By R. L. Keller


“I knew Murphy had to work for ONI.”  Lee Crane stopped to rest a few yards below the top of the ridge he’d just crossed, and took a deep breath.  “Man, I’ve had some screwy intel on occasion but this one has got to take the cake.”  So far absolutely nothing had gone according to the plans he’d been given.  “Should have told Admiral Jones where to shove this mission the instant he assigned some guy I’ve never met before, that guy Murphy, to brief me.”


It should have been a pretty straight-forward mission.  Italian officials had intercepted a boat, for some unspecified reason, as it tried to land at Bari on the Adriatic coast.  When they interrogated the half dozen men aboard, one had finally admitted that they were al-Qaida sympathizers.  He’d been recruited by a group hiding out in the mountains outside of Shkodra in northern Albania.  The man claimed not to know why he was picked with the others to infiltrate Italy nor why, when the boat was searched, it was filled with small arms and explosives.  The man did say that there was a large stockpile of munitions in the camp where he’d been taken for training.  He refused to specify just what he’d been trained to do; he was adamant that all he’d been told was that, once in Italy, the men would be met by others who would give them their orders.


Lee had gotten the distinct impression that Murphy was uncomfortable with the tactics that the Italians used to extract what information they had gotten.  When Lee asked for clarification of several points he’d been told that the Italians were holding the captured men incommunicado – from everyone.  Nor was Murphy able to explain just why ONI had been asked to investigate, instead of the Italians doing it themselves.  Lee had just shrugged.  It wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. had been asked to clean up someone else’s mess.  And the way things stood in the world this day and age, just hearing that al-Qaida might be behind something sent everyone scrambling – especially the American military.


Over the course of his occasional errands for the Navy’s Intelligence agency Lee had found himself in all sorts of situations, in all parts of the world.  This wasn’t the first time that he’d been sent to this region – his dark Mediterranean complexion let him blend in a little better than some agents.  The one problem that he always had was that he knew very little of the various languages.  He could usually manage fairly well with a few phrases that he knew, and just grunt and wave his hands a lot.  That pretty much discouraged most people from bothering him, or trying to question him too closely.  So, when he’d been given this mission he’d not thought too much about it.  That was his mistake.  Everything else that had so far messed him up he was perfectly happy blaming on what he’d almost instantly dubbed ‘The Murphy’s Law Mission.’


During the briefing he was told that he would be inserted just over the first mountain ridge from where the encampment was supposed to be.  A Cobra attack helicopter would pick him up from the USS Daniel Boone, which was on standard maneuvers in the Adriatic Sea.  The chopper would fly in low, avoiding Albania’s detection radar, and deposit him as close as they dared.


He would have no way of knowing until he got home whose GPS was haywire or if it was merely more bad intel.  Instead of a projected eight hour hike to his ‘target’ he was now well into his third day, with still no encampment in sight.  “I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that I do look more like the refugee I’m supposed to be taken for than I did when I left the ‘Boone.’  However…”  He shook his canteen, judging its contents.  He’d already had to stop twice and boil water to refill it.  While the streams he’d crossed looked safe, he wasn’t about to risk drinking any water straight from them.  And what bread and cheese he’d packed – he hadn’t dared let himself be caught with anything other than local foods – was by now pretty stale.  The fruit he’d packed had all been consumed by the second day.


Lee scanned the valley below with the simple binoculars he carried.  At least they looked simple, as befitted a refugee.  A small, insignificant-looking and partially hidden button activated the GPS, visible when one looked through the lens.  From where he’d been dropped off he’d been making a somewhat steady course north towards Shkodra.  It made sense for the terrorists – if that’s actually what they were – to maintain their camp fairly close to a major city to make it easier to get supplies.  Also, Murphy had said that the captured informant had been recruited in that city, on the banks of Lake Scutari, which Albania shared with its northern neighbor, Montenegro.  Which also made sense, as the whole area was largely Muslim.


A small puff of smoke caught Lee’s attention at the other end of the valley he was about to enter.  Even if it was only a farmer and not his target, he could hopefully purchase a few supplies with some of the local currency he’d been given.  He’d run into several such homesteads in his travels the last few days but he’d given each a wide berth once he’d identified what they were.  If he was really lucky, at this one there might even be a mound of hay to curl up in for the night.  That would beat where he’d been forced to find shelter the last two nights!  He’d give the hunt another few days, covering as much of the surrounding area as he could, before he’d surrender and make his way to the coast.  Just across the border into Montenegro was the town of Ulcinj, and a contact there would call in a SEAL team to extract him back to the ‘Boone.’  There had been no timetable.  But Lee wanted to return as soon as possible so that his friends would know he was safe.  He knew that they would worry until he was back.  But, there just hadn’t been any easy way for him to safely maintain contact.  With one more swallow of his dwindling water supply, Lee shouldered his pack and headed toward the smoke.


His descent down to the valley was uneventful and he was making his way steadily, if somewhat slowly in his guise as a weary traveler, toward where he’d spotted the smoke when the sense – be it sixth or sixtieth, whichever tended to kick in when missions were about to go screwy – kicked in.  The feeling of being watched was only the first thing to hit him.  He kept his head down, ostensibly not aware of the small sounds of movement in the brush around him.  But he was prepared, and acted suitably startled, when he rounded a stand of large trees and brush and found his way blocked by several men with decidedly unfriendly expressions on their faces.


“Zdravo,” he said hesitantly, the Serbian word for ‘hello’.  That was the language frequently heard in Montenegro and would hopefully lend credence to his refugee cover.  And, hopefully, it would keep him from having to answer, or even understand, too many questions.  When his greeting wasn’t returned, he asked with humble respect, “Voda?”  Water?


There was a low, rapid exchange between the three but eventually one man turned, motioned for Lee to follow, and headed off in the direction Lee had been headed.  Lee wasn’t overly comfortable that the other two men fell in behind him, but under the circumstances wasn’t about to show it and simply continued walking.  No one spoke, which was just fine with him.


The ‘farm’, when they came to it, looked like an old homestead.  There was a small house in the center of the clearing surrounded by several outbuildings – a chicken coop, a sagging barn.  But there were no animals except for a small brown dog that skittered around nervously, staying well away from the men as they made their way toward the house.  Lee, while keeping a calm exterior, became extremely uncomfortable.  Around the edges of the clearing, tucked just into the woods where they would be almost impossible to spot from the air, were about a dozen tents.  Each seemed to have a sentry posted, and several other men looked out and openly stared at the small procession.  Lee noticed the dog go to stand by a young boy over by the barn.  At least, Lee assumed that it was a boy.  His slight build bespoke of young teenager but his head was completely covered by the oversized hood of the light jacket he wore, the front of the hood falling forward enough to shield the top half of his face.  Lee in no way discounted the youth among the twenty or so men he’d so far seen.  Some youngsters he’d run into over the years were far more dangerous than the men they grew into – assuming that their lack of experience-related wisdom allowed them to live that long.


The man Lee had been following rapped on the door to the house.  Lee heard nothing from within but the man opened the door anyway and entered.  Lee hesitated, but a hand from one of the other two men gave him a none-too-gentle shove in the back and he took several steps forward.  The building was even shabbier-looking in here than it looked on the outside.  It was basically just one room.  There was a sink and counter space to Lee’s left, and a table with a few chairs around it.  Straight ahead was a fireplace with a large cooking pot hanging above the fire.  A sleeping area took up the end of the room to Lee’s right.  But other than a quick glance around, Lee maintained his attention on the man sitting at the table, eating something from a bowl.


The man seemed to study Lee for a bit, chewing the spoonful he’d taken of whatever he was eating, before uttering a rapid phrase too quickly and quietly for Lee to catch more than a few syllables.  Lee wasn’t even sure what language it was but thought it might perhaps be Farsi, a language Lee spoke no more than a very few simple words in.  Lee just shrugged.  He added “ja ne razume,” meaning ‘I do not understand,’ and repeated the word for water, “voda.”  For good measure he added “gdeje Shkodra,” requesting the direction to the city.  He spoke hesitantly and produced a small grin, hoping to be taken for simple and uneducated, and no threat to whatever these men were doing.


It seemed to work, although Lee wasn’t taking anything for granted.  The man at the table nodded, and used a foot to kick one of the chairs slightly away from the table.  He waved a hand at Lee, indicating that Lee should sit down.  He again uttered a soft rapid sentence, this time directed toward the man who had led Lee to the encampment.  While that man grabbed a bowl and dished up whatever was in the cooking pot, the other two lounged on mats in the sleeping area, at no time taking their attention away from Lee.  For his part Lee continued to smile softly, nodding his thanks.  He slipped off the pack and laid it on the floor next to the chair as he sat, and wasted no time tucking into the thick stew that was placed before him.  The flavor left a good deal to be desired but Lee had eaten far worse.  It was mostly greasy gravy made thick with chunks of potato, onion, and a few things Lee suspected were more root vegetables but wasn’t actually able to identify.  There were also a few small pieces of meat that were probably mutton.  Lee ate it all, burying a grin at what Cookie would have to say if he saw the mixture.  It actually didn’t taste too bad once one got past the greasiness.  Part way through the meal a cup of something was placed in front of him on the table and Lee discovered that it held raki, the local moonshine.  While it made Admiral Nelson’s Irish whiskey taste like fruit punch, Lee managed to get it all down without flinching.  That seemed to amuse his ‘host’ and the cup was refilled with water from a covered container.  Silently praying that, if it was thus stored it had been boiled and purified, Lee drank it down.


Even while appearing to be relaxed and grateful for the food and drink, Lee remained on high alert.  The three men who had escorted him here never took their eyes off him, and Lee had no idea of what to expect when he asked again, quietly and respectfully, “Shkodra?”


His host waved a hand at the one window in the building, and said “noc,” the Serbian word for night.  Lee really didn’t want to spend the night.  Sure that he’d found his target he wanted to appear to wander off, still playing the simple traveler, and sneak back later – perhaps even the following night, giving these men the idea that he was well and good gone.  But it didn’t look like he was going to be given the chance.  The man who had led him here picked up Lee’s pack.  Lee was instantly concerned but tried not to show it too strongly, merely reaching to take it back.  But his host once more uttered a soft phrase and the other man touched his chest, indicating for Lee to follow him.  Lee had no choice but to comply.  He smiled and told his host “hvala,” meaning thank you, and followed the man out the door.  Silently, the other two followed along.


Outside, a couple of other men were filling canteens from a partially covered barrel.  Lee pointed to it, and then his pack, and was allowed to fill his canteen as well although the man maintained possession of the pack.  He then led the way past the chicken coop, pointing toward a small hut behind it that, from the smell, was obviously the outhouse.  Lee was then led to the ramshackle barn.  It didn’t smell much better than the outhouse but was at least fairly clean.  With no windows and only the one way in or out, Lee guessed that it was where the new ‘recruits’ were kept.  Thankfully, Lee seemed to be the only outsider here at the moment.  He nodded and smiled his simple smile when the man finally gave him back his pack, and picked the least offensive corner to spread out his meager bedroll – two thin blankets.  He laid his pack at one end, to use later for a pillow, and went back outside.  Instantly he was glared at by half a dozen men but he merely smiled, sat down with his back against the building and closed his eyes, seemingly enjoying the chance to relax and rest in the waning light.


But Lee’s eyes were definitely not closed, although they appeared to be from a distance.  Lee used the excuse of occasionally shifting his position slightly to scan as much of the camp as he could.  For the most part, the men seemed to be just maintaining a quiet existence.  Lee was willing to bet, however, that that probably had something to do with his presence.  As dusk settled in several small cooking fires were lit, about one for every three tents.  Lee knew that he was being watched carefully, but the one most consistently doing it was the boy.  No matter which way Lee turned he’d find himself the object of scrutiny.  But usually not overtly.  More often than not it was from behind the coop or a tree.  Lee never saw the boy go near any of the other men except once, when he was called to the house and accepted a bowl of food that he then took back to the coop to eat.  Lee wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  He thought perhaps that the boy was the son of someone no longer here – maybe one of the men who were being detained in Italy, and therefore tolerated around the camp but not really a part of it.  Obviously the leader accepted him, since that was where the boy’s dinner came from.  But not to the point of being allowed to eat inside.  Nor sleep, apparently.  As darkness settled in Lee saw the boy, accompanied by the dog, enter the coop and not come out.  Lee waited until the outhouse was unoccupied, used it himself, and eventually lay down between his blankets.


But at no time that night did he actually sleep.  His senses were too highly on alert.  He had no idea of whether or not he would be allowed to continue on his way in the morning.  He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he wasn’t – he didn’t think too highly of his chances of fighting his way out.  He was surprised that his pack hadn’t been searched.  He was carrying an old Russian handgun, something that a local might have had on hand, left over from the area’s frequent wars.  While it was ancient-looking it was in perfect working order, but would still be no match for the several rifles Lee had spotted.  He could be fairly sure that besides those he’d seen there were a good deal more in camp.


Several times during the hour or so he’d appeared to catnap outside the barn he’d watched men come and go from behind the house.  He’d glanced that way when he went to the outhouse, but the only thing he saw was what looked like the beginnings of a small trail that led into the surrounding trees.  If there was a stockpile of weapons here Lee’s first guess was, they were being stored wherever that trail led.


His second guess was underneath the house.  As he’d laid his backpack down before sitting at the table he’d noticed what looked like a trap door leading to what had probably been the root cellar for the family who’d built the place.  Cellars like that were usually pretty small, but nothing said that it couldn’t have been enlarged at some point.  It sure would make a more secure storage facility for arms.  Lee was really hoping the stockpile was behind the house.  So much easier for him to get to and destroy.  However, the way this mission had progressed so far, his money was on the house!


Lee rose early – as much to escape the smell in the barn as anything else.  He packed his blankets and, hoping that it would be a sign of trust to the men already up – or more likely this period’s sentries – left it outside the door to the barn and made a swift trip to the outhouse.  When he returned, his host was standing next to it.  Lee took a bit of comfort that he returned Lee’s instant smile, but was still very much on edge.  “Shkodra?” he asked, and pointed in the direction of where he was fairly sure the city lay.  The man nodded, handing Lee a small canvas bag.  Inside Lee found half a dozen figs, some dried plums, two apples, and a hunk of dark bread.  “Hvala, hvala,” Lee mumbled graciously and profusely.  ‘Thank you, thank you,’ as befitted a humble traveler.  Lee was still practically holding his breath but he was apparently going to be allowed to leave.  In a way it made sense – if they were trying to keep a low profile they wouldn’t want too many people disappearing in their vicinity.  On the other hand, something could have been added to the fruit and bread to make him ‘disappear’ at a later time and place.


All that went through his mind in an instant.  Outwardly he carefully tucked the small bag into his pack.  When he straightened up his host was still smiling softly, and waved a hand toward the north, where Lee had pointed earlier.


“Shkodra,” the man confirmed.


“Hvala,” Lee mumbled again, shouldered his pack and, with more confidence than he was feeling started walking, not looking back no matter how nervous he was.


Lee didn’t take an easy breath until he was halfway up the next ridge.  He knew that he was followed as far as the base of the ridge.  He suspected that it was even further so he stayed calm and relaxed – at least on the outside.  He stopped just below the top of the ridge and found a place to ostensibly rest, although the place he found had him facing back down the way he’d just come.  He took a few careful sips of water as he scanned the area he’d just climbed.  He was hungry but still hesitated to eat any of the food.  Finally he settled on one of the apples.  He washed the outside with a bit of water and inspected the peel for punctures, in case something had been injected into it.  Not finding anything amiss he still took only tiny bites at a time, continuing to inspect it as he went.


He heard nothing out of the ordinary while he sat.  He still wasn’t totally comfortable, however, and once he’d eaten continued on over the ridge.  There, he scouted around for a place to conceal himself and spent the rest of the day quietly vigilant.  But he neither saw nor heard anyone so, once it was again dark, eased his way back the way he’d come.  He went slowly, constantly listening.  He was unhappy with himself that he’d been ‘captured’ so easily the previous day, no matter that he hadn’t dared act any way other than the lonely hiker. If he was caught this time he was sure that it wouldn’t go nearly so well for him.


* * * *


Lt. Chris James sent his acting captain, Lt. Cdr. Charles P. “Chip” Morton, a sideways glance and took a small step further away from the quietly muttering blond.  Both men were standing by the chart table in the Conn of the submarine Seaview, although they were working on different projects.  Normally the sub’s XO, Morton was in temporary command with the absence of Seaview’s Skipper, Cdr. Lee Crane.


Chris really loved his duty aboard the Nelson Institute’s research sub.  He wasn’t sure that he would when he was first approached about applying for the post.  It meant transferring from the regular Navy into the Reserves.  Four years at Annapolis and his subsequent training and service had only built on his already established commitment to serve his country.  But he’d quickly discovered that, while to the general public Seaview was little more than an oversized moveable marine laboratory for her designer/builder/owner, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Ret.), she was in reality so much more.  And one of her frequent duties was in the defense of world peace.  Which was, in a round about way, the reason for her XO being in temporary command.  And also, Chris reminded himself, for Mr. Morton’s present ill-humor.


It hadn’t taken long for Chris to settle in to his new position aboard the sub.  He knew that his prowess in navigational skills was one of the reasons he’d been originally asked to apply.  Seaview needed to replace her second officer and wanted to bring in ‘new blood’ as it were.  Chris’ main duty to this point was as back-up to the XO in the Conn on “A” watch, and assigned to learn Seaview inside, outside, and sideways.  He had also just recently taken over as Weapons Officer – a position he didn’t think that he was qualified for but, with the Master-At-Arms, Chief Hauck at his elbow, was starting to become comfortable with.


Chris had realized early on that one of Seaview’s strongest attributes was her crew, and started right at the top with her CO and XO.  It helped tremendously that, as a quasi-private boat, she carried a handpicked crew.  In the Navy you took what was assigned to you.  Here, the ‘bad apples’ rarely even made it through the interview process.  Chris had come away from his interview with Lt. Cdr. Morton shaking his head, sure that he’d blown any chance he’d had at the post after having to deal with Morton’s totally no-nonsense, disciplinarian persona.  He just knew that he’d said all the wrong things as Morton did nothing but frown the entire two hours he’d grilled Chris about his training and knowledge, presenting problems and issues one after another to Chris and giving him very little time to come up with solutions.  It was therefore a total surprise to learn, when he’d been called back to interview with Cdr. Crane, that he’d received Mr. Morton’s highest recommendation of all of the applicants.  His mouth literally fell open when Cdr. Crane had told him that.  He’d been extremely embarrassed when Crane grinned broadly at him before going on to explain that while Mr. Morton did want to get specific about knowledge of a position, that his tactics were also meant to find out who had a stable, not easily rattled temperament.  Crane explained that because of Admiral Nelson’s research Seaview and her crew occasionally found themselves in hazardous, unstable conditions, and needed crewmen who could keep their heads.


Chris was still extremely nervous his first time in Seaview’s Conn, under the microscope so-to-speak of the Exec.  He’d quickly learned that while both Morton and Crane, who was frequently in the Conn, expected nothing less than competence, they were willing to allow a person to settle in, and to give them time to learn a position.  Neither was judgmental or critical unless there was a breach of established protocol.  Chris did learn all too quickly that it wasn’t wise to tick off Mr. Morton.  He was definitely the disciplinarian of the two – the Skipper’s leadership style was pretty laid back for the most part.  But both senior officers’ rulings were fair and just, and totally geared toward maintaining a smooth-running boat.


