It’s almost warm under the weak and pale late-winter sun, in the corner where the wind doesn’t reach. Carwood has a mug of hot watery coffee that warms him from the inside and makes him hope it’ll help with the coughing and he won’t be sent away with pneumonia. He edges away from the cold wall, feeling the same coldness seep through his pants, but he has no strength to stand, so his balls better be tougher than his lungs. He listens idly to his boys’ idle chatter, then gets lost in his own thoughts, then listens some more, smiling at their jokes and grumpy complaints about weather, food, and goddamn krauts. Carwood’s glad they have enough life in them to laugh and complain, because he himself is past feeling annoyed, past anything that isn’t his duty, past even the ever-present desire to sleep, although he knows he’ll be unconscious the moment his head meets anything resembling a pillow. Carwood follows Doc Roe with his eyes, as the medic walks swiftly across the yard, and suppresses a cough. No Doc Roe for him yet, not until they’re somewhere safe and Carwood can allow himself to relax a little.
“I mean, have you ever seen him smile?” asks Christenson. Carwood looks up from his coffee. “The man’s unhinged.”
Liebgott shrugs carelessly. “Eh, he’s fine by me. He can keep his smile to himself as long as he gives orders that don’t get us killed.”
Carwood remembers vividly the smile they’re looking for and can’t help but smile too, seeping the coffee and feeling a bit warmer. He could never be afraid of Speirs – be wary, maybe, but not afraid. He understands why soldiers find him scary, and he’s not so sure the rumors about Speirs are just rumors, but Carwood has killed and will kill people himself, without much regret, so what is the point of being afraid of the man who does the same?
“Hey, Sarge,” Lieb nods in Carwood’s direction, snapping him out of his thoughts again. “You ever seen anything that would suggest Lieutenant Speirs is actually a human being?”
The guys laugh and Carwood rolls his eyes at them. He almost tells that yes, he has, and that Lieutenant Speirs is, in fact, a decent human being, but recalls their exchange about Tertius, and smirks.
“He’s not a human being, he’s your C.O.,” he says with mischief that overtakes him for a moment. “A god-like figure you shall obey mindlessly and maybe even worship.”
The guys laugh again and Liebgott throws a pebble in Carwood’s direction, grinning. Then suddenly his grin disappears and everyone avert their eyes, looking otherwise preoccupied. Carwood stars at them dumbly.
“First Sergeant Lipton,” the familiar cold voice comes from behind him, and Carwood rises up with as much hurry as he can muster and turns around.
“Lieutenant,” he says, looking back at his boys, and they throw him sympathetic glances with badly hidden amusement underneath.
Speirs probably heard all Carwood’s just said, that sneaky bastard, or maybe a god-like figure indeed, some pagan deity of war, fierce and invincible. Speirs’ eyes are just as cold as his voice, as the wind and the ground beneath Carwood’s boots, and he gives orders sharply, spreading activity around himself. He doesn’t look tired at all, there are no signs of sleep deprivation around his eyes, just hardness and lack of emotion. Carwood would envy him for this ability to stride through the war without dents and scratches on the steel armor that seems to enwrap him, but Carwood knows now that there is a softer, kinder man underneath it, and Carwood has no idea how much damage has that man endured since D-Day.
Before Carwood receives his commission, Speirs gets promoted to a captain, and becomes more absent than present, appearing here and there with orders and silver he stole. He asks sometimes for Carwood’s opinion, and snaps when Carwood tries to work on papers. It’s a rhythm Carwood gets used to – cough and drink coffee, cough and feel like shit, fill in some forms, get ranted at by Speirs, cough a bit more, feel like crap because of Speirs’s now tired eyes, drink more coffee, and wait for Speirs to come back with news and tiny smiles, and it’s all the medicine Carwood needs.
