Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. Dylan Mackenzie belongs to me.

Rating: NC-17 This story contains sex - don't say you didn't know!

Once again - MANY THANKS to Karen, she's the bestest beta ever, and Vasalysa - who showed me the dark side!


Lt. Colonel TC McQueen hovered in the doorway: it was the first mail call since his leave home. Six months was a long time to wait for mail, but the USS Saratoga had been thrust back into the forefront of the fighting again. It had finally been announced that mail would be held back due to the fact that two transports had been destroyed on the way to the front. They would have to wait until they'd pulled back for repairs and re-supplying. With Christmas fast approaching, this had not been welcome news.

He was nervous. Six months without anything from Dill was too damn long, and who knew what had been destroyed on those transports? He had pulled rank and sent her a communication notice about it in case something important had been in the mail. The boys would have grown so much in that time, and they'd probably have forgotten him already. Ty sighed, missing them terribly and wishing he were home with Dill. The thought made him smile. 'Home'. Home was where they were. His family, his home - the two things he'd thought he would never have. As an invitro, artificially gestated in a growth tank and born at the age of 18, he'd always believed family and home was for natural borns. Even during his first marriage he'd never felt like he had a real home or family. But now, with Dill and the boys, he had them both.

He stood leaning against the doorframe waiting, praying that there'd be something from Dill, unaware that two of his squad were watching him.

They were seated on some storage containers at the back of the bay. The girls - Captain Shane Vansen, a small dark haired woman, not beautiful perhaps, but certainly a head turner, and Lt. Vanessa Damphousse, a taller, beautiful black woman, as confident in herself as a woman as Vansen was with her role as honcho.

"'Phousse." Vansen whispered. "Look at his face. He's nervous as hell. What do you think he's expecting?"

"The usual stuff I expect. I mean, come on, it's nearly Christmas. You know full well that if there are any photos of his boys it won't be long before we get a peek at them." Vanessa smiled as she watched him. "Imagine how it must be for him. I mean, it was what, four years ago they first met? And how much leave has he had?"

"Not enough, that's for sure." Vansen shook her head. "Although he seems to make it count." she laughed. "What about when she turned up ready to give birth there and then?"

Damphousse chuckled. "Coop said her friend Iona gave him a real good talking to. You know he thought they were someone else's, don't you?"

"No! Really? How'd you know that?" Vansen asked.

"Well, you know Coop's real friendly with Iona, and it's so easy to get him to tell you things. He just says it before he thinks."

"And then he gets that guilty look and clams up, till next time!" Vansen grinned. "Poor Coop. He has no idea how we pump him for information about the Colonel."

"Well, it's a good job the Colonel doesn't know. I think he'd be more angry than flattered." Damphousse shook her head. "But how else are we supposed to watch out for him? He never tells us anything. I mean, I doubt he would have told us about the twins if Dylan hadn't turned up here. Have you noticed that since his last leave he's been wearing a wedding ring? He never wore one before and it's been, what, nearly two years since they got married?"

"Yeah, I saw that. I was tempted to make a comment, but I figured he'd only give me that 'McQueen glare' and tell me to mind my own business. You'd think he'd appreciate the fact that we're looking out for him. I really don't think he's even noticed that he rarely gets hit on in The Tun anymore."

"Do you think he noticed anyway?" Damphousse asked.

"Quick, look! He's been called." Vansen pointed.

"Wow, will you look at that." Damphousse gasped. "There must be, what, six packages there?"

"Forget the packages - look at his face. How often do you see that look?"

"Only at mail call. Isn't it sweet? And to think he never used to get any. It makes me feel proud of him, somehow."

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Vansen smiled, getting up as her own name was called.

McQueen charged down the passageways heading for his quarters. It looked like none of his mail had got lost in the transport losses. Six packages. So much news from home. Again he smiled. He'd looked on the 'Toga as home, until his last leave. Then he'd realised where his home truly was - in Scotland, with his wife Dill and his twin sons Cameron and Hamish. He couldn't wait to open his mail. He'd make himself wait and open them one at a time, maybe one a week. He grinned. Ok… maybe two a week.

Finally arriving at his quarters, he slammed the door shut behind him. Ty kicked off his boots and settled himself on the bed, checking to see which package was the first to open. After arranging them on his desk in chronological order, he opened the first one. In it he found a letter from Dill, several sheets of paper covered in crayon (the work of his two sons), two optical discs, a copy of the House at Pooh Corner (which he guessed was the next book Dill wanted him to record for the boys), a box of (guessing from the smell) now mouldy cookies, and a book of photographs taken during his last leave. Not just of the boys, but of himself and Dill too. Pictures taken by her mother at the boys' birthday party. Rummaging in the bottom of the box he found a film. McQueen grinned. The Wicker Man. He paused for a moment, wondering if the 58th might like to see it. He chuckled, remembering what Moira had said it was about: a policeman who goes to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. The islanders are an odd bunch with a cultist religion. The policeman ends up being burned alive as a sacrifice, in a huge wicker man. His kids might think that's what it was like where Dill lived. At that thought, he laughed out loud.

