Disclaimer:

I don't own any part of Combat!, and have no rights to it or the excerpt from Harper Lee's excellent book. Thank you to those entities that do for letting me borrow them. No tangible profit is made whatsoever. For entertainment only.

A/N:

There are at least two fine authors I'm indebted to; acknowledgements will be given by chapter. Also, I rarely give translations for foreign language. I always liked that about Combat!. It was almost like there was a second, hidden storyline going on. I have Google Translate as a quicklaunch on my toolbar for when I read stories like that. Italics mean different things, hopefully guided by the context.

Warnings:

My usual: I don't like slash and will never write it. I do, however, love stories about close friendship and I'm a H/C/Angst addict, and this story reflects that. I like to think the writing's not too bad, but it's still a high-octane Hurt/Comfort slopfest, especially in the second half. You've been warned.

That and other significant warnings will be posted by chapter as needed. Please read them!

If you're still around after that sales pitch, enjoy.


A Brick in the Wall

"—I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

From "To Kill a Mockingbird"


S.S. Hauptmann Wolfgang Ehrlich looked into his prisoner's eyes and saw… just what he expected to see. Even if the American's actions in the field hadn't indicated it, to Ehrlich it was obvious.

The German captain seemed to be excluded from that general law of the cosmos that said that those completely without honor, without conscience, couldn't recognize it in another. Like dumb, outraged Mastiffs, most like him could only tilt their heads or blink their empty eyes in confusion, then lash out in reflexive violence. Though emotionally unstable, Wolfgang Ehrlich was different, even if the outcome was the same. He lacked the noble things but always knew them when he saw them.

He saw them now.

An immovable object gazed steadily back at him, through Siberian-blue eyes. Taking the other's measure, as his own was being taken.

Ehrlich nodded to himself. He knew his type. No information would be obtained. As far as the sergeant was concerned it was as though he didn't even know it to give it; it was that inaccessible. He would endure, simply because that was what was before him; like a horse standing in the rain.

The wind picked up outside as the anticipated storm moved in, and Ehrlich listened to it dig at the cracked windows as he considered his enemy. What really intrigued and irritated him with men like this one was that he knew there was someone, somewhere who completely held this soldier's loyalty. For that fortunate commander this man would probably run headlong into machine-gun fire, but Ehrlich himself could beat him to death and he wouldn't tell him water was wet.

The captain smiled and took a half-step forward into the American's space, only because that was the next step in the time-honored dance of intimidation. After the events of the last few hours he didn't have any expectation for it, though, and watched as the man narrowed his eyes and slightly shifted his stance—toward Ehrlich. The sergeant kept his weight balanced; his changing posture just waiting for the slightest weakness, the smallest of distractions.

Yes, Ehrlich decided, this man would submit to only whom he chose and nobody else. In this little ruined house in a little ruined corner of France, though, that changed nothing.

The captain started the requisite slow pacing around his captive as he thought. There were two important installations near here even the Wermacht didn't know about, and vague rumors of a build-up of the local Resistance had attracted the interest of the Gestapo. This was the third Allied patrol caught in this area in a week—and the first offering survivors. The S.S. wanted control of this area, which meant getting results before the Gestapo.

Ehrlich actually thought the patrols were a coincidence, but they needed information, badly. They needed an officer, preferably a captain or higher. There had been a lieutenant with this squad, but one of those idiots had killed him.

Aside from the two privates held in the barn, that left only his angry new toy: Saunders, Sergeant, 2270622.

Ehrlich stopped in front of the sergeant and held his eyes for a moment, then inclined his head in a cold but sincere acknowledgement. It was the only gesture of respect he would give him. From this point on, it would only be pain and violence. Ehrlich turned and shouted to where his men waited. "Bringen Sie einen Stuhl, und das Seil. Und nehmen Sie seine Jacke aus!"

At this point that didn't need a lot of translation. The American sergeant exhaled out a long breath, forcing his body to relax, and focused on a point on the far wall over Ehrlich's left shoulder. And Ehrlich was sure; in those blue eyes, he saw barriers settle into place.

Just seven hours earlier...

