Chapter One: The Growing Existential Crisis of Joachim Hoch

"A TOAST TO OUR LEADER; THE MAN WHO WON US THIS BATTLE: STANDARTENFÜHRER JOACHIM HOCH!"

The sudden roar from outside his window woke the newly promoted Standartenführer Joachim Hoch from his eighteenth hour of nightmare plagued and meth withdrawal sleep.

Groaning as the stiffness in his joints returned to him, Joachim Hoch pulled himself up from his bed, yawning as he stretched out in place, he could feel all of his joints cracks. Marching two thousand captured men had been a tedious job, as had moving the captured American equipment he decided to bring back for inspecting in Germany. Finding a place to hold the prisoners were even more so for him and his men. Without a pen to hold them at, Hoch had to place them at the docks under shifts.

The search for accommodations for the prisoners was hampered by the gathering of German officers who greeted the returning Kampfgruppe. Of them, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, who stood there, bright eyed and clasping his hand, telling him how proud both he and Rommel were of his total victory. Next to him was Sepp Dietrich. As commander of the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Division 'Leibstandarte' stationed in Egypt, It was him who saw to his field promotion. The men cheered, Joachim smiled and shook Sepp's hand graciously.

He felt nothing for it.

It was not the last honour. He had been recommended and approved of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. He was to receive it from Rommel when he arrived in a matter of days. It was an honour the Fuhrer usually bestowed, but with his focus on the east, it was left to the Generalfeldmarschall in command of the front. He grinned to Guderian, and then to his men, who cheered even louder at learning of the honour bestowed on not just him but for them as well.

He felt nothing for that either.

He also received communication from people across Europe and off as far as Mars. Congratulations from Admiral Zorah and Jarva, praise from his old Commander, Wilhelm Bittrich, Praise from Himmler for representing the strength of the Aryans in this first battle against the mongrels (The cable was immediately set on fire by Hoch when he finished reading it) and finally letters from all of the Langer's, From the hero adoration coming from the youngest members to Gerald and Lene, both of them relatively drunk in celebration of the achievement. He smiled brightly, spoke happy words about the Langer's, he wrote back to them jubilantly.

Still, he felt nothing.

There had been no word from Hanala.

That, on the other hand, hurt.

Sitting there on his bed, alone and in the dark, ignoring the partying coming from his men; Joachim Hoch broke down into tears. This was a first in many, many years.

This was the goals he had sought since he was eighteen? To lead men into combat, kill the enemy? It was one thing to be a soldier. It was quite another to be a leader.

He had killed nine thousand men, possibly more factoring in the wounded he allowed to be sent back to Oran. He was not a clog in the machinations of another man's mind. They were his machinations! How could he permit such madness to occur!

How could this have happened? This battle he had pursued as revenge for Hanala. It had hit him what he had done. Nine thousand men dead, God knows how many lives he altered for the wounded. Command in this sort of scale… it made him sick when he thought about it.

His hands shaking as he wiped his eyes clean, Hoch pressed his hands against his head. If people could see him now at this very moment, as weak willed as his Mother and Father had been in life. What an embarrassment. He promised himself when he left home that never would he allow anything to put himself in this sort of pathetic state.

"TO OUR FALLEN KAMERADEN," he heard Hertzer roar out from outside. "TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY EIGHT OF YOU WILL NOT COME HOME WITH US, BUT TAKE HEART KNOWING WE INFLICTED NINE THOUSAND DEAD ON THEIR SIDE! THOSE ASSHOLES NEVER KNEW WHAT HIT THEM!"

Exhaling as he heard the crowd roar back to life, Joachim pulled himself up from out of his bed and wandered over to get dressed once more. Rolling down the sleeves and pulling back on the gloves that hid his mechanical appendage. He pulled on his Heer tunic and headed down stairs, his hands fumbling for a cigarette. He would make an appearance for his men. Put on his brave face and join the festivals outside. With any luck it would take his mind off everything, from the death to the lack of news regarding Hanala.

Hitting the last stairs, he paused to light up a cigarette. That was when he heard it.

A moan…

…and then a grunt…

…and then the faint sound of two people giggling as though they were doing some sort of illicit activities.

