Scars and Souvenirs
by Kenna McGuire
December 10, 1944
Dick Winters didn’t need to go to Paris, and he didn’t want to go, either. He tried to imagine the amount of paperwork the Army could stack on his desk in 48 hours and sighed. He stared at the offending piece of paper in his hand so long the words eventually blurred, and he wasn’t seeing it anymore. Instead, he was running, running, every breath searing his lungs, adrenaline forcing his muscles to pump harder, shooting like lightning through his veins, until he was afraid his heart would burst with the effort. The field seemed endless, and yet it felt like he crossed it in seconds. He stood high on the road and looked down at the kid, watched him push himself to his knees, saw him smile an instant before realization dawned in his eyes, and fired. The bullet tore through the kid’s heart, sending a spray of blood out the back of his uniform, and he fell over to stare blankly across the grassy field.
The pass came back into focus. His heart was racing and he felt drained. Wiping beads of sweat from his face, he stared at the pass some more and considered finding a way to wriggle out of it, but with Sink and Strayer both away, he didn’t relish the idea of begging off to someone farther up the chain of command. So, he supposed he was stuck. Harry had already gone off to Reims, and with Nix headed back to Aldbourne, there was really nothing to keep him there. And the thought of Nix leaving to be with his young lady suddenly struck him like a blow to the solar plexus, so he decided it would be easier not to think about that in Paris than in Mourmelon.
* * *
After checking into his assigned room, the first thing Winters did when he arrived in Paris was find a seat in a bustling outdoor café. Parisians made good, strong coffee that tasted like real coffee and not the watered-down road tar the Army passed off as coffee. He took his time, relishing each sip while he watched the activity unfolding around him. Many of the passers-by looked like locals out for a collective stroll or doing the day’s shopping; most were smiling and talking animatedly, and their steps seemed almost buoyant, as if being free of the Germans made them all want to dance. He smiled to himself, knowing he’d been a part of what had made these people happy, but it also called to mind the importance of the invasion’s ultimate success, for the rest of Europe was depending on them, too.
He pondered his role, which had changed so completely only a few weeks earlier. No longer responsible for the group of men he’d trained with and respected, admired, and trusted like no other, he now felt like little more than a useless paper pusher, distant and uninvolved in their lives. Sink had told him not to worry about the administrative tasks, but he didn’t realize that would be all he’d end up doing. And it was maddening, like being benched during a ball game for hitting too well, and not for the first time he wished he’d never accepted the promotion.
A group of boisterous American airmen sat at the next table, and he suddenly felt conspicuous rather than comfortable in his aloneness. He considered talking to them, but their lack of manners and outrageous boasting irritated him, and even common courtesy couldn’t compel him to open his mouth. Besides, he didn't need more friends who would end up dead.
Setting aside his irritation, he looked at the map he’d picked up at the hotel and took another sip of coffee, savoring the acidic jolt. If he concentrated on the complex web of streets and landmarks, he could almost ignore the fact that he was the only one among all these people in the midst of this milieu sitting all by himself. Funny, he’d begun to think Nix and Harry were right, that it would be refreshing to get away from his responsibilities, like a good stretch of the legs after you’ve been stuck inside too long, but it didn’t feel like that at all. And he tried not to think about Nix anymore, because remembering only made him feel farther away.
The airmen got louder, and he did his best to ignore them until one of them banged his chair so hard he almost spilled. He was just about finished, anyway, so he got up and left, glancing at them but saying nothing. They were on leave, just like he was, and even though he didn’t share their need to cut loose, he understood it.
Paris was a beautiful, lively city, but he found it overpowering and didn’t know quite what to think of it all, or what to do with himself. Most places of interest were closed on Sunday and what was left didn’t hold much appeal, at least not in his present mood. So, he walked slowly down the street, hands shoved deep in his pockets, just trying to absorb the chaotic, jumbled sights and sounds of the place, listening as he passed people by. French was such a beautiful language, and it didn’t really matter that he couldn’t understand anything. It had a very different cadence from English; its words sounded so much more melodic and graceful. And it brought back Nix’s D-Day briefing, and the way the Normandy town names had rolled elegantly off his tongue. The memory sent a pang through him, and he suddenly, selfishly, wished Nix were there. They could have explored the city together, and Nix could have shown him his favorite places. But Nix wasn’t there! . He was on his way back to Aldbourne, to someone else, and he carefully diverted his thoughts away from that fact, and the painful void it left in his stomach.
As he was passing by a tiny corner bistro, the mouth-watering smells wafting forth reminded him he hadn’t eaten in several hours. He decided a decent Parisian meal was something worth springing for, despite the terrible exchange rate, so he made his way inside, taking a seat at a small table tucked back by the kitchen. While the smiling, portly waiter came toddling over, he glanced at the menu board, but couldn’t decipher much, so he pointed to an item with the word boeuf and hoped for the best. The man nodded and seemingly praised the dish to the heavens, but clucked sadly when Winters gestured that he didn’t want wine.
The food was excellent and left him in a better mood, but he decided it was a good thing he took leave so rarely because otherwise Army food would be an unbearable shock to his system. And since he didn’t know how much longer he’d be eating rations and Spam and basic Army cooking like SOS, it was probably best not to get too used to decent food.
