ShaViva's Stargate Fan ... Stuff

Inconceivable!

Campaign Kandahar Part Two

Chapter 7: Disciplines collide

April 2002

Six months. He'd been in Afghanistan six months already. On the one hand it seemed like the time had gone by relatively fast but on the other it felt endless, like he'd never been anywhere else.

Having Drew there helped ... although they hadn't flown any missions together as yet, they did spend a lot of their off time together. It brought back that familiar feeling of camaraderie from their training days and made activities that otherwise would have felt repetitive more interesting.

It seemed that Elaine had settled into life apart from her husband too – if her emails to Evan and what Drew was saying were any indicators. She reassured both of them, in fact she did more than that – faster than Evan would have thought possible a package from the States arrived with her handwriting on the label.

Opening the letter first, he read.

"Dear Evan,

Don't think I don't know you gave me an almost impossible mission to distract me from saying goodbye to Drew. It was pretty obvious ... but I appreciate the thought. So – paints and art supplies huh? I hope you realise that now I've delivered on your request you'll have to actually paint something – and I expect to see the result, whether it's good or bad in your eyes, so no copping out. As you probably already knew I couldn't get oil paints or anything similar approved because the cleaning agents and thinners can be used for 'suspicious' activities. I did come up with something though ... and I have to say I'm really looking forward to seeing what you do with them.

Have fun!

Your loving sister, Elaine."

Almost cautiously Lorne tore off the tape and opened the cardboard box she'd packed for him. As soon as he saw the contents he started to laugh ... even unsettled and upset she still managed to surprise him.

"Children's water paints," he muttered, taking out the solid disks of colour with amusement. She'd also provided him with paper suitable for that medium and a selection of brushes.

He'd honestly thought Elaine would have to concede defeat, never dreaming she'd send over what were essentially children's supplies. It had been too long since he'd actually sat down to paint – sketching had been as much as he'd allowed himself and that only since his tour of Europe and the inspiration it's galleries provided.

"Care package from home?" Piper walked into the pilot's briefing room, looking across to Lorne's desk curiously.

"Kind of," Evan replied with a shrug. "My sister's idea of a challenge."

"You paint too?" Piper's brows rose as she got a better look at what Elaine had sent Lorne. She'd seen him sketching from time to time but he was always reticent about showing anyone the results.

"Used to," he shrugged. "Haven't for a long time – I only asked her to get me art supplies because I thought she wouldn't be able to."

"Well that makes sense," Piper frowned. "You didn't want her to send you anything?"

"It was meant to be a distraction," Evan smiled faintly, "yeah I know, a pretty stupid one really. Her husband shipped out and she was upset so ...," he trailed off.

"So you thought you'd play big brother and try to help her deal with it," Piper concluded. Moving to stand behind him she ruffled his hair even as he ducked away. "You really are a nice guy aren't you?"

"Watch it," Evan protested.

"What are you gonna paint with those?" Piper asked, nodding towards the box.

"I have no idea," Lorne retorted. "Gotta be something though right – after my sister actually managed to get me what I asked for, creative as it is."

"So your brother-in-law is military too?" Piper asked with interest.

Lorne winced at the question. He and Drew hadn't made a conscious decision to keep their family connection a secret. They'd been friends first – best friends and had slipped back into that relationship so easily that the extra part, the fact that Drew was married to Elaine became a part of the unspoken background.

"Yeah ... actually you kind of know him," Evan admitted. "Andrew Rider."

"Your sister married a Canadian?" Piper put on an expression of horror but spoiled it by laughing. "Relax Evan – Drew mentioned it in passing the other day."

"If you already knew why'd you ask?"

"I was curious to see if you'd admit to it," Piper said unapologetically. "You're not exactly known for being Mr Open even with your friends."

"It's not about being private," Lorne explained insistently. "I was friends with Drew long before he decided he had to marry my sister. I honestly didn't think to introduce him as my brother-in-law."

"I get it," Piper smiled, letting him off the hook. "No deliberate secret keeping intended. I asked Drew to dish the gossip on you but he was pretty closed mouthed."

"That's because he knows it's a two way street," Evan shot back. "He's too smart to give me that kind of opening."

"Funny - that's exactly what he said too," Piper chuckled when Evan grimaced. She paused and then said more seriously. "Hard for her – your sister – having a husband and a brother here at the same time."

"I know – but I'm guessing Drew will get to go home before we do," Evan returned.

"Probably," Piper agreed easily. She was an interesting case in Lorne's eyes ... so comfortable being far from home even though she had close family and a fiancé waiting for her back there. Lorne had thought about it and come to the conclusion that her belief in their primary goals and her desire to defend those she saw as being vulnerable – both here and back home – gave her the centre she needed. Evan had that centre too – it was what made them such a great wing leader/second combination.

"Any news from Scott and Ryan?" she asked.

The other half of their wing was out on a mission and both of them were feeling a little uneasy. The previous week a number of U.S. soldiers had been killed trying to destroy a rocket. It had happened at their demolition range rather than in battle but on top of heavy casualties the previous month it had them all feeling ... nervous. Insurgent activity had increased recently too as snow melted on the mountains making conditions easier for an enemy who specialised in ground assault. Evan wouldn't have admitted it but he'd decided to pass his off duty time as close to the hangar as he could get, even though they weren't on call, because any news would come through there first.

"No news," he reported lightly. "They'll be fine. Got lots of experience under their belts now which is why I sent them out together. They have to be able to work alone - cover things when you and I do a mission together."

"I know Ryan was pretty excited to be flying lead," Piper replied.

"He's earned it," Evan glanced at his watch, noting that they'd been gone two hours already. "Should be back soon," he said.

"Either that or they'll be refuelling midair," she pointed out.

Evan grinned. "That'll be something to talk about later – Scott complains every time they do that."

"I know," Piper laughed. "He thinks the refuelling guys have it in for him – that they keep moving the hose deliberately just before he can latch on."

"Ah, to be that young and self centred again," Lorne intoned, eyes twinkling.

They kept the light hearted chit chat going until Scott and Ryan returned, everyone doing the silent tally inside that counted another day safely negotiated.

oOo

When they got wind of a larger than usual group of al-Qaida amassing up in the mountains Command decided to respond with a combined show of force bombing run. Once they got confirmation from their forward air controllers two wings would be sent to fly over the area while a third dropped bombs to shake up the ground and hopefully the enemy hideout as well.

Pilots flew around the clock in Afghanistan – war wasn't a nine to five affair and in some respects a night mission was easier to manage due to the cover of darkness. Every pilot had to be able to do night flights – using night vision goggles and instruments and just sheer nerve to get the job done.

Confirmation came through the following day and Lorne was advised that his wing would be dropping the bombs while their second wing and a wing of Canadian aircraft did the fly over.

When Evan caught up with Drew at the mess a few hours before scheduled start everyone was talking about it.

"Back in the air together," Drew said as Evan sat down across from him. "Be just like old times."

"Yeah," Lorne nodded. "Your first night mission here isn't it?" He knew it was – the two discussed most of their missions so each was aware of the others efforts. It had been years since they'd trained together, since Drew had almost failed the F-18 course over a disastrous night flight, and Evan knew he'd conquered that demon long ago. But he also knew night flying wasn't Drew's favourite way to fly – not like it was for Lorne. Evan had felt an instant affinity with the blackness of a moonless night, a connection and an instinctive sense of where he was even without instruments to guide him.

"It is," Drew shrugged casually. "I'm okay with that – it's been a while since I flew at night but we did a few practice runs in training before they sent us over here."

"A lot of stars in the sky here," Evan offered.

"Actually, aren't there the same number of stars anywhere?" Drew chuckled when Lorne rolled his eyes.

"You know what I mean," Evan shot back. "There's no reflective light from the ground to mask the stars – sometimes it feels like it's just you and the heavens, no enemies, no friend or foe."

"Sounds almost poetic," Drew looked at his friend closely. "Is that gonna be your first painting for Elaine – the night sky?"

"Nah, too hard to get the right colours, distinguish the shades of dark," Lorne replied.

"My wife will be disappointed after the effort she went to to get you that stuff if you don't send her something soon," Drew reminded him.

"I know, I know," Evan shook his head. "Does she know how ... bland it is out here? Not exactly brimming with inspirational landscape scenes begging to be painted. Besides, don't you think it's a little ...," he trailed off awkwardly.

"Embarrassing? Weird?" Drew suggested.

"I was gonna say self indulgent but those will do too," Lorne agreed lightly. "I just think it's a little inappropriate to be sitting around painting in the middle of a war zone, no matter how relaxed we've managed to get. Elaine will understand."

"If you say so," his friend returned sceptically. "Sounds more like an excuse to me though. If you can't do it just tell her."

"I can do it," Evan countered immediately. "I'm just not sure I want to ... sketching is one thing but painting ... it's hard to explain. It sucks you in, absorbs you ... splits your focus. I don't feel comfortable enough here to let that happen."

"Understandable," Drew said after thinking on Evan's words for a few moments.

"Good, then you can explain it to Elaine," Lorne said decisively. Looking down at his watch he grimaced. "I'd better get some dinner – still got the final mission briefing to run. Be back in a sec."

oOo

It was one of those rare one hundred percent 'perfect' missions – the ones where everything goes according to all the numerous and detailed plans.

They'd caught the al Qaida fighters by surprise, coming in low a few hours after dark. The ground shook with the explosive impacts of several Mach 84's hitting their mountain targets. From the air they hadn't been able to see the effect but Command let them know via radio that enemy soldiers had burst from their cave hideouts shouting, firing their weapons uselessly up into the sky.

Lorne had seen the Canadian wing in the sky in brief glimpses but once their part of the mission was done they'd travelled separate paths to return to Kandahar – less chance of ground to air anti aircraft weapons being able to take out multiple planes in one attack.

He didn't miss it this time, a familiar flash of white lighting up the darkness. It was partially hidden amidst the dense scrub low on the mountainside but at night it was impossible to completely hide any sources of light. That's why al Qaida couldn't sneak up on Kandahar after dark – because the tower crews spotted their torches immediately and took them out.

"Keep heading back to base," Lorne told the rest of his wing. "I'm just going to double back and check something out."

"I can -," Piper began.

"Not necessary Captain," Evan said decisively. "This won't take long – I'll catch up before you get even half way back to base. Take lead."

