Raindrops pattered onto the Jagdtiger's roof. Just as the Kampfgruppe had left the camp, thunder and then rain had started. Two hours later it still hadn't stopped. Normally Jankovic wouldn't have been bothered by a bit of rain. But there were a few reasons why he hoped nevertheless that the sun would return soon.
He wasn't worried about catching a cold - he had an umbrella, after all. He wasn't the only tank commander with such amenities and felt a little sorry for the infantrymen who had to trudge through the rain without any such protection. What he was really concerned about was the fact that they had left the roads a while ago. The paths and fields they were navigating had been getting muddy. Jankovic looked back at the deep furrows his tank's tracks were leaving in the soaked ground. He frowned.
"If this goes on, we'll have a problem soon," he said to his crew. That wasn't just a suspicion; he was speaking from experience. The Jagdtiger was something that Jankovic liked to call a "fair-weather-tank". The driver mumbled something that sounded a lot like "Very soon...".
"Welp," the radioman said. He and Jankovic stood before the Jagdtiger, whose tracks had burrowed themselves deep into the mud. The driver was trying in vain to get it to move again, instead just digging it in deeper. A cloudburst - even if it had lasted only a short time - had caused the fields to be completely impassable for the tanks. Even the footsoldiers' boots were sinking deeply into the ground. The cloudburst was over already, but it was still raining heavily.
"It's pointless," Jankovic concluded. He looked to the side, where Weidner had suddenly appeared and stepped under the umbrella as well.
"Welp," Weidner said. Jankovic and the radioman shared a look. Weidner went on. "Leave it be, you're not going anywhere. We'll be staying here for now anyway."
"Oh? Did Schiefer say that?" Jankovic asked. He looked back behind himself, where the soldiers were just about to start putting up tents. Weidner nodded. "Well then," Jankovic said and shrugged. He gestured at the driver, who stopped torturing the engine of his tank. Then a sudden bang made the entire Kampfgruppe flinch. Jankovic and Weidner both leaned to the side to look past the Jagdtiger. Further back they spotted the Panzer IV/70s.
"Something happened there..." Weidner murmured. Jankovic set himself into motion and Weidner followed.
As they reached the tank destroyers, the crews had already jumped out and gathered around one of the tanks. A few of them stepped aside as Jankovic and Weidner made their way to the scene of the incident. They finally reached the first row and were baffled by the view that presented itself to them.
"...Welp," Jankovic said.
A track of one of the Panzer IV/70s had snapped. The crew stood next to it. Among them was a girl who had buried her face in her hands and was weeping bitterly. Jankovic recognized her, had seen her the day before in Schiefer's tent. Someone was standing next to her and obviously trying to calm her down. Jankovic handed his umbrella over to Weidner and walked over to her.
"What's wrong?" he asked as he reached her. The redhead by her side looked at him helplessly and stepped aside, pointing at the tank.
"The track..." he said. The girl sobbed something that no one could understand. Jankovic bent down a bit and put his hand on her shoulder.
"Why are you crying?" he asked her.
"I... it's... all my fault.... keeping everyone!" was all that he could decipher. The redhead chimed in.
"It's not your fault!" he said but it didn't seem to have any effect.
"Now, take your hands out of your face and look at me," Jankovic said calmly. She obeyed, if hesitantly. Her tear-swollen face looked at him anxiously. Jankovic went on. "Nothing terrible has happened at all. It's just a broken track."
"But..." the girl wailed. "What... What should we do now...??"
Jankovic raised an eyebrow.
"You repair it," he said.
She looked at him with distress. Jankovic looked around and earned more clueless gazes. He got a suspicion.
"Didn't they show you how?" he asked.
"Only very briefly..." the girl replied with her eyes lowered. She slapped her hands in front of her face again. "We'll never manage!" she blurted out.
"I can help you," Jankovic offered. The girl looked at him again, this time clearly puzzled.
"That... You would really do that?" she asked. Jankovic nodded.
"But we'll do that later, alright? When everything is this muddy, there's no point."
"A-Alright..." the girl said and nodded bravely.
Jankovic patted her shoulder and stood up straight again. He looked around.
"What do you think? Shouldn't we make ourselves useful?" he suggested. The girl immediately straightened her posture.
"Jawohl!" she said. Jankovic couldn't help but smile.
Putting up the tents turned out to be difficult due to the weather. Upon Jankovic's suggestion the tankers also helped, even though not all of them seemed thrilled by the idea. But Jankovic was the Stabsfeldwebel after all, and they had to listen to him.
Jankovic himself also helped dutifully. He wasn't someone who'd order other people around only to sit back and let the others work for him.
Weidner stood nearby and listened to his friend talk with the commander of the Panzer IV/70s. She was a pretty clumsy girl, so Jankovic ended up doing her job as well. But that didn't seem to bother him.
"What's your name?" he asked after taking a tent rope out of her hands that she had tangled herself up in.
"Köhler..." she said quietly.
"How long have you been tankers?"
Sarah looked at the ground.
"For a month..." she mumbled.
"Dear Lord," Jankovic gasped.
Weidner was surprised, but not shocked. So that was the state of their army. In any case he was sure that Jankovic had just found a new victim for his mothering compulsion. Weidner raised a brow as he scrutinized the girl with newly awakened curiosity. Surely she hadn't been drafted. And he had doubts that she actually wanted to be a tank commander. She seemed more like someone had coerced her into choosing this career and she was now trying to come to terms with it. That seemed like a sound explanation, since she definitely didn't look like a very able commander so she definitely hadn't been chosen because of exceptional qualification either.
