Actions

Work Header

Into Darkness

Chapter Text

October 1917

Oliver was in hell. He was sure of it.

How did he know that he was in hell? He knew that it was not possible for there to be anywhere on this good green earth that would look, smell, and sound like this. The church services he had been forced to sit through on school mornings had depicted hell as some kind of fiery torture, as if in the depths of the volcano that he had read about in Pliny, but they had all been wrong. This was hell, whether the traditional Christian version or the Jewish Gehinnom, or anything in between, this was any man’s idea of damnation and punishment. He wasn’t sure any sort of purification was involved. He’d not seen any sign of it yet. This wet, diseased, putrid, noisy, stinking corner of mud in a field in Northern France had to be every man’s worst nightmare. There were no two ways about it. He had only been here three weeks, and yet he thought he would never get the dampness out of his bones ever again, or that his feet would ever feel warm again, despite the thick socks that his mother had sent with him.

‘Captain Davis!’

His head snapped up and he quickly got to his feet, from where he had been sitting on a hewn bit of wood by the entrance to his dugout, reading a small copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which he had managed to procure by way of his batman in yesterday’s post. He let it drop onto the seat as he stood.

‘Major Graham,’ he said, snapping a smart salute as the commander of his company approached. Thankfully he hadn’t taken off his cap when he’d sat down, so therefore didn’t have to worry about getting in on straight as the Major approached.

‘Moving out orders from the top this morning,’ said the Major, his hard-peaked hat low on his forehead, the badge of his office prominently visible, ‘You and Captain Green are to move down to the support line this afternoon at 1300 hours, along with the rest of the battalion. You’ll be there for a week with your section, and then move to the front to relieve battalion eight, and to help out the Frenchies on the right.’

‘Very good sir,’ he said, although his stomach gave a nervous twist at the thought of moving down to the front. It would be the first time.  

‘Report to company HQ at 1130hrs for further orders,’ said Major Graham.

‘Yes sir,’ he said, snapping another salute after what he had taken to be a dismissal.

With that the Major moved off, assumedly to speak to Captain Green and give him similar orders. He waited until the Major was out of sight, around one of the many bends in the trench, before he relaxed and turned.

‘Rogers!’ he called into the dugout.

‘Captain?’ came the voice of his batman from several feet below, in the darkness of the dugout.

‘Prepare to move out,’ he said, ‘One hour. I’m going to speak to the men.’

‘Yes sir,’ came Rogers’ voice.

He picked his way along the third support trench that he and his company had been occupying for the best part of a week, in near constant drizzle. It was in a pretty decent state, however, and the duckboards below his feet kept off the worst of the mud as he walked, nodding to the men as he passed. His company were on relief at the moment, and were meant to have taken the night watch, if they’d have stayed here. Captain Green’s company had the morning watch, as well as helping with the repair of one of the roads nearby, which had come under heavy shellfire a few weeks earlier.

‘Sergeant Avery,’ he said after he spotted the man he was looking for.

‘Captain Davis,’ said the man, snapping a salute in his direction, which he returned. The level of formality made him slightly weary at times, but as they were about to move down to the support lines and then on to the front, he supposed it was for the best to maintain the strict levels of discipline required of him.

‘We’re to move down this afternoon. Major Graham has just been down the line and given orders to myself and Captain Green. Can you and Sergeant Goodwin organise the men and be ready to move out by 1100hrs. We’re to report to battalion HQ at 1130 for further orders,’ he said, looking closely at the man in front of him.

‘Yes sir, not a problem,’ said Sergeant Avery.

‘Where is your rifle Sergeant?’ he asked, looking about the man.

‘Just inside sir, to keep it out of the damp,’ said Avery, his voice suddenly nervous at the look on his superior’s face.

‘It’s alright Avery,’ he said, ‘Just don’t let Graham see you with more than a metre away from you, you know how much a stickler he is for that sort of thing.’

‘Yes sir, thank you sir,’ said the man, visibly relieved.

‘That’s all sergeant, I’ll see you at 1100hrs behind the cook tent with the company formed up.’

With that he left the sergeant to get on with it. He and Goodwin would get the men sorted out, along with the corporals also in their company. They were much better with the men than he was; they’d been with them all the way through basic training and the journey over here, whereas he’d just been introduced to them as their company commander when they’d arrived on foreign soil, having spent all his time previous to that in officer training. It was a bit of an uncomfortable transition, but he was quickly getting used to it. It didn’t help that he felt completely out of his depth; until six months ago, he’d been teaching French and English at the secondary school just up the road from his hometown, and working on his book on Greek Philosophy. And now somehow, he was here.

He knew that one of the reasons that he had been fast-tracked and moved up quicker than most was his ability to speak French, which would come in useful with the locals, and with the companies that surrounded them. All the others who he’d been called up with, as far as he was aware, were still awaiting transport in Boston, or some nearby port city. They hadn’t even made it over here yet, and were unlikely to until the new year. He knew that the powers that be wanted all American soldiers to have had extensive training before setting foot on foreign soil, which was another reason why he had been one of the first to be deployed; he’d been extremely fit when he’d been called up, so that wasn’t something they’d needed to worry about. As far as he was aware, from what he’d heard in snippets of conversation, both from his fellow Americans and from soldiers of other nations, there were less than 15,000 American troops currently in France, although more were arriving every day.

The French had several names for the Americans, the least offensive of them seeming to be ‘doughboys’, but Oliver didn’t think that he could blame them, whatever they wished to call him. They’d been bleeding themselves dry for over three years, and still the end of the war was nowhere in sight. This had been the war that was supposed to be “over by Christmas” in 1914, and yet it had dragged on and on, with both sides grinding in attrition. He and his fellow Americans had been watching from the side lines until April of that year, when President Woodrow Wilson had finally bowed to the pressure, and to the rage of the American people over the submarine attacks on American merchant vessels, and had called a special session of congress in order to declare war on the German Empire.

He'd been called up almost immediately, as he knew he would. He’d been a reservist since he was eighteen, it being something of a tradition in his family to be so, ever since his granddaddy and great-granddaddy had fought on the Unionist side of the Civil War, with only one of them making it home. His unique set of skills had ensured that he would’ve been one of the first they’d have contacted, and as soon as he knew that war was likely, he’d informed the headmaster of the school that he would probably be gone before the academic year was out. The headmaster was a kind old soul, far too old to be drawn into the conflict himself, but he’d given Oliver a weary smile, and said that he had expected as much.

He reached the dugout that he had been sleeping in for the past week, and ducked inside, removing his hat as he went, the tiny doorway far too small to accommodate his over-six-foot frame without him stooping rather a lot. He shared the dugout with Captain Green, and his batman as well. Captain Green had had morning watch, so hadn’t been there when Major Graham had come a-calling.

Oliver saw that most of the things in the dugout had been packed away into two large rucksacks, other than a few of his personal affects, which were on the table beside his small bunk. These included a pack of cards, his silver cigarette case, comb, and fountain pen. He didn’t actually have any paper to write a letter, and would have to see about getting some sent to him in the near future. He wasn’t sure exactly who he would write to first, but it might be nice to have some contact with home, even if it was likely to take a month or two to actually get a reply.

He looked up a few moments later as Private Rogers appeared from one of the adjoining rooms which was laden with stores by which Rogers fed the twelve men who made up his direct section. The stores were extremely limited however, and they hadn’t been replenished with anything since they’d arrived. He didn’t exactly hold out hope that if it was this bad here, then the support and front line would be any better. He would have tighten his belt, literally and figuratively. He hoped that the supply lines would get sorted out soon, however, because he knew that no matter how disciplined or authoritarian he tried to be, there was no way to overrule a hungry company. Someone, a very long time ago, had said that ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and they hadn’t been far from the mark. He picked up his few meagre personal belongings, and put them in the inside pocket of jacket. His great coat was hanging on a wooden hook by the door; and he would put it on before they marched up to HQ.

‘Ready Rogers?’ he asked, watching as the other man tied his cooking equipment to the side of his pack.

‘Yes sir,’ said the other, looking up.

‘I told you not to call me that when it’s just us and Captain Green down here,’ he said, ‘Otherwise I’m going to forget what my name actually is by the time I get home again.’

‘Yes sir, I mean, yes Oliver,’ said the smaller man, a blush creeping up his cheeks. Oliver knew that Rogers had been in the army far longer than him, and that calling him by his first name was very odd to the other man. He did, however, want to maintain a modicum of informality in the privacy of dugout.

‘Alright then,’ said Oliver, ‘You first.’

Rogers shouldered his rucksack, with much clanking of the pots and pans that were attached to the straps. He manoeuvred up the steps with some difficulty, and was out of sight a moment later. Oliver took one last look around the now bare dugout (apart from the supply room, which had been left for the next occupants), before shucking on his greatcoat. He picked up his rucksack along with Captain Green’s, and followed Private Rogers up the stairs and back out into the drizzle. The packs were heavy, but he didn’t have to carry anything like as much as Private Rogers or the men did. He didn’t have a rifle for a start. All officers were given two Colt revolvers, which they had to maintain and keep loaded at all times. Quite how a revolver was to stand up against a machine gun he wasn’t entirely sure, but luckily he hadn’t needed to contemplate that problem as yet.

‘Thanks Davis,’ said Captain Green as Oliver passed him his rucksack, upon spotting the other man loitering with his batman just across the trench corridor, ‘Ready to test out the frontline then?’

‘I can’t say I’m exactly “ready”,’ said Oliver, ‘But I just go wherever I’m ordered to go.’

‘Quite,’ said Green with a shrug, shouldering his pack, ‘Let’s go meet up with the company then.’

Oliver nodded, and stepped out, heading back along the weaving trench towards the cook’s tent, where most of the men, except those in Green and his’ section, got their food and sustenance. The trench felt very odd without anyone loitering about, just people manoeuvring up and down, preparing for the next company to come in a fill their place. This had been a British trench until a couple of months ago; they were effectively just squatting in it.

The company were where he’d told Avery and Goodwin to form them up, with the corporals at the top right of each column for pacing.

‘Company ‘tion!’ shouted Avery as Oliver approached. The hundred or so men in the two divided columns all came to attention with a smart stamp of hobnail boots.

‘To the front, salute!’ shouted Avery a moment later as Oliver reached the direct front and centre of the column. He returned the salute, and then dropped his hand, allowing the men to do the same a moment later. He fell in beside Avery, turning his back on the main body of the troop.

‘Let’s move out sergeant,’ he said quietly.

‘By the right, quick march!’ shouted Avery.

As one they stepped out, all of the men behind them judging pace by the corporal, who himself was keeping pace with Oliver and Avery’s feet. Oliver listened to all those feet, the front row less than a metre and a half behind him. There was something quite soothing about the rhythmic tramping of a large group of soldiers, all of them in time with one another.

It was about a 2km march to the line HQ, so as soon as they were on the dirt road, away from the main trench and the structures that surrounded it, Oliver gave the order for easy march. This meant that the men should stay in their formation, but didn’t have to worry overly much about distance and pacing, or staying exactly on the right foot. It was easier to move longer distances like this, especially when everyone was carrying heavy packs.

‘Smoke, sergeant?’ he asked Avery, getting his silver cigarette case out of his pocket.

‘Yes, if you don’t mind, sir,’ said the sergeant, taking the proffered cigarette from him and lighting it with a match from his own pocket. Oliver did the same a few seconds later, taking a deep drag and enjoying the heady feeling of the smoke swirling through his lungs. He knew that many of the soldiers behind him would also be smoking as they walked; it was one of the few pleasures that they had when they were out here.

‘What a fucking mess, eh sir?’ said Avery, gesturing as they passed what he presumed had once been a farmhouse. All that was left now, however, was the shattered remains of the broken walls, the caved in roof, and the outline of the where the stables had once been. There were a couple of trees that had been uprooted round about, but several had been left relatively unscathed, with just their trunks somewhat slashed up from flying shrapnel.

‘Yes,’ said Oliver grimly, ‘This was hard fought territory in the winter of 1915, before everyone really dug in hard. I guess it’s not had a chance to yet recover.’

‘Not likely,’ said Avery with a shrug, as they passed another company going in the opposite direction, ‘Not with us lot, the vans, the tanks, and the supplies going up and down all the time. Plus the artillery.’

‘Hmmmm,’ Oliver concurred, trying not to think about the artillery. The idea was that these reserve support lines, being 10km or so from the front, were out of range of most of the enemy artillery, but it wasn’t always the case, with the more powerful guns that were being brought up to the lines on seemingly a daily basis. He’d seen plenty of shells land just short of the line he’d been in, or occasionally whirring overhead to land harmlessly in an empty field. Luckily, he’d not been anywhere that had come under direct bombardment. Yet. He watched dispassionately as two stray dogs fought over the body of something dead on the side of the road; it looked too big to be a rat, but too small to be a badger. It was probably a rat, he reasoned, they were getting a lot of sustenance here, what with all the refuse and corpses, and he’d heard some stories of soldiers who’d seen rats grow to the size of small dogs. He couldn’t say that he was surprised; he doubted any form of hell would surprise him now.

He looked up at the grey sky, from which the drizzle never seemed to stop pouring, and wondered when he might see the sunshine again. Even if it stayed cold, he’d give anything to see a little bit of sun.

‘Whereabouts are you from Sergeant?’ he asked as they marched.

‘Florida, sir,’ said Avery.

‘Bit of a shock for you then?’ he asked with a smile.

‘Yes sir,’ said Avery, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen so much drizzle or cold in my life. Everything always seems to be damp.’

‘Yes,’ said Oliver, ‘When we get to the front I’ll ask the others if they’ve any clever way of getting around that.’

‘Others, sir?’ asked Avery, his voice slightly bemused.

‘Yes, the English or the French soldiers,’ said Oliver with a shrug, ‘Whoever we end up next to. They’ve been out here far longer than we have, and must have a thing or two to teach us.’

Avery looked at him like he’d grown an extra head, ‘But isn’t that why we’re here sir? Because they don’t have anything to teach us? To get them out of this mess?’

Oliver grinned at Avery’s tone of genuine confusion, ‘Don’t let them here you say that. Otherwise they’ll have your guts.’

‘Yes sir,’ said Avery.

As they approached HQ, Oliver ordered the company back into time and formation, before giving the halt about 20m away from the makeshift structure that had been hastily erected next to a commandeered railway station, assumedly several years ago.

‘Captain Green and I will go and talk to the Major,’ said Oliver to the sergeant, ‘Fall out the men. I don’t know how long we’ll be, but be ready to form up and move out on my word.’

‘Yes sir!’ came Avery’s acknowledgement, followed by a sharp salute which Oliver matched, before he fell out. He waited for Captain Green to come up from his own company, which had marched in behind Oliver’s, and together they headed into the battalion HQ, to see what the next few weeks would have in store for them.

Chapter Text

Elio was lying on his side, half propped up on one elbow, as he whittled away at the object between his hands. He was carving a squirrel out of wood. He didn’t really know why he had picked a squirrel, other than that there were an abundance of them at home, so he could do it relatively easily from memory. He figured that, when it was done, it would remind him a little bit of home. He hadn’t managed to get back there in over eight months now, and part of him wondered if he would ever see it again.

Throughout the summer of 1917 there had been waves of mutinies throughout the French army, in various battalions, and it meant that those of the men who weren’t in the affected divisions had to stay even if they were entitled to leave. Elio thought this was probably counter-productive, because surely men who were denied home leave, or any form of respite, were more likely to mutiny? Either way, he hadn’t been allowed leave, and had now been in the support trench for approaching a month. He knew they were supposed to be going to the reserve line sometime soon, but when that would actually happen was debatable. He stopped for a moment to pick some dirt out from under his nails with the edge of the knife. His nailbeds were constantly grimy, and he wondered if he would ever feel clean again. It had been over a month since he had gone on respite, and been able to have a proper bath. He was so used to the smell of unwashed male that he had basically ceased to smell it, even on himself. He knew it must be rank.

He hadn’t slept properly in the months that he had been here, and certainly not in the month of so that he had been in the support trench. He barely could; his hearing was hyper sensitive now, and any little rustle or noise made him jump, or his skin crawl. That, and as well as sharing his dugout with six other men, he shared it with at least fifty rats. He was lucky if he didn’t feel at least one run across his body whilst he slept. One night, not too long ago, he had awoken to find one – a big bastard at least eighteen inches tall, nibbling at the toe of his boots. He had yelled, and awoken all of the other men. Marcus, a good pistol shooter in their dugout, had got the bastard with his revolver, thankfully avoiding covering Elio’s bunk in guts as he did so.

He glanced around the dugout. Four of the six he shared with were sleeping nearby; their bodies relaxed in a parody of death that he had become so used to seeing. One of them, Theo, rolled over and twitched heavily, his limbs jerking as if he were being electrocuted. He was talking under his breath, his speech slurred and the words indistinct. Elio knew better than to try and wake him up from whatever nightmare he was clearly having. He’d tried that a few times before with various sleepers, and had usually ended up getting punched in the face or body as they panicked. It was best to just let their nightmare play out, and check they didn’t hurt themselves whilst unconscious. Theo had taken to tying himself into his bunk, using a coil of hemp rope looped around his chest under his armpits, and then attached to a slat in the dugout wall. It meant that he didn’t fall out of bed, the eight or so foot to the ground, when he was having one of his regular nightmares. It had become a usual occurrence for him, and sometimes he even screamed in terror at what was happening in his head. The others did their best to try and ignore it, and Theo never mentioned it, so they didn’t bring it up.

There was a shudder, and some mud trickled in through the dugout entryway, that led up to the trench above. It couldn’t have been a bomb or a shell, because there had been no tell-tale whine that preceded the shudder. Also, the shudder hadn’t been big enough to be a shell. It must just be some others from the company, moving about above.

It had been very quiet on this part of the line since Elio had been here, thankfully, with only the occasionally shelling spree. These seemed sporadic and unplanned, almost as if they happened when the Germans got bored in the trench opposite, rather than for any strategic purpose.

The front line was about 50 metres away from theirs, and then the German trench was only 70 or so metres further on again. Apparently in the front trench, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, you could hear them talking, or singing under their breath. This made it even weirder for Elio, because it provided a human aspect to the men he was supposed to be spending his time trying to kill, to the men he was supposed to hate. Except that was the problem; he didn’t hate them. Sure, he hated what they did, but his side had done exactly the same. The men just over a hundred metres away weren’t the reason he was here; they hadn’t ordered the invasion of his beloved France over three years ago, and yet he was supposed to hate them with every fibre of his being.

It wasn’t the first time this odd sensation had occurred for him. There was a moment, when he’d only been on active service for about two months, when he’d entered a trench that they were attacking, to find a very badly wounded German, lying on his back, and crying for his Mutter. Elio had seen French men cry for their mothers as they died, and it was just another thing that proved there was really very little difference between any of them. At that moment just before their deaths they all became sons crying for their mothers, or husbands calling out for their wives.

The shudder came again, and more mud trickled in through gap. Elio thought he should probably go see what was going on; it clearly wasn’t an attack, otherwise the alarm would have been raised, but it was enough to peak his interest.

He swung his legs out of his bunk where they had been curled up beneath him. He was too tall to stretch out effectively, and had to lie hunched up in order to fit properly. Most of the men he served with were shorter than him, so they didn’t have to worry about it. It was just a further reason why he couldn’t sleep properly. He slid the knife he had been using back into his belt, and put the half-finished carving on the table in the centre of the room. He was on sentry duty tonight; he might take up a tiny scrap of sanding paper he had found and work at it whilst staring at nothing but the moon.

He took his rifle off the rack by the door, along with his helmet and backpack, and after checking that his rifle was primed and ready for his use, he mounted the stairs into the trench above.

‘Hello Perlman, didn’t expect to see you for a few more hours,’ said one of the men in his section, Private Henry, in rapid French, ‘We’re not swapping over until stand-to.’

‘I know,’ said Elio, putting his helmet on, ‘I could just hear stuff happening, and I wasn’t asleep, so I thought I’d come and see what was going on.’

‘Oh that’ll be the new troop moving in along the way.’

‘Oh?’ asked Elio, not bothering to look because the concertina in the trench shape meant that he wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway.

‘Yeah, Americans,’ said the private, ‘Replacing the Tommies.’

‘Huh,’ said Elio, taking a cigarette out of his jacket pocket and lighting it, ‘I think these will be the first Americans that I’ve actually ever seen out here.’

‘Can you speak English then?’ asked Henry.

‘Yeah, a bit,’ said Elio, ‘My grandepere was English. Fell in love with a French nurse during the Crimean wars, and voila, never went home again. So ma mere speaks English, and taught me bits and pieces. I’m probably quite bad at it though, because I’ve not had much occasion to use it.’

‘Well you might now, I assume we’ll share watches and things, like we used to with the Tommies,’ said Private Henry.

‘Probably,’ said Elio with a shrug, ‘Especially when we move down to the front next week.’

‘When is that supposed to be again?’

‘I don’t know exactly, I think Captain Tómas mentioned five days from now didn’t he?’ asked Elio, trying to recall.

‘Probably. I probably wasn’t listening very well.’ said Henry with a grin, ‘It was just after I’d come off duty, I was so tired I couldn’t remember my own name.’  

‘Want to go and spy on the Americans?’ asked Elio, throwing his cigarette into the ooze beneath his feet, where it was instantly extinguished.

‘I would if I could, but I’m stuck here aren’t I?’ said Henry glumly, gesturing to his tiny patch of trench that he was confined to whilst on duty.

‘Oh yeah, sorry man, forgot,’ said Elio, ‘I’ll go check it out, and then report back.’

‘Do that,’ said Henry, ‘It’s really rather dull here right now, anything would be more interesting than this.’

Elio clapped Private Henry on the shoulder and meandered along the trench a little bit. Even if he couldn’t see the Americans, he could certainly hear them as they moved about, clattering and chattering to each other. They wouldn’t be able to be like that when they went to the front, otherwise every German within twenty miles would be able to hear them.

He turned the bend in the trench, and leaned on the buttress that held up one of the watching posts as he watched them come and go, getting themselves set up. The foot soldiers were moving around, hauling boxes of weaponry and munitions, supplies and other items into and around the trench. Some of the boxes took more than one man to move, and there were several of them carrying large items between them. They looked like they were under the command of four men, who were directing the band, as it were, telling them where to put things, and how they were to be divided amongst the sleeping quarters.

He noticed two men other men standing on the slight overlook, looking down at what was coming and going. They were clearly the ones in charge overall, the four on the ground were under their command. They were in no danger here, stood on the overlook, as they were still below the parapet of the heaped sandbags and barding that were stacked in front of the trench. There was a vast need to be very careful in these two lines, as the German snipers definitely had the range over the full 200 or so metres that made up the distance. It had become almost sport for both sides to see how many men they could pick off with their snipers, by any means necessary. On some parts of the line, companies had taken to building papier-mâché heads, or putting helmets on bundles of straw, to try and distract or con the enemy sharpshooters. It worked, sometimes.  

One of the men standing was short and black haired, with a huge bushy moustache. He was smoking a pipe, and as Elio watched he hit the barrel of the pipe against the wood board beside him, to try and clear out some of the burnt and packed tobacco. The other man was smoking a cigarette, and couldn’t be more unlike the other man if he tried; he was blond, muscled, and very tall. Elio wondered if he’d have to walk at a permanent stoop on the front line to protect that pretty blond head of his. He’d probably have to put mud in his hair as well, to dull the blond, because if the sun shone off it, Elio imagined it would light him up like a beacon. Not exactly conducive to safety.

‘Can I help you?’ a voice broke through his observations, in what he could only assume was an American accent. He recognised the English language, but had never heard it spoken like that before. He made the lightening quick decision to answer the man in French.

‘Sorry, I just came to see who are new neighbours were,’ he said rapidly.

The man looked at him, absolutely nonplussed, before he turned and yelled over his shoulder.

‘Captain!’

To Elio’s intense amusement, the blond man turned at the shout, along with the short black haired man.

‘Which of us, Avery?’ came the reply from the black-haired man.

‘Captain Davis, begging your pardon Captain Green,’ said the man, ‘Unless you speak French as well?’

Green shook his head, and gestured to the taller blond man, directing him over to the man who had called. The blond man pushed himself off the the wooden overlook, and came over at a brisk walk.

‘What’s the matter Avery?’ he asked, barely looking at Elio as he stepped down beside the man who had called.

‘I think this man is French sir, said something and I have no idea what it was.’ said the man who had spoken first with a shrug, using his thumb to gesture at Elio.  

‘Well if it wasn’t English sergeant, it was probably French,’ said the captain with a wry smile, ‘Otherwise we’ve got a German in our trench, and that’s problematic.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Elio in French, ‘It wasn’t German I was speaking.’

‘Well that’s a relief,’ replied the blond man in French as well, looking at him for the first time, ‘May I ask what you’re doing in this trench?’

‘I saw that we were getting new neighbours,’ said Elio with a shrug, ‘And came to see who we were going to have the pleasure of sharing a trench with.’

‘Are you the company just down the way then?’ asked the man.

‘Err, I’ll leave you too it Captain,’ said the sergeant, before tugging at his cap peak and leaving them, returning to ensure the rest of the company was working to move into the trench.

‘Yes,’ said Elio, answering the man’s earlier question and then sticking out his hand, ‘French Battalion C Company, Medic Elio Perlman.’

‘Captain Oliver Davis,’ replied the man, taking the offered hand and shaking it, ‘How long have you been here?’

‘Here specifically?’ asked Elio, gesturing to the trench, ‘Or in the army in general?’

‘Both,’ said the man, ‘Cigarette?’

‘No thanks,’ said Elio, declining. He’d already smoked about fifteen of them today, mostly out of sheer boredom and the lack of anything else to do.

‘You were saying?’ asked Oliver, as Elio watched him light a cigarette of his own. Elio noticed that his hands matched his stature perfectly, and that he had an ink stain on the inside of his middle finger on his right hand, the mark of someone who spent a lot of time writing, and over the years had practically dyed the skin where he held his pen.

‘Been in this trench for a month,’ said Elio, ‘And in the war for nearly two years. Joined up as soon as I turned eighteen. Wanted to try and do my part.’

Oliver nodded grimly, trying to empathise, but due to his lack of his experience finding it somewhat challenging.

‘When did you get here?’ asked Elio

‘Only been in France for just over a month,’ said Oliver, ‘After three weeks at sea.’

Elio pulled a face close to mimic vomiting; he’d never been one for long boat journeys. When his father and friends had gone sailing he’d always tried to find an excuse to not go. He didn’t have sea legs.

‘Yeah, it wasn’t fun at times,’ said Oliver, ‘Although, in September it was a relatively clear crossing. Got pretty bad off the coast of Spain, however.’

Elio nodded, taking his word for it.

‘You’ll have to tell me if there’s anything I should know,’ said Oliver with a shrug, ‘You’ve got much more experience than I have.’

‘Where would you like me to start?’ asked Elio with a grin.

‘How to stay alive might be a good place to begin,’ said Oliver, only half-joking.

Elio would’ve laughed, if what Oliver had said wasn’t completely and utterly sensible. He’d seen enough men die out here to know that it was mostly to do with being in the right place at the right time, or not as the case may be. There was really very little skill in it at all. There were a few things that one could do, however, to if not evade death, to make it less likely.

‘It’s more important down on the front of-’

Elio stopped talking mid-sentence, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up in something he had come to learn as a sixth sense. His ears strained as he picked out that tell-tale whine.

‘What-?’

The other man began to speak but Elio simply shoved him hard around the buttress of the trench, crowding him back against the dugout wall, about half a second before there was an almighty boom! and they were both thrown off their feet and onto the floor, both of them being sprayed in mud and other debris.

‘Holy fuck!’ yelled Oliver as he got his breath back, reverting back to English in his shock. Elio understood the sentiment, however.

‘Stay down!’ shouted Elio, as another boom was heard, further along the trench, and then another, and another, ‘Are you hurt?!’

‘I don’t think so,’ Oliver replied, as yelling and shouting rent the air, ‘I have to go look after my men!’

‘Stay the fuck down!’ yelled Elio, grabbing the other man before he could move, ‘Trust me, there’s nothing you can do for them against a fucking artillery shell. Get to shelter and deal with the fallout later!’

Oliver looked utterly torn as another boom shook the air, and more mud sprayed down on their heads. That one seemed to have fallen short, however, in the gap between the front line and the support trench, blasting up dead rats and destroyed trees.

Elio pulled at the other man’s trouser leg and gestured to a supply inlet in the trench wall. It wasn’t as secure as a dugout, which was a good fourteen-foot underground, but it was safer than lying on the duckboards in the trench, which is where they currently were. Oliver nodded, and they shuffled on their bellies into the supply room, which was several feet back in the main wall before it opened into an ante-chamber of sorts. It was in total darkness, as the torches had been extinguished by falling mud.

‘Fucking shelling,’ came the voice of someone, in French, who was clearly already in there, ‘What are they doing this for?’

‘I don’t know,’ replied Elio, listening to several more explosions burst in the trench outside, ‘I don’t think it’s a precursor to an attack.’

‘I doubt it,’ said the other French man, ‘Reconnaissance said they were looking to attack about thirty miles up the line. At least that’s what the last report said.’

‘Probably just think it’s been too quiet on this bit of the line for too long!’ yelled Elio over another set of puttering explosive pots.

The other French man didn’t respond, other than to make a disgusted noise in the back of his throat.

There were a few more explosions, each of which shook the trench walls around them, but seemed to do little or no damage. Then there was silence, other than the continued yelling and shouts of men, in both French and English. No more explosions, however.

‘Is that it?’ asked Oliver, under his breath.

‘Might be,’ said Elio, crawling on his belly, back out towards the main trench, ready to cover himself at the sound of anymore shells overhead. He couldn’t hear the tell-tale whine of their approach anymore though. He had to push some mud out of the doorway where it had fallen in a little bit with the impact of one of the shells.

Then he heard it; ‘MEDIC!!’

The cry went up and he was instantly on his feet, running towards the voice. It didn’t matter which direction down the trench it was, and whether it was a French or American soldier that was yelling. There were men in need of medical help, and if he could do anything for any of them, then he had to at least try, it didn’t matter which flag he was wearing on his shoulder.

He jammed his helmet on his head as he hurried down the trench, dodging around men carrying stretchers, men limping, and bits of debris and shrapnel. The shelling raid had only been very short, a few pot shots fired probably to ensure the guns on this part of the line were still working properly. It didn’t matter. Even one shell could carnage if it landed in the right place. By the looks of it there had been several direct hits on the line, but most of the shells had either landed short, or gone flying overhead into the fields beyond.

‘Call for a medic?’ he asked in heavily accented English as someone hurried past him with a stretcher. The man was white faced, with mud spattered across his uniform. He took one hand off the wooden pole and gestured further down the trench. Elio turned away instantly, and grimly headed into the melee of soldiers trying to gather themselves back together after the attack. For many of them it was their first taste of active fighting, and Elio could see the fear written on every inch of their faces. He bit his lip, and turned to see exactly who he could help, and who was past any human intervention. There was only so much he could do.

Chapter Text

He had never seen the inside of a man before that moment. He’d had no cause to, and thanked the heavens that that was the case. He’d seen plenty of animals in their death throes, as he’d been on hunts and shoots when he was younger with his father or uncles, although he’d never particularly seen the appeal of it. He’d seen his mother preparing meat either from the forest or the field, elbow deep in some carcass or other as she made sure that none went to waste.

He was struck by how utterly similar it was.

He stood for a moment, completely at a loss for what to do, his legs frozen to the ground and seemingly unable to move, his eyes fixed on the scene of chaos in front of him. He’d followed Elio down the trench, walking in the Frenchman’s footsteps as he himself had gravitated towards the call of “medic!” that had gone up. Then he’d seen it.

Avery was dead.

Whether it had been a direct hit from a shell, or just that he was standing extremely close by when it exploded was difficult to tell, either way there wasn’t a lot left of him to make the judgement. It didn’t matter either way. His legs had all but gone, his body blasted apart by the impact, leaving nothing but his head and torso, sprayed with shrapnel, and a look of extreme shock on his face, now there as his final expression. Oliver wanted to somehow close his body back up, to put away all of the things that should remain inside. It was if in seeing everything that made Avery an animal, he was preying on something private, something that nobody had a right to see. He wanted to protect the other man’s dignity, even if everything else about him was far beyond saving.

It looked as if he had saved the life of others though. By standing exactly where he had been, and dying where he had stood, he had blocked a significant amount of damage for two other men stood behind him. One of whom was now screaming to high heaven as Elio got to his knees beside him, the mud beneath the duckboards oozing up to soak his knees as the medic immediately tore away his bloody shirt to get at the wound.

‘Hey!’ yelled Elio from the ground, pointing at him, ‘Get over there and see if you can stop that bleeding.’

Oliver shook himself out of his daze and looked down at the other man who was lying on the floor. His right side had caught the worst of the blast and it looked as if he had lost a chunk out of the top of his leg. His face was utterly white, and whilst he wasn’t screaming, it looked as if was slurring the Ave Maria under his breath. His hands were gripping at his leg, and his eyes were rolling in panic.

‘Thompson!’ Oliver barked, trying to regain a modicum of control over the situation, ‘Go and find me three stretchers, now. We need to get these men out of here, and we need to deal with Avery; I don’t want him lying there for longer than he has to be. Johnson, find Captain Green and Corporal Simon, we need a full report of injuries and casualties in our section, and what’s going on down the rest of the line.’

‘Yes sir!’ both of the men said, both looking horrified at the scene in front of them, but alert enough to follow his orders. Oliver fell to his knees beside the other soldier, whose face was spattered in blood, both his own and Avery’s he assumed. He was immediately at a loss, so tried to copy what he’d seen the Frenchman do on the other man. He tore away at the trousers that were utterly soaked in blood, and was immediately greeted by a wound running right from the man’s upper thigh, to just above his knee, the layers of flesh and fat had peeled back, like some sort of overripe grape, to reveal the muscle underneath. The blood was pumping out, not just pouring, and from his basic knowledge of anatomy Oliver knew that this man was in danger of his life if he couldn’t stop it.

‘What do I do?!’ he yelled at Elio, trying to pack the wound with what was left of the man’s trousers, but it was no good, they were completely saturated within an instant, as the blood continued to pump forth matched by the beat of his heart.

‘Take this!’ shouted Elio, without looking up from his task. He thrust a roll of bandages into the hands of a soldier stood nearby who then passed it down to Oliver, and knelt down as well, as if looking for some kind of guidance or orders.

‘Right, now what?’ asked Oliver, unwinding a length of the bandage and told the soldier, ‘Get your hands in there!’

‘Tie it tightly about 5cm above the top of the wound, around the top of his thigh,’ he heard Elio explain, ‘Use a pen, or something straight, as a windlass in the bandage to get it tight as you possibly can, then tie it off.’

The man was yelling now, as Oliver did as he was bid, twisting the bandage as tight as he possibly could, trying to see if it was making any difference. He was scrabbling at Oliver’s hands, and making a noise like a wounded animal.

‘Private, take his hands!’ said Oliver to the man who had given him the bandages. The private did as he was bid, grabbing the man’s arms and holding them firmly so Oliver could finish tying the tourniquet. After he had finished tying it off, he used the rest of the large roll of bandages around the wound, covering it several times and then tying that, hoping that that would be enough.

‘He’s passed out sir,’ said the private holding the wounded man’s arms.

‘Good,’ said Oliver, noticing that the blood flow had all but stopped. Two men bearing a stretcher came running down the trench towards them, so Oliver knelt back on his heels, only at that moment noticing the wet mud he was sitting in. The two men manoeuvred the injured man onto the stretcher, with Oliver quickly explaining what he’d done so they could relay that information when they got to the field hospital. He directed the other stretcher to the man that Elio had been working on, who had also lost consciousness, either from lack of blood or from fear Oliver wasn’t sure. One final stretcher made its way to what remained of Avery’s body, and the two orderlies carefully wrapped it in a sheet, before transferring it gently onto the stretcher and away out of sight. Oliver watched them go with a sense of detachment, wondering if he too would end up being tidied away in such a neat and ergonomic fashion. He tried to push the thought out of his head.

He got slowly to his feet and looked about, a few other men were being patched up here and there by the medics in his own company, one looked serious, and two of the medics were working furiously, one sitting on his legs whilst the other worked on a wound in his chest. Other than that, there didn’t appear to be any other seriously wounded men in this particular section, of course he would have the full report later when he spoke to Green. The brunette Frenchman who had come rushing into his trench to help with no thought of his own safety, was currently patching up one of his men who had taken something to the side of his face. Oliver watched as Elio very carefully withdrew the shard, doused the area in alcohol, causing the man to scream, and then dressed it. Oliver approached him as he’d finished.

‘Thanks,’ he said quietly to him, trying to absently wipe his bloodied hands on his already filthy trousers.

Elio shrugged, ‘I can but try.’

‘I wouldn’t have known what to do without you shouting it at me,’ said Oliver honestly, ‘And our medics were busy elsewhere.’

‘Your man will probably lose his leg,’ said Elio equally candid, ‘But he might not lose his life.’

Oliver blanched. The idea of losing a limb was horrifying to him; but then again, all of this was horrifying, anyone who said otherwise was either mad or lying. He tried to push the thought to the back of his mind; the man would probably live; that was better odds than he had without Elio’s shouted instructions, and his clumsy attempts to follow them.

‘Do you have anywhere to clean up?’ asked Elio, looking down at his filthy hands and arms, after he stuffed his supplies back into his pack.

‘Oh yeah,’ said Oliver, ‘Of course. Come this way.’

He turned and headed towards his designated dugout, hoping that Rogers would have had the good sense to stay deep underground when the shelling began. He stopped a couple of times as he walked, checking in with a few of his men who were walking-wounded, generally getting the same response that they would be alright. He sent one man to the field hospital, after coming across him trying to stitch up his own arm. The man tried to argue his point but he wasn’t hearing any of it, and sent him on his way with an order. There was no need for martyrdom here; the man was more likely to cock it up and get an infection trying to do it himself, and then be sent home. Oliver needed all the men he could get; If a doctor did it, his arm would be back to full use within a few weeks.

‘Rogers!’ he shouted as he ducked inside his dugout.

‘Sir? Oh, thank Jesus,’ said Rogers, his face visibly relieved as Oliver came into view down the steps, Private Perlman just behind. Regardless of the fact that Rogers was just his batman, Oliver knew the other man cared for him a bit like a surrogate nephew. The fact that Rogers had been in the army for so much longer than him led him to want to care for the younger captain he was now charged with helping. The other man was stoic, however, and would only show emotion in moments of extreme relief or fear. This being one of those times.

‘Can you draw some water for me and Private Perlman to wash? Can we try and get some hot if at all possible, even if it’s just a jerry can?’ said Oliver, ‘Private Perlman is from the French company just down the line, and came to help us when he saw we needed it.’.

‘I’ll see what I can do sir,’ said Rogers, looking at the lanky brunette by Oliver’s side, ‘Might be a few minutes more then, as I’ll have to go to the cook tent and see if they can spare any of the water for tonight’s broth.’

‘That’s alright Rogers,’ said Oliver, ‘Whatever you can manage.’

He turned back to Elio; ‘Sit, if you’d like. I’ll find us a drink.’

‘Thank you, Captain,’ said Elio, sitting on one of the chairs by the small table, resting his elbows on the table, ‘I can’t stay long. I’ve got to be on duty at stand-to.’

‘You don’t need to call me Captain down here,’ said Oliver, as he turned to get the whisky out of a tiny storage cupboard ‘It’s just Oliver. I’ve been trying to get Rogers to do the same, with a little bit of success here and there.’

‘It’s a hard habit to break,’ said Elio as Oliver poured out two small-ish measure of whisky into two very basic tumblers, ‘Cheers.’

‘Cheers,’ said Oliver, before drinking a deep gulp of the liquid, feeling it burn pleasantly on the way down to his gullet, creating a small put of warmth deep within. He slowly sat down on one of the chairs, before bringing his cold fingers to the buttons of his shirt, and beginning to remove the soiled garment. He wasn’t sure if Rogers would be able to get the blood stains out, but they absolutely couldn’t afford to discard it, there was no guarantee when and if they’d receive new threads, so despite its filthy state, it would have to do. He’d find a clean shirt for stand-to tonight, and he’d be wearing his overcoat anyway.

He looked down at his hands again, where the blood had now faded to dark brown stain, seeped into the cracks of his skin and into his nailbeds. He normally bit his nails, but he found something instantly repulsive about the potential that he might taste another man’s blood.

‘Are you alright?’ asked Elio, speaking softly in French, causing Oliver to look up from his fingers.

‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘At least, I think so. I’ve just never seen anything like that before.’

‘Most of us haven’t before we got here,’ said Elio grimly, ‘You become almost desensitised to it after a while.’

‘Desensitised to death?’ Oliver asked, ‘Or to the blood and the guts?’

Elio shrugged, ‘Perhaps both, I feel like I have. Even to the idea of my own death. I’m not scared of it. Everything here is so completely random, so utterly out of anyone’s control, that to be scared of death seems like a pointless exercise to me. Of course, don’t get me wrong, I do get scared, physically at least, my heart beats faster, and my skin starts to crawl. I don’t want to die. But I feel as if I’m desensitised to the idea of it, whether today could be my last.’

‘That sounds terrible,’ said Oliver.

‘Oh, don’t get me wrong, it is,’ said Elio quietly, ‘But I have seen men go mad with fear out here, for terror of what tomorrow might bring. I try, as much as I can, not to dwell on it.’

Rogers was back, carrying a large container full of water, and a smaller jerry can with the lid screwed on tight against the side of it. Oliver hurriedly got up to help him manoeuvre the larger container onto the table. 

‘I got a bit of hot water,’ said Rogers, holding up the jerry can, ‘I put it in here, rather than in the tub, in the hope that it might have kept a bit of the warmth.’

‘Thank you, Rogers,’ said Oliver, taking the jerry can from him. It was indeed still quite warm, and his fingers immediately felt grateful for the slight heat. He motioned to Elio to put his hands over the container, and then poured some of the warm water over them. The Frenchman practically groaned in delight at the warmth, to which Oliver couldn’t help but grin.

‘Hey, don’t make fun,’ said Elio teasingly in French, ‘I never get warm water in my section, unless I’m behind the lines. I don’t have someone to go and get it for me.’

‘I know,’ said Oliver, pouring a little more, watching the man rub his hands together, those long fingers working over each other in an attempt to clean the blood off. Oliver briefly wondered if Elio played a musical instrument of any kind, as he imagined those hands dancing on the keys of a piano, or the strings of a violin. The water in the container was slowly going murky and brown. Elio gestured to Oliver to put down the can, and he returned the favour, pouring the blissfully warm water over Oliver’s cold fingers, allowing him to rub them and feel a tiny bit cleaner. Rogers had put some rough lye soap on the table next to the pot, which made the eyes sting if it got anywhere near them, but for scrubbing at the hands it was fine, and Oliver worked up a lather before rinsing it off. Doing this reminded him that he would need to shave sometime soon, and he immediately didn’t relish the thought of shaving with cold water and hard soap. There would be nothing else for it, however, and Major Graham didn’t allow unshaven men on his line. It also helped keep the lice under control.  

Once all the warm water was gone from the jerry can, they used the cold-to-lukewarm water that remained in the large container to finish washing up their arms, and under their nails. Even though it was the smallest of acts, just in washing his hands Oliver felt in a small way less like an animal than he had done ten minutes previously. In washing away another man’s blood, he felt like he was cleansing himself both on the outside, but also of some of what he had seen.

‘I have to go,’ said Elio in French, drying himself with the proffered cloth from Rogers, ‘I need to be on stand-to in ten minutes.’

‘Thank you for your help today private,’ said Oliver, as the Frenchman made his way to the stairs, ‘I will mention it to your superior officer should we cross paths.’

‘That is kind of you, thank you Cap-er-Oliver,’ said Elio, catching himself on Oliver’s preferred form of address.

‘Good Evening Private,’ said Oliver, as the other man left, walking up the stairs. As he disappeared Oliver was left to wonder about the somewhat fortuitous nature of random meetings. He had been very glad of the Frenchman’s presence today, as he had undoubtedly been able to prevent some of the worse damage from happening in his very new section. His mind drifted to Avery momentarily, and the conversation they had had only earlier today about when the sergeant was from. Now he would never see the sunshine state again, and would lay forever underneath the soil of France. He would write to Avery’s next of kin later, offering whatever condolences he could, and mention that Avery’s actions (whether they had been intentional or not) had saved the life of several members of his section. He wouldn’t mention the intention part in his letter of course; he would paint the sergeant as a hero. It would be what his family needed to hear; that he hadn’t died for nothing.

In the meantime, however, he got to his feet, and headed in the same direction that Private Perlman had gone moments before. He needed to meet with Captain Green, and find out exactly what had happened today, and whether it had just been a random and sporadic attack on this part of the line, or whether it was a pre-emptive strike for something more to come. He put his cap back on his head, and headed out into the gathering dark.

Chapter Text

Elio knew he was exhausted, and yet he wasn’t sure what it was to feel anything else; what was it like to not feel tired? All of the days were blurring into one, a mess between standing-to, being on duty, and the few hours’ sleep he managed to scrape for himself here and there. He sometimes felt like he was asleep, even with his eyes wide open. He was terrified that one moment he might actually fall asleep when he was meant to be on duty, and a superior officer would see him. They shot people for that sort of thing; called it cowardice. Elio couldn’t help but feel a bristle of anger run through him at the thought – if the Germans weren’t killing enough of them, then at least they could rely on their own officers to shoot a few of their own men! He tried to push the thought to the back of his brain, because there was no use dwelling on it. At least, not now.

There had been no further shelling on this part of the line since the attack on the new American section a few days ago, but that hadn’t meant they’d been at ease. After the attack the higher ups had ordered longer hours, more sentries on duty, and more work shoring up the trench walls and laying barbed wire down between the lines. This was so, in the event that the front line was taken, the enemy would have difficulty crossing the fifty or so metres to the support trench, giving them time to defend it. The shelling had been concentrated up the line, on the front and throughout the support and communication lines. There was talk of some of the front lines not having had supplies in a week because the rations couldn’t get through the shelled out communications trench.

And today they were moving to the front.

There had been much grumbling within his company, but they were promised that after a week, a maximum of two at the front, then they would be given their one week respite, far behind the lines. It was about time; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a bath. He knew he must absolutely stink, but the time had long since passed that he could smell himself, and he knew that everybody on the line must smell much the same, so they had become utterly immune to it.

He was sitting on the edge of his bunk, cleaning his boots. He’d managed to get the worst of the mud off them outside before coming in a few hours previously, but now he was using a hard-bristled brush on the supple leather, to try and make sure they didn’t completely fall apart. If they were left filthy, then the mud damaged them in further, exacerbated cracks that were already present. He had to try and keep them in a decent shape for the winter to come, because heaven knew if he would get another pair if they fell to pieces. He sighed, turning the boot over on his hand, looking at the sole. He could see where it was wearing thin, and he wondered if he would be able to ask for some materials to mend it. Surely that would be cheaper than getting a completely new pair of boots. He shuddered when he remembered seeing a case of trench foot in one of the corporals in his section in the winter of last year. The poor bugger had been so embarrassed to ask for new boots, thinking it was in some way his fault that his had fallen apart, that he’d waited until the last possible moment. It was only because one of the captains had seen him limping that he’d been asked at all. By then it was too late, and gangrene had set in in some of his toes. Elio thought he had gotten off lucky; he’d only had to aid the surgeon in removing two of his toes, rather than his whole foot, but the image of the man’s damaged skin and muscle would stay with him forever. That and the smell.

Four of his dugout companions were currently in the space with him, packing their rucksacks and checking their rifles and ammunitions for the move. It would be a few hours yet before they moved out, as they would obviously be doing it under cover of darkness. It wasn’t far, but they didn’t want to make it any easier for the enemy to spot their movements and potentially target them. For all Elio knew, the enemy was perfectly aware that they were planning to move today, had already set up some kind of attack in waiting, and that they were all destined to die. It’s like he’d said to the American after the attack; out here there were no rules, they simply didn’t know if the next moment was going to be their last.

He'd seen the tall blond American a few times since he had helped his company after the attack, but for no more than a few minutes each time, as one of them was either heading on duty or off it, passing to get to the shared line cook tent, or Elio was doing some other menial task nearby. Of course, the blond man, being a captain, didn’t actually do most of the menial work, unless it was really desperate, but he would be there nonetheless, overseeing his men. Elio felt a vague sense of respect at that; at least he was there, some of the officers he’d served under were never to be seen, preferring to stay well hidden in their dugouts, or if they could manage it, far behind the line at headquarters, well out of range of the guns. They weren’t all like that, however, and Elio was glad to see that the American was one of the better ones.

He didn’t know why he was even bothered about the American, why he’d crossed his mind after he’d left his dugout. Perhaps it was because they’d shared something horrific, only moments into the other man’s war experience (in comparative terms at least). War did funny things when it came to drawing men together. They needed to work together to increase their chances of staying alive. The American, Oliver, had understood this, and had immediately done as Elio said, noting his superior expertise when it came down to it, despite the fact that he was the one who wore the stripes, rather than the Frenchman. Elio respected that; he didn’t care overly much about propriety and station, it was just about getting the job done. Clearly the American thought the same.

There was also the fact that nobody else understood. How could they? Elio knew that his father tried, in the times when he had gone home and managed to speak a little about what he had seen, but no man could really believe it, not unless they’d witnessed it with their own eyes. His father was too old to serve, but he tried to do his bit, doing what he could locally and for support groups. Most of the time when he went home, however, he tried to keep it to himself. Home was home, unsullied by the nightmare that was the war, and in some odd little way, he wanted to try and keep it that way for as long as he possibly could. He knew that he himself was sullied by the war, so by just him being there, his presence in that pristine place, he was dirtying it, and slowly destroying its cleanliness. Sometimes he felt like he didn’t want to go home at all because of it.

He had a few hours to himself before they were due to move down the line. He’d done the night watch, was due to be on again tonight after they reached the front, and had only stood down at stand to earlier that morning. He knew he should try and get some rest, so he could at least fight to keep his eyes open tonight. He leaned down and put his boots back on the compact dirt floor beside his already packed rucksack. He pulled his legs up onto his bunk, curled up under him so that he could lie down, before he turned towards the wall and pulled one of his jerseys over his head. It wasn’t too light down here, but the warmth of the woollen material over his head gave him a weird sense of security; cocooning him away from the events in the dugout around him. It also let his bunk mates know, without any of them actually having to talk to him, what he was doing.

It would be even more crowded down on the front. Due to the attack earlier that week, the generals had decided to put more men into the front, without giving leave to some companies that were already there. The idea was that more men would be there to defend if need be, if an enemy onslaught on foot were to be launched.

He tried to put the thoughts of going down to the front out of his mind, just to try and get a few minutes of peace so he could drift off to sleep. The muted noise of the guns from other parts of the front had become a regular accompaniment to any sleep he might snatch, alongside the sounds of the other men in his section. He was so used to them, their smells, the sounds they made when they slept. It was like they had become an extension of himself in some way.

**

Sleep was hard won, but he knew that he must have a least had some, as the next thing he was aware of was Private Henry shaking him awake. He forced his hand to relax around the small knife that he kept in his palm whenever he went to sleep as he came to and realised it was a friendly face. He knew it was stupid; that if he was caught unawares whilst sleeping, then the likelihood of a knife being any use to him whatsoever was slim. Nonetheless, whenever he bedded down, he kept it in it’s hard sheath, the hilt in his palm, as he drifted off. Maybe he could use it to fend of his nightmares.

‘Time to go,’ Private Henry said as he saw him coming around.

Elio nodded, a thank you caught in the back of his mouth as he yawned, before he pulled on his boots over the two pairs of socks he was wearing, lacing them tight and standing up. He picked up his rucksack and rifle, that was leaning against the end of his bunk against the wall, and headed for the stairs where Henry had just disappeared to.

