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Grenades are exploding in the distance. For how much he’d like to ignore them, at this moment, with France’s hands all over his body, England can’t. 

 

“Good God,” he growls against France’s mouth.

 

He doesn't even know how or what started it and, really, nails diggings into the cloth of France's uniform, rigid from all the dirt, it doesn't even matter. 

 

France's hair is matted with rain and all the mud that's been filling the trenches for days, so much the blond underneath is hardly visible. It's a mess of tangles when England grabs a fistful to drag him into another kiss, open-mouthed and messy. France's hair must be crawling with lice by now, really, and yet he insists on not cutting it.

 

The splinters of the makeshift dugout dig into England's back as he lets France push him against the wall with the force of desperation. France ruts against him, still fully clothed, his growing erection pressing against England's.

 

When he bends down just slightly to suck at the small portion of England's skin peering from the collar of his uniform, the stench hits England full force. France stinks of blood and mould, shit and guts, the smell of death itself, of the hundreds of bodies left to rot in No  Man’s Land.

 

It must be this, the relief of having returned in one piece. After months of the same, maddening routine, fear has crept over their backs too. Sometimes the rain of grenades, the novelty of this new war, is enough to forget their immortal nature. How foolish they were to believe this war would be no different from the hundreds that came before.

 

While temporary, dying is never a pleasant experience. In the end, sex is only a vent like any other, their favourite, the quickest and easiest. They've been going on for centuries using the same excuse.

 

Without even the time to discharge gun and rifle onto the table in the dugout, France ison him, murmuring an endless stream of t'es vivant, t’es vivant, t'es vivant. His hands cup England's hollow cheeks, lips brushing against lips. France's lips are strangely warm, the first good thing after hours spent lying in wait in the cold winter terrain. 

 

"Of course I'm alive, you idiot," England snaps.

 

It's a habit. Somehow this new care, this strange affection from his once swore enemy scares England more than he would ever admit. It's like seeing the sun peeking out in the sky and feeling its rays when winter should still be raging on. There’s something wrong in it.

 

Between them, it's always been anger and hate, sex an act of dominance and nothing more, not the needed proof to still be alive.

 

Though this time he said it more to convince himself, rather than for the physical need to reply to whatever France says. Looking inside, England knows there's a part of him that needs this just as much as France does. He needs it like the first spring flowers need those weak but indispensable rays of sun. 

 

France doesn't go out in No Man’s Land now, not anymore. He doesn't have the strength, busy as he is to keep it all together when the core of his people die every day in greater numbers. Some general wanted him to return to Paris to recover, but really it would make no difference when the wound isn't in the flesh, but in the heart and soul.

 

"Angleterre," France pants now against his neck, voice raspy and wet, "Tu pues."

 

"Talking about the kettle calling the pot,” England retorts, letting his head fall back into the wall, a bit too hard, to expose more throat to France's tongue. Bloody hell, even like this, with a percentage of his usual attention and talent, it's great. He bucks forward into France's hand when he strokes at his cock through the layer of fabric, the friction more pain than pleasure, but needed nonetheless.

 

Somehow England's fingers are already going down to tug at France's breeches, erratically, fumbling to undo both their belt buckles at once.

 

It's hard to do anything when his hands still shake from holding a rifle for too long, fingers on the trigger so much they got stuck in position. There are still traces of blood on them. A bit from a Belgian soldier blown up by a grenade before England could shield him with his body and his immortality. A bit of it’s the red of a German he killed first-hand, one of those rare occurrences when the enemy got close enough to allow him to stick the end of the bayonet into his throat. In the heat of the moment, it didn't matter at all that the soldier was only a boy.

 

That soldier was a child. The trenches are full of boys, barely more than kids going mad each passing day with the continuous noise of bombs and mines exploding all around. The men cry too, at night, shouting desperately from the continuous nightmares. There are the cries of the wounded, those who lost limbs from shrapnel and the cold, people screaming in pain with frozen fingers and feet going gangrenous.

 

England shields them when he can, protects them from the orders of foolish superiors; but he can't be everywhere at once. For two he saves, ten more are gunned down for treason for the unforgivable guilt of being scared, when they don't put their own guns to their temples and pull the trigger.

