(2010) 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.
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"The Better Part of Valor"
by White Queen
He was too late. Saunders could hear the Panzer's 50mm gun boom over and over while his men's small arms fire grew ever feebler.
He'd gambled on getting behind the tank unnoticed by cutting a wide arc around her flank. If he could get close enough to pop in a grenade, his squad would at least have a fighting chance.
It had been a gamble, and when he came out of the brush behind the tank, he knew it had been a losing one. Nothing remained of the tree line where his men had dug in. Nothing. Just empty craters and splintered chunks of wood. Even as he registered that fact, Saunders kept running.
He was too late to save his men, but he could still take down the monster that had destroyed them. And if he died in the process, so be it. He had failed to do the one thing he was supposed to do: keep his men alive. That knowledge filled him with despair. Despair and rage.
With a primal snarl, he swung himself up onto the tank. He pulled out his last grenade, yanked the pin, and tossed it through a slit in the turret. But just as he was about to jump clear, someone inside threw the grenade back out. It bounced twice on the outside of the tank, then fell to the ground. Saunders flung himself off the opposite side of the tank. He covered his head with both hands and waited.
The explosion rocked the tank back and forth. It must have damaged the treads, because the tank made a horrible grinding noise as it tried to move ahead, then began turning slowly. Saunders clambered back up. He stuck the barrel of his Thompson into that same slit and fired three quick bursts. Someone inside screamed, and Saunders heard a muffled thud.
He climbed on top of the turret and tried to yank open the hatch, though he knew full well it would be locked from the inside. It was. So Saunders aimed for the hatch's hinges and fired, not caring where the bullets might ricochet. Then he shouldered the Thompson and used both hands to pry at the hatch again. This time he managed to raise one end up a little. But as he brought his Thompson back around into firing position, a pistol poked out from the opening he'd created. It fired twice, and Saunders felt a searing pain in his belly. He lost his balance and toppled backward, falling first onto the tank, then rolling off onto the ground.
From where he had landed in the dirt, Saunders saw the hatch open and a blond Kraut appear out of it. The Kraut sighted his Luger toward the fallen American, and Saunders knew that once again, he had gambled and lost. He had failed his men. Failed to save them, failed to avenge them. As the cold darkness claimed him, Saunders was ready for death.
But it seemed death wasn't ready for him. And so he floated back toward consciousness from the black void he had welcomed. He surfaced slowly, his first sensation that of hands tugging at his clothes. Then came the pain, racing through his belly and spreading from there. He raised his own hands instinctively, grabbed at the ones touching him, caught them. "No!"
Saunders opened his eyes. The world had gone bright, unfocused and strangely white. He squinted at the blurry face floating above him. It had blond hair, and all at once he remembered the tank, the Luger, and his dead squad. He struck out with all his might, and his fist connected with the face, albeit feebly. The face cried out, the hands released him, the blond hair retreated. His assailant said, "I give up!"
In English. Not German, English. And the voice sounded wrong too... it was too high, too... feminine? A woman? What was an English-speaking woman doing in a Kraut tank?
Saunders struggled to sit up. He shook his head in an effort to clear his thinking, or at least his eyesight. With one hand, he groped for his Thompson, but found only empty space. The fire in his abdomen roared again, and he slumped back. But whatever he hit wasn't hard-packed Italian dirt.
Once his vision cleared, Saunders realized it wasn't a cloudy white sky above him, but a plaster ceiling. And beneath him was a bed. And beside the bed stood a blonde nurse pressing a hand to her cheek. She was probably pretty when she wasn't struggling not to cry.
"I give up," she said again. Her voice trembled.
Another nurse, this one a brunette, appeared beside her. "He's awake!" Her voice was low and smoky, like a firelit evening. "Go ahead, Maude, I'll take care of this one." She lay a hand on his shoulder. "Welcome back, Sergeant."
Saunders blinked. "My men..." he croaked, his throat raw.
The nurse said, "I don't know. I wasn't here when they brought you in. I'll find out for you." She smiled, a professional nurse's expression full of the warmth you get from a light bulb, not the sun. "Meanwhile, would it be all right if I take a look at your bandages?"
Saunders nodded once and closed his eyes. Maybe there was still a chance. Maybe his men had pulled back before the tank hit their foxholes. Maybe....
When he resurfaced a second time, the hospital was dark. Not entirely dark – lamps hung here and there along the walls. Occasionally, a nurse would pass the foot of his bed on her rounds. He stared around him groggily, taking in the many sleeping forms, the tall windows along one wall. It was a large room, like a ballroom from one of those movies about rich people. He realized it was much too quiet – they must be a long way from the front if he couldn't hear artillery.
He closed his eyes again and willed himself to drift off, but for once, he couldn't fall asleep. Instead, smoke and falling debris filled his inner vision. And the screams of men. His men, as the shells rained down on them. Dole. Mueller. Parker. Morrison. Bishop. Fine men, all of them. He'd had two others, Collier and O'Toole, but they'd never made it off the beach at Salerno a couple days earlier. Saunders shuddered and reopened his eyes. Staying awake was better than imagining the tank slaughtering his squad.
