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A Multitude of Drops

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“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow?"

-David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

 

 

“Hey…Marco?”

It’s two days after the battle for Trost and Jean is helping with the cleanup effort. Bodies and debris litter the streets and a plague of flies infests the air. Jean’s mouth is covered by a handkerchief but it does little to block out the foul stench of flesh rotting in the sunshine.

He probably would not have recognised his friend were it not for the scattering of freckles on his surviving left cheek. The right side of his face is gone and so is his right arm. His mouth, which was once constantly graced with an easy smile, is set in a horrifying grimace.

A nurse approaches Jean and asks if he knows his name.

Jean reflects on the cruelty of it all; that this sincere, kind boy, who was mere days away from joining the Military Police and moving to the safety of the Interior, died a brutal anonymous death. That his broken body was thrown aside in the street like some unwanted doll.

“What’s his name?” the nurse persists, “If you know it, answer me right now.”

Alone. He died all alone. A fly scuttles across Marco’s left hand where it rests upon his chest.

“…Right now, there’s no time to mourn your fallen comrades. Got it?”

Jean stares at her, but the nurse stares right back, unflinching.

Finally, he drops his head and clears his throat, “104th Training Corps, Leader of the 19th Squad…Marco Bodt.”

The nurse writes it all down on the clipboard in her hand then walks away.

Jean resists the urge to vomit.


XXX


{Rome. 355 AD}

The others speak of him in hushed, awed whispers. They don’t know exactly who he is, for there are too many stories to be certain. Some say he is a mere criminal, caught one too many times stealing bread. Others claim him to be the son of a great past Gladiator, looking to follow in his father’s footsteps to glory. A disgraced soldier. A foreign slave. He was involved in a failed plot to murder a Senator. He deflowered the Emperor’s daughter. A volunteer, dirt poor in his previous life. A Christian.

Marco surreptitiously watches the man who sits alone in the corner. No doubt he can hear them talking about him, but he doesn’t react, too busy calmly tightening the Manica he wears over his right arm.

They whisper that he has won every fight so far. That he will soon earn his freedom.

His hair is mousy brown and his body is long and toned, Marco can see power in the muscles stretching beneath his skin.

Above, the crowd start chanting his name and the man stands, in anticipation. Moments later the guards come walking down the corridor and open the door to the cell, beckoning him out. They close and lock the door behind him.

Marco finds himself calling after him, “Good luck!”

The man makes eye contact with him through the bars of the cell and scoffs, rolling his eyes, before disappearing out of sight up the corridor.

The crowd lets out a mighty cheer when their favourite enters the arena and the fight begins. Below, the waiting prisoners try to guess what is happening by listening to the reactions of the spectators, the shouts and screams of a vast number of people reacting as one.

The fight drags on, and on, and on. The men shuffle nervously where they sit and begin to speculate on who he is fighting. Perhaps some famous Gladiator has been paid to come out of retirement? Maybe he fights several men at once? Or a man and a beast? Whatever the opponent, they are seemingly equally matched and the crowd is getting restless.

Then, a deafening roar comes from above. The fight is over and the crowd are chanting the victor’s name.

Not his.

The prisoners sigh. It is over, they murmur, he’s dead. Marco slumps in his seat and tries not to cry.

Green. His eyes had been a strange exotic green.


XXX


{London. 1879}

Jean has backed him up against the edge of the bed, his fingers tearing frantically at his necktie.

“Ouch, Jean slow down!” Marco protests when a fingernail scrapes along his jaw. The tie is wrenched violently from around his neck and flung across the room. Jean’s busy hands are scrabbling at his waistcoat buttons now.

Marco winces when he hears a few pop off and scatter to the floor, “Oh for God’s sake, that was brand new!”

“Marco, shut up!” Jean growls, pressing kiss after kiss to his exposed throat, “Just let me enjoy you while I still can. You’re getting married in the morning, and all you can think about is your stupid bloody waistcoat!”

Marco reaches up and clasps Jean’s trembling hands in his, stilling them, “We have all night.” he says soothingly, “We can take our time.”

Jean blinks at him for a moment then, stifling a choked sob, surges forward to bury his face in the material of Marco’s shirt where his neck meets his shoulder. Marco brings a hand to the back of his head and begins to stroke his soft brown hair.

