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Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Time

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Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Time
By JJJunky

 

October, 1944: A new laboratory occupies the top floor of a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany. Suspicious of the sudden appearance and the secrecy under which it's conducting experiments, a German doctor has contacted Allied Command. The Jericho mission: to find out what the lab is attempting to develop and, if necessary, destroy it.

Sheppard walked slowly down the sidewalk, carefully studying the people walking past him. Most moved quickly. Oblivious to their surroundings, they were anxious to get home before the approaching curfew. Even here in the Fatherland itself, the American had found fear was the most prevalent emotion among its citizens. Having spent time in Germany before he became a captain in the American Army and even more since, Sheppard knew fear was caused as much by the country's own leaders as by the death and destruction meted out by the RAF bombers at night and the American Air Force by day.

Suspicious of a young couple partially hidden in the recess of a door across the street, Sheppard passed by his destination without the slightest hesitation and turned down an ally at the side of the building. Hiding himself in its deepening shadows, he turned to watch the couple. They rarely kissed, and when they did, it was without passion. Sheppard knew that if there was one thing this war had accomplished, it was the disintegration of certain social restrictions. When a person faced death, what society considered right and wrong became blurred, often disappearing in the heat of passion.

With only ten minutes left to curfew, Sheppard realized he would have to take a chance and approach the doctor's house in full view of the suspected agents. Pulling his hat low across his forehead, he started to step from the ally when he noticed the couple separating. Without a lingering word or touch, the girl crossed the street and walked out of Sheppard's view. Shoving his hands in his pockets, the young man turned and walked the other way. He had barely rounded the corner when the American re-entered the street. Seeing no obvious replacement for the surveillance team, he quickly climbed the steep stairs to the doctor's house and knocked on the door.

It opened slowly, cynicism another attitude prevalent throughout the Third Reich. Knowing he had to get the accent just right or chance endangering the doctor to anyone observing them, Sheppard said, "I need some medicine to aid my friend, Jericho. I was told you might be able to help me?"

"Yes, yes, of course," ushering his visitor inside, the doctor assured, "I'll be happy to do whatever I can."

Sheppard followed the older man down a long hall. A door on his right was slightly ajar, indicating this was the room the doctor had recently vacated to answer his summons. Without speaking, the doctor gestured the American inside, closing the door behind them. As if this deed was enough to shut out all that threatened them, he visibly relaxed. "I was beginning to worry about you. I expected you much earlier."

"There was somebody watching the house," explained Sheppard. "If our mission should fail and we're caught, I didn't want our association to endanger you."

Nodding his understanding, the doctor crossed to a liquor cabinet. "May I offer you a drink?"

Still feeling the chill of the autumn wind, the American wistfully inquired, "You wouldn't have a brandy, would you?"

"I do." Pulling a bottle from the back of the cabinet, the doctor absently noted, "I was told there would be three of you."

"My associates will be along shortly," Sheppard responded, his mouth watering for its first taste of brandy in months. Though the team generally returned to England at the completion of each mission, this time they had been on the continent for six consecutive months. They would receive new assignments from contacts on each subsequent mission. They had never stayed out this long before, and all three men were dangerously tired. The strain of living in constant peril was beginning to appear. André had become quiet, speaking only when spoken to; Gage had lost the ready smile that often relieved a tense moment. Sheppard knew that he, himself, had become almost unbearable, constantly snapping at his friends, often for no reason at all.

"Here is your brandy."

Sheppard jumped, his hand shook slightly as he took the proffered glass. He had been caught by surprise, something that should never happen to a man in his profession. If it happened again, it could get him and his team killed.

"All clear, mon ami," said André as he walked nonchalantly into the room followed closely by Gage.

The doctor dropped his own glass of alcohol in surprise at their sudden appearance. His voice cracking with fear, he demanded "Who are you? How did you get in here?"

"I'm sorry Doctor Kauffman," Sheppard apologized, putting a comforting hand on the startled man's shoulder. "I'd like you to meet the other two-thirds of Jericho, Jean-Gaston André of the Free French Air Force, and Nicholas Gage, a Lieutenant in Her Majesty's Navy. As for how they got in here, you'd be surprised at the things one can learn in the circus." As his eyes focused fondly on the blond Englishman, Sheppard muttered, "I know I often am."

Nodding acknowledgment of the backhanded compliment, Gage bent to help the doctor clean up the broken glass. Crossing to the American's side, André reported, "I followed the young woman to her home. I do not think she was doing surveillance on this house in particular, but rather on the general area."

"Isn't it nice to feel trusted by your own government," Gage perceived, putting the broken glass he had collected into the garbage. "It makes one feel so wanted in so many ways."

"That's enough, Gage," snapped Sheppard. Instantly regretting the flash of unprovoked anger, he quickly asked, "Where did the boy go?"

Hurt momentarily flashed across the expressive face before Gage replied, "To arms that held him a little more passionately than the ones you observed."

"Gentlemen," his composure restored, Dr. Kauffman cautiously stepped forward, "can I offer you a drink?"

"Mais oui," said André, a wistful sigh that echoed Sheppard's acknowledging the offer.

For the first time in what seemed like weeks, Gage smiled. "You don't by any chance have a lager?"

"Ja," said Kauffman returning the smile. "Herr André?"

Pointing to a bottle partially hidden in the corner of the cabinet, André asked, "That wouldn't by any chance be a French wine?"

"Nein," Kauffman regretfully shook his head, "German, but it is a Rhine from 1928."

André's eyes lit up as he recognized the vintage. "I would be most honored to sample a glass."

