At first, Eugene doesn’t have much interest in the replacements. None of the Toccoa men do unless they’re the sort to knock a new guy’s legs out from under him for fun, and Eugene is certainly not that. The ones who keep a greater distance most likely don’t want to form friendships that could be even more fleeting than the ones they had with the men for whom these replacements will stand in – that’s the answer for Eugene, who hasn’t even come to befriend any of the other men from Camp Toccoa in their time together. Thankfully, people are respectful about his aloof and rather taciturn nature, appreciative when he patches them back together without pressing for more.
They must understand, he thinks to himself as he sips at the beer he’s been nursing all night and watches the other Easy Company men make the most of their leisure time in Aldbourne. They must see how much more horrible it would be to lose a friend if that man also died due to your own failure; with all of their lives in his hands, Doc Roe has more vital concerns than can be smoothed over by a winning personality or a moment of friendly intimacy.
And he never questions that attitude – that necessary truth – for a second, until he shifts his gaze to a group of men playing darts and spots a flash of unfamiliar red hair.
(Vibrantly red hair flashing in his peripheral vision all over the construction site, as if it were attached to a bird of paradise rather than a slender teenager only a year or two older than Eugene Roe, another very early public school dropout working to help his family through the later years of the Great Depression -)
Now that is something the other men wouldn’t be likely to understand, the fact that Eugene’s taken special notice of the redheads in their company and learned the finer details of each shade of ginger, but it’s not the sort of thing he’ll ever feel compelled to share or explain even to the closest of hypothetical friends. If his pulse kicked up a notch or two the first time he saw Lieutenant Winters (which has yet to stop happening, but he’s also such an exemplary man and leader that he’d be one of the more difficult men to ignore even with a less remarkable shade of hair), or his grin upon hearing one of Donald Malarkey’s boisterous fits of laughter lasted a bit too long, the reasons weren’t, and aren’t, anyone else’s business.
(- dazzling smile, too white to be believed; easy laughter at the slightest provocation, not insincere but a mark of how easily he held and maintained a cheerful mood; curious green eyes following Eugene as he worked, but never interrupting the diligent boy until -)
This replacement’s hair is brighter than Winters’s, lighter than Malarkey’s. He’s got no sign of freckles, at least not on his face or neck, but he’s as pale as all the (very small handful of) redheads Eugene has ever known. Against that skin his eyes are startlingly dark, and his face is slender enough that his smile seems to split it right in two.
He’s a bit gangly, a bit overeager, everything about him distinctly reminiscent of a playful puppy. Eugene thinks he’s beautiful.
(- until a social call after work that Eugene didn’t know was a date - who would ever assume that of plans made on a construction site in late-1930s Louisiana? – after which the beautiful redhead came back to his apartment and got him pressed up against the wall with a solid thigh between his legs and a hot tongue prodding at his lips -)
Eugene also knows he’s dangerous because of that.
(- “I won’t tell no one, but never, ever do nothin’ like that again,” Eugene told him calmly; only later, alone in his bed with no distractions and no company but his thoughts, did he face the events of the evening, poring over them again and again until his vision blurred around the edges and he bucked up into his hand harder than he ever had before -)
It’s almost mesmerising to watch him interact with men like Guarnere, Luz, Compton, Toye; he’s laughing and smiling as confidently as the Toccoa men, taking the odd bit of ridicule with good-natured sheepishness that will only endear him to these men even more. He belongs already, so completely that if Eugene weren’t so confident in his mental catalogue of the company, he wouldn’t single out the young man as a replacement at all. Not compared to the others huddled together at their own tables, their every action hesitant, forever looking for approval they’ll never find.
(- it took weeks of curling in on himself in bed every night after the memories had brought him to completion yet again, feeling sick and confused and dirty somewhere deep below his skin, before they faded enough to stop tormenting him and he found he once again had the strength to look that beautiful redhead in the eye; a week later, they finished the job and Eugene never saw him again.)
Eugene is watching him so closely, with such intense concentration, that he manages to miss the fact that the redhead is looking right back for several long moments; a jolt of panic seizes him when the eye contact finally registers, but the redhead only smiles, lopsided and a bit cautious but still suffused with friendly warmth. Trying to will his hands not to shake, he offers a wan smile and nod in return, then directs his attention clear across the room. As soon as enough time has passed for Eugene to feel confident that the amicable replacement must have forgotten his blunder, he’ll slide out a side exit unseen and unnoticed.
With any luck, by the time that replacement sees him again, he’ll have lost all memory of Eugene Roe and believe they’re meeting anew.
“Hey, George, who’s that? Another new guy?”
