The café in Marseille was quiet; a few artists smoking and looking pretty in the early sun, two reporters drinking the first coffee of the day, a shy young man breaking his fast with a beautiful girl, and Richard, loose and slouching at a table on the edge of the street, a cigarette dangling from one hand and a paper folded over in the other.
The sun was warm against his back and a light breeze tickled the hair at the back of his neck. He'd need a haircut soon, he realised, if he wanted to maintain human appearances. A prickling of the hairs on his arms told him that the couple who had passed by a moment ago were now arguing nearby, he breathed in the unhappiness with a smile, maybe he'd go and find them in a moment, make things a little worse.
Familiar footsteps were coming down the street towards him carrying a presence that was even more familiar. He took a long draw on the cigarette, tilting his head back to blow careful smoke rings into the air, before turning his head towards the man stopping in front of his table. Tall, pale complexion, wearing a tailored three-piece suit – the only concession to the summer sun the stripping of the jacket and rolling up of the sleeves. Richard allowed himself to linger on the strong forearms before raising his eyes to the other man's. Charles St Clair.
“Good morning, soldier,” he said, smiling one of his slowest smiles. The man rolled his eyes but his lips twitched briefly in response. Richard kicked the chair opposite him out, waving the paper towards it graciously. “Join me.”
“Too kind,” Charles murmured as he sat down after carefully draping his coat over the back of his chair. His accent was crisp, Oxford educated, terrifyingly upper class – the accent of an officer and something in it always rang faintly with command. Sent a shiver down Richard's spine every time.
“So the long tour is over,” Richard said, crushing the butt of his cigarette into the tray provided. “What will you do with your respite?”
“Spend blissful hours doing nothing, I should think,” Charles said, stretching his legs out under the table. “Glory in the thought of never having to wear a bloody uniform again.”
“Oh, I don't know,” Richard said, leaning forwards. “I've always been fond of a man in uniform. It rather suited you.”
Charles snorted but didn't dignify the comment with a response. This was the way he always was, the angel currently know as Charles, dryly amused by most things and cynical about the rest. There was a time, a few hundred names before, when Charles had seemed so much easier to corrupt; so innocent and precious that Richard had simply wanted to defile him on the spot. Yet here they were, long years later, and Richard still hadn't won. Down below had complained on multiple occasions that he had wasted too much time on one particular angel – but his work elsewhere was more than enough to make sure the complaints stayed just that, no further action required.
Richard hated not winning. They'd been playing the longest game of any Richard knew of and he was convinced that one day he'd find the key to Charles' downfall, if it took him all of eternity.
“Where will you go when you no longer have me to endlessly bother?” Charles asked, gesturing to the waiter for his own cup of coffee. Richard tapped his fingers against the table thoughtfully.
“Oh, I thought somewhere further east,” he said with a shrug. “One of those seemingly endless Germanic states. I've had a lot fun that part of the world over the years.”
“You don't consider our time together fun, Richard?” Charles said, one corner of his mouth twitching upwards again. “I'm truly hurt.”
“There's only so much of your kind of fun that I can stand, Charles,” Richard said, curling his mouth into a smile full of implications. Charles made another scoffing noise and tipped several spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee. “I think I should like to relax a while myself, it does a soul good, after all, to rest every now and then.”
“And, of course, there's hardly anyone to corrupt there at all,” Charles said, eyes going hazy as he savoured the first sip of coffee. Richard touched his tongue to his bottom lip and forced himself to look away.
“Oh, you know me, a tug here, a push there, nothing too fancy,” Richard said, waving a hand. Charles' eyes went sharp for a moment and Richard fought to stop his expression from altering. He did enjoy the games they played.
“Yes,” Charles said after a moment, leaning back in his chair. “I do know you.”
Another one of those shivers, but for an entirely different reason. If Richard was the sort of being who had friends, and if some of those friends were on the other side, Charles would be the closest thing he had. They were nowhere near equal in power or status but they had been running into each other for a few thousand millennia, more consistently than any other angel Richard had had the pleasure of attempting to corrupt. Charles really did know him, to some extent, and that was quite a frightening thought.
“I've always liked Marseille,” Charles said, interrupting Richard's thoughts. “Particularly in early summer.”
“I seem to recall finding you here more than once,” Richard said, nodding. “A few of those times I believe you wore the face of a woman.”
“One shouldn't restrict one's interaction with this world,” Charles said, lifting a shoulder.
“I wouldn't know,” Richard said with a matching shoulder lift, turning on a wicked smile for a brief moment. “Grew rather too fond of buggery, to be honest.”
