(c) Kat Morgan
Ever have one of those songs that you hear and think "That oughta be a story..."? When I first heard the song "Borderline" by Chris De Burgh I thought that. And it has stuck with me (the song was released in 1982) for a long time though I have never tried to write it.
I read a lot of stories about veterans and their rememberances of war this weekend, what with it being Rememberance Day and all, and suddenly the story started to flow in my head. In the context of all that is going on in the world right now I knew what I wanted to say about war and about understanding our differences and about love... So I am taking a crack at it.
Obviously this is AU as it occurs during World War 2. Timewise, it happens around late 1940/early 1941 - before the US has entered the war, but after the conflict has been ongoing for some time. I have included some things that are factual, though naturally the characters are not. Also I needed more male characters so I added the members of Nsync. I am not an expert on them by any stretch of the imagination, so I just chucked them in where I wanted them (and yes, some of my personal views of them do come through).
Finally (I do go on, don't I?), I had intended this to be a one chapter fic only, however, the ideas just started to flow... Chapter 1 will be more of a backgrounder/set up, while the song itself will come more into play in the second (and final) chapter.
Best Author Winner: Borderline ~ Kat
It had been a long journey. He still wasn’t sure how he’d managed it. Luck more than anything he guessed. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be here. The United States hadn’t entered the war – if anything they were adopting a “wait and see” attitude. A war on European soil wasn’t something they wanted to get involved in: they’d fought a war in 1776 to guarantee freedom from that sort of thing.
At least that seemed to be the view: politics was never one of his strong points. He could barely figure out one foreign country from another let alone try and figure out what the bigshots in Washington were thinking. He was just one man. He doubted that Washington cared much about what he thought and he knew he could care less what they thought. All he knew what that he was doing something they wouldn’t approve of: an American trying to be a soldier in a war they didn’t want any part of.
But he did. He had to.
He tried not to think of the scene at the house when he’d announced his decision. His father had glared at him furiously then retreated into the bottle of whisky he’d kept hidden under his desk. His mother had begun to wail and rend her clothes. He could still hear her sobs echoing in his ears. She had begged him to reconsider, had even called in her priest to reason with him. It was a tactic she has used only once before: he was a good son and more than willing to accept the advice of his parents, but a higher power had to be called in once in a while for even the most tractable of sons.
He hadn’t listened then either.
He swallowed a sob as he remembered. That had been the final cut. They had grudgingly accepted his decision with the other decision, but this… this was not to be condoned. His sisters had turned their backs on him and his brother… his brother had spat at him.
He may call himself by the names they had given him, but he was no longer their son, their kin. He was no longer a Dorough.
And a man without a family was a man without a country, wasn’t he? He chuckled inwardly. So he was more than justified in taking action. There would be nothing stopping him. Nothing, except…
The train’s whistle blasted, shaking him out of his reverie. A small station whipped by as the ancient contraption continued its winding journey and he shuffled around, trying to find a comfortable spot. “Saved by the bell,” he murmured under his breath. The last thing he wanted to think of was her. It was too much. It would be more than he could take.
But she had been all he had thought of in the last long months. He’d thought of her day and night as he’d hitched his way slowly north, out of the balmy climes of Florida to the colder Northern states. All along the coast, creeping further away from home. Away from her.
His decision was right and true, he knew that. Still the distance hurt. He had to bear it. It was all he could do…
New York City was an eye-opening experience. He had never had any idea that there were so many people in the world, let alone in one place. And so many different people! All colours, all nationalities. Even his darker Latino skin drew few stares here, and after the wary glances he’d received throughout the Carolinas that was a blessing.
He got down to work immediately. His family may have rejected him, but they had always taught him to work hard in order to be a better man. Some called that a “Protestant work ethic” which had always made his mother snort in derision. “As if Catholics haven’t been working hard for centuries before that foolish English king decided to look for an easy way out,” she’d complain. The rest was usually in Spanish, and more complicated than he could follow, but he was sure it was nothing he really wanted to know. After all, his sainted mother should not be saying things like what he heard in the taprooms with his buddies.
He scoped out the harbour, looking for ships willing to brave the German blockades and make the dangerous trip to Liverpool. He knew there were some: trade had to continue after all. It was a risky trip but one with big payoffs for the adventurous soul.
He came across a few: captained by men he could barely stand to be in the same room with let alone on the high seas for months. He was not about to have his journey cut short by a knife in the throat and quick trip overboard. There was one in particular who still haunted his nightmares: a younger man with a quick grin and a tumble of flaxen curls. It was his eyes that had terrified him: there was nothing there. They had been devoid of emotion, devoid of any touch of humanity. He was the kind of man that even the Devil was wary of doing business with. One thing Howie was certain of: if he ever saw the ship Timberlake on the horizon he’d make for the nearest port and not set sail again until the coast was clear.
