Chapter 1: Part 1
The first time Johnny Martin meets Bull Randleman is his first day with Easy Company. They’ve all just arrived at Toccoa, all just been assigned to Easy, and beyond the first day jitters they’re all sizing each other up. Everyone wants to know who’ll make it, who’ll wash out. Who they’re really gonna want at their side when shit gets tough. The barracks are full of noise as everyone finds their bunk and jostles for space and makes introductions and Johnny quietly assesses every man he meets. Perconte’s teeth are blindingly white and Guarnere has possibly the most annoying laugh he’s ever heard and Malarkey’s so young Johnny wonders if he lied his way in and Blithe is just plain weird. He looks up at Bull as he shakes his hand, thinks, ‘big stupid hick’ and moves on.
He’s surprised to learn just how wrong he is. Bull’s size suggests a lethargy that’s nowhere to be seen as he outpaces most of the guys—Johnny included—in their daily runs up and down Curahee. And while his slow easy smile makes him seem slow in the head, too, one of those guys who will never be more than a private—a perfect, dumb follower—there’s more to the story there, too. Sure, Johnny’s often the one to get in a guy’s face and dress him down, livid every time someone gives that prick Sobel something to pick at. But after the tenth, twentieth, hundredth times they’ve been cussed out, had their passes revoked, been sent up and down Curahee yet again, he notices Bull with the guys in the squad he himself hasn’t gotten around to glaring daggers at yet. He’s there with a gentle shove and murmured advice, offers to help them double check this and that before the next inspection. It’s all in the same gruff, gentle tone but it somehow holds as much steel as Martin’s own words ever do, and he can see the way spines straighten and heads nod under Bull’s tutelage as much as under his own.
Bull catches him staring one day as he’s giving just such a talk to Muck and he simply grins, wide and slow, shrugs those giant shoulders and Johnny has to turn around quick before anyone see the responding smile he can’t quite quell.
Johnny starts to pay more attention to Bull after that, really trying to see what kind of man he is, what kind of soldier he’ll be. A damn fine one from the look of things. And beyond his size and that thick Southern drawl is a thoroughly decent, bright man. So Johnny finds his perceptions of him shifting, but then again, his perceptions of all of them are shifting. Even Guarnere’s honking laugh is almost endearing by this point, enough to lift all their spirits at the end of a long day. They’re starting to fit together as a Company, and Johnny’s surprised by how much affection he’s starting to feel for all of them. Surprised, but not unhappy about it—it helps to actually like the men that his life will be depending on whenever they finally finish their training.
“How am I supposed to get pig guts off my boots?” Perconte whines as they trudge back to the barracks after a particularly messy day.
“How should I know?” Martin says. “How ‘bout you ask the hick.” He gestures at where Bull’s walking ahead of them and Perco laughs.
When they’re all sitting down and starting to clean their boots, Martin’s about to wipe his boots cleans with a rag when Bull’s voice stops him.
“Martin you gotta use a brush,” he says, “only way to get the guts off.”
And Johnny believes him, brings his brush up, is about to stick it in the entrails and blood and mud that have dried onto his boots when he realises that this about the stupidest thing he could possibly do, that if he were to do it he would never get the pig gut residue off of his brush and he stops, looks up, and Bull’s just sitting there with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. Johnny glares bloody murder at him, flings his brush right at Bull’s head and Bull just catches it and laughs and so do all the other guys and Johnny can’t help but join in.
Big funny stupid hick.
After that, Bull doesn’t hold back, and Johnny begins to expect the jokes, the easy laugh, the ever-surprisingly sharp wit.
Still, he doesn’t fully revise his initial assessment of the man until much later. Sobel announces a prize for their hard work: an afternoon off and spaghetti for lunch and they all eat like they’re starving. Any change to the bland rationed army food they’ve been living off of is a gift and army noodles with ketchup, as gross as they would be at any other time, taste pretty damn good right now.
“There’s gotta be a catch,” Bull says around a mouthful of spaghetti, not pausing to eat for a second.
“The catch is the indigestion you’re gonna get,” Johnny tells him. “Jesus Bull that’s your third plate.”
“Mark my words, Johnny, Sobel ain’t the kind of man to do nice things for no reason. It’s like this fellow I knew…” and Johnny’s gearing himself for yet another instructional hick parable about some guy Bull used to know (and really how many people could possibly live in nowhere-Arkansas) when the door slams open and there’s Sobel, fulfilling Bull’s prophecy as clear as if he’d heard him and came to prove him right.
And then they’re on their feet, running to change into PT gear and then onto the awful slog up the mountain. As they run, aching and heaving, Johnny watches the back of Bull’s head and wonders how he managed to be so right.
Later that night right before lights out Johnny pulls Bull aside.
“You were right,” he says, “about the spaghetti.”
“Happens, on occasion,” Bull says, and there’s that smile again, that shrug.
“Yeah, yeah, that folksy wisdom of yours finally came in handy. But what I can’t figure out is you still ate the spaghetti. Even though you knew Sobel was up to something.”
“Sure I did,” Bull replies.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Aw hell Johnny,” Bull laughs, “how does sense matter when your stomach’s rumbling?” and, as they head to bed, Johnny thinks Bull might just be the smartest guy in the company.
The really crazy thing about Bull is the more time Johnny spends with Bull, the more time he wants to spend with him. That’s pretty fucking rare. As much as these guys are his brothers now, or whatever other asinine way you wanna describe it, he still gets tired of the commotion inherent in their camaraderie. Maybe he likes Bull so much because Bull doesn’t seem to need to fill every passing second with conversation.
And so, when Johnny gets promoted to Sergeant, the first person he tells is Bull and somehow the grin on Bull’s face, the way he takes his cigar out of his mouth to say, “well look at you Johnny Martin. Can’t say I’m surprised, though,” fills Johnny with as much joy as he felt getting those chevrons in the first place.
England brings weekend passes and beer, dancing and games of basketball and Johnny’s as excited at the prospect of all of that as he is at the prospect of being off the hellishly loud and crowded ship. He’d tired of that experience by about the third hour of Gonorrhea griping about what was, in Johnny’s opinion, a very well deserved bloody nose and had passed the rest of the painfully long voyage attempting to catch up on sleep, glaring at anyone who interrupted him, and thanking his lucky stars that he wasn’t one of the poor sucks who spent the whole time puking into a bucket.
Most of the guys spend their free time doing their best to charm their way into some pretty young lady’s arms—both on the dance floor and beyond. Johnny, however, is married, and not as liable to forget about that as some, and Bull is uninterested in the dancing for reasons Johnny doesn’t know and considers none of his business, so most weekend evenings find them doing their best to seek out beer and cigars and a quiet place to sit and talk.
They find a decent supply of all three and Johnny begins to get used to those quiet conversations, a rare moment of privacy in their hectic world. They talk about the war and fucking useless-ass Sobel and all the other gossip and, of course, home and Johnny even manages to keep most of his sarcastic comments at Bull’s tales to himself. Though sometimes he says something so backwoods-hick-might-as-well-have-a-piece-of-wheat-in-his-mouth-instead-of-that-cigar that Johnny can’t help but go off on him, ripping into him even as he’s laughing about it and Bull, to his credit, always laughs even harder than Johnny does.
“She looks like a real nice lady,” Bull says one night when Johnny shows him a picture of Vivian.
“Yeah, she is.”
“What do ya miss most about home?” Bull asks after a bit, listens patiently as Johnny tells him about the little pond just outside of Columbus that he used to take Vivian to, the winding country road they’d drive down, the picnics they’d hold there.
And he listens to Bull’s stories of the farm, of the crops his family grows, long summer nights on the porch, and his favourite chicken.
“Chicken?” Johnny asks.
“Yeah,” Bull says like it’s the most normal thing, “my favourite chicken, her name’s Greta.”
It’s weird but it’s so fitting, somehow. Of course Bull would have a favourite chicken, of course.
“I can’t believe we got away with it,” Johnny says another night, right after their mutiny against Sobel.
“Me neither,” Bull agrees. “All things considered though I’m pretty happy not to have been lined up against a wall and shot.”
“Yeah?” Johnny grins, “no shit. And here I was thinking you were a stupid fucking hick going along for the fun of it.”
And Bull just grins back and shrugs and puffs on his cigar and Johnny wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Are you scared?” Bull asks him on a different night, though this time they’re not out in Aldbourne, they’re hiding in the back of the hall as everyone else watches a picture, grounded by the fog, and if it were anybody else Johnny would be staring them down, daring them to think him anything other than perfectly prepared.
“I think you’d have to be an idiot not to be,” Johnny murmurs back instead. “You?”
“Well, yeah. Scared, a little excited in some way, finally doing what we’ve been training to do for so long.”
“Berlin by Christmas,” Johnny says, nudging Bull’s shoulder with his own.
And Bull says, “yeah, sure Johnny, Berlin by Christmas.”
“Guarnere’s brother died,” Johnny says after a moment.
“Shit,” Bull says. ‘“He tell you?”
“No, Vivian. I sent her everyone’s names and she keeps an eye out for casualty lists and all that.”
“You tell him?” Bull asks.
“Didn’t know how,” Johnny says. “I dunno, I wasn’t gonna tell him until after the jump but then it got cancelled so…”
“You still haven’t told him?”
“No, I uh, I swapped my jacket with his, left the note in the pocket, figured that way he would just find it, or not. Leave it up to chance or whatever.”
Bull stares at him for the longest time, just stares and puffs on his cigar, and then finally he drawls, “and you call me the stupid one.”
“What?” Johnny leans back, crosses his arms, immediately defensive.
“Bill’s your friend, Johnny. He deserves to have heard it from you.”
Johnny continues glaring at him for a moment until he realizes that Bull is right. “Shit,” he says. Smartest fucking guy in the company indeed.
They jump into a howling darkness lit only by explosions and it's a miracle that any of them survive it at all. A miracle that any of them land anywhere near the drop zone. Johnny hits the ground and rolls to absorb the impact: it’s exactly like their training jumps, nothing else is.
He cuts himself free from his chute and heads for the cover of trees, trying desperately to get his bearings in the oppressive darkness. He has no idea where he is, and only a vague one of where he needs to go. Turns out sand tables aren’t that fucking useful when you can’t see your own hand in front of your face.
He keeps going, though, decides on a direction and sticks to it, figures that eventually he’ll find something to guide his way.
He’s on the Krauts almost before he’s registered that they’re there. One moment he’s alone in the darkness, the next he’s stumbled into a break in the trees. He registers the language in a second, doesn’t even bother with flash or thunder, just lifts his rifle and fires. Shoots all three where they sit before they can do more than shout.
He takes a moment to breathe heavy, to register what just happened, and then he’s moving forward, checking the bodies to make sure they’re dead. The men were eating and almost by instinct he goes for their food, rifling through to see what’s salvageable. He finds rations of dried meat and thick bars of chocolate.
He’s putting it in his pack before he fully realizes what he’s doing: stealing from men he killed whose bodies aren’t yet cold on the ground. Is this what war has made of him? In just a couple of hours? It’s not worth thinking on, Johnny tells himself. This is just how it is and how it’s gonna be. He sets his shoulders and moves on.
It’s nearing dawn when Johnny hears the snap of branches breaking under foot behind him.
“Flash,” he whispers as he whirls around
“Thunder,” he gets back in a drawl so familiar he can hardly believe his ears.
“Bull?” he asks, breathless, and then Bull is stepping out in front of him and even if Johnny can barely see him silhouetted against the trees he can feel the solidity of his presence and it makes him feel immediately more grounded, more sure.
“Well fancy meeting you here,” Bull says, smooth and slow as molasses.
Johnny punches him. “Jesus! You too dumb to notice we got scattered all over the dz?”
He knows Bull is grinning, knows he’d be laughing out loud if they weren’t being quiet and careful.
They keep moving the same way Johnny had been headed, carefully picking their way through trees and into clearings, the moon only occasionally bright enough to light their way. They come upon a copse of trees, well-positioned on some higher ground, as good a place as any for a vantage point with the trees for cover.
“Why don’t we stop here?” Bull says, “wait until it’s full light? Don’t make no sense for us to wander around without a clue where we’re headed.”
Johnny agrees and they settle into place, leaning up against each other so they can keep an eye on everything, their rifles on their knees in case there’s trouble. It reminds Johnny of the boat to England, of how he’d lean up against Bull while reading or trying to sleep—one of the few ways to get comfortable on a ship teeming with people.
He reaches into his pack for food, finds the stuff he’d stolen off the Germans first, only hesitates for a minute before pulling out one of the chocolate bars.
“Here,” he says, breaking off a piece and handing it over.
“That’s damn good chocolate,” Bull says.
“Pulled it off some Krauts a ways back.” Johnny doesn’t elaborate further but he’s sure Bull understands.
They sit in silence for a long moment.
“Found one of the boys from the 82nd strung up in a tree a ways back,” Bull murmurs.
“82nd?” Johnny replies. “Fuck! Where the hell did they drop us?” And then his brain catches up and he processes what Bull said and what he didn’t say. “Dead?” he asks.
“Not when I got to him.”
