Summary: In retrospect, Peter could see that the beginning of their quirky, out-of-balance friendship was already the beginning of the end.
Betas: shiny_starlight; someone who wishes to go unnamed, but deserves a mention for putting up with it and musictoyourlips
Pairing: Pete Wentz/Patrick Stump; AU. OhyesIdid.
Words: c. 9,100
Written for: spooningxcore; Historical Ficathon, prompt #3 – "Time Period # 3: 1920-1960"
Disclaimer: Yeah, so, uh – they weren't even born six decades ago.
Author's Notes: A lot of the historical references in this fic tie-in the phenomenal mini-series Band of Brothers, but it is in no way a cross-over as the actual military operations mentioned were genuine actions of the 502nd PIR, sister regiment to the legendary 506th.
This is very much a case of 'if they'd lived in the 40s' rather than 'Fall Out Boy go back to the 40s': getting these kids to sound like themselves while using 1940s terminology is just plain obnoxious. I hope I managed it, and, if it helps, I found myself picturing Grand Theft Autumn-vid Patrick when writing this. I also thought it would be really fun to have Patrick doing one of the things he's sworn he'd never have the nerve to do in real life.
I also want to give a special credit to lovelyloveleave because her fic quite literally put the Sunshine in mine.
(Title taken from My Heart Is the Worst Kind of Weapon; quote from Brand New's Okay, I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't)
Bryl Creme: popular hair product for men.
C-47: extremely popular plane, often known as a Dakota and used in all facets of the US Military in WWII.
Cpl.: abbreviation of the military rank of corporal.
F-4: classification of males unfit for enlistment.
Garrison Cap: also known as an 'overseas cap', as seen here.
MG: machine gun; a weapon capable of firing multiple rounds with a single pull-and-hold trigger action. Usually operated by one man, while another feeds a cartridge belt into the machine.
Non-comm: shorthand for Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) – the various ranks in the military which include the term 'corporal' or 'sergeant'; eg. Lance Corporal or Staff Sergeant.
Promise: old-fashioned word for 'date'.
Stars and Stripes: US military newspaper.
Sgt.: abbreviation of the military rank of sergeant.
In Between Arms
this is the break in the bend,
this is the closest of calls.
this is the reason you're alone,
this is the rise and the fall.
The sun glistened on the bronzed window frames of the diner, sparking away in the dry summer air and occasionally blinding him if he moved his head the wrong way. He didn't really mind; when the light hit it just right, the reddish-goldish shine of the scrubbed metal whispered memories of a life passed and tucked in shoeboxes beneath his bed and behind closets.
It was a life that seemed a world away, now; and that was his own fault.
He lifted his eyes momentarily as the grating whir of a small plane overhead tore his attention from the condensation that kissed the rim of his peanut butter milkshake, reminding him of damp green eyes he'd once wiped with muddy fingers.
"Cpl. Hurley you will get that goddamn hair trimmed by lunch or I'll have you running your skinny behind to Westhampnett and back in full kit before breakfast each day for a week! Do you understand me?"
Peter cast a slow, lingering smile of too many teeth and lazily lidded eyes toward his friend as he propped himself at uncomfortable attention and nodded an affirmative to the irritable captain who had assailed them en route to change for PT. It only took a week or two for the man's hair to grow again and skim his collar in a fashion which infuriated his superiors. Peter grinned as the other paratrooper clipped a salute and a cheery, "Fuck you, sir," perfectly timed for the deafening pass over of a squadron of Spitfires from the Membury airfield out in Devon, and followed them with his eyes as they arced past.
He should have been a pilot. A fighter pilot. He wasn't the kind for rolling around in mud and pig guts or spending days in the same chafing field uniform. But he was too short, so he took to jumping from them and he had to make the best of it. They all knew, on some level, that these could be the last days and they were to enjoy them as best they could. They tried hard.
Lowering his eyes - pocked, now, with dark spots from the glare of the sun – he was surprised to find an unfamiliar form approaching, bundled down with a stuff-pack and continually re-hoisting his weapon over his shoulder. He was small; pale. Under the edge of his garrison cap, tilted back at an innocent angle and badged with the emblem of the 101st Airborne, light strawberry-blond hair cropped and Bryl cremed around his ears and coasted in neat curves far further down his reddened cheeks than Peter was sure was acceptable. Or fashionable, for that matter.
"Sergeant? I'm looking for F-Company 2nd Platoon, could you point me in the right direction?"
His eyes were green; or perhaps blue. Possibly even both. Peter was far too aware of the full, damp-looking lips beneath them to really be certain
"I'm sorry, Sergeant – could you - ?"
"We're second," Andy was informing him, adjusting his tiny rounded spectacles, before Peter was even aware the kid – because that was all he was: a kid, fresh-faced and straight from training, he was sure – had been addressing him at all.
"You're second? Well... I've been assigned to second – transferred in from Able of the 501st, Corporal. You're short a radio op, I guess. Could you point me..?" he trailed off, gesturing vaguely toward an unidentified destination.
"We're – " Peter paused, clearing his throat in as masculine a fashion as he could muster, and began again. "We're heading to the barracks now; if you're looking for those you'd better follow us, kid." Without another word, he tugged the stuff-bag from the kid's grip and heaved it over his shoulder, trying not to let him see it was a struggle and wondering what on Earth he'd packed.
For a moment, the kid gazed up at him in surprise, his weapon slipping from his shoulder as he lost interest in it; a second later he broke into a broad, glowing grin. Andy gave them both a doomed look and set off toward their barrack.
"Where you from, kid?"
