Zell am See, Austria
“No, you stop it.”
“I’ll make you, all right.”
Even though the window was only opened a crack, the sounds of scuffling and laughter were loud. Lipton grinned as leaned over and peered down to see Luz and Perconte rolling around on the patio far below. Luz had his arm crooked around Perconte’s head, trying to subdue him, but they were both laughing too much to really put any effort into it. Popeye was sitting on the wall, eating an apple and watching them, grinning and kicking his heels like a kid.
Shaking his head at how quickly his hard-bitten men could revert to boys, Lipton turned back and sat down to watch Major Winters finish up the orders of the day.
“Luz and Perconte?”
Winters was looking down, but Lipton could see his small smile. “Yes, sir.”
Nodding, Winters kept writing and Lipton idly touched the edge of the calendar sitting on the corner of the desk.
June. It was already June.
He supposed it was just the way of things, but it seemed as if the last few weeks had flown by, while the preceding months had dragged on. Months of waiting like he’d been living in slow motion or stuck in neutral.
So much time yearning and wanting…
The rhythmic scratch of Winters’ pen faded as he thought back to the spring and how it had all seemed like it was going to be so easy…
Lipton tightened his grip on his rifle and moved through the milling soldiers, trying to see where his men had got to.
It was dark, already cold, and his orders from Winters were clear: They were to regroup at the main square, find as many houses as it took as long as they were big enough for each company to get settled for the night, asap. Which looked like it was going to be easier said than done, thanks to the snafu of earlier in the day.
They were supposed to arrive in the small town of Tutlingen by fourteen hundred, but someone had mixed up the road signs, either by error or intent. The convoy had traveled ten miles on the wrong road before Nixon had noticed the mistake.
They’d turned around and made double time, but even so, it was dusk when they pulled into Tutlingen’s main square. The minute the trucks stopped, the men were on the ground, hurrying off here and there. They knew better but after the long weeks at Haguenau without a break from the daily bombardment, they were a little stir-crazy.
Lipton sighed and craned his head to look over the crowd, wishing, not for the first time, that he was taller. Or at that his lungs were at one hundred percent—yelling was out of the question, especially with this level of noise.
He scanned the crowd again. A handful of townspeople huddled in front of a line of houses that edged the square, watching as the soldiers overran their town. Able was in force and there was a private from Dog but no—
A tug on his arm brought him around to face Bull Randleman, standing behind him, his cigar burning bright. Lipton gave him a sheepish half smile—it was going to take some time to get used to his new rank, time to respond to ‘lieutenant.’
“Sir” Randleman said through a puff of cigar smoke. “We’re mostly over there.” He jerked his thumb to the end of the main street.
“Well, we need to be mostly here. We gotta round the men up.”
More raised voices, this time in German; they both turned.
From one of the houses, a small stream of people hurried out, hands raised. A man led the group, dressed in a suit that had seen better days and waving a napkin, shouting something about “…ein Nazi.” Following them, gesturing with his rifle and shouting as well, came Liebgott.
Lipton tightened his lips and called out, “Liebgott!”
Liebgott ignored him and brandished his rifle again.
He hurried forward and grabbed Liebgott’s arm. “Liebgott!”
With a look of barely contained impatience, Liebgott muttered, “Yes, sir?”
“Are you commandeering this house?”
“Yes, sir. Captain Speirs said it looked big enough, so we’re cleaning them out.” Like rats, Liebgott added silently with a sneer.
He let go of Liebgott’s arm. “Where’s the Captain?”
“He’s…” Liebgott looked around. “He must still be upstairs. You want me to get him, sir?”
“No, that’s all right. I’ll go. You stay here and help Bull gather the boys.”
“And leave them…” Lipton jerked his head to the Germans. “…alone.”
Liebgott curled his lip, but he nodded.
Lipton gave Bull a look that said, ‘Keep Liebgott in line,’ and squeezed by the crowd, avoiding their angry glances, their raised voices.
Inside, the house was cold and quiet. He smelled smoke and mold and fresh baked bread. His stomach growled—it had been over eleven hours since breakfast and it’d probably be another two before he managed to find the time to eat. He peered up the staircase. “Captain Speirs?”
He climbed. At the top of the stairs was a large landing that led to individual apartments. The doors were open, all dark, except for the one at the very end. He hiked up his rifle and edged past the balustrade and made for the door limned with light.
The front room empty, but he could hear faint sounds from the room off to the right. He pushed the door open and found himself in the dining room. It was a small space with a good size round table circled by four chairs. Speirs was on the far side of the table, peering at the bottom of a bowl. A stack of silver plate rested on the table, along with a rifle and helmet. Speirs gave Lipton a brief, distracted nod, then returned to his examination.
By the looks of things, they’d interrupted the family’s dinner: potatoes, some sort of pale vegetable, and not much else was piled on five plates. It looked good, though, and he was tempted to sit down and dig in. But no, there wasn’t enough for everyone and he wouldn’t eat if the men couldn’t. It just wasn’t right.
He glanced around the room, marking the dark-figured carpet, the somber curtains and furniture. It was all solid, but somehow lonely, even solitary and it came to him that he and Speirs were alone for the first time since Haguenau.
His heart lurched and began to thump.
