George hasn’t been sleeping.
He’s not special. No-one has been getting much rest. Not sleeping means that he sees the other guys tossing and turning; or going suddenly rigid and then waking with a start; and he sees the guys who are too alert, too fast to have been sleeping deeply. He’s been getting looks from Doc Roe, Spina too, but Easy’s medics have too many sick men to tend to, too many wounded ones, to come bother George about the fact he’s looking a little tired.
He has tried, he’s not stupid, knows that now they’re sleeping on trucks and occasionally even in beds instead of foxholes he should appreciate that while he can, but every time he closes his eyes there’s some sound that has him jerking them back open again. Sometimes what he hears is real - Lipton’s steadily worsening cough wracking at his lungs and leaving him shaking so hard that when George goes to him he has to open Lip’s canteen for him so he can sip some water and soothe his throat. Sometimes it’s a memory, Skip and Penkala’s voices calling out to him every time the darkness draws close.
Sometimes he hears things that he never heard, like Toye and Guarnere yelling in the snow even though in reality Doc had the situation under control by the time George got there. He even hears things that never happened at all, Malarkey gasping his final prayers in wet breaths, Perconte hit a little higher and screaming instead of just cursing his pain, replacements he doesn't even know the names of yet sobbing for their mothers and an escape from the truth of the war.
The coffee they get is gritty and always goes cold faster than he can drink it, but still he pours himself mug and after mug of the stuff and keeps his ears open to make sure that the sounds that haunt his fleeting moments of sleep don’t become part of his waking hours too.
He was surprised when he made it into the paratroopers, had volunteered on the promise of extra pay while acutely aware that he was no hardened warrior. Even having stuck it out through the training he’d doubted his suitability, but he made for a good radio technician - a natural talker even he wasn’t a natural fighter. And oh god does he talk. Sometimes he’s not even sure the words coming out his mouth are making sense, but the constant patter drowns out the voices of dead and dying friends in his head and the meagre distraction is all he can give to those still standing.
He jokes with those guys who can still take it, all too many of them too tired and broke down to remember how to laugh, and babbles mindlessly in an attempt to distract the most badly beaten of them from their pain. He offers reassurances to Lip, promises that everything is under control in the hope that if hears that he’ll rest and fight off his infection long enough to receive the promotion that’s coming to him. George has a close eye on him, because the medics might be telling him to take it easy but they’re too damn busy to follow him around enforcing it, and there’s no medicine they can give him but peace and time that they don't have. Lipton’s resistance is understandable, fuck knows the last thing that George wants right now is restful time alone with his thoughts and his memories, so he does his best to keep Lip company whenever he can steal some time, hoping the other man will convalesce a little easier with some distraction.
He’s helping his guys, all but one. He avoids Malarkey and feels terrible about it, but there is nothing to be said between them, not when George watched both of the man’s best friends die and could do nothing to save them. Every time their paths cross George sees Malarkey’s pain and feels the condemnation he doesn't offer but George know he deserves and it's unbearable.
They drive into little French town that looks like all of the others, his platoon is billeted to a crumbling house stacked with bunk beds that George has no intention of ever being in, and they're given a new Lieutenant who George appreciates if only because he serves a distraction and gives George a little more ammunition in his fight to get Lip to rest.
He keeps busy, the more he does the less he has to think, so when Speirs asks for somebody to take on supply duties George is happy to take ‘em on. It’s not easy work, not when there’s fewer supplies than people needing them, and not when he’s got to balance the fact that he really does want to take care of his guys against the fact that it just wouldn’t be right to screw people over just so he can give his buddies the best of what little they've got.
He’s almost regretting agreeing to it, almost tearing out his hair with frustration as half the goddamn company demands chocolate when he hears a familiar voice call out, “Hey bigmouth, give the kid a hershey bar!”
For a split second he thinks the voices have followed him from sleep to his waking hours, but this doesn’t carry the horror of the others and when he turns Frank is standing there clear as day and George’s mind has never given him the images to go with the sound so he grins, whole heart a little lighter at seeing Frank back.