Carwood doesn’t know when his life began revolving around Speirs but he really does want to obey the Captain mindlessly and maybe even worship him a little. He has no idea why Speirs finds his presence tolerable or even welcome, but Carwood’s willing to provide a company, feeling safe and easy with Speirs at his side. He’s fairly sure it would sound insane to everyone else in the company, but it’s not like Carwood is ready to share his sentiment with the boys.
Carwood’s pneumonia refuses to get better no matter how much coffee he drinks, it gets worse and Doc Roe threatens him with a hospital if Carwood doesn’t stop running around. Speirs looms behind while Roe fusses over Carwood. He wears an expression of disapproval and annoyance, and Carwood apologizes guiltily to be so useless, but Speirs cuts him half-way through the cough-interlaced sentence.
“Shut up and drink more goddamn tea. As soon as we come over a proper aid station, you’re out of here. As for now just stay inside and get some sleep.”
Carwood sighs and stays inside. He probably should feel scared of the angry glares he’s getting, but instead he feels cared for. At night, Speirs gives away his bed to Carwood as well, not listening to the protests, and before he puts out the lights, Carwood gets a glimpse of deep tiredness on his face. Carwood decides to get better as soon as he can to provide actual help.
With the local remedies stuffed forcefully down his throat he gets better and doesn’t have to leave Easy, but he’s still rather weak and wobbly on his feet, evoking more of angry glares form Speirs and the orders for him stay the same – don’t fucking leave the building unless absolutely necessary, the company can survive without you for a day, Lieutenant, for Christ’s sake.
He writes home, to his mother and his wife, carefully avoiding all mentions of his illness and the horrors of Bastogne, praising the courage of the soldiers instead, and when he rereads the letter, he almost believes in the image he’s created. Unfortunately, he gets a coughing fit as soon as he writes down his best regards, and then Malarkey passes by with a hollow face, and the image is ruined.
By the time Carwood’s pneumonia is gone and his shiny new lieutenant bars doesn’t feel foreign on his collar anymore, they’re already off the line, the boys fraternizing back and forth, and Speirs reaching new heights in his looting and pillaging campaign. Carwood’s feelings are conflicted about this blatant compulsive stealing – he finds it amusing, and he wants to frown upon the questionable morality of it, but above that, he’s curious. He knows that Speirs has a woman in England, but his dedication seems to go only one way, because Carwood has never seen Speirs receive a letter, and never heard him talk about that woman at all.
One night, it’s just the two of them playing poker in their shared room, a lone shabby chair used as a desk between their beds, it’s cosy and weirdly intimate, there are three empty wine bottles under the chair, and Carwood keeps thinking about stuff he shouldn’t.
“Do you love her?” he asks, a tad too drunk to keep that question to himself. It seems unlikely, if Carwood’s being honest.
Speirs’ eyes are unreadable and empty when he stars at his cards. “She has my son,” he says curtly and rather exhaustively. He also sounds like he regards his parenthood as a duty, not a blessing.
Then again, Carwood doesn’t have any kids of his own, and he can’t tell how he would feel when the time comes. The thought of being a father suddenly takes over him, but instead of being pleasant, it settles in his stomach heavily and worryingly.
“Are you going to stay in England with them?” he asks eventually, and thinks about his own wife back home. And like the idea of a child a moment before, it fills him with uneasy guilt.
“I don’t know.” Speirs sighs and throws the cards on the chair. He falls back on his bed, rubbing his face. “I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I’d rather live through Bastogne again than have a wife and a son. How pathetic does that sound to you, Lipton?”
“Well, sir, I hardly have the room to judge,” Carwood says after a moment. “That thought scares me as well.”
Speirs snorts humorlessly. “I guess courage in battle doesn’t equate with courage in romantic affairs.”
Carwood nods, smiling wryly.
