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A Last Taste of Life

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Captain Callandar strode yet again the path that led to the top of the little hill, where stood the tent with its occupant who was never, even in sleep, far from his mind. If asked why he spent so much time there, Callandar might have said that it was his duty, for Archie Flemington had been entrusted to his care. But if it was so, then his conception of duty had rather changed.

Callandar nodded at the two soldiers who stood on guard at the entrance of the tent, and they saluted. Entering by the tent flap, he found Flemington sitting at the improvised table. His changeable face was not unguarded, for he had doubtless heard Callandar's approach, but the shift that came upon it as he confirmed the identity of his visitor struck Callandar like the sudden play of sunshine on the surface of a stream, lighting up the sunless interior of the tent.

Callandar felt his own countenance grow a little more stiff, as he nodded at his prisoner. 'I've brought supper,' he said, and moved aside so that the soldier carrying it might enter, setting two porringers upon the small table.

'Thank you,' said Flemington, and laid aside his pen and paper.

The soldier left, and they settled down to their meal, Callandar having seated himself on the opposite stool. It was two days before the morning that was to be Flemington's last on earth. Callandar was rather tongue-tied, but then, this was his usual state with his prisoner, who seemed to appreciate his company despite this.

Flemington broke that silence, after they had finished their meal. 'Though I could not see it, the sun has been shining on the tent all day,' he said. 'Do you think that I might get a sight of it, tomorrow, and feel the breeze upon my face? 'Twould be a joy to me.'

The tent, even now in the evening, was rather stuffy, and Callandar's conscience smote him with the knowledge that Flemington had spent all day in it. 'Yes, of course,' he said quickly.

'I thank you,' said Flemington with a smile, and stood, in order to stretch his slim body, which had doubtless grown stiff with lack of exercise. He was in his shirtsleeves, without even a waistcoat, for it must have been hot during the day.

Callandar watched him with a strange fascination, and a sensation as though his chest were achingly full of some unknown emotion, so that he could hardly breathe. Flemington was clean-shaven, for he was allowed a razor under supervision, but his fine, silky hair was somewhat dissheveled, and a lock of it lay against his cheek.

And then the man whom Flemington had once idly thought must be the most repressed man he had ever met rose jerkily from his stool, so that it fell over behind him, and took two steps towards Flemington. He took his head in both hands and kissed him full on the mouth.

In the next instant, he stood back, his cheeks hot with mortification. 'I—' he began, and meant to apologise, but could neither finish the sentence nor look at his prisoner.

'Callandar, look at me,' said Flemington gently, and Callandar, with extreme apprehension, did.

Flemington laid his finger across his lips in an unmistakable admonition to silence, with a glance at the closed entrance of the tent and the unseen soldiers outside.

Then he crooked his finger. 'Come,' he whispered.

Callandar felt as though that beckoning finger was pulling on a line attached to his heart. He took a step forward, and then Flemington was twining his hands firmly about his neck, pulling him close, and taking possession of his mouth.

Callandar, confronted with the terrifying uncharted territory of his own desire, could only strike out blind, his hands alighting on Flemington's back and feeling the warm play of muscle there. They were of a height—he had never kissed anyone his own height before—but Flemington's hair was soft as a woman's under his hands as he moved them upwards. But perhaps all men's hair was so.

And Callandar had never been kissed by a woman like this, with such confidence that Callandar could only surrender to it, his breath coming harsh in his throat, and that very surrender a shameful sweetness to him.

It occurred to Callandar, with the shreds of rational thought that he could muster, to wonder whether Flemington, who was after all a spy, had ever seduced anyone in the course of his operations. Had he ever seduced another man? It was possible, but surely—surely that was not what was happening now, for there was nothing he could possibly gain by it.

A less honourable man might have suspected him of seducing his captor in order to gain his freedom. A less honourable prisoner might have attempted it.

Flemington drew back a little, and they stood face to face, both their breaths coming quick. 'I thank you, Callandar,' he murmured, 'giving me a last kiss, as well as your other considerable gifts.'

Callandar was tongue-tied again, though he could now no more look away from Flemington's face, than he had been able to look at him before.

'If we went on,' Flemington whispered, and Callandar's heart gave a great thump as he said it, 'I fear 'twould be a risk to you. As for me, my life is already forfeit.' He shrugged, as though it was no great matter.

