Before the entire world goes properly to hell, they get a few days off.
Three from the group are headed to the city, for lack of any better ideas. A few days in a hostel to drink and chase birds is about as creative as it gets these days. They invite Farrier, and by extension Collins, since the two have become rather noticeably inseparable lately, in the air and on land. Farrier is not oblivious to this—he knows what’s happening. He knows the road they’re headed down is dangerous, even if it’s a danger he knows well.
And he does nothing stop it.
They rent rooms in an ancient, rickety house in central London, on a street lined with pubs crammed with boys in uniforms—a living, breathing mass of servicemen, holding onto life at its most intense as though it might deter death. Farrier’s shoebox of a room is occupied by a radiator and a creaking twin bed and a lamp that lists hard to port. It has a window, too—when he opens it to smoke, he can look down on the street below, watch the winding snake of boys in blue and khaki on the sidewalk.
Collins’s room is across the landing. Sometimes, Farrier can see the cigarette smoke curling out of the other man’s window too, fluttering up into the gray sky as though taking off. They’re watching the same thing, he’s sure: the stream of men below, marching off into a future or an absence of one.
And later in the night, when Farrier hears the floorboards creaking outside his room, there’s no doubt in his mind who is on the other side of his door.
“My room’s freezing,” Collins saying, smiling bashfully. “You don’t happen to have an extra jumper?”
Farrier, without a word, takes one step back, and Collins accepts the invitation. He’s wearing only shorts and an undershirt, and in the warm light of the leaning lamp Farrier can still see the sunburn across his nose and cheeks from long hours in the cockpit, under the unforgiving sky. But now the light is soft, and so is the look Collins has fixed on him. He’s smiling, still, as if they’re sharing some intimate joke. Without looking away, Farrier pushes the door shut with a soft click.
There’s a long moment where Farrier thinks he should probably say something. Some like are you sure? Or: you don’t know what you’re getting into.
Instead, Collins leans down to kiss him.
The first one is tentative; a silken, gentle meeting of lips, of stubble, of mixing breaths. Collins pulls back after just a moment, and whatever he sees in Farrier’s expression makes him smile. Then Farrier slips a hand into the downy hairs at the base of his neck and pulls him in again—eyes closing, bodies coalescing, a puzzle piece falling into place. And Farrier wonders, distantly, why it took them so bloody long to get here.
The bed is small, the walls thin, but the light is warm. They make do.
Collins is a man of extremes—quick to anger and to calm, to smile and to scowl, to soar and to plummet.
If he’s not in the air, it all comes out on the football pitch, when a collection of them congregate to play shirts against skins in the downtime between missions. Farrier chooses goalie, invariably—he’s had enough of being chased for one lifetime, thanks to the army of Huns currently sweeping across the continent. Evasion is growing wearisome—it’s a distant mantra in his head. Keep moving. Don’t let them see your heart.
He doesn’t always know what to make of that thought.
He’d lied extravagantly about his age to wriggle his way into the first war, flown planes that are light years from the fury and might of the Spitfire, but he’d managed to harness the power of the split second to survive, then, regardless. And he’ll keep doing so, he supposes. Back then it was ducking revolver fire from an enemy in spitting distance of his fragile contraption. Dogfights were a close, personal affair. A Kraut pilot had once thrown a brick at him above northern France. It missed.
The planes have changed. War, however, has not.
There’s something heavy in his bones, these days. Something deep and tired. Something that gets revived whenever he sees Collins sprinting toward him across the pitch like the wrath of god, a wild grin in his eyes as he hurls out swears that devolve eventually into an unknown tongue. He glows with life, with youth, with vivacity. It’s like watching the birth of a star. Like the moment when the nose of his Spitfire lifts and he hits the air and all the breath leaves his lungs.
“You’re a lunatic,” Farrier says later, just as the sun begins to drown itself in the sea. They’ve wandered off towards the bluff to look out over the water, to share a cigarette in silence. Collins’s skin is warm, where their shoulders touch. He’s sunburned again, glowing pink from the waist up. He throws his head back and laughs.
