The first time is brief, barely a flash before he's gone again. Collins thinks he's imagined him. Still he comes to an abrupt halt on the way to his plane, so fast another of his squadron thumps into his back.
“The hell? What’d you stop for, Collins? We’ve got to get moving!”
He stares into empty space, at nothing but the grass and the calm blue of an autumn sky. His heart hasn’t raced with the excitement of the fight in a long time, yet now it thunders in his chest until it almost hurts.
It wasn’t real. I couldn’t have been.
“Aye, sorry. Let’s go.”
They’re off over the Channel to cause mayhem, and his flying is off, his shooting more so. He can’t concentrate the rest of the day, and he refuses to explain why despite the concern of his flight commander.
Even in the air, he can’t quite shake Farrier from his mind. Not that he’s been able to for some time.
Long after the sun goes down and his dinner is only half-eaten, he lies awake in his bed. It’s late; not late enough that his bunkmate has returned from the pub with the others, but enough that Collins already has his head on the pillow, desperate for sleep to drag him under before the day turns.
Except sleep won’t come, so he stares at the wall following the cracks of the paint in the dark, and feels like he’s being watched. The room isn’t particularly cold, yet he tugs the covers up high under his chin, fingers cinched into the wool. The back of his neck tingles, hair on his arms rising. Like when he was a child, afraid of the dark and of the things in the shadows and of monsters under the bed.
A primal fear fills him at the thought of rolling over, like he’s about to confront an enemy, but he does anyway with a telltale creak of springs.
Indeed, he finds eyes watching him.
There’s a figure, mostly obscured in the darkness but still very much perceivable, sitting on the edge of the empty bed across from him. It’s hunched, elbows on its knees.
Collins goes stiff, heart leaping into his throat and choking any sound that tries to escape.
It’s been some time since he’s had night terrors. They’re rarely so vivid.
Slowly, in perpetual stillness, his eyes adjust. He starts to recognize the broad shoulders and the cropped haircut and the uniform…
He sits up quickly, like something’s crawled its way up his spine, almost nauseous with shock.
There’s no way. But the shape moves, flinching like it’s surprised he's spoken, and that it's been seen. As if Collins is the one who’s startled it.
No, not an ‘it’. Collins can see his face better now, the subject of many dreams and nightmares. It’s him, most definitely.
“It’s not possible.” He still feels like he’s talking to himself, like he’s still half asleep. “How are you…?”
His feet hit the floor, ready to stand. But something stops him.
The room is still stiflingly empty. He can’t hear anything but his own breathing, there’s no warmth in the air or creak of movement. Where Farrier sits, the bed doesn’t dip with his weight. He's dressed as he was when Collins last saw him; not a hair or crease or button out of place.
This is wrong. Farrier’s gone; he has been for more than a year now.
Collins chuckles, hollow and mocking.
“So I guess I’ve finally gone and cracked, then.”
It was bound to happen sooner or later. He’s thrown himself into combat time and again, taking his life in his hands, taking other people’s lives with them. The routine keeps you sane, you desensitize, you let yourself become a machine.
He’s stopped going back home on leave because he’s afraid of what his mum and dad will see when he walks through the door. He’s afraid of what he’ll become every time he leaves. He’s afraid of how much he’ll miss flying and fighting.
He still misses Farrier, too, still wishes beyond all else for him to come home. It’s been months since the last letter from him; 91 days, exactly. Collins keeps track.
But this… image of him, whatever it is, doesn’t fill the emptiness. Maybe it’s just the longing, then, the inevitable overflow of a glass filled to the brim.
Slouching back down into his bed, deflated, Collins watches, and is watched in return. Farrier stays silent, though his lips part slightly as if to contemplate speaking. His expression is passive, barely changing.
“Are you going to say anything?” Collins mutters.
Is he expecting he should be having a conversation with his hallucinations?
Crazy or no, the lack of response still irritates him.
“I heard the first thing we forget about a person is their voice.”
Farrier still doesn’t answer. No matter how much Collins has wished to see him again, nothing about this puts him at any kind of ease. He can hardly keep looking at the image of the man in front of him, exhausted and overwhelmed.
A knife twisting deep into the old scars of his heart.
He can’t think of anything else to say, and he’s going to pretend he’s not crazy enough to try. He rolls back into bed, cocooned by blankets and facing the wall, tucking his shoulders high against the bitter sting of anxiety in his chest. Eyes burn at his back long after his roommate comes stumbling in, and the air shudders but never stops weighing heavy.
Pilots crack up in war. To assume this is his own delusion is better than the alternative.
After all, Collins doesn’t believe in ghosts.
