He wandered aimlessly through the forest, feeling every emotion he'd felt that day like it had been yesterday and not twenty years ago. Had it really been that long? It didn't seem possible.

He took a deep breath, smelling the same scents, breathing the smoke and gunpowder in deeply. He looked around. The screams of the wounded came back to him full-force, the sounds of death prayers, final good-byes, pleas of mercy . . . it would never leave him.

He knelt down carefully, as if at a sacred place. He would remember that spot for the rest of his life, he would never be able to forget it. Over the years it still came to him. Whenever he walked this way he always stopped right there. He didn't even know how he remembered, all the trees were alike, it seemed. But he knew.

He felt the familiar mist come to his eyes and thought back once again to that day . . .

. . . "Hold your own, men!" their Captain shouted over the noise of the battle, "We'll make it!"

He charged forward with the rest of them, holding his bayonet high, plunging it into anyone who didn't wear his uniform. He was mindless, he couldn't think, he couldn't even breathe. He didn't know what he was doing; he just did it, over and over.

He heard a shout from his comrade, "Behind you!"

He turned and raised his gun at the man coming at him. And in the moment before he recognized him- he fired.

. . . He closed his eyes tight against the memories, but they wouldn't stop. It was all in his mind, but it was all so real. . . he could have sworn he was there again.

"How could I?" he asked himself once again, "How could I do that?

The question ate at him every day, every night. How could he? What was he, some kind of monster? How could he? . . .

. . . He knew as soon as he pulled the trigger. He would have given anything to take that bullet back, to have never let it go, to die instead.

After that, time stood still. He didn't care if men were dying, he didn't care about anything except the boy he had just shot.

He knelt down, dropping his gun, "Oh God, no." He stared at the boy, "No."

He looked so scared, so shocked. He swallowed, "Jim?"

He nodded, unable to speak.

"Y- you. . . "

He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep the tears back, "I'm so sorry, Danny."

"So am I," he said, "I didn't know it was you."

"You couldn't have." He grabbed his brother's hand and leaned down so he could hear, "Danny, I-" he broke off in a sob, "I'm so sorry," he said again.

Danny looked at him, "Will I be okay?"

Jim looked down at the wound, blood flowed rapidly out of the boy's stomach, covering the ground beneath him. "You'll be fine," he managed. He knew it was a lie. He just couldn't bear the truth.

Danny smiled a little, "I-" he paused, his eyes traveling down to the wound Jim still stared at. Danny looked at Jim in fear, "Oh Jim, I- I'm not gonna, I can't-"

"Shh," he quieted him. "Don't be scared, little brother."

"I don't wanna die."

"You won't." He lifted Danny up slowly, it was easy, Danny had always been so small, and laid him across his lap gently. He put his arms around him and held him close, "Don't worry, I'm here."

Danny held onto his arm and leaned against Jim's chest, "Don't let me die, please."

He held him tighter, as if the strength in his arms could somehow give him strength to live. He sobbed and his tears fell freely, he paid them no mind. He couldn't let him die. He was supposed to protect him, he was supposed to keep him safe. How could he do this?

"It's okay," he said in Danny's ear, "It'll all be okay." he had to be strong. Danny needed his big brother there for him.

Danny was trembling. "It hurts."

"I know Danny, I know. But it'll be all right." His voice broke with sobs and his tears were falling on Danny's gray uniform.

"I've missed you," Danny said weakly. "It's been a long time."

Jim sobbed, "It sure has. I missed you too, baby brother. We'll have to- to make up for it when we get home. We'll go fishing together and-" he swallowed, "And we'll spend every day just- just sitting around doing nothing while Pa and Ma holler at us for it. Okay?"

"Sounds good," he said quietly.

Jim felt something hit his shoulder and fell over from the impact. He straightened slowly and saw blood coming from a hole in his blue shirt. "Damn," he said. It didn't hurt, but he'd been hit.

"Jim are you okay?" Danny asked, worried even in his state.

"I'm fine," he said. He brushed Danny's hair from his eyes and smiled, "It was nothing." He knew the blood would give it away, but he had to try.

He saw the knowledge in Danny's eyes, but the boy said nothing more about it. He just lay there quietly, tears in his eyes and pain on his face. Jim held him, there was nothing else he could do, no way he could make it better. "I love you so much, Danny," he said.

"I love you too, big brother," Danny answered, clinging tightly to his arm. "Jim, please don't let me die," he sobbed again.

Jim didn't answer. There was nothing he could say. . .

. . . He stared silently at the ground, hoping against hope that it had all been a dream, that he would wake up and find it all changed, the nightmare gone. But he knew it wouldn't happen. He'd hoped that same thing for twenty years, it would never change.

To this day he blamed himself, still repeated over and over in his mind that question: How could he?

He'd never thought. . . not ever. . . that they would meet in battle. He never thought there was a chance. If he'd had the slightest thought, he never would have joined. He knew what he believed, but some things were more important, and his little brother was one of them. Neither of them had ever imagined. . .

It was so long ago, but he never would forgive himself. He didn't want to. Forgiveness meant betrayal. If he kept his guilt, his shame, if he hated himself for it, then it would keep his memory alive. He would never forget him, and he would never allow himself to be forgiven. . .

. . . He felt his brother go limp in his arms, and he knew why. But he couldn't accept it. He couldn't. Jim held his brother tight and vowed never to let go. He would protect him, death couldn't have him, no one could. . .

. . . He went black after that, and didn't remember anything until he woke up in camp later. They said he'd passed out from blood loss, they'd found him later that night while collecting the dead and wounded. He asked them about Danny but they said he was dead, and they'd left him there for his men to find him.

He was never returned home, and was buried in some nameless grave like so many others. But he wasn't like all the others. He was Danny, the little brother. He had been shot and killed by his brother's gun, and died in his brother's arms. His brother, who had failed to protect him, failed to keep him safe from harm, who had killed him, who had lied and told him he would be fine, who hadn't been able to save him.

Jim stood and gazed down at the spot, knowing that nothing could ever heal his wounds. And he'd never try to. He didn't deserve to heal, to be happy. He was a murderer, he had killed his brother. Nobody else knew the burden he carried with him always. They didn't have to. That didn't matter. the only thing that mattered was that what happened that day stayed with him. Forever.

He stared at the ground where Danny's blood had mingled with his own, forming a puddle of red beneath the tree. The blood had washed from the ground many years ago, but the stains would remain on his heart, forever.

***