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Quand On Est Tous Les Deux

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He was found on a rainy afternoon. It was summer, he knew that much from the heat the day before. Where it was grey and cloudy, the wind oddly biting cold, the afternoon before had been searing hot, turning his pale skin pink as he hunkered near trees. He still wasn’t sure how he’d got to…well…wherever it is. He wasn’t sure of many things. He knew his name was Eric, that he’d been walking a very long time, and had made it through the kindness of strangers whose language he didn’t speak. The roads were long, a lot of them torn, the villages in rubble in some places.

They looked at him askance, like maybe he was a traitor or a spy—and for all he knew, he was one. But he knew he wasn’t Allemand—he didn’t entirely understand the word, but it was the name of the enemy, and he wasn’t that because once they heard him speak, they sent him on his way with loaves of bread and sometimes half a bushel of apples.

Eric had a few things. A pack with drawing supplies and a book. He had woken in the shed of a sheep farm with tattered clothes and a vicious wound on his shoulder. The older woman running the farm, who didn’t speak a lick of English, had tended to him. He was fed and watered, and helped her with chores until he could be on his way.

Then she slipped him a few brass-looking coins and a change of clothes, a fresh pair of boots, and he was gone. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he knew he had to get somewhere, to someone who could help him get home. Who could maybe explain how he’d got here, and maybe where he’d been.

So far, it hadn’t been much. He had vicious nightmares which left him waking in a cold-sweat, but he couldn’t remember much besides loud sounds, and a lot of water seeping into his lungs, leaving him gasping for air, feeling like he was drowning. The rest was just a mess.

He knew he’d come from Georgia. That his momma and daddy had a little ranch just outside of Madison where they raised cow, they had a coop with chickens, and sold eggs down at the market. He knew he’d always been a little strange, a queer boy no one liked to look at for long. But at the market, they sure loved him and his momma’s pies.

And lord did Eric miss them both. Lord did he want to get home, but he just didn’t know how.

He’d run out of money a few towns back, had been sleeping in fields. When the storm hit, he’d scrambled for town, a little village bigger’na ones he’d been in before, but not enough he’d find himself a telephone. He’d give darn-near his right arm for a telegram if he could get his hands on one, but so far this place had little more than a bakery, cheese shop, a dress-maker, and a lot of little homes with thatched roofs and wooden doors.

The rain was unforgiving, and Eric was developing a harsh burn in his lungs which he knew wasn’t a good sign. He’d need a hot drink and a few days rest, and that didn’t seem like it was on the horizon. He thought it would be less than swell to die on the side of a road when he’d survived…whatever it was he survived. But he supposed God Himself had a sense of humour. At least a little one.

His eyes were heavy now, and his skin burned with fever, and he could feel himself slipping.

He was only half aware when big hands suddenly took him under his arms. And bein’ a man, he’d’a protested harder if he could have made a sound, but as it was, his throat was tight and his tongue too thick for his mouth.

He was being carried then, feeling like he was floating on waves, and then the water stopped. There was warmth, pressed to his lips, and he manged to gulp it down just before his head fell back against a soft pillow. A warm, rich voice said something to him in a language he didn’t understand, and then his eyes slipped shut, and blackness took over.

***

When Eric woke the second time, he realised he was on a sofa in a very small lounge, in a very small flat. The sofa was perched under a small window, letting in a stream of light which told him the storm had passed. His limbs felt heavy, like when he’d been real sick as a kid and his momma had given him foul-tasting medicine. His eyes protested when he tried to open them fully, but he won the battle, and managed to sit up.

There was a small table in front of him, and a tray laid out with some crusty bread which didn’t look too old, a bit of cured meat, and the soft cheese he’d seen during his travels. His stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten in a while, so he took it all in with a ravishing hunger he hadn’t expected. His throat was still sore, but there was a glass of slightly warmed, fresh squeezed juice, and that went down easy.

When he was full, Eric flushed from his lack of manners, but luckily there’d been no one around to see him. His skin itched, and being inside somewhere nice like this made him profoundly aware of the last time he’d bathed, the last time he’d scrubbed at his teeth or had washed his clothes. He shifted, glancing at his surroundings. It was homey, full of books, a few paintings on the walls. But it was also a little too tidy, as though the person who lived there didn’t spend much time there at all.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat, but just as his bladder was starting to protest, the door opened and a man walked in. He was tall, imposing, and one of the most beautiful Eric had ever seen. He had stark black hair, icy blue eyes, and a firm, square jaw. His eyes roamed the room, then flared a little wide when he realised Eric was awake.

A tense silence fell between them, then the man began to speak rapidly, though not in English.

Eric blinked, then let out a nervous laugh and said, “I’m beggin’ your pardon, sir, but I don’t speak a lick’a that. Whatever it is. I been tryin’ but…” He trailed off.

The man’s jaw snapped shut, and he stared for a minute.

Eric licked his lips. “You got a…toilet?”

The man gave a short nod, then gestured down the hall where Eric saw a small room. He thanked god somewhere in this little town had indoor plumbing. He was able to relieve himself, and in the kitchen he found a sink and some soap, and got his hands and arms as clean as he could manage.

When he turned back, the man was perched at the edge of a chair, watching him carefully. Eric took a hesitant step, then said, “I should say thank you. For what you did. Savin’ my life. You probably don’t understand a word but…it means a lot. My name’s Eric.” He met the man’s icy gaze, then pointed to himself. “Eric. Eric Bittle.”

The man’s jaw was set tight, but he gave a nod, then pointed to himself. “Jack Zimmermann.”

“Real nice to meet ya, Jack Zimmermann,” Eric said. He thought about extending his hand, but Jack was so clean and sweet smelling, and Eric was…not. “Really, thank you again.”

“You…are welcome,” Jack said in stilted English, and Eric startled so hard, he actually felt his heart hammer against the inside of his ribs.

“You speak English.”

Jack’s eyebrows furrowed. “Little bit,” he said. “I learn some in school. Some from…men. Who come through. Come to my shop.”

“Men,” Eric repeated. “Like me or…”

“Solider,” Jack said, waving his hand dismissively. “They fighting in the war. Some English, some American.”

Eric felt his stomach drop. Was there a war? He had no memory of that. “I…clearly I wasn’t a solider. I mean, look at the size of me.”

“Très petit,” Jack commented, and a tiny smile played at the corners of his lips. “Not fight.”

Eric shrugged. “My daddy was in the war. First war, you know. Back in eighteen. Got shot up real bad right near the end, sent him home. His leg was never the same, but he was doin’ alright. Last time I…saw him.” Eric stopped as Jack nodded.

“I fight,” Jack said, and then he reached up and yanked the leg of his trouser to his knee. “Then…” He made a kaboom sort of sound, a hand motion like something exploded. “Doctor…fix. But…is not same.”

“So there…so there is a war,” Eric breathed. “Is it…are we…”

“No danger,” Jack said, as though he knew what Eric was thinking. He rose and took a tentative step toward Eric, his brow furrowed, but he no longer looked angry. “Is over. They surrender, everyone going home…to family.”

Eric nodded. “Yeah I…well. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Jack cocked his head to the side. “You are not…going home? Not have family? How you come to Arromanches?”

Eric blinked at him. “A…what? Is that where I am?”

“Arromanches-les-Bains,” Jack said, the words rolling off his tongue. “Normandy. What happened to you?”

“I don’t know,” Eric breathed. “I’m not…Lordy I ain’t sure. I got hurt real bad, woke up in a barn, and this real nice lady was takin’ care’a me. But I can’t remember much. Not since…” He blew out a puff of air. “Lord, since before they was takin’ boys in the draft.”

Jack looked like maybe he didn’t understand all the words that had come out of Eric’s mouth, but he nodded all the same. “Maybe you fight? With the Americans? There was a big battle, they come from the sea, was not good for so many, but…then the war is over and they all pulling out, go home.”

Eric let out a tiny laugh. “Now ain’t that a thought, but look at me, Jack. I’m not the fightin’ kind. They wouldn’t’a wanted me anyway when they learnt…” He fell quiet, his tongue refusing to say the words because he might not have remembered much, but he sure as heck remembered watching Michael Willis running up the football field and feeling…some type of way about him that Eric knew wasn’t a good thing. He swallowed thickly, not wanting a beating from the nice Frenchman. “I must’a got here some other way. Maybe my family’s here, you know? Lookin’ for me?”

Jack hummed. “Most Americans, they visit Paris, not here. We are…small place, not many people, not much English.”

Eric let out a small laugh. “Figured that one out.”

“You work for me,” Jack said after some silence, his voice firm and decided. “I pay you, then you take money, maybe go look for them in Paris. It take…maybe couple of weeks, maybe one months, but you on the road much longer, yes?”

“Oh I…” Eric began.

Jack gave him a piercing stare, then asked, “You can bake?”

That startled a laugh out of Eric who shook his head. “Oh honey…can I bake…”

***

Eric assumed he’d be put to work straight away, but instead Jack showed him the bath, which he luxuriated in for nearly a half hour. Jack wasn’t the sort who had fine-smelling soaps or anything, but he had enough to get Eric clean, and a set of clothes waiting for him when he was out.

They had dinner that night, some sort of creamy soup with chunks of noodles and veg, and fresh bread which Eric learnt Jack made every night by hand. The bakery, as Eric was given a tour after they’d eaten, was small, but there wasn’t much reason for it to be larger. The little village had less than three hundred people—maybe not even that after the war had ravaged the area. Though the Germans had retreated, things still weren’t easy.

“For my family,” Jack said, his face illuminated by the oil lamp perched on the bakery counter. “We are…how you saying this in English. Like the Germans say it? Jude?”

