Categories > Original > Drama0 Reviews
A young man growing up under the Reich fights an inner struggle between his values and the government's, the effect it's had on his doctor's oath, and life in a troubled home.
His uncle was not calm. Gunar was red in the face, hands shaking, and he very nearly knocked the bottle of scotch off the table when he made a sweeping gesture at the younger man.
"When you said you had been promoted out of the hospital," the man started, "I thought it would be to a more useful position. Are you an idiot, boy?" He paused for only a moment before sneering, and adding, "don't answer that."
Nicklaus was silent for a long moment. The part of him that usually told him to just keep his mouth shut had, itself, gone silent. "I am not a child," he stated. It felt so alien to talk back. He still tensed up a little when his uncle stood from the table. It took the man a moment – the cold weather didn't agree with his leg. Even standing, though, he didn't come close to his nephew's height.
"I said you're an idiot," Gunar repeated. "You don't know what sacrifice is – not while you're hiding from the front lines like a coward. At least at the Charité you were working on your fellow countrymen." He just glared at the younger man for a moment, before scoffing, and shaking his head. "I can't believe you finally joined the Party just to patch up criminals and Jews, and you march in here showing off that new uniform like you actually earned it."
The uniform had been hidden under Nicklaus's greatcoat, though – at least until his uncle had demanded to see it. He had hoped it would garner some kind of approval. Now, he just wanted it off. It was just another thing that didn't suit his uncle. Nothing ever suited the man for long, though.
Even Lukas hadn't suited the man – the child Gunar had demanded he have, with the woman he had demanded he marry. Nicklaus hadn't been ready – not to be married, and not to be a father. Everything had felt so rushed, and any questioning – any protesting – had only led to rather ugly, disgusted accusations of deviant sexual preferences.
There were plenty of pretty girls in town, several of which, Gunar insisted, he had seen making eyes at his nephew. Nicklaus could never deny that a couple may have flirted with him. It had been an awkward affair for him, though. They were nice to look at, and polite, and flattering, and some of them seemed quite determined. They were strangers, though, and Nicklaus had learned from experience that a willingness to flatter did not necessarily equate to any sort of meaningful love.
Sofia had been a stranger. Nicklaus had never seen her before his uncle had introduced them. It had been a surprise, too, coming home from Heidelberg for the weekend to see the young woman and her parents chatting with Gunar.
He could scarcely remember seeing his uncle look so happy – and while sober, even. He had offered Nicklaus a smile in greeting, but, there was also a warning in his eyes. Don't screw this up.
Sofia's parents were there, it seemed, to ensure that their daughter would be marrying into a worthwhile family. Nicklaus didn't say a word while the two spoke with his uncle. He just sat at the table across from them, only answering the occasional question that came his way.
They asked where he was working, and he told them he wasn't – he was attending university at Heidelberg, and assisting at the estate when he could. It was only after Sofia's parents looked impressed that Gunar said, "he's going to be a doctor," practically beaming with pride.
The man had never been proud of Nicklaus's desire to go into medicine. He had always told him he should join the military, like he had. That, he insisted, was what real men did.
Nicklaus wondered how long that pride would last. Probably not for very long. For the moment, his academic pursuits just happened to be an unexpected and convenient selling point.
He was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that he was being sold, too, which meant he was becoming increasingly nervous. His uncle kept shooting him those looks, though…
…don't screw this up.
Nicklaus was doing his best to be polite, and to stay out of the way – but, he couldn't help but fear that everyone could see how strained his smiles were becoming. His relative silence certainly hadn't gone unnoticed.
"Nicklaus," his uncle started, "you're being awfully quiet." It would have seemed like a polite, concerned statement had it come from anyone else. Gunar's meaning was clear, though – the words he would have gladly spoken out loud were they not in the company of others. 'Why can't you act normal?'
"Sorry," the younger man said, almost wincing at how shaky his own voice sounded. "It was a long drive home." It had been an unexpected one, too. His uncle had actually called the university to summon him back for the weekend, though he had offered no explanation as to why, which had just left Nicklaus in a fit of tension the whole way home. His shoulders and hands still hurt from the drive.
Gunar looked his nephew up and down and gave him an indulgent smile that would likely seem convincing, at least, to their guests. "You should get some rest, then." Go away, before you embarrass the both of us.
Nicklaus knew better than to rush off, as much as he wanted to be away from his uncle. He shook their guests' hands, and said it was very nice to meet them, and offered a polite farewell before he gathered up his things and started for his room. He was exhausted, too – but he couldn't get to sleep. In fact, he felt more awake than ever when he heard Sofia's family leave, and silence descended on the house.
The silence terrified him. More accurately, the thought of what might break the silence was what terrified him. It wasn't long before Nicklaus heard exactly what he'd feared he would – the heavy sound of his uncle's boots as he started up the stairs.
The ridiculous notion to hide under the bed struck Nicklaus. He was far too tall for that, now and, really, when had that ever worked aside from the times his uncle had been too intoxicated to even bend over and look? He decided to settle on pretending to be asleep, as unconvincing as it would likely be, given how tense he was. That tension only grew when he heard those boot steps come to a halt outside his door.
Nicklaus prayed for them to pick up, again – to keep walking down the hall. They didn't, though, and he found himself holding his breath when he heard the door being opened.
"I know you're awake," Gunar started, his voice low and almost dangerously calm, "and you had better listen to me very closely. Do you understand?"
