Bastogne is hell. The word hell hardly seems big enough. Three letters, one syllable. Barely takes a breath to say it out loud – but it’s exactly that. Hell. Bill keeps them all sane by cracking his terrible jokes, and Buck is an ever present figure at their foxhole. It’s wearing on them all though. Bill’s smile is tight in a way it never was before, and Buck’s got this faraway look on his face. Like he’s seen what's coming and decided to check out before his body can catch up.
It’s Bull who Johnny can’t do without. Not now. Ever since Market Garden he’s been there at Johnny’s side. Bill looks at them sometimes, and Johnny can tell that he’s dying to ask. He wouldn’t though – how could he? To tell you the truth, Johnny isn’t even sure how he’d answer.
On Christmas morning the sun comes out – a weak sliver of light that snakes between the trees and is transformed into bright, blazing white by the snow. The snow falls, then melts, then seeps. Soaks through his clothes and then deeper still. Right down into the deepest part of himself, chilling him from the inside out. Johnny longs for summer – for the arid heat of it. The kind of warmth where the air might crackle like kindled firewood if you listened hard enough.
For now, the only sound is Bull approaching, the steady crunch-crunch of his heavy tread in the snow. They are far enough away from the others to not be overheard. Bull says nothing as he sits down next to him. Together they look forward, beyond the trees, breathing in time with each other.
“Merry Christmas,” Bull says after a while. He smiles at Johnny, so earnest and soft.
“Yeah,” Johnny says. “You too.” Wordlessly, he takes off one of his gloves, gritting his teeth against the cold. Bull does the same, and they press their palms close, slotting their fingers together. A well rehearsed ritual now. Bull’s hand is warm. Johnny runs his thumb along a callus, and closes his eyes. He wills the moment to last just a little longer. For a whole day if God’s feeling agreeable.
“It’s Joe Toye,” someone says. Johnny’s ears are ringing, and he can barely see through the thick canopy of the tree he’s crouching under. His heart beats jackhammer-fast, a rampant force that’s barely contained in his chest. Joe Toye. God damn it.
“Bill too,” another voice says, and Johnny feels that acutely. Bill too. It twists up through his stomach and lodges in his chest; a tight, cold dread.
He doesn’t know where Bull is, and he can’t bear to ask, or shout for him. He’s mourned him once already, and he can’t face doing it again. So he repeats those two words over and over in his head. Bill too, Bill too, Bill t-
Later, Bull does find him. It’s been a few hours now, enough to ascertain that Bill is not dead, but irreversibly changed. Made incapable of carrying on as he was, with the same going for Joe. Bill had tried to save him – and Johnny thinks back to Market Garden, when Bill had been so adamant that Bull wasn’t dead. Stubborn even in the face of certain disaster, and now his luck had taken a bad knock. Johnny had caught sight of the bright red streak in the snow. He hasn’t been able to think of much else since. When he sees Bull he sighs, and lets out a shaky breath.
“You came back,” he says, and he doesn’t really care if anyone picks up on the way he says it, or the way he looks up at Bull. Everyone is preoccupied now, coming to terms with how different the company feels already.
Bull smiles, a little sadder than before. “Don’t I always?”
Resentment isn’t something that Johnny should be harbouring. They made it out of that cold, awful forest alive, and now they’re getting to bunk down in a ruined house in a ruined town for a night or two. Might even be a few beds going, Liebgott had said. Johnny half expects Bill to pipe up in those moments, but he isn’t here to make light of any of it now. So Johnny looks down at Web standing there and feels nothing but resentment. Resentment that he’d been living it up in a nice, warm hospital while they almost froze to death. Resentment that he is here, and Bill isn’t. Resentment that he seems to be pleased to be back. Bull says nothing, but he shifts so that his thigh brushes against Johnny’s own.
“You were hard on him,” Bull says later. Johnny remembers him back in the pub in Aldbourne all those months ago. Refusing to join in while the other guys ripped those replacements to shreds.
“Yeah, well. He better get used to it.” Johnny doesn’t have Bull’s capacity for kindness. Not right now. All he can do is keep going, and stay sharp. Web will learn.