Not waiting for further protests, Lorne broke formation and swung his plane 180 degrees back towards the mountains. Taking note of longitude and latitude he dropped as low as he dared go, reducing speed to minimum. The flare of brightness was more visible to him this time and with sudden knowledge he understood what it was he was seeing.

Pulling up on the stick he shot back into the heights of the sky, turning and returning to his previous flight path. He put on the speed, catching up with Piper and the others only moments later.

"Anything?" Piper queried after he'd rejoined formation, letting her keep lead.

"Yeah, I'll tell you about it back at base," Evan promised.

He waited until they'd completed all their post flight tasks, until they'd debriefed with the mission's coordinating officer on all the particulars before raising his suspicions. Major Peter Strathalbyn oversaw all the combined military initiatives and was for all intents and purposes their commanding officer.

"Anything else?" the Major asked, getting ready to close off the debrief.

"There is one thing Sir," Lorne began. "On returning to base I noticed a flare of white light emanating from the ground. I doubled back for a closer look and saw it again." He looked at his CO intently. "It's phosphorus Sir."

"And that's important because?" the Major replied, frowning.

"Because it looked like they were testing it Sir," Lorne replied respectfully. "It's what you do when you're refining the manufacture of WP." He didn't add an explanation on why that was a problem - the Major would be well aware of the implications.

"Where was this?" Strathalbyn asked, his expression not giving Evan any clues on what he thought of the report.

Lorne gave him the coordinates, pointing them out on the map while his CO looked on intently, a discouraging frown now firmly in place.

"Let me get this straight Captain," Major Strathalbyn said in a careful tone. "During a night flight, where there was no moon, travelling at what? 300 miles per hour you were able to detect a WP test in the mountains – presumably through the trees. Is that correct?"

"It is Sir," Lorne could understand why the Major was sceptical.

"WP is illegal ... even to al Qaida," Strathalbyn said dismissively. "I'm sorry Captain but in this case I think you're mistaken in what you saw. There are pockets of resisters hidden in numerous locations – that flash could have just as easily come from one of their lights."

"Actually white phosphorus isn't illegal Sir," Lorne replied. "The Chemical Weapons Convention doesn't list WP in its schedules of banned weapons. The treaty does deal with discrete organic chemicals, organophosphates being some of them, but the al Qaida don't have to even report the manufacture of phosphate unless they produce more than 30 tonnes per year." He refrained from pointing out that people who thought it okay to engage in warfare that often resulted in harm to their own people were hardly likely to quibble over breaking a few international laws.

"While I'm impressed with your knowledge Captain it doesn't change my opinion," the Major returned. "The conditions were too challenging for you to really know what you saw and I don't have enough ground troops to spare a unit every time a pilot thinks they see something interesting on the ground."

"With all due respect Sir I am sure it was a WP test, particularly because this isn't the first time I've seen evidence of it," Lorne tried to keep the frustration from leaking into his voice. "Here," he pointed to another location some distance from the first.

"Why didn't you report the other incident?" the Major asked sternly.

"Because at that time I couldn't be certain Sir," Lorne admitted. "That incident along with what I observed tonight convinces me that al Qaida have either already produced weapons grade WP or are very close to doing so."

"You weren't sure before but now you are," Major Strathalbyn summarised.

"That's right Sir," Evan agreed, keeping his tone confident – no hint of personal doubt.

"Well, I'll take your report under advisement then Captain. If we have a ground unit in that area I can assure you they will check out your story," Strathalbyn's voice was abrupt and beyond dismissive now and Evan knew there was no point in arguing further.

"Thank you Sir," Lorne acknowledged. He wasn't giving up because he was sure he'd seen a WP test in progress – but for now he'd hold out following it up the line. Assuming Major Strathalbyn followed procedure, he'd table Evan's report at a higher level debrief back to the States via satellite - where some of their 'tech' experts would be present. One of them would surely recognise the truth of Evan's conclusions and then something would happen.

"What's WP?" Lieutenant Castles asked once they were dismissed from the debrief and heading back to barracks.

"White phosphorus," Evan repeated. "Been around since WWI, maybe even earlier. They use it in smoke screening, illumination and incendiary munitions. Burns easily, quickly and intensely – in an anti-personnel weapon, mixed with a little shake 'n bake it's deadly. If al Qaida are making it then you can be sure they intend to use it – which would be very bad for our guys on the ground - for anyone nearby."

"Why did Major Strathalbyn think it was illegal?" Scott continued.

"I don't know," Lorne replied. "Maybe because it's more chemical than weapon, something that's frowned on pretty strongly at an international level. And if you believe the Romans chemical weapons just aren't a part of war. Armis bella non venenis geri," he added softly. When Castles expression turned puzzled Evan shrugged. "It means war is fought with weapons, not with poisons."

"How do you know all this stuff?" Ryan asked.

"Studied it – recently actually," Evan said lightly. "Military history. I'll probably forget half of it soon enough."

"You studied chemical weapons?" Scott clarified.

"That and just war in general," Lorne admitted. "Plus some geology which I would have admitted to if Major Strathalbyn had given me the chance."

"So you know what you're talking about then," Ryan concluded.

"I'd like the think so," Lorne agreed lightly. "Don't worry about it guys," he added. "I'll check back with Major Strathalbyn in a few days, see if they've done any recon in the area." Spotting Drew waiting for him outside the tent he shared Evan smiled – that saved him the trouble of looking for his friend. "I'll see you in the met briefing first thing in the morning," he told his team. "Go get some sleep."

oOo

"So you're convinced it is WP they're making?" Drew concluded after Evan had filled him in both on what he'd seen and the reaction he'd gotten from his CO.

"What else could it be?" Lorne would have liked for there to be another, less deadly reason for what he'd seen but he just couldn't come up with one.

"Hey, you're the geologist," Drew said easily. "If you say its phosphorus then I'm inclined to believe you."

"I'm not a geologist as such," Evan corrected, "which is probably half the problem. Major Strathalbyn is in command of air and ground units but his background if firmly planted on terra firma – we're a very small part of the personnel he's responsible for. He wouldn't expect us air jockeys to know anything about what goes on on the ground beyond being told where to drop our bombs. He's not going to risk his troops for something he believes is implausible."

"So what are you going to do then?" Drew queried.

"Talk to him again in a few days," Evan shrugged. The chain of command was there to protect them all and give them structure and a foundation but in a situation like this it was also the rope that tied your hands unless you wanted to risk insubordination charges.

"And when that doesn't work?" Drew persisted.

"Have a chat on the sly with our weapons specialist I guess," Lorne decided, not that keen to contemplate going over Strathalbyn's head.

"Let me know if you want me to do anything."

Nodding, grateful for another option, Lorne put the incident from his mind. If he was lucky they'd find the test site without his further input and if not, well then he'd deal with it when he had to.

Authors Note:

Acknowledgement to wikipedia for all the information about white phosphorus, the chemical weapons convention, etc. Oh, and "shake 'n bake" is explosives *grins*

 

Chapter 8: Role reversal

May 2002

Luck was with Lorne ... two days after he'd reported seeing that flash of white ground units were sent to help one of the outer lying villages, their route taking them directly over the low mountains and Evan's 'x marks the spot.'

The news on their return was both good and bad ... there was evidence of burning in the underbrush and the signs of activity but nothing that linked it to WP. So no further action was being taken – even if they'd discovered proof that it was a WP test there was nothing at the site to tell them where it was being manufactured. Without some kind of clue to the source it was nothing more than a dead end.

Evan found it frustrating to believe he was right, to understand that such a weapon in the wrong hands could cause a number of painful deaths – for their guys and for the locals. The only thing he could do was keep his eyes open every time he went out, looking for a building or some kind of facility that would be suitable for creating WP.

"So what are we looking for?" Piper was fully on board with helping Lorne prove his concerns were justified and hadn't taken notice of his insistence that she not get involved. In the end he'd decided to accept her support and the offer of a second set of eyes on the ground.

"Ah ... something pretty big for the manufacture itself," Evan returned, thinking aloud. "Depending on the source maybe signs of mining – that's if they're using phosphorite rock which is probably unlikely given its usual concentration of elemental phosphorus. It'd have to be rich in calcium phosphate to make mining it worthwhile. So, more than likely they're bringing in the calcium phosphate from outside the country."

"More than," Piper agreed blandly, amused at Lorne's 'lecturer' mode, not a side she was used to seeing. "So – what do they do to this calcium stuff to turn it into WP?"

"Heat it in a furnace with carbon and silica," Evan replied. "The phosphorus is in the vapour that produces – they'd just need phosphoric acid to collect it and something big to store it safely."

"Sounds complicated and, well, pretty scientific Evan," Piper commented, brows creased. "Are we sure the Taliban or al-Qaida have those kinds of skills?"

"If they don't it'd only take a few minutes on the internet to find out the basics," he said decisively. "There aren't too many minerals that give off the white fire I saw Piper. Magnesium maybe but that's really unstable and I can't see them being able to acquire it. Phosphates are very common – and legitimate. You've got matches, fertilisers – all things most customs officers wouldn't even blink at in small quantities."

"Okay," Piper nodded. "How big would this furnace need to be?"

"It could be any size," Lorne admitted. "Depends on how much they're processing in each batch. It'd have to be at high temperature though and that'd leave some signs on the surroundings. "

"So some kind of building and a heat signature out of place," Piper concluded. "It's not a lot to go on."

"I know," Evan grimaced. "And the heat will only be there when the furnace is actually running."

"Is there any other way for us to find where they're making this stuff?" Piper asked hopefully.

"Ah," Lorne thought for a moment, going over the various things he'd learned about phosphorite rock and more specifically WP. "It glows kind of green in the dark if it's exposed to the air, right before it self ignites ... it's highly flammable and if it combusts then there'll be a garlic smell." He shrugged when Piper's brows rose incredulously. "I know – not exactly helpful but that's all I've got."

"It doesn't matter – the building and the heat thing are enough to give me something to look for," Piper rallied.

"Thanks Piper," Evan said simply.

"What for?" Piper frowned as she looked at him. "From what you've said this stuff is bad news. The sooner we find the source and alert the ground troops the better."

"It's toxic," Evan agreed. "If I hadn't seen that test flash for myself I'd find it hard to believe al Qaida would go down this road, but you believe me, no questions asked. Thanks."

