''Sand Angels''

by Ladyhawke

email: ladyhawke124@hotmail.com


Disclaimer. This was written for the 2004 Christmas competition but the copyright is still mine.

Sex... Not graphic, but is implied. But still, if you under the age of 21, please move on as it is illegal to view content considered adult below that age. If you feel that a lesbian relationship might upset you, then don't read.

Violence... Yes'um. I'm afraid so in this one. The topic is war and that is never pretty... Although I do not over-Hollywood the effects in this piece... I just write it like I see it ma'am, just the facts.

Added Disclaimer... This piece is political, I do not deem to write the actual political view of the USA military or anyone within any land, sea or air units. This is fictional. But most of all it is just to show that not everything at Christmas is tinsel, snow, turkey and peace on earth to all men. That it is more than the commercial side of the festive season, that it can still be about the heart... Enjoy.



Snow... white and fluffy. A waltz of angels caught up in the blue of the sky, fluttering ivory butterflies of movement. Drifting and stirring blinks of nature encaptured into a vast tango storm of dance. Cold, yet at the same time warm against the skin. I'm running, jumping, snowball throwing, laughing, feeling the peace pulse through my veins as I fall back to make snow angels, grinning like a cat as I feel her weight crush down upon mine. Smiling as our lips meet in a perfect tender kiss of love which starts to deepen. Then she's up fast, throwing me a smirk, knowing what she does to me, then with a laugh and flick of her hair, she licks her lips, tilting her head back to catch the falling snow. God she is beautiful. Then her blue eyes fill with teasing, taunting me. I grab for her but she is too fast, a howl of her laugh filters through my body like a ripple of need. I run, feeling the wind whip my locks back, the freedom pulsing through me again, her echoing laughter as she dodges me again, this time giving chase. She tackles me from behind and I let her short frame carry me where she wants, sending the drift of snow skyward like a funnel of steam as we both hit the dune, holding her to me as she giggles my name. Then I close my eyes, letting each snowdrop land on my face, reaching out with the tip of my tongue to snare the twisting flakes of icing that continue to fall.................

Only to cough and splutter, cursing as the reality of sand on my tongue tears me from my daydream, all too soon I start to lose the picture of her as my senses each come to life to the reality. The truck lurching beneath me pulls us away from the compound and my fantasy world. The yelling of men as they run to get ready for the mission ahead makes me take notice again at my surroundings. When my eyes finally open it isn't a winter wonderland I see, but instead miles and miles of yellow sand and heat haze that stretches in every direction.

I rinse my mouth out with the canteen, spitting the grit and water clear, closing my eyes briefly, then I feel them water in frustration at once again being shown her in a dream. They snap back open and I turn my watery gaze to others around me. Taking the time to put the walls back up, the ones I need to get through this. The rest of the units leave me alone, they know the feeling of having awoken to this shit hole. I notice Al looking over to me with a concerned look, but I shake my head. His eyes soften in understanding then he goes back to stripping down his rifle, the sand gets everywhere. I watch from the back of the truck the endless road snaking behind us like a glowing tail of a comet. Leaning forward to peek out of the center flap at the horizon of desert as it passes into a blur. It doesn't change, no matter what direction we have taken, north or south it is the same, miles of nothing.... But it holds beneath its crust of desolation a treasure that man wants.... Oil.

As a soldier I am not supposed to have opinions about the politics of war, we go where the commander in chief sends us, for life, liberty and justice for all. But after nearly a year of fighting it's hard to follow those rules, when every dune could hide a marksman, where towns and villages don't see us as saviors from a madman, but instead see us now as unwelcome invaders. We did the dirty work for them and they were happy in that fact. But now it all comes down to wanting their freedom and honor and a chance to choose. The problem with that is they have factions inside their land that are just waiting to take over the smaller providences and rule. In other words we are in a no win situation, because no matter what we think is right to the population we are outsiders, nothing more than thieves with outside agendas.

Europe knew the cost and length of a war here. Spain and France decided it wasn't worth their time. It doesn't matter they hide behind the legal side of it, they just didn't want to commit a force, knowing it wasn't just going to be and in and out type of job, it is never that easy. But the US is used to futile wars, we are the leader in that scenario, we have the arms and the population to commit to it. We did once have beliefs of the heart, the Confederate/Confederacy war, the highest cost of our men, fighting for freedom and a better land. The second world war, a fight for liberty and to give freedom from a tyrant and dictator that would have spread across the world like a black eating mass of hate. After that we seemed to go wrong somehow. Vietnam, well I guess that all comes down to wanting to make sure the world knew we weren't a country to mess with. The cold war became nothing more than a posturing game of chess, neither side wanting to take the step to the war that would end the world. Now we have a war on terror, a faceless force that could be anywhere, so we attack the head of the snake in a bid to silence the vipers that follow its lead. The wars that followed like this one don't seem to make a difference anywhere anymore, other than to turn the world against us. Politics don't work for a seasoned soldier of ten years like myself, it only moves focus away from what every one of us has to do here. But it's hard when you don't have a fixed face of an enemy, when every potential killer could be the thirteen-year-old you shared water with the day before. We can't think about the turmoil or controversies it causes at home, our sight has to be fixed on the task at hand.

So why am I here? After everything I know is true about the politics of nations at war? What makes me different to those who chase golden idols to pin on their chests? Because I believe everyone should have a choice to be free, to live without fear, to protect the innocent and to serve above all else with honor. But to me it's the simple things, the right to go somewhere without having to worry about kidnapping and car bombs, to be able to stand up and say what I think without repercussions of gunfire.

Three days ago we all watched a woman being stoned to death because she was accused of adultery. No trial, no voice. Her juries were the hands holding the bricks that were tossed at her. It was just plain murder. The male? Well, the man was nowhere in this street court case, his rights are above those of the woman. These things I fight for, that woman, her choices, her freedom, and her rights. To me it isn't about politics, it's about life, a life that is free of oppression.

I shake my head clear, I hate it when my thoughts are pulled into things this deeply, for one it's dangerous to be that caught up in thought out here. The truck lurches again, sending hands flying to the rails to steady ourselves.

'' Jesus. Got more fucking potholes than the Bronx.''

Everyone sends out a snort of laughter at Doc, our medic.

As I look around at our seven-man platoon, I feel the warmth move through me, and yes, the pride. They are another part of my family, and each one I trust with my life. It isn't easy being a female in war, first off there is an official no combat policy which doesn't really work in situations. I've been part of this unit now for ten years, traveled with them into Bosnia, Saudi Arabia, the Congo. I've seen comrades fall and lost friends. When I'm here I become another person, one who is almost unrecognizable to my true family and friends. I'm cold, in a way I never thought I would ever be, it crept over me like a slow frost the more I became part of the unit. The walls I wear now are from tests and challenges in the field. I've killed, I've maimed, I've wounded. But to them I am gunnery Sgt Tee. Collins, a part of the engineering unit of the good ole USA, I am nothing more and nothing less. I go where my country needs me and I do my job, it is really that simple to us. I'm not inhuman; I see the poverty, the injustice. I feel, sometimes to the point I cry and hurt inside, or yell in frustration at not being able to do more. But I have to follow orders and rules, and sometimes saving one person does nothing, you have to see beyond into the bigger picture and price. The difference really is I am willing to give my life to change it. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather not die for the cause. I'm more than happy to walk away to fight another day, but at the end of it I know it could be an option and that changes things, the way I live life for instance. I tend to grab hold of it by the horns and run with it, rather that stopping and thinking.

That's how I met Caitlin...

Just thinking about her makes my life make sense. I feel my heart hitch as the image of her pops into my mind. The smile is on my face now, I can tell. First by the warmth pulsing through me into a blush, and second by the raised eyebrow of my L.T. Carl, known as Sleepy to the ranks, a nick name given to him for his amazing gift of falling asleep in seconds no matter gun fire or bombardment. I raise my own eyebrow at him, meeting his stare, and he chuckles, lowering his eyes back to the map on his lap. They all know me too well. In fact, as you can see, we each have the nicknames of the seven dwarfs, a running joke amongst us. I suppose I should tell what mine is... Grumpy. I'll let you make up your mind why.

Within my unit I am a part of their family, I never hid the fact I was gay and at first that got me a shit load of trouble. It began to fade the more they got to know me. The teasing is still there sometimes, mainly when I get a letter from home, or they see me laughing on a video link to Caitlin. They see me for me and for that I am grateful, I got tired of fighting every damn day because of some guy's ignorance.

My eyes go back to the surroundings. We are traveling now to a forward position to repair a water depot which two days ago was hit with heavy fire that put most of the machinery out of commission, leaving the villages around without fresh water. It should be an easy assignment; go in, repair, get it up and working, leave the small force that is with us to guard it, and then return to base. But nothing is simple, is it.

When we arrived we deployed from the transport in a standard square branch, four by four, sending in the main team to check for booby traps, while the second team take positions to offer covering fire if necessary. My team, the third, stay back until the situation is secured, taking cover away from the transports until the all clear. It's the worst, you know, waiting. Your face flat in the dirt, breathing in dust, hearing your own heartrate, smelling sweat and adrenaline, not knowing if you look up that someone might get a lucky shot. It took over an hour to secure the area, as soon as the command filtered down to us the Lt. was up giving orders.

'' Tee, take Al and see what we are gonna need? ''

I nod, feeling Al fall into step beside me as we head to the building, neither of us looking at each other, our eyes firmly fixed on the landscape. Stepping through the shell of what was once the building sends shivers through my spine, whoever hit this place knew what they were doing. After several minutes to reach the equipment below, it doesn't take long after that to realize that this is going to take more than just a fix up.

'' Shit, what the hell hit this place?'' Al wipes the sweat from his forehead, the other hand cradling the M16 against his hip, an image that captures perfectly a G.I in war.

I give him a grin as I take my own arsenal off, pulling my tool belt free from the case, tying a bandanna over my hair to stop the sweat running, moving down on my knees, shuffling under the machinery to get a better look. I love this part, taking apart a mechanism, stripping it bare and letting it tell me its secrets. I really am nothing more than a grease monkey at heart.

'' Does it matter, Al, now we get to play.'' I know I'm grinning like a kid.

He snorts as he places his rifle against the wall, removing his helmet and smoothing back his sweat-ridden hair.

'' Only you, Tee, could find fun in a shit hole like this.''

