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Poldark fic: Almost Home (1/2)

December 9th, 2015 (09:21 pm)
aggravated

feeling: aggravated

Title: Almost Home

Disclaimer: I do not own Poldark.

A/N: I wrote this for the fantastic sockie1000, who deserves so much more :) This also fills my eating disorders square in hc_bingo. Set pre-series.

Summary: When Ross loses everything, he still finds something worth living for.



-o-

It’s a bad dream, he thinks. It’s a bad dream.

He’ll wake up back home, on the green grass above the cliffs. He’ll take Elizabeth’s hand as the wind sweeps into her hair. She smiles at him, soft and beautiful.

“Come back to me,” she says. “Come back to me.”

He’s never refused her anything.

He’s never--

-o-

He wakes to pain, deep and gnawing. It pounds in his head, leaving the edges of his vision stained dark. Shapes move above him, blurred and unfamiliar.

“Good Lord, he’s awake.”

“I thought him dead--”

“Might as well be, wound like that--”

“Hush, both of you. If he’s alive, then it is our obligation to help him stay that way.”

The pain rises again, and Ross feels a swell of nausea that he’s too disoriented to understand.

“Ross? Can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”

Ross barely remembers who he is, much less where he is. All he knows is the pain, like daggers through the back of his skull, pounding, pounding, pounding--

Rough hands wrap around his. “Ross, my name is Dr. Enys. I’m going to help you, but you have to come back to me if at all possible.”

Breath catches tight in his throat, and Ross thinks he may be sick this time.

“Ross?”

He convulses, the darkness rises as the light blurs from his vision entirely. He’s spiraling now, down and down and--

“Ross, come back to me--

-o-

The wind sweeps over the cliffs as he looks out over the choppy ocean. The waves crash against the rocks, the smell of salt thick in the air. He feels alive here, riding along the cliffs with the friends of his youth. He explores the mines and works the fields, because hard labor only reminds him that he is young and full of infinite possibilities.

It is not much, the inheritance of a youngest son, and the ground is full of rock while the mines are not. His father’s house is simple and gray, but the hearth is warm and the roof is a solid shelter when the rains come.

They know him by name in the village, and he sneaks drinks with the working men on the fields. For all that he seeks amusement, he never actually wants to leave.

This is home to him, this is--

-o-

Crowded.

The sagging fabric roof is made of stained and torn linen, but he can still see the sun as it burns through from the other side. The sun is blinding, but the air is like ice, stabbing through his chest with an intensity that makes him long for darkness once again.

It is not to be this time, and he is unfortunately awake. The sounds of other men, crying out in pain, are impossible to miss, and the smell of blood permeates his senses. It makes him gag, and the involuntary movement elicits fresh pain in his skull, radiating down his back and all the way to his toes. Bile is rising, hot and bitter in his throat, and he fears he will choke on it before he is turned unceremoniously onto his side.

Thus positioned, he vomits freely, the runny liquid dripping over the side of his cot onto the packed dirt below. For a moment, he tries to focus on his breathing, steady breaths in and out through his gaping mouth while the pounding in his head reaches a new pitch and finally abates.

It still hurts when he is laid back down, but it has receded just enough to clear his vision and give him back his voice.

Or what is left of it.

He makes a pathetic mewl, which catches in his chest. He coughs, the movement lancing through his head. He has tears in his eyes as he swallows hard, squinting just enough to see the figure perched on the edge of his bed.

“I would ask how you feel, but I think I can guess the answer,” the man says wryly.

Ross makes a willful expression. This time, he works some saliva into his throat and manages to find a voice, strained and scratchy though it may be. “Where am I?”

The man smiles kindly. “A field hospital, or what’s left of it,” he says. “A good deal of the men have already moved out while the army is in full retreat.”

Ross considers this as best he can, eyes flicking about the room. It’s not a room, though; it’s a tent. There are several other cots -- three, in fact -- all laden with men who look more dead than alive. “And what of us?”

“There were some patients who were simply too ill to travel,” the man explains. “I was ordered to leave, but considering the state of the army in this area, no one had much will to enforce such an order.”

“We’ve been abandoned?” Ross asks, working his brows together.

“Me? Yes,” the man says. “But you, no.”

Ross is too confused to speak.

“Dr. Dwight Enys,” the man says, by way of explanation. “I’ll stay here, as long as it takes.”

Ross cranes his head, trying to get a better sense of things. “As long as it takes for the army to come back for us?” he asks. “Or for the rebels to come across us and kill us?”

Dr. Enys’ smile wavers but doesn’t quite fall. “Until you’re well enough to leave,” he says.

This is too much. This is too, too much. Ross can’t remember what battle he fell in; he can’t remember if the men of his regiment are alive or dead. He can’t remember what happened, he can’t remember anything.

Except the sound of the waves and the tickle of the breeze. Elizabeth’s sweet, sweet voice as her fingers ghost over his.

Dr. Enys squeezes his forearm with a grounding, reassuring smile. “Until we’re all ready to go home,” he promises with a slight tilt of his lips. “One way or another.”

-o-

Though he is more aware of his surroundings, Ross lacks the energy to do anything about them. He slips into sleep more than he intends, and he often finds himself dozing without the slightest inclination of how much time has passed. Day and night are much the same to him, and the tepid stew Dr. Enys feeds him three times a day is the only marker of time he understands.

When he tries to sit up, he’s overcome by darkness, and the pounding in his head is so intense that he promptly passes out. The cold grows deep, and though Dr. Enys piles him with blankets, Ross can feel it leaching into his very bones. The other men in the tent cough vigorously for a while, before the hacking recedes and with it comes only silence.

There is no one there to help when Dr. Enys buries the first man. Ross can’t gather enough energy to help with any kind of memorial, but he closes his eyes and says a prayer anyway.

