by: SwordnQuill

Part 1

Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Lao Ma, Alti, Borias, and everyone else who sounds familiar belong to Pac Ren and Universal Studios. I am not making money off of this story.

Genre Disclaimer: Ok. Bear with me, please, because this is kinda tough to explain. Sometime last year, I read a story on the internet that moved me so much, I was inspired to write a sort of companion piece to it. That story was "Lost Soul Walking" by DJWP. In her words, "This is NOT UberXena fiction. It just starts out like it is." The same can be said for this piece. While not directly related to "Lost Soul Walking", "Desert Storm" can be considered a sort of prequel to it. It is a story, if you will, about the lifetime before the one depicted in that fabulous, outstanding story. (Can you tell I loved it?) In addition, this is somewhat of an ambitious piece of fiction, in that I am attempting (don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve attempted) to take the entire X:WP universe and modernize it. We start, in updated terms, with my version of Xena’s betrayal by Caesar (seen in "Destiny"), and continue up through the X:WP episode known as "Remember Nothing". The plot will be very recognizable to you. It’s meant to be that way.

Special note: Because of this, Gabrielle does not appear, except in offhand mention, in a great deal of the first half of this story. Do not look for her, because you won’t find her. After all, she was not a part of ‘evil Xena’s’ life. If she were, things might have turned out differently, but because this is based on the premise of "Lost Soul Walking" it cannot happen differently. Gabrielle will, however, make her presence known, and that quite strongly, in the second half of the story. If you can hang on till then, I believe that you will not be disappointed.

Sexuality and Violence Disclaimers: We’re dealing with an updated dark Xena through much of the first half, and an updated redeemed Xena through the second. There’s gonna be violence. There are gonna be naughty words. There are also descriptions of sexual activity in this work. There are allusions to heterosexual sex, but nothing graphic. There are some graphic (though I hope tasteful) scenes of sexual expression between women as well. That is how I see the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and that is how I will continue to write it.

And, finally, thanks: To, as always, the incomparable Mike. A better beta and a better friend one could never hope for. Thank you also, as always, to Mary D, who rescued this story from the refuse heap and begged me to keep going on it. If you hate it, blame her. <w> Grateful and heartfelt appreciation goes out to DJWP, for continuing to write stories that grab me somewhere above the liver and giving her kind permission to mention her story in these disclaimers. If you haven’t read her stories, please, do yourself a favor and do so. Finally, this story is dedicated to a group of people without whom I would most probably be living on the streets. Elizabeth, Rachel, Sulli, and the rest of the "Get Sue to Atlanta" crew, this one’s for you!

Feedback: As always is gratefully appreciated. If you wrote to me regarding "Redemption" during the month of September to early October and I haven’t responded, please allow me the honor of apologizing in public. It was then that I was at my lowest point and making ready to move to my new home. Your words of praise and encouragement for my writing kept me firmly out of the pit of depression I was falling into and I shall be forever grateful to each and every one of you who took the time out to feed this bard. And for those of you patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for Redemption’s sequel, fear not, for with the conclusion of this piece, that piece will be started. Any and all who wish to may write me at . I’ll continue to do my best to answer each and every email. An exploding mailbox is a good thing to have. Thanks again!



by: Sword’n’Quill (Susanne Beck)



PART ONE: In The Beginning

"A new Xena is born tonight. With a new purpose in life. Death." Xena: Destiny

22 July 1990: Al Kut, Iraq

It was hot. And dry. And bright. Very bright. The sun’s rays shimmered in a maddening dance, reflecting off of the heavily tinted windows of the tall building, deflecting back to joyfully lance into squinting blue eyes. A long fingered hand rose once again to shield sensitive eyes inadequately shielded behind a turban and protective face veil. "Are you sure this is the right address?"

"Positive, Gunny. I’ve got the orders right here."

"Looks like an apartment building to me," a third figure observed, squinting at the figures of heavily robed and veiled women as they led young children into and out of the massive structure.

"Check the address on the building one more time," the first figure ordered.

"Aw, Gunny. C’mon. We’ve done this three times already. This is the place!"

Piercing pale eyes narrowed. "Do it."

With a sigh, one figure detached itself from the group of six, striding across the wide, poorly maintained street.

"We’re wasting time here, Gunny," came the voice of a fourth man, First Sergeant Timothy Epps. "This is the place. We all know it. Checking the address a dozen more times ain’t gonna change that fact. Let’s just do the deed and get the hell outta here. This heat is driving me bugshit."

The blue eyed figure’s retort was cut off as the sixth member of the group returned, shrugging. "It checks out. The address is the same one as what we’ve got on the orders. Can we just do it already?"

"The only thing we’re doing is leaving here."

"But Gunny! Our orders?"

"I don’t care if Bush himself sent those orders on a gem encrusted platter. There’s no way in hell I’m gonna blow up a building filled with women and children. Now let’s just get the hell outta here." The figure stooped to retrieve some of the gear strewn on the sand swept sidewalk and was stopped by the distinctive sound of an MEU(SOC) pistol cocked and ready.

"Drop that gear, Gunny. We’ve got our orders and we’re gonna follow through on ‘em."

"You’re forgetting your place, Epps."

"No I’m not. You’re the one who’s choosing to disobey orders. I’m relieving you of duty, Gunny. Now drop that gear and back away slowly. I don’t wanna hurt you, but I swear to God I will if you don’t do what I say."

"What the hell are you doing, Epps?" the sixth man interjected, stepping up to the pair. "Christ! Let’s just get outta here, huh? We can come back and try again tomorrow if we have to."

"Come on, Epps," another pleaded. "Put the gun away, ok?"

"Fuck you, Reingold," came the sneering retort. "You always were Gunny’s little pet, weren’t ya."

