{Many thanks to White Queen for her invaluable critiques. This wouldn't be half the story it is if she hadn't stepped in and explained the difference between broken and bruised ribs, non-coms and non-combatants, the intricacies of army call-signs, and many other issues. Thanks so much!}

"There was nothing you could do, Doc. He would've killed us just as soon as we got across that minefield." Saunders ran a hand through his hair, frustrated at Doc and himself and the whole stupid, messed up war. He was worried too, and when he was worried, he tended to get frustrated with himself the most. Worrying never solved anything. It was just something he did naturally.

Doc worked in silence, transferring bandages from a small stack on the table in front of him to his aid bag. "I know that, Sarge. Just seems like I do more work taking lives these days then I do saving them." His voice was quiet, as always, but it was missing some spark, the life it'd once had. Killing Aptmeyer had meant more than the death of another German for Doc.

Saunders sighed and stood up. "I have to get back to Lieutenant Hanley. Word is we're due for another mission."

Doc nodded, pushed the rest of the bandages into his bag, and stood up from the bench. "I'll come with you, Sarge. Promised I'd be at the aid station to help with all the new arrivals that've started coming in. And I need to pick up some more supplies."

He slung the bag over his shoulder and walked past Saunders, out the door. His shoulders were slumped ever so slightly. Nothing a stranger would notice, but Saunders did. Doc was a good medic, the best the squad had ever had, and they couldn't afford to lose him.

There were more ways to lose someone than just a bullet.

:::

Doc walked along the dirt road that led from the aid station. The aid bag he'd just restocked banged uncomfortably against his shoulder with each step, but he ignored it. There were more important things to think about. Like what Saunders had said about another mission. He'd be coming along. Patrols meant the enemy. The enemy meant fighting. Fighting meant casualties. And casualties meant medics.

He would be a whole lot more comfortable about it if he didn't feel like a fake medic.

Killing Aptmeyer had been the right thing to do. Everyone would agree – Saunders, Lieutenant Hanley, any of the other guys in the squad. Caje would've died if he hadn't strangled Aptmeyer, and probably he and Saunders would've been dead as soon as they crossed the minefield. Even Doc admitted to himself that there hadn't been any other way to get out safely.

But he was a man who'd promised to save lives, not destroy them, and that broken promise weighed heavily on him like the gear that hung off his shoulder. Only about a hundred pounds heavier. Killing a man for the first time wasn't something you did and forgot about. It wouldn't be easy for him to just let it go like Saunders seemed to want him to do.

Doc glanced up at the sky and adjusted his helmet. Looked like there could be some storming before the day was over.

:::

"G2 wants to confirm rumors about an advance in Sector F, especially after the clobbering our guys got in Sector G. They want something concrete to work off of, so we're sending out squads all along the line to scout around, and maybe pick up a prisoner or two." Hanley looked up at Saunders from behind the desk where he sat. "Pick your men, Saunders. You leave in an hour."

Saunders nodded.

"How's your leg doing?" Hanley asked.

"Oh, it's fine, lieutenant. Doc did a good job." Saunders didn't even think about his leg anymore. He had so many different wounds and scars from any number of missions that if he spent time every day thinking about each one and cataloguing all the aches and pains, he'd never get anything done.

Saunders left the tent that served as temporary headquarters, his mind busy. A squad sent into sector F had a pretty good chance of coming out in one piece, based on what he'd heard from guys who'd been in there last, although anything could've changed between then and now. Could still change.

He entered the barn his squad had holed up in and glanced around. Everyone was relaxing, taking a few hours off and away from the usual slog of patrols and dangerous assignments and the war in general.

Littlejohn was polishing his rifle. Billy, leaning against the wall right next to Littlejohn, was jabbering away about something, talking fast enough for both of them. Littlejohn gave him a nod or glance every few minutes, but that was all the encouragement Billy needed. Frasier had a game of cards going with Baker and Kirby. Doc was sitting on his cot, watching everyone else, his aid bag lying beside him.

Caje was the only one missing from the regular squad. He was still recovering from his leg wound.

"All right, you guys," he said. "I just got word from Lieutenant Hanley – G2 wants us out on a patrol in Sector F to pick up a prisoner. We leave in an hour."