The younger man gave a hard swallow before replying with a, "yessir." His response was cut off when his uncle's hands fisted in his shirt, and yanked sharply upward.
"I have set everything up for you," Gunar stated sharply. "None of the women in town were good enough for you, apparently, so I found you one. You are not going to avoid your duties to this family any longer, especially given your personal contributions to making it so small."
"That was an accident," the younger man started. His protest was quickly silenced by a sharp, open-handed slap to the side of his face – one that made him jump and even yelp a little, much to his embarrassment.
It was a reaction that was less than endearing to his uncle. "The military could have worked that out of you, too."
Nicklaus hadn't noticed at the time how much trouble the man was having in holding him up – more, certainly, than he ever seemed to have before. He was more focused, and more startled, at suddenly being dropped back to the bed. Gunar just shot him a warning glare, before turning and walking out.
That was it? A slap and a stern talking-to? He supposed he should count himself lucky. It could have been far worse, and it frequently was. It was nothing he didn't deserve, though. He just hoped, silently, that the mark his uncle's hand had undoubtedly left would be gone by the time he woke up in the morning.
Nicklaus couldn't help but feel that his bride-to-be…
…his wife – had no idea what she was getting herself into. Then again, perhaps she didn't have nearly as much to fear as her new husband did. It felt so bizarre for Nicklaus to call himself such, too, even if only in his own mind. It felt as terrifying and rushed as 'fiancé' had been, to be honest – more so, even. His uncle had seen to that.
Gunar liked her so well. He always seemed to be courteous and even complimentary to her. The chores that Nicklaus had done around the house by himself for six years were suddenly worthy of the older man's gratitude – because they were being done by her. He almost always had a smile or a kind word for her, and she never seemed ill-at-ease around him.
All through their (very rushed) courtship, Nicklaus had waited for a bruise to show up on Sofia's body. He never saw one. Even stripped bare on their wedding night, she had looked perfect. Everything about her was beautiful – her hair, her skin, her eyes, her shape, even the slightly nervous, but encouraging smile she offered her new husband.
Nicklaus was terrified, which did little to improve the prospects of consummating their marriage. The truth was, he was at a complete loss for what to do. He knew the mechanics of it, of course, and it wasn't his first time. It was, however, his first time with Sofia, and she was just waiting patiently for him to do something. The feeling of his heart pounding in his chest wasn't terribly conducive to ordered thought, though.
Kathrin had known exactly what she had wanted. Not only that, she had possessed the confidence to find and take it. There had never been much questioning or second guessing as to what she wanted. Nicklaus hadn't realized until she had already gone, however, that what she had been after was a naïve young man with a strong body, a handsome face, and plenty of energy.
Sofia was something of a mystery, though. She was practically a stranger to Nicklaus, and not nearly as willing to volunteer information about herself as Kathrin had been – not that that was difficult. It made casual, let alone intimate, conversation nearly impossible, though. He hadn't ever even had many friends to talk to, really; what, or how, was he supposed to discuss with a spouse? How did one go about having pillow talk with a stranger?
He should have tried to say something. After all, men weren't supposed to be shy and nervous, they were supposed to be bold and assertive – right? Gunar had made it very clear, in fact, what it was what real men did. A real man had sex with his wife on their wedding night, and 'only a child or a queer' would question that.
Nicklaus wasn't bold and assertive, though. He had been 'that one kid' all through primary school – the undersized teacher's pet that was easy to beat up, and terrified of girls, and just about everyone else. Some of those things, at least, hadn't changed.
His heart was still pounding, and his throat felt almost unbearably tight, and he didn't want to admit that his hands were shaking just a little. He was still trying to think of something to say, or to do. His stomach was tying itself in knots, though, and all he managed was a rather inarticulate, "um…"
"You're tired," Sofia replied, offering a small, sympathetic smile.
Was it that obvious? Of course it was – Nicklaus was absolutely exhausted, and she probably was, as well. It had been an extremely long day – an extremely long several weeks, even. His body felt like it was going to give out beneath him. "I'm sorry," he finally said, and he wasn't entirely sure what he was sorry about. There were a lot of possibilities to choose from, including having no idea what his wife wanted.
She just smiled again, though, and maybe looked just a little relieved. "It's fine," Sofia started, "I am, too. We don't have to…"
Gunar would have thought otherwise. The door was locked, though – and it felt so odd to Nicklaus to be able to get away with that. His uncle had been very clear on what the younger man's plans for the evening were, and had since retired to his room.
Sofia offered another small smile, one that, admittedly, seemed rather tired. "You should get some sleep. We both should."
"We should," Nicklaus replied, giving a hard swallow, and a little nod before finally, quietly, lying down. A rare sense of relief washed over him, and it was only the resultant aches in his body that made him realize just how tense he had been. He was still tense, though, once he settled (tried to settle) under the covers.
Once the man did lay down, his limbs seemed to turn to rubber. They didn't want to respond, and that was just fine because, really, he didn't want to move them. His racing heart was even, finally, starting to slow. His mind was still racing, though. There were so many 'what ifs', and uncertainties, and they were all tangled together in a jumbled mess, and Nicklaus barely had the energy to think about them. As tired as he was, though, it didn't seem right to go ahead and just let himself fall asleep.
