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i gaze o'er the hill where he waved his last adieu

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the two of them leave camp butler together, first to belvidere and then to saunemin a few years later, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and thirty-two dollars between them.

they move to a small farmstead after the war- “not my daddy’s,” jeff says, sheepish, wiping his dirty hands on his trousers, “but i s’pose it’ll do.”- both of them tired and worn, both of them having lived too much for those so young. saunemin was a small, sleepy town, rattled by returning soldiers even now four years after the war’s end, so no one says anything at first about the two young men sharing a house just outside town. by the time anyone noticed enough to care, it had simply become a part of daily life.

the two of them kept to themselves, anyway, tilling and seeding what land they hand and offering their work elsewhere. albert spends his time as a farmhand and jeff lifts crates for the elderly mr. stewart at the general store in town. the old ladies who sit on the store’s porch are charmed by his bumbling clumsiness- it’s the only explanation as to why he comes home in the evenings with a plate of biscuits or a small sack of sausages, blushing fierce enough to be set afire.

“the misses’ve got roamin’ hands,” he confides one evening, and albert has to bite back a sharp bark of laughter at jeff’s pinked cheeks and wary glances, looking to and fro as if the women would simply melt from the walls and accost him. “they’ve a penchant for pinchin’, y’see.”

albert, true to form, offers a pinch of his own, and jeff’s startled shriek sends him into another fit of laughter.

they’re poor, yes, but more importantly, they’re happy. they’re together.

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“we could have children,” jeff says over dinner one night, in the same sing-song way he had during his disastrous proposal all those years ago, and albert freezes.

but he doesn’t feel that instinctual, bone-deep disgust that he had the first time, the automatic revulsion that had shivered through him at the thought. instead, there is now a careful sort of blankness, a space for consideration. he had never allowed himself to think of it before, having a family; he had resigned himself to being on his own forever, to holding everyone at arm’s length, to hiding. 

jeff has stopped eating as well, hunched over his plate, peering nervously at him from across their small (cramped) dinner table. slowly, albert puts down his spoon- the metal utensil meets the chipped china bowl with a quiet click- and leans back in his chair.

poor jeffrey, if anything, looks even more spooked.

“we could,” albert allows cautiously.

radiant hope blooms across jeff’s face, his pretty green eyes widening with it, and albert feels his heart swell. he had never been given to pretty words- i love you rarely tripped its way off his tongue, let alone any other such sweet terms- but in that moment he could burst into song with the affection that he felt in that moment.

all of a sudden, though, jeff’s face sobers, his brows drawing together. “if it’s a boy,” he says seriously, “we’ve gotta name him lawrence, after my daddy.”

“wh- lawrence?” and suddenly the warm suffuse of tenderness is gone replaced by a fond exasperation, a sigh on alfred’s lips. “i only said maybe, jeff.”

and then, softer, almost reluctant, albert says, “if it’s a girl, i want to name her sallie.”

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they’re not married. he thinks about it, sometimes, almost idly- studying his ringless ring finger, holding his hand up to the sky or running his thumb over his knuckles, dirt ground into his skin. 

a part of him aches in being unable to give albert all that he thinks he should: a comfortable life, a husband. he supposes they can call each other sweethearts- they’ve traded a few kisses, soft, nervous, dream-like things- but if albert has any family to speak of he’s never heard of them, and he is far too nervous to return home to his own parents. in this house (old, creaking; there are gaps in the wood floor and the walls are drafty) there is only a little family of two.

they sit on the porch at night, watching the sunset, sometimes eating dinner and sometimes not. albert smokes; jeff has never had a taste for it, near suffocated the few times he had tried. but it’s quiet and they sit side by side, companionable, shoulders brushing. jeff breathes in deep, eyes closed; there is no taste of gunpowder on his tongue, like he half-expects there to be.

“what are we?” he asks after a still moment, the words bumbling nervously off his tongue. albert had joked and fought and bled with the best of them, but he had always been very careful with what he said, reticent to give any part of himself away. “that is, i know we’re- we’re livin’ together, and we, y’know, we’re good friends, best friends- thick as thieves, i like t’ say- and i’m happy here, with you, happier than i’ve ever been, y’know? i don’t think-”

albert breathes out a billowing cloud of smoke (noxious, to jeff’s nose, and it takes all he has not to wave it away), his brows furrowed in a way that cuts the nervous babble short. everything that albert did was deliberate, almost slow, until his temper was aroused; he chews for a moment on the end of his cigar and then grinds it out. he turns and his eyes are so, so blue, and jeff swallows thickly.

“we’re together,” albert says in that strange gruff way of his, chin dipping just slightly to lower his voice. it was one of those things that jeff had never noticed before, and couldn’t help but notice now. it was in the way he walked, the set of his shoulders- affectations that had become second nature. “isn’t that enough?”

it was, and it wasn’t. jeff had always wanted a family- wife, children, and all the trappings- but he didn’t suppose that albert wanted the same, or had even let himself give it thought. he remembers, briefly, the proposal: how he’d begged albert to marry him, to be his wife, and the almost instinctual way that albert had recoiled from him, expression twisted with hurt and disgust.

just the though of it happening again made him ache. 

“i s’pose so,” jeff says instead, and it wasn’t entirely a lie. he reaches for albert’s hand and presses a kiss to his knuckles (sentimental) and revels in the sweet smile given in return.

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i sacrificed so much. 

the words had burned a hole in him, blistering his tongue until he had let them fall, voice rough with pain. he had lived as he had felt he should, and for what? he certainly wasn’t happy, not here, alone, jennie at every turn. the waistline of the dress was uncomfortably high and they had taken away his safety pins, leaving him tripping over the skirt’s hem with every step.

living as a man had afforded him comfort and confidence, independence, but it was a lonely life. he was afraid, always, of letting someone get close to him, terrified that they would know.

i could testify,  the nurse had offered, backhanded, and albert hated the pathetic gratefulness that had risen in him. he had wanted to laugh in her face, to throw something; instead, he had only been able to sit in silence as he drowned in that strange, foreign feeling of helplessness.

his hair was longer than it should have been, long enough to brush his cheeks but not long enough to be put up, silvered strands framing his face. no one had come to visit him, not since he’d first went to live at the soldier’s home, let alone the hospital. not the lannons, not mr. chesebro’s children, not anyone else from saunemin or belvidere, not any of his brothers from the war, either, though he knew they’d been called for the trial.

he thinks, briefly, of green eyes and crooked teeth. it was hard for him to remember faces and names now, all these years down the road, dredging memories from the fog that had been made of his mind, but he remembered that face clearly, bright green eyes framed by long lashes, a sweet, gap-toothed smile.

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a politician. a politician! something in albert’s chest soars as he studies jeff’s face- lined yes, with age and with smiles, still as handsome as ever, his pretty brown hair gone grey- soaks in his soft smile as he talks about his wife. and just the thought of it- jeffery n. davis, a married man.

he ignores the ache that builds in his throat and says instead, “betsy ross?”

“no, no,” he says, in almost the same tone as when someone accused him of carrying to name jefferson davis, and a smile twists albert’s lips, his chair creaking as he leans back.

jeff looks much the same, his hair still cropped short, the line of his shoulders still strong, green eyes vibrant. but there are differences, too: he limps, his cane a poor substitute for the injury he’d sustained during the war. glasses with thick lenses perched low on his nose, and he paused every now and again to push them back up, as if it were second nature.

but the biggest difference- the most striking one- was how mellowed he seemed. his voice was lower, smoother than the excitable tones of a twenty-somethig, and he carried himself with a quiet sort of confidence that had been absent in the rounded shoulders and scuffed heels that albert had known as a young man.

“it’s good to see you, jeffrey,” albert tells him, something soft in his voice cutting through jeff’s babbling like a hot knife theough butter.

jeff peers at him a moment, green eyes narrowing from behind those thick glasses, and takes a half-step closer, almost unconscious. when he speaks, there’s a thread of steel in his voice that had never been there before.

“you’re a good man, albert d. j. cashier,” he tells him, “and i’ll be damned if i let them treat you like you aren’t.”

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he’s not entirely sure what happened.

he can feel warm hands on his cheeks (small, but rough with callouses) and someone pulling his head into their lap; he tries to focus on this instead of the hot, blinding pain in his leg and the scream bubbling up his throat. he blinks open his eyes- just for a second, he’s sure- and he can see the blurry outline of albert’s face above him, mouth set in a grim line, and then walter, his expression determined, brows furrowed.

“it’ll have to come off,” he hears walter say, faintly, and billy is sure that he yells something in return, the panic cutting through the hurt. he struggles- he’ll deal with the pain for the rest of his life, if he has to, but he’ll be useless without a leg. walter gives a command- “hold him down!”- and albert's hands move to press down on his shoulders, a weight settling on both of his legs, enough to dislodge the scream that had been stuck on the back of his tongue, and his throat is raw with it.

i’m only sixteen, he thinks vaguely, feeling the tight squeeze of the tourniquet just above his knee. there’s nothing to dull the pain, no whiskey or chloroform, and the saw cuts mercilessly into his flesh. it’s too dull to slice easily through bone and he can scarcely think, now, his eyes wide open but seeing nothing, just formless shapes, the blue of albert’s coat and the pale column of his throat, the grey sky above. i’m only sixteen!

he’s sure he’s still screaming but he’s so deep in the pain that he’s almost at peace, now, chest heaving and hot tears cutting through the blood and dirt on his face. he feels cold, so cold, and it’s hard to breathe; everything moves sluggishly, and his vision is going grey and tunneling, and then-

nothing.

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the first time he sees albert cashier, barely more than a second thought is given to him. he’s just another face in the group of boys who had shown up to enlist, small, scrawny, and determined, blue eyes too big in his face, mouth set into a grim line. there was something about him even then, really, in the stubborn set of his shoulders and the way he stood apart from others.

the last time he sees albert cashier, the man is in a casket, pallid and gaunt in death. his grey hair is pulled back into an unsuiting coif, white blouse buttoned up to his throat and tucked into a simple black skirt. he remembers albert’s face all those years ago- still soft with youth, unlined by age or illness or hardship, burning bright with a bone-deep determination- and the way that his expression had creased at the thought of wearing a dress. something hot burns in jeff’s chest, something guilty and something angry, and he shuts the lid to the coffin, looks at the poor mortician’s apprentice, says, “go get me the uniform. now!”

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see, the problem was that he wanted to kiss albert. he’d thought about it at embarrassing length late at night when he was the only one left awake, poking desolately at the dying embers of the camp fire. he watched albert’s mouth when he talked or laughed or smiled and imagined what it would feel like, chapped lips pressed to his, and then would blush something fierce and immediately look away.

still, he couldn’t help but wonder. he didn’t think that kissing albert would be much like kissing girls, as he’d done back home in belvidere. they were all soft and sweet, swooning into his arms, demure and giggly and smelling of faintly talcum powder with their fair skin and pretty dresses. albert was wholly different, though, abrasive with a sharp tongue, calloused hands, his face freckled and burned by the sun same as the rest of them. 

jeffrey had never considered himself a nancy- had never truly been accused of such, almost violently rejected the idea of being so- but there was just something about albert cashier.

when he does work up to kissing him, it is some rash, impulsive, passion-driven action, so unlike the scenes he’d built up in his head of a great romantic moment where albert would melt into him, wind his arms around his neck. instead, albert’s hands are in his hair and he is kissing him back, hard, and he pushes jeff away as soon as his feet are back on the ground, rubs at his mouth with a sleeve, wearing an almost mutinous expression.

but jeff is floating, light-headed with delight; the war was over, and albert had kissed him back, and, oh! they were to be married! already, he had visions dancing in his head of a cozy home, of children, of albert’s warm kisses.

“i have to go,” jeff says, giddy, ignoring the dismay and pinched discomfort on albert’s face, his heart beating fast, “i’ve got to get my things! don’t you move, darlin’, i’ll be right back!”

 

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announcing the union, the newspaper read that morning, of mr. jeffrey nathaniel davis and miss elizabeth therese ross, both of belvidere, illinois.

slowly, slowly, albert refolds the paper, sets in on the table; he reaches for his coffee (distressingly black, in a tin mug) and takes a long, bitter drag. he was silent; he ached. 

he had loved jeff, in his own way- still did. he knew that jeff lived in belvidere, too- on the other side of town, a tenant on his father’s farm- but albert kept to himself, avoided gossip, and ducked around corners and behind doors when he saw the other man in town. 

jeff must have known he was there, too, but he’d never reached out. then again, albert hadn’t, either. 

he holds his mug of coffee close, lets his eyes drift shut and breathes in deep. 


he goes to the wedding, against his better judgement.

it’s easy to hide in the crowd- much of the community is there, packed into the church, and he stands with the well-wishers at the back, dry-eyed and unsmiling. he didn’t want to be here, not really, but he had to see, just once, one last time.

it was, all in all, a modest wedding. the church was pretty enough, bedecked in ribbons. the bride looked lovely in her pale blue dress, her blonde hair pinned in a way that accentuated the sweetness of her face, the roundness of her cheeks; in her hands there is a charming bouquet of assorted wildflowers. the groom was as handsome as ever, his hair neatly combed, bedecked in his finest shirt and trousers, well-kept uniform jacket buttoned only once over his stomach.

it hurt to look at his face, green eyes brilliant and hopeful in the same way as when he had said, “would you marry me, albert d. j. cashier?”

jeffrey and the new mrs. davis leave down the aisle, arm in arm, both of them radiant in their happiness, and albert can't tear his gaze away. at that moment jeff looks up, smiling, glances over the assembled guests and, by the devil’s luck, catches his eye. the joy falls from his face and he looks stricken, but albert forces his mouth to curl into a soft smile past the pain in his chest. the contact lasts only a moment, but several emotions flash over jeff’s face in that fraction of a second before the smile settles once again, dimmer this time, a bit more sad. 

and then he’s gone, moving along with his new bride.

that could have been me, albert thinks as he beats a hasty escape, squeezing through the packed-in bodies, and then immediately feels nauseous, shakes his head. no, no it couldn’t. not me. never me.

