This is how it is between men during war. They have all seen it happen so many times. They will not speak of it later, though from time to time men live together afterward, confirmed bachelors, men who have been through something together. Men huddle together in the dark in their shelters. Men hold each other tightly in the early dark. Northeastern France has that damp sort of chill that gets into men's bones, but that isn't the only reason.
Peter is an officer. He shouldn't shiver in his dugout. He has a cot, a narrow thing, like nothing he ever slept on before he enlisted, even during his most rustic adventures, but it's still a sight better than what the other men sleep on. He has no right to shake until his teeth shatter and the joints of the cot creak.
It isn't the cold that makes him shiver. He's seen things during this war. He's done things during this war, and nothing prepared him for how easy it was. He was brought in for his foolish face, for his easy self-possession, for (he hopes) his discerning mind and sensitive fingers. He's always been the delicate one in the family; even Mary was sturdier. Now in the service of his king and country he has become a killer, or certainly an accessory to killing. There is some sort of steel inside him, somewhere, but that doesn't stop the trembling now as his fingers sweep over the map. He was reading, earlier, but the trenches are no place for poetry.
"Sir." Somebody ducks through the opening of the dugout; Peter automatically cross-references the voice, the silhouette, the way the man moves. It's his sergeant, Bunter. The candlelight hollows his face. They all look skeletal in the dim, Peter thinks. It has been dim for months.
"Sergeant," he says. "What's the trouble?"
"No trouble, sir," Bunter says. "No news. All's quiet, so they say."
"Quiet is good," Peter says.
"Just came for a bit of conversation?" Peter says. "Permission to speak, if you'd like."
"Before the war, I was in service, sir," Bunter says. He shifts his weight. Peter peers at him. There's something interesting in Bunter's impassive face. The candlelight is too subtle to illuminate the finer details of the sergeant's expression, but Peter can nearly make something out. It's a vulnerable moment, somehow, though the innocuous statement wouldn't indicate it.
"Yes? From one service to the other, it seems."
"I thought, sir, that you might need a bit of service," Bunter says.
"Service," Peter says, and the light dawns. "Ah."
They huddle together in the damp silence for a moment: Peter in his camp chair, Bunter stooped under the low ceiling of the dugout. Service, Peter thinks. Not the kind that's expected of the men, but the way of life they have created for themselves in the bleak depths of the trenches. Two can withstand the cold better than one.
"I apologize for presuming," Bunter says, his syllables polished to a high gloss.
"No," Peter says. "No, you didn't presume. I could, not to put too fine a point on it, use service. Are you the emissary? The men ask you to make a grand sacrifice? Fling yourself bodily on the unexploded officer?"
"I came on my own account, sir," Bunter says.
"I see," Peter says. He rubs the bridge of his nose. "Well," he says, sweeping his hand at the cot. "It's not much, but it may serve."
Bunter smiles briefly, more than the joke deserves.
"I'm just going to clean my teeth," Peter tells him, and clambers carefully out of the camp chair, which is prone to collapsing. He folds it carefully and leans it against the wall along with his little folding table.
"Very good, sir," Bunter says, and they both go through the motions of some sort of toilette: the taste of tooth powder, a bit of water splashed on the face, a comb run through the hair. They're both still bundled in their coats, unwilling to strip down and wash with cold water. It doesn't matter much. Everything in the trenches smells like mud and wet wool and sweat.
When they lie down together on the cot, it's so narrow that they barely fit. They'd be better off on the ground, Peter thinks, but the canvas doesn't suck the warmth out of a man's bones the way the ground does, leaving him hollow. Bunter is solid behind him. They huddle under their thin wool blankets and it's strange how strange it isn't. In war, one does anything to find peace. Sleeping next to another man is the least of it. It's less of a vice than alcohol or drugs. There's something heartbreakingly human about it. They are, most of them, interested in women, extensively if not exclusively, and yet in the night they seek each other's company, looking for humanity, looking for some other lost soul to find solace with.
That's how it begins, one night on a cot. Peter wakes, relaxed and very nearly warm, with Bunter's nose against the nape of his neck. For a moment, he feels something like happiness, and then the reality of the war settles back over him. Still, it seems more bearable. They share his cot the next night, and the next, and so on and so forth until it feels like a habit.
"You're coming with me," Peter says, in the depths of one bleak, frost-rimed night. "If we get through this. Will you be my man?"
"Nothing would please me more, sir," Bunter says against the nape of Peter's neck.
Peter likes to think he's a half-decent officer. He wasn't born to command, exactly, but he certainly grew up giving orders. He tries to let the men get on with what they know they need to do, offering guidance or applying a firm hand only when necessary. They're a good bunch, his men, stern and burly and homesick, farmers and tradesmen mostly, all of them carrying the countryside inside them. Mostly what they do is wait until their nerves are twanging with the tension of it. War is both deeply intense and deathly dull. He isn't entirely suited for that and they are - the plowmen, the mechanics, the working men - and the entire unit knows it. They're kind to him, their lordly officer. He digs deep and finds the stillness inside of him, measures out the endless hours in iambs and topography and unraveling coded messages. They muddle along together, patrolling the border, watching for movement.
One day it all comes apart. They get orders, at long last, to move. They set out across the green-grey fields in the chilly mist, past the little houses and the strange ruined tower that sits atop a hill, and, in the terminology of the literature, engage the enemy.
