The first time he properly meets Dick Winters, it’s two weeks into training at the brand new OCS at Fort Benning. Lew is coming back from a long night of attempting to chase down something resembling fun in Columbus. He's tired enough that he's actually looking forward to his narrow bunk with its too-tight sheets.
It’s past five, the sun won’t make an appearance for another hour or so, and there’s a red-headed weirdo swimming in the cold waters of Upatoi Creek.
The townie drops him off at a crossroads a couple miles short of the fort.
It's the closest he can manage without going too far out of his way; he handles the printing for the Sunday Ledger-Enquirer and wants to get home before the sun rises, otherwise it will screw his sleep schedule all to hell. But like every newsman Lew's ever met, he is willing to perform favors in exchange for some good liquor – in this case, giving an inebriated officer candidate a ride back to Fort Benning at five in the morning.
Lew pats the top of the car to signal his thanks and watches the tail lights recede into the dark. He sighs, lights a cigarette, and starts ambling down the road.
The night is quiet all around him, making the slap of his shoes against the wet asphalt too obvious. And damn it if the military hasn't seeped in right and proper at some point in the past few months, because his brain immediately starts marking time with every step.
Christ, he can't even get away from it when drunk.
He hadn't always planned to join the Army, but here he is. Mrs. Nixon's little boy, swaying down some Georgian spring avenue, head full of potential compass bearings.
The shift in the towering old trees lining the road spur strange, half-borne proposals for offensive tactical movements, like any moment his training officer might jump out from behind a bush and demand a recital of strategy for countering an ambush. The trees thin as he approaches the squat stone bridge that straddles the creek. Under the spare opening of the sky, his eye catches on a flash of pale skin on the edge of the water.
Lew pauses and then quietly steps up to the side of the bridge. His hand automatically cups around his cigarette to conceal the glowing end. He peers down into the gloom.
The man below is stripped down to just his shorts, and he's limbering up like he intends to swim. Lew shakes his head. He doesn't investigate his own impulses, just crosses the bridge and shuffles down the wet embankment.
It's only when he's a few feet away that he finally recognizes the other man: Dick Winters. Pennsylvanian boy. The quiet, industrious sort.
Lew sidles casually up to him like they're meeting in a lounge and not by a rushing creek in the dead of night. Winters turns at the sound of rustling grass and blinks at him.
He gestures with his cigarette. “You always choose to swim this late?”
“I just got up.”
Lew inhales on that, considering. So he's one of those. Up at 0500 on their one rest day, Christ.
That quiet gaze flicks over him, no doubt taking in the rumpled shirt and hair, the creep of black stubble. “You're just getting back from last night.” He looks back up at the empty road. “I didn't hear your vehicle.”
“Local gave me a ride.”
Winters nods his understanding. After a moment, he resumes stretching.
Lew decides a break from his walk sounds pretty good right about now. He looks around for a rock and, finding a likely candidate in short order, sits against it and immediately pats his pockets for a flask. He goes to tip it back but pauses when he sees Winters watching him again.
He offers the flask, but Winters politely declines.
Lew shrugs. “You could probably do with the warmth, that water's going to be damn cold this early in April. Even down here.”
But he's not going to quibble overly much with a man who doesn't want to take his whiskey. He drinks and Winters stretches. After a few more minutes of this, Winters starts to wade out into the water. If he minds the cold, he doesn't show it.
One of those stoic types, Lew figures. Man was probably made for the Army.
“So say, how'd you come out of that big test on Friday?” He calls over.
It had been on map-reading, and the examiners all said it would be the hardest test they took in the program. Of course, they said that pretty much every week.
Winters sounds unconcerned when he replies, “It might as well have been a true-or-false quiz.”
Too late, Lew remembers that Winters is a college graduate. Most of the other candidates were NCOs, solid Army hands. The two of them were the odd men out.
“I suspect you also had an easy time of it,” Winters continues. “Being a Yale man and all.”
So Winters recalls details from their first introduction, that figures. Lew lights another cigarette and speaks around it.
“Yeah, well. I'm not too worried about the mental side of things. It's PT that's a real pain in the ass.”
Winters says, “I like the running.”
Lew snorts. “Well, of course you do. Look at you now, swimming at five in the morning on a Sunday.”
Winters looks back at him over his shoulder. “I'm not doing this for the pleasure of it. I need to get better.”
Lew surreptitiously eyes the neat line of muscles along the other man's shoulders and thighs. He finds it hard to believe he wasn't already a strong swimmer. More likely he's a perfectionist.
They don’t talk a whole lot after that. Winters swims and Lew slouches against his rock and sips from his flask. He is warm and loose and not at all uncomfortable about hanging out in the dark with this mostly naked maniac. It all feels perfectly normal.
He falls asleep at some point and is woken by a hand on his shoulder.
Winters looks down at him with a faintly quizzical expression. He’s clothed once more in basic PT gear, and his red hair is slicked wetly back from his forehead. Stray drops of water dapple his shoulders.
He waits patiently as Lew gets to his feet and sorts himself out, and then they walk back together. They don’t talk much, but it’s not an awkward silence. At the end, with the sun threatening to make an appearance in the east, Lew goes to pass out on his cot and Winters heads off to the mess for a light breakfast and coffee.
After that, Lew starts hanging around Dick Winters whenever he has the chance.
He doesn't know why, exactly. But it seems like a natural enough eventuality when he realizes how well they work together. Whether it's discussing tactics or comparing opinions on how the Army is run, he finds Winters possesses a receptive ear.
They eat together in the mess; he shows up to study with him in the last hours of their over-scheduled days. When given a choice, they partner together for physical exercises.
Winters never questions the arrangement, so he doesn’t either.
Dick Winters, he discovers, is a real character.
A few weeks into the program, Winters gets gigged for folding his sheet six inches instead of the prescribed seven. Most people probably couldn't tell by looking at his face just how bothered he was by the infraction; Winters took the dressing down with textbook-perfect composure. But there was a tightness around his eyes and mouth that belied his submission.
Lew, who receives a reprimand for something nearly every other day, has to bite his cheek until it damn near bleeds to stop from smirking.
After a couple weeks, he starts to see beyond the boy scout image; for one, unbelievably, Dick Winters was never a boy scout. However, he has many other qualities to make up for this deficiency. Lew is trying to get into the Army habit of documenting pertinent intelligence, so he makes a list.
An abridged list of qualities that make Dick Winters the Ideal Army Officer:
- His seriousness
- His discipline
- His apparent abstinence from absolutely anything that could be construed as a vice, which of course requires its own sub-list:
“You a Quaker?” He asks him one evening. “No, wait — Mormon?”
“You’ve seen me drink coffee,” Winters says absently. Then his brain seems to catch up with his hearing, and he looks up sharply from his book. “And I’m not a Quaker.”
For a while, Lew thinks that Winters is perhaps respectful to the point of humorlessness, but after an afternoon with a communications instructor who manages to goof up two different call signs, Lew is hit with a new epiphany – golden boy Dick Winters might just be bored.
He is exceedingly good at hiding it. In fact, Lew starts to realize he’s skilled at hiding many things. This requires a whole new list.
An abridged list of impolitic qualities Ideal Army Officer Dick Winters conceals:
- The aforementioned boredom
- His contempt for incompetence
- His impatience for Army inefficiency
- A devastatingly sharp ability to size up and judge the character of a man
It's this last item that has Lew feeling odd-footed, because the days continue to pass and Winters never tells him to buzz off.
