New Jersey, 1946
Not much has changed in his hometown since Nix boarded a bus and headed the hell out of there on his way to war. His grandfather's factory still towers above every squat house and tree, rounded red brick smokestacks faded against the steel-grey sky. It's a testament to his family's legacy, both the pride and the shame embedded in the earth where ash and grass are mingled.
Inside the factory walls, there are more women than before the war. Some of them Nix has known all his life; some of them he slept with in that life before Easy Company, but the names and the details have been relegated to a lesser status in memory, not important anymore. They're a sea of uniform beige coveralls, blended in amongst the men, indistinct. He's not sure what they're doing here. He's not sure what he's doing here, either, but here he is, and he's got to make the best of it.
Bess Jemison is just the same as she ever was. Pretty as a picture, coy, eyelashes fluttering when she runs across the street and throws herself at him, pressing her bosom against his chest. "Lew, you bad boy, why haven't you been by? Mother will be overjoyed to hear you're home. When did you get back stateside?"
"A few weeks ago," Nix says, detaching her hands carefully from his shoulders. He remembers dancing with her in the high school auditorium, those hands drifting down the seams of his jacket, long red fingernails and a perfume like fresh oranges - the same one she's wearing now. Back then she'd seemed sophisticated, too beautiful to touch, like a delicate flower.
Now she seems superficial, just a kid, because Nix feels as if his four short but weighted years of service are engraved on his face and attached to his soul. Being with Bess is awkward in ways it shouldn't be, so he makes small talk and wanders away, toward the bar on the corner of Main and Sheldon.
By now Bess knows he's divorced. It's that kind of town, everyone in everybody else's business, full of opinions about others' lives. Once in a while he thinks about Kathy, about how his normal life slipped away over a year ago when he wasn't in a position to object. He's going to get up the courage to go see his son eventually. Not that he has any idea what to say to him. Three years gone; birthdays, Christmases, every important moment, all blank spaces in Nix's life.
He orders a glass and a bottle: VAT 69, the usual. The bottle sits quietly on the table, refusing to judge him -- a welcome comfort.
Patrons come and go, some familiar, some not. It's easy to sift the former soldiers from the civilians when he watches them driving their cars, ordering drinks, going about their business in mundane ways. There's something about their walk, the way they carry themselves. Or maybe it's something about the eyes, the way smiles don't come as quickly to the surface, the serious way they shake hands, like every greeting or agreement is some secret pact between them. Every one of them has a story, Nix is sure, and their story is just like Nix's story, different only in the smallest details: where the foxholes were dug, whether they walked or jumped or flew into their particular battles. He's never tempted to ask, and they never volunteer the details.
Nix's father, the eminent Stanhope Wood Nixon, is as unchanging as the town that bears his family name. He still drinks, whores and gambles too much, and sometimes all three at once. There's a kind of resigned tolerance of it in Nix, who sees the imprint of Stanhope's imperfections on his own nature. Stanhope favors him with an eager handshake the day Nix agrees to go to work at the nitration works. His father's heavy hand thumps his back six times, and then the predictable speech: "Hope you've come home to do something worthwhile now, son. Time to step up to your responsibilities."
Worthwhile. The danger, Nix believes, is in the definitions. He knows what it is to be responsible, to hold the lives of other men in his hands and care more about their safety than his own. Once he begins thinking about it, he can't stop. His body remembers walking the line in Bastogne, snow crunching beneath his feet and the faint sounds of chattering teeth for company as he passed by dozens of shallow foxholes.
As always, the memories of Bastogne bring thoughts of Dick Winters, and it's strange to remember him so vividly, now that Nix is back where he was born and bred. This is Nix's town, and he knows he was wrong to ask Dick to come here, to bury himself in this godforsaken place. But what's done is done, and he can't take it back. He's too selfish.
So Nix supposes no one could really blame him for drinking himself to sleep that night. Not that he'd give a damn if anyone dared. When he drains the bottle, he thinks maybe he's breaking an unmade promise to Dick, one Dick never asked him to make in the first place.
There are half-formed dreams swirling around in a whiskey haze, memories of things that were and never were, of an attic in Holland where Nix almost swore off booze altogether in a moment of sobriety and optimism, for the sake of Dick's good opinion of him. He cobbles together the details and holds them bright in his mind until exhaustion pulls him under.
It takes some doing to find a suit Nix feels comfortable in: charcoal grey with pinstripes, paired with a plain white shirt. He fusses with the collar and stares at himself in the mirror. There's no softness in the curves of bone under skin, nothing left but carved-out angles and scruff. Shaving every day with warm water still feels like a luxury he hasn't earned.
