protip: for a healthy relationship, spend less time doing the sex, more time talking about feelings
these hurts of ours
Snafu doesn't sleep, if he can help it. Coffee and endless cigarettes dull the need, keep him spinning in loops of silver daylight and gaslit nights. He's memorized the plaster cracks in his apartment, numbered the stains on every wall, charted the nocturnal courses of the cockroaches that come through them.
Eugene sleeps. Eugene sleeps with his eyes screwed tight against the dark, tangled bare-limbed in bedsheets older than the both of them. His spine presses in a curve against Snafu's thigh. Snafu smokes and keeps time in inhales and exhales of sour breath, feels Eugene's nightmares shudder through him, and regrets, obscurely, having only this to give him: a bare mattress and infested walls, when Eugene comes all this way, drags himself across state lines, just to sleep here next to him.
It doesn't help. Either of them. Snafu can't help either of them, neither himself with the need that itches through his fingers in his pulse, nor Eugene with the dreams that claw at the insides of his mind.
Eugene twitches and kicks, mutters and pleads and curses and yells. Snafu peers at him over the tip of his cigarette. Eugene's face twists and untwists itself. His knees pull into his chest.
The gaslamps outside lick the stripes down Eugene's cheeks golden. Snafu draws out his fingers from his fist as if he might wet his fingertips with them. He lingers. He could. He's allowed to. He doesn't. Smokes instead, unfurls each breath until he chokes on it, watches his fingers float, stroking shadows.
Snafu wonders, idly, without much attachment to the fiction, at the surely spacious comfort Eugene must be afforded in his own home. Feather pillows, night breezes, the touch of clean sheets. The gentle quiet of it, and how many miles, how many years it must take to travel from that to the dark, the wet, the fear of Peleliu. How much shorter that journey must be, here, with the reminder of it next to him, fouling the room like a tasteless souvenir.
Eugene settles eventually; his face resolves like a natural progression. Snafu's smoked through his pack, and he hasn't got another, emptied it all in a dirty mug of ashy water next to the mattress. In his struggle, Eugene's turned his face towards him, hidden his face in Snafu's hip, and Snafu doesn't like that. Wants to see his face, wants the reminder of old pains he finds there, to remember why he keeps awake at night, guarding against demons far uglier and more damned than Eugene's bad dreams.
He moves down in shuffles of movement until they're nose to nose, Eugene's sleep-bruised eyelids still fluttering beneath his troubled brow. Snafu stares up at him under his lashes. It's a condition, this. They have words for these sicknesses he can't pronounce. It's unhealthful.
He pushes their heads together anyway, Eugene's clammy forehead against his hot, dry skin, and Eugene sighs, as if eased somehow. Snafu feels nothing but the lazy contempt for everything he always feels, but when Eugene's hand fumbles out of its knot of fingers and grips his, its a grip that asks him to stay. And that's something.
When exhaustion does collapse upon him, Snafu falls straight through into eternity. It helps that he has nothing, comes from nothing, wants nothing. Home is an alien fantasy as much as it is a blanket, a warm night, a stiff drink. He has no people in his past that he sees in his future. He has no places he wants to return to, and nowhere he wants to go.
And he misses the war. He misses the war with every passing day. Not the violence, though he was good at it; not the death, though it came easy for him, but the certainty, the easy sense of right. The purpose.
Four years he spent in that place, living and killing, learning, and he accumulated a set of skills that defined his person, that replaced his nature. But four years, that's nothing, not against the prospect of a lifetime, and now he has all this, and it's nothing, has no application, no relevance.
He's not like Eugene. Eugene's lived two lives, one before, one after. He's got ghosts in his past and phantoms in his future. He sees them at night. Shouts at them through his dreams, screams at death to stay the hell back.
