A.N.: I feel so insecure about this one… Katy I'm doing this just for you! Title from Bright Lights by Placebo. Don't own any of this.
Forgive any errors that you might find – accents aren't my strong point, for sure. Please enjoy…
Eugene Roe knows he shouldn't play favorites with his comrades. Heaven knows he'll possibly have to patch them all up, one time or another. When it comes to Edward Heffron, though, he feels a need to protect that overpowers him. It's the reason why he checks on him twice every night, before retiring in his own foxhole, and keeps an eye out for him during an air raid. His grandma always said it's the healer's blood that causes him to care so much about people. Eugene reckons it's probably the vulnerability he can see in Edward's eyes.
"Babe." Comes the automatic correction in his head. It sounds like him, too. He's always so pissed off by his refusal to use their nicknames. He most likely thinks Roe does it on purpose, just to aggravate him.
The truth is, he can't let himself get too attached to these men without losing a piece of his soul when they, inevitably, die in his hands while he tries to heal them and hold them together. Soon, there wouldn't be any of his soul left… These guys feel connected – they keep each other alive. Every time he closes his eyes, though, Eugene sees them dead. So he worries incessantly. He makes more rounds than is perhaps necessary; he makes sure to find what he needs to keep them safe, no matter the cost; he even finds them new boots… He is their medic, so he cares for them. Ralph Spina tells him it's more than that, that his grandma was right: it's in his blood. It calls to him. 'Doc' Roe brushes it off and goes on with his job. Day after day after day.
Then Julian dies.
Julian dies in front of a helpless Babe and it breaks him. Eugene keeps an eye on him for the rest of the day, hovering just out the corner of his eye. There is a moment when he's sure Edward notices his mother hen ways and is going to call him out on it. They are sitting in a circle; even Captain Winters is with them, Eugene a little removed from the rest as usual, when Edward turns around and looks directly at him. His gaze is boring a hole into his soul and his eyes are so desolate and empty of any warmth, that Eugene feels as if he could break too, staring too long into the abyss of his grief. He looks down and he sees it, the chocolate bar Renee gave him. He knows immediately what he's going to do with it.
Between the plan and its execution, though, Eugene manages to lose Babe. He isn't in his foxhole, as he should be, and his mates don't know where he's gone, only that he left ten minutes before the medic got there. He allows himself ten seconds of panic – last time Heffron left camp, he and Spina fell in a German trench – then he moves on, trudging towards the next foxhole.
It seems like he can find anyone but the one he's looking for. It's almost ridiculous. He sees Guarnere (still pissing needles, apparently), he talks to Toye (trench foot, damn it), but nobody knows where Babe can be found.
Ironically, it's when he gives up that he finds him. Heffron has crawled in the medics' foxhole and is huddled against Spina, who looks as if he doesn't know what he's supposed to do. If he was less scared, Eugene would find it hilarious – Ralph is shit with emotions. Great at his job, but unable to deal with the aftermath. He jumps in the hole and curls as close to them as he can; they're cold, but certainly warmer than he is right now. He can admit that his "I got ya!" came out chirpier than intended. So he was worried, sue him. The satisfaction is fast to evaporate, anyway, once he sees that Edward's morale is lower than it was during the day – that's saying something, too. Eugene almost has to force-feed him the chocolate. Then comes the guilt. He knows it's ugly and inevitable and even if he's ready for it, he doesn't know what to say to stop it. After all, he carries the guilt for each and every one of the men who died while he tried to save them; wouldn't it be a little hypocritical to tell someone else what they should, or shouldn't, feel? Luckily, when the distraught man starts to cry and tries to turn his back to him, his instincts take over and he grips the front of his uniform until Babe gives up the fight and hides his face in his shoulder. The helmet is freezing against his neck, but the need to comfort is stronger than the cold. When there aren't any tears left to shed, Heffron finally falls asleep, safely ensconced between the two medics.
"You were gone for a long time." Spina tells him suddenly. "Was somebody hurt?"
"Toye has trench foot." He explains. Ralph hisses. "Honestly? I was lookin' for Heffron. I wanted to give him the chocolate, but he wasn't in his foxhole and I was worried. Why did he come here? Is he sick?"
"He probably is. His cough is nasty. That's not why he's here, though. He came looking for you." Eugene feels his eyebrows raise at this. Spina smirks. "You may not have noticed Gene, but they all come to you when they need reassuring. Babe most of all."
"But he's always so angry at me." He can physically feel his forehead fighting against the ice, to be able to frown. Spina seems to find him amusing.
"That's not anger, Gene. That's frustration. He thinks your apparent refusal to use his nickname means you're trying to keep your distance." Eugene is fairly impressed at the accurate analysis. "Now, I know why you do it – I don't approve, mind you, but I get it. He seems to think you need someone to take care of you, though." He is positively gloating now.
"Nonsense. I'm fine."
"Gene." He admonishes in a low voice. "I don't know who you're trying to fool, but it's not working. He just wants to be your friend. And frankly, you could use one. Just let him, for God's sake!"
