The French soldier hasn't stopped talking for a single moment since he returned from his garrison duties, an hour or so ago. To be honest, it might even be an interesting conversation, if Arthur could understand a word of what he's saying. Unfortunately, his French, for now, is mostly limited to orders like "shoot" or "gas" or "retreat" and he doesn't think he will need to learn much more. Besides, it isn't like the French seem much interested in learning English.
"Alright, would you please shut up!" he shouts, in English, slamming closed the book he's trying to read; with the constant background noise, he has been stuck on the same sentence forever.
"Quoi?" The French soldier replies, his eyes enormous.
"Il t'as dit de la fermer," a fellow soldier says, to which the first one nods and then continues talking.
"Qu’est-ce que ça?" he asks. Arthur frowns at him. The second soldier makes to intervene but the first one stops him. "Livre," he explains, pointing at Arthur's book.
"A story," Arthur mutters, while hiding the cover by force of habit. After months spent trying to build a reputation, he's not down to let anyone discover he likes to find comfort in cheap romances. The few who know about it think he reads them to fantasize about naive and prosperous women, for lack of a better alternative. The truth couldn't be more different, which is just one more reason not to flaunt it.
His mother sends him a new one whenever she can. He received this one a month or so ago, and has read it already enough times to have it memorised.
"Oh, une histoire," the French soldier perks up. He stretches his neck to take a peek, but Arthur only turns his back at him.
"C'est très impoli, ça. Et on peut au moins se présenter."
Arthur frowns. Stretching it, “impoli” sounds almost like “impolite”. Surely, he's not going to let a random French soldier accuse him of lacking manners; especially not when he was just minding his business, and all he asked for was some quiet.
"Alright then," he turns with a sharp movement, "I'm Arthur, Arthur Kirkland, and I don't like being interrupted when I read."
The French soldier tilts his head slightly, then he gives a little smile and offers him his hand. "Francis Bonnefoy, enchanté."
Of the two of them, Arthur thinks, he's the only one.
Winter in the lands of Belgium with uniforms made for summer climates can be described only as utterly freezing. Hands tucked under his armpits, Arthur shivers, teeth rattling so much he's probably transmitting messages in morse code.
Around his knees and feet, there's a military blanket so wet, thin and filled with holes he might as well not have it at all.
He searches his pockets for a match, then debates if a few seconds of comfort is worth wasting one.
"Il fait froid, non?"
A voice calls his attention. Less than a metre from him, Francis is rubbing his hands together and puffing on them. By the way his body shakes, it doesn't seem to help.
He also has a blanket, and that too looks more akin to a shitty used handkerchief, slung over his shoulders and around his torso to form a kind of cocoon.
"Mais il pourrait faire moins froid si on est ensemble," Francis continues, patting the cold terrain next to him, gesturing Arthur to come closer
Arthur hugs his knees tighter and refuses to move. He's not so desperate he needs to cuddle with a stranger. Especially not a French stranger. Especially not a French stranger who, by what he has seen, has an enormous problem with keeping his hands to himself.
He has his blanket, thank you very much.
"Tu vas geler,” Francis mutters in that croaking language of his, stands up, and with a few steps presses into Arthur's space. From how he lifts his arms, Arthur is certain he is going to hug him. He jumps away by pure instinct.
"The hell are you doing?" he yelps, hands flapping to shoo the other away. But he's slow and the cold has made him lethargic, so he can do little to stop Francis from wrapping his blanket around both of their shoulders. It’s small, barely enough to cover one of them, forcing them to stay pressed together and, despite Arthur's protest, it is indeed warmer.
"Oh, fine. But don't move." He pauses. “It means nothing,” he warns, resisting the treacherous impulse to snuggle a little closer.
Because he doesn't need to cuddle with anyone. It's only necessary to not freeze to death till their duties outside are over.
"Bien, bien," Francis chuckles, but still wraps an arm around his waist to pull him even closer. Arthur elbows him in response.