“I’ll say one thing to your father’s credit: he certainly works fast.” Jean says, his voice somewhat muffled, “That stupid little maid went and blabbed two weeks ago - God, if I ever find her I’ll break her neck, I swear it - and now it’s all arranged for you to be wed and then shipped off to India. A fortnight, that’s all it took him. The man’s nothing if not tenacious.”

Marco can’t help but laugh. Jean pulls back and gently eases his waistcoat from his shoulders.

“What will you do in India? Apart from die of the heat, I mean.” he asks, carefully undoing the buttons of Marco’s pristine starched white shirt.

“My father called in a favour from one of his friends in the government. He’s managed to get me a minor position at the embassy.”

“Bully for you.” Jean mutters sarcastically, opening Marco’s shirt wide. There is a moment of breathlessness as he merely stands there, taking in the sight of Marco’s lithe torso, of the countless freckles dusting the pale skin. Eventually Marco takes the initiative and shrugs out of his shirt, letting it drop to the floor.

“I’m going to miss these.” Jean says hoarsely, reaching out to ghost his fingertips over the freckles on Marco’s shoulders.

Tenderly, Marco raises a hand and cups his cheek. Jean turns his head and places a kiss on the inside of his wrist.

“I’m going to miss all of you.” he adds with grim conviction.

Marco slides his hand to the back of Jean’s neck and pulls him forward to press their lips together. Their kiss is slow and aching, and Marco feels that he could die from how bittersweet it is.

Jean pulls backwards with a gasp, “Think of me. On your wedding night, okay?” he says earnestly, somehow managing to sound terribly child-like despite his request.

“If I don’t I probably won’t be able to consummate the marriage.” Marco laughs bitterly, “Poor Polly. I’ll be a terribly disappointing husband.”

Jean quite suddenly pushes his shoulders hard, causing him to fall backwards onto the bed.

“Fuck Polly!” he declares spitefully, crawling up the bed to straddle Marco, “Fuck your father. Fuck everyone.” he leans in close and brushes his nose against Marco’s, his eyelids fluttering shut.

“Oh, how I love you. Dear, sweet, beautiful Marco.” he whispers, “How I love you.”


XXX


{New York. 2002}

The rain has pooled on the steps down to the subway and Jean, in his haste, nearly slips and falls headfirst straight down. Luckily though, he is able to grab the rail and catch himself. After his near brush with death, he resorts to gingerly hopping down the steps as quickly as he can until he reaches the bottom, at which point he breaks off in a mad dash towards the platform. He gets there just as the train’s doors slide shut.

“Fuck!” he all but shouts, earning himself some disapproving looks from a couple of elderly women nearby.

Through the window, a freckled young man standing near the doors catches Jean’s eye and smiles sympathetically. The train pulls away from the platform.

“Fuck.” Jean says again, much quieter this time.

He’d have to wait an hour for the next train.


XXX


{Southampton. 1912}

“Jean.” Marco croons softly in his ear, “Jean, wake up.”

Jean groans and rolls over onto his front, burying his face in the pillow, “What time is it?”

“It’s seven o’clock.” Marco says, laughing at the muffled indignant moan he receives in response, “Come on, sleepyhead. Get up and I’ll make you breakfast.” he coaxes, placing a kiss upon Jean’s naked shoulder.

“How are you so awake? We were up nearly all last night!”

Marco can’t help but titter when he thinks about exactly what they were doing which kept them awake most of the night, “It’s not my fault you just can’t get enough of me!” he smirks, ruffling Jean’s hair.

“Come on, up now!” he continues, “We’ll have our breakfast and then I’ll walk you to the docks and see you off.”

“Don’t want to go.”

“Jean, we saved up for this ticket for months. I’m not going to let you waste it.” Marco replies sternly.

“Don’t want to leave you behind.” Jean says stubbornly.

Upon hearing this, Marco softens and climbs back into bed, burrowing under the covers to join Jean where he has hidden himself. The other boy is curled in a tight ball but, after some tickling, Marco manages to dislodge one of Jean’s arms and wrap it around himself.

“It’s only for a little while.” Marco explains, nuzzling into Jean’s chest, “You’ll find yourself a job and a place for us to live and then, once everything is ready, I’ll join you. I’ll buy a ticket for the first boat to America!”

Jean sighs and kisses the top of Marco’s head, “Yeah, like it’ll be that easy.” he murmurs.

“Of course it will! America is the land of opportunity, remember? We’ll be back together before the year is out.”

“I love you. Do you know that?” Jean announces suddenly.

