“BE QUIET,” Zhou Liang muttered.
He shoved a pillow over his head but couldn’t muffle the sound of water from the dripping kitchen tap. The other occupants of the cottage had finally fallen silent—how they could sleep through it, Liang didn’t know—leaving him to what he’d hoped would be a decent night’s sleep. Then he’d become aware of the tap, which he swore had behaved itself up to now.
Still muttering, he felt around for his coat on the end of the sofa, pulled it around him for extra warmth, and made his way out to the kitchen. If someone had told him a couple of months ago that he’d be more than happy to leave this safe house and journey into much more dangerous surroundings, he wouldn’t have believed them. But after weeks moving around Germany working the land to help the farmers who had given them refuge, he was definitely ready to move on.
In a few days’ time, they’d be crossing the German border into France. Liang hoped it meant they would finally be on the next stage of their journey home, but he had experienced enough during his extended stay in Germany not to count on it.
He lit the stove and filled the kettle before making sure the offending tap was turned off properly and then pulled out a chair while he waited for the water to boil. Funny how, despite his present situation, he still sought comfort in the habits he’d grown used to. His Chinese grandparents had taught him about the importance of tea, and he’d also adopted the British adage that it solved everything.
So much had happened since the beginning of what was supposed to have been a simple mission. He’d been approached by the Special Operations Executive to join a team that would be sent to Germany to retrieve the plans for a weapon that could potentially change the outcome of the war. Liang was a civilian; his job was to confirm the plans were authentic. Except that his presence was no longer necessary. Not since one of the scientists from the German project—Dr. Kristopher Lehrer—had joined them.
He glanced up at the ceiling, then shook his head. Did Kristopher and Michel—the French Resistance fighter who had helped him get out of Berlin—realize Liang had figured out they were more than just friends? Six months ago, he might have reacted differently, but now he figured if they’d found love and solace in each other, they might as well enjoy it while they could. There was something to be said for finding love in the middle of all this chaos.
Matt Bryant and Ken Lowe—already good friends—were now also more than that.
It wasn’t something any of them talked about, of course. Two men discovered to be in a relationship did not have much of a future, if any, to look forward to—and not just in Germany. Their team already had enough problems with Standartenführer Holm after them, without giving him another excuse to arrest them.
Not that he needed an excuse.
The two couples were very discreet, and if they hadn’t all been sharing close quarters for these months, Liang doubted he would have noticed. And, if he was being honest with himself, one of the reasons he’d noticed was that he missed Juliane and wondered if he’d ever see her again. Falling in love with the sister of the SS officer hunting them hadn’t been the brightest move, but emotions didn’t always follow the path of common sense. Liang and Juliane had promised each other they’d meet after the war, but there was still the small problem of surviving it.
Juliane Dunst not only worked for her brother, but also for the German Resistance. If her ties to the Resistance were discovered….
No, he wasn’t going to think about that. Not now and not ever.
Liang stretched as he got up to make his tea. The scars on his back, although mostly healed, still irritated him on occasion. Some nights when he closed his eyes, he relived the whipping he’d received at the hands of Holm’s second-in-command, Reiniger, yet his memories always stopped at the same point. Excruciating pain had driven him to yelling, “No more,” but he couldn’t remember anything after that. Not until he’d woken in his cell.
Had he told Holm something he shouldn’t? They’d almost been caught, and Liang couldn’t help but think it was his fault.
He mentally changed the subject, not needing the reminder of the real reason he wasn’t sleeping well. Holm had done more than given the order for Liang to be whipped; he’d also given Liang some information about one of his team that he couldn’t stop thinking about.
What if Holm was right about Ken? And if he was, did it really matter?
Liang didn’t know what to think anymore. He’d told himself that Ken was a good man, that he couldn’t and shouldn’t be judged because of—
A discreet cough from the doorway pulled him back to reality. Kristopher Lehrer stood there, running his hand through sleep-mussed hair. The dye he’d used months ago to darken it had grown out, the color returning to its natural blond. “I smelled tea. Is there enough for two?” he asked.