He thinks of Bastogne, and Dick shaving with a bowl of ice in his lap, no mirror, only Nix's critical eye to guide his steady hand.
The feel of everyday fabric against his skin is alien to him. Cotton T-shirt, stained with sweat at the end of a long day; stiff shirts and wool trousers, itching against his skin, hot and clammy in the factory. He walks the floor of the factory for what seems like hours, marking out time by the number of steps it takes around the production floor. There are changes he will want to make here, ideas coming fast, and it's almost too easy.
"Got time for a smoke, Mr. Nixon?" Mike Gordon, the floor supervisor, hands him the pack, and Nix takes it with a nod. He thinks of autonomy, the freedom to follow orders, or pretend not to hear them. The cigarettes should taste a thousand times better when they're not damp, not half-mashed or twice-smoked, but there's bitterness in the back of his throat.
Noise, chatter, it's all contained in this big square building, hemmed in and magnified by the walls. Nix puts his back against the brick, and anchored there, he drifts. Big, vague sounds in the present give way to small distinct memories: the ping of the bullet that rattled his brain; the glass breaking in a random German storefront. Such a minor crime when set beside the atrocities surrounding it, but it haunts him every day.
At five o'clock, Nix calls it quits for the day and heads home. Not his father's house, not the house Kathy stole from him and sold, but the one he bought on the opposite edge of town, far enough away to feel like he's still somewhere in between Europe and New Jersey. Big enough for Nix and a collection of booze that won't run out. Big enough for company, for a family. So many rooms, he could get lost among the precious antiques - his mother's idea - and imposing taxidermy he's never seen before - his father's projects, of course. Meaningless decorations, tokens of a life he'd happily left behind.
He can get lost here in this house-not-home, hide, pretend and forget. Or remember. Sometimes it's mixed up, in his head. He wants a life he can be proud of, to feel he's accomplished something. Wants to feel something, and to have some sense of what his life is worth, where it's headed.
Most of all, he wants the taste of captured enemy champagne in his mouth, the feel of the dust from the bottle clinging to his lip. He wants the familiarity of cheap whiskey, the burn of it, the taste of home in every foreign town. He wants to be watched by knowing eyes, to be wanted.
He wants too many things he can't have, God help him.
The telegram arrives at the nitration works on a Tuesday morning.
NIX - FIVE PM TRAIN TUESDAY STOP HOPE YOU'RE STILL HIRING - DICK.
Nix stares at it until the words resolve themselves to meaning. He folds the telegram twice with a shaking hand and puts it carefully in his pocket.
It's a fall day like any other, soft cloudy skies spilling rain over dark streets, the smell of burning leaves in the air. At 4:15 Nix shoulders on his overcoat and heads downtown, worrying the folded piece of paper in his pocket. Already the edges are worn, smooth against his fingertips.
The train is a few minutes late. When it stops at the station, it discharges a thin stream of passengers, mostly women in veiled hats with children clinging to their hands. Dick is last off, just another indistinct grey blur of overcoat, trousers, shiny black shoes, but then he lifts his hat to reveal a shock of red hair. Nix pulls in a slow breath and starts toward him. Dick turns, as if he knows right where to find Nix. Always has, Nix thinks.
His hand is in Dick's hand, a slow handshake, to match Dick's slow grin. "Wasn't sure I should just show up like this," Dick says, and there's joy in his eyes. Nix knows it for what it is. It stills the tremble in his hand.
He glances down, in case Dick can read just as much in his own eyes, then back up, matching Dick's grin with his own. "Hope you brought a suit for your interview."
He takes Dick home. There's no question of where Dick will stay, though he protests and goes on about boarding somewhere until Nix throws up a hand and says, "Do you really think I got less stubborn since you saw me last?"
"Well, there's a good point." Dick stands in the over-large living room with his hat in his hand and his bag at his feet, and shakes his head. "You sure you don't mind?"
"Mind, hell. I insist." Nix throws off his coat and pours himself a drink. "I'd ask, but-"
That's enough of a surprise that Nix throws Dick a look over his shoulder. Dick gives a little shrug and eases his own coat off, folding it over his arm as if his arm was a coat rack. "It's a celebration, right?"
Nix hands him his drink and smiles when Dick contemplates it first, as though even now, it goes against his nature. He lifts his glass, taps it against Dick's, and sighs into his first sip.
"So. Tell me all about this job you have lined up for me." Dick drapes the coat over the chair where Nix threw his own, and Nix steals the chance to have a good look at him. He seems handsome and healthy, calm as ever, just the way Nix remembers him. It seems strange to see him out of uniform.
