“Stu, get down!”
He would have recognised Mitch’s voice anywhere, but right then it was barely distinguishable from any of the other voices crowding for his attention, the roar of artillery or the shouts of bullets hurtling free from guns or the screams of the wounded, the dying. Christ. His rifle was slipping in his sweat-drenched grasp and trembling wildly with the shaking that ran from the tips of his fingers to his very core and he couldn’t drop it or they’d all be put on latrine duty or worse they’d all be shot and there were no practice rifles and they’d all be dead and the sergeant would be screaming in his face and Mitch-
The ground behind Stu exploded, and he could imagine the jaws of the earth opening to swallow him as he was thrown forward. Flying dirt and shards of rock and wood sprayed up his back like some kind of crazy rainstorm, as brief as it was intense. For a few moments the panic that had been bubbling up inside Stu crashed over him, sweeping away all coherent thought and leaving only instinct urging him to escape, to get up and run and not look back until he’d put the entire war, the entire world behind him.
He’d barely managed to stumble forwards onto his hands and knees, rushed and clumsy with terror, before he was dragged back down by a wild grab at his sleeve. There was barely time to process the situation – this is how I die oh god please let it be quick – before he was pressed down into dead leaves and dirt, a voice furious in his ear in his ear.
“Christ, kid, what the hell were you thinking?” Mitch’s tone was easy to brush off with the sheer amount of relief his presence brought to Stu; for a start, his anger was far less deadly than a Japanese soldier. More secretly, more selfishly, if there was anything Stu wanted as desperately as his own survival it was Mitch’s.
January 6th. The others went to a servicemen’s bar this evening. I stayed on account of being tired. I can’t bear to look at any of them. I don’t know what’s worse – the idea of my squad finding out about our [crossed out] friendship on the train, or the idea that in a few weeks we might all be dead and none of it will matter anyway.
He raised his head, panic still bubbling inside him but no longer as wild as the madness of the war going on outside of his body, and tightened his grip on his rifle as if that would do anything to make his hold (on it, or on the situation, or on his own sanity) more secure. Then, in the bushes beside them, a flash of enemy uniform and blood and skin crashed to a halt like the devil falling from heaven, death come to collect his soul in person except-
The barrel of Mitch’s rifle swung into view, pointing over Stu’s soldier at the enemy soldier whose face was contorted in agony, the soldier who might have a family and a home and a life away from this battlefield, and he was pushing the gun away from the man’s direction and hurrying over to him before he’d even made the conscious decision to do it.
I’m not sure what day it is. We’re on a boat now, being shipped out to a war zone. The other guys seem so cheerful, laughing and joking like we’re still in basic, but all I can think about is how likely it is that we’ll never be shipped home alive. Fags don’t last a week on the front. That’s what everyone says, and I [several, increasingly frustrated crossed out phrases]. What if that’s me?
Despite his obvious agony, the soldier tried to back away from Stu as he approached, smearing blood across dirt and tree roots as he abandoned clutching at his wounded leg to grab for handholds on the ground and drag himself backwards. Stu set his rifle down beside him to hold up his hands, struck for a moment by the wild irony of this tentative peace offering held out in the middle of a battlefield in the middle of a war that was tearing the world apart. He closed the last of the distance between them and tried to rip a strip from his shirt with fumbling, uncooperative fingers.
Another, steadier pair of hands grabbed his arm and Stu almost jumped out of his skin. “What the fuck are you doing?!” Mitch demanded. The expression on his face was wild, the harsh jerks with which he tried to drag Stu by the arm furious, but then a bullet flew close enough past them to bury itself into the thick tree trunk a few inches from Stu’s head and he saw the terror behind Mitch’s mask of anger, understood it with the way in which Mitch threw them both to the ground to cover Stu’s body with his own.
“That man needs help.” He told Mitch while their faces were but a few inches apart, his heart beating wildly against his chest like it was trying to break free of him, to leave his condemned body on the battlefield and be held by Mitch in every way before it could beat out its last. I love you it cried, the words rattling between his ribs.
