The truck gave a rattling cough and died, no longer responsive to Troy's attempts to coax it back to life. Should've checked it had a full tank before he'd taken it from the Jerries' camp, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
At least there was no pursuit. Dietrich's men had taken off after the jeeps, and by the sound of the machine-gun fire and explosions that had followed, hadn't had an easy chase of it. With luck the rest of the Rat Patrol were safely away by now, and any surviving Germans stranded in the desert without working vehicles.
A fate Troy wasn't too thrilled to be sharing. Once he'd realised he was running too low on precious fuel to make their rendezvous, he'd started heading for some ruined buildings that they'd passed. Hopefully Moffitt would think to look for him there when he didn't make the meet.
The ruins were the desert's only landmark in this region, easily spotted from a distance, still deceptively far away. In the hour that it took to make the walk, the night came on and the wind rose, a biting chill that made it hard to appreciate the glorious golden sunset. By the time he reached the crumbling structures, the thought of a break from the wind was almost as enticing as a feather bed.
The flicker of firelight glimpsed through an open doorway killed that dream. Troy drew his handgun, narrowing his eyes. Odds were against it being one of the Rats. If one of the jeeps had been destroyed, the other would have picked its passengers up; if both the jeeps were gone, then the men would have been captured. This was somebody else.
Friendly English-speaking Arabs with food to share would be a favourite. And their own truck parked out back, while he was dreaming.
His lips curved in a bitter smile as he edged close enough to the doorway to glimpse a familiar pair of boots - so far as he knew, unique to a certain German Captain who didn't share his countrymen's taste for canvas lace-ups.
Fortunately, it seemed he was alone. As Troy burst through the doorway, Dietrich jolted out of his half doze and went for his Luger, but Troy didn't miss the way he winced and clutched his side as he raised it. A bloodstain had leaked through the sunbleached cloth of his shirt.
"Sergeant Troy." He put on a good show of his usual aplomb, though he spoke through a pained grimace. "I suspected you wouldn't be found far from your men."
"Yeah, well, right now you're pretty far from yours." He kept his pistol trained on Dietrich, watchful but not overly concerned. Dietrich was dedicated to his mission, but he was no fanatic, and he wasn't into suicidal gestures. "And it doesn't look like you're in much shape to be going anywhere."
"Judging by the fact I didn't hear an engine nearby, you are equally lacking for transportation right now," he countered.
"Well, then, I guess we're gonna have to share," Troy said, sitting down against the opposite wall.
They watched each other warily for a while before Dietrich cracked a rare, disarming smile; not his usual restrained pleasure at gaining the upper hand, but a boyish grin of amusement at the absurdity of the situation. "Do you intend to stand guard over me all night?" he asked.
It was tempting to grin back, but he restrained himself. "How about you put the gun down first," he said.
Dietrich smiled wryly. "Hardly sporting, Sergeant," he said. "Perhaps we should lower our weapons together."
At this point, Troy was more than sure that nobody was going to be doing any shooting, but it was important that some kind of protocol was preserved. He inclined his head. "On three," he said.
With guns holstered, the atmosphere inside their shelter shifted from tense to a more banal kind of awkwardness. They weren't friendly enough for the silence to rest easily, but making light conversation with the enemy was hardly appropriate.
They eyed each other across the chamber in the light of the small campfire, neither making any sudden moves. Dietrich's injury was clearly paining him, though he did his best to hide it, betrayed only by small winces as he shifted position. He wasn't dumb enough to start trouble without backup to support him, and his men wouldn't come searching in the dark. Neither would Moffitt.
Dietrich's thoughts must have followed a similar path, or else he was more banged up than he appeared. His alert posture gradually gave way to a sagging head, and soon he'd slipped back into the light sleep that Troy had surprised him out of earlier.
With the tension lines smoothed out his face suddenly seemed much younger. Officer that he was, it was easy to lose sight of the fact he was really no older than Tully and Hitch. All so young - and nowhere near the youngest in this conflict. War made him feel like an old man at thirty-six. At least he'd had a life before they sent him to this desert.
Troy tried to imagine what Dietrich might have been in civilian life. It was hard to picture. Maybe he would always have been military, but in some peacetime capacity, rescuing more kids stuck down wells and... whatever else it was soldiers did when they weren't fighting. Troy didn't even know anymore.
But he could picture Dietrich that way. He was a good man. Conscientious. Fair.