After settling his bill, he continued on his way. Time seemed almost nonexistent where there were no orders, no report deadlines, and no operations in the works, but eventually day slipped away into purplish-black night, and he grew tired of walking, tired of the crowds and the noise. When he spotted the entrance to a Metro station, he decided to give it a try. He’d jumped out of planes and crossed the Atlantic, but he’d never ridden on a subway train before. He bought a ticket and rode to the end of one line, then another. There was something soothing about the motion of the train, and he sat back, enjoying its rhythmic lull. Inevitably, his thoughts drifted back to the train ride from Fort Bragg to Camp Shanks. He’d been sitting with a sleeping Harry, writing a letter home, when a voice murmured in his ear, “Going my way?” He smiled, remembering how glad he’d been to see Nix, and how his presence had made the ride so much more enjoyable. It all se! emed so long ago, a lifetime ago. So much had changed in such a short time. So many good men had died, been wounded, crumbled under the strain of combat. He said a silent prayer of thanks that Nix hadn’t been one of them, for the thought of anything happening to Nix was almost too much for him to bear.
He heard a quiet sound and turned to see a boy of about fifteen retrieving a coin he’d dropped on the floor. As he turned back, the lights flickered, and outside the window the electric rail started sparking. His mind twisted those images into machine-gun tracers and rifle fire, and when he closed his eyes, all he could see were dead and wounded bodies strewn across the roads and fields near the ferry crossing. He opened his eyes and tried in vain to push the memories away. A cold chill crawled up his spine, and he clasped his hands together to stop them from trembling. He’d only lost one man, but that day still haunted him like no other. He glanced back at the boy, who gave him a shy smile, and in an instant his face was replaced by another, the young SS soldier who had smiled at him, then looked into his eyes for an endless moment and saw the terrible truth of his own death there.
The nightmarish memories faded away, leaving him breathless and shaken, and his insides twisted into knots. He looked up at the boy, but couldn’t understand what he was saying. It suddenly dawned on him that the train had stopped and everyone else had gone. He took a moment to steady himself, got slowly to his feet, and made his way back up to the street. As he emerged into the crisp night air, he noticed the boy was there, offering him a salute, looking as though he wanted something. He supposed kids had come to expect chocolate bars and cigarettes and such from soldiers, and he didn’t know how to tell the boy he didn’t have any, so he simply nodded and walked away.
The Metro had let him off quite a distance from his hotel, but he didn’t care. A long walk was just what he needed to clear the terrible images from his mind. After a brief map check, he shoved his chilly hands into his pockets and set off at a leisurely pace. It was late and getting cold, but the city was still wide awake. Sounds of gaieties drifted from nearby restaurants, nightclubs, and bars, and there seemed to be Allied servicemen everywhere he looked. Groups of two or three or four men walked together, laughing, singing drunkenly, holding each other up; one steadied another as he vomited in the gutter. Friends out on the town together, doing their best to forget the reason they were in Europe at all.
His path took him along the Seine, opposite Notre Dame. The waning moon illuminated the great cathedral and sparkled on the river flowing darkly along its banks. All around him couples walked arm in arm, held hands, or kissed, romanced by the moonlight and the freedom that had been restored a few short months ago. Two officers passed him on either side, and as he paused to watch them for a moment, his thoughts drifted again to Nix. The knot in his stomach wrenched painfully. There was an emptiness deep down inside him that he’d never felt before, and the sudden, intense longing for his friend confused him. He’d only been gone the better part of a day, for Pete’s sake, and he couldn’t help feeling a little silly, like a homesick kid who’d been sent away to summer camp for the first time.
He allowed himself the rare luxury of looking back at his previous life, for that was how it felt now, especially in this place that was so utterly different from home. His mind lit on memories of Pennsylvania’s gently rolling hills, where he used to love nothing more than walking all alone for miles and finding the perfect bit of shade to sit and read awhile. Most of his life he’d been on the solitary side, and had usually chosen isolation over companionship. But it seemed the Army had cured him of that, so well he’d almost forgotten he’d ever preferred peace and tranquility and solitude. He’d become part of a brotherhood – a family – where other lives mattered far more than one’s own, and being alone was a punishment inflicted on the despised, or achieved in the finality of death.
When his hotel came into view, he almost double-timed it. He was in a thoroughly melancholy mood, chilled to the bone, and more tired than he believed he could be after spending a day at leisure. After retrieving his key, he bid the desk clerk a good night, and headed for his room.
Once inside, the bathtub beckoned. After years of five minute communal showers, and then very infrequent showers after the jump into Normandy, a hot bath seemed the height of luxury. He filled the tub to the brim with steaming water, stripped off his clothes, and immersed himself gratefully, sinking down, revelling in the water’s gentle, lapping caresses. The night chill disappeared, and for the first time all day he was warm from head to toe.
The heat made him drowsy, and he surrendered for the moment, finally freeing his mind of troubles and concerns, aware only of the slow, even rhythm of his own breaths and the subtle motion of the water all around his body. He lost track of time and drifted, half-asleep, until a low, deep voice very close to his ear diffused the pleasant fog.
