Babe supposed he should have seen it coming.
He’d never really thought much about the medic with the pale skin and soft drawl. Sure, he hoped that when he was hit - because it had to happen eventually - that it would be Roe that came to help him, but he hadn’t really done much more than that. Or at least he hadn’t until Julian clutched at the ruins of his throat in the snow, and Babe found himself nibbling on chocolate in a foxhole with numb lips. Sandwiched between Roe and Spina, he’d fallen asleep warm for the first time in weeks.
Something odd had happened when Roe took Babe’s bleeding hand and tied a blue handkerchief around it, and it wasn’t just that the medic called him by his nickname for the first time. There had been a moment, when the soft chuckles died down and the line stretched out in front of him, that Gene smoothed the worn fabric over Babe’s palm and Babe had the sudden urge to just lean over and kiss him. He blinked at the frozen trees and thought with amusement that he’d been away from girls for too long. It was only later, after the medic had moved on to another foxhole, that he realized that he’d started referring to Gene in his mind by his first name.
And then, all of sudden, he started to think about the medic with the pale skin and soft drawl an awful lot. He looked for him when Easy regrouped or was on the move. He waited for Gene to drop by his foxhole to make sure Babe still had most of his toes. He wondered, as he routed the Krauts out of occupied Belgian towns, if Gene was remembering to keep his head down, and who he was working on, and whether or not the Nazis were obeying that tiny little red cross armband. He speculated about whether Gene had a sweetheart waiting for him back home, and wondered if she was pretty – because he shouldn’t have to settle for some broad who wasn’t a stunner. He wondered if Gene had slept with her.
So, maybe, when they were walking towards their billets in some German town he’d already forgotten the name of, and the rest of Easy had turned the corner in front of him and left him and Gene momentarily alone, he shouldn’t have been so surprised when he ached and bit his lip and had the obscure thought of wishing it was Gene’s. He’d been talking, saying something pointless and likely dumb, and Gene had smiled one of his small, rare smiles that reached his eyes like few other things, and the self-control Babe didn’t even know he’d been holding cracked. His hands, which had been periodically clenching and unclenching at his sides, suddenly found the fabric of Gene’s shoulders that they’d been looking for. His lips, with which he’d worried with his teeth so thoroughly for the past few months, could finally relax as they pressed against Gene’s. The muscles of his back and shoulders loosened from their unconscious stiffness so quickly that it felt like inhaling after holding his breath.
He hadn’t realized he was pressing Gene back until the shock of not being able to go any further joined with Gene’s soft exhale as his back collided with the brick wall. It could have been a twenty-foot metal gong for all that the sound made Babe freeze and attempt to draw away, only to find that he couldn’t. Gene had his fingers twisted in the folds of Babe’s jacket, one hand on his back, the other on his hip, and for the first time Babe opened his eyes.
Gene’s dark eyes stared back at his, full of sparkling life that he now saw was only hinted at in his smiles, and now contained something else – something entirely new and exhilarating - that made the blood move down his body and settle somewhere decidedly lower than his heart.
“I - ” Babe attempted to explain, his tongue useless in his mouth and his gaze slipping stupidly down to rest on Gene’s kissed-looking lips. “You - ”
“You, me.” Gene all but repeated, his voice even and just a little bit breathless, but Babe could have sworn there was an undercurrent of amusement. Then he carefully disentangled a hand from Babe’s back, moved it up to the back of Babe’s neck, fingers just brushing his helmet and soft hair, and tugged Babe forwards once again.
Babe really did think that he probably should have seen it coming.
In the end, kissing a man was nothing like kissing a girl. Well, alright, there were lips involved, but that was about it. It wasn’t as if Babe was an expert when it came to the female persuasion, although he would swear differently were anyone to ask, but he’d kissed enough of them in the dark gaps between streetlights outside the dancehall to have at least a frame of reference. Girls were soft, sweet-smelling and a study in smooth curves, with lips that tasted like lipstick and hair that they kept you from touching so as to keep it in place. Gene smelled like dirt, sweat and blood, and was entirely made up of sharp angles and hard lines. There was nothing taken for granted with Gene, no assumptions of dominancy or coyness, no pre-written script for how they should act. It was new, it was unexpected, and it was good.
His first kiss with Gene was more of a desperate cling than anything else, wherein he suspected his subconscious of attempting to absorb as much of Gene as he could before the inevitable push away. When the shove off didn’t come, Babe found himself flushed and running to catch up with Easy beside an equally flushed Gene, feeling exhilarated like he hadn’t since jumping out of a plane for the first time. It was only later, after pointedly not thinking about what kissing another man really meant about himself or his moral values or his future in the burning depths of hell that he wondered why he hadn’t missed the soft press of breasts against his chest. He’d always considered himself a particular fan of breasts in general, and his lack of concern over their absence was disconcerting to say the least.
But once he’d kissed Gene the first time, he didn’t seem to be able to stop. They were in a foreign country, in the middle of a war, and still when an opportunity for them to have a few moments alone presented itself, Babe forgot all his reservations. He never would have thought that the burn from Gene’s stubble would be a concern, or that Gene’s lithe, firm body pressed against his could be more appealing and arousing than all the ladies from every dime-store mag he’d ever seen.
He wasn’t sure why he kept cataloguing the differences between Gene and women, especially when he didn’t want to think about the stuff he was doing with a guy in the first place. If he thought hypothetically about two men doing those things, it was revolting. But it he thought about any of it in relation to Gene, something seemed to burn under his skin and left him aching.
He supposed it meant he was weak, that he was unable to resist the devil’s temptation or some such shit. He definitely didn’t want to have a long conversation with his pastor about it, that was for sure. He didn’t even want to think about what the nuns would say. It was easy enough to avoid the military chaplains, though, to laugh along with the boys when they talked about girls back home with big tits, and to still twist his tongue with Gene’s on one of the rare times when they were alone.
