The night smelt like damp earth and Eucalyptus. It smelt like darkness. Trampling through the underbrush and leaf litter they threaded through the stoic gum tree trunks, hair dampening in the residual wet of the earlier rain.
“D’ya think we’ll pull it off, Ned?” he asked, breath escaping into the cold darkness with a puff of steam.
In front of him he saw the dark outline and too casual shrug of shoulders. “We’ve done the planning, put everything in motion.”
Not really an answer, he thought. But could one really know one.
“Life,” he muttered softly, not too softly that Ned wouldn’t hear it. Their thoughts were the same, questions they asked each other no different, asked only for the reassurance of their similarity. Always had been, always would be.
The slight nod of the head in front of him his confirmation.
He stepped over a fallen branch, shivered as a cold drop of rain fell from a leaf above and hit the base of his neck, slithering an icy trail down his spine. Finally absorbed in the cloth of his shirt, adding no more and no less to the general dampness he already felt.
In front of him Ned was suddenly illuminated in blue moonlight, the dappled glitter of light through leaves and branches giving way to the full luminosity of the moon’s glow in a clearing. They were still outlines, still dark figures in dark surroundings, but now they had shadows, depth.
By the slowing of his gait he could tell Ned intended to stop here for a moment, collect bearings and thoughts as if plucking them from the night and gathering them too him. Joe moved to the tree just inside the clearing, leaned against its sturdiness despite its cold. Shoved his hands back in his pockets.
Ned was looking up into the sky, standing in the centre of the rough circle of surrounding trees. Star gazing maybe.
“I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do it, Joe” he said in a hoarse low voice.
In turn Joe said nothing, listened as he always did, as he was needed to do.
“It’s just…,” he faded away. A pause. “What about everyone else? What happens if we don’t get through this? All those people…counting on us.”
Ned kicked at a fallen branch, half heartedly. It didn’t move.
“What happens to them?”
His turn now. “They survive. They did before and they will again. It’s what people do here.”
“But half the bloody mess is because of us Joe, because of the cowardly lies told about us.”
He shrugged, “Then maybe they’ll be better off once we’re gone.”
Ned turned, looked at him for a long moment, shrugged once again with frustrated helplessness.
They fell silent, listened to the sound of the bush around them. The soft drips and splatters of the wet trees onto the carpet of leaves. Crying teardrops onto a floor of their own mortality.
He curled and uncurled his fingers in the rough linen of his pockets, tried to warm them some. Dug the tips of his boots into the ground more and watched silently as his friend struggled with the guilt that threatened to consume him. Guilt about his own death.
A light drizzle started to mist down on the bush and Ned glanced up into the sky with something that comically, to Joe, seemed to be annoyance. With a sigh Ned came back over to him, into the relative shelter of the tree line. Stood close and Joe could feel the slight heat of him radiating into his own clothes and skin.
“Do you ever wonder why us?” Ned asked, words warm and moist against his cheek.
He nodded, “Of course, but mainly I wonder why you.”
“Me?” Ned queried, brow crinkling.
“Yeah,” he answered seriously, “I’m sure I woulda gotten into more trouble sooner or later. Helped dress the wrong man’s missus, so to speak. But you’re an honest man, Ned. Yer the one that shoulda made it here.”
Ned’s face lost the questioning and adopted a look of resignation
“And your family, Ned,” he continued, “Your family least deserves what’s happened to them. All the times I think of…of being in your home with your ma and yer sisters.”
“Yours too, Joe, they are,” Ned spoke and placed a hand on his upper arm. He nodded, accepted the rarely articulated sentiment.
“Bloody life,” he breathed out.
Again they fell silent, just existed in the strange setting they found themselves in.
“If we don’t pull it off…Well, we’ve had some times you know?” Ned said quietly, earnestly focused on him.
And the meaning wasn’t lost. “We’ve had some times,” he returned, “some bloody good times for sure.”
The corner of Ned’s mouth turned up and the glimmer of past experiences lit up briefly in his eyes. He smiled in return, genuinely relieved to have a reason to smile, however slight the respite might be.
Ned inclined his head, contemplatively.
And he knew, instinctively, what it was that was being contemplated and what was going to happen. So, when he suddenly found Ned’s mouth roughly on his, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Or unwanted.
The mouth on his was rough but slow, an underlying urgency growing that he also felt within himself. He felt Ned lean against him, pushing him harder against the tree, sensed Ned’s arms go up and his hands plant themselves on the bark to either side of his head.
And he wanted nothing more than to share with him. To acknowledge the sorrow that was growing in them both, just two friends who knew things weren’t going to end how they were meant to.
He pulled his hands out of his pockets with a jerk, found Ned’s hips and dug his fingers into them. Roughly pulled the man closer, tight. Spread his legs to feel him even closer and let his friend lean on him, use him as a prop. Pull their selves as close in skin as they always had been in never spoken thought.
Ned’s mouth was hot against the frozen temperature of his lips and wanting to be further warmed by him he thrust his tongue into the other’s, hot and needy and together.
A groan filtered into his head, mixed with the drips and the rustles and animal calls that were already around him. But he couldn’t tell if he’d groaned or if Ned had. He didn’t care which it was.
And then they were sliding downwards, the rough bark of the tree pulling his shirt upwards, scratching at the exposed skin until he was lying on dirt and twigs, and bracken was sticking into his back, trapped gratingly up inside the rough cotton of his shirt.
And it was wet, and it was dark, and they didn’t know what was going to happen next.
But they were together.