“Jewish,” Eric said, his voice a little small, because…that triggered something. Something he was supposed to know, like a memory buried deep. His head began to hurt as he pressed himself for it, but nothing came.

“The people here…most are good men, but some don’t like me so much. My parents…my father, he fight. My mother work in Paris, to send money here.” Jack sounded a little sad, a little tired as he spoke, his big hands folded together on the counter which was pale with a dusting of flour. “The country, needs too much…euh…” Jack struggled for the word. “Is so broken, need to be fix. Everyone working so hard, give up so much. I take over here, after my leg. But not everyone in the village still happy we’re here. Some of them…not think we should have..stay.”

“Because you’re Jewish…” Eric said, trailing off.

Jack shrugged. “I stay. Is our shop, our home. Someday when the country is better, I go back to University, the world will be…better.”

Eric let out a small sigh, and nodded. He closed his eyes and felt a wave of dizzy, and something pressing against his head, like a memory struggling to come out. But it was still blank, and he wished he knew how to make it stop. “Jack?”

Jack looked up at him. “Ouais?”

“Is there a way I can post a letter home? Just in case my ma and pa aren’t here?”

Jack smiled. “Ouais, Eric. I can help you with that.”

***

Eric kept the letter simple, written over coffee and croissants the next morning, long before the sun was up. Eric didn’t love waking early, but the prospect of talking to Jack again—someone who could speak his language, connect with him in a way no one had in what felt like months. He told his parents where he was, that he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. An injury, he was certain, and he had little memory, but was working on getting money to come home. He added Jack’s address, though it would be post-marked, and then handed it off to his new flatmate.

“I think that should do it.” Eric worried his bottom lip between his teeth. “How long d’you think before it arrives?”

“International, sometime take one months,” Jack said as he began to seal up the envelope. “But maybe little bit longer since there is still little bit fighting at the borders.”

Eric felt his shoulders slump, dejected, but still hopeful. It would take him just as long—if not longer—to earn passage back to the States, then to Georgia as it was. So maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. “I guess it’s all I got. Thanks for this.”

Jack shook his head. “De rien. Today we going to the market in Bayeux, for more supply, and we send your letter.”

Eric’s eyes widened, but Jack’s tone booked no argument, so he hurried through the rest of his breakfast, and quickly washed up. He didn’t look as tidy as he would have preferred, Jack’s clothes on him a few sizes too big, but the belt worked well enough, and after rolling his sleeves to the elbow and dragging a comb through his hair, he felt alright.

The gifted shoes weren’t worn through, so he slipped those on, and Jack ushered him out the door, down the street, and round the corner to where a car was parked. It was a nice looking one, more modern than Eric expected in a small village like this. He clambered into the seat, and before long, they were puttering down the road.

“This is real nice,” Eric said after some time.

Jack glanced over, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “Merci.”

“That means…thank you, yeah?”

Jack laughed. “Ouais.”

Eric frowned. “Ouais,” he repeated. “Is that the same as oui?” He knew he was butchering the pronunciation by the way Jack was grinning, but he held his shoulders firm and Jack chuckled again.

“Is little bit same. More…how you saying it? Friendly?”

“Casual?” Eric offered.

“Casual,” Jack repeated. “You learn, after working at my shop. I teach you some French. When you going home, then you already have languages for University.”

Eric giggled. “University. Oh Jack…I’m just…I’ll be livin’ and dyin’ on my daddy’s farm, trust me. There’s no University for me.”

“You don’t want it?” Jack asked, a curious frown furrowing his eyebrows.

Eric shrugged, glancing at the very green beyond the bumpy road. “I…never really thought. I had enough schoolin’ at home, or so my daddy thought. And I ain’t…got a lot of talent. I mean, I bake a mean pie but…what’s that gonna do for a boy? Certainly ain’t gonna earn me a wife.”

Jack hummed. “A wife.” The look he gave Eric after that set Eric on edge, his heart beating hard and fast like maybe Jack knew. “Is what everyone does, yes?”

Eric shrugged, trying not to choke on the heart which was lodged in his throat. “I…guess so. Wondered if um…if it was ever for me.”

Jack sighed. “Peut être.”

The rest of the drive to Bayeux was in near silence.

***

Bayeux seemed larger than where Jack lived, but not by too much. All the same, the streets were busier, and there were more shops and cafés along the streets. Jack parked the car along a kerb, then beckoned Eric along first to post his letter. He spoke in rapid French, the words flowing from his lips like Eric hadn’t heard yet since he’d met the baker, but it was captivating and beautiful.

Eric hoped the whole thing was being explained, but the man behind the counter—though he seemed a little confused, was friendly enough and gave Eric a reassuring nod before taking it in his hands. Eric closed his eyes and murmured a prayer that all would be right, and he’s find his way home.

Jack led the way out of the shop, but though Eric could see the market stalls not far off, brimming with produce, Jack took his arm and led him toward a café.

“Food,” he explained.

Eric frowned. “No money. Jack I…”

“Is okay,” Jack insisted. He put Eric in a chair, under a small umbrella swaying next to a quaint little sign reading La Buvette. Eric kicked his legs, and watched the people milling about. No one looked at him much, which was just as well. He supposed he didn’t seem too foreign at first glance, and it would only be when he opened his mouth people would notice.

But maybe, if there had been a war, Americans wouldn’t seem so foreign. The whole thing had a ring of familiarity to it. Eric had known there was fighting in Europe. There had been whispers of it since thirty-nine, and he’d once even talked to his daddy, wonderin’ if he’d get drafted with the rest of the boys. But his daddy didn’t seem to think they’d want a boy like Eric, and Eric couldn’t blame him for thinkin’ it.

It seemed an awful coincidence though, that he was here, banged up, without a memory. But there was no sign of war on him. He woke up without a pack, without weapons, or fatigues. Without dog-tags. Just a wound, and a handful of items that just might have identified him if all they’d had to ship back was a body.

Lord, it was so much, and he wished he could get his head back to the way it had been.

Rubbing at his temple, Eric startled when Jack came out, holding a small tray with two beers, and sandwiches. He offered Eric’s portion over without a word, and Eric took it with a nod of thanks, tucking in straight away so he didn’t appear to be ungrateful.

He was glad, after taking a drink, that it was cider instead of anything stronger. He didn’t think his head could take any of the rich ale they served these parts. Eric had tried it once, on the road, and was stuck with a headache for two days after. His momma and daddy weren’t the drinkin’ type, had supported prohibition with an almost fanaticism that they also threw into their Sunday services.

Eric had to wonder what they’d think now, with him sittin’ in this café having a hard cider with a tall, handsome Jewish man.

He flushed and kept his gaze focused on his food.

“What sort of pie you bake?”

Jack’s voice startled Eric out of his thoughts, and he glanced up at Jack who had finished his meal. “Oh well…where I come from we grow lots’a peaches. You know those?”

“Bien sûr. Nous avons des pêches ici.” When Eric’s brow furrowed hard, Jack laughed, his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Yes, we have peach here in France. We can buy some, yes? If you want to bake this peaches pie?”

Eric flushed and dragged a hand down his face. “Alright, you. You better start teachin’ me some French stuff so I don’t keep lookin’ like a right fool.”

Jack’s grin didn’t fade, and he clasped his hands on the table, leaning forward slightly. “What some things you wish to know? Hmm? Maybe introduce yourself, yes? Your age?”

Eric worried his bottom lip, feeling a sting from biting it so often. “How do you say…I am?”

Jack’s smile softened. “Je suis.”

“Je suis,” Eric repeated, then a few more times for good measure. “Je suis Eric Bittle.”

Jack snickered, shaking his head. “Je m’appelle Eric Bittle.”

Eric sat back, huffing and crossing his arms. “But…”

“In France we say, I call myself. Not I am. Je m’appelle,” he repeated slower. “They teach you this in school. First lesson. Je m’appelle Jack. Tu t’appelle Eric.”

Eric licked his lips. “Tu t’appelle Eri…”

“Non,” Jack said. “Je m’appelle.”

“Je m’appelle Eric,” he repeated with a huff, flinging his arms into a shrug.

Jack gave him a slow golf clap. “Bravo. Très bien.”

“I’m assumin’ that means good,” Eric said with a tiny huff. “How…how do you say twenty?”

Jack mulled that over, then held up two fingers, then made a circle with his hand, and Eric nodded. “Vingt.”

Eric repeated the word a few times, then said, “Je suis vingt.” When Jack’s eyes began to twinkle, Eric huffed and threw himself backward in his chair. “Oh what now? Lord this language…”

“J’ai vingt ans. Is meaning…I have twenty years. Vingt ans. Twenty years.”

“I have twenty…” Eric said, trailing off with a sharp breath. “Y’all in this country are mad. I’m never going to get this.”

“Is just take some time, Eric.” Jack winked at him, making Eric go hot all over. “J’ai vingt-cinq ans.” He held up a two, then a five, and Eric thought to himself for a brief, traitorous moment, not so much older I should feel bad before he remembered Jack was a man and he was a man and that was just not what the Lord wanted.

He swallowed thickly. “J’ai vingt ans.”

“Bravo,” Jack said again. “Maybe we think of something more simple, yes? For today. Just say…merci beaucoup. Meaning, thank you very much. Will be helpful when we are shopping. I take care of the rest.”

Eric rolled his eyes, but couldn’t keep the tiny grin off his face as he stood up and gave a little bow. “Merci beaucoup for the lunch, Jack.”

Jack laughed again, and shook his head. “De rien, Eric. Viens, allons-y.”

Eric didn’t need a translation, when Jack’s hand curled round his arm, and tugged him down the street.

