No ownership of the Hogan's Heroes characters is implied or inferred. Copyright belongs to others and no infringement is intended.
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Hogan gingerly pressed a hand against his abdomen to counteract the burning feeling in the pit of his stomach. He winced and put the cup of coffee down on the bale of hay he had adopted as a makeshift table.
"Feeling poorly, gov'nor?"
Hogan opened his eyes widely, surprised by the voice. He had thought everyone else in the Schultzes' barn was asleep. But he couldn't sleep. Not tonight. And probably not the following night either. Some of his men were out of his reach, and out of contact, and he wouldn't know if they were safe at least until he got on a plane heading back to England. It gnawed at him, no matter how much he tried to believe what he said so confidently to the others over and over again: if anything went wrong, they would find out. They would know. Wouldn't they?
The quartet's late-night arrival at the house had certainly taken Gretchen Schultz by surprise. At Hogan's suggestion, it had been Klink who had made the approach to the lady of the house, after Hogan and his men had checked the area for any signs of unfriendly activity. But apparently her husband had not left her completely in the dark about the recent goings-on at Stalag 13, and she accepted with relative ease the idea that some men who were on the run and wanted by the powers that be, were going to be staying in her barn. She let them warm themselves by a roaring fire, making sure the children were asleep and unaware, then loaded them up with blankets and reluctantly, but with little other option, relegated them to the barn. Before she did so, however, she made sure to provide them with hot coffee and some bread and cheese to tide them over until it was safe for them to surface again.
It was a cup of this coffee that had Hogan put down when Newkirk interrupted his thoughts. He didn't answer right away, and the Corporal spoke again. "Are you all right, sir?"
Hogan nodded and turned in the dim light of the kerosene lamp toward Newkirk. "Yeah, I'm fine," he said. "I just getting tired of sleeping on floors and hay. Plays a bit on my back. I miss my flea-ridden, moth-infested mattress. I'm not as young as I used to be."
Newkirk shook his head as he came up to Hogan's side. "None of us are, gov'nor," he agreed. He grabbed his cup and got some coffee out of the flask.
"Can't sleep?" Hogan asked, more for something to say than to start a real conversation.
"No, sir," Newkirk answered. "Carter, Kinch and Wilson are out there, sir. I can't help thinking about them."
"They're fine," Hogan said. Had he answered too strongly? His gut thought so, and Hogan grunted as the fire inside flared again. "We'll all be together again next week."
"If you know that for sure, why is your stomach in a knot over it?" Newkirk asked.
Hogan shook his head. "It's not. I haven't exactly been eating properly the last few days, you might have noticed, that's all."
Newkirk let it pass. "I know what you mean; I miss Louis's good cooking, too."
Hogan smiled wryly and shook his head. Imagine missing gourmet cooking… at a POW camp. "We'll have to get him to cook us one big, fine meal when we get to London. We didn't exactly have time for a feast when we left Stalag 13."
"No, but we sure lit a bit enough fire for a nice pot roast!"
Movement from behind them made them both turn around. Le Beau was getting up. And, leaving his blanket wrapped around his shoulders, he reached out for a cup of coffee. "Well, it is not the best café, but it will do for now," he said simply. Hogan and Newkirk just watched him. "What?" Le Beau asked as he took a sip and sat down. "I was cold," he offered in explanation.
"Yeah, me, too," Newkirk said.
"It will be nice to get someplace warm again."
"You won't find England very warm," Newkirk quipped. "Still," he said, looking around him, "it's better than here." He looked at Le Beau. "Bet you're looking forward to getting back to gay Paree."
Le Beau nodded, happy with the thought of home. "Oui, Pierre, I am. I will stay in England while I have to, but then it's back to la France for me."
"I'm ready to just go sit in front of a warm fire with a Yorkshire pudding and a steak and kidney pie," Newkirk said. "Whenever they let me do that, that is." He looked at Hogan. "What about you, sir? After London's through with us?"
Hogan shrugged thoughtfully. "I think the English got a lot of mileage out of the Lend-Lease Agreement with me," he said, letting a small smile touch his lips. "I like London, but I don't think you'll be able to get me back home fast enough."