"Well, you'd be working for the top man. That'd be me, of course." Nix smirks and raises his glass again, and is rewarded by one of Dick's genuine broad smiles in return. "I hope that won't be a problem for you."
"Was it ever a problem for you?"
"No, but then again, you were good at it. I had no reason to object." He aims a wry smile at Dick, and then before he can protest, adds, "I had something in personnel in mind for you. Taking care of people. Hiring, sorting out some resource issues. That kind of thing."
"I could do that."
Understatement of the year, as far as Nix is concerned, but he lets it pass. "Personnel manager? That sound all right?"
"Good." Nix nods, drains his glass. "The hours are long, and the pay isn't great."
"Beats my previous work experience all to hell, though," Dick says, eyes crinkling at the corners as he nurses his drink.
They have supper in the kitchen, only the light over the stove to see by. Nix manages not to burn two pork chops, and Dick shows amazing proficiency at tearing lettuce. They don't talk much as they circle each other, working toward their common goal, but for Nix it's the first time in months he's been able to breathe.
There's wine with dinner, the last of a case Nix shipped from overseas. He closes his eyes and the crisp-clean scent of mountain air surrounds him. They talk of expectations, the daily grind. In the living room, the grandfather clock chimes ten times, and Nix is startled to realize they've been passing time for hours, easy and quiet, no effort at all. He'd thought maybe without strategy and survival to drive the conversation, they might lack for it, but he was wrong.
"Guess I should turn in," Dick says, bussing his own plate and cup to the sink. "Busy day tomorrow."
"Yeah. You work for a real taskmaster." Nix grins and takes the plate from Dick's hands. "Guest rooms are down the hall on the left."
"So I could take my pick, is what you're really saying." Dick whistles under his breath. "A man hardly knows what to do with so many options."
"One thing you could do is make the bed. Pretty sure you've had enough practice." Nix shoulders Dick aside and runs some water into the sink.
Dick leans into him for a tiny moment, then straightens. Nix occupies himself with sprinkling in the dish soap. "Good night," Dick says, and softer, "Thanks, Nix."
"Truth is, you're doing me a favor," Nix answers, giving him a sideways glance.
The warm press of Dick's hand on his shoulder as he turns to go says otherwise.
Same problem, different morning: the very idea of his suit chafes Nix, and he hasn't even put it on yet. He throws on an undershirt and a generic dress shirt and stands there, waiting for motivation.
Two soft raps on the doorframe; Nix glances up in the mirror to see Dick standing there in his shirtsleeves, a long line slanted against the wall. It's a welcome sight, and Nix gestures him in. "You forget how to tie a civilian tie?" Dick asks.
"Was thinkin' about calling the whole thing off, actually." Nix looks down at the array of ties on the dresser. There's nothing but dark blue and darker blue, a depressing monochrome rainbow.
"How would it look if my boss didn't show up on my first day? People will think you're avoiding me."
"Can you just...not call me that? It gives me the creeps." Nix frowns down at the ties and picks at them with restless fingers. One is as good as another. He chooses the navy blue specimen and slings it around his neck, tugging at it like it's going to magically loop itself.
Dick moves in, coming to the rescue. Nix sighs and turns around, flinging his hands up in surrender. "I knew you'd find some way to repay my hospitality," he says. He watches Dick's hands put the tie through its paces, straightening and pulling at it efficiently until it conforms.
Dick buttons the top button of Nix's shirt, the tips of his fingers sliding briefly against the hollow of Nix's throat. "You're presentable."
"Don't sound so surprised. I clean up pretty good."
"So I see." Dick assesses him with tilted head, and a tiny shiver gathers at the base of Nix's spine, rolling up and raising goosebumps as it goes. Dick never looks away, eyes clear and open, direct.
Nix clears his throat and picks up his jacket. "Come on, then. Let's get you started."
Dick fits right in, of course. His magnetic calm attracts the rank and file, reassures them. It's his best trait. He sets right to work sorting out personnel, working on some lingering issues Nix had ignored, and it's just as it should be. Even Stanhope seems to like Dick, though he blusters a bit about nepotism at first. But Dick gives him that steady gaze, the thousand-mile one that used to unnerve Nix so much, and Stanhope gives way before it like wet paper, full of platitudes about soldiers and service and what's owed by grateful citizens.
Nix goes right on with the daily parade, a thousand steps around the floor, a thousand sips of whiskey waiting for him at the end of the day.