Callandar wondered what Flemington could read on his own face; he wished he would tell him, for he hardly knew himself.

'I would gladly have you,' Flemington continued, 'but 'tis your choice: shake your head, then, or nod, if you cannot speak.'

Callandar was almost painfully hard, and Flemington must have known it, for they had been pressed close enough together. But in the end, it was not his desire that decided the matter, but his urge to offer up some risk of his own, that he might in some way have a share in Flemington's fate.

He swallowed, with difficulty, and then nodded.

'Very well.' Flemington brushed the back of his hand lightly against Callandar's hard length through his breeches, and watched the effect of it as he might have judged the result of a brushstroke on a canvas.

'Come, kneel down,' Flemington whispered. 'If we had a bed and a room for a night, I'd show you a better time. But as it is, we should be quick—I've no wish to see you cashiered, or worse. Though perhaps my luck, which has betrayed me at last in the main, will hold for this.' There was a bright gleam in his eye.

Hearing the danger put into words like that, Callandar had a dizzy moment of wondering what on earth he was doing. But he would not draw back now—he would despise himself for such cowardice, and in front of Flemington, too. Besides, he wanted it too much.

They were both on their knees now, and he could feel Flemington with nimble fingers unbuttoning his breeches. He made a gesture towards doing the same for him, but Flemington shook his head.

'Not yet. Now, be quiet.'

This admonition was doubtless necessary, for his hands had now pulled up Callandar's shirt and taken hold of him. His breath quite left him at the sensation, and the smallest little moan escaped him as Flemington began moving his hand, in a leisurely, exploratory fashion.

'If you make a sound again, I shall stop,' Flemington whispered in his ear, and there was a trace of playfulness in his tone. And then he bit his earlobe lightly.

Callandar made no sound, though it was by the greatest effort. Clinging to Flemington, he buried his face in his shoulder, to help him remain quiet. Though Flemington's hands on him were still almost gentle, he knew he could not last long.

'Look me in the eye when you spend,' whispered Flemington.

Callandar obediently lifted his head and did so, fighting the urge to let his eyes fall shut and come in the privacy of his own head. Instead he locked his gaze to Flemington's dark, intent eyes and helplessly gave himself over to the pleasure, his mouth open and gasping for breath, though he made no sound. Though he was almost fully clothed in his uniform, he felt stripped naked.

He collapsed to the ground afterwards, still panting, and looked at the mess he had made of Flemington's hand and the sleeve of his shirt.

'Sorry,' he muttered, buttoning himself back up again.

'No matter,' whispered Flemington, smiling. 'Now, how do you want me?'

Looking at him, Callandar was struck dumb again, but finally got out, 'Lean back against me.'

Flemington gave him a quick nod, and turned round to do so. Slim as he was, his weight against Callandar was warm and heavy, for he was all muscle. Callandar brought his hands down to unbutton his breeches with trembling fingers. Suppose he could not please him as well? He had never done this for another man.

But in the event, it was not difficult. What a picture he made, leaning back so: his loose shirt rucked up, his breeches down, legs apart and one of them bent to brace himself against the ground. Callandar's hands were greedy to stroke him, and did not want it to end.

Flemington was entirely silent, but oh, how responsive: his breathing, the expression on his mobile face, looking up from where he was leaning against Callandar's shoulder, the movement of his hips.

'Kiss me,' he breathed at the last, and did not wait for a reply: he gripped Callandar's head with strong hands and took what he wanted, and for a few endless moments Callandar felt him spending at his hands and rejoiced at it.

He fell back, after, entirely relaxed in Callandar's arms, his chest still rising and falling rapidly, and he thought it was the least guarded he had ever seen Flemington. For surely this was his true countenance?

Flemington opened his eyes then, to see Callandar looking down at him, and the corner of his mouth came up in a little smile: but the control was back. He sat up, looking ruefully down at his shirt. 'Well, I have another one.'

He pulled it over his head, and Callandar drank in the sight of his bare back before he put the other shirt on, and began to button up his breeches again.

When they were both dressed, surely this could never be spoken of again. Gripped by a sort of compulsion to say something before this came to pass, Callandar muttered, 'I know I'm not—not him.'