Farrier pushes him over and then they’re grappling in the grass, cackling breathlessly. Farrier’s heart beats in his throat, in the tips of his fingers. For a moment, he thinks, he’s more himself than he’s ever been. He’s half of a whole.
Over the Channel
They’re running out of pilots.
What remains of the RAF boys in France and Belgium have been pulled back home, and Farrier recognizes the hollow look in their eyes. The fight is moving closer, the line drawing ever nearer. Fewer men means more missions, more hours in the air. More chances taken, more encounters with the looming inevitable. On the stagnant ground, though, Farrier feels himself coming undone at the seams. Something is coming for them, he can feel it. It’s a blackening in his peripheral vision, a thickness on the horizon. He overhears his superior officer on the phone with his wife, one afternoon—he’s telling her to fill up the Buick with petrol and blankets. Farrier goes to great lengths to silence his thoughts.
Collins is thrilled, of course—the grin that spreads across his face as he races across the tarmac almost makes Farrier forget what awaits them. In the air, Collins’s tinny voice comes in over the radio: “Finally, some action.”
Farrier says nothing, afraid of the exhaustion climbing up his throat. But there is something palliative about having Collins close at his wingtip—the two of them arcing across the great wide open, synchronized down to a hair’s breadth. For a moment, they’re impenetrable.
Then the flight leader says, “Snappers, four o’clock.”
Farrier switches on his sights, checks his range and wingspan indicators. The first crack of machine gun fire rings out before he has his thumb on the button, before he realizes that Collins is no longer at his side but has turned suddenly to circle back. In the mirror, he catches a glimpse of Collins’s aircraft settling in behind a bomber and opening fire. Farrier banks right toward the escorting Messerschmitt and loses himself in the chase, in the cold concentration running like ice water through his veins.
He grits his teeth and shoots.
He doesn’t snap out of it until the other plane is hurtling toward the earth in flames. Then there’s the sharp crunch of gunfire to his left and a twisted swear coming in over the radio that manages to raise the hairs on the back of Farrier’s neck like nothing else ever has.
“Fortis 2, report in,” the flight leader orders.
When Collins replies, a beat late, he’s breathless. “I’m hit. Bomber got me on the way down.”
“Are you ditching?”
“Plane’s fine.” Collins’s voice is tight and clipped. Farrier forces himself to breathe. “It’s just me that’s got holes,” Collins adds, and something like a weak laugh gets lost to the static.
“Let’s head back, then,” Fortis Leader says, forcing a crisp sureness into his tone.
Farrier is already turning towards home. Collins falls back into formation, and occasionally Farrier thinks he hears a labored breath over the radio, a stifling of a groan as they hit rough air over the coast. The flight back is an empty blur in a way it’s never been before.
He doesn’t recall the landing, or the sprint across the tarmac, or the smear of blood on the canopy where Collins had tried to peel it back himself with one shaking hand but gave up. He doesn’t recall screaming at the ground crew to find a medic. What he does remember is this: Collins looking up at him, gloves soaked in his own blood, one word on his lips.
“Sam,” he breathes, eyes wide.
“Come on, love. It’s only a scratch,” Farrier replies quietly, pulling Collins from the cockpit.
It’s a truly shocking amount of blood, once Collins unfolds before him. He always forgets that, no matter how many men he sees bleed out on the asphalt. With Farrier’s arms around him, Collins makes it down the wing but not much farther than that, going limp once they reach the pavement. A breathless swear escapes his lips as Farrier lays him down gently. From the hangar is the clatter of men on their way toward them, but he doesn’t take his eyes off where he’s slipped an arm beneath Collins’s head and started applying pressure to the wound himself.
“Sam,” Collins murmurs again. In his eyes, there is only fear.
“I’m here,” Farrier breathes. “Hold on just a moment. I’m here.”
