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Lost In The Fire, Found In The Ashes

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The slow thumping against his door rather irritatingly reminds Collins of how he used to be a deep sleeper. Now though he jolts at the sound, shattering an otherwise quiet night. The thumping comes a couple more times, but he doesn’t bother to roll over, to check the time, or even to drag his voice up from the depths of his throat. Despite how long it’s been, he knows who it is. There’s no invitation he needs to give.

Indeed a moment later he hears the rickety latch of the door and the creak of old hinges, then heavy steps attempting to be soft as they stalk into his room. Despite knowing, there’s an instinctual tingle up his spine at the encroaching presence at his back, and his fingers curl into the covers unbidden.

“Can’t sleep?” he says into the silence.

The steps falter a moment before a weight settles at his back, sinking into the mattress with a telltale screech of old springs. Farrier sets a hand on his arm gently enough not to startle him. It’s a familiar warmth, one he’d worried would become foreign.

“Can I stay here?”

His voice is rugged, and there’s a whiff of alcohol on his breath, though not as strong as back when he would drink himself half-blind most nights. It’s been a few months since he last drank so heavily, and since Collins had last confronted him about it.

Instead of answering, Collins continues to stare at the wall as the dark void makes his vision swim, then he shifts over a little. Farrier’s hand slides off his arm, flopping into the warm dip that’s been left. With a subdued laugh he shuffles into bed, pressed up close to Collins’ back to fit on a bed frame certainly not suited for two grown men. As their legs tuck together Farrier’s socked feet slip between Collins’ bare ones, providing a much needed heat to his chilled toes.

It’s so damn cold in this loft in early spring, so he’s thankful for the arm that wraps around his middle from behind and the hot breath grazing the back of his neck. Slipping a hand down to find Farrier’s under the blanket he locks their fingers together against his stomach, and with just a squeeze he relaxes fully into an embrace he’s known many times before.

There’s solace in having Farrier as a solid support at his back. Part of him wants to roll over to face him, but they're so tightly curled together now, and not in a million years would he dream of upsetting this. He’d rather tuck himself down and never move again, forever enveloped in knowing hands.

Lips brush against the soft flesh of his neck, and he hums. Farrier’s hand slips free from his to squeeze around Collins’ middle with an almost crushing strength, a leg hiked up between his own, his heart a rapid thump Collins’ can feel against his back.

It’s a pleasant intimacy, but Farrier is bleeding an aura of uncertainty. It’s like having a wounded animal at his back, tensed up and waiting for its final throes.

Farrier wouldn’t usually risk sneaking into his room so late at night with Collins’ sister and husband asleep just a floor below. She’s been kind enough to let them stay here for the time being, and they’ve been good not to give her any disruptions. The walls sing too easily, the floors too loudly.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Collins offers, craning his neck just enough to catch Farrier in his peripheral.

It gives Farrier a good view of the scars peeking up from his clavicle to his jawline. He knows the story - Collins had told him ages ago. It’s an old injury now anyhow, one he got long after Farrier had disappeared. But even so, Collins never misses how his eyes linger on the marred skin, and with the pale moonlight through the dusty window he can see how Farrier’s gaze falls to it, and the way his mouth thin at the sight.

“Just bad memories again.”

He smooths fingers down Collins’ scar, forefinger drawing a gentle line along his jaw and down the muscles of his neck, playing at the goose-flesh that erupts in its wake.

"Nightmares?" Collins says as he settles his head further into his pillow, going limp under tender caresses.

"I haven't slept long enough to have those."

Not the answer he wants, but sadly it’s the one he expects.

Since coming home, Farrier’s made a habit of sleeping less. There’s constant circles under his eyes these days, especially without the alcohol to put him under anymore. 

He doesn’t talk much about why, and Collins has been wary of asking after his time in the camps. Farrier only mentions a few things, usually some moment of levity or a vague idea of the day-to-day goings on. He rarely mentions names or the breadth of conditions that Collins had heard whispered about back home and always naively hoped Farrier hadn’t been facing.

