Henry sat down beside Lillie. The sun was setting, the camp was utterly calm if you don’t count the soldiers buzzing with nervous energy after the whole-day battle. First they didn’t speak, they were just looking straight ahead to the makeshift ‘operation room’ created only by laid out canvases originally used for camouflaging trucks. Not their best solution, but at least there was something between the mud and the wounded. Learn to be grateful for small mercies, Henry. The canvases were smeared with blood between the unfortunates they were unable to save. The others who lived – at least for now – were already moved from the canvases to drafty tents.
Lillie still didn’t say a word and the silence between the two friends started to become uncomfortable, deafening even. Henry opened his mouth trying to kill the oppressing silence, still not knowing what he wanted to say. But Lillie uttered her complaints first.
“Command is still not willing to let me into the thick of it.” She was disappointed, Henry was certain of it, but couldn’t understand her feelings of betrayal. Even they were disagreeing on that matter, not just Command rejected her, no matter how many times they have talked about this, Henry was unable to follow her way of thinking. Not today, when he was thrown to Hell and dragged back uncountable times.
“Why do you want to be in the thick of it?” He asked aghast, repeating Lillie’s intonation. “What fool would want to be there anyway?”
“I do.” Muttered the girl.
“Have you ever been in something mildly similar to a real battle?”
Lillie flashed an icy glare at Henry, before explaining. “I was. Thank you very much. With my father, we were volunteering doctors in the Spanish civil war, if that rings any bell to you. I saw with my own eyes how brutal, how animalistic fights could get. So don’t you dare to treat me as a burden, as Command does. I would be able to help during the battles if they’d let me.”
“No one is able to help.” Henry interrupted her ranting shaking his head. “You don’t want to hear this, but I won’t lie, I’m grateful, that you were not there. Mark got caught in a minor explosion, his injuries weren’t lethal, but easily could be. I was far away from him, couldn’t even accompany him when the guys brought him back here. If you had been there with us, the medics alone would have been unable to save him. That wound was far beyond their skills, but not yours. Nevertheless out there, without the right equipments, even you would been proven insufficient. Your presence would not have changed a thing. But here… you’ve worked miracles.”
Henry’s words rendered Lillie speechless. She just stared at him, taking his hand, unable to show even the tiniest of smiles.
“I can’t thank you enough… I mean… saving him.”
“We still don’t know if he will make it.” It was now Lillie’s turn to shake her head. “For your sake, you shouldn’t harbor false hopes.”
“I don’t harbor anything. I’m a medic too, I can guage his medical status as well as you.” He winked at her. “I tell you what. I’m certain he will come out at the other side. I can feel it in my guts. Isn’t that what the guys say? To always listen to your gut?”
“It certainly is.” Lillie bumped her shoulder to Henry’s.
The banter was easy between them. Henry looked at her grinning, she wasn’t an ordinary woman, that was for sure, even if Command was too blind to see what she was worth. She was a damn good doctor, the best one Henry had ever met. She accidentally just happened to be not a male. If she were, maybe she were the one Henry had fallen in love with. But Lillie wasn’t a man, Henry loved Mark, and their friendship served them well.
They were allies in the same war, where both were fighting their own battles. Lillie as a female doctor in a war fought only by men, and Henry trying to stand his ground among those same men keeping his spine-wrecking heavy secret. Henry has never told anyone about Mark, not even to Lillie, but just hearing from the other medics how ferociously she had fought for his life, he came to the conclusion she must had at least guessed something. No wonder they were inseparables.
They could not continue their conversation, because a soldier supporting an injured other came before them. They came to a halt right before Henry. Lillie could even be transparent, the uninjured one ignored her completely.
“Hey, Doc. We could use your help here.”
“Well, mate, ask the doctor then” said Henry pointing at Lillie.
“Quit frakkin’ with me, my buddy bleeding out on my shoulder, I don’t need the nurse, cannot let her practice on him.”
Lillie stared daggers at them, but knew better than to start justifying her capabilities. Besides Henry got her back.