* * *
Lewis Nixon paced while he waited, lighting a fresh cigarette with the tip of the one he’d just finished. He was restless. No, not restless. More like jumpy, and a little irritated, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why. He looked around the airfield, watching the typical Army hustle and bustle, listening to orders barked and acknowledged. One poor sap was getting bawled out because he hadn’t positioned the blocks properly behind the wheels of the B17 parked off in the distance. Nix shook his head. Poor guy. He’ll be cleaning latrines tonight.
“Captain Nixon, sir?” A bony, freckle-faced kid who looked about twelve came trotting toward him.
“That’s your transport landing now, sir. I’ll come and get you after we’ve unloaded it.” He trotted off again without waiting for an answer, shading his eyes to watch the C47 rolling down the runway.
Nix’s nerves jangled unsettlingly at the sight of the plane. A C47 Skytrain. Sky-tin can was more like it. Ever since D-Day, he hated being in the damn things unless he was going to be jumping out in a big fat hurry.
The freckled kid finally got the door open and the passengers piled out. Nix recognized Major Wells of the 502nd, a tall, surprisingly graceful hulk of a man who looked like he’d be more at home on a basketball court than jumping out of planes. Wells could drink him under the table without even breaking a sweat, and never, ever got a hangover. Nix envied him that. He dropped the remains of his cigarette and ground it under the toe of his boot.
“Nixon!” Wells stuck out his giant mitt of a hand and shook Nix’s so vigorously it almost dislocated his shoulder.
“Major Wells. Good to see you, sir.” Nix smiled, clasping his hands behind his back to let some blood flow back in.
“Where’re you headed?” Wells lit a cigar with the foulest odor Nix had ever smelled.
Wells smiled knowingly. “You dog, you.”
Nix shifted his weight from one foot to the other, doing his best not to look as uncomfortable as he felt. He thought about his young lady, but when he tried to remember the color of her eyes, or the slope of her nose, or the tone of her complexion, every detail eluded him. He had a vague recollection of strawberry blonde hair and a huge capacity for alcohol, and little else. In fact, he realized with some chagrin that he couldn’t remember her face at all. And the harder he tried to remember, the more clearly another face came into focus.
“What about you, sir?”
“Back to Paris. Got a little lady set up in a flat in St. Germain. Prettiest thing I ever saw.” The breeze blew every tendril of vile smoke directly into Nix’s face.
Nix nodded and coughed. Jesus, how the hell did guys like Wells manage to keep a mistress happy with everything that was going on and the Allied advance still struggling forward? The Germans hadn’t rolled over yet and Nix figured they still had plenty of deadly tricks up their sleeves, so the guys who mattered needed to stay sharp.
While he watched the grunts unload the C47, he tried again to remember the face of the young lady he was crossing the channel to see, and came up empty again. But he saw Dick Winters’ face, eyes clear and frank and startlingly, vividly blue. And troubled. And he knew then that his young lady would have to find other amusement.
“Captain Nixon?” It was freckle face again. “You can get on board now, sir.”
“What’s your name?”
“Petty, sir.” The kid unknowingly rubbed a long skid of dirt down the side of his nose.
“Listen, Petty. I just remembered something I need to do. Will you let the crew know I’m not going? Thanks.” Petty cocked his head in confusion, but shrugged and trotted off to do as he was told.
Wells chewed on his cigar. “A day late and a dollar short?”
“Something like that. Listen, sir, would you mind giving me a lift to Paris?” Nix tried not to let his anxiety show, but he thought he was doing a pretty lousy job.
Wells was oblivious, though. He guffawed. “You dog, you.”
Nix fixed what he hoped was a suggestive smile on his face and did his best to withstand the impact of Wells’ hearty slap on the back. As they walked to the waiting jeep, Wells kept grinning and shaking his head, and repeating, “You dog, you.”
It was going to be a long ride.
* * *
He’d made Dick’s arrangements, so he already knew where to find him. The jeep pulled up outside the hotel, a pale stone building on the Rue Saint Severin with dainty wrought iron balconies, and Nix got out, retrieving the small bag jammed behind his seat. Bracing himself for another crushing handshake, he stuck out his hand, saying, “Thank you, sir.”
Wells grabbed his hand and strangled the life out of it. “Anytime. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“No, sir.” Nix almost ran to the entrance. Wells’ voice followed him, still ringing in his ears. Jesus, the man could talk. Or maybe, for once, Nix was just too distracted to tolerate the usual harmless, friendly chatter. Whatever it was, he was thankful to finally be free.
He asked after Dick and managed to get the room next door after slipping the desk clerk a persuasive amount of cash. It was nice enough, not exactly what he’d been used to before the war, but adequate. Its appointments were a tad on the shabby side, but that was understandable after years of occupation. If the Germans hadn’t personally resided in the building, it was left to go to wrack and ruin.
The desk clerk had informed him Capitaine Winters a fait une promenade. He took off his jacket and flung it onto the nearest chair, then thought the better of it and arranged it neatly over the back. Damn, he needed a drink. Funny, though, how his nerves had stopped jangling shortly after he’d asked Major Wells for a ride. He called down for a bottle of Vat 69, and instead got a magnificently overblown apology for not stocking monsieur’s choice of whiskey. “Vin à la place. Bordeaux? Oui. Deux bouteilles. Rouge. Non, blanc. Et fromage. Et baguette. Merci.” Dropping the phone in its cradle, he lit a cigarette, freed himself of his boots and tie, and stretched out on the bed to wait. He wondered how long Dick would be gone.