As he enjoyed the rare expressions of joy marking the two faces, Sheppard relaxed and took a sip of his brandy. He knew they should be discussing the details of the mission, but they deserved a break - even if it was for only a few minutes.

Drinks in hand, each man found a seat and made himself comfortable. Loath to end the companionable silence, Sheppard nonetheless realized they didn't have much time if the doctor's last report was accurate. "Dr. Kauffman, is the lab still on the top floor of the hospital?"

"Ja," nodded Kauffman, "but there are signs that they plan to move it soon."

Savoring the flavor of the fruity wine, André took a sip, swallowing it slowly before pressing, "And you still do not know what they are doing?"

Kauffman shook his head, "Nein, security is very tight. They are on the tenth floor. I cannot get above the eighth. Nobody can."

"We noticed," Sheppard ruefully noted. "We visited your hospital earlier today and found the same stumbling blocks."

"There isn't even access from the roof," observed André.

"Then there is nothing that can be done?" Kauffman asked, his eyes studying each man in turn.

Sheppard shook his head and rose to his feet. "Not necessarily. The isolation ward is the floor directly below the lab, right?"

"Ja," Kauffman acknowledged. "But that only gets you one floor closer. How would that help?"

A proud smile lightening normally stern features, Sheppard explained, "Gage discovered a special disposal chute. It goes between the ninth and tenth floors down to the furnace in the basement."

"Obviously the nature of the work done in the labs and the illnesses assigned to the isolation ward could contaminate clothes and equipment," André elucidated. "Potentially hazardous material must be disposed of properly."

"But how?" Confused, Kauffman shook his head. "How will you get on the isolation ward, and how will you climb up a disposal chute?"

Returning to his chair, Sheppard sat down. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees. "That's where we need your help. We want you to make Gage sick. Give him something that will make him exhibit symptoms requiring him to be isolated. Once he's on the ward, he'll have no trouble climbing up the chute and finding out what they're doing in that lab."

"Make a perfectly healthy man sick? Is that not dangerous?" Kauffman questioned, his gaze falling on the blond-haired Englishman.

"More dangerous than the chance you took contacting us?" asked Sheppard.

"We've done it before," his unfocused eyes staring into the distance, Gage softly reassured, "and it worked."

Though puzzled by the haunted look that flashed across his friend's face, Sheppard urged, "Can you help us, doctor?"

"I can make you sick." Kauffman turned his penetrating eyes on the young Englishman. "But you realize what I give you is a poison. Unless you receive treatment, you will die."

For the first time since they had devised their plan, Sheppard felt uneasy. "Do you have the antidote?"

"There is no antidote for Fool's Parsley," corrected Kauffman. "Each symptom must be treated individually. There's no guarantee that I will be admitted to the isolation floor. My specialty, after all, is obstetrics. If I cannot reach him, I cannot administer the medicine."

"We'll just have to take that chance," Sheppard decided after a slight hesitation.

"We?" emphasized Gage a frown marring his handsome face.

Noting the resentment in Gage's tone, Sheppard pointed out, "If I could fit in that chute and climb like a monkey, it would be me. Unfortunately, there's only one person here with the qualifications necessary to complete this mission, and that's you." Angered by circumstances that had made him a bystander rather than a participant, the American vented his feelings on his associate. "If you hadn't been willing to risk your life, you should never have joined Jericho."

His own anger more subdued, but still obvious, Gage jumped to his feet and snapped, "I don't mind risking my life for the right cause. I just don't like someone else trying to throw it away."

"Mes ami," leaving the comfort of his chair, André stepped between the two combatants, "we are all tired and saying things we do not mean."

Reluctantly turning away, Gage wiped a shaking hand across bloodshot eyes. Ignoring Sheppard, he directed his question to their host. "What kinds of symptoms will this poison produce, Doctor?"

"You will experience a gradual weakening of muscle power." His apprehension causing a sheen of sweat to coat his pale face, Kauffman wiped it off with his handkerchief before continuing, "Your pulse will be rapid, but weak and the muscles will become extremely painful. While your mind will remain relatively clear, you will eventually lose your eyesight."

"Permanently?" asked Gage, fear reflecting from the bright blue eyes.

"If not treated in time, yes," the doctor reluctantly admitted.

"Will the weakening of the muscles be debilitating?" asked Sheppard.

"The longer he goes without treatment, the weaker he will become," explained Kauffman.

His face still flushed with anger, Gage growled, "Don't worry; I'll be able to do my job."

Regretting his recent outburst, Sheppard softly noted, "I never doubted it for a minute."

"You've got a funny way of showing your support, Yank," grumbled Gage, the heat of his emotions waning.

"That wasn't me talking, that was exhaustion," Sheppard reassured. Noting the skepticism on his friend's face, he continued, "And I promise you at the end of this mission we'll go back to England for a rest."

Gage regarded the American in disbelief. "You would turn down a mission?"

"I promise." Sheppard held up his hand in a Boy Scout pledge. "What do you say?"

"Name your poison, Doc," drawled Gage in his best imitation of the western cowboys he had seen in the pictures.

* * * *

Gage fought to keep his eyes open and watch for Doctor Kauffman's appearance. He dared not enter the hospital until the doctor arrived; as it was the German's job to ensure Gage was admitted to the isolation ward. Though his body fought the effects of the Fool's Parsley he had consumed, Gage's mind remained remarkably clear.

