"Jazz, what are you waiting for? Hurry up, we have to get you out of that shirt before the stain sets!"
Her voice seemed to bring him from a momentary daze. He looked down at her, hard blue eyes softening in a way they only did for her, and wondered again how he had gotten so consumed by someone so small and bright. She had just fallen into his lap one dark night at his favorite jazz spot, bringing with her something that he hadn't even realized he was missing. It had been so long since he'd allowed himself to really talk to someone—be with someone—anyone. With Alice, he didn't feel like he had a choice. She wouldn't take no for an answer. She simply batted her dark lashes and looked up at him with those big grey eyes that reminded him so much of someone else, someone from before.
"I'm hurrying," he chuckled, reaching out for her waist and pulling her back against his chest. She laughed and then sighed, resting there for a moment before she remembered why they were going back to his apartment so early in the evening.
"Careful," she squealed, twisting out of his hands and turning in a little circle in an effort to see her back. "Your shirt!"
He looked down at the wide dark stain across his chest where some idiot had spilled a full glass of red wine. Before Alice, he would have used it as an excuse for a fight, would have pounded the drunken man into a pulp for staggering into him like that. Tonight, he had rolled his eyes and walked away.
If he was a poetic man, he would have said the wine looked like blood seeping from a wound, making the surrounding white even whiter and leaching the color from his already pale skin. But Jasper Whitlock had lost any poetry he had years ago. It fled with his optimism and his sense of humor in December of 1944, in a frozen forest somewhere in Belgium, surrounded by dying men and boys.
"Jasper? Come on."
He shook his head slightly and took her offered hand, letting her lead him down the quiet streets toward the dilapidated building where he had lived for the last four years.
He had been hesitant about bringing her back to this place that first night, with her fine clothing and bright, unfaltering smile, but she had surprised him. She glanced around, barely noticing the dingy armchair and the peeling wallpaper. Instead, her gaze had settled on the record player in the corner, and she exclaimed over his music. Later that night, all thoughts of music driven from their heads as they lay tangled in his sheets, he felt an odd sense of calm settle over him.
It was that calm which kept him coming back. It made him oddly protective of the fairy-like girl and her friend... and they seemed to need the protection. And then the strangest thing happened: he found himself smiling again. Laughing, even. The humanity he thought he'd lost was still there, and Alice was bringing it out.
"What are you smiling at, mister?" Alice asked, peeking over her shoulder at him.
He wrapped both his hands around her own, her warm fingers entwined with his cold ones. "Just thinking about what I'd really like to do when I get out of this shirt."
She knit her eyebrows together in an attempt to give him a stern look, but her teasing smile slipped through.
"None of that! We're finding you a new shirt and then going back out, the night is still young. Plenty of time for your hanky-panky later."
They climbed the stairs to his fourth floor apartment, shuffling and skipping over the dirty, worn carpeting. She was wearing a jewel green dress, and the hem of it peeked out from under her long dark coat, flashing like the tail feathers of some exotic bird.
"Later?" he asked with a smirk. He pulled on her hand, but she pushed forward to his door and waited, one hand on her hip.
"Yes, smarty pants. Later." He unlocked the door and she pulled him forward into the tiny entryway. "In fact, just so you don't get any big ideas, why don't you stay here while I get you a new shirt? Take that one off and I'll be right back."
She disappeared into his bedroom and he stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. His eyes took in the tiny changes that had been wrought since Alice appeared in his life. To an outsider, perhaps they would be unnoticeable. A tiny glass with two fresh flowers sat on his writing desk, which was cluttered with his usual mess of crumpled and inky papers. A bright red throw sat folded on the ragged armchair in the corner. Everything was a little cleaner, a little tidier.
He unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of it, tossing it onto the armchair and rubbing absently at his bare arms. His undershirt was wearing thin; he would need a new one before much longer. He eyed the pile of stained, white fabric for a moment, then picked it up and attempted to fold it neatly. It ended up in more of a ball than anything else, but he was mildly satisfied with the result. He was just about to go and see what was taking Alice so long when she appeared in the doorway, a white shirt in one hand, and an American army helmet hanging from a chinstrap on the other.
"I thought you said you got rid of all your war stuff?" she asked, flicking her wrist and making the helmet twirl in a circle around her arm.
"Where...where did you get that?" he rasped, taking an unsteady step forward, his sole focus the helmet hanging from her arm.
"It was in the bottom drawer of your chest, I was looking for a different shirt," she said casually. She didn't notice the slightly unstable look in his eye. "I've never seen one of these up close before." Then, before he could take another step, she took the helmet in her hands and pushed it down over her head. It was far too big for her, slipping down over her eyes and seeming to swallow her whole. She giggled.
"Take it off," he croaked, a little louder this time. "Take it off, now. What are you doing?"
He crossed the room to her quickly, gripping the chin strap in his hand and wrenching it off her head. She made a little noise—in pain or in protest—he didn't know. He wasn't sure he cared. His vision was tinted with red, and all he could think was that she had torn a hole into his past and then laughed, laughed like it was nothing that she was standing there in a dead man's helmet.
"I'm sorry, I didn't—" she started, but he cut her off with a snarl.
"Why were you going through my things, anyway? Did you think you could just dig through my drawers and I wouldn't care? There's a reason you've never seen this before, Alice. Not everything is your business."
The coldness was seeping into his tone now, ice clenching his heart. Her grey eyes filled with tears and he hated himself a little more, then hated her for making him feel like that.
"Is it yours? I mean, of course it's yours, why would you have someone else's helmet," she stammered, filling the tense silence with rambling words. Her usual cool seemed shaken by his outburst. "You can tell me about it, you know. It's okay, I promise I'll listen and I won't even say anything. You can tell me."
She took a deep breath and seemed to calm a bit, reaching out for him and giving him a shaky smile. "You can tell me. I can help. I want to help."
"What the hell do you know?" he snarled. He retreated a couple of steps, clutching the helmet to his chest protectively. He wondered if she had looked inside, found the cartoon that was secured under the hatband.
"I know you're hurting," she said, following him even as he retreated. "I know you probably saw some terrible things, but you don't have to be alone anymore." He stumbled a little and she extended a hand up to his face, tracing the scars that covered his cheek and neck. "Tell me. Please."