"You're welcome," Piper smiled slightly. "We'll fill the guys in so they know what to look for too. I know it's a long shot but hopefully we'll see something that's enough to bring in the right kind of help."

"And we'll revert to Castles and I flying together for all missions, with you and Pearce doing the other rotation – just until we either find their facility or prove me wrong," Evan decided.

Nodding, Piper grinned suddenly. "I assume you have the Canadians on side as well."

"Of course," Evan shot back. "Gotta make use of all your resources, even the unofficial ones."

oOo

It took another two weeks before they struck it lucky. Piper was the one who detected activity on the outskirts of a remote village while returning from another show of force mission. She and Lieutenant Pearce had scared off the al-Qaida unit pinning down a forward combat unit of U.S. marines, only spotting the emergence of additional enemy troops from a building built into the mountainside by accident because they were still at low altitude.

Piper had called it in immediately and those marines already on site had been sent to check it out. Piper and Ryan couldn't hang around to see what the result was, having to return to base with low fuel.

She'd only just finished filling in Lorne when Major Strathalbyn arrived at their 'ready' room, his expression having Evan straightening abruptly.

"Sir," he said, his posture at attention.

"At ease Captain," the Major replied. "Since you gave the initial report I thought you'd like to know that your suspicions appear to be accurate."

"They found the manufacturing facility," Lorne stated simply.

"From initial reports it seems so," Strathalbyn replied.

"Our response Sir?" Piper asked curiously. "Are we going to destroy it?"

"It's not going to be that simple Captain," their CO looked troubled again and Evan suspected he knew why. "Our marines were able to get out a report but the place turned out to be well guarded and we lost contact. We know the village is being controlled by al Qaida forces, and that they have a number of soldiers on the ground. The Pavehawk we sent in to assess the situation saw no trace of our missing marines."

"So we need to do search and rescue first," Lorne concluded, his mind racing. "Permission to accompany the rescue team Sir," he said decisively.

"You're a pilot Captain Lorne, not a soldier," Strathalbyn shook his head. "Leave this to the experts."

"With all due respect Sir, I am trained in basic ground combat," Evan reminded him, not willing to let it go this time. "I won't slow the team down."

"Maybe not, but tell me why we'd risk one of our fighter pilots on such a mission then Captain," the Major's gaze sharpened as though he were considering Lorne as a person for the first time.

"Because they need me," Lorne said simply. "Unless you have another qualified geologist on base Sir."

"Yes, I saw that on your record Captain," Strathalbyn smiled slightly. "Something you might have told me the first time we spoke about this." When Evan looked ready to protest, the Major held up a hand. "Relax Lorne – I didn't make it easy for you to volunteer additional information."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne acknowledged.

"As it turns out we don't have anyone on base with your background," the Major said. "I'd like you to brief the rescue team on what to look for."

"I don't think that will be enough," Lorne braced himself to be cut down for insubordination, speaking quickly to say his piece before that happened. "The WP is very unstable – introducing open combat inside that facility while our troops are still being held could result in them all being exposed to life threatening levels."

"You have another suggestion Captain?"

"Turn the WP against them Sir – under controlled circumstances," Lorne replied an idea already forming. "For that I'd need to be inside the facility."

"You want me to send you in there alone?" Major Strathalbyn scoffed. "You'd never get past their security. Our initial intel says the facility is very heavily guarded."

"I'm not planning on sneaking in Sir," Lorne waited for comprehension to dawn on his CO.

"I'll say this for you Captain," the Major said once he'd realised what Evan was suggesting. "You've certainly got guts."

"Comes in handy up in the air Sir," it was another subtle reminder that Lorne had actually seen battle before, had defeated enemies in dogfights under high pressure, even if he'd never confronted an enemy on the ground.

"Tell me your plan ... if I like what I hear then I'll consider sending you out there," the Major made himself comfortable, listening as Evan explained.

oOo

"You're insane, you know that right?" Drew didn't waste any time in finding his brother-in-law, hunting down Evan lifting weights in the exercise area. A couple of guys were also working out but the place was as deserted as anywhere got on base.

"Piper told you?" Lorne kept up a steady rhythm. He'd had to argue hard but eventually had gotten his way - Major Strathalbyn had agreed to implement Evan's plans to rescue their missing marines and had authorised the rescue mission to go ahead.

"Yes, because she thinks you're insane too," Drew shot back.

"I know, she said so," Evan breathed evenly, lifting and lowering the bar with just enough effort to make it worthwhile. He wasn't surprised she'd gone to Drew either, thinking if anyone could talk him out of it, it would be his brother-in-law.

"Would you stop that and talk to me properly," Drew grabbed the bar on the next upward motion, holding it firmly until Evan relented and let him place it on the stand.

Sitting up, Lorne grabbed his towel and wiped his face quickly before looking up at his friend. "What do you want me to say?"

"That you'll let the experts handle this!"

"I'm the best qualified person to pull this off," Evan countered. "So for the time being that makes me the expert."

"You have zero experience on the ground Evan," Drew pointed out. "And don't tell me you've trained because we both know training only gets you so far once you're in the thick of it."

"I know that," Evan said insistently. "I'm not going in there as a soldier Drew ... for this plan to work I don't need to be - in fact, if I have to resort to being a soldier then it'll mean my plan's gone down the toilet completely."

"Exactly!" Drew retorted. "Do you have any idea what they're likely to do to you once you're in there?"

"Probably rough me up a little," Lorne suggested complacently. "I can handle that."

"It's not just you you're risking," Drew tried a different tact.

"You don't have to remind me of that," Evan retorted. "Why do you think I'm signing up for this? If I'd been more forceful in the first place that team wouldn't have gone in there unprepared like that. We'd have scoped out the building first and probably marked it as the next air target. Now we have our people trapped inside so that's not an option."

"It's not your fault they got captured."

"Maybe not," Evan shrugged. "All I know is I can get them out and destroy that WP before al Qaida can use it as a weapon against our troops. It's a done deal Drew, approved by my CO. I'm doing this and nothing you're gonna say will change my mind."

Drew turned away, frustrated and more worried than he could remember being for a long time. It was one thing to know your best friend was fighting a war from the cockpit of a plane they were more than capable of operating. Another to see them put themselves into an unfamiliar position they weren't qualified for.

"This will work," Evan said confidently.

"It better," Drew returned. "I don't even want to think about what I'd say to Elaine if you stuff this up and pay the ultimate price."

"I'm not gonna stuff it up!" Evan protested. "Do you think Major Strathalbyn would let me go if he thought it was too great a risk?"

"I guess not," Drew conceded.

"There you go then."

"When do you leave?" Drew asked.

"Twenty one hundred hours," Evan replied. "Cover of darkness to get me into the area. Then I just have to sit tight until day break."

"Right," Drew nodded, thinking of the various things he could say, wanted to say but wouldn't because they all sounded like he thought Evan might not come back. "Be careful," he settled for the most simple of requests instead.

"Always am," Evan grinned. "I'll tell you all about it when I get back."

oOo

At twenty two hundred hours that same night Lorne found himself in the back of a Pavehawk rescue helicopter heading towards the mountains north of Kandahar. He was dressed in a mix of local and worn military attire - afghan overcloak called a chapan in muted browns and greens, old woollen beanie donated by someone back on base, standard issue boots, an old t-shirt and overshirt that had both seen better days and khaki pants traditionally worn by the marines. The identifying patches had been torn off untidily and he'd been 'dirtied' up enough to look like someone who'd been surviving alone for some time. And he was unarmed ... part of his 'cover' story when the time came.

The mission briefing for this one had been an eye opener for Evan as the SAR team leader had explained what they knew of the layout of the facility Lorne was to infiltrate, the weapons he expected the al-Qaida guarding it to have, and how he expected them to react to Evan's presence. He'd then been coached and drilled until his responses to anticipated questions came naturally. There were six men counting on him – U.S. marines – hopefully still alive and being held captive inside. Lorne was told their names – Green, Victor, Nuygen, Olsen, Tailor and Wharton – six guys it was his job to get out of there.

He'd been given very specific instructions for the first part of the mission which basically amounted to him saying nothing and doing nothing other than following in the middle of the team as they got him to where he needed to be. The trip there passed quickly, the helicopter stopping to hover low over a clearing a few miles from the village. Lorne and the team dropped to the ground and moved quickly towards the cover of low shrubbery common at the base of the mountains as the helicopter lifted back into the air and disappeared from sight.

"This way."

Evan copied his companions, ducking low and running as silently as he could. In the darkness of a half moon night it was difficult to see the ground and he stumbled a couple of times but managed to keep up until they got as close to the village as they dared.

This one was similar to many of the villages scattered around the countryside, a collection of stone buildings housing too many people, with small tracts of grazing lands carved out around them. It looked to be exactly what an observer would expect – poor, harmless, and of little strategic value. The perfect front for hiding a facility manufacturing incendiary weapons.

They stopped in a clump of trees on the outskirts, the closest suitable place for Lorne to hold out for the night.

"This is where we leave you," the team leader said in a near whisper. "Good luck Captain."

Lorne nodded, moving further into the trees as the team disappeared into the underbrush back the way they'd come. They'd be around, waiting for a signal from Evan that their help was needed, but for all intents and purposes he was on his own.

Setting his back against a tree, Evan squinted into the darkness. The nights were still cold and he shivered as the wind picked up. "What have you gotten yourself into this time," he muttered, gathering his chapan around him tightly.

oOo

The hours passed slowly ... Lorne dozed off for moments here and there but always snapped awake as the sounds of an unfamiliar night kept him alert. The ground was hard and uncomfortable and he'd lost all feeling in his ... extremities before he'd been there an hour. His hands were numb with cold and he wished for nothing more than something hot that would warm him from the inside out.

When he heard footsteps in the underbrush as daylight broke he closed his eyes, carefully relaxing his body into a posture of exhausted sleep.

"آنچه را که ما در اینجا?"

Lorne couldn't translate what was said but it wasn't important – they weren't speaking English which meant they probably belonged to the village at the very least.

"آمریکا?"

Closer now. Evan held still, breathing slow and steady, as one set of footsteps approached.

"بیدار!"

The kick to his boots was forceful enough to wake even the deepest of sleepers. Opening his eyes he made a play of squinting up at his human alarm clock groggily, lurching backwards in alarm only when his eyes landed on the weapon held easily in the afghan man's hands.