‘How many of us going down, do you know?’ muttered Elio as he adjusted his jacket and pack when he emerged.

‘Don’t know exactly,’ said Henry, ‘All of this company and the one along, perhaps some more as well. The Americans as well.’

‘Are they expecting an attack?’ mused Elio, pulling the webbing of his pack around him so that it was more comfortable.

‘I know as much as you,’ said Henry, not unkindly, ‘They don’t tell us lackeys this kind of thing, do they?’

Elio grinned and shook his head. They would be walking down through the connecting trench to the front line; which zigzagged back and forth across the space in between, with many gates heavily manned. In some places it was possible to walk over the top to the front, because the frontline itself was far enough away from the enemy that supporting troops wouldn’t be seen. Here, however, with the front line and support line so close to the enemy lines, they had to move within trenches, or crawl on their bellies over the ground in the dead of night. Elio knew which one he preferred, having done both in his time, and he was glad that the captain had chosen to take the walking route. It was slightly more dangerous, because if the enemy chose that moment to target them, then they would be grouped together, and easier to take out. A line of men crawling on their bellies was harder to target with a single strike, as they would be spread out. Hopefully the cover of darkness would be enough to shield them.

The orders came down the line, ‘No lights, no noise, double time ‘til we reach the front. Same dugout groups as this line; fill out from the far end as you arrive. Wait inside upon reaching dugouts for further instructions, apart from those on first watch – to stations.’

Elio listened carefully to the message, before turning to the next group of soldiers behind him and passing it on. It was a little bit like Chinese Whispers, except everybody here would do their utmost to make sure that the messages passed along were correct. Men’s lives depended on it. He was on first watch, so he other than dropping down his kit, he wouldn’t be heading to the dugout until morning.

It was quiet as Elio listened for the sound of the tin whistle; the only noise that should be heard, as the captain gave the order for them to move off. His eyes were keen in this kind of light, well accustomed to the dark, and he could easily make out the shapes of the men around him, their breath clouding the late Autumn air. Henry was next to him in his marching pair. It was damn near freezing out tonight, and the moon was bright. They would have to be careful if there were any dips in the trench walls, as silhouettes would be easily picked up in this kind of light. It would have been better if they’d have waited for cloud cover to move, but as Elio saw when he glanced up, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen tonight, so they might not get their chance. They had to risk it.

A few moments later he heard the whistle, slight and tinny, carried by the breeze. It could have been a man’s whistle, were it not so regular and long lasting. The men at the front of the line began to move, the movement slowly reaching back to where Elio and Henry were stood. They moved off together quickly; the order had been double time, after all. They would be at the front in no time, once they had got past the two gates barring the way.

The front line was dug deeper than the support line, so their path sloped down a little as they marched. Elio was glad for this. It meant, in this section at least, they wouldn’t have to be wary about their heads showing above the parapet. He’d been in some areas of the front before where he’d had to practically crawl, in order to not be seen over the top. It was an eerie noise; the sounds of hundreds of pairs of boots moving quickly, but not a word or snatch of song to be heard along with it. It was like listening to an army of ghosts, accompanied by the boom of the artillery and guns from both sides of the line, near and far.

It didn’t take them long to reach their new positions, as Elio had thought, and he entered the dugout with the other seven men he shared with, quickly moving down into the bowels of the earth. Not for the first-time Elio wondered what would happen if the dugout was to collapse in on them – would anyone bother to dig them out? Would they even realise what had happened? it did feel a little like walking into a grave before he was dead. He looked quickly up at the ceiling, at the packed solid earth above him, and quickly prayed that it would never happen. He wasn’t overtly religious, although his family were practicing Jews. There was something about being out here, however, that went beyond religion, beyond any God that he could pray to, it was about whatever he could do to keep his mind his own. At least this dugout was dry; he’d seen a lot lot worse. One place they’d been posted to had had a foot of water on the dugout floor, and they’d had to hang all their rucksacks and supplies from the ceiling, in order to keep them out of the wet. The men in the holes had had to share top bunks, as the bottom ones were completely unusable. At least this one wasn’t like that. It was a small mercy for which Elio was grateful.

He dropped his pack on the floor near one of the bunks, and immediately turned around again, heading back up the stairs to find his sentry post.

‘Perlman!’

He turned at the sound of his whispered voice to see his captain walking towards him, his cap pulled low over his brow.

‘Sir?’

‘Report to check point D. We’re sharing all the watches on this part of the line with the American companies. I don’t know why, the higher ups think it’ll be good for moral or something equally idiotic,’ said the captain with a grunt; letting Elio know exactly what he thought of the idea.

‘Yes sir,’ he replied, snapping a salute as the captain moved off, not bothering to respond to Elio’s genuflection.

He headed along the trench, muttering to the soldiers already in place in order to find checkpoint D, lit cigarettes and small tin can fires letting him know where the men were clustered about. It was about 300m down the trench from his own dugout, and there was a group of soldiers on duty beside it. Some of them were clearly coming off duty, being relieved by the incoming troops, whilst others were waiting to go on, bolstered by the rest of their section.

There would be twenty of them around this checkpoint at all times; ten Frenchman and ten Americans. Four manning the large machine gun dug into the ground in the parapet, wooden boards and structures protecting the men who were gathered around it as it’s operators, it’s lethal nose pointing towards the enemy lines, waiting to deliver death to anything that moved. There would then be two pairs of soldiers, on their bellies, slightly further forward, either side of the gun, watching the stretch of no-man’s land ahead of them. The rest of the men would be grouped around the checkpoint, looking out using the viewing scopes in position, guarding the gun and the men lying on their bellies.

Elio would be on the first watch, on his belly, using his binoculars to view the enemy lines. It looked pretty still across the way. He waved to the others who he would be sharing his watch with, before he clambered up onto the ditch dug down around the armoured gun. He crawled forward, passed the gun by about eight foot, and lay on his belly, looking out over a small lip that protected him from no-man’s land. It was hidden from view, but he could still use his binoculars to watch. He quickly rubbed some mud on the lenses of the binoculars; dimming what he could see, but also stopping any light from the moon reflecting off the glass. That was a sure-fire way of letting any snipers know that there was a target lying down here, just below this lip of earth; if they spotted a flash of a glass lens. After making sure his lenses were dimmed enough, he put them up to his eyes. He could see reflections from fires, and the odd noise as things were scraped back and forth. He couldn’t be entirely sure whether that noise had come from his line or from the lines across the graveyard in front of him.

It was freezing on the ground, and he was glad for the many layers of material between him and the frozen mud that he was lying in. He was eternally grateful that it hadn’t rained for several days, so he wasn’t lying in a puddle of mud, something which he had done many times before and was sure he would endure again. He shifted slightly as the person he would be sharing his watch with crawled up next to him. The space was quite small, and the body of the other man was pressed against the side of his. Whether they knew each other or not, they would use each other’s body warmth as they lay here, in the stillness and the dark, watching the emptiness in front of them.

He turned very slightly to look across at who he would be sharing the space with. He couldn’t help but let the tiniest of smiles cross his face, when he saw the dulled blond hair of the American officer, hidden under his cap. The American moved his hand out in front of them, so that they could both see it, and moved his hand back and forth, in the international symbol for ‘hello’. Elio moved his hand forward, so it was close to the American’s, and replied with a wave of his own. He gestured for the American to pass him his binoculars, which he did without hesitation. Elio repeated what he had done with his own, before passing them back to the American. He gestured the motion of a flash with his hand, and then a gunshot. He felt the American nod, and then make the ‘ok’ sign with his hand, followed by a thumbs up. Whilst they were here they utterly relied on each other, and the men around them for their lives. It was something that no other bond could overcome; knowing that they had trust each other totally. There was no other option, and it meant that a relationship could move past that of best friends, to practically brothers, without even a single word being said.

There would be no other communication between the two of them whilst they lay here, other than what they could sign out to each with the one hand that they could both see. It was nothing, but in those hours, lying on the freezing ground on France, watching for anything moving in the trench or the line opposite, it was all that they needed.

Chapter Text

It was 3am in the morning by the time they came off duty. After their two-hour stint lying on their bellies watching absolutely nothing in no man’s land, they had changed positions, instead being on watch by the gun, and then on the duckboards around it. The last two hours they had been back on their bellies again, in the complete and utter darkness of the ditch, unlit by the moon this time as it moved across the sky, not shining on their position as it had been in the earlier watch. The stars were still bright in the sky and the moonlight, now behind them, had only grown in its intensity as the night had drawn on. Oliver could see the hand on his watch ticking towards the hour as he stretched his hands out in front of him to try and get some blood flowing back into his cold limbs. A sergeant from another section came towards him as they switched over the watches.

‘Anything to report, captain?’ he asked quietly, his accent suggesting he was somewhere from the Midwest.

‘No movement, no sign of anything untoward,’ he said, ‘Not even any large rats of particular note.’

‘Oh, well that’s no fun,’ said the sergeant with something of a grin.

Oliver tried to smile in response, but found that this face was too cold to do much other than grimace in his direction. The sergeant seemed to get the picture, however, and patted him on the shoulder.

‘Go on then Cap,’ he said, ‘Go and get some sleep.’

‘Thanks sergeant,’ said Oliver with a grin, stepping back from the watch post. He dismissed the other men who’d been on the watch with them; all of them heading to their dugouts for sleep, or to see whether any meagre rations had been delivered in the interim that they had been on duty.

He turned back towards his own dugout, walking away from the watch post and further back into the main trench, and found the Frenchman who he had shared his watches with, sucking on a cigarette, the end glowing, leaning against one of the trench walls.

Want one?’ he said, speaking French, offering him one.

He didn’t speak, but smiled and took the offered rolled up cigarette. Elio struck a match from the pack he’d just struck his own, and helped the flickering flame up to the end of the cigarette. Oliver sucked in, his cheeks hollowing out, to get the end to catch.

Well that wasn’t so bad,’ said Elio.

No, nice and quiet,’ he said, ‘Fucking freezing though.

Well that’s to be expected,’ said Elio, ‘It’ll only get worse, as the winter creeps up on us. Sorry to break it to you.’

He smirked, ‘I’ve braved New England winters, I think it’ll be fine. Are you going back to sleep now?

I need to find some kind of food first. I wonder whether any rations have been delivered whilst we’ve been on watch.’ said Elio with a shrug, looking about as if food might magically appear in front of him.

I wouldn’t hold your breath,’ said Oliver, ‘I was going to go and see whether Rogers had managed to rustle anything from any rations that had come in. He’s good at that sort of thing, and I could use the company? I won’t be able to sleep straightaway, don’t know about you.’

Don’t you mind?’ asked Elio, ‘Haven’t you got others in your dugout who’ll want to share?

I only share with Captain Green and his batman,’ said Oliver, ‘And when we’re on duty, they’re off, and vice-versa. Very occasionally we cross over, but we’re very rarely off at the same time.’

Lucky bastard,’ said Elio with disbelief in his voice, ‘I share with six other people’

It can get a bit lonely, with only Rogers to speak to,’ he said with a shrug, ‘Nice to have someone else to talk to.’

Glad I could be of service,’ said Elio with a grin.

Oliver chuckled, ‘Come on then.’

They moved off down the trench in the direction of his section of the trench, the duckboards squeaking under their boots as they walked. There were some men still grouped around braziers, smoking, or waiting to go on watch. Some were simply stood around muttering to each other, or even themselves, because they were too worked up to sleep. As they passed the groups, Oliver noticed that they were often mixed between Frenchmen and Americans, having cobbled together conversations in broken English, sharing cigarettes. Word had obviously spread that they would be on duty together, and they had decided to try and get to know each other somewhat, find out who they would be sharing their space with, and who they would be trusting with their lives.

They reached his dugout and ducked inside. The doorway to this one was smaller than the doorway in the support trench, so he had to physically bend his knees and crouch to get onto the first step. Behind him, Elio had to do much the same, although not to quite such a drastic extent. He guessed the Frenchman was probably a couple of inches shorter than him, but easily still over six foot tall. As they reached the bottom of the stairs, Oliver put his small pack on the ground by the door and took off his greatcoat, whereas as Elio propped his rifle up on the doorjamb, dropped his rucksack, but kept his medicine bag tied around his waist.

The set up in this dugout was much the same as in the one in the support line. A small wooden table with four stools pulled up around it. This had a stack of papers on the end of it, bound neatly with a string, apart from one, which was still out next to a candle and a pen. It was an order list for new uniform, and Oliver could see where Captain Green had been writing in what they needed. They’d agreed, in the few moments that they’d had a chance to talk, that they’d ask for more than they needed for their company, in the hope if they got half of what they’d asked for, then they’d be about able to manage with a few shortages here and there. Aside from that, two bunks cut into the wall for the two officers; the two bunks for their batmen above each respectively. There was also a small “room” – for want of anything to describe it as – where there was a small storage cupboard, and some other supplies.

As he heard them coming in, Rogers tumbled off the top bunk, already fully dressed, clearly having only got back from his own watch a few moments before they did.

‘Sorry sir, I just didn’t know when you were going to be back,’ he said to Oliver, his eyes sliding over to the Frenchman also in the dugout.

‘That’s fine,’ said Oliver, ‘We don’t want anything much, other than perhaps a cup of tea, and if there’s any rations made it down this far?’

‘The tea’ll have to be cold,’ said Rogers, thinking about what they had from memory, ‘And we’ve got no milk powder leftover from the previous lot. Although they might not have had any either. There’s some biscuits that look decent enough, and we did have some fresh cheese delivered, as well as a sackful of apples which are in season at the moment, so apparently they have ‘em by the barrelful up at headquarters.’

‘The food sounds perfect, and the apples excellent. It’ll be nice to have something relatively fresh to eat,’ said Oliver, ‘We’ll just have to survive with the tea.’

‘Nothing to be done for it sir,’ said Rogers, disappearing into the storage room to get what Oliver had asked for.

I know it’s not much,’ he said with a shrug, turning back to the Frenchman, slipping into his language as easily as putting on a pair of gloves.

Elio shrugged his own shoulders in reply, ‘It’s fine. It’s nice to know that officers on the line don’t get fed any better than we do. They’d be a riot if the men found out that you were getting all the good stuff.’

Oliver chuckled, ‘As if we’d dare. Also, I couldn’t take it; if the others didn’t get the same fare.

I know you wouldn’t,’ said Elio, ‘You seem fairly open handed, but there are plenty of officers – certainly ones I’ve met – who wouldn’t bat an eyelid to put their company in the firing range if it meant they got off unscathed.’

Oliver pulled a face as he pulled up a stool, ‘That’s disgusting.’

Elio sat down as well, ‘Not all are like that, and I’ve had some good officers as well.’

Rogers was back, putting the food down on the table first, before turning around to get the tea. It was as he placed the two cups with cold tea down on the table that Oliver noticed he was holding one of the cups with the tips of his fingers, rather than holding it against his palm. He winced as the cup brushed across his palm as he let it go. Oliver’s eyes flittered to his face and back to his hand as he tried to figure what was going on.

‘What’s wrong with your hand Rogers?’

‘Ah, it’s nothing Sir,’ said the man, withdrawing the offending appendage from view, as if this would stop the scrutiny of the other two men.

‘May I take a look?’ asked Elio in slightly stilted English, trying to wrap his tongue around the unfamiliar syllables.

‘It’s alright, honestly,’ said Rogers, clearly deeply uncomfortable.

‘Rogers, let him look,’ said Oliver in a tone that brooked no disagreement. He rarely gave direct orders to the men under his control in informal settings, but they could tell when he was saying something that wasn’t meant to be taken as a suggestion.

Rogers paused for one more moment before bringing his hand back onto the table. Oliver could see it was wrapped in a relatively clean bandage, tied together underneath his sleeve. Elio pushed the sleeve back up to just underneath the other man’s elbow, the brush of his fingers on the bandage causing Rogers to wince.

Elio looked up and across at him, a detached professional look in his gaze that suggested that this was simply a job to be done. Without even removing the bandage it appeared he knew what had to be done.

Oliver, can you fetch me another candle, and some cooking alcohol if you have any?

Oliver got to his feet instantly and started looking in the cupboards where Rogers kept everything. He thought he understood the need for the cooking alcohol, but what was the candle for? He found the things that Elio has asked for; candles were easy to come by as they were all over the place, in lanterns and candlesticks lighting the gloomy space under the earth.

In the meantime Elio had taken a pair of tweezers, a small knife, and some clean bandages from his pack. Rogers’ eyes were looking between these implements with severe apprehension mapped onto his features. Oliver sat down next to Rogers, pulling up the stool between his legs as he hefted down.

‘Can you hold your hand still?’ asked Elio of Rogers, in English once again.

Rogers nodded but the second Elio started to unwrap the bandage that had been clumsily applied, the man flinched and nearly drew his hand away. Elio stopped touching him, and drew his hand away from the other man.

‘Captain, can you hold his wrist please?’ Elio asked gently.

Oliver nodded, and took hold of Rogers’ wrist, holding his hand down to the table.

‘I’ll tell you what I’m doing as I do it,’ said Elio to the man, ‘and if I don’t know the words, Oliver will translate?’

Apart from the fact that he was increasingly enjoying the way the Frenchman said “Oliver” with a relaxed vowel sound for the final syllable, he thought that Elio was doing remarkably well, considering he didn’t speak English very often. He nodded in agreement to Elio’s statement.

Elio resumed what he was doing, carefully peeling away the bandage to reveal Rogers’ hand. The mound at the bottom of the thumb was bright red, the skin stretched and swollen. It looked very painful, no wonder Roberts had been flinching at any touch. There was a very small wound that had healed over in the centre of the mound, but there was no other mark on the skin.

‘What caused this?’ asked Elio, gesturing to the tiny wound.

‘Just a splinter,’ said Roberts glumly, ‘Which is why I said it was nothing.’

Elio nodded, gently touching the skin again, causing Roberts to flinch and Oliver to tighten his grip around his wrist to hold it steady.

‘I’m going to have to reopen the wound,’ said Elio, ‘I think that some of the splinter is still in there.’

‘But I thought I pulled it all out,’ argued Rogers.

‘It could have broken off as you pulled it out and left a tiny bit in; it happens quite a lot,’ said Elio, being remarkable patient, Oliver thought, in the face of the other man’s recalcitrance.

He turned and picked up the small knife and the tweezers he’d put down. He deftly held the blade tip and side in the flame, it flickered for a moment and burned for a few seconds, and glowed slightly hot. He did the same for the tweezers.

‘What’s that for?’ asked Rogers, ‘why do they need to be hot?’

‘It’s to, how do you say it, erm disinfect, the instrument, so that it is safe to use,’ said Elio.

Oliver supplied the word so that Rogers understood.

‘Alright,’ said Elio, ‘This will hurt, I will have to cut into the skin slightly, and find the splinter end, draw that out with the tweezers. I will then disinfect it with the cooking alcohol, and apply the bandage. Alright?’

Rogers nodded, the Frenchman’s kind words doing nothing to allay his apprehension.

Elio moved the knife to the bright red skin, and cut very slightly around the wound. Rogers yelled out instantly as the flesh split like a ripe peach, blood and white puss seeping out along with it. It was disgusting to tell the honest truth, but it didn’t bother Elio as he switched to the tweezers, opening the wound with his thumb and forefingers as he searched for the splinter end that was causing the infection. It was quite deep, and he had to dig in to find the end with the tweezers. Rogers’ hand was actively squirming as he panted through the pain, so Oliver had to use physical effort to hold his hand in place. Elio found it a moment later, holding it tight between the end of the tweezers and withdrawing the dual blades with the little sliver of the splinter in the light.

‘Got it!’ said Oliver triumphantly to Rogers, as Elio placed the tweezers down on the table. Rogers was visible sweating, his teeth clenched to stop himself from crying out in pain.

‘Just a few more steps, Rogers,’ said Elio, ‘Deep breath’

Before Rogers could even figure out what he was talking about, Elio had upended the bottle of cooking alcohol on Rogers’ hand, causing the other man to scream as he felt the burning white pain shoot up his arm.

‘Fuck!’ yelled Rogers.

‘All done!’ said Elio, ‘Just the bandage to do and you should be fine.’

‘Well done man,’ said Oliver to Rogers, ‘You did that well.’

‘Hurt to holy hell sir,’ said Rogers, but not wincing nearly as much as Elio wrapped his hand in the bandage and neatly tied off the end. Oliver shrugged with a bit of a grin, patting the other man on the shoulder.

‘You should come and see me in a few days to change the bandage,’ said Elio to Rogers, ‘But other than that it’ll be fine.’

Rogers nodded, ‘Thank you… Perlman?’

‘That’s right,’ said Elio, ‘But down here it’s alright if you want to call me Elio.’

‘Elio,’ said Rogers, testing the unfamiliar name out on his tongue, before nodding with a smile, clearly feeling a lot better already, ‘Well, I would say eat before it goes cold but…’

Oliver chuckled, looking back at the fare that had been laid before them; all of it cold already.

‘Do you mind if I go back to bed, Oliver?’ said Rogers, ‘I’m mighty tired. Unless there’s anything else that you’d like?’

‘No, that’s fine Rogers, try to get some rest,’ said Oliver with a smile. Rogers took off his cap and immediately clambered back into his own bunk in the corner, above where Oliver would try and find some sleep in a little bit.

Do you want some whisky in your tea?’ he asked Elio, switching back to French now that the English-speaking man had gone back to his bunk, ‘Might fortify it a bit.

Yeah, alright then,’ said Elio with a tired smile, ‘It won’t curdle the milk as there isn’t any.’ 

He found the flask of whisky in the cupboard where he had left it, and poured two generous measures into each of their cups. There was only a tiny bit left in the bottom of the flask, so he finished it off in Elio’s cup for good measure.

No point leaving it,’ he said with a shrug in the other’s direction.

They ate and drank in companionable silence, finding the need to fill the quiet with their own voices completely unnecessary. The sounds of the war around them provided enough distraction; the noise from shelling further up the line, the noise of soldiers boots outside the dugout; the occasionally crack of a rifle; murmured voices; swearing. It all melded into a melee of ambience that nobody would ever want to hear. It was difficult to block it out and find peace. Somewhere in the middle of them eating, Rogers’ snores also joined the general humdrum, as the other man found some form of escape in the blissful release of sleep.

They finished the food, with both of them commenting how nice it was to have the fresh apples, and Oliver stacked the plates into the small storage area, trying to make as little mess as possible. Rogers would have difficulty cleaning anything, so Oliver wiped down the mugs with as clean a rag as he could find.

I better get back to my own dugout,’ said Elio, standing up and putting his cap back on. It did nothing to cover the curls that were beginning to grow down to the edge of his collar, Oliver noted. He imagined his superior officer would be telling him he needed a haircut the next time he was behind the lines on respite. He slung his rucksack on over his greatcoat and picked up the rifle from where he had left it.

Thank you for helping Rogers,’ said Oliver quietly, standing with the Frenchman near the steps to the dugout entrance.

Elio shrugged, ‘It’s my job.

I know,’ said Oliver with a small smile, ‘But one you do well. I am very grateful for all your help.

Elio blushed slightly, instantly making him worry that he had said something he shouldn’t have and made the other man uncomfortable. Perhaps his translation hadn’t been as good as it should’ve been and he’d said something that meant something else?

Sorry,’ he said, hoping that it was alright.

It’s fine,’ said Elio, waving a hand to push away the apology, ‘I’ve just never met a superior officer who went out of the way to thank his subordinates. Most just think it’s what we’re there for and should do without a word.

Now it was Oliver’s turn to blush at the veiled compliment in Elio’s words. He was glad he wasn’t like other superior officers in that respect, and hoped that he never reached a point where he took the kindness and effort of his men, or any of the men who served, for granted. He was very aware of all that they did, and all that they sacrificed, and if a few kind words were all it took to make them feel valued, then hell, he would do his utmost to deliver. He looked up and met the other’s eyes, to let him know that he valued what he had said.

Goodnight, Oliver,’ said Elio, laying his free hand – the one not holding his rifle – on Oliver’s arm, just above the crook of his elbow.

It stayed there for a moment or two, and he could feel the weight of the Frenchman’s hand on his bicep, not heavy or holding, just there as a connection. One made willingly by the other person, rather than forced because of space or necessity, as all other physical connection had been lately. Without thinking, Oliver brought his opposite hand up, and laid it on top of where the Frenchman touched his arm, his palm heavy on the back of Elio’s hand. It was just for a moment or two, stood in the quiet of the dugout, before Oliver let his hand drop, and the Frenchman let go, his fingers falling from the material of Oliver’s sweater.

Elio turned and headed up the dugout steps. Oliver watched him go, before turning back into the dugout, blowing out the candle on the table. He was going to try and get some sleep himself. He was due back on duty in six hours, with stand-to in the middle of that. He needed all the rest he could get if he was going to be in any fit state to lead his men.

He walked to his bunk and threw his greatcoat over the top of the blanket that was on it. He needed that extra layer because it was getting quite cold. He climbed into the bunk, curled up because his height precluded him from stretching out in any way. The blanket over his body was probably full of fleas, but it was the only thing he had, so he pulled it up around himself, greatcoat as well. He shut his eyes, hoping that sleep would come easily, and that he could escape into unconsciousness without effort.

Chapter Text

November 1917

Elio tended to fall into something of a routine when he was at the front. It was the easiest way to make the time pass, and mark down the hours until he would no longer be there. Contrary to depictions of the war that he’d seen in comics and magazines when on respite, there was an awful lot of time spent doing absolutely nothing, and it could get extremely boring. Long hours spent staring at mud, and not a lot else. Laurence, one of the men who he’d used to share a dugout with, until he’d been killed at the second Ypres, had carved out the hours in the dugout wall with a sharp stick. It helped him keep track of the time and to hold onto his mind.

For Elio, it was a little simpler. Each lunchtime, just after midday, he would wind his way along the trench to where the American soldiers slept, ate, and existed, and he would share a cigarette and a chat with the American Captain. By this point he’d been awake for a couple of hours, and had usually managed to scavenge some breakfast of some description, even if it was just an apple or two, of which they seemed to have been inundated by lately. He liked having the fresh fruit available, somehow it made him feel so much more human than eating the hard biscuit and meat stew which was their usual fare.

His hours of duty ran from 6pm at night, until 3am the following morning. Then a few hours break, before being back on duty between 6am (stand-to) and 9am. Then he was off again until 6pm when the cycle started again. It didn’t leave much room for sleep, but he never slept well when he was in the trench anyway; he was always hyper aware of everything that was going on around him. It seemed as if his body had learned to subsist on snatches of sleep here and there.

Today the sky was heavy as he walked along the duckboards, passing two men wheeling a huge barrel of small munitions in the other direction. He assumed it was bullet stock for the machine guns and the rifles, after he’d shot a cursory glance at the contents. He glanced up at the leaden clouds and thought that they best get it inside as soon as possible, as it looked like the heavens were about to burst. The rain wouldn’t destroy the ammunition - gone were the days where it needed to be dry to work - but it certainly wouldn’t do it too much good if it got absolutely soaked.

He reached the edge of the French trenches, and saw the American Captain standing by the entrance to his dugout, a paper in his hands. This was a rare sight, as newspapers were quite hard to come by on the front line. It was alright in the support or reserve lines, where they could be delivered from HQ, but rarely did they trickle down this far. The taller man was wearing his greatcoat, scarf, and gloves, against the cold. The gloves were fingerless in order to make using one’s hands easier.  

Good Morning,’ said Elio as he sidled up, passing the other a cigarette without any other comment.

Well it’s certainly morning,’ said the other, his tone somewhat dark, ‘Not sure whether it’s good or not though,’

Why?’ asked Elio, as he lit his own cigarette. He noticed the other man made no moves to light the cigarette that Elio had just passed to him, so Elio took it back and held it end to end with his own, lighting it by sucking the heat through both of them. The other man would clearly have just held the unlit one without lighting it in his somewhat distracted state, and it seemed like he could use a cigarette to calm down.

Oliver didn’t answer his query, but simply handed Elio the newspaper as he took a deep drag on his now lit cigarette, his eyes momentarily closing in brief enjoyment. The paper was in French, thankfully. Elio’s English might be alright for basic conversation, but he wasn’t sure he was up to reading news articles at any particular speed in it.

The headline blared out ‘Bolsheviks Storm Winter Palace’. Elio read the next few paragraphs very quickly, which succinctly laid out that the Red Guards had stormed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, overthrown the Provisional Government, and were planning to set up their own Revolutionary Government. Russians were deserting the Eastern Front in droves to return to their cities and villages.

Shit,’ muttered Elio. What little he knew of Russian politics had made him aware that the Bolsheviks had always been against the war, arguing that it was a Bourgeois War of class oppression against the masses. Whilst he couldn’t exactly state they were wrong, looking at the numbers of workers who were sent to their deaths in this senseless conflict, it probably meant that they would formally pull Russia out of the war.

Quite’ said Oliver, opening his eyes again, ‘Shit. I mean, it’s bad enough what’s going on in Russia. I’d not heard much about it, other than that the Eastern Front was beyond hell on earth. Soldiers without boots, dying because of they had no rifles, officers being strangled, eating the horses and the dogs… it doesn’t bear thinking about. But despite all that, if they desert the Eastern Front then-

-Then the Germans will have no reason to stay there,’ said Elio, finishing his sentence for him, ‘How many Germans are currently on the Eastern Front do they reckon?’

About three hundred thousand. At least,’ said Oliver darkly, ‘And if they abandon that front and come here, that’s three hundred thousand more rifles determined to use my company for target practice.

Elio was silent for a moment, reading a bit further down the article, which basically just reiterated what Oliver had just said.

Surely they can’t form a peace agreement that quickly though?’ he asked.

No,’ Oliver agreed, ‘But they can agree to an armistice, whilst a peace agreement is drawn up.’

‘Which in practice is the same thing?’ said Elio.

Well it would free up most of their battalions,’ said Oliver, ‘They’d only have to leave skeleton forces on the Eastern Front, just in case. But the Russians aren’t going to come back in. They’re going to have big enough problems of their own at home. What these men, these Bolsheviks, have been saying is terrifying.’

I haven’t really been keeping up with it,’ Elio admitted, handing the paper back to Oliver, who tucked it in the inside pocket of his greatcoat.

Well their main message of course in the overthrow of the Tsar, and the destruction of the autocratic system of government. The idea was that the Provisional Government would do that,’ said Oliver, ‘But clearly they don’t think it’s gone far enough. They believe that everybody should be equal, that there should be no lords or masters, no bosses or factory foremen.’

Sounds like they’re trying to create a utopia,’ he said, wondering what a society with no strata might look like.

Except surely it can’t be?’ said Oliver, looking at him over the cigarette, ‘Because people always need leaders, any sort of enterprise is going to need someone to take charge. A country the size of Russia can’t run on the goodwill and cooperation of people alone. I don’t think these “revolutionaries” are going to be found living in the same places as the factory workers of St Petersburg. Within days they’ll be setting themselves up in the palaces of the wealthy.

And so, nothing changes,’ said Elio.

Oliver shrugged, ‘I don’t know, perhaps this time there really will be the workers’ utopia, where every man is equal and no one goes hungry, or is homeless, or is discriminated against. But I can’t see it. Humans are too greedy. They always want more.’

That Elio could agree with. It was part of the reason they were here in the first place; the fact that the big Empires of Europe had wanted more, and had been willing to enter into an entanglement of alliances in order to protect empires to which they had little right. They had constantly been pushing against one another’s borders, trying to see if there was a weakness to be found in any of them. Once the first domino in the chain had been toppled, the whole lot was bound to go crashing along with it, dragging everybody into this war which had now lasted for more than three bloody years. He didn’t know, and didn’t really want to think about, the number of those who had died to defend Empires which they would never see, and to uphold the Imperialistic tendencies of men who would never respect their sacrifice, regardless of what they said in public.

‘Captain Davis!’

They both looked around at the sound of someone calling Oliver’s name. An American soldier was walking briskly towards them, passing a few other men huddled around a brazier playing cards. They didn’t look up as the other man passed, except to prevent him from standing on their packs that were resting on the boards. Several men with rifles were stood at the watch points, clustered around guns dug into the trench wall, defended with metal and the solid earth of France.

‘Corporal?’ asked Oliver, straightening up. The Corporal snapped a salute to the blond captain, who answered with his own, before they relaxed to talk.

‘New supplies just arrived from the reserve lines, if you want to oversee distribution. Also, new sergeant arrived along with them,’ said the soldier, relaying his information succinctly.

‘New Sergeant?’ asked Oliver, ‘I didn’t know we were expecting a new sergeant?’

‘Yes sir, Sergeant Melling I think his name is sir,’ said the Corporal, ‘To replace Sergeant Avery.’

‘Ah yes,’ said Oliver, a sudden dark look crossing his face, ‘Of course. Alright Corporal. I’ll be there in a moment; is it near the support connection? Alright, can you separate between uniforms, rations, personal, and other supplies. I’ll come and oversee distribution shortly.’

‘Yes sir,’ said the corporal, not questioning these orders. He snapped another salute, and before Oliver could respond he’d turned on his heel and disappeared back the way he’d come.

Guess I better disappear then,’ said Oliver, looking back at Elio, who shrugged. Oliver dropped his cigarette end on the floor, where it immediately went out, the wetness of the mud removing the heat from the flame instantly.

Maybe supplies have arrived for us as well, if they’ve manage to make it down the line to your section, perhaps we’ve been lucky as well,’ said Elio, ‘It’ll be a good thing if they have. I’m running short on bandages, iodine, and suture string. I asked our captain for some over a week ago, before we left the support line, but didn’t get any.’

If none has arrived, come and find me tomorrow,’ said Oliver, ’Green and I purposefully ordered too much on the medical and uniform front, so we might have some to spare.’

Are you sure?’ he asked, taken aback, once again, by the American’s generosity. He wondered if more time at the front would remove this generosity and kindness of spirit, or whether the other man would be able to hold onto it, despite everything he would see.

Yeah of course,’ said Oliver, ‘You’ve used a shit-tonne of supplies treating my men, so it only makes sense for me to share.’

Alright then,’ said Elio, not disputing the logic in his statement, ‘As long as you don’t mind.’

Oliver smiled and shook his head, ‘I won’t be on the usual watch tonight though, so it’ll have to be tomorrow morning.’

Okay,’ said Elio, ‘Why are you not on the watch tonight?’

Wire-cutting,’ said Oliver, with a nonchalant shrug, trying to make nothing of it.

Elio immediately felt himself blanch, and scrambled to cover the expression on his face before the American saw, but it was too late.

It’ll be alright,’ said Oliver, answering his expression rather than anything he might have said, ‘We’re not going very far,’

That didn’t matter, thought Elio. They could be killed within metres of the front line.

Did the Major choose you?’ asked Elio, trying to phrase the question he wanted to ask, without asking it directly.

No,’ said Oliver, answering Elio’s question anyway, ‘I volunteered. You know how I feel about doing the same things I ask the men to do. There’s eight of us going out, to cut about a mile up the line from here, at the very end of my section and on. There’s a bridge about three miles across from there that is of strategic importance apparently, and there’s going to be a push soon to try and take it. Of course, we can’t get across there without the wire being cut. I think some Tommies from up the line are going to be joining us tonight.

Elio nodded, trying to absorb this information, ‘Okay, well, just be careful, alright?’

Oliver nodded, a small smile on his face, ‘Of course; when am I anything else? I’ll be back before anyone even notices I’ve left!’

Well, let’s just hope you’re back before the Germans notice you’re there,’ said Elio darkly, ‘That would be the preferable order of things.’

Oliver clapped him on the shoulder, ‘Well, it has to be done. So, just have to try and make the best of it, right?

Right,’ said Elio, aware the he probably sounded something like a petulant teenager. He was trying not to be; he didn’t want to worry the other man. It’s just that he knew what these night-time rendezvous were like. Sometimes a party of men would head out into the dark on a mission, and only a handful would come back. Sometimes none at all.

‘See you tomorrow Perlman, hopefully with your supplies. I’ve got to go and see to them and to this new sergeant that I’ve apparently acquired,’ said Oliver, with half a smile in his direction. With that, he turned and was gone, following the route the corporal had just taken, in order to undertake his duties for the day.

Elio knew that the smile was for his benefit, to try and stop his worrying about what Oliver was going to do this evening. Since they’d been thrown together; their companies on top of one another practically, they’d become something akin to friends, for want of something else to call their cobbled together conversations and the fact they enjoyed each other’s company.

Elio had had few friends since the war had begun. He’d known some boys from the same town as him; or those whom he’d joined up with. They’d been friends, of sorts, when they were put in the same battalion after training. There were only two of them left now. Elio didn’t make friends, or get close to people, not after he’d lost them time and again. It was easier to just act alone. He trusted his fellow soldiers with his life, but he did not get close to any of them if he could help it; it was easier that way when they were killed.

But he had left himself get close to the American. To allow himself to enjoy the company of the other man; the shared cigarettes and cold meals at 4am when they finished their watch. He’d allowed himself to learn about Oliver’s home, and his life before the war. He’d told the American about his home, and his papa and his volunteering, about his mama and her German heritage (something which she was now very good at hiding). Oliver was the closest thing he’d had to friend in months and months. It was nice to remember what that was like.

He didn’t want him to die.

And tonight, tonight the American would be climbing into the jaws of the wolf, all because of some sense of duty that he had towards his men. Elio had always respected that sense of duty, but something in him wished that, just once, Oliver had desisted, and allowed another to go in his place. Yet, from what he knew of the man, he knew that he would never be able to forgive himself if he had done that, and the men in his care were killed.

Elio took another cigarette out of the case in his pocket, lit it and smoked it furiously, lasting only a few minutes as the flame raced up the paper towards his fingers. Another one quickly followed. He knew that he should ration himself on the cigarettes, as he wasn’t sure whether he’d get any more any time soon.

Well there was nothing he could do about Oliver’s choice right now. He dropped the second cigarette end onto the floor and turned away, heading back towards his own dugout. He’d promised Theo a game of chess this afternoon, he’d need to see if there was anything halfway decent to eat, and he should probably try and get some more sleep before he went back on his watch that evening. That might take his mind off things for a while. At least if he was unconscious then he wouldn’t have to think.

He looked back over his shoulder. He didn’t know why; Oliver had disappeared to do his work, and Elio knew he should try not to worry about it. He shook himself and continued on his way; Oliver would be fine. He was a calm and competent soldier, and his men respected him and worked well under his command. They’d get their job done with no problem, and be back before he’d even finished on the watch they normally shared. Elio glanced up at the sky and saw that the clouds were still heavy and swollen with rain. For once he prayed that they would stay that way; at least if there was no moonlight it would be more difficult for the enemy to spot movement in no-man’s land.

The deeper the dark the safer the men would be, and the more likely it would be they’d still be alive this time tomorrow.

Chapter Text

He’d never been so utterly aware of his body before in his life. One always took their body for granted; that it would be there and it would act in the way it was supposed to as and when it was called upon. Now, however, he felt like every muscle, ligament, joint, and bone was singing with vitality, as if screaming at him that they wanted to live, to keep living, and not return to dust as they surely would if he died.

Every sense was on the highest of alerts; he could hear his heart beating in his chest, and perhaps the heart of the man next to him as well. There had never been more peril than this, and it was only the need of the men at his back, that kept him moving forward, and not lying frozen on the ground in utter terror. He wanted to live; to not be seen. But he had to keep moving, to do the task at hand, and that decreased his chances of both of those things.

He was moving as fast as he could without making any noise. This was not a task to be done slowly, but it was a task that needed to be done as silently as possible. Enemy sentries were trained to look out for wiring parties, sabotaging the wire that would prevent troops from crossing no man’s land. This was a standard tactic, and sentries were well attuned to it. It was a dark night, no stars or moon, so it was more suited than most to this kind of work.

They weren’t just there to cut the enemies wire, but also to do maintenance on their own. Oliver had split the group into two; half to do maintenance, and half to move forward in an attempt to cut through. He was in the front half, and was moving steadily towards the enemy barbed wire, probably ten metres or so ahead. The enemy trench was probably about 50m behind that; close enough that they would hear anything untoward. They were easily within range if they were spotted or heard. The ground was littered with shell holes and other obstacles, so they had to stay low to the earth in order to not fall. His thighs were cramping as he crawled, trying to keep his body as low to the ground as possible.

Oliver had instructed his men to concentrate on small sections of the wire, in specific places. Rather than trying to fan out and tackle more than they were capable of, if they concentrated their efforts then they could get this done more quickly. He knew the British captain had instructed his men to do the same. This would be a joint offensive, when it came (if it came – it was likely that HQ might change targets), between all of them of course, and the French companies as well. The only problem with cutting in small groups was that they would be close together, and a very easy target to pick off if they were seen.

They reached the enemy wire, and Oliver started to work, laying his meagre tools on the ground, whilst keeping his ears straining for any noise. There was a shell hole just behind and to the left of them, which might prove useful to dive into, should anything kick off. He was wearing enormously thick gloves that ran halfway up his forearms to protect him from the wire he was currently manhandling. It was cruel and twisted; black and razor sharp, with spokes and knives angling in different direction, aimed to cause the most damage.

Of course, it wasn’t just a case of cutting the wire. There were also… things… in the wire that needed to be moved in order to the easiest path to be cut. Sometimes this could be a weapon that had been lost, a pack, a scrap of cloth, or something along those lines. But Oliver could see around him, and was aware he was likely to confront this night, the fact that there were bodies in the wire, hanging in their death throes. This is where they’d been caught, or been shot, and had died on the wire; parts of their bodies blasted away. He didn’t know how long they had been there. Sometimes opposing sides were able to collect their dead after the intense fighting had died down, or if a scrap of land had been captured and could therefore be defended, but sometimes that just wasn’t possible, so bodies were left to decay or be destroyed by shell fire or further combat in the middle of the deadly fields. It was an obscene thought; the depths to which mankind was able to sink, and the horror they were able to inflict on each other.

The three sections of forward wire that he’d chosen for his party were thankfully, at first, clear of detritus, and he managed to work relatively quickly, cutting through the lethal twists of metal that had been partially blasted to pieces by both friendly and enemy fire. He just had to stay level headed, thinking that they would all be fine and that they would get through this. If he panicked, then he would be lost.

He worked quickly, relying on his men to identify the best places for him to cut, and then hold the wire as still as they possibly might before he worked to cut the hole. He needed to try and make the hole big enough that any forthcoming artillery fire would simply help to make it bigger and therefore make the path as easy as possible.

He found it mildly absurd, if he allowed himself to think about it. This whole undertaking was beyond imagining; beyond anything that the rational brain would dream up. The idea that anybody would be asked to do what he was currently doing; risk their life crawling about on the freezing ground, to cut through razor wire, where the bodies of other men hung in their death throes. It was so absurd that he might have laughed, if that wouldn’t have resulted in instant death.

He didn’t know how long he kept at it, moving forward inch by inch, making incremental progress. He had no light of the moon by which to judge how long he had been here, as it made its moves across the sky. It was utterly dark, other than the occasional light from either of the trenches. The Germans were dug deeper in than the British or the French, so there were very few lights coming from ahead of them, and no noise could be heard other than the occasional snick of his wire cutters, and those of the parties nearby.

And then the earth tilted on its axis.

A scream rent the air from somewhere on his left; seemingly lasting for hours, when it was probably only a few seconds at the most. He started up to his knees and ordered a hissed ‘get down!’. This was mostly unneeded, as at the first noise, all of the men who were in his group had thrown themselves flat on their bellies, hands over their heads, as if this would protect them from bullets.

‘Back to the trench, now,’ he ordered instantly, his tongue a dead weight within his mouth. It felt like he was trying to talk through a mouthful of sand; rasping his words and deadening his voice. They would not be able to continue this task tonight now; not a chance. They’d be sitting ducks if they tried.

‘Go!’ he whispered hoarsely, praying that those on duty in the opposite trench would have thought the scream the screech of an owl, or something along those lines. But the whining and moaning continued, making each moment more and more perilous, as their sentries honed their binoculars and guns on where the sound was coming from; trying to decipher what they were looking at and decide if it required fire.  

He quickly crawled to the man who was making the noise, and shoved a handkerchief in his mouth to deaden the sound. The man’s eyes were blown and he was clutching as his lower leg, but in this light Oliver couldn’t see what had happened, couldn’t decide how bad it was. One of the corporals was also lying with them, and they tried to move the other man who screamed again, muted by the cloth. He was thrashing and panicking as they pulled him away from the wire.

Then there was a puttering and the crack of small arms fire. It was slightly off to their left, and Oliver couldn’t exactly see where it was targeting. It wasn’t important. The enemy had clearly decided that there was something ahead of them that was worth firing at.

‘Move now!’ Oliver roared to the rest of the groups. It didn’t matter about any form of secrecy now; they’d been heard, and it was only a matter of time before their exact location was pinpointed. They had to move. He motioned to the corporal, and together, on their knees, they began to drag the injured man, who was screaming through the makeshift gag that Oliver had shoved into his mouth.

The soil about five metres to their left sprayed up as bullets hit the ground. He felt like his heart had stopped, and there was nothing in his mind except to keep moving. There was nothing else he could do; it was move or die. It was quite possibly move and die; but he had try and do something. He was dragging the weight of the other man, using one hand wrapped into the rough coat of the man’s shoulder; the other hand in front of his face, feeling the way in the dark, praying he wouldn’t put his hand on something that would end his life.

Then in the next volley of fire, the momentum of them moving suddenly ceased. Oliver looked to his left, just in time to see the corporal who’d been dragging the other side of the man jerk in a parody of a puppet; his left arm and shoulder shredded by bullets. And then he fell face down and was still. Oliver did the only thing that his terrified brain would allow; he grabbed the injured man who was half trapped under the body of the corporal, and rolled.

It was his sheer desire to live that allowed him to roll. He roared with the effort of rolling the other man as well, the momentum of their bodies allowing them to roll once, twice, and then over the lip of the shell hole that Oliver had crawled around when they’d been cutting through the first lines. They crashed down into the hole; rolling twice more before they hit the bottom, the landing winding Oliver and stealing any breath that he might have had. It was only a few metres deep, but it didn’t matter; it was enough to protect them from the bullets that was spitting at the soil on the lip; where he had been lying only seconds ago.

It wasn’t wet in the bottom of the hole, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it was. It was out of sight, and more importantly, out of the sights of the guns currently laying waste to the mud around the top of the hole. Shrapnel was spraying into the air where bullets hit random bits of metal, wire, or other miscellany that littered the ground in their line of sight. Oliver couldn’t help think about the corporal’s body being shredded by the bullets. He tried to push the thought of his mind and assess the situation. They were mostly out of the way because they were down, below the angle were things would be spat into the air if they were hit directly.

He couldn’t see a thing in here. He was only aware of the muffled breath of the man who he’d dragged in here with him, the rise and fall of his chest under his own body. He was half lying on top of the other man from where they’d rolled, and he didn’t dare try and move another inch. A flare went up somewhere to his left, and he prayed that his men had made it back, out of the light, and out of sight. The flare didn’t really illuminate the hole he was lying in, so he was still out of the line of the fire and his body was frozen within this modicum of protection. Adrenaline had flooded every inch of his body, and he physically couldn’t move. His arms and legs were deadened by the sheer amount of the flight or fight response pumping through his veins. As far as his body was concerned he had survived enough to find a space to hide. Now it was putting his body on lockdown; forcing him to remain still and pray that the danger would pass over him.

Oliver could tell that there was something else in the trench with them. He could feel it with the bottom of his boot; a large form of some description or other. He couldn’t tell whether it was breathing or not, and he wasn’t going to move to find out. He couldn’t even move to help the other man, the one he could feel breathing under his chest. He didn’t know what had caused him to scream in the first place, and couldn’t do anything about it even if he did. The man could be bleeding to death into the soil of Northern France and Oliver didn’t know about it or have the tools to aid him. The most he could do was lie here with him, their bodies protected by a hole created by a bomb long exploded, one that had possibly taken many lives with it at the time.

He would have to wait until dawn to assess the situation. They couldn’t move in the daylight, unless it was a dark dawn, but he could at least see whether he could save the man he was lying in this pit with. That was if he lived that long. If he was bleeding to death then he’d be gone before the light of the morning allowed Oliver to do anything, and he’d be lying in this shallow grave with a corpse. He might already be doing that he mused absurdly, as he was unsure what form was currently resting under his boot.

His body was exhausted, and every inch of it was aching with the sheer overwhelming need to live; to survive. He’d made it this far; he could make it further again. But right now, as pot shots were aimed at the earth around the hole and further up and down this patch of wire, he just needed to keep his head down and out of sight.

Please let me get out of this he prayed to a God he only half believed in. Maybe a spirit of fairness would allow him to make it back to his own trench; he’d made it this far, it would be a cruel joke for him to be killed now. Then again, there was no such thing as rules or element of fairness out here. Avery’s death had taught him that. It had been shocking and brutal; utterly impersonal and complete in its destruction. It didn’t differentiate between those who prayed and those who didn’t, those who believed in the war and those who didn’t, those who were cowards and those who weren’t. It was indiscriminate.

Unbelievably, he felt his eyelids drooping. The sheer overwhelming nature of what had occurred was making his body shut down, now that he was in a space where he was – relative to the circumstances – safe. His mind drifted; how many of his men had made it back? Was everyone dead? Or was the corporal the only victim?

A spike of fear went through him as he realised that nobody would know he was alive. He would be deemed missing, presumed killed if any survivors made it back to his trench without him. How quickly would word spread? For some reason his mind flashed to Elio, the French medic. He’d promised him extra supplies; had been so blasé about getting back in time to give them to him. They were currently lying on the table in his dugout, waiting for him to give to the other man.

He felt a twist in his gut at the thought of the Frenchman thinking him dead; he’d been so fearful of him going out on this wiring party, even if he’d tried to hide it. Oddly, Oliver found himself caring an awful lot about not allowing the other man any undue pain. In the short weeks since they’d been thrown together by sheer circumstances, the other man had become a stalwart support to him. Friendship was too paltry a word, and left a bitter taste in the mouth. Ladies who saw each other for lunch once a week were friends. In the French man, he’d found someone in this wasteland who might have the tiniest chances of keeping him sane, of helping him get through this. He hoped that he provided the same thing to the other man; even if it was just a small alleviation of the pain he saw in the other man’s face.

That went beyond the bounds of friendship. He imagined that that was the type of relationship many of the men formed out here; the need to utterly lean and rely on someone, to be unable to continue purely under their own steam. Extreme circumstances did funny things to the way people acted towards each other. Oliver felt a fierce need to not allow Elio to suffer any more than he clearly already had; he needed to make it back. He didn’t want the other to believe he was dead; he had to make it back to his own trench.

In order to do that he would have to wait for the first light of dawn, which came late these days. He’d have to try and treat the man beneath him – he was still breathing, so that was a good sign – and then see how far it was back to his own line. They might be close enough that they could make it under the cover of the lightening dawn, or they might have to lie here throughout the day; too exposed to move, only able to go once the dark of the following night fell.

Either way he was determined. He was not going to die in a shell hole, and he was going to make it back so that he could give Elio those supplies. He hadn’t sorted and packed them for nothing. In some odd way, as that thought solidified in his brain, it provided him with a deep determination in the pit of his stomach. It was a fierce need to keep on living, to not give up.

He would not lay down and die; he would keep going and survive.

Chapter Text

He was dead then. Just one of the many who wouldn’t make it out of this war alive.

Elio let that thought sink into him as he sat on the edge of his bunk in the dugout; his hands were curled into fists resting on his knees. Oliver had said he would meet him after what was normally their shared watch, but he hadn’t shown up. Elio had figured that he might still be on his way back, but wire-cutting was usually a quick job, not one that took all night. Still, he’d decided to give the other man the benefit of the doubt, it was his first time doing an operation such as that of course. So, Elio had wandered back to his dugout, thinking that the American Captain was probably on his way, and would likely meet him there. He had now been sat here for two hours and he hadn’t appeared. He hadn’t made it back.