This time, when Stu got up onto his knees and reached for a hole near the edge of his shirt, Mitch’s hands didn’t startle him when they reached to cover his own. He imagined them hesitating there a heartbeat too long before moving to grip his shirt, ripping off an uneven strip of fabric which Stu took from him shakily. The warmth of Mitch’s fingers brushing against his own seemed to catch, tingling through his hands as Stu crawled over to the enemy soldier? Person? Friend? who lay slumped in cold, blood-spattered dirt, looking heartbreakingly alone and frightened in the middle of this cruel, impersonal battlefield.
It happened whilst Stu was trying to tie the knot on his makeshift bandage, slowed by the tremble in his hands. Unspectacular in the grand scheme of the war, unremarkable in the battle, perhaps even forgotten by the hand on the trigger. One soldier shot his gun, and another fell.
Stu’s world exploded into white-hot pain. He didn’t register collapsing like a marionette with its strings cut, falling into the disgusting mixture of mud and hot blood beside the man he had been trying to help. He couldn’t say if the rest of the world kept turning or not. There was nothing but the fire shooting along his nerves, the white-hot ball of pain that came to concentrate in his stomach after some several eternities or seconds had passed.
The first thing he was consciously aware of was a solid warmth supporting him, the next a desperate voice pouring forth a stream of curses and fuzzy words that might have been questions. Mitch. He tried to reassure him, forcing some sounds that were supposed to be reassurances out of his mouth even as they brought with them a horrid warm, metallic taste. However, Mitch’s voice grew only more frantic and clearer in response, and so Stu forced open his eyes.
He was lying in Mitch’s arms. The realisation brought with it a gentle tide of warmth that would have been delight if so much of his energy wasn’t being eaten away at by the agony in his stomach.
“Stu? Stu, can you hear me?” Mitch sounded slightly less panicked now, but his expression was one of frightened horror and the dirt on his face was cracked and broken into shards by fresh tears tracks. One of his hands came up to Stu’s face, brushing across his cheek and hair with the same uncertain gentleness he had first kissed him with that night on the train, so many lifetimes ago. Stu realised dully that it had to be streaks of his own blood left behind by those fingers.
“It’s alright, Mitch” he told him, realising only a few moments too late that he was leaning into the gentle touch. Not that it mattered much anymore. With an almost detached interest, Stu notice how peace washed through him like a rising tide with every tiny amount that the pain receded. “I’m okay.”
Words kept pouring from Mitch’s mouth, something about keeping his eyes open and help and a matter of minutes and seconds and things that really didn’t seem very important to Stu with Mitch’s arms around him and Mitch’s body warm and solid against his back. If this was all that he was allowed, these precious moments of his warmth and comfort and gentle touches, Stu would take them greedily. He could have lived off of Mitch’s affection without a home or a family or a single penny to his name and asked nothing more from the world.
“Tell me about life after the war.” The words were sticky, taking several attempts to get past his lips, and they brought with them a stronger, awful taste of blood. It was a price Stu would have paid a thousand times over to hear the shape of the word ‘sweetheart’ in Mitch’s mouth, the first time he’d used the nickname since the train.
“We’ll live in my home town.” Mitch’s voice was thick and cracked with tears. Stu could imagine them both there, grey and aching with old age, holding hands between their armchairs as the world went on outside the window. “I have a little place there, we’ll do it up real nice and get a cat and go for walks on the beach on Saturdays. You’ll love it, sweetheart. They’ll all go nuts for the strongest, fastest soldier in company C.”
Stu choked out a blood-soaked laugh at that. The word love settled into his bones, soothing him like a breeze blowing through a tree with a full crown of leaves. He loved Mitch. The truth did not come as a grand moment of realisation, but something settling to calmness deep within him. He loved Mitch to the ends of the earth and beyond, as far as the stars that might scatter a night sky. He would have suffered the dimming agony of being shot again and again for the rest of eternity to love Mitch for another hour, a minute, a second.
He tried to reach for Mitch’s hand, an anchor to weigh him to the earth, but his arms were impossibly heavy and he didn’t have the energy to do more than twitch his fingers. Mitch, wonderful and lovely and perfect Mitch took his hand anyway, and Stu’s heart sung and soared at the tangle of their fingers even as it began to falter at the weary task of beating. Love bubbled up within him, filled him to the tips of his fingers and toes, rose to the tip of his tongue and Stu would have shouted his love to the whole world given the chance.
The world faded around him as his lips struggled around the words, breathing them out to the air with the precious final moments of his life.