 

The English soldiers cling to him as the French soldiers do with France, that young man of twenty-six turning sometimes in a brother, sometimes into a father, sometimes into a lover. They're his people and he does what he can to make hell a little more livable, a little less horrifying. He tells them the lie all will be fine, that there's reason to hang on for another day. He talks, and strokes the hair of dying men, kisses and loves them when needed. He doesn't smile much these days, but when he does, England can't help but think again of that strange sun shining ahead of its time. It makes the day a little less ugly.

 

 

A bit of blood on England's hand is his own, a pinkish ichor that dripped from a cut on his upper arm. At least he still has blood to spill contrary to someone.

 

France is pale like Lady Death herself, all blood drained from his veins to the last drop. In switching positions, England even comes to wonder if he still has a heart pulsating in his chest. Because, even like this, pressed together, he can't really hear any beat. Maybe France hasn't a heart anymore, lost and buried somewhere where his lands melt into those of Belgium.

 

There, eerily pliant underneath England is a dead man walking, his lungs so butchered with gas they don't have time to regenerate. Every breath France takes is a dying whistle. England's own lungs aren't in better shape.

 

When France grabs England by the lapels of his uniform, for the simulacrum of another kiss, it's barely coherent, just mouths and rotten breaths and bad teeth clashing together for the need of contact. France kisses him like he needs it to breathe, a drowning man sucking all his air from the little England has left.

 

It's dry, despite all the rain that has been pouring on them for weeks. Lips broken and tongues parched with thirst. Rations are terrible in the trenches, clean water often a miracle and when there is, soldiers need it more than them. There's a scab on the back of France's left hand. England can feel it with his thumb. He knows for certain pus would come out of it if he dug slightly more with his nails. 

 

He tries again to loosen their pants to pull them down only enough. There won't be the intimate tenderness of naked bodies tangling together. There's no time. It's not skin like silk, but rough wool, no perfume of lilies and roses, but filthy human sweat. No time for foreplay or the maddening slowness of proper preparation.

 

"Dépêche-toi," France urges him, burying his face again in the crook of England's neck, breath heavy and laboured not from the heat of the moment but the weight of war.

 

"I'm trying," England snarls, in a mess. If only his hands would stop shaking. Finally, he feels France's belt buckle coming loose from its loops and his own belt unbuckling the same way, then it's buttons being torn away and really they should be more careful with their clothing. Right now, England couldn't care less.

  

"Turn around," he orders France, one hand down to quickly stroke himself up to full erection. It's hard to do so without any lube or even any spit left as a substitute. France shakes his head, lips parting to whisper a soft "non", low and raspy.

 

“Non comme ça,” he prays, a faded copy of his usual, flamboyant self. Even with the sky blue of his jacket and the red of those pants he insists on wearing no matter how much they make him into a living bullseye, there's no colour in him. A single plea, not like this, not as if they were still enemies when sex was nothing more than dominance.

 

"Fine, hold on," England resigns, because today he’s too tired for everything, too exhausted even for the usual bickering. He plants his feet on the ground, hooking the inside of his elbows with the back of France's knees to brace and sustain him up against the wall. It's an awkward position and it doesn't take much for England to realize today he doesn't have enough strength for that, even with France’s crossing his ankles over the small of England’s back.

 

"Wait," England coughs out, his own legs shaking "Here."

 

Slowly, he positions himself until he's sitting on the humid floor of the dugout, the bunk bed half a meter away, but still too far. He guides France to stay in his lap, limbs tangled in  the lack of space and they can't really spread their legs without risking tearing their pants. They pull them down as much as they can without undressing their boots. England hasn't taken them off in days. He doesn't even dare to imagine in what shape his feet must be.

 

France's hands press on his shoulder as a shaky anchor, finally impaling himself onto England's cock. There's no slowness or tenderness or preparation, only a single harsh movement that knocks from his lungs what little air he has left. England can feel his discomfort in how he shivers against him, suddenly so minuscule and fragile. It prompts him to grab France's cheeks and try to kiss him with all the kindness he can manage to gather, the gesture still so new and strange

 

"It's okay, it's okay," he murmurs into his mouth. "I got you."