“Shit Bull.” Johnny leans a bit harder into him, hopes the pressure lends the comfort he isn’t able to voice. “What’d you do?”
“What can you do?” Bull says. “I held his hand. Told him it was okay. Told him I’d tell his parents he’d died well. I got his dog tags, I’ll send them home when I can.”
Johnny doesn’t doubt for a second that he will.
They get moving again after dawn and Johnny is happy to rely on Bull’s impossibly keen sense of direction to get them to the rendez-vous point.
In Carentan Johnny sees his first real action, something beyond a little skirmish. It’s loud and chaotic and Johnny’s still trying to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance of running towards the people shooting at them instead of away. But Johnny’s a good soldier. He goes where he’s bid and does what he’s told and that’s that. He ends up in a foxhole with Blithe, who’s just as weird as he ever was. He’s not Johnny’s first choice for a partner but at least he seems happy to stay awake and let Johnny sleep.
They’re not in France for long before they’re shipped back to England. All things considered, Johnny can’t complain about that. He’s happy for warm showers and cold beer and no one trying to kill him—unless you count Moore careening about on that motorcycle, almost killing half the company.
England is much the same as it was before, but somehow also markedly different, tilted slightly, tinged with an other he can’t quite explain. It takes him two days to understand that England hasn’t changed: he has.
Still, he drinks beer as Bull puffs away on his cigar and they chat about everything that happened on the continent and back home and when and where they’ll be deployed next.
When Bull gets promoted Johnny’s the first guy he tells. Johnny gets to be the first person to shake his hand, to warmly clasp his shoulder, to say, “Congratulations, Sergeant.” The first person to see the way Bull beams back at those words and there’s a warmth that settles in his chest then that’s made of more than booze and a crackling fire.
Just like that, they’re told they’re leaving, jumping into France again. And then, just as quickly, the jump is cancelled and they’re left to pull off their gear and wipe their faces clean. Bull helps Johnny loosen the ties holding his pack in place and Johnny returns the favour, even though Bull has to practically kneel so that Johnny can reach everything. They’re showing a picture in the main hall, giving the men something to do now that the jump’s off but Johnny’s too tightly wound to just sit and look at a screen, so while everyone else files into the room he hangs back.
“Not going in?” The quiet words make Johnny spin around. Bull’s leaning against the building, all nonchalant and casual, puffing away on his ever-present cigar.
“Gonna go stretch my legs,” Johnny says.
“Mind if I join you?”
“I’m not big enough to stop you if I did.”
Bull laughs at that, one of those deep belly laughs that Johnny loves being the cause of. “After you.”
Johnny leads the way into the lightly wooded area that surrounds the base. It’s late afternoon, almost evening, and the sky is getting dusky just as the air is getting cool. They wander for a bit, finally coming across a little hill. Johnny falls to the ground with a sigh and Bull follows suit, sitting close enough that their arms and thighs are pressed together. It’s unnecessary out here in this expanse of nothing but it harkens back to foxholes and troop transports and it’s strangely grounding so Johnny isn’t about to complain.
They’re silent for a long moment. “It’s gonna be strange fighting alongside replacements,,” Johnny says finally.
“Probably will be, we need ‘em though.”
“Yeah, we do. Still, it was one thing fighting when you had a Toccoa man by your side, but some green rookie you’ve never met before?”
“I know,” Bull says. He puffs away on his cigar and then, “I heard my squad’s gonna be mostly replacements. For some reason I can’t quite fathom they figured they should put their newest guys with their newest Sergeant.”
“Maybe they just thought you were the best man for the job.”
“Could be,” he shrugs, “I guess we’ll soon find out.”
Johnny’s worried though, not that Bull won’t be good for his men—that’s laughable, Bull’s the best Sergeant they have, Johnny included—but that these boys will take one look at Bull’s oafish size and hick accent and will write him off as a useless idiot. Like Johnny himself once did. But he knows better now and he’s gonna do his darndest to teach Bull’s boys better too.
“Well would ya look at that,” Bull says, pulling Johnny from his thoughts. He looks away from Bull and towards the sky that he’s pointing at and his breath hitches when he takes in the sight. They have a perfect view of the sun setting beyond the trees, the sky painted in brilliant orange, low hanging clouds standing out in pale blues and purples. They sit and watch the sky change colours into a hush of dusky darkness, still pressed up against each other and France and Jerry and the war all seem very far away indeed.
Johnny’s honestly just surprised that Bull’s letting he and Bill get away with this, that he’s somehow happy to stand back and smoke his cigar and not intrude in any way. He sips his beer, waits patiently for Bill’s story about Heffron to come to an end and then he happily cuts in with a comment about Bull’s folksy wisdom, grins up at Bull for a moment before he and his best glare are needed to stop the replacements’ laughter in their throats. They’ll think twice before laughing at Bull again.
And then Bill walks off and Cobb opens his fucking mouth and that’s Johnny’s cue to leave. The army can make him do many things but it can’t force him to stick around and listen to whatever nonsense Cobb’s decided to spout. He heads to search for more beer, gets caught up chatting with Buck instead. He doesn’t need to listen to what’s happening behind him to know that Bull will wait until Cobb’s done and then quietly put an end to the whole thing.
He just waits for Bull’s presence behind him and when he knows he’s there, they walk towards the back of the room. It’s one of Johnny’s favourite things, really, this easy synchronicity they’ve found, both of them happy to head wherever they’re going together. He’s thinking of a walk in the chilly night air, a chance to clear his head, and he’s about to suggest it to Bull when they’re interrupted by Lipton’s announcement—and of course it’s Lip, cause it always seems to be up to him to deliver any bad news.
The mood in the bar immediately turns more somber and Johnny looks up at Bull, jerks his head towards the door, and Bull nods, follows him out.
“Think the kids are ready?” he asks when they’ve gotten a few paces away from the bustle of the pub. ‘The kids’ is Johnny’s new go-to moniker for the replacements in Bull’s squad, easy and familiar but just disdainful enough to suit them—and him—perfectly.
“They’ll be okay,” Bull says.
“Sure,” Johnny says. With Bull watching their backs they have more of a chance than the rest of the new guys at the very least.
“Won’t be kids for much longer,” Bull says after a pause and it’s so bare and true it makes Johnny’s breath hitch. The odds are pretty slim that any of them are gonna make it out of this thing unscathed but they can’t think about that because thinking about that is akin to giving up right here right now; the only thing keeping them alive is the determination to ignore the awful cost of this war.
“I tell you what that nutter of a lieutenant from Dog told Blithe that night outside of Carentan?” he says, suddenly reminded of what he’d overheard while trying his damndest to sleep.
“No,” Bull says. “Wait, which one? Speirs?”
“Yeah,” Johnny laughs, “you’ve heard the stories, right?”
“Yeah, never really believed them, though.”
“Apparently Malarkey saw him shoot those Krauts on D-Day,” Johnny shrugs, “as for the rest of it…”
“He ain’t exactly trying to put the record straight though,” Bull says. “I think he likes being talked about. I’ve known a few guys like that back home—”
“Yeah, yeah, of course you knew a guy down on the farm like that, you know that’s how all your stories go? Jesus, how many people could you possibly have known in Arkansas, there aren’t that many people there!”
Bull just laughs, “alright, I’ll try to quell the ‘folksy wisdom’. Anyway, what were you gonna say in the first place? What Speirs told Blithe?”
“Oh, right,” Johnny lets himself be pulled back on track. “Well Blithe started confessing to Speirs, saying how he’d slept away D-Day in a ditch or some shit like that, who knows why. Maybe he believed all the stories and just had a death wish. And anyway Speirs comes right back and tells him that the only way to survive the war is just to accept that you’re dead already and you’re never gonna make it out alive.”
“Christ,” Bull says.
“Yup. Say what you will about the stories, the guy’s nuts.”
“Well at least me and my hick tales aren’t the worst advice being passed around the battalion.”
“Sure Bull,” Johnny grins. “Right. You keep telling yourself that.”
Bull’s back . Bull’s back and Johnny feels like he can finally breathe again. Being in war means accepting that any of the people around you, and you yourself, could die at any point and Johnny knows that. He accepted that long before he ever jumped into France but it was different this time. It was different when Bull was there one moment, gone the next, and no matter how loud Johnny shouted his name he couldn’t find him.
He hadn’t realized just how close he and Bull had become—that between beers and cigars and willingly jumping out of fucking planes together they had become best friends, that Bull is the best friend he’s ever had.
He had tried to accept it, tried to make peace with Bull being dead, with the sick feeling in his stomach that just plain wasn’t going away. He spent all night trying to accept it at his new normal but he just couldn’t. And then someone was tapping his shoulder and he turned around and the sound he made was no voluntary shout, it escaped out of him, a necessary outlet for the joy washing over him cause there was Bull grinning like nothing had happened at all and Johnny still hasn’t quite forgiven Bill for not telling him that the kids were going on that rescue mission.
None of them were happy about retreating from Eindhoven but they’ve accepted it, have accepted their current position and the doldrums of camp work keeping them busy until they’re told where to go next.
Johnny walks into one of the barns they’ve been using as storage and sees Bull there, slinging around bundles of supplies. The damn fool’s obviously working hard, using both his good and injured arms, and Johnny feels an immediate wave of anger. Bull’s sweating from the effort and as Johnny gets closer he can see that the bandage on his shoulder is dark with blood.
“Bull!” he shouts and Bull turns around with an easy grin.
“Hey Johnny. How’s it going?” Like nothing’s wrong at all.
“What the hell are you doing?” Johnny asks, seething.
“Just helping out.”
“Sit down,” Johnny orders him and Bull starts at the tone but he lets Johnny drag him to a nearby crate, dutifully sits down when Johnny pushes at him. “God, Bull, what the hell were you thinking?”
“Fuck, Bull.” Johnny starts pulling at the bandages, his fingers trembling with anger. “Jesus Christ! Doc Roe told you to rest this arm, weren’t you listening? What the hell are you playing at doing this kind of work? Who assigned you to this?”
“Nobody. C’mon Johnny I was just trying to make myself useful.”
“Oh, right, useful. Cause you’re sure fucking useful bleeding over everything with a bum arm. Do you think before you do things? Or is this just hick logic, getting yourself all screwed up over nothing—”
“It’s fine, Johnny.”
“—cause of course why wouldn’t you just keep going like nothing’s happening. It’s not like half your back got chewed up by shrapnel! No, that’s fine, nothing to it—”
“Johnny,” Bull tugs at his arm, “it’s fine .”
“No, Bull! No, it’s not fucking fine. You almost died out there! First you get all fucked up by a tank and then you’re nowhere to be fucking found and christ, Bull, I thought—” Johnny stops, unable to finish the sentence, unable to finish the thought, even, cause a world without Bull is unthinkable.
“Hey,” Bull says, softer now, his hand tugging gently at Johnny’s elbow. “Hey, Johnny, I’m fine. I’m okay.”
Johnny lets Bull pull him to a seat beside him, does his best to let his breathing even out. “I know,” he says. “I know you are, but…”
“Yeah,” Bull says quietly. “Yeah I know.”
“You’re a fucking idiot,” Johnny says but his tone has softened now and the sentiment has none of its usual bite.
“Yeah. I know.”
They sit for a moment in silence, shoulders pressed against the other’s just like they’ve sat so many other times and Johnny can’t do anything but drink in the feeling of Bull beside him, so solid and so very alive. Johnny’s not a praying man but he’d be willing to believe in a god right here right now.
“Let me bandage you up,” he says finally, ever grateful that he’s started carrying a couple of extra bandages with him everywhere he goes.
“Hey,” he says as he gets to work, needing a distraction from the naked emotion of the moment past. “I never told you about Peacock did I?”
“Don’t think so,” Bull says. “Didn’t really have any time to talk these past few days.”
“Yeah, jesus. Trust a Brit to really fuck a campaign up.”
“C’mon, what about Peacock? You can’t just go pique my curiosity like that and not finish your thought.”
“ Pique? ” Johnny repeats. “You learn a new word in Eindhoven farm boy? Borrow Web’s thesaurus or something?”
“Stop getting distracted.”
“Alright alright. So right before we go to jump, right, Peacock comes up to me and tells me that when the green light comes on I have to hit his leg.”
“Yeah, right? And I keep telling him ‘lieutenant, you’ll be closer to the light than I am’ and he keeps saying ‘just tap my leg sergeant, just tap my leg.’”
“And did you?”
“He’s a superior officer, Bull, I kinda had to.”
“Well, you know Johnny, I knew a guy back in Arkansas, a farm hand who worked for us one summer…” He trails off, looks up at Johnny.
“No nothing, I just expected some commentary’s all, something about folksy wisdom and stories from back home.”
“I’m letting this one slide on account of the tank and the krauts and the almost dying,” Johnny explains.
Bull grins wide, “alright, sure. Well this guy, good enough around the farm but we learned pretty quick you couldn’t send him to pick the strawberries from the patch cause he couldn’t tell red from green for the life of him.”
“Swear on my life. The guy literally just couldn’t see those colours. We’d never seen anything like it. Could be Peacock’s the same. Kept it quiet to make it into the airborne.”