"You uh…" he trailed off, nerves and exhaustion making it difficult to think of something to say that wouldn't somehow be wrong. "You looked nice today. I mean- you still look nice. What I meant, was…" The words kept catching in Nicklaus's throat, and his face suddenly felt rather hot, and he was just making a fool of himself, wasn't he?
Sofia just chuckled softly, though, and offered a small, indulgent smile. "It's okay," she insisted. "I know what you mean. And… you are very handsome."
Nicklaus's face seemed to get warmer at that, and he ducked his head just a little. He managed a quiet thank you, and a small, rather nervous smile of his own – and then couldn't really think of anything else to say. Nothing, at least, that wouldn't wind up coming out very stupid. Then again, he couldn't really think of much of anything. Hell, he could barely keep his eyes open.
Given the relative stillness, and the relative quiet, it didn't seem too long before Sofia had fallen asleep. It was only a few moments longer before exhaustion claimed Nicklaus, as well.
...don't screw this up.
Please let everything be alright.
Please, please let everything be alright
Nicklaus hesitated for a long, tense moment before opening the front door, and stepping into the house. He didn't take one step further – just listened. It was unnervingly silent, and the silence terrified him. He started a bit when the sound of running water hit him. It was coming from the kitchen, accompanied by the sound of footsteps far too light to be Gunar's.
That didn't entirely dispel the sense of dread coiled tight in Nicklaus's stomach, and he hesitated a moment before actually stepping into the kitchen. Sofia's back was turned, but, she must have heard her husband come in the front door – she certainly didn't seem surprised when he greeted her.
She did quickly turn around and return the greeting, though – smiled, and closed the distance between them. She seemed confused, however, when Nicklaus placed a hand gently on her shoulder to stop her short – to look her over with a gaze that was more worried than anything. "Is… everything alright?" Sofia finally asked, sounding a little worried, herself.
Nicklaus's heart wasn't pounding quite as hard as it had been just a moment before, but his hands were still shaking just a little – the remainder of an adrenaline surge. There were no bruises, though – no visible ones, at least. Sofia looked just fine, if a little confused, and more than a little pregnant.
"It is," Nicklaus finally replied, offering a small smile, before carefully wrapping his arms around her. He felt a sense of relief when the gesture was returned, and it wasn't just Sofia's body heat that warmed him up when she leaned against him a little. "Has… everything been alright, here?"
"It's been fine," the woman replied, finally letting her arms drop back to her sides. "It's certainly a lot more peaceful than it was in Landshut. I think it's starting to grow on me," she added, along with a little smile.
It was some distance from Landshut – an hour's drive, at least. There were a few villages between the city and the estate, and Nicklaus had tried to calculate, on more than one occasion, how much time it would take to get from the house to the nearest doctor. He had never needed stitches, himself – Gunar had, by his nephew's estimate, not wanted to do any permanent harm to his physical assets. He wasn't sure if the same would ring true for Sofia, though, or their unborn child. The thought of something happening to either of them, let alone while he was away, was enough to make him sick – apparently noticeably so.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Sofia questioned, her brows pulling into a worried frown. "You look like you're about to drop. Are you sick?" Before her husband could offer any protest, she raised an arm to rest her hand on his forehead.
"I'm not sick," Nicklaus insisted. He offered a weak smile – but, Sofia wasn't buying it.
"You stayed up all night studying before driving here, didn't you?" she said. It was a statement, not a question.
It was a statement that Nicklaus folded under, and he finally gave a little nod. His grades, thus far, had been stellar (or so the dean had told him), but, he took that as no indication to sit on his laurels. Between worrying about school, and what was going on at home, he found it more than a little difficult to sleep. He had found the line, for the moment, where he was getting just enough rest between studying to function at school.
"Go to bed," Sofia insisted, a stern expression melting into one of worry. "Please? I'll be up in just a little while."
The man finally relented, offering a weak smile, and leaning forward to press a chaste kiss to Sofia's forehead before gathering his things back up and starting up the stairs. He paused at the top, though, and found himself holding his breath, trying to keep himself silent. There was no movement from Gunar's room, though – nothing to indicate that he was awake. That didn't mean he wasn't, though, and Nicklaus decided it would be best to tread lightly. The hardwood floor was a minefield, and he went very tense, and very still when one of the boards creaked underfoot.
Nicklaus's heart was pounding, and he held his breath, again, as he listened for the sound of footfalls. There were none, though, and he finally exhaled in a long, shaky sigh once he had the bedroom door closed behind him. He leaned back against it for a moment, eyes closed, waiting for his pulse to stop racing.
The feeling of a hand resting on his shoulder startled him. His eyes shot open, but it took a few seconds for his vision to clear, and – and, he was lying down? Nicklaus didn't remember getting into bed, or even unpacking, for that matter.
Sofia offered him a small, apologetic smile. "I didn't mean to wake you. You really should get under the covers, though," she added, before doing so, herself.
It took a moment for Nicklaus's mind to actually process the words, and, really, no wonder he felt so chill. "Right," he replied, somewhat sheepishly, before pulling the sheets and blanket over himself, as well. He slowly, haltingly curled an arm around Sofia's waist, and felt some small sense of relief when he felt her hand rest over his.
"Good night, Nicklaus."
"Wake up, Nicklaus."
That gruff voice snapped the boy's eyes open faster than the lights being turned on ever could. He hadn't been asleep, though. Not quite.
"The doctor's here," Gunar stated, his tone unusually subdued. "You'd better behave."
