That night as he held Victoria in the quiet after making love, Mary's words came back to haunt him.

"Why me?" He asked as he pulled the blankets tighter around them. "You could have any man in this camp, why me?"

"I came here to do a job and it still isn't finished," she shook her head as she thought of her lab lying in ruins, after the last attack. "It had nothing to do with finding a man," she smiled up at him. "But then you crossed my path, and..." That sounded familiar, but she couldn't place where she had head it before. "And well, what I feel for you is as easy as eating pancakes."

"Pancakes, huh, that's a good one," even as he teased her, he knew he couldn't leave it alone. "I'm not the kind of man, women like you care about," he knew which words she was talking about and part of him was desperate to hear them.

"Ray, you don't want it said out loud...." She saw a flash of deep pain in his eyes, but it was gone so quickly it made her unsure. Grabbing her courage in both hands she told him the truth she knew he needed to hear, but didn't want to. "I fell in love with you."

"Oh Babe," he gripped her close to him, wanting to run from her bed, but knowing she had cut him off at the knees. There was no place he could go. Her words would follow him wherever he went.

"I'm not putting any pressure on you," she smiled as tears filled her eyes. "I love you and that's my problem. I don't expect you to return the feelings or promise me anything."

"What you're feeling is just sex and adrenalin. It's the crazy situation we're in," if he could convince her, maybe he could convince himself.

"No, I could have met you on a street in San Francisco or Cleveland or somewhere on Mars and I'd still feel what I do. The situation around us may have sped up the process, but I'd have loved you no matter where we were and I will," she whispered, knowing that it was true.

"But you don't even know me!" For the first time in a long time Ray Butts felt fear. When she discovered what he was, she would take her love and go.

"I know more than you think," she smiled at him. "You're probably one of the best Marines I've ever met. You're kind and gentle, but like to hide it. You can be tough and do what's necessary to get the job done and that bothers you. There's a part of you deep down inside that you hide from the light. It's filled with secrets and lies, but it has to stay sealed, because to talk about it would be to go against everything you believe."

As she spoke Butts could feel himself being stripped away a layer at a time. The process was painful, but a relief. "My God, Torie, how can you know me so well and still love me?" He pulled her close and buried his face in her hair. For the first time in a long time he felt clean.

"I can't help it, you bring me joy," she whispered as she slid on top of him and rubbed her nose against his breastbone.

"Is that what you ladies of higher education call it, Joy?" He laughed as he ran his hands over skin and watched her dark eyes grow even darker.

"There's that too," her voice was husky and she gasped as his hands did magic things to her. "But I was talking about my soul, you---touch---my---soul---with---joy," her words were jerky and faint, and almost lost completely as his mouth covered hers.

Later, Ray watched the woman sleeping in his arms. He wondered if she realized that he had heard what she said. Those last words before they had become too preoccupied for conscious thought. It didn't seem right that she should love him like that, with his dark past and darker future. She didn't belong with a man like him, but he wanted her as much as she seemed to want him.

He thought back to the last job he had done, avenging the deaths of a Marine husband and wife. The couple had been about his age and had three daughters. At the time it didn't seem right that they should be dead, and he should be alive. They had everything to live for. He just existed. But since meeting Victoria that all changed. Maybe there was a chance for him after all. He had always assumed that he was damned from the start. With her, maybe he could get his soul back.

Running his hand gently over the lines of her face, he whispered, "I love you, maybe someday I'll have earned the right to tell you."

It was the height of summer in the Hindu Kush and in a few weeks the weather would begin to change. There was only two seasons in mountains this high: one when the passes were blocked with snow, and one when they weren't. General Dawson knew that if he didn't do something fast, they would be snowbound and die of starvation and exposure. Though Butts and his squad went out everyday, they were unable to find a route that would accommodate the tanks. There was one possibility and that was by way of Ali Bhutto Pass. It would be a gamble to try, because it would mean going to a higher elevation before the Pass led them out of the mountains. It was a huge risk, but if it worked out, it would have the advantage of surprise and give the UN the Pass and the surrounding area, cutting off the CC's in the mountains for the winter. The General wasn't ready to commit to such a risk yet; he wasn't convinced that everything was, as it seemed with the Chinese.

