Fandom: The Pacific
Word Count: 18,290
Summary: “Ever seen the Atlantic Ocean?” Snafu asked rhetorically as he turned the car east. It was the last thing that either of them said, lapsing into a comfortable silence.
Written: post-episode 10
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters--they are based off of the actors' portrayals of characters in HBO's The Pacific, not the real people themselves.
Author's Note: This fic is written for uniformly who got me on this military kick and sucked me into The Pacific with unrepentant glee. Even though I have been nonfunctional for the last four days because I have been writing the hell out of this fic, I love her and forgive her anyways. Special thanks goes to spirograph who saved this fic from the fate of turning out crap due to 3AM writing (but tried many many times to sabotage this fic by making me laugh during the writing if VERY SERIOUS SCENES--it's okay I FORGIVE YOU). Thanks to both of them for listening to me whine throughout this entire process. <33
This was technically supposed to be my warbigbang but I finished it way too quickly and I will probably end up writing something stupid like a college AU for it instead.
ALSO uniformly suggested this for representative music and I have to agree with her pretty hard. <3
Based on this fic: Robin's gorgeous graphic
Someone in the apartment below him was yelling—a low masculine shout intermittently interrupted with the high pitched shriek of his angry girlfriend, fiancée, wife—Snafu wasn’t sure and he sure as hell didn’t care to find out. The lights flickered for a brief moment as a particularly angry thump bashed against the wall, causing the floor under his bare feet to shudder for just one moment. Snafu stared aimlessly in the general direction of the window, lifting a cigarette to his lips.
She started screaming. Yells and curses and pent up anger—all of it permeating through the thin floorboards mercilessly. If it reminded Snafu of anything at all, he didn’t make any indication of recognizing it.
He didn’t even look away from where he could almost see into the room across the alleyway, slowly blowing out a lazy lungful of smoke. His eyes were fixated on the yellow square of light, where sometimes if he was lucky, a woman would step in front of the lamp and unbutton her waitress blouse and drop it on the floor. From the darkness of his room, he’d watch her reach behind and unclasp her bra and let that drop too, revealing breasts that sagged a little on her frame without the extra support. She’d turn and slip into her bathrobe, never once suspecting that there was a man sitting in the dark room across the street who was watching her undress more than twice a week.
It was a shame, Snafu thought, that all of this foreplay (how many times had he caught the silhouette of those perky nipples by now?) lead to nowhere at all. Just a woman getting into her shower and his pale eyes watching her—distant thoughts on his mind and the faintest impression of smoke drifting into the open moonlight. Maybe one day in the far future, she’d leave her curtains open and a man would come up behind her and cup a breast—just the shadow of his elbow and the top of his head discernable in the dim light. Or maybe it would be another woman—two women pressing their breasts together and kissing and falling into the dirtiest sin.
Snafu tilted his head back against the wall, bringing the cigarette back to his lips as he eased his legs onto his bed. The screaming from below had turned into long drawn out moans and the rhythmic pounding against the wall caused the rickety desk in the corner of his room to halfheartedly jump with every enthusiastic shove against the wall. He dropped the finished cigarette into the jar of water and ash he kept onto the floor next to the bare mattresses he called his bed and laid down.
If he closed his eyes, the pounding reminded him of explosions-too-close and Japanese gunfire—distant crackle of planes fighting each other half a world away. If he closed his eyes, the back of his eyelids became an impromptu theater, his own mind delighting in showing him rotting skulls with brains liquefied and seeping out of the eye sockets—literally crying your brains out—because damn parasites knew what was good and the brain was full of fat. He kept his eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling where his mind morphed the cracks in the plaster into monsters and ghosts ready to leap out at him at a moment’s notice. It was better than closing them.
When he had spent a couple of sleepless nights staring at his ceiling, he’d finally be too tired to not sleep and he’d give in and let himself be dragged under into a world where every which way he turned was Okinawa and he woke himself up shouting at some ludicrous hour in the morning and someone would slam against his wall and tell him to shut the fuck up, some people are trying to sleep in here you asshole.
Tonight was no different—he pulled the ratty blanket over himself and stared at a hole that the previous tenant had punched into the wall across the room, right next to the window. If he concentrated, he was sure that he could hear the skitter of cockroaches scuttling in the crawlspace between the walls. It wasn’t long before the cockroaches turned into the soft patter of dirt and maggots falling on him, each shell breaking open on shallow graves of half-rotting men—and he woke up at five in the morning with the barest hint of light creeping over the horizon.
Snafu picked sleep out of the corner of his eyes and got up to make some coffee, pausing only a moment to shudder and brush off imaginary maggots.
“Shelton,” Hammel’s greeting was a little bit wary as he stepped up to unlock the door of the office, “You know, if you keep showing up this early, I could give you a key. So you can—you know—wait inside?”
Snafu pulled himself into a stand, wiping his palms against the sides of his trousers before looking at Hammel. The other man avoided his gaze, instead choosing to keep his eyes on the doorknob as he fumbled with the key. Snafu smiled, keeping his gaze steady on the back of the man’s neck as he replied in a low drawl, “Naw, I think I’m good, Mr. Hammel.”
“Sure, if you say so,” Hammel replied, sounding distracted as he worked the lock open and swung open the door.
“Coffee?” Hammel asked as he stepped into the office, “I’m going to make myself a cup of tea.”
Snafu didn’t actually give a shit if Hammel was going to go off to boil water or stick his dick into the oven—but he shook his head in acknowledgement of Hammel’s question, eyes never leaving the manager’s face. Hammel looked at him for a moment, his hands nervously rubbing together before he smiled abruptly and said, “Right then!” He turned promptly to busy himself with the kettle, leaving Snafu alone in the office.
Snafu didn’t really like Hammel. He was a rotund man who married a wife who had made it her life ambition to badger him to death. Snafu had seen her around the office a couple of times, following him around and complaining about anything and everything in a shrill high pitched voice while he tried to ignore her presence with a very harried expression, the tips of his ears and the bald patch at the back of his head flaming a red. Hammel spent too much time avoiding his eyes and not enough time telling him what to do.
“You’re still in here,” Hammel observed surprisedly as he stepped back into the office, chipped mug in his hand.
Snafu turned towards him, eyebrows furrowing briefly in irritation before he spoke, “An order came in yesterday but I never got the specifications.” This man was so goddamn inefficient—sometimes Snafu marveled at the fact that he had even managed to survive for so long.
