A/N: This was my 2005 submission for "Berlin By Christmas", a Band of Brothers Christmas fanfiction exchange. It was written for maleyka, who requested Winters/Nixon.
A Thrill of Hope
Lewis Nixon knows that he will never make it through the war.
He has known it for a while now, little hints of doom that have culminated into a single revelation. Perhaps the first clue was how easy it had been for him to answer the call to war, to leave his New Jersey life behind. He remembered making the announcement at dinner, and the way his father had shook his hand, pride evident in that firm grip. Odd, that the only thing Nixon can ever remember his father being proud of him for is leaving. He wonders if the old man would have been as proud if he'd known that the decision had simply been another one of Nixon's attempts to escape the path that wealth and responsibility have laid down for him to follow.
Catherine had known. She hadn't seemed surprised, but then she wouldn't look at him either, or speak to him at all, so Nixon had no way of detecting any sense of shock or grief beneath her silk-encased exterior. It didn't really matter; he figured that if any such emotion had been there, it would have frozen, like everything else between the two of them. That was the second clue.
The third didn't occur to him until much later, somewhere outside of Eindhoven, after seeing the faces of children peering up at him reverently from behind their mothers' skirts, small hands waving bright, orange flags in uninhibited delight.
Nixon was reminded of another child, and saw himself bending down to place a kiss on soft, brown curls as steam from the train whirled all around him. The station had been swarming with men in uniforms, and women in tears, and Catherine had placed her hands on the little girl's shoulders so as not to lose her to the crowd. When his daughter had looked up at him, Nixon realized he hadn't known what colour the kid's eyes were, but somehow was not surprised to find that they were the same shade of blue as his wife's.
He had boarded the train without a backward glance to his old life, and, once seated, didn't even bother to crane his neck to watch the platform disappear in a sea of smoke and white handkerchiefs.
This is why Nixon knows he will not make it home. You don't live if you have nothing to which you can return.
It takes Nixon a while to understand Dick Winters, but no time at all to become captivated by him.
It probably started at Toccoa, maybe even on that first day when Nixon had held out his hand to his tall, slim roommate and said, "How are you? I'm Lewis, Lewis Nixon."
The other man had cocked his head slightly, as if sizing Nixon up, before returning the gesture. "Winters, Richard."
Short, and straight to the point is Winters' style, and after the initial awkwardness, Nixon found it a welcome relief from years of conversing with people who spoke so many words, yet said almost nothing at all. Nixon had been worried, at first, that Winters would live up to his name and that the relationship between them would be as frosty as the one he had shared with Catherine, but there is a gentle warmth to the other man that Nixon finds himself drawn to, seeking an acceptance he has never quite found. It is uncanny how well they get along, despite the vast differences in their upbringings and personalities. Nixon has never put much faith into the whole "opposites attract" philosophy, but for Dick he'll make an exception.
One rainy night, Winters returns to their bunkhouse from running Curahee, soaked to the bone, hair dripping onto the wooden floor. He makes no complaint about the cold, just gives Nixon a quick glance before bending down to untie his boots.
From his prone position on one of the army-issue cots that serve as their beds, Nixon watches him, setting aside the staff reports he had been flipping through. The water has caused Dick's uniform to stick to his skin, accenting lean lines and toned muscles. Though Nixon has never really considered men attractive, there's something about the subtle angles of Dick's body that make him pay attention. But Nixon knows that this kind of thinking is dangerous, especially here, and averts his eyes as Winters stands.
"I thought Sobel declared officers exempt from tonight's training exercise," Nixon remarks casually.
Dick shrugs, peeling off his jacket. "I felt like running," comes the reply, just as casual. Nixon knows the real reason, knows that Sobel isn't an exceptionally wise man, and that Winters is, and that though he himself shirks from responsibility, his friend shoulders enough of it for the both of them.
Dick will always be a better man than he could ever hope to, and this is something Nixon has come to accept. However, there is one thing in which he knows he surpasses Dick Winters, and that is self-preservation. Winters has no sense of selfishness, no thought besides what is best for his men, and Nixon believes that such altruism is certain to be a risk in combat. He has made it his secret vow to protect Winters, because there is no one else who will, which may prove to be a dangerous plan, but it's not as if Nixon is expecting to survive anyway. And besides, Nixon knows, even if his friend has yet to comprehend it, that what's best for Easy is Dick Winters.
"Hey," Nixon calls, and Winters looks up from unbuttoning his sodden shirt. "Catch."
Nixon tosses the lieutenant a towel, and Dick gives him a smile that Nixon doesn't really feel like he deserves.
"Thanks," Winters says, and begins to rub the water from his face and hair. The evening descends into a comfortable quiet, the safety of four walls and a roof deceivingly interminable, while outside the storm dwindles into nothingness.
Nixon wonders how long it will last.
After a while, Nixon's life before Normandy becomes hazy and vague, like a story he had been told as a child, or the melody of a song that he can never quite remember the words to.