After polishing off the impressive (considering the city had only been liberated a little over three months) assortment of cheeses and half the baguette, he drained his glass of wine and settled back with a cigarette. Dick still hadn’t come back. Knowing Dick, he was sitting somewhere staring at the Seine. No, that wasn’t fair. Dick was about as intelligent, open-minded, and inquisitive a man as any he’d known. He was probably touring a church or exploring a museum. Something to engage that sharp mind of his.
Nix fell into a heavy sleep thinking about Dick Winters’ eyes.
He awoke in the dark, groggy and disoriented. The moon spilled its pale luminescence over the center of the room. Still trying to fully wake, he squinted at the clock. It was late. Damn, Dick had probably gotten back and sacked out hours ago. He rubbed his face into the pillow, disgusted with himself for falling asleep, a pang of disappointment surging sharply because he’d missed seeing his friend. Rubbing his hair absently, he got up and went to the bathroom to relieve himself, and heard the sound of running water coming from Dick’s room. Stunned, his brain woke with a start, and he washed up and combed his hair until he was satisfied it looked artfully tousled. Okay, he looked good, but why all the effort? And why did his insides suddenly feel like a quivering mound of gelatin? He leaned toward the mirror and looked himself in the eye. “You know why.” Sure, he knew, but he didn’t often stop and think about it. Not consciously, anyway. Squinting at h! imself, he muttered, “Shut up,” and turned away, scooping up bottle and glass on his way out.
Dick’s door was unlocked. He was such a yokel sometimes. Didn’t he realize Paris was a dangerous place? Anyone could just walk in and… do what? The Army didn’t pay a whole hell of a lot, and the exchange rate for francs had been outrageous, leaving them even less money to blow. He supposed someone looking for trouble could still find it, but they’d have to be pretty stupid to tangle with Dick Winters. He’d seen the man wrestle a particularly annoying First Lieutenant who’d egged him on. Dick had thrown the guy down so hard that two of his vertebrae had broken, and the poor sap spent D-Day in the hospital instead of jumping with the rest of them.
He peered inside and saw through the open bathroom door that Dick was lying in the tub. Padding silently across the room, he wondered what the hell he was thinking, just walking in on Dick like this. Had he taken complete leave of his senses? That was always a possibility. All he knew was, he had come here, needed to be here, because Dick was here. And if that got him a broken neck before Dick realized who he was, then he had no one but himself to blame. He sat down carefully, right beside the tub, and leaned close to Dick’s ear, murmuring softly, “Miss me?”
* * *
Somehow, Winters wasn’t even surprised. He smiled and said simply, "Nix." Feeling Nix brush a damp lock of hair from his forehead, he opened his eyes slowly and turned to meet Nix’s gaze, needing to be sure he was really there and not a phantom his lonely mind had conjured out of thin air. Drawn into the endless darkness of Nix’s eyes, he asked quietly, "What about your young lady?" The question seemed to hang awkwardly in the air, and the warmth rushing to his face forced him to glance away. But somehow he managed to meet Nix's gaze again and waited for his answer.
Nix shrugged and shook his head. "Ah, you know."
Winters nodded slowly. "Yeah. I know." He held Nix’s gaze for a long moment. His heart was hammering so hard he was sure Nix must be able to hear it, and his throat suddenly felt uncomfortably tight.
Smiling, Nix lit a smoke and poured himself a glass of wine from the bottle he’d brought with him. Winters watched, amused, as he made a great show of it, swirling the wine around in the tumbler and inhaling its aroma before draining half the contents with long gulps.
“Nothing like a good bordeaux for dinner. Lafarge ‘37.”
“What, no Vat 69?”
Nix feigned shock. “Mais non! In Paris we drink wine, my friend. The best wine, made only from grapes stomped by fat little cherubs.” Nix squinted at him through a veil of smoke and grinned. “Cheers.” He emptied the glass and poured another.
Winters could only shake his head in response and sink down in the water. He closed his eyes again, warm and completely content, listening to the subtle sounds of Nix beside him taking long drags from his cigarette, exhaling, swallowing his wine. After a lengthy silence, he was almost asleep again when he heard Nix’s voice.
“Hand me the soap.”
“Hmm?” Winters was drifting, too relaxed to move.
Nix laid a hand on his shoulder and murmured close to his ear, “The soap. Little white square? Floats?” His words were slightly slurred, and he was so close Winters could smell the cigarettes and wine on his breath. He pursed his lips, trying not to give in to a smile, and felt around in the water. Pinning the cake of soap against his hip, he pulled it out, fast, in Nix’s direction, making sure he flung some water with it.
“Hey, quit horsing around!”
Winters opened one eye to watch Nix mop his face with his rolled-up sleeve, and he chuckled when Nix pried the soap from his fingers and pushed him down in the water until his hair was completely wet.
Nix muttered, “Try to do something nice….”
“Drowning me is nice?”
“Just sit up, will you?”