Getting up, he consigned the cookies to the bin, thinking wistfully about how good Dill's cookies usually were. He stuck the boys' pictures to the wall and picked up the box to throw away when something landed at his feet. Bending down, he saw a small box, the type you get from a jeweller. Puzzled, he picked it up and shook it. He tried to open it, but it was sealed tightly shut. Sighing, he put it on the desk and sitting back down on the bed, opened Dill's letter.

Dear Ty,

Well, you've been gone a week. The boys are screaming the house down, calling for you, and I know how they feel. God, I miss you so much. Every night I crawl into that bed and I can smell you. I haven't changed the sheets yet… I can't bear to. I know it's disgusting, so don't sit there with that po-faced expression you get. But I'm not ready yet to lose you. If you're missing a shirt, it's because I'm wearing it. It still smells of you, too. And yes, I have washed it. There's a faint whiff of something, I'm not sure what, that clings to it, so it smells like you.

He grinned. Hammerhead fuel, he thought. You could never get rid of the smell.

I sent you some drawings the boys did. Well, I call them drawings. Scribbles really, but they'll improve as they get older. The photos that mother took at the boys' party too, which made me think. We've known each other for 4 years and not once in all that time have you mentioned your birthday. You must have one…so when is it? I sent you a present. I hope you like them. I know you will most likely never wear them, but I saw them and like my earrings, it was fate. You're my own personal rocket man.

He looked over at the box, this time determined to open it. Inside he found a pair of cufflinks, each one silver with a blue enamelled front, showing a silver moon and stars on them. Attached by a silver chain was a small silver rocket, with tiny sapphires along the sides as windows. He smiled. She was right. He'd probably never wear them, but they were beautiful, and he could just imagine how excited she'd been when she'd found them.

I also sent you the next book I'd like you to read for the boys. Everyone should read Winnie The Pooh, so I think it'll do you good, too. Though try not to frown or grimace while you're reading it, please. I've seen the disc of you reading Wind in The Willows! Enjoy the discs I sent you. One is of the boys in the garden on the assault course. The other, well… let's just say I'm blaming Iona. She got me very drunk and put me up to it. For god's sake, don't watch it where anyone else will see it …please. In fact, once you've watched it, and I can't believe I really sent it, please, please, please destroy it! I don't know how I'll ever be able to look you in the eye again… Mind you, I don't think Iona will ever be able to look at you in the same light either. She dragged me into Inverness to see a show. Male strippers… I know…not my thing at all. I swear I didn't know until we got there! Anyway, on the drive home she almost crashed the car when I said they didn't do it as well as you did! Well, that's where the idea for the disc came from …

He grinned. Now he was going to have to watch that tape as soon as he finished the letter. Or maybe he should wait until he was ready for bed. And maybe before he showered. He figured he might need a cold one afterwards.

Also Iona sent you the copy of The Wicker Man, so you could see what we were laughing at. Hope you enjoy it. Try to remember it is about 100 years old...

I'll send you another parcel next month, ok? Don't worry, I'll include plenty of photos of the little guys, and I'll see what else I can find for you. Take care, my love. Watch your six, and come home to me soon. I love you. The boys do, too.

Always Dill xx

McQueen sat on the bed, wishing he could go home to them. With a sigh he got up and, grinning, put the optical disc marked "Dill" in the player.

The room filled with the music of The Stripper as he sat back down on the bed. An obviously drunk Dill appeared on the screen, doing a very slow and incredibly wobbly striptease. Nearly falling over once or twice, she bent to remove her clothing, until finally she stood naked, hands on her hips. Grinning widely, she said in her soft highland accent, "So, flyboy, like what you see? Just remember what's waiting for you at home". She collapsed in a fit of the giggles and looking up, added, "See? You're not the only one who can do a striptease".

The disc ended there, and he sat with a smile on his face. Despite what she said, he was definitely not going to get rid of this disc. Looking at his watch, Ty realised he needed to get moving. He had a briefing in 15 mikes. Getting up from the bed, he removed the disc and looked around for somewhere safe to put it. No one ever came into his quarters anyway, other than his friend Commodore Ross, but he wasn't taking any chances. He smiled, thinking about the disc. It hadn't been so much a turn on as something to chuckle at. The sight of Dill wobbling around the room made him laugh. He wasn't going to let her forget it in a hurry. He settled for stashing it in the bottom of his footlocker, under the bed, and pulling on his boots, headed out the door.

A week later McQueen sheltered behind the only cover they'd been able to find. Still 10 klicks away from the LZ, they'd found themselves being strafed by Chig fighters. Not surprising, he thought, considering we just took out the 3 main comms towers in this sector. He smiled to himself. They'd been part of a much larger offensive, their mission to search out and destroy those comm towers. A task he was proud to say they had done with ease, until now.

He glanced up at the cliff behind him. His gut told him that this was not a safe place to be sheltering, but they'd had no choice. It was the only cover available. He could hear the whispers of his squad as they checked that everyone was okay.

"You ok, sir?" he heard Hawkes whisper from behind the boulder sheltering him. McQueen was amazed at the way the tall, well muscled invitro had squeezed himself into such a tight space.

"I'm fine. The others?"

"Fine." Hawkes whispered back.

"Keep your eyes open, Hawkes. This is not a safe place to be. We need to get clear of here ASAP." McQueen glanced up at the cliff face again.

