(2007) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof, is intended. This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.
Part Five - Conclusion
by Thompson Girl
Lt. Hanley prowled the town square, carbine over his shoulder, boots splashing in puddles from last night's downpour. The walking felt good, eased his tension, though not enough to make him put out the cigarette he was smoking.
It was nearly noon, and the buildings lay like tombs around him. The troops that hadn't been moved up yesterday afternoon, had left with the convoy for Lérion that morning. The town wasn't entirely empty. All the surviving French residents remained. And there was still another platoon of G.I.s bivouacked on the southern end of town, plus the sentries patrolling or on guard duty, but compared to the crowded chaos of twenty-four hours ago, it felt deserted. Hanley wasn't a superstitious man, but the emptiness pressed ominously around him.
A woman's voice echoed inside one of the buildings, and the sudden sound brought him up short. It wasn't even a shout, just an ordinary tone, but the quietness of the village seemed to amplify it. At least, that's what he blamed his edginess on. It was easier that than the truth, that Saunders and the squad were long overdue, that he had been called in repeatedly to Capt. Hansen's office during the night to report exactly nothing, that he'd had no sleep.
The dampness and overcast sky didn't help his mood any either. He leaned back against the lip of the square's stone fountain and shook a new cigarette out of the pack. He lit it off the butt of the old, then dropped the old one into one of the puddles. It died with barely a sizzle.
Distantly, for a moment, he heard what sounded like a jeep approaching, before the engine noise dropped to an idle. That would be the MPs, Hanley thought, stopping the jeep at the northern town entrance. When the engine started up again, this time loud and distinct and heading toward the town square, Hanley pushed off the fountain, carbine in hand.
The jeep appeared, and he dropped the fresh cigarette to the street.
It was the squad. Caje was driving, and he braked immediately as Hanley strode forward to meet them. Hanley scanned the jeep, counting faces. Only his five men were there, all without helmets or gear and carrying German weapons. Littlejohn was wounded in the arm and Kirby looked like he'd fallen under a truck.
Hanley bit back the questions on the tip of his tongue and asked instead, "Where's Lt. Ashton?"
The squad said nothing, and no one met Hanley's eyes except Saunders, who shook his head once. The gesture could have been read a couple of different ways, but Hanley accepted the obvious interpretation and assumed Saunders meant Ashton was dead.
He let out a sigh, and his shoulders slumped, a memory of the tightly wound lieutenant crossing his mind. He wanted to ask Saunders what had happened, but knew it could wait. Saunders would have to give the report to the captain, and he could hear the story then. From the way the squad looked, he had a feeling it was an unpleasant one. He looked back at Saunders and said, "Okay, Captain Hansen's waiting. We'd better give him the bad news." He started down the street.
Saunders climbed out of the jeep and gave a meaningful look to the squad, before following after Hanley. Kirby and Caje exchanged glances, then Caje eased the jeep in gear and drove off to park it properly.
"Come in," Hansen's voice called, and Saunders followed Hanley inside.
Saunders' gaze swept quickly over the second story room Hansen was still using as an office. Nothing had changed -- the broken window in the left-hand wall, the few pieces of scrounged furniture, the door to the alley.... It was the same setup it had been a day ago. That was all the time that had passed, a mere twenty-four hours. No time and a lifetime. If anyone ever found a way to measure time the way a soldier felt it, Saunders thought he'd shoot the man.
Capt. Edward Hansen sat behind his desk. Sometime that morning, he'd found the time to shave, and his hair was neatly combed back, his uniform somehow looking pressed and ready for inspection next to the creaseless rumples of Saunders and Hanley's outfits. His carbine hung on the back of his chair, in easy reach. An oil lamp sat on the corner of his table. Papers and maps were spread in front of him, but he wasn't seeing them. From the way they were haphazardly arrayed, Saunders had the feeling he hadn't looked at them all night either, and now Hansen had eyes only for the two men of King Company. He gestured Saunders and Hanley to the two chairs in front of his desk. "Sit down."