Thankfully he changes the topic right after, asking about Cajun healers and his grandma. His words stay with Eugene, though, long after the other medic falls asleep.
"Why you still awake, Gene?" It can't be more than one hour later, when Edward's raspy voice startles him.
"Thinkin' too much, I suppose." He answers truthfully. "You should go back to sleep Edward."
"Again with the Edward! Is it too much for you to call me Babe? Like everybody else already does?" He must see something in the other man's eyes, because his voice becomes gentler. "You know what? Forget it. You don't have to, if you don't wanna."
"It's not that." Eugene explains in a low voice, despite himself. "It's not that I wouldn't like to be your friend, or any other stupid thought that I'm sure is passin' through that brain of yours. It's just that, one day you might be wounded and I'd have to try and save ya." He's glad to see the eyes locked on his aren't horrified, merely accepting. He's telling the truth, after all. "I don't think I could keep a level head, if the blood on my hands was Babe's, instead of Private Heffron's. I'm sorry…"
He averts his eyes, unable to see the sad look leveled at him any longer. There's a sigh and, suddenly, his head is pillowed by an arm. It automatically burrows against Edward's chest. It doesn't need Roe's permission, he assumes.
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard you say, Gene." The voice coming from above his head sounds fond, if a little exasperated. And still very sad. "You think we don't notice how you risk life and limb every day for us? As if you don't even notice the bullets wheezing all around you? And I know it's your job, and I know you have to reach the wounded, but I'd rather you risked your life for Buck, Smokey, Skip and Babe, than for some random Private Heffron. He sounds like a douche, anyway." This earns him a chuckle. "I don't care if you want to ignore it, but I'm your friend, Gene. That's why I came looking for you tonight, I needed my friend to tell me everything is going to be OK, even if I know it isn't true – because he's the only one who I'd believe to. So, you'd better deal with it!"
The following day starts better; the supplies finally arrive and the company's spirits seem to lift. Babe even smiles, instead of his usual frown, when he smirks and calls him Heffron. Seeing Renee's lovely face in Bastogne helps, too. She soothes people by merely existing.
Then a soldier dies with Eugene's hand deep in his chest. He can feel his heartbeats stop against the back of his fingers. The whole time, and for hours after, all he can see is Babe's face where the nameless soldier's should be. After that, everything starts going numb…
"Hey, Doc! What's wrong with Doc Roe?"
If he could be any more cold, the question would make him freeze. Babe looks behind him, to see that this time it comes from Bull. He can see Doc is getting a bit desperate, being asked the same thing again and again. He understands their distress; if the medic has lost it, they're all in danger. Babe isn't worried about that, though. He knows that, even at his worst, Eugene Roe is still the best medic they could ever hope for. No, the real question is this: what the hell happened to him in Bastogne? Because the morning after their little chat, he'd been fine, even mischievous (a word he never thought he'd use in relation to Roe). After he came back from his supply run, though, he'd started slipping away. It might have had something to do with the fresh blood on his sleeves.
Little things, at first, like he doesn't smile anymore (Babe has seen him try to hide them quite often), or he started sleeping in a foxhole on his own. Smokey's wound seems to be the last strand. He's gone back to his introverted self and nothing and no one has yet been able to snap him out of it. If it weren't for Babe, bringing him his chow, he'd even forget to eat. Not that it makes the medic acknowledge his existence any more. If he could see himself, Gene'd be appalled – not even a thank you. Nothing seems to filter through the fog, not the Colonel's speech ("NUTS!" Oh, he loved that…), not any of the men's attempts to talk to him, not even Captain Winter's evident concern; and he knows for a fact they get along pretty well, despite the difference in rank. He remembers seeing them talking since the first day he joined Easy. From what he's heard from Joe, they've been on good terms since Toccoa. Now that he thinks about it, he's heard every man who's been in Easy since the beginning complaining about Captain Sobel. From what he can assume, the man must have been a nightmare. Not Eugene, though. Not a single criticism ever falls from his lips. Silent and stoic, as usual. He can see why the Captain respects him.
Then comes Christmas, making bombs rain from the sky. Everybody seems to be yelling for a medic, but Eugene is nowhere to be found. Babe and Ralph finally find him, huddled in his hole, seemingly unable to process what's happening all around him. For a terrible moment, he looks almost dead. He sends Ralph away and crouches over the unresponsive Doc.
"Gene! Gene, come on, get up!" Nothing seems to work, at first. Neither his words, nor his less than gentle touch. Three seconds later, though, the medic scrambles out of the hole, leaving Babe behind and giving him a bleeding hand. "My goddamn hand! Merry Christmas to you, too, Eugene!"
The walk back to the line from Bastogne is a balm on Eugene's soul. The city's bombing, Renee's death, put everything back into perspective. They are at war. It doesn't matter if he is their friend or not, if he met them two years or two days ago – it's all going to hurt the same when he loses them. He's their medic, though. He'll be damned if he doesn't take care of them the best way that he can.