Nicklaus just offered a quiet nod. He waited until his uncle had left the room before he finally sat up – he didn't want the man to see him wince. He also didn't want to be seen wiping the tears from his eyes, as though he could actually hide the fact that he'd been crying.
He didn't relax in the slightest when Doctor Schmidt walked into the room. He hadn't seen the man in awhile, and he could only guess as to what his uncle had told him about the circumstances surrounding his visit.
Schmidt, at least, offered him a small smile, and a quiet greeting – seemed in relatively good spirits despite the late hour, and the freezing weather. He clucked his tongue as he placed his bag on the night stand. "If I didn't know any better, Nicklaus, I'd think you were only nine or ten, not twelve."
"Thirteen," the boy said, his voice a little hoarse.
"That's right," the doctor agreed, after a little pause. "Just today, right? You have a lot of growing to do. Now, let's get a look at your back."
Nicklaus tensed right back up again, at that. He wasn't eager to turn his back to the doctor, but, the sooner he did so, the sooner they would finish. He gritted his teeth when Schmidt started to unroll the bandages that the boy had haphazardly wrapped around his torso. He had done his best to wash the blood off in the bath – but, that didn't keep the cloth from sticking, and having to be peeled away.
Tears welled in the boy's eyes, and he held his breath, trying his best not to let them fall. He could not, however, hold back a sniffle, or stop from gritting his teeth as the last of the bandages were peeled away. The long moment of silence that followed didn't do much to comfort him, either.
Schmidt gave a thoughtful hum before starting to dab away the blood, both dried and freshly beading up. "There is considerable swelling."
"Will I need stitches?" Nicklaus asked, giving the man an almost pleading look.
Schmidt offered him a small, indulgent smile. "No, Nicklaus, you won't need stitches." His expression quickly drew back into a worried frown, though. "Everything looks clean, at the moment – but, infection is a concern. I'm going to have to apply some iodine before we put fresh bandages on." He paused a moment before giving another, much more apologetic smile, "this will sting a bit."
The boy doubted that it would only sting 'a bit'. Having his grandfather wipe a scratch on his ankle down with iodine had hurt badly, enough. He sucked in a sharp, hissing breath, and quite unwillingly clawed his fingers into the sheets when the iodine-soaked gauze touched one end of the first lash mark. There were thirteen in all…
…one for each year you have been allowed to live.
Wiping them down with antiseptic was a somewhat lengthy process. It was a gentle, skillful, well-intentioned torment, though, little as that did to make it hurt less. That span of time simply didn't contain the terror, and the anger of that in which the wounds had been inflicted.
"What a good patient," Schmidt said, starting to wrap fresh bandages around the boy's torso. "I know holding still like that isn't easy."
Nicklaus wasn't still, though – he was shaking. The worst part wasn't just realizing that he was trembling, but discovering that he couldn't make it stop.
If the doctor noticed, he didn't say so. "There we are," he mused, leaning back a little to get a look at his handiwork, his mouth pulling into another small smile. "Much better. I'll be back tomorrow to check on you – get some sleep, don't lie on your back, alright?"
"Okay," Nicklaus replied, swallowing thickly, and quietly glancing to his uncle, leaning against the doorframe. He quickly looked right back at the floor. He was tempted to look back to Doctor Schmidt, and, please don't go… The man was already out the door, though, and Nicklaus could hear the sound of footfalls on the wooden floor of the hallway as the doctor left.
Now he was alone – alone with Gunar. He prayed that the man would just go back to bed, and let him do the same. The boy reasoned that, perhaps, his uncle wouldn't add injuries to ones that he'd just paid money to have fixed up. Thankfully, he was right.
"Go to bed," Gunar stated, jabbing a finger at his nephew. "I'd better not hear one peep out of you for the rest of the night. Understand?"
A 'yessir' was on Nicklaus's lips, but, he quickly bit it back in favor of a silent nod. He had been given a command, and he knew what would likely happen if he overstepped it, and it didn't matter how unintentional his actions may have been.
Gunar gave a stiff nod in return, and closed the door at least a little more quietly than usual. Even his footfalls as he returned to his own room seemed a little slower, and a little less harsh than usual.
It was a peace that Nicklaus knew would not last.
There was an unusual sort of peace that had settled over the Fleischer household. That was in large part, Nicklaus thought, due to the fact that his uncle was gone. The man had left to spend a couple of days in Munich. Nicklaus didn't know what for – and he didn't care. The fact that the man was gone was good enough.
"I see you brought your work home with you," his wife said, offering a small, warm smile as Nicklaus walked through the door.
His work was hard to miss – a leather satchel practically bursting with texts, journals, and papers. It was quickly (gently) placed on the living room table so its owner could turn his attention to something much more important – Sofia… and their son.
Lukas had all of the energy of a five-year-old boy, and he very quickly left Sofia's side to wrap his arms around his father's legs. It was as far as he could reach – Lukas was a quickly-growing boy, but, Nicklaus was practically towering.
He was all too happy to return the hug, though – to scoop the boy up, and lift him off of the floor, and just hold him close, and be held close in return.
"Look at how big you've gotten," Nicklaus stated with a smile. He was only able to squeeze in a weekend visit about once a month – and it seemed as though the boy was a little taller every time. He would never stop thanking his lucky stars that he had found the time to be in the hospital when Lukas was born. Even Gunar had seemed positively delighted by the event.