Hanley took a seat, leaving the chair closer to the front door for Saunders. The lieutenant masked his surprise when Saunders chose to remain standing. The German rifle Saunders carried didn't look right. The ever-present Thompson should have been cradled across his arm. Hanley knew if there was a replacement to be found in the town, Saunders would scare it up before evening.
Hansen leaned across the table, his gaze locked on Saunders. "Where's Lieutenant Ashton?" His expression was grave, the wrinkles between his eyebrows heavily vee'd.
Saunders' answer was clipped and matter-of-fact. "The mission was unsuccessful, sir. The partisans sold us out. The Krauts were waiting at the rendezvous. We didn't have a chance. Lt. Ashton and I were taken prisoner."
Tightly, Hansen asked, "What happened?"
"Lt. Ashton was tortured."
For a moment, Hansen sat frozen, then he nodded, ever so slightly, as if Saunders' words had somehow been inevitable. The anger Hanley had expected didn't materialize. There was no denial, no disbelief, just a look of bone-weary acceptance. "Jack...." he murmured. He exhaled audibly, then rubbed at his eyes with a hand. "That's it then. I've got to get to division headquarters immediately." The words seemed to release him from his thrall, and he started gathering his papers, communiqués, and maps into a tidier stack.
The silence between the men lengthened, but it wasn't a shared grieving silence for a lost comrade, it was something strained and oddly charged. The rustle of papers seemed too hurried, too anxious. Hanley realized he wanted out of that room and away from that impending sense of unrelieved pressure. He was just getting ready to ask to be dismissed, when, almost off-handedly, Saunders broke the quiet.
"You and Lieutenant Ashton were buddies." It wasn't a question.
Without looking up, Hansen answered, "Yes."
Saunders went on, "He told me about getting captured back at Ste. Vannes. About what happened there. How you got him out after he'd been tortured. You were a real hero."
Hanley couldn't conceal his own frown. He knew that patented amiable tone all too well from his sergeant, how easily it hid biting sarcasm. It definitely wasn't the tone you took with a superior officer of Hansen's rank. Not without very good reason. Hanley's gaze flicked to Saunders' inscrutable expression, then back to Hansen.
Hansen was just looking up, a new, almost wary look in his eyes that he quickly hid. His papers appeared forgotten as he leaned back in his chair and considered Saunders with a measured stare. Saunders' return gaze didn't waver. It was Hansen who looked away first, his eyes unfocused, as if he were lost in memories. Softly, he said, "Lot of good it did. Lousy war." He made to get ready to leave again. "Gentlemen, you're dismissed--"
"Lieutenant Ashton didn't talk this time," Saunders interrupted, in the same conversational tone he'd been using.
Hansen's gaze snapped back to Saunders. "What?"
"I said the Germans tortured him," the sergeant said. "But they didn't get anything out of him. Not a word. Not this time. Your info's safe, Captain. The Krauts learned nothing."
Lt. Hanley watched Saunders, wondering what the hell was going on. He'd missed something, that's all he knew. But he couldn't figure why Saunders seemed to be baiting the captain, leading and dropping bits of information that clearly meant more to the captain than they did to Hanley. A hundred unsaid things were passing between them, and Hanley could only listen in growing frustration. He wanted to interrupt, demand a straight answer from Saunders, but the tension between the two men stretched tauter and tauter, and there was no room for him.
Hansen was leaning back in his chair again, only this time when he spoke, his voice was distinctly colder. "I see."
Saunders cocked his head slightly, his tone still deceptively pleasant. "That's good news, isn't it?"
Hansen twitched, gave him a half-smile. "Yes."
"Because we wouldn't want the Krauts to find out where our advance is going to take place, now would we?"
Hansen went very still. Abruptly, his hand shot forward and he flung the oil lamp at Saunders' face. In the second that Saunders threw up an arm to block it, Hansen was out of his chair with his carbine and behind the startled Hanley. Hansen's fingers grabbed the back collar of the lieutenant's jacket, and he yanked him back into the chair when he tried to move. The carbine jabbed painfully into his back, and Hanley froze.
Hansen indicated Saunders' rifle. "Drop it. Hands up. Against the wall."
