It’s a Thursday evening, and there’s nothing to do. Henn, Cullen, and McMath are in the barracks’ common room, as is their habit during the odd hours between dinner and dark.
Henn’s killing time before heading out for the evening, watching the other two play cards. McMath and Cullen have both claimed to be “Masters” of Gin Rummy, having trounced younger siblings and various cousins at the game their whole lives. For a low-stakes game they manage an impressive level of friendly animosity, which amuses Henn to no end. It’s not clear exactly who he’s cheering for, but cheer he most definitely does.
Finally, McMath puts Cullen out of his misery with a decisive hand and Cullen slumps back on the couch with a sigh. Henn gives McMath a grin and McMath focuses all his energy on not turning red from pleasure. Cullen reaches into the pockets of the jacket he’s thrown across the couch and pulls out three apples, tossing one to each of the others.
“Where’d you get these?” Henn asks, polishing his on the hem of his shirt.
“Canteen. I always get hungry a half-hour after dinner. Might as well grab what’s free.”
“I swear to God, you eat more than anyone else I know,” says McMath, tossing his apple absently from hand to hand. “You eat more than Blackwood, for Christ’s sake.” Cullen shrugs, pulls out his pocketknife, and starts slicing off chunks of his apple and eating them.
“He’s a growing boy,” Henn says, giving Cullen a saucy once-over. “It helps with his development.” He punctuates the statement with a huge, messy bite of his own apple, juice running down his chin.
“Why do you do that?” He asks after he’s swallowed, motioning to Cullen’s knife.
Cullen blushes a little and says, “Griswalds. Tiny grenades. Blow your head off.”
“What?” Henn stares at him with real concern as McMath starts to laugh.
“Give it here,” he says, reaching out for the knife. “That is a great fucking program.”
“What?” Henn asks again.
“Firefly,” Cullen says. “You haven’t seen it?” Henn shakes his head.
“You’d like it,” McMath says after a bite. “Space cowboys. Mercenaries, thieves, crazy psychics. It’s good stuff.”
“Never really been one for cowboys,” Henn says dismissively.
“Space cowboys,” Cullen repeats, staring at Henn seriously. Henn stares back. “In space,” Cullen says again, with greater emphasis. Henn turns to McMath, raising his eyebrows. McMath laughs.
“I’m with Cullen. Gina Torres in a leather waistcoat with a rifle …” He sighs wistfully.
“Nerds,” Henn mutters and sits back in his chair, turning his apple over in his hands.
“You going out tonight?” Cullen asks Henn, kindly changing the subject.
“Yeah, probably. Can’t just sit around here forever.” He kicks at the leg of his chair, scowling. “These fucking new guys, though. They know fuck-all.”
“That ginger one seemed to know what he was doing last night,” Cullen teases. Henn scowls again.
“He was an alright dancer—.”
Cullen snorts. “That was not dancing. Whatever the fuck it was, it was not dancing. Dancing is more feet and less mouth.”
“Fine,” Henn grins, “He was good at not-dancing. But then he goes and—” Henn pulls down the neck of his T-shirt with a look of absolute disgust, exposing an angry red mark. “I mean, that’s fucking rude. ”
Cullen opens his mouth to respond, but is interrupted by McMath’s yelp as he slices into the meat of his palm.
“Fuck fuck fucking shit! Fuck!” He drops the knife and casts around for something to press against his hand.
“Jesus!” Henn crosses to him to him in a few long strides. “Shit. Here, give it here.”
McMath blankly holds the apple out to him, pressing his bleeding palm against his forearm. Henn shakes his head in exasperation and yanks his shirt over his head, grabbing McMath’s wounded hand.
“No, don’t—” McMath says, but Henn gives him a stony look and presses the shirt over his hand, raising it slightly.
“What happened?” Cullen asks, alarmed.
“Nothing. Slipped.” McMath says, then winces as Henn pulls him forward by the hand.
