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Auld Lang Syne

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Alex had been on two ships which were sunk before he ended up on the hospital ship. He had not dried out at all between sinkings, even now he could feel the puddle of water that was forming around his feet. Still, he was one of the lucky ones, one of the ones who had escaped both times, even when those who were objectively better than him, more deserving than him had died, trapped in the hold of hospital ships and destroyers which had fallen victim to enemy torpedoes. It didn't worry him too much, surely his luck had turned now and he'd be home soon, and given the scale of defeat they'd experienced, it would be a good while before he was sent out to fight again.

Even if they did end up going off to some distant front almost immediately, it couldn't possibly be as cold and wet as Dunkirk. While he was sure that the city may have had its better moments before the war, the wind which was blowing a gale coupled with the furious waves dissuaded him from ever planning a return trip. Everywhere he looked, he saw the huddled soldiers, desperate to get off the beach before the next plane dive-bombed them. As the cold wind buffeted at them, and the water from the sea came spitting at them, Alex couldn't help but wish that he'd never been dragged into the war, that he'd stayed a coward in Glasgow. It was a thought which stayed with him as he watched two young soldiers transport a wounded man on a stretcher onto the deck and try to stay themselves. As he saw them leave the boat under the orders of the shipmaster, he wondered if they were much older than he was. The tired expressions on their faces reflected the deep weariness that had settled into him when they had been beaten back by enemy forces, and now festered within his soul.

As the boat had the last few stragglers kicked off, and the moorings were untied, he let himself breathe a sigh of relief, he'd not be sad to see the end of Dunkirk.

As such it was a horror to feel the impact of a falling bomb, and then the screeching of metal collapsing against metal as the boat started to crumple in upon itself. So many men were throwing themselves overboard to avoid being trapped aboard only to find themselves crushed between the pier and the hull. Much as he hated the thought of that being his only way out of this situation, the Scot had no choice but to follow them into the cold water.

Alex himself was close to becoming one of the many corpses, doomed to have their very life squeezed out of them, when he felt himself being wrest from the water by the two soldiers from before. As he looked at them, he couldn't help himself but smile at their beauty.

The two boys on the mole, Alex thought, were the most exquisite creatures he had ever seen. He hadn't even heard them talk and he was already prepared to swear his undying loyalty to them. Of course the times being as they were, there was a distinct chance that he wouldn't get the opportunity to even try.

As it was, they were looking at him strangely, the one with straight hair staring at him as though he was assessing for madness. The smile might have been the cause of that, so he stopped, and nodded at him, hoping that it would suffice to allay any fears the other soldier had. It was still a bit too much to ask him to talk, so he continued to stare, transfixed by even the smallest of movements of the two soldiers.

For the briefest moment he wondered if he had drowned when they pulled him out of the water. They looked so angelic, that he was two seconds away from asking if they were in heaven. The only thing stopping him were the screams of the men caught between the mole and the ship; even with the proof of angels looking at him, heaven would surely be a little kinder to the souls that reached it. Instead, he reached out with one hand towards the closer one, and smiled.

"Thank you." It felt like it took an eternity for the boy to take his hand, even longer for him to respond.

"All good mate." What might have been a painful northern accent to a more objective observer was music to the Glaswegian's ears. If Alex had been given more time he probably would have lunged forward and kissed him, provided that the northerner didn't object. As it was there were too many witnesses, and the commander was already starting down at them and promising another ride out of there. So he remained silent as he followed the two boys up off of the wooden skeleton of the mole and onto the small ship destined for a destroyer.

It was only by chance that he saw the silent one's dog tags, Gibson the only word discernable in the low light. The Glaswegian was more distracted by the ugly recent mark on his neck. His hand reached out almost of it's own accord, only stopping in its approach when the soldier flinched away. The other one, the northerner, looked towards them at this, his attention having been previously devoted to the shrinking shoreline.

"I'm sorry." The hand fell away, Gibson returned to his standing position. Alex had thought he feared nothing, not after everything that he'd seen, but now he was terrified of the prospect of losing the two soldiers before he even began to know them. Still, he had to ask, "What happened?"

Gibson just shook his head, drawing his collar closed with the same air as a baroness clutching at her pearls. It was the northerner who ended up talking.

"Don't feel bad, he doesn't talk to anyone," the reassuring smile given to Gibson, as tired as it may have been, only served to make Alex even more fond of the soldier.

The sea air was cold upon his back, so the Glaswegian felt no shame in huddling a little closer to Tommy. The other soldier smiling slightly and moving closer to him emboldened the Scot, opening his mouth in an attempt to give a well thought out declaration. As with most love-struck people, any eloquence Alex may have possessed was immediately lost, the only thing managing to get past his lips being: "I'm Alex. Alexander, really, but um, call me Alex." How was this happening? He'd won the English prize in sixth form!