For a second he considered it, what it would be like to let someone in, trust someone completely. And then he remembered with painful clarity each loss, each death, each person he'd failed. He'd let this charade go on for too long. It was better to keep his distance, not to care or get too close. That was who he was now. The second he realized that, his face hardened and his jaw tensed. She noticed the change in his expression immediately and withdrew her hand.
"What would you like to hear, Alice?" he asked, his voice controlled and steely. "I don't know what kind of heroic image you have in that little head of yours, but I doubt it's very close to reality. I was only a reporter, it wasn't glamorous and it wasn't hard. I watched hundreds, thousands of men die. I was there for the Battle of the Bulge, I saw men freeze and get their faces shot off. Then I wrote about them. I kept my head down. I survived. They didn't."
The self-loathing words just poured out of him, though he had never spoken of these things to anyone before.
"I watched out for myself, and while I was doing that, my best friend, my photographer, got shot and killed. Him and a lot of good men, shot at point blank range, all of them unarmed. Better men than me died out there, and for what? They weren't in combat, they weren't fighting, they were prisoners of war. And they were massacred. Killed for no reason."
"Were you there?" she asked tentatively, still determined to actually have this conversation with him, pushing him. "Is that how you got those scars? Were you... wounded?"
He snorted. The story behind his scars wasn't thrilling or courageous; it was embarrassing. He had hit rock bottom that day, and then kept right on falling. When Esme Benoit had asked about them, he had mumbled some half-truth, ignoring the way her eyes gleamed knowingly at him. He hated that feeling of being x-rayed, like he had nothing to hide. Even so, maybe it was time to reveal this ugly truth, this black, scarred piece of himself to Alice. If telling her this story was what it took to make her see, then he would do it.
"I got these scars in a bar fight in September of '45," he said, pausing for effect and feeling his heart clench a little at the look of confusion on her face. He consoled himself that the disappointment she felt now would be nothing compared to what she would have felt if they continued like they had been. It was better this way. "Some guy and his buddy threw me into a plate glass window. It shattered and cut up the whole side of my face. There was glass everywhere; in my hair, shards of it in my skin."
Stalking toward her, he bent down so that they were face to face. "I barely noticed, Alice. I was so damn drunk I couldn't feel a thing. I drank a lot after the war, until I was so drunk I couldn't remember hours, whole chunks of my day. Then I did stupid shit like get myself thrown through windows. By the time I got sober, a whole year had passed. It was a miracle I still had a job. I would have bled to death that night if someone at the bar hadn't gotten me to the hospital." A tinge of bitterness twisted his expression. "The doctor told me by all accounts I should have died. He said I got lucky."
She stared at him, horror and pity coloring her fine features. The pity made his stomach churn.
"Oh, Jasper," she whispered. Tears overflowed and spilled down her cheeks, which made him inexplicably angry.
"Get out," he said quietly. She didn't move. "GET OUT!" he roared, gesturing wildly with the hand that still held the helmet which started them down this path.
She sobbed then, and hugged her arms around her waist, looking very small and fragile. "Don't do this," she pleaded.
He grabbed her arm and marched her to the door. "You need to leave," he said. His voice simmered with rage, but whether it was directed at himself or the girl at his side, he wasn't sure. "Get out. Don't come back. I don't..." The words, the ones he knew he had to say, suddenly got stuck in his throat. "I don't want to see you again. Leave."
He wrenched the door open and shoved her sobbing figure out, slamming the door behind her. He closed his eyes for a moment before opening them and hurling the helmet toward the armchair. It landed with a dull thud on top of the balled-up, stained shirt before rolling off the chair and onto the floor. He staggered forward and knelt down, taking it back in his hands and drawing an unsteady breath.
Slowly, he turned the helmet upside down and looked inside, searching for the scrap of paper he knew would be there. He pulled it out and unfolded it gently, his hands shaking. A drawing of two men was there, one tall and lean with messy, slightly curly hair and an odd half-smile, the other short and stocky with a cheerful grin and a camera in his right hand. It was a caricature, and the artist had exaggerated the slope of the taller man's forehead and the small cleft in his chin. No scars decorated his handsome face, though his smile was one of a man who had seen much in a short time. The shorter man had been drawn with huge eyes that seemed to pop right off the page and a long, slightly pointed noise. Under the figures was scrawled "Whits and Pete, '44." It had been drawn right before they had left on that fateful trip to Luxemburg. He closed his eyes, and for the first time in more than five years, he allowed himself to remember.
The trucks leading the convoy bounced through the trees, and the sound of the troops echoed through the forest. They had been dispatched from Schevenhutte, Germany early that morning: a group of mismatched trucks from scattered divisions and five ambulances. The soldiers were glad to be travelling through this end of Belgium. It was a sort of no-man's-land, where new arrivals and exhausted divisions were often stationed to get acclimated or to recover.
There were fewer attacks here, and the little towns scattered along this route would provide relief from the war-ravaged countryside. Reminders of the war were everywhere, of course, but it made a fellow relax a little when he knew he didn't have to worry about being shot at every second.
It was almost noon when the men stopped for lunch, jumping out of their trucks and scattering briefly to enjoy their rations the best they were able.
"Isn't this a cozy little picnic spot," Pete joked, turning to the tall man at his right. The man didn't smile, just scanned the groups of scattered troops. "Come on, Whits, stop working whatever angle you're churning out and have some bread. Joe said we picked up coffee at that last town, I bet we can get a few cups with our rations."
He blinked, then looked down at his friend, a real smile spreading over his face. "Coffee? Hot damn, that sounds good."
Pete smiled broadly and patted him on the back. "Atta boy. Get your cup, I'll hut down Joe."
Jasper turned back to the truck he and Pete had been riding in. Their assignment with the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion was a new one. They had only been travelling with the men for a few weeks, and Jasper was still adjusting. Their last assignment had been fairly stationary, and he and Pete had stayed with that division for nearly six months. They ate, marched, slept, and lived side by side with the infantrymen, ordinary guys far from home who just wanted to know they were fighting for something. They showed Jasper pictures of their girlfriends and wives, they told him about their hometowns and the first thing they wanted to do when they got home.
Eat a hamburger. Take a hot bath. Make love to my wife. Hug my kid. Smoke a Cuban.