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elizabeth therese ross was born in late july of 1844, into a well-off family of shopkeepers in belvidere, illinois. her parents’ only daughter, betty grew up into a pretty, sweet-faced, hot-headed young woman (”it’s because she was born in the dog days,” her grandfather would say sagely, in regards to her temper, “the hottest days of the year.”)

betty was already well on her way to her own independence by sheer force of will by the time the war ended in 1865 and wayward soldiers flooded belvidere, looking for family that had died or left while they were hundreds of miles away with the army. this number, of course, included the oldest davis boy, morose and with a bad leg.

he frustrated her- he eluded her. he smiled and he laughed and was unfailingly polite to her, but there was a sadness to him, too, something deep in his eyes that was only there in a certain light. betty had never cared much for men, before, had turned her back to all the suitors looking to woo her, but jeffrey n. davis wanted nothing from her and it drove her mad.

so, she pursued him. betty showed up to the davis farm over the next winter and the following spring, bearing gifts: a bolt of fabric for mrs. davis, a well-made pipe for mr. davis, a bouquet of flowers for jeffrey just to watch him flush and stammer. sugar, flour, a rasher of bacon, a jug of molasses. she brought what she could; it was all a part of the dance.

jeffrey asks her to marry him in the fall of 1866, the sadness still there in his eyes, but less, now. it seemed almost an accident: she had invited herself over for dinner again, to her mother’s exasperation and mrs. davis’ fond delight, and dear jeffrey had offered to take her home in the wagon as it was after dark. betty had fluttered her eyelashes and laid her hand on his arm, reveling in the red blush that flooded his cheeks.

“betty,” he says after he helps her down from the wagon, for she had given him leave long ago to call her such. she was half-turned away from him, his warm, calloused hand still cupping her elbow gently. “betty, would you do me the honor of bein’ my wife?”

she waits a moment before turning back to him, watching him fidget; jeffrey’s expression is drawn, his face pale and solemn in the dim light. she thinks, this boy’s had his heart broken before. 

“you know i can’t say anythin’ but yes, jeffrey n. davis,” betty tells him frankly, and a few emotions- wistfulness? yearning?- flash over his face before he settles on a grin, stark with relief.

they marry late in the spring, in the white chapel in town. betty refuses the white satin that her mother tries to force on her, instead insists on a simple linen dress dyed a pale blue, nothing decadent. jeffrey’s expression lights up as she makes her way down the short aisle, his face split in a smile, eyes crinkling with it; he lifts her veil, briefly and affectionately twirls one of her blonde curls around his finger.

but she knows something’s wrong; she’s neither blind nor stupid. jeffrey looks away from her as they leave the altar and his smile falls, briefly, raw pain writ clear across his face. betty follows his gaze, sees the small young man with his blue, blue eyes and his grudging smile. and then, it’s over; they’re walking, and the young man is gone from sight.

she doesn’t ask him about it that night, or the next one, or the one after that. they enjoy their short honeymoon as newlyweds do, and they move into the house that jeffrey had been saving to purchase for the two of them, a little farm of their own.

but she doesn’t let it lie. betty bides her time, watches her husband heal and thrive the further they are from the war, from the strange young man waiting among the well-wishers at their wedding.

“who was he?” she asks him one night, sitting in front of her vanity and brushing out her hair for sleep. jeffrey is sitting on the edge of the bed, kicking off his shoes and removing his socks, and she can hear him pause at the question. “that boy you saw at the wedding?”

it’s a long while before he answers, but she can still hear the rustle of clothing, the sounds of undressing, and when she turns to look at him he is under the blankets, picking at the quilt.

“i never told you ‘bout all that, did i,” he says, sounding sheepish and entirely like he’s talking to himself, so betty waits, patient. she’s long grown used to jeffrey’s tangents. “see, there was this boy in my company during the war, albert cashier…”

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they are the both of them damaged in the years after the war, battered and bruised down to their souls. jeffrey doesn’t sleep well and albert hardly sleeps at all; they both jump at sudden noises, haunted by the smell of gunpowder and blood and death. 

neither of them talk about it.

what use would it have been? the understanding is enough, the way that albert will soothe jeff after a nightmare (sometimes by making coffee, black, and jeff will take a sip and scrunch his nose and smack his lips, every time), or the way that albert will wake from a midday nap with a blanket tucked around him (an old quilt that he recognizes from jeff’s things, slightly frayed, well-loved, and the familiar smell of it helps him grab what little sleep he can). 

the war had changed them both in ways that couldn’t be put to words, robbing color and sweetness from the world, but they had each other, clinging with all their strength.

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albert’s never considered himself innocent, per se. he’s worked alongside men his whole life, from running with the boys and doing odd jobs in clogherhead to working on farms and other labor here in america. he’s heard- and seen, now, since enlisting- things that no proper lady would ever let grace her ears. 

besides, he’d expected a certain level of raciness, in the army; men had loose tongues when surrounded by their own, he knew.

but he’d never been the subject of such crassness before, and perhaps that was what was so humiliating about it. he lays curled on his lonely little cot in the corner, his back turned to the other boys and his scratchy blanket pulled near over his head; they all probably assumed him to be asleep.

he can hear jeff’s voice as he weaves the tale of the rifle incident- not for the first time, albert’s sure, though it’s the first time he’s heard jeff talk of it, and the others still laugh- pitched low as he speaks. in truth he was a magnificent story teller, though this telling is quite a bit more ribald than albert remembers it being, and he pulls his blanket closer as if to fend off the hot blush spreading across his cheeks and over his ears. 

“and he turned to me,” jeffrey was saying, and the others held their breath as if it were suspenseful, “eyes bright, breathin’ hard like he’d just taken a tumble, y’know? poor kid’s probably never even kissed a girl, let alone anythin’ else.”

laughter, then, and albert has to beat back the irritation, it’s just a joke. but he wants to jump up, all hot, righteous fury, point at jeffrey and say, i’ve kissed more girls than you, you stretched out beanstalk!

“so he’s pointin’ his gun at me, right? got his fingers wrapped ‘round the barrel tight as can be, like it’s gonna slip away or somethin’. so i say, of course, careful you don’t use that grip for nothin’ else, if you catch what i’m sayin.”

jeff’s tone is smug and the boys laugh and albert grits his teeth, careful to keep very still, but there’s something else there, too, in jeff’s voice, something that albert can’t quite identify, something he’s not sure he wants to. against his better judgement, he cracks open his eye and slowly, slowly looks over his shoulder.

the boys have moved on, laughing and joking amongst themselves, but jeff is still seated on his bunk, long legs crossed beneath him, looking directly at albert. he flushes when he sees albert looking back, expression something panicked, and quickly glances away; albert turns back to face the wall, confused by the behavior and the tight feeling in his stomach.

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jeffrey is sitting at the kitchen table when betty returns from town, a letter in front of him and his head in his hands. she presses her hand briefly to his back, and he leans into the touch with a gusty sigh, tension bleeding from the stiff set of his shoulders.

she bustles away, setting her basket on the counter and unwinding the scarf covering her head, sheds her coat and hangs it for the moment over the back of a chair before sitting down. they sit in silence for a long while, just holding hands; though jeffrey wears his heart on his sleeve he is reticent in actually talking about his feelings, and betty has learned not to push. his hand his warm, long fingers curling around her own. 

“may i?” she asks him, voice soft, and takes the letter when he nods. she can feel his eyes on her as she reads; it’s the quietest she’s ever heard him, in their thirty some odd years of marriage.

it was a subpoena, summoning him to appear in court in quincy. betty’s brows furrow and she brings the paper closer, reading further. MR. JEFF N. DAVIS has been summoned to testify in the case of ALBERT D. J. CASHIER or JENNIE HODGERS regarding pension fraud. 

when she looks up at her husband he is staring hard at the table, his expression tired and drawn, hand curled in a vice grip around her own. primly, betty sets the letter down and shifts so she is facing him more fully, lifts her chin and fills her expression with as much of her mother’s haughtiness as she can.

“now, i don’t know who this jennie hodgers character is,” she says, the name dripping with condescension, “but if half of what you’ve told me of your albert is true, he seems like a fine man and undeserving of this trouble. we must leave immediately, dear.”

his green eyes are on her, now, bright and big behind his glasses, surprised. “we?” he asks, seeming stumped. “betty, darlin’, the subpoena was just for me, now, you don’t gotta go—“

“nonsense,” she tells him primly, standing and smoothing her skirts. “this foolishness must be ended as soon as possible.”

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he sees billy there on the bloodied ground, broken, head cradled almost tenderly in albert’s lap and he feels winded, feels as if he were going to throw up. jeff can’t help the way he scrambles back in the dirt, can’t stand to feel the sticky blood on his hands.

“he was just a boy,” he says, almost disbelieving, and his voice cracks in the middle. he looks at billy and he sees lawrence, tucked in bed with the sheets pulled to his chin, pale-faced as his mother sobs nearby. he looks at billy and he sees simultaneously the cheeky boy with the curly hair and another, smaller, quieter, a boy with a bright smile and soft voice.

“get me my rifle,” albert says, and there’s something dark in his voice, something raw and hurting; jeffrey holds it out toward him and albert takes it, storming off. he looks at walter, then, just so he doesn’t have to look at billy’s corpse- but that’s exactly what walter is doing, tears in his eyes, expression wrenched.

jeff puts a hand on walter’s shoulder, trying to be comforting; billy’s leg is still bleeding, half-sawed through, oozing lazily over stark white bone. jeff feels his throat tighten.

“we’ve gotta go, walter,” he says, dragging the surgeon up with him, but walter’s eyes are still on billy, as if he couldn’t believe that he was gone. “there’s other boys that’re gonna need your help.”

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you’re a good man, albert.

the words are scrawled along the inside of his left wrist in small, cramped handwriting, black as if it were ink against his skin. it had been there for as long as he could remember- his soulmark- and had caused his parents no small amount of confusion and worry. his mother had fussed over it- albert? who’s albert?- and his stepfather watched him speculatively, especially after coming to america, especially after they dressed him as a boy for work. 

his mother began hiding it, tying a scrap of cloth around his wrist.

it made more sense, later, slipping onto a train bound west, all of his money spent on the ticket. he rubbed his wrist, still concealed beneath a scrap of plain linen; the words which once had brought little more than discomfort now felt like hope. 

he can’t help, though, to look at everyone around him in a different light, simultaneously holding himself apart and wishing to open himself up. there’s a girl, before the war, the daughter of one of his employers; she’s sweet on him and he thinks she’s pretty enough, nice enough, warm enough that he could fall in love with her. but then he enlists, and their letters taper off, and he can't find it in himself to be upset.

for a while, he thinks it’s jeffrey. they come together almost instantly, fast friends; jeff laughs at his jokes and helps him with the laundry and always checks up on him, regardless of how albert snaps, and he’s never felt as whole as he did sitting and listening to jeff ramble on after they’ve made camp for the night, quiet and content. he’d find his mind straying to the words on his wrist, black lettering stark against his skin, and he’d find himself wanting to show jeff.

and then jeffrey asks him to marry him, eyes bright, says, i want you to be my wife. the betrayal settles cold and heavy in albert’s gut and he swallows back the hurt, the fury that grows in his chest, the scream that rises in his throat. he leaves on a train, and he never sees jeffrey again, and he is alone.


“i would think that’s true,” albert says softly, quietly, as the two of them say their goodbyes on the station platform, waiting for the train to belvidere. even now, after forty years, he is choked with that sick feeling of hope, nearly dizzy with it.

something in jeff’s expression falters, then, something raw and and devastating, more wrenched than albert has ever seen. and then he settles back into a smile, smaller than before, his eyes so, so sad, and he offers his hand. they’re both changed by the years, albert knows; jeffrey’s grip is still strong, but his hand feels bony and fragile in albert’s own, shaking slightly.

“you’ve done good,” jeffrey tells him, and his voice is soft, painfully tender. the train whistle blows, northbound to belvidere. jeff gives his hand one last squeeze before pulling back, limping off toward his train. “you’re a good man, albert.”

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it is evening and they are all tired from the march, the entire company one big aching, exhausted bruise. as one, they all settle around various fires, cradling tin cups of what was peddled to them as coffee, one man appointed at each fire to stir the pot.

jeffrey is sitting with some of the other boys from their company- many he’d grown up with, for sure, from rockford belvidere and flora- telling some story or that other. he was good at that, telling stories; his talent for chattering translated well, and he was impressively expressive. just as the others do, albert gravitates toward him, doing some mending not far away, half-listening as he takes sips of his bitter coffee. 

he glances up, for a moment, back aching from being bent over the torn shirt, and catches jeff’s eye for a split second. jeffrey brakes character in his story for a moment to flash him a lopsided smile, then dives back in before one can be given in return. albert straightens his back, watches him; the firelight flickers across jeff’s face as he speaks and the others are enraptured, leaning in when his voice quiets, roaring with laughter when he spits out some ribald joke.

he revels in the attention, and albert soaks up his smile. something warm and almost-identified blooms in his chest, and albert’s not sure he wants to put a name to it. not sure he should. 

the boys disperse once the story is over but albert remains, scooting closer to the fire and trying to straighten his stitches; no one else was really up to the job, but he wouldn’t have people complaining about sloppy work. a hand settles on his shoulder, and albert jumps, surprised- the curses, sticking his pricked thumb in his mouth. he looks up, sharp words on the tip of his tongue, then falters; jeffrey is grinning down at him perhaps a bit sheepishly, and the hand on his shoulder feels heavier than it should. the warm feeling between his ribs blooms again.

“sorry,” jeff tells him, half-whisper, and albert resists the urge to lean towards him even a little. “just looked like you were gonna fall over, is all. it’s late, and we’ve still got a few miles ‘head’ve us tomorrow, yet.”

jeff’s smile takes the sting out of his words- the implication that albert would lag behind during the march- and he gives albert’s shoulder a squeeze before leaving towards the dog tent that he shared with billy. albert can’t help but reach up and place his hand over where jeff’s had rested; his touch lingered, and not unpleasantly so.