A couple of weeks later it occurs to Carwood that he and Speirs – who is just Ron now – have become actual friends, and he’s maybe the only friend Ron has managed to make in this war. Carwood feels weirdly honored – he’s nohored to be a friend of anyone’s in Easy, of course, but Ron is a special case and Carwood’s afraid of ruining it somehow. By being too eager, for example, by enjoying it way more than an ordinary guy should. A normal guy should.
A normal guy wouldn’t be so happy to be touched by another guy, even his best friend, would he? And Ron touches Carwood a lot. Well, Ron has always touched him a lot, truth to be told, right since Foy, but the more time they spend in each other’s company, the more ‘a lot’ it becomes. Carwood would lie if he said he’d like it to stop.
Carwood doubts he is fully homosexual – he loves women, if not his wife, but then, there were guys he probably felt stronger about than he should have, and there were fantasies that didn’t involve any girls. Until he met Ronald Speirs, though, Carwood had no reason to dwell on it. He dwells on that subject a lot now, especially with Ron is the vicinity and quite often it makes him really uncomfortable in the pants area. Carwood’s well aware Ron is handsome – Hollywood movie-like handsome and a very admirable individual otherwise, but it shouldn’t evoke any other feelings in Carwood than respect and probably envy. His body begs to differ, though.
Half the time Carwood’s scared someone’s going to notice they way he blushes and squirms every other time Ron paws on him affectionately, and the other half he spends imagining in very graphic detail what else can Ron do to him. He doesn’t know how well he hides all of that – probably well enough, since he wasn’t yet court martialed or beaten to a pulp, but he doubts he’s going to be able to keep the façade for much longer.
More and more often he wonders if Ron is holding up the same façade, but it’s not like Carwood is going to ask him or make any move to discover on practice. Carwood is equally scared to lose his friendship, to get a dishonorable discharge, and to acquire a lover instead of a friend. Being spontaneously homosexual brings frustration, fear, and awkwardness into his life, but being spontaneously homosexual and having sex because of it is downright idiotic.
Carwood holds on to his reasoning for his dear life, and is willing to lose his clothes on a barest hint every time Ron leans in too close or smiles lazily at him.
Soon enough, Carwood’s exhausted fighting his immoral urges probably as much as he was exhausted fighting the Germans.
Carwood, as a lieutenant, shouldn’t really spend much time with the lower ranks anymore, and it seems like Ron is quite determined to keep him away from Easy men and hog Carwood’s time all to himself, but it’s only so many poker games, sexual frustration and grumpy Nixon Carwood can stand. He accepts Luz’s invitation to a birthday party they’re throwing for one of the replacements, and gets a flat “sure” when informs Ron about that. Carwood feels guilty immediately, but guilt is still better than his ever worsening depravity.
Half the way into the party, as Carwood steadily drinks himself into unconsciousness, Luz gets a hold on him, and demands everyone’s attention.
“Guys, guys, listen to this!” he yells over the noise, clapping Carwood across the shoulders. “Our Lieutenant here is not only the best mother known to mankind,” he announces, making everyone cheer up and drink for Carwood’s maternal success, “Our Lieutenant also has the balls of steel!”
Carwood’s not sure where this is going, but knowing Luz’s character, there’s probably some anecdote Carwood’s not even aware of.
Luz waves at the crowd and the loud commentary about Carwood’s toughness subdues a little. “I happened to be in the vicinity of the officers’ place the other night, and overheard some of the dialogue – I’m sorry, Lip, but you were really loud – between Captain Speirs and Lieutenant Lipton here.”
As the soldiers quiet down, curiosity peeking through the alcohol, Carwood tries really hard to remember what he and Ron were talking about, but he is too drunk right now for that.
“Captain Speirs seemed to be riled up and not quite sober, so he went, “Lip, Lip, you have to get this,” Luz slurs in a very good imitation of Speirs, making everyone laugh, “I really hate, you see, I really hate it when rich bastards like Nixon jusss walk away from a game – th- thrice now! – and won’t let me win my best fucking hand yet!”