"C'mon, Caje!" Kirby cajoled. He leaned forward and whispered, though Caje didn't know why he bothered—Kirby whispered louder than most people spoke. "They just got paid!"

"I think your deck has fifty-six cards in it, Kirby. Not today." Caje watched as the other private pulled a bent cigarette from his shirt pocket and fumbled to light it with his bandaged left hand, before wincing and switching to his right.

"Ya know what your problem is, Caje? You can't recognize a superior force when ya see it." He sniffed haughtily. "Makes ya bitter."

Kirby turned to where his squad leader sat in a pool of sunlight, reassembling a Thompson sub-machine gun. The non-com's helmet was off and wild tufts of golden hair glinted in the dewy light as he moved. "Sarge, whaddaya think about all this?"

"I think you're both shy a full deck," the sergeant said seriously, then ruined the effect with a friendly smirk. Saunders turned back to the task of cleaning his weapons. He was tired, sore, and his boots had been wet for three days, but right now he felt like he was at a resort.

The morning sun was soft and warm for an early November day, and nobody was currently shooting at him, or his charges. Their banter flowed over him like the sunlight.

Even cleaning his hardware was a nice change. It was actually a chore he'd always found to be soothing, and one he rarely indulged in anymore. Caje usually did it, claiming it was barely any extra effort to do the SMG and the Colt when he was already cleaning his own rifle. He'd started the habit a couple months ago, at the end of another one of those interminable, nightmare missions where the squad got little sleep and the squad leader got none.

Saunders paused in his housekeeping to look up at where the Cajun was poking Kirby in the chest and threatening him about something. There had been a time where he wasn't sure Caje would ever even speak to another GI, much less be friends with him. Saunders had been there when Caje's best friend Theo had died, on the open killing field that was Omaha Beach. Had witnessed in watchable speed as Paul Cadron LeMay went from a broken, grieving man to a capable, lethal soldier, in a day.

In a day Caddy had died, and Caje was born.

And this new, careful Caje, whom Saunders had heard many times advising new recruits on the dangers of getting close, could now almost always be found wherever Kirby was, and vice-versa. Saunders could shout either name, and both heads would pop up. A quiet, French-speaking Cajun, hanging around a loud-mouthed Chicago street punk who whined like a toddler and fought like a lion. Both of them loyal, highly competent, and brave to an unhealthy degree.

So maybe not so mismatched, after all. Such was the nature of war. There was no other instance in all of human experience where close kinship was more desperately needed, more intensely sought, or more foolishly obtained.

Kirby batted away Caje's poking finger and dropped into a fighter's crouch, dancing back and shadowboxing with the Cajun, for no other reason than to irritate his already-irritated friend. Then he grunted and tucked his left hand under his right armpit. "Ow."

Caje sneered at him with empty contempt. "Tough guy, eh?"

"Yeah, well, whatever." Remembering his original question, Kirby turned back to Saunders.

"C'mon, Sarge, ya know that's not what I meant," Kirby said, massaging his aching hand while carefully avoiding his fingers. "I mean how long are we gonna stay in this boring burg?"

Saunders lifted his head to watch Lieutenant Hanley striding toward them. "However long we're told to, Kirby."

The non-com pushed himself to his feet and waited for the officer.

Hanley looked at Kirby, slouching against a wooden post. "As you were," he said sarcastically, then turned to where Saunders was gearing up to start peeling strips off and gave him a 'not now' head-shake.

Hanley motioned to the sergeant and they'd started to step away when a gangly private suddenly bumped up alongside the non-com and snapped off a nervous salute. "Sir!"

Saunders turned on him and growled, annoyed. "What did I just explain to you not twenty-four hours ago, Philips? Are you tryin' to get someone shot?"

Hanley gave Saunders a quick, long-suffering look, then turned to the private. "Did your sergeant explain to you about saluting officers in the field, Private?"

"Y-yes, sir." Philips stammered.

"Then understand this, Private Philips. That was not a suggestion. There might be a few who expect it but the smart ones don't. Pay attention to what you're told, it just might keep us both alive." He turned back to Saunders. "I'm hard to miss as it is," he said dryly.

