It all kicked off in a hotel bar in Seoul, when they were on R&R. The Army would have put them up for free, but the single best use of military pay was getting as far away from the Army as possible; he and Charles both agreed on that. But there hadn't been any kind of plan for the two of them to wind up together.
Hawkeye, squinting at him across the room, felt like he ought to get his eyes checked. He couldn’t believe they had both turned down military housing only to end up in the same place anyway. But it was Charles, all right—Charles not being the kind of person you could ever mistake for anybody else.
Hawkeye smiled. “Of all the gin joints in all the cities in all the world.”
The beautifully, appropriately named Serena leaned across the scratched-up table. “What?”
Hawkeye had met her a few hours ago, and they had hit it off in a way only the lonely, frazzled, and exhausted could—I’ll distract you if you distract me. She was with the Red Cross; she worked the phones and radios all day, trying to help refugees track down their families. It wasn’t a job that had too many good days. But Serena herself was good—sincere, compassionate, striking. He couldn’t quite put his finger on the color of her hair, some kind of pinkish blonde that gathered around her face in fine, cloudy curls, like she was wreathed in cotton candy. A perfectly good date, and here he was ignoring her so he could stare at Charles.
“Nothing,” he said. He turned his attention back to her, where it belonged. “I just saw someone I know. Believe me, I’m happier to be seeing you.”
Except in another few minutes, he was back to looking over at Charles. He couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something there to see, as if he didn’t see Charles every day and sleep just a few feet away from him every night.
But it was just Charles having a drink with someone. An old Harvard buddy, maybe, or a doctor he’d known from Tokyo General. Just Charles having a good time—a better time than Hawkeye seemed to be letting himself have, since this kept nagging at him. Then, without really knowing just what it was that nudged out in front of everything else to hit the trip-wire, he understood it.
He wasn’t the only one here with a date.
He watched as Charles laughed and set his hand down on the other man’s arm, the touch lingering just a tad too long.
Charles Emerson Winchester III. Who could have guessed it, beneath all that stuffy Bostonian repression?
Later, trying to enjoy the culmination of his evening with the lovely Serena, she seemed to melt away beneath him, like her hair between his fingers was cotton candy for real. What a time for the world to turn insubstantial on him.
They said good night early. There was no use in pretending it was going anywhere.
Forty-eight blissful hours of leave. Sheer heaven, and on top of that, the hotel breakfast had eggs that were on speaking terms with actual chickens. A full feast of food you could not only eat but feel safe turning your back on. He ordered as much of it as the spindly table legs would hold up, and when Charles came in—looking a little groggy but almost indecently free of a hangover—Hawkeye waved him over.
“With the magnanimity of a king, I invite you to share my banquet.”
“Yes, well, with the gratitude of someone who doesn’t want to wait to order, evidently I accept.” He cut off a sliver of the vegetable omelet. “What else do you have here—short ribs, kimchi, cucumber soup—you did cover every side of the menu, didn’t you?”
“I’m planning on gorging myself and then trying to hibernate like a bear. I’ll sleep through the rest of the war.”
“This would get you started on it.”
“And even aside from my luxurious buffet, are you enjoying Seoul?” Hawkeye said, waggling his eyebrows.
“I am, as ever, enjoying any opportunity to be anywhere but our fetid and benighted home away from home.” He took up a spoonful of cucumber soup.
“You know, it’s a little social convention we have that you ask the same question back.”
“I assume you’ve been engaged in all the usual debaucheries.”
Oh, he couldn’t resist that kind of opening. “And yours? Strictly the usual or—do I sense a pinch of variety?”
Charles paused, his spoon poised against the little porcelain bowl. “Pierce, as you’re so concerned—at least as of this morning—with social convention, I should tell you that since I have no desire to hear about your latest conquest, it would be unfair for me to tell you about mine.”
“Let me guess. Audrey Hepburn flew in.”
“Mm, lovely girl, but no. Wouldn’t dream of having her come any closer to this chaos than Tokyo.” He sipped at the soup, avoiding Hawkeye’s gaze.
“And you could never really think of her as anything but a friend, anyway,” Hawkeye said. He was prodding at what probably had to be a sore spot, but he had to let Charles know he knew—he had to get it out in the open enough that he could convince Charles it was fine, that he wasn’t going to blow up at him about it. And aside from his good intentions, almost all they did was needle each other; they sure as hell didn’t get straightforward over the breakfast table. With anyone else, he'd have handled it differently, but it wasn't anyone else, it was Charles. Exasperating, funnily endearing Charles, who was too much himself to be treated like just anybody.
Except if that was all it was, why did he feel this kind of ticking in his head, like the pin rattling back and forth in a grenade?
“Pierce, it’s far too early in the morning for me to follow your trail of inane breadcrumbs.”
“I just don’t think she’s your type.”
“And what is my type, according to you?”
“Taller,” Hawkeye said, with a lascivious grin.
He saw something freeze up in Charles’s face. “Ah.”
“A little like your friend from last night.” He kept thinking of Charles’s hand on the man’s arm. Charles had been so relaxed, right then, comfortable in a way Hawkeye had never seen him.
“Yes, I follow you now.” Charles neatly folded his napkin. “Your delight in this is juvenile.”
“Charles, it’s fine.”
“Of course it’s fine,” Charles said acidly. “So long as it’s fuel for your idiotic jokes or, worse, the sanctimonious streak that makes you unearth my secrets so you can tell me how enlightened you are.” He tossed the napkin down, its crisp fold soaking up some of the soup that Hawkeye hadn’t even seen him spill; his hand must have been shaking. Then he was up and gone.
Well, that was the pin out of the grenade—and he’d let it blow up in his hand. Why the hell hadn’t he kept his mouth shut?
