The first time he kissed a boy, he was fifteen. It was short, sweet, and with the school’s rugby captain that was three years older than he was—it was all lips and no tongue and he didn’t know what it meant. All he knew was that he was struck by the older boy’s muscles, his form lithe and strong when he carried his team to victory. He looked at him and he looked back and suddenly, he was pressed against the lockers after a weekly game on Saturday. The stars were high in the sky and the moon was full. The captain moved far away with his family the very next day—at least, that was the rumor bouncing around the streets, and he never saw the captain again after that.
The first time he fucked a man, he was eighteen. It was quick, rough, and with a regular customer of his family’s pub who was ten, maybe fifteen years older than he was—it was all spit and no foreplay and he knew exactly what it meant. He looked at him and he looked back and suddenly, he was pressed against the back alley underneath a broken streetlight around two in the morning on a Friday. The stars were absent and the moon was a dark hole in the sky. From that point onward, the man became a repeat customer in more ways than one.
Looking back on it now, it’s incredible that he’s made it this far. He suspects that everybody suspected, in some capacity or the other. His folks definitely knew, what with his father’s complete disregard for his existence, and his mother’s pitying look that was somehow even worse. He didn’t need anybody’s approval for his existence, and he certainly didn’t need anybody’s pity. He could make do on his own. As long as his own heart was beating inside his chest, it was him against the world.
He knew it would be a lonely life. Nobody needed to tell him that. He saw it in the papers, nearly lived it himself once or twice, but he always got away with it cleanly. He was good at it, too. No record’s going to hold him down. He’ll leave this world the same way he entered it—nameless, speechless, and on his own, with nobody that loves him and nobody to love.
The world operates on a system of barters and exchanges. He learned that through the family business, watching people drink their miseries away. He doesn’t recall when it began, but eventually, he became one of those pathetic sorts as well, whose best mate was a bottle, so he supposes he doesn’t have the right to sneer at them anymore.
The smoking came later, which might surprise some people, but hey, the Leslies didn’t run a tobacco shop, did they? No—the cigarettes came when he signed up for the war, volunteered himself to be the king’s punching bag, because as horrible as the war was over in France, no horror could possibly compare to the way he felt on England’s mother soil. If he died, well, then so be it. At least it would be amongst enemies and not people who stood on his shoulders and called themselves his family.
So, the day he was shipped out, he bought a pack of cigarettes, smoked two or three of them on the way there, and kept the rest for when he arrived in France, just in case.
And now, with both feet on foreign land, here he is, ready to embrace the utter pointlessness of it all with as much gravitas as he cares to spare.
The thing is, he doesn’t count on meeting Joseph Blake. A million things he’s accounted for—how to obtain a steady supply of whiskey, cigarettes, even food—and the one thing, the one thing that doesn’t even cross his mind is the possibility of falling in love.
It’s, frankly, quite pathetic. Blake is nothing but another one of those overexcited, overenthusiastic goody two-shoes from a happy village and a happy family and probably a happy life. He doesn’t need Blake’s confirmation to be certain of this, either. One look at Blake’s bright eyes and even brighter smile tells him all he needs to know about the man. Hell, he’s likely the type who actually believes the war will change the world for the better.
Maybe this is God’s cruel way of making him realize he was better off staying back in England, after all. Not that he really had a choice—eventually, all men would’ve become drafted even if his name wasn’t the first on the list of volunteers. Even so, why would the heavens put someone like Blake in his path if it didn’t serve a higher purpose?
Was God taunting him? For the way he still dreamt about the rugby captain’s chapped lips on his own, about how they might’ve felt if they’d moved down his neck, down his chest, and took him in his mouth? For the way he still felt that man’s fingers deep inside him, twisting until it hurt, his moans muffled by the gag of the man’s other hand around his tongue?
He’s not ashamed of any of it. If he was, he wouldn’t have kept at it. But, one look at Joseph Blake’s curls across his forehead, his sloped jawline, and his clear eyes makes it obvious why this is different—there’s something about Blake that makes Leslie want to know him better beyond a quick fuck, and that is not an idea that one should entertain in times of warfare, or at any time, period.
That doesn’t stop him from dreaming about it, though. About Blake beside him, on top of him, underneath him, and all around him until he wakes up with a heat in his chest and a hardness in his trousers that he takes care of discreetly every morning before dawn breaks, before the other men awaken from their deep, tired slumber.
Well. It’s not as if he needs to talk to the guy. Their unit is large, and Blake hardly ever crosses his path, probably doesn’t even remember his name, so Leslie keeps looking, keeps dreaming.