Every time he turns around to see Dick in this place, it's a surprise, a sudden anomaly he still has no explanation for. Always before they'd belonged together to the places they inhabited, but this time, Dick is here because Nix asked him to be, because he's choosing to be. Sometimes Nix catches a glimpse of Dick from the corner of his eye as they pass through common spaces, and he's startled to realize he's not dreaming. He gravitates toward Dick without thought, then turns away once he notices, an endless intersecting loop. It's an old familiar pattern.
The second night, Dick pulls up a chair by the fire and reads a book he brought with him from wherever he was before he was here. Nix wants to ask him what he's been up to, thinks he might, once Dick settles in a bit. He wants to know everywhere Dick has been, what he's done, what finally brought him here.
The idea of asking sends him to the bottle and the fancy cut-glass tumblers on the bar, made for showing off. He switches to a water glass; the rough edges of the tumblers feel sharp on his skin. He feels like he might crack any second, the slightest pressure enough to break him open.
Once or twice, he catches Dick watching him, the way he used to watch Nix when he was drowning, when he was getting ready to fish Nix out of the endless sea of self-pity and booze. Back then he was drinking to escape the horrors around him. Now...well, now he's not sure what reason he'd give. There are still demons. They've only changed shape and form.
But there's still Dick, who watches him quietly, saying nothing, only seeing him.
As they move through their days, the spring comes back into Nix's step, and he feels signs of a suspicious lightness in his heart that might be happiness. It's been a long time; it's hard to tell. Simple pleasures begin to exert a pull on him again, so he indulges himself in the evenings. A few hours spent with his feet up by the fire, listening to the evening news on the radio and hashing out the world's problems with Dick, is a favorite.
"Too bad they couldn't put Easy to work building things back up," Dick offers, and Nix smiles in agreement.
Because he can, he runs a hot bath and sinks into it, splashing around loudly enough that Dick taps on the door and asks if he thinks maybe he should leave some water for the rest of New Jersey.
All the while, he's aware of every movement, every gesture Dick makes. His friend fills every space now, and Nix spends too much time thinking. Words he can't bring himself to say, even if they would matter.
It's enough that Dick is there, Nix's own personal minor miracle.
They try a double date. Bess is a sure thing, so Nix calls her up and gets her to bring a friend, a ploy as old as time. Dick is polite as hell, but mostly he seems amused when the girls flirt and call for extra drinks, and smoke a few too many cigarettes. Turns out Dick's a passable dancer, which is more than can be said for Nix, who stumbles through a foxtrot before bowing out. He sits and smokes and tosses back a few, and watches Dick leading gracefully across the dance floor while Bess goes on about local politics, which Nix could happily live all his life without ever knowing.
Even if he wanted to, he couldn't tear his eyes away from Dick, from the way he holds Teresa so carefully, his hand just so at the small of her back, nothing improper. He's watching Nix watch him, and he's hard to read, but that doesn't stop Nix from trying.
They're stomping dead leaves and mud from their shoes in the foyer when Nix says, "Let's never do that again, huh?"
"Your girl likes to talk," Dick says mildly. He hangs his coat on the rack, and Nix's beside it.
"Not my girl." Nix surprises himself with his own vehemence. If he looks at Dick, he's going to say something awful, give too much away, and nothing's going to wash away the taste of the club bourbon but he's going to have a drink or ten anyway.
This time, Dick follows him into the study, close behind. He catches Nix by the shoulder, turns him just at the door. Nix's eyes widen, and something inside him crumples, some careful barrier he hadn't known was there.
Dick reaches up to touch the hair falling careless into Nix's face and runs his thumb over the phantom mark of a bullet crease long healed. That moment rushes back on Nix, every second of it in slow motion, the way Dick had stared at him with a kind of terror he'd never seen Dick show before. It had occurred to him then that he would take a bullet for this man, and Dick wouldn't hesitate to do the same, if fate ever put that moment in their path.
With frightening clarity, Nix realizes it's happening now. Dick is taking the bullet for him, has stepped in front of Nix and stopped his life from towing him under, prevented Nix from fading until there's nothing left of him but a drunk in the gutter dying slowly, afflicted by his own lack of will.
Nix steps back twice, slamming into the wall behind him, a reflex he can't control. He presses his palms against the wood paneling and tries to get his bearings.
"Lew," Dick says, very softly.
"Why did you come here?" Nix asks, the only question worth asking, though he already sees the answer through an exquisitely clear lens of terror and love.
If it was ever going to happen, he'd told himself, it would have happened in that foxhole in Bastogne, when they huddled together for twelve hours under a tarp, too cold to move, too cold even to drink. Or maybe in Holland, in the rat trap where they'd been holed up for weeks. Maybe in Paris on a weekend pass, if they'd ever gotten around to it. Maybe in the quarters Dick put together for senior battalion staff in Germany.