Charles laughed openly at that and Richard fought against the irritating way it made him want to feel happy and free. The artists burst into an unexpected bout of singing and the young couple reached for each other's hands across the table. The reporters, men after Richard's own heart, shook their heads at the sudden gaiety surrounding them.
“Really, Charles,” Richard said with a mock frown. “You're terribly unsubtle.”
“No more unsubtle than you,” Charles said, eyes narrowing. “Following me across the continent? I may begin to think you truly care.”
Richard offered a snort of his own to cover up the knowledge that he himself wasn't even certain why he'd bothered following Charles here. He hadn't attempted to test him at all on the journey across France, had simply needled him with conversation (wild horses couldn't drag from him how much he enjoyed reliving the banter they had shared whilst on the same side) and intimation.
Richard drew a breath to reply and paused, something tickling at the back his throat. He breathed deeply through his nose and caught it, the deep scent of worry and panic, and turned his head as a small boy came flying around the corner of the street, shouting in rushed French. Charles turned his head too, his brow furrowing. The boy had a bundle of newspapers in his arms, freshly printed and crisp.
“They did it!” the boy was shouting as he skidded to a halt beside the café. He proffered the papers and Charles exchange a few coins for one. “They invaded Serbia!”
The reporters leapt to their feet so fast that they almost upended their table, scrambling their bags from the ground. Charles unfolded the paper, the words Special Edition printed clearly across the top, and frowned down at the articles.
“Fuck,” he said and Richard blinked at the uncharacteristic swear word. He leant forwards to read the paper upside down, his head very nearly brushing against Charles', and understood the sentiment almost immediately.
“Perhaps they don't need me after all,” Richard said, because he couldn't resist it. The colour had sapped from Charles' face already, though, and humour didn't rouse readily in his eyes. “Guess that means you're staying.”
“You shan't be deprived of my presence after all,” Charles said, leaning his head back and directing a glare at the sky. “I was looking forwards to that rest!”
“No matter,” Richard reached a hand half towards Charles before letting it sink to the table, damned instinctive urges. “There's plenty of work for our kind in times of war. That rest will only seem better for it.”
“War,” Charles shook his head and pushed to his feet. “What bloody fools these people are.”
He strode away, inadvertently amusing Richard by leaving no money for his coffee, and Richard watched him go; the angry set of his shoulders showing the barest extension of his wings, the smell of his anger and annoyance thick in Richard's throat.
“War,” Richard said to himself, drawing the paper across the table. “Lovely.”
Richard's opposite was a Highlander, his kilt settling provocatively (to Richard at least) on his knees, his face stern and cold. Richard smiled, recognising Charles at once, and waited to be introduced to this newest name.
“Lieutenant Sebastian – oh, of course it's you,” Sebastian – no, Richard fancied him more of Bastian – sighed, pressing a forefinger and thumb to the bridge of his nose.
“An unusual surname,” Richard said, brushing his hands down the front of his uniform jacket.
“McCulloch,” Bastian said, waving a hand and turning away. “Bastian McCulloch, since you always care so much.”
The Highland accent sounded exactly as if it had been softened by years of English education, instead of being thought up within moments of the body being created, and Richard rather liked it. Not that he would tell Bastian that.
“I thought you'd be on the other side,” Bastian said, sitting in one of the hastily sourced chairs in their makeshift courtroom. “Inspiring atrocities.”
“Dear Lieutenant,” Richard said, leaning against the edge of a table. “I don't need to be on the other side to inspire atrocities. Look at where we are.”
Bastian made a soft noise of disgust and looked away from Richard, the freckled expanse of exposed neck relentlessly tempting. Richard bit his bottom lip before turning away to take his own chair.
“It's almost amusing, really,” Richard said, straightening his papers. “They invent such horrors for themselves without any input at all. I have half a mind to give this all up and retire to the country.”
“Where you'd no doubt inspire feuds over hedgerows and the like,” Bastian said lightly. There was a hollowness beneath the humour, the only indication to humanity that Bastian was affected by what he saw around him. That wasn't his usual cynicism in action, even in a world so soaked with unhappiness Bastian's was an entirely more profound flavour.
“I do have other ways of entertaining myself,” Richard said, raising an eyebrow. “It's not all temptation.”
“No, of course,” Bastian said, corner of his mouth twitching up. “A good deal of it is seduction.”
“Should always work with the best tools you have available,” Richard said, shrugging. Bastian leant back in his chair, the kilt shifting in interesting ways, but still refrained from turning back towards Richard.