No, it was nothing Chris had done – or any other crewmen for that matter – that was causing Mr. Morton’s mutterings and threatening glances around the Conn, and why Chris had taken the surreptitious step further away.  Nor did it have anything to do with Seaview’s current mission.  She was sitting quietly close to the Great Meteor Seamount (Chris had no idea where it got that name, and didn’t really care), in the vicinity of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean.  Admiral Nelson was deploying current meters to study the variability of tidal bands in the area.  Whatever that was.  Chris was extremely glad that he didn’t have to understand the Admiral’s research projects, just help make sure that Seaview was ready for whatever was necessary.  No, what was ticking off the normally calm and under control XO was why he was in command at the moment.


Seaview’s Skipper, Cdr. Crane, occasionally ran errands for ONI.  CO and XO had been friends since their first days at Annapolis, and Morton made no bones about disapproving of Crane’s continued duty for the Navy’s Intelligence agency.  He normally kept his haranguing between the two of them, although enough ‘conversations’ had been carried out at enough volume that they’d been heard by others.  Cdr. Crane never appeared to get upset at his friend.  He seemed to understand that Morton was concerned that Crane rarely managed to come back from one of these ‘errands’ without an injury of some sort.  So, when Crane was off-boat, Morton was usually worried.


But he wasn’t normally so upset that he lost control, as he was exhibiting at the moment.  Chris glanced around the Conn and saw that others had noticed the unusual behavior as well.  It wasn’t causing any trouble; not one of the duty crewmen was willing to risk the XO’s wrath by being caught not paying attention to their respective monitors and equipment.  But Chris did see a few looks pass quickly between some of them.  With a sigh, Chris took another slight step away.


Chip hadn’t noticed the first step away young Lt. James had taken because he was too deep into his mini-temper tantrum.  He did acknowledge that he shouldn’t be giving in to his anger.  Bad tactics for a man in his position of responsibility.  But right at the moment, with Seaview just holding station while divers placed sensors for Admiral Nelson’s latest research project, Chip didn’t have enough to do to keep himself from dwelling on the fact that his best friend was once more off on some stupid mission for ONI.  Chip was angry with Lee for continuing to take such assignments, frustrated at Nelson’s silly – to him – research project and, when push came to shove, extremely worried.  It wasn’t unusual for Lee to be out of communications range.  But not only was this mission into a region of instability combined with volatility, but just the mention of al-Qaida set Chip’s nerve endings on frazzle-mode, and they’d stay there until Lee was once more back aboard.


However, when James took the second step Chip momentarily closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and gave the younger man a small smile.  “Sorry, Chris,” he apologized.


Chris shrugged.  “Not like I don’t understand,” he told his superior.  “We all get a little uptight when the Skipper is off-boat.”


Chip’s grin spread ever so slightly at the lieutenant’s comment.  Chris had learned quickly how to say the right thing to keep from ticking Chip off.  Not that he was at all condescending.  Nothing like that.  He was a personable young man with talented people skills, whose fit into Seaview’s close-knit crew had been smooth and seamless.  Chip had a feeling that he perhaps hadn’t told the man often enough how pleased he was with that aspect.  He knew that Chris understood how pleased that both he and Lee were with the man’s work.  And he suspected that Lee had found ways to express to Chris how well Chris had settled in.  Chip was just formulating how he wanted to phrase it when he was interrupted by the intercom.


“Missile Room to Conn,” came in Chief Sharkey’s distinctive voice.  At the moment it held an officiously correct quality that wasn’t always there – especially towards Chip, who he treated more like an equal than a senior officer.  Chip momentarily wondered what he’d said to the man – or more likely what tone of voice he’d said it in – that had the COB being so careful around him.  A soft chuckle escaped as he wondered how to continue to reproduce that reaction.  Sharkey was never insubordinate or insolent.  He just had this way of speaking…


“Conn here.  Go ahead, Chief,” Lt. James answered, as Chip’s ponderings had momentarily sidetracked him from automatically reaching for the mic.


“All divers back aboard.  We’re done at this location and we can move on.” 


Chip’s grin spread despite his worry.  Obviously Sharkey thought that Chip wasn’t in the Conn.  His voice had relaxed, and not a ‘sir’ to be found.  Before Chris could answer, Chip took possession of the mic.  “Understood, Chief,” he said firmly, and had the satisfaction of hearing the Chief’s almost hesitant, ‘ah, sir’, before the connection went dead.  He looked at Chris.  “Sounds like we can move to the next location, Lieutenant.”


“Aye, sir,” James answered.  He wasn’t sure he understood what had just happened, or why the Exec still had a slight smile on his face, but it sure beat the previous half an hour.  He turned and started issuing the commands to move the giant submarine to the next location Admiral Nelson had marked on the map.


* * * *


Lee saw or heard nothing except normal night sounds on his slow, careful trip back down the slope.  He paused often but nothing bothered him.  He took a slightly different route once he’d gotten about halfway – one that would put him more behind the house than the way he’d left.  It meant working his way through a lot more brush, and took twice as long even accounting for his need for stealth.  But he took comfort in the fact that, if it was this difficult, the residents of the valley would be that much more confident that they’d not have uninvited visitors from this direction.  And, it put him in a better position to try and find where the trail led to that he’d seen take off from the house.


Unfortunately, his nose told him what he’d found before he actually saw it.  A still – terrific, he growled to himself.  Now I know where the raki came from.  He continued down, just to be sure that was all that was there, but the crackling of a fire told him that was all he’d find.  They wouldn’t be stupid enough to have open flames anywhere near munitions.  He crept the last few yards on his belly until he could see into the clearing.


There seemed to be only one man minding the still.  Lee was surprised that they’d run it all night.  But considering the number of men he’d seen making trips in that direction just the few hours Lee was there, perhaps they needed to keep it going.  It was only a small still.  And if that was one of the things the leader was using to keep his men in camp…  Lee shrugged and pondered his options.


He could be fairly sure now that, if there was a stash of weapons, they were under the house.  It can’t ever be easy, he told himself silently as he watched the man get up from where he’d been sitting and toss another couple pieces of wood onto the fire under the still.  The sparks that briefly flared gave Lee an idea and he smiled to himself.  He took a more careful look around the clearing.  Whoever had set up the still had taken care to make the clearing large enough that, in the event of an accident, the resulting explosion wouldn’t set fire to the surrounding woods unless it was a very large one.  So, he told himself, I’ll try to make it a little one, and his smile briefly grew a bit larger.  He didn’t think that it would take much.  He needed to take out the guard first.  Then it should be a simple matter to weaken one of the supports enough to allow the still to topple over.  It looked none too stable as it was.  When the mash inside hit the flames, the resulting pyrotechnics should be enough to bring the whole camp running, giving Lee time to work his way around to the front of the house.  He’d taken his pistol out of his pack and stuck it in his waistband when he’d started down the hill.  Now, he found a nice fist-sized rock and started to work his way around the clearing.


Taking out the guard proved to be the first thing that had gone right this whole trip.  The man actually made it easy by getting up and walking around the fire, stopping almost in front of Lee.  Lee took him down with the rock, hitting him rather ungently on the back of the head.  Dragging him a little further away – Lee had an aversion to killing unless it was absolutely necessary – he set about sabotaging the still.  That also proved surprisingly easy.  Hey, maybe my luck is finally changing, he told himself.  As the still slowly tilted to starboard, Lee headed port.  He wanted to be close to the side of the house furthest from the path when the fireworks started.


The first part of the plan worked perfectly.  The still blew right on schedule.  Lee, from a hiding spot in the brush, watched everyone including the spotters outside several of the tents go flying across the clearing and down the trail.  A door slamming told him that the occupant of the house was also drawn to the commotion.  Lee waited only until he saw the leader jog down the path before heading along the side of the building toward the front.  His dark clothing and only a sliver of a moon were also working in his favor and he sidled up to the one window unchallenged.  Listening just a second he didn’t hear anything from inside, peaked in and didn’t see anyone in the light from the fireplace, and slipped inside.  Knowing that he didn’t have much time he went straight to the trap door.  He had to shove the table aside but quickly had the cover lifted.  Jackpot, he told himself triumphantly.  However big the space was, it was filled to within a few inches of the door.  Lee saw only wooden boxes filled with rifles but figured that there was more than that down there.  He glanced at the fire and saw several sticks of wood that were lying so that only one end was burning.  Grabbing two he tossed one inside each end of the trap door and closed it carefully.  He wanted the sticks to catch the wooden boxes, as well as the packing around the rifles, on fire.  From there things should progress quite nicely on their own.  With another quick smile he slipped back outside.


And that’s where his luck once more failed.  The sound of a rifle shot from across the clearing registered at the same time as a sharp pain on the outside of his left hip, about six inches below his waist.  It momentarily knocked him to the ground, but the rest of the half dozen or so shots he heard missed their mark and he was able to get up and make it back into the brush, followed by the sounds of shouts and running feet.  None of them close to him, however, but he knew that it was only going to be a matter of time before whichever spotter hadn’t run to the exploding still pointed out Lee’s location to everyone who had.  He knew that he had to get out of the area but the pain in his hip was making it increasingly difficult to think.  He was going to have to stop soon to check the damage but he also needed to get further away from the house, having no idea of how big an explosion he’d set in motion.  Happily, even if it was a large one he wasn’t worried about setting the surrounding woods on fire, with the house sitting squarely in the middle of the main clearing.


Lee forced himself to his feet though sheer strength of will and made his way further toward the heavy brush he’d used as cover on the way down, motivated by the sound of shouts getting closer and closer.  Two things almost simultaneously stopped him in his tracks.  The first was the house being turned into a million splinters.  The second was the sound of a pistol being cocked right next to his right ear.  Ever so slowly Lee turned, finding himself starring down the barrel of a shiny, very new looking – and very large – pistol being held all too steady by the boy.  Lee was totally powerless to do anything as he watched the youngster begin to pull the trigger.


* * * *


Seaview was settling into her next location when Admiral Nelson walked down the spiral stairs into the Control Room.  It only took one glance around for him to notice the almost palpable tension.  He hadn’t felt the submarine make any wrong moves, nor had he heard any warnings issued over the intercom, so he was at something of a loss to explain it until he got a look at his XO’s face.  Oh, oh, he muttered to himself, I think I’ve spent too much time in the lab and not enough keeping an eye on my ticked off Exec.


He totally understood Chip’s worry.  He wasn’t overly thrilled that Lee continued to accept ONI assignments either.  But he was loath to put an end to it simply because he knew that Lee felt that it was part of his duty to his country.  He also, albeit a bit late obviously, realized that there wasn’t enough for Chip to do on Seaview’s current cruise to keep his worry in check.  Nelson put a benign expression on his face and walked up to the chart table.


Chip had barely looked up when Nelson came down the stairs, and Nelson suspected that he’d been working to get his own expression once more under control.  “We’re just pulling into the next location, sir.”  He pointed to the spot on the chart in front of him.  “Here.”


“Excellent,” Nelson told him.  “We’re making great progress.  At this rate we’ll have all of the sensors placed by mid-day tomorrow.”


“Yes, sir.”


Nelson took note of Chip’s unusually clipped responses and knew that he needed to do ‘something.’  He turned to Lt. James.  “Everything under control, Lieutenant?”


“Yes, sir,” James answered, although he sent a quick glance Chip’s way when he said it.


“Good, good.” Nelson told him, and sent him a small grin.  “In that case, Chip, why don’t you join me for an early dinner.”


“Should go down and check on the dive,” Chip told him.


Nelson struggled to bury a grin.  It was usually Lee who tap-danced around eating when he was upset.  Nelson had never seen this side of Chip, especially as it was Chip who was usually the one to cajole Lee down to the Wardroom.  “Oh, Sharkey’s managed just fine so far,” Nelson told the blond.  “He’ll yell if he runs into a problem.”


“He better not have one,” Chip muttered.  He though only to himself, but realized Nelson had heard it when the Admiral laid a hand briefly on his shoulder.  “Sorry, sir,” he mumbled an apology.  Nelson merely nodded toward the aft hatch.  Chip reluctantly nodded back and the two left.  Neither heard the sigh of relief Lt. James let out behind them.


As they walked, Chip turned to his boss.  “Don’t suppose that there’s been any word, sir?”  Nelson knew that he was referring to Lee.


“No,” Nelson admitted.  “But then, we knew that it could be several days.  Maybe longer.”


“I wish…”  Chip didn’t finish, just sent Nelson a troubled look.


Nelson nodded.  “Me, too, Chip.  Me, too.  But Lee feels strongly about what he considers part of his duty.”


“His duty is to Seaview,” Chip growled, and then frowned as he remembered who he was talking to.


Once more Nelson’s hand rested for a moment on his XO’s shoulder.  “Very true, Chip.  But we’ve both made that argument to him.”  He paused and sent Chip a fond smile.  “You, I dare say, a good deal more often, and adamantly, than me, I will admit.”  His smile spread slightly as Chip lowered his eyes in unconscious imitation of Lee’s rather patented through-the-lashes look.  “And neither one of us has so far made a dent in his commitment.”


As Nelson was being open, Chip figured that he could as well.  “One of these days I’m going to make a dent in the back of his thick skull,” he growled.


Nelson chuckled openly.  He was the first to admit that his two senior officers were an unusual command team.  Friends since their Annapolis days, they were more brothers than a lot of actual brothers Nelson knew.  When things were quiet they were known throughout NIMR for frequently nattering at each other – about any number of things – to the point of creating absolute havoc with their hijinks.  And yet, when push came to shove, they were two of the most highly trained, competent and confident officers Nelson had ever served with.  They were so tuned in to each other, practically knowing what each other was thinking, that so far no enemy had ever been able to get past them.  Outsiders had been left to wonder on occasion, hearing the two, if they’d survive each other.  Nelson would just laugh.  He had no such fears no matter how they occasionally fussed at each other.


“Gently, Chip,” he now warned the blond.  “Gently.”  Actually, he was pleased that Chip would let go of some of his frustrations in front of his boss.  He normally kept his emotions very much under control.  Nelson hoped that he could get Chip to keep it up through the meal.  He suspected that the Conn crew would be most grateful if Chip could release some of his pent up anger – that he’d be much more pleasant to be around.


To that end he spent the meal, which happily Chip chose to eat, drawing Chip out on the few new crewmen they had aboard this cruise, how plans were coming for several computer upgrades that were scheduled, and half a dozen other odds and ends he managed to come up with.  He knew that thoughts of Lee were never far from the forefront of Chip’s mind, as they were with his own.  But the quiet chatter helped him relax and he was fairly sure that it had a beneficial effect on Chip as well.


As they were both finishing up dessert – Cookie had put together a deep-dish berry compote that he served warm and topped with ice cream – Nelson gave his slightly calmer XO something else to ponder.  “You know, I’ve been wanting to do some microbial studies in the region of the Ionian Abyssal Plain south of Italy’s boot heel,” he said somewhat offhandedly.  “Once we finish here there’s nothing to keep us from heading in that direction.”


At mention of a new project Chip had started to frown.  When Nelson mentioned the location he noticeably brightened.  “And we’d be just around the corner, so to speak, from the ‘Daniel Boone’.”


“We would, wouldn’t we?” Nelson told him, his eyes sparkling.  He grinned as Chip hurriedly stuffed the last bite of dessert into his mouth and washed it down with the last of his coffee.  “Think I’ll just go and plot the course.  Oh,” he told Nelson, “we’ll need permission to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar.”


Nelson nodded.  “I’ll have Sparks send an official request as soon as I get back to my cabin.”


“Aye, sir,” Chip told him, started to leave, and turned back.  “Thank you, sir,” he told his boss.


Nelson just waved him out and then sat there chuckling to himself.  Absolutely nothing got past Chip’s sharp mind.  He’d instantly picked up on what Nelson was up to – helping Chip ease his tension by the dinner chatter, and then putting them that much closer to their absent friend.  He was still chuckling when Doc Jamison entered the Wardroom.


Will raised an eyebrow.  “Most of the boat is tiptoeing around our illustrious Executive Officer, I just meet him in the corridor, actually smiling, and you’re sitting here laughing.  Okay, Admiral, what’s going on?  I gather that we’ve had word from our missing Skipper.”


“No such luck,” Nelson admitted.  “But I have managed to sidetrack Chip from slaughtering any crewmen in a fit of temper.  At least, temporarily.”


“Hallelujah,” Will breathed.  He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down opposite his boss.  “Kindly tell your doctor all about it.”


* * * *


Lee didn’t even have the time to regret that he’d never see his friends again – that they’d probably never even know what became of him.  He could only close his eyes and wait for the end to come.  The gun went off and he waited for oblivion.


It didn’t come.  He opened his eyes to find the gun pointed to a spot past his head.  He turned and found the man who had led him into the valley laying about twenty feet behind him, a good bit of his face no longer there.  Lee looked back at the boy, who was lowering the gun and motioning for Lee to follow him.  Lee didn’t have a whole lot of choice and limped painfully along.  He had a sudden panic attack when he realized that he was being led right back to the main camp clearing, and stopped. The boy stopped as well, again motioned and grabbed the sleeve of Lee’s jacket, urging him to come.  The yelling was beginning to come closer, and Lee hesitantly complied.


As they neared the edge of the clearing, the boy motioned for Lee to stay put while he went forward.  He almost instantly came back and motioned for Lee to hurry.  Lee couldn’t comply – his leg and hip were hurting too badly.  But he did make as good of an effort as he could.  As he entered the clearing he found himself behind the chicken coop.  He hesitated again as he watched the boy open the door and motion him inside.


Two thoughts went through Lee’s mind so fast that the boy barely had time to frown at Lee’s hesitancy.  One, the boy was leading him straight into a trap.  But, if he’d wanted Lee caught, why did he shoot the other man.  And two, if the boy was trying to save Lee – for whatever reason Lee couldn’t even fathom at this point – what better place to hide than basically in plain sight.  Flipping a mental coin, Lee hobbled into the coop and literally fell onto what must be the boy’s bed.  He had only time to see the boy tuck his gun inside the folds of the oversized jacket and put his finger to his lips before the door shut, leaving Lee in total darkness.  With senses too overloaded to even think straight, all Lee could do was lay there and wait for whatever happened next.  While he couldn’t see out he could certainly hear the almost instant commotion.


The voice he heard first was that of the leader, he was almost sure.  From the tone, he was demanding something of the boy.  Lee could only guess that the man was asking what, if anything, the boy had seen.  It was hard to tell with all the other yelling going on.  From what Lee could tell, most of the voices were coming from the direction of the woods behind the coop.  Lee thought he heard a soft voice that he assumed was the boy.  He was barely breathing, expecting any second for the door to open.  Lee was sure that he wouldn’t survive that encounter.  He still had no idea of why he’d survived the boy.  He pulled his own gun out with what little strength he had left, and waited.


Lee knew that he was nearing the end of his physical resources when the yelling started fading away.  Nor could he hear any voices right outside the door.  But he couldn’t tell if they were actually farther away or if the ringing in his ears was drowning them out.  He shook his head, trying to clear the fog that was starting to close off what senses he still retained, but that seemed to make it worse.  Just as the door started to open, the gun fell from fingers that could no longer hold it and he slipped into unconsciousness.


* * * *


“Not one word, Lieutenant,” Chip mumbled just loud enough so that the man standing at his shoulder was the only one who heard it.  The two were in Seaview’s Control Room watching and listening to Admiral Nelson give the commands to maneuver the submarine through the opening into the Mediterranean Sea.  For some strange reason Nelson had decided to take over command for the transition.  While the Strait was some nine miles wide at its narrowest, Nelson decided to hug the southern edge.  “I just want to take a look at some underwater rock formations I was told about,” he said to Chip.  It in no way indicated that he didn’t trust Chip to do it.  Just, sometimes, Nelson liked to take command of his submarine, and both Lee and Chip had learned to simply stand back and watch.


What had prompted Chip’s sideways mutter to Chris was the sound of Seaview lightly grazing ‘something’.  It was the slightest of rubs, little more than a brush, but still easily heard and felt in the Conn.  And, Chip figured, also throughout the boat.