There is a strange sort of pattern to it, a series of intense battles punctuated by uneasy periods of peace that everyone is grateful for but that no one really trusts. From his removed position among the ranks of the battalion staff members, Nixon watches every skirmish unfold through his binoculars, wincing at each enemy artillery barrage, heart pounding as men fall one by one. Sometimes, he becomes so caught up in the fighting that he doesn't realize how tight his grip is on the binoculars, and when he finally lowers them from his face they leave circular imprints around his eyes. He wonders how he is supposed to fulfill his promise of protection when Dick is constantly putting himself in peril, and Nixon can't be there to face it with him.
During the Holland campaign, Nixon begins to think that the war is a really bad idea.
When he mentions this to Dick, as they sit companionably atop the steeple of a church in Uden, watching the Germans launch an offensive on the nearby town of Veghel, the other man turns to him questioningly.
"You're just figuring this out?" he asks, raising one eyebrow in an expression of disbelief. "And here I was thinking that having a degree from Yale was an indication of intelligence."
"Shut it," Nixon replies, elbowing his friend in the side. Winters favours him with a rare grin, and leans back against the belfry. They are quiet for a moment, gazing out over the ruined village below, before Nixon continues.
"It's just that it seems so pointless sometimes, you know?" Dick makes no reply, aside from a slight murmur that may be in assent, or perhaps not, and Nixon goes on. "Don't you ever ask yourself what the hell we're doing here?"
For a long time, Winters stares straight ahead, a frown on his face. The sun has begun to set behind them and the entire scene in Veghel is bathed an eerie red glow. Nixon shifts to draw his knees up to his chest, and is just beginning to wonder whether he has said something to offend the other man, when Winters lets out a long breath and turns to face him again. When he finally speaks, it is so softly that Nixon has to edge closer to hear him over the snap of machine-gun fire.
"I think that we have to trust that there's a reason. We may not be fighting for our homes, our freedom, at the moment, but we are fighting for someone's." He sounds very sure of this, and Nixon finds himself trapped by wise, pale eyes. "It's all relative, really. What we do here decides our own futures just as much as it does theirs."
They are leaning into each other now, unconsciously seeking comfort from all the questions that are bigger than the both of them, but Nixon can't stop himself from posing one more.
"What if we lose?"
Winters stares at him with wide eyes, and something in his expression changes. But before he can reply, a sniper's bullet slams into the bell inside the belfry, shattering the moment and sending both officers flying to their feet. As they race down the stairs it seems as if every two steps one of them is about to fall headfirst to the bottom, because each keeps looking back or beside to make sure the other is still there.
Sometime later, at a certain set of crossroads, Nixon watches the way Winters' hands shake as he holds a canteen of water and stares out at two full companies of dead German SS. Nixon doesn't like the shaking, doesn't like seeing Dick upset and wavering, and especially doesn't like feeling as if he has broken his promise somehow. Suppressing the urge to grab those hands in his own, he reflects on what Dick told him about fighting for the future.
The problem, Nixon thinks, is that when he looks to the future, he never sees himself in it.
It is four days before Christmas, but Nixon is sure that is something that everyone is trying to forget.
They all have ghosts that follow them around, but now the specters have seen fit to take on the forms of warm fires and bright lights, trees that glitter and families who meet in cinnamon-scented homes. Homesickness is never more prominent than it is in the Ardennes forest.
In Mourmelon, the future after Christmas had looked pretty good, at least from the perspective of a company that wasn't supposed to see any action until mid-March, at the earliest. They had all been in high spirits there, and even Nixon had allowed himself to be lulled into false security with hot showers, clean clothes, and the war no longer nipping at their heels. That had all changed, one mid-December night, when headquarters had announced that they were moving out to a place called Bastogne.
It feels like they have been here longer than they really have- it's just that sort of place. It is always cold here, the wind chasing itself through trees that offer no shelter, soft, dry snow overlaying everything. There are not enough supplies, and they are short on everything from morphine to blankets. Nixon wonders whose bloody terrible idea this crusade was, but finds his ire does little to stave off the chill.
Throughout the remains of December, enemy bombardments shatter the landscape around them, men fast grow ill and weary, and misery permeates everything. Nixon is compelled to stay in his tarp-covered foxhole, drinking what remains of his stash of Vat 69, but soon discovers that it is impossible to hide from his duty when he knows Dick is out there alone, trying to hold all of 2nd Battalion together.
Nixon knows that however good he may be at his job, Winters is even better at his. He also knows that though Dick would never say it out loud, he is frustrated with being an executive officer. Nixon can't feel too bad about it however, because not only does it put the two of them in daily contact, but it also keeps Dick that much safer, away from the front line.
He watches Winters watch his men as they fight against the despair that threatens to take hold of them. Most never reach their breaking point, and Nixon believes this to be proof of the power of comradeship. He knows that it isn't easy for Dick to see his men suffer, and wonders if the other man realizes that even commanders can break. Nixon decides that he won't let that happen.