Thing is, he recognizes pretty quickly that hanging around Winters is helping him cope with the officer training. Lew’s been sipping whiskey since puberty; he knows an enablement when he meets one.
It's not that he isn't capable of getting through the training by himself, of course. He cruises through most of the academic subjects. Tactics, communications, Army organization, and military history – these are all a breeze. And for all that he's fond of the drink and sleeping, he's not in bad physical condition by any means.
No, his main problem, like everything else in life, is frustratingly hard to pin down. The experience of thirteen weeks of yessir-ing and running about in a Georgia swamp is sure to be soul-dragging, and he enters it not even knowing if he is psychologically fit for society at large, let alone the long term embrace of the United States Army.
Kathy had laughed until she choked when she first heard he was joining up, well over a year ago now. No one who knew Lew beforehand would ever have pegged him for a military man. He sure as hell hadn't – even after hearing the news about Pearl Harbor, and knowing for certain that he was going to see combat, he'd still managed to laugh it off.
“Well, that's torn it,” he'd said last December. “Better marry me now, Kathy. If I die in combat, you'll get the Nixon money and a pension.”
She hadn't taken him seriously at first. “Being a young widow sounds glamorous. And I do look good in black.”
“Damn right, you do,” he'd growled, and tackled her into a chaise lounge.
Four months later, he arrived at Fort Benning. Neither of them were really laughing about it anymore.
And then there's – one other thing.
Lew’s never particularly cared for his last name — Nixon is a town and a factory. A compilation of complications, obligations, and all the other heavy things that come from being the grandson of the man who designed America's first battleships.
Nowadays, what with the Army and all, Nixon is all he is; Lew is only rarely heard in the occasional letter or phone call from his wife.
But then somewhere a month in, Dick starts calling him Nix, and he likes that. Who knows where his head's at, but God help him – he thinks he could be a Nix.
The gunfire is a physically percussive force, rat-a-tat-tats in tremolo. With that and the lieutenant hollering at Peters to make a decision, they might as well be a marching band at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with all the subtlety of their approach up the lane.
Nix has a headache.
There's nothing worse than a hangover in the military. Not only can you not indulge in the much needed lie-in, but you can't even admit you have a hangover, not unless you want to be assigned some punishment detail specifically tailored to be as revolting as possible. So he keeps his mouth shut, tries not to squint overly much, and gets on with the training exercise – or he tries to, anyway.
They're supposed to be performing a simple linkup with another company just south of the town – the other company being the other half of their training class and the town a collection of storage buildings on the far edge of the fort. They should have already reached the rendezvous point, but when they got caught out by surprise enemy fire, the assigned “officer” in charge of the exercise fell apart. And now they're all ducked down by the side of the road, cut off from a retreat and unable to move forward.
Peters, the “officer” in question, looks like he's going to cry if the training lieutenant keeps yelling at him like that.
“I'm seriously considering throwing myself in the path of the bullets just to have this over with,” Nix says to Dick.
“Wouldn't work, ammunition's not live,” comes the even reply.
Nix gives him a look. “Don't spoil the fantasy.”
Another five minutes and he just can't take it anymore. He catches Dick's eye and nods towards Peters. Then he hoists himself up into a crouch and hurries down the line of officer trainees.
He'd only meant to explain where he was going, but to his surprise, Dick follows. Boredom, Nix figures.
“Sir,” Nix begins to say when they arrive at the head of the company, but Lieutenant Suze cuts him off.
“No, you cannot be excused. Get back to your position.”
What, squatting by the boxwoods? He doesn't say. Instead: “Sir, I may have an idea for getting the company back on the move.”
The lieutenant doesn't miss a beat. “Well, talk to your commanding officer, damn it!”
And so, feeling slightly ridiculous about shouting over the gunfire, Nix quickly explains his idea to a tremulous Peters while sketching out a map on a scrap of paper balanced on his knee.
He thinks a small force of men can go west into the tree cover without attracting attention, then come down to flank the enemy just outside the town. As he's explaining the maneuver, he deliberately does not look at Dick or Lieutenant Suze.
After it's all over, Peters is embarrassingly grateful; Nix tells him don't mention it – seriously, and joins the crowd trudging back to the barracks. His ears are still ringing and he's pretty sure his helmet has worn a permanent groove into his forehead. All he wants is dinner and a stiff drink.
“What?” He asks after a moment. Dick has been giving him these sidelong glances, and it's starting to prick at his edges.
“Nothing, nothing,” Dick says, before obviously reconsidering and adding, “You did good back there.”
“I sat on my ass and drew a map,” Nix corrects. “Wasn't even part of the strike force.” Dick had been though; he'd executed the plan flawlessly, even adjusting it when the enemy moved position at the last moment.
But Dick doesn't let it go. “You've got a good head under pressure. You remembered the geography and tactics when half the others lost their wits.”
Nix looks at him, nonplussed. “Dick, we studied that exercise for three hours last Tuesday. An idiot would have remembered the layout of this place – it's not exactly Paris.” And when Dick just glances back at the rest of the class, expression quiet but significant, Nix says, “Yeah, okay, but I never said some of those men weren't idiots.”
Dick's mouth quirks and he presses a hand to his shoulder briefly. “Just take the compliment, Nix.”
His hand is warm and heavy, and Nix swears he can feel its weight even after its been taken away again.
About a month and a half into the course, Dick casually suggests to Nix that he could hang around one Saturday night. Normally he escapes to the city and doesn't come back until late, but he figures he'll be drinking regardless and accepts the invitation.
“I guess this is my chance to see what kind of wild hijinks you get up to when no one else is around,” he says as he slips onto the bench next to Dick at dinner.
“If you're around, how am I supposed to get up to them?” Dick points out. He salts his potatoes and tucks in. His pace is neat and unhurried, a stark contrast to the men around them who are wolfing their dinners down so that they may leave as quickly as possible. (Columbus may not shine brightly, but down here in the depths of Western Georgia, it might as well be New York City.)
Nix chases peas around his plate, not really feeling up to eating the Army's finest cuisine tonight. “So what's the plan, then? Some light calisthenics followed by quiet bible study? Bed by half past eight?”
Dick glances at him. He doesn't look offended by the bible study dig, even though Nix is already kind of sorry for making it. “You can still go out, Nix. You know I won't mind.”
He shrugs his shoulders like scratching an itch. He's uncomfortable and out of sorts and doesn't know why. “Did I say I want to go out? You're a very presumptuous man; maybe I'm in the mood for calisthenics.”
Dick's mouth curls into a smile. “That's the biggest lie I've heard come out of your mouth, and I was there yesterday when you told Lieutenant Marks you respect John McCloy.”
Nix lights a cigarette and mutters around it, “You're right, I hate that man.” He knocks his shoulder against Dick's and looks around the room. “Well, whatever we do, let's do it somewhere that doesn't have a mess officer giving me the evil eye for not finishing this plate. Also, I need to grab my flask.”
“Oh, well, in that case.” Dick stands and gathers up his plate and tray.
Nix dodges the glare of the mess officer and vindictively scrapes the offending peas into the garbage. “Sure you don't want to partake? I think a drunk Dick Winters would be fun.” He's lying, a little; he can't even imagine what a drunk Dick Winters would be like.