Frank hadn’t been hit too badly but George knew that doesn’t mean much. He’d heard enough to know that Frank had gone from the aid station to the hospital, and George had figured they wouldn’t be seeing him again. Best case scenario Frank took his time being treated, was at least safe and out of the war with a wound that’d heal. George had thought of worst cases too, of infection and disease and of an ambulance hit by stray artillery, but he’d tried not to dwell on those. But having Frank back is a shock.
It’s also a blessed relief, a reminder that not all of their guys who are gone are lost for good. As Frank laughs and jokes he gets the guys laughing with him, something that George has been failing at so much lately but he’s so glad to see.
Frank is full of confidence and claims that the war is nearly over and it would be easy to stay buoyed by that were it not for Liebgott’s quiet reminder of the patrol, most of what's left of the company being pulled to cross the river for reasons George can’t fathom. Then Cobb starts running his fuckin’ mouth, picking at Vest like it’s the poor kids fault he’s in the rear echelon when Cobb goddamn volunteered for the front lines, and it’s enough to make him grateful that Lipton’s given him shit to blow up.
Soon enough the guys are off on patrol and even Vest has gone with ‘em leaving George to find a way to kill the time. Sleep is creeping in, darkness at the edge of his vision, but he won’t put himself through that before he has to. He checks on Lipton first, finds that Speirs has finally managed to finagle him into an actual bed, although Lip makes perfectly clear that he won’t be sleeping until the patrol is back safe. He does try to send George to get some rest, and George sidesteps his request with a joke, unwilling to lie to Lipton but unable to do as he asks.
He makes another check on their supplies, which haven’t changed since last time he looked, then finds himself on the street, looking out across the river. He’s too far back to see much, but he’s been in the army long enough that he doesn’t need to see to know what’s going down. If they’re lucky it’ll be quick and clean, they grab some prisoners and blow the place, but when has Easy company ever been lucky?
He could use a smoke but he’s running dangerously low and he isn't enough of a bastard to take advantage of handling supplies and skim himself a pack or three when so many guys are facing the same struggle. He shuts his eyes instead, resting a moment while trusting that the cold of the night and the fact he’s still on his feet will keep the risk of sleep at bay.
He hears footsteps approaching him from behind and thinks for a moment that he ought to open his eyes and check it’s not an officer or even some lone lost kraut somehow on the wrong side of the river. He doesn’t though, tells himself the steps are too light, too loose for command or for somebody behind enemy lines.
There’s the snick of a lighter and he opens his eyes to see Perco lighting a cigarette. Lucky bastard must have gotten resupplied at the hospital. He holds the lighter out to George but George shakes his head. “Nearly out,” he admits. He can smell the smoke now and the temptation is almost enough to have him reaching into his jacket, but he’s only got half a pack and god only knew how long he’d have to make that last for.
Frank eyes him warily for a minute, before fishing in his own pockets for a second cigarette and holding it out to George. “Just don’t go spreading it about that I’ve got some,” he says, as George accepts the offering, “Else they’ll all want one.”
“You saw that display earlier with the hershey bars,” George agrees. It’s like dealing with children sometimes, except George’s ma had made damn sure her brood knew how to share. Then again, how many of those boys had come to Toccoa with nice manners only to discard them when it became clear there was no space for politeness in war.
The first drag of the cigarette is bliss. It’s some cheap brand, not luckies or any other one he knows, but the smoke fills his lungs just the same, filtering into his blood and curling through the cracks in his soul.
As he exhales he says, “Must be cushy at that hospital if you’ve got smokes to share,” another drag and, “What d’you do to get your ass booted back out here so fast?”
“Too many nurses,” Frank quips, then shakes his head and says, “You got this far without being hurt, you keep it up, because let me tell you, them doctors is worse than the krauts, always goddamn poking and prodding at you, never letting a guy get a minutes peace.”
“Oh yeah?” George asks.
“Oh yeah,” Frank confirms, “Now let me tell you, you would not believe the way some of those fellas talk. And there was this one nurse...”
George takes another drag and lets Frank’s patter wash over him and drown out the noise of war.