Choking back the bile rising in his throat, he cautiously flexed his arms, cursing their unfamiliar weakness. Leaning against the rough brick wall of the building across the street from the hospital, he let its strength support him since his legs no longer could. The poison had caused the weakness in his muscles, but his own fear had twisted his stomach into knots, making him vomit. As he had told Dr. Kauffman, this was not the first time he had been poisoned to produce symptoms of a contagious disease. Last time, he had done it to force a German Colonel into an area of France where the Jericho team hoped to rescue three allied generals. Neither Sheppard nor André had ever known how close their plan had come to failure when the colonel had put a gun to Gage's head and threatened to pull the trigger. Only a French doctor's quick intervention had saved the young Englishman's life.

Whenever he closed his eyes, Gage could see the black death in that hollow barrel. Sometimes, it made it difficult for him to sleep. It hadn't been the first time he had looked down the barrel of a gun and seen death, nor undoubtedly, would it be the last considering the nature of their work.

As a highly specialized team, Jericho often drew the most dangerous and the most important assignments. To allay the fears that could overwhelm them, the three men tended to joke around trying to make light of difficult situations. Lately, for Gage, the jokes had lost their humor. It wasn't the prospect of death that he feared, it was how the Black Specter would eventually come to take him that could make him feel physically ill. He had seen death in that gun barrel. It scared him that it might have also seen him.

Sweat dripped into his eyes, blurring his vision. It took all his concentration and strength to raise his hand to his brow and wipe away the perspiration. When he dropped his arm, it was visibly shaking with the effort.

Just as he felt he dared not delay any longer, Kauffman appeared. Knowing he didn't have the luxury of waiting to let the doctor establish his presence, Gage pushed away from the wall. Every painful step was accomplished by a strength of will conceived in desperation. He almost cried when he reached the door and realized he didn't have the energy to open it.

Fighting the urge to drop where he was, Gage waited for someone to come along who would open the door for him. His mind wandered, focusing on the pain burning along every muscle in his body. In his misery, he almost missed the door opening beside him as a couple, a tiny baby in the young woman's arms, exited the hospital. Almost losing his balance in his haste, Gage stumbled through the entrance. Just inside, he stopped, swaying as he scanned the large lobby.

As was typical in a hospital, especially during a war, the room was crowded. The men and woman dressed in white moved with a confidence that spoke of familiarity. Those dressed in civilian clothing, some with blood-soaked bandages wrapped around arms or legs, moved or sat in a shocked stupor.

Even though his vision was starting to blur, Gage recognized Sheppard and André. In the uniforms they had stolen, the two men looked no different than other orderlies, and easily blended into the routine of the busy hospital. It was funny how often simple laborers went unnoticed by the top brass. Unless they tried to collect a paycheck, Sheppard and André would probably never be suspected as the agents they were.

With each step becoming more difficult, Gage had to center his attention on walking. He knew he had to get closer to Kauffman before he collapsed. His eyes tearing with the effort, he slowly pushed one foot in front of the other. No distance ever seemed so great as that which now separated him from the waiting physician. His abused limbs shook to such an extent he could barely control them. Long before he reached his destination they stopped obeying the commands from his brain and he collapsed at a woman's feet. Her scream echoed around the room, eventually disappearing under the onslaught of pounding feet.

"Don't touch him! Get me some gloves!"

The voice was unfamiliar, but Gage knew who the order had been directed to. Before he collapsed, he had seen Sheppard moving in his direction. Blinking away the sweat blurring his vision, he looked past a young man in a white coat into the American's worried face.

Accepting a pair of gloves from an older woman in a nurse's uniform, the young doctor knelt beside Gage. "Don't worry; I'm here to help you. My name is Dr. Manush."

"Can I be of assistance, Doctor?" asked Kauffman kneeling on the other side of the Englishman.

Manush shook his head, "It's all right, Doctor. I've got it under control."

"But . . ." Kauffman started to protest. A cautionary hand on his shoulder stopped him. Without glancing at the owner of the hand, the doctor quickly amended, "Of course, forgive me."

Though Gage knew Sheppard's warning might jeopardize his own chances of survival, he was grateful for the American's intervention. Not only would the physician's protest look suspicious, it might be remembered when Jericho completed their mission and made their escape, putting the doctor in danger.

Fingers pressing gently into his neck made Gage jerk as pain radiated down into his shoulders and back. His stomach rebelled. With the last of his strength, he turned his head and vomited on the pristine marble floor.

"Is your neck and back stiff?" asked Manush.

Swallowing the last of the bile, Gage croaked, "Yes."

His fingers expanding their painful search, Manush continued, "Do you have a headache or a sore throat?"

"Yes," Gage answered even as he desperately tried to remember what symptoms he was "supposed" to have.

The stabbing pain eased into a dull ache as the fingers stopped their probing. "It sounds like polio," Manush whispered to the nurse kneeling at his side.

"But polio is a child's disease," protested the nurse.

"It can also occur in young adults," Manush reminded. "Until the diagnosis can be confirmed, have him taken to the isolation ward. Everyone who contacts him must wear protective clothing."

"General Schmitt won't approve of this, Doctor," the nurse hesitantly pointed out.

"General Schmitt doesn't have to deal with the epidemic that will break out if this man comes in contact with someone in an unprotected environment," Manush angrily returned. "Now follow my orders or find me a nurse who will."

"Yes, Doctor." Her reluctance obvious, the woman complied.

Gage only peripherally heard the nurse's acknowledgement. Even without Kauffman's participation, the plan was working. Now all that was necessary was for Doctor Kauffman to visit him in the isolation ward and administer the drugs necessary to counteract the Fool's Parsley.

* * * *

Using the key the doctor had given them, Sheppard and André cautiously entered the quiet house. Both men knew the period of waiting for Kauffman's return would be interminable. Though they had tried, neither had been able to gain entrance to the isolation ward. They could only hope their host had been more successful.