“I'll drink if you don't,” Dick says, and Nix nearly hurts his neck, whipping it around fast to stare at the other man.
Dick only raises his eyebrows and waits.
Nix thinks about it for a second, pictures twiddling his thumbs with nothing to serve as a distraction from Dick getting slow and relaxed next to him. He looks like the type that would flush with alcohol, cheeks and nose pink like on a cold January day.
“Nah,” he says at last. “I think you should leave the drinking to the professionals.” He nudges him with his elbow as he steps past. “Wouldn't want Mama and Papa Winters accusing me of corrupting their boy.”
Turns out Dick's idea of a relaxing Saturday evening is not too far off from what Nix expected: listening to the radio, reading, talking about the training – what's interesting, what could be done better.
But then, about two hours in, Dick suggests wrestling. And in a strange cosmic twist of contradictory personalities producing complementary outcomes, Nix has had enough whiskey to think the whole thing is a grand idea.
He caught the odd match or two at Yale; he figures, how hard can it be?
Which brings them to an empty stretch of spotlit grass outside Dick's barracks. The sun's barely set. No one else is around, having found more attractive plans for their Saturday evening.
They face each other over a few feet of ground. Nix doesn't know anything about wrestling beyond the basics, but there's something about the buzzing in his limbs brought on by the flicker of Dick's assessing gaze that makes him think he might come out on top.
Turns out his instincts are dead wrong, and he is forced to admit total defeat after he is pinned for the fourth time in fifteen minutes.
“Didn’t you do any sports in school?” Dick asks after the last pin, looking altogether too smug for his normally stolid attitude.
He's leaning across Nix's chest with one arm around his neck and the other holding a leg up. It's an undignified position that lends itself to undignified thoughts. His evident amusement suffuses every word, like he's spent the past several weeks bottling the humor up among strange company and is only now able to let it loose.
Every breath he takes pushes his chest against Nix's.
“I sailed,” Nix offers after a distracted moment.
Dick releases the arm around his neck, and he thumps his head back against the lawn. The grass had been cut that morning, and the smell makes his nose itch.
“Oh, you sailed.” Dick’s mouth twitches into a smile and he relents further and lets Nix sit up.
Nix thumps his arm. “Don’t knock it. Sailing requires great dexterity, and you have to be quick on your feet. Wait and see, I’ll take you some time.” He waves a hand. “You know, when this is all over.”
“When this is all over, won’t you be a little busy with your wife?”
It’s a nasty jolt, then, realizing he hasn’t thought of Kathy in over a week. It causes something in his stomach to churn uncomfortably. He covers the moment by saying, “There are many hours in the day, Dick. I can spare a few to teach you how to sail.”
Dick braces his elbows on bent knees, as comfortable sitting on the grass as any farm kid in the height of summer. He watches Nix for a moment before saying, “All right, we'll see about that.”
Nix sneezes and then curses. “All right, enough of this wrestling nonsense. Let's get back inside and play some cards.”
“I don't really play poker,” Dick says, voice suddenly more hesitant than it had ever been.
Nix doesn't think the emotion suits the other man. He waves it off as he gets to his feet. “We won't play poker. We're in officer training, Dick – we'll play War.”
And War's a dull game, but with the help of whiskey and some good conversation it passes the time admirably.
Sure, he could be out twirling the length of a dance hall instead, but it's all right; staying in is different with Dick there. Something about the cadence of his even voice and the burnished gleam of his hair in the warm yellow light of the barracks makes the restless part of Nix's brain go quiet.
He has a good night, but the next week, he’s back on the town.
The tilting reflection of amber in the bar counter beer spill makes him think of Dick alone back at the fort. He drinks until the image feels as distant and alien as it should be.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” Nix calls down from the bridge. He leans his elbows on the railing and grins a little messily down at Dick.
“You need to stop coming back so late,” Dick replies. His quiet voice barely carries over the sound of the creek, so naturally Nix has to head on down to the water's edge. You know, to hear better.
Dick looks him up and down and smiles slightly. “What were you going to do if you couldn't find a ride and didn't make it back in time for barracks inspection?”
“I suppose I'd be back too late for barracks inspection,” he says airily, flopping down on the ground. “And then I'd get gigged.”
Dick shakes his head. “I've never met anyone so indifferent to the idea of punishment.”
“Everyone gets to choose what they care about. Why on earth would I choose something like that?”
Dick huffs a laugh and gets on with what he was doing before Nix showed up, which was stripping down to his shorts.
Nix lies back against his trusty rock so he doesn't have to watch all that pale skin emerge under the moonlight. He says over the sound of rustling clothing, “So you ever going to tell me what all this swimming is about?”
He doesn't really expect to get an answer, or even that there is an answer to get, really, because the whole swimming thing has started to seem like just another Dick Winters special. But after a moment Dick says:
“I'm going to try for the airborne.”
Nix blinks at the dark sky and then levers himself up on one elbow so he can blink at Dick.
“The paratroopers?” He takes that in. They’ve all seen the trainees doing the airborne shuffle all over the fort. Dick’s certainly fit enough to be one of them. Now, why the hell he’d want to go jumping behind enemy lines... “And what do your parents think of that idea?”
“They’re against it,” he says, and being Dick, he sounds like he rather minds about that. “But if I’m going to be heading into combat, I want to be with the best of the best. And I think that’s the airborne.”
Well, Nix can hardly argue with that. He lies back down, thoughtful, and fishes a cigarette out of his jacket pocket.
“Have you ever given it any thought?” Dick says. When Nix glances back over, the other man is watching him, expression quietly focused.
“What, jumping out of a plane into occupied territory?” He gestures vaguely with his cigarette. “Can't say that I have, no.”
“Maybe you should,” he says. When Nix just snorts, he presses, “Come on, Nix. You've seen some of the guys going for the infantry here. And the ones at the drafting depots. You want a sad sack like that beside you in a foxhole?”
Nix doesn't want to think about being in a foxhole. This is his Saturday night, damn it. He reaches for his flask.
“You should just – give it some thought.”
Nix takes a drink and asks, bemused, “Why are you pressing me on this?”
“I said I wanted to be with the best of the best, didn't I?” Dick says.
The moment of silence following that gets filled only by the sound of water trickling next to them.
“Damn, Dick. You asking me out to a war?” He tries to sound amused, but he overshoots straight past light and into breathless.
He looks up again and unwillingly meets those pale eyes.
“You should think about it,” Dick says again, and then he turns around and starts wading out, as if he didn't just turn Nix's entire night and maybe life upside down. He hits the real depth of the creek and starts cutting through the water with even, powerful strokes.
The airborne. Christ.
Nix shakes his head and lights his cigarette.
Just FYI, "sad sack" is a direct Dick Winters quote about regular infantry men.
As they approach the end of the course, everyone deals with it in their own way. They all know some of them will be shipping out for a combat theater immediately after graduation. Some, like Dick, are still hoping for news from the airborne.
(And the uncertainty's got him more agitated than Nix's ever seen him, which on Dick just means he's a little brusque and doesn't telephone his folks as often.)
As for Nix, his response to their impending lieutenancies is to spoil his drinking with bouts of profligate introspection.
In the eleventh week of their thirteen-week course, they finish up with weapons. Whatever happens going forward, Lewis Nixon III is now fully trained in the maintenance and operation of all manner of lethal equipment.