The past few weeks had been busy. His pneumonia—or what was left of it—had finally given up the ghost and he’d thrown himself into the duties of his new role as Second Lieutenant. Duties which were basically as before—days filled with relaying orders, making sure the men obeyed them, making sure they stayed alive.
But late at night when the business of the day was done, he’d find himself unable to sleep, unable to stop his mind from wandering. He’d lay there, half listening as the men dreamed and snored until vigilance gave way to need and the fading memories of Haguenau and that last day tumbled out.
He’d remember his happy surprise at receiving his commission, his happiness that they were coming off the line. And how that happiness had transformed to sudden desire when Speirs took him back to their room…
He’d always tried to be a good man.
He knew what he wanted was contrary to the laws of God and human decency, contrary to the vows he’d said all those years ago. But none of that seemed to matter. He couldn’t make it matter.
He’d think of Speirs, think of those kisses, and his pulse would race and sweat would break out on the back of his neck. It was nuts and dangerous but he couldn’t stop the images, couldn’t stop his face from heating up.
He didn’t used to be crazy. He didn’t used to be a lot of things and that was the hell of it. There was something going on inside him, some odd division that had split his soul and he was beginning to feel like he’d become two people.
There was the Carwood Lipton he’d always been—hard working, dependable. But there was also this new Carwood Lipton—one prone to daydreams, given to long minutes of distraction and absent-mindedness. Wanting time to stop, wanting a man he had no business wanting.
Face hot, he cleared his throat and glanced up. Speirs was packing his loot away, stuffing it into the bag he’d taken to carrying around. Lipton shook his head.
Speirs was something else. He ran headlong into danger just because he could. He was moody, unsociable, trigger happy, terrifying and cruel. All the men were afraid of him, even the ones that had no cause.
On the other hand, he was brave and courageous, a brilliant strategist who would risk his own life to get the job done. Who had risked his life to get the job done.
So, maybe that was it. Maybe that was the reason for this obsession. Just a case of hero worship that had transformed into something not normal.
Lipton picked up a dinner knife and began to turn it over and over, seeing his reflected face in miniature, fretting and frowning because there was no doubt that he thought about the captain in that way. That he thought about how he had looked back in Rachamps, the choir behind them singing about angels and heaven and Speirs looking at him with eyes and lips as pretty as a girl’s.
What made it worse, the thing that was eating at him, that shamed him, wasn’t that he wanted Speirs like fire; it was that he didn’t know if Speirs still wanted him back.
Men said anything to get a kiss and they made promises when they wanted more. Lipton knew this because he was a man and had played those games once or twice, even though he felt a certain amount of shame afterwards.
So maybe that’s all it was. At no time in the past weeks had Speirs given any hint that he thought of what had gone on between them. He was brisk and detached, barking orders when the men didn’t obey fast enough, ignoring them when they did.
Lipton hadn’t expected a letter or flowers or anything like that, he assured himself once more. That kind of thing was for women, not men. Never mind the fact that they were in the middle of war and they had a job to do—they didn’t have time to mess around with anything else.
It was just…
…a look, a nod, a more-than-friendly hand on the shoulder like he used to get would be welcome. Anything to let him know that they were both in this together. That he hadn’t misjudged the situation and that he was wanted in return.
So maybe it was just one of those things; said but not meant. War did such odd things to people. Maybe that was all it was. Maybe Speirs was just being—
Speirs’s quiet voice broke the silence and he jerked his head up. Speirs caught his eye, then nodded to the table.
He looked down, surprised to see that he’d gouged a half-inch hole in the rough, waxed surface of the table. Flushing, he tossed the knife down and turned away to stare at the door.
That he could do something like that and not know it…
He needed to get a handle on this thing before he did something really stupid, something that would get him into trouble. It was time, more than time, and he practically bit out the words, suddenly angry, “I just came to ask you, sir, if you want us to clear a house for Major Winters.”
“That will be fine.”
“Bull is getting the men together.” His rifle fell off his shoulder and he jerked it back up, angry at that, also.
“Liebgott is down there. I better go make sure—”
Lipton dragged his eyes over, words already forming about needing to make sure Liebgott didn’t cause an incident, that he needed to see to the men, but the words died in his throat.
Speirs was staring straight at him, detachment gone, his entire face alive with hunger.
Lipton flushed again and memory unfolded and he recalled how it had been, remembered that same look in Speirs’s eye…
Speirs looked him up and down, slowly, taking his time and Lipton remembered that careful examination, too. He reached for the back of a chair, twisting his sweating palm around the spindle, thankful for the length of table, the breadth of it a caution that this wasn’t the time for anything foolish.
“It’s not just you,” Speirs murmured.
Lipton swallowed. How had Speirs known what he was thinking? “What…” But he didn’t know how to ask what had given himself away, embarrassed that such private emotions had bled onto his face.
“It’s all right. No one knows.”
“No one knows.” Speirs paused, then smiled. “But I know you.”
Like that first time, the smile was what did it. Lipton let go of the chair and started around the table, intent on only one thing.
“Captain Speirs! Lieutenant Lipton!”
Liebgott’s voice rang up the stairs, making them both jump, breaking the moment into tiny pieces.
Lipton eased back, breathing a sigh that was too loud, too relieved.