What’s worrisome is he never mentions how the fingers on his left hand were injured and set back a bit crooked, or how the barely-noticeable limp in his leg came about. Why on long walks in the cold his lungs rattle sometimes like there’s the ghost of a past illness tearing at his tissues. Collins has seen the myriad of scars - mostly small and faint but nevertheless distressing - patterning his skin, and he’s traced many of them on quiet nights like this one.

He’s seen the way Farrier jumps when he’s touched unaware. The way the heavy stench of smoke causes his shoulders to tense. He clamps up in claustrophobic spaces. He eagle-eyes every room and street like he’s still expecting gooks with guns to be around every corner. He takes in meals like he’s rationing, sleeps like he’s tight to a space, speaks like he fears who’ll hear. 

Collins can see all the ticks and all the wounds, yet Farrier leaves him stranded on the edge of understanding.

Never asking, but always wondering. Helpless.

Sighing wearily he takes Farrier’s wandering hand with his own and pulls it forward to press cold lips against the knuckles.

“Tell me what I can do to help you.”

Instantly that hand pulls free and wraps around his shoulders, trapping him tightly against Farrier, face buried into the curve of his neck, all burning breath and fingers digging white spots into his arm. Collins, startled by the sudden ferocity, reaches back reflexively to grab at Farrier’s leg, but otherwise he waits, quietly, with his heart practically palpitating.

“Just don’t leave,” Farrier whispers into his skin with an affection that sets the nerves aflame. “Stay with me. It’s all I need.”

It’s not, Collins wants to say.

Yet he wouldn’t ask any different, either. In the privacy of his own thoughts as well as on nights of heated passions and longed-for intimacy, he’s begged the same of Farrier. 

Don’t you leave me again.

Perhaps they’re both a bit hopeless.

Slowly his body relaxes again and he sinks back into the arms cocooning him. It’s nice to feel how much muscle Farrier has put back on in the last few months. He fills out his clothes better now and his face isn’t so gaunt anymore, no longer the emaciated ghost of a man he was when Collins had first come to him in hospital, barely able to focus and long past words.

Now he’s more the man Collins remembers, even if only in appearance, but he’s long been happy with that.

“Was it the camps,” Collins risks the question. “Or something else?”

Fingernails dig painfully into his bicep as Farrier breathes deeply before answering.

“It was before, this time.”

“Before?”

“Before Dunkirk. I was… thinking about you, actually.”

Collins closes his eyes, mouth forming a silent note of understanding.

There’s another press of lips tenderly against the scarring of his jaw, and Farrier keeps his voice low, words a warm wave washing over his skin.

“Many nights I wished you were there with me, after I was captured. I missed you more than I can say. But... then I think about those early months. I think about before the war. I think about you and I realize how grateful I am that you weren’t stuck in that god awful place too.”

Collins presses back into his embrace, squeezing a hand around Farrier’s forearm in feeble comfort.

“Would it have been easier, if we were together?”

A resounding 'yes’ echoes through his own mind. Many nights he’s wondered about all those close calls during his operations, and the times he'd been shot down. If he’d been captured, would he have landed himself in the same camp as Farrier? Would he have considered himself lucky? 

What pilot wants to be captured?

Well, perhaps he’d never wished for it, no, but a tiny, fractured part of his heart had stopped fearing the possibility somewhere along the way.

Suddenly there’s a shock of cold air against his back and the mattress depresses. Farrier’s arm slips free but a hand catches Collins’ shoulder, forcing him to roll onto his back until he’s able to take in Farrier’s face in the dull light. It’s all soft lines but grave intensity. Farrier looms with a mere breath between them, his hand a warm weight over Collins' heart, beating like a drum against his palm. Collins only stares back soundlessly.

“Easier, maybe,” Farrier says. “But I couldn’t be happy with that.”