And the times they could be alone really were hard to come by. For all that Gene tended to keep to himself, he was always doing something or needed somewhere. And it wasn’t as if Babe had nothing to do in the E.T.O. either.
“Is he gunna be okay, Doc?” The Dog Company sergeant was staring at Gene, his voice laced with desperation.
“Shrapnel didn’ get anythin’ important, it ain’t that bad.” Gene was tying a bandage tight around the gasping private’s leg, tying the bandage with a practiced twist of his hands. “Ain’t that bad at all, Private.”
“So he’ll be fine?” The sergeant asked again, eyes wide, and Babe was reminded yet again of Crazy Joe McKlosky, which led to difficult memories of Buck. Something about the sergeant was too intense, on edge, and Babe stood to the side with his rifle in his hands, uneasy. Where were Dog’s medics? Why was Gene the one who had to stay behind to help? Naturally, it was Babe who volunteered to go back with him. Logically, Babe knew that a squad of Dog Company’s second platoon had been out on patrol, and that when the private had been hit it was Easy Company that had been closest to help. But, infuriatingly, Babe was quickly discovering that when it came to Gene, all his rationality went right out the window.
Gene looked up at the sergeant for the first time, and Babe could tell from his expression that he thought the sergeant was a bit off as well. Babe almost wished that Gene would tell him off for it, as he tended to do when he thought someone was out of line, but knew he wouldn’t. Chances were, the sergeant was just concerned for his buddy.
“Yeah, Sergeant, he’ll need a trip ta the Aid Station, but he’ll be fine.” Gene moved a hand to the private’s forehead, and then frowned. Babe was suddenly more alert, and peered over Gene’s shoulder. The private looked awfully pale. Gene moved a finger to gently tug back the man’s quickly closing eyelids to get a better look. “Dammit.” He whispered under his breath, and Babe just managed to catch it from a few feet away.
“Private, I need you ta tell me where else it hurts!” Gene’s voice was loud and steady, but Babe tensed at the undercurrent of urgency in it. “Tell me now, Private, were you hit anywhere else?”
“Private Mitchell.” The Sergeant almost choked the words out. “His name, it’s-”
“Mitchell, stay with me Mitchell!” Gene had torn off Mitchell’s helmet and shoved a hand beneath his head, pulling it back and looking at his hands for fresh blood. When he didn’t find any, he quickly slipped his hands under Mitchell’s shoulders and repeated the process. “Mitchell!”
When Gene patted under Mitchell’s lower back, his hands came out coated in bright red blood. “Help me turn him over! Now!” He rolled the now-quiet boy towards the sergeant, and whipped out new pressure bandages for the ragged hole in the private’s back. Pulled away from the ammo bag that had absorbed and concealed the blood, new red rivulets seeped out before he could stop them. “Mitchell!” The blood slowed. Gene tilted the private’s face towards him, but the mouth was gaping open, and the eyes were at a dull half-mast.
Gene lay the private back down on the grass and sat back on his knees, looking up at Babe with dark, guilty eyes.
“You son of a fucking bitch!” Neither Babe nor Gene expected the sergeant to lunge at the medic, to shove him to the ground, and to start beating him in the face with all the crazed enthusiasm of grief. Gene couldn’t get his hands up to protect his face with the sergeant pinning him down, but Babe was there to grip him solidly by the shoulders and tear him off.
Babe threw the sergeant to the ground with probably more strength than he would have expected from his stubbornly slender body. The sergeant tried to get up, but Babe shoved him back down, getting in one or two punches and kicks himself before he felt Gene tugging at his shoulder and commanding him to stop.
“You stay the fuck away from him!” Babe spat out to the sergeant, absolutely livid.
The slightly battered-looking sergeant looked up at him with an expression that could only be described as a grimace. “That bastard said that he’d be alright, that he’d be fine!”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t know he was bleedin’ out in the back. I thought his only wound was in the leg.” Gene’s voice was even, but it held the reflexive and very human need for self-defence. Babe wondered uncomfortably who he was defending himself to – the sergeant or his own conscience.
“Maybe you shoulda told him where he was hit instead of askin’ if he’d be okay over and over again!” Babe’s temper was far from mollified when he could see the dark mark on Gene’s face that he already knew would develop into a brilliant bruise.
Gene glared at him, and Babe shut his mouth but bit his bottom lip and clenched his hands into fists to keep from smacking the sergeant around a bit more. There was a honk as the jeep meant to take Private Mitchell to the Aid Station arrived. Gene merely stood there, watching, as the sergeant stared at the dead man with broken eyes. The driver of the jeep hopped out, and Gene helped him lift Mitchell onto the stretcher.
“Take him with ya too.” Gene nodded to the vacant-looking sergeant standing beside the stretcher. The driver nodded, quickly understanding.
“Cummon Sarge, we’ve got blankets and hot chow. You come with me now, yeah?” The driver brought the rumbling engine to life, and it seemed to jerk the sergeant back into movement as he came to sit in the passenger seat, his eyes still on Mitchell.
Babe stood beside Gene as they watched the jeep go. He started to open his mouth, but Gene whirled on him before he could say anything. “Don’t you ever think you need ta defend me! I ain’t some fragile skirt, I can take care of myself!”
“That’s gunna be a pretty impressive shiner for a guy who can take care of himself!” Babe shot back, some part of his mind telling him to stand back and shut up, but he was too riled up out of anger and concern to listen.
“He was worried, Heffron!” Gene ground out, his split lip letting out a bead of blood that dripped down his chin. Gene swiped it away distractedly, letting it mix with the plethora of Mitchell’s blood already staining his hands. Babe felt as if Gene had all but slapped him from the use of his last name. Not Edward, not Babe, but the coolly impersonal Heffron, as if they were strangers. “And he wasn’t right in the head!”