“Could be,” Johnny admits as he finishes tying the bandage in place. “It’d be just his luck. There you go, good as new.”
“Thanks,” Bull says, voice quiet and a little rough. He reaches out and squeezes Johnny’s hand, his fingers rough against Johnny’s palm.
Johnny squeezes back for a moment. “Just stop being an idiot, huh? I don’t wanna have to do this again.”
Mourmelon is a relief, honestly. And there was a time when Johnny never would’ve called the monotony of endless drill a relief but they’re warm and safe and there’s no one shooting at them and that feels like a sort of paradise at this point. He’s proud to be in charge of 1st platoon, proud of how well his men do in exercises. Easy Company is the finest around, and none of them are willing to let that title slip any time soon.
They’ve been there for less than a week when Vest comes around with mail. Johnny gets two letters from Vivian and he finds a place to sit to read them. The neat familiar script makes him miss his wife immediately, he pictures her sitting at her desk in their drawing room just as he always does and he feels closer to her for it. The letters ramble on as much as they always do, Vivian’s never been one to hew close to any sort of structure when telling a story and her letters are much the same. Johnny eagerly takes in the winding side-stories as she tells him of her part in the war effort and how strange things are at home without him there.
Johnny doesn’t let himself think about Vivian for too long most of the time, there isn’t space for those feelings here, but he takes a moment to think of her and how it must be for her at home. Their house must seem mighty empty, most days, and the volunteer work she’s been doing can only be keeping her so busy. She ends the second letter by reminding him that it’s almost their anniversary and Johnny realizes all of a sudden that between Toccoa and Europe they’ll soon have been apart longer than they’ve actually been together. Fucking war.
He tucks the letters into his pocket—he’ll write her back later—and goes for a walk. There isn’t really anywhere to go here, no woods to walk through, just an endless stretch of base camp and other companies and battalions, so he makes his peace with just circling the perimeter of Easy Company’s space, nods at the people he recognizes as he passes by. The letters have his mind firmly on home and it’s impossible not to compare here with there. The sea of drab khaki green covering everything in sight is no match for the bright vivid colours of home, for Vivian’s lips painted bright red for a night out, for blue skies and green grass and the dark yellow of the seats at their favourite diner. Everything feels desaturated. Like the colours have been sucked right out. It’s depressing when he thinks about it too hard.
He notices the moment Bull comes up beside him but he doesn’t say anything at first, just keeps walking. He doesn’t know if he could talk right now, if he could open his mouth and manage to make out any words that aren’t whiny bullshit. He doesn’t need to tell Bull how much it sucks to be here and not home. Bull knows. Hell, they all know.
“Got a letter from my folks,” Bull says.
“They can write?” Johnny says without thinking about what he’s saying, the biting sarcasm a fallback at this point.
“Actually they can’t,” Bull admits.
“Shit, sorry Bull.”
“It’s fine. My little sister wrote it,” he pulls the cigar from his mouth, “she’s the brains of the family. Gonna be a school teacher when this whole war business is over.”
“Seriously? You’ve told me how many stories of people from home and you never once told me you have a sister?”
“Yeah well,” Bull grins, “mayhaps I wanted you to think I was the smart one for a bit.”
“So I could pity the lot of you?” Johnny grins back. The easy banter has brought him back to himself, a little, has pushed his melancholy far enough away to be manageable and christ Bull’s too perceptive by half the way he just got Johnny’s mood up like that. Clever bastard.
“Going to the picture?” Bull asks. “I heard they’re showing Seven Sinners.”
“Nah, don’t think so.”
“Already seen it?”
“No,” Johnny says. “But I don’t feel the experience will be much improved by Luz’s impressions.”
Bull laughs. “He does miss the mark sometimes, huh?”
“You’re telling me. What about you? Already seen it?”
“No.” Bull shrugs, “I could sure go for a game of poker.”
“Works for me.”
They end up in the barracks with a deck of playing cards and a bottle of whiskey. Bull lights his cigar and Johnny breathes in the comforting smell. Poker’s fun to play with Bull, has only gotten more-so the closer they’ve become, the better they’ve gotten at reading each other’s tics. Neither of them is particularly good, and they’re evenly matched enough that they pass the same few bucks back and forth throughout their rounds, chatting as they play.
“Think we’ll survive Foxhole Norman?” Johnny asks
“We survived Sobel.”
“Barely. Only because we all mutinied, and I don’t think we could get away with that again.”
Bull takes a long drag of his cigar, “you have a point. I don’t really relish getting shot.”
Johnny laughs. “You and me both. Though with Dike in charge of shit we might come to the same end either way.”
“I’m already missing Winters,” Bull admits.
“Aw well we all knew he was too good for us. All in.”
“All in?” Bull looks at him shrewdly. “Too rich for me, I’m out.”
Johnny gleefully pulls in his winnings, stacking the coins neatly on his end of the table. “Another round?”
“Not right away,” Bull says. “I’d like to take five before I let you take the rest of my money from me.”
“I guess I can live with that.”
“Hey, Johnny, I never asked. Why did you join up?”
Johnny leans back in his chair, “well it was a matter of time wasn’t it? Join up or get drafted.”
“I mean why the paratroopers? You read that same Life article Lip did?”
“I just figured 100 bucks a month beat 50 bucks by a mile.” It’s the same answer Johnny’s given to everyone since his first days at Toccoa. Nobody’s ever done anything but take it at face value.
Bull, however, is not nobody. He looks at Johnny, “bullshit.”
“That answer might work on everyone else, Johnny Martin, but I know you better than that.”
Johnny stares at him for a few moments, and then he leans back in his chair, “okay. Alright, sure. Maybe it wasn’t just the money.” He takes a second, “I joined up because I’ve never been one for mediocrity and I wasn’t gonna start then. I wanted to be the best and I wanted the best at my side.” He looks up at Bull, “unfortunately they saddled me with you so that didn’t really work out.”
Bull laughs, “sorry to ruin your plans there. Guess they just wanted to keep all the idiots together.”
“So what about you? I know it couldn’t have been the Life article cause that would require you to be literate.”
“I knew I’d be joining up as soon as war was declared. I knew I’d be bigger and stronger than most everyone else and I wanted to go where I’d be the most help.” He shrugs, “seemed to me the airborne was the best place to do that.”
The answer is so typically Bull that Johnny feels a sudden rush of affection for him. Of course Bull was thinking of others when he joined of course he wanted to join up the moment he could. He doesn’t say any of that though, instead he says he’s surprised Bull puts that much thought into anything, hides all of those feelings under a veil of mocking sarcasm and hopes that Bull understands what he really means. He always seems to, at least.
Chapter 2: Part 2
Wow thank you guys for reading this fic and leaving kudos and comments it’s so kind i just love these boys so much!!!
Also, i decided to split it into three parts cause it accidentally got much longer than expected. I hope you enjoy it!
They left Julian to bleed out on the snow and Johnny can’t help but feel that it’s his fault. If he’d been a better sergeant, a better leader, maybe they could’ve brought him back so Roe had at least a chance to save him. He runs the patrol over and over in his mind, trying to see any other angles, any way he could’ve done better but the cold is making his brain fuzzy and he can’t for the life of him find a way they could’ve got him back unless he’d never been injured in the first place.
He’s picking at his food, too consumed by guilt to concentrate on actually getting the slop into him.
“You need to eat.” Bull sits down beside him. “Here, trade me. This one’s still sorta warm.”
Johnny’s too tired and cold to argue. He hands over his tin, takes Bull’s and does his best to actually eat this time.
Bull doesn’t say anything for a while, just eats and watches Johnny to make sure he’s eating. On anyone else it would be condescending at best, Johnny would be glaring them down for treating him like a child, but Bull is so matter-of-fact about it that it feels easy and normal and like he’s not being taken care of at all.
“It wasn’t your fault,” Bull says finally.
“Blame the krauts, blame the generals, hell even blame Roosevelt for sending us into this war but don’t you blame yourself.”
Johnny refuses to acknowledge that, he can’t face the astute understanding that Bull is offering. “War is hell,” he says instead. He only notices much later in the day that he’s stopped running through the scenarios again and again, only notices then how much Bull’s words helped.
In Bastogne Johnny finds himself watching Bull a lot. Well, Bull’s so big it’d be kind of hard not to notice him, but whenever he’s looking out at the platoon or the company, his eyes track towards Bull—unconsciously seeking out height and breadth and pale blonde hair. He’s always paid a lot of attention to him, they’re best friends after all, but in Bastogne it becomes something more, something different.
It takes him a while—longer than it should’ve probably—to notice exactly what Bull’s doing. At first, Johnny thinks he’s just being sociable, going around at meals, or checking in on foxholes at night. After a while, he realizes that catching up on the latest news is miles away from Bull’s intentions. He’s taking care of everyone, not just Johnny. Wherever the company is, there’s Bull telling people to eat this, and get to sleep now, and take a deep breath, and stay warm
One day, it’s Doc Roe, the kid’s always sitting off on his own, smoking, crouching in wait of the next disaster, the word ‘medic’ echoing through the trees. “You’ve gotta eat.” Bull’s voice is quiet but Johnny can just make out the words. Doc tries to refuse but it’s Bull and who can say no to Bull? “Ain’t gotta come and sit with everyone else, and you’re welcome to call me Denver but you gotta eat.”
Then it’s Buck, who looks worse and worse every day. They’re far enough away that Johnny can’t hear them, but he watches Bull sit down beside him, can tell from the way his hands are moving he’s telling some story from down on the farm. Bull doesn’t stop until he’s gotten a smile out of Buck. He pulls some food out of his pocket—chocolate from the look of it—and hands it over and then he’s on his way. Back to the foxhole he shares with Johnny and Johnny pretends he didn’t see anything, doesn’t know if Bull knows any different.
Even later, it’s Lip. Lip’s their only saving grace, here in Bastogne with Dike. Johnny hadn’t thought it would be possible to have a more useless CO than Sobel but it figures that Foxhole Norman would take that as a challenge. Still, it doesn’t really matter that Dike’s only ever around to yawn and announce he’s leaving because they’ve got Sergeant Lipton, checking in on them, covering for Dike, being the leader that they need. Johnny’s never stopped to wonder if Lip ever stops to take care of himself.
He watches Bull approach Lip, can hear Lip ask him what’s wrong and Johnny has to cover a snort when he hears Bull talk as if he’s the one that needs a quiet moment to talk with someone.
“I’m a little hungry, sir,” Bull says. “Why don’t we eat while we talk?”
It’s the first time Johnny’s seen Lip stop and breathe in days. He watches them and wonders a bit at Bull’s incredible ability to take care of someone without them feeling like they’re being taken care of. Figures that he’d be the only person in the company who could make Lip look after himself if only for a few moments.
It never ends, either, this thing with Bull, his incessant need to help everyone around him. And Johnny is constantly drawn to it. Now that he’s noticed what Bull does he’s incapable of not noticing it, of not watching Bull quietly ensure that every member of Easy is being taken care of.
They’re huddled close in their foxhole in some attempt to stay warm—any idea of personal space long since blasted to pieces—when Johnny notices that for all of Bull’s efforts to take care of them, there’s nobody taking care of Bull. He resolves to do something about that, somehow. He doesn’t have Bull’s touch, really, his ability to make people better just by being around them. He also doesn’t think that asking Bull how he’s doing or anything else like that would be at all productive. They’re all doing shitty, how else could anyone possibly do here?
A couple days before Christmas, though, Johnny gets an idea. It’s been ages since Bull had a cigar, he smoked the last of the one from Mourmelon over a month ago. It would be perfect, really, a perfect Christmas present if he could somehow get Bull a cigar. A little shred of happiness in this desolate world that has become their lives.
He goes about it quietly, doesn’t want Bull over-hearing him and finding out his plan.
“Hey, Bill,” he drops into the foxhole. “Hey Joe.”
“Johnny.” Toye nods, “enjoying this beautiful day?”
“Nowhere else I’d rather be.” Johnny turns to Bill, “I’m trying to get my hands on a cigar. Any idea who I could ask?”
“You take up smoking all of a sudden?”
“Yeah, Bill, figured it couldn’t make me any colder so what the hell.”
Bill grins, “why not. But sorry Johnny, no idea. I haven’t even seen a cigarette in weeks.”
“Yeah, alright. That’s kinda what I figured.” He hoists himself out of the foxhole.
“Good luck,” Bill says. “You’ll need it.”
Johnny doesn’t bother dignifying that with a response. He heads off, wending his way through the web of foxholes, stopping to ask people if they might have a cigar as he goes.
“I’ve got half a pack of cigarettes,” Luz offers. “I was saving them for Christmas but I can spare one if you need it.”
Johnny considers that. He’s never seen Bull smoke a cigarette, he doesn’t even know if he likes them. He can’t even imagine him smoking something that small, absurdly imagines it getting lost in Bull’s mouth. “That’s okay. Thanks, though.”
He gives up soon after that, disheartened. He might be able to scrounge up a cigar after they get supplies, but cut off like this it seems an impossibility. Bull won’t be getting a Christmas present after all.
The next night he’s walking the line, checking in with first platoon and making sure that everyone’s good and well-placed for the night when he sees a dark figure walking towards him.
