Title: Soldiering On
Word count: 1,000
Content: WWII AU, Gen/Pre-slash
Prompt: #1 Wild Card.
Summary: "Potter, do you know what the definition of courage is?"
A/N: Thanks so much to accioslash for everything. <3 If you'd like to see the art by phoenixcharm180 that this fic was written for, go to the original entry here: DW, LJ, or IJ
The operation had a name—the big brass had been by to explain it to his commanding officers—but Harry only knew that when the sun rose they'd begin their offensive. His sergeant had spoken to them beforehand and his tone was grim.
That was one thing about Snape. He never bullshitted his men and he wasn't often wrong. It didn't take long to learn to listen to him and follow his commands with precision. Those who didn't, well, Harry had seen what happened to them.
They were sent home in a plain, pine box.
The entire day passed slowly, the other soldiers in his troop seemingly in the same state of apprehension. They ate mechanically, the occasional burst of raucous laughter punctuating the abnormally quiet meals in the mess hall.
After supper, Harry slept until his watch was to begin. Whether it was insomnia, a faulty internal clock, or a commitment to duty, Harry was Snape's most trusted watchman, even in the darkest hours of the night. The inability to sleep was one thing they seemed to have in common.
"Sergeant Snape," Harry said, jumping from his position, his hand going to his forehead as soon as he noted Snape's presence.
Snape saluted him in return and indicated he should sit again. "Coffee, Potter?" Snape brought out his thermos but Harry declined.
"No, thank you. I'm awake."
Snape nevertheless poured some coffee into the lid. "I'd kill for some real cream," he said wincing after he took the first sip. The coffee was always either pale like dirty water or dark, tasting of cigarette butts.
Harry couldn't say he knew Snape well but they had each shared a bit of their past during those cold, long nights of winter.
When he'd asked if Snape was married, Harry discovered that he had loved and lost, though he'd got the impression that was a long time ago. It seemed Snape had decided to become a military man after that, dedicating himself to keeping as many soldiers alive as he could.
Harry was fairly certain he would die tomorrow but he'd thought that several times in the past and had somehow managed to survive by the skin of his teeth. Whether it was luck or a Guardian Angel, he didn't know but he hoped (and prayed) he'd see another birthday this year.
"Not very talkative tonight, are you, Potter?" Snape pinned Harry with a look that said he knew exactly what Harry was thinking about, and he probably did. Harry sometimes had the impression Snape could read minds but that was ridiculous, of course. He must just be able to read people better than most men. Perhaps it was why he maintained such a low mortality rate for his company.
"What's going to happen tomorrow, Sergeant?" Harry asked when he finally got up the nerve.
"It's today, now." Snape took another sip of his bitter, black coffee. He looked into the darkness and Harry watched him in profile, his stomach fluttering in spite of himself. He swallowed whatever feelings of admiration, as he called them, that he had for the man and waited. Snape would answer when he was ready and no sooner.
"We will do what we've been asked to do, to the best of our ability," he replied, weighing every word carefully. "We will lose far too many men—" he paused, then sighed heavily, "—though we shall succeed in our mission, I am certain of it." Snape sounded so confident and sure of himself.
Harry hated to ask but he had to, it was in his nature. "Aren't you ever afraid?"
Snape turned toward him and Harry sucked in a breath, afraid he'd gone too far, suggesting the sergeant of his company might be afraid of anything. But Snape's expression actually softened when he met Harry's eye.
"Potter, do you know what the definition of courage is?" Harry would have thought he was trying to embarrass him but Snape's tone was serious and without derision.
"Yes, I do."
Harry squeezed his hands into fists then released them reflexively several times before replying. "To be brave, fearless—"
"No," Snape cut across him. "It is not to be without fear. It is to show no fear, to control it."
"So," Harry began, heart pounding in his chest, "it's all right to be afraid?"
"Those who have no fear are reckless or idiots." His tone told Harry everything he needed to know about Snape's feelings about reckless idiots.
Harry couldn't help it; he snorted. "Sorry."
Snape smirked but sobered quickly. "You are no idiot, Potter."
It didn't sound like praise but he knew Snape, and it was definitely a compliment.
They sat in silence for a long while, Snape occasionally taking sips of his presumably now cold coffee.
When the sky lightened infinitesimally, Snape stood and Harry was quick to stand as well. Snape looked at him for a long moment and, while Harry was waiting for him to, he didn't say anything. He turned and took two steps before Harry managed to get out a word. "Sergeant Snape?"
Snape stopped but didn't turn.
"You're the bravest man I've ever met. It's been an honor to serve with you."
His boots clicked when he saluted Snape's retreating form but the sound must have given Snape pause because he then turned back around.
"Corporal Potter," Snape said in the voice that brooked no argument, "I expect to see you at your post tomorrow night. No excuses."
Harry nodded, unable to form words. That was Snape's way of saying "Be careful" or "Stay safe." Or maybe just "Don't get yourself killed."
With a curt nod, Snape turned on his heel and disappeared into the darkness.
Strangely comforted, Harry took up his post once more, sitting behind his gun and looking out into the unknown.