In return, Jasper told the folks at home about the boys overseas, painting their stories in a down-to-earth way that readers adored and editors clamored for. His stories were less about the battles themselves and more about the principles behind them. Pete joked that you could almost see the American flag waving behind his words sometimes.
Jasper met Pete when he first arrived in England in 1942, just a kid who thought he was going to change the world. Pearl Harbor changed him in a fundamental way, and he had angled successfully for a spot on the AP's overseas roster. His mother cried, his father shook his hand, and his girlfriend kissed him on the cheek demurely and made him promise to write. He laughed and said of course he would. Why else was he going over there, if not to write?
Pete was standing there, camera in hand and a wide smile on his face, when he entered the AP's offices that day.
"Why you're still wet behind the ears!" Pete had crowed, reaching over and tousling Jasper's newly cropped hair with one hand. He had been annoyed at this, since the man barely looked to be older than he was, but he shrugged it off.
"I may be wet behind the ears, but I bet I could write circles around you and that 35mm."
Pete had laughed loudly and winked a sparkling grey eye at him. "I think I like you, kid. What's your name?"
He clucked his tongue and shook his head slightly. "That's a mouthful. Got a nickname?"
"Everybody needs a nickname," he had said firmly. "I think I'll call you Whits."
"My name is Jasper."
"Sure thing, Whits. You can call me Pete. Pete Johnson."
Jasper had frowned a little and eyed the man up, using his extra height to loom a bit and try to intimidate the man into using his proper name. Pete just stood there, smiling brightly and toying with his camera. The man was unflappable. And when the local editor for the AP had strolled out of his office to greet Jasper, Pete had laughingly introduced him using the new nickname.
It stuck. Jasper was annoyed at first, at the name and with his new partner, but after a few days Pete's casual grin and unerring sense of humor started to grow on Jasper. He found himself laughing at Pete's jokes, and then cracking a few of his own. After two weeks together, the men were fast friends. Jasper knew that Pete was engaged to a woman named Charlotte, and that when he got home he intended to settle down and have a ton of kids. He knew that Pete wasn't as unflappable as he seemed, and that in his darkest moments, when shells were dropping and they were flat on the ground in a foxhole, his hand was clenched tight around the St. Anthony medal Charlotte had given him before he left. Pete knew all about Jasper's on-again, off-again relationship with Maria and his secret wish to leave everything behind after the war ended and travel the world. He had seen Jasper's half finished manuscript that he kept in a metal box in his knapsack, and he alone knew how much it hurt Jasper every time a man in one of their divisions was killed in action.
The men at the top liked the way that Jasper's words wove together with Pete's photos. Jasper had a way of piercing straight to the soul of his subjects, creating scenes that the American public related to on a basic level. He spent hours chatting with the men, learning their duties and the way they functioned as a group, becoming one of them. He was unfailingly empathetic, and it made them trust him and open up in a way that was rare even with combat reporters, who were often much closer to their subjects than civilian journalists. He was one of them. Every loss to the ranks was a loss to him as well, and they knew it. It made them tell him things, and he made no bones about writing home about it.
Pete, on the other hand, worked on instinct, holding himself apart from his subjects, catching them in private moments or in a blur of action that seemed to innately capture their lives on the front. His work was gritty and real, and even the shots that developed blurry or out of focus held a glimmer of truth that couldn't be denied. Jasper often thought it was a shame they would only ever be printed in smudged, inky newsprint.
Jasper dug through his pack for his mess kit, looking up briefly when a bunch of men started shouting at the other end of the convoy. He was about to investigate when he saw Pete jogging back from a few trucks up. He jumped into the truck and dug for his helmet, tossing Jasper's over his shoulder.
"Tanks coming, Whits," he said, his voice tight and a little higher than normal, the way it always was when the fighting began. "Not ours."
Jasper scanned the convoy and watched as the men sprinted back to their trucks, suiting up for combat. He heard it then, the distant rumble that signaled the German tanks, ton after ton of steel and gun. Death on wheels.
His stomach tightened as he looked around. They were in no shape to withstand a tank attack. Orders were being shouted out along the line, and the trucks roared to life, bouncing along the road and charging toward the rumbling thunder of the tanks.
They were riding toward the back of the caravan, and they watched helplessly as the front two trucks engaged in enemy fire. The percussion of the artillery pounded in Jasper's chest, and he swallowed dryly as he watched first one truck, then another, get gunned down, the soldiers falling limply over each other or toppling out on the dirt road.
Jasper had never thought he'd be present for a surrender. He knew they happened, hell, he'd read stories about them. Officers sometimes had to make the hard decision, to save the lives of their men when there was no chance of victory. It was clear to Jasper, as the tanks rounded the hill ahead of them, that there would be no American victory today.
They marched. Pete didn't say anything as they walked side by side with their subjects and their friends. Jasper did what he did best, he watched, he counted, and he planned. It was all that was left to him; it wasn't like he could pull out his notepad and start scribbling notes. The Germans would likely frown on that. There were about a hundred men in the convoy, prisoners of war now, unarmed and milling around in between their captors. He wondered how many miles they would march and what kind of a work camp they would end up at.
He knew they were near Malmedy, but instead of proceeding to town, the troops bypassed town and herded the Americans into an open field. They stood there awkwardly, unsure about whether this was a temporary stop or an overnight camp.
"What do ya reckon?" Pete muttered, his hand twitching toward his pocket where he'd stashed his camera. It was a miracle that the Nazi's hadn't relieved him of it yet. "We staying here for a while? Think I can get a few shots off without anyone noticing?"
"Don't you dare, Johnson," Jasper growled. "The last thing I need is for you to get yourself shot because you couldn't resist taking a picture."
"I've never been a POW before," Pete joked weakly. "Who knows if I'll ever get the opportunity again?"
Jasper never got a chance to answer. Shots rang out, from all sides, and men started to fall in the crowd.
"What the hell?" someone shouted nearby. Another volley of shots rang out, another round of bodies dropped. Jasper looked around frantically and saw that all the Germans had their guns drawn and were shooting point blank at their captives. They weren't going to a work camp. They were going to die, right here, defenseless and unarmed. The thought made Jasper's blood run cold.
