Ian doesn’t notice people very well — that had been the gist of something his good old dad used to yell at him, probably in far stronger language. Books, yes; animals, of course. The minutest details of flora and fauna, always. But people were all the same. (Except in Dickens, where some of them had humps, and others spoke with speech impediments. He might have done well as a Dickens character; everyone was easily distinguishable, and they telegraphed their emotions so legibly.)
He isn’t really interested in changing, not even for the sake of the war — he’d read about warrior bonds between men, but frankly they sounded like something cooked up for the homefront. No doubt the war would be much like Kings, except instead of Latin there’d be blood, possibly lots. He only hoped that no one would pinch his glasses.
The odds were good he wouldn’t have noticed his tentmate either, no matter how close the quarters; he’s working his way (for a second time) through Longfellow’s collected works, after all. But there was the small matter of the bear.
“Winnie,” he’d said, as nonchalantly if he were introducing his little sister.
Not that much like Kings, then.
After a few days, Ian has a list of things he has noticed about his tentmate. He goes over it, orderly to a fault, as he tries to learn to fall asleep in a strange, outdoor place:
His tentmate is a lieutenant, but everyone in the camp, without exception, calls him Harry. (Ian has been “Macray” so long, from school to university to his current cannon-fodder position, that it sometimes surprises him when his mother addresses her letters to “Ian.”)
Harry doesn’t react much to stories of mass casualties in Europe, of regiments slaughtered (even though this makes Ian perk his ears up because, aha, yes, seems relevant). But when the boy, Taylor, mentioned his cat dying last month, Harry had looked up then, and his eyes were wide and sympathetic, and he’d murmured something to Taylor too low to be overheard.
Harry’s eyes are blue, and when they are looking at you, it is difficult to look away.
Actually, Ian is spending so much time watching Harry, and watching Harry watching Winnie, in particular, that it seems like Harry should mind, bark a “what are you looking at?” at him brusquely, as the hearties used to do at school whenever he forgot himself.
But he doesn’t, and Ian thinks that maybe Harry is like him — a bit oblivious to all outside his narrow focus. Harry’s focus is Winnie, and Ian’s focus is Harry, for some inexplicable reason, and he feels safer in his observations when he convinces himself that his subject won’t gaze back.
The idea of those penetrating blue eyes on him is rather unnerving, anyway.
“Don’t wake him up,” Ian hears, hissed from close by, and he must risk a glance across the narrow space. He opens his eyes to slits.
There is Winnie, pestering Harry for food, and Harry, reaching for a bottle — but with a concerned look at where he, Ian, is allegedly sleeping.
Ian’s less unnerved than he expected. He smiles without meaning to.
“Lovely afternoon,” Harry says, at the mouth of their tent. He’s watching Winnie nose around the grass outside.
“Barometer’s dropping,” Ian replies automatically. “It will rain tonight.”
“Just lovely,” Harry repeats, absently. He turns around; the sunlight shines redly through his hair, and he gives Ian a toothy smile. “Shame to waste it.”
Harry and Winnie are ten feet away from the tent before he — they? — realise Ian isn’t following. “Come on, Professor!” Harry cries, cheerfully.
Ian dithers a moment, but follows, bringing his well-worn copy of Evangeline with him.
“Forgive me,” he pants, catching up. “but I wasn’t sure you’d want me along. I’ve exhausted my supply of ursine facts.”
“Oh, I doubt that.”
Ian looks at the words of Evangeline many times that day, lying in the meadow, but the meanings don’t sink in, and its dactylic hexameter doesn’t shape the rhythm of the day. That is provided by Harry, loping over the yellow-flowered fields (Brassica napus, Ian’s mind intones by reflex) with animal grace.
“Could you calm down, oh, just a tad, girl?” Harry laughs, balancing Winnie’s weight against his rough brown boots. His white shirt, open at the neck, and oh God, oh God, Ian will be caught looking, Harry will see.
He remembers his mother, somewhat irrationally — her nervous fingers, so like his, and her intense gaze, only sharpened by her spectacles. The worst day, when Ian was caught with the Everly boy, and she didn’t scream or cry but just stared at him. Like he was alien from her. And said: “Ian. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
“Proverbs 23,” Ian had parroted back, and she’d slapped him across the face.
He touches his cheek now, remembering, and Harry asks, “Anything wrong, Macray?”
He smiles, abstractedly, and Harry doesn’t pursue it — or rather, just says, in the special voice he uses for frightened animals, “Anything this lady can’t fix?” and leads Winnie to Ian. She sniffs unconcernedly at Ian’s outstretched hand.
