Adrian’s Mistake (Adrian #3, Short Story Sophia’s War Series)

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This is part 3 in a short story series I’m doing for my Sophia’s War novel series. This one contains medium spoilers for books 1-6 🙂 Hope you enjoy!

——-

Frankfurt, Germany

April and May, 1933

She smelled like strawberries.

He couldn’t take a breath without breathing in the intoxicating scent of her. Katherina’s arms were around him, the two of them out of sight under the stairwell. He tore his lips away from hers. “I really have to go.”

But her fingers were running through his hair, her lips on his neck, on his jaw. She pulled him close, pressing her body to his, her back against the wall.

“He’s going to yell at me,” Adrian breathed between kisses.

Katherina nibbled at his lip. “Report him.”

“For what?”

“For interfering with your duty to the Fatherland. What we are doing here is of great importance.” She simpered. “I don’t know why you worry so much about your grandfather.”

It wasn’t Opa he was afraid of. It had been a long time since he’d looked at Opa with fear instead of resentment, anyway.

She kissed him, a deep, blood-pumping kiss. “You don’t answer to him anymore. You answer to no one but the Party.”

This was supposed to make him feel better; this was supposed to empower him. Pledging his allegiance to the Party meant Opa had little to no authority over him, especially when what Opa wanted conflicted with Adrian’s commitment to the Hitler Youth. Each day, Adrian found it easier to bypass the once unmistakable boundaries of his own conscience; it was the only way he could get through the meetings with the Hitler Youth without presenting a different opinion, even for argument’s sake. Spurning his own dissent during some of the Nazi discussions allowed him to continue enjoying the military exercises and games with his friends.

And then, there were his clandestine meetings with Luther. Remaining under Luther’s tutelage allowed him to keep learning something since he had stopped putting so much effort into his regular classes. His association with Luther had begun as an act of resisting Nazism—and their activities were becoming increasingly illegal—but somewhere along the way, the zeal for their purpose had begun to slip away from him. Adrian was learning it was possible to straddle the line, able to live in and proclaim fealty to both worlds.

And then there was Katherina. While the Hitler Youth strengthened his body, Luther sharpened his mind—and Katherina made toys of them both.

Her breath was hot in his ear. “There’s a janitor’s closet down the hall that no one ever uses. Come.”

He was late. Luther was going to reprimand him. It wasn’t until she began leading him down the hall that he halted. “Not now. I’m sorry, I don’t have time. Maybe tonight?”

“I told you, I’m leaving tonight. My parents are taking us to the country for the weekend. Heinrich, please. Before I leave?”

He frowned. “Find me as soon as you get back. But I can’t right now. I have to go.”

He could tell she was frustrated. He kissed her cheek. “Heil Hitler.”

“Heil Hitler,” she returned, dispirited as she released his hand.

He shielded his eyes from the sun, stepping out of the building. With an involuntary glance at the windows to the apartment he shared with Oma and Opa across the street, he started down the sidewalk.

Luther was marking papers at his desk when Adrian burst in, out of breath. He clicked his heels from the doorway, raising his arm. “Heil Hitler, Herr—”

“You’re late, Herr Burkhardt,” he said without looking up. “We were to meet at precisely five pm. What time does the clock read?”

Eyeing the large clock on the wall behind Luther’s desk, Adrian shut the door behind him. “Seven after, Herr. My Opa found the books hidden under my bed. He was threatening to throw them into the stove.”

“That, Herr Burkhardt,” Luther said, setting aside the papers as he stood, “is a lie.”

Adrian stared at him, sinking into one of the desk chairs. Luther limped around his desk with his cane. “You never volunteer information. And to tell a convincing falsehood, you have to make eye contact. You are supposed to already know that. Someday, your very life may depend on it.”

Adrian sighed, gritting his teeth. He refrained from looking away in annoyance. Neither Luther nor Karl, his Hitler Youth leader, allowed such displays of exasperation toward authority.

Luther observed him without blinking, leaning on his desk. “A report on your conduct in the Hitler Youth has reached me. I found it troubling. Herr Althaus—your squad leader—says he’s impressed with the progress you’ve made. Apparently, you’ve gone from the bottom rung of the ladder to the very top.”

A smile flickered across Adrian’s lips. He’d been able to tell that Karl was pleased with his prowess in their exercises, his determination and quick thinking when they played football or any sport, for that matter. Lately, he’d even been getting the better of Rolf. It was making Rolf more aggressive, and it probably didn’t help that he was courting Katherina.

Katherina had taken to waiting on the corner for Adrian after his meetings at the Hitler Youth headquarters, when she wasn’t meeting with the BDM. The first time she’d done this, Rolf had thought she was there for him. Adrian hadn’t missed the shock, the affront in Rolf’s expression as she wrapped her arm around Adrian’s, walking down the sidewalk. Rolf became more formal with him at school afterward, though it wasn’t until the next exercise with the Hitler Youth that Rolf’s brewing rage found an outlet. During a scuffle to remove the blue bands off the sleeves of their opposing team, Rolf had punched him in the jaw in the confusion—though they were on the same team—removing Adrian’s red band, thus removing him from the game. One of the younger boys had seen, as Adrian had, that this was deliberate, and Adrian wouldn’t stand for being made to appear weak; there was no place in the Hitler Youth for the weak. He tackled Rolf, the two of them fighting, rolling around on the ground. Suddenly, the focus wasn’t on the exercise anymore as the other boys cheered them on. Karl let it go on for a while before separating them, and they were subsequently punished at the next meeting by scrubbing the entire sidewalk with brushes and a bucket of suds. After that, Rolf seemed to accept that Katherina would never be his, ceding her to Adrian. Their friendship resumed after that.

Luther lifted his chin. “You must be very proud.”

Adrian smiled. “I am.”

He jumped in his seat as Luther slammed his cane down on Adrian’s desk with a heavy thwack. “Have you learned nothing that I have been teaching you? Have you so easily abandoned the whole purpose to these meetings?”

Where he would have cowered before, Adrian straightened in his seat. “I have not. I thought you would be pleased, Herr Luther. Karl says I could very well be Bannführer in a few years.”

Luther raised his head. Adrian had never seen his eyes so wide before. His teacher’s stunned silence enlivened him. “That, I accomplished all on my own, even with the pins your tailor leaves in my uniforms, poking me every time I move. Sometimes, I think she leaves them in just to sabotage me.”

“That’s the first logical assumption to come out of your mouth today,” Luther replied. “Frau Hutmacher does indeed leave in her pins, but only under my instructions.”

Adrian’s brow tightened. “What? Why?”

“Because you are getting far too comfortable in that uniform, Herr Burkhardt,” Luther answered in a menacing whisper. “You are forgetting everything I’ve taught you, forgetting all you were trying to escape before. You think your Opa is bad? He is nothing! There is a war coming—”

“I know that,” Adrian said. Lately he had taken to Karl’s speeches about the might of the German Army over Luther’s sly, deprecating remarks toward Herr Hitler’s plans for Germany. “Karl talks about it all the time; that those of us who fight for Germany will be honored and praised. That someday, we will all be given plots of land when we retake the borders .”

That thought alone appealed to him most; he had nothing, and Oma and Opa would leave him nothing once they were gone.

Luther stared at him. He gripped the handle of his cane with both hands. “Does our great Führer have this land already, Herr Burkhardt? If so, why isn’t he giving it to you now?”

Adrian alone knew Luther only referred to Hitler as ‘our great Führer’ when he was being sarcastic. “No. He doesn’t have the land now.”

Luther’s jaw muscles were bulging. “And it sits well with you that he intends on taking this land from someone else? You can justify taking someone else’s property simply because you want it?”

Adrian wavered. He shrugged. “Karl says it was always ours; that the Russians, the Poles, the Volksdeutsche…they took it from us and it’s our right to get it back.”

“Whose right?”