“Oh yes,” Hammel pulled open a drawer and rummaged through it before holding out a piece of paper, “Shave it down by a sixteenth of an inch, won’t you? It fits better that way.” As if Snafu hadn’t know. As if Snafu hadn’t just spent the last six months in this fucking lumberyard, listening to the roar of the saw and trying not to think of his one stint in the hospital, listening to doctors amputate limbs, of metal grinding into bone.
Snafu stared at him balefully for a long moment before plucking the paper from the tips of his fingers and silently leaving the office.
He kept his money hidden in tin cans and between folds of newspaper pagers throughout his room. There was a hundred dollars stuffed into his mattress, seventy five folded between the May 5th edition of the funnies pages buried beneath the debris built up on his desk, another hundred curled up in a tin can he kept hidden at the back of his nearly-empty wardrobe. He still had his mama’s life insurance to cash and the last check that the marines had sent him for his extended stay in China.
He had always vaguely known what he was saving for, though he had never been at a stage when he was close to actually realizing the goal. And standing here now on the outskirts of New Orleans, staring at the faded black paint on a barely recognizable 1941 Ford, he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing from a rational standpoint. What the hell did he want with a car? Where the hell would he put it? As beat up as this thing looked, he was willing to bet that there were smart kids on his block who could take it apart in the blink of an eye and leave it gutted on the street outside his apartment, engine gone, wheels gone, nothing but the hulking empty shell of a previously functional specimen.
“Barely used,” the seller was proclaiming, tapping one of the side windows, “Got her brand new, then got shipped off. The wife never drove it—driving ain’t a woman’s sport. Been thinking about getting a new model now that I’ve got the money.”
Snafu moved in a lazy circle around the machine, studying it from all angles. The seller dropped into silence as Snafu inspected the car, though he was looking at Snafu expectantly, like he wanted him to do something more conclusive, make a grunt of approval or scowl in disappointment. And when Snafu actually looked up, his voice was distant as he spoke.
“What?—Oh,” the seller grinned, “You an infantryman yourself? Twenty-ninth division, straight on the shores of Normandy.”
“I was a marine,” Snafu replied, his voice dropping into the tones of a deadpan. He jerked a thumb at the car, “How much for it?”
“Hell,” the seller said, same damn grin on his face, “I’ll sell it to ya for six hundred.”
Snafu looked at the car again. Six hundred was more than half a year’s worth of rent and almost half of his mama’s life insurance.
“Four,” he countered.
“You haven’t taken it out for a drive even,” the seller protested, sounding vaguely annoyed.
“Four,” Snafu insisted with something like a humorless smile.
The seller didn’t say anything for a few moments clearly struggling with the decision before he sighed, “I’ll sell it for five.”
Snafu was quiet as he looked back at the car. What was he doing? Five hundred was enough to feed him for two years on a diet that he’d consider a fucking luxury—hell he subsisted mostly on coffee and cigarettes anyway. Jesus Christ, five hundred was a fucking helluva lot of cigarettes.
“Sure,” Snafu agreed easily with an actual smile (what the hell was he doing?), “I’ll take it off your hands.”
He knew enough to head northeast from New Orleans, across the bridge and into Mississippi. From there, he had no idea where the fuck he was headed, or—goddammit—if he even wanted to be heading that way at all. Maybe it had been a fleeting thought at the back of his mind in the weeks after he had stepped off that train—but it sure as fuck shouldn’t have been haunting him now, shouldn’t even have crossed his mind in the half year since then.
So what the hell was he doing, driving seventy miles an hour down a stretch of road in a waste of five hundred dollars? What the fuck was he doing, paying half a year’s worth of rent to deliver a goodbye and an apology that he was sure would have been long forgotten by now? What was he doing, going to dredge up all of the bad memories associated with their time together, picking at the scabs of once-angry wounds?
The car’s engine was loud—but for what looked like a lousy piece of junk, Snafu wasn’t particularly surprised. The gearshift liked to stick in five—which was better than getting stuck in a lower gear, he supposed. The interior of the car smelled like a mixture of fried grease and car oil—which was better than old blood and shit, if he was trying out this whole optimistic thing.
He made it into Mississippi before he pulled into a gas station. The seller had left him with maybe half a tank of gasoline but it wouldn’t take him all the way to Mobile, if that was where he was really headed. He was still half hoping that it wasn’t—that he’d drive across state lines and come to realize that he couldn’t go through with it—that he’d drive two miles into Alabama before turning around to head back the way that he came.
The boy behind the counter of the convenience store barely glanced up from his comic book as Snafu entered. He stood for a moment right inside the door and didn’t move until the clerk finally raised his eyes to give him a suspicious look.
There was no air conditioning unit inside the store—just an old fan aimed behind the counter. The thin ribbon tied to the middle of the fan made a crackling sound as the two tails fluttered and slapped each other in the artificial breeze. It reminded Snafu of distant gunfire.
“I want a map,” Snafu told the worker, “And a pack of Camels.”
Five minutes later, he was back in the car, cigarette between his lips and pulling the map open. Where the hell was Mobile, anyways? He didn’t even have a fucking address—how the hell was he going to even find Sledge?
As it turned out, Mobile was a straight shot down interstate 10, skimming along the edge of where Mississippi touched the Gulf of Mexico. If he drove quickly, it couldn’t be more than a five hour drive.
“Hell,” Snafu said to himself, folding the map in half and tossing it into the passenger seat. He stared out at the highway, not yet shoving his keys into the ignition. His jaw tensed and he pressed his forehead against the steering wheel, feeling vaguely nauseous—like when Rooney had been torn wide open and screaming and Snafu had to push all of his bleeding entrails back into the cavity of his abdomen. The intestines were slippery with blood and Snafu swore he could feel them pulsing. Rooney died anyway and it was Sledge who filled his spot.
“Fuck,” he said softly, smoke coming out on the exhale and he started the car.
If he had some sort of portable recording device, Eugene would have loved to make a copy of the birdsong that perpetually rang throughout the trees—and he’d play it very quietly every night before he went to sleep—or at least attempted to. There was a sort of solace that he found out here, away from everything else, watching spots of beige and yellow flash through the tall grass, high trill reverberating across the meadow. He had fallen asleep out here on more than one occasion—and he had dreamt of the sky, deep and blue until he was drowning in it. It was the most peaceful death he could imagine, away from the tremors of everyday life—
—and he was happy.