The man may well be the luckiest of them all.

He’s the first to go home.

Ross fiddles with the ring on his finger and knows he won’t be the last.

-o-

As his condition improves, Dr. Enys starts to fuss over him a bit more. To be fair, there may have been fussing prior to this point and Ross simply doesn’t remember it. But Dr. Enys is very mindful of the bandages on Ross’s face. To this point, Ross has mostly ignored them -- he’s had bigger concerns -- but the intent look on the doctor’s face finally makes Ross curious.

“You haven’t told me,” Ross says while Dr. Enys works one cold afternoon. “What damage I have suffered.”

It’s not a question, but the request is simple. Dr. Enys, however, merely arches one eyebrow, palpating the still tender skin on the side of Ross’ face.

“It must be bad,” Ross surmises. “You won’t even tell me.”

At this, Dr. Enys makes a small huffing sound, the cold breath of air a cloud of smoke in the space between them. “You have both legs, both arms and your life,” he says, starting to rewrap the wound. “I am uncertain what more you want.”

“What is wrong with my head?” Ross asks, undaunted.

“Was there something wrong with your head before?” Dr. Enys asks.

Ross is almost amused, but he will not be deterred. “I fall asleep quickly, and I suffer from headaches,” he says. “And you seem quite preoccupied with the bandage on the side of my head.”

Dr. Enys take a deep breath, wiping his hands idly on a cloth. “I suspect the headaches and sleepiness will subside,” he explains. “I’ve seen many such symptoms with wounds to the skull, and if the patient survives as long as you have, they usually dissipate over several weeks.”

Ross nods. “And the bandage?”

This time, Dr. Enys forces a crisp smile. “What I’m tending to is entirely superficial.”

“Are you saying that I will scare children on the streets?” Ross asks.

“Perhaps by your disposition,” he returns. “But I think with proper care, your scars will merely make you more dashing than you were before. No one will doubt you as a war hero, that much is certain.”

Ross lets out a huff, rolling his eyes. “The last of my regiment and abandoned in the winter,” he muses. “Hardly a hero’s end.”

“Heroes endure, just as you have,” Dr. Enys points out. “You stand true for a cause.”

“I stand true for a debt I could not pay,” Ross says.

“Ah,” Dr. Enys says, putting his tools away. “Well, I think you’ve paid it now in full.”

“And what of the rest of these poor souls?” Ross asks, looking around at the two other cots. One of the men snuffles in his sleep. “Who will pay the debt now owed to them?”

“Survival is the only gift I can offer any of you,” Dr. Enys says, patting him on the arm. “It can’t pay the debt, I’m afraid, but it’s a place to start.”

-o-

The weather, which has been cold, turns bitter as harsh winds sweep through the tent and snow piles up outside. Dr. Enys tries to keep the fire stoked, pulling all the cots as close as he can to the center. The soup grows as bland as water, and the one of the other men starts to complain about the conditions.

“Survive a war to die by the hands of a doctor,” he mumbles, rubbing his hands together in the patchwork mittens Dr. Enys made. “I thought you were a healer!”

“I am doing my best, my friend,” Dr. Enys assures them all, adding another log to the fire. It’s not clear to Ross how Dr. Enys keeps any supply of timber, but he’s woken up in the middle of the night to find the good doctor missing, only returning in the wee hours of the early dawn.

The other man moans on his bed, taking a deep, rasping breath before settling into stillness.

“I did my best, too, and look at me now,” the man grouses. “I deserve better!”

Something shifts in Dr. Enys’ face, his jaw tensing as he looks down.

“This man is the only one who stayed for you -- for any of us,” Ross interjects. “We’d be dead without his care.”

“And you think this is so much better?” the man returns sharply.

“If you prefer death, I’m sure the winter will happily accommodate you,” Ross says. “If you intend to take your chances at life, however, I suggest you show some respect and gratitude.”

The man harrumphs, still rubbing his fingers together as he huddles beneath his blankets. Dr. Enys looks over at Ross gratefully.

Ross inclines his head.

It has not escaped his notice, after all, that Dr. Enys always eats last and that he sleeps with one blanket while the rest of them have two or three. He’s the one who sleeps by the flap of the tent, and though he is the only one up and about, his complexion is more pale and chapped than any of them.

There are many ways to give yourself in war.

It strikes Ross as ironic that Dr. Enys is probably the only one among them who has volunteered for anything.

“All the same,” Dr. Enys says with forced lightness as he gets to his feet. “Would anyone care for some tea?”


-o-

It is demoralizing when Ross first gets out of bed. He’s unsteady on his feet, and Dr. Enys has to shoulder most of his weight. It takes more than several tries before Ross is able to stay vertical without passing out, and even then, his own legs only bear the exertion for several minutes before he sinks back to the bed, spent and exhausted.

He can still feel the ache, down deep in his bones. The cold only makes it worse, leaving all of Ross’ senses raw. He has gained just enough strength to see how truly weak he is, and he tries to remember the man he’d been before this started.

The quick tempered lad who bested all the folks in the village. The rabble rousing son who defied the conventions that gave him any power at all. The virile son who would inherit a tough and coarse land. The passionate lover who had promised the most beautiful woman in all of England that he would come back for her.

He would come back still, but he’s starting to wonder if he’ll still be the same man he was at all.

Weak and dependent, he lives by the grace of others. His form has shrunk, and his skin feels papery thing. His strength has left him, and he needs help to eat, drink and relieve himself. He is hardly a worthy heir; he is no longer a suitable match.

Sometimes, it is all he can do to lie on his cot and shiver in the cold.

Sometimes, he thinks death is the better option.

Sometimes, he think he’s dead already.

Sometimes.