It was the height of summer in the Hindu Kush and in a few weeks the weather would begin to change. There was only two seasons in mountains this high: one when the passes were blocked with snow, and one when they weren't. General Dawson knew that if he didn't do something fast, they would be snowbound and die of starvation and exposure. Though Butts and his squad went out everyday, they were unable to find a route that would accommodate the tanks. There was one possibility and that was by way of Ali Bhutto Pass. It would be a gamble to try, because it would mean going to a higher elevation before the Pass led them out of the mountains. It was a huge risk, but if it worked out, it would have the advantage of surprise and give the UN the Pass and the surrounding area, cutting off the CC's in the mountains for the winter. The General wasn't ready to commit to such a risk yet; he wasn't convinced that everything was, as it seemed with the Chinese.

Ray was appalled when he discovered that Victoria didn't know how to use a firearm. The territory was too dangerous for her to be unarmed and he planned on remedying the situation. The afternoon was warm and the two of them left camp carrying his M-500 Assault Rifle, a sidearm and a box of rounds for each. He was taking her to the small valley behind the camp. It was relativity safe and would give them the privacy they needed.

"It's so beautiful here," she sighed as she looked around. It was a miniature version of most of the deep ravines on the eastern side of the Range. There was a forest of deodar, pine and larch. At one end was a small gray-green river and a grassy area that bloomed with purple flowers she had never seen before. "This place is perfect."

"That's what I thought when I came across it yesterday," he grinned at her as he tacked a target to a near-by tree and pulled his rifle off his shoulder. "The perfect place for you to learn to handle one of these."

"Ray!" She rolled her eyes at him, knowing he had deliberately misunderstood her meaning. "I guess it's good for that, too. It seems a shame to ruin the peace and quiet of this valley with gun shots."

"Weapon's fire, Babe, weapon's fire," he corrected. "Come on, enough talk. I know you don't really want to do this, but I'll feel better when I'm out of camp, if I know you can hit what you aim at," he had her and he knew it. It may have been sneaky to use her worry for him against her, but he would've done anything to protect her, even if it was underhanded. "Besides it's as easy did you put it a few weeks ago? It's as easy as eating pancakes," he gave her a wicked grin then turned serious as he taught her the safety rules of handling firearms.

Two hours later he called it quits. She could hit the target with either weapon, and knew enough to engage the safety when not shooting. He would have liked to spend more time refining her technique, but diminishing returns were setting in and she deserved a rest.

"Do we have to go straight back?" Victoria looked around wistfully.

His did a quick check of the perimeter. Even as he had been teaching her the finer points of an M-500 Assault Rifle, and a sidearm, he had been aware of their surroundings. They were close to camp and well behind their own lines, but he wasn't taking any chances. His senses told him they were safe. He did one more check; to be sure his emotions weren't telling his senses what to see and hear.

"We can stay for a while," he knelt down to pick up the spent cartridges. "But you have to be where I can keep an eye on you."

"I hadn't planned on going anywhere without you," she sat on the ground to help him stow any evidence of their presence. "In fact I was planning on getting as close as I could," she laughed as she ran her fingers over his knee and thigh.

He gripped her hand to stop her playful movement. The line that he was walking between soldier and man was driving him crazy. "I'm sorry Babe, not here," he could picture them making love in the wild beauty of the valley, and wanted it so badly he could taste it. "I have to stay at least partially focused on what's going on around us."

"Why Captain Butts, are you saying I'm a distraction?" She kidded, in her best imitation of a southern bell.

"That and then some," his voice was gravelly as he wrestled his desires to the ground.

"Ray, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be a tease," she gently cupped his cheek with her free hand. "I just...didn't think. I guess it's a good thing one of us has his head screwed on right."