Johnny is tired. Bull looks like he’s built for this – he’s so broad and strong. He just seems to shoulder all of those horrors and later on, find time to ditch them at the side of the road. Johnny feels wrung out and small, and right now, useless. It feels good to be harsh with Web, even though it shouldn’t. He’s doing it just so he knows that he still can. A grim satisfaction.
“Hey,” Bull says, sensing Johnny’s drifting. He kneels down on the floor next to the bunk that Johnny has commandeered. He grunts as he readjusts the rifle at his shoulder – his bad shoulder. Johnny reaches for it without thinking. Bull smiles. “Not as hard as nails after all,” he says. “You do care.”
“Only when it’s you,” Johnny says, already fiddling with the fastening of Bull’s jacket. With Bull’s help he eases it off, and then presses his hand to the webbing of scar tissue at Bull’s shoulder, raised and ruinous enough to be felt through the fabric of his shirt. He shakes his head. “Didn’t Roe tell you to take care of this?”
“There’s a war on,” Bull says, and he takes Johnny’s hand and holds it against his chest, just below his collarbone. They’re alone for now, and Johnny’s whole body sings with something like joy at the tiny little gesture. “Don’t worry about me,” Bull says.
But I do, Johnny wants to say. You left me once and I’m terrified that you’ll do it again. Instead, he nods, and lets Bull grip his hand a little tighter. His hand dwarfs Johnny’s own, and for a moment Johnny allows himself to imagine the two of them lying down on this mattress and sleeping side by side. They had done that a lot in Bastogne, hunkered down in that cold, damp foxhole. Sharing a bed would be an unimaginable luxury.
“I think they’re going to ask me to lead the patrol tonight,” he says when Bull lets go of his hand. “No one’s said anything yet, but-” and he stops and shrugs instead, hoping it looks easier than it feels.
Bull doesn’t say anything for a long time. “Alright,” he says. “I’ll wait up.”
“Right here.” He smiles. “Don’t be late.”
There are voices coming from the stairs then, Luz and Liebgott audible above the uniform hum. Johnny wonders when they’ll get another chance to be alone.
The patrol starts badly, and ends even worse. Johnny comes back cold and wet, and heavy in a way he hasn’t felt before. He plays it all over in his head – Jackson bleeding out on the table, Roe’s soft voice trying to tell him it’ll be alright, Web pale with shock and sorrow.
He wishes that he could speak to Bill. He’d know exactly what to say now. He’d sling an arm around Johnny’s shoulders and launch straight into one of those bawdy stories of his, and somehow things wouldn’t feel so awful. Maybe Johnny will write to him when he gets the chance.
Bull is waiting up for him just like he said he would, his gaze unerring in the dark. Johnny looks back at him, and something is wordlessly communicated. Johnny can’t do anything more but kick off his boots and fall into his bed, and hope that Bull doesn’t mind he’s in no mood for talking right now. He falls asleep with his arm dangling over the side of the bunk, fingertips brushing the floor.
He finds Bull this time, sitting against a half blown-out wall. Smoking a cigar, looking up at the sky. It’s almost noon, but you wouldn’t know it. The sky is heavy and grey, and it feels like dusk already.
“Mornin’,” Bull says – and he doesn’t mention the look they shared last night just before Johnny passed out. Instead he shuffles over so that there’s enough room on the window ledge for Johnny to sit on too. He takes a slow, deep drag of his cigar before he speaks again. “I hear everyone’s pleased with how it went.”
“Yeah,” Johnny says. More than anything, he just wants to lean his head against Bull’s shoulder and shut his eyes. Instead, he leans forward, elbows on his knees. A truck moves past, clattering over the wet cobbles.
Bull waits for Johnny to elaborate, but Johnny isn’t even sure where to start. Eventually, Bull takes the initiative himself, lest the silence grow so cavernous it becomes uncomfortable. That’s never happened to them before. Not even during those first months where they tiptoed around each other, testing and testing to see if their mutually held suspicions were correct. “Alright,” he says, and grinds what’s left of his cigar out with the heel of his boot. “What’s eating you?”