"I sorta figured that." Hawkes grimaced. "I mean, these boulders had to have come from up there."

"We need to get out of here. We can expect Chig patrols. They know we're here. Hawkes, you take point. Find us some safer cover. Go, now!" Ty felt a rain of small pebbles on his helmet. Looking up, he could see more falling. They had to move, and move quickly.

"Move it!" he yelled as he heard Damphousse yell at him, "Colonel, move!"

But it was too late, and all he could do was curl up into a ball to protect himself as much as he could as rubble and boulders from the cliff face rained down upon them.

Coming to, Ty found himself buried under a mound of huge rocks and boulders, pain coursing through his left leg. Cursing himself roundly for allowing them to stay too long, he tried moving whatever he could, checking to see what else was hurt. Thanking whoever was up there, he found that it was only his leg. But it felt bad. He hoped it wasn't so bad he'd slow them down, assuming, of course, the others were ok and not buried like him. He moved his head to look about him. The boulders were fairly large and he'd been luckier than he'd realised that none had actually crushed him. Thankfully the boulders he'd been sheltering between had held the worst of the larger ones off him, and there were plenty of gaps he could see daylight through. He could hear his squad calling to him, and the sounds of them moving boulders.

"Colonel! Colonel! Can you hear me?" It was 'Phousse, he thought. "Are you okay in there, Colonel?"

"I'm ok." he called. "My leg is injured. I'm not sure how badly, but I'm ok otherwise. What about you guys?"

He could feel movement as the smaller rocks around him were being removed. "Careful! It feels like some of these are pretty unstable here."

"Ok, sir. We're doing the best we can. Coop got his arm broken in the fall, so he's trying to shift stuff one handed." She paused. "It might take a while, sir."

"Take as long as you need. I'm not going anywhere." he called. "But if the Chigs turn up, I want you out of here. Leave me and go. Do you understand?"

He could hear them arguing about it. Finally 'Phousse called, "We're not leaving you, sir!"

"That's an order, Lieutenant!" he called back. Damn them, he thought. He knew they'd say that. "If a Chig patrol arrives, I'm ordering you to leave me and go. They'll have to dig me out before they can catch me, and if you guys are gone, they won't know I'm here."

Again he heard them arguing before 'Phousse finally said, "Yes, sir. We understand.

Outside the mound of rubble the 5-8 stood and argued.

"I don't care what he says, I'm not leaving him!" Hawkes told them defiantly.

"Coop, you have a broken arm. Your gun arm, man! What the hell use are you gonna be to him if the Chigs arrive?" West argued.

Vansen sighed as the two of them tried to stare each other down. Hawkes, the taller of the two, his unruly hair sticking to his head with the sweat beading his brow, clutched his arm as Phousse tied a sling for him. West, covered in dust, his dark hair white from it, brown eyes glaring up at Hawkes, his pointed face streaked with blood from a head wound.

"Cut it out!" she yelled at them. "We need to get the Colonel out from under there. You two yelling at each other won't help! I don't know about you, but I don't want to be the one to tell the Commodore we left his best friend behind."

Hawkes paled, "Who'd be the one to tell Dylan?"

"Exactly!" Phousse told him. "Now we agreed we'd look out for him, so let's get him out, and get him back to the 'Toga."

With renewed effort they all began again to shift those boulders that were movable, grateful that most of them weren't huge.

It took them two hours to finally get him out, and to their horror he couldn't support his weight on the one leg. It was obvious to them all that he wasn't going to make it to the LZ on time. Hawkes was pale and clammy, going into shock with his arm; he wasn't in any condition, no matter how much he argued, to be able to help McQueen. It had become painfully obvious to Vansen and Damphousse that West had a concussion. They were going to have enough trouble getting him to the LZ on time, and neither of the girls was strong enough to give McQueen the level of support he so badly needed. They stood and stared at each other, trying not to look at McQueen where they'd propped him against a boulder. None of them wanted to be the first to say what they all knew needed to be said.

"You're going to have to leave me here." McQueen told them. "You still have two hours to get to the LZ. You can do it, but not with me. Scout around. See if you can find somewhere for me to hole up until you can get a rescue crew down." He saw the concern in their faces. "I'll be fine. That wasn't a request - it was an order, so go!"

The girls sped off, leaving West and Hawkes with him. Neither would be much use to them, so it made more sense to leave them with McQueen, who could at least still use his gun.

Half an hour later they were back.

"We found a cave up around the bluff there. It's hidden behind some rock fall, and there are plenty of covering bushes too. It's clean and dry. You should be ok there overnight. We can leave you our MRE's and what water we have." Vansen told him, her concern for him evident on her face. "Come on, sir, it's not far. Phousse and I can help you get there. Coop can give you his spare clips. He can't use them anyway. I don't like doing this, sir - I want you to know that."

"It's not what I had in mind, either." he commented wryly, as they helped him to his feet.

Slowly, with an arm around each girl's shoulder, they managed to get him moving. Vansen knew from the way that sweat broke out on his face, that despite the fact that he was an invitro, genetically engineered to be stronger and be able to withstand more pain than a natural born human, he was in far more pain than he'd told them. He was pale, biting his lip so hard it bled. She didn't like leaving him, not one bit. But she knew they had to.

