Content Warning: Coarse language mostly, some violence, adult themes and sexual situations.
Season: Set in February 2001, just over two years before Enemy Mine.
Summary: Operation Red Flag ... two weeks of advanced aerial combat training exercises. The friendlies - Blue Forces - engaging the hostiles - Red Forces - in realistic combat situations. For Captain Evan Lorne Red Flag would prove both challenging and confronting ... not to mention a hell of a lot of fun!
Classifications: General, aviation
Spoilers for: None Stargate related. Spoilers for the IMAX movie: Fighter Pilot - Operation Red Flag.
Acknowledgements: The internet as usual, as well as the IMAX movie covering this event - awesome viewing, go check it out!
Disclaimer: The Stargate characters, storylines, etc aren’t mine. I am unfortunately not associated in any way with the creators, owners, or producers of Stargate or any of its media franchises – if I was Lorne would have been in A LOT more episodes. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, equipment, etc are the property of whoever owns them. The original characters and plot and anything else I made up are the property of me, the author. No copyright infringement is intended.
Copyright (c) 2009 ShaViva
Mission One – Dog Fight
Captain Evan Lorne had an advantage over most of the people sitting in the large lecture theatre waiting for Major Robert Pace to arrive and give his opening statement. He was already stationed at Nellis air force base, north west of Las Vegas, Nevada ... had been for the past three months ... so the place at least was familiar to him. For everyone else it was all new ... pilots, ground crews, mechanics, engineers, radar specialists, all the people needed to run a war in the air had come from all over the country - all over the world in fact. U.S. personnel from Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, Air Forces Europe, Pacific Air Forces, the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Joining them were personnel from America's allied countries - Canada, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, Italy, and others. It was ... huge.
Looking around the room from his aisle seat near the front, Lorne tried to do a head count, coming up with somewhere around 2000 attendees.
Fresh faced and eager to prove themselves, they were all there for one thing ... Operation Red Flag.
It was an event steeped with history. During the Vietnam War U.S. Air Force pilots had performed poorly ... air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 had resulted in an exchange ratio of over two to one - for every two enemy planes shot down the U.S. had lost one of theirs. Not only was that unacceptable but it was also much worse than performances in previous wars. Something had changed - the shift in training to general air safety because of what was seen as obsolete aerial combat manoeuvring in a world with beyond visual range engagements. If you could take down an enemy from so far away you didn't even have to see them then surely you didn't need to know how to avoid them in the air. On paper that had probably seemed sensible but it hadn't proven true in practice. As a result pilots were unversed in the basics of ACM - air combat manoeuvres - all the while being engaged by enemy planes who did demonstrate skills in those areas. Coupled with other research that showed a pilot’s chance of survival in a career of aerial combat increased if they could complete at least ten successful combat missions the need for a realistic training scenario was clear.
And so in 1975 Red Flag was born ... the chance for pilots to fly ten realistically-simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measureable results.
Lorne was in a unique position ... like every other pilot in the room he'd done all the training possible in his aircraft of choice - the F-16 flying Falcon – but hadn't flown it in active combat. He'd switched planes though - moving from his earlier career in the F-18 Hornet to the more common to the U.S. air force F-16 aircraft. So while he was unversed in real to life combat in the F-16 he did have experience in the F-18 - lots of experience. He could just as easily have done without being a part of this month’s Red Flag Blue Force - the friendlies .... in fact he'd wanted to be a part of the Red Force - the bad guys. But the members of his squadron had done the 'rookie' ritual on him, telling Evan he had to do at least one Red Flag the traditional way before they'd 'let' him be one of the aggressors. It sucked, but there were usually four Red Flag operations run every year so it wasn't like he wouldn't get the chance in the near future. He'd just rather be a part of his own squadron with people he knew than a stranger in a room full of other strangers.
On the big display screen at the front of the room were the words “9th February Day Mission Air Boss Briefing” ... the first of what would be multiple daily briefings covering every aspect of every activity they'd undertake during the training program.
"This is huge," the guy next to Lorne muttered, also doing the curious look around.
"Yeah," Lorne grinned. "It's gonna be a nut house with all these people engaged in live exercises."
"I'm glad I'm not the one coordinating it!" the other guy replied, his blue eyes twinkling in a face browned by repeated exposure to the sun. That and the unfamiliar accent pegged him as one of the 'allied forces'. Holding out a hand he added "Captain Dominic Harper, RAAF. Everybody calls me Dom."
"Captain Evan Lorne - U.S. air force," Lorne replied, shaking the proffered hand firmly. "Australia right? You're a long way from home."
"You've got that right," Dom chuckled. "It was a long trip but now that we're here - this place feels almost familiar, weather wise at least." When Evan's brow rose interestedly, Dom continued. "Me and the boys," he gestured to the three men sitting on his other side, "are all stationed at Darwin airbase ... that's northern Australia, so it gets pretty hot."
"I'd rather it hot than cold," Evan mock shuddered. "Spent two years at Cold Lake in Canada ... in case you’re wondering, they call it that for a reason. Now I'm stationed here at Nellis ... it's nice."
Grinning, Dom turned to nudge the man next to him. "Guys ... meet Captain Evan Lorne - he likes the weather here too."
Lorne leaned forward to shake hands with each, nodding as they gave their full name and rank in turn. Jason Bond, Riley Giles and Stephen Bishop were all Captains too - all four Australian pilots had a similar vibe to Lorne's mind even though physically they were different. Dominic the tallest with dark hair to go with those blue eyes, Jason with brown hair cut shorter than regulation demanded and brown eyes to match, and Riley the 'surfer' type - blonde hair a little too long, deep tan, muscular with lines around his eyes that suggested he spent a lot of time squinting into the sun. Stephen was the only one Evan wouldn’t have immediately pegged as foreign – regulation hair cut and a crisp clean cut appearance – until he spoke of course. The Aussie boys were all different but still there was something alike about them ... a casual, laid back air with just a hint of their excitement for the coming days bubbling away under the surface.
"F-16 right?" Dom queried.
"Yeah," Lorne nodded, thinking quickly before hazarding his own guess in return. "F-18?"
"The Hornet ... best aircraft in the world," Stephen’s tone was almost challenging as he looked for Lorne's response.
"Hey, you won't get any argument from me," Evan held up his hands placatingly. "I just spent the last three months doing a transition program to the F-16. Before that I flew the CF-18 for going on four years."
"What are you doing here then?" Jason asked curiously. "I thought this was for newly graduated or zero combat experience pilots."
"It is," Lorne agreed with a pained shrug. "You know how it goes ... new guy on a new squadron ... apparently I don't get full entry status until I've done one of these things."
Dom laughed. "That sucks mate," he said.
"It does," Evan shrugged. "But as a way to get up to full speed in the F-16 it's probably not a bad thing. And as long as I don't stuff it up I'll get to do the whole thing again next time - from the other side."
"Now that would be sweet," Dom agreed. Before he could say more their attention was drawn to the stage where their 'host' had arrived. Preceding him were the three older men Lorne knew to be the big wigs of Nellis air force base. They took their seats along the aisle at the front, the room slowly falling silent as everyone waited for the beginning.
"Good morning everyone ... take your seats please. I'm Major Robert Pace, Air Boss of Operation 1 for 2001. Welcome to Red Flag."
The Major had gone on to greet the pilots and crews from America and all the allied partners, pointing out in case it wasn’t obvious that together the assembled personnel represented one of the largest combat air forces anywhere in the world right then. They had 14 days to undertake a simulated air war, their final tune-up before going into actual combat.
The first mission was both simple and complex. A B2 heavy bomber would ghost the battle field and take out the enemy’s ground based missile launchers, hopefully before the opposition even knew a battle was coming. They’d have a pair of stealth F1-17’s along for immediate protection. Providing additional bomber support was a squad of B1’s. Once the enemy was aware of the attack they’d launch their fighters – 12 highly manoeuvrable F-16’s piloted by the country’s top pilots. Each country would run a squad of fighter pilots whose job it was to engage the enemy fighters until the battle was won.
That didn’t sound all that complex until you added up the numbers ... a dozen fighter wings from the U.S. alone, three from Canada, two from Great Britain and Germany, and one each from Singapore, Italy and Australia ... 122 aircraft in the air at one time. What was about to happen in the first mission was considered by many to be more dangerous and high pressure than live combat itself.
After bidding his new Australian friends farewell with a promise to swap stories after the mission, Lorne went in search of his own squad. Nellis was the home of more than one fighting wing with a combined experience level that couldn’t be beaten. They had training wings too but unfortunately for Lorne not a full four person squad. Rather than bring in extra pilots to make up one wing his superiors had decided to offer their own pilots to any wings missing a fourth member. For Lorne that meant joining one of the fighter wings of the United States Marines.
Before any of the squads could take to the air they each had to assess the playing field, and in particular the part of it assigned to their protection and give guidance to the Air Boss and his team on their intended flight path. Evan made his way to one of the small briefing rooms used for that purpose, not sure what to expect.
His arrival at the door drew the attention of the room’s three occupants who all looked up with varying degrees of interest. They’d be flying team mates for fourteen days ... understanding each other would be crucial to that.
“Captain Evan Lorne,” Evan introduced himself as he made his way inside, offering his hand to the closest person.
“Captain Piper Jones,” the only female in the room smiled pleasantly as she returned his hand shake. She’d stood to greet Evan and he found himself looking up just a little – Piper was tall and solidly built and frankly just a little intimidating. Lorne would never be ungentlemanly enough to describe her as unattractive, but with plain, strong features and a very clear disregard for feminine trappings Captain Jones was never going to be accused of trying to get anywhere based solely on her looks.
“Lieutenant David Wilson,” one of the men went next, shaking hands, his expression curious. He was slight, almost delicate and Evan wondered for a brief moment how he had the strength required to be fighter pilot.
“Captain Joseph Martinez,” the last of the three concluded. “Joe,” he added with a friendly smile.
“So, how’d you end up being a spare Captain?” Jones asked curiously, waving him to the remaining empty seat.
“Evan, please,” Lorne replied. “Newly stationed to Nellis, relatively speaking,” he explained. “Not enough newly trained F-16 pilots for a full squadron at the moment and I didn’t want to wait for the next Red Flag.”
“Their loss, our gain,” Joe quipped with a grin.
“I hope you’re still saying that at the end of the two weeks,” Lorne shot back with a chuckle.
“So, flight paths,” Piper drew them all back to what they were there for. “This is our designated area,” she explained, circling a square region labelled Coyote Delta on the map on the table for all to see. “It would make sense for us to fly south west to north east in a wide sweep to cover as much ground as possible.”
That sparked a few comments from the others until finally they’d agreed on a strategy and submitted their flight plans.
A few minutes later Lorne was walking down the tarmac, suited up with his flight bag in hand. It was an impressive sight, the mountains in the distance and the long runway with rows upon rows of aircraft from all the participating units. The city was visible from Nellis AFB too, the distance deceptive as it looked close enough to touch. Evan still hadn’t gotten used to that feeling of being too close to civilisation.
He was walking past an impressive array of aircraft too ... Harrier jump jets with their massive half circle ‘mouth’ at the front, the smaller, compact Tornadoes flown by the German’s and Italians. Then there was the familiar jets ... F-15 Eagles, F-16 flying Falcons and of course F-18 Hornets. Seeing those with the Canadian flag proudly displayed had him grinning nostalgically. Although he was happy to be flying the F-16, happy to be a part of air forces available for U.S. air force deployment, the Hornet would always hold a special place in his heart.
All those planes would be deployed inside of twenty minutes, a logistical feat that he both looked forward to and was nervous to observe up close and personal.
At his own F-16, Lorne did the pre flight checks with a familiarity that was second nature before climbing the steps and settling himself in the cockpit. All the remaining checks done he listened to instructions from air control, taxiing to runway five.
“Nellis tower, I have P four, runway five right,” Evan reported, sliding his jet into position behind the rest of his squadron, designated Sigma Three.
“Sigma three one, Tower. Flight’s turnout approved. Good luck on Mission 1.”
“Sigma three one,” Captain Jones’s voice was transmitted to Lorne, Wilson and Martinez, “we are clear for take off. Let’s go and have some fun.”
Smiling, Lorne pushed the stick forward, his body pressing back into the pilot’s seat as he quickly picked up speed. In formation beside him three other planes also got to takeoff speed, the four planes lifting off the ground in unison. From the ground it was a sight to see ... and hear ... each squadron taking off within minutes of the next and disappearing quickly into the sky.
“Sigma three one, Nellis tower, unrestricted climb approved,” air control gave them the all clear moments later. Captain Jones was nominally their squadron leader, all commands pertaining to their wing as a whole would be addressed to her and heard by all four of them.
“Tower, Sigma three one, copy that,” Piper replied.
There was nothing that could equal the thrill of cutting through the sky in an aircraft capable of doing Mach 2+ - 1500 miles per hour. Doing it in a squad of four in a sky already occupied with over a hundred other aircraft was real enough to have the adrenalin pumping. Coordinating all of that was the task of the air boss, Major Pace ... high above the battlefield on the edge of space a U2 was cruising, gathering intelligence and sending it to the AWACS (airborne warning and control system) surveillance aircraft, via the huge satellite dish sticking up from the back.
Lorne had taken a tour of the AWACS aircraft as part of his F-16 training. Its sole purpose was to detect aircraft, hence the high altitude and radar systems that allowed the operators to distinguish between the friendlies and the bad guys. As an offensive tool it allowed fighter pilots to be directed to their targets; defensively it was used to counter attacks ... all a part of the overall mission of surveillance and C2BM – command and control battle management. The inside of the AWACS was like geek heaven - rows of computer terminals displaying every aspect of the battle taking place below for the dozen operators monitoring the air war. Each aircraft broadcast real time telemetry collected and disseminated using the Nellis Air Combat Training System - NACTSys. On the screens small squads of planes, colour coded, moved through the air, different altitudes and paths of coloured lines trailing after them.
Major Pace took information from his crew to make the broad decisions about directions .... it would be a constant struggle of vigilance and attention to every detail to keep 100 plus planes from seven countries from smashing into each other.
For this pretend war most of the aircraft were the good guys, the Blue Forces. Opposing them were the Red Forces – twelve highly manoeuvrable F-16s flown by the finest fighter pilots in the American air force. Designated ‘sniper’ over radio channels, the twelve had one key advantage. As planes are hit and declared killed they turn white on the NACTSys screen. The good guys must then disengage and return to base. The aggressors however got to regenerate and return to the fight.
Five miles out from the enemy’s defences they got the word that the fight was on.
“Fire missiles,” Jones gave the order purposefully.
“Fox Two,” Lorne fired off two heat seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders – unarmed but through the NACTSys system able to be tracked to a target as though they were.
As one the formation veered right, a trail of flares and the resulting smoke disguising their path from any return missiles.
“Sigma, flight,” air control reported. “Group bullseye at 3,350.” Translation – a group of bad guys was approaching at 3,350 feet.
“Flight, Sigma copies,” Jones replied.
Two miles out the bad guys had tracked and corrected course and were still approaching. Using simulated rounds in the M61 Vulcan Gatling gun the battle between Sigma squadron and the bad guys moved into a classic dogfight.
“Sigma, spread formation.” Jones gave the order and as one Lorne and the others dropped a wing, each heading off at 45 degree angles.
Evan scanned the sky, craning his neck to see behind him as he spun a 180, the ground now at his head. “Sigma three four, I am tally one,” he said, spotting one of the Red Forces planes looping wide to drop in behind one of his team mates. “Sigma three three, threat, your six – 2 miles,” he said, already altering course to provide support.
Martinez responded immediately, banking right, setting off multiple flares behind him. At that range it wouldn’t confuse a visual confirmation of his position – any missiles already fired could be lured from him as a heat source though.
Lorne had come into the mini battle at a high altitude. Now he did a 360 degree roll, dropping quickly. He had a lock on the target seconds later and took it without hesitation.
“Good shooting Sigma three four,” control came back. “Sniper two is down.”
Down but not out of course. Lorne spared little thought for the quick success – regrouping to fly close formation with Martinez they turned and headed back the way they’d come. “Sigma Three One, what’s your status?” he asked. They’d travelled some distance and were now 3 miles out from their team mates.
