Notes: Written for Destina for Yuletide 2012.

The Upper Hand

Dietrich was used to taking command of situations, even under the most trying of circumstances. When it came to facing off against the Rat Patrol, however, possession of the upper hand could shift without a warning.

It was hard to say who held the advantage now. The Rats had split their forces in their escape, and he'd been forced to do the same to pursue. It was tempting to believe that his men could already have detained the second jeep and be on their way back, but experience said that it was a slim hope. Certainly, Dietrich's own chase hadn't ended so happily. It would have been an unqualified failure if not for the lucky shot that had taken out the jeep's machine gun - and Sergeant Troy with it.

The man who'd made the shot had been cut down and killed even as he'd fired it. All three of the men that Dietrich had brought with him were dead; just as so many others had died at the hands of Troy's patrol.

Knowing that, it was difficult to justify the first flash of emotion that he'd felt on seeing Troy had survived being thrown from the back of the jeep. To regret the death of an enemy was only compassionate; to choose to capture over kill when possible was merciful. To be relieved the man had lived, knowing all too well the damage he could do... That was more troubling.

But not, at the moment, his greatest concern.

Dietrich held his Luger aimed steadily at Private Hitchcock, and the rifle barrel pointing back was equally unwavering. A standoff that neither party could easily withdraw from. Dietrich's own armoured car was a burning wreck behind him; the only functional vehicle was the Americans' jeep. But Troy's injuries, though stabilised for now, wouldn't take a jolting trip over the desert rock in the back seat. He needed an ambulance or a covered truck where he could be transported on a stretcher.

"Your sergeant needs medical attention," Dietrich said. He kept his voice calm, matter-of-fact. From what he'd observed, Troy's driver was a hothead and a bleeding heart, swayed by emotion like his sergeant but without the weight of rank and age to bring him greater caution. Useful to know, but right now it was the man's sense of reason to which he wished to appeal. "Let me take your jeep and return to my camp. I will send an ambulance crew back here to retrieve him."

And enough armed men to ensure complete cooperation, of course - but even so, the private must see it was the only sensible course.

Hitchcock's jaw worked, his emotions written clear. "How about I take you hostage and we ride in and take the ambulance?" he said.

Dietrich smiled thinly, seeing through the bluff. "And leave your sergeant here alone?" he said. An injury could turn, delay or disaster could leave the sergeant stranded without water. The desert was no place to die abandoned. Dietrich wouldn't have left one of his own men had there been any other option, and the Americans were far more sentimental.

"Not going to be on my own." Troy spoke up from where he'd lain until now in a seeming stupor. He struggled against all wisdom to raise himself so he could meet Hitchcock's eyes. "Take the jeep, Hitch. He's not going to shoot me." He looked at Dietrich, turning his pained grimace into a grimly knowing smile. "He wouldn't hurt an injured man."

Troy had his measure, but that didn't mean he was right to believe he had the advantage. "My column will find us before your men can return to retrieve you," Dietrich said. In terms of odds, at least, it ought to be the truth, though the Rats had an unhappy tendency to defy such logic.

Troy grinned faintly, cockiness only slightly muted by pain and the absence of his favourite non-regulation hat. "Don't underestimate my men, Captain," he said.

Dietrich had learned not to.

Hitchcock shifted, unhappy with the suggestion regardless. If Troy's confidence proved false, his leaving was effectively abandoning his leader to the enemy. "Sarge-"

"Take the jeep, Hitch," Troy said more firmly. A look was exchanged between them, and Dietrich felt absurdly like an interloper, as if manners should dictate he move away to give them privacy. Not a courtesy traditionally extended to men one held at gunpoint, however toothless they perceived the threat.