Rolling his eyes as he exhaled through his nose, Hoch gave a loud, abrupt coughed violently, causing the moaning to stop and the frame of a naked man launch from off the couch. In a fraction of a second, a man was standing there, naked and standing in a state of attention for the Standartenführer. Hoch groaned and averted his eyes from Christian Bohr who stood there unashamed by his own nudity.

"S-shit sir, I…" he begun to sputter.

Bohr was joined by his partner. It was the Ukrainian skeleton, Tatiyana. She had enough sense to cover whatever she had with her hands. Pulling on his peaked cap, Joachim turned back to the two of them at long last. Her thin lips allowed a slight nervous laugh to come from her, earning Joachim to narrow his eyes at her for a brief moment before turning back to Bohr. At least he wasn't having sex with either Oster or Hammer.

Or both of them; such deviance would not surprise him in the slightest.

"Save the excuse, Bohr. I see your festival wasn't enough," Hoch grumbled at them, rearranging his belt holster. He looked at the two of them once again before adding. "You're under orders to impregnate her. I don't want her on my front any longer."

The two of them shared a look.

"Ah… yes, Herr Hoch... I-I am sure we can arrange something…" was all Tatiyana could say.

Deciding he did not need to have this conversation any further, Hoch turned and left, leaving the two of them to continue their dalliances. It was something that apparently wasn't bothered by the interruption from the sound of flesh hitting flesh.

Taking another drag of his cigarette as he exited the improvised barracks, the soldiers, all of whom were deep in celebration, all turned in his direction. Their celebration ceased in under a second as someone screamed 'ATTENTION' in the presence of their commanding officer. Hoch turned his eyes to look at all of the men trying to stand at attention. Most of them were simply too plastered to remain still for very long.

Without words, he stepped over to join them. One of the men, an Obersoldat, no more than twenty was carrying a bottle of brandy. Hoch reached out and grabbed it from his hands. Pausing for moment to smirk at the Obersoldat whose serious expression formed into a grin; he took a long careful drink before handing it back to the soldier. Action was not lost on the men. The gathering of the Kampfgruppe broke out into a wild eruption of cheers for him.

Joachim allowed them a slight smile before turning away to wander to a parked Hanomag, which was occupied by Hertzer and his crew. The Panzer Commander was grinning at him, gesturing him over, a cigarette in his mouth as he waved a bottle of American Whiskey at him. Before he knew it, an arm belonging to Helmut Mann caught him off guard. The heavily intoxicated Hauptmann grinned at his Commander.

"Hoch, you lunatic… You f-fucking crazy man..." he slurred to the staring Standartenführer, "I-I should have known you'd be this awe-inspiring when we were kids… Good God. Those Ami's... Americans never knew what hit them!"

Hoch gave Mann a look of warning,

"Mann… You're sloshed…" Hoch muttered in a form of a warning, his tone stern as he climbed into the back of the Hanomag.

Staggering in place, the Hauptmann gave a short, nervous giggle.

"Oh right…"

Mann came to attention and flung his right arm high in the air.

"SEIG HEIL, MEIN STANDARTENFÜHRER! SEIG HEIL! SEIG HEIL! SEIG HEIL!" Mann started screaming at the top of his lungs, gesturing wildly to Joachim. "SEIG HEIL TO MY FRIEND HERE, THE POSTER FUCKING BOY FOR THE GLORIOUS, INDOMITABLE NATIONAL SOCIALIST PARTY; THANK OUR GOD ABOVE US FOR THE PARTY!

The surrounding men stared at the event. Both curious and in some case looking for insults offered by the drunk man. Sarcasm in the Reich was heavily frowned upon. Before Joachim could respond in any way point out just how low he felt for his old cause, he was spared a debate as Johann Oster reached his Hauptmann and dragged him away from Joachim, leaving Hoch alone with Hertzer and his crew. Sighing, Hoch took a seat across from Hertzer, who pressed a tin cup into his hand.

"I find it hard to believe you are friends with such an idiot," Hertzer muttered as he poured the Standartenführer a generous helping of American whiskey. "His old Army is falling apart now. They're talking about surrender now. I cannot believe they failed this terribly out east."

Hoch dropped his cigarette and stamped it out as he took a careful sip of the strong drink. Having to hear lie after lie from those bastard propagandists back in Berlin about the situation in Stalingrad must have been painful to listen to.

