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 learns to trust again.
Lipton remembered reading in school about John Clem, about how he had killed a colonel when he was 12 with his trimmed musket and his cap with three bullet holes in it. He had gotten those holes from the Battle of Chickamauga, a significant loss for the Union, where he had shot the officer clean off his horse as his regiment, the 22nd Michigan, attempted to retreat. They promoted him to sergeant after that, the drummer boy John Clem. And they let him fight in the war still, until the very last drop of blood was shed.
Lipton had pitied the boy, he recalled. He pitied John Clem for being a murderer at the age of 12, and for serving an institution that celebrated the murder through accolades. In school, he could only wonder how it must have felt to pull a trigger at a man, to watch him fall, to become an officer for that simple motion. A twitch. All he needed to do was to point his weapon at the right man. Shoot and run, so he wouldn’t have to see dead eyes staring up defiantly from a dead man, so he could keep his sanity. Maybe he didn’t even need to run; maybe a man falling down from gunfire was a man falling down far away, far enough that he could keep those eyes to himself.
Lipton almost laughed at how naïve he had been.
Textbooks and classrooms never taught about the suffering of fellow soldiers as they rushed to heal the wounded, watched friends and comrades die before their eyes. They never taught about the cacophony of cannons, about having to shout over artillery rounds, about watching men explode into tiny pieces as they lay crouched in foxholes that were covered in the blood of frostbitten fingers and the ghosts of dead men. They never taught about standing by a man and lying to his half-swollen face about how he would survive the war when a shell burst only seconds before would make sure he wouldn’t even survive the next minute. They never taught about how a man could kill
Lipton had killed.
Kill. Not murder. Kill.
It had been surreal at first – he expected John Clem himself had barely realised he had blood on his hands when he shot that colonel – to see a man fall, almost slowly, eyes wide, a hand over the wound, as if he himself could not believe he were dead. The Kraut dropped to his knees first, lingering before gravity took the rest of his body, head turning towards Lipton at the last second, that second when all sound was drowned out but the beating of Lipton's pounding heart. It felt like an age with his hands poised just so, rifle aimed down from that tree as he waited.
And then time sped up imperceptibly, those dead and fishy eyes he never saw glazed over and staring at Lipton in his mind, but Lipton didn't have the time to linger on one casualty when there were more Krauts he had to gun down. In his mind, he should have heard the beginnings of the murmur of murderer but he didn't and for that, he was both glad and wretched.
Lipton vaguely remembered the smokiness of the jeep outside of Brecourt, the smokiness of the Aldbourne tavern, the smokiness of Ardennes. They were distinctly different in every way – stinking army food, and light and sound discipline, and relief; drinks, and cigarettes, and fresh-faced replacements; explosions, and cold, and frozen blood, and exhaustion, and death – but they all blended together in his mind, faces of the dead, faces of the alive. It was his job to know, to keep count, to make the reports, but in particularly idle moments, Lipton could see the faces of each of his men and could not tell the dead apart from the living.
This was why he was never idle.
Lipton constantly moved around, foxhole to foxhole, talking to his men, his soldiers, tried to keep them strong in the face of gunfire and loss. He memorised each story, laughed at their jokes, soothed them when they were wounded, because when his mind was occupied with them and keeping them in high spirits, he never thought about home or death or what he had become.
In the echoes of the small chapel of Rachamps, of the haunting cry of Plasir D'amour and the soft scratches of his pencil against yellowing paper, he heard the voices of every single man who had died; in his arms, in his platoon, by his rifle. He heard them laugh and cry and scream for a medic who would be too late. As he held his head in his hands, shut out the whispers, he saw the vaguest impressions of what could have been a home once upon a time in Huntington, West Virginia. A wife with tender hands and a tender smile. A man who was a loner, independent from age ten. A boy who scraped out a living with his bare hands.
He heard a voice ask him then; was that his mother? Or maybe his wife? (or a nurse or a girl or a woman from Eindhoven with her shorn head) He couldn’t tell, and in some ways, he couldn’t care. The question was straightforward, but it hurt so much to try to begin answering:
How could you live this war, Lipton?
Lipton, the voice had said, and the man’s lips tightened into a grim half-smile. Lipton. He could not recall being called anything beyond Lipton or Lip or Sarge, or even by any woman whatsoever (oh god he couldn’t even remember what his wife looked like anymore). He lived the war. He was a whole other man in a whole other world, and he was afraid that he was fractured in ways the shell bursts of Ardennes could not even measure up to.
Lipton knew how he lived the war. He just couldn’t bear to admit it to himself because the answer felt painfully inhuman to him.