He seems to be attached, following Collins around like a mute shadow. No one else in the squadron acknowledges him either; which only solidifies Collins’ assumption that it's all his own insanity, and he carefully tries not to speak too much to him, or register his presence.
Easier said than done. Because regardless of what he is, he still looks like Farrier, and the eyes still have him on edge the way Farrier always did, and it aches in some deeply rooted part of him.
He gives up on his ignorance after a few days.
When he goes up in the air, he misses Farrier at his wing like the wound is still fresh. When he comes down, his ghost—or whatever he is—waits there in silence, a look of calm satisfaction on his face. Maybe he's grateful Collins has come back at all.
From time to time he’ll ripple in and out of existence like a rock thrown into a pool, and every time Collins feels a pull at his stomach, until he’s almost nauseous. He never asks where Farrier goes, not that he’s sure what kind of answer he expects from his own illusions.
Sometimes he sits on the wing of Collins’ plane while the irks work on fitting and rearming her, unbothered by his unseen presence. He’ll sit with the squadron in the dispersal hut, in the commons, in the Mess. Never too far from Collins’ side, like he’s physically tethered to him. He chuckles at conversations sometimes, too. Even smiles or frowns or scoffs.
That’s when Collins wonders, sometimes. Is his imagination so good, so desperate to see Farrier again, that he’d create such a lively version of him?
It takes a few days for his friends to notice Collins’ eyes shifting to empty spaces, the occasional solitary whispers, the tension in his features.
They're in the Mess Hall, preparing for early morning reconnaissance, when he finally gets his first:
“You alright, mate?”
For the quickest second his gaze flickers to Farrier sitting at the end of the table like he always had, as if he’s always been there. His gaze is softer now, watching Collins in return, waiting for the answer to the question he can’t give voice to anymore.
Somehow, it makes Collins feel like crying. He bites his lip hard.
“Aye, mostly. I guess I’m just not feeling much like myself, anymore.”
How can he, when he’s clearly losing his mind?
There’s a pang of regret in his chest, and it doesn’t entirely feel like it belongs to him. Farrier makes a face, just a subtle twitch of his lips into a frown, a small furrow in his brow. Collins ignores him for fear his hands will start to shake. He sips his tea, wishing it was coffee, wishing it would burn his tongue to give him some real and tangible pain to distract him.
Sometimes he thinks he hears him in his ear during flights, over all the radio static and his engine and the other voices he knows to be real. Just a barely-there mutter of “on your six” or “ease up on your guns” or something of the like. The kind of things he used to say.
It always sends a shiver down his spine and leaves the sensation of cold breath against his face.
But when Collins actually sees him down on the ground, Farrier still says nothing. He wants to hear his voice again.
The last time was…
"Best of luck, Collins."
He hadn't answered, too busy focusing on the rapidly approaching churn of water below.
"Collins, do you read?"
He should have answered. If he'd known it would be the last time, he would have said something, anything , just to keep his voice in his ear.
It's awful being deprived of it now, subject only to the haunt of watchful eyes.
After one flight he takes a late-night stroll across the base, far out past the hangars and huts and runways towards the trees. There’s an old oak there standing lonely in the field, and a few of its withered branches curl and hang low enough to climb. He’s spent many days lounging in its curves, a perfect view of the base and the skies, a perfect place to rest and breathe. Farrier showed it to him, and accompanied him on a number of occasions, so long ago now.
He curls his Irvin jacket around himself and nestles into the rough bark, staring at the cloud of breath escaping his lips. The cold bites at his nose and ears and cheeks until they turn red. An unlit cigarette rolls between his thumb and forefinger.
Farrier sits at the base of the tree, stuck in its roots, staring up at him.
“Everyone says you’ll be fine, after you lose someone,” Collins says.
He’s given up not talking to Farrier’s ghost—hallucination, he keeps having to correct himself.
“I thought I was doing alright, until you showed up. Guess I was just that desperate to see you again.”
No response. That’s expected at this point. Collins only sighs until every last bit of air is expelled from his lungs and he’s nearly lightheaded.
“I know you told me to move on if this happened. Be someone without you.”
Farrier shifts, though there’s no sound. They had this conversation back when the war started, and his expression is melancholic with the memory. Or maybe it's Collins’ memory, if this is indeed a self-created delusion.
“It’s harder than I thought it would be.”
I was moving on, I was doing fine....
“I wish you were here,” he says through the dryness of his throat. His chest is heavy, his heart pounding against his ribs, trying to crawl out from between them.
His leg twitches like it’s been bumped. It’s not a fully physical feeling, too difficult to describe, like a sensation his mind is more aware of than his body. Farrier’s hand hangs in the air by his foot, evidently the thing that has caused it.
He’s never tried to touch him before. It’s strange, ethereal and foreign. Yet Collins appreciates the sentiment, the small attempt at comfort.
