Jean LeBec felt the tug of consciousness and allowed himself to float out of the rather pleasant dream he was having. Something was out of place, and he listened to the various men as they slept, trying to pinpoint what had roused his attention. He rolled his head to the side. A soft snore echoed from Sergeant Cutter's bunk, and he could distinguish Farrell's occasional sigh.
LeBec drew in a deep breath, trying to convince himself it was all part of the dream, that nothing was really wrong, but he couldn't. Something still felt out of place. He continued the inventory.
The new man, Embry, shifted on his bunk, still uncomfortable with the hard, narrow beds. Beneath the Cajun, Feke was mumbling softly in Hungarian, and LeBec paused long enough to wonder if she was blonde or brunette.
It was hopeless. He was awake. He opened his eyes, and waited for the fuzzy vision to clear. Leeds coughed softly and rolled over.
Leeds, Feke, Embry, Farrell, Cutter… No newbies… Danko was in his own room off the office tucked at the end of the barracks – the one amenity of having rank in the Dirty Dozen.
Nothing seemed unusual. So, what was it?
Roy. Roy was still missing.
Three months had passed since circumstances had forced them to leave the wounded man behind in Denmark, and no word had followed to tell them about his condition. Three missions had come and gone, and still there was no word.
LeBec rolled his head to the other side and looked at the empty top bunk next to him, a constant reminder that the Dirty Dozen was a man short, regardless of the number of new men Danko brought in. The Cajun sighed.
But why did it wake him up this morning?
All of the Dozen had suffered their own nightmares after they had returned from that particular mission. The reality of the danger, the chance for death or capture, became much more real to them. It was the first time one of the original Dozen had been lost since their first mission together. Their luck was gone, and the empty bunk reminded them all of that fact.
And Vern. He reminded them too… Vern.
That's what's wrong! LeBec thought, sitting up. Vern wasn't in his bunk either. Swinging his legs over the edge of the top bunk, he dropped silently to the wooden floor and made his way outside.
LeBec found the large blond man sitting on the long wooden porch, elbows tucked against his ribs and his hands hanging limply between his knees. The Cajun walked over and sat down beside him.
"Nice sunrise," LeBec tried again.
A second nod.
The man looked away from the horizon. "Yeah?"
"We miss him, too."
The blue eyes looked away. "I know."
"He's comin' back." LeBec let his French Quarter New Orleans drawl slip back into his speech, hoping it would break through the wall of depression clinging to Vern. The large man nodded. "He's gonna come back, and we're gonna have a party… Whooee. A party like we ain't never had."
"And then he can go home, get—" Vern's smile faded and the Cajun's accent disappeared. "What?"
Vern shook his head. "Home. I wonder what that means now."
"I don't understand."
"We don't really have a home to go back to. Our mom and dad are dead. It's just Roy and me. What's he going to do in Seattle without me?"
LeBec pulled the grin back in. It was like Vern to forget he would be the one left in the middle of a war. "He'll get a job, work, send you letters and chocolate chip cookies the rest of us can steal."
Vern shook his head. "He ain't goin' home. He's—"
"Don't say it," LeBec interrupted. "It's bad luck." He looked away, unwilling to acknowledge his own fears about dying in a place so far from home. Too many men he knew were dead. And Dana…
Sounds of the other men waking up and beginning to move around the barracks drew their attention. Vern stood and extended a hand to help the Cajun up.
"Thanks, Bec'o," he said.
He smiled at the nickname only the large Beaubuff dared to use. "Sure. Anytime."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A very tired Dirty Dozen – minus the three new men who didn't survive, and a fourth who looked like he might not last for the flight back to England – sank down on the nets stretched along the sides of the cargo plane, exhausted. Lieutenant John Danko watched his men with a critical eye. They had been pushed beyond all possible limits, and they still had managed to hold it together long enough to destroy the plant supplying parts to German subs prowling the Atlantic. He was proud of them. And he was worried.
Ever since they had left Roy behind in Alborg a certain uneasy air had clung to the unit, and nothing he tried had erased it. At first Danko was too lost in his own private hell, dealing with Michelle and the events that happened in St. Luc to notice, but it became more clear when they traveled to Portugal.
