by Estevana Rey
WWII Alternate Universe
JD opened his eyes expecting to see... he didn't know what. Clouds maybe. Pearly gates. Angels. Or maybe even the fires of Hell. But what he did not expect were some butt-ugly guys yelling in his face.
He blinked at his surroundings. Bright lights that made him squint. Smell of antiseptic. Hospital. He was in a hospital.
No, that couldn't be right. Hospitals were quiet and these... people... were shaking him, yelling at him, to wake up, to breathe, to say something.
His tongue felt like a rolled up sock and worked about as well when he tried to talk. "Go away," he groaned.
He wanted to throw up, but he was too tired. Geezus, being dead felt worse than being alive. That wasn't how it was supposed to work...
He was supposed to be dead, wasn't he? He sorta remembered that he was.
He was so tired... why wouldn't these people leave him alone?
Someone splashed ice cold water on his face. "Stop..." he groaned.
"That's it, Corporal... c'mon... wake up. Take a deep breath... another one..."
There was a bright light in his eyes and knuckles scraping up and down his chest. Christ, he hated that...
"Stop it..." he slurred, unable to understand his own words. He tried to bat the knuckles away, but he didn't know where his arm was. Oh God don't let it be gone
He was feeling really sick to his stomach and tried to say so, but he couldn't get the words out. And then it just all came up. He couldn't even turn his head to keep from puking on himself. He felt hands on him, rolling him over, and caught a glimpse of his own naked body. -Where the fuck are my clothes?- He was relieved to see that both of his arms - and all of his other important appendages - were still attached to him.
"Deep breaths! C'mon Corporal Dunne..." a voice coaxed as someone cleaned him up with warm washcloths.
He was so sleepy.... His eyelids felt like lead weights and he couldn't keep them open. Didn't want to keep them open. He just wanted to sleep....
Someone was slapping his face, and damn hard, too. "JD? Come on, JD, wake up... WAKE UP!" It was some ugly guy again. Weren't hospitals supposed to have pretty nurses?
"Fuck you." That came out loud and clear, at around the same time JD noticed the gold oak leaves on his tormentor's collar. "Sir," he added quickly.
Wilmington let out the breath he had been holding and laughed despite the tears that had welled up in his eyes. The doctor turned at the sound and noticed Standish, Sanchez, Jackson and Wilmington, all of who had slipped quietly into the room despite the fact that there was barely room for the medical team.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he snapped, and they all expected to be thrown out. But instead he looked at them accusingly. "Which one of you did it? Which one of you gave him the overdose?"
Without missing a beat, all four men answered in unison, "I did."
The doctor's face twisted with impatience. "I'm not kidding, you clowns. I have to report this. Who gave him all this morphine?"
This time there was no answer, just an uncomfortable silence that was finally interrupted by a weakly whispered "I did it," coming from the gurney. They all turned to look at JD. His hazel eyes were glassy, but they were fully open and staring at the Major. "I did it myself, so kiss my butt," he slurred and then was again careful to add, "sir."
+ + + + + + +
Chris found Vin on a gurney in a hallway. His eyes were closed and he was very pale, except for the reddened patches of wind-burned skin on his face. There was a row of ugly black stitches above his right eye, but there was no one with him, so he was probably okay.
"Tanner?" he said softly.
Vin opened his eyes. "Captain Larabee..." he tried to sit up, but winced with pain and abandoned the idea.
"How bad is it?" Chris asked him.
"Ain't nothin' broke. Just tore my back up some."
Chris was still not one hundred percent clear on all that had happened, but he did know Sanchez had pushed Vin free of the falling plane an instant before impact. "I'd say Josiah owes you a beer."
Vin smiled briefly, but then his face grew somber again. "JD didn't make it, did he?" The question was both resigned and hopeful at the same time.
"He's alive. Don't know if he'll pull through yet, but he's a scrappy little guy. And at least..." He cocked his head to one side and smiled sadly.
Vin understood the unspoken words. At least he's still in one piece. "You know, Chris, I ain't afraid to die... but thinkin' of JD... anyone... goin' out like that..."
Chris nodded. "I know." He dragged his arm across his forehead. He was still wearing his heavy flight gear and it was uncomfortably warm inside the heated building.
"You're sweatin'," Vin observed.
"Well, it's been that kinda day," he shrugged, grinning briefly.
He still had to face debriefing and a mission report, and he wasn't sure what he was going say in either one. Somewhere along the line, there was going to be hell to pay over the morphine in JD's system. They'd better get their story straight before he put anything on paper.