"Pete, get down," he hissed. "Play dead, there's a chance we can get out of here."
Pete started to say something, but Jasper was already falling forward onto his face, lying flat in the frozen mud. He didn't move, he hardly dared to breathe. They were near the back of the meadow, and the tree line wasn't far away. If they could play dead long enough, if the Germans didn't notice, he thought they could make a run for it.
"Jasper?" Pete's panicked voice rang out above him. Pete never used his real name, and that alone made him want to sit up and reassure him, but his instincts of self-preservation kept him pinned to the ground. He willed Pete to fall forward.
Then he heard a shot, a single shot that stood out starkly from all the others, and a hard thud. He hesitated, waiting for Pete's voice or the whisper of his breath. He heard nothing. Shots continued to echo through the clearing and bodies kept falling around him, but the sounds seemed muted and far away suddenly.
He cracked an eye open and scanned the bodies around him. The breath whooshed out of his chest almost immediately, and he had to close his eyes and press his lips together to stop from making a sound.
Peter lay undeniably dead next to him, grey eyes wide and startled, lips parted as if he was about to speak. The few seconds he had spent worrying about Jasper had cost him his life. He felt his stomach turn at the remembered sight, but forced himself to take deep breaths through his nose. He would have to save his tears and his pain for later.
He opened his eyes a little, this time scanning the area around where Peter had fallen. He knew there were items in Peter's helmet he needed to take care of if he could manage it. A letter to Charlotte, a photograph of the two of them in their hometown, Raleigh, North Carolina, and a caricature a private had drawn for them right before they left their last assignment.
There it was. Pete hated wearing the thing, and as soon as they had surrendered, he had taken it off again and slung it around his wrist. It was too big for him, and he said it made him feel like his brains were rattling around in his head. It was dangerous, and Jasper had to yell at him more than once in a tight spot to get down and put his gear on.
The Germans were walking through the fallen soldiers now. Jasper watched through slitted lids as they shot men in the back where they lay, making sure the dead were truly dead before they moved on. If he didn't hurry, he wouldn't be faking for much longer.
There weren't any Germans close by, so Jasper took his chance before he could dwell on it too much longer. If he died, he died. Pete was dead, the men he was just beginning to know were dead, and he was surrounded by armed enemy soldiers. He should be dead, so anything after this was bonus time.
He reached out for Pete's helmet in a slow, calculated movement, hooking it around his wrist carefully before bracing his palms against the ground. Taking a deep breath, he launched himself upwards, staying low to the ground and sprinting as quickly as he could for the trees. He heard shouting behind him and more shots. The ground a few feet away from him exploded once or twice, bullets barely missing him as he dodged into the trees.
He didn't stop to see if anyone was following him. He just ran. The cold air burned his lungs, but he didn't stop, not until the sounds of shouting and gunshots had faded completely into the distance.
He sat in the middle of the room, staring at the helmet in his hands. It could have been minutes or hours. All he really knew was that it was time to get up. He needed whiskey, and he needed it fast. Stumbling to his feet, he shoved his arms into the sleeves of the shirt she had dropped on the floor and buttoned it haphazardly.
It was the first time in years that he had felt the need to drink until everything faded into the background, until his consciousness dissolved into sweet oblivion. He knew that it would be the only way to erase her sad grey eyes, and Pete's startled ones, from his memories. He wanted to push them into a corner so deep they would never see the light of day again. He would forget that there was ever a time when he wasn't alone.
He stumbled to his feet and out the door, barely caring enough to lock it on his way out. None of it mattered anyway.
It was pouring outside; big, sloppy drops soaked through his white shirt and drenched his hair. It stuck to his forehead and curled around his ears, getting in his eyes and making him blink rapidly. The chill invaded his skin and crept into his bones, but he welcomed the numbness. He could only hope the whiskey worked as fast as the rain.
The little hole-in-the-wall bar was a perfect place to drink alone: full of dark corners and other patrons who weren't there to socialize. He used to frequent this place after the war, on those days when the only thing he knew for certain was that if he didn't have a drink or ten to drown out the faded echoes of battle, he would go insane.
If the bartender found his request for an entire bottle of whiskey odd, he didn't comment on it. Jasper slid some francs across the table and took the bottle wordlessly, making his way to a table far away from the bar and slightly hidden from the quiet rumbles of conversation that buzzed there.
He poured a few fingers into his empty glass and stared at it broodingly.
Were you... wounded?
Her words repeated in an endless loop in his head, mocking him, reminding him just how much of a useless son of a bitch he was. Before he could stop the thought in its tracks, he wished he could have told her what she wanted to hear, that he was a hero. He wished he could have told her anything else, but the truth was that most days he was nothing better than a washed-up journalist with a drinking problem who had done nothing worth praising since he left home. He couldn't even claim responsibility for helping her with her search for her friend, because if she hadn't pushed him every step of the way, hell, if he hadn't thought she was a cute broad with a sweet smile that first night, he would have flat-out refused her.
Slamming back his glass, he tried to shove her face out of his thoughts, casting around in his head for a memory that wasn't tainted with blood or drenched in booze.
Maria's face flickered in his mind, olive-toned and beautiful. Jasper knew for a fact that her sweetness was deceptive, that underneath her shy and innocent-seeming exterior lay a fierce and complicated woman. She was a woman who demanded things of a man, and who expected to be obeyed.
He was only twenty-two when he left her in Galveston, full of promise and giddy relief at his escape. He was going to change the world with his words. He was going to see things people in that sleepy little town never even dreamt of, and then he was going to write about it. And some day, there'd probably be a statue of him, right in the middle of town next to the post office and the Presbyterian church. Things were so much clearer then. Things changed.
In the trenches, surrounded by muddy infantrymen, his thoughts were less noble. Sometimes he would fantasize about Maria, recalling the way her lips and her legs would wrap around him on muggy summer nights. If he went home to her, he was guaranteed the life of a henpecked husband and semi-successful businessman. But Jasper wanted to travel, to leave everything, even Maria and her decadent lips, behind him and never look back. Pete didn't understand it.