-o-

Death finds them the next day when Dr. Enys serves breakfast and the third man does not rouse. Dr. Enys throws the blankets back and shakes the man, doing everything he can to bring him back, but it’s too late.

Outside, the ground is too hard to bury him, so Dr. Enys wraps his body in his linens and sets it at the edge of the camp. This time, Ross is well enough to stand out, to offer what meager remembrance he can.

Dr. Enys sighs as he commends the man’s spirit to the next life, and his prayer is simple but heartfelt.

“Lord, please take our brother back to you,” he says with his eyes closed and forehead furrowed. “Please take him home.”

Ross lets out a breath he doesn’t know he’s holding, and for once the aching in his head is second to the gnawing emptiness in his chest. “Amen.”

-o-

Most nights, Dr. Enys reads to them or helps them play with the worn deck of cards they found. But that night, the flickering of the fire burns low and Dr. Enys stares at now-empty cot in silence.

“You did everything you could,” Ross tells him finally. The other man has fallen asleep in the stillness, snoring noisily from time to time.

Dr. Enys does not look up. “It wasn’t enough.”

Ross studies him carefully, tracing the lines of the ring on his finger absently. “It was more than anyone else was willing to give.”

His lips turn in a tired, bitter smile. “Do you know why I joined this war?” he asks, looking to Ross. “I wanted to save lives.”

“A more noble cause than any of us, I would presume,” Ross returns.

“All I’ve done since coming here, though, is watch men die,” Dr. Enys continues with a futile shrug of his shoulders.

“You know, that is the biggest flaw of the men leading this war -- the men leading our country,” Ross says. “They think that one life doesn’t matter. They don’t see the people. They see soldiers. You, though. You don’t just see the value in one life, you see the dignity in it. That’s what makes your job important. More important than any of the rest.”

Dr. Enys looks at him for a long moment before he drops his head and sighs. “I wish it were more.”

“Perhaps,” Ross says. “But take comfort in the fact that it is, indeed, enough.

-o-

Ross still gets tired easily, and his head aches more than it does not. Dr. Enys has started to leave the wound on his face exposed, and Ross can feel the ridges of the wound, even as the tenderness fades against the bitterness of the weather.

Though Dr. Enys tells him he still needs his rest, Ross has started to feel somewhat useless. He has never been one to be idle, and he has discovered that if he is not being productive, he is prone to being wanton. Considering such things have gone for him in the past, he believes that making himself useful is the better option.

He starts by cleaning up the tent, tidying things up and moving things around. When he starts to reinforce some of the windswept tears, Dr. Enys takes notice.

“You don’t have to do that,” he says.

“I know,” Ross replies, even as he keeps on all the same.

-o-

The other man starts to hobble about more often, by way of Dr. Enys’ direct supervision. The process is tedious and slow, made worse by the man’s ill temper. With this, Dr. Enys clearly has his hands full, and Ross is reminded that getting better is sometimes a question of will.

Ross takes it upon himself to expand his duties, and he starts to tend the fire and prepare small meals. His stamina is starting to return, and he can feel the sinews in his muscles start to build once more.

Finally, one night, when Dr. Enys is bundled up to head out in the low firelight, Ross sits up in bed.

“I thought you would be asleep,” Dr. Enys observes, glancing cautiously at his other patient.

The other man is sleeping soundly, made evident by his raucous snoring.

Ross pulls on an extra layer of clothing. “At night, where do you go?”

“Just out into the woods,” Dr. Enys says. “I have to chop fresh lumber somehow, and there are a few traps left over from when the army was here.”

“And you do this every night?” Ross asks. “Alone?”

“My position as doctor--”

“Is nowhere near matched by the services you are providing,” Ross says.

“It is only what is necessary,” Dr. Enys says, reaching for the axe he has stowed near the door.

Ross gets to his feet, pulling his mittens on.

Dr. Enys looks at him with a frown. “You still need to rest.”

Ross rolls his eyes. “Come,” he says. “As my doctor, surely you know that I am ready for more.”

“As your doctor, I would hate to see anything else happen to you,” Dr. Enys argues.

“And as your patient, I would hate to see anything happen to you,” Ross says. “Now, come on. Together, we can get the work done in half the time.”

Dr. Enys hesitates, but finally he shifts the weight of the axe from one hand to the other and leads Ross out the door.

-o-

It is cold, bitter work. With nothing but a lantern, it is hard to see, and the wood is hard with the cold. The traps offer scant supply, and by the time they bring all the wood back to the tent, Ross’ fingers and legs have started to go numb.

Together, the fall heavily into their cots inside, and Ross holds his hands greedily over the fire while Dr. Enys stokes it anew.

“And you do that every night?” Ross asks in disbelief.

“Well, normally the weather is--”

“What?” Ross asks with an incredulous snort. “Colder?”

Dr. Enys laughs at that. “I try not to think about it.”

“Then what?” Ross presses. “What could you possibly think about to make this worthwhile?”

“Home,” Dr. Enys admits, his face wistful in the flickering firelight. “Getting you two home.”

“And what of yourself?” Ross asks.

Dr. Enys offers a deflective smile. “My place is among those who need me,” he explains. “But what about you? What awaits you at home?”

“Ah,” Ross says with a sigh. “The stern blessing of my father, most likely. When I left, our land was hard and our mines were empty. He didn’t care so much that I was going to war as that I wouldn’t be there to help.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a homecoming,” Dr. Enys says.

“Maybe not,” Ross admits. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to it. I never appreciated just how much it meant to me, how much that land is a part of me and I am a part of it. That’s where I belong.”

“And there is nothing else for you?” Dr. Enys ventures. “No other comforts?”

Ross chuckles with a nod of his head. “There is a woman,” he says, fiddling with the ring on his finger. “Elizabeth.”

“Your betrothed?” Dr. Enys presumes.