Snafu's doesn't know what that's like. There were many ways of getting through the war, but the only one he figured out in time was to give himself over to it, so he did. He gave over everything: his faith, his past, his humanity. He abandoned who he was, who he'd ever hoped to be. He let the war have him and the war took him. Took him apart and used his parts locked in with others', crafted them all into the gears and wheels of something greater, something without flesh or pain or fear. Something made for the certainty of violence.
But then the Japs died and the war died and all its suddenly useless mechanisms were left to pull themselves apart, gather themselves back together. To find the hands that fit their pair, to let go of the ones that had fit into them. Cleaned and cut and armored in neat cotton, they emerged, man-shaped but forgetting what it means to be a man, to walk streets without fighting with shadows, to hear voices without waiting for screams, to be in darkness without thinking of silence. To eat with a fork, to sleep through the night, to bathe, to dress, to say please.
Eugene does these things still, a second nature, an easy instinct.
But Snafu was not made for living. He knows this with the certainty of a truth. He eats and breathes and sleeps and shits and this is something many others -- countless others -- can't say for themselves.
Living, though, is a deed for other people, better people, cleaner people, people fall into bed expecting to wake up the next day. He was made for other things: scavenging, surviving, scraping by death on the edge of a knife. He was made for war, and had he spent the rest of his life in war, he would have died young, but he would have died right.
But the war has survived him. He'd lived through it, but it wasn't he who had made it out in the end. His hands feel vacant without their rifle, his calves bare without their leggings, his head light and empty without its helmet. He misses the war every day, misses it in the bloodless gutters and birdsong daybreaks, misses it in each breath of clean air and each mouthful of clear water.
Being near to others helps. Being near Eugene helps the most. Eugene's hand on his shoulder feels almost like war, the press of his side almost like home, his cock in his ass almost like violence. They spent so long fit together, side by side: one working, ticking, killing thing. It fits to be with him. It fits to survive with him.
And he'll take for as long as he's allowed. That's been how he's lived, and he's never had thoughts of fairness before now, has never been on the painless side of harm: been capable of good, been the one to withhold it. It doesn't suit his instincts to be given choices. It doesn't suit his indifference to be given care. It eats at desire, scratches doubt into his mind, seeing the evidence of it, helping Eugene break: his imperfect choices, his insufficient care.
Eugene speaks only in barbs and knives during the day, saves his eloquence for the dreams at night, dreams that push at the lines of his sanity, blurring them with all the fear and pain and hate he can't feel awake.
How far that journey must be, without the reminder. How much harder it must be to hate, without the weight of his past next to him.
Snafu wakes without having dreamt. It might have been two minutes; it might have been two hours. The sky's still dark and Eugene's still asleep, still dreaming. Snafu watches.
He thinks maybe Eugene misses it too, the war, finds it lacking in every aspect of this ever-after neither of them expected to have. He thinks maybe Eugene was made for living once -- made for lights and clear water and birdsong, not like him -- but that maybe the war took that out of him and forgot to give it back.
Maybe Eugene was a man once, instead of a gearpiece. He must have been. He still has people who look at him, waiting, as if he's someone they know.
(They don't know him. No one knows any of them. The pieces of them that the war burned for fuel were the parts that they knew, these people, the folks at home. No one got that back, not even the good ones.)
Snafu was never going to make it, was always going to die an early death, by disease or by opiates or a knife in the dark. Appending stray mortars and a Jap bullet to that list didn't make a difference. He'll carry it with him the rest of his life and live on stolen time. He'll forever be a part of the war, the part that killed and waited to die. He was never made for living, but maybe Eugene was.
"You're awake," Eugene says. Eugene's eyes, the color of bruises, meet his on the pillow.
Snafu licks at the inside of his own mouth. "So are you, Sledgehammer," he accuses.
"Hm." Eugene's smile spreads shallowly. His eyelids dip shut and he slides forward til their mouths meet. It's a meager kiss, as far as their kisses go, which Snafu allows for a scant moment before he meets it with tongue, then teeth.