Chapter Text

of course it would be walter. barbers and surgeons were often one in the same and he was no different, wielding a straight razor with the same deft efficiency as he did a scalpel or a saw. he looks rather amused as he brushes the cool, frothy shaving cream over albert’s cheeks and chin, and really, why shouldn’t he? it was a waste; there was nothing to shave.

albert, in response, presses his lips into a thin line and digs his nails into the armrests of the chair. 

he had asked to learn, if only to maintain the illusion. there was never any chance of him up and sprouting facial hair, but albert knew that it would look suspicious if he, a man claiming to be nigh on twenty years old, now, never shaved once. enviously, he thought of collins’s full beard, or the scruffy chin that walter meticulously groomed, or even the slight shade of stubble across billy’s jaw after a few days of hard marching. 

“it’s best just to come to a barber, anyway,” walter says conversationally as he tilts albert’s face up, dragging the shave brush along the underside of his chin and down his throat. albert tries not to shiver; it’s a strange feeling, and walter is very, very close. “otherwise you’ll just end up cutting yourself, going septic, and dying.”

albert eyes his back as walter turns away, setting aside the shave brush and bowl for a straight razor, holding it almost threateningly. “you so cheery to every boy that comes for a shave,” albert asks him with only the slightest edge to his voice, “or am i just special?”

“oh, you’re special alright,” walter tells him as he drags the dull blade across albert’s cheek, scraping off nothing but shaving cream. albert holds his breath; walter’s fingertips press lightly against his cheekbone, just this side of professional.

“glad to hear it,” he replies, voice just a tiny bit rough, careful not to jostle. “always knew there was somethin’ about me.”

Chapter Text

in a different world, in a happier one, jeffrey lifts him off the ground and spins him around in a jubilant hug, laughter ringing in his ears, and doesn’t question the softness of his chest or the curve of his waist.

they hold each other close, breathing hard, hearts beating fast; albert buries his face in jeffrey’s shoulder and tries to keep himself from falling apart. he had been so scared, could still feel the hands pressing down hard on his arms, icy fear sliding down his spine when the order came to hold down his legs. they cling to each other, almost desperately; jeffrey smelled like sweat and gunpowder and the army-issued lye soap that they were all given.

he smelled like safety.

albert takes one last deep breath before they part. jeffrey keeps his hands on albert’s upper arms as if he were afraid that if he left go albert would disappear. he allows the contact, uses it to center himself, and they stay there for a moment in silence, almost disbelieving. albert suddenly feels very, very tired, and he lets his eyes slip closed as he leans forward, pressing his forehead to jeffrey’s shoulder.

“albert,” his name comes tumbling from jeffrey’s mouth, the first in a torrent of nervous chatter, and albert would have cut him off then and there had he the energy to do so. “i know that the war’s still on and all, and that a lot’s been goin’ on these past few days- these past few weeks, really, or years, been nothin’ but marchin’ and fightin’ and drills since we left illinois, all that with shit food, and well, just — ”

“jeff,” albert says, his voice slightly muffled.

“i want you to come live with me, when all this is over.”

they are still holding each other, jeff’s arms tight around him and his own hands curled into the worn lapel’s of jeff’s uniform coat. albert goes still and tense, his breath catching. he had never thought- had never allowed himself to think- of what he would do after the war, of spending his life with someone else. he was always running, living in the moment.

“we’re both men,” he tells him cautiously, a gentle reminder just in case jeffrey had figured it all out. he can’t see jeff’s face but he can feel him tense slightly beneath his hands, hear the way his heart beats fast.

“i know that,” jeff tells him, and his voice is nervous, shaking just the slightest bit, “but, well, y’see albert, i… i figured things out, while you were gone. i went lookin’ for you, y’know, so i guess i’m a deserter now, but — “

“jeff,” albert says again, sterner, pulling away enough to look up at him. jeff’s face is pinched and anxious, mouth turned into a tight frown, a furrow between his brows. albert has momentarily has a strong urge to rub it away with his thumb.

“i love you, albert d. j. cashier.”

jeffrey says the words so quickly that they run together, iloveyoualbertdjcashier, but albert has a long and storied career of deciphering jeff’s babbling, and he wrenches himself out of jeff’s grip almost violently. the fear is back, pooling ice-cold in the pit of his stomach.

“don’t,” albert tells him, but he sounds more panicked than he would have liked, and if he were any less of a man he would have pointed accusingly. “don’t say things like that.”

jeff’s face is wounded, his nervous, hopeful expression collapsing in on itself. it’s not my fault, albert tells himself, that he got his hopes up. 

“and why not?” jeff demands, almost angry, challenging. for some reason albert had expected him to take the rejection for what it was, to lie down and allow him to break his heart. “it’s the truth! you don’t gotta love me back or nothin’, promise, but i gotta tell you and i gotta ask you to live with me, ‘cause if i don’t i’ll regret it, i know i will. i’d spend the rest’ve my life wonderin’ what could’ve been if i didn’t, ‘cause christ, albert, i’m nuts over you and i’d marry you under god if i could.”

albert lets him yawn on, this time, turning away and wrapping his arms around himself. i‘d marry you under god, if i could. jeff didn’t know, he couldn’t know. even so, albert’s heart is pounding, his throat thick and crowded with emotion. ridiculous.

“i don’t have anywhere to go after the fighting’s over,” albert says eventually, quiet. he doesn’t turn around. “d’you?

it takes jeffrey a moment to answer. his voice is hushed, too, but the hope is back, soft and seeping into albert’s skin. “my family lives in belvidere. i’ve got other ideas, though, if you wanna hear them.”

Chapter Text

he never said it outright but betty was neither blind nor stupid and jeffrey had always worn his heart on his sleeve, talking too much and saying too little and his face peaking for him. she had never met this albert, but jeffrey’s face always softened when he talked about him, his voice quiet, almost pained.

betty wasn’t a jealous person. it was obvious that jeffrey had been- and still was- in love with this boy.

she confronts him about it early in their marriage, just after the birth of their second child. he has just returned home for the evening and she is sitting in the small parlor before the fire, flicking through the journal he had not-so-covertly kept. albert, albert, albert, mentioned over and over in his spidery scrawl, and from the corner of her eye she can see jeffrey pause just inside the doorway, almost freezing in his tracks.

“you write about him so tenderly,” she tells him, her tone teasing, “are you planning on eloping, dear?”

“betty — “ and there is hurt in his voice, soft, not something caused by her but something older and left to fester. of course, he knows about who she means without even needing a name. “no. no, i… no. haven’t seen him since the war ended, actually. you’ve got nothin’ to worry ‘bout, darlin’.”

he sounds almost bitter about it, but instead of being offended betty’s heart goes out to him, aching. she stands, holding the journal close to her chest, and crosses the room, placing one of her hands lightly on his arm and stretching up to kiss his cheek.

“let’s go to bed,” she tells him gently, and his eyes are sad when he looks at her, sad and tired and heartbroken. fury rises in her, then, at this albert and what he had done to hurt dear jeffrey so deeply, but she keeps her expression soft and compassionate, leaning into her husband when he wraps his arms around her and holds her close. “let’s go to bed, and you can tell me all about this boy who’s got your heart, love.”

Chapter Text

they first meet in 1866, a pure coincidence. albert is driving crates of fresh produce to the market on behalf of his employer because the usual driver was laid low with fever. albert didn’t mind; the ride into town was quiet, and the horse (an old bay draft affectionately named mittens) was fine enough company. 

she is there first, idly watching him haul crates down from the cart and into the store, dressed in her pale pink calico dress with a basket on her arm, pretty blonde curls tucked beneath her bonnet. he pauses under her scrutiny, brows raised, and she has the audacity to wink. 

“call me betty,” she tells him later, her voice sweet. she had stayed to watch him finish, standing in the shade of the porch as he lugged crates to and fro. “i’ve never seen you before, and i’ve seen everyone in belvidere.”

“al,” he returns, wiping his hands on his trousers. betty gives him another rather suggestive look-over them hums and turns on her heel, skirts swishing about her feet as she all but marches away.

 


 

they don’t see each other again for a long while; albert doesn’t take the cart to town again, and he keeps to himself, away from the store and the saloon except for when absolutely necessary. 

and then he moves to saunemin in 1869 and a weight lifts from his chest. 

he still visits belvidere, of course, when he can afford to, chatting with old employers and coworkers over a drink or a smoke, taking the train there and back home. being in belvidere still makes him nervous, at times, but it’s not the constant, all-consuming pressure he had felt while living there. 

“al!” he hears one afternoon, sitting on the steps of the saloon with johnny bates, with whom he’d worked alongside for several summers. he looks up, tapping the ash from his pipe when he sees a young woman striding toward him.

it takes him a moment to recognize her, but when he does he is surprised that she would remember him, in her fine clothes and pretty face. “miss betty.”

missus betty now, actually,” she tells him primly, but there’s a glimmer in her eye, something mischievous lurking around her pink lips. “you missed your chance, darling; i’m married.”

and albert laughs, standing and offering a quick goodbye to johnny (who laughs a little, offers a nod to betty and says “missus davis”), then offers his arm to betty. she takes it with the utmost grace even though she is the taller of the two of them. “a shame,” he tells her, only half-joking; betty was a lovely woman, sharp-tongued and beautiful, and he would have been blessed to have her. “and here i’d been saving up for a ring, too.”

she laughs at that, full-bodied, throwing her head back with it. “now, don’t let my husband hear you say that!”

 


 

they exchange letters after that, frivolous things full of gossip and thinly-veiled innuendo, nearly meaningless. but they never see each other again; albert’s visits to belvidere become more and more infrequent until he simply stops visiting altogether, and if betty ever graced saunemin with her presence, then she hadn’t deigned to come see him. 

before long he finds himself an old man, alone, miserable. though his mind is so often lost in the war he finds himself thinking of her sometimes, that flighty friend; she appears to him almost angelic, soft golden tresses and pretty pastel dress, her tongue laden with crude insinuations. 

jeffrey smiles down at him, his hair gone silver and his face lined with age; albert thinks him to be just as beautiful as when they were younger men. he leans on a cane for his bad leg- walter, he’d been carrying walter and gotten his foot stuck in a rabbit hole, a twisted ankle that never healed right- and is dressed in a fine suit, a far cry from the faded blue wool jacket and holey trousers that albert had last seen him in.

“i married a nice girl,” jeffrey tells him, smiling softly; infatuated with his wife. something tightens in albert’s chest, though he knows it’s unfair of him. “betty t. ross.”

i’m married, she’d told him haughtily, the last time he’d seen her. johnny had called her missus davis. 

instead, albert says, “betsy ross?”

Chapter Text

it hits billy the hardest, little boy so far from home; he is only sixteen years old, and the vicksburg campaign was the first time he had ever left belvidere. he was up, at first, from sheer homesickness; the snoring and shuffling of other men wakes him even over the familiar press of jeffrey’s back against his own in their cramped dog tent, the sharp jut of rocks and uneven ground making it harder to fall back asleep.

the nightmares come later, after raymond, though they had not been involved in the fighting. billy had never seen a dead body before but now he saw dozens, bloodied, torn apart. he turns away to vomit, and can hear others doing the same.

that night, he wakes with a scream in his throat; jeffrey, still awake and sitting up beside him, shushes him back to sleep.


jeffrey, by contrast, had seen more. twenty years old, he’d worked on steamers along the canals for nearly a year before enlistment. he’d seen men injured, fall victim to disease; once, he’d even seen one man fall over the side of the boat and drown.

none of that could have prepared him for war, though.

he dreams of big black river, of cresting the ridge and firing down into the confederate earthworks, picking them off like sitting ducks. but they’re taking fire, too; the man beside him goes down with a sick-sounding gurgle, and jeff spares him a glance before quickly looking away. chest wound, no helping it; he coughs off blood but it keeps coming and then he is still, suffocated. someone hollers out an order and jeffrey ducks down, they retreat, and he wakes up.

billy is looking at him with a knowing expression, his face pale; too old for how young he truly was. their shared lamp is lit, burning almost down to the quick.

“what’s it this time?” billy asks him, passing him the mug he’d been holding. it’s coffee- or some approximation, black and sludge-like, noxious- and jeffrey takes a grateful sip. “bad dreams?”

“yeah,” he says, taking another sip, and that’s that.


walter’s dreams are different, filled less with the horrors of war and more with the guilt of surviving it.

he dreams of blood on his hands and of scalpels and bullets and shattered bones, pained screams as he saws through a man’s arm. he’s little more than a field medic but the hospitals need all the hands they can get and someone gives him a saw and puts him to work, and hours pass that way, screams and blood and death and whiskey.

he doesn’t know their names, any of them, but he can’t forget their faces, pinched in agony, still in death. the bodies are taken away before he can apologize, every time.

albert looks up as he stumbles out from their shared tent, bleary-eyed, and digs in his kit. the other man says nothing as he frees the flask and takes a long swig, savoring in the burn.

Chapter Text

she marches and she writes and she petitions and she protests, she makes pamphlets and she gives speeches. she campaigns both for women and for her husband, and it’s all a bit of a scandal, really. 

and she worries, sometimes, that it’s all too much. that in pursuing her dreams, her goals, she is hurting his chances of achieving his. 

“did you know,” he starts one night as they sit in bed, the lamp burning low, “that all i used to want to be was a farmer?”

betty turns to look at him, smoothes her thumb over the fine crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, the silver that bleeds into the soft brown of his hair. they were getting older, the both of them, but it suits him; jeffrey wears his age gracefully. she says, “i find that hard to believe.”

“it’s true.” he rolls over on to his back with a sigh and betty shifts to lean on her elbow beside him, one hand flat on his chest. “worked on steamers before the war, but i always knew i’d come back to belvidere, take over the farm for my daddy, live just like he did. i’d had my adventure; time to settle down, now. a part’ve me still wishes that’s what i’d done.”

he takes her hand, then, and presses a kiss to her knuckles. “but it’s not. i’m a politician ‘cause it’s how i can do the most good. it’s how i can help people.”

betty leans in to give him a kiss, warm and slow, and thinks, by god, i love this man. there was so much that jeffrey didn’t say about his life, about the war, about the people that he had known and had lost, but when he talks like this she can’t be angry about what he keeps from her.

“this is how you can help people,” he tells her, and he is so earnest, green eyes bright in the dim lamplight, very close. “so, you go be one’ve those suffragettes. go vote, go get arrested. make a change, elizabeth davis.”

and, oh, she melts into him, kisses him again; he slides his hand up her arm, heartbreakingly tender. “you talk too much,” she tells him, but her voice is grateful instead of biting, and she can feel him smile, “has anyone ever told you that?”