"Babe, I'm the one who's sorry," his eyes were still that flat blue that let nothing in or out, but his voice gave vent to his feelings. "I want you to have more than just a cot in a tent, in the middle of an armed camp," he took a deep breath and made himself settle for second best. "But just because we can't make love here, doesn't mean I can't hold you," he put his arm around her and helped her to her feet.

It took a little looking, but they found a nitch in the boulders along the river. It opened up to a small spot of ground covered with grass and purple flowers. They could see down the entire valley from their position, but were almost entirely hidden by the rocks and the river. Unless there was someone hiding in the woods, they would be safe.

"Come here woman," he pulled her down, between his bent knees, her back against his chest.

"Woman?" She squeaked as he put his left arm around her shoulders, holding her tightly against him.

"I know for a fact you're not a man," he laughed as he put the M-500 next to his sidearm, both in easy reach of his right hand.

"Yeah, I guess you do," she leaned her head on his right shoulder and kissed his neck.

"Put your head on my other shoulder. I need my right arm free," his words ground to a halt as he realized he was acting in full soldier mode again.

"I love you," she whispered, as she saw his eyes turn a muddy blue. "All of you, not just the man who keeps me warm at night, but the one who stands on the wall with a weapon, so others can be safe. I love him, too."

She saw through him and loved him anyway. It took his breath away. He wasn't a man of pretty words and promises, but he needed to tell her something. She deserved that much. "There's an old man in the village who talks about a valley that's hidden in the high mountains. He says that only a chosen few have set foot there. That it's a place of peace and quiet and beauty. I wish we were there now. Away from this crazy war and a world that's coming down around our ears. I'd make love to you in the warm sun and hold you all night long. There would be nothing but us, and we'd have all the time in the world."

Ray smiled at the sleeping woman curled against him. He didn't know what reaction he had expected from her when he had spoken of the valley, but certainly not what he had gotten. She had kissed him with tears in her eyes and promptly fallen asleep. He had sat there watching her even deep breathing for over an hour, but it was getting late and as much as he hated to bring their afternoon to an end, they were stretching the boundaries of safety by remaining any longer.

"Victoria," he whispered, caressing her face with one of the little purple flowers that had been growing within arms reach of them. "Time to wake up sleeping beauty."

"Hmm," she gave him a sleepy grin, but didn't open her eyes. "If I remember my fairy tales correctly, that will require a kiss."

"We could have a problem, because there isn't a prince in sight," he dug back into his memory for the stories he used to read to his little sister, while waiting for their mother to get home from work. "Would you settle for a frog?"

"Sure," she felt his lips move over hers, realizing he was still on guard and the little kiss was all she was going to get. "You do realize that kiss just turned you into a prince."

"Some prince," he laughed, then handed her the flowers he picked while she slept. "These are for you."

"They're beautiful, thank you," she inhaled the sweet fragrance they gave off. "What are they called?"

"I don't know. I've seen them all over the higher valleys, but never at this altitude before," it humbled him to see her so pleased with wildflowers when he would have liked to have given her so much more.

"Then they must be here just for us," she smelled the small blooms, again, loving them because this hard man had thought to pick them for her. "That means we get to name them."

"Since I'll never be able to look at them again and not think of you, they should be called Victoria's Flower," it was as close to a declaration of love as he could give. Ray could tell from her expression that she heard the words anyway and he thanked God that He had sent her his way.

When they started back to camp, neither of them saw the small local man who watched them leave the valley. Ali Kahn smiled his approval. He could tell by their laughter that they had enjoyed his ravine. The Ma'am had found the Darkman and given him light. He hoped that that light would be enough to sustain the younger man in the times ahead. If it wouldn't be, the Marine would only have one other chance to redeem himself and that would be so close to the end it might be missed.