Between them they got him settled in the cave. Vansen could see it had taken far more out of him than he was prepared to admit, and said as much to Damphousse as she found him some painkiller from the med kit.

"'Phousse, I really don't like this. He's in a lot of pain. He thinks he's hiding it, but he's not. I want to stay with him. He shouldn't be alone. Can you get Hawkes and West to the LZ alone?"

"Shane! He won't let you stay. Don't you think if I thought he would let me, I'd stay with him? I mean, look at him. He's definitely going into shock. He needs warmth and medical treatment, and he needs it now." She glanced over at McQueen where he lay propped up against the wall, his eyes closed as he tried to centre himself and block the pain. "I'm coming back to get him tomorrow. That rescue crew will be me!"

"And me." Vansen agreed. "This is not how it's supposed to be. He had five years of hell in the mines, and finally, when he's sorted his life out and he gets a family of his own, this happens. He's supposed to die in his bed, aged 80 or something. A General, at the very least. Not somewhere like this… alone."

"I assure you I have no intention of dying here." Ty told them. "I can hear you, and I know you don't want to go. It's an order. I'll expect you back tomorrow. Now go - get the others to the LZ. I'll be fine."

With a quick glance back at him, the girls headed out to collect the others and make the LZ in time to meet the ISSCV.

McQueen sat, grateful that they had gone, but desperately wishing he'd been able to go with them. Despite what he'd said about not intending to die here, he knew his leg was bad, possibly broken. Which meant internal bleeding was highly likely. He'd been far more grateful for the painkillers than he'd let on, although he knew that they were aware that he was hiding from them the level of pain he was in.

He sighed. Just when had his kids become so damned perceptive? They thought he didn't know it, but he was well aware of the way they watched his six. They forgot far too often, even Hawkes whose own hearing was better than average, that his invitro hearing was far better than theirs was.

With a low growl as the pain spiked in his leg, he tried to shuffle himself around to investigate the cave that was to be his home for the night. Better do it now, he thought, while the painkillers are taking the edge off. Slowly, very slowly, he crawled to the entrance. McQueen prayed that the fact that he couldn't see out meant that no one else could see in, either. Taking several deep breaths, he dragged himself into the back of the cave. From what he could see, it was empty. No sign that anything or anyone had been in there.

McQueen settled himself down to wait for the SAR team, well aware that Vansen's expectation that they'd be back tomorrow was probably rather high. The whole area would be hot. It could well be that he'd be here several days. All he had to do was survive. He smiled grimly at the thought. What a way to spend Christmas. Vansen had come back with the MRE's and water from all of their packs, all Hawkes' clips and as many spare ones as they could afford to leave him. He checked his M-590 over. As far as he could see, it hadn't sustained any damage from the rock fall, which at least was a point in his favour, he thought. He might need it before the SAR team arrived.

He would certainly need to find a water source. He didn't have enough to last him more than 3 or 4 days. If he hadn't been injured, he knew he could have rationed himself to one pouch a day. But injured, he needed the fluids. Also the 10 MRE's would hold out for longer if he could find the water to rehydrate them. And, of course, there were the utterly delicious ration bars, of which he had a veritable mountain. Hawkes seemed to fill his pack with them every time they went anywhere. Ty chuckled to himself, praying help arrived before he actually had to start on those.

What he needed now, he decided, was some rest. McQueen rearranged his pack to act as a pillow, and settled himself down to try to sleep. He had a letter from Dill in his pocket. He'd been about to read it when he realised he was going to be late getting to the landing bay, so he'd stuffed it in a pocket and forgotten about it. He thought about it… should he read it now, or save it for later? He decided to save it. Once he woke up, he'd take some more painkillers and try to find some water. The letter could be his reward if he found some and actually managed to get it back to the cave. He fell asleep wondering what he'd got to carry the water in.

Back on the Saratoga, Commodore Glen Ross sat in his office thinking hard. He'd been in the landing bay, waiting as the ISSCV unloaded the 5-8. Before she'd even had the chance to open her mouth, he'd marched Vansen to his office to report, and now he sat wondering how in the name of all things holy was he going to tell them that he couldn't send an SAR team down for McQueen. The area was far too hot. The Chigs were on the move and he was praying McQueen's nine lives hadn't yet run out. A letter to Dylan telling her he'd left her husband alone to die was not on his list of things he wanted to do. Hell, he thought, I don't want to tell myself I left my best friend to die. He sighed. He knew the 5-8 would understand his decision. They wouldn't like it, but they'd understand.

He prayed they wouldn't do anything stupid, the way West and Hawkes had after the failed peace talks, when they'd taken an ISSCV and kidnapped a nurse to go with them to rescue Vansen and Damphousse. Ross chuckled. How he'd managed to save them from being court martialed, he still didn't know. Taking several deep breaths, he stood. This he had to do personally. For a second he wondered where they'd be. Then smiling grimly, chided himself. Sickbay with Hawkes, where else? The doctors had decided to keep him in overnight just for observation. They hadn't liked the fact that he'd been feverish by the time the 5-8 returned to the Saratoga.

They were indeed, as he anticipated, in sickbay with Hawkes. The doctor had taken one look at their faces and moved Hawkes into a room on his own.

"Why didn't you let me stay with him?" Hawkes demanded. "One of us should have stayed!"