“Sigma Three One, I am negative at 6,000, defensive,” Jones replied. She didn’t have sights on the other aggressors and was flying a defensive position at 6,000 feet.
“Sigma Three Four, copy that,” Lorne returned. “Sigma three three and I are flying formation and heading back to your position.”
“Acknowledged,” Jones replied.
Martinez spotted them first, three planes closing in on Jones. “Sigma Three One, Tally Three, bandits at eight o’clock,” he said urgently.
Evan was fully engaged in the battle but still had attention enough to smile slightly at the younger man’s energy. His tone said he’d settled in to the battle and was no longer nervous but everything was new and the excitement of that came through clearly.
Jones broke left, trying to shake her tails. Lorne and Martinez moved to intercept one sniper each, leaving her to fight off the remaining plane. At that point it became three separate battles. Radio traffic let him know how his team was doing but Evan could spare them nothing more than that.
The sniper on his tail was good ... really, really good. Using names and identifying themselves was an unspoken forbidden rule for Red Flag so he couldn’t check to be sure but still Evan had a pretty good idea of who was trying to take him down.
Captain Tanya Reid.
Blonde, blue eyed, and beautiful she’d become the subject of quite a few male fantasies for Evan since he’d arrived at Nellis and met the members of other squadrons also stationed at the base. Tanya was friendly and easy going as well, not to mention supremely talented at her job. That made her a forbidden proposition for Lorne – he knew himself well enough to want to steer clear of temptation, despite the desires he might have. The regs didn’t stand in the way – different commanding officers, different wings, and the same rank meaning there was no way either of them could bring the service into disrepute or show favouritism. No, it was Evan himself standing in the way ... not that he would have asked her out necessarily but he’d decided pretty quickly not to go there. He had a feeling any relationship with Tanya Reid would be intense .... captivating ... and therefore to be avoided at all costs.
Refocusing on his current situation, Lorne broke left, pulling significant G’s as he kept the turn as sharp as he could make it, hoping his opponent wouldn’t be able to match it. It was close; he gained a little ground but didn’t shake them off.
He switched it up, breaking right and then executing a flawless half Cuban eight that put him heading straight for the other plane but at a higher altitude. Before they’d closed the gap, Lorne did an Immelmann, Roll-off-the-top; half loop, half roll that gained him more altitude. His opponent tried to follow but the quick stringing together of unfamiliar aerobatic manoeuvres was too much. Evan only had to do a Split S – a reverse Immelmann – to convert his altitude into airspeed while switching direction again to gain the position he’d wanted – now he was on his opponent’s six and closing fast. He didn’t wait for them to regroup – pressing to lock on the target he fired, taking down his second sniper for the day.
It was all done with the Nevada ground as the backdrop ... brown earth, large crevasses and the Colorado River carving a deep path through the land. Above him it was all blue sky and white fluffy clouds – a scene that had him itching for a paint brush almost as much as he wanted to keep flying through it.
“Sigma three four, Sniper is down,” he reported as he once again took a heading back to where he thought his team should be, waiting to get something back from them.
“Sigma three One, good job,” Jones replied. “Sigma three two and three three are down and on their way back to base.”
“Damn,” Lorne muttered. For a rookie to an air battle, even one on a lesser scale, it was only a matter of time before the more experienced pilots trapped you into a mistake and then made you pay for it. Still, he’d been hoping to help even the odds a little and keep everyone in the game longer. “Sigma three Four, acknowledged,” he replied.
“Sigma Three, Control,” air command broke in, “group bullseye, 4000, three o’clock.” Hopefully a smaller group of Red Force planes had themselves regrouped and were back to take out the rest of Sigma squad.
Glancing at his watch Lorne realised with surprise that they’d already been up in the air for 45 minutes. With the load of fuel they’d taken on board they only had five, maybe ten minutes before they’d have to return to base or risk becoming a brick dropping out of the sky. Refuelling mid fight would be something they’d do before Red Flag was over but it wasn’t a component of Mission 1.
“Sigma Three Four, let’s see if we can keep them guessing for five,” Lorne suggested to Jones, the grin and the mischief evident in his voice.
“Sigma Three One, sounds like a plan,” Piper replied, still all business but Evan was sure there was some excitement of her own bubbling away there. You didn’t become a fighter pilot unless their current situation got your juices flowing .... in a positive way!
“Sigma Three Four, go high,” Lorne requested. “I’ll lure them away leaving you -,”
“- to drop in behind them,” Jones finished, her agreement for the plan implicit.
Evan took his plane into another tight loop, getting the G’s up to 7.5 as he put himself right into the path of their oncoming foes. He was past them in a flash, at a safe distance but still close enough for the wake of his turbulence to shake them around a little. There were only two of them this time and clearly that tactic wasn’t what they’d expected ... it seemed like everything paused for a moment before both planes duplicated his tight turning manoeuvre, leaving Jones alone in that section of sky. He'd put out the challenge and it had been accepted.
Lorne put that F-16 through its paces as he held off a direct attack. He’d done enough hours at Nellis to be somewhat familiar with the terrain but nothing on the scale of the pilots following him. They knew every canyon, every turn of the river like the back of their hands and that was a definite advantage. That was part of the reason why Evan had been sent to fly on the other side – both because he lacked the local knowledge needed to be ‘the enemy’ and because it gave him a crash course in getting that knowledge. Lucky for him he did have a few advantages of his own ... most notably his aerial acrobatics training and experience. He skimmed at very low altitude, spun and rolled, keeping one step ahead of the bad guys.
“Sigma Three One, tally two,” Jones told him. A few moments later she let out an uncontrolled “Woo Hoo!” followed quickly by a more professional “Sniper is down.”
“Nice work,” Lorne returned. Glancing at his watch again he let out a reluctant sigh. “Control, Sigma Three Four,” he said. “Fuel is low ... breaking away from the battle and returning to base.”
“Sigma Three Four, Control, acknowledged,” one of the crew in the AWACS aircraft replied. “Red Forces have been informed to disengage. Good work.”
“Thanks,” Lorne grinned. Captain Jones also reported her need to return to base, the two planes banking low and heading back to Nellis.
“That was some awesome flying man,” Joe Martinez greeted Lorne exuberantly, heading across the tarmac as Evan dropped from the ladder of his plane and landed lightly on the ground.
“Thanks,” Lorne grinned. “You weren’t exactly shabby yourself there pal.”
“Got a long way to go,” Joe countered good naturedly. “Everyone’s already regrouping in the main lecture theatre for the debrief.”
Nodding, Lorne walked beside the other man, the two soon joined by Jones and Wilson. The group walked into the lecture theatre noisy with the sounds of pilots and crew discussing their own actions during the mission. Mistakes were lamented, triumphs celebrated. Red Flag wasn’t a competition between pilots – it wasn’t about who got the most kills, who lasted the longest. It was about training and ultimately about saving the lives of every person in the hall. Red Flag air bosses walked the line between making it real enough to count and minimising the resulting risks that were also very real. It was all about pushing the limits in a controlled environment.
Everyone made mistakes – it was a necessary part of the process of learning. The key element was never making the same mistake twice and fixing the ones you did make – that was the only way any of them were going to get through the two weeks.
"Hey - how'd it go today?" Lorne looked up from the cold beer he'd been enjoying to see Dominic Harper approaching, grin firmly in place. He’d come down to one of the outdoor areas specifically set up to allow visiting crews to socialise and Dom was the first person he’d spotted that he actually recognised. The noise level was high with multiple conversations all going on at once – with only a seat here and there free and many standing, Lorne had been lucky to get a table to himself.
"I survived," Evan said simply, motioning for the other man to join him. "You?"
"Shot down in flames," Dom said easily. "Gave them a good fight though."
"That's the main thing," Evan returned with a smirk. "And we all learned something valuable right?"
"Yeah, don't get shot down in flames," Dom stated straight faced.
The two were still laughing when a new person approached their table.
"Nice flying today Ace," Captain Tanya Reid stood beside their table, her expression faintly teasing.
"You too," Evan narrowed his eyes, telling himself internally to ignore the fact that even in standard uniform Tanya was very attractive ... okay, hot. "Don't go there," he thought firmly. "I thought we weren't supposed to know who was doing what up there?" he queried aloud.
"True ... but your moves are pretty recognisable, up in the air anyway," Tanya returned, looking curiously at Evan's companion.
"Right," Lorne wasn't sure what to make of that statement so he let it drop. "Let me introduce you to Captain Dominic Harper - RAAF. Dom, this is Captain Tanya Reid ... Red Forces, at least for the next two weeks."
"You're one of the snipers?" Dom asked in surprise.
"What, I don't look like I could kick your ass in the air?" Tanya arched a brow royally.
"No ... I mean yes, you do," Dom stuttered but regrouped nicely. "You're just a lot prettier than I expected the enemy to be."
"Well just remember this is practice Captain," Tanya said with a smile. "I'm nobody's enemy ... isn't that right Evan?"
"Sure, yes," Evan looked at her curiously, his expression a little confused. She seemed a little ... peeved ... was that because he'd shot her down today or for some other reason?
"So, has Evan told you all about the fun things to do around here?" Tanya asked Dominic, the hint of flirting obvious enough to have Lorne feeling uncomfortably close to jealous. Not that he had any reason to be jealous of course - Tanya thankfully had no idea of how often he thought about her in an entirely non professional way and he had every intention of keeping it like that.
"Not so far," Dom laughed. "You mean there are actually fun things to do?"
"Of course," Tanya reached out to touch his arm lightly. "I could show you some of them right now."
"Ah -," Dom's eyes shot to Lorne's, the unspoken question clear. Did Evan have a claim here? Shaking his head subtlely, it pained Lorne to give the all clear. He didn't have a claim to Tanya's time nor the right to stop her from spending it wherever and with whomever she chose.
"Sure - that would be great," Dom replied, standing up next to Tanya.
"I'll meet you outside then," Tanya smiled, staying where she was. Dom looked from her to Evan and back again and then with a casual nod of farewell turned and left the two alone.
As soon as he was out of earshot Tanya leaned in closer to Evan until she was practically whispering in his ear. "Assuming you don't object of course. Do you ... object?"
"I -," Evan shifted back, his blue eyes locking with hers.
"Because if you do, I'll gladly show you those fun sights instead ... Ace," Tanya smiled in a way that was sexy and teasing and hell on Lorne's resolve.
"Tanya," Lorne's tone held a warning for her not to tease him.
"I didn't think so," Tanya straightened abruptly and spun on a heel, intent on heading for the door.
"Not so fast," without really planning it Evan shot out a hand and grabbed her lightly, the surprise alone enough to draw her to a stop. "What game are we playing here Tanya?"
"Any game you want Evan," Tanya said simply, letting him keep his hold on her.
"And do these games have any rules?" Lorne asked, voice low and ... purposeful.
"No winners, no losers," she leaned in closer again. "No promises."
"Why now?" he stroked a thumb down her wrist, smirking when she shivered slightly.
"Because you beating me in the air today was ... hot," Tanya smiled, "and we both know there was no way you'd approach me." Her blue eyes sparkled knowingly. "I've seen you looking though ... because I've been looking too. We both like what we see ... right?"
"No promises?" Lorne repeated, torn between the desire to take what was very clearly on offer and his prior misgivings about getting involved with a woman like Tanya Reid.
"No promises," Tanya confirmed. "Life is too short."
"Okay," Evan made the decision abruptly. He made to stand but stopped when Tanya put a hand on his shoulder.
"I just need to fix something first," she said. Lorne watched with amusement as she walked away, stopping beside an attractive brunette and whispering in her ear while gesturing towards the door. The other woman nodded and then made her way across the room as Tanya returned to him.
"What was that all about?" Evan asked curiously.
"Making sure your new friend still wants to talk to you tomorrow," Tanya explained. "Stacey is a nice girl - she'll help him play tourist, show him those sites I promised. No hard feelings."
"You were using him to make me jealous," Lorne concluded, shaking his head.
"Not exactly ... I just wanted to prompt some action," Tanya held out a hand, pulling Evan up when he took it. For a moment their bodies swayed too close together before he got his balance and stepped back. "So, shall we?"
"Sure, why not," Lorne agreed, letting her lead him off.
"Pinball," Evan laughed as Tanya drew him towards the bank of machines in the officers club. "This is your idea of fun?"
"Wait until you see how I play," Tanya was all promise as she took up a stance at the first machine and pulled back on the leaver. The ball was in play ... bouncing and ricocheting off surfaces as she moved in a flowing dance that was about battle and winning and taking what you wanted eyes wide open. Flippers made contact with the ball as her pelvis made contact with the machine, her whole focus on making it last as long as possible. There were noises she made while playing too ... growls of satisfaction when the ball went just where she'd planned, and a low hum of effort as she struggled to keep the game going.
Lorne had no idea how long she kept that one ball in play ... when she finally turned from the machine, challenge on her face, he had to blink himself back to the present.
"Your turn Ace ... let's see what you can do," she invited, stepping back.
Lorne rose, closing the distance between them slowly until they were toe to toe. "If you think I can concentrate on anything but you after that display you've seriously overestimated my pinball playing abilities," he said.
And then his hands where in her hair and he was drawing her up to him, the kiss that followed intense enough to steal their breath away.
"Quarters," she broke away to pant out that one word ... request, order, plea, whatever it was Evan reacted immediately. Grabbing her hand he urged her from the room and out into the night air. She took the lead then, dragging him across the courtyard, weaving a path through buildings until they'd reached crew quarters where all Nellis base personnel participating in Red Flag were stationed for the duration. "Yours," she demanded, stopping to pull him down for another intense exchange.
Lorne backed her against the nearest wall, lifting her slightly as he shifted from her mouth to traverse her throat until he was breathing hotly into the space between shoulder and neck. Breaking away before he totally forgot where they were, Evan looked around, got his bearings and then pulled her along beside him. Moments later they were inside his room and it was no holds barred.
When the alarm went off at five am the next morning Lorne wasn't surprised to wake up alone. Running hands through his hair, still tired, Evan yawned even as he pulled on jogging clothes and sneakers and headed out.
At that time of the morning it was like a ghost town on base ... until you got near the tarmac. As Lorne ran a circuit that tracked parallel with the main runway for almost a mile he was accompanied by 30 people slowing walking the runways. They did it every morning at 5 am ... 30 people spread out evenly in a single line across the tarmac, scouring the runways looking for even a single pebble blown onto the surface overnight by the desert winds. Every now and then one of the thirty would stop, bend, pick something up and pocket it before falling back into step with their fellows. It seemed almost graceful the way they moved in sync – graceful and deadly serious. The smallest object left on the surface had the potential to get sucked into an engine, causing a crew to lose their aircraft and their lives before they’d even left the ground.
Evan was distracted by the sight for a time but as soon as he broke away from the edge of the runway he returned to thinking about the previous night. He and Tanya had shared an intimate compatibility that had made the experience the best he could recall ... but it was purely based on the physical. Tanya hadn't rolled off him and out the door in quick order but she hadn't hung around either. They'd come down from the high, arms around each other, still enjoying being together. Then she’d regretfully turned to him, kissed him firmly and told him she wished she could stay but they both had an early start. She'd casually dressed, thrown him a wave at the door with a cheeky "Next time Ace," and left him to his thoughts.
He had no idea what to think ... but maybe thinking was overrated. Maybe it was time Evan Lorne just let himself go with the flow ... and let the future sort itself out. He'd always had trouble with that approach - being in control was a big aspect of his personality. But he'd give it a go ... after all, what could possibly go wrong?
For those interested, the following details how each country is represented during Red Flag missions.
Great Britain; NACTSys colour coded dark green; designated alpha squad; flying Harrier jump jets
Germany; NACTSys colour coded purple; designated beta squad; flying Tornadoes
Italy; NACTSys colour coded yellow; designated gamma squad; flying Panavia Tornadoes
Canada; NACTSys colour coded orange; designated delta squad; flying F-18 Hornets
Singapore; NACTSys colour coded red; designated epsilon squad; flying F-15 Eagles
Australia; NACTSys colour coded brown; designated zeta squad; flying F-18 HornetsUSA; NACTSys colour coded light blue; designated subsequent greek letters; flying various, F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons mostly.