Not long after dawn, the night nurses went off duty and the day nurses arrived. A tall, bony nurse with black hair and wrinkles between her eyes stuck a thermometer in his mouth. Her expression never changed while she watched her wristwatch count down the minutes, removed the thermometer, and read it. "Hmm," she said, then pulled down his blanket to expose his bandaged midsection.
"Where's the other nurse?" Saunders asked.
"I don't know. She had brown hair – she said she'd find out about my men."
The nurse began undoing his bandages. "We have a lot of nurses here, soldier."
Saunders caught her hands. "Stop."
She raised her eyebrows. "Think you're going to hit me too? We can tie you down if you'd rather."
"This other nurse was here then – she changed my bandages."
The tall nurse relented. "Let me change them now, and then I'll see if I can find her."
Saunders stared up at the ceiling and struggled not to react to the pain she caused. When she finished, he looked at her and said, "Don't forget."
The tall nurse nodded and walked away.
A few minutes later, the brunette arrived bearing his breakfast tray. "Good morning, Sergeant," she said with that same professional smile. "How about some breakfast?"
"Did you find out?"
"Eat some of this and then I'll tell you."
Saunders frowned. "No deal."
"You are a stubborn one, aren't you." She sighed and set the tray down on a chair next to the bed. She picked up his right hand and held it. "I'm very sorry, Sergeant."
"All of them?"
"Yes. It's a miracle you survived – you lay out there bleeding for a long time before anyone found you."
He turned his face away. "I wish they hadn't."
"Sergeant!" Her tone was stern, rebuking. But not shocked.
"I failed them. I should have been faster." He clenched his hands, forgetting she held one of them.
She didn't cry out or remove her hand. "If you survived, there must be a reason. They didn't think you had one chance in a thousand – they said the surgeon at the evac hospital almost didn't operate, you were that far gone. No one thought you'd reach here alive, much less kick the infection that had set in. No one beats odds that long by mistake."
He curled his lip. "You think God saved me for something? Some special purpose?"
"I think He's batting on your team, let's put it that way."
He finally looked back at her. "What if I want to call the game?" He realized he'd been crushing her hand and relaxed his.
She shook her head. "No good, Sergeant. You still have a few innings to play."
"I'm going to make it?" Until right then, he'd been so focused on whether or not his men were alive, he hadn't even considered his own survival. Now he wasn't sure if he felt happy or disappointed.
"You are." She squeezed his hand. "If you need anything, ask for Lieutenant Jordan. I'll be here all day. Now eat your breakfast." And she was gone.
The next weeks passed in a monotony of changed bandages, sponge baths, and Army food. Saunders learned why he didn't hear any artillery – the hospital was too far from the front. It hadn't always been a hospital, of course. His first impression of a ballroom had been correct; the house was actually a mansion, a grand palazzo a mile or so outside a small town in southern Italy where the Army had set up a permanent base. The top two stories had sustained some damage from shelling, but the main floor was sound and had been broken up into various wards and operating rooms. The doctors and nurses slept in tents on the surrounding grounds.
Saunders didn't participate in the poker games or other activities many men in the hospital engaged in to keep boredom at bay. When he could, he slept, preferring the comfort of oblivion to reality. When he couldn't sleep, he brooded.
The loss of every one of his men was too much for him to comprehend all at once. Two of them, Dole and Mueller, had been with him since North Africa. Losing them felt like losing his own brothers. They'd been tight, closer than most sergeants and squad members. Friends, not just fellow soldiers. And there was Parker, with his bold laugh always erupting at inappropriate moments. Morrison the cowboy, with his Texas drawl and endless analogies. Bishop and Collier, two fun-loving city boys who got each other into minor scrapes. And O'Toole, the fireman from Topeka who hated getting wet. Now they were all dead, gone, and probably soon forgotten.
He'd lost many squad members since landing in North Africa, but never all at once. He could grieve a little for a lost man or two while he and the other survivors got to know their replacements. But this time, there were no other survivors. It was just him. When he recovered, the Army would give him a new squad and expect him to turn it into a well-oiled machine the same as his old squad. But nothing would be the same. How could it?
It couldn't. And one morning, while he tried to ignore a nearby game of Kick The Bedpan, Saunders figured out the answer. If losing friends was this hard, he would never let it happen again. He wouldn't care. And he'd keep others from caring about him.
Saunders looked around the room, searching for another wounded man besides himself that no one cared much about. He found two.
At the far end of the room lay someone even less interested in human interaction than Saunders. Both legs encased in casts, the soldier never spoke. As a result, everyone, even the nurses, had stopped trying to talk to him. He endured their ministrations in stony silence, staring at the wall or the ceiling all day long.
The other man occupied a cot across the aisle from Saunders. He was the exact opposite of the man in the casts: he rarely stopped talking. And he didn't just talk, he joked, he poked fun at other people and himself, he told endless stories about his exploits. He made passes at every nurse, married or single, young or old. And he took nothing seriously, not life, not his wound, not himself. He was what you'd call the life of the party, yet no one called him their friend. He never let them – he always cut off any overtures of real camaraderie with a quip or a story.