He obeyed that time, pushing himself up against the back of the tub. He breathed a long sigh as he felt Nix’s fingers slide through his hair, and to his surprise he didn’t protest or laughingly push his friend away. Instead, he savored Nix’s touch, discovering he liked it far more than he would’ve imagined. This was the first moment that felt real in a day that had seemed more like a waking dream, and he held onto this reality, letting it soothe him and banish the worries that had been plaguing his mind. He’d been thinking about Nix most of the day and it just felt right that he was here. Why pick it apart and examine it from every angle as he normally would? Why not just be grateful?
Nix took a long time washing his hair, massaging his head gently, working up a lather with slow, rhythmic motions and rubbing the still-tense muscles at the base of his skull. He relaxed into Nix’s touch, breathing deeply, completely at ease for the first time in he couldn’t remember how long. “How come you’re so good at this?” he asked, more than a little curious.
“I used to shampoo my dog a lot.”
“Don’t tell me, it’s an Irish Setter.”
After a long pause, he heard a low, rumbling chuckle, and the surprised amusement in his friend’s voice. “Dick, you made a joke.”
He smiled. “Did I?”
“Yeah. And it wasn’t half bad.”
Nix dunked him again to rinse out the soap, and he finished up, washing quickly before the water got too cool. As he pulled the plug and started to rise, Nix grabbed a nearby towel, dried his hands, and held it out. He reddened when he saw Nix subtly looking him over, but Nix quickly turned away and fumbled around lighting a cigarette, then got up and sauntered into the other room with bottle and glass in hand, allowing him a little privacy to dry off and cover himself.
He’d always been shy about his body, and it was exasperating that, even after everything he’d been through, all the training facilities with barracks and communal showers, and the outdoor field showers rigged during lulls in combat, he was still embarrassed to be seen naked. He was a grown man, for Pete’s sake. It was silly. But here he was, blushing like a schoolboy. He’d noticed Nix’s face was flushed, too, but he supposed that was just the wine.
Emerging from the bathroom a short while later, he found Nix sprawled in the only comfortable chair with his eyes closed and his feet propped up on the bed, nursing the last of his wine. Winters pulled on clean underclothes and stretched out on the bed with a quiet sigh. Watching the glass ride Nix’s chest up and down, he soon realized he was sound asleep. He reached over and stubbed out the cigarette. The glass started to slip from Nix’s fingers, and he grabbed it just in time and set it on the table beside the empty bottle. Nix looked so peaceful, he didn’t have the heart to wake him and steer him back to his own room, wherever it was, so he settled against the pillow, secretly glad to have him nearby.
He lay in bed studying Nix’s face, which he knew as well as his own, but tonight those familiar features gave him an odd, fluttery feeling in his stomach. Nix had very long, dark eyelashes that at the moment looked like tiny fans spread across his cheeks. His thick, almost black hair spilled boyishly onto his forehead, and Winters remembered vividly how soft it was from all the times they’d roughhoused together. One thing he’d noticed right away about Nix was his mouth. It was a nice mouth with bright white teeth and full lips that were a very pleasant color, almost like they were stained from eating berries. He sometimes caught himself staring at Nix’s lips when he talked or lit a cigarette. Like now. They looked very red and very soft, and he found he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He realized with some embarrassment that Nix must have noticed him staring on occasion and had been too polite to tell him to knock it off. Good thing Nix was asleep now so! he could look as long as he pleased and there was no one to see, or question why his face was so flushed.
* * *
Consciousness teased Nix’s brain and he opened his eyes. The city was blacked out; what little moonlight there was pooled near the foot of the bed, barely illuminating Dick Winters curled on his side, asleep. He sat in silence, listening to the ticking of the clock, trying to figure out what had awoken him, but there was nothing. No gunfire, no explosions, no heavy vehicles growling and grinding, no voices raised in alarm or laughter, no cries for medics. Nothing but that damned clock, which was starting to annoy him. He shifted a little and decided he was too tired to move any farther, certainly not all the way to his room, so he crossed his arms over his chest, settled comfortably, and tried to go back to sleep. And then he heard it again, the terrible sound that had roused him.
An arm’s length away, Dick suddenly seemed to be struggling for breath. In an instant, fear had seized his gut so hard he was wide awake. Before he even realized he’d moved, he was perched on the bed beside Dick, reaching for him. He slid his hand across Dick’s back and gently grabbed hold of his shoulder, whispering, “Dick, are you all right?”
And then the full realization hit him. Vague impressions that had nagged at his subconscious mind for weeks, that had drawn him away from Aldbourne and rerouted him to Paris, finally came into sharp focus. Something about Dick hadn’t been right. He hadn’t been distant, exactly; it was much subtler than that. He’d been maybe a touch distracted, much slower to smile at his chatter, less forgiving of mistakes. There’d been a heaviness to him, like the weight of a deep sorrow. And most disturbing, he’d had to snap Dick out of several chilling two-thousand yard stares. He knew Dick hated being XO, hated the paperwork, most of all hated being separated from his men, and he’d figured Dick just needed some time to adjust to his new role. But that wasn’t it at all. Something had gotten to him, something had shaken him, wounded him deep down.
Stretching out beside him, Nix shook him awake very gently and wrapped his arms around Dick’s body, saying soothingly, “You’re all right. I’ve got you.” The ragged breathing gradually slowed and he felt Dick’s tense muscles begin to relax, but his whole body was still shaking. He held onto Dick, leaning his forehead against the nape of his neck, hoping the simple comfort of his touch would help in some small way.