A job serving drinks at a boisterous wharf side bar had been a boon. There he could meet the folks he needed to, but also sit back and judge who to approach and who to avoid. It was a good skill to learn, he was sure. One that would help him if he ever got a chance to do what he planned. Still, he had been unable to find what he needed. It had been almost three months, and with several recent sinkings even the hardiest of souls were thinking twice about making the run. If he didn’t find a ship soon he would never make it…
** Flashback **
“I’ll have another pull, and a moment of your time,” a voice announced as the beer mug came down with a thump.
He dropped the rag he had been using to clean the bar, grabbed the mug and filled it before raising his eyes to the speaker. A pair of clear ocean blue eyes stared at him boldly. They reminded him eerily of Captain Justin, but whereas the other man’s had been terrifying, these were ones that you knew you could trust instinctively.
“Aren’t you a little young, boy,” he’d asked quietly, not relinquishing the cold glass. His eyes may be alive, but it looked like the rest of him had only been on this earth for a short time. The wide grin, which had appeared as a result of his comment made that even more evident.
“I’ve always thought that was relative,” the man responded. “Men become men at different ages. I am old enough now. And something tells me that you are the same.” He arched a blonde eyebrow and let out another quick grin as the mug was released. He took a long draught then put it back down on the bar and held out his hand. “Nick Carter.”
Nick cocked his head, “Irish? I wouldn’t have thought it with your face.”
Howie looked the tall blond man up and down. “And I could call you German.”
Nick scowled. “Not if you wanted to live long,” he bit back.
Howie chuckled, liking this young man even more. “Touché. I’m Irish and Spanish. Enjoy whisky and have a fiery temper but can confess those sins and get away with it.”
Nick laughed loudly, startling the others in the taproom. The rough men – dock workers, longshoremen and sailors still trying to regain their land legs glanced their way then went back to their discussions. Howie gave a sigh of relief as the lull of conversation began again. Some nights the crowd was just itching for a fight and any little thing could set them off.
“Relax,” Nick murmured. “There won’t be any trouble. They are all still reeling from the loss of The Pearl Lady.”
Howie nodded, remembering how the early crowd had brought word that the Lady had been lost. That had stunned everyone – even him. Lou Pearlman had been a regular in this port, and while Captain Justin gave nearly all the folk around here the willies, Pearlman had been one to be watched. A strong captain, some said, but a fair one. That usually brought a snort of derision and a tale of how the large man had swindled this person or that. He had a good smile, a cherub face – and a gut the size of a whale – but when it came to money Pearlman was in it for no one but himself. Still, he had run his ship tightly and was the captain many would turn to in order to get something where it had to go no matter what. The man had the touch, the feel of the sea, as it were. So when word came that his boat, The Pearl Lady, had sunk off the coast of North Africa with all hands lost the superstitious sailors in the area had headed for dry land – and strong drink – for a while. The bar had been full, though quiet, all day.
“So what is it you want, Nick Carter? Why are you here?”
“Looking for you,” the blond man answered lightly. “Looking to see if you are who you say you are, and if you are someone I want to help.”
This time it was Howie who’d cocked his eyebrow. “I need your help?”
Nick grabbed a tall bar stool and pulled it over, sitting down. “Yes you do. You and your type of people.”
“My type of people?”
Nick took another sip of his ale and leaned forward. “People who want in. People who want to fight. There’s a war going on, Howie, and some would say that we’ve been too long on the sidelines. Those kind of people.”
Howie let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Strong words. America isn’t interested in getting involved.”
“Now, I didn’t say America now did I?” Nick replied quietly. “I said you.”
Howie was silent.
“You’ve been looking for a berth Europe-bound, and been careful about your seeking. That’s wise. There are some who would call you a traitor for what you are thinking.”
Howie started to protest, but Nick held up his hand. “Some who’d be wrong,” he said bluntly. He pulled a piece of paper from his jacket and placed it on the bar. “You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last. Be here by 7 p.m. tomorrow if you want my help. If not, I wish you luck and hope you find your way soon.” He carefully placed the mug on top of the paper, keeping it in place and then rose from the stool. He nodded at Howie as he flipped him a coin from his pocket.
“Good ale, barkeep,” he muttered gruffly as he tightened his navy blue pea coat around him and pulled a navy cap on his head – the uniform of most men down on the docks. Then he turned and stumbled drunkenly through the open door, slipping past three incoming men.