“I guess I’m keeping you here with me, even if you’re gone.” Collins tries to smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
Even so Farrier smiles a little too, and it’s bittersweet and raw and honest, and for the first time his presence makes Collins feel less lonely.
One night at the pub, during a rather heated argument between Collins and one of the American boys from the other squadron on base, Farrier manages to shatter a glass on the floor. It stops the argument just shy of fists being thrown.
None of the boys question what happened, and the man getting in Collins' face huffs and backs off, broken out of his aggression. Collins is red-faced and short of breath and with liquid-hot fire pumping through his veins when he shoots Farrier a hard glare. The only one who knows what's just transpired.
Farrier looks a little surprised, but nevertheless, he's clearly pleased the fight has stopped.
Collins spends the rest of the night in a haze, trying to discern if it was actually Farrier who'd done it at all.
Another week, and he still hasn’t disappeared. Not permanently, at least. Farrier comes and goes from the world like a wisp of smoke on the wind. Sometimes he’s more corporeal, sometimes less. When he’s about to go, he looks off to some distant place like he’s being called by a soundless voice. It starts to make Collins nervous that he’s being dragged away from whatever plane of existence he’s on, and he reaches out sometimes like he can anchor him here.
He couldn’t wait for him to go away the first time, now he’s starting to dread what will happen if he never returns.
But he always does; he always comes back, refreshed and kempt and glad to see Collins again.
This time, he reappears in the common room that evening after dinner, after being gone for almost the full day. The boys have gathered after a particularly rough few Channel hops, eager to relax and unwind.
"Oi, Collins, you coming out with us?” One of them is calling from the doorway. “We're taking some of the ladies out dancing. 'Bout time we found you a nice girl, eh?"
Farrier watches from across the way, leaned against the wall while the squadron huddles around, waiting. His face is passive, yet when Collins meets his eyes, hiding his own relief, he senses an unease that's not his own rippling through the air, vibrating across his skin.
He's still watching his silent ghost when he says, "No, I'm not interested."
"Your loss, then."
Farrier is gone again, vanishing like the shimmering ripple of waves, and the room is mercifully quiet. Collins sighs heavily and rolls his cigarette between his fingers, bouncing his leg, feeling vaguely empty.
Then the chair beside him is occupied without so much as a creak of old leather. Collins doesn't jump, already used to seeing Farrier flicker in and out of existence. There's that same lack of smell, of warmth, of weight.
A pressure starts on Collins' knee, not quite a tangible, physical touch, more like the air itself is pushing down on him. His leg stops bouncing. The corner of Farrier's mouth quirks up slightly, and he keeps his incorporeal hand resting there on his knee.
Collins wishes more than ever that he could touch him properly; take that phantom hand and never let go again.
Even left alone in the room, he whispers his words, sure Farrier will hear.
“I’m still waiting for you. I always have been.”
Farrier shakes his head, a despondent slump to his shoulders.
“Don’t look at me like that. I never told the real you, but I have a right to natter to my own hallucinations.”
His knee throbs in five small points of pressure, like fingers are squeezing gently. It’s an especially odd sensation.
“I loved you,” he says, more casually than he ever thought he could. “I still do. Sometimes I wonder if you knew."
He can feel the look directed at him, burrowing through his skin, peering down into his soul. He smiles sadly, too exhausted as the weight of his confession finally tumbles off his shoulders.
“It doesn’t matter now. You’re gone, and I’m still here.” He drops his head in his hands, anger and frustration overwhelming him suddenly, making tears sting at the corners of his eyes. “This isn’t fucking fair. None of it. It’s torture.”
He wants to scream. He thinks he feels a hand on his shoulder, running down his back, but it’s the same prickling, hollow touch. It still makes him shudder, and his muscles slacken.
"I wonder what the real you would say, if you could see me now."
Farrier makes a face like he's desperate to respond. Or maybe Collins is the one who's desperate to hear his voice.
The next week, he’s collapsed on the tarmac beside his crashed plane, warmed by the engine fire and choked by the smoke. He’s bruised and battered and bleeding, barely able to move for how much his body screams. Faces hover around him as medics scurry to treat his wounds.
Farrier’s there too, filling Collins’ blurred vision, haloed by sunlight, all wide-eyed and frantic. His mouth moves like he’s trying to say his name, his hands wander around Collins’ head and shoulders, but he can't feel a thing. He only smiles up at him weakly as his mind slips away.
A few days later and Collins is groggily coming back to consciousness in a hospital bed.
His ribs throb the moment he tries to move, bandages pulling all around his left arm and shoulder and down across his stomach. Blood pounds against the inside of his skull, his cotton-dry tongue heavy in his mouth, and he croaks when he groans; probably the first sound he’s made in days. Rolling his head across the pillow is like trying to roll a boulder.
