The party had been going on most of the evening. Laughing, small jokes and reminiscences among them. All of them trying not to think about the events that would be coming in the next few days.
They'd known each other for a long time, serving together in Mexico under Scott after graduating from The Point, far from the reckless young men they'd been before. They'd come so far since then, Lo Armistead reflected as he looked around the small home, occasionally sipping from his wine glass, quietly speaking with the other men nearby, smiling slightly every so often. But despite his outward calm, his heart was in turmoil.
He glanced over to the other man in the corner, tall, distinguished appearance, a soldier in every way. And also his best friend. He lowered his gaze. Oh, Win, how could it have come to this?
The war hadn't seemed like much at first, just slight unrest among some radicals hundreds of miles away. But it was now clearer than ever, what was coming. The South had gone to war. And Lo's home, Virginia, had gone with her.
He had felt his heart break when he heard the news, knew where his duty lay. But to follow his duty meant going against his friend, a man he'd known for years, was closer to than a blood brother. How could anyone be forced to make a decision like that without pain? Lo knew it was impossible.
Win glanced up from speaking with another comrade, another soldier forced to choose, just as they all had to now. He looked over at Lo, then lowered his own eyes, neither of them willing to meet the other's gaze.
"If Virginia joins in, would you quit, too?" He remembered the hurt on Lo's face as he had asked that, felt his heart wrench again. Neither of them had wanted this. But what could they do anymore? What could anyone do? He could not find an answer to that, knew there was none.
Lo was speaking with Mira now, quiet words, a deep sadness in his face that Win knew his friend was trying to hide even now, despite it all.
Mira nodded, placed a hand on Armistead's shoulder for a moment, her own eyes sorrowful. Win took a step towards Lo, could not hold back any longer. They'd tried to avoid this for tonight, to pretend it wasn't going to happen. But they both knew it would, even without speaking it aloud.
Lo turned to Win, hesitated, put a hand on Win's shoulder as Mira had for him, let it lie there, heavy with the terrible regret he would not speak aloud. He closed his eyes, bent his head as though begging for forgiveness, taking long shuddering breaths. "I know what I must do," he whispered hoarsely. "You will never know how much it has cost me. Win, so help me, if I ever raise my hand against you... may God strike me dead!" He looked up, met Hancock's eyes, his own shining with tears. "May God strike me dead," he repeated.
Hancock stared at his friend, started to shake his head, his throat tight. No, you can't mean that, Lo. But he knew Armistead too well, knew he had meant it with every fiber in him and Hancock wanted to cry out, to protest, but found no words. He blinked and the tears he'd fought to hold back all night finally fell, soft and wet on his cheeks.