As soon as the outside door was closed and locked, André walked into the sitting room and crossed to the liquor cabinet. "Would you like a drink?"

Sheppard knew he wanted one, badly. Maybe too badly. The way he felt right now, one drink couldn't begin to quench the thirst he felt. A thirst that longed for oblivion from the pain of his memories. Throwing his coat in a chair, he shook his head. "Not right now."

The Frenchman turned away, barely acknowledging the reply. As he opened the cabinet and poured himself a drink, Sheppard noted that it was not the wine his friend generally favored, but rather a more potent scotch. Apparently André was feeling the stress of the situation as strongly as he.

Needing an outlet for his emotions, Sheppard slowly paced the small room. His steps became faster as the memory of Gage's pale, sweating face floated before him. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't walk away from the vision anymore than he could run away from his own guilt.

"Is it worth it?" André's softly spoken question broke the oppressive silence.

Puzzled, Sheppard stopped his pacing, "Is what worth it?"

"You saw him." André poured himself another drink before continuing. "Is this mission so important he had to suffer so?"

"You tell me," demanded Sheppard, waving his hand in anger. "You've been in this thing longer than I have. You've seen your friends and family suffer. Where do we draw the line? We've risked our lives more than once to complete a mission. What makes this one so different?"

Throwing back a shot of scotch, André slammed the glass down, his eyes watering as the liquor burned a path down his throat. "It's different because we don't know what they're doing in that lab. What if they're experimenting with a new way to brew beer or a new perfume?"

"And what if they're not?" Sheppard softly replied. "What if it's a new type of explosive or a poison gas that will end this war and, not incidentally, most of the civilizations of the world? Are you willing to take the chance?"

Sheppard flinched as André turned away in defeat, and started to pour another shot of the powerful whiskey. They had all suffered physical and emotional anguish in this war. They had seen others endure much worse than they, all to defeat the little Austrian corporal who wanted to rule the world. Sheppard knew he was right. Yet, being right didn't take away the pain.

Despite their agitation, both men heard the front door open, one hinge squeaking softly in protest. Pulling his gun, Sheppard flattened himself against the wall next to the door of the sitting room. His own gun lying lightly in his hand, André crossed to stand behind the couch.

As soon as he entered the room, Dr. Kauffman's distress was obvious. He barely noticed the hostile welcome he had received in his own home. Crossing directly to the liquor cabinet, he picked up the glass of scotch André had poured for himself. Without a word of explanation, he swallowed the fiery liquid, coughing slightly from its strength.

"What's wrong?" demanded Sheppard closing the sitting room door and crossing to Kauffman's side. "How's Gage?"

Shaking his head, Kauffman poured another drink. "I don't know. They wouldn't admit me to the isolation ward."

"Then you were unable to give Gage the medicine he needs?" asked André, belatedly putting his gun away.

"I could not even see his chart," Kauffman admitted, swallowing the liquid he had poured. "It is possible he is receiving many of the drugs he needs to retard the poison."

"You said retard, Doctor, not counteract," Sheppard pointed out. "Does that mean the poison is still working?"

Kauffman reluctantly nodded. "I believe so."

"Will Gage die?" demanded André. Only his white-knuckled grip on the back of the couch showed the Frenchman's torment.

Turning away, Kauffman poured himself another drink. This time, he sipped it. When the glass was empty, he gently placed it on the table. Without turning around he reluctantly confessed, "Yes, I think your friend will die."

The noise of the traffic on the street outside the house filtered through the brick walls and into the room. It was the only sound, but it went unheard by the three men as they privately battled with their feelings of despair and guilt.

Without even realizing that he had done so, Sheppard resumed his pacing. "What we have to do is find some way to get onto the isolation ward."

"We found a way," André bitterly pointed out. "That is why Gage is dying now."

"Of course!" Sheppard snapped his fingers and stopped pacing. "If I show up at the hospital with the same symptoms as Gage, they're bound to put me on the isolation ward."

Kauffman shook his head and angrily noted, "The only way for you to exhibit the same symptoms is if you also consume the Fool's Parsley."

"You do have more, don't you?" Sheppard's excitement waned as another complication presented itself.

"I do." Crossing to his chair, Kauffman sat down. His fingers were gripping the arms so tightly that the deep blue of a vein stood out clearly against the pale pink of his skin. "But I will not give it to you. I have already killed one man. I cannot kill another."

Compassion glowed from the dark brown eyes. Kneeling in front of the tortured man, Sheppard assured, "Gage isn't going to die and neither am I."

"How can you be so certain?" demanded André, replacing the doctor at the liquor cabinet. He didn't pour himself a drink. He simply stared into the amber depths of the bottle as though he could find the answer he looked for inside. "Killing yourself will not save Gage."

Climbing to his feet, Sheppard denied, "I'm not trying to kill myself. Why don't you hear me out before you bring out the straightjacket?"

"All right," André nodded a reluctant assent. Crossing to a chair, he sat down. While his attention appeared to be directed at his colleague, his eyes remained focused on the bottle of scotch.

"After I consume the Fool's Parsley," explained Sheppard, "we wait until my symptoms resemble Gage's. Then, just before we go to the hospital, the doctor will administer the drugs needed to counteract the poison. Once I'm on the ward, I can give Gage the drugs he needs."

"How?" demanded André. "Where will you get these drugs?"

Puzzled by the Frenchman's continued hostility, Sheppard suggested, "I can take them with me. Maybe hide them in my clothes."

