i . around 730 BCE
The first time they meet—or the fourth, or maybe the hundredth—it is midsummer, and they are sixteen.
In those days, the world seems doused in gold. Sunlight spills over the grassy cliffs, drags its fingertips across the sea and leaves glittering trails behind, and this is where Jonas—who will one day, centuries from now, be called Jack—finds himself dreaming.
Below him, the waves crest and break over the rocks, a steady rhythm like a song. Above him the sky is blue and bright, and here he can taste the salt in the air and lay spread-eagled in the grass and listen for the call of birds. He’s never had a place to call his own, but this, he thinks, on those golden summer days, could be something like it.
So when the stranger comes, footsteps soft against the ground, and the two of them lock eyes, the world falls suddenly still.
The other boy breaks the silence first. “Hello,” he says, all at once tentative and bright as he holds out an open hand. “I’m Damen.” In this life he is, anyway.
And then he smiles, and whatever hesitation had brimmed within Jonas before leaches out of him fast and abruptly. He pushes himself to his elbows and takes the offered hand. “I’m Jonas,” he replies, and really, that’s all that it takes.
In the weeks after, Jonas holds his breath and waits for the day when Damen will stop coming. It seems like only a matter of time, like soon, this lovely, quick-mouthed boy will find another stretch of sea and leave these cliffs behind. He doesn’t, though. He comes back, over and over, and somehow it becomes natural to find the two of them sprawled out beside each other while the sun sinks behind the horizon and paints the whole sky.
Damen, he learns quickly, is smart. Smarter than anyone that Jonas has ever known. He has this animated way of speaking, his hands always moving in tandem with his mouth as he relays the stories of Homer and the lessons he’s learned in school. Jonas carves into stones with a bronze blade and listens; he doesn’t care much for tales of the gods, but he likes the magic weaved into Damen’s voice. He likes the glimmer of Damen’s eyes as he retells the epics he knows by heart.
“I’ve never known anyone like you,” Jonas says one night. They’ve stayed out past dark, their laughter pouring over the edge of the cliff and into the water, and the two of them have built something here, a fleeting temple made from stories and fingers laced together and the sound of the sea.
Damen looks at him, drenched in silver from the moonlight. “I’m so glad I met you, Jonas,” he says, his voice like a ghosting breath, and then their lips slot together, Jonas’ fingers curling in the rough fabric of Damen’s tunic, Damen tugging a hand through his hair. It’s raw and heavenly and it’s true.
And oh , he has never believed in the gods, but there under the stars, tasting a boy who will one day, centuries from now, be called David, Jonas thinks he’s found something divine.
The war isn’t as glorious as the pamphlets make it out to be.
David knows what he’s fighting for, knows that their cause is just. He’s read all of the papers, attended the rallies in New York where men stand on upturned crates and strain to be heard over the crowds, speaking of taxes and freedom and revolution. He believes in this. Believes that they can build a new nation up from the ground.
But this part is different. Here, the tents stink of sweat and dirt and blood, and when he closes his eyes, he watches bodies fall, watches bullets rain down over the earth like hellfire. The battle is over and they’ve come out victorious, but he doesn’t feel any more free. He feels tired and wracked with grief, and empty.
“You should get that wrapped,” a soft voice says above him, and David looks up.
He knows Jack in the vague, limited way that he knows the others in their contingent: by name and face and not much else. The man—boy, he amends, because he can’t be any older than David is—stares at the still-bleeding gash on David’s arm. “Could get infected.”
“I know,” he says, and then winces at the sharpness in his own voice and shakes his head. “You’re right. I will.”
There’s a moment of quiet, and distantly, they can hear the chirping of crickets and the screams from the medicine tents. David clenches his fist in the grimy cloth of his uniform. Then Jack is kneeling in front of him, grabbing a roll of bandages from beside the low cot. “Let me,” he says, and David doesn’t know what compels him to extend his injured arm, but he does anyway.
Jack’s hands are careful, careful, like David is something made of glass instead of a bruised and bloodied soldier. He pours water over a clean cloth and wipes the blood away, and while he does this he says, “Davey, right?” David nods, and Jack smiles just a little. “What’s your story?”
As Jack winds the bandage around his arm, David tells him about school, and Sarah and Les and his family. He tells him about the things that he’s read, and Jack just listens, nodding every so often and staying even when he’s finished dressing the wound.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” David confesses finally, the bone-deep ache of the memories from the battle bleeding into his voice. “I’m not naive, I knew there would be death, but not…” he swallows hard, “not like this.”
When Jack looks at him, there’s something strained and quiet behind his gaze. “It’s not like it is in the papers,” he agrees, half-hurt, half-bitter. “It doesn’t seem so honorable out here. Just seems like dying.”
David draws a shuddering breath, and that’s when Jack takes his hand. “We’ll make it out of this, alright?” he says, suddenly fierce. “We’ll win this war, and you’ll see your family again.”