Missions 3 & 4 - Reconnaissance
In modern warfare it wasn’t other pilots you had to fear – it was the ground below. The threat? Surface to air missiles that could be fired from every conceivable platform. Under those conditions intel took on a new level of importance, so much so that at Red Flag they had a whole area dedicated to promoting it. The organisers called it the threat centre – pilots called it the petting zoo - an outdoor playground filled with real enemy weapons visitors could get an up close and personal look at.
Lorne had seen it before but still went along with his red flag squadron, listening intently as their ‘guides’ gave them the rundown on weapons specs and capabilities, who was using them, and the most effective defences against them.
“This is pretty impressive,” Piper commented to Evan as they moved from looking at an armoured tank to a scarily efficient looking rail gun capable of firing rounds with an impact velocity of Mach four at a distance of two hundred miles.
“It is,” Lorne agreed. “I can see why they think it’s a more effective learning experience than having us all memorise ordinance specs.”
“I don’t know about you guys but I’m certainly going to remember that the M-163 Machbet is a surface to air missile and the Ho-Ki is a Japanese tank with enough fire power to shoot me out of the air,” Joe Martinez quipped.
“Then my morning hasn’t been wasted,” David shot back with a smirk.
“Maybe it’s the kind of thing you appreciate more after you’ve faced these kinds of weapons in the air,” Piper suggested.
“Definitely,” Lorne agreed. “You’ll be amazed at what you remember when you’ve got a laser guided heat seeking missile on your tail.”
“Sounds like fun,” David was the youngest of the four of them and given to an irreverence Evan could have mistaken for immaturity. In the air though, even only two missions in, he knew David Wilson was anything but.
“Well we’re not gonna find out just how much fun during today’s mission,” Piper said.
That was true – mission three of Red Flag was about reconnaissance – searching enemy territory for possible ground based targets. They’d continue to work in squads of four aircraft, flying formation mostly. For the fighter jets it was about supporting aircraft more suited to intelligence gathering as it was about seeing what could be seen on the ground.
"Hey, Lorne," Evan turned to see Dominic Harper and his squad also touring the petting zoo. Nodding to Piper and the others Lorne headed over. It had been a couple of days since the night Tanya had approached them and he'd been meaning to catch up with the young Australian pilot - Red Flag kept you busy with missions every day, mission debriefs and planning for the next day’s mission taking up most of the available time.
"Dom," he fell into step with the taller man, trying to judge from his demeanour if there were any hard feelings at the way Tanya had involved him in her actions that night.
"Evan," Dom grinned. "Been meaning to catch up with you since Wednesday ... seemed like you were headed for a pretty interesting night."
"Yeah, about that," Evan grimaced slightly. "I should have apologised before now ...,"
"Hey, no need mate," Dom shook his head, sincere as he continued. "If Captain Reid is as formidable in the air as she is on the ground I'm surprised you managed to out manoeuvre her during the first mission."
"She took me completely by surprise," Lorne admitted.
"I reckon you were so busy trying not to look like you were interested - while checking her out of course - to notice that she was interested in you too," Dom grinned teasingly. "I didn't mind being chosen to further what was obviously a carefully thought out plan."
"You think so?" Evan was interested in spite of himself. "What are you?" he thought to himself. "Sixteen again and back in high school trying to find out if a girl likes you?" He chuckled at himself. "Sorry - I ah ... I just thought it was all an impulse, at least from her side of things. What about you?" he changed the subject deliberately. "Did you enjoy playing tourist with Tanya's friend?"
"Enough that Stacey and I are going to do it again tonight," Dom said complacently. "And never underestimate a woman's power to engineer everything while making you think it was all your idea," he added knowingly.
"Sounds like a man with experience," Lorne commented.
"Three sisters," Dom shuddered dramatically.
"Too bad," Evan laughed, playing along as he caught sight of the twinkle in the other man's eyes. "Got one of those myself and that was more than enough. I should have known better," he said more seriously. "Seeing Tanya as a fellow pilot I kinda forgot that she's also a woman as well."
"You ... forgot?" Dom's eyebrows rose, his expression pointed.
"Right," Evan laughed again. Tanya was very attractive - no man alive was going to forget she was a woman in the face of that! "I forgot to assign womanly wiles to her - is that better?"
"Well I'm glad I could assist in opening your eyes to the real world," Dom said sagely. "A woman is a woman no matter what profession she'd engaged in."
"Noted," Lorne exchanged glances with Dom, the two lasting a few seconds before both burst out laughing loudly enough to draw attention from those around them, including Dom's squad.
Promising he’d try to meet for a drink before the other man headed out for the evening, Evan returned to his own team, putting his personal interests aside as he listened to the rest of the tour.
"Control, Sigma three four, in from the south west, flying low,” Lorne reported. "Searching."
They were five minutes in to mission three and had split into two man teams as they searched their designated sector of the terrain for enemy activity on the ground. He'd paired with Joe Martinez, taking the lead position for their first run of this type of mission. The following day when they repeated the basics in mission four he'd take wingman position so the more inexperienced man could try flying lead.
"Sigma three four, Control," the reply came back. "No contacts."
So far they hadn't been spotted by the enemy but it was only a matter of time. Reconnaissance would be easy if you could just fly an established pattern covering the needed area without fearing detection. In reality it was different – the enemy was looking for you too as well as looking to protect their military assets on the ground, making the need to avoid detection paramount – that was the thrill that got your blood pumping.
With Martinez sticking close to his right wing, Evan craned his neck to look below them. He didn't have far to look - they were skimming low over the rocky terrain, flying under the radar at 600 miles per hour. At that speed it was as much about relying on instrumentation and what their systems would send back to the surveillance planes flying high above them as it was about what they'd see with their own eyes. It wasn't a blur but they wouldn't be able to pick up anything small until they'd whizzed by it. Luckily in an air battle you didn't put all your eggs in one basket. There were stealth planes also in the air covering the terrain looking for enemy installations.
"Sigma three four, Control. Radar contact, enemy forces 10 miles out."
"Acknowledged," Lorne returned, looking at his own instruments as they kept their heading.
"Sigma three one and two, coming in from the north," the control tower reported moments later. That meant there were probably more than two enemies on approach - the air boss sending in the rest of Evan's squad to provide assistance.
Leaving low altitude Lorne led Martinez up to 10,000 feet, scanning the skies looking for their bogies. There ... was that the glint of sunlight off metal? Narrowing his eyes, Evan twisted his head awkwardly to keep sight of the contact as they zoomed past each other. Taking a sharp turn they reversed direction, mirroring the actions of their enemies.
"Sigma three four, tally one, two o'clock, 5 miles and closing," Lorne reported intently. He'd fallen into that 'battle' zone ... a hyperawareness of everything around him, ably fuelled by adrenalin. His mind was working double speed, taking in instructions from flight control, the readings from his instruments and what his eyes and instincts were telling him and collating it all rapidly into the picture that drove his decisions.
"Sigma three four, this is sigma three one," Piper's voice was a welcome addition to the engagement.
"Welcome to the party three one," Lorne replied.
With the addition of two more planes into the mix the enemy must have decided on a divide and conquer strategy. They broke into two formations, two moving to take on Piper and David while the other three continued to circle with Evan and Joe. The object of the game was to be the plane at the back of the line, the enemy in front of you. It wasn't as simple as that because you still had to watch your six for additional attention either from the bogies you already knew about or the ones that might be dropping in to say hello unexpectedly.
"Sigma three three, break left," Evan ordered while at the same time breaking right. That split the focus, two enemies kept up the chase on Lorne while one broke left too to chase Joe.
Lorne had few options at that point, he had to lose ground as quickly as possible so that he could get behind the aggressors and do a little hunting of his own. Shooting off a series of flares he dropped to 4,000 feet and hit the proverbial brake for a millisecond before putting on the accelerator again. It was a bold move a rookie shouldn't make - the chance for stalling out if you took off too much speed a risk for any pilot. The F-16 was similar to the F-18 in that regard - highly responsive and manoeuvrable at maximum speeds, a brick that was a pain in the ass to muscle through the sky at low speeds. Too low and you could find yourself dropping without an engine.
Back up to 10,000 feet Lorne scanned the sky looking for his targets. The first he picked up immediately - the whole reversal of positions had happened so fast there wasn't time for the bad guys to turn rapidly enough for him to lose them. The second was a challenge. "Come on," Lorne muttered, doing a 180 spin and moving his head from side to side as he looked directly at the ground. "There you are," he said with a faint smile, spotting the other bogie at a much lower altitude. They'd been going to sandwich him in much as he and Piper had on the first mission. "Not today boys," Evan said, keeping the upside down approach as he dropped the nose and bee lined straight for the lower plane. At the last moment he flipped the right way up, sighted his target and fired all in one smooth motion.
"Control, Sigma three four. One sniper down, moving to engage second sniper," he reported in, shifting for a sharp climb back upwards. His last remaining foe hadn't been idly circling while Evan engaged his wing mate - instead he'd moved to try to provide protection. Lorne had just been too quick ... the two planes literally whizzed past each other close enough to feel the other’s turbulence, one heading up, the other down. "Fuck!" Lorne felt his heart jump at the close call.
"Sigma three four, Control. Radar contacts, three more bogies on the edge of your sector, heading south."
"Just great," Lorne muttered, sure it'd only be a matter of time before they descended on them too. "Sigma three one, sigma three four. What's your status?"
"We are tally visual on the second sniper and closing in," Piper replied.
"Well can you hurry it up?" Evan returned. "We have additional enemies coming in from your heading and I've got one more bogie dogging me."
"Acknowledged. Moving to intercept," Piper made the decision to break away, leaving David to finish up their first engagement. He'd then rejoin her and hopefully stand up against the others.
"Sigma three three, what's your status?" Lorne had been unable to keep track of Joe after they'd made the decision to deliberately split the battle ground.
There was a moment’s pause and then Joe's jubilant voice came back to them. "I'm still here ... sniper is down," he announced. "Heading back to you now."
While the conversation had been going on Lorne had been exchanging positions with his own enemy ... each doing enough to keep the other in sight but not enough to gain a superior position. Evan wanted to clear up the mess quickly so they could return to the primary objective ... finding out what was so important that two wings of enemy planes had been sent to stop them flying over it.
It was all about commitment, who was willing to push the hardest to gain the upper hand. Lorne had tested himself in the past in real situations - he knew he was willing to push his aircraft to the maximum ... and beyond, if the situation called for it. Maybe his foe was the same, maybe not.
Time to find out.
Sending the F-16 into a tight 180 degree plus turn, he pushed the degree as hard as he could, hitting 8 G's at the apex. He could see the other plane in front of him, a small point hovering and shifting erratically as it too mirrored the turn. Both planes sent out flares but that close in range the smoke trail was enough to keep a visual. There wasn't much in it but Evan did gain something on the sniper and quickly moved to capitalise. Pulling another aerobic move out of his bag of tricks he did a manoeuvre that was essentially a drop, roll, spin. Losing altitude he literally rolled his plane under the path of the other plane as it continued its tight turn so that he ended up on its tail an instance later. The key now was to get the lock quickly before the enemy could recover. That was something Evan had always been good at - he was decisive and confident and he never hesitated to do what was required. The square on his screen that represented the locking zone for weapons fire became his focus as he watched the little gray dot hover and zigzag around the edge until ...
"Weapons locked, firing missiles." Lorne completed the kill but didn't rest on his laurels - there could be other enemies who'd eluded the rest of his squad approaching. Setting off a series of flares he took his plane down to 400 feet, skimming the ground as he looked for whatever it was that had impelled the enemy to action. It didn't take long to spot something.
"Control, Sigma three four," he radioed in. "I have two GMLs, Coyote Bravo, sector 3," he continued, reading off the bearing for the enemy ground missile launchers from his instruments.
"Acknowledged," control returned. They'd relay the information to the air boss who'd direct satellite imagery to that position to confirm. Once confirmed ordinarily Lorne would get an order to bomb the installation. For the day's mission spotting and reporting ground targets while avoiding enemy defences was the only objective.
"Sigma three four, Control. Target has been confirmed. Second attack wing has been called off the chase," Lorne grinned at that - they were in the clear. "You are advised to return to base for refuelling. Good work."
"Sigma three four, returning to base," Lorne replied.
He skimmed it close to the ground for a few more moments, enjoying the thrill of seeing the terrain up close, feeling the shaking of the F-16 that said 'man, you are really flying me now!' After the moment's indulgence he reset his heading back towards Nellis, reporting in to the rest of his squad at the same time.
It had been a high point for them - five snipers down without losing a man. Not every mission would go as well but their confidence was buoyed by the resounding success.
As they went through Red Flag participants began to appreciate more and more that it wasn't about individual scores, nor the success of your small part of the bigger picture. At the end of the day it was about an overall successful mission on the largest scale. Did they take out the targets? Were casualties minimised? Would they have won the war?
"You guys are getting quite the rep around here Ace," Tanya Reid told Lorne as she sat down beside him in the Mess that night. All the participants of the days mission had sat through the full debrief with air boss Major Pace, and had also conducted their own debriefs to talk about the specifics of performance and look at how well they'd done in each engagement. It reminded Evan of F-18 training - watching your colour coded flight path up on a display screen, seeing your contribution in relation to your enemy target. This was a little different - like everything else about Red Flag it was data analysis on a grand scale, a rainbow of colour coded paths tracking hundreds of planes in the air so that you could see the battle taking shape and appreciate your own squads role in it.
"How's that?" Evan asked curiously, ignoring that little jump start to his system he always got on first seeing Tanya ... something that seemed to have gotten stronger rather than weaker with the familiarity they now shared.
"Your squad's survival to kill ratio puts you at the top," Tanya explained, frowning when he seemed genuinely surprised. "You didn't know?"
"I thought we weren't supposed to worry about that kind of thing," Lorne shrugged. "It's the battle as a whole that matters."
"It is, but everybody wants to know who's to be feared the most up in the air," Tanya insisted, hardly able to believe Evan really didn't care about his individual performance.
"Hey, maybe it's just because I'm only doing Red Flag because the guys made me," Evan suggested. "It’s testing me sure, but not to the degree it does the more inexperienced participants.”
Tanya nodded even though her expression said she wasn't convinced. Lorne's lack of grandstanding, his seeming need to downplay his talents was a puzzle to her ... it meant she didn't understand him, didn't understand how to fit the type she'd assigned him to the man he was - and that troubled her. How could you play the game with someone when you didn't see the rules in the same light? Shaking off her momentary concern she smiled across at him. "Well then, just take it from me that you are now Blue Forces most feared wing ... which means we're gunning for your ass."
"I'll make sure to take that into account next time we go up there," Evan said blandly, amused at both her insistence that the individual scores meant something and her confusion that he didn't see it the same way. "How did you go up there today?"
"Too good for the rookies in my section of the sky," Tanya said proudly. It was something Lorne admired about her - the genuine dedication to her job, her love of the craft of flying. It was an aspect they shared in common, even if Evan was less concerned about the competition side of things.
"Go you," he quipped, ducking away when she tried to swat his arm for not taking her seriously.
"And the best thing is we get to do it all again tomorrow," Tanya grinned. "You better watch out Ace ... because I'll be coming up behind you."
"Under any other circumstances that would be ... hot," he leaned in, whispering "anytime you want to catch me honey, I'm there."
Tanya shivered, her eyes turning serious in an instance. "Well then, consider yourself caught Ace."
Grabbing his hand she stood and then practically dragged him from the Mess ... he let himself be taken though, let her have the lead as they walked towards the crew quarters. Like before she headed for his room, a fact that gave him a moment’s pause before he shook it off. And then it was like the first time, the passion, the connection between them taking fire and driving them towards the conclusion in a rush that left them both stretched out on his bed exhausted but satisfied.
"You do know how to take a lady outside herself," Tanya said, her voice low.
"I think it's a mutual thing," Evan replied, settling into the mattress with her head resting on his chest.
"I do pride myself on my powers of ... persuasion," he felt her smile as she teased him.
