There’s a man bleeding out.
Roe wipes away the blood, a slick dash that gets drops all over the snow. Sulfa, pressure bandage; the motions are so automatic that his hands never shake, no matter how hard his heart is beating or how fast his breaths come.
The bandage is on and soaking up the red, and there’s nothing else Roe can do besides lay his hand across the man’s forehead and close his eyes and pray.
It’s an old prayer, words his grandmother taught him. He’ll gladly take the pain into himself if it just gets this soldier to some better care in some shape to receive it.
His knees go numb, soaking into the snow.
Roe’s uniform used to be rough over his skin. It used to catch and drag and leave red circles around his wrists where the cuffs rubbed his skin.
His wrists are still red, but the uniform doesn’t bother him the same way. Maybe he’s finally broken it in.
A man is shot through a lung. Roe covers the hole with his palm, his fingers splayed out like a dam to hold in what’s escaping, and the man convulses and coughs, spittle and blood and his life spraying out.
Roe says the words to himself, even though he knows the man is dying, and nothing he could trade would be worth a life. He says the words, and the man takes his other hand, and closes his eyes without pain.
Roe’s shoulders are tight, bloodless. It takes hours for them to settle properly, and even then, he feels unbalanced, like he can’t get the circulation back through them the right way.
His grandmother showed him, once, wearing that pinched-brow frown that he inherited from her. She told him it had to be a secret, and then ran her finger down her forearm, until she found the right spot.
Then she took a sewing needle and pricked herself, hard and fast and deep, without even a blink of pain.
“I have a few spots like that,” she explained. “That one I traded for a burned girl, so’s she’d make it to the hospital and they could get some air in her. There’s another on my belly from a father with cancer.”
That’s what it costs. He always has to know that, and weigh it. It costs a part of him.
All he does is brush the snow. It takes him a moment to notice a shard of ice hidden there, snagging at his skin.
Roe brings his finger close to his eyes and watches the blood bead up, sluggish.
“Hey, Eugene,” Heffron says, catching at the elbow of his uniform.
Roe stops and looks at him, startled out of other thoughts.
Heffron taps two fingers to the back of Roe’s right hand. “You’re bleeding.”
Roe blinks down at bloody knuckles. He says, “That’s not mine,” and swipes a thumb across to clear it away.
But it is his. They both stand and watch the small skinned wound seep red and flood again.
Roe remembers pushing himself off the ground with a fist, but snow wouldn’t scrape him up like this. Could there have been a rock? He frowns at his hand and shakes his head.
Heffron grabs his wrist before he can walk away. He peers into Roe’s face and asks, “Doesn’t it hurt? I can help you get a bandage or something.”
“Can’t spare anything,” Roe says, smiling to brush off the worry for such a little thing. He doesn’t say that, no, it doesn’t hurt.
Roe has to be careful with his feet, just like everybody else.
It takes a long time to unlace his boots, his fingertips pressed white against the cords. His ankle relaxes as the binding goes slack, and he rotates it in a few careful circles before taking the entire boot off.
He expects the same sense of freedom for his foot, but there’s nothing. He peels off the wet sock and checks for frostbite or rot, but his skin is no worse than before. Just fish-belly pale and puckered with the wet.
Roe rolls on a dry sock and laces up his boot again. He wonders who he traded it for, and if they made it.
His grandmother gave him all sorts of prayers. There are words for fast recoveries, and words for strength in adversity, and words for pregnant women and their child’s health.
She used to tell him, “Always be careful with your words. Don’t promise something you can’t part with, and don’t take on something you can’t bear.”
Roe knows the rules, but he’s getting desperate, and he’s making bargains.
Wrist-deep in a man’s chest in a church, Roe’s spine starts to prickle and then go blank.
He can’t find the artery. This man will die if Roe can’t find the artery.
He should have bled out already, but Roe keeps asking for more time. It costs him one vertebra every five seconds. Roe knows that he’ll get this, if he just has more time.