Within seconds I feel his body shift next to mine and no more words are spoken, we work in silence going over each tiny part. Finally after another ten minutes we are up, I wipe the grease into the cloth I keep in the case. Shaking my head as I see him appear, a smudge of oil on his cheek, he catches the thrown cloth, scowling at me in question.

'' You have a dirty face, marine.'' I grin.

'' Thanks, mom.''

We immediately stand to attention as the Lt. comes in, waving at us to relax.

'' Ok, what's the damage?''

'' The carbines on the first are totally shot, that's a complete overhaul or replacement.... We got lucky with the second one, she has some damage from shrapnel and brick work where the roof came down, but I can't see a reason why we can't get her up and running, sir.''

He nods as he walks over to the first engine, nodding again in agreement at the extent of the damage. '' How long for number two to be repaired?''

'' At least a full day, sir. We need to break her down and replace, I know we carry what we are going to need.''

He runs his hand over his face. '' Well I guess we are here for a while then, I'll notify the base.''

As he moves to leave I step forward. '' Sir?''

He stops, looking at me in question.

'' It would be simpler to just pull these two out and fly in replacements.''

He pauses for a moment, I think on the choice to either tell me the truth or not. '' That isn't an option, under the new agreement we are not allowed to bring American machinery into a possible take over zone.'' Then he turned and left.

I look at Al and he looked at me, then with a curse he moved to let his eyes follow the Lt. across the compound. '' What the hell?''

I feel that uneasiness stir in my stomach. I stepped closer to him, my eyes searching the outside, seeing two units start to dig in. Turning my head I looked through the broken sharded window which exposes the west side of the building, watching the other three units moving in double time towards the dune about one meter out.

'' Tee?''

I didn't hear my name at first, the hand on my shoulder sent my eyes to him.

'' You ok?''

'' He's expecting trouble and soon.'' I tilted my head for him to follow.

He stepped forward to see better, his face falling of emotion into one that is replaced by the wall we all wear. '' Aw shit, why isn't it ever easy.''

The following hour was a mass of movement from all concerned. First up, a perimeter was laid about three meters from the buildings, unit one dug in and set up various defenses. Secondly, the transports were moved into a more protected position and put under camouflage nets. Thirdly, the remaining force was broken into four teams of two and sent in all directions of the compass around the camp, the one to the east held the main armor, including bazookas, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns. Lastly, my team started making the blown out housing into a workshop. After three hours we had broken down completely the pumping machine, using parts from the dead machinery where necessary. It was a slow painful process, kinda like remaking a jigsaw that had been blown apart. When darkness began to make it impossible to continue, we laid out our tack gear and settled down for the night, well aware that no lights could be used.

When the Lt. entered, we all moved to rise. '' As you were.''

There was enough moonlight to see each silhouette around us, I watched him hunker down by Brian.

'' How's it going, Tee?''

I cleared my mouth of the cold rations to answer. '' Pretty good, sir. If we can get onto it at first light we should be able to move out by four, three if we push it.''

I saw him nod, then he stayed silent for a moment.

'' We have a problem...''

The rest of my group let out a moan.

'' Problem?'' as always I spoke for them.

'' Yea... Base has been monitoring movement to the west of us, coming in fast, the problem is we have a sand storm aiming right at us from the east, the storm is gonna get here first.... the choppers are down and they can't get any help to us.''

'' How big is the force?'' I knew before even asking it had to be pretty big to be monitored, mostly the enemy kept undercover when they moved and in small forces so not to be noticed.

'' Two tanks at least, between fifty to a hundred men, intelligence think they were on the way to Basra...... but the storm coming means they had to change direction.''

'' And that leads them right here. Shit.''

I threw Brian a look in the dark, he ducked his head from my glare. I turned my attention back to the Lt., ignoring the other curses coming from my men.

'' Do they know we are here, Sir?''

He shook his head, grabbing a handful of sand absentmindedly and rubbed it in his hand.

'' Not that we can tell. Base is hoping they'll move past in the storm.''

'' Say they don't, sir?''

He threw the sand away as if in disgust, rising as he did so. '' Then, Tee, we are all gonna be in a whole world of hurt.''

With one last look at us he left.

I closed my eyes, tilting my head back until I felt the edge of my helmet touch the wall. This was not good. I didn't have time for self-pity, the men were already getting more restless, so I stood up.

'' Listen up.'' A few fell silent but the newer members still continued. I took a step into the center of the room. '' I SAID LISTEN UP!'' Immediately they silenced.

'' Ok, we can't do anything more tonight, the marines have got us covered so bunk down, because as soon as there is light we are up and we are going to do the fastest work in history.''

When I was sure they understood I picked up my rifle and headed out the door. As I stood outside I calmed my racing heart and inhaled the dry air, with steady strides I made my way to the command tent, ducking my head inside.

'' L.T.?''

He looked over to me, beckoning me in. I removed my helmet, placing it and the gun down as I sat.

'' What's on your mind?'' he offered up a tin cup of coffee, I nodded.

I spoke as I took it. '' So what weren't you telling us back there?''

For a moment he frowned then his face broke into a grin, making his face crack into lines of embedded sand. '' Never could put one over on you could I.''

Sipping the coffee, I returned the grin and shook my head. '' Nope.''

Sighing, he sat down. '' Base can't get any support out, not even the black hawks... The storm is a big one, when it hits we will be lucky to see a foot in front of us.... this is the only cover for miles. '' He paused, looking at me.

His gray eyes almost danced in the infrared camp light.

I felt the queasiness stir in my stomach. '' They'll head here, right? It's the only cover they know about for miles?''

He slowly nodded. '' It's a big storm, Tee....Base reckons at least a day in width, as soon as it clears at their end they will send up air support for us. They don't want to send up the F16's when they can't get a lock on targets.''

Suddenly the coffee in my mouth tasted ten times bitterer, I knew what he was saying, it was already on its way and meant we couldn't just get in our transports and high tail it back, we'd be caught in the middle of it.

'' Can.... Can we hold them off?''

He ran his hand through his hair, exhaling through his lips in a gush of sound. '' If it was just the men, '' then he shook his head sadly. '' Two tanks... maybe one, but two, their range is double anything we have with us.''

A heavy silence followed.

'' What if we send a force out to meet them.''

His head jerked up. '' No.... we stay put. There is a chance they will go by us... If we send a force out they are going to know that there is more of us around.''

I nodded in understanding. Finishing my coffee, I rose. '' So we wait.''

He took the cup. '' Yea. The marines have our backs in this and Dobkins has options he will discuss with us tomorrow...... Go get some rest, Tee, the storm will hit by noon.''

Replacing my helmet and stooping to get my gun, I looked at him for a moment. '' Why didn't they advise us of the storm or the force, Sir?''

He met my eyes. '' Because we didn't need to know.''

I saw the nerve in his jaw flinch for a moment, I knew he didn't like it anymore than I did.

'' Nite, L.T.''

He dipped his head. '' Nite, Tee.''

The desert is a strange thing, during the day temps can soar into the hundreds within a blink of an eye. At night it dips below freezing, a mind numbing cold that filters into every muscle and bone of your body. Sweat from the day caught in your clothing becomes an irritant of sand and ice. With no fires allowed we bunked down in the ruins, using our thermal sleeping bags to get some source of heat into our bodies. It takes about thirty minutes to get comfortable and enough body heat within the bag to make it bearable. After that it's a matter of silencing an over active brain and to stop thinking about what could happen at the dawning of the sun. When I was sure my men were safe, I went to the far corner to the left of Al and removed my boots, quickly getting into the bag, zipping it up until only my eyes could be seen.

I knew why my unit was upset about the information; it meant a fight that wasn't foreseen. But most of all, it held us back from getting home to the base in less than three days. We thought this was going to be a quick mission and we would return in time for Christmas. Seems funny thinking of Christmas being less than two nights away, in this place where there is no sign of the festive season. No trees, no lights, no malls covered in cheer, it just seems a lifetime away.

You know, I heard once, during the first world war the troops laid down their weapons as the chimes of midnight sounded and met in no mans land to exchange presents. Seems strange to me that someone so bent on blowing the other man away minutes before could suddenly revert back to caring about someone who they wanted dead. How, above all else, somewhere inside, there was a sense of honor at a meaning of a word or a belief in something so strongly that for that brief moment it was stronger than the need to kill.

I think it all comes down to one true emotion, an emotion from the heart. Home... The memories, the longing, the love, but most of all the need. Because no matter where you are or what you are doing, on the day of Christmas everything reverts to emotions, no matter how hard you try.

That's why I find myself, thinking. I can already feel the memories stirring their way to the surface of my subconscious. Family, but most of all her, my love, my soul, Caitlin. Even thinking about her calms me in so many ways. I can feel the hands of Morpheus touching me, now spreading the warmth of sleep. I let myself fall, thinking back to a time that was nothing but pure peace and love. So I think of her, because that is where I belong.

If someone were to ask me how I met her, I would have to truthfully say that cupid was around somewhere. Because as soon as I lifted my eyes to the woman who had just knocked me flying outside a coffee shop in the middle of rainstorm, so I was sitting with a wet butt glaring upwards, I had felt two arrows thump right into the muscle I called a heart. ShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhThud.... ShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhThud...... That was it, the sound it made as it hit, and right after that my heart decided to join the human race again. Smiling, I let the thoughts grow, and let sleep claim me.

'' OH MY GOD! I am so sorry....'' Her face fills with both shock and genuine sorry as she grabs my arm and hauls me up in one swift motion.

Which surprises the hell out of me, I'm no lightweight. Then her hands start their inspection for damage and clearing off dirt and water.

'' Hey, it's ok... Honestly.''

That doesn't seem to slow her, so I take the time to just look as she bends to get the leaves off my jeans. Her hair is dark ebony, about shoulder length, that at that moment is heavy with droplets of rain that plaster it to her skin. She's shorter than I am but not by much, roughly the same age too, late thirties. I can feel both in her hands and the way her muscles strain against her jacket that she takes care of her body.

I feel a smirk coming to my face as her hands flex and move across my body again, brushing over my butt as she half turns me, in her quest to make things right. Then she notices I'm not moving. Half-stooping, her hand freezes on my thigh and slowly she tilts her head to look up. That's when I see her eyes for the first time, twin blue water spirals of color. When she sees the smirk on my face, her cheeks flush. She looks down at her hand, her eyes going wide in alarm, realizing just what she had been doing. Then snatches it back, straightening as she does so.

'' Well.'' She inhales sharply then continues. '' Well, you seem to be fine.''