Speirs grinned a knowing grin. “Saved by Liebgott?”
Speirs cocked his head. “Next time?”
“Good. Tell Liebgott we’ll put Winters and Nixon here. The men can stay in the other apartments.”
Lipton left, head down, heart racing, wondering if he would have gone through with it if Liebgott hadn’t interrupted them. His fine sense of duty, alive and kicking just a week ago was starting to crumble under the weight of his longing—if something didn’t happen soon, he wasn’t going to be responsible for his actions.
Carwood heads to the stairs and I watch him go. That was a close call. I thank God for Liebgott and the pun makes me smile as I ponder the circumstances I find myself in.
This war has been good to me. It’s given me a place and a sense of purpose, something I hadn’t had three years ago.
But, lately, I’ve realized that same call to duty is starting to collapse under that soft brown gaze and those puppy eyes. Puppy. I wonder what he’d do if I called him that.
But I can’t help it. He watches me all the time, even though he thinks I don’t notice. Surreptitious, questioning glances that have told me that he was waiting and wondering.
Well, now he knows what I think, what I’ve been thinking these last few weeks.
I was wrong, though, not to give him something back and that’s a mistake I won’t make again. He’s a good man and deserves better. He deserves to have that worried frown he wears like a scar smoothed away and replaced with the smile he shares only once in a great while.
The first time he gave me that smile—in Rachamps it was—I was taken aback because it changed his face entirely. Made him look as young as we both are; as young as we’ve both, I think, have forgotten how to be.
It’s heady, that smile and I can’t help but wonder if he’d give it to me in bed. Would he still smile that smile or would he be serious, intent?
These are thoughts I’ve taken out only a few times since Haguenau because they’re hazardous. I can’t—no, won’t—let myself go there too often, worried that I won’t want to come back, that he’ll break me and make me useless to the cause.
But, Christ, the idea of him on his back, bending to my mouth, neck arched in a pleasure…
But that’s a fantasy and it has to go back in the box, so I breathe deep until my face cools and my head clears.
I have to put the soldier back on because Carwood must have missed Liebgott—the boy’s practically screaming down there, wondering if all is clear and can the men come up? Liebgott is too emotional—he’s going to get himself into trouble one of these days.
I change my mind about the cutlery and gather it up as I yell down to Liebgott to, ‘send the men up and make it quick, already.’ It’s so easy to return to the devil they all think me.
Although—I pause as I stuff the forks and knives into my duffle bag—Carwood doesn’t think me a devil, I’m sure of it. And that, as odd as it may be, is a relief. The fact that I have Carwood’s good opinion could be my saving grace.
Items: Silver candlesticks, pottery from Dresden and one unidentifiable piece of English silver plate.
Thalem, Germany April, 1945
If it weren’t so frustrating it would be funny, Lipton thought as he carefully wiped away the smear of oil on the barrel of his rifle. Not funny like the Marx Brothers were funny, but funny like…
He couldn’t come up with a fitting analogy, but anyway, it was almost comical, their poor timing.
In Ulm, lodgings were in short supply, so Winters had assigned quarters to Speirs and Lipton, but he’d also thrown in Johnny Martin. There was a single bed, big enough for the three of them and they’d rolled up in their sleeping bags, Speirs on the left, Lipton on the right with Martin smack dab in the middle.
Lipton loved Martin like a brother, but he spent an hour fruitlessly wishing that he’d come down with something. Nothing serious or permanent; maybe a stomachache or a cough. Something bad enough to need the infirmary so that Lipton could have Speirs to himself.
But Johnny didn’t get sick; he just dropped off as soon as his head hit the pillow and fell into a deep sleep. Figuring that since nothing was going to happen, he might as well get some rest, Lipton turned his back on the others and tried to do the same.
The next missed opportunity had been Languedau and it had been Harry Welsh that had gotten between them that time. Lipton had found an out of the way bombed-out schoolhouse that he thought might do. It was taking a huge risk but he weighed the factors and found them acceptable. He figured if they managed to get beyond just staring at each other, they’d take five or six minutes, tops. He didn’t know about Speirs, but he was so ready for it he hoped to make it past the first touch.
He’d walked back to their makeshift headquarters, heart in his throat, trying to come up with a reason to get Speirs to come out with him. Only when he got to the CP, Speirs and Harry were arguing about who was the best poker player.
He tried to get rid of Harry without making it seem too obvious, but it didn’t matter—Speirs ignored his pointed looks and comments and took Harry up on a best-out-of-ten-hands challenge. Lipton spent the rest of the evening watching them play, all of them getting drunk on cheap brandy.
On the day they reached the next stop on the map, Landsberg, he’d looked around, thinking that even though the town was more of a village and too small for anything but duty, at least they could find a place to be alone, maybe share a cigarette and talk.
But then Perconte came running back from a scouting mission, breathless and frantic with a confused tale of horror and people more dead than alive.
The following days were a nightmare and Lipton forgot about everything but the atrocity of Landsberg, his mind caught in an endless loop of anger and despair because what kind of people did that to other people?
Leaving Landsberg was like waking up from a bad dream—the further they got from the camp, the lighter his spirits grew. Thalem, for all its defeated population and crushed buildings was like a breath of fresh air and once again his mind turned to Speirs as he began to remember that there was more to life than war and death.