"He has his uses. If I had my way I would send all these Sixth Army survivors off to a leisure furlough for unwinding. They're good soldiers, but one misstep and they've lost it," Hoch said as the Panzer commander poured him a drink. "Good work out there, Hertzer, the rest of you. I'm putting you all up for promotion… Your command of the heavy panzer detachment was spectacular."

Ignoring the sudden shouts of jubilation from the Sigrid II crew, instead, the shouting in both German and English forced his attention away from the good humour coming from Hertzer and onto his men. He watched as the men parted, allowing a dozen armed sentries to push through. With them were six men, their uniforms tattered and unkempt. Leading them was Joachim Peiper; his hand was wrapped around the back of a seventh American's jacket.

The party mood subsided as they realized the enemy was amongst them.

Sipping his tin cup of whiskey, Hoch frowned as the soldier was brought ever closer. Unlike the other, he had been battered all ways to hell. His nose was broken; his face was smashed by what were likely pistol whips. Hoch adverted his eyes as he downed the last of his drink and forced himself not to think about how this was probably done to the boy in his name.

"Peiper?" Hoch called out as he handed the cup back to Hertzer for another refill.

With one hard shove, Peiper shoved the American soldier hard against the back of the Hanomag. With a dull thump, he bounced off the vehicle and fell to the ground in front of Hoch and the Americans behind him, who were forced down onto their knees as well. The soldier moaned, his gripping the bruising covering his left cheek.

Snorting in apparent disgust, Peiper looked up to Hoch once again.

"Standartenführer, we were preparing the prisoner transfer, as you requested. We were performing routine final check for contraband carried by the Americans," Peiper informed Hoch. Gesturing to the injured soldier, he added. "This one resisted, so the guard held him down while an inspection was performed. We discovered this."

Letting go of the bleeding soldier, Peiper stepped forward, his hands digging into his pocket for a moment and produced an Iron Cross First Class, the ribbon bloodied and frayed. Peiper placed it into Hoch's waiting hands and backed off; allowing the Standartenführer time to inspect the badge of honour carefully, like it was as delicate as glass.

Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he could feel his personal rage and outrage for what Peiper had uncovered begun to simmer to a slow boil. To Hoch; there was a special place in hell for men who looted medals off the dead, especially off of his dead.

Hoch looked up, his eyes locked onto the wounded prisoner like bird of prey staring down a creature lower down the food chain.

"As you requested, the men have complied with your anti-summary execution orders," Peiper pressed on, forcing his attention back to the heaving American. "They have insisted we bring him before you for your judgement instead. A few of the Afrika Korps members felt since you know English; you could gauge the situation the best… and for the record, his condition was due to his uncooperative behaviour."

The men holding the Americans chuckled lowly at Peiper's statement.

"We brought his squad as well, at Major Brenner's request, to act as witnesses," Added one of the junior officers, apparently wanting the praise of the Major and the Standartenführer, or he wanted the point across to Hoch that he didn't want to be executed like Major Gantz.

Looking to Major Brenner, the veteran of the Afrika Korps, Joachim nodded to him gratefully as he pocketed the cross and pulled a mostly clean rag from off the Hanomag's munitions supply. Both Brenner and he appeared to be on the same wavelength with regards to prisoner handling.

Quietly, he poured himself another cup of whiskey. Instead of gulping it down, he brought it with him as he climbed out of the back of the halftrack and joined Peiper who went back to holding the American down in place, his pistol pressed against his neck.

"Let him go," the newly promoted Standartenführer ordered Peiper.

Although the promotion and the official acknowledgement that Hoch was the superior officer seemed to increase Peiper's respect for the younger soldier; He still hesitated for a good long moment. Finally, Peiper obliged, tucking his Walter away. His expression became one of disgust as he kicked the kid hard in the back. Hoch shot him a look of warning before turn back to the soldier, sobbing from the pain of the savage beating the guards probably dealt him.

Ignoring the feeling of guilt that this violence to a POW had occurred, stealing from the dead or not, Joachim stepped to the baby faced soldier, quivering.

"What is your name?" Joachim switched to English, kneeling before the boy, his hand reaching out to push his head back so the frightened soldier could look him in the eyes.