''Ahuh.'' Still smirking, I nod.

For a moment she flushes again and looks away nervously, not wanting to meet my gaze. Then she does.

ShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhThud...... ShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhThud....... There it was again, and all she did was look at me.

'' Hey, Caitlin, you coming or what?''

I threw a dirty look at the guy who had broken the spell.

'' Sure, Mike, give me a sec, ok?''

Her gaze went to him for a moment with a smile then her attention returned to me.

''Boyfriend? '' I always was direct.

Her eyebrow rises slightly. '' Would it matter if it was?''

I shoved my hand back through my hair, flicking the rain from my eyes. ''Well if it was I couldn't ask for your number to give you a call.''

Her hand moved to her hip, relaxing into a cocky stance, as she looked me up and down. '' You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you.... what makes you think I'm interested?''

I grinned at her, shrugging. '' Who said I was? All I said was to give you a call.''

''Oh.....'' She flushes again then laughs. '' Well, if it matters, he's my brother and I don't have a boyfriend, so I guess you could call.''

'' No boyfriend? You a bitch to live with or something? Oh god, you don't snore do you, geesh hate that.''

For a moment she blinks at me as if I suddenly grown a second head, then she saw the amusement shining in my eyes. '' Okayyyyyyyyy. You're not one of those weirdoes are you?'' She narrows her eyes at me, relaxing slightly.

'' If I was, would I tell you?'' I kept my face neutral, it was fun teasing her.

Her head tilts for a moment, thinking or trying to access if I really was a threat or not. After a while she reaches into her jacket and pulls out a card. '' I'll take my chances and I should warn you I have four brothers who are bigger than I am.''

I took the card chuckling, then offered my hand.

'' Pleased to meet you.'' I glance down at the card. '' Caitlin Price, I'm Tee Collins and I will be calling you tonight.''

She shook my hand, smiling at me a row of white teeth. '' Until then, Tee Collins.''

Then she breaks the physical contact, running to catch up to her brother. As she steps into the car she looks back at me, this time her smile becomes a personal one.

Oh brother. ShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhThud..... ShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhThud......

I shifted awake in my bedroll, unsure of what had woken me. I noticed the wind had picked up outside which was just another reminder of the coming storm, but that wasn't strong enough to wake me, then it came out of the darkness.


Rolling my eyes, I threw daggers and inward curses towards Al. Turning onto my side, I pulled the bag over my head, laying my hands over my ears, then concentrated on getting back into my dream.

'' Sleigh bells ring, are you listening.... In the lane, snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland.''

The song cascaded throughout the hall. I didn't really notice the festive season around me. Or the forty foot Santa Claus with reindeer, Blitzen, Prancer... etc., or the balloons which drifted from the ceiling. None of it mattered. Because all my senses were locked onto the beautiful woman in the red velvet dress in my arms. Enjoying her warmth and movement against me.

'' You smell nice.'' I whispered.

Caitlin drew her head back from my shoulder, meeting my eyes, a slow sexy smile coming to her lips

'' Really, what do I smell of?''

I dipped my head further into her neck, smiling as I felt her breath hitch as I inhaled and exhaled her. '' Well........... first off, you smell of you.''

She laughed as I spun her away from me into a twist. Grabbing her outstretched hand, I brought her back up close, replacing my hands on her waist and my mouth onto her neck.

'' Second......... You smell of cinnamon and spices, cos you been baking those damn pies all day.''

''Ahuh, and what else?'' Her voice dropped into a purr against my ear. Sending shivers down my spine. I knew she felt my leer on her throat, my teeth brushing across her pulse point.

'' Well, baby.......'' I took a tiny lick of her pulse. '' You smell of me!''

I stepped back, giving her my best shit eating grin, knowing full well that was what she meant, considering an hour before we had been locked in passion, showing each other the different things you really could do with a pie filling. Her blue eyes blazed for a moment in true desire, then she blinked realizing we had stopped dancing in the middle of the floor. Her mouth perked into an amused grin, her hand came up to my cheek lightly slapping it.

''Behave, our parents are here dear.''

I threw her a pout, which just earned me a kiss to the protruding lip.

''Later baby, I promise.''

Just those words sent shudders of remembrance, making my mouth dry and other parts damp. She grinned at me like a vixen, knowing full well the control she could use over me.

'' Merry Christmas, Tee. I love you baby.''

That earned her the biggest grin I owned, then as I dipped her, proving who really was the better dancer, I gave her a kiss that rocked her socks. Her laughter echoed into my heart, then with my arms wrapped tightly around her, the dance continued.

''A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight, walking in a winter wonderland.''

I shift awake again, grumbling out loud, feeling sand where it shouldn't be. After a moment of digging into my jacket I settle again, trying to ignore the frustration that is rising each time reality breaks in, so that I lose my hold on Caitlin's dreamscape. I remember that dance and Christmas, it was the first one that was truly ours. We had only moved in together in November of that year and I had never felt so loved, or in love for that matter. Caitlin accepted me for me. A whirlwind year for us, starting as lust and moving into love. It was the one time I questioned what I wanted from life, Caitlin was happy being the partner of a soldier, maybe because she had never had been around me when it was a war situation. That was peacetime, all that happened was I disappeared for a six-month tour of duty, which at the time were drills, maneuvers or UN work. The danger I was involved in wasn't spread over every news channel. September 11th changed all that, I think for her as well as the rest of the world.... A nightmare was coming.

I sigh, remembering those times is hard even now, and it was the first time I realized she wasn't happy for me being a soldier. The thought of losing me like that brought her own nightmares to life. It was a tough year following the attack, to the point she backed away from me. Didn't help that half of the year I was gone from her and left her alone to fight her doubts and demons.I made a decision that I was going to leave the corps and settle down with her. I'd told her and she had cried, she told me later the crying was a good thing. But life wasn't that simple or kind to us.

I move my head back just a touch and I can see the stars encrusted in the dome of the sky through the crater in the roof. My breath is condensation in the cold air as I exhale roughly. The illumination dial on my watch tells me it's only two in the morning, that makes it seven in the evening at home. Caitlin will be going to her parent's house in preparation for Christmas day. God, I wish I was there with her. Watching the stars, I let my mind wander back again.

October 7, 2002

I sat staring at the TV screen, my mouth hanging open. I had listened from the start, not quite believing what the president was saying, but as the speech drew to a close I knew the truth.

The Iraqi regime has violated all of those obligations. It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism and practices terror against its own people. The entire world has witnessed Iraq's 11-year history of defiance, deception, and bad faith.

As I watched, I felt my stomach lunge. Turning to Caitlin, I saw the same fear in her eyes, I made my eyes go back to the screen.

Members of Congress are nearing an historic vote, and I am confident they will fully consider the facts and their duties. The attacks of September 11 showed our country that vast oceans no longer protect us from danger. Before that tragic date, we had only hints of al Qaeda's plans and designs.

I swallowed, knowing in my heart what was coming.

We did not ask for this present challenge, but we accept it. Like other generations of Americans, we will meet the responsibility of defending human liberty against violence and aggression. By our resolve, we will give strength to others. By our courage, we will give hope to others. By our actions, we will secure the peace, and lead the world to a better day.

Thank you and good night.

I sat there in silence, outside I could hear the world stop, the beer in my hand was long forgotten as the president signed off. The whole thing meant one thing.... War. When I looked over to Caitlin she was sitting white faced, her hand to her mouth.

'' Oh my god..... he really is going to do it.''

I didn't answer, I couldn't, this changed everything, there was no way I could leave now, my unit would need me, my country needed me. If I walked away now I would feel like a coward. She looked at me, stared at me. When I finally met her eyes, she saw the truth. I thought she would argue as I saw her face flush with anger. Then slowly she let her head dip as tears came to her eyes, and she nodded.

'' I understand.''

She sounded so beaten, it tore at my heart. Rushing over to her, my mouth opened, but I couldn't find the words to explain why I had to do this. So instead of words I pulled her to me and just held on for dear life. As she cried all I could promise was no matter what, I was coming home to her.

Sand and tears don't mix.... I swipe at my eyes, annoyed that I had cried over a memory that was made a year and a half ago. It was hard leaving her, I remember exactly her face and the pain in her eyes as she said goodbye to me. It still stings to know I had hurt her that much, something I thought I would never do. But here I am all the same.

'' Ugh.'' I shuffle back over onto my left side, trying now to shut my brain up, after what seemed like hours I finally gave way to sleep.

When first light began to filter into the surrounding blackness, my unit was already mumbling and grumbling into the waking world. As soon as we had eaten our rations, we fell into cleaning and fully dismantling the pumping unit. The sun returning brought the heat, which wasn't helped by the growing storm. Lt. took time out to arrange canvas to be placed over the worst of the holes in the building walls, protecting us and the machinery from the worst of the now flying sand. By ten am, we had the machine completely broken down and started the main repairs.

Just after eleven we all snapped to attention as Captain Dobkins came in, he brushed the sand off his jacket. We all stood erect, saluting. When he answered the salute and waved to us to stand at ease, we did. The Lt. came in next but his waves stopped us jumping to attention again.

'' This is what's happening, this is Captain Dobkins. Some of you know him, some of you don't. Either way listen up.''

He nodded to Dobkins to take over. Dobkins pulled out a map and laid it on the floor, we all fell in to be able to read it.

'' Ok... It's confirmed there are two tanks.'' He ignored the groans from us and continued.

'' One good thing is the army with it is smaller than first expected, only about fifty or so, I've got two units dug in on the ridge here.''

He pointed to the mark on the map, all our eyes followed.

'' If we get lucky, and I mean lucky, they will miss this place in the storm. If they don't.... Well let's just say the 173rd corps of the marines are going to have a little surprise for them. My men have been out this morning laying mines along this flat.''

He pointed to the map again, moving his finger about an inch across a plain.

'' If the tanks go in first, ahead of the men, we will take them out. I have rocket launchers here and here.''

Again his finger moved to the positions on the map. He rubbed his chin for a moment. '' I know your unit isn't used to fire situations.'' His eyes went to me for a moment, L.T. saw it.

'' We can handle ourselves, Sir. We have been in heavy fire situations before, believe me.''

The captain gave a curt nod. '' Well it isn't going to be pretty, so just work together....'' His eyes went around the building.

'' This will be a target for the tanks if they get through the ambush, I'd advise digging in somewhere along the west ridge, so you all have a place to head to if this place takes fire.''