Replacement is something of a dirty word in the army - Babe was warned about that in camp, and it’s proven to be very true now that he’s among the men of the 101st Airborne’s Easy Company. He’s been lucky (he’d like to say “smooth,” but Bill found him when he had no thought of insinuating himself, and he knows damn well that Bill is the one paving the way for his stress-free introduction to the others) enough to integrate naturally, but that just means he’s even more careful to avoid the word, not wanting to put too fine a point on his status in this situation.
He can’t figure out the guy looking at him from a nearby table, though. Most of the other replacements are moving in tight circles, protecting themselves from the very men with whom they hope to ingratiate themselves just in case things go south, but this guy’s just… alone. Doesn’t make sense for a replacement or a veteran. There’s nothing all that melancholy about the look of him, none of the uncomfortable air that often leaves no doubt as to the reasons why a loner has wound up alone; he looks serious, almost grave when surrounded by his more light-hearted compatriots, but that just makes the hint of a smile Babe gets out of him even more magnetic.
By the time he gestures to the man’s table to indicate who he means, the subject of his curiosity is already looking elsewhere with that same absorbed attention. Does he always look that way, then – is everything in the room as fascinating to him as Babe appeared to be, or nothing? Both options leave him feeling childishly put out.
“Who?” Luz’s eyes follow Babe’s gesture, and he lets out a snort of amusement when he sees the answer. “Don’t try it with him, Babe, you’re never gonna break that ice. Doc’s a good guy and a hell of a medic, but he’s not what you’d call chatty.”
“Medic, huh…” His interest only stoked by the warning, Babe turns his attention back to the man they call Doc. Now, with the man’s role identified, Babe thinks it’s not so much of a surprise; he’s slight in a different way than most of the skinnier soldiers, built every bit as small as he is slim, which makes him look compact rather than coltish but also not likely to fill out. Babe finds that his gaze snags on the long, slim fingers wrapped around Doc’s pint glass, much easier to imagine pulling stitches through torn skin than pulling a trigger.
“Babe -” He’s barely aware of Luz’s voice trying to bring his attention back until a light punch to his shoulder forces the issue, making him blink almost sleepily at the sight of George’s smirk. “- Heffron! Are you even listening?”
“He’s doing good if he’s already figured out not to listen to you, Luz,” Toye remarks in his dry, sandpaper-scrape voice, which earns him a punch that Luz pulls just before it can make contact. “Smart man. You can’t just ignore him, Babe - it encourages him. He’ll talk both your fuckin’ ears off and that’s not getting you a ticket home.”
The way Luz grins at Joe Toye’s casual insults makes something twist uncomfortably in Babe’s chest; he’s lucky to be as well accepted as he is already, it’s true, but he’s not really one of them yet. These sorts of jokes almost feel as though they’re at his expense, playing on the fact that he doesn’t know such things yet.
“You talked to the medic before, Joe?” Babe asks, not at all self-conscious about his interest, because isn’t it natural for him to be curious about his new company mates? And someone sitting alone like that, brow furrowed as though he’s carrying the weight of the world on his narrow shoulders while everyone around him drinks and carouses, is a natural target for that curiosity.
Toye doesn’t seem to think anything of it either, turning to regard Doc with an impassive glance. “Doc Roe? Yeah, I took two goddamn grenades to the face in Normandy, I’ve talked to Doc. He still asks how I’m feeling every time he sees me.”
“George says he doesn’t talk to no one.”
“I thought you learned this guy was full of shit already?” Toye laughs and cuffs Luz in the back of the head, and that combined with his comment just starts them on another round of cheerful insults, leaving Babe to roll his eyes to the ceiling with his tongue tucked irritably into his cheek. If he’s actually learned anything from these two, it’s that he’ll never get a straight answer out of one when the other is present.
He sweeps his eyes over the room and feels a strange tug of nervousness at the base of his stomach, like a hook dragging his attention back to Doc Roe’s table – he’s not there anymore. Babe’s mind must have registered it before his eyes could. When the hell did he leave? How many exits does this place have?
“‘ey, Babe! You wanna know about Doc?” Bill’s the one calling after him now, and he feels like he’d get at least a slightly better answer from Bill, but the matter’s become more pressing now that Doc’s disappeared from the bar. He doesn’t want to end the night not having introduced himself to someone who seems like he could be the most interesting member of the company.
If he’s honest with himself, though, Doc Roe became so interesting thanks to that look he fixed on Babe for so long: he seemed unabashed until Babe saw the realization that he was being watched back click into place in his smoky blue-grey eyes, which suggests that he was actually too enthralled to notice smaller details like Babe meeting his stare. Who wouldn’t be flattered by that?