"What?" Evan said, holding his hands up in a universal 'I mean no harm' gesture.

"I said Get Up," the man repeated in heavily accented but understandable English.

"Thank God for that," Evan thought, not sure what he'd have done if none of them had spoken a language he could understand. "I don't want any trouble," he whined, getting slowly to his feet.

"Then you will explain why you are here, so close to the village," the man returned, gesturing for Evan to step forward.

"There's a village nearby?" Lorne played dumb, looking around as though he expected it to just suddenly appear in front of him.

"Surely you must know this," the Afghan walked around him slowly, prodding aside his chapan and noting what Evan wore underneath, "American – military." The last word was spoken with a sneering condescension.

"It was dark ... I had to stop and rest," Lorne put an edge of begging into his tone.

"Where is the rest of your unit?"

"My unit," Evan scoffed bitterly. "Abandoned me, left me for dead," he swallowed hard, looking upset and then regrouped. "Fuck them – who needs them right?!"

"You are alone, wandering around ... lost?" the man asked incredulously. "من شما را باور نداشتند و"

Lorne didn't need to speak the local language to understand that the other man didn't believe his story.

"I'm not lost!" he protested, straightening and almost glaring at the Afghan. The other two men who'd kept silent obviously didn't like Lorne's posture. They both stepped forward, raising their weapons. "Hey," Lorne held up his hands again, "no need to get ansty here."

"You say you are not lost and yet you did not know of our village," the man pointed out.

"Yeah, well like I said it was dark," Evan muttered sullenly. "I knew there were people around here somewhere – I just ... I was hoping maybe one of them would help me."

"We do not find American soldiers alone without some ... purpose," Lorne wasn't surprised to hear that. "What is yours?"

"I already told you – I was abandoned by my unit a few days ago and I'm looking for someone to help me get back to base."

"You lie," the afghan looked angry now. "You are an American spy."

"While I'm admiring your ... forest here it's not the kind of thing the military would send a whole unit out to see," Lorne drawled sarcastically.

In response he got a rifle butt in the gut, hard enough that it stole his breath away and had him doubled up, coughing, trying to get back some air.

"No need ... to ... get rough," he finally got out, holding his stomach and grimacing up at his new friends. "You guys will get a reward if you help me return to base ... but I'm pretty sure they deduct for damage to the merchandise."

"You have a smart mouth," the man commented. "You might come to regret that."

"Maybe," Evan dragged himself slowly back to upright.

"If you are not a spy then what are you?" his confronter assessed him with a narrowed gaze. "Deserter, perhaps?"

"My unit deserted me first!" Lorne ground out bitterly. "That hardly makes me guilty of the same offence."

"Deserter or spy," the man mused, ignoring Lorne's statements of innocence.

"Look, this is a waste of time!" Evan said impatiently. "If you're not gonna help me I'll just move along to the next village."

Turning his back on the Afghans he took two steps away from his previous position before the sound of rifles being armed froze his feet cold. Raising his hands for the third time Lorne slowly turned, quickly noting the three rifles now all pointed at him.

"You will come with us," the man announced. "We will see how much you are worth to us. بدنبال او!" he shouted, pointing at Lorne in a way that had him worried as the two goons approached.

One of the other guys held Evan still while the other one roughed him up, searching him for concealed weapons. Lorne tried to jerk away but was held tight until they let him go again with a nod to their leader that Evan was clean.

کیسه ای خود را با شتاب" the lead guy ordered next, motioning towards Evan's backpack.

"That's mine!" Lorne moved forward and was stopped again by those guns pointed at him. "Don't ...," he protested, watching helplessly as the leader smiled, taking up Lorne's bag himself and shouldering it smugly.

"Bring him," the man commanded.

"Fine," Lorne winced as the other two approached, each roughly grabbing one of his arms and dragging him forward. They tied his hands behind his back, despite his struggles to get free. "Hey – no need to get rough," he protested, digging in his heels but not getting anywhere in halting their progress. "I'm moving. I'm moving. Keep your shirt on."

He didn't make it easy – not wanting to create suspicion by not putting up any fight at all but not wanting to provoke them into hurting him too much either. The way back to the village was all uphill and the two silent Afghans took delight in dragging him fast enough to have him stumbling every few steps. When he fell over, hitting the ground painfully with one shoulder, they laughed before hauling him roughly to his feet again.

The village was deserted as they dragged him through it until they got to a small stone house, no more than a room with a roof that stood on the very edge of the mountainside. With little ceremony they threw Evan inside the structure, slamming and locking the door behind him.

Once they did he dropped the exhausted, weak posture and looked around intently.

"Phase one complete," he said with satisfaction.

Authors Note:

First Farsi phrase was 'What have we here?'. Second Farsi phrase was "American?" Third phrase "I do not believe you". Fourth phrase "search him!" Fifth phrase "grab his bag" from www.stars21.com/translator/english_to_farsi.html

 

Chapter 9: On the inside

Late May 2002

Even though Lorne had given the appearance of a disheartened soldier not paying attention, his eyes had missed nothing in the moments before his captors had imprisoned him. It was a small village – they wouldn't have too many places to hide away their captives and he was pretty sure they wouldn't risk taking them anywhere too distant. That meant there were either additional cells in the same building he was in or the six marines were being held in the manufacturing facility itself. He didn't allow himself to think about the alternative – that they weren't being held anywhere because they'd already been disposed of.

Evan had also noticed how close they were to the mountainside and he'd seen what looked like an entrance – a set of heavy doors attached to a building that literally disappeared into the rock. There were two guards standing at those doors, plus at least two others higher up the slope keeping watch. Getting in was going to be difficult without his Afghan captors voluntarily taking him inside. He'd have preferred to act immediately, to release himself and head straight for the facility but he knew that would be foolhardy and would only succeed in tipping his hand. For now they thought him nothing more than a disgruntled deserter with a grudge against his own unit. He just had to work out how to create the opportunity to capitalise on that and get them willingly taking him where he needed to go.

Scuffing a foot through the dirt on the floor, Lorne cleared a spot by the wall and sat down awkwardly, leaning his back against the wall and shifting his shoulders in a futile effort to get the restraints around his wrists feeling more comfortable. He was tired and hungry but too wired to really be feeling the effects of either. Still, he closed his eyes, relaxing his posture even as his mind continued to work rapidly.

It couldn't have been more than an hour before the lock grated, clicked and the door swung open, revealing the same Afghan who'd questioned him before.

"Listen, can we talk about getting me out of here?" Lorne pre-empted whatever it was the man was going to say to him.

Without warning a booted foot landed squarely in his side sending him pitching sideways with a pained grunt.

"I will ask the questions," the man ground out, watching dispassionately while Evan struggled to sit up again – a difficult task with his hands tied behind his back. "We will start with who you are."

"Private Harold Marks, U.S. Marine Corps, service number 2137045," Lorne snapped out crisply as though it were something he'd repeated many times in the past.

"And what was your position?" the man demanded.

"When?" Lorne asked stupidly, earning a hard slap to his right cheek this time.

"If I were to hire you for my army, what could you do for me?" the man restated his question in a slow measured voice.

"Ah ... driver I guess would be the closest," Lorne replied uncertainly.

"You are a ... driver?" the man asked incredulously.

"Hey, it's not just the guys with guns who fight wars," Evan said defensively. "My job is just as important – how else do you get troops from one point to another, right?"

"How indeed," the afghan muttered sarcastically. "And you are sure your people will pay for your return," he said sceptically.

"I'm sure, okay," Lorne insisted.

"I do not think so ... to do so would be a waste of resources," Evan's captor shook his head. "No – best we kill you now before you can waste any more of my time."

"No!" Lorne shouted, pressing his back hard against the wall and forcing himself to his feet with its support. "Maybe we can come to an arrangement. I know ... things."

"What things could you, a lowly driver, possibly know that would make feeding and housing you worthwhile?"

That was said with a heavy dose of sneering but the guy hadn't left ... yet. Lorne swallowed hard, letting his eyes meet his captors and then looking away nervously. He licked his lips, dry after a night without water, and swallowed again. Everything about his stance screamed reluctance but with a deep breath, and obvious steeling of himself, in the eyes of the Afghan in front of him he betrayed his country in an effort to save his own hide.

"I can give you the locations of some of our bases," Evan offered in a rush.

"We already know where to find your people," the man sneered. "You make your presence too obvious."

"Helman Province, near Kajaki," Lorne shot out with obvious desperation.

This time it wasn't a slap but a fist that struck his cheekbone and grazed off his eye, immediately setting up a throbbing pain and the beginnings of a headache. He growled as though frustrated, shaking his head a couple of times and then looking up at his captor again.

"You insult me with old information," the man said. "The village was bombed by your people a week ago." Turning dismissively he walked towards the door.

Evan let him get to the point of having a hand on the doorknob before he spoke again.

"Jaghori," he said in a low tone. "Off base weapons store up in the mountains. Mostly M-16 assault rifles – favoured weapon of the corps – but there'd be a few other items valuable enough to be worth my life."

There was silence, the Afghan standing with his back to Evan. "We shall see," he said finally, turning the knob and leaving Lorne alone again.

"Yeah, we'll see all right," Lorne muttered, rolling his head and wincing at the pain that was now the right side of his face. He'd given them the information he'd been cleared to reveal ... there had been an Afghan weapons cache at Jaghori, one the Afghans would find cleaned out when they went to check it out. The location was far enough away and remote enough that it would take time for anyone to get there to verify Evan's story. It bought him some time but he'd have to do whatever it was he was going to do very soon.

Before he could make any decisions the door slammed open again and his two 'friends' from that morning strode in, grabbing him unceremoniously and dragging him out.

"Guys," Evan pulled against their hold but without proper purchase on the ground and with his arms tied could do nothing more than use his weight to make their trip difficult. "Let's not be hasty here."

His heart was beating up a storm as they continued striding along silent and purposeful – for a few moments there he really did think they were going to line him up against the rocks and execute him and his mind was cycling rapidly through his limited available actions and hoping like hell that the SARs team were watching from somewhere they'd be able to intervene. Only when they approached the doors into the mountain that Lorne had seen before, the guards standing aside as they were opened from the inside, did he start to relax a little.

"Bring him," the man Lorne had decided was the leader waited for them.

Inside the facility it was cool and dimly lit – the impression he got as they hurried him forward was of narrow stone corridors that led further into the mountain. They passed a couple of closed doors before finding the one they were heading for. Again the door was opened and Lorne thrown inside a small, empty room.