There was little audible response; a few groans, but nobody seemed really sore about the news. It wouldn't have made a difference in his orders even if there'd been some complaints, but men with good attitudes were a lot easier to handle then irritated ones. Everyone was up and packing. Another patrol, routine stuff, no big deal. Looking around, that was the prevailing attitude Saunders saw.

"Pack two days of C rations. We could be out there for a while."

:::

The mild evening had turned sour nearly as soon as the squad left. Rain pelted down, making the general confusion of dusk all the worse. Water dripped off helmets, lightning crackled at intervals, and thunder boomed about every minute. At least the Germans would be off guard, probably not expecting anyone to be crazy enough to come out in this kind of weather.

Doc trudged along behind Kirby, with Littlejohn behind himself, Frasier and Baker ahead. Saunders had taken point, which was unusual, considering he almost always had Caje go first – his backwoods skills being useful for spotting anything different or wrong about the places they went. When Saunders took point, it usually meant he was worried about the mission.

Doc kept his own senses on high alert. If Sarge thought something could go wrong, it probably would. He was nearly always right about things like that.

Kirby turned around, walking backwards with his BAR strap slung around his neck, the weapon in his hands. "Why do they send us out on patrols in screwy weather like this?!" he said, shouting to be heard over the rain and thunder. And probably just to yell too, to let off some steam.

"You're gonna hurt yourself walking like that," Doc said.

"Stop griping, Kirby," Littlejohn said at the same time. "They can't control the weather, can they?"

Kirby scowled at them and turned back around. Nobody was in a good mood, with the weather being what it was, but Kirby was the one who always voiced any complaints the rest of the squad members had. Things they probably wouldn't ever say themselves, but almost depended on Kirby to say. Kind of like taking everyone's frustrations and giving them a voice.

Doc hitched his aid bag up higher on his shoulder. Maybe he'd just forget about Aptmeyer and the mine field and Caje and Saunders' lives being in danger. If you faced facts, they were in danger all the time. But they'd escaped the mine field and Aptmeyer wouldn't bother anyone anymore. In terms of military strategy, the whole thing had been a success.

Then why didn't he feel that way?

No sense stewing about it right now. Distraction was what got people killed, every time, and he wasn't about to let that happen. Not on his watch. He might've broken faith with the medic's code, but there was always a time to start again. So he straightened his shoulders and walked on, behind Kirby, in front of Littlejohn.

:::

Saunders didn't like the storm. Not because of the cold and wet, although that certainly was an issue. No, it was the thunder he was worried about. If the Krauts were as close as Lieutenant Hanley'd thought they were, they could be tramping around, lobbing grenades, doing just about anything, and he'd have no idea till it hit him and the other guys.

All he could do was keep his eyes open. Not let himself get dulled by the monotony of the rain or be startled by the blinding flashes of light from the sky. The whole thing was a fine mess, but they'd make the best of it like they always did. Or tried to do.

He stayed alert and ready for any unexpected bits of light or movement in the thick woods surrounding them on all sides. So far, there was nothing, which would have been reassuring – even welcome – if they didn't have orders to pick up a prisoner. He pushed aside some wet branches with his Thompson and kept going. Ordinarily, he'd take turns with the rest of the guys for point position, but he felt better being out in front on a night like this. Too many things could go wrong, and he didn't want any of the others taking it first.

Thunder cracked across the sky, sending vibrations right through–

Wait. What was that?

Saunders pulled his Thompson up. At the exact moment the thunder rolled, he'd heard a sound. An explosion of some kind, maybe. Or just the thunder mixed with an over amount of apprehension and nerves. But he didn't think so. Something had happened and–

He heard the scream of the shell an instant before the world exploded into fragments of coloured light.

:::

One minute everyone was walking along; the next no one knew what they were doing or where they were. From what Doc could piece together, there'd been an artillery shell fired about the time the last bit of thunder sounded. They'd all been walking along as a squad, and now everyone was on the ground, stunned or wounded.

His ears were still ringing, and his night vision was broken up, but he could still move around. That was something. And except for an ache in his side from where he'd been thrown against the ground by the blast, his injuries weren't too serious. Not like all the others, from what he could hear. Now that the shock of the attack had fallen away, they were starting to make some noise.

More shells were falling now, but farther away from where they were. The first one had probably just been a quick shot so the Germans could get their bearings, but whatever the reason, the squad was badly hurt from that first shell. Doc groped around on the ground for his aid bag. It was a few feet away from where he'd landed and looked to be intact. A blessing if there ever was one.