“Flash.” His fingers hover over the trigger of his rifle until he hears the low response of ‘thunder’.
The person comes closer until he can make him out: it’s Lieutenant Speirs of Dog Company. He’s immediately reminded of that night near Carentan, of the advice he gave to Blithe.
“Sergeant. What are you doing out here?”
“Just checking in with my men sir.”
“You should get back to your foxhole, sergeant. It’s not safe out here.” Speirs is still as strange as ever.
“Yes sir,” Johnny refrains from reminding him that he’s out here too. He turns to leave and then has a thought, spins back around. “Wait, sir—“
“You don’t happen to have a cigar on you, do you?”
There’s a long moment before Speirs answers. “I might. What’s it worth to you?”
“Um,” Johnny had never really thought of something to trade, he had only ever expected to find one from someone in his own company, someone he could easily owe a favour to. Then he remembers the stories he’s heard, of the D-Company Lieutenant with a love of all things shiny. Don’t go lending him anything you’d like to see again.
Johnny sticks his hand in his pocket, runs his fingers over the lighter he keeps there—the one that belonged to his Pa. In a second his decision is made. “Here,” he says, handing it over. “Will this do?”
“Lancel, huh,” Speirs says, “that’s a nice lighter. Here.”
He hands over a cigar, a pristine, untouched cigar and Johnny could jump for joy at his luck. He had only dared ever hope to find a butt of one to give to Bull. This is perfect. And worth it. So very worth it.
He looks up, starts to thank Speirs, but he’s already gone, walking off into the fog and so Johnny just tucks the cigar into his pocket and heads back to his and Bull’s foxhole.
He keeps the cigar a secret all day, waits until night when it’s just the two of them in their foxhole. He doesn’t want to make a big thing of this; he just wants to make Bull happy.
It’s dark and still when he finally pulls the precious gift out of the pocket he’s kept it safe in for the past day and a half.
“Merry Christmas Bull.”
“Wha—“ Bull takes it in wonder, “how—“ he brings it up to his nose and sniffs it. “I can’t believe it. How did you get your hands on this? You been holding onto it since Mourmelon or something?”
“You ain’t gonna tell me, are you?”
“Okay. I can live with that.” He lights the cigar slowly, and methodically, only pauses to speak once the end is consumed in red ember. “Thank you.” The smoke curls around them and the familiar smell and the happiness in Bull’s tone makes Johnny feel warm to the core.
They celebrate that Christmas quietly, pressed up against each other in that foxhole, the night so dark that Johnny can’t even see his feet. There’s nothing but the smell of cigar smoke, the drifting tones of Silent Night, and Bull, warm and solid beside him.
Their first night indoors in months and it’s impossible to be glad of it. All Johnny can think of is the carnage of Bastogne, the endless death and misery of the frigid forest months. What are they supposed to do now? No more Buck, no more Bill—and how is Johnny supposed to go on without hearing that awful guffaw—no more Toye or Muck or Penkala. He can’t look anywhere without seeing the gaps, the people no longer there.
He rolls around on the rough blankets the nuns gave him but he just can’t fall asleep. It’s too quiet in here, too warm. It should be a relief but he’s grown accustomed to sleeping rough in the frigid air. His arm brushes against the letter sticking out of his pocket and he sighs, takes it out.
There’s a few candles still lit—god bless the Christians for their love of all things fire. He’s had the thing for days but he just couldn’t bring himself to read it, not out there, so he pads quietly closer to the candles and sits down to read.
As he reads, Johnny feels less and less comforted by everything he used to love in letters from his wife. The neat lettering meanders through stories about her life, talks a bit about the war effort but much more about who she ran into at the butcher shop on Saturday. It’s so far from his current situation that it’s jarring. He finds himself getting angrier and angrier as he reads. It’s not fair, really, to blame Vivian for the normalcy she’s managed to hold onto while he sits in a church in a bombed-out little town, dirty and damp and exhausted—and knowing that none of this will end any time soon. She signs off with all her love and Johnny crumples the letter in his hand.
He thinks about home, about what it would be like to walk through his front door now, after these long months, and he realizes he can barely even picture it, the details of the rooms fuzzy in his mind. He doesn’t even dream of being home anymore. He used to, soon after the jump, used to dream of opening the door dressed in a crisp clean uniform, of Vivian jumping into his arms. Now he’s too angry to think of any of it clearly. Angry that he’s had to see things that no man should ever have to, angry that the folks back home—that Vivian—will never understand.
Johnny distinctly wants to punch something. Or shoot something, that would work too. He considers burning the letter, it would be so easy to lean forward and do it, to turn this paper into ash so he doesn’t have to deal with it.
Not that that would somehow make the whole thing unwritten, not that Vivian would know and no longer expect a reply but it still feels like it would help. He’s on the edge of doing it when someone sinks onto the floor beside him. The scent of cigar smoke is unmistakable and he turns to look at Bull. His face is shadowed in the dim light and Johnny realises in that moment just how much older Bull looks. Johnny remembers how young he looked in Toccoa, thinks about what a stark contrast it is to him now. It hasn’t been nearly long enough for the lines of worry on his face to be so deeply etched. Then again, that goes for all of them at this point. He thinks of Malarkey, of Perconte, even of Bill and wonders how anyone is supposed to survive this. How anyone’s supposed to go home after.
Bull doesn’t say anything, but he does tilt his head and Johnny realises that he’s been staring at him. He gives him an apologetic smile and then he looks away. The silence that surrounds them is so peaceful that Johnny can’t bring himself to break it with words, not yet. And anyway, he doesn’t know what he would say if he did speak. Bull doesn’t seem eager to talk, either, so they sit in silence, watching the flickering flames.
“You still getting letters from home?” Johnny finally murmurs. He doesn’t want to disturb anyone else.
“A couple. You?”
Johnny nods. “A few.” He wants to say more, to explain about the latest one but he has no idea how to even bring it up, feels like that would just be piling his problems on Bull and that seems completely unfair so he doesn’t say anything at all.
“Home sure seems real far away these days,” Bull says, somehow effortlessly able to verbalize what Johnny was thinking.
“Yeah, yeah it does.”
Bull doesn’t add anything more and Johnny’s glad of that, is glad of the tacit understanding between them. The silence feels less oppressive now, and Johnny feels like he might finally be getting used to the stone under his fingers, to the night unbroken by the thunder of mortars and piercing cries for a medic.
It’s a hell of a thing to be grateful that no one needs to worry for their life for just this night, at least.
“Can’t believe we’re finally here,” Bull pulls his cigar from his mouth for a moment. “Seems like we spent a helluva lot of time almost here that it’s weird to have made it.”
“Some of us did, at least.” And there it is, that tension, that reminder of how many men they lost in Bastogne, of friends killed or changed forever.
Silence reigns again, Johnny knows Bull’s thinking of their friends, too. He wants to ask how they can be grateful that they made it when so many others didn’t but he doesn’t. Because asking would be pointless, there’s no logic to any of this. There’s just the plain simple fact that they survived this time and they might not survive the next and one day this war will finally be fucking over and they’ll either have made it or they won’t.
Johnny doesn’t remember sliding down further against the pew, doesn’t remember leaning into Bull’s shoulder, doesn’t remember falling asleep like that, but he wakes up in the grey of early dawn with his face pushed into the rough fabric of Bull’s jacket feeling at least somewhat refreshed.
They’re heading out again right away, packed onto transports and Johnny finds a seat beside Bull, positions himself so that Bull’s size will at least mostly shelter him from the wind. It’s fucking cold out here.
“Good fucking riddance,” Bull shouts as they pass out of the town and the whole truck laughs.
“Amen,” a couple guys shout back.
Good fucking riddance is right.
The first thing Johnny feels as they pull into Haguenau is relief. The second, is pure blind rage. Where the fuck does Webster get off showing up again all these months like he’s barely been gone at all. That stupid dopey face, the idiocy of expecting everyone to be just as hunky dory as they were when he left seem perfectly devised to drive Johnny up the wall and the best he can do is glare at him because jumping out of this truck and punching him in the face would be far too much effort.
Thankfully Cobb for once in his life does something useful and gets Foley to tell Webster to report to second and honestly Johnny’s almost willing to forget every other thing Cobb’s done in light of that. He watches him traipse off and he turns to Bull and raises an eyebrow. Bull shakes his head slowly and Johnny snorts. He’s glad to know that Bull’s on his side at least. Haguenau is a bleak grey town right near the border of France and Germany and it’s the nicest place they’ve been yet. Even with the sound of shells rattling through the air it still seems gloriously peaceful. Each platoon gets assigned a house, and Johnny leads his guys in to theirs to find a couple of rooms on the top floor with bunk beds lining the walls. There’s too many beds for all of them and they spread out according to rank, the privates in a couple of the rooms, he and Bull on their own in a third. Johnny throws his pack down on the bed, follows it with his body, and groans in joy at the feeling of a mattress under his back.
He hears Bull sit down on the bed across from him and he turns his head to look at him.
“I heard we’re gonna get showers and clean clothes,” Bull says.
“Good. Christ I’m glad the cold plugged my sinuses right up otherwise I might not’ve survived the past couple weeks.”
Bull laughs. “You don’t smell so good yourself there Johnny.”
Johnny glares, throws a pillow right at his face, does his best to hide his grin as Bull bursts out laughing.
“Ugh,” Johnny groans, “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to just lay down in an honest-to-god bed.”
“Sure beats a foxhole.”
“Well jeez Bull maybe you’re the brains of your family after all.”
Bull laughs. “You know Johnny I think that’s the nicest thing you ever said to me.”
“Don’t get used to it. Hey, can you believe Webster? What the fuck was up with that?”
“Oh c’mon Bull don’t play dumb. The kid shows up here after being gone for months grinning like a fool, acting like he’s happy to be back when he obviously didn’t try at all.” Johnny wonders for a moment if Bull will rebuke him, disagree with him, Web had been one of his guys once upon a time, after all.
Bull just snorts, “kid’s always been a bit of an idiot, Johnny, you know that.”
“You know, it’s funny,” Bull says, Johnny can hear him take a drag of his cigar before he continues, “used to be it was Toccoa men and everyone else, now, though.”
“Now it’s the battered bastards of Bastogne and everyone else.”
“God could they have come up with a worse nickname?”
“Hey, it could always be worse, Bull.”
“Yeah,” Johnny turns to him with a grin, “we could be Dog Company.”
“Thank god for small mercies.”
Johnny groans and sits up, plants his feet on the creaky wooden floor and pulls himself upright. “Come on farm boy, I heard there was showers.”
“Alright, hold your horses.” Bull slowly stands. “Think they’ll be hot?”
“Where the fuck do you think we are? Paris? We’ll be lucky if it’s anything better than a hose and a bucket.”
On his way to the showers, Johnny hears Malarkey telling 2nd about the patrol that night. He doesn’t think Malark’s in any way fit to be leading a patrol right now, but still all he can think thank god, thank god it’s not my men, thank god it’s not me, thank god it’s not Bull. And it’s selfish and mean and it’s not like he’s not friends with Malarkey, with Liebgott or any of the other guys going on that patrol, because he is, but there’s this private relief he always feels when it won’t be first platoon on the line that he just can’t let go of.
He gets in line for the showers, pulls his clothes off just before he steps inside and he wonders, briefly, if they’ll bother trying to wash the piles of filthy uniforms or if they’ll just burn them all. After the blood and muck of the past couple months he wouldn’t be much surprised by the latter.
The water is, shockingly, warm. Not hot, not even very warm, but it’s better than the icy cold shock that he was expecting and he tilts his face up into the spray for a few minutes, lets the water beat down and feels some bit of the tension filling his body leave. Bull’s beside him and Johnny sees him out of the corner of his eye. His shoulders are so broad—seem broader, somehow, completely bare than in layers of clothing. His eyes track over the expanse of pale skin, over the the web of raised scar tissue, a permanent reminder of Eindhoven and the terrifying night with Bull lost in enemy territory. Johnny realizes all of a sudden what he’s doing, that he’s staring at Bull, and he quickly looks away, down at his feet. And what the fuck was that? Cause Johnny’s no queer trying to sneak peeks at other guys naked. He casts it aside as a single moment of insanity and focuses on soaping up from head to toe and then rinsing off. He goes as quickly as he can, rushes out to towel off and dress in the clothes offered to him. He concentrates on how good it feels to be clean, and dressed in clean clothes. He heads across the street to wait for Bull but very deliberately doesn’t watch for him, looks the other way instead, across to the river where the patrol will be headed tonight.
“Hey, Sarge,” Garcia runs up behind him. “I heard tell supplies came in.”
Johnny turns around, “no shit, really? Good stuff?”
“Yeah, chocolate and gum and everything.”
“Who told you?”
“Luz, I guess Vest asked for his help sharing it out.”
“Alright,” Johnny claps him on the shoulder, “thanks, Garcia. If I get anything I’ll let you know.” He looks across the street to see Bull walking towards him, clean and shaved and looking so sharp that Johnny barely recognizes him. “Hey, Bull, I’ll catch you later?”