They lay together for what seemed like hours, there in the Paris darkness. And when Dick finally quit shaking and took some long, slow, deep breaths, Nix realized he’d been crushing him in a fierce bear hug. But when he started to loosen his grip, Dick grabbed his arms and held them where they were.
Dick’s voice sounded hoarse and strained. “He was just a kid.”
“Near the dike, at the crossroads.”
Nix thought back to that day. One KIA and twenty-two wounded had seemed like acceptable losses for a day that had netted them what was left of two full companies of SS after Dick and his men were through. And with that memory, a sickening surge of guilt washed over him. He was the S-2, for Christ’s sake. How the hell had he not known about two full companies of SS at that ferry crossing? He remembered his surprise as news of the skirmish came in, and when he heard they’d lost one man, he’d commandeered a jeep and driven to the scene. He’d lost track of how many times since D-Day he’d promised God he’d quit drinking if only Dick was okay, and then reneged, so he figured God had to be pretty sore at him. But he did it again that day anyway, all the way to the crossroads. He remembered numbly going through the motions of his job, and when he didn’t see Dick among the wounded, steeled himself and asked after him. In his relief at finding Dick a! live and unhurt, he’d failed to grasp exactly how deeply the day’s events had affected him.
“No. A German.”
“They were all SS.”
Dick sighed wearily. “Yeah.”
“You were doing your job.”
Dick fell silent for a long time and finally ground out, “That’s what I tell myself.”
Nix tightened his hold. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel something.”
“Sometimes I wish I didn’t.”
He thought Dick was pulling away from him then, so he eased his grip. But Dick stayed close, shifting onto his back and resettling himself, surprising him by keeping hold of his hand. He nestled close, curling his fingers around Dick’s and giving them a gentle squeeze. He wished he could change what had happened. He wished there was something he could do or say that would make things right, that would take away his friend’s pain. But he knew better. You had to dig deep and find the strength within yourself, or it was all over. He tried to speak normally, but found his words sounded harsh even to his own ears. “No. You don’t.”
Dick lay silent and unblinking in the darkness, and Nix recognized another of those goddamned two-thousand yard stares. Propping himself up on one arm, he freed his hand to cup Dick’s face, until he finally got through and broke that stare. Holding his gaze, he said quietly, “Come on, Dick, don’t do this. The men need you to hang tough.”
Dick averted his eyes again. “Yeah.”
He leaned closer and said quietly, “Look at me.” Their eyes met in the darkness. He could see the pain there, see it etched on Dick’s face, and felt his tension clearly, as if it were his own. “I need you, Dick. Jesus, you’re the best man I know. If you give in, the rest of us have had it.”
Dick tried to speak but couldn’t, only managing a harsh intake of breath. With their gazes locked, the tension between them arced and they reached out, grasping each other hard, holding on as though their lives depended on it. And maybe they did. Maybe this was the only thing that really mattered, that was really worth staying alive for. They held on tightly, so tightly their muscles protested, but neither of them cared. They were each other’s lifelines, and in experiencing all the horrors and struggles and losses of war together, each understood in his own way exactly how precious life was.
Dick whispered a single word: “Lew.”
He pulled back to look into Dick’s eyes again, and they burned through him with an intensity he’d never seen before. When Dick touched his face, all the air left his lungs, and he thought his heart would quit because it was hammering so wildly. That was all it took. A simple touch, and he felt himself falling. Because it was Dick’s touch, the touch he pretended he didn’t crave. The touch he tried not to think about every time they met. The touch he longed for so desperately it hurt.
Dick’s fingers brushed his cheek, followed the line of his jaw, and trailed along his lips, tracing the bow of the upper, stroking slowly across the lower. It seemed unreal that this was happening because he’d wanted it for so long, imagined it so many times, only to bury those thoughts deep or drown them with alcohol. He watched his friend intently. Dick’s gaze was focused on his lips, and he was watching his own fingers moving over them as though he found them endlessly fascinating.
But Nix grew troubled, for as greatly as he wanted this, he could only imagine how badly Dick must be hurting, and going along with things at this particular moment felt like the worst sort of betrayal. Because when Dick finally came to his senses – and he would – it would already be too late, and the damage may be irreparable. He’d never had a friend like Dick before, someone he knew he would admire and trust and be able to count on for the rest of his life, and it would kill him to lose that.
He caught Dick’s hand and stilled it, closing his eyes briefly, trying to make some sort of order from his chaotic thoughts. And when he opened them again, he was surprised to see Dick looking not relieved but confused, even disappointed. Disappointed? His brain tried to grasp the notion, but failed. He had to stop this, now. He had to be strong enough to let go of his own needs, for Dick’s sake.
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “Dick, don’t.”
Dick laced their fingers together. “But I thought… don’t you…?”
“I do, but…”
“So do I.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m okay. Don’t worry.”
“Yeah. It was just a nightmare. I have them sometimes.”
“Swear to God?”
“That would be taking the Lord’s name in vain.”
“Jesus, Dick, another joke? Now?”
“You talk too much.”