Vin folded his arm across his chest. He was still holding the medicine bag the medic had placed there. He fingered it gently. "Ya think Rory and the others are okay?"
Tanner knew the score. The chances were that they were on their way to a German POW camp, if they'd survived the jump. But Chris didn't see any point in giving up all hope. "Selkirk claims he's some kinda Indian tracker... maybe he'll get a chance to prove how good he is."
A nurse in a crisp white uniform that flattered a curvaceous figure stepped between them and shooed Larabee aside. "Visiting hours are at 1800," she informed him brusquely as she took hold of the gurney.
She apparently didn't even have time to let Chris finish his question. "Lieutenant Tanner is going to get a bath, and some hot soup, and then he'll be in the infirmary where you can see him at 1800."
Tanner's face blanched. "Bath?"
Chris laughed. "I'll tell Josiah to make it two beers."
Vin would have felt guilty complaining about the incessant, gnawing pain in his back, so, he didn't. He'd put up with it for more than a day now, and he hadn't noticed it getting any better, but, it wasn't any worse, either, so he'd live with it. He and JD were in a ward with twenty-eight other guys, most of whom were hurt worse than they were - and these were the guys who would be returning to duty. They had broken bones, minor burns, superficial flak wounds - stuff that would heal. The men who were missing body parts or were burned beyond recognition or were wounded so bad they were just waiting to die... they were somewhere else, and Vin figured a few pulled back muscles didn't count for much, no matter how bad it hurt.
After he'd been cleaned up and fed the day before, they'd strapped a leather thing around his hips and had attached weights to both it and his legs, immobilizing his spine and stretching it out straight. He felt pretty stupid all trussed up like that, but it did ease the pain, as did the aspirin and hot compresses that had been prescribed. He'd picked up a wracking cough, though -'lung congestion' the doc said, probably from breathing in the icy air outside the plane when he was trying to open the turret - and they'd put him in an oxygen tent. It was supposed to help him breathe better, but being closed in like that sometimes made him feel like he was suffocating, and he had to fight the urge to unzip the thing and push it off.
He couldn't sleep. Whenever he tried, he'd dream that Josiah was letting go of his arm and he was falling helplessly. When he'd hit the ground with such force that he felt like he'd been turned inside out, he'd startle awake.
JD was in the next bed, but he hadn't been much company. He was still drowsy from all that morphine, and they'd put a tent over him, too, because his lungs weren't working right, either. He was pissin' blood, bruised kidneys or something. But they thought he'd be okay. He wouldn't be out of the woods for a couple of days, though.
Boredom was taking almost as big a toll on him as the pain was, so he was happy to see Chris and Buck walking towards him. They limited how many visitors could be there, because the ward was already crowded and if everyone had a half dozen buddies visiting him at once, it would have been too much for some of the guys who needed calm and quiet to soothe their frayed nerves. The hometown papers and magazines could write all they wanted to about courage and valor, but routinely facing death 20,000 feet in the air was a terrifying thing. Vin was one of those men who needed a little peace right now, just until he could work the fear out of his head.
Larabee turned a metal chair beside the bed around, and straddled it backwards, resting his arms on the backrest. "You okay?" was the first thing he asked.
"I prob'ly feel better'n I look," Tanner answered.
"Well, you better get lookin' pretty again, because Star and Stripes wants to do a story about you an' JD. Pictures and everything..."
Tanner's reaction surprised Larabee. He knew Vin was shy, but he could see in his eyes that there was more to it than that. "What's this about, Vin?"
Tanner shook his head. "They can write about JD if they want, but not me. No pictures. I can't have my picture in no newspaper."
Chris knew in his gut that there was something Vin wasn't telling him, and he could see the young man was getting upset.
Vin spoke again, his tone softer this time. "Please, Chris, I just..."
Chris clamped a hand on Vin's leg. He couldn't get to his arms or hands through the plastic tent. "It's okay, Vin. I'll tell 'em something. They won't bother you."
Larabee let the subject drop, but he meant what he said. No one would get near Vin if Vin didn't want them to, and he wouldn't make the young officer explain himself.
He thought Tanner looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes and his hair hung down over his forehead in damp ringlets from the humidity inside the oxygen tent. The ward nurse had assured him Vin was doing fine, and that he'd be back on his feet in a couple of weeks, and Chris hoped that was true. He liked the young Texan. Not only was he one hell of a bombardier, his calm, quiet nature brought a certain stability to the crew that Chris was sure helped keep everything together when the going got tough, as it would again.