“I cannot patch that chest wound. I’m just a medic. Let me give you two choices. Believe me, and let her do her thing, or get me do a barbaric work on him. So what will it be, pal?”
“Take it or leave it, mate.” Said Lillie mimicking Henry’s nonchalant voice.
“Fine” spat the soldier. “How are we gonna do this?”
“Laid him down there” Lillie stood up, showing the soldier where their stuff were still on the canvases.
The two of them followed her, and the dull-headed one obliged to her instruction. It wasn’t an easy wound, but finally with the help of Henry Lillie managed to save the young soldier. Even managing to force some sort of gratitude out of the stubborn guy.
“Thank you, Doc, and sorry for treating you like…” the soldier tried to apologize to Lillie, but couldn’t find the right expressions. He really struggled not to add insult to injury, no pun intended.
“Do you mean treating me as a dumb-ass sissy?” Lillie grinned. “No problem. You’re not the first meany in the army, and I presume not the last.” The soldier’s face grew red of humiliation, but nodded his apologies once again. And Lillie almost felt sorry for him. Almost. But she already had this ‘prove-myself scene’ with way too many arseholes. She could give him an earful, but let it drop, saying this instead “this is a home-ticket wound what your buddy has here. It will take months for him to fully recover. And this means long time away from the fronts.”
“Thank God. He will be better off home.”
As all of us should be. Thought Henry.
Later on that day Henry sat with his tent-mates playing cards. Some of them were new-comers still in the ‘fit in period’, nothing out of the ordinary. Except for the noisy ones. Time and time again some cocky, self-important bastards were transferred to their rows, usually they could be easily disciplined by some well-swung fist and by the fierceness of the battles. But then, some of them were just pricks, pure and simple. They were the ones thinking about Lillie as a reward to get at the end of the day.
How wrong they were! Lillie’s vicious kick to their nuts usually wasn’t something they wanted to brag about. And not to forget the divine justice accompanied by her evil grin, when she treated the minor wounds without any painkillers – Command’s order not to waste the supplies.
“So” one of the douches sat down beside Henry. “Word gets around that you know the way into her panties, they even say you’ve already been there. What should I do to get a go with her?”
Henry huffed his indignation. He and Lillie mutually agreed on almost first at the dawn of their friendship, that they will play pretend to make everyone believe that they were together. It would be just convenient if the importunate bastards drown in jealousy and self-pity.
“You know mate” said another soldier before Henry managed to open his mouth in answer “you can’t get anything out of him, he guards the decency of his missus like a knight in a shining armor.”
“I need to piss then a fag. You don’t have to join me.” No pun was intended as Henry said that. He stood up and left the tent, but the words he caught upon closing the canvas behind him made him stop abruptly.
“Could they really be an item? Rumor is, he’s queer.”
“Yeah, I too bet on his queerness everyday. But since they’re almost always together, it’s not easy to prove anything.”
“Who is she anyway? How can a girly this cute be in the battalion? I won’t complain, it’s nice to have a pair of fine boobs and and legs around.” Said the first one, who tried to make friends with Henry.
“Can’t say that girl is a booby trap with that sorry-flat chest” added an another one.
Hearing this Henry snorted muffling a laugh. Lillie wasn’t a bit lady-like, neither beautiful in the conventional meaning of the word. She was gaunt, sinewy, but shorter than Henry (that could be called an achievement given the fact that he wasn’t someone qualifying tall, he was below six feet by quite some inches). But she was shorter than most of the men, with a very boyish body and palm-sized boobs, if you had small palms. Her face was fairy-like and had light greyish eyes with long laches both betraying her as a girl. Her short bob cut and a scar over his right brow made her appearance somewhat renegade mirroring well her spirit.
“By the way is there anyone who thinks keeping her around is a good idea?” Asked an other new-comer.
“No one” answered a corporal, and hearing all this rendered Henry immobile. He stepped aside into the shadows, making it impossible to get a glimpse of his silhouette from the inside. He wanted to overhear the arseholes to know what to expect. “But she’s the daughter of some fancy general, and apparently daddy is willing to let his little girl play war with the men.”