It began to snow in early September. The 3rd Armored wasn't any closer to moving than they had been weeks earlier. Butts had received a secret communiqué from Cobb and learned that the negotiations had stopped. The Communist Chinese had walked out of the UN. If the United Nations didn't win this war, it would be the end of the World Government. He knew that Dawson must have had the same information that he did and didn't understand what was keeping the man from making a decision. With every snow fall, the chances of getting out of the mountains alive was getting slimmer and slimmer. There had been talk that the General believed in Visions. That he experienced them and when in a pinch followed them rather than rational thought. It frightened the Marine to the depths of his soul to think that their lives might be in the hands of someone like that.

Dawson sent for Butts on an afternoon in late September. Snow was already four feet deep and drifted much higher in many areas.

"Captain, you've been a great help this summer," the General greeted the younger man. "You and your men have provided invaluable information."

"Thank you, Sir," Butts wished the man would cut to the chase. Every hour that was wasted, more snow fell.

"I need you for one more job," he reached for the map he had of the area and pointed to Ali Bhutto Pass." I believe we can make it out that way, the Chinese will never expect it. I want you to leave an hour ahead of us and take point. We'll be pulling out tomorrow at first light."

"Sir," Butts' mouth went dry. Even if they could make it through the snow to the pass, it was the obvious solution if they wanted to take the tanks out. He was sure the Chinese would be waiting for them. "Sir, let me leave tonight and give me fifteen hours before you pull out. Let me check the pass? If it is as you say, there will only be a small delay, but if they're waiting for us, you wouldn't have enough lead-time to turn back if I'm only an hour ahead of you. There are other options, Sir."

"I am aware of that Captain, I read your report," Dawson glared at the younger man. He wished he had the nerve to tell him that he had had a Vision, that the Pass would be safe, but men like Butts never understood things they couldn't discover with one of the ordinary senses. "You think we should pull back, leaving the tanks and take refuge in the large valley to the south. Even if we did survive the winter, we would have given up hard fought ground. This war is too important for that. But I will grant you your fifteen hours. The clock starts ticking now, so you had better get going."

Butts made a quick stop to give orders to Lt. Jake Martin, his second in command, then ran back to the tent he had been sharing with Victoria.

"What's going on?" She watched him quickly fill a backpack.

"I've got to go and check out the Pass. I talked Dawson into letting me do a recon of the area before he moved the camp out."

"This doesn't sound good," she could feel a burning in the pit of her stomach. He was leaving and for the first time she was really worried about him. "We're going to die here aren't we?"

"Not if Ray Butts has anything to say about it!" He pulled her close and kissed her.

"Please don't go, if we're going to die, we're going to die," she fought tears as she watched him pull on his parka. "Please Ray, stay with me."

"I can't Babe," he ran his hands through her long hair one last time. "There is a death trap in that Pass, I'm sure of it; but Dawson believes we can make it though. If I don't go, I won't be able to talk him out of it, and we will all die, then."

"Promise you'll come back to me?" She fought tears as she held onto him. "That somewhere, sometime, you'll come back to me?"

"I'll try, that's the best I can do," he leaned down and kissed her one last time. "I love you, Babe," he whispered as he broke away from her. "I've wanted to tell you for weeks, but it never seemed as important as it does now." He gave her one last kiss and disappeared in the night.

As he and Sergeant Stan Johnson were trudging toward the Pass, Dawson slept and had another Vision. This one was stronger and more intense than any he had ever had before. He woke at 0400 and issued the orders to break camp. Two hours later they were on the road. In his Vision, Dawson had seen Ali Bhutto Pass empty of Chinese. He had led his Marines to a lower elevation and had the victory of claiming the Pass.

At the same time that the 3rd Armored Division was pulling out of camp, a squad of CC's surprised Ray Butts and Stan Johnson. In the fight that ensued, Johnson was killed and Butts was taken prisoner.

As he paced his small cell, Butts planned his strategy. It was a given that he would be tortured. If he had had doubts, the screams that were coming from down the hall told him for certain what his future held in store. He had to hold out, no matter what they did to him. He had to hold out long enough for Dawson to get his people clear. He was sure that when he didn't return, the General would take it as a sign that there was trouble in the Pass, and pull the camp back to the valley for the winter.