"If your information proves accurate we will discuss what more you can reveal to keep you alive," the leader said from the doorway, spinning and striding away before Lorne could make any comeback.

"I'll look forward to that," Evan muttered sarcastically. Standing in the middle of his new cell, he looked around, noting the lack of windows or any other exit besides the one he'd come through. "Phase two complete," he thought, sliding down the wall to sit.

Rocking forward he got onto his knees, leaning unsteadily with his toes bracing his weight. Contorting himself so that he could sit within the circle of his bound hands, Lorne grimaced as the shoulder he'd fallen on earlier protested his efforts. Raising his boots and tucking his legs in tight so that his knees pressed into his chest, Evan stretched out his arms and literally forced them over his feet, the rope grinding against his skin painfully as it rotated to accommodate the new position.

Now that his hands were in front of him, he reached down, working his fingers inside his boot until he could just grab the tip of the thin knife he'd concealed there. They'd roughed him up a little when they'd searched him in the trees but because he'd been so protective of his backpack hadn't searched him again after they'd restrained him in the first cell. They'd believed what he'd wanted them to believe - that anything valuable he owned was in that backpack. The knife had been in his boot the whole time and now Evan gratefully pulled it out, carefully bracing it so that he could cut the rope between his hands.

Free, he rubbed his wrists, shaking his arms in the hopes it would ease the aches he'd acquired. Standing up, Lorne approached the door, squatting down to examine the lock. It wasn't a complex arrangement – nothing more than a simple pin tumbler lock he could have picked in his sleep. As silently as possible Evan did just that, releasing the locking mechanism with a faint click.

He froze, listening for the signs that his actions had been detected. When he was sure that wasn't the case he stood, putting an ear to the door. For sure there'd be at least one guard outside, maybe more depending on how important the head guy thought Lorne was. Lying down on the floor, Evan pressed his cheek to the cold stone, directing his gaze under the door where light from the corridor created a faint silhouette.

One set of boots, standing directly in front of the door. That was handy ... assuming more guards weren't standing further down the corridor of course.

Sitting back up, Lorne thought for a moment, trying to work it through inside his head. What would the Afghans be likely to do, given they thought him an inept deserter and with the outer doors more heavily guarded?

"They wouldn't waste men on me," he reasoned internally. That was enough – he had to act, had no choice because every minute he delayed was one minute closer to them finding out his information was out of date.

Carefully Evan turned the door handle, tiny movements one at a time until he'd be able to open the door fully. Still holding it closed, he took a few deep breaths to psych himself up and then slammed the door open rapidly. He felt the resistance as it made contact with the guard and powered through that, leaning all his weight against the door like a defensive guard stopping the quarterback.

The guard slammed back against the opposite corridor wall with an audible thud. Lorne didn't wait for an invitation, rushing forward and grabbing the man's gun while he was still disorientated. Slamming the butt to the back of the guards head Evan had the satisfaction of seeing him crumble to the ground. Searching him quickly, Lorne found a set of keys and a radio and pocketed both.

Getting up he dragged the guard into his now unoccupied cell, gagging the man with his own shirt and leaving him locked inside. Now armed, Lorne shouldered the rifle and ran down the corridor, heading further into the facility.

 

Chapter 10: In the line of duty

Late May 2002

The corridor ended abruptly, leading simply to another closed door. Glancing back the way he'd come Lorne put the pieces together. Assuming the room in front of him was the heart of the facility where they were making WP, the closed doors his captors had dragged him past at the start had to be where the prisoners were kept. That was a problem because he'd counted on finding the marines before he set things up for their escape. He couldn't risk going back though - this might be his only chance to do part of what he'd come for; destroy the WP al-Qaida had already manufactured and make sure they couldn't make any more.

"Right," he muttered, reaching for his trusty knife again and bending to 'open' the door by inserting it in the gap and carefully forcing it past the catch.

Stepping inside he noticed immediately the drop in temperature and the sound of machinery running in the background. In front of him were a number of large circular vats - most likely made of concrete. He couldn't see their contents but the whole set up was pretty much what he'd expect for the storage of a volatile substance. Without a doubt this was where they were storing the completed product. The furnace room itself probably shared at least one wall with the exposed part of the building otherwise the heat build up would have affected their ability to keep the WP cool enough. He didn't need to see that though - everything he needed was right there, in the room.

Sitting down he quickly unlaced his boots and pulled them off, reaching inside and ripping away the inner soles. Underneath where the heels should be solid the special forces guys had concealed two small packs of shake n' bake - high explosives, complete with timed charges he'd have to detonate remotely. Putting his boots back on Evan grabbed the explosives, moving to the middle vat. Ducking low he scooted around the vessel until he found what he was looking for, a small outlet used to drain the vat for cleaning or transport. He unscrewed it slowly, watching carefully until an oily liquid began to well up over the edge of the cap he was holding. A few more revolutions and the liquid - a safe storage medium to keep the WP stable - began to gush over the cap, splashing to the floor. Stepping back, Evan assessed the height and circumference of the container, doing a rough mental calculation of the likely volume. That coupled with the rate of flow from the outlet he estimated it would be about 25 minutes before the vat was empty, assuming they'd filled it to the top. Setting the alarm on his watch - a simple model the Afghans hadn't seemed interested in taking from him - Lorne moved to the next vat, repeating the same process over again until all the outlets flowed freely. The floor under the vats was already covered with the oily liquid by the time he was done and he had to step carefully as he placed his explosives, one on the central vat and the other on the side wall. If he'd gotten his mental map right, that would be the closest point to the outside - with any luck it'd open up the side of the mountain when it went off.

"Damn," Lorne glanced at his watch, grumbling low when he saw he'd already used more than ten of his estimated twenty five minutes. Moving back to the door he stood listening for a moment and then carefully opened it. The corridor was clear which didn't surprise him. Why guard a room that led nowhere if you were confident no one could get inside your facility in the first place? Setting off at a run, Evan went back the way he'd come, passing his own room and slamming to a stop at the corner, peeking quickly around it. Pressing his back against the wall again he reached for the weapon he'd stolen from his guard, quietly checking that it was loaded. Of course the leader had replaced the guards at the other doors once he'd put Evan inside his cell – and there they stood, armed and ready.

At the back of Lorne's mind the silent countdown was running and he felt the urgency of needing to do something - he literally didn't have time to muck around. "Just like training," he told himself, dropping to one knee and sighting his weapon. Leaning out from the corner very slowly he aimed and fired two short bursts that echoed loudly in the narrow corridor. He'd aimed to kill - the first guard dropped like a stone but the second got off a shot before he too fell to Lorne's attack. Evan grunted as that one shot found its mark, hitting his left shoulder with a force that had him slamming back against the wall before he really understood what had happened.

Dazed, he put a trembling hand to the wound and pulled it away, frowning at a palm now wet with blood. He'd never been shot before ... it was a damn sight more painful than he would have expected. And that was with the adrenalin that was buzzing through his system. Shaking his head to clear his mind, Lorne leaned against the wall, pulling off his chapan and ripping away a strip. It was awkward and untidy but he managed to wrap enough layers around the area tightly enough to hopefully slow the bleeding - it'd have to do until he could get proper medical attention. The natural rush created by the need for action ... the danger ... and the urgency of the moment helped dull the edges enough for Evan to be able to ignore his wound ... for the time being anyway.

Shoving off the wall Lorne stood in front of the first doorway. "Move away from the door," he yelled after knocking to get the attention of whoever was inside. Not bothering with finesse this time he stepped back and fired at the lock, disabling it beyond repair. The door swung open revealing three men – U.S. marines, dirty and tired but all grinning as they caught sight of Lorne.

"About time," one of them commented, stepping forward. "Sergeant Green," he said.

"Good to see you Sergeant. We'll do the introductions later," Lorne ground out. "For now we need to get out of here asap." Ordinarily he should have confirmed their identities but in his current condition and with the time restriction decided that was something the SAR team could do once they were clear.

Nodding, the first guy quickly liberated Lorne's victims of their weapons, keeping one and handing off the other to one of his companions. Evan carefully kept his eyes away from those Afghan guards - he had no illusions about what he'd done, and no regrets either but that didn't mean he wanted to dwell on it or create any mental images he'd regret adding to the memory file. Time enough later to contemplate the different between taking a life with a bomb as opposed to taking one with a gun.

Shifting away, Lorne repeated the process of lock destruction with the other door to reveal the second half of the marine team. The men greeted each other with relieved expressions but then all turned to Evan, looking for direction.

"This way," he ordered, motioning them to follow him. He was already surprised that gunfire hadn't drawn more guards but when they got to the outer door unchallenged he suddenly realised why - the Afghan leader would have amassed his troops outside. The message was clear. 'You might have gotten free on the inside but there is no way you're getting out of this building alive.'

"Damn it," Evan growled. Pacing away, he thought for a moment. The SAR's team should be watching the village - they'd see the guards amassing at the door. He just needed a way to signal them to start firing - without alerting the enemy that they were there. He might need that element of surprise later.

"Right, hold position here," he told the marines, handing Sergeant Green the radio he'd taken earlier. "Take this just in case," he said before turning and running back into the heart of the facility, stopping only to grab another radio from one of the downed guards.

Ten minutes left - he'd be cutting it close but they should make it. Slamming open the door to the vat room he skidded across a floor swimming in oily solution. "Great idea Evan!" he shouted, slipping and sliding to the nearest vessel and grabbing the ladder attached to the side. Half way up he stopped, wrapped his bad arm around the next rung with a growl of pain, and then reached down to take off his boot. It was slippery difficult work but finally he removed it and holding it by the laces, continued up the ladder until he reached the top and could look inside.

The situation was closer to boiling point than he'd calculated. There were only a couple of inches of oil still covering the white phosphorus - once that was gone he'd be in serious trouble. Hooking his feet into the ladder rungs he lowered himself into the vat, bending at the waist and hanging his boot down by the laces. "Come on!" he yelled when it fell just short, his voice sounding weird inside the concrete vat. Stretching as much as he could, he had to shift until he was hanging fully upside down in order to get the reach he needed. The muscles in his legs quivered and his shoulder screamed with pain as he hung on grimly. The boot dropped into the mixture, sinking slowly. Evan waited a few seconds and then carefully raised it. His stomach muscles clenching painfully as he pulled himself upwards enough to grab the top of the ladder. Then it was all about carefully manoeuvring himself back down the ladder.