If Hell exists, it must be a trench under weeks of rain, mixing with snow dirty with ashes, mud and blood. It seeps under Arthur's clothes and into his hair. It must have been blonde underneath, once.
Francis' is blonde too, his hair growing into soft curls from its last cut, and he often cards his fingers through them.Arthur says he should be caring more about the war, less about his hair. Francis smirks, says he's only envious.
The worst thing is, he's right.
Francis is munching on some kind of biscuit which logically must be not much different from the ones present in the British rations, but looking at it seems so much more appetizing given how Francis seems to be tasting every single bite. The biscuit glints slightly with a substance looking too much like jam for Arthur to not begin to drool.
Arthur's stomach grumbles at the sight, his mouth watering for a stupid biscuit, like a kid before a display of pastries and sweets.
He turns his head before Francis can catch him staring with want in his eyes. He doesn't want anyone’s pity. He's perfectly fine with the card-box that is British rations.
Again, he's not quick enough. Francis stops nibbling the biscuit and stares back, a sort of complacent expression on his face. Then, he searches his pockets, coming up with pieces of another biscuit, crumbled. He also takes a small package, squeezing it with his teeth.
"Voulez?" He offers the crumbles and jam on his open palm, cupping his hands to try to protect them from the rain.
Arthur crosses his arms on his chest. "I don't want them." He tries to be convincing despite his stomach and the fact that, albeit being in pieces, the biscuit still looks really good. The jam, then, must be delicious. He hasn't had any jam in months.
"Allez," Francis insists, waving the pieces in Arthur's nose almost smacking it in the process. It's probably only the hunger exaggerating things, but Arthur would swear they smell good too. And the trenches don't give much choice between hunger and pride.
"Thank you," he mutters, snatching the crumbles from Francis' hand.
The biscuit is truly good. In seconds, it's gone. Francis smiles and breaks another.
"C'est le dernier," he says, apologetically, opening his hands to indicate emptiness. Arthur shrugs.
"Better than nothing."
Today Francis is nowhere to be seen. It isn't long before, surpassing the usual language barrier, Arthur discovers he’s been sent some sections over to help repair and reinforce the trench along with other men from his group. It’s been snowing non-stop the past week and the last thing they need is for the trenches to collapse. On his side, Arthur has been put to work too, cursing his blistered hands. Even with his wool gloves.
At least, today there is quiet, safe from the occasional explosions that are by now the norm. It’s almost too quiet.
Today some chatting would have made the work less heavy and tiresome. Even some frog-croaking would be fine.
Of course, Francis had to choose today of all days to be put on duty somewhere else, today when Arthur has neither the time nor the strength to read a single page.
Arthur's fellow soldiers are mostly as taciturn as he is. They are all too focused on finishing their work as fast as possible and returning to the relative safety of the trenches. It's never a good sign when the trenches begin to seem like a nice place to be.
It must be the fact the relatively abundant free time has given most of them the chance to reprise their preferred activities, and to at least try and believe there is still more to life than this routine. There are those who write, those who draw - like Francis and Arthur, too, occasionally - those who sing, those who play cards.
It takes all of that to survive the winter.
Arthur doesn't waste any more words before slamming a package into Francis' hands, little and wrapped in oily newspaper sheets.
"Qu'est c'est que ça?"
Arthur gestures for him to open it. He should walk away, too; he has no interest in staying to see if his gift has been appreciated. Well, it’s not like it is a gift. It's only a payment for the biscuits, that's it. He doesn't like being in debt.
Francis nods and carefully tears the paper to reveal a thick pair of woollen gloves.
"Oh, pour moi?"
"Of course." Of course, he had to ask stupid questions. "I just happened to find an extra pair."
He searched the whole length of the trenches for that pair and paid a fortune in favours for that. But all of that, Francis doesn't need to know. Like he doesn't need to know they were too big and Arthur had to fix them. It must be the pride of having his work recognized keeping him here. Arms crossed, he turns his head to hide his expectations while Francis carefully unwraps the bandages he uses to protect his hands and tries the gloves on.
