“Morning without you is like a dwindled dawn.” -- Emily Dickinson
Will is alone in the church. It’s one of the bad times, when he’s woken up from dreams of the dark and cold and the press of his little sister’s corpse against his body, when he’s clawed up from that memory to the still-sometimes-raw recognition that the person he loved most in the world—besides his dad—is dead. Sometimes the “missing-Zach” feeling isn’t as bad, and most of the time he knows he can live without him, but sometimes it cuts real and cruel and awful like a knife through his lungs. He doesn’t want to worry Dad, but this morning, he woke up from a dream where he was starving to a reality where he felt he’d throw up if he put food down his throat.
So he’s hiding in the church with his sketchbook, and he’s trying to draw, but all he can manage are pictures of Zach, and they’re all just a little bit wrong. He’s growing; Zach would be growing too—and how would he be wearing his mop of curly hair now? Would it have been recently cut, or would it be so long he could tug it over his eyes if he felt like it?
It’s funny. Will knows it’s supposed to be man-and-woman, like Dad and his wife Rachel, who died. Like his mum and whoever—but he doesn’t want to think about that. But Will is pretty sure that the way he’s hurting now is the way Dad was hurting when Rachel died. He’s not thought much about love and kissing and touching himself; he’s a bit young, after all, to really think hard about it. But still—if Zach wasn’t dead—Will would say he loved him, he’d say that. That wouldn’t be so queer, would it? If he even could say it. Somehow, Will knew it was easier to say things to the mental version of Zach than it would be to the real one, who could have reacted in ways he wouldn’t be able to predict. But still. Maybe. Anyways, it doesn’t matter, he thinks, as he tears the page from his sketchbook and lets it drop to the floor in front of him. It doesn’t matter because Zach is dead, and he’ll never talk to him again.
The door of the church creaks open, and Will starts, a little guilty. He hasn’t been hiding, exactly, but he hasn’t really been making it easy for people to know where he is, either. Maybe Dad wants him for something, although Dad usually knows to look in the church if it’s urgent. It’s one of the places Will stays when he needs quiet time alone to draw.
“Will, are you in there?” the voice calls, and Will can’t place it, and then he can, and he knows he’s dreaming. He’s fallen asleep in the church, sketchbook laid across his lap, head slumped back against the pew. But for once, it’s not a nightmare, it’s a good dream.
“Yeh,” he calls back, and because it’s a dream, he gets up easily and goes to the door, instead of staying in his seat, feeling ill and wondering what’s going on. “Hi, Zach,” he says. In the dream, Zach’s hair is pretty long, almost as long as a girl’s, in fact, and he’s tugging on it nervously. In the dream, he’s not wearing one of his too-tight sweaters the way Will would have expected his brain would paint him; he’s in a mud-spattered anorak and old boots. In the dream, he’s blinking in a way that looks confused and surprised. He grins, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot.
“Thought you’d be more surprised,” he says. “It seems that our esteemed postal service was unable to convey a single one of my epistles to you, and everyone I’ve met in town seems to think I’m some sort of phantom.”
Will sniffs, sad and fond. The outfit’s odd, but his brain has done such a good job of painting the way Zach speaks that he can’t be too upset. He reaches out and brushes a thumb along Zach’s cheekbone. “I wish I could’ve told you,” he whispers.
“Wish you could have told me what?” Zach asks, sounding confused. “Will, are you feeling all right? You don’t need to sit down, do you?”
He’s a bit dizzy, but that’s not so strange for a dream, after all. “I just ent sure how to say this, like.”
“How to say what?” Zach rubs his hands together. “Old chap, I’m really quite frozen, you know. Could you say it quickly so that we can get inside?”
Oh, well. It’s just a dream, after all. “I love you,” Will blurts. “I think? You know about—about sex, you said it was a man and a woman kissin’ and touchin’, right? But I think—I think if you’d lived, in a few years, I’d’ve wanted—that—with you. If you did.”