“Not by any official means,” Ross says. “But the emotion between us -- it stays the distance, even across the whole ocean.”

“Then my purpose here is fulfilled,” Dr. Enys says. “If I can get you home, back to your land and your loved ones, then I have left this war better than I found it.”

“Of that, I think we can already be certain,” Ross assures him.

Dr. Enys ducks his head away and starts to unmake his cot. “You should rest now,” he says. “You are still recovering, you know.”

“You as well,” Ross says, busying himself by unmaking his own bed. “Get some sleep for yourself, Dr. Enys.”

“Dwight,” the other man says.

Ross looks across at him in surprise.

“My name is Dwight,” he says.

Ross nods again, and then smiles. “Very well,” he says. “Good night, Dwight.”

The doctor settles back, poking the fire one more time with a stick before arranging the covers over himself. “Good night, Ross.”

-o-

That night, Ross dreams of home.

Flush fields, the swells of the sea. Elizabeth’s laugh like a tinkling bell.

It’s closer now, almost close enough to touch.

He wakes with his hands fisted hopefully around air.

-o-

Ross works with renewed vigor. He sets about to make their camp clean, secure and pleasant. He sets up new traps and prepares the meat himself while Dwight works with the other man more than ever. After a week, the camp is efficient and comfortable, and the other man can walk all the way across it without help.

Even Dwight seems much improved, and Ross notices a fresh ruddiness in his complexion and a keen look in his eyes. His spirit is buoyant, and he works with a heightened tempo. When he’s updating his journal, he starts whistling a friendly little tune. Ross finds himself humming along, playing with the ring on his finger with a smile on his face.

Then, miraculously, the winter starts to thaw with temperatures rising enough to ease the snow and improve their temperaments accordingly. All things considered, it starts to feel like hope.

And Ross decides it is a good feeling indeed.

-o-

“As your physician,” Dwight announces one night at dinner. “I am proud to give both of you permission to go home.”

Ross sits up, eyebrows raised.

The other man snorts. “Been stuck in this tent for months and on the wrong continent for years,” he says. “And now you’re saying I can go?”

Dwight appears vexed by this reply. “I had thought this would be good news.”

“It’d be good news if you had a way to actually get us out of here,” the man says, pointing a stubbing finger toward the tent flap. “But we’re still three abandoned men with no supply line, chain of command or communication system. Do we even know how to get out of here without getting lost? Much less how to avoid any enemy strongholds? And if we do find our way out, am I to believe that any commanding officer will look at us as anything but three deserters?”

“We didn’t desert,” Dwight says quickly. “You were injured--”

“And you didn’t have any orders, did you?” the man presses. “Do we have papers? Weapons? Anything?

At this, Dwight appears dumbfounded, mouth closing as his face pales.

“Papers would only get us killed anyway,” Ross interjects. “If you’re right and we are in enemy territory, then appearing like deserters can only help our cause.”

“Maybe if we wanted to stay,” the man says. “But if the point’s to go home--”

“Then we figure out a way to get there,” Ross says. “Dr. Enys has worked hard to get us this far. Surely we can put in a little effort to get us all the rest of the way.”

The man scowls.

Dwight clears his throat. “Yes,” he says, his fortitude returning. “Yes, of course. We can get home -- as long as we have a plan.”

-o-

Ross is acceptable at keeping house. In his current condition, he is only of moderate assistance in doing chores, no matter how good his intentions might be. He has no wit for healing, and he can’t deny that he’s felt someone indebted to Dwight’s kindness in fortitude in all these regards. Ross has been a burden -- necessarily so -- and it is a state that has never sat well with him.

A state that no longer has to be the case.

Because Ross is still too weak and too inexperienced in most relevant skills, but he has the right experiences to make a plan. It’s not just that he’s been a soldier -- his taste for war has been minimal -- it’s just that he has a strong head on his shoulders and enough shrewdness to help account for strategy. He knows enough about the movement of troops, and, better still, he has spent a good portion of his life trying to sneak out of tight spots.

He can do this.

“It is tempting to stick to the woods, but if we should stumble across any of the enemy, that would only heighten the risk of confrontation,” Ross explains. “How far to the nearest town?”

“A day’s walk,” Dwight replies. “As long as the weather is fair.”

“Then we should move toward it immediately,” Ross says. “Stick to the main roads and make no attempt to hide ourselves.”

“I assume we wouldn’t be wearing our uniforms,” Dwight says.

“Burn them, I say,” Ross says. “They’re worthless to us now anyway.”

“Three men showing up with no connection to the locals,” Dwight says. “We’ll still arouse suspicion.”

“Suspicion, yes,” Ross says. “But we will pay our way through, same as anyone else. People may be trained to look for spies and traitors, but they are far less likely to turn away a paying customer.”

Dwight considers this. “It could work.”

“If anyone thinks we are trying to hide, then they will not give us the benefit of the doubt to explain otherwise,” Ross says. “But if we talk to them first, show that our intent is neutral--”

“We might just have a chance,” Dwight says. “It could work. And with the weather like it is, the conditions are in our favor.”

The other man grunts loudly. “We should take the guns and kill anyone we meet,” he says. “Dead men aren’t suspicious by nature.”

Ross gives him a tepid glare. “There’s just as much a chance that we will fumble across a farmer or a trapper,” he says. “Or children playing in the wood.”

The man shrugs stiffly. “Didn’t see no one look twice when they shot me.”

“Because we were shooting them,” Ross replies curtly. “It’s a cruel game, set up by people with too much power and too little stake. And seeing how we were left here to die alone, I see no need to fight for a cause they abandoned us to.”

“I don’t care none about the cause,” the man says, his eyes settling into a cold gaze. “I care about my own life. And plan all you like, if the need arises, I won’t hesitate to fight for my life.” His eyes narrowed. “Against anyone.