Adrian swallowed. He’d felt a surge of pride when Karl spoke, but now, regurgitating it back to Luther to justify his feelings, he felt a twinge of guilt. “Those of us with pure blood—Aryan blood. Those of us who bring Hitler glory on the battlefield.”

Luther didn’t move. It startled him when Luther suddenly tucked his cane under his arm, pulling up his pants leg.

Deep scars delved underneath Luther’s gray socks. It looked as if his leg were a lump of clay someone had dropped and then gripped too tightly to pick it back up. His calf was almost completely missing, sunken in like a shriveled peach behind his knee, extending all the way up past his thigh. Adrian hadn’t realized how evident his disgust was in his expression until he met Luther’s gaze.

“Make no mistake, Adrian,” Luther muttered. “There is no glory; there is only this.”

While Adrian was still recovering from the sight, Luther began their lesson, interrogating him about his day first in German, followed by English, French and Russian.

It was dark outside when Luther deemed their lesson over for the night. “We made a contract, Adrian. A verbal one, but one that is based on honor and keeping your word.”

He was still too distracted by the thought of Luther’s maimed leg to feel offended by the implication that he wasn’t. “I’ve kept my word.”

Luther peered at him over his glasses. “You’ve been reading your Bible every night? As I asked you to?”

Adrian blinked. “Most nights.”

Luther gave an admonishing tilt of his head.

“I didn’t think it was as important—”

“It is of absolute importance! The Bible doesn’t change, Adrian. No matter what the condition of the world, the morality of the Bible stays the same. It is of absolute importance in times like this, when what is lawful is not always what is right. It is of absolute importance when the riddle of what is true is in question.”

“I don’t always have time to read it. I have work to do.”

This,” Luther said, closing his eyes, “is your work.”

“I’m tired, Herr Luther. I’m not even trying to fail my classes anymore; I am legitimately failing. Between this and the meetings and my duties with the Hitler Youth, I don’t always have time.”

Luther studied him. As stern and serious as Luther often was, Adrian detected a flicker of dismay in Luther’s countenance. He watched as Luther stood, and he clenched his jaw as Luther pulled yet another book from his desk drawer.

As if he didn’t have enough to read already. Each night he read a chapter of Pushkin, of Frost, of Dumas—in their native tongues—into the early morning hours. He hadn’t even read from his collection of Heinrich Heine’s works lately, as he used to so often. It was only when he wasn’t falling asleep while reading the others that he bothered to read his Bible.

He felt cross as Luther handed him the book, though that irritability evaporated upon seeing it was a history book. “I know how much you love learning. I know it bothers you that you haven’t been able to dedicate time to it anymore. This is for you to read and study as you wish. It’s the ‘old stuff’; the past our beloved Führer deems irrelevant compared to the history he’s making.”

Adrian flipped through the pages. This simple gesture touched him, though he said nothing.

Luther spoke quietly. “I understand how important it is to you to do your very best. I know the idea of being mediocre is detestable to you. Under normal circumstances, that would be admirable—enviable even. I know all that Karl says sounds good, but…you must learn to listen beyond what he is saying to hear the things he’s not saying. I am not asking you to give your second best because I don’t want you to succeed; I’m trying to save you, whether you see that yet or not. Stop being so outstanding at what you do for Karl, Adrian. Someday, you will thank me for the foresight you don’t yet have.”

As hindered as he had felt by Luther’s guidance lately, he felt only gratitude as he looked at the book. Perhaps it was the fact that he respected and trusted Luther that made him want to please him; perhaps it was the fact that he could hear how much Luther believed in what he was saying. It seemed too mawkish to think he wished to obey Luther, in spite of himself, because he could hear the sincere care in Luther’s voice for him. Oma and Opa never spoke to him like that.

Luther sighed. “There is an excellent lesson in Judges sixteen. Read it. Tonight.”

Luther was scrutinizing him as he did during their simulated interrogations. Adrian wondered what he was looking for. The moment he was in the privacy of his bedroom, he found the passage in the Bible, skin prickling as he read about Samson and Delilah.

How did he know? How could he know? If there was one secret Adrian kept well-concealed from Luther, it was Katherina.

He laid his head on his pillow, contemplating it—contemplating her. She hadn’t been detrimental to his work with Luther. Perhaps this was just another unfounded fear of Luther’s; an unnecessary, eccentric precaution. As long as he wasn’t telling Katherina what he was doing, he couldn’t see why he should end the relationship.

In nearly every interrogation session with Luther, it had been Katherina he’d kept as his secret. He’d kept secret the way the kissing had escalated to touching; how the touching had escalated to taking off clothing; how the nakedness had escalated to…

He blinked, rolling over to face the wall. It was going to be a long weekend without her.

The following Tuesday, he stepped out of the Hitler Youth headquarters with Rolf, starting down the street. Just on the corner, he could see Katherina’s silhouette as the Adler family car pulled up next to them.

Rolf opened the door, pulling his gaze away from Katherina. “I take it you don’t need a ride home.”

Adrian shook his head. “No. Thank you.”

Rolf nodded. “See you tomorrow.”

Even in the darkness, Adrian could make out Katherina’s smile. She gripped his face in the dark, kissing him. “Are your grandparents home?”

“They’re always home.”

“I want to be with you,” she whispered in his ear.

He couldn’t go home; he was supposed to meet Luther. “I don’t really have time right now.”

Her fingers locked with his, tugging at his hand as she stepped into the street. “Walk me home. We can stop by the alley—”

He wrenched free of her with a flash of annoyance. “I can’t go home. I have…I have remedial arithmetic and have to meet Herr Luther now.”

“Remedial arithmetic?” She snorted. “Heinrich, please. I haven’t seen you in almost a week.”

He looked around, conscious of the fact that he was going to be late for Luther again. Luther was bound to punish him for it this time. He grabbed her hand. “Come with me.”

She giggled with anticipation. “Where are you taking me?”

He didn’t answer, taking her down the road, paying for her tram ride towards the Gymnasium. The school was deserted as always, Katherina tittering at his side from the thrill of it all. Adrian shushed her, seeing the light spilling out from Luther’s classroom at the other end of the hall. Turning down another hallway, he took her into the library, shutting the door without a sound.

They weaved around tables, trotting down to one of the aisles of books in the back. He could feel the heat of her breath on his neck in the darkness, meeting her lips with his. Lowering onto the floor, the warmth and softness of her body beneath his was beckoning. Unbuckling his belt, he lifted the skirt of her dress.

He put a hand over her mouth as she reacted to him. When it became too difficult to keep himself quiet, too, he sealed her mouth with his own, when someone gripped his shoulders, ripping him off of Katherina.

There was a click, and the bright beam of a flashlight seared through the darkness. Katherina gasped. Adrian covered himself, looking up from the floor, squinting from the light. The light stayed on him for a second before roving over to Katherina, who had gotten to her feet, fumbling to straighten her dress.

“Fräulein Huber,” a familiar voice said. “I should write your parents for this.”

Katherina stared past the light, jaw quivering as her eyes filled with tears.

Luther’s voice was threateningly low. “I should notify the principal. He would move quickly to have you expelled from this school.” The light shook. “Get out.”

Katherina didn’t spare Adrian a second look, stepping over his legs and heading out of the room. Luther lowered the light to his side only when they heard the library door open and close. “Correct yourself, Herr Burkhardt. Then I want you in my office. Now.”

Adrian sat alone in the dark, listening to the door open and close as Luther left. Heart racing, he fixed his clothes, smoothing his hair before leaning on a shelf to steady his breath, to calm himself, to ready himself with explanations his brain was too disorganized to construct.

Luther was leaning against his desk, head down and arms crossed when Adrian entered. He was looking at Adrian over the frame of his glasses.

“Herr Luther, I…I can explain—”

“Sit down.”

Adrian swallowed. With a self-conscious gait, he headed up the aisle, lowering into one of the desk chairs.

