They were sitting under a tree by the stream, just as they had been the night Hilliard had arrived, returned to the company and the war that had seemed easier than his own family. They seemed to be a long way from the war now, even though the both of them knew it was only a matter of time before they were sent to the front line. Hilliard knew there was no real way to prepare Barton for what he would inevitably experience, and found that he had never felt so futile, even back in the trenches where he had seen scores of men die each day and known there was nothing he could do about it, no way for him to make a difference.
He found himself wanting to protect Barton, protect him from anything and everything from the greatest pains and losses of war to the smallest inconveniences of trench life. Hilliard barely knew why, but it was important that Barton remain exactly as he was, happy and laughing, always ready with a funny anecdote or a reassuring word to anyone feeling down, even men who’d been in France for far too long, had seen things Barton couldn’t even begin to imagine. Hilliard couldn’t help but note, with a smile, that from anyone else these words of encouragement would have likely seemed like either condescension or well-meaning but useless advice from a boy who didn’t know what he was talking about, but Barton always managed to cheer anyone up. Honest, kind, genuine Barton, with his earnest smiles and his blue-green eyes – people out here needed him. Hilliard needed him, as he had found himself thinking over and over again over the past several days.
As they sat side by side, they talked, as they often did. Hilliard enjoyed listening to Barton’s stories, being told about books or about Barton’s family or the things that he had done or intended to do. They made plans for the future together; a future at home, without the war, one that they could share with each other. They shared jokes, and when Barton laughed his eyes sparkled. Sometimes it frightened Hilliard just how much Barton had come to mean to him in so little time, but then Barton would smile at him or run a hand through his hair and suddenly all his worrying didn’t matter anymore.
And, for the first time really, Hilliard was finding that he liked to talk. Not to everyone and not always, but Barton was so easy to talk to, perhaps because he himself made it seem so simple to just talk and not worry about how people might react to him or his words. Of course, Hilliard suspected that part of that was that Barton was simply so good-natured that he never had to worry about inadvertently offending someone because he never would. But still Hilliard talked, and Barton listened with rapt intensity to everything he said. Nobody had ever listened to him like that, like they really cared what he was saying. It was easy to get carried away, and once or twice Hilliard had found himself just barely managing to catch a sentence back before he said something he shouldn’t. Barton always looked confused when he did that, but he never asked that Hilliard say more than he was comfortable saying; he’d just place a hand on Hilliard’s shoulder, reassuringly, and change the subject.
At the present time, Hilliard was telling Barton about the time he and Beth had, as children, tried to put on a production of Twelfth Night for their parents. This had proved difficult with only the two of them, and Constance Hilliard had objected vehemently to Beth wearing boy’s clothes to portray Viola. They’d ended up setting fire to Hilliard’s sleeve with an ill-placed candle and spilling soda-water all over the sofa, along with several other small incidents that had added up into the whole thing being a complete disaster. It hadn’t been quite so humorous at the time as it seemed to be now, with the perspective of time and experience.
“We never tried anything of the sort again, I’m afraid.” Hilliard finished, laughing. “Which is probably for the best; I’m almost as bad an actor as I am a dancer.”
Barton was laughing too, his broad shoulders shaking with mirth and his wrinkled nose making him look faintly like a rabbit. Hilliard couldn’t help noting that laughter suited him enormously; then, with an edge of bitterness, that he had best make the most of it while he still could.
“Oh, John, I’m sure you’re not as bad as all that.” He said once their laughter had died down. “Perhaps it was just because the dress rehearsal went well?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“One of my brothers – the one I went to Camargue with – used to have ambitions regarding the theatre, and as a result I know a lot more theatrical superstitions than I’ll ever need to know. Apparently, if the dress rehearsal goes perfectly, the opening night is bound to go all to blazes.”
“Theatrical types are highly superstitious people, I’ve learned. Either way, the point is that I doubt you’re capable of being truly bad at anything, John.”
“Except dancing,” Barton conceded. He couldn’t really argue that one; he hadn’t believed Hilliard could be as awful as he said he was at first, and had taken it upon himself to teach him to waltz. In the end, they’d tripped and fallen or knocked things over so many times that Coulter had come up to the apple loft to see what the commotion was about. It had been great fun, but Barton would never again argue Hilliard’s ineptitude on the dance floor.
“You have far too much faith in me, David.” Hilliard shook his head, smiling.
He meant it as a joke, but evidently there was an element of real self-doubt apparent in his answer, because Barton placed his hands of Hilliard’s shoulders and looked directly into his eyes.
“Or you have too little faith in yourself.”
“Oh, come off it,” Hilliard said, unselfconsciously leaning forwards so their foreheads touched.
Barton chuckled softly. “Sorry.”
For a moment, everything was still. And then, as though it were the most absolutely ordinary thing in the world, Barton closed the space between them and kissed Hilliard on the lips. Hardly thinking, Hilliard kissed him back, placing his hand on Barton’s arm as if to steady himself. Then they drew apart, and looking at each other, it seemed as though a tension had evaporated that neither man had known existed between them.
Then Barton grinned that charming grin at him, and started talking again, and the day moved on. But it didn’t feel as though the incident had been forgotten, or was being swept under the rug – instead, it felt as though something in their relationship had shifted, something small but significant. It had not been a platonic kiss, that much was certain, though Hilliard couldn’t have explained why if pressed to do so. It simply hadn’t been, the same way he and Barton simply were. What precisely they were, Hilliard wasn’t sure. He felt a sudden urge to tell Barton that he loved him, but the words wouldn’t come. Maybe that was best, for now. Maybe they would talk about it later, decide on what words best described what they had; maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe out here, in this place, the words weren’t important, as long as the love itself was there. Hilliard thought he could be happy with that; happier, indeed, than he’d been in a long time.