'It feels like snow,' Maurice said quietly, his lips brushing Alec's shoulder.
'More 'n likely,' Alec murmured in reply. 'Best stoke up the fire if we're going to be indoors all day.'
'Good idea.' Maurice shifted his hand from Alec's hip and slid it downwards into the tight bush of hair between his legs.
Alec's blurry laugh drifted up from the pillow. 'You know I didn't mean that,' said Alec, putting his own rough hand over Maurice's, preventing further exploration.
He stayed quiet then, the memory echo of Alec's laugh taking him back to the first time they had shared a bed, and Alec had laughed in the night, dismissing Maurice's insistence that they be known by their first names. He was like that still, sir this and sir that to anyone he thought above their own lowly station in life, and just as he was back then in private with his fuck this and fuck that. Maurice had taken Alec's point though; the likes of them didn't have many choices in life, so best not be too smart about it.
Alec shifted in the bed, pushed back the blankets and stood up. Maurice felt a rush of lust watching him walk across the room and kneel in front of the fire. He was so beautiful, despite the scars and... And.
Sometimes the lust would give way to panic, and he felt it rising up in him now. He could no longer see Alec by the fire, there was no snow outside, it wasn't Christmas Day.
They were back in Hell again, the sucking, grey mud gripping their ankles, and the rain sheeting down day after day after day. Until their unit had been blown apart by the biggest shell this side of Mons, he'd thought the waiting had been the worst thing. But now, with Alec gone, and him alone with the corpses of... God no, not even corpses. A collection of parts was all he could see, lying in the trench beside him. An arm here, a leg there. And Jesus Christ, something up on the wire. Someone hanging there, caught in the barb. He felt the bile rising, and tried to see Alec in amongst the carnage. But the blood was in his eyes and he couldn't see anything. Nothing. Nothing at all. He could see nothing.
'Alec! Alec!' He tried to sit up, but was entwined with half a man, parts lying on top of him, his leg crushed under something. If he had a leg, still. Perhaps one of the limbs he'd seen had been his own.
'Shhh, shhh, now...'
'Shhhh, it's all right, I'm here. We're safe. We're home.'
'Shhhh. It's caught up in the blanket, that's all.'
Maurice felt Alec tugging, and then the gentle release of bedding that had trapped it. And it was bedding, not anything else, not anything from then come to drag him back. He opened his eyes and looked down. The trenches and the mud and the bloody gore gone, only Alec close by him, as he always was.
'Oh God, Alec, when will it end?' He gulped in air, trying to get his breath back, and eradicate the panic still tight in his chest. 'No, don't answer. I know it never will.'
Alec smoothed down his hair, wet with fear and panic. 'It'll pass, Maurice. It'll get better.'
Maurice shook his head. 'How many years has it been, and still it follows me, wherever we are, wherever we go? I can't escape it.'
Alec climbed into the bed and drew the blankets around them. He kissed Maurice gently on the mouth. 'It ain't nowhere near what it once was. Don't come as often, neither.'
Maurice considered the truth of this and let himself relax a little. 'Perhaps by the time I'm seventy it might have gone. If I'm lucky.'
He smiled a little and Alec grinned in return, making Maurice want to weep even more. When Alec smiled, the scars on his face were more prominent, his left eye almost closing with the pull of tight red skin across his cheek.
'Get the papers.'
Alec paused for a moment than got up again and walked over to the small chest of drawers in the corner. In the second drawer down, he pulled out a tatty envelope. He brought it over to Maurice and laid it gently on the bed. Maurice sat up, tipped the envelope up, letting the papers slide out. He had read them so many times they had become torn and ragged around the edges. One day they'd fall apart, unless he threw them in the fire before that. He tensed his hand into a fist. No, that wouldn't happen for a while yet. But one day it would, he'd surprise Alec with that. One day.
He stared at them, side by side, the words blurring for a time before coming into focus. Scudder, Alec. Discharged. Scudder, Christopher M. Discharged. Those were the only six words he read. Over and over, murmuring them under his breath, until he believed them again and was able to look round whatever place they were living and realise that it was real, and that they were no longer there, back in that place.
He nodded and Alec folded the papers up and slid them into the envelope, going quietly over to the chest and putting them back. Safe till the next time.
After breakfast, Maurice watched Alec at the table, head bent over a sheet of paper, his left hand keeping it still as he held the pen with his right and continued with the letter. A ritual. One of few that had stayed constant over the years. No matter where they were, how many times they moved on, every Christmas Day Alec would write to his mother. The pen was part of the set Maurice had bought for Alec's farewell. Standing on the Normandia that old August day, gripping the package and hoping that Alec would use it perhaps to write to him, but not particularly believing his fantasy. There had been no need of it in the end, no requirement for Alec to write anything at all to Maurice. Not even the wire he'd sent had been necessary.
'Why do you never write to her before Christmas?'
Alec smiled but didn't look up. This was part of their ritual too.
'I likes to tell her how things is going on the day.'
'And how are things going?'
Alec read from the letter. 'My friend was took bad again, but this year he's not had so many turns. I expect him to be much improved in another twelve month.' He ran his eyes down the page. 'It's snowing now, and we've spent the morning in the cottage, yet hope to get out for a stroll in the afternoon.' Another pause. 'The rabbit we caught yesterday will make a good Christmas lunch.'
'Don't forget the nuts.'
'Oh yeah.' Alan began writing again.
'Some poor squirrel will starve as a consequence no doubt.'
'I shan't put that,' responded Alec.
Maurice laughed. 'No, best not.'
He wandered over to the fire and settled the kettle at the edge over the trivet, then took the pot and scooped two hefty spoonfuls of tea into it. When the water boiled he let the tea brew for a while before straining it into their mugs, setting Alec's down on the table away from where he was writing.