The man dies. Roe can’t feel his lower back, like it’s just gone, nothing left to support him.
Roe looks at the nurse’s hands, beautiful strong hands that carry dried and flaking blood in the cracks of her skin. He imagines taking one in his own, his fingers against her palm, his thumb to her knuckles.
He imagines not being able to feel the warmth coming from her.
He doesn’t reach out.
Roe’s tongue is numb, thick and uncomfortable in his mouth. He can move it alright, but it takes a second, a long moment of consideration to remember that it hasn’t been cut out.
Heffron puts a tin cup of stew in Roe’s hands, wraps Roe’s fingers around it. He says, “Here, this will warm you up, Gene.”
Roe eats mechanically, because he has to do it. It’s hot in his mouth but he can’t taste a thing.
A man is paralyzed.
Roe burns out infection and straps on bandages and runs a line of plasma, and that’s all he can do. He can’t take any pain away. He can’t do anything but hold onto the man’s wrist, where neither of them can feel it, and ride into town.
Heffron grabs him by the shoulder, yanks him back when Roe doesn’t know to stop. He stares at Roe, and asks, “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Roe says, and he’s said it so many times it seems like a script. “Yeah, just distracted. Wanted to check on some of the men.” He doesn’t know what his face gives away. He doesn’t know how he sounds.
“Gene,” Heffron starts, and then stops. He looks around and leans in, blinks up at Roe, worried. “Gene, can you feel this?”
Roe looks down and – and Heffron’s holding his hand, thumb across his nearly-healed knuckles. Roe doesn’t say that he can’t, he can’t feel it.
“What about this,” Heffron says, and his hand moves higher. The heart of Roe’s palm, the heel, up to his wrist.
It isn’t until he get a few inches up the forearm that Roe unsticks his tongue to say, “Yes. Yes, I feel that.”
He looks up and Heffron is staring at him. Roe pulls his arm away and says, “Leave it, Heffron.”
An officer is hit in the leg. It’s not the worst, but he’s bleeding. He’s bleeding a lot.
Roe rides into the town with him, giving a centimeter at a time, creeping up his forearms toward his elbows. The man’s out, loopy with the morphine, and he doesn’t mind Roe holding his palm across his eyes, the way his lips move silently.
Roe finds the nurse dead. This is another thing that he can’t feel.
Heffron starts touching him, sneaking pinches and pokes, not stopping until Roe notices.
“Cut it out, Heffron,” Roe says, patiently. “I don’t have to sit here and let you feel at me.”
There are a lot of things that Heffron doesn’t say about that. He just bites his lip and runs his fingers up Roe’s side until he has to admit he’s still ticklish.
There are parts left that register the cold and discomfort. The skin of his belly, the insides of his thighs, his ankles, his elbows. His ears, when they’re warm enough to feel anything.
Roe wonders if this could take his vocal chords. He wonders if it can paralyze his heart, his lungs.
A man shoots himself in the femoral artery. It’s a stupid accident; it has no place in a war.
He’s dead before Roe can even reach for the prayers, and an officer has to tell him to stop, to give up on him.
Roe doesn’t know how to tell him that there’s hardly anything left to give up, either way.
There are men that Roe knows Easy can’t lose, not permanently. And two of those men lose their legs.
He can’t stop himself. He knows he has to be careful, but he can’t stop reaching for the prayers, the words that will give these wounded men a better a chance.
They get out. They live. Roe loses his arms past his elbows.
It sneaks up on him, that’s the worst thing. Roe is asleep, and he doesn’t know it’s coming.
Heffron closes his fingers around Roe’s neck.
Roe gasps and claws at it, but Heffron holds on. He whispers, close to Roe’s ear, “I’ve been trying to wake you up for half an hour, Eugene.”
Roe has a hold on Heffron’s wrist and he keeps it, but he’s breathing. Heffron’s not holding on tight or anything, Roe can breathe, and he tries to calm down.
