You pull back, deeper into the Ardennes. You don’t have to sleep in a foxhole tonight. It’s not going to snow in your hair while you sleep, your toes won’t freeze in your boots.
Not much warmer in the CQ tent but you’ve got a military-issue cot and a Sterno oven to thaw your white knuckles. Lip’s got the men under control. They’re not afraid. You don’t think about Dike.
A military life’s worth less than a civilian one; you worked it out in your head, once, during a training jump. It figured at about five to one — five troopers dead to save one civilian seemed a reasonable and gallant trade. An NCO’s life is worth less than an officer, exchanging at about ten to one or more. But then, an officer’s life is worth less than a civilian too. Two to one, maybe. You haven’t found a theorem for that. A staff sergeant’s not worth a West Point grad, but that’s just the DOAs; you have to figure in casualties, injuries, prisoner trade. One medic is worth three or four NCOs, but only alive. A dead medic is worthless. You remind yourself not to tell Gene Roe.
Up here, they try to tell you officers are pretty much interchangeable, battalion XO for an intelligence officer, major for a captain, field lieutenant for a lieutenant in HQ who’s never seen a day of combat.
Captain Lewis Nixon’s melting snow for coffee. Two officers in one tent, gotta be worth at least a platoon on the line. You warm your hands over the Sterno and wonder which platoon’s gonna go down for you. Buck Compton’s men are top of the line; they’d make a reasonable sacrifice. Lieutenant Peacock’s platoon would be a steal.
You hate this war.
"Coffee?" Nix asks, and you nod. "Lousy-ass coffee," he amends. "I’m just rebrewing from this morning. Not holding out hope for a supply run, you know."
"No, because then we’d have ammo. Maybe winter clothes too."
Nix smiles. "I’d just take the coffee and a couple more bottles of rotgut."
"I know you would," you smile back, and your face cracks in the cold.
Lewis Nixon grins like a sonofagun, and it’s the only thing, these days, that reminds you what you’re worth.
You underwent a weapons upgrade when they gave you this promotion. You’ve got a longer range of sight, but usability was compromised for it, it’s harder for your finger to reach the trigger. You deal in platoons, battalions, regiments now. The soldier’s become nearly too small to see, left to Lieutenant Dike, Sergeant Lipton. Lieutenant Peacock. Compton. Malarkey. Guarnere. Martin. Colonel Sink tells you they’re still your men, but you know. They’re their own men.
You’re your own man, cold as a witch’s kneecap back here, away from the lines, and nothing but Nix to remind you of your worth and pour your coffee.
You hate this damn job. You hate this damn forest.
But it’s quiet, at least. Until it’s not.
Artillery screams through the treeline, taking pine branches like comet tails wheeling into the snow. The boom’s delayed, flash then thunder, you stand up.
"Dick!" Nix grabs your shoulder. "Stay in the tent, man."
Another barrage and the air’s littered with fat chunks of snow and frozen earth, the trees are exploding like they’re mined. Exploding trees. You flinch, damn it, try to steel your face as you watch through the tent flap and another round of artillery explodes fifty yards away and you flinch again and are shocked to find you’ve covered your face with your hand.
"That’s way too close, Nix," you say. "I have to make sure the men have cover, that they’ve dug the foxholes deep enough —"
"Not your job anymore, Dick, listen to me. That’s Lieutenant Dike’s job. And the platoon leaders. The platoon leaders can handle it."
"Staff Sergeant Lipton’s a good soldier," you say.
"Yep," Nix agrees. "And so’s Buck Compton and the rest of the men. E Company’s trained for this. They’ll do just fine. You’ve got to stay off the line, so —"
Turns out you can’t hear him over the screaming artillery. You sit down and you cover your head because there's nothing else you can do. An officer's life is worth more than an NCO's. A major's life is worth more than a field lieutenant's. Colonel Sink's built an expensive weapon in you, and Lewis Nixon's protecting it like it's a case of Vat 69.
"Why are you here, anyway?" You ask Lew, more shrewish than you'd meant to sound.
"It was here or back in Bastogne with the goddamned paper pushers, and you've got better coffee."
Another explosion. The tent shakes. Little bits of dirt and snow fall into your tin mug. You drink the coffee anyway. You're a weapon and it doesn't matter.
Nix is in the doorway, standing cockeyed with his back on the support beam, looking out at the shrapnel and the snow.
"What a goddamned mess," he says, but not to you. He doesn't swear when he talks to you. "What a goddamned fucking mess, Dick."
"It's war," you agree.
You signed your life over when you entered officer's training. You never expected to live this long or get this far. You're dead, obsolete, just taking up space for the next field-tested weapon in the next field-tested war. It doesn't bother you.