Considering the stretch of oil covered floor in front of him and the likelihood that he could stay on his feet Lorne sat, pulled off his other boot and tossed it aside. Then, with a boot full of 'disaster waiting to happen' balanced carefully on his lap, Lorne scooted his way across the floor until he was clear of the oil. Jumping up he ran on stockinged feet down the corridor and back towards the front door.

"Okay," he was puffing just slightly as he stopped in front of the marines, all gathered at the door.

"What's waiting for us out there Sir?" Green asked, instinctively assuming that Lorne was a higher rank even though he wore no insignia and hadn't introduced himself.

"I'd say every al-Qaida soldier pretending to be an Afghan that was living in that village Sergeant," Evan replied distractedly, his eyes assessing the door in front of him. "You'll all need to take cover around that corner," he stated, pointing back down the corridor.

"What about you Sir?" Green persisted, motioning for the rest of his team to do what Lorne had ordered.

"I'll be right behind you as soon as I've set this up," Lorne replied, stopping to pin the other man with a look that had him nodding and doing what he was told. Alone, Evan considered the contents of his ruined boot and the door in front of him. How did you transfer toxic and highly flammable material to a solid surface without touching it when you had to be really, really quick?

Looking at the radio in his hand he shrugged. It'd have to do. Placing his boot in the middle of the door, easily at hand, Evan carefully pulled at the front of it to make sure the opening was as big as possible and then dipped the radio inside, removing it and using it to smear the white, pasty substance down the centre of the door. Again he dipped the radio, removed it and transferred the contents halfway to the floor now. Oil was running down the door and the beginning of his line of WP was already close to being exposed to the air. Hurrying now Evan chanced adding a third application, getting it almost all the way down the door. A faint trail of smoke appeared, sparked and flashed white. Pausing only to push the still mostly full boot of WP against the doors, Lorne dropped the radio, turned and sprinted down the corridor, throwing himself to the floor just as a huge flash of white fire exploded, burning intensely.

"That was close," Green reached down a hand, grabbing Lorne's injured arm as he helped him to his feet. The marine frowned when Evan groaned, his face paling through the dirt coating it. Eyes narrowing he took in his rescuer's overall condition, noting the clumsily wrapped shoulder and the fresh blood trailing down Lorne's arm. He didn't look good ... but Green already knew better than to mention it.

Evan nodded his thanks and then carefully peered around the corner to see how much damage he'd done. The door featured a large smoking hole that ended at the floor and still smoked in places. Outside the scene was one of confusion - he could see al Qaida soldiers running around yelling, bashing at their own clothes where smoking holes could just be seen. There were bodies lying on the ground too - the toxic nature of the WP wouldn't have killed that quickly so Lorne could only conclude that they'd been too close to the door and caught in the flash fire, or that the SAR's team had picked them off.

Glancing at his watch he felt his pulse quicken again. Two minutes and that was being generous. He had to blow the charges now - there was no other choice. Otherwise the WP would flare all right, but it wasn't guaranteed it would destroy the whole facility.

"Still got that radio?" Lorne asked, holding out a hand when Green nodded. Turning the dial Evan tried each successive channel, looking for the one his guys would be using. "This is Lorne, is anyone reading me? Over." He had to repeat it a few times before he got a response.

"This is Lieutenant Chang. What's your status Sir?"

"Get your men well clear of the facility Lieutenant," Lorne ordered forcefully. "We're coming out and then this place is going boom."

"Acknowledged."

Lorne turned to the six marines. "Step carefully through the door - don't touch anything. When you're clear run. Get as far away as you can and then find cover. Don't stop for anything." They all nodded, expressions grim but determined. "Go!" Lorne pushed the nearest man into action, the rest following closely behind. There was a minor bottleneck at the door as they all made it through but thankfully there didn't appear to be any enemy soldiers nearby to take advantage of that. As soon as they were clear Evan detonated the charges with the small device he'd taken from the toe of his boot before he'd discarded it. Two small explosions he wouldn't have heard from so far away were set off. The WP, exposed to the air, became unstable as expected and would even now be burning intensely. Adding in the explosives inside that fire would accelerate everything, to the point it couldn't be contained. That was the plan, anyway.

It was instantaneous - he literally hit the button and then felt an answering rumble of noise rushing up behind him.

"Crap!" Diving through the door, feeling the wood scraping his arm on the way through, Evan landed in the dirt and rolled to his feet. Sprinting across the road in front of the facility he shifted direction, heading up hill where he'd noticed a rocky outcrop before. Diving, he felt the shock wave of an explosion pushing at him, turning the dive into a gigantic leap that ended in a crash landing on solid rock. "God," he coughed, ducking his face into the dirt and covering his head as a shower of debris rained down on him.

In seconds it was over ... the noise level dropped and an eerie silence was left behind until the villages started shouting ... people were crying too but it was hard to feel guilty about that. Lorne stayed where he was for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He couldn't tell if he'd acquired any additional injuries but nowhere felt any more painful than anywhere else – apart from his head which was still ringing from the noise and the fact that he'd slammed it into the dirt when he landed. No burning though ... not that he was feeling. Luckily WP burned intensely but fast - it could burn through clothing but it usually lost its punch after a couple of layers. Evan needed to be checked out though - if left unchecked a WP burn could get nastier than third degree burns, not to mention the effect exposure could have on the liver and other internal organs.

Finally staggering to his feet, Lorne swayed for a moment, almost fell again but managed to keep it together. He'd smashed his borrowed radio on landing too and from the looks of it had ended up on the opposite side of the ridge from everyone else. Walking slowly, he headed for the trees intending to cut across and then back down again.

The boot to the stomach was an unwelcome surprise that sent him gasping back to the ground.

Looking up Evan groaned as a man stepped from behind the rocks. "You've gotta be kidding me!" Lorne complained, rolling to his feet and turning to confront the al-Qaida leader.

"Do you know what you have done?!" The man accused him angrily, fists clenched. "Months of work, money ... time ... reduced to nothing."

"I guess you shouldn't have messed with something so volatile then," Evan shrugged mildly.

"What could you know of our plans," the Afghan spat out. "You are nothing!"

"I know a lot more than you thought," Evan laughed harshly. "White phosphorus isn't banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention but it should be. Anyone who thinks to use it as a weapon should be prepared to have that turned against them."

"You planned this all along," the Afghan almost whispered, comprehension dawning sickly on his face. "And I led you inside."

With a roar of insult he charged Lorne, sending them both crashing to the ground. Evan grappled with the other man but he wasn't carrying a serious injury like Lorne was and he had the strength of an almost insane anger fuelling him. Evan felt the man's fists pummelling his stomach and chest, tried to block but the blows were just coming too fast. He was sure he saw stars when the leader's fist connected forcefully with his jaw and for a few moments he spaced out.

"This is for my men," the Afghan slicing a path across his chest brought Evan back to reality in a painful rush. He bucked and growled, trying to shake his captor but it was no use.

"This is for all the trouble you have caused me," the leader continued. Expecting another slashing cut Lorne almost lost it when the man stabbed his knife down forcefully, planting it firmly in Evan's right thigh. He kept the yell of pain he wanted to voice in with difficultly, glaring up at the leader, determined not to give him the satisfaction. He could feel blood pooling now, across his chest, down his sides ... the pain was intense and he felt his vision narrowing, the edges getting fuzzy and indistinct.

"And now I will kill you," his captor declared, a pistol held high in the air.

When did that happen? Lorne was confused now - he'd lost time in the fight again and found himself pinned beneath the other man, unable to even move. He watched the gun barrel descend, sure this time that it was gonna be lights out when the man suddenly stiffened. His eyes were disbelieving as he looked at Evan and then, as if in slow motion, he slowly toppled forward, landing on top of Lorne without a word.

"Aaarrrggg!" Lorne yelled in pain, cursing that the guy was a lot heavier than he looked. Struggling a little he finally managed to push the dead body off his chest, taking a deep and welcome breath than sent him into a coughing fit.

"You okay Sir?" Green moved to his side, dropping down to look at Lorne closely.

"I've been better Sergeant," Evan admitted, his voice raspy. "You wanna help me up?"

"I think it would be best if you were stretchered out Sir," Green said carefully. "Looks like you've lost a lot of blood and we really shouldn't move you with that knife where it is."

"It might be best but I walked in and I'm going to walk out again," Lorne insisted stubbornly ... some might have said stupidly.

He couldn't help the groan that escaped as he sat up, head swimming dizzily. He waited a moment and then looked down at his leg. "Oh crap," he muttered, watching the embedded knife that seemed to be throbbing in time with his heartbeat, the one that had suddenly picked up its pace again. Reaching down, Evan ripped out the knife quickly, swaying at the resurgence of pain. When a strip of fabric he could use as a field dressing appeared in his line of vision Lorne just grabbed it silently, quickly applying it and tying it off as tightly as he could stand.

Gathering his reserves, Lorne carefully got to his feet. Again he had to wait a few moments until he felt steady enough to move. Green didn't protest, just shifted to a position close enough to catch Evan if he fell. "Thanks for the assist Sergeant," Lorne said as they walked, or kind of stumble-shuffle-limped in Evan's case, past the body of the dead leader.

"You're welcome Sir," Green grinned. "Thanks for the rescue."

"No problem," Lorne returned lightly, like it had been a lazy morning's work instead of the ordeal it had turned into. The SAR's team leader met them halfway down the incline, Lieutenant Chang taking one look at Evan and moving in to assist. Lorne didn't bother protesting when the man placed an arm around his back, taking some of his weight.

"Nice explosion," Chang complimented, eyes narrowed as he watched Lorne carefully, waiting for the fall he suspected was coming.

"It was pretty impressive wasn't it," Lorne chuckled, wincing as it turned into a pained cough. Recovering he grinned. "Serves them right for playing with dangerous materials."

"It does," Chang kept Lorne talking as they walked down the main road bisecting the village. There was a clearing at the end and now that the man beside him had taken out all the resistance it was safe to call in the rescue helicopter to come and get them. He was more than impressed that Lorne was even still standing ... the evidence said he'd taken a few hits, been shot, stabbed, blasted with burning shrapnel and then slammed into the dirt. "Is it all gone?"