Luther was glaring at him. “What were you thinking?”

“I didn’t…it was just…Herr Luther, I wasn’t—”

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Luther asked roughly.

“Herr Luther, please, it wasn’t—”

“You have taken everything we’ve worked for, everything we are working toward, and spat on it,” he snapped.

“No—”

“I want you to answer a question, Adrian, and believe me, I will know if you’re lying.” Glowering, Luther gripped the desktop. “Are you a Nazi?”

Adrian stared at him, agape. “No…no, Luther, it was just…it was stupid. It was just to relieve some stress.”

Luther raised his head. “As if that excuses what you were doing? You are taking advantage of that girl—”

“No, I’m not. Herr Luther, she likes me. She’s mine.”

“What do you mean, she’s yours?”

“I won her from Rolf and she wants to be with me. She’s mine.”

The sudden red rage on Luther’s face stunned him. He watched as Luther yanked his Bible off his desk, limping without his cane toward him. Adrian threw up his hands to shield himself as Luther struck him with it.

“What are you…what is wrong with you?” Adrian shouted.

“You. Do. Not. Own. That. Girl!” Luther bellowed as he battered him. “She is not a piece of property for you to do with as you please!”

“Luther!”

He landed two more blows before the assault seemed to stop. Adrian peered over his hands, slowly dropping his arms. Despite the attack, Luther looked calm, as if he were merely having a serious discussion. Luther tossed his Bible on his desk, hobbling back. “That is all she is to you; a method for release. She is not like you; she is one of them, indoctrinated with their values. You were supposed to be a thinker, not a follower. You were supposed to resist Nazism—”

“I’m not a Nazi—”

“But you are using the ideology to excuse your behavior! You are using her belief in it as a tactic to take advantage of her. Tell me you’ve at least been using prophylactics.”

Adrian gulped, before shaking his head. Luther bowed his head, rubbing his eyes. It was a moment before Luther spoke again. “And what will happen when you find out she is in the family way? What will you do about the child?”

Adrian stared at him, giving a halfhearted shrug. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. Karl said it was their duty to perpetuate the race; Katherina said it was her duty to bear children. Until now, his responsibility for a child she might carry hadn’t occurred to him. It was her job to be a mother; it was his job to be a soldier.

Arms crossed, Luther was shaking his head. “I am so disappointed in you, Heinrich. Very disappointed.”

That stung. Luther hadn’t called him Heinrich since their first meeting a year ago.

“These skills I’ve been helping you acquire, this position I’ve been preparing you for, is for someone with paramount dedication; for someone with unfaltering focus and the commitment to follow through. I thought that was you. You need to decide who and what you are loyal to, Heinrich. Until then, I see no reason for us to continue.”

Eyes down, Adrian swallowed. “My name’s not Heinrich.”

Luther sat at his desk, straightening the sleeves of his jacket to write. “It’s not Adrian, either. I don’t know who you are. If I was right about you, you know where to find me. If I was wrong, then we part ways here, never to speak of this again. You will be free to go to your stress reliever and start producing Aryan babies for the Reich; to die for your Führer. Either way, keep the Bible. You’re going to need it.”

The silence that followed scalded Adrian. Luther continued writing at his desk as if he were the only person in the room. Even as Adrian stood, Luther didn’t speak, didn’t even look up to tell him goodbye.

Oma was knitting in the living room when he arrived home. Opa was reading the newspaper, though he never looked up from it or his cigarette.

“Heinrich,” Oma said. “You’re home early. Dinner’s on the stove.”

“Danke, Oma. I’m not hungry.” Uninspired, he meandered down the hallway to his room. Locking the door, he sat on the edge of the bed. What was he supposed to do now? Where did he go from here?

Fingers tapping the wooden frame of his bed, he thought of the books underneath it. It had been a long time since he’d had this much time to himself. Ordinarily, he would spend it reading, or…

A light came on across the street. He watched from the dark of his bedroom as Katherina sat at her vanity, unraveling the braids in her long golden hair. The image used to move him, used to make him dream of greater things. Looking at her now, he felt none of that. He wondered how long it had been gone, and what exactly it was that was fueling him now.

She got up, walking over to the window to close the curtain. For a moment, he thought she could see him, freezing as she looked toward his window. He didn’t move, even as she lowered her gaze, closing the curtain until no light leaked out.

He closed his own curtain before changing out of his uniform and getting into bed. He was going to have to think about things; his moral compass had been tampered with, his desires and ambitions rerouted. His ship had stopped using its sails to take him where he wanted, allowing the current to lead him astray, carrying him according to its own whims. So he dropped his anchor for the time being, to reassess who he was becoming and who it was he wanted to be.

*****

Weeks passed. Without the late lessons with Luther, he was going to bed earlier, feeling rested each morning when he awoke. That was perhaps the only thing he was grateful for.

Despite his natural disposition, he stopped being so tenacious in the Hitler Youth, purposely becoming unexceptional. He stopped offering opinions or comments unless asked directly. He no longer strove to outsmart the other boys during their military exercises or outshine them while playing sports. It was a tricky balance, as he feared the repercussions if Karl or any of the other leaders noticed that he was deliberately irresolute during their activities.

Luther went back to regarding Adrian as insignificant as the next student. His gaze never lingered on him—often never even wandered in his direction during lectures—and he never addressed Adrian, even to answer questions. However, Luther’s aloofness was easier to handle than Katherina’s confusion at his own detachment from her.

He had stopped going straight home after school, walking along the Main or visiting the Zoological Garden just to avoid confronting her at home. He’d even snuck out the back of the Hitler Youth headquarters a couple of times, walking in the opposite direction he usually did.

She finally outsmarted him, waiting outside the headquarters when he arrived. She greeted him with a tentative smile. “I can’t help but feel like you’ve been avoiding me.”

When he didn’t deny this, her smile faded. “You have been avoiding me.”

He looked down at the dusty leather of his shoes.

“Is it…?” She looked around, shuffling her feet. “Is it because of what happened in the library?”

She was still so beautiful, and yet her charm had been lost to him for some reason. It made him feel even worse; they’d been together for a long time. He still remembered the first time she’d given herself to him. She’d told him about a conversation she’d had with her mother; how her mother had asked if she and Adrian would marry in a couple years. Though she’d laughed about it, he knew this was to bait him; to hint to him that it was what she herself wanted. Even then, he hadn’t been sure that was what he wanted, but he’d disregarded that, pleasure inundating his principles. In her mind, she was already his, and so she handed her body over to him as a promise of things to come; he took it, never once promising anything in return.

The Nazi doctrine was teaching him that women were for the sole purpose of procreation, yet looking at Katherina now, he saw a person he had consumed; a person who was a casualty of his own selfishness.

“Katherina,” he said, “I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with you…”

He wasn’t sure how to proceed. Her eyes had filled with tears and she took a step back, hugging herself. “What are you…what are you doing?”

“I just…I need to focus on other things right now. I’m sorry.”

She gulped, avoiding his eyes. It was a moment before she spoke again. “Forever?”

“I don’t know,” he answered sincerely.

She sniffled, shoulders slumped as she stood in front of him. Even as she shuddered from her tears, all he could offer was another apology, heading back toward the headquarters.

He resumed the former reading assignments from Luther in his room. As alone as he felt, Frost’s poems were like conversing in front of a warm fire with a friend who understood him. Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter gave the Russians a much more humanistic quality than what he was hearing about in his Hitler Youth meetings. Dumas’ The Three Musketeers transported him to another time and place, giving him an escape from Opa, from Katherina, from Luther, from Herr Hitler. Sometimes, he even read from the history book Luther had given him and his Bible. It became the favorite part of his day, disappearing into his room after school, after the meetings, to read. Now that he had such a sufficient command of three other languages, it excited him, rendering him awestruck to think of how many other books in the world were available to teach him more.