"You are very persuasive but that's not what I meant," Evan shifted a little so he could see her expression as he continued. "The two of us together are something special." Because he was holding her so closely he didn't miss her instinctive stiffening or the way she seemed to draw back from him a little. "Is that a problem?"
"No," Tanya smiled too brightly as she sat up and looked down at him. "I believe in physical chemistry and clearly we've got that in spades." She couldn't have made her message any clearer if she'd painted it up on the ceiling for him to see ... the reminder that it was just physical, that there was nothing else there, was all too obvious.
"Right," Evan didn't know why her reaction disappointed him so much, but it did. He wasn't declaring anything to her, was nowhere near ready to even think about that - but the fact that she wasn't even willing to allow the possibility hurt. "Your ego," he told himself, "not your heart." That was all it was - hurt pride. No man liked being used to scratch a physical itch and Lorne was starting to wonder if that was all it was for Tanya.
"I should leave you to get some sleep," Tanya had her facade firmly in place again. Getting up she dressed quickly but not too quickly, and then came back to the bed where he'd stayed watching her. Leaning down she kissed him, not seeming to notice when he didn't exactly respond with overwhelming enthusiasm. "I'll see you tomorrow Ace."
"Yeah, okay," Evan returned, putting a smile on his face that dropped away as soon as she'd closed the door behind her.
Less than a minute later he was up again, showering and dressing before heading towards the same bar he's seem Dominic and the others at a few nights before. With any luck they'd be around again even if Dom himself was already out on his date.
Luck was with him - Dom was absent but Riley Giles and Stephen Bishop were both in attendance. They waved when they spotted him and motioned him over, a fact he was more than grateful for.
"How's the F-16?" Bishop asked, his tone a teasing challenge that harked back to their first conversation.
"She's not the best but she comes pretty damn close," Lorne threw himself into a seat, grinning across at the others. "How's the Hornet?"
"The answer to every man's dreams, of course," Riley quipped, "well, Steve's dreams anyway. He's always been a little odd."
"Hey," Steve punched Riley in the arm with his fist hard enough the other man almost fell out of his chair. He was laughing though, insisting that they all knew it was true.
"There are worse things than putting your heart into your jet," Evan commented. He tried not to let any of his current mood show but Riley Giles was a lot sharper than his casual surfer good looks would imply.
"Sounds like a man with woman trouble," he commented to Steve.
"Come to think of it, why aren't you with that hot pilot Dom told us all about," Steve asked Lorne curiously.
"I was ... but I guess she was done with me for the night," Evan shot back, grimacing as he quickly added "sorry - that was uncalled for."
"Hey, if a woman like that wanted to use me for sex I'd be all over that action in a second," Steve shrugged.
"But then you wouldn't be harbouring a crush like Evan here is," Riley pointed out knowingly.
"It's not a ...," Evan stopped, then sighed. "Okay, maybe it's kind of a crush ... God, I sound like I'm back in high school!"
“You sound like you need a drink,” Steve corrected, grinning as he got up to get the next round.
"You knew Tanya before Red Flag?" Riley and Evan continued their own private conversation.
"Yeah, since I got here a few months ago," Lorne replied. "I knew it was a bad idea to get involved with a fellow officer which is why I never did anything about it but the other night ....."
"She reeled you in," Riley concluded. "Dom told me," he added when Evan looked surprised that he knew that. "She must have seen something in you, something different than any other pilot here to make such an obvious play."
"Or maybe she saw me as the challenge she hadn't beaten yet," Lorne suggested. "We'd kind of been dancing around each other for a while before last week." He shook his head. 'It doesn't matter anyway - I'm being a hypocrite complaining about the shallowness of the whole thing when I had no intentions of offering her anything more. I'd just prefer it if it wasn't so ... clinical."
"Intentions and reality are two different things," Riley said knowingly.
"You got someone back home?" Evan asked curiously.
"Yeah - wife and a baby girl," Riley said proudly, instinctively reaching for his wallet and opening it to reveal a picture of a pretty girl holding a newborn. "I had no intention of getting married ... now I have a kid! Sometimes it creeps up on you before you know what hit you."
"Now you're worrying me," Evan quipped, shaking his head. "My heart is fine - still in one piece. It's my pride that's a little bruised and I'll get over that."
"I'm not sure whether to hope you're right or wrong," Riley replied.
"You sound like my sister," Lorne chuckled. "She's been on me for years to find someone and settle down. I've avoided it so far - no reason to think I can't keep doing that."
"You don't know what you're missing," Riley said simply. "Before I met Kate I believed in the job sure. I was motivated but I didn't have the drive I have now. They give me purpose, they make it real, personal. How can any of us do the job without something like that?"
"Family," Evan agreed. "I get that ... and I'm happy for anyone who's managed to find what you have. I ah ... I have my reasons for not putting that kind of family life on my to do list."
"Here we go," Steve's return ended the private exchange, Evan gratefully accepting the beer placed in front of him. Determined to enjoy the night he put thoughts of Tanya and his feelings, whatever they might be, from his mind. He knew - hoped - it would all look different in the light of day.
The next day Lorne discovered that it wasn’t only his personal life that seemed determined to leave him dissatisfied. Rather than head out with the rest of his squad he was forced to sit it out on the sidelines while his F-16 engine was rebuilt.
Every engine was tested and reset prior to every mission. When they’d done Lorne’s the day before they’d discovered a damaged component that required the whole engine to be disassembled and then put back together, a job that took ground crews 22 hours at the best of times. Having to replace a damaged component put the estimated completion time beyond that and spelled the end of Evan’s chances to fly mission four.
In all likelihood he’d picked up the damage during his stint of low level flying – that was particularly hard on aircraft because the engines sucked in dust and potentially more damaging debris. Everything was in demand during Red Flag and there were no spare aircraft just lying around waiting for use.
Lorne shrugged off his disappointment, going along with the others when they used the time between the main mission briefing and specific planning to visit the aviation museum. In one of the unused hangars it contained planes used in previous wars, complete with the bullet holes their pilots would have been proud to survive and bring home.
It was an eye opener, seeing those planes and imagining the conditions the early pilots had flown under. By comparison, although technically and physically more demanding, flying an F-16 was like surrounding yourself with an armoured tank. It was the flying equivalent of driving a 4 wheel drive instead of a model T Ford ... airbags and crumple zones stacked up against the absence of even a seat belt for safety.
Walking under the wing of the World War 2 Vought F4U Corsair, Evan examined the body carefully, grinning when he found the first of a line of bullet holes. Putting a finger through the hole he wondered about the life of the pilot who’d flown that plane home. Had he survived the war and returned to his family when it was over? Had any of his children followed in his footsteps?
“First single-engined fighter to exceed 400 m.p.h,” Piper commented, stopping to read the description plaque.
“And now, only sixty years later we’re surpassing 600,” Lorne commented.
“Progress,” Piper smiled.
“Yeah ... that it is,” Evan shrugged. “I bet it didn’t take the engineers 22 hours to rebuilt this plane’s engine.”
“Probably could have built the whole plane in less time than that,” Piper agreed. “I’m sorry you’re missing the mission this afternoon.”
“It’s okay,” Lorne replied. “And I don’t need the experience – if any one of us was going to miss out it should be me.”
“Very noble of you,” Piper said, lips turned up faintly.
“Are you laughing at me?” Evan narrowed his eyes at her warningly.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Piper took a step back, eyes sparkling with humour.
“Good. Don’t forget this is my home base – I know places they wouldn’t find you for days,” Evan kept his expression bland enough to hide his true mood.
“Sure you do tough guy,” Piper laughed, not fooled.
“Fine ... just be careful up there,” Lorne turned serious suddenly.
“We did okay before you came along hot shot,” Piper’s pride kicked in.
“I know,” Evan said easily, “but we’re a team for the duration. And no one can have too many people watching their back.”
“True,” Piper smiled. “You really are one of the good guys Evan Lorne.”
“Keep it to yourself,” Evan could feel the slight flush of embarrassment rising. “Anyway, next time I won’t be the good guy,” he reminded her of his eventual role in future Red Flags.
"I think that will test you more than anything you've done so far this week," Piper said, her expression thoughtful.
Lorne didn't want to agree openly but deep down he knew she was right ... hunting down the enemy when you knew they were out to hurt you or the people you were responsible for protecting was one thing. Deliberately trying to take down one of your own was another thing entirely. "It's all in the mind set," he told her confidently. "Besides, I'll be helping prepare people just like you guys for real combat ... and that I can get behind one hundred percent."
"True," Piper agreed. She'd known Lorne long enough to see that he was a born leader, mentor, teacher, whatever you wanted to call it. He was genuinely interested in facilitating everyone reaching their best potential and if he had an ego he kept it a lot more hidden than the average pilot.
Lorne turned from Piper to see one of Major Daniel's aides wanting his attention. Daniel's was Lorne's commanding officer at Nellis Base so he assumed it was something to do with his usual role. "Yes?" he asked curiously.
"Major Daniel's would like to see you Sir," the junior officer said.
"Okay," Lorne turned back to Piper. "Make me proud up there," he told her before taking his leave.
"I heard about your plane Captain," Major Daniel's said when Lorne stepped into his office.
"Should be back in operation tomorrow Sir," Evan replied. "Is there something you'd like me to do this afternoon?"
"Since you can't fly with your squad Major Pace and I decided to offer you the opportunity to see the battle from a different perspective," Daniel's replied. "If you're interested?"
"Yes Sir," Lorne didn't let his surprise at the offer show. Assuming he was correct and he'd got himself a spot on the AWACS aircraft with Major Pace he had to wonder why. Not that he was complaining - he just wasn't sure when he'd come under the attention of the Red Flag leaders and if that was a good or bad thing.
"Report to Major Pace at 1200 hours," Daniel's said. "Your plane leaves at 1215 ... enjoy the ride."
"I will Sir," Lorne stood to attention without actually saluting. "Thank you Sir."
The AWACS was a hive of activity as Lorne made his way on board. After reporting in for duty and getting permission to come aboard Evan took a spot in a corner where he could see the main screen as well as observe the controllers in action and sat back quietly.
He'd thought that coordinating so many planes over such a large area would be an unenviable task - it was but at the same time these guys made it look easy. Sure it was active and busy but it was controlled ... smooth, efficient and pretty damn impressive. Each controller had responsibility for tracking specific aspects - working in sync they covered every aircraft and every inch of ground in the battle zone. Squads were shown in their respective colours, the graphics making it seem like some kind of complex computer game. The stakes were real and they were high - the Red Flag objective was to exceed the intensity of live combat situations for everyone involved, pilots, mechanics, ground crews and the like.
They had satellite imagery too - zooming in on the ground in response to information fed back from a number of sources it really was like being there.
Over the next two hours Lorne learned more about battle management than he'd learned in a hundred hours reading the texts. Strategy, backing up your men, reading the signs and acting on your instincts as to what the enemy was up to, being proactive as well as reactive, and above all protecting all your assets - from the enemy and from themselves. Losses happened on both sides ... the coloured jets of the friendly forces winking out of existence as their pilots were sent home, along with the red forces dropping from an engagement only to appear back in the sky somewhere else.
There were a couple of close calls, when one squad got too close to meeting another head on, but they were handled with professional ease and surety. Evan knew at the main debrief those incidents would be discussed and analysed to ensure the reasons for them were understood. For a pilot in control those mistakes couldn't happen again.
This time some of the squads were firing at ground targets ... Evan found himself practically grinning as he watched them shoot short bursts - in the air it would look like harmless puffs of smoke accompanied by the flares the pilots set off to mask their path away. Even the noise wouldn't truly reflect the power of those bullets - small pops absorbed quickly into the open sky. On the ground those bullet rounds pinged against an enemy tank, creating sparks. They were dropping bombs too - it was a sight to see them hit the ground one after the other on their way to the target, puffing up mini towers of dirt that culminated in a ball of fire bursting forth to engulf the target.
"What do you think?" Major Pace himself moved across to where Lorne sat to talk to him.
"I'm impressed Sir," Lorne made to rise, half standing before his superior officer waved him back at ease. "And I don't think I'll ever take the intel I get during a flight for granted again."
"Can you see yourself being in charge of something like this in the future?" Pace asked curiously, motioning to the twenty or so people and millions of dollars of technology under his command.
"Me Sir?" Lorne frowned, surprised at the question.
"You're interested in command, right?" Pace queried. "Major Daniel's mentioned the study you're doing."
"That's right Sir," Evan agreed. "Of course I'd like to get promoted eventually. I'd like a command position," he added modestly but honest. "I just never considered exactly what I'd be commanding."
"You've done well so far," the Major stated matter-of-factly. "It takes talent to be a pilot but not every pilot has what it takes to transition that to a command role out of the aircraft."
"I'd hope to still have a few years in the pilot’s seat yet Sir," Evan said, gratified that the other man seemed to be insinuating he did have what it took.
"And I'm sure you will," Pace smiled. "No harm in planning for the future ... I think you appreciate that."
"Yes Sir," Lorne agreed. When Major Pace nodded and made to move away, Evan felt compelled to add something. "Thank you Sir, for the opportunity to see the battle from up here. I think I learned more about command than I ever could in the classroom."
"You earned it," Pace said simply, moving back to wrap up the tail end of mission four.
Sitting back, Lorne pondered that for a moment. The only thing he could assume was that his record so far during the operation had been enough to get him the attention and the spot on the AWACS when his plane had turned up unflyable that morning. "Tanya was right," he thought with a mental shake of the head. "Everyone is keeping score!"
Mission 6 - Man down
As Red Flag continued the missions became more and more challenging. Combat periods were longer and more intense ... the requirement to refuel in the air now a necessity. Lorne knew everyone would have done mid air refuelling before but it was an entirely different kettle of fish when you were in the middle of a battle zone. It was too easy to push it right to the limit, making your window for refuelling tight. If you took too long connecting with the fuel line you risked your own life - even if you'd left yourself enough time, taking too long could risk other pilots down the queue who could run out of fuel waiting for you. And often you'd be exhausted and just want to get home but have to refuel to make it that far.
No one wanted the alternative though - running out of fuel and having to eject. In real combat if you did that you ran the risk of getting captured ... an enemy pilot would be a coveted prize for any leader. If they knew a pilot had gone down in their area the enemy would respond with enough resources to make evading them difficult.
Evan had begun to enjoy the challenge more as the missions got more difficult ... he hadn't stretched his pilots 'wings' so much in a while and it served to continually remind him both of why he'd gotten into the business in the first place and why he stayed, why he'd made the effort to switch to the F-16.
He'd also spent probably too much time thinking about his relationship, if you could call it that, with Tanya Reid. It didn't take long for him to work out one simple fact. He'd let her take the lead too much, as though just going along with the flow would absolve him of any consequences. Instead that attitude had left him feeling out of control ... and cheapened ... not a situation he'd put up with for very long. So once back on the ground after his joy ride in the AWACS he'd decided on a different approach. He didn't want to end things just yet ... there was something there along with an urge compelling him to work out what. Tanya Reid was a puzzle he just had to solve. So, ending it was out of the question, which only left one other course of action. He had to get her to spend some time with him that wasn't about getting hot and sweaty ... and then he had to shake her foundation enough that he'd get a glimpse of what was underneath. Once he'd worked out his plan he put it into action for the following afternoon, after mission five.
"I got your invitation," Tanya caught up with him in the Mess an hour after getting his note.
"And?" Lorne didn't give her any indication of how much he wanted her to say Yes.
"And you've got me intrigued," Tanya admitted, looking down at the note in her hand. "I've been stationed here long enough to know all the best places. You sure you can take me somewhere I haven't been before?"
"Yep," Evan grinned, going for cocky and sure as he watched her frown.
"Okay, you're on," she decided abruptly. "Let's go."
“No, let's eat first," he said, grabbing her wrist lightly and pulling her into the seat next to him. Pushing across the extra sandwich and juice he'd gotten for her he smiled blandly when she looked at him suspiciously before giving in and beginning to eat.
He let the silence ride, content that he had her thinking if nothing else. Whether that would prove to be a good thing or not was yet to be seen. When they were done he stood, holding out a hand. "Ready?" he asked lightly.
