggled them every few minutes, just to be sure he still could. There was the risk of gangrene, which sent an uneasy pang of fear through him. He remembered Carter three holes down, shuddering as his feet swelled too large for his boots, until they had finally had to cut the leather off him, exposing his blistered, black skin eaten over with fungus. They had had to amputate his left foot, and every man had forced the image from his mind, because if you focused on everything that could kill you in these trenches, you’d go mad. Charles knew the dangers of trench foot, and he tried to keep dry as best as he could, but in these trenches, higher ground often meant more danger than keeping low, so he could choose between gangrene or getting shot in the head.

He could survive without feet. It’d be harder to survive without a head.

Beside him, Sean stirred and croaked, “Is it morning yet?”

“No, stupid,” Alex muttered from his other side. “Sun’s not even up.”

Charles leaned back against the muddy wall and peered up at the stars. It was usually impossible to see them through artillery smoke, but tonight, the guns had been strangely silent. He could see Ursa Major stretching across the sky, and the North Star gleaming bright through the thin cover of clouds. He felt as if he hadn’t seen the sky so clearly in years. He remembered being a boy on the grounds of his father’s estate, lying in the grass outside long after everyone had gone to bed, tracing constellations with his finger. There had been a time where all he wanted to do was count the stars. Then he had grown up.

“Hey,” Sean said softly. “Look.”

Charles and Alex turned simultaneously to see Sean sticking his head up over the side of the trench. “What the fuck!” Alex hissed as both he and Charles dove for Sean, almost tackling him from the ledge. It was still dark, but any kind of stray bullet was dangerous, and Charles refused to lose a friend on Christmas Eve.

“Idiot!” Alex spat, rising to a crouch. Sean was stuck in the mud, flat on his back, his expression surprised. “You know sticking your head over like that is asking to be shot!”

“No,” Sean said, struggling to his feet. His canteen and pack weighed him down, and after a moment, Charles gave him a hand. Sean pulled free of the mud with a squelch and immediately went to climb the side of the trench again. Cursing, Alex grabbed him roughly by the shoulder, but Sean shook him off. “Look.”

Charles and Alex exchanged a glance. Some men got depressed in these trenches. Some men lost their minds. A boy they’d known only because he was stationed twenty feet away had had to be carted away because he’d tried to rush up the trench and run screaming at the enemy; severe depression, had been the rumor, a complication of trench fever. But Sean looked lucid enough, and he wasn’t sick. Wasn’t sicker than any of the rest of them, at least.

Besides, both sides had been silent tonight. Surprisingly enough, Charles hadn’t fallen asleep to the booming of guns, and he didn’t think he’d heard a single rifle in hours. Respect for Christmas? Unlikely. He didn’t think respect still existed in this hellhole. But no one had fired a shot yet today. He had no idea if the momentary stillness would last into morning, but it was almost dawn now, and he hadn’t heard a sound from the Germans.

With Alex standing mute with disapproval at his side, Sean peeked up over the side again. Charles watched him, holding his breath. After a tense moment, Sean turned his head to grin at them and motioned them forward. “Come on, look.”

Well. He was curious. And if he was going to be shot, he kind of wanted it over with. The trenches were a miserable place, and he wasn’t sure much more of crouching in water up to his navel he could take. Something to liven up the dull misery would be welcome, and by the rare smile on Sean’s face, that something was up there.

So he set down his pack, ignored Alex’s incredulous stare, and hoisted himself up next to Sean.

“What…” he breathed, staring over the wasted expanse of land.

“It’s pretty,” Sean said, a bit dreamily. “It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Across the way, dozens of tiny candles twinkled in a long, snaking line, marking the German trench. They were the only light in the darkness. Their flickering flames gently illuminated the early morning, piercing through the blackness like stars on the ground. So many candles. For Christmas? Impossible.

Then he heard it: someone was singing.

It was German, but the tune was familiar. Silent Night. The voice floated through the still air, carried by the wind across the barren no-man’s land. It was a soft, wavering sound, but it grew stronger as it progressed, and then it was joined by another voice, and another. Suddenly, it sounded as if there were a choir where the enemy had been only yesterday, loud and uncommonly upbeat. They were ragged and uneven and forgot the words, but it was full and spirited and Charles thought he hadn’t heard a more beautiful thing in a long, long time.

