Karl gets a crash course on becoming both an American and a civilian. Sadly, some scars never fully heal. Best if read after "War Stories" and following fics.
The sun, the perfectly blue sky, the cry of the gulls, the distant crashing of the surf... How could a place like this exist on the same planet as the place he'd just left? For the past six years Karl's world had been a dismal swirl of gray and brown; the gray of winter skies and mud and German uniforms, brown of razed fields and allied jackets. There had been a fair amount of red too, but he didn't mind that so much. Except for the invisible stains it had left on his hands. He understood the Scottish queen's lament now, but he had not willingly plunged his hands into the flow, it had been poured over his head. He had been powerless to stop it, and powerless he remained.
They called it "combat fatigue" these days. It was a demeaning and far less descriptive term, a name for cowards, for those with weak hearts and weaker stomachs. The old boys of the First World War had got it right, dubbing the phenomenon "shell shock". Nobody would recognize the mental and emotional backlash as an actual medical condition or coin the technical term of "post traumatic stress" for another fifty years. But that didn't mean it didn't exist. Karl felt it only too keenly. In the muddy fields of France or Germany or Russia...it fit. His desecrated homeland was just as violated as he had been. There, amid the chaos, amid the carnage it belonged, was appropriate. Now the California sun seemed to laugh at him, too simple and innocent to understand the storms inside his mind and heart.
Despite the invisible cloud that seemed to hang over his head, the atmosphere was pleasant, something alien and strange and worthy of attention. The cheering sailors and soldiers and airmen gave him something to focus on and so he forgave them their foolishness. He didn't hate them for their joy, only wondered at it and the fact that the noise of the squibs and fireworks didn't send them into arrhythmia at every fired shot. For the first couple hours, he jumped every time a firecracker went off. As the day wore on, he became a little more used to it. The whistling skyrockets still made him tense briefly until he remembered that no bullets flew over American soil.
One hundred and seventy years ago on this day the Americans had won their freedom from a nation that was now their ally. Karl doubted anyone in his homeland was firing off rockets in celebration. The brass bands, fireworks, ice cream and lemonade had been a tradition ever since that first day so long ago in a place called Philadelphia. Karl had no idea where that was, but found it amusing and somehow comforting that Americans seemed to like frankfurters too. Hotdogs, they called them. It wasn't much, but it was a literal taste of home that didn't hurt, something familiar in a strange place. He ate quite a few of them till the end of the day. That seemed to encourage Cornwallis.
The overwhelmingly British officer had conducted Karl and a small unit of other living casualties to the sanctuary of the west American coast where they were to recover and reclaim their taste for things civilian before returning to their families. That, at least, was the idea. Cornwallis didn't seem to know or care that Karl's family was still, hopefully, in Germany somewhere. Karl said nothing about it. He rather doubted any of them were alive and had no desire to return even if they were. The farther away he could leave those fields of gray, the better. How he had ended up with a shipment of Americans headed for home, he had no idea. He didn't press the matter, however, simply glad to be away from a place that to him had come to mean only pain. He hoped Xerek and the boys were all right.
The military hospital in Monterey was beautiful. Fashioned after an old Spanish mission it featured a long building plastered in warm, yellow stucco and a darker, terracotta-tiled roof. There were gardens with cacti as well as softer plants and swallows in the eves. The inside had comfortable little rooms as well as larger medical wards, all with views of the nearby ocean. If he had not been so apprehensive, he would have been delighted at the equipment and other medical features. As it was, Karl was content to hide in his room much of the time, safely away from the implements and science he had once loved.
He didn't interact with anyone much, at first, including the willowy young man assigned to try to coach him back into normal life. The young doctor was not much older than Karl was himself, and due to profound myopia, had been rejected by the American draft. Karl had no doubt he was good at his job, but from the first day, there were problems. For one, the young doctor spoke no German and Karl not much English. Language barrier aside, Karl had no desire to give voice to what he had seen and done. The faces of the people he'd had to watch suffer stared at him whenever he closed his eyes, daring him to imagine that he deserved any sympathy, that he was anything less than guilty, that he deserved this punishment and worse for what had taken place. Needless to say, the first few sessions lent no progress at all.
The new surroundings and alien culture had kept Karl more or less alert and engaged. Now, weeks later, finally becoming accustomed to American ways, he began to retreat within himself once more. His keepers became concerned, fearing his condition was deteriorating. He continued to tell them nothing of who he was or what he had experienced, letting them draw their own conclusions. The medical staff decided to call in the proverbial cavalry.