Since Mourmelon and when circumstances allowed, he’d fallen into the habit of a routine of poker with Nixon, Welsh, and Speirs. Poker wasn’t his favorite game but it killed time and gave him a good reason to sit and look at Speirs without anyone the wiser. He was always cautious, never staring too long or hard, reminding himself of where he was. It only grew dangerous when the conversation lagged, the break giving his mind time to stray and the sly questions and wonderings would begin.
When they got to Austria would they be quartered in the same house? Would Speirs be noisy or quiet? Would he bite at Lipton’s neck like he did in Haguenau, and if not, how could Lipton ask him to do it without feeling like an idiot?
He tried to control the daydreams, but they acquired a life of their own, elbowing in whenever he wasn’t preoccupied with the war.
Like now. He was supposed to be cleaning his rifle, but his mind kept returning to last night’s poker game. Instead of seeing his rifle barrel, he saw Speirs across from him, hair falling on his forehead, his smile soft and a little cynical as he talked about the progress of the war.
What would’ve happened if he’d just stood up and announced, ‘I’m tired. I’m going to bed.’ Would Speirs have followed him out? Or would Nixon and Harry decide to call it a night and leave them alone? Yeah, they would have left and he would’ve reached across the wide table and dragged Speirs up, making sure not to hurt him because that would—
The clatter of metal shook him out of his fantasy and he jumped.
Across the table, Luz grinned at him sleepily—he’d fallen asleep and dropped his coffee cup. “Sorry about that.”
Lipton smiled back, hoping his grin didn’t look as forced as it felt. “Get enough sleep?”
Luz shrugged. “The usual, which means, no.”
Lipton nodded and resolutely shelved his thoughts. He went back to his rifle, inspecting it again, this time making sure he paid attention to what he was doing. He had to stop mooning over Speirs, and he needed to do it asap. He wasn’t an animal; he could control himself. It was as simple as that.
Nodding to himself smartly, he got to it and in fifteen minutes he was done. He put his gear away and got up.
“Heading out, Lieutenant?” Luz picked up his rifle and put it back down. He’d been cleaning it all morning.
“Yeah. I thought I’d check on the boys and see if they’re making any progress on that church.”
“Knowing Perconte and Bull, the whole thing is a bigger mess than it was when we got here. Why they’re out there, directing the Germans, I will never know.” George gave him his crooked smile, the one that said he was glad it was them and not him. Lipton shook his head, then smiled back.
He put on his helmet, shouldered his rifle and left, out the kitchen, down a short passage and then up the long stairway.
He’d just made it to the small landing where the second set of stairs made a sharp turn when he ran headlong into someone coming down. He reached out and grabbed the same time the other person grabbed, both trying to prevent the other from falling.
And, dammit, destiny was crazy because he didn’t even have to look to know who he was holding, almost embracing. He cleared his throat and muttered, “Afternoon, Captain Speirs.”
“Hello, Lieutenant Lipton.”
It was ridiculous. And insane. Because for all the danger of the moment, he couldn’t let go. The inset window high above wasn’t big enough to cast a great amount of light, so the landing wasn’t exactly well lit. But it sure as hell wasn’t private and he couldn’t force his fingers to uncurl from Speirs’ waist, couldn’t back away from Speirs’s grip like he knew he should.
Same scent of smoke and sweat; same parted lips showing white, even teeth. He waited, frozen, heart slamming so hard everyone must hear it.
Speirs tightened his hands, fingers flexing There was a tiny pause, like the forever moment right before a field commander shouts, ‘Fire!’ and Lipton’s heart jerked. They were going to kiss and he wasn’t going to do a damn thing to stop it.
But like before a noise, distant and loud, came to his rescue and they drew apart, startled into their own corner of the landing. He listened for anyone coming up the stairs or down, heart still pounding, lust still burning his cheeks.
Finally, he cleared his throat and whispered, “Well, sir, I guess we should…” He trailed off. Speirs wasn’t saying anything, wasn’t doing anything but glaring. “That is, if you…”
Speirs pressed his lips together. And then he ran his hands down his uniform and straightened up. The light from the window caught his eyes, a clear, striking brown. “We’re heading for Austria in a few days, right?”
Lipton slowly nodded.
“We’ll probably stay put for a while, maybe as long as a couple months.” His voiced lowered to a rough whisper. “We’ll take care of this there, Lieutenant.”
Lipton tried to smile as he gave a sketchy salute.
He edged around Speirs, careful not to touch, and ran up the stairs with as much confidence as his shaking legs allowed.
‘We’ll take care of this there.’
Wondering if that was the voice Speirs used in bed, Lipton told his body to shut up and he hurried out into the gray day, already looking forward to Austria.
Once again I’m watching him leave, only this time he’s going up instead of down and I have to say the view is better from this point. I’m supposed to be down in the kitchen, putting the fear of God and Captain Speirs into a group of men who think hiding in a basement is a good way to avoid duty, but I drop back to the wall and lean against the cool stone. There’s no rush, the men aren’t going anywhere, and once again I need time to think.