He rarely heard it, but when it came, it whispered in his ear incessantly, like an echo that grew louder instead of softer. At first, it meant nothing to him, like a word that had been repeated often enough that it lost its meaning, but Lipton forced himself to acknowledge the word, to hear it until he remembered everything about it. He let each jagged syllable stab him, curl into him like a tendril to drag out the guilt that was not forthcoming. He mouthed it, once, imagining the word on someone else’s lips, wanting it to mean something to him. Lipton let it twist up inside him until he felt shamed enough to finally tell himself no. No. He wasn’t a murderer. He was a soldier. He had killed (not murdered) other soldiers. Death was the price of war. Soldiers entered the battlefield ready to die. If it hadn’t been a Kraut, it would have been him.
Or Babe. Or Malarkey. Or Liebgott. It was survival. It was war. It was them or us.
Inside, though, he knew differently. He knew that, in truth, he didn’t care. He couldn’t care. The limp, lifeless bodies of Kraut soldiers made no impression on him whatsoever as he pushed through the battlefield. Lipton wished fervently that he could feel sorry for Huntington and the life he had left behind; he was a son who would return caked under layers and layers of almost black blood for which he would be verdantly decorated, without an iota of sympathy or loss for the dead. But even the corpses of his own men have stopped bothering him. All he could hear himself think was, shit, that’s another one down. Another man dead. Another man unable to fight.
It scared him.
Lipton was afraid that he was losing his mind slowly, that all traces of humanity would slowly disintegrate and perish with each round he fired. He was afraid of how unaffected he was by death, how sure he was that he was doing nothing wrong by ending the life of another. Living on instinct. Like an animal.
It would be a wonder if he didn’t talk to the men. Listening to them, making them his priority, it gave him a speckle of hope that, somewhere deep inside him, he hadn’t yet been consumed by the beast of war. Lipton hadn’t let the hairline fracture spread and shatter him completely. He still had a ways to go. He hoped to god he had at least that.
As Speirs shot him a look from across the chapel, Lipton stood, roster in hand, unaware that his new officer would tell him that he was the most human thing Easy would ever have.
The word meant nothing to him at all.
“Look at me, come on, look at me, Murray! You’ll be fine! You’re okay!”
Lipton held Murray’s face in his hands, forced the man to look him in the eye as he stroked his hair back, gently but swiftly. He’d gotten shot in the thigh as they were taking Noville, and he was bleeding pretty badly. After what had happened with Hoobler, Lipton hadn't taken chances. He’d cut the fabric of his trousers immediately to expose the wound and yelled for a medic. Unlike Ardennes, there was a lot of light. Unlike Hoobler, the bullet hadn’t cut a main artery. No one knew that yet, so Lipton stayed there, tried to be as useful as possible to Doc Roe as Speirs crouched by them, taking out some fleeing Krauts with his rifle as he pressed up against a half-crumbling brick wall they were using for cover.
Lipton gazed down at Murray who was clawing at him desperately and looking into his eyes to see if he was lying, sputtering half-formed words, telling him how much it hurt. He hushed the man, didn’t stop stroking him, kept assuring him that he would be fine.
“Okay, you’re okay,” Doc Roe said with slightly quirked lips, relieved as he leaned back and readjusted his helmet. “Murray, we just gotta get you to an aid station. You’re okay. C’mon, Lip-”
Lipton and Doc Roe exchanged a look before he took off immediately, running down the street, turning a corner and disappearing from view. Lipton’s mouth tightened as he heard the scream, hoping no one would die this time around. He needed the men to live, if not for the company, then for the selfish reason that he needed them to live so he could care about them. He looked down to smile reassuringly at Murray who was starting to breathe regularly, took one of his hands in both of his own and patted it as he said whatever Murray needed to hear. The rumble of an engine broke his concentration and before long, he and Spina had loaded Murray onto the back of a jeep that was skidding through the rubble for the aid station.
He watched them drive away, just as the last rounds of gunfire sounded through Noville, brows furrowed at the prospect of having to deal with the thought that, if Murray died (which he hoped to god he wouldn’t), Lipton wouldn’t bat an eyelid. It felt awful to think that the men looked up to him when he was doubting his own genuineness. If he was killed in action, wouldn’t he want the men to remember him, even a little?
No. It was war. No one had time to reminisce. It wasn’t practical.
He tried to tell himself to stop thinking of useless things. He wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t wrong. He was a functioning soldier, just like the rest of Easy Company, and they were not bad men. They were upstanding individuals in a time of war, where values meant little in the face of death. Values changed. Like orders. He, like the rest of Easy he was sure, would be unrecognisable come the end of the war, because men who lived like the dead would forget how to live like the living. It was hard to explain such complex and almost contradictory sentiments, but it was true in every sense. Dead men had dead values. Soldiers were dead men until the end of war, when, by some divine providence, they would be resurrected and returned to a life they could barely recall.