Slowly, Saunders did as he was told. Hansen took Hanley's carbine away from him and tossed it away, then relieved the lieutenant of his handgun.
Careful to remain still, Hanley raised his own hands. But his eyes rested on Saunders. What he saw left him even more confused, because as angry as Saunders clearly was, he was also not alarmed. Hanley held onto that thought as he tried to ignore the pressure of the carbine's muzzle against his back. Maybe he could get Hansen talking, distract him. "Just what is going on?" he demanded.
Hansen nodded toward Saunders and said, "Why not ask him? He appears to have all the answers."
Saunders said, "You needed a courier. You didn't want to endanger yourself, couldn't trust a written or radio message not to be traced back to you, so you picked your old friend. Thought he'd make it easy for you. You knew he broke once. You knew how badly it had shattered him. You figured the second time he'd break even faster. So you gave him all the info you needed to relay, fed him some story about the importance of what he was carrying, and sent him directly into German hands to pass it all along. That about right? Traitor?" Saunders spat the last word out almost as an afterthought.
Hansen seemed unoffended. Calmly, he said, "About."
"And it didn't bother you what might happen to Lieutenant Ashton at the Germans' hands, did it?"
For a second, Hansen's mask of composure slipped, as much at the wrath in Saunders' voice as the words themselves.
Saunders said, "Why don't you just set that carbine down?"
Hansen's lips curled into a disbelieving smile, and he was ready to laugh at what had to be an empty threat, when he heard a voice behind him. Ashton's voice.
"You heard him, Eddie," Ashton said. "Drop your weapon."
Ever so slowly, Hansen looked over his shoulder.
Ashton was leaning in the back doorway, the doorway Hansen had forgotten about in his confrontation with Saunders. Kirby had given him Von Reisl's Luger, and he was aiming it at straight at Hansen. He was still barefoot, wearing Kirby's too-small jacket unbuttoned, the sleeves partially rolled up to fit his larger frame. Ashton's bruised face was cold and filled with loathing, but the pistol remained steady in his hands.
Hansen considered him almost dismissively. "Saunders never did actually say you were dead, did he? I should have known."
"Drop your carbine! Now!" Ashton snarled.
Hansen kept still, trying to buy time as he calculated his dwindling options. He started to step right, to pull Hanley out of the chair and keep the lieutenant as hostage between both Saunders and Ashton. But as soon as he moved, Ashton pulled the trigger. The bullet caught Hansen in the right shoulder.
Hansen cried out, and Hanley and Saunders were both moving instantly -- Hanley spinning and yanking the carbine out of Hansen's hand, Saunders scooping his rifle from the floor. But by then Ashton had flung the pistol away and grabbed two fistfuls of Hansen's jacket. He backed the captain across the room to slam him hard against the wall. Hansen cried out again, tried to reach for his wounded shoulder, but all of Ashton's anger and fear and pain had an outlet now, and he didn't give Hansen a chance to move.
Hanley stepped forward to intervene, but Saunders grabbed his arm, shaking his head.
Anguished, Ashton said, "My 'friend'...." For a second he was nearly choked up and couldn't say anything else. Their whole past, all the good times and the bad ran through his head. But it only lasted a couple of seconds, then he was back in the present, cold, clear-eyed, and furious. He gave Hansen another slam against the wall. "My friend... traitor! I trusted you. You got me out. You saved my life, for what? So you could use me?
"I always wondered how you got me out of there. You never would tell me. Remember we were talking in that damned cell, before we were tortured? How escape was impossible? Remember? And it would have been if you hadn't made your own deal with the Germans. Sure, I broke, but so did you. That's how we got out of there. They let you go so you could spy for them. That was the deal, wasn't it?"
Hansen started, "Jack--"
"Shut up!" Ashton snapped. "At least I broke honestly. I gave them information. You... you gave them your soul."
Ashton gave him another slam against the wall, and then the front door swung open and the rest of the squad burst through the door with the MPs. Saunders pulled Ashton away from Hansen to let them put the captain under arrest. He lead him to the corner, near the window.
Ashton leaned across the sill, shaking, staring at his hands.
In the background, they heard Hanley order, "Get him out of here! I'll make the charges myself."