"He ordered us to leave him!" Vansen yelled at him. "Do you think I wanted to leave him there alone? Do you think I didn't know how much pain he was in? Of course one of us should have stayed! But who? Not you - you can't even hold your gun!"

"Cut it out guys!" West groaned, a hand to his head. The doctors had cleared him, but he still had a killer headache. "McQueen knows what he's doing. He'll be fine until the SAR team gets him tomorrow."

"Yes, Coop. We left him our MRE's, the rat bars, all our water and the med kit. All he needs to do is eat and sleep. He'll be fine. No damn Chigs are gonna find him in that cave." Damphousse told him.

"You should still have let me stay. I could've been his legs." Hawkes muttered. "To hell with orders. We could have said we thought he was delirious or something!"

Bracing himself for the onslaught he knew was coming, Ross opened the door and went in. Four heads turned as one to look at him. He looked at them, sighing inwardly at the trust he saw on their faces.

"5-8, I want you to know that as your commanding officer, this has been a hard decision for me to make, but it is my decision and you will abide by it. Taking into account the enemies' activity in this area since our planetary assault, it has been decided that it is far too dangerous to send an SAR team down at this present time." He held up his hand to stop the outcry as they all began to speak. "I appreciate that you do not agree with me, but I cannot risk more lives for the sake of just one."

"But it's the Colonel!" Hawkes yelled. "I thought he was your friend?"

Ross seated himself on the end of Hawkes bed. "He is indeed my friend, as you well know. He knows what my decision would have to be… he knew that when he ordered you to leave him. But let me assure you, the moment a window opens, an SAR team will be despatched to bring him home."

"He's hurt." Damphousse told him. "He's not mobile. If he was, we wouldn't be so worried. He doesn't have enough painkillers to last more than a day, at most." She stopped, tears glistening in her eyes. "If the Chigs find him, he'll be a sitting duck."

"If the AI's find him, all we'll find is his body." Hawkes said grimly. "When we were on Kazbek, he told me to save my last bullet." He looked up at them, his face a picture of misery. "He won't let them take him alive."

Vansen turned to look the commodore straight in the eye. "Permission for the 58th to be the SAR team, sir." she asked, her body ramrod straight as she stood to attention. Seeing the smile he suppressed, she added. "Please, sir?"

Standing up, he smiled at her. "Of course. After all, you know where he is. As soon as the time is right, you can go get him. You'll be told when. Bring him back in one piece, 5-8. I really don't want to have to write his wife a letter."

After he'd gone Hawkes looked up at Damphousse. "Dylan will kill him if he dies."

The others looked at him and burst out laughing,

"What?" Hawkes demanded. "What'd I say?"

He woke with a start. Feeling the cold, hard rock underneath him and the pain emanating from his body, he thought for a moment he was back on Omicron Draconis, in the mines where he'd spent the first hellish five years of his life. He breathed a sigh of relief as he realised where he was ok. The situation could have been a lot better, but at least he wasn't in the mines. Ty pulled himself upright, trying to ignore the pain in his leg. He wasn't sure if it was broken, but he knew he'd damaged it further when he'd dragged himself out of the cave to look for water yesterday. He'd managed to stand up using a tree, but his damned artificial leg had given way, and he'd fallen. Even though he'd tried not to land on the bad leg, he knew he'd hurt it more. It had taken him upwards of two hours to get the strength up to get back to his cave. He'd found two broken tree branches, which he'd hoped to use as a splint, but had soon discovered that although they looked thick enough, they were far too dry and brittle. One of them had snapped as he was tying it, and in his frustration and rage he'd flung the other one away too.

Today, he decided, he would find water as his supply was very low and he desperately needed to find some. He calculated that it had been at least 4 days since he'd ordered the 58th to leave him, and he'd had to start eating the rat bars, as he couldn't afford to waste the water in the MRE's. That was today's task, he decided, sighing, as he knew it had been yesterday's task too, and the day before's. And it would continue to be until either he was too weak to move, the Chigs found him, or an SAR team arrived.

McQueen sat and ate a ration bar, drank a few swallows of water and began his journey to again find water. He'd given himself a search pattern and still had a fairly large area to cover. Today, he told himself, today I'll find some water, and then I can read Dill's letter. He could feel it burning a hole in his pocket. He desperately wanted to read it, but it would be his reward - something to keep him going. During the hours of darkness when he couldn't search and had had to go back to the cave, he'd sat and held the small picture of his infant sons that he kept in one of the many pockets in his flight suit. It was too dark to see it, but just knowing what is was had been a comfort.

As he pulled himself along, continuing the seemingly fruitless task he'd set himself, he decided to see if he could find a fallen branch or anything that he could use as a crutch. He figured that he was more likely to find water today, since the trees and vegetation needed moisture of some kind, but a crutch was what he wanted. Something to enable him to get himself upright again properly. He'd feel much less vulnerable then.

A week had passed and still there had been no chance to send in an SAR team. The bridge crew were conscious of the fact that the Commodore had become more and more irritable as the week progressed. They all knew why, and the bridge felt empty as the Commodore spent less and less time there, unable to face it without his friend and colleague at his side.