Eugene asks, "Do you have an answer for me?" The base of his thumb is pressed behind Snafu's ear, the rest of his fingers touching into his hair.
Pleasantly, he keeps Snafu from turning away, and he knows it. So Snafu avoids with other methods. "I think your mama would have quite a lot to say to me taking you away to be my pretty bride." He lets his inflection muffle the loathing in his voice, stretch it out long and slow until it sounds like a jocularity.
Eugene rolls his eyes. "I’m not asking you to marry me, man, just--"
"What, go steady?"
Eugene's hand moves absently along the side of Snafu's neck. Thumbs the boyishly smooth underside of Snafu's jaw, follows with his eyes. "Will you come with me?" he asks again and chases it with new reasons: "Florida's far enough away. No one will know either of us there. We can be anyone we want."
Snafu snorts disagreeably. "I don't run from no one, you know that."
"Not running," Eugene says. His eyes are sincere enough to hurt. "Starting over."
Eugene touches the dip of Snafu's throat with his fingertips. Tries to kiss him. Snafu stops him with his forehead. "You ain't need me around for that," he says.
"No," Eugene admits. The places where his skin touches Snafu's seem to burn. "But I do want you."
Snafu rages against a hope so miserable he feels it heating behind his eyes, so he closes them -- once, twice, in slow blinks -- so Eugene doesn't have to see. Wants to crawl inside Eugene's skin and never look at him again. Wants to hide, wants to run, hasn't anywhere to go. Tells Eugene lowly, "You don't have to, you know."
Eugene meets his eyes. Frowns. "What do you mean?"
"You can still turn around, you can get out," Snafu tells him, the quietest of the truths he has to offer. Snafu pulls away and moves so that his arms are braced on either side of Eugene's head, and now he's the one who can't look away, now he's the one who has to see. "Find a girl, forget, move on."
"I don't want a girl. Do you?" Eugene is confused; he thinks he's being selfish, rejecting his family, living in sin. Eugene thinks that they are the same, two soldiers leaned together to keep each other up. He thinks this is fair. He thinks this is harmless. He hasn't had to hear himself scream at night.
Eugene doesn't know selfishness. Snafu knows selfishness, knows it like a comfort, a third parent, would have kept holding its hand but that Eugene's fit better. He needs to let go. He's known this, known it so long but buried it so deep it's grown roots, not just true anymore, but real: "I'm fucked up, Gene. But you're not."
His words are long on his voice but stuttering, halting, because he never wanted to say this. Never thought he'd have to, never thought he had a better nature to prevail upon, much less do battle with. He would have kept Eugene until this ugly limbo claimed them both. If it had been up to him, neither of them would have lived to see this moment.
The last of the truths, then, the one he believes so heavily it cracks his voice: "You deserve better than this."
Eugene blinks. His hand comes up, lies across the back of Snafu's elbow. Beautifully misunderstanding: "I deserve better than you?"
Snafu laughs because he's out of words. Crumples with the violence of it. Eugene thinks this is it. That he's at the end of a long road, that Snafu's the gold at the foot of a rainbow.
He thinks he's happy. He doesn't know. He doesn't know the gold is poison -- that Snafu's poison, a rotted corpse at the bottom of a well, dead for so long he's had time to get used to it.
Eugene doesn't smile. Maybe it's the tears, maybe it's the way Snafu's shaken himself apart, pieces again, collapsed against Eugene's chest like an unbound sack of bones.
Eugene doesn't know. Thinks Snafu's a cure, thinks the war made him sick and Snafu's getting him better. Doesn't know Snafu's no good, a cure for an ill that's only another sickness in the shape of a man. Eugene touches the back of his head, scratches light fingers into the scalp, presses with his palm as Snafu laughs against his neck.