“Goddammit, Gene, I was worried too!” Babe blurted out, but there were only civilians creeping around the remains of their houses in the background. No one who might overhear and think the worst - which was, oddly enough, the reality. “Ya think I don’t know you’re not a broad?” He should stop, he should really stop. “That this would be a hell of a lot easier if you were?”
Gene’s mouth was a thin red line, his dark eyes narrowed as much as they were able with one eye already starting to swell. “You didn’t need ta start it. You could have gone on pretendin’ and not brought me into it at all.”
And despite the chaotic myriad of panicked thoughts he’d had since pushing Gene up against that wall and kissing him for the first time, he couldn’t bring himself to regret doing it. It seemed impossible now to go back to never touching that pale skin and dark hair, to go back to keeping his distance and denying everything that he wanted.
“No.” Babe’s voice was quieter than before, some of the anger drained out of him. “No. I couldn’ta done that, Gene.”
“Why’d you have ta hit him?” Gene responded after a moment, his voice less severe than before.
“He was hittin’ you! What else did ya expect me ta do?” Babe asked, almost incredulous.
Gene was staring at him now like he was the one who’d been hit in the head, or like he’d somehow managed to slip a serious mental deficiency past him until now. “He was a sergeant, Babe. You hit a superior officer. You could be court martialed.”
Well, yes. “But he was hittin’ you first.” Babe insisted, at a loss at how he could have had any other option. “He could get court martialed just as much as me.”
Gene looked at Babe and something like a smile might have hinted at the corners of his mouth. “It’d be his word ‘gainst ours. But I guess he won’t be filing anything for awhile.” He ended seriously, and Babe could remember the broken look in the sergeant’s eyes.
“Yeah. How’s your face?” Babe asked curiously, wanting to reach over and brush the angry-looking mark with his thumb, as if that could erase it. But while the civilians were out of hearing distance, they weren’t blind.
Gene shook his head, readjusting his medic bag on his shoulder. “Hurts. But it’ll be fine. Hardest part will be havin’ to constantly explain what happened.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” Babe said quickly, hating the look of guilt that had slipped back into Gene’s eyes.
“Yeah, it was.” Gene replied matter of factly, eyes not meeting Babe’s. “I shoulda checked him all over. I don’t usually have time, but there were no grenades going off, no one else callin’ out for help. I had time.” It was left unsaid, but both of them knew that even if Gene had known how serious it was, he would still have told Mitchell that he wasn’t going to die. It was what he did, what he had to do.
Babe didn’t know what to say, but put his hand on Gene’s back in what he hoped was a comforting manner. Gene leaned just slightly into the contact, so maybe he got it right.
Gene definitely wasn’t a girl, but that didn’t mean Babe still wasn’t protective as all hell when it came to him.
The smell wouldn’t go away. The stench of sickness and death clung to his uniform, to his skin, and to his memory like a living thing. The irony of it wasn’t lost on Babe.
Landsberg had been nothing less of a nightmare; a swarm of grotesque skeletons stumbling towards them who were all but indiscernible from the scattered piles of corpses. They’d grasped at Easy with bony fingers, pressed their chapped lips to their cheeks, and treated them like merciful saviours when all they’d done was stumble onto a prison gate while sweeping the area. Starved, tortured men crammed into rooms no bigger than chicken coops, left to die by Nazi guards who had already done everything possible to destroy them.
And Easy had locked them back in. Fed them, in moderation – for their own health, or to save on supplies, Babe wondered, bitterness a new but now well-used feeling in his life – and closed the gates.
The house Easy had commandeered for the night was upscale and lavishly decorated, with intricate wallpaper, warm running water, and a porcelain toilet that Babe vomited in until his stomach and throat burned and his brain pounded against his skull.
He knew someone came in, but couldn’t be sure who. Someone was saying something, but Babe could still smell the camp, still smell the desperate, innocent men kept like animals because the Nazis didn’t want them in their Aryan country. The person left, and Babe was alone again with the cool porcelain against his cheek and closed his eyes. Rotting piles of bodies greeted him, bulging eyes pleaded silently at him in gaunt faces, death walked wearing striped uniforms, and fat Germans slept snug in their beds.
When he opened them again, he felt thick and slow, his whole body felt sore, and his mouth tasted absolutely foul. He removed his face from the toilet seat, and sat back in a crumpled heap against the wall. He blinked, rubbing the imprint he felt on his cheek, and almost jumped to see Gene sitting against the wall opposite him. Gene offered him a quiet smile, dark bags standing out against his disturbingly pale skin. He gently slid a glass of water across the floor towards Babe, and Babe picked it up out of reflex and took a sip. It was warm, and it left Babe wondering how long Gene had been sitting here for.
“That didn’t look too comfortable.” Gene said softly, and Babe saw for the first time that he had closed the door to the small bathroom, leaving the two of them in relative privacy.
“Was at least warm,” Babe said, voice hoarse, and his mind slipped to tiny bunk rooms being set alight with all the occupants trapped inside.
“You gotta point.” Gene said, and Babe thought about the look on his face when Nixon had quietly spoken in his ear. It was Gene who had been given the responsibility of organizing how the inmates received care, and it was him who made the difficult decision between who got priority – those nearest death, or those with a chance of surviving. He’d done his best, with the amount of medics, supplies and time given to him to do it, but everyone had known that it hadn’t been close to enough.
And yet here he was, sitting exhausted across from Babe. Gene had far more reason to break down than Babe had, but still here he was.
Babe realized too late that he’d been staring at Gene while he was thinking, and Gene scooted himself across the small room to sit next to Babe. He was close enough for his knee to brush with Babe’s, and Babe found himself tilting his head to rest on Gene’s shoulder. Gene wrapped an arm around his shoulders, drawing him even closer.