"Ces sont très chauds, merci!" he comments, a smile of pure bliss lighting his face. And Arthur thinks he wants to take a picture, right now, and save it forever.
Some days are nicer than others because letters and, if someone is lucky, packages from home arrive. Arthur almost tore his share from the hands of the soldier distributing the mail. There's a letter - home everything is fine, all four Kirkland siblings are still alive - and a small, but thick rectangular package. Finally, something new to read. After his last request, mother even swapped the cover with something more unassuming, less cheesy. The content, however, is the same: naive heroines falling straight into the toned arms of handsome men. Arthur ignores the ladies and flips right to where the author spends paragraphs describing her hero. He reads about him being not too tall but nicely built with full lips, purple-blue eyes and lustrous blonde hair.
Arthur blinks. He reads again. He was pretty sure the lover this time had raven hair. But when he tries reading again, again his imagination plays the same tricks on him.
He groans, burying his face in his palm. Then again, underneath the dirty clothes and the layer of mud and the lice, Francis is quite the looker. There’s no use in denying that.
And he’s fucked - he’s utterly, undeniably fucked.
"Oh, un autre livre?" Francis asks only a few days later, standing a few steps from him and shifting from foot to foot. Before Arthur can escape, he comes behind him, peering down. Arthur hunches over the book in response
“Yes. None of your business.”
Huffing, Francis just shrugs, examining the trench for a spot a bit less muddy and frozen than the rest where he can sit. Arthur scoffs. Good luck with that. The trenches are a quagmire for miles and miles. No matter how many faces of disgust Francis can do, things won't change. Eventually, he ends up crouching with elegance next to Arthur. Balancing his elbows on his thighs, he picks an open envelope from under his uniform jacket. This time, it is Arthur who can’t help but peer. Not moving from where he is, he throws subtle glances at Francis, trying to divine what photograph he’s looking at and what words he’s reading.
Probably some sweetheart left at home, judging from the silly, love-struck expression on his face. Inside Arthur, something stings, at chest level.
He cranes his neck a bit more to take glimpses, trying to divine what face Francis' girlfriend must have. No doubt she is a pretty and prosperous French beauty with perfectly coiffed hair, red lips and a beauty mark.
“She must be nice.”
Arthur lifts a finger to point at the photo. Understanding lights Francis’ face, as he takes the picture and passes it to Arthur.
It doesn’t portray a woman. It doesn’t portray any person, actually, only a landscape of sweet slopes. In the front, on the left, a beautiful estate of white stone, and behind that rows and rows of vineyards
Everything looks very Southern, Mediterranean. Very French.
“Your home?” he asks, flipping the photo back to Francis. He doesn’t understand. His English is as bad as Arthur’s French.
“Your home?” Arthur repeats, finger on the house in the photo. He points at it, then Francis, and even mimics the shape of a house with his hands. They definitely need a dictionary.
Francis nods with enthusiasm. "C'est chez moi," he says.
“Well, it’s nice.”
Arthur studies the photo again, from the tree charged with pomegranates on the front, to the fields of what he assumes to be lavender in the background.
It’s really, really nice. It’s the kind of place that makes someone want to visit.
Francis leans forward to point at the vineyard. "Ce sont mes vignes," he says. "Ceci est ma maison. Ce sont mes arbres, mes champs," he lists, indicating now the photo, now himself.
It ignites Arthur's curiosity.
Inside he knows Francis can’t be a noble, or he wouldn’t be there with him freezing his ass off. At the same time, he cannot believe Francis to be some kind of farmer. It doesn’t match with what Arthur has seen of him; but, then, it isn’t like he has seen much.
“Miens,” Francis confirms, his voice sweet from fondness and nostalgia. “Bon, et de mes parents, évidemment. On a une petite ferme. Mais il faut les voir en été, avec le soleil. Et ça est en blanc et noire. Il faut voir les couleurs."
He goes on like this for a while. Arthur nods to show he's listening , for once actually interested in understanding. He hasn't had much luck.