He looked at the large blond man stretched out slightly away from the others. Vern had become standoffish after they'd had to leave Roy behind, and the others seemed content to give him the space he wanted, maybe needed. Everyone except LeBec. For some reason the Cajun refused to leave Vern isolated, regardless of the blond's desires.
Well, that's something, Danko concluded. There was a time, long ago, when none of them would have bothered. Still, it annoyed him that the others weren't willing to try.
They had to have come further than that. He watched his men more carefully, finding the shadowed concern and anxious looks in the others' eyes: Feke's silent appraisal of Vern through half-slitted eyes; Leeds' guilty expression every time he looked at the big man; Farrell's silent but clear sympathy only half-hidden behind the act he used.
Danko smiled thinly. I knew it. They do give a damn. They just might make it through this after all.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When they landed Danko made a mental note to give General Worth a call. It was time to see if the brass was willing to repay the Dozen for all their efforts on the Allies' behalf. He wanted to know what the devil had happened to Roy before his whole team went straight to hell.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"I just don't have that information, Danko," General Worth said, motioning the forty-year-old junior officer to sit. "Drink?"
"No. Thank you, sir." Danko leaned forward, his blue gaze pinning the older man in his overstuffed leather chair. "I need that information, General. I need it as soon as I can get it. The Dirty Dozen are losing their edge, sir."
"Edge?" Worth snorted. "Danko, aren't you blowing this just a little out of proportion? He was just one man. You've lost other men."
"You don't have to remind me of that fact. I wrote the letters!" Danko snapped angrily, adding a hasty, "Sorry, sir."
"No. No. I apologize, Lieutenant," the General replied. "That was uncalled for." He poured himself two fingers of Scotch and leaned back. After taking a sip he cleared his throat and said, "Danko, two days after you and your men left Denmark, the German SS came in and rounded up the entire population of Alborg – men, women, kids. They weeded through the community and they destroyed Valkyrie.
"A few of their people were able to escape, several were killed, and the rest were shipped off to the camps. If your man was still there, the chances are very good he's either dead or in a German POW camp by now."
"Isn't there someone, anyone who might know? Surely some of the people who escaped are still alive, working with the underground?"
The General sighed. "I'll see what G-2 can find out, but I cannot give this priority, Danko."
The Lieutenant nodded. "I'd appreciate anything you could do, sir. If I don't bring something back for Vern, he's going to get some of us killed."
"Then pull him, Danko. It's foolish to risk your life, not to mention your men's because he can't deal with—"
"Sir," Danko interrupted before Worth said something he wouldn't be able to remain civil about. "Roy and Vern are brothers. They're each also the only family the other has left. Vern depends on his older brother…" He trailed off, unable to find the words he would need to explain the situation to the General. "They're part of the original team. The men look up to them like they're some sort of good luck charm, but now…"
Danko knew the men were closer than most brothers, each playing a certain role in the other's life. If Roy was dead, Vern might as well be. Maybe in time they would become more autonomous, but not now. The only problem was, there were eleven other men who were counting on Vern to be there for them, and without Roy around, Vern's ability to carry out that responsibility was deteriorating. And, as Vern deteriorated, the others followed, even if they hadn't realized it yet.
"Look, I'll see what I can do," General Worth said, realizing the depth of conviction behind Danko's request. "I'll push a little."
"Thank you, sir." Danko saluted and executed an about face, and left the office, hoping it would be enough.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Hey, Lieutenant?" Leeds called, leaning into the Lieutenant's office.
"Come in," Danko replied, stepping out of the small bedroom off the office.
"This just came. Special messenger." He held up a sealed document pouch. "What's up? New mission?"
Danko walked over and took the leather case from the handsome con-man. "I don't know."
Leeds remained in the doorframe, trying to look inconspicuous as he extracted a cigar from his pocket.
"Don't you have somewhere to go?" Danko asked the man.
Leeds smiled, his eyebrows rising. "Me?"
"Uh, yeah. I guess I do." The man snapped off a sloppy salute and left Danko alone.