The sergeant only grunted in agreement. At six-foot-four, with broad shoulders and movie star looks, Hanley could've just stepped out of a ROTC recruitment film.

Saunders would have never said it out loud but as an experienced soldier, if he were a German sniper arbitrarily choosing targets he'd go after Hanley, regardless of any visible rank. The man could walk around in pajamas and still look like an officer. He just carried himself that way.

Uncomfortable with this train of thought, Saunders did a quick, visual sweep of the area, then turned to Philips. "Go check your gear and wait with Caje."

"Yes sir, uh, Sarge. Okay." Philips twitched like he wanted to salute again, then turned and hurried away, while Hanley smirked.

Saunders sighed tiredly and looked at the officer. "What's up, Lieutenant?"

All business, Hanley reached into his jacket and pulled out a map, stepping toward the hood of a nearby jeep. "S-2 has a little mystery they want checked out, about three miles east of Checkpoint Easy. A small, quiet patrol. No engagement." He spread the map out and indicated the area. "Pick three men, rations and ammo for two days."

"Pick three men, Lieutenant? I only have three men! Littlejohn's still at the 25th Evac, Billy's on emergency leave, and Kirby's got two fingers broken—you saw Philips— I probably haven't shaved since he's been out of Basic! He runs around like a… like a cat in a dog pound." Saunders ran down and heaved a sigh. He knew Hanley was already aware of these facts; he'd given them to him himself. He also knew the lieutenant hadn't been afforded any more choice than he himself was now.

Where at another time he might have crawled the NCO—and another officer would surely have—Hanley only canted his head and gave him a look. It was that rare combination of wry amusement and fraternal affection, given with a soft, brief smile. One he seemed to give only to Saunders, once in a blue moon.

"And you know, that's what makes me so glad to be a lieutenant. I have sergeants to take care of these things." He tucked the map back into his jacket. "We move out in fifteen."

"We, sir?"

"I'm going with you. S-2 wants an officer along, and for once I agree. I've been staring at forms and maps for so long I see them when I close my eyes. Need out." He swiped a hand over his tired face. "Fifteen minutes, Sergeant."

Saunders called to him as Hanley turned to leave. "What about Doc?"

"This patrol has to be kept small, and we might need every gun. Besides, you know he's with third squad today, and they won't be back until long after we leave." With that, he turned to trudge back to the CP for his gear.

Saunders stood for minute and watched him walk away, trying to understand the reason for the soft dread starting to whisper in the back of his mind. Was it because Hanley was going, or because Doc wasn't? Or both? The sergeant's instincts were long honed to a new razor's edge and almost never wrong, and before he headed back toward what was left of first squad, he glanced toward Hanley's CP and considered the one thing he was sure of: Careful Caje had been right.


"What are you doing, Pote?"

William Kirby decided to not grace a stupid question with a stupid answer. That didn't deter his ambidextrous tormentor, though.

"Are you planning to get any of that into your mouth?" Caje asked. Kirby plunked the spoon down and gave up. It seemed so vastly unfair that he had to struggle to eat something that was inedible. Struggle he could do, and inedible he could do, but both at once? He lifted his malevolent glare from his 'food' to his 'friend'.

"Yeah, ya know what? Why don't you go—"

"Saddle up!" Saunders shouted, and nobody would ever know what Kirby thought Caje should go do.

A rattle of weapons, gear, and discarded tins of half-eaten rations could be heard as men jumped to their feet and scrambled to get ready.

Saunders turned to where Kirby was already adjusting the straps that supported the weight of the Browning's heavy ammunition. "Not you, Kirby."

"Aw now, Sarge, you gotta be jokin'!"

"Yeah, I am, Kirby. You can tell by the big smile on my face. Caje, Philips, Kalgren. Get ready."

Saunders looked over at where a husky, dark-haired private was calmly gathering his gear. If the impressions garnered after yesterday's brief skirmish were correct, this was one tiny bit of luck in an iffy situation. A hunter from west-central Pennsylvania, Tommy Kalgren hadn't been out of Basic any longer than Philips, but he was at least a year older, comfortable with a rifle, and good in the woods.