“You couldn’t sleep either.” Liang didn’t phrase it as a question. This wasn’t the first time he and Kristopher had shared a late-night pot of tea. Despite their different backgrounds, Kristopher and Liang had quickly discovered they had more in common than their love for science. Kristopher had admitted on his thirtieth birthday a couple of months ago that there were times he felt much older after everything they’d been through in the past six months. Liang figured the rest of their team—who were of a similar age—probably felt the same way. However, they rarely discussed their personal lives, only letting information slip unintentionally on occasion. Kristopher, on the other hand, seemed to have a need to talk about such things. Liang sometimes wondered if it was because he’d left it all behind while the rest of them had lives to return to once the mission was over.
“No.” Although Kristopher didn’t elaborate, he didn’t need to. Liang had suspected for a while that Kristopher had nightmares too. It surprised him that they hadn’t woken Michel, but it would only be a matter of time before he joined them. He always did.
Liang poured tea for both of them and then set the cups down on the table. They both drank silently for a few moments.
“The more I think about this situation, the more complicated it becomes,” Kristopher said finally.
“I can understand that.” Liang sipped his tea and waited for Kristopher to elaborate.
“I still can’t believe how naive I was.” Kristopher’s fingers tightened around his cup. His English was impeccable. “I tell myself I’m not like that anymore, but perhaps I’ve just swapped one naivety for another?”
“It’s difficult to push aside what you’ve been taught to believe most of your life.” Liang had his eyes forcibly opened during his time in Germany. He had known about the atrocities humans could inflict on other humans through the stories his grandparents had told him about the family they lost in the Japanese invasion of Nanking. He thought those stories would prepare him, but they were about family he’d only heard about, people he never met. He hadn’t seen or endured the horrors they’d experienced.
He shivered, remembering the fire the night the institute in Berlin had been bombed. With the realization that one of their team—Ed Walker—was still inside when the armory had gone up, Liang had run after a distraught Trevor Palmer to stop him doing anything stupid, knowing they didn’t have time to grieve, not if they wanted to survive.
Both men were gone now. Walker, dead, and Palmer arrested by Reiniger.
“I was an idiot.” Kristopher shrugged. “Am an idiot,” he amended.
“You are the last man I would ever call an idiot.” Liang had seen the plans and formulae for the atomic device Kristopher had helped design. “You have a brilliant mind. I know enough to verify what you’ve shown me, but I could have never come up with any of it.”
“If I were brilliant, I wouldn’t have designed the thing in the first place.” Kristopher shrugged again.
“You didn’t design the weapon, Kristopher.” Liang had heard Kristopher chastising himself like this before. It didn’t achieve anything. “They used your ideas for something you didn’t intend.”
Kristopher snorted. “Yes, and I ignored what they were doing because I wanted to think it would be used to advance mankind, not wipe it out.”
“We all make mistakes. My grandmother also told me that once we think we’re perfect, then we need to start worrying.”
“Your grandmother is a wise woman. I wish I could meet her.”
“Perhaps one day you will. She’d enjoy talking with you.” Liang put his cup down. He missed his grandparents and wished there was a way to let them know he was all right. “Have you decided what you’re going to do yet?”
Kristopher fidgeted with a loose thread on the cuff on his shirt. “This weapon should not be in the hands of either side. When I escaped from the institute, I thought I’d help the Allies defeat Hitler and his Nazis. But I’m not sure it’s that simple anymore.”
“Wars are never simple.”
“This is still my country, Liang. There are good people living in it. No one deserves to die.”
“I’m not sure I’d agree with that last bit,” Liang muttered. “I can think of at least two people I’d love to see die slowly and painfully.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” Although Kristopher questioned Liang’s comment, he didn’t look surprised or shocked. “I know Holm and Reiniger hurt you badly, but if you kill them, doesn’t that make you as bad as they are?”
“And what if it had been your sister they’d hurt, or….” Liang caught himself just in time. “Someone else you care about.”
“For all I know, Clara might be already dead.” Kristopher’s tone flattened. “Michel said Holm is probably using her as a hostage to get me to give myself up, so there’s a good chance she is alive, but….” He shook his head.
“Would you give yourself up for Clara?” Liang had met Dr. Clara Lehrer. She’d helped Matt when he’d been injured, and she’d been arrested because of it, along with Trevor Palmer.
“I don’t know.” Kristopher slipped his hand into his pocket, pulled out a piece of paper, and slid it over the table to Liang.