It sounds so correct and so hilarious, delivered by Luz that Carwood can’t help but laugh with everyone else.
“And the Lieutenant goes, “You’ll get lucky next time, Captain.” “Fuck lucky, I just want the money Nixon owes me! That whole ‘an officer and a gentleman’ thing is a dead conp- concept these days, I tell ya.” Luz holds a pause, waiting for comments and laughter to quiet down. “And Lip goes, “I guess in the good olden days you’d challenge him to a duel, wouldn’t you?” “Nixon? To a duel? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s Winters who’d have to defend his honor and what good would that do me?”
The roar of laughter is deafening, but Carwood’s cringing, because it’s so disrespectful and out of hand that he’s sobering up fast and starting to dread the consequences.
“George, I think you should stop now,” Carwood asks quietly, but Luz is too drunk to be reasonable.
“So the Captain continues with his rant, but then Lip gets tired of that, and says, “Yeah, hold on there, calm down. I would hate to see you court martialed if Winters hears any of that, Sparky.” I swear to God!” Luz yells over the burst of laughter, “Lip called him Sparky!”
Carwood sits in the middle of stormy crowd, mortified, wanting to crawl under the table and thinking about sewing Luz’s big mouth shut for good with a big, scary looking needle. Or maybe it’s Ron’s mouth that needs to be sewed up, or maybe Carwood’s own.
Somehow, he extricates himself from the crowd, and stumbles into the warm Austrian night. He’s tired, still half-drunk, embarrassed, and tomorrow, he’ll have to punish Luz for this show, although it’s the last thing Carwood wants to do. He also will have to provide reasons for that punishment, and he hopes none of this will ever reach Winters’ ears. It will sure as fuck reach Ron’s, which is also not appealing at all. Everyone knows that Sink calls him Sparky, and while Ron hates that, he tolerates it because affection of a colonel is not something you grump about. And although Ron seems to find it amusing when Carwood calls him Sparky, it hardly means he’ll be amused to hear that the whole battalion is now aware he allows a subordinate to use this flippant nickname.
Damn Luz and his equally undisciplined ears and mouth. Carwood obviously shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near command, since he was unable to prevent this from happening. Ron would’ve just ordered Luz to shut up, and Luz would’ve shut up and stayed silent, but Carwood’s used to persuade and ask rather than order, and asking doesn’t really work on drunken people who don’t see Carwood as anything other than a mother hen.
Feeling thankful for the first time he and Ron didn’t get to share a room in Austria, Carwood falls asleep on top of the bedspread, still dressed and with self-loathing thought that he’s an incompetent faggot and should ask for a demotion first thing in the morning.
He doesn’t confess anything next morning, though. He lies in his bed for good fifteen minutes trying to remember what’s nagging at him, and then spends another half an hour trying to make himself look like an individual rather than a pile of garbage.
Carwood barely finishes his coffee when everyone’s ordered inside to watch a film about the Pacific TO, and then Winters expresses the wish to see his soldiers actually doing soldierly things.
Carwood ends up asking – asking again, not ordering – Luz to never repeat the anecdote from the last night, and hopes everyone else was too drunk to remember it in detail. Luz winks at him, swears he’ll be silent as a grave, and goes to mock Perconte and his hangover.
Carwood avoids calling Ron Sparky afterwards, avoids Ron altogether, too guilty and too aware of his obsession, and hoping that maybe he can get over it. Ron is clearly confused, annoyed and eventually angry to receive an unprovoked and unexplained cold shoulder from Carwood. Carwood is determined to hold the distance, but barely two weeks later, some asshole from Item company shoots Grant and Carwood can see just how much it hurts Ron. Everyone thinks he’s furious – he is, he’s boiling with it, but he’s also deeply upset and worried about Grant, and Carwood cannot stand to see him like that.
Carwood finds Ron on a balcony the next day.
“He’ll be alright, though,” he says, coming to stand beside him. “You saved him.”