He usually took with him a sketchbook—the only thing that he had bought for himself in the last few months—and a pencil. He sat with his back against a tree, idly moving the pencil back and forth along the page in curved organic lines created by absent strokes and faraway thoughts. The drawing usually ended up something resembling the landscape—a mass of scribbles representing a tree—or a plume of earth scattered to the sky; the darkened lines crossing the edge of the page representing the creek that gurgled cheerfully in the background—or maybe the trickle of blood from so many different men, all merging together into one giant Mississippi River.
Eugene didn’t like looking at the landscapes he drew—much rather preferred drawing birds anyways. They came in so many different sizes, so many varieties and he sure as hell didn’t see many of them out in the Pacific.
The light was rapidly fading from day as the sun dipped below the horizon, casting the fields in a strange hue of silver-gold, slanting past the shadowed stripes of trees and touching the late summer grass. Eugene could hear the tentative chirp of crickets, the subtle transition of sound from day to night as he made his way back to the house, sketchbook tucked under one arm. Squirrels chattered at him briefly, watching him from a safe distance as they scolded him home.
He slipped in through the back door and considered grabbing something to eat up in his room, away from his mother’s worried eyes and his father’s weary patience. He had lifted the cover to the breadbox and was just about to cut himself a slice when one of the family servants stepped into the kitchen, “You have company, Mr. Sledge.”
Eugene looked at the woman blankly for a moment—why would Sid call this late without warning? He shut the breadbox and dropped his sketchpad on the table—oh god, what if it was an emergency?
But the person who was standing in the waiting room wasn’t Sid at all. Eugene had to do a double take—unsure if what he was seeing was actually real.
Snafu was standing in the room, wearing a pair of dirty jeans and a thin black shirt that looked like it had seen better times. He held his hands loosely at his sides but the line of his shoulders told Eugene that he was distinctly uncomfortable standing in this house—he had a shielded expression and a way of being very still that suggested that he was concerned about somehow breaking something in the room if he happened to just breathe in the wrong direction. He wasn’t smoking either—just standing there in Eugene’s house and looking at the pictures on the mantelpiece in civilian clothing like this was a fucking normal occurrence for him.
“The hell, Snafu.”
Snafu turned his head, took in the entirety of Eugene and smiled real slow, speaking in that long drawl of his, dropping the constants at the end of every word, “Well look at you, all cleaned up and lookin’ healthy. Can’t a friend stop by to say hello?”
Eugene raised both eyebrows, still not quite over his astonishment, “I just happened to be on your way home, huh?”
“Sure,” Snafu replied easily, “Hey you know everyone in town knows where you live? First person I see here, I ask, hey you know where Sledge lives and they all point up this hill here.”
“That’d be because of my dad,” Eugene replied and he realized that he couldn’t stop the smile from breaking out over his face.
“Sure, right, the doc,” Snafu agreed reasonably and his fingers twitched a little, like he was itching to light a cigarette. The two lapsed into a momentary silence, with Eugene just staring Snafu while the other man looked back a little warily, a little anxious and Jesus Christ, Eugene realized, he had never really seen Snafu scared like this before. Terrified as shit because of shells whistling overhead, Japanese planes thundering past and the blur of bullets inches from where he was sitting—but not in a fucking house in peacetime Alabama, in the silence, looking at Eugene like he was ready to bolt at any moment.
“Shit, Snafu,” Eugene breathed as he took the five steps to close the distance between the two of them, and he was laughing as he pulled the other man into a hug, “You fucking crazy bastard.”
Snafu tensed for a moment but relaxed, and his laughter sounded like relief.
“Crazy bastard,” Eugene repeated, and he grinned.
Eugene didn’t usually like to walk outside in the dark—because even though he hadn’t truly held a gun for almost a year, it was hard to shake the feeling that somebody was watching him. It was hard not to be so attuned to every slight movement of anything and everything moving—there was a damn Jap behind every tree, just watching and waiting to catch him with a bullet to the chest.
But for some reason, it was okay if he was walking with Snafu. Snafu had never let a Jap into their foxhole, had always kept his eyes sharp and ears alert for any sign of impending trouble. Or maybe it was just because it wasn’t actually dark outside yet—it was hovering in that uncertain space between day and night, where the color of all things bled away into shades of grey. Eugene shoved his hands into his pockets.
Snafu fished for the cigarettes in his pocket as soon as they cleared the porch of Eugene’s house, and pulled out two, holding one out. Eugene shook his head. Snafu held it out for a moment longer as if expecting Eugene to change his mind, head tilting slightly to the side, before he withdrew his hand and pocketed the stick. He grinned as he lit his, and puffed a mouthful of smoke, his voice low and something like comfort to Eugene’s ears, “You gone soft on me boy.”
“Dad’s a doc,” Eugene replied, feeling a slight sense of embarrassment at the fact that he was supposed to be a grown man—and yet still following his father’s orders, “Wasn’t keen on some of the habits I picked up.”
“That’s a shame,” Snafu said, pale eyes finding Eugene’s face in the dim light. There was a pause as Snafu flicked ashes onto the driveway, his voice turning contemplative, “Probably better for your lungs. Healthier. Goin’ live longer, Sledge?”
It was strange that they could even be talking about such a concept, about living longer when Eugene wasn’t sure if Snafu had ever expected to make it out of the war alive. Sometimes he wondered if it wasn’t kinder, to have just fallen into the direct line of sight for a falling mortar, to be shot in the back of the head, a quick death instead of this drawn out ordeal of bearing an awful weight.
“The hell is that?” Eugene asked, breaking the silence as he leveled his gaze down the driveway, “Snafu—did you actually drive that thing here?”
“Bought her myself,” Snafu smiled—though it didn’t quite reach his eyes, “Isn’t she a beauty?”
“It’s ugly as sin,” Eugene observed appreciatively, “How much did someone have to sucker you into paying for it?”
“More’n I make in half a year, I think.”
Eugene shot a quick glance to Snafu’s face—but it was closed off. There was something unreadable in his eyes, a strange mixture of resentment and disbelief and hope present in the line of his lips, the crease in between his eyebrows as he looked at the car. The end of his cigarette glowed red as he pulled in a lungful of smoke and Eugene was suddenly itching for his pipe, if only to have something to do with his hands. The easy familiarity that put him at ease in Snafu’s presence was there, sure, but there was something different now, a thin layer of something undefined keeping Eugene at a certain distance.