Chapter Text

winters were cold anywhere you were, jeffrey supposed, even if that anywhere was straddling the mississippi-tennessee line. a fine dusting of snow had covered the ground when they had woken that morning and, though it had melted under the midday sun, there was little doubt that come tomorrow, there would be a layer of frost over the world. 

unfortunately, dog tents did little to ward off the cold, and camp was too temporary to set winter quarters, so they all had to take what little protection the flimsy canvas provided. that was no problem, really; jeffrey had few compunctions about invading personal space. 

but he can feel billy shivering against his back, wrapped in both blanket and his coat, and he feels something like sympathy. it wasn’t that cold, really- it got colder in the fall back home in illinois, and it was into december now- but the tent with all its cracks and crevices didn’t keep heat well, and there was no fire to warm them. 

“c’mere,” jeffrey says, rolling over onto his back, arms spread invitingly. he can see billy turn, slightly, peek suspiciously over his shoulder; he hears him mutter something, probably a curse of some sort, and sighs. “i ain’t gonna bite, you damn rat.”

almost reluctantly and without looking back, billy scoots toward him until they are pressed back-to-chest, each wrapped in their wool uniform jackets. jeffrey spreads his own blanket so that it covers the both of them and then drops his arm over billy’s ribs, pulling him closer. billy, in response, drives an elbow back into his gut.

“you smell,” he complains.

“we all smell,” jeffrey replies, perhaps a bit hoarsely, burying his nose in billy’s curly hair. “you smell.”

there’s silence, then, for a while, quiet save for the rasping of their breaths and the shuffling of other soldiers outside the tent. billy has relaxed against him, now, the two of them curled together in the cold, and jeffrey is on the cusp of sleep until billy speaks again, quiet and sounding unsure.

“d’you ever miss home, jeff? your family?”

“always.” the answer is sleepy and muffled, but he is waking by increments, yawning and nuzzling the crown of billy’s head. “my ma, mostly, but my sisters, too, an’ li’l nate sometimes. my daddy’s always been quiet; hard to miss what you barely heard.”

“gross.” billy squirms in his hold but falls still when jeffrey huffs and squeezes him, instead settles for pinching him hard on the back of his hand. and then softer, vulnerable, “it’s just hard, y’know? bein’ so far away. i’ve never even left town, ‘fore the war started.”

“i know,” jeffrey replies, just as hushed, almost a whisper. “we’ll get back home, though, billy. we’ll see ‘em all again.”

Chapter Text

lucidity comes and goes and albert hates it, hates that he’s aware of it, hates that he’s powerless to stop it. he finds himself trapped, sometimes, in the past: in the hands of the confederates holding him down against the damp ground, in the roar of cannons and gunfire, the smell of smoke, jeff’s smile.

he knows the way that some of the nurses at the soldier’s home look at him, their faces pitying as they bring him his food, or a book, or a blanket. poor mister cashier, their faces say, their hands gentle, senile and alone, so far from home. 

it makes him want to scream, but there’s no enemy to fight save his own mind. he’ll glance around at times, and a glance of grey from the corner of his eye will set his heart to beating fast, his hand automatically reaching for a rifle that isn’t there. it’s worse at its more innocent: stealing his memory of what he’d eaten for breakfast or the name of his hometown or his mother’s face. 

he is terrified of what he’ll forget next, terrified that he won’t remember what he’s forgotten. how much of him can slip away before he is no longer albert cashier?

he sits in his chair by the window and can taste gunpowder and blood on the back of his teeth. 

 

Chapter Text

he dreams, sometimes, that he is still a child, racing along the cold beaches of clogerhead, bare toes digging into the soggy, pebbled sand, laughter like bells. his skirt tangles around his legs, damp wool weighing him down, and he is still laughing as he falls, the shells he’d gathered in his apron scattering as he hits the ground. 

his mother fusses when he comes home, wiping at the dirt on his cheeks and at his skinned knees, his shoes clutched in one of his hands. the fire crackles in the hearth, dancing merrily over the dry logs; his stepfather watches on, expression still enough to be dangerous, like the mirrored sea before a storm.

and then — they are in boston, cold winter, with little more than the clothes on their back and a sack of things they had brought with them from ireland. his dress is too short, creeping up to reveal his ankles and calves, and so he is dressed in a pair of too-long trousers of his stepfather’s. there is something like loss in his mother’s eyes as she cuts his hair short, tucks the shirt into the waist of his pants.

“if we’ve traded our daughter for a boy,” his stepfather rumbles, “he may as well work.”

and then, and then  — he is in illinois, in belvidere. he is older, stronger; his hair is still short, his clothes less ill-fitting, and his parents are dead. there is no remnant of jennie hodgers, of the excitable girl who ran up and down clogerhead’s beaches; instead, holding his breath and watching other boys at the recruitment station in her place is albert cashier.

Chapter Text

charlotte married nearly three years after the war, announcing her engagement two days after her eighteenth birthday, much to the vexation of their father and the exasperation of their mother. 

jeffrey, on the other hand, quietly offered his support. he’d never met charlie’s beau- a starry-eyed boy, an aspiring author with his head in the clouds- but he’d sat up with her some nights, listening to her talk about him in soft, quiet tones, and he recognized the emotion in her voice and the look in her eyes. this wasn’t some fleeting infatuation, the like of which she’d held for albert those first few months, but rather something far more dear. 

she writes to him intermittently after her elopement, though he doesn’t see her for two years; she doesn’t write to their parents at all. 

when she returns to belvidere she is a little more mature, a little more world-weary, but happy. her husband watches her adoringly, and there is a baby at her breast. 

they come to him and albert first, dusty and tired from travel, and ask to stay the night. charlie pulls him aside sometimes after the midday meal- sunday, it was sunday, no work- her face pinched in worry, baby held close as if she were afraid someone would snatch it away.

“can you tell daddy and ma that we’re here?”

“i can,” jeff says slowly, glancing her over, and then he continues, “tomorrow,” because there were dark circles under her eyes and she looked half-dead with exhaustion. charlie’s shoulders sag with relief. 

they push their cots together in jeff’s room for charlie and her husband and they instead sprawl on the worn rug in front of the fire. jeff is holding the baby, now, the little girl cradled to his chest as he rocks her gently. her breathing is slow and steady, and there’s something comforting about the warm weight of her in his arms. 

“you’re good with her,” albert says quietly, leaning against jeff’s shoulder to peer at the baby. he runs the back of his finger over her cheek, impossibly gentle, and jeff’s heart swells at the sight. we could have children. 

“she’s just sleepin’,” he says instead, just as quiet. there was something unspeakably tender, he thinks, about this moment, him and albert and a child that, in another like, could have been theirs. “i ain’t doin’ all that much.”

and albert looks at him, then, eyes narrowed in the way that means he’s thinking about something. jeff lets him; he’s feeling contemplative tonight, too.

“still,” is all albert ends up saying, in that strange, soft way, and leans more heavily against jeff’s shoulder, cheek pressed against his arm. his eyes flutter shut, long eyelashes catching the flickering firelight, kissing his cheeks. 

jeff sighs a little and taps the baby’s nose gently with his fingertip; her face scrunches up in sleep. he can pretend, at least for a bit, that they’re a family.

Chapter Text

he screams, and throws the mirror (it hits the wall, shatters, a million twinkling shards falling musically to the floor), and sinks to the ground, hands tangled in his hair with his knees pulled to his chest. he can hear footsteps thundering up the creaky stairs- jeffrey- but it was already too late.

he feels simultaneously too big and too small, wanting to crawl out of his skin; he digs his nails into his scalp. 

he can hear jeffrey’s steps pause over his own ragged breathing, halted in the doorway. he thinks, briefly, how jeff has never seen him like this, not this bad- the episodes he’d had during the war were always far milder, overcast by some other anxiety, just a shortness of breath or aversion to touch. he can hear jeff’s footsteps again, softer and more careful, coming closer and closer until he is crouched at albert’s side.

there’s a moment of hesitation before he lays his hand on albert’s shoulder, and albert has to fight not to flinch away.

he doesn’t know he’s crying until jeff shushes him softly, until the hand on his shoulder flattes to slide reassuringly up and down his back. albert can’t help but rock backwards, leaning into the touch, and the first sob that ribs its way from his throat shakes through him like a hurricane. jeffrey makes a wounded noise and settles fully on the floor beside him, pulling him close, tucking him beneath his chin. 

albert wants all at once to melt into him and to pull away, to isolate himself until he no longer feels like he has to claw himself apart, but jeff’s arms are steady and solid, keeping him from shattering like the mirror. he thinks, briefly, of how nice it was to not have to be the strong one for once.

“i’m sorry,” albert says sometime later, calmer by virtue of exhaustion. they are still on the floor, jeff all but wrapped around him. he is tired down to his bones, leaning against jeff’s chest, and his breathing is slow and steady. “about the mirror, i mean.”

“‘s fine,” jeffrey mumbles into his hair, pressing a barely-there kiss to the crown of albert’s head, his breath a warm puff of air. “can always go an’ buy a new one from the store in town, no skin off my nose.” 

“maybe off your arse,” albert returns, but there’s no bite in it, and jeff huffs out a little laugh.

“the misses’ve got sharp pinches,” he agrees affably.

Chapter Text

“wh- what- where...?”

someone shushes him and rushes to his side, a hand pressing softly on his shoulder. a glass of water is lifted to his lips and billy drinks gratefully, parched, but it’s hard to think past the pain, aching everywhere, burning. he lifts his head as best he can and catches a glimpse before the hands push him back down, sees shapes beneath the blanket that couldn’t possibly be his legs.

something takes hold of his arm, a sharp stab of pain, and then everything is bleeding away again, black and blissfully unfeeling.


 

 


 

he learns, later, that he is in a hospital in vicksburg, that the federals drove out the rebs and took the city. he learns that the 95th has gone to natchez for the summer. he learns that his leg has been amputated just above the knee.

he knows that walter saved his life on that field.

there’s not much to do, in an army hospital. he’s in and out of it the first week or so after surgery, drifting on waves of pain and morphine. the nurse assigned to him is kind, very careful about how much opium she gives him for the pain. he’s grateful, of course- everyone knows of soldier’s disease, of the walking husk it can turn you into- but she calls him private middleton and he hates how apart it sounds. 

there are other boys here from his company, all in worse shape, none that he knows. he’s not sure if he should be relieved or disappointed.

so he spends his summer playing checkers and, after the first few weeks, learning how to hobble about on a crutch. there are no letters to or from home- he can’t read or write well (he’d always had jeffrey or albert write down what he said and send the letter for him) and his mother even less- and it makes for a lonely few months, the few tentative friendships he’d managed to form falling to separation or disease. 

it is early fall, now, and he is trying to find a way back to belvidere; there’s no use, waiting down in hellish mississippi for a war that won’t take him back. vicksburg is a big, important town, and he knows that the army has to run trains up north. 

people are always coming and going from the hospital, and sometimes he likes to sit in the foyer and watch the people bustle about, picking out faces in the crowds and giving them names and stories. that harried-looking lieutenant is fresh out of the east, that nurse is here looking for her beau, that doctor is sneaking whiskey from the supply cabinet when no one’s looking. it’s not enough to hold his attention for long, though it’s better than nothing at all.

but one face, though, one face that he sees on a cloudy day in mid-autumn strikes him to his core and he stands, unsteadily, teetering for a moment before steadying himself with his crutch. the person is standing still, looking around almost as if he were lost; solitary in a sea of swarming, buzzing nurses and doctors and patients.

“hey!” he shouts, and a few people look over, some irritated and some dismissive, “hey, walter! over here, sawbones!”

and walter looks over, blank at first, searching, but then he catches his eye and relief passes over his face as he shoves his way through the crowd, fighting against the flow. “billy,” he says, sounding slightly breathless once they are face to face again, but he’s smiling crookedly, and billy can’t help but smile back. they’ve come a long way, the both of them, from their rough beginnings. “thought you were dead, when you didn’t write. last i saw, you were out cold and being loaded on a field ambulance.”

“yeah, well.” billy leans heavier on his crutch, extends the stub of his leg; he still hasn’t quite gotten down the technique for neatly pinning up his pantleg, but he’s getting there. “could’ve been. could’ve lost more.”

he was resentful at first of his loss, angry at the doctors and the nurses and walter and the confederates and himself. if he couldn’t be a soldier and he couldn’t be a farm he didn’t know what he could be, still didn’t, but that wasn’t something to think about here, now.

something in walter’s expression trips; the conversation falters. walter’s brows draw together like he wants to say something and he reaches out in some half-aborted motion before letting his hands drop back to his sides.

he looks from the stump of billy’s amputated leg back to his face, dark eyes bright with some unidentifiable emotion that makes billy’s heart skip a beat. he says, “i sure am glad you’re doing okay, billy middleton.”

swallowing thickly, billy replies, “wanna come see my bunk?”

and walter laughs, follows him through the crush of people onto the wards, walking slow to keep up with billy’s stunted strides.

Chapter Text

they walk the pickets together, some nights, a lantern held between them, woolen coats buttoned to their throats. memphis was an occupied city, transformed into a hub with the wintering of the union army of the tennessee, and everyone was always busy.

but albert enjoys these moments, in the dark quiet spent with jeff, their breath fogging the chilly air. they’ve only known each other three or four months- a negligible amount of time, really- but they were fast friends; jeffrey went out of his way to include albert at his most standoffish, and albert laughed at his jokes even when they weren’t funny. 

he feels jeff’s eyes on him sometimes, though, lingering, and he knows it’s jeff because jeff is the only one whose gaze doesn’t slide right over him. what are you doing? he thinks sometimes, what do you see? 

but he doesn’t ask. he feels jeff’s eyes on him now. 

“i think i’d like it here,” albert says quietly,” “if the war wasn’t on. it’s not cold like illinois.”

and jeff snorts, a soft sound muffled by his scarf- a gift from home- that he has wrapped around the lower part of his face. “no, you wouldn’t,” he says, teasing, “you’d miss me too much.”

albert shoves him, driving the butt of his rifle into jeff’s side. “i barely know you, jeffrey n. davis.”