He remembered Charles waiting with him for the news about his dad. Charles saying, lightly but not casually, not easily, “Actually—Hawkeye—I’ve never told you anything before.”
Maybe he’d wanted Charles to tell him something. He’d gotten that unwound Charles once—all right, maybe a few times, but never enough—and he’d wanted to see him again, up close and personal. And not while Charles was looking at someone else.
He could have made a more appealing case for himself if he’d realized what what he was doing.
“Well, it was amateurish, maybe,” he said out loud. “But not terrible.”
He finished up his his coffee—no luck on that being better than the Army’s, since he was pretty sure it was nothing but military surplus—and sat there for a minute, looking at Charles’s soiled napkin and letting something inside him settle.
He went up to Charles’s room and knocked on the door. If Charles had gone for a walk or moved to another hotel, Seoul was busy enough that Hawkeye wouldn’t find him until he wanted to be found, and he probably wouldn’t get to start untangling everything until they were in the Jeep and Charles was his captive audience. There’d be better times and places. Here and now, for one. So as far as Hawkeye was concerned, Charles owed it to them both to open the door.
And then he did. He didn’t look like he was about to start doling out pardons, though.
“From the look on your face, I’m lucky this didn’t have a peephole,” Hawkeye said, tapping the door with one hand. “And even luckier that you’re not going to slam it while it’s in the vicinity of my fingers, a little bit of surgeon-to-surgeon courtesy.”
“Can you let me in already? I brought my best winning smile.”
Charles sighed but stepped back. “I go all the way to Seoul and yet I might as well still be in the Swamp.”
“At least I carry with me the Pavlovian feel of a good lighter-fluid martini.”
“You do—and all the more reason to get rid of you.”
But Charles had let him in all the same. Hawkeye said, “Sure, fine, if you only like the taste of top-shelf Scotch. I thought we’d broadened your palette by now.”
Charles just looked at him, apparently unwilling to concede a fondness for swilling martini glasses full of rubbing alcohol.
Hawkeye said, “I was with a date last night too, you know. We hit it off enough to be friendly, but probably not the kind of friends who are going to see each other again.” He had to put his hands in his pockets; his palms itched, and his fingers kept wanting to twitch. With somebody else, he could have just asked, Was that your lover? and gotten an answer, at least once they were all agreed on what they knew. With Charles, he felt like it had to stay coded, talked around, alluded to. Which he was starting to realize would be fine by him once this part was done with—he wasn’t that much of a straight questions kind of person to begin with.
For a second, it seemed like Charles really was weighing whether or not he was going to kick him out, but then he said, “Mine was more or less the same. Pierce, believe it or not, I do appreciate the gesture. But I’m not looking for a confidant.”
“Or sanctimony or jokes. Don’t worry, I’m not here for either.”
“What, then?” Charles said.
This was better than the Jeep by a long shot. Hawkeye leaned in and kissed him.
He had to tilt his face up, which didn’t happen that often. Charles tasted like soju, the local stuff, clean and bittersweet, like he hadn’t come straight to his room after their little run-in at breakfast—he’d gone out and found someone who’d sell him a drink at ten in the morning. So all that really could have gone better, but Hawkeye wasn’t going to kiss him like it was an apology, especially not if there was any chance this wouldn’t happen again. He liked how Charles kissed back—just about like he argued, more playfully than you’d think and with just a little bite.
When they broke apart, he didn’t want to. He just wanted to know for sure that he wouldn’t make a fool out of himself, even in his own head. He could do casual and fun. And it’d be enough—like everything else around here, it’d be enough because it had to be. The length of R&R. A chance to see Charles that much at ease. Something that wouldn’t dissolve underneath him when he tried to touch it—but that led right to thinking about how this could be something he could take home with him. Crabapple Cove wasn’t that far from Boston.
He never would have met Charles except for the war, and he sure as hell wouldn’t have liked him, but now Charles made him think about the end of it—made him feel, more than anybody else did, that there’d really be one, that they’d have lives after this.
So he could take what was left of the forty-eight hours, if that was all that was on offer. But he wanted to know it going in.
“Well,” Charles said at last. “That is better than a confidant. And not at all—sanctimonious.”
“That’s good. It’d have to be a pretty lousy kiss, if you were going to slap that label on it. It isn’t a joke, either.”
“Ah.” It was a different kind of ah than Hawkeye had gotten out of him earlier: not as flat, and much more surprised. “No, not when one is talking about the kind of friend one might already want to see again. I think we can both see that wouldn’t be very funny.” He met Hawkeye’s eyes. “Don’t repeat it to anyone else, Hawkeye, but I do enjoy you.”
Everything felt lighter. Hawkeye smiled. “Against all your better judgment.”
“Every particle of it,” Charles said. “At least I can assume you’ll be well-versed in finding rendezvous locations around the camp.”
“Two minutes into a friendship and you’re already impugning my virtue.” He tried another eyebrow waggle and got the distinct delight of watching Charles realize he was charmed by it. “If you want, there are more interesting things you could do with it. I have suggestions.”
Charles found the Do Not Disturb sign and hung it up. “Make them,” he said, turning back to Hawkeye.
Charles’s technique in bed proved to be less like his arguing and more like his surgery: slow—deliciously so since they had the time for it—and excellent, with exquisite attention to detail. He was just as smug about it, too, and insufferably, beautifully pleased by the comparison. “If you’ll recall, I do one thing at a time and I do it very well,” he said loftily, reaching over Hawkeye to pick up what was left of the small bottle of soju.
Only when he’d said that about his surgery, when they’d first met, he’d said, And then I move on. He didn’t say it now. They drank out of the bottle, one after the other, the lip of it staying warm as they passed it back and forth. The sun was bright even through the curtains, and everything seemed clear. Now and later, they had time.