It irked him when Bastian didn't look at him. Richard cast about for something that would draw Bastian's focus back onto him. He pulled a somewhat crushed packet of cigarettes from his pocket and tapped one out, pulling it back into shape before putting it between his lips. He patted futilely at his pockets for matches; having a very clear image of them sitting on the desk in his dug-out, forgotten in the haste of his summons.
He was about to give up when there was the sound of a match striking, the flare of sulphur in the air touchingly familiar, and he looked up to see Bastian leaning towards him, one had cupped around a lit match. Richard watched Bastian's face as he lit the cigarette, careful not to brush the bare flesh of their hands together, and Bastian watched his mouth.
Richard pulled back as the cigarette caught, drawing the first lungful down and letting out a sigh of contentment. What a wonderful, wonderful world Mountjoy had built. He proffered the packet to Bastian and Bastian hesitated as he shook the match out with one hand. Richard huffed out a breath and tossed the packet onto Bastian's table.
Another flaring match and then Bastian was making a truly indecent noise around a cigarette of his own. Richard grinned reflexively and tipped his head back to blow smoke rings. For a moment they could've been in that café in Marseille, clean summer scents in the air instead of the constant smell of death and dirt that hung about everything here.
“How'd you end up here, anyway?” Richard asked, tilting his head to one side in order to catch Bastian's eyes again. “You were a Captain last time, what changed?”
“Disobeyed,” Bastian said, looking away and down briefly. “Mr Mountjoy did not approve.”
“No, he wouldn't have,” Richard said, turning to face Bastian properly. “Not his favourite little field officer. What did -” Richard stopped himself, sudden inspiration hitting him. He grinned. “Oh, please, let it be true. You're the sad bastard who showed the Cheshires out of Mons, aren't you?”
Bastian closed his eyes and slumped in his chair, cigarette hanging dangerously loosely from the fingers of one hand. If Richard had been any other being he might have attempted to control his glee. He wasn't, however, and he clapped his hands out of sheer pleasure.
“Perfect,” he said, laughing. “That's perfect.”
“Mountjoy hauled me up and hauled over for it,” Bastian said, his eyes still shut. “This is his idea of punishment – alternatively fighting this stupid war and defending these poor boys. I've already been about it three months, no end in sight.”
“If you ask me,” Richard said, spreading his hands. “The punishment far outweighs the crime.”
“You know him,” Bastian shrugged, opening his eyes and turning them on Richard again. “He's always leant more Old Testament than New.”
The clattering of approaching footsteps brought them both to attention, cigarettes hastily extinguished on the floor. The procession that entered their makeshift courtroom was a small one: the accused, barely seventeen if Richard was any judge, his escort, the presiding officer and a man to run the sentence to the nearest telegraph for confirmation by Haig.
Cowardice, the boy was accused of. It was enough to make Richard laugh, human instinct being used as an excuse for execution. The boy was shivering but not with fear. In fact there was nothing unsavoury on him at all – nothing but the melancholy scent of resignation. Even Richard had to acknowledge that as a kind of bravery.
The Court Martial was concluded quickly, the officer so keen to make an example of the boy that Richard barely had to try. Bastian, frustrated, was on the edge of violence, his body vibrating with the effort to stop himself from outright interfering, and it was something to watch. Richard was helpless against it.
The note the runner carried away was made of simple words: the boy's name (Richard had already forgotten it), his guilt and his sentence. Firing squad at dawn.
The boy was led away, Bastian's eyes following him from the room, followed by the officer already discussing the latest county scores with the escort. Richard turned, fancying he might needle Bastian a little more but was arrested by the bowed head and shuddering shoulders. He felt awkward, not used to seeing Bastian physically falter in such a way, and he found himself reaching a hand out.
Richard wasn't sure whether to risk the touch, even through cloth there was always the possibility that it might knock them both for six, and Bastian solved the issue by suddenly pushing to his feet, gathering his few papers to him. He paused when he turned to Richard, eyes taking in the outstretched hand, and Richard lowered the hand quickly. The look in Bastian's eyes was unfathomable as he brushed past Richard, his whole body tight with something that Richard couldn't place despite his centuries of studying this one particular angel.
“I'm glad it's you,” Bastian said quietly behind him. Richard turned to see Bastian standing by the door, his head turned back towards Richard. “Believe it or not. In all of this it's -” he paused and huffed out a low laugh “- it's nice to see a familiar face.”
He left, leaving Richard more bewildered than he'd been in an age. Richard found himself wishing that he'd been able to bring himself to touch Bastian, that had always been the best way to understand him, his fingers itching with the urge.
