There’s always been an expiration date for them. They’re from different regiments, after all, and once the military got their finger out their asses and figured out what to with all the soldiers in the makeshift camps, they’d be torn apart just as quickly, just as harshly as they’d been thrown together.
They always had an expiration date, and really, Tommy should be glad that they got this long. That they had time to get to know each other. They ha,d blessedly, enough time for Tommy to learn what Alex’s sullen silences mean, what makes Alex laugh, what makes Alex's eyes turn dark, what makes Alex calm down when nightmares overtake his sleep.
And if Alex doesn’t seem to know the same things, then that, that is okay too. Maybe, in another time, another world, they’d have enough time so Alex could learn, but they haven’t got that time. They’ve never had that time.
Just wasn’t in their cards.
And that’s alright.
Tommy’s always been quicker at learning how to read people. An advantage of not having that much to say when it comes down to it, a pro of being content to watch as Alex talks, as Alex fumes, as Alex laughs. Tommy isn’t the most popular soldier around – he doesn’t have a platoon to latch onto, like Alex has, but somehow, Alex has deemed him worthy of his attention and in this camp, surrounded by strangers, that is enough.
They got the orders at breakfast a couple days ago. The time was 7:23 when Tommy’s little makeshift world fell apart, as improvised as the camp they live in.
“It’s gonna be fine, Tom”, Alex says with a confident voice.
Tommy wants to kick him, slap him, for being so nonchalant about them splitting up. Perhaps Alex didn’t need him as much as Tommy needed him, but for Tommy’s sake, for everything they went together’s sake, he could at least pretend.
Tommy wanted him to pretend. That their time together had meant something. That he was just a little more important than all the other soldiers in the camp, in their shared barrack.
But Alex was never an actor; he said things as they were. No need to hold anything back because they were at war and soon, he reasoned, they’d all be dead, spread across the whole of Europe with no way of saying all the things one held back.
In war, Tom, you gotta tell everyone everything. Before they’re shot in the head, a’ight?
“Yeah,” Tommy agrees, voice detached. It doesn’t really sound like his voice, he notes. “Maybe.”
If he doesn’t say anything, he won’t say goodbye. And then maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe Alex won’t leave just yet. Maybe he himself won't have to leave just yet.
“We had a good run, you and I,” Alex says, and it looks like he’s begging Tommy. Begging for him to do what, he doesn’t know, but he guesses that it could be for him to say something. To actually, for once, in this moment of parting, say something worthwhile.
Or do something that Alex will remember him by.
He wants to be memorable. He wants Alex to remember him just as much as he will remember Alex, when they are shipped out, when they’re sent to two different parts of the world.
Tommy nods again. “Yeah, we had.”
He doesn't say anything about how 'their run' started with Alex being willing to sacrifice him. The past is in the past, he reasons.
His eyes turn to the dirt, he can’t look at Alex any more. The green eyes want him to do something he can’t do. They want him to say goodbye, they want him to say goodbye before he’d even had the chance to finish ‘hello’.
War ruins everything, Tommy decides. Wants to scream at everyone, the generals, Winston fucking Churchill, that war solves absolutely nothing but overpopulation issues. They send young men to fight old men’s war; they send young men to either die or lose every shed of their innocence on the battlefields. Either way, there’s only one outcome of war; the men that ship out? They’re never coming back.
He and Alex are never coming back.
Alex is going to train for an invasion of France, to free the country from the Krauts; Alex told him that himself, and their XO told them at that fateful breakfast. One batch of them would go to France; the other batch would go to the Pacific.
He knows where he is going to shipped out next. And he knows in his heart that he will never return from there.
“Tom,” Alex whispers, his voice so fucking pleading, and Tommy wanted to, once again, in such short time, hit it away. “Won’t you look at me?”
No, no, no, no. He never wanted to look at Alex again if it meant that he had to say goodbye. If it meant that he had to part with Alex, knowing in his heart that he’d never go home, that they’d never meet again.
“When are you leaving?”, he hears himself say with a steady voice, that he’d be proud of if he wasn’t so fucking numb on the inside.
“Soon,” Alex says, tired, so tired he sounds, and Tommy wants to wrap him up in a hug, wants to take on all of his internal pain.
Alex will come back; Tommy won’t. He might as well take all the pain, so that Alex may have a better chance.
“When are you shipping out, Tom?”
Tom. No one else calls him Tom. It makes him want to cry. His mother called him Thomas, sometimes when she was angry with him it was Thomas Theodore.
His platoon called him Tommy. It was Alfred that started it, and then when they saw his face heat up, turning as red as a tomato, they all started calling him it. Soon it didn’t heat up his face, just warmed his heart; it made him feel like he had a family. Like he belonged somewhere.
