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Fraternization by Zero
The aftermath of barracks cuts never ceases to be a horrifying sight.
Patches of uneven messes beneath the headgear, where skin shows through in blocks, shaved lines in stark contrast to untouched, overgrown fuzz like a lawn that’s not yet fully mowed. It’s raw, unfiltered material for derogatory remarks from the higher ups.
(Even as a cadet —a stupid, immature, barely more than a teenager cadet— he knew better than to get his hair cut in the barracks. Even if a clipper shaved head grows back horridly fast, especially when they are required to keep it. Turns out it’s a high-maintenance cut, ironically enough).
He’s not conducting the inspection. Still, out of training or out of need to remind the others (maybe himself, even) of his authority, his eyes glaze over the line of men. If they can be called that.
He doesn’t let his gaze drift from the visual check he’s mentally going through. Tapered, following the skull, in accordance to the natural shape of the neckline, cut closely at the back of the nape. Trimmed sideburns, clean shaven, horizontal lines.
He observes from afar as the sergeant takes his part handing down insults (to their intelligence, first and foremost, but also to their genes, to the way they were raised and to anything that comes his mind), feeling the sun pressing against his own neatly clippered nape. A drop of sweat runs down his back, underneath the uniform. The wind doesn’t blow. His lungs fill in with hot, asphyxiating air that finds ways to drown his skin through the seams of his uniform.
A voice leaves his side and steps forward, towards the formation of ill-fitted, clueless recruits "I’ll get them fixed".
His eyes follow the sound of footsteps over the arid, scorching earth. He feels the heat of the other man’s entire body linger, almost touching him, as if he was set aflame.
Corporal Hunt. He’s older, more experienced than him. He doesn’t know for sure by how many years, for all he can tell it might just be one or two, but he can definitely tell he has seasons on him, at the very least.
He was sent to fetch him when he arrived to this nowhere land. His face, the very first he saw. His voice, the very first voice he heard pronounce his full rank and name ‘Lieutenant Cohen?’.
He eyes the corporal. Closely shaved hair he can never tell if it’s dark blond or the color of coffee. That it’s always back to skin length whenever it comes close to sufficient growth for him to see the light hit it and know. A scar above the eyebrow, another down his lips, running under his jaw.
He doesn’t know why his gaze is pulled to him. Why his voice ties knots across him and getting farther away from him seems harder than it should be.
It isn’t much longer when he crosses his path with him again, as he strolls from one side of the campsite to the other.
Hunt has a strong, forceful grip on the head of an eighteen years old recruit, bits of copper hair fly off into the air as he pulls the bare blade of a pair of clippers through his bangs. The machine makes a noise that can be heard several feet away. This is one of the guys they saw in formation with a disastrous barracks cut.
The private’s face twists in discomfort, as if his hair was being pulled at the roots, while the corporal moves his head roughly at unnatural angles and slaps the clumps of hair off his undershirt.
He has memories of his first haircut in the Academy. Of a mane that touched his shoulders collapsing to the floor and the shriek of the clippers they pressed against his scalp brutally, like they were going to tear it off, like a vengeance.
"We have a barbershop, corporal" he tells him, watching at a distance, out of the corner of his eye.
"I know, sir" Hunt raises his gaze from the shorn head of the terrified recruit, he slides his palm against the grain, over his bared scalp "But it doesn’t seem like it’s these boots’ style".
The brutally shorn private’s face turns an intense shade of red, as if he had been hours underneath the sun, running laps.
"Take them to the barbershop next time, corporal".
The ‘yes, sir’ he gets back is full of hypocrisy, that’s not disguised in the least. As if obeying him was a betrayal to his own nature. It might be, all things considered.
Hunt cuts his own hair. As if barbershops didn’t fit with him either. He’s the eldest of five brothers. He told him they didn’t have to go around spending on haircuts, so instead, his parents bought clippers. He got handed the responsibility for his brother’s haircuts every odd week when his father wasn’t around and his mother got tied in chains of shifts that didn’t end.