“Come on, let’s clean you up.” He pulls McMath down the hall to their room, ignoring Cullen’s questions from behind. He shoulders open the door and positions McMath next to the sink. He rinses out his shirt and presses it back over the wound, using the loose corners to wipe the blood from between his fingers.
“What happened?” he asks seriously.
“Just slipped. Wasn’t looking.”
Henn is silent, staring at their hands. Finally, he speaks, his face tight.
“You’ve got to be careful. Okay? Jesus.”
“It’s alright, Tom.” McMath touches the inside of Henn’s elbow gently with one finger, brow furrowing with concern. “I’ve had worse.” He smiles softly, leaning down slightly to catch Henn’s eye.
Henn finally looks him square in the face, then flicks his attention up to the scar on McMath’s forehead. “Yeah, you have,” he says softly, squeezing the cloth tighter. McMath tries not to flinch, tries not to breathe. For the space of a moment, they are absolutely still.
“Hold that there,” Henn orders, then turns back to his dresser, rifling through a drawer and pulling out another shirt. His hands aren’t entirely steady.
“Tom, are you all right?”
“It’s nothing. Just fucking scared me, that’s all. Forget it.”
McMath turns away, avoiding his face in the mirror. He grits his teeth and pretends it’s from the sting in his hand. He sighs and makes to rinse the blood off his arms.
“Wait. Let me.” Henn returns with a packet of gauze and a roll of medical tape.
“It’s just a—” he begins, but Henn clenches his jaw.
“Let me,” he repeats quietly, and McMath falls silent. Henn gently re-wets the ruined shirt, wiping the blood from McMath’s hands and arms. He works in silence, focused and efficient, and presses the gauze on firmly before taping it down.
“Doesn’t need stitches,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, didn’t think so,” McMath struggles to keep his tone even. Henn meets his eyes and smiles softly, then pulls him down onto the bottom bunk.
“Movie tonight?” he asks, reaching over the head of the bed to grab his laptop from the desk beside it.
“I thought you were going out. New recruits to size up and all that?” McMath doesn’t sound bitter. He really, really doesn’t.
Henn shrugs. “Don’t really fancy it. Same old, same old. Besides, you’re wounded. Need looking after. What are we watching? Fucking space cowboys?”
It’s Friday evening, and again, there’s nothing to do. McMath is typing, carefully. He’s propped up against the pillows on his bunk, laptop balanced on his knees, trying to ignore the occasional twinge from the gauze pad still taped to his left palm.
“Going out!” Henn calls as he sticks his head in the doorway, his hair drying and green button-down shirt hanging open. McMath types just fractionally harder. “Hinde heard about some great pub, apparently. I thought we’d hit them all by now, but I guess not.”
McMath waits just a second too long before responding. “Yeah. Yeah, sounds good.”
Henn steps into the room, his grin failing as his eyes fall on the bandage.
“You alright?” he asks.
“Yeah,” McMath shrugs. “Fine.”
“Writing your sister?”
“Yeah, thought it was about time I answered.” He’s telling the truth. Cora emailed him a week ago, the standard “checking up on big brother,” and he hadn’t figured out how to respond. It wasn’t like he had much to say. (Dear Cora, still in Taunton waiting for something to do. Dear Cora, keep waking up in the middle of the night, but I’m not scared, I’m just confused. Dear Cora …) He sighs, deletes what he’s written, and starts over.
Henn hasn’t left. He’s leaning against the doorway, one forearm propped over his head. It would be seductive in a James Dean sort of way if he didn’t look so concerned. “You’re sure you’re okay? I can stay, if you like.”
For a moment, McMath is tempted. One word, that’s all it would take. Just ask him to stay, he tells himself. Just once.
“No, it’s fine. I’m going by Barr’s anyway.”
