Peach Stones

by Kadorienne

 

Klaus cast a withering glance at his husband, who was cheerfully staggering into the parlor laden with a dozen shopping bags. "More? What could you possibly have bought that you didn’t already have plenty of?"

"Oh, all sorts of things," came the prompt reply. Dorian dropped all the bags heedlessly so that he could lean over Gaby to make cooing noises at their newborn son, cradled in her arms. "Who’s a little love?" Dorian asked his heir rhetorically. The boy responded with a few gurgles. Dorian then turned to his goddaughter in Gunilla’s arms. "Who’s a green-eyed monster?" he asked, and spent the next minute trying to coax the infant to release her suitably iron grip on a lock of his hair that had fallen within her range. "Eberbachs. Once they get ahold of something…."

"Don’t I know it," Gaby sighed fervently.

"I got ahold of you before I was an Eberbach," Gunilla pointed out, working her daughter’s tiny fingers open.

Freed, Dorian straightened and started pawing through the bags, the Countess and the Baronin looking on with amusement. "Darling, I finally found the perfect scent for you!"

"I am not going to wear perfume," Klaus announced, raising his newspaper before his face defensively.

"But it’s made from tobacco flowers!"

Incredulous, Klaus lowered the newspaper to look at the box Dorian was extending. Sure enough, it read Fleur de Tabac, Cologne for Men. Klaus snorted. "I hope you stole that. I’d hate to think you wasted money on it."

"It’s a lovely masculine scent, sort of like sandalwood," Dorian prattled on. "Why don’t you at least try it?"

"Because I have more important things to think about," Klaus retorted, raising his newspaper pointedly. "The KGB, for example. And terrorists. All you care about is making yourself look nice."

"If more men worried about the things I worried about, there wouldn’t be any terrorists or KGB," Dorian retorted.

"Let me know when that happens." Klaus tried to focus on the paper, but something else spilling out of the bags had caught his eye. He gave up trying to read.

"Did you buy more towels?"

Dorian followed his glance. "No. It’s just your imagination. There are no towels."

"We have plenty of towels! What possessed you to buy more?"

"Well, darling, these will match your lovely teal shower curtain."

"My shower curtain is not teal. Any idiot can see that it is forest green," Klaus informed his husband.

Dorian irritated him further by not arguing. "Yes, dear," he cooed, smiling. "I also picked out some new ties for you."

"I have plenty of ties."

"I know. I’ve seen them," Dorian said bleakly.

Glancing over, Klaus saw that both of the ladies were stifling giggles with difficulty. He glowered at Gunilla and was unsurprised at how little effect his glare had.

Life had been much simpler when he had been able to send people who annoyed him to Alaska, or shoot them.

Dorian was producing tie boxes from the bags. "Just try them on, you’ll love them."

The first turned out to be lavender silk with images of some kind of flower woven into the fabric. Klaus just looked at his husband.

After holding it out for a minute, Dorian laughed and tossed it aside. "That was just a decoy, darling. I calculated that after seeing that, you’d consider anything else I offered far more reasonable."

"Humph."

The next two ties Dorian brought out were indeed more reasonable, both restrained designs in acceptable colors, but Klaus had already run out of patience. "Not now. My father’s insisting that Gunilla and I join him and an old Army friend of his for dinner, and we have to leave in just a minute."

"Impress your father with a new tie. Here, this one is… ‘forest green’." The quotation marks were audible in Dorian’s voice.

Klaus glowered at his husband. Gunilla rose and kissed her wife and her godson. "I’m ready, Klaus." She was wearing a white silk tunic over sleek black slacks. She had already shed the weight she had gained during her pregnancy. Gaby had not been so lucky and had been very vocal in her distress over this, but no one else minded, least of all Gunilla; the extra pounds had only made her curves even more pleasantly rounded than before.

"You’re taking the baby?" Gaby asked, shifting her son’s position as he started to fuss.