“I need a drink,” Richard said to no-one in particular.
Richard walked his last circuit of the night with the slight bounce in his step, the duckboards shifting wetly beneath his feet, his thoughts already on his bed and the confiscated whiskey hidden beneath it. It had been a long and loud day, the Germans shelling the lines for relentless hours, and Richard's ears were still ringing slightly.
He rounded a corner, bringing himself parallel to the German lines, and saw a crowd of men gathered about an observation post. He furrowed his brow, seeing the whiskey dancing away from him, and strode swiftly to join the men. He recognised the 2nd Lieutenant with the scope, Latimer, and pushed through the enlisted to stand at his side.
“Latimer,” Richard said, nodding when Latimer shuffled along the wall to make space for him. “Why the fuss?”
“Lieutenant McCulloch, Captain Smith,” Latimer said, still peering into the scope. “Went over the top half an hour ago.”
“Did he see something?” Richard asked, hoping it wasn't another midnight raid.
“Couldn't tell you, sir, I wasn't here,” Latimer said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “But it's not the first time he's done it. I asked Hope to inform me the next time he did it.”
“Of course it's not the first time,” Richard said, mostly to himself. He was torn between irritation and something terrifyingly like warmth.
“I had intended to watch for him, sir,” Latimer said, taking his eyes away from the scope at last. “But if you like I could go over, bring him back.”
There was an unspoken something behind the words, a reflection of the same something caught up in the roiling feelings of the men behind him: is he trying to desert or does he want to get himself killed or maybe even is he actually one of them. It shouldn't have grated on Richard's nerves as much as it did.
Latimer watched him with uncommonly astute eyes, eyes that often caused Richard to suspect there was a little bit of angel in him somewhere, and waited for his response. It would be simple enough to reprimand Bastian in the morning, if he returned, and at the very least quiz him about his midnight excursions.
The problem with that, however, was that here, this perfect example of hell on earth, was one of the few places that Richard could admit to himself that Bastian was the only real weakness he had. The alcohol, sex and other assorted vices were encouraged by those below – things which Bastian's people, formerly Richard's people, would look upon as the basest of weaknesses. Bastian on the other hand, and the increasingly obvious and horrendous mix of feelings Richard was finding within himself about him, was not something that was encouraged. Corruption, yes; whatever this was? No.
Richard should have resisted the temptation to come to the Front.
“I'll go,” he said, disgusted with himself.
“Sir -” Latimer said, shaking his head. Richard raised a hand to stop the objection before it came.
“It's my last turn about, Latimer,” Richard said, waving for a ladder to be brought forwards. “I might as well take in No-Man's Land while I'm here.”
“Yes, sir,” Latimer said, watching Richard climb the steps.
“Don't bother coming after us if we're not back within the hour,” Richard said, raising his head cautiously above the wall. “We'll be dead.”
He pulled his hat off and tossed it down to Latimer. He squared his shoulders against possibly the stupidest thing he'd done in all his long existence and slithered over the top of the trench, keeping as low as possible. It was a dark night, fortunately, the half moon obscured by clouds, but Richard didn't dare straighten any further than a low crouch, his back already protesting the position. He drew a breath, sifting through all the colours of low emotion to find the particular shade he always associated with Bastian.
Richard moved in the same low crouch, one hand held before him to test for obstacles and the other on his pistol. The stench of death hung in the air, almost drowning out the smell of powder and blood and dirt, and Richard hated hell enough when he was forced to report in person – why had he decided to spend so much time here? And why did the humans worry about going there? At least hell was warm, if you didn't mind the smell of rotten eggs.
(Hell was the human word for it, they'd never bothered to name it themselves because, honestly, what was the point of naming a metaphysical space that was neither her nor there? Richard used it because it was the best of a bad lot.)
There was a hint of movement in a shell hole ahead of Richard, fresh by the spread of mud around it, and Richard slid his way towards it. He dropped over the edge, unsurprised to find himself surrounded by dead bodies, and settled back against the pocked wall. Bastian was crouched opposite, his hand pressed against the forehead of one of the bodies. Richard couldn't tell if the man was German or British in the half-light but he knew that wouldn't matter to Bastian.
Bastian's kilt was matted by mud, clinging wetly to his legs, and his uniform jacket was brown with the stuff. His red hair was bare to the night, his cap tucked into one of his pockets, and his bowed head was painfully attractive in profile. Richard swallowed, struck by a rather unfortunate wave of lust.
“You didn't have to,” Bastian said, his lips barely moving as he spoke quietly.