It’s not a promise he can keep. They won’t live long enough to love each other, not this time. They’ll both be dead in a matter of days, miles apart from one another, and something in them knows it—that’s the way that war ends. Bloody and gruesome and tragic.
For now, though, Jack’s calloused fingers are cool as they brush against his, and David nods. “Yeah,” he says, daring, in the moment, to hope. “We’ll get through it.”
Jack stays beside him until exhaustion tugs at their eyelids, and when he leaves, he passes a hand over David’s forehead, the gesture strangely familiar and so, so tender. Warmth pushes past the hurt to bloom softly in David’s chest. They’ll live, at least, long enough to see another morning.
“‘Night, Davey,” Jack breathes, and then blows out the candle, and the world plunges into darkness.
In the months after the strike ends, Jack always ends up here.
He’ll tuck the little ones into bed and then he’ll cross the Manhattan streets in the dark, make his way to the fire escape and climb the ladder and the stairs until he’s beside Davey’s window. He’ll knock twice on the glass, and then Davey will come, will always come—sometimes carrying something warm to drink, tea or milk sweetened with honey, and always with those bright, bright eyes.
Those are the nights when Jack thinks he’s known this forever. He doesn’t believe in fate or fairy tales, but the first time that Davey kisses him, raw and desperate and loving, the warmth that courses through him is so achingly familiar that he wonders if maybe this is all he’s ever known—Davey’s hands and Davey’s eyes and Davey’s mouth against his in the dark.
Jack thinks he will burst from it, sometimes. Like remembering will split open his seams and all the love will come spilling out of his chest at once. So it surprises him when Davey is the first to say it.
“We’ve done this before, haven’t we,” he says, quiet, a little desperate, their mouths already close enough that Jack would hardly have to move to bridge the distance. It’s not a question, really, and suddenly he is overwhelmed with the knowledge that Davey remembers too .
Jack finds Davey’s hands on his waist, where he’s tracing the scar on Jack’s hip, and laces their fingers together. “Seems like,” he breathes. Davey exhales with him, their lungs moving in time with each other. “I think we’s known each other a long time.”
“Do you think it’s always been like this?” Davey asks, and Jack wonders. Wonders if there was ever a time when things were different, when they were made for something more than dark corners and stolen kisses. Wonders if they’ll ever be able to love with the sun on their faces.
“I dunno,” Jack says, truthful, searches for Davey’s eyes in the dark and finds them already latched on his. “I hope we always found each other, though.”
When Davey kisses him this time, it’s soft and reverent, something like a prayer or maybe Jack’s name on his lips. “Me too,” he says quietly, and Jack is breathless. “I don’t know what I’d do if we didn’t.”
This town might’ve been beautiful, once.
Davey thinks, if he closes his eyes, he can picture the way it was before the bombs fell—bright colors and curving archways and laughter in the streets. Most everything is rubble now. They’re hidden behind the ruins of what used to be a church, the stone cracked and dirty beneath their feet, and it feels like this is where the world has ended. Like the sky fell, right here, and now they’re standing at the site of the apocalypse.
In the deathly silence, Jack reaches for his hand and laces their fingers together. Davey’s thumb traces the curve of his wrist, seeking his pulse, and finds it beating there, strong and fast. It’s enough to ground him. Enough to remind him that they’re still alive.
There’s a cruel sort of irony in the fact that the middle of a war zone is the only place they can be like this, open palmed, their affection splayed out in front of them. The only others who have been with them since the dust settled are Kit and Race, who are maybe the only people besides Jack that Davey trusts here. When Race had discovered them for the first time, he’d just grinned and told them he was happy they’d found each other. Kit had pulled his cap low over his auburn curls and said vaguely, “We all have secrets,” and left it at that. Like there was nothing more to be said.
Davey is sort of selfishly relieved that it’s the four of them together at the end of it, if it has to end at all.
He can’t see any other way out of this. It’s hard to know how long they’ve been holding their breath, but they can’t do this forever; sooner or later one of the German soldiers who have taken hold of the city will find the shallow crevice in the wall where they’re hidden, and then it will all at once be over. Their lives extinguished with as much fanfare as a match plunged into snow.
“What are we going to do?” Race says desperately, voice barely above an exhale. “We can’t die like this.”
“We’re not gonna.” Jack’s eyes are moving. Davey follows them, watches them dart across rubble and crumpling buildings to finally land upon a break in the formation of guards that lines the stone wall across from the church. Beyond it is woods—cover—but in between the four of them and the opening are half a dozen or so soldiers. Jack nods towards it anyway. “There’s our out.”
Kit shakes his head. “We’ll never make it. They’ll be on us before we’re halfway across.”
“Not if someone draws their fire.”
Davey’s stomach bottoms out. Jack is already slinging his gun into his hands, mouth fixated in this sharp, determined line, ignoring Kit’s quiet hiss of, “Jack, no.” It’s clear what’s running through his head and Davey can’t, won’t let it happen, not after everything—he seizes Jack’s collar and pushes him back against the wall.