Arthur shrugs. He never thought it necessary sharing his private life. Most people here think he’s some kind of academic and, honestly, he is not keen to make them believe otherwise.
With Francis, however, things are different.
"A tailor," he answers, fingers already mimicking cutting and sewing a piece of cloth. The word, however, must have a closer enough equivalent in French because Francis just says,
"Oh, un tailleur!", with a tone as if he can't believe it.
Well, that is something they have in common.
They kiss on a foggy night while on sentinel duties, fingers burning from a cigarette by now reduced to a butt. It's quick. One moment they are talking - Francis is talking, Arthur is pretending to listen - and the next moment Francis is turning and brushing his lips against Arthur’s with tentative gentleness
For once, when Arthur freezes, it isn't for the cold. He snaps his head back, by pure instinct and habit, frantically looking left and right in case someone saw.
But the fog is thick around them and a light stamp of a kiss is not the most open showing of affection in the trenches. Habits, still, are tough to kill
"Désolé, je pensais .... mais, bon, pas importe."
By the tone of Francis' voice, it is clear he's disappointed and a little hurt. Arthur wants nothing of this. But he always messes up when it comes to feeling, so used to hiding it's the only answer he knows.
"No, I didn't mean..." he blabbers, realising as he says it how words are being unhelpful. Actions, on the other hand, are easier. He has to squint in the fog to have a vague idea of where Francis is, though he can perceive the shape of his body next to him. It fills his belly with warmth, a sensation very much akin to comfort.
"I like you," he whispers to the shape in the fog and leans over to close the space between them. The first time, he kisses Francis's cheek. Then, Francis is cupping his nape and guiding his head a little to the side till their lips meet. In his chest, Arthur's heart does a little jump, almost a hiccup of joy.
They kiss for a while, long, tender and sweet, hugging too, till some sudden noise brings Arthur back to Earth. They are still on guard duty, there are still enemies on the other side of no-man’s land, and there is still the chance, albeit narrow given the weather, that a sniper is aiming at them right now.
In the night, he hears Francis huff his displeasure and him pressing their lips together one last time. He takes Arthur's hand after this. Arthur scoffs, loud and clear, but doesn't snatch it away.
They communicate mostly through gestures. Though Arthur has managed to find a dictionary, having to check every two words doesn't make for great conversation.
In the end, it's easier and quicker to meet somewhere in the middle. Even speaking only a few words of their respective languages, they can understand each other enough.
When they don't, it's often worth a laugh and God knows how much they need it now. Sometimes it's Arthur the victim of these misunderstandings, often leaving him pouting in his little corner of the trench. Sometimes, he has his own little revenge, laughing so loud at Francis’ mistakes, officers have to reprimand him for being too noisy.
Usually, Francis talks about his lands, painting them in words over the dullness of the trenches and the frozen, muddy land going on and on before their eyes. He talks of his vineyards and the little orchard and the farm and how he misses everything there.
Arthur listens, in awe. He's going to visit Francis' small estate once the war is over and he's going to complain about everything only to make a point. He's going to say the sun is too bright and the grass is too green and the food is too strange, all while spending all his time in the open stuffing his face on local cuisine.
"Fine, but I'm not going to eat any slugs," he says, while knowing he'll probably eat them too. He’ll eat them and has a feeling he might even like them. He’ll eat whatever strange French abomination Francis would want to present him with.
By the time Arthur has to go back home, he'll need new clothes. That, luckily, has never been a problem. What he can't buy, he can repair and adjust. Forget about guns, needles and thread are his weapons of choice.
They are mismatched, no doubt about that. They are often more focused on their differences than their similarities, but it's because they are so mismatched that they fit so well together.
The situation also helps. Arthur had a feeling they would be arguing much more if they weren't stuck in the trenches trying to survive the war and the cold. Anywhere else, they would be only strangers.
Still, sometimes, it seems Fate put them together, if only to watch and marvel at how they complete each other.