Then someone began to sing in English. Charles jerked his head over in surprise to find that it was Sean. He was smiling again, his damp red curls matted to his face with mud, but he was smiling. He had a low, smooth voice, and the familiar words of the song twisted Charles’s gut with a thrum of homesickness so strong that he nearly sat down. But then someone else down the line began to sing, and Alex, his eyes glossy though he tried to blink the wetness away, started to mouth along. And Charles smiled, too, the expression nearly forgotten, and he joined in.

They sang Silent Night three times. Then the Germans began to sing a song Charles had never heard before, but it was strangely beautiful. Funny, how he’d never thought of German as a beautiful language before—he had always heard it screaming over his head, punctuated by the whine of mortar and the sharp whistle of bullets. But in a song, with a tune, it was oddly soft. Almost comforting.

In reply, the British lines sang “Away in a Manger,” twice. The Germans answered with another one of their own, and then Alex led a stirring rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Charles couldn’t stop smiling. They continued to sing until the sun began to peek over the horizon, its early rays erasing the magic of the candles. When he could see across the way to the German trenches, Charles dropped his head behind the safety of the wall, certain that whatever had happened in the night, it would be over now. But no artillery shell boomed out greeting to the morning, and the Germans were still singing. He chanced a glance over the side of the trench again and was shocked to see a German soldier climbing over the lip of his trench and appearing in full-view. He almost dove reflexively for his rifle—it would be so easy, just popping off shots until he hit—but the man looked unarmed, and he was holding up his hands in peace. “Merry Christmas!” he shouted, his voice echoing through the sudden, stunned silence. “Merry Christmas!”

It was a trap. It was a trick, it had to be, because no soldier would voluntarily climb out of the safety of his hole to shout a greeting to his enemy, to men who had been trained to shoot him on sight…

No one moved. Charles squinted through the dim light and saw the man waving at them, a smile on his face. He looked so young, his uniform ill-fitting. Just a boy, just as there were boys in the British trenches. Just as Charles had been a boy once.

Suddenly, he was afraid the boy would get shot. He was afraid of seeing that smiling face crumple, so he leaned up and shouted back, “Merry Christmas!”

The boy’s entire face lit up, and he turned his back to them, saying something to his comrades. Then he turned around again and took a few hesitant steps forward. When no one fired, he called, “Merry Christmas!”

Charles was struck by the certainty that it was the only English the German boy knew. He couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled up in his chest—walking out into no-man’s land to wish a merry Christmas to the enemy?—even as he returned, “And a Merry Christmas to you!”

Then Sean screamed, “And a happy New Year!” and then everyone was shouting greetings across, English and German alike, and then Sean was climbing out of the trench before anyone could stop him, even as Alex was cursing at his back. Charles’s heart leaped to his throat, sure that Sean would be struck down in an instant, but he wasn’t; he stood unharmed on the edge of the trench, a wide smile on his face. Then he took a step forward, and still, no one shot, and other figures began to emerge from the German trenches, unarmed, smiling, and Charles couldn’t help himself; he dug his torn boots into the muddy wall and hauled himself out.

For a long moment, he stood swaying in disbelief, waiting to be blown into oblivion. But a minute passed, and he was untouched. He began to laugh, and when he looked up, the German soldiers were straggling through no-man’s land, heading toward them. Sean took a step forward, then another, and then he was walking toward them, his stride limping but purposeful. “Stupid!” Alex snarled, his voice edged with fear. Charles looked down at him for a second, still huddled in the deep trench, and then he turned and started to walk.

He probably should have been afraid. He could feel his heart pounding hard against his ribs, but it wasn’t out of fear, only a sort of strange adrenaline. These men had killed his fellow soldiers. These men had killed Darwin. But as they neared each other, Charles could see faces underneath those helmets, faces through the grime. They were men, just as he was. They were people. He had killed them, too. No one was clean, and maybe that was what had made them put their rifles aside. Maybe that was what made Charles walk forward to the soldier just in front of him and say, “Merry Christmas.”

The other man stopped ten feet away, his eyes wary. He was tall and lean, his stance stiff and tense. He was handsome, underneath the mud and dirt. Charles wondered if he had a wife at home waiting for him. A child.

The German soldier’s gaze roved over him, sizing him up. Charles held still for his scrutiny, knowing that he didn’t look all that impressive himself: ripped boots, uniform scavenged and patched together to keep him from freezing, thin, haggard face and hollow eyes. But the German seemed satisfied with whatever he saw, because he said at last, “Merry Christmas.”