"Yeah - I made pretty sure of that," Evan frowned when his two human crutches stopped suddenly. He'd been moving on autopilot, most of his focus on staying on his feet and not crying like a baby because his entire body hurt.

"This is where we're catching our ride Sir," Chang explained. "You can sit down now ... shouldn't be more than a few minutes until the chopper gets here."

"So it's done?" Lorne looked around, doing a count in his head. Six marines who all looked a little worse for wear but were in one piece, and four SARs team members ... and him ... all persons present and accounted for.

"It's done Sir," Chang agreed.

"Great," abruptly he sat down, the only thing stopping him from slumping sideways to the ground the fact that Sergeant Green was propping him up. "Sorry," he mumbled, swallowing sickly as a wave of dizziness washed over him.

He'd passed out before he could register the reply.

 

Chapter 11: Going home

Late May 2002

"How you feeling?" Drew walked into the base infirmary the next morning to see Evan sitting up, awake but still looking very tired. It wasn't Drew's first visit, just the first one Evan would actually be aware of.

"Like I've been run over by a truck," Evan winced as he shifted, putting a hand to his bandaged shoulder. His voice sounded like he'd been chewing on broken glass and he could use about a gallon of icy water, a rare commodity at Kandahar.

"Want the tally?" Drew asked lightly, sitting in the chair next to the bed.

"Sure, hit me," Evan had been awake before but hadn't really registered what they were telling him.

"Gunshot wound left shoulder, some tendon damage but you should be back to normal a few weeks after it heals, with a little PT," Drew began. He'd resorted to claiming his family connection to Evan to get a full report on his condition, never more grateful that Kandahar base had grown to the point of needing full medical facilities and personnel - without that Evan would have been emergency airlifted to the nearest hospital and his prognosis might not have been so good. "Seventy five stitches across your chest and your leg - that bastard really cut you deep - they had to give you a transfusion for that and the shoulder wound but again, you'll heal. The knife missed most of the vital stuff but you're gonna be limping around for a while yet. Smoke and dust inhalation - it'll be a couple of days before you sound completely like yourself again. Concussion – and I'm guessing a blinding headache – lucky you're so hard headed because you got yourself beat up pretty bad there. You've got an academy award winning black eye too - some other contusions but nothing that's gonna permanently mess up your pretty face." It was all scarily serious and Drew couldn't pretend he'd been worried the whole time Evan had been gone but now that he was safe and Drew could see for himself that his friend was going to be okay he could afford to joke.

"And this?" Evan held up his right arm, heavily bandaged.

"Ah yes, that," Drew shook his head. "You really are a lucky son of a bitch. That's a white phosphorus burn – not third degree thank God but bad enough because you were already wounded. The doc said you were very lucky it didn't get into your blood stream. Instead you've got a few more stitches, some burn treatments to look forward to and then you'll be right. You're gonna have some interesting scars after this is all said and done my friend."

"The door," Evan shook his head ruefully. When Drew raised an eyebrow enquiringly, he explained. "I disappeared most of the door with a little WP - had to make a hasty exit when it was still smoking and I must have scraped my arm on the way through."

"Well, the bad news is it'll be at least a month, maybe more, before they'll let you back on full active duty," Drew said seriously. "The good news is you're going home - they're shipping you out tomorrow."

"You called Elaine?" It wasn't exactly a question - Evan knew he would have. He couldn't have avoided worrying his family - as soon as they'd made the determination that he had to go home they'd have called. They didn't send their soldiers to land on anyone's doorstep without making sure they'd be expected and able to be well taken care of.

"No - I called Grace actually – Elaine's still in Los Angeles but she wasn't there when I rang. Your CO was going to make the call but I requested to do it instead," Drew explained. "I thought your Mom would prefer getting the news that you're coming home injured better from me."

"Right," Evan winced. "How'd she take it?"

"She was quiet for a few seconds and then she asked me to tell her truthfully if I thought you'd really be okay," Drew admitted. "I gave her the rundown so she knows what to expect but don't worry - I told her you'd make a full recovery. And I didn't tell her how you got injured - volunteering for a crazy mission on the ground instead of sticking to the air where you belong."

"Is this the part where you say I told you so?" Evan asked lightly.

"No, this is the bit where I tell you how proud I am of you," Drew smiled as he watched his best friend - his brother in all but blood - actually squirm in embarrassment. "You saved six guys Evan ... six marines who wouldn't have made it without you. To hear them tell it you wiped that whole al-Qaida cell out singlehandedly. You're a hero."

"No I'm not," Evan retorted. "I'm just a guy who had the right information to do the job. And it was the SARs team that saved all of us - I'd have been toast if they hadn't been there at the end."

"Whatever you say," Drew grinned slyly. "Rumour has it they're promoting you to Major."

"When I said all you needed was to do something to distinguish yourself this is hardly what I had in mind," Piper's voice drew Evan's attention to the doorway.

"Hey," he said, motioning her over.

"Hey - nice to see you awake," her tone was casual but Evan could see in her eyes that she'd been worried.

"Nice to be awake," he replied. "Is that true?" he asked.

"The Major thing?" Piper queried. "Yeah, that's the scuttlebutt - not from any official sources of course."

"I'll trust you to can the rumours then," Evan wasn't opposed to eventually being promoted - he hadn't studied for 18 months for nothing - but he wanted it to be for the right reasons.

"Sure," Piper smiled, amused at his unerring modesty. She only refrained from teasing him about it because she could see he was in pain, despite them having him dosed up on the good stuff. It had been a shock when she'd heard how badly he'd been hurt - how far he'd taken his conviction and his sense of responsibility because he'd been the one to spot the WP test in the first place. She'd admired Evan as an officer and considered him a friend for a long time - not that she'd ever admit it to him - but after his latest efforts found herself amazed that she'd still managed to underestimate how determined he could be. The same determination that saw him already recovering much better than she'd have expected. She didn't want to see him leave .... and not because she didn't think they could do as well without him.

"I guess you know they're sending me home," Evan changed the subject gratefully, "leaves you in command of the 389, if my recommendation carries any weight."

"Thanks - we'll see if the powers that be agree," Piper grinned, ducking her head a little at the compliment. "Listen, Major Strathalbyn wants to see you before they pack you off ... if you're up to it?"

"Might as well get it over with," Evan nodded, watching as she put a hand on his arm and then turned and left to report on his status to their CO. "Everyone else was okay?" he turned back to Drew to ask.

"Surprisingly very little damage to anyone other than you," Drew replied. "The marine's are all dehydrated but other than that in very good health. No WP burns," he added before Lorne could ask.

"Good. That's good," Evan shifted, stifling a yawn.

"You look tired, I should let you get some rest."

"Nah - I can sleep on the way home," Evan countered. "It sucks that I'm going back but you're staying," he said.

"If the price for a ticket home is ending up looking like you do right now I'll pass," Drew laughed. "I don't even want to think about the tongue lashing I'd get from Elaine if I came back injured like that."

"She'd be balling all over you," Evan countered.

"Yeah, for the first five minutes," Drew agreed. "Then she'd pull herself together and remember to be angry at me."

"True," Evan grimaced. "Maybe I can sleep through that as well."

Silence fell for a few moments and then Drew let out a sigh. "You'll tell Elaine I miss her right? Every minute of every day."

"Like hell I will," Evan laughed when Drew looked insulted. "You can save that romantic stuff for your letters buddy."

"You're an ass, you know that right?" Drew grumbled.

"I'll tell her what she needs to hear," Evan grew serious, his eyes watching his friend until Drew looked up and nodded.

"Thanks."

"It won't be free buddy - when she asks you to tell her how I got injured you'll spin her whatever you have to so she believes it was just unlucky okay," Evan bartered. "I don't want her or my Mom knowing the specifics."

"I can do that," Drew agreed - he'd had no intention of telling either woman how close Evan had come to dying out there. He didn't need the full story from his friend - he'd already gotten it from Sergeant Green when he'd met the marine hovering around outside the infirmary the night before. The man had talked as he'd paced, both of them waiting for word that Evan was okay, telling Drew a story he could hardly equate with the Evan he knew. Sure, he'd always known Evan was capable and determined - smart too - Drew just hadn't expected that Evan would do so well in such a hands on combat situation.

"Captain," Major Strathalbyn stopped just inside the door, looking to both men to see if he was interrupting.

"I was just about to leave Sir," Drew said, straightening and nodding respectfully. "I'll see you later," he promised Evan before taking his leave.

"Sir," Lorne greeted the older man as he approached, instinctively straightening even in his hospital bed.

"Captain," the Major smiled. "Nice to see you looking better."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne wasn't sure what he'd expected when Piper said their CO wanted to see him - but this casual conversation hadn't been it.

"We'll need to debrief you before you leave but I've already been given most of the story from Sergeant Green and Lieutenant Chang," Strathalbyn began. "The biggest question on everyone's lips is what the hell did you do to that facility?" His eyes were actually twinkling as he waited for a reply.

"Pretty much what we planned Sir," Lorne explained. "They were taken in by the 'deserter' cover - I gave them Jaghori and the leader went for it enough to throw me in a cell inside the facility. The tools the special ops guys provided me came in handy - I went the wrong way though and ended up in the WP storage room instead of finding our missing marines."

"So you set up the malfunction anyway," the Major asked curiously.

"Had to - wasn't sure I'd get another chance," Evan admitted. "There were five vats - big ones Sir - that's a lot of WP. I started them all draining out the stabiliser, set the charges and then went back to find our guys. I eliminated two guards, freed everyone and then we approached the entrance."

"How'd you know it was guarded from the outside?"

"I didn't, not really," Evan shrugged, forgetting about his injured shoulder and wincing as the pain reminded him. "I'd had enough time with the lead al-Qaida soldier to have a fair guess though. He'd put most of his defences into ensuring that no one could get in and therefore out of that place."

"So you went back for some of the phosphorus and used it to burn out the door," Strathalbyn concluded.

"Yes Sir," Evan continued his explanation. "It was the only thing I could think of - we couldn't risk using their radios to contact our SAR's team without alerting the Afghans that we had people on the outside. It worked - we got out and got clear before the facility blew." He carefully left out the part where he'd detonated while still technically being in the building .... in hind sight that didn't sound like the actions of a sane and responsible officer. "Unfortunately their leader managed to get clear - he confronted me in the trees, we fought and I was pretty much losing until Sergeant Green arrived and took care of things."