"Really? We've got a few Chicago boys in the platoon already – you'll fit right in."
The kid gave a snort and muttered what sounded a lot like, "That makes a change..."
Smirking down at him in mild amusement, as the young paratrooper adjusted his cap, shifted his rifle back on to his shoulder and hurried after them, Peter had a feeling he'd be keeping this kid around.
He had kept him around, for as long as he could. During the last weeks of training and preparing for the invasion of France, he'd kept the kid almost within arm's reach, basking in his smiles and the shine of changeable eyes. All the newer recruits looked at them that way, but Peter could never quite care about the others.
His name had been Stump; Patrick Martin, actually. It was a natural source of amusement and he'd acquired more nicknames than the rest of the Company put together, within the first week. He'd quickly been absorbed into their little group – even amongst brothers in arms there were friendships that laced together more tightly than others, and the close-woven web comprising Andy and his ammo man on the MG – an equally likeable and obnoxious kid by the name of Trohman, Peter, as a rifleman and squad leader and less closely, Miller, the platoon's bazooka op, was familiar amongst their peers. To see a replacement drafted into their ranks so readily raised a number of eyebrows, but no one said a thing, even if they thought it.
Peter really couldn't care less.
At dinner on that first night they sat him in the middle of the table, Peter to his left, Andy and Trohman opposite, the rest of the platoon spread around them, and deluged him with questions. Where was he from ("Glenview"), what was he doing before he signed up, ("Just school..."), did he have a girl back home ("Well... no. Not exactly..." a half glance at Peter and a shove at the indefinable substance on his plate, "That would be, 'not exactly' as in, 'no, definitely no girl'"), what did he want to be after he'd left school (a small shrug, "I wanted to be a musician, but my father says there's no career in it, and I guess he'd know...")?
In retrospect, Peter could see that the beginning of their quirky, out-of-balance friendship was already the beginning of the end. Their ranks were swelling with newer recruits, ready to flood the continent with Allied Troops – pushing forward like a tidal wave from the Channel, and, as they were, a deadly storm from the heavens.
Standing on the little stone bridge over the burbling river between the village pub and the walk home to the camp at Chilton Foliat, toward the first week in May, the kid had stopped, head tilted back and eyes gazing directly into the twilit sky. "I don't know what to write," he whispered to Peter. The world around them seemed to be holding its breath; the air still and warm, waiting to fall into a chill sigh of an early summer night. "To my mother: I don't know what to tell her."
"Tell her you're looking forward to it, kid." He stepped up to his side, resting a hand lightly between his shoulder blades, feeling the warmth through his shirt and wondering if his pale skin felt the same way; he drew his hand back and shoved it in his pocket, for fear of trying to find out. "Tell her you're excited... proud. Tell her you'll see her when we've saved the world from fascism. Perhaps she won't worry if she thinks you aren't."
Patrick turned to look at him, struggling to scrutinise his face in the growing darkness; he didn't seem to have caught the tightness in Peter's voice. "You don't seem scared... We don't even know where they'll send us, but you don't seem..." he trailed off, slipping into a frown, tugging his garrison cap from his head and curling it in his fist in a way which would surely crease it.
"Everybody gets scared, kid," Peter told him softly, wanting to share the knotted ball he'd been keeping in his chest since he'd watched New York slip away to a thin dark line, and then nothing but ocean; but not wanting to shake the kid's belief that Peter could lead him home when the time came. He pulled the cap from his hand and straightened it, slipping it instead under the epaulette at his shoulder, instead.
Peter tried not to catch the eyes that watched him so intently; he didn't want to see the shine fade with the last of the sunlight. Instead, he reached into his breast pocket – on the inside, close to his heart – and pulled out the little cage that held his demons.
"Here." He grasped the kid's hand in his fingers and wrapped it around a small, leather bound book filled with crinkled corners and smudges of half-sentenced thoughts. "It doesn't have to be written all over my face to be there."
He caught the eyes, then, fluttering in surprise and yet wide as search lights, and reached out his hand to make some gesture of comfort or affection or sympathy, but only brushed his shoulder lightly as if sweeping the weight of the world from it.
For one lingering moment, Stump looked down at the tome in his hands and then cast his eyes to Peter's, regarding him with his mouth half-parted as if ask to a hundred awkward questions Peter had no hope of answering. Instead, he shoved his hands back into his pockets and set off again, without saying another word.
"You're a poet."
It came as an accusation over boot polish and spit-shine as Peter sat on his bunk in the barracks, one foot tightly bound in bandages, courtesy of the uneven English lanes between the village and the airfields. It would be fine in a day or two, but for the time being it was relieving him from the joys of map reading exercises he really didn't require any longer.
Stump, it seemed, was simply the first trooper back from the excursion.
"It's not fucking Flanders Fields, kid," Pete informed him, glancing wearily over to where Patrick was silhouetted against the light from the still-open door a few feet behind him.
"Well, that's just a pile of crap: you're a poet. There's things in this – " 'this', Pete noted was still firmly grasped in the kid's fingers, " – things that could be our Flanders Fields... It's... it's just sometimes it's so beautiful and I can almost hear it – "
"Don't go saying that, you'll be F-4ed and sent home faster than you can say 'McCrae'."
The kid huffed in exasperation and sat down heavily on the end of Peter's bunk, knocking over his tin of Kiwi polish. "Sarge, if you don't mind my saying, you're one contrary ass, sometimes," he told him, frowning.
Pete looked up at him, his head still lowered to his boots as he rubbed them in careful circles with a soft cloth. "And you're a wiseass, Stumpy. Oh, and for what it's worth, if Di Vecchi had heard you talking to your squad leader like that he'd have you on latrine duty for a month."
