Camille had never considered himself lucky. Whenever asked why, his curt reply was that all good fortune he had now was a result of extreme efforts during hard times.
Hence when the blasted war came to an end in 1918 and he left the battlefield with a majority of his men alive and returned home with stars on his shoulders, he knew he had earned it and was rightfully proud.
His father welcomed him back with open arms and shed many tears, thanking the Universe for the safe return of his son. Camille scoffed at the display and told his father in no uncertain terms that his safe return was a consequence of the harsh upbringing he endured during childhood by the very hands which were now wiping tears on a wrinkled face.
He had no clue that his absence and the tales of brutality of the war would affect his stoic father so much that he would turn over a new leaf in his old age. Feeling unsettled by these developments at home and plagued by a general sense of fear and melancholy that seemed to stick to him as a second skin, Camille decided to go on a trip and see the happier sides of the places he had only visited via battlegrounds.
Thus hardly six months had passed before Camille Audebert repacked his bags, shared an uncomfortable hug with his father, gave the housekeeper a curt nod and stepped out of his suburban Parisian family home to explore the continent.
Karl Horstmayer believed in luck. He knew there was a higher power out there which was looking out for him.
He knew that it was that power which had led him to the bakery in Paris suburbs which he now co-owned with his cousin despite being on the losing side of the war and in a POW camp for four months. Because everyone knows how things play out for those who lose, and Karl was very very thankful that he had survived the fall, unlike many others he knew.
So with a smile in his heart and a smile on his lips, he was temporarily working hard with his cousin Metha and her husband Eduard. Despite it being a solid foundation for a fresh start, Karl knew that it was not his whole life. He had a journey yet to undertake, the bakery was a pause, or better yet, a scenic detour, and he was determined to make the most of the peace and beauty after the terrors he witnessed firsthand, before he was beckoned ahead.
During his travels Camille met a lot of people from many walks of life. He met wanderers like himself, fellow soldiers either in celebration or in despair, he met the working ladies, aristocratic men trying to cling to a walk of life that was extinct now, met the refugees who were forced to wear their identities as clothes and jewellery and many others who had nothing left to call their own apart from memories.
He shared life stories with them, learnt how to view the world with different lenses and saw how faith, compassion and love were the essential driving forces behind all the good humans do. He was thankful for the knowledge gained, but the cynic in him refused to believe that there is strength in emotions. Which is why he was thrown for a loop when the first dream appeared.
In his dream he was standing in a trench near a no man's land on a battlefield he had never been on. He knew he was waiting for someone who was definitely not on his side of the war. The thing that surprised him the most when he woke up was the amount of concern and, dare he say, fondness he had felt for the unnamed and faceless man while asleep.
Thinking it to be a fluke of his subconscious, Camille paid it no mind.
Until he dreamt again. And again. And again.
Throughout the last leg of his travels while returning home, he continued to dream vividly of what he presumed was an alternate life, wherein he was posted on a different front and met an enemy officer he developed strong feelings for.
Camille never remembered the name of the officer, nor did he recall his physical appearance. All he remembered from his dreams were his own thoughts.
One thing that always managed to surprise him was the depths of his feelings. Living with a father who demanded nothing less than perfection, since an early age Camille had learnt to emotionally close himself. Hence whenever he woke up with tears clinging to his eyelashes and his lover's name lost before it slipped from his tongue, he felt it impossible to fathom how could he, a scoffer of sentiments, ever deserve a love so selfless.
Upon returning home, Camille gave himself time to try to understand his psyche and what the dreams might have meant. This tangentially led him to a realization that his father too went through some sort of emotional awakening.
Ever since the senior Audebert was faced with the reality that he might have lost his son in the war, he was repentant of how he treated his son and was ready to make amends in any way possible. This opened a bridge for lengthy conversations between father and son where though they could not erase the past, but they certainly laid it to rest, instead of suffering in solitude.
As the months went by, Camille relaxed into his post war life and opened up himself to feel and experience living, instead of simply surviving. He got a job in the waterworks department, designing the layout of the city's water supply. His relationship with his father improved and he even made a friend circle of a few dear and close friends, some whom he met while on his travels.
All in all Camille found that maybe trusting the Universe to steady him lest he stumbled was not a foolish notion and being able to show vulnerability is a proof of safety in itself.
Yet in his heart of hearts he knew that there was a piece of him missing. The seed planted by his dream was now a full grown tree, ready to bear fruit.
A year and three months had passed since Karl stepped out of a POW camp and so much had happened since then.
For starters he now worked as an engineer in the road works department of Paris, helping map out routes and managing contracts on which roads needed to be repaired. He lived as a lodger nearby Metha's bakery, which he had given full control to her once he got employed by the city. He even had a cat, whom he had rescued from the streets and named Sonnenlicht, because of the radiant colour of its fur and its playful temperament which never made for a dull day.
Thus there was an atmosphere of contentment and growth in his life and Karl was making the most of it on his day off.
Sitting tucked in a corner table of the bakery, surrounded by the low chatter of the other patrons and smiling to himself as he sketched out a small doodle of Sonnenlicht playing with a feather duster in his pocket notebook, he was gently interrupted from his task when a hand tapped its knuckles on the table he was using.
Karl looked up to see the most beautiful ex military man (he knew right away, as he was sure the other man also knew he had been a soldier, like recognizes like, even if it's not a conscious decision) he had ever laid his eyes on shyly asking in soft French, if he would mind sharing that table as there was no other free seat.
Introductions were made, stories were shared and at lunch time, both men dined together at a saloon twenty minutes walk from there. The meal was followed by a stroll along the banks of the Seine discussing everything and nothing in equal amounts.
By the time, the shadows of the evening began to lengthen, Camille, the Frenchman, very reluctantly took his leave. They both exchanged addresses scribbled on pages from Karl's notebook, and realizing that they worked in adjacent departments, further plans were made for a workplace lunch the next day.
Both men shook hands before parting for the day, and if they made eye contact while the handshake went longer than socially acceptable, and if their fingers remained clasped for a few seconds as they slowly withdrew from it, well neither of them mentioned it.
Camille Audebert did not believe in luck. He never had and maybe he never would. But Camille did believe in the Universe. It was a belief which stemmed from experience and time, but most of all he felt it the strongest during quiet moments when he would focus his eyes on Karl Horstmayer and find the other man's eyes already searching for his own.
Whole, content and completely in love with a man who loved him back with an equal devotion, Camille knew he was who he was always meant to be. And he knew the same was true for Karl also, as the other man had expressed the same sentiments which he was feeling.
In a world where nothing was constant, Camille and Karl had found a love that tethered them together, a guarantee that no matter where they might find themselves, they would always find their way back into each others' embrace.
‘You can find your destination even if you wander away from the path, the ones who are truly lost are those who have not stepped out.’