Then, that fateful day in the truck arrives, like a lightning bolt that was always destined to strike. Blake is seated across from him with that contemplative, placating look in his eyes, and Leslie wants to kick him over and smack the innocence out of his pretty face. What an absolute arse. When he tells Blake as such, Blake’s mouth twitches, and he can’t help the delight that skips into his heart at the sight.
“And you’re that guy,” Blake is saying, and—oh, what’s goody two-shoes going to do next? Scold him? Tell on him?
He really wants to know. So, Leslie tilts his head to the side and sends him his laziest, most cunning smile, the one he always directed at the men in the pub. “Enlighten me.”
“Oh, you know. Pompous twat. Arrogant prick.” With a slow, deliberate movement, Blake leans forward and props himself up on his rifle with a mirrored smile, and it almost makes Leslie drop his own smile until he hears, “Wanker.”
He nearly laughs. Joseph Blake? Putting up a fight? Well, well, well. He hums and uncrosses his arms, then leans back until he hits the canvas covering the truck. “Maybe I was wrong, then,” Leslie sings out. Perhaps there’s more to Blake than meets the eye.
Blake looks perplexed. “I might not know you very well, but that doesn’t seem like something you’d say.”
“Well, we can’t have that.” How far can he take this without exposing himself? It doesn’t matter—this is too delicious to let up now. “I suppose we’ll just have to get to know each other better. Wouldn’t you say, Blake?” He enunciates every consonant and vowel in Blake’s name, punctuating it with a very pronounced glottal stop.
When Blake looks back at him with widened eyes, that’s when Leslie realizes that he’s never said Blake’s name out loud before, even if he’s said it many times in his dreams. He feels a flush crawling up his neck, so he kicks at Blake’s rifle before Blake or anybody else can notice, because fuck that.
The day after, Blake receives a letter. This wouldn’t be anything warranting a special mention if it weren’t for the fact that the light in Blake’s eyes dims by a significant factor even though the sun has been shining ever since the skies cleared.
And—yeah, it’s the fact that he’s thinking about things like this that he realizes he is in too deep for his own good. But, what is he to do when they pass by each other in the mess tent and Blake doesn’t take any food, only collects his soup and water before shuffling out quietly? What is he to do when Blake drops a crate of ammunition, allowing all of the shells to scatter onto the dirt when he’d always been so careful before?
What is he to do, now that their eyes are finding each other through the endless bodies of soldiers, and he sees nothing but wistfulness reflected in Blake’s?
He should leave it alone. It’s none of his business. Blake was doing fine before they met, and he’ll continue to be fine afterward.
Of course, that perfectly explains why, two weeks later, Leslie finds himself kissing Blake in the removed space of the camp, far away from the rest of the unit and the fire they’ve built for this cold Christmas Eve. It feels like they’re in a world of their own, where rules are made to be broken and time is meant to be stopped.
Blake is drunk. He knows this, even if Blake himself keeps denying it. But, Blake offered, and he was right there in front of him, with those lips and that face that’ve been haunting his dreams every night. He may be strong, but every suit of armor has a chink in it somewhere, and Blake has found his.
“You’re drunk,” he repeats once more when he leans back, high on Blake’s scent and wanting more. He tears himself away before he can do anything foolish like take Blake right then and there, or kiss him again, or hold his hand.
Joseph Blake isn’t like that, he reminds himself as he walks off, head hung low. He was drunk, he was in misery, and he needed something to remind him that he was still alive.
Your life is worth living, Blake had said. Was he honestly just talking about Leslie, or was he perhaps trying to convince himself of it as well?
It doesn’t matter. It’s none of his concern.
The empty whiskey bottle bumps against his leg as he makes his way to the dark side of the camp, where the trees grow taller than the rest of the forest. He tumbles down to his usual spot, lies back against the rock facing the rolling fields ahead, now like a dark, murky lake in the night, and reaches inside his trousers to palm his erection like he does every morning. He pretends like it’s Blake’s hand pressing a finger there to the tip, like it’s Blake’s heat that he feels along his length, like it’s Blake’s entire existence that he’s been holding onto life this long for.
He can still taste the whiskey on his tongue—stuff’s expensive, Blake insisted. Leslie’s had better, much better, but even so, none of it holds a candle to the aftertaste of Blake’s mouth on his.
If only he had been brave enough to push Blake down against the grass, run his palms along Blake’s thighs, curve his body flush against Blake’s chest, sink his teeth into Blake’s lips and drink in his moans—then, perhaps, he’d feel happier about his decision to never speak to Blake again.
With that last thought in his mind, he strokes once more and spills into his hand, emptying his entire heart along with it.
He senses Blake’s eyes following him like a hawk the next day, but he pretends he doesn’t. Pretends he hadn’t wanked to Blake’s image just last night, pretends he hasn’t been thinking about Blake every waking moment, pretends he doesn’t know the shape of Blake’s lips on his own. Pretends he doesn’t even know Blake’s name.