"It's the natural order of things, Whits," he'd laugh. "The way you talk about it, raising a family is the same thing as a life sentence in prison. "
Jasper would smile and laugh along, but secretly he thought Pete wasn't too far off the mark. He didn't miss anything about Galveston. Not the bright sunshine or the view of the Gulf, not the way his mother wondered aloud about how long it would be before Jasper started giving her grandchildren while his father made not-so-subtle observations about the differences in pay-scale between a reporter and the owner of a grocery store. Paul Whitlock often hoped his son would take over for him one day, and it was a constant source of tension in their house. Jasper wanted nothing to do with the store, and he made no secret about it.
The letters he wrote home were half-assed at best, and he often used the uncertainty of war to escape pointed questions about his future plans. He told his mother he thought he might like to come back and take over the store, and he spun Maria stories about sending for her to come live with him somewhere in Europe. She said Spain, he said England. It was all bullshit.
The truth was he knew more than he let on to anyone but Pete. The men on the ground weren't his only sources of information, and from what he was able to gather from the commanding officers he spoke to and a few overheard radio broadcasts, the Nazis were losing ground quickly. He was nearing the end of his tour in the field, and he was hoping the AP would have an opening for him in London or Paris. After living in smelly tents and sleeping on the muddy ground for two years, he couldn't wait to trade in life on the front for a tiny apartment in the city. It would still be difficult, but it would be a new challenge. It wouldn't be long before he left the battlefield behind him forever.
Afterwards, that hopeful thought seemed like a cruel joke. He would never leave it behind; it would be branded into his memories until the day he died.
He took another drink, but instead of fading, Alice's face pushed forward again. He could see her so clearly, the red-rimmed edges of her eyes, the tear tracks on her cheeks, the delicate, graceful lines of her body under that green dress and the way she seemed to collapse in on herself when he threw her out.
Dropping his glass with a dull, clinking thud, he ran his fingers through his hair, angrily tugging at still-damp curls. A feeling he was all too familiar with settled onto his chest, filling his mouth with a bitter taste that had nothing to do with the alcohol. Guilt.
A drunk wandered over to his table, smiling hopefully.
"Hey, friend," he slurred, leaning heavily on the chair across from Jasper. He was American, with the unkempt look of a man who could be handsome, but has lost all interest in grooming himself. It was a look Jasper was familiar with; until Alice, he wore it quite often. "You got an awful lot of booze there."
Jasper stared at the man, processing every detail through the light haze of cigarette smoke. The man's hair was pushed haphazardly back off his forehead, and a ragged tie was tied loosely around his neck. His shirt was wrinkled and only half-tucked into his pants, which were held up by a fraying pair of suspenders.
When Jasper stayed quiet, the man leaned forward a little more, and his goofy smile turned slightly steely.
"Look, friend," he sneered. "I know you speak English. I heard you talking to the barkeep. Now I say, you've got an awful lot of booze there. How's about you share?"
Jasper sighed. Angry drunks used to be his favorite kind; they were easy to provoke and always good for a punch or two. He considered his options, sizing the man up and quickly determining he would be a challenge. He was big, and muscular. Jasper would probably walk away from this fight with a black eye and a fat lip. It went without saying that if he lost, his bottle of whiskey would be forfeit.
It should have been a welcome distraction, but instead Jasper felt overwhelmed by a sudden wave of self-pity and sorrow. He kicked at the chair next to him and grunted to the man, who looked surprise at Jasper's easy acceptance. They had both been expecting a fight, it seemed.
The stranger sat down heavily. He didn't have a glass, so he simply tipped the bottle back and took several deep pulls, wincing a little when he set it back down on the rough wooden table. They sat quietly, not meeting each other's eyes.
"What division?" the stranger asked finally, after taking another swig from the bottle.
Jasper looked up in surprise. He had almost forgotten he had company, and for a moment the question didn't quite make sense.
"All over. Never went to the Pacific, though," he answered softly. "Combat reporter."
"See a lot of action?" The stranger mimicked his tone, barely audible over the buzz of the bar.
"More than I cared to. You?"
"More than most. I was with the 101st Airborne."
"You were in Bastogne." Jasper's ears echoed with the sound of artillery fire, and he fought against the pull of the memory.
"Sure was," the stranger said glumly. "And Utah Beach. Hell on Earth." He picked up the bottle again.
"I was in the Ardennes." The words were out before Jasper could stop them. He didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to compare battle scars or show this stranger where he was missing a toe on his right foot from frostbite. The last thing he wanted to do was swap stories with this tattered man, who looked every bit as beaten down as Jasper felt. But the events of the evening had unlocked his memories, and he almost couldn't help himself.
He expected some kind of response, a flicker of recognition perhaps. Veterans were quick to spot their own kind. Even civilians who had been touched by war, people like Esme Benoit and Carlisle Cullen who risked their lives in other ways for their own reasons, recognized the taint of war when they saw it. It created a bond, a sort of automatic brotherhood. There was trust there, and shared pain.
But the man just nodded casually and took another drink. The bottle of whiskey was half empty.
"Why did you stay?" Jasper asked. He didn't know why he was trying to elicit a response from the stranger. He was just another ex-pat crowding the streets of Paris. For all he knew, the only thing he had in common with this man was a month and a half of freezing, fiery devastation.
"Nothing left for me there," the man said simply. "No girl, no family to speak of. No one would understand. I'm a foreigner here, but at least they get it." He gestured to the crowded bar and shrugged. "Maybe I'll go back one day. Maybe not. It doesn't matter anyway. I've always been alone."
The words coursed through Jasper's veins. Alone. He nodded. "It's better that way."
The stranger scowled and pushed away from the table abruptly. "Better? Fuck you."
"When the war was over, I watched the men in my unit go home to wives and children, parents, friends. So what if they were missing a leg, or half-blind, or mostly deaf from artillery fire? They were going home to someone. I'd give anything for that."
"At least this way you can't let anyone down," Jasper said bitterly. He stood up, suddenly not in the mood for whiskey. He strode out of the smoke and into the rain.
He dodged through the trees, Pete's helmet bumping an uneven tattoo against the side of his leg. The sounds of the German soldiers had long since disappeared, but fear kept him low to the ground. He was unarmed and alone, and for all he knew his entire unit had been slaughtered.
A twig snapped to his right and he spun, wild-eyed, toward the sound.
Two Americans were crouched behind a stand of sparse trees. One of them had a gun, and it was pointed straight at Jasper. He raised his hands automatically.