***

Eric expected to get back to work the moment they had unloaded everything into the bakery. But instead of opening his doors, Jack took Eric back inside. The sun would be setting in a few hours, and Jack put out a few loaves of bread, some fruit, and began to heat up soup.

“You don’t want to open up?” Eric asked.

Jack shook his head. “Is late already, and…Shabbat when sun is down,” he said. “We don’t open then. Tomorrow is day of rest, no working, no baking.”

Eric’s eyes widened. “Oh um. Is that like…it’s…you believe um…?”

Jack shrugged. “Sometimes my family,” he said slowly, “we not follow all the rules. But maman and papa, is important to them I do this. Is difficult here, no place to go. No…” He struggled for the word, then shrugged. “No one here like me, so I light Shabbos candles here and…keep Shabbat alone.”

Eric realised what Jack was saying. There was no community. He was alone in his faith, and by his tone, the village preferred it that way. His stomach sank and he understood it in a way. Standing on your own, othered for who you were.

He walked up to Jack, reaching over, and took the cutting board with the carrots. “Can I?”

Jack smiled at him, then nodded and made a go-ahead gesture. They worked side-by-side, in mostly silence, laughing a little when they bumped hips or elbows. It was nice, and familiar, and the warmest and safest Eric had felt since he’d woken up in that barn.

When the soup was finished, the two of them sat in the lounge, feet curled under them, soup in their bowls, and bread on the table. Eric’s eyes drifted to the city street, to the soft orange glow as the sun began to dip low onto the horizon.

“How long ago did the war end, Jack?”

Jack blinked at him. “About eight month. Soldiers pull out not too long before this, but the fighting mostly stop before that.”

Eric let out a shaking breath. “I wish I could…I wish I could remember. You’d think I’d know why it’s all gone. There was no head wound, just…” He rubbed at his arm where a mess of scars sat just below his shoulder. “I don’t know how long I been here, how long I been away from home and lost.” He closed his eyes. “I’m scared.”

“You find home soon,” Jack assured him. He reached over, squeezing Eric’s arm. “Stay with me little while, then fill your pocket, and go see your peaches.”

Eric couldn’t help a laugh, and he cocked his head to the side, sharing with Jack his most genuine smile yet. “Merci beaucoup, Jack.”

Jack’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “De rien, Eric.”

***

Booming sounds, flashes of lights, pain. Something was choking him—maybe water, maybe blood. He couldn’t feel anything from his neck down except searing fire, and someone was dragging him through the mud, by the arm, and by the hair. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a choked wail, blocked by a swollen tongue…

The scream was lodged in his throat, and Eric scrambled to get free of what was holding him until he realised it was only blankets, and a warm palm on his cheek. After a moment, he could hear the soft flow of Jack’s words, murmuring in French as he remembered where he was.

“Jack,” he gasped.

Jack gathered Eric to him, holding him fast in an embrace that would have left Eric mortified if it hadn’t been for his racing heart, and the feeling like he was dying. As he started to calm, he pulled away, glancing up at Jack who was watching him with confusion and worry, but no judgement, no pity.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

Jack shook his head as he eased Eric back down, and handed over a glass of water. “Nightmare. Is right word, yes?”

Eric nodded as he swallowed half the water down, choking a little, swiping his hand across his mouth. “They happen a lot, but I can never remember them.”

“Nothing?” Jack asked. He crouched low, pressing the palm of his hand to Eric’s forehead. It was sweating, but cool. “You have see some doctor?”

Eric shook his head. “I mean, I got patched up by the old lady who found me, but I don’t think a doctor is gonna help much, Jack. When it happens it’s…I feel so…”

“Je sais,” Jack said quietly. “I know. After I’m shot I have…terrible dreams. Wake me up some nights, scared I’m there, in the fight. In the war.” He cocked his head to the side. “Maybe you were solider, Eric Bittle?”

Eric squeezed his eyes shut and let out a shuddering breath. “Maybe. But if I was…whatever this is, Jack…I’m not sure I want to know.”

Jack’s face fell in understanding, and he straightened up. “Maybe. For now, you sleep. In the morning, will all feel better.”

Eric nodded to himself, and buried his face in the pillow as Jack’s footsteps retreated back to his room. It wasn’t much, and he felt more alone than before, but it had been something. He could feel the ghost of Jack’s hands on him, of being crowded up against Jack’s chest, and he desperately tried to forget how nice it was. Because for however kind Jack was, he certainly wouldn’t remain so if he ever found out the truth about Eric Bittle, and his dark, quiet thoughts.

Chapter Text

Eric nearly jumped out of his skin when he turned and saw Jack leant against the wall, arms crossed. It was early, well before sun-up, but Eric hadn’t been able to sleep. When he was young and feeling haunted, he’d creep down to the kitchen and bake. It almost seemed wrong to do it here, and Eric had started to feel guilty, but the moment his hands got to working on crust, and the moment the sweet smell of filling began to permeate the kitchen, he didn’t feel so far away from everything familiar.

But looking at Jack reminded him he wasn’t home. He was far away, working in a bakery, trying to earn enough money to see his family again. And over the last two weeks he’d been desperately shoving down white-hot feelings making themselves known deep in his gut, every time Jack smiled at him.

Even now, as bad as he felt for waking up the flat, Eric felt his stomach wooshing pleasantly when Jack’s lips turned up in a small grin. “You wake up so early.”

Eric shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Jack’s smile faded, his brows furrowed. “Having bad dreams still?”

Eric shrugged, working the dough a little harder than was necessary, and he reached for the rolling pin near his elbow. “Something like that. It’s…probably because I can’t remember, and some days I wish the dam would just break and it would all come flooding back, and other days I know it’s gotta be so dang bad that if I did remember, it would probably break me.”

Jack let out a sigh, and crossed the room, leaning against the counter near Eric’s hip. “I help you, yes?” When Eric opened his mouth to protest, Jack shook his head. “I teaching you all the French technique for breads and croissants, everything we sell. Now you teaching me this.” He gestured at the pie, and Eric couldn’t help a laugh, even as he rolled his eyes and shoved a ball of dough at Jack.

“Fine. Let me just get the base, and then I can show you how the lattice work goes.”

“Lattice work,” Jack repeated slowly.

Eric felt warmth in all four limbs. “You got it, hun.” He froze, blushing hard, but realised Jack didn’t understand the word, and he didn’t bring it up again. He busied himself making sure the filling was ready to go, cooling near the window, then he got the bottom of the pan lined with the crust. When he turned to Jack, he smiled. “It’s all about weaving. I can do a few real complicated things…designs with twists and flowers, but I think we’ll start you off easy.”

Jack nodded, his brow furrowed in concentration as Eric showed him how to cut the strips, and how to carefully weave them, though for all that Jack was like a machine when it came to baguettes, pain d’epi, and croissants, he was a little bit of a disaster when it came to the lattice.

“Look at this mess,” Jack said, swiping his hand across his forehead, leaving a streak of flour along his temple. “Eric, look how I made a mess of it.”

“Oh sweetheart,” Eric said, unable to stop himself. “It’s fine. It’s wonderful, really.”

“Is going to be totally ruin, your pie,” Jack said, sounding still distressed.

Eric laughed, patting him on the shoulder as he took the pie and shoved it into the now-warmed oven. “It’s going to come out just fine, don’t you worry. Best pie I’ve had in years, I’ll bet.”

“You just telling me nice things,” Jack said with a slight pout, and Eric rolled his eyes again, reaching up to swipe the flour from Jack’s temple.

His fingers lingered there, and a silence fell over them. Eyes locked, and if this was the sort of romance from his mother’s books Eric used to sneak when he was little, it would be the moment Jack took him into his arms and kissed him. Only it passed. Eric’s hand fell away, and though there were spots of colour high on Jack’s cheeks, he merely smiled, gave Eric a pat on the shoulder, and walked away.

Eric was left minding the pie, a solid weight in his gut like a black-hole, threatening to consume him.

***

They got to work shortly after the pie was finished, and it was a busy day. The villagers had seemed charmed by Eric and his terrible French, smiling at him and even picking up a little bit of English with him. Jack was pleased at how well Eric was fitting in, and neither of them mentioned that as the weeks rolled on, Eric’s pockets were filled with francs, and the time for him to head to Paris to look for his parents was getting closer.

It was like a pendulum hanging over them, though. Eric could feel it, a dark shadow, and the desperation he felt to just stay, to keep things as they were, was visceral.

He tried not to think too much on it though, and let the day pass as it usually did.

They closed up shop in the afternoon when they were nearly sold out. Eric went upstairs as Jack went to distribute the remaining loaves to the few villagers that needed it and couldn’t afford bread, and by the time he got back, Eric had dinner nearly done.

Roasted chicken, some vegetables on the side from the market, and the pie cooled and ready to eat. The lattice was…not the prettiest he’d ever done, but it baked up perfectly golden, and the filling was set. Jack had a small smile on his face as he reached into his cabinet for wine, and poured two glasses for them.

It felt…like a date, almost. The soft orange glow of the setting sun, the way Jack was smiling at him over their dishes. They didn’t talk much, just shared a few laughs over some of their shop regulars, and it was so domestic, it almost hurt.

Jack insisted they take the pie in the lounge, the sofa more comfortable, and the pair of them put their bare feet up on the low table as they ate. Jack’s first bite, his eyes widened. “Oh, c’est très magnifique,” he groaned. “Is little bit like…a tarte? You know? But so different.”

Eric was beaming over his plate, his fork stuck in a bit of ripe peach. “I’m glad you think so. It’s my moomaw’s recipe.”

Jack lifted a brow. “Moomaw?” His accent made the word hilarious, in an aching, homesick sort of way.

“My momma’s momma,” Eric supplied. “Grandmother. You have those here, right?”