“Hey,” Eugene suddenly said, “How have you been holding up?”
Snafu looked at him, expression crossing somewhere between irritation and deadpan as his jaw worked almost involuntarily to the point where he was chewing on the end of his cigarette—maybe one too many insipid nurses had asked him the same question, one too many strangers had looked at him with pitying eyes and perfectly unwanted sympathy. Eugene was beginning to regret asking the question at all, when Snafu answered, “Absolutely wonderful.” He drew out the syllables in wonderful, the word riding out on a plume of smoke. He tapped the ashes to the driveway again, “And how about the Sledgehammer?”
Eugene found himself smirking a little—shit, when was the last time anybody had called him that? He certainly hadn’t missed it—but he missed this—this easy camaraderie. Or at least what this used to be.
“I’m great too,” Eugene lied.
Snafu smiled around his cigarette—though it was humorless. He saw right through Eugene and no doubt he knew that Eugene saw right through him. His voice was a soft murmur as he turned his eyes towards where the sun had set, “Yeah, we’re both just two perfectly sane motherfuckers.” It sounded more like a hum. Eugene leaned against the railing of his porch steps, watching Snafu drop the stub of his cigarette onto the ground and crush it underfoot.
“Hey,” Snafu suddenly said, louder now, turning to actually face Eugene, “Got some free time?”
Eugene couldn’t stifle the self-deprecating snort, “My entire life is free time.”
Snafu wet his lips. He pulled out another cigarette and rolled it between thumb and forefinger, head tilted back as his heavy lidded eyes considered Eugene seriously for a few moments.
“Take a trip with me.”
It was only the promise that Eugene would come with him that Snafu reluctantly agreed to stay the night. One of the servants had prepared one of the guest rooms. Eugene leant him a pair of pyjamas—Snafu had looked at him like he had gone crazy and Eugene guilted him into taking the clothes by pointing out that he would ruin the bedding. At that, the other man had taken the clothes gingerly, holding them slightly away from himself—like he had never worn a pair of pyjamas in his life and wasn’t particularly keen on trying the comforts of upper middle class.
Like clockwork, Eugene’s nightmares woke him up around three in the morning. He couldn’t even remember what the hell it was that he had been dreaming about—but from the clench in his gut and the way that his hands were fisted in the sheets, from the headache of fading adrenaline—he could probably take a guess. He laid there for a few moments, staring up at the ceiling before rolling out of bed and padding down the hallway and cracking open the door to the guest room.
Snafu had disregarded the bed altogether—though he did grab a pillow before choosing a spot on the ground to fall asleep on. Eugene’s eyebrows furrowed, half in irritation and mostly in frustration. He had long ago realized that asking what the hell was wrong with Snafu was an entirely rhetorical question.
The man was curled up, with his back to the wall. He was shivering slightly—whether from a nightmare or from the night air, Eugene wasn’t sure. He stepped cautiously into the room, remaining as silent as possible—slowly approaching. He half considered pulling the covers from the bed and draping them over Snafu—or hell, even a coat or throw or something—but he didn’t think that the other man would appreciate it. To do that—to wake up with something covering him, he’d know that someone had walked into the room and witnessed him in a moment of weakness—
—it was worse than waking up uncomfortable. He couldn’t do it.
“No,” Snafu mumbled in his sleep, his eyes moving rapidly under the lids, “No—behind you—Sledge.”
Eugene froze at the use of his name, suspended in motion by a combination of his morbid curiosity and genuine concern. And then, as he realized what he was doing, he shook his head to clear it of any ideas that involved invading his friend’s privacy—goddammit, how would he have liked it if Snafu sat and listened to him scream his way through a night of sleep? He shouldn’t have wandered into the room in the first place.
It wasn’t until after he closed the door to Snafu’s room that he let out the breath he had barely been aware of holding. Jesus Christ Snafu.
What the hell was he supposed to do?
Eugene wasn’t quite sure how he had managed to convince his parents that he’d be gone for a few days—but it had been surprisingly easy. His mother had looked at him with something like disappointment in her eyes and maybe she had been about to say no—but then his father had drawn her aside and maybe he thought that Eugene couldn’t hear him but he could, he heard every word that his father has said: maybe this will be good for him, make him come face to face with some things so that he can put it behind him.
He hadn’t really bothered to pack—just grabbed a bag to shove his sketchbook and pencil in. He was in the midst of grabbing his toothbrush and toothpaste when he heard the familiar drawl from behind him.
“Got to keep them pearly whites clean.”
Snafu leaned up against the doorframe, his lips curled into a little amused smile. Eugene refrained from rolling his eyes.
“Hey,” Snafu said suddenly, “I forgot my toothbrush. Can I use yours?”
“No,” Eugene said, clasping his bag shut. He wasn’t sure if he had ever seen Snafu brush his teeth.
Snafu looked at him for a moment before grinning real wide and Eugene wanted to laugh. He had missed this—how easy it was to fall into step and synchronize with someone who had been through hell with him at his back. It wasn’t the same talking to Sid—not when he had hurried back before Peleliu, never saw Okinawa; not when he had a wife and talk of kids on the way, an entire life as a physician to look forward to. It wasn’t the same talking to his brother who had spent only a few months in this weary nonfunctional state instead of bordering on half a year; his brother who looked at him sometimes like he wasn’t the kid who had grown up with him for all of those years but an abstract concept, a stranger who he sometimes shared the same roof with.
“Ready?” Snafu asked. There was the tiniest hint of an edge to his voice like he was looking forward to leaving this place. Maybe Eugene was too.
He shouldered his bag.
The engine was just as motherfucking loud on the way out of Alabama as it had been on the way in. Maybe Snafu would check up on the muffler or something later—see if he could fix the damn thing so that it didn’t roar to life every time he turned the keys in ignition. Eugene had jumped when he turned the car on the first time—and Snafu didn’t mean to but he burst into hysterical laughter.
“God, Snafu,” Eugene said, scowling at him, “Give a man a little warning, will you?”
Snafu only grinned at him, maybe a little meanly and lit a cigarette, turning his eyes back on the road. He saw the way that Eugene had reflexively reached for the gun that wasn’t there. Couldn’t take the marines out of a boy.