The Wildcards were at each other's throats. While they knew he had ordered them to leave him, each of them was blaming themselves for not ignoring his order and staying with him. The longer they left him there, the more worried they became that they might never get him back. And the more worried they became, the more irritable they got. The other squads were starting to avoid them in The Tun, ever since Hawkes had stood up and threatened to rip the head off the next person who said McQueen was probably Chig meat already.

They were in their quarters arguing about who should have stayed with McQueen, when the door opened and the Commodore entered.

"5-8, get your gear and be in landing bay 4 in 10 mikes. You're going to get him. You make this quick. You get in, get him, and get out. I have a nurse standing by. We'll meet you there." Ross stood and smiled widely at them, as they flew around the room grabbing their gear. "Go. Bring him home." He turned to Hawkes. "I'm sorry, son, but you have to stay here. The docs won't clear you to go."

Hawkes was outraged. "But I have to go!" he argued.

Ross took one look at his face and took pity on him. "You can go, but you stay in the ISSCV. You do not accompany the others. You sit and wait. That is an order, Lieutenant!"

"Yes, sir!" Hawkes grinned.

Ross headed out, wishing he were able to go with them too.

They were in the landing bay when the Commodore arrived with the nurse. She was laden down with equipment and a huge med kit.

"I'm ready for anything." she grinned. "But from what chummy here told me when he was in sickbay," she nodded in Hawkes direction, "I think I've got everything I might need."

Ross shook his head. The head of sick bay had requested the nurse's transfer from the British carrier HMS Invincible after she'd served as part of an exchange programme over a year ago. They'd been impressed with her knowledge and skills. It had taken a while to get the British to agree to part with her, but finally, just under 6 months ago, she'd arrived. To their delight, she always managed to get McQueen to do as he was told on the rare occasions he was confined there, an asset indeed.

As they sat in the ISSCV, Hawkes asked her, "Why you? We need a real doctor for the Colonel."

"Well, lovey, your colonel is not too popular with the rest of the nurses or the doctors. They tell me he's grouchy, shouts a lot and disturbs everyone else." she said tersely. "Though on the one or two occasions I've dealt with him, he's been a perfect poppet."

The 58th looked at each other. Of all the things they would expect someone to call McQueen, a poppet was not one of them.

"Er, nurse…"

"Wilson." she offered.

"Yeah, Nurse Wilson. Are you sure you're talking about our colonel? Colonel McQueen?" Hawkes asked, a disbelieving look on his face.

"Oh, yes." she said. "The one who's babies I helped deliver the first time I was here. When the Commodore asked for a volunteer, I said yes. I mean, I helped bring those babies into the world. I'm damned if I'm going to let them lose their father. So good with them he was, too, as I recall. And so proud of that scrap of a girl of his."

They sat in silence after that… too tense, too worried to do more than just sit there, until Damphousse spoke up.

"Do you think he'll still be there?" she whispered. "That he'll still be alive. I mean, he was pretty badly hurt."

"He's alive." Vansen said stonily.

"How'd you know?" Hawkes challenged.

"Because he's the Colonel. It's like the Commodore says - he has more lives than a cat. He knows how to survive. He'll be there." She looked at the others. "I have faith."

West and Damphousse nodded. Hawkes, however, challenged her again. "And what if he's not?"

She turned to stare at him, and the look he saw in her eyes made him flinch. "He'll be there, and if he's not, we'll find him. Wherever he is, dead or alive, we will bring him home."

The ISSCV landed as close to the cave as it could. Hawkes watched despairingly as the others jumped out and set off to find McQueen. Nurse Wilson managed to keep up with them, having left her heavier equipment with Hawkes.

As they approached the cave, Vansen's stomach twisted itself into knots. She took a deep, calming breath and headed in, to find it empty.

"His pack is here." West said, holding it up. As he did, something fluttered to the floor.

Damphousse picked it up and smiled. It was a picture of McQueen's sons, evidently enjoying a bath together. Turning it over, she saw writing on the back. "He's out looking for water!" she gasped. "He's still alive! Look!"

They gathered around the picture. "West, grab his pack. Phousse, how far are those coordinates from here?" Vansen asked. Now that she knew he was still alive, she felt far more in control.

Damphousse wandered to the mouth of the cave, checking her equipment. "I'd say about one klick in that direction." she pointed.

"Ok, move out!" Vansen barked. "Phousse, you take point. I'll be tail end Charlie."

They headed out in the direction of the trees in the distance. They found McQueen about a half a klick away. He'd had to stop to rest on his way yet, again, to find water. The nurse shoved them out of the way, and without a second thought, cut the sleeves of his flight suit and turtle neck, inserting a drip into his arm. "Here, hold this." she ordered West. "Keep it high. I need as much in him as soon as possible. He's badly dehydrated." Wilson handed him a saline bag, and injecting some painkiller into it, turned to McQueen again.

"It's alright, poppet, we'll soon get you right as rain. Now tell me what hurts." The nurse gently ran her hands up each leg, stopping when he groaned as she touched the injured one. "I know it hurts, but I need to see it, so I'm afraid this suit is a goner. I've got to cut it again." She bent her head to the task, watching him carefully as she gently kneaded his leg from ankle to thigh once the suit was off.

