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Scroll to the end of the fic to see links explaining WWII references used throughout.
Brothers in Arms
In his opinion, the quiet, uneventful stretches of time were almost more difficult to bear. This was due less to numbing boredom than the creeping fear that such illogical inertia couldn't possibly last, and any minute they would be hit by a deluge of fire, or the whining cry of a bomb dropped from above. He lifted his dog tag and studied it with more interest than was necessary.
BEECHER TOBIAS C
97412000 T42 43 O
He ran his thumb over the embossed type and wondered absently, and not for the first time, who would find it when he was killed. He had been shipped to France from England in the spring. A limited number of troops had been deployed to lay the basis for the American presence in the European Theatre of Operations before the massive influx on Normandy's shore, and he had been among them. The afterglow of June 6th was still fresh in everyone's mind, and Tobias couldn't help but be reminded of how even though he had preceded the carnage on the beaches by a few months, he wasn't a stranger to killing. He couldn't recall the faces of the men that he'd gunned down, and it wasn't for lack of trying. He wanted desperately to feel guilt and remorse, but the emotions eluded him. In that fraction of a moment, when the screams and bullets had pierced his ears, he'd reacted like a machine; his only thought had been to simply make it stop. The M-1 in his hands had been his only means of doing so. He couldn't remember eyeing a specific target, only shooting in the general direction of the most offending noise. His commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Sean Murphy, had pulled him to the ground as a mortar shell hit only yards away. The ringing in his ears had faded into a sublime state of deafness that had lasted a few days afterwards.
The circumstances that had made Tobias a killer had also raised him in rank. Murphy had been effusive in his praise once the dust had cleared, having witnessed the spectacled man show an unexpected calm under pressure; Beecher had killed four enemies and saved two of his peers. His shooting hadn't been the most efficient, but he was tenacious and resolute. For this reason, Murphy had recommended that he be made Corporal, skipping the rank of Private First Class. It was an honor that Tobias wasn't entirely sure he was worthy of, but he respected his commanding officer's opinion and was grateful when his was consulted. Most of the men in the squad were appreciative of his quick mind, grace under pressure, and unassuming nature. Private First Class James Robson had voiced irritation at being denied the rank of Corporal, but Ryan O'Reily, a man who shared his rank, but garnered greater respect, had promptly told him to shut up. This had been the beginning and end of any hostilities in the squad, but Tobias still felt that he was on shaky ground. He couldn't blame Robson for the resentment he harbored. Beecher was a young, well-educated lawyer from a wealthy family, having entered the war by way of the draft only months prior. He often felt like an outsider, but admitted to himself that he didn't entirely mind it that way.
They hadn't engaged in any form of battle for almost a month, and he could tell that the other men in his squad felt the same acute restlessness. They'd tramped across narrow, dusty country roads with the intention of merging with a platoon that had since been delayed by unknown circumstances. Murphy was agitated at being left in a state of ignorance, but was powerless to change the situation. He'd ordered the men to stay at the rendezvous point, an abandoned dairy farm outside of a small provincial town, until he received new orders or the missing platoon arrived. They had since eaten almost all the food that had been left behind by the family, who'd obviously been in a rush to vacate. Tobias had lost all interest in card games and bawdy discussions about girlfriends back home or the latest pinup. He sat with his back against the old, stone wall of the farmhouse, legs bend in front of him, and stared into space while the other men engaged in more social activities. Murphy emerged from the house and quietly joined him, offering a sip from a tall glass of water.
"It's damn nice to be able to drink from something other than a canteen" Murphy remarked as he hunched down next to Tobias to hand him the cool drink. "It's well water, but it's not bad. They've got an icebox, too."
"Thank you, sir" Beecher smiled and took a long swig before handing it back to his superior.
"You look beat, Corporal" Murphy observed, breathing heavily. It was hard to keep everyone alert during stretches of inactivity. Complacency soon set in. He glanced over at the other men as they laughed at a joke courtesy of Private Alvarez.
"No sir... I'm too rested. It's got to be killing you that we can't keep moving, sir" Tobias intuited and spoke plainly, grateful that he shared a candid rapport with his commanding officer.
"Yeah. Well, I got no choice. This situation is frankly making me very nervous. If that platoon has been intercepted or ambushed then it means we're sitting ducks out here. I don't see what else could be keeping them. If they were redirected by new orders, they would have left some communication for us."
"Maybe they did" Beecher said, nodding his head towards a figure coming towards them over the grassy hillside.
The other men in the squad had already spotted the lone soldier, and immediately stood to train their weapons on him. As he came closer, the men noticed that he was dressed in standard-issue American fatigues, and had an M-1 slung over his back in a non-threatening manner. He walked with a slight limp, and one side of his face was smeared in blood, obscuring his features.
"At ease!" Murphy ordered, standing to approach the soldier. The squad immediately lowered their weapons and observed quietly as their Sergeant walked to the man, who was still a good ten yards away from the farmhouse, and began to talk to him. O'Reily traded glances with Beecher, who merely shrugged and studied the conversation attentively. Murphy was nodding, and his body language didn't betray any sense of threat. After about two minutes, he and his bloodied companion began their trek towards the squad. They were all struck by the man's impressive build. Despite his injuries, his presence still commanded respect.
"Whitehall!" Murphy called out to a young Private who had been studying medicine before the draft and acted as their informal medical officer. "Take this man into the house, clean him up and dress his wounds."
"Yessir" Whitehall answered and directed the stranger towards the open kitchen door. Tobias couldn't help but follow the man with his eyes, amazed that his stride had a loping grace in spite of the limp. He tried to catch his gaze but failed. The stranger was through the door and out of sight too quickly.
"Corporal" Murphy addressed him, face serious. "Come with me."
Beecher regarded his Sergeant with curiosity, but didn't question the order. They made their way around the corner of the farmhouse and out of the earshot of the others. Murphy immediately began to recount the conversation to his second-in-command.
"That man's Sergeant Christopher Keller. He was a member of the platoon that we were supposed to rendezvous with. According to him, they were hit by machine guns and mortars while coming through Auribeau. As far as he knows, he's the only one that survived. He was hit by shrapnel, knocked unconscious, and came to this morning, surrounded by unrecognizable corpses."
"Jesus" Beecher exhaled slowly. "He's lucky to be in one piece."
"Luck's all there is to it, sometimes" Murphy observed in a weary tone. "I don't understand why whoever hit his platoon hasn't found us yet. We haven't exactly been incognito out here. It makes me nervous."
Beecher straightened and regarded the rolling hills that surrounded them with trepidation.
"We're only ten men strong, sir. Eleven with Keller. Why the hell would a force with that kind of firepower hesitate to attack us? It doesn't make any sense."
"I want to get out of here ASAP. I'm not waiting for orders that may or may not come. These are special circumstances. Keller said that if the rendezvous had gone as planned, our instructions were to move north towards the Riviera. So that's what we're gonna do. We'll get whatever supplies we can from the house and be on the road within a quarter of an hour."
"I'll go see if Whitehall's done with Keller, sir" Beecher volunteered, hoping to get a chance to talk to the man who had somehow survived certain death. Murphy nodded his ascent and walked off to communicate his orders to the rest of the squad.
When Tobias strode into the kitchen, Whitehall was cleaning a wound on Keller's inner thigh. He sat unabashed, his pants pooled around his ankles. Beecher immediately looked at the floor and searched for words to alleviate the irrational unease that he felt at the sight of the half-naked man.
"Corporal Tobias Beecher, sir. Sergeant Murphy apprised me of the situation. I wanted to make sure your injuries weren't serious. We'll be marching in fifteen minutes" Tobias looked up as he finished, and was surprised to find the Keller's eyes staring intently into his own. He struggled not to flinch under the examination, and was pleased that he was able to hold his ground. Keller seemed just as impressed by his resolve, and flashed him a wolfish grin.
"Private Whitehall got all the shrapnel out, and it ain't very deep. I should be okay to walk on it if he binds it tight enough."
"I've run out of proper stitches, sir. I found some needles and thread in the cupboard, but I'll have to redress it with gauze every day to check for signs of infection" Whitehall explained. Beecher sighed and nodded.
"Keep a close eye on it. We can't afford a man to be going lame on us; we'll be on the move for a while. I'm going to go help the others look for whatever food and supplies might be left around this place. Fill your canteen in the well when you're done fixing up Sergeant Keller and meet us outside. I would advise that you do so as well, sir" Beecher said, capturing the officer's stare. This seemed to amuse the larger man, whose mouth twitched in an enigmatic grin as he nodded in acknowledgement. Tobias only hesitated for a moment before turning to leave the kitchen, but it didn't escape Keller's notice.
Before they left the farmhouse, Murphy had quickly introduced Keller to his men, communicating only the essential details of the circumstances leading up to his arrival. This produced expressions of alarm and interest, particularly in the case of Ryan O'Reily, who immediately recognized why they were leaving so abruptly. A good hour passed before the Private First Class hung back and aligned himself in step with Beecher, whose intelligence he felt complimented his own and would often consult.
"Corporal, have you had a chance to speak with Sergeant Keller yet?" O'Reily inquired with measured nonchalance.
"Only briefly. He isn't badly hurt... shouldn't slow us down."
"Yeah. Looks like he's doing just fine" Ryan remarked, slightly nodding his head in the direction of the larger man limping ten paces in front of them. "Sir, if you don't mind me asking, what do you think happened to his platoon?"
Tobias gave his companion a sidelong glance before answering.
"It looks like a case of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or the right place, as far as Keller is concerned. We've been in the middle of an attack like that. You know how random and senseless it is."
"Yes sir" O'Reily answered with a lopsided smile and a nod before rejoining the line. Beecher regarded him thoughtfully. Ryan O'Reily was as smart as a whip, and noticed critical details that other men ignored. He could gauge the thoughts of those in his squad with uncanny precision, and often employed the talent to keep rapport among them running as smoothly as possible. Tobias himself had felt grateful for the young man's charisma, particularly before being promoted, when he'd been a Private to James Robson's Private First Class. Ryan's strategic humor and subtle flattery worked wonders in diffusing Robson, who was often quick to take offense and liked to use what little rank he possessed. When O'Reily made an observation, Beecher was never quick to dismiss it as fancy. It was apparent that he had been hinting that there was some debate among the men about whether they had been told the entire truth behind Keller's miraculous survival.
As evening approached, Murphy instructed the men to keep their eyes open for any place that would provide them with even minimal shelter. They had diverged from the road almost immediately after their departure, due to fears of being discovered by enemy vehicles. As the sunlight waned, Tobias found himself squinting through the lenses of his glasses as he scanned the grassy horizon for a silhouette belonging to something other than a tree. It was a young private named Caleb Martin who first noticed the sagging, forlorn remains of barn in the distance, and alerted his superior. Murphy was quietly relieved and led them to the structure, which had been deserted by both humans and livestock. The men were more than satisfied with the prospect of sleeping on soft hay, so matter how damp or moldy. Alvarez was chosen for first watch, and stoically took his post while the others spread out and exchanged only a few whispered words before falling asleep.
Tobias awoke just before dawn and waited for his eyes to adjust to the faint light that peeked in through the planks of the barn wall. He glanced over the men reclined around him, and let his eyes rest on the still form of Sergeant Keller, who lay on his back, injured leg slightly elevated. Beecher took the opportunity to study the other man's features, something that had been difficult when his dark, piercing eyes had been open. There was an undeniable magnetism about him, even while he slept. The realization made Tobias smirk he considered the confidence and ease with which Keller had carried himself in the kitchen. They'd spoken for mere minutes, yet the impact of the interaction had left Beecher undeniably affected. And he wasn't sure how he felt about it. It wasn't often that he fell prey to irrational behavior. Murphy's voice quickly roused the squad from their sleep, and Tobias from his thoughts of Keller.
"Okay men, I've let you sleep longer than I should have. Get up, eat something, take a piss, and then we're on the move again as soon as possible."
Beecher rifled through his pack and pulled out an apple and a small hunk of cheese that he had managed to scrounge from the farmhouse. As he bit in and chewed from the pulpy fruit, he looked over at Keller and realized that the man wouldn't have had a chance to look for provisions after Whitehall's makeshift surgery. Without hesitation, he got up and walked over to where the other man sat wincing as he tried to move his sore limb.
"It got a bit cold last night. Your leg should feel better once it starts warming up" Tobias remarked as he sat next to the Sergeant.
"Yeah. I'd still better let Whitey take a look at it, though."
"Whitey?" Tobias choked back his laughter at the nickname. "Did you come up with that?"
"Naw. Told me that's what his friends called him back home. The kid seems kinda lonely, so I thought..." he shrugged and smiled faintly.
"Private Whitey. It suits him" Tobias quipped and was rewarded with a full grin. The two men regarded each other warmly before Tobias cleared his throat and spoke again. "I noticed that you don't have any food, and I've got more than I need."
He held out the apple, hoping that the big bite missing from it wouldn't offend the Sergeant. But Keller's eyes only conveyed surprise and sincere thanks as he took it from Tobias' hand.
"Thank you, Corporal. I appreciate it."
Tobias had forgotten the difference in their ranks, and the reminder jolted him. For a moment, it had seemed like they had existed in their own little world, outside of the squad, or the French countryside. Even the war itself had seemed distant.
"No problem, sir" Beecher replied solemnly and stood up. "If you don't mind, I'm going to go take a leak."
"You don't need my permission."
Tobias nodded and walked outside to relieve himself.
Murphy had been true to his word, and the men were again in formation, walking across the dew-covered grass within ten minutes of waking. They had been quiet at first, bodies still shaking off the lingering affects of an unusually restful night's sleep. A few hushed murmurs had evolved into a discussion that was soon engaging almost the entire squad.
"I swear to god, I think she's trying to kill me or something. Spraying perfume on her letters like that. Fuuuuuck" Alvarez boasted, grabbing at his heart with dramatic flair.
"What a way to go" Private Martin rolled his eyes, "At least you're getting letters, Alvarez."
"No cute little chickadee waiting for you back home?" O'Reily asked, painfully aware that there was no cherished female praying for his own safe return.
"There was this one girl who went to my church. I saw her almost every week, but never had the balls to tell her... well, you know" Martin shrugged his shoulders, trying to pretend like it was no big deal.
"Maritza's all that keeps me going. You shoulda said something to your church-girl, Martin" Alvarez couldn't help but brag some more.
"Yeah, well. I'm sure I ain't the only guy here not getting any letters."
"I thank the Lord that I don't got some clingy broad sending me crap every week" Robson interjected with a laugh.
"Oh please, that's such bullshit" O'Reily shot back.
"Until a letter can suck my dick, I stand by what I said."
This produced enthusiastic laughter from nearly the entire squad. Murphy looked behind him and leveled his eyes at the men.
"Keep it down. This ain't a party, ladies."
"Sorry sir" O'Reily responded. Robson grinned mirthlessly, rolling his eyes. When he spoke again, his voice was low.
"See, there are some men, like me, who don't want to limit themselves. And then there are men who couldn't get pussy if their lives depended on it" he cast his eyes around, studying his squadmates. "Alvarez used to be the former, until Maritza came along. Now she's got his balls in a tight grip."
Alvarez bit his tongue to keep from mouthing off against the man who slightly outranked him. Robson saw his discomfort and chuckled before continuing.
"We all know which group poor Martin falls into. Same with Whitehall. Simmons and Ferraro are both married, so they're casualties. But I have no doubt that they were ladies' men back in the day. Right boys?"
Simmons grinned, but Ferraro didn't seem amused. Murphy monitored the conversation carefully, aware that Robson was treading a fine line between humor and ridicule.
"Sorensen is my hero" Robson continued, nodding to the fair-haired college athlete. "I doubt he could remember how much pussy he's had, concussions or not."
Private Sorensen reddened before flashing a toothy grin, and even O'Reily couldn't help but laugh.
"Then there's Beecher. You're a tough one to peg... girls love rich boys. You ever fucked someone over the hood of daddy's car?"
Before Murphy or Beecher could object, a voice that had been mostly silent snapped the squad to attention.
"That's enough, Private Robson. Corporal Beecher is your superior" Keller's tone was abrupt. Robson gave him a long, challenging stare before relenting.
"Yes sir. Sorry sir."
Tobias didn't know whether to be thankful for or irritated by Keller's interjection. The sergeant was likely just trying to thank him for sharing his provisions, but Beecher couldn't afford to look like he needed rescuing from Robson. Thankfully, O'Reily seemed to sense his discomfort and skillfully started the men talking again, but this time about a neutral subject.
The men sat on the floor of a modest stone church located on a hill a few miles outside of Auribeau. They had encountered a handful of abandoned farms in the vicinity, but there had been no supplies or food left behind. Murphy did his best not to voice his growing concern to his soldiers - he could tell by the waning level of conversation that their spirits were low. He tried to convey a healthy level of optimism; at least the farmhouses had provided them with shelter and warmth during the past few nights. It had rained continuously, which had made it difficult to walk more than a few hours at a time. Clothes and boots had been soaked through, and the majority of the squad had developed painful blisters and coughs. Murphy knew that if they didn't find some food soon, those coughs would develop into fevers. He may not have any choice but to lead them into town, where their chance of finding nourishment was much greater. There was also a chance that the enemy force that had attacked Keller's platoon was still there; but if things got much worse, it would be a risk he'd have to take.
By studying their gaunt faces and hollow eyes, it was apparent that his men were running on their last reserves of energy. He thanked God that the rain had provided them with a source of drinking water that didn't carry the risk of disease that a stagnant farm well often did. There was no dry wood to start a fire, so the men sat bundled in groups, trying to conserve their body temperature in spite of cold, wet fatigues. A few of them spoke in hushed tones, in an attempt to keep their minds occupied, while others drifted in and out of a troubled sleep.
Tobias Beecher wasn't engaged in a conversation, instead strained to follow what Private Alvarez, Martin and O'Reily were whispering to each other. He sat a few feet away from them, eyelids at half-mast, but fully alert. He'd heard them mention Keller's name, though the voices were too indistinct to gauge who was saying what.
"Do you buy his story?"
"I don't know. He hasn't said much since he showed up. Except when he told Robson where to stick it."
"In my opinion, he deserves a medal just for that. But it must have chapped Beecher's ass."
"Beecher didn't say anything about it."
"Beecher doesn't say much of anything at all."
"True. But I just get the feeling that Keller's not telling us everything, you know? What if he's a deserter or something?"
"Why would he fall in with us then? That doesn't make any sense."
"Safety in numbers, I don't know. He might ditch us as soon as he heals up. All I'm saying is that there's more to him then what he's letting on. I'd bet a six course dinner on it."
"Jesus, shut up. Don't talk about food..."
As the hissed exchange shifted to discussion of cuisine, Beecher tuned out and mulled over what he had heard. He predicted that if the entire squad didn't already have doubts about Keller, they would in a few hours' time. Gossip had a tendency to spread freely when minds were idle. He opened his eyes a crack and regarded the sergeant, who lay directly across from him. The man was sleeping, his leg hoisted up on his supply pack. Whitehall had struggled to keep the bindings dry in the downpour, and had complained that he was quickly running out of gauze. It was good that Keller was getting some rest; his weakened body needed it to heal. It wouldn't help the situation if he became a burden as well as a source of unease amongst the men. With these thoughts, Tobias finally closed his eyes and managed to get a few hours sleep himself.
It was Keller's moans that woke him early in the morning. The sun hadn't even begun to rise when Tobias cracked open his heavy lids to determine the source of the noise. It took a few moments for him to adjust to the dark, but Keller wasn't difficult to make out, his large body tossing restlessly. Beecher immediately feared that the other man had come down with a fever, and crawled over to the Sergeant as quietly as he could. Keller's eyes were closed, but rimmed with dark circles. His brow was knitted in pain, and skin looked almost translucent, it was so pale. Beecher spread his palm on Keller's forehead and found it clammy. Before he could turn to rouse Whitehall for his opinion, Keller woke up and stared directly into his eyes. Tobias was startled, but glad to see that the injured man wasn't delirious.
"I thought you were feverish. You were making a lot of noise in your sleep" he whispered.
"I was just having a dream. Don't worry about it" a hint of embarrassment was evident in the Sergeant's hushed tone. Beecher nodded in understanding, but was still concerned.
"Do you mind if I take a look at your leg, sir? I want to make sure it's not infected."
Keller's stare wavered and he shifted his hips.
"I'm fine. I'll have Whitey look at it when he gets up. Sorry for waking you, Beecher."
Tobias just nodded, recognizing that he was being dismissed. His eyes only lingered on Keller for a moment before he crawled back to where he'd been sleeping. He rested his head on his pack, and drifted into a light slumber. Murphy's voice roused the entire squad only fifteen minutes later. It wasn't raining, and he wanted to get on the road again as quickly as possible. The men were allowed time for a piss, and Whitehall redressed Keller's wound, confirming that it wasn't infected, but not healing as quickly as it should. Later, as the men stood outside the church, yawning and stretching, he expressed his concern to Murphy. The Staff Sergeant was equally troubled by threat of illness that all of his men faced, and decided that entering the town of Auribeau would be a necessary risk. He wordlessly signaled for Corporal Beecher's attention, and explained his plans. Tobias listened to his superior, and waited for the other man to stop talking before he responded.
"Permission to speak freely, sir?" he asked respectfully.
"Beecher, you know you don't have to ask me that. What's on your mind?"
"Sir, the men are uneasy about Sergeant Keller. They think we aren't being told the whole truth about what happened to him. After going through a trauma like that, I don't blame him for not being particularly forthcoming, but his silence isn't endearing him to them. I'm concerned that when they find out we're going to Auribeau, they might overreact. They're borderline paranoid as it is."
"They might blame Keller if we meet any resistance there", Murphy added, following his corporal's line of thought.
"It's possible. It's also possible that there's a legitimate cause for their suspicions."
"Do you have any reason to doubt him?"
"No. He doesn't seem dishonest, just very intense."
"He's given you the stare, huh?" Murphy asked, chuckling. The knowledge that he wasn't the only one to benefit from Keller's attentions hit Beecher with a feeling that he couldn't quite identify, and it irritated him. Murphy saw the emotion flash across his subordinate's usually calm features and cocked his head in curiosity. Tobias recovered almost instantly.
"Yeah. He threw me off guard the first time he did it. Keller's obviously aware of the affect he has on people."
Murphy grinned wider and nodded in agreement.
"Listen, you go and brief Keller on the situation while I tell the men about the detour we'll be taking. Try your best to resist his charms, Corporal" Murphy joked, winking as he turned to assemble his squad. Tobias flushed momentarily before approaching Sergeant Keller, who stood alone, intently watching the movement around him. He shifted his glance to Beecher, steadying his eyes on the other man until he stopped in front of him.
"Corporal, I wanted to apologize if I was a bit short with you earlier this morning" Keller spoke before Beecher had a chance to open his mouth.
"No need, sir. I'm just glad you're not sick" he cleared his throat and tried to ignore Keller's bold grin before he continued, cutting to the chase. He explained Murphy's reasons for taking them to Auribeau, and tried as tactfully as he could to communicate Keller's standing with the men, without overtly stating anything. The larger man's smile never wavered, and Tobias couldn't help but look at the ground when he finished talking.
"Beecher, I want you to know that I'm usually a real friendly guy. I've never had problems talking with other people. That's why I was made an officer - they say I'm a natural leader and all that. But I'm not so sure anymore; I saw some gruesome shit, and I've changed. I know that I've been quiet since joinin' up with your squad, and I'm sorry I haven't been more chatty. I want to thank you for trying to socialize with me, even though I've been a dick. It means a lot" Keller's eyes were earnest and piercing as he spoke. Beecher couldn't respond with anything but a self-conscious nod, which seemed to encourage the other man. "I'll be honest with you, I'm not going to like going back into that town, but I'm not going to question Murphy's orders either. And as for getting along with the other guys, I'll try harder."
Tobias decided that Christopher Keller was a good man who had been through hell, and felt a twinge of guilt that he hadn't been friendlier towards him. He knew what it was like to be mislabeled as antisocial, and recognized that they had at least that much in common. So when Sergeant Murphy called them to attention and started the march, he fell in beside Keller and began to talk.
They had been walking for nearly the entire day, only stopping for fifteen minute breaks every two hours. Twilight descended upon their group, which continued onwards despite the fading sun. Usually, Tobias felt that the time dragged by slowly on such marches, the monotony of the countryside got under his skin and distracted him from his thoughts. But Chris Keller had been entertaining company, and the hours had flown by. He felt at ease with the other man, despite the obvious differences in their personalities, but somehow they complimented each other surprisingly well. Their banter was light and playful; Chris had a love of sports, and rattled on for long stretches of time during which Tobias did nothing but nod and smile in response. Even though he didn't share the other man's interest, his enthusiasm was contagious, and Tobias found himself engaged by every word that came out of Chris' mouth. Similarly, whenever Beecher opened up about music, film, or a novel he enjoyed, Keller always reacted with interest. This simple act of courtesy made a deep impression on Tobias, who realized that he'd never been so comfortable in the presence of another human being, including the friends he'd had in college. Even the other men in the squad didn't know what to make of it when they heard Beecher laughing at Keller's jokes, and by the end of the day, their corporal's acceptance of the new arrival had them feeling more receptive about his addition to their squad.
They'd traveled an impressive distance, but Murphy stopped his squad abruptly when they were about a mile from the town. He called his two officers aside.
"Sergeant, Corporal. It's going to be dark soon and I don't want to keep us on the move. We're close to Auribeau, but I can't have us walking into an ambush."
"Do you want us to send scouts ahead, sir?" Tobias asked skeptically.
"If we did send someone, I doubt they'd be able to search the town in less than a few hours, which is more time than we can afford. If there's a hostile presence in Auribeau, our scouts could be killed. I'd feel more comfortable about going in tomorrow morning. It doesn't look like it'll rain tonight. I think we can risk sleeping out in the open, maybe digging into the hillside for cover" Keller offered his opinion without hesitation.
"I agree, that's probably our best option, sir" Tobias turned to look at Murphy, "We've run out of farm houses and churches to squat in."
Murphy nodded his agreement and communicated their plans to the rest of the squad. It didn't take them long to burrow a few feet into the ground, providing a sod cover that would work as both camouflage and insulation. The steady exercise of the day meant that most of the men had no trouble falling to sleep, but Tobias stayed awake for a good half an hour, and savored the events of the day in his head.