The soldier did not reply. He simply continued to moan, blood was draining heavily from his facial lacerations. Hoch exhaled and choose instead to not pursue the answer just yet. Silently, he wiped the injuries the young American sustained clean pausing to hold the rag tightly over a large gash against his head. The blood in the soldier's nose bubbled as he sniffed and took over clutching the rag. Behind him he could feel the eyes of his men on him. Where had the lunatic who shot his own man and drove his men so hard that they annihilated a premiere armour division?

In truth, Joachim wondered the same. The rage that had been flowing through him simply could not surface. Not when he held this much control. Not when his men were looking for him to be some sort of moral standard. Perhaps the mess lying before him was too pitiful to make an example out of.

"Jim…. Jimmy… James" he sputtered out, his eyes darting from Hoch, to Peiper, whose hand was resting on his holster.

"Jimmy…or is it James?" Joachim repeated as he dabbed the rag into his whiskey and tended to the blood coming from the soldier's ear, making the young man jump in place. "What about your surname?"

"Harris… James Harris, Private First Class, S-Serial Numbe-."

Joachim chuckled slightly; he shook his head back and forth only twice.

"I'm not looking for your secrets, Private Harris. Considering what I done to your division, I imagine a man of your rank would not have many secrets left to spill," Hoch spoke to the Private reassuringly. "Do you know why you and your squad have been dragged before me? Why my men treated you like this?"

The soldier turned his eyes away from the Standartenführer. He swallowed painfully as he looked up to Hoch once more. Hoch turned away briefly, standing up and pulling the bottle of Jack Daniels from Hertzer hands.

"I had… I had an Iron Cross…" Harris managed to get out. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, sir."

As the strange sounding American started to sob, Joachim could not help but grin at him. Had the Americans been recruiting straight from the mental asylums? It would not surprise him one bit if that were indeed the case. Hoch's eyes flickered to the rest of his squad. All but one of them was staring ahead defiantly. The last one was staring right back at him, clearly the leader of this group.

Sighing, Hoch returned to the boy. Kneeling back in front of him, he took a drink of whiskey before offering it to the soldier. Harris shook his head, his head bowed as he drooled out a mouthful of blood.

"That is a very good answer, James Harris," Joachim found himself repeating his praise as though he was addressing a child. "I'm always relieved when I find someone who is willing to own up to a mistake. So many men weasel out of personal responsibility..."

Offering him one more chance for a drink and getting a no one again. Joachim sighed and stood up, handing the bottle back to Hertzer and tugging his P38 Walther from out of his holster. The moment made the squad behind Harris roar out in protests. Harris on the other hand went sheet white at the sight of the giant now holding a pistol at his side. Surrounding the Americans, Joachim barely registered the looks his men were giving each other. They were witnessing their executioner Commandant looking down on his victim.

"Private Harris, you must understand this. To many men of my Kampfgruppe, as well as the rest of the German army, getting caught possessing an Iron Cross from a dead man is subject to a possible summary execution," he attempted to explain the now sobbing Private. "There is no trial, no appeal. I take you somewhere quiet, give you a cigarette if I am generous and then shoot you in the back of the skull… Right about here."

Joachim tapped the pistol barrel right where he was referencing. He could feel the vibrations of the Private shoot up through his sidearm.

"Oh Lord, please don't shoot m-" He started to sob.

"Shut up... Consider yourself lucky I have issued standing orders against unreported executions," Joachim stated as he pulled back from the soldier. "That means I make the final call on the matter."

Finishing his inspection he paused back in front of the frightened man's line of sight. Once more he bent down onto his knees. He retrieved the Iron Cross from his pant pocket and displayed it to the Private.

"Franz Simmering, 1940..." spoke Hoch, reading the Iron Cross inscription before pocketing it once more. He looked up, adding. "To you, he was just another Nazi, a Kraut, a man dehumanized by your propaganda machine. To you, an Iron Cross is simply a war souvenir meant to be traded and exchanged, or handed to your mongrel children to ruin. In actuality, this medal personifies a man's personal bravery. To steal a medal such as this, you steal his dignity. This would ring true for your case should I steal your medals. You can take a dead man's wallet, you can take his rations… weapons, his gear… you can take his watch, but a medal..?"