Dr. Lloyd Muller had indeed served as one of the last of the United States Cavalry, the regiment's horses officially disbanded with much pomp and ceremony in 1943. He was elderly, thin as a rail, but still strong and hearty for his seventy-some years. His parents had gone by Conestoga to the American prairie. Not gold but knowledge had drawn young Lloyd to the hills of California and it was there he had learned the budding trade of psychiatry once his beloved horse and unit had been put out to pasture in the late 1920s. Dr. Muller could have returned to green fields himself, but he preferred to stay on, no longer carrying rifle or saber, but dealing with the mental aftermath of soldiers from other wars. He saw only a few patients these days, working with the "hard luck" clients that the other doctors could not fathom. The reason for alerting him to Karl's case, however, was less dramatic. The son of German immigrants, Dr. Muller spoke the language. It was as simple as that.
He studied what he could about the lone German in an American hospital. Cornwallis was unable to provide much information regarding Karl, only Julian's cryptic label of "Buchenwald survivor". That alone was enough to cause concern in the venerable psychiatrist. Straussen (Xerek had purposely left the "von" off of Karl's paperwork, hoping to raise as few eyebrows as possible) would have to be approached very carefully. The first thing would be to show the little man that he was not considered a threat.
Karl, who had been staring at nothing, looked up at the strangely familiar sound of his native language. The older doctor smiled down at him and continued in German.
"Nice to meet you. I am Dr. Muller. Dr. Thompson mentioned you were more comfortable with German."
Karl continued to gawk. Dr. Muller offered his hand, which Karl dumbly shook, before sitting down.
"You know my parents were German. It was all we spoke at home. My dear mother, I don't think she ever learned one word of English, but she got along very well. They came from Wittenburg. Have you ever been there?"
Karl only stared blankly, unsure if he was being interrogated or not.
"It's all right," Dr. Muller told him. "You are neither under suspicion nor are you being interrogated. You are here as a legal immigrant, a refugee. Anything you say to me will remain under the strictest confidence. I promise you, you will not be arrested."
Karl thought about that and then nodded, though he wasn't sure he believed it.
"Thank you," he stated lamely in English. Dr. Muller continued in German.
"You don't have to speak English. Of course we can, if you like."
Karl gave no answer. Dr. Muller considered his words.
"Is there anything you would like to talk about?"
Karl, who did not particularly wish to talk about anything, gave no answer. This was going to be more difficult than Dr. Muller had thought. That was all right.
"That's all right," he said aloud. "If you'd rather go, you may. If you'd like to chat about anything, please let me know."
Karl gave a perfunctory nod and slid from his seat, walking silently out the door.
Karl, as Xerek had originally observed, did better when given something to do. For lack of a better subject, Dr. Muller had him study English. It gave Karl something else to think about and also taught him a much-needed skill. English- a not too distant cousin to the Germanic language- came fairly easily to Karl and he picked it up rather quickly. Still, his accent remained thick and difficult and consequently he continued to isolate himself from the other residents at the clinic. Americans still had little love for "krauts" and Karl's accent was a dead giveaway to everyone around him. So far he had avoided any outright hostility, but remarks and rumors were passed back and forth behind his back. If he knew, he gave no sign. Until someone made the unintelligent decision of getting between him and his glasses.
Karl did not frequent the common room often, but smoking was not allowed in one's own room due to the fire hazard it posed. Consequently, he usually hung back in a corner of the often noisy communal room, sitting cross-legged in one of the huge, over-stuffed chairs, smoking and studying one of his English grammar books. Usually he was left alone, one or two other residents occasionally pestering him to borrow cigarettes, which he gave up without comment.
"Hey buddy, can I bum a smoke?"
Karl looked up and then up further still at one of the largest men he had yet seen. The American towering over him was massive indeed with shoulders almost as wide as Karl was tall. His face was pleasant and lightly tanned, set with deep blue eyes and topped by honey-brown curls. He would have made an excellent football player with one exception- he was missing his right arm. Karl said nothing but nodded and buried his nose in his book once more.
"Thanks, Shorty," the blonde American smiled. Karl knew enough to understand what the term "shorty" meant but let it go. The residents had taken to calling him that since they did not know his name. Besides, it was true. Compared to the rest of the men there, he was rather small indeed.
Karl held up the book to display the cover.
"What're you? An English professor?" The American was fumbling with the packet of cigarettes in his single hand. Karl shook his head; aware the taller man was trying to be polite but unwilling to engage in conversation.
"Huh. Well, whatever floats your boat, I guess."
Karl made no comment but hid behind his book. The American produced a match and struck it against the sole of his shoe. He shook the burning bit of wood to put it out.
Karl didn't have a chance to nod. The American's huge palm connected with his shoulder and sent him sailing from the chair and into the floor, his glasses skidding away and out of reach. He heard the American mutter "Oops..." as he peeled his face from the tile.