Gunilla smiled. "The Graf asked me to. He never misses a chance to see her."

The Graf had surprised everyone by not showing the slightest disappointment that his first grandchild was a girl. Indeed, he was clearly of the opinion that she was the most perfect child ever born, though he expressed this view with the characteristic restraint of an old-fashioned German. But to Gunilla, the real surprise had been Klaus’s reaction to the child. Her impression of her icily self-controlled husband-in-name had changed forever the day their daughter was born. Gunilla had lain back, exhausted but triumphant, and watched as the midwife put the minutes-old child into her father’s arms. Klaus had been waiting dutifully in the outer room for hours, and now he held his arms in the correct position, properly careful to support his infant daughter’s head. His face betrayed only a mild curiosity.

That was, until he had looked at her.

The Baronin had watched with delight at the startled look on her husband’s face as he looked at their daughter for the first time. He had never spoken of the feelings that had been written so clearly on his normally-inscrutable face, but Gunilla had seen him in an unguarded state that she suspected even Dorian had never glimpsed.

Since then, his expression around the infant girl had been carefully guarded, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Outside, Klaus opened the door to his father’s limosine for Gunilla instead of letting the footman do it. Once they were seated, the Graf promptly took his granddaughter in his arms and studied her contentedly.

"The girl’s an Eberbach to her fingertips," he said with approval. A hint of wistfulness crept into his voice. "And she’s got her grandmother’s eyes. It’s the only way in which Klaus resembles his mother — he inherited her lovely green eyes."

Gunilla let her father-in-law gloat over his heir for another minute before asking, "Who are we meeting tonight?"

The Graf looked up, faintly startled. "Didn’t I say? Ehm." He paused as if to choose his words.

"Don’t I know all of your old comrades in Bonn?" Klaus asked.

"The Colonel doesn’t live in Bonn. That is, most of the time he stays in Berlin. But he comes here occasionally on business, and he keeps a flat here."

"The Colonel?" Klaus prompted.

"Ehm, yes…. You haven’t met him. He would have been an excellent peacetime leader, but he wasn’t really suited for war. I didn’t actually know him during the war, but General Rommel always spoke very highly of him, and I’ve met him several times over the years since."

Gunilla's eyes widened. "You knew General Rommel?" she asked in a respectful tone.

The Graf almost purred. "Yes, my dear. I'll tell you the story tomorrow, when we have time."

Klaus rapidly made plans to be elsewhere the following day. But seeing the way Gunilla glowed, he had to concede that it was a stirring story. It merely lost its impact after the first few thousand tellings. Had he realized that it would give his father a new listener for his favorite stories, he might have married years sooner.

"In any case, the man we’re meeting tonight is Colonel Rommel, the General’s younger brother."

"The Desert Fox had a brother? You haven’t mentioned him before, that I recall."

"Well, tonight you’ll meet him." Klaus thought he must have imagined the slight hesitation before his father added, "Ehm… and his spouse."

Another evening of hearing the praises of General Rommel. Klaus resigned himself as the limosine came to a stop.

As the chauffeur opened the door, the Graf hesitated — this time, Klaus was certain — and then spoke. "Do be prepared; the Colonel is... a bit eccentric."

The door to the comfortable, unpretentious flat was opened by a man of about the Graf’s age, who had clearly once been handsome and robust. He was hale and broadshouldered, his salt-white hair still had a few threads of pepper through it, and despite the wire-rimmed spectacles and the lines on his face, he still carried himself like a military man.

"Colonel Rommel?" Klaus said at once, putting out his hand.

The other man shook it, but corrected him at once. "No, I’m Rosen. Rosen Kavalier. And the highest rank I attained was Oberleutnant. The Colonel’s in the kitchen seeing to the Bratkartoffeln. So you’re Eberbach’s boy! I could’ve guessed, you look just like him. And who’s the lady? Looks like you’ve done all right for yourself, young man!"