“Please be more careful. Don’t scare me like that again."
Collins flinches at the voice, and he clumsily rubs a palm into his eyes to clear the persistent spots in his vision.
Farrier sits on the edge of his hospital bed, his bulky form slumped with his hands in his lap. His expression is an open book of concern and relief.
“So you can talk.” Is the first thing out of Collins’ mouth, cracked and sore. He coughs, thankful the privacy curtain is pulled around his bed.
Farrier smiles weakly. “This whole situation's been difficult.”
Collins frowns, trying to shake the last of the dizziness from his head. It only makes his wound throb, and he groans.
The hospital smells of fresh linen and disinfectant, heels click on the tile floor somewhere far off, the lights overhead buzz. It’s like a dream, where the world is pristine in nature and reduced to just the two of them, together.
He stares in silence for a long while, trying to find some sort of order in the haziness of his mind. He has a million questions, though he could never be sure of the answers. He settles on the only one that really matters.
“Why are you here?”
Farrier looks at him pointedly and with such endearment, like how one looks at the beauty of spring flowers or fine gems or works of art. Like how one looks at a lover. Collins is left breathless.
“Because you needed me to be.”
He doesn’t believe it, doesn’t want to believe it, but… Collins has to ask, no matter how much it terrifies him.
"Are you dead?”
Silence. A thoughtful tilt of his head as Farrier ponders the question. “Maybe, maybe not.”
That’s exceedingly unhelpful, if not downright irritating.
But Farrier’s face betrays nothing, and his tone is solemn when he says, “What do you think?”
“I’d prefer to think I’m just going crazy.”
A smile, soft and sympathetic. "Wouldn't we all?"
He never gives him an answer. Collins doesn’t know which answer would be worse.
"I'm glad I finally got to talk to you, before the end," Farrier says, staring off somewhere only he knows. “I have enough regrets as it is.”
Collins inhales sharply at the finality of his words, a cold prickle shooting across his nerves and down into his veins.
Pressure builds behind his eyes. His breath chokes in his lungs, scraping against his sore throat.
End of what? He wants to ask.
What slips out instead is, “Don't make me say goodbye to you again.”
Farrier shuffles closer and leans in until he makes up the entirety of Collins' vision. The bed doesn’t dip or creak, the sheets don’t wrinkle. When his hand rises to rest against his cheek, it's cold and soft as fog, sending an eerie shiver up the spine. Even so, Collins smiles, just a little, and it pulls at his bruises.
“I’ll see you again someday,” Farrier says cryptically.
"When I'm dead?" Collins mumbles pettily, finding no comfort in those words. "Or when the war's over?"
"That's always the question, isn't it? Until then, you keep fighting. For the both of us.”
Collins shakes his head, tears pushing at his eyes. Farrier hovers over him now, those unnatural hands cupping his face, without warmth or breath. There's the soft press of a kiss against Collins’ forehead, as strange as it is tender.
"You told me you loved me," Farrier presses the words into his hair, echoing and distant.
Collins squeezes his eyes shut. Not the real you.
"I'll give you my answer. In this life or the next. You'll have it."
“You can’t do this to me now,” Collins rasps, reaching for Farrier's arms, disregarding the pain of his wounds. His hands fall through air, and if he had the energy, he'd scream in frustration.
Don’t tell me you love me. Not like this. Not as a dream.
He thinks he feels a thumb brush across his cheek, but it's hard to discern. Farrier meets the wet blue of his eyes, like he's handling his own glass heart. The image of him shivers.
"You've done well. I'm proud of you. So I know you'll be alright now."
Maybe so, but he's already said goodbye to Farrier once. Whether a ghost or his own madness, he doesn't want to lose him again. He can't.
He’s going dizzy again, and he slumps back onto his pillow as the room spins around him.
No, no, no, he doesn’t want to fall asleep. If he does, it’s over. He knows it will be. His hands bury into the sheets as best he can, and his muscles ache from the strain. Teeth grind in his mouth. Pain, pain keeps him awake.
Lips, cold and light as the wind, press against his own. The tease of a kiss, of what could be and can't be. A tear slips free, tickling down his cheek. He can’t breath, and his eyelids are too heavy.
“Sleep,” he hears, floating somewhere in a void. “You don’t need me here, anymore.”
Collins shakes his head lazily. That’s never been true.
It doesn’t matter. He tumbles back into unconsciousness, and when he awakes, the air is light and warm and empty.
Farrier is gone.
He never returns, no matter how long Collins waits.
So he heals, buries his broken heart, and returns to fight the war. Convinces himself it was all a delirious fever dream.
Two months later, he receives a letter.