He looked around at all of us, we nodded in understanding.

''Ok, there is one thing you have to remember, the east road is now booby trapped. I have a line of clamors laid all around the transports and path, so stay away. If you have to run, run south, if we get separated......... Any of us.''

His eyes went briefly to me again, then moved on to make eye contact with the others. '' Head to grid reference delta north 125. Got it?''

'' Sir...... yes, sir.'' We all sounded together.

'' Good.'' With that he rose, brushing the dirt off his knees, replacing the map back in his flak jacket pocket. Then with a nod to our Lt. he left.

Even looking around I could tell that everyone was thinking the same, some of us weren't going to get out of this one. L.T met my eyes for a moment, then he straightened.

'' Ok... We know this isn't what we wanted and I also know it just plain sucks, and it seems we have pissed off some Gods too to get us this duty.''

That got him a few sniggers.

'' But we have a job to do. So first off, the storm is gonna hit full force in less than an hour, so I want.....''

He motioned to two of my men. '' Donner, Texas you two go to the west ridge and dig us a foxhole deep enough to cover our arses.''

With a salute, they grabbed their gear and shovels and headed out.

L.T turned his attention back to the rest of us. '' Tee - you, Al and Dennis finish that damn machine.''

All three of us nodded and acknowledged the command. '' Sir, yes sir.''

Then we broke away and started reassembling the now repaired pump. He watched us for a moment then beckoned Brian over, then both of them disappeared outside into the awakening storm.

'' Doesn't really seem a point of doing this.''

My eyes left the closing canvas, I looked over at Dennis, and something in his voice made me turn my full attention to him. His young face showed his full emotions, the fear radiated off him. I realized as I looked at him why, this was his first time out. Placing my hand on his shoulder, I saw him swallow.

'' We came here to fix this and that's what we are going to do.... ok?''

His eyes fell for a moment.

'' Look Dennis, it's ok to be afraid, the difference is the choice to let it rule you, we all are depending on you, ya know.''

He swallowed again and his eyes darted around uncertain. ''I'm ..... not sure how to handle this?''

My hand left his shoulder and I picked up the spanner on the floor, offering it to him. '' One step at a time is how, and first up is repairing this...... I know you can do that.''

He inhaled, his tongue moving over his bottom lip, then I saw a determined look come into his eyes as he took the spanner with a semi shaking hand. '' Yes ma'am I can do that.''

I grinned at him, slapping him on the back. '' Good, and I never doubted it.''

He flushed red at me, then stuttering he went back to his work, reminding me once again why we had nicknamed him Bashful. As I rose, I glanced over at Al who was looking at the boy in concern, he then met my eyes and I nodded at him, then flicked my eyes to the now working boy. He understood what I meant as he returned the nod. Dennis would be fine until the firing started.

I was so engrossed in the work at hand, the storm hitting had passed me by until I heard the howls of wind and the canvas covers flapping with such force it took three more ropes to secure it. It was as if someone was trying to get in. We finished the work way before I expected, mainly because it kept the team occupied. When it was finished, we started it up, and now the sound of the storm was accompanied by the low hum emitting from the working pump. We all stood around it as it sparked to life, each one of us wore a grin of accomplishment. I hated to break into the moment but I knew time was now against us in a different way.

'' Ok guys, time to get ready.... if the captain is right, they will hit the mine field in less than an hour..... get your tack together and load up.''

We stood there for a minute then the building became a mass of movement. Within ten minutes we all had our backpacks loaded and armor and guns ready, each one of us took up position inside the building pushed up against the walls, until we either had to move out or wait.

Outside, the sandstorm reigned over the land, it took control of everything, stirring, leveling, and consuming. I looked up as I heard the remaining parts of the galvanized roofing groan as it lifted and tugged against the screws, it rattled and let out a sound like someone playing the xylophone as sand slammed across it. After ten minutes it became the normal and was easily filtered out. The howl of the wind was different, it was like some baying wolf crying for blood that just seemed to get louder as the rage of the storm encased us.

When the canvas door opened, everyone let out a curse and yell as sand bellowed into the opening. The Lt. stepped in, lowering his scarf from his mouth, coughing. Brian stepped in behind him, I could see now why he had gone with the Lt. earlier; on his back he carried the mobile radio unit.

'' They're not going around us.'' He gulped a mouthful of water then spat it out.

The tension went up a notch, I pulled my gun to my chest, holding on a little bit tighter.

'' We stay here until I hear otherwise.''

Everyone nodded.

The Lt. came over to where I was and sat his back to the wall.

'' You ever get used to the waiting, Tee?''

I shook my head at him, wishing that the wind would shut the hell up.

'' Nah, me either.''

I shifted over a bit to peek through one of the gaps in the canvas, it gave me a clear view of the area ahead of me, but I couldn't see shit, the sand now was dense and heavy, whirling around into tiny tornadoes.

'' When's your next leave, Tee?''

I looked over at him. '' January 10th.... Why?''

He relaxed back onto his backpack. '' You gonna see Caitlin?''

I looked at him in question. '' Yea, we got two weeks booked in Mexico. Caitlin's idea, she loves the place, it's where we went the first time we got together...... if I had my way I wouldn't go anywhere sand exists, but I want her happy...... if she said the moon I'd go..... Carl, why do you ask? You wanna double date or something?''

He met my eyes, then he pulled out a picture from his top pocket. After gazing at it, he offered it so I could see. I smiled at him, recognizing his wife and two kids.

'' Mine was supposed to be February, was gonna take them to Disney World.'' He moved the picture away from me and rubbed his thumb over the image.

I frowned, I didn't like where this was going '' what do you mean was?''

He inhaled sadly, bringing his legs up to rest his gun on them. Then he lowered his voice, not wanting anyone around to hear.

'' You ever get a feeling, Tee? You know one of those foreboding things.''

His gray eyes looked at me in question, I realized he was serious.

'' Carl, stop it, you know I hate that premonition shit. Cut it out, ok.''

''No.... no I'm serious, my dad had one you know, when he was in Vietnam, the last letter he sent home was filled with it.'' He paused, his eyes dulling. '' He didn't come home, Tee. I just keep getting that feeling like..... Well, like neither am I.''

I felt my mouth go dry, I looked at him, seeing his whole face show that was what he believed.'' You listen to me L.T... I don't give a rat's arse about fate, kismet, destiny or whatever other name you want to put to something that is out of control, life isn't and with all due respect just shut the fuck up, ok.''

I knew several of the others in the room were looking over to us in question as I my voice raised in anger. Seeing it helped me lower my voice again. '' Jesus, Carl, we have been in situations worse than this.''

He flashed a look at me. '' Yea... name one?''

I blinked at him in surprise as I thought. '' Ok...... what about Bosnia when that sniper had us pinned down and no one could get a shot at him because he was hiding in the damn hospital. He picked off three of us before we took him out, remember that... why is this different?''

He pushed his helmet back up until it sat back off his forehead. '' Because this time it isn't one man, it's a shit load of trouble.''

I inhaled the frustration, we didn't need our Lt. going off on a death wish or giving up, I put my hand on his forearm, softening my voice.

'' Carl, I want to see Caitlin again, and I want to take her in my arms and make love to her for hours, don't you want that for your wife? Are you going to let a feeling rule if that happens?''

He blinked at me slightly, then looked down at the picture again, slowly a smile came to his lips. '' Yea, I want that too, Tee.... you're right, doesn't make the feeling go away, but I want to go home as much as the next person''

He looked at me sheepishly. ''Guess I needed my ass kicked.''

I grinned at him, nudging him with my elbow, silently exhaling inside. '' Well I'm always available for L.T. ass kicking duties, Sir.''

'' So am I.'' Al's voice filtered over to us.

When we looked over to him his eyes were gleaming in amusement. I snorted a laugh, knowing full well Al could hear pins dropping. Carl threw a stone at him, which Al batted away with ease.

'' You're a Smartass, Al.''

'' That would be an affirmative, Sir.''

The tension was broken as everyone in the room laughed. I watched as Carl kissed the picture, putting it back into his pocket.

All smiles vanished as the first deep bass rumble of a distant explosion became muffled in the storm, every single one of us knew what it meant. The minefield had been reached. The man who had moments ago seemed unsure rose to his feet. Replacing the helmet firmly on his head, he sat by the radio and lifted the handset.

'' Report? Over.''

The radio crackled for a moment.

'' Forward position engaging heavy fire, one tank down, second one moving along grid reference gamma omega ninety.... Over.''

The radio clicked.

'' Understood. Orders? Over.'' I watched Carl tighten his grip on the handset.

The radio crackled again for a moment.

'' Stay in position until we know where the bastards head, visibility is down to ten yard here, over and out.''

'' Roger that, over and out.'' He handed the handset back to Brian who placed it back in the rack at his side.

'' Ok, this is it, stay tight and stay together, we sit here until we move, then we head to the foxhole, GOT THAT.''


Every one of us moved to kneeling positions facing the wall. I felt my mouth dry up, swallowing seemed to make it worse, fear is a great rush to the body, it pumps you so full of adrenaline you can feel your heart hammering in your chest, at the same time a buzz runs through your veins. In a way it's addictive, because no high in life comes close. Right now it's something I depend on to get me to do things I need to do. I feel the cold creep over me again, shutting out the part of my brain that would make me sick to my stomach at shooting another human being. There isn't time for regret or remorse, that will only get you killed, those feelings come later when you're alone in the toilet and hurling your soul up.

The radio crackled, nearly everyone jumped.


As if on cue I felt the ground under me stir into a low vibration.

The Lt. was up at once, moving to the canvas flap, pulling his scarf over his mouth. '' GO... GO........ GO.''

Everyone was up at once, I took the rear, Al falling in at my side as we made sure no one lagged behind, moving to the flap, pulling my own scarf up over my mouth to help protect against the sand wanting to enter my lungs. I couldn't see more than two foot in front of me as I ran to the position that offered cover, I took a brief glance down at my watch, knowing the compass there would tell me if I was heading in the right direction. Suddenly off to my right I started to make out the silhouette of the mammoth that was the tank. I blinked, feeling my eyes raw up as I tried to focus to see what direction it was pointed, then I felt Al grab my arm and throw us down.

Behind me I heard the '' whoooooooooosh.'' Then across my back I felt the searing heat as the building we had been in moments before became nothing more than debris and flying fractured pieces of metal. I wasn't sure if it was Al who hit me or something else, that was until I felt my shoulder muscle scream in pain. Rolling over, I buried my back in the sand, just in case I was on fire. Gasping for air, I didn't have time to look as Al grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me up.