“I was obliged,” Richard said, clearing his throat before continuing. “The men like you.”
“They like you too,” Bastian said, shifting from one body to another. “As much as you probably try to convince yourself differently.”
“I have that effect on people,” Richard said, fisting his fingers into the mud beneath him. “I suspect it's the 'angel' part of the fallen angel equation.”
“Perhaps,” Bastian said, bowing his head again. Richard licked his lips and raised his eyes to the sky, suspecting a weightier hand in this than his own.
“You could help, you know,” Bastian said and Richard looked down to see Bastian looking at him, moonlight reflecting off his eyes.
“I don't think they'd want the absolution I have to offer,” Richard said, more bare honesty in the words than he'd intended. Bastian's eyes were dark but for the spots of moonlight but Richard still saw the pity that raced through them.
“You were one of us once,” Bastian said, his next movement bringing him closer to Richard. “As you noted yourself, there's still some angel in you.”
Richard looked at the body beside him, a splayed German with a great rent in his side, and made a thoughtful noise. He reached a hand out and touched two finger tips two the bridge of the man's nose. He could feel the shape of life there, still fading, and he pulled his hand back with a start.
“Come on,” Bastian said, suddenly appearing at his side, leaning his weight against Richard's side. The wholesale contact was startling enough that Richard barely reacted when Bastian grabbed his hand and pressed it against the dead German's forehead. “Make some effort.”
Power banked back and forth between them for a moment and Richard felt Bastian shudder against him before he pulled away as if burnt. Richard's breath went shallow, something bubbling under his skin, and his heart pounded in his ears as loud as any shell explosion.
“A poor choice,” Richard said, his voice shaky. “Or did you forget the 'fallen' part of the equation?”
“I – I had actually forgotten what it was like,” Bastian said, his own kind of bare honesty in his words. “You haven't touched me for a long time.”
Not for want of it Richard barely stopped himself from saying. He shook a little as he brushed what he thought might be absolution over the dead man. Bastian's body was heavy beside his, their sides still pressed together, and Richard turned to find Bastian watching him closely.
“What are we doing here?” Bastian asked, closing his eyes. “This is no place for us.”
“You've become far more reckless than I've ever known you,” Richard said, the words forcing their way out of his throat. Bastian's eyes snapped open again.
“And you've rediscovered a heart I was sure you lost a long time ago,” Bastian said, leaning close and lowering his voice further than the hush they'd been speaking in.
“Bastian -” Richard started but Bastian stopped him with two muddy fingers to his lips.
“Reckless, am I?” he asked, turning his hand and smearing mud over Richard's cheek with a thumb. The power flickered back and forth again and Richard fought against moving under it. “Fuck Mountjoy, then. I'm having what I can take.”
Bastian's mouth pressed against Richard's, tasting of blood and death and mud, and Richard opened against the kiss a lot easier than he should have. It burned through him, a sensation of presence he should never have felt again, and he threaded his fingers into Bastian's hair to hold him close. The kiss became desperate, Bastian whimpering against Richard's mouth, and Richard realised that neither of them were particularly in control of themselves. It would've been a satisfying feeling if he hadn't also felt so lost.
Bastian broke away from him, his fingers pressing too tight to Richard's jaw, surely leaving a bruise. His eyes were dark and wild and that was satisfying, knowing that Richard had just as powerful a hold on Bastian as Bastian had on him.
“We should go back,” Richard said, fingers flexing against Bastian's scalp. “I told Latimer to assume we were dead if we didn't return within the hour.”
“We should,” Bastian nodded, pulling back further. “If only to avoid the paper work.”
“By all rights I should be reprimanding you,” Richard said as Bastian finally broke contact.
“For which offence?” Bastian asked, raising his eyebrows at him.
“All of them, I expect,” Richard said, pushing himself upright against the wall of the shell hole. His legs were trembling.
“That would take more time than is left in this war, I think,” Bastian said, reaching a hand up to the edge of shell hole.
“You may be right,” Richard said, letting a small laugh escape his restored control. “Still, I have a firm idea of where to start.”
“It was a moment of weakness,” Bastian said when Richard joined him at the edge of the whole. “Don't expect to make something of it.”
“Would I ever?” Richard asked, meeting Bastian's eyes. There was humour there, edged with something dark but entirely welcome.
“I don't think I need to answer that,” Bastian said, his lips curving up in a way Richard hadn't seen for two endless years. His mouth quirked into an answering smile with no input from his brain.