Babe knew that his breath smelled like vomit, that despite his scrubbing the day before he was still dirty and sweaty, that he was haggard and exhausted, and had just spent God-knows-how-long sleeping with his face pressed to a German toilet seat. And he knew that Gene was still holding him close, despite dealing with the same and more.
“Some of them were in there ‘cause they were queers.” Babe said finally, voice unnervingly small.
“I know.” Gene replied, voice calm but laced with a sadness that it tore at Babe’s heart to hear.
Babe could still smell the camp, and he knew it had seeped into everything and would never be fully gotten rid of.
Babe was aware of the cold, first, of the frigid night air infringing on the warmth of his sleep. He threw an arm over to the other side of the bed to draw Gene closer, to feel his warm body pulled tight against his, but his arm merely groped empty sheets. Babe drew the covers up sleepily, drowsy and disoriented, sure that Gene would soon be back and wanting his spot to be warm for him. As he floated in that half-awake state, dreamy but not quite gone, he heard the creak of water pipes in the wall above his head.
Dragging his eyes open, Babe saw the dim outline of his room in Zell am See, and could see the other posh single bed across the way, the table and armchair against the wall, and the doorway to the small toilet and sink. He could hear the soft rush of water running, echoed loudly in the walls, and his eyes moved to the bathroom, to where he was just able to see a pair of legs and shorts in the doorway. Ah, there Gene was. Babe closed his eyes and nuzzled into the pillow, ready to fall asleep again and waiting for Gene to join him. But the creak of the pipes didn’t stop, and neither did the sink.
Babe twisted onto his back and opened his eyes to stare at the patterned ceiling and listened as the noises continued. He looked over and saw Gene hadn’t moved, pale legs still framed in the doorway in the dimness of night. A sense of uneasiness rushed into the corners of Babe’s mind. There was something wrong.
Pushing the sheets aside and wincing as the Austrian night air hit his bare arms and legs, Babe pushed himself to his feet and walked sleepily over to the bathroom. As he reached the doorway, he could see Gene leant over the small sink, scrubbing his hands together under the stream. Babe looked in the small mirror hung on the wall over the sink, and saw Gene’s cool reflection: pale, eyebrows drawn, mouth set. It was an expression Babe had seen many times on Gene’s face before, one of determination. Babe felt that twist of apprehension again, and crossed his arms over his chest, as if that could protect him from his uncertainty. He leant against the doorframe, and wondered why Gene hadn’t seemed to notice his presence yet.
“What’s goin’ on?” Babe asked mildly, eyes and limbs still heavy with sleep but his mind attempting to connect with what was happening in the small hotel apartment. It was strange; in a foxhole, the slightest noise and he was wide awake. Billeted somewhere with clean sheets and a roof over his head, it was like trying to swim against the current to get awake.
Gene seemed to notice him for the first time at his words, his eyes glancing up into the mirror at him and then quickly going back to focusing on his scrubbing. After a moment he glanced up at Babe’s reflection again, his pained, dark eyes unreadable in the dim light. “I can’t get it off.” He said finally, hands rubbing each other over and over.
“Get what off?” Babe asked, suddenly feeling more awake at the dull panic in Gene’s voice.
“The blood.” Gene said promptly, his mouth tilting downwards, forehead creasing. “It won’t come off.” His voice, the soft Louisiana lilt that Babe liked so much, broke at the end. Something corresponding seemed to hurt in Babe’s chest.
Babe moved forward, placing one hand on Gene’s shoulder, and leant over his other side to get a closer look at Gene’s hands. They moved repetitively in their scrubbing motions, palms together, then the backs, then each individual finger, then between them, then the fingernails, then back to the palms. They were red and chapped from the copious movement, but Babe couldn’t see any blood. Babe felt even colder than before.
“They look pretty clean to me.” Babe tried to assure him, turning his head sideways to look directly at Gene. Gene’s frown only deepened, his face stark white except for two patches of red on his cheeks.
“No, it’s sticky,” Gene’s voice was higher than usual, panic steadily increasing the more he talked. “It’s there and it won’t wash off!”
“Gene, look at me.” Babe said, his heart taking up residence somewhere in his throat. Gene stared down at his hands, washing them over and over. “Gene!” No response, Gene just pressing his hands harder, working them to an angry red as he tried to get the invisible blood off. The uncomfortable sense of unease slipped into the sickening press of fear.
Babe reached forward and tilted Gene’s face towards him. Given no other choice, his eyes slipped up to Babe’s, wide and bright. Babe grabbed the towel off the rack and held it out in front of Gene. “Here. Let me wipe it off.” Gene slowly moved his hands out from under the tap, the water still running, and tucked them into Babe’s waiting towel-covered ones. Babe patted the abused hands dry, watching as Gene never took his eyes off them.
Babe lifted the edge of the towel away and gently touched one of Gene’s palms. The skin was rough where it had once been soft; a winter without gloves and constant washing had done Gene’s hands no favours. The flushed skin was free of the red stain that they had taken in the long periods in foxholes with only cold water for scrubbing. Babe had watched him rub and rub, trying to get the drying blood off his hands without using the drinking water. Babe ran the pad of his thumb over Gene’s cracked knuckles, looking up in time to see the confused look on Gene’s face. Babe leant down and pressed his lips to the centre of the abused palm.
“All clean.” Babe said simply, watching the confusion on Gene’s face and hating it. He reached up to brush Gene’s hair off his forehead, but froze in the motion when his fingertips brushed Gene’s skin.
“Shit, Gene…” Babe pressed his palm against Gene’s forehead, like his mother had done whenever he was sick, and was immediately at a loss for what to do. It was hot, too hot. Gene just looked at him, dark eyes bright and confused, mouth pulled into a small frown. “Okay, okay, you’re sick. Not surprisin’, you’re around sick and bleedin’ people all the time. You just gotta go lay down, and I’ll go get-” Jesus Christ, he’d been about to say ‘Doc Roe’. “-Doc Spina.”