Howie grabbed the glass and dropped it onto the rack for cleaning, palming the note quickly before getting back to work.
The sky was starting to darken as he approached the address that had been on the paper. Howie pulled his jacket tighter as he wandered through the streets, watching old man chatting at tables on the sidewalks and the children playing in the streets. What the hell was he doing here? Was he crazy? He’d been so careful about this – was it throwing it all away now?
He glanced nervously at the house numbers, realizing that the one he had been looking for was right in front of him. He stared at the doorway, hoping for some sign that he was making the right choice, and then he took a deep breath and walked up the stairs and knocked briskly at the door.
He could hear jovial shouts and laughter from inside, then the sound of heavy footsteps coming towards the door. A large man loomed in the doorway: a long face the bottom half of which was covered in a well-sculpted beard. Brown eyes looking down at him from over what looked like a nose that had been broken once, though he couldn’t been sure. Once thing he did know was that he was no one that Howie had ever seen before.
The man burst into a large smile, then his deep voice boomed loudly. “Mama! Look! You wouldn’t believe it! It’s cousin Hugo down from Long Island. What a surprise!” He glanced up and down the street as if he expected to have the announcement overheard and then his voice dropped and he murmured, “Howie. We’ve been waiting.”
“Ah…” Howie didn’t know what to say, but was saved by a shout from deep inside the house.
“Then let him in, Guiseppe. Poor boy must be starved from such a long journey. Bring him in! Presto, presto.”
The man smiled broadly again. “Mama has spoken. You better come in.” He pushed the door wide and, swallowing nervously, Howie entered the house.
Once the door was closed the large man turned and held out his hand. “I’m Joe. Nick told me to expect you.”
“Howie. Umm… not Hugo.”
Joe laughed. “It’s okay. I don’t have a cousin Hugo that I know of, but with so many cousins and aunts and uncles who knows.” He shrugged. “It was the closest I could think of. Come on.” He turned and led the way down the hallway towards the brightly lit room at the back. An older woman bustled about the room stirring a multitude of steaming pots and chopping vegetables with practiced skill. She nodded at Howie as he followed Joe out the back door and down to a shed at the end of the small garden. Joe turned the knob then stepped aside to let Howie in first.
Mountains of boxes lined the inside of the shed, and judging from the stamps on the side few had been legally acquired. In the middle of the room was a small table surrounded by four rickety looking chairs. A single light shone on the table where two men were pouring over a map. Both looked up as the other two men entered the room and Nick’s face broke into a wide grin when he saw Howie. Howie returned the smile.
“See, Jimmy?” Nick said, cuffing the other man lightly on the arm. “I told you he’d come.”
Joe laughed. “I hope you didn’t put too much down on this, Jimmy. You know Nicky always wins with the ones he’s found.”
The other man grunted then pulled a bill from his pocket and dropped it on the table. Nick laughed and picked it up, kissing it before thrusting it in his pocket. “Howie, this is James or rather Jimmy the Fish. A poor judge of character so therefore a good man to bet with.”
Jimmy held out a hand, which Howie shook warily. “Nick just thinks I am a poor judge,” he said in a deep Southern accent. “What he doesn’t know is that I win so much money from him on sports that feel like I should cut him some slack when he finds someone to help.” Nick started to protest, but Jimmy ignored him. “I humour him on this and he keeps me rolling in cash when baseball season is on.”
Howie smiled quickly, feeling at ease in the companionable setting despite the air of illegality. He glanced around the room, noting the maps of Europe and North America on the wall, as well as a large crucifix that hung in the corner. Instinctively his hand moved as he gave reverence to figure on the cross. Then he turned back to the others.
“What am I doing here? This doesn’t make any sense. You say you can help but then you bring me here. No offense, Joe, but the middle of Little Italy is NOT where I would expect to find the kind of help I need.”
“Not every Italian follow Mussolini,” Joe replied brusquely.
“No,” Howie replied. “But you have other rulers here and they do.”
“Ah, La Cosa Nostra,” a disgusted voice said from behind him. The old woman from the kitchen stood there with a plate heaping with pasta in her hand. She spat at the floor, away from all four men. “Phaw for them,” she declared.
“Ma! Don’t spit. I just cleaned in here,” Joe protested but she disregarded him.
“La Cosa cares for nothing but power. They support Mussolini because they can buy him. No more.” She thrust the plate into Howie’s hand. “Here. Eat. You need food. Mangia.”
“What none for me?” Nick laughed and ducked as she swatted at him playfully.
“You, you need no food. It is too spicy for your weak stomach. You eat that trash you call ‘buggers’ not my good food.”