At first, it helps. After two weeks—or, perhaps it’s closer to three—he no longer goes to sleep with visions of Blake’s body fused with his, nor wakes up with the phantom sensation of Blake’s hands around his waist. In fact, the first day he peers into sunlight and there’s no hardness down there, he nearly grins. He’s cured himself, and Joseph Blake would trouble him no more.
But, three months later, when Blake receives another letter and stops seeking him out in the crowd, that’s when the new dreams begin. Dreams of waking to Blake in his arms, clothed and adorned with a languid smile, of walking through tulip fields with Blake’s hand in his, of brushing Blake’s curls out of his eyes when Blake is busy preparing something warm in the kitchen, of wrapping Blake in a hug when Blake returns from the grocer’s.
He dreams of visiting sandy beaches in the summer, of crunching leaves beneath his feet in the fall, of listening to crackling firewood in the winter, of welcoming the first day of spring every year, all with Joseph Blake by his side.
He didn’t think it was possible to simultaneously love and hate a person this much, but God had always set out to prove him wrong from the very beginning, and He’s finally found a way to do it.
He tries everything to make it stop. He throws himself into his daily duties, keeps himself busy with tasks that he otherwise wouldn’t give two fucks about, even tries thinking about the rugby captain’s chapped lips on his. It’s one of the few fond memories he has out of the many bad ones, but even that offers no escape for him—all that comes to mind is the fact that Joseph Blake’s lips tasted much sweeter despite the bitter alcohol on his tongue.
The first time he kissed someone, he was fifteen. It was with a boy, and he didn’t know what it meant. The last time he kissed someone, he was thirty. It was with a man, and there’s nobody else he would rather kiss than that same man again.
Of course, fate being what it is, Blake is promoted to lieutenant on the exact same day as he is. Another one of God’s taunts again, reminding him of what was so close to him, yet unattainable.
“Congratulations,” Blake tells him. “Looks like it’s up to you and me to keep this rowdy bunch in line.”
Blake seems to be faring better than he did in the previous three months. That’s good. It means that whatever broke his heart didn’t break him all the way. Leslie can leave the Second Devons in peace.
“Just you,” he says, looking down at the ground. He doesn’t need another still of Blake’s eyes to add to the film reel before he goes. “I’m being transferred.”
“The Eighth.” He waits for Blake to continue the charade—good on you, mate, you’ll do great there!—but nothing of the sort comes, so he has no choice but to look back up. It’s a decision he regrets immediately, because Blake is crying, and he’s not even trying to hide it.
“Blake?” Leslie hears the concern leaking through his voice before he can stop it. He’s rarely ever encountered any problem he couldn’t wiggle his way out of, whether it was back in England or here in the trenches, but now, faced with a Blake that’s about to fall to pieces, he is truly at a loss.
“Sorry,” Blake finally says in a quiver, then stumbles when he hits a pole. Leslie forces his arm down from automatically reaching out to help, and he tries to focus on what Blake is saying next. However, every syllable goes in one ear and out the other, because at that very moment, the sandy beaches, the crunching leaves, the crackling firewood, and the first day of spring all flood his senses in one swirling mess, and the only thing connecting them all is the man that’s currently running away from him.
His body moves before his mind does, and he follows Blake, and therein lies the problem—he knows that he would always follow Blake if given the chance.
That chance is gone, now that he’s been assigned to the Eighth.
Blake’s back is turned towards him when he enters the tent, but Blake’s sniffles are audible from where he’s standing. Is it intrusive for him to be here? He should’ve thought about it more before he closed the flap, because it’s too late to turn back around.
“Didn’t know you were such a crybaby,” Leslie says. He doesn’t even know who Blake is crying for. It certainly can’t be for him. Right?
“Didn’t think I was the sort?” Blake asks after a short laugh. It sounds like a surrender, which is nothing like the Blake that Leslie knows.
He still can’t see anything other than Blake’s back from where he’s standing, though he can easily imagine how the laughter must’ve rippled through Blake’s features. The corners of Blake’s eyes tend to crinkle when it happens. If Leslie is caught in a vulnerable enough state, he’ll admit to that being his favourite bit about Blake.
Well—perhaps they’re both a little vulnerable right now. He’s being transferred, and Blake is crying, and maybe the two are related. Before doubt can poison his mind, he crosses the threshold and settles down on the bunk across from Blake, taking care to keep his eyes fixed on the ground in front of Blake’s boots.
“Didn’t think you were strong enough,” Leslie finally answers. The only time he’s seen people cry out here is when it’s the last time they’re able to do so, and it’s usually not very helpful or cathartic.