Accurately so, Dietrich had to admit. He would give his life for Germany if the fortunes of war demanded it, but he had no wish to needlessly snuff it out for no greater gain than some equally pointless deaths. He didn't bother to weigh up a suicide lunge as Hitchcock reluctantly rose, backing towards the jeep with the rifle still raised. Better to face the prospect of Allied capture than to have no rescue coming for him at all. Despite his confident words, he knew there was no guarantee that his men would pass close enough to their position to spot the burning vehicle.

He holstered the Luger as the jeep moved out of firing range, finding little stomach for the prospect of keeping it trained on Troy. Despite the show of command the sergeant had put on for his subordinate, it was clear he was in no condition to pose an active threat. Hitchcock had bandaged the shrapnel wounds he'd taken, but the fragments still embedded would need a real medic to remove, and being thrown from the back of the vehicle must have left him at least bruised. Internal injury could still be death of him, though Dietrich wouldn't be the one to bet against Troy's luck.

Nonetheless, it ill became him to stand guard over a potentially dying man. Memories rose of the sandstorm that had almost been his downfall, and Troy's treatment of him when he'd lain trapped beneath the car with crushed ribs. Basic first aid was something any decent man would have rendered under the circumstances; a compassionate few would have thought to leave the water. But the parting pat on the arm had been Troy's gesture alone, one he didn't doubt had been offered without qualms or guilty afterthoughts.

One could repay an enemy's decency with decency in return. It was difficult to know what to do with an enemy's kindness.

He moved to reassess the sergeant's condition, and was rewarded with another tight smile, as if Troy thought that he could read his private thoughts. Dietrich kept his actions dispassionate as he checked the dressings and helped the man to drink, not willing to return the over-familiarity. He could respect this man, even admire him, but there were lines that shouldn't be crossed.

"Georg Lehmann," he said quietly, as he resettled himself a short distance away. Troy asked the silent question with his eyebrows. "My driver," he said. "Twenty years old." Younger than any of Troy's men; young even from Dietrich's none-too-removed perspective. Not the youngest man under his command by any measure - and not the youngest that he'd lost.

Perhaps it was a cruelty to offer the name; perhaps it was a comfort to himself, to be assured that Troy would not forget it.

"I'm sorry that he's dead," Troy said, simply and sincerely. Sorry for the death, but not the actions that had caused it. The lines men drew to convince themselves they fought a fair and just war.

Dietrich knew he was as guilty of such self-deception as any other. He bore the sergeant no ill-will, didn't wish him dead - but once Troy and his band of desert brigands were halted in their activities, fewer of his countrymen would die. If the war could be won quickly, then fewer men on either side need die.

"My men will come for us," he said, not without genuine sympathy. "I'm afraid, my dear Sergeant, that you will find you've lost this time. You can't keep on beating the odds forever."

Troy gave another thin-lipped smile as he lay back, closing his eyes. "We'll see," was all he said.

It was difficult to track the passage of time. Troy knew he should try to stay alert with Dietrich still nearby, but he was pretty sure the captain was too upright to try anything - at least not before Hitch arrived with their ride out of here.

If it was Hitch that arrived. He knew Dietrich was right; his people were already searching the desert, and the odds were high that they would get here first. Busting him out of a German field hospital wasn't beyond his team's skills, but Dietrich would be alert for the attempt, and truth be told Troy wasn't sure he'd be much help in arranging his own escape.

He faded out, faded back in. He was loosely conscious of water being lifted to his lips, a hand checking his temperature. Brisk, efficient care, not like the fussing he would have received from the bunch of mother hens he called his unit. Dietrich would have made a good medic. Pity he hadn't taken that career path; then Troy wouldn't have to keep shooting at him.

One day, he knew, the time might come that he had to look the man right in the eye and pull that trigger. He didn't know if it worried him more to imagine he wouldn't be able to - or that he would.

He wondered how often Dietrich shared the same thoughts. The folded German jacket that had quietly materialised under his head rather called into question the captain's insistence that he was free of his enemies' vice of sentimentality.

The rumble of a vehicle crept into his consciousness, too slowly. As he struggled to sit up, he saw that Dietrich was already standing, field glasses raised to watch the dust cloud approach.

