It had been five years. Five years since Europe, since Operation Shitstorm in Holland and the bloody battle from the hell that was Bastogne and that god awful camp of Nazi horrors and Easy's capture of the Eagles Nest. Five fuckin' years since Babe Heffron had last shot a man, had last lost a friend. Five years since he'd seen Gene Roe.
Bill Guarnere—he and Babe had stayed good friends after the war, best friends, in fact; they lived just two streets apart in South Philly these days, and Babe was the godfather to Bill's rowdy offspring—was forever nostalgic about their days with “the best goddamn company in the whole fuckin' world, thankyouverymuch.” Every once in a while, Bill would arrange drinks for himself, Babe, and a few of the other Philly guys like Ralph Spina, Johnny Martin, and Joe Toye (who'd catch a bus in from Pittsburgh). Occasionally, Bill could also rope George Luz into driving down from Rhode Island or convince Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon to come over from Jersey.
The little gatherings were always a fucking blast—all booze and old war stories, literally. It was good for them to be together, for them to have even just an hour of being around people who just fucking got it. Got how odd it felt to be walking around out of uniform all day feelin’ like a little kid playin’ dress up or make believe. Got what it was like to wake yourself at night with your own screams. Got what it meant to have lost a brother to the beaches of Normandy and the forests of Belgium. For those few moments that they were together, the men would really be able to—finally—just breathe again. Then one day, Martin made a casual remark along the lines of, “I wonder how Bull's doing. Ain't heard from him in a while,” and there went Bill, off like a goddamn rocket, organizing the largest reunion of Easy Company guys yet—Toccoa boys and replacements, alike.
The reunion was held in the summer at some hotel with a large ballroom that Bill had rented out with a few generous donations from others, namely Nixon who pitched in after a few not-so-subtle remarks from Winters. The loudmouthed Italian had arranged for an open bar and light catering, and enlisted Babe’s help in draping a massive “Currahee!” banner across the back wall. Hell, he'd even paid a photographer to walk around the party and snap a bunch of photos of the guys all old and shit, now dressed down in their civvies with wives and kids hangin’ on their arms.
On the day of the first official reunion, Babe was so goddam excited. He couldn't wait to see Malark and Liebgott and the other fellas from second platoon. Couldn't wait to have his family—his brothers—all together in the same room again. Only, an hour into the whole affair, the doors open and in walked a man that Babe had spent the better part of half-a-decade trying to forget.
Gene fuckin’ Roe.
The sight of the raven-haired Cajun caused Babe’s breath to get lodged in his throat, cutting him off mid-ramble in his chat with Ramirez about his job at the factory. Gene, Babe noticed immediately, was still beautiful—in a terrifying, devastating, dangerous sort of way. A beautiful that made a man forget that he was a man and that this was still 1950 and that certain desires were just never gonna happen for an Irish Catholic boy.
Babe hadn’t thought that Gene would come. He hadn't heard from the former Easy Co. medic since that day—that awful, bittersweet day on the docks so long, long ago when the two had said so little and yet so much but not that which needed to be said the most. No letters, no phone calls, and certainly no visits had been exchanged over the last five years. Babe hadn't even realized that Bill had gotten Gene's contact information. Bill hadn't said, and Babe hadn't asked.
For the first hour or so following Gene’s arrival, the redhead and the Cajun skillfully avoided each other, both eager to greet and catch up with other folks. Only, when it became obvious that they were dancing around one another, Gene played the adult and sought Babe out.
“Ya lookin’ good, Heffron.” And Jesus, what a thing to say. It threw Babe all off, completely shattered his collected persona, and dissolved him into shit-eating grins and boyish blushes. He nodded, giving Gene a wide smile, and retorted, “You're not doin' too bad yourself, Doc,” not bothering to hide his languid appraisal of the shorter man’s person, even when his gaze lingered far longer than it should have.
Gene's lips twitched. “Ain't a 'doc' no more. I'm in construction now,” he told Babe, adding proudly, “I own my own business down in Louisiana.”
“Hey, Gene, that's great! Congratulations, man.” Babe clapped the shorter man on the shoulder, and the touched warmed his palm. A dozen different emotions coursing through him, the redhead steeled himself and asked, “So, you, uh, you get married? Ya got a wife? Kids?”
The former medic gave a soft smile, one that was both humble and sincere. “I do,” he replied, softly, and the words made Babe's stomach tighten. “I've got a wife and lil' boy.”
Despite his unease—was it jealousy?—, Babe could see Gene's happiness, real and bone-deep, so the taller man smiled back and summoned the courage necessary to feel genuinely pleased for his friend. “I’m...I’m happy for ya, Gene.”
The raven-haired man’s smile softened further. “Thank you, Edward…how ‘bout you?”
“Me? Nah. No wife, not yet. Bill won't stop runnin' 'em off. Think he likes me single, makes me a better babysitter if I don't got kids of my own to look aft'a, ya know?”
Gene smiled like he knew a secret. “Yeah, I get it.”
“One day, though. I guess.” The redhead shrugged, gave a lazy grin.
“Mhmm. M’sure.” Gene nodded. “Maybe you can come on t’my place one day. We can have that crawfish boil after all, and y’can find ya a nice girl ta take home. Lotta pretty women in my parish.”
Babe laughed in spite of himself. Image that—Babe takin’ home one of Gene’s cousins or neighbors, a little Cajun girl from the swamp, a poor man’s stand in for the real Cajun that had, all those years ago, captured Babe’s soul and had not yet had the decency to return it. But still, Babe laughed at the thought, and of the bittersweet memories of a fantasy crawfish—“Crawfish.” Not crallfish.—boil on the bayou. The redhead couldn’t believe that Gene remembered.
A silent, but not uncomfortable, moment passed then, allowing Babe time to look at Gene, really look. The former soldier took in the subtle differences of the years, the deeper lines around the shorter man's mouth and eyes, the longer hair that still curled in little tuffs around his ears, the slight tan on his freckled skin, the way his nose had finally lost that tint of pink from the winter of 1944. My god, how he had missed this man. And in that moment, Babe couldn't help but ask, “Do you ever think about it? About the war?”
Despite his words, Gene knew that Babe was not asking about the war at all. The Cajun's dark eyes were kind when he replied, reaching out a hand to gently squeeze Babe's forearm, “I think about it all the time.”
Babe smiled and suddenly found that he could breathe again. Because Gene still thought about it. Because Babe was not the only one dreaming of a past that could never become a present reality.
For Babe, for Gene, for a couple of boys living in an unfair time, that would have to be enough.