Heffron gapes down at him and says, “I’ve been - you can’t feel anything! Not on your arms, or your legs. Gene, I really didn’t mean to - you just wouldn’t wake up!”
“Heffron. Babe,” Roe says, and it’s low, smooth. “I’m okay.”
“You’re not,” Heffron says, and it echoes to something he’s said before. “You’re not okay.” His fingers press in for a second, into Roe’s artery and vein, a careful chokehold.
Something about the darkness makes Roe tell him, “I knew what I was giving up when I did it.”
“Did you?” Heffron asks, and his other hand comes up, his finger ghosting across Roe’s lips.
Roe can’t feel it. But he licks out and stares a challenge at Heffron anyway.
Heffron kisses him, and Roe tries to keep up. He tries not to let on.
The battle of Foy gets them plenty of new wounded.
Roe gets his hands on them, prays over them, as much as he can. Until Heffron’s fingertips are burning a circle into his jacket and he’s being dragged away.
“Stop, stop,” Heffron is telling him, out of breath with panic. “Gene, you have to stop. You’re killing yourself. You’re using yourself up.”
“Good,” Roe shouts at him, tugging away from his hold. They’re both surprised, but he won’t take it back. “Good,” he repeats and brings his hand up to run through his hair but it’s covered in thick layers of blood. “If what’s left of me is enough for them, they can have it.”
Heffron’s eyes are wide, his face as pale as the snow. “You don’t mean that. You can’t.”
Roe doesn’t move. He is balanced on legs he can’t feel, with arms that may as well be someone else’s, with invisible patches across his body where it seems like light should shine through. He is half the man he was coming into this forest.
Heffron steps closer and puts out his arms, his uniform drawing up to show his wrists, his pulse there. “You can take it, can’t you? You could take some, from me. We could share.”
“I won’t do that,” Roe tells him, nauseous at the thought.
Heffron shakes his arms and begs, “Take some, Gene. You can’t go on like this. You never take, you always give. Let me help you.” He takes a few steps closer and grasps at Roe’s elbow, puts Roe’s blood-sticky palm around his bare wrist. “Take it,” he says, and he’s close enough to kiss again.
Roe stares at him and Heffron doesn’t say anything more, just holds his breath and waits.
After a long, long stretch of resistance, Roe says the words, but flipped. He floods with pinpricks of awareness, of ice-cold air, of his uniform chafing across his back. He forgot what this was like; overwhelming.
He forces himself to let go, and then reaches out to check Heffron, and hesitates with his dirty hands in the air. “Are you - Babe —”
“I’m okay,” Heffron says, his expression warped and discomfited. He rubs a circle over his belly, thoughtfully, and says, “That’s - that’s really weird, I can’t even feel it.”
“I’m sorry,” Roe says, helpless.
“I’m okay,” Heffron repeats, and gets a good look at him. He puts his hands on Roe’s shoulders, around the back of his head, and he gets close to say, “Now, that was a gift. You can’t just go giving that away again.”
Roe just blinks at him, rattled by the world coming into focus, and nods his agreement.
Heffron smiles and kisses him and - and Roe can feel it.
They get out of the Ardennes the next day. Roe leans his head back in the truck and the sunlight falls warm across his face, his hands. Heffron’s knee jostles against his and then rests there, presses.
Roe presses back and smiles.
(A man walks into his own grenade.
He is drowning in his own blood, and a dozen of his friends are watching as Roe gets his hands on him.
The man is going to die, but it doesn’t have to be here, under all of these hard hollow eyes. Roe could hold it back. Just for a few moments, just enough to get him out.
But he made a promise.
The man dies sobbing and pathetic, whimpers echoing in his friends’ ears. Roe shakes his head and looks up, looks at Heffron. Heffron, who is looking back with wide eyes, like he’s only now feeling the burden of what-if.
What if Roe had gotten the man out. What if he’d given up just enough to spare the rest of the men the sight. The knowledge.
But Roe made a promise not to help that way anymore, and neither of them will know how much more this way will cost him.)