A few days into the campaign, the Germans launch a barrage that knocks out a third of the company. By Christmas Eve, the main line of resistance in stretched so thin that Winters assigns himself to a position on the line, despite a direct order to remain at the CP from Colonel Sink. Naturally, Nixon goes with him.
They walk side by side into the woods, nodding at the men who peer out from their foxholes as they pass. It is night, and, like all nights in this place, the ominous silence of it is broken only by the nerve-wracking hammering of enemy mortars and cries from the wounded, followed by another silence. Sometimes, soft songs filter through the night to break it in a gentler manner. The clearest singers are English, but occasionally, and more distantly, German melodies drift across the camp. No one quite trusts the silence.
When they finally reach an empty foxhole, Nixon is quick to jump in and settle down with a blanket, curling in on himself to contain the heat from his body. He tries not to think about the fate of this foxhole's previous owners. Winters remains crouching at the lip of the hole, staring off into the darkness as if he can penetrate it and learn all its secrets, as if he can win the war by constant vigilance.
Nixon shakes his head and calls out, "Hey, Dick. Come on, you should get in here."
"No, it's all right," Winters answers, and Nixon doesn't like how faraway those words sound.
"Dick," he says calmly, "you should get your ass into this foxhole, because I am fucking freezing."
Winters stares at him.
"What? You thought it was you that I was worried about? Get in here!"
Winters says nothing, but slides down next to Nixon, the hint of a smile upon his lips. They huddle close, and Nixon wraps some of the blanket around his friend's shoulders. He is strangely reminded of nights spent with Catherine at the drive-in theatre, before they got married and everything fell apart. But Catherine isn't here; she is an entire ocean away, along with everything else from his real life.
Real life. What a joke. This right here, the bloodstained snow and the crack of rifle-fire, is the most real thing he has ever experienced. So maybe he has it backward then. Maybe this is really his life, and everything before was just some sort of fantasy. Maybe the only things he can really have faith in are his finger on the trigger and the man beside him.
They sit together and shake in the cold, twin puffs of breath colouring the air, watching for an enemy that never appears. Nixon can feel Winters shivering where their sides are pressed together, and he'd like to think that it's not the temperature that is causing the other man to tremble against him, if he weren't so goddamn cold himself.
"This is ridiculous," Nixon says, finally, and brings his arm back and around to wrap securely around Dick's shoulders, drawing him close.
For a moment they are both tense, waiting for one or the other to settle, until Winters gives a sigh and slumps into the curve of Nixon's arm. A slow warmth spreads through Nixon as Dick turns his face into Nixon's chest, a warmth that radiates from the constant spark between them, the one that Nixon has been waiting to ignite. Dick slides his arms around Nixon's back, and it doesn't feel so much awkward as inevitable.
They remain that way for a while, each man lost in his thoughts, until the silence is unexpectedly broken by a Winters' soft murmur.
"We were supposed to be in Berlin, by now."
The words are as sudden as a snowfall in June, and Nixon uneasily notes the vulnerability they convey, as he scrambles for a reply.
"Well," he says lamely, for lack of anything more comforting, "you know, 'best laid plans', and all that."
"Yeah," Dick mutters into the breast of Nixon's coat, and Nixon knows he has failed.
Words, when they count, have never been his strong point. Sure, he can talk his way through a business proposition, or woe the women of Aldbourne, but he can't comfort his daughter after she wakes up crying from a bad dream, and he can't save his best friend from the sorrow of a war neither of them chose.
So he does the only thing he can do, to remind Dick that he is not alone, that there is someone who cares that he is alive in this place that is all about death. Pulling away so that Winters is forced to face him, Nixon cups the other man's cheeks in chilled hands, and says roughly, "I'm here."
It is a bit like free-falling, the way Nixon presses forward to brush their lips together, like his first jump from a C-47 back at Toccoa. The kiss is slow and steady, based more on solace than desire, but it sends heat flaring through his body nonetheless.
When they break apart, Nixon keeps his eyes closed, savouring the closeness of shared breath and the intimate warmth of flushed skin beneath the palms of his hands.
"Lew," Dick whispers into the space between their mouths, and it is the sound of his name that brings Nixon crashing back to reality.
When he opens his eyes, he is caught by Winters' pale blue ones, inscrutable as ever in the dim light cast by a weary, waning moon. Silence stretches tight between them, until Nixon breaks it by looking away, suddenly terrified that he has misinterpreted the moment.
Wondering if he has just lost more than can be endured, Nixon mumbles an excuse and disentangles himself from the blanket. The chill that assails him as his pulls away stings and bites after the warmth of their artificial sanctuary. He stands to leave, stumbling slightly on legs he hadn't even noticed were numb.
He is just about to climb out of their foxhole, when a sudden weight on his leg prevents him. Glancing down, he sees that Dick has grasped the cuff of his pant leg with both hands, and is staring up at him with eyes that seem calm and certain and everything else that Nixon is not.
"You can stay," Dick tells him, and Nixon feels as if he has been waiting forever for someone to say those very words.
That is when Lewis Nixon knows that he will make it through the war.