“To lead a better life, I need my love to be here.
Here, making each day of the year,
Changing my life with a wave of her hand.”
Ewan stood at the edge of the moor, his blonde curls blown about in the chilly wind as he studied the deceptively solid looking ground searching for—there it was, the pony path. He knew he didn’t have much time before the wintry day turned to night and he would be stuck out here. He picked his way across the moor by following where the local ponies put their hooves. He moved slowly but steadily, always keeping his eyes trained on the ground, making sure to stay on the inconsistent and narrow path.
He could see where Billy had stepped earlier in the day although the footprints were erratic and uneven and Ewan worried at the carelessness his mate had shown in his crossing. Billy had been so brilliant, holding it together for his mother and sister and anyone else who’d needed him to be the perfect grown-up during the past few days but, when it all came down to it, Billy was not a grown-up yet. He was a boy who was mourning the loss of his father.
It took a good thirty minutes for him to reach the hillock, but he recognized it immediately. He knew once he got to the truly solid ground, he’d trot round and on the other side would be a craggy overhang and underneath it, probably curled tightly into himself would be…
A stifled sob was all that greeted his relieved shout. Ewan dropped to his hands and knees and crawled to his distraught friend.
“No,” Ewan said stubbornly as he crowded himself into the small opening.
Billy hiccupped through a few more sobs before he turned and allowed Ewan to hug him, to keep holding him as the pain rushed through him anew and he cried inconsolably into his friend’s shirt. It took him a long time to cry himself out but he finally sat up and wiped his face, his sad and scared eyes meeting Ewan’s.
“You shouldn’t’ve come. I’d’ve been fine.”
“Freezing your bahookie off while Mag and your Mam worry the rest of the night for you, numptie?” Ewan said, rolling his eyes. “Come on, we should get back.”
“I’m not ready yet.”
“You have to, Bill. You’re the man of the house now.”
Ewan hated using that old standby, especially as he watched more tears slide out of his mate’s reddened eyes, but he hadn’t brought supplies and he knew Billy hadn’t and neither of them would survive a night out here this time of year without provisions. He hoped Billy lived up to the habit of obligation and duty his father had instilled in him, and he wasn’t disappointed. Swiping at his cheeks, his friend nodded and they set off single-file through the moor, one stepping in the other’s exact footprints as they made their way home.
Two Days Later
“Bill?” Billy turned to see Ewan coming up behind him. He didn’t even bother to wipe his eyes; Ewan had seen him cry before.
“Not thinking about taking another turn on the moor tonight, are you?” Ewan asked quietly, laying his hand on Billy’s shoulder and squeezing gently.
“No,” Bill said, taking a shuddering breath. “Thinking about work. I’ll have to look for a job at the factory, Ewan. Mam’s got the rot and I don’t know how long she’ll be able to work. I can’t make it being an apprentice; I’ve too long to wait still and…” His voice caught and he trailed off, his head hanging and his shoulders shaking.
Ewan didn’t think about it, simply turned Billy in his skinny arms and pulled him against his chest tightly. “I know you’re scared, mate, I know you are. But you’ll get that job. And we’ll all help; me, Sean, Gerry, Johnny, all of us, in whatever way we can. You’re not alone, Bill. Not ever as long as I’m—as we’re—alive you’re not.”
And he held Billy fiercely, protectively as his mate’s life changed irrevocably.
Ewan stood with Gerry and watched Billy go through the motions, thanking everyone for coming to offer prayers for he and Maggie, and his Mam’s departed soul; for the food and comfort and sense of close community they offered. Maggie sat silent, her tear-stained face pale and withdrawn, as neighbors and friends touched her hair and shoulders as they passed by. He watched as Billy shook hands and kissed cheeks and murmured quietly into his sister’s ear during the lulls. There were no tears visible, but Ewan knew they were there, just under the surface; knew that Billy was worried about Mag, about bills to be paid, about their future. He watched quietly as his best mate continued his progression into being a man rather than the boy that Ewan loved.
Ewan stood outside Bill’s door, debating with himself. Something had changed between them over the past year, subtly at first but now it had gotten ugly, threatening the very core of their friendship. Lately, Billy had withdrawn inside himself, turning away from him, from all of their close mates, and Ewan knew he needed to do this for all of them. He raised his hand and knocked at the door, resolving to not leave until he had answers, even if it meant coming to blows.
“What do you want?” Billy asked rudely, beer in hand when he answered the door.
“I want you to talk to me, Bill. Me, not a fucking pint glass.”
Billy sighed angrily. “Can’t.”
“You can always talk to me, Billy,” Ewan said softly, his brows drawing in as he put his hands on his mate’s shoulders.
“Don’t touch me,” Billy snarled, shrugging Ewan’s hands off violently.
“What the fuck is this? What’s changed? We’re mates, Bill, since when can’t I touch you?”
“Fuck. Off,” Billy spat, enunciating each word.
Ewan grabbed Billy’s arm and tried to dodge as Billy swung at him, but was still caught a glancing blow to the side of his chin. He twisted the both of them off balance and kicked Billy’s feet out from under him, taking him down to the floor and pinning him down by straddling his hips. He felt the shudder run through Billy’s thin body and then, after a few seconds more, he felt the fight drain away. And he hated it.