Snafu bites -- teach Eugene to keep a monster in the sheets. It's not a hard bite -- barely any blood -- but Eugene hollers just the same, shoves Snafu from his chest and flips him, pulls his wrists back along his shoulderblades, pushing. Snafu squirms, mostly for breath, keeps laughing -- it's easier than breathing now, just keeps coming up, like vomit, like blood.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Eugene hisses, shoves a hand up along the underside of Snafu's jaw, fingers slipping on the bone, prying into Snafu's mouth, pressing down on Snafu's tongue. Snafu gags, bucks up harder, wails like a moan because that's Eugene's cock nudging against his balls, because Eugene thinks this is some game, some demented part of Snafu's personality breaking to the surface like a breech birth.
He wants to close his teeth over Eugene's fingers, make him bleed again, make him understand through pain what he won't understand through reason, wants to suck those fingers down, swallow Eugene whole, make him a part of him that will never leave, never hurt, never scream at horrors in the middle of the night.
"Fuck me," he slurs, giggling, gagged still, but then Eugene moves his hand, wraps wet fingers around Snafu's throat.
"Say that again, Shelton? Didn't quite catch it."
Snafu pushes against the hand so hard his breath stops, and in one sightless moment, he repeats, "Fuck me."
"Jesus Christ, man," Eugene mutters. Snafu pulls his knees up under him and rocks back, punishingly. "Okay, okay," Eugene says, when it's clearly not, it's anything but.
His ass is still slick from before, and Eugene's the one who made it so, so he tucks right in, easy. Eugene's let go of his wrists to better grab at his hips, pulls him back onto his dick with a snap of flesh that sounds in the stagnant air. Snafu helps it all along, squeezing down on Eugene's cock in time with his own, making himself tight, making it a hurt more than a pleasure.
"Fucking loosen up, Snafu," Eugene growls, fucks him in shallow shoves. Finds Snafu's supporting hand, laces it into his own, and that's the stupid thing that does it for him, one last giggle seizing into a whine while Eugene pumps it out, goes on long enough that Snafu does go slack on him, lets him gather his body up into his lap for the last few, feeling the shape of him change as he spills and then goes still.
Eugene breathes out hard against the back of Snafu's shoulder. “Christ,” he says. "You're so fucking -- Christ." Bites. Snafu flinches more from surprise than pain, but he knows he'll have broken skin.
"Ow," he says as Eugene sets him back down, a fistful of sheet already in his hand, wiping at his sticky stomach.
Eugene snorts. "Serves you right," he drawls. Kisses the mark. Turns Snafu around, pushes him back. Looming, then pressing down. "Now we match." Kisses him.
Snafu opens his mouth and takes, never was much good at gentle, so it's just a smash of mouths and teeth. He keeps his eyes open until they burn. Eugene's meet him. Doesn't look away until sleep steals him off.
Snafu considers that, head on the crook of an elbow, as he watches Eugene drift. Eugene thinks they match. He thinks Snafu is the same to him, just a bit broken, just as easily patched. That there's a place for him, in Eugene's gentle vision of the future. He doesn't know, Snafu thinks. He doesn't know how bad it gets. How bad Snafu would let it get, if it meant he could keep Eugene with him.
Eugene jerks. The first of the nightmares, easy as clockwork. Kicks Snafu in the shin, mumbling, "No, no stop," as if they ever would, here, with Snafu around, a sore Eugene's mistaken for a salve, a reminder of the bad things, a weight that drags him from safety.
Snafu touches the bitemark on Eugene's neck. It's already scabbed over. Eugene moans like he's being strangled, and Snafu knows the hurt his hands do, but he keeps it there because he wants to. Because he'll take until he can't justify it anymore. And the dream passes, and Eugene seems to calm, his face smoothing out, looking more like a young man again instead of a prisoner of war.
Takes his hand away.
But at least there are no hurts that he can give to Eugene that time will not cure.
