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the way we look like animals

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The sun has begun its downward descent by the time they emerge from the trenches. With it, the heat of the day can finally dissipate, and grateful soldiers in filthy, mud-stiff khaki turn their faces to the evening breeze. Returned to their most primordial state, they sigh in gratitude for the simple joys of clean air and uninterrupted sky. For the solidity of bright grass beneath their feet instead of slippery muck.

Tom Blake is one of these men. As his boots land on solid ground he slips his helmet off, eyes closing briefly as he runs a weary hand through sweat-matted curls. The cool air passes his cheeks as light as a feather, and he allows himself to just stand a moment, to take it in.

It’s been at least a fortnight since they’ve been aboveground. He’s lost count the past few days, something that becomes easier the longer he’s in the mud. As he always does, Blake returns up top feeling a little like a mole poking its head through the dirt, surprised by the open space. Everything seems brighter here, in contrast to the muddy browns in the trenches— the white of the clouds more pure, the rustle of the leaves more sweet.

Beside him, Will Schofield keeps his head down, helmet on.

Far behind the front lines now, the pair of them are swept along in a crush of men in the direction of main camp. At the place where the boot-worn path splits in two, diverging between camp and the river, Schofield steps slightly out of line, turning wearily to Blake.

Though Blake’s stomach grumbles viciously, and the thought of a hot meal just about now would make him weak at the knees, the glassy emptiness in Schofield’s expression sits sickly in his gut. He’s worn it all day— that old familiar slackness around the mouth, the bruising grey in the hollows of his face Blake’s seen creep over Schofield after a vicious dream, a sudden explosion, the mere mention of Thiepval. What that look needs more than anything, Blake knows, is quiet.

So when Schofield turns questioningly toward him, Blake shoves his own hunger down, inclines his head toward the river. Just before they reach the bank, Blake grasps him by the elbow, pulling him from the crush of bodies.

“What are you doing?” Schofield asks, but he comes easily, allowing Blake to guide him to the side of the path. His body offers no protest at all, as though all the fight has gone out of him.

“Got something to show ya,” Blake replies, nodding his head toward the cluster of trees farther down the river. At Schofield’s expression, he adds, “It’s not far, promise.”

Too weary to protest, Schofield simply nods. He grips his rifle tighter, following dumbly along as Blake leads him along the river in the opposite direction of the masses. Up the slight incline until a bend in the river shifts camp out of sight, the whooping of bathing men swallowed by their breathing.

From the corner of his eye, Schofield’s profile is as sharp as always, straight and square—but there’s a distinct fear to him today, a blankness in his normally placid expression.

When the cluster of trees finally opens to reveal their portion of the river, Blake can’t help but sigh. It’s just as he remembers—water spilling over a collection of rocks and pooling in a slow-moving body, completely hidden by trees. A private waterfall.

“When did you find this?” Schofield asks, faintly bemused. Blake turns to find him not quite smiling, but with an encouraging crinkling at the corner of his eyes nonetheless.

“Last time we were up top,” he says, scratching the back of his neck. A bit sheepish, “You remember that night I got lost coming back from patrol? Well, I wandered until I found myself here, followed the river back.”

“Ah,” is all Schofield says.

They stand for a few moments, taking in the way the late afternoon light filters in through the trees.

Then, “Well, might as well hop in.” Tossing away his helmet and rifle, Blake makes quick work of his leather jerkin and scratchy tunic, tossing the former to the grass and the latter into the water to soak clean. Unwrapping his puttees, he relishes as some of the blood comes back into his legs, where the muddy cloth had dried stiff against his skin. He kicks off his boots with relish, flexes his feet into the soft grass. He’s just about to reach for the waistband of his trousers when his eyes fall on Schofield, still fully dressed, standing motionless beside him.

“Scho?” he asks.

Only when Blake turns toward him does he notice the trembling in Schofield’s hands, the way they jerk at his collar. Long fingers seeking purchase in the fabric but shaking too badly to undo even the overlarge buttons of his jerkin.

Blake’s mouth opens in a rounded oh. He abandons undressing and walks over, but even when he draws close Schofield won’t meet his eyes. Something like shame hovers in his expression, his lips pressed together in a thin white line.

“Hey,” Blake says, gently. “It’s all right.”

Slowly, as not to startle him, he first removes Schofield’s Brodie helmet, placing it on the grass with far greater care than he had shown his own. Careful not to disturb Schofield more than necessary, Blake then takes both his rifle and his pack, laying them neatly beside one another, as he’s seen Schofield do before. Finally, he brings his hands up to cover Schofield’s larger ones, gently moving them out of the way. Schofield’s eyes flicker up to Blake for the briefest moment. Questioning.

“Let me.”

Schofield’s breath warms Blake’s cheek as he unbuttons the jerkin first, and he tries to keep his own hands steady as he slips it from his shivering shoulders and onto the grass. Moving onto the tunic, he takes his time with each delicate button, seeking to soothe as he opens up the rough khaki.