And that was a dangerous thought. Okay, so maybe Troy had figured out back in his youth that good-looking guys could catch his eye just as easily as the ladies, but he knew damn well the dangers of not keeping that side of himself under wraps. Out here in the desert there were few safe opportunities with civilian women, let alone men, and he wasn't about to risk getting involved with anybody in the military. His teammates were entirely off-limits.
It hadn't occurred to him to draw a similar line in the sand against noticing the looks of any handsome Germans he might meet during their temporary truces, since any thoughts in that direction were so self-evidently fantasy there was nothing to forbid. But then, he hadn't expected that Dietrich would keep turning up like a bad penny, or have a sense of honour and fair play that put a few on Troy's side of the line to shame. In another world, they could have been friends.
And these thoughts were going nowhere useful fast. Troy sat up, consciously directing his gaze away from the sleeping Captain and toward the doorway. He should be watching for intruders, not dwelling on impossible what-ifs.
Dietrich was the enemy, and had to be treated as such. Easy to practise on the outside; not so easy to override the gut instincts that had already decided for themselves how much trust he could place in the man. Despite himself, Troy found his own head drooping, lulled to sleep by the soft flicker of the fire and the internal assurance he was in no danger in the Captain's company.
Troy was woken hours later by faint rustles of movement, the firelight gone but the doorway lit by the pink flush of the dawn. He cracked a cautious eye open, and saw Dietrich sitting upright with his shirt drawn up over his chest, trying to wind fresh bandages around the wound in his side. Probably hoping to get the job done before Troy woke up. Concealing his weakness from the enemy - Troy understood the sentiment, though he didn't have much plan to take advantage right now, just sympathy for Dietrich's winces of pain.
"Need a hand?" he said. Dietrich tensed, watching him warily as he rose to approach. Not just warily - nervously, a wide-eyed vulnerability Troy had only seen him show once before, when they were trapped in the cave-in and Dietrich's pinned leg had left him wholly at Troy's mercy. He'd offered a helping hand then and on occasions since, so he wasn't sure why Dietrich should be quite so anxious this time. Maybe he was hurt worse than it looked - or hiding something.
But he didn't refuse the offer, so Troy crossed the building to crouch beside him, taking the bandages from the Captain's awkward grip. The wound revealed beneath was an ugly gash, but shallow, not likely to pose a serious risk. One good thing about the deep desert - wounds were less likely to go septic. No damn thing alive out there to cause contamination.
Dietrich breathed in sharply as Troy's hands skimmed his stomach. "Sorry." He tried to keep his touches light, but there was an unavoidable intimacy in the way he had to grip the Captain's bare flesh to wind the bandages around his middle. There was muscle under the skin, warm beneath his hands, and he tried not to get distracted by the rarity of this kind of human contact. Dietrich's jaw tightened and he swallowed visibly, clearly uncomfortable with the closeness.
Troy smoothed the bandages down, leaning in to check his handiwork. As he breathed across the man's skin Dietrich flinched and stifled a gasp. Troy looked up to meet his eyes - and his gaze caught. Something in that look: tension, discomfort... and a flicker of heat mingled with misery and shame.
He'd seen that look before; probably worn it himself from time to time, in that agonising moment of potential miscommunication between a punch in the face, an awkward, uncomfortable brush-off that would linger like a bad stink, or the tiny, desperate chance that what looked like an invitation really was one. That nauseating tipping point when denial slid out of the window and you just stood exposed as the kind of man who maybe wanted more than friendly camaraderie from the men around you.
Dietrich closed his eyes in a despairing wince, clearly aware he'd given himself away. Troy felt a surge of sympathy, but his tongue stalled on giving any word of reassurance. The first instinctive rule, shared with all the guys he'd been with, was that whatever you might do or feel, you never spoke about it.
Instead he cupped Dietrich's face, allowing his thumb to trail along the side of his mouth. Those dark eyes startled open, wide with shock. He did look young, and Troy wondered if he'd ever dared this; ever risked exposing his secret to someone who could just as easily destroy his life as respond in kind.
Aw, hell. Troy knew better - knew damn well that he knew better - but that part of him that always rose up to push past orders and logic when his sympathies were tugged was back again.
Or maybe altruism was just a convenient excuse to give in to temptation. He closed the distance between them and touched his lips to Dietrich's.