The sun had risen as much as it was going to for the day, and Elio could see the weak light coming in through the entryway to the hole in the ground in which he sat musing. The American Captain had climbed into the jaws of the wolf, and the wolf had chewed him up and spat him out in pieces. Elio examined the thought for a moment longer, turning it this way and that, before he mentally plucked it out of himself. He couldn’t dwell on it; otherwise it would be too much. He took the thought, wrapped it carefully in a box never to be opened, and the placed it far away from himself. Finished and done for. He brushed off his uniform trousers, as if trying to get rid of the dirt with his bare hands.

He had to look out for himself, and right now he should be eating something that passed for breakfast. He wasn’t exactly hungry, but part of surviving out here was going through the motions as to what he should be doing in order to take care of himself.

He got to his feet, and pulled on his greatcoat that he slung over the end of his bunk, before heading back up into the trench.

Heading for food?’ came a voice from behind him. He turned around to see Theo walking towards him, his normally tired face utterly drawn. He’d had a double shift on the watch.

Yes,’ said Elio, ‘Going to see if there’s anything left in the supplies dugout, or if the other vultures have had it all.’

Ah, there should be,’ said Theo, falling in beside him, ‘Didn’t we just have a delivery yesterday?

Supposedly,’ said Elio, ‘But I don’t exactly hold my breath these days for things to go as planned out here.’

True,’ said Theo, pulling a face in agreement, before stifling a yawn with the back of his hand.

Elio knew that they should have had a delivery down to this section of the line yesterday, because that was where those medical supplies that Oliver had promised him would come from; he doubted he would ever get them now. He mentally slapped himself; he had put thoughts of the American Captain away; that was supposed to be final, and yet here he was thirty seconds later, allowing himself to mope over lost medical supplies. He allowed himself to muse that that was why he was thinking about it; the fact that he wouldn’t get the supplies he was owed. Either way, it didn’t do thinking about.

He walked into the supplies dugout, where there were four roughly hewn tables, surrounded by two benches each. This is where they all went, other than the officers, if they wanted to get some food. There was usually a corporal or two on duty, overlooking the supplies and the rationing of the food, to make sure that nobody took too much, or tried to sneak anything they shouldn’t do. Usually it wasn’t an issue; most of the men weren’t going to try and steal from their companions who they shared the watch with. If it was an officer’s mess, then it might be a different story; then it would probably turn into an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Elio turned towards where the morning’s fare had been laid out. It was all cold, of course. Without the provision of a cook tent down here, it was virtually impossible to get anything hot. Sometimes it was possible to boil a bit of water over one of the braziers outside, but fire was prohibited within the dugouts, as there was nowhere for the smoke to escape to. It wasn’t as if they were built with chimneys.

What’s eating you?’ asked Theo as they sat down at one of the benches after they had collected their meagre fair.

Nothing more than usual… and a few fleas,’ said Elio, knowing that if his joke sounded as hollow to Theo’s ears as it did to him, then he would never buy it.

Hmmm, if you say so,’ said Theo, clearly not convinced, as he tore the corner off a hunk of bread, dipped into some of the cold beef broth provided. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to fill their bellies, and make them forget they were hungry for a while. And it occupied Elio’s mind for at least ten minutes, as he concentrated on chewing through the rough grain bread and getting it down his throat without choking on it. It wasn’t gross tasting, but it was akin to eating rough paper; and therefore required some effort in order to get through it. His jaw ached by the time he had finished.

After they’d finished eating, Elio took a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it, offering one to Theo, who declined, instead opting for his pipe. They sat in companionable silence, not needing to fill the void with words. Other soldiers were chattering around them, some whom Elio recognised, others he didn’t. Some waved to him as they came back from getting their food from the board, which was the direction he was facing in. As he raised his hand to his mouth, cigarette between his long elegant fingers, he noticed that he had a hole in his greatcoat sleeve. He would have to darn that later; he didn’t want it getting too damaged, and he knew how quickly one hole could lead to several. It was one of the only pieces of good clothing that would stop him from freezing to death this winter. He might have to trade Henry to do it for him; he was better at mending clothes than Elio was, and was less likely to make a mess of it.

They’d been on the front line about four days now, and they’d been promised it would be a maximum of seven before they were taken on to respite. There’d been no word as to whether that would actually be the case or not, but Elio was daydreaming of a time, in three days’, when he could have a hot bath, a shave, and a proper meal. He be lucky; if they were posted to a big enough town behind the lines, then he might even find a woman – or a man (he wasn’t that fussy (although this was information he would never share with his companions, despite the fact that he was sure that some of them were equally as inclined to the same proclivities)) – to warm his bones, and invite him into their bed for the night. One thing had always been true; where there was an army, there would be whores of all genders not far behind. Elio wasn’t concerned about spending some of his pay if it meant he could lose his mind for just a few hours. It felt like forever since he’d had someone’s arms around him.

They tried to discourage masturbation in the trenches; sometimes even gave the men tonics that dampened their libidos – and their minds – often administered in the soup. It didn’t matter though. All these men cooped up together, for weeks on end, far away from any pleasures of the flesh. It was bound to happen; whether by their own hand, or by each other’s – very discreetly of course. Elio had either never dared, or never felt overly compelled towards any of the men who he had encountered before. He’d never seen it, of course, but he imagined that it did happen. He’d be a fool to think otherwise. Despite this, many of the men were desperately lonely, and if there was one noise that Elio had got used to over the past two years, it was the sound of a man making love to someone who only existed in their head.

He was brought out of his reverie by Theo thumping him on the shoulder. Just when he was about to thump him back, Theo gestured behind him, towards the entrance to the dugout. Elio twisted around from where he sat on the bench to see what Theo had pointed at.

Stood in the doorway was Oliver. He looked absolutely terrible, was Elio’s first thought. He was looking around the dugout, but then his eyes lighted upon Elio, and he motioned him over, with a quick beckoning of his hand.

Elio got to his feet, and walked over. The other man was a captain after all. Despite that being the case, Elio felt something else in his chest, like an alleviation of a sickness that he didn’t know had been there. His fingers tingled.

God, he was just happy that Oliver wasn’t dead.

Hello,’ said Oliver when Elio was within hearing distance.

You made it,’ said Elio, his voice slightly hoarse. From this close, Oliver looked even worse. His face was cut in various places, and there were huge dark smudges under his eyes. He looked exhausted and drawn, his face had a grey-ish tinge to it.

I’ve got the supplies for you,’ said Oliver, his voice cracking with tiredness, ‘Come on.

Elio nodded dumbly, slightly taken aback that despite all Oliver had clearly been through the previous night, he had come to find him in order to give him his supplies. In order to keep his word. Here was an honourable man indeed.

Elio didn’t speak as they climbed out of the dugout and headed along towards the American’s trench. Oliver would speak if and when he wanted to. It seemed like sheer force of will might be keeping him on his feet right now, and that every step was costing him a lot. Elio wanted to lay a hand on his arm, just to remind him that it was alright to show weakness, if he needed to. At the same time, however, he could see how much it was taking the American just to hold himself together, and that anything might break through that. He would wait.

They walked down the steps in Oliver’s dugout, and Elio saw the supplies on the table, neatly wrapped in a cloth, clearly waiting for him. Rogers wasn’t there; he was obviously on duty somewhere else. Elio vaguely wondered if he’d thought that his charge had died as well, when he hadn’t immediately returned from his night time activities. Had he given up as easily as Elio had?

‘Thank you,’ he said earnestly, in English, laying his hand upon the kit. There was clearly quite a decent amount wrapped up in there, and it would help him out immensely. He watched as the American headed over to the corner when Rogers, his batman, kept the supplies, and took out some of the cooking alcohol out of the bottom cupboard.

What are you going to do with that?’ asked Elio, suspiciously eyeing him.

Oliver looked at him and then the bottle, before cracking a tired smile, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to drink it. That would be foul – I’m going to clean my cuts. Someone taught me that they should be kept as clean as possible, and that cooking alcohol was good for that in the absence of iodine – which didn’t arrive with the other supplies by the way.

I’ve seen men do worse than drink cooking alcohol,’ said Elio darkly, ‘And whoever told you that is a genius, you should always do what he says. Here, let me do it. Sit down.’

It’s alright,’ said Oliver with a shrug, ‘I can do it

He was practically swaying where he stood.

I know you can,’ said Elio, walking over to him and plucking the bottle out of his hand, ‘But that’s not what I asked. Sit down.’

Oliver chuckled under his breath, ‘Yes doctor.’

He sat down heavily on the end of the bunk, shrugging off his great coat and Elio drew up one of the stools in front of him, after locating a clean cloth from the supplies, with which to administer the solution. None of the cuts looked too deep, and therefore wouldn’t need stitches; but Oliver was right, they did need cleaning.

This will sting,’ warned Elio, as he doused the cloth in the liquid. He leaned forward to see what he was doing, his knee pressing against the outside other man’s thigh as he moved.

Oliver shrugged, before wincing as he began to dab at the myriad of small cuts, wiping away the grime and the dirt as he went. It looked as if Oliver had attempted to wash his face before, but hadn’t done a very good job of it.

What happened?’ asked Elio softly, wondering if the other man would tell him.

Got spotted,’ said Oliver wearily; clearly he had told this story to several superior officers before now, ‘One of my men took two spikes of barbed wire clean through his calf. He screamed; as you would. Next thing you know; we’re being fired at by Maschinengewehrs. I managed to roll into a hole with the man, not before losing a corporal mind, and stayed there until just before dawn when it had all died down. Turned out I was sharing the hole with a half rat-eaten German, which was pretty disgusting. We weren’t that far from the line though, so I managed to drag the man out and got back.’

That was brave of you,’ said Elio, carefully working out some dirt from one of the cuts on the Captain’s neck.

Oliver shrugged, almost dislodging Elio’s hand from what he was doing, ‘I don’t know; I just did what I needed to do in order to make it back alive.’

Elio finished what he was doing and turned around to put the now grubby cloth and the bottle of cooking alcohol back on the table.

Well, either way, I’m glad you’re not dead.

Oliver chuckled again, ‘Believe it or not, so am I.

They were close enough that when Oliver leaned forward, his forehead rested on Elio’s shoulder, in a mock stance of sleep.

I’m exhausted,’ Oliver muttered, not moving from that position.

I’ll bet,’ said Elio, ‘Well you’re not due back on watch until tonight, are you? That gives you some time to sleep, if not as much as you need.’

Oliver moved again, sitting up slightly. It was as if it took him all the effort in the world just to do that one thing, to force his head to sit straight upon his neck and to look at him, his blue eyes flickering with his need for unconsciousness. Elio reached and placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, just to provide some kind of anchor, some kind of support. Oliver mirrored his action, completing a circle with their arms, a sort of hoop of support that they could lean on if they needed to.

And then Oliver’s mouth was on his.

Elio was so shocked for a moment that he didn’t even register what was happening, his mouth going slack under Oliver’s lips, and the feel of his half-grown beard against his skin. It took a second, and for Oliver to start to pull away, the formation of regret already on his tongue, that Elio’s brain woke up and realised what had just happened. He grabbed Oliver by the lapels of his jacket and pulled him back, firmly pushing his regrets back down his throat with his own answering kiss.

He didn’t know what this was; or how it had happened really, but he just knew that he had a desperate need to feel the other man kiss him. To feel that strong, demanding, gorgeous mouth under his. Oliver responded, tangled his hand in Elio’s hair and tugging as he deepened the kiss, mouth opening to mouth, and hot breath mingled in between. This wasn’t a nice kiss; like one would share with a lover in time where there was leisure to explore and delight each other. This was a desperate meeting of lips, with far too much teeth and the taste of copper from some of Oliver’s cuts on Elio’s tongue. It was an attempt just to feel something, anything, and to remind themselves that they were still human, despite everything that had happened to them. He felt like he wanted to swallow the other man whole, just to keep him safe within him, and not to feel the sickness of his potential death again.

Then it was over, and Oliver broke away. His eyes were wide as he sought Elio’s, looking for some kind of affirmation there, some kind of forgiveness if he needed any.

It’s okay,’ said Elio quietly, his breathing ragged, ‘It’s okay. I like it like that too. It’s alright if you do.’

Oliver didn’t speak, he just nodded slightly a few times, the tiniest of smiles making the corners of his mouth turn up. He picked up Elio’s hand in his own and kissed the exposed fingers, before gently putting it back down.

Thank you,’ Oliver whispered hoarsely, ‘I’m going to sleep now. And I’ll see you on the watch tonight.’

Yes,’ said Elio, ‘Sleep.’

He got to his feet and turned away, putting the stool back under the table. He picked up the bundle that was still there.

Thank you for the supplies,’ he said again, turning back towards the other man. Oliver couldn’t hear him, however, as he was already asleep, buried underneath his greatcoat.

Chapter Text

He slept right through, barely shifting an inch, until Rogers woke him up for his evening watch. He felt like he could have slept for another day at least, if not even longer. As it was, he absolutely couldn’t, and he swung his legs out onto the floor and into his boots right away. He noticed that Rogers had cleaned them since he’d come back that afternoon. He reminded himself to thank the man as soon as he could; but he had disappeared as soon as he’d made sure his charge was awake.

Oliver stretched his arms above his head after he got up, nearly grazing his knuckles upon the low dirt ceiling. After the events of last night he hoped that this one would be uneventful. He ached, everywhere; his muscles were screaming at him as he moved, but he tried to ignore them as best he could. His body knew the stress that it had been through the night before, and how close it had come to death. He sent up a prayer that tonight would be peaceful.

Either way, he would be lying on watch next to Elio again.

The events of the afternoon before, when he had been so foggy and delirious with tiredness came flooding back to him. The way Elio had treated his cuts; that by the feel of them were now healing fast, the way he’d held him through his delirious tiredness. And the kiss, of course. The other man had been so kind to him, so warm and open, soft and welcoming. He’d wanted to kiss him; partly in sheer thankfulness for having that support there, but also because he couldn’t deny the attractiveness of the other man. He was drawn to him in some way that he couldn’t quite explain; not even to himself.

He shivered as he thought about the recklessness of his actions. Most of the things he did were considered carefully, with all eventualities thought about before he made any move in a particular direction. But that, that hadn’t been. He simply followed the basest part of his brain, and done something that could have absolutely destroyed him. Elio could have denounced him as a pervert, or a degenerate. He would have been thrown out of the army and sent home in utter disgrace. And yet, whatever angels there existed in the universe had seen fit not to utterly tear his life apart. After the heart stopping moment where Elio hadn’t kissed him back, he had returned his advances with fervour that Oliver had not expected, and had taken his tired mind several moments to catch up with.

As he’d been fighting to stay awake in those final moments, he vaguely remembered Elio saying something like ‘ he liked it too ’. He wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that entirely; did he mean he liked men? Oliver frowned, if only to himself. He wasn’t even sure that he liked men. He had seemed to be attracted to various people throughout his life, and it had never really mattered to him what sex they were.

As he grabbed some of the cold porridge (oats and water; they had no milk down here) that Roberts had left out for him, he pondered on that for a moment. It was a difficult mixture to swallow, but it was all the sustenance he would get until dawn, so he needed to try and eat something.

His first experience with anyone had been when he was fifteen; with a girl called Sally who was a couple of years older than he was. She’d been sweet, funny, and had made him laugh through a golden summer spent biking around the local trails, and enjoying dusky rendezvous down at the local fishing pond. He remembered how taken aback he’d been when one evening, they’d been sitting down there, and had been kissing pretty heavily; with tongues even, when she’d reached into his shorts and taken hold of his half-hard length, stroking gently. Of course, he’d done that to himself many a time, with the warnings of his teachers that he would go blind ringing in his ears. Whatever he was doing whenever he touched himself, it didn’t seem to have affected his sight thus far, and he enjoyed it immensely so he’d continued to do it. Aside from that, this idea that someone else would want to touch him there nearly made him blow his load that instant, but he managed to keep it in check, as he watched; intensely surprised and overwhelmed that she was touching him like this. Sally had smiled softly, her face gentle and kind, before she leaned forward and whispered in his ear that she’d like to take him in her mouth, would she let him? He thought that he probably nearly cricked his neck with how fast he nodded. It didn’t take him more than a few seconds for the overwhelming sensations to overtake him and he’d shuddered out his release, apologising all the way. Sally didn’t seem to mind, but simply picked up his hand, and directed up her skirt, and into her underwear.

So that was his first experience with a woman. Sally taught him much that summer, and a few weeks after that initial exploration down by the pond, he’d lost his virginity to her, in her bed, whilst her parents were out at an evening soiree. At the time he’d thought he’d never felt anything so wonderful as the warmth that could be found between a girl’s legs, and he sought out Sally as often as he could in following time in order to tumble with her wherever he possibly could. That lasted a few months, but come the fall Sally had disappeared to the city and to secretarial college, leaving him to go back to school.

He enjoyed a few trysts with other girls in those last years at school, but none of them immediately stuck out as being world-moving. He’d thought that that was that. That was how the world worked; boys liked girls, and they did stuff together that was fun and felt good. Nobody had ever told him otherwise, and he had no reason to suspect why it should be any different.

And then he’d gone to university in Boston, to Harvard University, much to his parents utter delight.

In his first year he’d had a graduate teacher for his undergraduate philosophy class, and he couldn’t quite explain what it was, but he had been drawn to the older man. His name was Mark. They seemed to get on well, and the man valued Oliver’s ideas and insights, treated him with respect, rather than talking down to him like so many people had done all his life. Something happened to him whenever Mark smiled at him; he got this weird feeling deep in his naval, a sort of leap of delight that he’d not experienced before. They’d gone on walks together after class to discuss whatever text they were reading at the time in greater length, or had studied together in the library; Mark on his doctoral thesis, Oliver on whatever essay was due next. It had been only natural for him to say yes when Mark invited him back to his apartment one evening for a glass of wine.

That night, with Oliver’s full enthusiasm and consent, Mark had shown him exactly how a man could love another man. It was as if he fitted a piece of the puzzle into Oliver’s life that he hadn’t even realised was missing, a revelation of sorts. It didn’t mean that he didn’t like girls anymore; it just meant that he liked men as well. That they could give him something else, something different, that a girl just couldn’t. Mark had been the first man to fuck him, and the orgasm Oliver had had that night had been unlike anything he’d had with Sally. It had been all encompassing, seemingly taking over his entire body and making him gasp out his pleasure to the darkness of the room. He and Mark kept sleeping together for the remainder of the year, but then Oliver went home for the summer, and Mark submitted his doctoral thesis, and left the university, so it came to a natural end.

The following year there were two more; Louise, and Jim. Louise was a forward thinking girl who was incredibly bright. She was studying law at the University, even though she wouldn’t be awarded a degree at the end of it (Harvard didn’t give degrees to girls, despite letting them take some of their courses). She introduced Oliver to some of the wilder aspects of sex, and he was fairly sure that she had other lovers beside him, even though they never discussed it. Yet it didn’t bother him; there was never a discussion of exclusivity when it came to Louise, and she was quite happy for any of his other proclivities to continue, as long as they didn’t affect her life.

Jim was the polar opposite; he was quiet and withdrawn, a teaching assistant working in the town, who Oliver met at a coffee shop. They’d fallen into an easy relationship, quiet and behind closed doors. Jim was the first man that Oliver topped. With Mark, he had always been on the bottom. He’d asked once whether he could top, but Mark had brushed aside his request and pushed firmly on his hip, making him roll over into their usual position for sex. After that, Oliver hadn’t asked again. But Jim, Jim was different. He asked Oliver to make love to him, not just to have sex with him. They had a reciprocal relationship; and Oliver learnt a lot from him. Most of the time he would top, as that that was what Jim preferred, but sometimes it was the other way around. Their sex life was a lot more give and take than his relationship with Mark had been. Mark had always been the one in charge, seemingly aware of the age and experience gap between them, and ensuring that he capitalised on that.

He and Jim kept up their relationship through the remaining two years of Oliver’s undergraduate degree, and the beginning of the year of his postgraduate. But then, Jim got sick, really sick, in the winter of Oliver’s postgraduate year. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and he decided to return home to Louisiana, in the hope that the warmer climate would do his lungs some good. Oliver was devastated, but obviously let him go, in the hope that he would recover, and perhaps one day return to him. He could see that the cold Bostonian winter was doing absolutely nothing for his lover’s health.

He received a letter from Jim just after he graduated in the October of that year, telling him that he was firmly on the road to recovery, and that he was to marry come the Spring. This had taken Oliver aback; whilst Jim knew that he had female lovers, the other man had shown no interest in women whatsoever. Jim had continued that he’d come to care for one of the nurse who worked at the santorium where he had been recovering, and following his discharge, his parents had encouraged him to ask her to marry him. She had agreed. So that was that. Oliver had written back with his congratulations and news from his own life, including the fact that he’d passed his postgraduate degree with distinction, and was due to start a job as Head of French at a school near where he was from come the winter. Jim never wrote back. Oliver had wondered whether he’d been prevented from doing so by his fiancee, who perhaps suspected something. Or maybe Jim had told her, unable to keep a secret of that magnitude from someone who he would share the rest of his life with.

From that point until when he had joined the army his life had been fairly empty of any romance, other than the odd tryst here and there with someone he found attractive. Nothing of any note had occurred, and he’d settled into the life of contented (and very eligible) bachelor. He wasn’t for want of women throwing themselves at him that was for sure; in the local area around where he lived, he was known as a prize for any woman to catch.

And then he had felt something for the Frenchman. He didn’t know whether it was the sheer absurdity of life out here, of the desperate need for closeness, or for something to remind him that this wasn’t reality, and that there were other things outside of this chaos in which they were encapsulated. Or perhaps it was that he simply liked the other man. He was kind to a fault, seemed to put others above himself; even when it meant putting his own life in danger, he was intelligent; other than Mark, Oliver had found no-one else who could keep pace with him when discussing pre-socratic philosophers (it turned out Elio’s father was a philosophy professor). It also didn’t hurt that in Oliver’s eyes, the Frenchman was absolutely stunning. From that first moment he’d seen him in the trench a couple of weeks ago, he’d been drawn to him. The way he moved, the litheness of his form, the beauty of his hands, the dark cloud of his hair, and the green of his eyes. He’d noticed all of these things about him, and each time he saw him, he would notice something else; like the way that his mouth turned up slightly at one end when he was trying to suppress a chuckle. It was enchanting, and it made Oliver want to learn about all of the nuances that Elio’s body held; what did he look like when he slept? Or when he was having sex? Or when he was well and truly relaxed, in the company of old friends?

Oliver pushed his bowl back into the support area; he or Rogers would clean it later, depending on who was back first. He knew that it exasperated Rogers that he often did his cleaning himself, the other man has asked what was he for if not for that. Oliver, on the other hand, was not used to having a servant, and he thought that if he could do the work for himself, then why shouldn’t he do so?

He ensured that he was wearing as many layers as it was physically possible to do so without encumbering himself; it was bitterly cold outside tonight, and lying on the ground might just freeze his bones solid. He picked up his pistols, and slotted them into his holsters. He noticed that Rogers had also checked and cleaned them after his mishap last night. He realised, in a moment of absurdity, that he hadn’t actually fired a single shot during the events of the previous night. He’d had nothing to fire at; he’d been more interesting in not being shot himself. He picked up his great coat and shucked it on, along with his gloves and his cap, before stepping out of the dugout and into the dark.

The walk along to the watching post was quick, although he did stop to briefly check in with some of the men he met along the way; one or two of them had lost companions in last night’s raid, and he wanted to make sure that they were as alright as they could be, given the circumstances. They thanked him for asking and he continued along his path, reaching the watch point ahead of most of the others.

They knew the rotation by now; he was first up in front of the gun, so he hefted himself up, binoculars in hand and crawled forward into position. A shiver of unannounced fear went through his body at crawling into no-man’s land again, even if it was only a couple of metres. He ignored it as he got himself settled in the dip, and sorted out his binoculars with mud, the way Elio had shown him on that first night they’d shared the watch. His heart was still making itself felt uncomfortably beneath his ribs, as if it were intent on reminding him of the peril he was in, even just lying here.

A few moments after he’d trained his binoculars on the darkness in front of him, there was a movement beside him that announced the other man crawling into his allotted space. He got himself comfortable - or as comfortable as he could given the circumstances - during which Oliver was aware of his body occasionally jostling his, and the elbow to his arm as Elio treated his own binoculars.

Once he sorted himself out, Oliver said hello by waving his hand in the space where they could both see it. Elio didn’t respond by waving his own free hand. Instead, his hand crept forward the few inches to where Oliver’s was, and his fingers very gently wrapped around his, the tips of their fingers touching where their gloves ended at the last knuckle. Oliver couldn’t help but feel a surge of warmth at the gesture, and he squeezed the hand that was touching his; just to let the other man know how much the gesture meant to him. Elio’s skin was somehow, miraculously, warm.

Elio shifted, not moving his hand, but so that his left leg was pressed against Oliver’s right. Oliver knew that they were lying in utter darkness, so there was no worry about them being seen whatsoever. He could feel the hardness of the muscles in the other man’s thigh, even through the layers of material that separated them. It was a gesture of closeness, and of companionship that Oliver was so unbelievably grateful for at that moment. The shudder of fear that had passed through him earlier had completely disappeared, and was replaced by; well it could not be called contentment, because no soul on earth could be content lying on the freezing cold ground of this hellscape, but it did alleviate some of the horridness of the situation.

Oliver raised his binoculars back to his eyes, to endure whatever it was would appear before them in the dark stretch of the night.

Chapter Text

11 November 1917

They were leaving the front tomorrow. After all the worry that there would be an attack following the bombardment, and the moving of hundreds more troops down to the line, it seemed as if the potential threat had passed, or been deemed not as serious as initially thought. Either that or they were about to get caught out. It had been decided that they could go back, and finally go on the respite they were promised nearly a month ago. Something big was brewing, however, everyone could feel it, they just didn’t quite know where it would hit. After the battles that had been waged earlier this year; Arras, Aisne, Ypres… many lessons had been learned by both sides, and even though winter was now very firmly drawing in - when the fighting usually died off somewhat due to the appalling conditions - both sides were itching to try out the things they had learned. Elio didn’t mind; anything to break this deadlock and take him forward, whether it would be towards life or towards death. But first; respite.

And it wasn’t a moment too soon as far as Elio was concerned. His body and his mind were utterly exhausted. He was running on complete autopilot; simply getting through the hours and the minutes until the scenery around him changed. If someone told him to go somewhere, then he would go; if someone told him do something, then he would do it. He had gotten past the point of questioning anything, he was simply too tired to do so. His body was lean and hard, there was just muscle and bone, not an inch of warming fat to be found anywhere. He knew if his mother ever saw him again she’d probably barely recognise him. He’d always been thin, but now he was more than thin; his body was bound in muscle found from hard work and stress; every inch of the boy he had once been had dropped away.

He was lying in the darkness of his bunk, his mind too tired to even be able to sleep. Instead he had achieved a point of fuzzy grey within his mind, a sort of stasis where he simply floated from one moment to the next. He wasn’t worried about the next day, the next week, or what was to come at some nondescript point in the future. He was simply concerned with surviving. He closed his eyes, willing blissful unconsciousness to take him; at least then he wouldn’t have to pass the indeterminate minutes until the call of the dawn and stand-to, when they would finally be told where, and for how long, their respite posting would be.

The nearest town of any particular note was Eppeville-with-Ham, so perhaps it would be back there. Of course, St Quentin was nearby as well, but the town and the all-important canal were still firmly in German hands. He knew that the higher ups had talked about trying to take the canal and the town for some time now, but they hadn’t done anything about it. It was so well defended that until the rest of the American troops arrived, whenever that might be, it would be suicide to attempt anything of the sort. The Germans had had over three years to build up their defences around St Quentin; it was a sheer deathscape of guns, concrete, mines, and other artillery in the way before allies could even get close. It was part of what was known as the Hindenburg Line, which had been rapidly improved throughout 1917, and as far as Elio knew, no one had any real idea how to overcome it.

He rolled over, trying to ignore the whimpers of Theo’s usual nightmares from his bunk. He knew that he should be able to sleep; hell he was tired enough that he felt his should pass out for the next month of so, but somehow it was eluding him tonight. His bunk was uncomfortable, and his clothes itched. He would be glad to chuck this entire uniform in the fire tomorrow, and be given a new one. When he’d initially heard of this practice, he’d thought it mightily wasteful, but he soon realised that it was the only real way to get rid of the lice and the fleas. Once they’d got to their billets tomorrow, they would be ordered to strip, all of their clothes thrown on a fire, they would all have a thorough bath and a shave, and then be given new uniforms at the other end. At first, Elio had wondered why the uniforms weren’t just thoroughly washed, but then he’d realised that this didn’t solve the problem of the eggs which the lice lay within the weaving of the fabric. No matter how hard the washerwomen scrubbed, or how hot the water was (bearing in mind the women had to put their hands in it) they couldn’t get all of them, so if they were given back, within a few days the little buggers had hatched, and they were back to square one again. Much better to burn the lot and start again. It kept the textile factories busy, that was for sure. He knew that one of the girls he’d fooled around with from his village, Chiara, had found work at a textile factory. God, that felt like lifetimes ago.

He sighed to himself. It was impossible to sleep. He pushed himself out of his bunk, and into his boots, tying the laces tightly before standing up. The other three men in his dugout who weren’t on watch were all sleeping, their exhaustion actually manifesting itself into rest. He pulled on his great coat and beret over his unruly curls, and headed up the steps into the trench. As usual, Private Henry was at the top, on sentry duty.

Can’t sleep? ’ he asked as Elio emerged and he recognised him.

No,’ said Elio, lighting up a cigarette and taking a deep drag, ‘ And Theo is dreaming again .’

‘Ah,’ said Henry sympathetically, ‘ Well tomorrow, we will actually have a proper bed !’

We hope ,’ said Elio darkly.

I’m telling you, if I don’t have a bed to fall into, after all the promises that have been made, I’m going to go and find the nearest officer in whatever swanky farmhouse they’ve managed to swindle for him, push him out the window, and take his place between the sheets,’ said Henry firmly, ‘Preferably with the farmer’s wife alongside me .’

Elio chuckled, ‘ I don’t think the farmer would be too pleased about that.

Pah, he’ll probably be off in some trench somewhere ,’ said Henry, ‘ What he doesn’t know, doesn’t have to hurt him .’

If you say so ,’ said Elio with a weak smile, before cricking his neck, ‘ I’m going to go for a walk. See if that’ll help me sleep when I get back .’

Sure ,’ said Henry, ‘ If you go as far as checkpoint G remember to duck between there and H!’

I don’t think I’ll go that far, ’ said Elio over his shoulder, as he set off along the trench, his feet guiding him a familiar direction. He knew exactly where he was going, and for the life of him he couldn’t decide why. What did he expect to find at the end of it?

It didn’t take long until he was at the top of the steps of Oliver’s dugout. After they’d come off the watch some hours earlier, Oliver had been immediately pulled away to deal with some report or other that had come down from the top, so they hadn’t had a chance to have their customary shared cigarette or five, along with a glass of Oliver’s whisky to warm the bones after hours lying on the ground, so Elio had had to make his way back to his dugout with the other Frenchmen. Elio looked about him, but anyone who was nearby was far too preoccupied in whatever it was they were doing to pay him much notice. He headed down the steps into the darkness, which was only illuminated by the gloom of one candle, standing in the middle of the table in a holder and a puddle of wax.

He saw, as usual, that Oliver and Rogers were the only ones in here. As Oliver had said, what seemed like months ago, but was in fact only a matter of days; when he was in, the other sergeant was out. Elio didn’t think he’d ever seen the other man. Rogers was snoring in the bunk above Oliver’s, but it didn’t seem to be bothering the captain, as he too was fast asleep.

Elio approached him on silent feet, his mind blindly grasping at what the hell he was doing in here. It was weirdly voyeuristic, watching the other man as he slept without him knowing. Sleep was something so hard won here, so sought after, that he seemed as if he should simply turn on heel and leave, rather than go any further.

But he didn’t. For some reason, he couldn’t. Or he didn’t want to. He stepped up to the bunk.

The other man’s face was relaxed in sleep, other than the tiniest of frowns that creased the centre of his forehead. There was a lock of blond hair, just falling down to above his right eye, in such a way that Elio almost wanted to reach out and brush back; in a way that a mother might if she were there. But he didn’t; his eyes flickered back and forth across the shadow streaked face of the other man, unable to tell if he was dreaming, or if he had fallen into the wonderful unconsciousness that came without accompanying images. He was so still that Elio was almost taken aback, and for a moment a shiver of fear went through him; is this what the other man would look like in death? The shadows were making it hard for him to see the flush of life within the man’s cheeks.

Elio desperately wanted to wake him, but at the same time he didn’t want to scare or frighten him. He knew enough about men sleeping with nightmares out here, that he had become wary of approaching those who slept. He could barely hear Oliver breathing. Something in him needed to see those eyes open, to see them wake for him. He reached forward, and placed his hand very gently over Oliver’s mouth. This didn’t wake him, but the next moment as Elio pushed at his chest with other, did. The Captain’s eyes flew open in the shock of someone woken suddenly from sleep, and he tried to open his mouth, but was prevented by Elio’s palm.

Elio quickly raised his other hand to his lips, making the international gesture of silence, which, even in his moment of fear, Oliver seemed to recognise and fell quiet. A few seconds later, Elio felt assured enough that Oliver wouldn’t yell, in order to take his hand away.

What the fuck, Elio?’ Oliver hissed, very quietly as he looked up at him, half-propped up on his elbow. He paused for a moment for before speaking again; ‘ I thought you’d gone back to your dugout?

I did ,’ said Elio lamely, ‘ But…

He trailed off. He had no real excuse as to why he had come here, and certainly no excuse as to why he had chosen to wake the other man, other than that he wanted to, and that irrational fear that death had somehow crept up on him whilst he slept. Oliver appeared to wait for more to the sentence for a moment or two, before he sighed and sat up, rubbing his hands over his eyes. Elio looked down at the man, who seemed to be decided what to do in that moment, a calculating in his eyes, coloured almost blue-black by the lack of light.

I’m sorry ,’ said Elio, sounding for all the world like a child about to be scolded by their parents.

Don’t be ,’ said Oliver, shoving his feet into his boots. A great rattling snore from Rogers was heard from above.

I don’t know what I thought I was doing, or what I would do after you woke, ’ said Elio, trying to dig himself out the mess he had somehow managed to find himself in, ‘ I’ll just go. Go back to sleep .’

As he turned to leave, he felt Oliver’s hand grab his own, holding him in place. He was wearing gloves, but he could feel that the American wasn’t, and he could feel his skin on the exposed part of his hand, much like he had done earlier that night, when he’d held his hand as they lay together on the watch. He turned back around as Oliver got to his feet. Even though there was only four inches difference between them in height, the blond man seemed to tower over him in a physical sense. Elio could feel the breath catch in his chest as they stood, less than a foot apart, his head tilted back to look up into the other man’s face. He wanted to kiss him again, and he might have done had Oliver not gently raised his hand to Elio’s lips, in a mimicry of what Elio had done earlier. It stopped him from moving for a moment; it almost stopped him from breathing.

Come on, ’ said Oliver, pulling on his great coat that was slung over the end of his bunk.

Elio didn’t ask why or where they were going. After waking Oliver up, he didn’t really feel like he had a right to do so. He followed him up out of the dugout, and along about thirty metres until they reached a smaller dug-in room in the trench wall, where excess supplies were kept. It was dipped down a step or two and it was in complete and utter blackness. Oliver motioned him into the gap, and Elio slid between a couple of crates, nearly falling over a sack of what he assumed were apples on the floor. Oliver followed him, momentarily blocking out even the dimmest of light from outside, until he moved slightly around the crates, and the tiniest of light slivers from the moon and the braziers in the trench outside once again shone in.

What are we doing- ’ Elio started to ask, but was cut off by the other man’s mouth crashing down upon his. He gasped out the slightest of breaths as he could, before reaching up to cup the other man’s face with his hand, now rough and stubbly with half-grown beard, and return the kiss with fervour. He imagined that his breath was something to be desired, with the only cleaning implement readily available some willow bark sticks and bit of gum with which to rub at them with. But then again, everyone was in the same boat, and he was hardly caught up in that as his tongue sought entry into the other man’s mouth, lips moving against lips. Oliver’s hands had slid under his greatcoat, and were wrapped around his slighter frame, pulling him close in the tiny space which they had found. He shoved him up against the rough drywall, his beret falling off his head into the darkness beside his feet. Elio’s body shivered in delight at this display of strength from the other man.

Elio’s chest was heaving, and his heart pounding beneath his shirt as Oliver’s hand reached the waistband of his army trousers. Elio could feel himself getting hard, and panted against Oliver’s mouth. The other man moved his hand to the front of his trousers, touching him through the material. There it stopped for a moment, as Oliver broke the kiss. Elio could feel his lips were slick with saliva, and all he wanted to do was lean back in and kiss the other man some more, but Oliver stopped him, one hand on his waistband, the other on his shoulder. Elio could hardly see him in this light, despite the fact that his eyes were fast becoming acclimated to the almost total darkness. He didn’t need to see him, though, to know that Oliver was asking his permission. He pushed the other man’s hand off his shoulder, pulled him back down for a kiss, before whispering ‘ yes ,’ against his willing mouth.

The next moment Oliver’s hand was on the buttons of his trousers (there were three, made of brass), and a catch, before sliding inside, into his underwear. Elio gasped at the feeling of chilly skin against his hot flesh, but it didn’t matter as Oliver crowded him utterly against the mud wall, pushing his own leg between Elio’s, both so that he could have something to rut against, and also so that he could feel Oliver’s own hardness. It was debased and desperate. Oliver’s mouth moved to his neck, where he sucked a mark, causing Elio to moan very quietly. He tried to clamp his mouth shut, biting his lip; even though they were in relative solitude in here, there was always the chance they would be overheard if they weren’t quiet. He made quick work of the buttons at the front of Oliver’s trousers, before pulling his glove off his hand, dropping it next to his beret, and pushing it into Oliver’s pants. Oliver panted against his neck as they stroked each other quickly and roughly, only the slickness of their weeping pricks to aid their movement.

There was no space in here, and with Oliver so close, Elio felt like he might be unable to breathe due to lack of air. At that moment it felt like he could live without oxygen as long as Oliver kept sliding his hand on his cock, putting the tiniest bit of pressure under the head with his thumb. Elio was glad of the wall at his back because he was helping keep him upright as the pleasure built somewhere behind his naval. He kept up his own movements, stroking Oliver’s cock. He was cut, he could feel that, but at that moment he desired to see him, to taste him. He wanted his lips to stretch around his cock, he wanted to feel the heaviness of it on his tongue, the weight of it in the back of his throat. Oliver was fully hard, and he was clearly huge . Elio couldn’t help but moan at the thought of that inside of him, which caused Oliver to search for his mouth again, silencing them both in a mess of lips and tongues. Elio was dizzy with desire as they stroked, rutted, and rocked towards their zenith.

The kiss faltered as the both hurtled towards their completions, just soft pants and the barest groans of desire against each others mouths. Oliver bit Elio’s bottom lip to stop him from moaning. Elio gripped the back of Oliver’s neck with his free hand, and squeezed to let him know he was right on the edge. Oliver nodded, which Elio felt rather than saw, and the next second his body felt like it was boneless as he came into Oliver’s hand, his hips stuttering as the pleasure rushed up his spine, around his core, his balls tightening up to his body, as he spilled his load. His head fell back against the wall, allowing Oliver’s mouth to drop to his neck where he once again bit as he too came, the wet stickiness filling Elio’s palm.

It took a moment for them to recover, but as they did the reality of what they had just done slowly eeked back to both them. Not in a way that concerned whatever it was between the two of them, but more about how to move on from this moment in a practical way. Elio drew his hand out of Oliver’s pants very carefully, trying as hard as he could not to make too much of a mess of Oliver’s uniform, in a way that Rogers would most definitely see. With his free hand he reached into the pocket of his greatcoat and drew out a handkerchief with which to clean both his hand and Oliver’s. It was the slightly less passionate reality of sex that there were these moments in the aftermath. Elio couldn’t help but let out the slightest giggle as he thought about the absurdity of the situation. Oliver silenced him once more with a kiss, moving his hands to the front of Elio’s pants, buttoning them back up and redoing the clasp. Elio mirrored his actions. There was something so utterly caring about that; that Oliver would even think of doing that to him after what he had just done.

Wow ’ Oliver whispered against Elio’s mouth a moment later.

Elio didn’t speak, but simply nodded in the dark. Oliver was standing so close that he knew that he would feel him do it.

I don’t know what this is, ’ Oliver said a moment later, his voice barely above the smallest whisper. Nobody but Elio would have been able to hear him as Oliver continued, ‘ All I know is that I don’t think I can do this without you. This place, this whole thing, is so absurd. I think I need you Elio .’

Elio couldn’t reply, he just put his hand on the back of Oliver’s neck and drew him down for the softest of kisses, letting him know that he understood what he was saying.

Are you going on respite in the morning? ’ Oliver asked against Elio’s mouth.

Yes,’ said Elio, speaking just as quietly.

We’re being posted to Eppeville ,’ said Oliver, ‘ I’ll come and find you .’

And with that he stepped away from him, so there was a pace in between them. Elio could barely see him apart from the vaguest silhouette; black against black, and the tiniest reflection of light from outside in the whites of his eyes, creating the sliver of a mirror that seemed to glitter in the dark. If he hadn’t know exactly who he was Elio might have found the vision frightening; like the incarnation of the ghost of the anonymous man who had died out here; of which there were millions .

Elio let out a breath, which seemed to be a signal to Oliver, who turned on his heel, stepped over the sack of apples on the floor, slid around the slight corner, between the two crates and was gone. Elio rested against the wall for a moment longer, his head against the dry mud of the earth. Whatever he’d thought would happen when he’d left the dugout because he couldn’t sleep, it certainly wasn’t that.

He chuckled to himself, a low noise in the back of his throat, as he pushed himself off the wall, picked his beret and glove up off the floor by feeling the floor in the dark, and followed Oliver out of the stores. He turned to head back towards his dugout; he thought he might be able to fall asleep now. He glanced up at the sky; the light of dawn was just beginning to make itself known in the sky above, but there was probably about another hour to go before he needed to be on stand-to before they headed to respite. He couldn’t help but let a smirk tug at the edge of his mouth as he thought about Oliver’s words to him. For the first time in what felt like years, there was the smallest amount of light in the darkness that surrounded him.

Chapter Text

Oliver was asleep in the back of a covered wagon. Or rather, he was trying to sleep in the back of a covered wagon, but every time they drove over a hole in the road – of which there were many – he was jolted back to wakefulness, with a pain in his spine. The sensible part of him told him that it was probably better to just try and stay awake until they got to wherever they were going, but he was just so tired he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open. The sheer adrenaline that had kept him fuelled whilst he was at the front had seemingly dissipated as they driven away, and with each passing mile from the enemy lines he’d grown sleepier and sleepier. He knew that when they got to wherever they were going he would have to make sure that his men were seen to before he could disappear himself. Sergeant Green had gone in the first wagon, over an hour before the one he was in had departed, hopefully he would have made a good start on finding the billet and the supplies for the men. Perhaps he would have done more than that and there would be little for Oliver to do once he got there; he could dream at least. He was just hoping that there was a soft bed at the end of it for him. He just needed to sleep and start to feel a little bit more like himself.

And then of course there was Elio. As he’d left the trench this morning, after handing over everything to the incoming British troop, he’d been told that the French company had already left earlier that mornings as their replacement troop had come in. He’d seen the rest of his company onto the wagons before he’d got onto the last one leaving for Eppeville, and had sat down heavily on one of the benches inside the back. There were ten other soldiers in the wagon, who were all equally as exhausted as he was. Rogers was showing his usual aptitude at falling asleep wherever he could, and had shut his eyes the moment he had sat down, and hadn’t moved since they’d begun to drive. Oliver envied him, he wished he had the ability to do that.

He could only see the road behind them, as it stretched away from them back towards where they’d just come. There were troops of soldiers passing by on foot, some were working on the side of the road, trying to improve the infrastructure, so wagons such as this one could move up and down easier. There were other vans, some carrying supplies or munitions. At one point an ambulance drove by in the opposite direction, and in his brief glance he noticed that the driver was female. He knew it wasn’t far to Eppeville, and to be honest it couldn’t come any quicker. He wondered whether Elio’s billet would be anywhere close to where they had been posted. Surely Eppeville wasn’t that big?

His eyes closed as he thought about what had happened the previous night; they shouldn’t have done that. It was so risky when they were out in the open and could have been seen or heard, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to regret it one iota. He smiled softly as he remembered Elio’s awkwardness at waking him up, and the almost immediate regret that he had done so. It had taken him a moment to come to his senses, but then he’d been so overtaken by the sheer fact that Elio had come to find him, that he’d had to do something about it. It wasn’t like he planned to end up in a support dugout, with his hand down Elio’s pants. It was just that he felt like he needed the other man, and he’d needed to show him exactly how, in a way that he’d not felt for many years. Elio awoke something in him, a desire, clearly; but at the same time he made him feel safe and calm. Out here it was difficult to decide how those two things went together, or how they had appeared at all.

He let himself drift as they drove, not able to sleep, but without enough to energy to really pay any attention to anything around him. The next time he came around to reality the wagon was drawing to a stop, in what looked like a huge yard, surrounding by buildings.

He stretched as he got off the wagon, grabbed his pack, and stepped into the bright light of the day, shading his eyes as he glanced around. They were in the main yard of what had clearly once been an enormous working farm.  

‘Ah Captain, thought you must be in this last truck,’ said a Corporal – denoted by the stripes on his shoulder -, hurrying up to him a piece of paper in his hand.

Oliver looked at him closely; this was the corporal who had been sent to replace the one he’d lost in the wire cutting expedition. It once again struck him at how utterly replaceable they all were out here, just a snap of the fingers, and a new man appeared in the vacant space.

‘Everything alright, Corporal…errr…?’ Oliver asked, unable for the life of him to remember the man’s name. He hadn’t spent much time with him, other than a cursory greeting a day or so ago.

‘Maxwell, sir,’ he said saluting, ‘Corporal Maxwell. I’ve been given this by Captain Green.’

‘Oh yes, where is he?’ asked Oliver, glancing about.

‘He’s retired sir,’ said the corporal, ‘All the men are seen to, other than the ones in your wagon, so there is nothing further to do just at this moment.’

Oliver was taken aback, ‘Really? Everyone knows where they’re sleeping, etc.?’

‘If you like, I can talk you through it whilst we find your room?’ said the corporal, with a smile that showed he hadn’t been at the front for more than a day or two. The other men were all grey about the face, and had a veil over their eyes. They had also, for the moment at least, seemingly lost the ability to smile.  

‘Yes, sure, where are the men from this wagon going?’ asked Oliver, gesturing to the men gathered behind him.

‘Head over to the barn on the right and Corporal Shaw is assigning beds and the different ablution slots,’ said Corporal Maxwell looking at his piece of paper to check.

‘Ablutions?’ asked one of the men who had ridden with him, Robertson, Oliver thought.

‘He just means when you’ll have your baths and your shave,’ said Oliver, over his shoulder.

‘Oh, alright,’ said Robertson, ‘Why didn’t he just say so then?’

Maxwell looked like he was about to respond, but Oliver held up his hand, far too tired to deal with any squabbling amongst his men, who were equally in need of their rest.

‘Can you get the men over there Rogers?’ asked Oliver, pointing, hoping his batman would help out without any further ado.

‘Sure thing Cap,’ said Rogers, shrugging in the direction of the group and heading off towards the collection of buildings where Maxwell had pointed. Oliver watched them go for a moment, sure he could almost see the weight of the world disappear from them in each step they took closer to their beds.

‘Alright, now what’s happening?’ asked Oliver.

‘This way sir,’ said Maxwell, ‘All of the men from A Company are in the collection of buildings over there, with B Company in the buildings next to that. The baths, washing and shaving facilities have been set up in what used to be the stables, and food is being served from the old mill building. All are being manned and overseen by reservists in the French Army.’

Oliver nodded, listening to all of this. At one time he would have found it laughable that a barn and a bath would have been seen as something close to luxury, but right now anywhere that wasn’t covered in mud, rats, and with access to soap and water was something akin to heaven for him.

‘The officers are in the old farmhouse, with the NCOs on the ground floor,’ said Maxwell, looking at his list on the paper, ‘There a private washing facility for the officers.’

‘Well, if we’re in the farmhouse,’ said Oliver, ‘Where’s the farmer and his family?’

Maxwell looked across at him, his face telling Oliver that he genuinely hadn’t considered this question, and shrugged, ‘I don’t know sir, I think the farmhouse was requisitioned early in the war. Do you want me to find out?’

‘Don’t worry about Corporal,’ said Oliver, taking his hat off as he stepped inside, ‘By the way; do you know where the French company, who are also in Eppeville, are posted?’

‘I’m not sure Captain,’ said Maxwell, ‘The other side of the town I think. I could find out for you?’

‘If you would please Corporal,’ said Oliver, ‘Right, where am I going?’

‘Straight up the stairs, and then up again; it’s the second door on the left,’ said Maxwell, ‘Green is in the room along from yours, and the bathroom is adjacent.’

‘Excellent, thank you Corporal,’ said Oliver, ‘You’re off duty now, so go and get your own respite and food.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Maxwell, snapping a salute which Oliver wearily returned before he turned and disappeared.

Oliver hitched his pack further on to his shoulder and headed on up the stairs, and then up again. The door on the right was already closed, so Oliver assumed that Green had already gone to sleep. Oliver headed into the next empty room and put his pack on the floor beside the bed, before taking a look around. The room was very small, but that couldn’t have mattered less, as there was a bed, with a thick-enough looking mattress, and a duvet topped with a woollen blanket. On top of the bed was a neatly folded, completely fresh uniform. He vaguely wondered who had laid it out for him. It was basic, but it didn’t matter; it was clean. He almost didn’t want to touch it, for fear of making it dirty. He hung his greatcoat and his jacket up on the back of the door, leaving him in his shirt and undershirt, trousers, woollens, socks and boots. He shimmied off his boots, and placed them under the windowsill.

Upon glancing out the window he saw that his room wasn’t overlooking the yard, but rather the back of the house, at what had once clearly been the orchard, but was now rather overgrown, and the trees rangy and wild looking. There was an out building underneath his window, with a roof that looked damaged in certain places. It was clearly a barn of some sort. He turned and tugged the curtains over the window, blocking out some of the November daylight.

He headed into the bathroom and noticed there was actually a tank above the bath, copper, with a pipe into the wall. It looked like there might actually be hot water for him to bathe in. He could have cried in that moment in sheer relief. There was some scented beeswax soap beside the sink, along with a straight bladed razor for him to shave with. He looked down at his hands, and decided to bathe and sleep before attempting to shave. His hands had a very slight shake to them, and he wasn’t sure that he trusted himself with the straight bladed razor near his throat just yet. Perhaps after he’d slept it would be better.

He quickly found that Green had left him half of the hot water, which had been keeping warm in the copper tank, and he let most of it out into the small bath. He saved some in order to wash his hair once he had cleaned his body. It was only about eight inches deep, but he didn’t care. He’d been reduced to washing himself with cold water out of a jerry can for the past two weeks; this was akin to luxury. He stripped to his skin, chucking his clothes in a pile beside the toilet. Again, he was taken aback; he had not expected indoor plumbing in a farmhouse, but perhaps those who had lived here had been richer than elsewhere. Maybe that was the reason the army had requisitioned it in the first place. Or maybe the family had simply fled when fighting had practically broken out on their doorstep. Despite the front line being where it was now, it hadn’t always been that way, and the ground around the house was littered with craters and marks of warfare. Oliver had noticed that several of the outbuildings had fallen down as he’d walked in. He presumed that the ones that his men were currently sleeping, bathing, and eating in had been made safe, as his company were by no means the first to use these premises for their respite. They were just one of many in a long line.