The sun is rising when he reaches the foxhole where Heffron's keeping guard. He slides in next to him, determined to make conversation with the strange ginger man. Not that he looks particularly receptive.
"Everythin' OK?" No answer. He doesn't even act as if he's noticed he's no longer alone. "Babe?"
"Yeah." He finally says, wiping his nose with his fingers. That's when he notices it: a nasty cut on the palm of his hand.
"Hey, how'd you do that?" He asks, grabbing it before he can put it back in his pocket. The cold is good for cuts, but it needs to be medicated anyway. Edward is looking at him like he's lost his mind. Eugene is confused.
"You did that." He says, halfway between accusing and understanding. That explains it, then. Eugene feels bad about unloading his apathy on Babe these past few days. Now that he can think clearly again, he remembers all the things the other man did for him. His thoughts must be written all over his face, judging from how Edward's eyes are softening.
"I'll fix it up." He offers, looking for a bandage in one of his pockets. What he finds there, though, is Renee's headscarf. He almost puts it away again and then he thinks that she'd have given it up herself, if necessary. He doesn't reckon that there is wound worthier than the one on his friend's hand. He's looking for the sulfa when said friend speaks again.
"Hey Gene, you called me Babe!" He says happily. Eugene looks up.
"I did?" A nod. "When?"
"Just now!" They lock eyes for a moment, while he tries to remember if he actually did.
"Babe…" He tries the sound of it on his tongue. His lips twitch. It sounds so silly. "I guess I did."
OK, Edward's laugh sounds sillier. If it makes him happy, though…
"Babe." He tries to mimic his drawling Cajun accent, with disastrous results.
"Heffron?" He sighs, applying the sulfa on his hand. "Watch the goddamn line."
That silly laugh again. It's ridiculous and adorable, at the same time. And that's when it hits him: he and Babe are friends. He bandages him and thinks that it isn't such a bad feeling, after all. He'll just have to make sure Babe stays alive.
"Hey Babe, still wanna be my friend?"
Babe trains stunned dark eyes on him. Roe keeps his on the line. Somebody has to.
"Already am, Gene." He says. "Always will be. That OK with you?"
"Yeah. I can live with that."
A couple of minutes later, Edward breaks the silence again.
"Gene, why's my bandage light blue?" He asks perplexedly, looking at his hand. Eugene sighs and shifts slightly, trying to get more comfortable.
"Remember when I took Sisk to Bastogne? I met a nurse there."
"A nurse?" Leers the other man.
"Shut up, Heffron! You want me to tell you the damn story?"
"I sure do! Sorry, Doc!" Completely unrepentant.
"Her name was Renee. She had the Touch."
"The gift of lifting people's spirits with a mere touch of her hand. She lay a caress on Skinny's forehead and he told me he was in Heaven." Babe chuckles at that. "She's the one who gave me the chocolate you ate the night after Julian died. I think she had a weakness for the thing."
"She any pretty, Gene?"
"Gorgeous, Babe. I saw her again when Smokey got hit, then once more when I went to pick up supplies after the drop. That day we tried to save a man together. We failed."
"I'm sorry, Gene." Now Babe knows what happened that made Eugene completely disconnect from them. He's grateful of the fact that he has to keep his eyes on the line. It's not a pleasant story to tell. "Then what happened?"
"Last night I was one step from completely losing it. So Winters sent me to Bastogne with Welsh, to take him to the hospital and get myself a hot meal. Only the hospital wasn't there anymore."
"I found Renee under the wreckage. She was dead. I took the headscarf she wore to cover her hair. Then I helped as much as I could and walked back here. I just arrived."
"Wait. So this is that same scarf?" He asks, looking at his bandaged hand.
"Part of it, at least."
"Why didn't you keep it?"
"She was a nurse, Babe. Do you think she wouldn't have used it herself, if it had been necessary? Besides, it's more use to your hand, than in my pocket. And I already gave you her chocolate. I figured I wouldn't regret this, either." He gives his new friend a smile, getting a shy one in return. Not even a minute later, Edward shifts closer and leans part of his weight against his shoulder. It turns out? It's not that bad, having a friend.
It's not as hard as he thought it would be, being Gene's friend. It mostly consists of making sure he remembers to eat and sleep regularly. And of keeping still while he checks for injuries after every battle, of course. He's the worst mother hen ever – even worse than Lip, if that's even possible. Although, the fact that he actually talks now is worth much more than that. The men think he's some sort of miracle worker – he can make the good doctor speak! He's the Doc whisperer…
"Hey Doc, did you see that tree that fell on my hole?"
"I did, Babe. You were damn lucky it didn't fall on your stupid head, instead."
"Naw, I was low on the ground. At least I made Lip smile: I asked him if I maybe overdid it with the cover for my foxhole."
"You're a clown, Heffron."
"…and we're back to the Heffron! It took at least two and a half minutes, this time. I'm seeing some progress."
Behind them, Malarkey snickers. That's a feat in and of itself, today. Babe counts it as a win.