“Ever seen the Atlantic Ocean?” Snafu asked rhetorically as he turned the car east. It was the last thing that either of them said, lapsing into a comfortable silence. Eugene stared out the window, at the familiar landscape passing them by—flat land and trees—bridges as the interstate ran over the bay. Snafu kept his eyes on the road. Eugene had sunk deep into himself—his eyes were distant as he looked out at the sprawling gulf, instinctively searching out the indistinct border between sea and sky. Snafu didn’t want to break the silence—didn’t see any need to. He didn’t need conversation—just this solid presence within reach, everything that he hadn’t known he had been starving for.
Snafu would have never considered himself lonely—he just thought of himself as a little bit distant. A little set apart from everyone else and he just hadn’t quite found other people who fit into the same category as him—or maybe that was because he never really cared about looking. Eugene didn’t really fit either—but that was okay because he made a lot of exceptions for Eugene.
It wasn’t until they were three-fourths of a tank down and stopped at a gas station nearly on the border between Florida and Alabama that somebody finally broke the silence. Snafu drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as the attendant pumped gas, eyes set contemplatively on the horizon when Eugene asked, “How come you didn’t wake me up?”
Snafu’s fingers paused. He didn’t speak for a moment but then looked out the window as if to check up on the attendant in his side mirror, his tone light, “I ain’ good at sayin’ goodbye.”
He could feel Eugene’s dark eyes on his face, knew that his lips were set in a firm grim line, that he didn’t believe a word that Snafu said but he was too good of a friend to call him out on his cowardice. Snafu was grateful for it—didn’t want Eugene to be poking his fingers into old wounds, curling them under his skin and pulling back, peeling him like a fucking banana. Didn’t want him to dig too deep and realize that Snafu wasn’t worth his time, had never been worth his time. He kept his eyes on the mirror, watching the attendant pull the nozzle out of the car, the last few drops of gasoline falling to the ground, the beaten face of the attendant. He didn’t want to look at Eugene, not when there could be a chance of disappointment, on his face.
“Okay,” Eugene said after a long moment. Snafu’s eyes slid out of focus, hands grasping at the steering wheel with more force than necessary.
A knock on his window drew him back into his thoughts. He looked up and paid but didn’t tip the man.
He drove on.
They stopped in Tallahassee for the night, at the exact halfway point between Mobile and the Atlantic Ocean—or at least as close as they were going to get to it. Neither of them had even mentioned lunch at the appropriate time so Snafu had just driven through it—Snafu had briefly glanced at Eugene and thought that maybe he didn’t eat lunch either.
Snafu pulled into the parking lot of a diner, cutting the engine so that they were thrown abruptly into quiet. He pulled the keys out and curled his fingers around them, pausing for a moment before opening the door and getting out. Eugene followed suit, hands in his pockets as he nudged the car door closed with his hip. The evening was rapidly slipping into night and there was only one lone couple seated in a corner booth, the earnest hunch of his shoulders and her laughing face silhouetted in the window. Snafu shouldered the door open and Eugene passed him into the restaurant, giving the waitress a polite smile.
They took a booth as far away from the other customers as possible and the waitress slapped down two menus. Snafu didn’t even pick his up, just looked at Eugene as he politely picked his up. The waitress hovered, poised to write their orders on her pad.
“I’ll just have a burger,” Eugene said with a precursory glance, handing it back. She smiled at him before turning to Snafu.
“Coffee,” Snafu said, without looking at her. She didn’t smile at him, didn’t ask if he wanted sugar and cream, just took the untouched menu and left.
“I see you’ve been really working on charming the girls,” Eugene observed dryly.
“She’s not pretty,” Snafu replied easily, logically.
Eugene turned his head slightly to look at the waitress, who was glancing suspiciously back at them. He considered her for a few moments before turning his eyes back towards Snafu, “She’s not too bad.”
“Sledge,” Snafu said deploringly, his lips curling into a smirk, “I like my broads a little curvier,” his tongue lingered on the last word for a little bit too long, lilting accent, “A little less greasy.” He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. He’d have to buy a new pack in the morning.
Eugene’s smile was more of a quirk of the lips, his chin lifting as his eyes drifted back towards the woman, “You couldn’t get her if you tried.”
Snafu’s nostrils flared, “That a challenge, Sledgehammer?”
Eugene’s smile widened just the slightest bit, elbows on the table as he shifted his weight. Snafu lit his cigarette before eyeing Eugene a little warily.
“A burger for you,” the waitress interrupted as she set the plate down in front of Eugene, “And a coffee for you. Is there anything else I can get you sirs?”
Snafu actually turned his head this time and regarded her—letting his eyes roam unashamedly across the first few buttons that she must have popped open deliberately. Her bra was black and lacy—no wedding ring though, which meant that—
“Naw, we’re good for now. Thank you miss,” Snafu replied, eyes moving to her face. She had colored a little bit—he hadn’t been particularly subtle—but managed something like a prim disapproving look at him before she turned away from their table, her hand immediately going to the buttons.
Eugene lifted an eyebrow as he picked up the saltshaker. Snafu waved him off, “I’ll get her.”
“Practically beggin’ for it,” Snafu murmured lazily, lowering his eyes to the coffee. He wondered vaguely if she had spit in it when he wasn’t looking. Not that he really cared—considering the shit he had eagerly drank back on Peleliu. Japanese poison.
“What do you do now, Snafu?” Eugene asked, picking up a knife to cut his burger in half (Snafu watched him distractedly with some fascination—was that a rich white boy trait he had picked up while he was back home?), “Besides buying ugly cars and attempting to flirt with women.”
“I saw shit in a lumberyard,” Snafu said. He took a sip of his coffee.
Eugene’s eyebrows drew together. It wasn’t as if he were particularly surprised, really, but—
“Ain’ got the smarts like you, Sledgehammer,” Snafu said, reaching out to take a fry off of Eugene’s plate. His smile was a little sharp, “Ain’ ever gonna become a doc.”
Eugene took a bite of his burger.
“And how about you, Sledge?” There had always been something dangerous about Snafu—something where the line between sanity and insanity had been a little blurred, something softly simmering underneath the lazy grace and heavy accent. It was present even when Eugene forgot about it—and it was now that he was suddenly aware of it again, the effortless piercing stare, the one that made him think that Snafu had been crazy at first. Maybe he still was, maybe Eugene had just gotten used to it. Looking through the smoke, that drifted in a lazy wreath about Snafu’s face in the dirty fluorescent light of the diner—those silver eyes fixated on his face, he was suddenly reminded.