He stood up, ignoring the aching protest from his right side – maybe a bruised rib or two – and limped over to where he could dimly make out a couple of still figures. Reaching the first one, he knelt down, pulling the bag closer to him as he did so. It was Frasier. Dead. Shards of shrapnel embedded in his stomach. Doc shook his head. He was half afraid to check all the others, but some of them were alive out there, and he couldn't desert them just because his throat was clenched and his insides felt all knotted up.

"Doc?" It was a whisper, barely there at all. "Doc?"

The second time, he recognized the voice. Billy. He crawled over the ground, keeping his head low. Billy was several feet away from the main area of the blast, most likely thrown by the force of it. Doc checked him. Pulse was steady, but not exactly strong. A broken arm, and several pieces of shrapnel in one leg, and a gash in his forehead that was bleeding like crazy. If he didn't stop the blood flow soon... "Don't worry, Billy," he said. "I'll get you fixed up."

Rain poured down, and the only light came from the flashes up above – shells and lightning both.

Doc pushed his helmet back a little and went to work on Billy. Bandaging up his arm and forehead, but not being able to do anything about the shrapnel right away. He had to check the others right now and figure out exactly how much damage the squad had sustained.

"You're going to be all right," he said just before leaving Billy to find the others. And he meant it. Giving false hope to a dying man was never a right or good thing.

The pain in his side was easing up some, or maybe it was just the adrenaline that continued to fill him as he went around to the other guys. His night vision returned slowly, but it was enough to make his job a little easier. Physically, anyway.

He found Littlejohn next. He was already awake and trying to sit, but seemed pretty dazed and out of it. A sprained left wrist and a wounded side – shrapnel again – was about the extent of his injuries. Not as serious as Billy, but bad enough. Doc bandaged him up and moved on to find the others.

Kirby was out cold, although Doc couldn't see any reason for him to be. Shock? Internal injuries? Doc pressed his fingers to Kirby's wrist and found a pulse that was weak, at best. He shook his head and continued on. Baker was dead, just like Frasier, his head nearly blown off. He'd been right behind Saunders. What did that say about Saunders?

Saunders lay in the woods a few yards from everyone else. Doc stared at him for a moment.

He was lying on his stomach, face down in the mud, not moving. Doc couldn't even be sure if he was breathing. He crawled softly over to the sergeant and was about to turn him over, when he saw the shrapnel – well, more like a big metal spike – stuck in Saunders' back, just a couple inches away from his spine. Sunk in pretty deep, too.

Doc closed his eyes. He wasn't trained or prepared for this kind of thing. 'Helpless' was too small a word to describe what he felt. Saunders couldn't be moved without the proper equipment; he could bleed to death or be paralyzed – or worse. And there were three other guys who needed attention as well. Four wounded men, one medic.

Well, he wasn't going to sit around here feeling sorry for himself while everyone who depended on him died.

Doc opened his eyes. He hadn't seen the radio back there, but maybe it was still intact. A very big maybe, but worth a try anyway. If he could get help soon, maybe no one else would have to die. Maybe Saunders would get the operation he needed. Maybe the Germans hadn't won this one. Doc stood up.

After a couple minutes of searching, he found it. It was there, all right. One half of it sliced clean away from the shrapnel, completely useless.

Rain kept pouring down as Doc stood there in the middle of the clearing. Frasier and Baker to his right, both battered and dead. Littlejohn and Billy, Saunders and Kirby to his left, all hurt in some way or another. And himself right in the middle, the only one well enough to do anything about the situation. Well, he couldn't just give up because the radio was useless and there was no-one except himself who could save the squad. If he did that, they'd all die in these woods without a soul knowing about till days from now.

And he wasn't about to let that happen.

:::

Littlejohn, Kirby, and Billy were all propped up against their own separate trees. Doc had dragged or helped them over to the little patch of woods where Saunders was, since he figured it was safer and simpler to have them all in one place.

"Hey, Doc, how bad's the Sarge?" Littlejohn asked.

Doc looked up from cleaning around the chunk of metal in Saunders' back. He shook his head. "He's not doing too good." It was a big understatement, but there wasn't any use in worrying the other guys when there was nothing any of them could do about it. The wound was bad, no question about it, and all he could do was keep the infection away with some sulfa powder. Even then, Saunders' chances weren't too good. He wasn't going anywhere without an ambulance and stretcher and real doctor.