Larabee patted his shirt pocket by force of habit, looking for the pack of Luckys he usually kept there, until he remembered they'd made him leave the smokes and his matches at the nurse's station because of the oxygen tents. He did feel the two Hershey bars he had stashed there, though, and he fished them out and held them up.
"Josiah asked me to bring you these." He showed the candy to Vin and was gratified to see a spark of life in his tired eyes. He unzipped the tent just far enough to shove the bars through.
Tanner took them and smiled. "Guess he figures I'm still riled at him."
"He did what he had to do. You all did."
"I know that... 'bout scared the life right outa me when he let go of my arm. But I guess if he hadn't, you'd still be pickin' what was left of me outa the mud."
Vin usually had an insatiable sweet tooth, but he was only nibbling at the chocolate.
"How are you doing, really?" Chris asked. He had to know if he still had a crew.
Vin sighed. "I'll be okay. But I swear to God, Chris, when this war is over, I ain't ever settin' foot on a plane again, no matter how long I live."
Chris smiled wryly. "Now don't go saying that. Airplanes are the future... Besides, I was thinking of pulling some strings and getting Pan Am to give all you boys lifetime passes to fly with me."
Vin looked at him incredulously, not sure if he was kidding or not.
Larabee added, "And I promise, I'll even let you fly inside the plane..."
+ + + + + + +
Wilmington settled for watching JD sleep, the steady rise and fall of his chest one of the most joyous sights he had ever beheld.
The head of the bed had been elevated, but the JD had still managed to curl up on his side, his short legs tucked up against the fold in the mattress so that his entire body was inside the oxygen tent. He looked like the kid he was, sleeping like that, with his dark bangs falling over his still-boyish features.
He was too damned young to be fighting a man's war, but wasn't that how it always was?
The boy opened his eyes, sensing that Buck was there. "How ya doin' kiddo?" the sergeant asked.
"I don't feel good," came the youthfully honest reply.
Buck laughed. "No, I don't suppose you do. But you're gonna be okay before you know it."
He didn't say more, because he wasn't sure how the kid's head was coping with what had happened, so JD's next question surprised him.
"Captain Larabee gonna get another plane?"
JD looked crestfallen. "Oh. I was hopin' we'd stay together."
"Now, I didn't say we wouldn't be stayin' together. I said Chris ain't gettin' a new plane... that old bird that dropped you like an egg ain't done for. Yosemite said a little work and she'll be good as new."
JD, God love him, seemed honestly thrilled by this news. "New turret?" he asked.
Buck was dumbfounded. "JD, ain't no man in his right mind would want to get back in one of those things after what happened."
JD grinned. "Aw hell, Buck, how many times can that happen to someone? I reckon I'm safe now."
Buck could see that despite his smile, JD wasn't joking. He really thought that he wouldn't end up trapped in another turret. He was probably right, but most men wouldn't see it that way.
"Besides..." JD continued, his tone growing more serious. "I'm not afraid if I'm with you guys."
Buck didn't want him thinking they had some power that would keep him safe. "JD, we could all get killed."
"I know that," he shrugged. "But, you know, when I was up there, stuck in that thing... I was more scared than I've ever been in my life, even more scared than when Mama was dying right in front of my eyes..." He sniffled slightly and rubbed his nose. "But I knew you guys would look out for me... and you did."
Buck swallowed hard. "JD, we tried to kill you."
"I know," he yawned.
Buck waited for him to say more, but he was falling asleep again.
Rafael Cordoba had been visiting his own crewman, the one who had fallen out of the hatch. He walked up behind Wilmington. "Hey, Chiquito! Good landing," he teased JD. "You come and fly with me sometime. We won't drop you como una piedrecita."
Cordoba's swagger grated on Buck's nerves. It was a known fact that the entire crew of El Chicote was insane, and Cordoba was the looniest of the bunch, but they had some kind of lucky star hanging over them, and had survived nineteen missions without so much as chipped paint. JD might just want to take him up on his offer.
"Don't think so, sir," JD shook his head. "Word is you made a pact with the devil."
Cordoba laughed at the impertinence and shook his head. "Que hombre!" he said as he walked away. "Magnifico!"
"Why the hell don't he talk English?" JD asked.
"Because he knows it bothers everyone that he don't," Vin said softly.
JD turned at the sound of his voice. "Lieutenant Tanner! What're you doin' here?"
Vin pointed to the bandage near his right eye. "Concussion." He didn't mention any other details of his experience, and a warning look from Chris told Buck not to mention it, either.
