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as morning steals upon the night

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At fourteen, David was short, and no longer a smoker, and he missed his sister. Summer in Baxminster at their advanced age had been tiresome before, but now that Margery had left to spend two weeks with their aunt, the quaint old house had become a wasteland and a desolation. The children's games he had scorned so recently seemed more appealing now that he had no one to play them with, and even breakfast was less interesting without a companion his own age for squabbles over the jam.

On fine days, he retreated to the garden. If he did not have his sister, at least he had Keats. He recited the poems aloud, the fine rhythms of them sticking in his mind until he had most of his favourites by heart.

"That's very pretty," said a light, unfamiliar voice. "Did you write it all yourself?"

David looked up in surprise to find an older boy perched on the brick wall of the garden, feet dangling down into the foxgloves.

"Don't be ridiculous," David said at once, before he stopped to wonder if the boy was only making fun of him. "It's Keats, of course I didn't!."

But the strange boy simply smiled widely and dropped down into David's side of the garden. His feet, David noticed, were bare.

"I haven't heard of Keats," the boy said, almost wistfully. "I like that poem, though. Will you read me some more?"

In his enthusiasm, David forgot to ask when the stranger had moved next door.

 

 

Four months later David was still fourteen; he was a boarder at Adams's, and he'd learned a good deal about the private life of boarding school boys, more than he'd ever wanted to know. Sometimes it wasn't so bad, but sometimes it was dreadful.

He tried not to think of his father, of what his father might think. Tried not to think of Margery.

It was easier to think of his friend of the summer, Frank. To imagine the stories he'd tell him, when next they met, the poems they'd share. Shelley and Tennyson and Wordsworth and Coleridge, Rossetti... a whole landscape, a galaxy of words to hide inside.

But David met Frank again sooner than he thought.

There was a secluded patch of shrubbery under the elm trees that David often liked to hide in, gloomy and cool. Frank found him there one evening, trying not to cry.

"Frank?" David asked, surprised. "How did you find me? How did you come here? You shouldn't have..."

"I came for you," Frank said. "You needed me. I came."

He reached out. Touched David's face.

"They hurt you," Frank said. His voice was slow and strange and wild, like it had been when he'd told David stories over the summer. Frank told better stories than anyone else David knew.

David shrugged; he'd already learned it did not do to complain. "It's not so bad. It's worse in some of the other houses - "

Frank touched his mouth. "Shhh, enough of that. They shall not hurt you again."

They didn't.

David never asked why.

 

 

David was seventeen, and tall, and very handsome. He was brilliant at cricket, and had the devil's own luck; only a few months earlier he'd managed to stop a runaway horse and cart in their tracks without suffering a scratch. Masters spoke of him with fond affection, as one already half-lost to the brilliant career all could see shining just ahead of him.

"Frank," the golden boy was saying now, coaxingly, from the chest-deep stream. He was naked and goosepimpled, faint fair hairs standing up on his arms. "Frank, come here."

From the grassy bank Frank laughed. Frank still looked just a few years older than David, and he was still handsome. "You come here with me."

"Coward," David said, affectionately. Naked he walked out of the water and sprawled out in the soft grass beside Frank. There was no need for fear or caution, not here in the woods, not when Frank was here with him. Nobody would ever find them.

"Will you kiss me, at least?" David asked, teasing, low.

Frank would.

 

 

David was twenty, and he was in France. It was the last night of June. He was a little afraid, as he had been a little afraid since his battalion arrived at the trenches, as he had been a little afraid since he left for France. But it had been the right thing to do, he knew, he was sure...

"David," a voice said in the dark. David jumped, startled. He had not known Frank could follow him here.

"My mother came from this country, a long time ago," Frank said. David was no longer surprised when Frank answered the questions he had not asked out loud. "I know this place, I know the land and the water, but I don't want to stay here. David, won't you come back with me?"

David had not realised how much he had missed Frank until he was here, in front of David. His eyes, his voice, his hands in the dark...

"I can't," David said. "You know I can't. I'm needed here, I swore an oath - "

Frank's hand touched his cheek, in the dark.

"I came here for you," Frank said, and his voice was soft, so soft. "I drank of the waters, I spoke to the land. I saw the future. There is no future for you here, David. The only thing you will do here for your country is die."

David's voice shook, though he tried to hide it. "If I go with you, I can't go home."

Frank kissed him, deeply, urgently. "If you die tomorrow, you can't go home."

Now David's hands were shaking.

"Come back with me," Frank said, voice like a spell, like an incantation. "Be with me, always, be mine..."

David thought of his father, of Margery, of his friends; thought of Cambridge; thought of England; but it was fading, it was all fading...

Frank held out his hand, in the dark.

"Come with me," he said.

David reached out and took his hand.