The Lieutenant fished the single sheet of paper out and read it: Found contact for you. My office. Monday. M. Gen. Worth.
Danko smiled. The General pushed more than a little to have something for him this quickly. I just hope whoever it is has some good news for us.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Danko stalked into the General's office. A familiar young blond man sat in one of the extra hard-backed chairs.
"Lieutenant Danko," he said, standing. "It is good to see you again."
"Uh, Chris, isn't it?"
"Yes. Yes," the blond nodded. "Chris Eriksen."
Danko smiled at the man. The young man Farrell had rescued from the Alborg heavy-water plant. "How's Elsa? And the baby?"
"Ah! Elsa is well, and we have a beautiful daughter. We named her Farrell, just like we promised, Johanna Farrell Eriksen."
Danko chuckled. "I'll be sure to let him know. Chris, how's Roy?"
The man nodded. "Yes, the General told me you were worried about him. That is why I came myself."
"Chris, what happened? Is he—?"
"No, I do not think so. He was with Karl and his brother, Eric, when the Germans came."
Danko nodded, prompting the young man to continue.
"Eric is a doctor. Karl took Roy to him, and he was doing very well. The injury was not as bad as Karl had thought. He is not a doctor."
Danko allowed the breath he was holding to escape. "And?"
"When the Germans came…" Chris trailed of, then shook his head, obviously upset by the memories. "The people, they tried to help Valkyrie escape. Elsa and I, and the baby, we were lucky. Karl was killed. Eric and Roy, they were not with those who were shipped to the camps. This I know. I have friends who saw Eric and a small blond man several days after the Germans left, in Thisted. I do not know where they are, but Eric is a good man. He will keep Roy safe. They will come when they can. Valkyrie died in Alborg, but it is still alive in Denmark."
Danko nodded. It was a start.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three more days passed before General Worth contacted Danko again. The orders to report to the General's office in London came as a relief. The men were getting anxious. Being cooped up in the prison barracks in Gloucherster didn't make any of them happy. At least a mission would take their minds off the waiting.
The Lieutenant tugged at the bottom of his uniform jacket, then entered the office. "Lieutenant Danko reporting as ordered, sir." He snapped up a salute.
"At ease, Danko," Worth replied, returning the obligatory greeting. "Have a seat. I think I have some news for you."
Danko slid into the leather chair. "Good news, I hope."
"I don't know about that. G-2 tells me that there are some refugees from Denmark hiding out on the coast of Norway near Haugesund. They're apparently going to try and reach the Shetland or Orkney Islands by boat."
Danko's brow furrowed. "Risky."
"To say the least."
"When is this supposed to happen?" Danko asked.
"Sometime in the next few days. They're waiting for better weather conditions. They have three Americans with them. One of them matches Roy's description."
"Is there anything we can do?"
Worth shook his head. "Just wait."
"We aren't very good at that, sir."
"I know. But you can use the practice."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Already anxious and on edge, Danko debated saying anything to the rest of the Dozen. If I didn't want to admit it, I'd say they know something's in the air, he concluded silently as he watched the men. They just don't know what it is.
Vern was becoming more withdrawn, flaring up at the few men left who dared to venture near enough to speak to him. LeBec was the one exception, and Danko wondered if it didn't have something to do with the fact that they were both younger brothers.
With a heavy sigh he stalked through the barracks and escaped outside before anyone could ask any questions. Leaning against one of the posts holding up the overhang that shaded the porch, he surveyed the flat training field. It didn't seem that long ago he had his first dozen on that field, trying to meld them into a working, fighting unit.
The door squeaked in protest and Danko heard LeBec step out join him. "Lieutenant?"
"Yeah?" he replied, still staring out at the field.
"You mind if I ask you something?"
"It's about Vern."
Danko glanced over his shoulder at the man. How did he get so wise, so young? He smiled thinly. LeBec was a well of hidden surprises. Still, there were times the officer wished his demolition expert would stick to that specialty and not his secondary skill as medic and general confessor for the men.
"What about him?"
"I was wondering what you'd say…" He paused, knowing he was treading on thin ice. The rest came out in a rush. "If I told you I think he should stay behind on our next mission."