“I go into the forest sometimes,” Eugene said, “I do a lot of sketching. Sometimes I write.” Snafu blinked. Eugene cast about for a conclusion of some sort, to validate what he had been doing since he had arrived home in Mobile, and eventually ended up with, “I do a lot of nothing.”
Snafu didn’t say anything, just studied him for a few moments. And then he stubbed out the cigarette onto the side of the ceramic mug, leaving behind a trace of black ash and he said, “That’s no good.”
Eugene dropped his eyes, feeling a sense of shame drop into the pit of his stomach. It was one thing for his parents to be worried about him, to wonder why he hadn’t yet gotten a job when they hadn’t experienced what it had been like out there. They hadn’t experience nights when they were so tired that they weren’t sure if they was sleeping with his eyes open, hadn’t experienced the fatigue of perpetual adrenaline pumping through their veins. It was one thing for them, and another thing entirely for Snafu to be saying the words, someone who had trudged through the same blood-sticky trenches with him, taken cover from bombs delivered by living, breathing humans, and shot at shields made of flesh and bone.
Snafu gave him something like a smile though—like he was trying to reassure him or something; Eugene thought that maybe it was just sardonic. He could never quite tell with Snafu. He nudged his fries over to the edge of the plate and Snafu sipped his coffee.
Come time to pay the bill, the waitress approached the table a little uncertainly, glancing at Snafu as if she were half expecting him to lunge out and force her into submission right there, on top of the table with the restaurant’s audience of four watching. Eugene swallowed slightly, suddenly dry-mouthed. He glanced at Snafu who was looking at her a little amusedly, leaning his head against the palm of his hand as he looked up at her.
Eugene took the check and started to count bills from his wallet and was only half listening as Snafu said, “When do you get off shift, sweetheart?”
Her jaw tensed and she spared him barely a glance.
“Or if you’d prefer,” Snafu was saying, his voice dropping suggestively, “I don’t mind doing it quick and dirty either.”
Eugene’s hands stilled only momentarily, his concentration faltering—what the hell was Snafu—?
“Quiet, huh?” Eugene didn’t have to lift his eyes to recall Snafu’s lewd grin, “Don’ worry, I can make you scream real loud.”
A slap. Eugene’s eyes jumped to Snafu’s face. He had a hand to his cheek and he still had a grin. The waitress was glowering at him.
“Kinky,” Snafu drawled.
The waitress stalked away.
Eugene had never slept in a motel—but there was a first time for everything, he supposed. They were pulling up into the driveway, the neon sign proclaiming vacancy in all of its seedy flickering glory and he had half a mind to laugh because he bet that his father sure as hell hadn’t been thinking of this when he had agreed to let Eugene go. Snafu was humming something under his breath that Eugene didn’t recognize, though he stopped once the car was turned off. Eugene got out of the car, shouldering his bag—such a useless waste of weight. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting—to whip out the sketchbook and draw in the car? He didn’t know.
The keys jingled as Snafu stuffed it into the pockets of his jeans. Eugene shut the door and looked at Snafu over the top of the car, feeling the sudden urge to say something.
“You got a girl at home, Snafu?”
Snafu turned his head to regard Eugene, brow furrowed in confusion and giving Eugene an assessing look as if trying to figure out whether or not he had gone Asiatic. And then he turned back around, gesturing for Eugene to hurry up, “Naw.”
Eugene quickened his pace so he could fall into step alongside the other man. He didn’t really know why a palpable sense of relief had washed over him at the answer, didn’t really acknowledge it too closely. He had already lost one best friend to a woman—didn’t want to think about losing Snafu to that too.
He didn’t say anything until after they had paid for the room. Snafu was jiggling the key into the keyhole and attempting to turn the doorknob to little avail when Eugene heard himself say, “It’s okay to not have a lot of luck with girls, you know. I mean, I still haven’t—”
And he cut himself off, right there, jaw snapping shut with a click. What the hell—why the hell would he even say something like that?
Snafu had frozen mid-jiggle. He didn’t say anything but Eugene could sense it. Something had changed, something had shifted and he wasn’t sure what. He swallowed nervously and looked away.
“Sledge,” Snafu said quietly. Eugene dragged a tired hand over his face.
“Sledge,” Snafu said, a little bit louder. Eugene drew his hand away and looked at him. Snafu had an unreadable look on his face. Eugene looked expectantly at him—but he didn’t say anything, grey eyes locking his for just a few moments before he turned and calmly unlocked the door, pushing it open to reveal their room for the night. He didn’t say anything at all, no reassurance, no validation, nothing. Eugene didn’t know how to read him any more.
Eugene stepped in and flicked on a light. Two tiny beds—both of them with bedding that had suspicious brown stains that didn’t fit the paisley or floral pattern at all. The wallpaper was peeling away in a corner of the room, and the bible on the nightstand looked like it was missing pages. It still wasn’t the worst that either of them had experienced.
“You want to take the bathroom first?” Snafu asked, shutting the door behind him quietly. Eugene rubbed a hand at the still-damp sweat at the back of his neck, the uncomfortable humidity that he had long gotten used to. Sometimes it was still such a goddamn marvel to him, that he could stop at the end of the day and wash everything off rather than sleep in all of the grime and the filth he had accumulated.
“Yeah,” Eugene said wearily, “Thanks.” He just needed a moment to himself, away from this—whatever had him suddenly on edge, whatever it was that was telling him that a storm was coming. Snafu shrugged slightly and took a seat on one of the bed instead, watching him close the door.
He glanced briefly at himself in the cracked mirror over the sink, breathed in deeply and splashed water on his face. It took a few minutes for the water to run hot and he methodically stripped out of his clothes and stepped into the spray of water in the tiny stall. Cleaning was a fairly mechanical process and it didn’t take long for him to step out of the shower again, ignoring the way that the rumble of the pipes sounded uncomfortably close the sound of explosions in ringing ears. Within a few moments, he hung the used towel back up on the rack, back in the clothes he had taken off.
When he stepped back outside, he found Snafu idly flipping through the bible, thumbing through the pages with such a speed that Eugene was certain he wasn’t even attempting to read any of it. He ran a hand through his still damp hair and maneuvered around to the other bed, realizing with a slight jolt of panic that he was going to have to sleep in the same room as Snafu—that Snafu was going to be listening to his nightmares—goddammit.