“Yeah? Tell him—”
“I won’t. He’s made up his mind, and you need to drop it.” Henn looks as though he’s about to argue, but decides against it. He finishes buttoning up his shirt and runs a hand through his hair.
“I’ll see you—?”
“Tomorrow, probably,” McMath responds lightly, snapping his laptop shut. He crosses to tuck it into a desk drawer and hears Henn close the door softly behind him. He shuts the drawer firmly and raps his knuckles on top of the desk.
“Okay,” he says to himself, pulling out his phone. “Okay.”
He dials and starts pulling on his trainers.
“Henry? You home? You busy? Yeah. Shut up. Yeah.”
Two hours later. McMath is installed on the horrible brown loveseat in Barr’s flat (which he feels a certain right to, as he’s the one who helped Barr lug it across town. On foot. Because “It’s free! It’s just sitting there! Come on, I’ll buy the kebabs.”).
Barr handed him a beer as soon as he walked in the door, and they’ve been drinking steadily since then. Barr is in the easy chair across next to him, one foot up on the coffee table. Billie Holiday moans out of the seriously extravagant speakers as the men work their way through the usual opening arguments. Barr has ranted, McMath has moped, jokes have been told but the mood hasn’t really been lightened. At a break in conversation, they listen to her half-whispered “God bless the child who’s got his own.” McMath makes a face and grumbles, wishing for something with a bit more bite.
“Have some respect,” Barr scolds. “That’s Lady Day you’re talking about.” He takes a long pull of his beer, then gestures to the bandage on McMath’s hand. “What happened there?”
“Ah, nothing,” McMath shrugs. “Just a cut, from yesterday. Bled a lot; didn’t hurt much.”
“Henn there?” Barr asks shrewdly.
“Yeah,” McMath says, picking at edge of the tape.
“What? Yeah, why wouldn’t he be? Pissed I bled on his new shirt, probably. Told me off for being careless.”
Barr stares at him for a moment. “You do realize the last time he saw you bleeding you’d just been shot in the fucking head.”
McMath gapes. “Wh— That was nothing, though. Barely a—”
“Shot in the fucking head is shot in the fucking head, Mac.”
“It wasn’t even shot, really,” McMath protests. “More like … hit. In the head. With a bullet.” Barr raises one eyebrow and McMath rubs one hand unconsciously over his scar. “Anyway, he knows it wasn’t that bad. He was there. Nothing to worry about.”
“If you say so.”
“Henry—” McMath starts, but leaves off and takes another long pull. They sit in silence for a moment as Billie sings “Good morning, Heartache, what’s new” in the background.
“It’s weird, isn’t it? Being back.”
Barr looks at him for a long moment, chewing his tongue. ”I went to Tesco’s today,” he begins, slowly. “And I had to choose between semi-skimmed and whole fat milk.” He smiles and shakes his head. “I stood there for twenty minutes.”
McMath looks up with a surprised laugh.
“This is it, man. This is what it’s going to be like from now on.” Barr scrubs a hand over his hair and looks out the window at the early dark.
“For you,” McMath says.
“Henn still pissed?”
McMath shrugs. “He wouldn’t be if he actually took a second and thought about it. But it’s easier to just be pissed, I guess.”
“Seems to me a lot of things would be easier if he took a second to think about anything.”
“Yeah, well.” They fall silent again. Barr opens his mouth to speak, closes it, then tries again.
“My brother thinks I’m traumatized, did I tell you?” He looks down at his hands. “He said so, to my face.”
“Yeah. I was out in the garden with the kids, you know, kicking a ball around. Natalie’s actually pretty good. When she’s not tripping over herself.” McMath grins, remembering the little girl with the pigtails he’d seen in Barr’s photos.
“And Marcus calls me in, right? I’m cheerful as anything, you know, and he just says he and Celeste have been ‘talking.’ You know, with that face; ‘we’ve been talking.’ And he thinks I should see someone. Like, a therapist.”