Jack snorted. “Yes, we have grandparents here, Eric. Mine has…die a long time ago. But when I was very little, my Mémé was like you. Very small, very…” Jack made a face. “Very brave.”

“Oh, I’m not,” Eric started to protest, but fell silent when Jack reached over and touched his wrist.

“You are,” he insisted. “Very brave. You being in this country, not knowing language, where you are, no memory. But you come here, you bake with me, earn some money. You smile, Eric. If I’m being you, just like you, I would not do so well.”

Eric licked his lips, staring down at his plate. “I don’t think you give yourself enough credit. The villagers have all been real nice, but I’ve seen the way they look at you sometimes, the way they talk about you. And I’m sure it’s not much better anywhere else. But you get up every day, and serve them with a smile, and you have big plans for when everything’s put back together the way it used to be.”

Jack bit his lip, then put his plate down and grabbed a book from a shelf. It turned out to be photos, pressed to pages, and right in the front were a man and a woman who had to be Jack’s parents. The man was very tall, the same dark hair, nearly the same face. The woman next to him had light hair, a thick waist, short with a bright smile, and eyes just like Jack’s.

“Maman et papa,” Jack said, brushing his finger down the edge of the photo. “Was take before the war, before me. They try, they braver than I was. Papa, he keep fighting, and maman working hard to rebuild the country.” He sighed and turned the page, his fingers suddenly trembling when it showed a photo of younger Jack. He was chubby, the same as his mother was, with a round face and equally round eyes. He was next to another teen, thinner, white-blonde hair, firm set jaw.

“Who’s that?” Eric asked in a quiet voice.

“Kent,” Jack replied. “His mother was French. He come to school here, stay with us. But the war comes, and he’s called home.”

“He wasn’t…was he…German?”

Jack nodded his head. “His family, they have to leave, go quick before it…got bad.” Jack took in a shaking breath. “He was afraid to fight, afraid to be part of that army.” Jack closed the book hard. “I only see him one time before they are gone. They go to the United States, before they stop letting us in. He write to me one time, but I never…” Jack shrugged, glancing off at a haunted memory playing before his eyes. “Too hard to write back. We were not good together.”

There was a weight to the word together, like it meant more than friendship, more than a shared childhood, but Eric was too afraid to ask. “I’m sorry, Jack. I know we all have our ghosts, and we all have our demons.”

Jack seemed to gather himself, and he nodded at Eric. “Ouais, but we also have a future, yes? Bright, beautiful. Is something to have, to keep us going.”

“It’s something,” Eric agreed, and when Jack reached over to take his hand, Eric didn’t pull away.

***

Saturday morning, the shop was closed in spite of Eric offering to run things for Jack. But he was grateful when mid-afternoon rolled round, and Jack insisted they spend the afternoon by the sea. The rain had cleared, and the weather was the most temperate Eric had ever felt. He packed up a picnic, mostly breads, fruits, and cheeses, and carried the bag on his back as they wandered down the road.

Jack’s flat wasn’t far from the shores, and the stretch of beach was empty. As they got closer, Eric realised the hunks of rocks in the shallow shores were abandoned boats, and he realised the militaries had used it as a landing port. Eric closed his eyes, trying to imagine fighting there, the peaceful sleepiness of this little village disrupted by war.

“Did you fight here?” Eric asked softly.

Jack shook his head. “Non. I was in the South of France, but when I come back, there was so much. A lot of Americans, and English. They come to set up camps, to protect, but there was…a lot of death.”

Eric took in a breath, and felt something sharp and dark digging at the back of his mind. He shook his head, and he led the way into the sand, finding a stretch of area that had been tamped down by the tide, but was dry enough for their blanket.

Jack smiled, letting Eric take over the work, as he was trying to keep the Shabbat as much as he could, but he settled in close once the food was out, and their knees knocked together as Eric uncorked a glass bottle he’d filled with water.

“Do you wish you were somewhere else?” Eric asked. “Your…church? What do you call it?”

“Ah,” Jack said. “Shul. I…didn’t go much when I was younger. Sometimes when we’re in Paris, there’s a synagogue we can go to, but only for big holidays. We always keep to ourselves. I think I prefer this way, outside under the sun, on nice beach with nice man.” Jack’s cheeks flushed, and Eric told himself Jack didn’t mean it the way he wanted him to mean it.

“Well I’m grateful you’re sharing it with me, Jack,” Eric said softly.

Jack smiled, then offered him bread with a bit of cheese, and Eric took it. His gaze drifted out toward the water, watching waves slowly brush against the hunks of metal that would be there for who knew how long. The sea would take it back eventually, causing it to be green, to retain life where once it took life. But now, it was a blemish on this beautiful place, and though Eric couldn’t remember the war, he hated it.

He glanced off to his left and saw a couple walking by, hands linked, staring at each other. They were young, Jack and Eric’s age. The woman had soft dark hair, and the man more blonde, and they had love in their eyes. Eric felt a sting of jealousy as they settled nearby, and a bit of paranoia racing up his spine. How did he and Jack look to them? Like two friends…or more?

“So ein schöner Tag,” the man said quietly, and the woman hummed, leaning into him.

Jack’s brow furrowed. “I wonder what he said.”

“He said such a beautiful day,” Eric answered absently, the words flowing easily in his brain from German to English. He realised, suddenly, what he’d done, and looked up at Jack with wide, terrified eyes. “I…”

Jack was frowning deeper. “How you know this, Eric?”

“I don’t,” Eric said. He felt panic racing up his spine, his breath hitching in his lungs. “Jack…I don’t know. I don’t…”

Jack put his hand on Eric’s knee. “I’m thinking we…should go home. Not good to talk about this here.”

Eric nodded, feeling outside of his own body as Jack packed up. He didn’t seem to care much for the Shabbat now, as he hitched the pack on his shoulder and led a rapid pace back to the flat. When they were inside, he dropped it to the floor, crowding Eric back against the door, both hands on Eric’s cheeks.

“You speak German.”

Eric shook his head. “No! Jack, I swear, I never spoke a word in my life. Not that…not that I remember…” He trailed off, unable to look away from Jack’s piercing eyes.

“The Germans,” Jack said, “they have so many spy. Learn languages without flaw, can blend in.”

Something about that was hitting Eric hard, like a punch to the sternum, like he knew something. “It’s not me,” he insisted.

“Maybe you don’t know, Eric. Maybe you were injure, your head…you forget.”

Eric sniffed, swiping his hand under his nose. “Please believe me, Jack. I don’t…I know I don’t know everything, but I know I’m not a bad person. There’s only one thing in my life that might…make me wrong, but it ain’t betrayin’ anyone.”

“Tell me,” Jack said.

Eric clenched his jaw, shaking his head. “I…can’t.”

“Tell me,” Jack insisted, giving Eric’s shoulders a shake.

Eric felt his eyes grow hot, filled with tears. “Please don’t…hurt me, okay? I swear I don’t…I don’t mean anythin’ by it. I would never…I promise to keep it to myself but…”

“Tell me!” Jack all-but shouted.

“I’m queer,” Eric shouted back, more out of panic than anything. He slapped a hand over his mouth, his eyes bugging out wide, and Jack took a step back from him. Pulling his hand away, Eric let out a watery laugh, tears flowing freely now. “I knew, since I was a little boy I was different. Bad. I know it’s bad. Lord, Jack I know it…” He shook his head, wiping at his cheeks. “I never acted on it, okay? And would never, and you ain’t in any danger. And I can leave right now if you want, but I swear to you, I ain’t no Nazi.”

Jack took a step forward again, hands falling on Eric’s shoulders. “I believe you,” he said. “I believe you. And it…Eric it’s not…make you a bad person. Tu comprendes? What you feel…” he dropped his hand, pressing it to Eric’s heart. “Is not wrong.”

“It is,” Eric said, trying to keep himself from sobbing. He’d never said it aloud, never let himself admit it, even as much as he knew and had always known. “I know it is. I know I’m goin’ to hell but…”

“Non. Arête. Eric,” he breathed, then dragged Eric in for a firm embrace.

Eric wasn’t sure how they made it to the sofa, or how he’d let himself cry it all out on Jack’s shoulder, but he was profoundly aware Jack was still holding him, and hadn’t tried to let go. He was embarrassed, shame rushing through him as he finally pulled back, and he used the edge of his shirt to wipe at his face.

“Lord, I’m so sorry. I never fall apart like that. I don’t…I don’t know what’s come over me,” he babbled.

Jack stared, then reached up and brushed the fringe of Eric’s forehead gently, letting his fingers linger there. “Something is…trying to come out, Eric. In here.” He pushed against Eric’s temple lightly. “Something hidden, afraid. You understood the German on the beach, and maybe there’s a reason why.”

Eric swallowed against the fear. “I don’t…want to know.”

“Je sais,” Jack whispered. “I know, Eric. But…if you keep it too long…it could hurt you. Might be dangerous. You forget so much, you’re here with me, not your family, and there maybe is some reason why.”

Eric shuddered, closing his eyes. “About um…what I said before…”

“It’s okay,” Jack said in a rush, and when Eric felt fingers at his chin, urging his face up, he let his eyes open to meet Jack’s soft blues. “I understand.”

“That’s real nice of you,” Eric murmured. “I know it’s…it ain’t normal so it’s nice of you to try and…”

“Non,” Jack said, then took a breath. “I am…I know this feeling. What you have.” He bowed his head. “Kent and I…he was my…I don’t know the word for it. Together, like the couple on the beach. For some time, but it was bad. We were so secret, so afraid, and it made us both angry. Then the war and…” Jack shook his head.