Doc let out a deep breath and wiped his forehead. The rain had let up a bit, but it still trickled down his face and into his eyes, and the last thing he needed was blurry vision. If he accidentally jolted the metal or moved it in any way, Saunders could be paralyzed for life.

"What're we gonna do, Doc?" It was Littlejohn again. He was the only conscious one of the four. Billy had lost consciousness nearly right after Doc had fixed him up, and Kirby was still out. But Littlejohn was wide awake, leaning up against his tree, worry and more than a little bit of fear on his face.

Doc chewed on his bottom lip.

If Saunders was in his place, he'd go straight back to headquarters, give Lieutenant Hanley all the information about the wounded guys and the German barrage, and bring help that way. It was as good a plan as any, except for one thing. Saunders was a soldier. Doc was a non-combatant. If he went, there was a pretty good chance he could run into some Germans. Sure, he could take Saunder's sidearm, use if he had to...but if he did that, he'd be violating the rules of war. He'd already killed a man, he didn't want to form a habit of it.

But if he wanted Saunders and Kirby and Billy and Littlejohn to stay alive, he'd have to go. Right away, no delays, no questions asked. He could leave Littlejohn in charge of the others, with the weapons, some food, and most of the medical supplies. Risky, but what wouldn't be risky? No matter which way he did things, there'd be a risk.

"I'm going for help," he finally said, standing up. It was the only thing to do.

:::

"White Rook, this is Checkmate King 2, over."

Hanley set down the receiver. His fifth attempt at raising Saunders on the air. Nothing. He took a deep breath and let it out, looking around the tent as if trying to find an answer to the radio silence in the desk or cot or filing cabinet. He came up dry.

Every other squad he'd checked in with in the past hour had responded almost immediately, giving their map coordinates and a status update. Every squad except Saunders'. It was too soon for Hanley's superiors to worry about a lost squad, but not for Hanley.

Radio silence could mean any number of things, but only two of them bothered Hanley: they could be captured or in serious trouble.

:::

Doc moved at a crouching run, keeping low in the underbrush and damp trees that grew everywhere. The rain had eased up into a drizzle, and he hardly noticed it anyway. Just a small distraction for any soldiers out tonight. At least it wasn't holding him up any, though the same could be said for the Germans too.

Drip, drip, drip.

Water from overhead branches dripped on his helmet as he ran, making a tinny noise.

Daylight was still a good ways away, but they'd probably been walking for three hours before the shell hit. He had his work cut out for him, getting back through territory that was probably swarming with Germans, but there wasn't really anything else he could do. Not if he wanted the other guys to live.

Doc paused, bent over, hands on his thighs. He pushed back his helmet and rubbed his forehead. What was his plan, really? Get back to Lieutenant Hanley, of course, but did he really have a plan with how to make that happen? If Germans came up, he'd hide. But if they found him...that was something he didn't have any kind of a plan for. For the moment, he'd wing it. Hope for the best and be very, very careful.

Time was wasting away. Once the day came, it'd be harder to move around without being spotted, so Doc straightened up, adjusted his helmet, and went on. The rain was picking up again, along with a wind that made him shiver from a combination of cold and damp. Doc thought back to Littlejohn and the others lying there, open to anything that came along, and the thought doubled his pace for him. He couldn't let them die out there, just like that.

With the increase of rain, the lightning and thunder were back too. But some of the flashes on the horizon weren't natural, more like the thunderings of an artillery piece. Doc ran on, still crouched low. Unless there was some kind of imminent death hovering over him, he wasn't planning on stopping any time soon. What kind of a medic would he be if he stopped every time a couple shells were thrown?

Right now, nothing mattered besides Saunders and the shrapnel, Kirby in shock, Billy with a broken arm, and Littlejohn watching over all of them and not being in the best condition himself.

A flare bloomed in the sky, making everything bright as day.

Doc heard the scream of a shell and without even thinking about it, he flopped down on the ground so hard it felt like he bruised another couple of ribs. Mud and wet grass filled his mouth, leaving a taste like death all through him.