"Since you got nothin' better to do, why don't you find me some alcohol?" Roe sighs, scrubbing snow on his hands.
"Didn't think you drank, Doc."
"Of course, I do. How else am I supposed to deal with you?" He asks, frowning. Babe can't stop the grin from showing. "That's not why I need it, though. I need to keep my hands clean. Don't wanna be the cause of some infection. I don't know when somebody's gonna call for me."
Babe sits in silence for a moment. It's hard to cope with their lives, sometimes.
"Here Doc, take mine." Malarkey says, handing his flask over. "It's better if I don't drink anyway. After what I've seen this past few days, I don't want to risk it. I might be unable to stop."
Gene takes it from his hand with a small nod and hands it to Babe, so that he can pour the liquid on his hands. Their eyes meet for one moment and Babe knows they're feeling the same way: useless.
"Tomorrow we're taking Foy." Malarkey says then, a pensive look on his face.
"Lieutenant Dike is leading us there, right?"
"Yeah. He's gonna get us all killed. Mark my words."
"I'll make you a deal." Gene interrupts their complaining with a smile, rinsing the alcohol from his hands with some more snow. His hands must have lost all sensibility, by now. "If you manage to get only mildly maimed, instead of killed, I promise I'll be there to take care of the rest. That good enough for you?"
They both laugh at the sheer idiocy of his words. They have the desired effect, though: their minds are off tomorrow's battle again.
"OK guys." Malarkey's on his feet again. "I'll leave you two to your married couple banter. I'm gonna see if Lip needs help with anything."
They wave him off. Roe starts making coffee. He could swear the man is an addict for caffeine. Babe waits until he hands over a cup, then asks:
"Hey Doc. We don't sound like an old married couple, do we?"
"We sure do, Babe." He drawls, hiding his smile in the drink.
"Yeah, I suppose we do…" He thinks about it for a moment. "Does it mean you'll be coming to South Philly with me, when the war's over? I can't take care of you, if you're down in Louisiana."
He's waiting for the doctor to tell him to shut up, or at least to glare at him. Eugene, though, looks up from his coffee and contemplates him for a moment. Then he shakes his head.
"No, Babe. I think, seein' as I'm the one who takes care of you on a regular basis, that I should be the husband in this couple. So you'll have to come south with me. You'll love the Bayou."
"Don't fret, honey. My mama'll love you. You don't have to worry, you'll fit right in."
They look at each other for a moment, serious looks plastered all over their faces. Then Babe can't hold it in any longer and they're both on the ground, laughing their heads off.
"Fuck you, Eugene!"
"Don't be like that, Babe! I promise I'll make an honest man of you."
And off they go again. That's how Captain Winters finds them, on his walk down the line.
"Is that whisky I smell?" He asks perplexedly, one eyebrow impossibly high on his forehead. Babe snorts. Roe elbows him in the gut.
"Aye, sir. But we weren't drinkin' it. I used it to disinfect my hands, sir."
"Good, then why are you two laughing as if you were both drunk off your asses, if I may ask?"
"I think Gene here just proposed, sir." Babe answers promptly. It's Roe's turn to snort.
"Did he, now?"
"Yes, sir. He says he'll take me back to the Bayou to meet him mama."
Behind Winters, Nixon has a hand up to cover his mouth and is laughing silently. The Battalion Leader sighs, probably giving them up for lost and gestures for them to go on. He's a couple of feet away, when he turns back.
"Oh, and Doc?"
"Congratulations. You can't go wrong with a ginger." Then he's gone, a laughing Nixon following.
After the battle at Foy, Babe finds Eugene at the aid station, covered in blood and God knows what else. He's seen him running from one end of the battlefield to the other, not even looking towards the Germans, trusting them to cover him while he tried to save one of their own. The old Doc Roe is definitely back.
"Doc, you OK? Is there a chance any of that blood belongs to you?"
"No. I'm fine. What are you doing here?" His calm expression gets suddenly alert. "Are you wounded?"
"No! Gene, I'm fine. I came to see if you'd eaten anything."
He seems to think about it for a moment. Then goes to a basin to wash his hands.
"Not yet. I should go change the bandages of those that were wounded, first."
"You should probably go change first, Doc." Babe suggests lightly, taking Eugene's shoulder in his hand and stirring him towards the door. One of the doctors nods at him. "You're gonna give the men a heart attack, looking like that. They're eating, anyway. Come on, go wash yourself and wear a clean uniform. I'm going to get you some chow."
"OK. Thanks, Babe."
"Don't mention it."
They sit silently in the dark for a bit, eating their hot dinner and checking each other's state, trying not to be conspicuous while they do it. At least they look human again; his freckles have finally reappeared, and Eugene's hair has lost the dust layer and is back to being impossibly black. It's something, right?
Later, Babe follows the medic on his rounds, handing over bandages and providing comic relief. He can see his friends are proud of him, for sticking close to the Doc and making sure he takes care of himself, too. Eugene, for his part, seems to be ignoring his impression of a lost puppy and is letting himself be shadowed.