Chapter Text

the letters are bold against the page, square and black, typed, and blurring before his eyes. he hadn’t known why, at first, he was receiving a letter from watertown state hospital. watertown was in east moline, out of his district; there was nothing he could do for them politically. 

MISTER JEFF N. DAVIS has been named as next of kin to MISS JENNIE HODGERS, he reads, and the numbness starts in his fingertips, who has died recently of complications from prior injury…

he stops reading then, can’t possibly read anymore. next of kin, he thinks, and then, death. 

jennie hodgers. 

albert cashier. 

the sob rips out of him violently, wattling behind his ribs and stealing his breath. that’s how betty finds him some time later, bent over the desk in his study breathless with tears, letter held tight enough to rip. her hand presses right between his shoulder blades, small and warm, and he can feel her learn closer to peer at the letter, can hear her sharp intake of breath when she understands.

she doesn’t try to interrupt him, or reassure him. betty lets him cry until he is exhausted- cry for his friend, for the years lost, for the callous way the letter said MISS JENNIE HODGERS in big, bold letters- and he loves her for that, now more than ever. at some point she drags him up out of his chair, over to the sofa; she dabs at his damp cheeks with her handkerchief. 

“will you go?” she asks him quietly, her expression soft but not pitying, her hand cupping his jaw. “they’ll bury him either way.”

“i know. i have to,” jeff replies leaning into her hand. “i knew him best, after all. he was my best friend.”

Chapter Text

he comes back with an armful of damp laundry to find a small, neatly-wrapped package sitting on his bag, swathed in paper.

albert eyes it for a moment before moving on, but he returns once he’d hung his clothes up to dry, carefully peeling away the brown paper wrapping.  it’s nothing special, just commissary soap that smells strongly of lye, but a small blessing nonetheless. he holds it for a moment, just weighing it in his hands; there’s no note that he can see, everything else untouched. someone spent their ration on this, and for what?

even so, there’s a smile on albert’s face as he tucks the soap carefully away, careful as if it were gold.


 

the next gift is discovered some weeks later, clattering to the ground as he unrolls his gum blanket. 

it’s some sort of figurine, he learns, four-legged and inexpertly carved. it’s all sharp edges, a splinter waiting to happen, but albert smoothes his thumb along the grain anyway, considering. it was supposed to be a horse, or a deer, or some particularly long-legged dog. regardless of how clumsily carved it was, however, the trinket was obviously a labor of love; he looks up, glances around, but no one was looking in his direction, watching for his reaction.

he slips the figurine into his pocket- perhaps it was a mule?- and spreads his gum blanket out across the ground, feeling eyes on his back.


 

the third- and final, really- present that he finds is tucked into his haversack, wrapped in cotton cloth and neatly tucked alongside his rations of salt pork and hardtack. 

albert sits cross-legged on the ground, gnawing on one of the strips of dried beef. it was a bit of a delicacy, really; a fine contrast to the monotonous diet of salt pork and hardtack and the worms that came with it while on the march. it had to have been sent by someone’s family- the army was rarely so kind as to offer any variety in rations; on a rare day they’d get some rice or a pinch of salt, and that was considered a treat- and something warms in his chest at the thought of someone thinking enough of him to share it. 

as with the other presents, there was no indicator of who had left it, but he still makes a cursory scan of his surroundings. a head of curly hair- billy- ducks down quick over his pack, wrestling with the canvas sheet, and albert smothers a smile.

Chapter Text

here is what you will not read in the pages of history books: he was a coward.

not in battle, no, not in the face of bullets or cannon fire or bayonets catching the high noon sun. he was not afraid of death; that fear had left him long ago, abandoned alongside the emaciated, disease-ridden memories of childhood. death was nothing to be scared of after what he’d seen, what he’d done.

but he wasn’t brave, not where it counted. 

albert cashier survived the war, but he wasn’t sure that he lived past it. the years slipped through his fingers too fast, like the grainy sand that coated the beaches of clogherhead, and he was an old man now, aged and alone.

alone, because he was too much of a coward to let anyone close enough to see him. 

he hoarded the ugly, uncomfortable reality of himself, held it close to his chest. fought like a wild, cornered thing with teeth bared when anyone strayed near enough to catch a glimpse. vulnerability was a foreign language to him, sticking to his tongue, clogging his throat. he feels cut open and scraped raw, a shell, all hollow cheeks and dark, sunken eyes. 

he thinks of jeff, sometimes- he thinks of all the boys, all the dead, but mostly he thinks of jeff- and all the what ifs, all the lost time, of the fear and dread that had emptied him out from the inside. he lays in bed, an old man, aching all over and when it gets hard to breathe he wonders what comfort his cowardice brought him.

Chapter Text

he steps out about two hours in, typical red solo cup held loosely in his hand. the cool air is a fine change to the cramped, humid crush of bodies inside the house, the thrumming bass and hum of voices muffled. there are other people spilling out to mill across the lawn but he settles himself on the edge of the porch, just inside the cone of dim illumination provided by the cheap porch lights.

there was someone already there but he didn’t mind the company; the other man was small, easily a head shorter than himself, an unlit cigarette held between his teeth. there was a lighter in his hand- bic, cheap- poised as if to strike a flame. 

“want one?” the man- boy?- asks after a pause, his eyes dark in the dim light. “i’m al, by the way.”

“i don’t smoke,” comes the response, followed by a grimace as he throws back the remainder of the tepid beer left in his cup. gross. “i’m jeffrey. jeff.”

“shame,” al says, sitting down next to him, his legs hanging off the edge of the tall porch. he smiles- more of a smirk, really, sharp- and lights the cigarette, taking a long drag before turning away to breathe out the smoke. jeff appreciates the small courtesy, but the smell remains, and he can’t help the way his expression pinches. al laughs at him, cigarette pinched between his fingers; the end is cherry red in the dim light.

jeff leans back on his elbows, watching al from the corner of his eye; he felt warm and hazy. alcohol had always slowed him somewhat, blurred the world around him, but he saw al with perfect clarity, soaking in the curve of his jaw, the line of his throat. al takes another hit off of the cigarette and holds it, for a moment, then parts his lips and breathes out, eyes shut.

“you done lookin’?” al asks him without opening his eyes, but there’s an edge to his voice, something challenging. had he been any more sober, jeff thinks he would have been rather embarrassed.

“yeah,” he says instead, and then, “i’m drunk.”

“just a bit.”

jeff laughs a little, head tilted back, and when he looks at al again his eyes are open, staring straight at him. there’s a tiny smile quirking the corner of his mouth. “i should go home.”

“probably,” al agrees, and then, “alone?”

“ride’s inside,” he says, and he feels bad for a moment for abandoning billy before he remembers that billy was the one who abandoned him in favor of flirting (terribly) with the handsome med student he’d been following on instagram for weeks. it seems to be the right answer, though, because al nods, rolls his shoulders.

jeff stands, unsteady, but keeps his balance well enough. even so, he can feel al’s eyes on him, feels like he should say something. “so, uh... be seein’ you ‘round?”

and al smiles at him again, crooked, and offers a lazy salute, cigarette still pinched between his fingers. “sure, jeffrey. see you around.”

Chapter Text

they slip on a train to saunemin after the long, long road back to illinois, to camp butler, and pool their money to rent some land and a small cabin just outside the village. they cohabitate as if it were a given, as if living separately were something unthinkable. 

despite that, there was so much left unspoken. jeff knew, and albert knew he knew.

so they walked on eggshells around each other, waking early in separate cots pushed to opposite corners of the one small bedroom, coming home late, sweaty and tired. it takes time- months, really- but they soften around each other, sharing laughter, settling into old roles.

and some new ones. 

their first kiss is lingering, almost hesitant; jeff can taste the smoke on albert’s chapped lips, can feel him smile, and they kiss again, and again, settling comfortably into each other. things are easier, after that, secret smiles traded over every brush of the hand, intentionally bumping into each other as they moved about the tiny cabin.

mr. pope pays albert one week with a jar of homebrew rather than wages and albert takes it with some amusement, reassuring mr. pope that it was no issue, that he didn’t even have to worry about scraping up the money to pay him double the next week. he takes it home and shares it with jeff, and it makes for a good night off.

they sway together in the main room, socked feet scuffing over the wooden floor, both of them warm and dizzy with alcohol. albert can hear the tune that jeff is humming, something unidentifiable, half-forgotten, feel it as it rumbles through his chest. they are wrapped in each other and albert closes his eyes, presses his face to jeff’s shoulder; he can hear jeff’s voice hitch just a little, and he smiles.

“jeffrey,” albert says later as they’re laying on the worn rug in front of the fire. they’re curled together under blankets dragged from their beds, warding off the late autumn chill. “will you marry me?”

it’s a fool’s dream, he knows, but albert’s always fancied himself a bit sentimental. they could do a little thing for themselves, make promises, share a kiss. a bit like a boston marriage, but different; a wedding with no priest, no guests.

just the two of them.

it’s a long while before jeff replies, and albert doesn’t dare to look at him, though he can feel jeff’s eyes on him. he keeps his gaze on the fire, feels the flickering heat of the flames on his face. jeff’s voice cracks, “what?”

“be my husband,” albert says, and his voice is steady even though his heart is beating hard in his chest, loud like cannon fire. “and i’ll be yours.”

and, oh, jeff pulls him close, kisses him hard. albert, sprawled gracelessly over him, makes a soft, surprised noise before melting into it, threading his hand into jeff’s hair. and again, and again; jeff scrapes his teeth over albert’s bottom lip and albert shifts to cup his face in both hands, breathless.

“yes,” is what jeff says when they ease apart, foreheads pressed together, noses bumping. there’s a crooked smile on his face, endearing, and albert gives a shuddering sigh. “yeah, i’ll marry you, albert cashier.”

Chapter Text

it doesn’t snow much down south.

they count themselves lucky if they crawl out of their tents in the morning and there’s frost on the ground; chilly fingers curl around tin cups of sludge-like coffee, slow, tired breaths misting the air in front of their faces. it was a bitter dichotomy: cold enough to feel the bite of it, but too warm for the joy of snow.

there had, until this point, been rather an air of adventure, even through their grueling days of marching and drilling. none of them had truly seen combat, marching south through tennessee, advancing ineffectually towards vicksburg before being routed at holly springs, and then back north on a retreat. there had been frustration, at that, but spirits were still high.

billy had never spent a christmas away from his family. someone had set up a tree in camp, strung merrily with hardtack and salt pork in lieu of oranges and candies. he tried hard not to let his melancholy show; he knew the others just saw him as some dumb hick kid. he missed his family terribly, now more than ever, but he wouldn’t give them more reason to see him as anything less than a man.

even so, he sits a bit heartsick in the pale, watery light of morning, hunched against the chill. there was little doubt that his brothers- grown, mostly, those that weren’t in the army and still lived nearby- would be gathering at home, surrounded by warmth and family. it was christmas eve; his mother would do her level best to shower them all- his brothers, his little sister, nieces and nephews- with treats that they could barely afford. 

he sighs a little, shoulders rounded, hands curled up into his sleeves for warmth. someone sits down beside him on the fallen log they’d co-opted for a bench.

“why the long face?” albert asks, settling comfortably. he dips a square of hardtack in his tin of coffee; his cheeks and nose are dusted red, but he seems otherwise unbothered by the chill. “there’s a rumor that we’re gonna get beans and beef tomorrow.”

“christmas miracle,” billy replies with just a bit of bite, and a smile quirks at albert’s mouth.

“christmas miracle,” albert echoes, taking a bite of coffee-sodden hardtack. they’d all become accustomed to the less-than-satisfying rations over the past few months, some coping differently than others. he nudges billy gently with his elbow, something bright about his expression; a spark in his dark eyes. “you think you’re gonna get anything from home, huh?”

he thinks, briefly, of gifts received in years past: woolen socks, darned mittens and scarves when yarn could be afforded, sweets and chunks of sugar and canned fruits. and then he shrugs; postage could get expensive, even if they knew where to send it. 

“not really,” he settles on eventually, and feels miserable with it.

billy hears the snap of breaking hardtack, and then albert is pushing it into his hand, one end dark with coffee. he glances up, questioning; albert shrugs and billy takes a bite, face pinching at the taste.

“me neither,” albert says, almost conversational, but billy accepts it, doesn’t push for once; albert was quiet and reticent and even moody, at times, but he was the only one who didn’t treat him like a little kid, and billy can appreciate that. “tell you what,” albert starts again, as if he’d had an idea, “i’ll wake you up early tomorrow, make sure you get your beans and beef ‘fore all the other boys make a ruckus over it.”

albert is still smiling, his brows raised, something sly and mischievous about hi expression. billy smiles in return; he still ached, still missed his family and his home fiercely, but it was better now, more manageable. there were people he could spend his christmas with here- albert, jeffrey, maybe even walter- even if he didn’t know them well. he could get to know them well.

“yeah, billy says, nodding, and if his voice cracks a bit, neither of them mention it. there’s something warm in his chest, content, a little like hope. “yeah, sounds like a plan.”

Chapter Text

walter’s skin is almost feverish, his dark eyes open and sightless, face strange and slack in the way that only the dead could truly achieve. one last tear spills from the corner of his eye. 

albert doesn’t cry, not at first. he bows over walter’s body and smells the coppery tang of blood, overpowering; the mississippi sun beats down relentlessly even in may, and he was overwarm in his wool coat, could feel the sweat slipping down his spine. he doesn’t move, though- is afraid to, in fact. surrounded by dead on all sides, he was terrified of joining them. 

jeffrey was gone, now, and the only sounds were his own breathing and the distant noise of fighting, the flutter of wings overhead. slowly, slowly, he sits up, almost stiff; when no marksman’s bullet whizzes towards him, he lets his shoulders relax. the weight of walter’s body- was it really him, anymore? his face was the same, but too still- in his lap was claustrophobic.

albert drags his fingertips lightly down the length of walter’s face, gently closing his eyes; it was unnerving, when the dead were left staring up at the empty sky, and albert could feel something in him lurch at the thought. he couldn’t see the wound in walter’s stomach but he could feel the tacky wetness of blood as it seeped through the leg of his trousers, and he was sure that it was ugly, painful. 