They hauled themselves over the top and moved quietly and tensely through the darkness of No-Man's Land. Their hour was almost up when they finally slid back into the trench, Bastian's kilt having caught on a discarded wire along the way, and Latimer affected a coolly disinterested face to conceal the relief emanating from him in waves.
“Do you do this often, Lieutenant?” Richard asked, because it was important to do this in front of the men.
“Perhaps once every few weeks, sir,” Bastian said, shifting from one foot to the other. “But only on nights like this.”
“I would prefer if this didn't continue,” Richard said, making certain that the statement was open to deliberate misinterpretation. Bastian's eyes widened for a moment.
“Understood, sir,” he said, the barest hint of a smile in his voice. He turned smartly and moved away down the trench, trailing several of his men.
Richard and Latimer were left behind and when Richard turned to dismiss him he found Latimer watching him with a calculating face. Richard realised belatedly that he'd watched Bastian walk the length of the trench without looking away, he felt his cheeks flush. Latimer's face resolved into an expression Richard couldn't quite read and he stepped down from the post.
“You have mud on your mouth, sir,” Latimer said, passing Richard's hat to him.
“Thank you, Latimer,” Richard said, not moved to panic by the knowledge implied in the statement. He knew about Hutchinson, after all, Latimer had no room to accuse.
“Good night, sir,” Latimer said, tapping a salute against his forehead before disappearing down the trench.
“Good night,” Richard said, turning the hat around between his fingers. He placed it on his head and pulled it down to settle against his ears. He rubbed the mud from his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket.
“Fuck,” he announced to the suddenly empty trench. He kicked the wall. “Fuck.”
Richard had never been so tired in all his existence. Yet another trembling boy sent the firing squad, another win over Bastian's best defence, and he couldn't find it in himself to care. Those boys were going to be convicted no matter what either of them did – there was no point in either of them being here.
They were in yet another cobbled together courtroom, this one in the remnants of a castle nearly three miles from their respective units. Bastian hadn't moved since the verdict was given, the two hundred and ninth 'guilty' by Richard's reckoning, and Richard made up for it by pacing the edges of the room. He didn't know what was keeping him from leaving and that frustrated him.
“Enough,” Bastian said after Richard had made another five circuits of the room. Richard paused and turned to him. Bastian's head was bowed over the table, once again exposing that long expanse of freckled neck, and Richard was no longer surprised by the wave of lust that rolled over him.
“Why are you still here?” Bastian asked, eyes closed and fists balled up on the table. “Have you not seen me beaten enough? Humiliated me in court enough? Are you really so far gone that you enjoy seeing me broken apart, piece by piece, day by day? Am I really so important that you can't drag yourself away?”
Bastian's voice stayed quiet through each successive question. Richard would have preferred him to shout. To shout and swear and throw things about him. The defeated exhaustion in Bastian's words twisted something in his heart.
“You're not important,” Richard said, the safest question to answer.
“Then why are you here?” Bastian looked up at him, anger flickering in his eyes and Richard swallowed.
“Because I can't be anywhere else,” he said, admitted, spreading his hands. “Where else would I go? I don't have a nice peaceful heaven to go to. I don't get to take a rest. This is all that I do, day in and out, this is all that I am!”
Richard knew he was shouting because Bastian was on his feet, hands held out in the way a human would calm a horse, taking short steps towards him. Richard wanted to pull away, hating himself and what this bloody stupid war had done to him. Falling upwards at his age. It was ludicrous.
Bastian reached out and grabbed Richard's forearms, holding him steady, and Richard wanted to rip him apart, tear him into literal pieces. Punch and kick and bite and destroy. Give into all those urges humans thought only came naturally to them. He wanted to ruin Bastian. The way Bastian had ruined him.
Richard knocked Bastian's arms away and stepped into his space, threading fingers into Bastian's hair and pulling his head down for a biting kiss. Bastian made a startled noise and for a moment his hands pressed against Richard's chest, trying to push him away. He let Richard open his mouth with a swipe of his tongue, though, and then those hands were sliding around Richard and pulling him in close, strong against the small of his back.
Bastian walked Richard backwards until he was pressed against the rough stone wall, Bastian's length crowding around him. One of Bastian's hands slid to Richard's hip and the other to cup the back of his head as Bastian ground against him, the sporran pushed aside by the force of their movements, the stiff heat of his erection obvious through the kilt.
Richard broke the kiss with a gasp and licked a long line down that neck he'd been thinking about for years, settling just above Bastian's collar to suck a wet kiss against the flesh. Bastian groaned, low and right into Richard's ear, and Richard twitched as Bastian pushed a knee between his thighs. Richard ground down against Bastian's leg, moaning into his throat, and Bastian shuddered.