"Well, I don't see why you need to be so difficult about it, Pete – this is good stuff." He leaned forward and spoke urgently, as if it was a matter of gross national importance, "You should send it to the Stars and Stripes or something."
Pete. Not 'Sarge', or 'Sergeant', or 'Wentz'. Just Pete.
Stump didn't even seem to notice he'd done it, and continued to regard him intently with slightly furrowed eyebrows.
"It's not poetry," Peter insisted again. "If anything, they're words. Y'know, words? For music." He took a deep breath, "I'm not a poet."
"Y'know, I still think you should submit some to the newspapers," the kid told him again, a week later, plucking at daisies in the grass as Peter lazed beside him, hands tucked beneath his head.
A few yards away, the rest of the platoon enjoyed a warm, clear afternoon off duty with a game of baseball; helmets for base markers, a borrowed tennis ball in place of a proper baseball ball.
"Well, you'd have to give me the book back first... but I'm still not doing it." He pulled a buttercup from the grass between them and twirled it under the other trooper's chin, smirking.
Patrick ignored the comment about the borrowed notebook and sighed and shook his head as if the talent was wasted on his squad leader. He took the flower from Peter's fingers and carefully added it to the growing posy he was creating.
"Hey, I'll make you a deal: when we get home, you look me up and I'll let you put some of them to music, like you said you were doing in your head, okay?"
Squinting and chewing pensively on his lip, the kid nodded abruptly and clambered to his feet to collect the tennis ball as it rolled and bumped its way by them, tossing his collection of flowers into Peter's face as he went.
Patrick told him the same thing every day they spent in each other's company; which was, for anyone who happened to be counting at the time, a grand total of... all of them. If anybody was keeping count, they never mentioned it. Aside from the occasional significant look from Andy, the other troops seemed to take Peter's acquisition of a small, readheaded shadow entirely in their stride.
The last weekend they had in England, right before they were transported from Chilton Foliat to Upottery, they were given what came to be understood as a send-off. The USO was crammed with young men and local women while a few of the boys from the 1st Infantry serenaded them with odes to the sweethearts left behind.
That he had left nobody but family behind, no sweetheart or fiancée, made Peter distinct from his fellow non-comms in Fox Company. Most had somebody writing them perfume-scented love notes; a few were married. One had a child. One had even got a local English girl in trouble and found himself hastily arranging a wedding in a quaint village church.
Peter couldn't see the point; he didn't need his morale boosted so desperately he would put somebody through the worry of a loved one at war, if it was remotely avoidable. He wasn't averse to the notion of an intrigue along the way, however, or allowing a dark, lingering look at a stranger – such as the slender man fondling the bass upon the stage – but he had no desire to wrap himself up in complications with people he would likely never see again.
Beside him, the kid nursed a watered-down pint of English beer, quietly waiting for his attention to drop from the angular form on the stage and return to the table.
"Why don't you dance?" he asked, tapping the readhead's arm with his knuckles, mostly for an excuse to touch him.
The kid shook his head, "Three left feet."
"Oh, c'mon – this could be your last chance before we go to war, kid! There's a lot of pretty girls out there going wanting..."
For a few heart-stopping beats, the expression on Stump's face said 'What kind of idiot are you?' and then dropped into a slightly dejected frown. "Well, if I'm cramping your style, Sergeant, I can just go back –"
"Hey! Did I say that? No. Christ, kid, lighten up."
"You could stop calling me 'kid' if you wanted."
Peter didn't want. Peter wanted to remind himself that this supposed nineteen year old (he was fairly sure he'd lied about his age, because there had to be more than three years between them; more like five) was just not like him.
He picked up his glass and muttered, "In about three years, sure."
Patrick stared at him, and then finally stood up, nudging his glass further onto the table. "You know what? I think I'm gonna dance after all..."
Across the dance floor, Andy elbowed Joe in the back and watched as the kid walked away.
That Tuesday, with an awkward tension still lingering in the air between them, the Screaming Eagles jumped on Normandy.
It was darkening when they left; the last of the summer evening slinking from the sky to give them the cover of darkness. It was almost pitch-black within the C-47s. Two rows of men – boys – little more than glistening speckles of moonlight glinting on their eyes, or specks of red where smokers enjoyed what could be their last cigarette.
Opposite him, the kid clenched and unclenched his hands on his knees, looking, even in the poor visibility, as though he may throw up. Peter offered him a reassuring grin, trying to say, "Trust me, Stumpy, we're going to be alright." Whatever Patrick took from the smile, he nodded slightly, and have a deep sigh.
"Stand up; hook up!"
And here they were: twenty minutes from jump time, unaware that they would be scattered across the northern coastal region of France without ever hitting their intended Drop Zones.
"See you down there!" he yelled into the kid's ear over the roar of the engines, just as the green light came on. Patrick only had time to nod and glance back at him before he was stepping out the door and into the gauntlet of billowing flak.
It was something of a rude awakening to land in France on D-Day, half his kit lost in his leg bag and his rifle jammed, and immediately stumble over the now unrecognisable form of a paratrooper whose canopy had failed.
A good soldier's first thought would have been orientation and advancement toward their target; Peter's primary concern was locating his friends and more importantly, Patrick. The rest of the squad was mostly an after thought.
He stumbled through the undergrowth for what felt like hours. The wetlands and marshes sucking him knee-deep into mud, any sounds from other soldiers drowned out by the put-put-put-put-put of fixed MG stations and heavy artillery hitting the distant coast. The longer he stumbled, the surer he became that he was lost – more than just unable to find his way; completely separated from his squad, or his company, or even his battalion.