It had been almost two months since his last conversation with Luther. Even when Adrian handed in his assignments, Luther hardly spared him a glance. Adrian lingered by his desk, wishing for something—a thoughtful look, a word—but Luther was already grading papers, having forgotten him. Out in the hallway was no better. Seeing Katherina was always unavoidable. Today, she was talking to a friend, though her smile dwindled upon seeing him and she looked away, turning to her friend as if she hadn’t noticed him at all.

He walked straight home to change into his uniform to be ready for when Rolf and Mena showed up. Opa didn’t even knock as he opened the door to his room. “Why is Rolf Adler here?”

Adrian didn’t look at him, tying his shoes. “There’s an event at the Römer tonight. We are going together.”

“That’s a boy whose father must be proud,” Opa grumbled as he shut the door. Adrian sat up, glaring at the door. At least Luther was proud of him.

He paused at the thought. Or used to be.

Rolf was standing in the kitchen, back straight, chin up with his hands behind his back. Karl had recently promoted him to Obergefolgschaftsführer, the three pins and fine lines decorating the shoulder straps on his uniform indicating his new position. Adrian had begun using Rolf as a landmark, intending to always remain at least one rank below him.

Rolf clicked his heels, raising his hand upon seeing Adrian, giving him the Hitler greeting. Adrian mirrored him.

Mena was already in the car, scooting over as he and Adrian got in. She looked just like her older brother; white hair and icy blue eyes. “Heil Hitler, Adrian.”

He slammed the door shut, looking at her. “Heil Hitler.”

His eyes fell behind her through the window. A soldier in a gray green uniform paced the sidewalk, hands behind his back. He was older than Adrian, and since he was in uniform, Adrian assumed he must have been eighteen or nineteen. The soldier took off his cap as Katherina appeared through the front door in her BDM uniform, beaming. Adrian became aware of a strange sensation—or rather, a lack of one. He felt no sense of loss in seeing her twinkling gaze, directed at the soldier as he accompanied her down the street. He didn’t even feel wounded to see she had moved on to such an older, more appealing man in a Wehrmacht uniform, compared to a boy transitioning from boyhood to manhood in a Hitler Youth uniform.

“Looks like an Oberschütze, judging by his arm patches,” Rolf commented, following Katherina and the soldier as they drove past the couple. He looked at Adrian. “She’ll be sorry one day.”

Adrian gave an appreciative grin in reply, though more than anything, he felt relieved.

“Did Rolf tell you?” Mena asked, leaning forward to look at him. “He passed his exams. He’ll be going to the Napola in Naumburg soon.”

“That’s great,” Adrian said to Rolf.

Mena was looking at him the same way Katherina used to. “Did you take the Napola exam, Adrian?”

He had thought about it. They only accepted the best of the best—but Luther had said to maintain mediocrity, and upon hearing that Rolf was trying to get in, he regarded that as an indicator that he should take a different path. “No. My grades are more appropriate for the Wehrmacht.”

Mena’s smile flickered as Rolf chuckled. “You aim low. The Wehrmacht takes anyone, unless you’re a Jew.”

Adrian rested his arm on the door. “Where are you aiming?”

Rolf smirked. “The SS.”

The chauffeur dropped them off near the Römerberg, Rolf instructing him to pick them up in a few hours at the same place.

“Stay with me,” he heard Rolf tell his sister. “Father said if you leave my side, I’m to take you home straightaway.”

“You are not Father,” Mena retorted, though she got between him and Adrian. Her arm kept brushing against Adrian’s and he stepped aside, just out of contact.

The bright red Nazi flags and banners with the black Hakenkreuz looked spectacular against the beige and gray buildings. Adrian, Rolf and Mena wandered the area until nightfall, as the people around the square seemed to multiply. Some were carrying torches. Voices resounded off the buildings, men, women and children alike singing “Die Fahne Hoch” at the top of their lungs.

“Come on,” Rolf urged, leading the way.

They melded in with the rest of the group, joining the parade. They added their own voices to the chanting and singing, all the way to the square.

There was a huge bonfire up ahead in the town square, encircled by the swarm of people. One of Chopin’s sonatas was being played by an orchestra somewhere nearby. A strange electricity, a billowing power was coursing through the crowd. It seemed to charge their fervor, and in spite of the order of the people, it felt on the edge of a chaotic riot. It made Adrian uneasy.

Mena was standing on her toes. “I can’t see anything.”

Rolf took hold of her arm, pushing through the people in front of them. Adrian brought up the rear. It wasn’t long before they emerged at the front of the crowd. The image caused Adrian to stop dead in his tracks.

A mountain of books was in flames before him, in the center of the ring. Men in the SA, college students, and boys in the Hitler Youth were adding armful after armful of books to the billowing flames, reducing them to cinders. Adrian fought the impulse to run toward the fire, to rescue the blackened books still intact on the edges. They were destroying more than just pieces of wood and paper; it was knowledge going up in flames. It was the ability to empathize that was filling the square with smoke. It was adventure and escape that was reduced to nothing but ash.

The possibility of ever understanding all things different was being wiped out throughout Germany tonight.

Mena and Rolf were a couple people down, their voices blending with the chants of the crowd. Katherina and her soldier were smiling across the burning pile of books as they chanted. More books were thrown into the pile, sending hot, scorching gusts into the crowd as embers floated in the air. Karl had said this night was to rid Germany of all the un-German filth, making it pure again, but all Adrian could think about was Heinrich Heine. His books, too—all of them—had been reduced to nothing but kindling; all but one, hidden in the wooden frame of Adrian’s bed at home. The black letters of Heine’s words blinded him, overpowering the chants that fought for an equal place in his head:

“Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”

The sudden unadulterated fear of such a future engulfed him, and he began to run, leaving behind Rolf and Mena, leaving behind Katherina, leaving behind the crowd and their dazzling flags. His lungs narrowed in his chest, heart pounding, feet hammering against the pavement. Stopping only upon reaching the Gymnasium doors, he yanked on the handles only to find them locked this time. Sprinting around the school, he found Herr Luther’s classroom window, peering into a hopeless black pit devoid of all light.

Disheartened, he wondered if Luther was at the square tonight, too. Finding this unlikely, he dashed off down another street. The apartment building was only a few blocks away, and he jogged up the stairwell upon reaching it, banging on the door.

It was a moment before the door thrust open. Luther appeared on the other side without his tie and vest, wearing a scowl that loosened upon seeing Adrian. Adrian still hadn’t caught his breath, the two of them surveying one another.

His voice cracked as he spoke. “I never wanted this. Any of it.”

The door creaked as Luther released his hold on it. “I know.”

He sniffled, looking away to blink away the tears. “I just…I want to do what’s right. More than that…I want to be a good person. But I don’t even know what either of those are anymore.”

Though he avoided Luther’s eyes out of what felt like shame, he could feel Luther studying him. “Do you like photography, Adrian?”

Hearing Luther refer to him by his chosen name, a smile teetered on his lips. “Do you want me to like photography? Because if you want me to like photography, I will like photography.”

This merited a laugh out of Luther. He stepped back, opening the door wider to invite Adrian inside. “I have been thinking. I found something I’d like for you to be the very best at.”

———-

Get more information on the Sophia’s War characters here!

Get started on the series today!