They had roused before dawn, and entered the streets of the town as the first rays of sun passed through the buildings, which lined the streets like crumbling, desolate sentinels. The entire squad was on high alert, scanning the dark caverns of stone and brick for any sign of danger. There was an eerie absence of sound, which made Keller nervous. Tobias could detect the unease in the other man's eyes, and guessed that Auribeau had been just as quiet before his platoon had been hit. It was then that a shrill noise jolted them, and all guns were instantly pointed in the direction that it had come from.
"Wait, that's a child crying" Tobias realized, motioning for them to lower their weapons.
"It could be a decoy or something" Simmons hissed, which earned a not of agreement from both Ferraro and Alvarez.
"I don't care, Private. If the kid's hurt, we've got to do something" Beecher's voice was forceful but laced with concern.
"Corporal, Simmons has a point" Murphy warned, "We don't know what's the situation is."
"Then I'll find out. Permission to scout ahead, sir. No one else needs to be put at risk."
Murphy felt torn at the request, and only relented when he saw the look of fierce determination on Beecher's face.
"Make it quick."
Beecher's eyes met Keller's for only a second before he turned, but he could see the mixture of concern and respect in them. This gave him an unexpected jolt of courage as he raced over the rubble and moved deeper into the ruins, leaving his squad behind him. The wails had subsided into periodic whimpers and moans, which Tobias had no difficultly following. It took him only ten minutes to find the source; a skinny young boy trapped in a house, the entire front of which had been obliterated. He quickly gained access to the child, who was pinned beneath a thick, oak table.
"Jesus. How long have you been here like this?" Beecher whispered, appalled at the boy's frail frame and sunken eyes. He received no reply, which didn't surprise him. He doubted that the child could understand English, let alone have the energy to speak. Beecher quickly appraised the situation and decided that the table was too heavy for him to move by himself. His eyes darted around the room for something strong enough to work as a lever, but there was nothing suitable. The only option he had was to get the rest of his squad to assist him. He crouched by the child, who looked at him with a quiet terror.
"I'm sorry buddy, but I've got to leave you for just a few minutes. I can't get you out by myself. I'm going to get some help" he spoke as soothingly as possible, and stroked the small, damp head of hair. As he stood to leave, a familiar sound whisked by him, followed by the sickening thud of pierced flesh. He looked down, stunned, to see that the child had been hit in the spine, and instantly killed. Beecher collapsed and crawled behind the table as more shots peppered the floor around him. He was numb all over, as the image of the little boy's back, hemorrhaging with blood, replayed itself in his head.
"Fuck no, fuck no, fuck no..." he moaned the litany over and over as he began to grasp what had happened. His hand didn't seem to obey him as he moved to grab his weapon, then realized that his arm had been hit.
"Beecher!" Keller's voice brought him to his senses. He looked up and saw that the rest of the squad was positioned outside the house, returning fire in the direction of the sniper's shots. Keller stood at the entrance of a side door that connected the house to the street, and signaled for Beecher to hold his position. Eventually, the men stopped shooting, and waited.
"Did you get the fucker?" Beecher asked, breathless.
"There could be more than one" Keller responded, voice taut, "I'm coming to get you."
"No! Stay where you are. I'll come to you."
"You've been shot!"
"Not badly-" before he could finish his thought, Keller came through the doorway and ran towards the table. Beecher expected the sniper's shot at any second - Chris was a perfect target. But none came, and before he knew it, the other man's arms were around his waist, pulling him across the floor.
"Keller, for Christ's sake. I was shot in the arm, I can walk" Beecher struggled free from the tight grasp.
"Hurry the hell up then, we've got to get outta here" Chris shoved him towards where the rest of the squad stood, still attentive for any sign of sniper fire.
"I think we've eliminated the target, but we've got to hide, and fast. I doubt he was alone." Murphy informed Beecher and Keller as they exited the shelled house. The squad was on the move immediately, running through the narrow streets in hopes of finding a building with all four of its walls still standing. Tobias hadn't had time to bind his arm, which was bleeding freely and had begun to throb. But he couldn't bring himself to care.
Keller had spotted a modest apartment building that had retained its structural integrity, only suffering from superficial damage. It had been a few hours since the incident, and there was no sign that the enemy had followed them. The men were treating Keller with quiet respect, awed by his courage in the recovery of their corporal, who now sat against a filthy, cracked wall inside the building. Murphy pulled Keller aside and nodded towards the injured man, who stared ahead with an unsettling vacancy.
"What happened in there?" Murphy asked.
"The kid was shot. Beecher thinks the sniper was aiming for him and missed, so he blames himself" Keller responded, his voice low.
"If Beecher hadn't gone looking for him, that kid would have died anyway."
"I know, but try telling him that. Why's he taking this so hard?"
Murphy sighed and looked down at pitted floor before responding.
"Recently, we were stuck in the middle of a siege. It was pretty brutal; shells, artillery, all that good shit. Beecher had been shipped from England only a couple weeks before. To be honest, I doubted he would last very long. But something came over him when we were under fire. He just... reacted. Usually, when men kill for the first time, even in war, they feel it afterwards. But Beecher has never so much as uttered a word about it. He's just kept it inside."
"So the dam finally broke" Keller winced.
"Looks like it. If I were you, I'd leave him alone for a while. He needs to rest."
Chris nodded, but couldn't shake the desire to go and speak to Tobias. He waited until Murphy left - motioned out of the room by Robson and O'Reily - before walking over to the corporal.
"How bad is it?" he asked gently, motioning to Beecher's arm. The other man's gaze leveled at him, but still seemed remote.
"I just got grazed. Whitehall fixed me up. I'll be fine" his words were limp and heavy. Keller nodded and sat down beside him, close enough so that their legs were almost touching.
"That boy didn't feel anything, Toby."
The use of the nickname earned Keller a perturbed glance from the recipient.
"Don't like it, huh?" Chris elbowed him, winking. "I think it suits you."
"It's what they called me when I was young. About that boy's age" Tobias responded miserably.
"Shit, I'm sorry. Listen, you can call me Fuckface if it'd make you feel better", Keller offered sheepishly, hoping to see some kind of reaction in the other man. But to his dismay, Tobias just stared ahead, unresponsive. It was then that Murphy re-entered the room, and addressed the squad.
"I've got some good news, boys. Robson and O'Reily found a house down the street that had a boarded-up cellar full of food" he paused to let the whoops of celebration die down. "Now, most of it's pickles and jam and crap like that, but at least it's something. I don't want to risk moving everyone out into the open for it, so they're gonna be bringing it here in a few loads. I want the injured men to have first crack at it" he looked directly at Beecher and Keller. Chris nodded in thanks, while Tobias gave no sign that he'd even heard.
The first load was hauled in about half an hour later. Keller immediately went over to survey the selection, and instantly homed in on some cans of soup. Simmons and Ferraro had already started a small fire in the middle of the room. Rags and bits of broken furniture had been placed in a porcelain wash basin and set alight. Using his knife, Chris punctured several holes in the lid of a can and then collapsed it inwards using the blade's handle. He then held it gingerly over the flame until it was painful to the touch. When he was satisfied that the soup was at an edible temperature, he walked back to where Beecher was slumped in the corner.
"Tobias, I want you to eat some of this. You need it more than I do" he insisted, holding out the can. Beecher turned his head away only slightly.
"I'm not hungry right now."
Keller sighed and clenched his jaw in frustration.
"That's not a request, Corporal. We can't afford a weak link in the chain. I know that all this death is finally catching up to you, but don't risk the safety of these men by wallowing in your grief. I need you healthy."
Tobias glowered at him, but took the can and sipped from it gingerly.
"Jesus Christ. This can has been torn to hell. I think I cut my lip."
"Stop bitching and eat it" Keller couldn't help but grin. Hearing Beecher complain was somehow encouraging. He watched silently as the other man ate, and didn't speak again until the empty can was placed on the floor.
"Listen Tobias, I know exactly what you're going through. I've seen some horrific shit in this war, and it takes a while to get the faces out of your head..."
"That's just it" Beecher interrupted forcefully, "I don't see any faces. I haven't even had a single nightmare about it. I got the job done, and I got it done efficiently. I kill the same way I practice law."
"Your mind dealt with it the only way it could. We all react to death differently."
"I didn't react when I should have, and now a little boy is dead. I'll never forget the look on his face" Tobias admitted, his voice cracking. Chris leaned in, placed his hand on the other man's shoulder and stared deeply into his eyes.
"That means you're human, Tobias."
Beecher didn't respond, but instead clasped his knees to his chest and buried his face there, letting the tears finally spill over. He cried silently, only the shaking of his shoulders betrayed his grief. Chris could do nothing but stroke his back, and hope that Tobias would find some kind of catharsis.
Beecher had fallen asleep after his cry, head still resting on his knees. Keller was using his fingers to scoop up the last chunks of some cherry jam out of its jar when Murphy walked over to them.
"Sergeant, turns out there was more than just food in that house", he started, voice quiet, "O'Reily found a radio in a bedroom on the first floor. It was set to an Allied frequency."
"Did you get through to anyone?" Keller looked surprised as he responded, setting the empty jar on the floor.
"Yes, Captain McManus in Toulon. He wants us to rendezvous with his company in Vallauris in five days. They received word that a squadron of German troops will be coming through the city on their way to provide reinforcements further up the coast."
"Is McManus' company the only one going to Vallauris?" Keller asked.
"I don't know" Murphy admitted, well aware that if so, the odds would be two-to-one against them, "but we have our orders. We have to leave first thing tomorrow."
"Keller, I have to ask... did that radio belong to your platoon? There's no way of knowing how long it was there, on that frequency..."
"We had a radio, but we didn't come near this part of town. Maybe it was taken from the body of one of my men."
Murphy grimaced and exhaled deeply.
"You'd better get some sleep like Beecher there, Sergeant. The situation is likely to get worse."
Keller watched Murphy as he left to join the other men closer to the fire, which was now little more than glowing embers. Alvarez was scrounging together detritus from around the room to provide them with enough fuel for the night. Robson and Sorensen were sitting together, laughing quietly and sharing a jar of pickled eggs. Simmons, Whitehall and Ferraro were curled up on floor. Murphy and O'Reily sat together and conversed in whispers. Chris reclined next to Tobias, and was soon lulled to sleep by the other man's steady breathing.
The boy looked up at him, and opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Tobias felt nothing as he aimed his gun calmly over the sunken, waif-like face and pulled the trigger. The bullets pierced the narrow back, leaving macabre blooms of red in their wake. The child didn't make a sound, yet his eyes never stopped staring. Tobias watched as the life slowly ebbed out of them, and only death stared back.
He awoke, throat strangled with fear and confusion. He couldn't scream, and he was covered in a thick sheen of sweat, eyes wide and searching in the darkness. Chris had heard Tobias jolt, and heaved himself alongside the shaking man, pressing his body against him. He cradled a wet cheek with his hand and caressed it gently, softly rocking back and forth.
"Shhhh... it's okay, it's okay" he repeated almost inaudibly.
"Don't! Let go of me!" Tobias hissed and tried to push Chris away, "I don't deserve any fucking pity."
"It's not pity, damn it. I know how real flashbacks can seem" Chris' struggled to keep his voice low.
"They're not real, I can wake up. But that boy, he'll never..."
"You didn't pull the trigger, Tobias."
Beecher couldn't think of a response, but remained unpacified. He could see Chris' features outlined by the pale flickering of the fire, gaze holding him like an embrace. The gentle touch of the other man's hand against his face calmed him. He couldn't remember the last time he'd made physical contact without the expectation of violence. Instinctually, he leaned into the large, warm hand and closed his eyes. Chris began to speak to him, voice barely above a whisper.
"We've talked a lot these last few days, Toby" he waited for a negative reaction to the nickname, and when none came, he continued, "but I know there's much more to you than you're letting on. Hell, I had no idea that you were a lawyer until a few hours ago. Why don't you tell me about it?"
"Not much to tell. It's pretty boring" Tobias answered drowsily.
"What, no cute little blonde secretary?" Chris smiled, still stroking the damp cheek. Tobias couldn't help but chuckle.
"God no. It's a modest family practice... just my dad and me. Business law in a small town doesn't require much personnel" the words were slurred with fatigue. Chris watched Beecher's lids drop, and felt his head slump into his palm. As gently as he could, he pulled his hand away and reclined next to his companion. He wanted to curl up against the other man and fold his arms around him, but privacy was a luxury too great to hope for. So he was content to just watch Tobias drowse until sleep claimed him as well.
Their trek to Vallauris was less lively than the one to Auribeau. Each man had stuffed as many rations into their packs as possible, which added a considerable weight to their loads. Tobias was just as gloomy as the weather. He'd kept pace with Chris all morning, but hadn't uttered a word. His eyes possessed an almost giddy detachment, which his devoted companion found disquieting. Chris had attempted to initiate conversation throughout the entire morning, only to be trumped at every turn. Beecher wasn't interested in revealing any of the emotional vulnerability that he felt, and met all attempts with either silence or song. He found that breaking out into a soft rendition of 'Frre Jacques' perplexed Keller sufficiently to redirect his prodding. However, Chris was a very stubborn man and resolved not to give Tobias what he wanted.
"I know what you're doing, and I'm not going to leave you alone just because you're pretending to be a little nuts" Chris stated firmly. Beecher didn't blink, although Chris thought he detected the slightest hint of a frown. Encouraged, he continued speaking, but decided to take a different approach.
"I was a mechanic back home in Connecticut. Not as glamorous as being a lawyer, but I absolutely fucking loved it. Got to tinker with beautiful machines every day. Bikes are my favorite. Give me a Harley Davidson with a 61E Advance engine and I'm in heaven. Have you ever been on a motorcycle?"
Tobias grunted and looked ahead.
"I'll take that as a no. That's a shame. There's absolutely nothing like it, not even sex. Having something that fast and powerful between your legs is a sensation that every man should experience" Chris looked over at Tobias as he spoke, and was met with a wide-eyed stare.
"I've got my own bike. Been my pet project for years. Nothin' special, but she purrs like a kitten and will take you where you need to go. I'd bet you'd like her, Toby" Keller couldn't help but wink as he said it. Tobias had to turn his head to conceal the blush that spread across his cheeks. "Women never gave me nothin' but grief, but Lady's a looker who won't break your heart or talk back to you. Flesh 'n blood broads are shackles, but that bike was freedom" his voice was tender, as if remembering his first love.
"Trouble with women, huh?" Beecher's voice was measured. Chris felt a surge of victory, but wisely subdued it, reacting as if Tobias hadn't broken his vow of silence.
"You have no idea. I fooled around in my youth, but nothing serious... no broken hearts. But I'm a good Catholic boy, and the guilt piled up until I couldn't ignore it any longer. So I decided to marry one of them. You can guess the rest of it" he was grinning, but his tone was flat.
"Rushing into a marriage is always a bad idea" the pragmatist in Beecher offered an opinion.
"You ain't joking. We were at each other's throats in no time. She didn't trust me, and I couldn't do anything to change her mind. I hung in for a couple of years. Spent as much time in the garage as I could, hoping that putting some space between us would cool things down. Because of my pride, I resisted a divorce even though I wanted out. But when the war became a reality, I had to take control of some part of my life before I was shipped off. Ending my marriage was my last act as a free man."
"Shit. How'd she take it?" Tobias asked, genuinely interested.
"I think she was almost relieved. Like I proved her suspicions right. Thank God there were no kids involved. It was pretty clean, all things considered. I hope you've had better luck in love than me, my friend."
"My love life was never that exciting. The only serious girlfriend I ever had was educated, pretty, docile... my parents loved her. I thought I did too, until I came over here and got just one letter from her. She said she couldn't stand the thought of waiting, and needed to find someone that would be a 'source of joy' in her life. So that was that." Tobias shrugged and refused eye contact.
"Sorry Tobe, that's tough. At least you didn't marry her."
"Yeah", Tobias allowed himself a smile as he met Chris' eyes.
"Women are more trouble than they're worth."
Tobias nodded in agreement, and they continued to walk together in a comfortable silence.
The sun was setting when Private Martin's boot caught on something hidden in the grass of the field they were crossing. He cursed and kicked at the offending object, which appeared to be a large, metal ring. Intrigued, he bent over and examined it, bringing the entire squad to a halt around him. He pulled with all his strength, but to his frustration, it remained stuck in the earth.
"What the hell is this? Some kind of farm equipment?" he asked no one in particular. Keller crouched and stared at the ring, which was severely rusted and weathered in appearance.
"Looks like the door to an underground bunker" Chris muttered, "this thing's old. Probably from the First War."
"Jesus. That's a long time... you think it's still safe?" O'Reily asked.
"Let's get this baby open and see" Chris responded and got to his feet. Using his knife, he began to dig up the sod that had grown over the door, until he saw the weathered planks of wood underneath. Soon, all the men were kneeling to help him expose the bunker's entrance. It only took them a few minutes to finish the job, and a few more to pull the door open. The stairs leading down inside creaked, but hadn't succumbed to wood rot. Sorensen and Robson were the first to enter, Zippo lighters flipped and ignited. The rest of the squad followed them tentatively into the damp, stale air. There was an oil lamp hanging from a nail on the wall, which Sorensen was surprised to find still had enough fuel to function. Exhausted, the men unpacked their rolls, thankful to have found a safe and hidden shelter. Within a matter of minutes, they were all asleep.
Keller woke up in the dead of the night. The room was completely black, the lamp having burned what little oil remained, but he could still hear the faint sound that had roused him. Tobias was crying, and trying desperately to stifle it, but his ragged breathing gave him away. Chris's roll was only a few feet from the corporal, so it wasn't difficult for him to inch his way over to the source of the noise, which was only loud enough for his ears to detect.
"Don't cry, Toby" Chris soothed, feeling the other man flinch slightly as he embraced him. He knew Tobias had been tormented by another nightmare, and instinctively leaned forward to kiss him on the forehead. When he didn't recoil, Chris kept his lips pressed softly against the warm, moist skin and savored the simple contact between them. Tobias' breath was hot against his neck, and slightly less labored. The two men lay clutching each other, lulled by the assurance of the other's company. Finally, after some minutes, Tobias was calm.
"Thank you" he whispered, voice strained and thick. He reached up in the dark and lightly cupped Chris' cheek. He ached to kiss the other man, but was confused by his own feelings, and debated whether or not they would be reciprocated. Leaning forward, blind and nervous, he found Chris' lips. It was if he had been wandering in a desert his entire life, and had finally stumbled upon a cool, flowing spring. He drank full and deep, taking his fill, ignoring his lungs as they burned for air. Chris tasted fresh and sweet, and it was if he was drowning even when the other man pulled away to catch his breath. Tobias' head and heart pounded, and he tried to quiet his breathing as his hands clutched at Chris' neck. Suddenly a deep fear took hold of him. His entire body ached for the other man with an urgency that he could barely control, and had little experience with. There was no way he could act on it, yet he couldn't ignore the potency of his feelings.
"I want you" he kept his voice as low a possible, almost hoping that it would go unheard. But Keller's face was still only inches from his own, and the admission was understood.
"We can't. They'll hear" Chris' spoke into his ear, lips brushing against him softly. "Holding you is enough, baby."
Tobias nodded, recognizing the truth in Chris' tender words. As carefully as he could, he turned over and pressed his body against the larger man's, so that they were spooned together tightly. Chris' draped an arm around him and squeezed, resting his face against Tobias' neck. It felt so natural, so right, that both of them quickly found the peace of sleep, consequences be damned.
Murphy looked down at the two men, entwined together in an unmistakably intimate embrace. He'd slept lightly and woken early. The bunker was still dark, with only the faintest glow of dawn peeking through the door's warped planks. He'd intended to consult the two officers, and had been surprised to find them in such a position. Finally, after a few moments of internal debate, he crouched down and squeezed Keller's shoulder. The man woke instantly, and turned his head to look at Murphy. There was no fear or shame in his eyes, only a calm professionalism. His arm stayed firmly around Beecher as he spoke in hushed tones, so as not to wake his companion.
"Is there anything I should know about, sergeant?" Murphy asked, his eyes expressing what the volume of his voice couldn't.
"No sir. Corporal Beecher was having severe nightmares. I'd do the same for my brother" Keller's intonation was as even as his stare. Murphy raised an eyebrow skeptically, but decided to let it go. He had seen many a soldier yell out for his mother, curl into a fetal position, or beg to be held. But he never thought Tobias Beecher would be one of them. Apparently the dam hadn't just broken, it had ruptured in a tidal wave.
"Is he going to be fit for Vallauris? I don't need a man flippin' his lid on me in the middle of battle."
"When the bullets fly, he won't flinch. But afterwards... that's when we'll need to keep an eye on him" Keller answered honestly. Tobias began to stir in his arms as he pulled away gently to face Murphy.
"We'll be ready to leave shortly, sir."
Murphy nodded and immediately raised his voice to wake the rest of the squad. The men drowsily rose from their rolls and scrounged in their packs for food. Keller stayed next to Beecher and smiled warmly, trying to communicate that his sentiments hadn't changed in the light of day. Tobias rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sat next to the larger man. They didn't touch or exchange a word as they ate their breakfast, but both were well aware of the emotion that hung thickly in the air between them.
They spoke little on the approach to the city, nervous that their intimacy would deepen. Both recognized their shared attraction, but the idea that it could develop into a something more profound right before a battle that would likely kill them both was unsettling. Tobias agonized over his decision to keep Keller at arms' length, weighing the desire for human affection in what could be his last hours on earth, and the reflex to spare them both the pain of loss if only one of them survived. Eventually, he decided to abstain from pursuing his feelings, and felt confident that Keller's withdrawal meant he had arrived at the same conclusion.
As Tobias walked, he tried to categorize exactly what his feelings were. Under close examination, he had to admit to himself that his prior relationships were essentially useless for any kind of comparison. He'd felt attraction towards many women, but rarely acted upon his urges. He'd had a handful of fumbling, sweaty encounters in college that had left him with no lingering satisfaction, only a strange detachment. His relationship with Genevieve had been based on mutual interests and a similar social background. He'd felt a deep affection for her, but looking back, they'd shared no physical chemistry whatsoever. They'd fooled around a bit, but she was determined to save her virginity until marriage. At the time he hadn't questioned her decision, but later wondered if that was the real motivation behind her reluctance to be intimate with him. Somehow he had a feeling that she had spread her legs for the man she'd doubtlessly left him for. Truth be told, neither passion, nor love, had been a factor in his relationship with Gen. He'd never been in love before, and seriously doubted he was qualified to gauge whether what he felt for Christopher Keller could be identified as such. Sure, he felt the fluttering of butterflies whenever Chris gave him that intense, probing stare, or when he noticed how the angles of Chris' large body filled his fatigues as if they had been custom-made for him. Granted, both the conversations and silences they shared were so comfortable, it was as if they'd known each other their entire lives... but, that wasn't love, was it? Well, there was the little fact that he'd never slept so peacefully than he had in Chris' arms, and when they'd kissed, Tobias had been reduced to a quivering, incoherent bundle of raw nerves. That kind of desire had definitely been a new experience. He wasn't sure if he could handle anything more. He might just explode.
The other men had reacted solemnly to Murphy's orders, immediately grasping the severity of their situation. The march had been accompanied by little chatter; hopes grim and enthusiasm drained. When Vallauris was visible on the horizon, Private Martin had pulled away from the squad and promptly emptied the contents of his stomach onto the grass. No one said a thing when he silently rejoined them. They could all relate.
The most disquieting aspect of their final approach on the city was the absence of any noise besides their own weighted footsteps in the damp ground. Upon entering the streets, they were met by the familiar sight of boarded windows and doors, crumbling bricks, and an eerie lack of a civilian presence. The residents of Vallauris had either fled or secured themselves inside what remained of their homes.
Murphy led his men through a maze of narrow side streets before coming to a stop in front of a non-descript building with the remains of a forlorn sign that read 'Ouvrire Couturier' in flaking red paint. He knocked three times, and waited. A boy with a face too serious for his youth peered out and assessed the squad quickly, then opened the door to let them enter. Inside, the shop had been transformed into a makeshift base of operations. Tables were pressed together to support a network of maps and charts, and radios faintly buzzed under a lively hum of voices. O'Reily couldn't help but be drawn towards the activity, and began to strike up a conversation with one of the resident soldiers. Robson mulled around the radios and studied the maps, while Alvarez took the opportunity to eat some food he'd stuffed in his pack. Whitehall immediately began to inquire about medical supplies, anticipating that his skills would soon be in high demand. He knew that he didn't have time to observe either Beecher or Keller's wounds before the battle, but neither was in serious condition. Murphy pulled a soldier aside, asked a quick question, and was pointed in the direction of a compact, slim and balding man. He was bent over a map, brow knitted in an expression of weary distress.
"Captain McManus? Staff Sergeant Sean Murphy reporting."
McManus looked up at him, face pinched. He rubbed his temples and let out a deep sigh.
"Murphy. I honestly thought you wouldn't find us. I wasn't sure the transmission went through before we cut out."
"I was able to catch the coordinates, sir" Murphy acknowledged, almost wishing that he hadn't.
"Well, you arrived just in time. The fun's about to begin. We just received word that the Germans are approximately an hour away, and will enter the city from the north" he pointed to the corresponding location on the map in front of him.
"They're estimated to be six hundred strong, and well equipped. There have been no reports of armored vehicles, but they have about twenty Willys. A good portion of which will likely be mounted with 50 caliber machine guns" McManus continued, voice sour. Murphy let out a long breath, dismayed at the odds that were piling up against them.
"It's not going to be easy, sergeant. But, my men are fortifying strategic locations near the anticipated entry point as we speak. I'm going to position your squad here" McManus indicated a street located the apex of the city, "The time frame is crucial, so I want you at that location within the next half an hour. If you leave immediately, you should make it."
"Where will your company be, sir?" Murphy inquired.
"I'll be following behind you with the thirty that are in this building. The remaining hundred are already in position out on the streets."
Murphy saluted and motioned for his men to follow him out into the city. Tobias saw his superior's face, and recognized the expression as belonging to a man who expected death. Suddenly, a profound regret overtook him, and he locked eyes with Keller. Tobias was agonized to see the same look of pain and futility staring back at him.
McManus had made good on his assurance, and followed Murphy's squad to the hot spot in the north of Vallauris. His company spread itself like a fan, snipers at the ready, the rest bearing standard-issue firearms. All men were concealed in the battered structures that lined the street, their breath shallow with fear and anticipation. Keller and Beecher crouched together next to a doorway that stood only feet away from the cobblestones that now vibrated with the approach of the enemy jeeps. Without thinking, Tobias reached out his hand and placed it on the other man's knee, and squeezed it gently.