Somehow their absurd conversation shattered the tension. They drew closer, holding each other again, less desperately than before, and when their lips finally met, there was no hesitation, no confusion, no doubt. Only the sensation that what was happening was right as rain. They kissed slowly, almost shyly at first, and with gentle curiosity, each exploring and memorizing the soft curves of the other’s lips. And when their lips parted, their tongues sought one another and curled together, circling and rubbing languidly. They lost themselves, inundated by the sensations coursing through their bodies, and by the intense jumble of their emotions.
Nix broke gently from the kiss, long enough to struggle out of his shirts. He shivered when Dick’s hands found his belt, undid his trousers, and pushed them off, then went for his skivvies. Breathless and gloriously intoxicated by Dick’s touch, stripped bare in every possible way, he pulled him close again, quickly freeing him from his underclothes, and they both shuddered as their bare skin touched for the first time, feverish heat and rigid flesh meeting and soldering together. Holding each other tightly, they joined in another kiss, deeper, hungrier this time, tongues swirling, matching the rhythm of their thrusting hips, and they lost themselves in overwhelming, aching need, the need to feel truly alive, the need to open up and share every part of themselves, to love and be loved, unconditionally and without reservation. And any illusion of control burned away in the flashfire that consumed them both.
Afterward they lay tangled together, slowly regaining the ability to breathe normally. Nix buried his face in Dick’s neck and nuzzled his warm, smooth skin; Dick responded by stroking Nix’s hair and running his hands down his back.
Nix slid his fingers across Dick’s shoulder and down his arm, murmuring, “Okay?”
Dick kissed the top of his head and pulled him closer. “Yeah. You?”
Nix’s last conscious thought before being overtaken by sleep was to pray to his angry God that he wouldn’t wake in the morning to the same old terrible, rending emptiness and discover that the happiest moment of his life had been just a dream.
* * *
When Winters awoke, fingers of sunlight were streaming into the room and he could hear the buzz and bustle of activity from the street below, even through the closed window. Nix was still dead to the world, a warm, heavy weight half-blanketing his body. He wrapped Nix in his arms and just held on as memories and sensations of the previous night flooded through him. He supposed he should feel ashamed, but he didn’t. Nix was his closest friend in the world, and the realization that he loved Nix in every way it was possible to love another human being didn’t really come as a surprise, much less make him feel bad. But he also knew he had to keep his feelings locked down because there was still a long, difficult road ahead. They both had jobs to do that needed their full attention and distractions could prove fatal for them or their men.
He lay holding Nix, thinking for a long while, figuring he’d better prepare himself for the possibility that Nix may have regrets in the cold light of day. When he was finally ready to find out, he ruffled Nix’s hair gently. It was wonderful to touch, and he rested his cheek against the top of Nix’s head and buried his fingers deep, trailing them through its softness. He ruffled again and murmured, “Lew?”
Nix mumbled, “Yeah, okay,” but didn’t move.
How Nix had managed to get through two years of Army training and six months of combat, and still needed to be dragged out of the sack every morning, was beyond him. He tightened his hold and shook Nix a little. “Come on, Nix. Wake up.” And when Nix still didn’t stir, he tried a gentle smack on his bare behind. That did the trick.
“Hey! What the…?” Nix lifted up and squinted at him, groggy and dishevelled and still mostly asleep. He watched Nix gradually wake, look around, and puzzle things over, and saw the moment realization finally reached his brain. “Oh, hello.” Nix gave him a goofy sort of smile and inched forward to kiss him.
Relieved, he smiled against Nix’s lips, murmuring. “Hello.”
Nix sighed deeply, leaned over to grab his cigarettes from his shirt pocket and, lighting one, collapsed back against him, muttering, “How do you do it?”
“What?” He stroked Nix’s back slowly. It was such a natural thing to do, he was hardly aware he was doing it.
Nix coughed and dragged a hand through his hair. “You’re so damn chipper in the morning. It’s not normal.”
He flicked a lock of Nix’s hair. “Are you going to lie there grousing at me all day or are you going to show me around the city?”
Nix rubbed his hair and took a long drag from his cigarette, exhaling a swirling plume. “I’m thinking.”
After carefully taking the cigarette from Nix’s hand and setting it in the ashtray, he grabbed Nix and pushed him down onto the bed, stealing a slow, lingering kiss.
Smiling, Nix gazed up at him, murmuring, “If you think that’s going to persuade me to leave, you’re crazy.”
He ruffled Nix’s hair and smiled back. “Don’t you want to get out of here for a while?”
That goofy smile was back, and Nix rolled him over, covering him with his warm body and kissing him deeply until all other thoughts were forgotten, replaced with sudden, urgent need.
* * *
A long while later, the phone startled them out of a pleasant doze. Dick snatched it and cleared his throat, answering with a pleasant hello.
Listening to Dick’s side of the conversation, Nix knew their time together had just been cut short, and disappointment stung him sharply. But he refused to let Dick see his dejection, concealing it by lighting a cigarette and feigning way more interest than he felt. “What’s up?
“Zielinski’s hearing rumblings about something big happening in Belgium and figured I’d want to know.” Dick replaced the phone in its cradle and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, lines of worry suddenly creasing his brow.
Sighing dramatically, he grumbled, “I suppose that means we have to move?” He dragged a pillow over his head and groaned into Dick’s chest.
Dick grabbed the pillow and gave him a few hits, tossing it aside with a chuckle. “Yeah, I’m afraid it does.” Dick pulled him close and was suddenly quiet, and Nix could sense where his thoughts were heading. When Dick finally found his voice, it was heavy with emotion.