Ross sees the challenge, even as he wills himself to let it go. There is no benefit here; there is no benefit ever. He does not need this man in any part of his escape, and he feels little fondness for him. But he recognizes the ills of poverty and understands that principles are a privilege sometimes.

He does not wish this man harm.

But he will not allow this man to compromise them.

Dwight finally clears his throat, filling the awkward silence with a well meaning smile. “Well, with a good plan in place, we have reason to hope it won’t come to that.”

The man spits toward the fire before settling back on his cot. “You hold your hope,” he mutters, purposefully closing his eyes. “I’ll hold my gun.”

-o-

Ross thinks himself to be an agreeable person, at least when it comes to forthright, hardworking people. He has tried to give his fellow patient the benefit of the doubt -- they’ve both been bedridden, abandoned and left to wallow in the horror of a war they feel nothing for -- but he has to admit, he finds the man’s presence draining.

“To be fair,” Dwight says as they to secure the exterior of the camp once again. “Everyone who should have helped him along the way more or less left him.”

Ross grunts, shifting a piece of wood. “Not everyone,” he says. “You’re still here.”

“All the same,” Dwight says, hefting his own piece to the ground. “We can’t train men to fight and then wonder why they see violence as the solution.”

“There’s a time and place,” Ross says. “And I certainly can scold no one on the ills of fighting; I merely want to point out the ways in which we can survive this ordeal.”

“We’ll be careful,” Dwight promises. “I have every intention of getting you home. Both of you.”

Ross stands, wiping his gloves on his pants. “He’s not entirely wrong, you know,” he says, hesitating a little. At the blank look Dwight gives him, Ross purses his lips to continue. “No matter what we do, no matter how well we plan, we may have to fight.”

Dwight, for all that he is serving his country, is no kind of soldier. He is brave, no one could question. And he is smart, capable and resourceful. But Ross has seen nothing in the other man to suggest he’d be any asset in a fight. The fact that they’ve survived this long without any sort of conflict is remarkable enough; Ross has serious doubts that such luck will continue in their favor. And he is struck by the very real possibility that Dwight may not only fail to protect his patients, but himself.

Dwight’s face settles grimly. “I have dedicated myself to saving lives--”

“And if they point a gun at you?” Ross asks.

“I know how to fire a gun, if that’s what you mean,” he says.

“But do you know how to take a life?” Ross challenges.

“I know where my duty lies,” Dwight says unremittingly. “I made a promise to get you home, and I will do whatever it takes to fulfill that promise.”

Ross won’t admit it, but that is what frightens him the most. Whatever it takes is a bold promise, and while some men are prone to hyperbole, Dwight Enys is not one of them. In some ways, Ross loves him for it.

In others, it worries him more than he knows to say.

It’s all the same in the end, however. Whether they go or stay, Ross knows their presence cannot go unheeded forever. Staying here, it’s just a matter of time before someone stumbles across them, and then they’d be at a distinct disadvantage.

Leaving puts it on their terms; it gives them an advantage, no matter how slight.

Ross nods. “Very well,” he says. “Tomorrow, then. We leave tomorrow.”

Dwight’s face splits wide with a smile. “Tomorrow,” he agrees. “We start our way back home.”

-o-

They sleep soundly that night, pulled into darkness with the hope of morning. Ross settles himself contently, rubbing absently at the healing cut along the side of his face. The ridges are fading now, and it only aches dully when he touches it so well healed it has. His stamina has much returned, and his body feels renewed. These weeks -- months, he realizes -- have been long indeed, but they are not without some benefit. Ross will not be the same man as when he left, but he likes to think he is a better approximation. Wiser, more careful, and unwavering in his course.

This is Dwight’s doing, he knows, and he is grateful in more ways than he can say. Dwight did not just save his life -- a beating heart in his chest -- he saved his life. He saved the hopes and dreams, the plans and promises. He saved a son’s inheritance and a second-son’s legacy. He saved the promise of love and the innocence of youth across the wind-swept cliffs.

Ross fiddles with his ring, smiling to himself as sleep takes him.

That night, Ross dreams of Elizabeth.

That night, Ross dreams.

-o-

And wakes.

To Dwight.

The doctor is standing above his bed, hand pressed over Ross’ mouth. His eyes are wide, skin pale in the moonlight that slips through the tent flap.

Ross tenses and tries to protest, but Dwight clamps down hard and shakes his head. His eyes flicker toward the flap. Ross lets his eyes follow and that’s when he hears the sound of footsteps.

They’re too heavy to be the small game in the area and too purposeful to be a larger predator. Only one thing can walk like that, boots crunching on the snow.

Soldiers.

Ross’ heart skips a beat and his stomach turns.

Soldiers.

It would be easy to panic, but it is not in Ross’ nature. Instead, he looks back to Dwight and gives the other man a single nod. Thus assured, Dwight pulls his hand away, swallowing convulsively as Ross gets cautiously to his feet. He glances once at the other man -- still snoring on his cot -- and then once to the guns still by the door.

Dwight looks from the guns to Ross, clearly looking for some kind of guidance. Ross can’t deny that his trigger finger itches as the need to defend himself piques. But he’s already fought enough for one lifetime, and he does not wish to make these men his enemy. Not for his sake -- and not for Dwight’s.

Gingerly, he gets to his feet, giving Dwight a reassuring nod. He edges his way gently to the edge of the tent. With the flickering fire light, there is no doubt that the men outside can see his shadow, and Ross has no way of knowing how many there are or how jittery they may be. With a deep breath, he holds up his hands and pulls the flap open.

When he steps outside, he’s greeted by the barrel of a gun.

All things considered, it’s not a great greeting.

Ross has to admit, however, that he’s had worse.

At least there’s no musket ball coming out the end.