“Alright.” It would have been almost too quiet to hear if it hadn’t been said into the silence of the darkened room. Gene allowed himself to be led over to the bed, clutching at Babe like a lifeline, his movements clumsy and slow. Babe urged him down, tugging the covers over him, and crouched down to be at face level. Gene only looked at him, his eyes black in the dim light, his mouth still pressed into a thin line. Babe leant in to kiss him, unable to stand the expression on his face. Gene didn’t respond, but his lips softened against Babe’s own, and when Babe sat back on his heels Gene’s eyes slipped closed.
“I’ll be right back.” He promised, tucking the sheets more securely around Gene’s shoulder. He didn’t get a response.
He paused only to rustle up the untouched sheets of the other bed to make it look slept in, and then he was out the door. It was only when he turned to face the hallway that he realized he had no idea which of the doors that lined the long hallway led to Spina’s room. There was a tall clock standing against the wall ticking steadily away, the hour hand hovering over the three.
Deciding there was nothing for it, Babe opened the first door on the right. He squinted through the darkness, but could easily recognize the sleeping bodies in the two beds as Martin and Trappazuno from their size and shape. On to the next door, where Bull leant up on his forearms and squinted at him narrowly.
“Do you know which room Doc Spina’s in?” Babe asked, forcing his loud whisper to be calmer than it otherwise would be. Jesus Christ, it was only a fever, not a bullet wound, but Babe already knew he had trouble rationalizing when it came to Gene.
Bull was sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Who’s hurt?” He asked gruffly, standing and reaching for his pants, already moving towards the door. It was about then that Babe realized that he was pretty fucking terrible at putting on a show of acting calm and collected since he’d been running down the hall in his underwear.
“No one, but Eugene’s sick and seein’ things that aren’t there!” Babe whispered, shoving a hand into his hair, thinking that really did sound just as bad out loud as it did in his head.
“Doc? Shit.” Bull forwent shoes or a blouse over the undershirt he was wearing, and Babe followed him obediently out into the hallway. “And he ain’t just still dreamin’?” Babe shook his head immediately, the unnatural heat of Gene’s lips against his still a recent memory. “Spina’s at the end of the hall, with Hashey.”
Babe slipped through the doorway with Bull close behind him. Spina was in the bed next to the window, lying on his back and snoring.
”Hey, Doc, wake up!” Babe had barely touched his shoulder before Spina was sitting up, blinking madly and reaching for the medic bag beside his bed.
“What’s up?” He asked, grabbing his bag and tugging on his pants, completely alert. Babe could have kissed him.
“Gene has a fever, and was trying to wash blood off his hands that wasn’t there.” Babe told him as they moved to the door, Hashey sitting up and rubbing his eyes as they passed.
“Must be some fever, if he’s delirious.” He walked quickly down the hall with Babe at his side, Bull following behind them. “Is he coughin’? Havin’ trouble breathin’? In pain?”
“Nah, none of that.” Babe said, racking his brain and wondering if he missed something. But he would have been woken up real quick if Gene had started coughing or wheezing right in his arms.
When they’d reached the door, they pressed through it with Spina going first, Babe hot on his heels, and Bull trailing them both.
“Oh, shit…” Babe murmured, taking in the two rumpled and very empty beds. “Gene?” He moved around the corner, but the small bathroom was empty as well.
“Where the hell did he go?” Spina frowned at the room, a hand on the back of his neck.
Bull moved back into the hall, scanning it up and down, then started moving towards the stairs, in the opposite way that Spina’s room had been. “Come on boys, we’ll find him.”
Gene wasn’t in the hall, wasn’t on the stairs, and wasn’t on the floor beneath theirs. Babe felt more than a little sick himself, guilty for all but losing Gene when he obviously wasn’t wholly himself. Luckily, there was little chance of him being struck by a sniper or artillery in Zell am See, but that didn’t mean there weren’t literally hundreds of weapons lying around. Gene wasn’t on the floor beneath that, either, and if he was in one of the rooms and not the hallway it would take even longer to find him.
They’d reached the lobby, with still no sign of Gene.
“There!” Babe looked to where Spina was pointing and felt himself flooded with relief. One of the double doors was open, and Gene stood in the doorway, facing away from them into the darkness of the early morning. He was still wearing his shorts and white t-shirt, the fabric fading into the whiteness of his skin.
“Gene!” Babe called, and at the sound of his voice Gene turned to look at them. His face was starkly pale, his cheeks oddly flushed, and one hand was on the door frame that seemed to be assisting in keeping him on his feet. His eyes were wide and dark, his brows drawn together in concern and anxiety.
“Where is he?” Gene asked Babe, voice filled with desperation.
Babe knew Bull and Spina were behind him, but they were waiting for him to talk Gene down before approaching. Babe’s mind spun an analogy to talking down a hurt animal, and he shied away from it. Gene was the one with the quiet, soothing voice that could command and comfort anyone. Babe’s voice had a tendency to break and squeak embarrassingly when he got too emotional. Gene was the one with the bandages and the red cross who could calm a screaming soldier with morphine and firm assurances of life. Babe carried a rifle and made bad jokes, spoke about Philly too much and was still somehow, after everything, waiting to prove himself. It was Gene who talked wounded men down and saved them, not Babe. Never Babe.
But there was something in the idea of Gene hurt, of him weak and confused, that had the hair on the back of Babe’s neck standing up on end, had his stomach in knots, had his thumb tapping against his thigh in an unconscious tattoo of anxiety. He needed to do something to make it better, to make Gene better, and would do anything. If that meant treating Gene like the ones he so often saved, then he would do it.
“Where’s who?” Babe asked mildly, taking another step towards Gene.