My legs were already running with him before he put me down. As soon as my boots dug in I was off after him, reminding myself to kick the shit out of him later at his comment.

I virtually fell into the foxhole, right on top of the Lt. He grunted then rolled me away. '' Shit, Tee, did you do that on purpose?''

I couldn't help the grin, although I knew he couldn't see it. I shifted, suddenly realizing Al wasn't there.

'' Where's Al?'' my voice was a shout over the noise of the storm and the tank engine.

I looked around at the others, each one I could see shook their head. Then out of nowhere, a six-foot frame of pissed off G.I barreled into us.

'' Fuck, get off me man.'' A voice I recognized as Donner echoed from somewhere to my right.

'' Al?''

I felt his hand fall on my hip, turning I let out a sigh of relief. '' Where the fuck did you go?''

I saw his eyes gleam. '' Thought I'd take a look around.''

'' And?'' The Lt. slapped him on the back to get his attention.

Al turned to him. '' There is one tank.''

I rolled my eyes. '' Think I noticed that... What else?''

'' Ten men, moving south east of here, each in a line of five.'' He pointed in the direction, then moved his hand in a circle. '' They are trying to get behind us.''

Everyone ducked as an explosion funneled into the air to the east.

'' Shit man, that's the transports.''

I threw Donner a look, even in the storm he could see my eyes flashing at him.

''Ok, move up.''

Everyone started shuffling closer until we became a circle, using each others backs to shield us from the storm, also this way we could talk and be heard, our shoulders touching and heads bowed as if we were in a huddle at a football game.

'' Right, is everyone ok?'' The Lt. looked around at all of us, waiting for the nods.

My shoulder had started to smart and fall into a dull bone ache, but it was ok for now, so when he looked at me I nodded my head.

'' Good, and that's how we are going to stay.'' He shuffled over to the radio and lifted it.

'' Report?''

The handset filled with static....... he tried again. '' Delta team come in?''

Again static became the answer.

'' Come in?''

'' Team three here, sir.''

Everyone let out a breath, we knew this was the heavy artillery unit on the opposite ridge.

'' Status? Over.......''

'' Taking heavy fire, sir.''

As if to confirm it we heard the rat-tat of gunfire, followed by a deeper repeating echo, one we all knew was an AK 47, and the weapon of the enemy. In between we recognized the loud whine of a rocket being fired.

'' Casualties? Over..''

Even in the storm I could see the Lt.'s face whiten.

'' Down to three rockets, sir...... six men down.. Three wounded...... Last report of the Captain was he was taking heavy casualties, sir...... He was trying to fall back to position Delta.''

''Understand.'' For a moment the Lt's face creased, he could tell as well as any of us that the soldier on the other end was young. '' What's your name son?''

'' Dasher sir.'' His reply stuttered in fear.

''Ok Dasher, I need you listen to me, stand down and get to Delta. Understood?''

Suddenly the radio was filled with an explosion, then a moment of static. The Lt. pulled the handset from his ear with a curse. But nothing but a hiss of a broken link followed. The sound grated against my every sense. When the breathless G.I returned, his voice frantic and filled with pain, I clenched my jaw to the point I thought I was going to lose teeth.

'' We're hit. We're hit.....oh god..... the damn tank.....it....it's found our ra........''

He didn't get to finish as all of us heard the whoosh of the cannon on the tank being fired, then in the distance we made out the orange plume merge and get lost inside the blanketing sandstorm.

'' Come in..... Dasher come in. COME IN GODDAMN IT. DASHERRRRRR.''

All we got in answer was static and then suddenly there was no sound save for the howling baying wolf in the storm still wanting to be fed. The Lt. sat back, his eyes going to each of us, the receiver now limp in his hands.

'' We have two choices, either stay here and hope the sand covers us or try and make it to Delta..... Opinions?''

He looked at me, being next in command. '' If we stay here, sir, they could pass us, we sure are getting enough sand in here to provide cover, if we break out we could literally run into them... we can't see shit, sir.''

He nodded then looked to Al.

Al cleared his throat, coughing away some of the sand before he answered. '' Yea, if we stay here we will be fine in this storm, but as soon as it passes we are sitting ducks. At least out there it's on even ground right now, they can't see shit either.'' He looked over at me grinning.

The Lt. nodded again, then looked up into where the sky should be. '' This storm is going to last at least another four hours, we rest here for one hour then we move out..... Agreed?''

Even though I thought it was the wrong thing to do, I nodded. Part of me knew what Al was saying was true, the tank would just sit out there waiting, while the soldiers would do a sweep search, eventually they would find us.

'' Ok then we have a plan, Brian?''

Brian's head snapped up. '' Sir?''

'' Keep trying on that thing but don't go giving information out incase they're listening, make it sound like you are a lonely soldier lost out here, got me?''

'' Yes, sir.'' Nodding, he pulled the radio free and began.

'' The rest of you dig in.''

And we did, all of us using the small shovels attached to our packs, and we crawled into a hole the size of a body, letting the sand move over us until only our heads showed, the camouflage of our helmets blending in perfectly.

Every time I moved I felt something in my shoulder grate, I wasn't sure if it was bone or some piece of metal, I didn't have the luxury of being able to get it sorted. So I settled down into a position that didn't ache so much, my gun was laid out on the surface of the sand, I clicked the breech back and kept it aimed on the area ahead, even with the sand goggles on I couldn't see anything. I felt the sweat pooling around the rim and run down the sides, each time the goggles fogged I tilted them away a moment and exhaled into them, closing my eyes to the sudden assault of tiny grit on my eyelids. I could feel the sand getting everywhere in my clothes, I thanked god that my boots were tight and none has so far fallen inside. The worst thing I ever remembered about my first pair of boots in a desert maneuver, where sand had gotten inside, I had rubbed my ankles and skin to blisters in less than an hour.

If I didn't think the storm was going to get any worse, I was proved wrong. Within twenty minutes the lonely howl of the wind was joined now by a baying pack. It made it harder that I was virtually blind and relying on my other senses. They were all heightened to the point of pain, the sand on my skin grated like a wire every time I moved. The sounds battered my eardrums until I thought I was going to go mad. All that I could taste was dry old musk of my own salvia, my tongue was a heavy sandpaper in my mouth, and my smell, well my smell was infected, a mix of my own sweat and the copper of dirt. But still I lay there, unmoving, eyes flicking around in the dense haze of grit whirling around, on alert for any sign that we had been found.

I heard a click, I lowered my chin low to the surface, so close my exhales caused the skin of the desert to stir. Then again I heard it, off to my left. I held my breath, my eyes searching, trying to focus or find the source. Then I saw him, a stooped figure fighting against the intense wind that battered his body. Slowly my eyes tracked his movement. I let my breaths out gently, as if even over the roar of the wind he would have heard me. He stopped, his head going up, the edge of his scarf free and flapping in the wind behind him. Then my eyes blinked into focus the other figure emerging to the left of him, I shifted further down, swallowing. Then another shadow became a form, then another, then another. Shit.... I watched the group of five begin to climb the ridge below, leading them right to our position. I knew if I moved I could give the lot of us away, but I knew the next person down from me was Dennis, I couldn't take the chance he would panic.

I gently began to rock the sand off my back, until I felt the weight ease enough for me to wiggle backwards, using my knees and elbows I slowly began to withdraw from my foxhole. My eyes were firmly locked on the enemy until I was out of their sight. As soon as I knew the ridge hid my movements I combat crawled as fast as I could to where I knew the Lt. lay.


''Sir, we got movement coming right at us.'' I still whispered, not even trusting the storm now to help cover it.


I pointed then gave the marine signal for direction and how many.

He nodded. ''Shit..... Ok, get to Donner and Dennis and Al. Take them out quietly.... Swing wide and come up behind them..... I won't uncover the rest of us unless I have to.''

I swallowed the urge to throw up, knowing he meant using the knife.

His hand grabbed my shoulder. ''Tee?''

I nodded, then without another word I started crawling flat on my belly towards the others. I virtually stumbled on Donner's position.

''Shit Sarg, I think I peed myself.''

I fought an almost giggle, then realized the fear was now bubbling under the surface, I took a long breath until I felt I had it under control.

'' Donner, five coming over the ridge, we need to take them out.''

I watched his eyes flicker for a moment, then he nodded, pulling his combat knife from the sheath on his chest.

'' Ok wait for the whistle, you go straight ahead, lay low, you'll see them as soon as you reach the ridge. I'm going to get Al, he and I will work around them, we got to use Dennis.''

'' Sarg, I don't think the kid's up to this......''

I nodded. '' I know.''

'' Ok how long till I go in?'' I watched him swallow, and also the iciness take over his features.

'' Give us a count of one hundred, start as soon as I leave, we'll be there.''

He gave a short nod, then started heading out on his stomach towards the ridge.

I moved fast, avoiding taking in gulps of air as the sand I was stirring up pushed into the cloth at my mouth. As I started to move past Al, he grabbed my leg, almost causing me to cry out, but my reflexes were good and I chewed it down.

'' What's up?''

'' Five coming fast to the ridge, we got to take them out..... where's Dennis?''

As I spoke I saw the white face of the scared shitless G.I peek out from behind Al. I gave Al a thankful look for looking out for him.

'' We have to take them......... how? In this?'' I could hear the fear in Dennis' voice almost break his words.

Inside I felt sorry for him at what he was about to do, it would most likely get him killed if he froze.

'' We have to.'' Al pulled his knife free. I could have sworn that the knife reflected in the terrified boy's eyes as they widened.

'' God. I........I.''

Before I could say anything, Al moved fast, grabbing the boy's chin in his hand like a vice.

'' You listen to me, you do it or they kill you..... or worse wound you then spend the next two days torturing the shit out of you and not only you, me, the Sarg.'' Al's eyes flicked to me then back. '' And can you imagine what they are going to do to her?''

Silently I called Al a bastard and for a moment hated him, but I knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. Dennis' eyes went to me, widening as Al's words hit home, and I could see the tears there and the fear. He closed them, his whole frame shaking for a moment, then he nodded.

''What do I have tod.... Do?''

Al let his chin go then looked at me. ''Plan?''

''Donner is already on his way, me and you are going to go around, ''

I turned my gaze to Dennis.

'' I need you to make your way that way,''

I pointed, waiting until he acknowledged with a nod, until I continued.