"I'm sorry", he whispered, filled with a wild regret. Why hadn't he spoken to Chris on their walk to the city? Now it was likely they would never do something as simple as share a laugh ever again.
"Don't" Chris begged, his voice cracking. He shook his head as he spoke, eyes desperate. He knew what Toby was thinking, and didn't want him to articulate it. Somehow, the acknowledgement their mutual misjudgment would be more painful than ignoring it. Toby nodded, but only withdrew his hand when the rumble of the approaching vehicles could be felt beneath their feet. He gripped his M-1 tightly, pointed at the ready, and waited. He couldn't tell if the first shot was fired by an enemy, or one of theirs, but it immediately triggered a deafening volley of bullets. Tobias felt as though he'd left his body. The chaos that erupted around him dimmed to a mere hum as he leveled the nose of his weapon and pumped out rounds with a cold efficiency. He didn't blink as he hit the two men in the first vehicle that passed by, knocking them off as if they were dolls. He swung back behind the doorway and waited for the next jeep, leading the target, then destroying its occupants. He felt Chris' presence beside him, but didn't take his eyes from the action, firing at each Willy that rumbled past, careful to dodge the returning fire.
Suddenly, an explosion knocked him off his feet, and backwards onto the floor. The humming in his ears became a high-pitched drone, which faded into the screams of men around him. He fought for purchase against the stone while coughing from the debris. Finally, he was able to get to his feet, trying to get his bearings, calling out Chris' name. After what felt like an eternity of groping dead air, he finally connected with the wall, and inched his way to the house's back entrance, where the cloud had begun to dissipate. Just as he was preparing to reenter the room to confirm that Chris wasn't still inside - injured or worse - another shell hit the building, throwing him down. Through the smoke, he could see that the wall facing out onto the street had collapsed inwards. Tobias immediately realized that if he had maintained his position by the doorway, he would have been killed by the blast. A wild panic gripped him, and he crawled over to the rubble. The house no longer offered him protection, but he sifted desperately through the bricks and timber. He knew he was vulnerable, but ignored the bullets as they whizzed by him, needing to verify that there wasn't a body trapped underneath.
Before he knew what was happening, he was grabbed under his arms and heaved back into the house. To his dismay, it was O'Reily's face that met him when he looked up at his savior, not Keller's.
"What the hell are you doing, Beecher?" Ryan yelled over the continuing firefight.
"Was Chris in here when the last shell hit? Did he get out?" Tobias demanded, voice strangled with fear.
"I don't know, I couldn't see anything. Everything's gone to hell... Martin's dead. So's Ferraro. I saw Alvarez go down, but I'm not sure if he's still alive. I've got no fucking idea where Murphy or the rest of the guys are. Jesus Christ."
Hopelessness hit Beecher like a great wave. He could barely register the information that O'Reily had given him, certain that Chris hadn't survived. He felt like curling up and letting the Germans trample him into the ground. Just then he heard a man's voice, hoarse from yelling and lifted his head to see Sorensen running towards them, eyes wide with fear.
"Our snipers were taken out, half of McManus' company has been blown to shit. I can't find-" Just then, a bullet hit his neck, tilting his head at a strange angle with an eruption of blood. His body kept moving for a few feet, before inertia relented and let him hit the ground. Tobias and Ryan were horrified, both at Sorensen's gruesome death, and the news he'd managed to relay. Before they had time to react, another explosion hit. The last thing Tobias thought before the darkness claimed him was how he wished that he'd had more time to search the rubble for Chris. Then at least he would have known for sure.
Tobias faded in and out of consciousness, picking up only scraps of information, like the distinct jostle of a vehicle driving on a bumpy road, the miserable, damp cold, and whispering that seemed to surround him on all sides. Luckily, these fragmented moments of lucidity quickly passed, and he fell back into darkness. He was experiencing a dream so vivid that he refused to accept it wasn't real. He and Chris were in a lush, green park, watching a game of baseball being played in the twilight. They sat on at picnic blanket, Chris leaning back on his elbows, long legs stretched in front of him. Tobias was nursing a bottle of root beer, silently enjoying the other man's company on such a perfect evening. Chris was intently following the play on the field, oblivious to the pair of blue eyes that were glued to him. Tobias got a kick out of how engrossed Chris was, and smiled at him warmly.
"What're you grinning at, you goof?"
"You just look really happy" Tobias shrugged, and reclined next to Chris, deliberately pressing his leg up against the larger man's.
"That's 'cause I am" Chris said softly, holding his companion's gaze. Tobias took the opportunity to indulge in what he'd wanted to do for some time, and leaned his head on Chris' shoulder. Without realizing it, he slowly let out a breath he'd been holding inside.
"Me too, Chris."
This admission earned him a kiss on the forehead and long, gentle fingers stroking through his hair.
"Beecher, can you hear me? Beecher, wake the fuck up."
The voice gradually became more distinct, and the hands that held his head gently shook him. With great pain, Tobias opened his eyes and tried to adjust to the faces in the dim light around him. He knew immediately that he was now on terra firma, but the world still swam around him. O'Reily leaned in and stared into his eyes.
"Jesus Christ. I wish Whitehall was here. I think he's got a concussion, but I can't tell. Do his pupils look normal?"
"If it was a concussion, he woulda died by now. It's been days since he went down" Murphy's voice sounded distant and strained.
"Not necessarily. I knew this guy in high school who got a concussion and didn't realize it. He threw up for days before the coach told him to go to the doctor. He was pretty sick but didn't die."
"Beecher was pretty fucking sick. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so delirious. And he was burning up."
"The fever's broken."
Their voices sounded like a marching band crashing around inside his skull. Without warning, Beecher leaned over and vomited onto the floor.
"Definitely a concussion" O'Reily sighed. "But I think he'll live."
"Beecher, can you hear me?" Murphy asked, grasping his arm.
"Yes. Please, shut up", Tobias moaned, and heaved again. O'Reily grinned with relief and disengaged himself from the gagging corporal.
"What did I say? Good as new."
From his crouching position, Tobias stared at the rough planks of the floor beneath his hands and knees.
"Where are we?" he managed to choke out.
"Stalag 5C in Czechoslovakia" Murphy sighed, and patted Beecher's back in reassurance.
"Who else made it?" Tobias asked, trying to keep his voice level.
"Martin, Ferraro and Sorensen are confirmed casualties. No one knows what happened to Whitehall, Alvarez and Keller. Simmons and Robson are here, but Simmons was shot pretty bad and is in the infirmary. It's crowded with McManus' men - that's why you're here with us. As for McManus himself, we don't think he made it."
*So this what it feels like to have your guts pulled out, inch by inch*, Tobias thought as Murphy's words registered. He leaned forward, pressed his forehead against the floor, and heaved again. Chris was dead. He was under that rubble. Beecher couldn't allow himself to hope for any other possibility. Curling up, he wished he could just go back to sleep, and re-enter that dream. It had seemed so real. He spent the rest of the day in a stupor, completely unaware of the men around him.
In the dead of night, Beecher woke up from a nightmare, sweating and flushed. In it, both Chris and the young French boy had died by his hand, their eyes staring at him, glassy and blank, after he had released the trigger. He sat up sharply and leaned forward to catch his breath. His glasses had been destroyed or lost somewhere between France and Czechoslovakia, and he could hardly see three feet in front of his bunk in the darkness. He closed his eyes and tried to remember Chris' face as it had looked in that park; so happy, so alive. A whisper from the lower bunk directly across from his startled him out of his imaginings.
"Hey, you okay?"
Tobias squinted into the darkness and tried to discern the features of the man who had addressed him, but failed.
"Yeah, thanks. Sorry, I'm blind as a bat right now" he hissed in return, "I don't think we've met..."
"Tobias Beecher. Nice to meet you, wish it was under better circumstances."
The comment earned him a quiet chuckle.
"Well, goodnight Tobias."
Beecher repositioned himself on his bunk, agitation subsiding. It was reassuring to know that he was in the company of some real human beings, even though he had his doubts about whether he could count himself among them.
The next day, Beecher discovered that the Germans kept life within the stalag rigidly structured. The Geneva Convention strictly forbade using prisoners for labor, but the men were still expected to eat and leave the barracks for exercise at specific times during the day. He spoke to a few of prisoners who had been there for some time, and was informed that their days would be largely unoccupied. He could see that an underlying sense of both apprehension and boredom had already gripped the population. The men played cards, talked of their lives back home, wrote to their families - anything to keep themselves from surrendering to listlessness and depression.
Tobias resisted O'Reily's prodding to participate in an activity with the other prisoners, electing instead to lie on his straw-filled burlap mattress, morose and withdrawn. Even Murphy couldn't convince him to emerge from his shell, and soon he was left in peace to fall deeper into despair.
Beecher watched the prisoners as they milled about, and noticed that there was a group of black men gathered together for a game of bridge in one of the barrack's corners. They had found an old stool and were crouched around it, visibly enjoying themselves. He couldn't help but observe the irritated glances that their exclamations and laughter earned from the whites, who outnumbered them by a significant margin. As he considered this, one of the black soldiers observing the bridge game caught his eye and smiled. Tobias was surprised as the man got up and started to walk towards him. As he got closer, Beecher was able to make out a kind and handsome face.
"Tobias Beecher, right?" the young man asked, his voice immediately familiar.
"Augustus!" Tobias returned the grin, sitting up on his bunk.
"I couldn't help but notice how depressed you look. I know exactly what you're going through. I felt the same way when they first brought us here. Didn't know what to expect."
"How long has it been?" Tobias inquired.
"Couple of months. My entire platoon was captured, so I'm lucky in that respect. At least I've got familiar company. A lot of men here were brought in alone. It's harder for them to get used to this place."
"Yeah, I can imagine."
"Look, why don't you come play some cards with us?" Augustus was genuine in his invitation.
"That's a nice offer, but I'm recovering from a concussion. I can hardly sit up without feeling dizzy" Tobias answered, only telling a half-truth. He couldn't very well say that he was mourning the death of a would-be lover.
"Hey, no problem. If you start feeling better, you know where to find me. I couldn't hide in this place even if I wanted to" Augustus joked with a smile and left to rejoin his platoon. Beecher could feel the stares from around the room as if they were hot against his skin. O'Reily, always a good gauge of human behavior, left what he was doing and hunched down beside Tobias' bunk.
"What're you doing, Beecher? Things are tense enough in here. You don't need to start getting all chummy with the blacks."
"I didn't know you were a racist, Ryan."
"I'm not! I'm being realistic about things. There are too many men packed in here, and they're looking for anyone to take their anger out on. Right now, the blacks are the most obvious outsiders."
Beecher hated to admit it, but O'Reily had hit the nail on the head. He sighed and leaned back against the rough burlap.
"Then maybe what we need is someone willing to bridge the gap" Tobias mumbled.
"Don't get all altruistic, Beecher. This place is one big pressure cooker. From what I hear, a week or so before we arrived, the Nazis transferred in a new officer to run things. Apparently he's a fucking psychopath. Been randomly taking prisoners without reason. They haven't been returned yet, and the rumor is that they've been killed."
"Jesus" Tobias breathed, going rigid, "sounds like he's not a fan of the Convention."
"Yeah, using us for slave labor would be too obvious, so he's found a different way to fuck with our heads."
"I'll keep to myself" Beecher assured him, content to maintain his isolation for as long as needed.
"Good man" Ryan nodded and returned to Murphy and Robson. Beecher couldn't help but notice the hard look he received from the latter. One more reason to stay away from everyone, Tobias thought as he rolled onto his side and tried to fall asleep.
The next few days passed in much the same way. Tobias sat on his bunk, replaying his memories of Chris in a loop in his mind. He couldn't help but dwell on the sequence of events that led up to their capture in Vallauris, and tried to determine the exact moment when he'd lost sight of Keller, but his recollection was hazy, and riddled with gaps, thanks to the lingering effects of his concussion.
He was a model prisoner, eating the meager meals and walking rounds in the yard when they were ordered to. The German guards were harsh and efficient, but not particularly brutal. For the most part, the POWs were left alone in the barracks, and Tobias quickly fell into the numbing routine. Augustus had approached him a few times in hopes of a friendly conversation, but Tobias had rebuffed him gently, claiming that his head injury still lingered. But the friendly and earnest young man wouldn't be deterred, and as Beecher lay in quiet concentration, attempting to pinpoint exactly when Keller had disappeared from his side, Augustus walked up and held out his hands.
"Pssst, Beecher. I've got chocolate - you want some?"
Tobias blinked, not quite registering the question, and looked at the foil wrapper barely concealed by Hill's fingers.
"Where did you get that?" he hissed before quickly breaking off a piece and popping it into his mouth. It was such an extreme departure from the bland rations that he had to suppress a moan of pleasure.
"Good, huh?" Augustus grinned, and sat down on the bunk next to the reclining corporal. This action didn't escape the observant eyes of Ryan O'Reily. Fearing that Tobias was becoming too friendly with the black soldier, he casually approached the bunk.
"Hey Ryan. Want some chocolate?" Beecher asked, hoping that a proffered olive branch would reduce the tension he could see in the private's face. Augustus shot Tobias a curious glance, and was given a subtle nod of approval. He pulled the candy from his pocket and unwrapped it, offering the contents to O'Reily. The Irishman was too surprised to protest, and instead took a small chunk.
"This is damn good. Where'd you get it?" Ryan inquired with genuine curiosity, his attention now diverted to subject of greater interest. Hill nodded in the direction of his comrades, and began to explain how another soldier in his platoon, Arnold Jackson, had become adept at circulating contraband in the months since their capture. He'd made connections with the men in most of the stalag's barracks. Not only had his operation given him access to desirable items like candy, cigarettes and girly magazines, but it had also eased racial tensions, allowing the blacks to escape any major harassment. Jackson was the best, and you had to be respectful to get your hands on the goods.
O'Reily absorbed this information with obvious fascination. Tobias saw the gears turning, and knew that such a venture would suit Ryan's charisma and resourcefulness to a tee. Ryan didn't waste time in asking Hill if Jackson would be interested in having a white ally, which earned him a shrug of uncertainty.
"I don't know. I can ask him for you. But I'll tell you right now that Sergeant Truman isn't exactly delighted with the operation as it is. I can't see him being happy about us working with a white boy."
As Hill spoke, Tobias looked over at the black platoon sitting at their habitual game of bridge. He immediately spotted the man Augustus must have been referring to. Both his stature and posture were imposing, and his cool stare suggested a considerable intelligence and pride. 'Leonine' was the first adjective that came to Beecher's mind.
"Why doesn't he approve of the operation? Sounds like it's been helping to keep the peace around here" O'Reily asked Hill.
"More than anything, I think he's worried that we'll get caught by the guards. It's nice not getting the shit kicked out of you by some bigot, but that's nothing compared to what the Krauts could do."
"But you haven't been caught."
"No, Arnold's been good about that. He's got everything figured out down to the last detail."
"But he can't be everywhere at once, and he'll never be white enough for most of the guys here. Please, talk to him for me. I promise I won't let you down."
Augustus shrugged and tentatively agreed to broach the subject with his companions.
Staff Sergeant Goodson Truman was uneasy about the proposition, but he saw Arnold's immediate interest and knew that when the man recognized an opportunity to improve business, he would grasp at it, even without the blessing of his commanding officer. With this in mind, Truman suggested that O'Reily be given a few trial runs to test his aptitude for stealth. The Irishman was a prodigy. He was slick and charming, earned others' trust, and began circulating items that they would have never considered: whittling tools, colored chalk, banjo strings. Anything that could be used to reduce boredom was instantly considered a hot commodity. He quickly developed a strong rapport with many members of Truman's platoon, and within only two days was engaged in a heartfelt conversation with both Beecher and Hill, a man he would previously have never considered fraternizing with.
"I can't believe how much morale has improved" Augustus admitted, grinning at Ryan, who was facing him, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Beecher's bunk. "Even Sergeant Truman is impressed with you, O'Reily."
"What can I say? It's the luck of the Irish."
"I was getting really goddamn sick of bridge. It's nice to see the guys doing other things for a change. It's given me a chance to write to my Annabelle."
"Oh yeah, she your wife?" O'Reily asked out of politeness, still sensitive about the subject of love.
"Yeah. We got married right before I left, which was lucky for me, in a twisted way. I thought her old man was gonna kill me."
"You knock her up or something?" Now Ryan was slightly interested.
"No, nothing like that. She's not black" Augustus told them, not blinking an eye. Tobias watched Hill's earnest face for any hint of reluctance or shame, but found neither. The young man was utterly unabashed about his feelings, and refused to be affected by anyone else's opinion.
"You must really love her" Beecher finally broke the silence.
"You have no idea. Sometimes I miss her so much that I could kill someone. But I've already done that, and I'm not any closer to her. All it got me was stuck in this hellhole. Sometimes, when I'm lying alone here at night, I wish that I'd never met her. That way, it wouldn't hurt so much to be apart, and it wouldn't matter if I died."
"Jesus, don't say shit like that" Ryan felt a flash of anger at the young man's gloomy words. "I'd give anything to feel that way about someone. Even if there's no chance my letters would ever get outta here, just knowing I had a girl who'd want to read them would be enough for me."
Tobias was stuck by the confessions both men had made. He was surprised to hear Ryan open up about such personal details, knowing what a painful issue they were for his squadmate. Beecher had been there the day O'Reily had received word that his younger brother Cyril, who had been stationed with a different company, had suffered severe head trauma in battle. He'd healed, but it was discovered that he would possess the intelligence of a child for the rest of his life. Cyril had been sent home to their father, who Beecher guessed was an abusive bastard, based on Ryan's refusal to discuss him. Ryan's mother had died when he was young, so he'd essentially raised his little brother alone. He carried a deep guilt about not being there for Cyril when he was injured, even though there was nothing he could have done about it. Tobias himself could identify with Ryan's conflict, having a beloved younger brother of his own. However, Angus was too young for the draft, and remained safely at home.
Augustus' words affected Beecher in an even more personal way, because he'd had similar contemplations when remembering Chris. At his darkest moments, he not only wished for death, but also regretted ever meeting the other man, so strong was his grief. Hearing someone else articulate such fatalistic thoughts made him realize how disrespectful they were to Chris' memory. He would have wanted Tobias to celebrate every moment they had shared together, not resent them.
"Ryan's right. It's better to know love and the pain of losing it, than the alternative" he spoke quietly, unable to make eye contact with the other two men.
"Have you ever been in love, Beecher?" O'Reily asked, faintly surprised. Hearing the question articulated made Tobias realize without any doubt, that he had. It was as if the torrent of emotions inside him crystallized into a singular truth that was impossible to rationalize or ignore. A great swell of pride at this knowledge gripped him, and he was able to lift his head and answer 'yes' without hesitation. Augustus reached over and grasped Beecher's arm in support.
"Then you know exactly what I'm going through."
"Except your Annabelle is still alive" Tobias attempted a meek smile through his anguish.
This silenced both his companions, who regarded him with a deep sympathy. Although unspoken, all three knew that from that point onwards, their confessions had forged a bond that none of their squadmates could trespass on.
Murphy hadn't forgotten Keller's cryptic words about Beecher's likely descent after the battle in Vallauris. He watched with concern as the corporal succumbed to a depression so deep that that bordered on madness. Murphy knew there was little he could do for his fellow officer - boredom and melancholy were common afflictions in POW camps. He was certain that the Nazi guards would be unsympathetic to Beecher's condition. There'd been no room for him in the infirmary when he had a concussion, so a mental disorder definitely wouldn't qualify him for acceptance. The sergeant tried talking to Beecher on several occasions, but made no progress. He lamented Keller's disappearance: when it came to infiltrating Beecher's defenses, no one else came close. At least that was what he'd thought until O'Reily began his alliance with Truman's platoon. The relationship that had developed between Ryan, Tobias and Augustus out of a business necessity had evolved into an easy camaraderie that was slowly drawing the corporal out of his shell. Murphy had felt a profound relief the first time he glanced across the room and saw a smile on Beecher's face. Somehow it made the pain he felt for the six men that he'd lost more bearable.
Though he'd never admit it to himself, Murphy harbored a slight jealousy at the bond the three men had formed. As the squad's commanding officer, he had always felt at a distance from his soldiers. He knew that he was fair, consistent, and stern when need be; all traits that made him a well-respected leader. But those very same attributes would never let him gain complete access as one of their peers. He realized that he missed Keller for another reason. With Beecher, the three of them had formed a kind of triumvirate. At the time, he told himself that he sought the two other men's opinions because both were intelligent, level-headed, and were dissimilar enough to contribute unique perspectives on a situation. But watching the trio of Beecher, O'Reily and Hill, he realized that he'd been part of a genuine friendship. He wasn't blind - he'd sensed that Tobias and Chris had possessed a rare bond, but they'd never shut him out. Since entering the stalag, he'd tried to converse with Robson, and had succeeded on a superficial level, but found the man ambitious and hot-headed, often making ignorant remarks about Beecher and O'Reily's familiarity with the colored platoon. His words were never outright threatening, but had bordered on incendiary more than once. Murphy didn't want to create more of a racial rift within the barracks, so he usually let the behavior slide, but not without an ounce of guilt. More and more he found himself on the outskirts; not amongst his men, and unable to befriend any of the other prisoners, who had already formed their alliances.
The door to the barracks was opened abruptly, causing the immediate silence of all inside. Hauptmann Metzger held every eye as he entered. A cold, intimidating man, he had been stationed at the stalag for as long as any of the POWs could remember, and his presence immediately caused a perceptible tension in the crowd. Metzger regarded them indifferently for a moment, and then stepped back, allowing a bulky, broad-shouldered officer to step inside. The man was brutish, yet his unusually round, almost protruding eyes betrayed a calculating intelligence. He pursed his fish-like lips and evaluated the prisoners in the way a bear regards salmon in a stream. Without uttering a word, every man present immediately knew who he was, and what he was capable of. He suddenly yelled, his voice clipped yet guttural, and two uniformed Germans came into the room, barely supporting the limp form of a large man between them. They cast him onto the floor, where he sprawled, unconscious, face against the planks. Schillinger sneered at his captives and turned on his heel, leading the officers out of the room. Metzger said nothing as he closed the door, leaving the prisoners alone with the unconscious cast-away.
Beecher watched with both interest and trepidation as the Nazi Major made his entrance. He knew from the fear that the man provoked that he was a formidable threat, and resolved to keep a low profile. But the moment that the two officers had struggled into the room with their victim, all breath escaped him. The body that hung between them was unmistakable. Beecher's heart ricocheted as he strained to make sure that his eyes weren't playing a cruel trick on him, but the instant he saw the long limbs splayed out on the ground, he knew that they belonged to his Chris, and the world began to spin.
He didn't remember jumping up and pushing through the crowd of standing bodies, straining to get to the open patch of floor that they encircled as they gaped at the still, battered body. All he knew was the moment that he first touched him, and felt that he was warm, and breathing. He wanted to cry out with joy, relief, and gratitude, but his throat was constricted and blood rushed to his head so that he felt light and detached from everything around him. He turned Chris over and cradled him, rocking softly, just as he'd been held after his nightmare.
The stormy blue eyes were swollen shut, his lips cracked, forehead split and bleeding, but Tobias was certain that he'd never seen a face so beautiful. He began to wipe at the blood, whispering softly, hoping to somehow penetrate Chris' state of unconsciousness. He wondered if he kissed the dry, bleeding lips if Chris would awake like in a fairy tale, but caught himself at the last second, suddenly aware of all the faces staring down at them. Beecher felt a surge of anger and resentment, jutting his jaw out in defiance, and returning their glares with one of his own.
Murphy had been watching from the perimeter, and suddenly realized that the embrace he'd witnessed between them on that early morning in the bunker had been one of sexual intimacy. He studied Beecher, who looked down at the unresponsive Keller, and recognized the undeniable rapture and tenderness of love. Something inside him stirred.
"Hey, hey... what's everyone gawking at? That man saved his life" Murphy growled stepping out between the two lovers and the other prisoners. "Let him return the favor."
This seemed to jolt some sense into the crowd, which slowly dissipated. The scene was nothing that they hadn't witnessed before. Murphy bent down to assess the extent of Keller's wounds.
"Shit" He cursed as he lifted Keller's shirt, studying the pattern of bruises that were hidden beneath. He hoped that there was no internal bleeding. "Looks like they tortured him pretty good."
"Jesus" Tobias choked, suddenly finding his voice. The severity of Keller's injuries suddenly dawned on him, and he couldn't ignore the possibility that he may have to grieve all over again. He began to shake.
"Tobias, listen to me. Stay with him all night, and watch him closely. Monitor his temperature and keep him hydrated. Besides that, there's nothing much we can do."
"I'd never leave him."
"I know" Murphy responded, voice sympathetic. "But right now we have to get him out of the middle of the floor. Help me move him over to that corner. Your bunk is too far away."
Beecher and Murphy strained as they grasped Keller under his arms and pulled his dead weight over the dry hardwood. Tobias sat with his back against the wall as Murphy lowered Chris down and placed his head gently in the corporal's lap.
"Keep talking to him. You've got a few hours before nightfall" Murphy smiled through his apprehension and left the two men alone, knowing that Beecher would want some privacy.
Beecher waited until Murphy was out of earshot before he began to whisper, stroking Chris' close-cropped hair. He didn't say anything grand or poetic, just whatever came into his head. He soothed, expressed his love, apologized through tears, and cursed Chris' attackers. As the words poured from him, the body in his arms began to stir. Chris let out a groan of pain and struggled to open his eyes. He managed to squint up into the face of his protector.
"Toby..." his voice was faint and raw. Tobias couldn't help himself. His face crumpled and he wept softly with relief and joy. Chris smiled, and he tried to speak again, but was overcome with fatigue. Tobias hushed him, and he was soon lulled to sleep.
The minutes of the afternoon passed in much the same way. Chris drifted in and out of slumber, mumbling barely audible words during his brief moments of lucidity. Tobias never stopped serenading Chris with whispers, even while he slept. During such moments, Tobias was enrapt, studying the face that he thought he'd never see again. Augustus was across the ocean from his Annabelle, and Ryan was had no one waiting for him. Tobias felt like the most blessed man on earth.
In the evening, O'Reily woke him from a light slumber, and handed him a large wool blanket.
"I thought you might need this tonight, he looks pretty rough"
"Shit, thanks Ryan" Beecher was at a loss for words.
"Yeah, well. It's no big deal" Ryan shifted awkwardly, trying not to make eye contact.