Francis is a farmer and Arthur's hobby is gardening. Roses are his favourite and he takes great pride in the bushes he cultivates at home. He thinks Francis would like them, not before having criticised his gardening choices. He’ll give adviceArthur’s going to only pretend to ignore. He wonders if he’s even going to find any bush alive when he gets home. When he enlisted they said the war wasn’t going to last more than a few months at worst. It’s been two years already.
Francis’ passion is clothes. He never loses a chance to comment how French fashion is the best in the world - and surely better than British - and when he can, he has fashion magazines sent from home. He likes to flip through them and choose what he'd like to buy, if he had the means. Then, he laments living so far away from the capital, in a forgotten village where the latest trends only arrive when they are not fashionable anymore.
Arthur studies the models and pretends to scoff at them. They aren’t even that complicated; he could sew them with his eyes closed, and he could do so much better.
He’s going to sew Francis a suit when they get home. A perfectly tailored, two-piece, elegant suit. One made for him and just for him, to parade around in on Sundays - and he knows Francis likes to parade.
Making love isn't something they planned, but one night while most of the other soldiers are sleeping and those who don't sleep are too preoccupied to care for them, they realise kissing will not be enough. Soon they are pressing into each other's space, hands running all over their bodies.
It's as sweet as making love in the dirt and snow, without the luxury of privacy, can possibly be.
Whispering what Arthur believes must be French sweet nothings, Francis drags him into his lap and peppers his face with kisses as a distraction when he takes him. Arthur grits his teeth and bites onto the dirty cloth of Francis' uniform to stifle his cries.
Tears freeze at the corners of his eyes. Francis kisses them too. He caresses his back to soothe the knot of tension in his muscles and moves only when Arthur starts to relax, as much as he can with the ever present doom hovering on their heads.
Being shot now would be a very stupid way to die. So Arthur gives them only the time to reach their climaxes and not a second more.
Trenches are not the place for love; and making love in the trenches, if one can call it that, is a dirty, desperate affair.
Most of the time they are fine with simply being close to each other, each doing their own thing. It satisfies Francis' need for human touch and balances Arthur on the frail line between being alone and being lonely.
"On joue?" Francis interrupts his reading, waving a little card box that surely has seen better days. Before Arthur can wonder what he just said and what's inside the box, he has sat down and opened it to reveal a deck. The cards are ruined, often folded at the angles, some barely an inch from breaking in half.
"Un ami me les a prêtées," he explains while shuffling. "Tu sais jouer, n'est-ce pas?"
"It depends." Arthur lifts his palms in response. It matters little that he can play cards when he doesn't even know what game Francis has in mind; and he doubts they're going to find a middle ground.
"Alright, what do you propose?"
As expected, Francis mentions a game Arthur doesn't recognize; nor does he show signs of understanding when Arthur relaunches with a counterproposal. He tries another with no greater success. Francis does too, and again Arthur has to shake his head.
"Fine," he resigns, gesturing toward the deck, "let's try. On joue. That, the first one you said. Le premier."
He hopes Francis is going to illustrate the rules as they play. "But we play with an open hand," he adds, showing his cards to underline the concept. It takes him three games to begin getting a grasp of the rules. By the fifth he starts to enjoy it. By the tenth, he's already squinting and accusing Francis of cheating and exploiting the language barrier. It doesn’t stop him from demanding another match.
The next time Francis’ friend lends him the cards, it is his turn to teach Francis one of the games he knows, and enjoy some easy wins. If he thought he was going to show pity, he’s mistaken. Besides, the more they play, the more it’s clear Francis doesn’t need it.
Arthur still has the most wins.
It's the first days of March when a bigger charge is launched.
Another suicide attempt to conquer another metre of land. Today they have the luxury and the curse of a clear sky and Arthur can already divine the outcome. The thrill of battle is long gone and hope is slowly going away. He’s tired. Sometimes he’d just like to dig a ditch and lie there waiting for the inevitable. He never asked to be here. He supposes none of them did.