Klaus was in the midst of introducing Gunilla when a lilting tenor voice rang out from the other room. "Darling, what did you do with my new tea towels?"

Klaus started.

"Those pink dishrags? They’re in the second cabinet," Rosen called back, gesturing to the Eberbachs to be seated.

A second man appeared in the doorway. Klaus stared. He knew with certainty that he was seeing what his own husband would look like in forty years’ time… provided, of course, that he cut his hair. Certainly the Earl could have found no fault in the elegant cut of the pearl-grey suit, though it was more subdued than most of Dorian’s ensembles. His expression was gracious, and in his eyes Klaus saw gentleness and something more, subtle but nonetheless discernible: a haunted look he had seen on some people who had lived through the war, and seen too much of it.

"Liebling," the vision informed Rosen firmly, "those are not pink. Pink is tacky. The shade is much closer to peach."

Gunilla swiftly passed the baby to her father-in-law so that she could indulge a sudden coughing fit. Her husband dutifully pounded her on the back, a shade more firmly than was strictly necessary.

"Colonel," the Graf said cordially as the newcomer turned a charming smile on him, "allow me to introduce my son, Major Klaus von dem Eberbach, and his wife, Gunilla von…."

Before he could continue, the Colonel rushed over to admire the baby. "Oh, what a little angel! Girl or boy?"

"Girl," Gunilla replied, catching her breath.

The Colonel smiled at her. "May I hold her? I do know how to hold babies; I’ve had one of my own."

Gunilla smiled back, quickly suppressing the quirk of her eyebrow. "Certainly."

The Colonel relieved the Graf of the baby and was at once absorbed in rapt contemplation of her. Klaus watched his father intently, but saw none of the distaste he would have expected of his father speaking to… someone like the Colonel.

"Klaus, Gunilla," the Graf said, smiling indulgently — pleased to have his paragon of a granddaughter fussed over — "meet Colonel Pfirsich Rommel."

"Oh, Georg, I haven’t been a Colonel in ages," Pfirsich protested, not looking up from the child. "And I’m too old for that sort of ceremony. Goodness, she’s absolutely beautiful! You must both be so proud."

Rosen approached and looked over Pfirsich’s shoulder. "Aww, lookit her. What a cutie. A chip off the old block — looks just like her old man! What’s her name?"

"Brunhilde," Gunilla answered.

"Brunhilde?" Rosen sputtered.

"What lovely green eyes she has," Pfirsich interrupted smoothly, but Rosen was not to be put off.

"You didn’t really name her Brunhilde, did you?" he demanded.

"Of course we did," Klaus replied frostily.

"It’s hideous!" Rosen retorted, oblivious to the stony expressions of all the Eberbachs except for Brunhilde, who was happily making noises at Pfirsich Rommel.

"Rosen, dear, why don’t you–" Pfirsich tried, but Rosen persisted.

"There are plenty of Valkyries! Why — ugggggh — Brunhilde? Why didn’t you name her Sieglinde if you wanted a Wagnerian name? This is a child, not a Doberman!"

"My greyhounds are named Siegmund and Sieglinde," Gunilla said, looking daggers.

Rosen turned to the Graf. "How could you let your son do such a thing to an innocent child?"

"It is a good German name," the Graf replied coldly.

"But everybody has heard about Brunhilde," Rosen declared. "It's like... a crappy German cliché! I suppose when you have a son you’ll name him Fritz!"

Pfirsich looked to the Eberbachs apologetically. "He can’t help himself; he’s half English."

"Ah." Klaus nodded knowingly.

Gunilla agreed. "My best friend is married to an Englishman."

For a few horrid seconds, Klaus thought she had given them away, before he realized that she meant Gaby and not him.

Rosen’s tirade showed no signs of abating. "Next thing you know, she'll be wearing lederhosen! And singing ‘Eins, Zwei, Drei, Gesaufe!’ in a beer tent!" He struck a pose. "Bring out the beer steins!"