His accent was thick but understandable. After a moment, Charles asked, slowly, so that he could be understood, “How do you say that in German? Merry Christmas in Deutsch?” He paused, reaching for his hopelessly inadequate knowledge of German. “Ja?”

The corners of the man’s lips quirked up, amused. “I speak English.”

Charles almost laughed in delight and surprise. “You do?”

“It’s Frohe Weihnachten.”

“What?”

“Merry Christmas.”

“Oh.” Charles tried to pronounce it, and the other man’s smile widened.

“Frohe Weihnachten,” he repeated, more slowly.

Charles’s tongue snarled on the odd consonants, and the German chuckled, the sound a low rumble in his chest. Charles half-glared at him, though he couldn’t stop his own smile. “Don’t mock me.”

“I wouldn’t,” the German said, though the gleam in his eye suggested otherwise.

Charles’s smile turned warm. “I’m Charles Xavier.”

“Erik Lehnsherr.”

They shook hands. The German’s grip was firm and confident. Charles let the touch linger, wondering how long it had been since he had been touched so gently. How long had it been since he’d had a civil conversation with anyone? Even in the trenches, all their conversations were shouted, or coughed, or punctuated with gunfire. Exchanging names and pleasantries, laughing—it was terrifically refreshing.

“How long have you been here?” Charles asked.

“Three months.”

“Ah. I’ve been here four.”

“Since the beginning then.”

“Almost.”

Erik glanced around, and Charles followed his gaze. There were more soldiers from both sides in no-man’s land now, pouring from the trenches like an attack, except instead of ending in bloodshed, it ended in cordial greetings and, occasionally, a laughing hug. Amazing. Had these men truly been killing each other not even a day ago?

Erik seemed to read his mind. “Erstaunlich,” he said, looking out over the wasteland. “Who would have thought?”

Charles quirks a grin in his direction. “I think we’d call this a regular Christmas miracle.”

“Yes.”

After a moment, he dug into his breast pocket and pulled out his pack of Player’s. He didn’t smoke often, since Raven had retched at the smell of smoke every time, but the pack was still in his rations. It was half-empty, courtesy of Sean and Alex smoking through their entire packs in days, and the cigarettes were doubtlessly soggy and dirty from trench life, but it was all he had to offer. The German’s eyes lit up at the sight of them, and he took one gladly. Charles shook one out for himself. “Merry Christmas,” he said as he lit their cigarettes up, and then they stood there for a moment, sharing smoke, sharing warmth.

“I don’t have anything for you,” Erik said, patting his pockets idly.

Charles shook his head. “Don’t need anything.” He hadn’t expected presents this Christmas anyway. Who expected presents in a war?

But Erik paused for a second and then pulled a ribbon out of his pocket. It was silk, a precious piece of fabric that had once been vibrant red but had faded with time and wear. It was only dull red now, but still, it was the most color Charles had seen in months of the gray front. His eyes widened as Erik offered it to him, and after a hesitation, he took it, marveling in the softness against his fingers.

“It’s one of my mother’s,” Erik explained.

Charles blinked. “Then I can’t take this from you—”

“No, keep it.” He smiled, and it reached his tired eyes. “It’s kept me company for these past months. I hope it’ll do the same for you.”

Charles felt his eyes prick with tears. A ribbon from his mother, for a complete stranger who could kill him in the coming days, who had killed his friends, his countrymen. Christmas miracle indeed.

“Thank you,” he murmured, tucking the ribbon away in his pocket. “I will keep it safe.”

“You had better.” The German grinned and blew out a ring of smoke, warm and foggy in the sunlight. The morning had come, but there were still soldiers out of their trenches, unafraid. How long was this to last? Charles entertained the brief fantasy of a lasting truce, that maybe these men would realize that the enemy was no different than they, and maybe they would give up this war and go home to their families, their wives, their children. Maybe he would get to see Raven again, and maybe he would visit Darwin’s family to tell them that the last thing Darwin had said was, “Tell them I love them.”

But no, that was a dream, a dream for another life.