Hands over his head, he stuck to the ground like a piece of plaster as the shells fell all around him. Each hit made him clench tighter to the ground until it seemed like he was drawing inside of himself. Each hit made the ground shudder, sent dirt dumping over him, and would've made his teeth knock against each other if he hadn't already been clenching them. He'd been in the middle of barrages before, but this was the worst. Maybe because he wasn't surrounded by friends, by anyone, this time around.

Finally, the shelling stopped for longer than just a few seconds.

One hand in the mud, Doc risked standing up. All around him, big craters sat where there'd been bushes and trees or just dirt. His clothes were heavy with mud, but he pushed himself back up and kept on going. Time was slipping away and he didn't want to let any more go.

Two more times the flares and shells came, two more times that Doc found himself face-first in the mud and grime, two more times that he picked himself up and kept going. He was determined to get back to headquarters by morning.

:::

Saunders' eyes opened, slowly and painfully. Then all at once.

He started to move, to put one hand in the mud beside him to push himself up when he heard Littlejohn. "Don't move, Sarge!" It was a whisper, but it was insistent. Saunders froze. What was it? A land mine? A wild animal? A Kraut in the bushes?

Then it came back to him. The noise. The explosion. The darkness.

He was lying on his stomach in a part of the woods that he didn't remember seeing earlier – though with the faint light of a coming morning and the grittiness in his eyes he could've been mistaken about that – with a sharp pain in his back that seemed to be getting worse the more he woke up. "What happened?" he managed.

"You've got a piece of shrapnel in your back, Sarge," Littlejohn said, his voice coming from some unknown position. Saunders could only see by raising his head, and he couldn't even do that very well – and from what Littlejohn had said, he concluded even that wasn't a good idea.

Littlejohn spoke again. "Doc's gone back to see if he can get us some help." Saunders heard squishing footsteps and then Littlejohn came into view, a grimace of pain on his face, a hand holding onto his left side.

"What about the others?" Saunders said. His voice was rough and scratchy, his throat was dry and felt sealed off. He needed some water, but first he had to know how everyone had fared, especially since he couldn't get up and look around for himself.

"Billy's got beaten pretty bad," Littlejohn said, staring at the ground. "Kirby's out cold. He hasn't come out of it yet. Frasier didn't make it." He held up his left hand. "Sprained wrist, and I caught some shrapnel in the side. That's about it." He shook his head.

"And Doc?"

"I think he made it okay. Didn't say anything to me if he was hurt."

Saunders nodded. Five of the seven were alive – although he didn't know how good his own or Nelson's or Kirby's chances were. That was something, that they were alive. But Frasier and Baker...they'd been good men. Good soldiers. No one would forget them easily.

Littlejohn scooted back to the tree and grabbed a bag from under it.

"Doc left some bandages and morphine. Want me to give you a shot?"

Saunders hesitated for a moment and then nodded. Littlejohn seemed to be doing all right, and he wasn't even able to move. The pain was getting worse, and he might move without thinking about it, which, based on how his back felt, wouldn't be a good idea. Better to take some morphine and wait for Doc to get back with Hanley.

The morphine slid through him, relaxing every muscle and pushing the pain away somewhere he couldn't find it. "How bad is it?" he asked, just before falling asleep, talking about his wound. He thought he heard Littlejohn say "It'll be okay, Sarge" but before he could ask for clarification, he was asleep.

:::

Doc rubbed his eyes with tired, half-scorched hands.

Sometime last night, between shelling and running, he'd found a bit of underbrush and a mossy tree trunk that seemed comfortable enough, sat down for a moment to rest, and had fallen asleep. The ground was cold and hard, and every joint and muscle felt stiffer than they'd felt in a long time, but he was rested as well as he could be under the circumstances.

The last thing he remembered was being shelled, running through brush and dodging blasts. Now the rain had stopped, the sun was up in a glory of pink and orange, and he had time to make up for.

Not that he begrudged himself a rest. If he hadn't have taken one, it would've all caught up with him later on, maybe right when he needed to be awake and alert the most. But now he had to get up and go. Doc stood up and winced at the new pain the night's sleep had brought to what seemed like every part of his body, but especially his side. He moved slowly and took out the C-ration he'd stuffed in his jacket just before leaving Littlejohn and the others. Worry and pain and sleep had driven hunger away, but if he didn't eat something, he'd just as soon keel over from hunger as sleep deprivation.