Eric was stunned, too afraid to comment, too afraid to voice anything for fear that Jack might suddenly take it back. But hope was blooming in his chest, fierce and terrifying. “So you…”

Jack nodded again. “My parents know. They…are afraid for me, but understand. Love me anyway. Want me to be happy. But so much fighting, there’s no time to think about love.”

“Yeah,” Eric whispered. He was aware Jack was still touching him, fingers still hooked under his chin, like a ballast holding him fast and steady. “That’s…gosh I’d love to meet them some day.”

For whatever reason, it made Jack smile, light up like the sun and fill the room. “I would like that.”

Eric ducked his head, pulling away from Jack’s grasp. “So um. I think maybe we should focus on these apparent hidden talents I have? Before things get really bad.”

Jack nodded, and sighed. “I think maybe you should listen to your dreams, Eric. Maybe they’re telling you secrets of your past.”

Eric licked his lips, then nodded. “You know, Jack, I think you might just be right.”

***

Four nights later, Eric woke in a cold sweat with Jack kneeling next to him. His throat ached, like he’d been yelling—and that was entirely a possibility. The two of them had been doing a careful dance round each other, touches growing more frequent, conversations quieter, eyes locking in long gazes that Eric couldn’t tear himself away from.

But there was nothing more than that, and Eric wasn’t sure there ever would be.

Now, Jack was holding him up, pushing a notebook into his hands. Every time Eric woke from a dream, the notebook would be there, and a pencil, and Jack. He urged Eric to write down everything he could think of, and most of it had been images, and echoes of pain.

Tonight was something else. Tonight was…a tree. A tree, with a board nailed to the trunk, in the middle of a long field. And numbers. Eric jotted down everything he knew, and was breathing so fast he was dizzy by the time he was done.

Instead of going over it, Jack gathered Eric into his arms, eased him up, and pulled him down the short corridor, and into his bedroom. Eric had been careful about not venturing into Jack’s personal space, but now he was ushered in with a firm hand round his waist, and Jack’s quiet voice murmuring reassurances in French.

Jack’s bed was small, barely big enough for the two of them, but Jack manoeuvred Eric into his space, pulling the thin blanket up to their waists and kept him tucked in close. Eric’s breathing had evened out, and he turned slightly against Jack’s arm that was still holding him.

“You don’t have to…” Eric began.

Jack’s eyes glinted in the dark, a reflection of the full moon just outside the window. “I want,” Jack whispered. “If you want.”

Eric swallowed thickly, but settled in against the pillow, letting the comfort of being held seep into his bones. Eric hadn’t been touched like this ever. Maybe base comfort as a child, when his momma would rock him, but his daddy insisted it was makin’ him soft, and put a stop to it long before Eric lost all his baby teeth. His comfort came to him in words and fleeting touches to his shoulder, and he was starved for it now.

He let himself shift closer, let Jack gather him to his chest, nose through his hair, breathe him in. It felt like a fantasy, like maybe this was some dream he’d wake up from, breathless and aching. Except he could still feel his heart pounding in his chest, so hard it was almost painful.

“I like you,” Eric murmured, feeling strangely impervious to harm in the dark like this, like maybe he could say whatever he wanted, and Jack wouldn’t hate him for it. “I like you a whole lot.”

Jack hummed, and Eric swore he could feel Jack’s lips kissing down his temple. “I like you too,” he said back.

Eric smiled, and let his eyes flutter closed, and let himself enjoy this for now. Because with whatever was in his head, there was no telling what was lying at the end of that road.

***

The door slam startled Eric, who glanced up from the baking table to see Jack leaning against the door frame, his arms crossed. There was a slight frown creasing his forehead, and he cocked his head to the side. “I think,” he said slowly, gaze on Eric’s forearms as the rolled out dough, “I know something.”

Eric lifted a brow. “You know something,” he repeated.

“Your numbers, from having the bad dream,” Jack said, waving his hand. He pushed away from the door, and walked over, leaning against the table. “Coordinates. When you write them down last night, they seem…familiar.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. “I look them up in the map I have from when I come home, and I find the place. Not too far from here, little bit outside Caen.”

Eric blinked, the name familiar to him in that sleepy, hidden way. “I…what…do you think it means?”

Jack shook his head. “I write to maman and papa, tell them to come home.”

That startled Eric, who took a step back. “Jack…why would…what do you…” He couldn’t seem to get a full sentence out, and his fingers were shaking.

Jack seemed to realise it, because he quickly walked round the table, taking Eric’s hand in his, pressing them firm to his warm chest. “It’s okay,” he murmured quietly. “They not upset, I write about you before, when you come. They ring the shop, they know.”

Eric felt his face go hot, his body flushed with fear because…because it wasn’t right, and he couldn’t expect anyone to believe it, though he wanted to. “Oh. Um.”

“They coming by train next week. You and me, we pack up, drive to Caen, find the tree you draw.”

Eric nodded, because he felt like there was nothing else he could do. Terror seized him—what Jack’s parents might really think, what he and Jack might find on the road. But Jack holding him tight like this, in the small baking room away from prying eyes was enough to help keep him together.

Then Jack touched his face, a warm palm to his cheek, tilting his head up. Jack’s eyes were heavy-lidded, fiercely blue, all encompassing as they stared at Eric. His fingers were soft, brushing along Eric’s freckles, a small smirk playing at the corners of Jack’s mouth like just looking at Eric made him happy.

Eric couldn’t begin to fathom why someone like Jack would find happiness in just looking at such a small, plain man like Eric Bittle. And yet there they were, and Jack was leaning in closer, his lips parting.

“Je veux,” Jack murmured, his thumb brushing along Eric’s bottom lip.

Eric gave a full body shiver as every fantasy he’d held in the dark recesses of his mind came tumbling forth. His bullied, terrified teenage self who would lie in the dark and envision some tall, handsome man riding up and whisking him away from everything that was terrible and bad and lonely.

And now here he was. No idea how he got there, or why, but Jack was still holding him, and looking at him like he wanted to kiss him. Eric was fit to burst with need and desire, and all he could do was nod, and then slam his eyes shut before Jack’s lips made contact with his.

The first touch was hesitant, careful, a brush of mouth-to-mouth. Eric let out a small noise, like a cross between a moan and a hum, and Jack’s hand fell to the small of Eric’s back, pressing him in close, the other still cupping his cheek like Eric was something precious.

Jack didn’t stop when Eric thought he might. Like Eric feared he might—changing his mind suddenly, having the realisation this was so wrong—just like his momma and daddy taught him. Only Jack had been with someone before, and it had ended not because they were both boys, but because the world saw fit to ensure it wouldn’t work, and Jack was so unafraid of this.

Eric decided enough was enough, and it was his time to be happy, even if the moment was fleeting. So he reached up, curled his fingers into the front of Jack’s shirt, and kissed back fierce and needy. He could feel Jack grinning against his mouth for a moment, making the dance of lips a little awkward, but Jack pushed Eric up against the baking table, and kissed him, kissed him, kissed him.

When they finally broke, they were gasping a little, and Jack pushed his forehead against Eric’s as he held him fast. “I don’t want you to go,” Jack said quietly. “I wish…I wish for you to stay here with me. Even if…your memory comes back. I want you to stay.”

“I want that too,” Eric said, the tiniest sob in his voice making it come out thick and heavy. “I don’t want to go.”

“So don’t,” Jack insisted, giving Eric another little tug so he was more firmly in Jack’s arms.

Eric had to laugh, and had to push his face up, to nuzzle into Jack’s neck and breathe in the scent of him. “I won’t. I…I’ll stay. If you’ll have me.”

When Jack pulled away, cupping Eric’s cheek once more, his smile was bright and blinding. “I’ll have you. Is all I want, Eric. We will go, find your tree, and then come home and live here. Together.”

Eric smiled, though something dark felt like it was pushing its way to the front of his mind, memories he didn’t want, evidence he couldn’t give Jack the things he was promising. He closed his eyes and breathed through it, clinging on like his life depended on it. He didn’t care what the world said. He finally had proof that even he could have his happy ending, and it would be taken away from him over his dead body.

Chapter Text

“Do you think it’s strange?” Eric asked, late in the night as he lay in Jack’s arms, still sweating, but breathing even and soft.

“Hmm?”

“I been here a while now, near a month, I think,” Eric said, twisting so he could look into Jack’s eyes. He brought his hand up, brushing through Jack’s hair, delighting in the way the motion made Jack go soft at the mouth. “I wrote to my parents, and not hide nor hair of ‘em, even by telegram. Just…strange, innit?”

Jack let out a puff of air. “Maybe your letter not there yet. Is…not so easy, just after war, you know? Take some time. I wouldn’t worry. Not yet.”

Eric let his eyes close as Jack leant forward, pressing his lips soft and insistent to the cut of Jack’s jaw. They’d been like this now for a week, together at every opportunity. Eric could hardly believe it some moments—that the terrified boy from Georgia had this. And he wasn’t sure what it meant, or where it would end, but it was something.

At the present time, his nerves were flaring. Jack’s parents were due to arrive by morning, and though he assured Eric they were not only prepared for what they’d see between Jack and Eric, but they supported it, it was difficult to accept. However more progressive France was than Georgia—and Eric hadn’t really seen much evidence of that just yet—what they were doing was still wrong in the eyes of so many.

But he trusted Jack. How could he not? Jack had stood by him in all the terrifying moments he’d suffered. From dragging Eric out of the rain and giving him a job, to staying up with him late at night as he scribbled nonsensical words and numbers and names. He hadn’t looked askance at Eric since that first day when Eric effortlessly translated German, even when sometimes during his baking he’d switch into the language without realising it until Jack pointed it out.