The night they spend in the convent is the best night Babe can remember since the beginning of the war. Everyone looks relaxed, even Lieutenant Speirs. Doc Roe is sitting in front of him, on the other side of the nave, having just finished changing Frank's bandages. They're looking at each other, eyes locked, not even blinking.
"The hell are you doin', Babe?" Liebgott has apparently found himself in the middle of all the staring. Now he's turned around in his seat and he's looking at Babe as if he's lost his mind.
"Shut up, Lieb. I'm in the middle of a staring contest with the Doc. The first to look away makes coffee for a week."
"Does he know you're having a staring contest?" His friend asks, amused.
"I'm sure he's figured it out by now. We've been at it for half an hour." At Joe's answering laughter, the corner of Eugene's mouth curls upwards, as if he knows what idiocy Babe just spouted.
Two minutes later, Johnny Martin grabs Eugene's shoulder, forcing him to turn around and listen to what the other man has to say.
"See?" He tells Joe, slapping his shoulder. "I won."
"I don't think that counts as winning, Babe."
"Shut up, Lieb!"
Babe takes advantage of the medic's distraction to leave his seat. When he sees Martin stood up to go talk to Lip, he waits until Eugene is facing the front again (he enjoys his confusion at not finding him where he's supposed to be), then jumps to take Johnny's abandoned seat, right behind his friend. He looks at Joe, who's shaking his head incredulously, and brings a finger up to his lips, to tell him to keep silent.
He waits until Eugene leans back in his seat, then puts his chin on his left shoulder.
"Did you miss me, honey?" He asks, with the sweetest voice he can manage. Roe isn't even startled, to Babe's unhappiness. He only sighs and buts his head against Babe's.
"It takes more than that to scare me, boo." He doesn't make any effort to dislodge his head from where it's still perched. By now, Frank is watching them curiously. Babe turns slightly towards him and smiles.
"He proposed. I said yes." He explains. "We're getting married in Philadelphia and then we're going to live in New Orleans."
Frank nods knowingly and congratulates them, going right back to his music. Eugene turns to face him.
"This joke has taken alarming proportions. Time a week and you'll be makin' the table arrangements. And nobody will even bat an eye." He looks perplexed. Babe laughs.
"You would be lucky to marry me, Gene."
From beside them, his eyes still closed, Frank says:
"I think you've got it backwards, Babe: you'd be lucky; he'd be a fool."
Eugene's deep laughter covers his indignant protest. Everybody turns to look at the wonder of a laughing Doc Roe. It's a sound few have heard before. Babe knows that the feeling deep in his chest is triumph.
The morning after, Roe is smoking on the convent's steps, when he feels Edward sitting next to him. When he turns to look, his friend is holding a cup of coffee out to him.
"Thank you." He says softly, handing the cigarette over. The only answer he gets is a smile.
They sit there for a while, drinking coffee and passing that cigarette back and forth. Finally, Babe breaks the comfortable silence.
"Hey Gene, forget the marriage joke for a moment." He says seriously, waving a hand in front of himself. "You're not gonna vanish on me once we get back, right? I mean, I guess you might want to forget the whole thing – I'd understand if you don't want to see any of us again after all this…"
"Babe." Eugene interrupts him, before he causes himself brain damage, thinking too much. "Didn't I say we are friends?"
"I guess you did."
"Do I look like someone who isn't loyal to his friends, no matter what?"
At this, Edward seems to deflate.
"OK. Sorry." He smiles. "You'll come to see me in Philadelphia, then?"
"Of course. And I'll be expectin' you in New Orleans, too. I wasn't kidding, when I said my mama would love you." Babe finally laughs.
"Moms always love me."
"I bet it's the ginger hair. It has a strange effect on women, doesn't it?"
"Just shut up, Eugene!" He looks thoughtful for a moment. "I'll be meeting your healer grandma, as well?"
"How do you know about her?"
"I think I heard you and Spina talk about her, that night in your foxhole. Your voice woke me; you were speaking French."
"You'll probably get to know her quite well, if you come see me. She makes it her life's mission to stick her nose in my business."
Babe laughs and stands up, offering a hand up to Eugene. They head inside. They walk through the convent's corridors for a while. Suddenly Edward turns to him and asks:
"Do you believe in God, Gene?"
"Guess I do."
"I think I hear you pray, sometimes. Always the same prayer. Or maybe I dreamt it."
"You didn't dream it. I do repeat the same prayer. Part of one, to be exact." He doesn't say that it's either that, or the names of all the men he couldn't save.
"Will you say it now that I'm awake? I think it sounded nice."
Eugene smiles softly and lies down in a patch of sun, on the floor under a window. Babe does the same, making himself comfortable against his side.
"Oh Lord," he starts, "grant that I shall never seek so much to be consoled, as to console. To be understood, as to understand. Or to be loved, as to love with all my heart."
"With all my heart…" Babe repeats with him.
"It's really beautiful. Thank you, Eugene."