He half-joked, maybe half told the truth when he said to him that he didn’t get his first barbershop cut until boot camp, with a grin full both of pride and embarrassment at the same time, if such things can be.
"Better remind them where it is for future occasions" he continues, as he observes the corporal thrust the blades harshly against the recruit’s sideburns, going over already reddened, denuded skin. Pale, gray eyes shutting down in soreness.
Whether his words actually humor him or he just pretends they do, he doesn’t know, but a smirk spreads across the corporal’s face after he hears him "Barrack cuts are below you. Aren’t they, sir?".
He says it ‘sir’ like all non-commissioned officers do it, like it’s unbecoming of him. There’s either a callous or a sarcastic edge to it. He’s not unfamiliar with the disdain of enlisted personnel. A lieutenant fresh out of the Academy is a glorified private. A prideful piece of lackluster coal, with grandiosity delusions.
He doesn’t answer anything back. Hunt stops expecting him to.
"I get it. You should set an example for the troops, sir".
He’s heard variants of this sentence. The men who had told him similar things always included themselves in the words as well. From them it was a ‘we’. For the corporal, it isn’t. It stays a ‘you’. Hunt cuts himself off from it, makes a line like the end of the end of the barrel of a gun between the hand that’s holding it and the body at the other side of it.
"Do as I say, corporal".
He hears him refer to him as ‘sir’ a fourth time, his voice ripples, going back and forth inside his ears.
His gaze falls briefly on the shorn, discarded tufts of copper hair and slides an unconscious hand through the length of his locks. He silences the thought that it resembles his own.
It’s that day he overhears the corporal’s other names among the enlisted ranks, endless wordplays with his rank.
None of them allude to clemency or good nature of any kind.
Hunt shaves with a straight razor. He learns it on accident, in a holiday where neither of them has anywhere to go.
He gets out of the shower, into the horrific heat, no longer able to tell if his hair is damp with water or sweat after mere minutes. They become indistinguishable one from the other underneath his fingertips, as he combs the locks back, away from his face. That’s where he meets the corporal, spreading a white foam across his jaw. He acknowledges him with a nod and a ‘sir’ and his attention returns to his own reflection.
He notices the faded lines over his knuckles, leftovers from some nasty close combat. He half-wonders if they are as old as the ones on his face.
He has at least three holes on one earlobe, they’re pierced. It takes him a while, but he realizes that the slash across his eyebrow is possibly the remnant of a piercing as well. Even though he didn’t imagine Hunt as the kind of man to have... aesthetic preferences of that kind or any, he thinks it also makes perfect sense that he would be drawn to things that go through tissue.
"I didn’t know you were religious, sir".
The remark from the corporal catches him off guard. Where does it even come from? His question is answered when he meets Hunt’s gaze, over the gold crucifix dangling from his neck. It used to be his father’s. His grandfather’s before him. When had it been actually given to him? As soon as he was born? On his baptism?
"Good to know that at least one of us in this unit is a believer" he hears him add.
He still doesn’t reply. Not right away. He deliberates. He carries the cross out of habit. He’s used to the weight around his neck, enough to feel odd without it. He isn’t sure he actually believes in things like saints or scriptures or God for that matter.
And even if he did, how could it be God’s will to give him a heart that’s twisted and malfunctioning and has him hungering in perverse, unnatural ways, what kind of benevolence and infinite wisdom could be in that?
"Are you, corporal?" he sends the question back to him.
A grin that’s almost feral spreads across Hunt’s face "I’m superstitious as hell, if you must know".
His lips draw a smile.
"Good to see you don’t have a facial paralysis, after all, sir".
Maybe what he feels for him is admiration. That’s the explanation to why he keeps intruding inside his thoughts, why he can’t stop fixating on him.