He can't shake the thought that it's all a bit like being crazy, or maybe having amnesia or something, being in the military. In this world, his name means nothing except pay attention or get over here. In this world, none of his previous relationships seem to exist; his folks and Kathy feel a little like a recurring dream he's had since childhood. Mention them to anyone around and he might as well be talking about characters from a book.
In this world, for the first time, he's just himself and having to reckon with what that even means.
One example: on the last day of weapons, Nix considers his rifle and seriously wonders what it will feel like to shoot it, to take a life.
He's no pacifist, sure. He's in the damn Army. What worries him is not the killing, exactly; it's that his training will be too effective. That when the time comes, he won't have to think twice before pulling the trigger.
Maybe he's not being molded into someone new, but someone new is being born inside him. This steady-handed stranger might do things Lewis Nixon will have to live with for the rest of his life. He would pull the trigger and leave Nix with the acrid smell of a fired gun on his fingers, would kill a man and leave Nix with the nightmares.
The pressure of the program has got him pondering crazy questions about free will. Will he have it when he pulls that trigger? Does he have it now, when he tips his head back to drink?
The only thing that's been feeling like a choice lately is his friendship with Dick. And no one's ever said of Lewis Nixon that he displays good judgment, but he thinks he's done pretty well for himself on that one count.
It's late and they’re studying — leadership or tactical problems or some such; after three months of work around the clock, it’s all started to coalesce into one collective topic in his mind. Which, he’ll allow, may be the point.
Anyway, they’re studying. Nix’s eyes are dry and itchy from a long day of squinting across a dusty field under the full brunt of Georgia’s early summer sun, and they don’t seem to want to focus on the small text of the manual in front of him. It’s much more restful to let them drift up and watch Dick as he diligently continues reading and scratching out notes in that terrible penmanship of his.
Nix blinks slowly, like he's rousing himself from sleep. “Mm?”
“You said you were going to try for the airborne, right?”
“I believe my exact words were, ‘I will think about trying for the airborne.’”
At that, Dick looks up and studies him for a long moment, mouth smiling in that way that says he knows something Nix doesn't. After a few seconds too many under that quiet gaze, Nix shifts in his seat.
“What?” he asks finally.
“If you're going to join the airborne, you'll need to be able to meet the swimming qualifications.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Dick, I told you I sailed. Do you know how easily those racing skiffs can dunk you into the water? I damn well know how to swim.”
Dick nods like Nix just made a good point (which he did). But then: “But can you swim well enough?”
God love him, he thinks. Dick's spent the better part of every day in the last ten weeks watching him drink and drift his way through officer training, and he thinks it's the swimming that might disqualify Nix from the newest, strictest unit in the U.S. Army.
“I can swim well enough,” is all he says, because if he starts letting loose with the rest of the muck in his head, he may never stop. And he has to be strong on this one thing, because he gets the feeling that Dick wouldn't ask him to.
The night before graduation, the Fort holds a semiformal dinner in their honor. Nix's been looking forward to it in the abstract; if he's heading into combat, twirling his pretty wife on a dance floor in his dress uniform is a certainly a memory he'd like to have.
The uniforms arrived in that last week, and not one of the candidates could resist trying theirs on and taking a turn about the barracks, like a parade of peacocks in full mating display. Even Dick gave in – though Nix barely got a glimpse of him before the other man had announced that the fit seemed all in order and he shucked it off again.
Dick isn't taking the uncertainty of his future well. Nix thinks the man would almost prefer to hear that he's going straight into combat, so long as he got the news immediately and wouldn't have to wait a minute longer to know.
The last day is taken up with final testing – of the medical and psych variety for the most part; the Army is keen to know how their new candidate school is working out. Nix tries and fails not to feel like a guinea pig.
He doesn't see Dick for most of the day, and he's curious about that up until Kathy arrives in the late afternoon, trailing taffeta in a gown bag.
She steps out of a cab onto the ground that he's sweated and puffed over for thirteen weeks and immediately raises a gloved hand to shield her eyes as she looks around.
She's as elegant and beautiful as ever, and he can practically hear the music of New York City in his ears as he peers down at her from the deck of his barracks.
He jogs down the steps as her back is angled in the opposite direction so she can look out over the fields. The noise of his footfall over the pressed gravel alerts her at the last second – he gets only a glimpse of her surprised smile before he's grabbing her up and swinging her around.
She gasps and laughs and clutches at his shoulders. “Oh my – Lewis!”
By the time he's set her back down, she's recovered enough poise to give him an appraising look. She runs her hands over his shoulders and her mouth twitches into that slightly biting smirk that drew him to her in the first place.
“So. I see some things have changed.”
He raises his eyebrows. “You saw me after Basic.”
“Yes, of course, it's just – ” a complicated smile makes its way across her face, and she shakes her head. “I don't know. You already seem different, Lew.”
The thought hits too close to the mark of how he's been feeling lately, but he conceals that. He puts his arm around her waist, tugs her to his side, and grins down at her.
“Well don't expect it to last. When I get home for good, I'm not doing one more push-up or chin-up in my life.”
The faint unease vanishes so quickly from her face, it makes him wonder what feelings she is concealing.
“Well, in that case,” she says teasingly, tugging him back towards the cab, “we have some business to attend to back at my hotel.”
Her perfume is almost dizzying on the humid air. He hasn't had sex in what feels like an eternity, just the occasional kiss he can coax out of one of the good-natured Columbus girls. Most nights, he's too exhausted even to give some love with his own hand, which is just sad.
Lew lets himself be drawn into the cab.
They return to the Fort in time for the semiformal and join a crowd of pressed dress uniforms and muted evening gowns. Champagne and wine flows free enough that Lew doesn't feel the need to reach for his flask, not even during the dinner portion when they have to sit at assigned tables and listen to long speeches that carefully step around the fact that in a short while, some of the men in the room will be lying dead in a foreign field.
Eventually the semiformal part of the affair gives way to semicasual half, and people start to mingle. The military band in the corner strikes up some tunes. It's looking to be as grand a time as one might be able to expect from the Army.
Kathy does a great job socializing with the other wives. She seems genuinely interested in talking to all of them, even the one gal from Alabama whose accent is broad enough to bludgeon an entire platoon of Union soldiers.
Lew listens to her chat, exchanges some words with the husbands, and generally feels relaxed. The evening is easy; never mind the course, he's practically been training his whole life for situations like these.
And yet, over the course of an hour, an itch starts to build up between his shoulder blades. He starts to look around the room. After a moment, he realizes his eyes are not detecting any flash of red hair among the crowd. He hasn't seen Dick since breakfast, but he figured he'd catch up with him at the semiformal, maybe even introduce him to Kathy. But there's no sign of the other man anywhere.
He puts a hand at the small of Kathy's back and leans down to murmur in her ear that he'll be right back. Without missing a beat in her conversation, she reaches around and lets her hand trail across his as he withdraws.
Another quick survey of the room confirms Dick isn't in it. Curious, he weaves his way through the khaki crowd and steps outside into the cricket-chirping dusk.
Dick is sitting alone on the steps of the building. He's got his elbows propped up on his knees and he's looking down the wide tree-lined main lane like he can see his future coming at him fast.
“Looking for some fresh air?” Nix asks, lighting a cigarette.