They sally forth in some sort of order. The world comes apart at the seams, ripped open by the flash and crack of ordinance. There is smoke. There is screaming. They go through the motions they have drilled endlessly, out of body, out of their minds. Peter thinks, later, that it was something much more akin to hell than to glory.
He wakes up without the heft of Bunter beside him and reaches out blindly. There's a wrenching pain in his shoulder.
"Lie easy, sir," Bunter says. "You've been badly injured."
"The men?" Peter asks, licking dry lips.
"Most of them came through," Bunter says, and won't tell Peter any more. "You need to rest, sir."
Peter closes his eyes. There isn't anything else he can do.
The next few weeks are a blur, even after they ease back the dosage of his medication. Peter's strength returns as his muscles mend, but there is some deeper wound that will not heal. He can't sleep; when he closes his eyes, he sees the flash of gun muzzles, as if he's pressing on his eyelids. He smells blood and smoke. He feels the press of something driving him into the earth. His bones ache at the impact of the bullets that hit him. Force, mass, acceleration: his poor corpus was overmatched by the inevitability of physics. Once or twice, he manages to catch an hour or two, but only when Bunter is beside him. The nurses purse their lips, and the doctors look away, but they understand the ways of war the same way the men do. Bunter stays with him, competently smoothing the sheets and tending to Peter. The hospital is short-staffed, of course, and the nurses are grateful to have one fewer patient to deal with.
"Human connection," says one of the doctors once, as he examines Peter's shoulder and chest. "That's what gets people through." He pats Peter's arm absently, as if Peter were a prized hunter. "You're healing nicely, Lord Peter."
"Glad to hear it," Peter says, as something inside him shivers.
They send him back out into the field eventually, to an encampment instead of the trenches. Bunter comes with him - Peter won't hear of anything else. The men are glad to see him, and Peter to see them. But it isn't the same. He could always keep the shivering inside before, hidden behind the gleaming buttons of his uniform. Now his hand shakes when he sights along the barrel of his gun. Now his lip quivers when he ought to be stern.
He holds out as long as he can. The only solace is the firm circle of Bunter's embrace in the night. Peter cries sometimes, or almost cries, more of a shaky inhale and exhale than a sob, his eyes barely damp, as if the horror of it all has drained him dry.
They send him home. There isn't any other choice. An officer who isn't fit for command is no asset. He is packed off to Denver, without Bunter, and his mother's hands flutter as she hugs him. He roams the halls like a ghost, more comfortable in the company of the shades of his ancestors than in the company of his family: Jerry, robust; Mary, determined; his mother, forever going a thousand directions at once. There is no ease to his life, despite the flotilla of servants eager to do his bidding. His requests die behind his lips. His last orders ended in bloody, violent death; to command even a cup of tea is beyond his power now. He flinches away from the well-meaning household staff, wondering how he ever made demands on them before. His words are soaked in blood. Like Lady Macbeth, he will never wash that stain away.
He eats only enough to keep his strength up. He has no appetite. He hides from visitors and from the servants, tucks himself into uninhabited corners of the house. His solitude is no solace. He can feel himself breaking down. When he does sleep, the nightmares come again, and he wakes with the scent of blood in his nose, the taste of gunpowder in his mouth. Most days, he lies in bed with the curtains drawn. Most nights, he roams the dark halls, startling his mother's cats. Even the jingling of the bells on their collars reminds him of the metallic shriek of battle.
And one day the doorbell rings and Bunter is there: Bunter, the only real thing in a world of blurred shadows, a world in which Peter can no longer strut and fret his hour upon the stage.
"Bunter," Peter says, his voice catching.
"My lord," Bunter says, as if he's always been Peter's man, and he runs Peter a bath and puts him to bed. Peter sleeps deeply for the first time in months, cradled against Bunter's chest.
They take a flat in London. It would only be a matter of time until the other servants remarked on Bunter's un-slept-in bed, for one thing, and for another, the good intentions of his family grate on Peter's nerves like nothing else. Bunter engages the flat, furnishes it, has milk and eggs delivered, subscribes to the paper. Peter, sitting in the study of the flat, feels as if he is breathing properly for the first time that he can remember. Sun slants in through the window, illuminating the petals of the flowers that Bunter has arranged on the piano, and Peter feels some frozen thing inside him start to thaw at the beauty of it. He had forgotten that there was beauty in the world. He had forgotten that there was something more to life than surviving it.
It takes time. For a while, he flinches every time someone comes to the door. For a while, he wakes in the middle of the night every night, even with Bunter snug against him. But slowly, gently, he comes back to himself, lying with his eyes closed in the tub as Bunter's strong hands lather him, or sipping tea that Bunter prepares without being asked. This thing between them puzzles him in some way. He always thought that love could unfold only between equals. Bunter is in many ways his better, and yet, he draws the boundaries between them, refusing to play any role but Peter's devoted servant. The service he renders is something exquisite, Peter thinks. He never has to ask. Bunter always delivers exactly what he needs: a tray of toast, a firm hand, the proper coat and trousers for any occasion.
They have endured fire and brimstone together. Peter thought he knew what love was before, but he understands what a shallow passion he had for Barbara. This thing between him and Bunter has been tested by frost, by mud, by the grim specter of mortality, and it has thrived. It is a thing too fine and private to speak of. It is the most precious gift that Peter has ever been given.
"I wouldn't be here without you, Bunter," Peter says.
"Providence works in mysterious ways, sir," Bunter says, pulling Peter closer.
"That it does," Peter says, pressing a kiss to Bunter's forehead. "That it does."