JD blinked as a memory came back to him. "Aw geezus, you were hangin' out of the plane, tryin' to open the turret!"
"Sorry I couldn't get you out," Vin said softly.
"Man, that took balls," JD said, apparently disregarding that Tanner's rescue attempt had failed. "You oughta get a medal for that."
"Don't want no medal," Vin said.
JD thought about this for a moment and then said, "Well, you can have my motorcycle jacket then."
Vin smiled. He couldn't help himself. In that instant, he knew it had all been worth it, because JD was still here and because Cordoba was right. The kid was magnificent.
Hell, they all were.
In his Combat Report, Larabee had written only two sentences about the incident:BT salvoed prior to emergency landing. Bomb. & BTG sustained minor injuries.
Major O'Neill kept his mouth shut about the morphine, and Stars and Stripes was never able to determine who had fallen out of the "Seven." They did a story on JD, though, that was picked up by the wire services, and even though Buck hadn't needed to mail those letters for him, Casey had read the story and written to JD. Tanner still liked to make Sanchez feel guilty whenever it would garner him a free beer, but Josiah was always happy to play along. True to his word, JD had given Vin the coveted motorcycle jacket, and Tanner had to be reminded more than once that it wasn't a regulation part of his uniform.
Three weeks later, they were a crew again. They had three replacements, two seasoned and one green, but all good men. Just the day before, they had learned that Selkirk, Mosely and Kuykendall had evaded. Selkirk had guided the trio straight into Switzerland where they were being "detained." Neutral Switzerland wasn't quick to send soldiers from either side back to wage war at their very doorstep, so no one knew when, or if, they'd see the three men again
Even before they knew Selkirk and the others were okay, an unspoken decision had been arrived at to continue wearing the medicine bags. The three replacement wore small cotton bags into which had been placed small pieces of leather snipped from the other seven pouches. No one was sure if the magic worked that way, but it seemed like it might, so they hoped for the best.
The "Seven" was just a faint silhouette against a deep purple sky as Larabee's crew approached her in the pre-dawn darkness. It would be the first time up for Dunne and Tanner since the mission that had almost killed them both.
No one seemed to harbor any misgivings about going up in the "Seven" beyond those they normally had before a mission. The big lady wore her battle scars proudly. Her unpainted new skin contrasted like a fresh scar with the olive drab of her older surfaces. The landing gear was new, and the turret had come from another Fort that had brought her crew home despite mortal wounds that had sent her to the scrap yard.
Incredibly, the first thing JD did was try out the new turret. He crawled in from the outside, and Chris saw Tanner flinch noticeably.
"You okay, Vin?"
Vin nodded. "I don't see how he can do that. Gives me the heebie jeebies just lookin' at that thing."
Chris nodded. "Me, too, if you want to know the truth."
Chris had conceded to JD's insistence that the Fort needed a name and a picture on her nose, and he'd told the kid to name her and paint whatever he wanted on her. He wasn't just blowing the boy off, either. He felt JD had earned the privilege.
There had been much speculation as to what JD would come up with. "Dunne's Darlin'" had been added to the previous suggestions, and the kid seemed to like that one, so the others were expecting to see the new moniker when they were ferried out to the hardstand for their first mission together since the plane had been repaired.
But, the nose was still blank, and the "Seven" was still anonymous.
On the adjacent hardstand was El Chicote - preparing to fly her 22nd mission. Only three more to go and El Chicote still looked as if she'd just rolled off the Boeing assembly line. As if to rub their noses in that fact, Cordoba strolled over to them and looked up at their battle-scarred Fortress, carefully inspecting the repair job.
Chris decided that if the other pilot made any disparaging remarks about their old gal, he would look the other way when Josiah decked him.
Cordoba frowned when he looked at the nose. "Still no name, Chiquito?" he asked JD.
"Haven't thought of a good one yet," JD said defensively.
Cordoba nodded. "You must choose wisely." He patted a propeller as he departed. "She's a good girl, your Siete magnifica."
"What the hell was that supposed to mean?" JD asked indignantly, as soon as Cordoba was out of earshot.
Standish tossed his flight bag up through the crew hatch. "If my knowledge of Spanish serves me correctly, Lieutenant Cordoba was being complimentary."
JD watched Cordoba walking away. "Yeah?"
"Yup," Tanner confirmed. "Called her 'magnificent Seven.'"
Contemplating this, JD took a few steps back and looked up at the big bomber.
He really liked the sound of that...