And then he is all alone, there’s no more Hoobler, there’s no more Petersson, there’s no more Albert. He’s all alone, he’s the only one left standing, the only left to see Dunkerque, the massive beach stretch out. He’s the only one who makes it to the beach, the only one who has a chance of going home.
And then Alex comes along, and he calls him Tom with a smile on his face, and it makes Tommy feel like he’s home once more.
“Soon,” he once again echoes Alex’s words, then turns to his friend. His only friend in the whole goddamn world, as far as he knows; everyone from back home is either dead or a stranger to him. Everyone he knows in the army is dead. “Sooner than you.”, he elaborates. Gives Alex a little something of everything he’s holding back.
Alex is looking at him, head tilted, lips curved in a soft smile. His eyes are so goddamn green, and they’re slightly wet, and Tommy bites his lip. If he says anything right now, he knows he’ll break.
Goddamn it, he’s not even old enough to drink in the United States. He’s just turned 20 for God’s sake, he’s 20, and he’s already saying goodbye to his best friend and preparing himself for going to the Pacific and fighting for his sanity as much as his life.
A moment or two passes before Alex nods solemnly. “You want to get out of here? Just for a little while.”
Tommy smiles unwillingly and nods. Anything to take his mind off of the impending battle. Anything to spend more time with Alex before they’re parted forever.
“Yeah,” he says with a rough voice, he winces at the sound of it. It sounds pathetic. “Yeah, that’d be perfect.”
Alex smiles, a smile that could put the sun to shame, Tommy thinks. Quite objectively. The ladies seem to think so, and Tommy can see where they’re coming from. Unlike everybody else in the camp, who acts like the only reason ladies smile and wink at Alex is because he’s a wizard. He must’ve put a spell on them all, is the argument.
Tommy thinks that if there is magic involved here, then he, too, must be under some sort of spell.
Maybe a curse.
Yes, definitely a curse, because if others found out that he thought this about Alex, he’d be dishonourably discharged, and he’d probably be thrown in jail. Quite possibly fined. Even more possible, he’d be castrated or something.
Definitely a curse, yes. Perhaps as punishment for leaving behind all his comrades in France. For not being selected to go back and die with them. For going to the other side of the world and leaving Alex behind.
Definitely a punishment, yes.
They don’t go far, just round the back of the barrack. Where they’ve spent all their evenings, some of their nights too, because neither would ever subject to being locked inside and not being able to get out for a long stretch of time.
Sometimes someone from Alex’s group has joined them, but most times they’ve been alone. Just them, the cigarettes, the beer, the vodka, and the stars. And the cold. It’s cold being all on your own, but it helps having someone as warm as Alex by your side.
“Would you tell me what has gotten your panties in a fucking twist?”, Alex, as always so smoothly, breaks the ice and looks at Tommy expectantly.
What is Tommy’s problem, yes, yes, that is an excellent question. What is Tommy’s problem? He wants to scream at Alex, that first off – they’re going to be parted. Second off, he can’t write him. Not nearly enough to make up for his absence in his life. Third off, Alex is going back to fucking Dunkerque and the rest of fucking France, the horrible country. Fourth off, he’s not going to be able to see his mum and pa before they ship him off to a brave new world. Fifth off, he’s going to be shipped of to the Pacific because they need men over there because it’s a fucking brutal war, and everybody knows it, and they still keep on sending young men over there to die. Sixth, he’s going to fucking die. He’s going to die, and he’s going to die alone.
“Where’re you shipping off to, Tom?”, Alex tries again to make him open up. And Tommy wants so badly to just let go, to just tell him everything.
And it is the last day, his last day, at the camp. Alex wouldn’t even be able to throw that big of a tantrum. Even if he was good at it.
“You going to France with us? Is that it?”, Alex sounds offended now, and Tommy frowns. “You don’t want to go with war with me again?”
Tommy almost wants to laugh, to laugh until he passes out from no air. He wants to laugh, and to cry, and to scream, and he wants to tell Alex that there’s nothing in the world he’d rather do than go to war with Alex. Other than leaving a peaceful life with Alex.
That’d be good too. That’d be perfect. Paradise, to be frank.
He shakes his head, keeps his thoughts to himself. “No.”
His voice is hoarse, and he turns to look at Alex. Locks eyes with him, tries, tries so, so hard to tell him where he’s going, where’s he going to be laid to rest, without having to actually say that horrible name.
Alex looks like he’s going to throw up, and maybe Alex might’ve learned more about Tommy than he thought he did. That makes him almost want to smile.
“You know where I’m going.”
He can’t, won’t, say where he’s going. To say the word, the name, is to accept it, accept his death. And goddamn it, he wants to live. He wants to go home, to reunite with Alex.