“Sorry about that.”  Nelson sent him a sheepish little grin after straightening Seaview out.  “Be sure you tell Lee it was me who scratched the paint.”


“No problem, sir,” Chip assured his boss, unsuccessfully burying a smile of his own. 


Twenty minutes later, with no more problems except never finding what it was Nelson wanted to check out, he gave the Conn back to Chip and wandered down to the Wardroom for some much needed coffee.  He found Will there, already indulging himself with the crew’s lifeblood.  Seaview’s doctor took one look at the smirk on Nelson’s face, put his cup down, and crossed his arms over his chest.  “Now just why, Admiral, do I get the feeling that you had something to do with Seaview smacking something a little while ago?”


Nelson’s smirk turned momentarily ugly as he glared at Will.  “Seaview didn’t smack anything,” he growled, before his grin returned.  “I figured a little rub might ‘rub’ away some of the tension that was starting to creep back into Chip.”


Will nodded.  “Ah, that was what I heard last night.  For a few seconds there I thought that we’d been invaded by Attila the Hun.”


Nelson cringed.  “Sharkey said that he thought we were going to have to conduct a burial at sea before Chip seemed to realize he’d gone a little overboard…”  He paused as Will, who had started to take another swallow of coffee, choked on Nelson’s bad pun.  “Sorry,” Nelson apologized.


Will got himself back under control fairly quickly.  “I never did hear what actually happened.”


“One of the new crewmen was helping Mickelson replace some wiring in the smallest storeroom aft.  He’d left the coil of wire lying in the corridor instead of taking it inside the room.  It really didn’t present a major problem…”


“But Chip found it,” Will guessed.


Nelson nodded.  “Couldn’t sleep and was pulling one of Lee’s ‘walkaboats’.”




“Got himself back under control – finally.  Told Mickelson to keep a better eye on his trainee and stomped off.”  Nelson sent a little grin Will’s way.  “Knew the timetable for passing through the strait and figured that I’d try to lighten things up a bit.  Also had a little help from Layton.  Knew Chip would have our senior helmsman on duty during that period, and enlisted a little…ah…extracurricular assistance.”


“In other words, you didn’t want him to rat you out to the Exec when he realized you’d given him an incorrect heading – as he most certainly would have.”  His answer was a reappearance of Nelson’s smirk.


“It wouldn’t have worked with Lee,” Nelson told Will.  “I’m actually a little surprised that it did with Chip.”


“Or,” Will guessed, “he knew perfectly well what you were up to and simply let you get away with it for the betterment of the crew.”


Nelson’s smirk turned sheepish.  “Much more likely,” he admitted.


Will chuckled and Nelson joined him.  “Still no word?”  Will figured that he would have heard but asked anyway.


Nelson shook his head.  “When Sparks sent my request for permission to cross the Strait I had him send a quiet query to Robert.”  Will knew that he was referring to Admiral Robert Jones, head of ONI.  “His man in Ulcinj, Montenegro, is doing what he can and still maintain his cover.  But so far, nothing.”


“Worrisome,” Will told him.  He sent Nelson a small smile.  “Seaview’s paint job might have to take another hit or two.”


Nelson also grinned briefly but it quickly turned sour.  “As long as it’s just the paint.”  He gave Will a worried look.  “I don’t want to think about anything more serious.”  Will knew that he was no longer talking about the boat.


* * * *


Lee’s senses returned with a frustrating unwillingness to comply.  Smell was first to make an impression and Lee suddenly wasn’t sure that he didn’t want to remain unconscious.  But that was so totally against his nature that he struggled to get everything else up and running.  Feeling didn’t help a lot either as the barest movement sent stabs of pain through his left hip.  Smothering a groan, he made his body remain still and worked on his eyelids.


As the inside of the chicken coop came into sight, the last four days came crashing back.  He started as a hand put pressure on his shoulder and he found the boy kneeling next to him.  A small candle burned in the far corner, casting shadows.  Lee still couldn’t really see a face inside the oversized hood as the candle was mostly behind the boy.  His other hand came toward Lee’s face, holding a metal cup.  Lee hesitated only a second before raising his head and drinking the contents.  It was only water but it tasted heavenly, and he laid his head back with a heavy sigh.  The sound seemed to alarm the boy and he put his finger on Lee’s lips.  Lee nodded that he understood and the boy relaxed.


Lee’s lower body was covered by what he recognized as one of his own thin blankets, and he raised the edge to check the damage to his hip.  The first thing he discovered however was, he was no longer wearing his pants.  He glanced at the boy, whose shoulders briefly shook in what Lee assumed was silent laughter before he pointed behind Lee, then pointed to Lee’s hip.  Lee looked and found a surprisingly clean bandage taped in place.  It took Lee a bit to realize that it had been made from items in his pack.  While Lee had to be careful what he’d carried with him, Jamie had come up with a quite accurate collection of local first aid supplies tied together in a large square of cloth.  Lee had sent him a querying look, but Jamie had merely grumbled that Lee wasn’t the only one who knew how to plan a mission.   Owe you another one, Lee mumbled to himself, with a reminder that he still had work to do if he was going to give Jamie the message in person.


Lee stiffened as there was a noise outside, and the boy scurried out.  When the door opened Lee could see that it was still dark outside, although he thought that the night sky might be just starting to lighten.  As he barely breathed he looked around for his gun.  He didn’t see it.  What he did notice was that there was a coarsely woven sack tacked over the small door used by the original occupants.  When the sun did come up no one could see inside that way.


But Lee was worried about what the group of men would do now that their stash of weapons had been destroyed.  He needed to get out of here – he was in an extremely vulnerable position.  He tried to shift around to see where the boy had put Lee’s gun but was stopped as again there was instant pain in his hip.  This is decidedly not good, he muttered silently.  All was quiet outside and he took the time to push the blanket aside and lift the bandage.  While the wound looked messy, Lee realized that it could have been a lot worse.  The bullet had gone straight through.  From the pain, Lee thought that it might have nicked the edge of the outside knobby part of the upper thighbone.  He couldn’t remember what it was called, despite getting a rather lengthy lecture from one of the Academy doctors after he’d bruised the area during a Physical Training exercise.  Lee spent a couple weeks renamed ‘Gimpy’ by his midshipmen buddies as the injury was extremely painful.  The lecture had come because he’d been slow to report the injury, thinking that it was just a simple bruise and would go away quickly.  One of the P.T. instructors pulled him aside when he couldn’t complete his track laps without wincing.  The doctor had explained, unnecessarily loudly as far as Lee was concerned, that that was where a good many muscles and tendons attached.  He wasn’t at all pleased that Lee had been ignoring the warning pain – that Lee could have done permanent damage if there had been anything seriously torn.


Sorry, Jamie, he now muttered silently.  Even if there’s something badly ripped, I’ve got to get out of here.  And I’m pretty sure that there ain’t gonna be a bright yellow rescue, referring to FS1.  Gonna have to get myself out of this mess.


His thoughts were interrupted as the door once more opened.  Lee nearly stopped breathing but it was only the boy.  He was carrying a bowl and, once he’d quickly closed the door behind him, knelt down and offered it to Lee.


It was more of the stew that Lee had been served before.  Obviously it came from one of the tent cooking pots.  Lee didn’t figure that there was much left of the one in the house.  Lee was pretty sure now that it was close to morning.  He wasn’t wearing a watch, but he figured that it would have been the only way the boy could have gotten away with requesting food.  It would also probably be the only breakfast the boy got so after taking a bit Lee pushed it back toward him.  The boy simply shook his head and again pushed it to Lee.  Lee figured that the boy must have understood the frustration on Lee’s face because he reached for Lee’s pack and opened it, showing Lee that the other apple and several of the figs were missing.  Lee finally smiled and ate more of the stew, but he still insisted that the boy eat some as well.


As he finished, he noticed that the light around the small animal door was starting to brighten.  The boy noticed it as well, blew out the candle, and quickly slipped back outside.  It wasn’t until then that Lee realized he’d not seen the dog.  He sent a silent prayer that that wasn’t the meat he’d just eaten.  As a little more light filtered in he once more looked for his gun, and found it not far behind his head.  He settled back down now that he was at least able to defend himself – not that the few bullets in the gun would hold out long against all the rifles he was sure were still in camp.  He pulled the blanket back over his legs and waited to see what the day would bring.


* * * *


As Admiral Nelson exited the aft hatch Chip sent a frown toward his helmsman.  Layton just shrugged.  Chip started to send him a wink.  But he realized just in time that if he admitted he knew what had happened earlier he’d be undermining Nelson’s attempt to lighten the mood among the crew after Chip’s tirade the night before.  Instead, he let his expression harden into a glare before abruptly turning his back to the man.  “Mark our position, Lieutenant,” he told James grumpily.


“Marked and noted, sir,” Chris told him almost immediately.


“Plot a course to the Admiral’s research zone.”


“Already plotted, sir.”  Chris turned and started issuing the necessary commands.


Chip couldn’t stop the small grin this time, but thankfully only Chris saw it.  Chip walked several feet toward the Nose to keep anyone else from noticing.  His worry for Lee hadn’t diminished.  As the days passed it was actually getting worse.  But Nelson had gone out of his way to remind Chip that he wasn’t alone in that feeling, and that he needed to be under control to help keep the crew grounded.


Chip wasn’t sure why he was having so much trouble this time, al-Qaida not withstanding.  It certainly wasn’t the first time Lee had been out of communication range on an ONI mission.  But Chip knew that he’d better rectify the situation.  Lee wasn’t going to take kindly to hearing the reason behind Seaview’s needing a new paint job.


* * * *


Lee spent an uneasy day.  The boy didn’t spend much time inside – Lee assumed that it was mostly so no one would have a reason to come looking for him.  Lee did relax slightly about halfway through the morning when he heard the dog bark.  He remembered how nervous the animal had seemed to be around the other men, and assumed that it hadn’t wanted to come inside the coop because of Lee’s presence.


Lee did have one problem.  The first time the boy came to check on him Lee asked him quietly, kupatilom?  Bathroom.  It was the closest word he knew to tell the boy that he needed to use the outhouse.  The boy seemed to understand and pointed to a covered bucket in the far corner, then immediately turned and left.  The next time he came in he grabbed the bucket, disappeared for a few minutes, and came back.  Lee told him hvala.  Thank you.  The boy nodded and again left.


Off and on during the day Lee heard voices – some nearby, some obviously across the clearing.  He desperately wanted to take a look outside, to see what was going on, but he didn’t dare.  The boy was risking everything to help Lee – he still had no idea why.  If Lee was spotted he doubted he’d be the only one to suffer the consequences.


The second time the boy came back Lee figured that it must be close to noon as he again brought food.  Lee refused to eat more than half of it, adamantly insisting that the boy eat his share.  He did get tired of referring to the boy as ‘the boy’, and touched his chest.  “Lee,” he said firmly but quietly, and then repeated both motion and name.


The boy seemed to understand.  “M………,” he said.  All Lee could make out was an ‘M’ sound followed by what seemed like a whole lot of vowels strung together, and he sighed.


“How about I just call you Murphy,” he said.  The boy cocked his head, not understanding.  Lee touched the boy’s chest.  “Murphy,” he repeated.  It seemed to Lee to be the best way to make something at least a little humorous out of an otherwise lousy mission.


“Muuurrrfffy,” the boy said cautiously, and Lee nodded.  Once more Lee saw his shoulders shake with what was apparently silent laughter.  He turned to leave, but gave Lee a glance over his shoulder as he opened the door the few inches it took him to slip out.  A bit of light briefly illuminated the lower half of his face and Lee thought that he detected a smile.  Lee chuckled silently to himself despite his case of nerves.


Unused to lying around, Lee grabbed the first aid stuff from his pack.  He applied more antibiotic cream and a fresh bandage before pulling on his pants.  The sight of his own blood, now dried, reminded him of how much he’d lost.  From previous experience he knew that it would take him longer to regain his strength because of it.  But he couldn’t dwell on that now.  His movements were still painful but not nearly as much as they had been when he first regained consciousness.  He knew that he had to get out of here tonight – he didn’t dare risk staying longer.  He still couldn’t quite believe his luck the previous night and wasn’t about to push it any further by hanging around one second longer than absolutely necessary.


Several times during the afternoon he heard Murphy moving around outside.  He knew that’s who it was because each time the door would open a scant few inches and a small bag was deposited on the floor just inside.  The second time it happened Lee’s curiosity got the better of him and he peeked inside.  An apple and a couple figs.  Intrigued, Lee checked the first sack.  Three biscuits, hard but edible.  Four more times food items were hurriedly tucked inside the coop – Lee figured that Murphy must be raiding the tents for small items that wouldn’t be missed.


He wished that he knew what the men were doing – the camp had been surprisingly quiet all day.  As the sky started to darken, Murphy slipped inside with another bowl of stew.  Lee was getting a little tired of it but at least there was protein from the bits of meat.  He could only imagine what the rest of the men felt about it.  He assumed that they’d been eating it every day for a lot longer than he had.  While Lee ate, Murphy gathered all the bags he’d tossed inside and repacked all of the food items inside Lee’s pack.  Lee figured that Murphy understood that Lee needed to get away that night and was helping restock the pack.  Lee smiled his thanks as he handed Murphy the last half of the stew.  But he needed to make sure Murphy was okay as well and tried to take several of the things back out for Murphy’s use.  The boy simply opened up the front of the oversized jacket.  It was quite obvious that pockets sewn inside the jacket were definitely not empty.  Lee grinned – Murphy was apparently an old hand, no matter how young he was, at taking care of himself.  Lee nodded that he understood and repacked, also adding his meager bedroll.


Once Murphy was done eating he left again, and didn’t return until there was no more light coming inside when the door was opened.  He lit the small candle and started rolling up his bed, placing a few items inside before he did.  He tied each end of the roll with one end of a thin rope, forming a sling he could put over his shoulder to carry.  As Lee realized what Murphy was doing he touched Murphy’s shoulder, a question easily read on his face.  Murphy nodded, touched his chest and then pointed to Lee, quite obviously stating that where Lee went, Murphy was going as well.  Lee wanted to say no and yet, he also couldn’t quite see himself leaving the child in this camp full of terrorists.  That the boy would slow him down barely entered his mind – in his present condition he had no doubt that he would be slowing Murphy down.  After a small hesitation he nodded, and Murphy finished packing.


What he did give some thought to was, which way to go.  From his brief trip over the next ridge Lee knew that it should be only one or two more ridges, each one smaller, before he reached the valley that held Shkodra and the lake.  But Lee needed to make his way across the border into Montenegro, to the town of Ulcinj on the Adriatic coast.  And he didn’t want to stay in this valley any longer than necessary.  He carried no maps except in his head – the ones he’d done his best to memorize before leaving Seaview.


He finally settled on crossing into the next valley, but doing it much further southwest of his original path.  That should get him down into the flats faster.  That area was dominated by small farms and olive groves.  He smiled as he realized that traveling with Murphy could actually work to his favor.  The local residents should be much less inclined to challenge a ‘family unit’ then they might be a lone man.  Especially one who didn’t speak the language.


His ruminations were interrupted when Murphy blew out the candle.  Lee waited in the darkness but it wasn’t a long wait.  Murphy moved toward the door and Lee watched it open.  As he would have also headed that way Murphy held up a hand, barely visible in the still sliver of moonlight, and Lee held his position.  But Murphy was quickly back.  He grabbed his bedroll/pack and held the door as Lee stepped out into fresh air for the first time in almost twenty-four hours.  As Murphy would have made his way toward Lee’s original path up the ridge Lee shook his head.  He pointed out where he wanted to go, and was relieved when Murphy merely nodded and led the way.


They skirted the clearing that until last night had held the still.  Lee had to smile at his handiwork.  He’d have liked to see what had kept the men so quiet all day but didn’t dare take the chance.  He was pleased that Murphy seemed to naturally move easily and quietly.  He was less pleased with himself.  He knew instantly that the hip was going to be a problem.  For the moment the pain was controllable, but he wasn’t holding his breath that it remained so.  Lee had a long way to go – from what he could remember of the map, between twenty-five and thirty kilometers – and the first part was mostly up and down.  It wasn’t like an upper body wound that he could somewhat protect.  Each step was going to stress the injury.  He wasn’t expecting any difficulties crossing the border – he wouldn’t be taking a major road across.  He’d just find a quiet stretch of countryside and hopefully be in Montenegro without ever really knowing it.  He sighed heavily.  On the other hand, the way this mission has progressed so far…  He smiled when Murphy, apparently hearing the sigh, stopped walking and turned back toward him.  He just waved the boy on and continued to follow, keeping his thoughts to himself.


They had just started to climb out of the valley when Lee heard a noise off to his left.  He’d taken the precaution of transferring his gun to his waist at the small of his back before leaving the coop, but Murphy stopped him as he started to reach for it.  The boy squatted down and said something very softly, and the little dog appeared from the bushes.  Lee had wondered what had happened to the animal.  Now he smiled again and nodded.  The dog kept its distance from Lee, but moved with them more closely to the boy than he’d obviously been doing since they left the camp.


They weren’t halfway up the ridge, traveling along what looked like a small game trail Murphy had found, when Lee had to call a halt.  The pain in his hip was becoming too much to ignore, and his breathing was getting heavier and more noisy.  Murphy didn’t question, just settled to the ground and reached into an inside pocket for a biscuit, which he shared with the dog.  Lee took the hint and ate an apple, along with a swallow of water from his canteen.  He wasn’t sure when Murphy had managed it, but Lee’s canteen was full when he’d picked it up to put in his pack.  One more reason to thank the boy, and he sent Murphy another smile.  The only answer he got was the oversized hood nodding slightly.


They weren’t quite to the top of the ridge when the sun started to come up.  Lee would have preferred to be much further away but he’d been unable to push himself any faster.  He’d noticed Murphy slowing the pace after the first stop, and was pretty sure it had less to do with his own limitations than Lee’s.  Lee was definitely going to owe Murphy big time when this mission was over.  For now Murphy found a place off the trail in some heavy brush and curled up, the dog next to him but on the far side from Lee, and both prepared to get some rest.  Lee took the hint and lay down as well.


He hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until he was startled awake by a hand on his shoulder.  His first reaction was to attack whoever was touching him, but the boy was too fast and evaded the grasp – thankfully.  A finger to his lips helped Lee get himself back under control before Murphy pointed north.  Steadying his breathing, Lee stood and looked where Murphy was pointing.  Barely discernable through the intervening vegetation was a line of men following the path Lee had originally taken toward Shkodra.  The camp had presumably missed Murphy.  It was totally within the realm of probability that they’d then started to compare notes, discovering that Murphy had been pilfering the various stores of food, and made the connection with the explosions.  There was no way of knowing if they assumed that Murphy had anything to do with Lee, but given their propensity for violence it was possible that they believed the two were in fact working together.  Either way, it wouldn’t be a good thing if they found either he or Murphy.


There had been a fairly sharp pain when Lee stood but he’d been concentrating so hard on other senses that he’d automatically ignored it.  Not so when he turned to indicate that they needed to get going.  The previous walk followed by the rest had stiffened him badly and it was all he could do to stifle a moan.  Instantly Murphy motioned for him to sit back down, but Lee just shook his head and reached for his pack.  Movement would help to work out the stiffness, the need to get as far away from the men as fast as possible supplying the necessary impetus to make Lee ignore the pain as much as he could.


* * * *


Admiral Nelson swam back into Seaview’s dive hatch almost reluctantly.  For the most part lately he’d been letting other divers collect his research samples, restricting himself to when either FS1 or the diving bell was used.  Today he decided to indulge himself, and had enjoyed every minute of the dive.  Well, almost every minute, he admitted to himself.  He’d found evidence of more pollution than he’d anticipated.  Some was inevitable, as heavily traveled as the Mediterranean had been for so many years.  Many of the world’s great early civilizations had sprung up along its banks.  But he reminded himself that, all things considered it could be a lot worse, and contented himself with collecting his microbial samples before returning to Seaview.