Eric’s own head terrified him, the secrets that were still locked away. But they’d be finding out some of them, soon enough. Jack had kept careful, detailed notes of everything Eric said and dreamt, and they still had the coordinates plotted out on Jack’s map where they would find…something. Something big, Eric was certain. Something that would change everything, but he couldn’t remember.

When he tried, he saw darkness, and felt a fierce ache in his head, and echoes of throbbing pain in the scars on his arm. But there was never any clarity. When it became too much, and he curled up in Jack’s arms, listening to Jack whisper quiet, soothing French, it felt like the world wasn’t trying to crush him.

But he wasn’t entirely soothed. He wanted to keep this forever, and he didn’t think that was possible.

All the same, dawn was looming, and whatever was to come next, Eric had to be prepared for it.

***

Eric woke to the feeling of eyes on him, and rolled to his side to see Jack there, smiling sweetly, sleepily. His heart lurched in his chest, desperate in a way, to cling tight and never let this go. He couldn’t stop himself as his hand lifted, the backs of his knuckles brushing along the cut of Jack’s jaw.

“Mornin’, sweetpea.”

“Sweetpea,” Jack repeated, the smallest frown creasing between his eyebrows. “This is…like a pea that is sweet?”

Eric giggled, pushing his face into Jack’s shoulder. “Yeah. We got a lot of those in Georgia, you know? Honey, sweetpea, darlin’, baby.”

Jack tipped Eric’s head back, pinching his chin between his fingers, and kissed him, a slow delicate thing. “Je comprends,” he murmured. “Nous avons phrases romantique aussi.”

Eric’s eyebrows rose as he attempted to translate what Jack was saying. “Romantic…sayings?”

Jack nodded. “Oui. Comme… hmm,” he tapped his chin in mock thought, a little smirk playing at his lips. He brought his hand down, brushing along Eric’s cheek gently, his thumb running over Eric’s bottom lip, making him lose his breath. When he spoke, he brought his face down so close, Eric could feel Jack’s lips brushing against his own. “Je veux passer toute ma vie avec toi.”

“I…” was all Eric managed.

“Ou… Où as-tu été toute ma vie?” He smiled, kissing up Eric’s jaw until Eric pushed him away lightly.

“You got my head goin’ round and round, Jack Zimmermann. I can’t tell down from up. What are you sayin’ to me right now?”

Jack chuckled again, brushing his palm flat, down Eric’s bared chest, his fingers playing at the fine hair near Eric’s navel. “Je veux passer…” He punctuated the half sentence with a kiss. “I want to spend,” he dragged his lips to Eric’s neck. “…tout ma vie…” He stopped, sucking just a little at the sensitive spot under Eric’s ear, making Eric gasp, arching into his touch. “All my life…” He nosed up into Eric’s hair and murmured, “…avec toi.”

“With me?” Eric guessed, and Jack pulled back, his mouth still turning gently up with a grin, but his eyes serious.

“Oui, Eric.” His fingers brushed along freckles, like Eric was a canvas and the emotions pouring from Jack’s fingers were bright, bold colours making Eric turn from dull white, to a cascade of want and need and contentment. “I know is not…perfect. So many things to learn when we leave today but…nothing is change, okay? Nothing. I’m…” He hesitated, then leant forward and buried his face in Eric’s neck. “Je t’aime.”

“That’s a new one,” Eric whispered, digging his fingers into Jack’s hair, blunt nails dragging along his scalp. He didn’t ask for a translation for that one, was afraid to hear it in his own tongue because if he did…it would be real, and if it was real, it would be impossible to walk away from. And Eric wasn’t certain it wouldn’t come crashing down the moment they found that little tree in Caen.

Instead of letting himself head down that road, he pulled back and latched his mouth to Jack’s. He let his eyes close as Jack’s hands wandered, wide, massive palms drinking him in, lower and lower until he was stroking Eric in a fast, almost furious rhythm. Eric groaned, a sob lodged in his throat as his own fingers scrambled to get round Jack, to feel the hard weight of him against his palm. Jack was cut, unlike Eric, and it was strange to feel him thick, smooth and a little drier than Eric was. But it was fitting, and everything about Jack—every curve of him, every sharp edge, every soft stretch of skin, was beautiful.

Eric loved him too. He did, and the feeling had claws, digging into his chest, refusing to let go. It was so much and it wasn’t enough, and Eric thought he might burst with it.

Then, as Jack drew him over the edge, he let out a sharp cry as he came, feeling himself spurt across Jack’s knuckles, burying his gasp in Jack’s neck. Jack wasn’t far behind, and Eric’s hand didn’t falter until he heard Jack’s cursing, the muffled cry, the way his hips hitched and thrust hard against Eric’s belly.

They bathed quickly, in water warmed in a basin, scrubbing quickly with flannels and soap. Jack’s parents would be arriving any moment, and then the road lay before them. Eric felt a sense of loss as they headed down to open the bakery doors and wait, like it was a goodbye, even without the finality of an official farewell.

But try as he might, Eric couldn’t fight time. And somewhere in his head, the dark part of him he’d locked inside a box was starting to chip away at the lock, ready to come out.

***

Jack’s parents were everything and nothing like Eric expected. Bob was the spit of Jack in nearly every way except his eyes. Jack shared the fierce, sharp blues with his mother, who was short, blonde, and sharp as a tack as she eyed Eric, then dragged him into a hug.

They were so unlike his parents, but all the same they caused a pang of home-sickness in Eric, a longing for when days were simpler, and days when his parents didn’t suspect there was something off about him, something… queer. And there was a pang of jealousy, the way Bob and Alicia pat his cheek, and shared fond, almost happy looks whenever Jack would brush Eric’s waist, or kiss his temple in passing. Eric would never have that at home—even if his parents had loved him enough to accept it about him, they would never have loved him enough to tolerate it like this.

It hurt, but it was a comfort to sit with them as he and Jack packed for the road. And there was no judgement when Eric confessed everything he’d been going through, after Jack assured him that Eric could trust them both.

“I think you’re very brave,” Alicia said, whose English was damn near fluent between the three of them. “I know you must be scared, but try not to be. Jack will take care of you, and whatever it is you find out there, it was meant to be found.”

“Then you come home,” Bob said. “Jack tell us try your pies. American pies, yes? We want to try.”

Eric couldn’t help a laugh, or his blush as he covered his face with his hand. “Lord have mercy…of course I’ll bake y’all a pie. Soon as we get back, I’ll bake you a dozen.”

Bob looked thoroughly pleased by this. “You teach me. Teach me these recipes, we sell them here. Make villages love American sweet.”

Eric rolled his eyes, and didn’t protest when Jack, who’d clearly had enough of his father, took his hand and dragged him to the kerb where the car was waiting. It only took a moment to load everything into the back, and then they were seated, pulling away from the little bakery, and the only time Eric had felt safe in what felt like years.

The road was bumpy, and though traffic was minimal, it was a slow journey. He couldn’t hate it—the countryside was green and wide and gorgeous with huge fields, orchards of trees spanning across miles, and small farms and villages in the distance.

The pair of them were quiet for a while, as Eric watched the land roll by, and he startled when Jack suddenly reached over, and switched on the radio. Eric had heard a little bit—Jack liked to play songs in the mornings when he was prepping, but it was always faint. The scratchy, soft jazz began to play out of the tinny speakers, and then a voice which Eric recognised from his travels on the road.

“… Voilà le portrait sans retouche. De l'homme auquel j'appartiens…

Eric smiled, and Jack smiled back, and they listened for a while. The song was sweet, and Eric understood a few words here and there. When he looked over at Jack again, Jack was grinning at him, then he winked as he opened his mouth and began to croon along, reaching out with one hand to touch Eric on the cheek.

“… C'est lui pour moi, moi pour lui dans la vie. Il me l'a dit, l'a juré pour la vie…ah…

Eric couldn’t help his startled laugh. “Why Jack Zimmermann, you’ve got a voice on you.”

Jack’s brow furrowed. “Voice on me. Is…compliment?”

Eric giggled, grabbing Jack’s hand to press a kiss to the centre of his palm. “Yes, Jack. A compliment. It means your voice is wonderful. Why didn’t you sing for me before?”

Jack shrugged, murmuring along with the song until it ended. “Is…not best talent, my singing. But…feels good sometimes. Make me happy. Like you make me happy.”

Eric’s entire body flushed, and he glanced away for a moment to gather himself. “You…you make me happy too, Jack. So happy. And I’m so scared. I don’t know what we’re gonna find out here, and it could be so bad. I could be…aww hell, Jack. I could be a war criminal or something terrible. I could’a done some real bad stuff. What if I’m one of those…what if I’m one of those spies or…”

“Eric,” Jack said firmly, making Eric’s babbling stop. “Maybe you do bad things…but we all do, in the war. It isn’t meaning you can’t also be good. You are good, Eric. Whatever was before, it was…in the past. Not you now. It won’t change things.”

Eric licked his lips, then closed his eyes and breathed out. “Promise?”

“Yes,” Jack said firmly.

Eric chanced a look over, comforted by the almost severe sincerity in Jack’s face. “Merci beaucoup,” he said, and Jack laughed, leaning over to kiss him once before speeding up again, and taking the road by storm.

***

They stopped in Caen for lunch, the city still war-torn, but bustling with new business, and a renewed sense of life. There were some soldiers still milling about, most of them French, but a few in British uniforms. Eric was certain he hadn’t worked with them, and nothing looked familiar, so they were quick to eat their fill at the café before quickly moving on.

Jack stopped by the side of the road to check the map, and saw they were only a few minutes away from the coordinates. Eric felt a chill in his bones, a strange sense of foreboding, but also relief. Whatever was to come, it would be over soon, and he could move on to…whatever the future held for him.