He'd seen the way Tobias had reacted when Keller was thrown in the room, and was perceptive enough to recognize the behavior of a person in love. At first O'Reily had been shocked and disturbed at the implication, but as he spent the afternoon watching Beecher's tender ministrations from afar, he eventually had to admit that he was jealous of what the two men shared. The blanket hadn't taken long to acquire from his network of contacts. He liked Beecher as a friend, and felt that it was the least he could do. Seeing the man smile was a hell of a lot better than a blank, sullen stare.
"You need anything else?" Ryan found himself asking. Beecher timidly requested some water for Chris, which wasn't hard to find. The Irishman needed only a few minutes to bring back a flask of it, again requiring nothing in return for his act of generosity. Somehow, seeing Tobias gently dripping the liquid on Keller's cracked lips made it worthwhile.
After the sun set, Tobias had wrapped them both with the heavy blanket. The other prisoners had retired to their bunks, but he sat awake in the dark for some time, his thighs cramping and feet tingling from a lack of blood flow. He didn't dare move and disrupt Chris, who kept waking, and retaining consciousness for longer each time. On the last such occasion, he had tried to reach up and touch Tobias' face, whispering "I thought I'd never see you again, baby" before closing his eyes. Beecher decided that he wouldn't mind if Chris never called him anything else. He tried to focus on the reality of his lover's survival, still not quite believing that he held the man in his lap. Tobias was exhausted from the emotional turmoil, but he kept waking up right as he began to drift off, terrified that Chris would take a turn for the worst while he was sleeping. He didn't succumb until hours later, and so didn't see that Chris stayed wide awake, thoughtfully staring up at him for a good portion of the night.
Private First Class James Robson was in the bunk closest to Beecher and Keller, and saw the sergeant studying Tobias, his eyes betraying full mental clarity. Robson had been unable to fall asleep; the nearby presence of the two men had been a source of severe irritation. He prided himself on being somewhat of a Lothario, and expected nothing less of his male peers. He'd suspected that Beecher didn't possess much charisma in regards to the ladies, but he never would have pegged him as a queer. But Keller... Keller was unforgivable. He had all the necessary ingredients to be a pussy magnet, and yet he didn't reject - no, he encouraged - the nancy boy's doting. Robson hadn't liked Keller from the moment he'd appeared out of nowhere near Auribeau. At first, he'd felt threatened by the other man's stature and rank, but that had evolved into something more personal when Keller had overstepped his bounds and cut him down in front of the entire squad. Robson was aware if how Murphy gave Beecher and Keller preferential treatment, and so he had deliberately kept his distance as they made kissy faces at each other all afternoon. But now Keller's miraculous recovery put his mind into overdrive He was so engrossed with devising a way to use the information against them, that he didn't notice the sergeant closely observing him as well.
The next morning, Robson pulled O'Reily aside.
"Ryan, what was your first impression of Keller?" he asked in as neutral a tone as he could muster. O'Reily considered for a few moments before answering.
"I don't know. I'm usually pretty good at pegging people, but he was tough to figure out. I asked around, and the boys were kinda suspicious. Him being the only survivor out of an entire platoon didn't sit right with them. And the fact that he had only a minor injury to show for it didn't help. But I don't know. They were probably just being paranoid. He proved himself when he jumped out in front of that sniper for Beecher."
"Yeah, that was quite an act of bravery" Robson couldn't help but sneer.
"What're you saying?"
"It's probably nothing, but I can't help but wonder why the hell the Nazis would torture Keller and then return him. What kind of information could a fuckin' sergeant have that they'd keep him alive just to get it out of him later?"
"You think they're interrogating him? I thought Schillinger just liked to torture for the fun of it" O'Reily asked, curiosity piqued.
"That's just it. I got this feeling that's what they want us to think. I don't wanna sound like a conspiracy nut or anything, but last night I saw Keller wide awake, looking around like there was nothing wrong with him. What if those injuries of his were strategically inflicted, you know... to make everything look legit. Using him to get information from us would be quite the setup. There are some high ranking officers here, and a guy who endured a whole week with Schillinger would earn a lot of trust."
"No way" Ryan stated flatly, his eyes narrowing. If Keller were a double agent, he would have picked up on it. And he didn't want to think that Tobias had fallen in love with a Judas. The man wouldn't be able to handle that type of betrayal.
"I'm just throwin' that out there as a possibility" Robson shrugged. "It's just that he sure knows how to survive, don't he?"
"Yeah" O'Reily had to admit that much.
When Tobias woke up, the first thing he saw was Chris' battered face smiling up at him.
"Hey baby" Chris greeted Tobias softly, caressing his arm. "What were you dreamin' about?"
Tobias smiled and stretched. He was sore from spending the night sitting beneath Chris, but he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"It was the same dream I've been having a lot lately. You and me in a park, watching a baseball game together" he sighed and fell into Chris' blue eyes.
"Yeah? My old man used to take me and my brother out to the ballpark when we were little. I haven't been to a game in a long time, though."
"Did you ever play?" Tobias asked, trying to picture what Chris must have been like as a boy. Probably fearless, charming, and constantly dirty. Tobias had never been to a baseball game with his father. He had been a polite, shy, and impeccably tidy little boy.
"Yeah, I was a catcher. Though I wanted to be a pitcher something fierce, just didn't have the arm for it."
"That's more than I ever managed" Toby sniffed.
"What did you play when you were a kid?"
Chris tilted his face to the ceiling and chuckled warmly.
"I should have guessed. Not the sporty type, huh?"
"I had a bike once, for an entire summer. I loved it, but my parents confiscated it after I took a nasty fall and spent a few months in casts. Broke both my legs. After that, it was all indoor activities for me."
"I broke a few bones myself, growing up. Damn it, I miss bein' a kid."
"You're lucky those bastards didn't break anything, Chris" Tobias' face suddenly became serious. "How the hell did you get through a whole week?"
Chris' eyes immediately lost their spark. His expression shifted, face turning into an emotionless mask.
"I shut myself down, Toby. My mind wasn't there... I don't really wanna talk about it."
"Jesus, I'm sorry..." Tobias felt sick with guilt for reopening such a major wound.
"Don't worry about it, baby. Let's talk about something else. Why don't you describe the way the park in your dream looked?"
So Tobias did. He was careful to go into detail about how vivid the greens were; almost a riotous emerald against the deep blue of the sky. There had been no clouds, and he remembered that the blanket they had been sprawled out on was checkered red. The game had been a small, relatively informal affair. There were only a few rows of old bleachers, which hadn't been filled. The two of them had chosen a spot in the grass about 30 yards from the field, which gave them privacy, and an adequate vantage point of the gameplay. They had been drinking sodas, talking, laughing with a familiar comfort. Tobias then lovingly described his favorite part of the dream; how he had laid his head on Chris' shoulder and been completely at peace.
"Sounds perfect" Chris sighed with a wistfulness that bordered on sadness. "If we could get outta here, there's this one place I wanna take you more than anything - a park in the town I grew up in. It was where I spent the best moments of my childhood."
Tobias' throat constricted with emotion. He knew that it had been hard for Chris to expose such a treasured memory, and he immediately recognized the significance of it. Without plainly stating the words, Chris had articulated the extent of his feelings for him.
"I love you Chris" Tobias finally managed to say, having no hesitation about laying himself bare. He had been given a second chance with Chris, and resolved never to regret things unsaid. The gaze that he was given in return was infused with such potent emotion, that he almost had to look away.
"I love you too, baby."
Tobias found it strange how the barracks of a German stalag had suddenly become his most cherished place in the world.
Chris was still extremely weak. Tobias hated to get up, but he had to take a piss, and knew that the both of them needed to eat. He gently extricated himself from the larger man's weight, wrapped the blanket around him, and hobbled his way out to the slit trench to relieve himself. When he came back into the barracks, he immediately zeroed in on O'Reily, who was engaged in a casual conversation with Augustus. Tobias nodded respectfully to the young private and turned his attention to Ryan.
"I need some high calorie food. Chocolate, condensed milk, anything like that. Chris has to eat something."
"How is he?" Ryan asked.
"He's doing better than expected."
"Yeah, the guy's got nine lives" Ryan paused before continuing, "I'm not the type of person who believes in luck, Tobias" he tried to keep his voice from taking an accusatory tone, but Beecher immediately picked up on the inference.
"I know what you're suggesting, and there's no fucking way..." Tobias hissed, eyes blazing. Ryan immediately felt guilty for touching on it, but he'd only done so out of concern for his friend.
"Because he loves me" Tobias kept his voice low enough so that only Ryan could hear him.
"Jesus fucking Christ."
"And I want him to. So think whatever you want about me, but don't say shit about Chris."
Tobias was as angry as Ryan had ever seen him; jaw clenched, teeth bared, tendons in his neck bulging. He didn't say another word before he stormed away, back to the man that waited for him in the corner. O'Reily felt conflicted. He wanted to believe in the altruism of mankind, but everything in his experience predisposed him to be wary of selfless behavior. Robson was a competitive, vulgar prick, but he brought up some legitimate points. Then again, Keller had been awake most of the morning. It wasn't difficult to assume that he'd gained consciousness some time in the night and had taken the opportunity to simply watch Tobias sleep. If he really did love him, like Tobias had said, that wasn't too far-fetched. Ryan wanted to believe that was the truth, but he wasn't much of a romantic.
After his conversation with O'Reily, Beecher made a resolution to stay exclusively in Keller's company, even though the Irishman tried to make good by bringing them an impressive array of candy bars. Tobias accepted them with appropriate civility. Chris improved as the day progressed, and was able to walk unaided to Tobias' bunk later that afternoon. Both men were relieved that they wouldn't have to spend another night on the hard floor, but were also looking forward to the simple pleasure of sleeping next to each other in a bed. That night, they hid beneath the wool blanket and kissed with both ferocity and tenderness. Tobias' heart raced, and he fought to catch his breath as Chris devoured him, aching to feel the other man's bare skin against his own, but terrified of what it would do to him - and what would happen if they were caught. He'd never felt such a lack of control over his body, and it was daunting. He knew that he could easily become addicted to the euphoria. When Chris reached down and grabbed his erection through the thick fabric of his fatigues, he had to pull back, gasping.
"Jesus... I can't..."
"Why, baby?" Chris' whisper was tender and coaxing. He didn't let go of his prize.
"Because I won't be able to stop. It's too much" Tobias gasped.
"Shhhh... just lie there and relax."
Tobias was going to protest when Chris opened his trousers and took him in his hand. He froze, unable to breathe as the larger man began to stroke in a firm, slow rhythm. Chris leaned in and reclaimed Tobias' open lips, silencing the moan that had tumbled out. As the stars swam behind his closed eyelids, and pelvis strained in time with the fingers that grasped him, all Tobias could think of was the noise that they must be making, and that he didn't give a damn. It reminded him of so many nights during his adolescent years; sweating, breathless, hoping desperately that his parents wouldn't hear the thump of his hand against the linen. He felt like a teenager as Chris pulled him over the edge, too overwhelmed to be embarrassed at his lack of endurance. Eyes closed, still recovering, he felt the bunk jostle as Chris maneuvered to reach over the side and wipe his hand; a reminder that a hushed sexual encounter in a POW barracks carried no glamour or romanticism. They preserved what little of the illusion that they could by falling asleep wrapped in each other's arms.
Beecher and Keller's exclusive devotion to each other created a shift in dynamics within the barracks. O'Reily began to spend almost all of his time with Hill and his platoon, which provoked Robson to seek out similarly-minded soldiers with whom he could vent his disgust at the Irishman's preferring colored company to those of his own race. The rejection didn't result in much lamentation from his former squadmates, particularly a scrutinizing Christopher Keller.
Murphy became even more isolated, a circumstance that greatly contributed to the boredom that was already beginning to affect him. Out of a need to keep his hands and mind busy, he acquired some whittling tools from Ryan, and began to carve whimsical little miniatures. It was a skill he had learned as a boy and often revisited when he wanted to escape his troubles. Before long, other prisoners noticed his growing collection of figurines, and began to make requests of him. Not surprisingly, the most popular choice was a custom female nude based on a wife or girlfriend. Murphy took great pride in completing each voluptuous little form with anatomical precision. Beecher asked if he could carve some simple Chess pieces, and Murphy was happy to oblige. It was while he was whittling one of the rooks that Staff Sergeant Goodson Truman approached him, and waited politely for Murphy to stop before speaking.
"I see that you are skilled in wood carving."
"I dunno about that. I enjoy it..." Murphy smiled up at him.
"It's important that a man has a passion for what he does, even in leisure."
"Yeah. I won't argue with that" he paused a beat before asking, "is there something I can do for you, Sergeant?"
"Could I impose upon you to make me a figure of Madonna and the infant Christ? Nothing elaborate."
"Sure, as soon as I'm done with these chess pieces. Why, you expecting Christmas early this year? I can throw in some Wisemen and a sheep, if you'd like."
Truman flashed a bemused smile at Murphy's good-natured teasing.
"I prefer to make worshipping our Savior a year round affair."
"I hear ya. It's just that most people prefer a crucifix."
"I'm afraid this war has given me a distaste for anything violent in nature" Truman answered honestly, "I find that Mother and Child represent the opposite. They mean life, rather than death. Wouldn't you agree?"
"I guess I never thought of it that way" Murphy admitted, giving the elegant man a thoughtful stare. "Actually, I wouldn't mind hearing your thoughts on the subject. I was raised Catholic, and I admit that I've been neglecting my duties lately. Now's as good a time as any to get back on track."
Truman's eyes lit up as brilliantly as his grin. He'd never ignore the chance to discuss his passion with an interested soul. As he began to speak, Murphy felt the sensation of being an outcast slowly ebb away, and was thankful for the other man's simple gesture of acceptance.
Tobias and Chris knew that they had to conduct themselves with the strictest self-control. Escaping the watchful eyes of their fellow prisoners wasn't an option. Even using the slit trench or circling the yard for their daily exercise routine was done in the presence of posted guards. During the day, their intimacy was relegated to stares, light touches, and simple conversation. At night, they were afforded slightly more privacy, but even then their options were severely limited by the close proximity of the other bunks. There had been a few close calls when one or both of them had surrendered a faint sound despite all efforts not to do so. Their loveplay was limited to nothing more than petting and fondling, yet their hurried sessions were almost too potent, leaving both men breathless, wet, and wondering how the hell they could possibly handle anything more intimate - if the opportunity ever presented itself.
The two of them were sitting on Tobias' bunk, sharing a bar of marzipan. Chris was enrapt, studying every little move Toby made as he took as small chunk between his thumb and forefinger and brought it slowly to his lips, letting it dissolve in his mouth. Chris couldn't help but notice how Toby's tongue darted over his lips as he sucked the sweet residue off his fingers. The mental image that the oral striptease gave Chris was cruel and beautiful, and he had to close his eyes to recover from it. But an image of Toby; flushed, wet and wantonly sprawled upon a bed lay waiting behind his eyelids.
"Jesus" he swore, putting his face in his palms.
"What?" Tobias asked with mocking innocence, trying to suppress a smile of victory. He relished playing the role of seducer, something he'd never previously indulged in.
"I've never wanted to be a piece of marzipan before" Chris half-joked, taking some for himself. Tobias was about to reply with a glib remark when Chris began sucking on the candy, eyes boring into him with a distracting intensity. The larger man was equally capable of seduction, and swiftly turned the tide of power. Tobias was completely at his mercy as he rolled the confection over his tongue and parted his lips almost imperceptibly right before he swallowed. Judging by the look in Toby's eyes, it was a good thing the other prisoners were engaged in their own activities.
"We'd better stop this" Tobias managed to croak, gaze never breaking from Chris'.
"Yeah. Maybe we should save the rest for later" Chris couldn't help but add a teasing edge to his voice as he wrapped up the rest of the candy and hid it under Toby's burlap mattress.
"Now what? More chess?" Tobias asked, trying to clear his mind of all indecent thoughts. Ever since Murphy had finished the set for them, the two men had often engaged in day-long tournaments with each other, grateful for an activity that would allow them to spend time together while keeping temptation at bay. Tobias had the advantage of playing the game since childhood, while Chris had an uncanny intuition to match his intellect, and made the perfect opponent. Their bouts often ended in stalemates. Chris exhaled slowly, suffering from Chess-fatigue.
"I dunno. I don't really want to share your attention right now" he admitted, shrugging his shoulders.
"You just want to talk?" Tobias suggested, leaning back on his elbows. Chris nodded, but didn't speak. One aspect of their relationship that both men appreciated was how naturally conversation always flowed between them, but now, for some reason, both were tongue-tied. Chris guessed that it was because their exchanges had always been spontaneous. He racked his brain, trying to pick a topic that didn't sound contrived or rehearsed, but failed. He laughed at the ridiculousness of it.
"We don't have to feel obligated to do anything, babe. I'm happy just sitting here with you."
"Yeah" Toby smiled, content. Chris only waited a few moments before breaking the relaxed silence.
"You look great without your glasses, but I kinda miss them in a weird way" the casual remark earned him a questioning glance.
"Now there's a non sequitur."
"Sorry. I was just thinking about how you looked when I first saw you. Those glasses definitely caught my eye."
Tobias reddened and looked downwards.
"Yeah, well. They weren't that thick... I've seen worse. I can see alright without them, if I'm not too far away. I get a headache from squinting sometimes, but nothing serious",
"I didn't mean it that way" Chris couldn't help but chuckle, "I've always had a thing for glasses."
"I dunno what it is. Maybe it reminds me of Clark Kent or something. Makes you wonder if the person has a hidden wild side."
"If I have anything resembling a wild side, you definitely bring it out of me."
"You ain't seen wild yet" Chris leered, and decided to take a gamble. It was high time he and Toby indulged in some spontaneity.
"I need to take a leak, and so do you. Come with me" he announced, eyes glinting with mischief. Tobias couldn't think of anything to say, and just followed his lover out of the barracks and into the yard. It was early afternoon and the weather was balmy. He took at deep gulp of air and looked questioningly at Chris, who gestured towards the trench. Once there, both men stood on the edge and exposed themselves to urinate. Tobias tried his hardest not to sneak a sidelong glance. They stood so closely together that their arms brushed. Chris whispered over the sound of his piss hitting the dirt.
"I was right. The guard on duty is the young one. Ryan likes to keep track of their shifts."
Tobias didn't dare glance in the direction of the youth in question. He felt conspicuous enough as it was.
"So, I want you to meet me behind the north wing of the barracks in about three minutes" Chris lowered his voice even further, and tucked himself back inside his trousers. Without any further words, he turned and walked towards the rendezvous point, leaving Tobias holding his dick and with three minutes to burn.
Ryan O'Reily had been surprised when Chris had sauntered up to him. The image of Keller without the nearby presence of Beecher seemed so out-of-place, that it took his brain longer to process what the large man was saying. When he'd finally realized that Chris was asking him about the guard rotation, he couldn't help but question the motive behind it. Of course, he and Arnold had made a point of memorizing the face of every German stationed in the Stalag, and their respective shifts. It was essential for transporting items between barracks, particularly during the day. But as far as he knew, Keller could have no legitimate reason to know their schedule. Unless of course, he was planning to meet with one of them. Ryan grimaced and decided to give up playing detective. He had an active imagination and tended to over-analyze. It was giving him a headache. Besides, he didn't want to suspect Chris without any real evidence. Robson's elaborate theories weren't exactly reliable. He clearly hated homosexuality in any way, shape or form, and there was a distinct possibility that he simply had an axe to grind.
Ryan glanced over at Augustus Hill, who sat next to him, writing in a leather-bound journal. Because he'd never be able to send them, he slowly reduced the number of letters he wrote to Annabelle in favor of scribbling thoughts in the book's blank pages. The man obviously had his share of philosophies and opinions about the world around him.
"Hey Hill" O'Reily interrupted him, "What're you writing?"
"An account of life within these walls. History needs to be written from first-hand experience. People should know what goes on in a place like this" was the matter-of-fact response.
"So, what're you writing right now?" Ryan couldn't help but be curious. He wondered how Augustus could make an existence so tedious into an interesting read.
"About the prisoners. I feel like an anthropologist sometimes, just observing the behavior that goes on. The alliances, the feuds. It's fascinating."
"I'm serious! I'm not just talking about large-scale group dynamics like the tension between the good old boys and the blacks. For instance, look at Beecher and Keller."
"Okay, I'll agree with you there. Those two are something else."
"Definitely. At first glance you'd assume that Keller's the dominant one, considering the difference in their builds. But on closer examination, Beecher's got equal footing. Their personalities feed each other... it's like a perfect symbiosis."
"Beecher says it's love" Ryan didn't feel guilty letting Hill in on it. The guy was intelligent and likely receptive to different ideas. He didn't blink an eye.
"It's almost more than that. Have you ever heard of the Sacred Band of Thebes?" Augustus asked him.
"It was an elite corps of warriors from the ancient world, made up of 150 pairs of male lovers. They were the best, undefeated. They'd kill for each other, and chose to die rather than survive without their other half. Apparently all 300 fell together when they were finally beaten by Alexander the Great and his father."
"No shit" O'Reily was speechless.
"Yeah. I've got a feeling that those two form their own little Band."
Augustus' words struck a chord. Ryan had seen Keller rush out in front of that sniper to get at Tobias. At the time, he'd been perplexed at the suicidal action, but in retrospect, it appeared as if Chris had been genuinely willing to forfeit his life to save Beecher's. In return, Tobias had fought like a berserker next to Keller in Vallauris. No wonder he'd sunk into such a deep depression after Chris was presumed dead. He probably felt he should have saved him, or died there beside him. Ryan didn't know another couple that shared such an extreme level of devotion to each other. He definitely had never been part of relationship like that.
"Robson's been saying shit about them, Keller in particular. He'd better watch out, or Beecher just might lose it. And he's scary when he goes nuts."
"He probably shouldn't underestimate Keller, either" Augustus said with a chuckle. "That man definitely has the potential to so some damage. You can see it in his eyes."
O'Reily had been the recipient of Keller's penetrating stare. He knew exactly what Hill was talking about.
When Tobias snuck around the corner of the barracks, Chris had practically pulled him off his feet, and slammed him against the wall. With the air knocked out of him, he had little time to react before being assaulted by the other man's mouth, their teeth colliding. Tobias quickly forgot about the pain in his back as he struggled to gain equal footing in their heated dance. Chris grasped his neck, fingers playing with the short hair at his nape, other arm encircling his waist. Tobias reached up and cupped his lover's face, snaking his free hand over his chest. They tested and tasted each other, touching in ways that had been impossible within the confines of a small bunk and in the presence of so many others. The two men allowed themselves the luxury of moaning, and Tobias even let out a gasp as Chris pressed his straining erection against his own, moving so that the fabric between them created a teasing friction. Chris trailed his lips down his lover's jaw and over the soft skin of his neck, stopping there to lightly nip and suckle until the man was almost vibrating with arousal. It was now or never. Chris pulled back and glanced around quickly to make sure they were alone, then dropped to his knees.
Tobias could hardly comprehend what was happening as the man kneeling before him pulled his cock free and began stroking tightly. When he felt Chris' tongue lap gently at the tip, his knees almost buckled. The moment Chris took his entire length into his warm, wet mouth, Tobias had to will himself to keep from crying out. Jesus Christ, no woman he'd ever been with had done anything like this. It would have been unthinkable, debauched, sinful... and so fucking amazing. Every time he hit the back of Chris' throat, he was sure he was going to climax, but somehow the other man sensed it, and slowed his ministrations, prolonging the pleasure. Tobias held on as long as he could, gazing down at his lover through hooded eyes, mouth parted in a silent moan. He almost felt regret when he finally did come, shuddering violently, pressing his head against the barracks for support. He stood there, savoring the sweet afterglow when Chris stood up and reclaimed his lips. Tobias could taste himself, and wondered faintly if Chris would taste the same. He wanted to learn how to do what Chris had just done to him, so that he could reciprocate.
"Jesus..." he gasped as Chris finally relinquished his swollen lips. Tobias leaned his head against the broad chest - which seemed to be heaving just as much as his - and took a deep breath.
"You like that, baby?" Chris asked with a playful glint in his eyes, massaging Toby's neck.
"Hell yes. Where have you been all my life?"
Chris laughed into his ear and kissed him there while pulling him close for an embrace. The two of them just stood there, listening to the thump of their heartbeats.
"We'd better go back inside, or we'll be missed" Chris rumbled, reluctance tingeing his voice.
Tobias just nodded and tucked himself back inside his trousers. He had to fight the urge not to grasp Chris' hand as the two of them walked towards the entrance of the barracks.
Major Schillinger prized loyalty more than any other human attribute. To one's race, to one's Fatherland, to one's leader. He considered himself an exemplary model in this regard, and would do any task necessary to prove his loyalty, even when it wasn't requested of him. It was for this reason that he wasn't aggravated by the interruption of Hauptmann Metzger's knocks at his office door. He looked up from his paperwork and called his subordinate in. Metzger was a man of little humor, and few words. When he did speak, he pronounced his native tongue with an impeccable, clipped accent, which Schillinger approved of. In his precise voice, the officer introduced a shiny-faced young guard who kept his eyes directed downwards out of fear and respect as he was given entrance to the room.
The Major had a special fondness for the Nazi Youth. They were so enthusiastic and fresh, easily molded to fit any purpose required of them, and eager to please. Some of his best informants came from among their ranks. Their reports offered a fresh perspective - they often included details that an older man would omit. They were also notoriously underestimated by the enemy. It was almost incomprehensible that ones so young could be capable of such cold ruthlessness, such uncompromising vision. But the truth was, he himself had witnessed boys and girls perform acts of brutal efficiency without batting an eye. They did what they were told to do, and they did it well. His own two sons, the pride and joy of his life, were members of the esteemed group.
Schillinger made a point of knowing everything that happened in his stalag. It was no great secret that there was an elaborate contraband network that flowed between the barracks. He allowed it because it mollified the prisoners. Men given a superficial source of contentment to distract them from the hopelessness of their situation were so much more satisfying to break.
The information that the boy proceeded to share proved his worth. Of course, he was already aware that Keller had taken a lover, but judging by the details of the witnessed encounter, the bond that the two of them shared was quite strong. Even more fascinating was the physical description of the man Keller had chosen - something he hadn't yet been made privy too. Sky blue eyes, copper hair, a lithe, athletic physique. He sounded like the perfect German specimen.
Keller had been a delightful toy while he had been their guest. It had been the Major's intention to bring him back for another round of fun and games, but now he was considering another way in which to play with the American sergeant.
Goodson Truman was finding it difficult to pray with Beecher and Keller in plain sight, sitting together on the bunk that they unabashedly shared. They weren't even touching, and yet the true nature of their relationship was blatantly clear to anyone with any level of intelligence. He grimaced and clutched at his wooden figures, trying to banish the anger that clouded his mind. Sitting only a few feet away, Murphy noticed the dark change in Truman's expression.