… well, a lot of guys, sure. Maybe most. But Babe’s man enough to take an implicit compliment from another guy as long as it doesn’t come with a physical pass at him, and Doc doesn’t look like the type or sound like it from what the others said. No one who isolates himself like that as a matter of course is going to throw a stranger up against the wall and kiss him or something.
Babe’s not sure why he’s still struggling to shake the mental image he’s conjured up for himself with that thought when he spots a compact, black-haired figure in a dress uniform walking away from the building. No time to worry about it now, he decides, not when he’s finally spotted his target.
“Doc? Doc Roe?”
The sound of someone shouting for him hasn’t yet become such a constant litany in Eugene’s mind that he hears it in his sleep, in perfect silence and solitude, would likely keep hearing it in the vacuum of a black hole – before Bastogne, where Medic! truly starts to make his blood run cold as the snow and his breath catch cruel as the wind through the trees, it’s just curious to hear heavy footfalls from behind him and his name called out in an effort to pause his steps.
It’s Bill Guarnere, he thinks at first, missing the timbre of the strange voice because that accent is so closely tied to one person in the company for him. But he’s only just catching up to the fact that the pitch was off for Guarnere when a hand claps down on his right shoulder and causes him to spin around so fast that his sight gives a brief but violent lurch to one side; when it rights itself, all he can see is red hair and a smile too brilliant to be borne.
“Shit, sorry,” the replacement says with a nervy little laugh, almost what Eugene would classify as a giggle. “Did I startle ya? Thought you musta heard me coming.”
“I -” Eugene starts to explain, then realizes he doesn’t have much of an explanation for his reaction, so he gives a half-hearted shrug instead. “S’alright.”
Try as he might, Eugene can’t place the look the young man gives him at that. There’s some flicker of surprise in his expression, but what could’ve surprised him in that single word is impossible to guess, and then a new light in his eyes that gives Eugene the strange (but familiar) feeling he shouldn’t try to figure out any more.
That’s just paranoia. He’s remembered too much already tonight, drawn too many comparisons, and now he’s seeing them where they don’t exist.
“Oh, good!” With another of those breathless laughs, the replacement thrusts a hand out between them, his grin quirking up a bit higher on one side as it did when they made eye contact in the bar. “Babe Heffron. That’s what they call you, right, Doc Roe?”
Babe? Does he really want to be called Babe, as a name?
“Yeah,” Eugene says, carefully not showing any reaction to that introduction other than to accept Babe’s hand and give it a single, firm shake. “Apparently all the medics get called Doc. Some kinda tradition. It’s – my name’s Eugene.”
Heffron’s – yes, he’s already rejected the idea of calling this man Babe, regardless of whether or not he’s so comfortable with the nickname himself to use it as his introduction to a stranger – Heffron’s strange expression keeps changing the longer they talk. His big, dark eyes have narrowed a little, as though he’s trying to see Eugene from a great distance rather than what Eugene would call a bit too close, and the angle of his mouth seems more thoughtful than tipped into a full-fledged smile now. It’s like Eugene is something over which he really has to puzzle rather than a man he just –
- wait, Eugene thinks for the first time. Did Heffron follow him out here? How did he find him so quickly, and why did he sound like he was looking for him?
“Eugene,” Heffron says with a peculiar warmth in his voice that’s probably just the vocal equivalent of those friendly grins Eugene kept spotting on his face while he played darts against Compton. “Good to meet ya, Gene. How come you didn’t say hi in there? I was just comin’ to introduce myself and you were already gone.”
He’s flustered before he can convince himself there’s no reason to feel flustered, his cheeks even growing hot enough to make him worry that he might be blushing. It’s rude, not friendly, calling him out like that when he obviously wasn’t comfortable enough to approach, but he can’t tear his focus away from the fact that Heffron not only took note of him, but also was compelled to approach before he made that impossible.
Later, he’ll finally catch up to the fact that Heffron nicknamed him a split-second after hearing his full name – not a troubling nickname, considering it’s what he most often gets called at home, but quite an intimate gesture for a first meeting. At least in his mind.
“Guess I got distracted.” The answer seems like a neutral one, much more neutral than anything even approaching the truth, but it causes Heffron’s smile to slip fully off his face for the first time. Finally allowing his own impassive expression to shift in response, he tilts his head to one side in confusion, feeling what he knows is a deep furrow between his eyebrows settle into its all too common place; that particular frown line has always been so entrenched on his forehead that his granmé used to say he must’ve been born with the worries of an old man when he was little more than five years old.
And for some reason, that not only brings Heffron’s smile back, but also makes him laugh with absolute delight. They’ve only known each other a few minutes and Eugene is already sure the man’s beyond any logical understanding.