He was surprised to find Dr. Jamison in the Missile Room when the hatch was opened, there not having been any problems on the dive.  He sent the man an upraised eyebrow as he sat down to take off his gear.  Will merely gave him a shrug and ambled over, helping Nelson out of the snug-fitting wetsuit.  Nelson wasn’t fooled but he waited until he was dressed, his gear stowed, and the two were walking towards Nelson’s lab with his samples before he verbally questioned his CMO.  “What’s he done this time?” he asked softly.  Nelson assumed that Chip was once more fighting his nerves.


Will chuckled.  “Actually, it’s what Chip’s not doing,” he told his boss, confirming that they were indeed talking about the same person.  “Seems he’s picked up another of his CO’s disgusting little habits.”  Nelson raised the expected eyebrow.  “Avoiding the Wardroom when he’s upset.”


“Chip not eating?”  Nelson’s tone eloquently expressed his disbelief.  Will nodded, along with a frown.  “Cookie?” Nelson guessed.


Again Will nodded, this time with a slight smile.  “He does take his duty to his officers seriously.”


Nelson chuckled briefly before it was his turn to frown.  “I’ve missed Chip in the Wardroom but just figured that, with having to do Lee’s job as well as his own, he was eating at different times than me.”


“Same here,” Will told him.  “It wasn’t until Cookie mentioned it that I took a good look.  Chip’s well-fitting slacks aren’t fitting quite so well.”


“Damn,” Nelson muttered.


“The secretarial pool will definitely notice if something doesn’t change before we get home.”


Nelson snorted and was unable to stop a grin – as Will had intended.  While the situation needed to be addressed, Will didn’t want to merely exchange one worry for another.  Seaview’s ruling triumvirate were, while varied in many ways, tied to each other in a highly effective friendship.  They supported each other, defended each other, and even occasionally exasperated each other.  But they were always there when one needed assistance.  Will didn’t want to help Chip by worrying Nelson so the bit of silliness was necessary, however correct an assessment it actually was.


So far Nelson had been very aware of how much stress Chip was under this trip.  It didn’t worry Will that the Admiral had missed this latest symptom of trouble because he’d gotten focused on his research.  Will needed to nudge him back in the direction of his crew, but he needed to do it without causing Nelson unnecessary stress in the process.  A little joke here and there usually sufficed.  Will himself wasn’t immune from seeing men who had become very special to him in need of support.  But he had slightly different ways of dealing with it.  Because he had to occasionally harass one or the other about health issues, they didn’t always listen to him as closely as he’d like.  Far better to point one of the three in the direction of one of the others.  They took it better, for the most part, and that left Will to deal with more important and immediate matters.  Chip not eating wasn’t a major issue unless it went on for too long a time.  But still better to let Nelson have a crack at handling it if he could.  With his proverbial arrow pointed in the right direction he sent Nelson a nod and returned to his office.


Once Nelson got his samples properly stowed he went in search of his Exec.  He didn’t have to look far – Chip was, as expected, in the Conn.


“Dive go well?” Chip asked almost pleasantly.  When Nelson looked close he could see signs of stress on Chip’s face.  He could also see what Will had meant about Chip’s khaki’s – Chip had noticeably lost several pounds.


“Excellent,” Nelson nonetheless answered as if that was all he was thinking about.  “Got some very interesting-looking samples to study.”


Chip merely nodded.  “Where would you like to search next – you didn’t mark any locations other than this one.”


Nelson pretended to study the chart, although he already knew what he was going to answer.  “I think right here,” he marked a spot about halfway between where they were and the coast of Greece.  It would put them directly south of the entrance to the Adriatic Sea, and that much closer to Lee.


Chip tried to smother an instant grin but failed.  “Aye, sir.  We should be parked and ready to dive by late afternoon.”  It was now just before 1130 hours, and that worked right into Nelson’s tactics.


“Great,” he said enthusiastically.  “I have to quit letting you and Lee hog all the diving time.  I’d almost forgotten how great it feels.”  Chip’s grin spread.  “So, what say you and I go grab an early lunch?  I’ve really worked up an appetite.”


Chip’s grin instantly disappeared.  “You go ahead, sir.  I’ll stick around until Lt. James has the course plotted and laid in.”


Nelson was expecting the comment so he was prepared.  He’d had so much practice with Lee on this particular issue that Chip didn’t stand a chance.  He pointed an eyebrow at the blond, along with a frown, but spoke pleasantly enough.  “Oh, I think James can handle the assignment – you and Lee have trained him quite well.”  Chip didn’t miss the bright look Chris gave Nelson for that bit of praise, and he surrendered fairly easily.


Nelson chatted the entire trip to the Officers’ Wardroom, mostly about the type of research that he wanted to conduct on today’s samples.  He knew that it would bore Chip practically to tears.  While Lee would at least feign interest in Nelson’s research, Chip usually rolled his eyes and ignored such conversations as much as possible.  The only thing that concerned him was making sure Seaview and her crew were ready to handle whatever mayhem Nelson’s research led them into.  Without Lee’s presence Chip was forced to listen close enough to at least nod in the appropriate spots.


The obvious effort almost caused Nelson to burst out laughing, but he kept himself under tight control.  He was kicking himself for not having realized sooner how Chip had chosen to deal with Lee’s absence.  The short temper had been all too obvious.  But once Nelson had started to focus on what he wanted to study in the Ionian Sea, and with no more reports of partially annihilated seamen, Nelson hadn’t bothered to keep close enough track.  What he had done was to have Sparks send more and more demandingly written messages to Admiral Jones.  But he hadn’t told Chip that he was doing it.  He didn’t think that Chip thought Nelson wasn’t still worried.  But Nelson was perfectly willing to admit that this wasn’t the first time he’d ignored a potential problem while focusing on his own research.


Nelson figured that Will must have told Cookie at least something of his plans because the smell of freshly baked whole-wheat rolls met them halfway down the corridor.  Nelson heard Chip’s stomach growl and he lightly punched the blond’s shoulder.  “Ah, I never have to worry about keeping our temperamental chef happy – one look at the way you fill your plate and he ignores everyone else.  Well…” he hedged, “almost.”  He sent Chip a broad grin.


Chip forced himself to smile back.  He wasn’t hungry.  In fact, he was almost nauseous.  He was perfectly willing to admit how unusual that was.  He’d give anything to have Lee here this instant harassing him mercilessly because of it.  Well, that ain’t happening, he grumbled to himself and forced out another smile for the still chattering Admiral.  I’d better watch myself or I’ll have Jamie on my case.  A little surprised that he hasn’t said something already.


Despite his anxiety and frustration, the Wardroom was putting out some very interesting smells.  Besides the fresh bread, a favorite of Chip’s, there was stuffed sole, another favorite.  It was accompanied by miniature corn fritters and caesar salad. And, if Chip’s nose was still in working order, the faint hint of cherry pie was emanating from the galley.  “Cookie,” he addressed the chef, hovering behind the serving table, “what’s up?  This is more of a dinner menu than lunch.”


“Well…”  Cookie hesitated just a second.  When Doc had proposed the plan Cookie had expressed the same reserve.  But Doc had grinned and given him an out.  “It is Sunday, Mr. Morton,” he continued.  “I know I don’t usually, but today I just felt like it.”  He grinned as Nelson, who he knew was in on the plan, barely kept a straight face.


“Whatever the reason,” Nelson got out fairly normal-sounding, “I’m all for it.  I worked up an appetite out on the dive this morning and this all looks and smells wonderful.  Right, Chip?”


“Yes, sir.”  Chip suddenly smelled a rat – a slightly balding rat.  But the smell of some of his favorite foods won the battle and he did as good a job of tucking into the meal as he could manage.


* * * *


Lee’s evening meal wasn’t nearly as aromatic.  Nor did he want it any more than Chip originally did his lunch.  Murphy had given one more attempt at getting Lee to sit back down.  Lee had merely ignored him, and turned toward the nearest bush to relieve himself.  When he turned back to pick up his pack, Murphy was nowhere to be seen.  The dog, however, was sitting quietly where the boy had been, looking off into the bushes furthest away from Lee.  “Is he shy?” Lee asked the little dog.  Lee thought that would explain the bucket in the coop.  The animal ducked his head, almost as if he expected to be kicked or yelled at now that Lee had actually acknowledged him.  Lee wanted to kneel down and encourage the dog to come to him – to show the dog that he had nothing to fear from him.  But he didn’t dare make any more movements than absolutely necessary.  Murphy reappeared about then and they continued on in Lee’s chosen direction.


Lee’s rest stops kept coming more often so they’d barely made it to the base of the ridge before night started to fall.  Lee was all for pushing forward – it was actually safer to travel at night.  But Murphy would have none of it.  He sat down, starring at Lee as he untied his bedroll.  Lee sighed heavily, but also gave the boy a smile.  “Okay.  You win,” he surrendered, and laid out his own meager bed.  As they neared the lowlands the temperatures were getting warmer.  It would be downright muggy on the coast.  That actually pleased Lee.  At least his hip would respond to heat far better than it would to cold.


Once they’d both finished their meal of figs and biscuits Murphy insisted on checking the wound.  Lee tried waving him off, indicating that he’d do it himself.  Murphy was adamant, and Lee sent him a grin as he surrendered.  “You haven’t been taking lessons from a certain CMO of mine, by any chance?”  Murphy just tilted his head and indicated that Lee drop his pants far enough for him to get to the injury.  “My arguments have about as much effect, that’s for sure,” Lee muttered, but complied.  He rolled onto his right hip to give Murphy access.


He flinched as Murphy tried to pull the bandage off – it was stuck to the exit wound in back.  Murphy poured a bit of water on to help loosen it and it finally came free.  Noga los,” Murphy muttered.  Lee wasn’t totally sure what the words meant but could hear the worry in the tone.  He tried to see but couldn’t twist that far, and stiffened again when Murphy peeled the bandage off the front entry wound.


“Murphy,” he said, knowing that the boy wouldn’t understand but wanting to convey a calm exterior, “we can’t dwell on it.  It is what it is.  But the faster we get to Ulcinj,” he knew the boy understood that word at least as there was a brief nod from the hood, “the faster I can get it taken care of.  Not to mention get you somewhere safe,” he added with a small grin, just for effect.  It seemed to work as it sent Murphy, who had just been staring at the wounds, back to work.  Using a little more water he cleaned as best he could around both wounds.  It hurt, but Lee did his best not to let it show.


Jamie had packed for only a short trip so there wasn’t much antibiotic cream left.  When Murphy would have held some back in reserve Lee motioned for him to use it all.  Lee simply wouldn’t unbandage the wounds again.  He figured that even with the slow travel they’d made about ten kilometers today.  He was fairly certain that, once over the next ridge, they should be nearing the flatlands where the walking would be much easier.  With luck they’d make Ulcinj by the next evening.  That would be perfect as he could make contact, and the SEALs should be able to pick him up during the night.  The man in Ulcinj should be able to find somewhere safe for Murphy.  Anything had to be better than that camp.  There would be someone who spoke the language, and could find out why he’d been there in the first place.


Once Murphy finished bandaging the wounds he pointed to the dried blood on the pants and then toward the small stream they had stopped near.  Not next to it – Lee didn’t want to take the chance of being spotted just yet by anyone so he’d chosen a spot protected by a large stand of brush.  Lee understood the gesture; while a hole in the cloth wouldn’t be much noticed once they got closer to civilization, the blood would.  He nodded, and Murphy went off to soak as much of the stain out as he could.  When he returned he spread the pants out over a bush and they both settled into their beds.  Lee had a feeling that the boy didn’t sleep much better than he did – while he couldn’t see once it got dark, he kept getting the feeling of being watched.


* * * *


A light rap on Chip’s cabin door about 2100 hours pulled his attention away from the computer screen he’d been staring at and he sighed heavily.  Now what’s wrong, he muttered to himself.  There was still a decided growl left over as he called out for whoever it was to enter.


Will gave his head a soft shake at the tone, but plastered a smile on his face as he opened the door.  “Hope I’m not disturbing you,” he said, stopping after only one step inside.


“No, not at all,” Chip told him and waved him the rest of the way in.  “What’s up?  Macklin isn’t worse, is he?”  One of the DC team had tangled with a loose power connection late that afternoon and received a nasty electrical burn.


“No, he’ll be fine,” Will told him casually.  “I just released him to quarters.  John will check on him later but I didn’t see any need to keep him in Sick Bay.”  He indicated the small tray he was carrying.  “I was in the Wardroom grabbing some coffee, and Cookie mentioned that you hadn’t come down for the slice of cherry pie he always sets back for you.”  He grinned as Chip’s fair complexion turned slightly pink.  “Told him that I was headed to my cabin and I’d bring it up for you.”  He set the tray on Chip’s desk and removed the cloth that had been covering it.  Besides the pie it held a small carafe and two coffee mugs.  Will poured the mugs full of hot chocolate, and settled into the chair beside the desk.  “Didn’t think that you’d mind.  There are a couple of things I would like to talk to you about.”


Chip shook his head – he’d actually been expecting either Will or the Admiral.  Apparently since Nelson took a shot at lunch it was Jamie’s turn.  He ignored the pie but did grab the mug – more to have something for his hands to do than anything else.  But he frowned at the doctor before taking a sip.  “One of your ‘special’ blends?” he asked, indicating the mug.


Will chuckled softly and took a sip from his own mug.  “Actually thought about it, I will admit.”  He sent Chip a grin.  “Hoped it wouldn’t be needed.”


Chip closed his eyes for a moment, sighed heavily, and finally took a long swallow before once more looking at Will.  “I don’t know what’s wrong this trip,” he admitted.  “Sure, I get ticked when Lee takes off for no good reason.”  Chip made no bones about his dislike over Lee still taking ONI assignments – especially in front of the other officers.  “But this time…”  He just sighed again and drank more cocoa.


“You have definitely been a little more…”  Will hesitated for a moment, trying to find the right word.


“Unhinged?” Chip supplied.


Will snorted.  “Definitely not your usual composed, under control self.”


Chip shook his head.  “I can’t explain it, Jamie.  There’s nothing outwardly dissimilar about anything this time.  Well, maybe because al-Qaida was mentioned.  But we’ve had our share of run-ins with lunatics just as dangerous as they are.”  Will frowned and nodded, remembering a few of Seaview’s more sinister cruises.  “Usually I spend the time that Lee’s away wanting to hit something – mostly Lee’s head!”  The last came out a definitely dangerous growl.  It caused Will to snort and send Chip a broad grin.  Chip finally gave him a small one back.  “I still want to deck him,” Chip continued, the growl now a bit more controlled.  “But there’s…”  He sighed again.  “I don’t know.”  He looked down into his mug.


Will didn’t say anything either for a few moments.  He was actually extremely pleased that Chip had opened up.  It would have been nothing new for him to clam up about his personal feelings – something else that he had in common with his CO, much to Will’s displeasure.  He took a sip of cocoa, formulating what he wanted to say in a way that would keep Chip comfortable and willing to talk.  “What are the qualities that make Lee such a good sub driver; such a perfect fit for Seaview?”


The question popped Chip’s eyes back to the doctor’s face.  He had no idea where Jamie was going with the question but he answered it as best he could.  “Training, of course,” he started.  Will nodded, encouraging him by expression to continue.  “A strong sense of duty, of commitment.  Especially to what he feels is the right course of action.”


Will nodded.  He’d heard all this before.  He’d even been known to mutter his own set of threats against the man when his duty to his boat and crew put him in direct conflict with his duty to himself – something Lee ignored on a regular basis.  “Lee will always be driven to do what the right thing is for the greater good.”


Chip pondered that for a bit.  “Lee always says that it’s his duty to continue to take ONI missions,” he finally said softly.


“The Agency was a major part of his life before coming to NIMR.  The way he feels, I don’t think it would be easy to just turn that off.”  Chip’s answer was a heavy sigh and a nod of agreement.  “For the rest of us, that’s all we see.  We didn’t know him before.  You and the Admiral have a different view of him because you knew him prior to that time.”  He shrugged.  “But the Admiral also has prior ties to ONI.  That dumps a singular load on you.  Your friendship supersedes ONI.  I know that you want to go back to that time, but Lee’s life has changed.”


“I know what you’re trying to say, Doc.  Lee can’t just up and forget that part of the duty so strongly ingrained in him.”  Will nodded.  “Doesn’t keep me from wanting to level him good and proper,” Chip almost snarled.  It caused Will to laugh outright, and Chip’s expression softened.


“Have you ever done it?  Slugged him.  Gotten some of that frustration out of your system.”


Chip shook his head.  “Never had the guts,” he admitted somewhat sheepishly.  “Remember, I played football.  Lee was the boxing champ.”


Will grinned.  “So, with each mission, the frustration keeps building.”


“I do yell at him.”


“Oh, there’s no one on the boat, or anywhere on NIMR property, that isn’t aware of that,” Will assured him.  Chip ducked his head despite the slight grin on his face.


But he almost immediately got thoughtful.  “So you’re saying that I never really have been able to totally release the frustrations.”


“It’s a theory,” Will agreed.  “You’d get some of it out in the open but not all of it.  It just kept building, one mission after another, until now.  There’s nothing special about this one other than the fact that your psyche has finally had enough and started to fight back.”  Will sat quietly and let Chip ponder that bit of information.  He wasn’t totally convinced himself that he was right.  But he didn’t have to be as long as it made sense to Chip, and allowed him to get his usually reliable self-balance back.


The thoughtful expression stayed on the blond’s face while he polished off the last of the cocoa.  Will started to empty the carafe into Chip’s mug but stopped when the thoughtful look changed gradually into a positively evil grin.  “So, your prescription is to flatten Lee,” Chip said with a wicked gleam in his eye.


Will glared at him.  “I said no such thing, Mr. Morton.  Not only would it be against regs to strike a superior officer, it would be against the Hippocratic Oath for me to even suggest it.  Besides, you’re the one who pointed out that Lee’s good at boxing.”


“No one said that it has to be a fair fight.”  Chip’s grin was truly spectacular.


“I was thinking more along the line of taping Lee’s picture to one of the light bags in the exercise room,” Will told him with a frown.”  Chip shrugged.  “Eat your pie,” Will growled, and left.


 * * * *


The slight stirring Lee did before actually trying to get up the next morning instantly told him in several ways that this wasn’t going to be one of his better days.  The smallest twitch sent stabs of pain through his hip.  He glanced over to see if Murphy had noticed, but he’d only collected the attention of the dog.  Murphy wasn’t there.  Lee lay quiet and stretched out a hand toward the animal.  “Here, puppy,” he said softly.  He wished that he had a bite of food as a bribe.  He’d seen Murphy share bits of this and that.  Lee figured that it had been easier to keep the dog fed in camp since Murphy had proved to be quite the adept scrounger.  They were all going to be ready for a good meal once they reached the city of Ulcinj.


Murphy reappeared silently, startling both Lee and the dog.  Lee still had his hand reached out but he pointed to himself, said, “Lee,” and then pointed once more to the dog.


Regi,” Murphy told him. 


Lee nodded.  He vaguely remembered that as the name of a prince, or king, or somebody important in the region’s history.  “Regi,” he repeated, and had the satisfaction of seeing the dog’s ears momentarily perk towards him before returning to the boy.  Lee took a deep breath to prepare himself to move, knowing that the next few moments, while he straightened out the kinks from the night, were going to be unpleasant.  Ahhhh – understatement of the century, he breathed out a bit uncontrolled as he sat up.  Murphy was instantly at his side.  Lee figured that the boy was going to try to get him to stay down, but Lee used the movement to catch hold of Murphy’s arm and use it to help him stand.  The pain was enough that it momentarily stopped his breathing and he stayed bent over, now supported by Murphy, until he could get back under control.  Murphy used the time to reach a hand to Lee’s forehead.  Lee gave him a grin that was mostly grimace as he finished standing up straight.  “Yeah, that, too,” he told the boy, and nodded that he understood the complication of having developed a slight fever during the night.  Actually, Lee was a little amazed that it had taken this much time, but it actually hadn’t been all that long since the shooting.  It just felt like it had been because of all the tension Lee had been under.