Ross looks from the barrel to the man holding it. It’s a man, a little older than Ross is. His face is weathered, and his officer’s uniform shows signs of battle.

“Who are you?” the man asks sharply while several other men converge on their position. There are at least ten men, some of whom are checking the perimeter of their makeshift camp and the rest who are standing with the guns trained on Ross.

“My name is Ross Poldark,” he answered.

“You’re in fighting shape,” the man says. “You one of them?”

“I’m one of nobody,” Ross says. “My companion and I were injured in battle; a doctor stayed behind to help us mend when the rest of the fighting moved on from this area. We seek only to leave this area in peace.”

The man snorted. “The only peace came when your ilk were forced from here at gunpoint,” he says. “You’re the bloody enemy, hiding out right under our noses.”

“I’m telling you the truth,” Ross says, keeping his hands steady and up and his voice even. “We haven’t had any contact with any army in months. Maybe more. You’d have to ask the doctor -- he’s the only one here who hasn’t been laid low by affliction.”

The man’s eyes narrow. “Where is this doctor?”

There’s a rustle behind Ross, and the man flinches, moving his gun quickly as Dwight exits the tent. His hands are also up, and his face is pinched as he comes alongside Ross.

“I’m the doctor,” he says, and there’s the slightest waver in his voice.

The man lifts in chin. “And I’m suppose to believe you haven’t been doing anything else here?” he asks. “Spying on the enemy?”

“You know how fast the army retreated from this area,” Dwight says. “They have no intention of coming back. And given the condition of these men, I haven’t been able to travel far.”

This is, of course, an entirely logical explanation, so even though the man clearly does not wish to believe it, he also has little grounds to reject it. It is a blessing, Ross knows, that they are lucky enough to be found by a man still possessed of reason. It is among the first thing soldiers lose in battle, and it is mostly certainly the hardest to reclaim.

“Let us leave this place,” Ross says. “You have fought hard for independence, and I have no qualms in giving it to you.”

The man hesitates, his aim starting to drop.

It’s going to work. Ross has been calm and reasonable, and it’s going to work. He’s going to go home; he’s going to inherit his father’s land, and he’s going to marry Elizabeth.

This is the promise of hope and everything Ross has ever wanted.

For one second -- one fleeting second -- he holds the infinite possibilities.

Right before they are blown out of the sky, skewered painfully by a single gunshot in the night.

-o-

The sound is deafening, and Ross sees the officer jerk back before crumpling to the ground. Dwight cries out, a blur of movement beside him, shoving him to the ground with a force that Ross does not expect from such a soft-spoken man.

Disoriented and off balance, Ross hits the ground hard, his consciousness jarred as his face is buried in the crusty snow. Over his head, more gunshots rip through the night, a fast barrage that ends in horrifying stillness.

Heart pounding, Ross lifts his head, craning it just so until he sees his fellow patient.

In the wan moonlight, his face is murky and blue, but the sightlessness of his eyes are impossible to miss.

So is the blood.

There is so much blood.

It darkens the snow between them, and Ross quickly realizes he’s soaked in it. He startles badly, trying to scramble to his feet, but someone grabs him unceremoniously by the nap of his neck before he even has the chance. He’s dragged flailing as he tries and fails to get his footing, and he’s dumped hard on the ground before his head is pulled upright. Someone has a fist of his hair, craning his head until his neck is exposed.

Someone else is pointing a bayonet right at him.

“Please,” Dwight begs from not far away. “You don’t understand -- I can help him! I can help him!”

No one seems to care, though, and Dwight is deposited neck to Ross just as viciously. From the side, Ross can see that Dwight’s face is streaked with tears and his hands are stained with blood.

“He’s not dead,” Dwight says. “Surely, you can see that. I’m a doctor--

“You’re the damn enemy,” one of the men spits, using the tip of his own bayonet to poke Dwight tauntingly. “And that stunt here just proves it.”

“Our comrade was badly injured,” Dwight tries to explain. “His ability to reason--”

“Didn’t affect his aim none,” the man supplies. He’s older than the officer and scraggly. He sacrificed his reason long ago, assuming he ever had any.

Ross’ eyes dart about the camp.

Assuming any of them had any. If the war is nearly done, then these men are at their wit’s end. The first soldiers in a battle are always braver than the last.

There’s a reason certain men survive, and not all of it is luck.

Some men are too good to die.

Others aren’t good enough.

Ross knows in an instant what sort they’re dealing with.

“But I can save him,” Dwight says. “Please, you must--”

The scraggly man lashes out, using the hilt of his bayonet to clap Dwight hard in the side of his head. The doctor falls limply, body splayed in the snow, and something inside of Ross breaks.

The ability to reason, he remembers.

There’s a reason so many men lose it. It’s a hard, hard thing to hold onto.

Ross never believed in the cause his superior officers cared about. He has little love for King and Country. But he will always fight on behalf of those who deserve it. On behalf of the good, the noble, the righteous. On behalf of those who will not fight for themselves.

Those who cannot.

Those Ross counts as friends.

Dwight Enys is all these things to Ross, and more.

So Ross will fight.

Not because the odds are in his favor or that it’s a fight he’ll win. They aren’t, and he probably won’t. It’s not even because it’s probably the right thing to do, though Ross thinks most people would agree with him.

No, Ross will fight because he can and Dwight can’t.

He’ll fight because someone has to.

-o-

Ross has the best of intentions -- he usually does. Say what you will about him, but Ross Poldark is a principled man, all consequences be damned.

All consequences.

Be damned.

That’s why, most likely, he has a tendency to pick fights he cannot hope to win. True, maybe it’s a strange way to sabotage himself, as if success is something he does not truly wish to attain. Surely, he knows better.

But still, he fights.

