At night, in the quiet of the deserted bar, one could almost forget. Almost. But then Rawlings looked into Cassidy's eyes again, and knew that Cassidy could never forget. Perhaps there was no past, as Cassidy claimed -- no going back -- but there was history, nevertheless. It was there in his eyes: all those young men who would never come back and never go home.
Rawlings glanced away, struck by an awkward feeling that he was intruding on that history, and asked, "What will you do, after...?"
Cassidy shifted, his relaxed sprawl tensing. "I can't think of 'after'."
"No, no," Rawlings said, wincing. "I didn't mean 'after the war.' I meant, after you get the Black Falcon. You said he was the last one."
Cassidy laughed humorlessly. "There'll always be more, cowboy. The sky's full of them, or didn't you notice? And tomorrow one of them could shoot down Lowry or Skinner..." He hesitated for a moment, just long enough for Rawlings see him quickly look away. "... or you."
Rawlings smiled a little. "Well, I'll try not to let that happen."
Cassidy shot him a hard, bleak look, but just as abruptly relaxed and smiled back, saying with an edge in his voice, "Do more than try."
Rawlings grinned. It was funny to be talking to Cassidy like this. Like they'd known each other their whole lives. It was funny how different Cassidy seemed now, though he hadn't changed. He was still the same ace: sharp, quick, and not big on talking. The ace with his pet lion and his visits to the brothel. And the rows of German crosses after his name on the scoreboard. Even now, despite himself, Rawlings was a little envious of those rows. In awe of them.
He rubbed the back of his neck and said quietly, "What you did for Jensen... That was... Well, I was glad you were there. None of us could have helped him."
Cassidy looked bleak again, and his eyes got that same hollowness, like all he could see was the past that wasn't there. He smirked sourly. "Experience, that's all. Next time, you'll know what to do."
There was something chilling in the way he said it; a tremor raced up Rawlings's spine and clawed at his scalp. He folded his arms, partly to hug himself, and searched for something to say.
Cassidy lightly touched his arm and stood up. "Better get some sleep. You didn't look too good when you came in here, and you're only looking worse."
Rawlings watched him, and wondered why he needed to ask him these questions. "Did you mean it? What you said about me or Lowry or Skinner getting shot down? That you'd go after who did it?"
Cassidy stood before him, shadowy from the dim lights, looking weary and oddly defenseless. "Sure I did."
"I thought..." Rawlings trailed off, gazing into his eyes.
"What?" Cassidy asked quietly.
"I thought it was just your friends. The ones... from before."
Cassidy frowned a little and shook his head. "Rawlings. There are no friends here." Rawlings started to object, but Cassidy spoke over him, "And everyone's friends here. That's how it has to be, don't you see?"
Rawlings nodded slowly, watching him closely. "You mean, no one can mean more -- or less -- than anyone else."
Rawlings stared at him, puzzled and even a little angry. He didn't believe him, and he didn't know why he didn't believe him. This was the first thing Cassidy had ever said that he didn't believe.
"I--" he started, and stopped when he wondered if Cassidy believed it himself. That was just it: was the lie for him or for Cassidy?
Cassidy seemed to read his thoughts. He turned away and said tightly, "That's how it has to be."
"For who? Is that how it has to be for you?" Rawlings pushed, regretting it instantly as he saw Cassidy pace away from him, retreating into deeper shadows. He tentatively followed. "So that's why you keep Whiskey, to roar and keep people away? And why you sit in here alone? And walk away when someone tries to talk to you?"
Cassidy stopped pacing and faced him. He said in a low, but hard voice, "Have I walked away?" His eyes were piercing: the sharp, penetrating gaze of the ace.
Startled, Rawlings faltered. "What?"
"Did I walk away tonight?" Cassidy asked, voice softer. "When was the last time I walked away?"
Rawlings swallowed hard. It was a fair and simple question, and he had no answer for it. As he thought about it, all those times he thought Cassidy was pushing him away, Cassidy was just being Cassidy. And for each time, there would be another when he and Cassidy would talk together, like tonight. And when he put it all together, he realized that he hadn't talked with anyone else as much as he had talked with Cassidy. Not even Lucienne.
He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. "I didn't mean that. I'm sorry. I guess I just don't understand you sometimes." He met Cassidy's gaze and hoped he wasn't saying the wrong things and making it worse. "I don't understand why I don't believe you when you say no one means more than anyone else."
Something flashed in Cassidy's eyes, too brief for Rawlings to recognize. Then Cassidy grabbed his shoulders and kissed him: a slow, powerful kiss. He'd never been kissed like this before, not by the most experienced of women. It was like Cassidy was pouring himself into him, feeding him his heart and soul. Rawlings grabbed him by the waist and pulled him closer and kept kissing him, devouring him.
Cassidy wrapped him in his arms and ran his fingers through his hair. Rawlings felt the heat of his skin through his clothes, felt his strength and the overwhelming force of him. He couldn't stop kissing him, wanting more. This was Cassidy giving him everything, not holding back, and Rawlings knew he'd wanted this from the beginning. He'd loved him from the moment he'd seen him.
He slowed, softened the kiss, and ran his hands over Cassidy's back. The cloth of his jacket was too thick, so he slid his hands beneath it and felt the muscles and bones of Cassidy's back through his shirt. Cassidy's embrace tightened, and he ended the kiss gently, lingering. Then he hugged Rawlings and kissed his cheek, and said quietly, "I need you to understand."
And Rawlings did. He smoothed his hands over Cassidy's back, locked in his embrace, holding all the strength and power and fragility and mortality of him, and he understood. This was too much to lose. Too rare, too unique, too precious. Too unbearable.
"I understand," he whispered, kissing Cassidy's cheek and blinking rapidly against his wavering vision. He took a shuddering breath. "I wish I didn't, but I do."
Cassidy sighed into his shoulder and swayed with him a little. "I wish I didn't need you to."
Rawlings nodded. They stayed there, standing, wrapped in each other's arms, for a long time, until the strength subsided, and they let go. Cassidy lightly clapped the back of Rawlings's neck, and Rawlings brushed back a lock of Cassidy's hair that had fallen astray.
"If we don't go back soon, it'll be dawn before we know it," Rawlings said.
Cassidy briefly rested his hand on Rawlings's shoulder. Rawlings met his gaze, and after a moment, Cassidy smiled a little and said, "Then get moving, cowboy. Whiskey's waiting for me."
They left the shadows of the bar together, and stepped into the quiet, black night.