"Caje and Kalgren, ammo and rations for two days."

"Sarge, I can go! This ain't nuthin," Kirby said, waving his bandaged hand.

Caje looked at his friend, before he hurried to fetch their ordnance and help Kalgren with the rations. Sure, Kirby, you're a goldbrick, he thought. It was an image the B.A.R. man seemed to deliberately foster. And Littlejohn's a ballet dancer.

Kirby truly was a complainer by nature, but to him it was just another form of communication, something Kirby seemed to need, almost constantly. Just bouncing sound waves off the people around him. Caje knew if Saunders had included Kirby, he'd be griping just as strenuously about having to go, dramatically wriggling his broken fingers; incidentally both of which had also been dislocated.

But it was more than that, now. They all felt it: the war was starting to wind down, and they were winning. Not the ever-present rumors borne of desperation and fear, but the real thing. They could smell it. It was like woodsmoke in autumn; it smelled like hope.

And if you still had guys that had been with you since D-Day, well… the guys you didn't want to lose six months ago were now the guys you couldn't lose. Not when they were so close. Any cause for separation these days, anything that left a good man where he couldn't influence, couldn't protect, was not met well. Caje grinned affectionately while he piled up their ammo; he could still hear Kirby, all the way over here. And Saunders.

"Come on, Sarge! You're gonna need me, I'm—"

"Kirby!" Saunders lifted his head and fixed the private with the hot, blue glare that was both legendary and feared throughout the entire battalion. If anyone had looked closely, though, they might have seen the smallest shadow of apprehensive agreement, and what could have been respect.

"I don't know if your mother's had a chance to point this out to you yet, Kirby, but here it is… you're left-handed. And even if you weren't, the B.A.R. takes two hands."

Saunders lit a cigarette while waiting for the others, the last one for what might be awhile. He stood hipshot for a minute and watched his men through the smoke curling up from the Lucky. Tugging the camo helmet off his head, he scrubbed one hand roughly through his chronically unkempt hair, before replacing it and surveying the scene again from under the pot's frayed edge.

He walked over to where Philips was fiddling with his web belt. "Philips," he said quietly. "Go find Caje, he should be over there somewhere," he pointed. "Tell him to grab some extra ammo and grenades, okay?"

"Uh, okay, Sarge. How come?"

"Don't you worry about that, just do as you're told."


Hanley stood, watching as their respective ammunition and grenades were parceled out, and raised an eyebrow at Saunders. Caje had added his own slight increase on top of the extra that Saunders had requested, and it was an unusual amount of weight to add to a considerable hike.

The lieutenant just shook his head and stepped forward to accept his share. Over these long months he'd encountered many men who had bucked Saunders' instincts. Almost all of them were dead.

After the supplies had been distributed and Caje briefed on their route, Kirby watched as Saunders turned and sauntered toward where Hanley was waiting. He grumbled at the scout, standing next to him. "Well, that just tears it! What am I supposed to do, just sit on my butt an' count rocks?"

Caje reached into the pocket of Kirby's jacket, pulled out his playing cards, and slapped them up against the rifleman's chest as he walked past him. "Here. You can play fifty-six pickup."

"Yeah, real funny, Cajun. I'm rollin' on the ground."

Kirby watched as the squad filed into the treeline and vanished, swallowed by the woods a man at a time. He unclenched his aching hand with effort and shook his head. "Gonna get themselves out in the middle of nowheres, an' then the wheels'll come off. Then they're gonna wish ol' Kirby was with 'em." He was surrounded by men but talking to himself; second squad was getting ready to leave for their own corner of paradise, somewhere.

Realizing he was still staring at the spot where his friends had disappeared, Kirby dropped to sit on an also-abandoned ammo case and shook out a broken cigarette. "No dames… no booze… no action. This lousy, boring town. Lousy fingers. Lousy, stinkin' France…"


I have absolutely no right to ask for reviews, but I do want to know how many people are still reading in this extremely worthy but seemingly dwindling fandom. Just click the mike twice to let me know you're there, LOL.

I will update within the next few days, a week at the very most.