"Sure," Tanya agreed, taking his hand and letting him guide her through the Mess. They walked outside, past a few buildings. When Lorne turned towards the car park he felt Tanya resist for a moment before going along. "We're going off base?" she asked curiously.
"Yep," Evan chuckled. "Don't worry, you'll know soon enough where we're going," he added, squeezing her hand.
"Not that I have a problem with that," Tanya said as they stopped by the car Lorne had borrowed for the evening. As he reached to open her door she shifted closer, leaning against him enough that he staggered back against the car. "I was just thinking ...," she trailed off suggestively, walking her fingers up his chest as she looked at him with an expression that could only be described as sultry.
Evan felt that look all the way down to his toes ... wrapping his arms around her he spun them until she was resting against the car. Her expression turned faintly triumphant as he leaned down and kissed her. This one was different that their previous kisses because he was determined to control their direction, something she was equally determined on. He’d never thought a kiss could ever be likened to war until this one - it was a battle between two very strong individuals who both knew exactly what they wanted. In the end it was Tanya who caved first, dropping her head back with a moan as he found a spot along her jaw that seemed to melt her bones. She'd clearly forgotten where they were, shifting her lower body in a message that screamed 'take me' to anyone who might be watching. Evan didn't feel he'd won anything as he finished the exchange and shifted back to create a modicum of space between them. He watched her return to reality with a faint blush staining her cheeks but said nothing as their eyes met. They just looked at each other for a few moments before Lorne broke the silence.
"I think we both know I wanted to take that ... take you to the obvious conclusion," he said in a low tone. "But I want to take you out even more. We have time," he added. Not giving her the chance to say anything he stepped back, opening her door and waiting until she'd taken a seat before closing it and striding around to the driver’s side.
Where his victory hadn't been, the silence in the car was strangely satisfying as Lorne drove towards their destination. Had he finally succeeded in making Tanya Reid speechless?
"Can you believe we're half way through Red Flag already?" Tanya asked abruptly.
"Apparently not," he thought to himself with a faint smirk. "It's gone pretty quickly," he replied aloud. "How many Red Flag's have you actually done?"
"Ah ... five or six," Tanya answered, thinking. "There were a couple of years there where we only did one, plus two or three I sat out for."
"And you still enjoy it," Lorne stated that conclusion as fact.
"I do," Tanya admitted unapologetically. "There's something about testing myself in the air that makes me feel alive like nothing else. This is as close to real combat as we can get - I think we need it to keep sharp." She looked across at Evan before turning her attention back to the road in front of them. "I don't wish for it but who knows when the next conflict will break out. I want to be ready ... it's what I signed up for."
"It's what we all sign up for, even if it isn't the primary driver," Evan agreed. Catching sight of the sign he'd been looking for he indicated, slowing and making a right turn.
"Boulder city airport?" Tanya looked at him curiously. "You're taking me ... a pilot ... to an airfield?"
"Have you been here before?" Evan asked, glancing across at her with a raised brow. Directing the car away from the domestic terminal he again looked for a sign and then followed a sweeping road leading to a small cluster of buildings.
"Well ... no," Tanya admitted.
"There you go then," Evan grinned, pulling into the carpark beside a small administrative building. "Just wait here for a second," he requested, getting her nod of agreement before hurrying from the car.
A few moments later he returned, going to Tanya's side and opening her door. "It's this way," he said, still being secretive about what they were doing there.
Tanya took his hand, casting him searching glances as they walked towards a large hangar. Inside stood a Cessna Skyhawk, gleaming in the early evening sunlight. "Your chariot Ma'am," he gestured grandly before walking forward, tugging her hand to get her moving with him.
"You're taking me up in that?" Tanya clearly didn't know what to think.
"Why not?" Lorne quipped back. He leapt up the step onto the wing and opened the door, climbing in and then leaning out to take her hand. She went along with it, letting him guide her into her chair. Settling into the pilot seat and putting his head gear in place he grinned over at her. She couldn't help but smile in return, captivated by his enthusiasm and that faint 'little boy playing' air that surrounded him.
Competently Evan got them going, clearing their take off with the control tower and flying them into the sky. It was still an hour or so before the sun dropped below the horizon, enough time for him to shake off the cobwebs of days spent in meeting rooms under the weight of expectations and rules. He'd never trade his spot in an F-16 to anyone but a part of him would always love the particular kind of freedom flying something like the Cessna gave him. It was his first love, the plane he'd learned to fly in, and something of that past always came back to him when he got behind the controls. Perhaps that was why he always turned to it when he was trying to find a solution or just needed to think.
"Shall we have a little fun?" he turned to Tanya, smiling at catching her looking out the windows with a charmed expression.
"Why not," Tanya echoed his words teasingly.
"Hold on then," Lorne gave that as his only warning, dropping into the first of a series of aerobic patterns that came to him like second nature. He did them all, laughing when Tanya let out a tiny squeal of delight during one particularly tight roll spin. After he'd exhausted his entire repertoire he returned to a more sedate flight path, checking his fuel gages and judging how much time they had left before he'd have to land.
"I'm guessing you've done this before," Tanya said, looking across at him curiously.
"Yeah, a time or two," Evan replied, shifting slightly to face her while still being able to fly the plane. "Never brought a date up with me before though," he added, deliberately taking the conversation in the direction he wanted it to go in. It was true though - he'd never gone out with anyone who wouldn't have ended up sick to the stomach after the first manoeuvre ... until Tanya.
"Is that what this is ... a date?" Tanya asked lightly.
"I'd like to think so," Evan returned quietly. "Our first ... if you're counting."
"What about -," Tanya began.
"No," Evan shook his head, stopping her from completing that statement. "Those other times were just sex ... there was nothing date like about them."
"Ace," Tanya's tone held an edge of warning that said he was skirting close to annoying her.
"Good," he thought. "Maybe I'll see some real emotion from you." "Evan," he said it pointedly.
"What?" Tanya was thrown for a moment.
"I have a name," Evan elaborated, "and it's not Ace."
"You're opposed to a nickname?" Tanya asked, incredulous.
"No," Evan said determinedly. "What I'm opposed to is you assigning a generic name to me so you can pretend there's nothing personal going on between us."
"Great," Tanya grimaced, a defensiveness creeping into her tone. "What happened to no rules, huh?"
"There's a difference between no rules and you treating me as nothing more than a warm body you can get off on," Evan shot back, deliberately crude.
"It wasn't like that!" Tanya protested.
"Look, I've been involved in 'casual' relationships before," Evan said, "and I know the difference between something short term but respectful and what we've been doing."
"You don't respect me?" Tanya frowned.
"It's more that you don't respect me," Evan returned. "Don't mistake me here - I'm not looking for white picket fences and two point whatevers any more than you are. But I'm not interested in a relationship that's only about sex either. I can care about you without needing to tie either of us down."
"I don't ... it's not ...," Tanya almost growled in frustration. "I can't believe this! You're a guy! You're telling me you don't want sex without strings?"
"I'm telling you I don't want sex without strings," Evan repeated in agreement. "Don't get me wrong ... I want you, I'd be lying if I said anything different. But I want to know you a little too, express some level of caring without having you look like I've just run over your dog ... kind of how you're looking now in fact."
Tanya shifted uncomfortably, looking out the window and then down at the gauges before turning her gaze back to Evan. "You did this deliberately," she stated, low and clearly angry.
"I did," Evan said complacently. "You agreed to come up here of your own free will. Not my fault you can't run away now the conversation isn't to your liking."
"I don't run away!" Tanya shot out.
"Sure you don't," Lorne shook his head as it all became clear to him. He’d thought it was simply that she was worried that taking them too seriously would risk her heart – her independence – but it was much more than that. "Someone hurt you, didn't they? Turned you off relationships so bad you don't even want a friendship between you and whatever guy you've decided to screw this week."
"You have no idea what you're talking about!" Tanya's eyes glittered with tears as she turned away, crossing her arms over her chest, breathe hitching. She started when Evan put a hand to the back of her neck, stroking slowly.
"I'm so sorry Tanya,” he said gently, wincing internally at the misery in her eyes. He hadn't meant to upset her - hadn't really credited that he could. "This was a bad idea ... I'll take you home now."
Taking his hand away he focussed back on the controls, altering their course with a wide turn that would take them back to the airport. "Great going Evan," he told himself bitterly. "Way to completely screw something up before it could get going!" It was only then, as he flew the plane under a cloud of heavy silence that he realised maybe he cared about Tanya more than he'd admitted. If the imagined ache in the vicinity of his heart was any indication, he cared a lot more ... enough to be hurt by what was nothing more than a suicide ending to the relationship. Maybe he should have given her more time ... insinuated his way into her affections rather than taking the frontal attack approach.
Thoughts of what ifs and alternative plans circled in Lorne's mind as they walked back to the car and he drove them back to Nellis Base. The entire hour’s journey passed in a blur - he was so preoccupied he didn't notice that Tanya had moved from rebuilding her emotional barricades to actively observing him.
"So does this mean I'm not coming back to your room tonight?" she asked as soon as he'd pulled up.
"What?" Evan's foot hit the brake too hard, jerking them both forward. Pulling the handbrake he glanced at her, confused. "I thought ...,"
"That I wasn't interested anymore?" Tanya concluded. "I won't deny that I have ... issues. And maybe I went too far, trying to remind both of us that this can't go anywhere. I'm willing to get a little more serious if you're willing to lighten up."
"No more 'thanks for the sex, I have to go now'?" Lorne queried, narrowing his eyes as he considered what it was she was offering, trying to read between the lines.
"No," Tanya smiled, amused at his phrasing.
"No more 'Ace'?" Lorne persisted.
"Not unless you do something that really impresses me ... Evan," Tanya's eyes twinkled as she teased him.
"Something to aspire to then," Evan returned blandly.
"So?" Tanya looked at him expectantly.
"Okay," Evan decided. "On two conditions. One, we start acting like we're actually going out - exclusively." That was important to him - sharing her wasn't an option and he had no interest in pursuing anyone else, wasn't the type to run more than one relationship at a time.
"Exclusive huh?" Tanya looked thoughtful before she nodded her agreement. "And two?"
"Two, we take this to your room instead of keeping it just to mine," he said firmly. "Sex is personal ... you can't separate it from everything else and trying is only going to ruin this before it can go anywhere."
Tanya hesitated this time, her expression guarded. Finally though she nodded. "Deal," she said, holding out a hand.
Evan took it, shaking pointedly to seal the deal before pulling her across the gap between them to land with her weight resting against his chest. He kissed her then, putting some of that unnamed, little understood emotion he had for her into it. She hesitated for a moment before giving back as good as she got. Maybe it wasn't that different from their previous encounters ... the chemistry between them was potent and neither of them were inclined to hold back. But in that journey from the car to Evan's room, from apart to naked togetherness it felt different ... because they'd agreed it could be more than just a physical act.
"Maybe you'll tell me about it some time," Evan said into the quietness that descended after the storm of their intimacy had passed.
"Maybe," Tanya agreed softly, not pretending she didn’t know what he was talking about, the darkness concealing her expression.
Pulling her closer and smiling when she snuggled into him, Evan sighed. He had no idea what he was doing, how he'd gotten from being determined to avoid getting involved with Tanya Reid to actively arguing for more than just a sexual relationship. But there he was and his overwhelming emotion was happiness. He actually felt happy because Tanya had stayed with him and that fact scared the crap out of him. "You are in so much trouble," he thought to himself even as he pressed a kiss into her hair.
"So far at Red Flag our missions have all been planned," Major Pace opened the briefing for the next day with that statement. The room was at full capacity, 2,000 people hanging on every word, all wondering the same thing. What was in store for them that day?
"Planned missions are the easy ones," Pace continued. "It's the ones you can't plan that are the most dangerous, and that's what today is about."
Evan had been listening closely enough not to notice one of the Major's aides walking down the centre aisle and across his row until they were standing in front of him. "Captain Lorne?"
"Yes," Evan agreed, brow raised enquiringly.
"Major Pace asked me to brief you Sir," the aide began, glancing towards the exit as he added "outside the theatre."
"Okay," Lorne exchanged a curious glance with Piper and Joe who'd been sitting either side of him before he got up and followed the aide from the theatre, everyone watching them leave. It was like being called up to the principal’s office with everyone knowing you'd done something wrong. Not that he'd done anything wrong ... funny how the act of being called up by the person in authority could make you feel like you had.
There were two Captain's waiting for them ... as the door of the lecture theatre closed, drowning out Major Pace's voice still briefing the participants, they stepped forward. "Please come with us," one said while the other handed Lorne a sealed envelope. Ripping it open he read as he followed the two men, Pace's aide staying behind at the lecture hall.
"Captain Lorne, you have been chosen to play the part of a downed F-16 fighter pilot for today's mission," it read. "Your escorts will transport you by helicopter to the battle zone where you will parachute into enemy territory. Your designation is Nine Three Four. Your primary objective is to avoid capture until our forces can retrieve you. Treat this situation with complete seriousness - enemy forces will capture you and treat you accordingly should you fail in your objective. Your kit contains a radio - the air boss will communicate to you but advises against replying, lest you give away your position to the enemy. Good Luck."
"You've gotta be kidding me," Lorne muttered as he finished reading his orders and then quickly skimmed over them again.
"There's one chosen every Red Flag," one man, his name tag reading 'Oliver' offered. "They used to do it randomly but now they pick the pilot with the highest kill to death ratio. I guess that's you."
"I guess so," Evan cursed under his breath. "Something my squad should have told me," he shook his head, thinking his Nellis colleagues were taking his status as the 'rookie' on the team a little too seriously.
"Good practice if, god forbid, it ever happened for real," the other man, 'Marshall' pointed out. "Plus you know, I always thought it would be kind of fun.”
"Fun," Lorne repeated, trying not to let his mind wander back to a time when it had been real. The organisers probably didn't know about John, not that he'd expect them to adjust their practices just to cushion his time at Red Flag if they did.
Walking out to the waiting UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, the type nicknamed Huey, Evan leapt on board, taking the gear offered to him. Of course he'd parachuted before, a number of times, so the process of getting ready to jump was familiar. Ready before they'd neared the drop zone he held on to a handle by the open door and watched the ground passing beneath them about 13,000 feet below. It was as open as he remembered from flying over it ... not many places to hole up down there.
"Ready Captain?" Oliver called from the front section.
Adjusting and tightening his parachute straps, Lorne held a thumb up. "Ready," he confirmed.
"Any time then," Oliver advised a moment later.
Lorne took a few deep breaths as he faced the open sky ... turning, hands crossed over his chest he literally launched himself from the helicopter backwards, falling out and away as the aircraft continued on its path. The wind rushed up around him, loud in his ears and forceful as it pushed at his body. Rolling, he arranged himself into the standard free falling position, arms and legs held out, bent at elbows and knees. It was exhilarating ... this was truly freedom. There was nothing between him and the sky, no machinery to protect or power him. It was just the sky and gravity ... momentum and friction acting to bring him back to Earth. Pulling the cord he relaxed into the sudden jerking up as the parachute unfurled and filled with air. Hanging, Evan allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the gliding return to solid ground before he turned his attention to actively trying to pick the best available spot to land. Using his control cords he pulled left and right as needed to guide himself near a small mound of bushes not far from a rocky rise. He could use the bushes for cover while he got his bearings and then head for the rise to see more of the terrain from the ground - maybe spot a good hiding place that wasn't obvious from the sky.
As he got closer the ground seemed to rush up to meet him, the last part of a jump always the point when he appreciated how fast he'd been going. He landed lightly enough to keep his feet, spinning and gathering his parachute up rapidly before running to take cover.
It had all happened very quickly, with no warning. He'd gone from sitting in the air conditioned lecture theatre to standing alone in the hot sunshine a long way from anywhere ten minutes later. Consequently he had nothing with him apart from the small pack Captain Marshall had handed him along with the parachute gear. The only things in there were what you'd normally carry in an aircraft’s ejection seat - water, flares, radio and camouflage makeup. That was it ... no food and no weapons of any kind.