The fine craftsmanship of the pen set looked incongruous against the uneven grain of the wood, the chipped mugs, and their rough, brown hands; its ivory and mahogany inlay retaining its polish still. He'd almost not given it to Alec, but it's bulk in his pocket had given it away.
'What's this then?' Alec had asked.
'Open it, it's for you,' he had replied, and the light in Alec's eyes as he had turned up the catch and opened the lid gave Maurice such a thrill of pleasure that he was glad he'd not given it thoughtlessly to the Scudders instead.
Alec sat back. 'That's that then.'
'Till tonight, then I'll write up the rest of the day.'
'Have you a stamp?'
'Don't I always?'
They lapsed into silence again as Alec put the letter to one side and concerned himself with the business of addressing the envelope. Presuming his parents were still in Osmington of course. There was no way of knowing. Alec never told his mother where they were, was never tempted to drop a hint or even give the nearest post office for a reply. ''Twould spoil it,' he told Maurice. He understood that. He'd never been tempted to get in touch with any of his own family. Communication with the outside world held no interest for him.
It was partly that time in France that had done it; his voice being so obvious had meant he'd kept his utterances mostly to grunts and mumbled replies. 'Quiet, your brother, ain't he?' they'd said, and Alec would reply, 'Always 'as been, he's right enough.' It was only when the explosion came and he'd scrambled frantically along the trench, crying out, 'Alec! Alec! Oh God, Alec, where are you?' that he'd let his guard down. It didn't matter by then, since he and Alec were the only two left. There had been no one to hear how wrong his voice was for a brother. No one to see him take Alec in his arms nor hear the words he'd whispered.
His voice had roughened up now, just like the rest of him. He didn't stand out too much any more, and no one they met seemed to care who they were, as long as they worked hard and didn't cause any trouble.
Alec lay the envelope on top of the letter. 'Right, what's next then?' he asked with a smile.
Maurice was happy. Christmas Day was always the same. The letter begun, they would take a walk somewhere, then have dinner, then doze by the fire until leftovers for tea.
Today the snow slowed their steps, and created a new landscape for their walk. One where Maurice was never quite sure where they were, and where their boots crunched deep footsteps through the snow. He looked upwards into the canopy. Last Spring the branches that were now bare had pushed forth leaves so vibrant they almost dazzled. Filling the world with green as the snow now filled it with white. They'd lived long in the woods, and he'd become used to the slowness of movement in the branches and in the run of the seasons lingering after the first sudden changes, until it seemed the world might have stopped and a new season wouldn't come at all. That they'd be stuck in the burnished gold of Autumn, or the hazy, blurred colours of Summer. Then suddenly, overnight it seemed, the trees and flowers would embrace the change in light and temperature, and would race on, challenging both him and Alec to keep up. Every year they had been in a different wood, but the seasons never differed and there was a sense of continuity even if they were birds of passage.
This had changed a little now. They had been with each other ten years and more, and yet, two Summers they'd spent in these woods, and Maurice could not differentiate between them, and say with any certainty which Summer had been their tenth.
He drew his gaze away from the bare branches and smiled at Alec who was looking at him, the softness in his eyes making Maurice's heart pump hard in his chest.
'I was just thinking,' he began. 'We came here the Summer before last; this is our second Winter here. Spring, too, will be a repeat if we stay again.'
Alec nodded. 'Strange, isn't it, seeing the same trees losing their leaves and gaining them again the next year.'
Maurice laid his hand against one of the older beeches, it's bark recognisable to him, his memory filling his mind with how it would look in full leaf next year. Alec hadn't replied, and Maurice thought to speak aloud what they both must be feeling and thinking. They hadn't moved on. They hadn't spoken of moving on.
'Shall we stay here, Alec?' He drew his hand away from the tree and turned to look at his friend. 'I'm tired, I think.'
'It's a good place,' Alec said. 'We wouldn't do so badly. We'll be like these trees.' He gazed around them.
Maurice was puzzled. 'What do you mean?'
'Rooting,' said Alec. 'Settling down.'
He stopped there, although Maurice felt sure he'd been about to say something further.
'Making a home, you mean?'
Alec nodded. 'You've been better here than you have anywhere we've stayed. It's done you good.'
'It's not that far from London, though, what if...' He gestured with his hand; not wanting to put into words the worry that followed them wherever they were.
'If someone finds out we're here, we can always move on.' Alec sighed and looked down at the snow-covered ground that lay between them.
'Fact is, Maurice, I'm tired, too. Can't do no harm to stop awhile, can it?'
Maurice shook his head. 'I don't think so.'
They made their way in silence back to the old hut, patched up over the years by successive rough men like themselves. Men who stayed a while, and others who moved on season by season. For now, they would stay and it would be home.
Later, with the day nearly over, the letter completed and sealed on the mantle waiting to be taken into the nearest village for posting, Maurice slumped in the chair by the fire, watching Alec as he lay on the rug, completely naked, the fire causing his body to glow as the flames licked the back of the hearth and disappeared up the chimney.
'You'll catch your death, lying there like that.' Maurice's voice might have sounded flat and bored to anyone else, but Alec would catch the playfulness behind the attempt at solemnity.
'It's hot down here, you oughter try it yourself.'
Alec shifted the angle of his head and gazed up from beneath half closed-eyes, his lashes almost brushing his cheeks. Maurice cleared his throat as his gaze travelled up and down Alec's body, pale skin shivering under Maurice's intent look.
'Maurice,' he pleaded.
Maurice slid off the chair and knelt beside Alec, then wriggled down so that he was lying at his side, his hand running over Alec's beautiful scarred body, hot with the fire's proximity. He stopped a moment and held his head at an angle, listening. All was silent; he could hear nothing outside.
'Feels like snow,' he whispered.