"I'll tell you one thing," Nix says. "I'm glad you're here. I mean, saves me from having to worry about your ass on the line."
You smile at your coffee again. "Since when have you worried about my ass?"
"It's a very important ass," Nix cocks an eyebrow. "A Major ass."
You laugh and a tree explodes somewhere. Your stomach hurts.
"Major Winters -- excuse me, Captain -- Major Winters?" Eugene Roe nods at Nixon and enters the tent. His hands are covered with blood and he's trying to wipe them on his pants but his pants are covered with blood and snow too.
You stand up. "Yeah?"
"Either of you guys got bandages, morphine?"
You check your kit and come up with a single bandage wrapped around a cardboard square. You toss it to Roe.
"Captain Nixon?" Nix is in his kit too, comes back with two syrettes of morphine and a bottle of iodine.
Roe stashes the haul, salutes, leaves in a crunch of thunder and snow as somewhere German artillery erupts. You get to your feet again.
"I need to talk to Lieutenant Dike," you say, handing your tin cup to Nix. He shoots out an arm and bars the tent flap.
"Sit down, Dick," he says. More artillery. You look at him, not moving. "You gonna pull rank on me? You're gonna have to."
"The men --"
"They're not your men anymore," Nixon says, not for the first time, not for the last time. "Trust the noncoms, and sit your Major ass down."
Nix's face is half obscured in shadow, and his beard's thicker now that it's too cold to shave. His eyes are steeled, trained on you. He looks dark. He takes his helmet off and scrapes his fingers through his hair and it falls shaggy on his forehead. You shiver.
"I'll sit if you sit," you say, sitting. Nix looks away, out the tent flap, out into the snow. He tugs at his scarf. "That's an order, Captain." Nix grins with half his mouth.
He leans out of the tent as a mortar goes off somewhere, comes back inside with a helmet full of snow which he brings over to the Sterno fire and jiggles. You warm your hands and watch.
"Coffee goes cold too damned fast," Nix says, mostly to his helmet. "You want?"
He's solid beside you, hip against yours, and you think it's strange you can feel him radiating heat until you realize you are too. Your fingers and nose are cold. You can't figure it out. You shift a little in your seat.
People don't touch, where you come from. Your father never touched you. You can count the times your mother hugged you on one hand. You don't have girlfriends, and they used to call you a queer but they also used to call you a Quaker and you've learned to ignore it. Nix likes to touch.
He'll grab your arm, lean in close with his whiskey breath and whisper laughter at you. He'll nap on your shoulder on the train. At first it made you stiffen, made you uncomfortable. Now it makes you generate heat from your armpits, your neck, your thighs, and outside it's blowing snow and ammunition. You scoot away. Need to keep focused. You're military-issue. You're a Major, for Pete's sake.
"Lew," you say. "Thanks for coming out here."
"War is hell," he shrugs. You laugh. You put a hand on his knee, experimentally. He doesn't seem to notice.
"Really, I'd be out of my mind if I were stuck here alone with the men out there."
"You'd be in a foxhole somewhere about to get your legs blown off," Nixon says. "And who do you think Colonel Sink would blame?"
"You're not my babysitter," you smile. "Remember, I outrank you."
"Don't get too comfortable resting on those clusters," he says. "I'm right behind you, you know."
You know Colonel Sink has no intention of promoting Captain Nixon, that his drinking is a problem, his cocky disregard for authority, his limited field experience, the fact that he's never once fired his weapon in combat. You cling to Nixon for all those reasons, those and his cockeyed, scruffy smile. His eyes are inky, and you can see yourself in them, twin ruddy blurs. You take off your helmet. You like yourself in his eyes.
"Lew?" He blinks at you. "Can you feel your toes?"
He shakes his head. "Not really, no."
You sit in silence a minute and watch the snow melt in Nixon's helmet. You're chilled again.
You scoot back, just another inch, and there's Nix's hip again, warm and solid and you realize your hand's still on his knee and you slide it up his thigh, something warm and solid, not military issue at all. You turn a few degrees toward him and he looks at you expectantly, lips pursed.
You lean in and kiss him on his scruffy whiskey mouth.
He pushes you away, drops his helmet, laughing. "Whoa, Dick, man, listen --"
You inhale icy air through your nostrils but you're not nearly as embarrassed as you thought you'd be. You're a Major, for Pete's sake. "I've been wanting to do that since Toccoa," you say, cleanly.
"Uh, yeah. Okay. You feel better now?"
You nod. He's such a man, such a little boy sometimes, all booze and machismo, all East Coast hyperintellectual, the brooding, marrying kind. His wife's a shrew. He's trembling and you don't want him to be trembling so you kiss him again and this time he doesn't push you away, not immediately.
"Di-- Major Winters," he stands up, stumbles backward and kicks the Sterno jar into the snow and the flame sizzles out.