But moaning about it wasn’t going to get him home.  Murphy let go of him as he turned toward the bushes.  In fact, the boy disappeared altogether.  Lee heard a snap further back in the trees as he was pulling on the still damp pants.  He was just reaching for his gun when Murphy reappeared holding a length of tree limb about five feet long and not quite as big around as his wrist.  “Good thinking,” Lee nodded his approval.  He watched as a knife appeared from somewhere inside Murphy’s jacket and he made short work of the few small limbs still attached to the makeshift walking stick.  He handed it to Lee, who nodded his thanks and started to reach down to put together his pack.  But Murphy beat him to it.  He handed Lee an apple and the canteen, and Lee took the hint and ate the meager breakfast.  He let a grin appear when the stray thought flicked through his brain about an apple a day keeping the doctor away.  Somehow he didn’t think that had a very good chance of happening in this case but the grin actually increased.  Murphy saw it as he stood with the pack in his hand.  Lee just shook his head and reached for the pack.  Murphy returned the shaking head while making it very plain that he was taking possession of the pack.  Lee sighed heavily but accepted the help, and the two headed out.


Moving was just as painful as Lee had expected.  The stick helped him keep at least a little pressure off of the hip, and also steadied his balance as he fought the pain.  A brain getting warmer and fuzzier as the day wore on didn’t help in the least.  And to add insult to injury – literally – Lee was dismayed to find that there was at least one more ridge in their way.


They discovered it as they reached the top of the ridge Lee was hoping was the last, but Murphy pointed to the west.  The valley they were about to descend into spilled out onto more flat terrain as the land stretched toward the Adriatic Sea.  The small game trail that they’d continued to follow as it paralleled the stream also headed that direction, and Lee gave Murphy a curt nod.  They stopped just long enough to eat the last of the biscuits and have some water.  Murphy soaked a piece of cloth in the stream.  He offered it to Lee who nodded and mopped his face with it.  Murphy took it back, soaked it again, and rolled it up before laying it around Lee’s neck.  Lee smiled and nodded his thanks, and they started at a westward angle down the hill following both the stream and the trail.  As they got closer to the sea the air was getting heavier with heat and humidity.  The growing fever wasn’t helping.  Murphy seemed to understand, and produced another bit of cloth.  Every fifteen minutes or so he’d soak one and exchange it for the other.  Lee was grateful for the extra cooling.  The bit he’d had from his still damp pants that morning had rapidly faded as the pants finished drying.


With Lee becoming more and more intent on just staying on his feet, and Murphy’s attention focused on Lee, it was Regi who alerted the other two to something up ahead.  They had reached the valley floor and were just about to clear the brush into the flat when Regi stiffened.  He tucked his tail between his legs and flattened his ears to show his fear, but Lee could hear a very soft, defiant growl as well.  Murphy instantly knelt down beside him, and signaled Lee to move back into the brush for cover.  Lee hesitated.  His years of training, and protecting those around him, made him unwilling to back down and depend on a mere boy.  But it only took a moment for him to acknowledge that, in this instance, that was his most realistic option.  Murphy laid the pack down next to him, and nodded when Lee immediately retrieved his gun.  He snapped his fingers and Regi came to him.  Lee could tell that the dog was nervous about being this close to Lee, but he was obviously more nervous about whatever was ahead of them.  With Murphy’s hand on the dog Lee also reached out a hand, held it just a moment in front of Regi’s nose, and then laid it gently on his head.  Murphy nodded before moving silently through the brush to the left, scouting the area ahead.


It seemed to take forever for him to return.  Lee tried to control his breathing but it wasn’t easy.  Finally, as Lee was just considering heading in the same direction, Murphy reappeared.  He held up six fingers, pointed to Lee’s wound, and then back toward where he’d just scouted.  Lee blew out a long breath.  Murphy’s hand signals were clear.  Six of the men from the camp, most likely some of the ones they’d spotted the morning before headed over the ridge toward Shkodra, were now ahead of them; no doubt in hopes of catching them as they made their escape.  Lee nodded that he understood, and pondered both the implications and his options.


* * * *


Admiral Nelson finished one set of tests in his lab, set the next batch up, and headed for the Wardroom for dinner.  It had been a remarkably peaceful day.  Or would have been if the whole boat wasn’t on edge because of Lee’s continued absence.  But at least Chip once more had himself firmly under control. 


Nelson had started his day early by coming into the Conn, not sure what he was going to find.  He knew that Will had talked to the stressed-out XO the previous evening, but he’d gotten sidetracked in his lab and hadn’t checked to see how it went.  He assumed okay since Will didn’t come looking for him afterward.  Chip wasn’t in the Conn; Lt. Keeter still had the duty, and told Nelson that Chip had floated through about half an hour earlier, made sure that everything was shipshape, and headed for the Wardroom. 


The blond was just refilling a large mug full of coffee, apparently having finished eating, as Nelson entered.  Nelson noticed that there seemed to be a few less lines of worry on the young man’s face, for which Nelson was pleased.  But Chip was intent on getting back to the Conn and Nelson, other than a few pleasantries, didn’t hold him up.  Apparently Will was sleeping in a bit so Nelson ended up eating alone.  He did point an eyebrow at Cookie just as the door closed behind Chip.  The chef waggled a hand and shrugged his shoulders.  Nelson took that to mean that Chip apparently ate enough to keep Cookie from being too worried, but not enough to actually please him.  At noon Nelson was involved in a series of studies that he didn’t want to interrupt and had a tray sent up to the lab.  He’d taken a few minutes both mid-morning and mid-afternoon, as Seaview stayed in the same general area he’d requested and divers continued to take water and bottom soil samples, to wander down to the Conn.  Each time Chip seemed to have himself well under control, and the tension in the room was noticeably more relaxed than it had been the last few days.


When he walked into the Wardroom now, Will was just sitting down.  Nelson sent him a smile, filled his plate, and sat down opposite.  “Whatever you said to Chip last night, thank you,” he told his CMO.  “He seems so much more under control today.”  He raised an eyebrow when Will cringed.


Will finished chewing the bite of food he’d taken and sent Nelson a sheepish look.  “Not sure the Skipper will be overly happy when he gets back,” he mumbled.  When Nelson merely looked at him expectantly, he continued.  “Yes, I do think that I did get through to Chip last night.  He’s eating…”  He glanced at Cookie, who was visible through the serving door into the Galley.  “Not enough to totally placate Cookie, but enough that I won’t threaten him just yet with IVs.”


Nelson snorted.  “That would no doubt go over well.”


Will finally sent him a small grin.  “But Chip didn’t exactly interpret something I said the way I actually meant it.  It did apparently have the desired effect, but…”  He didn’t finish the comment.


“Please, don’t stop now,” Nelson half-teased.


Will chuckled but it was very self-conscious.  “I thought that I was patiently explaining to Chip that, even though he thought that he was getting his frustrations out at Lee by fussing about the ONI missions, that I suspected he wasn’t totally managing it.  Each mission he held back a bit of anger, and finally with this one it all built to a head.”  He sighed and took a swallow of coffee.


“What could Chip possibly misinterpret about that?”


“Oh, that he understood just fine.  And I do think that it helped him deal with what’s had him on edge.  Gave him a reason for what’s been happening this cruise, which was three fourths of the battle to getting him back under control.  It’s just…”  He gave Nelson a sheepish grin.


Nelson waited patiently.  He knew Will would eventually get out what was troubling him.


After a bite of food, and more coffee, Will sent Nelson a look that the Admiral wasn’t quite sure how to translate.  “Chip was muttering about how he yells at Lee.”  Nelson grinned broadly.  “Yeah,” Will grinned back.  “But I told him that apparently he wasn’t getting all of the frustration and anger out.  One thing led to another…”  Will cringed again.  “Chip decided that the solution therefore was to do more than yell.”  Nelson paused as he was about to take a bite of food.  “Yeah.  I informed him rather emphatically that I was not advocating striking a superior officer.”


Nelson chuckled.  “But with those two…”


“Yeah,” Will agreed miserably.  “And it’s all my fault.”


Nelson laughed out loud.  “What’s the problem?  They’ll take it off NIMR property.  They would never press charges against each other.”  He sent Will a broad grin.  “Or against you, for instigating it.”  He laughed again at the frown Will sent him.  “And it might finally knock some sense into Lee and he’ll stop saying yes to ONI.”  A hard look briefly flashed across his face.  “Heaven knows I’ve wanted to flatten him a time or two.”


It was Will’s turn to snort.  “Every time Lee’s gotten in your face, demanding that you put Seaview and her crew before your research,” he told Nelson.


“Harrumph !”


Will chuckled before turning sheepish again.  “It really wasn’t what I had in mind.  I was going to suggest taping Lee’s picture to a light punching bag; working out the anger that way.”


Nelson had almost immediately gotten over his little snit.  “Perhaps this will have more permanent results.”


“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Will muttered.  Nelson laughed and Will finally smiled.  As they were joined in the room by several of the junior officers, they continued their conversation with other matters.


* * * *


Lee decided that he needed a personal inspection of the situation before he could come up with a plan of action.  At present he was in neither the mood nor the condition to turn back and take another route.  He was hoping to find a way to work around the men during the night.  Unfortunately they were near more open ground and were about to lose most of their cover.  He indicated to Murphy that he wanted to see for himself.  Murphy was obviously not thrilled, but picked up the pack and led the way, both being very quiet.  Lee glanced at Regi but even he seemed to understand the need for silence.


The situation was every bit as hazardous as Lee had anticipated.  It looked like the six men had just recently arrived at the location, where the small stream reached the bottom of the valley and headed along the central flatland toward the sea.  They were silent themselves, but setting up camp for the night which Lee estimated to be still an hour or so off.  He and Murphy had worked their way to within about twenty yards before their cover petered out.  One of the men was the camp leader, whom Lee particularly did not want to come face to face with again any time soon.


Lee sensed rather than felt or heard Murphy move beside him, and automatically reached to take hold of the boy’s arm.  He motioned for a strategic retreat and the arm stiffened, along with the rest of the youth’s body.  Lee gave the arm a quick shake before he released it; the last thing he needed right now was an argument – especially this close to the enemy.  They moved back to a safer distance, Lee trying to come up with a plan.


As soon as they found a spot to settle into heavier brush, Murphy started gesturing.  Lee understood the signs easily, especially as Murphy also drew his thoughts into the dirt.  Murphy was indicating that he would circle around and draw the men away from Lee, giving Lee time to work his way down to the mouth of the valley and Murphy would meet him there.  Lee just shook his head no.  It was far too dangerous.  As Murphy would have moved off anyway Lee once more grabbed the boy’s arm and mouthed “No,” along with a glare.  Murphy jerked his arm out of Lee’s grasp and made to move away, but hesitated when Lee held up a hand, apparently willing to at least listen to Lee’s plan.


Unfortunately, Lee wasn’t sure that he had one.  At least, not one better than Murphy’s.  They would definitely need a diversion to get past the heavily armed men, and Lee was pretty sure that he wasn’t up to creating it.  He reached for his pack and took a couple sips from the canteen, visualizing the area around where the men had set up camp.


Lee’s main concern was the group’s leader.  He had no misconceptions about the man’s intelligence.  Lee had fooled him once.  Twice, actually, if he counted passing himself off as a simple traveler.  He was pretty sure that the man wouldn’t be making that kind of mistake again.  He’d be ready for the simple diversionary tactic Murphy was plotting.  So, he started to grin to himself, we won’t make it so simple.  An obviously impatient Murphy tapped Lee’s arm.  Lee’s grin spread slightly and he started his own drawing in the dirt.


The flat land, with its sparse cover, was going to be the main challenge.  Lee was sure that’s why the head man had chosen to camp where he did – it offered the best view of the area.  Lee and Murphy would be sitting ducks trying to cross it.  However, if they did as Murphy wanted and tried to distract the men into the heavier brush on this side, Lee was pretty sure that the man would smell a rat, so to speak, and not take the bait.  Across the open area the low hill, which also leveled out into the flat area was, like where they were, covered in fairly heavy brush.  If he and Murphy could get across the flat they could work their way west, almost to where it also lost cover, before crossing over and continuing west from there toward the border with Montenegro.  Once across, they’d run into farmland and olive orchards as they approached Ulcinjska Solana, a much smaller lake than Skador Lake.  And just the other side of that lay the Adriatic Sea and the city of Ulcinj.


Lee plotted out what he wanted to do as the light waned.  They’d wait until dark and work their way down to where they’d observed the camp earlier.  The entire camp wouldn’t bed down – they’d leave a sentry posted.  Lee indicated that he would toss a rock out into the open area.  As Murphy started shaking his head at that bit of total illogic, Lee grinned.  He explained as best he could that he expected the leader to see it as an obvious ruse to get the men to head that direction, allowing Lee and Murphy to slip past them on this side of the valley.  Instead, the leader would fan his men out into the heavier brush, leaving the open area unguarded.  He could tell that Murphy wasn’t thrilled with the plan.  Truth be told, Lee wasn’t thrilled with it himself.  To work, the leader would have to believe that whoever he was after wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought himself to be.  It was a dangerous presumption.  But Lee felt that it offered the best chance for actually working.


He was, therefore, a little amazed at how well everything went.  He had more trouble with Murphy’s impatience than he did distracting the bad guys.  Lee wanted to wait until the men had been asleep for a couple of hours.  From experience, being awakened from a sound sleep would leave them just a tad disoriented and a split second slower to react.  He wasn’t expecting it to affect the leader as much as the other men, and that worked to Lee’s favor.  He wanted the man to logically follow Lee’s illogical move. 


The plan was inadvertently helped by the sentry who started nodding off, his head getting lower and lower, as soon as the rest of the bunch rolled into their blankets.  Lee kept Murphy contained as long as he could.  The boy definitely needed to learn some patience.  Finally, when his fidgeting threatened to blow the whole thing, Lee handed him a rock and pointed toward where he wanted it to land – as far out in the flat as Murphy could launch it.  He picked up a rock of his own, planning to use it on whoever was left in camp.  Lee didn’t think the leader would make the mistake of leaving the camp unguarded, but didn’t want to use his gun unless he absolutely had to.


Could have used Murphy in center field our last NIMR baseball game, Lee grinned to himself when Murphy’s missile landed so far out in the open area that the sentry didn’t hear it.  Shaking his head he handed Murphy the other one, which Murphy didn’t launch quite so far.  That one the sentry heard.  Lee grinned broadly as the man startled so badly that his rifle went off, luckily only into the air.  Lee and Murphy flattened themselves as the camp abruptly sprang to life.  Everyone started yelling at once and it took the leader a few moments to restore order.  When he did, he reacted exactly as Lee had planned.  The men all wanted to go flying out into the flat but the leader stopped them with a harsh shout.  He started giving orders in whatever language he’d been using and he and four of the men spread out into the bushes to Lee’s left.  Even better, the sentry left in camp held his position facing in the direction the men had gone, his back almost to Lee’s location.


Before he could even search around for another rock, Murphy slipped away.  Lee buried an oath, not sure what the boy was plotting, and grabbed his gun instead but by the barrel, planning to use the butt on the sentry.  Murphy beat him to it and then started gathering up as much food as he could find.  Lee muttered a few words he was fairly sure that his crew didn’t know that he knew.  He grabbed up the leader’s backpack, assuming that it would be the most interesting of the bunch, and headed out across the flat towards the next hill, once more grateful for the continued sliver of a moon.


But he could only make it halfway across before the pain in his hip, which he’d been doing his best to ignore, made him stumble and fall.  Murphy was instantly at his side, Lee’s pack in his hands along with another one from the camp.  Lee knew that they couldn’t stay where they were; they had to make it to cover on the other side, and then pray that the men didn’t return to camp too quickly and follow them.  If they did, Lee could see no option but to stand and fight.  At least the odds were a good deal more in his favor than they had been in the original camp.  He took a couple of deep breaths to help get himself back under some semblance of control and forced himself to stand.  Murphy had never taken his bedroll off his back, and now gathered up the three packs.  All Lee could do was shake his head at that point and continue on across the open area.


He barely made it before collapsing again.  As he did, shouts echoed across the valley, signaling that the men had discovered they’d been outmaneuvered.  Murphy touched his arm, telling him that they needed to move.  Lee nodded but once more caused the boy to look at him strangely when he chose to move east, further back into the cover, instead of west toward the sea.  Lee knew that there was no way he was going any further that night.  He just prayed that he’d be able to continue on in the morning.  He was also praying that the men wouldn’t try to follow until first light.  If they did, he was counting on them figuring that Lee was still trying to make the sea and head in that direction.  It was why he chose to move slightly further the opposite way.  He wasn’t looking forward to once more having them between him and Ulcinj, but right at the moment he was only thinking of keeping himself and Murphy alive.


After the initial shouting all was quiet from across the flat.  Lee wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.  While he pondered that he watched Murphy, in what little light there was, busy himself going through the pack he’d confiscated.  Apparently he’d only done so as a means of carrying all the food he’d scavenged.  Lee saw him divide most of the contents between the inside of his jacket and Lee’s pack.  The rest – bread, cheese and apples – he divided up with Lee and shared his own portion with Regi.  Lee wasn’t hungry – the pain was very slow to subside, even with Lee remaining still.  He was also worried that, just as he had outsmarted the men across the flat, their leader could just as quickly turn the tables and it kept him on edge.  He suspected that Murphy was thinking much the same thing as there was no movement on his part to lie down and sleep.  Both kept an eye on Regi, the dog’s ears being much better than their own.


* * * *


Admiral Nelson sat at his desk, swirling the two fingers of scotch he’d poured himself around in the glass but not yet drinking any.  A slight smile hit his face as he thought about Chip’s reaction to Will’s visit.  As he’d told Will, the two younger men would take whatever happened off NIMR grounds.  But Nelson would give anything to be a mouse in the corner for that confrontation. 


Just as he was about to take a first sip of the spirits, his call to Admiral Robert Jones went through.   Nelson decided that, since telegrams weren’t getting much response, he’d place a call directly to ONI’s director.  Jones’ voice sounded tired.  “Harriman,” he started with a heavy sigh, “I know why you’re calling.  Unfortunately I don’t have a lot to tell you.”


“Not having a lot means that you must have something,” Nelson theorized.


“Mostly unsubstantiated,” Jones admitted.


It was Nelson’s turn to sigh heavily.  “At this point I’ll take whatever you’ve got.”


“There’s a story filtering down to Shkodra of an explosion up in the mountains several nights ago.”




“We thought so.  Even more interesting are reports of a group of about thirty heavily armed men seen on the outskirts of Shkodra, asking questions about a man and a child.”


Nelson sat up straight.  “Child?”


The shrug was evident in Jones’ voice.  “Child.  We don’t have a clue what it means.”


“Leave it to Lee,” Nelson muttered, mostly to himself.


Obviously Jones heard.  “That’s one of the reasons that we think it is Crane,” he admitted.  “He has the most amazing knack for throwing curves into a mission.”


Nelson actually chuckled.  “Which he tends to blame on your lousy intel.”


“Harrumph,” was Jones’ response to that comment.  “After that, our agent hasn’t heard a word.  There was nothing about a man and a child, but Shkodra is a big place.”


“Any word on the men?”