Marco lifts his head to look at him, “Of course I do.”

“I love your optimism. And your smile. And the fact you’re always good to me, even when I’m in a bad mood. And your freckles. Especially your freckles. And…” Jean smiles slyly, “I love the little noises you make when I put my mouth down here.”

“Jean! Stop, we haven’t got time for this!” Marco yelps when he feels a hand squirming between his thighs.

“Of course we do, if we’re quick.” Jean murmurs huskily, sucking at Marco’s neck the way he knows will always drive him wild.

“No.” Marco whines, pushing him away with some difficulty, “You have a boat to catch, remember?”

“Oh. Yes, of course. The boat.” Jean grudgingly flops back onto the pillows.

“Well at least act a little excited!” Marco scolds, “This is going to be a big adventure for us! A better life!”

Jean can’t help but laugh when Marco scrambles up to bounce on the bed, chanting as he does so, “The Unsinkable Titanic! The Unsinkable Titanic!”


XXX


{Toronto. 1976}

“Honestly, he’s such an idiot. Every time I see him I just want to punch that stupid, smug face of his!” Jean complains, gesticulating wildly as he and Marco walk home from school.

“You need to learn to ignore him, Jean. You’ll only end up getting yourself in trouble.” Marco advises, distractedly leafing through the book they were assigned earlier that day to study.

“Looks shit, doesn’t it?” Jean says, flicking the back cover.

“I’ve only read a couple of pages in, but actually I think it looks pretty interesting.”

“Oh. Right. I forgot that you actually like reading all those stupid old books they assign us.”

“Shut up, you barbarian!” Marco teases, smacking him on top of the head with the paperback.

Laughing, Jean wrestles the book from Marco’s hands and makes as if to throw it across the street. He’s only joking, of course, and returns the book a moment later, gently punching his friend’s shoulder.

“Want to come over to my house? I need help with my Spanish homework.”

Marco rolls his eyes.

“What?!” Jean demands.

“Why did you take the class if you’re not going to even try?”

“I need the extra credit, okay?”

“Fine. I’ll help you. I need to go home first to drop off my stuff and pick up my textbook though. See you later?”

“Yeah.” Jean smiles, “See you later. I’ll order us a pizza.”

Grinning, Marco starts to cross the road and make his way towards the street his house is on. He still has his nose buried in that dumb book, and thus doesn’t see the truck which breaks the speed limit as it cuts the corner. Jean does though.

“Marco!” he starts to yell, but the screech of brakes and sudden sound of an impact and shattering glass drowns out his cry.

Marco’s body is thrown into the air and lands several feet away. Jean runs to him, dropping to his knees by his side.

“Oh my God. Marco, stay with me! Stay with me, d’you hear?” Jean cries, grasping his friend’s hand.

But already Jean can tell it is too late. Marco isn’t breathing and his eyes are staring unseeingly up at the cloudless sky. His legs are lying at odd angles, and there is an impossible amount of vibrant red blood pooling around his head.

“Marco, don’t…die.”

The paperback book has landed right next to him. Its pages are stuck together, sodden with blood.


XXX


{Passchendaele. 1917}

Mud is sliding down the back of Jean’s neck, cold and sticky. The bombardment has just finished and Jean’s commander has ordered all troops out of their protective dugouts and to get ready for the oncoming infantry. If Jean cranes his neck slightly, he can just see them advancing across no-man’s-land, shadows moving through the mist.

Jean finishes loading bullets into his revolver and clicks the cylinder back into place. With a sudden shout, the advancing foot soldiers all surge forward, firing shots in all directions, seemingly at random. Jean realises that they very probably can’t see a thing through the dense cloud of fog.

A black shape appears, towering directly above him. Jean takes aim and squeezes the trigger. The resulting shot almost deafens him and, for one terrifying moment, he fears that he has missed, for the figure remains teetering on the edge of the trench.

Then the man tumbles forward, landing heavily at Jean’s feet in the ankle-deep water at the bottom of the trench. Jean spares a glance down to ensure that he is truly dead, and is shaken to discover that, not only is the soldier still alive, but he is a mere boy, not much older than Jean himself.

The youth is tall and gangly, giving him the stature of a somewhat older man. But it is in his face that his true age is revealed; his handsome face, still retaining some childish plumpness to cheeks scattered with constellations of freckles. His eyes are wide and innocent, the richest brown Jean has ever seen.

“Mother…” the boy gasps, as blood bubbles up in his throat. And then his lips stop moving.