"I don't think you've broken it. You might have splintered the bone. I'll be able to tell once we get you back to the transport thingy." She turned. "I can't risk letting him try to walk. You're going to have to carry him." Wilson rummaged in her pack. "I've got a stretcher. It's amazing what they can do these days." she commented, as it took her only seconds to assemble it. "Would you look at that! You'd never think it strong enough, would you?"

West and Damphousse bent to pick McQueen up.

"Whoa there! No one touches him until he knows what we're doing." Wilson told them. "That's why he scares half of sickbay - they drug him up and then try doing things to him without telling him anything. Does no one read his notes, I ask myself!"

She turned back to McQueen. Kneeling beside him, the nurse took his hand, stroking the back of it gently. "It's ok, poppet. We need to pick you up. You need to go on my stretcher. You can't walk back to the thingy on your own. No one's going to hurt you, I promise." She nodded to West. "Ok. He should be fine now."

They picked him up, placed him on the stretcher, and headed back as fast as they could. Vansen kept her eyes open for Chig patrols. Nurse Wilson carryed the saline bag.

Once back on the ISSCV, she really went to town on him. It turned out that amongst other things, she had a hand held bone scanner, which she ran over him slowly and thoroughly.

"That bloody leg is broken, and it's set itself badly. It'll have to be rebroken, I'm afraid, poppet." she told him, before attaching another saline bag to the drip attachment. "You're going to have to be very brave, but I've given you plenty of pain relief so you won't feel a thing. But just squeeze my hand for me, will you?" She smiled as his fingers gently squeezed her hand. "Harder than that, lovey. Come on, I heard you marines are all roughty, toughty! Show me what you're made of. Good boy." she whispered, as his fingers squeezed harder.

"He hasn't said a word since we picked him up." Vansen said worriedly. "He is ok, isn't he?"

"Oh yes, lovey, he'll be fine. I've just drugged him to the eyeballs. I expect he couldn't speak if he wanted to." Wilson turned back to him. "And don't you even think about it. Try to sleep, poppet, and when you wake up, it'll all be over and done with. I promise. "

"You're talking to him like he's a kid!" Hawkes was indignant.

"Your point being?"

"Well… he's the Colonel. He's not a kid."

"Do you hear him complaining?" she asked.

"You just said he couldn't speak!"

"I talk to him just like I talk to everyone else." she told him irritably. "No one's complained yet! I spent a long while working in paediatrics. I guess I just developed a way of talking that's non-threatening. It works. Don't knock it!"

When he woke up he found himself in sickbay. Nurse Wilson was busying herself checking the machines attached to him. She glanced at him as she saw him move.

"Hold still, poppet, and I'll sort you out. I'll raise the bed head for you so you can sit up. Now that you're awake we can remove some of these tubes." She grinned at him. "I'm sure there's at least one you'd like me to remove!" She laughed at his blush. "We've run so much fluid through you, it's been like Niagara Falls. You might want to close your eyes and brace yourself. It won't hurt, but it might tickle a bit."

He closed his eyes. Why did he always get this nurse? She talked to him the way Dill talked to the boys, he thought. He sighed, grateful that she had a gentle touch, as she removed the catheter. He lay back as she removed the other tubes, except the drip in his arm.

"I'm afraid I ruined your flight suit. I had to cut you out of it practically, but that tall chappie… Hawkes?" she looked at him. He nodded. "He went through the pockets. My, what a fine collection you had in there, just like my brother had when he was little. I half expected to see a conker on a string!" She laughed. "It's all in a bag down here. Want to see it?"

"Yes, please." he nodded. Somehow she made him feel like a child. Or at least, he supposed, how a child felt, never actually having been one - a distinct disadvantage of being born at 18, he thought.

With a smile, she said, "That's a lovely picture you have of your little boys. They're the image of you. I told you they'd keep the blue eyes, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did." he said, smiling. "They're about 18 months old now, and full of mischief. Tell me," he asked, "what is a conker?"

"You don't know what a conker is?" she asked, aghast.

"I honestly have no idea." he laughed.

"Well, you know horse chestnuts, don't you?" At his nod, she smiled. "Well, you make a hole in the seed - the brown thing inside the green spiky bit. You put some string through it. And then two of you, each armed with a conker, battle it out, taking turns to hit each others' conker with your own, until one falls apart."

"Why?" he asked, puzzled.

"I don't know. It's what children all over Britain do come autumn. Conker hunting. And then school playgrounds are filled with the shouts of little boys crying because they hit their knuckles instead of the conker." she laughed.

"Right now I want you to eat something. I'm going to get you something nice to eat. You've lost quite a bit of weight, and it's not like you can afford to." she told him. "Once you've eaten I'll let your friends in to play. Be nice to them. They've been worried sick about you, and they've been hanging around sickbay like a herd of lost sheep." Nurse Wilson took a long hard look at him. "Mind you, perhaps we should make you a bit more presentable first. A wash and a shave, I think. If you're going to act like the boss, you'd better look like it too. Right. I'll go and order you some food, then I'll come back and we'll clean you up. Because of this," she pointed at his leg, plastered and in traction, "I can't let you shower, so it's going to have to be a sponge bath. Sorry. Do you want me to get one of the male orderlies in to do it?"