He's only got two shirts, and he's got to wear one. The other fits into his seabag, along with his other pair of socks and his cash and his letters. He picks up his dogtags. Sets them down, picks them up again, holds them in his palm for a long, cowardly moment, closes his fingers over them. Puts them over his head, tucks them under his shirt so that they make less sound. They'll always say who he is. They'll jangle like plague bells, so others will know too.
Doesn’t look at Eugene again. Turn into salt if he does.
It's before dawn when he leaves. Dark on the edge of light.
they'll wound a nation
Sledge breathes in New Orleans. In Mobile, during the day, he holds his breath like he's keeping his guts from spilling out of a wound. Holds it in the face of untroubled laughter, holds it during tea time, during lecture. Holds it when picnics get cancelled because of rain, when people talk about the war and how terrible it was for sugar prices, for wheat. Holds it until he shakes with it, until he feels like he'll burst, like he'll never breathe again. And then he goes to New Orleans.
New Orleans means freedom, means darkness, means anonymity. New Orleans means meanness and harshness and things he's not afraid to break, sheets he's not afraid to get dirty. Means Snafu. Means nothing at all, except this is where Snafu is. Means this is the one place on earth where Sledge is not alone.
He comes down as often as he's able. He'd be here all the time, if only he could stay, if only he didn't have expectations, responsibilities, didn't have people who still wait, like shadows, for him to come back to their lives.
They look at Sledge like he's someone else, like he's a skin draped over someone they know. Like after a few months washing, some fat food, a bit of sleep, the alchemic effect of the mud and blood of the South Pacific would clear away and reveal him again to be his mother's baby boy, his father's younger son, Sid Phillips' quiet but loving friend.
They ask for Eugene, and Sledge replies for him, because he doesn't have the words, doesn't have the cruelty to tell them that Eugene is a figment of photographs and rose-colored stories. Eugene lives in bare-footed summers and sun-soaked springs. Eugene loves adventure and his country, shooting birds and watching fireworks. Eugene prays over his Bible and dances with pretty girls. His face smiles out from frames on his mother's walls.
Eugene never levelled a crosshairs at a screaming Jap and shot him in his non-vital places til he fell. Eugene never pushed the brain matter of an exploded man from his face to just to see the coordinates of a shelling attack. Eugene never faced down his death with only the unresisting thought of what a relief it would finally be.
Eugene's dreams are of long roads or running water. His nightmares are of falling.
Sledge doesn't dream. He remembers. Horrors. They are things that even Sledge himself can barely understand.
Snafu meets him at the train station. Sledge feels the anticipation climbing in his blood from across the Georgia state line. Feels it rise behind his teeth when he finally pulls in, spread thick and fierce across his lips when he finally sees him, catches his eye from between strangers, shoves past them to get to him. Smiles all the wider to see Snafu's matching grin, wants to kiss him, pull all the breath he's been missing from Snafu's lungs until he's full, but for that even Sledge still has respectability, and decorum, still cares enough about ridiculous social mores to control himself.
They shake hands, because that's what friends do, but they do it pushed up so close to one another their shoulders touch, because they're not friends. And Sledge will breathe in the first breath of him, a cleaner stink than before, still the same, and no more mere memory.
Snafu has a truck, but only barely. It's an engine and gearbox held together by faith and good will. He takes Sledge through the streets; they go into places he would never normally go, where he has no business going. Sledge likes the noise, likes the mess of it all. And there's no talk, no hedging questions or careful touches, because Snafu already understands. He accepts without explaining, eases without asking, and this Eugene Sledge, with his resentment and belligerence and brittle, careful calm -- his Eugene Sledge is the only one he's ever known.
So they'll eat, they'll laugh, they'll sit in silence. At stoplights, Sledge will pull one of Snafu's hands from the steering wheel and twist their fingers together until the light turns green again. On long stretches of empty road, Sledge will slouch against Snafu's shoulder and let his mind go empty and his body soft. In dark corners, in alleys, where the lights and persuasions of decent society can't find them, Sledge will steal into Snafu's space, crowd, crawl until he's half on top of him, and watch the black eat away the colour of Snafu's eyes.