Dick doesn't startle, but when he turns and glances up at him, he doesn't hold the eye contact for long before returning to his contemplation of the road.
“Something like that.”
Nix thinks it's uncharacteristic of him to be sitting out on a concrete step in his brand new dress uniform. Even he is a little leery of sitting down, lest he put a crease in the trousers.
He eyes the other man's carefully combed hair and otherwise impeccably neat uniform and deliberately nudges his side with his foot. Dick slaps the shoe down before any polish can threaten his jacket and gives him a look. Nix returns it, with interest.
“By this time tomorrow we'll have our marching orders – surely even you can enjoy a brief respite tonight.”
“A real respite would be some leave before I'm assigned to another camp or shipped out.”
“Yeah,” Nix says. He supposes Kathy would like it if he could go home with her for a little while. He clears his throat. “Still. Why are you moping out here?”
Dick's shoulder lifts and falls. “It's not the type of crowd I'm very good at socializing with, I guess.”
Nix leans against a post and gives him a quizzical look. “What are you talking about? You socialize with me just fine.”
“You don't mind that I don't drink.”
Nix dismisses that with a wave of his cigarette. “If you need another man to drink to excuse the habit, you shouldn't be drinking.”
It's something he overheard his father say to his mother during an argument years ago. The man had hardly meant it as sage advice for navigating the social world, but it was too late; from the moment he heard the words, Nix felt the truth of them in his heart.
He kills his cigarette and says, “Come on. You haven't even met the missus yet.”
He waits as Dick climbs back to his feet and brushes invisible dirt off his uniform. They turn back to the door together, and the bubbling chatter and music hauls them inside with an almost manic cheer. In the split second as the door closes behind them, cutting off the dark pink sky outside, Nix feels a spark of regret, like they should've instead turned the other way and just kept going.
But just like Dick can't force the future to arrive any faster, Nix can't run away from it. So he introduces his new friend to his new wife and downs his next drink as they lock hesitant eyes.
“Nix,” a voice whispers. “Hey, Nix.”
“No,” he says into his pillow.
There's a breath of what might be laughter, and then a hand is shaking him roughly at the hip. He groans and cracks an eye open. Dick is leaning over his bed. He's dressed in PT gear, which can only mean one thing.
He stays where he is and maybe even presses back into his mattress a little harder. Around them the rest of the barracks continues snoring on, most of the men safely ensconced in a drinker's sleep.
He glares up at Dick. “You have got to be kidding me.”
Dick doesn't react to that, just eyes his mussed grogginess and grins. “Last chance to come swimming with me.” He jerks his head toward the door. “C'mon.”
“Do you know when I went to bed?” Nix demands. “Because I don't, but I'm pretty sure it couldn't have been more than four hours ago.”
“Oh, so an early night for you,” Dick comments, before tossing a pair of shorts at his face.
He grumbles and thinks for a moment about just turning over and going back to sleep, persistent friend be damned. But the truth is, he's been tossing and turning for hours anyway. He's not any more immune to graduation nerves than Dick.
Later today, they will get discharged from the U.S. Army and receive their commissions and orders, which is maybe why he finds himself throwing his sheet back and climbing into the PT gear.
He knows there's a good chance he won't get to see Dick again afterwards.
It feels as though the world has momentarily ceased turning as they take their last walk to Upatoi Creek. (It's technically Nix's first walk, having always been on his way back from Columbus whenever he made his way to there. This almost feels like an important detail.)
Dick's in a far better mood than he had been the night before. He is smiling as they walk, arms swinging gamely by his sides. The man might as well be skipping.
Nix grins sideways a little quizzically at him around a cigarette. “I feel like I'm taking a kid to the fair. If I'd known you'd get this excited, I would've gone swimming ages ago.”
The answering smile is bright on the dark lane. “I'm going to make you race.”
Something in Dick's tone sparks an answering anticipation within him. He hadn't been lying, before; he really can swim. Not elegantly by any means (and he's not much of a diver), but speed, he can do.
“All right,” is all he says. No need to talk his abilities up. He'd rather relish the surprised look on Dick's face afterwards.
It occurs to him all over again that this will be the last time they ever do this, walk together in the predawn gloom as giant oaks and sycamores branch out above, their branches heavy with birds on the verge of waking. It should make Nix feel melancholy – and he's sure it will do so as soon as tomorrow – but all he feels now is a buzzing sense of expectation.
What he's expecting, he has no clue.
They arrive at Dick's customary swimming spot. Nix pats his usual drunk lean-to rock fondly and, without further ado, strips off his shirt.
When he looks up again after throwing it aside, he finds Dick watching him, his normally pale eyes looking dark under in the moonlight. Caught off-guard by the strange intensity, Nix wonders if he's missed something. He has to be reading this wrong.
But then Dick bends down and unties his shoes and the moment slides away just like always. They finish getting undressed in a caught-out silence.
Dick starts doing his stretches, like this is just another morning and he's still training for the airborne. Nix considers following suit but the silence is getting to him and besides, he's always hated stretching. So he runs and throws himself into the water instead.
“Jesus fuck!” he yelps. He wasn't expecting it to be so cold at the height of summer.
“Creek's fed by a mountain spring, Nix,” Dick calls over, laughter rich in his voice.
Nix waves him off; the temperature is tolerable, even pleasant, now that he's got the submerging over with. He treads water for a moment. The creek isn't deep enough to require it, but his limbs could do with the warm up. He swims a few yards and then returns with a back stroke.
The stars wheel above through the tree branches and he blinks up at them, momentarily regretting all the mornings he had refused to swim. He can't really remember his reasons now.
A loud splash jerks him out of his reverie. He stands up and looks over to find Dick has finally joined him in the water. They look at each other over the stretch of lazy current.
After a moment Nix says, “I believe you said something about a race?”
They swim back over to the beginning of the drop-off, and they're jostling each other the whole way, abbreviated cuts of elbows and shoves. Dick tries to hook his ankle out from under him, and they very nearly never get to start the race.
“And people call you a boy scout,” Nix scoffs, blocking a sneaky underwater jab. “Underhanded cheat, that's what you are.”
And Dick says, voice as prim as a Mormon in a brothel, “Don't know what you're babbling about, Nix. Maybe command would have listened to you more in skirmish maneuvers if you weren't always talking such nonsense.”
Nix gives him one last shove before insisting that they get down to business and line up.
They're hip-deep in the water. Nix doesn't look over, but he can see Dick's solid chest rise and fall with his controlled breath out of the corner of his eye. The warm night air is cool on their wet skin, but he's is putting out heat like a small fire, calling at Nix to get closer.
“Who's counting down?” he asks, distracted.
“I'll do it,” Dick says.
He counts them down and they both launch themselves back into the water, all joking gone in pursuit of the more tempting goal of being able to lord a victory over the other.
Nix gives himself half the stretch of the creek to get the measure of Dick's speed, keeping pace two stroke behind. He makes his move at the turn, kicking off a boulder and propelling himself just barely ahead of him. He hears Dick increase the speed of his strokes, and the sound chases him all the way back to the other bank without ever overtaking him.
He slaps the rock at the start and stands up out of the water, panting as hard as he ever has during training at Benning. His arms and legs are burning and water is stinging his eyes and nose, but he turns immediately, grinning so wide it hurts his cheeks. He watches as Dick pulls himself up out of the water.