Richard found the hem of Bastian's kilt with his free hand and he rucked the front of it up until he could get at Bastian's underwear. Bastian's cock strained against the material and Richard cupped it with his hand, letting Bastian push against him. Bastian pulled Richard's head up for another kiss, this time stealing into Richard's mouth with a series of deep licks, and moved the hand on Richard's hip around to the buckle of his belt.
Bastian kissed him through the one-handed unbelting and detrousering, which was genuinely impressive, and only broke it when Richard finally worked his own hand into Bastian's underwear. He breathed a series of expletives against Richard's mouth as Richard stroked him slowly, taking the measure of him, before freeing Richard's cock from his own underwear and taking him firmly in hand.
Richard's head fell back as Bastian set a strong pace and let down the walls separating his true self from Bastian's. Bastian gasped as the power buzzed up between them and Richard felt his legs tremble. Bastian leant his head forwards, pressing his forehead to Richard's, and they shared breath as they worked each other's cocks.
Richard was very good at this but he was surprised to find that Bastian was a little better, which spoke to the rumours about the angels who were stationed together, and it was Bastian who moved them close enough to take both their cocks into one hand. He spread their fluids together and eased the slick slide of his hand over them. Richard thrust up into his grip, grabbing Bastian's hips to bring him closer, and Bastian moaned again.
Bastian's movements became erratic as his release built and Richard joined his hand to Bastian's to keep the pace. He nudged Bastian's nose with his own, asking for his mouth again, and kissed Bastian hard and deep. Bastian's hips shuddered and his breath shortened and the kiss broke as Bastian came, his seed spurting over their entwined hands. Richard watched the ecstasy wash over Bastian's face and felt his own climax twisting at the base of his spine, roaring in his ears. Bastian's eyes focused on Richard's, clear and true and seeing him, and Richard's climax surprised him, tearing a long moan from his throat. Bastian's eyes widened as he watched him.
Richard let go of Bastian's hand and Bastian let go of their cocks and just leant against Richard, heavy and sated. Richard wasn't certain that his legs would be able to support them but he draped his arms around Bastian anyway, trying to think of excuses for the sentiment spiralling through the heart Bastian thought he didn't have.
Bastian sighed after a long moment and rolled away from Richard, settling against the wall beside him as Richard carefully tucked himself away. He envied the kilt in that moment, wiping his hand against the front of his underwear, and a laugh tumbled from his lips. He looked at Bastian and saw him pulling an over-sized handkerchief from the sporran. Bastian wiped his hand delicately and balled the handkerchief up before restoring to its rightful place. He extracted a cigarette packet, battered and almost crushed and horribly familiar, and a card of matches.
Richard stared as Bastian pulled two cigarettes from the packet and put them to his mouth, lighting one and then the other from the same match before offering one to Richard. Richard took it but couldn't drag his eyes away from the packet, the same packet he'd tossed to Bastian when he first joined him here.
“Sentimental,” Bastian said when he finally noticed Richard's stare. “But not surprising, I think.”
“It's good to know that the Bastian I know and – that I know is still in there somewhere,” Richard said, drawing on his cigarette and sighing deeply.
“I think that says a great deal about you,” Bastian said, blowing out a long breath. “I'm just not entirely sure what.”
A knock on the door, not shy in a way that meant it could only have been made by one man, and it opened to reveal Lieutenant Prior. Prior looked between them with eyes that told of his certain knowledge of what they had been doing before he arrived and Richard smiled. Prior was man after his own heart, as much as a human could be, and he found himself rather liking him. Prior smirked.
“Car's ready to take you gentlemen back to the Front,” Prior said, his barely disguised regional accent all wrapped up in his arrogance. “If you're ready.”
“We're ready, Lieutenant,” Bastian said, extinguishing his half-finished cigarette against the wall before returning it to the packet.
“I never congratulated you on your promotion, McCulloch,” Richard said, tilting a smile in Bastian's direction. Bastian returned it with that familiar upturn of the corners of his mouth. “A well deserved Captaincy if ever I saw one.”
“Thank you, Smith,” Bastian said, walking to the door with him. “My family are very proud.”
“As they should be,” Richard said, nodding and trying not to laugh. Bastian shared another smile and Richard hated the way it lit up his insides.
Ahead of them Prior snorted.
They reached Richard's drop-off point before Bastian's and Richard was almost reluctant to climb out of the vehicle. He stepped down and out and swung the door shut behind him, turning to tip a lazy salute towards Bastian.