"And why's that, LeBec?" Danko asked, knowing the answer before the Cajun said it.
"He's not thinking about the unit." LeBec looked out at the field, wondering what the Lieutenant saw there in his memories. "He's not even thinking about himself. I'm afraid he'll get himself killed."
Danko nodded. "I'll keep it in mind."
"It doesn't look good, does it, about Roy?"
"There's always a chance."
The Cajun nodded again and returned to the barracks.
Danko leaned his head back, resting against the post, and sighed. I sure hope you're right about that boat trip, General.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sergeant Cutter shoved the barracks door open and leaned inside, yelling, "Fallout, you misfits! Let's make 'em welcome!"
Danko looked up from where he was reading over the intelligence report for their next mission, and grinned. He followed the rest of the men outside, watching as they lined up along the porch, waiting to see who the four new additions would be to their merry band.
Cutter walked to the rear of the truck and barked out a command and the first new man jumped down. Red hair and freckles reminded them of Little Abner, but something in the cold blue eyes cautioned that looks could be deceptive.
"Howdy, Lieutenant," the man said, then saluted.
Danko returned the gesture, saying, "Joe-Bill Henry. Texan. Sharpshooter and expert with a rope."
"A rope?" Leeds mouthed to Feke, who merely shrugged in reply. The Dozen mumbled various welcomes as the second man tossed his duffel bag out, jumping down after it.
"Sir," the man said in a deep baritone as he saluted.
"Saint John Blackwolf," Danko announced. "Full blooded Indian. He'll be our radio man. He's also an expert shot, tracker, and stealth man."
"Hey, are we doin' a cowboy picture, Lieutenant?" Farrell asked.
Danko ignored him.
The third man emerged, still holding his duffel to his chest. Hopping down, he nodded at the assembled Dozen and gave Danko a furtive salute.
"Bernerd Lori," the Lieutenant explained. "Language expert and a master of disguises." The man gave a short bow.
The Dozen began murmuring among themselves about the details of a mission requiring the services of men like these. The talk fell silent when the last man started to climb out of the truck.
Duffel slung across one shoulder, the slight figure climbed out rather than jumping like the rest. Blond hair poked out from under the hat pulled down over his face.
Danko felt Vern stiffen beside him. "And last but not least," the Lieutenant said. "A tunnel rat, newly trained pick-pocket and all around—"
Vern spun away, striding back into the barracks and slamming the door shut. Danko paused, waiting for the wall to stop vibrating, then followed him inside.
"Vern, get back out there."
"No, Vern, you look. Either you get out there or I'll personally have a second round with you."
The younger Beaubuff brother blushed bright red. On the first day at the training camp he and the Lieutenant had fought, but the older man was tricky and it was Vern who ended up wallowing in a mudhole.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I just— That new guy, he's—"
"Vern!" Danko barked. The solider stiffened to attention automatically. "I said get your ass out there, and I mean it! Now!"
The large man chewed his lower lip, but he stalked back outside. It was dead silent as Vern rejoined the Dozen on the porch. The four newbies stood next to the truck, their duffel-bags in hand. Vern glared at each in turn – Joe-Bill with his carefree looks, Blackwolf with his calm self-assurance, Lori and the self-contained world he obviously lived in and, finally, the small blond, who reminded him of his brother.
Vern's gaze locked on the smaller man. Equally blue eyes met his, staring out of his brother's face. "Roy?" the big man whispered.
Danko and the Dozen set free the wide grins they had held in check so well. The younger Beaubuff stepped down off the wooden porch, but he couldn't force himself any closer to the ghost that confronted him. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he didn't notice.
Roy watched his brother with a growing concern. It had been his idea to surprise Vern, but he never expected the disbelieving terror that molded itself across the younger man's face to be the response.
"Vern?" he said, letting the duffel drop into the dirt. "It's okay. I'm all right." Stepping forward, Roy was totally unprepared for what happened next. Vern fainted.
Rushing forward, Blackwolf and Cutter were able to stop the private from collapsing face first into the hard dirt. Supporting the big man between them, they half-dragged him back to the porch.