“Your replacements,” Johnny says. “How many of them are still here?”
Bull looks at him, realising where this is going. His face is so serious all of a sudden. “Don’t,” he says softly. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Johnny shrugs, and picks at a loose thread on the seam of his trousers. “I was in charge,” he says. “Hard to think that it isn’t.”
“Has someone said something?” Bull asks, and Johnny can hear the concern there as clear as day. “Winters? Speirs?”
“Jesus, no,” Johnny starts, and then sighs. “I just-” and then stops again. “How do you deal with it?” he asks finally. It sounds pitiful even to his own ears.
Bull looks up at the grey, roiling clouds. “Do you think any less of me because of what happened to some of those replacements?” he asks. He looks back at Johnny, gaze steady. He can do that so easily – pin Johnny to the spot with just a look.
“No,” Johnny says. He doesn’t even need to think about it. “Of course I don’t.”
“So,” Bull says, “know that no one thinks it of you because of what happened last night.” He moves to reach for Johnny then, but remembers where they are. Johnny wonders where the aborted touch would have landed. “That’s how you’ve got to look at it.”
“Very pragmatic,” Johnny says.
Bull huffs out a laugh. “You sound surprised.”
“Yeah, well. I just didn’t expect it.”
“What was it you said? Back in Aldbourne. Folksy wisdom?’,” Bull says, and he’s trying to make Johnny laugh now. Despite himself, despite everything that’s going on around them, Johnny feels the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.
“Yeah Bull. You’re full of it. Absolutely full of it.”
When Winters tells them that they won’t have to do it again, Johnny almost sags against the wall in relief. He catches Web’s eye, and nods curtly – and feels a small but significant part of himself soften. Web smiles, a dumb happy grin – and Johnny sees Liebgott stare out of the corner of his eye.
They all make their way to back up to their rooms, but Johnny is too keyed up to sleep. He wanders until he’s shaken off the last guy, and then heads back on himself to where he, Bull, and four other men are sleeping. The room is quiet, the only sound a soft snore here and there. Johnny stands in the doorway, letting the frame bear his weight, and looks at Bull.
“Don’t want to sleep?” Bull says.
Johnny shakes his head. “No point trying.” He feels cheerful in a way that he shouldn’t, given everything that happened hours ago. He’ll probably wake up feeling like hell tomorrow, but right now he could jump all the way to the moon. Tonight feels full of possibilities.
Bull gets up quietly as to not wake the other men. “I, uh-” he starts once he’s right there next to Johnny, close enough to lean in and pitch his voice a little lower. “I found something upstairs.” Johnny raises an eyebrow, and Bull laughs. “What, you got somewhere better to be?”
There is nowhere else that Johnny would rather be, so he follows Bull up a flight of stairs and then, a ladder. The room isn’t much to look at really – a dusty old attic with peeling wallpaper, a faint smell of damp lingering in the air. A rusted metal bedframe with a mattress that probably wasn’t serviceable for a few years before the war sits in the corner. Still, Johnny’s heart beats a little quicker. He looks at Bull, and is met with a tentative little smile.
“Yeah?” he asks, hardly daring to hope that they’re on the same page here.
“Yeah,” Bull says. “If you want to.”
A couple of years ago, Johnny wouldn’t have known that he could want it. Then he’d met Bull, and slowly, slowly, he’d understood. Lately, it’s been all that he can think about – Bull pressing him down into a soft mattress, his lips softer against Johnny’s jaw. Yeah, he wants it all right. Johnny nods. “You done this before?” he asks.
Bull nods. “Once.”
Johnny scowls, despite himself. He hadn’t been expecting that. He rights his face before he speaks, trying to keep his voice light. “What, down on the farm?” It doesn’t work.
“Yeah,” Bull replies. He looks at Johnny’s mouth as he says it, and his gaze travels further down to the edge of his collar. He nudges Johnny on the arm then, trying to lighten his own tone now. “A real roll in the hay,” he says. Johnny feels a little jealous at the thought – that someone was lucky enough to know Bull like that first.