Newkirk nodded. "It's ironic, isn't it?" he said to no one in particular. "Here we are, three men ready to head to three different countries… and still I can't see us being anything but together. Not to mention the Yanks we just sent ahead of us," he said.
Hogan and Le Beau had no response. Newkirk was absolutely right.
Another voice spoke up. "Shouldn't you be getting some sleep?" Klink asked, his voice airy with sleep. He got up and joined the group at the hay bale, rubbing his eyes.
"Sorry to wake you, Kommandant," Hogan said. "We're just talking about going home after Allied High Command decides they're done with us."
Klink nodded. "That may be a long time for me," he said quietly.
Hogan felt a passing twinge of sympathy. "It won't be as easy for you," he admitted. "But when the war is over, you can come back to Germany. And as a prisoner of war, you can say you were taken against your will. No one will hold anything against you."
"What will I be coming home to?" Klink asked. "A country ruined by a madman, overrun by the enemy, and left with its spirit destroyed. Again."
Hogan looked at the ground, uncomfortable with the baseless feeling of guilt tightening its grip on his chest and squeezing even harder than the existing guilt that had taken hold of him as soon as he realized that Eichberger wasn't Black Forest. It made him nearly short of breath, so strong was its hold. He sat down. "War isn't nice," was all he said. It was aimed at no one, but everyone felt its deepest meaning.
It was a long time before anyone got to sleep that night.
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"Same orders as for Carter and Kinch," Hogan said the next evening, as Le Beau and Newkirk stood before him, covered in dirt and soot and ready to move out. "You go to the first stopping point, you wait until tomorrow, the sub comes for you. No waiting, no turning back."
"Right, Colonel," Newkirk said. He looked at Hogan's face and for the first time in a week he found he could say what he wanted to. "It's been a privilege to serve with you, sir. I don't think I'll ever forget it."
Hogan nodded, touched. Newkirk was not one for expressing his feelings. "Same goes for me," he said. His throat felt tight. That must be what was making his eyes water, he tried to believe; it had nothing to do with emotion. Nothing. Nothing to do with the fact that when Newkirk and Le Beau left, that he would have no contact with any of his men until next week. No communication with the men with whom he had shared the last three years of his life; upon whom his own life had sometimes depended; whom he would have fought to the death to protect; with Carter, Kinch, Newkirk, and Le Beau. His comrades. His friends.
All going well, they would all be together again in a matter of days. But there was always uncertainty in war, and as men on the run there was never a guarantee that something wouldn't go wrong. Any one of them could meet an untimely demise, and if that happened, Hogan knew he would feel like his heart had been ripped out of his chest, and he wasn't sure when the feeling would go away, if it ever did.
"When we get to London, I'll take you to all the best places," Newkirk said, in a voice he didn't recognize as his own.
"I thought you weren't allowed into the best places," Hogan reminded him with a raised eyebrow.
"I didn't say we'd go into them; I said I'd take you to them." Newkirk winked.
Hogan shook his head and smiled. "Get going. And do what you're told."
"Righto, gov'nor." He wanted to salute Hogan, to show him the kind of respect that Kinch had, that he thought Hogan deserved. But the gesture didn't feel right to him. So he simply held out his hand and lowered his eyes. "I look forward to causing trouble with you again, sir."
Hogan accepted the gesture and shook Newkirk's outstretched hand. "I'm sure that can be arranged."
Newkirk raised his eyes to meet Hogan's, but the Colonel found he could say no more. He nodded briefly, and Newkirk took the opportunity to pull himself away from emotions he had never learned to be comfortable with on the surface: caring, respect, and true admiration. He offered a sloppy salute that Hogan returned in like manner, and then nodded to Klink, who stood by again in silence. "I'll meet you outside, mate," he said softly to Le Beau, then he went out of the barn and into the darkness.
"Colonel?" Le Beau began.
Hogan felt his guts churning as he faced the Corporal. Of all the men under his command, somehow Louis had been the one who most accurately sensed the Colonel's emotional states, whether confident or frightened, steady or uncertain. He was the one Hogan couldn't hide from, even in the solitude of his own office, because even his holing up in his quarters spoke volumes to the man. The only way to cope with this, Hogan thought, was to face it before it began. "Louis, thanks for everything," Hogan started, holding out his hand. He noticed Le Beau's eyes were bright with unshed tears, and blinked to keep his own at bay. "I'd have gone crazy without you all beside me."
