The first thing Johnny thought when he saw Bull for the first time was that he didn’t look real. Everything about him was comically oversized – the width of his shoulders, his huge hands, even the fat cigar that hung from his mouth. He stuck out like a sore thumb, and Johnny, not a man who was usually given to it, felt a breathtaking surge of affection.
That was then, and in those intervening months, no, years, there’d been something. Bull would catch his eye in this strange way, so fleeting it could be a trick of the light. A summer sunset dealing its last rays just so – a moment elongated just long enough for Johnny to look back in the same way.
Yeah, there’d been something alright.
Now though, Bill is asking him where Bull is, and he can’t remember any sunsets. His hands are covered in blood, and that awful smell of scorched earth rises in the air. “I don’t know,” he says, and his voice catches on just about every syllable. He looks away, embarrassed at how quickly the emotion has set in. He’s seen plenty of men cry today, but he ain’t ever been cut that way.
Bill pats him on the shoulder, and his heavy touch grounds Johnny for a minute. Bill doesn’t know – hell, neither does Bull. God, does doesn’t work any more. Sticks out in the sentence just like Bull did on that day forever ago. It’s did now – and with three letters, Bull is consigned to the past. He becomes an ever receding landmark on the horizon. Johnny looks back, towards a building that grows smaller and smaller, and just as it’s about to disappear from view, a great cloud of dirt spews up from the ground in front of it.
Did, didn’t, done.
Johnny blinks, and wipes at his eye with the back of his hand.
Johnny has been at the pub for hours. He’s got the best table in the house, the little rickety one in the corner. From here he can see Buck holding court near the dartboard, Heffron hanging off his every word. It’s never been something Johnny’s picked up, so he sits there and watches, barely even noticing when someone pulls up a chair next to him. He expects it to be Perconte, or Luz. Badgering him to get some drinks in again. When he turns and sees that it’s Bull, he starts a little. Bull laughs, a slow, deep thing.
“Saw you sitting by yourself. Thought you looked a little, uh,” and he stops. “Lonely,” he finishes. He says this word quietly, even though there’s no chance of them being overheard.
“Just thinking,” Johnny says.
“Penny for ‘em?” says Bull – and there it is. That strange, almost sideways look. Here, in this dark little corner of a dark, little pub, it could mean anything. Whatever Johnny says next will give that look its purpose, its currency.
I never said a damn thing, Johnny thinks to himself as he wakes up. For a moment, he can feel the rough, worn-down wood of the table under his fingers, and then it’s gone, Bull with it. Johnny curses himself, curses Bull for having the nerve to die, and curses the whole damn war.
A deep ache settles at the base of his ribs, and this he knows. Remembers feeling wrung out from the inside when his Pa died, how it’d hurt to do anything but lay down for a good while. Not that he could do that now, No, he’ll just have to keep going. He thinks of Bull again. It’s hard not to now. If he were here now, he’d say it all.
He wants to get up and move all of a sudden, even though every muscle in his body disagrees. He feels compelled by some unknown force. A desperation. A little like grief, a little like longing – and well, they’re one and the same on a night like this. He rolls over, and listens to the conversation happening to his left. Bill is sitting with his back to him, surrounded by boys that don’t look old enough to shave, let alone get themselves killed.
“He was a good man,” one green little replacement says. Bill looks up sharply.
“Watch it,” he says. “Is. Not was. Might wanna chose those words of yours a little bit more carefully next time.”
The kid looks at Bill like he’s mad, but nods all the same. The conversation tails off after that, and Bill turns so that he’s facing Johnny. He doesn’t seem surprised to find Johnny staring at him.
“Been awake for long?”
“Not long. Heard what you said there.”
“Oh Christ, not you too.”
“Jesus Bill, you saw what it was like back there. He’s not-”
“Don’t say it Johnny. Don’t say it.”
Johnny doesn’t, for Bill’s sake more than his. Instead, he looks up at the sky, and tries to block out all of the sounds around him. Tries to imagine that he’s back in Aldbourne, and that he can pick up his dream where it left off. This time, he’ll say something.
He drifts off again, although sleep only comes in fits and starts. Then, Bill’s hand is on his shoulder, and Johnny opens his eyes to see his face limned in the moonlight. “They’ve gone to get him,” he says. “Bull,” he whispers after a moment – as if there was anyone else those guys would go trudging back into hellfire for.
Johnny groans. “You should have woke me up.”
Bill shrugs, but there’s something a little too practised about it for it to be nonchalant. “You’ll thank me for it tomorrow.” He pats the earth like he’ll summon sheets and a pillow with the smack of his palm against the ground. “Sleep if you can. I’ll take the watch.”
Johnny turns so that his cheek is pressed against the cool, damp earth. He’s not going to sleep now, but he imitates it. Breathes in and out, out and in. Each little lungful of air taking him a little closer to morning. Bill says nothing, but Johnny feels his gaze acutely.