"I suppose your own mother preferred Strauss to Wagner, Herr Kavalier?" Klaus inquired acidly.

"Oh, tell them your English name, dear," Pfirsich suggested, so innocently that Klaus was instantly suspicious.

"On the other hand, Brunhilde really is a perfectly good traditional name," Rosen said hastily, confirming Klaus’s suspicions. He’d have to see if NATO had a file on the man, and if his English name was in it. "And there probably won’t be any other kids at school with the same name. Originality is a good thing."

"Good heavens, where are my manners?" Pfirsich exclaimed. "Can I get you anything? Rosen, the wine, if you wouldn’t mind…."

Rosen distributed goblets of wine and fetched mineral water for Gunilla, who as a nursing mother was still abstaining. Pfirsich showed no inclination to return Brunhilde to her. "Would you mind terribly if I held her a while longer, dear?" he asked, giving her a smile of toe-curling charm. "It’s been simply ages since I got to hold a baby, and she really is an extraordinarily pretty child."

Gunilla gave her gracious permission, now thoroughly mollified.

Instead of the eulogy to the Desert Fox that Klaus had expected of the evening, Pfirsich demonstrated that he had the gift of being a good host by orchestrating, without apparent effort, a very pleasant conversation. Pfirsich began by complimenting Gunilla’s clothes, something Klaus never could remember to do. He asked Klaus about his work, and when he learned that Klaus was in intelligence, admitted, "I did one espionage mission, once. As a favor for my brother; it wasn’t my field at all. It was dreadful; I had to wear a dress."

Gunilla smirked. Klaus bit his tongue.

"You say you have a child of your own, Colonel?" she asked.

"Call me by my name, dear, please. I have two, actually; one mine by blood, the other an orphan I adopted at the end of the war."

"Adopted," Rosen snorted. "More like the kid attached himself to Pfirsich like a stray cat."

"They must be grown now?" Klaus asked. At Pfirsich’s nod, he pursued, "What do they do?"

"One’s an ambassador, and the other’s an accountant. Quite respectable," he said with a twinkle.

"Did either of them marry?" Klaus asked nervously.

"Oh, yes. Both of them did. To lovely girls, and they’re being quite industrious about providing me with grandchildren." Pfirsich looked pleased about this.

"Do you have photos?" Gunilla asked promptly, and Rosen pulled out an album. Surveying them, Klaus found that they looked quite normal. Their unconventional parent had had no visible effects on them, he noted with relief.

It emerged that Rosen had been a pilot. Of course Klaus forthwith began to grill him about what kind of planes he’d flown, and the Graf prompted Rosen to tell the story of the time he had downed a Spitfire with a Stuka — terms which Rosen explained to Gunilla before launching into a play-by-play narrative. Despite the obvious, he seemed perfectly masculine, Klaus noted. While the Eberbachs listened to the story enthralled, Pfirsich shook his head indulgently with the air of one who has heard the same story far too many times, returned Brunhilde to her mother with unconcealed reluctance, and disappeared into the kitchen.

"And when I landed, the Desert Fox himself was waiting for us! I got to tell him the story myself. What a general!" Rosen burst out, admiring. "He was a real soldier’s soldier. A very good sport about me and his brother, too."

Klaus’s eyes went swiftly to his father. He had harbored a little lingering doubt that the Graf really knew how things were between these two men, but there wasn’t much room for confusion now.

His father, however, did not gasp with horror and hustle them out the door. He continued to sip his wine, nodding in calm understanding at Rosen’s words. Noticing his son’s gaze on him, he narrowed his eyes warningly before addressing Rosen.

"I’ve always thought that being so… frank, in those days, must have taken balls of brass. Ehm, excuse my language, Gunilla."

"Oh, really, Georg. You’re very kind," Pfirsich said from the door, "but when a gentleman is faced with a situation, he does the gentlemanly thing. Do come to the table, all of you."