He could only hope it included Jack, but he didn’t want to get too ahead of himself. Losing Jack would crush him, and he wanted to soften the blow as much as he could.

They were both silent, tension between the pair of them as Jack turned the car off the road, and into a field. There were a few trees, and an abandoned farm not far off. It looked familiar to Eric, like a long-dormant memory from childhood trying to resurface. He couldn’t conjure up anything specific, but he felt the ghost of soft earth under his nails, and the hot sun burning his cheeks.

“Ah,” Jack said, “Regarde. C'est là. Your tree,” he clarified.

And sure as the sun rose in the east, there it was. The tree from Eric’s nightmares, looming in the distance, green and full, with the small wooden sign nailed to the trunk. Jack stopped the car a ways back from it, and he didn’t move as Eric climbed from the seat, his feet sinking into the soft earth.

Jack wasn’t far behind, but Eric was lost in his thoughts, the darkness having clawed its way out. And although he didn’t have a firm, cohesive grasp on what was going on in his head, he knew that he had to reach the tree, and get down on his knees, and he had to dig.

His fingernails filled with earth, tearing at them, and he was vaguely aware of Jack digging with him, in total silence, without any questions. The hole grew and grew, and Eric was sweating from the streams of sunlight escaping through the branches and falling over him, and finally—finally—his hands reached something solid.

A small, wooden box. He heaved it out of the ground, and ripped at the opening, and stared inside.

Nestled at the bottom, filthy and water-logged from rain, was a small notebook. Eric knew instinctively what it was…names, dates, addresses, rankings. His fingers trembled as he reached to open it, but before he could, there was a sound which made him go cold, and freeze.

The sound of a gun-hammer cocking.

“Hang on right there, neither of you move.” The voice was American, deep, commanding. “You two are gonna stand up, turn around, and keep your hands at your sides.”

Eric obeyed on instinct, though his brain was screaming, run, and also, protect Jack! But he did as he was told, though he shuffled slightly in front of Jack to take the brunt of whatever might come their way. His eyes moved quickly to their assailants, and he was intimidated and mildly surprised.

Two men, wearing civvies, the taller one with pale white skin, blonde hair, and glasses. The other, an inch shorter, had broad shoulders, dark brown skin, and a firm set line to his mouth. They both held guns, their posture clear that they knew how to use them.

“We’re going to take a little walk,” said the one in glasses. “That little farm right there, we’re going to head inside, and have a nice chat. And if my buddy and I here are happy with what we hear, everything’s gonna be alright. If not…”

Eric didn’t need him to finish the sentence. Though his memories hadn’t fully returned, he knew what the end of that phrase was, and he felt fear—not for himself, but for Jack. Jack hadn’t done anything but be kind and take him in, and love him a little. Eric had done nothing to warrant Jack putting himself in danger.

He nearly opened his mouth to beg for them to let Jack go, but he knew that would only set them on edge, and put them both further in danger. So he fell silent, not protesting when the other one reached out and grabbed the box, gun still trained on them both, and then they led the way to the farmhouse.

***

Inside smelt of damp, the air thick and stale. It was dark, the boarded windows giving way to little flecks of light, which illuminated the heavy dust on what little furniture remained.

The only stable place to sit was a scrubbed wooden table, with two chairs which were set for him and Jack, and the other two stood in front of them, arms crossed, but their hands still poised on their pistols.

“Alright, I’d like this to go real easy,” said the one with glasses. “My name’s Adam, and this is my partner Justin. Now, we know you’re calling yourself Eric Bittle, but we have a few…questions about that.”

Eric’s eyes went wide. “I…how d’you know who I am?”

“We don’t,” Justin said, lifting a brow. “Which is why we’ve been watching you. Why we intercepted this.” From his pocket, he pulled out a letter which Eric immediately recognised as the one he’d sent off to his parents.

For a moment, anger took over, and he started to rise, but when he saw their grips on their guns to tight, he eased back down. “That…was personal.”

“Oh, we know. We read it,” Adam said. “See, the thing is, we had a contact called Eric Bittle. Damn good soldier, damn good spy. But he went MIA sixteen months ago with some really important information regarding some high-ranking officials. He was presumed dead. Was posthumously awarded a medal of honour for valour, and he has a tombstone erect in the Madison Cemetery which his mother visits regularly.”

Eric’s throat went tight, and he glanced at Jack whose narrowed eyes were trained on both men. Eric cleared his throat. “I don’t…know what to tell you.”

“You can start by singing our National Anthem.”

Eric blinked. “I’m…sorry?”

“You heard me,” Adam said. “Don’t gotta be good, just gotta be right.”

Eric’s eyes flickered back and forth, but something about this sounded…familiar. He cleared his throat, and launched into the rendition of the Star Spangled Banner he’d learnt since he was a kid. When he got to the final line, his voice trailed off, and he stared at them.

“Second verse?” Justin demanded.

Eric’s face went hot with fear. “I…second verse? I don’t…lord they never taught…” he stammered. “I…please don’t kill us,” he whispered. “I swear I am Eric Bittle.”

The pair looked at each other, then their posture went relaxed, and they took the two empty chairs, sitting in a way so casual, they might just be four friends out for a few pints. “Thank god,” Justin breathed.

Eric felt his breath leave in him a rush, and he shook his head. “What in the red hell was that?”

“The war might be over, but there are spies everywhere, still posing as some of our men,” Justin said.

“And me singin’?” Eric demanded, glancing at Jack who was still on edge, his hands at his sides which were shaking. He ached to reach over and take one, but he knew better than that.

“Only spies know the whole song,” Adam clarified. “It’s so simple it almost hurts, but it’s a trick we learnt really early on. Spies know everything. Too much of everything.”

Something in Eric twinged, and his mind switched to German for a quick second. He cleared his throat, and shook his head. “So you two…know who I am.”

“You were our contact,” Justin said, and gave the box a pat. “You’d been over enemy lines for almost six months. Then we got word something happened—you got found out, and went missing. None of our other guys could find you. You’d been given coordinates, which we’d been keeping an eye on, but I think we must have just missed you. When the camps were all liberated, we combed the nearby towns, but it wasn’t until your name popped up, red-flagged, that we got a lock on you.”

Eric dragged a hand over his face. “So you’re sayin’…”

“You’re a spy. You’re a Captain Eric Bittle of the United States Army. You spoke flawless German, and the look of you blended in. Your mission was to recover names of German spies in our military, and you’d been doing a damn good job until…we’re not really sure what happened.”

Eric swallowed thickly. The nightmares, the memories, the German. It all started to make sense. His hand flew to his scarred arm, and something hit him, like it was pressing against the inside of his skull. Pain…searing pain, and him begging, and swearing he didn’t know anything.

He didn’t realise he was tilted over, near passing out until he felt Jack’s arms come round him, holding him tight against his broad chest. “They…I don’t know much. I was injured,” Eric murmured.” He rubbed at his head, and felt something he hadn’t noticed before. A scar. “I think I…spoke English, and someone knew. Everything’s real spotty,” he confessed, but things were coming back now. The rain, the bombs going off, the escape. Crawling through a sea of swampy mud, with the notebook tucked in the front of his shirt, his clothes in tatters, his arm barely usable, but he’d gotten out.

“I ran,” Eric whispered, clinging to Jack. “I ran and I kept running, but I was so far. I remembered the numbers, where to bury the box, but then everything went…quiet. Dark.”

Justin and Adam exchanged a look. “We were charged with waiting here for you. Where they had you—where they had everyone else, they couldn’t find that camp for so long. But when they got the rest of our men, you weren’t with them.”

Eric let out a shaking breath. “There was a bomb. Blew a hole in the wall where they were keeping me. I…got the book. Crawled out.” He squeezed his eyes shut tight against everything he didn’t want to remember, all the reasons he hadn’t wanted to come here today. “I was inches from death, I think, before that old lady found me. Was in and out for weeks. When I came to, I didn’t remember much. Lost years,” he admitted.

Justin’s eyes went sad, and he leant across the table. “Well you’re here now, and I know a lot of people who are going to be really damn happy you’re back.”

Eric licked his lips, then glanced up at Jack. “I…have to go back, don’t I?”

“You’re dead,” Adam said. “Your parents, your friends, your family—they all think you’re dead. And you have to be debriefed, and you’re owed a few ceremonies, Bittle.”

Eric swallowed thickly, knowing he should be happy, knowing this should be a relief because he was something, he was important and he’d done good work, and he’d survived. But all he could think about was that small bedroom, and that quiet bakery, and the arms who didn’t want to let him go.

“Do I have to stay gone?” he asked, his voice small. He didn’t care then, if they knew, and to his surprise he watched Justin and Adam glance at each other and share a secret smile.

“Nah, Bittle,” Adam said. “It might take some time but…you don’t gotta stay gone.”

***

Eric couldn’t hide his shock when they arrived at the hotel, and he and Jack were immediately ushered to a private room without argument. They had an adjoining door to Adam and Justin’s room, and Eric could hear them making phone calls to their superiors about their find.

Not having had much time to process everything, the moment the door shut, Eric collapsed to the edge of the bed, his face falling into his hands as his body released all the tension in heavy, aching sobs. Jack came near, hesitant at first, but then he got his arms wrapped round Eric and held tight as he shook apart.

He whispered things in French Eric couldn’t decipher, but they sounded sweet and comforting, and Eric had the fleeting thought that maybe Adam was right—maybe he didn’t have to say gone, and maybe…just maybe…a year from now Eric would be back here and Jack would be whispering in French, and he’d understand every word.

“I’m sorry,” Eric said after some time. Jack had manoeuvred them back against the pillows, the bed slightly larger than Jack’s at the flat, and the mattress and bedding softer.