Collins is still looking at him when the stretcher arrives, still staining the pavement red. “Well it’s about fucking time,” Farrier snaps at the first face he sees, and it’s a moment before he can let go. A moment before he lets Collins slip from his grip.
Collins does not die that day, or the next. The wound in his side heals into a raised pink scar amidst the freckles sprinkled across his torso.
And, in the sleepless nights that follow, Farrier realizes one thing:
This is not like any war he’s ever known.
It takes six of them to afford the hotel room, and their choice of locale is perhaps dubiously wise—Cornwall is an expensive six hour train ride away, and they’ve got three days before the war calls them back. They’ll have one full day to wander the beach, perhaps a smidgen more.
For Farrier, it’s enough.
It ends up being worth the few extra pounds less sent home. It ends up being worth the long, hot train ride, sleeping on the floor of the cramped room at the inn by the sea. But the beach beckons easily, and Farrier can’t help but close his eyes in ecstasy whenever he breathes in the warm, briny air. Verdant cliffs rise around them to meet the sand and far, far past where the sea meets the sky, a war is being waged.
The sun catches Collins’s eyes and the thought fades.
“I’m going to go have a look around,” Collins says, shaking his hair dry haphazardly as he steps out of the surf. He takes a long look down the beach to his left, then turns his gaze on Farrier for one significant second before trotting off.
Farrier waits fifteen minutes, then sits up to brush at the sand on his shoulders and says, “Better go track him down.”
“Don’t trust him not to fall off a cliff?” asks Denis, smirking.
“Just don’t want him to be alone on the front lines when the Jerries invade Cornwall,” quips Farrier. He follows Collins’s winding footsteps away from prying eyes, past a rocky outcropping and into the mouth of a cove, surrounded on three sides by green, tapering slopes.
“Finally, he graces me with his presence,” Collins says, sitting up on his elbows. There’s sand in his wet hair—Farrier feels it when he runs a hand through as he settles beside Collins and stretches out under the glorious sun. Farrier rests his chin on his hands and lets the warmth soak into his back.
“Don’t fall asleep on me,” Collins snorts. “That’s not why you’re here, you skiver.”
“Oh? And why am I here, then?”
“Because our hotel room is a tad cramped for what I’d like to do to you.”
Farrier hums out a laugh, and eventually Collins sighs and throws an arm over him. He rests his face in the crook of Farrier’s neck and breathes in; his dog tags press coolly against Farrier’s bare back. There is something immortal in the meeting of warm skin.
And later, in one of the dark, wood-paneled pubs in town, they’ll throw back a few drinks and Collins will sing, in a voice low and rich and in a language that belongs to some place soft and damp and ancient.
And, for Farrier, the war will pause. The world will stop turning.
The empty sky, beckoning
Collins doesn’t grin, doesn’t sprint for the tarmac like he used to. Farrier suspects it has something to do with the scar on his side. He hopes his own weariness isn’t catching, but maybe such a thing is inevitable. Maybe exhaustion is the natural state of a soldier.
Farrier looks back at him, before they split off into separate planes, and says, “You’re coming back?”
“Of course.” Collins’s hand brushes the back of his neck. “And you?”
Farrier just smiles, and slips an arm around his shoulders. Their foreheads press together for just a moment.
Collins’s eyes are on the horizon when he says, “Together it is, then.”
The beginning and the end of it all
It is quiet, now.
The emptiness stretches out before him. He has a clear view of it, with the propeller gone still. The brown-clad men on the sand are a mass of insects, moving in clumps beneath him until he crosses the perimeter and then there’s nothing—only the line where the sea meets the earth. It’s peaceful, up here, but cold. The air is soft, like the nape of Collins’s neck.
“I’m sorry, love,” he says, but hears only the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears. “I’m sorry, Ainsley.”
Dunkirk reminds him, vaguely, of Cornwall. He thinks of the beach, of London, of the football pitch, and something warm rumbles in his chest long after the engine has gone silent.
He wonders, if he tries hard enough, he might hear that familiar brogue.
Come on, Farrier, come on.