It had been rare to see the man so pleased about anything, and in such a benign manner. His words had still rung in his nephew's head, though – don't screw this up.
He had been perfect – a healthy size, a good set of lungs, bright blue eyes, and just a tiny bit of fine, blond hair on his scalp. The latter two were far more important to Gunar, it seemed, than anyone else.
Gunar had seemed at least slightly disapproving when his nephew had insisted on holding the boy, at least for a little while. He no-doubt thought that was a woman's job, or that the child didn't need both parents 'coddling' the boy, already.
Nicklaus had thought he was prepared for it. He knew everything there was to know – medically and anatomically – about an infant. He had taken great pains to find out everything he could – but, medical texts said nothing about the overwhelming emotions. The young man had been thrilled, and terrified and, for some reason, even proud of the tiny thing he had cradled in his arms. The height of his father had made Lukas look all the smaller.
He and Sofia had picked the name together – had waited until Gunar was out of the room to do so. After all, Lukas was their son – not his.
As out of his depth as Nicklaus still felt about raising a child, he was still happy, as always to hold the boy in his arms – and to try his best to do right by him. He eventually wound up settling on the living room chair, with Lukas on his lap.
"I hope you behaved for your mother while I was away?" Nicklaus questioned, his brow furrowing, his expression and tone half-joking.
"Um…" the boy trailed off. His face going a little pink, and he very suddenly seemed to find something very interesting on the wall.
Sofia crossed her arms at the boy's reaction. "Lukas," she started, "caught a rather large frog out at the pond. And, what did you do with the frog?" she asked, looking to her son, seeming more amused than anything.
"I let it go on the kitchen table," the boy started.
"And..?" his mother said, placing her hands on her hips, not about to settle for a half-story.
Lukas shifted a bit, and finally mustered up the courage to actually look at his father. "And, it jumped in the bowl of bread dough."
The image was almost enough to make Nicklaus burst out laughing – but, he managed to winnow it down to an amused chuckle. "Well, if you were a frog," he started, "would you be happier out in the pond, or in a house?"
"The pond," the boy replied, seeming relieved that there was no reprimand coming. His father, in fact, gave him a small pat on the back.
"Well, the next time you catch a frog," Nicklaus started, "why don't you come and show me, and then we can let it go back in the pond, alright?"
Lukas gave a little nod, seeming satisfied with the new arrangement. His expression, however, suddenly sank just a little. "Papi?" he started, his tone rather morose, as well, "you're gonna be a doctor. Is there something wrong with my eyes?"
Nicklaus frowned at that – and so did his wife. They both knew exactly who must have put that worry, directly or indirectly, into the boy's head. As much as Lukas had been the Reich's new Aryan ideal at birth, a baby's eyes were always blue – but not always bound to stay that way.
"Lukas," his father started, placing his hands gently on the boy's shoulders, and looking him right in the eye. His eyes were gray – a rather lovely shade of it, too. "Do you have trouble seeing?" Nicklaus asked. "Do your eyes hurt, or itch, or water?"
The boy just shook his head in response, his expression cautious, as though he was afraid of where the line of questioning might be going.
"Your eyes are perfect, then," Nicklaus said, offering the boy a smile, and receiving one in return, along with another hug.
It was a hug his father was happy to return, along with a small kiss placed on top of the boy's head. He would have been happy to stay there all night, sitting on the living room chair with his arms around Lukas. The boy's energy was almost boundless, though, and he had already spent a remarkable amount of time just sitting rather still on his father's lap. The fact that it was late, however, managed to slow Lukas down just a little bit. In fact…
"Isn't it almost your bedtime?" Nicklaus asked, a quizzical expression forming on his face.
"It's not that late," the boy insisted, before trying to stifle a very obvious yawn. The response got a warm smile from his father, and a chuckle from his mother.
"I have a little cleaning to do in the kitchen," Sofia noted, glancing to the next room, and then back to her husband. "Would you look to put him to bed?"
He did – and, Nicklaus knew, that was exactly why Sofia had asked him. It was so rare, outside of summer break, that he got to spend any time with Lukas at all. He wanted to squeeze in every moment that he could.
"Alright, you," he started, standing up, and bringing the boy with him, gently placing him over one broad shoulder with a small, fond chuckle. "Time for bed."
"It's not even that late!" Lukas stated.
"It is, too," Nicklaus quickly retorted, albeit playfully. "Even I'm tired," though he was going to be staying up even later to study, anyway. His honest claim, however, did halt any further complaining from his son.
Lukas's room was nice and tidy when they arrived. The bed even made, and the Steiff bear his father had given him for his birthday a couple of years ago was waiting on the pillow.
Nicklaus couldn't help but smile just a little at seeing it there. The boy had only been two when he'd received it, and it was heartwarming, to see that it was still appreciated. Its place on the pillow, in fact, seemed almost reverent.
"How is Beschützer holding up?" the man asked, before finally letting the boy down, to sit on the edge of his bed.
Lukas just smiled at first, taking the bear in his arms, and giving it a loving squeeze. "He's great," he stated, kicking the covers down just a little so he could worm his way under them. "You were right – he still keeps the monsters away."
"Good," Nicklaus replied, making sure that the boy was properly tucked in, before giving him a small kiss on the forehead. He trailed his fingers briefly through his son's hair, giving him a smile, and a soft, "good night," before quietly leaving the room.