“You coming?” Johnny asks Garcia but he just shakes his head and heads off in the other direction. Johnny turns and hurries to the house they’ve been using for the quartermaster to wheedle anything he can out of Luz. If he’s honest, he’s most interested in the chocolate. He can’t help but think of D-Day, of he and Bull and the chocolate they’d shared waiting for the sun to rise. He knows Bull likes good chocolate, almost as much as he likes cigars, and he’s determined to get some for him.
Showers and chocolate and not almost dying is about the greatest fucking day he can imagine at this point.
He does his best to wheedle some from Luz, only gets a Juicy Fruit for his trouble. Luz is being a hard-ass for no reason, cause who cares if Johnny takes a couple of Hershey bars? Though, to be honest, Cobb isn’t fucking helping and Johnny can only wish that he hadn’t followed him here. Plus Liebgott and all the others turning it into a damn circus and mucking up all of Johnny’s plans. And then Perconte walks in with that classic shot-in-the-ass gait that should be E-Company’s trademark by this point and they’re all shouting their hellos, happy to see at least one casualty of Bastogne back among them. Johnny uses the distraction to pocket one of the chocolate bars before going over to welcome Perco back.
He considers turning around and saying ‘see Webster? Not that hard to come back after all, is it?’ but he restrains himself, Perco doesn’t deserve his spotlight taken away like that. And anyway, he’s very glad to see Perconte so he why would he screw up his good mood by paying attention to Web?
He gives Perco a hard time, of course, it wouldn’t be worth it for people to think Johnny’s going soft, but he knows they can all see how glad he is to have him back.
And then Luz—fed up with everyone—is giving up on the supplies, throwing everything down and gesturing for Johnny to take over and Johnny is more than happy to oblige. He heads behind the counter and grabs the supply list, reading it over as he tucks a box of chocolates under his arm. He’s looking now for cigars, can’t imagine how ecstatic Bull will be if he can get away with a box of those, too, and sure enough there they are right near the end of the list. He fights his way through grabbing hands to the box in question, retrieves the payload, a couple more chocolate bars, and then he tosses the clipboard behind him and heads back to the house he’s staying in.
Bull’s there when he walks in, lounging on the first floor playing a lazy game of cards with a couple guys from their platoon. Johnny catches his eyes and jerks his head towards the stairs. He doesn’t wait, heads up to their room and can hear the sound of Bull excusing himself behind him.
“Check it out,” he crows when Bull enters the room. He has the chocolate bars—8 of them—piled on the bed beside him.
“Holy crap,” Bull says. “Where did you get those?”
“Supplies came in. And that’s not even the best part, look,” he pulls the box of cigars from behind his back, holds them out to Bull with what he’s sure looks to be a shit-eating grin but he can’t help be proud.
“Well I’ll be damned.”
“Is that thank you in hick?”
“Thank you, Johnny.”
“My pleasure. Don’t smoke ‘em all at once.”
They share a chocolate bar between them before Johnny hides the rest round their room. A couple in his pack, a couple in Bull’s, a couple in the nook under his bed. It’s not that he doesn’t trust people, exactly, but he doesn’t fucking trust people and he worked hard for these Hershey bars. A couple he takes downstairs to share around with the platoon, as a good Sergeant does. His guys all know that Johnny’s good at getting what he wants, and that he shares it with them when he can.
They’re playing a rousing game of poker, betting pieces of Juicy Fruit because oh, yeah, Johnny stole a box of those too, when a runner shows up to tell Johnny that Captain Winters wants him at CP. Johnny gets a funny feeling in his stomach immediately. Winters wanting him is never a good sign. Tonight of all nights, well, Johnny’s steeled for the worst.
Good that he is, it turns out. He listens to Winters explain that Malarkey’s in no state to lead a patrol tonight, and so it falls to Johnny instead. Johnny will be the one to lead the men across the river, to capture some Krauts and bring them back for questioning.
“Alive, Sergeant, that’s the central idea here,” Winters stresses. Johnny can’t help but think as he listens that it serves him right for being so relieved earlier to not be involved. Now he is and there’s nothing he can do about it but say yes, sir, and hope that he and all the men he’s taking out—including this wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant—make it back alive.
Johnny has absolutely no proof that this is Webster’s fault but he can’t help feel like this is somehow one hundred percent Webster’s fault. He spends the entire briefing staring him down, just in case he’s right.
Afterwards, once he has the whole team busy with preparations, Johnny ducks out of the basement, heads back to his platoon’s house to find Bull. He finds him in their room, looking out the window and smoking the last of his Bastogne cigar. He turns around as Johnny walks in the door.
“Yeah,” Johnny nods. “Yup. Malark needs the rest. I know they’re right but…”
“It’s a crazy plan,” Bull says. “Are you sure it’ll work?”
“When have we been sure of anything?” Johnny comes to stand behind him. Their window overlooks the river; he hadn’t noticed that before.
“Never. And I’m not just talking about war. Still, seems crazy enough you might just pull it off.”
“Yeah,” he lets out a long breath. “I sure hope so.”
They’re quiet for a moment, both staring out at the river and the buildings beyond. Then Johnny feels Bull’s hand on his arm, squeezing gently.
“Take care of yourself out there,” Bull says quietly. The room is perfectly silent, Johnny reaches out his hand, squeezes Bull’s arm too.
“Yeah, yeah Bull I will.”
Afterwards, after the patrol, after watching Jackson die a pitiful death he didn’t in anyway deserve, after handing the prisoners off to Winters, Johnny finds a minute to stop by his house. He doesn’t know why but he needs to see Bull, needs just a minute with his best friend before he rejoins his team to wait for a debrief.
There’s no one on the main floor of the house when he walks in, but that’s not too surprising considering how early it is. Johnny makes his way up to their room, when he walks in he sees Bull sitting at the window again, cigar smoke curling up above him, his head resting in his hand.
“Bull,” he says it tentatively, not sure if Bull’s asleep in that position. Bull’s on his feet in a minute, spinning around.
“Johnny,” barely more than a whisper as he steps forward, walks to meet Johnny in the center of the room. “You’re…” he trails off and then he’s right in front of Johnny, wrapping Johnny in a big warm hug and Bull’s never hugged Johnny before, in fact Johnny can’t remember the last time he hugged anyone, and he just goes along with it, accepts being wrapped up in Bull’s embrace, even hugs him back, and it’s incredible how good it feels, how comforting it feels to be held like this. It only lasts a moment, and then Bull’s stepping back and Johnny drops his arms back to his side and it looks for a second like Bull might apologize but he doesn’t and Johnny’s… happy about that. Even though he doesn’t really know why.
“How did it go?” Bull asks instead, matter-of-fact, like his chin wasn’t just resting on Johnny’s head.
“Okay,” Johnny says, moving to lean against a bedpost. “We managed to bring back a couple Krauts. Jackson didn’t make it though.” He shakes his head, “rushed his own damn grenade, we got him back across the river but…”
“Fuck,” Bull says.
“Stupid!” Johnny punches the wood of the bed frame. “Of all the idiotic things…”
“It’s not your fault, Johnny.”
“You always say that.”
“Well when it is your fault I’ll be sure to let you know.”
That manages to make Johnny smile, it’s not much of one but it’s a smile nonetheless. “Hey,” he reaches out and squeezes Bull’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
“Any time. You gonna go back to—”
“Yeah, yeah I gotta be with my men.” Cause they are his men, at least for the purposes of today. He needs to be there, to sit with them in whatever sort of vigil they hold until they’re debriefed. It’s one of the most important things they do, here, just being together after watching one of their own die. You wouldn’t think it’d help much but it does, somehow. And as their leader Johnny needs to be there as they do it.
So they sit together, in near peace until Cobb opens his mouth. And then all in a whirl Winters is telling them that there’ll be another patrol, that that patrol will never happen, and Johnny waits until everyone else has made their way out of the basement to go back to his house.
Bull’s still in their room, sitting on his bed this time. “So?” he asks.
Johnny sits down beside him, leans back and rolls his head from side to side to try to get rid of the tension that’s been building all day. “The powers that be are so impressed with our patrol they want another.”
“No. Same place?”
“An hour later.”
“Johnny…” Bull’s voice is low, urgent, “you’ll all get killed.”
“I know, I know. Winters told us not to go.”
Johnny leans forward, turns his head toward Bull, “yeah, the craziest thing, Bull. He gives us the plan, all the way through, and then he tells us to get a full night’s rest. I could barely believe what I was hearing.”
“Thank god for Captain Winters,” Bull says. “I couldn’t…” He stops, sighs, “I’m glad you’re not going.”
“Me too.” Johnny realizes then just how tired Bull looks, “Jesus Bull you look like shit. You sleep at all last night?”
“Not so much,” Bull answers. “Then again I’m betting you didn’t neither.”
“True but some of us don’t need as much beauty sleep as others.”
“Keep telling yourself that.”
Johnny just glares until Bull bursts out laughing and then it’s all he can do to keep a smile from breaking out on his face. “Hey, good news.”
“We’re moving off the line.”
“Well I’ll be. Showers and chocolate and a move off the front lines, the army sure does know how to treat a guy.”
He’s grinning wide and Johnny finds himself caught up staring at him. He looks so happy, so relieved and so happy and there’s something about that wide easy smile that makes Johnny want to look at it forever. He turns away quick, looks at his hands, his feet, the ground instead. “C’mon,” he stands up, eager for a distraction. “Let’s go find some food. Man cannot live on cigar smoke and chocolate alone.”
“You sure about that?”
“Oh come on now old man, on your feet, if you’re nice I’ll even tell you what happened with Cobb.”
“Cobb?” Bull pulls himself to his feet. “That boy,” he claps Johnny on the shoulder. “I ever tell you I knew a kid back home who was just the same kind of sour grape?”
“You wanna hear what happened? Or do you just wanna regale me with tales from the farm?”
Sturzelberg is a welcome break from the grey bleak that had become their life. The town is surrounded by lush green farmland and their duties are minimal at best. A couple of guard postings here and there, but nothing that couldn’t be done while lounging back with a good book. Other than that, they keep themselves busy with cooking and washing and other chores that months ago they would’ve loathed and now come as a welcome break. Relatively little of their day is spent working anyway and they’re all glad of the time and the sunshine to spend it in.
Pickup games of basketball are a mainstay and while Johnny’s never much been one for playing, he’s happy to tag along and watch Bull use his height and surprising speed to trounce the opposing team. They go on long walks, too, pausing to just lay in the sun and look at the bright blue sky and enjoy being warm and alive. They’ve been there for two weeks when Vest hands Johnny a letter from home. The second it hits his hand he realizes that he never responded to the letter he got in Bastogne. Never replied to the two he got in Haguenau either. It never seemed the time, really. He never managed to get past his pure blind rage at the sheer normalcy of the letters to be able to pen a reply. It was selfish, sure, but war doesn’t bring out the best in people. Johnny heads to a private corner between two buildings to read it, expecting more of the frustrating same. Or, maybe, a rebuke for not replying before. He scans it quickly, through the update on his parents and hers and then it’s nothing but Vivian apologizing profusely. He can’t figure out why, at first, why half this letter is just a litany of ‘sorry’s but when he reads it over more slowly he sees it.
‘John, I met someone.’
Four words that just like that tear his home life to shreds. The guy’s name is Phil. Couldn’t be drafted cause of a bum foot, apparently, so he decided to stay home and seduce the wives of men fighting for his freedom.
The rest of the letter is just more apology and then Vivian letting him know she’ll be divorcing him pretty much immediately. She wants the house and Johnny doesn’t care enough about it to fight her on that. They don’t have any kids or any pets or really anything else to claim ownership on. She’ll box up his stuff and bring it to his parent’s. And then, most uselessly of all, she tells him that she really loved him and a bunch of other crap about needing support and Phil being there for her.
Johnny’s so angry that he can barely see the words. Here he was in fucking Germany watching his friends get blown to pieces and Vivian decides to leave him cause what? It suddenly isn’t fun at home for her anymore? So much for ‘til death do us part’.
Johnny crumples up the letter and crams it into his pocket and then he walks right back to the post office. He gets paper and a pen from Vest and writes a reply.
He seals it, addresses the envelope and gives it to Vest to mail and then he goes in search of Bull. He finds him laying in the grass just past the barracks, ostensibly watching the clouds but probably listening to Liebgott and Web bickering in the background. Johnny pulls out the ball of paper and drops it onto Bull’s chest and then he flops down on the ground beside him.
“Dear Johnny letter.”
“No.” Bull grabs the letter and starts unfurling it. “Really?”
“Read it and weep.”
“I’m real sorry, Johnny. That’s a rough break.”
“Yeah, well, apparently Phil attends to her needs better than I do.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Johnny points at the letter, “some guy who couldn’t get drafted, apparently, and has instead devoted his time to consoling my fucking wife.”
“Damn. You gonna write her back?”
“Oh,” Johnny grabs the letter from Bull and starts tearing it into pieces. “I already did.”
“Already? What’d you say?”
“That’s it? Just ‘fine’?” Bull’s looking at him with a mixture of surprise and, maybe fondness? Johnny can’t quite work it out.
“She left me, Bull, I didn’t think it was worth it to write much more than that.”