Perhaps it’s his scars. The pragmatic wisdom he carries and weaponizes, bred into him out of experience, after staring death in the face and having it graze him and escaping its grasp.
The blade in his hands, against his throat, his fingers dance with death at the edge, and tempt it once, twice, thrice. The razor ascends across the scales of his trachea. He shaves against the grain, in long, certain, slow strokes that denude his skin. How he manages to not draw blood is beyond him. He does it perfectly.
He doesn’t know why it mesmerizes him.
He catches his sight and he doesn’t think about how he wants to know his pulse. Find out if his heartbeat is a searing tempest or quiet rumor under his ribcage.
"See you around, sir".
Hunt slaps him in the back as a farewell gesture. His palm radiates and his fingerprints stay like phantoms over his skin. The mere fact that he touches him is unbecoming of a subordinate.
He knew the lust of other’s before he even got acquainted with his own. In the deafening stares, in the silence and the noise of voices, in the uninvited touches. He’s lived his own desire as a non-participant, caught in a bystander effect.
He calls it restraint and precaution, knowing it’s another thing entirely.
There at least a thousand things wrong with him.
And as he lays awake underneath the stars, next to him, he thinks that Hunt can see every single of them.
It’s a long night and they make a chain of small talks to keep themselves awake. It delves into their pasts, not much longer after they’ve done with their futures (in the military? Neither of them know for sure, but only he lies. Besides they’re going to win in the end, aren’t they?).
Hunt was born in a small town. Soon, far too soon to parents that did the best they could, but could only do so much. He joined the military young and desperate to die anywhere else that wasn’t there.
He was born late, when his parents had almost given up. He decided to join young. Yes. His childhood drawings were of himself in uniform, driving tanks, flying planes, going on adventures. His childhood costumes were all camo and action heroes and uniforms.
His parents were proud of him. Had always been proud of him. His instructors had called him an exemplary cadet.
He can’t tell if he’s proud of who he is.
He doesn’t know what he’s trying to prove. Or to whom. He wonders if he ever knew. But he doesn’t want to ask himself any further. He doesn’t want it to matter. He doesn’t need it to get stronger.
Then, out of nowhere, after a long-winded silence, Hunt’s voice reverberates inside his ears "Do you have a girl, sir?".
That doesn’t concern him. He has a thousand rehearsed answers to this question, but he doesn’t feel like using any of them.
"No. I don’t".
Hunt doesn’t reply, he cradles his head over his arms, and his fingertips draw circles on the stubble that covers his scalp, cupping his own nape. Silent. Their conversations had gone far beyond they should. He's an officer. He shouldn't fraternize with his subordinates this often.
And his own hands wonder about the corporal’s neck.
His treacherous body raises questions he doesn’t want answered.
The desert turns him into a nocturnal creature and he ends up dreading the sun.
Even the gold of the cross underneath his uniform feels like it’s branding his skin every minute the sun is in the sky.
Its merciless touch that burns and blinds, his uniform that’s constantly sticking to his body in sweat and sand. His hair that’s knotted and humid, the heat that feels like it can go through his skull.
The daylight makes everything glare. Under far too many suns he notices the unintentional glances he sends corporal’s way, almost as if he can watch himself outside of his own body. The night is complicit, quiet and gentle. But the sun accuses him at every step.
The sunrays follow his eyes as they move over the corporal’s silhouette, escort his eyesight, leave a mark wherever his gaze wanders.
Hunt catches him once.
They make eye contact.
He freezes. He’s next to a superior officer that’s been long rambling to words he’s no longer listening to. He doesn’t tear his gaze away from his. He remembers the other man he’s tailing behind to and wants to become invisible, dive inside his own shadow and disappear underneath the earth.
He turns on his heels and follows the colonel he’s walking next to instead. He runs a hand through his hair.
"Get a haircut, Cohen" the officer says it like a suggestion, but it’s an order, of course.
Hunt’s knowing, piercing gaze lingers at the depth of his own pupils.