Any of those would have made sense, so far away and off the chart of normal, but not here in the most familiar place of all. Not this way. Not in his study with Dick's hands gently cradling his face, soft touches guaranteed to undo them both.
"You wanted me here," Dick points out, ever practical, even while his fingertips brush across Nix's face, and it occurs to Nix with terrifying certainty that Dick loves him.
"Could have gone home," Nix says. "Could have..." He isn't able to finish. There's no space in his head for the idea of a future that begins without Dick.
"Thought about that." Dick's gaze is steady. "It was nice to be wanted."
Nix tries his best to read everything into that he wants to hear, but for all Dick's complications, one thing he has never done is talk in code. If he says it, it is so. Maybe he has no idea how the hell much Nix really does want him, God, wants him so much that every time Dick looks at him, he's on the verge of making an ass of himself. That ridiculous shy chivalry creeps over him, and he takes hold of Dick's wrists, forces himself to pull away.
It's the least he can do; he loves Dick that much, and more.
But Dick always knows where he's headed, even on a road without a map. Which is why, inevitably, Dick refuses to be moved anywhere he doesn't want to go. The cadence of his touch never wavers, slow and gentle, until the moment he leans forward and kisses Nix, no doubt about it then.
Starving, he's been starving for it, the touch and the intimacy, and the soft sounds he's making should shame him, but there's no room left for shame. Dick only kisses him more deeply, as if he can understand this unspoken language. His fingers slip the button of Nix's collar open, unhurried, then work the tie, and all the while he's kissing Nix, his mouth so hot on Nix's skin.
Slowly, Nix curves his hands around Dick's waist and draws him forward.
Each button on Nix's shirt comes open with a precision of intent Nix would admire at any other moment. Dick is methodical, completely focused, and his hands slip beneath Nix's undershirt. Something sparks between them, then, and Nix tears at Dick's belt, pulls it off and away with a snap.
Dick's lips are at the hollow of Nix's throat, his hands feverishly crossing freshly bared skin. Nix shivers, partly from the cold and partly because he's burning up, and he moves his hands to Dick's face, cups it, kisses him with a ferocity he hadn't known he was capable of. Dick absorbs it, pays it back in kind, and Nix's eyes roll back in his head when Dick's hand wraps around his cock, stroking slow, almost tentative.
In the middle of a room he hates, surrounded by books he hasn't read and a life his father has created from whole cloth for him, Nix shudders and comes, and Dick gentles him through it, says his name softly once or twice, pressed against him chest to knee and mostly dressed.
Neither moves for a very long time. Dick's still kissing him, thorough, tender, and Nix is a mess, torn between wonder and shock. Dick is steady against him, though, and after a moment, he pulls back, takes Nix's wrist, and pulls him away from the wall, toward the hallway. Toward his bedroom.
They spend the night not speaking, or at least not talking; Nix is pretty sure he's discerned some kind of difference between the two in the way Dick touches him. He gathers intel from Dick's body, every gasp, every shift of muscle and press of skin, and turns it to his advantage.
He doesn't think much about the future. Speirs once said a soldier had to accept he was a dead man in order to survive. For the first time in years, Nix rejects the idea, and begins to think he's really alive.
In the morning, Nix goes to the kitchen for coffee and finds Dick there by the sink. The coffee's brewed, a cup already poured for him.
Dick raises his eyebrows when Nix crowds into him, and manages to ask, "Sleep well?"
"Shut up, God, you-" Nix begins, and then Dick shuts Nix up, damn him, always taking the lead.
It's a day like any other. They walk to work, Nix with a cigarette in his hand and sunglasses shielding him from the world while Dick meets everything head-on. Nix continues his daily parade, a thousand steps on the factory floor, but something more is waiting for him now at the end of the day.
He catches a glimpse of Dick in his office, sleeves rolled up and ready for business, such a serious expression on his face, and he has to duck his head to hide his smile.
They walk home together, collars turned up against the chill. When they're through the front door, tiny hooks of doubt take hold of Nix again, but only until Dick touches him and claims his attention. Nothing so long desired can be easy, or so he tells himself as he strips Dick down, tangles his body up with Dick's under the heavy comforter.
"I used to be yachtsman, you know." Nix draws his hands through Dick's hair, down over the sloping curve of his shoulders, across the nape of his neck where every time, he expects to meet the resistance of chain.
"That so?" Dick covers him with his body, as if they've been fitting together this way forever.
Nix smiles. "I'll take you sailing, someday."
Dick steals kisses and cuts off all Nix's clever lines. "Don't want to go sailing. Just want to be home."