Sophia’s War: The End of Innocence (#1)

Sophia’s War: Lies and Allies (#2)

Sophia’s War: Stalemate (#3)

Sophia’s War: Hidden Halos (#4)

Sophia’s War: Veil of Secrets (#5)

Sophia’s War: Death Knell (#6)

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Adrian’s Weakness (Adrian #2, Short Story Sophia’s War Series)

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Contains mild spoilers for Sophia’s War: The End of Innocence (#1). Get information on my books in the series with the links below!

~~~~~

Frankfurt, Germany

September, 1932

A solid wall careened toward him, his stomach lurching at the sensation as he fell. He gave a jolt, catching himself before he hit the tile. Sitting up at his desk, he yawned, rubbing at his eyes as someone laughed.

“Pleasant dreams, Burkhardt?” Rolf asked, picking up his biology book. “Class is over. Are you coming?”

Rolf had been a schoolmate for years, but only at summer camp with the Hitler Youth a few months ago had Adrian become friends with him.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Adrian muttered.

The classroom was emptying out. He sat there, blinking the water from his eyes before he stood. The last one in the room, he grabbed his book, going out into the hall. Rolf’s cotton white hair was easy to spot.

“Was there an assignment?” Adrian asked, leaning against the locker as Rolf put his book away.

“Just some memorization. And an essay on Darwin’s five theories and their applications to present-day society.” Rolf looked at him. “Do you want me to take your book?”

But Adrian didn’t hear him. Katherina was coming down the hall talking to a friend, her long, fair hair in two braids that draped past the lace collar on her sky blue dress. She wore a green sweater, brown socks pulled up to her knees as she hugged a book to her chest. To his mortification, she noticed him watching her, and he turned away just as she smiled. Rolf became solemn, his icy blue eyes roving between them.

“I took her for ice cream last weekend,” Rolf said. “I should go talk to her.”

“Of course,” Adrian said. “I’ll see you later.”

Adrian strolled down the hall, storing his book in his own locker when Herr Luther came around the corner. Adrian stared at him as he passed, though Luther⎯⎯either preoccupied or with intention⎯⎯never looked at him, walking by Adrian as if he hadn’t been standing there at all.

Rolf was still talking to Katherina. Adrian observed them from his peripheral vision as he headed out of the Gymnasium, squinting from the sun. With a heavy sigh and an unenthusiastic stride, he started for home. There was a meeting today and he needed to be in his uniform; otherwise and he would have stalled by walking along the Main for a while.

Oma was making dinner when he walked in. She was a scrawny older woman, her wiry blonde hair with platinum strands parted down the center of her head, pinned at the nape of her neck. She had been beautiful once⎯⎯just like his mother in the few photos around the house⎯⎯though now there were perpetual, wrinkled bags under her lackluster eyes. She never smiled.

Guten Tag, Oma.”

She barely glanced at him, stirring at the stove. “Dinner will be ready soon. Go wash up.”

“I would, but I’m not staying,” he informed her, walking out of the kitchen.

The faint odor of cigarettes as he entered the hallway caused him to crinkle his nose. He was glad the wall blocked Opa from view in the sitting room. Perhaps he could sneak out before Opa even realized he was there.

He shut the door to his bedroom, taking off his clothes. His black short pants were shorter than when he’d first gotten them, his brown shirt constrictive around his chest and arms. He’d wanted to ask Oma to take him and get a new one⎯⎯or, at least have this one tailored⎯⎯but that meant Oma asking Opa for money to do it. He wasn’t in the best frame of mind to face Opa with equanimity, and therefore, decided to suffer his tight clothes silently for the time being.

He was adjusting the red band with the Hakenkreuz on his long-sleeved arm when his bedroom door banged open. Opa stood in the doorway in his vest, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. His gray and white hair was like a horseshoe around the back of his head.

“What’s this about you not staying for dinner?”

Adrian ignored him, tying his shoes. “There’s a meeting with the Hitler Youth⎯⎯like there is every week.”

“Don’t get smart with me, boy. Your Oma caters to your ungrateful skin and you’re not going to walk out on her like this. I don’t care what it’s for, you’re not going back out.”

Adrian breathed out. The last thing he felt like doing was wrangling with him.“I am going, and I will be back tonight when it’s over.”

Opa’s sky blue eyes widened, his scowl becoming more defined. Before Adrian knew it, Opa’s belt was off. Adrian raised his arms as a shield, Opa’s belt coming down on him, strapping his forearms and shoulders.

“I’ll show you! Disrespecting me in my own house!”

Each strike was like a shock, contributing to the electric ball of rage growing inside him. He braced himself, waiting for the next blow, his hand wrapping around the strap and yanking the belt out of Opa’s grasp. Opa’s lips parted as Adrian advanced on him. Despite being a head shorter, he knew he finally had the upper hand as Opa took a step back.

Adrian spoke in a frightening whisper, finger in Opa’s face. “That is the last time you will ever raise your belt to me. And I swear to God, you ever do it again, I’ll tell Karl Althaus that you are trying to keep me away from the Youth. He will tell the appropriate officials, and they will not be pleased.”

Skin burning and tingling where Opa’s belt had come down on him, Adrian brandished the belt at his side, storming down the hallway.

“You think you can threaten me? In my own house?” Opa bellowed, pursuing him. “The only reason I keep you is because of your Oma! I am biding my time until the second you turn 18 and when you do, I won’t feel anything as I throw you out onto the street⎯⎯!”

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction. The second I turn 18, I’ll already be gone.”

“And when I get the notice that you’ve bled out on some battlefield, I will grieve only for the ground that you defiled with it!”

Adrian trembled in fury, ignoring Oma as she pleaded with him in the kitchen. The belt made a loud crack on the table as Adrian whipped it, knocking a bowl of sauerkraut onto the floor. He slammed the door on his way out.

He was trembling as he trotted down the stairwell, breathing hard through his nostrils, fighting the urge to yell, fighting the urge to pulverize the wall with his fist. Once outside, he turned right instead of left, leaning against the side of the building in the alleyway. It felt like a pent-up ball of energy was surging inside him with nowhere to go. His fists were still clenched along with his teeth, and he rammed his elbow against the brick wall at his back. Opa was already a member of the Party, and had been for years. He found a grain of bitter delight in the thought that he was using Opa’s own allegiance against him, while it was Adrian who wasn’t sure where he stood.

Joining the Hitler Youth had been a better idea than he’d expected. He had done exactly as Luther said, joining the morning after meeting Luther in his office. It did something to him; though he knew it was out of a disingenuous motivation, he signed up, the pride of the Hitler Youth belonging to him as he walked out of the building. He had an uncontaminated lineage, though he felt resentful, knowing half of the proof lay with the father who had abandoned him and his mother. The purity of his coward’s blood was the only thing Adrian could say his father had ever given him.

He had arrived at school later that day, at his locker when Conrad shoved the door closed, flanked by two others.

“Well, if it isn’t Heinrich the Jew-lover,” he smirked. He held up the tattered remains of Adrian’s biology book, the binding missing, pages ripped. “Looking for this?”

He shoved it into Adrian’s chest.

“Guess you’ll be needing a new one,” Conrad said.

“No, this one’s perfect.”

He swung the book full force against Conrad’s jaw, knocking the smile off his face as he tumbled to the floor. Adrian threw the book down.

“And don’t call me ‘Heinrich,’” he warned through his teeth.

Two teachers had had to pull them off of each other after that. Opa had roared and belted him that afternoon after finding out about the fight, as well as for being sent home early, making him go to bed without lunch or dinner.

But the next day, everyone was talking about the fight that Conrad had the bruises to prove had happened, and none of the boys who had beaten Adrian up before would look him in the eye. Luther had even flashed him an approving grin that day as he walked out of class. Neither of them mentioned the execution of his first assignment that evening at their first covert lesson under the guise of a remedial arithmetic session.

Adrian’s extracurricular activities were leaving him exhausted. It was just as Luther had said it would be; after the rigorous sports with the Hitler Youth and Luther challenging him intellectually with the same fervor every night, he struggled to keep up with studying for school, falling asleep in class each day. Some nights, he didn’t study at all, reading a few chapters from his Bible instead and only because he’d promised Luther he would.

There were voices carrying up the street. He opened his eyes, seeing Katherina coming up the sidewalk with her friend. Katherina waved to her, walking into the apartment building across from Adrian’s. His anger seemed to liquefy from the same magic that was holding him spellbound. The moment she was out of sight, the charm broke and he pushed away from the wall, heading down the street.

06.10.14

Taking a couple of connecting trams to Hofhausstraße⎯⎯and getting a bratwurst along the way⎯⎯he walked to the house that accommodated the Hitler Youth. Rolf was already there, and Adrian pulled out a chair at the table to sit next to him. Conrad’s eyes no longer locked on Adrian with the intensity of a German Shepherd seeking the submission of a smaller dog; instead, Conrad regarded him with disinterest, talking and laughing with the boys at the other end of the table.

“You’re awake,” Rolf said, regaining Adrian’s attention.

“Yes.”

Rolf leaned in. “You know, this isn’t for everyone⎯⎯there’s a certain standard that must be attained; survival of the fittest and all.”

“I’m fine,” Adrian said, offended. As if it wasn’t enough to hear from Opa how unworthy, how much of a weakling he was. Though Rolf was his friend, he couldn’t tell him the truth; no one was allowed to know.

Karl Althaus⎯⎯their group leader⎯⎯arrived, preventing the conversation with Rolf from going any further. They said a prayer to Hitler and sang before Karl handed out pamphlets on the importance of the preservation of Aryan bloodlines for them to read and discuss.

Adrian preferred the weekly meetings with reading material and discussions. On the weekends, they did calisthenics, practiced marching and military inspired games and exercises. Usually, Karl and the other leaders would divide them up, putting red or blue bands on their arms to designate which team they belonged to. They would capture each other, ripping off the bands until only one color remained. The game was often aggressive, the boys goaded by Karl and the other leaders. Sometimes, the adrenaline and hard feelings ran so high that there would be brawls. Adrian hated finding himself in the midst of them, but Luther had said that it was critical that he blend in. It was difficult to reconcile with his innate disinclination to cause harm while he was throwing punches with the rest of them.

