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all your strays

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"You and your bloody strays," Bert says.

What he doesn't say is this--that he knows full well he was one of them. A dirt-poor digger, drowning in his shell-shock and washed up in Melbourne because whatever family he had before the war he can't look in the eye, nothing to his name but a reputation down a few dark alleys and a steady enough hand for driving when he hasn't gotten too far into the drink. But Cec glued his own life back together with the determination of someone stupidly young when he went to war, and then came after Bert, because huddling in a foxhole together isn't the sort of thing you forget, even if war dragged you different directions halfway through its bitter course.

What he doesn't say is this--that he doesn't pick up strays often himself, but Cec was one of them. This kid with soft eyes and a bleeding heart, lonely and quiet by the campfire, and Bert settled down next to him and made up his mind to haul him through. That Bert saved his life, and then Cec saved his, and then it stacked up too many times to count, so they started counting in other things--in letters from home about friends lost in far-off countries that they pick each other up after, in rations and cigarettes shared, in songs sung off-key together, hands clasped for a second before they scrambled into a fight--in lines blurred a bit because this was war and nobody really cared about any lines except the fronts.

What he doesn't say is this--he isn't sure what he'd do without Cec's strays. If he had to come home to their run-down little flat without Red to wind between his ankles purring, Pip to hiss haughtily from the windowsill--and the both of 'em to crowd into the bed with him and Cec, warm and smothering and eager to lick rough at his shaking hands or his teary face when he jolted up from nightmares until he could breathe again. (Or until Cec and his infallible instincts stirred awake, always somehow knowing whether Bert needed a warm arm to ease him back down to the pillows or a stiff drink in the candlelit kitchen and a conversation in raspy voices, late into the night.) If they didn't have downstairs' teenage daughter, who Cec picked up crying from a dance hall with no charge, to drop off cat food on tight weeks and not say a word if she comes in to the two of them in each other's arms on the couch that's spitting stuffing out its splitting seams. 

What he doesn't say is this--that he grumbles, but the first time he fell in love with Cec was when they found a bird with a broken wing under a splintered tree in Egypt, and the other man picked the little thing up with the carefullest hands and the gentlest look on his dusty face. He kept it warm in his pocket by the fire that whole night, crumbling stale bread for it to peck at, and Bert watched when he dared, something flickering warm and unfamiliar and such a damn relief from the bloody battlefields in his stomach. That in the morning, when it was just a corpse with little bones, Cec laid it down gentle under a spindly bush--and Bert watched and cursed his stupid heart for melting at how soft those blue eyes went, how careful those strong, split-knuckled hands could be. That he falls in love over and over, every time Cec flips a coin at some urchin kid with bony wrists, or pieces back together their rickety cab with a friendly pat and a "not giving up on you yet, old gal," because that stupid bloody heart is wide enough for the entire world and he knows he's damn lucky that Cec saves most of it for him.