In any other circumstances, he would have sat down to write about it, but his notebook was sodden and Patrick still had the leather bound one he had first shown him. Besides, he needed to keep moving – keep looking – the kid was probably always told to sit tight when he was lost, that somebody would come find him.
It was as he contemplated this, that a rustle in the bushes ahead of him cause him to drop to his knees and crouch silently.
"Flash?" a familiar voice hissed, requesting the password in return.
"Thunder!" he scrambled to his feet and sprinted, doubled over beneath the hedge-line, to where the voice had issued. Without warning, a small, dishevelled readhead dived into his arms, clinging to him desperately. "Oh, Christ – Stumpy, buddy, where the hell have you been?"
"We missed the DZ! Everybody missed the damn DZ!" Patrick told him in exasperation, as if this wasn't pretty much the only thing any of them could be sure of, burying his face in Pete's shoulder and squeezing him tighter.
"We did? Damn, I thought we were square in Carentan already," he deadpanned, pulling away a little and looking down at the smudges of green and brown grease paint across his face. "Where the hell's your helmet?"
"Chin strap broke in the prop blast... I lost it. But, gee, Pete, I saw guys' chutes fail coming down – one of the C-47s went down somewhere out in the east –"
Without a thought, Peter unclipped his own and placed it on the kid's head.
"Wentz?" Trohman's voice whispered from beyond the bushes. "Stumpy, was it Wentz?"
Peter grinned and climbed up the slight bank and into the hedgerow, scrambling down the other side to join Trohman, Hurley and two kids he thought were from Dog Company just in time for a deafening, freight train-like rattle of artillery overhead. "Welcome to France, boys."
That first night passed in a rush, from that point on. They made their way across the wetlands, meeting up with assorted comrades as they moved, until Peter was finally able to relinquish command to the lieutenant who led their 1st Platoon. It was a relief to be able to drop back into the throng of men and slide into step with Patrick, just behind Andy and Trohman. Looking over at the kid, Pete watched him rubbing an eye on his sleeve and caught his elbow as he stumbled on the uneven ground, tugging him nearer and drawing an arm around him in a brief, comforting hug.
"You okay, kid?" he asked quietly, not wanting to draw the attention of the men not used to their closeness.
"So far," Patrick replied, with a small snort. "Couple of hours time they're expecting me to kill a bunch of guys, but y'know... Extra fifty bucks a week for jumping out of planes before doing it, so who am I to complain?"
"Fifty extra bucks a week for jumping out of planes and hanging around with me, before doing it," he corrected, winking but not liking the cynical tone of the kid's voice.
Peter was pleased when the moonlight revealed a sudden and slightly incredulous grin from beneath the loaned M-1 helmet on Patrick's sandy head. He grinned back.
"We're going to be alright, kid."
"We'll take the guns at St Martin, and then I guess we'll get everybody bunked down some place and you can get some sleep."
"I'm not tired!" he protested indignantly, hoisting his pack and radio unit and making a point of walking faster and straighter.
Stump glanced around them, ensuring the other men weren't too close – Andy and Trohman were a few yards ahead, Beckett and some kid from Baker Company Peter thought was named McCoy trailed behind them, whispering to each other – and leaned closer to hiss angrily at him. "No, I'm not. I'm not a child. I'm old enough to invade France, and I haven't needed an afternoon nap since I was five, so just stop."
When they arrived at their rendezvous point at la Croix Pan they were given the unexpected news that the guns at St. Martins were already neutralised, bombed from the air by one of the Allied air forces. There was no time to rest, though; they were sent on to their next target in Carentan, the first and third battalions of the 502nd put forward to defend the causeway from the beach to allow their men to move inland from the coast and continue.
Fox Company was 2nd Battalion; instead, they lingered in reserve, listening as their friends and colleagues – men they knew well, or by name, or barely at all – fight ceaselessly until they were all but decimated.
Later, the site of the conflict would be remembered as "Purple Heart Lane" – named for the medals so many of them received for being wounded in battle.
In the rear, waiting to be called forward to join the fray, F Co. 2nd Platoon huddled together, almost silenced by the pattering gunshots and coarse yells in the distance. Patrick sat close to Peter, turned so his back could rest on the older man's shoulder. In his small, pale hands he held his rifle, persistently flicked the safety on and off and murmuring the technical sequences for every manoeuvre.
To wrap an arm across him would have been improper, but Peter wanted so badly to make that motion of comfort that he stood up abruptly, causing the kid to half-fall backwards and look up at him in surprise and annoyance.
"Going for a leak," he announced, scowling and turning away from Andy's knowing look, jealous of the way Trohman could rest his head in the man's lap without anyone saying a word. They'd have more than a word for Peter if he wasn't careful.
They weren't to stay in reserve forever. Soon, they were sent south to Carentan, to aid the 506th as they lay in wait for the enemy to cross the fields, the town itself already captured.
The pervading memory of that week was rain and foxholes. After several utterly depressing hours of listening to German campfire songs, drenched to the skin and shivering, the grim silence on their side of the line was broken. Sitting in the darkness, in France, at war, soaked through and sniffling, the little redhead huddled under Peter's arm in the mud began singing back at them.
All it took was a verse and the beginning of a chorus of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' before the men in neighbouring holes began to pick it up with increasing vitriol; a collective, "Fuck you, Jerry" to the men across the field. When they'd sung it through to the end, someone from the somewhere in the 506th section began to sing 'Blood Upon the Risers', a paratrooper favourite to the very same tune; when they'd finished that, they worked through popular songs from the radio, and marching songs from training.