Saunders decided he'd never be able to maintain the first man's silence. He wouldn't be able to lead a squad into battle without talking. And although he wasn't given to unnecessary chatter, when something needed saying, he didn't hesitate to say it.
But the second man – Saunders could see himself playing that man's role. The wit, the joker, the rogue that everyone liked and nobody loved. And who loved nobody. Yes, Saunders decided, this was the best armor he could find to shield himself from the pain of losing even one more friend. He would have no friends. And how? By being everybody's pal and nobody's friend.
From then on, Saunders participated in the ward's frivolities. He played poker with anything but a poker face. He told every funny story he could remember, and made a few up besides. He took up smoking cigars whenever he could get them. And he propositioned nurses with a wink and a smile.
His change amazed nurses and patients alike. He went from surly and withdrawn to buoyant and prankish within a day, and no one quite knew why. But most of them accepted that he'd gotten over whatever had been bothering him and was returning to what must be his normal self.
Most of them.
Lt. Jordan often shot him a quizzical glance, but they rarely came into contact now that he had stopped slugging her nurses. For some reason, Saunders never flirted with her. He wasn't sure why – maybe because she didn't seem to buy the new him. Or it could have been because she was older, and an officer, and he felt she wouldn't appreciate it.
And then one day, Saunders noticed that Lt. Jordan was absent. Although she didn't visit with him every morning the way she did some of the other long-term patients, he always noted when she arrived and took up her position at the head nurse's desk. It wasn't Monday – her usual day off – and Saunders felt somehow disarranged, as if he'd put his socks on over his boots.
When Maude, the blonde nurse he'd struck, brought his breakfast, he asked, "Where's Lieutenant Jordan?"
"She's off today," was all Maude said. She still kept a wary distance from him, although he'd apologized several times for hitting her.
"I can see that. What, she have a headache?" He kept his tone light, only casually interested.
Maude frowned at him. "We all get headaches, Saunders. Thanks to men like you."
"You'll never trust me again?" He gave her his most innocent look.
"I trust you as long as I can see both your hands." Maude left him to his breakfast and his questions.
But when Lt. Jordan was missing the next day as well, Saunders became more than a little curious. He refrained from asking this time, not sure how to approach the subject without sounding interested in her. Because, of course, he wasn't. He was curious, that was all.
By the third day, he was frantic. He kept up his appearance of jollity, and again didn't inquire about her whereabouts. But while he cheerfully lost a game of checkers to a fellow wheelchair-bound soldier, inwardly he brooded about how once again, he'd let himself get suckered into caring even a tiny bit about another person, only to lose them to circumstances beyond his control.
On the fourth day, Lt. Jordan returned. She walked to the Chief Nurse's station, shoes clicking briskly on the floor like always. But something about her had changed – she looked older, and her face had a clenched expression, as if she was willing herself to appear the same as always.
A cheery redhead named Eileen, one of Saunders' favorite nurses, brought his breakfast tray and started her usual easy patter about weather and news from home. But Saunders had no time for the weather in Tennessee today. "Where's Lieutenant Jordan been?"
Eileen stopped, glanced over at Lt. Jordan, and dropped her eyes. "I'll come back for your tray." She turned and left without another word.
Saunders didn't touch his food. When she returned and eyed the full plate, he said, "I'll eat it if you'll tell me."
"No dice, Sergeant."
Saunders glared at her, then raised his voice so he could be heard all the way across the ward. "Lieutenant Jordan, you said if I ever needed anything, I should ask for you."
Eileen hissed, "Men!" She stomped away while Lt. Jordan approached.
Lt. Jordan gave him what had once been a smile, but was now simply an imitation. "You called, Sergeant?"
Saunders slipped into his new role of light-hearted rogue. "I thought you ought to know I'm taking you to the USO dance tonight."
The smile took on a little more life. "And just how did you plan to lead – should I requisition my own wheelchair?"
"You've been gone. For all you know, I could be waltzing by now."
"Going to give me a demonstration?"
"Maybe later." Saunders lowered his voice and dropped his joking tone. "I've missed seeing you around."
Lt. Jordan's voice remained steady, but she looked away for a moment. "I'm sorry my absence bothered you."
"Are you all right?"
Lt. Jordan shook her head. "You keep your life to yourself, Sergeant, and I'll keep mine to myself." She pointed to his tray. "Better eat up if you're going dancing."
"I'm not hungry."
When she reached for the tray, he touched her arm. "I really did miss you."
She bit her lower lip, took a deep breath, then said, "I don't want this spread around."
"My fiancé was killed."
He blinked. "I'm sorry."
She gave a shaky little laugh. "So am I." She picked up his tray and carried it away, her back ramrod straight and her head high.
Saunders leaned back on his pillow. So she'd been engaged, presumably to a soldier. Sailor? Pilot? And he'd just died. He'd said he was sorry for her loss, and he was. But somewhere beneath his pity and compassion for her, a small voice said, "But that means she's not getting married anymore."
