Your throat burns with the taste of the whiskey on his lips. He is not a whiskey drinker (you know from his cousin’s letters) but in this last year he has developed a taste for it, almost a habit.
You cannot say you blame him.
His hands are gentle as they pull you towards him, palms smooth. They are the hands of a musician, light but firm. An artist, and not a soldier, and as his fingers curl around your hips, thumbs pressing into the soft flesh, you sigh into his mouth.
There are tears on his cheeks. But his or yours you cannot be certain.
The weight of his hand is warm where it rests on your stomach, and you brush the tips of your fingers lightly over his knuckles. His hand is not used to lying on a soft stomach, not used to cupping breasts that fill his palm. His touch is one accustomed to hard planes and angled bones and taut muscle. It is as much a change for him as it is for you.
It is not love. You have no doubts about that. Not love, barely friendship, and in truth you know very little about him, only what you have seen, and what his cousin has said.
(His cousin is not really his cousin. It is more complicated than that. More like a step-cousin but who ever refers to a step-cousin as a step-cousin? Complicated by the fact of the brother, the cousin’s brother not his, another step-cousin. Though he has a brother too. Little more than a boy and fortunate for him that things did not last another year because then he would be under arms too.)
Not love. Not friendship. Kinship, perhaps. Two spirits who see something of themselves reflected in the other. The weariness, the blood-stained hands. Cause and effect, echoed, mirrored.
His fingers were careful as they slipped down, gently exploring. And he caressed between your legs, made you moan into the night as his lips mouthed your throat, able to feel the pulse pounding beneath.
One of those long, elegant fingers slipped inside of you and you whimpered into his hair. And now, looking back, you remember when those fingers lay limp on a linen sheet, when he did not have the strength to raise them.
(The things people do to each other. The horrors they inflict. One shell bursting, scream of it muffled in the fog, and months and years of stillness after.)
It is grief that has brought you here, brought both of you. The grief of the unknown, the unexplained. (Him. Brother of the step-cousin, missing in action.) The grief of the known-all-too-well. (You. Crack of a rifle and heart stopped.)
The grief, and the war, and the quirk of fate that landed him and his dear friend in neighbouring hospital beds in the very place that you had volunteered to nurse. (Two years ago but a lifetime away.) You knew without being told what lay between them. Morphine lays bare all secrets and secrets of the flesh most of all, and it was in the anxious glances, the soft touches, the relieved smiles.
You saw it in them the moment you saw them together. But you never imagined that it could ever come to this.
He nuzzles into your neck, lips kissing you in his sleep, but you know it is not you that he sees behind his eyes. Still. If the only comfort you can bring him is to let him dream, for a little time, then that is enough. And gently you raise your hand, and cup the nape of his neck, draw him closer.
Let him dream. Let him pretend. You are all pretending, now.
SM Colgan (she/her) is a bi writer living somewhere in Ireland. Her work focuses on emotion, history, sexuality, and relationships, romantic and otherwise. She writes to understand people who are and have been, and to ease the yearning in her heart. She has pieces forthcoming from Emerge Literary Journal and Stone of Madness Press. Twitter: @burnpyregorse.