"What is it?" he asked, knowing that his companion wouldn't evade the question. Goodson's candor and honesty were traits he deeply respected.
"Those two have no shame" Truman growled, lowering his gaze at the lovers. He practically winced as they laughed at some private joke, Beecher placing a hand tenderly on Keller's shoulder. Murphy exhaled. He wasn't surprised at Truman's reaction, considering his devout nature. But as strict as his own religious upbringing had been, Murphy couldn't bring himself to disapprove of the intimacy that had blossomed between his two officers. Its affect had been nothing but positive, especially in regards to Beecher's volatile state of mind. He was like a new man around Keller. A complete man. Murphy felt it was his duty to defend them, but with carefully chosen words.
"Goodson, what you said about the brutality of the crucifix has really stuck with me. I think the violence of this war has affected us the same way... I'll always feel guilt over losing those boys in Vallauris. Their blood will be on my hands for the rest of my life. I'm not surprised that the horrors you've seen have made you a pacifist."
"What is your point?" Truman interjected, slightly perplexed at Murphy's line of thought.
"I think we would both agree that in every situation, it is important that love prevails over hate."
"We're not talking about love. This is physical indulgence, weakness of the flesh..."
"No, it's love. Just watch them, it's plain as day. The God I believe in teaches that love is sacred."
"The Bible states plainly that homosexuality is a sin" Truman had to fight to keep his voice at a reasonable volume. He was flabbergasted at the stance Murphy was taking.
"The last time I checked, homosexuality ain't mentioned in the Ten Commandments. But killing is - and that's something almost every man in this room is guilty of, Truman. Why is it you can forgive that, but are incapable of finding peace with Beecher and Keller? What they're doing ain't hurting anyone. Frankly, I find it comforting to know that something good can still exist in a shithole like this."
"Ridiculous..." Truman responded weakly, his fortitude shaken.
"You're a good man, Truman. Don't be blinded be prejudice. Try to understand what's going on between those two. If you just flat-out reject it, you're no better than the likes of Robson and those other racists. It's easy to hate what you don't know anything about."
Goodson was shocked into silence. He was accustomed to being the beacon of wisdom and spiritual growth. Others came to him for advice and guidance. Recognizing the truth in an opinion that was diametrically opposed to his own was a brand new, and disorienting, experience. But he had to respect Murphy for it.
Beecher sat cross-legged on one end of his mattress, facing Chris, who lay with his hands folded over his chest, staring at the underside of the bunk above their own. His usually intense features were instead placid and contemplative. Tobias didn't want to intrude on the other man's thoughts, but he couldn't help but feel slightly isolated. He ran a finger lightly up and down Chris' calf.
"Hey, what're you thinking?" he asked softly. Chris stirred with a sudden exhalation of breath and turned his head to the side to glance at his lover.
"I wish we'd known each other when we were kids. I was thinking about all those great times I had with my brother. But you and me? We woulda made quite the pair."
"Yeah" Tobias agreed, sadness plain in his tone. He'd also been thinking of how he'd known Christopher Keller for only a short fraction of his life, and yet it seemed incomprehensible that he'd been able to exist without him. The emptiness that he'd felt every day since entering adulthood completely vanished when he was in the company of the other man. It was like having the innocence and happiness of youth restored.
"What's your best memory of childhood?" Tobias asked, curious to know everything that he could about Christopher Keller. In response, a wide grin spread across the man's handsome features.
"I'm a lucky guy, there are a lot to choose from. My dad worked all the time to support us, and my mom was usually sick, so me and Jamie were mostly on our own. Remember how I said I wanted to show you that place that meant so much to me? It was just down the street from us... Hyacinth Park... just trees and birds and wildflower gardens. To a little boy, it was a private world where you could pretend that you were Peter Pan or Robin Hood. The two of us would spend most of our day there, just lost in the fantasy we'd created. We built a little fort out of branches, invented our own secret language. We even made our own costumes out of potato sacks. All that kid stuff..." Chris' voice trailed off, and he looked up at Toby to see if he still had his attention.
"Go on" Tobias urged him, hanging on every word.
"Well, one day we had the bright idea to find our own food. It was too late in the season, so the crows had picked off the last of the wild blackberries we usually ate. We got it into our heads to be hunters, so we took our pocket knives and stalked around woods. We found a creek, and Jamie noticed that there were little crawdads on the bottom. I'd made myself this felt pirate hat, and I used it to scoop up as many as I could. We ran back to our fort, all wet and excited. It took us about half the day, but we finally started a little fire from twigs and leaves. We stuck the crawdads on sticks and held them over the flame. They were charred black on the outside and practically raw on the inside. Tasted horrible - but we ate every one of them. We were sick as dogs the next day" Chris chuckled, and shook his head as if trying to sweep the vivid memory away. Toby just stared at him, completely enchanted.
"Wow. I never did anything like that. I should have - maybe if I'd had a friend like you...."
"I'd have corrupted you, Tobe. Your parents woulda hated me" Chris grinned widely.
"And I would have loved you for it. We would've made some great memories."
"I'd share all of mine if I could. Telling you just ain't the same... I wish I could take you there..."
A contemplative and mournful silence followed. Neither man could dare to hope that such a circumstance would ever present itself. It was painful to even look a single day into the future, their fates were so uncertain.
"Did you grow up in Connecticut?" Tobias tried to steer the conversation into less emotional territory.
"Yup, a town called Deep River. What about you?"
"Only 100 miles apart, but we had to be sent to Europe to find each other" Chris breathed, lowering a hand from his chest to grasp Toby's. Neither of them wanted to contemplate how closely both of them had come to never meeting. It was during this moment of silent thanks that Hauptmann Metzger entered the stalag without ceremony, two guards tailing him.
His eyes drifted over the faces within the barracks, all aimed in his direction. His gaze came to a rest upon spotting Keller, and then lingered on Beecher. He barked an order in German and pointed in the direction of the lovers. As the guards advanced towards them, Chris' entire body tensed, and he braced himself with a cold acceptance. This immediately turned to desperation and fury as he realized that he wasn't the one they intended to collect. He jumped up, and positioned himself as a shield between them and Toby.
"Don't fucking touch him!" he snarled, fists clenched, eyes blazing. Chris managed to land a few punches before one of the guards drew his pistol and whipped him soundly across the back of his head. He collapsed to one knee, trying to catch his breath, as they proceeded to kick him in the gut. Struggling to retain his balance, he felt a dull whack against his skull again, and fell over. Toby's hoarse yell was the last thing he heard before everything became black.
Tobias fought as hard as he could against the two men after they knocked Chris unconscious. They beat him as well, but only to the point of dazing him - he never completely lost awareness. As they hauled him, he felt as if he were under a veil, picking up vague bits and pieces through a cloudy haze: the dull brown of a corridor, the musky scent of mildew and lumber, the rough texture of a jacket against his cheek. After an indeterminate span of time, they threw him roughly into a chair. He fell forward and collapsed against the grainy surface of a table, moaning. As he struggled to regain control of his senses, the sound of a deep voice grabbed him. It was familiar, and somehow seemed more intimidating in broken English than the German he had heard before.
"There is no reason to be frightened. We treat our guests well... you can ask Sergeant Keller."
Tobias knew it was Schillinger, but couldn't find his voice to answer. He was still trying to figure out which direction was up, his forehead flat against the table. The Major walked up next to him and ripped his dog tag chain from his neck, then proceeded to examine it.
"Tobias Beecher. German or Norman origin?" Schillinger asked conversationally.
"Your guess is as good as mine" Tobias' answer was deliberately non-committal.
"Come now, Corporal. A man should know his family's roots"
"I guess I never thought it was that important. Both choices are equally white" Beecher bit back, regaining his equilibrium. This elicited a chuckle from his host.
"True enough. It's hard to argue against such compelling physical evidence. You are a remarkable Aryan specimen."
Schillinger was only inches away, staring down at him with a salacious grin. Tobias felt an overwhelming urge to take a swing at him, but didn't trust his balance or what degree of punishment he'd earn for his trouble. If the rumors about the missing prisoners were true, then execution was a definite possibility. Instead, he met the man's appraisal with a challenging stare, refusing to back down.
"You're a fucking caricature of a Nazi, aren't you?"
Schillinger's eyes flashed with excitement the second before his fist connected with Beecher's jaw, whipping his neck back so hard he slammed against the floor.
"Do not forget your place." Schillinger muttered before delivering a swift and brutal kick to his midsection. Tobias bent double at the dizzying pain, gulping for air. He clawed at the floor, trying to pull himself away from his attacker, only to feel the tip of the German's boot slam into his cheekbone, splitting the skin.
As Tobias recovered from the blow, Schillinger called the two guards into the room. He watched, satisfied, as they bound the limp, bleeding form to the chair, and then ordered them to wait at the door, should their services be further required. It was his intent to break the fair-haired American without permanently disfiguring him. The work would be delicate, but not without a sense of achievement.
"You need discipline, mein Liebling" Schillinger began, devouring the sight of the limp body before him. "Sergeant Keller was very accommodating. I hope you will be, too."
"Fuck you, fuck face" Tobias spat, eyes glinting with abandon. They were the only feature recognizable though the blood and swelling. The challenge resulted in a well-placed hook to his face, snapping his head back.
"That mouth of yours is becoming a problem" the major stated flatly, circling his prey. He wondered how long it would take to reduce Tobias Beecher to tears. There were so many possible routes before him, he was unable to choose which one to pursue. He fingered a small, agile razor he kept with him for such situations.
"The human mouth is full of blood vessels and nerve endings. It also has a remarkable ability to heal quite fast. Did you know that?" Schillinger asked. Tobias muttered something unintelligible through his swollen lips.
"Here, let me show you, Corporal."
Schillinger motioned for the guards, and gave them a quick order in German. They removed their belts and gripped Beecher as they forcefully inserted the leather straps into his mouth like a horse's bit and then pulled as if reigning him in, locking his jaws open. Schillinger removed the razor from his pocket and examined it, allowing his captive full view of the glinting metal. With agonizing deliberation, he approached Tobias, and seemed to relish every second before finally sinking the blade into the flesh of the shaking man's gums, cutting a jagged slice above his teeth. The noise that came from the corporal was too muffled to be described as a scream, but was filled with enough desperation and agony to satisfy the Nazi officer.
Chris paced like a wild animal. His entire body was coiled with fury, stare frenzied. The other men in the barracks gave him a wide berth, seeing that even the slightest disturbance would set him off. He felt lethal but helpless, and the conflicting emotions only made the agony of not knowing even worse. Only Murphy had the courage to approach him, and even then used great caution and tact.
"They'll bring him back" he tried to assure the manic sergeant.
"You can bet on it. The question is how bad he'll be when they do. They're using him to get at me. It's fucking psychological warfare" Chris snarled.
"Why?" Murphy asked, perplexed.
"I dunno. That Nazi fuck, Schillinger, has my number. Had it from the second they brought me in."
He didn't mention the reason why they'd singled him out, or how he'd deliberately given them reason to do so. The memory of it made him sick to his stomach; he had little doubt that his behavior had contributed directly to what they were now doing to Toby. He couldn't allow himself to contemplate it. Trying to keep his body and his mind in motion, he strode over to O'Reily and was immediately given his full attention.
"Ryan, I need some medical supplies from the infirmary as soon as possible. Anything you can get your hands on."
"Shit. You think it'll be that bad?"
"I just wanna be prepared" Chris rasped.
As the Irishman left, Keller continued his pacing, trying to fight the overwhelming urge to leap onto Robson and pummel the satisfied smirk off his face.
Tobias was literally choking on his own blood. They'd removed the belts, so at least he could lean his head forward to let it drain out of his throat. His mouth had long ago become numb, but the fear hadn't left with the pain. He tried to gain control over terror that threatened to snap him, but Schillinger's obvious enjoyment of it made the effort nearly impossible. He was able to mentally detach from the battlefield because he'd always possessed the means to defend himself. But now he was bound and helpless, and on the verge of collapse.
"You didn't ask me any questions" he managed to spit out the words through torn and swollen tissue.
"You have nothing that I want to know."
Beecher's felt as if the chair had been ripped out beneath him. The major's hollow response meant that there was nothing he could do or say to stop the torture. He began to shake, and struggled to conjure images of Chris to calm himself. He needed to be somewhere else, somewhere safe. He had to find his way back to that park again.
They threw Beecher back in the barracks as roughly as they had Chris. The prisoners' immediate impression was that he was in even worse condition than the larger man had been. Tobias' face, and the entire front of his shirt, was covered in blood, and he'd clearly been unconscious even before the guards tossed him onto the floor. Chris rushed across the room and yelled for O'Reily, who came bounding up behind him with a handful of bandages and morphine syrettes. They pulled off the injured man's shirt and looked over his torso for any deep cuts or puncture wounds, but found only bruises.
"Jesus, it's coming from his face" Chris grimaced, and used the stained garment to wipe away the blood that masked Tobias' features. But to his surprise, except for a laceration across his cheek, they were unmarred. It wasn't enough to explain the volume of blood.
"Look in his mouth" Ryan said, his voice thick with trepidation. Chris' mind raced as he gently parted his lover's lips, and saw the ragged slices crisscrossing his gums. He breathed out with relief at the realization that his teeth and tongue were still intact.
"Give me some of that gauze" he asked, holding out his hand. Chris was careful not to apply too much pressure as he inserted the fabric under Toby's swollen lips, staunching the wounds.
"Save the morphine until he wakes up" Chris sighed after he was done. "Help me get him to his bunk."
The two men grunted as they hauled Tobias over and placed him on the mattress as gently as possible. Chris nodded in thanks to O'Reily, who immediately recognized his unspoken signal and left the lovers in peace. Tobias looked peaceful despite what must have been a horrific ordeal. Chris lowered himself next to the sleeping angel and held his body lightly, careful not to inflict any more pain. Tobias was out cold into the night and well into the morning, and Chris kept a vigil the entire time.
When Tobias did wake up, his face and gums were on fire, but had already begun to heal. Chris carefully removed the gauze, and poured water between his lips, which elicited a hiss of pain.
"I know this hurts, baby. But you've gotta drink something" Chris soothed.
Tobias couldn't have put up a fight even if he'd had the will for it. Chris didn't say much to him, out of fear that he would feel obliged to respond. Instead, he tried to reassure his lover with constant and gentle physical contact: a hand on his thigh, or a cupped palm against his wounded cheek. The other prisoners were long since used to the close bond shared by the two men, and let them be. Tobias had just downed some diluted chicken broth and was taking a light nap, Chris at his side, when the door to the barracks opened. As soon as Chris saw Metzger and the guards, a cold fear gripped him.
"No, you just brought him back!" he yelled at them, vaulting to his full, imposing height. O'Reily and Murphy were immediately at his side, equally determined to protect the injured corporal, who stirred from sleep. As soon as he realized what was happening, he began to panic, emitting a strangled cry.
"Toby, calm down! I'm not gonna let them take you!" Chris turned to hold his gaze, speaking forcefully. Metzger had brought more guards with him this time, anticipating resistance, and Chris knew that there was little they could do, but he wanted Tobias to know the extent of his devotion.
"Take me to Schillinger instead" Keller pleaded, pivoting to face the approaching Germans. The hauptmann didn't respond, only stared at him with a cool detachment. Before Chris knew it he was down on his knees, being beaten by the blunt ends of numerous machine guns. Murphy and O'Reily were similarly assaulted, and could do little to resist the blows. Tobias only struggled momentarily before a dull acceptance set in, his eyes glazing over. He stumbled out of the room, flanked on each side by an armed guard, unable to look back at the man who'd tried to protect him. It was too painful.
Schillinger waited for them to bring Beecher into the room. He knew that he'd caused Keller just as much suffering as his lover; the decision to separate them again so quickly had been a particularly cruel strategy. For this reason, he was savoring every memory of the corporal's torture, and knew that he would enjoy the next few hours even more.
It had been a stroke of brilliance and irony to slice inside Beecher's mouth, considering the man's reported proclivity for oral sex. But even more fitting had been the act of forcing himself on Beecher afterwards; shoving into the hot suction, slicked with blood. Beecher had already passed his breaking point, otherwise Schillinger wouldn't have risked putting himself at the mercy of a vengeful man's teeth. After he'd finished, Beecher had merely gagged a few times and spat out the fluid, which pooled a dark pink on the floorboards.
The triumph of that moment had been slightly dampened by his suspicion that Beecher had remained silent about the incident. Only confirmation that Keller was aware of the act would fill him with a complete satisfaction. That was why he planned to leave behind an unmistakable signature this time. Proof that he'd damaged Keller's property.
His thoughts were interrupted by Beecher's arrival. The guards left him so he stood only a few feet away. His gaze was empty, his posture slouched and broken. He'd already mentally vacated, which was unacceptable. Schillinger considered his options. More torture would only drive him deeper into seclusion - he'd have to draw him out before beating him back down again. He decided to go for the jugular.
"I know that you and Keller are lovers; that you share a bunk together every night, eat every meal side by side, and are never more than a few feet apart, even when you go outside to exercise. I also know that you two hid behind the barracks so that he could get on his knees and service you."
Beecher's eyes flickered, and he looked up at the major, confusion evident in his expression. Schillinger saw that he had the man's attention, and continued.
"Yes, I'm aware of that little clandestine liaison. I was also touched to discover how you cared for him after his time in our company. He begged, you know... offered me anything to stop. Anything" he paused to enjoy the pained expression on the corporal's face, "Perhaps you should ask yourself how I know all these things about the two of you."
"This isn't going to work" Beecher's voice was hoarse but seething.
"It already has. At least now you'll have something to keep your mind occupied for the remainder of the afternoon" Schillinger narrowed his eyes at the prisoner, who visibly flinched at the threat of impending violence.
Before Beecher could retreat into himself, the Nazi gripped him, pinning his arms behind his back. He struggled valiantly, but without success - Schillinger had him in a tight lock. It wasn't difficult to kick one leg out from under Beecher, forcing him to buckle onto his knees. It was even easier to force his head forward so that it was pressing against the rough grain of the floorboard, and wrench his trousers down so that his pale, supple flesh was exposed to the room's stale air.
Tobias was filled with such revulsion and shame that his entire body shook. It wasn't the agony of the dry and brutal rape, so much as the knowledge that he would forever be tainted by it. A part of himself that he'd wanted to give to Chris was being ripped from him. Hot tears stung his eyes and the cut on his cheek as he was slammed forward into the dry wood. Desperately, he tried to steady his mind and focus on something that would allow him to find refuge there. He stared at an oddly-shaped knot in a floorboard that was close to his head. If he used his imagination, it looked like a human eye staring back at him with benign curiosity. He wanted to reach out and touch it. Instead, it blinked at him.
//His mother put her hands on her round hips and cocked an eyebrow. He was sitting on the kitchen counter, trying to fish in the cupboards for a jar of her raspberry jam.
"Now Toby! How many times have I told you not to get up there? You'll fall and hurt yourself!" she scolded, folding her arms around him and placing him gently on the floor. His eleven-year-old self was rightfully embarrassed by her doting, and looked down at his feet.
"Aw mom, I just wanted a sandwich."
"Dinner will be ready in half an hour, young man" she reminded him, wiping a pair of long, capable hands on her apron. "Why don't you go read until then?"
"I was thinking I could play with Chris for a little while" he suggested, looking up at her through his glasses and smiling hopefully. This earned him a slight frown and a pair of pursed lips.
"Honey, you know how your father and I feel about that boy. He's a trouble-maker. Why, Mrs. Reynolds told me yesterday that she saw him trapesing right through her garden, with no regard for her new begonias. And when she called out at him to stop, he just grinned at her!"
Tobias couldn't help but smile. It was pure Keller, and the way his mother was telling it, he might as well have been burying a body in the flowerbed. Their neighborhood was far too idyllic; in his opinion, it was in dire need of some excitement, and the boy that had just moved in across the street seemed to be just the remedy they needed. Tobias was drawn to him like a moth to a flame. Chris was everything he wanted to be, and unapologetically did everything he secretly wanted to do.
"Wipe that grin off of your face, Tobias. This is exactly why we don't want you spending time with him."
Deciding that she was in no mood to argue, Tobias just shrugged and scurried upstairs to his room, where he lay on his bed and skimmed his well-thumbed copy of 'Robinson Crusoe'. He usually had no problem inserting himself within the story, but instead couldn't help but contemplate all the adventures that he was likely missing by being denied Chris' company. He sighed and flipped through the pages impatiently. The whack of a pebble against his window interrupted his sulking. He threw his book to the side and darted over the pane and huffed as he lifted the heavy sash. Leaning his head out into the humid evening air, he saw Chris staring up at him, Cheshire grin prominent against his dirt-smudged face.
"Have you been in Mrs. Reynold's begonias again?" Tobias hissed.
"Geez. Those women can't keep their tongues from waggin'" Chris muttered, wiping a forearm across his brow.
"What could possibly be of interest to you in a bunch of crummy flowers?"
"Never mind that. I've got something better to show ya. Come down here!" Chris urged, motioning with his hand.
"I can't. I'm having supper soon. Come back in about an hour, and I'll try to sneak out."
Chris gave the proposal some serious consideration before finally agreeing to the terms.
"Okay. Meet me out here in exactly one hour. Don't be late!"
"Promise what, ssse Erbse?" Schillinger grunted, finishing with a trust so violent that it ripped Tobias from his elaborate fantasy. The shock of the being thrown back into reality coupled with the searing pain of the rape made him cry out. This seemed to please the German, who swatted his ass as he pulled free.
Schillinger rejoiced inwardly. Beecher's mind had been there, in the room, at the moment it mattered. He was still bent forward against the floor, unable to move even though the rape was over. No doubt the American was in a deep state of shock, but Schillinger knew that he was far from hitting bottom. He pulled a portable lighter from his jacket pocket, ignited the flame, and held it over the end of his dress dagger. Beecher didn't scream when he pressed the searing metal to his backside, but flinched reflexively and emitted a low, animalistic keening.
The major took time and care in reheating the blade and pressing it against the immaculate ivory skin so that the swastika's lines was replicated with exact precision. By the time he finished, Beecher was lying flat against the wooden planks, cold and shivering. His eyes were open, but he didn't make a sound. Schillinger studied the man's features, still attractive underneath a swath of blue and purple bruises, and the freshly closed gash visible on his cheekbone. He knew that the physical abuse was inconsequential to a mind like Beecher's. What had made this conquest so gratifying was the knowledge that he had irreparably damaged an essential part of who Beecher was as a human being. He'd forever altered the course of another man's life, and with it, the life of the man who loved him. That was power.
Beecher was propelled by pure instinct as the guards escorted him back to the stalag. He couldn't process a coherent stream of thought, instead only raw emotions and images flickered in his mind. Although he would have been incapable of articulating it, he was gripped by an overwhelming need to lose consciousness When they'd returned him the first time, he'd been out cold, blessed by darkness. No memories, no pain, no guilt. He briefly considered throwing himself at them to instigate a retaliatory attack, but the thought escaped him as quickly as it had come. He kept walking, completely detached.
Tobias barely registered the familiar faces that surrounded him when he was led through the door to his barracks. Their voices seemed muffled and distant as he passed them. Then one face and one voice pierced the haze surrounding him Chris gripped his shoulders and pulled him close, but Tobias flinched at the contact, unable to even make eye contact. He extricated himself from the embrace and found his way to his bunk, and lay down, trying to will his body to sleep.
He felt Chris sit down on the mattress beside him, and the tentative touch of the other man's fingers against his arm. Tobias pulled away and curled himself up as tightly as he could, burying his face behind his knees, trying to take refuge in the shadows there. Chris whispered something, but he had already escaped into himself, soundlessly mouthing a lullaby from his childhood.
Chris was genuinely frightened. Even after the trauma of witnessing that boy's death, Tobias hadn't reacted so severely: it was apparent that he was teetering on the edge. Chris wanted to shake him, demand to know what Schillinger had done, but knew it would cause irreparable harm to Toby's mind. He glanced over the familiar lines of his body for new injuries, and saw none. No broken bones, no seeping lacerations. Maybe they'd tortured another prisoner in front of him, and he'd had a flashback. No doubt they were aware of his fragile state of mind and had exploited it. Chris wanted to pound his fist into something, but instead reclined next to Toby on the bed and curled an arm around his waist. He was already asleep, and didn't recoil at the touch.
Chris had been drawn to Tobias because of his humanity. Beecher thrived on punishing himself for having a normal response to extreme circumstances, an attribute that Chris deeply respected because he himself lacked it. His understanding of psychology told him that people often detached themselves during a traumatic experience as a natural defense mechanism. But as long as he could remember, he'd possessed the rare ability to disassociate from almost any situation, stressful or not. It wasn't that he was devoid of emotion, but rather it was as if he could turn it off at will, particularly when he felt himself losing control.
The skill had been harnessed and perfected during his extensive training. He regarded his sleeping lover with a twinge of guilt. He hadn't been completely honest with Toby. Sure, he'd once been a mechanic, but that wasn't the entire picture. He'd enlisted in the army right after his divorce from Bonnie, but years before any real threat of war. It was impossible for him to tell the other man about how in the time since then, he'd been precisely conditioned, and for a specific purpose. He was capable of resisting almost any method of interrogation or torture, deft with weaponry that a foot soldier would never lay hands on, could adapt his behavior to infiltrate almost any group, and disappear from even the most volatile combat situation.
Toby killed on the battlefield with no lingering remorse, and considered it a curse. Chris was honest enough with himself to recognize that not only did he lack guilt in such circumstances, but he actually felt a sense of accomplishment after making a challenging kill.
Under strict instructions, he'd taken lives that had posed no threat to his own, and done so with stealth and efficiency. Toby only knew the chaos of war. He was a complete stranger to the world of organized death that Chris was inured to. For that reason, Chris had felt it necessary to allow Toby to believe that he suffered the vivid flashbacks that accompanied Shell Shock. In truth, he'd made himself immune to its affects. He tightened his grasp on the peaceful form beside him, as if he could somehow absorb the other man's innate ability to empathize. He whispered an apology, and closed his eyes.