"I'm Tommy."

Tommy, so perfect a name for so perfect a person. Of course, now that he'd found out the name, there was little else to ask. They stood in silence until the boat approached the destroyer, and even when he was aboard, Gibson went to the deck, and Tommy was preoccupied with the jammy toast and tea that the nurses were handing out. Alex stared at Tommy, watching the idiosyncratic way in which the slightly crooked jaw moved as he ate. He knew he shouldn't stare, that while he was quite happily queer, the rest of the world wouldn't be, that it would be very difficult to explain away his staring as just mates being mates, but he couldn't help it. They were alive, he was joyful for it.

For a few seconds when the torpedo hit, but the lights hadn't gone out yet, a macabre thought occurred to him: that if the last thing he was to see was Tommy, there must be some kind force out there. The thought was quickly dismissed by the sheer volume of water that hit him in full force, his only concern being somehow getting out of the sealed coffin that was the destroyer.

While he had never been a particularly religious man, Alex found himself truly believing in the angelic nature of his rescuers as he saw the door being opened,a belief which only increased when he saw that his salvation had at least been in part engineered by Gibson.

The water was still as cold as ever, but he didn't care, so long as Tommy had escaped from the water with him, and Gibson was alright. They clung to the rope that he threw to him from the lifeboat after one of the superior toffs had told them to wait in the freezing water, Alex thanking the world at large for whatever had brought such an angelic force to him. He knew he should come up with a better adjective, but it was all that his brain was providing him with, and as he was in the middle of a warzone, he wasn't aiming for Shakespeare.

Eventually they reached the shore, he and Gibson helping Tommy to peel his hands off of the rope when the northern private proved incapable of doing it by himself. There was little sympathy coming from the officers at the nineteen-year-old's small whimper at the experience of the rope being peeled away from where it was embedded in his skin, so Alex did his best to comfort the northerner by running his fingers through the straight hair.

"It's okay, I promise that it's going to be okay."

One soldier, the one who had tried to leave him and Tommy to drown approached him.

"You should return to your regiments. Now." There was no hint of a friendly suggestion in his words but Alex would not find himself parted from the two soldiers who had saved his life. So he continued to stroke Tommy's hair and started to murmur sweet nothings to the now silently weeping soldier.

"I'm here Tommy darling, it's okay." Alex let his head fall onto Tommy's shoulder, smiling at Gibson as the silent soldier helped both of them out of the worst of the surf. "C'mon, we'll find somewhere to patch you up." Both Alex and Gibson smiled as Tommy nodded his head, and began to stand on his own two legs, still clutching at his hands and crying slightly.

The officer rolled his eyes and departed.

As they remained on the edge of the water while everyone else dispersed to other parts of the accursed beach, he looked at his Tommy and his Gibson, and for the second time of the day, but only the third time of the war, he smiled. Eventually they settled slightly up from the shore, the sand still damp, but not enough to soak their clothes any further.

He turned his head to Tommy, only to find him asleep and clutching at his rope-burned hands with a wince etched upon his face. He turned to face Gibson to find the intense eyes fixed upon him.

"I won't leave you, I don't care what any officer says. Thank you, Gibson."

The soldier shook his head his face crumpling the more Alex talked, and the Scot found himself frowning, what could be so wrong that such a good force could seem so upset.

"What's wrong? Are you hurt? I know how to apply a bandage, I can help."

Gibson continued to shake his head, sitting up and leaning away from Alex. The Glaswegian tried to follow, giving Tommy a cursory glance before sitting up to catch Gibson's eye.

"Je ne suis pas anglaise, et je ne m'appelle Gibson." The French soldier started to get up before Alex reached out a hand to stop him. For a second not-Gibson seemed worried, as though he thought that Alex would have hit him, would have tried to hurt him. Alex shook his head, reached out a hand to placate the soldier. Maybe if he had been more desperate, if he'd been around other people, if he'd not felt so happy to be alive, he would have been angry, and done things in that anger which he would have regretted for the rest of his life. But he was just exhausted, far too tired to be angry about a Frenchman trying to get away from the cursed sand of Dunkirk beach.

"C'est bon, mon ami," he took the soldier's hand and smiled again, "comment tu appelles?"

The French soldier let out something resembling a sob before he nodded his head, "Je m'appele Philippe."

"Philippe?" Alex let his head fall to rest upon the sand, all of the energy sapped from him by the cold water.

"Oui, Philippe Hugo Guillet."

"Well then, thank you, Philippe Hugo Guillet, merci."

They nodded at each other, twin  expressions of tired happiness forming on their faces. Alex shrugged and nodded to Philippe, and so, the both of them crawled back through the wet sand to sandwich Tommy between them.