LeBec stooped down to look him over. "I think you surprised him, Roy," he announced.
Danko shook his head in amusement as Leeds headed off to get a shot of whiskey, which LeBec then poured down the semi-conscious man's throat. Vern coughed and shook his head. He looked up, meeting his brother's eyes a second time.
"Vern, I'm sorry. I didn't mean—" Roy started, stumbling over the sounds in his haste to get the apology out.
"Roooyyyy!" Vern yelled, lunging off the step and pinning the smaller Beaubuff in a tight bear-hug, spinning him around.
"Vern!" Roy yelled, his voice several octaves higher than normal. "Stop! Please!"
A squeal of pain from his older brother froze Vern in place. "Roy? Roy, are you okay?"
"I'm okay," the older Beaubuff said. "I guess I'm just a little sore still, that's all."
Roy looked out at the row of grinning faces watching them and blushed. "Uh, Vern, you can put me down now, okay?" The laughter began.
"Oh. Okay." Vern carefully sat the man down, his whole body still trembling. "Where were you, Roy? We were all waiting, and—"
"I know. We had to leave Alborg. Most of the underground was destroyed. There were German sympathizers," Roy stumbled over the words, unable to make sense of the chaos that had been his life for the last several weeks. "We didn't know who to trust, so we didn't trust anyone. I'm sorry, but we couldn't risk contacting anyone."
Vern nodded. It didn't matter. Roy was back. Roy was safe. "Okay," he said, forgiving his brother without hesitation.
"I don't remember all of it. I guess I was pretty sick for a while. We ended up on the coast of Norway and took this boat over to the Shetland islands—"
"Where the ponies come from?" his brother interrupted. "Like the ones dad used to let us ride?"
"Yeah, Vern," Roy smiled. "Then we made it to London from there. I asked the Lieutenant not to say anything. I wanted to surprise you. I'm stayin' here, too. I'm fine. The doc checked me over and I'm back."
"That you are, my friend," LeBec said, stepping up to shake Roy's hand. The blond nodded, sensing the bond that had developed between his brother and the Cajun.
"Boy, I'll say!" Ferrell enthused, reaching out to punch Roy lightly on the arm. "It was just like in the movies. The long lost hero finally rides back into town, and—"
"It is good to have you back," Feke said, cutting Ferrell off before he fixated on a particular film.
"And a pick-pocket, now, too, huh?" Leeds asked. "I need to talk to you about that."
Roy grinned and Danko shook his head. "Ask Bernerd," the blond said. "He showed me."
Lori smiled for a moment, but it was quickly replaced by the wary evaluation of the men he would now be entrusting with his life.
"Well, what're you ladies standin' here for? There's plenty of stuff that needs doin'," Cutter said, clapping Roy on the back in a gesture of welcome. "Get these new men bedded down!"
"Yes, sir!" Vern bellowed, grabbing up his brother's duffel and tucking it under his arm. He headed back inside, the others following.
"Good to see you," Embry said, shaking hands with Roy as he reached his bunk. "Your being gone has had the boys on edge. I guess it'll get back to normal around here, now."
"Normal?" Roy asked. "What's that?"
"You do have a point," the Brit agreed.
Blackhawk snorted quietly. Perhaps this group of white men were ones he could learn to respect.
"Hell," Joe-Bill drawled. "Normal's too damn boring."
"All right, listen up!" Danko said, his voice raising just enough to overpower the others. "Our next mission is going to be in Algiers."
"Algiers?" Roy questioned. "Isn't that in Africa?"
"North Africa, to be exact," Danko said.
"We're going to deepest, darkest Africa?" Ferrell asked, excited. "That's where Tarzan was raised by the apes."
"You were raised by apes," Leeds commented under his breath.
"Enough, enough," Danko said, restoring quiet to the room. "We're going to Oran where we'll move several people out of the city to a pickup location. From there a pilot will pick us up and fly us to Turkey where we'll drop the passengers off and pick up a package. Then we fly back to London."
"Sounds too simple, Lieutenant. What's the catch?"
"Funny you should ask that, Embry."
"And why's that, sir?"