"I'm an American," he panted. "Combat reporter assigned to the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. Jasper Whitlock."
"He looks like a Kraut," the soldier who wasn't holding the gun said.
"I'm a Texan," Jasper protested, cursing the way his twang had faded in the years since he'd left. "Galveston."
"Who played in the world series?" the same soldier asked.
"St. Louis," Jasper said with an easy smile. "Both teams. The Cardinals won it in the sixth game."
"Who's Betty Grable married to?"
"Isn't she divorced?"
He cocked his gun.
"Aw, come on, fellas," Jasper said frantically, working to make his accent more obvious. The idea of being shot and killed by American soldiers after escaping a firing squad made him irrationally angry, but he swallowed it quickly. He knew he had to talk fast. "Ask me anything. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States. We have nothing to fear but fear itself? A day that will live in infamy?"
The solider with the gun paused, clearly torn. "He's wearing the uniform, Johnny."
"Of course he is," the other man said. "That's how they get you. Shoot him."
"Please," Jasper pleaded. He hated himself for the quiver of fear in his voice. "I'm not armed. Please. They killed Pete." He gestured with the helmet, feeling helpless and weak for using Pete's memory to save his own life.
Slowly, carefully, the soldier lowered his gun. Jasper exhaled loudly.
"Jasper Whitlock, huh?" the man with the gun said. In his head, Jasper heard Pete's mocking voice. That's a mouthful. I think I'll call you Whits. It was like being punched in the stomach. "Well, I'm Tommy Mallory. This is Hank Maddox."
Jasper nodded to both of them and clutched Pete's helmet a little tighter. He struggled to control his breathing. Now that he had stopped running, he felt himself being barraged with images of Pete, alive and dead, of Germans with guns, of blood. He'd heard stories of men losing it in the heat of battle, going crazy in their foxholes. He'd heard men, most of them just boys really, screaming in their sleep, and he'd felt the icy grip of terror settle over him as guns and grenades blasted around him. But he'd never felt this panicked devastation, this absolute despair before.
"What are you doing out here all alone?" Mallory asked, slinging his gun over his shoulder. "You said you're with the 285th?"
Jasper nodded. "There was a massacre," he said hollowly. "I don't know if anyone else made it out alive. I saw men running."
"Massacre?" Maddox demanded. "What do you mean?"
"We surrendered. They took us to a field and then they started shooting."
The men exchanged a loaded look, then Mallory nodded. "Alright, Whitlock. You're coming back with us. We were just out scouting, but the rest of our squad is dug in not far away."
They set off deeper into the trees, leaving damp footsteps in the dusting of snow that covered the forest floor. "Goddamn fucking winter," Maddox grumbled. "I swear to God, there's a guy in the army who sits around and finds the most miserable goddamn stretches of dirt on the planet. Does the sun ever shine? No? Great. How about rain, wind, snow? Does it have that? Fantastic. Send in the 101st, I hear those bastards are good for anything."
"You fellas are with the 101st?" Jasper asked.
"What are you, blind and deaf?" Maddox snapped, tugging on his sleeve to call attention to the shoulder patch sewn there.
"Lay off," Mallory said sharply. "And shut your pie hole before I shut it for you."
Jasper snorted, and Mallory turned towards him. He was older than Jasper by quite a few years, at least judging by the lines in his face. Mid to late 40s, maybe. Not too much younger than Jasper's father, and with the same kind of forceful stare that made a body feel like he just had to pay attention, even he didn't want to.
"We've been under fire since yesterday," Mallory said quietly. Jasper was grateful for the information. Somehow it made him feel more like he was doing his job again, like he had a purpose. Ask questions, gather answers. Put away the ugly reality for a while, it'll still be there when the job's done.
"Lieutenant Hall thinks it's just a small defensive movement, more of a diversion than anything else. They have some tanks, but they're having a hard time maneuvering through the trees, so that's been helping us out. We've been patrolling, looking for a better place to pitch in, but we haven't found anything. Now that you're here, we might as well touch base with the rest of the gang."
When they got back to camp, they were greeted by an exhausted-looking private keeping watch, his fatigues filthy and his feet wrapped in blankets, and the lieutenant, who was listening intently to a squawk box. He waved them over and tossed it aside into his fox hole.
"Sir, this is Jasper Whitlock. We found him out scouting. He says his unit surrendered and then were taken to a field and shot by their captors. He escaped, and we found him in the woods."
The officer rubbed his eyes wearily. "I wish I could say this is the first I've heard of it. Mitch called back saying he and Knowles picked up a couple of strays too. Same story."
"Shit," Maddox said softly.
"I have an extra sidearm, Whitlock," the lieutenant said, pulling out a pistol.
"Oh, no, sir," Jasper protested. "I'm a journalist."
"You'll need a gun," he insisted. "Take it. There are more of the bastards than we thought at first, and there's no telling when this skirmish is going to end."
When Jasper thought back to those days, he couldn't remember much about the men he lived with then. Their names and faces blurred together, a long line of anonymous soldiers just trying to stay alive long enough to remember what the sun looked like. His memories were tinted with ice and desperation, and a prevailing despair that still weighed him down years later.
Mostly, he remembered the cold. When he woke up in the mornings, there was almost always a thin layer of snow covering his blanket. He tried to keep his socks dry and his boots on, even when he slept. Any G.I. knew the warning signs of frostbite, and they did their best to prevent it. But in the frozen Ardennes, sleeping in the rock-hard dirt and barely protected from the elements, it didn't always matter how careful a soldier was. Normally, a case of bad frostbite would earn a soldier a trip to the field hospital and a solid few days of rest. But the hospital was understaffed and overflowing with injured men suffering from far worse than a few frozen toes. Minor injuries and low-grade fevers didn't merit a trip to see the medic anymore.
Jasper was shuffled between pairs of G.I.s, sharing a foxhole with whoever would have him. He and Pete had always made a practice of living side by side with the men, working to set up camp and trying to help out in whatever way they could. He was used to army life. Without Pete, though, Jasper found himself adrift. He kept writing, but only because it was the one thing that seemed to have remained constant. There wasn't any satisfaction in it. His humor dulled, and he kept himself at a purposeful distance from the men in his camp. He spoke when spoken to, and asked the questions that were strictly necessary to continue with whatever he was writing. Days turned to weeks, however, and he found there was little to report from his little corner of the fight besides slight variations in the weather and the endless litany of the dead. Instead, he found himself dwelling on the previous two years.