And they’re soldiers—they’ve seen one another in various states of undress before, but Blake still hesitates when he reaches Schofield’s undershirt. He looks to Schofield for permission—but the other man just looks back at him, weary and unreadable. He makes no protest but a slight shudder as Blake’s fingers graze his abdomen, lifting the shirt over his head.

It’s only after he’s tossed the shirt away that Blake sees the scar.

Schofield flinches almost imperceptibly at Blake’s sharp intake of breath. It hardly registers over the spots that hover in the corner of Blake’s vision as his eyes fix on the shiny, knotted skin just below Schofield’s left pectoral.

He’s never seen this before—neither this deep wound nor its partner which he finds on Schofield back, just below his shoulder blade.

“Scho,” he says, his voice hardly more than a whisper around the sudden lump in his throat. His hand comes up of its own volition to hover just above the ruined skin, just close enough to feel the warmth of Schofield’s body. “Is this…?”

“Grisly, isn’t it?” Schofield says, very quietly. He stands rigid, like a man awaiting judgement.

Blake’s head snaps up so quickly he nearly knocks into Schofield’s jaw. “No,” he says, quickly. “No, Scho—of course not.”

“It’s all right,” Schofield says, gently. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.” The side of his mouth quirks, but he still won’t meet Blake’s eyes. “Except when it rains.”

Blake’s mouth bunches, his eyes returning to the unthinkable wound. The thought of it, open and bleeding, turns his stomach, but far worse is the thought that such a heinous act could be committed against someone so gentle.

“It’s not grisly,” he says, utterly earnest. At Schofield’s expression, “It’s not. You’re a hero.”

Schofield blows a short, scoffing breath out his nose. Shifts a little out of reach, and Blake drops his hand, though his body aches to follow.

Kicking off his boots, Scho reaches down with shaking hands to undo his puttees. It’s only when his hands reach the waistband of his trousers that Blake remembers why he’s still standing there.

“Do you want, I mean—”

“Think I can manage this part myself,” Schofield says, a little rueful smile playing at his lips.

Blake blinks, shakes himself. “Yeah, of course,” he says. “Sorry.”

Idiot.

With burning cheeks, he leaves Schofield to it. Making quick work of his own remaining clothing, he enters the water without a backward glance. As always, the river water is a shock of cold, but this time he’s grateful for it, for the gooseflesh that prickles. He doesn’t turn as Schofield enters the water, directing all his attention to scrubbing himself down with the meager soap ration.

It feels better than almost anything to finally bathe, after so many days with hardly more clean water than could be drunk or shaved with. The exceptions being several rainstorms, but, as Blake had quickly discovered, rain wasn’t good for a whole lot other than creating mud and shifting grime to new, harder-to-reach places.

To have access to unlimited water seems an unfathomable luxury, and he can’t blame Schofield for forgoing the soap and simply floating, eyes closed, allowing the river to do his work for him. Without his weapons or his uniform, the man cradled in the cool water could be anyone— a French civilian, a Bosch deserter, an Englishman on holiday. His face is—not peaceful, but perhaps a fraction less tight than it had been.

Eventually, Schofield stands, shaking water from his hair in a way that makes Blake chuckle, reminding him of Myrtle after a romp through the pond. Completely unconscious of Blake, he brings his face to the water, rubbing harshly at his scalp until the water runs clear around his face.

Forcing his eyes away from the lean figure Schofield’s body makes in the dying light, Blake tips his head back until water closes over him.

When he surfaces, Schofield is watching him, an indecipherable look in his blue eyes. He starts out toward him then, sending long ripples out behind him. Blake stands, heart thumping oddly, as Schofied draws close enough for Blake to feel the warmth radiating off him. A sudden breeze rustles the trees, but he can’t be sure whether it’s this or the unreadability of Scho’s expression that makes him shiver.

Blake swallows, hard. “What?”

Schofield opens his mouth as if to say something, then appears to think better of it.

“You’ve got a smudge,” is all he says, shaking his head a little. He gestures to the place on his own cheek, but, before Blake can think to wipe it away, Schofield braces one large hand against the side of his face. Blake barely breathes as Scho runs a thumb along his cheekbone, leaning in to scrub at the offending particles.

“Oh. Thanks,” Blake says, weakly. Very still, trying to move as little as possible.

Schofield gives him a faint smile—still tired, and his hands are far from steady—but already the haunted look is fading from his eyes, replaced by something else entirely.

Driven by some inexplicable force, drunk on Schofield’s proximity, Blake gathers the courage to do what he had ached to earlier. With a touch soft enough to rival that of Schofield’s hand on his cheek, he ghosts his fingers over the other man’s abdomen, just beyond the long scar. When his fingertips touch the pink, knotted tissue, Scho’s own hand stutters, eyes flickering closed. His mouth opens in a little silent oh.