"You're welcome, Edward."
"Doc! Hey, Doc!" Eugene keeps walking and hides a smile. "DocDocDocDocDoc… Hey, Lieb, do you think he's ignoring me? I think he's ignoring me."
"He's definitely ignoring you, Babe. Not that I blame him."
"Hey, Doc! Do you want some chocolate?" At the silly question, Eugene finally laughs and turns around to face his pursuers.
"What do you want, Heffron?"
"Now he answers! Sorry, Gene, I was lying. I got no chocolate for you."
"I know you don't, Babe." He answers patiently, fishing a Hershey bar from inside one of his pockets and throwing it at Babe. "But I do. Catch!"
"You got a nice friend there, Babe! How come you don't give me sweets, Doc?"
"You are naughty."
"I sure am!"
"Hey! Don't you dare put the moves on him! Do you know how long it took me, even just to make him admit that we are friends? Get your own friends! You can have Webster."
"I don't want Webster – he's a bore! And he speaks too much."
"Hear who's talking!"
"He's a know-it-all! Why can't I be Doc Roe's friend, too?"
"Children, stop fightin'." Eugene interrupts them placidly. They fall silent immediately. He's still got it, apparently. "Good. Now, Babe, share the chocolate."
"Good man. How are you boys likin' Haguenau?"
("Nice accent you got there, Doc!" "Shut up, Liebgott.")
"I don't like it." Babe grumbles. "They're sending us on patrol, on the other side of the river."
"What?" Since Edward seems to be avoiding his eyes, Eugene looks at Liebgott for confirmation. The other man nods somberly. Roe sighs and silently asks Joe for a moment alone with Babe. He nods again and walks away, muttering something about winter shoes.
"Come on, Babe. Walk with me."
"Fine. You showered, yet?"
"Yeah. A bit stupid, seeing as we are wearing the same dirty uniforms, don't you think?"
"Yeah… You might have a point."
They walk a while longer.
"I won't be far tonight. In case you need me."
"You should sleep, Gene. We'll be fine."
"I'll be near. Just in case."
It turns out, they do need him. When he sees Sergeant Martin running towards him, Eugene's heart skips a beat and he follows him before the man can have a chance to speak. The first thing he does, upon entering the basement, is look for Babe amongst the men. The next second he's at Jackson's side. For a moment the only thought that passes through his mind is, absurdly, "we have the same name", then it sinks in that he's not going to make it. He orders the stretcher-bearers to get him out anyway, more for the other men's sake than Jackson's himself. The whole time, he feels Babe pressed against him, up until the moment Jackson has his last convulsion and dies in his hands – like so many of his comrades before. When is all this going to end? He looks up and there is Babe again, searching his face with big, scared eyes. They say all they have to, in that one look. Then Eugene averts his gaze, while Edward turns towards the rest of the guys.
He washes his hands and goes to wait outside. It isn't long before his friend appears. Even in the dark, he can see the tears on his face. He sits on the ground, against the wall, and nods for Babe to sit next to him. When the other does, he puts an arm around his shoulders and lets him cry against his throat.
"It's OK." He lies. "Everything's gonna be fine…"
The next evening, Babe is already waiting for him, when he shows up at the basement. He's smiling. All the men are happy to tell him what Captain Winters did for them and he makes them swear not to tell anybody else. The Captain could get in big trouble for his, admittedly brilliant, decision.
"Very well." Eugene sees they've all recognized his no-nonsense tone of voice. They're watching him warily. "Since you don't have any pressing matters to attend to, you won't mind if I do a quick check-up. You haven't had one since before Bastogne."
As he predicted, a chorus of complaints rises from all the soldiers assembled, regardless of age or rank. Roe lets them whine for a bit, then reaches inside his bag and takes out a handful of Hershey bars. Silence falls immediately. Everyone sits down (he will have to tell his mother, her methods work on grown men, too). He puts the chocolate back in the bag and folds his harms.
"Very well. I see we all agree." Babe snorts. Eugene turns sharply towards him.
"Sorry, Doc." He hastens to say.
"Please, remain seated. I will be comin' to you. You have to tell me if you've got any sores, or pains I don't know about. I suggest you don't try to lie to me, because I'll know. And take off your shoes, I wanna see in what state are your feet." He must sound like their mothers, since they're all snickering behind their hands.
They do as they're told, eventually, and he sits with them for a while. He gives them chocolate and they make him coffee. Business as usual. Babe sits next to him, giving him a running commentary on Liebgott and Webster's bickering.
"And they say we sound like an old married couple. What do you say, Babe?" His voice sounds loud and clear in the relaxed atmosphere that surrounds them. Liebgott and Webster fall immediately silent. Before they can protest, Edward adds:
"I think you're absolutely right, Gene. Compared to those two, we practically live in marital bliss."
At his comment, Sergeant Martin snorts and the men stop holding in their laughter. Even Lieutenant Jones is chuckling. Meanwhile Webster is blushing and Joe is protesting vocally. Nobody pays him any mind. Business as usual.