“sweet dreams,” he whispers, hesitating only a moment before he pressed a kiss to walter’s brow, his throat tight. here and now, with his eyes closed and his face still and sweat still damp on his skin, albert could almost pretend that walter was just asleep, snoring softly, chest rising and falling with each breath. “you were always the best of us, you know.”

Chapter Text

albert had been raised with little regard for personal modesty; there had always been more important things, working mostly, dashing down the beaches of clogherhead, holding tight to the trousers that fit too loose about his hips. he grew up around other boys his age and listened to them talk crassly and make rude jokes in ways they wouldn’t have done had there been a girl in their midst.

it was, he thinks, a sort of training for what he would face in the army- god’s plan, if you will. bathing was a rare treat on the march, so of course they’d all take the opportunity to leap into the river after setting camp, some even still dressed in their filthy clothes. albert grins as he watches them, laughs, but doesn’t join in. 

instead, he slips away later in the evening, taking his laundry and a lamp with him, stripping down around the bend behind a cluster of low-hanging trees. he’s careful not to go too far from camp, and wary about staying out past full-dark. he alternates between scrubbing his clothes and scrubbing himself, hanging his clothes- coat, trousers, shirt, the length of linen he uses to bind his chest and his red drawers, though he hasn’t had his courses in two months now- on the low branches. albert drags the bar of soap over his shoulders, sighing as he can practically feel the layers of dirt and sweat slough off with some good soap and water, diving under to rinse the suds from his hair. 

when he resurfaces, gasping, water in his eyes, walter is there on the bank, brows raised. he was holding a lantern of his own, rifle slung over his shoulder; he must have been on watch.

they stare at each other for a long moment before albert ducks, the water rising from his waist to his shoulders. he feels cold, suddenly, something hard and anxious settling in the pit of his stomach. but walter doesn’t say anything, just sighs and sets down his lantern, settling himself on the riverbank. albert swallows thickly, and waits. 

“i’m not gonna report you,” walter says finally, and the relief comes crashing over him so thick and fast that he nearly falls. still, albert stays crouched in the water; the cloth he used to dry himself was hanging by his damp clothing, out of his reach. walter continues, “i’m just here to make sure you don’t get yourself killed, you know? whatever else you do’s not any of my business.”

walter, albert thinks, is a good friend who knows the value of having secrets.

“i’m not a woman,” he says regardless, voice cracking in the middle. “i’m a man.”

“alright,” walter says, sounding like he meant it; like he didn’t care about the difference between albert’s words and his body.

there’s a pause, a brief, awkward lull where neither of them speaks, and then albert says, “turn around, you lug,” and walter laughs a little, covers his eyes with his arm as albert lunges for his clothes.

Chapter Text

it is in those first few, terrible months after the war where they are clumsy and awkward with each other that jeffrey mumbles something under his breath and albert, incredulous, asks him to repeat himself, because surely he must have misheard.

“i said,” jeffrey begins again, sounding almost aggrieved; he doesn’t look up to meet albert’s eyes, “my ma wants you over for christmas this year.”

something in albert’s chest tightens and then releases, leaving him feeling short of breath. he had known, distantly, that jeffrey’s family lived in belvidere- jeff went and visited every few days, took dinner with them at least thrice a week- but he’d never met them. sometimes, jeffrey would begin some grand tale about one of his sisters, or a brother, and then stop with a queer look on his face.

albert has never questioned it; some men, he’d learned, preferred to keep their secrets close to their chest.

“okay,” he says, thinking that he’ll regret it almost immediately.

frances davis is a loud, effusive woman, sheer presence dwarfing her diminutive size. she all but throws open the door when jeffrey and albert come trudging up the porch some few weeks later, her face lit with joy, mousy hair messily pinned. she is, in appearance, the opposite of her eldest son; where jeffrey was tall and gangly, frances was a short, stout woman of seemingly endless surety.

“jeffrey nathaniel!” she exclaims as she bustles them both in from the cold, grabbing at jeff so she could kiss him on both cheeks. jeff grins and humors her, even weeps her up into a grand hug that makes her laugh. “come in, come in, i can feel the ice on you!”

albert can’t help but stand aside, feeling awkward, out of place. in life his own mother had not been so warm, worn down by years of hunger and hardship, and his step-father had seen him as little more than a burden; albert had worked hard to earn his keep, even within his own family. within jeffrey’s family, it seemed, love was unconditional.

“mama,” he hears jeff say, voice warm enough that it does something uncomfortable to his insides, “this’s albert.”

and then frances is turning her attention to him and he offers a smile, small, almost unsure, thinking, she has green eyes, before she drags him into a bone-breaking hug, kissing his cheek just as she had done with her son. “it’s so good to finally meet you,” she tells him as his hands settle awkwardly on her back, patting gently. “welcome to the family, dear.”

jeffrey is grinning when they part, his expression brilliant with it, and frances is all but bullying them both out of their coats and from the main hall into what she affectionately calls the ‘sitting room’. there are three girls seated there, among a mess of pillows in front of the fire, the eldest of them holding a young child in her lap. they all turn as one when they enter the room and the youngest springs up to her feet.

“jeffy!” she shrieks, running at them, and albert takes a reflexive step back. jeffrey, however, is undaunted, scooping her up and spinning her around with a laugh, much as he had done with albert in those damned woods in blasted mississippi. between her giggles, with her arms locked around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder, the girl says, “happy christmas!”

the other two girls have risen, by this point, and albert knows none of their names; a part of him feels guilty, though there’s no reason for him to feel so. “girls, this’s albert,” frances says with all the poise and steel and warm affection that only a matriarch could, “albert dear, this right here’s charlotte, anna, fanny, and the baby’s nathaniel.”

“charlie,” corrects the eldest girl, looking albert over from head to toe. he can hear a faint not a baby as jeff grabs for the little boy, blowing raspberries onto his cheeks, seemingly oblivious to or uncaring of albert’s plight, surrounded by davis women. the girl- charlie, of a height or perhaps a smidge taller than albert- gestures to the middle girl, more shy, and says, “that’s annie. you were in the war, too, weren’t you?”

albert opens his mouth to respond, floundering and out of his depth, but frances seems to choose that moment to intervene, herding all six of them- six! good lord, what a woman- into the kitchen, bustling, her skirts swishing about her ankles. charlie, blissfully, lets her question lie. 

the table is too small for all of them to sit but jeff catches his arm anyway, flashes a crooked smile as he drags albert into the creaky chair next to his own. he can feel his own heartbeat as he smiles back.

“now, your daddy’ll be back in the mornin’,” frances is telling jeffrey as she moves all the dishes on to the table- a pot of stew, venison or possibly beef, empty bowls and a browned loaf of bread- and albert can’t remember the last time he sat in for a family dinner. “he had to head to the jamisons’, y’know, pick up the sugar we’d bought a week ago, but i told him, i said lawrence, if it starts snowin’, you’re gonna wait until the roads’re cleared, you ain’t gonna try takin’ the poor horse through that.”

she had babbled through her work, filling and distributing each bowl, rapping albert’s knuckles when he reached out to help. jeffrey had looked all to amused as albert sunk back into his seat, hand cradled to his chest. he leans in as if imparting some great secret and albert fights not to sway towards him. “just let ‘er go,” he says in a loud whisper, obviously meant to be overheard, “she’s like a train; can’t stop once she’s got goin’.”

“i can think of someone else like that, too,” albert says, but he’s grinning, warmed, his hands folded in his lap. 

it’s late by the time everything is cleaned up, the dishes scrubbed and put away. albert and jeffrey are both stripped to shirtsleeves, cuffs rolled to their elbows, hands chilly and chapped; charlie observes, frances having ushered the other children off to bed. albert makes some comment- he’s not sure what, doesn’t remember the words- but jeff laughs, loud and full-bodied, and charlie’s giggle sounds a moment later, like the chime of bells.

“mama had us bring down all the spare bedding,” she says, rising, and albert tugs his cuffs back down around his wrists, flexes his fingers. “there’s no extra beds, so you boys’re gonna be in the sitting room,” she says the words with some sort of irony, “but we’ll be quiet in the mornin’, don’t worry about it.”

but she stops albert in the threshold, a hand on his arm, then leans in to press a sound kiss to his cheek, flouncing away and up the stairs before he can demand an explanation. he touches his cheek, looks to jeffrey with a question.

“why — ” 

“mistletoe,” is what jeff replies with, taking a half-step towards him before pausing, seeming almost sheepish. albert looks up and, sure enough, a sprig of mistletoe was hung from the doorframe, green leaves and rich red berries. albert swallows thickly.

“mistletoe,” he repeats, and they stand there for a moment awkward, watching each other, before albert sighs. “c’mere, jeff.”

and jeffrey moves towards him because of course he does, they’ve always been caught up in each other’s orbits, but he stops just short of the doorway, hesitating; there’s something strange about his expression, something almost reluctant. albert knows about the ways he’s held himself back, these past few months, hasn’t missed the times that jeffrey will brace himself to say something and then stop abruptly.

and it hurts, sometimes, the absence of the easiness that they’d had before. he misses the way they had been, their friendship, that strange sense of possibility. he feels it now, though, something warm between his ribs, something hopeful. he sees it in jeff’s eyes, too.

albert reaches for jeff’s hand, and pulls him under the mistletoe. 

Chapter Text

“i would think that’s true,” albert says, soft, looking up at him with a small smile lurking around his lips, and something in jeff breaks. 

according to his mother, his soulmark had appeared when he was just over a year old, messy, clumsy handwriting falling in a spiral over the jut of bone on his right ankle. he used to trace it as a child, fingertip following the letters even before he knew what they meant. 

i would think that’s true. as far as soulmarks went, it was fairly innocuous. there was nothing special about it, nothing unique, but he couldn’t help but feel warm whenever he caught a glance of it; the thought that there was someone out there, someone that he fit with perfectly, was just something that he couldn’t quite shake.

they were older now, both of them, a gulf of half a century and so much unspoken yawning between them like a wound. he aches with it, aches with the knowledge, now, that this is the last time that he’ll ever see albert, that they had wasted so much time.

(he is not surprised that betty isn’t his soulmate and perhaps he should feel guilty for that, but she’s the practical sort, and they love each other anyway, something warm and reliable)

throat tight, he offers his hand; there was no future for them now, he knew, but they could at least part as friends, on better terms than the first time, fifty years before. albert accepts it; his fingers curl around jeff’s wrist, pressed against his pulse, and jeff catches a glimpse of stark black writing where albert’s sleeve rides up.

“you’ve done good.” the words hurt to say, hurt almost as bad as when albert had left him at the train station. he gives his wrist a squeeze as the train sounds its whistle and it feels like goodbye without saying the words. “you’re a good man, albert.”

he doesn’t look back as he turns for the train but he can feel albert’s eyes on his back, stricken. he’s afraid that if he looks back he won’t leave; afraid that if he gives himself a choice, he wouldn’t be able to bear the rest of his life without albert.

it’s not the ending that either of them want or deserve, but it’s the ending that, jeff thinks, is necessary.

Chapter Text

he had enlisted for the money and for the adventure, for the glory that it would undoubtedly bring, and he had been excited and anxious and spoiling for a fight.

but instead the army had settled into winter quarters, energies focused on building ramshackle barracks, cutting trees and hauling logs. winter in mississippi was positively awful, too warm for snow and so it rained instead, the red mud sucking at their boots. it was cold and damp, always, and billy thought that he’d never seen more miserable conditions.

there were only two fights that winter, and though neither the xvi corps or the xvii corps were involved, shivers went through camp regardless; men were restless, picking fights over silly, stupid things. there was no enemy for them to fight, and so they'd fight each other.

it was, frankly, exhausting. billy enjoyed people, enjoyed attention, reveled in the sense of fraternity felt alongside other fresh soldiers, but even he was grateful when put on the roster for picket duty all by his lonesome. jeff just makes a sympathetic sound when billy tells him about it- picketing was something dreaded in better times, a single sentry in the dark- and claps him hard on the shoulder.

even so, there’s a lightness to him as he gathers up his things, his haversack and his cartridge box and a lantern, and leaves for the night.

the posting was by the river, giving him a clear view of the confederate campfires scattered up over the bluff. he doesn’t pace, much- picketing was a nuisance, not something to be scared of- and whistles a quiet, clumsy tune.

he hears a whisper, “billy!” and pauses, looks around; it comes again, “billy yank!” and he scrambles for his rifle. there, on the other bank- a dark shape, white shirtsleeves catching the dim, flickering light of his lantern.

a soldier, of course, but a confederate; his butternut sack coat was worn and buttoned only at the throat. the soldier himself looked young, and sad, but not afraid of being at the bad end of a gun. billy had never shot anyone before; his hands shook nervously.

“don’t move,” he warns, but he didn’t sound terribly brave, voice quavering. “i’ve got my eye on you, johnny. what’re you, some sorta scout?”

“nah,” says the confederate, and he doesn’t sound scared, either. billy creeps closer to the river, and he can see the small smile lurking at the boy’s lips. “jus’ bored, an’ hungry. soldier’s truce?”

he drawl was low and soft, pleasing to the ears, and billy shrugs; he lowers his gun, but doesn’t let go of it, keeping a careful eye. he’d heard about soldier’s truces from some of the men in camp, men who’d been out in the world since the beginning of the war, their tired eyes and wry smiles as they recounted tales of how the rebs were people, too, just wanting to go home.

“i s’pose,” billy allows, “but i ain’t gonna step foot in that stream.”

the confederate shrugs, a loose, easy movement, and wades the water- there were stones that jutted up through the river that he stepped on, but the water was cold, undoubtedly, even through his boots- holding his bag up so as to keep it dry.

“i’m unarmed,” he says when he reaches billy’s bank, hands raised, “unless you count whisky. no guns ‘r knifes.”

and he says it like that, knifes, and billy relaxes a little more, asks, “whisky? where the hell’d you get that from?”

“no more coffee means we get whisky rations,” is the simple explanation, another rolling shrug, and then the confederate peers at him, nose scrunching up. “how old’re you, boy? twelve? yanks’re enlistin’ kids, now?”