I’m glad to see that the look of hurt bewilderment is gone from his face. I was worried, after Hurlach, and was even thinking of dragging him off somewhere private, if only to talk. But as the days passed, as we got further from Landsberg and the camp at Hurlach, his mood lightened and soon he was back to the man I knew.
Almost, because I’ve become aware of something new in his eyes, in his smile. I’m not sure what it is; I’ll have to keep watch and figure out just what is making him look so dreamy half the time. It almost as if he’s fallen in love, although that can’t be—he hasn’t had the opportunity or the time.
Of course, how would I know? For all intents and purposes, he and I are strangers. I know he’s a fine soldier and sharp-witted, on the field and off. That he loves and takes care of his men. But what do I really know about him?
Unlike Major Winters and Captain Nixon, we didn’t train together and we spent half the war in separate companies. If that’s the case, if I still don’t know what makes him tick, maybe that small smile he wears when he thinks no one is watching is because he’s fallen for someone.
A sharp pain lances through my gut and I wonder if that’s it after all.
But when and where? In Mourmelon while he was recuperating from the wound taken in Carentan? That’s the only place we’ve been recently with a significant number of women. Which would make sense. It’s practically a right of passage, the wounded soldier falling in love with the woman that nurses him back to health.
But maybe—and the pain digs deeper, sharper—maybe it’s his wife.
He never mentions her.
I’ve never asked and I never will. It’s not to save him the difficulty of explanations. It’s simply that I don’t want to know. I’m not a coward about most things, but I am about that.
I lean back, still feeling where his fingers dug into my waist. It’s as if his touch was a brand and I touch aching flesh reverently.
He wanted me to kiss him. I could see it, almost taste it. Would a man act like that if he was in love with someone else?
Some men would, but not Carwood Lipton and I sigh in relief.
And then I close my eyes, impatient with my panic. Yes, I don’t know him well, but I know him well enough and he would never be careless with another’s emotions.
So, something else must be going on. I’ll just have to keep an eye out for him, make sure he’s okay. It’s probably nothing. The men are all on edge, and he’s been through a lot in the last six months.
I push away from the wall and hitch my rifle up, mentally preparing myself to become Bloody Speirs so I can go downstairs and scare the hell out of a few layabouts.
Items: A case of Champagne, a first edition of Mein Kampf (signed by A. Hitler), five silver candlesticks.
“Yes sir, thank you sir.” Lipton took the paper from Winters and gave Nixon a smile before he left, closing the door behind him. He strolled down the hotel’s carpeted hallway, his smile growing.
It was going to be another lazy afternoon; nothing much to do but track down Lieutenant Welsh, hand off the orders, and then he was free for the rest of the day. Which meant a visit to the bar or a game of cards.
Easy’s stay in Berchtesgaden had been extended a few days, making the men almost giddy with excitement. Under words of caution from Winters, they’d been investigating the town and the countryside. There wasn’t much to see—the town was too small for that. But it was a hell of a lot nicer than most of the places they’d been stationed at and they made good use of their downtime.
Lipton had done his share of investigating. He’d visited the bars, the bunkers, the salt mines. And, high on the top of mount Kehlstein, he’d made his trek to the Eagle’s Nest, dragged up by Speirs and Malarky who’d insisted he see it for himself.
Standing in the middle of the hexagonal great room, awed by the grandeur, he nevertheless couldn’t help the chill that swept him from head to toe. He gazed at the perfect, sterile lines of the room, the expensive furniture and thought, here was where Hitler had made some of his most important decisions. Here was where he had sat down with his commanders and discussed the destruction of Europe and the eventual demise of Britain and America.
Lipton had wandered up to the balcony and sat on the broad ledge. The scenery was magnificent—pristine mountains that seemed to go on forever, blue, blue sky. An odd, horrible contrast because he’d never seen a country so beautiful in a place so dead.
They left soon after. He spent the rest of the day going about his duty silently, thinking about nothing in particular. Ignoring Luz’s attempts at cheering him up. Ignoring Speirs’s looks of concern.
But the next morning in the makeshift mess hall, he’d watched his men, carefree and laughing, and he remembered he had a lot to be grateful for, that Hitler was dead and his regime was on the run.
He went to bed that night with a smile on his face.
A smile that kept returning no matter what he did, even now as he strode through the Berchtesgadener Hof Hotel looking for Harry and he’d better lose the smile or he’d have some explaining to do.
He finally found Harry in a small room on the first floor, sitting among a crowd of privates, telling the story of his heroic wounding in the Bois Jacques.
He paused at the door, curious to see which version Harry was relating this time. It was the saving Captain Nixon, S2, from enemy fire version.
Lipton knew what kind of soldier Harry was—he’d seen him running through artillery, dodging bullets as he guided the men to safety—but it was funny, the way he embellished his stories for great effect.
He walked up behind Harry, getting ready to yank his chain, then decided that he was in too good a mood to spoil Harry’s fun. He listened for a while, then, when Harry paused to take a sip from his flask, he broke in, hand held out, “Sir? From Major Winters.”
Harry turned and looked up at him. “Huh? What is it?”
“From Major Winters, sir.” Lipton repeated. “I think it’s the order for Wednesday’s pull out.”
Harry read the note, then tucked it in his pocket. “Yep. We’re on the move, boys. Heading out to Austria.”