Some were still singing as the sun crawled back up the sky, but in their little hollow in the hedgerow, Patrick had long since fallen asleep tucked under Peter's arm.
It was good to be back in England. The sweet, damp smell of the lush, green countryside was as welcome change from the stench of death and gunpowder that perfumed the air in France. The English villagers of Chilton Foliat were just as they'd left them: reserved, hardy and eternally welcoming of their visitors.
There was a dance, that first weekend, to welcome back the 'brave heroes' who had liberated France. Peter didn't feel like a hero. Counting down the list of lost friends, men he had known since they'd trained at Fort Benning, he felt a greater cheat than hero. He felt selfish for being glad that of all the men who had died, his three closest friends had remained with him. The crazy Jewish kid was still around to trail after Andy, a dopey look in his over-large eyes; Andy was still around to be followed, and to chastise Peter for improper behaviour with peering looks over his spectacles... And Patrick. Patrick was still there. Still beautiful and youthful, even with the mud and grime of combat still ground into his skin. Above all else, Peter was glad that he was still around. He had begun to wonder how he would manage to bring himself through this war without the permanent presence of this quiet young soldier.
Watching him, crawling on ripped and muddied knees, and pulling himself across the grass to help drag a fallen comrade back toward the hedgerow and the safety of the medic's hands, Peter had seen a change in Patrick. He'd witnessed the moment he'd spread his hands and stared at their dark red gloss for several moments before trying to wipe them clean on the grass at the edge of their foxhole. Peter had pulled the cap from his canteen and motioned for the kid to cup his hands, before pouring them full of water with which to wash off the blood.
Even long after they were clean and dry, the kid continued to glance down at them, wrapped around his rifle or tugging self-consciously at the stained and tattered sleeve of his jacket.
As night fell, Peter reached out and took one of the hands, drawing it into his lap and holding it there, laced between his fingers, until the sun rose.
Here, in the safe greenery of England, their weeks in France seemed such distant memory. The absence of so many of their number, of course, marked a dark change – new recruits, replacements, were brought in to bolster their numbers. Suddenly, they were veterans, battle-weary figures of admiration. Before, they had enjoyed only the respect of their subordinates. It was something of a new experience; not actually that enjoyable, either.
The villagers of Chilton Foliat opened their church hall to hold a celebration for them, on the Friday after their return. There was an air of victory; the unquenchable stoicism of the British rubbing off of them, for those short weeks they were back and particularly on that night. Everybody drank, everybody laughed; even those not known for their social excesses. They had come through so much, but for now they were safe and for now they could enjoy the freedom of the unconquered isles. The band playing were no longer the five young men of the 1st Infantry ("Hey, Petey – d'you hear? The kids that played our leaving party took Omaha... only three made it off the beach. One bought it right after; other two went home fulla holes..."), but they danced all the same. After the young women's curfew, and heavily inebriated, some of the men began to jokingly pair up and twirl each other in clumsy waltzes around the makeshift dance floor.
Perhaps it was the alcohol (to which he was largely unaccustomed), or maybe a certain recklessness borne of surviving the conflict so far, but standing to the side of the hall, Peter found himself snatching the kid's glass from his hand and hauling him a stumbling, laughing shambles, into the fray. Their hands were pressed together, a peculiar echo of the night in the foxhole, palms splayed – the kid's fisted, even – at the smalls of their backs. The band were playing a fast number that Peter wasn't sure he knew, and he couldn't help but laugh as that crazy Trohman kid twirled Andy so fast they spun out of control and created a hysterical pile-up of bodies on the middle of the floor. He looked down at Patrick, to see if he had witnessed the ridiculous spectacle, and found his shining, indefinable gaze fixed upon his own face, enthralled.
The kid's cheeks, already rosy with exertion, reddened furiously and he cast his look across the room, instead.
Suddenly sure that the rest of their peers would notice, Peter felt his own face warming and began to pull away. It just wouldn't do to raise questions.
They lingered where they stood for a moment, the party continuing around them. Peter opened his mouth to offer some explanation, but before he could scrape together anything coherent, the kid straightened his shoulders and tugged his garrison cap from his belt, setting it on his head with dignity.
"I'm going back," he announced. "You can walk me, if you want."
Without streetlights to guide them, the walk home was a difficult one (Peter had already fallen foul of it once in the past) and he told myself that this was the primary reason he had silently walked over to retrieve his jacket and cap and then trotted up the lane to catch him. He couldn't have then men in his charge waylaid by allied hedges or over-friendly brooks when they could be redeployed so soon. None of them really knew how long they had.
"What's the problem, kid?" he asked, slowing down and grasping his arm. "I thought we were having a good time..."
"Really? See, that's strange – I don't think I was the one who stopped dancing."
"Dancing was a stupid idea, anyway..."
"Well, it was your 'stupid idea', Wentz!" the readhead snapped back, shrugging his bicep from Peter's grip.
"Well, I never said I was perfect."
Patrick gave a snort and continued on his way home, shoulders hunched, hands deep within his pockets. Peter gave a sigh and caught up with him again, slinging an arm across the kid's shoulders.
"We had fun, didn't we? Before the dancing stopped..?"
"We always do."
"Every time I'm out with you it just..." Patrick trailed off into a frustrated huff, spreading his palms for a moment, and then tucking them under his arms.
In the warm summer air of that dark and quiet lane, walking so close to the younger soldier who had come to mean more to him than anyone else – more than Andy, or Joe, or even in certain regards, his own family – being able to smell the Ivory soap on his fine, golden hair and the warmth of his body, it was so easy to forget how wrong this truly was: a subordinate; very clearly under twenty-one years of age; male. He was asking to have himself shot or hanged – but that just didn't seem too much of a problem, considering where they had been, and what would still be expected of them.