"Yours or ours?" Troy said.

Dietrich gave him a wry smile that was somewhere between smug and apologetic. "Mine, Sergeant," he said.

They watched an unmistakably German truck roll closer. Not Hitch driving: dark hair, cap pulled down low. And yet, something about the posture... Troy started to smile.

"Sorry, Captain," he said, as a pair of jeeps appeared out of the dust on the truck's tail. "Better luck next time."

Moffitt brought the truck up close to their position and tilted the cap back with a broad grin. "Need a lift?" he said.

Troy wasn't sure that being held prisoner at an Allied medical station was much preferable to the German equivalent. At least there he would have felt justified knocking an orderly out to make his daring escape.

His thoughts returned to their actual prisoner. Bad luck for Dietrich, but Troy had to admit he was relieved. The good captain would be processed and sent on to sit out the rest of the war in the safety of an Allied POW camp - and with any luck, he'd be replaced by someone a little less sharp and a lot less tenacious. A good result for everybody.

He looked up as the tent flap shifted to let someone inside. Sadly not a pretty nurse, but still better than another prodding and poking doctor. "Hey, Sarge," Hitch said as he shuffled into the tent. "What's the doc say?"

"He says I can get out of here as soon as I'm ready to move," he tried.

Hitch gave a smile of brief amusement. "Yeah, nice try, Sarge." But the expression twisted up fast. Hitch had never been great shakes at hiding it when he had something on his mind.

Wasn't hard to guess what. "I owe you guys one for coming back so fast with that truck," Troy said, preempting the upcoming outburst. "The nurses here are much better looking than our friend the captain." He shifted uncomfortably, reminded of a recent needle jab. "Though the German army could give them a few tips on bedside manner," he added.

But Hitch wouldn't be diverted. "Sarge - I left you behind!" he blurted. "If I hadn't met up with the guys..."

"Dietrich would have seen I got medical care," Troy said. He'd never had any doubts on that score, at least. "You'd have been busting me out of a Jerry hospital camp instead, that's all."

"If we could find you."

He'd be lying if he said that thought hadn't crossed his mind, but he had faith that Moffitt would have found some way to track him down. The man probably knew the desert better than his native England. Besides, what better option had there been? "You think I should have let Dietrich go off with our jeep and bring back the Jerries for sure?" he demanded.

Hitch's eyebrows lowered stubbornly. "At least then you wouldn't have been left on your own."

Troy couldn't, wouldn't explain that being captured alone was the best case scenario. Maybe Dietrich was right to believe he was overly attached - his superiors would sure think so if they knew half of what took place off the record in the field - but hell, even Dietrich didn't practise what he preached. You couldn't wage a war like a military automaton. People went through the fire together, they formed bonds. It was human nature.

Even if it was damned inconvenient at times. He hardened his gaze. "Hitch, it doesn't matter if I tell you to toss me off the back of the jeep while it's in motion. I give the orders, I expect them to be obeyed."

Hitch's jaw worked, obvious insubordination to follow, but a commotion outside the tent drew their attention. Shouts, scattered gunshots, and a vehicle leaving at speed. As Hitch ran to the exit to look out, Troy struggled upright in his bed, irritated to still be so weak. "What's happening?" To his frustration, Hitch disappeared to investigate without further thought for his words on not abandoning his sergeant.

Fate had a damn perverse sense of humour.

Long moments later, Moffitt arrived with the news and a rueful smile. "It appears that Herr Hauptmann has decided to take his leave," he said.

Troy couldn't quite quash his first instinct to grin. "I think we're becoming a bad influence on that boy," he said.

"Yes - we really should try to avoid meeting like this," Moffitt said. "He's beginning to pick up our tricks."

There was an element of truth behind the joke, Troy knew. Every clash with Dietrich raised the risk of their luck running out.

All the same, a part of him was looking forward to the next time.