'' Stay low, if someone comes close, deal with it..... Don't hesitate Dennis, we need to know you can do this?''

Slowly he squared his shoulders and then he too pulled out his combat dagger. '' I won't let you down Sarg.''

I wanted more time, I wanted to reassure him that this was right, this was needed, but I couldn't, Donner was already on his countdown. Al slapped the boy on the shoulder then he was off on his stomach crawling. With a last look to Dennis I headed out after him. I thought I had gone in the wrong direction, then I pulled up just in time as Al's boots came into view. Inside I had been keeping a steady count, we were at 83. I nodded to Al, he raised the scarf at his mouth a moment then let out a long low whistle. I knew the enemy would hear it, but I needed them coming in this direction now we were away from the ridge. Both Al and I waited, the internal countdown ascending to one hundred.





Out of the fog of sand I saw the first figure, I tapped Al on the side, he nodded, then slowly we started to crawl directly towards him, making out the other two just behind him as we neared.





I rose fast, now only a foot away from the soldier ahead of me, he had half turned away as I rose. I lunged forward, placing my hand over his mouth, using all my strength to spin his back into me, my left leg wrapped around his hip, pinning him there, then I pushed the dagger up and into his back, just below the ribcage, plunging it right into his heart. He spasmed against me for a few moments then went limp. I quickly looked around, seeing Al lay down the body of the second.

I sensed more than heard the movement behind me. I didn't bother checking to see if it was friend or foe, in one swift move, I flattened myself down to the sand, sweeping out and back with my right leg, feeling the impact and grunt as the body went down. I was up at once, throwing myself onto the figure on the ground, knocking the gun away as I sent a punch into the stomach. As soon as I made eye contact, I knew I had done the right thing, a young Iraqi stared at me in both fear and hatred. I raised the knife ready to plunge it down but his hand came up engulfing my wrist. I didn't have the upper body strength to win that way so I shifted slightly, bringing my knee up in between his legs, his mouth opened into a yell, but my free hand came down onto it muting his cry. His legs kicked out and up, loosening my leg lock on his hip, almost pushing me over the top of his head, I drew back my face and head butted my helmet into his nose, turning my face away at the spurt of blood. Then he made his mistake; for one brief second his hand weakened on my wrist, I used it, turning on my side slightly I used my shoulder strength to push the dagger down.

For one inhale, the storm stopped around me as I watched his eyes go wide, his mouth opened as if to say something, then he gurgled and a crimson deep red blood bubbled across and down over his lips, his eyes folded in on themselves. I lay there on top of him as the storm came back into the reality before me, just staring at him, my breaths coming in heavy gasps. I had killed before but I had never seen their eyes.

''Sarg? You had to do it Tee, it was you or him.''

I could hear Al move down beside me, what he said didn't make any difference, I knew I had to do it, but it still didn't stop the new coldness spreading over every single pore, till my skin crawled. This boy had a life, he had dreams, and beliefs. I had just taken every single one of those things from him.

''Tee......Come on, we have to check on the others.''

When his hand touched my shoulder I flinched, but he left it there.

''Tee?'' his voice this time was filled with more compassion than command.

I finally tore my eyes away, then just in time I moved my scarf out of the way and threw up into the sand, trying to get myself under control. I felt Al's hand on my back moving in circles.

''It's ok Sarg, it's ok.''

As I rose and pulled my knife free from the body and wiped it in the sand, one thought went through my head. I don't think anything's going to be ok again. Then I followed Al into the oblivion that was the storm.

When we got to the ridge, I could see Donner bending over the sprawled figure. He looked up, the knife coming up as we approached. As soon as he made out it was us, he relaxed and went back to cleaning the blade.

'' Where's Dennis?''

Donner nodded his head just off to the center of us, I squinted to see clearer. He was bent over, hurling his guts up, just next to another body.

Donner walked over to us. '' He took him out, no problems, he didn't even hesitate.''

I nodded sadly at what Dennis had just lost, my eyes still fixed on the kneeling young corpsman, Al put his hand on my shoulder.

''The storm will cover them pretty soon, we ought to get back..... I'll take care of Bashful.''

I inhaled, then coughed as I felt some of the sand enter my lungs. '' Ok.''

Then the four of us headed back to the foxholes. When we arrived the Lt. didn't say anything, but his eyes gave me a question. I just nodded my head then stumbled back to my position, feeling like any moment I would be showing the world the contents of my stomach again. Unslinging my gun from my back, I dug in.

I lay there, willing the image of his eyes staring at me away, but they didn't. And every time I closed mine they returned in force. I hadn't noticed my body shaking until I started to lift my hand to move the sand scarf back into place over my mouth. It was shaking so much I could see each finger doubled in my vision. I slammed my fist shut, gulping in any air I could find through the scarf. Slowly my heartrate fluttered and calmed, my lungs didn't burn quite so much, my eyes opened, locking on my fist as I unclenched it, flexing. The shaking had ebbed to slight trembles. All the time I kept Caitlin's image in my head, fighting against the darkness that wanted to consume my heart.

The storm grew and built around me, then the wind began to let up. As soon as I noticed, I knew the command to move wouldn't be far off. Within five minutes the Lt. sent a signal down to head out to Delta position, then undercover, we all rose and silently hiked towards it. As I walked, one foot in front of the other, my legs moved on their own, my eyes darted around on full alert, my heart pumping, my lungs inhaled and exhaled. I was on automatic. I didn't feel like me anymore, everything seemed to be just outside the vision of reality. I don't think I was even conscious of the storm or the sand battering into me as we traveled that whole hour. All I could still see over and over was the widening eyes of the soldier and what I had become.

Eventually we cleared the ridges, and our path was now downhill into the valley. Visibility increased as the storm began to decrease in scale, to the point I could now make out my whole unit, and for the first time I started to feel safe again, I wasn't alone. I don't know how long we had been walking, but as we huddled down I realized I was thirsty beyond words. Taking my bottle out, I gulped down the salt tablet water, resisting the urge to finish its contents.

After the Lt. sent out a small recon team to check the area, it became clear that no-one else was at the position, we were the only ones. That made us all fall into a heavy silence. So once again we sat and waited, waited for the enemy to find us, or nature to move her storm away enough to call for the choppers to get us the hell out of dodge. We were all tired beyond words and moral was so low that even Al's humor fell flat.

''Ok.. Here is what we are going to do?''

Everyone looked up as the Lt. stepped into the middle of the huddle.

'' The enemy is still out there, including that damn tank, and this storm is going to be gone soon, that means we have to hold out till the U.S. rescue force gets here.''

'' Time for that Sir?''

He turned his head to me. '' Two hours minimum.''

Everyone let out a sigh.

'' We have another option.''

Something in the Lt.'s voice made everyone pay attention. I watched the Lt. swallow, then he looked around at the emerging outline of the horizon, knowing like all of us the advantage of hiding was slowly being pulled away from us by nature. He took a lung full of air then turned back to us.

'' I order an F16 strike direct to our position.''

For one minute we all stared at him, then looking down I felt that weight smack into my lungs again.

'' Shit sir.... Danger close?'' Donner cursed as he rose, pacing.

We all knew what danger close was. It meant one thing, we dug in and hoped to god no friendly fire got us, the F16's would blanket the area in rocket fire, including right down on where we were.

''Can't we...... Just....... just wait them out sir?'' I didn't need to look up to know it was Bashful who spoke.

''We could son, but the recon team says they are virtually headed for us...... We either fight or run, and right now running will get us killed.'' He paused. ''There is one other option, which would be as much suicide as a Danger close strike.''

''We take them out....'' I didn't know my thoughts had come out of my mouth, until I looked up and everyone was staring at me, including the Lt., who sadly nodded his head.

'' Yea, we take them out, including the tank.''

''Holy crap..... You're not serious?'' Donner's eyes flicked first to the Lt. then me. '' With what? We have maybe fifty grenades and our M16's. Oh I suppose we could spit on them...... Jesus.''

He threw his arm up in disbelief.

Slowly I took a long breath, then rose just as slowly. ''Donner..'' when he didn't turn, I raised my voice. ''DONNER!''

He snapped around immediately, his body reacting automatically, taught by years of training, he snapped to attention.

'' Sir!''

'' I want you to give me in twenty minutes a plan of action of the best way of taking out a Russian Black Eagle tank?''

I knew Donner, I had for seven years, he was a geek on armory of the world. If anyone knew how to take them out, he would. In his brain he held every single detail. I met his stare in challenge, for a moment I thought he was going to lose it and argue with me the futility of even trying. His muscles flexed as he inhaled, then he rolled his head, until I heard the crack of his vertebra.

''Yes ma am, but you know damn well I don't need twenty minutes.''

Everyone let out a ripple of laughter at his know it all look aimed at me, the situation went down two notches on the tense scale.

'' Well then, tell us what you know.'' I folded my arms, smiling at him.

Donner inhaled then briefly closed his eyes, when they opened he started reeling off the facts, as if I had just called it up on Google.

'' Black Hawk, Russian created in 1997. Weight: 50 Tons, Length: 6,982 m, Width: 3,582 m, Height: 1,80 m, Armor: active mm, Gun: 125 mm, Crew; 3 to five depending on assignment, Engine: 16/1200 hps, turbo diesel, Speed: 54 km/h.....'' He exhaled and even over his sand scarf I could see that he was grinning.

'' And that tells us what Donner?''

His grin fell as he turned to the Lt. to answer

'' This tank has a entirely new thinking Sir..... The turret doesn't have any crew inside. They are in the main hull separated from the main gun ammunition that is stored in the rear and under the turret. The firing system has automatic loading which increases the rate of fire. In brief, the usual place of weakness is the gun turret, hit that and you wipe out the crew; no crew, no more threat....... With this one they are in the heaviest armored part. Near impossible to get to without another tank or a rocket launcher up close and personal.''

'' So how do we do it with what we do have?'' Donner looked at me as if I had just asked him the meaning of life.

'' You can't........... I mean you can't go for the crew, we have to put the gun out of commission, if we can get close enough and get four grenades in the gun bore then maybe it will ignite the ammunition that is kept in the automatic loader.''

Everyone shook their head in a gasp. '' That's pretty damn close Don.''

Donner turned to nod at Al. '' Yea, right on top of them, which isn't going to be easy because it has 360 degree machine guns, front, back and sides, that can fire 500 rounds a minute.''