"It what?" he found himself asking, mouth almost brushing the gentle curve of Patrick's ear as he leaned nearer, conspiratorially.
"It – well, it almost feels like we're on a promise."
And there it was. Peter's heart skipped several beats and flipped in his chest.
"Really?" he asked, watching the road at his feet as best he could and squeezing his arm around his young companion just a touch more tightly.
"Wasn't it supposed to?"
"I... really don't know, kid. If I say it is, then... there'd be a hell of a lot of trouble..."
"And if you said it wasn't?" the kid asked, looking up at the side of his face, his voice strained and his shoulders taut and ready to pull away.
"If I said it wasn't..." he paused, looking casually around for any hidden bystanders, "If I said that, I'd be lying..."
Tentatively, the arms across Patrick's chest unfurled and one wound its way across Peter's back to thumb uncertainly at the seam of his shirt. "I'd like it much better if you didn't lie to me."
Swallowing with some difficulty, Peter nodded. "Then I guess it was a date, after all."
Even without looking at him, he knew Patrick was smiling.
It was probably riskier than any foray into enemy-occupied lands, but it was too late to take it back anyway. They would have to be careful if they didn't wish to lose it all, but for a few moments, hidden in the shadows between Nissen hut barracks, whispers of 'goodnight' smothered by hastily met lips were worth taking a chance on.
Holland was more pleasant than they would have anticipated. The flat, open landscape made sitting ducks of any target, and any assault relatively easy to anticipate. 2nd Battalion were once again in reserve, listening to the sounds of their friends on the front line as they marched toward Arnhem, but each silently grateful that they were not.
After initially finding themselves in relative luxury – sleeping in barns and stables, locals offering them any produce they could provide – they were marched down to the Zonsche Forest, to fight with the British, before finding themselves in reserve once more.
They spent the time on security patrols, a comparatively safe and simple role, considering what the 506th had been assigned.
Sometimes, when they could break away from the rest of the platoon for a while, they walked off to lie in the grass on the banks of the roads and talk. Or, Peter would lay on his back and talk to the seemingly endless sky, while Patrick lazed on his side and watched him, always with a slightly sleepy half-smile on his face. Most of the time, Peter wasn't sure if he was talking to educate him, to explain the way he saw the world, or whether it was to vent his frustration at the injustices he lived and witnessed. Before, when he had spoken like this to people he thought he knew well – people who would follow his train of thought – he had been met with blank stares and rapidly changed subjects.
Patrick listened. And not only did he listen, he interjected and made observations that made sense in the context of what Peter was trying to say to him; even made Peter himself re-evaluate his points and realign them, at times. He never accused him of thinking too deeply or brooding, and when he couldn't understand Peter's point, he lay there quietly, waiting for something to make sense.
The longer they lay in the grass, in that strange, flat land, the more it felt as though Patrick was the other side of his coin; without him, he was worthless.
Their next period of rest was not in England, but France, in the Camp at Mourmelon le Grande. When not in training, they made the most of weekend passes to Paris – the entirety of which seemed to be crammed to bursting with soldiers, sailors and airmen of assorted nationalities. It was easy to get lost in the throngs of people, and they used it to their advantage. While many of the men found themselves some female company, Peter and Patrick spent it in each others'. During the day they walked around the city, charmed by the European architecture, and spent their backed-up pay in cafes and restaurants on sidewalks, watching what felt like most of the world pass by.
At night they returned to their little terraced hotel, just opposite the rooms Andy and the crazy Trohman kid occupied, and slept on soft feather pillows, between clean sheets – crushed tightly together in either of the narrow single beds; a double would have been far too indiscreet.
Patrick had insisted on keeping the light off, refusing to allow Peter's fingers anywhere near his buttons until the last lamp was extinguished and he had stumbled back to where Patrick sat, on the edge of his bed. For a few uncertain moments he had studied the eyes gazing up at him in the limited gleam of light breaking through the blinds, and he had seen the kid there; the same kid who had jumped into France with him, the kid who played singing games against the Germans and threw flowers in his face in English meadows. He had almost thrown it away, then, forgetting how they had all changed in the past months, and moved to stand and walk away.
"Don't you dare!"
He was taken aback by the quiet firmness of the command, and sank back down upon the mattress.
"Don't even think about bailing on me, Pete, because I swear if you do, the moment I have my rifle I'll - !"
Peter hadn't let him finish, and in the morning, when the first glimmers of sunlight crept through the cracks between their room and the city outside, he watched Patrick sleep and pressed a kiss to his bare shoulder; a tiny thank you for his gentle perseverance.
By Christmas, they were ensconced in snowy foxholes, deep within the Ardennes; the genteel streets of Paris replaced with perfectly aligned avenues of trees where they were dug in and expected to protect the crossroads at Bastogne. It seemed the future of Europe depended upon a handful of exhausted paratroopers with too little food, no aid station for the wounded, next to no ammunition, and clothes intended for summertime. Every morning they woke to face another bitterly cold day was another day they had expected to be found frozen to death by their squad mates and another day to spend curled in mud holes as hard as granite, bare fingers sticking to the metal triggers of their weapons.
On Christmas morning, at Champs, there was a fire fight against the Germans closest to their line. The krauts retaliated with an armoured attack on the Deuce's command post at Rolle. Thankfully, they beat them back, but the saga continued back and forth into January. When the Germans shelled them, they had not only the force of the explosions and the metal shrapnel to fear. Instead, the enemy aimed its barrages higher – blasting them with foot-long splinters of pine which caused even more damage in the soft bodies of the paratroopers they hit.
