The crack of gunshots was what made Schofield jolt awake. Breath came to him in gasps of ragged glass, his fist reached for the rifle next to him. The cool of its exterior fitted into his palm like a glove and he swallowed past the painful reminder that he was now a killer.
The area around them was silent. Well, as silent as it could be in a war. But no gunshots. Not yet. It was just a dream... for now.
He shivered and forcing himself to let go of the rifle, he shoved his hands back into the familiar space between bicep and flank. Schofield scorned himself for letting another soldier steal his gloves within the first month of autumn, back in the Somme. He scowled. War was not pretty nor full of comrades. It definitely wasn’t a game, no matter what Jessie Pope had said. Soldiers almost always stole from each other, of course they did. They had to. He still remembered the culprit back in the 36th. His teeth found his bottom lip, biting down. He hoped the bastard was making good use of them. His fingers moved up, sacrificing minimal warmth to trace the outline of the scarf tied around his neck. At least the thief hadn’t taken that from him.
He sat up fully, groaning. His body appeared to have melded into the tree behind him, and his spine felt a little worse for wear. Finally, he looked down at the body heaped at his feet and he felt a smile crest upon his lips like foam on a blue wave.
Of course, there was only one person that he could smile at here. Or when he left. He couldn’t smile back home.
Here, he could. As long as he stayed in close vicinity of Blake.
The younger man mumbled something in his sleep and turned onto his side, the moonlight, which had decided to bless them on that fair night, lightly shining down on his gentle face. He watched him from his place sat up against the tree, observing the soft rise and fall of his chest, the innocence that only became more prominent once he slept. The way the man’s hair fell over his forehead in soft, swirling dark curls that reminded William of chocolate and soft fur.
He wanted to lie down next to him, to find his body nestled up against French soil, yet still unturned by trench-work. He wanted to feel the grass tickle his face and hands. It would be so easy. But Schofield had a lot of wants and he knew that less than half of those wants would be granted over his lifetime. If he had much more time left. One could never know, out here.
He cursed the War under his breath before crossing his arms. Tearing his gaze away from Tom, he stared up at the heavens. They were untarnished, not a single plane engine to be heard. But he didn’t want to listen for them, not yet. Soon, he would have to but not now. The stars twinkled at him, sparkling. Just like Tom’s eyes when he told him stories. The man loved stories. Schofield loved listening to them.
What he did listen for were the soft inhales and exhales of Blake. He almost couldn’t hear them amongst the rest of the background noise – tinkering, a short but muffled shout from somewhere along the trenches. Probably someone finding a rat hanging from its tail above his face. The sound of far-off, many footsteps came into his hearing and bringing his gaze down from the heavens, he searched for their general direction.
There, following their leader like black sheep following the shepherd to their slaughter-house, scuffled a group of soldiers. Marching, ever marching. The sound of voices came, carried from the wind towards them but Schofield knew it to be nothing important. He wondered how long they’d been walking, how much their feet hurt. Probably for ages, and probably a lot. He grimaced, remembering the long, seemingly endless hours of marching he’d endured whilst moving from 36th to 8th. The 8th had thankfully not moved much during his time stationed there, but who knew what else was to come. Uncertainty hung over everything here, even darker than the night itself.
The sound of marching footsteps faded away as they entered the trenches and Schofield could feel the quiet coming back to him. His eyes wandered over from the men back towards the stars. He didn’t need to look at Blake to feel his reassuring presence.
He was just there.
If they both made it out alive, Schofield was certain he’d still be able to tell his presence apart from all others around him. Even years after. If they still remained in contact. He hoped they would. He hoped that after everything, if fate decided well for them, that they’d still be as tied to the hip.
It was something that he had wanted when he first came. To have a friend. Someone to share himself with. It was one of the many wants that God decided to grant him. Thankfully. Schofield was glad that that one at least was listened to.
He stilled, listening once more for the sound of Blake’s gentle, slumbering breathing. And a smile ghosted upon his lips when he heard it. The soft whistle of breath from someone he was close to. He found in a strange, inexplicable way that it calmed him and rid him of his anxiety. The anxiety that was as much a part of him as Blake’s joy was a part of him. Schofield matched his own breath to Blake’s, hoping that that in turn would bring him back to the world of sleep. He needed it. Sleep dragged at his eye lids, yearning for him to eventually drift off again.
But he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He didn’t want to hear the whistle of the five-nines again, nor was he desperate to see the build up of bodies that he had found on the battlefield of the Somme. Their wasted, concave faces imprinted in his mind. Rats leering out of eye sockets mocking the fallen with their ghastly rodent forms.
It was only then, that he noticed Blake’s breath had become quicker. Faster. As if he was running, the whole world after him. Schofield knew too well what he was suffering. Far too well.
Blake hadn’t seen much of war, not yet. But he remembered the first time Blake had seen the piled heap of dead British, brown uniforms melded against mud of the same colour. He’d wanted to make him avert his eyes, cover up the boy’s eyes. For that was what he had been in that moment. A stranded, confused and horrified child, only just now seeing the atrocities of the world. He’d wanted to reign in that innocence that was all too plain to see and keep him away from war. He remembered the rage that he had felt and the red, angry half-moon marks he’d cut into his skin as he knew that war was what Blake had signed up for.