"I think it's a little late to be getting coy, don't you?" he shook his head, smiling as she disappeared out the door laughing.

He opened the bag she'd put on the bed. There was Dill's letter. He hadn't found any water, and so had never opened it. He'd read it now instead, he thought. Just what he needed - some news from home. Home… that thought made him smile.

Dear Ty,

Well, I'm not sure how to tell you this, so I think I'll just go ahead and say it. But first, are you sitting down? You'll need to be. Do you remember that conversation we had, about the need for condoms, and having more children?

He smiled to himself. He remembered it. She'd thrown the box he'd bought across the room.

Well here we go… I'm taking deep breaths here. Perhaps you ought to, too. Ready...right … ok… we're having another baby. There, I said it. Are you still conscious? Iona thinks I'm about 8 weeks, so it's very early yet. But at least you're finding out now. And yes, I can see those wheels turning. It must have happened when we were at Glen's beach house. Those 'little soldiers' of yours must like the sea air.

He put the letter down, hardly able to believe what he was reading. Dill was having another baby! What if it was twins again! He shook his head. No - lightning doesn't strike twice, he told himself. But then he wondered - what if twins were in the mix of his gene pool? Or her father's, Dill being half invitro herself? His eyes widened. What if she just kept producing twins? His mind was suddenly filled with an image of Dill surrounded by hundreds of mini hims. He shuddered. It wasn't possible, surely? He read the rest of the letter.

So far it only looks like one so you can breathe easily. Mind you, another set of twins would have been nice - save me doing it again. I'm hoping for another boy. What would you like? Get your thinking cap on for names. I'm thinking Douglas, Duncan, or Lachlan, if it's a boy… any objections? But girl's names…well… Elizabeth, Morag ...I can't think of any that I like… Isla?

So come on, so long as it's Scots. We need a nice girl's name.

Morag? No way was he calling any daughter of his Morag! Duncan he didn't mind, but Morag? No. He pondered, thinking about Scottish sounding names. There was an invitro woman he'd known once…. He shook his head. He couldn't name his daughter after a hooker. How did she expect him to think of names? Didn't she know there was a war on?

So… other things. The boys, well… what can I say? Cameron misses you dreadfully. Every time I put a disc in, he runs up calling for you and kisses the screen. I could cry, watching him. He gets so upset that I've had to stop letting him see them. Hamish, as usual, just sits there with that daft smile of his and chuckles to himself. Do you realise that they won't even be two when this one is born? I think I'm worried about that. What do you think the chances are of you getting home to be here for the birth? Zip to squat, I expect. Oh well, I know you'll try. I won't bring it up again.

He worked it out. If this letter was sent a month or so after he'd left, that would make her about - he shook his head as he realised - about 7months pregnant. So even though she'd tried, it was still like the last time. He wondered if she'd got any of his mail. It suddenly hit him that if she hadn't, she might think he was angry with her. Slumping back onto the pillow, he realised he couldn't go through that again. Then he remembered that he'd sent her an official communication. He hated pulling rank, but sometimes you had to. Oh well, he thought, at least she'll know why she hasn't heard from me.

Oh, and I thought you'd like to know - I went in to Inverness, to the bathroom place there, and ordered the biggest bath they have. It'll take you, me, the boys and the new one… LOL. Mind you, I've got to have the bathroom extended to get it in!

Mother and Iona send their love, and Iona says did you like the film? I sent you some more photos of the boys. There's one in there of Cameron kissing the screen. I'm really worried about him. He's much quieter than usual, and he doesn't even bother to bite Hamish any more, despite the fact that he has two new teeth! Hamish, of course, the big beastie darling that he is, has another four. And I swear he's grown at least an inch. If he carries on at this rate, he'll be as tall as his grandpa!

I hope you like the things I've sent you this time. Nothing exciting, I'm afraid - some more drawings from the boys, and I found some sandalwood shower soap, so I bought some for me too. It soothes Cameron. I washed his blanket in it. He now walks around trailing it, like Linus from Peanuts!

Damn, I shouldn't be bothering you with this stuff. We'll deal with it. I'll get him through it, and he'll get me through it, as well. He's spent a lot of time in bed with me lately.

Ok, I'd better finish before this letter gets anymore depressing!

Take care, my love. Watch your six.

We all love and miss you,

Dill, Cameron and Hamish. XX

He lay back, thinking about Cameron. What could he possibly do from here? If he got upset at the discs, then sending him one wouldn't help. He sighed, hoping his son had got over it by now.

"That sounded like a heartfelt sigh."

It was his nurse, back again.

"I've ordered you some food. Nothing heavy - some soup and a roll. But first, let's get you cleaned up. I think the Commodore is getting ready to pull rank on me!" she chuckled. She looked at him closely. "Are you alright?"

He waved the letter. "This." he told her. "This is 5 months old, and it's from my wife."

"Oh, one of those, is it? Missing them? Come on - let's turn you back into Colonel Cutie. Then we can let your friends in. They'll cheer you up."

"Colonel Cutie?" he stared at her.

"Sorry - your wife's friend called you that when she was here. It sort of stuck." She had the grace to blush.

"Well, unstick it!" he told her grumpily. That's all he needed. It was bad enough she kept calling him poppet - Colonel Cutie was just too much!

Next : Part Two


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