It was during one of these barrages, early in the morning on a clear January day, that it happened. Peter was woken by the shuffles and nudges of Patrick crawling from his grip in the foxhole, where they, like many of their friends, had huddled under a roof of pine branches and snow for warmth and safety. He ducked back to press a kiss to Peter's lips when he saw he was awake, and then pulled himself onto the ground above them. He clearly hadn't heard the distant, "Kwaafwump" of artillery launching, and Peter had only time to open his mouth and scramble forward before the scream of "INCOMING!" and the thundering crack of metal on wood.
Above him, he saw Patrick stagger and twist as his legs buckled. He sank to his knees in the snow as more and more trees began to shatter around them, his eyes wide and his mouth open in shock. His left hand still gripped his rifle, but the right clutched at the curve of his neck, where his shoulder joined the side of his throat; after what seemed like a ludicrous delay, dark red began to seep through his grubby fingers, making them appear oddly pale.
Peter screamed; he screamed with every gasp of air he had in him, yelling, "MEDIC! MEDIC!" as he scrambled from their foxhole and rushed over to him. He tore at his scarf – one of the few pieces of warm clothing he had acquired – and did his best to press it around the inch-thick shard protruding from Patrick's neck. He knew better than to attempt to pull it out; he didn't want to make it worse.
The medic who reached them first was a replacement; a kid named Walker. He pulled Peter's hand away long enough to check the damage and took a deep breath.
"We need to get him back to Bastogne."
"Doc, he can't die," Peter told him through gritted teeth. "You can't let him – "
"Sergeant, we need to get him back to Bastogne now. He's lucky it hit right there, if it had been two inches left... We just need to get him away from – " he broke off to duck and cover his head with his hands as another shell passed overhead, "- the goddamn line or there's nothing anybody can do!"
"I'm going with you," Peter announced, climbing to his feet and helping pull Patrick carefully from his now sodden knees, but the younger trooper shook his head the small amount he could manage and croaked:
"Stay, Pete. You're more use right here..."
"No! I –"
"Sergeant, there's really nothing you can do – we need to get Stumpy back to town. Right now."
As soon as they were gone, the shells stopped falling.
Andy crawled into the foxhole with him, soon after. Neither of them said anything, but after a minute or two of the silence, Peter gave in and buried his head in his friend's shoulder. They both knew that Patrick had been lucky; the shard had pierced the muscle above his collarbone, but it could have been his throat. They'd seen a kid even younger than he was – another replacement, from 3rd Platoon – almost have his head severed in a previous barrage. They'd watched him gasping his last breaths, helplessly, and then gone about their usual business as normal. Mostly, they had been glad he was away from their personal hell, now. He was safe, and they were to continue fighting. It was just the way it was.
It was a relief, now that the wide frightened eyes were gone and there was no blood on Peter's hands, to sit down and think that it was a bad wound, but not a fatal one. He would be away from the front line – maybe they'd even send him home where he would be out of harm's way. And yet, all Peter could think was that if they sent Patrick home – or back to Mourmelon or England – he would be mostly alone for the rest of the war.
He curled into Andy and Trohman's foxhole, that night.
Three days later he returned from patrolling the line, thinking about asking for a few hours break – a chance to catch a ride into the town and visit the dilapidated church that had been turned into a field hospital – to find a small huddle of his men speaking together in hushed voices.
He started toward them, waving off Smith as the kid joined the rest of his own squad, a small pang of hope in his chest spurring him on; they'd seen injured soldiers come back to the line within hours of being wounded – refusing to leave their brothers to fight without them – maybe they'd brought some back.
Something told him, as he caught sight of Trohman's pale face, that this was not one of those occasions.
"What?" he asked, forcing a wide grin and rubbing his chilled hands together to get the circulation going once more.
For several seconds, there was silence. No one would look at him.
His smile faltered and fell. "Come on, guys, what happened?"
It was Andy who broke away from the little crowd, and approached him with the tentativeness of a man trying not to scare away a wounded animal; the look on his face said more than Pete thought he could handle.
"Pete... I'm sorry, buddy..."
Peter could feel himself shaking his head, but no words would come. They just stuck in his throat as if he would choke on them.
"...There was an attack on the town, in the night – the church was hit. Only a couple of the guys made it..."
"There's not enough left of most of the people inside to know who's who," Trohman added in a rush, as if Andy's careful phrasing was paining him. "We're pretty sure Stumpy was still inside."
All at once, the world stopped spinning.
The world had never started turning again, for Peter. He'd given up, that day; lost the will to fight or live or do anything other than gaze blankly at the wall of his foxhole.
Eventually, he'd given in to the sick, hollow sleeplessness and walked through a barrage as though it was a gentle spring rain, ignoring the yells of the men screaming at him to get into cover. It wasn't the sprinkling of flesh wounds that had caused them to send him home, afterward.
He had never returned to Wilmette. He had walked down the gangplank in New York, and decided to stay. The city was an ocean of disinterest around him where he needn't be a veteran; at least not to people's faces. Instead, he locked himself in a small, rented room and attempted to organise scraps of his thoughts into neatly-typed rows for the newspapers.
After all, it was what he had promised Patrick he would do, laying in an English meadow a hundred thousand years ago. The least he could do was to keep that promise.