The men groaned and Harry exchanged a comical look with Lipton. Most of the privates were replacements that hadn’t seen more than a few days’ fighting and all of it in the relative comfort of Germany.
“If that will be all…” He made a vague gesture to the door.
“Yeah. Hey, wait, no.” Harry grinned. “Speirs was looking for you.”
“Just a few minutes ago. I told him you were checking supplies in the cellar.”
Lipton bit back a smile. “That was yesterday, sir.”
Harry stared at him for a moment and then smiled more broadly. “Well then, you better go find him or he’ll be back here to kick my ass.” He slapped Lipton’s thigh and turned back to the men, already talking about how it felt to be traveling in a open jeep, bullets flying overhead with blood pouring out of the big hole in your leg.
Lipton left, walking slowly, not hurrying. He was in the main hall before he let himself think about what Harry had said. He paused in front of the big, gold mirror and stared blindly at his reflection.
The cellars were a maze of rooms that extended beyond the hotel’s main floor plan. Even though they had been updated and lined with cinder blocks, they were cold and dark and damp. And very isolated. The men avoided going down there, mostly because Luz had jokingly announced that they had to be haunted with all the hotel’s recent history of housing murderers and criminals.
Refusing to check to see if his hair and uniform were clean and neat, he swallowed and left to find Speirs.
The staircase to the cellar was dim, lit with weak, naked bulbs. To make matters worse, the marble steps were worn, the edges sloped, and the going was tricky. He descended carefully, not wanting to slip and fall. It would be just his luck to break his neck now.
When he got to the bottom he peered into the gloom. The stairs ended at a small chamber that was nothing more than a meeting point for three corridors: two joined the corners of the room, the third the far left.
He’d already explored the one on the left—it was about twenty yards long and dead-ended at a brick wall, so that left two options. He chose the right corridor—not only was it the best lit, he could see clear footprints in the dust.
He traveled slowly, ducking into the rooms, finding them empty, devoid of anything but dark.
His low voice echoed surprisingly loud. Something skittered across the floor and he jumped, relieved to see that it was just a mouse, running from one dark corner to another. Heart in throat, he told himself not to be a baby, that there were no such things as ghosts and a mouse wasn’t going to harm him. Speirs was down here somewhere—he just needed to keep going. He started again, touching the cool wall for comfort.
Lipton jerked to a stop, unable to stop the small gasp. Speirs was standing at the far end of the corridor like a phantom. He was holding something, maybe a sculpture. He wasn’t wearing a jacket and the fugitive light made his pale shirt glow.
“I scared you,” Speirs added. “I’m sorry.”
“No, not scared, just…” Lipton trailed off and gestured vaguely. “Captain Welsh, said you were down here. That you were looking for me.”
Speirs said nothing, did nothing—he just stood there, eyes blank.
Finally, just when Lipton thought they’d do nothing but stare at each other, Speirs shrugged and murmured, “C’mon. I need to put this down.”
He turned and led the way, moving swiftly in the dark until he reached a corner. He jerked his head to the end of the short hall where light spilled out from an open door. “I’m in here.”
Lipton followed slowly, all the feelings he’d been pushing away for the past few weeks rushing back with each step. His heart hammered in his chest with dull, thick strokes and he could feel his pulse beat heavy in his throat. He wondered if it was visible; he hoped it wasn’t.
The room was clean and bright with electric light. Wood shelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling. They were loaded with plates, bowls, vases, candlesticks—everything one would need to decorate a hotel.
Lipton glanced quickly at Speirs. He’d obviously been ransacking the place—his sleeves were rolled up and there was a smudge on his cheek and another on his chin. A pile of silver sat on the floor near the far wall.
It was typical and somehow weirdly endearing and Lipton’s nervousness increased. He picked up a yellow bowl and examined it. It was painted on one side—a picture of a big-eyed shepherdess in a blue dress and hat. She had a lamb tucked under one arm and another pranced at her feet. It was probably supposed to be charming and quaint, but it was ugly. And a little creepy.
Lipton sat the bowl down. “Is it worth anything?”
“Probably. I think it’s a couple hundred years old.”
“Oh,” he muttered because he didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t care if the bowl was German. He really didn’t care if it was expensive. And he didn’t want to talk about pottery or loot. He didn’t want to talk anything much at all and he turned around, and—
Speirs had closed the door and was leaning against it, just like in Haguenau. Watching Lipton with eyes that burned. Just like in Haguenau.
And just like in Haguenau, Lipton began to shake. He advanced one step, and then another, struggling against his uncertainties, pushed on by everything else because he wanted to do this. And he wanted not to do this.
An insane conundrum that fell away the instant Speirs let go of the door and took a step forward.
Only this time it wasn’t Speirs who did the grabbing, this time it was Lipton, the space between them gone, shoving Speirs into the door, stopping any words, his own doubts with his mouth, with his body.
There was a jangling sound, like a discordant symphony, but he paid it no mind because Speirs’s kiss was just as he remembered—hot and wet, and he moaned without meaning to.
Speirs answered with a groan, then abruptly pivoted so Lipton’s back was to the door and that was so much better.
He wrapped his hand around Speirs’s neck, kissing so hard it hurt.