He realized now that he was more than a little attracted to Lt. Jordan. Her low voice, her expressive eyes, the way her touch could be firm and gentle at the same time... everything about her fascinated him more than he had wanted to admit before. And now she was practically a widow and somehow unreachable, someone he shouldn't even think about. Which shouldn't bother him, he reminded himself, since the role he now played called for casual flirtation, not serious attraction.
Every day, the role grew a little easier. Every day, there were fewer times when he had to remember to be witty, wipe a serious expression from his face, push away memories of his lost squad. And yet... the new persona remained a mask. He suspected it always would.
The USO really did hold a dance that night, in a tent set up on the broad expanse of lawn between the palazzo-hospital and its formal gardens. Every wounded man who could walk or ride in a wheelchair attended, if only to sit along the sidelines and watch. They even had a real band – it wasn't very good, and only knew about eight songs, but no one minded. Every off-duty nurse attended, and a lot of local Italian girls whose families sympathized with the Allies.
Saunders and the other wheelchair-bound soldiers stationed themselves near the refreshments table, where they could chat up all the girls getting espresso or cookies. This made the chaperones uncomfortable, which added to the soldiers' fun. Saunders played his role well, making himself the loudest, most jovial of the bunch.
Eventually, he noticed that one particular face was missing from the crowd. So he excused himself, telling the other soldiers he needed to visit the supply room and requisition a bottle of gin. He wheeled himself back to the hospital, glad the ballroom ward was not too far away. Even so, he was more tired than he'd expected when he returned.
Sure enough, there sat Lt. Jordan at her post. She had her arms on the desk and her head pillowed on them. Saunders wheeled himself toward her, wondering if maybe she'd dozed off. The ward was quiet. Only the silent man with broken legs and two other bedridden patients remained, and they were asleep.
Saunders considered leaving – if Jordan was resting, she probably needed it. But just as he began to turn around, she raised her head, saw him, and tried to smile.
"Can I help you, Sergeant?" she asked softly.
"I asked you to the dance," he reminded her.
"I'm on duty."
"Listen, I'm..." he stopped. He was what? He'd already said he was sorry. What more could he add? Finally, he said, "I thought you might want to talk."
"Whatever you like."
"No, thank you."
"Mind if I do?"
"If you want, Sergeant."
Saunders rolled himself closer, until he was beside her desk, facing her. "Call me Saunders."
She smiled at last. "Just Saunders? Not your first name? I've read your chart, I know it's–"
"I'm not real fond of my first name."
"It reminds you too much of home?"
"Something like that."
"Well, maybe I'll call you Saunders if you'll call me Gwen."
"Is that allowed?" He feigned shock. "After all, you're an officer, and I am but a lowly sergeant."
"I won't tell if you don't." She sighed. "I get tired of the rank, you know. No one calls me Gwen anymore, it's always lieutenant this and lieutenant that."
"Is that what he called you?" The minute he said it, Saunders regretted the question.
Gwen swallowed. "No. He called me Dolly. It's Gwendolyn, really. My family calls me Gwen."
"Gwen it is. For tonight, anyway."
"For tonight. And I shall call you..." she paused and studied him. "Lancelot."
He raised his eyebrows.
"Gwen can be short for Guinevere too." She reached out and rested her hand on his wheelchair. "Rescued by her trusty knight on his shining steed."
"Rescued from what?" The conversation had taken a turn he'd never expected. Hoped for, maybe, but not expected. He may have admitted that afternoon that he harbored more than a passing interest in her, but he reminded himself that her newly bereaved status made her taboo. It was no fair taking advantage of a woman who needed comforting.
"Boredom. My own thoughts." Her voice dropped a register, and she gazed directly into his eyes. "Loneliness."
"I know something about loneliness."
"We're both alone now, aren't we. You've lost your squad; I've lost my fiancé."
Saunders put his hand over hers. He hesitated, then said, "How did he die?"
Gwen bit her lower lip. "He got shot down over the Channel."
"He was a pilot?"
She nodded. "He'd been an airline pilot. When the war started, he joined the RAF, back in thirty-nine. Said he could fight the Nazis even if our country didn't want to." She removed her hand from his. "We got engaged the night before he left. I saw him twice after that, when he could get a long enough leave to come home. I gave up my job at the hospital and joined this unit the day after Pearl Harbor. I haven't seen him since."
Her smile faltered, and tears shone in her eyes. "I never thought I wouldn't see him again. I never even told him goodbye." Then she was crying, her hands over her face and her shoulders shaking.
Saunders wheeled himself closer and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm here," he said softly. It's what he used to say to his mother when she got this way, the only thing he could think of that didn't sound condescending. He wanted to pull Gwen close, cradle her while she grieved, reassure her however he could. But his wheelchair made the idea too awkward, and he was also afraid if he gathered her into his arms, he'd forget the reason for her grief and kiss her. So he just kept his hand on her shoulder, not daring even to stroke her hair or speak.
Eventually, she took a deep breath, hiccupped, and lowered her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lose control this way."
"You needed it." Saunders handed her the handkerchief from his breast pocket.