“It’s burgers, Mama Fatone,” Jimmy corrected.
“Phaw!” she replied with a disdainful shake of her head. “It is not food. Not good food like my Guiseppe.” She patted the man in question on the cheek. “My Joey, he is a good boy. He’ll help you,” she said to Howie. “You eat up and he will help you fight and all will be well.” She nodded at the others then shuffled out of the shed.
Joe chuckled. “I think she likes you.”
Howie put the heaping plate down on the table then sank into an empty seat. Nick pulled a fork from somewhere and stabbed on of the large meatballs that lay on the top of the pile of noodles and then stuffed half of it into his mouth, moaning appreciatively at the taste. “I swear Joe, your mother is the best cook in the world. Think she’d marry me so I could eat like this all the time?”
Jimmy laughed and speared himself a meatball too. “I think Papa Fatone would have trouble with that.” He took a bite then sighed contentedly as well. “Though it would be worth it.”
“You better grab some before those two eat it all. They have hallow legs they do, though you wouldn’t know it from Jimmy’s skinny frame,” Joe told Howie.
“Lance ain’t my middle name for nothing,” Jimmy quipped.
Howie looked back and forth at them all and then shrugged and pulled out the fork that was sticking out of the base of the pile and took a small bite. If he hadn’t already been spoken for then he may have been willing to throw his hat into the ring as well.
“Look,” he finally said. “You offered to help, but still haven’t said how.”
“Canada,” Nick said between mouthfuls.
Joe leaned back in his chair. “Look, I am Italian and proud of it. But Mussolini… he is a bad man. Bad for my people. Bad for my homeland. I hear the things that are happening there with him and that bastardo Hitler and I want to do something.” He nodded to Jimmy. “Jimmy, he wants to do something too. And Nicky… So we help. We can’t fight ourselves: not yet. But we can help those who want to.”
“Let’s just say that the Mafia isn’t the only game in town,” Jimmy said in his deep Southern voice.
“And what does Canada have to do with that?”
Nick slurped a long piece of pasta into his mouth, leaving a huge dollop of tomato sauce on his lips. He licked that away quickly with a flick of his long tongue. “Canada’s in the war. We ain’t. So we get you there and bingo: you’re in.” He shrugged. “Simple.”
“Simple,” Howie echoed. He’d known that: that Canada was in the war. But Canada had seemed so far away when he was at home in Florida. He almost laughed out loud. Here he’d been trying to get to England – an ocean away – and he had been worried about the distance to Canada. “Isn’t Canada far?”
Nick shook his head. “Not from here. You’re almost there now. A couple of days and you could be over the border and on your way.”
Jimmy chuckled. “Good old-fashioned Underground Railway. ‘Cept it’s above ground now.”
Howie looked at him blankly.
“I’m from Mississippi. Born and bred. Prime slave country before the “War of Northern Aggression.” And yes’m there are some who still call it that down home – and I never thought it was right.” He shook his head, muttering under his breath,” you can’t own people. It ain’t right.” He looked back at Howie. “Anyway, the Underground Railway worked all the way from down there to up here – smuggling Negroes from slavery down there to freedom in Canada. Its still goin’ in a way, only now we are smuggling men like you – and any munitions we can get our hands on.”
“You know: guns, bullets, grenades. A tank or two here and there. My sources tell me that some of the border states are starting to get involved on that side: parking planes and such on the border and then forgetting to report it when the Canadians come up and ‘steal’ them.” Jimmy shrugged. “Probably not true, but who knows. What I do know is that we’ve been working at getting men like you across the border for over a year now. They make it across, head to Toronto or Halifax and then sign up for whatever corps that’s looking.”
Howie had heard about this, had heard there were some who could get you to England and into the war for a price. Captain Justin had been one of those sort and he wouldn’t have trusted that one as far as he could throw him. “And what’s the catch? What’s in it for you?” Howie asked suspiciously.
“The ability to sleep at night,” Joe said softly.
“Look, Howie,” Nick said. “We aren’t like those others. We aren’t in this for money. We are in it because it is right. This war… The Allies are losing: we can all see that. And Hitler is not a man I, personally, want running Europe…”
“The British are our friends, despite our history,” Jimmy put in.
“We got the connections, the means. All we do is put out the word and the way for you to get where you need to go is clear. That’s all we want,” Joe added.
“They got Irish brigades you can join in Canada. Maybe even some Spanish ones. Not everyone is like Franco,” Nick said, referring to Spain’s dictator, a supporter of Hitler.
“Where you from, Howie?” Jimmy asked suddenly.
“You’re a long way from home,” Jimmy drawled. “Why you doing this?”