A small pack of biscuits would be enough to tide him over for right now. The sun coming up worried him, along with the absence of rain. The Germans would be able to hear and see everything a whole lot clearer than last night, and he wasn't in any condition to deal with them, even if he'd had the means to.

His hands had taken the worst of the shelling, being peppered with little bits of white-hot fallout. The burns were tiny, hardly there, but all together, it wasn't comfortable. The tops of his hands were reddish, almost like sunburn, and he was careful not to touch anything to them. There were probably a few tiny bits of metal buried in there as well, although he couldn't see them just then.

Doc walked through the woods, eating his biscuits as he went. They weren't really biscuits, more like crackers, but he wasn't complaining. It was nutritious food and he – and every other guy in this man's army – was lucky to have some.

There were no road signs to point the way back to headquarters, but he knew the general direction, along with recognizing a tree here, a broken cart there as he backtracked. If he continued to stay out of sight and didn't come across any Germans, he could be back at headquarters in a couple of hours. Maybe the Germans hadn't even advanced this far. Doc allowed a little bit of hope to build up inside him.

The new day or the lift the biscuits gave him had probably brought on the spurt of relief, but it felt good all the same.

He didn't whistle or laugh or anything like that, but he felt a little more peaceful all the same. Things could turn out okay, despite his being a non-combatant in what could be German territory. Despite Saunders having a piece of metal three inches long in his back. Despite having a wounded man watching over three other wounded men.

:::

"Sir, I'd like your permission to send someone out to look for them. Over."

"Forget it, Lieutenant. We have more important things to worry about right now then a sergeant who got himself lost on the first day of a routine patrol. Over."

Hanley swallowed down whatever words came to his mind just then. He wouldn't do Saunders' squad any good by being insubordinate. "I understand, sir," he said. "Out." He placed the receiver back in its resting place and turned away from it. They'd received word of Kraut artillery moving in near Sector F. And Saunders didn't just get lost. He was too smart for that.

"Jenkins, get me the command post in Sector G."

While his aide fumbled with the radio, Hanley got out a map of Sectors A through H. He circled the areas from which they'd received shelling reports, most of which were centered on or around Sector F. He shook his head. The whole thing looked like suicide for Saunders and the squad – and any other squads that might be out there, for that matter.

"Sir, I've got the command post here," Jenkins said.

Hanley took the phone. "Blue Tiger, this is King Two. How does it look down there? Over."

:::

The sun shone down, but Saunders hardly felt it.

Underneath him, the mud wasn't cold, but it wasn't warm either. 'Uncomfortable' would be a better word, with the dirt and water oozing up and leeching any warmth he might have been able to conserve. He'd woken up from the morphine a few moments ago, but he wasn't awake enough to talk or even really form coherent thoughts.

At that moment, it was easier to feel things than talk - the mud under him and plastered against his cheek, the little breezes that swirled around and brushed through his hair, and the piece of shrapnel nestled in his back.

Littlejohn came over. "You awake, Sarge?" He'd probably been checking Saunders every little while or so.

"Yeah, I'm awake." His voice had changed from rough and cracked to barely a whisper. He couldn't get much else out. Something was wrong with his voice. Or maybe it was just because he was so tired from the after-effects of the morphine. "How're Nelson and Kirby doing?"

"Still out," Littlejohn said.

"But they're alive?"

Littlejohn nodded. "Checked them just a couple minutes ago."

Saunders closed his eyes. "Good."

"Sure hope Doc gets back soon," Littlejohn said.

:::

Doc blotted everything out of his mind, except for his goal, because he was afraid that if he thought about everything that'd happened over the past few hours, he'd have some serious problems. So his objective was everything. Get back to headquarters and let Lieutenant Hanley take care of the rest.

The grassy mud and dirty leaves squished under his boots as he ran. The sun had come out, and the guys back in the clearing would be able to get warmed up a little. Saunders was lying flat out in the mud, though. Hypothermia was a risk he hadn't thought of until now, but he realized it was a real threat.

Don't think about any of that. Just keep moving.

Doc ducked his head to avoid a low hanging branch and kept running. They depended on him getting back in one piece. He wasn't about to let them all die on him, not without a fight, and that was what kept him going when he was cold and hungry and his legs were trembling so hard from all the tension of the situation that he could hardly walk, let along run. Billy wasn't going to die out there, neither were Kirby or Saunders or Littlejohn. No, it wasn't going to happen.