Gwen blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes. "I must look terrible."
"You look fine," Saunders assured her. He thought she looked better than fine, with her eyes still glistening and her hair a bit tousled. She was more human this way, less the lieutenant and more the woman.
"Lancelot shouldn't lie to Guinevere," she scolded as she handed back his handkerchief.
"He never does."
Gwen checked her watch. "The dance will break up soon," she said.
"Shall I help you to your cot before the others return and it's pandemonium in here?"
"Sure." He let her push him back to his bed and help him stand and shuffle the few inches so he could sit on the bed. "It's getting easier," he said. He had to say something, anything, with her there beside him, her arm around his shoulders making sure he was stable.
"You'll be walking soon," she promised. She pulled away from him, and he reluctantly didn't resist.
"I can do the rest," he said, shifting around in preparation for swinging his legs up and pulling the covers over them. "Thanks."
Gwen put her hand on his cheek. "Thank you." Then she hurried back to her desk without another glance at him.
It was three days before they spoke again. Saunders knew Gwen was avoiding him, and he didn't blame her. She must know how attracted he was to her, so it was safest if she avoided him altogether. He couldn't help but think she also harbored some reciprocal attraction she felt guilty about. So he fought it. He didn't want to intrude on her grief with his advances, and he knew the honorable thing to do was to forget her. Besides, what about that vow he'd made never to care for anyone again? It was time he practice what he preached.
And yet, every time she entered the ward, he was aware of her. He knew the sound of her shoes on the floor, every cadence of her voice. Even when he wasn't looking for her, he knew where she was within the erstwhile ballroom's walls.
At long last, the day came when he was ready to walk more than a shuffled step or two. Maude and Eileen stood on either side, his arms around their shoulders as he took his first few steps. His wound complained, but not enough to make him stop. He walked all the way across the vast room and back, the other soldiers cheering him on, a silly grin on his face.
Maude called over the din, "Come see how well he's doing, Lieutenant!" And Gwen Jordan had no choice but to come and applaud him as well. Her eyes met his, and she smiled her real smile, not the professional one.
He winked at her, tossing aside all caution. His elation over being on his own two feet again intoxicated him.
"Excellent work, Sergeant," she said. "We'll have to throw you out soon, before you start chasing nurses up and down the halls." She turned away quickly.
Saunders flirted with his helpers while they assisted him back to his bed, but his mind was busy analyzing Gwen's comment and the way she'd hurried back to her desk. Did that mean she wanted to get rid of him? Did she feel ashamed of confiding so much in a common soldier? Or was she as confused as he was?
He knew then what he had to do. He had to get well and get out of there. Before he did something stupid that they'd both regret. Like get her alone again somehow and kiss her until she forgot her dead fiancé and he forgot his dead squad.
Yes, it would be better for them both if he got away from her, the faster, the better.
And so, he concentrated on walking, on going farther every day, on getting ready to return to the lines. He knew that meant having a new squad assigned to him. Even though no one could replace his men, he'd have to lead them, get to know their abilities and shortcomings. If he was lucky, he'd get an already-formed squad, one that had lost their own leader and had no one qualified to step up to command it. Then again, maybe it would be easier to have raw recruits, men he could form himself and shape into a cohesive unit without old habits to break or bend.
Or maybe he'd rather not go back at all. Sometimes Saunders felt like pitching in the towel, like saying, "Send me home, I'm not well enough." His wound burned when he walked, and he sometimes had to stop and rest to let the pain subside, to let the tears that formed in his eyes dry up before anyone noticed them.
But he was getting better, he couldn't deny it. Before long, he didn't need anything but a cane, although a nurse accompanied him on his walks about the grounds in case he strayed too far and then needed help and couldn't get it.
And one blissful Sunday morning, Lt. Gwen Jordan herself joined him outside the hospital's entrance. "To what do I owe this honor?" Saunders asked as she met him at the top of the ramp someone had built over the front steps.
"I wanted a stroll, and everyone else is occupied."
Saunders accepted her implication that it had nothing to do with him. "Any place in particular you want to go?"
"You're the patient. I'm here merely to keep you out of trouble."
"Right." He set off toward the little copse of trees bordering the formal gardens. He hardly needed the cane anymore; he carried it more for reassurance than anything else. "I suppose I'll be leaving soon," he commented when they had almost reached the trees.
"Yes. I must admit, I had a reason for joining you this morning." Gwen put her hand on his arm. "Why don't we sit down?" She indicated a stone bench right inside the tree line.
Once they were seated, she said, "The doctors are releasing you for duty."
"Not active yet, but soon. You'll leave here tomorrow for the base in town."
Saunders paused, then asked, "Why bring me out here to tell me?"
Gwen shrugged. "I wasn't sure how you'd take it." She cocked her head to one side and studied him. "You're unpredictable, Sergeant."
"You think so?"
"When you first came here, you could've killed anyone who looked at you wrong. You didn't want to talk, didn't want anyone near you. Then all of a sudden, you changed." She shook her head. "You've got most people fooled, but I don't think this is the real you."
"What is the real me, then?"