Before his agreement with Luther, he’d thought he knew who he was, had a general comprehension of what he believed in. But there were aspects to the Hitler Youth he found that he was grateful for; the camaraderie, the admiration he got in his uniform, the confidence he was gaining in his own physical strength. The more time he spent with the boys in his group, the more he thought Luther’s ominous prediction of an imminent war unlike any other was a paranoid conjecture. Sure, the Nazis had a negative outlook on the Jews, but other than that, he found he could exist⎯⎯no, thrive⎯⎯among them even if his own personal opinions didn’t always align with what they taught. It wasn’t detrimental enough that he felt he was compromising the core values he was still certain of.

It was dark outside when they finally left the meeting. He stood, waiting with Rolf as the other boys dispersed on the sidewalk. A black BMW pulled up, the Adler family car. Only Rolf and one other boy’s family had the luxury of a car.

“Want a ride home?” Rolf asked.

It was tempting. It would save him the fare on taking the tram, which meant he could save the money and spend it where he needed it elsewhere without invoking Opa’s wrath.

But Luther had said not to share their private lessons with anyone unless it was the answer to a pointed question. “No. Danke.”

Rolf shrugged, opening the door. “Suit yourself.”

He watched the gleam of the headlights dim as the car drove away before walking in the opposite direction, toward one of the tram lines that headed towards the school.

The school was dark and deserted as always when he arrived. Luther was grading papers at his desk, just as he had been that first night.

He looked up, seeing Adrian in the doorway. “You’re late.”

Adrian closed the door, sitting at one of the desks with a sigh. “The meeting went over. I didn’t have a choice.”

“Let’s not waste any more time,” Luther said, closing a book on his desk. He got up, and Adrian moved to the front of the classroom. “Let’s continue where we left off last night. Tell me about your day, leaving out one detail that you don’t want me to know about.”

Adrian thought back. Falling asleep in class? Opa becoming irate, striking him for missing dinner? The failing grade he received today for not reading the literature assignment?

And then he became still, a subconscious smile on his lips: Katherina.

He applied what Luther had been teaching him; keep as close to the truth as possible, and don’t give too many specifics.

“I fell asleep in my biology class. I met my friend Rolf outside the classroom to ask if there was an assignment.”

Then, he saw her coming down the hall. She was so pretty, and it felt like being punched in the gut to hear how Rolf said they had gone out for ice cream the weekend before.

“Then I went home to change into my uniform. When I got home, Opa was angry and hit me with his belt. I took it from him and told him if he did it again, he would regret it.”

There she was again, coming up the street, waving to her friend as she went into the apartment building.

“Then I took the tram to Hofhausstraße to meet with the Hitler Youth, and after that, I came straight here.”

Luther sat on the edge of his desk, hands draped over the top of his cane. “Why did you fall asleep in biology?”

Adrian shrugged. “I fall asleep in all my classes.”

“That’s not what I asked. You never volunteer information.”

He backtracked. “I was tired.”

“Was there anything else discussed between yourself and Herr Adler?”

“No. Nothing.”

“You gave a slight nod of your head, contradicting your answer. It’s a subtle, physical response that you’re being deceptive. And a simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.”

Dammit. He knew that.

“Did you go straight home after school?”

“Yes.”

Luther seemed to think for a moment, his eyes never leaving Adrian. “Why did your grandfather strike you?”

“Because I was missing dinner.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“That, and I spoke back to him.”

“Is that the truth?”

“Yes.”

“Uninterrupted eye contact is good and the promptness of your replies indicate openness. Your fidgeting, however, makes me think you’re either uncomfortable discussing your grandfather or that you’re being untruthful about something. Keep that in mind.”

“Yes, Herr.”

“Did you go straight to Hofhausstraße after leaving your house?”

He blinked. “Yes.”

“Hesitating to reply, even in the fraction of a second, is symptomatic of deception. What are you lying about?”

He realized he was fidgeting again and had even lowered his gaze in response. He corrected himself. “I was very angry when I left. I waited in the alley for a few minutes to calm down.”

Luther’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t sure if he’d done something to give away the detail he was still trying to conceal or if Luther was thinking. The rest of the simulated interrogation went easier, since that was the last time he’d seen Katherina today. Luther seemed satisfied.

“And now,” Luther said, “tell me about your day again, but in English.”

Adrian stared at him, shaking his head. “Herr, I don’t…I don’t know enough English to do that.”

Luther lifted his chin. “Try.”

The same exercise followed, delayed simply by Luther supplying words he didn’t know or correcting words he butchered. Then, they repeated it in French. It wasn’t until the Russian interrogation where he began mingling English and French words in that Luther hung his head in exasperation. Adrian felt a mixture of regret and annoyance at Luther’s evident disappointment.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Herr. I’m just tired.”

“That’s enough for tonight, Herr Burkhardt,” Luther said, gathering papers behind his desk. “Tomorrow, I expect you to be better prepared. Here.”

He hobbled around the desk, the two books in his hand threatening to topple Adrian’s already tottering pile of responsibilities.

“One is a book of poems by the English poet, Robert Frost. The other is a novel by the Russian writer, Alexander Pushkin. Read them. Remember the words you don’t understand and we will discuss them.” He handed them to Adrian. “I think it goes without saying that these must be hidden well.”

Adrian nodded. He would put them with his Bible and the collection of works by Heinrich Heine in the hollow underneath the wooden frame of his mattress. He’d had to hide the latter after Opa berated him last year for reading such an “un-German” book.

He felt Luther’s eyes on him. “Your uniform is too small. Why haven’t you gotten a new one?”

Abashed, he read the lettering on the books he was holding. “My Opa…”

Luther seemed to understand. “Go to Frau Hutmacher after school tomorrow. Tell her to put it on my account.”

For some reason, this seemed to embarrass him even further. Books in tow, Adrian started for the door. “Danke. Good night, Herr Luther.”

“Before you go, Adrian, there’s one more matter I wish to mention. I hope you understand the significance, the…risk,” he said, lowering his voice, “of what we are doing. There can be no distractions, nothing that might undermine our objective. We must put our personal desires aside for a greater purpose. We must be careful not to allow lines to blur.”

He didn’t like the way Luther was eyeing him over his glasses, the way he always did when watching Adrian for a reaction. He’d hidden her well; he had never even spoken to Katherina but in passing. There was nothing between them but a couple of casual glances.

And her smile; her shy but sugary white smile.

“Of course, Herr,” Adrian said. He walked out, uncertain about what Luther thought he knew.

It was after midnight when he made it back to his street. He dreaded it, expecting neither Oma nor Opa had gone to bed. After what had happened between him and Opa earlier, it would be as if he’d never left, his departure having been a mere interlude to their fight. He groaned to himself; he still had to read his Bible tonight, too.

The scent of smoke irritated his senses, and for a moment, he feared Opa was outside the building waiting for him. He stopped, taking in his surroundings. It wasn’t Opa; someone was smoking in the alleyway across the street.

Even half-veiled in shadows, he could see Katherina had changed, no longer in her school clothes but in the white button-up, black skirt and tie of the BDM. She was sniffling. He gulped, tucking the books into the back of his short pants as he crossed the street.

She noticed him, wiping at her face as he stood at the entrance to the alley.

“Are…are you okay?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered with a smile, though it vanished as she took a drag.

The faint street light illuminated her face, bringing her red dappled cheek to his attention. He left the light, stepping closer to her.

“What happened to your cheek?”

She seemed self-conscious, her eyes flickering at him as she gave an insincere chuckle. “It’s nothing. Really. My father, he…sometimes he drinks a little too much⎯⎯communicates with his hands.”

He leaned on the wall across from her, crossing his arms. “I’m sorry.”

“My father’s a good man,” she said. “It’s just when he drinks.”

He watched her smoke. He wished he could excuse Opa’s behavior in the same way.

“I’m sorry,” she said, holding out her cigarette. “I should have offered.”

Danke, but…no.”

No cigarette would ever touch his lips. He found them repulsive, only because Opa always reeked of them.

The hand holding the cigarette fell to her side, the two of them gazing at each other in the quiet. “What are you doing out so late? It’s not safe. There could be Communists out.”

He grinned at her sarcastic tone. “I could say the same to you.”

Her rejoining smile pleased him. He could hear his heart beating in his ears, finding it difficult to swallow as she stamped out her cigarette, leaning against the wall next to him.

“How puzzling. We’ve lived across the street from each other our entire lives and this is the first time we’ve actually had a conversation.”

Adrian snorted. “I know.”

Sometimes, he would see her through the window, sitting in front of her mirror brushing her hair. Waking up, bracing himself for battle every morning and every evening⎯⎯sometimes even in between⎯⎯made him forget that there was anything else in life; made him feel as if this endeavor to survive Opa’s house was all there would ever be. But watching the careful way Katherina undid each flaxen braid, the gentle way she smoothed her hair with each stroke of her brush, settled his embattled soul. Just looking at her made him feel peaceful, gave him hope that maybe there was more to life than he realized.

She closed in the space between them now, whispering in his ear. “Do you think I’m pretty, Heinrich?”

He turned his head. It was difficult to breathe, feeling her lips hovering over his cheek. He closed his eyes as she kissed him, though he froze.

She chuckled. “Have you never kissed a girl before?”

“I’ve kissed a girl,” he answered quickly. “It’s just…I think Rolf likes you.”

“Rolf’s just a friend. Besides,” she said, “I like you. Do you like me, Heinrich?”

She was so close he could see the black rim around the edges of her sky blue eyes. It was he who kissed her this time. Her arms draped around his neck, he couldn’t help himself, untying the ribbons in her hair. Running his fingers through her golden tresses, she only kissed him harder.

A window snapped open somewhere overhead, startling them both.

“Katherina!” someone rasped. “Get up here! I’ve covered for you long enough.”

“Coming,” she whispered back. She smiled at Adrian. “That’s my brother. I should go.”

He only nodded, incapable of speech.

“My father’s giving a lecture at the university tomorrow evening. He doesn’t usually get back until very late,” she told him. “My mother will be there to watch him, as will my brother. I’ll be staying home⎯⎯I won’t be feeling well. It would be polite of you to come by and check on me.”

With a coy smile, she kissed him, starting up the iron fire escape. He stood by himself with a moony grin in the darkness, even after he’d heard the window close. He was afraid of waking up tomorrow and finding he’d dreamed it all.

Becoming alert to the present, he turned for home. She liked him; she liked him! Just as he kept secrets for Luther, he would keep this secret from Luther; he didn’t have to know. Luther’s misapprehension about the Nazis shouldn’t be reason for him not to be happy.

Especially when, for the first time in his life, he was.

 