And these, these could be his last moments. These, checking his gun with his ass in the mud, could be the last things he does before dying. In seconds he could be drawing his last breath in this god-forsaken land. He could be blown to pieces by the next hour. He could be of those damn souls he saw at the field hospital with missing limbs and disfigured faces. That sounds even worse. He doesn’t want that.
It is not fair for him to die or be left crippled forever. He’s only twenty-three, with aspirations and projects and a whole life before him.
He kissed Francis last night, quick and half-hearted, bitter from all the stress. He’s not happy about that, especially not when thinking it could very well be the last time.
But if he thinks like that, he’s already doomed. So he forces himself to focus on what he can control, his gun being well-oiled, his gas-mask secured to his belt, his boots laced.
Everything else soon turns into something muddy and distant.
It takes the sudden but unmistakable burning in his eyes to finally snap him out of it. It throws him back in the middle of a messy retreat, all his ammo gone, and his comrades falling left and right.
All around him the trenches are a mess of dead bodies, and wounded who will soon join them. The air fills with a cacophonic mixture of English, French and the many dialects of the colonies. Arthur ignores them all, too busy calling a single name. Eventually, a random soldier grabs his arm and pulls him forward. "T'es Arthur, hein? Francis te cherchait."
Francis’s lying with his back against the trench wall, both hands pressed on his stomach. It takes Arthur a single glance to realise this is bad, this is hopeless, and that all their projects won't last past tomorrow.
“Francis,” he cries, shoving soldiers aside to drop at Francis' side. His face is scrunched in pain, a flow of words Arthur can't understand gushing from his mouth.
"T'es ici, enfin," Francis croaks. "J'ai fait une bêtise,” he even tries to laugh, but he can’t hide the fact he’s scared. He's scared and wounded and suffering and suddenly Arthur doesn't know what to do. He awkwardly passes an arm behind Francis’ back to sustain him, while cupping his head.
"Stupid, you're so stupid," Arthur insults him, because he just couldn't be a little more careful. He had to be shot.
"Désolé. Je pensais pas," Francis murmurs his soft apology. All of Arthur's anger melts in an instant. This is not the time to bicker.
"Hush," he orders then. "You're going to be fine," he tries to say, but he can't seem to find his voice. He can't speak, his throat hurting from the gas and the hiccups stuck there. He says it knowing he's lying. Maybe this is why he cannot speak.
Francis whines. He is suddenly so small, minuscule, fragile and mortal in Arthur's arms. Arthur cradles him, sweet and desperate.
Francis looks at him with clouded eyes, empty eyes.
"Ça -" Arthur searches his memory, "bien. Tu vas être bien. A doctor, please," he shouts then. But there are too many wounded around them and not enough time. Those deemed doomed are to be left to their fate.
It doesn't stop Arthur from calling, just like he doesn't stop telling Francis all is going to be fine.
Francis trembles against him, terror now painting his face. He tries to lift his arm and fails, too weak. So Arthur holds him tightly. He hugs him and pets his hair, brushing it away as best as he can from his sweaty forehead. He tries to put tenderness and love where they have no place to be.
It's not nice. It's not romantic or even beautifully tragic like in romances.
It's horrible and slow, terribly slow. Blood filters from Francis’ wound on his belly to stain Arthur's fingers. He draws in a low, whistling breath, but air cannot reach his lungs anymore. They have stopped working.
"J'ai mal," he laments, voice lower than a whisper, "j'ai très mal."
Arthur can only hug him closer.
“I know," he murmurs, voice hoarse. "I know. I'm sorry. It'll be over soon. You're going to be fine."
They are mostly empty words, but he repeats them nonetheless, over and over till he can't speak anymore and his arms hurt for the weight.
"He's gone," someone says, placing a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Let go."
Arthur does not let go. He can't. His body refuses to move, locked in place like Francis is, going rigid with death.
It takes another two soldiers to pull Arthur away. A shovel is pushed at his chest, and orders are shouted. There is work to do.
And Arthur gets to work. He dives into it and lets his mind wander somewhere else.