Henry wanted to punch them. The general lost his wife after Lillie was born, and the girl being his only family, he just wanted to fulfill her dream to become a doctor. And he did, this was what Lillie had told him. His father treated her as all talented boys would be treated, let her learn, taking her with him to various parts of the world so she could become who she wanted to be. And she became a doctor and consequently ending up on the front in german-occupied France as Henry’s best fiend.
“Outrageous” said the first one. “And why is Command accepting this?”
“They don’t, but she’s easy to look at, so I think we’ve got to keep her as a lucky charm. I would feel indeed very lucky if I ended up between her legs for the night.”
And I will tear off your balls you little shit, just keep saying things like this. Thought Henry. Hearing the intrusive laughter following the funny remark, his fingers curled into fist. He was furious in behalf of both of them, but he ordered his fingers to relax, then went to check on the wounded to the hospital tent where he bumped into Lillie. They redressed wounds together, examined everyone in their care for the rest of the day. The work was calming. Soothing even.
And finally he worked up enough courage to check on Mark after Lillie scolded him.
“Why should I be left alone with him?” He asked bewildered.
“Because you’re friends, duh” Lillie was laughing at him. “Or am I mistaken?”
“No… we’re friends. Fine. Leave us alone. Go get some rest.”
“Music to my ears. Take your time big guy.” Lillie winked and leaved him to it. Anyone calling him that would have been rewarded with a punch to the face, but compared to her… yeah, the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him.
Henry searched for Mark among the wounded, it didn’t take long before he was sitting beside him. Mark was pale and unconscious, like he was since Henry last saw him on the battlefield. He wasn’t worried too much though. Mark was stable and seeing the spirit of confidence in Lillie, reassured Henry too. He checked on Mark vitals, redressed his wounds. He wanted to take his hands into his badly, but with the medics and doctors busy among the rows of injured soldiers, he didn’t dare to.
Instead of it, he started to speak to Mark telling him about his day, the camp, about the others, about the news of the war. He tried to crack a joke or two while checking on Mark’s stitches, but he did not even stir when Henry jostled him. After he finished, he realized that he were left alone with the wounded. One quick check later he was almost sure, no-one was watching or listening. So he leaned closer to Mark to be able to whisper into his ear.
“Hey old chap. You gave me quite a scare… almost the scare of my life” he chocked on a sob “and you lying here motionless is not helping. I miss your voice, your terrible jokes while sharing a cigarette. I miss you asking me how was my day only to make puns of everything you can come up with… Don’t do this to me… please wake up soon.”
There was no reaction from Mark. Not a twitch, not a sigh, Henry was the only one releasing a sigh of misery, not understanding himself why he let Lillie to talk him into this. His heart would hurt considerably lesser if he just refused to come here and pour out his feelings which let him raw and hollow in the inside.
They went for a drink with the others. One of the soldiers had found a bar hosting singers and dancers, and everyone was eager to blow off the steam accumulating constantly for weeks now. The whole place and the streets nearby were full of soldiers on liberty and after the liberation of Paris everyone was drunk and not just on ale, wine and spirits, but on good company and victory imminent.
Henry was sitting alone in a relatively silent – well, less noisy –, dark corner beside a table, clutching his pint full of bitter beer, he didn’t even liked it, only chosen to drink it, because he wanted the others to leave him alone. He waited for the singer’s performance to start while a no-name band was playing jazz and other modern songs. He observed the others bantering, trying to seduce girls, and the lucky ones who were already swaying with the chicks they managed to entice.
He should be pretending to do the same, but girls never really saw him, except for Lillie, but again she wasn’t seeing him as a man, more like a brother. Not to mention that he never wanted girls. Sometimes he sought for physical release with other men. But not since Mark. Not since he discovered his feelings for him. He’d lost his desire for others.
He clutched his jug with more force, till his fingers gone white at the thought of Mark still lying unconscious and now left alone in their camp. Days have passed since those unfortunate events and still no sign of Mark coming around and waking up. Every doctor and medic were – even he was – on the same opinion that it was all normal after the injuries he had had. Hell, every one with a minimal medical degree could see that he had a long way to go.