Snafu's place is a room barely the size of Sledge's bedroom back in Mobile: it's a mattress in the corner and a table under a naked bulb. It's a kitchen and a sink and a toilet he shares with the rest of the hall, and it's diesel fumes that drift in from the street below. It's hollow walls that skitter with pests and echo with the lives of neighbors on all sides. It's more than either of them would have ever dreamt of, back on those godforsaken rocks on the Pacific, and that Snafu knows that, understands that, sees no need to apologise for it as he pushes hands under Sledge's clothes and lips under Sledge's lips.
They'll fight as often as fuck, bruises and heat, battered skin all the same, and Snafu draws him out, breaks through with simple touch all structures and mechanisms Sledge has engineered to keep himself from cracking, here, finally, and he's ready for the brutality Sledge keeps underneath, shatters him open just to meet it, just to match it. Bites when he should kiss, claws when he should caress. Opens his legs beneath him, snarling.
And Sledge takes, burning all he can reach up within himself to find, hissing and panting and groaning until the violence gives and yields within him and everything trembles to quiet.
And afterwards, they'll smoke when Snafu will offer Sledge a drag from the same cigarette. And afterwards, they'll talk, Snafu's long voice laughing low in his ear and Sledge's mindless fantasies spilled out between them. And afterwards, they'll sleep, and Snafu will allow himself to be held, provided it isn't summer and the sheets aren't too sticky or the room isn't too hot.
Sledge still startles himself awake sometimes, but they are silly imaginings, impossible fancies, like that Snafu's been separated, or that Snafu's gone missing, or the Japs are broken through, and Snafu's been shot -- which always seem so real. But when Sledge opens his eyes and Snafu's right there -- heavy limbs and sleepy, knowing eyes -- he puts his head back down and presses closer and remembers nothing the next time he wakes.
It's all he thinks about when he goes back to Alabama, tucked unhappily into sheets that smell only like daylight and laundry soap: the touch of Snafu's breath against his neck, the tangle of Snafu's body coiled around his, the stink of cigarettes and dust and old newspapers and Snafu, filling his lungs with an approximation of peace.
He spends four years like this, waiting for weekends and holidays, waiting to exist. It's enough to get him through, but his parents worry. His brother worries. Sid worries, and so does Mrs. Sid, because that's what good wives do, fret about their husbands' friends, share in their husbands' burdens. Sledge wonders what that makes Snafu, who shares not only in his worry, but his anger as well, his worthlessness and inhumanity and shame. Better than a girl, better than a wife: Sledge can't imagine sharing this with any woman, any person who didn't know exactly, just exactly what waits for him, there, every time he closes his eyes.
New Orleans isn't the only thing that makes it better, but it's the best. Sledge can be safe here. Sledge can be safe with him. Snafu fought to keep him safe during the war, killed for him, killed with him. Guarded him against Jap artillery and, when that proved insufficient, guarded him against himself. The feel of his skin is a refuge, beneath rain or mud or the slide of clean sweat. The arch of his hand fits Sledge's like a gearpiece, and what is memory, fear, what are demons up against the both of them together?
His last year of school, Sledge spends Christmas in New Orleans. His mother objects, his father frowns, but Sledge buys the ticket with his own money, packs a change of clothes and his books into his haversack, and he leaves. It rains the whole week he's there, and Snafu still has to work, but he comes home every afternoon with fried food and cigarettes and coffee they can add to their booze, and they sit underneath a blanket together, in the morning on Christmas Day, because neither of them believes enough in God anymore to make it all the way to church. The crack in the ceiling by the door leaks water, and one of them has to get up every half an hour or so to empty the mugs they're using to catch it, because Snafu doesn't have a stove and he doesn't cook anyhow, so why would he own pots or pans, Sledge, why don't you use that big brain of yours for once?