“A what? Fuck, why?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know. He just doesn’t believe that I’m fine. He keeps going, ‘Yeah, of course you say that, but . . .’ What the fuck else am I supposed to say, huh? It’s like-- Fuck. Turn off the fucking television and talk to your own brother, you know?”
“What’s the problem? You give him any reason to--?”
“No! No. He just read the papers, got it in his head that I’ve got to be fucked up. He’s my big brother, you know. Doesn’t think I can take care of myself without him getting involved.”
“You and Holmes should start a club,” McMath jokes, and is rewarded by Barr’s grin.
“Yeah, it’s not quite that bad. Though he never did tell us what his brother does.”
“I’m actually fine not knowing. Helps me sleep at night.”
Barr chuckles quietly and they sit in silence for a long moment.
“Used to tell him everything.”
“Every fucking thing. And now . . . Well. He doesn’t really get it. He can’t.”
“It’s tough. I know what you mean. He’s your brother. If Brin tried to keep something this big from me, I’d--. I don’t know. I mean, I’d understand if it was like this, but I wouldn’t like it.”
There’s another pause as they each take a drink.
“They’re having another one,” Barr says lightly.
“Yeah, you said. When is she due, again?”
“March, probably. I think so, anyway.”
“You’ll send pictures, yeah?”
Barr smiles, “Ah, you’ll be sick of me.”
McMath smiles gently. “Your mum waiting on you, now? Marcus has done his part, now it’s your turn?” Barr laughs, pulling a face. “My ma’s getting on me already,” McMath continues. “I mean, Christ, I’m barely home and she’s wondering when I’m going to settle down.”
“Aren’t we all?” Barr teases. “Seriously, though. No less than a year from this day, I want some good news.”
“I won’t be here.”
“You’ll send me an email. ‘Hey, Barr. I met a gorgeous journalist or something and he’s nice and intelligent and a fucking adult.’ Or maybe, ‘Hey Barr, I met this beautiful nurse and we have three kids—”
“You want me to settle down with a nurse? Where the fuck do you think I’m going, fucking Normandy?”
Barr grins, but then leans forward and taps McMath on the forehead, right under his scar. “I’m serious, man. You got lucky. We all got lucky.”
McMath holds Barr’s eyes for a moment. Barr drops his hand and sets his empty beer on the coffee table.
“We got old,” McMath says. “Just listen to us.”
“Hey, you’re the one with the fucking heart problems.”
“You’re hilarious.” McMath leans back on the couch and presses against his temples, feeling a headache start to build behind his eyes. He groans.
“What?” Barr asks.
“It isn’t nothing. It’s Henn.”
McMath gives a grunt.
“He still chasing the new intake?”
“Not as often as he could be.” Barr gives him a stony look. McMath sighs. “Yeah. But it’s fine. I’m fine with it. Everything is . . . fine.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind completely fucking with the definition of the word,” Barr says evenly. “Don’t pull that with me. He’s an arse—”
“I can say what I want. He’s like a brother to me, you know that, but my brothers are all fucking idiots. He’s a little prick with the attention span of a five-year-old, and you deserve—no, you need somebody better. You’ve got six more months here and then, what? A repeat of last tour? Just … stop it.”
McMath barks a laugh. “‘Stop it.’ Sure. How about you ring my Auntie Rose and tell her to stop having cancer, while you’re at it.”
“Jesus, you’re a romantic bastard, aren’t you? ‘Loving you is like having cancer.’ You know how that sounds?”
McMath opens his mouth to respond, but is interrupted by the buzzing of his phone. He pulls it out of his pocket and checks the display.
“Is it him?”
“Yeah, I’ll just—” He makes to answer, but Barr snatches it out of his hands and hits Ignore.
Barr turns the phone off and tosses it onto the table next to him. McMath stares at him for a moment, then sighs.
“You’re probably right.”
