Rob whimpers in the night, whenever the storms sweep over the city. It could be the growl of thunder melting into the booming roar of howitzers, or the pounding rain that echoes the death-crackle of rifle fire, or the howling of the wind dissolving into the screams of dying men – it doesn’t matter, really. The first thing Luke knows is a soft, hesitant tap on his door.
And Rob…Rob doesn’t ask for help. Ever. But his face is chalk-white, every corner etched deep with tension, hands trembling, and the request couldn’t be more blatant if he’d screamed it aloud. His eyes are sunken and tired in the way Luke remembers being tired. Hollowed out, like a gnarled tree stricken with rot. The ghosts of long miserable nights hunched beside guttering fires in the pouring rain, ice shivering through your bones and mud seeping into your socks, nothing but gruel churning in your hollow belly. Acrid poison tearing at the lungs, shadows howling like demons under a choking green sea. Or braced shoulder-to-shoulder in the broken earth while the enemy guns sweep away the friends either side of you, butchers’ meat splashed to the four winds, and afterward an ash-grey sky full of diving crows.
‘C’mon,’ he beckons, and leads Rob downstairs. Rob follows, fists clenched. Ajax meets them at the front door with a joyous bark. Luke passes Rob a stout blackthorn stick. The darkness outside is streaked silver with rain.
Rob blinks. ‘What are you…?’
Luke just nods at the open door. ‘Go on. Trust me. No rush.’ Rob hesitates, then grunts and trudges out into the drizzle, Ajax dancing around his legs.
Sarah – Rob’s wife – joins him, leaning against the doorjamb and gazing after them. ‘Bad dreams again, huh?’
‘We’ll be okay.’ Luke watches until the blackness swallows them up, then slips upstairs to the kitchen.
He heats milk whisked with nutmeg and honey, sweet and warm. Then bubble and squeak with greens, fried in butter. The potatoes sizzle and hiss in the skillet, crispy and gold. The carrots look very small and tender. Tiny pearl onions. He likes small veg. A rich earthy smell. For Rob, the friend who reached out first. For Rob, the captain who led him through the choking fires of war, and still brought him safely home.
The rain drums against the window. Five minutes. Ten.
The door creaks downstairs. A frantic pattering of claws before Ajax skitters into the room, tail thrumming against his legs. A minute later Rob shuffles in, trailing the cold like a shroud, face pale and jaw clenched.
But his hands aren’t shaking.
‘Sit there,’ Luke orders. Rob slumps into the armchair, staring fixedly at the floor. Ajax curls around his ankles, looking thoroughly pleased. His fur is matted with mud. He stinks of the river.
Luke brings over the steaming mug, and Rob’s eyes widen and widen like this is nothing he ever expected.
‘What-‘ he tries, and Luke shrugs. Rob doesn’t rely on him. Never has. He shouldn’t rely on him, that’s okay. But Rob’s body deserves soft things, Rob’s body deserves comfort, Rob deserves comfort.
‘It’ll help,’ he just says, and hopes it’s true. He brings the plate over, Ajax’s eyes tracking his every move. So many gifts, and the way Rob never stops being surprised when he eats something good, something Luke cooked just for him. He hopes this feels like a gift for Rob, maybe, this patchwork mess of steaming leftovers, but he’s not sure –
‘Oh, fuck,’ Rob groans, slumping back against the wall, eyes closed. ‘I always hated collards when I was a kid. Mum used to boil the hell out of ‘em.’ He chuckles wetly. ‘We ate ‘em like four times a week, and I hated ’em.’
‘I can make something else,’ Luke offers, but Rob just smiles, pulls his plate closer.
‘Don’t you dare,’ he mutters, and sniffles as he eats, but he’s grinning through his tears. And after, Ajax curled up against his chest, Luke hears Rob quietly weeping in Sarah’s arms as she murmurs soothingly to him.
‘I miss her,’ he hears, soft and cracked, ‘I miss Mum, so damn much,’ and Luke thinks, god, Ma, do I miss you too.