The teasing keeps the men occupied for a while and Eugene takes advantage of their distraction to leave unnoticed. When he passes Babe, though, the other man grabs his hand and, cheeky smile on his lips, says softly:
Eugene shakes his head and tousles his ginger hair. Smirking, he answers:
"Sweet dreams, boo."
Germany isn't so bad, at first. It's March, the days are growing longer and less cold. The citizens of Sturzelberg are cordial and the relative rest does wonders for the morale. By the time they leave the city, Babe is feeling pretty well – like the end of the war is finally within touching distance. He's not the only one. On the road for Thalem, on the truck behind his, Babe sees Eugene sing. He can safely affirm, without risk of being wrong, it's not something he's ever seen before.
Everything changes, though, once they reach Thalem…
At first, he doesn't understand what he's seeing. In front of him skeletons are walking, covered in tattered clothing, and Bull is crying. The smell is pungent and indescribable, like the scene unfolding in front of his eyes.
"I don't understand." He tells Malarkey. "What kind of crime do you have to commit, to deserve this place?"
"I don't know, Babe."
They see the numbers, then the strange yellow stars on the jackets. Finally they hear what Joe said: these are not criminals, but artists, writers, tailors, farmers – they are Jews. Poles. Gypsies. Undesirables.
Babe feels cold. As cold as he was in Bastogne. He needs to find Eugene.
The medic isn't far-off, just beyond one of the shacks. He's kneeling on the ground, cradling a man against his chest and helping him drink some water. When he sees Babe, he gestures for him to come closer. They kneel in front of each other, silently, looking into each other's eyes. There's something there that Babe has never seen. Suddenly he understands – hate. The man is furious. Babe envies him; all he can feel at the moment is shame. He finally finds his voice.
"Tell me what I can do. Whatever you need, Doc."
"Hold him, while I check for wounds."
"Yeah, well, apart from the severe starvation, the dehydration, the appalling hygienic and medical conditions…"
Babe grabs his wrist to stop him, before he gets himself worked up and scares their charge. He holds his arms out and Eugene hands his patient over. The man holds onto him with all his feeble strength and lets himself be medicated. Sometimes he drinks from Babe's flask, or nibbles a piece of bread he found in his pouch. The whole time, he doesn't make a sound.
They go on like this for hours, even after they've been ordered to put the men back in the camp to wait for the real doctors. Eugene is tireless – so is Babe. He won't let his friend go through this on his own. At some point, Joe, Don, Web, Lip and Speirs join them. He swears he can see tears on the fierce Captain's face. They don't stop taking care of these people until the rescue team arrives. They don't speak at all.
That night, none of them sleeps. After his guard duty, Babe goes looking for Roe. He finds him in one of the halls of the occupied house, in his favorite position – back against the wall, hugging his knees to his chest. He is repeating his prayer without pause, like a mantra. By now, Babe knows he does that when he wants his brain to shut up and give him some peace. So he sits down next to him and starts talking.
He talks for hours; about his childhood, his family, the stupid things he did, the not-so-stupid. When he reaches the end of his training at Camp Toccoa, Eugene has finally started to add comments of his own.
"Hey, Gene. Remember when we met?"
"I'd just met Bill and you walked back to the barracks with me."
"You asked me what it was like, to kill a man. I told you I never shot anybody."
"That surely had me puzzled."
"I expect it did."
"Then you told me: 'I'm Corporal Eugene Roe. They call me Doc'. Asshole."
Eugene makes a sound, halfway between a laugh and a sob, then hides his face in his arms. It's the first time Babe sees him allow himself a moment of weakness. It's his turn to put an arm around his friend's shoulders and hold him together while he breaks. That night, he's not the only one that does.
From then on, thankfully, things get better. They reach Berchtesgaden in early May and that means two things: first, they get to play with explosives (Webster seems to be having the time of his life); second, they take the Eagle's Nest – Hitler's own holiday residence. This, in turn, means lying in the sun, doing nothing at all, for long stretches of time.
Babe loves it. He even gains some color back, surprisingly. Admittedly, the announcement that the German Army surrendered helps. He doesn't really want to leave this little corner of peace they've found, right at the heart of Hitler's empire.
Then he sees Austria.
Austria is awesome! As he keeps telling to anyone who will listen. Mostly Gene and Don, before he leaves for Paris. They swim, they train for the Pacific, Doc nurses them all back to full health. Slowly, they start to look like they did before the war. Apparently, pasty is not Eugene's natural skin tone. Who'd have said. The shadows under his eyes seem to be a permanent feature, though.
Not everything goes according to plan, though – Janovec dies in an accident and Grant gets shot by an asshole.
"Where have you been?" Eugene asks Babe, when he goes back to the Company quarters.
"Kicking the shit out of that stupid bastard. How's Grant?"
"He's gonna make it. Don't know anythin' else. Did Speirs kill him?"
"No. For a moment I thought he would, though."
"You should have seen him when we were lookin' for that surgeon. You wouldn't have had any doubts that he would."