He leans down and kisses Collins long and deep, his fingers curling tightly against his chest. With a low groan Collins cups his cheek in return, a burn of stubble under his palm as he holds Farrier close, drinking in his words, his intentions, his feelings so rarely poured out. It's been weeks since they'd last shared this, and his nerves alight in desperate need. A sense of ease settles into his stomach, his body suddenly so light he fears he may float away if Farrier weren’t pinning him so comfortably to the bed.

He won't mention how he’d dreamed some nights of his own capture and of strange reunions in foreign land. It’s a twisted fantasy, and he doesn’t need to add another stain to Farrier’s thoughts.

“I never forgot,” Collins mutters against his mouth instead, the moonlight adding a captivating shine to Farrier’s face and the intense storm of his eyes. “I waited for you.”

Farrier hums low, a vibration Collins can feel through his own body. They meet for another kiss, this one hard and impassioned as a tongue pushes into his mouth. Then, frustratingly, those lips are gone again, this time moving up to press into his cheek, then up to his forehead, into the floppy golden fringe of his hair.

But Farrier’s hands betray a trembling, his eyes closing in thoughtfulness.

“I know you did.”

“Then why won’t you talk to me? I’m here. I always have been.”

“I spent so long without you,” Farrier says, defeated. “I don’t want to disappoint you. Or hurt you.”

Collins pulls his head down and presses a soft kiss over his brow, fingers curling through dark strands, nails scraping along the scalp.

“It hurts more not having you here. Pushing me away.” With a sad smile he draws back to look Farrier in the eye again, a hand sliding back to cup his cheek, thumb brushing across the skin.  “I need you too, you know.”

Farrier cups the hand on his face with his own, turning to bring his lips to Collins’ palm in an effort to soothe the shudder in his voice.

“We’ve only got each other,” Collins says softly, then pauses as a thought comes to him and adds, “and maybe my sister, seeing as she’s not likely to leave me be. You’ll have to make an honest man out of me soon or I’ll never live it down.”

Farrier chuckles at that, all the tension in his face swept away entirely, and it’s a glow Collins is relieved to see again.

Their laughter fades into a comfortable silence, Farrier dragging warm fingers through wisps of blond hair, brushing them back from Collins’ face. His eyes are piercing, searching every inch like he still can’t believe what he’s seeing is real.

“You know, I always wondered what happened to you, since that day you came for me in the hospital. The man who walked through that door wasn’t the man I left behind.”

“Maybe I just grew up,” Collins says, swallowing down a sudden unease.

Was he so different? Some of the lads in the squadron had said similar things before, as Collins had gained rank and experience and a couple battle scars to show for it. Even his mother had made mention of it, as had his sister when he’d returned home.

He hadn’t thought too much about it though, and certainly not what Farrier would think upon his return; a return Collins could never be sure would happen.

He’d been so frantic just knowing Farrier was alive and had asked after him by name, and that after all was said and done they’d been able to stay together. He’d spent so much of Farrier’s rehabilitation pondering the stranger who’d come back into his life that he’d not stopped to consider that for Farrier, a stranger had walked back into his, too.

Dear God, they’ve both aged a lifetime.

If the regret is visible on Collins' face, Farrier doesn’t mention it. Instead his eyes are only fond, neither accusatory nor nostalgic, with a serene smile just barely pulling at his mouth.

“Well, it was inevitable. At least time’s been kinder to you.”

Heat rushes to his cheeks and Collins snorts, undignified. “Don’t be so sure.”

This may be the first real conversation they’ve had on the subject since they’d moved into this little loft space in his sister’s house, but despite the humour he tries to slip into his voice, his expression betrays his discomfort.

They’ve both seen enough insanity to last a lifetime, he’s sure. Yet at times they could easily be strangers, bearing vastly different stories and vastly different nightmares. Sometimes that's exactly how Collins feels watching Farrier’s mind slip off to some unknown place, unable to throw a line to draw him back. Just another passerby in the night.