"And that's it?" the Major asked, brow raised.

"That's it," Lorne agreed. "It all happened pretty fast at the end there Sir. I trust we went back and checked there's no way they can start up manufacture again?"

"We did - all you left was a smoking hole - you took out half the mountainside," Strathalbyn almost grinned as Evan's eyes widened in surprise.

"I set one of the charges on the outer wall, where I thought it would be closest to the edge of the mountain," he admitted. "I was thinking the more air the better, since that was all we needed to set the WP off."

"Well it was good thinking Captain," his CO complimented him. "I'll be writing a formal commendation to go in your record."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne said gratefully.

"You earned it - more than," Strathalbyn hesitated before speaking again. "I should have listened closer when you first raised the WP as a possibility - we'd have handled things much differently and I don't think you'd be lying there in that hospital bed if I had."

"It's okay Sir," Evan excused. "Under the same circumstances I might have doubted the information as well."

"That's very generous of you Captain," the Major returned. "That will teach me to consider every service person as an individual instead of putting them into boxes depending on what their basic role is."

"In all honesty I can't believe it myself Sir - that something I studied mostly for interest actually ended up being useful in the field," Evan offered.

"And just as well for all of us that you did," Major Strathalbyn concluded. "You concentrate on getting yourself better Captain - you'd be a valuable asset anywhere but I hope to see you back here if that's what you want as well."

"Thank you Sir," Lorne watched as the other man nodded and then left him to his thoughts. Not that he really knew how to tie up the events of the past days in his mind. There were things there he wasn't up to thinking about - resolving his part in eliminating who knew how many al-Qaida soldiers, men who'd died by his own hand. Leaving his team behind while he got an early ticket home.

Yawning widely, Evan shifted to lie back down, closing his eyes tiredly. Between one breath and the next he was asleep.

oOo

It wasn't quite right. As Lorne considered the piece in front of him he worked out the problem. The eyes - they weren't right. Dabbing his brush in the small jar of water at his side and then swirling it against the brown circle of paint, he tested the colour and then carefully dabbed it where needed. Settling back he considered the results - much better.

He was sitting on a bed in the infirmary at Ramstein Air Base in Germany waiting for his flight back to the States and had been delayed for a number of hours. And all at once he'd known what he wanted to do with that time. Rummaging through his bag had been a painful exercise but he'd eventually found what he was looking for, scrounging the jar and water from one of the nurses. Then he'd cycled through his sketchpad, looking for the right picture to use.

Rather than paint a watercolour from scratch he'd decided to adorn one of his sketches instead ... a new approach for him that would hopefully result in something special enough that Elaine would forgive him anything. The activity had absorbed him, soothed him, and reminded him anew of why he loved the practice of painting even though he hadn't taken it up as a career. Watercolours weren't his medium, he preferred acrylics and oils but for what he wanted to create this time they were perfect. It was awkward with his left arm in a sling and his right heavily bandaged but he persisted until it was done.

Deciding it was as good as he could make it, Evan packed away his supplies, got rid of the used water and then went back to waiting. The picture had dried and been carefully stowed before finally a nurse came to escort him to the plane. He'd tried to argue that he was well enough to travel without a medical chaperone but had been overruled - for some reason arriving back with someone having to hold his hand was more humiliating than turning up injured.

The flight was long and tedious and he made every effort to sleep through most of it .... difficult as it was to get comfortable, even with the pain killers he was on. And then he was home, landing and having the further indignity of riding a wheelchair to the public terminal at LAX. As soon as he spotted Elaine and his Mom none of that mattered - he was grinning as they caught sight of him, both of them rushing to meet him.

"Mom, Sis," he got up from the wheelchair and limped the few steps needed to gather them up and hug them both close, not caring that it hurt a little. All three stood in a tight circle, the two women crying. There was a hint of moisture in Evan's own eyes as he finally stepped back and looked at them.

"Oh Evan," his Mom reached up and put a hand to his bruised cheek, shaking her head as she took in his appearance. His black eye was as bad as Drew had predicted - even after a few days it was still mostly dark purple with hints of yellow and green just emerging. He had a few cuts and scrapes on his face as well and he could see his Mom carefully cataloguing each.

"I'm okay," he felt compelled to reassure her.

"You're not!" she admonished him, softening as she smiled. "But you will be now you're here for me to look after."

"I'm not a baby Mom - I can take care of myself," Evan protested.

"Of course you can dear," Grace smiled, that awful nervous feeling she'd carried inside since Drew had rung to tell her Evan was hurt finally easing. Her boy really was going to be fine. She couldn't completely relax - Drew was her boy now too and he was still over there, still risking his life to do his job - but having Evan home made it somewhat easier to bear. "Talk to your sister while I chat with the nurse," she said firmly, moving away before he could protest. No way was she going to take his word on what continuing care and medication was required.

"And with that you're reduced back to child status," Elaine murmured, taking his hand and squeezing it tightly.

"Yeah," Evan looked down at her with a sudden grin. "It's kind of nice - but don't tell her I said that."

"Wouldn't dream of it," his sister agreed. She took her own turn at looking him over, seeing for herself that he'd heal and return to being the brother she relied on to be around. It had shaken her, how much she counted on him - not to help on a daily basis but just to be there, like he was her anchor just because he was somewhere in the world being Evan Lorne. Having that threatened had unsettled her at a time when she was already struggling with the unfamiliar. "It's so good to see you," she said softly, clutching his hand even tighter.

"You too," he pulled her closer, hugging her again. When he let her go he could see that she was still struggling to reign in her emotions. "What - no reprimands that I wasn't careful like I promised?" he teased.

"Not today," Elaine grinned. "I'm saving them up for later."

"Right, well I'll look forward to that," Evan muttered. His Mom was still talking to the nurse, nodding and asking questions in a way that had him just a little worried.

"Drew?" Elaine's voice was hesitant and hopeful, that one word holding a multitude of questions.

"He's doing great," Evan said firmly. "Misses you like crazy - in fact he almost drove me crazy with his puppy dog pitiful-ness."

"He did not!" Elaine slapped at his hand lightly, smiling now.

"Okay, maybe not," Evan agreed. "He wouldn't admit it but I could always tell when he was thinking about you - we spent a lot of time together so I know it was pretty much all the time."

"Oh, that's so sweet!" Elaine hugged him again, only letting him go when he grumbled that she was hurting him.

"He'll be home soon," Evan pointed out.

"I know ... it's just," Elaine hesitated.

"It's just what?" Evan prompted her to continue.

"I was going to wait to tell you," Elaine looked at him and suddenly her expression was one he'd never seen before. She looked happy ... and scared ... and somehow mysterious.

"Tell me what?" he frowned.

"You're going to be an Uncle ... before Christmas according to my due date."

"Excuse me?" Evan blinked, not sure he'd understood.

"I'm pregnant Evan," Elaine repeated patiently.

"But ...," Evan trailed off, not sure he wanted to get into a mathematical discussion centred around how long Drew had been overseas.

"It happened just before Drew left," she shook her head, smiling at his confusion. "I didn't find out until recently."

"Does he know?"

"Not yet."

Evan watched as she seemed to deflate a little, that look of happiness dropping away a little.

"It's not the kind of thing you tell someone in an email," Evan understood her position immediately. Pulling her close again he pressed a kiss to her hair. "Leave it with me Sis ... I'll make a few calls, see if I can get you a direct phone call."

"Really?" Elaine perked up immediately, turning shining eyes up to her brother.

"I think I can call in a favour or two," Evan promised.

"Thank you!" Elaine pressed her face to her brother's chest, tears coming too easily. "I'm sorry," she said, sniffing them back. "I always thought getting more emotional was just a pregnancy myth."

"Apparently not," Evan got another smack on the hand for that one. "An Uncle before Christmas huh?" He couldn't have described how he felt inside at that news. His little sister was going to be mother?

"Think you're up to it?" Elaine challenged teasingly.

"I think I can handle it," Evan shot back. "Don't I get the good job? You know – take the kid out, let them eat whatever they want and then dump them back with Mom and Dad."

"You're not doing that to my child Evan," Elaine said sternly.

"Look at you, going all Mom on me!" Evan laughed, throwing his 'good' arm around her and squeezing her tight. "I'm really happy for you Sis – you and Drew. You're gonna be great parents."

"I hope so," Elaine went from happy to sad again in a moment, her thoughts clearly on her husband again.

"I have something for you," Evan offered gently.

"Did you finally paint me a watercolour?" Elaine teased, letting him distract her.

"Something like that," Evan agreed, grabbing his bag and removing the picture sealed between two pieces of cardboard. Handing it to her he added "Don't get too excited .... it's just a little something I did on the way home but I hope it was worth your efforts getting that stuff over to me."

Elaine said nothing, all her attention fixed on what he'd given her. Carefully pulling away the tape holding the card together, she lifted the top piece and then just stopped, staring. Her silence went on so long that Evan felt compelled to make excuses.

"I couldn't do a full water colour Sis - it just wasn't the right environment for it," he explained.

"Shush," Elaine looked at him briefly ... her eyes were brimming with tears she brushed away absently as she looked back at his work.

He'd chosen a sketch he'd done of Drew one day after they'd challenged Scott and Ryan to a volleyball rematch. Drew had played particularly well and his spirits had been high. They'd settled at a table set up for outside drinks and Lorne had taken out his sketch book. Drew had smiled and then just sat with him, watching the world - as it was on base - go by. Evan had looked around for a subject and then his eyes had returned to his friend. There had been a look in the other man's eyes – longing, with the hint of happy memories being taken out and examined - and Lorne had tried to capture that.

"Evan," she touched a finger to the pencil and watercolour image of her husband almost reverently, and then looked up at her brother. "This is ... I don't have the words. It's wonderful. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Evan smiled, accepting her one armed hug as she held her prize carefully clear.

"Mom, look what Evan did," Elaine pulled away to show Grace.

"Great, now I'm in for it," Evan muttered, knowing his Mom wouldn't rest until she had him painting in her studio at home - therapy she'd call it. He listened to them chattering over the sketch, thanking the nurse for helping him get home and then waited, watching the two of them fondly until they remembered that he was there.

"Time to go home?" Grace finally looked from Elaine to her son.

"Yeah," Evan smiled, falling into step between his family. "Let's go home."

The End.

 

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