Gene made a noise of impatience and turned more towards Babe as he gestured with the hand not clutching the doorframe. “The wounded man! The one they’re callin’ a medic for!”
Something twisted even tighter in Babe’s gut. “No one’s calling for a medic, Gene.” Babe told him, forcing his voice steady.
“They are!” Gene insisted, looking over his shoulder into the night, his shoulder stiff with tension. “They’re screamin’, I- I need to go!”
Babe had moved forward and grabbed Gene by the arm with no memory of moving, not thinking of anything but his unwillingness to let Gene out into the dark. “Gene, it’s alright, there’s no-”
“No, I have to-” Gene twisted in his grip.
“Gene, you-” He knew it was hopeless, that it wouldn’t work, even as he said it.
“Hey Doc, don’t worry, I’ve got this one.” Spina was suddenly beside them, clapping a hand on Gene’s shoulder, his open and expressive face reassuring and friendly. “You take care of Babe, huh? I’ve got the wounded kid under control.”
“But-” Gene’s protest was less convinced. Babe felt he could have kissed Spina again, and wondered inanely if he wasn’t just developing some sort of weird thing for medics.
“I got it, Doc. You go with Babe, alright?” Spina was all genial capability.
“Yeah,” Gene said, sounding dazed and immeasurably relieved, the fight all but drained out of him. He turned to Babe, suddenly tense one more, moving his hand from the doorframe and placing it against Babe’s chest, the other hand moving up to his cheek. “What’s wrong?” Gene demanded, voice soft and concerned as he seemed to remember that Spina had told him to take care of Babe. It was a too close to him, too personal, too reminiscent of when they were alone and making the most of it. Spina and Bull were far too nearby, and Babe felt himself flush. He backed up a little, so that Gene’s hand was no longer on his face, and he pretended that he didn’t see the flash of hurt in Gene’s big dark eyes. Something like guilt settled in his stomach, mixing with the prickle of fear in a nauseating combination. Babe put his arm around Gene’s shoulders, both to guide him and mollify his own conscience.
“I think I just need some sleep,” Babe said, quite honestly, and led Gene towards the stairs, past Bull who just nodded at him as they walked by.
He managed to get Gene up all the stairs, although he took more and more of Gene’s weight the further up they went. They reached their room, finally, and Gene all but collapsed down onto the mattress. Babe pushed the sheets over him again and dragged the chair over from the table against the wall to the side of the bed. He sagged into it, his chin propped in his palm, and gazed wearily at Gene.
“God dammit, Gene. Don’t make me chase you around like that. Shit.” He scrubbed at his face, but it didn’t change the all-consuming want he had of pressing his lips against Gene’s, of feeling his body long and firm across his own, of knowing that he was still there.
The door creaked open, and Babe looked up over his fingers at Spina closing the door behind him. “Hey Doc.”
“I usually charge extra for housecalls.” Spina informed him dryly, shovelling around in his medic bag and finally producing a small box. “Alright, give him these.”
“What are they?” Babe could only see the words acetylsalicylic acid on the box as Spina opened it and pulled out two separated tablets
“Aspirin.” Spina handed the pills to Babe, and moved over to the small bathroom, talking as he turned on the tap. The recently familiar sound made Babe’s stomach tighten, and he glanced down to where Gene was lying silent and asleep on the bed. “Give him one every three hours; that should get him into the mornin’. We can take him to a doctor if he’s not any better by then.” He returned with wet towels, and pushed them against Gene’s heated skin as he tilted his face into the contact. Babe held the cloth against Gene’s forehead as he turned and almost caused it to fall off. Spina stood, wiping his hands on his pants.
“What, ya goin’ back to bed?” Babe asked incredulously, suddenly realizing why Spina had given him instructions for the pills.
Spina just looked at him for a few moments, brown eyes searching for something. “He needs you, not me, Babe.” He said quietly.
It felt almost as though the world titled to the side, and the breath caught in Babe’s throat. No, they couldn’t have been found out. Not now, not ever.
“Whaddya mean?” Christ, he sounded vaguely hysterical.
“Jesus Christ, Heffron. I’m not blind. The rest of the boys might not’ve caught on yet, but I know Doc, and I know you.” Spina looked more tired than anything else, standing there, his hair still ruffled from sleep, his medic bag on over his undershirt. “So for fuck’s sake, look after him and let me catch some shuteye, alright?”
When Babe just sat there, lost for words, not sure if he should burst into a denial or a defence, Spina turned and walked towards the door.
“Hey, Ralph?” Babe heard the words coming out of his mouth almost numbly. “Do – D’ya think I’m gunna go ta hell?”
Spina shoved a hand through his hair, and looked over his shoulder at Babe. “There’s a lotta things in the bible, Babe. If ‘thou shalt not kill’ can depend on the circumstances, I’m sure some other things in there can too.”
Spina closed the door softly, and Babe was left in the dark room with a restlessly sleeping Gene. He stood up, got a glass of water from the bathroom and woke Gene up enough for him to swallow one of the aspirin. He locked the door on his way back to the bed, and after rewetting the cold cloths, lay down in the narrow bed beside Gene. Gene automatically curled into his side, his skin uncomfortably hot and damp, but Babe kissed his pale and fever-brightened cheeks and closed his eyes.
For the first time in a long while, his dreams weren’t laced with fire and the threat of eternal suffering, despite the furnace burning at his side.
“The war’s over.” Winters’ words rang in Babe’s ears as he jogged with the boys towards the shower tent, waiting for the perfect moment to slip away.
“Practice all you want, Easy, we’ll still whip your asses tomorrow!” Came the laughing shout from a tech sergeant in a nearby jeep.
“Hey Richardson, ya jackass, haven’t ya heard?” Babe saw his opportunity and broke away from the group, skidding on the grass to a stop in front of a jeep. “The Jap’s surrendered, the war’s over!”