His fists fly fast and heavy, making contact with anything he can. His vision blurs in a rage, and he plows someone to the ground, feeling their bones give beneath them both as they fall. He fumbles to his feet, ready to fly when the first punch catches him across the cheek. It sends him sprawling, vision blurred as someone kicks him in the gut. Another kick hits hard across his nose and another to the chin lands him on his back, blinking blindly up at the pre-dawn sky.

He’d like to say it was a good effort, at least, but his offensive was a matter of seconds. Mere fleeting moments to no gain. Dwight is still defenseless; their comrade is dead. And his father toils at home with failing health while Elizabeth entertains all the suitors that would readily take his place.

There’s a bayonet in his face, poised above the jagged scar down the side of his face. For a moment, he ponders the inscription on his tombstone:

Here lies Ross Poldark. If any mistake is worth making once, it’s worth making again.

“Wait!” Dwight screams, falling into view. He’s on his knees in the snow, holding a hand out over Ross protectively. “Please, wait!”

The man behind the bayonet snarls, casting a vicious glare at Dwight. “Give me a reason.”

Dwight’s breathing catches and he swallows hard. “You could take us as prisoners,” he says. “Use us to lobby for your own betterment.”

“More trouble than it’s worth,” the man says, the tip of the bayonet faltering closer to Ross’s bruised skin.

“Then let us go,” Dwight says emphatically. “This war is over. Your commanding officer is dead. There is no need for this blood on your hands when you are free to go back to your life.”

“You all are the reason I’m here,” he grunts. He nods to the other men, weapons poised around them in a semicircle. “And my hands ain’t been clean for a long time.”

Dwight draws a ragged breath. “I have money,” he says. “Not a lot, but enough to split between you. And you can take anything of the provisions we have left.”

The man hesitates at this.

Dwight senses his opening. “And this,” he says, digging into his pocket. He produces a pocket watch. “It’s pure gold and valuable. It should more than make up for your trouble.”

“And why not just kill you and take it anyway?” the man asks, lowering the tip of the blade once again. “It’d be the easier thing.”

Ross tries to steady his breathing, his heart thumping in his chest. The ground is cold and wet, and it hurts to breathe.

“Please,” Dwight says. “We just want to go home.

It’s a plaintive plea, the honest truth of a man with nothing left to give and everything to lose.

“Ah,” the man says in disgust. He jerks the bayonet up. “No point in it. You’re already abandoned and left for dead. Your lot was so hasty in its retreat to bother with you. You’re not worth the effort it would take to bury you.”

Dwight visibly deflates. “Oh, thank God--”

The man shifts, pointing the bayonet at Dwight now. “The money and the gear,” he says, inclining his head dangerously. “And I’ll start with the watch.”

-o-

Dwight gives him the watch. He’s nothing but helpful, in fact, giving all of their supplies, food and valuables. He almost thanks them as he dutifully provides his doctor kit, promising once again that they mean them absolutely no harm.

Ross watches numbly. He’s on his feet, but barely, listing heavily to one side. His vision is still hazy, and everything he hears sounds like an echo from a tin.

The other patient is still abandoned in the snow, blood stained body with its eyes open, sightless to the sky.

He’s home, at least.

Ross is the last one.

Ross is the last.

“Hey,” one of the soldiers grunt. “What about him?”

Dwight rushes closer. “He has nothing on him,” he says. “He lost any personal belonging when his regiment moved out.”

The soldier wrinkles his nose in disgust. The other man -- the scruffy one who has made himself the defacto leader -- approaches. “What about this?” he asks, using his bayonet to poke at Ross’ hand.

Ross pulls it away instinctively.

“Ring looks like silver,” the man says. “Must be worth something.”

“It’s not mine to give,” Ross says dully. “I--”

“Please,” Dwight says. “He’s been injured--”

“Looks like a woman’s ring,” the soldier observes.

The man raises his eyebrows. “Someone is holding out hope you’ll come home, eh?”

Ross looks down dumbly at the ring. He can still feel Elizabeth’s fingers, circled around his own.

“Aw, leave it,” the man says. “It don’t belong to him anyhow.”

The man steps away, letting the aim of his bayonet fall with a wicked grin.

“If he’s lucky enough to get home, that’s all he’ll have left of her,” the man says. “Not like she’ll have waited. Let him keep it as a reminder of everything he’s lost.”

Somehow the pronouncement is the heaviest one yet, hitting Ross hard in the gut. He feels sick; he feels dizzy, and he has to blink his eyes rapidly in a vain attempt to hold himself together. Dwight leans closer, shoulder pressed against him in unspoken solidarity.

The snow crunches as the soldiers start away. “You best run, boys,” the man says coolly as the sun rises over the trees. “Before I change my mind.”

-o-

They run.

Ross can hardly think to make his legs move, but Dwight has his hand around his arm and he’s pulling hard and fast until Ross has no choice but to comply. He stumbles, almost falling, but Dwight hoists him up, half carrying him several paces.

Ross blinks, a blur of sun and snow as the ground crunches beneath their boots. He’s light headed with his vision fading in and out, and he can’t quite catch his breath.

Somewhere, he hears the roar of the ocean in his ears.

Elizabeth floats through his mind, just out of his reach.

“Come on,” Dwight commands desperately. “Come on.”

If fate won’t yield to the demand, Ross will.

Ross, after all, no longer has a choice.

-o-

It’s minutes; it’s hours. Ross moves as if in a dream, but the soft ethereal edges hold back a sinister secret. His numb legs hobble woodenly across the ground, and the utter disorientation should be disconcerting.

He’s too tired, though. Too tired to worry. Too tired to think. Too tired.

His legs give way, and he’s on the ground before he realizes that he’s fallen. From above, Dwight curses, yanking Ross up in desperation. Ross has no control of himself, however, and he can only blink as Dwight’s tear-streaked face is shadowed in the sun above him.