Flemington arrested his movements, glancing narrowly at him.

'No, you're not,' he agreed mildly, revealing nothing of whether the assumptions inherent in Callandar's statement were correct.

Callandar flushed, as Flemington continued dressing. Why had he said it? No matter his own antipathy towards Logie, Flemington's relationship with him, whatever it be, was no business of his! He should have let it lie. Though he wondered what the man was like, for Flemington to give up his life for him.

Callandar was a modest man, and did not imagine that a man like Flemington might see much in someone like him. The events of the evening thus seemed rather inexplicable to him, but he supposed that for a man in Flemington's situation, it was any port in a storm, for comfort.

Flemington, now fully dressed, stood facing him, and Callandar looked aside, avoiding his eyes.

'Shall we play cards?' said Flemington, with great kindness.

'Yes,' replied Callandar in relief.

And so they did: played cards in silence, until dusk fell and the lantern had to be lit, and some while more. Callandar watched the light play over Flemington's face as if it were the last time he would see it, though it was not, or not quite.

'Well, 'tis late,' said Flemington at last. 'Shall we get some sleep?'

Callandar nodded. 'And you shall have some daylight and fresh air tomorrow.'

Flemington smiled at him. 'You have not forgotten.'

Callandar shook his head. 'I would not.'

'No, of course not.' He stood, and took a paper from among the little pile on the makeshift table. 'Here, this is for you.'

It was a sketch, quite rough, of Callandar himself, with the surroundings only very lightly sketched in, so that he could not tell where or when it might have been drawn, or if it had perhaps been drawn from memory. But it was so true to life that the latter would be difficult to believe.

Callandar gazed at it for a long while. He could not have described the expression on his face in the sketch, but the specificity of it made him feel seen like he seldom had in his life. Perhaps, after all, he was not wholly a replacement for another man.

He cleared his throat. 'Thank you. I shall treasure it.'

Flemington came round the table. 'Thank you.'

Before Callandar could react, he leaned in and brushed a kiss over his lips.

'Now go,' said Flemington gently, and Callandar, struck dumb again, did so.

Two days left. And those two days spent almost wholly within a tent, the confines of which he could compass with a few steps. Flemington's course was steady and he never wavered from it, but it was hard on a man who so loved life that his last days of it should be spent in a place so bereft of beauty and interest.

He had pen and paper, and drew little scenes from memory and occasionally from life, but the vividness of the world, that multitude of living people with such contradictory passions and reasons for their actions: the study of these, which had been one of his chief joys as well as a tool of his trade, was now largely denied him.

Save for one man: Captain Callandar, whose steps were perhaps those he heard approaching. Yes, for he came through the entrance now, followed by a soldier carrying two porringers.

Archie smiled with genuine pleasure. Such a man might not be many people's first choice of companion, and under other circumstances, he might not have been Archie's choice either. But these were not ordinary circumstances.

Callandar did not smile back, but Archie was not discouraged by this. He was fairly certain that the man was not insensible to him, but Callandar was hardly free in the expression of his emotions. This, however, was but an added incentive to study his smallest expression, and Archie found him fascinating. But they might well pass the rest of their allotted time in taciturn communion over cards, for whatever lay underneath that surface, Callandar might, as Archie had noted before, be the most repressed man he had ever met. And Archie was content not to provoke him.

Until, apparently, he did so inadvertently. Archie laughed at himself afterwards, for had he designed at seduction, he might have done worse than the state of half-undress he had been in, and the artless stretching of his arms above his head.

Provoking Callandar into that clumsy, desperate kiss had not been his intent, no; but once it was done, oh, how he could feel the life thrumming in his veins again!

Callandar stood back, not meeting his eye, and Archie was for a moment afraid that he might bolt.

'Callandar, look at me,' he said, gently, so as not to spook him.

When he did, Archie thought he could see shame in his expression, and fear, and desire, but which was uppermost was anyone's guess.

Archie laid his finger across his lips, then crooked his finger. 'Come,' he whispered. And Callandar did.

He was a little stiff in Archie's arms at first—and not in the right way!—but unbent quickly enough when Archie got his tongue in his mouth. Then his arms came up, and Archie liked the strength in them—he thought for a moment of a different man, but thrust the thought away. It was this man in his arms now, who must never have kissed another man before, if Archie judged him rightly, and shame on him to be thinking of someone else then.