“A little.  Seems that some of them are still hanging around.  Laying low, not causing any trouble, but continuing to ask questions.  The group appears to be smaller than when they originally arrived, but no one knows where the others went.”


“Curious,” Nelson agreed.


“And damned frustrating,” Jones growled.  “I, for one, desperately wanted to have Crane carry a small transmitter.  He’s far too valuable an agent to have just up and disappear.”


“Then perhaps you should stop sending him on such idiotic missions.”  Nelson’s tone was nasty despite his many years of association with Jones.  That Admiral wisely held his tongue.  “Harrumph!” Nelson finally continued, slightly more under control.  “Seaview is just south of the Adriatic Sea.  We won’t be going anywhere soon unless it’s to drift further north.”


“Understood, Harriman.  I’ll call as soon as I get any solid evidence of what’s happening.”


Nelson’s voice turned nasty again.  “I don’t care if it’s made out of jello.  I want to hear anything you get, the instant you get it.”


“Do my best, Harriman.”  Both men broke the connection at the same time.


* * * *


Tension having replaced sleep, neither Lee nor Murphy was in a particularly good mood the following morning.  Regi had remained on alert as well, mostly watching the other two.  As first light started to filter in, Lee reached for his pack and retrieved the binoculars.  Checking the GPS, he was pleased to see that he was closer to the Montenegrin border than he thought.  It should only be three or four kilometers to Ulcinjska Solana, the lake just east of Ulcinj.  He started to crawl forward, to where he could scan across the flat, but stopped when he heard a growl.  He looked at Regi but the dog was looking at Murphy.  Mostly from the pain and stress, Lee actually smiled.  “You’re definitely related to my CMO,” he said softly.  “Relax.”  He indicated the binoculars and then pointed across the valley entrance.  Murphy held out his hand for the binoculars but Lee shook his head.  This was one bit of reconnaissance that he needed to do himself.  There was another soft growl but no movement to stop him.  Instead, Murphy took up a position crouched by Lee’s side and together they worked their way to where they could see across.


The men were gone.  Lee wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.  He scanned every inch of the entire area and couldn’t even detect that they had set up camp the night before.  Letting out a slow breath of air he handed the binoculars to Murphy, just in case his pain and continued fever were making him miss something.  But the boy handed them back a few minutes later with a shrug, and they returned to where they’d left the packs.


While Murphy dug out what he deemed appropriate for breakfast, Lee went through the leader’s pack now that he had enough light.  He didn’t expect to find much of interest – Lee figured that the man’s stuff had been blown up with the house.  But there was a heavier blanket that Murphy immediately exchanged for one of his own, another pair of binoculars which Murphy also confiscated, and a pair of pants that were definitely in better shape than Lee’s which he confiscated, to grins from the boy.  A thick, wrapped, package made them both smile as it turned out to contain jerky.  Lee took two pieces before handing the package to Murphy, chewing on one and holding the other out to Regi.  It took a bit of time but the dog finally came close enough to gently take it from Lee’s fingers.  Lee grinned at Murphy before returning to the pack.


Another thick, wrapped package turned out to contain euros.  Lee didn’t count how many but, from the denominations he did see, figured that it was a pretty good amount.  He handed the packet to Murphy but stopped the boy from putting it in Lee’s pack, instead indicating that he wanted Murphy to keep it.  The boy hesitated.  Lee just smiled.  He wouldn’t need the money but the boy, he was sure, could put it to good use.


Murphy recognized the next bundle Lee pulled from the pack before Lee had a chance to unwrap it and was instantly at Lee’s side, practically grabbing it from Lee’s hands.  He was surprised, but didn’t argue as Murphy carefully opened the string keeping it together.  Inside were a collection of pills, salves, and bandages.  Murphy quickly checked labels, selected one packet of pills, and handed Lee two of them, along with the canteen.  Lee hesitated but, since it was a little late to start questioning Murphy’s loyalty at this point, quickly swallowed them.  Murphy nodded and went back to where he’d been sitting, but kept the bundle which he carefully re-wrapped and stashed in an inside pocket.  Lee grinned and went back to searching the pack.


He assumed that he’d come to the end of his treasure hunt when the only things he found were more clothing items, none of which interested him.  But lying against the very bottom of the pack was another bundle.  It was fairly flat, and Lee at first didn’t think it anything special.  He glanced at Murphy, still watching him, but the boy didn’t appear to recognize what it was.  Lee had no idea what he’d found either, even after opening it.  There were half a dozen sheets of paper, a couple of which looked official but all written in a foreign language.  Shrugging, Lee re-wrapped the package and tucked it into his pack, just in case the pages turned out to be significant once they were translated.


With everything now out of the pack, Lee ran his hands over it to check for any hidden pockets.  Finding nothing but canvas he repacked the unwanted clothing items, adding his own disreputable pants once he’d changed into the clean ones, and glanced around for a place to bury it.  Murphy took the hint.  He picked up the pack that he’d grabbed and had now emptied, stuffed it into the pack that Lee had just finished with and went further back into the brush, coming back empty-handed within just a few minutes.


Lee wasn’t at all sure what the pills Murphy had given him were supposed to do.  It could have been totally in his mind but he thought the pain in his hip to be a bit less when he rose to his feet.  He noticed Murphy keeping a close eye on him.  On this side of the valley there was no stream to help keep a damp cloth on his neck and yet the fever didn’t seem as mind-fuzzing as it had been either, although that could have just been from the lessening of the pain.  Lee didn’t try to analyze it, just appreciated the relief however momentary it might turn out to be.


Murphy hesitated as he picked up his sling-pack, waiting for Lee to pick a direction.  Still nervous about where the men might have disappeared to, Lee chose to stay inside the cover as long as possible.  There was no game trail on this side of the valley – at least not one that they’d seen.  Lee indicated that while he did want to head west, that they needed to try and stay hidden as much as possible.  Murphy nodded that he understood, and attempted to find as easy a way through the brush as he could.


It turned out to be not all that easy – at least for Lee.  He couldn’t blame Murphy; the boy was choosing a route that kept them pretty much at the base of the hill but still well within the underbrush.  Each time they stopped which, unfortunately, was fairly regularly because of Lee, Lee took a few minutes to get close to the flat and scan with his binoculars.  When they stopped to eat lunch Murphy dug into a pocket and handed Lee more pills.  He’d apparently kept out what he deemed Lee needed and didn’t rewrap them into the bundle.  Lee grinned and took them willingly.  He was beginning to suspect that they probably weren’t FDA approved.  They didn’t actually cause euphoria but, as long as they masked the intense pain, Lee would accept them for the hopefully short time it took to get back to a Navy doctor.  A grimace crossed his face as he realized it wouldn’t be Jamie – at least at first.  Seaview was placing sensors for the Admiral near the Azores.  The grimace momentarily morphed into a wry smile.  Maybe, if Lee was obnoxious enough, they’d hustle Jamie there by FS1 just to shut Lee up.  Lee detested having to put up with medical personnel.  At least with Jamie he could snipe, Jamie would snipe right back, and the game was almost enjoyable.


Lee looked up from his ruminations to find Murphy watching him closely.  Lee chuckled.  “Relax, Murphy,” he told the boy softly.  For the most part they used motions to communicate since neither understood the other.  To say nothing of the need for silence.  But Lee had quickly come to realize that, while the boy may not understand the words, he did react to the tone in which they were said.  “I’m not totally losing my mind,” he continued, the smile still on his face.  He ate the jerky and figs that Murphy had given him, letting the pills again take the edge off the pain, and they set out once more.


Later, Lee came to blame the numbing combination of pills, fever, and the increasing heat and humidity as they came nearer the coast for nearly getting both he and Murphy killed.  Lee started having serious doubts about continuing to take the pills when he found his mind wandering to things other than the successful completion of this mission.  It happened about an hour after taking the second dose, and just as they were about to lose their cover as the hill they’d been following flattened out into open ground.


He was contemplating how wonderful a swim would be once they reached Ulcinjska Solana when he stumbled, interrupting his daydream.  He went to his knees with a grunt of expelled air.  Several thoughts hit his brain as he tried to catch his breath.  Disgust registered first as he realized how close he’d come to walking into the open without realizing it.  Murphy immediately knelt next to him.  He was starting to placate the boy’s worry when they both realized Regi was standing stiffly, glaring ahead as he let loose one short bark.  Lee barely had time to shove Murphy to the side and grab for his gun when the first shot rang out. It sailed harmlessly over Lee’s head but would have been deadly if Lee had still been standing.  With no cover except brush, little defense against gunfire, Lee flattened belly down but didn’t fire.  He wasn’t about to waste ammunition without a clear target.  He spared a quick glance at Murphy.  Thankfully the boy was taking Lee’s lead.  He, too, was flat on the ground, his gun in one hand, Regi lying under the other arm growling very softly.


Whoever had fired seemed in no big hurry to do it again, but this actually worried Lee.  Assuming it was the six men from the camp, there were enough of them that it was conceivable that the leader might send two or three to flank Lee.  He was just considering creeping forward himself when there was a small noise to his right.  A shot from Murphy was followed by a yell of pain.  Murphy sent Lee a smug look just as several shots struck, too close for comfort but luckily missing.  Lee glared at the boy and, Regi in tow, Murphy silently moved several feet further right.


A thought went through Lee’s brain about how good it would feel to put his head down and sleep – the ground here was a lot softer than where he’d been sleeping lately…  He suddenly realized what he was thinking and shook his head.  No more pills, I don’t care how much it hurts, he muttered to himself.  A shot went through the brush between he and Murphy.  That’s assuming I live long enough to say no.  He held up a hand briefly, signaling for Murphy to stay where he was, and started to slowly crawl forward.


He hesitated a breath’s length when he saw movement to his left, not sure if he’d actually seen something or the pills were messing with his mind again.  But when he saw a branch twitch he snapped off a shot before rolling in that direction, narrowly missing several rounds fired where he’d just been lying.  There had been no indication that his shot had hit anything so he was startled to find a body as he continued on in that direction.  After a sharp intake of breath in surprise Lee looked closer – one of the man’s eyes was no longer present.  Lee almost retched, swallowed hard and took a couple more deep breaths, and continued forward.  A stray thought slipped in and out of his still slightly fuzzy brain so fast he almost didn’t catch it about why the sight of the man he’d killed had nearly made him lose his cookies.  It wasn’t like it was the first time he’d been forced to kill.  Or even that it was that messy a wound.  He shook it off with the realization that the drugs were wreaking havoc with his senses, deadening some and heightening others.  He took another deep breath, did his best to focus his thoughts on the job at hand, and once more started forward.


A shot rattled through the underbrush, narrowly missing him.  He figured that he’d made some sort of noise that he wasn’t aware of.  He heard two from his right and assumed they were fired by Murphy.  The second one was followed by a yell and Lee instantly worried about the boy.  He started to head in that direction but was stopped by a bullet so close in front of his face that he swore his nose felt the heat.  He started to snap off a shot even though he didn’t have an actual target, but held up when he heard a rifle shot from a fair distance off.  It totally confused him as he didn’t expect any of the men from the camp to be that far away.  Oh hell, went through his mind.  Must be some of the ones we saw the other day.  Probably circled all the way around from Shkodra.  Just what I need.  He shook his head.  Gotta stop this now.  Throwing caution to the wind he headed straight for the more open ground.


There were several shots from fairly nearby but nothing came close to him.  In fact, they almost sounded like they were fired in the other direction – assuming Lee could trust his hearing.  There were answering shots from further away.  Oh goody.  One faction trying to take over leadership, and using this opportunity to do so.  Lee’s brain was getting more and more confused, and unfortunately it carried over to his actions.  Continuing to crawl forward, he found himself in fairly open ground before his brain registered that fact.  There were only half a dozen scrawny shrubs between him and the man he most definitely didn’t want to ever see again.  Worse, the man saw him.  Both he and Lee aimed and fired at the same time.  Lee knew that he’d fired so quickly that he’d missed his target, the bullet striking a branch on one of the shrubs. He had no idea where the leader’s bullet hit – he didn’t feel any more pain than he was already in.  His brain was sluggishly telling him to take another shot when the leader suddenly pitched forward, face down in the dirt.  Lee’s brain vaguely registered more shots from further away but his attention was caught by four men, two of them appearing to be injured, running away back up the valley.  Lee was still trying to make sense of what had just happened, and gearing himself up for what he expected to be the next onslaught, when a shouted word reached his ears.  It was heavily accented, but still sounded surprisingly like “Commander.”  Huh, he muttered to himself as “Commander Crane,” was shouted this time.


Lee caught a glimpse of a man starting to stand from behind low cover about twenty-five yards away when a shot rang out from Lee’s right and the man hurriedly ducked back.  “Murphy.”  Lee put every inch of power he could muster in that one word.  If there’s someone out here who knows my name it has to be a friendly, right?” he reasoned with himself.  All he needed was the boy blowing away the good guys.  Within a few moments Murphy slinked up silently next to him.  He tiredly reached out a hand and covered the one of Murphy’s that was holding the gun.


“Peter?” he now yelled.  That was the anglicized name of his contact in Ulcinj – the one person who should know Lee’s name and rank.


“He sent me,” floated back.  “We’ve been looking for you.”  Lee waited.  If Petar Camovic had indeed sent this man there should also be a code phrase for recognition.  “Hockey puck?”


Lee chuckled at the obvious question in the voice for that totally irrelevant code.  He hadn’t asked, just assumed that the original Murphy, the guy at ONI who had briefed him and given him the code, was a fan of the sport.  “Goalie,” Lee yelled back the other half of the code.


“I won’t be shot at again?” came back.


Lee gave Murphy’s hand a little shake.  “My self-appointed watchdog is under control,” he yelled.  His strength pretty much gone now that the adrenaline rush was wearing off, he laid his head on the ground.  That’s when he spotted Regi, standing on Murphy’s other side, staring toward the open ground and growling softly.  Lee assumed the dog was alarmed because the camp leader’s body was laying about fifteen feet away.  Both Murphy and Regi changed their focus as two men slowly rose up and started walking cautiously towards Lee.  They appeared to be in their mid to late forty’s, although hard work tended to age people in this part of the world more quickly than some other places.  They were dressed as simple farmers but both carried far from ancient rifles.  A third man also stood but stayed where he was.  He seemed somewhat younger than the other two.


About halfway, the two stopped.  “Commander?” came again, not yelled nearly as loudly.


Lee sighed heavily and forced himself to roll over and sit up.  “Here,” he mumbled, realized that it had barely come out at all and said it again a bit louder, and the men once more started toward him.


They stopped again when they reached the leader’s body.  “A friend or yours?” the man who had been doing the talking asked.


“We never exchanged names,” Lee told him, “but he appeared to be the leader of the group of men I…ah…”


“Understood,” the newcomer said.  He exchanged a low conversation with the other man, who knelt down and started going through the leader’s pockets.  The first man walked up to Lee and Murphy.  Lee felt Murphy’s hand under his stiffen and he gripped it a little harder.  Apparently the man read the boy’s unease as well and very purposely laid the rifle he was carrying on the ground.  “Ivico Matic,” he said by way of introduction.  “Petar has been most worried about you, Commander.  He was expecting you several days ago.”


Lee sighed.  “Ran into a bit of trouble,” he said tiredly.


“Are you injured?”


Lee nodded.  “Took a bullet in the hip.  Slowed me down.”  Matic nodded.  “It’s thanks to Murphy,” and he nodded at the boy, “that I’m here at all.”




Lee grinned.  “Sorry.  We’ve been having a communications problem.  That name just seemed easier.”


Matic nodded again and looked at Murphy, asking something in a gentle voice.  Lee smiled to himself – this man was used to talking with youngsters.  Of course, he acknowledged silently, it could have something to do with the fact that Murphy still has the gun in his hand.  He sent the boy a small grin of encouragement.


Murphy hesitated, but finally answered whatever he’d been asked.  Sparingly as he didn’t say much, but it seemed to satisfy Matic who returned his gaze to Lee.  “Can you walk?”


Lee nodded.  “Not very fast,” he admitted with another small grin.


Matic grinned back.  “My farm is not far away.  Once my brother and his son finish burying the body…”


“There’s another one back there.”  Lee pointed towards the one he’d killed.


“Ah.  Bodies, then.  They will come to my house and we’ll make plans to get you back to your people.  Petar mentioned that they have been…irritated that there’s been no word of you.”


Lee cringed.  “Sorry,” he murmured.


Matic shrugged.  “A good ending should be worth the wait.”


Lee sent him a sheepish grin.  “You’ve never met my boss.”


Lee was beginning to think that he’d gotten over the worst effects of the drug.  Until, that is, he started to move.  Matic and Murphy, who had relaxed enough to tuck the gun inside his jacket, helped him stand.  While Murphy retrieved the packs and Lee’s walking stick, Lee took several steps toward where the other man was just finishing searching the leader.  Unfortunately, as Lee got close, the man gave the body a shove to roll it over and Lee caught a look at what used to be the back of the man’s head.  This time he was unable to control the bile that surged up and out and he found himself back on hands and knees, puking his guts out.  Matic knelt next to him, a supportive hand on Lee’s stomach.  Embarrassed, Lee chose to remain silent as, once he was over the worst of it, Matic offered him his canteen.  Lee merely nodded and took several small sips, studiously not looking toward the body.  When Murphy returned he was immediately concerned, and dropped to his knees next to Lee.  Lee sent him a small grin, laid a hand briefly on the youth’s shoulder, and then used the leverage to once more stand up.


Matic appeared to give Lee some time to get himself back together as he turned away to give instructions to the other two men.  Lee was further distressed to have to admit to himself that he had no idea when the third man, from his age Matic’s nephew, had walked over from his earlier position.  Murphy stayed close, almost seeming to keep Lee between himself and the others as much as possible.  Regi remained glued to Murphy’s side but had quieted.  When Matic turned back Lee gave him a small smile and a nod, and the three of them headed in the direction the men had appeared from.


Lee knew he was struggling, walking slower and slower.  Matic showed no impatience but Murphy was getting noticeably more concerned.  As they stopped to rest at one point, and with still no house in sight, Murphy reached into his jacket and brought out the packet of pills.  “NO,” Lee told him firmly.  At Matic’s upraised eyebrow Lee admitted that, while they killed the pain, the side effects were unacceptable.  Matic took a look at them, once he’d convinced Murphy to show him, and nodded at Lee, telling Murphy something that seemed to calm the boy down a bit.


“Your assumption was correct.  However, taken for only a short period of time they have their uses.”


Lee shook his head.  “I’m okay for now.”  He tried to sound more confident than he actually felt.  He had a feeling that neither Matic nor Murphy believed him, but neither argued and they continued on.


About the time Lee was ready to admit that he just couldn’t go any further, a small farm came into sight.  Lee wasn’t sure that he could walk even that much further and hesitated, struggling to regain control of the increasing pain.  He had also started sweating profusely and knew that it was more than the increased heat and humidity.  Matic, who had offered to let Lee lean on him earlier but didn’t argue when Lee declined, now moved once again to Lee’s side.  Gratefully Lee nodded and leaned heavily against the man.  Allowing Matic to guide him, he closed his eyes and focused what mental awareness he had left on putting one foot in front of the other.


He knew that he’d totally lost control of his surroundings when his foot caught on what turned out to be a slab of rock used as a front stoop for the house.  As much as he tried, he just couldn’t convince himself that he’d actually taken enough steps to reach the house.  The door opened at an insistent word from Matic, and a woman who must be his wife started a rapid series of questions at the man.  He answered her patiently, all the while half-carrying Lee towards a back room.  Lee’s head barely registered touching the pillow on the bed he was laid on before he lost track of everything, and sunk into oblivion.


* * * *


Ensign William Haskins, one of Sparks’ back-ups in Seaview’s Radio Shack, put the call that had just come in on hold and slipped the headset off his head.  “Lieutenant,” he called to Keeter, who had the Conn at this hour of Seaview’s night, not quite 0200.