Ashton murmured, "Ever want to kill someone, Saunders? Wring their neck with your own bare hands?"
Saunders said nothing.
"My 'friend,'" Ashton went on, bitterly. "I guess friendship doesn't count for much in war."
"It counts for a lot," Saunders said.
"If you pick the right friends." Ashton sagged abruptly, the adrenalin gone, his endurance gone, the pain back.
Saunders caught him, lowering him to the floor. "Doc! Get a stretcher in here."
"I'll be all right," Ashton said, wincing.
"Shut up, Lieutenant. Doc!"
"Stretcher's already on the way, Sarge," Doc answered.
Kirby lay half-propped against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles, helmet slouched forward to shade his eyes. Caje, Doc, and Littlejohn sat nearby talking among themselves, their voices and laughter quietly reassuring. But Kirby had the afternoon patch of sunlight all to himself. After the last week of gloomy skies and rain, the direct heat felt good. Having a full stomach felt good. Not walking felt good. Not carrying his newly requisitioned B.A.R. felt good. Even his bruises were starting to hurt only when he smiled.
Tomorrow the rest and relaxation ended. They would be following the rest of the troops to Lérion, and it would start in all over again. But that was tomorrow and right then, warm and comfortable, he didn't care about tomorrow.
When his squad mates fell suddenly silent, Kirby shifted his helmet back, just in time to see them saluting Lt. Ashton. He quickly climbed to his feet, hiding a wince as the rest of his healing body objected to his haste. He brushed off his pants, as Ashton turned toward him. The lieutenant moved stiffly and carefully, clearly trying not to aggravate his own healing wounds. The visible bruises had faded some, but Kirby still had the uncomfortable sensation of looking in a mirror as they stood eye to eye. He saluted and said, "Hiya, Lieutenant. They let you out already?"
"Just now. They're shipping me back to London. I think they're just tired of me taking up a bed." Ashton shrugged and looked away, hesitating a moment before he looked back and said, "Kirby, can I buy you a beer? I know I owe you my life, and I think I probably owe you a date as well."
Kirby pretended to consider, then grinned. "Okay, Lieutenant. But we sure make some pair...." He indicated their battered faces and his grin turned rueful. "I'm not sure any dame's gonna look twice at either of us."
"Ah, but Kirby, it's what you say, not what you look like." Ashton returned his smile, and, for a moment, Kirby was reminded of the cocky self-assured look Ashton had worn when he'd first met him, when he'd so glibly offered to translate the first time around. Kirby frowned, a few second thoughts crossing his mind.
He said, "Hey, uh, you mind if Caje and the other guys come along too?"
Ashton stared in mock hurt at Kirby. "What's the matter, Kirby? Don't trust me?"
"Uh, no. That's not it," Kirby said, but he knew he wasn't fooling the lieutenant with his denial. But as much as he might be willing to trust the man behind enemy lines now, he wasn't about to bank on his honesty around women. No, he'd learned that lesson and learned it well. Caje, at least, translated without duplicity. He realized he would have to thank the Cajun for that one of these days.
Ashton was still watching him, and Kirby finally shrugged and went on, "It's just, well, we all rescued you from that Kraut captain. Figure you owe us all a drink."
"Oh, I see," Ashton said, then grinned. "Well, the more the merrier."
Kirby turned and called, "Hey Caje, Littlejohn, Doc -- the lieutenant's buying. Come on!"
None of them need to be asked twice. Good, Kirby thought, that should keep things on the level. But as his squad mates approached, Kirby reviewed Ashton's earlier words and felt another stab of suspicion. He rounded on the lieutenant, demanding, "Hey, what did you mean a minute ago, when you said you probably owe me a date?"
Ashton spread his hands. "Well, Annette...."
"That her name?"
Ashton nodded, then shrugged sympathetically. "What can I say? You just weren't her type."
Kirby crossed his arms. "Is that so."
Ashton nodded, hiding a smile. "Yep, she told me."
"Yeah?" Kirby said. "Well, she's just gonna have to tell me that herself."
Innocently, Ashton asked, "In what language?"