All morning, Johnny braces himself. You’ve lived through worse. There’s worse yet to come. Then though, there’s a sharp shove to his shoulder, a silent order for him to turn around.
It’s impossible, but the sharp pain of Johnny's nails in the flesh of his palm confirm that it’s no dream. There, as alive as any of the men around him, is Bull.
Johnny shouts his name. The word feels like it’s been punched out of him – something that he wouldn’t have been able to contain if he tried. Johnny’s dimly aware of more laughing and cheering around him, and someone slaps him on the back. As if it was a group effort. As if they willed Bull back here by prayer alone.
When Bull comes over though, Johnny sees that there’s been a price. His uniform is soaked through with red at the shoulder, and Johnny’s willing to bet that Roe’s going to be here soon. Like a damn shark in the water, that kid. Smells blood and he’s there in a flash, bandages in hand.
“It’s good to see you,” Johnny says, and his face aches with the smile he can’t contain.
Bull doesn’t say anything, but he smiles back. Johnny reaches out to touch him on the arm, and Bull, just for a second, closes his eyes.
Then they fall back into it – Johnny needling at Bull, and Bull smiling as he makes his digs. It’s softer this time though. Johnny feels like he’s testing the waters. Then Bull laughs at one of Bill’s awful jokes, and the sound is lucky and good. He catches Johnny’s eye as he does – and holds his gaze just as he had in Johnny's dream. Just like he’s been doing right from the start, back on an overcast day in Toccoa.
Johnny stays awake for hours that night. The boys are celebrating, or counting their losses. Depends who you ask. He sits away from the crowd, in the doorway of a burnt out farmhouse. This time, when Bull seeks him out, he’s ready for it. Maybe even waiting.
“Can’t sleep?” he asks. A cigar is back in his mouth, and he’s got some of his colour back. That nasty wound on his shoulder had been bleeding sluggishly for hours, and by the time Roe had seen to it properly, Bull had been quiet and grey.
Johnny takes the time to really look at him, the huge, hulking breadth of him. He swallows. “Something like that.”
“Well,” Bull says. “Neither can I.” He lowers himself down to the ground, letting out a hiss when he puts too much weight on his shoulder. It’ll heal, Roe had said. Might not ever be the same, but you’ll live. Johnny thinks that that might be true for all of them.
For a while they sit there in silence, looking out at the fields. In the distance, they hear the crow-like caw of Bill’s laughter. Johnny shifts incrementally closer to Bull. He turns to look at Johnny, and there’s no mistaking it this time. Never was, really.
“Hey,” he says, barely audible. “You alright?”
“It’s been a long day,” Johnny says. “Didn’t sleep much last night either. I thought that you-” and here, he stops. “Sorry,” he says instead, shaking his head. “Bill knew you’d come back.”
“Well, it’s not like he had a lot to go on.” He takes a long drag of his cigar. “You weren’t wrong to think the worst.”
With the bravery that only darkness can bring, Johnny reaches for Bull’s hand; and sags, finally exhausted, against his side. Bull is warm. Warm and vital and against just about every odd going, alive. “I never said anything,” he says, whispering the words into the skin of Bull’s neck. He smells of antiseptic and sweat. It might as well be flowers, for the way that Johnny breathes it in.
“Didn’t have to,” Bull replies. “Though I did think I was imagining it.” He breathes out slowly, but Johnny can hear how his heart has picked up the pace. He takes the cigar from his mouth and grinds it into the ground, breathing out the last of it into the cold night air.
“We had time then,” Johnny says. “Back in England. I should have.”
“Oh, we’ve got time yet,” Bull says, and he squeezes Johnny’s hand tight. “Just got to make sure that we get out of this alive, that’s all.”
On the horizon, the sun just starts to nudge at the darkness, but Johnny doesn’t let go of Bull’s hand. Johnny turns so that he and Bull’s faces are a scant inch apart, if that. “Yeah,” he says. “Sounds easy enough.” He pulls Bull in with a hand on the back of his neck, and a deep, long neglected part of himself is thrilled at how this giant of a man moves so keenly at his urging. For now, he brings their foreheads together, and closes his eyes.
“It’s good to see you,” he says again. “Really, really good.”
Bull kisses him then, before the sun rises properly and casts them in daylight for everyone to see. It’s not much, just a quick press of his mouth to Johnny’s own, but it’ll do for now. Further along, on some unsettled date, they might find a bed to fall into, and Johnny will be able to see how this new, sweet thing of theirs works when they’re truly alone. He’ll have the time to run his fingertips across the wound at Bull’s shoulder and learn the rest. He can see it so clearly, and this certainty makes him feel a little giddy. The war can’t touch him now – not until then.
For now though, the sun rises, and Bull kissing him in the skeleton of a Dutch farmhouse is enough. It’ll see them through whatever is coming their way.