Blake whimpered like a lost puppy.
He shook himself and leaned forward. His hand made contact with the warmth of Blake’s shoulder. “Blake,” he whispered. “Blake.”
The man’s eyes flew open, startled. He lay there for a moment, one second dragged into two, to three before he was able to collect himself in the waking world. “Scho...” he whispered, his voice as soft as the rest of him.
“It’s just a nightmare, that’s all it is. You’re OK.”
Blake shook his head and then propped himself up. The moonlight lifted from his face, turning the field to black. Though, even in the dark, he could tell that Blake was uncomfortable. “It’s dark.” He sat up fully, rubbing his face with a muddied hand.
“It’s OK, I’m here with you.”
He could feel Blake’s eyes turn towards him. The cloud that had covered the moon had moved past, the moon lending France its silver light. Blake looked up towards it, the light hitting his face once more and he shivered. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Night.”
“Did I wake you?”
“Good. Good. God, it’s bloody freezing,” he shivered again, running his hands over his arms. As if that would help. “You’d think it was December not April.”
“Isn’t April usually this cold though?”
Blake scoffed. “Not like this,” He scooted closer to Schofield, moving from his place in the grass. The tree was just about big enough to support both of them on one surface and Blake leaned his head back, the shadow of the tree branches overhead blocking the moon from hitting his skin. Blake’s arm was lightly pressed up against his own. He took a deep breath. Another one. “What woke you up then?”
“Same thing as woke you up.”
“The usual,” Schofield replied, his gaze cast towards the heavens. Stars upon stars. He wanted the joyous twinkle of Blake’s eyes back. Not the ones that were replaced with fear. Silence wound its way between them. Someone from the trenches not that far off coughed. The scuffle of men’s footsteps could be heard again. Retorts could be heard from the masses, words like “bugger off” and “bloody scoundrels” came to their ears.
“What’s going on over there?”
“New people. They came from over there.” Schofield pointed off in the distance.
“Where would they stay? Here’s cramped enough as it is.”
Schofield shrugged and closed his eyes, feeling content enough. He didn’t intend on sleeping, just relieving the sleepy pressure under his eye lids. Silence came up again, the usual noises of trench-life washing over them. He could feel Blake shiver again. And again. Schofield let loose a long breath through his nose and then untied the scarf from around his neck. “Here.” He pressed it into Blake’s hands. Cold skin brushed against his slightly warmer ones.
He could practically feel Blake’s smile. He looked up to him and smiled back, taking note of Blake’s smile then. It was radiant and brilliant. Schofield knew that his own smile could never match that. “Thanks, Scho.”
“Don’t mention it.” He leaned back again, shoving his hands back in their usual place. He pretended to close his eyes, watching Blake from the slits of his eyes. He wrapped the scarf around his neck and Schofield suppressed a giggle when he noticed that he had sniffed it. He didn’t mind, it was cute. He’d never admit it but he did find the young man sweet, endearing at times. There was just something about him, something that made Schofield comfortable with calling him that... in his head at least. Never out loud. No, he never could.
Another one of his wants that could go evaporate. He knew that could never happen.
“How do you go back to sleep after a nightmare?” Blake asked.
“Um...” Schofield flushed, he could feel the red branding into his cheeks as he thought of the ways he did. But if he knew, if he spilled those thoughts, that he’d be named a creep. And he did not want to lose Blake any time soon. He was glad for the night. It shrouded his face and the embarrassing discolouration of his cheeks from sight. “Um...I’m not too sure.”
Silence lapsed between the two of them again. An owl hooted somewhere, an uncommon sound. He could feel Blake jump and Schofield couldn’t hold his good-natured laugh back.
“What are you laughing for?”
“Your jump. You’re so easily scared.”
“Oh shut up, you old twat.”
“Me? Old?” Happiness brought up a drum in his chest as he softly continued to chuckle. Shortly afterwards, Blake joined in, the French fields filling with the sounds of their soft laughter. Careful to not make it louder than necessary, the two buckled over, stifling their titters into their cold hands. He knew that their banter hadn’t even been that funny but somehow any kind of banter between the two of them could turn Schofield into a mess of laughter. It was something he couldn’t do anywhere else.
Their laughter finally draining away, Schofield leaned back against the tree. Blake’s child-like giggles falling away, he leaned against Schofield, pressing his head into the crook between Schofield’s neck and shoulder.
“Is it alright if I stay like this?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Warmth seeped into him, though he was unsure whether it came from Blake himself or a strange internal feeling that gripped onto him. He didn’t dwell on it, nor did he shove that feeling away – letting it take over. He rested his head on top of Blake’s, Blake’s dark curls a soft pillow to his cheek. Blake yawned, pressing a hand to his mouth. Schofield didn’t mind. Sleep pulled at his eyes again and he just let them close. He noticed Blake’s were closing too, if the soft tickle of eyelashes against his now bare neck told him anything. He hummed slightly, the strange but yet familiar feeling of content blanketing him. Blake shifted slightly and then he heard Blake’s breathing soften. Now he was so close that he could hear it perfectly, the soft, rhythmic sound of inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Falling deeper and deeper by the second. And it was this rhythm that Schofield found himself soon falling asleep to.
But before he fell asleep, a smile graced Schofield’s lips.
Another one of his wants had been granted. For now.