Jack hummed his acknowledgement of Eric’s apology, and tightened his grip. “Why you saying sorry?”

“For falling apart,” Eric said with a bitter laugh. “For not being some country boy who’d lost his parents on the road. For being a dang spy, for having all…all this, locked up in my head.” He swiped his hand down his face, then pulled back to look at Jack properly. “I still can’t remember half of it.”

Jack cupped his cheeks gently, brushing thumbs under his eyes to mop up the stray tears. “You want to talk more? Want to sleep? Make love?”

Eric flushed hotly, but he wasn’t sure his body would co-operate with the last one. “I’m scared. Of what I might remember. The bits I have now were…they were so bad. It was terrifying.”

Jack’s face fell, and he gathered Eric to him again, brushing fingers into his hair, a little desperate and a little rough. “I…don’t want to think of you hurt, Eric. And I know what…I know what they do there, in those camps, in those…places. I can’t…imagine it.”

Eric let out a hollow laugh. “With any luck, I won’t remember it all. But…I did my best, to stay strong, to not give anything up. I think I did. I can’t…I can’t remember it, but I think I kept my word.”

“If you didn’t,” Jack said, pressing a kiss to Eric’s temple, “no one blame you for it. Is so much…too much to ask of anyone.” He sounded almost angry, and felt it, in the way he held Eric to him. “You deserve better.”

Eric breathed, let his eyes close, and let himself just feel for a little while.

***

Justin came by later that evening with dinner and news. “We’re heading to Paris in the morning, to meet with our Captain, then we’ll be getting you home. First DC, then back to Georgia. Your parents were informed, and they’ll be waiting for you in DC.”

Eric felt his throat go tight, and he clung a little harder to Jack’s hand, not caring if Justin could see. “I…didn’t realise it would be so soon.”

“Sorry,” Justin said. His gaze flickered to Jack, and instead of looking judgmental, he just looked sorry. “I’d like to tell you it’ll be really quick, but we both know that’s not true. Not with the way these damn politicians work. Six months at best, but it’s not a lifetime, eh?”

Eric felt cold fear hit him. Six months wasn’t a lifetime, but this past month felt like one, and what if Jack moved on? What if Jack met someone who was there, and available, and wanted him. Jack was too good, too wonderful to be alone for long, and Eric was terrified.

But he also knew he didn’t have a choice.

“I’ll leave you two for now, and we’ll wake you in the morning. I’m…sorry again,” Justin said, then backed away and closed the door.

Eric was too stressed to eat, but he managed a few bites of the bread, and some of the tea before he curled into Jack’s side. “I don’t want to go,” he admitted.

“Je sais,” Jack whispered. “I want you to stay, always. But…you come back. Come back to me.”

“Jack,” Eric said, insistent, pushing up on his elbows to meet his gaze. “I’ll come back. I swear to you, I don’t care what I have to do, okay? I’ll come back.”

Jack cupped his face with both hands, drawing him in for a long, slow kiss. It turned hot and heavy, and it ended with Eric on his back, Jack’s mouth round him drawing out his orgasm with long, sucking pulls. Eric kept a hand clapped over his mouth to muffle his moans, but it was damn near impossible as Jack worked him with his tongue, sucking him into his throat, swallowing round him until he was coming, coming, coming.

Eric returned the favour with shaking hands, nimble fingers pulling Jack’s orgasm out of him, spurting along his knuckles. They cleaned up as best they could, then curled up together in the bed, Jack nosing through Eric’s hair, pressing soft kisses where Eric now knew held a mass of scar tissue just behind his ear.

They were quiet, and then suddenly they heard…noises. Groans, a bed thumping, and Eric quickly turned his face into Jack’s chest muttering, “Lord,” as Jack laughed.

“We know now, yes? Why they okay with us in this room?”

Eric’s cheeks were pink as he pulled back and grinned. “Guess so. Lucky us.”

“Mm,” Jack murmured, and kissed Eric sweetly on both corners of his mouth. “Is me, the lucky one. To find you.” He pushed Eric’s palm against his own heart, and held it there, the beating beneath his fingers insistent, and rapid. “When you come back, we will be happy.”

Eric nodded, then let himself fall into Jack’s arms, the promise like a warm blanket, which eased him into sleep.

***

The goodbye the next morning was the hardest Eric had ever gone through, and it was by some miracle he wasn’t sobbing on the pavement as Jack put his things in the back of his car and prepared to leave. Their private goodbye was in the room earlier, Jack pressing Eric against the door, whispering soft vows in French to be waiting for him, to never let him go, to love him til the end of time.

“Je suis amoureux avec toi. J'ai besoin de toi.”

Eric held those words close to his heart as he climbed into the car with Justin and Adam, and prepared to resume his life as Captain Eric Bittle, spy for the United States Army.

***

Justin hadn’t been wrong. The next six months were a whirlwind of meetings, debriefings, medal ceremonies, and sobbing parents who didn’t want to let Eric out of their sights. Eric gave up as much information as he could, most of which was contained in the recovered notebook, and was enough evidence to lead to seven arrests of high-ranking officials who turned out to be German spies.

Eric saw doctor after doctor, to ensure there was no permanent damage. His memory, they said, could return, but perhaps never fully. Eric was alright with it, knowing some horrors were better lost to the void. He was given medication to help him sleep, and physical therapy for his arm which was still weak, and likely would remain so from the damage done in the camp.

But he was free, his was discharged, and given licence to do as he pleased.

It was, in the end, his parents who stood in the way of his return.

He’d written Jack a few times, and had gotten short letters in return—each of them in French which prompted him to seek out a few books to translate. But every time he brought up his return, his mother would cry and wail, and his father would rain guilt down on him.

“We thought you were dead, son. Do you really want to put her through that so you can go gallivanting across Europe again? Ain’t you seen enough of the French countryside?”

Eric wanted to tell them, the truth bursting to come out, but he was afraid. It would be a sure-fire way to get them to force him out, if they knew his inclinations, but he didn’t want that. He didn’t want things to be ruined between them.

But he was lonely, and missing Jack, and dreaming about him every night.

It was late February when he cracked. He was in the kitchen with his momma, making pies, thinking about rolling out dough for breads and croissants, and it hit him just how much he needed to be back, how much he needed to get on with his life.

“Momma,” he said softly.

She turned and smiled at him. “Yes, Dicky?”

“I don’t remember what caused me to join up. What gave me the courage to do somethin’ like…like spy. But I know I was searching for something, a greater purpose, a way to be happy. And I…think I found it.”

“Eric,” she breathed quietly.

“I fell in love, and I…I love you and pa so much, and I don’t want you to think I’m abandoning you, but I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t…I can’t rot away on this farm when I know someone out there wants me just as much as I want…them.” He was careful, deliberate, but he saw the understanding in her eyes, and the way her shoulders slumped.

“I just got you back,” she whispered.

“I know. And it’s not like I ain’t gonna see you again. But I’m dying here, momma. I’m dying, and I know what living feels like, and I need it. So please…can you just…please let me go?”

She tugged him into a hug, her nose buried in his hair. “My baby,” she murmured. “I just want you to be happy. Don’t tell your pa, okay? Just…just go.”

Eric nodded, swallowing thickly. It would be tricky, but he had the money, and his passport, and he was a decorated war hero. He could book passage and get there and see Jack again, and feel his warm arms around him, and feel Jack’s lips on his, and it would all…it would all be okay.

He contemplated sending a letter, but he knew he’d get there faster. It was better this way.

It was time to go.

***

It felt like eternity when Eric saw the curve of the road, leading into the village. The sharp tang of baking bread hit him first, like Jack’s bakery was calling him home. It was mid-morning when he finally arrived, and although Eric had grown up in Georgia, a simple country boy with not a lot of big dreams, that was never home.

This…

This, with the thatched roofs and the narrow streets, and the rolling hills behind him…this was his everything. This was his future.

Eric quickly paid the diver he’d hired to get him there, and grabbed his bag, hitching it on his shoulder as he took what felt like endless steps to the front of the bakery. He paused at the glass, peering behind the gold paint, and his breath hitched when he set eyes on Jack.

He was at the counter, his blue eyes drawn and sad, but a friendly smile on his lips as he chatted with the older woman who came in every other day to order seven croissants—not more, not less, just seven. Eric’s entire body was thrumming with need, with anticipation, and the empty ache in his belly began to fill because it would only be moments before…

Jack saw him.

Eric froze as Jack saw him.

The old woman turned, and smiled, and then Jack was throwing open the door, and dragging Eric inside. The shop was empty suddenly, and Jack was turning the lock, and pushing Eric backward, into the back room, his hand roaming and touching him like he couldn’t believe Eric was there.

“You waited for me,” Eric murmured.

Jack laughed, the sound wet, his eyes wide and shining. “Ouais. I waited.” His thumb brushed Eric’s jawline, then under his bottom lip, down under his chin, over his adam’s apple. “You’re beautiful. Oh, chéri.”

Eric let out a wet laugh, then dropped his bag and threw himself at Jack, knowing he’d be caught, knowing he’d be lifted and pushed against the wall, and kissed.

Jack didn’t disappoint. His lips sought out every open inch of Eric’s skin, tearing at his mouth, his hands clinging like if he let go for even a second, Eric might be gone. Eric understood, as he gripped the back of Jack’s neck hard, and gave everything he had into those kisses.

“You’re here,” Jack murmured.

Eric laughed, pulling back to press his forehead against Jack’s. “I’m here,” he echoed.

“And you stay?” Jack demanded.

Eric smiled, and kissed him breathing him in. “Forever, if you’ll have me.”

Jack nodded, and pushed his face against the crook of Eric’s neck, and sighed. “Forever,” he echoed, and there was absolute truth in that word.

Forever.