“You’re shittin’ me!” The Fox Company guys standing around Richardson immediately fell silent, and all turned to Babe.
“Nope, just heard from Winters.” And Babe allowed himself to grin for the first time, the shock and disbelief only having now worn off.
One of the boys whistled. “Well, fuck me.” Richardson muttered absently.
“Sorry, have other plans.” Babe said brightly, and turned in a different direction from the showers as he broke into a jog again.
“It figures he’d tell you sons o’ bitches first.” Richardson shouted after him. “I know blatant favouritism when I see it!” Babe only laughed as his jog became a run.
Gene was already in the supply tent when Babe slipped inside, and immediately had him pressed up against the just-closed door with his tongue in Babe’s mouth, his hands threaded through his red hair, and his already-hard cock pressed tight against Babe’s hip. Babe automatically slid his hands up Gene’s back, returning the kiss with all the intensity with which it was given. Heat started to coil low in his abdomen, and he involuntarily shifted against Gene, making the other man make a soft noise low in his throat that did strange things to Babe’s heart rate and breathing patterns.
“What took you so long?” Gene asked between warm and infuriatingly soft kisses to Babe’s neck. Babe tilted his head back against the wooden door and fumbled behind him to close the padlock – not an easy task with Gene’s lips on his jugular and their hips angled just so.
“War’s over, don’t ya know?” Babe gasped as Gene licked into the hollow of his throat. “People wanna know. A guy’s gotta tell ‘em.”
“You left me waitin’ because you were playin’ town crier?” Gene looked up at Babe and raised an eyebrow, his brown eyes glinting with more happiness than Babe thought he’d ever seen in them.
Babe had yanked him up by the front of his white t-shirt and had pulled Gene into a kiss before he’d even thought about doing it. The thought that Gene had been here, hard and waiting, just for him, was almost too much to handle. His hands slipped down and tugged at the fabric of Gene’s t-shirt up from his pants, running his hands over the smooth skin he found beneath. Soft skin over tight muscle, the body of someone who could run up and down Curahee and jump out of planes, of someone who could run through explosions when someone called his name. Babe pulled the white shirt up, and Gene tucked his head away for Babe to pull it off and fling it away into the darkness of boxes and crates.
Babe kissed Gene again, then pushed him back onto a crate, until he was half sitting, have leaning on a box of unused C rations. His skin was burning, every inch that was connected with Gene’s hypersensitive and somehow directly connected to his cock. Babe ran his hands over Gene’s bare shoulders, pressing kisses up the line of his jaw as Gene reflexively tilted his face away from the tickling contact and inadvertently exposed more vulnerable skin. Gene was pulling Babe’s blouse of his pants and tugging at the buttons at Babe’s neck, his pale fingers quick and agile, even as he arched beneath Babe. Babe ghosted his breath over Gene’s ear, and when he felt Gene’s fingers pause on his shirt, licked inside and was rewarded with a stuttering gasp from Gene. He kissed just behind Gene’s ear, his body almost ringing with the feel of Gene’s fingers pulling on his collar for grip as he buried his nose in the soft hair at the side of Gene’s head. He smelled like sun and freshly trampled grass, of sweat and dugout sand, of the soap of hot showers and the harsh detergent of industrially cleaned sheets. There was no caked on dirt, no stench of unwashed clothes, and no metallic smell of blood. There was just Gene. No smell of war, just Gene.
Gene pressed his hands to Babe’s chest to push him away long enough to pull the blouse and t-shirt underneath up over his head, forgoing the majority of the buttons. It twisted and caught on Babe’s head and arm, but he forced his way out with a breathy laugh. He blinked down at Gene when he realized Gene had paused beneath him. “What?”
“You look like an angel,” Gene pushed his hand through Babe’s newly messed red hair, the sunlight that slanted in through the gaps in the canvas highlighting Gene’s face and, he supposed, his own head. “All golden ‘n beautiful.”
Babe grinned, knowing if his cheeks weren’t already deeply flushed they would be now. “Nunna that. What, you want me ta tell you that you’re goddamn gorgeous? ‘Cause I ain’t goin’ to. No sirree.”
“Uh huh.” Gene said, and he was laid out all sweat-damp and bright under Babe, pale skin almost glowing in the shafts of sun. His lips were wet and red, his dark eyes glinting.
“Yupp. What kinda sap d’ya take me for, huh?” Babe leaned down and kissed him again, his hand sloping down over his shoulder to the curve of his chest, his fingertips brushing over one of Gene’s nipples and hearing a low groan in response. He thumbed the area again, and felt it grow hard under his touch, and saw Gene’s eyes flutter closed. His hands slipped down over the sharp jut of a hipbone and over the flat plane of Gene’s abdomen and felt the dark, soft trail of hair leading down under the waistband of his pants. As he slid his hand down beneath Gene’s belly button, he felt Gene’s hips jerk under him, and they both almost dove for each other’s belts at the same time. Gene got Babe’s first, at more of a convenient angle, but Babe closely followed, until pants were more or less open and certain vital bits of anatomy were much more easily accessible.
It all grew fast and messy from there, with ragged gasps in between a rush of kisses, hands on each other and themselves, until they got into a more or less steady rhythm that left Babe with one hand on the wall beside Gene’s head and one hand on Gene’s waist, and Gene clutching the crate beside him with a white knuckled grip while the other one held on quite as securely to Babe’s rear. It wasn’t long before Babe’s vision went white and his mind grew fuzzy, and his legs all but collapsed beneath him.
He blinked into Gene’s shoulder, half-lying on top of him, recovering slowly and feeling as though his brain may have seeped out of his ears in the meantime. The corner of a crate was digging into his thigh, there was a wet and sticky mess drying on his stomach and pants, and he could feel nothing but content. He lazily kissed Gene’s bare collarbone, tasting the prickle of salt on his tongue. He felt the vibrations of Gene laughing softly, and when Babe leant up to talk to him it caused them both to loose their balance and fall sideways, knocking a pile of boxes to the ground while Gene caught himself on another crate.