He leaned against the headboard glancing back over at Snafu. A pause, he licked his lips and he asked, “You reading that?”
Snafu looked at him for a moment, something fleeting and undefinable in his stare, something defiant and he said strangely, “I’m still busy with it.”
Eugene lifted an eyebrow was about to protest that he wasn’t even reading the damn thing when Snafu abruptly set it aside, and maneuvered over the tiny space which separated their beds and he was suddenly entirely too close, easily invading Eugene’s personal space. It wasn’t particularly anything new—Snafu never had a good eye for boundaries anyway, but it didn’t stop his voice from taking on a confused tone, “Snafu, what—?”
“Do you trust me?” Snafu asked, and it was said in a way that Eugene had never heard before, the slow drawl taking on a sharp and impatient tone. He was crowding in on Eugene, entirely too close—Eugene could the way that the dim light made pale halos out of his irises, eyelashes that swept over his cheek every time he blinked. Snafu smelled like sweat and sawdust and something that was undefineably him--recognized from long years of sharing the same space, breathing the same air. Eugene felt a spike of something run up his spine, his mind awhirl with something—something that he didn’t want to look at too closely because Jesus Christ it felt like anticipation—
Snafu took that as invitation to lean forward and drag his tongue across the underside of Eugene’s jaw—eliciting something like a jagged gasp from Eugene—took that as an invitation to flick open the button of Eugene’s trousers, crowding him even more in the tiny bed. Eugene didn’t know what the hell to do—his hand spasmed uselessly in midair as he tried to collect his thoughts—shit, what the hell was he doing? What the hell was fucking going on?
Snafu’s hand had slipped past his waistband, callused palm sliding gently over the base of his cock and he couldn’t stop himself from drawing in a shuddering gasp and then weakly, “What are you—?”
“Do you trust me enough—” Snafu breathed into his ear, wrapping his hand around Eugene, “—to help you out, Sledge? That’s all I’m tryin’ to do.” His voice was a low whisper and it stirred something inside of Eugene, something that was rising eagerly to meet Snafu’s stroking hand. His hands rose of their own volition, fingers threading through the hair at the back of Snafu’s head as Snafu slowly built up a rhythm of sorts, moving his lips over the sensitive juncture between ear and neck, pressing the flat of his tongue against the vein that pulsed in Eugene’s neck and trailing down until he could taste the heartbeat under his lips.
Eugene had never experienced anything like this—someone else’s hand on his dick, moving so fucking slow that he had to follow impatiently with his hips. His eyes had fallen shut and he was huffing in Snafu’s ear, a low whine cutting through the heavy breathing and it took him a long moment to realize that it was him making that sound, deep in his throat. Snafu liked to twist his wrist on the downstroke and Eugene was going a little out of his mind, the shape of his mouth forming soundless words that were lost in transition somewhere along the way. Snafu patiently brought him to the absolute fucking brink of it, pleasure curling around the base of his spine and threatening to overfill—and his hand stilled—like he had one hand fisted in the back of Eugene’s shirt, making him peer into the depths of the Grand Canyon from the very edge.
Snafu had pulled his mouth away from Eugene’s neck as Eugene strained against his now-light touch. There were fingers sliding gently against his jawline and Snafu’s low command, “Open your eyes.”
Eugene opened his eyes, and saw Snafu looking down at him, nothing but open raw want expressed on his face. He bit back something like a stifled sob, bucked into Snafu’s hand and came with the roar of blood in his ears, the rush of pleasure making him shudder violently.
Snafu slowly pulled his hand away from Eugene’s softening dick, leaned forward to brush his lips against the side of Eugene’s jaw—and then the weight of him on the bed was gone. Eugene uselessly dropped his hand into the warm space where Snafu had half kneeled and listened to the sound of water running in the bathroom sink.
He closed his eyes and tried not to think.
Sometime in the night when Eugene was dreaming about men on fire screaming in agony and the faceless thunder of the Japanese war machine grating deep within bare mountains, later when Eugene couldn’t dodge the bullets but saw them pierce deep into his soft belly, and later when he saw himself as a rotting corpse nameless and entirely forgotten on a bombed-out rock in the middle of the Pacific—
He thought he remembered hands cupping his face and a low voice saying, it’s okay Sledge, you’re okay. He thought he remembered a thumb stroking along the arch of his cheekbone, breath on the side of his neck.
He remembered dreaming and maybe he remembered waking up and then he remembered nothing at all.
In the morning, Eugene woke to light filtering through the dirty blinds, motes of dust dancing on the shafts where the sun broke through the fractured bits unimpeded. He blinked the fogginess out of his mind and stepped into his shoes, briefly making a detour to splash water on his face before going outside.
Snafu was sitting next to the door with his legs sprawled out on the cracked concrete before him, idly watching the cars pass on the street. He had a cigarette between his lips and a brand new pack on the ground beneath his hand. He must have been up long enough to already make a trip to the nearest convenience store. He looked up when Eugene opened the door and got up, brushing stray rocks from palms of his hands, “Ready?”
Florida wasn’t much of a change from Alabama—maybe just a few more trees and wider roads. Snafu kept his eyes on the road and Eugene watched the indistinct forms of houses and streetlamps pass them by. He pulled out his sketchpad and his pencil and propped it on his knee.
“How long you been drawin’ for, Sledge?” Snafu asked unexpectedly as they passed the exit for Madison. Eugene brushed eraser crumbs off the edge of his paper, shrugging slightly. He turned his head to look at Snafu—and took a moment to study the profile of his face against the blurred landscape, heavy lidded eyes looking straight ahead, the rough of stubble against his jaw from not shaving for a few days. He half wanted to reach out and run his fingers along that jawline, curious as to what it was like to press his lips to that neck like Snafu had done the night before to him—wondered if Snafu would let him.
“I just started,” Eugene answered honestly, trying to drag his eyes away, “Right after the war. Needed something to do with my hands.”
Snafu smiled a little at that, maybe a little bitterly, “What do you draw?”
Snafu had the uncanny ability to make him feel stupid, even when he didn’t mean to. “Birds,” he replied after a moment, “And landscapes. I don’t like my landscapes too much. They turn out too much like—before.”
“Birds,” Snafu drawled, sounding entirely amused, “What Sledge, you tryin’ to become the birdman or something? Have your own personal brigade, goin’ spying on the neighbor girls.” He shook his head, lips curling into a smirk.