Lipton suddenly found himself looking into Speirs’ eyes, dark and unreadable, the man watching him with a strange intensity that Lipton was only starting to get used to.
For a moment, he was taken aback at that, but it didn’t show on his face. He hadn’t realised that Speirs had approached him, much less stood directly in front of him. He felt a little ashamed at such a display of weakness – something a leader should never do, especially not in combat – and he was sure that the sheepishness was starting to show in his expression. He tried to think of something to say, but the words wouldn’t come.
In that moment of silence between them, he felt himself hopelessly lost in those unbearably dark eyes, black and cold, belying things that Lipton couldn’t even begin to comprehend, and he drowned in the sight of them because Speirs was looking at him and seeing things that Lipton wanted to hide away even until after death took him. Unsettling eyes that could pierce through a person and make him say things that should never be said. Force a man to do things. Lipton held his breath. He waited.
“He’ll live. Come on, let’s go.”
Lipton only murmured, “Yessir,” to a retreating back, following Speirs almost blindly as they walked into the city.
Immediately, he began to survey the damage, feet moving towards men both wounded and unscathed without thinking, asking after them and praising them for the resounding success as they spoke to him warmly. Someone joked about nearly losing his nuts, referring slyly to Lipton’s own experience in Carentan. They laughed. Someone else offered him a cigarette but he declined. He didn’t need it yet.
Amongst a circle of relaxing men, Lipton listened to staccato laughter and conversations, unable to help the sense of surrealism that engulfed him as he became almost hypersensitive in his awareness. He could suddenly detect each smile and grin and look the boys shot him throughout.
Whenever Lipton spoke, little though he said, they listened raptly. When he was silent, they regaled him with stories and anecdotes as though they hungered for his approval. When he gave them just that, for the life him (and he couldn’t believe that it had never occurred to him before), they beamed in the subtle way boys did after being praised for getting a math problem right. It was no different than the countless conversations held of the aftermath of battles, but it was only then that Lipton realised what each wordless gesture meant. To drive the point home, as he began to exit the conversation, they offered him a cigarette.
Lipton didn’t know what to say. So he pressed his lips together and remained, declining.
As he lingered, not really listening anymore, he felt dark eyes on him, watching intently from a distance. Soft-spoken words in a candle-lit chapel slowly came to mind, meaningful looks and even more meaningful smiles haunting his thoughts with ideas of camaraderie and faithfulness, reinforcing everything that he had just experienced with his boys. His eyes fluttered, recalling words from only moments before that, words he hadn’t attached much meaning to as he’d focused on the faint whirr and cough of a rusty engine in the winter air, with a wounded man who wouldn’t end up like Hoobler and a medic who hadn’t been too late.
And then it dawned on him.
He’ll live. Come on, let’s go.
Speirs had meant to comfort him.
Lipton made to leave again, and another cigarette was offered.
For the first time, he finally knew what it really meant.
It meant, ‘stay’.
Slowly at first, but it spread into a big smile that eventually reached his eyes and nearly made them twinkle. He felt incredible fondness for his boys right then, the ones still alive, the ones clinging onto him and dragging him along the warpath to make sure he kept fighting just like the rest of them did. His smile didn’t waver in the least, and almost immediately, all the boys reddened, became sheepish, apologised for keeping him from the things that he had to do, his duties, whatnot. He nodded and laughed softly, thanking them for the refused cigarettes and telling them to save them for him on a colder night. He turned to walk away, aware that they had perked up without even having to see.
As he walked with Speirs towards Batallion HQ and gave him his report, he didn’t suppress the smile that had taken over, his lips thinning into a small grin at intervals where thoughts of repeated offers of cigarettes and beaming boys told him that it was fine to live like this, that he wasn’t going insane or pretending to be human.
Lipton, in the end, did not correct Ronald Speirs for assuming that his temporary moment of loss had been for a man who would return in a few days with only a slight limp and a crooked grin. After all, he had only said six words, of which four had been instruction. Speirs had never given him the opportunity to assume anything of him except for wild stories of gunfire and POWs, and Lipton had never given in to those sentiments. He wasn’t about to begin.
Instead, he remained by his officer’s side staunchly, allowed Speirs to look all at Lipton he liked without pretending not to notice or feeling awkward as those deep, black eyes took all of him in and forced him to sort out the mess of feelings he had buried in his heart. Speirs' two words - "He'll live" - wasn't much of anything all at all, but they had filtered out the chaos of hundreds of days of blood and corpses. Lipton could survive Speirs for the sake of those two words which he knew, he just knew, referred to someone other than Murray.
He met Speirs’ look with a smile, warm and confident.
The gaze held briefly until Speirs nodded, approving.
Lipton finally released that breath he had been holding.