“Ross, please,” Dwight says, voice caught with a sob. “We need to move.”

Ross’ eyes flicker to the forest around them. The snow-laden trees are heavy with ice, and Ross can feel the chill in his lungs. They need more than that.

“We have no money or means to go to town,” Dwight explains raggedly. “And even if we did, I don’t think it wise.”

Ross is many things, but wise has probably never been one of them.

Dwight rubs his bare hands up Ross’ arms. “They took the coats and the blankets, too,” he laments. “Our supplies and my medical kit….”

He trails off, brow furrowing as he looks at Ross. He reaches up, wiping across Ross’ cheek.

“Are you hurt?” he asks. “The blood--”

Ross flinches, closing his eyes.

Dwight’s fingers ghost around a tender spot on his skull. “Another wound to the head is not what you needed,” he murmurs. “Ross. I need you to look at me.”

Ross settles deeper into the stillness.

Dwight jostles him. “Ross, now,” he orders with only a doctor’s conviction. “Please look at me.”

It’s not the order, maybe, but the request that makes Ross comply. He cracks his eyes open and does his best not to whimper.

Above him, Dwight swallows hard. “I know this isn’t what we planned, and I know it’s hard,” he says solemnly. “But I’m going to get you home.”

Ross shudders violently.

Dwight is ever resolute. “I promise.”

Ross doesn’t have the energy to agree or disagree, not that he knows how at this point. It seems like a futile thing -- all of this. Fighting wars he doesn’t believe in and picking fights he cannot win. Going home to a world that’s moved on without him, holding onto trinkets of the past because that’s all he has. Elizabeth has always been a dream, and she’s been slipping through his fingers since the day he fell in love with her.

“But,” Dwight says with a grunt as he yanks Ross up by fistfuls of his coat. “We have to run.

-o-

The movement is unsettling, and the endless trees steals his sense of direction. He is aching badly when Dwight finally stops for the night, and Ross sits dumbly while Dwight tries to make a fire.

With the recent thaw, there is little dry wood, and Ross can see Dwight’s hands shaking. It is warmer, to be sure, but the temperatures are still unpleasant, and it occurs to Ross that Dwight is more unnerved about this than Ross has taken time to consider.

Not that any of the variables are unknown to him. Dwight has made their situation quite explicit, as if Ross could not deduce it himself. In fact, if anything, Dwight seems to be operating under the false impression that this situation can still be salvaged.

As if they are not a lost cause, the pair of them. Dwight’s determination is no match for the elemental forces against them.

Frustrated, Dwight sits back on his muddy heels, running a and through his tousled hair. “It’s too wet,” he says. “I can’t….”

He ends with a helpless shrug that Ross does not know how to remedy.

Dwight looks at him, then bites his lip. He gets to his feet. “You need to eat,” he declares.

Ross follows him with his eyes, surprised. “I’m not hungry.”

Dwight frowns for a moment. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “You need to eat; we still have a long journey ahead of us.”

It’s a long journey but there is no destination.

“Just sit fast, my friend,” Dwight says with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I will only be a minute.”

-o-


A minute, Ross tells himself as his eyelids start to droop.

Just a minute.

A minute.

His eyes slide close to a familiar darkness. The distant roar is louder here, like the sound of the wind when a storm builds off the coast. Thunder rumbles somewhere far away, and he reaches out.

But finds nothing.

There’s nothing there.

There’s nothing.

Just the fading sound of Elizabeth’s voice. “Come back to me. Come back--”

-o-

“Ross,” Dwight says, fingers tapping on his cheek. “Ross?”

Ross groans, trying to turn his head away until he realizes there’s nowhere to go.

There’s nowhere.

Sitting back, Dwight sighs in relief. His red cheeks are chapped with the cold, and his fingers fumble with the items he’s brought. “It was more than a minute, I’m afraid,” he apologizes as he wipes something clean. “And I know it’s not much, but--”

He holds them out, a small array of leaves and roots. Ross eyes them uncertainly.

“All perfectly edible, I assure you,” Dwight says, holding them even further out. “Just not perfectly tasty.”

Ross looks at them, twisted and washed clean with snow. He doesn’t recognize them, and his stomach churns angrily at the prospect. He’s hungry but has no desire to eat.

Dwight’s optimism fails him, his facade faltering. “I know it leaves something wanting,” he says. “But it’s the best I can do.”

Dwight is trying hard -- that much is clear -- and Ross isn’t ignorant to what that means. He’s not oblivious to the sacrifice of friendship Dwight has offered him. That’s the problem, maybe. Because, for the first time since waking up in Dwight’s makeshift field hospital, Ross is starting to think that he’s not worth it. Though his body survived the battle, all that mattered in his life was forfeit.

A war they lost. A lover who would not want him. A father who may not even remember him.

Sighing again, Dwight drops his hand. He looks ruefully at the food in his lap and takes a small bite. He chews and forces a bitter swallow. He takes a few more bites before folding the rest into his pocket. He tries to smile. “Maybe we’ll find something better tomorrow.”

Ross turns his head away.

Dwight grunts, reaching down and heaving Ross to his feet. “It’s sure to taste better,” he says with renewed vigor. “When we’re that much closer to home.”

-o-

They come to a river that Ross doesn’t recognize, but Dwight seems confident that if they follow it downstream, they’ll have better luck.

At this point, Ross isn’t even sure what they’re looking for. A town will probably not welcome them; strangers on the road will probably see them as easy marks. Crossing a rebel regiment will likely spell their doom, and he’s not sure there would be anyone of their own brethren to reclaim them at all.

Luck, after all, is somewhat relative.

Being buried on the battlefield might be the luckiest fate of all.

Because no soldier wins in war.

Not even a little.

PART TWO