"Something in between." She touched his chest with her fingertips. "But you've buried it somewhere deep." She pulled her hand away. "I apologize. It's none of my business."
Saunders reached over, cupped her cheek in his hand, and leaned forward. He looked into her eyes for a moment, read surprise, but no refusal in them, and kissed her gently. "I think you're right."
"Me being unpredictable."
"You've been trying not to do that for a long time. Sorry, but you're not that good at hiding things."
"Should I apologize?"
"I'm not offended."
"But you'd rather I didn't do it again."
Gwen stood up. "I don't know what I'd rather." She gave a little laugh. "You're not just unpredictable, Lancelot, you're also a bad influence. I think I should avoid you."
"You did avoid me. Until now." Saunders rose too. "I'll be gone in the morning."
"Just to the base. Not even a mile away. They won't send you back to the front for another week or two."
"You wish I was back at the front?"
"No. And yes." She laughed again. "You're a hard man to resist. And I don't think you're even trying. If you really wanted me, I don't think I could fight you."
"I do want you. I just don't... I didn't think you'd feel it was right."
"I don't know what I feel. We're at war, you'll be gone soon – we'll probably never see each other again. What would be the point of getting attached, just to lose you so soon?"
Saunders nodded. "We lose either way." He started to turn away. "We always lose."
"Wait." Gwen searched his face, his eyes. "If we lose either way, what's the difference." She put her arms around his neck and kissed him.
Saunders held her close, the wound in his abdomen barely protesting the way Gwen's uniform buttons pressed into it. The kiss didn't last forever, but he held her a long time, her face against his neck, head on his shoulder. He rested his cheek on her hair, breathed in her clean, feminine scent. Finally he spoke, his voice a throaty crumble. "I might never get a pass."
"And even if I do, you might be on duty."
"I can always say I don't feel well – there are others who can take my shift."
He pulled away. "I'm an enlisted man, don't forget that."
Gwen raised her eyebrows. "Officers should only consort with other officers?"
"This is the Army, after all."
"I'm not a career officer – if they want to bust me, let them." She took his hand. "I know a back way to my tent. It's not much, but it's more private than the gardens."
Saunders held back. "Are you sure about this?"
"If I change my mind, I'll let you know." She tugged at his hand, and this time, Saunders followed.
His discharge from the hospital the next morning was a quick formality, and then Saunders was back in the Army world, surrounded by hundreds of other soldiers all busy winning the war. But the Army didn't quite know what to do with him. They couldn't send him back up to the front, he wasn't well enough to drill the replacements waiting to be sent up, and they couldn't make him do menial labor like peeling potatoes. So they let him do as he pleased while they worked on finding a new squad for him. For four days, he paced around the town-turned-military base, hands in his pockets, relishing his freedom from the cane or an assisting arm. He drank countless tiny cups of espresso at the local caffés. And he thought about Gwen. He had put in for a pass as soon as he'd found out who his CO was, but so far it was a no-go.
Finally, they gave him the word: tomorrow, he'd take command of a brand-new squad, six guys all wet behind the ears who hadn't even stepped off the troop ship yet. But tonight, he could have a pass to go off base.
Saunders wasted no time on things like a fresh uniform or a quick haircut. He headed straight for the hospital staff's quarters. It wasn't until he stood outside Gwen's tent that he realized he was nervous. He hadn't seen her in over a week. What if she'd changed her mind? He ran a hand over his five o'clock shadow – he should have at least shaved first.
Saunders knocked on the canvas door flap, a somewhat pointless gesture, but someone inside heard him. He could hear movement, and then a woman he'd never seen before opened the flap.
"Can I help you?" she asked coolly.
"Is Lieutenant Jordan here?"
"She's on duty." The woman looked older, probably in her forties, and she gave his three stripes a disapproving glance. "I suppose you could leave a message."
"No, thank you. Sorry to bother you, ma'am." Saunders saluted and started walking away, his shoulders sagging with disappointment. What was he supposed to do now, waltz into the hospital?
"Wait," Gwen's tentmate called, her voice softening a bit. "You wouldn't know someone named Lancelot, by any chance?"
He turned back. "I would."
She smiled. "Wait here." She stepped out and held the tent flap open. "Go on in, Sergeant." Once he had ducked inside, she dropped the door flap and was gone.
Saunders glanced around the tent. It hadn't changed since his last visit. Two cots along opposite walls, two folding tables holding various womanly effects, lipstick and hairpins and such. Gwen's had a small mirror on a stand; the other woman's held framed photos of two young men in uniforms, one Navy, one Marines. Her sons, he guessed. Two mismatched chairs and their Army foot lockers completed the tent's furnishings. A line strung along the back wall held six pairs of drying stockings.
Saunders heard a rustle outside and turned toward the tent flap just as Gwen ducked in through it. "They finally gave you some time off," she said with a smile.
"Yeah. I meet my new squad tomorrow."
Gwen's smile faded, and she put her hand on his arm. "You'll do fine."
He frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. I know you were... never mind." Her warm smile returned, and she crossed to the chairs. "Won't you sit down?"