Ron shrugs. “Just brought a doctor to him.”
Carwood smiles, overtaken by a sudden urge to hug him and hold him close. “Yeah, how many officers do you know who would run around in the dead of night, searching for a brain surgeon? You saved him and he’ll be fine now.”
When Ron doesn’t reply, Carwood gives up. “I’m sorry I was avoiding you. I was going through an inner conflict of sorts,” he murmurs quietly, quite aware of the heat crawling up his neck.
Ron turns his head to look at Carwood and keeps looking until Carwood gets overly aware of himself and his blush and shifts awkwardly. “What?”
Ron smiles softly, wrinkles around his eyes, and Carwood’s still surprised to see that smile, even though it is often directed at him, and only at him, truth to be told. Carwood smiles back helplessly and suddenly, feels stupidly in love.
That thought makes his breath hitch. Yes, he is in love, honest-to-god, head-over-hills, the feeling as sweet as it is painful, way worse of a stupidity than just lusting over your Captain.
“I’ve received a letter from my wife,” Ron says out of blue, making Carwood blink and push away his identity crisis with a surge of his ever-present guilt. “Apparently, her previous husband wasn’t killed, and just returned home. Which makes my marriage to her null and void.” There is a combination of relief and sarcasm in his voice, and Carwood doesn’t know how to react, for it’s certainly mot what he’d expected to hear.
“What about your son? All the silver you’ve sent them?” he asks eventually, frowning.
Ron shrugs with one shoulder. “Her husband’s willing to raise the kid, and I’m willing to let him. Guess my silver will be the payment.”
Carwood rubs his forehead, wondering just how weird and complicated human relationships can get. “Aren’t you at all sorry?”
“Yeah, maybe. It’s my son, after all. But otherwise, I think it turned out the best way it could for everyone.”
Carwood nods vaguely, and thinks about divorcing his wife. He can hardly remember her face anymore, but he recalls clearly that even back home he loved her less than he loves a single smile Ron occasionally flashes at him.
Carwood has always aspired to be a respectable, decent man with a big happy family. He expected the war to reflect upon him somehow, make him wiser, firmer, more efficient. Probably give him nightmares as well, and make him deliriously happy to go back to his peaceful ordinary life. Instead, the war gave Carwood a set of scars, a homosexual infatuation with his Captain, a wish to divorce his wife, and a smoking habit. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair.
“Care to join us for a poker game?” Ron asks him some time later, when dusk creeps from the bottom of the valley and the wind from the lake becomes colder.
“Sure, why not.”
Carwood can feel Ron’s stare all through the game and it makes him flush and fidget and lose round after round. Then again, Ron is losing as well, either preoccupied with staring or not caring for money anymore, and Harry mocks them relentlessly. Nixon just smirks, drinking his Vat 69 and leaves as soon as Winters peeks in, back from the HQ late, as usual.
“Thanks God my room is nowhere near theirs,” Ron mutters to himself, making Harry choke on the whiskey.
Carwood pats his back, glaring at Ron and blushing hotly. Ron just shrugs and smiles slyly.
“It’s quite obvious,” he says, and wins the round at last, while Harry and Carwood are both busy being red in the face.
Harry asks Ron to keep his observations to himself in the future, tells them he’s done, and retreats, slightly unsure on his feet, leaving Ron and Carwood alone. Very much alone, in the half-lit room and Ron has never stopped staring.
There is a prolonged silence, when Carwood fumbles with his cards unnecessarily, getting increasingly more aware of his own body and his erection pressed painfully to the seam of his pants, and Ron’s stare feels like a physical touch.
“Do you know what is also quite obvious, Lieutenant?” Ron asks suddenly.
Yeah, Carwood has got an idea, but he shakes his head, not trusting his voice.
Ron uncrosses his legs, spreading them wide apart, revealing an outline of his cock under the tight stretch of his trousers. Carwood swallows and crunches a card in his hand into a ball.