Lipton bit Speirs’s lower lip.
He moved down to Speirs’s chin, his jaw, tongue rasping on the light beard, scratchy and rough. A wave of delight raced up his spine and he muttered hoarsely, “What?”
“Do you remember this?”
Lipton started to ask ‘Remember what?’ but Speirs fit a knee between his legs and pulled until Lipton was straddling his thigh. Like before, they both groaned and he wanted to say that yes, he remembered, yes, he’d never forgotten, but he couldn’t speak.
He settled for fumbling his collar open and tugging Speirs’ head down to his neck, encouraging him with small noises he didn’t even bother muffling.
This, and this, and this, he thought as Speirs kissed his throat, nipping, then biting—this was what he’d wanted, what he’d been waiting for and he pressed closer, hitched his leg higher, wishing he could lay down because his knees had turned watery weak and it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he’d pass out.
“Carwood?” Speirs mumbled into his neck.
“Your injury, back in Carentan…”
Lipton shook his head. “No, I’m fine, see?” A stupid answer, really, because of course there was nothing to see, so he took Speirs’s hand and molded it over his dick.
“Christ,” Speirs hissed and squeezed once and then again when Lipton gasped and pushed into his palm.
It happened quickly after that.
With clumsy hands, they unbuttoned, undid. Lipton wanted a look just in case he never got this chance again, but he only saw a confused glimpse of pale skin and dark hair before Speirs pulled him in tight.
Heat for heat, thrust for thrust, he rode the pressure, trying not to give in too quickly because it felt so good and he’d been waiting so goddamn long.
There was a endless moment of too much noise, too much feeling, and he thought to protest, ‘Not yet,’ but before he could, a broad white light washed over him, drowning out everything but Speirs’ cry and the thump of his own head hitting the door.
Thankfully, he didn’t pass out. It was touch and go but in the end, sheer stubbornness won out. He locked his knees and leaned against the door, trying to catch his breath while Speirs rested on him, head buried in the crook of his neck.
He felt boneless, body exhausted as if he’d just waded through a field of mud or a river of honey. His back hurt and his healed wound felt tender and a little bruised. He smiled, though. After Carentan, he never would’ve thought that any kind of pain down there could be a good thing. Or that he’d enjoy the getting so much.
He lifted a tired hand and carded his fingers through Speirs messy dark hair, messing it up even more. They should have brought a comb, he thought lazily, before remembering that they hadn’t planned on any of this. Maybe he should start caring a comb with him; that might be a good thing.
Speirs sighed, then mumbled into his shoulder, “So much for Austria.”
Lipton breathed a laugh because, yeah, so much for Austria.
“We should probably get going.”
“Harry might come looking.”
It took an effort, but he managed to form words, “He might.”
“Then, here…” Speirs pushed back, just a bit. His face was flushed and his smile was soft, happy.
Lipton’s heart clenched at the sight—he’d seen Speirs angry, frustrated, focused. But never vulnerable and open, not like this, and he stroked Speirs’s jaw and kissed him, tender and gentle.
Speirs took the kiss and gave one back. “Are you all right? Did I hurt you?”
“I’m fine. More than fine.”
“Good.” Speirs kissed the bite on Lipton’s neck, then pushed fully away, grimacing at the semen coating their bellies. “We’re a mess.”
Lipton laughed, not caring a lick. “Yeah, we are.”
“You go first. I’ll be up in a minute.”
Ignoring the implication of caution behind the casual words, Lipton straightened his clothing. He’d have to rinse his trousers out before he sent his uniform off to the laundry, but he knew other men that did that all the time, even if their partners were the usual sex.
Refusing to be worried about that now, he combed his fingers through his hair and looked back. Speirs had gotten himself together and was standing to the side of the door.
There was an uncomfortable pause, a kind of hushed nothing as if each were waiting for the other to make the first move.
Finally, Lipton shrugged. Honesty was always the best policy, especially now. “Will you be at dinner tonight?”
Speirs shook his head. “I hadn’t planned on it. I was going to go over the schedule with Winters.” He looked down and brushed at something on his sleeve, then added abruptly, “I can cancel if you want.”
“No, that’s okay, you’re busy. We’ll see each other later on.” Lipton reached for the doorknob only to be stopped by Speirs’s hand on his.
“You seem very sure.”
It was a demand more than a comment and Lipton shrugged again. “I am.”
Speirs frowned. “How can you be so sure? You don’t know what’s going to happen. None of us do.”
“I don’t know, sir. I just know that you and I aren’t over.” Lipton smiled gently at Speirs’ confusion, surprised by his own calm.
It was true—the restlessness he’d been living with for the last few months was gone, replaced by a surety that had no reason, an acceptance that had no explanation.
He touched Speirs’ chest and opened the door. He’d just reached the end of the corridor when Speirs’ low voice turned him around.
Speirs was standing in the doorway, half in light, half in shadow. “Yes, sir?”
“Save a place for me. I’ll be there.”
Lipton nodded and started to turn the corner, but gave in to impulse—he hurried back and grabbed Speirs’s waist and pulled him in for a bruising kiss.
Speirs allowed it for a moment, then pushed him away, not unkindly.
Lipton grinned and left.