~~~~~

Meet some of the characters in Sophia’s War here!

The End of Innocence (#1)

Lies and Allies (#2)

Stalemate (#3)

Hidden Halos (#4)

Veil of Secrets (#5)

Death Knell (#6)

Sneak Peek of Sophia’s War: Veil of Secrets (#5)!

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Here’s a sneak peek of the upcoming volume of Sophia’s War (Sophia’s War: Veil of Secrets), coming January 2015! Keep in mind, if you haven’t read Book 4 (Hidden Halos), there will be some spoilers in this excerpt! Thanks, and I hope you all enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~

Sophia sighed, looking up at the sky once they’d finished dessert. She could just make out the stars past the yellow haze that enveloped them. Adrian was gulping down the rest of his Apfelwein as she checked her watch.

“I suppose we should be going back,” Sophia said. “It’s almost eight.”

Adrian came up for air, bringing his glass down on the table harder than he needed to. She laughed.

Some of the people who had been there when they arrived had already left. One couple that had been on the trolley with them had finished eating, drifting around the pond, and a trio of women who’d also ridden with them were getting up to leave. Adrian was laying marks on the table when the hum of a trolley making its way toward the mansion could be heard. The waitresses were starting to pull the empty tables and chairs inside. Another couple stood, heading toward the path to leave.

“Ready?” Adrian asked.

Sophia nodded, picking up her purse and flower from the table.

“I hope you had a good day,” Adrian said, putting his cap on as they trailed after the group heading for the trolley.

“I did,” she replied. “I’m actually not looking forward to going home—for a few reasons,” she said, remembering Diedrich. “I wish we could have come here earlier. I would have liked to have seen the whole park.”

Adrian didn’t speak, though he was right by her side. One of the women ahead of them gave a high-pitched laugh at something.

“It’s so quiet and still out here,” Sophia mentioned, looking out over one of the gardens they’d passed on the way in. “I’m sure it would have been my favorite if…”

Adrian pulled her into him with a motion so graceful that her lips found his as if it had been perfectly planned. They were kissing right on the path where anyone could have seen. She should have been embarrassed; she should have protested. That would have been the respectable thing to do.

“Come with me,” he whispered, his voice rough in her ear.

He had a hold of her hand, pulling her away before she could even gather a response in her head. They weren’t taking the pathways that had already been made, instead stepping over bushes and weaving through flower gardens. The dwarfish tower was becoming clearer in the dark, its medieval archways showing through to the grassy knolls that lay beyond it.

“Won’t someone see us?” she asked through a giggle, noticing the light from the mansion radiating above the trees.

“Probably,” he replied.

The mortification that would come with being caught made her apprehensive, but it wasn’t enough for her to make him stop and turn around. Kissing him had been in the back of her mind all day, but it would have been puerile to mention it, and it required more boldness than she had to initiate it again. Though she wouldn’t have dared to tell him, she felt relieved that he’d finally done it.

Underneath the tower now, they held onto each other the way they had outside the doorway to the clock shop. Anyone could walk up and catch them and she would have no excusable justification. There was nothing suitable about a young, unmarried woman being alone in the dark with a man—even if they were married, it would have been considered uncouth.