“Jeez, Davey, I was gonna kiss you goodbye—” Jack starts, half-laughing under his breath, and Davey doesn’t let him finish.
“ Don’t, ” he spits, surprising himself as much as Jack with the venom in his voice. “Don’t be an idiot, Kelly, you can’t—I’m not gonna let you do this. We all get out together or none of us do.”
Jack puts his hands over Davey’s, astonishingly gentle in sharp contrast to the hard, flinty look in his eyes. It’s only then that Davey realizes he’s shaking. “There’s not a lot of options here, sweetheart,” he says, and his lips around the pet name are loving and soft instead of teasing and Davey’s heart stammers despite it all. “You’s got a family, ‘n I told you I’d get you home to them—”
“You’re my family too,” Davey breathes. “I can’t lose you.”
And then Jack kisses him, fervent, and the air between them is suddenly this searing, volatile thing. Davey knots his fingers in Jack’s uniform, tastes smoke and sweat and a boy he’s loved for a lifetime and longer. He thinks, I love him and we found each other and please, god, don’t let this be it, and then it is over and Jack is crying. Davey is, too, but he’s only aware of this when Jack brushes his thumbs under his eyes and presses their foreheads together.
“I love you, Davey,” he says, with a smile filled with heartbreak. “And I promise you, I’ll find you again.”
And then suddenly Davey is the one shoved against the wall and Jack is running, and Davey watches Race make a desperate grab for his arm and miss, watches Jack barrel blindly into open air. Kit’s hand is over his mouth before the scream rips from his throat. He claws at it wildly, animalistic as Kit drags him towards the cracked stone wall and his ears ring with the sound of gunfire. He feels half-drowned and burning, the earth crumbling under his feet, the sky caving in above him.
“Jack, Jack—” he’s still saying when Kit lets him go on the other side, his voice high and empty and already doomed.
“I know,” Kit hushes him, tears cutting tracks in the dirt on his face. Race clutches his cap against his chest with white knuckles. “David, I know. We have to keep moving.”
He thinks he will shatter if he tries. “ Jack ,” Davey chokes out once more, like it’ll save him, and then the shots cease and everything ends at once.
Drawing the boy from his dreams is muscle memory, by now.
Jack thinks he could do it with his eyes screwed shut, that even blind, his hands would know the straight line of the boy’s nose, the curve of his mouth, the softness behind his eyes. There’s not a name to go with the face, just the sound of a laugh and a feeling—a taste like honey and sunlight and home. A weight in his chest like he’s missing something.
Kath teases him relentlessly for being in love with someone that he’s never met. In the end, though, she’s the one who compiles the drawings in a portfolio and lands him a university scholarship, and in doing so she’s the one to start it all.
The campus seems to exist separately from everything else, tucked away in a bright little corner of the city. It’s greener here than anywhere that Jack has ever been. Everything is vivid, painted with watercolors, and he loves it instantly, thinks this is the kind of place for new beginnings. Where he can shed the heavy coat of all the things he’s collected through his life and start again.
Everything changes like this: he’s caught up in staring at the mural on the side of a nearby building, and the boy two paces in front of him is lost in a book, and neither of them know what’s about to happen. Neither of them know that in just moments, the world will pause for a breath and there will be this great crescendo in the music and nothing will ever be the same again—not, at least, until they collide.
It’s fate and it’s destiny and it’s a mess of Jack’s art supplies scattered on the sidewalk. A combination of swear words and apologies tumble from both their mouths as they bend down to shove everything back into the case, and then the boy hands him a tube of paint the color of the sea and Jack looks up and his breath catches in his throat.
“It’s you,” he says, and that’s all that it takes, really.
Davey half-tackles him into the grass and Jack is laughing and sure that he’s only just learned how to breathe. Like he’s gone his whole life without oxygen and is tasting it now, suddenly, in the smell of Davey’s detergent and the sound of his voice and the feeling of Davey’s hands in his hair.
Everything comes rushing back.
“Is this real? Are you real?” Davey demands, his eyes shining.
“I’m here, Davey.” He lifts a hand to cup Davey’s jaw. “I’m real.”
Davey gives this strangled sort of noise, halfway between a laugh and a sob. “You found me,” he says, and then he smiles, and Jack can’t help but think that his drawings could never do this justice. The boy in front of him is bright and holy and wonderfully, wonderfully present, his eyes the kind of color that all the paints in the world couldn’t capture.
Jack grins up at him, feeling warmth take over his chest and run down to the tips of his fingers. “I keep my promises,” he says, and Davey is still laughing when he kisses him.
And if Jack has spent his whole life yearning, it was worth it. Centuries of light burst behind his eyes, and there’s a whole future laid out in front of them—this is not the one where they’ll be left bruised and battered by streets or by war, no—this life will be kinder to them. Softer.
August sunlight bathes them in gold, and they’ve found each other. They’ve loved and lost but now they’re here, together, with their hands intertwined again—and oh , this time, they won’t ever let go.