"Sorry about that. Don't know my own strength."
Karl felt himself hauled to his feet by one arm.
"Here you go."
Karl paused in the act of rubbing his nose to squint at the American's outstretched hand. Without his glasses the scene was disorienting in the extreme. Where clothing had once been visible the giant man now displayed his bulging muscles in an all too literal sense. He held out one hand, but what was in it, Karl could not tell. To his X-ray eyes, there were not enough levels to the object and so it was rendered invisible.
The American lifted his hand slightly, trying to get Karl to take whatever he was holding. Karl assumed it was his glasses, but hated making blind grabs.
"Er...thank you," he said, trying to be polite. He reached out a hand but before he could close his fingers around the invisible object, another hand reached and snatched it away.
"You've caught the kraut's goggles!"
"Give 'em back, Richie," the giant warned the thief.
"What, they're cute. Might fit my boy. Y'know he needs reading glasses."
"C'mon, knock it off. Hand 'em over."
"I want to hear him say 'please' in German. C'mon Heimy, how do you say 'please' in German?"
What Karl actually said was about as far from "please" as it was possible to get. The huge American had scowled and raised a fist to grab the glasses back but Karl beat him to the literal punch. He was only just about waist-high on either of the taller men, but that hardly mattered. The thief's solar plexus was clearly visible. Karl launched his small fist into the sensitive muscle and couldn't help feeling rather satisfied as the thief doubled over and gasped.
"Why you dirty little-"
The last remark was cut off as Karl stepped neatly around behind him and extended one leg across the back of the thief's knees. The bigger man buckled to the ground, still gasping for breath around a creative mixture of curse words. Something clattered to the floor- Karl guessed it to be his glasses and headed in the general direction of the sound when he was seized by the scruff of the neck.
"Think you're tough, don't you half-pint?" the thief growled, his voice still hoarse and breathy. Karl scowled defiantly back at him.
"At least I do not attack blind men," he spat. The thief's eyebrows rose then descended again in a murderous glare.
"Why I oughtta..."
The hand around Karl's neck was growing tighter. Since "Richie" had grabbed him from behind, he was at least in no danger of choking. However, the larger man's fingers were digging into the sides of Karl's neck, constricting blood flow and conjuring stars before his eyes.
"I SAID back off, Richardson."
The huge American stood directly behind Richardson, a deadly frown pulling on the muscles of his face. Abruptly, Richardson released him and Karl fell to the floor for the second time that day. Rubbing his neck, he turned and looked to see Richardson dangling from the football player's singular grasp much the same way Karl had dangled only moments ago.
"Hey now!" Richardson squeaked. "I was only joshin'!"
"Do you hear him laughing? Because I don't."
"S-sorry, friend," he stammered. "Won't happen again."
"There," said the football player, setting him down. "Was that so hard?"
Richardson didn't stick around for comment, but took himself out of the common room on urgent, anonymous business. Karl watched him go and then turned to see the huge American stoop and retrieve some unseen object from the floor.
"Here," he said, "I think these belong to you."
Karl eyed his outstretched hand uncertainly. All he could see were the extra-thick bones and muscles of a man stronger than any human had a right to be. It hit him belatedly: this man was a Super too.
"They aren't broken," the American said. Karl nodded and held out his hand, deciding to force the bigger man to hand his glasses to him.
"Thank you," Karl said once his glasses were safely within his own hands again. Even though he couldn't see them, he wiped the lenses on his shirt and then placed the sturdy wire frames over his nose and ears. He couldn't help sighing a little as the world returned to surface level once more. The American was smiling, showing straight white teeth.
"Welcome," he said. "George Parr." He stuck out his hand again. Karl took it and shook, his fist vanishing in the larger man's enormous grip.
George reached for the ashtray to retrieve his neglected cigarette.
Karl, feeling it would only be polite, nodded and set up one of the paper rolls for himself.
Karl, after climbing back up into the armchair, thought about his response for a moment before replying.
"Me too, American Special Forces."
"British Special Forces."
George raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"I vas the medic," Karl answered, amused at his new friend's predictable reaction.
"Ah. Er...which Special Forces unit?"
Karl nodded. "Yes, I'm one too."
Both of George's eyebrows rose at this. "No kiddin'? I guess I'm pretty obvious," he flexed his remaining bicep with regretful pride. "What's yours?"
"Let us say I have a way of seeing through people."
"That must be really useful as a medic."
"It vas..." Karl shivered once as the phantoms loomed. "It vas..."
"Hey...you all right?"
Karl didn't hear him. He was a thousand miles away, in a sterile room, his hands covered in blood.