"If they put you on the isolation ward, they will burn your clothes," André pointed out.

"I'll find the drugs somewhere," an exasperated Sheppard replied. "It is a hospital after all."

Rising to his feet, André returned to the liquor cabinet. A hand circled the bottle of scotch, but never lifted it to pour. "What am I supposed to do? Sit here and twiddle my thumbs? Why must you be the hero?"

"I'm not trying to be a hero," protested Sheppard. "I'm only trying to complete the mission."

"It's lucky for Gage that you need him alive to accomplish your goal," André dispassionately stated.

Sheppard felt as though he had been stabbed in the heart. Obviously, André had misunderstood his motives. When the American had seen Gage's shaking, pain-racked features, his friend had become far more important to him than the mission. However, Sheppard knew if he tried to explain this to André, the Frenchman would never believe him.

For the first time since they had entered the house, André focused his gaze directly on the American captain. "I'm coming with you."

"No!" Sheppard didn't care if André misinterpreted his motives this time. His stomach twisted with fear at the thought of risking another friend's life with the poison.

"If I accompany you," André elucidated, "they will believe that I, too, have been exposed to the disease and put me on the isolation ward."

"No!" Sheppard emphatically reiterated.

"Somebody has to be there to look out for Gage's interests," asserted André, the tone of his voice making it obvious that he wouldn't be talked out of going.

Deeply hurt, and wondering how his friend could so completely misjudge him, Sheppard reluctantly relented, "All right, we'll both go."

* * * *

He was looking down the hollow barrel again and seeing death. Opening his eyes, Gage tried to push away the vision he had seen in those ebony depths, but this time he knew the Black Specter had looked back at him. This time there would be no miraculous escape. He had been seen; no one could save him now.

Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he no longer had the strength to wipe it away. No doctor had seen him since he had been admitted. His was a solitary vigil except for the hovering presence of death. A few hours ago, a nurse had taken his temperature and a blood sample. She had not spoken a word during her entire visit. It was as though Gage didn't exist as a person, only a specimen.

In the medical staff's apparent indifference, Gage had found something else to fear. He had heard about experiments often performed on unaware patients. Would he be considered a likely candidate? As pain coursed down his exhausted body, he realized he no longer cared. All he wanted was relief from the constant agony. If that solace was accompanied by death, then so be it. He no longer had the desire to fight.

Maybe, this was what he deserved. To die, virtually by his own hand, without completing the mission. This was his penance for all those who had died because of him. There were too many to count or remember in the parade of faceless German soldiers who had fallen from a bullet he had fired or from a bomb he had planted. It was the others however, that haunted him. People with faces and names. Victoria Bannon, who had started out as a traitor, but had eventually given her life for her country because he had convinced her that the path she had chosen was the wrong one. Janine DeLatire had put her life and the lives of twelve young choir boys in danger because he had asked her to. Recently, he had received news that she had died trying to save an elderly Jewish couple from the concentration camps. He had been the one to make her believe they must fight back against the Germans if they expected to win. Janine had fought and died listening to his words.

Closing his eyes, Gage fought back the tears his dehydrated body could ill afford to spill. When he had become a part of Jericho, he had done it to save lives not take them. Each time he killed, a little of him died, too. Soon, there would be nothing left. The flesh and the bones and the blood would be there, but not the heart.

If Sheppard had known how he felt, Gage knew the American would attribute it to exhaustion. But the Englishman knew better. These feelings had always been with him but buried so deep he hadn't been forced to face them - until now.

* * * *

Darkness filled the room, its denseness broken only by the deeper shadows of his bed and a table against the wall. Panic seized Sheppard; his fear of the blindness Kauffman had warned Gage about momentarily supplanting his common sense. Taking deep, even breaths, he slowly relaxed. A vague, half-conscious memory of his admission into the hospital helped him to regain his normal calm.

As he sat up in the bed, the door quietly opened. He tensed, his aching muscles protesting the movement as a dark shadow slipped through the narrow opening. Wishing he had a gun, Sheppard's eyes followed the shadow to the window where it threw open the blackout curtain. The American relaxed as André's familiar features were framed in the soft glow of the moon's light.

"How do you feel?" the accented voice whispered.

Painfully aware that the Frenchman's usual appellative, mon ami, had not ended the request, Sheppard threw back his covers and swung his feet off the bed. "I'm all right. Have you found Gage?"

"Non," said André, moving closer to the bed. "I thought it best to check on you before proceeding."

Sheppard recoiled as his bare feet hit the cold floor. His muscles involuntarily contracted, the pain making him gasp more from its unexpectedness than from its intensity. As André had predicted, their clothes had disappeared. Ignoring his discomfort, Sheppard asked, "Are there any guards or staff on the ward?"

"Non," André repeated. "Apparently they feel Gage is not important enough to warrant special attention. The nurses' station is deserted, and there is only one guard. He is outside the door facing the other way."

"Good," said Sheppard, relieved at the news. "Why don't you find the drugs while I look for Gage?"

There was an uncharacteristic hesitation before the Frenchman voiced his compliance, "Oui."

The wound of his companion's distrust hurt Sheppard more than the poison twisting his muscles and burning his eyes. Realizing now was not the time to defend his actions, he decided to copy André's attire. Pulling a blanket off the bed, he wrapped it around his shoulders. It was the only thing in the room that could cover his nakedness and ward off the chill that made his breath fog the air. Unfortunately, there was nothing to put on his feet. Resigned, he followed André to the door.