Tobias withdrew a little bit more each day after the rape. Chris' stalwart devotion somehow made him feel even more tainted and disgraced, which in turn caused him to recoil further. Desperate to try anything, Chris eventually decided to give him some space, periodically seeking refuge in the yard to exercise his frustration away. It was during those brief respites that Tobias would approach Arnold Jackson - not Ryan O'Reily - for something to dull his pain. He considered alcohol, but instead chose morphine because it left no odor on his breath. The high was less euphoric than he expected, instead giving him a disjointed sensation that often resulted in him lying on his bunk for hours on end, laughing softly and singing. Chris was so disturbed when he first saw Toby's altered state that he walked right up to a German guard and punched him in the gut. He was soundly beaten as a result, but his plan worked: he was brought directly to Schillinger.
Schillinger fought hard to disguise his delight when Keller was delivered to him, battered and seething. He immediately recognized the murderous intent in the sergeant's eyes and savored his victory. Before he could devote too much time to contemplating how Keller had discovered the evidence of Beecher's rape, the captive broke his train of thought.
"What the fuck did you do to him?" Keller demanded, his voice shaking with hatred. The question threw Schillinger off guard, who struggled not to let his disappointment show. He quickly recovered, but felt a blackness spread inside him.
"I do not want to spoil it for you" he leered, allowing himself come satisfaction at the fury his words inspired.
"You're a twisted sack of shit, and a fucking coward. You didn't have the balls to go after me directly, so you used Toby instead."
"You can't blame me, sergeant. You gave me very little satisfaction during our first visit." Schillinger let the innuendo sneak into his words.
Upon their initial encounter, the major had immediately recognized that the American was different. After further observation, it became apparent that he wouldn't be affected by sexual abuse. He could usually pinpoint a man's weakness, but Keller had been unreadable, which had simultaneously flummoxed and infuriated him. He'd felt ill at ease in Keller's presence; he had a demeanor that was alternatively alluring and coldly analytical. This behavior had shaken Schillinger, who'd never had the tables turned on him with such ease. Even a week hadn't been enough time to crack the enigmatic officer's shell, so he'd thrown him in with the other prisoners in order to study him remotely. Keller was a rare challenge, one that required patience and understanding. Schillinger was certain that he was hiding something, and was determined to know what it was, even if it meant breaking the man open to look inside. He knew he'd have to attack him obliquely, and Beecher had been the perfect tool for that purpose.
"But your boy more than made up for your own inadequacies" he finished, driving the point home. Keller's eyes widened as realization hit him.
"You didn't..." he hissed, frozen with rage.
"It was a very special moment we shared. I think I may have been his first, but I left him something that he can always remember me by."
Keller was on him before he could savor the effect of his revelation. His head slammed against the floor, and the shock of his attacker's fists pounding against his face disoriented him. Before he could yell out for his guards, Keller's hands wrapped around his neck, and tightened viciously. He felt himself losing consciousness, but couldn't help but be impressed by the singular determination in the dark blue eyes that glared down at him.
Chris had lost control, and he hated it. But the second that he began to choke Schillinger he managed to strip himself of any emotional investment. His method was quick and efficient, and his victim's struggles weakened as he gripped him. Before he could finish the job, he heard the door to the room open behind him. The guards yelled as they ran to the aid of their major. Chris knew it had been too much to hope that the sound of Schillinger's body hitting the floor would go unnoticed. He let go before they started to beat him. They focused most of their blows to his head and then aimed their weapons to execute him. Schillinger coughed and raised a hand to stop them.
"Don't. Put him in the hole" he gasped fiercely.
Keller almost fell prey to his emotions again as they pulled him, dizzy and bleeding, into the corridor. He was stripped, beaten again for pure amusement and dragged out to a small, corrugated metal box in the yard behind the barracks. Chris had always assumed that it was used for weapons storage, but felt a sickening chill at the realization of his error. They pulled off the top and threw him roughly inside. He sucked in his breath at the pain of hitting the concrete bottom, and braced himself as the dull metallic bang of the box being resealed and locked echoed above. Lying flat, he made an effort to control the tempo of his breathing and heart rate. There was about three feet of space above him, and less than two on each side. Small slits for ventilation allowed light to reach him, but he doubted that it would provide much relief when the sun was at its zenith. He would be lucky if he wasn't cooked alive. Chris had been trained to resist sensory deprivation torture, but knew that Schillinger would take a personal interest in his suffering. All of his skills would have to be called upon in order for him to survive. As he slowly eased his body into a state of near-hibernation, he was infused with a deep regret for attacking the Nazi. In an attempt to avenge Toby's rape - and he was certain that's what had happened - he'd made his lover even more vulnerable to Schillinger's whims.
Tobias was on the verge of a panic attack. The gravity of the situation had sunk in soon after Chris was removed from the barracks. Hours had passed since then, and as each second ticked by, a cold, oppressive fear tightened its grip on him. He was certain that whatever the Germans were subjecting his lover to was even worse than the brutality that he'd been made to suffer. Tobias had sensed that Schillinger harbored a deep resentment against Chris, and couldn't decipher how or why it had originated. But at the moment, the motivations of an insane Nazi major were less important to him than determining Chris' situation. Unable to bear the burden of inaction any longer, he pulled himself up and approached Ryan O'Reily. The private was relieved to see that Beecher had emerged from his near-catatonic stupor, and gave him his full attention.
"O'Reily, I need information" Tobias' voice was thick and weary.
"Sure thing. We can trade that just as easy as anything else around here."
"I've got to know where Chris is and what they're doing to him."
Ryan winced. There was one favor that he'd been praying that Beecher wouldn't ask, and that was it. The solidarity amongst the Germans was remarkably strong. Any knowledge that existed outside the prisoner grapevine was fiercely protected, and almost impossible to acquire without the use of discreet and continuous observation. Despite his and Arnold's best efforts, the condition of the prisoners who hadn't yet been returned to the rest of the population was still unknown. He had no reason to believe that his luck in tracing Keller's whereabouts would be any better.
"That's gonna be tough. I can tell you right now that the Nazis ain't exactly broadcasting that info. But I'll see what I can do" he patted his squadmate on the shoulder in reassurance.
Tobias recognized it as a platitude, but knew that O'Reily would try as hard as he could to satisfy the request. He nodded his thanks and started back towards the familiar comfort of his bunk. Before he could get there, Robson inserted his bulky form in Tobias' path. His expression was so similar to Schillinger's predatory stare that Beecher had to force himself to repress a shudder.
"You look lonely without your boyfriend around" Robson tried to bait him with a sneer. "Need someone to keep you company?"
"Go fuck yourself" Tobias' response was as deadpan as his face.
"No need to be antisocial, Beecher. I'm just trying to be supportive. Who knows what they're doin' to him right now" he saw Tobias' lips tighten and continued, "Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if he found a way out by using that mouth of his."
"I always thought you were a prick, Robson. But I never suspected you were such a cunt" Beecher enunciated carefully, sticking his jaw out as he stepped forward. Robson wasn't expecting the threatening posture, but didn't show it.
"Looks like you've got a mouth too. Better watch that."
"Is that a threat, Private?"
The heightened volume in Beecher's voice drew the attention of a few nearby prisoners. The possibility of a confrontation was a welcome break in the tedium, and they were all surprised to see the corporal emerge from behind Keller's shadow as an intimidating presence in his own right. They oriented themselves for a better view.
Augustus Hill was engaged in a conversation with Arnold Jackson. While in the process of writing his chronicle of POW life, Hill had noticed Jackson exhibit some interest. He'd let the man read a few chapters, after which Arnold had voiced his admiration and nervously handed Augustus a few crumpled sheets of paper with a frenetically-paced poetry scrawled on them. Hill prided himself on being open-minded and non-judgmental, but was slightly ashamed to learn that he had significantly underestimated his peer's literary ability, having previously dismissed him as simply brooding and ambitious. He was floored by the other man's raw talent and unorthodox style, and immediately suggested that the poems be incorporated into his novel. This had pleased Jackson immensely, and inspired him to spend any time that he didn't devote to maintaining the stalag's trade network penning new compositions. Augustus was excited by the idea of collecting the thoughts of other prisoners, and had immediately approached his respected superior, Sergeant Truman, about the possibility of a contribution to his book. Truman had produced a smile of genuine enthusiasm, and admitted that he had more than a few tales of spiritual growth that he wanted to share. Hill was in the process of relating this news to Jackson when they became aware of raised voices and a small crowd that had gathered on the other side of the room. Out of curiosity, both men moved closer for a better view. In the middle of the crowd stood Tobias Beecher and James Robson, only inches apart, faces twisted in anger. Neither man said a word, but it was apparent that they were both a hair's width from violence.
Augustus still felt a connection to Tobias because of their similar experiences in the arena of romance - particularly when it came to braving society's disapproval. So it was without any hesitation that he pushed his way through the wall of bodies and placed himself between the two opponents.
"What's going on, Tobias?" his voice was stern and his gaze never left Robson's face. The simple act of defiance succeeded in enraging the aggressor even further.
"Since when do you need a nigger to fight your battles for you, Beecher?"
"Say that again, and I'll rip your throat out" Tobias hissed, pale blue eyes like ice. The tension in the room hummed like electricity.
"Does Keller know he's sharing you with little black Sambo?"
Hill barely managed to stop Tobias from grabbing Robson, taking the full force of the enraged corporal's lunging body. The wind was knocked out of him, but he kept his footing, bracing himself against the floor and holding Beecher back. He didn't have to raise his voice to keep the men separated, as the riot that erupted between the white and black prisoners engulfed them.
It only took a few moments for the Nazi soldiers to rush into the room, weapons ready. None of the prisoners had seen their captors employ so many men before and instantly froze in place. They were overtaken almost immediately - those who didn't drop to the floor in submission were beaten there. Amidst screams of pain and confusion, Hill managed to find Tobias, who was on his knees trying to staunch a gushing nose bleed. Hill yanked at his arm and strained to pull him from the center of the melee. As the two men scrambled over their aching limbs to a corner of the barracks, the brawl began to die down. Metzger stood silently in the doorway, surveying the aftermath.
"Who's responsible for this?" he demanded.
Beecher tensed, but all eyes instinctively fell on Robson. Apparently the man's aggressive demeanor hadn't won him much loyalty. Metzger nodded his head in Robson's direction, and he was swiftly removed from the room, struggling and cursing. Tobias finally allowed himself to breathe as the Germans exited, leaving a throng of bruised and bloodied men in their wake. He'd succeeded in stopping the blood flow with the end of his shirt while trying to determine whether or not his nose was broken. He was feeling the familiar itch for a hit of morphine when the sight of O'Reily attempting to navigate through the crowd slapped him with guilt. Chris could be gravely injured, or worse, and all he could think about was satisfying his appetites. Tobias stared at the floor as Ryan came up to him.
"Jesus, what the hell happened here?" the Irishman asked incredulously.
"Robson opened his mouth and started a fucking riot."
"Shit. I knew he'd get the crap kicked out of him one day for shooting it off to the wrong guy."
"Yeah. You're lucky you weren't around. Did you find anything out?" Tobias cut to the chase, hoping to steer his thoughts away from what had just happened.
"You're in luck, Beecher. Seems like your boy got the Krauts more riled up than usual... they threw him in solitary."
"What? Where's that?"
"That's the million dollar question. You know, with the missing prisoners and all..." O'Reily saw the look of panic on Beecher's face and rushed to reassure him, "Don't worry, my sources say that he's alive. Right now we're trying to figure out where they've got him hidden."
"I don't even want to think about it." Tobias moaned, turning a sickly shade of white. He instantly forgot the pulsing pain in the bridge of his nose.
"Then don't. Or at least try not to... I've got this covered."
"Please Ryan, I've got to know how bad he is" Beecher implored, voice forceful.
"Relax, corporal. This is what I do best" Ryan grinned. He left the barracks fueled by a sense of purpose, his strides confident. Augustus pulled himself up next to Tobias and looked at his swelling face.
"I'd tell you to put some ice on that, but I doubt even Ryan could find some for ya" he sighed. It had been hot the last few days, but the air was still heavy with heat despite the fact that the sun had set. No one doubted that it would only get worse. Tobias sighed and nodded in agreement, silently hoping that "solitary" was someplace dark and cool.
Chris managed to keep panic at bay throughout the night, as he drifted in and out of sleep. He had pressed his body up against one of the slits, and was able to gulp in some of the night air. It was still warm with the lingering heat of the sun, but he knew it would quickly get worse at the break of dawn, and breathed in as much as he could. He'd hoped that he'd dream of Toby, but because of his restless night, he wasn't able to dream at all. Focusing his mind on his lover was calming, despite the faint, gnawing fear that he'd never see him again. But Chris wasn't the type of person to allow such thoughts cripple him, instead using it to fuel his determination to survive. He imagined Toby's face flashing with an unguarded smile, his clear blue eyes bright with affection. A sudden sense of melancholy seeped into him as he realized how long it had been since he'd seen Toby that happy. Chris winced. Schillinger had succeeded in damaging what he loved most about Toby. The thought filled Chris with revulsion and fury, but he was too exhausted to react. He seethed alone in silence as the first light of sunrise peaked though the slits in the metal. Minutes and hours blurred together as the temperature rose, and soon he lay panting on the concrete, careful not to touch the scalding steel that surrounded him. Sweat rolled off his body and he fought to suck in enough oxygen from the thick atmosphere. His mind began to flash in and out of consciousness before he finally fell into the world of garish shapes and colors that closed in on him.
He was back in the room where they had first brought him upon his arrival at the stalag. Major Schillinger's face was so close to his own that the man's features were even more fishlike than usual. His eyes were bulging and distorted as he spoke, his voice tense with anger. He prowled around the chair where Chris was tied, and studied him intensely.
"You think you're in control here?" he asked, backhanding his captive across the face. "You're shit!"
"Then why the fuck are you so obsessed with me?" Chris asked defiantly, mouth stained with blood.
"I know that you aren't one of Murphy's men" Schillinger growled at him.
Chris slowly licked the blood from his lips and languidly readjusted himself in the chair as if the beating was a minor inconvenience. The German's observation had thrown him off-guard, but he didn't show it. Chris decided that it was too risky to continue with the operation as originally planned, so he decided to make a few adjustments. Results would take longer, but he had no other choice. He had to roll with the punches.
"Suck my dick" he grinned, refusing to break the gaze he held with his captor. Schillinger lunged forward and proceeded to beat him into unconsciousness.
Chris struggled to open his eyelids as a screeching metallic noise pierced though the fog in his mind. He was back in the present. He heard a tray being slid across the rough concrete floor, and repositioned himself to see what it was. A bowl of what looked like water, and a slice of bread. Luckily, it was within reach of his right rand, and he was able to pull the food close enough to his mouth to eat it. The water was warm, but he had to will himself not to gulp it down too quickly, instead letting the sweet liquid trickle past his dry lips and down his throat. After finishing, he pushed the tray back where they'd put it in, and fell into a deep sleep, lacking the energy and willpower for anything else.
Tobias could sense that Hill, O'Reily and Murphy were concerned about him, but he didn't care. He'd felt guilty whenever he injected himself with a syrette, and so had resolved to stop abusing morphine. But his body was rebelling against the decision, and he lay on his bed, bathed in a cold sweat. He knew that the pain he felt likely couldn't hold a candle to what Chris was enduring, but still he felt his willpower eroding. Glancing around the room for something to take his mind off the cravings, he spotted Sergeant Truman kneeling in a corner, figurines placed in front of him, eyes closed in prayer. Tobias had been raised Christian like every other white-bread kid in America, but he'd never really taken the teachings of the church to heart. It had just seemed like anything else that was expected of him - he learned and practiced it by rote, but it held no greater meaning. Watching the quietly rapturous expression on Truman's face, he couldn't help but wish that he could find the same peace in his life Since coming to the stalag, he'd lacked the sense of purpose that military life had given him. He'd always been the kind of person who thrived on structure, which was part of the reason why he found it so difficult to pull himself out of depression. In contrast, Chris could find purpose in any situation, even a chaotic one. That ability was doubtless what was keeping him sane in solitary. And it was also one of the reasons that Tobias loved him. *What the hell*, Beecher thought as he swung his legs over the side of his mattress and began to walk towards Truman. *If religion can't help me beat this habit, at least it'll keep me busy.*
Hauptmann Metzger used his rare time alone to complete paperwork. The logistics of running a stalag was a delicate matter, and he took great pride in making sure that the records were kept as clean as possible. Little more than a signature from Schillinger was required to finish the heavy workload, and for that, Metzger was pleased. He didn't begrudge having to do it himself. Otherwise, he was certain it would never get completed at all. He tapped his pen on his desk and drifted into thought.
Although he'd never give any indication of it, he disliked the man who'd been recently placed above him. Schillinger had a reputation for getting results by any means necessary, and that ruthless ambition had allowed him to secure the coveted position he was now occupying. But Metzger, a man who wasted none of his energy on unnecessary words or actions, felt nothing but distaste for the indulgences he knew that his superior was secretly partaking in. He could care less that the behavior was a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention: what unsettled him was the fact that Schillinger's games were simply entertainment for his bloated ego, and would likely backfire against him. By keeping some of his pets alive rather than disposing of them, he just created more enemies.
It was a lapse in logic that infuriated Metzger, and shaped his own agenda to expose the major as the incompetent hedonist that he was. He intended his plan to be as simple as possible, and would have preferred to keep the players involved to a bare minimum, but the American soldier who had offered himself as an ally presented too great an opportunity to refuse. It had been difficult to meet with the man without alerting Schillinger, but now that the Judas had been removed from the prison population, Metzger would have an opportunity to get everything that he needed from him. Knowledge was power, and an invaluable commodity that he planned to have sole possession of.
They'd brought Chris a single cup of water on every one of the five days he'd spent in solitary, and no solid food following the meager helping of bread they'd given him on the first morning - but he wasn't even capable of contemplating his predicament. As time dragged on, he began to recognize that his body was feeling the effects of starvation, and concentrated on achieving a near-comatose state in order to conserve every ounce of energy left in him. Because of this, he was blessedly unaware of his surroundings. The agony of the heat would have tempted anyone else with madness. His mind was still torpid when they gripped his limp, unresponsive body and hoisted him out of the box. He felt weightless, like he was floating, as they moved him in the cover of night. Their voices seeped through into his brain only intermittently, and the words seemed like gibberish. The motion caused him to gag and he heaved bitter stomach acid onto the ground, but wasn't aware of doing it. He'd been weak before, almost hallucinating from fatigue, but this was completely different; his body didn't scream in protest - it was silent. Instinctively, he knew that he was near death.
He didn't utter a sound when they deposited him on a worn cot, but let out a stifled moan as they slowly trickled water over his mouth.
Tobias had finally found peace, kneeling silently in prayer, letting Sergeant Truman's deep, confident voice pacify him. When he'd first approached Truman more than a week earlier, the other man had met him with a scrutinizing gaze and silence, but not outright refusal. Not one to be easily discouraged, Tobias stayed in the officer's company, and resolutely studied his spiritual routine. Truman was at first aggravated by the corporal's presence, but found it easier to simply ignore him. Acceptance was soon to follow. He hadn't said many words to his informal protg, but for some reason Truman suddenly felt the need to articulate the thoughts that had been brewing inside him for days.
"Are you here to atone for your sins?"
"Isn't that why everyone prays?" Tobias responded, raising an eyebrow wryly.
'"Some people simply want to speak with God. Undoubtedly you are fueled by guilt."
"I know I've turned self-flagellation into an art form, but most people feel guilty when they kill someone."
It wasn't quite the answer that Truman was expecting, and he couldn't help but allow his eyes to widen.
"Every man here is expected to kill in order to protect his people and his way of life. Our actions are self-defense in the simplest definition of the term. I'm referring to your insistence on having a sexual relationship with another man."
Tobias smirked and shook his head. He'd suspected what Truman's viewpoint on his relationship with Keller was, but he hadn't thought the man would be so upfront about it.
"I don't regret that I love Chris. I'll never apologize for it, not even to the Almighty. I'm thankful for it."
"I can't listen to this..." Truman began, sitting back on his haunches.
"No, don't you walk away. You'd have me repent and deny the one thing that gives my life meaning, and I can't do that. Chris fulfills that same need in me that God does for you."
"That's blasphemy, Corporal Beecher" came the heated reply.
"No, it's not. Think about it. We're all selfish creatures when you get right down to it. Christianity itself is a selfish religion."
Truman began to interrupt, but Tobias barreled on, ignoring him.
"Salvation, an afterlife in heaven with God... that's a selfish ambition. When you're 'good', when you go to church and pray, you're rewarded with a sense of accomplishment. If you're one of the lucky few who truly experiences spiritual rapture, science says that feeling is biochemically identical to the euphoria of love - nothing more. I'd do anything for Chris. I'd sacrifice my life for him, and I know you'd do the same for your beliefs. But I'm not going to pretend that I don't crave the sensation that loving him gives me. Don't delude yourself, either."
"Don't lecture me about delusions" the sergeant's voice was thin.
"I'm not lecturing. I've got no doubt that you truly love God. But I can't believe that you've ever really loved another human being."
Truman was about to argue Tobias' presumptuous declaration when O'Reily rushed up to them, out of breath and visibly excited.
"Beecher! We got one of 'em to spill! They're keeping Chris in that big metal box in the back of the yard. He's been in there for more than a week, and they haven't brought him food in days. We went out there and banged on it, but there's no response. It's too dark to see inside..." Ryan raced, his eyes wild. He tugged on Tobias' sleeve, but he didn't move. He was frozen in panic.
"I'm sorry, Corporal Beecher. I'll pray for you" Truman said quietly.
"Pray for Chris." Tobias managed to choke out, getting to his feet. Without even thinking about it, he proceeded to directly contradict the speech on humanity's innate selfishness that he'd just given Truman. He turned to O'Reily, features grim.
"I've got to speak to Schillinger."
"And do what? He'll try to kill you too."
"I don't fucking care. I've got no other choice" Beecher almost yelled at him. Ryan regarded his companion with disbelief and respect. He knew that he'd never be able to talk him out of it.
"Lets go get the guards."
Schillinger almost couldn't believe his good fortune. Things were seemingly falling into place on their own accord, without his provocation or encouragement. It was a rare case of luck, and he wasn't above reveling in it. Keller had been close to death when they retrieved him; severely dehydrated, heartbeat irregular. The physician had declared that his organs were on the verge of shutting down, and he needed to be immediately transferred to the infirmary. The major had ignored the medical advice, but made all efforts to see that the sergeant was kept alive. He was weaned slowly, graduating from water to more nourishing liquids like milk, then to small quantities of soft food. His stomach rejected it at first, but he was too disoriented to protest. Enough time had passed that he was now able to sit upright and spoon himself some raw porridge. His eyes were still glassy, hooded by weighted lids. He hadn't yet uttered a word, evidently still reeling from his ordeal.
Keller was hunched over table, silently bringing some tepid sludge to his lips when Schillinger was informed that Corporal Beecher was demanding to see him. He had to take a moment to compose himself. The timing couldn't have been better if he had personally orchestrated it. Nodding to his subordinate, he left Keller in the spare room, and made his way to where they had brought Beecher.
Tobias was frantic with fear and anger. He could feel the vein on his forehead throbbing as he paced the room, hands clenched. The guards that accompanied him stood back and gave him berth to move. Metzger stood quietly in the corner, waiting for his commanding officer to arrive. When Schillinger finally entered, homely face twisted in a smirk, the corporal almost lost control. He strode towards his enemy, and stopped only inches from him.
"Where is he?" Tobias growled, jaw tight. He was almost lightheaded with rage, and had lost any fear of the man who had raped him. Tobias knew that this wouldn't escape Schillinger, and wasn't surprised when he attempted to reclaim his psychological advantage.
"Why would I tell you anything? There's nothing you can give me that I haven't already taken from you."
Tobias flinched only slightly at the barb, his eyes still flashing with anger. He was silent for a moment, desperately trying to think of a bargaining chip that he could use. When it came to him, the answer seemed so obvious it was almost unthinkable. But, he was resolved to sacrifice anything for Chris, and so didn't hesitate to cross a line that most men wouldn't dare to approach. O'Reily and Murphy would likely never look at him again if they knew what he was about to say.
"I've become acquainted with some powerful men in the barracks. British and American commanding officers. I can get information from them... anything that you want to know" he uttered with a calm that most men committing treason would lack. Schillinger responded with a laugh that made Tobias shudder.
"My poor, na*ve boy. I already have an informant."
Metzger's head snapped in the major's direction as the words left his mouth. Beecher was just as stunned by the revelation, and dutifully followed Schillinger as the man ordered him out into the corridor. They walked only a few paces before the Nazi stopped, and wordlessly opened a door that led to a small room. Inside, Keller sat at the table, eating, oblivious to the horrified stare of his lover. Tobias felt the blood drain from his face as the image slowly began to register. The major closed the door again and turned to face the man he'd just demolished.
"I've answered your question. This is where Sergeant Keller is. Is there anything else you would like to know before we take you back to the barracks?"
Tobias shook his head slowly, and didn't utter a word as the guards took him by the arms and escorted him out of the building.
Metzger was furious. After Major Schillinger had led Beecher out of the room, the hauptmann left without being dismissed, seeking refuge in the quiet of his office. Once inside, he stood frozen in the center of the floor, wishing that he could throw the contents of his desk against the opposing wall without alerting others to his anger. The American had promised that he would work with him exclusively. Evidently, the bastard had been supplying Schillinger with information as well. Metzger grit his teeth and swore heavily under his breath. He'd been an idiot to trust a man who would betray his own country. It was too much to hope that he'd been made privy to news that hadn't reached his rival's ears as well. The advantage he once prized so greatly had evaporated. He intended to confront the American about it. And maybe get some satisfaction out of a bleak situation.
O'Reily rushed to Beecher's side as soon as he was brought back in, relieved to see that he hadn't been injured out of retribution for his bold demand. However, the man that returned looked like death itself, and Ryan began to wonder if the corporal really had escaped punishment.
"Jesus Beecher, are you alright?"
"Leave me the fuck alone" Tobias responded, voice dull. Ryan stopped in his tracks and gaped as Beecher lurched to his bunk and fell back onto it, evidently determined to repeat the cycle of despair that he'd so recently succeeded in escaping. The Irishman debated following his friend, but decided against it, opting to go alert Murphy instead.