But he itched to see Mark wake up, to talk to him, to confess every bit of his feelings, consequences be damned. And as more and more time had passed, it became more and more difficult to stay positive and not to lose faith. Soldiers with far less injuries than Mark sported on his body were defeated by invisible sepsis, infections, pneumonia or God knows what.
All of a sudden the enclosed place of the bar room started to suffocate him. He stood with such a momentum, he kicked the chair over. He headed for the entrance, he needed silence, and most of all, he needed to be alone. As male and female bodies bumped into him, he almost bolted in panic. Ha almost reached the door, when someone grabbed him by the collar. He was pushed to the wall, and a sinewy, lean body pressed to his.
The next moment plump lips covered his chapped ones. He struggled to pull away, to get free from that grip, only to find Lillie staring up at him the moment he managed to get out of her arms. Lillie smiled at him, standing on his toes, she leaned closer and kissed him again.
He did his best to pry her fingers off his green shirt, but Lillie clung to the coarse fabric with so much force, all his efforts was no avail.
“Lil’” Henry panted. “What the hell? I’m not… I don’t…” The words were stuck and scratchy in his throat.
“I know” she said smiling sweetly “but they don’t. I heard some of the guys talking about ways to get some fun out of the queer. Sorry for this, but I cannot let them close to you… so I showed them something to throw them off the rails.”
Henry realized right away that the kiss wasn’t anything like his fellow soldiers shared with the drunken girls, no boiling emotion, no desire, it simply was a kiss between siblings. Same as his nieces used to give him back home. And with the relief of the revelation Henry started to laugh, he hugged her for all she was worth, and kissed her on the cheek, close to the mouth. For everyone ogling them it must have seem like a real kiss full on the lips.
“I can be your alibi everytime it’s necessary” Lillie whispered in Henry’s ears.
“Thank you. I would like that very much” Henry’s arms tightened around her.
“Come dance with me” Lillie winked “let’s make them really jealous.”
The girl grabbed his hand, and pulled him on the dance-floor just as the singer mounted on the stage, get the mic from its post holder, then started to sing following the lively, bouncy melodies played by the musicians occupying the rear part of the stage. His voice was appealing laced with a thick French accent. Could he speak English if it’s not for the well-memorized script? Or did he just learned some songs to entertain the British and American Allied soldiers?
“Tell me my darling, my love did you hear?
The total destruction is ever so near.
But we got nothing to fear but fear in the end
In the end of time
Soon the explosions will light up the night
And our lives will flicker out like fireflies
But we’ll fight serenity and now demise
So dance with to the end of time
Dance with me to the end of time
Dance with me, dance with me, below the burning skies
Dance in my arms ‘til we laugh instead of cry
Dance ‘till it hurts then we’ll dance through the pain
Oh yes, let’s dance all again, one last dance and again
The tread of light and shadows dark in our dawn
Heaven and Death passed ‘till it’s war
So play against some and give me a pour of the wine
That red and fine while we dance to the end of time
Dance with me, dance with me, need the burning skies
Dance in my arms ‘til we laugh instead of cry
Dance ‘till it hurts ‘cause we’re all gonna die
While we dance to the end of time,
It’s you and me to the end of time”
And they danced, not ‘till the end of time, but through the night, ‘till they laughed in each others arm, ‘till they could almost forget the terrible war ravaging the whole once-sane world. They danced ‘till Henry could almost forget Mark for a moment. But regardless of all his efforts, he couldn’t shake off his niggling feelings and worries.
While drinking, and dancing with Lillie he silently wished for faith, peace and more time for everyone he loved. For that handful of people he really cared for.
At the deepest of the night he was woken by someone mercilessly shaking him by the shoulder. His head throbbed with dull pain, no wonder caused by all the drinking, cigarettes and loud music last night. Or was it still the same night slowly but steadily dawning? He opened his eyes warily, and wasn’t surprised at all when the burning feeling made them close again.