Blake’s boots shift a little. “Is that a compliment or an insult?”
“A bit of both.” His hands reach up to pull off his hat—a bad habit that rears its end whenever he’s nervous that he’s never been able to get rid of. “I should’ve known better, though.”
“What, to think I wouldn’t cry?”
“To bet against you.” He pulls on a stray thread on his hat and watches as the braid begins to untwist. “To ignore you. To think I could stop thinking about you.” To think I wouldn’t care about you. To think I wouldn’t miss you. To think I wouldn’t love you. “Of course I’m only admitting that now, after knowing I’m never going to see you again. Hilarious, isn’t it? Always had terrific timing.”
There’s a stifling hum hanging around them as Blake remains quiet. It might be the heat—it’s been nearing thirty degrees most afternoons, and it doesn’t dissipate until well after dark. Then again, today’s one of the rare days that it’s drizzled in the mornings, enough to cool down the earth, so that’s not the most likely explanation. It could just be the lack of circulation in the tent. They haven’t found the perfect way to pitch the canvas in a way that lets the stale air out properly. There’s only the two of them in here, though, so—likely not that, either.
When it comes down to it, he knows it’s because his nerves are getting the best of him. He hasn’t felt this anxious in his entire life.
“Well,” Blake finally says—Leslie braces himself for the rejection, the rebuttal, and fuck, the threads on his hat are completely unravelled now, there’s no way he can fix this even if he had all the yarn in the world—“we can’t have that.”
And—that’s it, isn’t it? Of course that’s what Blake would say. He should’ve kept his mouth shut, he should’ve let this go, he should’ve—
“What’s that?” When Leslie raises his head, he’s almost struck by how similar their positions are to the first time Blake pinned him with those eyes. Flashbacks of that day in the truck return, heavy and tangible. He can almost smell the rain, touch the mud, feel his stomach lurch with the brakes, but this time...this time, Blake is looking back with an expression that he’s never seen on him before. If he had to pick one, he’d say it’s most similar to the one Blake wore just before he kissed him.
“I suppose we’ll just have to get to know each other better,” Blake says, eyes playful and kind. “Wouldn’t you say, Leslie?”
Blake isn’t joking. Leslie has no idea how he knows this, but he does, as surely as he knows the curve of Blake’s lips on his. He registers the pounding of his heart inside his chest, then peers at the entrance of the tent—thankfully, miraculously, it’s still closed. “You’re crazy, Blake.”
“Only a bit,” Blake says, and before Leslie can register the shift in gravity, Blake has him pressed against the bunk.
Without the whiskey to act as plausible deniability, everything that Blake does, from carding a hand through his hair, to pressing a knee flush against his pelvis, to kissing him like it’s the last time he’ll get to do it, makes Leslie realize that his dreams were pale imitations of reality. He’d always prided himself on having a decent imagination, but all it takes is one look in Blake’s eyes and he has no choice but to admit defeat. Nothing rings as true as the beating of Blake’s heart.
“Gone speechless, have you? Didn’t think you were the sort to be shy,” Blake teases, before pulling at Leslie’s jacket. He furrows his eyebrows when his fingers get stuck on a button. “I have never hated these bloody uniforms more than this very moment.”
“They’re not so difficult to remove, if you know the trick,” Leslie says, thinking back to the many mornings and that one night he’s spent perfecting the motion. With a fluid motion, he flips them so that Blake is now on his back. He unhooks the suspenders holding Blake’s trousers in place and shoves them down, pushing Blake’s legs apart wider.
Blake takes the opportunity to run both hands down Leslie’s neck before planting them firmly on Leslie’s shoulders, with both thumbs pressed dangerously at the pulse point at the base of Leslie’s throat. “You trying to show off, Lieutenant Leslie?”
“Only for you, Lieutenant Blake,” Leslie promises, before lowering his head and swallowing Blake whole.
The first time he fucked a man, he was eighteen. It was quick, rough, and underneath a broken streetlight around two in the morning on a Friday. The stars were absent, the moon was a dark hole in the sky, and he’d resigned himself to spending an eternity stuck in limbo, suspended in nonexistence.
The first time he makes love to a man, he’s thirty. It’s slow, soft, and careful, almost achingly so, and he’s wrapped in the arms of a person who manages to make the embrace feel like freedom and not a cage. There’s a war brewing in France, he’s leaving tomorrow, and they are almost certainly never going to see each other again until the storm tides over.
But, as long as they can hold onto each other, carry their torches proudly, and remember who they are, they’ll make it through. They can survive anything, even the apocalypse. He’ll leave this world the opposite way he entered it—with a name on his back, a love to declare, and a life long lived with a person that loves him and that he loves back.