Tobias knew that he'd soon be accosted by his companions, but he couldn't bring himself to care. He couldn't get the image of Chris out of his head; how he'd just sat there, relaxed, enjoying a meal, refusing to even look at him. Tobias was beyond feeling deceived. A cold acceptance washed over him as everything fell into place. The embraces, the tender words of comfort, simple acts of kindness, hours of intimate conversation... they'd obviously just been a way for Keller to get close to him. The fact that the sergeant had used sex to seal the deal made Tobias want to gag with shame and disgust. How could he have been so easy? His neediness had made him the ideal target. Hot tears began to burn his eyes as he lay seething. The shame he'd felt at Schillinger's rape now seemed almost laughable in comparison. The very thought that he'd wanted Chris to be his first was now wincingly painful to contemplate. It was obvious why he'd been chosen as a patsy instead of a man of higher rank and access to sensitive information, like Truman or Murphy. He was close enough to them to have their confidence, but unlike them, would willingly bend over and take it up the ass. He buried his face in his hands and suppressed a scream. He'd spent the entire week in agony over Chris, only to find that the fucker had been a Nazi VIP the entire time. He needed a hit of morphine. Then he wouldn't have to recall the sensation of Chris' gentle lips, able hands or joyful smile... any the reminders that he was still in love with the memory of the man who'd betrayed him.
Chris had never possessed a weak constitution. However, he still hadn't completely regained mental and physical equilibrium, despite finally having the strength to feed himself. He knew that Schillinger wouldn't nurse him back to health without an ulterior motive, but was too famished to care. His survival instincts took precedence. Chris had recovered enough to be under no imminent threat of death, but his mind was still clouded and dull, and he found it difficult to concentrate on more than one task at a time. When the German major had intruded into the quiet of his small room, he'd been too engrossed in the process of eating - something that he was unlikely to take for granted any time soon - to notice that another man was standing behind Schillinger. The strange visit lasted only a matter of moments, and when the door was closed again, he hardly gave it a second thought before plunging back into the thick helping of oatmeal. After finishing, Chris lay down on the small cot that had been supplied to him and fell into a deep, recuperative sleep. When the creak of the door woke him, he had no idea how long he'd been out. He blinked and strained to sit as Schillinger walked towards him, face displaying a satisfied smirk. Immediately, Chris was wide awake. He recognized it as a sign that didn't bode well for him.
"I wanted to come here in person and extend my thanks to you, Sergeant Keller. You played your part to perfection" the major grinned in a manner that reminded his captive of a barracuda.
"What?" Chris asked, trying to make sense of the strange remark. Schillinger ignored him and kept talking.
"But, I fear that you no longer serve any purpose. In fact, you've become a liability, really. I'm glad you enjoyed that meal. It was your last."
Keller bolted upright as the Nazi pulled his pistol from its holster and pointed it directly at his face. He had been trained to survive graver situations than this, and didn't intend to go out with a whimper. A vivid image of Toby's smiling face flashed in his mind, and he blurted out the first thing that came to him.
"You're being betrayed."
Schillinger's aim wavered, but he kept his weapon pointed at its target.
"Stall tactics" he stated, but there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice that Keller immediately recognized, and took advantage of.
"A double-agent. Very close to you" Chris announced with all the authority he could muster, keeping his stare calm and assured. He studied the German's reaction, and detected evidence of confusion and anger.
"But there is no spy" Schillinger spoke almost inaudibly, unable to reconcile that the lies he'd told to manipulate others had actually held a grain of truth. "Prove it!" he yelled, cocking the gun.
"Now why would I just hand my chips over to you, Major? Give me some credit."
Schillinger considered his options, despite the overwhelming urge to blow the arrogant American's head clean off his shoulders. In the end, he decided that he could get both the information and the satisfaction. He would just have to exercise some patience. He took a deep breath and hesitantly lowered his weapon.
"What do you want?"
"Your guarantee that I'll be returned to the barracks, unharmed. I want protection for Beecher as well. I should kill you for what you did to him" Keller hissed, his eyes piercing his enemy, "but that wouldn't do either of us any good, would it?"
"Fine. You and your boy will be safe. Now tell me what you know."
"Nice try. You'll know what I want you to know only when I want you to know it" Chris smirked, savoring the fury in Schillinger's glare. "Right now, I'll tell you this: your man's working with an American who has been feeding him valuable information behind your back."
"You" the reply was strangled with hatred. The German raised his weapon again.
"Now, now. Don't jump the gun. It's not me. It's Private First Class Robson" Chris paused, letting the information sink in.
"How do I know you're not lying?" Schillinger snarled, furious that such a plot could have been carried out under his radar.
"There's only one way for me to prove this to you without exposing my hand. Follow Robson. He'll meet up with your man sooner or later, and you can catch them both red-handed" Chris pushed, studying the other man's reaction.
"If you're lying to me, I'll kill both you and Beecher." Schillinger stated plainly.
This answer seemed to satisfy the German, who finally returned his revolver to its place at his side. He called out to his guards, who quickly entered the room and flanked Keller to escort him back to the barracks. Chris was warmed by the prospect of reuniting with Toby after more than a week of separation. But he couldn't shake the sickening fear that he'd put his lover's life in danger by making a deal with the devil.
Tobias knew that Keller was back in the barracks without even having to turn over to face the entrance. The hush of reverence that came over his fellow prisoners was an immediate indicator. Slowly, with an almost morbid interest, he rolled himself over and stared at the small entourage that had entered the building. His instincts were right. The familiar lines of the sergeant's body that had so recently provoked feelings of both lust and adoration in him now elicited disgust and anger. One glance confirmed his fears; the man looked alert and healthy. Not what you'd expect from someone who had spent the last week clinging to life in a small metal box. Tobias grit his teeth and clenched his palms, which had broken out in a cold sweat. More than anything, he wanted to leap across the room and attack the face that was now staring at him with a hint of both apprehension and shame. But, he refused to give the other soldiers the satisfaction of such a display. When he confronted Keller, he didn't want it to be in front of a jeering audience. Tobias exhaled deeply and turned over, giving the bastard a good look at his back. He heard the guards leave, and Keller's rushed footsteps approach is bunk. He refused to react.
"Baby, are you okay?" the concern in the sergeant's voice seemed to mock him, "Are you sick or something?"
Keller reached to place a hand on Tobias' forehead, but the man flinched away as if burned by fire.
"Fuck off" Beecher managed to keep his voice steady and cold. The hand froze inches from him, and a tense silence followed.
"Tobe, what is it?" Chris whispered. Tobias ignored him, staring at a nonexistent spot on the wall facing him. Chris said his name again, this time in a tone that would have ripped Beecher's heart out if it hadn't already been broken. When he was met by nothing but further silence, Keller released a ragged sigh and walked away from the bed. Part of Tobias wanted the man to come back, just so that he could revel in dispensing more guilt. But, since Keller had never actually loved him, he wouldn't be burdened by any pain or remorse.
Keller was in a daze as he left his lover's side. He did the only thing that seemed logical, and sought out other familiar faces in the crowd. O'Reily and Murphy found him before he had a chance to spot them. Both had witnessed the sergeant's rejection, and were curious about what had been the cause of Beecher's unexpected behavior.
"Is everything alright, Keller?" Ryan asked cautiously, trying not to pour any salt on the wound. He and Murphy exchanged worried glances as Chris blinked and stared straight ahead.
"I don't know..." he finally replied, voice like sandpaper. He focused his gaze on the private, face grim. "Did they take Toby away while I was gone? Was he tortured again?"
"No. Things were pretty uneventful around here. Well, Beecher got into a fight with Robson. A riot started, but Metzger was in here before things got too bad. He pulled Robson out and we haven't seen him since. Not that anyone's complaining."
Keller's stomach almost dropped through to his feet. Ryan's news made him forget his woes over Beecher's rebuff. The other men saw the color drain from his face and grew concerned.
"Does Schillinger know that Robson's been taken out of the barracks?" Keller asked urgently.
"He'd have to, wouldn't he?" Murphy responded, confused by the sergeant's line of questioning. Chris' mind was in overdrive, trying to anticipate how that major would react when he inevitably discovered that Robson couldn't be shadowed because he was being held elsewhere. Based on Schillinger's almost pathological need for control, it seemed safe to assume that he'd discover who had quarantined the man, and draw the inevitable conclusion. But that was dependent upon the German possessing some level of intelligence. Keller winced. Events had already been set in motion, and it was too late to redirect them. He'd have to step back and hope for the best - something that he'd always had trouble doing. He wasn't a passive individual.
"Are you sure that you're alright?" O'Reily intruded upon his thoughts. "We found out how they had you in solitary. Beecher fuckin' flipped out this morning when I told him. You should have seen the guards' faces when he demanded to see Schillinger. It was like he had a death wish or something."
Chris turned sharply to stare at the Irishman, taken off guard by his comment.
"You knew where they were keeping me?"
"Yeah, it took forever but we finally managed to bribe one of the guards. I think Beecher feared the worst. To be honest, I thought you were dead when he came back in here a few hours ago, looking like ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. He's hardly said a word since. I thought he'd be over the moon when you came back through that door."
"We're surprised, to say the least" Murphy agreed, sympathy in his voice. Keller hardly heard him, preoccupied with trying to figure out what could have turned Tobias against him so quickly and so radically. Like a flash, he realized that Ryan had never succeeded in bribing a guard, but was instead given the false impression that he had. The guard had deliberately fed him information that Schillinger wanted Toby to have. A deep chill ran through Chris as the German's earlier words - "you played your part to perfection" - finally made sense. He let out a deep groan. O'Reily and Murphy could only stare in bewilderment as Chris bolted back towards his lover without a word of explanation.
Metzger hadn't rushed to confront Robson about his duplicity, instead opting to bide his time until he was certain that Schillinger was preoccupied with his two favorite pets. He had been keeping the American in a simple room not far from his own quarters, and made sure that he was supplied with basic amenities. It was important that the private wasn't given any indication that his deceit had been discovered, but it was just as vital that he wasn't provided with treatment that could be considered too preferential by questioning eyes. Their prior dealings had to remain a secret. The information that Robson had given him was invaluable. Right before his capture, the American had seen strategic intelligence - including maps and decoded commands - while inside the Ally's hidden headquarters in Vallauris. Forces stationed in Italy were preparing to convene with the forces from Normandy in late August under General Jacques Leclerc. That was only a week away. The strategy was admittedly brilliant, and one that could mean a vital victory for Germany's enemies. By notifying his superiors, the hauptmann would be guaranteed significant advancement.
Metzger was careful not to be observed as he entered Robson's room, closing the door behind him. The traitor looked up at him with an expression of sullen petulance, which immediately made the German's blood boil.
"What the hell is the meaning of this, Metzger? How many days are you planning on keeping me in here? Are you protecting your investment, or your boss' plaything? I wouldn't have hurt Beecher too badly" he smirked with self-satisfaction.
Metzger regarded him coldly with a disquieting silence. Eventually, Robson began to fidget under the intense scrutiny.
"What?" he asked accusingly. The hauptmann's carefully maintained veneer ruptured.
"I should kill you right now, you waste of skin. We had an agreement!"
As the last words left his mouth, the door swung open, and Schillinger entered. Time slowed, as if he was in some kind of bad dream, unable to retrieve the damning statement he'd made, or even concoct an excuse to save him. Metzger just stood, dumbfounded, unable to believe that his carefully orchestrated plan had come crashing down around him. How could his superior have known? He'd been so careful not to be followed. He looked at Robson, and something inside him snapped. Metzger pulled his gun and rushed towards the stunned American, who was unable to utter a single word before a bullet hit him above his left eye. The hauptmann had only a second to savor the man's death before a sharp pain tore through his back. As the weight of his body collapsed to the floor, he realized with a vague indifference that his spinal column had been severed by Schillinger's steady aim. But he didn't really care, because there was no pain as the darkness crept over him and the world faded away.
Tobias saw Chris coming towards him and decided to make a preemptive move. Without giving him a second glance, he got up from his cot and walked out of the building, deliberately leading the other man to the yard, which was essentially deserted. When he was sure that Chris had trailed him out behind the barracks, he stopped and waited for the inevitable confrontation. He was ready.
"Toby, wait... I don't know what they told you -" Chris pleaded as he approached.
"Shut up. I don't want to fucking hear it. They didn't tell me anything. I saw you with my own eyes. I should go back in there right now tell the others how you're a traitor. They'd rip you apart."
"When exactly did you see me?" Chris pressed. It just provoked Tobias further.
"You're a talented actor, but there's no way you could have missed me standing there right next to Schillinger. Nice try, though." Beecher hissed back at him. A look of pained realization spread over Chris' haggard expression.
"Tobe, I swear... I wasn't in my right mind. I had no idea there was anyone else in the room with that bastard They starved me for days and then started feeding me. I couldn't understand why the fuck they were doing it, but I didn't care. All I could think about was eating."
"That's such bullshit. Everyone had misgivings about you from the beginning, but of course, I wanted to believe that you actually gave a fuck about me. Hell, even Schillinger practically said you were a spy right before he raped me."
Chris bent forward and put his hands on his knees. His entire body seemed to be vibrating with rage, but when he raised his head, Tobias saw that his eyes were red and moist.
"I didn't want to believe it. He hinted at what he'd done to you, but I still held out some hope..."
"You want fucking proof?" Beecher yelled as he turned his back to the other man, and yanked his trousers down far enough for the raw, burned flesh to be exposed. The morphine in his blood didn't fully dull the pain, and he winced as his hand grazed the swastika.
"Jesus Christ." Chris' eyes widened, and he began to pace like a caged animal, choked with rage.
"Stop pretending to give a shit. It's pathetic. I want to fucking puke when I think of how you whored yourself out to get close to me. You're nothing more than a male Mata Hari."
"You think I'd actually blow someone in the name of international espionage?" Keller was both hurt and disbelieving. Tobias seemed to falter for a moment. He tried to regain some composure, quieting his anger and regarding Chris with as little emotion as possible.
"Give me proof."
The simple request hung in the air between them, and the two men stared at each other silently until Keller finally spoke.
"There was a spy, Toby. It was Robson. He was working with Metzger behind Schillinger's back. That Nazi fuck was going to shoot me, so I struck a deal with him. Right now, he's likely discovering that his second in command betrayed him. But if Metzger finds away to avoid getting caught... I'm dead."
Tobias considered Chris' words carefully. If the man was telling the truth, then an obvious conclusion could be drawn by anyone who understood the way that Schillinger's mind worked.
"And then I'm as good as dead, aren't I?" Tobias knew that the major would have no reason to keep him around if he couldn't be used as a weapon against Chris.
Chris nodded morosely, and sighed. At least Toby was acting rationally now.
"I'm sorry, I had no choice. He said he'd kill you, too. I took a big risk, but it was the only way I could save the both of us."
"I can't believe you fucking used my life as a bargaining chip!"
"You're welcome. And no need to apologize. Being accused of treason by your lover is nothing, especially after a week's worth of torture" Chris clenched his jaw, suddenly infuriated by Toby's petulance.
"Well, it's not like I didn't have reason. How honest have you been with me Chris? I still get the feeling that you're keeping some things to yourself. Like, what happened to your platoon in Auribeau?" Toby deflected the jibe, taking a tentative step forward. "I don't want it to be that way between us..."
His eyes still betrayed an injured trust that was unlikely to be healed by placating words alone. Chris' gut clenched up. The other man had asked the question that he'd been dreading. He looked down at the grass, unable to maintain eye contact.
"Toby, you have to understand... there are some things that I just can't tell you. For your own safety."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Please, don't ask me..."
"Okay then. I won't. I think that this makes us about even. We don't owe each other anything else" Tobias kept his voice calm as he turned to leave. When Chris reached out to grab his arm, he snapped.
"Don't lay a fucking hand on me."
He wrenched away and stormed from the sergeant, who was frozen in disbelief. Tobias didn't know whether to be relieved or insulted when he heard no footsteps following him back into the barracks.
Chris was furious with himself. His mind had been so adversely affected by starvation that the obvious hadn't occurred to him until he was standing out in the yard, trying in vain to alleviate Toby's suspicions. The moment Toby had pressed to know more about Auribeau, the details of Chris' mission came flooding back to him. From the very beginning, one parameter had been fixed, and of paramount importance. He was required to make contact with his superiors and keep them informed of the situation, by any means necessary. Chris was tenacious and resourceful - he had never failed to meet the terms before. It was decided from the very outset that his mission was of an extremely sensitive nature, and the risk of discovery exposed the entire program to detection. If he didn't make a brief report once every three weeks, they would assume the worst; that he had been captured and the operation compromised. In such an event, the immediate elimination of all mission elements was required. And that included him, if no other option was viable. He knew the risks going in, and had never allowed himself to be bothered by them before - if anything, he'd fed off the adrenaline rush of such dangerous work. But now, everything was different. Toby not only made life worth fighting for, but when the attack came, everyone in the stalag would most likely be killed. His people generally preferred to use an aerial assault - blitzes were messy, but any lack of precision was more than made up for with sheer firepower and a negligible margin of error. If the prisoners were hit by friendly fire, they would be considered a small price to pay for the greater good of national security.
From the very beginning, his installment at the stalag had been the goal, so it was likely that his superiors took it for granted that he had made it inside. As time passed, he'd soon realized it would be almost impossible to get a message to the outside world. Schillinger ruled his kingdom with an iron fist, and inspired both fear and respect in his young subordinates. None had been susceptible to bribery nor practiced lax security. His hope had been quickly fading when Robson had so unexpectedly provided him with another option. Chris had watched his dealings with Metzger carefully, making sure that Schillinger never caught wind of their alliance. When the time was right, he'd planned to blackmail the hauptmann in exchange for making the critical communiqu to prevent the attack.
However, it was now apparent that he'd misplayed his hand. He had little doubt that Schillinger had put the pieces together and discovered Metzger for the traitor that he was. At the very least, the man had been stripped of his ranking, but Keller was certain that the punishment would be nothing less than execution. As he sat contemplating his unforgivable mistake and inability to be forthcoming with Beecher, his mind couldn't help but wander back to another instance when he'd been tormented that he couldn't completely open up to Toby about his life. Ironically, of all the moments they had shared together, it was probably the one he treasured the most.
It had been an uncommonly beautiful day. Warm, clear and bright. Hardly a soul in the entire stalag had neglected to take advantage of the weather, and the yard was overcrowded with men. Some sat in quiet conversation, while others played card games with the contraband decks that the Germans felt were innocuous enough to ignore - busy prisoners were less likely to riot. Sergeant Truman led a group of followers in a heartfelt prayer. Even the guards seemed to be in good spirits. But Tobias and Chris had decided to take advantage of a rare opportunity and stayed indoors to enjoy the privacy of a deserted barracks. Both knew that it likely wouldn't last long, and were hesitant to engage in any kind of loveplay, but were still enjoying an intimacy with conversation. Chris was reclined on Toby's bunk, the other man's blond head resting casually in the dip between his shoulder and pectoral muscle. Chris played absentmindedly with the closely sheared hair at the base of Toby's neck, listening to him recount stories from his early school days.
"I was so mad, I could hardly think straight. I felt like the entire world was conspiring against me. He was the best pet I ever had. Such a good-natured little bird. But she wouldn't even give me an inch of leniency... I ended up staying after school to clean the classroom." Toby sighed in melancholy remembrance.
He was telling Chris about the time he'd accidentally let his parakeet, a little blue and white character named Queequeg, escape while cleaning his cage early one morning. He'd spent thirty frantic minutes running from tree to tree in his neighborhood, trying to find him, but with no luck. Finally, at the urging of his parents, he'd tearfully left for school. The entire way there, he'd stumbled along the sidewalk, blaming himself for deciding to clean the cage on the front porch instead of inside the house, which was his usual habit. When he'd arrived, far after the morning bell, his teacher had scolded him harshly in front of the other students and belittled the reason he'd given for his tardiness, which had made his mistake even more difficult to bear. He'd been in the third grade at the time, and the teacher, Mrs. Adamson, still held a special place on his List of People Who Needed to Drown on Their Own Vomit. Chris gave him a sympathetic kiss on the forehead.
"I hope you had some positive experiences at school, baby. You must've had a favorite teacher... you know, the one that made learning fun for a change."
"Yeah", Toby responded thoughtfully, a wistful smile spreading across his face. "His name was Mr. McCarthy."
"So, were you sweet on him?" Chris teased, which earned him an elbow in the gut.
"No! I was only ten and he was in his thirties. Good Lord."
"Jeez, I was just pullin' your leg, Tobe. Did he inspire you to become a lawyer and help other people?" the question earned Chris some laughter.
"Not exactly. I think he would have been disappointed if he'd found out what career I fell into."
"Oh? What's wrong with upholding society's laws?"
"Nothing" Toby shrugged, "but I don't think any normal kid dreams of being an attorney when he grows up. I had my mind set on other things."
Chris stared at him thoughtfully, sensing that he was about to hear something that Toby wasn't in the habit of sharing with other people. He decided to nudge him in the right direction.
Toby colored a little, and looked away, chewing at his lower lip. He felt Chris rub his chest gently in encouragement, waiting patiently for him to continue his thought.
"Something a bit more creative."
"Really? Like drawing and stuff like that?"
"No. More... um... performance oriented."
"What, like an actor?" Chris asked, surprised and intrigued at the same time.
"No... uh... I liked to sing" Toby admitted, blushing with embarrassment. Chris' eyes grew wide at the admission, and he felt his stomach flutter with excitement. The thought of Toby's rich, sexy voice crooning a ballad made his knees weak. And he wasn't even standing. Suddenly conscious that he likely had a goofy expression on his face, Chris sobered up and cleared his throat.
"Oh yeah?" he inquired, trying to sound casual. "Any songs in particular?"
"Come on, don't be stingy. Lay it on me, baby."
"Are you serious?"
"Hell yes. Lay it on me, baby." He grinned wolfishly, deciding he didn't care if the other man knew how much he wanted it. Toby lay quietly for a moment, seemingly considering his choices. When he opened his mouth, his voice was clear and strong, hitting the perfect key.
"You're making me blue, all that you do seems unfair. You try not to hear, turn a deaf ear to my prayer. It seems you don't want to see what you are doing to me. My arms are waiting to caress you, and to my heart they long to press you, sweet heart..."
As Tobias sang 'Body and Soul', Chris studied him, completely enrapt. He was filled with a near-painful love for the man in his arms, and decided that the impromptu serenade was one of the most erotic things he'd ever experienced. Toby's eyes were closed, his cheeks still tinged with a blush of self-consciousness. His lips were moist, and Chris couldn't stop staring at them, noticing how his tongue kept darting out to lick them furtively between each verse. Every moment that the performance progressed, Chris felt the emotions inside him build until he was taut with desire. He tried to wait patiently, but couldn't control himself, snatching Toby up into a heated kiss before the last word of the song could leave his mouth. His lover crumpled in his arms and moaned softly, parting his lips and yielding as if he were a ripe fruit being bitten into. Chris savored the sweet warmth of the other man's tongue pushing against his own, slick with saliva. Finally, Toby pulled away gulping for air as desperately as he'd been consuming Chris.
"Jesus. I've got to sing more often" he gasped. Chris laughed deeply, squeezing the Toby against him.
"Definitely. Hey, we should have a variety show or something. You know, with comedy skits and stuff like that. You could sing..." Keller rattled away, confident that the other men in the barracks would enthusiastically welcome such a break in the tedium that dominated their lives.
"I don't think so. They're already convinced that I'm a fairy and I don't want to confirm it in front of everyone" Toby said sternly, pursing his lips together. He meant business, and Chris recognized it immediately.
"Okay, okay. Forget I said anything. By the way, you're the deadliest fucking fairy I've ever met. And I demand private performances whenever possible."
"Yes sir. It would be my pleasure" Toby breathed, nuzzling the other man's neck. He lay quietly for a few moments before speaking again, "So, what about you? Do you have any hidden talents I should know about? Or did you always want to be a mechanic?"
The innocent question caught Chris off guard, and he raced to think of a reply that wouldn't be a complete fabrication. He chuckled to buy himself some time, and hoped his words would satisfy his lover's curiosity.
"Ever since I was little I knew that I was a problem solver and loved to work with my hands. The more difficult the task, the better - and if can use both my mind and body to complete it, I'm a happy man."
"Did I detect a few double entendres in there?" Toby quipped, smirking mischievously. Chris planted a playful kiss on his lips and couldn't help but smile with relief.
They were able to enjoy a few more minutes of each other's company before the silence was disturbed by a group of soldiers returning to the barracks. Chris never got a chance to enjoy another song before he and Toby were separated by Schillinger.
Schillinger was livid. He had always considered himself to be a relatively observant human being, but Metzger's betrayal had come as a complete shock. He'd performed his duties willingly, efficiently, and quietly - Schillinger couldn't have asked for a subordinate more suited to his tastes. But, he'd never had the hauptmann pegged as ambitious. At least not enough to pose any real threat to him. Why was it always the quiet ones that secretly schemed?
He'd already had the bodies taken care of, but somehow their presence lingered, and he couldn't help but feel a weight pressing down on him. A voice inside urged that two more men would have to be disposed of as soon as possible, but Schillinger resisted. It was obvious that Keller was more than what he seemed. As the worn but true adage said, knowledge was power, and Schillinger's need for both prevented him from disposing of the sergeant without first uncovering the truth about him.
His patience was frayed thin. He had spent the previous night in a fitful sleep, unanswered questions gnawing into his subconscious. One troubled him most of all: did Metzger and Robson have a co-conspirator? He cursed himself for disposing of them before finding out. If there was a third man, he'd likely taken notice of their absence and wisely adopted a low profile. It was a possibility that irritated Schillinger for two reasons. First, such an individual would be logistically impossible to locate, short of interrogating every prisoner within the stalag. Second, if he did exist, he was in possession of information that was either beneficial or threatening. The more the German turned the problem over in his head, the harder it was to discard his original instinct about Keller. He'd known when he'd first laid eyes on the man that he was different than the others he'd been brought in with, and that was why Schillinger had guessed that he wasn't part of Murphy's crew.
In Schillinger's experience, the simplest explanation tended to be the correct one. How else could the swaggering American have known about Metzger and Robson? The bastard had evidently offered up the lives of his co-conspirators to save those of himself and his bitch. Schillinger wanted to storm into the barracks and give the man the bullet that was owed to him. But, he couldn't ignore the fact that sparing the sergeant's life carried an unexpected blessing. There was a strong possibility that the intelligence he carried could still be retrieved.
The Nazi contemplated what method would best be used to gain access to Keller's mind. So far, their most brutal methods of torture had proved ineffective. And then, like a blinding flash of light, the answer came to him. He gave silent thanks that he'd decided to spare Beecher's life as well. He'd regretted not being able to witness Keller's reaction to he corporal's rape. But now he had an opportunity to see his opponent's torment by ensuring that he observed an encore performance of the humiliation first-hand.