Entering the dark hall, both men tried to hide in its deepest shadows while keeping a careful watch on the guard. André slipped quietly down the long hall to the deserted nurses' station. Getting his bearings, Sheppard studied the layout of the rooms. His was the second down from the end, while André's had been the third. Knowing the orderly state in which the German mind usually operated, Sheppard was sure he would find Gage in the first room.

The cumbersome blanket slowing his progress, he crossed to the door and opened it wide enough to allow him to enter. The sound of labored breathing greeted his entrance. Though he was sure the bed's occupant had to be Gage, Sheppard knew he could not chance a light to confirm his suspicion. As André had done, he walked to the window and threw back the blackout curtain. Moonlight filled the room, its glow reflecting off a pale sweating - familiar - face.

Tears blurred Sheppard's vision. Tripping on the edge of the blanket, he bumped into the side of the bed. He recoiled when he realized the movement had elucidated a groan from its occupant. "I'm so sorry, Gage," he whispered, knowing the apology was for more than the pain he had just caused.

A look of resignation flashed across the tortured face. His eyes focused on a spot over the American's left shoulder, Gage nodded. "I knew you'd come for me."

Sheppard's initial feeling of elation quickly disappeared when he realized that Gage's eyes were looking past him into the darkness beyond. Placing a hand on each side of the pale face, the American gently turned it toward him. "Gage, it's Sheppard. André's here, too. He's getting the medicine you need."

The haunted look clouding the light blue eyes never wavered. Sheppard shivered, not from the cold turning his feet to ice, but from the fear invading his soul. He had seen that look before - in the eyes of men who were about to die.

"Don't give up, Gage," Sheppard desperately urged. "André will be here any minute with the medicine. Just hang on!"

What the accented voice lacked in volume, it made up for in strength of character. "I've seen you before. I knew this time you'd seen me, too."

Even without confirmation, Sheppard knew who Gage was speaking to. He had seen Death himself many times, particularly in the last couple years. Gripping his friend's thin shoulders, Sheppard gently shook him. "You don't want to go with him, Gage. Fight him!"

"Don't want to," muttered the Englishman. "I deserve to die."

Wondering how his normally cheerful companion had reached that conclusion, Sheppard shook the quiescent body hurting himself as much as he was hurting his friend. "No! You don't deserve to die. You need to live."

"People die because of me," argued Gage, shaking his head.

Relieved his companion's attention had been pulled away from the shadows behind him, Sheppard countered, "People live because of you."

The light blue eyes wavered. "I've cheated Death too long. He's demanding payment."

"Gage, you can't elude something that's always standing beside you," Sheppard desperately argued. "You can only ignore it. Pretend he's not there."

"Take away . . . the . . . pain." The once strong voice sounded almost childlike in its plea, "Don't want . . . to hurt . . . anymore."

Though the hinges made no sound, Sheppard heard the door open. Praying it was André with the medicine, the American chanced a quick glance toward the entrance. He immediately recognized the tall, lanky silhouette. It wasn't until the Frenchman had moved closer to the bed and he saw the hypodermic needles in the large hand that Sheppard sighed in relief. His hands sliding on the sweaty skin, Sheppard gently squeezed the slender arms to draw the tormented man's attention. "Gage, stay with us, let André ease your pain."

"He can . . . do that?" Wonder colored the hesitant challenge.

"Yes," Sheppard reassured, "but only if you stay with us. You can't go with anyone else."

The eyes desperately searched the gloom. "André . . . please . . . take the pain . . . away."

"I will, mon ami," soothed the Frenchman. "I will."

Exchanging a quick glance with André, Sheppard felt a measure of relief. Throwing off the thin blankets covering his friend, he gently turned Gage onto his stomach. Sheppard's hands kept a light contact as André inserted one of the needles into the fleshy part of the buttocks. Two more shots quickly followed. Almost immediately, the labored breathing seemed to ease.

Shivering in the cold air, Sheppard realized he had dropped his blanket. His fight for Gage's soul had been so urgent; he hadn't noticed his own discomfort. Bending, he retrieved the almost transparent flannel and draped it across his shoulders.

"I will see if I can find us some more suitable clothing," suggested André.

"Be careful," Sheppard automatically cautioned.

His eyes focused on the relaxed figure of his friend, André sharply retorted, "I would not make his suffering be for nothing."

"I never thought you would," defended Sheppard, wounded once again by the Frenchman's interpretation of his motives. The hurt shining in his eyes went unseen as André slipped out the door. Gently pulling the blankets up around Gage's neck, Sheppard sadly observed, "I'm not the enemy."

* * * *

As consciousness started to intrude, Gage fought it back. He had no desire to return to the pain he had endured for so long. In the world he presently inhabited, there was no suffering, just a dull ache. A reminder of what he would suffer in that other world.

"Gage?"

Against his will the familiar voice drew him into its universe. To his surprise, Gage discovered that the pain he had anticipated didn't materialize. It hadn't disappeared completely, but now, it was a mere fraction of what it had been. Opening his eyes, he blinked away the haze blurring Sheppard's shadowy figure.

"Welcome back to the land of the living," whispered Sheppard, a relieved smile on his normally stern face.

Gage's attempt at a return smile was weak. "For a while there I didn't want to come back."

"I know what you mean," Sheppard commiserated, remembering his own limited suffering.

His movements cautious, but controlled, Gage sat up and looked around. "Where are we?"

"Still on the isolation ward of the hospital," explained Sheppard, anxiously throwing a blanket around the bare shoulders of his colleague.

Realizing he was cold, Gage gratefully accepted what warmth the thin material offered. "How did you get here?"

"I took the Fool's Parsley, too," Sheppard reluctantly admitted. "Just before we entered the hospital, Dr. Kauffman gave me the medicine to counteract the poison."