He took the seat she offered. "I've missed you," he admitted.
"Lancelot, the charmer." There was something odd about her expression now, something strained. Her voice sounded falsely flirtatious.
"Stop." He shook his head. "Stop pretending. What happened?"
Gwen picked up a lipstick tube from her table and fiddled with it. "What makes you think something happened?"
"This isn't you."
She turned on him. "So now you know me? You think a walk in the garden, a few hours together made you an authority?"
"No, no more than it made you an authority on me." He stood up. "If you want me to go, say so."
Gwen sighed. "No, stay. I'm sorry. It's been a hard week. Wondering if you'd ever come back. Wondering what it all meant. If I should stop thinking about you. If I even could."
Saunders didn't sit back down in the chair, he went to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "I think I should go anyway. It isn't good for either of us – we should end this before anything else happens."
Gwen clutched his hand. "Please don't," she whispered. "I can't bear to say goodbye just yet." She looked up at him. "Kiss me first, at least."
Then somehow she was out of her chair and in his arms, loosening the pins that held her nurse's cap on, pulling it off, letting her hair flow down to her shoulders instead of staying tight in the sensible bun. Saunders tangled his fingers in her hair as he pulled her mouth to his.
An eternity later, Gwen murmured in his ear, "How long is your pass?"
"I've got all night."
While Saunders bent over her table, peering in the little mirror as he retied his tie, Gwen said, "Are you going back to the front soon?"
"As soon as my squad's ready."
Gwen sat down on her cot and closed her eyes. "Must you?"
"I mean, can't you help the war effort some other way? I know some people – maybe I could get you a job with an officer."
"As an aide? Or a pencil-pusher? Driving some colonel or general around while other people do the fighting?" He shook his head. "I know where I belong, Gwen, and so do you."
"But next time, it could be you in the tank's sights. Or you could get wounded again and not be found in time. I don't know if I could stand losing you." She stood up, came behind him, and rested her chin on his shoulder, her arms around him. "Think about it?"
Saunders turned within her embrace so they stood face to face. "I don't have to. I'm a squad leader; it's what I do."
"You like it that much?"
"It's not a question of liking it. It's a question of whether or not I need to do it. And I do. You know that, Gwen."
She let him go and sat back down on her cot. "No, I don't."
Saunders folded his arms. "Did you try convincing him not to go too?" They both knew who he meant.
"I thought it was noble, valiant. I know better now – it was a waste. A waste of his life and mine."
"He died for what he believed in. You think that's a waste?"
"I think every dead soldier is a waste. The sooner this war ends, the better."
"That's why I have to go back. If everyone sits it out, this thing will drag on and on."
Gwen stood up. "Nothing I say or do will change your mind?"
She came to him, rested her head on his chest, put her arms around him. "I'm being selfish, I know. Don't blame me too much."
"The war won't last forever," Saunders promised. "When it's over...." He stopped and looked at her. "Then what?" he asked at last.
"You mean, when we both go back home?" She smiled. "I can get my job at the hospital back, you can find something. What did you do before the war?"
He answered indirectly. "I'm thinking of staying in."
"In the Army?"
"But why? That's no life – moving from Army base to Army base? Taking orders all your life? Don't you want something more?"
"What's wrong with being a soldier?"
"Nothing. Of course there's nothing wrong with it. For now. But forever?"
Saunders let her go and stepped away. "I chose this, Gwen. I signed up. Someone has to do this. After the war, someone has to keep the peace. I think I'd like to be a part of that." He saw something in her eyes that troubled him. Fear? No. Doubt? That might be it. "You don't see yourself as an Army wife. An Army sergeant's wife, is that it? Maybe if I was an officer... but I'll never be an officer."
"Why not? I could see you as a lieutenant. A captain, even. You're certainly capable of it."
"I'll never be an officer," he repeated. "I don't want it. A squad is enough. It's what I'm good at."
"And what about me? Working at a base hospital?"
"Or staying home. We could have children."
"I don't want children. I never have. I'm a good nurse, Saunders. You're a good sergeant, and you want to keep being one. I want to keep being a nurse."
He looked her up and down. "You were right before," he said. "I barely know you."
"You could get to know me."
"And then what?" He shook his head. He felt sick inside, sick at how he'd let himself have feelings for a woman he didn't even know, how they'd led each other on, how they had ignored everything to pursue a slender flame of momentary passion. "What's the use?"
Gwen slapped him. "How dare you?" she hissed. "How dare you make me care about you, even think I might love you, and then say that?"
"Because it's the truth." Saunders grabbed his hat off her table. "There's no future for people like us, Gwen. Why keep pretending there could be?" He pulled his hat down over his eyes. "Don't worry, I won't be back." He pushed through her tent's flap and hurried down the dirt path to the base.
Back in his barracks, Saunders lay down on his bed, hands behind his head. It had all been a crazy dream, a soap bubble illusion burst by the sharp sting of reality. He'd learned his lesson but good this time. He'd go back to keeping everyone at a distance. And he'd start again in the morning, when he met his new squad.