“Fuck you,” Eugene grinned.
“Yeah,” Snafu agreed reasonably, glancing over at him with a grin in return. A stretch of silence, and then, “You like it, Sledge?”
Eugene dragged his hand through his hair—what the hell kind of question was that? He had never really considered it before—sketching birds was just one of the things that he did to keep his mind off of the war, to keep himself busy until he could find something else to do. Just a transition between now and something in the future when he’d had a job and a family and a house like his parents’.
Drawing these birds—wandering through the woods and just listening to them and watching the flashes of blue and red flitting among the reeds—it reminded him that here was still life out there, something so simple and beautiful and wholly untouched by the horrors of war. They were tiny little creatures with heartbeats racing like the rattle of airplanes, dark spots against bright blue when they took to the sky and left everything behind.
“Yeah,” he said slowly, something like a shy smile stealing across his face, “I like it.”
Snafu pushed a cigarette between his lips and lit it one-handed. The wind whipped the smoke out of his cracked window, and the engine roared dully as they made their way farther east. Snafu’s smile crinkled the corners of his eyes as he glanced over at Eugene.
“As long as you’re happy.”
They passed Jacksonville in the late afternoon—stopped at another restaurant for dinner where Snafu ordered another coffee and no food. Eugene ordered a reuben sandwich and only ate half of it—waiting for Snafu to get the goddamn hint to pick up the other half. They didn’t talk much which was okay because Eugene didn’t really feel much like talking still—and what the hell could they talk about? He didn’t want to bring up the war any more than Snafu did—couldn’t integrate malaria and the stench of death casually into conversation even if he wanted to.
Even before they got into Jacksonville, Eugene had cracked and asked for a cigarette. Snafu had looked at him, grinned a little, and obliged him. It had been a while since his last rush of nicotine, blurring the edge of his focus a little, making him relax and sit back and look at Snafu lazily smoking his own cigarette and be overwhelmed by the steady passage of time. Peacetime between them was measured in slow breaths and traded looks, wrapped in simple acceptance and the molasses-slow burgeoning of something restless stirring within Eugene.
They made it to the east coast by evening time, just as the sun was sliding past the horizon—not out over the water but in the way that they had come. The light filtered through the city and the trees, slanting straight onto the sandy beach in dappled shadows and Eugene stood with the ocean at his back and lifted his eyes to stare at the play of red-gold-pink on the broad canvas of clouds with the late-summer breeze softly tousling his hair and seagulls calling to each other across the choppy waves and—
I’m alive, Eugene thought stupidly, digging his bare feet into the sand.
Snafu was down the beach a bit, shoes in one hand, head turned to look at the wide expanse of ocean. Eugene wanted to call down to him, reel him in from the tide sweeping up onto shore, wanted to say that he was beginning to understand. He wanted to run down to him, crash headlong into the waves and laugh solely because he could.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been standing there just breathing and feeling the pulse of his own heart move through his veins, just taking it all in. The light was slowly filtering away into nothing and Snafu was padding up the beach towards him, cigarette dangling from his fingertips, something like a distant smile on his face.
“What you thinkin’ ‘bout, Sledge?” he asked, all easy drawl and lazy movements pausing only a few feet away with sand sticking to his bare feet, silver eyes darkened to a steely grey in this twilight, and Sledge thought—
(burning day in Peleliu, the nauseous fear of dying, solid warmth against his leg, the night air brushing his face as he strained his eyes for any sign of movement, being so fucking tired that he didn’t dream, a whispering voice in his ear Sledgehammer, the stifling containment of his uniform when he was sweating and then being so dehydrated that he couldn’t even sweat, practiced movements and a strong voice calling angrily misfire, a baby crying in a hut and Sledge’s voice a lot of people fire mortars up here, smell of infected wounds and malaria in the pouring rain, sound of gunfire right by his ear—
—a single dove, wheeling bright against the morning sky.)
In a moment of perfect clarity, he closed the distance between them, hands raising to the sides of Snafu’s face and he was kissing the other man with a growing certainty, an awkward press of lips. One of Eugene’s hands slid to the back of Snafu’s neck, and Snafu opened up underneath his mouth—a brief clash of teeth and then Snafu was sliding his tongue past Eugene’s lower lip, crowding in closer, cigarette dropped to the ground and both his hands on Eugene’s hips. Snafu tasted like bitter tobacco and pine and Eugene felt like maybe he had finally come to close a door that had been cracked and letting winter air in for too long.
It was time to move on.
The only stop that they made on the way back from the Atlantic was an orange grove. Snafu’s head had turned as they were making their way past the barely hidden specks of orange among green leaves and something like a wild smile crossed his face. Eugene didn’t need to read Snafu’s mind to know that they would be taking the next exit and doubling back around.
Eugene couldn’t remember how they had gotten past the fence or what morally degenerate argument Snafu had used to persuade him to wander into the grove with him—he just remembered losing Snafu in the rows and rows of trees within moments of setting foot into the enclosed area. He had to admit that he hadn’t tried very hard to look for the other man, sketchpad tucked underneath his arm as he wandered through the trees listening to the subtle difference in Floridian birdsong and silently enjoying the brief idyllic reprise. He had been walking for a full five minutes and considering just taking a seat somewhere to sketch out the scenery (maybe this landscape would turn out different than all of his others) when he stumbled across Snafu peeling an orange, leaning casually against a tree.
At Eugene’s vaguely disapproving look, Snafu had only smirked and asked, “What’d you think I brought you in here for, boy?”
Eugene had no answer to that so he leaned on the tree across from Snafu. Snafu dropped the peels onto the ground and pulled the orange apart into two halves. He leaned forward, offering Eugene one of the halves.
“Thanks,” Eugene said, taking it. He popped a piece into his mouth—sweet and a little sour hitting the back of his tongue.
“Mama always taught me to be gracious,” Snafu agreed, peeling his half into their individual segments before eating any of them. Eugene smiled a little, amused at the quirk.
A little bit later, Snafu spoke again, this time in distant tones, “Be nice to have an orange grove.”
Eugene looked over at him. Snafu popped another piece of orange into his mouth, grey eyes staring out somewhere beyond what he was seeing, “Just grow fruit. Sit out in the orchard. It’d be peaceful.”
Eugene hummed in agreement, fingers itching to be holding his pipe.
Snafu finally looked at him, and his serious expression melted away into a light smile.
to part two