It soon becomes a habit. By the time the war ends, it's the thin thread keeping his sanity intact, along with the photo of a beautiful French landscape he treasures in his pocket. He counts the days, thinking he’ll be there soon.
What a pity gas has taken one eye and almost blinded the other.
It's a beautiful sunny day when Arthur arrives at Nice train station, two days of travel already on his shoulders and some more hours to go. What a joy.
Francis, of course, couldn't live in a town properly connected. Instead he had to be from some village where only a ramshackle bus arrives. When it passes, that's it.
Cherry on top, not a soul here speaks a word of English. Well, that was to be expected.
Still, the scenery as the bus limps up the road is worth it all. Purple and yellow tints the sweet slopes, hills checkered with vineyards and olive trees. It tugs at Arthur’s heart strings.
Southern France is exactly like he anticipated. There is too much sun, the people are too loud and touchy-feely, the food is gross and he'd never want to leave. He can complain about everything while planting still solid roots.
Too bad the only person to whom he'd truly want to complain is not there to listen.
He should be there with him, showing him around, boasting about how everything there is nicer and better. He should be dragging him through the fields, shoving berries and ripe grapes into his mouth and stealing kisses under the tangle of branches
He should be there delivering what he promised.
It’s late afternoon when the bus finally drops him before a bundle of houses. He thanks the driver in his stiff French and uses the photo as reference.
He walks almost to the gate, to the courtyard where an old man Arthur assumes must be Francis’ father is picking apricots on a ladder.
“Hein, cherchez-vous quelque chose?” The man shouts, his accent thick.
“No … I was …” he stutters, flipping through his dictionary, “Je regardais seulement.”
Part of Arthur wishes he could go to him and his wife and say, “My name is Arthur. I fought with your son during the war. I held him while he died. I was the last person he saw. I loved him and I miss him every day.”
But Francis never talked much about his parents, not enough at least to know what they think about his love life; that, or Arthur never understood. Point is, he's not going to risk it.
What happened in the trenches was exclusive to that hell.
So he asks directions for the graveyard, caring little about what the man might think of him, an English man, visiting the graveyard of a small French village.
The graveyard is a kilometre or so down the road, on the right, and once there Arthur walks among the neat rows of tombs, searching.
When he finds it, Francis's is simple and unassuming, but clean and well-tended. No layer of dust covers his photo and in the vase, fresh flowers have been placed. This is a tomb of someone well-loved.
He's giving a little smile in the photo, posing proudly with his uniform, still young and unassuming.
It feels like an insult. His last photo shouldn't portray him in the clothes that caused his death. He should be smiling in the fields.
Arthur squints his eyes behind the lenses. He didn't bring any flowers and now he is actually at a loss of what to do. Visiting Francis' tomb was something due, something he had to do to close that chapter of his life. To take back the little piece of his heart buried there.
"But you're not going to give that back, are you?" he comments, kneeling next to the tomb. "You truly had to take it without my permission? You couldn’t wait a little more. You know I hate you. And you couldn’t be more careful. You couldn’t leave me alone. You had to - had to - you just couldn't …” His voice breaks into loud sobs. Tears wet half his face. He hides it in his knees, shaking, the summer sun burning his nape.
He cried in his mother's arms almost every night the first month after being commissioned, waking up screaming from the same nightmares.
He wasn't the only one. He heard his brothers crying too. He watched the eldest, proud and fearless Alistair, pleading for mama and wetting the bed. Alistair threatened to kill him in his sleep if he ever told anyone.
Arthur cries less now. The pills are helping. He has to take one everyday just to find the strength to tackle the morning; often they are not enough. He doesn’t like to take them. They cloud his mind and then it’s difficult to work. He doesn’t like to cry either, it makes him feel weak and vulnerable, and above all he hates crying in public. Today, however, the graveyard is empty and he can allow the weakness. So, he takes the luxury.
“This never happened,” he warns, when he finally has calmed down. “And don’t get used to it. I’m not going to come all the way here to visit you again.”
In his photo, Francis smiles. He knows.