Liang recognized it immediately. “Leo’s letter. I’ve already read it. I don’t need to read it again. We already agreed you should keep it.”
“Leo wanted Mary to have it. You’ll be able to pass it on to someone who can get it to her.” Kristopher traced bubbles of moisture along the rim of his cup with one finger. “He shouldn’t have died. He had his life ahead of him before he signed up to fight in this war. He should be home in New Zealand with her. Not blown to pieces trying to save us.”
Leo Dawson was—had been—an RAF pilot shot down over the Black Forest. When Reiniger had cornered them at the vineyard at Freiburg, Leo had stayed behind to give them time to get away. Liang hadn’t known him as long as Kristopher and Matt had, but he’d liked the young man.
“He told me he didn’t want to go back to his sweetheart with one leg,” Liang reminded Kristopher quietly. Leo had been injured when his aircraft had crashed, and his leg was badly infected. “He made his choice. He was a brave man, and we need to respect that. He died with honor.”
“I know that. I sometimes wonder if he was the bravest of all of us. It’s easier to run, isn’t it?” Kristopher grimaced. “I’m not sure how brave I am, Liang. The more I think about it, the more I come to one conclusion.”
“There’s only one way to make sure neither side gets your formulae.” Liang had a nasty feeling about where this conversation was going. The only physical copies of the plans had been destroyed when the institute was bombed, and Kristopher was the only person who could reproduce them.
Kristopher nodded. “Dr. Kristopher Lehrer cannot be allowed to survive this war,” he continued in German. “They won’t stop coming after us. Both sides want that weapon. It doesn’t matter who builds it. The outcome will still be the same. People will die.”
“And what if someone else figures out how to build it first?” Liang followed Kristopher’s lead and asked his question in German.
“At least it wasn’t because of me. I can’t let anyone die. I can’t.” Kristopher looked up at Liang, this time not bothering to hide the pain in his eyes. “This is the only way. I’ve thought about it and—”
“When were you going to tell me?” Michel interrupted from the doorway. “You were going to tell me, weren’t you?”
Kristopher pushed his chair out. He spun around. “Michel… I….”
“I’m going back to bed,” Liang said quickly. He stood and left the room before either man had a chance to reply. The horrified look on Michel’s face was enough for Liang to want to avoid that conversation. “I think you two gentlemen need to talk in private. Good night.”
MICHEL FABER shut the kitchen door as soon as Liang left. “Kit?”
When Kristopher didn’t answer, Michel filled an empty cup with water and drank it slowly in an attempt to calm himself.
It didn’t work.
“I woke and you weren’t there.” Michel had given Kristopher a few minutes, guessing he had probably found Liang awake and the two men were talking.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Kristopher said finally.
“You’re angry.” Kristopher still didn’t look at him. “I can hear it in your voice.”
“Yes.” Michel did feel angry, but it was more than that. He shoved down his fear of losing the man he loved. One morning he’d wake to find Kristopher gone, and he’d never see him again. “Merde. If you’re planning to kill yourself, don’t you think you should talk to me about it first? I thought we could talk to each other. Instead I find you…. Or did you forget to speak English so I couldn’t understand you?”
“What? No.” Kristopher frowned. “Oh. I thought… I didn’t realize I’d switched languages. Liang must have followed my lead without thinking. Verdammt, Michel. It’s not what you think. I promise.”
So they had thought they’d been speaking English.
“You told me you’d stay for as long as you could,” Michel reminded him. He shrugged and pulled up a chair but deliberately kept some distance between them. Although he wanted to pull Kristopher into his arms and hold him, he refused to be distracted until they’d talked about this. “I thought you’d at least tell me when you were planning to leave. I might not like some of these ideas you have, but that doesn’t mean I won’t listen to them.”
“I know,” Kristopher said, “and I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I didn’t know how to bring it up. It’s not exactly something you casually slip into a conversation.”
They both knew they might be lost to each other with no warning. But that was something neither had any control over. This was very different.
“We can talk about it now.” Michel laced his fingers together, his knuckles whitening.
Kristopher shifted his chair so they were sitting side by side, rather than at opposite ends of the table. “I’m not planning to die,” he said evenly. “I said that Dr. Kristopher Lehrer cannot survive this war. I didn’t say anything about killing myself.” His voice cracked. “I wouldn’t do that to you. I don’t want to leave you. I….”