“You looked so worried,” Heffron sputters through his laughter, his cheeks suddenly much pinker than the temperature of the night air can explain. His eyes are also too bright, his grin too soft, and he takes a step toward Eugene for what can’t be any good reason.
Eugene reflexively steps back, reinforcing the distance between them. “That’s just my face,” he says, and he’s immediately ashamed at how sheepish he sounds when he meant for his tone to be sharp, even acerbic. It coaxes another laugh out of Heffron, one that can’t be called anything other than a giggle.
“You’re somethin’ else, huh, Gene?”
Before Eugene can answer, or even think of what Heffron might be saying he is, another voice cuts them off – “There he is! Babe! Why the hell’d you run off?” – and this time it is Bill Guarnere, followed by Joe Toye and George Luz. Rather than boisterous and cheerful as they were back in the bar, now the three of them seem to trail a column of storm clouds over their heads as they jog over to meet up with Heffron. “Oh,” Guarnere adds at the last moment when he finally sees Eugene there, “hey, Doc.”
“Guarnere,” he says with a clipped nod, then: “Luz, Toye.” Suddenly they’re all exchanging glances, lips twitching to hold back almost-smiles, and Eugene wonders wildly if this has all been the set up for some sort of prank and that’s why it makes no sense until Toye finally speaks up.
“You assholes missed the big news,” he grumbles. “We’re shippin’ out again, sounds like right away or close enough to it.”
“What, already?” Heffron’s gaze sharpens, his mouth drawing into a solemn line, and Eugene feels an unexpected spark of respect for him; if he’s scared by the news, he’s hiding it behind the mask of his sombre expression very well.
Although he also finds, just as unexpectedly, that he doesn’t like that expression on Heffron. The sweet-faced redhead is more naturally suited to a smile.
“They say anything else?” Eugene adds, knowing his own face has undoubtedly settled into the frown that really does spread across his entire face rather than just his mouth, and Toye shakes his head in response.
“Jack shit. Not like we need to know or anything, right? Lip’s starting to spring this shit on us all the time like Sobel used to spring Curahee outta nowhere, I swear he likes doin’ it too.”
At this point, Toye’s constant monologue of annoyance is hardly new or anything at all like alarming to Eugene, so he just gives him a light clap on the arm and a slight upward twist of his lips. “You’ll survive him too, Joe. Just keep an eye out for grenades and jump th’other way from ‘em.”
Eugene’s rare flashes of extremely dry humor aren’t quite as familiar to any of the other Easy men yet, not like Toye’s grumbling or Luz’s wisecracking. A stony silence follows his words, all of the men around him staring in bafflement until they realize what’s happened and burst into gales of laughter in perfect sync.
“Doc gets in a surprise right hook!” Luz cries in delight, which causes Toye to cuff him in the back of the head, and it all feels so brotherly and amicable that Eugene’s taken off-guard by an agonizing pang in his chest as he finds himself wishing his time with the men could always be like this. He never knew it could be so simple. He barely knows what inspired him to tease Joe Toye like that, other than the fact that the line popped into his head.
While he’s lost in his own thoughts, most of the others seem to decide that it’s time to head back to barracks, and he murmurs absent-minded goodbyes without really noticing that they’ve left one behind. Namely, one Babe Heffron.
“My first jump,” Heffron says, a propos of nothing but with such weight in the words that Eugene finds his attention drawn back to him by that natural caretaker’s instinct he never knew he possessed until he treated his first wound. Heffron’s allowing Eugene just a tiny glimpse into the full magnitude of his worry, and that fact alone renders the whys behind his choice of confidant irrelevant; he needs the sort of brisk, almost bracing comfort suited to a soldier about to face combat for the first time, and he’s chosen Eugene for the task.
He looks right into Heffron’s eyes for the first time since they accidentally met in the bar, a direct and evocative stare, and gives another crisp single nod.
“See you on the ground, Heffron.”
Seeing the smile return to Heffron’s face at what seems like double wattage makes Eugene let out a sharp, startled breath through his nostrils, like he’s been struck in the solar plexus. “Gene,” Heffron sighs with a trace of petulance behind his smile, “call me Babe.”
“Heffron,” he replies after a moment, when he’s regained his wits, “call me Doc Roe.”
Yet again, he’s got no idea where the urge to tease Heffron comes from, but he walks away once the words are out and finds himself smiling against all good sense when he hears Heffron curse just loudly enough to be audible in his wake.
Maybe sometimes, sometimes, he can afford a bit of camaraderie with the men. Even pretty, redheaded Heffron. Maybe it won’t be as dangerous as he thinks.