He imagined that the sound he made when he first stepped into the tub was something akin to the noise he had made into Elio’s mouth the night before, as he kissed away the sound of his release. It was that good. The warm water covered his bare feet, and came up his shins, soaking him in warmth. He genuinely felt like he could cry at the sensation of it lapping across his toes. He wiggled them, letting the water wash between them. He sat down heavily in the bath and began to wash; a soft bristled brush had been left on the side with the soap, and he lathered it up to begin to clean himself.

There was something totally cathartic about watching the rivulets of dirty water run down his skin and into the water surrounding his naked form. The water, of course, quickly grew very dirty, but it didn’t matter, because that meant that he was getting cleaner. His nails, skin, muscles, and body were all thanking him as he carefully took stock of each part of himself to wash. It was an especial joy to wash his back, and feel the warm water, like gentle fingers, running down his spine and to the curve at the top of his butt. Several times he soaked the brush, and simply let it run out down his back, warming his skin.

Once he had finished his body he drained the bath, and used the rest of the water in the tank to wash his hair, enjoying rubbing what he now knew was Jasmine scented soap into his scalp and then rinsing it out. This soap was clearly an enormous luxury, and must have come from Paris, purely for the use of the officers. He knew he was privileged because of the stripes on his shoulder, and he momentarily felt a small shiver of guilt because of it. He knew that he couldn’t share all of the perks with his men, but he did hope that they respected the efforts he had made in order to have as much as the same experience as them as possible. He didn’t think fair if officers hoarded everything to themselves. He knew Elio agreed.

Just then the door banged open, and Oliver nearly jumped out of his skin, as a short brunette young girl bustled into the room backwards, her arms full of towels. He quickly hid himself in his hands, all too aware that he was only sitting in about two inches of water, with barely any soap.

Bonjour Monsieur,’ she said, clearly not caring one jot for his state of nakedness. She was wearing a black dress with the sleeves rolled up the elbows, with a brown jerkin and an apron over the top. Her hair was piled up on top of her head, and she definitely looked like she meant business. She placed the clean towels she was carrying down on the sill, and bent to pick up his dirty uniform, throwing him a cursory glance.

Do you speak French?’ she asked, and at his gobsmacked nod, she continued, ‘Good, I am Kathrin. I am the housemaid whilst you are here. My aunt used to own the farmhouse but now she is dead. Dinner will be served at eight. If you are not there, there will be none left. Any questions? No? Good.’

She didn’t even give him time to ask any questions as she piled the laundry into her arms and headed back out of the room again.

Oliver sat for a moment, astounded at what had just happened. Clearly, she had a lot more sang-froid that he did, and had dealt with all sorts of men in various states of undress over her time. He heard her boots on the stairs as she headed back down to the ground floor, assumedly to dispose of his uniform. He got out of the bath and picked up one of the clean towels that she had just deposited, wrapping it around his body, before reaching for another to dry his hair. Again, they were white, and he was momentarily scared about getting them dirty, but then he remembered that he had just washed, so therefore was likely to be as clean as he was going to get.

He walked back into the bedroom, the floorboards creaking slightly under his feet and noticed that Kathrin had left the door open. He closed it quickly, and turned the key in the lock. He vaguely wished he’d noticed that first time around, and then he wouldn’t have been interrupted. Then again, he imagined that Kathrin probably had keys of her own to all the rooms in this house; soldiers probably lost them all the time, so she would need them. Still, he liked the modicum of privacy it seemed to afford him, even if it was mostly imagined. After he’d dried himself off he hung his towels back in the bathroom, and did his best to clean the bath with the brush, before returning to the bedroom.

It was only now, as the real possibility of sleep crept up on him, that he realised just how exhausted he was. He pulled on the fresh underwear that had been laid out for him, and a clean pair of thick socks because his feet were cold, before moving the rest of the uniform and laying it on top of his pack. It would probably pick up some dirt from that, but it couldn’t be helped. He noticed his greatcoat and jacket were also missing from the back of the door, but that the pockets had been emptied onto the side table beside the bed. Assumedly Kathrin had taken them away for cleaning as well.

He peeled back the duvet cover, delighting in just how thick it felt, before climbing into the bed. His feet nearly touched the very end of it, due to his height, but there was about an inch to spare. He didn’t care; the mattress was soft, and after his time with just wooden slats and a blanket, it felt like heaven to his bones. He laid his head on the pillow, and within seconds, the darkness of unconsciousness had overtaken him and he fell into a near dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

It was the second day of respite, when Elio ventured outside for the first time. His company had arrived in Eppeville yesterday morning and been posted to their billets, in an old abandon warehouse about a quarter of mile outside the the town. It was quite cold, but the mattresses they had been provided with were soft, and the place was dry, and rat free. The officers of his company were staying in the town. Regardless of the simple accommodation, he’d been able to bathe, shave, eat, and sleep. And slept he had; for over eighteen hours, from the middle of the afternoon yesterday after he’d eaten, to just before noon. His body had been utterly exhausted and he had simply passed out in sheer fatigue. He hadn’t dreamt at all, or been disturbed by Theo’s whimpers, if the other man dreamt at all.  

Now, however, it was just before noon, and he was wearing one of the clean uniforms he’d been given (minus the beret – they were off duty after all). He’d walked into the town with some of the men from his company, and was wandering with them, enjoying looking at totally mundane things in shop windows such as vases, pots and pans, or poesies of flowers; things he hadn’t seen in months. It was like a completely different world, and Elio had to occasionally suppress a weird surge of anger that flooded through his body, that this life could continue whilst only a short drive away men were dying in the closest thing to hell ever seen on the face of the globe. There was a lady inside one of the shops buying one of the pretty vases, and Elio had to resist to storm in and ask her what she thought she was doing. What use was a vase? It was so fragile, so pointless, so without use to anybody, other than to stand as an ornament and to gather dust. Nobody was remembered because of a vase they’d had on their mantelpiece.

He shook himself. It didn’t matter. He was fighting for this lady to be able to continue buying her pretty vases if she so wished. What a thing to make such a sacrifice for.

The men he had shared the dugout with were going to head to a local café for lunch, so Elio felt no harm in tagging along. They’d eaten yesterday (in vast quantities), but by the time he’d got himself sorted this morning, breakfast had long disappeared. They found a small establishment called Le café du Soleil, the name of which Elio couldn’t help but roll his eyes at. Then again, other than the hotel, this was the only café in town, so they didn’t have to think originally when it came to their name.

The four men sat down at one of the tables inside, and ordered coffee and French toast with fruit. It was one of the things that he missed the most; fresh fruit. It sounded so mundane, but the fact that they had had good apples for the last week or so at the front had been a major boon for him; it made him feel so much healthier than just the weak beef stew and hard biscuit or bread they normally received.

The men spoke about nothing in particular, not one of them mentioning where they had come from, because that was there, and they were here. They didn’t to bring there here as well. It was enough that it could still be heard; when the wind was blowing in the right direction or the guns were especially active, then the dull thud, thud, thud of the artillery was very audible. Elio thought that it sounded almost like a heartbeat; if a heartbeat was erratic and painful. He noticed that Theo’s face looked relaxed for now, and Elio thought he probably looked the happiest he’d seen him in months. He did notice, however, that he kept his hands clenched into fists on his thighs in an effort to control the tremors which plagued him. He wished he knew of a way to help him with that, but he’d never heard of anything being of much help.

The coffee and food was like ambrosia to the group, and they all fell onto it like rabid animals. Regardless of the fact they’d eaten yesterday, they all felt the hunger of months of too-small portions within their bodies. They ordered seconds and fell on those in much the same way; silent as they devoured their food. It was only when the door opened again, and two or three American voices flooded in did Elio’s ears prick up and he began to pay attention. It wasn’t Oliver; he could hear that instantly, but he could ask the men currently sitting behind them where the Americans were based before they left the café. They were the first Americans he’d seen or heard in Eppeville.

When are you due home leave again, Perlman?’ asked Henry, drawing him back into the conversation.

I was due leave six weeks ago,’ said Elio with a shrug, as he held onto his coffee cup with his right hand, ‘But I decided not to take it.’

Why on earth would you do that?’ Theo mumbled incredulously.

I don’t know, really,’ said Elio with another shrug, ‘We were about to be posted to Ypres again, and I guess I thought I needed to come with you, in order to keep you bastards alive for another couple of weeks.’

The men around him laughed, and Henry clapped him on the shoulder. They had to laugh in the face of death, because if they didn’t, they would become utterly paralysed by fear that they would be unable to operate. Of course, Theo was teetering on the edge of that as it was, but was – for the moment – maintaining himself right on the precipice.

I didn’t sleep in the same room as my wife last time I went home,’ said Theo quietly. Elio was slightly surprised that he had decided to share this piece of information with the other men.

I was worried that I would scare her too much,’ Theo finished, and they all knew exactly what he was referring to; his nightmares, his terrors, his tremors.

I’m sure it’ll get better,’ said Henry, somewhat lamely, but in the absence of anything else to say.

When you get a chance to go home and rest properly,’ said Elias, the last of the four sitting at the table, scratching the back of his head in discomfort.

Yes, yes I guess so,’ said Theo with a shrug and a smile, ‘Once this is all over.’

There was general agreement and smiles, and hopes that they would all be home soon. Only Elio felt a slight curl in his gut; if this was over, then he would have no reason to see the American again. Would he be whisked back across the ocean faster than Elio could blink? He pushed the thought aside; of course he wanted this to be over. This was hell. But it had been stretching on for longer than three years now, and nothing anyone did seemed to break the deadlock. There was no end in sight anytime soon. Maybe the world was doomed to be at war forever.

Part of him wanted to just take the road out of town and keep walking. The idea of having to go back filled him with ice, and a hatred of everything that was good and clean in the world. That he would have to return to that darkness was simply anathema to nature, and he wanted to scream out his rage at the sky.

After they had finished, they got to their feet, with the others heading outside. Elio wandered over to the table where the Americans were playing cards, smoking, and drinking black coffee.

‘Hello, excuse me?’ said Elio, stepping up to the table. He was aware that his English was heavily accented, but he assumed that they could understand, as they turned towards him.

‘Hello?’ said the one sitting closest to where he was sitting, looking up from his cards.

‘I was hoping you might tell me where I can find Captain Davis?’ asked Elio.

‘What do you need him for?’ asked the man, who Elio noticed was a corporal.

‘We’re friends,’ said Elio with a shrug, ‘We shared a watch together.’

The corporal shrugged as well, ‘We’re stationed in the farmhouse on the way past the Post Office and heading out of town. The Cap might still be up there.’

‘Thank you,’ said Elio, ‘Enjoy your coffee and cards.’

The American just grunted, causing Elio to turn and roll his eyes at the same time. Well, at least now he knew where he was going. He left the café and saw that the guys he had been with when he came in were talking to a group of French girls in front of the milliners opposite. He didn’t know whether he should tell them that he was heading off, but he figured that they were going to be preoccupied for a while, so he just shoved his hands in his pockets and headed out on the road towards the Post Office. He passed American soldiers coming in the other direction, which he took to be a good sign.

It didn’t take too long, and when he rounded the bend in the road, he spotted an enormous sprawling farmhouse on the left-hand side. He figured that that had to be it, and hoped that he would find Oliver somewhere in the vicinity, although quite where he would start he wasn’t entirely sure.

He turned into the farm yard and noticed there was hardly anybody about. He assumed that most of the soldiers had already headed out into the town. Would Oliver even be here? He didn’t quite know why he’d just come up here, on the hope of stumbling over him. He reached into his jacket pocket and got a cigarette out of his holder and lit it.

He leant against one of the walls of what he assumed was an outbuilding. The sky was clear today, but it was also pretty cold, and he drew his jacket closer around his form. It was nice to actually be able to enjoy a cigarette in peace, and without the fear associated with being at the front. He closed his eyes as he inhaled, enjoying the feeling of the smoke curling through his lungs.

‘Elio?’

He opened his eyes at the sound of the familiar voice of the Captain he had come to find. He had clear bathed and slept, and his face looked brighter and happier. At least what he could see of his face; the American Captain was still sporting quite a beard.

Hi,’ said Elio, ‘I walked up here, but I thought you’d have gone into the town or something.

No, I was just checking in with stores that everyone had got everything before I disappeared.’

That was kind of you,’ said Elio with a small smile tugging at the edge of his mouth.

Oliver shrugged, ‘It needed to be done, and I don’t mind to be the one to do it.

You’ve not shaved.’ said Elio, motioning at Oliver’s face. It wasn’t a question, but rather a statement of the obvious, ‘Isn’t it bothering you?

A bit,’ said Oliver, ‘But…

And as explanation he held up his hands, that Elio immediately noticed had a slight tremor to them. It wasn’t as bad as the one Theo had, but it was definitely there.

I tried,’ said Oliver, looking uncomfortable at having to admit this, ‘But I cut myself.’

He tilted his head and showed Elio just under his ear where some of the long stubble had been cut away, but a nasty looking cut was also situated. Elio took a step closer to look at the cut with medical interest; he could see that it wasn’t that deep, but where it was it would have bled like crazy and must be very sore.

I can help you,’ said Elio, ‘If you don’t mind?’

Oliver looked at him, ‘Are you sure? I could just ask Rogers later…’

I don’t mind,’ said Elio, ‘And it must be itchy as hell.’

‘Mmmmm, it is,’ said Oliver, ‘Alright then.’

And with that Oliver turned and went back into the farmhouse; Elio chucked his cigarette on the ground and followed him, shutting the farmhouse door behind himself. Elio immediately noticed there were mattresses on the floor in the kitchen, but they looked deep enough and fairly soft. It was similar to the set up in the warehouse where he and his company were based. There was also a stack of clean pots and plates beside the sink.

We’re in the rooms at the top; it’s where I left the blade,’ said Oliver, motioning towards the farmhouse stairs. Elio nodded and gestured for him to go first. It didn’t take a moment for the to reach the small bedroom which Oliver had been apportioned, and Elio couldn’t help but whistle through his teeth as he stepped inside. This was nothing short of luxury as far as he was concerned.

I know,’ said Oliver, ‘It’s nice, isn’t it?’

Well it’s better than where I am, that’s for sure,’ said Elio.

We’ve even got a housemaid; Kathrin, who does all washing, cooking and cleaning up after us,’ said Oliver with a grin.

Lucky bastards,’ said Elio, poking his head into the adjoining bathroom, ‘Now, where’s the stuff?’

I’ll just get it,’ said Oliver, passing him and moving into the bathroom, ‘I put it all away after I couldn’t... there should be some lukewarm water left as well.

Elio could hear him moving around in the bathroom, and the next minute, he came back with a half-empty jug of lukewarm water, a towel, a brush, some soap, and the straight razor, which he had cleaned since nearly slitting his own throat. He put them down on the bed, next to where Elio was standing. Elio took of his jacket, hung it on the back of the door, and rolled up his sleeves to above the elbow, so he wouldn’t get them wet.

Alright,’ said Elio, ‘Sit.’

Oliver grinned at him, not being used to being bossed around overly much. Nevertheless, he sat down on the end of the bed, and spread the towel out over his lap. He also removed his jacket, so he was just left in his button-down shirt.

Elio lathered up the brush with water and soap, before he started on Oliver’s face, gently soaping the area he was going to shave. He picked up the straight razor, and flicked it open.

Don’t move,’ said Elio, as he raised the blade to Oliver’s cheek. The other man didn’t reply, feeling the cold metal close to his face. Elio began to slowly move the blade down the captain’s face, with the grain of his skin, shaving away the hair to reveal the skin underneath. He slowly moved around the contours of his face, slowly revealing more of the shapely jaw and cheekbones, the hair falling away into the towel on Oliver’s lap.

Elio was aware that his face was very close to the other man’s; it had to be in order to see what he was doing, and ensure that he didn’t hurt the other man. He was sure that Oliver must be able to feel his breath on his cheek. He avoided the area around the cut from earlier; sure, that meant he had to leave a small patch of beard, but he didn’t want to irritate the skin any further. There was something soothing about working like this, shaving away some of his beard, rinsing the blade in the lukewarm water, and then returning to his task.

There,’ he said a few moments later, as he flicked the blade away, ‘All finished.’

He picked up the bowl of water, the soap, and the brush, and deposited them back in the bathroom, whilst Oliver dealt with the towel. When he returned to the bedroom, the captain was still sitting on the end of the bed, his hand smoothing over his skin.

That’s better,’ he said with a smile in Elio’s direction, ‘Thank you.’

Not at all,’ said Elio, stepping up to him again. He brushed his hand down the Captain’s cheek, in his mind it was on the pretence of checking for stubble, but really he just wanted to feel the smooth skin underneath his palm. The other man caught his palm, just as to was about to leave his face, raised it to his mouth and gently kissed it. Elio smiled, his ears once again pricking up and trying to listen to the rest of the house.

He looked at Oliver, green eyes staring into blue, and he knew a small smile was playing on his face.

There’s no one here…’ he said, those words suggestive enough for what he was intending. Oliver looked up at him for a moment, calculating, before he nodded.

Lock the door,’ Oliver said, his voice commanding once again, as well as kicking off his boots.

Elio turned away, and headed to the door which was still slightly ajar, before he shut it and turned the key, leaving it in the lock so if by happenchance someone had another key, they wouldn’t be able to turn it. He too, took off his boots, and left them beside the door before he turned back to the captain, and saw that he had undone the top two buttons on his shirt. Elio almost melted at that sight alone; the captain wanted this just as much as he did. This desire he felt for the other man was returned; they both wanted, nay, needed, something that it seemed the other man could give.

He strode back across the floorboards, and took the newly shaved jaw of the captain between his hands, dropping his lips to his mouth, and kissed him. And really kissed him. There was no tentativeness as there had been in the supply dugout the other night, just a desire to make the other man feel his need. Oliver’s arms wrapped around his back and pulled him down and close. The kiss was hot and sloppy, as Elio moved his hands to the other buttons of the captain’s shirt; undoing them and pushing his hands inside, feeling warm skin and firm, smooth muscles. Mouths moved against mouths, as they desperately tried to convey whatever the need was that was felt by the pair of them. Elio didn’t know whether he ever could. This was dangerous. He was coming to need the other man far too much; what would he do if something happened to him? The thought was pushed out of his mind as Oliver sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, reminiscent of their passion from the other night.

Oliver scooted back on the bed a bit, to allow Elio room to properly move between his legs, not breaking the kiss as he shucked the man shirt’s off his shoulders. Elio reached down and cupped the captain’s crotch through his trousers, feeling the growing hardness underneath his hand as he gently rubbed.

I want…,’ huffed Elio against Oliver’s mouth, ‘I want to taste you; will you let me?

Oliver groaned, a rumble in his throat, as he nodded.

Elio didn’t wait another second, as he kissed down the man’s chest until he was on his knees in front of him, between his spread thighs. He could see the hard line of the man’s cock through his trousers, and as he made short work of the buttons and pulled them open, the line became more visible through the captain’s underwear. Elio moaned; even through this thin cloth he could see that the captain was a huge as he’d thought the other night, his stiff prick hard against his upper thigh, straining to be released from the cloth confines. Oliver helped Elio, as he moved to pull his trousers and underwear down, he lifted his hips so the material could slide off.

The captain’s cock was freed from the waistband and sat heavy against his belly, a little pre come weeping from the tip. Elio immediately lent down and licked it away, causing Oliver to hiss gently and lean back against his elbows on the bed, looking down at him. Elio placed a gentle kiss to the head, before sucking the tip into his mouth.

Oh god,’ murmured Oliver, his head hanging back as Elio continued.

As he’d suspected, as he slicked up his mouth and took more of the captain in, he was big. Big enough that his lips stretched around his shaft, and he tried to relax his jaw as much as possibly, to forestall the inevitable ache. Oliver’s cock was freely weeping in his mouth now, and Elio used his tongue to at his slit when he pulled up, before bobbing down again to take as much as he could.

Uh, Elio, god,’ Oliver said as Elio began to bob his head, flattening his tongue against the underside of the captain’s cock, to put pressure in just the right places. He moaned around what he could get in his mouth, feeling the weight of Oliver’s cock against his tongue, just like he’d imagined. He hummed in delight, but apparently that was too much, and Oliver bucked his hips at the sensation, causing Elio to splutter and choke, and pull off, his eyes streaming.

Oh god! Shit! I’m sorry!’ said Oliver instantly, trying to sit up, as Elio coughed a few more times.

It’s fine,’ he said, with a grin, ‘It’s okay. Move up, so I can get on the bed.

Oliver did as he was bid, his face still creased with concern. Elio saw that his erection had wilted a little, and immediately vowed to fix that.

Spread your legs,’ Elio said, and Oliver did as he was bid, allowing Elio to settle comfortably, kissing up the inside of his thighs.

I want to take all of you in my mouth,’ Elio whispered, sucking on Oliver’s balls, one at a time, before licking a stripe up the side of the captain’s cock, ‘I want to feel you in my throat…’

Oliver’s prick was fully hard as Elio’s words had their intended effect, so he continued, ‘I want you to wreck my throat so I can’t talk, and one day I want you to fuck my mouth, as you pull my hair, sliding in between lips at your pace, and at your command…. but that’s going to take practice. Lots and lots of practice.’

Oliver’s breathing was heavy panting by this point, and he moaned loudly at Elio’s words, ‘Yeah?’

‘Mmmm,’ Elio hummed as he took the captain’s cock back into his mouth, before pulling off with a wet pop, ‘But that means today… you’re going to have to be good. And just let me make you cum like this…’

And with that he swallowed as much of Oliver’s cock as he possibly could, relaxing his mouth and jaw, sucking and bobbing so that saliva wet the rest that he couldn’t get into his mouth, and he could use his hand to stroke and caress. His jaw was beginning to ache, but he could taste on the back of his tongue the constant stream of pre-come from Oliver’s cock. He used his tongue in earnest, unconsciously rocking his own hips against the cover as Oliver’s moans of delight turned him on no end. Making this man moan was like playing a finely tuned instrument, and he only wanted to play him more.

Uh, Elio, I’m going to cum,’ panted Oliver, reaching down to try and pull Elio up, but he just shook his head, determinedly sucking, hollowing his cheeks.

Oh fuck,’ groaned Oliver, and Elio had just the wherewithal to reach and push Oliver’s hips flat to the mattress as he came, pulsing hot into Elio’s mouth, his back arching at the sensation. Elio swallowed around him, trying to take it all, but there was just too much, and some dribbled out the corner of his mouth and down his chin. He pulled off and swallowed what he could, look down at Oliver as the shudders of his orgasm ran through his body. Elio thought he could look at that sinful ‘oh’ of his mouth until the end of his days, and never tire of it.

A few moments later, Oliver opened his eyes as his breathing slowly returned to its normal cadence. His eyes were glittering in the daylight that was dimmed by the curtain-covered window.

God I want you so much,’ said Oliver, looking up at him, before reaching up and pulling him down for a kiss, tasting himself Elio was sure. Oliver’s tongue licked inside his mouth, as if he wanted to trace every part of the other man.

Can I?’ Oliver asked as he broke away, ‘Can I fuck you?’

Elio thought about it for less than a second, knowing that Oliver would be a considerate lover, if he was the same in bed as he was with most of his other actions. He had to admit, he was a little scared, having had the captain’s cock in his mouth, he knew how big it was. Certainly the biggest he’d ever had. But he knew the captain would be careful, and would listen to Elio’s sounds and his body, so a moment later, he nodded.

Yeah,’ he said, reaching down and flicking open the buttons on his own trousers, where his own cock was tenting the material, ‘Yeah, fuck me… please, Oliver.’

Chapter Text

Just, go slow, okay?’ said Elio, looking up at him as he caught hold of his wrist. The brunette was lying half underneath him, his eyes wide with desire, but also a certain amount of trepidation. His other hand was behind his head, his curls dispersed over the pillow, although Oliver noticed that they were shorter than they had been a day or so ago. Clearly the mandatory hair cut had already taken place.

Oliver didn’t trust himself to speak at that moment, so he just nodded, a lump caught in his throat. Of course he would go slow, anything to please this beautiful creature that he somehow found in his bed. They had no form of lubricant, or anything close to it. Mark had always used petroleum jelly, but clearly none of that was available right now. The only thing they had was spit, and the pre-come weeping freely from Elio’s cock. He was scared about hurting him.

He kissed down Elio’s naked body (having shed the rest of his clothes before manoeuvring him underneath him); god this man was beautiful. There was miles of alabaster skin, drawn tight over hard muscles and a flat, taught belly. Oliver noticed there was a small scar above his left hip. It wasn’t large or deep enough to have been anything serious, and he wondered whether he’d had the injury before the war or since. There was a trail of dark hair leading down to his prick, stiff against his lower belly. Oliver lent down and sucked the tip into his mouth, causing Elio to sigh and rock his hips very slightly, his stomach muscle rippling as the beginning of pleasure rolled over him. Fuck he was beautiful.  

Roll over,’ Oliver commanded, as he released Elio. The brunette did as he was bid instantly, curling his arms around the pillow under his head. Oliver admired the view for a moment; the freckles on Elio’s back, and the swell of his ass, before it reached the miles of his legs. He kissed his lower back then, dotting kisses on the top of his ass, before he sat up again.

Spread your legs,’ he said, ‘Pillow under your hips

Elio did as he was bid; grabbing the spare pillow and shoving it under his own hips so that they were canted upwards, giving Oliver easier access to where he wanted to be.

He leaned down again sucking and kissing as he went, before sucking two fingers into his mouth and trying to get them as soaked as possible. He traced one around Elio’s hole, causing the man to shiver, before he began to slowly open him up. He used his mouth and his fingers at the same time to try and make sure it was as wet as possible, and there was the least friction for Elio. He did this for some time, using his fingers, along with sucking and licking to get Elio to relax and open up. The moans and gasps coming from Elio as he did this quickly ensured that his own cock was stiff again, despite having only cum about fifteen minutes before.

More,’ hissed Elio, reaching back to tug at his hair, ‘Give me more.’

Oliver smirked against Elio’s butt cheek, biting gently as he crooked his fingers. He removed them, causing Elio to whine and cant his hips back at the loss.

Oliver quickly moved his hand to the outside of his hip and flipped him over, and immediately sucked his hard cock into his mouth. He brought his fingers back to Elio’s hole, using his saliva and the slick from Elio’s weeping prick that he’d gathered, to push the two fingers back inside, gently scissoring them, watching the muscle stretch and pulse.

Fuck,’ he whispered to himself more than to Elio.

I’m ready,’ said Elio, ‘I promise

Oliver looked down at him, uncertain. Elio didn’t say anything else, he just grabbed his own knees and pulled them up to his chest; offering himself up. Oliver didn’t think he’d seen anything so sexy before in his life, as he shuffled so that his hips were in the cradle of Elio’s thighs.

You sure?’ he asked.

Elio only nodded and reached down, gently encircling Oliver’s cock in his hand, and drawing it to his entrance. Oliver leant forward to capture his mouth in a kiss; feeling the heat coming off his body. He looked into Elio’s eyes as the other man held onto the back of his neck, keeping their faces close together, as he pushed forward, entering the other man slowly. Elio hissed slightly, but locked his legs around Oliver’s back to prevent him from going anywhere as he reacted to that slight sound of pain.

More?’ he asked after a moment.

More,’ Elio said, letting him push further into his body.  

He was doing his best to control himself, but Elio was so hot, and so tight, he thought he might lose his goddamn mind, as he slowly pressed forward until he was completely embedded in the other man’s body, in a hot, satin-like vice. He could feel sweat dripping down his face, as he stilled, resting on his arms above Elio’s body. He leaned down and licked a stripe up the side of Elio’s neck and then bit on his earlobe.

‘Okay?’ he whispered.

The other man nodded, simply taking him by the chin and kissing him deeply, rocking his hips slightly, encouraging Oliver to move. He started to gently thrust, withdrawing slightly and back, breathing hot against Elio’s neck at the sensations rushing through his body, the instant tightness in his groin that made pleasure shoot to his brain and around his body. Elio’s mouth was open in a picture of pleasure, but Oliver wanted to make him moan.  

He adjusted his angle slightly, which caused Elio’s hands to immediately tighten around his neck, and arch his hips, a moan falling from those cherry lips. That’s what he was looking for.

There?’ Oliver hissed, knowing exactly what the answer was as he did it again, causing Elio to mewl underneath him and tighten around him.

Fuck, Oliver, yes,’ Elio moaned, as Oliver continued.

Oh God, Elio’ said Oliver, ‘You feel incredible.’

Don’t stop,’ Elio said as they rocked together. Oliver dropped one hand around the head of the other man, kissing him deeply, a messy tangle of breath, tongue, and teeth. He felt like he wanted to draw the other man into him. They were joined in body, but Oliver felt like he wanted to get closer, chest to chest, mouth to mouth, and hip to hip. He felt a desire for the other man to be him, and for him to become the other. What did that even mean? He wasn’t sure, but right now he felt like he was in paradise.

Fuck, please, don’t stop,’ Elio panted, ‘Yes, yes, god…’

Oliver thought he’d probably lost the ability to speak by now, so he just kept aiming for Elio’s prostate on each thrust, wanting to make the other man see stars as he made love to him.

‘I’m going to cum,’ Elio mewled, reaching down to stroke his cock between their bodies. Oliver covered his hand in his own and together they stroked Elio to completion, until his body arched in ecstasy, his head titled back on the pillow, his mouth open and his eyes screwed shut as he came in between their bodies. His body tightened down on Oliver, the hot slickness of his body pushed him over the edge of delight as well. His hips thrust deeply into Elio’s shaking body, driving forward as he came inside of him, his release painting Elio's walls. The aftershocks of both their orgasms was causing him to be unable to hold himself up any longer, and he collapsed forward onto Elio’s chest, breathing hard, the smell of sex and sweat underneath him, causing his already wrought senses to pulse in overdrive.

Jesus,’ said Elio after a moment. Oliver smiled against his neck and then rolled off, and to the side, his breath slowly calming back to normal. 

It was pretty good, wasn’t it?’ said Oliver with a grin, a weightlessness inside him that he hadn't felt in weeks. He would have described it as happiness, if he thought that he didn't deserve to feel such an emotion after the things that he had seen. How could he possibly be allowed to be happy after he had seen Avery blown apart? After he had seen the corporal on his wire-cutting mission shredded by bullets? And yet, here he was, with this feeling in his gut that seemed as close to happiness as he could remember. 

Pretty good?!’ asked Elio, looking sideways at him, a faux-horrified look on his face that quickly cracked into a grin.

Well… there’s always room for improvement when we go again,’ Oliver said with half a shrug, rolling back towards the other man so that he was on his side, looking at him. Elio had this gorgeous pink flush to his body that made Oliver want to kiss him all over, and to find all the hidden spots that made him mewl, arch, and groan out his pleasure. 

Elio chuckled, ‘yeah okay, but you’re going to have to give me a moment.’

Oliver laughed, ‘Me too. I may be good, but I’m not that good.’

Elio giggled. Oliver thought that was probably the first time he’d actually heard Elio giggle. There wasn’t a lot of call for it where they had come from. Oliver moved so that his legs were entangled with Elio’s and he drew the other man closer into his body. He wanted to hold him close as possibly whilst he could.

**

There’s people downstairs,’ said Elio as he pulled on his boots, ‘I can’t go that way. I’ve stayed too long; fuck!

Oliver looked about, a little at loss for what to suggest, his brain scrambling around to figure out an excuse for Elio being in his room, but he couldn’t really come up with anything that would stand up to any type of scrutiny. It was still only early evening, and the NCOs had started to arrive back for the dinner that Kathrin would cook for them.

There’s a roof under the window,’ said Oliver, feeling unsure about the suggestion, ‘But, I don’t know whether it will take a person’s weight, and I don’t want you to fall.’

Well, I guess we’re going to find out,’ said Elio, opening the window and looking below, ‘Will you help me down?

Oliver nodded, heading over to the window and watching as Elio half climbed out of it. He held him under his arms and lowered him down as far as he could like that, whilst Elio held onto the sill, before he was able to put his feet on the roof below. He leaned forward and pecked Elio on the lips, unable to help himself. He didn’t miss the eye roll and the smirk he got in response, even as Elio’s toes were searching for the roof below.

Okay?’ he whispered, not wanting to let go until Elio said that he was on firm footing.

Yeah, I think so,’ said Elio, ‘I’ll stay close to the edge.’

Alright, I’m going to let go now,’ said Oliver, ‘Please be careful.’

He held his breath as he slowly let go of Elio’s arms, step by step, to ensure the other man wasn’t going to fall. And then he was out of his grip, and Oliver watched with baited breath as he inched his way along the wall, to the edge of the roof, so he could drop down to the ground below. He quickly looked around and was infinitely glad that his room was at the back of the house, overlooking the abandoned orchard, where nobody was going to be. Elio was like a shadow against the farmhouse wall as he made his way down, but if anyone saw him it would definitely raise questions as to where the hell he had come from. Perhaps it could be written off as drunken antics. Either way, Oliver didn’t really want to have to explain it, so was glad that he couldn’t see anybody in the immediate vicinity.

He waited until Elio was out of sight, before pulling his head back into the bedroom and shutting out the evening. He knew that he should go downstairs and meet the others, and had the ready excuse on his lips that he’d overslept, or gone back to bed. He also knew that they would want to go out again this evening, probably to one of the bars in the town, probably to try and pick up a girl for themselves. The men had coin in their pockets, and they wanted to spend it. After the afternoon he’d just had he couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less, but he figured that he didn’t really have a lot of choice. After he hadn’t been into the town during the day, he needed to be seen out and about this evening.

He turned back just as there was a knock on the door, causing him to nearly jump out of his skin, even though Elio was gone.

Captain?’

He recognised Kathrin’s voice through the door.

Yes, sorry, I fell asleep; I’ll be down for dinner,’ Oliver said quickly, glancing at the bed where it was very clear that two indentations had been laid for some time. He had to fix that before anyone else came into the room.

Alright, Captain,’ said Kathrin, ‘It will be ready in fifteen minutes

Oliver didn’t reply as he was busy making up the bed. He was relieved that the sheets were white, so there was no evidence of what they had been getting up that afternoon. He couldn’t help but smirk as he smoothed out the duvet and put the pillows back where they belonged. He’d cum four times that afternoon. It was actually a little bit ridiculous how many times he’d orgasmed. He thought he probably desired Elio more than he had the other relationships he’d had in his life; there was just something about the other man that made him need more. He didn’t know what it was; he didn’t think it was love. Not in the way that he’d cared for Jim, and then he thought probably fallen in love with him. It was different to that he was sure, but he didn’t know whether it was love. It was something akin to need; he felt like he needed to be around Elio. He’d only been out here for a month and yet he felt like the other man was keeping him sane and allowing him to continue in this environment.

He knew that they were on respite for another six days, but after that he had no idea where he was going to be posted to. He imagined that he would need more than dumb luck to be posted near to Elio again, and he didn’t know what he’d do if at the end of this week he would have no idea where the Frenchman was posted to. They could end up at opposite ends of the line. What if he was injured or killed and he wouldn’t know anything about it? That thought was like a lead weight in his stomach and he tried to ignore it. If fate was supposed to happen that way, then he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway; he was a mere mortal. It still didn’t make it any easier however. He tried to shake thoughts of death out of this room, here there had been pleasure, and he didn’t want it tainted by the shadow of death. The only thing he could do is remember what he and Elio had done that day, and as he turned back to the door to go down and have food, he did just that, and couldn’t help but smirk.

Chapter Text

Elio spent the next day floating, and was still riding that high into the evening. He couldn’t stop reminiscing about the day before, spent in bed with Oliver. How the other man had made him feel, and how he had made the other man moan. He was sure that his comrades would figure out that something was up because of the inexplicable grin that kept crossing his features. They had asked where he had disappeared to and he’d made up some excuse about finding some hot-blooded red head who he’d managed to get to take him home, after sweet talking her when he’d gone to buy some cigarettes. They bought it; with much back slapping and jovial commendations on his victory. It wasn’t a red head who was on his mind at all; but the gorgeous blond American Captain.

He spent quite a lot of the day asleep, before having another bath (the hot water was provided, so why not?), before his company decided they were going to go into town for the evening. He hoped he would see Oliver there. He had purposefully avoided the town today; as hard as it was, it would begin to look odd if the two men were seen together too often. His company knew they were friends, that they shared the watch together, and had known that Elio had liked to go and smoke with the American, but they had just put it down to one of his peculiarities, rather than anything else. He’d like to keep it that way.

He was tying the laces on his boots as the others flitted around him, chatting.

I saw the Sergeant earlier today,’ said Theo to Elias, ‘He did not look happy; what do you suppose that means?’

I don’t know,’ said Elias, ‘He didn’t get his end away last night?

Elio snorted at the answer, but it didn’t seem to dissuade Theo, who continued to look worried.

Perhaps,’ he said, ‘But what if it was something else?’

Well, if it was,’ said Henry, coming up to Theo and slapping him on the shoulder, ‘We’ll find out soon enough, so I’d try not to worry about it until then.’

Elio thought there was probably slim chance of that; telling Theo not to worry was a bit like trying to tell paint not to dry, it wasn’t overly likely. The man had had a nervous disposition about him, even before the nightmares had started.

Ready to go, Elio?

Sure,’ said Elio standing up off the mattress and heading to the door. It was dark outside, it being winter, but the lure of a warm bar and possibly some music and dancing wasn’t to be ignored. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d danced.

Elio pulled his greatcoat closer around him, and got his cigarettes out of his pocket, lighting one. The rest of the group was smoking as well, so he didn’t feel the need to offer them any. It was just a short walk into the town, and there were a couple of bars still open. Despite the war raging less than thirty miles down the road, these innkeepers must have been doing quite well out of the coin that flowed from soldier’s pockets and into theirs. That wasn’t to say that they wanted the war to go on; heaven knew that France had seen enough conflict to last a lifetime, but those men had certainly found a way to make the situation pay.

The bar was warm and crowded when they walked, packed full of French and American soldiers, along with what appeared to be most of the town’s population of young women under the age of thirty-five, and several that were probably older. Elio knew there was a brothel a couple of doors down, as he’d heard Elias talking about it to Henry earlier that day. He had no desire to go, but was yet to think up a decent enough excuse if they decided to drag him there.

He tried to look around the bar to see if he could see the familiar face of the American Captain, as he undid the buttons on his coat and pushed up his sleeves. The place was too busy, though, and he couldn’t see further than a couple of metres, as he was surrounded by people. There was no chance that anyone would be able to dance in here; it was far too busy.

What are you drinking, Elio?’ yelled Henry over the hubbub.

Whisky, if they’ve got any,’ Elio shouted back, ‘Brandy if not!’

Henry nodded, and tried to squeeze his way through to the bar. Elio would give him the money when he came back. The likelihood of the group of them getting a table was practically zero, but Elio spotted ledge at the bottom of some stairs which seemed like a likely leaning post and a place to rest their drinks. He hit Elias on the arm, and gestured over to where he was looking. Elias nodded and grabbed Theo by the crook of the elbow, to pull him that direction as well. He had to squeeze through groups of people in order to get to the edge of the stairs, apologising to a pissed off looking American as he nearly made him spill his beer.

Phew, busy in here isn’t it? I’m going to boil in this,’ said Elias, undoing his greatcoat and hanging it over the stair rail. Theo and Elio followed his example, with Theo leaning against them to ensure that nobody took them, either by accident or on purpose.

Evening gentlemen,’ came a voice from beside Elio, causing him to turn away from Theo and look. It was a pretty Frenchwoman, who couldn’t be more than five-foot-tall, with her brunette hair piled up on top of her head. She had clearly spotted them come in, and decided to make a beeline for them before any of the other girls working the bar got there.

Good evening mademoiselle,’ said Elias, thankfully taking the lead.

I hope you are enjoying your stay in our town, do you know how long you are going to be here?’ she asked, looking up at both Elias and Elio under her lashes.

As long as possible I hope,’ said Henry, who had just appeared behind her, carrying a tray full of drinks for them. Elio took his whisky before it spilt.

Mmmm,’ she agreed, with a smile, ‘I do love it when the soldiers are in town.’

Elio couldn’t help but admire her gumption; she clearly had one thing on the mind, money, and was prepared to brazenly stand there and make small talk with as many soldiers as possible, until she convinced one or more of them to give her what she wanted.

Are you from next door?’ asked Elias, taking a sip of his beer, looking down at her.

A look of fake shock passed over her face, ‘Oh no Monsieur, I am not one of those girls. Although I could be persuaded to spend some time in your company… for the right price.’

Aye?’ asked Elias, clearly not caring either way, ‘And how much would that be?

A lady does not discuss her business in public Monsieur,’ said the girl, with a simper and a pout, ‘If you would like to accompany me upstairs then we can discuss?

You have a room?’ asked Elias.

The girl simply nodded, and turned to the stairs, ‘Follow me monsieur’

Look after my beer for me,’ said Elias, pushing his flagon into Elio’s free hand, ‘I won’t be long.’

Elio snorted and then nodded as Elias grinned at him, before he followed the brunette up the stairs. Elias hadn’t been making any comment on his skills, or lack thereof, in the bedroom; it really wouldn’t take him that long. These men were so desperate for female company that if a moderately attractive woman, which the brunette girl clearly had been, offered themselves in any way, then they would grab it with both hands.

How much do I owe you?’ Elio asked Henry.

Ah, don’t worry about it,’ said Henry, waving his hand, ‘I’m sure that I must owe you a drink from some time or other.’

‘Cheers man,’ said Elio with a smile, taking a sip of his whisky, and grimacing as it burned the back of his throat in a delightful way. This was much nicer than the whisky that Oliver managed to keep in Rogers’ storage cupboard; that was army issue stuff that the officers managed to wrangle from time to time, whereas this must have been aged and stored properly; the difference was incredible. He took another gulp.

Are you going to come next door with us later Elio?’ asked Henry over the noise.

No, I don’t think so,’ said Elio with a shrug. This was the conversation he had been dreading.

‘Mec! Going to go and find your red head again?’ Henry teased.

I don’t know,’ said Elio with a grin, ‘I met her at a shop yesterday, I’m not sure where I’d go to find her again.

Are you sure she wasn’t one of the girls from next door?’ asked Henry.

I don’t know,’ said Elio, ‘I guess she could have been.’

Clearly he was just making this up on the hoof, but hoped that if he stayed as vague as possible, then Henry would eventually get bored and drop the subject.

Are you going to come along Theo? Unlike our killjoy companion here?’ said Henry, turning to Theo, who was still leaning against the coats.

Maybe,’ said Theo with a shrug, ‘My wife-

All’s fair in love and war friend,’ said Henry, cutting him off, ‘What your wife doesn’t know, won’t hurt her. Where are you from again?’

‘Just near La Rochelle,’ said Theo.

So miles and miles away,’ said Henry waving his hand, ‘Practically another country; it’ll be fine.’

Elio wasn’t sure that was entirely true, but decided not dissuade Henry’s idea. He clearly just wanted to get laid tonight, and wasn’t confident enough to go to the brothel on his own.

Where’s my beer?

Elias was back, and Elio handed him the beer he’d been holding for the past ten minutes.

You’re right, that was quick,’ he teased.

Doesn’t take long for a girl to suck your cock, does it?’ said Elias with a grin, glancing up as the girl he’d been with came down the stairs. Other than her bun being slightly messier than before, there was no other signs that she’d been up to anything.

‘Kathrin?’

A familiar voice cut through the chatter, the North American accent carrying over the French conversation filling the room. Elio immediately saw the owner of the voice; mostly because he stood taller than everyone else, and that people seemed to part to make way for him, sensing that it was important for them to do so.

‘Merde,’ said the girl who had just come down the stairs, before turning towards the newcomer, ‘Bonsoir Captain.’

What are you doing here?’ said Oliver, coming to stand beside them, apparently having not seen Elio, although he was perfectly aware that the other man had, of course, clocked him. Probably the moment he came into the bar, which was the reason he had come over to the stairs in the first place.

Working,’ said Kathrin, with a one shouldered shrug, ‘Have to make enough money to eat.

And working at the farmhouse doesn’t do that?’ asked Oliver, ‘That you have to find other employment as well?

Kathrin shrugged again, clearly not used to being found by the officers who she saw during the day.

What’s it to you?’

It’s not,’ said Oliver, ‘Just surprised is all. I’ll be heading back that way soon; do you want to walk back with me? I could see you safely home?

Kathrin rolled her eyes and pushed away through the crowd with a huff of annoyance.

Bad luck if anyone else wanted to get laid Cap,’ said Henry, looking up at the Captain. Elio really hoped he wasn’t trying to pick a fight.

There’s literally a brothel next door,’ said Oliver, not taking the shit, looking down at Henry coldly ‘I’m sure you’ll do just fine.’

With that Oliver walked away through the crowd again. Clearly he’d come over just to let Elio know that he was in the vicinity. Elio took the hint, finishing his whisky in gulp.

I’m going for a piss,’ said Elio, grabbing his coat off the end where Theo was standing, before disappearing into the crowd, ostensibly heading for the door.

He left the bar, shutting the door and blocking out the noise from within, but his ears instantly attuning to the dull thud, thud, thud that could be heard from the front. The wind was blowing in the right direction tonight. He hadn’t actually seen Oliver leave the bar, but he assumed that that was where he had been going, either that or he would have seen Elio leave and be there in second. Elio hadn’t been lying, he genuinely did need a piss, so he walked around the side of the bar, before opening his flies and taking out his prick, pissing up the side of the wall. He was just tucking himself back into his pants when the familiar figure rounded the side of the bar as well.

Thought I might see you out here,’ said Elio, unable to see the other man as he was silhouetted against the streetlamp, ‘You were being about as subtle as a brick.

Don’t think your friends caught on,’ said Oliver, shrugging, ‘Good, I only came over for you.’

They wouldn’t,’ said Elio, ‘The only thing they’re interested in tonight is getting laid.

And you’re not?’ asked Oliver, walking closer.

Not at the brothel at least,’ said Elio, grinning at him.

They were hidden away from the road here, in the shadows of the bar wall, and off the beaten track of where anyone would walk. Oliver stepped closer to him, so they were barely six inches apart, and Elio tilted his face up towards the Captain. He could just make out the bottom curve of his lip.

And not here,’ said Elio, hoping the Captain would catch his drift.

Not here?’ asked Oliver.

Not here,’ Elio confirmed, ‘Something tells me that that wouldn’t be a good idea.

You’re probably right medic,’ said Oliver, ‘Lots of other soldiers would just throw caution to the wind, however.’

Perhaps,’ said Elio, ‘But I’ve got more to lose than they do.

Hmmmm,’ said the Captain, before leaning down and kissing him chastely on the lips, ‘That does make things difficult.’

Yes it does,’ said Elio, ‘As much as I want to do things differently. I have to keep my head.’

Shame,’ breathed Oliver against his mouth, kissing him again, his mouth dropping open to deepen the kiss. Elio wanted nothing more to tangle himself up in the other man, right here and right now, but as he’d said to him; that wouldn’t be sensible. If they were going to do this, they needed to think about it, and they needed to be sensible. They had thrown caution to the wind yesterday, and as a result he’d had to escape out of the window. He wanted the other man with every fibre of his being, but in order to continue that, they needed to be careful. But right now, Oliver’s mouth was on his, and he could taste his captain again, and all the warmth and the joy that came with that. He grabbed the other man by the lapels, pressing their bodies flush to each other, shivering in delight at the rush of deja-vu this gave him; Oliver’s body pressed against his own, except in his memory the captain was naked of course, and the thought made him pant out his desire into the captain’s mouth. He wished that they could go back to yesterday. He wanted the blond man to fuck him again, and the longer that he was pressed between the wall and the captain’s body, the less he cared about being sensible, and the caution that he had just preached.

Perlman! You still out here? What’s happened, cold frozen your cock?’

Henry’s voice came from just around the corner on the main street. Oliver stepped back from him, quickly glancing down at him – Elio shook his head urgently - and in the next second the American had disappeared into the darkness that lead to the back of the building.

Just coming Henry!’ said Elio, pretending to button his pants as Henry rounded the corner, ‘I had a cigarette first.’

Alright,’ said Henry, ‘Captain’s ordering all the companies back to the billets. Seems like everything is conspiring against me getting a good fuck tonight.’

Bad luck Henry,’ said Elio, ‘Do you know why the Captain wants us all back?

Not a fucking clue,’ said Henry, ‘But it better be something important. Otherwise I’m going to fucking flip.

Alright then,’ said Elio, ‘Are the others there?

They’re waiting just up ahead,’ said Henry, ‘Let’s go.’

Elio didn’t reply, but just nodded, falling into step beside the other man as they walked back to the main street. As he stepped back onto the cobblestone road, he couldn’t help but look over his shoulder, to see if he could see a glimpse of the blond captain, but there was no sign of there having been anyone there but him. He briefly raised his hands to lips, as if hoping that he would find a trace of the other man there, some part of him that he had left on his mouth. Of course there wasn’t, and Elio tried not to feel too disappointed as they started to walk back up the road towards their billets, Henry grumbling all the way.

Chapter Text

19 November 1917

He was gone. The French were gone. They’d moved out at first light, and the town was quiet because of it.

Oliver was sitting at the kitchen table in the farmhouse, smoking cigarettes on repeat, the saucer he was using as an ash tray piling up next to him. He heard Kathrin make a tchach sound in annoyance when she noticed what he was doing, but she didn’t move to stop him. She seemed to have been avoiding him since he’d caught her at the bar last night; she hadn’t even spoken to him at breakfast as she’d served him his eggs. He’d been sitting here all day and it was now drawing towards night; the NCOs in his company were bedded down on the mattresses around him, the gentle sound of their sleeping or their shuffling filling his ears. They seemed unconcerned about the dim light from Oliver’s lamp on the table; they were used to finding sleep in far worse conditions. Corporal Maxwell had stayed up with him until he sent him to his pallet, telling him that he was no used to him exhausted. The Corporal had looked at him ruefully, his eyes saying that the same was true of him; as a Captain he would be useless to his men if he was dead on his feet.

He was staring at a map that he spread out over the table, looking at the front line as it stretched through North-Eastern France and on into Belgium. His eyes were focused on one spot on the map, and the area around it: Cambrai. That was where Elio had gone, and where Oliver would be following within the next few days. It was a strategically important town for the British and French to capture; it was a key supply point for the Germans to supply the Hindenburg Line to the north of the town. If they could take it would seriously disrupt those supply lines and threaten German positions in the region.

The British were in trouble up there and had called for all the support they could get. They had planned a strike on enemy lines to begin tomorrow, but captured British prisoners had warned the Germans of the advance, as discovered because of intercepted communications. So now the British had asked for reinforcements and support; the strike couldn’t be cancelled – nearly 500 tanks had been moved up the line to Cambrai, and General Haig had decided he wanted to test them. These were the new Mark IV tanks – several grades up from the Mark I’s that had first been seen on the Somme some eighteen months previously; they were faster, less likely to get caught in the oozing mud, and specially designed to flatten enemy wire. The idea was that the men would follow the tanks, therefore shielding them from enemy fire, and clearing the way for them all the way to the enemy trenches. Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Ellis was the commander of the Tank Corps, and from what Oliver understood from the information he’d been given by the Major of his battalion (he’d requested it once it became clear that a major attack was imminent), the Lieut.-Colonel was confident that his tanks would be able to smash a hole in the German line, allowing the infantry to pour in behind them.