He stares at Nix, looking like he doesn't know whether to be incensed or delighted. After a moment he drifts closer and shakes his head a little helplessly.
They're barely a foot apart when he says, tone disbelieving, “You mean we could have been doing this the whole time?”
Nix feels his grin transform from victorious to something far more reckless. His head is still spinning a little from the exertion, and that's the only excuse he can claim for why he reaches out and runs a thumb over the cut of Dick's hipbone, heavy and unmistakable.
He comes back to himself a split second later and jerks back, but it's too late. Dick follows the line of his retreating hand, no doubt calculating the best angle for a rout.
Nix is no longer feeling victorious; instead he's cold and shaken. He stares at Dick's blank face and says quickly, “Ignore me – I. I'm still drunk from last night.”
“No, Lew,” Dick says, his usual patience thinned. “You're not.”
He reaches across the gulf between them, buries his hand in Nix's wet hair, and tugs him forward into a hard kiss.
Dick tastes like creek water and Army toothpaste – because of course he brushed his teeth before sneaking into Nix's barracks and hauling him out of bed – and Nix can't do anything but kiss back, his arms snaking down the wet bare length of his back to pull him even closer. He can't believe this is happening. That Dick might actually want this.
He tries to shift forward but his foot skids over a slick rock and they nearly go under. They catch themselves at the last moment, bracing their hands on each other's elbows.
Nix gets only a glimpse of Dick's wide eyes before the other man laughs. The sound is light and happy, and all he can do is watch. After a moment, Dick sobers and watches him right back.
Nix wishes he could say this felt like anything else – like the couple times he fooled around with other boys when he was a kid tucked away at boarding school. But he's no longer a kid, no longer has any excuses for how he feels. They've all been steadily drummed out of him, and Dick's the punctuating cymbal crash.
It's almost harder to make a move the second time, but Dick's already pioneered the path. Lew has no excuse for backing down now.
He reaches for his hip again, more guidance than grip, and draws him a little ways down the creek to where they'll be hidden by the shadow of the bridge. Then he pushes him up against the wall of the shallow stone arch and presses his lips over the spot on his neck where his pulse beats, strong and fast, just like the rest of him.
Dick turns his head into Lew's hair and lets out a long, stuttering breath. And he talks, then – low words strung together in some semblance of momentum and meaning about what Lew does to him, about how he never knows what he's even doing these days but he knows – he knows – that whatever it is, Lew will get it, because Lew always does.
He realizes with a jolt that Dick is nervous. He's nervous but he'd kissed Lew anyway, because of course this would be one more thing for Dick to be brave about.
He raises his head and slants his mouth once more over Dick's, and for a long while there is no more talking.
The sun is peeking out on a new world as they walk back to the barracks. Dick's hair lightens as it slowly dries in ruffled tufts, and there's a faint bruise the shape of Nix's mouth near his collar bone. Later, when it's safely hidden beneath a pressed dress uniform at their graduation ceremony, the thought of it will drive Nix near mad with distraction, and he will almost miss his own name in the roll call. And when it's Dick's turn to be called up, he'll have to fix his eyes on the podium and avoid thinking altogether.
But at the moment, they don't speak. They don't need to. Small, quick glances and sheepish smirks say everything that needs to be said.
Nix feels like a goddamn teenager, and he doesn't know what any of it means.
How can he feel like he's on verge of starting something when all they're really doing today is ending?
After the business is all done, they're newly commissioned second lieutenants of the United States Army. The world resumes turning with an almost violent lurch.
Lew stands with an arm around Kathy and chats with a few of the other married officers and their wives. He doesn't let his eyes wander around the hall in search of a tall red-haired form. He laughs and smiles and very carefully doesn't let himself feel like there's a clock somewhere counting down.
Kathy excuses them after a polite length of time. Nix nods to the other men and walks her out, hand at the small of her back. No sooner are they out of the building and into the pleasant breeze outside when she turns to him and says:
“Lew, you're jumping out of your skin. What's wrong?”
“Nothing,” he says. But then she arches her eyebrows, and so: “I haven't seen my orders yet. Heard they were dropped off at the barracks before the ceremony.”
Kathy's face clears, and her hand flutters up to his shoulder. “Of course, darling – you should go pick them up, grab your things.” She pauses and searches his face. She asks evenly, “Would you like me to wait for you, or should I head back to the hotel?”
And it's a little messed up, but he loves especially her at that moment. She must see the relief in his face, because she merely gives him a little smile, one tinged with something like sadness. She rises up on her tiptoes and presses her perfect lips to his, dry and warm, and then goes.
He watches her walk down the steps and across the lane with her head up and stride unchecked, the lone unaccompanied woman in a milling crowd of pretty sundresses and pressed uniforms. He doesn't watch for long, though; within moments he is turning and striding off to the cluster of barracks on the opposite side of the compound.
He already knows his orders, gave them a cursory read-through as he was dressing for the ceremony.
It takes longer than it should to get over to Dick's quarters, as fellow former candidates keep stopping him to talk and exchange pleasantries. Thank god that's over; hey, where you gonna be stationed? He can't exactly break into a jog without attracting attention, so he handles the delays with a facade of ease while he slowly boils to death on the inside.
When he finally swings through the open doorway of Dick's building, he finds him standing straight-backed over his stripped bed. His bag is already packed, like now that the course is over, he'll just fold himself up and move along, no glances over his shoulder.
Dick looks right at him, but Nix is looking at the envelope in his hand. He glances sharply up – but he shakes his head.
“Camp Croft,” he says. “Just Camp Croft. There aren't any positions open in the paratroopers at the moment, so they're putting me on ice.” He waits a moment before clearing his throat. “How about you?”
Nix approaches, more cautious than casual. “Ford Ord, out in California. They've got me down as an MP.” He takes Dick's faint mouth twitch and runs with it, wishes he could do so for miles. “Yeah, I know. Me with the Military Police. Have to wonder if they confused my file with another.”
“Still time to go for the airborne,” Dick says.
He meets his eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
He wishes Dick would stop asking.
He doesn't know what he's doing here. He'd had some fool thought of suggesting they take a day and drive around, maybe grab a couple beers and hang out on the shore of the Chattahoochee. Pretend they are just a pair of free and unattached young men. But Dick's gold lieutenant's bar winks a reminder at him, and it now seems an impossibly foolish idea.
Dick's still looking at him, eyes quiet and watchful, like he isn't expecting anything but is ready just in case. Nix wishes he could claim he doesn't look anything like the unrestrained man he'd pressed up against in the water just a few hours ago, but it'd be a lie; Dick always looks exactly like himself.
Lew's the one who drifts, lacking both anchor and rudder.
Other officers bustle into the barracks, laughing at their girls' dutifully impressed exclamations over where they'd been living for the past three months. The noise is as good an excuse as any for Lew to clap Dick on the shoulder and shake his hand.
He thinks if he's going to have any chance of surviving this, he's got to let him go now. But in a fit of ill-advised and desperate inspiration, he tells him to write.
They're not sweethearts; they're officers in the goddamn Army. Dick readily agrees anyway. Any emotion he might be feeling is carefully tucked away behind his eyes. Lew nods a couple times, turns, and blindly walks back out of the barracks he'd been so frantic to enter.