"What do you mean?"
Eugene seems to consider how he's going to answer.
"I always thought he kept a bit distant from Easy, you know. Maybe it's the way he carries himself, I don't know." He shakes his head. "Truth is, he cares. He didn't stop holdin' Grant's hand 'til we reached the hospital. He was frantic, there's no other word for it. I was astounded."
They keep silent for a while, contemplating the mystery that is Ron Speirs. Finally, Babe sighs and starts getting ready for bed.
"Hey, Gene. How do you think the Pacific is gonna be?" His question draws the attention of the other men in the room.
"Damp." He deadpans. Liebgott snickers.
"Funny." Babe shakes his head.
"Hey Doc. How many points do you have?" Webster asks, lowering the book from in front of his face. Roe only smiles and turns towards his bed.
"He has enough to go home." Answers a voice from the door. They turn to see Lieutenant Lipton, smiling from just inside the door.
Babe is floored. Is Eugene going to leave? And why hasn't he said anything? God knows they've all been talking about points for weeks now.
"Then, why are you still here, Doc?" Asks Liebgott, shaking him from his reverie. Eugene is looking at him searchingly. Babe tries to smile. He doesn't think he's very successful. The medic nods briefly and turns to the other men.
"I'm not goin' home." He says. "If you're goin' to the Pacific, then I'm comin' with you. You'd all stop takin' care of yourselves if I weren't there to nag you."
His tone is teasing, but his eyes are soft. He's sincere: he doesn't want to leave them. He probably can't. Babe finds himself trying to suppress the sigh of relief that wants to come out of his lungs. The thought of being in battle and not having his best friend within shouting distance… He's filled with unexplainable terror.
He feels a hand grab his wrist. Eugene is smiling at him. His gaze is understanding. Babe shakes his head self-deprecatingly and goes back to washing his teeth. Eugene chuckles.
They're playing baseball, when Major Winters gives the announcement – well, the guys are playing, he's lazing about in the grass.
"Listen up! I've got some news: this morning, president Truman received the unconditional surrender from the Japanese. War's over."
There is a full minute of incredulous silence. Nobody wants to do or say anything, on the off chance it's all a dream. Slowly, they start looking at each other. He sees some uncertain smiles, some tears. Then he meets Eugene's eyes – his friend is smirking at his undoubtedly stunned expression.
It's chaos from there: there is laughter; there are hugs; Bull runs after a giggling Luz; they all talk over each other. Babe stands up slowly and walks towards Eugene. A moment later they're hugging. He seems to be unable to form a coherent sentence. He keeps repeating "Gene", against his shoulder.
"I know, Babe… I know." He answers. His voice is choked.
They're going home. After all this time, after Bastogne and all the friends – the brothers – they've lost. They're finally going back home.
Babe tightens his arms around Eugene and feels his friend hold him even closer. They did it…
Six months later…
"So, is this the infamous South Philly?"
Eugene smirks, as Edward looks up from where he's tending to his mother's roses by the gate, startled. He's standing on the sidewalk, in front of what he assumes is the Heffron family's house, if the address Babe gave him before they left Austria isn't wrong. Judging from the fact that his friend looks impossibly domestic (and speechless), standing there in front of him, he's probably got it right.
"Should probably close your mouth, Babe. I can see bees flying not far from it. I won't rescue you; I'm not a medic anymore."
Next thing he knows, he's got an armful of Babe Heffron. He's heavier than he remembers. Still speechless too, apparently.
"You gonna speak anytime soon?" He asks with a smile. "I think I'm ten words away from fillin' my daily quota."
"The hell, Gene?" He finally explodes, "What are you doing here? Why didn't you tell me? I'd have come to get you at the station!"
"Wouldn't have been much of a surprise, had I told you. Don't ya think?" He can't help but keep smiling. His face is beginning to hurt. Babe looks ecstatic and disgruntled, at the same time.
"How are you, Babe?" He interrupts gently, ruffling his ginger hair. It looks brighter than he remembers. Well, to be honest, Babe himself looks brighter than he remembers.
"I'm fine, Gene. All things considered. How 'bout you?"
Before he can answer, a kind-looking woman emerges from the door. She's minute and there's no doubt that she's Edward's mother. They have the same dark eyes.
"Why are you shouting like a loon, honey?" Then she sees him and walks towards them, big smile on her lips. "You must be Eugene! I'm sure of it! Babe won't stop talking about you! You look so handsome, too."
She hugs Roe enthusiastically, while her son hides his face in his hand. Eugene laughs.
"I'm really curious, ma'am. What does he say about me, exactly?"
"Shut up! Both of you! Aren't you going to invite our guest inside, mother?"
"Don't be such a wet blanket, dear. Come on Eugene, I'll make you coffee and we'll talk about my boring son."
"You can't just talk about me with my friends! What the hell?"
Eugene chuckles and puts an arm around Babe's shoulders, as they follow his mother inside. His best friend turns towards him and smiles. For the first time since the war is over, he feels at peace.