He was still glad the boy had taken to the bear so well. It had been something of an expensive gift – but, it comforted the boy so much. A stuffed toy, however, could only keep away imaginary monsters. There was a very real monster that lived in the Fleischer household, and one that was the topic of discussion once Nicklaus had fetched his things and entered the master bedroom.
"He's been getting more impatient," Sofia admitted from where she was sitting on the side of the bed.
'Patience', Nicklaus knew, was not something that Gunar possessed in great quantity. His nephew was surprised that he hadn't used up what little he had, already. Five years, and nothing had happened to Sofia or the boy – yet. Nicklaus, however, was a different matter. He could take a beating, though, as much as his uncle was starting to switch tactics from physical blows to words. The words, somehow, managed to sometimes hurt even more than a fist to the chest.
"He hasn't hurt you, has he?" Nicklaus finally asked, "or the boy?"
Sofia shook his head in return. "No. You heard Lukas, though – your uncle told him there was something wrong with his eyes."
"There's nothing wrong with his eyes," the man snapped at no one in particular. The sudden, sharp tone his voice had taken managed to surprise even him, just a little. He felt more than slightly guilty when he noticed the cautious look on Sofia's face.
"I'm sorry," he murmured quietly, sitting on the end of the bed, setting his satchel down with a small, tired sigh. "I just… want what's best for him – and I can't even be here to keep Gunar away."
Sofia offered a small, sympathetic smile at that, and scooted around the corner of the bed to sit next to the man. "Given your workload," he started, slipping an arm gently around Nicklaus's waist, "I'd say you've gone above and beyond. You're doing the best you can," she said. "And… I would expect no less, from you." That smile broadened just a little.
It was infectious, too. A weak, tired smile soon formed on Nicklaus's own face. At the rate he was going, he would be a full-fledged surgeon in, "two more years. Then I should have a lot less studying, and at least some more free time." He slipped an arm around Sofia's waist in return, and gave a gentle squeeze. "Then, I'll be able to spend more time with the both of you."
Nicklaus had been looking forward to spending Christmas with his wife and son. That thought was a beacon of light was what he tried to focus on – not the sickening things happening at the Charité Hospital that had led to a promotion closer to him. He didn't like the ideology of the Party, but, it was a position his uncle would surely approve of – along with the uniform, and the greatcoat that helped keep the cold at bay as the man stepped out of his car and into the snow.
He paused then. There was a new car in the driveway – a Mercedes, like his, only white instead of black. It seemed odd that Gunar would suddenly sell his beloved car and get a new one. It was only the first of many signs that something was terribly wrong.
Nicklaus just stood on the porch for a long moment. In the last couple of years, Gunar had been less cautious in keeping his angry, drunken raving and abuse just between the two of them. His wife and, most unfortunately, their son, had heard and, worse, perhaps seen some of their altercations.
Nicklaus had never fought back, though – neither verbally nor physically. It had been his fault, no matter how unintentional, that his father and grandfather were dead. Gunar was always ready to remind him of – and punish him for – that fact.
Gunar had at least had the courtesy to wait until Lukas and Sofia had gone off to sleep before starting in on his nephew. That wasn't always the case, though. Things had been getting worse, and Gunar's talk of his disappointment with Lukas's eyes – his 'imperfection – only added to Nicklaus's growing sense of dread.
He finally opened the front door, though, and stepped inside – told himself that everything would be fine. Perhaps, even, his uncle would be pleased with him, for once. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and he had finally broken down and joined the Party. It had been a few months back, almost just after starting work at the Charité. Some of the work at the hospital had been, in Nicklaus's esteem, quite unseemly, and things only seemed to get worse once he had joined. His supervisors were pleased to discover that a mixture of drugs administered to a 'guest' made the doctor's voice quite soothing – and he became rather talented at extracting information from 'guests' with no more bloodshed than the drop from an injection. It hadn't been too long before he had been offered (and accepted) a rank – an officer's rank, no less – for his work. It meant leaving the hospital, and joining the military – albeit not at the front lines.
Obersturmfürher Nicklaus Fleischer. It sounded imposing – 'imposing' was what Gunar liked, not some idiot coddling patients in a hospital instead of putting their muscle to use on the front line. This, Nicklaus hoped as he quietly closed the front door, would be some kind of acceptable compromise.
Gunar, sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of scotch in hand, was less than pleased. He had been all too happy to argue with his nephew – to loudly, and harshly rebuke his every attempt to explain himself.
Nicklaus was used to the abuse and, given the late hour, and his uncle's exceptionally sour demeanor, it was no wonder that Lukas and Sofia were nowhere in sight. "Are Sofia and Lukas upstairs?" he finally asked, his voice, his whole bearing, rather deflated and subdued.
His uncle gave a harsh snort in response, along with a sharp, dismissive wave of his hand. "With any luck they've both shuffled off the mortal coil."
Gunar, at that moment, might as well have not even existed. Nicklaus rushed from the room, and took the stairs two and three at a time to reach the upper level of the house. He all but sprinted down the hallway, and threw open the door to the master bedroom. Sofia wasn't there – in fact, almost none of her things were there, either. Her clothes were gone, and her hairbrush, and books. The haphazard state of the room – cabinets and drawers hanging open – said that they had all been packed and taken in a hurry, too.