“Now you tell me what’s wrong with you! You’re scaring me, Billy, are you okay? Is Mag?”
“We’re fine, we’re both fine.”
Ewan looked down into Billy’s miserable face, the green of his eyes covered by tightly closed lids. “You are not fine, Bill. You just…aren’t. Whatever I’ve done, just tell me! We’ve got to fix this because I can’t…I need to know you’re at my back and I can’t imagine not being at yours. Please Bill!”
But Billy’s body was betraying him, not caring about lines of friendship crossed or broken. It only wanted more heat, more pressure from Ewan’s hips moving over and against his. He made a small, distressed sound, not quite a whimper, and forced his hips down onto the floor as far away from Ewan’s as he could possibly get. He turned his head to the side and squeezed his eyes even more tightly shut.
“Goddamn you, Billy, what is this? Fucking talk to me!” Ewan yelled, shifting his weight forward as he shook Billy’s shoulders.
As soon as he felt the shift in balance, Billy easily flipped Ewan off and rolled onto his side, curling up into himself.
Ewan lay on the floor for a long moment, blinking up at the ceiling. Not so long ago, Billy would have rolled Ewan under him and pinned him in turn, crowing about the victory. What had gone so drastically wrong with them? He got to his hands and knees and crawled to Billy’s other side, reaching out his hand and gently cupping the back of his mate’s head, his fingers carding through the soft ginger hair.
Billy sighed and leaned into the caress before starting to pull away.
“No,” Ewan said, his fingers tightening in Billy’s hair. “No, Bill. Whatever this is ends now--tonight. We have to fix it because I can’t, I won’t, let you continue on like this. If you’re not talking to me, you’re probably not talking to anyone about it and you’re hurting all of us, Billy-lad.”
“I want…something. But I can’t have it and it’s…” he trailed off, at a loss for words.
“How do you know you can’t have it, Bill?” Ewan’s eyebrows drew together. “Have you asked?”
Billy snorted. “No.”
“Look at me, Bill. Open your eyes and look at me, please.”
Shame, frustration, pain and something darker filled Billy’s eyes as he met and held Ewan’s troubled blue gaze. Ewan recognized that darkness and pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place for him.
“Since it’s me you’ve been angry with, I’ll assume it’s something of mine that you want. And Bill,” he said, his fingers unconsciously tightening further into a fist in Billy’s hair, “there’s nothing I have that isn’t yours as much as it is mine already. There’s nothing I don’t share with you.”
Billy groaned as his eyes fell shut again and he swallowed hard. “Don’t have any idea what you’re doing to me, do you,” he muttered under his breath.
“I think I’m finally beginning to figure it out,” Ewan murmured, leaning down and pressing his lips against Billy’s.
“Billy, come on,” Ewan cried, unable to keep his voice from rising. “Don’t you ever want to see what’s outside of Glasgow?”
Billy shook his head obstinately. “I’ve got everything here. My sister, a good, steady job, my mates…”
“When did day after day in the factory followed by pints in the pub every night become enough for you?” He sighed heavily, well aware his argument was low, but he didn’t care. He had to make Billy see reason, his reason, somehow. “This can’t be all you need can it, Bill? Truly? Bean, Gerry and Johnny-lad down the pub? Eating Sunday dinner with Mag, Gerry and Cam every week? A good, hard sha—“
“I need you, you fucking cunt, and you know that!” Billy’s outburst was accompanied by the shattering of his pint glass as he slammed it down on the table. “You knew that before you came to my door tonight, wanting to back me into a corner. You’ve known that since we were way too young to know such things about each other. Do you think I don’t know why you’re here? Why you’re doing this? What good are we in the goddamned military, Ewan? We haven’t got formal schooling, so it’ll be cannon fodder and grunt work for the likes of us. Is that your grand plan for us to see the world?”
Ewan cringed at the accusations, ashamed of using falsehoods and evasion, but he had to bring Billy back to life somehow. “I can’t go without you, Bill,” he admitted, his voice quiet and pained. “There’s nothing anywhere worth seeing unless you’re there to share it with me.”
Billy’s face fell, eyes closing but not before Ewan caught the pain in the green depths—such bright, intense pain it made his chest hurt. He crossed the room, framing the smaller man’s face in his hands, angling his head and lowering his mouth for a hard, quick kiss.
Billy pulled away first, tucking his head into Ewan’s neck and shoulder. He wrapped his arms around his lover tightly as Ewan’s arms surrounded him, clutching at him almost desperately.
“Just think on it, yeah? Just promise me you’ll do that, at least,” he whispered to the sensitive skin behind Billy’s ear.
Billy nodded and Ewan swallowed hard before pulling back enough to look down at his face. “I love you, Bill. Doesn’t matter where we are, that won’t change.”
They kissed again, longer this time, before Ewan left Billy to his thoughts and decisions.