“Mon cher,” Michel said softly. He took one of Kristopher’s hands in his and caressed it with his thumb. “You are Kristopher Lehrer. You’re not making sense.”
“Yes, I am, but I’m sorry. I should have talked to you about it first.” Kristopher sighed. He pointed to the letter still lying on the table. “I’m giving Leo’s letter to Liang. He can deliver it. I’m not going to England. I’m not giving the plans or the formulae to the Allies.”
“Do you honestly think they’ll take no for an answer?” Michel knew both sides could be ruthless when they needed to be. “They know about you, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve helped us to get this far. You’re important to the war effort.”
“I’ve put our friends in a terrible position. Matt and Ken are part of the military. Their first priority is to follow orders and complete this mission.”
“You weren’t supposed to be a part of their mission.” Michel had taken the place of a dead German soldier and infiltrated the institute where Kristopher worked. A few months into his assignment, he knew he had to help Kristopher. Finding him standing over the body of Dr. Kluge—the scientist in charge of the project—had led to them both fleeing the scene. Michel hadn’t thought for an instant that Kristopher was responsible for Kluge’s death. He still didn’t think Kristopher was capable of killing. If given the choice between killing someone and sacrificing himself, Michel knew what decision Kristopher would make.
As much as he loved Kristopher, Michel also knew Kristopher was too idealistic for his own good. One day it would literally be the death of him.
But it was one thing to think about it possibly happening in the future, and quite another to hear Kristopher actually planning it.
“I’m where I’m meant to be.” Kristopher shook his head when Michel opened his mouth to protest. “If I hadn’t left the institute when I did… they’d never have let me go. With Kluge dead, there is no one else. They know I’ve solved the problem with the formulae. I was stupid enough to tell Reiniger I had.”
“You told him because you were trying to save my life.” Michel knew he was still missing something. “How can you die and not die?” He felt cold inside. Not just because of the words Kristopher had spoken, but also because Kristopher had spoken to Liang about this, not him. “As I said, it doesn’t make sense.”
“People disappear and are presumed dead all the time during war. It doesn’t mean they are dead.”
“You’re planning to fake your death?” Michel said slowly. The relief he felt was short-lived as practicality took over. “We’d have to supply a body.”
Kristopher held up his hand. “No,” he said firmly. “We’re not killing someone to take my place. Holm already knows what identity papers I’m using. We’ll leave them on someone who is already dead.”
“I’m not suggesting we kill someone, but do you really think a body matching your description will just conveniently turn up when we need it?” Michel couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “I’m sorry, Kit, but your plan has a few flaws in it.”
“It’s a work in progress,” Kristopher insisted. “But as long as we can convince both sides I’m dead, that is all that matters.”
“And what are you planning to do once you’ve died? Have you thought that through?”
Kristopher lowered his gaze. He flushed. “I still want a life with you. I thought…. We can’t get married, but I could take your name and pass myself off as a relative or something. At least that way I wouldn’t have to say good-bye to you. No one on our team knows your last name or much about you. They wouldn’t be lying if they tell their superiors they don’t know where to find you. And if they can’t find you, they wouldn’t be able to find me.”
“If only it was that easy.” Michel wished Kristopher’s words could become a reality, wanted to believe that a future together was possible. He’d found himself dreaming about it, although he didn’t dare hope it could come true. “If they know you’re still alive…. Kit, I know Matt and Ken are our friends, but as you said, they do have to report back to their superiors.”
“Are you suggesting we let them believe I’m dead?” Kristopher didn’t look happy with the idea. “Michel, they’re our friends. I can’t lie to them.”
“Not even to protect them?”
“To protect me, you mean. No one can torture information out of someone if they don’t possess it in the first place.” He took a gulp of what had to be cold tea. “God, what is wrong with me, discussing something so serious as though it’s not?”
“There is nothing wrong with you.” Michel could tell Kit was more upset than he was letting on. “Look at me, mon cher,” he said softly. “You are a good man who has made mistakes. We’ve all done that, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re in an impossible situation, trying to make choices you don’t really have.”