Oliver just hoped it worked. The tanks on the Somme had been prone to breaking down, overheating, leaking oil, or getting stuck in the churned-up mud of the fields. They were more of a liability than a help. He knew that he and his company would be in some of the infantry corps behind the tanks, so he was dependent on the plan working. It wasn’t just him; it was the lives of his men, and of course… Elio’s life. He tried to push that thought out of his head – he needed to concentrate on leading his own company, which was going to be tough enough in the November conditions. Thoughts of Elio would just cloud his judgement.

But then he remembered how Elio’s lips had felt on his last night, and how he had said that the longer they kissed, the less he cared about their openness. Oliver wished he had gone further, had touched more of him, and had demanded more of him. But he hadn’t. They’d both been frightened by his fellow soldier rounding the corner at an inopportune moment. What if that was the last chance he’d had to kiss Elio? Never mind that, what if that had been the last time he ever saw Elio?

He sat back in his chair, unable to focus on the maps in front of him as tears had welled up in his eyes, and he was determinedly trying to stop them from falling. He was glad he was alone in his wakefulness in the kitchen so he could attempt to gather himself together. Elio had gone with his company, and Oliver knew that his company would soon follow. There was nothing he could do about that.

He would have been lying if he said he wasn’t scared. Other than the artillery attack on the first day in the support trench, and his experience on his wire cutting mission, this would be his first taste of action. And in spite of those other things, this would be his first taste of directed action entirely, rather than a reaction to unforeseen circumstances. He swallowed around the lump in his throat. He had to be brave for his men. 

Eventually he decided that there was nothing to be done sitting here and pouring over this map any more. He needed to be ready for anything within the next few days, and sitting here wasn’t going to help him do that. He folded the map up along with the papers, and tucked them in his greatcoat pocket, before snuffing the lamp, and heading up the stairs in the farmhouse towards his own room.

As he got between the sheets he couldn’t help but think of the things this bed had seen him do, and an unwarranted smirk crossed his features. He ran his hand down the bottom sheet, as if he might be able to feel evidence of Elio beneath his palm. Of course, he couldn’t, but he felt better for looking all the same. He rolled onto his back, his mind wandering.

The second time they’d… what had they done? Oliver pondered for a moment as he lay there, the misty light of the moon coming in, despite the curtains. Had they fucked? Had they had sex? Or had they made love? To him they were three very different things, and two people might think they were doing different things when engaged in the same act together. He didn’t know what to call what he and Elio had done. What if he called it making love, but Elio thought it was merely fucking?

Well, whichever nomenclature he would finally decide upon, the second-time Elio had been on top, riding him for all he was worth. Oliver had never really liked that position before, feeling a little bit out of control; the top being on the bottom, it felt strange to him. But with Elio it was different. The man had looked like a Botticelli angel; all long pale limbs curved in languid shapes as his hips rose and fell upon Oliver’s own. His mouth had been open, and his eyes had been closed, his breath panting out his pleasure to the air between their faces, as Oliver had sat up, propped up on one arm, the other wrapped around Elio’s back, guiding his movements, pressed almost chest to chest. God, he was a beautiful creature. At merely the thought of it Oliver was getting hard, and he began to rhythmically stroke his cock, imagining that it was Elio doing it, or better yet; the tight heat of Elio’s body providing the friction, and the pleasure. It didn’t take him long to cum, as he imagined Elio’s climax, and the face that he made as he reached that peak. It was simply gorgeous, and he hoped that he would have another chance to see it. He wouldn’t exactly call that thought a prayer, because some part of him told him it wasn’t right to pray whilst one hand was around ones’ cock.

Either way, as he rolled over to a sleep, a satisfied smile graced his face, and he hoped – despite the circumstances – for pleasant dreams.

**

‘Company, form up!’

Corporal Maxwell yelled at the soldiers milling about in the yard, all with their gear on and their packs on their backs. Oliver watched fairly dispassionately as they all formed up into the standard eight columns, and then as many rows at it took for them all to fall in. There was usually a slightly strange number, so the last row was probably a few short.

Oliver was stood in the kitchen doorway, Captain Green by his side. Kathrin was there as well watching them. Oliver got the impression, regardless of how she acted, that she was actually going to miss them. She’d said to him, at their very hurried breakfast that morning, that he was the first officer who’d actually seemed to care about her as a human being, rather than simply a maidservant. He hadn’t quite been sure how to react to this piece of information, so he’d shrugged awkwardly and said that he hoped she’d take care of herself even though they were leaving. She wished him the same, and he could see in her eyes that she had genuinely meant it.

He could hear the war today, and deep down he knew that it was because active fighting was going on not all that far from them. The number of guns being used in the field today was immense, and the boom, thud, boom, thud, of artillery could be heard, setting an unsettling rhythm to the passing of time. The wind was blowing from the East as well, which didn’t help.

‘So, two miles march out of town to meet the trucks, and then two hours up the road, yes?’ asked Captain Green from beside him.

‘That’s the plan,’ said Oliver, putting his cap on his head, and his backpack on his shoulders.

‘Remind me again why we’re going?’ asked Green as they walked around to the front of the assembled company.

Oliver bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself responding acerbically. He had read the briefing papers again this morning at breakfast, so he knew the ins and outs of what was going on. Green clearly hadn’t. Oliver told himself that he had no idea of the man’s background, and perhaps reading wasn’t his strong point, so therefore he attempted to stop himself from judging Green’s lack of information or knowledge.

‘The British are concerned that due to leaks from captured prisoners of war, that the Germans have been able to prepare better for the assault than was anticipated. That means more enemy troops than they were expecting face, and better defences. They want all the support they can get,’ said Oliver.

‘And the first assault was this first thing morning?’ asked Green. It was only 9.30am now, and the weak winter sun was doing little to warm the frigid air.

‘Yes,’ said Oliver, trying to hold back the surge of sickness that had suddenly welled inside of him, ‘I don’t know what happened this morning yet, the reports won’t have got much further than the support lines so far. We might find out a bit more when we get to the trucks.’

‘Righto,’ said Green, walking off to stand by his own company.

‘Ready, sir?’ asked Sergeant Melling, who was standing at the head of the company. Corporal Maxwell had fallen in as point man, as was customary. He cast a glimpse over the assembled men; faces he knew by sight and some by name. Men who he had shared a watch with, occasionally a smoke, sometimes food, and often a kind word here and there. Rogers was in the front row. How many of them was he now taking to their doom? His soul ached as he looked at them; they were all sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers – they all belonged to someone. How could the cruelty of this seemingly never-ending war simply snatch them away from that? He hoped against hope that all of them would survive. Maybe it was possible.

‘Yes, let’s go,’ said Oliver, casting one look back over his shoulder at the farmhouse. His eyes flickered up to the bedroom, in which he had found a tiny bit of paradise in this hellscape, and then back to Kathrin, who was standing in the kitchen door. She raised an arm when she saw him looking and waved; he nodded back with a small smile.

‘COMPANY, BY THE RIGHT, QUICK MARCH!’

Sgt Melling gave the order and they started to move; out of the farmyard, and onto the road. They were heading West, away from the town and away from the trenches, in order to meet the rendezvous point for the trucks. As they marched out and the whole company swung around in a wheel to exit the farmyard, Oliver gave the order to march easy, and immediately reached into his jacket pocket for a cigarette. He needed something to distract him as he walked, his eyes uneasily taking in the scenery by the sides of the road, such as it was.

He knew that the first attack had been this morning. And he knew that Elio would have been involved in it. He could be dead already. The thought made him want to instantly vomit, and he desperately fought to hold it down. In order to combat it, he tried running through the things he knew about the upcoming fight, as he tried to convince himself that everything would be alright.

The maps of Cambrai that he had studied yesterday had been detailed, and he knew that geological and meteorological data had played a big part in the drawing up of plans on exactly where to fire the artillery to have the most impact. Huge advances had been made in artillery attack in the past year, and it was now possible to have an artillery barrage without first needing to fire ranging shots, as the ranging capabilities of the guns was much more precise. This meant that there was more of an element of surprise to any planned attacks. 1003 guns had been selected to be part of that morning’s artillery barrage. Oliver wondered vaguely why 1003? Why not just 1000? It seemed like a rather odd number to pick, but he’d moved on swiftly after that minor perplexity. The barrage was due to continue for some ninety minutes, and then the tanks and infantry would go over the top, following a creeping barrage. The creeping barrage was artillery fire that went in front of the tanks and infantry, theoretically so that anything in their path would be utterly blasted out of the way by the time they reached it. Oliver hoped that it was so. Maybe Elio’s job today would have been easy; maybe the artillery would have been so effective that by the time the infantry went over the top there would be no resistance. Either the German’s would be so demoralised by the heavy shelling and surrender, or there would simply be no one left alive.

‘Captain?’

‘Huh?’ he said, brought out of his thought-reverie and looking at Sergeant Melling who had spoken to him, ‘Sorry, what did you say Sergeant?’

‘It’s not important,’ said the Sergeant, ‘You just looked as if something was troubling you?’

‘Not to worry Sergeant,’ he said, ‘I was just going over the reports from intelligence about where we’re going, thinking about the plans that were supposed to have been put into action.’

‘Do you think they’ll have worked Captain?’ asked Melling, his face alight with genuinely curiosity. A brief thought crossed his mind that Melling was already beating his predecessor in terms of number of active days survived out here, before he chastised himself for that sickening realisation. Surely one should not be thinking of it as a competition?

‘I hope so Sergeant,’ said Oliver, ‘I do hope so.’

The rest of the march up the road was fairly uneventful. They passed a field hospital that had been set up inside a requisitioned monastery of St Francis. There were wounded men limping about, or being wheeled around in front of the building as they marched passed. The wounded men waved or cheered if they could as they went by, a gesture which men in his company returned, but Oliver had to quickly look away. It was devastating to him; to see all of those broken men, trying to learn how to live a life that they no longer recognised; perhaps with only one leg, or with no sight, or lungs that would never be the same again. He wondered whether death would have been better for some of them. The internal battle he had around that thought made him feel dizzy.

They reached the rendezvous for the trucks about ten minutes later, and Oliver saw that many of them were already parked up and loitering, waiting for them to arrive. He saw Major Graham as well, on a horse of all things, and order a salute from his company as they halted in formation. Major Graham ordered the NCOs to oversee the dispersal of the company men into the waiting trucks, as he called Oliver and Captain Green over to him.

‘What’s the news Major?’ asked Oliver, the moment he could, ‘Has there been any report from the front?’

‘Yes,’ said the Major, and his eyes were alight, ‘The attack this morning has smashed a five-mile-wide hole in the German line; thousands of prisoners have been captured and hundreds of guns. They need us to get up there sharpish to consolidate those gains.’

‘That’s incredible,’ said Oliver, taken aback.

‘Yes, it is,’ said the Major, his voice speeding up due to his excitement, ‘I don’t think the Tommies anticipated the gains to be this big and so devastating. Maybe this is it; maybe this is the beginning of the final push that will finally end this thing, and I’ll be damned if our boys aren’t there to get a piece of the action!’

Oliver bit his tongue, and struggled to suppress the internal shiver that had just run through him. Pride was blinding, and as the old saying went – it always, always, comes before a fall.

Chapter Text

20 November 1917

Hubris – Excessive pride or self-confidence. Elio knew that the word had Greek origins, and that in Greek tragedy when someone was accused of hubris, it usually ended pretty badly. His father reading him Greek tragedies and comedies when he was a teen came flooding back to him. That word was rattling around his brain, and he was trying to push it away as he really didn’t have time to think about anything else other than staying alive right now. Greek etymology wouldn’t help with that.

He was crouched behind a tank that had stopped halfway across a torn-up field. He wasn’t sure why; the crew weren’t in it. He assumed that it had either broken down or got stuck in the mud somehow. He was holding his rifle up to his chest as he peered around the side of the tank, trying to see what was ahead, but the gathering dark was making this a challenge.

Anything?’ Theo whispered from beside him; also crouched low to the ground. His face was spattered with mud and with blood, from where he’d bayoneted someone earlier.

I can’t see anything,’ muttered Elio, ‘But there’s a copse of trees to the right ahead, I think we should make for those; we might be able to find better cover. We can’t stay here.

A shell or two whined overhead from behind them, but they were few and far between. They were too far away from their artillery support lines to get any real help. They had been ordered to advance this morning as the light broke, following the artillery bombardment and the tanks. The British had been in the centre, with the French troops on the left flank. Theo had thrown up before they’d gone over the top, some of it spattering on Elio’s boots. He hadn’t said anything about it.

And they’d broken through. The preparation had paid off; the artillery strikes had worked, and the tank line was able to bust a massive hole into the German frontline. They’d overrun that within an hour or so; with the Germans beating a hasty retreat to their support line and then their reserve lines. But now the attackers were spread too thin; troops had split up or spread out in order to secure different areas, to commandeer guns that had been left behind, or to turn German fortifications to their own use. So now it was chaotic. Elio could see other disparate groups of soldiers roaming the field, unsure of their location or objective anymore. It was even worse if their officers or NCOs had been taken out or disappeared. They were the ones with the orders.

Elio had lost sight of most of the rest of his company; with only five of them – Theo, Elias, Henry, and one other, Pierre – making it this far to the huddle behind the tank. Their company was supposed to reconvene at the German supply trench, but due to the curving line of that trench, and the failing light, Elio wasn’t sure how far they had come, or even if they had come too far, and gone past where they needed to be. There were very few reference points for him to work with, with the town of Cambrai itself to the North-East of their position. He wondered if it had been taken. He knew there were villages dotted around this area as well; now reduced to little more than graveyards or ruins as the war dragged it’s sledgehammer of destruction through what had once been people’s lives.

Darkness was falling; the short November day was not helping with the security of their position. They needed to find somewhere safer, and they needed to do it soon. Elio could hear gunfire, shouting, and the occasional boom of a shell or a mine, enveloping him in noise, making it difficult to think.

Right, we’re going to make for that copse; I think we’re clearly of enemy sights, but stay low and move quickly,’ he said to the gathered group, still huddled behind the tank. There was no NCO with them, so Elio took it upon himself to give the orders. There was general nodding in response, with everyone shifting their weapons into a better position.

I’ll cover the rear,’ said Henry, making sure his rifle was primed. They were all carrying 8mm Berthier rifles, with newly improved magazines to hold more rounds. They had a good level of accuracy, but were still slow to reload, and weighed close to 12lbs with the magazine and the bayonet fixed.

Elio nodded, and held up a hand to signal three. He curled one finger down, and looked round the edge of the tank again; still nothing in sight. He curled the second finger down. And then the third. He went first, quickly moving in a crouched position, looking left and right, toward the cover of the trees. He saw other groups of soldiers in the distance, the shapes of their helmets giving them away as British. They too were making for the cover of the trees in which to shelter, clearly having had the same idea as him.

They were about 25 meters away from the trees when there was crack! from somewhere on Elio’s left, and a garbled yell of shock. He looked across, and saw three German soldiers, kneeling beside an overturned van, their rifles primed in their direction. Elio yelled at everyone to get down and they threw themselves on the ground, but before he followed the order Henry fired his own rifle in return – a shot catching one of the assailants between the eyes and he fell down. Another died with a shot from out of the trees – Elio looked and saw that the British were supporting them, shooting. The last German fell, with Elio unsure whether it had been a British or French bullet that had downed him into the mud.

He scrambled up onto his knees and looked about him; Henry, Theo, Pierre… no Elias. He looked around and saw the fifth man, lying face up on the ground, unmoving. He was dead – Elio knew without even getting any closer. There was nothing he could do to help him. He dithered for less than three seconds.

We need to move,’ said Elio to the others.

What about Elias?’ Theo asked, looking back at the dead man. Elio just shook his head and then moved again, towards the trees, motioning to the British soldiers in thanks. Under the cover of the trees he felt marginally safer. Within about 200m they found the remaining three walls of what had probably once been a woodcutter’s hut, or storeroom. It had clearly suffered direct hit from artillery fire at some point early in the war, as the trees around it were all new growth, compared to the older looking yews and ash trees further away. The stone walls were blackened with soot from the fire that would have consumed the inside of the building. Elio couldn’t help but wonder if the woodsman had died in here that day; or if just the hut had been a casualty of the strike. The foundations had been burned away, so the earthen floor was lower than the outside. They moved inside, cautious of any traps or hidden wire, but it seemed to be safe enough.

We should stay here ‘til dawn,’ said Henry, looking around, ‘There’s some wood over there that’s been sheltered from the damp by the wall.’

If you’re going to make a fire, make sure it’s close to the wall,’ said Theo absently.

Yes, I know,’ said Henry, ‘But we’ve got to make a fire, otherwise we’ll freeze.’

Elio nodded in agreement, looking around the spot. The three walls made it relatively secure, hidden away from potential view. Anyway, they were now in allied controlled territory; wherever they were. But he was nervous. They had come too far in one day; pushing and pushing in the jubilant hubris of those who couldn’t be defeated. Sure, they’d shocked the Germans, and managed to punch their way through by catching them off guard, their 1000 guns shocking them into submission. But now? Now it was night; their troops were thinly spread, many of them, like his group, were separated from the main troop, and cut off from any form of communications. He imagined it was the same for the small group of British soldiers he’d seen at the edge of the woods.

We can stay here for the night,’ said Elio, ‘But before dawn we’ve got to try and find our way back.’

Agreed,’ said Henry, lighting a fire with the matches in his pocket. The flames caught in the dry kindling, and began to burn. Henry stacked some of the larger logs around it, to shield it even further from giving off too much light. They had nothing to cook on it, their packs only containing some dried biscuit, so it was for heat, more than for anything else. If they could get it to burn low but hot, that would be the best option. 

Do you think they’ll attack through the night?’ asked Pierre, looking around as if expecting an attack to come at that moment.

I doubt it,’ said Henry, looking around as well, ‘We dealt a massive blow today; it’ll take them some time to recuperate.’

Yeah, but not that long,’ Elio said, sitting down next to the small fire, instantly feeling the warmth on the side of his legs.

But today was a victory, let’s not forget that,’ said Henry.

Elio nodded, not wanting to agree or disagree. It was too early to say anything like that; if it had been a victory, then it hadn’t been consolidated. Frenchmen, including Elias, lay dead on the field. He didn’t even know what victory looked like any more. He’d seen so many people die, that he couldn’t even imagine what victory would mean; it wouldn’t bring those people back to life, and it wouldn’t put France back together. His country had been torn about; ripped asunder, and it had so many scars that he had no idea how they would begin to heal over. Would an end to this be victory enough? Or was the world destined to be at war forever?

And tomorrow, tomorrow he would have to make his way back. Navigating his way across some of that scarred terrain, in order to try and find something that looked familiar to him. Nothing about this was familiar, but he needed to hold onto something he could recognise.

The dark grew deeper.

**

He lay on the cold ground, the dampened fire beside him giving off little to no warmth anymore. He was lying as close as possible to the other men, sandwiched in between Theo and Pierre, their great coats wrapped around themselves in attempt to keep warm. Henry was beside the wall; watching the dark.

It would be dawn within the next hour or so, and he knew that they should get moving. But he lay there for a few moments longer thinking. Elias was dead; his body had been lying out on the field for twelve hours now, and would probably be picked up by a medical crew, or by the Germans, depending on who got to him first. He hoped it wouldn’t be the crows. Elio had long since stopped feeling guilty about not looking after his comrades’ bodies; he’d tried that a few times, and lost more men around him, just trying to protect dead ones. Elias would understand. Perhaps his God would understand why he wouldn’t be buried by a priest, as so many men out here weren’t. He hoped so.

It could have been him of course. There had been five of them running across the mud yesterday, and it just so happened that it had been Elias who had been the successful hit. If the odds had been divided equally amongst them then there was a 20% chance that it could have been him. There was no certainty out here, only the random strike of death, at random moments, against those who were simply in the way. Whether one lived or died wasn’t really a matter of skill; it was simply down to luck.

He shifted enough that he knew the men either side of him had felt it, and he felt them move as well.

We need to move,’ he muttered, ‘Come on.’

As he spoke he heard the first boom of the guns; the war was waking up with them. He felt Theo tense beside him for a moment before he relaxed; trying to overcome his fear as the boom, thud continued. Some were far away, some sounded far too close for comfort.

We head west,’ said Elio, getting to his feet and stamping on the remnants of the fire, ‘Away from the light.’

He saw Henry nod in the gloom, shoving some biscuits down his throat, washed down with the little water that he left in his bottle. He offered some to Elio, who gratefully took it; he had used up the last of his water last night. The water was pre-boiled before it went into the bottles, so it was safe to drink. Elio passed the bottle back to Henry.

Ready?’ he asked the group, and received general nods in response. Henry had been awake anyway; he’d been on the last watch, but the night had been mostly silent around them.

Elio had no idea how they were going to get back, or where they were getting back from. There had been a breakthrough yesterday, but he was no idea how far from the held positions they were. He knew the Bourlon Ridge was about half a mile up ahead, and that had been one of the main aims of the attack from the British perspective; but he didn’t know how far they had got with securing it. More artillery fire was heard and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Time was running thin.  

Let’s move,’ he said, and headed out towards the edge of the small copse of trees in which they had found shelter that night. The fog was dense this morning, which didn’t help things, and made any type of visibility virtually impossible; he didn’t know whether the sun would even rise through this.

It didn’t take them long until they were stepping over the bodies of the German soldiers who had killed Elias yesterday, lying face down in the mud. Elio used the abandoned van that they had been hiding behind as his own lookout. In the gloom, he was aware of shapes moving in the distance around the other side of the copse or trees, but he couldn’t decide if they were friend or foe from this distance. As they were coming from the East, he decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and motioned to the three men who were with him to head double time in a Westerly direction. They had the advantage due to the early time, and the gloom of the November dawn, and they were probably able to make it half a mile back within a short amount of time.

In the gloom, they kept moving until they effectively collided with another, much larger, group of soldiers. Elio’s eyes immediately identified them as British, under the command of an extremely stressed looking corporal. He wondered where their officer was; probably dead.

‘Ho there!’ cried the corporal, raising his weapon as they appeared, ‘Who goes there?’

‘French!’ Elio said quickly, realising that this didn’t make a lot of sense, but his senses had deserted him in his desire to not get shot.

‘Section D of the 62nd Division,’ said the corporal, ‘You’ve come a long way from your company, there’s no French for half a mile in either direction?’

‘We were separated in yesterday’s melee,’ said Elio, cursing his halting English under his breath. The other men were no hope, as they didn’t speak a word of English between them.

‘Fall in with us,’ said the corporal decisively, ‘We’re to join the rest of the 62nd near Bourlon Ridge. The Germans have sent up seven battalions overnight and are launching a counter-attack. Haig wants the Ridge, and the Americans are supporting us up there.’

Unable to think of a better plan, Elio nodded, refraining from adding where he thought Haig could go and shove his demands. He’d always been amazed after the complete disaster on the Somme that the man had managed to keep his job. Or how he slept at night, without the ghosts of the thousands of men he had sent to their deaths parading themselves behind his closed eyes. He guessed privilege did have its perks. He translated the corporal’s words to the men with him, and they agreed that it was their best option at the current moment. If they split off on their own they were more likely to get picked off quickly. They began to move with the British company, skirting the edge of where they had just come from, taking a zig-zag route towards Bourlon, trying to avoid detection in the fog. He didn’t think the Germans would have made it this far down yet, but there was nothing like being too cautious when out here. They were exposed, and vulnerable.

A small shudder of fear went through Elio at the thought of the amount of German reinforcements that had come up here through the night. He tried to calm his pounding heart; their own reinforcements had come as well, and the fight at Bourlon Ridge sounded like it was to be a joint effort between the British, French, and the Americans.

The Americans. Elio had purposefully forced himself not to think about Oliver whilst he was out in the field. He needed to focus on staying alive; and the other man wasn’t here to help him do that. At the mention of Americans though, those thoughts had come flooding back, and he tried to hold himself together as they moved towards the sounds of the guns. It was getting louder, and despite the fog, the sky was getting lighter. He wished he could have seen the other man one more time. Held him once more. Caressed him once more. He hoped he would do so again.

The village of Bourlon was a ruin and had been taken by the British yesterday. The western half was now completely occupied by British soldiers, and they had fortified their positions overnight as best they could; laying traps on the bridges and passing points.

‘Corporal!’ yelled a man that Elio identified as a major as they drew closer, ‘Take your company and help the frogs defend the second bridge; 200m on your left.’

Elio refrained from saying anything about the derogatory frogs comment; he knew that the British used that word all the time to describe the French, but now was not the time to dispute racist nomenclature. Theo was shaking by his side as they moved up through the ruins of the village and towards a small bridge over what was little more than a stream; probably only five metres wide. Its banks were steep enough to make crossing it a problem, however, so Elio understood the need to hold the bridge.

Several overturned tanks, vehicles, debris, and rubble walls were around the bridge, and Elio motioned his men behind a wall about four-foot-tall, where there were already several British soldiers clustered. They didn’t need to speak to know that they would fall into a classic two-line formation; as the front fired, those behind would reload, and vice-versa. Allied shells whined overhead, some exploding in quite short range on the other side of the village, others going much further and out of sight. Clearly the Germans had been seen moving up into this area, and fighting was going to be hot.

Elio reached under his jacket collar, searching for the chain on which his Star of David hung. He touched it, the silver cool underneath his fingers, despite the heat of his skin. He fished it out and brought it to his lips, kissing the metal. He didn’t know what it would do; if anything, but he needed to do something to calm the panic that was raging in his chest. He was trying to collect himself in any way he could. He’d been in fights like this before, but that didn’t make them any easier. Beside him Theo was practically whimpering, his lips forming the Ave Maria over and over again. On the other side, Henry was tight lipped and white faced, unspeaking, his knuckles white on the barrel of his rifle. He placed a hand first on Henry’s shoulder, and then on Theo’s; giving them nothing more than a squeeze. But it was enough.

As the sun rose, hell came with it. Out of the fog, like men possessed, the Germans stormed the bridge repeatedly. Each time being pushed back with the rifles, and small mortars, of those defending the other side. Elio was single-minded; he couldn’t recall a moment of what happened, other than cover, fire, reload, repeat. The noise around him was deafening, and filled with smoke. His eyes were watering and his throat was thick with smoke, his breathing shaky. Men were hit, men died instantly, grenades were thrown and then thrown back. Men were dying on both sides. Men were dying.

In a second of madness, Elio looked sideways at Theo, who hadn’t risen with him after the last reload. Theo was on his knees, staring at the ground, his eyes wide, his whole body seemingly frozen. Elio wondered if he’d been hit, but then, before his very eyes the man got to his feet, screaming like someone possessed. He ran out from behind the cover, charging towards the approaching Germans who were trying to storm over the bridge, firing as he ran, arms akimbo. Elio almost saw the look of shock in the faces of the approaching enemy; they certainly hadn’t expected that.  

‘THEO!!!’ Elio bellowed, trying to take down his assailants as he watched in horror. It was no use; the screaming man was hit once, twice, too many times to count and he fell, his body limp and unmoving, within seconds. Elio watched him fall, his body curving into the graceful slump of death. He felt his throat close up; why had Theo done it? It was as if he had thrown himself in front of the guns, simply willing it all to end. That he simply couldn’t take it anymore. Elio wanted to scream.

The order to fall back came moments later; they couldn’t hold here. They were losing too many men, and the Germans just kept on coming. They laid grenades and explosives to cover their retreat, sprinting and dodging behind ruined walls, vehicles, and buildings as the Germans poured over the bridge. They were being held back somewhat by the American artillery firing from behind, but it wasn’t enough to keep them back forever. Surely Bourlon would be lost this day; there was no way they could hold it; the enemy were just too numerous.

As he sheltered behind a broken building about 200m from the bridge, Elio realised that only Henry was still with him.

Where’s Pierre?!’ he yelled at Henry, trying to see what was happening through a gap in the ruined stonework. The Germans were still coming on, but being held back by their explosive line and the supporting fire from the French on their flank.

He fell!’ yelled Henry in response, ‘Come on, we’ve got to move!’

As they ran on, towards the edge of the village that sat adjacent to the Anneux woods, Elio realised he was crying. He didn’t really know why; at this moment he didn’t have the capacity to feel sadness, or much of anything at all, his body was locked into sheer terror. Through the fog, he could now see the American troops, about 150m hence, crowded around their artillery, supporting those fighting in the village by providing the defensive line, that would be almost impossible to break through without serious losses. On his left and right Elio could see British and French soldiers pouring back towards the American lines, as the village was overrun and they could no longer hold their positions as comrades fell around them. Men fell as they ran;  shot from behind, even as the supporting line provided fire to help cover the retreat. This was madness; nothing but sheer carnage and chaos. There was no low that men would not sink to in order to inflict horror onto each other.

They were being punished for their advances yesterday, for not being cautious enough to back up their gains as they had advanced, and now Elio had lost three men from his dugout in less than twenty-four hours. Hubris, hubris, hubris. He was sick beside a dismembered tree; throwing up nothing but bile and acid, having eaten nothing substantial from which to empty his stomach. Henry’s grip on the scruff of his jacket was the only thing that kept pulling him forward; he wasn’t sure he could even see anymore. They were close to the defensive line, and they were aiming for a gap between the tanks that had been brought up to cover the very hastily dug trench in front of Bourlon.

They were close, they were close, close, close… close.

And then there was pain, pain beyond anything he’d ever felt before in his life. His legs collapsed from underneath him an instant, and his hand rose reflexively to the source of the pain, and to the source of what he was sure was his life, trying to hold that force inside his body; to stop it from flooding from him, to stop it leaving him alone.

Sound faded around him, and Henry’s grip on his scruff disappeared, as the mud came up to greet him from the earth; the solid embrace of the ground pulling him closer to its warmth, holding him down in its desire to reclaim. There was silence apart from the joyful laugh of a woman filling in his ears. It sounded like his mother. 

Was this death then?

Chapter Text

He didn’t know that he loved him until that moment.

He couldn’t believe what he had seen that morning, as the French and the British undertook a wholesale retreat from the village of Bourlon, relying on the American troops to hold the line and cover the retreat. The Bourlon Ridge was essential in aiding this, as they were able to hold the ridge with their artillery, making it impossible for the Germans to advance further than the edge of the village. The ground between the ridge and the village, however, was like nothing he had ever seen. As the French and the British fled over the open ground; sometimes in groups, sometimes as single soldiers simply running hell for leather, the Germans in the village were picking them off wholesale. The Americans were trying to fire back, but couldn’t use heavy fire without the risk of hitting the fleeing soldiers. Instead they were using snipers to pick off the German gunners targeting those soldiers in retreat.

Oliver was on his knee, using his sights to support the snipers, and picking off gunners where he could. He’d never killed a man before that morning, but now he was sure that he had. The worst part, however, was that he didn’t feel anything as he watched his enemy fall from a bullet that had come from his rifle. He’d always thought that he would feel something when he took a life, but at that moment, there was nothing – he was desensitised and all he did was pull the bolt and get ready to fire again. Pull, fire, check to see whether he’d hit his target; pull, fire, check, reload, repeat. That’s all it was. His men were already in his ordered defensive formation; protected by the tanks and artillery shields; so now all they were doing was holding the enemy back.

The air was rent with screams, the shrieking of artillery, the spatter of the guns, and explosions from within the village. It was smoky, and despite it being November, it was hot, as the heat from the guns was creating an atmosphere that Oliver assumed was akin to hell.

Then he saw that which made his world stand still. He recognised one of the men from Elio’s dugout (he remembered his name as Henry, he thought), dragging a body with a mop of curly hair between two tanks close by, and behind the American line. Oliver’s heart felt like it would fall out of his mouth, and he all but threw his weapon on the floor and ran over, where his worse fear was confirmed. The form that Henry had been dragging, and had now collapsed beside, was Elio. His curly brown hair was wet with sweat and the dampness of the fog, stuck to his muddied and bloodied face. His eyes were closed. He looked like he could be asleep, if not for the alarming greyness at the edges of his mouth, and the corners of his eyes.

Oliver fell to his knees beside the two of them, fingers scrabbling for a pulse point on Elio’s neck. An American medic was quickly doing the same assessment to the other man. Oliver’s cry of relief was palpable as he found a pulse – it was weak, but it was there. Elio’s body was unmoving, and his breathing was virtually impossible to detect. There was blood everywhere, and he was desperately looking for the source.

Elio, if you fucking die on me right now…’ Oliver growled, his threat hanging on the air as he tried to assess his injuries.

Elio had been shot; a bullet lodging itself just underneath his collarbone on the right-hand side. A few inches higher and the bullet would have been in his neck. There was another bullet wound in his upper arm on the right side, but unlike the first one, this one had passed clean through the tissue, sinew, and muscle, and exited his body, causing even more bleeding. Elio was still wearing his webbing and pack, so Oliver used the knife in his belt to hastily cut it away and search for his medical supplies, finding bandages almost instantly.

Stop the bleeding. That was the only thought going through his brain as he packed bandages onto the wounds and pressed hard. Elio’s greatcoat and jacket were soaked through with blood, and his normally pale skin was practically white with the blood loss. Oliver knew that he had to get him to a medic or an ambulance, and fast. There was practically nothing that he could do here, just behind the tank line, shoving wadding into a wound in attempt to stop him from bleeding out.

He looked up and about, looking for a stretcher bearer or a medic in the chaos, but he could barely see more than five metres in any direction here due to the smoke. He had to get Elio further back, behind the lines; he was more likely to find what he was looking for there. He knew that Bourlon Ridge would be lost; whether it was tonight, or whether it was tomorrow, there were just too many of the enemy. The allies were outnumbered. What had supposedly been a great breakthrough had just turned into another stalemate, with men on both sides paying for it with their lives. He’d seen men torn to shreds in front of his very eyes today, and yet it had had little to no effect on him. He remembered once, when he first been getting to know Elio, that he’d said he was desensitised to the idea of death, or to seeing it. At the time, he’d wondered how that could be, or how one would ever reach that state. Now he knew. War reduced those others to something less than human. Even though, he was sure, if they had the chance, he would laugh with them (providing they could understand each other), and enjoy a beer with them. Now they were just people who wanted to kill him; and had tried to kill someone he loved, and might manage that feat still if he couldn’t get him the help he needed, and quickly.

He saw Sergeant Melling close by, and yelled out for him. The Sergeant spotted him, on his knees, beside the prone body of the French soldier.

‘Sergeant!’ Oliver said, ‘I’m delegating you to maintain this position, alongside the rest of the battalion. This soldier still lives, and I cannot leave him here to die.’

‘Me, sir?’ asked the Sergeant, his eyes wide.

‘Yes, you sergeant!’ Oliver said tersely, over the noise of the guns, ‘I will return shortly. Follow Captain Green’s orders, keep the line, and maintain on the ridge. Understood?’

‘Yes sir!’ said Melling, snapping a salute, and turning back to the line. It would make no difference unless there was a change in circumstances. Right now, they were just holding behind the tank line; the Germans unable to come any further forward without being cut down, and the American support and British reserve unable to retake the village, due to the German machine guns that had been moved up into prime positions following the retreat.

Oliver looked back at Elio’s form and once again felt for the pulse; it was still there, but growing weaker. He had to move him, and he had to move him now.

I’m going to move you now, Elio. We’re going to get help, and I swear to all that is holy, that you cannot die on me right now. If you fucking die on me, then I’m going to fucking kill you, alright?!’ Oliver growled at him in French, gripping the other man by the chin as he said these words. He was pretty certain the other man couldn’t hear him, but he felt the need to say them anyway. His own heart was pounding under his chest, and he wished that it could beat for the two of them. He would gladly give half his life force if it meant keeping the other man alive.

He made sure that the packing in his wounds was secure, before he lifted Elio bodily off the ground. He always knew the other man was slight, but it wasn’t until he was holding him that he realised just how slight he was. Oliver thought that he must weigh at least half as much again of Elio’s body weight, if not more.

As he started to move away from the defensive line, he felt Elio move slightly in his arms, and quickly looked down at him. Other than that small shift there had been nothing, and there was no further sign of life. Behind the line, it was chaotic; support troops moving up to help hold the line, more ammunition, orders being shouted, mechanics and engineers running to and fro, sappers and miners quickly shoring up old lines, or hastily digging new ones to aid the inevitable retreat. Artillery was also being moved up and dug in, to consolidate positions. It was chaos. The ground underfoot was churned up and wet, although the mud was not so deep that walking had yet become an exercise in itself.

Oliver was looking about for a medic, or some kind of medical support, and he must have walked at least a third of mile before he spotted anything. British ambulance drivers had driven up as close as they dared to the line; well within range of offensive artillery, but brave enough to see it through anyway. Ambulance drivers and civilian medics were frequent casualties of offensive fire, but they still kept coming up to help; their will and desire to help made them brave enough to do so time and again.  

‘Over here soldier!’

A high voice carried through the chaos, and he saw a determined looking ambulance driver striding over, her once white uniform now dull and spattered with blood and dirt. He hurried towards her, and she directed him to what was clearly her ambulance, and a fellow driver who would aid with care.

‘Put him here, soldier,’ she said, motioning to a stretcher on the ground, and then ducking fearfully as a shell whined overhead but exploded some distance away. They could be hit at any moment here; but this was the best chance that Elio had. Oliver could die here, or he could die at the support line; but he thought he would rather die trying to save someone he was sure he loved, rather than anywhere else.

Oliver placed Elio’s body down, and dropped to his knees again, once again searching for a pulse. Still there. He felt like he could cry in relief at that moment; did this mean that Elio would live? He tried to pull himself together; he may have got the man away from the line, but there was absolutely no way that Elio was out of the woods yet.

‘Injuries?’ asked the nurse, also on her knees, quickly pulling away at Elio’s coat and jacket, before cutting through his shirt and taking in Oliver’s hasty field dressing.

‘Bullet wound there, as you can see,’ said Oliver, ‘And wound both entry and exit in the upper right arm.’

‘You’ve done well soldier,’ she said, as the other woman on her team helped with medical supplies, repacking Elio’s wound much more tightly, and with more liberal amounts of padding and bandages, ‘Without your help he would have bled out for sure.’

Oliver tried not to think about that, as he watched her dispose of the bloodied bandages that he had wrapped around Elio’s wounds. It seemed like so much blood; the bright red seeping away from him, draining his life force into the French soil. Would one more life be sacrifice enough to end this? Would Elio have been willing to be that sacrifice?

‘Will he live?’ asked Oliver, as the nurse strapped Elio’s right arm across his body, trying to minimise any movement. Oliver was watching the new padding and bandages carefully, but the blood flow seemed to have slowed, and it wasn’t seeping through the dressings. Elio’s body was clearly fighting to maintain its life force; unwilling to give up.

‘I can’t say soldier,’ she said curtly, ‘He’s lost a lot of blood. But he has a far better chance now that you’ve got him to us, is all I can say. We’ll move him to the field hospital now. Can you help us lift him?’

Oliver nodded, picking up one end of the stretcher, whilst the other nurse in the two-man team, picked up the other. Oliver noticed that she looked exceedingly strong; something that she had clearly developed in her time out here. There was another stretcher already in the back of the ambulance, but that man was conscious; albeit groaning in pain, with his eyes screwed shut, clutching at his side. That soldier was British, denoted by his uniform. They lifted Elio in, and slid the stretcher onto one of the benches, where the nurse strapped him down with leather straps for the duration of the journey.

‘I have to return to my men,’ said Oliver, as she hopped out, and made to close the doors to the van, ‘Where will you be going?’

‘To the nearest field hospital, nickname ‘York’,’ said the nurse.

‘Alright,’ said Oliver, looking back inside the van, ‘Can I just...?’

‘Yes, but be quick,’ she said, looking at him sympathetically. She was clearly used to overly-emotional soldiers after they fought to save, or tried to save, their companions. Oliver climbed into the van, and looked down at Elio. He couldn’t help but check for his pulse once again, just to check that he wasn’t about to talk to a corpse. Thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud; it was there under his fingers; a little steadier, but still weak. He wanted to cry and to whoop at the same time.

I’ll come find you,’ said Oliver, leaning down so his face was very close to Elio’s, ‘When whatever happens here is done. I’ll come find you. Just stay alive, okay? Do not die. I don’t think I could cope if you died. I mean it Elio. Stay. Alive.

He looked quickly back over his shoulder; the other man in the van still had his eyes screwed tightly shut. He looked the other way, and saw that the nurse was no longer standing at the exit to the van. He seized his chance; very quickly leaning down and pecking the other man on his pale pale lips. They were dry, chapped, and cut up, and his face was streaked with tears, but he couldn’t have cared less. He just hoped the other man could feel it.

He stood up from his crouched position and jumped down from the back of the ambulance, looking back. For a moment, and only for a moment, he was sure that Elio’s eyelids lifted very slightly, showing just the slightest glitter of life underneath from a slit of his pupil, and that the very corner of his mouth turned up the tiniest fraction. It couldn’t have been called a smile by anyone’s standards, but to Oliver it was all that he needed, and he felt a rush of gratitude for whichever Gods had looked over them that day.

The nurse closed the ambulance doors with a bang, and quickly strode around to the driver’s seat. Oliver stepped out of the way, as she turned the vehicle, and began to drive away across the muddy and uneven ground; heading for the westerly road and relative safety.

Oliver felt a deep sense of calm drift over him at that moment as he watched the vehicle move away. Let him live, let him live, let him live; he repeated those words in his head as he turned on his heel to head back towards his men. He was sure they would be organising a full retreat that day, and he didn’t know whether they would be at the head or rear of that retreat. Part of him felt like it didn’t matter; Elio was where he could be safest right now, and he knew that the doctors in the hospital would do their utmost to save him. Elio would fight to live; he had to. His spirit was too strong to simply give up.

And besides, Oliver still needed to tell him that he loved him.

Let him live, let him live, let him live, he repeated again in his mind, as he picked his way back through the melee and the chaos, towards his own dance with the devil that day.

End of Part One

Chapter Text

Part Two

 

 

06 August 1918

Private Elio Perlman,

                                                I hope this letter finds you well, and that your rehabilitation is continuing to go well. Please pass my greetings onto your family, and send them my thanks to them for welcoming me to your home during my period of leave. I enjoyed myself immensely, and I especially liked the visit to the coast and to the waterfront that you showed me. Please also thank your mother for the jumper she knitted me. It will be very welcome come the autumn when it begins to get colder, and in the meantime, it is making my pillow much much softer.  

                                                Practically, things are the same as ever, and I won’t weary you with any details, other than that I am due to return to the front within the next week or so. It’ll only be for a short while, and then we will back in reserve. Something is shifting a little bit here though; there is a feeling as if the tide may yet turn, although no one is yet daring to hope. Hope is too dangerous.

                                                I understand you are to return to active service soon. I do not know where your battalion is posted, and would not be able to put it in this letter in any case. I only hope that our friendship will be able to continue when you return, and I look forward to receiving a letter from you soon. I know this letter is on the short side, as there is very little I can tell you, other than to tell you how many rats I saw in the last week, or the number of ration and kit orders I wrote, reviewed, and signed. I did, however, finish reading the complete works of Thomas Hardy that you kindly sent me alongside your last letter. I have sent them back to you with this letter. I do regret to say, however, that Rogers knocked the copy of ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ into a muddy puddle, and I don’t think it will survive the experience, hence the reason it isn’t in the package.

                                                I would urge you not to come back before you are ready, and not to be forced into returning whilst your body or soul is not ready. Whilst we have stopped the German advance, the tide is not yet turned, and people are still dying every day. Please make sure you are ready.

                                                Yours Faithfully,

                                                Major Oliver Davis

 

Elio read through the letter in his hand once, his eyes quickly drinking in the curves of the lettering, imagining Oliver’s strong hand gripping the pen as he wrote. He glanced again at the date; it had taken nearly two weeks to reach him, and he would be returning to active service in less than a week. He guessed that Oliver had used his privilege as a Major to find that out. Yes, Oliver had been promoted from Captain to Major shortly into the New Year, following his Battalion Commander’s promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. That meant that he now commanded four companies, rather than just the one. He had been offered the chance to leave the trenches with his promotion, to work in the war offices behind the lines, but he had declined. Elio both admired the decision, and felt a feeling of utter terror and sickness whenever he thought about it. Of course, Oliver spent time behind the lines in his new position, but he always returned to his men whenever he could, determined to be someone who would lead from alongside his men, rather than behind them.

Elio turned back to his desk, and opened the first drawer, where he found the scrap of paper that he was looking for. This too, had Oliver’s handwriting on it, but also his own, scribbling suggestions and amendments to what had been written. He found a clean sheet of paper and wrote out Oliver’s letter again, leaving space between the lines for him to change what had been said, as per the cribsheet that they had created together. He worked quickly but thoroughly, cross-referencing words that Oliver had written in the letter with the words on the scrap of paper from the top drawer. They weren’t always word for word, in most times it was just the subject area that Oliver had outlined, and then Elio worked from what he had suggested, to figure out the subject actually meant. He reread the letter when he was finished.

06 August 1918

Private Elio Perlman , (Elio, my love;)

                                                I hope this letter finds you well (How are you feeling my darling?) and that your rehabilitation is continuing to go well (Are your scars healing well?). Please pass my greetings onto your family (Tell your parents I miss them, and that I am grateful to them), and send them my thanks to them for welcoming me to your home (giving us time and space to be together) during my period of leave. I enjoyed myself immensely (I miss you), and I especially liked the visit to the coast and to the waterfront that you showed me (There was no direct phrasing here, but Oliver had written on the cribsheet that any reference to water was to make Elio remember the time that they had spent at the Berm and the long heady days spent in each other’s company). Please also thank your mother for the jumper she knitted me. It will be very welcome come the autumn when it begins to get colder, and in the meantime, it is making my pillow much much softer (Any reference to a bed, duvet, pillow, or the such like was, of course, to make Elio think about what they had done together in such a place). 

                                                Practically, things are the same as ever (although I long for them to be different), and I won’t weary you with any details, other than that I am due to return to the front within the next week or so. It’ll only be for a short while (please try not to worry about me), and then we will back in reserve. Something is shifting a little bit here though; there is a feeling as if the tide may yet turn, although no one is yet daring to hope. Hope is too dangerous.

                                                I understand you are to return to active service soon. I do not know where your battalion is posted, and would not be able to put it in this letter in any case. I only hope that our friendship (love) will be able to continue when you return, and I look forward to receiving a letter from you soon (and more). I know this letter is on the short side, as there is very little I can tell you, other than to tell you how many rats I saw in the last week (kisses I want to give to you), or the number of ration and kit orders I wrote, reviewed, and signed (ways I want to make love to you). I did, however, finish reading the complete works of Thomas Hardy that you kindly sent me alongside your last letter. I have sent them back to you (along with my love) with this letter. I do regret to say, however, that Rogers knocked the copy of ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ into a muddy puddle, and I don’t think it will survive the experience, hence the reason it isn’t in the package.

                                                I would urge you not to come back before you are ready, and not to be forced into returning whilst your body or soul is not ready. Whilst we have stopped the German advance, the tide is not yet turned, and people are still dying every day. Please make sure you are ready.

                                                Yours Faithfully, (Your love)

                                                Major Oliver Davis

 

He smiled down at the letter when he had finished editing it. He would write back shortly, using equally opaque language. Oliver also had a copy of the cribsheet that they had made, so he too could translate anything vague that Elio wrote into the words he actually meant to say. They had to be opaque in how they wrote to each other of course, they couldn’t write to each other the way they wanted to, so the only answer was to write blandly, and then decipher it afterwards.

Of course everything in the letter was out of date. It had been written two weeks ago; Oliver had already been to the front and would now be back behind the lines. At least that’s what Elio hoped had happened. He couldn’t do anything else; he wasn’t going to dwell on any other possibility until he heard otherwise.

‘Elio!’

His mother’s voice came up the stairs towards his room and study where he was currently sitting.

Oui mama?’ he shouted back.

Dinner!’

Alright! I’ll be there in a moment!’

He glanced back down at the letter again, the original and the copy. He put the copy down on the top of his desk, and raised the original. It might have been over the top in other circumstances, but he didn’t care; he missed Oliver. He hadn’t seen him in over two months now, and he missed him. He raised the letter to lips and kissed Oliver’s signature, imagining that it was Oliver’s hand. He placed it on his desk, on top of the copy he had made and the cribsheet with Oliver’s scrawling on it, and then got up to go downstairs to sit with his family for dinner.

**

10 May 1918

He was fighting to hold back his tears as the train pulled into the station, the steam billowing and fogging across the platform. He wanted to pretend that he didn’t know why he was feeling so emotional, but of course he did. Oliver was going to get off this train, and then he would see him again. The man who had literally saved his life was going to be staying with him for two whole weeks, as he took his leave. Elio had come down to the station to meet him, and he was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, his emotions swinging between jubilation and that need to cry. He pulled in a drag on the cigarette he was smoking instead in an attempt to calm himself.

And then the smoke was clearing from the platform, and the only person who had stepped down from the train came into view. Oliver was standing there, his small suitcase by his feet, looking around before he spotted Elio by the station. He looked strong, and as healthy as could be expected, given where he had just come from. A smile broke out on his face, answered immediately on Elio’s face. Oliver picked up his case, and quickly strode over.

Hello’ said Oliver, looking down at him; their four-inch difference in height seemingly exaggerated by how close he was standing. They were the only two on the station, as Oliver’s train was the only one due to go through that day, the station guard was nowhere to be seen.

Hi,’ said Elio, dropping his cigarette on the ground.

Is it safe?’ asked Oliver, not looking anywhere except at Elio’s face. Elio knew what he meant.

Yes,’ said Elio.

Oliver smiled, leaned down and kissed him softly. His mouth gently curving against Elio’s own, as they both revelled in the feeling of lip against lip once again. He could have stayed like this for hours.

I’m so glad you’re here,’ said Elio, when Oliver stepped back.

I’m glad too,’ said Oliver, ‘Are we going to your home?’

‘Yes,’ Elio said, ‘Although we’re going to have to walk. It’s the only way I can really get around at the moment.’

Oliver nodded, his eyes drifting over Elio’s form, taking him in. He knew that he still looked skinny and unhealthy, although it was a vast, vast, improvement on that last time Oliver had seen him, just before he was allowed home.

I’m alright,’ said Elio, ‘It just takes me a bit longer to do things and to get places.’

Oliver grinned at him, and simply took his hand, rubbing his thumb over the back, ‘Which way?’

Elio chuckled, pecked him once again on the mouth, and then gestured with his free hand, ‘This way.’

They left the station together, Oliver not letting go of Elio’s hand as they reached the country lane that they would have to walk along for some distance in order to reach his home. It was early summer, so the trees were bright green with all their new growth, the fields were showing the burgeoning new crops, and flowers were sprouting on the verges and hedgerows. It was as far aware from the war as one could imagine, and the only reminder of it was the two of them; Oliver in his uniform still, and Elio with his drawn look; the face of a man who had seen more than these country lanes in his life.

He just felt lucky to be here, walking down this road, with Oliver. After he was injured at Cambrai, he spent two weeks in a field hospital, where he had his first surgery to remove the bullet from underneath his collarbone. They’d had to break the bone in order to do that. After the surgery, he’d been transferred to a rehabilitation hospital near Paris, but that was when he got sick. Really sick. The healing wound in his chest became infected, and he spent close to three weeks fighting for his life. He didn’t really remember anything about that time, other than heated fever dreams, pain beyond measure, and Oliver’s face, drifting above his own. He was sure that he imagined him most of the time, but as he couldn’t separate reality from fiction within those weeks, he liked to believe that the other man had been there. There was another surgery, where the tiniest fragment of cloth from the uniform he had been wearing the day he was shot was found within the healed over wound; that was the source of the infection. They cut it out (breaking the bone again), along with (as far as he was concerned) a relatively large chunk of infected flesh; hoping to slow down or even cut out the infection. They didn’t think he would survive that surgery, that his body was too weak to undergo such stress, but it was try it and he would probably die, or leave it and he would definitely have died. He was glad they tried, despite the fact that he was sure he screamed at them to just let him die at least once in those weeks.