“I think, Lieutenant,” Ron says in a low voice, “That it is painfully obvious what we both want from each other.”
Carwood nods shakily, his mind blurry with arousal and anticipation.
Ron stands up, his movements as sharp and fluid as ever, and comes to stand right in front of Carwood. He strokes Carwood’s hair and face, his eyes half-lidded, and Carwood leans into his touch, looking up at him, not really able to move, limbs heavy and hot.
Like always, Carwood doesn’t have a choice but obey, standing up only to be dragged right in. Ron holds him tight and sure, and kisses him hard, and Carwood doesn’t care at all about the insanity of it.
Ron fucks Carwood with focus and determination, his orders curt and non-disputable, but Carwood hardly complains, turned on more than he ever was in his life. Ron holds him pressed firmly to the mattress, leaving bruises on his wrists, his cock leaving wet traces on Carwood’s thighs and his tongue – on Carwood’s throat, whispering obscenities and encouragements. Carwood comes too soon, arching into Ron’s taut body helplessly and crying out his name.
Ron watches him with his mouth open and eyes dark, damp hair falling on his forehead in loose curls, and it thrills Carwood to know that this wild, dangerous man is so aroused because of him, and belongs to him fully, at least for the moment.
Carwood’s still panting when Ron releases him and sits up. Carwood’s hands are numb but the heat of Ron’s skin makes it better fast, as Carwood strokes him up his thighs and his stomach, grazing the wet tip of his cock with his thumbs. Ron arches back, moaning and sending shivers down Carwood’s spine.
“Are you going to tease me for the rest of the night?” Ron asks in a hoarse voice, grabbing Carwood’s wrist again.
Carwood smirks. “Maybe I want to hear you beg.”
Ron swears as Carwood strokes his knuckles over his balls and up the length of his cock, slowly, wanting to taste it badly and then saying it out loud. Ron gasps, his gaze heavy and hungry on Carwood, and it almost makes him hard again.
“Please, fuck, please,” Ron groans finally, thrusting forward into his light caress, head tilted back, and hell, Carwood’s definitely hard now.
He jerks Ron off in a few hard strokes, making him spill all over Carwood’s hands and his chest with a sharp cry. Carwood’s sure this image will stay with him forever.
When the war ends for good and the ships are ready to take them home, it doesn’t feel like a happy ending of a nightmare story.
He smiles and jokes, he hugs back everyone who hugs him in bliss, and he’s glad the war is over and the boys can go live their normal peaceful lives now. He doesn’t have to dig deep into his own heart to find misery, though.
Harry is drunk, and Nix is even drunker. They’re wrapped over Winters, laughing, as far form the image of the U.S. officers as possible, and it’s hard to keep from smiling looking at them. So Carwood keeps looking at them, and does his best to avoid glancing over at Ron and his cool blank face.
Neither of them could come up with a resemblance of a good idea considering their relationship, so Carwood is going home, to his wife, and Ron is going to visit his son. Ron’s coming back to the army afterwards and Carwood isn’t, because he’s sick of it, and there isn’t really a compromise to reach and life-altering choice to make. Courage in battle indeed does not equate with courage in romantic affairs.
Carwood guesses it’s the end of whatever they had for the past seven months – a long time that flew too fast. Carwood’s skin still holds all the bruises Ron left there a few nights back, and will hold some of them when Carwood will kiss his wife hello, but they will fade eventually. Carwood doubts that his feeling for Ron will fade that easily, if ever.
Onboard the ship, at night, Ron drags him to some dark silent corner, and their kisses are desperate and bittersweet. It's impossible to imagine living the rest of his life without him.
Carwood never even says goodbye to Ron in the end, immediately lost in the crowd. It leaves everything hanging unfinished, and it gives Carwood a hope that maybe, there can be another, happier end waiting for him around the corner.
How can it not?