Pairing(s): Eventual Speirs/Lipton; gen for now
Summary: Lipton lived the war like a soldier. And that frightened him the most.
Synopsis: Wherein Lipton comes to accept mortality and giving in.
The cold was biting in that lone foxhole, Hoobler’s Luger glinting dully in the thick of winter beneath his trembling fingers and the slow puffs of air that lingered before his face. He remembered cleaning it with hands shaking from the cold, wiping and polishing as hard as he could as a means to keep warm. To some extent, he supposed he had imagined blood on it, Hoobler’s, because he had stopped to stare, to realise that all that was left of that man on this earth, now buried in a shallow grave deeper in the woods where it was safe from all the shelling, was the barest traces of blood smeared on the weapon that killed him. His flesh and bone had been reduced to a few solitary red droplets that were frozen now, mired in the dirt between the crevices of the barrel of the Luger. Which Lipton was now wiping off.
Hoobler was dead.
It was nearly blasphemy, he thought, nearly unforgivable, and as he began to tremble again, he resumed the cleaning for warmth’s sake, glad for the softest crunches of snow behind him that would ask him what took him to Europe and what he had left behind and everything he never wondered about anymore.
Watching Malarkey toy with the gun was somewhat comforting. Lipton twirled his spoon idly, finding it difficult to swallow anything as his throat began to take a rougher, almost sandpaper-like quality. As the men occupied themselves with amusing exchanges over what they tried to convince themselves was breakfast, he remained quiet as he usually did, watching Malarkey figure out the Luger’s workings through touch and intuition. The bullets had been wisely removed this time around.
Lipton thought about the blood Hoobler shed which may or may not have splattered onto the gun, about how it may or may not be rubbing into Malarkey’s skin and blending with the very essence of his being. Ghost trails of blood that Lipton could taste and smell, but could never see, had rubbed into his skin over and over throughout the war as he collected dirty dog tags from the dead and he imagined what a burden it must be to bear remembrance for a dead man, for dead men, who would never walk or breathe or smile again.
Amidst the raspy peals of laughter the living boys shared, Lipton caught Malarkey caressing the barrel of the gun slowly, almost tenderly, pensive and wistful. Something was glowing softly in his eyes, something like remembrance, something unlike remembrance. He thought about the burden of dead men, and knew that Malarkey was coming to terms with it. All the NCOs had to, sometime or another.
Ah, he thought, finally. Malarkey and Lipton now had Hoobler’s blood on their skin, blood that would never wash off now, blood they would bear into the next battle and on the final jump.
This is how we carry the dead.
There was a lull in the journey when Carwood Lipton fell asleep in the back of that truck heading for Haguenau. He heard muffled voices of men chatting to each other, the clash of metal against wood, of muddy tracks, of empty roads. The bumpy ride halted several times to allow the men to stretch their legs or vomit out the contents of their stomachs. Lipton had felt the jerk as the truck pulled to an abrupt stop and the cadence of the men stepping up and jumping off. His head lolled upright, almost lazily, but he did not open his eyes.
Lipton was getting more and more tired as the day wore on. He wasn’t sure why, but the roughness in his throat had begun to spread, like a wave of rust that overtook the smooth fittings of his clockwork body and corroded each little gear so that it collapsed on itself from the inside. Everything was subtle, everything winking out of order bit by bit without his realising.
He hadn’t bothered about the rasping quality his voice had taken, nor the weighted headaches that had begun to recur more frequently, neither did he care about the dull and incessant noise ringing in the back of his head that hounded him, but he knew that he was tired. He knew that headaches came, sometimes, from fatigue. He knew sore throats were common in such cold weather with terrible clothing. Shell bursts caused tinnitus. Nothing was wrong.
Everything was wrong.
“…arge… Sergeant. Sergeant Lipton.”
Lipton forced himself to open a bleary eye and he turned his head to meet the gaze of a man out of focus. He was too tired to be able to recognise the voice, so he did the next best thing and forced his throat to work.
“Yeah boy?” His voice was rough and cracked slightly at the end.
He was. He hadn’t realised it, but his teeth were chattering hard. Arms crossed, Lipton had been grasping the edge of his jacket tightly with almost white fingers in hopes of gathering warmth. He was shaking like a leaf, and it was all he could do not to let his voice shudder along.
“I’m cold,” was his reasoning, which he was. The words came out in between his chattering, Lipton vindictive that a sudden wind would pick up at such a terrible time and he wrapped his arms closer, a dull ache knocking against his ribs where his heart must be. He tried to smile at the boy, to be reassuring, but everything hurt. Everything was warped, out of focus. Lipton closed his eyes, head lolling to the side as his breaths came shorter, into tight wheezes. It was hurting more and more, climbing in intensity. His senses were becoming dull, giving everything a dreamlike quality as he heard a totally different voice pipe up for the first time.
“See what I mean, sir? He didn’t even recognise you.”
Less commanding. More youthful.
“…All right, Malarkey, all right. The closest hospital we can reach is in Alsace. Until then, you think you can keep him from falling off?”
“He won’t be doing any falling, that I can guarantee, sir.”
There was a pause in which ‘sir’ pondered the choice of words he had been answered with. In the void of conversation, Lipton felt something inside his chest seize up, clench tightly, painfully, and he couldn’t breathe. He began to cough and god it hurt so bad, made him lurch violently and keel over to heave. He could taste blood on his lips, feel grit under his fingernails as he clawed at the floor of the truck for stability, never aware of the hands holding him and trying to smack the devil out of his lungs and stomach as he vomited something that smelled rancid but looked like blood. Having eaten nothing, the one functional part of Lipton’s mind couldn’t help but wonder he was letting out.
Two pairs of hands held him aloft and he fell unconcious almost immediately, with a light echo of a thought before he went reminding him to thank Malarkey and Speirs later for keeping him out of his own vomit.
By the next truck stop, through laboured gasps and a firm hand caressing his brow as he lay on his back in an army jeep, staring watery-eyed at a pair of shining double-bars pinned to a dirt encrusted collar, Lipton finally came to accept that he was very sick.