And it does something to Blake, the way Scho leans into him then, his pale brow knitted together as he tips his head into the crook of Blake’s neck. The drying skin there prickles at the cold press of Schofield’s nose, but it hardly registers among the rest of the nerves vying for Blake’s attention. It only vaguely occurs to him that to bend like this must be terribly uncomfortable for Schofield, given their difference in height.

“Hey,” Blake says. The first time, it comes out a squeak; he must clear his throat and try again. Shivering a little in the dying light, he loops his arms around the other man’s shoulders. With a slight groan, Schofield presses into him until Blake’s certain he’s the only thing keeping him on his feet.

It’s too much, Blake thinks, nearly overwhelmed by the way the water clings to them, sealing their bodies together. Too much, and yet less than enough. He hadn’t known it would be like this, when he had reached for him on the riverbank— hadn’t remembered the heat of another human being after so long without. And not just anyone— Will Schofield, with his gentle manner and grieved expression. Scho, for whom he’d walk through hell or high water.

He tightens his grip around Schofield’s shoulders, feels the other man’s hand come up to his shoulder blade. They stand there in the fading light, hardly breathing, for a long time.

 

As always, Blake’s stomach is his undoing. He’s done well thus far, managed to ignore the ache in his heels from supporting Schofield’s weight against the riverbed, to push aside the tingling in his arms from lack of blood, but he’s at the mercy of the hunger building in his gut. It’s sat there for hours now, an angry, aching beast. He can feel its distress expanding, swallows air in a desperate attempt to soothe it— but it’s no use. His stomach lets out a hearty grumble, rippling through the both of them. He hides his face in Scho’s hair in embarrassment.

Schofield’s chuckle warms his shoulder, sending vibrations up into his neck.

“Hungry?” he asks as he pulls back, eyes crinkling at the corners. His hands on Blake’s shoulders are warm, grounding in the decidedly chilly air.

“A little,” he says, evasively. Then, “Starving, actually,” he admits, a little sheepish. “Haven’t had anything to eat since this morning, and that was just old toast.”

“Ah,” Schofield says, the fondness in his expression deepening further. “I suppose we should go, then.” For the first time, he seems to truly take in the scene around him, wondering at the growing dark. Dipping his chin a little, he must be utterly unconscious of how near it brings his mouth to Blake’s “Wouldn’t want you to keel over, would we?”

Despite the words, he makes no move to untangle himself.

“Yeah,” is all Blake says, unable to convince himself to move, either. “Yeah, I guess not.”

“Besides, you can be awfully unpleasant when you’re hungry,” Schofield continues, and Blake’s jaw drops at the sudden return of his good humor.

“Fuck off,” he says, lightly, too relieved to be insulted. He flicks Schofield on the upper arm— and immediately regrets his choice of words, as Schofield, openly smiling now, unwinds himself from Blake’s arms. It takes all the restraint Blake possesses not to follow him, press him close again.

Reluctantly, they emerge into the dusky air to collect their scattered belongings and beat their soaking clothes dry against the rocks. As soon as they leave the water a sudden shyness comes over Blake; he can’t meet Schofield’s eyes as they dress in silence.

“Ready to go?” he asks, when they’re covered up and proper once more. Too loud, he winces as his voice echoes off the rocks.

Schofield simply nods, sending a last trickle of water down his cheeks. Motions for him to lead the way out.

The walk seems to go quicker than it had on the way in, the setting sun shining between the tree trunks, guiding them on. Just before they break through the tree line and into the open field, Schofield stops, turns to him once more.

“Thank you,” he says, quietly, placing a hand on Blake’s arm.

Blake frowns, looking down to the place where Scho fingers his sleeve. “For what?” he asks, puzzled.

“For… ” Schofield’s voice trails off, as he gestures to the trees around them, the river behind. His expression tightens, the way it does when he’s trying to express something important. “For understanding. For knowing what I needed.”

“Aw, Scho,” Blake says. Kicking aimlessly at the pebbles by his boot, he thinks, if he possessed the right words, he’d be the one thanking Schofield, instead of the other way around. For everything, for putting up with him the past few months, for showing him what it meant to stay kind in the midst of abject cruelty. “Don’t worry about it,” he manages.

Scho nods, once. Unwinds his fingers from Blake’s sleeve, so that Blake’s hand drops aimlessly to his side. With that, they step back into the waiting world.

The rest of the trip back Blake fills with nervous chatter, thinking even less than usual about his words and more about the steady movement of Schofield beside him.

The French sky is a marvel of pink and gold as they slip in undetected with the crush of men making their soggy way back from the river. From the outside they’re like any other soldiers, but Blake feels it—that subtle and uncommon shift between them. Something natural, yet radical, and so much larger than Blake feels will fit inside his chest.

And if they find excuses to come back the next day, and the next, if Blake starts to leave things behind, small things, a watch or perhaps a ring, if one of those golden afternoons Schofield finds him out and lays him down in the soft green grass… well.