"The catch is this. One of the people we're getting out has some papers stored in a safe in the Hotel D'Oran. We have to liberate those papers as well, and the Hotel D'Oran is known for its German clientele."
"Oh, dandy," the Brit replied. The rest of the Dozen chuckled.
"We're going to rob a safe, too?" Ferrell asked, his smile widening. "This is going to be great!"
"Well, it might be more interesting than I first thought," Leeds agreed, chewing on his cigar.
Danko watched as the men broke up and wandered off, each digesting the details of the mission in his own way. He frowned as Vern trailed off after Roy.
"Vern, come in here a minute, will you?"
"Yes, sir," the young man said, reluctantly leaving Roy alone and reporting to Danko's office. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Sit down, Vern." The large man sat, leaning forward slightly. "Look. I know the last few months haven't been that easy for you. Leaving Roy in Denmark, the waiting, and the surprise return."
Vern looked away, ashamed. He was sure he had let Danko down in some way. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I know I haven't been pulling my weight around here, but Roy's back and—"
"That's what I'm worried about."
"I don't understand."
"Vern, ever since Roy got back you've been hovering over him like a big mother hen."
Vern blushed a deep crimson. "I know. He keeps tellin' me the same thing. I just can't help it."
"I can't afford to have you on a mission where I need your mind on the unit, and you have it on Roy. Understand?"
"Yes, sir, I'll try. You know I will. I don't want to let the guys down—"
"Vern, I just don't think you should go on this mission. Maybe the next one."
"Lieutenant, please!" Panic raced across the young man's face. "I won't mess up. I swear it."
Danko sighed. "Let me think about it. But whatever I decide, that's it. It won't be open to discussion."
"Yes, sir." Vern stood shakily. "Please, Lieutenant. I won't let you down."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The noise began to fall off as the Dirty Dozen occupied themselves before lights-out. Danko leaned back in his chair, stretching as best he could, trying to pull out some of the tension that was knotting his spine. A soft rap on the door interrupted the contortion.
"You want me to pop that for you?" LeBec asked, nodding as Danko reached back to knead his lower back.
"You can do that?"
"Old black man showed me how. He said his father was a slave and earned his freedom because he could keep his master from feeling the pain of a horseback riding injury."
Danko shrugged, but he was still a little nervous as the Cajun stepped behind him and arranged the officer's hands on the top of his head. Then, inserting his own arms through Danko's, LeBec pulled up and out, arching Danko forward and at the same time lifting him just slightly. A series of loud pops echoed in the room.
Releasing the Lieutenant, LeBec stepped back around to the front of the desk and smiled at the surprised, but pleased expression on his commander's face.
"That really worked."
LeBec spread his hands in a gesture of innocence and shrugged. "Just another natural gift."
Danko snorted. "What can I do for you?"
"It's about Vern."
"What about him?" he asked.
"You're thinking about leaving him here, aren't you."
"He tell you that?"
LeBec shook his head. "He didn't have to. I could see it on his face when he came out. For what it's worth, I think you'd be making a mistake, sir."
"And why's that?" Danko asked.
"Vern needs to belong. If you leave him behind, he'll never believe he fits in with the Dozen anymore. Oh, maybe he will as far as we're concerned, but not in his own mind. Don't take that away from him. If something does happen to Roy we'll be all the family he has left."
"Why are you telling me this, LeBec?"
"I know what it's like to be the little brother. And I understand what it's like to want to belong. I didn't fit in anywhere – different from my father's people, not good enough for my mother's, but with my brothers I proved myself. I knew I belonged with them. I know what Vern's feeling."
Danko nodded. "But I can't risk the men to help Vern."
"He'll be all right. Better than while Roy was gone."
"You don't think his mind's going to be on protecting Roy?"
"Vern knows the best way to do that is make sure the mission goes smooth. That means protecting the unit, Lieutenant. He's more independent now, even if he doesn't know it yet. He's been on missions without Roy, and he survived. He can think for himself. He's his own man."
"All right," Danko said with a small smile. "You've convinced me."
LeBec grinned and turned to go.
"You're a good man."
The Cajun looked away. "Goodnight, sir."