Hours later, after he’s showered, he’s still thinking.
Not just about whether the officer noticed him staring at Hunt or not. But about the corporal’s fixed eyes on him. What does he know that he doesn’t?
He wanders through the camp. His footsteps lead him to Hunt.
He wakes him up. His skin is shimmering with sweat. His uniform undone and rumpled from laying down in a sleeping bag.
"Lieutenant Cohen" his voice is a hoarse growl from the drowsiness.
He hears him and realizes that he wants to ask him to call him by his first name, he wants to listen to his name in his voice.
"I need you to cut my hair, corporal" he tells him directly.
Hunt doesn’t question him or at least not in the way he imagined he would.
"It’s almost the midnight, sir".
He asks himself what is the other man wondering.
Hunt gets on his feet.
The light is dim. There is no one else around.
He discards his shirt and the cool air of the desert night caresses his shoulder blades.
Hunt warns him that he doesn’t know how to scissor cut the top. He isn’t expecting him to.
The corporal’s silver hair clippers come into his sight underneath a weak lightbulb that distorts their size and makes seem like they eat up the other man’s hand whole.
Hunt touches him before the clippers do. His calloused fingertips dig into his nape up his crown, they make a prelude for the blades. Even that mere graze sends shivers down his spine. The mechanical purr of the machine isn’t foreign, but their movement across the top of his head is almost buried far too deep in his memory.
Hunt is not using a guard, at his request. He says and he obeys him.
The whirring blades soar to his forehead, then, they enter his bangs and go slowly inward, draw a steady trail back towards his crown. He feels clumps of hair falling over his face. Dripping to the ground. Hunt catches in his hands the stuck strands and brushes the stubble that remains. His hand moves like a wave, going back and forth over his head.
He orders him to stay still. He tilts his head to a side and the faded sideburns, the very outline of his hair disappears in the clippers wake.
Hunt’s weight and breathing keep him grounded. He’s calm. Collected. Yet he’s observing every move he makes, and the inches apart he is from him and reminded how imposing he finds his existence, the gravity he has to consciously resist every second he comes closer.
He folds his ear and shaves off the tapered hair around them. It drizzles on his bare shoulders. Hunt’s fingers glide across his skin to remove them. His thumb makes its way to his breastbone, anchors itself there an instant, and then goes up to his throat.
His thumb finds his pulse, the heat of his blood rushing through his body.
Neither of them acknowledges anything.
Hunt goes behind him, pushes his chin to his chest and he’s staring down the remnants of his hair on the ground. In the dark it doesn’t look like his tone. But it his.
The clippers are pressed against the base of his neck, then they ascend, they kiss his nape and growl when they clash against his hair. They mow down to nothing the proudful, perfect, military cut he had. They shave a last inch of fuzz off his head.
His skin is bare. The blades go all over his head. Hunt moves, tilts, maneuvers his skull and the clippers.
"What do you want from me?" Hunt skips the ‘sir’ this time, jumps across the wall of deference to his own side.
"What I asked" he says, as martial as he can manage.
He holds his gaze. His stare is an abyss he can’t escape from. Tentatively, Hunt leans his face forward, towards his. His fingertips drift across the stubble on the back of his head. He feels a fire swallow him whole.
His cognitive functions shut completely. The instincts of his fearful body take over him and he draws his lips towards Hunt’s.
The moonlight knows.
And that night, he also, finally, knows.
He doesn’t hear comments on his shaved head. Consciously or unconsciously, he keeps on taking off his cover and running his hands across the bare skin. He goes about quietly. He’s an officer, barracks cuts are below him.
He knows that his hair will grow back horridly fast. And he also knows he’s not required to keep it shaved.
But he will.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Hey, guys! Zero here! I’m not quite sure how this whole thing came to be, but here it is. Thanks for reading and feel free to comment if you feel like it, as usual, all feedback (positive, negative, neutral) is welcome. Take care, everyone!