There the three of them sit for a moment in the late afternoon sun. A family group. The clouds are only starting to come in.
It’s not long before another worst-day, when, per Barnett’s orders, they have to release Winnie into the woods — many, many times. Clever girl: she keeps finding her way back to the motor-car.
“She’s smart, isn’t she?” Harry asks, shaking his head and rubbing sweat from his nape. “She takes after you.”
“I’m not sure that’s exactly how it works,” Ian replies, brilliantly.
“I know, Professor.” Harry smiles, but it doesn't quite make it to his eyes.
They have to tie her up, in the end. It feels crueler than it is. No rope can hold her.
Ian watches (always, he watches) Harry say goodbye to Winnie for the last time. It fascinates him, he can’t help but smile — it’s a perfect depiction of love; you couldn’t paint one better, or act it on the stage.
And then Harry looks at him, and his face is so unutterably sad, that the smile dies on Ian’s mouth. This is happening, he thinks. And he feels — he is not used to this — but he feels, for a moment, what Harry does.
It overwhelms him.
That night, they both lie awake in their tent. It’s curiously quiet without Winnie’s bleats; it almost feels larger.
Ian remembers the things he said on the ride back to camp, his tongue oddly loosened; he’d wanted Harry to know him, started rambling about his parents, of all things. And Harry had looked at him, interested, as if Ian were a curious new species that he couldn’t quite fathom.
That’s what Ian is thinking about, and he doesn’t know what Harry’s precise thoughts are, but he can guess.
“Macray.” Ian shifts to show he’s listening. “Do you remember what you said, when we first met? What the most important things were for Winnie to learn?”
Ian turns on his side and regards Harry. He looks ragged around the edges, and very tired.
“I think so,” Ian says. “For her to defend herself. And to learn to sleep alone.”
“Do you think she did?”
Ian hazily ponders a comforting response, but answers honestly. “I don’t know, Harry.”
“I hope she can,” he says, almost hoarsely. “Because I’m finding it difficult.”
Harry’s eyes are earnest, and one could — Ian could — fancy them pleading. As a man thinketh. Oh, hell.
Ian rises, only sparing a moment to be self-conscious about his stupid blue pajamas, and then he’s at Harry’s bed.
“Budge up, old man.”
Harry’s face is unreadable, but he pushes himself back. And Ian, with a deep breath, lies down.
“I know I’m not very fluffy —“ he begins, and Harry laughs. It’s a creaky sound, but it fills Ian with relief.
“No, you’re not,” Harry says. “You’ve got awfully sharp edges. I’ve noticed.” And he opens his arms, and Ian can’t quite believe it, but he’s caught up in Harry’s sweatered embrace, and for a tense moment, they hold each other. It doesn’t feel like rest; it’s all too odd for that.
Harry exhales, deeply, and seems to relax in Ian’s grasp. There’s a trickle of moisture against Ian’s neck, and it takes a moment for him to realize that it’s a tear.
“Hush now,” Ian says, wondering, incidentally, what the hell he is doing. Rarely has he been more out of his depth. His hands move uncertainly against Harry’s warm, cable-knit back. “She’s all right.”
Harry says nothing for a moment; it feels like assent. “Are you?” His voice is steady enough, but low.
“I — I…” says Ian, like the genius he is, and he feels rather than hears the rumble of a chuckle in Harry’s throat.
Harry moves backwards, infinitely slowly — like Ian might run away at any second — until he can see Ian’s face. Whatever he sees must not alarm him, for he leans in and kisses him.
It’s an exploratory moment, not exciting so much as strange — Harry’s lips are deliberate, pressing in and then withdrawing. Assessing. And Ian feels as frozen and shocked as a patient on the operating table under this sudden concentration of attention.
Then Harry runs a hand upward, from shoulder to neck and up into Ian’s hair, and there is an exhalation that surges through Ian’s body, and he kisses back, meeting Harry pressure for pressure, and he feels Harry’s smile, not just with his mouth but in the shift of the body flush against his.
“This is a bit impetuous,” Harry mumbles, and Ian can’t think of an intelligent reply, so he nips a bit at Harry’s underlip with his teeth, and Harry breathes in sharply, and Ian thinks, Well, that shuts him up, filing away the data for later.
Ian wants more — more knowledge. Knowledge of Harry’s sharp hipbones, and the delicate slide of his tongue.
I’ll know you now, Ian thinks through a haze, learning the lift and motion of Harry’s hips, the debauched flush and sheen of skin. The low, throaty sounds of suppressed pleasure.
Or did they come from him?
The next morning — after they’ve sorted out the tangle of limbs and gone to see about breakfast — Winnie comes home.