:::

The squads came back, one at a time, usually with a prisoner in tow.

Hanley watched each patrol tramp back without seeing Saunders at the head of any of them. Radio silence continued; he didn't even get static when he tried to make contact. The rain last night had made everything chaotic, and Saunders could be unable to make contact for several reasons. Why, then, did his mind insist on imagining worst case scenarios?

Hanley shook his head.

There was nothing he could do.

Just as he was turning back to the CP, there was a commotion at the far end of the base. Three men were coming down the road, and there was some shouting that he couldn't make out.

"What's going on out there, Lieutenant?" Jenkins asked, coming up to stand beside him.

"I don't know." Hanley left the door of the tent and walked toward the disturbance. The three men on the road were coming straight toward him. Two MPs, supporting the third man – a medic – between them. Medics came and went all the time, but this one was mud-caked and obviously exhausted. He also looked familiar.

Hanley quickened his pace and reached the medic halfway.

He was from Saunders' squad.

"Lieutenant," the medic – Doc - said, breathing hard like he'd just run ten miles. And from the looks of him, he probably had. "Sergeant Saunders needs help." Then he nearly collapsed to the ground, despite the MPs holding him up.

"Get him to the aid station," Hanley said. The medic wouldn't be able to tell them anything else if he didn't get some help. He followed the MPs to the station. If Doc regained consciousness, he needed to hear whatever he had to say. Saunders was in some kind of trouble, just as he'd thought, but they'd need more information in order to do anything about it.

"How is he, doctor?" he asked once the head doctor, Dr Whitman, had given Doc a quick looking over.

"He's not in too bad shape, just tired and bruised. His hands are a little burned, but nothing serious. Nothing a good night's sleep and some food and water can't clear up," Dr Whitman said. He nodded at his own diagnosis. "He must have gone through quite a lot to get here, judging by the state of his uniform. Will you want to talk to him once he wakes up?"

Hanley nodded. "Jenkins, go back and let me know if Captain Jampel calls," he ordered, and then settled himself in for the wait.

:::

Rain fell.

Lightning crackled.

Explosions slammed into the ground, knocking the squad every which way.

Doc crawled from man to man, checking their pulses, seeing if they still had the breath of day in them. But it wasn't any use. They were all dead because he hadn't gotten back in time. He'd let them down, and now none of them were going to wake up.

Doc woke up with his heart racing, like patients he'd seen in the middle of panic attacks. The dream – nightmare, really – was still vivid in his mind like he'd been back in the clearing himself. He could almost feel the rain and muddy ground and the explosions that made his body shudder again and again.

He looked down at his hands. Bandaged up so neatly that only a real doctor could've done it. That was when he noticed the rest of his surroundings.

Clean blankets padding down the army cot he was lying on, the colour white everywhere, and medical personal – doctors and nurses he knew from all the times there had been heavy casualties on the front and he'd been called in to do his part – going around, doing everything to make the men in the aid station comfortable.

Dr. Whitman walked up to him and Doc pushed himself up on his elbows. "I've got to see Lieutenant Hanley," he said. "Is he still here?" If the lieutenant wasn't here, then he'd have to talk to another officer. But he had to talk to someone and get help for Saunders and the others. No question about it.

"He's been waiting for you to wake up ever since you came in. Just stepped out for a moment to talk to Captain Jampel," Dr. Whitman said. He nodded and smiled. "I've already sent someone to get him."

"Thanks." Doc lay back down on the cot, suddenly realizing just how tired he was after what was probably a long nap. Every part of his body was drained of energy, and it wasn't from morphine or anything like that. He was hungry right along with being tired, but that could wait. He'd let Lieutenant Hanley where Saunders and the other guys were first and then worry about everything else.

:::

Hanley ran back to the aid station as soon as he got off the radio with Captain Jampel. For once, the captain was pleased with the job Hanley was doing – or, rather, the other squads were doing – with bringing in prisoners.

Doc looked drained to Hanley, but he didn't complain or even talk about it once. Relating Saunders' squad's situation seemed to energize him as he talked, going from the explosions to the squad's casualties, to how the artillery was shelling them from what sounded to Hanley like deeper inside Sector F or on the outskirts of Sector L.