Hoch shook his head and stood up. He turned his focus away from the American and focused onto the gathering of his men. The smiles on their faces vanished the moment they noticed their Commandant scowling at each and every one of them.

"This extends to you all as well," he warned his soldiers back in his native tongue. His voice significantly harder compared to the tone used for Harris. "From what I understand, you have all heard about Major Gantz and his actions, as well as my response to his actions. I will not deny I shot the major dead for killing a civilian. For your sakes, if you have taken medals off the fallen or captured Americans, I ask you return them to men you stole them from, or to the officers. If you do not, I will make sure you come to regret it."

He was immediately answered with 'YES STANDARTENFÜHRER!' shouted by every man gathered around the display, their words both frightened and respectful. Nodding as they acknowledge his new directive, Hoch turned back to the American.

"I'm sorry… I'm so sorry..." the boy finally stammered out since he was informed of an impending death sentence. "My Daddy said I should bring home an Iron Cross for him. If I knew that ya'all were so strict 'bout the medals…"

Hoch blinked, his mouth curled up as he absorbed the excuse. What was it with parents who told their war bound children to do stupid things?

"Your Daddy?" Joachim repeated incredulously. "Father's whom have clearly never served in his life have no right to dictate the way the son should conduct his war. You're the one risking your life. Not him."

Listening to Harris mumble incoherently, Hoch stood up once more from his place next to the younger soldier, his pistol raised as his body moved himself behind the Private, pressing the barrel where he said he would place it.

"Come on, He's just a goddamn kid!"

Hoch rounded his field of view back to face the source of the angry English shot at him. It belonged to whom Hoch had assumed to be the leader of the squad. He was a roughed faced man; his face was cut up pretty badly, but they were old wounds from the battle. Silently, he lowered his sidearm and stepped over to the man who was interested in keeping one of his own alive.

"Who are you?" Hoch ordered, gesturing at him with his pistol.

"His squad leader, Sergeant Dale Blaine" The Sergeant said, struggling to stand up. "He's young and stupid. My Father served in the first war. He got in shit when he tried to steal from a dead German by his CO. I should have issued a warning to my boys, to him. Don't punish the boy for this. Please sir. If I were in your shoes, I would be just as cross, but he doesn't need to die over this!"

Hoch's mouth twitched. Although he had never served in the war at a rank lower than Obersturmführer, it was still a low enough rank to sympathize with the position the American must have been in. It was the personal responsibility to your underlings. He would say anything; do anything to make sure one of your own didn't have to die...

"I appreciate your understanding," Hoch said to the Sergeant, before turning to Harris, adding, "How old are you?"

"Nineteen…" was his immediate response, shooting out the words at record speed. He must have heard the sympathy in the Standartenführer's voice.

Joachim sighed.

"Nineteen is old enough to know better."

With that, Hoch walked back over to the teenaged soldier, redrawing his pistol. Pulling back the pistol slide, Hoch pressed the Walther hard against the head of the suddenly screaming Private and pulled the trigger as the Americans behind him screamed in a state of rage.

*CLICK*… *CLICK CLICK*

The boy went dead still. He looked as though he wasn't certain if he was a alive or dead. Slowly, he turned back to look up to Hoch, who was chuckling as he tucked his empty Walther away into holster. Around him the Kampfgruppe murmured, some turning away as they realized their Standartenführer wasn't going to go through with the execution.

"You should have taken that drink, James…" Joachim idly spoke.

The Private broke down into wailing tears. He reached out, clutching the German's legs as though Joachim had been some sort of a saint for sparing him. Hoch took him off and turned Peiper, who nodded and went around to issuing orders to the sentries to collect the POW`S and return them back to the docks.

"Consider this your lucky day, Harris," Hoch said as he watched Peiper drag the boy away. "I'm giving you your life. It's more than most will ever receive these days."

Watching boy sputter out his tears and sobs as Peiper dragged them away; Hoch turned away and climbed back into the Hanomag. He needed another drink and a cigarette. He had already taken so many lives for a cause that would be destroyed soon. He was not willing to take another.

Xxx

Changes: cleaning a little, cut out some drunken angst, called back on Jimmy being a dumb hick.

Welcome to the last days.