He left home with a purpose. He was going to tell the world the truth and give a voice to the men who lived and died for the chance to change history. Through the red lens of battle, it became clear to him that he had failed. His stories about life among the soldiers suddenly seemed trite and contrived. What was it that he had been doing for two years, except sitting back and watching as hundreds of thousands had marched willingly to their death? Those men didn't want to be anecdotes. They wanted to live.
All Jasper could do was watch them die.
The rain had picked up. When he walked out of the bar, a gust of cold air knocked him sideways. He hadn't bothered with a coat when he left his apartment, and his thin white shirt was soaked in a matter of minutes.
The words of the stranger in the bar had shaken him. When the war ended, Jasper could have gone home. His parents practically begged him, and he'd received several heartfelt letters from Maria. He told them that he wanted to see the world while he was still young, promising to check in now and then and giving them an address with the AP where he could receive mail. He let Maria down as gently as he could. She got married later that year to a man named Riley Peterson who had grown up with them in Galveston. Riley returned from the war with a bum knee and a Medal of Honor and stepped into the life that everyone always thought Jasper would have.
As it happened, he didn't end up traveling the world. He got as far as Paris, the city that had starred in his dreams as a child, proud and still standing after a devastating occupation, before he fell apart. He started drinking every night, sitting alone for hours in smoky corners trying to block out the sound of gunfire. Occasionally he'd wake up next to a woman, but he rarely remembered them. He never stayed long enough to learn their names.
As the summer faded into fall, the war stuttered to a final halt. Official surrenders were issued, and it seemed as if the whole city was celebrating. Jasper barely noticed.
In September, he received a telegram from Galveston. It had taken almost two weeks to reach him, having bounced around between AP offices before finally finding his branch in Paris. He hadn't worked in almost a week, so it sat at his desk gathering dust until that nondescript Tuesday when he finally stumbled in.
The city editor gave him a menacing glare. "Telegram came for you last week. This is a news bureau, Whits, not a goddamned post office."
"Don't call me that," Jasper muttered, making his way over to the desk in the corner where he kept his typewriter.
1945 SEPT 08 AM 10:35
MR JASPER WHITLOCK=
YOUR FATHER HAD A HEART ATTACK. DOCTORS DID EVERYTHING THEY COULD BUT IT WAS TOO LATE. FUNERAL WAS YESTERDAY. YOUR MOTHER IS A HOME. SHE NEEDS YOU. IT'S TIME TO GROW UP.
That night, Jasper ended up in a hospital himself, covered in cuts and broken glass. The doctor congratulated him on his luck and asked if he had any family who could take care of him when he was released. He had nodded vaguely, stomach churning with the realization that he had almost deprived his mother of her only son just weeks after losing her husband. He knew then that he could never go home. He couldn't bear to drag his mother down into the filth that surrounded him on all sides. He refused to ruin her too.
A car horn sounded loudly and Jasper looked up just in time to avoid being run over. The driver leaned out of his window and shook his fist, swearing loudly. Jasper watched the taillights disappear and stared blankly down the street for a few moments before looking around and realizing where he was.
St. Germain and Rue Jacob. Alice. He looked up reflexively and saw the lights on in the tiny apartment she shared with Bella. A shadow moved behind the curtain, and his heart lurched in his chest. He closed his eyes and let her face fill his mind. Her eyes, grey eyes, fringed with thick black eyelashes and always so sharp. An artist's eyes. When she looked at him, he felt like she could see every flaw.
It would have made him uncomfortable, but that piercing stare was almost always coupled with a warm smile. He had never trusted people who smiled too much. Alice's smile, though—it was genuine. She smiled, and he was home.
For years he had lived under the assumption that he was tainted... broken. He failed his friends, he failed his parents, he failed Maria, and he failed Pete. But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if he could somehow make up for it all through the love of one tiny, wonderful woman? What if he didn't have to be alone anymore?
The front door opened and a man with a black umbrella exited the building. Before he could think about it, Jasper pushed past him. He sprinted up the stairs, wiping water and tears he hadn't realized he was crying from his cheeks. His hair flopped wildly, and his shirt stuck to his chest. He didn't stop to worry about appearances. She was there, in that apartment, probably crying and devastated because of him. If only he could see her, feel her again, he knew everything would be all right.
When he reached the familiar door, he didn't hesitate. He used both his fists and knocked as hard as he could.
"Alice!" he yelled, still pounding on the door. "God damn it, Alice!"
The door creaked open, still secured by the chain.
"What do you want, Jasper?" Not Alice. Bella. She looked angry. Her face was red and her back was ramrod straight. She glared up at him fiercely.
"I have to talk to Alice." He pushed on the door, but it didn't budge. He tried again. "Alice!"
"Keep your voice down," Bella hissed. "She showed up here completely shaken and in tears about forty-five minutes ago, sobbing about how you yelled at her. That's not the Alice I know. I don't know what you said, but I am absolutely not letting you in here so you can keep yelling."
His heart lurched again. Her words barely registered; all he could think was that he had turned her out into the rain, and she was crying. Most importantly, she was here. On the other side of that door.
"Alice!" he yelled again. "Alice, come out here!"
"She's not coming out here." Bella's face was screwed up in anger. She was a soldier, the first line of defense between her friend and the forces that had tried to destroy her. "And you're certainly not getting in this apartment until you calm down. If you don't stop yelling I will call the police and have you removed."
He leaned into the door, putting all his weight it. If he could just get through, get to Alice, it would be okay. Bella pulled away abruptly.
"Have you been drinking?"
"I tried," he answered gruffly. "God knows I tried. But I couldn't... knowing she was so ... just let me in. Damn it, Bella, unlock this door."
She hesitated. He hoped she could read the desperation in his eyes. She was probably right to keep him from Alice. He was soaking wet, buzzing from the whiskey he drank earlier, and a complete emotional wreck. If he were Bella, he wouldn't want Alice anywhere near him right now.
She was going to say no. He could tell the second she made up her mind. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, a soft, rough voice interrupted her. A beautiful voice.