“i’m not a kid! i’m,” and he stumble here, the lie so close on his tongue, eighteen, but he reluctantly admits, “sixteen.”

the confederate barks out a laugh, a harsh sound, and billy nearly jumps. “alright, sixteen-year-old billy yank. what’ve you gotta trade?”

“uhm,” he takes a moment to wrack his brain, says, “some- coffee? or salt pork. got a deck’ve cards, too.”

the other boy’s face had already lit up, though, smile gracing gaunt features, and he says almost too quickly, “trade you my whisky for that coffee. or ‘baccy, if you want, got that too.”

“whisky’s fine,” billy says, finally dropping his rifle. he’s careful to keep a foot on it though as he swings off his haversack and rummages through it, coming back up with his coffee tin. the confederate, in return, holds two nondescript brown bottles, and they swap easily enough. “name’s billy, by the way, billy middleton. from illinois.”

“hiram jackson,” the confederate- hiram, now- offers in return, cracking the lid to the coffee tin and taking a long, blissful whiff. “from alabama. you’re a far sight from home, billy middleton from illinois.”

he pronounces illinois with the s, illinoys, and billy finds himself smiling despite himself, ducking his head as he tucks the bottles carefully in his haversack, shirts tucked between them so they don’t break.

“yeah, well,” he says lamely, and when he looks back up hiram is clutching the tin of coffee close, as if it were something precious. billy hauls his haversack up onto his back, takes his rifle in one hand and the lantern in the other. “go where where the fight’s at, i spose.”

“no fight here, though, billy middleton,” hiram replies, and he’s grinning, big brown eyes catching the lamplight. he pulls his squashed kepi further down his head, casting his face into shadow. “maybe you’re jus’ lost.”

and he turns, then, wades back across the river, his bag held aloft and tin of coffee held securely to his chest. billy raises his lantern, watches him go; hiram pauses on the opposite bank and waves, waits until billy waves back before climbing up the bluff towards the confederate camp, out of sight as he slips into the tall, dark grass.

Chapter Text

“here, no,” albert says, reaching over for what must have been the hundredth time in the last hour, taking the torn shirt from jeff’s grasp and unraveling the stitches. his movements were deft, clever fingers pulling loose tangled thread, quick enough that jeff couldn’t quite track it.

“what’d i do now?”

“you need to cross your stitches,” albert tells him, doing a brief demonstration before handing the sewing back with an expectant look.

jeff had asked to learn, had wanted to be of some use; sewing was a valuable skill to know and albert was the best of them, mending torn shirts and coats and trousers of the entire company. albert wasn’t a very good teacher, too impatient by half, but jeff drank in his closeness and the warm brush of his hands and didn’t question why he enjoyed it so much. 

“like this?” jeff asks, clumsily copying albert’s actions, and when he looks over albert’s lips are pressed in a thin line, like he’s trying hard not to smile.

“i s’pose,” he says, and jeff grins, flush with something like victory.

Chapter Text

they fight, sometimes, like cats and dogs, full on shouting matches that shake the windows in their frames. they’re both too stubborn by half and there’s a distance between them, now, some yawning chasm that had existed in the silences since the end of the war.

jeff understands it, and doesn’t.

he knows that albert is still angry at him, stinging over his clumsy overtures at romance. he’s been careful not to treat albert differently than any other man, has tried to apologize since, only to be savagely shut down. but albert picks fights over little things, fights that grow and mutate until jeff doesn’t even know what they’re fighting about anymore, clenched fists and bared teeth.

it’s always worse, he thinks, when he goes to visit betty, or when she appears on their porch for dinner. albert is civil to her, if a bit standoffish, but he’d been like that with all of them in the beginning. they’d get on like a house on fire once he opened up a bit, jeff was sure.

but a strange expression comes over him once betty leaves and he becomes snappish and morose, eyeing jeff with a sharpness that makes him prickle automatically.

“it’s ‘cause you’re so damn handsome,” albert snarls at him one evening, his eyes alight with something like fury, something that jeff is beginning to understand. “do you even see how all those airheaded girls look at you in town? betty’s just boldest of ‘em- they all moon after you walkin’ down the street, lookin’ like some dumb fool. they’re all lookin’ to make a husband outta you, and you don’t even see.”

jeff draws up short at that, his own annoyance swept away as if by a gust of wind. he stammers out a weak, “what?”

but albert has already turned away from him, his shoulders a tense line, seemingly torn between gesturing angrily and wrapping his arms around himself. it’s a posture jeff has seen before, something that near breaks his heart.

“they wanna have your babies,” albert was saying, his voice a sneer, “wanna make a home with you, y’know? those girls, they’re all half in love with you, and they don’t even know you, not like i do.”

and then it occurs to him, like a lightning strike: albert was jealous. albert was afraid.

“al,” jeff says on a sigh, and there’s something warm in his voice that makes albert pause in his tirade, head half-turned as if to listen better. his arms are wrapped around himself, fingers curled tightly into his shirt. “i ain’t goin’ anywhere, al. ain’t none’ve those girls got anythin’ i want.”

there’s a pause, a tense, breathless moment where neither of them speak, before albert says, “but betty…”

“is a friend,” jeff finishes, almost exasperated. “her little cousin’s annie’s age, and my daddy’s worked with hers for years.”

“she brought you flowers, jeff,” albert accuses.

“yeah, ‘cause it’s a game to her.” and it was, always had been; betty was like one of those wild horses out west, never to be tamed. “she’s never gonna marry anyone, told me that early on. didn’t want me to get my hopes up, see; i told her it ain’t no problem.”

albert turns to him then, seeming almost resigned, his mouth pulled into a grimace. “i’ve been a damn fool, haven’t i?”

“just a bit,” jeff agrees amicably, flashing a crooked grin. “now, what’s that i heard ‘bout handsome?”

Chapter Text

albert’s eyes are on him, bright and lit with something that jeff can’t quite pin down, and he’s too caught in himself to see how still albert is, the careful blankness of his face. the summer heat feels gummy on his skin, sticky and uncomfortable, catching in his lungs.

their first meeting after the war had been an accident, two years after. a chance meeting at the saturday market. jeff had come armed with charlie and annie and a list from his mother; the girls had split quickly, more than likely escaping to socialize, leaving him to fill the list himself. jeff hadn’t minded; it had made him feel useful, making up in part for all the things he still couldn’t do with his bum leg.

they had bumped into each other, and jeff had scarcely paid attention past a quick apology until he’d heard his name. he’d stopped looking for albert in crowds, at that point, had stomped down that spark of hope and began to move on. but he looked, then, down at albert and had found himself stricken, half afraid that he was dreaming, half hoping.

“…albert?”

and it was. the reunion was quiet, an exchange of smiles, albert’s demeanor loose and comfortable as they talked, fluttering around the market as jeff slowly filled the basket his mother had shoved into his arms. there was something softer about albert, jeff couldn’t help but notice, something more settled that hadn’t been there during the war. 

“come visit me for dinner, sometime.” there was a small living space in the back of the hardware store albert worked at. “i’m sure we can scrounge up something edible, between the two’ve us.”

they met for dinner or lunch two, three times a week, whenever time permits. and it’s nice, just being together again, that easy friendship mending itself over sub-par suppers and shared laughter. there are times, though, when albert quiets, looks almost sad, his eyes going distant. and it aches when he goes to that unreachable place, because jeff knows that for all he’s familiar with how albert works, their friendship is still too fragile to allow him to follow.

“my mama sent gifts,” jeff says one evening, late in the summer. a fresh loaf of bread, a block of cheese, two apples- his mother fretted of albert entirely too much for someone who had never even set eyes on him. albert takes the gifts with a smile, but there’s something fragile about it, something false. “albert, what’s wrong?”

“nothing.” a heavy pause, and then, flatly, “i heard about the engagement. congratulations.”

jeff’s brow furrows because, as far as he knew, he was not engaged and there was no reason to be congratulated. and then it strikes him, all at once. “oh! you mean betty? she said no.”

and albert looks at him then, sharp, his own expression pinched with confusion. albert and betty were acquaintances, he knew, maybe even friends in their own, needling way; betty must have told him about the proposal, but left out her own rejection. it would be like her, to do something like that. 

something like guilt flickers over albert’s face and jeff can feel his stomach clench at the sight of it; he knows that he’s thinking about, doesn’t particularly want to think of it, doesn’t want to consider his own guilt and the sharp, lancing pain of albert’s abandonment. 

“you don’t seem too terribly torn up over it,” albert observes instead, his voice tight, and jeff can’t help the little sigh of relief that escapes him. “finally learned to take no for an answer?”

“somethin’ like that,” jeff agrees, seating himself at the tiny table in the small kitchen, watching albert squirrel away the food his mother had sent. “it would’ve just been a sham, anyway. i don’t want a wife overmuch, and betty sure as hell don’t want a husband.”

they coexist in quiet, for a while, albert busying himself so he doesn’t have to turn around, and jeff waits. he’s gotten good at that, lately, waiting on albert. he doesn’t mind it. albert’s his best friend and they’ve lived through things together that people couldn’t even imagine; he’s not going to begrudge him time with his thoughts, not and then.

“you don’t want to marry, then?” there’s something off in his tone, something off, but the question catches jeff off-guard, his heart leaping to his throat.

“not betty,” he answers, the words clumsy on his tongue. albert isn’t looking at him but he still feels scrutinized, like he’s being tested, somehow. “not any’ve those other girls. i ain’t dumb, albert, and i sure ain’t blind; they look at you the same way. they all think that goin’ off to war was awfully brave, awfully romantic; betty’s different, and i think i could’ve loved her, but she don’t want me and there’s always gonna be someone else.”

albert makes a choked sound that could have been a laugh, jeff thinks, and his arms are crossed tight in front of his chest, the way he gets when he feels too vulnerable. “someone else,” he says, and it’s not a question.

“you,” is jeff’s reply, honest and raw, half an accident. he holds his breath but he can’t help it, the words pour out of him like water, a flood, “it’s always been you, albert, from the very beginning, and i think — i think, maybe, maybe i could love some nice girl, make a family with her, but i’m always gonna be in love with you. that ain’t ever gonna change.”

he feels a bit empty when the words are out but albert has turned to him, eyes wide, looking winded; there’s something warring in his expression, tragic and hopeful, hesitant. “jeff —”

“you don’t gotta say nothin’,” he cuts albert off, swallowing thickly. he rises from his chair, the wood creaking as he shifts. “i just… christ, albert, don’t you get it? don’t you understand? i know i’ve been awful ‘bout it, but i think i’ve been in love with you since i first saw you.”

“i know,” is what albert says, just above a whisper. he looks so small like this, his arms wrapped around himself as if to keep from falling apart, and jeff wants desperately to pull him close. “i know that now, jeff, i think i’ve known it for a while.”

jeff holds his breath; it feels like they’re balancing on a knife’s edge, the both of them, ready to go tumbling one way or another. his stomach twists uncomfortable.

“i think,” albert starts, then stops, clearing his throat, “i think that, with time, i think i could love you, too.”

Chapter Text

jeffrey always went home for every break, insistent on spending as much time with his family as he could. he loves his parents, his siblings, the warm way the house felt overcrowded and always smelled sweet, like something was baking. it was the house he’d grown up in, full to the brim with sentimentality.

but he missed, too, the cramped apartment he shared with billy and walter and albert. he missed his friends, missed having a space of his own; charlie had taken his room once he’d moved out, and so he was stuck sharing with nathaniel. 

he loved coming home to his family. but it always felt strange, too.

walter never answered calls, was hard to reach by text. billy was near incomprehensible and also busy, and not all that far away. it was albert that he found himself missing the most, for reasons that he didn’t want to examine too closely.

they trade texts on and off, jeffrey so glued to his phone that his mother needles him about a girlfriend, and then after a sharp, searching look, a boyfriend. jeffrey blushes and stammers, waving away her probing questions; no, mother, blissfully unattached. so he takes to sitting out on the back porch, wrapped in his coat and a blanket, cold, stiff fingers sliding across the screen of his phone. 

“it’ll be good to go back,” jeff says one night to his computer screen, sprawled across the air mattress that had been put up for him in nathaniel’s room. albert smiles, slightly, the familiar backdrop of their tiny living room behind him. he had stayed over break, had nowhere else to go; jeffrey had desperately wanted to invite him home.

“family tiff?” albert asks, sounding sympathetic. “you can always come back early, y’know.”

“just crowded,” he sighs, propping his chin on his fist. briefly, he does allow himself to consider leaving, going back to the apartment and to albert, just the two of them until break ended. it was a nice dream. “i love daddy and mama and kids, but it’s hard to breathe sometimes, everyone bumpin’ shoulders. i almost tripped over fanny’s skates on the stairs, earlier.”

albert laughs at that, his eyes crinkling at the corners. he looked tired- must have been picking up extra shifts at the bar. something in jeff softens inexplicably at the sight of the faint shadows under albert’s eyes. he wants to sweep him up in his arms, take care of him, wrap him up and make sure he gets enough sleep; jeff knows that albert would never consent to such coddling, though, let alone from him.

“sounds like how it usually is around here,” albert says, and jeff makes a noise that may have been a snort. “it’s too quiet, without you here.”

you as in the three of them, but jeff drink it in, pretends that albert missed him specifically. he smiles and across the screen, albert echoes it, small and sweet, and jeff gathers it close to his chest.

Chapter Text

it occurs to albert, suddenly, that perhaps jeffrey has never seen anyone die before.

the violence unsettled albert, but he was irish. his earliest memories were of starving and disease; he’d held his mother as she lay sick and festering, combed his hand through her brittle hair as she took one last, rattling breath. he was no stranger to death. 

he hadn’t ever really stopped to consider that such a familiarity might not be natural.

the panic comes after the fact, belated once all the adrenaline is gone. it sweeps through the whole company, those that are left alive; albert can see others like himself in those that are still functioning. even walter shuts himself away, his face hard and haunted.

but albert finds jeff- sweet, earnest jeff- crouched behind a tree, his head buried in his knees, arms wrapped tight around his shins. albert touches him on the shoulder, the barest brush of fingertips, and jeff jumps; when he looks up, his eyes are wide, breath coming fast and short. he looks young, in that moment, frighteningly so.