The noon sun is high overhead, unimpeded by clouds, but he feels a chill down to his bones that the summer warmth can't seem to dispel.
This letter might beat you out there. It feels a little silly to write just now, since I saw you yesterday. But the Army, in one of its typical displays of sound management, has given me three days' leave. As you know, this is not enough time to visit home but more than long enough to leave me at at sixes and sevens.
I think I will hire a car and make a leisurely drive of the move to Croft. Atlanta's on the way, and I might stop there since you mentioned it a few weeks ago. I will probably not partake in some of the pleasures you specifically mentioned enjoying, but I'm sure the city has a cinema somewhere.
California is all perfect weather, distasteful work, and mind-numbing boredom, a combination that drives a man to hide a flask on his uniform. And Lew gets away with it too, because the posting has him riding a desk, staring down at logistics reports for POW camps and port security. He wonders how this particular assignment went down, if his supervising officers at OCS considered him and thought useless in the field, but it'd be a shame to waste that brain.
It takes Lew a day to decide he despises the men he works with and a week to realize he's made a terrible mistake by letting Dick go.
(Not that he'd ever get to keep him. That's just not how things work, but try telling that to his blind, deaf, and dumb heart.)
I hope this letter finds you well, and that you're enjoying California's weather.
Camp Croft is the same as I remember, though perhaps more heavily trafficked now than when I did Basic. Or maybe it's just my imagination.
It's strange being back here as an officer. The war feels more real here in a way I don't quite know how to explain. Fort Benning already feels like it was an age ago. Training the men keeps me busy, at least. It's a welcome distraction from thoughts of combat and other things that are rarely far from my mind. I know some of the boys are going to be shipping out straightaway. All I can do is make sure they're ready.
I call them boys – they are boys, Nix. If the paperwork didn't say otherwise, I'd think some of them aren't a day over sixteen.
I'd counsel you to keep out of trouble, but you already likely think of me as a strait-laced nag. So I'll just say I hope you're being discreet with your drinking.
“Discreet,” Lew mutters to himself. As if he hadn't grown up learning how to sneak drinks in and around the corners of soirees and dinner parties.
Still, he reads the letter twice more. There isn't much to get between the lines, but he nevertheless spends several extra minutes thinking about what Dick might have meant by other things.
First night in Monterey before he reported to the fort: a dance hall out of habit.
He's not in uniform, doesn't want to deal with service behavioral standards when he's aiming to get properly drunk. There's a familiar restlessness eating at his mood. He determinedly ignores anyone who tries to talk to him until they go away again.
He's alone and aiming to stay that way, except the pack of students a few feet away won't stop talking in his direction.
“Peter's going too?” one coed asks. “That's four from the same school! And they think they'll be assigned to the same unit?”
“That's what Pete says,” a boy replies, shrugging and taking a drink from his soda.
Another girl says in a hushed, serious tone, “But what if something ...happens? Then the town will lose all of them in one go.”
“I wouldn't want to go with my best friend,” the first girl announces. “I'd be so busy worrying about her, I couldn't possibly focus on anything else.”
The boy chuckles. “Lucky for you girls can't join up, huh.”
“I think you'd worry more if they were in a different unit,” the second girl says quietly.
Lew wakes up five hours later in a storeroom with an pounding head, fat lip, and no memory of how he came to be in such a state. The knuckles on his right hand are split, and the hand aches when he slowly flexes it. He's been in a fight.
“Woulda called the cops,” an old man says, leaning in the doorway of the storeroom. He moves a wad of tobacco around behind his lip and considers him for a long moment.
“Yeah, well.” Lew slowly climbs to his feet. He pats his pockets and is reassured that his wallet is still present. He looks over to the doorway with a squint. “Why didn't you?” he eventually asks. He's not really interested in the answer but figures it's best to keep the geezer talking until he can get away clean.
“Saw your tags.” The man puts his hands on his hips and gives him an appraising look.
Normally Lew would rather receive this type of response than the over-the-top fawning people too young to remember the last war like to engage in, but then, normally he isn't on the back end of a black-out bender that ends in him punching complete strangers. He hasn't done something like this since – hell, since his first year at Yale. Not since he'd found out about old Stanhope's own past indiscretions.
“So which is it?” The man asks.
Lew shakes his head. “What?”
“You shipping out or did your girl leave you?”
“...Neither.” Lew starts fishing around his pockets for his cigarette case. He takes one out and gestures at himself and the store room with its stacks of liquor boxes. “This – I don't know what this was.”
This answer doesn't impress the man. He grunts and stands back out of the doorway. “Then you best get the hell outta here before I change my mind about the police.”
Lew just scrubs his hair back from his forehead and nods at him vaguely. He's ten minutes out of the hall and waiting for a taxi before he remembers that he's technically police, and then he's laughing to himself like a mad man on a darkened street in Monterey.
He thinks this is going to make one hell of a story to regale Dick with – he can already picture the creases at the corner of his mouth that speak of one-part amusement and maybe nine-parts disapproval – but then he remembers that Dick won't be hearing the story at all, because Dick is a continent away. There will be no rendezvous by the water this night.
He's not laughing anymore when the taxi finally arrives to bring him to his hotel.
He has a rager of a head the next day. It's as good an excuse as any to put off writing that letter to Dick. He tries telephoning Kathy but is informed that she's out. He irritably hangs up the phone and turns back to his work. His latest task at the fort is analyzing collated incident reports from the previous quarter (the irony is not lost on him, but he can take no enjoyment in it). All in all, it's a poor distraction from his thoughts.
He thought he'd beaten this particular demon.
Lew can't make himself care. It's always been his greatest weakness, the shoddy foundation for all his other flaws to sit on. From school to university and city to city he'd wandered, aimlessly discontented and indifferent to everything that wasn't a transient joy. Benning hadn't cured him, but he'd thought it had at least set him on the right path.
Turns out he'd just been doped with the presence of Richard Winters. As sweet a buzz as any pull he's taken from a bottle. Dick had turned the abstract into concrete, had tossed himself in front of Nix's eye line like a prism, refracting all the world's shit and making it appear decent and ordered.
The days drag by at that desk in Fort Ord, and at night he doesn't sleep so much as drift. He keeps remembering the sound Dick made when he went to his knees, and how the cold water over his waist had been no match for the arousal that burned south to his groin.
Lew pictures going through the war like this, sleeplessly signing off supply charts for prison camps, anyone he gives a damn about hundreds or thousands of miles away, and has to stop himself from reflexively reaching for his flask again.
Instead, after five days, he sits up and makes a decision.
After he gets his new orders, weeks later, he finally pens that letter to Dick.
There are a hundred different things he'd like to say – he could tell him that he'd changed his mind in the very first week at Fort Ord, or that he doesn't seem to be as good an officer when Dick's not around to line up against. He could tell him that without something to care about, he's no good to himself or anyone, and he knows that makes him a sorry excuse for a soldier and an officer. But in the end, all he writes is:
Funny thing. The Army seems to think I'm supposed to be report to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Camp Toombs by the 15th. I'd question this highly dubious order, but you know how they get about that sort of thing.
Back to Georgia in August. He must be mad. Kathy certainly seemed to think so when he'd suggested she pop down for a day or two before the regiment gets settled in.