Sledge nurses half a white-bread sandwich in one hand and two or six fingers of cheap whisky in the other. Snafu hasn't got the voice for it, but he's belting his way through "Silent Night" in the ugliest Cajun French that Sledge has ever heard, consonants slipping from their vowels, syllables into each other like they've all been greased. Sledge laughs and shoves him but Snafu only grins and sings louder, til he's shouting, til the neighbours yell, and then Sledge kisses him to shut him up, swallows those obscene sounds until they're hiccups, sighs. His whisky disappears somehow, and his sandwich, because his hands are holding up Snafu's head, next he knows it, his fingers spread against the hard bone behind Snafu's ears.
Snafu returns his kiss lazily, softens his need, makes it a slower thing, contented, one hand braced lightly against Sledge's chest. He draws himself over Sledge's body and tugs at Sledge's half-shorn underclothes, gives up when Sledge puts his hands under his A-shirt, let's him pull it from him in one long slither.
He arches his spine when Sledge sets to lift him up by his narrow waist, tilts up his chin when Sledge settles him onto his back. Strokes his fingers over the curve of Sledge's skull when Sledge mouths at the crease of his thigh, the vein of his cock. Sighs like a confession when Sledge hooks his knees over his shoulders. Moans like a song when Sledge bends him back, presses against him, presses in. Murmurs Sledge's name, his eyelids lowered, only slivers of silver visible beneath.
Sledge wants to fall into him, like he always does, but especially now, in the rare times like this, when everything is easy and sweet, when Snafu is so languorous and biddable that the whole world goes quiet inside Sledge's head, and he starts to hope. Starts to dream. Tries to believe.
"I think I want to keep going to school," he speculates first.
Snafu's stretched out beside him, smoking, his head butted into the side of Sledge's shoulder. He snorts, scatters a smattering of ash onto an empty plate. "Ain't you smart enough?"
Sledge takes the cigarette because it's offered, but doesn't take a drag. "I like studying," he says. "I think I’ll teach someday."
Snafu pushes himself to his elbows, and his mouth parts in a wet noise, like he's about to say something profound. Closes it around his cigarette instead. Exhales. "You'd be good at that," he supplies instead.
For a moment, there is only the sound of the rain outside, the traffic in the street, the man next door, shouting at his wife. Sledge waits for a crescendo and tries to edge in beneath the noise, "I got a scholarship in Florida."
"Oh." Snafu sits up fully now, some unnameable trouble hooding his eyes. "Congratulations."
Sledge hums, as if unconcerned, though he can no longer hear the drag of Snafu's breath over the pulse of his own blood. He has things he wants to say, words that don't mean enough, sentiments that don't fit on his tongue at all, and certainly not on Snafu's. Picks up Snafu's hand, plays with his fingers but doesn't meet his eyes. But still, he asks, "If I go there, will you come with me?
Snafu pauses with his whole body and in an intolerable moment, it feels as if he will get up and leave. He doesn't, slurs uncharitably, "Say that again?"
"I want you to come with me," Sledge repeats so simply, it dries his mouth. Blinks up to meet Merriell's stare, crescent shaped in his face, fully grey.
"Gene," Merriell says, and Sledge knows something's wrong. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Why not?" He can taste his own heartbeat now, it's like metal on the back of his tongue. Pulls at Snafu's arm til he's sat up next to him, scratches his nails into Snafu's hair and watches him shiver, because Sledge knows how he likes to be touched, and he isn't above a bit of tactile manipulation.
"I just. It wouldn't be." This isn't fair to Snafu, asking him to defend himself in words when he's never been good with them, not as good as Sledge. It's just that he wants this, badly, and to have it, he needs to win. "I don't know," he concludes helplessly. But there's hope there, too. Merriell also wonders; he, too, dreams. Eugene recognises it, and Snafu would see it, if only he would say so aloud.
"Will you think about it?" Because he's made his choice, here, but he can't make this one too.