But then he turns around, pushing Collins at every opportunity the way he used to all those years ago. Trying to piece together Collins' war just through the quirks he’s brought back.

Collins has spoken at length about his dreams of flames and bullet holes and drowning. He’s explained  why he jumps at ringing phones and a car’s backfire. Why his hand trembles of its own accord, why he mutters in his sleep sometimes, tossing and kicking in fits of night terrors. He still feels uneasy in the water, terrified of submerging himself for fear his lungs will collapse and he’ll never see the surface again. All the things that could easily go unnoticed by civilians. Farrier knows them all.

Which is why he truly hopes Farrier understands the weight of his words.

“I need you too, you know.”

They know each other like no one else; they’ve loved each other like no one else. To lose him now...

Rolling back onto his side Collins buries his face into his pillow, begging a moment to collect himself and quell the anxious churn of his stomach. God willing all the scars would cease to be, if life were kinder.

Farrier takes the opportunity to settle against his back again, arm returning to its vice-like grip around Collins’ body. The weight anchors him back to reality, stopping his mind from turning in on itself. Instead he focuses on the press of a chest to his back, the chin tucked over his shoulder, the even breathing hot against his ear.

“I’m sorry this isn’t easier,” Farrier says genuinely. “We’re both different now. But you’re right, we have each other. So… don’t give up on me. I’ll keep trying.”

With a smile Collins squeezes his forearm reassuringly, too overwhelmed to find the voice to respond. Those words hammer into his soul, shattering his doubts.

"You'll stay?" He finally says, barely above a whisper, but hopeful.

"I'm not going anywhere," Farrier assures him. "As long as you'll have me."

An unspoken “I love you” sits on the tip of Collins' tongue, but never quite makes it out of his mouth like it deserves.

Luckily, Farrier doesn’t seem to mind. Collins can finally breathe freely as a kiss is pressed into his neck and the arms around him hug tighter. With one hand he tugs the blanket- rumpled at his feet from Farrier’s shuffling about - up over them both, sealing in the warmth Farrier has brought to his bed.

The night begins to creep back in on them both, bringing with it a renewed peacefulness. A strong gust of wind rattles the window in its frame, a sharp whistle that pierces the silence and drags Collins’ tired mind back from the sleep tugging at him. Springs protest under them both when Farrier shifts again, tucking closer until there’s no space left between them, his leg a persistent press between Collins’s own.

Once settled Farrier’s hand loosens its grip and drags intently down his front, fingers trailing pointedly over each curve of muscle and bone, dipping into every curve until he settles his hand back on Collins’ stomach, splayed flat and purposeful.

Those fingers curl around the hem of his shirt, sliding up and under to ghost across the flesh of his abdomen, teasing at the muscles that jump under his ministrations. His breathing is even, yet it scolds Collins’ flushed cheek as he presses into the sharp dip of his hip, jerking subtly against Collins with obvious intent.

“Farrier… Tom,” Collins cautions, but it’s dishonest.

Already a treacherous tingle is erupting through him. His fingers grip tight to the sheets, toes curling anxiously.

It’s been weeks since the last time they’d touch each other like this.

“Please,” Farrier says hotly against his ear, followed by a kiss to his flushed cheek. “No more words, for now.”

It’s hard to make rational arguments with Farrier’s leg pressing between his own, hard muscle hitching up high to give much needed friction. Collins bites his lip to keep a moan from escaping.

“Will you let me?” Farrier whispers with the hints of arousal in his voice.

It’s a struggle for Collins to keep his hips from bucking excitedly as a finger tugs at the waistline of his sleep pants, dipping just beneath to trail across fine hairs.

Some things haven’t changed, it seems. 

Breathlessly he nods in silent acquiescence, allowing those wandering hands to pry him apart in all the ways he craves.

All the ways he’s missed.