"We?" Glancing around the room, Gage asked, "Is André here, too?"

"He's across the hall keeping an eye on the guard." Rubbing a hand across his tired face, Sheppard dropped his eyes, too scared to observe the Englishman's reaction to his next statement. "I blew it, Gage. You could've been given the medicine, too, before you entered the hospital. André or I could've accompanied you and been quarantined as a precaution, just as André was when he brought me in. There was no need for you to have suffered so. I'm sorry."

"From now on we'll just have to think things through a little better." Gage's soothing words were welcome.

Relieved to hear the conciliatory words, Sheppard allowed his gaze to focus on the pale face of his friend. The anger he saw in the bright blue eyes belied the mollifying content of the response. However, there was no time now to evaluate or appease the anger. His spirits low, Sheppard picked up some clothes that had been lying on the end of the bed and handed them to his companion. "You better get dressed. It isn't much, but it's all André could find. At least it's better than a blanket."

The dim light of the moon revealed Sheppard's mismatched pants and shirt. Inspecting his own garments, Gage smiled and shook his head. "I think André needs a lesson in color coordination."

With the American's help, Gage slipped into the brown pants and blue shirt. Both were a little big, but, as Sheppard pointed out, it was better than trying to walk around wrapped in a blanket.

"Here are some socks," said Sheppard, handing the Englishman two strips of wool. Numerous holes were obvious in the worn material. "I'm afraid there aren't any shoes."

After disgustedly examining the footwear, Gage draped them over Sheppard's shoulder. "Hold on to them for me. They aren't much, but I think I'm going to need them."

"Sooner than you think, if you ever plan to get off that bed," warned Sheppard, remembering his initial contact with the cold floor.

Pushing to his feet, Gage stood on shaky legs. "I see what you mean. However, I can't climb that disposal chute with socks on my feet."

"Are you mad?" gasped Sheppard. "You can barely stand. How do you expect to climb twenty feet up a smooth surface?"

"I just will," Gage simply replied.

"And if I order you not to?"

Blue eyes bore angrily into brown. "Don't."

"Why take the chance?" Sheppard desperately argued.

"To complete the mission," said Gage, zipping up his pants.

Sheppard's fist connected with the mattress. "To hell with the mission!"

"By saying that, you're saying to hell with me," Gage softly reasoned. "I almost died to find out what's going on in that lab, and I'm not leaving until I do."

Reluctantly accepting defeat, Sheppard suggested, "Why don't you rest for a few minutes while I let André know what's going on?"

Before this mission, Gage knew his compassionate nature wouldn't have allowed him to continue to defy his friend. He would have submitted to Sheppard's desires. But now, he didn't feel anything; not concern, not compassion, not even determination. All he felt was a bitter emptiness, as though someone had torn out his heart.

* * * *

Heated by the furnace ten floors below, the metal lining of the shaft burned the soles of his feet and the tender skin across his shoulders. Just before entering the shaft, Gage had removed the thin flannel shirt. It wouldn't give him the traction he needed. Only his exposed flesh could do that.

As he slowly climbed, Gage knew he was fighting time as much as he was fighting the weaknesses assailing his body. They had been lucky a night nurse hadn't been assigned to the ward. However, there was no guarantee a doctor or nurse wouldn't appear at any time, particularly at the shift change. Gage had to complete the mission and the three men had to be out of the ward in less than an hour.

His body shaking with the effort, Gage inched his way up the shaft. In perfect health, the climb would have been easy. Unfortunately, the residual ache coursing along his muscles had deprived him of much of his agility. By the time he reached the vent opening into the lab, Gage barely had the strength to push it open. Falling into the room, he lay on the floor too exhausted to know or care if there was anyone else present. As his breathing slowly returned to normal, the shaking in his limbs receded.

His legs shook badly when he finally climbed to his feet. Leaning heavily against a desk, his eyes expertly studied the contents of the lab. There was no special equipment that distinguished it from any of the other labs he had seen. Yet, somehow, Gage knew this one was different.

Cursing the powers that had put him here without explosives, Gage methodically searched for another way to destroy the research. Hindered by his desire to leave the rest of the hospital unharmed, he sparingly spread some kerosene he had found across the tables and floor; then he lit a Bunsen burner and tilted it in such a way that it would take ten to fifteen minutes to ignite the liquid. Stuffing some papers he had found into the pockets of his pants, Gage re-entered the disposal chute. Sweat immediately beaded his brow as he inched his way back down.

This time, when he reached the vent opening onto the isolation ward, he found he lacked the strength to open it. Fighting the urge to relax his muscles and end his torment, he quietly tapped on the metal door. He had to be careful since any noise that could attract Sheppard's attention might also attract the guard's.

Suddenly, the door swung open. Surprise caused Gage to ease his grip on the doorframe. Fear barely had time to twist his stomach into a hard knot when strong hands circled his wrists and pulled him into the dark, empty corridor. Without protest, Gage allowed the American to lead him to the room he had recently vacated.

The autumn breeze chilling the air was a welcome relief after the heat of the shaft. Although, in a relatively short time, goose bumps dotted Gage's flesh as uncontrollable shivering shook his exhausted body.

No words were exchanged between the two men as Sheppard helped Gage slip into the flannel shirt André had found. Gage was grateful the American couldn't see the seared flesh on his shoulders and the soles of his feet. He was in no mood to defend his actions or listen to an "I told you so." A small voice inside him whispered that he was being unfair, but Gage refused to listen.