“Sorry.” Jean whispers, before running away up the trench to help his comrades where the fighting is thickest.


XXX


{Pasadena. 1993}

Marco Bodt is one year and five months old. He sits on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, happily playing with his toy cars. His mother sits above him at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and chatting with the lady who lives next door.

“Oh, did you hear about Mrs. Kirschstein who lives down the street?” the neighbour says, placing her empty cup down on the table, “She was rushed into hospital the other day. She had a miscarriage, poor dear.”

“What a shame!” Marco’s mother sighs, reaching for the coffee pot to refill the neighbour’s cup, “She was expecting a boy, wasn’t she?”

Little Marco, who has no clue what the two women are talking about, and isn’t even particularly listening either, is suddenly overcome with a feeling of intense sorrow and loneliness. So sudden and potent is his grief, it actually frightens him a little and he begins to cry.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?” his mother asks, leaning down to gather the weeping child up into her arms and lift him onto her lap.


XXX


{Arles. 1307}

The mob is screaming, baying for blood. When Jean, hands bound in front of him, is dragged out onto the platform built in the centre of the square, the noise intensifies and they begin throwing rotten food and handfuls of horse dung.

The Magistrate has to raise his voice to be heard, “The prisoner stands accused of sodomy, moral depravity and indecency, and of lying with and corrupting a member of the aristocracy. The son of our own Duke. How do you plead?” the man turns and looks at Jean, his disgust obvious.

“Guilty. Very guilty. I’d do it all again if I had the chance.” Jean says with a sarcastic laugh. He’s going to die anyway, so he sees little point in being civil. The Magistrate strikes him across the face with the back of his hand. Jean spits blood.

“On your knees, scum.” the man hisses, placing a hand on his back and pushing. Jean winces at the pain that comes with Magistrate’s hand pressing upon the welts from where they whipped him earlier.

Jean obeys, shuffling closer to the block. While the headsman prepares behind him, he takes a moment to cast his eyes over the unruly mob before him, they shout foul insults and make obscene gestures, but Jean doesn’t care. ‘They’re all so ugly.’ he muses, ‘And so stupid.’

Then, to his complete surprise, Jean spots Marco standing at the back, quiet tears shining upon his freckled cheeks. Instinctively, he smiles. The mere sight of Marco was always enough to make him smile. Regardless of his tears, Marco is able to muster up one in return.

Despite being fleeting and terribly small, those smiles are able to convey exactly what is on their minds. I’m sorry. I’m so glad to see you. I’m going to miss you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Nothing in the world would ever be as eloquent.

Briefly, Jean wonders how Marco had managed to get there. But then he notices Marco’s father, the Duke, standing behind his son’s shoulder, his glare stony and filled with hate. Oh. He had dragged his son here to make him watch, to teach him a lesson.

The headsman steps up beside Jean and, not ungently, nudges his arm with the toe of his boot. Jean takes the hint and leans forward, resting his neck upon the block, never taking his eyes from Marco for a moment.

‘Well, at least I’m not the one watching you die.’ he thinks humourlessly.


XXX


{Berlin. 1963}

In an apartment building directly opposite Marco’s, on the other side of the wall, there lives a boy. Marco can’t help but notice him, considering their bedrooms are exactly level with one another’s. He finds it strange and a little ironic that there should be a boy about his own age, living in an apartment the mirror-image of his own, less than forty feet away, and that he will never get an opportunity to talk to him. He doesn’t even know his name. It’s almost like gazing into some parallel universe and seeing what his life could be like if he lived in East Berlin.

Sometimes Marco wonders if, given different circumstances, they may have been friends. But then again, the two boys couldn’t be more different. Marco goes to University and lives a relatively easy life with his parents; the boy - who also lives with his parents - seems to work in a factory, or so Marco assumes from the number of times he has seen him stagger into his room late at night and flop down exhausted onto the bed, still wearing his work overalls. While Marco is almost painfully shy and quiet, preferring to spend the evenings in his room reading or studying, the boy goes out on weekends and sometimes returns home with a girl. Marco always draws the curtains on these nights.

Marco never sees the same girl twice though, and he has noticed that in the mornings the boy is suddenly very disinterested and dismissive of his companions from the night before - bordering on cruel, really.

Marco wonders about the boy with the mousy brown hair and the permanently glum expression, wonders if ever one night he has looked up out the window and took notice of his awkward, freckled neighbour in West Berlin.