As the sun continued to rise, someone found a dirty, abused football, and Charles broke out into a grin. Erik eyed him and asked, “Do you play?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Charles returned, and without thinking, he took Erik’s arm and propelled him toward the game. They stripped off their jackets and joined in gleefully, laughing and shouting. It was a mass of confusion, the ball was badly made and cracking at the seams, and men were yelling in German and English alike, no one understanding anyone else, but it was, for that tenuous peace, perfect. Charles slammed into another German soldier, but instead of ugly cursing, he got a hand up and a friendly pat on the shoulder. Erik was by his side again in a moment, teaming up with him against Hardy, a British lieutenant Charles had never seen smile before. But Hardy was laughing now, his usually hard face softened in every line, and when Erik shot the ball past his outstretched arms through the two ragged pile of jackets acting as goalposts, Hardy grinned in outright admiration. Erik grinned back in exhilaration and triumph, and then he turned and threw his arm around Charles’s shoulders in a companionable embrace, and Charles felt impossibly warm. Was this was contentment felt like? He didn’t remember, but it felt good.

They played through noon, stopping only for lunch. Instead of returning to the trenches for food, they broke open what rations they had brought on them and shared across the lines. Charles sat down on the rain-soft ground, sweating and tired but happy. Erik sat across from him and broke apart pieces of biscuits for them to share. Charles noted dried blood on Erik’s shirt, but when he asked, half-surprised at his own concern, Erik dismissed it with a shake of his head. “The Soldat next to me. Last week.”

It was a sobering thought. Charles shook it away in the bright sunlight and staved off the edge of his hunger with the biscuits and the bully beef he had brought. A companionable silence settled across no-man’s land, broken by soft conversations and quiet laughter. Laughter. It sounded foreign on his ears. Foreign and sweet.

When they were finished with lunch, their truce wound down to more practical matters. Many men had fallen outside the trenches, out of reach, too far away to risk retrieval. Now, within the safety of the last few hours, soldiers were beginning to carry off the bodies initially abandoned in the barren plain. Erik went to the nearest fallen German soldier and bent to take his arms. After a moment, Charles followed him, taking the man’s legs. Erik shot him a startled look, but Charles only smiled and said, “Every man deserves his burial.” Erik jerked a nod and together, they carried the body off to the side.

They spent most of the afternoon gathering the dead and scavenging supplies in no-man’s land. Charles found a discarded pack of cigarettes, which he decided to gift to Alex later, and a canteen still half-filled with water. He picked up a torn photograph, too, and spent a minute studying it. There was a young man and a woman, presumably his wife, smiling at the camera, both of them dressed at their Sunday’s best. The man was English, Charles thought, though he couldn’t remember ever seeing his face in the trenches. Where had this picture come from? Had he fallen on the field and been carted away? Had the woman’s face been the last thing he saw?

He carefully put the photograph in his breast pocket and kept walking. It was nearing dusk when he finally found Erik again. They both stopped and remained for a moment in tentative silence. Then Erik said, “It’s almost sunset.”

“Yes.”

“And we’re to return to our trenches to sleep.”

“Yes.”

“This might be over.”

“It might,” Charles agreed. The thought made his stomach sink. The war felt like a lifetime ago already, in light of the singing and the laughter. To go back to his trench, to pick up his rifle and fire across, knowing his next bullet might hit Erik, or someone very close…he wasn’t sure he could do it. But he would have to. It was his duty.

“I was glad to meet you,” Erik offered finally, holding out his hand.

Charles went for a hug instead. It had been so long since he’d been hugged, and Erik was warm and strong and just the right height. “I was glad to meet you, too, my friend.”

They separated at length, and Charles turned to watch the sun dip in the sky. Then, as his fellow soldiers began to file back to the trenches, he smiled at Erik and said, “Be safe.”

Erik nodded. “Frohe Weihnachten.”

“Frohe Weihnachten,” Charles echoed, and his accent made Erik grin.

Then he turned and walked away, and when he looked back, Erik was already gone, disappeared amongst the other nondescript Germans hopping back into their trenches.

The next day would be Christmas. Charles wondered if the truce could last, if this miracle would stretch for just a little longer. He wasn’t hopeful.

The sun set, and then someone began to sing. It was Silent Night, in English, and after a verse, a brass accompaniment from the German trumpets joined in. The Germans began to sing, too, in their language, and it fit imperfectly with the English, but somehow it was still the most beautiful thing Charles had ever heard. Touching the ribbon in his pocket, he leaned back against the trench wall and listened and smiled.