This time, the long corridor wasn’t eerie or scary. It was merely a hallway with few lights that he navigated with ease.
As was the main room and he crossed it quickly. He was tired and sore, but a sense of joy was waiting around the corner and he bounded up the stairs, eager to get washed so he could get to the mess hall early, so he could find two seats together.
Before he leaves, Carwood turns back and gives me another kiss, his mouth hard and warm. I shove him away, concerned that that we’ve pushed our luck. In more ways than one because just looking at his face and mine, never mind the crumpled uniforms and the smell of sex, anyone would know what had happened.
I watch him go, then turn back to the room. I pick up the shattered vase that had fallen to the floor when he first pushed me up against the door. I don’t think he even noticed that he’d knocked over a two hundred year-old vase. That’s how eager he was, how focused he was.
The memory of his face returns, red and determined, all gentleness gone and I throw the shards on a nearby shelf and bite my lip.
Marcus Aurelius said, ‘Execute every act of thy life as though it were thy last.’
I’ve lived by those words, or words like them, for most of my adult life, but they’re suddenly flat and without meaning and in the light of recent events I have to wonder if Aurelius ever loved anyone. I mean, really loved anyone, with all his heart and soul. Because now I can’t imagine living life only for the moment and not beyond.
In the space of less than fifteen minutes, I’ve been turned upside down and inside out. I know I’ve been in the process of such a metamorphosis for a while now, but it really feels like it only happened in the last few minutes.
Bloody Speirs is gone, broken. I can feel it. The detachment that has kept me alive has been systematically dismantled by a man who didn’t even know he was doing it. And I can’t be sad about it or mad about it. I had a feeling it was going to happen, even though I didn’t know the rout would be so thorough. And final.
I lift my hand and rub my face. His scent is all over me and I’m tempted to leave one piece of clothing unwashed so I can carry him with me in case we never get this chance again. But of course, I won’t—it would be dangerous. To me, but mostly to him.
Besides, his optimism is winning out over my fatalism because, strangely, I do believe what he said—that this one time won’t be all we’ll have. He’s so positive and sure that he makes me positive and sure.
Even more so now that I know who he’s been mooning over for the last few months.
It’s me, and just the thought has me terrified and horrified and I want to hurry through this massive, pretentious hotel simply to hold him again, to have him again.
But, like the other, I won’t because it might get him into trouble and worse, it might hurt him. It’s a measure of how lost I am that I can say with all certainty that even if it meant never seeing him again, I would do anything to keep him from harm.
Of course, it also goes without saying that I would gladly kill any man who hurt him. I’m not so far gone as all that and that part of me is still there, waiting.
I touch the shattered vase, then look at my watch. It’s been about ten minutes, long enough that he’s had time to get to his room. I roll down my sleeves and pull on my jacket, smoothing it out, trying to make myself as presentable as possible.
I glance around the room. Captain Nixon told me that the hotel staff rotated the decor each time Hitler came for tea and the shelves are filled with priceless porcelain and crystal. The vase carefully tucked back on the middle shelf on the left is Italian, maybe nine hundred years old. The platter on the shelf above is much newer, but plated with gold.
I leave everything where it sits. Let it gather more dust, I think. Let it rot.
Because as much as I hate to admit it—and just the thought makes me grind my teeth at my own sentimentality—the thing I found this afternoon is more valuable than all my loot put together and I could care less about the treasure I’m leaving behind.
I switch off the light and leave.
Upstairs, Carwood is getting cleaned up, maybe already sitting down to dinner. I know I’ll do the same, wash, brush, change, hoping he’s trusted my words and is waiting for me.
I’m already on the marble steps, feeling a little off balance at the sharp turn my life has just taken when I remember another line from Aurelius, made when he was at the end of his long life. I’d sneered at the passage when I first read it long ago, thinking that the general must have been half senile at the time.
But now I think that I was wrong, that it was further proof of his genius that he was able to pare down all that really mattered in life to a few words: Accept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together but do so with all your heart.
I reach the main floors and my eyes burn at the bright light that floods the main hall. My luck holds and I meet no one as I run up the stairs to my room.
It’s late, later than I thought, and I really should be worrying about what Winters will say when I beg off from our meeting, but all I can think about is fate and bindings and the way Carwood smiled when he told me we weren’t over.
Zell am See, Austria June, 1945
Lipton took a breath and asked, “Major, is this type of job I can except from now on?” He’d been hoping for an assignment with another company, maybe something that would bring him contact with Easy once in a while, but Battalion Headquarters? It was too much to ask.
Winters nodded a couple times and smiled wryly. “Yeah. Yeah, when we’re not sunning ourselves by the lake.”
Lipton grinned, almost laughed out loud, then gave Winters his best salute. He strode off, his grin changing to a broad smile.
No doubt the airfield would be jam-packed with soldiers, all eager to see the German General’s surrender for themselves. Eager to start celebrating in earnest. They deserved it, every last one of them after the long road they’d all walked. But it would be no place for any sort of conversation, intimate or otherwise.
So he’d wait. Until much later when they managed to find a little privacy. And then he’d do his own celebrating after he told Ron the good news.
Carwood Lipton/Ronald Speirs
Band of Brothers
Episodes referenced: Why We Fight and Points
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me