“Ya know, I’m gunna miss this.” Babe mused, and Gene gave him a wry look as he attempted to increase the stability of another teetering pile of boxes one-handed.
“What, sneakin’ off ta mess up some poor supply officer’s hard work?”
“No,” Babe said, and wiped idly at the drying stuff on Gene’s stomach. He waved a hand between the two of them. “This.”
Babe looked up in time to see something in Gene’s eyes, face, and entire manner shift. Babe suddenly realized that he was still lying on top of Gene, and got his feet under him enough to transfer his weight away.
“What?” Gene was doing up his pants but looking at Babe closely, his dark eyes more closed off than Babe could remember seeing them lately, especially when it was just them. Babe tucked himself in and did up his own trousers, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, and why it seemed like the air had just grown ten degrees cooler.
Gene was, apparently, going to make him say it. “Aw, dammit, Gene, the war’s over!” Babe was finding it strangely difficult to put into words what he’d so completely taken for granted for so long. “We’re going back home…” Back to a life where he would be hailed as a war-hero, and get to show all his family and friends his jump wings. A life where he was a good, god-fearing son, where he had a wife and children ahead of him.
The indecipherable look in Gene’s eyes melted into full-blown anger, and his eyes narrowed at Babe, stepping away from him. He was still shirtless, his pale skin still shining in the narrow beams of sunlight, his dark hair still damp with sweat, but now his lithe body was almost humming with pent-up emotion.
“What did you think this was?” Gene demanded, eyes almost black now. “What did you goddamn think this was, Babe?” No Heffron now. They were in too deep for that.
And then Babe was angry too, because this wasn’t how he thought this would go, how this would end.
“I don’t know!” He blurted out, and he regretted it immediately because Gene drew away even further. “I’ve never fuckin’ known, and you knew that!”
“Yeah,” And Gene looked away from him, and rubbed his neck as he looked for his shirt on the floor. “Well, glad I could help you bide your time ‘til you got home.” His voice was bitter, and it was something Babe couldn’t remember ever hearing from Gene.
“No, it – it wasn’t like that,” And Babe wasn’t sure what was happening, didn’t know why it felt like something was slipping through his fingers faster than he could catch it. “Gene, you’re Catholic for Christ’s sake! If this didn’t end with the war, what were you gunna do? Tell your family, your friends? Tell them you’re a queer and got off with a guy from South Philly?”
Gene leaned down, lifting his wayward t-shirt from behind a crate. He pulled it on, his back to Babe, and Babe watched the pale, smooth expanse of skin disappear beneath the fabric. He could still remember the salty taste of that skin, the feel of it, soft and firm, under his fingertips. “I would have,” He said, and it took Babe a moment to stop staring at Gene’s newly-covered back and shoulders and comprehend the words. “I would’ve told them. For you.”
Gene moved towards the door, hand searching in the depths of one of his pockets for the key to the padlock, and it felt like something was sitting on Babe’s chest. He knew, instinctively that if Gene left the tent like this, he would never look at him again with sparkling brown eyes filled with desire and something else, something that made Babe’s stomach twist and his heart beat faster than he would have thought possible with no planes or rifles involved.
“Gene, wait!” And he was moving forward, grabbing Gene by the shoulder, turning him around to face him even before he knew what he was doing. Gene’s eyes met his, and in a flash he could see through the cover of anger, and see the burning frustration and sickening disappointment hiding just beneath the surface.
And then he knew, knew what he’d been avoiding even thinking about until now, but now it was too big inside his chest for him to ignore any more, the words too important of a press behind his teeth, a solid weight on his tongue that he couldn’t have held back if he’d tried.
“I love you, Gene.” And there was something wrong with his voice, because it rang with desperation. When he thought about it, though, he supposed that’s what this feeling was, this now or never, do or die, say it or choke it down and be miserable for the rest of his life. “I goddamn love ya, alright?”
Gene had stilled, but something in his eyes had softened, and that gave Babe more hope than anything else. “I don’t know what that means, or what the fuck I’m goin’ ta do about it, but you need to be there, because I don’t know shit about being in love, but I know it’s a we-thing. Not a Babe-fuckin’-up-on-his-own-because-he’s-a-stupid-son-of-a-bitch-thing.”
“You love me?” And then Gene was smiling, and his eyes were warm again, and something in Babe’s chest seemed to loosen while relief flooded his veins. Babe felt blood rush into his cheeks, and he blushed like there was no tomorrow.
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t go gettin’ too full of yourself about it though.” Babe informed him, but his fingers were sliding over Gene’s hips, and Gene was moving in closer, and it was hard to feel too bad or embarrassed about anything.
“I thought you were never gunna say that.” Gene said, and Babe thought he might just be the stupidest guy on earth to not have said it earlier. Somehow, telling his family and friends back home that he was a queer seemed a lot more survivable than continuing any more of his life without Gene.
“Better late than never?” Babe tried, and was rewarded with a soft laugh from Gene.
“Pretty damn late,” Gene said dryly. “But it’s convenient.” He was close, really close, and when he spoke again Babe could feel Gene’s breath against his own lips. “’Cause je t'aime aussi.”
“What?” In Babe’s own defence, he had never been all that sharp with languages. And with Gene this close after almost losing him forever, it was hard to think about anything except that the war was over, that they were together, and that he could take whatever came next.
“I love you too, Babe.”
“Well, damn, why didn’t ya just say so?” Babe gave a breathy laugh, but he was cut off from saying anything more when Gene tugged him the last few inches to close the gap between their lips.
For everything there is a season,
And a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal . . .
A time to love, and a time to hate,
A time for war, and a time for peace.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, 8