"Sofia…?" he called, feeling more tense and frantic by the moment. "Liebe?" he said, rushing from the room, and down the hall. He paused in front of Lukas's room, and held his breath as he opened the door.
The boy was gone. The cabinets and drawers in his room were just as haphazardly opened as those in the master bedroom – packed in just as much of a hurry. Even the boy's toys were gone – all but one.
" Beschützer…" Nicklaus murmured, all but collapsing to sit on the edge of the bed. The bear was tipped on its side, not left in its usual place of honor on the pillow. The boy never would have dreamed of leaving it behind – which meant he hadn't known he was leaving.
The bear, then, was carefully picked up. Nicklaus held it carefully in his gloved hands, turning it to face him. It was well-loved, but meticulously cared for. It had meant the world to the boy – and in the rush to leave it had been, accidentally no doubt, left behind.
It was the only thing that had been left behind – the only thing left of his little boy. It was soon being hugged tightly to Nicklaus's chest as tears ran unabashedly down the man's face. Tears, however, soon turned into uncontrollable sobs. His shoulders shook, and he had slumped forward a little and, in that moment, he couldn't have cared less if Gunar showed up and saw him.
Gunar didn't show up and see him, though – he had the nerve to speak. "They aren't coming back," he stated sharply. "Such a shame – she was perfect, you could have tried again for a boy with blue eyes."
That was what this was all about? That's what was so important to the man? Nicklaus gave a hard swallow, and very suddenly realized that his heart was pounding, and his throat had tightened. He felt like nothing so much as a tightly coiled spring. "What… did you do?" he asked, his voice low, and not nearly as shaky as the rest of him.
For a moment, Gunar just scowled in response, as though he couldn't believe his nephew was so clueless that he had to be told. "That stupid boy got what was coming to him."
Nicklaus had thought it impossible, but he actually grew more tense. What on earth had the man done? Had he pushed the boy? Had he slapped him? Worse? His uncle had never hit Sofia or Lukas before, not to the man's knowledge, at least. The thought of Gunar hitting a seven-year-old boy – his seven-year-old boy - made Nicklaus feel sick. It made him feel something else, too.
"What," Nicklaus started, his voice low, and tense, "did you do to him?"
"For God's sake, you idiot, a black eye is nothing," Gunar practically spat. "You're both such babies – you, especially, for your age."
The man admitted it without shame – without guilt – as though hitting a defenseless boy was the most natural, most normal thing in the world. His nephew ordinarily would have wondered if it was the scotch talking – but, at the moment, he didn't care. Instead, he walked out of Lukas's room with the bear in hand, and practically shoved past his uncle. He ignored the tirade that started behind him, and started towards the front door.
Beschützer was placed carefully in the passenger seat of Nicklaus's car. When he turned around to start walking, again, he did not walk towards the house. He was sharply aware of everything as he walked; the crunch of snow under his boots, every falling flake, the feeling of cold winter air in his lungs, and the small plumes of steam as he exhaled.
The door to the stables was opened smoothly, and quietly, and Nicklaus walked straight towards the equipment rack. The object he was looking for was still there, as always. The item itself was all too familiar, let alone the dark dots and splotches that still stained its leather tassels.
Nicklaus exited the stables just as quietly as he had entered them – didn't even seem to have woken up any of the horses. Good – they didn't deserve to suffer in the slightest, not even a bit of missed sleep, for he or Gunar's actions.
Gunar was in the living room when his nephew returned. He was sat in the coziest chair in the house, his back to the door, and his front to the warmth of the crackling fireplace. An open bottle of scotch was on the table to his left, and the shot glass he had been using earlier was only half empty. Good – that meant he was at least mostly sober.
Sober – but still not terribly alert. Nicklaus quietly loosened the coil of braided leather in his hands. In a split second, he had thrown the whip over Gunar's head, and pulled it tight around his neck;
Gunar, naturally, tried to protest. He flailed, and knocked the shot glass and bottle over, spilling their contents onto himself, and the floor. He tried to speak, and his nephew could only imagine that he was trying to add a diatribe to the hundreds he'd already heaped up on him. His back was trapped against the chair, which made it nearly impossible for him to turn and take a swing at his assailant.
Nicklaus wasn't used to winning against his uncle. He wasn't even used to fighting back. Despite the violent struggling of his uncle, he found himself quietly wondering if this was truly fighting back for his own sake, or for the sake of the suffering he'd inflicted on Sofia and Lukas.
Some dark, primal part of his brain really didn't care about the details. The fact was, Nicklaus had been attacked a number of times by the creature on the chair, which was getting no less than it deserved. Nicklaus, at that, pulled even tighter. He could see the flesh above and below the braided leather bulging just a bit. The whip was pulled so tight that he could feel the man's pulse through even it and his leather gloves.
Those gloves were clawed at. Gunar, like an animal, kicked, and flailed, and clawed at the whip and his nephew's hands. It was the leather gloves of the man's new uniform – the one he 'hadn't earned' – that protected him, though, and he just pulled tighter.
Nicklaus could see the moment that his uncle truly started to die. His body started to go slack, and his hands shook as his fingers twitched and seized from the lack of oxygen. The man's pulse was growing more erratic, and his eyes were bulging, and starting to roll back in his head.
Classic suffocation – absolutely textbook. It wasn't long before the man's face started to go red, then purple, followed by a tinge of blue. His lips moved a little – a curse, no doubt, unable to be given voice with his throat cinched shut.