Sitting in the bushes crouched low, Lorne quickly painted his face and any exposed skin with the dark green paste, hopefully helping him to blend in with the ground. Setting his radio to receive only he clipped it to the outside of his flight suit, pocketing the water and flares. Then he dashed from the bushes across open ground until he reached the bottom of the rise he'd seen from the air. Climbing quickly he lay flat on the ground, squinting into the distance as he looked for pursuers as well as a place to hide.
He saw the cloud of dust rising from the ground in the distance even as his radio crackled into life.
"Nine three four, enemy ground forces west of your position."
"No shit," Lorne muttered, rolling to his feet and running down the other side of the rise in a shower of dirt and small pebbles. It was hot, even so early in the day and already the sweat was forming small trails through the camouflage makeup. He'd seen a large cactus patch not far away ... beyond that there was the ending of a small side canyon that was once an offshoot of the Colorado River but was now devoid of water. If he were right it placed him somewhere east of the base, on the outskirts of the designated flight zone. Over a hundred miles away. “No way you’re walking out of this one,” he thought.
He didn’t know for sure what the enemy would send to look for him, but it was a sure bet there’d be planes to accompany those ground based units before too long. He had to get to the cactus before they got to him or he’d stand out like a sore thumb, camouflaged or not.
“Nine three four, enemy heelos heading in south of your position,” control advised while he was still running over open ground. “Hole up now.”
“Easy for you to say,” Evan cursed even as he picked up speed, boots slamming into the dirt as he ran. He could hear them coming before he saw them ... the need to get to the ground overriding his need to avoid becoming a cactus pin cushion. Wincing as sharp points bit into him from every direction he dived between two of the larger cacti, lying flat on the ground with his head down.
His breath sounded harsh and too loud in his ears as he waited for something to happen. The motor bikes reached his location first, kicking up the dirt as they flew by so close he wondered how they didn’t spot him. Where were the good guys? The frustration of having a radio right there but not being able to use it was extreme even though he knew he’d only confirm for the enemy that they were right to be searching where they were.
More sounds of bikes passing along with heavier vehicles, probably jeeps, before finally it was quiet again. He’d avoided detection from the ground ... so far. All it would take was one plane flying low and spotting him to bring them all back down on him again.
Where were those helicopters control had warned him of? Raising his head just slightly to get a glimpse of the sky, Lorne quickly dropped it back down again. They were coming in low ... until a squad of slow flying A10’s intercepted them. Finally - the good guys had arrived! With the threat of far superior fire power the enemy heelos aborted their approach, leaving the way clear for Lorne to continue heading towards the canyon. Unfortunately the A10s couldn’t stop and pick him up. Evan still had to keep moving, heading for somewhere their own helicopters could rescue him from.
“Nine three four, the way is clear. Proceed to the nearest suitable landing spot.”
Jumping up, Lorne ran from the cactus patch back out into the open. Taking a quick bearing from the sun’s position he shifted course slightly, heading almost due east. His feet chewed up the distance in long strides as he pushed himself hard, despite the heat that sapped the strength from his legs. His shirt was wet with sweat, his skin feeling hot with the effort and the sun that was hammering away at him, and still he kept going.
All the while he expected control to report more enemy forces but everything was silent, enough that he began to get that alone in the world feeling again. It felt real ... the need to find cover, the push to get to safety ... too real.
And then suddenly he was skidding to a stop at the edge of the canyon he’d been hoping to find. ‘Canyon’ was a generous label – it was more like a narrow wedge of missing ground ten feet deep that stretched for maybe thirty feet in either direction, barely wider than a man lying flat on the ground. As a hiding place it was perfect ... no one would spot him from the air and hopefully ground units would just drive right by without investigating further. There was an overhanging section he could crouch under if the enemy decided to investigate on foot ... and best of all he had a great view of the sky so he’d have a better handle on what was going on up there.
Climbing down carefully, hearing rocks pinging to the ground below him, Lorne eventually made his way to the bottom. It was cooler – the rocks providing insulation as well as a respite from direct exposure to the sun.
“This is better,” Lorne muttered, looking around quickly and picking a defensible spot with the best view in all directions. Slumping to the ground he stretched his feet out in front of him and settled his back against the rocks. He hadn’t been ‘missing’ for long but already felt tired ... pulling out his water bottle he took a few carefully measured swallows before putting it away. Hopefully his own people would find him soon but he had to play along with the scenario – if this were real he’d be conserving his resources for the worst case scenario.
That’s when it hit him ... his mind deciding to replay in vivid detail the moment when he and the search party had walked through the entrance of the caves where John and his co-pilot had holed up. The point when Evan had realised they’d taken too long to find the two pilots ... when he’d realised he’d shared his last moments with a friend and hadn’t even known it. Closing his eyes, he leaned his head back against the rocks, letting the memories wash over him.
His current situation was a little too close to home to be comfortable ... even though he’d come to terms with the way John had died and stopped blaming himself for not working out where to search for the other man sooner, Lorne had never spent any time thinking about it from John’s point of view. He hadn’t wanted to think that John had given up but at the same time he’d never understood how his friend could have sat and waited for so long without doing anything. It has always seemed to him as though John had simply decided to wait for death to claim him – the idea that he’d given up like that always had Lorne feeling angry so he usually avoided thinking about it.
As the minutes ticked into an hour without contact from control, as he sat there alone, no backup in sight, Evan began to get an inkling of that perspective. Even in a situation he knew wasn’t real he was still thinking about his options. Would it be better to stick to his hiding place? It was ideal – he could probably avoid being captured by the bad guys for a long time there, longer than he had the resources to support. Alternatively he could make a run for it, try to get somewhere closer to base or more open. Maybe that way the good guys would find him quicker and he could get home.
Go or stay ... the internal debate raged even while the radio remained silent.
“This is insane,” Evan got up, dusting off his pants as he looked up to where he’d climbed down. Surely by now someone would have worked out where he was! Maybe something had gone wrong up there. Maybe he should radio control even though it would give away his position.
“Nine three four, pop smoke,” the order came abruptly and Lorne couldn’t help but flinch, his heart racing.
“Finally!” Pulling out his flare he fired it, watching the orange mini rocket shoot up into the sky directly above him, glowing brightly with its trail of smoke leading back to where Evan waited.
“Landing zone is clear,” control told him.
That meant the good guys were all set to rescue him. This was where it would get interesting because Lorne knew they couldn’t just assume he was above board. They couldn’t even assume he was their downed pilot because maybe he’d been replaced by someone looking to infiltrate or maybe he’d even been compromised. He could be wearing a stolen uniform and have a bomb strapped to his body. Without knowing for sure he’d be treated like the enemy until he could prove otherwise. Pulling himself back up the rock wall, Lorne climbed out of the canyon just as the rescue party arrived.
Four Heuy’s glided in from the west. They were part of the first helicopter squadron from Andrews AFB – being piloted by new crews just like the rest of Red Flag operations. Hovering over the ground near Evan’s canyon, three man teams rappelled down to the ground. Three of the helicopters continued to hover as three more arrived and circled above covering the area. The last helicopter landed and more men jumped out.
Staying where he was, Evan held out his hands in a non threatening gesture that said he had nothing to hide.
As the four man team approached on foot, Lorne got down on the ground and folded his arms across his chest. Two of the men got behind his head while the others stood guard. And then they each took an arm and literally dragged him across the ground back to the helicopter, his heels dragging in the dirt.
It was a bizarre experience to say the least and not one he’d like to repeat any time soon. Once he was in the back of the helicopter they took off. Evan felt his respect for the search and rescue guys increase as the medic checked him over for real, making sure he wasn’t injured and getting him to drink some water. It was humbling to realise that these guys were fully prepared to give up their lives to save someone they didn’t even know.
Sitting in his seat watching their helicopter fall into formation with the other six, all seven heading back to Nellis, Lorne considered what he’d learned that day. That going down in enemy territory and surviving wasn’t an academic exercise even during a drill – that it wasn’t as easy as he’d thought deep down it would be. Experience like that couldn’t be equalled by any amount of study.
More importantly, he finally believed that John hadn’t given up like Evan had always thought. He’d done the best he could just as Evan had done his best to find him. It was simple and yet profound and let that last edge of something like grief and anger he’d held inside finally dissipate.
Major Pace spoke to Lorne personally after he’d returned to the base and been confirmed to be who he was, that aspect raising a faint smile for Lorne as he'd answered a number of questions to establish his identity.
“I don’t think it’s ever taken us so long to find our downed pilot,” Pace began when Evan arrived, standing respectfully at the other man’s desk.
“I always was good at hide and seek Sir,” Lorne quipped, earning a laugh from his superior.
“You had us all stumped for a while there Lorne,” he held up a hand when Evan opened his mouth to speak. “That’s a good thing. It’s too easy to make assumptions in a search and rescue situation. Our guys made a mistake today in working out how much ground you could cover from your last reported position. You got a lot further than anyone expected you to – challenged our SARs teams to work out how to find you while the enemy was very actively looking for you too.”
“Your orders said to treat it like a real situation,” Lorne replied intently. “I just used what I know about the terrain and what I could see on the way down to choose the best place to wait for rescue. I was lucky Sir ... the enemy got very close when I’d only been on the ground for a few minutes.”
“I never discount luck,” the Major returned, “nor the fact that careful planning, training, and just sheer talent can create it. You did well Captain.” He paused, looking at Evan closely. “How would you rate today’s experience?”
“Invaluable Sir,” Lorne said simply. He hoped the other man would leave it at that because he had no wish to explain why he felt that way.
“Good,” Pace nodded his approval. He waved a hand towards his door then, smiling as he dismissed Evan. “Go find your squad – I’m sure they’re all very eager to tell you their version of the day.”
“That should be interesting,” Evan agreed, straightened to attention. “Thank you Sir.”
Half an hour later, showered and with all traces of his afternoon effort erased apart from the painful case of sunburn he was now sporting and a host of cactus scratches that were mostly hidden under his clothing, Evan headed out to find his team.
Walking into the open air bar where Piper, Joe and David would most likely be waiting for him was an exercise in embarrassment for Lorne. He was stopped a number of times with comments ranging from congratulations for sticking it out until the right crew rescued him to ribbing about wasting the considerable resources of the U.S. military by hiding just a little too well.
He laughed and shrugged it all off until finally he arrived at his squad’s table and could throw himself wearily into a chair.
“Don’t say it,” he held up a hand, hoping they’d all cut him some slack.
“I was going to say you look busted,” Piper said lightly.
“I was gonna tell you you look like shit,” David quipped at the same time.
“I was just going to say hello,” Joe muttered.
Lorne looked at them all silently for a moment before breaking out into laughter. “Well that’s my ego back down where it belongs,” he retorted. “Thanks guys.”
“Any time buddy,” David said helpfully. “Any time.”
Tanya was equally as sobering when he arrived at her room a couple of hours later.
“Here he is – the winner of today’s game of hide and seek,” she said with a teasing smile.
“Yeah, we’re all a bunch of big kids around here,” he retorted, pulling her in and kissing her. It started out light but quickly turned more serious until Tanya moved to run hands through his hair, brushing against his sunburn sensitive skin. With a stifled groan he pulled away. “Sorry,” he muttered, touching fingers to his cheek with a wince.
“Sit down,” Tanya all but pushed him down to the bed before going to her bathroom. When she returned she carried a damp flannel. Kneeling on the floor in front of him she carefully placed it against his face, the coolness raising a shivering sigh from him as he closed his eyes. Replacing the flannel at regular intervals she covered his whole face and neck before sitting back and patting his knee. “Better?” she asked.
Evan opened his eyes, his expression unguarded as his eyes met hers. And it hit him with a burst of knowledge ... he'd swear that everything froze with the realisation that he’d done the unthinkable and fallen for the woman in front of him. Really fallen ... the big L word ... love. The emotion gathered at the pit of his stomach and spread out to every part of him ... he couldn’t have stopped if from taking over even if he’d tried. He was so stunned by the realisation though that he did nothing, just sat there feeling shell shocked, letting a sickening combination of dread and glee wash over him.
“What?” Tanya asked, concerned by his silence. “Is it worse?”
“Ah ... no, no. It’s fine,” he finally answered. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Tanya smiled as she got up to get rid of the flannel.
Evan watched her go, wondering what the hell he should do next. Declaring himself was out of the question even if he’d been ready to do that – he was pretty sure that telling her he loved her would fall well outside those ‘nothing serious’ rules she’d imposed on both of them.
Maybe it wasn’t really love ... he just wasn’t used to someone looking after him like she’d done and it had understandably touched him. And besides, he'd never been 'in love' before - what would he know about how it should feel?
“Suuurree,” he thought internally. He wasn’t in the habit of lying to himself but right then he was thinking starting would be a damn fine idea.
Mission 10 - Live ordinance
Later that evening after Tanya had fallen asleep and he’d escaped back to the quiet of his own room, Evan found himself sitting on his bed unable to settle. He had so much going through his head there was no way he could sleep. Looking at the time and doing a quick calculation he decided it wasn’t too late to call. Starting his computer he called up the much used software and waited for a connection.
“Evan!” Andrew Rider’s grinning facade popped up on the screen, a little blurry but good enough to have Lorne grinning back. “What’s up buddy?”
“Does something have to be up for me to call my sister and brother-in-law?” Evan shot back. Drew was still stationed at Cold Lake and Elaine gave every appearance of settling into the colder climate with ease, her bubbling happiness at making a life with her husband still apparent almost a year after their wedding.
“No, but you don’t usually call this late,” Drew replied. He watched as Evan’s expression fell before his friend shrugged.
“You know how it goes,” Evan dismissed lightly. “Some days you just need to call home.”
“The training’s not going well?” Drew frowned, surprised.
“Ah ...,” before Evan could answer another body dropped down in front of the screen.
“EVAN!!” Elaine squealed, grinning madly as she sat in the chair beside Drew.
“You want to shout that a little louder?” Evan returned, putting a hand to his ears with an exaggerated grimace. “I think there are still a few people in the next building who didn’t hear you.”
“Don’t be a smart ass,” she scolded him. Leaning in closer she looked at him, her eyes narrowing. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Evan shot back irritably. “Why does everyone think something’s wrong just because I called? I can hang up if you like.”
“No!” both Drew and Elaine spoke in unison. They exchanged a look before turning back to Evan. “Is the training going okay?” Elaine asked.
“Its fine,” Evan insisted. “I got to play downed fighter pilot today – parachuted from a helicopter into enemy territory.” He hadn’t meant to share that, not that bluntly.
“Oh,” Elaine exchanged another glance with Drew. “Was it ...,”
“Hard?” Evan offered. “It wasn’t easy ... it took a long time for them to find me so ... I had plenty of time to think.”
“And?” Drew asked. They were all thinking about the same thing ... Evan welcomed the fact that he didn’t need to explain anything – maybe that’s why he’d felt the need to call them tonight.
“And nothing,” Evan shrugged. “I got an up close and personal insight into what John must have gone through ... and I’m okay with that.”
“So if it’s not that, what’s got that pained look on your face?” Elaine asked. He didn’t say anything but somehow she instinctively knew. “You met someone!”
“No ... yes ... kind of,” Evan admitted reluctantly.
“Who is she?” Drew asked.
“What’s she like?” Elaine talked over her husband, her delight apparent.
“Don’t get too excited Sis,” Evan cautioned.
“Why?” Elaine frowned. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for this?!”
“Look, it’s not that simple,” Evan ran a hand through his hair, trying to work out how to explain. “Tanya ... she’s ... she’s not looking for anything serious ... you know I wasn’t either but now ... I don’t know,” he stopped himself from rambling any more, sure only his sister would be able to make sense out of what he’d said so far.
“You’re in love with her,” Elaine said it almost reverently. “But you don’t think she feels the same?”
“I know she doesn’t feel the same,” Evan laughed harshly, not even attempting to deny that Elaine was right. “She’s barely interested in going out on a real date - the chances of this being anything like what I can see you imagining are pretty damn slim.”
“Evan,” Elaine’s expression was concerned as she watched her brother trying to sort it out in his own mind.
“Just imagine a completely f - fried situation and that’s where I’m at right now,” Evan finished grimly.