“I used to believe we make our own choices in life, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve been thinking about David and the future he wanted.” Kristopher had told Michel about David, a close friend who could have been much more. David had risked his life to convince Kristopher to listen to his conscience and leave the institute. “He was a doctor like my sister, with a life ahead of him helping people. He always wanted to do that. It was one of the reasons he studied so hard. Now he’s either dead or in a work camp somewhere because he’s Jewish.”
“Not everything in life is fair, but it’s better to focus on the situations we can do something about.” Michel had lost his brother, Corin, and a man he’d cared about to this war too. “I think the best way we can honor the memory of our friends and loved ones is to try and make a difference where we can.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
Michel winced. “It’s not, and sometimes it’s so difficult I struggle to find the strength to keep going. I tell myself if I repeat the words enough times, it will get easier. I owe Corin my life. He died fighting to free France. I can’t let his sacrifice be for nothing.”
“I know.” Kristopher leaned over and kissed Michel on his cheek. “I’ve held you while you’ve cried for the people you’ve lost.”
“Just as I’ve held you.” Michel took a deep breath. He wouldn’t think about it now, didn’t want to get sucked into the whirlpool that was his grief for Corin and François again. It had taken him too long to break free of it. “So, what are we going to do about all of this? I’m not going to watch you die. If we’re going to fake your death, we need some kind of plan. Do you still want to travel with the others until they reach Normandy?”
“Yes, I need to leave Germany. We have more of a chance of disappearing to start a new life in your country than mine. You have contacts in the Resistance, people we could help until this war is over.”
Michel raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t that rather negate your being dead? I thought…. Never mind.”
“You thought what?” Kristopher asked.
“We’ve talked about a future together. If we survive all of this, I’d like that. I think your idea of passing yourself off as a relative will be a little problematic, but we’ll worry about the details later.” More than just a little problematic. Michel’s mother would take one look at the two of them together and figure out they were more than friends. “I want to return to my family when this is over. My parents have already lost one son. I promised Papa I would do everything I could to make sure he and Maman wouldn’t lose another. I’m a farmer. You know nothing of that kind of life.”
“I’ve learnt a lot over the last six weeks, and it would be safer than living in the city.” Kristopher looked thoughtful. He was really contemplating this. “I’ll have to improve my French, though. It’s not very good; although it’s better than it was.”
“My aunt would help.” Michel’s Uncle Brice had married a German woman. She’d welcome Kristopher with open arms. So would Michel’s parents, or at least his mother. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. We still have to get out of Germany, and that won’t be easy.”
“I think it would work better if we travel with Matt, Ken, and Liang for a while longer and then fake my death. You’ve already told them you aren’t crossing the Channel.” Kristopher tipped his cup and studied the tea leaves, using his spoon to swish them around the bottom of it. “I’m not sure you’re right about keeping all this from them. They’ll know something is wrong. We can trust them.”
“I know we can trust them, but it’s not them I’m worried about.” Michel could tell he wasn’t going to easily persuade Kristopher to change his mind about that part of the plan. “It’s Holm and Reiniger.”
“They’d torture our friends for the information until they got the answers they wanted. It wouldn’t matter whether it was the truth or not.” Kristopher had that stubborn look Michel recognized all too well.
“We don’t have to talk about that part of it now. Let’s take one step at a time, hmm? Just promise me you won’t say anything until we’ve discussed it further?”
“All right, but Liang already knows I’m planning something.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t know any details.”
“That’s because we don’t have any to share.” Kristopher shrugged. “I’m tired, and we’ve gone around in circles enough for one night.” He stood and held out his hand. “I want to go back to bed with you. Once we leave here, we might not have the opportunity to share a bed again.”
No one had commented about them sharing a room and shutting the door. Michel suspected it was because Matt and Ken were also sharing more than just a room. However, he wasn’t about to voice his suspicions. He had too many secrets of his own to keep safe.
“I’d like that.” Michel took Kristopher’s hand and squeezed it tightly before pulling him close and kissing him.
“Je t’aime, Michel,” Kristopher whispered once they broke the kiss. “Whatever happens, never forget that.”
“Whatever happens, I never will.” Michel buried his head in Kristopher’s shoulder, caressing the skin there with his lips. “Ich liebe dich, Kit.”