Bull shakes his head and laughs, “fair enough.”
They sit in silence for a while and then Johnny turns to look at Bull, “what? No charming tale about a milkmaid and a fruit picker to assuage my wounded ego?”
“I figured in deference to your troubles I’d keep quiet.”
“C’mon, lay it on me, not even one of your folksy parables could make this day worse.”
“Alright, I’ll say what I was thinking, though it’s not so much a story as—”
“Oh get on with it!”
“All I was gonna say is that you don’t plant a crop and harvest it the next day, you need to put the time in, to water it and tend to it and wait until it finally bears fruit.” He looks at Johnny and smiles, “I guess what I’m saying, is, that if Vivian ain’t willing to wait around than more’s the pity for her cause you’re worth the wait, Johnny.”
Johnny can feel a warmth suffusing his chest that has nothing to do with the bright sun above them, can feel himself smiling back at Bull cause how could he not when Bull’s so wise and kind to Johnny all the time. But he doesn’t want to sit here smiling back at Bull like a dolt so he coughs and says, “gee, Bull, I didn’t know you cared.” A crappy joke, really, but it’s the best he can manage and thankfully Bull doesn’t reply, just leans in to bump his shoulder against Johnny’s and for just a moment everything about war and Vivian fades away and Johnny’s just happy.
“Waahoo!” Malark jumps into the room where Johnny and Bull are sitting looking through a cabinet of fine china. He’s got a bottle of champagne in one hand and it looks like he’s spilled a good deal of it on himself. “Krauts surrender! It’s VE Day boys!”
Johnny and Bull follow him out of the room to where what looks like most of the company are gathered. More bottles of champagne are being passed around and he can hear guys shouting and singing already.
“This true Lieutenant?” he asks when he finds Lip in one corner of the room.
“Apparently. Germany offered a complete surrender, Happy Victory in Europe, Sergeant Martin.”
“Yeah,” Johnny shakes Lip’s hand vigorously, “Happy VE Day Lieutenant.”
He turns just in time to see Bull downing an entire bottle of champagne in one drink and he snags a bottle of his own off of the table and gets in on the fun.
The whole group of them are laughing and drinking, reliving old stories. Luz gives a raucous rendition of the night of the bayonet, miming the whole thing out with a bottle of whiskey as the room eggs him on.
And then, just when they were starting to run out of liquor, O’Keefe shows up. “With a present from Captain Nixon, sir.”
The ‘present’ in question is crates of booze from Der Fuhrer’s own collection and soon they’ve each got a bottle of beautiful expensive drink in hand and the party’s just barely begun.
Johnny’s feeling decidedly lightheaded by the time the noise of the party drives him out of the room. It’s not that he’s not enjoying himself, he is, but he wants to be away from the chaos for just a moment. He climbs the stairs, swaying slightly, bottle still in hand, to his favourite room in the whole Nest. It’s this little library, away from everything else. Plush armchairs and floor to ceiling bookshelves and a whole wall of windows with the most incredible view. He and Bull have spent quite a bit of time here since they took the Eagle’s Nest, sitting and talking, or leafing through the books.
Now Johnny sits right on the floor, leaned up against one of the bookshelves and looking at that same view. It seems even more beautiful now, the world tinged with a joy and freedom he hasn’t felt in, hell, years.
He’s not alone with his thoughts for long; he hears the sound of the door creaking open behind him and turns his head to see. It’s Bull. He’s smiling wide, his cheeks flushed from the wine, and he looks like a damn poster with his straw blonde hair and rosy cheeks and huge grin.
“Not in the mood for a party?” he asks as he shuts the door behind him.
“It’s VE-Day, of course I’m in the mood for a party. It’s just those sons of bitches are so fucking loud I can’t even hear myself think.”
“You’re not supposed to be thinking,” Bull takes a seat on the floor beside him, “you’re only supposed to be drinking.”
“Easy for you to say.” But he takes a long drink from his bottle anyway.
“Can’t say I ever thought we’d see the day,” Bull says. “Ain’t Berlin by Christmas by any means but it’s fine by me.”
“Good riddance, I’ll be glad to be out of here. Though, you know, Germany isn’t so bad. Fucking gorgeous in parts. Just wished I hadn’t been dragged here by this stupid war.”
“Not my idea of a vacation, that’s for sure.”
They keep talking, keep drinking, and if Johnny was a little fuzzy earlier, he’s closer to full-on drunk now.
“Why the hell is it even called Arkansas?” Johnny waves his arms as he speaks, “why not Ar-kanz-ass? It’s fucking stupid. Arkansas. What can ‘Ar’ saw?”
Bull laughs and slings an arm around Johnny’s shoulders, “you, Johnny Martin, are drunk.”
“So are you. And it’s still a stupid name.”
Johnny doesn’t really know how it happens exactly. He turns his head to look at Bull and Bull’s already looking at him and it’s so easy, really, for Johnny to close the distance between them. So easy to lean in and tilt his chin up, so easy to press his lips against Bull’s and he’s half-addled by wine and clearly far out of his right mind but it’s nice, it’s a helluva lot more than nice and Johnny doesn’t wanna stop. He shifts a bit, slips his hand behind Bull’s neck to make sure he stays close, make sure he doesn’t stop kissing him. Bull is warm and eager against him and his lips are so soft and this feels so perfect—
The sound of footsteps in the hallway outside startle them apart. One second Johnny’s moving away, the next his brain is catching up with exactly what just happened and he stumbles to his feet and rushes out of the room, his name lingering on the air behind him.
Chapter 3: Part 3
and okay here's the end :)
I'll be honest, I don't always see the point in including gay panic in my work but I just couldn't imagine Johnny not freaking out so warnings for internalized homophobia and also Johnny being an idiot because I stan one (1) dumbass boy.
(If you go right to "Johnny’s been absolutely awful to him." and read on from there you'll miss all but a couple of comments on then-current opinions on homosexuality)
I really hope you like it and ty so much for reading!! and big shoutout to my roommate terpsichorean whom i keep forcing to go through each chapter and tell me her favourite parts
Johnny wakes up the morning after VE-Day with a knot in his stomach and a pounding headache. He’s hauled himself to the shower and put on a clean uniform before his memories of the night catch up with him.
He remembers with painstaking detail every moment leading up to the kiss: the closeness, the look, the stillness of the air between them. And he remembers every moment of the kiss, too. Remembers leaning up into it, remembers eagerly kissing Bull back, slipping his tongue into his mouth. What the hell was that? How drunk was he? Cause Johnny Martin’s no fucking queer. He’s no Luz, even, unable to keep his hands off of other men’s asses. What the fuck must Bull think?
He tries to think of Bull’s involvement; he didn’t push Johnny away, but then again he was drunk, too, maybe even drunker than Johnny and hell, Johnny can’t face him after that. The best he can do is stay away from him and pray like hell that Bull’s memory is worse than his.
They’re shipping out, to Austria now, and it sucks to leave Berchtesgaden behind them but they’ll all just have to live with that. He’s a little relieved, to be honest, he doesn’t think he could walk around a place that was constantly reminding him of last night. He drinks some water and helps with the packing up. When the transports start moving out, he waits until he sees which one Bull’s on and then he climbs onto the one the furthest away from it.
“Peewee! What the hell you doing here?” that’s Liebgott, as annoying as ever.
Johnny fixes him a withering glare, “what, am I not allowed on your transport, Corporal?” Pulling rank is undeniably petty but Johnny’s far from his best right now and honestly he could care less about what anyone here thinks of him.
“No sir,” Liebgott replies, quelled for the moment and Johnny just closes his eyes and leans back against the mental frame and does his best to sleep. He’s not at all successful, and the bumpy ride is only making his headache worse. The smell of cigarette smoke is threatening to push him over the edge from queasy to nauseous and try as he might he can’t stop running over the events of last night again and again. Slowed down step by step of each and every moment like a picture that won’t stop showing. How exactly did it happen, how did they go from drinking to, fuck, kissing. He wishes there were another word for what they’d done, another way to explain it away but that’s what they’d done, kissed in a way that just isn’t right for two men to do and Johnny can’t handle that memory, can’t understand how he got to that point, what possibly could have possessed him.
He opens his eyes to bright sunshine and blue skies that somehow make him even angrier. The guys riding beside him have been shouting and laughing for most of the trip so far but they all quiet at the look on Johnny’s face. He shakes his head, starts a conversation with Liebgott just to pass the time. At least then he can be angry at all the dumb shit Lieb says rather than at his own actions last night.
The trip to Zell Am See doesn’t take them very long and soon enough they’re trundling up picturesque mountains towards their next home. It’s somehow even more beautiful than Berchtesgaden was and Johnny’s half turning to see Bull’s reaction before he remembers that Bull isn’t beside him.
Austria, Johnny has to admit, is pretty much paradise. They’re not at all busy and their superior officers seem completely uninterested in making them work. At most, they head out in squads to rustle up some game for dinner. Other than that, though, their days are spent in idle pursuits. There’s almost always a game of something going on, be it football or baseball or basketball. There’s usually a few guys swimming in the lake, too, or sunbathing beside it. There’s a general spirit of relief and relaxation that everyone seems caught up in. Well, almost everyone; Johnny stalwartly avoids having any fun, and expends quite a significant amount of energy avoiding Bull.
He does this in two ways, first he avoids any place he thinks Bull might be likely to hang out, second whenever he walks into a place and sees Bull there, he leaves immediately. It’s honestly mostly the latter and he knows it’s unsubtle as all get out but also every time he sees Bull the only thing he can think of is kissing him and Johnny cannot in any conceivable way deal with that. So he stays the fuck away, passes most of his time inside alone or walking through the woods, also alone.
Still, he really misses Bull. He’s so used to spending his time with him, to hearing Bull’s stupid folksy stories, or the way Bull always laughs when Johnny gets angry about something inconsequential. He finds himself always instinctually listening for Bull’s quiet comments before he remembers that Bull’s not there. The fact of the matter is that he just doesn’t know how to be friends with him anymore, not after what happened.
He can feel the guys watching him and he bristles at the attention, stares down anyone who makes the mistake of being less than subtle about it.
Lipton, his face marked with that gentle concern he so often shows, even pulls Johnny aside to inquire about him and Bull. Had something happened? Was there a problem that Lip needed to know about? But Johnny brushes his questions away, tells him everything’s fine and figures if he tells himself that often enough he’ll come to believe it.
Johnny wakes up early one morning coated in sweat and hard as hell. He sits up, leans forward and tries to remember what got him into this situation. It must’ve been a dream about Vivian; it’s happened before, not recently, but still. Actually, it hasn’t happened in months and Johnny has thought he was well and truly over missing his wife. And then the dream comes back to him in sharp splinters, vivid moments, and Johnny remembers it all at once. It wasn’t the softness of Vivian on top of him that had left him in this state, but rather the heft of Bull beneath him. Him, straddling Bull, kissing Bull… Like VE-Day but so much more, so much closer to something fully sinful, and there was no alcohol to blame it on, just Johnny’s perverse brain.
Johnny groans and throws the covers off of him. He heads for the showers, thankfully deserted at this hour, puts the water as cold as it’ll go and steps under the spray.
It’s obviously been too long since he’s been with a woman, he tells himself. Clearly not having sex for years just does funny stuff to a man’s brains. He refuses to entertain any other explanation. He just needs sex. Luz and Malark and a few others have been vocal about just how receptive Austrian women are and Johnny figures that could just be the answer to all his problems. He takes care of his current situation and sleeps fitfully, keeping himself close enough to waking that he barely rests, let alone dreams.
The next time they get passes to go into town, Johnny goes along. He gets a beer in the bar that the other guys from the company have been frequenting, drags his finger through the water mark it leaves on the wood of his table as he tries to decide what to do next. Between Vivian and the war it’s been a long time since Johnny’s been out somewhere to meet women and he’s not too sure how to go about it. He watches Perconte and Ramirez leading some girls around on the dance floor with disinterest. Johnny’s never been much for dancing and, anyway, he isn’t here to lead some gal on about a starstruck war-time romance. Callous but true. And then he makes eye contact with a pretty girl sitting on her own on the other side of the room. She’s fair and sweet looking and she’s smiling at him and the first thing he thinks is what Bull would have to say about her. He shakes his head at that, he’s here precisely so he can stop thinking about Bull so much. Almost in retaliation against his Bull-obsessed brain, he picks up his drink, walks over to the girl, and introduces himself.
They talk for a while. She’s sweet, even prettier up close, and her English is damn near impeccable. Johnny cannot for the life of him remember her name, though, and he knows it’d be rude to ask again. Lena or something, but not quite. She asks him if he’s married and tuts sympathetically when he says his wife left him because of the war. He concentrates on paying attention to her stories too, tries to keep his mind from wandering. Someone lights a cigar somewhere behind him and the smell of it makes him feel like Bull’s right behind him and then that’s all he can think about and he’s barely paying enough attention to this girl to laugh or respond at the right moments.
He does feel bad about that, but he really is trying and it’s not his fault that some asshole decided to smoke a cigar right near him and he doesn’t feel bad enough to say no when the girl suggests heading back to her place for a nightcap.