Elaine and Drew were both silent for a moment before Elaine sighed, looking as though she'd like nothing more than to reach through the screen and give her brother a big hug. “I’m sorry this isn’t what it should be,” she said gently. “Falling in love should make you happy but I can see it hasn’t. I’m sorry Evan,” she said again.
“It’s okay,” Evan shook his head. “This is the last thing I should be thinking about anyway. There are still four missions for Red Flag left – I should be focussing on that.”
“I think you’re capable of performing at the top of your game and having a personal life too,” Drew said, pointedly dismissing that as a viable excuse. “And it’s not like you to be so defeatist before you’ve even tried to go after what you want.”
“To be honest I have no idea what I want ... and I’m pretty sure I heard somewhere that you can’t make someone love you,” Evan retorted. “This one is outside of my control.”
“And that bugs the hell out of you, doesn’t it?” Drew said shrewdly.
“So I like being in control, so what?” Evan knew he sounded petulant but didn’t care.
“Love isn’t about control Evan,” Elaine told her brother wisely. “It’s about giving yourself up to someone else, knowing that they’ll be there for you. It's about trust ... not just in them as a person but in the situation itself.”
“See I’ve already got a problem with that,” Evan protested. “No offense, but I think I’d rather give up on the love thing than have someone thinking they can control me.” He didn't add that deep down he wasn't sure he even believed in that happily ever after she was alluding to - how could he trust in something he didn't really believe in?
“Have you talked to her?” Elaine asked, ignoring his last statement.
“I had to get her up in a plane at 5,000 feet just to talk about the difference between sex and going out on a date,” Evan admitted. “And I can’t believe I’m talking to you about this!”
“I’m a big girl now,” Elaine told him impatiently. “Believe it or not I have talked about sex before.”
“Not with me,” Evan muttered. “Listen, I don’t expect you to work this out for me. I just wanted to talk to you – and not even about Tanya specifically.”
“I know,” Elaine replied. “I just ... want to help.”
“Talking to you helps,” Evan smiled as he watched her expression brighten at that. Looking at his brother–in–law he added “and I haven’t given up ... I just ...don’t have a plan yet.”
“I’m sure you’ll work one out before this woman turns you into mush,” Drew laughed when Evan glared at him.
“Last time I open up and share my feelings with you,” Evan said in a low tone.
“Is that what you were doing?” Drew returned. “Maybe you should work on that before you tell this woman how you feel.”
“That’s the best advice you’ve got?” Evan asked incredulously.
“You don’t need advice,” Drew said seriously. “You just need to convince yourself to take the risk – you’re good at that when it comes to the air force, to your friends. For everything else I have to say you pretty much suck."
"Thanks for the overwhelming vote of approval buddy," Evan shot back sarcastically.
"Anytime," Drew said airily, grinning until he got an elbow in the side from Elaine along with a pointed look that said 'you can't leave it at that!' "You'll do fine," he added a touch lamely.
"I think you know what I mean when I say you're not inspiring me here," Evan smirked, watching his friend respond to the obvious prodding from his wife.
"There are compensations," Drew said, putting an arm around Elaine's shoulder and whispering something in her ear that had her blushing and giggling too giddily for Evan's liking.
"Hey, can you wait until after I'm off the line to do that?!" he protested.
"Don't give up on this Evan," Elaine urged, leaning closer to the screen again as she continued. "Is this woman smart?"
"Ah ... she's a fighter pilot too so you know, sure, of course she'd smart," Evan replied uncertainly. "Why?"
"Because if she's smart enough she'll realise what she's got in you," Elaine said simply.
"And of course you're not biased at all," Evan returned. He couldn't help but smile though - the warm feeling he had inside, that special place labelled 'sister' all the reason he'd needed to call her tonight. He still felt confused and troubled but somehow at the same time he felt better too. "Thanks Lainee."
"You're welcome," she glanced at Drew and then back to her brother. "So ... you're okay?"
"I'm okay," he assured her. "I'll let you guys go ... talk to you soon."
"Let us know how it all turns out," Drew added.
Nodding, Evan waved and then signed off, sitting back in his chair contemplatively. Aside from the shoring up his ego had gotten from his sisters unwavering approval, the conversation had clarified one thing for him. Before he could work out what to do about his feelings for Tanya he had to work out what the hell he wanted ... because white picket fences and the accompanying box and dice still didn't seem like they should be a part of his future. "So ... what do you want?" he murmured aloud, eyes narrowed. Good question - he just wished he knew the answer.
The following day was a rest day for flights, ground crews and emergency crews engaging in live training scenarios while the pilots did a recap and review of the previous six missions. Evan had woken up early, despite his late night. He'd jogged, showered and dressed and made it to the Mess, all before 7am. Now he was sitting letting his coffee grow cold while he doodled on his note pad, lost in thought.
"Is that me?" Tanya's voice startled him enough that he broke the lead tip off his pencil, leaving a thick almost black line marring the edge of his drawing.
Looking down he shifted uncomfortably as he examined the page. He'd drawn five head and shoulder pencil sketches of Tanya, each capturing the essence of her varying moods. Teasing, smiling, determined ... sultry was in there too. The last sketch, the one he'd drawn as the centre for the others was larger. In it she had an air of softness ... a vulnerability that he knew she wouldn't like seeing. Glancing back at her he couldn't tell what she thought of being the subject of his doodles. "Ah ... I guess," he stood, hesitated for a moment and then leaned in to kiss her lightly. "You're up early," he said, waiting for her to sit down before sitting himself.
"I know - the one day I could have slept in and I woke up before the alarm," Tanya complained. Motioning to the page she smiled. "You're good."
"Thanks," he glanced down at the page before shrugging. "I ah ... I used to do that all the time when I was at the academy ... draw things while I was thinking about something else. I guess old habits never completely die, huh?"
"Can I?" she motioned to his notepad, asking for a closer look.
"Sure," pushing it over he just barely stopped himself from wincing as he waited for her reaction. For her approval. That was a new one too - wanting so badly for someone to like his work ... not that a few pencil sketches really counted as actual art.
"This is how you see me?" Tanya asked after she'd looked at each aspect of herself in detail. Evan couldn't tell what she really thought and didn't want to delve too deeply - the situation had the potential to take him in to territory he wasn't ready to explore just yet.
"They're just doodles," he said lightly, taking the notepad and swiftly turning the page, folding the sketches out of sight. The moment was just getting to the awkward stage when the Mess doors opened again and a group of German pilots came in, all talking a mile a minute. The distraction was enough to smooth over their silence, both shaking off the strange mood.
"I was thinking tonight it's my turn to take you somewhere you haven't been," Tanya said, looking away from the laughing German's back to Evan.
"Really?" Lorne was deliberately sceptical as he grinned.
"I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve," she retorted. "I'll pick you up outside Admin at 1900 hours. Dress warm."
"Yes Ma'am," Evan said promptly, earning a laugh.
Tanya got up, standing behind him and leaning down so she could talk close to his ear. "Don't be late," she kissed the side of his neck, laughing when he visibly shivered and then straightened. "See you later," she said, ruffling his hair and then walking away. Evan watched her go, sure she was doing the sexiest walk she could muster just to get him going.
It was going to be a long day.
That set the tone for the next three days ... briefings, missions and debriefings during the day and a series of dates each evening. That first night Tanya took him to a spot on base where you could climb to a rise that was perfectly flat, like someone had lopped the top off a hill and sanded it down. Lying side by side on the blanket she'd brought Tanya showed him the stars, more visible that he'd noticed before because they were isolated from the city lights some distance away. He knew about stars of course - astronomy had been both a necessity for someone aspiring to NASA and a love of his since he'd been young and decided he'd like to go into space one day. Since he'd had to let that dream rest as unattainable Evan hadn't given much consideration to the stars ... as he listened to Tanya talking about each constellation he reconnected with that aspect of himself that wondered what was out there and if they really were alone in the universe. She'd given him back a small part of himself and it only made that warm spot in his heart grow warmer.
Each date there'd be talking, mostly about frivolous things, each of them still wary of opening up too much ... talking that merged into kissing and then into more intimate pursuits until they'd return to base late and end up in either his or her quarters to sleep for too few hours before they had to be up and do the whole thing all over again.
He couldn't deny or lie to himself any more that he loved her either ... whether he felt enough time had gone by or not, every moment he spent with Tanya just stacked up the evidence in her favour. He’d gotten to the age of thirty without having felt what he was feeling now – looking back on past relationships made him realise those feelings were a shadow of what he had inside for Tanya now. As he let himself feel those emotions for the first time the answer to his 'what did he want' question became clearer. He wanted her ... it was as simple and as complex as that. That led to contemplating the future with her as a permanent concept with all the associations ... and he found himself realising that maybe that kind of future wasn't as outside the realms of possibility as he'd always thought. It scared him, wanting things he'd never let himself aspire to before.
What Tanya felt was still a mystery ... sometimes he thought he caught a glimpse of deeper emotion in her eyes but she'd always turn away, laugh off the serious moments or throw herself on him, distracting them both. For the time being Evan was content ... happy in a way he'd never been before as they settled with seeming ease into a 'couples' rhythm together. The fact that he was willing to operate under so much personal uncertainty surprised even him but it seemed like he had no choice.
"Hey, haven't seen you much the past couple of days," Dominic Harper threw himself into the lecture seat next to Evan for their last mission briefing. It seemed fitting to Lorne that he'd sat next to the Australian pilot the first day and was doing the same on the last day as well.
"I've been busy," Evan said apologetically.
"I know ... how is the lovely Tanya?" Dom teased.
"She's ... God, am I that obvious?" Lorne frowned.
"Only because I was there when she hooked you," Dom bit back a grin with difficulty.
"I wasn't 'hooked'," Evan protested. "It was ...," he broke off, knowing there was no way he could deny that he'd let himself be completely distracted by a woman. "What about you and Stacey?" he tried to turn the tables.
"Friends," Dom said simply. "She's a great tour guide and a lot of fun. That's all."
"Right. So ... last day," Evan changed the subject, looking around at the slowly filling lecture theatre.
"Yeah," the Australian looked around too. "I'm kind of sad to see it end even though I'm really looking forward to flying home."
"See what end?" Riley queried, shuffling between the seats and sitting on the other side of Evan.
"Red Flag," Dom said it with a brow raised, the 'duh!' apparent.
"Back to reality," Riley agreed. Seeing the rest of his squad he raised a hand, waving them over. "Not for you though," he added, turning back to Evan.
"My usual day job is nowhere near as intense as this," Lorne pointed out. "But I will look forward to being involved in the next Red Flag."
The last of the Australian team, Steven and Jason sat down and the stage was set for the last test. Some of the participants had already been tested ... the final mission of Red Flag saw the dummy weapons traded in for the real thing, the stakes raised as high as they could go.
The ground crews responsible for preparing the jets had worked a single overnight shift to prep hundreds of live bombs for the mission, under pressure just like in a real combat situation. It had been done at a remote location, deep in the bottom of a canyon miles from the base to minimise the damage if something went wrong. Luckily this time nothing had and all the planes were set for the day’s mission.
Major Pace stood up on the stage waiting as the noise level in the room slowly dropped to silence. “What I’m about to show you is the enemy's last attempt to fortify their front line forces," he began. "We’ve learned that they’re bringing everything forward that they can. Surface to air rockets, tanks and anti aircraft guns. Everything we’ve done to this point has been for training. This time we’re going to do it for real and we’re going to give them everything we’ve got.”
Going on to talk specifics with maps of the battle zone up on the big screen, the Major briefed them on the requirements before everyone broke into their squads for a more detailed briefing. Accuracy was paramount to the discussions - the weapons to be used that day hitting anything other than the intended targets was the worst thing any pilot could do.
Lorne met up with his wing, smiling at the barely contained excitement evident in Joe Martinez's demeanour. They discussed their specific objectives - a convoy of enemy ground units - and then headed straight for the tarmac.
"Hey," Evan smiled when Tanya called to him from where her own plane sat getting its final checks. Motioning for the others to go on without him, he detoured towards her.
"Hey yourself," he said, looking her up and down with a grin. "If all the enemies looked as good as you in a flight suit the war effort would be in a heap of trouble," he complimented her smoothly.
"Charmer," Tanya shot back, even though the flush on her face said she was pleased.
"I try," Lorne leaned in closer. "How about I charm you some more later ... after last drinks?"
"I'll check my calendar, see if I can break away from my busy social life," she quipped.
"You do that," Evan met her eyes, feeling again that rush of emotion he still hadn't gotten used to. "Be careful up there," he said in a low tone.
Tanya frowned, her eyes narrowed before she nodded. "See you later flyboy," she flipped him a casual wave, turned and leapt up the steps to the pilot’s seat.
Standing on the tarmac for a moment Lorne wondered why he felt like something had just shifted ... and not for the better. Shaking if off he headed on towards his own squad, long strides eating up the tarmac.
"Sigma three, Tower. You are clear for takeoff."
For the last time together the four F-16's powered up into the sky as a team. "Tower, Sigma three one, request approach to sector five," Piper gave the call to begin their run.
"Sigma three one, Tower. Targets confirmed. Two tanks plus five support vehicles heading due East on Sniper road."
Piper set the heading and they all fell into formation around her, flying the fifty miles it would take for their path to intercept that of the convoy travelling on its way to provide supplies to the enemy. In reality there was no such thing as Sniper road and the seven vehicles were stationary. Everything else about the scenario was accurate, down to the bombs they'd be using to completely destroy those vehicles.
The day was perfect ... as they dropped altitude, closing in on their destination, Lorne couldn't help but take in the depth of the blue sky, faint wisps of white clouds barely visible. On the ground the Colorado River sparkled, the shadows of the canyons casting mysterious shapes along the rocks. It was a scene that would stick in his mind ... that made him itch for that paint brush and canvas again, just like on the first day of Red Flag.
"Targets acquired,” Piper’s voice broke him out of his reverie a few minutes later.
One after another they took an attacking run, firing flares to mask their path as rounds of bullets pinged and sparked against the tanks tough outer surface.
“Sigma three one, bombs away,” Piper went first, announcing the release of four Mark 84 general-purpose bombs. The others all followed suit, each releasing four bombs before powering back up to higher altitude.
On the ground it was an impressive and powerful display ... the bombs all landing with precision as they took out the line of jeeps and tanks in balls of fire bursting from the ground. The impact raised the dust like a fog, obscuring the ground ... the earth rippled with the force of the explosions, debris flying high into the air. It all culminated in smoke and earth billowing up from the ground in a dirty cloud before everything settled back into silence.
“Targets destroyed,” control reported only moments later. “Well done Sigma three. Return to base.”
It wasn’t that easy though, they were only half way back when the radio crackled to life again.
“Sigma three one, Control. Group bullseye, 5,000 twelve o’clock.”
“Control, Sigma three one, acknowledged,” Piper replied. “Three three and three four, break away.”
Lorne and Martinez responded with practiced ease, turning right and splitting the focus of the enemy.
“Sigma three four, Control. Two bogies breaking away on an intercept course.”
Evan saw them in the distance, two F-16’s flying low and looking menacing. He wasn’t sure why but some instinct said that Tanya was flying one of those planes. Whether she knew he was one of her targets remained to be seen.
“Three four, go high,” he told his team mate, at the same time making a sharp dive and stripping off altitude at a huge rate.
Their bogies followed suit so that once again it was a one against one competition. Lorne hugged the ground, spinning and sending off flares to put his pursuer off but they dogged him relentlessly. He didn’t give an inch, didn’t give an opportunity for a weapons lock as his mind raced, searching for a way to reverse positions so that he could be the one on the attack.
Flying low wasn’t working so abruptly he pulling back on the stick, the resulting G’s pressing him into his seat as he got the F-16 to fully vertical before levelling off at 20,000 feet. Rolling 180 to see the ground he searched for a sign of the other plane.
At first there was nothing but moments later he spotted the other plane joining him at the higher altitude.
“Time to see how good you are at following,” Evan muttered. A series of aerial acrobatics manoeuvres wasn’t going to surprise anyone who’d come up against him in the previous missions. But in order to get a lock they’d have to match him ... maybe that sounded easy for a seasoned fighter pilot but those moves were much harder to duplicate that most pilots would believe.