“albert,” he says, his voice barely more than a whisper, cracking in the middle.

“hey,” albert says, settling down next to him. the grass was wet from the misting of rain, but it didn’t matter much to him; he wanted to lean into jeff, to rest his head on his shoulder and feel them breathe as one. “you gonna come in outta the rain anytime soon?”

“no.” jeff’s voice is still quiet, distant, and it makes something unpleasant twist in albert’s gut. he scoots so he’s sitting in front of jeff and rocks forward onto his knees.

“look at me,” he says, taking jeff’s face into his hands, palms gently cupping his jaw. he can feel when jeff swallows, the soft rasp of his breathing. “right here, eyes on me. we’re gonna be alright, okay? we’re gonna make it, jeff, the war’s gonna end in a few months and then we’ll go home, you hear me?”

something in the strange, wide-eyed blankness of jeff’s expression breaks, his lip quavers. he pitches forward and buries his face against albert’s shoulder, breathing in deep; his arms wind around albert’s middle, clutching tight. albert hesitates for only a moment before settling his own arms around jeff’s shoulders, holding him close.

“we’re gonna live, jeff.” he says it into jeff’s hair, fierce, can feel the short, gasping sobs as they wrack through jeff’s body. “we’re gonna live, and we’re gonna end up some crotchety old bastards that do nothin’ but complain. all of us, jeff, you and me and walter and billy. we’re gonna survive this damn war, whatever it takes.”

he can feel jeff take a shuddering breath, the way he nods against his shoulder, and albert holds him tighter, settling his chin atop jeff’s head. he’s not better, not fixed- none of them are, irreparably damaged by what they’ve all seen, now- but it’s a start.

Chapter Text

“jeff,” albert sighs as he comes tromping up the steps, rucksack slung over his shoulder, sleeves rolled up over his elbows. he looked dusty, and tired, his face freckled and sunburnt from long hours outside.

jeffrey had set out to wait for him, settling on one of the porch’s rickety old chairs with dinner and one of their few, worn books. it was hot, the late august air sticky on his skin, but the faint breeze that cut through and ruffled his hair was pleasant, and he’d always enjoyed sunsets, anyway. 

“a dog, really?” albert continues, looking disapproving, but the expression wavers when he extends his hand for a cursory sniff and receives a wagging tail in response. “how’re we gonna take care of a dog?” 

the dog herself was a scruffy thing, some sort of mutt, not all that old yet. annie had explained to him earlier that day that someone must have just dropped her by the road, because fanny had found her curled up by the hen house early a few days ago. annie was, by that point, terribly attached, and the dog was quiet and sweet natured, sitting placidly as annie stroked her dirty fur.

jeffrey had always thought of himself as a good big brother, so it was only sensible that he offer to take the dog home. 

“annie called her olive,” jeff tells albert, instead of actually answering the question. the dog’s tail thumps happily against the wooden porch. “charlie called her a mongrel, but charlie’s always liked the barn cats more.”

albert sighs again as if to maintain his charade of displeasure, but he crouches down to scratch at the dog’s ears, and jeffrey can see the way his lips quirk in the barest hint of a smile when her tail starts wagging harder. after a moment, he settles with, “you’re lucky i love you, jeffrey n. davis.”

Chapter Text

the mistletoe kiss was sweet, something soft and chaste, hand in hand. he felt warm and very, very fragile; he smiles, and jeff watches him with that same tentative hope.

they curl up on the messy pile of blankets and pillows before the fire, shoulders pressed together. albert has never had a real christmas before- his childhood had been one awful, sad affair, and christmas in the army was only marginally festive. as far as he was concerned, this was wonderful; snow and a fine meal and a loving family, and it was more than he could have asked for.

jeff slides an arm around albert’s shoulders, and doesn’t relax until albert leans back against him. 

“thank you,” albert says some time later, his voice pitched low. things between then were still tender, hard to talk about, but healing slowly. he was warm, and full, and happy, truly happy for the first time in years.

“for what?” jeff’s voice is slow and sleepy, and he gives albert a squeeze, wiggling his socked toes where they peek out from beneath the blanket.

“just being you,” albert says, and he can feel the way jeff leans further against him, how he hums in acknowledgement. “you’re special, jeffrey, y’know? to me. and… thanks, for that. you’re my best friend.”

jeff presses his cheek to albert’s head and albert can feel him smile, feels a puff of breath that may have been a laugh or may have been a yawn. “you’re my best friend too, albert,” jeff says, warm, half-awake. “possums ‘til the end, right?”

“right,” albert answers in a whisper, something soft unfurling in his chest. “‘til the end.”

Chapter Text

time has a strange way of making you more introspective.

when albert had first realized his memory was going- when he couldn’t remember where he’d left his coat, or the last time he ate, or what day it was- he had found himself dwelling more and more on the past. those years always seemed far more clear, the recollections of a twenty-something more detailed than the hazy absentmindedness of an old man. 

he relived the war, and he ached with it.

there were people, places that he remembered but had no context for. he remembers wintering in cairo, walking the pickets at nashville, ducking fire at pleasant hill. he thinks of vicksburg and something in him clenches with the sharp pain of loss, though he doesn’t always remember why. a flash gold piping or butternut gray from the corner of his eye makes his breath catch.

albert finds that he forgets a lot of things, but he never forgets jeff.

how could he? he doesn’t know how he lost him, or when or why, but he remembers cold nights pressed shoulder to shoulder with a cup of coffee passed between them, shared laughter, gentle hands pulling him from the throes of a nightmare. jeff’s green eyes are bright in his mind. 

and it hurts, sometimes, to know that he had once had people who cared for him- jeff, yes, and walter and billy, though he doesn’t always remember them- people who had looked at him and thought friend, and to know now that he was all alone. but it hurt to not remember them, too.

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olive, as it turned out, was sweet and friendly and hardly made a sound. she seemed to have enough love for everyone- often she would follow them to town, obedient enough to stay close on their heels, sitting patiently outside the grocery with her tail beating a steady staccato against the porch- but it was overwhelmingly clear that jeff was her favorite.

albert found it endearing. he liked animals well enough, sure, but he’d never felt particularly attached. but jeff- oh, jeff loved that dog so much that albert was sure his heart would break if something happened to her. just the warmth and depth of jeff’s affection for the scruffy pup was cause enough for albert’s own.

she slept curled at the foot of jeff’s bed, the cramped little cot scarcely big enough for one man, let alone one man plus a dog. come winter, both jeff and albert pooled money to buy her a scarf of her own, which olive seemed to tolerate with some weary patience. jeff had beamed when he wrapped it around her neck and she hadn’t tried to shake it off, and really, how could albert not love her, too, in the face of jeff’s joy?

they both tell her their secrets, because god had placed no better listener on this great green earth than a dog. jeff would cradle her in his arms- she wasn’t too big, some sort of terrier mix- and whisper into her ears and she would wiggle in his grip and turn to lick his face until he was smiling again. albert preferred just sitting with her, side-by-side on the porth the nights that jeff got home late, or went and had dinner with his family. 

“it’s hard, y’know?” albert will say, his legs curled up underneath him, the end of a cigar bit between his teeth. “living here, with him. jeff’s a dummy but he’s so damn good, girl. too good for me.”

and olive will make a noise almost like a sigh an lay down next to him, a few scant inches of space between them. she rests her head on her paws and looks out toward the road, her big brown eyes looking liquid in the setting sunlight.

“yeah, me too,” albert replies with a sigh of his own, then lights the cigar and takes a long drag before coughing, hard. when he gets his breath back olive will be closer, pressed against his knee, and if he curls his fingers into the soft fur on the back of her neck, well.

that’s just between them.

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in retrospect it should have been obvious.

jeff was sweet-natured, prone to smiling and willing to chatter on about anything to anyone. he was just unrelentingly friendly, and albert had chalked up jeff’s unrelenting interest in him to just wanting to make friends. that had been, after all, his intention in the beginning.

so albert brushed off the way that jeff always seemed to hover near him, how he seemed undeterred by albert’s standoffishness, the way his hands sometimes lingered. albert had never had friends before- he didn’t know that this wasn’t normal.

he hadn’t realized it was more than that until afterwards.

and albert curses himself for it, heart in his throat, thinks that maybe if he had known then things wouldn’t have ended as they had. jeffrey was interested in him as a man- if albert had known, had reciprocated, then maybe jeff would have loved him as he was. maybe he would have understood.

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he is dying and for one dark, depressing moment, he thinks, finally.

there was no one left for him, not now, not really. betty had died some five years ago, a stomach growth that had taken her swiftly. his children were gone, scattered to the wind; hattie had gone east and lawrence had gone west and clara and her husband had sailed to europe. and albert-

well. albert had been in the ground for nearly a decade.

it wasn’t a bad thing, to be dying now. he had lived a long life, a good life; he’d married a woman he’d loved and who had loved him, and had raised three wonderful children who had each found happiness in their own way. it was really all one could ask for.

but he was still plagued by the what-ifs, by the things he had and hadn’t done, how his life might have been different if he had only kept quiet here or said a few words there. if he had stayed in quincey to ensure albert’s comfort, if he had remained a farmer, if he hadn’t accepted betty’s proposal. if he had given himself over to albert earlier, or perhaps with a bit more tact.

he takes a deep, shuddering breath, and the visiting nurse that clara had insisted on when his health started deteriorating- mary, her name was mary healy- made her way over, laid a gentle hand on his arm.

“everything alright, mr. davis?” she asked with a smile, a hint of irish lilt weaving through her voice. her parents were immigrants, he remembered. “any pain?”

“oh, jus’ a bit,” he tells her, and it’s strange to hear his own voice so feeble. he musters up a smile of his own, though he’s sure it’s small, and weak. “nothin’ that don’t come with the years, miss mary. and’ve told you to call me jeffrey more times’n i can count.” 

she laughs at him, a sweet sound, and pats his arm. “i can still mix you something up before i leave, you know.”

“don’t you worry about it,” he tells her, waving off the concern. his hand is pale, too thin and bony, shaking slightly; this couldn’t be his body. “i’ll be jus’ fine. you go on home an’ get some rest now.”

and mary sighs, makes a show of tidying things up around the room- shutting the windows, drawing the curtains, smoothing the blanket at the foot of the bed and making sure the book on the nightstand is within reach- before pausing in the doorway. “i’ll be back tomorrow morning as usual, but remember that mrs. smythe is due to arrive in the afternoon with her husband. i’m sure they’ll be thrilled to see you, mr. davis, so try not to get into too much trouble.”

clara. clara. his tiny little smile widens into something warmer and mary’s faux-stern expression seems to soften a bit, before she turns and leaves the room, closing the bedroom door softly behind her. it’d been so long since he’d seen dear clara- she and her children lived in england, now- and some part of him ached that she’d chosen now to come back home, of all times.

jeffrey sighs and leans back into the pillows, green eyes slipping shut, and doesn’t hear the heavy thud of the front door as it closes behind mary for the night.

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one night, jeff says, “tell me ‘bout your family.”

albert looks up sharply, his chilly hands curled around the hot tin of sludge-like coffee, brows pulled together at the suddenness of the demand. “what?”

“tell me ‘bout your family,” jeff repeats, in a slightly different tone. he settles next to albert on the ground, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, and albert tries not to admire too much the way that the firelight turns him golden. “i’ve spilled everythin’ i’ve got, but i barely know anythin’ ‘bout you, albert cashier.”

albert can’t help the way that his mouth twitches into a smile at that but he hesitates, holds himself back. there was no way jeff would ever know- his history was an ocean away- but the fear remains. still, he trusts jeff more than he trusts anyone else on god’s green earth, and if he couldn’t let himself be honest with him, then who else could he be honest with?

“well,” albert begins slowly, chewing the words, “first off, i’m an orphan.”

he sees out of the corner of his eye the way that jeff starts at that, the surprise on his face, and doesn’t bother stifling the snort of amusement. 

“an orphan?” jeff asks him, sounding wounded on his behalf.

“yeah,” replies albert. “my da, patrick, died when i was still small, when things first started going bad. mama said that he worked with horses, but mama always said a lot of things, and maybe half of them were true. so, i never knew much about him.

“both my parents were from clogherhead, too. my mama, sallie, did odd work washing and mending, and sometimes i’d help her- it’s why i’m so good at fixing all your ripped up trousers,” he pauses here to elbow jeff, and they both laugh a little, “but it got harder when the famine started.”

jeff is watching him intently and albert tries not to let it get to him, tries not to let his voice shake. he’s never told anyone about his family, about his life before. “mama remarried to a man named daniel. he did some work as a shepherd, and i worked with him in the pastures as early as i could. mama had another baby when i was about nine, a little sister, but she got sick and never really got better. i took care of baby ellen after mama died, but i couldn’t stay around daniel much. i ran away and ended up on a ship to new york.”

he ends his story with a shrug, lifting his coffee tin to take a sip as an excuse not to look at jeff. he couldn’t bear his judgement, or his pity- he had few enough friends already. but then jeff’s hand lands on his shoulder, heavy, and albert tries not to flinch.

they sit there like that for a while, quietly beside the fire, before jeff asks, “what happened to daniel and ellen?”

“don’t know,” alberts says into his coffee, curling into himself. “hope that daniel’s dead. ellie deserves better than him. we all did.”

he glances at jeff from the corner of his eye and sees the slight frown he wears, can already feel his own mouth pulling into something disagreeable. “that’s awfully rude’ve you, albert.”

and, oh, albert bristles at that- jeff didn’t know, didn’t know anything, the way that daniel would raise his voice and albert would watch how his mother flinched away, her fingers bony and rubbed raw, all of them hungry and too thin. didn’t know the way that daniel would look at him in his ill-fitting blouse and trousers and unevenly cut hair and sneer and call him boy with a cruel edge that only he could hear, in front of everyone else.

“you don’t know,” albert says hotly, but the rest of the words catch at the back of his throat, chokes him. he can’t tell jeff those things, can’t open himself completely, make himself so vulnerable. instead, he stands quickly and pours his coffee on the ground, revelling at the mingled surprise and regret on jeff’s fact at his sharp, angry movements. “you don’t know.”