She takes Johnny back to a little flat above a shop and it’s all very sweet and nice. She does offer him a drink and he takes it and it’s almost by the time he gets around to actually kissing her. The kissing’s real nice, she’s soft and eager and she’s at least as good of a kisser as Vivian ever was. It’s been so long but Johnny still remembers what he’s doing, remembers the cues and the right moves, and she’s shameless enough to guide him if he’s not doing what she wants.
He has her shirt off and his own undone and all of a sudden he’s thinking of how this compares to kissing Bull. He misses the coarse stubble against his cheek, misses the way Bull breathed harsh and heavy. He tries to refocus oh the here, now, the girl in his lap and his plan for the evening but his brain is a jumble of the taste of champagne and cigars on Bull’s lips. Sure this is nice but Johnny’s cruel traitor of a brain won’t stop telling him how much nicer it was before, how good it felt to be held against Bull’s broad shoulders and strong chest, the comfort and the deliciousness hotness of it all. He can feel himself getting hard and he can’t deal with this, can’t deal with the fact that he’s hard not because of the girl in his lap but because of Bull .
“I’m sorry.” Johnny tries to be gentle as he pushes her off of him. “I— I can’t do this.” He pulls his shirt back together and grabs his jacket and high tails it out of there as quick as can be.
What a fucking asshole he’s been tonight. That’s what Bull would call him if he knew. And there it is, again, always, cause he’s constantly incapable of not seeing the world through a lens that includes Bull. Every thought and idea and opinion tied irrevocably to him and Johnny’s sure they’re not even friends anymore. Good fucking job Johnny Martin.
He makes his way back to the mansion they’ve been billeted in. He doesn’t know what time it is but it’s surely late enough that he doesn’t expect anyone else around. When he enters the house there’s a group of guys lounging on chairs near the entrance, drinking and chatting.
“Hey Johnny! Getting home mighty late there,” Malark shouts.
Johnny’s happy enough to let the guys think whatever, but when he looks up, grinning, about to make some witty remark to reinforce everybody’s assumptions he makes direct eye contact with Bull who’s just watching Johnny, face implacable above that ever-present cigar.
So he doesn’t say anything, he just turns and heads to bed, crawls under the covers and begs sleep to come quickly.
It doesn’t come at all. Johnny lays in his bed and stares up at the ceiling and just thinks instead. He thinks about that night, and about the night of VE-Day, thinks about kissing Bull and how much he liked it and Johnny’s just not prepared to handle that information. He’s, what? Some queer now? Some sodomist who goes around wanting to be with other men? Like that ?
He thinks about Bull as a way to not think about the kiss and, hell, it’s so easy to think about Bull. He’s been trying really hard not to let himself but it’s a part of him now, Bull’s a part of him now. He thinks of the friendship they’ve built up between them throughout the war, thinks about all the times they’ve been real worried about each other and still made it through. Eindhoven. Haguenau. The stretches of frozen hell that was their Christmas this past year. Every senseless death and hopeless night; an existence stitched together from anguish and relief. And always, right there beside him: Bull. Quiet and gentle, bullying Johnny into eating and keeping his spirits up, and what part of his life makes sense anymore without Bull there to frame it?
And there’s how he feels about Bull, too, that warmth in his chest when he smiles, the way his stomach churns sometimes just by being near to him. It’s not that he doesn’t have a name for this stuff, just not a context. Cause when he really lets himself think about it, it’s like when he and Vivian were first going together except more and bigger and stronger, unfathomably so. Johnny puts his hand over his eyes and realises that this thing, whatever it is, has been building for a long fucking time.
Johnny doesn’t really get how two guys can be… like that but that doesn’t stop him in the slightest from wanting it, from wanting Bull, from loving Bull. The thought startles him but it’s true. He loves Bull, a sort of all consuming love that subsumes Johnny’s everything. It really does explain things. It makes sense of months of a closeness that goes beyond anything normal. And really it’s at least partially the army’s fault cause it would be impossible not to get close to the men you rely on under a hailstorm of bullets and people call it a brotherhood but that doesn’t really capture the immensity of the bond any of them have built.
Johnny’s feeling okay with it, is feeling like he knows something more about himself than he did yesterday and that’s not so bad, see, but then he remembers that he’s not the only part of the equation.
“Oh fuck, Bull.”
Johnny’s been absolutely awful to him. He’s been absolutely awful to a lot of people, so caught up in his own shit that he barely paid attention to anything else. But Bull has borne the brunt of it, of Johnny’s determined cold shoulder. And whatever else was going on, Bull could never have deserved that.
And Johnny doesn’t even know how Bull feels. Maybe he’s just as disgusted and horrified as Johnny was—he hasn’t exactly tried to talk to Johnny either. Maybe he’s glad that Johnny’s been avoiding him, maybe he doesn’t even want to be friends anymore, let alone anything else. Johnny replays the kiss over again in his mind, every movement as clear as can be and he’s almost positive Bull was kissing him back. Not that that really means anything, there was a lot of alcohol being passed around that night and drink can make a man do funny things. But then he thinks of Bull’s look tonight. Not one of blame or anger, but one of hurt. That’s all that’s been in Bull’s gaze ever since VE-Day, Johnny realizes. Worry and hurt.
It’s morning all of a sudden, the night having passed with startling brevity, and Johnny hauls himself out of bed to go find food. He spends the next two days moodily staring at Bull when he’s sure nobody’s paying attention and trying to figure out how he can possibly approach him after all this time.
He’s sitting on a grassy knoll overlooking the lake below when someone’s shadow covers him. He looks up and there’s Bull, he has to crane his neck to see Bull’s face, and then he can barely see his expression against the bright sunny sky but he doesn’t look angry and Johnny’s grateful for that, at least.
“I think we should talk.”
Johnny nods, doesn’t quite trust himself to speak as Bull takes a seat beside him. He leaves more room between them than he usually does and Johnny keenly misses the pressure of Bull’s arm against his own.
“Gee, Johnny, I don’t quite know where to start here.” He’s chewing on his cigar, as nervous a tic he could possibly have.
Johnny doesn’t know, either, but he knows he’s been an asshole, that there’s really no excuse for his behaviour. “I’m sorry.”
Bull turns to him, catches his gaze and there’s a moment there where Johnny thinks he might just get lost in looking at Bull’s beautiful face, ruddy cheeks and bright eyes and lips forever holding the end of a cigar in place. “What exactly is it that you’re apologizing for?”
“Uh,” he hadn’t expected that, what is he apologizing for? Other than for just his general bullshit, for being a shitty person. “I’ve treated you pretty awful the past few weeks.”
“Yeah, you sure have.” Bull hasn’t looked away from him yet and Johnny can sense that there’s something more he wants to say so he waits, all patient-like, like it isn’t killing him to be in this limbo. “Am I right in hearing that you ain’t apologizing for what happened on VE-Day?”
So he does remember. “Oh,” shit, Johnny didn’t mean to do that, to leave himself open and exposed with Bull thinking he’s some twisted homosexual—even though it happens to be that that’s exactly what Johnny is. He’s about to speak again, to rush forward with apology and denial but he feel Bull’s hand brush against his own. He looks down, Bull’s laid just his pinky finger over Johnny’s and even that contact is enough to send Johnny’s heart a-hammering away in his chest. “I…” he has no clue what to say here. He looks up at Bull and he looks so nervous now, looks like he just jumped out of an airplane with no chute and Johnny’s the one to decide just how hard he’ll hit the ground. “Do you want me to?”
Bull takes a deep breath. “No.” It’s one word, barely more than a whisper; it changes Johnny’s world.
“I, um, I don’t know what to do here,” Johnny admits. He knows what he wants to do, wants to fling himself at Bull and not stop kissing him for a very long time, but that’s the wrong choice for so many reasons.
“I know.” He chuckles, “sure is confusing.”
“How the hell can you be so calm?”
“Calm?” Bull echoes. “Shit, Johnny I’ve been terrified the past weeks. I was scared you’d hate me forever, that you’d turn me in, or at the very least tell everyone. I never meant for anything to happen I swear.”
“Happen?” Johnny takes a moment to parse that, “you mean you knew?”
Bull smiles, “yeah, yeah I knew. I’ve been wanting to do that since, I dunno, Toccoa for sure. First time I saw you all tiny and angry dressing some guy down and I was smitten.”
Johnny wants to protest against ‘tiny’ but the way Bull’s looking at him it comes as an endearment and anyway, Johnny is tiny against Bull and Johnny kinda really likes that. “You saying you like it when I’m angry?”
Bull gives him a look filled with naked intent, “yeah, I sure do.”
Fuck, Johnny really wants to kiss him now. Whose idea was it to have this conversation out in plain view?
“Then again,” Bull shoves him gently, “if I didn’t like you when you’re angry I’d only like you about five minutes a day.”
Johnny glares at him, breaks into a smile in less than a minute and curses Bull for being so fucking disarming. He’s gonna completely ruin Johnny’s reputation with the troops if he doesn’t quit that soon.
“I just don’t…” Johnny starts and stops. “How did you know when… Fuck, how can we even do this, Bull? It’s wrong—” he stumbles over his words cause it sure doesn’t feel wrong, being here with Bull under the hot Austrian sun.
“I don’t think we’re wrong, Johnny. I think, shit, I guess I think what we do in private ain’t got nothing to do with anyone else.” He chews his cigar for a moment, “I’m a homosexual man, Johnny. And I guess I refuse to think love can be wrong.”
“How can you be so calm about it though? I mean, hell, Bull, it’s illegal.”
“You sure you wanna know? It’s gonna be another folksy Arkansas tale.”
Johnny laughs, “fucking of course it is. Alright let’s hear it.”
“Two farms down from ours, past the pond and the big willow tree,” all of Bull’s best stories start like this, with a quaint description of just where it’s happening. Johnny’ll never admit how much he likes that. “There was this man, maybe 20 years older than we are now. He wasn’t from our area, wasn’t even from Arkansas by his accent, but he served in the war with one of the Millers from the next county over and they’d moved out there and started an orchard together, before I was even born. And then his friend died when I was young and he was all alone.”
“Yeah, he’d lost an arm in the war, too.”
“No, I meant stuck in Arkansas with just the locals,” Johnny grins as Bull laughs.
“A tragedy, I’m sure.”
“So what wisdom did this one-armed stranger give to you?”
“Hold your horses there,” Bull shakes his head, “this is a story and you can’t rush a good story.”
“I can certainly try.”
“Him being without an arm and a veteran n’ all,” Bull continues with a pointed stare, “there was a bit of an agreement amongst the ‘locals’, every year someone would send one or two of their kids to help him harvest his peaches when the time came.”
“And so you went.”
“Exactly. I was thirteen the first year and they figured I was big enough to help him all on my own.” He smiles something halfway between doting and mocking, “at thirteen I was a fair bit bigger than you’ll ever be, Peewee.”
Johnny glares at him for that, he fucking hates that nickname.
“Anyway, so I went and helped him and I liked him and he liked me well enough and for the next couple years it was always just me helping him.” Bull shrugs, “I guess he recognized something in me, saw it clearer than I could at the time. And he waited ‘til I was, I dunno, fifteen or sixteen and then he ended up talking to me.” Bull pauses, “see, he and Miller weren’t just friends, they were something more than that and this man, well I dunno how he even brought it up at first. But he was able to explain stuff to me, he gave me a way to understand that funny feeling in my stomach when some other boy pulled off his shirt.”
“But,” Johnny hesitates, “how, I mean, how were you able to just accept it when you knew it’s not how things are supposed to be. I mean I’m not much one for church, Bull busy you must’ve known that stuff like this is sinful and bad.”
“It’s not bad,” Bull looks at him so seriously now, “people say it’s sinful and wrong and all sorts of other mean words, Johnny, but it’s not. I need—hell, I need you to know that. I don’t think I could bear to love you if you were always thinking of our love as something bad and wrong.
It’s the first time either of them has used that word in this whole conversation and Johnny’s breath hitches audibly. Love .
Bull hangs his head, “sorry, I didn’t mean to rush that onto you but—“
“No,” Johnny covers Bull’s hand more fully with his own, “please don’t apologize. I, fuck, I love you Bull Randleman.”
Bull’s smile is hands down the prettiest thing Johnny’s ever seen. It beats Germany and Austria by ten miles and he can feel a deep need to kiss it settle in the pit of his stomach.
“Johnny Martin I love you too. I knew I was smitten for a while but I think it was when you were yelling at me, after Eindhoven, remember that?”
“Yeah I remember. You were being an idiot, using that arm when you were supposed to be resting.”
“Yeah well,” Bull blushes a little, “I just looked up at you and I thought boy I’m head over heels ain’t I?”
“I’m sorry you couldn’t tell me earlier,” Johnny says.
“Don’t be. You needed time and space and I can’t begrudge you that.”
They’re silent for a long moment, hands back to resting against each other just in case anyone sees them.
Johnny breathes out in a rush. “Bull, I’ve gotta be honest I’m using just about every ounce of restraint in me to keep myself from kissing you right now.”