“Forget your fucking wings, man. That is the tattoo you should’ve got. Right across your lovestruck face.” He pokes a line across McMath’s cheeks and nose with each word. “Barr. Is. Probably. Right.”
McMath manages a real smile. “Just probably?”
Barr smiles back in relief, “Hey man, I never claimed to be infallible. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Henn loves you and he’s just really bad at showing it. And, you know, not fucking everything that has a pulse. Maybe he’s so thick he really hasn’t noticed. I don’t know. Dropped on his head as a baby or something. But I’m probably right. So the phone stays off.”
McMath sighs again. “All right. Okay if I crash here?”
“It’s practically your couch, brother,” Barr says. McMath rolls his eyes and flops back on the couch, pillowing his head on his hands and closing his eyes. Barr rises and heads to the closet to grab him a spare blanket. He stops in the doorway, considering, then turns back to McMath.
“He called, though,” he says carefully. “That’s something. Might be worried.”
McMath opens his eyes a fraction and purses his lips, thinking. “Let him sweat,” he says, closing them again. Barr turns back to the closet, hiding his smile. He’ll take what he can get.
Five hours later, McMath wakes for the third time from a light doze. He rolls off the couch and smoothes down his shirt, tucks his phone into his pocket. He doesn’t turn it on. He thinks about leaving Barr a note, but it’s not like where he’s going is any big mystery.
In fifteen minutes he’s kicking off his jeans and sliding in to the bottom bunk, trying not to wake Henn.
“Billy?” He sounds half-asleep, and when he hangs his head over the edge of the bed his eyes are barely open.
“Shh, it’s all right. Go back to sleep.”
There is silence for a few moments, then suddenly Henn is sitting on the bunk next to him. McMath starts.
“You okay?” Henn asks softly.
“I— What? Yeah. Yeah, ‘course I am. Just startled me.”
Henn reaches over and grabs McMath’s wrist to stop him worrying at his bandage. He hadn’t even noticed he was doing it.
“Does it still hurt?” He’s looking very serious and McMath feels his stomach turn bitter.
“No. It’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
Henn raises McMath’s palm to his lips. He holds it there for a few long seconds, the only sound his breath coming through his nose. McMath doesn’t breathe. Henn sets his hand carefully back on top of the blanket and slides in under the covers, facing him. McMath moves back towards the wall to give him more room. He watches Henn adjust the pillow and sink back towards sleep and finds it slightly difficult to start breathing again. He stares at the curve of Henn’s cheek and whispers, “Fuck.”
“Wha?” Henn mumbles, raising his head about an inch.
“Nothing. Never mind.” McMath traces his one finger softly along Henn’s hairline and he relaxes again.
“Good night, baby boy,” McMath whispers, and Henn hums softly in response, already mostly unconscious. It takes McMath a long time to fall asleep.
He calls Barr the next morning, feeling contrite. They get past the “You’re an idiot,” “You’re a broken fucking record,” “Tattoo. On your face,” exchange and sit for a moment in awkward silence.
“Thanks,” McMath finally says.
“No problem. You can come by, you know, when you’re not miserable, too, If you like.”
McMath laughs lightly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“So, was he there when you got back?”
McMath grins, and he knows Barr can hear it in his voice. “Yes.”
Barr chuckles lowly. “You besotted son of a--. This is pathetic. Why do I even bother?”
“‘Cause you’ve got nothing better to do. It’s all good, Barr. Don’t worry about me.”
Barr laughs at him and hangs up. Henn stumbles into the common room, shirtless, sleep-ruffled and grinning, the midmorning light playing against the gold of his skin. He shuts his eyes and stretches hugely, rising up on his toes. McMath doesn’t know how he does it, but he somehow manages to make simply waking up look cheeky. Like the color of his eyes in the morning is some kind of secret, but he’s going to show it anyway because he doesn’t give two shits for keeping secrets.
McMath sighs, scrubs a hand over his face and smiles the smile of the well and truly fucked.