While Butts paced, Dawson made good time, for the first day in weeks, it wasn't snowing and he took this as a good omen. They entered the Pass an hour before sunset. Twenty minutes later they were fighting for their lives.

Victoria was glad Ray had taught her to shoot, because she wanted to go down fighting. She held tightly to the weapon he had gotten for her and used it with an accuracy that would have made him proud. But they had the lower ground and all too soon the fighting was over. The woman with the long dark hair that had brought light to a Marine's soul died, with his name on her lips. She lay crumpled behind the overturned truck she had been riding in. Only a few inches away was the body of her friend, Mary Reed. Their blood turned the snow red beneath them as their bodies slowly froze under the huge full moon that shown down on the carnage in Ali Bhutto Pass.

As the moon rose, Butts endured the pain that his captures were inflicting. With each breath he though of Torie. He knew that they would kill him when they realized he wasn't going to talk, no matter what was done to him. He was sorry he couldn't keep his promise to her, but at least she would live.

Three days later, UN forces bombed the area where Butts was being held. Major Phillip Smythe and his Angry Angels led the assault on the headquarters of the CC division that had been instrumental in the slaughter in the Pass and that held most of the territory for fifty square miles. They found the bloody, almost dead, body of Ray Butts in a basement cell.

"Major, everything is secure," Lt. Gloria Collins, the youngest of the Angry Angels reported back to her commanding officer. "It looks like Simmons is shot up pretty bad, Sir. The doctor says he won't make it."

"Thank you, Collins, I'll look in on him in a bit," he smiled at her, she was a pretty thing and as tough as they came. He always admired a woman who was hell in the air and pretty to boot. Too bad she was in his chain of command. "Did the injured man get air lifted out? After what he endured, I'm surprised he was still alive."

"Yes Sir, the Med-Evac team left a few minutes ago."

"Get yourself some chow and turn in, it'll be another long day tomorrow," he dismissed her casually and went to see Simmons in Sickbay. He hated losing people, but between the AI's and the fighting in Karakoram, it was happening too often.

After taking with the doctors, Smythe pulled out his pocket computer and scrolled until he found the page he was looking for. He was damned if he would dishonor Simmons' memory by replacing him with anything but the best. An interesting candidate had come across his desk a few weeks ago. The man had superb flying skills and with only one small exception, an unblemished record. Reading through the application for transfer, Smythe decided that he would give him a chance. It would be interesting to see how the Angry Angels reacted to having an in-vitro flying with them.

ALI BHUTTO PASS MEMORIAL summer 2054 It took two years for Ray Butts to get back to the Karakoram Region. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done, but he had promised Victoria that he would return to her if he could. Visiting her grave was the best he would be able to do.

The Marines hadn't place the memorial, it had been said at Dawson's court-martial that his actions were the height of folly. If there was one thing Butts knew about the Corps, it was that it didn't honor folly. In this case, the 457 men and woman who had been with Dawson should have been honored.

It was people of the Hindu Kush Mountains who saw fit to pay tribute to those that had died that day. It was never said, but many believed that the Memorial was to honor all who had died in those mountains in countless wars over the ages. Hindu Kush meant Hindu slaughter. Thousands of people had died in the passes of those mountains and the Karakoram to the southeast. Thousands of others had been carted away from their homes and sold into slavery. The lucky ones had died of exposure before getting out of the mountains.

It took Butts a moment to realize that he didn't know which grave was hers. The markers were strange, but at least they were marked in some fashion. He looked around a bit lost. There were more gravesites than he had expected. The CC's that had died in that battle were probably buried along side of the UN forces.

"You have returned," an old man using a walking stick to keep his balance approached him.

"Do I know you?" There was something familiar about him, though Butts couldn't place exactly what.

"You are the Darkman," he smiled serenely. "You come to see the place where The Ma'am rests. Follow, I will show you."