“Henry!” Came the urgent whisper from beside him. It was Lillie kneeling beside his bunk bed. Who else would it be in the dead of the night? She wasn’t as drunk as he when they got back to camp. So she let him sleep, and she went to check on the wounded. She obviously needed him, if the way she was shaking him awake was any indication.
“What?” Henry whispered back, and his swollen tongue almost sticked to his palates. God, he was parched…
“He’s awake” she got Henry’s hand into her much smaller ones, it almost looked like she was clutching the paw of a monster. There was blood on her fingers, so she must had been redressing some wounds, when she noticed Mark regain consciousness, and she came to get him right away.
“Come” she pulled him into sitting position, it was quite an effort with her so small build, so Henry followed the pull, ordering his body, his screaming joints to move.
“Okay, okay, lead the way” he emerged from the bunk bed a little disoriented, but stable enough to follow her out of the tent. Not because he didn’t know where to find Mark, it’s just his brain still refused to cooperate. But the cold dawn air helped to clear his head, and get a grip on his body and movement, while his limbs still continued quivering like jelly. It was no fun trying to walk on those legs.
Lillie lead him to a bed somewhat separated from the others, for privacy, Henry understood. Not so far away from the others to rise suspicion but enough to make possible faint voiced conversation without the risk of being overheard. Mark was lying there, motionless, but his eyes were open, and despite the cloudy expression on his face, he was observing his surroundings.
“Go” Lillie directed Henry to Mark’s bed with a determined shove between his shoulder blades. When he turned back to her for a moment, she smiled at him. “I’ll be over there shall you need anything. Take your time, everyone’s asleep. No one will see you.”
Henry nodded, and went to Mark. A sob was caught in his throat, he didn’t feel like talking, or to summon the force to say anything. Still he went, like a moth drawn by flickering lights. Lillie knew. Knew him from the start. And she didn’t judge him for what he was. She was helping unconditionally like she always did. Now he understood. She was mutely revolting against every outdated principle what should be already dead in this war reforming or destroying humanity. Lillie believed in the first, not in destruction, not in extinction, while Henry only wanted to survive, plain and simple.
It was plain and simple before. But not since he was praying for Mark. Since that first time they met everything has changed. He would happily join Lillie in her revolt grabbing the slightest chance to create a better world for the renegade women like her, and the damned souls like himself, or Mark – what he believed he was.
He sat on the edge of Mark’s bed, and observed his features for a silent moment. He was pale, and lost considerable weight, his face looked haggard, but his sunken eyes shone with the same glistening light as always. His lips pulled in a mischievous grin, as he observed Henry sit on the bed.
“Hey, sleepyhead” whispered Henry.
“Hey, yourself” winked Mark, the glow and radiance of happiness for seeing Henry evident on his features. He tried to sit up, and Henry helped him, pushing a pillow behind his back. As he leaned so close he could be kissed by Mark, he saw in his peripheral vision as the smile spread wider on his face. When he started to speak in a muffled voice, his warm breath washed over Henry’s neck with an explosion of suppressed sensations. “You were worried. You were worried if I never wake up.”
“Of course I was, you bastard. Who would love you, if not me?” Henry didn’t even try to swallow the words of confession. He wanted to come clean to Mark, come Hell and High-water.
“So… you are in love with me now?” The smug expression on his face was almost endearing.
“Not now… for ever, from the first time we met, I think” Henry shook his head.
“And when did you plan to tell me this?”
“Dunno” Henry averted his gaze. “Not now… not ever, I should think…”
“What changed now?”
“You… that you’d almost died… I needed you to know. Even if it’s the end of us… I mean o-our f-friendship” Henry staggered.
“Do I look like I want it to end? Before it even could start?”
Henry felt a grin so wide split his face it hurt. Mark returned his feelings. He never dared to dream of everyone’s best buddy Mark sharing his affections, even wanting him.
“But Henry, what if we start by surviving the war first? Then give in everything we’ve got?”
“I’m game” he leaned in for a quick, secret kiss, but it was Mark who finally initiated it.
- Lyrics based on Dance with me by Nathaniel Johnstone
- Source of cover image: WorthPoint