"Thank you for letting me continue to fight, Colonel," Le Beau said. He looked at Hogan's outstretched hand. "I am sorry, Colonel. I am French; that is not enough of a way to say merci to someone who has meant so much to me."
Le Beau offered Hogan one of the crispest, most patriotic salutes the Colonel had ever seen. And once Hogan returned it with pride in his men and their contribution to the Allied war effort, Le Beau gripped Hogan by the arms and placed a kiss on each of his cheeks. "Souvenez-vous de moi," he said quietly. Remember me. "Because I will never forget you."
Hogan nodded, unable to speak. "Je prie pour Dieu pour vous bénir," Louis continued.
"He already has blessed me, Louis," Hogan managed through the tiny opening left in his constricted voice box. "He sent me all of you."
Louis nodded, and smiled as a tear escaped and slid down his dirty cheek. Then he turned without a word and left the barn.
Hogan watched the door close on the last of his men and, sinking to the nearest hay bale, closed his eyes, emotionally exhausted. All feelings drained out of him, he sat weakly, concentrating only on taking deep breaths and trying to stop the room from spinning around him.
The barn was quiet except for the sound of Hogan's breathing and the occasional rustling of hay when one of the animals shifted in its slumber. Then, quietly, Klink said, "They will be all right, you know, Hogan."
Hogan opened his eyes and looked tiredly at the German officer. "What makes you say that?" he asked eventually.
Klink didn't answer directly. "I have watched your men as they said goodbye, Colonel Hogan. They have an enormous amount of respect for you."
"I have an enormous amount of respect for them."
"They are heroes. And what's more they are your heroes." Klink shook his head in wonderment. "They have worked as hard as they have out of respect for you. That is quite clear."
Hogan said nothing, willing each of his men to safety. If wishes could only be guaranteed to come true… "They're good men. All of them."
"Then they won't take any chances on getting on your bad side by getting themselves shot."
Hogan raised his eyebrows in surprise at Klink's observation.
"I owe you a lot myself, Hogan. If it were not for you, I would probably be dead. A victim of my own country's political system."
"If it weren't for me, you probably wouldn't have gotten in the trouble you were in, in the first place."
Klink shrugged. "Possibly. But it gave me a chance to realize that I am still human, Hogan. That I could not do the merciless thing that the Fuhrer was asking us to do."
Hogan nodded and stared out toward the barn door. It will be our turn next. He ran his hands over his face, feeling more tired than he had in weeks. He sighed, hoping that sleep would beckon quickly, so that he and Klink could elude any pursuers and follow the others along the escape route soon, and he could confirm that the men who meant so much to him were safe in Allied hands again.
"Hogan," Klink said into the silence. "I am scared."
Hogan blinked calmly and looked at Klink, expressionless.
Klink simply looked back, unashamed. "England is not like Germany."
Hogan nodded, understanding. "It's not like Connecticut either. But for the time being it's where we need to be."
Klink persisted. "I wonder how Germany will change because of the war," he said. "Will I be able to recognize my home, Hogan, if the Allies win?"
Hogan's mind drifted. Lush fields, neatly mowed lawns fronted by clean, tree-lined streets, old white church steeples piercing the sky, a girl whom he could love with the intensity of youth. That had been home. But there was more to it, so much more. Family, friends, laughter and warmth. A sharing of beliefs and care. That was home. A support system when the world let you down. A loyalty that burned with such intensity as to blot out any disappointing or devastating event. That was home.
Hogan could almost reach out and touch the men he had worked with in the last three years. He could see their faces, hear their voices, feel their healing constancy and devotion. No matter what the physical surroundings, their acceptance and comfort enveloped him, and Hogan sensed he would feel that presence always. That was home, too. He nodded and allowed himself to smile gently. "You'll know it when you're there, Kommandant," Hogan finally replied. "There's no place like home."
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Author's note: For those wondering why I have used Kinch at the end of the operation instead of Baker: I prefer to use Kinch because I subscribe to the theory stated by several Hogan's Heroes cast members-- that if Ivan Dixon had known there would be only one more season after he left, he might have held out until the end. Thanks to all for your support and feedback. LJG