I thought long and hard, going over the area we had just traveled in my head, then I felt an idea surface.

''Donner? What if we can funnel the tank in between two ridges, could one of us jump down on it from above?''

'' Above? Sure, it would be the perfect position Sarg. But how?''

''We bait it.''

Although the army is not a democracy, the Lt. let it go to the vote within our unit on the two options. He knew doing it that way gave us the commitment that was needed rather than his order forcing us to do something. The vote came back just as the storm settled into no more than stirring sand, and our advantage disappeared as the roar turned into a sigh of wind. We were going for the tank.

It was already dark when the storm left us, and in a way it was good to look at the stars again. But it left me feeling exposed in away I wasn't prepared for. At first after the vote was in, we spent a short time coming up with a plan, the recon had come back with the exact position of the tank and remaining men. We had picked two ridges south, south west of them that suited our needs. It was Al who volunteered for the leap, the rest of us would spend our time picking off the soldiers, while the Lt. and Brian would bait the tank to follow them in between the ridges. But for now we all sat together, maybe for the last time.

'' It will be Christmas in ten hours.''

I switched my gaze from my hands to Al.

'' Yea.'' I couldn't think of anything else to say, it seemed like another world away.

His head was tilted right back, looking directly above, leaning his weight onto his backpack, his arm going up under his helmet, shifting to get comfortable.

''What's your strongest memory of that, Tee?''

I bit into the ration bar, chewing as I thought. Swallowing, I answered. '' Probably the smell, you know turkey, ham, corn bread.''

He nodded but still didn't look at me. '' God, yea. So sweet.''

I looked at my ration bar in almost disgust as my other senses filled with the smells and taste.

'' What's your happiest memory, Tee?''

'' Of Christmas?''

'' Yea.''

'' That's a tough one, my first one you know the one that sticks.''

He nodded, I continued.

'' I remember coming down stairs when I was eight and seeing the red bike I had wanted for months sitting under the tree, and all I could do was stand frozen. Because if I went over I was sure it would disappear, so instead I stood there with my mouth open like a dead fish. Until my father picked me up and dumped me on the seat.'' I smiled at the memory.

He chuckled. '' Yea, had one of those too. Mine was a fishing rod, just like my dad's. Think it was the same age too, about eight.'' He grinned in memory. ''What else?''

I'd had enough of the ration bar so instead I cupped my water bottle in both hands, pretending it was hot chocolate. '' The second Christmas with Caitlin.'' A different smile came to my lips.

Al let his eyes dip to look at me. '' Can you tell me about it, or is it X rated. Hey wait, if it is, definitely tell me.'' He wiggled his eyebrows.

I snorted. '' Yea, you wish.''

When I didn't answer, his boot tapped my knee. ''Welllllllllllllllllllllllll?''

I rolled my eyes, feeling myself blush. '' It's private Al, geesh.''

His grin widened. '' Yea I know, I just like seeing you blush and squirm.'' His face grew serious as he rose, coming to sit beside me. '' About what happened Tee.''

My smile fell and my whole body tensed.

'' You had to do it and I know that doesn't make it right..... But we have to do things to survive Tee.. so we can go home and collect those memories.''

An unsure smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. ''It changes things, I know Tee.... but it doesn't change what our heart is. It does get better, I mean what you're feeling now........ the coldness inside, it thaws.''

I closed my eyes to the intense emotion, knowing he was telling the truth.

'' Doesn't make it any easier.'' I swallowed. '' Any easier right now Al, knowing this.''

I felt his huge hand engulf mine. '' I know..... but hang in there.''

I fought the tears back and just nodded. The Lt.'s voice broke the moment.

'' Ok, bunk down, we are going to get at least twenty mins rest so use it. After that we head out.''

Even though all of us were pumped so full of adrenaline it would be near impossible to sleep, we all took the time to do things needed. Some wrote letters home, maybe their last one. Others played cards, some just curled up and stared into nothing. Others went over their guns and armor, cleaning and stripping them down. Lt., as always, fell asleep. Al rolled away from me and began writing a letter. I stretched myself out, arms folded across my chest, head resting on my armor pack and legs crossed at the ankles. My eyes fixed on the stars above.

Al's question had stirred a memory to the surface, so letting my eyelids fall I concentrated on it and let it take time and me away.

I stared at the bell, it was impressive yes, big yes. But it was a bell. I didn't really know why Caitlin had dragged my ass out of bed Christmas morning and made me come here. I was having fun unwrapping my presents and her.

She had jumped up, thrown my clothes at me yelling. '' Get dressed, I want to take you somewhere.''

So with a last pouting look to my presents, I dressed and was pulled into the car and driven god knows where. While all the time just wanting to go back to the warm bed and lay down and worship her like the goddess she was. But noooooooo she wanted to take me somewhere. It was bad enough that this Christmas we had to spend my leave at her parent's house in Pennsylvania, rather than on our own. But now here we are, standing and staring at the Liberty bell. Not my idea of a fun time.

I felt her arms go around me, her chin coming to rest on my shoulder, her front pressing into my back. '' Have you ever seen it before?''

I frowned. ''The bell?''

She laughed, nuzzling my neck, causing Goosebumps. '' Yes, silly, the bell.''

'' In pictures, not up close, no.'' I had no idea where the hell she was going with this, I just wanted the rest of my pressies.

She nodded. '' So what do you think?''

'' It's a bell, Cat... Not really a lot to get over excited about here .....Can we go back now?''

''No.'' Her arms clamp twice as hard around my waist, trapping me from moving.

I let out a long sigh. '' Um... Why not?''

She slips easily from my back to my front, her arms never leaving our contact. When she stops, our faces are only inches apart.

'' Do you remember on your first leave, you told me I wouldn't understand why you had to rejoin?''

I frowned. '' Yes?''

Her fingers come up and trace the small scar that now is on my chin where a small piece of shrapnel had nicked me on my last tour.

'' And do you remember I told you I didn't want to understand something that would take you away from me?''

This time I just nodded, closing my eyes to her touch and the memory of her screaming at me and crying as I left her to board the transport plane.

Her finger expanded with the others and her palm cupped my cheek. '' I was wrong. I went to dad and he virtually kicked my arse when I told him we had an argument just before you. You went back. Told me I was selfish and didn't see outside my own pain, and then he dragged me into the car and he brought me here.''

My eyes snapped open and flared, I was gonna kick his arse when we got back, then I saw her amused smile come to her face, as she read my expression.

'' Don't be mad at him baby... He was right. I was selfish.'' She turned away from me before I could argue, she walked over to the inscription on the bell..... then she read aloud.

'' Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof ''

I looked at her in question. ''So?''

She came back into my arms again. '' So now I understand.'' Her whole smile engulfed her face and her eyes. '' It's your beliefs and they are a big part of who you are, how could I not understand those things when the biggest part I love about you is your strength and honor. I'm sorry...''

Her eyes fell as they filled with tears, the blueness in them deepening to something nothing in nature came close to. ''I'm sorry I did that to you, I could have lost you.'' her voice faded for a second, so that the sound made my heart ache.

Her fingers and eyes went to the scar again. '' And the last thing I would of said to you was in anger......I wanted you to know this, Tee, that I understand'' She took a long breath. '' I worry, god, I worry..... but I can't ask you to change that part of you that makes you..... you. I'm sorry it took my father kicking my arse to see that. I'm sorry I got caught up in today's world and forgot that you are not the first who has had to fight for something they wanted.''

Her head motioned to the bell behind her. '' Those words reminded me of that.....I love you Tee, and I'm free to do that as a woman because of other peoples' sacrifices in this world.... just like yours.''

I pulled her to me and felt her arms crush into my frame, then we kissed, a sweet kiss, a kiss of love, understanding and belonging. A calming embrace, yet at the same time intense.

'' I love you too, and it's ok, we will be ok.''

She wiped at her eyes as she drew back. '' You had better be.'' Then she poked me in the chest, till I winced.

''Hey.'' I rubbed at it.

She kissed me again, leaving my body humming, then she took my hand leading me back to the car. Once inside she didn't start it, I looked over to her in question, then a smirk came to her face.

'' You ever done it in a car on Christmas day?'' Her voice had dropped so low it crackled with energy at me.

I swallowed and wondered why the temp had suddenly gone up a notch. Before I even had time to answer, she grabbed my head, pulling me forward into a deep tongue exploring kiss, suddenly she was on my lap, her hands ripping open my jacket and shirt. When her hand expertly moved inside my jean top, both my eyebrows shot up to the sky right about the same height as my heartrate went at her touch. But I needed to touch her just as much, pulling her jumper up, my mouth locked onto her skin, tasting, teasing exploring, engraving every pore into my memory of her. She started rocking against me.

This wasn't about love, this wasn't about sex, this was about feeling alive and needing and wanting, it was wild, untamed and fast. Over the throbbing of certain parts and exhaled groans and moans I heard her voice like an angel come to my ear.

''Merry Christmas, my wife.'

All I could do was grab her to me, cupping her face with both hands, locking my eyes onto hers. Sharing my full emotions as I shuddered in release beneath her, and in her eyes I saw the reflection of everything I felt and it meant more to me than every single pressie I ever had waiting for me.

My voice was hoarse and lost when I kissed her, speaking her words back to her. ''Merry Christmas.... My wife. '

And outside the snow fell................

I didn't want to let the memory go, but the movement around me told me that my lost time was up. So with her image etched onto my brain, I let my eyes open. One memory surfaced as I lay there, and just like I did that Christmas after we exited the car, I extended my arms out to the side, uncrossed my legs and moved them. My legs went out to the sides, while my arms went up and down. After a while I rose, and stared down at my outline in the now still sand.

Al came over and looked down at it, tilting his head in question for a second, then a grin grew on his now shadowed face. '' Sand angel?''

I nodded to him, shrugging and feeling stupid for having done it.

'' Well, I guess that is what we all are right?'' He laughed.

I grinned in relief, slapping him on the back, glad that he didn't make fun of me. '' You got that right.''

My eyes met his, and for minutes they stayed locked on each other, silently saying things that would never come out of our mouths.

'' Take care Al.''

He nodded, his arm coming up to rest on my shoulder for a brief moment as he spoke. '' You too.''

Then the emotional contact was gone as both of us turned and began getting our equipment together.