“Yes, Haskins?”


“Priority call for the Admiral – his ears only.”


That collected the attention of everyone on duty, although not one of the men let their interest distract them from their own instruments.  “Wake him gently, Ensign,” Keeter told Haskins with a slight smile.  The Admiral preferred, if he had to be awakened in the middle of the night, that it be done in person, not by using the intercom.


“Sort of hoping that you’d do it, sir,” Haskins told him with a sheepish grin.  “Then I can stay here and just transfer the call up.”


Keeter’s smile increased.  Seaview was sitting stationary for the night so there was no real reason that he couldn’t leave the Conn for the few minutes it would take to get to Admiral Nelson’s cabin.  Normally it would be a serious no-no under any circumstances.  But the duty crewmen were all experienced men.  And if this call had anything to do with the absent Skipper…  Well, rules could occasionally be bent for a good enough cause.  He glanced around the room and received quick nods from several of the men, letting him know that they knew what he was up to, that all was well at their stations, and he need not worry about anything in his short absence.


He still hurried.  His first two raps on the Admiral’s door were fairly loud, followed by several slightly lighter ones.  There was only a short pause before a growled “Come,” sounded from within.


Keeter opened the door only far enough to poke his head inside, spotting the Admiral just coming to a sitting position on the edge of his bunk.  “Sorry to wake you, sir. Priority call – your ears only.  Haskins will transfer it up as soon as you’re ready.”  A muffled mumble his only answer he pulled back, shut the door gently, and scurried back to the Conn.  By the time he got to the chart table he saw Haskins hitting switches.


“Nelson,” the Admiral growled into the receiver.  Nine times out of ten these calls were someone in Washington, DC not caring about time zones, and wanting him to attend some staff luncheon for visiting dignitaries.


Not this time.  “Harriman,” came in Robert Jones’ distinctive voice, “how fast can you get to..”  He gave Nelson a set of coordinates. 


Nelson closed his eyes, visualizing the nautical chart for this area.  The spot Jones had identified was on the coast of Montenegro about halfway between Ulcinj and the Albanian border.  “Call it an hour by FS1,” he told ONI’s director.


“That long?”  There was an obvious smile in Jones’ voice.


“It’s the middle of the night,” Nelson practically yelled back.  “It will take fifteen minutes to ready her for launch.”  But he relaxed a hair, reacting to the calm in Robert’s voice.  “Lee?” he asked hopefully.


“There’s a small isolated cove at the coordinates.  You’ll be met by Petar Camovic.  The code phrases are ‘hockey puck’ and ‘goalie.’ Don’t ask,” he cut off Nelson’s snort.  “It’s a long story.”


“Think I’d just as soon not know,” Nelson muttered.


“And Harry?”


“Yes,” Nelson answered cautiously.  He could hear the sudden hesitation in his old friend’s voice.


“You might want to take your doctor with you.”


“Damn!” Nelson thundered.


“Down, Harry.  Details are sketchy but apparently that’s what the holdup has been – he wasn’t able to travel as fast as we anticipated.”


“I’ll make sure that Dr. Jamison writes you a detailed description to go with Lee’s debriefing,” Nelson snarled.


“Understood, Harry,” and both men broke the connection.


A quick thought went through Nelson’s mind, wondering if it would be possible to wake Doc and get FS1 launched without telling Chip.  The thought was just as quickly dismissed.  By all rights Seaview should not be without all of her senior officers at the same time.  But since it was Nelson’s boat he could alter the rules if circumstances warranted it.  Everything was quiet aboard.  The two corpsmen were well able to handle pretty much anything that came up in Sick Bay.  And between Lt.s O’Brien, Keeter, and James, Seaview would be quite safe.  Nelson ginned.  And besides, as much as Seaview’s Exec was ticked at Lee right now, it would be nothing compared to his anger at having Nelson sneak off in the middle of the night to retrieve his friend without telling him.  While Chip, the ever proper XO, would never in a million years say or do anything directly against his commanding officer, there was no doubt in Nelson’s mind that Chip would find a way to get even.  Not to mention that, all things considered, the crew would be much happier having Chip gone for a bit.  That thought putting a small grin on his face, he called down to have FS1 prepped for launch, hurriedly dressed, and went to wake his other two senior officers.


* * * *


Lee was awakened by a sharp stab of pain and instantly tried to move away from it.  Several hands and soothing voices stopped him.  Lee opened his eyes to discover a woman kneeling next to the bed where he’d been laid.  It took his fuzzy brain a moment to realize that it was Mrs. Matic, crooning words softly that he was sure were meant to alleviate his sudden panic.  But since he had absolutely no idea of what she was saying he merely nodded.  Instantly the pain was back, and Lee finally realized that she had removed the bandage and was cleaning the bullet wounds.  It took another full second for Lee to realize that the bandage wasn’t the only thing that had been removed and he rapidly tried to shove her away with one hand while trying to find something to cover himself with the other.  She easily countered his weary motions, tsk, tsk, tsking at him softly, a kindly smile on her face, but did reach across him to grab a blanket and pull it partially back over him.  A little giggle sounded by Lee’s head as he was concentrating on what she was doing and he looked up just as Murphy dropped a blessedly cool cloth across his forehead.


A deeper chuckle was heard from the foot of the bed and Lee realized he was apparently the centerpiece for a party – Matic stood there along with his brother.  As Lee frowned, the brother told Matic something quietly and left.  Another sharp pain caused Lee to stiffen and harshly intake a breath, and Matic spoke.


“Easy, Commander.  Anya is cleaning the wounds as best she can, and has prepared a poultice.  It will help draw out the infection until your people can be contacted.  She has had, unfortunately, a lot of practice.  I assure you, it will help.”


Lee nodded.  “Please don’t think that I am ungrateful.  Just…”  He didn’t finish.


Matic nodded.  “I totally understand.  Also, unfortunately.”  It was Lee’s turn to nod, and Matic changed the subject as his wife continued to cleanse the area with warm water and Murphy continued to wipe some of the sweat off Lee’s face, as well as his upper body.  “My nephew, Vuk, has been sent to tell Petar we have you.  It will take several hours as it must appear to be his usual trip for supplies.”  Lee nodded again that he understood the need that everything remain as normal as possible for the families.  “You rest.”


“I’m not sure that I remembered to thank you for rescuing us,” Lee told him with as much sincerity as he could put into the words, and indicated Murphy in the comment.


Matic smiled.  “We have fought hard in the past for the freedoms we now have.  We will not give them up easily, and happily help those who help us.”  Lee nodded, and Matic left.


I may be safe from the bad guys but I’m not sure that I’m going to survive Mrs. Matic, Lee muttered to himself a few minutes later.  The woman had continued to scrub away all traces of anything not healthy tissue around the two wounds.  Lee buried as many of the groans of pain as he could but a few still slipped out.  Mrs. Matic kept up a constant chatter – Lee assumed Murphy could understand her.


At one point he smiled to himself as a stray thought entered his head, caused by the woman’s soft musings, tskings, and pattering, and what was apparently the occasional instruction to Murphy.  When Lee was little his grandfather would take him, several times a summer, to a small farm in the country outside Newport that had a sort of petting zoo for children.  There were lambs, calves, pigmy goats, a couple ponies to give rides, and a plethora of chickens, ducks, geese, and even a couple swans in a pond.  On one of the visits Lee had been fascinated by a newly hatched clutch of chicks.  The broody hen had tried to keep them close as they learned to peck the ground for bugs and grain, clucking softly and skittering around, working to keep them all herded together.  Lee had driven his mother crazy for most of the next week, pretending to scratch at the ground and imitate the baby chicks.


But it was the broody hen that he was remembering now.  Mrs. Matic sounded surprisingly like the mother as she chattered away, making Lee realize where the term ‘mother hen’ had no doubt originated.  He much preferred this version to the kind he was usually treated to by his friends when he was injured or ill.


That is, until the woman slathered a cloth with some sort of paste she produced and laid it against the wounds.  The resulting sting and burn literally took Lee’s breath away for a few seconds.  “Yep, that’s more like Jamie’s version of ‘mother hen’,” Lee muttered softly through clenched teeth.


Mrs. Matic said something to Murphy, who slipped silently out of the room while she taped the poultice in place and pulled the blankets back over Lee, tucking them in with a smile to him.  Murphy returned with something in a metal cup, and helped Lee raise his head so that he could drink.  It was a clear broth of some sort, but the flavor was wonderful and Lee greedily drank it down.  However, no sooner had his head returned to the pillow then he started feeling the lassitude that he associated with the pills Murphy had been feeding him.  He glared at the boy but it didn’t last long as, between the pain, the fever, and whatever he’d just swallowed, he quickly fell into a deep sleep.


* * * *


The closer FS1 got to the coordinates Nelson had been given, the more Chip struggled not to fidget.  He’d been wired from the instant the Admiral had awakened him.  He’d been able to keep it pretty well contained as he waited in the Control Room for Nelson and Jamison to come down.  He’d marked the spot on the chart for Keeter, and plotted a course for the Lieutenant to move Seaview a bit closer while the Flying Sub was gone.  He wasn’t sure who had alerted Chief Sharkey but the COB had already started to pre-flight the little yellow machine when Chip hit the Conn.  Chip didn’t mind.  If Sharkey was along, it wouldn’t be Chip who was left behind to wait while Nelson and Doc went ashore!


The need for secrecy kept FS1 underwater so it was close to 0400 when they neared the cove.  Sharkey had piloted, with Nelson navigating.  That left Chip and Doc to stew in the back seats.  Chip knew that Jamie spent most of the time observing him, and tried to keep himself under control.  The doctor had also spent a bit of time muttering that Nelson hadn’t gotten any specific information on Lee’s injuries, and had brought along what he complained about as “half of my Sick Bay, just in case.”  Nelson could only remind the frustrated doctor that Admiral Jones had passed along what he could, and to be happy that the man hadn’t stuck to the original plan and let the SEALs extract Lee.  Doc had produced a pretty good rendition of Nelson’s ‘Harrumph’ but remained silent the rest of the trip.


As FS1 slowed and barely broached the surface, Chip released his safety harness and leaned as far forward as he could and still keep his backside in the seat.  All lights had been turned off so that she remained as invisible as possible.  Lee and Chip had occasionally ruminated – usually over a few beers at BZ’s – why Nelson had painted her such a stand-out color as bright yellow.  But Chip had never outright questioned the color to Nelson and if Lee had, he’d never told Chip the Admiral’s answer.  All four men waited until a quick flash of light was seen onshore.  Nelson allowed one outside light to very briefly illuminate, received a quick double flash from the shore, and Sharkey moved in a bit closer.  Chip broke out the small rubber raft and went topside to inflate it, then helped Doc stash his several packs of supplies.  Nelson boarded the raft last and helped Chip paddle it ashore.  All three were dressed in dark clothing, as similar to simple native garb as Stores had been able to come up with on short notice.  They were barely away when Sharkey gently slid FS1 down to the bottom, to await the others’ return.  Nelson had warned him that it could be a long wait.  Dawn was rapidly approaching and if Lee wasn’t near the coast, retrieval would have to wait until the following night.  If Nelson had not triggered the small transponder he was carrying within the next ninety minutes, Sharkey was to return to Seaview and not come back until near dark the following evening.


Chip launched himself from the raft the instant it touched ground, and stabilized it while Nelson helped Doc gather his packs.  The Admiral had just stepped off the raft when there was an audible ‘click’.  All three men froze.  “Hockey puck?” came from some nearly bushes and the three Seaview officers let out identical breaths.


“Goalie,” Nelson replied, with only a moment’s hesitation to steady his nerves.


A stocky man slipped from cover and approached.  “You’ll need to stow your gear.  Your friend is not here.”


“Understood,” Nelson told him.  He helped Chip deflate the raft and stow it carefully underneath some brush, camouflaged by a pile of leaves.  “How badly is Crane hurt,” he asked, walking up to the man and knowing that was the question uppermost in his friends’ minds – as it was in his own.


“Petar Camovic,” the man said, sticking his hand out.  “And I’m afraid that I cannot totally answer that.  The message I received was only that he had been found and taken to the home of a friend.  He had been injured earlier and it slowed him down.”  He nodded back in the direction he’d come.  “We must go before we are spotted.”


“Of course,” Nelson realized his mistake at wasting time and perhaps putting this man in danger.  He grabbed one of Doc’s packs – Chip already had the other two – and they followed Camovic to where he had parked an ancient-looking car.  But the engine purred smoothly as they traveled through what was left of the night.


* * * *


Lee awakened totally disoriented.  Nothing was what it should be.  He was in bed, but there was no gentle vibration like the one in his cabin on Seaview.  It wasn’t his bed in the condo.  No medical smells – that was a plus, especially considering how rotten he felt.


Oh.  Wait.  That was it – the ONI assignment.  Some of the story floated back.  But, shouldn’t he be sleeping on the ground?


Lee sighed heavily and tried to sit up.  He needed to figure out what the heck was going on.  The movement brought everything back.  Everything!  It also brought Mrs. Matic and Murphy on the run as he wasn’t able to control the knife-edged pain the movement sent through his hip, or the half-scream it caused.  The two of them immediately set to work returning Lee to a prone position.  Once Lee was again resting fairly comfortably Mrs. Matic told Murphy something and the boy left and returned with more of the broth.


As much as Lee wanted it he didn’t want the additive, and merely shook his head and pushed the cup away.  Mrs. Matic frowned, took the cup from Murphy, and once more tried to put it against Lee’s lips.  “No,” Lee told her firmly.  He almost smiled at the expression that briefly crossed the woman’s face, so similar was it to ones Lee’s stubbornness had caused Jamie to produce.  Apparently Mrs. Matic decided reinforcements were needed and summoned her husband.  “Sorry,” Lee told him as he entered the room, “but no more drugs.”


“You are still in a great deal of pain and it will be some time before you can safely be moved.”


“Not tonight?”  Lee could tell that it had gotten dark while he slept, although he had no idea of what time it actually was.


Matic shook his head.  “Petar told Vuk little, only that alternative plans were being made.  He was hoping tomorrow night.”  Lee sighed heavily and nodded.  Apparently Mrs. Matic took that as an affirmation that he was now ready to accept the painkiller, and glared at her husband when Lee once more pushed it away.  Matic gave her an indulgent smile before returning his gaze to Lee.  “She is very stubborn, my Anya.”


Lee grinned.  “Tell her I regularly drive my doctor up a wall.”  However Matic translated that, it caused his wife to give the cup back to Murphy and cross her arms over her chest as she once more glared at Lee.  Lee and Matic both chuckled, Lee somewhat sheepishly.  “Tell her I would love something to eat, but no more drugs.”


That seemed to placate the woman, at least partially.  She still muttered something as she left the room, but it was apparently only to tell her husband and Murphy to gather up some extra pillows so that Lee could sit up a bit more.  Lee was very conscious of the fact that the only things covering him were the bandage and the blanket, and made sure that the latter was settled securely around his legs and partway up his chest.  He was aware enough that he thought the fever had abated – not totally, but he really was feeling much better.  He even thought that the pain in his hip wasn’t as bad, but he suspected that had more to do with the fact that he hadn’t been trying to walk on it.  Also, his brain, now that things were under a bit more control, was back to its usual trick of ignoring as much pain as possible.


He tried not to act skeptical when Mrs. Matic returned with a bowl of something – he had a major distrust of liquids all of a sudden.  But the smell was too good to ignore.  What he found was a fish stew made thick with chopped onions, garlic, and tomatoes, served with a thick slice of bread and some wonderful fresh cheese.  Even Mrs. Matic lost her frown as she watched him tuck into it.


Lee sighed heavily as he polished off the meal.  He was sleepy but recognized it as merely the aftermath of a hard mission, not the feeling of a drugged loss of control.  He would have liked to question Matic a bit more concerning what was being done about getting him out of the country but the man had disappeared as Lee was eating.  He tried to indicate to Mrs. Matic that he wanted to talk to him, but she just waved a hand as if to say that he’d left and she had no idea when he would be back.  She tucked the blanket in a little more securely around Lee’s shoulders and left the room, shutting the door behind her.


He nearly burst out laughing when the door almost immediately opened again, and Murphy entered somewhat shyly and placed a bucket with a board over it for a cover in the corner of the room.  The boy sent Lee a little grin and quickly left.


Lee was in no big hurry to move, especially as the bucket was several steps away and there was no way to tell if someone was about to walk in on him.  But matters needed to be taken care of and he was hoping that, since Murphy knew that Lee would understand the reason, that he’d see that Mrs. Matic didn’t bother him for a reasonable amount of time.


He was disgusted at how much effort he had to expend to take care of the matter, and practically fell back into the bed once he was done.  Not good, he muttered to himself.  I hope that there’s some sort of transport being arranged to get me to the coast.  I don’t think that I’ll be able to walk that far, even if all I do is rest until tomorrow night.  He closed his eyes once he had the blanket tucked back in.  Someone came in and collected the bucket – he assumed that it was Murphy but didn’t open his eyes, just lay quietly and pretended to sleep.


It wasn’t long before he felt himself starting to fall asleep for real but he merely sighed and didn’t fight it.  Whatever was being planned for him, he suspected that he was going to have to try and build up all the reserves that he could.


* * * *


Sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, Admiral Nelson held his tongue for as long as he could as Camovic drove through the gradually approaching morning.  Chip and Will were silent as well, sitting in the back seat.  But his infamous impatience finally got the better of him and, since they were traveling through fairly open country and Camovic didn’t have to concentrate on his driving, tried to question him.


“I’m sorry, Admiral,” the man told him, “but I know only what I told Mr. Jones.”  There was a grunt from the back seat and Nelson sent a brief glance that direction.  Privately he, too, wondered at the use of the generic title instead of Jones’ rank, and thought perhaps that this man didn’t entirely know who he was working for.  “Your friend was detained reporting in because he was injured.  I had several trusted allies quietly looking for him and he was found about midday yesterday.”


“Along with a child?”


Camovic shrugged.  “There was another person with him.  I was told child.  Communications were kept brief for everyone’s safety.”  He sent Nelson a quick glance.  “While things are fairly stable at the moment, we must be ever vigilant.”


Nelson nodded.  “I understand.  And we,” he indicated the two in the back seat as well, “greatly appreciate your willingness to help us retrieve our friend.”


It was Camovic’s turn to nod.  “I am taking you to the farm of Ivico Matic.  It was he and his brother and nephew who found Crane not far from there.  Ivico speaks English but the rest of his family does not.  He relayed to his nephew Vuk only a few bare details, so that is why I am unable to tell you much.  I will leave you there for the day, and come again after dark to take you back to the cove.”


“Thank you,” Nelson said sincerely, and there were agreements from the back seat.


* * * *


This time when Lee woke up he remembered where he was – and why – and very carefully kept his movements to a minimum.  A soft sound of indeterminate origin reached his ears.  It was apparently early morning as the room was a good deal lighter than the last time he’d awakened, although not as bright as when he’d first been brought in – what little he could remember of that time.  He looked around and smiled when he discovered Murphy sleeping on a mat against the far wall, Regi curled up next to him.  It must have been the dog that he’d heard, still on guard detail.  His attention was focused on the door and Lee finally heard what had apparently caught Regi’s attention – soft voices coming from the other side.


A stray thought went through Lee’s brain as he watched Murphy sleep as to whose bed he was taking up.  It seemed a little narrow for two so he didn’t think that it was the Matic’s but one never knew, especially in this part of the world.  Lee wondered if he should be worried about the voices.  But other senses overrode his thoughts.  The fever, which had abated somewhat after Mrs. Matic had tortured him with the poultice, was making a comeback.  Probably she planned on putting a fresh one on this morning.  Lee wasn’t looking forward to that!