"Let him in," Alice said. He couldn't quite see her through the door, just the edge of her jaw and a tuft of shiny black hair.
"Alice," Bella said gently, "I don't think that's a good idea. I don't know what happened tonight but—"
"If you don't let him in, I'm going to," she said firmly. His heart beat faster and he leaned in again, straining to see her. She pushed forward past Bella, and he finally saw her face. His heart stopped. Blank grey eyes. Dead eyes. He had seen those eyes once before.
Bella closed the door and he heard the chain sliding out of place. As soon as he was able to, he wrenched the door open and strode into the room, pulling her small, soft body close to him. For a second, all he could do was inhale her scent, lemons and cinnamon and the faint smell of her makeup. He breathed it in long, shuddering breaths.
"God damn you, Alice Brandon," he hissed into her hair. "Why the hell did you find me?"
Without her, his life had been simple. Miserable, but simple. The world made sense. He was alone, but that was how things were meant to be. No one depended on him, and nobody cared. He had believed he could spend the rest of his life like that, unchanging and untouched. He never expected her. And now he didn't know how to live without her.
"I was going to drink myself under the table," he whispered into her hair. Her hands gripped the back of his shirt, and he held her tighter. "I went to my favorite nightclub and ordered a whole bottle of whiskey. I was going to drink until I forgot. Damn it Alice, I couldn't forget you. I don't want to. I don't know what to do without you. How the hell did this happen?"
"I'm sorry," she said finally, pulling away from his jacket and staring up at him. The blank stare was gone, he noted with relief, replaced by a penitent, adoring look that broke his heart all over again. "I didn't mean to—"
"Shhhh," he said, not letting her finish. His fingers massaged her neck and shoulders, and she sagged into him slightly. "You didn't do anything. It's not your fault I'm a goddamned mess. It's not your fault I'm broken."
She pulled away suddenly, startling him as she reached her hands up to his face. Her hands were warm and smooth against his damn face. She stretched upwards so her face was as close as it could get to his without him bending over. "You're not broken," she said fiercely. "I love you, Jasper Whitlock. You're perfect, scars and all."
She meant it, he could tell from the set of her jaw and the fire in her eyes. She loved him, and because she was Alice and she didn't do anything halfway, he knew that she loved him with her whole heart. None of it mattered to her: his past, her past, the fact that she hadn't even uncovered a tiny fraction of the horrors and disappointments he'd lived through in the last eight years. She loved him anyway.
He stared into her eyes for a moment, letting the certainty wash over him. The creak of Bella's door broke the spell and he sunk to his knees on the floor, pulling her down with him.
"I love you," he said softly. He made sure to look into her eyes as he said it.
"I know you do," she whispered. She was sitting in his lap, arms around his waist as he cradled her.
"I'm so sorry." He choked on the words. They seemed insignificant.
"I shouldn't have pushed you," she murmured. "It was wrong."
"I never talk about it, Alice. Not to anyone. Hell, I don't even think about it. Tonight was the first time I'd seen that helmet in five years. It brought everything back, and I just couldn't... I couldn't—"
"Shhhhhhh." She pushed his hair back off his forehead and pressed her forehead to his cold cheek. It was a gesture that inexplicably reminded him of his mother.
"I don't want to be like this," he whispered. "Tonight, when I made you leave... Alice, I've never felt more alone. I need you."
"I need you too." Her lips touched his cheek, then his jaw and neck. He gasped and felt his pants tighten, but willed himself to keep a clear head. He had to say this.
"What happened in the war, that's my past. It hurts like hell, and it's ugly and bloody and wrong. It's bad enough I saw it. I'll always carry it with me." She kissed his lips and he responded lightly before pulling away. "I don't want you to have to carry it with you. It's in the past. You... you're my future."
The smile she gave him in return was brilliant, and he knew he had said the right thing. He leaned down and captured her lips again, scooping her up into his arms and carrying her down the hall to her room. He laid her down gently, letting her robe fall open as he did so. Flashes of pale, perfect skin peeked out at her neck and arms. Her bare toes curled delicately, and he smiled at the red paint that stained her nails.
He unbuttoned his shirt slowly, enjoying the way her chest started to rise in fall in more rapid breaths. She stared up at him, waiting quietly, drinking him in. He hated it when other people stared. He didn't like the way their eyes swept over his scars, filling with either pity or fear. It had been different with Alice from the very beginning. Her eyes held only acceptance and attraction.
He picked up one delicate leg and kissed the inside of her ankle, smiling slightly when her skin broke out in goosebumps.
"I love you," he said again, kissing up her calf to the inside of her knee. She squirmed as he blew hot air across the soft skin there, but didn't stop smiling.
"I love you," she answered. "All of you."
He dropped her leg, suddenly impatient. Pushing the straps of her camisole over her shoulders, he let his tongue sweep over the skin on her neck. Her hands fumbled with his belt buckle, and for a few moments the only sounds in the room was the rustling of fabric and the sharp panting of their breathing.
Then they were skin to skin, her breasts softly squeezed against the hard planes of his chest. Her legs automatically wrapped around his waist, and her feet pressed into his thighs. He shuddered as they came together, focusing on the low, keening moan she made when he rocked against her.
They held each other too tightly, leaving bright red marks where fingers pinched too hard or hands refused to let go. Their hips were the only parts of their bodies that moved, as if any kind of separation would simply be too painful to bear. And when it was over, they lay in a jumble of legs and arms, refusing to be separated for any reason.
It wasn't about the release of lovemaking, Jasper realized later as he combed his fingers absently through her hair. It was about being as close as they could be, offering reassurances and comfort and promising to be better for each other. Promising to be more, even. She had fallen asleep on top of him, feet hooked around his calves and arms wrapped tightly around his chest like a little barnacle. She wasn't heavy, and the weight of her was a tangible reminder that he wasn't lost yet.
She mumbled in her sleep, her lips brushing against his shoulder. He shifted a little so they were both on their sides and she sighed.
"You kept me waiting a long time," she said softly. She sounded awake, but her eyes were tightly shut, and her breathing hadn't changed.
He kissed her forehead and tucked her body into his, resting his head on top of hers.
"I'm sorry, Alice," he whispered. "I'll never keep you waiting again."