Al left ahead of us so that he could get into position, the recon team that included myself headed out to set up ready for the remaining men. The Lt. and Brian would leave within five clicks of us. We had chosen on the map a concealed ridge in the middle of two large sand dunes, which meant as the soldiers came over the ridge they would be moving downhill, so when we struck, they would be left in the open. The tank would have to take a slight detour as the first dune was over forty-foot high. We had imbedded into the incline of the dune the three remaining mines. They were known as two-step mines, which all it really meant was one step on, second step off, and boom. With everything in place, we dug in.

So once again we waited, Dennis was with me to my left, while Texas was to my right. Texas had the grenades at his side, he was a pitcher in college and we needed his arm to get the distance. On the other side of Dennis was Richmond; he held the sniper rifle. All in all, we were a force to be reckoned with, our advantage now was surprise.

Texas tapped my shoulder, my eyes followed his pointing finger to the ridge as the silhouetted shadow against the night sky came into view. I was grateful for the moon now that had come up, because from our position we would see any movement, but from the enemies we would be totally covered by the shadows of the dunes. I nodded to him, then made the hand signal to the rest of them that two were in view, and to stay put and to hold fire. They all nodded in understanding. I felt the drip of sweat run down my temple and across my cheek. But still we waited and watched.

They appeared like toy soldiers into view, cautious and semi-crouching. I knew they were doing a standard triangle sweep pattern, checking all ridges around them for any sign of us. What seemed like hours passed, but was no more than minutes, they slowly started to descend the ridge, leading them right to us. I poised my hand up, ready. All of us shielded our eyes as the sky filled with a sudden ''vroooooooom' of yellow and light as one of them tripped the mine.

''FIREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.'' I dropped my hand.

Immediately, my comrades opened fire around me. The world turned into blazing sound. Another mine went off, vibrating like a gong in the darkness. Texas was up, pulling pins on grenades as he threw them, I didn't have time to see if they hit. I pressed the trigger on the M16, feeling the butt of it slam into my shoulder at each recoil. Through the smoke and gun haze of fire, I watched as figures dived for cover and the eruptions of sand as each grenade impacted and exploded.

My eyes picked out two of them trying to go around us, I yelled to Richmond, knowing the range on my M16 wouldn't reach them.


He nodded, rising, running behind me. Laying down, he scoped them. I heard two shots and watched as each figure fell. As soon as he fired he got up again, returning to his position. As he moved to sit, he cried out and spun around, his rifle flying from his grasp.

''Cover me.''

I moved fast, going to him, turning him over. I swallowed, his chest was a mass of blood and his eyes were open, staring into nothing, I quickly checked his pulse point, nothing. Before I had time to grieve, the ground around me exploded into a line of sand, I rolled fast, tucking into a roll, then raised to one knee, and fired in the direction I knew they had to come from. One soldier dived aside from my bullets, turning into a blur of movement. I tracked him, firing as I did, I paused firing just tracking him with my eyes, then raised the M16 to my shoulder again as he stopped. I fired again, this time he rose and danced like a puppet as my bullets impacted. When I stopped firing, he fell.

I heard Dennis cry out from behind me, I turned without thinking, falling to his side. He was on his back, his hand on his leg, his face ashen.

'' Shit, Sarg, that hurts like a mother......''

I quickly grabbed my belt, pulling it free from my hip, then put it just above his thigh, stemming the flow. I knew I didn't have time to stop and take care of him, we were down to one gun, and Donner was up on one knee firing left to right then center, keeping them off us.

'' Dennis, I need you to keep firing? We can't take care of this right now.''

He looked at me, then through gritted teeth, he turned back onto his front, grabbing his gun and lying on his stomach firing again. Texas threw another grenade but as he rose a bullet caught him dead center of his face, I turned my face away not wanting to see what I knew would follow the impact. Now only Donner, Dennis and I were left firing.....Donner rose, briefly giving me a signal that he was going to go up and around. I nodded. I kept firing till I felt the heat of the M16 against my cheek, ejecting a clip and replacing another as fast as I could. I had no idea if the Lt.'s plan had worked, all I knew was we had to keep the enemy here for as long as possible. The sand spat up in my face for a second, totally blinding as the grit embedded into my eyes, but I didn't release my trigger finger, I just kept blinking until my eyes watered and I got some vision back.

Off to our left we heard beyond the ridge a huge '' BANG'', which was followed by the pops of smaller explosions. I knew I was grinning, knowing that it meant Al had managed to get onto the tank and the sounds were the ammunition exploding. I sent a silent prayer to him to be ok. Dennis yelled out again as I saw him grab his arm, but he made me proud. Without even stopping, he transferred his gun to the other arm and returned his focus to the depleting army ahead of us. I felt a movement above me and just had time to turn onto my back. I blinked in surprise as the soldier grinned at me, about ready to fill my body full of lead. Then he staggered, and before I could bring my own gun up to fire, his knees crumpled under him and he fell to the side. I sat there frozen, then reality returned, I looked around to see Donner grinning at me from a ridge, then he turned and commando crawled to a new position. He had just saved my life.


I spun at the terror in his voice, seeing a grenade fall just ahead of him. I threw myself flat, skidding on my front, reaching my arm out, until my fingers touched it. Then grabbing it, tossed it as far as I could, quickly ducking my head as it exploded no more than a few feet away, throwing sand over us.

Dennis went immediately back to firing. I fell next to him, my M16 resting on the ridge beside us, this time picking my target as the returning fire was less intense, knowing that we must have gotten most of them and what remained had dug in. I watched two more fall under my fire, and one off to the right tumble as he ran as a shot caught him high on the back, I knew that shot was from Donner, wherever he was. When I heard someone running behind me, I spun ready to fire, but just managed to lift my barrel and spray bullets into the sky as the Lt. and Al skidded to a halt, spitting up sand as their boots dug in.

'' JESUS.'' I threw them the dirtiest look I owned, with no time to tell them how glad I was to see them, I turned back around and poured more fire across the ridge.

They just looked at each other, realizing how close they had just come to getting their heads blown off. Then without another thought, fell on to the sand between us firing at the force. We fired until no returning fire could be felt or heard.

Then the Lt. raised his hand. '' Cease Fire.''

My cheek fell against my gun, the sweat was running freely over my body and face, my lungs burned with gun oil and sand, I just bent my head and gulped air. Feeling the adrenaline so high in my blood stream, I shook. The Lt. and Al stood moving cautiously across the open flat in front of us, going from each fallen body to make sure there was no threat. When I finally looked around I could see Donner moving down the ridge, his M16 resting in the breech of his arms, going towards the Lt. Dennis's groan pulled me from my shock, I was up, grabbing the med. bag from my pack, kneeling beside him.

'' Hold on there, Bashful, don't you go dying on me.''

''No, Sir.''

I quickly set to his wounds. The one on his arm was a deep indent where the bullet had nicked it, that was easy, I poured the anticbac powder on it, then a wad of dressing, then quickly secured it. The thigh was the worst, I knew the bullet was still in there but there was no way I had the med. knowledge, so I cleaned it and antibac powdered it, then put on a tight stress dressing, locking it with tape. I gave him two painkillers and when I was sure I could do no more I virtually collapsed next to him.

The Lt. stepped into view. '' How is he?''

'' We need to get him out of here soon.''

He nodded, looking around briefly. '' Texas and Richmond are dead, so is Brian, he took a hit when were baiting the tank, bloody idiot pushed me out the way.'' His voice drifted quieter.

I looked up as Al stepped into view. '' You got it..''

I held out my hand, grinning at him. Grabbing it he pulled me up, returning my grin. That's when I noticed the blood on his face and shoulder.

'' You ok?''

'' Yea, I got the son of bitch, but not before he got me, I'll be ok as soon as we get out of here.''

I could see that he had already applied bandages to his wound.

It was then I noticed the silence, in a way it was eerie, but my eardrums still rang like cymbals inside my skull. As if by magic I felt a warm breath falling all around me and for a moment I thought I was going nuts, then all of us looked up as we could hear the deep silent mode throb of blades. Two lights suddenly flashed above us, the Lt., moved quickly grabbing his pack pulling out the two green flares, sending both shooting into the night sky, illuminating us all in the green hue. The flares twisted and danced, it was like watching a ballet, at that moment I had never seen anything more beautiful as a red flare was launched to join the dance. Then the sky filled with the outline of three Black hawk helicopters. We ran back covering our eyes and mouths as sand was thrown up as they landed. One of the doors opened. Two units of marines moved out, moving quickly away from us to take up secure positions above and around us. The four of us stood there. Dennis was between Al and I, sitting on the M16 that we used as a chair.

The Lt. stepped forward, saluting. '' L.T. Timpani 33rd engineer division.'' He dropped the salute as the Captain acknowledged.

The captain looked around at the surroundings and us. '' Sorry we couldn't get here sooner. Where are the others?''

The Lt.'s face fell. '' All believed dead Sir, we are the last. I'll give you their last known position.''

The Lt. pulled out his map and showed him, sadness came to the captain's face as he took in the graph references, calling out the different positions to a group of marines who headed out.Then he nodded to the Lt. and the rest of us.

'' Ok, your orders are to return to base, so take your team Lt., it's time to go home, we've got it from here.''

This time we all saluted. Two medics came forward and took Dennis onto a stretcher, I pulled Al's arm around my shoulder to help him, then slowly the last of us headed to the helicopter. As I got in and sat, securing the belt around my waist, I looked out as the helicopter gained height. I couldn't see much except the new units taking up position and searching, all of them getting smaller into pin pricks of ants in shadow as the chopper banked and pulled away.

Al looked at me, his eyelids getting heavy from the painkillers. '' Merry Christmas Sarg, guess those sand angels been watching over us.''

I smiled at him, feeling my own body coming down from the high, feeling it getting heavy around me, begging for sleep. '' Merry Christmas Al.''

I shifted forward to let the medic take a look at my shoulder, which now suddenly was throbbing with pain again. I turned my eyes back to the black abyss that was the desert below. Then closed them sending a brief prayer to who ever it was that was watching over us. I inhaled sharply as I felt the anticbac touch the wound, taking a long gulp of air to try and ease the tightness in my chest, wanting for the entire world to cry.... Not at the pain, Not at losing friends, not at even having to kill.....And when I realized that it wasn't those reasons, I wanted to let the flood inside open as my whole being was filled with guilt.

Because the only reason I wanted to cry was the fact that I was alive and once again one of the lucky ones to go home...... I let the tears finally fall as I watched a shooting star trail across the sky and I made my Christmas wish.


~~~~~~~ MERRY CHRISTMAS ~~~~~~~

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