Archie drew back a little, and they stood face to face, both their breaths coming quick. 'I thank you, Callandar,' he murmured, 'giving me a last kiss, as well as your other considerable gifts.'

Callandar said nothing, but he made a little movement towards him, the yearning now plain on his face.

It was rather flattering, to affect such a man in such a way, and Archie wanted nothing more in that moment than to take off Callandar's clothes, lay him down, and go slow with him.

They could not do that—even roused as he was, with his blood singing in his veins and feeling like his luck might be with him for this last real taste of life, Archie knew they could not—for the risk was not his own. But they could do something, perhaps.

'If we went on,' he whispered, 'I fear 'twould be a risk to you. As for me, my life is already forfeit. I would gladly have you, but 'tis your choice: shake your head, then, or nod, if you cannot speak.'

And Callandar indeed said nothing, but he did nod.

Archie coaxed him to his knees, kneeling likewise, and went straight to Callandar's breeches, unbuttoning them.

A whispered order: 'Be quiet,' and then Archie took hold of him.

Oh, the expression on Callandar's face—he drank it in, and as he began to stroke him, marvelled at how every emotion seemed now to be written plainly on it.

Archie could not help teasing him a little, whispering in his ear, 'If you make a sound again, I shall stop.' And then he bit Callandar's earlobe lightly.

Even at that, he made no sound—a disciplined man!—but Archie felt his response in other ways. Oh, it surely would not take much to make him spend, and Archie was sorely tempted further to tease him, to see what it would take to make him beg for it.

But no, they could not: and Archie found it as great a reward, or more, to meet Callandar's gaze as he gave him what he needed.

And afterwards, to lean back against him and entrust Callandar with his own pleasure, the hands on him perhaps not so experienced, but eager and willing. 'Twas a gift indeed, to meet a man in honest desire. Archie kissed him through the end of it, and lay limp against him afterwards, free for once to let go of the constant complexity of his thoughts, and trust in a simple human connection.

But that, sweet as it was, had to end, too, and Archie sat up and began to change his shirt, which had become rather debauched.

Beside him, he heard Callandar hesitantly mutter, 'I know I'm not—not him.'

He was a perceptive man, in his own way. Though really, this particular hypothesis would not be difficult to come up with, given what Callandar now knew both of his predilection for men, and his history with James Logie. And it was true, in a way, but Archie had never shared even a kiss with Logie, though he had been powerfully drawn to him. If they had, would it have changed anything?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not, for it was never the physical attraction, strong as it had been, which had determined his actions when it came to Logie, but the way that Logie had trusted him.

But Callandar, much as they had shared now, was not entitled to know these things. 'No, you're not,' he agreed mildly.

Callandar flushed and turned away. Archie finished dressing, and, taking pity on his awkwardness, asked him whether he would like to play cards. Callandar acquiesced to this return to normalcy with relief.

As they sat in silence at the game, Archie thought how little likely the encounter they had just had would have been in any circumstances other than these. Callandar, he suspected, had not much liked him on first acquaintance, finding him perhaps flippant, or having the honest soldier's disdain for intelligence work. As for Archie, he had not seen past the somewhat dour exterior, and thought him the sort of unimaginative soldier for whom the arrival of an order from a superior terminated all speculative thought, if indeed he ever indulged in such. But it was not true, as Archie had once alleged, that he lacked compassion.

They had been thrown together in such a way as to make him appreciate Callandar for certain specific qualities which he had found were rare in mankind. Archie Flemington himself would have been described as a changeable man by many, but he had reached his bedrock, and found equal bedrock in Callandar.

His life could be counted in hours now, instead of days, but it was late, and they must both sleep. Callandar began to take his leave; it was clear that he would not mention what had passed between them, and indeed, Archie would have been surprised if he had. But he himself wanted it acknowledged.

While he could still have an effect upon the world, Archie reached among his papers and took out a sketch. 'Here, this is for you.'

He watched Callandar study it, and was well pleased.

'Thank you. I shall treasure it,' he said, his voice a little husky.

Archie came round the table. 'Thank you.'

Before Callandar could react, he leaned in and brushed a kiss over his lips.

'Now go,' said Flemington gently, and Callandar, silently, did so.