Somehow, he recovered, but he was as weak as a new-born lamb afterwards. The infection subsided, and his wounds began to heal anew. It was late winter by then, and he spent another six weeks in another rehabilitation hospital, getting some of his strength back so that he could sit up in bed, lift a knife and fork in order to eat (once the sling had come off his arm), use the bathroom by himself, and all other things he needed to do to simply function from day to day. It wasn’t the bullets from Cambrai that had nearly killed him, it was that infection.

It was in those six weeks, as winter slowly turned to spring, that he was first aware of Oliver coming to visit him. He couldn’t come often, as that would look suspicious, but he wrote as much as he could when he couldn’t come and visit. At first Elio couldn’t write back; he couldn’t hold a pen long enough in order to finish a letter properly, and when he tried to write his handwriting was so illegible, both from the fact that he had to write with his left at first, and from the shaking of his arm that he couldn’t decipher what it said. The second time Oliver had come to visit, Elio had cried, saying that he was sorry that he couldn’t write back, that he was too weak in order to be able to do so. Oliver, of course, had simply sat by his bedside, and when no-one was around, had held his hand, and told him that none of it mattered, as long as he was alive. He spent long hours just talking to him, sitting with him, distracting him from the pain and frustration of his injuries. Elio had even shown him his scars, and had once again cried when Oliver hadn't balked the same way he had at the sight of them. 

When he was strong enough to walk the distance of the corridor by himself (with a nurse by his side to steady him if he needed), they had sent him home. He was still in the army, but he was not required to serve due to injury. They had no use for someone as weak and as frail as he was. So he’d gone home, and spent the last six weeks in his mother and housekeeper’s (Mafalda) care. At first he spent much of the time asleep, only waking to walk around the garden and for meals, but gradually he had begun to get stronger, and in the last two weeks he’d been going on longer walks, or helping his father in the garden in the sunshine. He began to feel like himself again.  

According to the doctor who came to visit him once a week, he was lucky to be alive. The infection had been rampant, and it was only be sheer fortitude and some kind of miracle, that he had managed to fight it off. That, and the excruciating alcohol and salt-water wound baths that the nurses gave him directly before and after his surgery, and periodically thereafter. He didn’t remember much from that time, but he did remember that, because it was painful enough to pull him out of his infection-induced haze, and make him scream to the high heavens.

But he had survived, and he was still on the long and painful road to recovery. He became tired quickly, although that was getting better, and he still felt weak and useless. He was trying to build up his strength again through good food and gentle exercise.

And now Oliver was here. When Elio had been able to write again, he spent hours composing letters to the other man, but not sending them. Instead, he’d waited for Oliver to visit the hospital before giving them to him. He thought it would be strange if an inundation of letters from him was working its way through the army postal system. It didn’t matter so much when he was at home, and it was the first letter he received when he was there that told him that Oliver was to have some leave time shortly. He wasted no time in inviting him to spend the time with him at his home, if he wished to. Oliver had written back as quickly as he had been able to say of course he wished it, and with the date of the commencement of his leave. Elio had checked to see which train he would be on, and that was how he had found himself on the platform earlier that day, waiting for Oliver to disembark.

And now they had two weeks to themselves. Elio’s parents couldn’t have cared less about his proclivities, although they had had Mafalda make up the spare room for Oliver for proprieties sake. What he did was his own his business as far as they were concerned, and Elio adored them for that. Mafalda turned a blind eye; as long as she didn’t see it, she didn’t care.

It was about a two mile walk back to the house, and they would take it slow. In the days before the war, Elio would have cycled, but he’d only tested out the bike once, a few days previously, and he didn’t trust himself to go much further than around the house on it just yet. So, they were reduced to walking, but that was fine with the pair of them. Oliver kept hold of his hand tightly, and they spoke freely to each other; the only people for miles around.

Chapter Text

20 August 1918

                Major Oliver Davis,

                                                As I write this, I am packing up the last of my things in order to return, as you mentioned in your latest letter. Thank you for continuing your correspondence to me; your letters have given me much comfort and happiness whilst I have been convalescing. I thank you for your concern about my health, and I would reassure you that I am much stronger than I was, although as previously discussed, the scars will never fade. I am, however, learning to live with them. There is little else to be done in such circumstances.

                                                I received my posting notes after the doctor indicated I was fit to return. I am to report to the French headquarters, and then be posted to my company. I do not know if I will be posted to the same company I was with before, and even if I was I doubt I would recognise many of them. I believe that none of those from dugout are still serving, with Henry being discharged due to the injuries he sustained at Cambrai. I still write to him, naturally, not only because of what we shared, but because of what you told me, that he was the one who dragged me to safety, which is probably what cost him his leg. That is a debt I can never repay.

                                                Do not fret too much about the book. I think my father has at least three spare copies of that particular novel. As you recall from your time on leave, his library is his pride and joy, encompassing at least one more room than it probably should do. My mother has drawn the line at it getting any bigger and taking over a third room in the house. They both send their best wishes along with this letter. Mother also sent some chocolate, and I hope it reaches you, rather than disappearing somewhere along the line. There are also some of the cigarettes that I know you like.

                                                I walked down to the orchard and fruit garden the other day, where you helped pa pick the early strawberries in May. Of course there are no strawberries now, but I noticed when I walked into the village earlier this week that the blackberries are beginning to come through in the hedgerows. If you visit in the late summer at all we should pick them, and then Mafalda will bake them into one of her delicious blackberry and apple pies; I think you would like that.

                                                It is, of course, with trepidation that I sign off this letter, knowing that it will be the last I write to you before I return to the front. Perhaps fate will be kind, and I will be posted near your company once more, so that we may continue our friendship.

                                                Yours faithfully, and with ever the hope that this will all be over soon,

                                                Private Elio Perlman

Oliver had read the letter three times now, committing the words to memory, even if they were fairly generic. He was imagining Elio writing it, and of course, thinking about the hidden meanings within the letter. Even without the cribsheet, which he kept hidden away in his journal at all times, he could see some of the nuances that Elio had put into his words; a turn of phrase here, or a word or two there. He liked to imagine Elio sitting at his desk, possibly in the sunlight from the window in the room, writing away in the peace of his own home. He would have his copy of the cribsheet beside him of course, as he wrote out some of the words and phrasings that they had come up with together.

‘Rogers!’ he called into the back of the dugout where he was currently sat.

‘Sir?’ came the response from the gloom.

‘Can you fetch me some spare paper?’ he said to the disembodied voice.

‘Right away sir,’

A moment or two later Rogers emerged from another room, dug from the earth, with a couple of sheaves of paper in his hand. In his other was a mug.

‘I brought you some tea as well sir,’ said Rogers, ‘We had a delivery this morning, so we’ve actually got milk powder to go in it, and I managed to keep some water hot-ish that I got from cook earlier.’

‘Well done Rogers,’ said Oliver with a grin, clapping the other man on the arm, ‘Thank you very much for that. I won’t need anything else now, you can retire if you wish.’

‘Thank you sir,’ said Rogers, ‘You’re on the early watch are you not? I’ll make sure to be up before you.’

‘Thank you,’ said Oliver, ‘Goodnight Rogers.’

‘Goodnight sir,’ he said, and with that disappeared back into the other room.

Oliver couldn’t help but smile after him. For all his efforts in trying to get Rogers to call him ‘Oliver’ it hadn’t worked. He’d been uncomfortable with it when he had been a captain, and once he was promoted to major, Rogers had downright refused to call him by his first name, so Oliver had simply given up. There were a few other perks of the job; like the fact that he now had a private dugout, with two rooms; one for him, and one for Rogers, when the pair of them weren’t out on the watch. It was practically luxury compared to what others endured whilst they were here.

He waited until he heard Rogers stop moving about, before he opened up his military journal, and picked the cribsheet out of the back of it, where he had hidden it under the peeling binding. He pulled the clean paper towards him that Rogers had given him, and began to work.

 20 August 1918

                Major Oliver Davis, Oliver, my love;

                                                As I write this, I am packing up the last of my things in order to return, as you mentioned in your latest letter (which I received this morning). Thank you for continuing your correspondence to me (I miss you); your letters have given me much comfort and happiness whilst I have been convalescing (and reference to this was simply a reference to how much it meant to Elio that he had been able to read Oliver’s letters, and have him there with him). I thank you for your concern about my health (please try not to worry about me too much), and I would reassure you that I am much stronger than I was (and getting better all the time), although as previously discussed, the scars will never fade. I am, however, learning to live with them. There is little else to be done in such circumstances.

                                                I received my posting notes after the doctor indicated I was fit to return. I am to report to the French headquarters, and then be posted to my company. I do not know if I will be posted to the same company I was with before (perhaps you will know before I do?), and even if I was, I doubt I would recognise many of them. I believe that none of those from dugout are still serving, with Henry being discharged due to the injuries he sustained at Cambrai. I still write to him, naturally, not only because of what we shared, but because of what you told me, that he was the one who dragged me to safety, which is probably what cost him his leg. That is a debt I can never repay.

                                                Do not fret too much about the book. I think my father has at least three spare copies of that particular novel. As you recall from your time on leave (once again, any reference to leave was intended to draw the mind back to that particularly heady period), his library is his pride and joy (they had fucked once on the sofa in the library, in the dead of night, with Oliver’s hand clamped across Elio’s mouth to stop him from moaning), encompassing at least one more room than it probably should do. My mother has drawn the line at it getting any bigger and taking over a third room in the house. They both send their best wishes (and their love) along with this letter. Mother also sent some chocolate (your favourite type), and I hope it reaches you, rather than disappearing somewhere along the line. There are also some of the cigarettes that I know you like.

                                                I walked down to the orchard and fruit garden the other day, where you helped pa pick the early strawberries in May. Of course there are no strawberries now, but I noticed when I walked into the village earlier this week that the blackberries are beginning to come through in the hedgerows. If you visit in the late summer at all we should pick them, and then Mafalda will bake them into one of her delicious blackberry and apple pies; I think you would like that (there was no note here, but Oliver knew exactly what he was saying; he wanted Oliver to stay with him, at all times of the year. He wanted to create these memories with him. If they both survived this).

                                                It is, of course, with trepidation that I sign off this letter, knowing that it will be the last I write to you before I return to the front (yes, I am scared). Perhaps fate will be kind, and I will be posted near your company once more, so that we may continue our friendship (love).

                                                Yours faithfully (Your love), and with ever the hope that this will all be over soon (so that we may once again be together),

                                                Private Elio Perlman

Oliver finished looking at the letter and sighed to himself; he so wanted to see Elio again. It had been months and months, and whilst he loved receiving letters from the other man, it was poor replacement for the real thing. It had taken a week for the letter to reach him, unlike his previous to Elio, which by the looks of it had taken two weeks. It was a slow way to communicate, but it was all they had until they were closer together again. He wanted to hold him again.

It was now crawling towards the beginning of September, and the allies had turned back the tide of the German advance, and were now scrambling to hold onto their advantage. After his return from leave he had at first been posted to the Marne along with his companies, in order to support the British there, before they were deployed to Reims. And now they were waiting on orders from General Pershing for a coordinated American and French attack near Metz. Part of him was filled with hope at the upcoming attack, and not for reasons that he knew he should hold; he wondered if Elio would be posted to join the coordinated attack, and that they would be near each other once again. The other part of him, of course, wished that Elio was posted as far away from any action as was possible, so the likelihood of him being hurt or worse was slim.

He just wanted Elio to stay safe until all of this was over. Of course, he hadn’t actually given any thought as to what would happen when this was all over. He would look to be discharged from the army, of course, but he knew that he couldn’t go home. He had fallen in love, utterly and irrevocably, he’d known that since the moment he fell to his knees beside Elio at Cambrai, through all the moments of Elio’s recovery, through his stay with him during his leave, and now, sitting and reading the letters that his love sent to him. He couldn’t leave that behind; more to the point, he wouldn’t leave that behind.

**

20 February 1918

He walked in with utter trepidation in his heart, trying to prepare himself for what he was about to see. This was the first time he had been able to visit Elio, since he had put him in the back of the ambulance at Cambrai, and watched it trundle off into the distance, wondering if he’d ever seen the other man alive again. He’d initially been supposed to visit him just after Christmas, but had been informed at the last minute that Elio had been moved to an intensive care unit, with no visitors allowed, as he had contracted an infection. When he’d heard that, fear had been the only thing he’d been able to feel for some time; infections were rampant in hospitals, and they killed just as many, if not more (as far as Oliver was concerned) than the actual war did. He didn’t know the figures, but he’d heard about the rampant destructive power of infection. So, when he’d heard that his Elio had fallen victim, he’d been utterly terrified. The night he found out, he removed himself to his bunk and cried, trying to hide his tears from Rogers, who seemed content to leave him alone.

But somehow, by some miracle, Elio had survived. He had been told by the doctor who had met him at the entrance to the hospital, that the other man was in no way out of the woods yet, but he was through the worst of it, and his survival was looking a lot more positive now than it had even a handful of days ago. The doctor had told him to steel himself for what he was about to see.

Elio hadn’t yet been moved back to a communal ward; instead, Oliver was to find him in one of the tiny private rooms that the hospital afforded those patients who were sickest. He stood outside the closed door for a moment, and took a deep breath, before he pushed it open, and stepped inside.

It took all of his strength not to cry out at what he saw.

Elio’s head was turned away from him slightly, towards the tiny window in the room, where the curtains were drawn back to let in the meagre daylight. His hair was dull, and his curls were limp against the pillow. There was just enough space in the room for a single bed, one chair, an end table with a lamp on it, and enough space to walk around the bed.

Nurse?’ his voice croaked without turning to look at him.

It’s not the nurse,’ said Oliver, stepping inside properly and shutting the door behind him, ‘It’s me; Oliver.’

Elio turned then, as fast as his weakened state would allow, and looked at him.

Oliver?’ he asked, his beautiful green eyes looking dull and slightly confused, ‘Really?’

Really really,’ said Oliver, sitting down on the chair beside the bed, ‘It’s me.’

Elio burst into tears. Prior to the war, Oliver would have been shocked to see another man cry; it wasn’t something that was seen very often, if at all. He’d seen Jim cry once, after he’d been diagnosed with his illness, but that had been it. He’d never seen his father cry.

Hey, don’t cry, I didn’t mean to upset you by coming here,’ said Oliver, floundering slightly as to what to do, ‘Do you want me to go?

No!’ said Elio, his voice raising the few decibels he could manage in order to convey his urgency, ‘No, don’t go. It’s just -’

He stopped himself from continuing, trying to control the tears that were flowing down his still-beautiful face.

It’s just?’ asked Oliver, wanting him to continue with that thought.

Elio took a shuddering breath, and Oliver could see his tiny thin chest rise beneath the cover that he was under, ‘It’s just that I imagined you here, mostly I think as some kind of fever, other times as wishful dreaming. And now for you to actually be here… I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it or not.’

Oliver couldn’t help but smile softly at him and placed a hand upon his chest over the cover, so Elio could feel the weight of it, ‘You’re definitely not imagining it. I’m real.’

So you are,’ said Elio with a contended smile in return, ‘Hi.’

I won’t ask you how you feel, because I can only begin to imagine the answer,’ said Oliver, looking at him. He looked so small.

Thirsty,’ said Elio, ‘Which is why I asked if you were the nurse when you first came in. I don’t want to ask, but would you mind helping me?’

He nodded, looking around for the water, ‘Of course

He spotted it on the end table on the other side of Elio’s bed, and reached over to get it. It had a hollow metal straw in it, to help Elio drink. He had to help Elio sit up slightly, his hand going around his back to steady him. He could feel the vertebrae in his spine underneath the skin and the hospital issue pyjamas he was wearing. He was so, so thin. He hadn’t been large before, but the infection had clearly ravaged his body, so he was little more than skin and bone now; whatever muscle he had had had wasted away.

As Elio took a drink, Oliver was looking at him carefully. His eyes were slightly sunken, and he’d noticed before that the colour had seemingly dulled somewhat, with the iris and pupils looking a little waxy, as if covered by a film. His face was thin and the skin drawn taut over his bones; it had a horrible grey colour to it, now tinged with the slight flush from the exertion caused by sitting up and taking a drink, even if he was supporting him in doing it. He couldn’t see much else of him, as the covers were drawn up, other than the tops of his bony shoulders, seemingly drowned in the top he was wearing. The collar of pyjama top was open slightly, and he could see the sling that was holding his right arm close to his body, hence the misshapen lump beneath the covers. This is what the ravages of the infection had done to him.

I’m disgusting I know,’ said Elio, as he pulled away from the straw. Clearly he had seen Oliver looking at him carefully.

That is not what I was thinking,’ said Oliver sternly, placing the water back down on the end table.

Isn’t it?’ said Elio bitterly, ‘I would.’

You’ve been terribly ill,’ said Oliver; the only explanation he could offer.

So I’ve been told,’ said Elio, still being fairly obtuse, ‘Apparently I’m lucky to be alive.’

You don’t think so?’ asked Oliver.

I can’t do anything!’ said Elio, and despite the frustration in his words he was barely able to raise his voice any higher than the croak he had had before, ‘I can’t even pee without help!

You’ll get stronger though,’ he said, ‘Now that the infection has gone; the only thing left for you to do is get better.’

It could come back though,’ said Elio pessimistically, ‘And then that really would finish me off.

That’s not going to happen,’ said Oliver, with more confidence than he felt, ‘You’ve fought it off once before, you’d do it again. Besides, it’s not going to come back.’

If you say so,’ said Elio, and for the first time, Oliver saw the hint of a smile on his face and just the tiniest glimpse of the familiar glimmer behind his eyes.

I do say so,’ said Oliver, ‘And seeing as I’m the officer here, what I say goes, alright?’

Yes sir,’ said Elio, as if he were genuinely responding to an officer.

Oliver grinned at him, enjoying the fact that he was beginning to see flashes of the man he knew, beneath this shrunken body. He leaned in and gently touched Elio’s uninjured shoulder, rubbing his thumb back and forth, even though he could feel the spike of his bone underneath.

You saved my life at Cambrai, didn’t you?’ asked Elio suddenly, a cloud once again falling across his eyes.

Henry saved your life,’ said Oliver, correcting him, ‘I just made sure it remained saved.’

Henry?’ asked Elio, ‘What happened to him?’

I don’t know,’ he said, suddenly feeling guilty. In all honesty, he hadn’t given the man another thought since he’d dragged Elio behind the lines at Cambrai, ‘I can find out for you before I send my next letter?’

Yes please,’ said Elio, ‘I’d like to know; even if… y’know.’

Oliver nodded, ‘I’ll find out for you.’

I remember you kissed me,’ said Elio.

Oliver grinned at him, unable to help himself, ‘I’ve kissed you lots of times. You’re going to have to be more specific.’

In the back of the ambulance. It was all I remembered. That you kissed me,’ said Elio, ‘Or did I dream that too?

No, that you didn’t dream,’ said Oliver, ‘I kissed you. I was scared that it might have been the last time I got to do that.’

‘You thought I was going to die?’ asked Elio.

I didn’t think anything,’ said Oliver, ‘I prayed that you wouldn’t, but I didn’t want to take any chances and not kiss you again.’

Just in case?’ said Elio

Just in case,’ Oliver agreed.

Well then,’ said Elio, the tiniest of smiles back on his face again, ‘Will you kiss me again? Y’know… just in case?

He didn’t respond, but simply leaned forward and placed his lips against Elio’s own. They felt familiar, of course, and it was wonderful to touch the other man like this again. He felt Elio move just very slightly, to put the tiniest bit of answering pressure against his mouth; all that he could manage. Oliver grinned into the kiss as he felt Elio’s tongue against his bottom lip, just licking very slightly, letting him know that this was something to him, despite the lack of movement and obvious enthusiasm. Oliver let his own mouth fall open, so that he could meet Elio in the middle; very softly, and very gently, letting their lips and tongue join together more intimately.

He sat back a moment or two later, instantly torn as he saw that there was a rosy flush of life in Elio’s cheeks, but that his chest was rising and falling rapidly with the exertion that a simple kiss had taken.

That was nice,’ said Elio, with a small smile.

Oliver nodded in agreement, before he looked around at the still closed door, ‘I will need to go in a moment. I’m expected at headquarters for a briefing this afternoon.’

You’ll come visit me again soon?’ asked Elio, his voice suddenly small like a child’s.

Of course,’ said Oliver, ‘Although I will have to be careful; wouldn’t want anybody to become suspicious. You’re not in my company after all.’

‘I know,’ said Elio, ‘But you’ll write to me?’

Of course,’ said Oliver, ‘As often as I can.’

Thank you,’ said Elio.

He sounded exhausted all of sudden; clearly the conversation had taken it out of him. He wouldn’t have expected anything less in all honesty.

You should rest now,’ said Oliver, ‘I’ll come again as soon as I can.’

Elio smiled sleepily, the corners of his thin lips drawing up to add some life to his gaunt looking face. Oliver leaned over and gently kissed him once more, before standing up. Elio’s eyes had closed now, and he was clearly well on his way to sleep. Oliver paused for a moment, watching him settle, watching as his breathing steadied, and his body relaxed.

I’ll see you soon,’ murmured Oliver, unsure whether he could still hear him or not, ‘I love you.’

He turned to leave, walking the pace or two to the door, and placing his hand upon the door handle.

That’s the first time you’ve said that to me,’ came a very quiet voice from behind him. Oliver turned back quickly, but Elio still had his eyes closed, and his chest was rising and falling in a slow rhythm of sleep. He had clearly spoken just as he was on the edge of wakefulness, and had now fallen into the unconscious abyss that came with sleep.

Oliver smiled softly to himself, and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Chapter Text

04 September 1918

Somewhere near Verdun, France.

Mud. That was the first thing Elio thought as he stepped back into the support trench on his way to his newly assigned dugout. The covered wagon had dropped him about half a mile and he had made his way down here alone, through the myriad of temporary structures, craters, vehicles, artillery stores, and the rest. The rain was falling in a steady drizzle, and he could already feel it creeping down the back of his neck and under his freshly starched collar. The duckboards of the trench shifted under his feet, as they now sat atop thick, oozing mud. According to reports in headquarters it hadn’t stopped raining for some weeks now, making some of the roads treacherous, and others completely impassable. It was making supply lines tricky, but obviously not just for their troops, but the Germans as well. Their generals wanted to press this advantage.

When he’d heard where he was being posted, Elio’s stomach had twisted itself in knots. He’d been to Verdun before, almost two years previously, when France had been tearing itself apart on this very ground, enriching itself with the blood of hundreds of thousands, the youth of the country laying itself down on these fields. It was said that if you looked closely as you walked across parts of the ground, blood welled up around your feet. It gave him a strong bitter taste in his mouth to think that all of that had been sacrificed, and yet here they still were, two years later, having only moved a few miles. What was each man’s life worth?

Elio looked at the now-grubby piece of paper in his hand, which told him where he was supposed to be going. As he was looking down he nearly collided straight on with someone coming the other way.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me,’ said the other man, with an extremely rich British accent. He knew that they were sharing a trench with the British, but he hadn’t quite expected to collide so literally with one. He instantly wondered if he was in the right place.

‘No problem, monsieur,’ said Elio, ‘I am looking for my company.’

‘Oh, new out here?’ asked the other man, looking at him closely.

‘Not exactly,’ said Elio, ‘Returning.’

‘Oh! I’m the same, back out here a few weeks ago,’ said the other man, ‘Everyone thought I’d caught a blighty, but I guess not.’

‘Errr, a blighty?’ asked Elio, not understanding this particular idiom.

‘Injured badly enough to go home and stay home,’ said the other man with a shrug, ‘But here I am.’

‘Oh,’ said Elio, ‘That’s unfortunate.’

‘Anyway, you’re about half a mile too far up the line,’ said the man, ‘Don’t know which transport dropped you off, but they should’ve told you that. You want to turn around and head back to reach the French companies.’

‘Thank you, monsieur err...?’ said Elio, realising the other man hadn’t told him his name.

‘Owen,’ said the other man sticking out his hand, ‘Captain Wilfred Owen, Manchester Rifles.’

‘Nice to meet you Captain Owen,’ said Elio taking it, ‘Elio Perlman, Medic of the French Army.’

‘Perhaps I will see you on the shared watch,’ said the captain, touching his cap and continuing along his way. Elio watched him go a few paces, putting his hands in his pockets.

‘Wait a moment!’ he said, causing the British Captain to turn back.

‘Yes?’ he asked.

‘Do you know if the Americans are anywhere on this part of the line?’ asked Elio; knowing he shouldn’t really ask, but unable to help himself.

The Captain smiled at him, his face warm despite the rain, ‘Many thousands of them, medic.’

‘Really?’ asked Elio, surprised.

‘You really have been away, haven’t you?’ said the Captain, walking back a few paces towards him, ‘C’mon, come to my dugout out the rain and have a cigarette. I’ll fill you in.’

Elio looked down at the piece of paper in his hand for a moment, dithering.

‘I’ll send a man along with you to your company later, let them know it wasn’t your fault that you were delayed,’ said Owen.

‘Errr, thank you sir,’ said Elio, ‘That’s very kind of you.’

He followed the captain along the trench, away from the direction in which he knew he would find his own company. He mused on his ability to make friends in the oddest of places, and with seeming apparent ease as they reached the Captain’s dugout and walked down the steps into the dark. He tried to control his shudder of revulsion at walking back underground again, but felt the shiver of fear up his spine nonetheless as he entered into the dark.

‘Everything alright?’ asked the Captain as he followed him down.

‘Yes,’ said Elio uncertainly, ‘It’s just… being back underground again.’

‘I know,’ said the Captain, ‘It is hard. Come.’

He drew a chair out from the table, and gestured for him to sit down, with the other hand offered him a cigarette. Elio took it with a word of thanks, and lit it with a match from the box that was on the table.

‘So why here?’ asked Elio, as the Captain too sat down.

‘To take Metz,’ said Owen with a shrug, ‘Or at least push towards it. The Americans are to advance at St-Mihiel within the next week, and we are to support. They are awaiting the final orders from General Pershing.’

‘Why all of us?’ asked Elio.

‘I don’t know,’ said Owen, ‘Truly; but it is to be a huge push against what used to be a strongly defended line. Several hundred thousand Americans; one hundred thousand French, tens of thousands of British.’

‘Used to be a strongly defended line?’ asked Elio.

‘All up and down the front, there is evidence of German retreat. They are pulling back from their positions, to better ground, taking their artillery with them.’

‘We are winning?’ breathed Elio, hardly daring to believe what the Captain was saying.

‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ said Owen, with a jovial chuckle, ‘But something is happening; something is different. Even if it’s just a feeling of growing hope; something that was not there before. It does not make it any better, or solve the wounds of the past, or bring back the millions that have died, but perhaps it will save many millions for whom death would have chosen.’

Elio didn’t quite know what to say to that, instead glancing around the dugout walls, where various sheets of paper were pinned up, covering in words; some of them repeated, over and over.

‘Are you a writer?’ Elio asked him.

Owen shrugged, ‘A poet.’

Elio gestured to the wall, ‘Can I?’

‘Please,’ said Owen, with a half cock of his head. Elio got to his feet, and took the few paces to the wall. The writing was, of course, in English, and he had to concentrate extremely hard to catch the meanings of the words, and the nuances which the poet had put in them. One especially caught his eye, for the Latin phrase which it had at the bottom; now that he could read with no problem.

The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

He turned back to the poet, sitting at the table, ‘So you do not believe it is right?’

‘Do you?’ asked Owen carefully.

Elio thought about it for a moment, ‘Nothing about this is right. There is nothing rachat… sorry, I do not know the word… about this.’

‘I know what you mean,’ said Owen, ‘It is difficult to imagine what we have done here; and yet it is laid out before our very eyes. There is only moving forward, for if we look sideways, at the devastation, we could surely not go on.’

What he said was true. Whilst in the middle of something, it is difficult to see the scope and the enormity of what that thing was. Elio had often wondered, when he was on leave, in the hours of solitude that he had whilst he was resting, how the world would remember this time. How would it look back on what had been done here? He didn’t know, and now, once again, he was back in the middle of it, unable to look further than the few feet in front of him, in order to stay alive. He was, after all, one of the lucky ones.

‘A friend of mine is a teacher of English and of French,’ said Elio, ‘I’m sure he would like to read some of your poetry. Do you have any copies of them? Or do you mind if I write them down?’

Owen hesitated for a moment before replying, ‘I can send them onto him, if you let me know where to send them?’

‘His name is Major Oliver Davis, of XII Battalion Rifles, American Expeditionary Force,’ said Elio, noting that Owen scribbled the name down in a notebook which he hastily drew from his pocket. It had other scribbles all over it; it must be where he began his ideas.

‘A friend of yours?’ asked Owen, his voice unable to hide his curiosity.

‘Yes,’ said Elio, ‘We shared a watch together, before I was wounded. He saved my life at Cambrai.’

A shadow passed over Owen’s face, ‘I lost friends at Cambrai.’

‘Were you there?’ asked Elio.

‘No,’ said Owen, ‘I was in Scotland at the time, being treated for my… what do they call it these days… neurasthenia. It was there, and the months following, that I did a lot of my writing. Encouraged by a friend of mine, also.’

Elio nodded, noting a slight change of tone in Owen’s voice. He didn’t want to place too much store by it, but Owen had clearly wished to draw his attention to it.

‘I best be on my way,’ said Elio, with a half-hearted shrug, ‘I must report to my company commander.’

‘Of course,’ said Owen, ‘I shall accompany you up, and find a man to take you to where you need to go.’

‘Thank you very much Captain,’ said Elio, picking his beret up from the table where he had discarded it earlier.

‘Not at all,’ said the captain, gesturing towards the stairs, and back up into the drizzle that seemed to be permeating the whole of the Western Front.

***

10 May 1918

This is your room,’ said Elio, opening the door to the spare room that Mafalda had made up from Oliver. He stepped inside; it was light and airy, the curtains drawn back to reveal the view of the garden below, the other man just behind him

The bathroom is just through there,’ he said, ‘My room is on the other side.’

Oliver looked around, before placing his suitcase on the floor beside the wardrobe.

It’s lovely,’ he said, ‘Thank you very much.’

Malfada made it up for you,’ said Elio, by way of explanation. He pushed his hands into his pockets and stood slightly awkwardly as Oliver made his way to the window, looking out at the view; the lush green of the spring turning to summer in this hidden corner of France.

Oliver turned back to him, ‘Show me your room.’

He walked through the bathroom at that request, illustrating the double door between the two bedrooms and into his room-cum-study. The sunlight was streaming into this room as well. It looked infinitely more lived in than the room next door, with the bedspread slightly messy from where Elio had taken a nap earlier after Mafalda had already been around to make the beds. There were various magazines stacked on the bedside table, along with his musical notation paper covered in pencil marks. There was a wardrobe against one wall, along with a chest of drawers. A large mirror was propped up on the chest of drawers, leaning against the wall, reflecting some of the light back into the room. There was another room of sorts, where his desk sat beneath another window.

Is this one of yours?’ asked Oliver, picking up the music from the bedside table and glancing over it.

Yes,’ said Elio, blushing slightly.

Will you play it for me whilst I’m here?’ asked Oliver.

It’s not finished,’ he said apologetically, ‘But I can try.’

I’d like that,’ said Oliver, with a smile turning back to him. Oliver took a step towards him then, and Elio enjoyed the strange-yet-familiar sensation of tilting his head back to look up at him. And then Oliver kissed him. Really kissed him. It wasn’t hidden, or ashamed, or hurried. It was their first kiss like that since the day that they had managed to spend in the farmhouse before Cambrai, and before everything had gone to shit. All their kisses in the hospital had been quick or stolen. But this kiss was different. It was honest and it was open. Oliver’s mouth was relaxed against his own, asking that he relax as well. Elio wanted to curve himself into his body, and allow himself to be held as close as was possible. Oliver wrapped his arms around his back, holding him as his mouth dropped open, kiss him deeply. Elio thought he might be lightheaded in a moment, whether from the kiss or from a lack of oxygen he wasn’t entirely sure. His tongue licked at Oliver’s own, as he explored the inside of his lover’s mouth at his own leisure.

Oliver turned them around so that he sat heavily on the bed, not breaking the kiss. Elio smiled against his lips, feeling Oliver’s mouth answer his own happiness, as he climbed into his lap. He had to sit on Oliver’s thighs, because if he knelt up he was too tall for Oliver to kiss him, and that would never do. Oliver’s hand drifted up to his neck, and to the collar of his shirt. He broke away.

What?’ asked Oliver, his lips swollen from Elio’s kiss. Elio climbed off his lap, looking apologetic, as the other man looked up at him, confused.

We should wait,’ said Elio, knowing it sounded like the excuse it was, ‘I know my parents will expect us back down stairs soon. I think they’re putting on an early tea, assuming you’d be tired after your trip.’

Okay,’ said Oliver, his voice clearly indicating that he didn’t quite understand. Elio backed off another stepped and leant against the chest of his drawers, his fingers curling around the wood as if it might give him support.

Will you sleep in here though?’ asked Elio.

Of course,’ said Oliver instantly, ‘If you’d like me too.’

I’d love you too,’ said Elio.

Then I will,’ said Oliver getting up off the bed, and gently kissing him. Just a peck.

‘What’s the other room for then?’ asked Oliver.

‘Y’know,’ said Elio with a shrug, ‘My parents know what I am, but we still need to be careful. This house is safe for us; but for appearances sake… y’know?’

It’s alright,’ said Oliver with a small smile, ‘I understand. Now, shall we go back downstairs?’

He smiled softly, and nuzzled his face up into Oliver’s neck, who chuckled lightly to himself at the gesture, resting his chin on the top of his bent head. They simply stood for a moment, just chest to chest, breathing each other’s air.

‘C’mon,’ said Elio, taking Oliver’s hand a moment later, and out of the bedroom.

It was later, when the moonlight was invading the room through the crack in the curtains that his own fears raised its ugly head once again. They’d had a wonderful evening, the five of them sitting around the table. His parents had invited Mafalda to join them, as her husband was away from the village for the evening. They’d spoken of literature, of art, of philosophy, of anything except the war, pretending that it didn’t exist, that it was in another life and somewhere else. And Elio had watched as the strain and the grey fell away from Oliver’s face with every passing second. He saw a beauty in him that he’d only seen very briefly, right at the very beginning, before the horror of reality had snatched it away from him. His eyes lit up as he engaged his father in a long discussion about the etymology of various Arabic and Latin words. Elio was content to merely listen, and to observe.

After a few glasses of his mother’s excellent red wine, and Mafalda’s sumptuous cooking, Elio was ready to retire to bed. He said his goodnights, whilst Oliver and his father were still engaged in discussing some philosopher that Elio hadn’t read. He could see that they were going to be fast friends. He kissed his mother on the cheek, said goodnight to Mafalda with a wave and headed up the stairs.

In the bathroom, he noticed that fresh pyjamas were lying on the side, where Mafalda had clearly laid them earlier. After seeing to his ablutions, he pulled them on, putting his clothes for the day on the chair. He would wear most of them again tomorrow; it wasn’t as if he had done anything especially onerous that day. He opened the door to the bedroom, and almost walked headfirst into Oliver, who was stood with his back to the door. Oliver turned around and looked at him, his eyebrows going up as he took in the pyjamas.

‘What?’ asked Elio, looking down at himself, wondering if he had his top done up on the wrong buttons. No, that was fine.

I didn’t bring any pyjamas,’ said Oliver pointedly.

Elio instantly blushed, knowing that that wasn’t really what Oliver meant.

‘Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?’ asked Oliver, looking down at him, only the glow from the lamp and the light of the moon lighting the scene.

‘Nothing’s wrong,’ said Elio with a shrug, ‘It’s just -’

‘It’s just, what?’ said Oliver after he paused without finishing the sentence.

He looked down at his feet, embarrassingly bare against the wooden floor.

Hey,’ said Oliver, putting his hand under his chin and lifting his head back up, ‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.’

‘It’s not that,’ he said instantly, ‘It’s nothing you’ve done or haven’t done. I just don’t really…’

He took a deep breath, and it shuddered slightly as he exhaled, ‘I just don’t really like myself a whole lot at the moment.’

Oliver with silent for a second, his face creased in a frown before he spoke, ‘What do you mean?

He walked around him and sat down on the bed, looking across at him. He noticed that Oliver had taken off his shoes, and placed them neatly under the window.

‘I was always skinny, always lanky, always pale,’ he said, ‘But now I’m like a wraith. I’m trying to put weight back on, but I’ve still got a way to go. I’m still bony, my muscles have all but gone, and my scars are really -’

Elio stop,’ said Oliver gently, cutting him off, walking over to him, and sitting down next to him, ‘You do know that none of that matters to me, right?’

Elio shrugged uncomfortably, not meeting his eyes, ‘I just don’t feel very lovable, I guess.

There was a pause as Oliver looked him over for a moment, their bodies not touching, as his hands relaxed on his thighs.

May I?’ asked Oliver after a moment, gesturing to the light on the bedside table. Elio nodded, wondering what he was going to do. Oliver leaned over and turned the light out, leaving them in nothing but the slight light from the moon coming from the crack in the curtains.

Stand up,’ said Oliver.

Elio got to his feet, as Oliver did the same, his hands going to the top button on his pyjamas.

You can tell me stop anytime you want,’ said Oliver, ‘I don’t want to do anything you don’t want me to.’

Alright,’ breathed Elio, looking down at the strong fingers on his buttons. The first one opened, then the second, third, and the rest, all the way down, until it was hanging open. Only the thinnest sliver of skin was visible in the middle, and the very slight dusting of dark hair that ran down from his naval into his pyjama pants. Oliver quickly undid his own shirt, mirroring Elio’s state of undress, and slid his own off his shoulders first. Elio couldn’t help but bring his hands up and run them across the broad chest in front of him. Oliver was just so beautiful to look at, the hair across his well sculpted muscles a sharp contrast to his own. He kissed him softly, his mouth moving against Oliver’s, as the taller man slid his hand inside of his pyjama top and slid it off his shoulders.

Instantly all he wanted to do was raise his hands across his body, to hide himself. By sheer force of will, he kept his hand by his sides. He knew that Oliver was looking at him closely; where his ribs were still visible through his skin, where his scars spread out across the top of his chest and his arm on the right side, a mess of ugly red skin, healed over of course, but blemished, uneven, discoloured, and marked. Oliver lent down and kissed it. Even though the nerves were deadened around that area, Elio could still feel the soft brush of his lips across his unrecognisable skin. It felt less alien to him for a moment or two.

You’re so beautiful to me Elio,’ muttered Oliver, ‘The most beautiful creature I have ever had the fortune to meet, with or without scars. Turnaround.’

Elio did as he was bid, slightly confused at the instruction, but then he understood as he caught sight of himself in the mirror that was sitting on the top of his chest of drawers. Oliver’s bare chest was to his back, warm skin against warm skin, as the blond man ran the hand that wasn’t curled around his body down to the waistband of his pants.

Is this alright?’ asked Oliver gently, before going any further. Elio nodded, leaning his head back against Oliver’s shoulder as the other man slipped his hand into his pants and took hold of his half-hard cock. He panted in desire as his body reacted to the sight.

I want you to look yourself,’ murmured Oliver, ‘I want you to see how beautiful you are.’

He tilted his head back then, capturing Oliver’s mouth in a kiss as the other man leaned down, stroking him, and made him moan into his mouth.

Oliver,’ he whispered against his mouth. He was fully hard now, and couldn’t help but rock forward into Oliver’s closed fist.

Watch,’ said Oliver, tilting his head back down to make Elio look back at himself in the mirror. He looked, seeing himself, his thin frame enveloped in Oliver’s much larger one, his body a protective cage around his own, stroking his ribs with one hand in the same rhythm that was stroking his cock. It was a picture that he’d wanted to see for so many months that with each passing second as Oliver’s hand brought the most languid of pleasure to his form, it seemed to matter less that his own body bore the evidence of his own battles.

Oliver gently pulled his pyjama pants down, until they pooled around his ankles, and encouraged him to step out of them.  

Stay there,’ said Oliver, the warmth of chest and the feeling of his hand leaving his body for a moment, causing Elio to whine at the loss. A moment later he was back, and Elio felt his own nakedness against his back, his own arousal pressing against his ass.

Still okay?’ Oliver asked.

He nodded, feeling like words might have failed him at this point. His cock was hard, and leaking with his arousal, as he felt Oliver pressing against him.

Spread your legs,’ said Oliver, his mouth against his ear, before sucking the lobe into his mouth.

Are you going to –’ asked Elio nervously.

No,’ said Oliver, ‘Not tonight. You’ll see.

Elio heard the sound of a jar being opened, and he knew what it was. The next second he felt Oliver’s hand between his legs, slicking the inside of his thighs with some of the contents of the jar. He was momentarily confused until he felt Oliver bend his knees slightly, encouraged him to close his thighs slightly, and then slid his cock into the warm, slick gap that he had created. Oliver was still making love to him, but gently, holding him as something so precious, something delicate, and something beautiful.

I want you to watch Elio,’ breathed Oliver, ‘Watch the pleasure that your body gives me, whether I’m inside of you, or simply touching you.

Oliver’s hand snaked back around his body, taking hold of him again, causing Elio to moan at the sight. Oliver began to move, gently rocking his hips, sliding in the warmth between his thighs. Elio breathed out a shuddering moan as he watched the look of pleasure on Oliver’s face, as he stroked him in tandem with his own movements, his thumb rubbing just underneath the head of his leaking prick. He reached behind them both, gripping the muscle of Oliver’s ass, encouraging him to be as close as physically possible. With the other hand, he covered Oliver’s own fist. Their undulating bodies were bathed in the slightest sliver of moonlight that shifted from his body over to Oliver’s as they moved in the light, creating one form out of two.

I love you,’ breathed Elio to the shadow in the mirror.

Oliver kissed his neck, as they slowly rocked towards a glorious crescendo of pleasure, the minutes of the night passing them by as they touched each other. They had changed forever since they had last done this, but it mattered little to either of them now. Delight was still there to be found in each other, it just needed to be grasped with both hands. Their finish wasn’t a blaze of noise accompanied by ecstasy, but the exquisite rush of pleasure that seeped through Elio’s bones, his body languid in its own joy and the beauty of Oliver’s face over his shoulder, as he too reached his completion. There was warmth between his legs, but Elio was focused on the look of pleasure on his lover’s face, his perfect mouth open in an ‘oh’ of amazement. Oliver’s arms had moved so that they were wrapped tightly around his thin chest, holding him close as their slow breaths were the only sounds heard in the room. Elio looked at himself in the mirror, and then his eyes flickered up to meet Oliver’s.

Thank you,’ he murmured.

Oliver kissed the back of his neck, now slightly damp with the sweat brought on with his own ecstasy.

Come on,’ said Oliver, ‘Let’s go to bed.

Elio smiled then, nodded once before he turned, wrapping his hands around Oliver’s neck, uncaring that they were both slick with their releases and sweat. Oliver kissed him deeply, his mouth demanding against his own. He couldn’t help but let out a little squeak of surprise as Oliver bodily lifted him as he was lost in the kiss. The squeak caused Oliver to chuckle against his lips as he lifted him to the side of the bed, and after peeling back the covers, put him down. As he made himself comfortable Oliver got in the other side and pulled him close, mimicking their earlier pose. Elio relaxed against him, revelling in the feeling of Oliver holding him. Like that, they fell asleep.

Chapter Text

It was six days later when he finally found him. Oliver knew that he was nearby somewhere, but their paths had yet to cross. It was hardly surprising; there were hundreds of thousands of troops in the vicinity. Trying to find one man was like searching for a sheaf of hay in a stack full of needles. The reason he knew that Elio was nearby was that a few days prior, he had received a letter, with several additional pages on the back. The letter had come from a Captain in the British army, a one Wilfred Owen, who wrote that he had met a friend of his, Private Elio Perlman, who had said that he might enjoy some of his poetry to read.

Oliver had smiled at the thought of Elio running into the poet, and immediately striking up an easy friendship with the man. Elio had that way with people; he was like a bright light, warm and inviting, that just drew other people in, even in a place such as this. He had been drawn to him that way, why would anyone else be any different?

The poetry itself was stunning. Heart-breaking, but stunning. He read each one several times, musing over the different words, the phrasing, and the horrors that the poet must have seen in order to write such a thing. The one that especially got to him, and almost made him weep, was the one entitled ‘Disabled.’ It made him think of Elio; of how close he had come to being a man in a ‘ghastly suit of grey […] sewn short at elbow.’ The doctors had told him how close Elio had come to losing his right arm, and knowing what he knew now about Elio’s ability to play the piano, the thought made him shudder in revulsion about what his boy might have lost. There was a line further on in the same poem, that had said there was ‘an artist silly for his face,’ and Oliver was drawn to thinking about Elio’s beauty, and how he had to teach him to love himself again, or at least he had tried to. He knew the other man still struggled to love himself as much as Oliver did, but hopefully his steadfastness had helped him along the way, at least in part. He was certainly a lot better than he had been.

So it was, in a moments respite before the storm broke, that he finally found him again. The last week had been a mass of preparations, as they prepared for an attempt to liberate Metz. It was clear that the Germans were retreating, and all of the Allied forces were keen to push their advantage. This was made all the more challenging, however, by the fact that it had been almost constantly raining for the past three weeks, if not longer, turning many of the supply roads to rivers of mud. It was a logistical nightmare, but General Pershing was determined not to let something like Mother Nature prevent him from pushing forward, and had demanded that the officers closer to the action found some way to make his plans a reality.

And now, it needed to come together. The bombardment started tonight, with the first troops moving into place. There was no option, other than for the plan to work. He had gone in search of Rogers, under the impression that he would probably find him in the cook tent. The place was alive with noise when he walked in, rows of benches of soldiers at mess, and the air pungent with the smell of pipe and cigarette smoke. He glanced around, trying to see if he could spot Rogers, but there must have been at least a hundred and fifty soldiers in here, so it certainly wasn’t an easy task. He grumbled as someone shoved past him into the tent, but didn’t take the soldier to task for it. He had probably been on the watch most of the night, and now if someone was standing between him and his breakfast, then woe betide that man.

He had nearly given up finding Rogers when a voice called out his name, a very familiar voice, causing his ears to perk up. He turned, trying to control his features, as his eyes drank in Elio, sitting with a group of men he didn’t recognise. He gave one last sweep of the room for Rogers, and then with a shrug, gave up, before heading over to meet Elio. His hair was shorter than the last time he saw him, back into its regimented army cut, and his body had filled out more; his muscles showing under his jacket. Oliver thought he looked beautiful, and struggled to keep his face impassive.

‘Hello,’ he said, knowing that in any other setting he would have instantly bent down to kiss him.

‘Good Morning,’ said Elio with a smile, before gesturing to him, ‘Everyone, this is Major Oliver Davis, of the American Expeditionary Force, and long-time friend of mine. Oliver, this is…. everyone.’

‘Helpful,’ said Oliver dryly. He noticed that Elio was speaking English, rather than French, and after a cursory glance, realised that some of the men he was sitting with were British.  

One of the men Elio was sat with stood up, his uniform denoting him out to be one of the British soldiers who were currently on this part of the line.

‘Captain Wilfred Owen,’ he said, holding out his hand to shake.

‘Ah, Captain,’ said Oliver, taking his hand, ‘I received your letter a few days ago!’

‘Oh, I’m glad it reached you,’ said the Captain, sitting back down to his breakfast, and then gestured to a gap big enough for him on the other side of the table, ‘Please.’

‘Do you have time to join us?’ asked Elio, looking up at him.

Oliver glanced around, his quarry still nowhere in sight, ‘I was actually looking for Rogers, but I can join you for a bit I reckon.’

He made his way around to the other side of the benches, and squeezed in. One of the men he was sat next to introduced himself as Tomas, who was sharing his dugout with Elio; whilst the man on his other side was John, who was Captain Owen’s batman.

‘Cigarette?’ asked John, proffering one from his silver cigarette case, that had been lying on the table in front of him.

‘It’s alright,’ said Oliver, reaching into his own pocket, ‘I’ve got some of my own. Thank you anyway though.’

As he opened the cigarette case he knew that Elio was watching him, and would recognise the cigarettes inside as some that he had sent from home, just before he had left. Oliver carefully got one out and put it between his lips, lighting it, and taking a deep drag.

‘Good?’ asked Elio.

‘Yes,’ said Oliver, ‘They’re my favourite brand.’

To anyone other than them, that little exchange would have been meaningless, but Oliver was intensely glad that they were able to speak like that, and know what the other meant, even when surrounded by other people.

‘I read some of your poems that you sent me,’ said Oliver to Captain Owen, ‘They were extremely good.’

In the usual British manner, it seemed that the captain had difficulty accepting a compliment, and went a little pink about the ears, mumbling his thanks.

‘When did you start writing?’ he asked.

‘Oh a long time ago,’ said Wilfred with a wave of his hand, ‘Although something about this place seems to have made my writing more prolific of late.’

‘I’ll bet,’ muttered Elio.

‘Yes, quite,’ said Owen, with a wry smile.

‘The ‘Disabled’ one was especially moving,’ said Oliver.

‘Inspired by my time in Edinburgh,’ said Owen with a shrug, ‘Where I was being treated for my neurasthenia. I saw things in that hospital that… well, let’s just say that the poetry seems to make it seem a bit more of a liveable experience.’

‘Is the other poet you mentioned,’ said Elio, ‘Errr, I forgot his name, sorry, still there?’

‘Sassoon is his name, Siegfried,’ said Owen, ‘And no, he has returned home now.’

‘That’s an… interesting name,’ said Tomas, carefully.

Owen smirked, ‘You mean it sounds German? Yes, he gets that a lot. Apparently, his mother has a penchant for Wagner’s operas is all, and chose it because of that.’

‘Sounds like something my mother would do as well,’ said Elio with a grin.

Oliver couldn’t help but agree. He wondered where Annella had chosen the name Elio from, and whether it had any family heritage, it wasn’t exactly a common French name. He would have to ask her the next time he saw her… if he saw her again.

‘Sir?’

A voice came from behind him, and he turned in his seat to see Rogers wending his way toward him.

‘Oh hello, Rogers,’ he said

‘Corporal Maxwell said that you were looking for me, sir?’ Rogers said, looking anxious.

‘Nothing to worry about,’ said Oliver, ‘Captain Green needed all hands-on deck in stores, and I was planning to go up there with you. Apparently, there is some worry that some of the rifles may have suffered water damage due to the weather, and we need to sort out which ones they are.’

‘Of course,’ said Rogers, ‘Are we going to go up now?’

Oliver looked around at his companions, before getting wearily to his feet, ‘Yes, I think that would be best. We shouldn’t keep Captain Green waiting longer than necessary.’

‘Are you on duty tonight?’ asked Elio from behind him.

‘No,’ he said, ‘Tomorrow…’

And he tailed off with a gesture of his hand. They all understood what he meant.

‘I will be having some drinks with others, such as it is, in my dugout this evening,’ said Owen, ‘If you can join us, please, feel free.’

‘Thank you for your invitation,’ said Oliver, ‘If I have completed everything necessary, then yes, I will join you.’

He saw Elio smile, which he took to mean that the other man would be there as well, and he felt a glow of warmth grow in the pit of his stomach. He would be glad to spend more time with the him, anyway that he could.

If he was to die tomorrow, he didn’t want it to be without kissing Elio one more time, and he was sure that they would be able to find a moment alone, a moment hidden, to do just that, later this evening.

**

12 May 1918

Contrary to popular belief,’ giggled Elio, ‘I do not need you to carry me.’

Oh yeah?’ said Oliver, to the wriggling human current in his arms, ‘So what was that “almost fall” halfway up the road?’

It was me not falling,’ said Elio, ‘I can hold my drink.’