Snafu looks up at him, his expression unfocussed and broad. "What's there to think about?"
There is a breathless sense of loss, the primal sort of fear of dispossession, and Eugene leaps to grab hold of the thing before it flies from his hands. He wants to cry, wants to vomit, laugh again, tell Snafu to forget it, tell him they can go back to squabbling and drinking and making a ruckus, but that he has things he wants more. But that he has dreams.
"It’s okay," he promises quickly. "Whatever you decide. It won't have to change anything. I'll still come see you. I'll stay with you. Nothing has to be different. But will you think about it?" He shouldn't have said; he shouldn't have asked. It's too early, always too early, or far too late for the both of them.
It's such a small thing, and slow, but Snafu's smile cracks through and breaks the edges off Eugene's fear. "I’ll think about it," he says.
Eugene trips over himself in incredulous joy. Relief. A disbelieving wellspring of happiness. Kisses Snafu's cheek, then proclaims impulsively, "Wait, here, I want to give you something."
He stumbles across the room, picks up his satchel. Rummages through his books, his change of clothes, finds it at the bottom where he left it, where he hasn't touched it since getting off the train that first time, when he first came back. Fishes out his dogtags.
"You still got yours?"
Snafu nods cautiously. "They’re with my uniform."
Sledge sits back on the mattress, coiling the chain around his fist, crosslegged. "Go get it."
Snafu wavers uncertainly, but goes anyway. He's only got one hanger, hooked onto a bent nail on the wall across the room. His tags are looped around it, tucked underneath the collar of his olive-drab. He comes back, chain dangling from his wrist.
Sledge drags his thumb across his inscriptions. Sledge, Eugene B., it says. 586011, USMC. This was all he was, for a time, and it's as accurate a summary of who he is, as any that matter.
"One to bury, one to take home," he says, snaps the ball from its lock and slips a tag from its chain. Offers it over.
Snafu hesitates before he palms it, then slowly breaks off a tag of his own, relinquishes it in an outstretched fist.
"Which one do I get?" Snafu asks lowly. Sledge takes Snafu's tag when it's offered and locks next to his own.
"Home, of course." Sledge watches Snafu's fingers work carefully over the inscriptions before he threads it onto his chain. Sledge waits til he's done, then takes the tags from Snafu's hands and slips them over his head for him. "Always home."
Snafu smooths his palm over his chest, knots his knuckles into the chain. Looks up with eyes as blank and naked as open air.
Sledge leaves Sunday morning. He has class on Monday, bright and early, one last semester, one more season of Alabama. Snafu sees him to the station, his expression oddly vacant, faraway. Sledge can read Snafu's moods from his face as well as any man ever could, but in the times like this, when his mouth goes thin and his eyes go flat and opaque, Sledge may as well be reading the face of the sun.
He tries for reassurance: "I’ll be back the end of March at the latest," and when that doesn't work, he tries bribery: "I’ll write. I'll write every week. By the time I’m done, you’ll be sick of me and you'll want to shoot the postman every time he knocks on your door," and that seems to do it. Snafu turns to him, and the tug on the corners of his lips resembles a smile.
Eugene can't kiss him now, not in public, not in front of all these people, though he wants to, sorely. Makes for a one armed hug instead, brief enough to be friendly, but with enough extraneous movement that he manages to touch his mouth, momentarily, to the side of Merriell's neck. Snafu's eyes flash silver, and he reaches out to shake Sledge's hand. His palm is warm and dry and he holds on for an endless moment that speaks volumes of how much he doesn't want to let go.
They can't do that. Not here. Merriell's got to see that, got to see that's why he's got to come with him, when the time comes. They can't keep on like this. Eugene can't keep on like this, feeling like he's leaving pieces of himself tucked in Merriell's hands every time he leaves, taking last breaths like this when the train door closes.
Merriell's got to see that, in the life Eugene has left, he's the only breath worth taking.