"Captain Nixon," you say, still surprised at your own calm. He digs in his pocket, pulls out the omnipresent flask and takes a long draw.
"Seriously? You're an attractive guy and, I mean, who am I to challenge the authority of the XO of this whole goddamn battalion, but-- what, you're a fag?"
You're less calm. "As far as the Army's concerned, I'm a Panzer tank," you say. "I'm an expensively trained fighting tool and I'm stuck here behind the lines because those boys out there --" you jerk a thumb toward the tent flap-- "are worth less than I am."
"Oh, god, Dick, is that what you--" he crouches in front of you, balanced on the toes of his military issue boots, puts a hand on your knee. "Look, I know this promotion's a pain in the ass --"
"Whether this promotion's a pain in the--" you stumble over the word. "A pain in my valuable Major ass or not is moot, Lew. I'm here. And I -- " you sigh. "It's just so cold."
"It's just so fucking cold, Dick, say it. Trust me, you'll feel better. This war's a fucking joke --" he knocks back some more Vat 69 -- "E company's getting the shit kicked out of them and it's so fucking cold your balls are hiding out behind your spastic colon."
His face is flushed and you think he's the most alive thing you've ever seen. Outside the Germans are back from hiatus with a vengeance and you can feel your bones ache with every tree-splitting crack of incoming fire. You reach for Lewis's shoulders and he's generating heat too. You put a cold hand on his cheek where he's flushed and he's warm to the touch and you know he needs you, he wants it, he wants you too.
"You're warm," you say.
"I'm freezing my ass off," he says, but he's still and he's shuddering and he doesn't move and he stares at you with those crazy eyes.
"You're hot. You're radiating heat."
"I'm not," he says, all low and scared. "Really, it's so --"
This time he kisses you back.
The tent is shaking with each blast of distant fire in the Ardennes, and Nixon's shaking too, blind scared out of his mind but free, for a minute, from the Army, from ritual, from the terror of real life, and you're free too. He runs a hand down your chest, unbuttons your canvas jacket -- too thin to be any good in this weather but that's the quartermaster's problem because you're warm enough now -- scrapes a thumb across the fly of your canvas trousers where you're straining and hard and he closes his eyes for longer than a blink and you can see him swallow.
He unzips your fly, pushes away the grey-green flap of your boxer shorts. Cannon fire somewhere and you throw your head back and his mouth is hot, wet, he knows what he's doing and he's warm around you. You shove a pale, freckled hand into his mop of dirty blackish hair and he slides his fingers up your thigh.
"Jesus Christ, Dick," he says, pulling back a minute, looking up. You don't begrudge him the profanity and you can hear screams of "get down!" amid the mortar fire. "What the hell are we doing? I can't -- oh, god -- "
You pull his face toward yours and you kiss his wet mouth and he kisses you too, hands everywhere, clawing your shoulders, dragging you down off the bench and into the snow and when you let a hand accidentally brush his thigh you know he's hard too.
"Ah, fuck," he says, finding your cock with a hand and then his mouth again. "Ah, fuck," this time with his mouth full.
"It's all right," you say, but your voice hitches as he rolls his tongue around and you know the Army didn't have this in mind when they promoted you and here with Lewis Nixon reminding you what it is to be alive you don't care about the damned Army. "It's -- oh. Lew, oh."
Nix pulls back again and shakes his head and laughs, that gravelly laugh you've held on to like a talisman since Georgia. "Fucking A, Dick, I swear to god this is fucking insane, I must be out of my mind -- "
"You want to --" you're going to say "stop" but Nix cuts you off --
"I swear to god I'm gonna come even before you do, fucking, fucking A, what the fuck is this about?"
There's an explosion out there somewhere, then a breeze and you twitch. Nix shimmies in closer beside you, wraps his hand around your cock and holds steady for a moment, sheer panic in his eyes as he searches your face. You prop your head against the bench and breathe a little, and an explosion rocks the woods again. You don't know whether to come or to cry. Neither, it seems, does Lewis, and his eyes are closed tight again but his hand's warm and solid around you and this is worth something, maybe. This moment, this man.
He laughs again. "You're a crazy sonofabitch, Dick," he says. "And holy shit I don't know why but you're the sexiest bastard -- why -- Jesus! I am so fucking hot this is -- I swear to god I've never been this turned on in my life."
"War is hell," you say, and he smiles, and you've thawed enough you don't feel like a weapon anymore.
"War is hell," he agrees. "Fucking A." And you're still dangerously hard but you breathe a little and curl a couple fingers into the waistband of Nix's pants. He shakes his head.
"Nah, let me just --" but his words are lost in mortar fire and there's screaming out there and you close your eyes and Lewis Nixon goes down on you again.