He’d once more closed his eyes when he heard the door opening so was a little slow to react.  When he did focus it was to find himself the target of three pairs of eyes – two blue, one soft brown. 


“So,” Chip growled once he was sure Lee was awake, “what mayhem did you do to yourself this time?”


“I’m okay,” Lee answered automatically, although a hint of a smile touched his lips.


“Commander,” Will took over the inquisition in the firm lecturing tone he used when he was ticked, “if I don’t get a straight answer I’m going to feed you to your Exec.”  He took a step forward.  “And as little as he’s eaten the last few days…”




Everyone stopped dead.  Lee looked toward the sound and found Murphy on his feet, his gun in his hand pointed straight at Jamie.  “NO,” he shouted and tried to sit up.  He succeeded only in propping himself up on one elbow.  “Vazi,” he told the boy.  Okay.  He frowned when he realized that he didn’t even know the word for friend.


Matic, who until now had been standing unseen behind Admiral Nelson, took a step forward and spoke softly to Murphy.  The hard look on what Lee could see of the boy’s face, still shrouded in the oversized hood, started to relax and he looked at Lee.


“Vazi,” Lee repeated, and the gun lowered but wasn’t put away.


“Watchdogs?” Nelson asked gently, a smile finally appearing.


Lee sighed.  “More like guardian angels.”  He also smiled, although with an effort.  The sharp movement had reignited every nerve ending in the wound area into fiery needles.


Matic again spoke to Murphy and the gun disappeared back into the jacket.  With another glance at Lee, Murphy and Regi left with Matic.  Lee closed his eyes against the pain so didn’t see, but figured that Jamie must have shooed Chip and Nelson out as well because when he again opened them he and the doctor were alone and the door was once more closed.


“Hi, Jamie,” Lee said with as much of a grin as he could produce.


Will snorted.  “Hi, yourself,” he muttered, but he also smiled softly.  “Suppose we could get back to Chip’s question, now that the fireworks have been defused?”


“Hurt’s like hell,” Lee admitted.  Will helped him lay back down, but frowned and laid a hand on Lee’s forehead.  “That’s not where it hurts,” Lee muttered, causing Will to snort again.


But he was all business when Lee moved the blanket enough for the doctor to see the real injury.  “Ouch,” he muttered, mostly to himself, once he’d removed the bandage.  “How long ago?”


Lee had to think about it.  “Four days,” he finally decided.  “And I knew that I shouldn’t have been walking on it.  But…”  He looked at the doctor – and his friend – almost through his lashes.


Will frowned but it wouldn’t hold.  “Other priorities prevailed?”


“Couldn’t exactly stay where I was.”


“Ummm,” Will mumbled noncommittally as he carefully examined the wounds.


“Jamie?” Lee asked carefully, and waited until the doctor looked at him.  “Chip?”


Will chuckled.  “Your crew is going to be very happy to have you back.”


“That bad?”




“Damn,” Lee muttered softly.


“The Admiral and I did our best to take your place harassing him,” Will told him with a grin.  Lee sent him the expected raised eyebrow.  “I’m sure that Chip will be talking to you about it.”


“Terrific,” Lee grumbled, then sharply sucked in a breath as Will went back to examining the injury.


“Sorry,” Will told him sincerely.  “I won’t know for sure until I get you back to Seaview, but the fact that you were able to walk at all tells me that you probably didn’t do any major damage.  Doesn’t mean you’re going to be walking any further on it for a while,” he warned.


“Do need to get back,” Lee reminded him.


“Think I’ll let Chip work out some of his frustrations by carrying you.”  Will laughed at the look Lee threw him.  He continued to chuckle as he reached for one of his packs of supplies and Lee started to get the feeling that he was definitely missing something.  Knowing Jamie, however, he decided that it would be safer not to ask.  At least right now.


What he did react to was the hypo the doctor pulled from his bag.  “What’s that?” he demanded.


Will was still chuckling softly at his private joke.  “While I actually have a great deal of respect for local remedies, I suspect that this will do a tad better job with the infection you’re fighting than that poultice.”


“Won’t hurt as much, either,” Lee admitted sheepishly.  He relaxed once Will administered the injection and missed the fact that the doctor had prepared a second syringe until Will started to swab his intended injection site.  Lee grabbed Will’s wrist and glared at him.


“Commander,” Will growled in his lecturing tone, glaring right back.


“If that’s what I think it is, I don’t want it,” Lee told him.  As Will prepared to yell, Lee let go of his wrist and raised his hand.  “Jamie, Murphy gave me something.  I don’t know what but Matic can tell you.  It was…”


Will cut him off with a nod.  “Mr. Matic already explained, and you’re right to be cautious.  But you didn’t take that much, and what I’m about to give you won’t cause a reaction.  Well,” he shrugged and grinned at Lee, “except the one I intend.”


“As long as I stay quiet it doesn’t hurt that much,” Lee tried to talk his way out of the meds Will wanted to give him.  He’d locked horns with the doctor’s painkillers before and always lost.


Will merely smiled.  Once Lee switched to that tone of voice he knew he’d won this round.  And true to form Lee made no more argument, just sighed heavily and closed his eyes.  “Thank you,” Will told him anyway.  “You know perfectly well that fighting the infection will go much better if you’re not fighting the pain at the same time,” he couldn’t resist reminding Lee.  When Lee didn’t open his eyes but did give a short nod, Will patted him on the shoulder.  “Besides, I still need to rebandage the wounds.  Perhaps I’ll go ask Mrs. Matic for the poultice recipe since you seem so fond of it.”


Again Lee decided that it might be better not take the bait, and let himself fall into a gentle oblivion.


* * * *


All eyes looked at Will when he exited the room Lee was resting in.  Even the dog seemed extremely focused on Will’s evaluation, and that more than anything caused Will to smile broadly.  “Relax,” he told the three people who could understand him.  He was hoping the smile would translate for Mrs. Matic and Murphy.  The dog was on its own.  “The wound is messy and extremely painful, especially since he hasn’t been able to rest.  Now that he can,” he shrugged and headed for Mrs. Matic who was holding out what he suspected was the local version of coffee, “he should mend fairly quickly.”  He took a sip, nodded his appreciation to the lady of the house for the slightly sweet but delicious concoction, and took a much longer swallow.


“We’ve been trying to get Murphy,” Nelson indicated the child sitting on the floor well away from the others, “to talk to us.  So far we haven’t had much luck.” 


“He hasn’t even given us a name when we’ve asked,” Matic said.  “Just insists that he be called Murphy.”  He sent an apologetic look at Will.  “I’m so sorry about what happened.  I knew that he had a gun.  I probably should have taken it away but he’s not been a problem.”


Will waved off the apology and took another sip of the coffee.  “He was obviously protecting Lee from a stranger who showed up and started to yell at his friend.  Nothing new for us,” he paused as both Nelson and Chip chuckled, “but puzzling for him.”  He sent a smile around the room, walked over, and gently settled on the floor next to the child.  The dog growled softly from Murphy’s opposite side.  Will could see that the child wasn’t happy about Will’s arrangement, but didn’t move.


Will turned to Matic.  “Would you tell Murphy how pleased I am, as well as my friends, at what a good job he did taking care of Lee.  I’m sure that it couldn’t have been easy.  Lee is a bit…” he paused to pick a tactful word, “difficult to treat.”  That drew more snorts and smiles from the other two Seaview officers.  All it got out of Murphy once Matic had translated it was a small nod although, sitting so close, Will thought that he detected a slight smile.  Mrs. Matic circulated with more coffee for everyone, and brought Murphy a glass of milk.  “Please tell him,” Will continued, “that we’d like to return the favor.  Is there something that we can do for him?”


“Absolutely,” Nelson assured Matic and Chip nodded his agreement, both sending Murphy a smile.


Murphy was silent for a bit after Matic relayed the sentiment.  When he did answer it was so soft that Will wasn’t sure anyone but him could hear.  It appeared that Matic did hear, however, but what he heard caused both he and his wife to stare at the child.


“What?” Nelson asked immediately, his tone registering concern at the couple’s reaction.


But Matic almost instantly grinned.  “It would appear that we have all been greatly mistaken,” he said with a broadening smile.  He instantly had the attention of the three Seaview men, while Mrs. Matic went to stand next to the child.  “Her name is Marijana Mohorovic.”


“Her?”  Nelson was the first to react.


Chip laughed outright.  “Why are we so surprised?” he chuckled.  “Lee and his ladies.”


Matic said something to the girl and she continued to talk, a bit more openly.  When she finished, Matic continued the narrative.


“Several months ago her father left her with friends in Podgorica.  It was apparently just the two of them.  He told her that he was going to Shkodra to find a better job and he’d send for her later.  When he didn’t she ran away to find him, and decided that traveling as a boy would be safer.”  He motioned to the girl and she continued.  When she once more stopped he started again.  “She did finally find where her father had been living, and was told that he’d left with several men to live and work in the mountains.  She doesn’t explain, but followed him to the camp where she met Commander Crane. She was told that her father had left, but if she wanted to stay and wait for him she could.  I gather that she didn’t tell them her real first name so they thought that she was a boy as well.”  He nodded to the girl and she related the next part of the story.  “During the weeks she was there she saw several men come, then go and not come back.  She didn’t want to stay but didn’t quite know how to leave.  Commander Crane gave her that opportunity.”  Nelson raised an eyebrow, causing Matic to smile.  “She wasn’t specific about that part.”


“We’ll get that from Lee,” Nelson assured Matic, but he was also smiling.  “What will Miss Mohorovic do now?”


Once Matic asked, he didn’t have to translate the answer.  A shrug and a shake of the head were easily translated by all.


There was a rather lengthy discussion between the girl and both Matics that the other three didn’t interrupt.  When it was over both Matics were smiling, and Mr. Matic finally turned back to Admiral Nelson.  “I will ask Petar Camovic to make inquiries of his sources concerning her father, but Marijana is more than welcome to stay here.  In just the short time she’s been here Anya has become quite fond of her.”  He sent his wife a loving smile.  “As have I.  Anya and I have not been blessed with children of our own.  Marijana will be most welcome here for as long as she wants to stay.”


“That’s wonderful,” Nelson told him with feeling, and both Chip and Will nodded.  Will took a chance and reached out, taking one of Marijana’s hands into his own.  He smiled at her, gave the hand a squeeze and released it, but not before he thought that he saw a smile on the girl’s face.  He was sure when she finally slipped the hood back and revealed her entire face for the first time.  Mrs. Matic, still standing next to her, ran a hand through the girl’s short-cropped hair and tsked.  Marijana ducked her head, and everyone else chuckled.


* * * *


Once again Lee woke up disoriented, but for a totally different reason.  The last thing he remembered was Jamie’s hypodermic needle being administered, in the back room of Ivico Matic’s farmhouse.  Now a gentle vibration seemed to synchronize with his nerve endings, giving him a feeling of general peacefulness.  But since that had been very much lacking of late, it merely frustrated Lee.  Other senses started kicking in and a medicinal smell assailed his nose.  Lee’s eyes popped open and he found himself in Seaview’s Sick Bay.  Once again totally confused he sat up sharply, and once again was unable to stifle the groan of pain that the sudden movement produced.  Although, a part of his brain registered the fact that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been the last time.  And once again the sound brought an audience, in this case Jamie coming to stand in the doorway of his office, coffee mug in hand.  “How the hell did I get here?” Lee growled at him in his best ‘I am the Captain’ voice.


Will merely grinned.  “Very peacefully, actually,” he told Lee.  “Most unlike your usual scratching, clawing and complaining avoidance of my domain.”  Will’s tone was teasing and he continued to grin.  But he also reached for the nearest mic.  “Sick Bay to the Conn,” he said.  “Would you tell Admiral Nelson and XO Morton to wander down when they get a change, please?  It would appear that the Skipper has questions.”


Lee grinned as Lt. James gave the doctor an affirmative.  He knew exactly what Jamie had just done.  The call would immediately be relayed not just to the two senior officers but also to the entire boat, letting everyone know that Lee was once more conscious.  He was still miffed that he had absolutely no recollection of having been brought back but at least the crew would know that things were getting back to normal.  Once Will hung the mic back on its clip he continued over.  Handing the mostly full mug to Lee who immediately swallowed well over half of it, Will grabbed a couple extra pillows and tucked them behind Lee.  “Not quite up to Cookie’s semi-lethal concoction,” he apologized as Lee polished off the rest of the coffee and handed the mug back, “but easier on both our stomachs this morning.”  Lee frowned as Will reached out a hand and laid it briefly on Lee’s forehead.  “John and I cleaned you up as best we could once we got you back,” Will continued, “but I suspect that you’d still appreciate a long shower.  I can waterproof the wounds.”


Lee thought about it.  “I’d rather wait until I’ve talked to the Admiral,” he admitted.


Will nodded.  “You can have more coffee but it comes with breakfast.”  He was only too aware of how easy it was for the younger man to ignore food and live on Cookie’s potent liquid.


Lee ducked his head ever so slightly.  “I actually am hungry,” he admitted.  Will chuckled and headed to call Cookie.


Will was once more hanging up the mic when Chip breezed in.  “Halt,” Will ordered and Chip slammed on the brakes with a raised eyebrow.  “Cookie’s fixing his breakfast,” he nodded toward Lee.  Chip grinned, spun on his heel, and headed back out.  He returned with a loaded tray two steps in front of Admiral Nelson, just coming from the other direction.


“That’s what he asked for?” Nelson asked as they entered Sick Bay.


“I added a few things,” Chip admitted.


Lee took one look at the tray and muttered, “Eesh,” as the other three gathered up chairs.


Lee knew that the others wanted his part of the story first, and hit the high points of the first few days between bites of ham and cheese omelet and hash browns.  Doc’s coffee had hit the spot but he practically purred as he took his first swallow of Cookie’s high-octane brew.  The others didn’t hurry him, letting him eat and tell the story at his own pace until he got to the point where Murphy shot the man in camp and hustled Lee into the coop.  Doc’s “Good grief,” was nearly drowned out by Chip’s “What?”  Nelson just shook his head.  Lee noticed quickly buried grins on all three men’s faces as he covered the next day, and how he and Murphy made their escape that night.  “Is Murphy okay?” he finally asked.  “Where is he?”


Nelson carefully controlled his face and his voice.  “Everything is just fine there, Lee.  With the Matics’ blessing Murphy is staying with them for the time being.  But we’ll get to that part later.  Finish your story.”


“And your breakfast,” Will ordered.  Lee glared at him but as usual it had absolutely no effect on Seaview’s CMO.


Lee tried to hurry through the next several days but the others wouldn’t let him.  Either Nelson made him backtrack and tell him everything that happened as Lee and Murphy dealt with the terrorist cell, or Will pinned him down and made him detail his continuing health issues.  Chip didn’t say a word; he merely sat and for the most part glared at Lee.  All three would occasionally have to control a grin as Lee related something that Murphy had done.  Lee paused each time, and twice asked for an explanation.  But either Nelson or Jamie would get him back on track with a question and Lee would reluctantly continue, his own curiosity unsatisfied.


One of the moments that brought the biggest smiles to his friends’ faces was when Lee related the incident with Murphy and throwing the rock.  But it also reminded him of the pack.  He had to endure a downright threatening glare from Chip as he related his reverse psychology reason for the tactic, but Nelson urged him to continue and he did almost gratefully as it allowed him to focus on Nelson’s face and try to ignore Chip’s still piercing blue gaze.  When he paused after relating the success of the maneuver, he asked where his pack was.


“Murphy made sure that we brought it back with us,” Nelson assured him.


Lee nodded.  “Good.  In the bottom you’ll find a packet of papers I liberated from the leader’s pack.  I have no idea what they are but I figured that if they were important enough to have survived the blast, the leader must have been carrying them on his person.  And if they were that important…”  He shrugged.


Nelson nodded.  “We tossed the pack in your cabin.  Once we’re done here I’ll go look for them.  Sparks can scan them and wire them to Admiral Jones for interpretation.  Now,” he gave Lee a look that broached no argument, “back to your story.”


Lee was disgusted at how tired he felt as his tale ended.  He’d gotten another snort from Jamie as he mentioned the poultice Mrs. Matic had concocted, and a very quietly muttered “Serves you right,” from Chip.  He chose to ignore both and laid his head tiredly against the pillows.


“Humm,” Will muttered and pointed a finger at him.  “It would appear that your shower will have to wait.  Back to sleep for you.”


“Jamie,” Lee all but whined, his head popping back up.


“Do not even start, Commander,” Will said slowly, enunciating every syllable carefully.  When Lee lowered his eyes a bit Will actually smiled.  “Behave, and if the fever responds as well in the next twelve hours as it has in the last few, I might be persuaded to let you sleep in your own cabin tonight.  That’s might,” he quickly cut off whatever Lee started to retort.  Lee surrendered and put his head back down.  “Thank you,” Will told him, and the half smile came back.  He turned to the other two.  “And suppose you both scram and let him rest.”  This time it was Chip that he had to cut off.  “You can come back at 1200 hours and harass the Skipper into eating his lunch.”  That drew snorts from Nelson and the blond.


“Don’t bother unless you also bring the status reports,” Lee growled.


“Commander…” Will started.


It was Nelson’s turn to interrupt.  “It’s only fair,” he observed.  “We’ve heard what’s kept him occupied the last week.  He deserves to know what’s been going on here.”  Will caught the sparkle in Nelson’s eyes and relented.  Lee was actually responding quite well, especially after hearing what all he’d been through.  It would do both younger men good to have a long talk.


“Harrumph,” Lee did his best Nelson impersonation at the teasing, and settled a little more comfortably into the pillows as the other three walked into Will’s small office.


“Are you really ready to release him to his cabin?” Nelson asked the doctor quietly.


Will shrugged.  “We all know that he’ll rest better, and mostly that’s what he needs.”  He sent the other two a slightly demonic grin.  “He and I will have a little conversation this afternoon about what will happen if I find him out of his cabin before I say otherwise.”  The other two grinned broadly.  “I’ll also, since we managed to tap-dance around it now, explain about Murphy.”


“Why?” Chip asked him.  The other two raised eyebrows at the blond.


“He has to know,” Nelson told him.


“Why?” Chip repeated.  “Sir,” he hurriedly added and gave Nelson a quick sheepish grin, but it was still slightly evil.


“Actually, Admiral,” Will said with a contemplative expression on his face, “Chip may be on to something.”  Nelson switched his firm look to the doctor’s face.  “We all know what his reaction is going to be to finding out Murphy’s a teenaged girl.”  He sent a firm look of his own at Chip.  “Even without Chip’s teasing the heck out of him about it.”  Chip had the good graces to go back to his sheepish look.  “The longer we can put it off the more distance we put, literally and figuratively, from the actual facts, and the easier it might be for Lee to handle it.” 


Nelson let that sink in for a bit.  Seaview’s ultra competent captain was very old-fashioned when it came to how he treated women, and how he expected to be treated by them.


“We know a few of the things she did for him,” Will continued.  “And under the circumstances I think we can all imagine what he left out no matter how much we pushed him.”  Both Nelson and Chip sent him grins.  “The more time that elapses before he finds out…”  He didn’t finish the thought as the other two nodded.


Chip glanced at his watch and decided that he’d better get back to the Conn.  But the two older men caught a glimpse of the expression on his face as he left.  Will shuddered.  “I’m aware that Seaview has been through tremendous pressures in the past, both inside and out,” he told the boat’s designer.  “Any bets on whether or not we make it home intact?”


Nelson glanced between the door Seaview’s XO had just exited, mischief clearly evident in his expression, and the door into Sick Bay proper where her Skipper rested totally unaware.  “Think I’d better go batten down a few hatches,” he admitted.  But both men grinned as they headed to what they needed to do.


Will sighed contentedly.  Yep – nice to have things back to normal.