XXX


{Seattle. 2013}

Jean fidgeted nervously and pretended to send a text. Why the hell had he let Connie bully him into allowing him to set him up with some random guy? Jean never did stuff like this. In fact, the whole concept of a blind date always seemed incredibly girlish and stupid in his opinion. But Connie had kept going on and on about how cool his friend was and how Jean would really like him. And Jean had gotten really frustrated and had almost told him to go out with the guy himself if he was that great. But finally, he had consented just so as to get Connie to shut the hell up.

And here he was, standing around like a complete moron, waiting for some guy who would either not turn up or, if he did, end up being an asshole. Or boring. Or ugly. Or-

A hand touches his shoulder.

“There you are! I’ve been looking for you forever!”

Jean turns around and immediately forgets whatever he was about to say. Instead, he finds himself gaping at the boy before him.

“It feels as if I’ve been waiting forever.” he hears himself saying. ‘Shit. Way to sound like a complete jerk. Get it together, Kirschstein!’

The taller boy just laughs though, “Sorry about that. I got a little lost. I’m Marco Bodt.” he offers his hand, which Jean shakes.

“Jean Kirschstein. Listen, I’ve never done anything like this before so…” he trails of uncertainty, not sure where he was actually going with that sentence.

Marco laughs again, a nice easy laugh which Jean finds calming, “Connie can be pretty persuasive, can’t he?”

“Like a gun to the head.” Jean mutters.

“Well, how about we just go for a walk for now,” Marco says, gesturing to the park across the road, “And get to know each other a little?”

And they do. They end up sitting in the park for ages just talking. Jean is delighted to find that Marco is actually really interesting and that they share a lot in common. He’s even happier when Marco genuinely laughs at all of his lame attempts at humour. After a couple of hours, Marco shyly suggests that they go for something to eat at this great pizza place he knows. The food is delicious and afterwards, because it’s only early evening, Jean asks if Marco feels like going to see a movie.

When they get out, it’s dark and the streetlights have all came on and Marco insists that he drives Jean home, chattering about the movie all the way.

“Well, this is me.” Jean says lamely when the car stops outside his house. He doesn’t know what to do now. He’s only just met the guy but, God, he really wants to kiss him goodnight.

“I had a really great time, Jean.” Marco says.

“Yeah, me too. It’d be great to meet up again sometime - if you want to, that is.”

Suddenly Marco is leaning in close - really close - and Jean can feel his breath on his cheek.

“I’d like that a lot.” Marco murmurs, tilting his head a little. The invitation is obvious so Jean goes in for the kill, pressing his lips tentatively to his. Marco’s hand clasps the back of his neck, fingers twining with the hair that rests there, and pulls Jean a little deeper into the kiss. And then Marco is slipping his tongue into Jean’s mouth and, holy hell, it’s amazing! Jean’s experience in this kind of thing is limited, but Marco more than makes up for that. Besides, he finds himself thinking, if things go well between them, he can see himself getting plenty of practice!

After a while, they need to break apart for air, and sit gasping a little, hearts pounding and lips tingling.

“Sorry. That was pretty intense and rather forward considering we only met today. But I couldn’t help myself.” Marco breathes, fingers caressing the sensitive skin at the back of Jean’s neck.

“It’s fine, don’t apologise. I really wanted it too.” Jean chuckles.

“It’s strange.” Marco says thoughtfully, “We’ve only just met, and yet…I feel as if I’ve known you for ages.”

“You feel that way too?” Jean exclaims, sitting up a little straighter.

“Yeah. Weird, right?”

“Weird.”

They sit together for a moment in thoughtful silence and Jean finds himself staring at the freckles on Marco’s face. For some strange reason, he feels as if he already knows exactly how they’re mapped out. Like he’s spent several lifetimes memorising it. And somehow he knows for certain that the freckles aren’t exclusive to Marco’s face, that they adorn his entire body and, if he tried, he could place a kiss upon each one with his eyes closed.

“Jean?” Marco says, wrenching him from his contemplation, “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“It’s probably gonna sound strange. Like, really strange, but I feel like I need to say it, okay?”

“Just say it.”

Marco takes a deep, nervous breath, then says in a rush, “Jean Kirschstein, I really like you and I think we should grow old together.”

Jean laughs, it’s so unexpected and corny, but he can’t help but like the sound of it.

“Sounds great.” he says, leaning in for another kiss.