George Fisher was his father’s third and youngest surviving son (two more died in infancy and a third was taken by the Scarlet Fever), which unfortunately left him with few choices in his occupation. Unlike his older brothers, he couldn’t count on his inheritance or management of the family business making his way for him, and with two older sisters needing to find good husbands, there wouldn’t be much left for him after all was said and done.
Like generations of spare sons before him, he could either turn to the Church or to the army. He’d never been one for prayer.
Soldiering wasn’t a bad life. A childhood on his father’s ships had already robbed him of the fair complexion most redheads suffered, and his body was conditioned for the long hours of marching followed by longer hours of waiting for action. Hauling in the nets was hard work—and almost as dangerous as the battlefield at times—but the days at sea with only a few others for company had their own challenges.
“To hear you tell it, you’ve had as many adventures as Curtis’s uncle,” protested Stevens. “It’s a wonder you aren’t building a fire with Jonah instead of us. There’s no fish as big as all that, lad.”
They were preparing the camp for the end of another interminable day with no sign of the Boers. George and Stevens were carefully placing the firewood to ensure it lasted the night while Curtis, Adams, and Higgins laid out the tents. George was only half paying attention to his favorite story—the time a blue whale nearly capsized their dinghy when it surfaced—too distracted by Curtis working in only his shirtsleeves. George could already feel those hands on him in the darkness.
“Aye, it was,” said George automatically, repeating the familiar steps in the setting up of camp. “The size of our dinghy and half again. My younger brother—this was before the fever—had never been allowed out with us and promptly fainted just from the sight of its shadow rising from the water. Father was trying to bring him ‘round when the great beast released a gush of seawater from its blowhole that nearly drowned us all.”
He could see Curtis’s soft smile barely turning up the corner of his mouth. He’d always been partial to this story, which is why Fisher told it so often the men had it memorized. “And poor Johnny stirred just in time to get a great wave of sea water down his gullet, which was funny for all of a minute before he nearly capsized the boat and put us in the water with the creature,” George continued, just able to hear Curtis’s quiet chuckles over the noise of the tent canvas catching in the wind.
“It took five of us and a rope to get him out of the dinghy, and we had to keep the poor boy below deck the rest of the journey. He was making the entire crew nervous with the way he kept eyeing the waters just waiting for a ferocious monster to rise up and break the ship in two,” Fisher paused long enough to watch Archie force the final tent stake into the shifting sand before catching himself and finishing his story.
“By the time we made it to shore, Johnny’d concluded that Jesus was the only man he’d be willing to get onto another boat with,” they all said in unison.
Archie was looking at him now, that smile brightening up his face like the sun on the sea. George could almost see himself closing the few feet separating them to kiss his lover, heedless of their comrades all around them. The only thing keeping him from doing just that was the uncertainty of how Curtis would respond.
Every soldier knew better than to talk about what happened in the tents after dark. If they did, the quick tumbles in between fighting would become something much more real and lead to consequences none of them were willing to risk. George had few things to look forward to in life, and most of them depended on Curtis and the short hours just before dawn; he wouldn’t endanger that for anything.
“Go on, Archie, give us a real story,” Higgins groused, “one that hasn’t been hashed to death,” making Curtis turn toward the other men, leaving George on the periphery again.
The rest of the camp went up quickly enough with tales of Sir Henry’s bravery and Captain Good’s charm saving their necks at the last possible moment. They managed to have dinner prepared and eaten just before the sun set on another day of inaction.
George didn’t care to risk his life in battle every day—he wasn’t like Archie, willing to give all for king and country—but weeks with nothing to do makes a man too introspective for his own good.
It’s while they were cleaning up that he realized his mistake. Archie’s shirtsleeves were still rolled up to his elbows, but his hands were covered in soapy water now. It was a luxury to have a few minutes to themselves, and while they never talked about whatever it was they shared, George found himself impulsively reaching for Curtis’s hand under the water. He clasped their fingers together for a moment before Archie’s pulled away roughly, the older man looking around them for anyone who might have seen.
“This isn’t the place for that, Lieutenant,” he said under his breath, and for all that his mouth was pressed tantalizingly close to the red curls tucked behind George’s ear, the boy realized how far apart they’d always been.
For Curtis, they had a mutual understanding, a working arrangement that suited them both and took the edge off the day-to-day tedium. It’d do him no good to think of what might have happened had Archie leaned in that last inch or shared a secret smile over linked hands hidden by the suds and dishes. This couldn’t be that kind of adventure for them.
George found himself agreeing, “You’re right, of course, Captain. Just got ahead of myself.”
And Curtis, bless him, just nodded and hummed while they finished their chore and walked perhaps a bit too quickly back to their tent, the sand scorching them through their shoddy boots.
That last, quick tumble was like the dozens of others they’d shared and hardly more notable for Curtis than any of the rest. The next day, though, George would seize onto the memory of Archie holding him after they’d both finished as he bled out onto that same blistering sand.