Bull looks a little shocked at that, like maybe after all this Johnny somehow wouldn’t be thinking of kissing him, wouldn’t be aching for Bull to hold him in his arms . “Yeah, we, uh, we should probably go somewhere private, shouldn’t we?”
It’s so incredibly hard to walk at a normal pace on their way back to the house. Johnny wants to just grab Bull’s hand and run, to rush into any place with enough cover to keep them away from prying eyes.
They’re stopped by Lipton telling them that there’s a mandatory viewing tonight of a picture about Japan or whatever, and as much as Johnny likes Lip he just wants to shout at him to shut the fuck up and leave them alone. Lip smiles at Johnny before he heads off, in a way that Johnny knows says he’s happy to see him and Bull being friendly again and he does his best to smile back appropriately. Johnny’s fingertips feel like they’re vibrating with the energy of holding himself at bay. It would be absolutely disastrous to let on to anyone here anything about him and Bull but by god, Johnny sure just wants to grab Bull’s face and kiss him in front of whoever’s around—laws and regs and puritanical beliefs be damned.
But they need to be careful, splitting up once they get to the house, each taking a different route to where they’re going and ever-conscious of who might be around, who might see them.
They finally, finally get to the room that Johnny’s been staying in and he’s never been more grateful for his rank than he is now, with his room all to himself with a locking door. He slides the deadbolt as Bull pulls the curtains in to cover the window and then they’re alone and safe in a dim lit room and all of a sudden Johnny doesn’t quite know what to do.
He’s been wanting to kiss Bull for far too long that now that he has the opportunity he can’t bring himself to move. But then Bull’s putting his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, saying his name all sweet and tender like and it’s so goddamn lovely. Johnny leans into the touch, moves towards Bull so he’s standing right in front of him and Bull’s so big and tall and yet he’s looking at Johnny so tentatively, touching him so gently, like Johnny’s liable to break. It’s that tender care, that knowledge, too, that Bull is gonna defer to him for this whole encounter, quietly conscious that Johnny may want to take things slow, that drives Johnny up onto his tiptoes, putting his hands in Bull’s hair to pull his head down towards him and who the hell decided that Bull should be this tall? Cause it’s gonna seriously inconvenience Johnny every time he wants to kiss him. Thankfully, though, Bull is happy to lean down so Johnny can reach him and it is perfect.
Kissing Bull now is so much better than it was on VE-Day, so much better than drunken fumbling. This, now, is filled with love and intent and awareness. It’s different from kissing Vivian and yet, also, it isn’t in some ways. It’s just as sweet, just as exciting, but there’s an element of difference that goes beyond coarse stubble and calloused hands. And of course, Vivian’s not half a foot taller than he is. Johnny can’t get enough of this, of finally after everything being free to kiss Bull as much as he wants. And Bull’s gotta be correct, about this not being wrong because nothing that’s wrong could possibly feel this fucking good.
Johnny gets tired of having to reach up, is sure that Bull’s neck must be hurting too. He pulls away, pushes at Bull’s chest. “Sit down, you’re too tall.”
“Y’know if I’d known you were gonna be this bossy…” Bull sits, grins up at Johnny and Johnny happily straddles his lap.
“Oh shut up, you knew what you were getting into.” Johnny happily quiets any more of Bull’s commentary by eagerly kissing him again. He realises after a moment that this is like his dream of a few days ago; it feels so much better in person. Johnny loves leaning up against Bull’s broad chest, loves running his fingers through his hair, over his shoulders, down to his waist. Loves the feeling, too, of Bull’s hands spanning his waist and why is it that Johnny, usually so annoyed by the reminder of how small he is, loves it now?
Johnny’s brain feels hazy, blurred with lust and when did Bull take off his shirt, or, wait, when did Johnny take off Bull’s shirt? When did he first gain the ability to run his hands down Bull’s stomach and over his bare shoulders and how was it that before a few days ago Johnny couldn’t see how fucking handsome Bull was because now he can think of nothing else.
Still, even though the last thing he wants to do is stop, Johnny pulls himself away from Bull’s lips. “We, uh, we should—”
The words are a rush of cold water, “I don’t want someone to miss us.” Johnny stands, “I wish… I really wish we didn’t have to.”
“Me too. We gotta be careful though.”
“How careful?” Johnny realises he hasn’t thought about that yet, about how they’ll act around everyone else. “I mean, I don’t want to, Bull I wanna see you, I wanna be able to spend time with you.”
“Johnny, we already spent most of our time together, honestly people probably noticed more when we weren’t joined at the hip.” Bull has a point, there.
“I guess so, yeah.”
“I mean, we can’t be indiscreet but, I don’t think anyone’s gonna go around makin’ assumptions.” Bull does the last button up on his shirt, “nobody’ll be looking for it, unless they’re in the same way as us.”
That’s something Johnny hasn’t even considered before. “Do you think? That there are others in the company, like us?”
“Maybe.” Bull shrugs, “war has a way of throwing men together, making them closer than they’d otherwise be.”
“Is that,” Johnny grabs Bull’s hand, rubs his thumb over his knuckles and looks up at him. “Bull do you mean you think that’s why we feel the way we do?”
“I don’t know about you Johnny, but I don’t think there’d ever have been a hope in hell of me not falling for you.” He grins, “what can I say, I like a man with a lotta passion and not too much sense.”
Johnny looks at him, aghast. “Wait, you’re calling me the stupid one?”
Bull doesn’t reply, just cocks his head, really looks at Johnny and Johnny has to think about the past few days, about his reaction to this whole thing, and okay sure maybe Bull does have a point. Though it’s not really Johnny’s fault that Bull just happens to be some big hick type of idiot-savant. So he glares but he can’t hold it from turning into a smile, and he kisses Bull anyway and it’s real sweet how Bull leans in and Johnny’s already getting used to this, already getting used to being able to kiss Bull and touch Bull and that’s an instinct they’ll both have to rein in.
“Come on,” Johnny says, “we should get going.”
They check each other over, tugging at this and adjusting that and it’s honestly more of an excuse to touch each other one last time, before having to go and act like nothing just happened. Like Johnny’s entire life did not just irrevocably change.
They head to the screening of the picture about the war effort in Japan together, watch the fighting there, so similar and yet so different from what they did here in Europe. They’re talking quietly after it ends when Liebgott decides to open his fucking mouth.
“So Bull, Johnny, you guys kiss and make up or what?”
Johnny turns and stares him down until he visibly gulps and then he grins, “nah I was just resting my neck for a bit.” He mimes craning his neck up like Bull’s eight feet tall and the guys all laugh. “Plus, you know, I might get enough points to go home and then this dumb hick’s gonna have to survive in Japan without me, I wanted to make sure he’d make it.”
Bull grins and chews his cigar and that’s the end of anyone paying any special interest in them. It doesn’t hurt that everyone’s attentions are soon diverted by Lipton coming to tell them all that they’re back to regular drills immediately: they’ve gotta be in fighting form for Japan.
It’s rough at first, going from complete indolence to fighting drills but they soon get used to it and it’s not bad, really, having that structure again. Plus, even if they are doing PT and drills constantly, they’re still in Austria and it’s still as beautiful as ever and okay, maybe just maybe Johnny’s in an extra good mood these days, even though he and Bull rarely get any time alone together.
Bull’s words about men in war stay with him, too, and Johnny finds himself watching the others closely, seeing their interactions in a different light. There’s Major Winters and Captain Nixon, of course. They’ve never been anything less than joined at the hip but as Johnny watches them lean in close to talk to each other as they oversee drills he wonders if that’s it, if there’s a level beyond friendship there. There’s the way, too, that Lip always looks up the moment Speirs enters the room. That sort of awareness of each other and Johnny wonders if things with Bull are making him see what’s not there or if there really is more to this than just friendships. Hell, even Liebgott and Webster’s incessant bickering seems like it might have another layer to it, hovering just beneath the surface.
Johnny will never know, could never ask even if they weren’t in the army. He doesn’t really feel like being brought up on sodomy charges, especially considering he hasn’t even had a chance to engage in any yet. So he just watches and wonders and later asks Bull if he’s noticed the same things and thinks Johnny’s right.
Bull smokes his cigar and nods and says, “could be.” And Johnny rolls his eyes and smiles.
Being back to a full training regiment takes up a good deal of their time but they still have evenings and weekends and quite a bit of time to enjoy the good weather and the scenery and the not being shot at, which still somehow feels novel.
They have quite a bit of leisure time and leisure time means more swimming and more walks and more games of baseball and basketball and whatever else. Johnny tags along to Bull’s basketball games just like he always did in England, lying in the grass and watching them play. And sure, maybe now he pays a little less attention to the score and spends a hell of a lot more time watching the way Bull’s muscles shift under his skin, or concentrating on any number of other prurient things his mind comes up with when watching Bull get drenched in sweat.
Bull was right, of course, when he said that nobody would be able to tell what had changed between them. Things are just all as usual. Except, sometimes they find five or ten or fifteen—never more than that—minutes where they can sneak away into a dark corner or locked room and they can kiss and touch and whisper to each other how much they care. Johnny feels like he’s living for those moments, like the rest of his life is just filler until he gets to touch Bull again. And, of course, he yearns for time and privacy and a space where no one has expectations or questions.
“This morning, President Truman received the unconditional surrender from the Japanese. War’s over.” Winters interrupts their baseball game to give them the news and none of them give one shit about the score anymore because they’re done. The war is over and they are going home and it’s just a big mass of men laughing and clapping each other on the backs and cheering.
The party for VJ-Day is at least as raucous as the one for VE-Day was. This time there’s less fancy old alcohol—though apparently Captain Nixon did pack up quite a bit of it and bring it with him—but a lot more relief.
Johnny’s happy of course, happy that he won’t have to jump on Japan, happy that he gets to go home, but he’s a little sad, too, because he’s not ready to give up everything that Austria’s given him. Home is good but Easy and war means Bull at his side every day and what’s Johnny supposed to do without that? How is he supposed to just go back to life as normal? So when the celebrations get a little too loud for his tastes, he retreats away up to the top level of the massive mansion to find some much needed quiet.
Bull finds him there, leaning against the wall, sipping a beer and watching the view: the sun setting over tall snow capped mountains.
“Hey,” Bull says, comes and stands right close to him and Johnny knows without having to ask that Bull locked the door.
“Hey.” He puts down the empty beer bottle, looks up at Bull and leans in closer, picks a minute piece of lint off of Bull’s shoulder so his hand can have a reason to rest against Bull’s arm. It’s kinda silly, probably, for him to still feel like he needs an excuse, a reason, to touch Bull first.
“I woulda thought you’d be happy,” Bull says, voice low. He puts his hand on Johnny’s hip, pulls gently at him and Johnny lets himself be brought all the closer to him.
“Right, so happy you look like someone just shot your dog.”
“I just,” Johnny looks away, and then back at Bull, makes eye contact with him and can feel himself smile cause Bull’s looking at him all sweet and worried and fuck Johnny’s really gonna miss this. His smile turns wan, he’s sure, “Bull I’m not ready to say goodbye to this. I know that’s selfish and of course I’m glad that the war is over but…”
Bull’s looking at him, fond and puzzled all at once. “What do you mean, ‘say goodbye to this’, you talking about me?”
Bull just bursts out laughing. “You know we live in the same country, right?” He puts his hand under Johnny’s chin, “you know they’ve got trains and these new fangled things called automobiles. Hell, I’d walk to you if I had to Johnny-boy.”
Johnny knows he must look like a fucking idiot now, shock painting his face. “You mean, I—so this doesn’t have to end here?”
“Of course not. You think I put all this work into seducing you just to let you go?”
Johnny laughs and kisses him, soft and swift. “Right, cause you seduced me.”
“That’s how I remember it going. Plus, you know what America has that we ain’t got here?”
“Why don’t you tell me.”
“Lots and lots of places where nobody knows us and nobody’ll come looking for us and there won’t be any reason for us to be interrupted.”
That brings with it a host of very exciting possibilities that Johnny hadn’t thought about yet. He laughs with joy as Bull hoists him up, lifts him like he weighs nothing, and then he happily uses his new vantage point to wrap his arms around Bull’s shoulders and kiss him soundly.
It takes a while, of course, for the army to get their shit together. There’s more weeks in Austria, and then the trip back to England and then from there another noisy chaotic boat ride that lasts far too long and it’s almost Christmas before they reach the states. And there’s seeing Vivian when he gets home, which is unavoidable, seeing their house for the last time and seeing how happy she is with Phil. He wishes he could tell her how happy he is, too. Wishes he could let her know that he’s got someone to be with, that she did the right thing, that he won’t be sad and alone. There’s settling back in, and thinking about work and life and a hundred other things that have to be dealt with. But then there’s also letter sent back and forth, and the train ride to Arkansas in the spring, there’s seeing Bull and meeting his family and, of course, his favourite chicken.
There’s the little apartment they get in Columbus, the quiet routine they fall into. There’s quiet nights in and waking up with his face smushed into Bull’s chest. There’s fights and laughter and everything in between and it’s something incredible, really, after Bastogne and Haguenau and every awful thing they lived through that they get to have this. That there is, after everything, routine and normalcy and the simple joy of being together and in love.