Somehow, despite the surplus of miles and transfers he had to endure, Nix is the first one to arrive at the Southern Railway station in Toccoa. He sits on a bench under the station awning with a newspaper in one hand and a small paper cup of coffee in the other. It's too hot to countenance drinking the coffee, so he just holds it like a prop in a school play.
There's a coffin factory right across the street, and he has to ignore the symbolism of the whole scene. It's easy to do, because death is the last thing on his mind now that five weeks of solitude are about to come to an end.
The 2 PM train from Atlanta is thirty minutes late. Still, Nix waits around rather than head on out to Camp Toombs.
Finally, the train blows in, racketing through the station and coming to a halt with a ear-piercing whistle. The doors are opened, and a perspiring crowd in rumpled clothing issues forth from the interior, clearly desperate to be out and on their way.
It feels like Dick is the last one off the train; he probably stood back to let everyone else pass first. When the crowd slows to a trickle, Nix is starting to wonder if his schedule was changed, and his heart sinks.
But Dick finally emerges from one of the doors further down the platform. He's fitting his uniform hat over his head with one hand while balancing his bags with the other, all the while looking around with just his eyes, like he'd been expecting to see something that isn't there.
And Nix, in a fantasy so brief and intense it can be nothing but pure Id licking up out of the depths of his soul – Nix imagines crossing the train platform and kissing the hell out of him – framing his face with his hands and putting lips to that obsessively clean-shaven jawline he's been dreaming fitfully about.
He can imagine how it'd go. Gasps would punch out in a chorus all around them; the little old dame standing by the corner would drop her luggage in favor of covering her mouth in horror. He'd have maybe a second or two before one of the upstanding fellows standing about ripped him away from Dick and laid him out on the floor with a tooth-loosening punch. But it just might be worth it.
Instead of doing any of that, he strolls up and offers a hand to shake. Dick sees him only a moment before he gets close and his eyes widen a little. Aside from this involuntary movement, they reveal nothing but endless warmth.
Dick's hand is steady and dry, and his grip is strong.
“Changed your mind,” Dick says, smiling. “What was it finally convinced you? You didn't say in your letter.”
I'd jump out of an airplane for you.
“Thought if we're going to invade Europe, I might as well have the best view in the house,” Nix says. His voice is light and careless. He thinks if he can just white knuckle to his private schoolboy attitude, he can avoid doing something truly disastrous, like tell Dick he missed him or ask him what that last night back at Fort Benning meant. Ask him if he wants to do it again.
But Dick is blinking at him, a little wry, a little hesitant, and Nix realizes he hasn't yet let go of his hand and it's been too long to be normal.
He carefully doesn't panic and uses the captive hand to twist Dick into a headlock.
Dick grunts in surprise, but the sound transforms quickly into a laugh, and then every person still on the platform is smiling over at them. Such handsome, brave boys. Isn't it nice that they will have a friend with them when they go. Godspeed.
They grab their bags up and make their way out to Toombs, which the local driving them possessively refers to as Camp Toccoa. Nix sprawls out casually over the backseat of the car like his mother never taught him manners and nudges his knee hard up against Dick's. He receives a quick, darting smile in return.
They pass into official Army ground, both of them leaning forward to eyeball the imposing hill overlooking the camp's squat scattering of buildings. The local has a name for that too, but Dick's hand is ghosting over his knee and Nix doesn't catch it.
His head's foggy with the humidity and proximity of the car. He thinks he could be thrown out of a plane right this second and he'd still be thinking about the feel of that hand all the way down.
They are dropped off in front of the administrative building, but they still don't get a chance to talk. The next couple hours are taken up by forms and tours and introductions. Nix gets the glancing impression that their new captain doesn't like the look of them, not even Dick, but even that grievance is subsumed under his general haze of impenetrable goodwill.
He feels like there's a current running through his limbs, like it has kickstarted a heart that had been sputtering for five solid weeks.
They eat dinner in the officers' mess, surrounded on all sides by chattering platoon leaders and captains. Dick tells Nix more about the training he ran in Croft, and Nix tells Dick little to nothing about Ord because he doesn't want to spoil the evening.
They take a walk after the meal.
It's the same state, but the open, dry fields of Toombs are nothing like the tree-covered grounds of Benning. For one, Nix thinks, there are far fewer obstacles to hide one's illicit fraternization behind. They walk for a solid twenty minutes before Nix looks around and, seeing no one in the darkness, tugs Dick in for the kiss he's been waiting hours (weeks) to give.
But Dick huffs a breath like he's surprised, and that makes him pause. This turns out to be a tactical error, because it allows Dick time to slip backwards out of his grasp.
Nix stares at him, watches him look away and lick his lips uneasily. Eventually, he can't take the silence so he says quietly, “What's going on, Dick?”
He is silent for long enough that Nix wants to rewind time, like the kiss and question might be more retractable than any other mistake he's ever made in life.
Dick says, “I need you to ask me again – later, I mean. After this is all over.”
“This?” Nix echoes.
Nix isn't sure he can pretend like nothing has happened for the duration of the war. His skepticism must show on his face because Dick says quickly, too quickly, “You're the one who's always going on about how you'll take me here or show me this afterwards. Well, I'm asking to do just that. You can even teach me how to sail, Nix, just like you said.”
He shakes his head, still not understanding. He tastes ash where he'd been expecting something a lot sweeter, and there's a black cloud creeping in over his mind, but he doesn't want to relinquish himself back into its grasp. Not just yet.
Dick continues talking, voice endlessly reasonable. “We're officers of the United States Army, Lew. We're going to be leading men into combat.”
“Look, if you've changed your mind – ” Nix begins, mouth slanting, humiliation making it mean.
“You think we can do our best in the field while being all wrapped up in each other?” Dick asks. “Because I'm telling you – I know I wouldn't. I couldn't.”
He could. Nix knows he could. Because Dick cares, in that automatic, almost absent-minded way he cares about everything. He doesn't need a reason to do his duty like Nix does, just asks that no one stand in his way of doing it. No one like Nix, apparently.
“Why'd you even want me here, then?” Nix asks, marveling at the improbable cruelty of it all.
Dick blinks at him, like he doesn't understand the question. Then he looks away, back to the camp buildings where they'll be spending the next interminable stretch of months. The curve of his shoulders map out an equation of defeat.
“Nothing's changed, Lew,” he says quietly. “I was allowed one last decision before getting the commission – I decided to join the airborne and I asked you to come with. Nothing else coming up against us is going to be under my control.” He looks back at him. “But I got you.”
“Yeah,” Nix says. “Yeah, you certainly did.”
Dick's mouth thins and without another word he steps forward and kisses him. Just like he began it, he ends it. And Nix, ever incapable of saying no to his vices, kisses back viciously.
Dick breaks away just far enough to free his mouth. He keeps his forehead pressed against Nix's and says between breaths, “When we're our own men again, Lew. Teach me how to sail.”
And with that, he pulls himself completely away and turns resolutely back towards the camp. Nix watches him walk until the shadow of the hill with no name has swallowed his figure whole. Then he allows himself to go to his knees and pound the ground with his fists until the pain overrides the lingering feeling of the kiss.
Eventually, he gets over himself and gets up again. He starts walking after his friend, because what else is he going to do. He fishes out a cigarette from his pocket and lights it and thinks with the old familiar bitterness, this isn't how it's supposed to go.
Life happens in a certain order: you're supposed to fall in love and then go off to war, not the other way around.