He doesn’t want to die on the other side of the world.
“Where?”, Alex looks positively heartbroken, and all Tommy wants to do is to wipe that stricken expression off his face and make him smile.
Alex’s smile lights up this dark, dark, horrible, selfish world.
He makes himself smile, forces himself to curl his lips into a smile, a smile that will make Alex forget that when he goes to war in France, Tommy might as well already have been shot. Or bombed.
One word is all it takes to bring reality right to their door, and Alex’s eyes are begging him not to say it. To never say it out loud, and Tommy smiles. He has to, otherwise he’s gonna break down.
And then Alex crashes forward and Tommy hardly realizes what’s happening until Alex’s arms are around him, and his face is pressing into Alex’s shoulder. He moves his head so it rests in the crook of his neck. It’s comfortable here, here it feels like he can ignore everything, the world, the war, the military, everything but Alex, and Alex is the only thing, the only person, that matters.
“Fuck, Tom,” Alex whispers, and his grip around him tightens, “you’re lying.”
He shakes his head and puts his arms around Alex’s body. It feels like home. Another home he’ll have to leave behind.
“Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,” and it’s not Tom, but it’s another nickname, and it sounds like heaven on Alex’s lips, “they can’t fucking have you. Not the Pacific, not the fucking Pacific.”
“Not much you can do,” he tells him, and Alex shakes his head.
“I can fucking whisk you away, I’ll kidnap you, I’ll-” his voice breaks, and Tommy feels him bury his head on his shoulder, “they’ll kill you over there, Tommy.”
And Tommy nods because he knows. So few can survive in the Pacific. Tommy was lucky once, he survived Dunkerque; he won’t survive the Pacific.
If Dunkerque was hell, then there’s no word for how horrific the Pacific is.
He doesn’t have the heart to tell Alex that he’s going to die too. France is under Kraut control now, and if the new plan is anything like the last one, Alex and every other goddamn British, American, Canadian, Australian soldier is going to die.
“Whatcha gonna do when you come home?”, he asks instead, and he feels Alex smile, and that makes him smile, and it feels like a burden is being lifted from his shoulders, and he tightens his hold around Alex.
If they could just stay here, together, for one more minute, then he can pretend for one more minute. That everything will be okay, that they’ll live through this, see each other on the other side.
“Do what I’ve always done,” Alex answers him, playing along, “my dad was a carpenter, I’m a carpenter.” A beat, and Tommy closes his eyes. “Tell you what, you come home, alright? And I’ll build you a nice house, in some fucking field, away from all and every last military man that’ll send you to Hell, and it’s going to be free of charge.”
Tommy smiles, it’s nice to pretend. He’d like to come home if it was possible.
“That’s nice of you,” he says, “never knew you were so soft-hearted.”
Alex lets out a deep breath. “Only for you, you idiot. So you better be there to take me up on my offer.”
“Tell me more,” Tommy says instead, he wants to keep pretending. Otherwise he’ll break. Alex is breaking, and Tommy is much weaker than Alex ever were. “What else? I’m coming home, what’ll we do?”
“I’ll build ya a house, yeah?” Alex tells him, more confident than before. Feelings pushed away once more. “And then I’ll build a house right beside yours. And we’ll be neighbours, we’ll grow old together, our dogs will be the bestest of friends, yeah? And we’ll be the best of friends, and we’ll be long away from any and all wars.”
Tommy likes that. It’s a pretty fantasy, it’s a beautiful future. If only he could have that. He wants to have that.
“Well,” he observes, “looks like I’m gonna have to go home.”
“Yeah, yeah”, Alex agrees with a slight hesitation, “that’d be really great if you did.”
They’re not the best of friends, but they’re good at pretending they are. He’s not coming home, but they’re good at pretending he is.
They’re good at pretending that their friendship doesn’t have an obvious expiration date, and that that date is nearer than ever before.
“I’m gonna miss you,” he proclaims in a whisper, like it is a secret. Maybe it was. It's probably safer if it is. “You be safe, yeah?”
If pretending is what is going to keep him sane until the very end, then there’s nothing he’d rather do.
If pretending is what’s going to keep that smile on Alex’s face, then there’s nothing at all he’d rather do.
There’s a lot he needs to do before he leaves in the morning; he needs to send a letter to his mum and pa - tell them not to worry, and to not hope for his return; he needs to sign a life insurance; he needs to say goodbye to those he’s acquainted through Alex, even though he can barely remember all their names. But all that can wait if they can just, just a little longer, a little while longer, sit here and pretend that there is nothing wrong with the world. That the future is shining bright, that the world is at their feet, and that they have their whole lives in front of them.
Sometimes, Tommy decides and holds Alex closer, lies are more beautiful, more tempting, more calming than any truth.