“Just a moment,” Bastian said, touching a hand to the back of the driver's seat.
Richard squinted up at him, committing him to memory for completely unsentimental reasons, and Bastian looked down at him with an unbearable fondness.
“Do me favour, Smith,” Bastian said, holding his eyes. “Don't die. I've gotten rather used to your face on the opposite side of the courtroom.”
“I'll try my best, McCulloch,” Richard said, waving out a lazy salute. “I'd hate to disappoint you.”
Bastian smiled again and with a tap against the driver's seat he was gone.
“You know,” Richard said, rocking onto his heels and staring up at the sky. “I don't find these attempts at seduction in the least bit amusing. I chose my side, Mountjoy. This won't change anything.”
Richard didn't die.
It was a close run thing.
Marseille had survived the Great War relatively unscathed despite the constant coming and going of troops and the café had actually profited, expanding into the shop next door to support its clientèle. Richard sat at the same table, however, the sun washing down his back and a black coffee before him. He had the folded paper in his lap and was half-heartedly reading an article about displaced populations.
The heat was good for his back, somehow easing the stiffness of the scars across his lumbar region, and the coffee was good for his scattered thoughts.
The patrons of the café; that same couple, now married, two new journalists and a whole new school of artists, had looked at him respectfully as he took the table. How they knew he'd fought in the War he wasn't sure, though he had noticed a certain look in the eyes of the veterans he had met in the years past. Perhaps he wore that same look now. Amusing, given the many wars he'd fought in, that now people should recognise him as a veteran.
Footsteps on the road, accompanied by the irregular tapping of a cane someone wasn't quite used to, and a familiarly weary presence. Richard looked up to see Bastian limping towards him, kilt and uniform jacket replaced by a tailored suit, and he barely stopped himself from reflexively smiling.
“Somehow I knew I'd find you here,” Bastian said as he arrived at the table.
“And here I am,” Richard said, nodding. He slid the chair out opposite him and Bastian eased himself into it, wincing as he bent his left leg in order to do so.
Richard waved and a waiter brought a second cup of coffee. He tipped several spoonfuls of sugar into it as Bastian attempted to make himself comfortable, studiously not examining his motives for doing so.
“You made it through,” Bastian said after his first sip of coffee, his eyes averted.
“Just,” Richard said, reliving for the thousandth time the sensation of shrapnel ripping through his back.
“I heard,” Bastian said, eyes flicking up to Richard's briefly.
“Thought I'd – thought you'd been lost,” Richard said, staring down at his paper. That hadn't been a particularly enjoyable time.
“I was, in a way,” Bastian said slowly. “Latimer found me.”
“Of course he did,” Richard said with another nod. Latimer had found him, too, and dragged him out of a shell hole as deep as he was tall. Another time that wasn't particularly enjoyable.
He did wonder how Latimer explained his habit of disappearing to save officers from units other than his own. Divine intervention, probably. It was easier than the truth.
“I suppose you'll finally get your rest,” Richard said, looking up at Bastian to find him staring at him. Of course, there was that too. He touched a finger to the edge of the scar, feeling the way it deformed his jawline. That was probably why the humans recognised him.
He'd be glad when he didn't have to be Richard Smith any more. He missed his smooth skin.
“That's what I've been told,” Bastian said, spreading his hands against the table.
“Lucky for some,” Richard said, not bothering to disguise the bitterness. Bastian flinched.
Bastian raised his coffee and drank in silence. Distant birdsong irritated the edges of Richard's nerves and he dropped the paper on the table with a huff. Bastian looked at him, eyes once again full of that wearying compassion.
“Fuck you,” Richard said softly. Bastian shook his head.
“I have a few days,” he said hesitantly, averting his eyes again. “Before they call me back.”
“I won't ask you to stay,” Richard said, leaning back in his chair.
“You don't have to,” Bastian said, pressing one of his legs against Richard's.
Richard closed his eyes and breathed in. No unhappiness. Damn it.
Richard heard them before he saw them, the chorister berating Zak (suited him, actually, more than he thought it would, the hard edged letters) for his negativity. He resisted the urge to laugh, knowing Zak's apparent negativity for what it actually was.
“May I?” he asked as he approached the table, interrupting Zak mid-flow. He paused and looked up to find Zak looking at him with stunned amusement.
He liked the new body, something familiar and lived in about it. Not as conventionally handsome as Bastian had been, or provocatively attractive as some of Zak's other forms, but compelling nevertheless.
“It's you,” Zak said, laughing a low laugh. “Of course it is.”
Richard sat, smiling back at him, and prepared to begin the game again.