Tobias and Chris elected to ignore each other, continuing to co-exist with a charged yet wary detachment. So far, they had managed to maintain their deliberate avoidance. Not a single harsh word had been dealt between them, let alone a punch. To Tobias' great relief, the others had left him alone. He could sense that they were perplexed and concerned, but he was too preoccupied with a simmering anger to give them even a cursory explanation for the tension that hung in the air. Hill had been kind enough to quietly offer him a cigarette, but he'd declined it immediately. He got all the mollification he needed from the residual levels of morphine still adrift in his veins.
He kept replaying the argument over and over in his head, analyzing Chris' explanations down to the last word. Tobias wanted desperately to believe that he hadn't fallen in love with an impostor, but the other man's reluctance to be completely honest with him cast doubt on everything he'd said. The fact that neither Robson nor Metzger had been seen since Chris' reintroduction to the barracks wasn't lost on Beecher. It supported Chris' story and suggested that Schillinger had identified the traitors and eliminated them. However, he couldn't believe that the German major would uphold his end of the bargain and simply leave Chris and him alone. The monster got too much enjoyment out of playing with the two of them. Tobias was plagued by a dull fear at the bottom of his stomach, half expecting Schillinger's men to burst through the doors at any moment and abduct him for another round of torture. As he stewed, preoccupied by anxiety and resentment, he idly revisited other conversations he had shared with Chris, wondering if anything the man had ever told him was true. Above all, there was one that he hoped hadn't been a fabrication. As he recalled it, Tobias let a smile of contentment spread across his face.
It had been during the walk to Auribeau, when they were first becoming acquainted with each other. Before even the murdered French boy or the rendezvous with McManus' platoon; when Tobias was preoccupied with nothing by Christopher Keller's open smile and laughing eyes. Inevitably, their discussion had turned to the war, something that the corporal usually didn't like to talk about. However, he found that he couldn't refuse the man who limped beside him, bright and affable despite his wound. Chris seemed genuinely curious about him, something that Tobias couldn't help but be flattered by. He couldn't remember the last time someone else had displayed any kind of interest in finding out who he really was - which was often a mystery even to himself. Surprisingly, something as simple as the attentiveness of another person was enough to make him feel a renewed interest in life, a sensation that he hadn't experienced in years. It was for that reason that he'd answered Chris' question with an honesty that he didn't know he still had in him.
"So, have you been under Murphy since your deployment?" the sergeant had asked, eyes bright.
"No. I came over a few months ago. Shipped here from England as part of the first wave of the ETO. They assembled our squad here in France... it was nice being among other Americans for a change, you know? No offence to the Canucks or the Brits."
"I know what you're sayin'. At least you weren't at Normandy, though."
"Yeah, I count my blessings every day for that. Sounds like it was hell on earth... you weren't there, were you?" Tobias ventured. Chris was silent for a moment, his face contemplative, before answering.
"Not directly on the beach. I was part of a night drop prior to the invasion. They got us close so we could take out some artillery batteries on the Atlantic Wall. I was lucky as fuck not to be on those boats."
"Jesus Christ. I didn't know you were a member of Airborne... you must have been right in the middle of it."
"Naw, it wasn't as bad as what the sacrificial lambs had to face. Most of 'em were just kids." Chris sighed.
"I know. We've got them to thank for that victory... how much of the battle did you see?"
"Too much. We had to press in near the cliffs that overlooked the battle to get at our targets. It takes a while to disable a gun battery, and it was hard to ignore what was going on around us."
"That must have been extremely dangerous. Which division were you in?" Tobias gaped, in awe.
"I dropped with the 101st."
"I worked with them."
"They trained with the 82nd! The Airborne's elite!"
Chris colored slightly, his lips pursed in an awkward smile. Rubbing the back of his neck, he broke eye contact with his companion.
"You seem to know a lot about that kind of thing."
"I know that you should be given a medal for what you did. Usually they only give those kinds of missions to commandos."
"Don't sell yourself short. You're my hero" Tobias grinned, sizing up the sergeant with appreciative eyes.
"I'm just lucky" Chris couldn't help but grin, winking back. Beecher had responded with a smile of his own, secretly exhilarated by the modesty and bravery of the man beside him.
As Tobias fondly reviewed the memory of their conversation, a detail that had never held much significance before suddenly jumped out at him. The question of Chris' fidelity had been answered for him weeks ago. Leaning forward to place his head in his hands, Beecher let a moan of regret and realization seep out of him. It had been as plain as day, in front of him the entire time, but he'd been too inflamed by suspicion to see it.
//"Usually they only give those kinds of missions to commandos."//
He'd made the comment innocuously, not fully considering the logical implications that it held. Chris hadn't denied it. He'd simply steered the conversation away from the truth that Tobias had nearly stumbled upon. Christopher Keller was no common soldier. He had been specially trained to complete one of the most vital and delicate operations in the largest offensive maneuver of the war. The men he'd been with in Auribeau had likely been on the same caliber, and were prime targets because of it. Chris was bound by procedure, and so couldn't discuss what had transpired before he stumbled upon Murphy's squad at the abandoned farmhouse. It was also the most plausible reason for Schillinger's interest in Keller upon his arrival at the stalag - the German had sensed that the sergeant was of a rare quality. Tobias got up, furious with himself; he'd never want or expect someone he loved to betray their superiors because of his personal insecurities. The fact that he'd put Chris in such an awkward position pained him. Seized by the need to make amends for his error, he strode up to the first man within sight that he recognized.
"Ryan" Tobias began, interrupting a conversation the private was engaged in with Augustus Hill. "Have you seen Chris?"
"Last I saw him, he was pacing around outside." O'Reily answered, eyeing his superior quizzically.
"Shit. Thanks!" Beecher hollered as he bolted towards the exit, hoping that Keller was still in the yard. He was so engrossed in the task of finding the other man that he didn't hear the rumbling drone of the approaching aircraft.
Schillinger propelled himself down the hallway, his boots pounding against the floorboards. His blood was surging and his mouth was dry. The anticipation of meting out his revenge against Keller was almost euphoric. He'd devised a game that involved trying to guess how long he would have to force himself upon Beecher before Keller relented. There was little doubt in his mind that any information the sergeant divulged would be legitimate - he wouldn't risk further damage to his lover by playing games with the truth. Schillinger was interested in finding out the exact nature of the intelligence, but that revelation wouldn't compare with the satisfaction he'd gain in the extracting of it. He wanted complete victory over the infuriating American; nothing more, nothing less. As the hollow pounding of his stride slammed against the pine, he thought he detected a strange vibration beneath him. Slowing his pace, he concentrated on trying to identify the sound. When the answer dawned on him, he knew it was already too late to make a successful escape. He eyed the pistol clipped to his belt.
Chris knew what it was as soon as he felt the softest tremor. His heart leapt into his throat, and his gut churned. He'd anticipated their arrival, but he hadn't guessed that it would be so soon. The first thought that came to him was to locate and protect Toby. There was little chance that they'd survive the assault unscathed, but they had to at least make the effort. He sprinted towards the barracks and nearly barreled into the very man that he sought. Toby was breathless, and grabbed Chris forcefully.
"Please forgive me, I'm an idiot..." he pleaded, voice tight with emotion.
"Toby, forget about that. We've got to leave or we'll die. NOW!" Chris yelled. Toby regarded him with a dazed expression.
"What are you talking about?"
"An airstrike. They're gonna level the whole fucking place."
"Why they hell would the Germans hit one of their own prisoner camps?" Tobias asked, confused. Chris stared at him, allowing the obvious answer to be inferred by his silence. Beecher gaped. "You mean they're OUR planes?"
"We don't have time for this! Come on!" Chris grabbed Toby's wrist as his voice climbed, aggressively pulling away from the buildings. "We've got to get to that box they were keeping me in."
"What about the others? We can't leave them in there!"
"Toby, we don't have a choice! There isn't enough time to go back. We'd all be killed..."
"Chris, they're my friends! I wouldn't be able to live with myself" Tobias yelled. The hardened survivor that Chris had become wavered at the display of altruism that he'd come to cherish in the man he loved. He pursed his lips and glanced over at the barracks, weighing their chances.
"Hurry!" he shouted, finally relenting. "I'll stay here and keep an eye out."
Tobias nodded and rushed back into the building. Once inside, his heart sank. He knew that if all the prisoners were alerted to the severity of the situation, a stampede would occur and escape would be next to impossible. It was up to him to decide who would live, and who would die. Burdened by such knowledge, but still aware of the seconds ticking away, he loped up to Ryan and quickly explained the situation.
"Tell whoever you want. Murphy, Hill, Jackson, Truman... but make it quick and quiet. The planes will be here any minute."
Ryan was dumbfounded, and for once, speechless. It didn't take him long to recover.
"Are you serious? Our own planes? Where the hell are we supposed to go?" he volleyed the stream of questions at Beecher without taking a breath.
"Chris and I are going out where they had him in solitary. Meet us there."
He rushed back out to rejoin Chris, who was pacing in the yard, alert and agitated. The engines on approach were getting louder by the second, and both men knew that time was running out. Without having to exchange a word, they both broke into a sprint. Upon reaching the large, metal box, Chris reflexively flinched in memory of his deprivation torture, but didn't hesitate before crouching down on his knees and inspecting the dirt that surrounded the structure.
"Thank God. It's pretty loose here. Start digging."
Tobias looked at him like he was crazy, but didn't argue, bending down and furiously scooping the crumbling soil away. He was so engrossed in the task that he didn't hear the others arrive and take up positions beside him, scooping the earth out from under the foundation of the box. It was light and powdery, and within minutes they had displaced enough to allow them all room to curl up tightly inside. Chris insisted that they all enter before he did, and waited steadfastly despite Tobias' protestations. He began to enter only when he knew that his lover was safe inside, and as he struggled to fit his long limbs inside the small remaining space, the first explosion hit.
All the men were squeezed together so tightly they could hardly breathe. None made a sound as the ground shook and the metal above them screeched and moaned. Tobias was frozen with fear, blinded by the swell of bodies and falling dirt, unable to see if Chris had managed to make it inside. As the pounding outside continued, the oxygen in the hole became thinner, and more heated. Soon, all were gasping, bodies sweating, mouths filled with earth. The bombs that hit became so numerous that each impact melded into one, continuous roar. Tobias' breath became labored and stars swam behind his tightly closed lids. He fought to retain consciousness, but the air was quickly becoming poisoned with carbon monoxide. Before the darkness finally descended, the thought came to him that death by suffocation was still preferable to being burned alive. He prayed that Chris had met as merciful an end.
As the first rays of awareness soaked through into his sluggish brain, Tobias tried to move, but found his limbs were weak and unresponsive. He moaned, mouth rough like gravel, and struggled to speak.
"Water" he croaked. Just uttering the word depleted all of his energy, and his head rolled to the side as if weighted.
"Sister Marie, Corporal Beecher said something!" he heard a soft, feminine voice speak not far from him. He didn't even have the strength to open his eyes.
"Thank the Almighty. He's a fighter, alright." The answering voice sounded older, but was not lacking in enthusiasm. Tobias felt a small hand cup the back of his head and lift it gently. Tepid water poured over his lips and down into his throat. He gulped at it desperately, forgetting to breathe. When the cup was finally pulled away, he fought to catch his breath.
"Easy there, soldier." said the voice he'd guessed belonged to Sister Marie. There were so many questions that he wanted to ask her, but he couldn't separate them in his mind. He didn't fight his body as it fell back into a deep sleep.
A warm sponge mopped at his brow. Tobias was immediately awake, and this time was able to open his lids. The light in the room flooded his eyes and he winced, squinting against the assault. He was able to make out the blurry form of a female beside him, and reached out to touch her, still unsure of whether or not he'd been dreaming earlier.
"Where am I?" he asked as he made contact, barely recognizing the alien rasp of his voice.
"A school. The Nazis closed it down before the war, but now we use it to treat the wounded."
He processed the information silently, guessing that he was still in Czechoslovakia.
"You don't sound European."
"I'm not. We were sent here with the troops. You wouldn't believe how many men poured in after Normandy. We're desperately needed here."
"What's your name?" he asked, trying to steer the conversation away from the subject of battles and death.
"Gloria. Or Nurse Nathan... whichever you'd prefer." She answered sweetly, mopping his brow again.
"How long have I been out, Gloria?"
"About a month." She replied sympathetically. Tobias felt something inside him whither, and fought the urge to roll over onto his side and retreat into himself.
"Jesus. What happened to me?"
"The camp you were a prisoner in was destroyed. The explosion attracted some locals, who found you and a few others in the debris. The fact that there were any survivors at all is a miracle. Whoever did it made sure they got the job done."
"Don't they know who it was?" he couldn't help but ask, curious if any evidence of friendly fire had been found. He doubted it.
"They can't tell. No one will take responsibility. Seems both sides just want to sweep it under the rug. It's shameful... all those poor soldiers."
Tobias felt a great sadness descend upon him, and he exhaled a jagged breath. There was no doubt in his mind now - Chris had been right. But what kind of military would commit such an atrocity against its own men? It was a question he wasn't sure that he wanted the answer to. Bracing himself, he finally worked up the courage to ask her the next question on his mind.
"How many other survivors were there?"
Tobias' stomach lurched, and he brought a shaking hand to his brow. It was a shockingly dismal statistic. There had been hundreds of men in the barracks, not including the injured from Vellauris in the stalag's infirmary. He had no doubt that the truth behind their deaths would be concealed - most likely their families would be told they succumbed to illness or were MIA. He tried to comfort himself with the thought that even if the prisoners had been given advance warning of the attack, it would have been impossible to organize a successful escape. The camp had been too well controlled by Schillinger. In all likelihood, the Nazi sadist was now strewn across what remained of his little kingdom. Tobias could at least take some satisfaction in that knowledge before he asked the question he feared the most.
"Do you know their names?"
"Private First Class Ryan O'Reily. He suffered severe burns on 20% of his body, but he'll make a full recovery. Corporal Augustus Hill. The poor man got a piece of shrapnel lodged in his spine. He'll never walk again, but he's in remarkably good spirits. Seems a manuscript he had hidden in his fatigues managed to survive mostly unscathed. It's amazing the simple things that a wounded soldier can take comfort in" she shook her head sadly, continuing, "And Staff Sergeant Sean Murphy. Head trauma and burns all over his back. His lungs were scorched, but he'll live."
"Do you know what happened to Private Arnold Jackson, Staff Sergeant Goodson Truman, or Sergeant Christopher Keller?" he inquired, already knowing the response that he'd receive.
"I'm sorry, Corporal. All we have are you four. I know they're making a list of dog tags found in the rubble..."
Tobias broke off her sentence with a long moan, eyes stinging with tears. He felt her grasp his arm tightly. Her voice was gentle and sincere as she spoke.
"I'm so sorry."
He nodded his thanks to her and turned his head away, ashamed of crying. He felt the bandages that wrapped his legs and guessed that he had burns of his own, but not serious enough to warrant a mention from her. It wasn't without a twinge of guilt that he asked for a small dose of morphine, claiming that his pain was getting worse. Her large, doe eyes held him with pity and she fulfilled his request immediately. Tranquilized by the drug, his exhausted body didn't take long to fall back asleep.
His head injury lingered, and he had fevered dreams both day and night. In some, he and Chris were back in the park, enjoying the same endless baseball match. In others, they were both children again; able to experience the innocence of play in a manner they'd never been allowed in the harsh circumstances of life. Rarely, the line between what was real and what wasn't would blur, and he'd wake with Gloria's sponge on his brow, unable to decide whether or not what he'd dreamt had ever actually happened. It was during one of these fitful spells that Tobias glanced over to the side of his bed and saw the blurred outline of a male figure standing beside him. Heart beating rapidly, he squinted and recognized the distinct physique and posture. Even a faint trace of the unique, musky scent seemed to accompany the presence. Emotions and memories enveloped him, and he felt he would burst from both the pain and joy of it. As the man moved closer his face was revealed, and Tobias stared into the cobalt eyes of his absent lover. He decided that even the beauty of Lucifer before the fall would have paled to Chris' otherworldly radiance. A white, flashing smile was bestowed upon him like a blessing, and he reached an unsteady hand to touch the angelic apparition.
"Chris..." he rasped, mouth like sandpaper. Tobias had so many questions that he wanted to ask, but neither his mind nor his mouth would cooperate. Then, Chris began to waver like a mirage, and slowly transform into the familiar form of Ryan O'Reily, who in contrast, was undeniably flesh and blood.
"Beecher, are you alright? Do you need some more meds?" the private asked, face etched with concern. His limbs were bandaged beneath his infirmary gown, but the handsome face - his secret pride and joy - was unharmed.
"No, I'm fine. I think I was dreaming." Tobias answered heavily, dejected to realize that the vision had been of his own making. Ryan heard the sorrow in the corporal's voice and was hit with a wave of guilt and pity. He extended a tightly pound paw and placed it on his friend's shoulder.
"I'm so sorry, Tobias. When the three of us found out, we felt sick. We know how much you loved him. He was one in a million."
"Thanks", was all that Beecher could manage to force out.
"I'm not just saying that, either. Before, I only had a general idea of what you two had together, but I know better now. Love's something else, ain't it? It turns you upside down."
Tobias shot a curious look in the Irishman's direction, causing him to flush with pride.
"Me and Gloria. I love her more than anything in the world, and she loves me too. I fell for her the first time I saw those beautiful brown eyes, and I had to use every trick in my bag to get her. She tried to keep everything professional between us, but I knew I would win her over. It took me almost the whole month since getting here, but it was worth every second. As soon as I'm discharged, I'm taking her back with me. We're engaged."
"That's great, Ryan." Tobias struggled to give his friend a genuine smile, but couldn't mask that pain that the news caused him. He would have given anything to be in O'Reily's position. This wasn't lost on the perceptive soldier.
"I'm such an ass, I'm sorry. I'd better just leave you alone before I do any more damage."
"Don't worry about it. I remember what it's like. You feel like shouting it from the rooftops."
"Yeah." Ryan said sheepishly.
"Tell her that you love her every day. Promise me."
"Thanks." Tobias said quietly, and turned his head to stare out the window. O'Reily took it as his queue to leave, and did so, shooting a look of adoration at the Gloria, who was attending to the wounds of an unconscious soldier, before going back to his bed.
Tobias got progressively better with each passing day, and like Ryan, was soon able to leave his bed and walk around inside the building. Despite his freedom, he remained listless and detached, and rarely ventured far from his bed, except to sit on the sill of towering bay window in the school's main hallway. It was usually deserted, and he enjoyed the solitude, often spending hours just staring out into the parched yellow grass of the courtyard, lost in the scant happy memories that had peppered his life since entering the war. His body had healed enough that he no longer needed medical care. He knew that he was only kept under observation because they were concerned about his mental health. It was inconceivable that they would return him to active duty in such a state: he wouldn't put up a fight. It was during a bout of such fatalistic thoughts that he distinct tapping of a feminine gait interrupted him. Without glancing up, he knew it was Sister Marie, the matronly nun who seemed to be the 'Mother Superior' for all the nurses. She walked up cautiously and rested a hand on his nightgown.
"I knew I'd find you here, Tobias" she intoned softly, "There's something I think you should see."
Her words were unexpected. Usually he found her simplistic optimism irritating. She'd wanted to solve his depression with some heartfelt discussion and soul-searching. He knew she was well-meaning, but healing emotional wounds wasn't like treating a broken leg. Most of the time he just sat and pretended to listen to her, but now he actually wanted to hear what she had to say.
"What is it?"
"They brought us the latest casualty list, with names from the tags they found at your prisoner camp."
He thought he was falling, and gripped the cold granite beneath him as an anchor. She saw him lurch forward and placed her petite hands on his shoulders, looking at him with kindly, age-creased eyes.
"Go and look. You need some closure."
He'd never even told her Chris' name, but she instinctively knew that the root of his agony lay in the uncertain fate of someone close. Tobias nodded wordlessly and shuffled towards the auditorium where they kept the hospital beds. The men who could walk were gathered around Ryan O'Reily, who was quickly scanning the list.
"Shit!" he called aloud to Hill and Murphy, who sat tensely on their beds, anticipating the worst. "Sergeant Truman's on here."
Both Hill and Murphy sighed deeply. He had been both a gifted leader and a friend.
"That's a shame." Tobias said as he entered the room. He meant it. Truman had helped him weather some painful times, and he would always be grateful for the acceptance that the other man had granted him.
"Jackson's on here, too. There's a lot of guys from your platoon, Hill. Wangler, Van Dyke..."
"Damn it! Kenny was only sixteen. Lied about his age when he enlisted." Hill exhaled, face lined with sadness and fatigue.
Beecher listened as O'Reily continued, and couldn't help but feel irritated when his three companions seemed surprised and dejected to hear more familiar names. What did they expect? Some kind of miraculous escape? Anyone else who had been in the stalag was dead. End of story.
"This is interesting" Ryan mused, pausing for a moment. "McManus and Alvarez are listed as MIA."
"Anyone else?" Beecher strained to see past his shoulder, almost feeling a glimmer of hope as his eyes rushed over the page. "What the hell? He's not on here."
"That's impossible. If they didn't find his tag, they'd have him listed as missing." O'Reily stated, inspecting the page closely.
The implication was obvious. Christopher Keller officially didn't exist. Exactly how elite had he been? Suddenly, Tobias' head hurt and he lurched over to his bed to lie down. He didn't want to think too much about what the unexpected information meant. He'd much rather go to sleep.
Tobias knew that it wouldn't be long until the four of them were sent back home. They had all shown steady progress, and had recovered to the point where they felt guilty for occupying beds that could have been used for the freshly wounded that poured in every day. Ryan was becoming giddy with anticipation, which Hill and Murphy couldn't help but be infected by. Tobias was more cautious with his enthusiasm, unable to wrap his mind around the looming reality of returning to "normal" life. Everything inside of him rebelled against it. He couldn't comprehend how a human being could readjust after experiencing the horrors of both the battlefield and enemy imprisonment, and was terrified of the loneliness and isolation that awaited him. The day they were finally given notice of their departure, he had to walk a lap around the perimeter of the school to hide his emotions from the other men. By the time he reentered the building, he had managed to stop shaking. He was on his way to speak to O'Reily, Murphy and Hill - they had less than 24 hours together and would likely never cross paths again - when Sister Marie rushed up to him. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were sparkling. He didn't dare let his mind contemplate the reason for her excitement. It would only lead to disappointment.
"Tobias! Thank God, I've been looking everywhere for you. This was just delivered" she handed him a bare white envelope, "with very specific instructions to be given to you, unopened."
Bile rose in his throat. They had decided he was mentally fit for duty. They were sending him back to the trenches. His hands fumbled at the lip of the envelope and he had to resort to tearing it. Holding his breath, he unfolded the contents and felt the color drain from his face. Without having to be asked, the nun recognized the importance of the letter and left him alone in the hallway. He didn't look behind him, but somehow he managed to find the sill of the bay window and lean his weight against it. Tobias examined every word in front of him as if they were holy writ. He didn't have to glance at the bottom to know who had penned them.
Please forgive me, but I had no other choice. This was the safest way for both of us. I know that you resented me for keeping information from you, and even now I feel guilty for holding all the cards, so to speak. I know that you survived the raid and I know where you've been recovering for the last month. When I found out, I wanted to yell and laugh and cry all at once, but I couldn't let anyone know how I felt. It killed me, but I had to stay on the sidelines and quietly monitor your progress from a distance. I waited until my situation changed before sending this letter, so there would be less risk of it being diverted or monitored. But more about that later. First, I need to tell you everything that I couldn't before.
I was part of a highly classified program called MIS-X. For your safety, I can't tell you what its core purpose is; all you need to know is that you can never repeat that name to anyone, ever. I was sent in with one objective - to earn the trust of the Germans and operate as a double agent. It wasn't a coincidence that we found that radio set to an Allied frequency in Auribeau. I deliberately placed it there days earlier, and was injured in the process. I then had to join up with nearest band of American troops (I'm sorry - there was never any platoon for your squad to rendezvous with - that was a front. I was working alone), and make sure that they encounter the radio signal. McManus' situation was hopeless, and so it was anticipated that we would be captured and taken as POWs by the enemy. I know what you're thinking: that your lives were carelessly gambled with. Toby, I promise that every contingency was taken into account. The German officers that intelligence told us would be at Vallauris were known to prefer capture to wholesale slaughter.
Needless to say, those elements of the plan worked. When we arrived at the stalag, Schillinger immediately singled me out, and I saw it as my opportunity to earn his trust and offer my services as a spy. But before I could, he said something that suggested he already had a source of Allied information, and I had to abandon my original objective. When they returned me to the barracks, I was in pretty rough shape, but still determined to identify the traitor who was feeding Schillinger intelligence. That first night back, I caught Robson staring at me in the dark, and something about his expression didn't sit right with me.
I don't ignore a gut instinct, so I followed his movements. After your torture, when you wanted your distance from everyone, I used the opportunity to do some surveillance. Remember when I told you I was going outside to exercise? Well, on more than one occasion, I secretly observed Robson talking with Metzger behind the barracks. Schillinger would've never used Metzger as an intermediary, so I knew right away that he must not have known about the meetings.
I feel as if it's my fault that the raid happened, but looking back, I don't know if there was anything I could have done to prevent or anticipate it. Their speed surprised me. Basically, the Powers That Be decided it was safer to eliminate any danger to our wartime national security than to allow a few hundred of its own men to survive. Don't ask me to defend them, Toby. I can't.
To be honest, that's part of the reason I'm leaving the program. Now, I can't justify many of the actions that I once performed without even blinking an eye. I like to think that I'm a better human being because of you. There is more, though. Like you, I didn't escape the explosion unscathed. My left knee was pretty busted up, I'm afraid. It's healed now, but I'll never walk quite right again. I hope you don't have anything against limps. Needless to say, the program doesn't have much use for me anymore. I also think that they sensed my "psychological state" has changed since my return from the mission. They know I'm a different man, but they don't know why, and it's pissing them off. I don't think they'd ever guess it's because I'm head-over-heals in love.
Baby, I'm going to have to wrap things up here, but there are two more things I need to tell you, and they are the most important. Number one; destroy this letter as soon as you're done reading it. And number two; I'll be waiting for you back in America. I know that you're being discharged soon, so when you read this, you'll probably be on your way in just a few hours time. I will wait for you every day at noon in that park I told you about - the one I used to play in when I was a kid. I pray that you've forgiven me, because I've promised myself that I won't stop going there until I see you again, or I die.
I love you,
About the M-1 rifle: http://www.pattonhq.com/garand.html
About the Willy Jeep: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willys
About the Top Secret POW Agency known as MIS-X: http://www.aiipowmia.com/wwii/msx.html
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