Rolling his jet on its own axis past 360 degrees of spin, Lorne began a long loop downwards – at the key moment as his position in the roll lined up with the ground he broke the spin and used the resulting force to gather speed on the upward return, arriving back at the same point he’d started at.
His opponent pushed it to the limit to match his path, the other jet bobbing and jerking in the air a little in contrast to Evan’s smooth execution.
“Not bad,” Evan grinned, sure now that it was Tanya in hot pursuit. “Let’s see you try this one.”
He dropped the nose of his plane abruptly, heading straight for the ground, gravity giving his air speed a nice little kicker. At 2,000 feet he pulled back on the stick sharply, really having to muscle the jet through the bottom of the turn and back towards the sky.
Behind him Tanya followed suit, breaking the dive at a higher altitude than Evan had so that they arrived back at 15,000 feet with a wider gap than before.
Lorne took advantage of that, taking the plane in a simple turn that was only complicated by the angle he pushed it too ... 7 G’s ... 8 G’s ... 8.5 G’s ... 8.9 G’s ... as he got close to the maximum the plane could handle he felt it shake and pull like it was trying to break his control. Holding firm he kept the turn going, spiralling in an ever tighter circle, all the while watching his radar and visually scanning for Tanya’s position.
She was struggling to keep her turn as tight as his and consequently he was gaining ground. And then she did something he could hardly believe. So determined to beat him this time she broke the turn and took her plane straight up, heading directly for him. Maybe it wasn’t a collision course but it was certainly inside the minimum safe distance for that kind of flying – closer than he’d take it even during a real life battle. At that range it would only take a small mistake to risk both their lives.
Cursing, Lorne reacted instantly, spinning and rolling the plane as he turned sharply in the opposite direction. Luckily for both of them he had enough air speed and a cool enough head to choose the right angle and line of approach to avoid Tanya’s path. His heart was pumping madly as they passed too closely and then pulled away from each other.
“That’s it,” Lorne said grimly under his breath. Giving her no time to recover he looped around again and got a weapons lock, simulating rapid fire and taking her out of the engagement.
“Control, Sigma three three,” he reported in, hearing the anger and resolve in his own voice as he continued. “Bogie is down. Returning to base.”
“Acknowledged Sigma three three.”
With no visible acknowledgement to Tanya, Lorne broke away from the battle zone, taking the straightest flight path back to Nellis.
On the ground he completed his post mission checks with grim precision before striding across the tarmac. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tanya’s plane landing too but he ignored it. There was no way he wanted to talk to her right then ... no way he could control the need to blast her for being so cavalier with both their lives. Not that he wasn’t going to have that conversation with her ... later, when his pulse had calmed and his temper had cooled.
After stowing away his flight gear, Lorne found a quiet spot with a view of the tarmac and settled in to wait for the rest of his squad to return. He should have radioed them in the air and could only hope that the control tower had reported his status.
Because it was the last mission, the activity level on the tarmac was a lot higher than usual. As pilots and crews regrouped the camera’s were pulled out, all participants from each country gathering together to capture the moment.
That said more than anything what Red Flag was really about. Maybe you started out thinking to prove yourself, especially if you were a fighter pilot with the resulting ego and perceived expectations on you. Quickly that morphed into it being about a good mission and the satisfaction that came from contributing to a successful day overall. But in the end, as he watched people shaking hands and exchanging hugs, Evan realised that Red Flag had never been about how good or otherwise he was. It was about becoming a part of something more important that he alone could ever be – a community of highly skilled people who’d risk their lives and make sacrifices, watch and protect each other’s backs as together they got the job done. He was part of a team – every role was just as important as his - and he liked that alot. It spoke to something inherent in his own character.
Spotting Piper walking from her plane, clearly searching for someone, he got up and made his way outside again.
“What happened to you?” she asked as soon as he was within hearing range.
“Close call,” Evan said, “almost too close. I should have let you know where I was ... I’m sorry Piper.”
“We weren't that far behind you and anyway, the Tower let us know you were returning to base,” Piper reassured him. “We all thought maybe you’d been shot down.”
“No,” Evan shook his head. “The bogie got a little too determined to nab me ... I ah ... it took a while for my heart rate to return to normal.”
“Understandable,” Piper looked at him closely, eyes narrowed. “That’s all it was?”
“Isn’t that bad enough?” he countered.
“Maybe for anyone else,” Piper agreed,” but I’ve never seen you break a sweat even during the most complex missions.”
“This was ... different,” Evan admitted. “But no permanent damage done.”
Nodding, Piper spotted Joe and David standing beside Joe’s plane. “Let’s go get a photo taken,” she seemed to put the incident aside, grabbing Evan’s arm and urging him to go with her.
Grinning Evan obediently posed for the photographer the base had circulating the tarmac. Their crew, the mechanics, everyone who’d helped keep them in the air was there too ... all the people he’d gotten to know in the preceding two weeks and considered friends.
Shaking hands, returning hugs and fond back slaps Lorne pushed everything else to the back of his mind. He’d still talk to Tanya about her recklessness but with distance he’d gained a little perspective. All that fancy flying had probably frustrated the hell out of her ... enough that she’d retaliated in the only way she knew how. It wasn’t an excuse but Evan understood how that mind set could occur ... and as long as he didn’t think about what could have happened, how easily he could have witnessed or worse yet contributed to Tanya’s demise, he could be calm and reasonable.
That attitude lasted until he and his squad walked into the open air bar an hour later, packed with everyone eager to enjoy a last night of celebratory drinks.
He spotted Tanya immediately ... at a table right in front of the doors as though she’d planned to be on display the moment he walked in.
Dressed in clothes that were both alluring and provocative.
Laughing, her eyes locked on those of the man she was sitting too close to.
As Evan watched, frozen in place, she leaned closer, angling her head for the kisses the man trailed down her cheek.
And then she looked up and straight into Evan’s eyes, her expression calculating.
He felt the knowledge slam through him ... like the worst combination of dread, nerves and that sense you got just before things went really, really wrong. His feet were frozen in place, his eyes locked with those of the woman he’d aspired to love. She’d wanted him to see what he’d seen, to feel what he was feeling. She’d cut him to the bone ... for what? Because of what had happened up in the air that day?
Tanya held his gaze for a moment more before turning away, dismissing him as though he were nothing.
That hurt too ... it all hurt more than he could believe. Swallowing hard, Evan looked away, searching for something to latch on to.
“Evan?” Piper put a hand to his arm, her observant nature missing nothing of the silent exchange that had just taken place.
“I ah ...,” he looked at her, for the first time in his life having no idea what to do next. He felt lost ... but as he looked away again, his eyes returning to where Tanya sat, another emotion took precedence, sharpening his mind abruptly.
“I’m okay,” he told Piper. Striding forward without another word he arrived at Tanya’s table, not stopping until he was well and truly standing inside her personal space.
“Ace,” she said it jovially, eyes glittering up at him as she smiled.
“Excuse us,” Evan told the other man, taking Tanya’s wrist and unceremoniously hauling her up from the table. He kept it gentle enough but his mood was more than apparent.
“Hey!” she protested, resisting.
“We can talk about this privately or right here in front of everyone,” Evan said grimly, meaning every word. “Your choice.”
“Okay, but just for a few minutes,” Tanya reluctantly agreed. “I’ve got plans for tonight.”
“So I saw,” Evan started forward again, weaving his way back to the entrance and outside, past all the people still arriving until he’d achieved enough distance for no one to overhear them. Dropping her wrist suddenly he paced away, his back to her. “Why?” he demanded.
“I didn’t make any promises,” Tanya said defensively.
“That’s bullshit and you know it!” Evan turned to her, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Unless exclusive means something different where you come from. What was it? Did I piss you off not playing along with your reckless performance today?”
“That was ... I’m sorry for that,” Tanya looked away, rubbing hands over her bare arms. “It wasn’t deliberate.”
“What then?” Evan took a few steps until he was only an arm’s length away. “Did I get too close Tanya? Is that it? Are you so scared of what we could be that just breaking up with me wasn’t enough, you had to completely destroy our relationship?”
‘Oh please!” Tanya scoffed. “It’s not my fault you deluded yourself into thinking this was ever about anything other than sex!”
“Right,” Evan turned away, his anger deflating suddenly leaving only a bone deep sadness behind. “Message received. More fool me for thinking I could change that.”
“Evan,” Tanya’s tone softened. “I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
“Yes you did,” Evan retorted. “Maybe not in the beginning but tonight’s display was about nothing else. I never thought you had that much cruelty in you but I guess I was wrong ... I was wrong about a lot of things, so you’re right, what I’m feeling now is my fault.”
“I never lied to you,” Tanya insisted.
“Never?” Evan looked at her pointedly, taking grim satisfaction when she looked away first.
“I don’t want this,” Tanya’s voice was low and heavy with regret. “I don’t want someone caring about me that way I could see you were beginning to. Those drawings Evan, and this morning ... the way you looked at me before we took off. It’s not me. Having someone relying on me being there ... expecting things from me ... worrying about me. I’m just ... I’m not ready for that. I didn’t see any other way ... I really am sorry.”
“I ...,” he shook his head. What else was there for him to say? If she'd wanted his opinion or input of any kind she'd have talked to him first. If she’d wanted him to hope for something in the future she wouldn’t have set the stage to cut him down like she had. She'd put herself first - her need to keep an emotional distance, to avoid getting hurt as she had in the past. She'd looked after herself by destroying his belief in what he thought they'd had together. And he wasn’t sure he could forgive her for that ... not any time soon anyway, even though intellectually he understood what was driving her. It was worse than her cheating on him ... she’d trampled his heart knowing how he felt about her. “I’m sorry too,” he finally said.
And then he turned and walked away, leaving her standing staring after him.
He didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to go through the motions of pretending the world was the same place it had been the day before. What he really wanted was to drink until he couldn’t think or better yet beat the crap out of something and take a beating in return until that pain took precedence over the pain in his heart. But he couldn’t do either of those things and so he gathered it all up inside and forced it into a box labelled “Tanya - do not disturb” and shoved it all to the back of his mind. It was the same technique he’d used in the early days when his grief over John’s death had been the strongest and he’d struggled to get his mind on his work. The same thing he’d done at the age of ten when he’d realised what his father not coming back really meant for their family and decided he’d have to be the man of the house ... when he’d decided that men didn’t cry or bemoan their fate. They soldiered on and did what had to be done.
He was good at that, good at the calm and reasoned facade. It tested him to turn away from isolating himself and return to the bar, to look for his team and have a casual drink, joke and reminisce about the times they’d had during Red Flag. But he did it and he did it well enough that no one questioned him. Those who’d come from overseas would be flying out early the next morning ... Lorne had to make his goodbyes that night since he’d be reporting back for normal duty when that was happening. He’d made friends ... lasting bonds that he couldn’t just let slide because he wanted to curl up in a corner and forget the world existed.
He started with his own team, thanking them all for letting him be a part of their squad.
“Are you kidding man?” Joe returned incredulously. “We should be thanking you ... I learned more from watching you in the air than I have anywhere else.”
“Thanks,” Evan slapped a hand to the younger man’s back, genuinely touched by his gratitude.
“Stay in touch,” Piper stepped forward and hugged him. “You really are one of the good guys Evan,” she said in a low voice the others wouldn’t hear. “Don’t let what happened tonight have you doubting that.”
Her words had the barriers he’d hastily constructed trembling – he had to swallow back what he hoped to hell wasn’t tears before he could respond. “You’re a talented leader Piper ... I’d be happy to fly in your wing any day.”
“Really?” She grinned in delight, hugging him again before stepping back.
Evan shook hands with David next, the two exchanging thank you’s without needing to say the words.
“I will stay in touch,” Evan promised. “And who knows, maybe one day we’ll find ourselves stationed at the same base.”
“I hope so,” Piper replied.
Spotting Dom and his squad across the room Evan gratefully drew the goodbye scene to a close – there was only so much his emotions could take and he’d genuinely miss Piper, Joe and David. That was military life for you – friendships made and left behind as you shifted from base to base. You had to learn to deal with that, as well as how to conduct your friendships from a distance.
“Gotta go say goodbye to someone else,” he excused himself with a grin. “See you up there.”
Dom spotted him before he got to the Australian’s table, shifting to make room. “Hey,” he greeted Lorne with a careful look that had Evan cringing inside. Dom had witnessed the public destruction of Evan and Tanya’s relationship. “Damn,” Evan thought, hoping the other man would see fit not to question him.
“Before you say anything I’m okay,” he stated, going for offence being the best defence.
“I’m sure that’ll be true eventually,” Dom replied. “I’d say I’m sorry it didn’t work out but I don’t want you blubbering all over me ... not good for my image.”
Evan laughed for real, appreciating the upfront attitude. “I’ll try to resist the urge then,” he returned. “You’d be flying out pretty early in the morning, right?”
“Mate, you have no idea,” Dom nudged Riley who’d been studiously pretending not to listen to their conversation. “Tell him how early we have to get up.”
Riley carefully looked at his watch and then said seriously “about an hour ago.”
“You’re flying out tonight?” Evan asked, surprised.
“Do you know how long it takes to get from Australia to the States?” Dom queried. “Its days ... well, over a day anyway ... I won’t be able to feel my ass for a week afterwards.”
“Ah yes – the joys of sitting in a Hornet for the long flights,” Evan said knowingly. "Landing at every opportunity, refuelling on the go ... not to mention the ever faithful piddle pack."
“Tell the truth, you miss it right?” Steve pitched into the conversation.
“Hell yeah,” Lorne said straight faced.
They all laughed then, Evan taking something healing from the exchange. Lingering with the Australian pilots for an hour or so Lorne eventually took his leave, determined he’d find a way to see the four of them again sometime in the future.
And that was it ... as he retired back to his room he drew a mental line through Red Flag on his list of things to do. There had been lessons learned, some welcome and some he could have done without.
Having his hopes for a future with Tanya crushed as they’d been that night had been hard but he knew that wouldn’t be the worst of it. He’d have to return to his squad knowing he’d run into her from time to time ... and he’d have to work out how to get over the whole loving and losing thing. Whoever said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all had clearly never lost anything.
Worse than that he’d have to tell Elaine and Drew what had happened ... something he was dreading because he knew what Elaine would say. She’d assure him it wasn’t him, it was Tanya and that he shouldn’t take it personally. “I wasn’t enough for her to change her mind about her own future – how else can I take that?” he thought. Then she’d tell him he shouldn’t let this spoil him for future relationships, that settling down with someone was something he should still aspire to now he knew he could actually want that. “Not likely,” he thought. “There’s no way I’m letting anyone else do what Tanya did tonight ... I don’t need it.” Reclaiming his previous aversion to settling down made sense – he’d believed it wasn’t for him before he’d met Tanya Reid and he could damn well believe it again.
Yeah, he’d have to call Elaine ... but not tonight; he’d put that off for as long as possible, until he was sure he could talk about it without blubbering like a baby or wanting to put his fist through the wall, either of which would have her turning up on his doorstep. The entire relationship had fired up, travelled nicely and then crashed and burned in the space of two weeks. Surely it wouldn't take much longer than that to get over it.
Aware that he was deluding himself again, Evan laid down on his bed and buried his head in his pillow, wishing the following weeks already gone. Anything to get his internal equilibrium back ... and he would, it just took effort to act like everything was okay until eventually it was. That was something Evan had learned to do too early in life, something he was good at. But if the past made a person who they were, Lorne couldn’t help but wonder what kind of person his experience with Tanya would make him. It was too late and he was too tired to be thinking that deeply ... there’d be time enough in the days to come to search for the answers he wasn't sure were even out there.
Rolling over Evan stared at the ceiling until eventually he fell asleep.
Acknowledgement again to the Imax movie on Red Flag ... I borrowed the basic activities covered from there, along with that last introductory statement made by Major Pace about mission ten. Also I'm aware that VOIP software freely available for use wasn't around in 2001 - I took writers license on that aspect because I liked the idea of Evan talking to Elaine and Drew and them being able to see each other.