Sure you can,’ said Oliver, as they approached the house, ‘Now, be quiet, otherwise you’ll wake everybody up.’

Well whose fault is that for getting me drunk then?’ Elio giggled again.

Me?’ he said, fake shocked, ‘I did not get you drunk. You just can’t hold your liquor.’

Elio started to respond, but then put his finger to his lips and made an overly loud ‘shhing’ noise. Oliver grinned at him as the opened the door and went inside. It wasn’t locked, because this was the only house up this lane, and Oliver assumed that to these people, thievery was only something that happened in Dickens novels. It was dark in the hallway, as was to be expected, although there was moonlight shining through the windows at the top of the stairs, creating a subtle glow; just enough to make out shapes and not fall into things.

Where are you going?’ Oliver hissed as Elio bypassed the stairs, and headed along the corridor beside it, nearly knocking over a vase as he went. Oliver quickly followed him as he ducked inside one of the rooms that he now knew was his father’s library.

What are you doing?’ he asked, as he went inside and closed the door behind the pair of them. It was dark in here too, apart from a small lamp that Elio had lit on a table near the window.

Surely you don’t want a bit of light reading now?’ asked Oliver, grinning as the still-obviously-tipsy Elio sat down heavily on the sofa, with a book in his hands that he had randomly picked up.

I love this room,’ said Elio absently, looking around, ‘I used to come in here all the time as a kid. If ever my parents couldn’t find me for dinner, they’d look in here, or the room next door.’

Oliver smiled softly at him; it was nice to imagine Elio within these walls as a child, and as a teenager, growing up. It made him imagine that he had known the other man for much longer than he really had, that he might have seen him become the person that he knew and loved today. He supposed that they had managed to fit into the eight or so months that they had known each other, what most relationships took years to achieve. Something about being in their situation did that; it was intense, and it necessitated action, rather than hesitancy.

But why now?’ asked Oliver, glancing at his watch, it was well gone midnight, and then should really be getting to bed.

Elio’s eyes glittered slightly as he smirked.

Really?’ asked Oliver, slightly amazed, ‘Isn’t that like sacrilege to you?’

No,’ said Elio with a shrug, ‘I think it’s kind of hot actually.’

Oliver grinned. Ever since the episode the other night, Elio had been more comfortable in his own skin. Not entirely, clearly, but more like he was before than when Oliver first arrived. They had made love the previous morning, carefully and gently, before Elio demanded that they do it again as soon as Oliver was able to get hard. It seemed that after being in hospital for nigh on six months, his libido was somewhat starved for attention. Not that Oliver was complaining.

He walked over to where Elio was sat on the couch, book now discarded on the arm, before sitting down next to him. Elio immediately tilted his head towards him, to capture his mouth in a long, languid kiss.

We’re going to have to be very quiet, you know that?’ Oliver muttered after Elio broke away, his lips looking instantly swollen from the kiss.

I can do that,’ murmured Elio, leaning back in as his hand slid down to Oliver’s crotch, gently rubbing over his cock, that was fast becoming interested in the proceedings.

‘Mmmm?’ asked Oliver, remembering Elio desperately biting his lip to stay quiet when he fucked him roughly the previous morning.

Elio just grinned in response, capturing his mouth again, tongue demanding entry in a deep kiss. Oliver wanted to get his hands on more of him, so turned more bodily into the other man, encircling his arms around his back, pulling him close. His hands went to the first buttons on Elio’s shirt, quickly popping them open so that he could slide his hands inside. He wanted to feel the warmth of his skin underneath his fingers. Elio panted softly into his mouth as his fingers slid across his nipples, teasing the sensitive skin. In turn Elio’s hands came up to tug softly at his hair, something which Oliver really liked, as he felt the pull against his sensitive scalp.

Turnaround,’ Oliver panted against Elio’s mouth a few moments later, as the teasing of his cock through the fabric of his trousers slowly became maddening. He had to move to give the other man space to do as he was bid; shifting so he was on his knees on the couch, with his chest over the arm. The book that had been placed there fell to the floor with a clunk, but neither of them cared. Oliver reached into his jacket pocket, taking out the tin of salve that he had placed there earlier (what? He knew he was going out with Elio, the likelihood of them fucking somewhere that wasn’t his bedroom was real; he wanted to be prepared). He quickly tugged Elio’s trousers down to mid-thigh (the other man had helpful undone his belt with deft hands) before slicking his fingers into the small pot, and beginning to prepare the man in front of him. Elio moaned as Oliver’s middle finger breached him in one smooth thrust, right down to the third knuckle.

Do you need me to give you something to bite on to keep you quiet?’ he growled as he crooked his finger, making Elio pant out delicious sounds. Elio shook his head, and buried his face into the armrest of the sofa. He withdrew the first finger, and pairing it with another, entered Elio’s body again, scissoring the two as he went. It was amazing to watch Elio’s body open up to take his as, after a moment or two, he added a third finger. It was a lot, he knew that, and he licked around Elio’s sensitive rim to keep his mind off the stretch and only on the pleasure.

Please,’ hissed Elio, desperately trying to be quiet, ‘Please, just get inside me.’

Oliver smirked, and placed a kiss against the base of Elio’s spine, before kneeling up behind him and lowering his own pants, freeing his hard prick from their confines. He took himself in hand as he placed the other on Elio’s lower back to steady him as he gently pushed inside. He was careful until he was fully seated inside the man below him.

Don’t be gentle,’ Elio whispered, apparently almost to himself, ‘Fuck me…’

What?’ asked Oliver, leaning forward so that he was draped over the other man’s still shirted back, ‘You want me to be rough?’

Elio didn’t respond verbally, as Oliver used that moment to pull nearly all the way out, before thrusting back in deeply, causing the other man to squeak. All Elio did was nod viciously. Oliver moved so that he had one foot on the floor, so that he had more leverage to fuck into the other man hard, if that was what he wanted; which he clearly did.

Right,’ said Oliver, ‘Well then, I’m definitely going to give you something to bite on,’

Elio couldn’t help but giggle as Oliver reached for his own discarded belt, and folding it in two, shoved it between the brunette’s teeth. Oliver groaned at the sight and the thought; even if he couldn’t see all of Elio’s face, the idea of him being fucked so hard that he had to bite down on a fucking belt, was utterly intoxicating. Oliver set out to make Elio’s request a reality, as he gripped the other man’s hips and began fucking him; hard. If he wasn’t so lost in his own pleasure, in the tight heat gripping his cock, and the ridiculous sounds of Elio moaning around the leather filling his mouth, Oliver might have been self-conscious about the noise of his hips hitting Elio’s. At least the house was big, so it was unlikely that that sound would carry.

God, Elio, you feel amazing,’ said Oliver, unable to help but stare at the place where his body joined Elio’s. It was making his brain short circuit at the sight.

The other man, of course, couldn’t reply, but was rubbing himself desperately on the hand that was shoved down the front of his trousers, creating friction.

It wasn’t going to take either of them long to reach their peak like this, as the visual and the feeling of Elio’s body around his was driving Oliver crazy with each rough thrust. He knew that he was hitting Elio’s centre of pleasure on each pass, and the that the other man was fast approaching his zenith. He could feel Elio’s body tightening around him as he rocked back against him, his back arching as he demanded his pleasure. Oliver’s hips stuttered as he came, in the animalistic need to take, breed, have, despite the fact that he was fucking a man. His caveman brain that was active at that moment hadn’t caught up that far. He felt Elio cum a moment later, his back arching in delight and his hole fluttering around Oliver’s sensitive cock.

He withdrew a moment later, and rearranged his trousers and underwear, as Elio lay still for a moment, panting softly, having removed the belt from his mouth.

Good?’ Oliver asked with a grin, to the still prone man below him.

‘Uh-huh,’ breathed Elio, passing his belt back to him. It had teeth marks in it.

There was a rustle as Elio pulled his trousers up, grimacing at the fact that they were clearly wet from his own release.

I definitely don’t feel drunk anymore,’ he said as he rolled over onto his back, his eyes smiling up at him.

Oh, so you don’t need me to carry you up to bed, where we are now most definitely going?’ asked Oliver.

Did you not like the detour?’ asked Elio, giggling.

The detour was lovely, but if we don’t show our faces at some point tomorrow morning, I think your parents might be more than a little perturbed.’

This morning you mean,’ said Elio, looking at the clock.

Precisely,’ he said, ‘Come on; bed.’

Elio got slowly to his feet, before turning to him with a mock bow, ‘Yes, sir.’

Oliver slapped him on the ass, making him squeak, before he headed out of the room. He remembered to turn the lamp out before he left, and after straightening the cushions on the sofa somewhat, following the other man out of the room, and up the stairs to their shared bedroom.

Chapter Text

12 September 1918

I seem to notice every single moment nowadays,’ said Oliver, as he held a mug containing whisky loosely in his hand, ‘Almost as if time has slowed down, but I continue to move at a normal pace.’

What do you mean?’ asked Elio quietly, looking across at him. They were sitting at the scrubbed wooden table in Captain Owen’s dugout, and the candle was guttering low on the table. They’d already drunk quite a lot, but he wouldn’t describe himself as tipsy, because he had been sat here for a long time as they drank. It was late, so very late that in fact it might be considered to be early instead. There had been others here, but they had departed some time ago, to go back to their own dugouts. Captain Owen himself was asleep, face down on the table, the wine apparently having got the best of him. At least it meant that the poor bastard was no longer shaking.

I mean that because I am so aware that death could be here at any moment, then every moment of life becomes so much more realised,’ said Oliver, looking down into his cup, ‘The taste of wine, the touch of the wood under my hand, the way your voice sounds; it all seems so much more real.’

I can’t decide if you think that’s a good thing, or bad,’ said Elio, trying to read the inflections in his lover’s voice. Perhaps Oliver was just feeling low because he was in his cups, although he didn’t normally become overly introspective when he’d had a drink. Normally he was the sensible one of the pair of them, having to temper some of his wilder impulses.

I can’t either,’ said Oliver, ‘I guess it’s just that before, when life seems so certain, then you take more for granted. It’s only when you’ve seen so many lose what you thought was certain, or come so close to losing that which you value the most, that everything crystallises in the mind. There is nothing like impending death to make life seem that much more precious.’

But death isn’t impending,’ said Elio, trying to swallow the lump in his throat that threatened to prevent him from being able to talk, or even to breathe. He didn’t want Oliver to talk like this, to think like this. It made it seem like it could be more likely.

Oliver sighed, ‘I go over the top in less than four hours Elio. Who knows what will happen?

Elio leaned over and put his hands on Oliver’s face, ‘I do. I know that you will face hardship and hurt, but that you will come back to me. You have to believe that. I believe it, and I want you to believe it as well.’

Oliver didn’t reply, dropping his gaze away, so that he didn’t have to meet Elio’s eyes.

Look at me,’ Elio said, his voice barely above a whisper, ‘I want you to look at me and tell me that you believe it.

Oliver looked up, and once more Elio was taken aback by the sheer beauty of his eyes; that beautiful blue that he had seen so many times before, but would never tire of. He refused to believe that anything other than Oliver coming back alive would happen today. Any other ending was untenable, and he would not even think about it.

Alright,’ said Oliver, ‘I’ll tell you I believe it. I want you to be happy, above anything else.’

Happiness might be going a bit far,’ murmured Elio, unable to stop the slip of a smile from gracing his face, ‘But I’ll settle for anything above heart-stopping fear.’

Oliver’s face flashed in an answering smile, equally as fleeting.

I love you,’ breathed Elio.

Oliver jerked back, quickly looking over to the slumbering captain, as if he might suddenly be staring at them.

Be careful.’

Why?’ asked Elio, ‘I don’t think we have anything to fear from Captain Owen.

Why?’

Elio shrugged, ‘I don’t know. He seems… gentle, in a way he reminds me of my father.’

He’s probably younger than me,’ said Oliver with a smirk.

I didn’t mean in age,’ said Elio, pensive once again.

I know.’

 There was a few minutes of silence. Oliver finished his whisky and placed the mug on the table. Elio watched as he opened the button on his jacket, and took out the gold-plated watch that hung on a small chain there. Oliver glanced down at it and then back up again.

How long?’ asked Elio

Two hours, until the bombardment,’ said Oliver, his voice dry.

Do you not want to try and sleep?’ asked Elio, already knowing what the answer would be.

Oliver shook his head, ‘I wouldn’t be able to. Even if I tried.

I know that feeling,’ said Elio, ’All too well.

Oliver nodded, reaching out and taking Elio’s hand in his, rubbing his thumb gently across the back of Elio’s. His skin was still soft, despite the hardship that his hands had been through.

I want to kiss you,’ said Oliver, ‘But I’m scared of doing it here.

There’s two hours until the bombardment,’ said Elio, ‘We’re alone in a room with a sleeping man. What is there to be scared of?

Come with me,’ said Oliver suddenly, standing up. Luckily his stool moving backwards was silent on the compacted earth floor. Elio looked over as Owen grunted in his sleep, but made no further noise. He stood up and Oliver pulled him into the tiny inlet in the side of the dugout where Owen’s batman kept some of the stores. It wasn’t a room, there was barely even space for the pair of them to stand in it, but it was just enough to shield them from view of the main room; the curved wall of the dugout just hiding them from the sight of any prying eyes.

Elio couldn’t help but smile up at Oliver, ‘This reminds of that night I came to find you.’

When we found that supply dugout?’ murmured Oliver.

I think it was you that found it to be precise,’ said Elio with a giggle, unable to help himself.

Ah well, either way,’ said Oliver, ‘That was the night I jerked you off in the dark.’

Hmmmm,’ said Elio, leaning up and kissing the side of Oliver’s jaw, ‘I remember that. It was the first night I realised that I was falling in love with you.’

Oliver smiled softly, leaning in to kiss him properly.  

Does this make you feel safer?’ asked Elio after he pulled back for a moment.

Somehow,’

Some tiny corner of the world, just for us?’

Something like that…’ Oliver tailed off, looking down at him.

I like the sound of that,’ said Elio, ‘Maybe it will be like that again. When this is all over.’

Is that what we will do?’ asked Oliver, ‘Find a tiny corner of the world, just for us?’

Elio smiled at the recycling of his words, ‘And we will.’

He raised his hands to his lovers face once again, touching the softness of his cheeks. He brought his face down then, to kiss him gently, tenderly. He hoped that that kiss would put over everything that he had just spent the past twenty minutes trying to say. It wasn’t a kiss of of impending passion, or the need to have his desire sated, but one to tell Oliver everything that his voice couldn’t, no matter how much he tried. He slid his hand under Oliver’s jacket, and around his back, desperately trying to pull the other man as close to him as he possibly could, without them actually making love. It was then that Oliver spun him around, very reminiscent of their first night together, pressing him against the wall. It was Oliver who deepened the kiss, demanding that Elio answer him, each to the other. His tongue licked the inside of Oliver’s mouth, tasting the other man, wanting to feel as much of him as he possibly could.

His lips were swollen within moments, and his breathing heavy. He knew they could not go any further, not here, even if they were hidden away in their little corner. He could feel his desire growing, and the need for his hands to wander grew with it, so a few moments later he pulled away, willing himself to stop, and to collect himself.

We can’t,’ he breathed against Oliver’s mouth.

I know,’ said Oliver, forehead resting against his, ‘I know.’

He stepped back, trying to remove himself from the temptation of Oliver’s mouth. There was the briefest of seconds before he moved back again, when he thought that Oliver would reach and take hold of him again. He knew that if he did that he wouldn’t be able to hold himself back, setting be damned. So, in order to stop himself from bodily climbing Oliver he went back to what was left of his whisky, only to stop dead before he had taken two paces.  

Captain Owen was awake, and he was looking at the gap that Elio had just appeared from, his eyes sweeping up and down his form. At that moment, he was intensely aware of the way that his shirt was half coming out of trousers, from where Oliver had tugged at it, that his mouth was red from kissing, and that his face would be flushed. Then one second later Oliver also stepped out of the gap as well, rubbing the back of his neck, stopping up short a pace behind Elio.

‘Oh,’ he said, his exclamation totally understating that moment.

Elio didn’t know what to say or what to do, he was only aware of the way his heart was palpitating in his chest, and that his mouth was dry. He was just staring at Captain Owen, and the Captain was staring back, his mouth slightly open.

‘Uh-‘

‘What did you hear?’ asked Oliver, cutting to the chase, stepping around him. Elio immediately put his hand out and caught Oliver by the arm.

Oliver, don’t,’ he said, not really sure what he was stopping Oliver from doing.

There was another pause as they all looked at each other, like three deer caught in the headlights of a car on a dark road. Then Owen moved, putting his hands palms up on the top of the table.

‘It’s alright,’ he said, as if he was trying to talk them down. Elio reasoned that he was probably was trying to talk Oliver down, who looked as if he was about to make a run for it, or to start punching things.

‘Do you want to sit down?’ said Owen.

Elio nodded carefully, and slowly sat down where he had been before. He looked back over his shoulder at Oliver who was still stood stock still, his hands clenched into fists.

Come on,’ said Elio, ‘Sit down.’

Him speaking seemed to break Oliver’s focus for just a moment, and he looked down at him, his face softening. Elio put his hand out for Oliver’s, drawing him to the table, and letting him take a seat once again. Now that his panic had broken, and his fight or flight instinct had abated, it seemed as if he couldn’t meet the Captain’s eye at all. Elio looked across at him, but saw that Oliver was stubbornly looking at his fingernails, as if they might provide him with the answers or escape that he needed in that moment.

‘What did you hear?’ asked Elio, repeating Oliver’s earlier question, but in a much much gentler tone, ‘Do you speak French?’

‘Enough,’ said Owen, holding up his hands, ‘Enough to have got the jist.’

Elio was silent, waiting to hear what the Captain had to say next.

‘It’s alright,’ said Owen, ‘I already knew, or thought I did.’

‘You did?’ asked Elio, amazed, ‘Merde. I thought we had been careful.’

‘You were,’ said the Captain, ‘I only know because I’m the same.’

At that Oliver’s head shot up and he stopped looking at his hands, ‘What?’

Owen shrugged, one shoulder raising up to underneath his ear, ‘I am the same; I too have loved another, the same as you.’

‘… Is he here?’ asked Oliver, his voice sharp.

‘Oliver, don’t,’ said Elio, thinking that he probably shouldn’t ask such a thing; it wasn’t really their place to know if Owen didn’t want to tell them.

‘It’s okay,’ said Owen, ‘And no, not anymore. He is back in England. He was injured, and we spent time in hospital together.’

‘The other poet you mentioned?’ asked Elio.

Captain Owen nodded, ‘Yes.’

Oliver took Elio’s hand under the table, squeezing it gently. He instantly felt more relaxed, wanting nothing more than to hold Oliver’s hand forever.

‘How long have you -?’

‘A while,’ said Oliver with a shrug.

‘I’ve met lots of people through Siegfried, who live and love like we do,’ explained Owen, ‘But you have to be careful.’

‘We know,’ said Oliver sharply, but then relaxed when Elio squeezed his hand in warning, before repeating more gently, ‘We know. It’s just today…’

‘Today could be the last time?’ said Owen, ‘I know what that feels like.’

Elio shook his head, ‘It’s not the last time. But yes, today Oliver goes over the top. And I just had to kiss him again.’

Captain Owen surveyed them for a moment, ‘Whatever the extent your secret goes; it is safe with me. I promise.’

Oliver’s eyes were staring directly into Owen’s looking for the hint of a lie within them. Apparently, he didn’t find any hint of there, as he placed the hand that wasn’t currently holding Elio’s, out across the table for the other man to take. Captain Owen took it and shook it, as a cementing of his promise.

‘Thank you, Captain,’ said Elio softly, ‘Thank you for your understanding.’

Owen nodded, ‘Just be careful.’

He looked across at Oliver, who for the briefest of moments looked like he was about to cry, before his face cleared, and returned to the stoic look that he’d been wearing for the past few days as he’d been preparing for today.

‘Come on,’ said Elio, ‘Let’s go back to your dugout and we can prepare.’

Oliver looked across at him and leaned forward and pecked him on the mouth. Elio was amazed that he would be so bold, despite Owen’s promises. He leant back and looked across at the Captain, slightly gobsmacked at Oliver’s forwardness. The British captain just shrugged again, and smiled sleepily.

‘I’m going to my bunk. It’ll probably be more comfortable than sleeping at the table.’

Elio smiled, ‘Probably.’

He stood up at the same time as Owen and clapped the other man on the shoulder, a universal gesture of trust and understanding. Then he turned, took Oliver’s hand and pulled him up from the table, and towards the stairs out into the trench and the night outside, loosing his hand just before he reached the top.

Chapter Text

There was something otherworldly about killing a man who was trying to kill you, Oliver decided. Obviously he couldn’t speak for murderers and villains, but he thought that taking someone’s life in cold blood must be different to the heart pounding, all encompassing - dare he say it - adrenaline, of killing someone who would do the same to you.

It was only afterwards, when he was standing in the dugout that had belonged to the man, that he realised the finality of what had happened. Of course he’d killed before in the course of this war, many probably, looking down the sights of a rifle or a revolver, but he had never killed one like the one today. The man today must have known that all was lost, and decided to go down fighting. He spotted Oliver from along the trench, and clocked the stripes upon his shoulder, denoting him as a commanding officer of some description. Clearly the man thought that he would try and be some kind of hero; or perhaps he wasn’t thinking at all.

He’d run at Oliver, screaming blue murder, completely ignoring the weapon in his hands. Before Oliver had had a chance to draw his own revolver (having slipped it into the holster in order to clamber down into the trench), the man had thrown his rifle away to the side, clearly realising it was fairly useless in close combat, and had leapt on top of Oliver, barrelling him to the floor of the trench and into the mud with a splash and a roar. He’d raised his arms immediately to try and shove the other man off, as he made a very sound attempt at trying to throttle him. The soldier had clearly lost all sense of reason or reality as he tried to strangle Oliver with one hand, whilst punching him around the face with the other, screaming obscenities in both German and whatever English he knew. One hit had been a fairly successful one, direct to his temple, and he momentarily saw stars as his vision sparkled in front of his eyes. His attacker clearly noticed his momentary upper hand as he used the opportunity to reach into his belt and draw out the six-inch army knife that all soldiers carried. It had a wicked serrated edge, and a needle-sharp point.

If Oliver hadn’t known it before, he knew it then; he was fighting for his life. He’d gripped the other man around the wrist, ignoring his swimming head, trying to push the knife away from him. The other man was smaller than him, but he was wiry and strong. The chaos of the trench was brought down to little else other than the struggle between him and the man sitting on his chest, his eyes bulging as he fought with all his strength to end Oliver’s life, Oliver gasping to save his own.

Oliver pushed with all his might against the other man, trying to manoeuvre his hips and unseat him. The man tried punching him again, to daze him so that he might lose his grip on the hand holding the knife, but Oliver managed to buck his hips at the right moment, and throw the other man off balance, causing his punch to do little more than glance his ear. The man grunted in effort as Oliver twisted his wrist in on itself, causing the knife to point away from him and towards his assailant. The man’s eyes went wide with shock and pain as he managed to jerk his knee up in just the right place, and knee the man in the balls, causing him to lose his seating, and for Oliver to roll them over in the mud with a roar of effort. He was sweating profusely, the mud and water dripping down his face.

The next few seconds were a blur, until there was a jolt, and the man beneath him made a horrible gasping noise, like a boot being sucked out of the mud. There was a feeling of resistance under his hand, and then smoothness, as the man struggled and gasped again, his nails scrabbling at the back of Oliver’s hand. His eyes were wild, and his movements desperate, as Oliver pushed his hand down again, meeting little resistance as it sunk further in. The man’s movements grew weaker as Oliver has him pinned with his weight to the floor of the trench, not allowing him any respite in what was clearly his death throes.

He waited until he was sure the man would move no more, and some sort of light disappeared from behind his eyes, the struggle over, and his face upturned to the rain, nothing left but an empty corpse. In that moment, despite what had just happened, he was just another man who had died out here. Oliver got to his feet and stumbled backwards, his heart pounding and his hands shaking. The knife which he had used to kill the man was still in his body, only the hilt visible. Yet, despite the visual, Oliver didn’t feel sick or shocked; he felt alive. He knew how close he had come to death in those moments, and it seemed as if every fibre of his being was revelling in the fact that he had come out on top, that he had won, and lived.

A few seconds later the world around him came roaring back, the noise engulfing his ears, and he was aware of more of his men in battles of their own, or standing over soldiers who had unequivocally surrendered as their trench was overwhelmed by Americans. It was slightly less chaotic than it might have been, as his immediate company worked to secure this section of the trench. Everyone knew their orders; push forward to this first trench but go no further. They didn’t want to go too far and stretch themselves thin; lessons had been learned from previous offensives.

‘Establish here, find anything of use, ensure all companies are defended in their positions.’

Oliver gave the order to all passing NCOs to pass to their company commanders. They knew what they had to do. It was apparent fairly quickly that they had thousands of German prisoners on their hands, and a lot of abandoned artillery that they could make use of. The Germans had ordered a wholesale retreat from this position. Oliver knew what that meant; there was only one more line left and then they would be in open country; breaking through, perhaps all the way to the German borders themselves. The only problem was that that line was the Hindenburg Line; heavily defended at St Quentin and other hotspots. Despite their recent gains and advances, there would be little to be gained by breaking their armies like water on a rock against that defensive position. They’d have to be cleverer than that. Oliver knew he would be called back to HQ soon to discuss exactly what that clever manoeuvre would look like. Today had been their day, and after they had secured the position then some of the British and French troops would come into support and hold the positions whilst the next steps were taken.

He looked down at himself; he was covered in blood and mud, and he had no idea where his revolver was, as it had been lost in the fray with the soldier. He walked down the trench, watching as companies under the command of their NCOs secured dugouts and areas of the trench wholesale. Corporal Maxwell appeared at his elbow, and Oliver ordered him to see that a register of all the troops was conducted as soon as was possible, passing the order along to other NCOs. He needed to know how many troops had made it to the trench, and how many had fallen. The advance had been a success, but that didn’t mean there had been no losses. The Germans that had remained in their trench had fought back hard, trying to repel the ever-advancing line of tanks and American foot soldiers.

He found a large warehouse, about 10m behind a secured section of the line, and ordered that a desk and writing equipment be bought to him there. Within an hour or two the place was a flurry of activity as the warehouse became the hub for operations in their newly secured area. NCOs were coming in with reports from their company commanders about their troops, and Oliver swiftly dispatched them again with orders on which area of the trench to occupy. Supply lines were also coming in from their earlier positions, so he put Captain Graham in charge of overseeing the setup of those. It was getting dark, and the men would be hungry, the sooner there was supply of food and tobacco, then the easier this would be.  

He was only aware of the passing of time when Rogers appeared with a fresh uniform, and demanded that he change. Oliver was about to protest, arguing that he had more work to do, but Rogers wouldn’t hear any of it. He said that it was in no way fitting that a Major would sit in dirty uniform whilst commanding respect from other officers and the men. Oliver couldn’t help but smirk at the private as he forced him to go change at the back of the room, where fabric partitioned the warehouse. Not that it mattered, there was no such thing as privacy out here, but he felt a moment of relief none the less that Rogers had provided him with some lukewarm water to wash his face and hands. The water quickly turned a murky brown, deepened in colour due to the dried blood that came free as he washed.

It was later, much later, when he was lying his tired bones down in a bunk that had been found for him by one of the Captains that he’d put in charge of provisions, that he let his mind drift. They hadn’t had the full reports from up and down the line yet, but their losses had been small compared to the gains that they had made. They were still large if one thought of them in terms of men’s lives; over three thousand had been lost. Each one of those probably had a family of his own, and if he didn’t then he was certainly a mother’s son. Each one of them would be receiving the worst news of their lives within weeks. But Oliver couldn’t think like that; he had thousands and thousands more who were still alive and under his direct command.

His mind drifted back to the brush with death that he’d had today, and how quickly it had passed. Nobody had asked him why he was covered in blood; nobody had seemed to care. It was too regular an occurrence out here, and his assailants body had been cleared and dealt with in a perfunctory manner he imagined. It was so cold and clinical. The same would probably have happened to his body had come off worse in that fight; cleared away to be dealt with at a later date, to be buried in one of the vast cemeteries that had sprung up in Northern France since this pitiless war had begun.

He wished he could’ve sent a message to Elio; to let him know that he was alright, and that the attack today had been a success. But he didn’t know where the other man was anymore. The dispatches that he had read earlier that evening, when they had come up the newly established communications line, had noted that the French troops supporting this area was being split in two. One half was to stay in support here, to aid in any assault against St Quentin that might be coming in the near weeks, and the other half were to go to Cambrai, to retake the area and then head south in a pincer moving, forcing any area of pressure between here and Cambrai, where the line would be broken. At least that was the plan seemed to be.

Oliver didn’t pray anymore, but if he had, he might have prayed that Elio be spared from returning to Cambrai. He didn’t want him to have endure what he might remember and feel if he returned to that field. The reason he didn’t pray anymore was the he knew that nobody was listening, and that a peculiar type of cruelty was in operation out here. He thought that if he did ask, then Elio would definitely be sent to Cambrai, just because he had dared to hope.

That was something that Elio had given him; hope. He dared to believe that there was something better in the world, and that he would have something better when this was all over. Elio had talked to him about them having their own quiet corner of the world just for themselves and it was something that he desperately tried to hold onto. He imagined that it would be somewhere near where Elio was from. It didn’t need to be a large place, just big enough for the two of them and a garden in which they could sit in the sunshine. Maybe there would be a local school where he could teach English, and Elio could work on his music. Elio had doubted that he would be able to compose after he left the army, perhaps unable to find beauty in the world that had allowed such a thing as this to happen. Maybe he would be able to help Elio find it again, that is to say if he’d lost it at all.

He closed his eyes, constructing the world in which he and Elio would live, piece by piece in his overactive mind. He had to be up at first light, to coordinate the movement of the artillery pieces which they’d secured today, and ensure that they could be put to the best use. He wouldn’t be able to find out where Elio had gone for some time. As Owen had said the other night; they had to be careful. The distance and the lack of knowing made his stomach twist, but he had trust that Elio would be safe. Elio had trusted that he would be safe today, that he would live and come back to him, so he knew that he had to trust that it would be the same for the man he loved.

Chapter Text

I'm not sure if I'm really allowed to do this on AO3, and I'm sorry to my subscribers for (possibly) getting you excited when an email came through saying there was a new chapter.

This is just a quick note to say that I know it's been a while since I updated, and it's on my mind constantly. I have been stupidly busy lately, and also suffering in a bit of funk because of various things. I promise I have not abandoned this story. I love it too much. I don't want to promise when the next chapter will be out, but I'm hoping it's really really soon!!

Thank you so much for waiting patiently, means the world!

xxx

Chapter Text

His body wanted to curl in on itself, and not move from where he was currently lying. He’d been lying here for nearly eight hours now, and knew that within a few more minutes, he would have no choice but to get up and move. He hoped that he wasn’t going to be asked to go out on recon. Maybe it would be something easy; watch, or stores, so that he didn’t have to move very far or think too much. He knew that he needed to get up, but it was like his legs didn’t want to obey him; heavy as they were with blood pumping too fast, and a deep ache of what felt like cramp. When he had found out where he was going, he had had to catch himself when he’d heard where he was going, to stop himself from breaking down and beginning to cry.

Cambrai.

He was back at Cambrai.

He had vomited about two minutes after getting out of the covered wagon that had driven them up here, completely voiding his guts in several retching moments. The position of the lines had barely moved since the last time he was here, but he was doing his best to try and forget about that. He didn’t remember much after the carnage had begun anyway; except Theo. Theo, and his last brave dash into the jaws of the wolf in his successful bid to end it all. After that it was just pain, until his memories started to come back in the hospital. The fever had robbed him of two months of his life. Not that he really wanted to remember much of it; the flashes that he had were bad enough. Oliver had begun to help him love himself after what had happened here, and he didn’t want to regress back to the way that he was when he got out of the hospital.

Before he’d entered his dugout, he’d seen the ruins of the town, and the hill in front of him. He remembered that much, the hill where their support troops had been, where they’d been trying to flee too. He didn’t remember whether he’d actually made it that far. He assumed he must have done if he’d been picked up and taken to the ambulance by Oliver. Unless he’d run into the field. But no, he surely wouldn’t have done that. He shook himself before he went too far down a rabbit hole he couldn’t climb out of.  

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that he had been moved up here before he had a chance to find out how the day’s offensive had gone. Half of the French troops had been left in support of St Mihiel, and he had been part of the other half, brought up here to be part of the pincer movement that would punch a hole in the Hindenburg Line, and (theoretically) spell the middle of the end of this war. It was clear that large portions of the German army were already in full retreat, so the beginning of the end had already begun. But Elio’s brain couldn’t think of anything other than the fact that he had no idea what had happened at St Mihiel, and as a result he didn’t know what had happened to Oliver. The last time he’d seen him had been when he’d left in his dugout this morning, the softest of kisses lingering on his lips. He thought that that was much much worse than the fact he was back Cambrai. He thought he could have dealt with that part, perhaps, if he knew that everything had gone alright with Oliver and that he was alive and well. He had told Oliver to believe that everything was going to be okay, and perhaps he had even got him to believe it a tiny bit. He just wished he could confirm whether it was true or not.

Either way he had to get up. He rolled over from his assigned bunk and into his boots. And not a moment too soon, as he laced up his boots.

‘Perlman!’

He turned around at the sound of his voice being loudly called, despite the confined space they were in. The man could have just said his name, rather than shouting.  

Yes, sergeant?’ he asked, noting one of the NCOs of the new company he had been assigned to coming towards him.

You’re needed in the medical tent, some of the recon scouts from last night have come back and they’re not in the best shape,’ said the sergeant brusquely, ‘They need all the medical support that they can get.’

Elio nodded, ‘At once sergeant. Which way is the medical tent?’

The sergeant, who was already giving orders to the next man in his dugout, just grunted and pointed in a vague direction. Very helpful, Elio thought. He walked out of the dugout and headed out in the general direction that the sergeant had gestured. He had to ask someone else on the way down there, and changed his course accordingly with their directions in mind. He half-wondered what it would be like to be in a company led by men like Oliver, instead of men who the second they got any sort of authority over others, immediately became complete assholes.

It was strange, despite his own experiences in hospital, that the idea of going to the medical tent was actually quite soothing to his brain at this moment in time. It would allow him to not think for a few hours as he sought to help the men in his care and to lessen their pain and suffering. He wouldn’t have time to think about where he was, or have spare brain space to worry about Oliver. As he washed his hands outside of the tent and rolled up his sleeves to get to work, he emptied his mind of all the things that were rattling around in there, so that he could do one of the only things he was good for at this moment in time.

**

18 May 1918

He woke up from a wonderful dream. He’d been at the riverside with Oliver, where they’d gone a few days ago for a picnic at lunchtime. Mafalda had packed the food for them, and they’d walked down there, enjoying the temperate weather and, of course, each other’s company. After they’d finished eating, Oliver had gotten him off with an ah-mazing blow job, making the most of his talented mouth. That was what he had been dreaming about, when he was annoyingly brought along to wakefulness. His annoyance soon dissipated however as he realised that his dream was slipping into the reality of his morning.

He slowly opened his eyes to a view that he would never get tired of seeing; Oliver further down his bed, licking and gently sucking his morning wood (brought about by the incredible dream) to bring him to wakefulness.

Fuckkkk,’ sighed Elio, nowhere close to a zenith of pleasure, but enjoying the feeling of the languid pool of warmth and loveliness that was growing in his stomach.

Oliver stopped what he was doing, looking up at him, a sleepy grin on his face, ‘Morning.’

Morning,’ said Elio, ‘God you’re so beautiful.’

Because I’ve got your cock in my mouth?’ said Oliver, not moving from his space, his face very close to the crease of Elio’s inner thigh.

Not just that,’ he said, ‘You’re just…’

He couldn’t actually finish that sentence, as Oliver used that moment to take his cock back into his mouth, to the back of his throat and swallow, constricting around him and sending the most amazing of sensations ricocheting around his body, leaving him gasping and unable to speak.

Fucccckkkkkk Oliver….’ he gasped after his brain returned to his head, rather than the base of his cock where it had been three seconds previously.

That’s more like it,’ said Oliver with a dark chuckle, before sliding back up the bed towards him.

Uhhh no, why did you stop?’ he whined, aware that he sounded petulant.

Because I want to make slow, sleepy, love to you. And I can’t do that from down there,’ muttered Oliver, whilst reaching for the salve that they kept on the bedside table. Elio spread his legs almost from reflex, as Oliver settled between them, his hard on poking his inner thigh.  

Well, when you say it like th-aaaahhh, oh fuck!’ his words were cut short as Oliver, quick as you like, slicked up a finger and traced it gently around his hole, before entering his body, making sure that his knuckle grazed his prostate. When he managed to open his eyes again, Oliver was grinning down at him, pecking him on the mouth as he continued to open up his body.

Urgh, Oliver, I’m ready, I promise,’ hissed Elio, as one finger became two, steadily stretching the muscle, and driving Elio mad as Oliver teased his centre of pleasure.

Hmmmm, no you’re not,’ murmured Oliver, ‘Just relax.’

He tried to do as he was bid, focusing on the sensation of Oliver’s fingers inside of him, whilst running his eyes (and hands) over every inch of his body that he could reach. After two fingers became three, and Oliver could be convinced that he was ready, he pulled back, reaching to slick up his cock. But Elio stopped him, taking the salve from his hand, and doing it himself, looking into Oliver’s face as he gently stroked him, enjoying the way that his muscles tensed in pleasure when he rubbed his thumb on the sensitive spot under his head. A moment later he chucked the tin of salve onto the bed beside them, and then moved so that one of his shins was on Oliver’s shoulder, the other draped loosely around his waist.

Fuck,’ muttered Oliver looking down at him, his eyes roaming from his flushed face, chest pink with arousal, to his hard cock that was leaking against his lower belly.

What?’ asked Elio, his voice tight with the need that was reaching an excruciating boiling point within him.

I just love you so much,’ said Oliver, ‘You’re so goddamn beautiful.’

He reached up then, pulling Oliver down into a sloppy kiss, ‘Just make love to me.

Using one hand to prop himself up, he felt Oliver reach down between their bodies with the other, to line his cock up to his entrance, before gradually pushing inside. He didn’t wait, or slow, but pushed forward in one smooth motion until he was fully seated inside of him; hip to hip.

Oh god,’ Elio huffed against Oliver’s mouth, slick with spit. The sensation was almost overwhelming. The feeling of his lover taking his body, just tinged with that slight edge of pain that he had come to expect from anal sex, no matter how much he was prepared. It would go away in a moment as his body fully moulded to accommodate Oliver’s, and yet he did love it, just a little bit.

They didn’t speak anymore after that, just slow soft sighs, and muted gasps as Oliver moved his hips, and Elio’s body curled around the larger man’s form. They shared oxygen for as long as they were able in passionate kisses, before breaking apart, forehead resting against forehead, to focus on the deep intensity of pleasure that was steadily growing, like a caldera, deep within both of them. A sweat was gathering on their skin and he nearly lost his mind when Oliver leant down and licked his collarbone, tasting him, and then sharing his taste with a kiss. He drew him so close, there wasn’t an inch of space between them. Oliver’s body, his hands, his mouth, his cock, were taking him to heights that he could only have imagined. He wanted to stay here forever.

When he came, it was like the rolling of a wave crashing onto the cliff during a storm. He felt it coming, pulsing through his body, his form arching against Oliver’s as if it had a mind of its own. Oliver swallowed the cry of his pleasure with his mouth, as his body tightened around the other man. Oliver came a moment later, his body pulsing inside of him, taking him for his own. He adored the way his face looked when he undone, the sheer ecstasy and animalistic joy painted across his features as his high overtook him.

A few moments later and they were lying facing each other, their noses only an inch apart, the legs entwined, and Oliver’s hand resting heavy on his hip.

I don’t want you to go,’ he murmured, looking at the face of the most beautiful man he’d ever seen. Sometimes, he couldn’t believe that he’d been lucky enough to find this guy, and now have him in his bed and in his life. Maybe he’d actually died sometime during the war, and this was his version of heaven.

I don’t want to go either,’ whispered Oliver, ‘But it’s not forever. Just until this is done.’

You make it sound like your job as a merchant shipper or something, is taking you away for a few weeks. Not back to the deadliest war in human history,’ he said, his mind drifting to the horror they both knew so well.  

Would you rather I said that?

No,’ he muttered, ‘I’d rather that I could hide with you in this bed forever. Keep you safe.’

That would be nice,’ said Oliver, ‘But I think the army might not notice.’

Screw them,’ he muttered, ‘You belong to me now. Not to them.’

I know I do,’ said Oliver, ‘Definitely yours.’

He leaned forward then with a small grin on his face, and licked the tip of Oliver’s nose, making his face crunch up in this adorable grimace.

Regardless of what happens, we’ll always have this,’ said Oliver, ‘What we have here. These times and these memories. Nothing can change that.’

That’s true. You’re mine, and I’m yours,’ he said, ‘But I’m selfish, and I want to know that you will be mine again, and again, and again…’

‘And I will be,’ said Oliver, ‘As you will be.

I’m scared,’

I know. I think everybody is. I imagine even the other side is as well,’ said Oliver.

Elio sighed, ‘It’s strange. A lot of people don’t think about that. How most of them are just like us, just born in a different place, and therefore on a different side.’

I think it’s easier for most of the men to just paint them as faceless monsters. It makes what we have to do that much easier,’ said Oliver.

There was a moment of silence between them, as the low light from the dawn sky moved a fraction of an inch across the foot of the bed they were sharing. He didn’t want to contemplate the next months of worry, without Oliver, and without this feeling of having him beside him in his bed.

I guess they’ll want me back soon enough as well,’ he said, rolling over and looking up at the ceiling, ‘Now that I’m on the mend.’

But not for a long while yet,’ said Oliver, ‘You’re nowhere close to being ready to return. You need to be properly well again, love.’

Hmmm,’ he murmured, ‘I don’t know how much that counts for in the French army these days. They’re desperately short of men.’

‘Well perhaps now that my countrymen are over here en masse, they won’t be so desperate,’ said Oliver.

Perhaps,’ he said, not convinced, ‘Perhaps they’ll call me up again tomorrow.’

Oliver rolled onto his stomach and began tracing his hand up and down his exposed chest.

Can we try not to think about that right now?’ asked Oliver, ‘I’d like to enjoy the time we have left until my train.’

I know, I know, I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I do too…’

There was a pause as Oliver rested his chin just underneath his sternum; those gorgeous blue eyes looking up at him.

I want you to mark me,’ said Elio suddenly, impulsively even.

What?’ asked Oliver, his brow creasing slightly as he sat up a bit, ‘What do you mean?’

I want to have something on me, that you have given me, so that when you’ve gone back, I can look at it, and know you’re still with me,’ he said.

Oliver looked down at him, contemplating it for a moment, before he nodded, ‘Alright. As long as you do the same for me.’

He nodded, and sat up, dislodging Oliver from his position, ‘Wait here, I’ll be right back.’

I’m not going anywhere,’ Oliver said with a smile in his voice.

Elio hopped out of the bed and into his room, which he hadn’t occupied since Oliver had arrived at the house. He rummaged in the wardrobe, and a moment later he pulled out his bag of medical supplies. He suppressed the shudder of the connotations it bore, before turning around and heading back to the bed. He found Oliver right where he had left him, propped up on one arm, looking for all the world as if Michelangelo had carved him.

What are those for?’ asked Oliver

You’ll see,’ he said, sitting back on the bed. He found what he was looking for in the bag; a tiny scalpel, and some bandages.

I want you to cut me, to put an ‘O’, right here, on the side of my index finger, so that when I write my letters to you, I can feel it, and know that you put it there,’ he said, holding up his hand and showing Oliver where he meant, ‘I want it to be deep enough that it will leave a scar.’

Oliver looked uncertain, ‘Elio, are you sure? I don’t want to hurt you.’

‘You’re not, it’s a tiny mark. It won’t hurt a bit for me,’ he said.

Oliver looked disbelieving, but he took the scalpel nonetheless. Elio proffered his hand a moment later, which Oliver held steady.

Sure?’ Oliver asked.

Deadly,’ said Elio, and then held his breath. A moment later he felt the cut. He had been right, it didn’t hurt all that much; the scalpel was sharp enough that the cut was smooth, and the O that Oliver cut into his skin was quickly done. He reached for the bandages, and quickly wrapped up his finger. It would take next to no time to stop bleeding.

Now me,’ said Oliver, holding the scalpel out to Elio.

You want me to do it to you, too?’  asked Elio, ‘Are you sure. I don’t want you to, just because I did.’

I’m not,’ said Oliver, ‘I want to wear your mark.’

Elio took the implement from him, and cleaned it as best he could on the bandages. He knew it was far from ideal.

Where?’ he said.

Oliver held out his right hand, and gestured to the fleshy spot at the base of his index and middle fingers, ‘Here. I’ll feel it whenever I have to draw my gun, or my knife, and know that at any time I’m in any danger, you’ll be there with me.’

Elio thought he might cry, but he tried to hold it together, just for the few moments that it would take him to do this. He gently cupped Oliver’s large hand, and kissed the spot where he was about to cut, before he quickly made the mark, drawing a lowercase ‘e’ into the skin, because it was easier and more fluid than uppercase. He dropped the scalpel onto the bedside table, and wrapped Oliver’s hand in a bandage.

There,’ he said, with a smile, ‘Come here,’

He drew Oliver back down into the warm cocoon of their bed, entwining themselves in each other again, a soft kiss, each to each.

Oliver smiled in the pale dawn light, ‘Now you bear my mark and I bear yours.’

Elio kissed him them, deep and hard, trying to ignore the tears that welled up in his eyes.

Chapter Text

01 November 1918

It was all collapsing and soon it would be over. Everywhere the German lines were collapsing and they were being forced into general retreat. The allied forces had punctured a hole in the dreaded Hindenburg Line in the last days of September, and like a dam with a crack in it, they had poured on through, the structural integrity of the line completely undermined by the offensive. The British had crossed the River Selle in mid-October, whilst much of the French and American forces were caught up at Meuse-Argonne. They were only thirty miles from the main German lateral railway, and with it an enormous blow to infrastructure and logistics for the Central Powers. Yes, it would all soon be over.

But that didn’t mean there was no fight.

Oliver was pouring over a table in the briefing room, maps and battle plans laid out before him. He didn’t want to be here; he would rather that he was leading his men from the front, but his head for battle plans was apparently too valuable to be there all the time, and he was frequently called back behind the lines.

He was stunned by what was taking place. His main concern, of course, was the ongoing battle at Meuse-Argonne. The AEF had originally been stuck in their positions for two weeks; held down by a surprisingly fierce resistance from one of the retreating German battalions. Yet now they had broken through, with aid from the French. The fighting had been fierce, and what had caught Oliver off guard was a note from one of the American generals. The amount of ammunition that had been ordered and used for this offensive alone was more than had been fired on the Union side of the American Civil War in its entirety. That was incredible. He wondered what his father would have thought about that. He’d not heard from his parents in about a month, but he knew that letters were long delayed, so they rarely sent them, and his replies would go back just as slowly.

Even now there was a contingent of Allies on their way to Padua to sign an Armistice for the Italian front, and one for the Bulgarian front had been signed only days ago. The Germans were losing their allies on all sides, and it would not be long before they too capitulated. There had been talks and negotiations going on for weeks, between men of letters and learning. And yet, whilst all this was happening, men were still dying in their thousands.

That wasn’t the only thing that would push the Germans to the table. There were two other threats; one inside, one that no man could fight. The German state was at breaking point. Food shortages and logistical failures had brought rebellion to the country, and rebels had seized key strategic strongholds within the country itself, making any hope of external resistance even more futile for the German generals. And then there was the unseen threat, the one currently taking 7,000 lives a week on British soil from what he had heard. A dreaded disease that presented like influenza, but carried off its victims within a day, sometimes within hours. It was especially virulent among young men and women in their prime, something which was perplexing doctors and surgeons across the continent and beyond. The disease hadn’t yet arrived on the Western Front, and so the men had been spared that so far. Yet many of them were worried about families and sweethearts back at home. This was an enemy that they did not know how to fight; against which their weapons would do them no good.

And through all of this there had been no word from Elio.

It had been nearly five weeks since he had last heard from him, a hastily scribbled note, sent from just outside Cambrai after the allies had retaken the town within days of arriving there. But much had happened since then; the fall of the Hindenburg Line for a start. He did not know what part Elio had played in that, or where his company was. He did not want to think on it at all; but clearly without word from Elio he had no idea whether he was alive, or if he was dead. He could have died weeks ago. The thought made him want to weep.

‘Sir?’

He looked up at the voice.

‘Ah, Rogers, hello,’ he said to his batman who had just entered the room.

‘Sir, you should go to bed; it’s gone midnight,’ said Rogers.

‘Is it really?’ asked Oliver, glancing down at the watch that he had on the desk, noting that what the man said was, of course, true. He’d lost track of time again, pouring over these maps and plans. He got so caught up in them, there were so many men whose lives were at stake dependent on the knowledge that he had and the information he passed to captains and their company commanders. And yet, no matter how hard he perused these maps and charts, the lists of names, and papers full of information, no matter how much he read and studied, hundreds of men would still die. Perhaps thousands of men. Standing here for hours and hours, trying to make things better, or easier, went some miniscule way to assuaging his guilt for the orders that he gave.

Elio had always been good at helping him with these thoughts. They’d talked about it a lot when he’d been with him, for those two weeks in May. It had not surprised Elio in the slightest that Oliver had been promoted to major, and now, despite no further formal title being given, he was more and more trusted by the generals and those higher up; for his cool head and for his council.

‘Sir?’

He realised that he’d been stood for several moments with his hand upon the top of the lamp, without moving.

‘Sorry Rogers,’ he said, ‘You’re right, I’m overtired; it’s making me not think straight.’

‘That’s alright sir, there’s some food and your bed waiting for you,’ said the man.

‘Thank you, Rogers,’ he said again, finally picking up the lamp. With one last glance at the plans he left the room, with Rogers closing the door behind him.

True to his word, when he got back to his room within the barracks, there was a small plate of food on the table and a mug of ale. It was only when he saw it laid out did he realised how famished he was, and how long it had been since he last ate. He began to eat, quickly making his way through the food, when he realised that Rogers was still standing by the door.

‘Rogers, I’m so sorry, you can go to bed,’ he said, pausing in his eating for a moment to speak.

‘Yes sir, what time are you required in the morning?’

‘There’s a briefing in the war room at 0800H,’ he said, ‘And then we journey back to the lines. Can you make sure that we are ready to go before I go to the meeting?’

‘Yes sir,’ said Rogers, ‘Goodnight sir,’

With that, Rogers left, to head to his own bed.

With Rogers gone there was only the one light left; the lamp that Oliver had brought with him from the briefing room, it’s light flickering gloomily up the walls in the small room. Somehow, he felt more claustrophobic here than he did in a dugout on the old front lines. He felt another shudder of guilt run through him at this thought; he knew that many men would love to be in his position. He was safe, and in relative comfort, with a man to look after his every need. Yet here was where he felt most trapped, and he could not understand why.

Elio would understand why. Elio understood him in a way that he did not understand himself.

And now his thoughts were once again back to Elio. To the man he loved, and to the man he had not heard from his weeks.

He ditched the lamp, and his boots, and went to lie on his bed. Sleep would probably elude him tonight, as it had done for many nights these previous weeks. Yes, he was overtired, but he could not clear his mind enough to escape to that blissful unreality of sleep. If he could just have one word from Elio then he might be able to sleep. He just wanted to know that he was safe; as safe as one could be in this war.