Klaus had expected the sort of fancy, unsatisfying cuisine Dorian favored, but intead it was hearty German fare, Bratkartoffeln and sauerkraut, bratwurst and beer, betraying the Colonel’s Schwabian origins as surely as the traces of dialect which occasionally slipped into his normally precise diction.

Gunilla arranged Brunhilde safely in a loose nest of blankets before joining the rest at the table. "What exactly did you mean about a situation, Colonel?" she asked hesitantly as she sat down.

Pfirsich passed a dish to her before answering. He paused, looking pensive. "It’s difficult to articulate," he said at last, his tone thoughtful. "I had spent years hiding my true self, appearing as the world wanted me to appear, playing the game. But it hadn’t done any good. Not for me or for Germany or for the Army. I behaved myself and still things went from bad to worse.

"One day I decided there was no point in trying to fool anyone anymore, and I began to play a new role. One that flaunted everything about myself that I had believed I had to hide. At the time, I hoped that standing up to the world, proclaiming the truth about myself that no one wanted to hear, might actually do some good," he finished ruefully, "but really, all I accomplished was to make others squirm for a change."

"That’s not true!" Rosen pointed out, looking up from his plate. Thus far, he had been demonstrating an exceedingly healthy appetite, equalled in Klaus’s experience only by Gaby when she was six months pregnant. "Almost everyone thought you were a fluffhead, so you got away with all kinds of things. Smuggling ‘undesirables’ right under the shitshirts’ noses!"

"Language, Rosen, please," Pfirsich said with weary patience, and that haunted look was in his eyes again.

Rosen evidently saw it too; alarm showed in his eyes. He visibly cast about for a diversion. "Georg! Did this beautiful bastard ever tell you about the time he beat up a Cossack? You never saw a man so knocked for six!"

It worked. Pfirsich looked genuinely embarrassed. "Oh, Rosen, don’t tell that silly old story again. You weren’t even there, so how do you know how he looked? I felt perfectly dreadful about hurting the poor man."

"Hah! That ‘poor man’ picked a fight with you! And that’s not easy to do," Rosen informed the Eberbachs. "Try to start a fight with Pfirsich. Just try it."

"So tell me the story," Klaus prompted, swallowing his amusement at the eerily familiar expression of strained patience that settled on the Colonel’s fine-featured face.

An hour and a half later, the Eberbachs were in the back of their limosine once more, Brunhilde sleeping soundly after the excitement of having two brand new people discover her general adorability. The Graf considered before speaking.

"I was happy to see you behaved yourself in front of the Colonel," he began. "Excuse me for not explaining his, ah, circumstances beforehand, but… well, you’ve always been rather uptight, Klaus. It’s why I never introduced you to him before, but marriage seems to have mellowed you out a little."

"I was a bit surprised myself," Gunilla spoke up smoothly, sparing Klaus the necessity of finding a reply. "That you didn’t disapprove, I mean."

"If it was all right with the Desert Fox, who am I to object?" the Graf replied stoutly.

"Do you mind if I hold Brunhilde for a while?" Klaus asked, reaching for his daughter.

Gunilla smiled at her husband. "I hardly get to hold my own baby! Of course, Klaus, just try not to wake her."

Klaus cradled the baby carefully. She stirred slightly but did not awaken. His face revealed nothing, but Gunilla noticed that he did not take his eyes off the child.

The Graf settled comfortably back in his seat, regarding the three of them. "I am so glad that you finally found the right girl, Klaus," he said contendedly.

***

Back in the modest flat, Pfirsich Rommel and Rosen Kavalier were tidying the sitting room from the moderate disorder of the visit. "What a nice young couple," Pfirsich murmured aloud, gathering up forgotten wineglasses. His brow knit ever so slightly. "I could have sworn he was gay, though."

"Really?" Rosen looked up from the cushions he was straightening. "He seemed normal enough to me. That wife of his, now…."

~end~

 
Eroica