 

Once all of this would feel like heaven, first for the thrill of having subdued his nemesis, then for the wonders France could actually do with lovemaking. Now it's none of that. England can barely remember if it's supposed to be pleasant and it's strange for consensual sex to not be pleasant, even for him who has always considered all of France's sweet-talking about lovemaking just a foolish rambling.

 

"C’est rassurant," France answers, rolling his hips forward in erratic search of some kind of pleasure, his mouth capturing England's once again. One hand comes to grab at the small of England's back and he's so damn tense England has to remind himself it was actually France's idea. But, then, while he may have mellowed, he's not France's bloody caretaker. The man is an adult and free to make his own decisions.

 

"Damn it," he growls into France's ear, bringing one hand to rest palm flat on the cold floor to have some kind of leverage, and he bucks his hips up to meet France's movements. His other hand finds its way down to give France's cock a quick twist with his wrist. He licks his palm with what little  saliva he has left to have enough lube to stroke France's full length, thumb caressing the tip enough to spread pre-come.

 

There are footsteps above their heads and outside the dugout, the life of the trenches going on outside their little parenthesis of peace. 

  

When England comes, he does it in silence with nothing more than a stilted grunt, with the taste of death on his tongue, as he chokes France's cry with another kiss.

 

It's the same taste he savours later, at dawn, again buried deep into France, but now with a dirty mattress under them to give the illusion of comfort. There's a new telegram on the floor, a concise message with an order he had already sensed. He knew his superiors would never leave him in the same place for too long; not when there are other fronts to keep in check. Germany's u-boats keep strangling them at sea, and on the Eastern Front Russia is falling back and God knows what the Italies are doing with their own tiny and personal portion of the war, but England would bet his hat things aren't any brighter for them. 

 

 

"Just try to not get killed," he warns France, fixing back his uniform, with quick and harsh gestures. 

 

France tilts his head at him. "Caring, are we?"

 

Really, he has no right to be so cocky, barely hours from having been a shaky and crying mess.

 

"Don't get too ahead of yourself," England scoffs. "I'm not saying that for you," he adds, folding the telegram into his jacket pocket, putting on his officer’s cap, fixing his belt, and straightening his shoulders as expected of him. "If you fall, it'll just be a pain in the ass for me."

 

"Sure," France replies, shrugging. He has retrieved a comb and he's threading it through his hair to make it look a little less like a bird nest. It makes England chuckle, thinking how the tables have turned. France’s gestures are sure, mechanical.

 

When his hair has somehow untangled, France secures it in a small and low ponytail with a ribbon that must have been blue once. Then, he finishes buttoning up his jacket and mantle, as it would make him look a little less like the walking dead.

 

"I could say the same for you, you know," he comments, with England already on the threshold of the dugout. "Try not to die."

 

England decides it's not even worth turning around. "Haven't you learnt yet? I don't die."

 

“And neither do I,” France says, his voice suddenly stern, the reminder that despite it all he too is an empire and one of Europe’s oldest nations. “When all this is over,” he reprises after a moment, and Hell knows why England is still glued in position, “We’re going to make love the proper way.”

 

It sends a shiver down England’s spine with the memory, not much for the idea of sex in itself, not even the idea of sex with France, but the thought of sleeping in a proper bed, with clean and fresh sheets. They won't need to be silk or linen, cotton will do perfectly. Even if it’s the  shittiest cotton ever, rough on his skin, as long as they will be freshly washed. The idea almost makes his eyes water.

 

“Right. In your dreams. I got to go,” he answers instead, finally walking away from the dugout and from his old enemy and occasional lover and sort of newly found friend, but not quick enough to not hear the inevitable reply, “As in yours”.

The sun is strangely warm on England's face once he walks out into the trench, despite the snow melting all around in the mess of mud and blood that has become France’s lands. Soldiers snap to attention as he passes by.

 

There's another warmth, then, down in his belly, a memory of touch. Inside, somewhere where he puts all that he’d rather never admit, he already knows it’ll be among the things he’ll hold on to the most in the following months.

"When all of this has ended," he repeats to himself, flexing his fingers as his hands have finally stopped shaking. There's a patch of golden light drawing a perfect square on the ground and in the snow the first snowdrops are blossoming. 

In the midst of war and suffering, something tugs the corners of England’s mouth upwards. Entering the dugout of his direct officer superior for the last instructions on the transfer, he smiles.