He knew he was hopeless. He had done the one thing that he should never have done in order to maintain his strength in this war; he had given himself a weakness that he could not control. One could attempt to control weaknesses inside the self; he could battle those privately, work to make them better, or erase them altogether. But Elio was outside of himself, and he was his weakness and his strength all in one breath.

It was all falling apart, and he just hoped against hope that Elio was alright, and that it would all be over before anyone else he cared for, or loved, could be hurt.

***

He was lying in a ditch in the mud, as he had been for the past god knows how many hours. He was pinned down here by that fucking post that refused to be overrun by the previous assaults. He didn’t know what they thought they would achieve by holding their ground; perhaps they had delusions of grandeur or heroism. Perhaps they were relatively new to the enemy army and had ideas of victory and valour; things that had long since died in Elio’s mind.

This was unsurprisingly considering he as lying in a fucking ditch, and it was not unlike several situations he’d found himself in before.

Before, he’d have been really despondent about his current situation, but right now he was just really fucking angry. He knew that the everything was on the brink of collapsing, the enemy was in full retreat, with large swathes of the German army surrendering. And yet he happened to get pinned down in a muddy, wet, hole, by some gung-ho cavaliers, who thought they might win the war if they were just good enough. Not going to happen, assholes; and yet still he was stuck here.

He’d watched an entire day and night go past, lying here in the cold and the wet, and he knew that if he didn’t move soon, he might just be frozen solid. He’d thrown himself into this hole as soon as it became apparent that he was going to pinned down. Another man had fallen by his side; shrapnel in his neck. He’d died quickly. Elio had used his coat to keep himself warmer through the night. The other man sure as hell didn’t need it anymore. He could hear the guns in the distance; sometimes closer, sometimes further away. The ever-present thud and boom that had become the aching artificial heartbeat of this part of the world. He hoped that Mother Earth remembered what it was like before, and would be able to get that back once the wounds had healed, and she’d stitched herself back together. She would fill in the cuts made by the trenches across her skin, and the grass would grow anew. Maybe it would grow over his head as he lay here.

They had been part of a forward scout to secure the area around the lockhead of the Sambre-Oise Canal. The British were in support, and it was their forces that would be storming the lockhead within the next day or so. The small company that Elio had been part of had managed to report back before they were pinned down, confirming the position of two German machine gun stations on the far side of the canal, along with further defences. Elio hoped that some of the other men he had been on the reconnoitre with had made it back or were at least alive. Perhaps they were in holes, just like this one, somewhere close by. He didn’t dare yell out, in case he needed to maintain the secrecy of his position. He doubted the Germans would cross the canal to look for them, but if they did he would be like a sitting duck if he made a noise.

He rolled onto his back, looking up at the sky as it slowly lightened towards the dawn. Dawn came late these days, and it brought little relief from the terrible cold of the night. He felt like he could barely move, and he wasn’t sure if he could feel his feet anymore. He wasn’t sure if that was because they were unbelievably cold, or because he hadn’t moved for so long. Either way it probably didn’t bode well. He hoped that his anger would keep him warm until somebody found him. In that way he was grateful for the sacrifice of the dead man; his coat had perhaps saved his life. He couldn’t be sure of that; but he knew that his chest felt much warmer because of the extra weight of the woollen cloth. Yet again he owed his life to someone that he couldn’t thank. He didn’t even know if the man would get a proper burial. It depended on who found them.

He made the concerted effort to reach into his backpack, that was lying in the dirt next to him. Inside there was some dried biscuit, and the smallest amount of water left. He swallowed them down; his arm stiff from the cold. He pulled his scarf down his face just enough to reveal his lips so that he could shove some of the food into dry mouth.

And then there was his guilt. He hadn’t been able to write to Oliver in weeks. Due to their forward position, there had been no means for them to get personal messages out. Communication materials were to be used for official communiques only, or so his prick of a captain liked to tell him. He knew the other man would be worried about him, but he liked to hope that he had some official way of finding out where he was and that he was alright. He didn’t know whether that would be possible, but perhaps there was some way that he could do it. He wondered where he was, and sent up a whispered unprayer that he was safe.

Not that he would be alright for much longer if he had to lie in this hole freezing to death. He vaguely thought that that was what was making him so angry; the fact that he was helpless to do anything about it. He couldn’t move in the daylight for obvious reasons, and he couldn’t move in the night because the post was so well manned, and he was close enough, that it was a risk he would be seen. They were sleepless at this post because of its strategic importance to the defence of the Belgian border and the heartlands beyond. So, he was condemned to freeze out here, waiting for help that might not come.

Dawn broke. A cold, clear day overhead.

And then another noise joined the cadence; a sound he recognised as engines, and just underneath that the sound of thousands and thousands of pairs of feet.

Chapter Text

04 November 1918

It was only when they were literally on top of him were his yells noticed. He had tried to sit up as they moved closer, to make himself more visible, but he found that having been in the same position, in the freezing cold for so long, such drastic movement was beyond him. He could just about wriggle, and yell in a fairly thin voice, but that was it. Whether that would be enough, he did not know. He could clearly hear the approaching army, drawing ever closer, and wondered if the tanks might just run right over him. Despite the horrifying nature of that thought, he couldn’t help but let a wry smile pass over his lips; imagine that, to get this far, surviving over four years of war, only to be squished by an ally, like an ant underneath a shoe. That would be an anticlimactic way to go.

Thankfully, the first tanks passed around the hole he was in; clearly it was too deep for them to want to try and get down one side and then out the other, it was easier to just go around. The engine smoke from their exhausts made him cough, and made yelling all the harder, but still he kept trying. He had to keep trying. It was as the first foot soldiers appeared, passing behind the cover of the tanks, that his yells were finally heard. Two soldiers, and he saw from their insignia that they were British, looked down in the hole, maybe drawn to the tiniest bit of movement he was able to make. He was amazed and relieved that they heard him over the noise. They exclaimed to each other, and after motioning very briefly to their commander, they clambered down into the hole. Elio tried to sit up again, but found he couldn’t move at all. He just looked at them helplessly.

‘Do you speak English?!’ yelled one of the men, over the sound of the engines.

He tried to nod, but it was more like a twitch of his head, ‘A little!’

His voice was hoarse from yelling, and the words were nearly drowned by the noise, but thankfully they seemed to hear him.

‘Can you walk?’

Elio shook his head, he’d heard the word “walk,” and that was enough to understand their question. He could barely move, leave alone stand or move his legs.

‘Alright,’ said one of them, and looked at his companion. Elio heard the word “carry.” At any other time, he might have felt humiliated by the need to be carried by two other men, relying on their bodily strength because his own had failed him, but right now he didn’t care. He was tired, cold, and he would take whatever help he could get. He didn’t think he was injured; which is why he was finding it entirely disconcerting that he couldn’t move.

The men either side of him put one arm each under his arm, and another under each leg, carrying him between their bodies. He couldn’t even really put his arms around them to try and steady himself, and instead was left to endure being carried somewhat like a rag doll. He couldn’t even feel their arms on his body; he felt like he was floating.

His mind drifted slightly as he was carried, as his opened to the lightening sky above him. It was a clear day. He’d known it would be, as the ice on the ground last night had testified. The sun would shine on this land today. He took comfort in knowing that Oliver was looking at the same sky, and perhaps his father, on the way to the village to buy his morning paper, would also look up and see what he saw. There was something calming about looking at that sky, and knowing that it was the same everywhere; whether it looked down upon this foul and evil war or not.

He didn’t know how long it took for them to reach wherever they were going; he’d been in that hole for so many hours, that time seemed to have slowed down… or sped up. He couldn’t quite decide. He wasn’t even paying attention to the men carrying him anymore; he couldn’t even hear if they were speaking to him or not.  

The next thing he really registered was the feeling of a softness under his back, and hands touching him and rolling him this way and that. He couldn’t feel the hands per say, but he was aware of the movement of his body, forced upon him by some exterior force. He certainly wasn’t moving under his own steam. He’d also ceased to listen to what they were saying, only really caring when they piled warm blankets around him, and several warming pans in between them and yet more blankets. He could barely feel it, except for the slightest trickling of warmth. They propped his head up on pillows a few minutes later, and he saw his boots standing beside the bed. He’d polished the toecaps only a few nights previously he thought absurdly, and now they were covered in mud. He hadn’t felt them take them off, and he could see a doctor standing with another at the foot of the bed. He vaguely wondered what they were doing, but found that he didn’t much care. He was tired, cold, and the effort of making himself heard earlier had taken what little energy he had.

Without any further thought of his boots, or the men around him, he slept.

**

Oliver roared with effort, as he used his knife to slash at the throat of one of them encircling him; there was a hot spray from the wound that spattered his skin. This fight was brutal, compressed, desperate, and in the gathering dark of nightfall. There was no space for rifles, and Oliver was worried that if he drew his pistol he’d end up shooting one of his own. This was one last grubby desperate push for him and his men, over some godforsaken spit of French soil. As all these grubby fights had been. None of them were glorious, or for some cultural or heroic victory; saving a village or a hospital or some such like. They were always over some bit of mud that had been occupied for years, and would now take years to recover. There was blood all over him from the dying man, some of it splashed on his face, and he even got some in his eyes. He didn’t have time to wipe it away as he was shoved against the trench wall by yet another assailant. Could he taste the other man’s blood, or his own? He could hear his men all around him, locked in hand to hand fighting. No glory, not beauty, just guts. The sounds of the fight were slowing, as more and more were won or lost. The Germans were at a huge disadvantage in terms of numbers, and also in the fact that most of them were half-starved, having not received proper food or rations for weeks. Their strength was at its lowest ebb.

Oliver finally broke through a moment later, and saw that what was left of the opposing force were surrendering, clearly seeing that they were utterly overpowered by the sheer number of Americans sweeping into the trenches. The Germans were throwing up their hands, and throwing down their weapons into the dirt. Oliver had already given the order (many many times) to his men that they were not to kill any prisoners, as long as they surrendered, and made no move to do anything other than what they were told. Even then, extreme force was only to be used if completely necessary.

He surveyed one group of about twenty men, on their knees in the mud of the dugout, their hands behind their heads. They would be led away later. He glanced around, the sight at once both familiar and foreign. Same outlook, same fight, same mud; different pinpoint on the map. A sharp pain drew his attention back to himself and down to his arm, and he noticed for the first time that he was bleeding. It didn’t look serious; just an off blow from a knife by the look of it, yet now he wasn’t fighting for his life, he had begun to take note of it, and register the pain. He felt the blood trickle down his wrist and from his fingers.

‘Sir?’

He turned to see Corporal Maxwell hurrying toward him. Oliver tightened his sleeve; he would deal with the minor wound later.

‘Report?’

‘This section is clear, along with the flanks either side. All either defeated or surrendered. 430 pieces of heavy artillery seized, along with two ammunitions stores,’ said the corporal breathlessly. Oliver got the impression that he had run here to be the first one to tell him this. As good as the corporal was at his job, Oliver found that his constant effort to ingratiate himself could be a bit trying. He was useful, however, in that he did his utmost to be the fount of all knowledge.

‘There’s other news as well, sir,’ Maxwell said, ‘From down the line.’

‘Oh?’

‘The British have taken the Sambre-Oise Canal, with a few casualties, but not many,’ he said.

‘Oh, that’s excellent,’ said Oliver. The Sambre-Oise was a key strategic marker, and now it had been taken it left the fields and territory beyond it open, including much of the German supply lines, ‘Did they say -,’

‘Major Davies! Look out!’

He turned around at the sound of someone calling his name in a panic. Then he was looking down the barrel of a revolver; a man stood less than 3m away from him. He’d obviously stood up the second his captors looked away; seizing his moment and his chance. Time slowed down for Oliver, each second feeling like half a lifetime; there was nowhere for him to turn and his hands were empty; he’d sheathed his knife once the fighting had stopped. There was no way the man could miss; he was stood so close. The men around him didn’t have their own weapons raised, having begun to disarm and tie up the prisoners. Oliver looked into the man’s eyes and saw death; his own, and the man holding the weapon. The man knew he would be killed; but if he died taking out this pretty-boy American officer then it would be worth it. Death looked a lot calmer than he imagined that it would.

He closed his eyes and breathed in. In front of his gaze swam a vision of Elio, as he had been that last day in bed in May, his naked chest bathed in sunlight as he dozed. He looked so peaceful, and so utterly beautiful. Oliver wanted that to be the last thing he would see.

The gun went off, and he waited for the all-encompassing pain a split second later.

But it never came.

Another gunshot, almost like an echo of the first.

There was a sound as if someone had been punched in the gut by an iron fist, followed by the sound of someone breaking their head above water and taking a great shuddering gasp of life-giving air. Oliver opened his eyes and the world came roaring back. It had all happened in less than a few seconds, and he was rooted to the spot for a moment more, the shock and adrenaline rushing through him as he tried to piece together the images and sounds in front of him. His head felt like it was full of water, and his hearing and movement was sluggish and slow.

The man with the gun was lying on the floor; a pool of blood around his head. Dead; clearly. But that wasn’t all. Rogers was lying at his feet, on his back, his hand clutching at his abdomen. Even though he couldn’t quite make sense of it, he fell to his knees beside the man, putting his hand over the obvious wound, trying to stem the bleeding. Rogers grasped his wrist as he tried to pull away the man’s jacket to get a better look at what he was dealing with.

‘Get a medic!’ he yelled to no one in particular.

Rogers had been shot; that was the only thing that mattered to him at that moment.

‘It’s… it’s… no use,’ wheezed Rogers, his voice thin and breathless, his salt and pepper hair was stuck to his face with sweat, ‘It’s over…’

‘No!’ Oliver said fiercely, looking down at the man, who had been one of his closest companions throughout this horrific war, ‘No, you’re not going to die, Rogers. That’s an order!’

Rogers grinned, the smile showing blood on his teeth, and a small dribble coming from the edge of his mouth. He coughed, and there was more blood.  

Why?’ asked Oliver, ultimately aware of what had happened, but still unable to reason or fathom. He felt like his whole body had been taken over by adrenaline or madness, and coherent logical thought was utterly beyond him.

‘You’ve g-g-got, a life… to live,’ Rogers breathed around the blood, his voice even quieter than before. Oliver gripped his hand in his own, willing the other man his life force.

‘I’ve always been married t-t-t the army,’ Rogers said, ‘Not loved. But you have.’

Oliver knew that he was crying, but he made no move to let go of Rogers’ hands – the one lying in the mud, and the one pressed to his abdomen – in order to clear the tears from his face. He was just looking down at this man, his friend, so that he might focus on a friendly face as he took those shuddering, horrible breaths. His face was growing paler by the second. Oliver knew that his hands were covered in blood, but he didn’t care. Nothing had ever mattered less. He would have this man know the fierceness of his friendship now, if it was the last thing he ever did that mattered.

‘S-sir,’ Rogers gasped, every word now a struggle, ‘Tell my sister… I died well.’

Oliver didn’t trust himself to speak; not sure that he could around the lump in his throat that felt like it was blocking the way. He just gripped Rogers tighter and nodded, so that the other man could see.

‘S-sir -,’

Rogers never finished that sentence, and the words died on his lips. His chest rose once more, and then it was still, his eyes glassy and forever unseeing. It was like a light had gone out in a window. One moment there had been someone there, and now there was nothing. Just cold emptiness; a shell with nothing within it. It took Oliver a moment to move; he was utterly numb with shock and adrenaline. But then, with the same tenderness he would handle a sleeping child, he gently leaned forward and swept Rogers’ hair off his face, closed his mouth and wiped the blood away with the corner of his sleeve. He closed his eyes. Now he looked like he might just be sleeping. It seemed like it made a difference.

The medics arrived a moment later, with two stretcher bearers. They took in the sight in front of them. Oliver stood up, and quite calmly brushed his knees of mud as best he could.

‘See that he’s well taken care of,’ he said gruffly to the medics, ‘Nothing less than a hero’s honours.’

The men must have heard the complete and utter seriousness in his voice, because they nodded, open mouthed like fish, but did not speak. Then they bent to their task to see to the body, and remove it from this place.

‘Maxwell,’ said Oliver, almost in a daze, knowing the Corporal was still stood nearby.

‘Sir?’ he asked, his voice was shaking.

‘See to it that what I said is done. I want to know where he is to be buried, and the grave number and marker. Understood?’

‘Yes sir!’ Maxwell sounded relived that he had been given something to do. Anything to get away from there at that moment.

Oliver looked around, his head still thick. He felt like a dog with water in its ears, and he couldn’t quite shake the feeling. He could see the dead man who had tried to kill him still lying on the ground. He vaguely wondered who had shot him; but found that he didn’t really care all that much. Everyone else was moving about their tasks regimentally; they were well seasoned at this by now, and every man knew his job and his place. He knew his too; but suddenly nothing mattered, and he could not bring himself to care. Rogers was dead. The most loyal of men, who had survived so much, was dead. Had died instead of him. Had died to save him; so that he could love. That was what he was holding in his head; nothing else was important.

Oliver turned and walked away.

Chapter Text

11 November 1918

Elio awoke slowly, as if he was being pulled out of deep water towards the ever-approaching surface, the light getting clearer as he surged upwards. He felt his lungs slowly expanding to take the breaths needed for consciousness, rather than the shallow slowness of sleep. He was groggy, and his mind was slow, as he tried to piece together where he was. His eyes moved to the ceiling, and saw a temporary structure. The fact he was lying in a bed and not a bunk, told him he was still in the field hospital. There were no windows in this room, so he didn’t know what time of day or night it was.

He was aware of the bed by his right foot dipping down slightly, and as his eyes focused further he saw the lump of the sleeping figure. In less than half a second he recognised the sleeping breaths of the man he loved, and the cadence of the way his back moved up and down as he slept. His face was turned away, but Elio could see the familiar blond head and strong shoulders, relaxed in sleep.

‘You’re going to get bored of lying by my sick bed soon,’ he croaked, his voice weak from lack of use.

He didn’t know whether Oliver would hear him; he might be too deeply asleep. Perhaps it was selfish of him to want him to wake. But a few moments later Oliver stirred towards wakefulness. In normal circumstances, they were both light sleepers these days; every small movement or noise brought them to life, in case it could be the difference between life and death. It had even been that way when they were at home; although it had become less acute, the longer they spent there.

‘Hey,’ Elio said softly, as Oliver turned towards him and opened his eyes properly, a broad smile breaking out on his face as he saw that he was awake.

‘I did hear you speak,’ said Oliver sleepily, ‘I thought I was dreaming…’

‘No, not dreaming’ he smiled, ‘What are you doing here?’

Oliver’s smile faltered for a moment, ‘It’s a long story, but in short I got permission to come to this part of the line with a small section, and after pulling a few strings, I sought you out.’

He nodded, trying to see the truth in this short “explanation” that Oliver had given him, but he was being unusually opaque at that moment. Elio could see some sort of pain in his eyes, however, regardless of what the smile on his lips said. He cocked his head, his eyes sweeping over the form of his lover. From what he could see, he didn’t appear to injured, so that wasn’t it. He’d learn the truth soon enough.

He pushed himself up on his hands and found that he was weak, as to was be expected; his wrists barely able to support his weight. Oliver moved quickly to help put the pillows behind his back so he could sit more comfortably.

‘What happened? What day is it?’ he asked, trying to piece together how long he had been here. He glanced around, eyes searching for a clock, or some sort of clue that would give him some information.  

‘What do you remember?’ asked Oliver, a small frown creasing his brow just above his nose.

Elio thought back, ‘I remember being in the hole for far too long, and then some British soldiers coming and carrying me back to the lines. That’s about it.’

‘Nothing after that?’ asked Oliver, looking worried.

Elio shook his head, ‘What happened?’

Oliver bit his lip, ‘Maybe a doctor should -,’

‘Oliver, shut the fuck up, what happened?’ said Elio, ‘How long have I been asleep?’

The blond man looked taken aback by his forthrightness for a second, before an unwilling grin crossed his face, ‘Well, at least the frostbite didn’t take your determination.’

‘Frostbite?’

The grin was gone instantly. Oliver ran his hand backwards through his hair; he did this when he was stressed.

‘You were in the hole, on the wet and cold ground, for nearly three days,’ said Oliver, his face grim, ‘When they got you back here, apparently, you were pretty close to dying, even if it didn’t feel like it. You had severe hypothermia, frostbite, and the beginnings of trench foot. There was nerve and tissue damage in your feet, ears, and fingers.’

Elio swallowed, taking this information in. He looked down at his hands, and just to check, counted his fingers. There was definitely still ten, and although they looked red and sore, they didn’t look particularly out of the ordinary.

‘And?’ he questioned, sensing there was more to this explanation.

Oliver reached down to the end of the bed and drew the covers up, so he could see the thick bandages wrapped around his left foot.

‘They had to take two toes, the third and fourth on your left foot, before gangrene set in’ said Oliver, ‘At first they thought they might have to take your foot, but a doctor fought to save it, and apparently, it worked.’

He tucked the blankets back around his legs, not allowing Elio to process this information whilst staring at his bandaged foot. His right foot had had no bandages on it, but had been red to look at. He couldn’t really feel any pain, other than what he was generally used to experiencing, so he suspected that he was currently on some form of pain medication.

His eyes flicked back to Oliver’s, who looked nervous, as if waiting for some emotional outburst from him. It was strange; he couldn’t quite process it – it could have been so much worse, and he was much more attached to his foot, than he was to a couple of toes. Why was he not more upset about this? His body was already mutilated, he supposed a couple of toes might be a fair price to pay in return for his life.

‘I’ll be able to walk?’ he asked.

Oliver nodded, ‘The doctor said you might have to use a stick over longer distances, for balance, but other than that… you should definitely be able to walk.’

He breathed out, comforted, before looking up again, ‘Anything else?’

Oliver smiled thinly, and shook his head, ‘They saved the tips of your ears, and the tip of your nose, for which I am eternally grateful.’

He started to raise a hand to touch his nose, but Oliver grabbed his fingers quickly and pulled it away, ‘Don’t touch. It’s still going to be sore as it heals!’

He grinned and wrapped his fingers around Oliver’s. It had been far far too long since he had been able to hold this man’s hand, and he registered in the warm weight of his palm over his. He felt like he might weep at this touch alone. He wanted nothing more than for Oliver to take hold of him, draw him into his arms, and stay like that for hours and hours. But they couldn’t. Even though he was in a private room, which afforded him a modicum of privacy, someone could come in at any moment. Oliver let loose his hand after a moment.

‘That answered the first part of my question,’ he said, ‘Now for the second. How long have I been here; what day is it? What’s happening? How long have you been here?’  

Oliver looked down at his watch, ‘It is 10.30am on the 11 November 1918. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for six days since they brought you back. It’s been three since you had the surgery to remove your toes. I have been here since 6am this morning.’

Oliver took a deep breath, his eyes fixed on his, and it looked like tears were beginning to well at the bottom of those beautiful blues. The blonde man swallowed to hold them back.

‘And?’ asked Elio, hardly daring to breathe, waiting for the bombshell to fall.  

‘It ends today, my love,’ said Oliver, his voice cracking, and a solitary tear making its way down his face, ‘It’s over.’

Elio was silent for a moment, processing what he’d just said.

‘Ends?’ he asked, not quite sure he understood, ‘You mean, everything?’

Oliver nodded, hanging his head, words beyond him. Elio reached out and took his hand again, raising it to his lips, kissing it, wanting Oliver to raise his head.

He did a moment later, and he could see the tears ranging freely down the plains of his face.

‘At 11am. It’s over. It’s done. It was signed at 4am this morning; some train car in the middle of nowhere. I came back here as soon as I heard the news. I wanted to be here; with you,’ said Oliver, his voice trembling through his tears.

Elio could feel the tears approaching in his own body; up through his throat, mouth, nose, and into his eyes. He couldn’t stop them, even if he tried. They began to fall in earnest, clinging to his eyelashes at they fell, blurring his vision. He felt one roll off the end of his chin.

‘Take me outside,’ he said, a moment later, his voice gruff with the effort of talking through his tears.

‘What?’ asked Oliver, surprised even in that moment, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be allowed…’

‘You’re a Major,’ he said determinedly, ‘You’ll be allowed. I want to be outside; I want to hear it. I want to feel it.’

Oliver nodded, hearing the fierce commitment in his voice, looking around for a wheelchair. He spied one in the corner of the tiny room, folded up, and Elio watched as he brought it over to him. It took a moment of manoeuvring, but after a minute Oliver had him sat in the chair, a myriad of blankets tucked around him, Oliver growled something about ‘damned if he’d let him get cold again’ as he tucked a fourth blanket around his feet. He privately wondered if he’d be able to fit through the door, he had so many blankets tucked around him, but he didn’t mention it to Oliver.

A few moments later Oliver was pushing him out of the small private room and into the corridor. It was quiet, the odd doctor and nurse moving back and forth, but not many. The right back wheel of the chair was rickety, and it bounced slightly as they moved, but Elio was determined to be outside within a few minutes. The field hospital was only a few miles behind the lines, a strong but temporary structure for convalescing soldiers before they were sent one of three ways; home on leave, back to the front, or into the earth in a box. It was a simple enough system.

It was a clear day when they were finally under the open sky; blue and crisp. It was cold, and he was thankful for the piles of blankets that Oliver had insisted on putting around him.

He could hear the guns as usual; pounding out their rhythm that was a familiar as his own heartbeat. He could hardly believe that it would all be over within moments. He almost didn’t want to believe it; in case it turned out to be the cruellest joke of all. Hope was not a feeling he was used to, and he didn’t like the strange burgeoning in his chest, like a butterfly with powerful wings. It was an utterly fragile emotion that could so easily be crushed into dust beneath the heavy boot of reality. He had told himself many a time that the world was doomed to be at war forever; he wasn’t sure he could now believe that it could be otherwise.

Oliver wheeled him out of the way of the entrance to the field hospital, to a wooden platform area, where boxes and sacks were piled up, underneath a lean-to roof. Clearly this was a temporary store for dry supplies, until they could be moved to a more permanent location. It was somewhat hidden from the road and main entrance; but there weren’t many people around. They were either in the hospital, or at their stations in the lines, warehouses, communication tents, offices, or other placements.

‘Time?’ asked Elio, in little more than a whisper.

’10.54,’ said Oliver softly.

The guns rattled on. A thud, thud, thud against the clear sky. He couldn’t see much, other than the occasional spray of mud, far in the distance, dark against the horizon. He didn’t need to see. It was the sound that would tell him the truth of it. The sound of the guns had been the soundtrack to his life for the past three and bit years. Even when he had been away from the front, it had been there in his body, beating out the rhythm through his blood. He wondered, somewhat absurdly, when the guns stopped, would his heart stop too? Without the familiar cadence, would it remember how to beat on its own? He glanced over towards the temporary field hospital, and saw the British flag flying in prominence just in front of the entrance. On either side of it was the French flag and the American flag. All of them were flapping in the cool breeze of the November day. So much blood had been spilt for those flags and what they stood for; so much given. He didn’t want to think of value, or of sacrifice right now. He just wanted to be, and to know the truth.

Millions of men would have died for this. If this was to be it. He couldn’t begin to think of their sacrifice, because he might die from the sheer intensity of it all, if he allowed himself to slip towards those thoughts. He needed to experience it for himself, first. Then, and only then, might he think about the others, to mourn and celebrate them as well.

Then, Oliver was on his knees beside him, so they were of a height. They waited, watched, and listened. The lean-to supply afforded them a tiny bit of privacy, hiding them from anyone who might casually look in this direction. Oliver’s hand sought out his own; skin to skin, palm to palm as they waited, hardly daring to breathe. Elio could feel Oliver’s pulse under his skin as he held him; left hand into his right. He could see the second hand of Oliver’s watch, ticking, ticking, ticking.

Thud, thud, thud.

Crack, thud, thud.

The second hand slid past the hour. Eleven AM. Thud. And quiet.

Elio held his breath; not daring to hope, not daring to will it into reality. Oliver was squeezing his hand so tight he felt like his fingers might break under the pressure, but he honestly did not care. The second hand slid on, time moving forward, slicing through silence, uncaring of the moments, as uncaring as it had been before the hour hand had struck. Each tick of the hand could have been the crack of an artillery shell for the noise it was making in Elio’s head. But the silence continued. No one spoke.

He was aware of thousands of others; not visible to him, but all doing the exact same thing that he was doing; waiting, watching, and hoping. Pulling themselves apart and putting themselves back together as they worshipped the silence as it passed through that first minute after 11am. No one wanted to break the magic of the silence. The whole world was holding its breath; eyes twitching from side to side within their skulls, waiting, waiting, waiting.

In the end, it fell to a blackbird. At exactly 86 seconds past 11AM, and 84 seconds after he had heard the last thud, Elio heard the smallest of sounds break through the quiet. A warble, and then a chirp. A beautiful song began from somewhere to his right; something he had had never heard in this place before. A blackbird had begun to sing.

He cried then. The emotion burst forth as his heart soared in his chest; a dam broken by a sudden flood. He couldn’t control his tears, and his body shook. He was aware of Oliver, also crying, wrapping himself around his body, crushing him close. It didn’t matter if anyone saw; they could pass this embrace off as the sheer emotion of the moment. In a way, that’s exactly what it was. They were sobbing, and shuddered together. It was true; it was over. It was really true. But then Oliver kissed him, holding his face. It was a mix of tears, snot, and spit. It was disgusting, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now; his blood was singing and his heart was pounding in his ears. He kissed him, and kissed him, and kissed him. It could have been minutes, it could have been seconds.

And then, a bugle rang out from nearby, a long, clear note marked the beginning of a mournful expression. Oliver broke back from him; his eyes were red and puffy, his face streaked with tears. Elio placed his other hand on top of their still-clasped hands as the bugle player continued his call; breaking through the wonderful silence that echoed out across the empty miles.  

Chapter Text

Autumn 1921

They stood together on the ridge looking down, nothing but the gentle breeze rustling through the fields of red flowers could be heard. They were alone, the only living souls for miles around. Them, and the fields of poppies, as far as the eye could see. Of course, that said nothing for the souls of the dead. Elio let the silence wash over him, the clear beauty of the day took his breath away, as the breeze blew through the curls at the nape of his neck, brushing against his coat collar. Once he’d been demobbed he’d let his hair grow out a bit. Oliver said he preferred it a bit longer, and seeing as he didn’t care either way he was quite happy to let it grow.

Oliver was there with him, holding his hand, his fingers curled loosely around his palm, a faraway look in his eye; showing that he was thinking of some other place, some other time. Elio squeezed, just to remind him that he was there, and that if he needed to lean on him then he could. Of course, Oliver knew that. He just got a bit far away when they came here. He, on the other hand, was leaning on the dark wood stick that he carried with him always. After he’d returned home, his father had had it made for him especially. It was ebony, with a beautifully ornate silver handle in the shape of a horse’s head. It had been made to fit perfectly into his hand. As he had been using it for nearly three years, and the mane was beginning to smooth from the repeated touch and rub of his palm. His father had offered to replace it, as it was getting worn, but he liked it like this. The doctor had been right when he’d told Oliver all those years ago, that he would need it for balance. He could get about the house using just his little toe for balance, but he found that his foot, ankle, and knee began to ache if he tried to walk too far without some type of aid. He’d gotten used to it now though. It wasn’t the injury itself that had taken the time; it was the looks he got. He was one of the men who had returned leaving pieces of themselves behind, and people stared. Even though the sight was commonplace, it was difficult for him to get used to at first. People’s morbid curiosity infuriated him, because despite his obvious limp, and the scar that was sometimes visible under his shirt collar if it was a hot summer’s day, they had no idea how he had got them. They didn’t want to know either; they were just quite content to stare.

He knew he’d gotten off lightly; there were plenty of young men in villages near his who had lost a limb, or who had gone mad, some driven to take their own lives. He knew a little of that. Not of his own; other than bad dreams and waking nightmares that he reckoned must plague all who had seen the things he’d seen. It had been Oliver; the terrors, the visions in the night, the shaking, the vomiting, the deepest, darkest reaches of the human mind. He’d been worried that he might lose him some times. It was difficult to describe those nights when they’d battled with his demons; trying to exorcise each one. Some nights it was worse than others, and some days it was worse than the night before. One time Oliver had gone out for a walk on his own, and he hadn’t come back. The night had fallen and he hadn’t appeared. A few hours after dark, he and his pa had gone out looking for him. He had been so worried that he had lost him, that he fallen, or done something from which there was no coming back. Dawn had begun to lighten the sky by the time they’d found him; at the bottom of the long garden, asleep under a willow tree.

After that moment, things had changed. Oliver had begun talking to his father a couple of times a week, in the study, just the two of them. Sometimes it was for twenty minutes, other times they were in there for hours. Part of him was clawing up his vocal chords to ask what they talked about, but he managed to control it, and didn’t. He knew that was between him and his father, and that they would tell him when they wanted to, and if they wanted to. One time he asked his father if he was alright with talking to Oliver, without asking him what they spoke about. His father had said that he wasn’t pretending to be a psychologist, and that he hadn’t touched any of the works inspired by the research of Dr Freud. All he knew was that Oliver had come to him, to ask if they could talk, and he’d agreed, for what good it might do. He’d said that sometimes they sat in silence for all the time they were in there. Elio had stopped him then, told him he didn’t want to know what they spoke about, or didn’t. That was between them, and he didn’t want to break whatever spell they had woven in that study. For whatever magic it was, it seemed to be working. Oliver still had nightmares, plenty of them, but the waking terrors seemed to stop. The hours spent lying awake watching the moon making its progress across the sky lessened. Elio would have watched a thousand thousand nights with him if that’s what it took.

Then, six months after they’d come back, they been together again. That’s how long it had taken them to come back to each other. They’d tried before then, but they couldn’t. They hadn’t been able to…. Oliver hadn’t been able to… well. The will hadn’t been there. They just couldn’t be… but then they had. And it worked, they came back together. Found each other. It had taken time, but they’d managed it. At the time he’d wondered why it had struck then, why not when Oliver had come to visit him? Why not the times when they’d managed to find each other in the trenches? Why then, at home, when they were safe? He guessed that there was no telling for the workings of the human mind, and he certainly didn’t understand it, or pretend to. Not that he complained, Oliver’s libido came back with abandon, and his desire for Elio showed itself frequently. He couldn’t count the times he’d ended up in the middle of the night with his ankles around his ears, Oliver claiming his body and his soul, as they made love with abandon, drawing the other into them, desperate to be as close as possible.

Back to the here and now, he had no idea how long they stood on that ridge. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, one that they took on a yearly basis, to speak to the ghosts to which they owed their lives. Here on the ridge he spoke to Elias, and Theo, and John, and countless others. He knew Oliver was thinking of the corporal who had saved his life the first time he’d gone out on the night exercise, amongst others. They had to do that here because either the bodies had never been found, or they didn’t know where those men were buried. Standing here, looking down at the field of poppies seemed as good a place as any.

Tomorrow they would go to the graves they could visit. Those belonging to Rogers and to Owen, and Oliver would lay flowers next to the crosses that bore their names. He’d learnt of their deaths after the end of the war. Oliver had kept it from him for a day or two, before he’d finally got it out of him. He’d known something was terribly wrong; that Oliver was struggling with something that he wasn’t letting on, perhaps not wanting to distract Elio from his recovery, or his whole-body ecstasy at the end of the war. But then, using his characteristic mix of stubbornness and charm, he’d heard the story. And then he’d held Oliver as he’d cried. He didn’t know whether that had been the beginning of the terrors, or whether they’d happened before without his knowledge.

Oliver turned to him then.

‘Ready to go?’ he asked.

‘Yeah,’ Elio nodded, his voice only quiet, but carrying perfectly well in the silence of the day around him.

They turned around and moved off the ridge, walking steadily down the path towards the road where they’d left the car they’d hired. They’d been told to stay to the path around here, as the fields probably had land mines, and other war debris, still buried in the earth; either deep or just beneath the surface. Whilst they were following the path, Oliver had commented privately that there were probably mines under the path as well, and they’d just picked what they hoped was the path of least resistance. Before he’d been discharged from the army, he learnt there were hundreds of thousands of the things buried in the earth. They would be turning them up, and hopefully discharging them safely, for years. Farmers and walkers had already been killed by the leftovers from the war; something that would probably continue for years to come.

Oliver was driving. Elio didn’t quite trust himself on unfamiliar roads with his left foot the way it was. He couldn’t feel the pedals the same way that he had before, and it bothered him to not have that level of control, so whenever they were somewhere that he wasn’t completely familiar with, Oliver took the wheel. It wasn’t a long ride back to the B&B they were staying in; checked in as two old army friends here to pay their respects to their fallen comrades. The simple room they were in had twin beds, and a bathroom down the hall. They were alright with that, with the act that they had to put on in public, because their home was a sanctuary that they had created for themselves, and they could go back there to be safe, and who they were.

Over dinner that night, Elio could feel the weight of Oliver’s foot on top of his under the table. That was as far as any public affection could go when they weren’t somewhere familiar. In the town near where they lived now, people were used to seeing them together. They still had to be discreet, of course, but less cautious than when they were far away from home.

‘Steak good?’ asked Oliver, already knowing the answer, as Elio had eaten more than half of it.

‘Mmmm,’ he said grinning, around another mouthful.

There wasn’t a huge amount of choice on the menu, as the kitchen was one man, cooking up whatever he felt like that night, with the freshest ingredients he could get that day, but they’d found the first time they came here that their steak was delicious. It also paired well with the excellent red wine that this B&B had. Oliver had gone for the fish this evening.

‘More?’ asked Oliver, reaching for the bottle in the middle of the table.

‘Please,’

Oliver picked up the bottle and refilled his glass, before doing the same to his own. He raised his glass, which Elio met halfway across the table.

‘To them,’ he said. Oliver just nodded in agreement. In a way, every toast they raised was to them in some way or another, but sometimes they did vocalise it, just to say it out loud.

‘What did your mother say she wanted on the way back?’

‘I’m glad you remembered that, because I sure as hell wouldn’t,’ said Elio, ‘It’s books for pa,’

‘Surprise,’ said Oliver, with a flash of humour in his eyes, ‘Do you know where we’ve got to go?’

‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘she gave me the address of the bookshop which has them in its stocks. It’s not far from here, apparently.’

‘We can look at a map before we leave tomorrow, find out if it’s on the way to the cemeteries or not, or if we’ll have to take a detour,’ said Oliver.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘Hopefully it won’t be too far,’

‘How many books is it that your father is after?’ asked Oliver, having finished his food, putting his knife and fork together on the plate. He’d eaten every bite; clearly, he’d been hungry.

‘I think there’s about six altogether,’ he said, ‘I’ve got the list, along with the directions, they’re some rare tomes on Praxiteles or something,’

‘Sounds interesting,’ said Oliver.

‘Does it?’ he asked, grinning.

‘Just because you grew up hearing about it all the time,’ said Oliver, smiling, ‘I find it fascinating.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he said, finishing off his meal as well, before putting his napkin on the table beside his empty plate, ‘Well, that was delicious.’

‘Full? Can’t manage dessert?’

‘Yeah, I know the apple pie Madame Beaufort does is amazing, but I genuinely don’t think I could eat it,’ he said, patting his stomach contentedly.

They looked up from each other as the owner of the B&B came over to clear their plates away. He was a portly man in his late fifties, with a shiny face and a wide smile.

‘Anything else, gentlemen?’ he asked, ‘Coffee? Tea?’

Elio flicked a glance at Oliver, who shook his head.

‘No thank you,’ he said, ‘We’ll just finish the wine and then head upstairs. The food was excellent, as always, Monsieur Beaufort.’

‘Thank you, Monsieur Perlman,’ he said, ‘I will tell my chef your compliments.’

Elio smiled, and the older man bumbled away with their plates.

That night, after they’d finished and gone upstairs, after Oliver had written his notes of the day in his books - a habit he'd picked up in the war -, and Elio had gotten ready for bed, they made love. They were in a different room to last time they were here, and had quickly discovered that the twin bed Elio had taken in the room squeaked. They clearly couldn’t push the two beds together, as that would be utterly obvious. So, when they made love that night, it was lying together on Oliver’s bed. It was slow, soft, and gentle, matching the mood of the day. Oliver lay behind him, his chest pressed to his back, slowly rocking forward into his body. Both their moans were muted, Oliver’s by Elio’s shoulder, where his mouth was pressed into the warm skin, and Elio by the duvet with which he had covered his mouth. Elio pressed his head back against Oliver’s collarbone, every inch of their bodies pressed together. When they came, it was with Oliver biting into his shoulder, his fingers wrapped around Elio’s cock, his hips pushing forward as deeply as he could, his body taking over from his mind.

A little later, after lying in the warmth of the bed together for some moments, he got up and returned to his own sheets. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t sleep together here, they could do that home; in their sanctuary, their safe place, where they were not judged or questioned by the world. There was their own beautiful corner of the world which they had created, just for them, where they had their friends, his family, things they loved to do, to study, to be, and to create. This was their necessary annual pilgrimage, but then they would return, to where they belonged, and to the space they had made their home.

Chapter Text

Summer 1976

The top was down on her car as she drove up the long driveway towards the big country house, the familiar green door was open she could see, even from a distance. She turned the music down that had been playing as she approached, the noise dying altogether with the engine as she pulled up and killed the engine. She had pulled in behind the removal van, and her mother’s battered old jeep, parked just to the side.

‘Olivia! You’re here, good.’

Her mother was hurrying down the front steps of the house as she closed the driver’s door.

‘Yes, dad sent me along almost as soon I arrived home,’ she said, hugging her mother tightly.

‘Come on in,’ her mother said, ‘They’ve nearly finished taking all the bulky stuff away, it’s just the oddments to sort through now.’

Her flat shoes echoed on the flagstone floor as they stepped inside. It was cool inside, compared to the heat of the day outside. She smiled; she was always happy when she came here, this place held so many wonderful memories for her, and she had been coming here for a long as she could remember.

The rooms around them were mostly empty. Anything of value was to be sold, with all proceeds going to veterans’ charities especially picked out. The house itself belonged to her mother, but she had chosen not to live in it, preferring the home she had created for herself with her father, some fifty miles to the south of here. So, the house was being closed up, for now. But not for too long.

She loved it here, and she had asked her mother whether she might live there, once she had finished at university. She still had three years to go, but the house would wait until then. It had stood for centuries. Three extra years would do it no harm. It might be a bit cold and damp when it was reopened, but it would wait. And then she would make it hers; this beautiful building which held so much fondness for her.

‘How much is left?’ she asked.

Her mother shrugged with one shoulder, a familiar gesture she recognised from her grandfather Elio. She led the way into the library, and her mouth fell open. It was full of boxes; books overflowing, effects and accoutrements collected by her grandfather and great uncle over the years.

‘My god,’ she whispered, ‘This is going to take years to sort.’

‘I think we’re going to have to be quite ruthless,’ said her mother, surveying the mess in front of them, ‘But we need to look at it all, because there’s bound to be some incredible stuff in here that doesn’t want to disappear into the ether. Daddy was nothing if not a man of good tastes.’

Olivia smiled in agreement. Grandfather Elio had been the one to introduce to some of her favourite composers, some of her favourite artists. She had turned to great-uncle Oliver for suggestions on writers, philosophers, and political thought. It was because of their collections of books, of artefacts and oddments, some handed down from great-grandfather Samuel, and of their thirst for knowledge and information, that she was where she was now, about to embark on her doctorate in history and political thought. She couldn’t wait to see what hidden gems they had stashed away in here. She’d spent many a happy afternoon through her childhood and teenage years, sitting next to grandfather Elio, or great-uncle Oliver, with her feet in their lap, as they both read together.

So, they began, box after box, deciding what to keep, and what could go to charity. It was difficult, because nearly every item she found held some memory or another; the pocket watch that great uncle Oliver had attached to the top pocket of all of his jackets; or one of the worn-down silver horse heads that had affixed to the top of grandfather Elio’s cane. There was very little here that had belonged to grandma Marzia. She had died when her mother had only been a small child, so Olivia had never known her. She had heard about her of course; her kind, generous, and giving soul.

She was working on some of the books over by the window, when she came across a large box, filled with piles and piles of notebooks, roughly the size of her hand. She picked the first one up, and opened it to the front page. She instantly recognised great-uncle Oliver’s handwriting; February 1931-November 1931, it said. She opened another at random; August 1947-March 1948. There must have been over a hundred notebooks in this box, and as she quickly glanced at more of them, she saw they included dates ranging from 1917, almost up to now. She found the last one, and flipped it open, the words on the first page said; December 1975 -. There was no end date; as this notebook had never been finished. She felt a lump well up in her throat. The last entry was a week before the pneumonia had finally beaten him; February 1976. She didn’t want to read that one.

‘Mum?’ she said, and pivoted on one foot. Her mum was sorting through a box by the door, and straightened up to look at her.

‘Yes sweetie?’ she asked

‘Have you seen these before?’ she asked, ‘Great-Uncle Oliver’s notebooks?’

Her mother shook her head, and bit her lip, another trait which she had inherited from her father.

‘I knew he kept notebooks, ever since his military days in the war, but he always kept them in the study, and I wasn’t allowed to read them.’

‘D’you think he’d mind now?’ Olivia asked, still holding one of the books in her hand. She was very aware in that moment that she was holding living history in her palm.

Her mother smiled, ‘I doubt it; but first…’

She paused, and chewed on her lip again.

‘First?’ asked Olivia.

‘Why don’t you come into the kitchen and we’ll have a cup of tea; I brought some stuff down for when we wanted to take a break.’

‘Um, okay,’ she said, slightly perturbed at the change in tone. She turned to put the book back that she was holding, as she heard her mother leave to head for the kitchen. It would be a moment or two before the tea was made, so she picked up another book at random, and opened it on a page somewhere in the middle.

May 1933

I watched Charlotte playing in the garden today. She was at for hours, making up stories in her head and then acting them out. She does this when the boys and girls in the village come over as well, directing them as to what parts they should play. I know Elio worries that she is lonely without a brother or a sister, but I think she does well enough on her own. She was our gift, a miracle that we hadn’t expected to have, and one that we could not contemplate repeating, I hope Marzia is proud of how we are doing this, of how much we love her for the joy she gave us…

Olivia stopped reading at the call of her mother’s voice, a frown on her face. What did great uncle Oliver mean; ‘our gift,’ ‘we hadn’t expected to have’… who was we? Who was the our?

She put the notebook back and turned to head to the kitchen, across the expansive hallway. Her mother immediately clocked the troubled look on her face; she had always been able to read her like a book, for they had always been close.

‘Did you read some of it?’ she asked.

‘Just a page,’ said Olivia, ‘But there was something -,’

‘I know,’

‘Know what?’ she asked.

Her mum frowned, running her hand backwards through her mane of brunette hair; a gesture reminiscent of great-uncle Oliver.

‘Listen,’ said her mum, ‘There’s something I want to tell you, something I’ve wanted to tell you for a while. I was told when I was about your age, and I begged father to let me tell you earlier, but he didn’t want that, he wanted you to be old enough… to understand. He probably would’ve told you himself, if… well, if he was still here.’

‘Mum, what?’ asked Olivia, her eyes wide, ‘You’re scaring me a bit!’

‘Oh, it’s nothing scary,’ said her mum, smiling, coming over with the cups of tea, ‘In fact I think it’s rather wonderful.’

She looked at her expectantly.

‘Well, first things first I suppose… Great-Uncle Oliver wasn’t related to Great-Grandma Annella,’ said her mother, ‘He wasn’t her nephew.’

Olivia frowned, ‘Umm, okay. Why lie about that?’

‘It’s very complicated,’ said her mum, ‘But in short… Grandma Marzia was my mother, and Grandpa Elio was my father, as you know, but they were never truly married. It was something they told everyone, in the time leading up to me arriving, for appearances sake. I’m an illegitimate child.’

Olivia didn’t speak, trying to process what her mother had just said.

‘Elio and Oliver met during the war,’ said her mum, ‘Oliver was an American soldier, although you would never know it as he lost his accent very quickly when he moved to France permanently. And – well, there’s really no complicated way to say this – they were in love. They were together; for their entire lives. And they created this world around them, so they could live safely, with their family, and be happy.’

Olivia’s mouth fell open, and then she instantly burst into tears.

‘Oh sweetie, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to upset you! I know it’s not easy to hear these things, I-,’

‘- I’m not upset about that!’ said Olivia, through tears, ‘I’m just a bit shocked.’

Her mother swallowed, ‘So was I,’

Olivia gave a watery chuckle, unable to help herself, ‘I’ll bet.’

Her mother passed her a handkerchief, and she blew her nose and wiped her eyes.

‘So, Grandfather Elio and Great-Uncle Oliver were… together?’ asked Olivia, trying to confirm that she had understood.

Her mother nodded, ‘And obviously, this was years and years before it all came out into the open, these different types of love, and is acceptable to reasonable people, like it is now.’

She was utterly gobsmacked. She couldn’t have been more taken aback.

‘And you were fine with this, when they told you?’ she asked, unable to think of anything else to say.

Her mother did that one shouldered shrug again, ‘It took a while, I’ll admit. I didn’t speak to my father for weeks. It wasn’t that I was disgusted, particularly, it was that I just didn’t know how to process the information I had been given. In fact, it was Oliver who brought me around, at first with the guilt trip that my silence was hurting my father, which I couldn’t bear, and then with logic and reason. I mean, obviously, I knew they’d always been close. Oliver had lived in the room just along from my father’s my entire life; been there every day, and every meal. He was my second father, especially with my mother gone.’

Olivia swallowed, ‘And great-uncle Oliver was okay with grandfather Elio and grandma Marzia… y’know?’

Her mum smiled, ‘I didn’t really ask, because to be honest, I didn’t want to know. But I get the impression that they wanted a child, and realised that that was the only way to do it. Mummy was a very close friend of theirs and must have offered… well. I didn’t really follow that train of thought, and left it that.’

‘Wow,’ she said, her brain not offering more complex thoughts at that moment in time. This was a lot.

‘I know it’s a lot to take in,’ said her mother, ‘And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I should have told you after the funeral – it’s just… well, it didn’t seem all that important then.’

‘I wouldn’t have asked you to do that either,’ said Olivia, ‘It was a hard enough time as it was. To lose both of them within weeks of each other.’

‘And now you understand why it happened that way,’ said her mother, a sad smile on her face, ‘One could not be without the other. They were two halves of one whole. So when Oliver went… well, daddy was going to fade away too.’

Olivia opened her arms then, drawing her mum in close to hug her tightly.

‘And now I understand why,’ she breathed into her hair, giving her a squeeze, before letting go.

‘They were very clever,’ her mum said, sniffing to hide her tears, ‘To hide it from the world like they did. To live their lives the way they did, and to love each other the way they did. They might not have been able to be obvious about it; but their love was evident everywhere; in the home, family, and world that they created around themselves.’

‘They were very clever men,’ she said, ‘I adored them both for it. Amongst other things.’

‘I think some people must have guessed, but they were content to not crack the façade, and let it play out.’

‘Does dad know?’ asked Olivia.

Her mum nodded, ‘Yes, I told him. But Daddy made him promise not to tell you, until you were old enough to handle it.’

There was a pause, before she spoke, ‘I wish they would have told me.’

Her mum smiled softly, ‘I think they were just waiting for the right time. You were so special to them, that they didn’t want to hurt you in any way. And then time just slipped away from them… eventually.’

A solitary tear rolled down her cheek and she wiped it away in frustration, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m not sad. I think it’s wonderful.’

‘It’s a lot,’ her mum said, ‘You’re taking it a lot better than I did.’

She chuckled again, nuzzling her head into her mum’s shoulder.

‘I heard many stories,’ said her mum softly, ‘And I promised that one day I would tell you them all. But, I suspect that many of them are written in those books you’ve just found.’

Olivia looked at her mum, reaching for her hand, ‘Would you like to read them together?’

Her mum smiled, and then nodded, ‘Yeah, yeah, I would really like that.’