“Lew, I…” Dick’s arms tightened around him.
He stroked Dick’s chest gently. “Yeah. I know.” He was struggling, himself, and couldn’t say any more because he didn’t trust his voice not to crack. Before he met Dick Winters, he’d cynically thought love was a myth perpetuated by poets and madmen. But now that he knew it was real, and how it warmed him and opened him and compelled him to give of himself, he wanted to hold onto it and never let go. Or let Dick go. But it wasn’t to be. At least not now, while they were still in the midst of a hellish war that disillusioned him more every day. They’d found a brief moment of happiness here in this place, but it was fleeting, and soon they’d be back in Mourmelon, back to their stark, ordered lives and whatever business was at hand, half-wondering if it had all been a dream. He didn’t know how the hell he was supposed to go back to not touching Dick and not kissing Dick, and acting like nothing had happened.
Dick stroked his hair gently. “Lew?”
He swallowed hard and finally croaked out, “Yeah?”
Dick’s fingers curled around his chin and tilted his face up, and his gaze was almost too intense to return, like staring into the sun. “Thanks.”
He smiled warmly and nodded. “Yeah. Anytime.” And then he forcibly dragged himself away from Dick, because in another minute or two, it would’ve become impossible for him to do so.
* * *
Winters watched him go with the eerie sensation that the whole world had changed in the course of a single day. He glanced around the room, watching the play of sunlight dappling over the floor as the breeze stirred the bare branches just outside the window. Everything looked a little different; a little brighter or maybe more clearly in focus. He couldn’t quite tell. But then he understood that the world hadn’t changed. He’d changed. He’d allowed himself to share something with Nix that he’d never shared with anyone before, and part of him felt exuberant, but at the same time his darkest self curled inward, even more fearful of losing Nix now than before. Lifting his chin stubbornly, he swore to himself they’d get through this damned war together, come hell or high water. He simply refused to believe they’d found each other and come this far, only to have it all taken away. He said a silent prayer that he and Lew would live to see the end ! of the war, sound in body and mind. And then whatever lay ahead from there, they would be able to face together.
He got up and padded to the bathroom. Standing just behind his shoulder, he watched Nix leaning in toward the mirror, scraping a safety razor over the last stripe of stubbly beard. Nix caught his gaze in the mirror and held it, his eyes stark and serious and profoundly beautiful. Neither of them spoke, but each felt the other’s endless longing and embraced it with the knowledge of how completely they were a part of one another. Holding onto Nix’s shoulders, he buried his face in his hair and felt Nix lean back into him. Before, he hadn’t known how to reach out, and now he didn’t know how to let go. He hoped and prayed the warmth he’d found in Nix and the memories he held inside would sustain him, because he didn’t know how else he was going to make it through each day, seeing Nix, working with him, and having to hold back the tide of everything he wanted to share.
Nix turned around and kissed him, slow and deep, and it was the most bittersweet sensation he’d ever felt. Hello and goodbye all at once, and they both knew there wasn’t a thing they could do about it. Not now. That was a thought for another time, another place. So, he forced himself to smile and ruffled Nix’s hair, murmuring, “Quit hogging the bathroom,” and sending him to get dressed.
After he’d cleaned up and shaved, he found Nix lounging on the bed, smoking, holding his packed bag. His dark hair was a striking contrast to his pale skin, and Winters was somehow gratified to see the remnants of last night’s wine still sitting beside him on the table. Nix watched him gather his things and dress, and for once he didn’t hurry, but went about it slower than his usual fashion, staring back at Nix all the while. As he fastened his last shirt button, Nix came over and tied his tie in a beautiful half-Windsor and helped him on with his jacket.
Nix smiled and straightened his insignia and jump wings, murmuring, “Meticulous, as always.”
He pressed a deeper dimple into Nix’s tie, murmuring, “You’re not so bad yourself.” And then he gave Nix one last kiss, full of longing and heartache and hope for the future, a future they could share together. And without saying a word, they grabbed their bags and walked out, closing the door quietly behind them.
* * *
The river was crusted with ice and blew a frigid wind that sliced through their clothes. In spite of it, they stood on the corner staring at the great cathedral in the distance.
Nix stooped over and did a reasonably good Quasimodo, quoting, “All about him was stone – the grinning monsters before his eyes.”
Dick’s lips curved in a smile and his eyes sparkled mischievously. “You’re not far off, you know. You have terrible posture.”
He shook his head. “You really know how to hurt a guy.”
A jeep pulled up driven by another kid who looked too young to shave.
“Captain Winters?” The kid jumped out and saluted.
Dick returned his salute. “Yes…?”
While Dick was signing for the vehicle, the shivering kid picked up their bags, but Dick stopped him. “No, son, it’s all right. Go on back to the motor pool.”
“Thank you, sir.” And with that, Dombrowski saluted, hailed a passing taxi, and was gone.
Stretching out in the front seat, Nix lit a cigarette and grumbled, “Jesus, we’re going to freeze to death before we’re halfway back. I should’ve worn an overcoat. Dammit.”
Dick climbed behind the wheel, shook his head, and smiled. Shifting the jeep into gear, he stomped on the gas and they took off like a shot.