Both men instinctively tensed, reaching for non-existent weapons when the door suddenly opened. A moonlit shadow making his lanky form appear even taller, André entered the room, unaware of the anxiety he had caused. "If we are to leave, we must do so now," he advised. "The guard has just been changed."

"Do you really think that will make a difference?" asked Sheppard. "Won't the guard wonder about the way we're dressed?"

Giving first Gage then Sheppard a long, white coat, André explained, "I found these in the nurse's station. The new guard will think we are doctors who entered the ward before he came on duty."

"Whatever we do, we better hurry," Gage suggested, pulling on the coat that was at least two sizes too big. "In about five minutes, all hell's going to break loose."

Hurriedly buttoning a coat that had seen better days, Sheppard eagerly inquired, "You were able to sabotage the lab?"

"The Krauts were nice enough to leave a few things lying around that should make a satisfactory explosion," said Gage. "As we're directly beneath it, I think we better continue this conversation elsewhere. Homemade bombs can be unpredictable."

"C'est la vie." His own coat far from a perfect fit, André pulled disgustedly on the short sleeves. "At least in the confusion maybe on one will notice our clothes do not fit."

"I'll just be glad if they don't see we haven't any shoes on," Sheppard declared.

* * * *

The lounge appeared deserted, but Sheppard knew better. There was a small alcove off the main room Jericho frequented whenever they were in London. Overlooking a river, it offered a serenity the team rarely encountered.

Sheppard had seen very little of either Gage or André in the two weeks since their latest escape from Germany. Despite this separation, he knew Gage had spent much of that time being treated for some nasty burns on his shoulders and feet. Injuries the American had been totally unaware of until he had read a doctor's report. It was the final indication that the rift that had developed between himself and the Englishman was wider than he had at first believed. Maybe too wide to be crossed?

"Have the geniuses in G-2 figured out what they were doing in that lab, yet?"

Gage's question caught Sheppard by surprise. His thoughts had been of a far more personal nature. His brain quickly changed gears as he replied, "From the papers you found, they think the Krauts are experimenting with a new type of explosive."

"I thought that explosion was a bit more powerful than kerosene would've made," said Gage.

His usual chair sat empty, but Sheppard was hesitant to occupy it. He longed to join Gage and André for a drink and some pleasant conversation, but he wasn't sure he was welcome.

Shifting uneasily, the American offered, "We heard from Dr. Kauffman. The lab was totally destroyed. Luckily, there was little damage to the rest of the hospital."

"That's good news," smiled Gage. Relaxing in his chair, he took a long swallow of his lager.

Glancing at André contentedly sipping wine in an adjoining chair, Sheppard hesitantly continued, "Dr. Kauffman also said that Dr. Manush, the doctor who admitted Gage, was executed as a spy."

Gage didn't even seem to notice that he had dropped his drink. The breaking glass was muffled by the thick carpet. A faint scent of beer wafted up from the floor. "I killed him."

"No!" Sheppard denied. "Fear, suspicion, the quest for power, they're what killed him."

André nodded agreement. "If Dr. Kauffman had been the first one to reach you, he would be dead. You can not blame yourself."

"Who can I blame then?" Gage angrily demanded.

"Hitler would be a good start," suggested Sheppard.

"That's too easy," protested the Englishman, rising to his feet and crossing to the window overlooking the river.

Sheppard slowly followed. Standing behind his friend, he quietly offered, "Then blame me. You do already. Don't you?"

"You were right about the lab," Gage pointed out, his eyes focused on the trees lining the river bank.

Puzzled, Sheppard moved around the Englishman, hoping to make eye contact. "If you feel that way, why are you still hostile toward me?"

"Because you were wrong, too," explained Gage avoiding the American's penetrating gaze.

Rising from his seat, André joined the other two at the window. "Gage almost died because we were tired."

"We come close to death on almost every mission," defended Sheppard.

"This time it was unnecessary," André quietly accused. "He should have been given the drugs he needed before he entered the hospital, as you were."

"Are you blaming me?" demanded the American.

"Non," André quietly stated, shaking his head. "We are all to blame. None of us evaluated the plan thoroughly. We were too tired."

Gage turned his head and let his eyes focus on Sheppard. "What André is saying is we should never have accepted the mission. We almost blew it. It would've been better to let another espionage team take it. They might have found a way to complete the mission so no one died."

"They might have failed, too," Sheppard observed. "At least we succeeded."

"The cost was too high," said Gage, his gaze searching the serenity of the river below.

His eyes seeking André's, Sheppard defended, "He was German."

"He was also a doctor," Gage softly reminded the American. "If he hadn't treated me, I would have died long before you and André arrived."

Almost collapsing into the chair André had just vacated, Sheppard rested his elbows on his knees and allowed his head to drop into his hands. "Are you saying this is the death of Jericho, too?"

Gage exchanged a glance with André before answering for both men. "No, we just need to use better judgment. Innocent people shouldn't die, no matter what their nationality."

"I can't make any promises," Sheppard truthfully admitted. "War doesn't always allow us to go by the book."

"Just because it's a war, there is no reason to throw the book away, mon ami," cautioned André.

Sheppard's breath caught as the Frenchman's words echoed in his head. He fought back tears of relief. No two words had ever been more joyfully heard. The American realized there were only four other words that could affect him more deeply - the war is over.

A sharp tap on his shoulder brought tears to Sheppard's eyes again, but for a different reason. Rising to his feet, he gently massaged the sore muscles as he demanded, "What was that for?"

"To let you know it's your turn to buy the next round," explained André.

His flash of temper quickly disappeared as Sheppard admitted, "I owe you both more than a drink."