“Was it good?” Johnny asks.
“Yeah,” Bull says. “Yeah, it was. Wouldn’t be asking you otherwise.”
Johnny looks back towards the hatch. It’s shut, the handle tied with a thick length of rope to stop anyone pushing it open from below. His thoughts drift beyond it. To spot that the two of them are missing and then climb the stairs only to be met with a ladder and a hatch that won’t budge – well, it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out. It’s an incredible risk. He finds that he doesn’t care.
“Show me,” he says to Bull, and then there are hands at his waist.
“Have you been thinking about it?” Bull asks, the grip of his hands surer with each passing second – and for one delirious moment Johnny thinks that he’s going to pick him up and hold him against the wall. He grabs at Bull’s collar with both hands, hauls him close, and then Bull is picking him up. Only he carries him back to the bed, laying Johnny down on it so carefully.
“Holy shit,” Johnny says, no, gasps.
Bull laughs, a deep, rumbling sound. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Johnny has to think for a minute, then he sighs. “Yeah,” he says. “I have been thinking about it. A hell of a lot.”
He watches Bull strip – the quick work of his hands unlacing his boots, the roll of his shoulders as he shrugs off his shirt, the way his breath hitches a little when he catches Johnny watching. He blushes, and now he’s just in his tank top and briefs Johnny sees how he flushes pink from his cheeks down to his chest.
“C’mere,” Johnny says softly. He lays back and lets Bull ease his clothes off, until they’re both in nothing but their underwear. A minute of consideration, and that is gone too. Bull is strong and golden, and Johnny presses his palms flat against his chest, and then lower still. “Jesus,” he says – and then he lets Bull press him back into the mattress.
Johnny can’t pretend he’s an expert here – this and a few panicked teenage kisses are the sum total of his experience with other guys. He knows what feels good though, you don’t need to learn that. So he moves against Bull, works his hips just so. He hooks a leg around Bull’s waist and tries to drag him down to rut against him. Bull does just that, and, God, it’s good. It’s almost indescribable. Almost.
He can feel Bull’s dick against his hip; the hot, hard press of it. His own cock twitches at the thought of Bull being as affected as he is, and his hips move involuntarily – a short, sharp jerk. Bull gasps, a hot little exhalation against Johnny’s neck. “You’re getting the hang of it pretty quickly,” he whispers.
“Don’t stop,” Johnny says, digging his heel into the flesh of Bull’s upper thigh. “You can lay on the compliments later.”
It’s easy after that. Bull’s hand on the small of his back, the other gripping the headboard. Johnny’s knees up around him, his face in the crook of Bull’s neck. They make it work, moving instinctively, a slow, maddening grind. It’s almost too good, a deep, low ache building in the pit of Johnny’s stomach before too long. Johnny can’t speak for Bull, but it’s been a while for him.
“You’re lovely,” Bull says against his hair, and Johnny runs a hand over the scar on his shoulder as he bucks up against him, shuddering. “So lovely.” Then, almost shyly, “I’m close.”
Johnny could cry, or laugh, because he feels too small to contain so much feeling. That blooming, low heat; the dazzling, white-hot surge of adoration. Then deeper still, bone-deep from temple to toe, something else entirely. So he laughs, and kisses Bull’s cheek. “Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”
Johnny wishes that he could get a better look at Bull’s face as he comes, but it’s dark, and he wants to kiss him and swallow the sounds that he makes. So he settles for this – a groan, the twist of Bull’s body closer and further away all at once. The mad skitter of his pulse under Johnny’s fingers, the unmistakable pulse of his cock against Johnny’s hip. It’s over too quickly, and Johnny is so hard that it hurts a little now – but he knows that he’ll be thinking about this for years. “Fuck,” Bull mutters against his neck. “Oh, God. Give me a minute.”
Johnny looks up towards the ceiling and breathes out slowly. Eventually, Bull moves, pushing himself up, hands either side of Johnny’s head. “You look good,” Johnny says, because he does. Eyes heavy, hair mussed, lips a little pink and puffy from kissing. Bull smiles, and then presses a kiss to Johnny’s sternum, then lower, just below his belly button. “What-” Johnny begins, and then groans, closing his eyes.