"We'll take care of it," Hanley said once Doc was finished. "I'll get this information to headquarters right away. And I'll send men out to find Saunders and the rest of the squad as soon as possible."

The look of relief on Doc's face was immediate, and Hanley wondered just what exactly he'd gone through to get back here. Sometime, when he wasn't busy with important messages to High Command or saving a squad from total annihilation, he'd find out.

:::

The shelling had picked up some time in the afternoon, and it came from their lines as well as the Krauts'. The barrage only lasted a few minutes, but every wave of explosions sent a shock wave through the ground that Saunders could only hope wouldn't do something to the metal in his back.

With nothing to do but lay on the ground, he thought a lot. Mainly about the squad. Billy had come to a little while ago, eaten a piece of cheese, and then passed out again according to Littlejohn, who relayed everything that happened to Saunders. And Kirby still hadn't woken up. Littlejohn was in the best shape of all four, and it was a relief that someone was well enough to stay alert for more than a few minutes.

He worried about Doc. A non-combatant, going off to get help. Saunders thought about all the different obstacles he could run into, unarmed and not in the best shape himself. Killing Aptmeyer had been an anomaly, a one-time thing, something that surprised everyone. Killing had never been part of Doc's true nature, and it never would be. He was too involved with saving lives to willingly take one.

So what if Doc was already captured, heading deep into Kraut lines with an armed escort, and they were here and nobody knew about it? They could just as easily be hit by their own side as by the enemy.

Crack. A branch breaking, somewhere in the woods. And then a truck engine, slowly coming closer.

It took all of Saunders' common sense to keep himself from jumping up and grabbing a weapon. He stayed absolutely silent, just like Littlejohn was doing, holding his breath. If it was Krauts, they needed absolute quiet to avoid detection. But if it was their own side...

But was it better to die in the woods, free, or live in a POW camp for the duration?

Three medics and seven soldiers came out of the woods and into the clearing. All American. Saunders went limp with relief. His men would be fine now; they'd get the help they so desperately needed.

:::

"You're good to go, Doc," Whitman said. "Those burns should clear up nicely."

Doc stood up from the cot. A few hours had passed since he'd passed the information along to Lieutenant Hanley, and a half hour ago, he'd gotten word that Billy and Saunders and the others had been rescued from the clearing. They'd be coming in soon to get fixed up.

Whitman leaned a little closer, a conspiratorial smile on his face. "If I were you," he said, "I'd ask for a few days of R&R. You've earned them."

"Thanks," Doc said. He smiled. "I'll keep that in mind."

"You do that."

Whitman moved off to another patient and Doc stood there for a moment.

A few days of rest and recuperation? It sounded good, and he probably had earned it according to whatever rules the army had for that kind of thing. Maybe he'd-

"Coming through! Coming through! Wounded men!"

Medics trudged in, carrying stretchers with wounded on them. Kirby, Billy, and Saunders. Littlejohn walked in right after them, a bandage around his hand and side. They'd want to look at it again, put his hand in a sling. From what Doc could see, Kirby, Billy, and Saunders were all unconscious, and even bandaged up, they still looked bad. They were the ones who needed R&R, not him. Compared to them, he didn't have a thing in the world to complain about.

Doc walked up to one of the medics who were transferring Billy from the stretcher to a hospital cot. "Let me help you there," he said. "They're my squad," he added to answer their puzzled looks. The two medics shrugged and moved away to bring in the next patient. Doc took some fresh bandages from the ready supply and worked on Billy's head.

This was what he was supposed to be doing.

Sure felt a whole lot better than running through the woods without knowing what around the next tree. There'd been a moment, in between strangling Aptmeyer and doing all the other things over the past few days that medics don't do, where he'd felt like his role as a medic was slipping away, but that wasn't true.

Everything he'd done had been to save lives. Saunders and Caje with Aptmeyer. The whole squad back in the clearing. Killing Aptmeyer would always be a stain, in his mind, on his medic's duties, but it'd had to be done.

Billy moaned and his eyes fluttered open.

"Where-where am I?"

"You're at an aid station," Doc said, putting a hand on Billy's shoulder to keep him from sitting up. "Just take it easy."

Billy nodded and closed his eyes again.

Doc finished wrapping the bandages around his broken arm and then moved on to Kirby. And then after he patched up Kirby, he'd see what he could do for whoever else needed his help.

Finis