He felt the man shudder against him, a warm breath exhaled to mingle with his. He tasted of last night's cigarettes, friction from his dry and desert-roughened lips as they caught against Troy's. That mouth; Troy had been watching it a long time, those subtle quirks of expression that showed more personality than the rigid officer projected on the surface. His hand tightened on the bare skin under the edge of Dietrich's shirt, the other sliding across a stubbled cheek to draw him in closer. Dietrich didn't resist-
Engines in the distance. Troy pulled back fast enough that Dietrich rocked with him, grabbing for Troy's shoulder to catch his balance. For an instant their eyes locked, a dark intensity in Dietrich's that could have meant anything. Then Troy rose up and swung towards the doorway, drawing his pistol as he looked out.
A dust cloud approaching across the desert, resolving after a moment into jeeps. He breathed out. Good to see the rest of the Patrol alive and well, though he had some bones to pick with their timing. He turned back to face Dietrich.
And found himself eye to eye with the barrel of the Captain's Luger.
"My apologies, Sergeant," he said, his composure regained, though he looked a little more flushed in the face than even sunburn would account for. "But I'm afraid that we must part ways here."
A part of Troy instinctively grasped for the easy blow, the emotional strike. The man would be off-balance; he could threaten blackmail, play for sympathy... but would he still respect himself in the morning?
Instead he stiffened his back and met the threat head-on. "My men are on their way," he said. "You're injured and outnumbered."
Not a bluff, just the cold truth; all the same, Dietrich looked far less nervous than he had just moments ago. This was familiar territory for them both.
"Perhaps, but my men will have started their search at dawn just as yours did," he said, holding Troy's gaze. "Is it worth risking pursuit to capture me?"
That was practically a challenge, a buried needle to drive Troy into being the one to question his motivations for a decision that should be purely tactical. The Captain might never wield what had just happened as an outward weapon, but that didn't mean he wouldn't press any weakness Troy showed in relation to it. Troy almost felt a stab of admiration. Oh, Dietrich might be honourable to the core, but he was still a dangerous man to play games with.
Any guilt he might have felt for throwing a wrench into the rules of their relationship was fading fast, leaving only the usual cool determination to watch for any opening to win out.
"Step outside of the building, and keep moving backwards," Dietrich ordered.
Troy could have balked and held the standoff; he had a gun of his own in his hand, and every instinct told him that Dietrich wouldn't shoot him in the half second that it would take to raise it. But a standoff meant delay, and more risk to his men, and capturing Dietrich had never been the objective of this mission. He took a slow pace backwards, then another, and kept going until the contrast between the sun and the shadows of the ruins stole any chance of being able to read Dietrich's expression.
He told himself not to be the kind of sentimental idiot who imagined that it might have changed.
The first of the jeeps rolled up behind him, Moffitt leaning over from his ready stance at the machine gun. "Troy?" he queried with a raised eyebrow.
"Dietrich," he said in answer. It was enough explanation.
"He has backup?" Moffitt asked, scanning the landscape.
"It's coming." Of course, he only had Dietrich's assumptions to support that, but the Captain knew his own men.
Moffitt slid him a sidelong glance. "We could save ourselves a lot of trouble if we brought him in now," he pointed out.
Troy heaved a faint sigh, knowing he was right. "Yeah. But I doubt he'd come quietly," he said. And it didn't sit right in his gut to haul the Captain in after what had been effectively a truce, however unorthodox the declaration. "We just got through a night without killing each other. How about we don't push our luck?"
Moffitt studied his face for a moment, lips pressed together in an expression that seemed all too penetrating for Troy's comfort. He knew Moffitt already thought he cut Dietrich more breaks than he strictly ought to give an enemy. What would he think if he learned of this new development?
Not that it was a development. Momentary madness, never to happen again, and he was sure that Dietrich felt the same. He held Moffitt's gaze.
Finally the British sergeant gave a tiny nod. "All right," he said. "Let's go, then." Troy ran over to Hitch's jeep to hop on.
"Good to have you back on board, Sarge," Hitch said, grinning around his bubblegum.
Troy clapped him on the shoulder. "Okay. Let's shake it."
He watched the ruins shrinking behind them as the jeep rattled away, but if a figure watched them from the shadows, it was impossible to make out. He turned his attention to the road ahead.
Harass and confuse the enemy, any way he could; those were his standing orders. He guessed this little interlude with Dietrich would qualify - maybe too well.
He just hoped it wouldn't come back to bite him in the ass the next time Dietrich and the Rat Patrol met.