The last years of the 1940s were mostly optimistic – war was over, rationing began to be phased out, people began to live again... And Peter watched them do it without ever feeling inclined to take part. He nursed milkshakes in diners as courting couples gazed into each other's eyes and enjoyed what he hadn't; not really. Perhaps before the war he had enjoyed something similar, but every moment paled in comparison to French cafes and white linen kept safe in the tender glow of memory.
Today was like any other. He had selected the same window seat he always occupied – on the street side of the diner, but tucked into a corner. He could watch people from here; make notes for his poems. He borrowed their lives to fill the half-forgotten gaps in his own.
He looked up in surprise as the waitress brought over another glass of milkshake and slid it onto his table.
"I didn't order that – " he began, showing her the barely touched glass beside him.
"I know, honey," she replied. "It's from the fella by the door."
Peter looked up in time to find an empty booth and a door softly closing behind the unseen benefactor.
He didn't follow him. He didn't really have the energy for strangers' games; he simply accepted the drink and lined it up to while away the afternoon with.
It was early evening when he returned to his apartment. He paid little attention to his surroundings as he pulled out his key and unlocked the door, acting almost on autopilot. He was only drawn out of his thoughts at the soft slap of something hitting the floorboards at his feet. It was a book, small and leather covered.
His heart skipped a beat. It wasn't possible. And yet even after all these years – a half decade and more – he still knew exactly what had been propped against the foot of his door.
He picked it up, mouth parting in wonder as he surveyed familiar crinkled corners and dark smudges that could have been mud, but were most likely dried blood. Patrick had always kept the book with him. Always. He refused to consider giving it back and always changed the subject if Peter appeared to ask for its return. It had been in his pocket when the barrage began; and it had still been there when the church was bombed.
This couldn't possibly –
He remembered the words, though, as he hesitantly flicked through it. In a rush, as though his life were flashing before his eyes, he could see them all – young again; boys on an adventure; Andy's little wire glasses and his frizzy-haired Jewish shadow; Patrick laying the grass of the English West Country, grinning and tossing blades of grass at him until one landed neatly in his mouth and almost choked him as he spoke.
Peter had never thought for a moment that he would see this book again. He'd assumed it gone with the one person who had ever stood a chance of understanding it, and he couldn't take his eyes from its yellowed pages as he nudged open his door and moved inside. He was almost afraid it would disappear.
Turning to close the door behind him he was so transfixed that he almost didn't see the figure standing on the threshold until they reached out a hand to prevent the door from slamming in their face.
"I came all the way from Illinois to return that – the least you could do is invite me in."
All Peter could do was stare at him. The figure standing in the hall outside his meagre apartment – the place he had hidden away with his grief these past five years – was dead. He was dead, and yet here he was, apparently as real and alive as Peter himself. He was heavier and looked slightly older, certainly, his face rounder and the fine, reddish-goldish hair appeared thinner beneath his trilby – tilted as it was, and as his garrison cap had always been, at a peculiar and unconventional angle; but there was no mistaking the eyes, or the mouth, or the low, warm voice.
He could have drawn them all from memory.
"I guess this was a bad idea..." Patrick said quietly, when Peter didn't respond or clear his path to invite him in. "I'm... sorry I bothered you."
For five years Peter had caught imaginary glimpses of him in crowds; dreamed of pulling him back down into their foxhole in the Ardennes and making sure he was never anywhere near the field hospital when it was bombed. For five years he would have given his entire life for a few more minutes with this very man, now standing uncertainly at his door, and he was shaken almost too witless to answer him when he spoke.
Watching his gaze drop to the floor as a lump jerked in his throat, and then, of all things – watching him begin to turn away in dejection, ready to leave again – snapped Peter free of his shock, and he flung himself away from the door and launched himself into the other man's arms, where he was crushed into a desperate hug.
He was barely aware that he was sobbing; hardly listening to the babbled questions against his neck – where have you been why didn't come home why didn't you write why didn't you leave an address how did you get home why why why? – caring only that he was solid and warm and real and that maybe, hopefully, the torment was over.
"I thought you were dead."
"They shipped some of us out the day before because they thought we were strong enough to make the journey back to France. I thought you'd come home – I waited in Chicago for you for two years, waiting for a... a something! A letter – a telegram – anything. Then I tried your folks, I tried Andy, I tried Joe, I even tried to find Miller to see if he'd heard from you! All I knew was that some time in the last year you were in New York... your mom showed me a postmark on a card you sent..."
"They bombed the church, Patrick – I they told me you were inside..." he told the same gentle curve of neck that he had last seen soaked in red.
Carefully, Patrick ushered him back into the apartment and closed the door behind them. "Joe said you went insane and walked around while they shelled you... the last anybody'd heard was that you were sent home through England. They said you had shellshock... People back home are worried..."
Peter pulled away long enough to examine the anxious eyes in front of him, reassuring himself that this was not an impostor or an hallucination, and finally closing his eyes and resting his forehead against Patrick's in relief. "I thought you were dead. I couldn't go back and pretend that we were like everybody else and talk about you like a brother... Nobody knew me, here... There was nobody to tell."
"I only found you because of the newspaper – I saw a poem, and I knew it was you. I could hear the words and I – I knew the initials were wrong, but it was you. It could only be you... I've been sitting in that diner for days, trying to figure out if you'd hate me for tracking you down... But the point is – I found you, and it has taken me five years, and all that matters is that you didn't send me away."
Nuzzling closer, Peter gave short snort of laughter, sardonic and dry, and tentatively pressed their lips together for the first time in half a decade, "The only place I ever wanted you to be was exactly where I was."
Finally, as the last rays of afternoon sunshine peeked in through Peter's curtained windows, he decided it was time to begin a new notebook.
john beck free and clear