"Darkman...?" Then Butts knew where he had seen him before. He remembered an old man telling a woman's fortune in a smoky Mess Hall, and the same old man telling tales of a high valley that was cut off from civilization.

"Come, come," he motioned. "This is the place," he pointed to a grave at the side of the grassy area. There were small purple flowers growing around the marker.

"How did these get here?" Ray knelt and ran his hand over the delicate blooms.

"I plant to mark her grave," the old man nodded. "Only she has flower that belongs to high valleys. I know you come back. My time is short. If I not here, to show you the way, you find flowers and know. You are the Darkman and she your light."

"Why did she have to die?" The anguish in Butts' soul cried out at all he had lost. He had never loved anyone before and he realized that he would never love again. "I wish I could go back to that valley, even if only for a day, to spend it with her."

"When your time is over, you will meet the Ma'am again, if you are careful."

"Yeah right," Butts looked sadly at all that was left of Victoria, a lonely grave in the towering mountains. "When she died, any chance I ever had of keeping my soul died, too."

"Darkman, you will get one other chance to save your soul and meet the Ma'am in the Valley Of The Moon when her rest is over. But the time will be very near the end and you must be careful. You will meet the man who could have been you. He is the sign to follow. You must play the 'Cards right, or all is lost. Meet the hole in the sky that is your destiny and you will find the Valley on the other side."

"Shut-up," Butts roared. "That's bullshit and you know it! You sound like Dawson, spouting tales of seeing the future. When all the future brings is death."

"If you believe, then it will be so!" The old man pounded the ground with his walking stick. "Your Dawson was a fool, he saw only himself. I see you."

When Butts walked away from the Hindu Kush Memorial, he turned his back on all that had happened that summer and fall. He refused to believe what he had been told by the old man at Victoria's grave and remembered only the deep cutting loneliness of life without her. Booze helped and so did wild missions, ones that almost cost him his life, but not quite. As the years pasted Captain Ray Butts became Major Butts, then finally Lt. Col. Butts. He moved up in Cobb's black ops organization, but refused to leave the field for a desk job. Only in the thick of things would the adrenalin rush be enough to blot out the past for a while.

THE CERBERUS TIDE WASH 2063 "Your Hammerheads can out fly their fighters and you all won't have to worry about the Red Bandits," Butts called over the radio, heading his Hammer into the Wash. There were two Chig Red Fighters in front of him and he engaged them as soon as he was in range. They didn't stand a chance against the angry Marine.

"Now get out of there," West shouted into the radio.

But even as the young Marines were calling to him, the Colonel knew it was too late, he was out of fuel and no matter how hard he coaxed Bob's plane, there was nothing that he could do. "I'm otta fuel. I guess Ray Butts has eaten his last pancake. It has been an honor 5-8." He reached for the disk that Bob always kept in his plane and slid it into place. The cockpit was filled with the gravelly voice of Johnny Cash. In that moment Ray could feel the Universe shift. Stars spun then stopped and went the other direction. Time had shifted then ground to a halt. If he listened very carefully he could hear voices from the past as he felt himself being dragged into infinity.

He thought he was dreaming. Was he back on the Saratoga? Was the mission still ahead of them? But that wasn't a bunk beneath him. It felt like hard ground, and he could hear birds singing over the rush of water. Ray Butts opened his eyes to the sight of towering snow-covered mountains surrounding a lush green valley filled with a magnificent forest of pine, deodar and larch. Looking down on the mountains was a huge full moon. Even in the light of day, it looked so close he could almost touch it. Then he saw her in the distance. She was running toward him, and there was a little old man using a walking stick following behind her.

He laughed with pure joy for the first time in years. Bob had been right, the best way to die was to go down a black hole listening to Johnny Cash. But this was better than he had ever imagined.

"Oh, Babe, I love you so," he cried out as Victoria's warm body filled his arms and her laughter filled his ears. He had finally made it. They were home, in The Valley Of The Moon, forever.


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