Howie paused. “Like you: it’s the right thing.”
“Unh-uh,” Jimmy shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”
”Why not?” Howie said belligerently. “I’m supposed to believe that you aren’t in it for the money, and you can’t accept that I want to do what’s right?”
“He’s just asking,” Joe said firmly. “Most of the men we’ve talked to are loud and clear about their reasons…”
“We can barely get them to shut up,” Nick muttered.
“You haven’t said word one. Heck, you haven’t even said that you are truly interested in going,” Joe continued. “It makes us wonder.”
“You a German spy, Howie?” Jimmy accused.
Howie jumped up from his chair, sending it clattering to the floor. “You take that back, buddy!” he bellowed. “I want the Nazis dead, you hear. Dead!”
“Hold on there, friend,” Joe said, raising his hands and making a calming gesture. “This isn’t the safest of businesses for both sides. We need to check.”
“I want them dead,” Howie repeated angrily. “I want them gone and I want freedom again.”
“And why do you want that, Howie?” Jimmy asked.
Howie looked own at his hands, trying to figure out how to phrase his answer. There was no way but the truth, he thought and sighed deeply. “There is this woman…”
Joe laughed. “Isn’t there always a woman?”
“Hush up, Joey. You got so many women you don’t know what to do with them all,” Nick snorted.
“Ah, Nicky,” Joe grinned and puffed out his chest. “I know EXACTLY what to do with them.”
Jimmy laughed softly, though his eyes never left Howie’s. “There are women everywhere, Howie. Throw her over and get a new one. This one’s no good if she’s gonna make you dead.”
“She’s good. She is the best. The best thing that ever happened to me,” Howie replied softly.
“Had several of those in my time,” Joe said. “But then they ask too much and I have to find another one. This is war we are talking about Howie. You got your bombs, you got your bullets and you could get a whole lot of dead. No woman is worth that.”
“This one is.”
There was silence in the room and then Joe piped up. “So maybe she is. If she is that worth it, then what you doing here? Go home, Howie. Marry this woman and have lots of bambinos. Don’t do this.”
“No,” Howie replied steadfastly. He took a deep breath. “Hitler, Mussolini, Franco… all of them: they are making a world full of hate. That is what I want to fight. My parents… I have family on both of my parents’ sides fighting. You called me ‘Cousin Hugo’ Joe, well I got cousins who are in France now fighting with the Resistance. Two of my Father’s younger brothers were at Dunkirk. I am doing this for them,” Howie said.
Three sets of eyes appraised him thoughtfully. “But mostly you are doing this for her,” Joe said. “This woman who is worth it.”
“Yes. This woman… she is everything to me. If I could go back, marry her and forget all this I would. But I can’t. She can’t. There is too much going on over there.” He sighed. “I am only one man, but I need to try. Maybe it’s because of my family: being brought up to honour them and where they come from. Maybe it’s being brought up to believe in freedom. Maybe it’s because I can see my country eventually having to join in but not having the patience to wait until they make up their minds. And maybe it is all just for her. My life hasn’t been worth much until now. If I end up dead I’ll know it is for a cause I believe in. She knows that. And she knows I love her. She knows that part of why I am doing this is to protect her. To make the world a safer place for her.”
“And your fighting will make this a better place for her?”
Nick leaned forward. “I am impressed by your passion, Howie. But I fail to see how your fighting Nazis can make the world safer for this paragon of a woman.”
Howie stared into Nick’s blue eyes, thinking again about how he’d trusted this man from the start. He glanced at the other men: Jimmy’s green eyes and Joe’s brown ones were harder to read. Unlike Nick, they were better able to hide their thoughts. He thought of another pair of eyes – ones that had captivated him from the first moment he’d seen them. Hazel, they had all the colours that he saw in front of him now and more. Much more. More depth and compassion and love than any he had ever seen before. Eyes you could lose your soul to. Eyes in the body of a woman who would gladly return your soul and also give you her heart.
“Because she is Jewish,” he replied softly.
Jimmy let out a slow whistle and looked at the other two men. . Joe’s face went stony and rigid while Nick looked confused, uncertain of the significance. Jimmy wanted to explain: as their go-between Nick was based out of upstate New York and wasn’t as aware of what was going on in Germany. But you couldn’t live in New York City and not hear the rumours coming out of the Jewish Quarter…
“We can get you out by the end of the week,” Joe said huskily.
FYI: La Cosa Nostra is another name for the Mafia. Also, yes the US government actually did leave things like munitions, tanks, planes, etc. lying about for the Canadian forces to 'pick up.' A sort of 'finders, keepers' way of helping out the Allies without actually declaring war...