His hands were bracing her jaw, the skin on his formerly smooth upper lip and chin scratching her face. He pulled away, resting his forehead against hers. His thumb caressed her cheek, and she closed her eyes, savoring his touch.

“I don’t want to go back yet,” he said. “I want to stay with you a little while longer.”

“Okay,” she said as he kissed her again.

Dreamstime

Dreamstime

They walked around the gardens, finding an open patch of velvety grass underneath the sable sky. Adrian had laid down beside her, keeping the proper distance of a gentleman.

“I like this,” Sophia said. “I haven’t been able to do this in a long time, and I needed it. Sometimes, at home, when I was frustrated or sad, I would go lay out in the field below my parents’ house. I’d pour my heart out to God in the quiet, or just lay there, taking in His stillness in the stars. It made me feel at peace, like my head had been emptied of all the clutter. Lately, I feel like I need Him more than ever. I can’t seem to shake the fear or worry, no matter how much I pray. I wake up and it’s all still there. I know He’s listening. I just don’t understand.”

“Sometimes, I don’t either,” she heard Adrian say, commiserating.

“Tell me about your faith,” she said.

“What about it?”

“Everything,” she said. “You said Luther introduced you to Christianity.”

“I suppose I should have said he’s the one who introduced me to the idea of having a relationship with Christ,” he said. “My grandparents were Christians. They did good things, but they made sure everyone knew about it. They also made it their business to police others’ good deeds, or lack thereof. They weren’t bad people, necessarily, they were just…”

“Misguided?” Sophia offered.

“That’s one way of putting it,” he said. “I went to church with them, repeated all the same prayers, but that was as far as it went for me. I didn’t have much accountability, besides what is considered to be good or bad in general. That wasn’t good enough for Luther. He said that if I was going to work for him, it required utmost dedication, unrelenting focus and a superior comprehension of morality.”

Sophia studied him. “To be a photographer?”

She could hear the smile in his voice. “There’s a little more to it than that, but I suppose, yes. His standards are high.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because when I’m given a task, I’m supposed to accept it without hesitation. When I’m executing that task, it has to be precise. The bible helps me cope, sometimes. It helps keep me focused, finding acceptance and validation in God instead of elsewhere. Luther suggested it as a precaution at first, but I gave my life to Jesus when I was seventeen. Does that mean I haven’t failed on occasion and that Luther hasn’t struck me upside the head with a bible once or twice? No,” he said. Sophia chuckled. “But I do my best.”

“He’s hit you with a bible?”

“Yes. I deserved it, though.”

“What did you do?”

She sensed his sudden reluctance to speak. He gave a nervous laugh under his breath. “Let’s just say it was something bad enough that it could have jeopardized both of us.”

Though her curiosity was killing her, she decided to leave it alone, mindful of the fact that he didn’t want to talk about it.

“Have you ever seen a falling star?” she asked him, after they’d been quiet for too long.

“Yes. A few,” he replied.

Sophia sighed. “I’ve never seen one.”

“You’re joking,” he said, turning his head toward her. “As often as you look at the stars, you’ve never seen one?”

She looked at him, shaking her head.

“Hmm,” he sounded. “Maybe you’ll see one tonight, then. Do you have a favorite star?”

“Three. Orion’s Belt,” she replied. “There’s nothing really special about them. They’re just the first thing I look for when I look up at night.”

“Orion is one of my favorite constellations. His mythology is laced throughout the entire sky.”

Smiling, Sophia adjusted herself, moving a little closer to him. “Show me.”

“Okay,” he said, removing the hand behind his head to point. “There are many myths about Orion. Pictures often depict him as hunting Taurus, the bull, but that’s not entirely true. See that cluster of stars? That’s the Pleiades—or, the Seven Sisters. One myth says that Orion fell in love with the sisters. Zeus didn’t like that, so he picked the sisters up and put them in the sky to separate them from Orion. If Orion is looking at anything up there, it’s not the bull. It’s the Seven Sisters within the constellation.”

“Zeus could, and did, have any woman he wanted. That was selfish,” Sophia said, joking.

“Yes, and poor Orion had no luck with women in the first place. He fell in love with a king’s daughter in one story, and the king blinded him. He got his sight back eventually, but still. And then the next one he fell in love with was Artemis, and she was the one who brought about his demise, though the details vary, depending on who you ask. Some say he wasn’t such a nice guy to her, and she set a Scorpion on him which stung and killed him. Another version is that he bragged to Artemis that he was such a skilled hunter, he could kill any creature on earth, so she set the Scorpion on him and it killed him. That’s why Scorpius rules the summer skies, while Orion rules the winter. He asked to never be in the same sky with the scorpion. They’re always half a world away from each other.”

He lowered his hand, searching for hers.

“How do you know so much?” she asked.

“It’s a bunch of useless information, really,” he said with a sigh. “It’s what a man gets when he reads meaningless books that have nothing to do with what his occupation will be.”

She squeezed his hand, more out of sorrow than anything else. She knew he didn’t really believe that.

“You are full of so much fire to learn and understand everything,” she said with admiration. “You have compassion, and sometimes, I swear it feels like you know what I’m thinking and feeling without me even having to say it. And then something happens, like today, and I see someone else. I heard you laughing with him, Adrian.”

Adrian released her hand, sitting up. She propped herself up on her elbows as he looked away from her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not saying you did something wrong. I just…I don’t know how you do that.”

He seemed distracted, in a stupor of introspection. She wondered if he was contemplating telling her the truth, or if he was ferreting about in his psyche for an exoneration. He cracked a knuckle, shaking his head to himself.

“I turn it off,” he finally replied, looking at her. “Whether it’s for a second, a week, or for months, I turn it off. All of it. Because if anyone knew the truth, it would all be over. When the situation is so dire that we could face an interrogation right now for having this conversation because someone overheard, it’s not worth the risk. I have too much at stake, too much to protect, too many people who would be destroyed because of a single, trivial misstep on my part. I am a war photographer for the Third Reich, Marelda; an inconsequential peon for a propagandist. Not whatever it is you think I am. Not anymore.”

She stared at him in the dark. He blinked away, his voice having been stern. Though it was clear she had no insight to all the things he felt he had to lose, she understood his desperation. The lives of two human beings were fully dependent on her; one slip up, and their lights would be extinguished forever. Though he had no hand in her decision, Diedrich would go out with her—perhaps even Adrian, all because of her association with them. It was a bittersweet truth, and though in a perfect world it was all wrong, in theirs, she had no other choice. Neither did he.

She sat up, cupping his face as she kissed his cheek.

“To them,” she whispered, “you can be Heinrich the photographer. But to me, you are Adrian the historian, the scholar…a man who can still find beauty and goodness in a very dark world.”

He turned his face against hers at her words. Soon, they were kissing just as before. He cradled her, and his arms tightened as she caressed his face.

Flashes, visions of them smiling and laughing, lying in a bed of white flickered in her mind. She watched him touch her bare skin with the kind of casualness that he’d walked through the city with, as if it was something he’d always done. The strength of the senses in her imagination caused chill bumps on her skin in the present; she had been naked—physically, emotionally. It didn’t matter if it was a premonition of what was to come, or a mere reflection of her innermost desires for him. In that moment, she knew she was going to spend the rest of her life with him, no matter how short it might be.

She pulled away from him, overcome with emotion.

“Do you love me?” she whispered looking up at him through tears.

There was a crinkle of concern in his brow. She watched it slacken in the faint light coming from the sky. He swallowed, his nose brushing against her own.

“If I was Orion, and Zeus had put me in the sky, then you would be Pleiades, and I would spend the rest of eternity looking at only you.”

She clung to his neck in response, comprehending the fact that his answer didn’t surprise her. She wondered just how long she had already known.

“Do you love me?” he asked.

“Yes,” she murmured. “I love you very much.”

“What’s wrong, then?” he asked as she battled tears.

“Nothing,” she whispered, kissing him. “Everything’s perfect.”