Zach’s mouth opens, a dark hollow in his pale face. “It’s—I—” he says, strangely speechless and stammering in a way the real Zach would never be. Then he swallows and shuts his eyes briefly—Will watches in a considering sort of way the way his dark lashes lie against his pale cheeks—“I don’t know,” he says, after a moment. “How often men become lovers. I believe classically it was—well, I’ve certainly read some stories that suggest that men can have sex.” He nods firmly. “Of course, I don’t think they can have babies together, though I suppose I don’t know, and—” he pauses again, just as he was starting to sound real. Will is feeling rather impatient with the fits and starts of his mind, the way he can almost-but-not-quite capture Zach’s form and words and movement.
“Will,” Zach says, very gently, reaching out and taking his hand—and it’s warm, oddly warm, so strangely searingly warm for a dream—“I’m not dead. I’m not a ghost or a phantasm or what have you. The bombing in London was terrible, and I got separated from my parents for an eternity. They thought—they found another corpse, and the bomb, you know, well—I suppose it wasn’t such a hard error to make. And then, of course, it was months before I could travel, and I wrote you, of course I did, only I never heard back, and when I got here, it turned out that none of the letters had made it.”
Will stares, feels the heat rising in his cheeks against the slap of the cold wind on his face. The curve of Zach’s fingers beneath his, mostly smooth and made a little rougher in patches by the fine dusting of hair above his knuckles. The awkward, strange, charged feeling in the air—it’s not a dream, is it? And as soon as he thinks that, his infuriating mind seems to fold up in on itself, and everything dissolves into colored sparkles.
He wakes up to find that he’s propped against the wall of the church and Zach is saying his name. “I’m all right,” he manages, reaching out and grabbing Zach’s shoulder, because, oh, he’s still here, and he’s not a dream after all. He’s solid beneath Will’s hand. “I just ent eaten much today. I reckon it caught up with me, like.”
Zach just lets out a long breath and leans against him. “I suppose that makes sense,” he says meditatively. “You absolutely terrified me, d’you know that? But then I imagine I must have done worse than terrify you, so it’s only fair. You know, this is just like the Sherlock Holmes story when Holmes comes back from the dead—Watson faints just as you did—only—only without the—” he stammers.
Right. Will told Zach he loved him. That he’d like to—he hides his warm face in both hands. “I thought you were a dream, like,” he mutters pathetically. “I’m sorry.”
Hands tug at his. “Oh, don’t cover your face,” Zach begs. “Will, please. I didn’t mean to mortify you. Of course, if you thought I was a dream, only—did you mean it? The things you said?”
It’s a sin to lie. And maybe Will isn’t sure how he feels about sin these days, but lying to his best friend when he’s just come back from the dead? That’s got to be pretty bad. “Yeh,” he manages. “I wouldn’t have said them if I’d realized, but yeh. I meant it.”
A long, strange breath out. “You know, I thought that I was the only one who—wondered. About it not only being men and women,” Zach says quietly. “And I mean, we’re rather young, I think, to do much about it or to know for certain, but I do know that I love you as well. Whatever that means. And I will never, ever stop being your friend. Until eternity. I vow it.”
“Oh, Zach,” Will says, and somehow he’s crying, husky sobs welling up, large tears splashing down onto their joined hands. “Oh, Zach.” It’s all he can say.
“Shall I take you back home?” Zach asks. “Only you probably ought to eat a bit after the shock you’ve had. Maybe rest some, too.”
“Yeh,” Will agrees. It’s a good idea. He holds onto Zach’s hands to reassure himself that they’re real. That he’s real. “It’s a miracle,” he says, quietly. “A real, honest-to-god miracle, oh, Zach.”
“It does seem rather that way,” Zach agrees, tender and cheerful at the same time. “Awfully dramatic sort of reunion, but I imagine it’s the kind of thing I’d like in a play. Not so pleasant to have to live it out, though.”
Will shakes his head, but he smiles. “I been actin’,” he says softly. “I liked it. I never would have done it if I never met you, though.”
And then Zach’s helping him to his feet, as he’s done a thousand times before, and they’re moving towards the door of the church. Will pauses, then awkwardly, nervously, presses his lips to Zach’s cheek. Zach blinks at him, frozen, and then smiles. “Ta,” Will tells him, and at the blank look he gets, he explains, “For comin’ home.”