It was only after Gunar was truly quiet and still, after his pulse had stopped entirely, that he was released to fall to the floor. He landed directly in the puddle of scotch that had formed from the bottle, tipped out on the floorboards.
Nicklaus's suddenly realized that his palms burned from gripping and pulling the ends of the whip so tightly. It was inconsequential, though – an unimportant detail that was quickly pushed aside. A much more important thing to note were the ligature marks around Gunar's neck – red, and raw, and bruising from the friction of braided leather on skin.
That was not textbook suffocation – that was textbook murder. The puddle of scotch soaking into Gunar's clothing, however, offered a ready and easy fix. The man kept the liquor cabinet full – and there were times when he emptied it rather quickly.
Now, the cabinet was being emptied again – not into Gunar, but onto him – and the chair, and the table, and the floorboards, and the stone hearth. Nicklaus even made sure to drop a bottle or two, and make sure that they were shattered on the floor.
Gunar would have knocked them over. He was a violent drunk, and all their neighbors knew it. All their neighbors had known it, and they said nothing. Of course, Gunar was nice enough to them – nice to the neighbors, and Doctor Schmidt, and all the people who couldn't or wouldn't admit that he was what he was. Nobody would dare accuse an injured war veteran of giving a child a black eye, or beating his nephew with a whip until his back and arms were smeared red with blood.
Perhaps he had deserved it – but, Lukas hadn't. Lukas hadn't deserved one ounce of violence from anyone ever, let alone that drunken wretch. His habit would be the method of covering up the fate that he deserved.
Nicklaus couldn't help but cough and almost gag a little at the smell of alcohol hanging thickly in the air. Gunar, and the chair, and the floorboards were soaked in it – and there was a trail of the stuff ending perilously close to the fire. There was only one last item needed to cover up the crime – the last bottle of Gunar's favorite whiskey.
Nicklaus couldn't help but pull a face as he held the bottle – it wouldn't be intact for long. He let it rest on the table, leaving it only for the few minutes it took him to gather up some of his own things to pack the car.
The bottle wasn't forgotten, though. Nicklaus was soon picking it up, glancing at the label with an expression of disgust on his face. He didn't hesitate in the slightest as he cocked his arm back, and hurled the bottle into the fireplace. It shattered, of course; its contents caught flame as they sprayed out onto the hearth. Little burning embers of liquor were soon rolling over the hearth, and the floor, and the alcohol-soaked boards didn't take long to catch.
Nicklaus just stood for a moment, watching as the fire slowly crept across the floor – as it gradually got hotter, and moved faster. It wasn't long before his uncle's clothing, along with the chair, had gone up. The man's nephew just stood for a long moment, watching the flames eat through Gunar's clothing – watched as skin started to go red, and then black, and then start peeling.
That was all he had wanted to see. That was all he had needed to see, and Nicklaus turned to take his leave. He heard a roar as the Christmas tree went up, just as he stepped through the door. He hesitated only a moment before closing that door behind him; he wished there was no part of him that would mourn the loss of the house. It had ceased to be a good place to live after his father and grandfather had died, though.
Nicklaus wasn't entirely sure what he was feeling as he got back in the car. He could hand the property over to the family that owned the brewery they supplied. They were very long-time family friends, and could be trusted, at least, to take care of the stables and the farm.
He dallied considerably in reaching the next town – acted suitably surprised and panicked as he told the fire chief that he had come home for Christmas to find the house in flames. By the time help arrived, nearly the entire house was engulfed in fire, and Nicklaus's footsteps to and from the stables had been covered by snow.
Nicklaus had never liked funerals. The last one he had attended had been for his father and grandfather. There had been more friends than family present, barring a few distant cousins that happened to still live within driving distance. He had felt so out of place – the 'friends' had been friends of the deceased. He had known very few of them very well. They had offered their condolences, of course, but, there had been no one truly close to him there. He had received a few pats on the shoulder, or a brief hug from strangers that had worked with his grandfather at the private practice.
They were strangers to him, though. There were strangers at Gunar's funeral, too. Most of the men were veterans – people who had served with him during the Great War. They all insisted on shaking Nicklaus's hand, and telling him they were sorry for his loss.
Nicklaus had never liked shaking hands – especially with strangers – and he waited until Gunar's old war buddies were off talking amongst themselves before wiping his hands clean on a handkerchief. He couldn't help but overhear the conversation, though. They all talked about how brave, and funny Gunar was – it was a 'truth' that they espoused very enthusiastically to the man's nephew.
All of the praise, in truth, made Nicklaus feel a little sick. He hid it well, though, and tried to ignore gossip going around those present that his wife had left him, and taken Lukas with her. It was true enough, yes – but, that didn't make it any less painful. The tears that welled in his eyes at the thought of his wife and boy being gone at least provided a ready mask of sorrow when the subject turned back to Gunar.
He was thankful when the funeral had ended. All of the guests, all of the strangers, started to depart. Even the pastor had soon gone. It wasn't for Gunar that Nicklaus lingered at the Fleischer family plot – it was for Adam and Oswald. His father and grandfather, he knew, would have been disappointed with what he'd done, and it was for them and only them that Nicklaus offered a silent apology for Gunar's death. The white roses he'd brought were placed on their graves, not his uncle's, before he finally turned to head for the car, and a frightfully unknown new chapter of his life.