“I wanna take care of you,” Bull says. “You’ve been through it these past few days,” and with that, takes Johnny in his mouth. Johnny does well not to shout, and opens his eyes slowly. He looks down. Oh God. What a sight. He can’t bear it.
Bull’s mouth on him, his hand hand splayed across Johnny’s stomach – they’re so warm Johnny feels dizzy with it. All those nights in Bastogne, that never-ending chill, they seem like they hardly happened now. He tilts his hips upwards, helpless. “Bull,” he says, voice unsteady and altogether too loud. “Holy fuck.” He breathes in a little, and it catches halfway.
Bull stops what he’s doing, and laughs, face pressed to Johnny’s thigh. “Shhh,” he murmurs. “Not so loud. You want Speirs in here seeing what all the noise is?”
Johnny is pretty sure he would look Speirs dead in the eye and dare him to drag him out of the room. His hand is still in Bull’s hair, and he tugs on it a little impatiently. “Alright,” he says, low and quiet. “Not so loud then.”
Bull, satisfied, gets back to it. His mouth is warm and sure around Johnny’s cock, and Johnny curses and praises whoever taught Bull to do this in equal measure. He makes a small sound, more of a breath than anything, and grips Bull’s hair a little tighter. This makes Bull moan around Johnny’s cock, and yeah, he’s not going to last for much longer if Bull keeps doing that.
It turns out he doesn’t last much longer anyway. The urgent feeling grows and grows, and he curls his toes and twists his heels. Bull doesn’t let up, keeps on working Johnny with his mouth and holding him still. Firmly, tenderly. He looks up after Johnny can't help making a noise – and that’s what does it. Johnny presses his hand against the one that Bull’s got splayed across his belly, and tries to hold it together as he comes. He doesn't succeed, not when Bull doesn't let up with his mouth the whole time. Johnny curses, a little too loudly again. It’s so good, searing in its intensity. He shakes through it and after, both he and Bull lay there gasping in the dark.
Getting dressed, climbing back down that ladder and then creeping back to their bunks seems like an insurmountable challenge. They’ll be lucky if their friends aren’t looking for them already though, so it has to be done. Johnny shifts, and Bull kisses him at the juncture of his hip and thigh. “Well-” he begins– and then Johnny laughs, feeling lighter than has done in months.
They ration themselves five more minutes, and for three of them Johnny imagines pulling the covers over them both and sleeping until midday.
The sun rises, and everyone else follows suit. Johnny catches Bull’s eye as he does up his boots, and he can’t help but smile. The aches that he has accumulated over the past few days have well and truly bedded in now – a sore back, an aching knee, a bruised rib or two. He thinks of Bull’s hand at the small of his back last night, and then later, the same hand spread surely over his stomach. The solid, warm pressure of it. He’d like to feel that again, and to make Bull feel so cared for in turn.
He’s not sure where they’re headed next. It could be somewhere like this, with a dark hiding place that’s just waiting for them to make use of it. Or it could be somewhere where it’s trickier to slip away unnoticed, where they’ll have call on luck that little bit more. Still, Johnny knows that last night wasn't the last time. He feels sure of it – just like he did right after Bull had kissed him all those months ago. They’ll do it again, and again. Maybe it could even be nurtured beyond the war, at home. He imagines that as he cleans his rifle, not really caring if it’s fanciful.
“You good?” Bull asks when they’re alone for a moment on the stairs. Well, alone as they can be. Johnny can hear Web and Liebgott down the hall, arguing again. Further on down the stairs, Luz hollers, and beyond that, there’s a cough that is just about identifiable as Lipton’s. Still. They have a moment, as fleeting as it will no doubt turn out to be.
‘You good?' Well, what happened on that last patrol can’t be changed, and Johnny supposes that they’ll have to live through a few more awful days before they get to go home. A few more sleepless nights too. Despite that though, he finds that it’s an easy question to answer.
“Yeah,” Johnny says, and he means it. “I’m good.”