Jankovic seemed to be wondering the same thing and asked about it right away.
"Did you volunteer?"
Sarah shook her head and shrugged.
"My brother had to go, and I didn't want him to be alone."
Jankovic looked deeply moved.
"What do your parents think about this?" he asked.
Sarah hesitated for a moment before she answered.
"They're not alive anymore."
Weidner wouldn't have been surprised if Jankovic had dropped the tent rope in that very moment to hug his new protégé right away. The Stabsfeldwebel froze for a moment.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he eventually said, as soon as he had recovered.
Even though the temptation was there, Weidner stopped himself from saying "Great, that means you can adopt them". He realized it would have been pretty tactless in that moment.
"Where do you live then? With your grandparents?" Jankovic asked. He obviously had completely forgotten about his plans to put up the tent,his whole attention now focused on the girl.
"With our aunt," Sarah said and then quickly answered the next question that would have followed. "She is very proud of us. Our uncle was a tanker as well."
Jankovic only seemed more devastated, but he stopped with the questions for now - probably to prevent accidentally opening more old wounds.
He looked a bit out of it, staring at the tent rope in his hands cluelessly for a while. Weidner watched with amusement, but then something else claimed his attention.
With the usual arrogant looks, the StuG crews came strutting by. Unlike the rest of the present people, they weren't soaked at all.
Weidner's expression grew dark immediately.
"And where are you coming from?" he asked. For a moment it looked like the men would just walk past him; but they halted. Weidner already knew which one of them was the platoon leader. A lean, young man with short brown hair stepped forward and tilted his head, hand on his hip casually. Jankovic looked up as well and watched the newcomers with a frown.
Weidner was just waiting for a snide response, which would immediately give him a justified reason for disciplinary measures.
"We were just getting accommodated for an extended stay," the platoon leader replied. "Since we have to wait for a tank that drowns in every puddle, whenever it isn't breaking down for another reason."
Of course he didn't have to specify which tank he meant. Weidner's eyes darted to Jankovic, who seemed completely baffled by such insolence.
The platoon leader went one better. He looked to one of the men that were standing behind him.
"I'll be surprised if we arrive at all!"
He grinned and his platoon mates grinned back.
Weidner was speechless and it took several seconds until Jankovic broke the silence.
"I didn't hear that," he said calmly.
The platoon leader didn't even look at him, instead only gazed at Weidner. Then, he simply turned around and walked off. His buddies followed him, throwing amused looks at their two superiors.
Only when the last of them had left, Weidner managed to break free from his stupor.
"Did you see that?! Can you believe this?!" he fumed, gesticulating wildly into the direction the others had gone. Jankovic didn't seem to share his anger and had gone back to work. Sarah was looking at Weidner with an aghast expression, but hastily averted her eyes when he caught her doing that.
"Are you just going to let them get away with this?" Weidner asked agitatedly.
"Let them talk," he said. "I don't have to take everything to heart."
Weidner narrowed his eyes.
"I'll take care of it..."
"Uh oh," Jankovic grinned. Weidner called the name of the StuGs' platoon leader and set himself into motion. He already had an idea for a suitable consequence for such impudence.
Soon after he was watching the culprits as they were counting the entire Kampfgruppe's ammunition with sour expressions. Weidner himself had a sardonic grin plastered across his face as he did. He had told them that in the end he'd ask them how many bullets and shells they had counted. Of course Weidner didn't actually have any idea how many they had. But they didn't know that. Neither did they know that no matter what number they'd say in the end, he'd tell them they had miscounted and would order them to start over.
In any case they'd be busy with that for the rest of the day. But he had soon gotten enough of that view and was leaving them. Jankovic sought him out soon after.
"I have to ask you something," he said as he reached Weidner.
Jankovic rolled up the sleeves of his sweater and pointed at the bandages that were covering his arms.
"Can you help me change these?" he asked.
Weidner's gaze lingered on the bandages for a while before he looked up again. He frowned.
"Why don't you let a medic do that?"
"They would send me straight back to the sickbed," he said.
"I don't think so. After all, you've been running around and feeling fine the entire time," Weidner replied. He sighed as Jankovic put on a deeply disappointed face. "Fine! If you insist!" he capitulated.
Weidner started to take off the bandages slowly and cautiously. He scrunched up his face at the sight it revealed.
"They got you real good," he said.
"I was so busy waiting for the T-34 to appear again that I didn't realize it had snuck up on our side," Jankovic said with a shrug, but he smiled boldly. Weidner knew that even though Jankovic was embarrassed by mistakes, he was still proud of every scar that was inflicted on him in battle. Maybe that was the reason why he wanted Weidner to help with the bandages so urgently - to brag.
"You could have died."
"But I didn't," Jankovic retorted with a grin.
That put a damper on Weidner's mood.
"How come you're always so lucky? And me, I'm not..." he mumbled.
Jankovic looked at him with a puzzled expression, as if this was shocking news.
"Lately?" he asked.
"In general," Weidner grouched. He let his hands sink. "You survive anything, get a few scratches maybe. But me..." He fell silent as he realized that he was whining. Jankovic only looked at him with sympathy, which only made it more uncomfortable. "Sorry," Weidner said. Jankovic must have understood what he was getting at.
"Maybe you should look at it this way... It also had positive sides," he said. "You may have lost your memories, but found Emma."
It was difficult for Weidner to share his fellow soldier's optimism. He lowered his gaze.