“Babe, what the hell are you doing?” Bill asks with a mix of horror and fascination as Babe pours some of their hot water into his tin mug and starts dropping pieces of his chocolate into it.
“Trying something new”, Babe just says. He lets the last piece sink into the hot water and then starts stirring.
“You’re wasting some damn good chocolate is what you’re doing” Bill says with a shake of his head.
“It’s my chocolate, what do you care?” Babe shoots back, but there’s no heat behind. It’s just their usual banter, there to remind them that they’re still alive and here and mostly the same people they were yesterday.
He stops stirring and then carefully licks at the hot spoon, making a considerate face. “Doesn’t really taste like the real thing”, he says then. “But it ain’t bad either.”
“Let me try”, Bill says, but Babe pulls the mug out of his reach. “No way, you didn’t have any faith in me! Besides, this ain’t for you.”
“Nobody who’d tasted your cooking would have any faith in you”, Bill mutters, and that’s just unfair, not a lot to be done with canned meat and a flame under a helmet, was there?
Bill watches as Babe gets up, mug held carefully in one hand. “For whom is it then?” he asks, but Babe just says: “You’ll see.”
Gene is still where he last saw him, sitting against the tire of one of their parked trucks so he’s at least a little protected from the wind, with his hands tucked into his jacket and his collar pulled up almost to his nose. His head is leaning back against the carriage and his eyes are closed. Babe could almost hope that he’s asleep, he’d deserve it more than anyone, except he knows that no one manages to get some in these short breaks, least of all Gene.
He crouches down in front of him and nudges his shoulder. It breaks his heart to stir him, but they’ll have to start moving again any minute now and he can’t even remember the last time he saw him eat something. “Hey Gene”, he says gently.
Gene’s eyelids flutter open, lashes dark against his pale face. “Ya need somethin’?” he mumbles, his voice low and scratchy from lack of use. They’d all run out of things to talk about on their way sooner or later, and Gene never had been much of a talker to begin with.
“No”, Babe says. The Doc seems confused by the answer, squinting at him without saying anything. “But I’ve got something for you.”
“For me?” It’s pure disbelief, like their time in those white woods has burned away any notion of want, any thought of a world that extended past the snow and the cold and the splintered trees.
“Yeah.” He hands him the mug, only letting go after he’s sure the other’s grip is tight enough. Gene looks at it for a moment like he’s unsure what to do with it. But then he shows more faith than Bill because he doesn’t even ask what’s in it, just tips the mug and takes a sip. And the way his face lights up at the taste is worth everything, the muddy road, the cutting wind, everything, maybe even the artillery that lights up the sky every night.
“It’s good”, he finally says as he sets the mug down. Babe notices that it isn’t quite empty yet, a show of self-restraint of which Babe has little. There’s a bit of chocolate on his lips and it takes every bit of Babe to keep himself from reaching out to wipe it away. But the best reward is the smile, small but reaching his eyes, and Babe can’t help himself, he laughs out loud.
Then he shakes his head. “It’s not that good. Not as good as the stuff back home.”
Gene’s smile doesn’t waver. “It’s pretty good.” Then he empties the mug, savoring every last drop of the hot liquid before handing it back to Babe. For a moment, their fingers brush together, and Babe can feel the heat that has seeped into Gene’s skin. It won’t last, but it’s something.
“Thanks”, Gene says. There are still dark rings underneath his eyes and his skin is almost as pale as the patches of snow on the ground, but his eyes look a bit more alive than before, and really that’s all Babe ever wanted.
“No problem, Gene.” They don’t have much time to talk, but then they’ve never needed many words to understand each other.
And then the call interrupts them and they both scramble to their feet, Babe pulling Gene up, and they climb back onto the bed of their truck. This time they sit next to each other as the ride continues, and as the hours pass Gene’s head sinks slowly down onto his shoulder as he falls asleep. It’s the best thing that’s happened to Babe in weeks.
(And really, what does that say about him?)