Billy thought long and hard over the next few days, turning the situation over in his mind, examining it from every angle; he’d always had an analytical mind and he put it to good use. He’d been angry at first, not understanding why their quiet, comfortable existence wasn't enough for Ewan. As he began to distance himself from his immediate reaction, he slowly realized what he'd been unconsciously doing for years. The Calvinist work ethic drilled into him from childhood had left him with such a sense of duty to his family, that he'd set aside his own wishes for their sakes. Gerry finally worked up the stones to ask Mag to marry him, leaving Billy alone in the old house and firmly settled in the same worn out rut he'd been following for nearly a decade.
Ewan, as always, had seen this, and given him the push necessary to make a change. Billy remembered him saying, after making his argument for the military, that it didn’t matter where they were, that Ewan would always love him. Billy knew this to be true; that whether he chose to join a regiment or stay in Glasgow would make no difference to his lover as long as they were living.
Two weeks later
Billy and Ewan were waiting to board the train, Ewan bitching about not getting to join the Dragoons and Billy reminding his mate that as Ewan had taken it upon himself to make the decision for both of them to enlist in the military, it was naturally Billy’s decision as to which regiment they joined. Ewan pouted as Billy smirked.
They turned at the familiar voices and saw Sean Bean, Gerard Butler and John Hannah trotting over to them. “What are you lot doing here?” Billy said, shaking his head.
“Couldn’t let you two go off and have adventures without us, now could we?” Bean said, ruffling Ewan’s hair. “We’ve come to join the Guard with you.”
“Oh fucking hell,” Ewan said looking at Butler, “Y’didn’t tell Mag it was my idea, did you, Gerry?”
“As if my husband would follow anyone but my brother into anything,” Margaret Butler said from behind the group.
“Mag!” Ewan cried, startled by her appearance. “I—don’t kill me!“
“You take care of them, Ewan,” she said, her green gaze as intense as her brother’s. “And yourself as well. I want you all home when your duty is done.” She kissed and hugged them all as they climbed aboard.
As the train pulled out they waved until they could no longer see her and then found a corner in the crowded car to sit, John already pulling a deck of cards from the pocket of his trousers. Dealing them out, he enthusiastically speculated where they might be stationed, earning a cuff in the ear from Bean.
1928, Shanghai, China
“Sergeant’s stripes, eh?” Billy said, grinning widely as Ewan strutted and preened in grand fashion to their mates’ catcalls. “Just you remember that I’m still senior to you,” he added. He turned and pointed to each man in his unit. “Senior to each one of you fucking nutters.”
“And?” Bean said, rolling his eyes.
“Just marking the boundaries,” Billy replied, straight-faced.
“Well now that you’ve whipped it out, Billy-lad, why don’t you just put it away,” Gerry intoned. “There’s only one of us here wants to see it and he’s too busy making eyes at his chevrons to pay attention to you right now.”
1929 Shanghai, China
Billy leaned on the side of the wall and looked out at the dusk falling over the Yangzte delta. He took a deep pull on his cigarette and, releasing the smoke, said without turning, “Wondered when you’d show up.”
“Fuck, Boyd, how do you do that?”
“Don’t pout, McGregor, it suits you too well.”
“That’ll now be fuck you, Boyd.”
“Fuck you, Sir,” Billy said, not even bothering to hide the amusement in his tone.
Ewan moved forward until his chest was pressing against Billy’s back. He leaned his head down slightly and whispered, “Fuck me, Sir,” low and gravelly into Billy’s ear. He loved the shiver that rode Billy’s body; the hitch of breath and the instant speeding up of his mate’s heartbeat, loved that he could affect Billy like this.
He sucked Billy’s earlobe into his mouth, teeth scraping the skin before releasing it to tongue behind Billy’s ear, laving the sensitive skin and tracing the downy hairline with the tip of his tongue.
A strangled whimper, and Ewan smiled as he nuzzled into Billy’s hair, before dropping a kiss behind Billy’s ear and stepping back.
Billy looked over his shoulder, his eyes wide and wanting. “What was that for?”
“Heard about yours and Beanie’s adventure today.”
"Did you now?"
"Bean said the youngest lad had a sterling crush on you," Ewan said, grinning.
"Right, and so you thought you'd mark the territory against the sixteen year old boy from England, then?" Billy snorted, shaking his head.
"I just want you to know, William Boyd, that if anything happens to me, I believe you should look the lad up is all I'm saying," Ewan said with a straight face.
"You are an absolute nutter. For Christ sake, McGregor, are you tired of me already, planning on sending me off to the competition?"
"Never," Ewan said, smiling again. "Besides, Sassenach isn't exactly your style, Boyd."
"Well, you never know, McGregor. Tastes change."
Ewan's smile turned tender. "Indeed. Something I was despairing of for quite some time before we came to an 'understanding' all those years ago."
Billy's mouth quirked ruefully. "Sometimes I can be a bit thick, I suppose."
"I still love you," Ewan chuckled. "Thick in the head and thin in the hair and all."
Ewan dodged the half-hearted swing and trotted back toward camp. "See you in a bit then, Bill," he said, his laughter drifting back.
Billy shook his head, smiling as he took another deep drag on his fag and turned back to look over the delta.