When Saunders reported at oh-nine-hundred, he was puzzled to find Lt. Curtis alone. He'd expected the six recruits – his new squad – to be there also.
Lt. Curtis returned Saunders' salute and said, "At ease, Sergeant." He was a round, good-natured man with smile wrinkles around his mouth and eyes. "There's been a change of plans. We're sending you to England."
"To England, sir?"
"Yes. They need squad leaders with your experience to lead troops there. You leave first thing tomorrow. Report to the docks with all your gear packed and ready – you can catch a ride on one of the trucks going out that way. Any questions?"
Saunders hesitated, but figured it wouldn't hurt to ask. "I know I had a pass last night, sir, but I wondered if–"
"I'm sorry, Saunders, but we need you ship-shape tomorrow. No one last night on the town."
Saunders didn't press the issue. He'd only spoken to Curtis a few times, but he had a feeling pleading his case would do no good. So he saluted and left.
He headed for his barracks, his mind racing. England. There was only one reason why they'd send him there: the Allies were finally preparing to invade mainland Europe. And since he'd already survived a landing or two, they wanted him there to lead the green troops. If he made it off the beaches, his experience would be valuable.
But why did the Army have to make him sit around for weeks and then decide this at the last minute? If he'd known the night before... but he hadn't known. So now he had to see Gwen, pass or no pass. She'd told him more than once: the thing she regretted most about her fiancé's death was that she'd never told him goodbye. He wouldn't give her another regret like that one. This whole mess couldn't end with him storming out of her tent. He wouldn't disappear, leaving nothing but a scribbled note passed on by some third party.
And so, Saunders decided to go AWOL. He'd done it once in North Africa, back when he was a corporal, a lifetime ago. And he'd gotten lucky, never bumped into an MP, never been missed. He'd done it for kicks that time, to blow off some steam after a couple of tense weeks full of sand and Panzers and death. He prayed he'd be as lucky this time. He knew the town by now, and the hospital camp, knew which tents to sneak between, which areas the MPs watched closest, which gates to avoid. And he didn't intend to stay long, just tell Gwen he was sorry and that he would be gone the next day, so she could start forgetting him.
At twilight, Saunders vaulted over the low wall that surrounded the formal gardens near the hospital. His wounded stomach almost didn't complain. He'd counted on the garden being deserted, with all the patients and nurses inside finishing supper. So far, his luck had held. No one had challenged the sergeant walking boldly, purposefully through the town. After all, the camp buzzed with soldiers all going somewhere, new recruits arriving and getting shuffled from building to building, others preparing to leave in the morning.
He stuck to the shadows under the trees while he crossed the gardens and hurried toward the tents. His luck had come through in another way: it was Monday, Gwen's day off. If she was in her tent, he'd say his piece and go. If not... well, he'd always been good at improvising new plans as the need arose.
When he reached Gwen's tent, he tapped on the canvas. It was nearly dark now, and the air had a chill. He knew from the light spilling through the crack where the tent didn't quite meet the ground that either Gwen or her roommate was there. He held his breath as he waited for the tent flap to open.
Then it did, and Gwen stared at him. "What are you doing here?"
"Let me in and I'll explain."
"You've got a lot of nerve coming here uninvited."
"A lot of nerve and no pass, now either let me in or call the MPs." He made his voice a little rough to impress on her both the urgency of his situation and the fact that he wasn't expecting a romantic interlude.
Gwen stepped aside and let him in, then ducked her head outside and looked both ways before dropping the tent flap. She turned and faced him, her mouth set in a thin line. "I suppose you're here to beg forgiveness."
"I'm leaving for England in the morning. I wanted you to have the chance to say goodbye this
"England?" Her resolute expression faltered. "So we're invading at last."
"Looks that way."
She bit her lip. "And you went AWOL to tell me."
"I didn't want to leave you with any regrets. You've got enough of those."
Suddenly, she was in his arms once more, head nestled against his shoulder in its familiar spot. "We always lose, don't we," she murmured.
"Someday we won't."
She gazed up at him, her eyes shining with tears in the lamplight. "There's no someday for us, Lancelot. Nothing's changed."
"I know." He kissed her, a lingering farewell kiss. Then he let her go and headed for the door. Before he left, he paused and looked at her standing alone in the middle of her tent. "Goodbye, Gwen."
"Goodbye, Sergeant." She started to say something else, stopped, and gave her head a little shake. "Goodbye."
He ducked out and headed across the hospital compound the back way, the way Gwen had taken him the first time he visited her tent. He had almost reached his barracks when his luck ran out.
"Halt!" An MP materialized from the mess tent's shadow. "Let's see your pass."
Saunders went through the expected routine, checking his pants pockets, shirt pockets, and hat. Then he grinned. "You got me."
He felt lighthearted suddenly, relieved to have been caught. He'd probably lose his stripes, but along with them, he could lose his old identity entirely. No more responsible Sgt. Saunders, the steady, dependable leader of men. He'd be just another private, the kidder no one took seriously. If he was lucky, they'd still send him to England, and his new start would be complete.
He held out his wrists. "We lose every time."