Reingold stepped closer to Epps, providing the needed distraction. The squatting figure stood quickly, gripping the wrist which held the lethal pistol and pushing upwards harshly. Breaking bones sounded like a rifle shot through the still air. The sound was compounded by a balled fist which shattered the man’s nose, crumpling his knees and dumping him, unconscious, onto the heat blasted ground.

Reingold completed his stride toward the pair, squatting down, his eyes wide. "Holy shit, Gunny. You killed him!"

"I didn’t kill him, Shooter. He’ll just wish I did when he wakes up. You and Reg gather up this horse’s ass and let’s bug out." A loud sigh gusted out from the face veil. "What a balls up this turned out to be."

"Uh, Gunny?" came the slightly tremoring voice of Reg.

"What now."

"Uh, I don’t think we’re goin’ anywhere in a hurry. Except, maybe, with them."

Turning, the group’s leader spied a squad of Republican Guards, resplendent in their scarlet uniforms, looking interestedly at the small party, their weapons held at the ready. "Aww, shit."

One of the Iraqis stepped forward, speaking in rapid Arabic and gesturing with his weapon.

"What’s he saying, Gunny?"

"Nothing I’d care to repeat in polite company, Reg."

"Fuckin’ A, man. We’re royally screwed here."

"Looks that way. Just take it easy, ok?" Taking a deep breath, the leader stepped up to the guards, giving them an unseen smile. "Hello, boys. Something we can help you with today?" More rapid-fire Arabic and menacing weapons gesturing answered that statement. Gunny sighed. "Take off the hats, boys. Time to pay the fiddler."

So saying, the squad’s leader reached up to remove the tightly wound turban, revealing a head of long raven hair and the beautiful face of one Master Gunnery Sergeant Kael Evan Androstos, leader of the USMC counter terrorism squad.

Following their leader’s command, the rest of the men removed their turbans, revealing close cropped heads of brown and blonde hair. Americans to a man.

The sound of Iraqi submachine guns being readied and drawn to high port filled the square as the squad’s identity was revealed.

"Aww shit," Reingold swore softly. "I think I just pissed myself."

"Be glad for the moisture and keep your mouth shut," Kael replied, following the rapid Arabic speech with ease. "I think we’re goin’ on a little trip."

"Ya sure know how to make a guy feel comfortable, Gunny," Reingold muttered under his breath as he was herded with the others into a tight group surrounded by Republican Guardsmen.

The leader of the Guard walked over to the still unconscious form of Epps, prodding the body with his toe. He turned to Kael, his eyes questioning.

"Had a little accident," she replied in Arabic.

The leader sneered and raised his weapon. A rapid fire of ammunition and Master Sergeant Epps was no more.

"Holy Christ!" Reg shouted, struggling with his captors. "What did ya have to go and kill him for!" He was answered by the stock of a gun to his jaw and he went down in a heap.

"Reg!" Kael shouted, easily shrugging free of the guard’s grip but remaining where she was. "You alright?"

Reg slowly came back to his feet, rubbing his jaw. "Yeah. I’m ok. Fucking bastards." He spat blood and a tooth onto the ground.

"We gotta do something, Gunny," Reingold said. "We can’t let em take us."

"We don’t have a choice right now." She looked around at the crowd which was attracted by the sound of gunfire. "We try escaping and a bunch of civilians are going to get killed. We need to just take it easy and see what they’ve got planned for us, alright?"

Reingold scowled. "I’m not too sure I like that idea, Gunny. You can bet that whatever they’ve got planned for us, it ain’t gonna be pretty."

Kael favored him with a small half smile. "That’s why they pay us the big bucks, Shooter."

That broke the mood and the four men chuckled, bucking up and preparing to face whatever would come their way. Kael's heart swelled with pride for her men and noted that this was quite probably the last taste of freedom they’d ever have. Pushing those dangerous thoughts down deep, she nodded to her crew. "Let’s go."


The group was ushered to a large, canvas covered truck bearing the bright golden eagle symbol of the Republican Guards on its door panels. One by one they were bound with their hands behind their backs and shoved up into the large truck after hoods were jerked down over their heads. When the last Marine was aboard, the canvas flap was closed, leaving the group in total darkness.

"Get your hand off my ass, Reingold," Lance Corporal Paul Andrews muttered.

"Take this hood off and I’ll find your dick, Andrews," Reingold retorted, shifting about in the tightly packed truck.

"Shut up, both of you," Kael replied, working at the bindings at her wrists. "Let’s just all calm down and enjoy the ride, shall we?"

"Easy for you to say, Gunny," Andrews retorted. "You don’t have a hairy behemoth sweating all over you."

"Sure I do. I’m sitting next to you, aren’t I?"

"Oh. Well then, if those are your hands, Gunny, feel free to keep copping a feel."

"Bite me, Corporal."

The squad’s laughter was cut short as the truck started up, shooting off a loud backfire as plumes of oily diesel smoke filled the cramped compartment. The soldiers groaned as a group.

"Well, look at it this way," Reg, always the optimist, commented. "At least there’ll be a breeze."

The men groaned again as the truck started off along the bumpy, poorly maintained streets of the Iraqi city, wincing as the hard edges of the interior cut into tender body parts with each foot the vehicle traveled.


Same Day. Underground Bunker of the Republican Guard. Ar Rutbah, Iraq

The military truck finally came to a rattling stop after several hours of driving, giving off one more loud blast as the engine settled. The flap was opened almost immediately, to the immense relief of the group of sweating, air-starved soldiers trapped within it’s stifling confines. Rough hands hauled the human cargo from the back of the truck, forcing each member of the group face down into the scorching, sandy ground, hoods and bindings still securely in place.

Iraqi soldiers argued among themselves as Kael tried to follow the rapid conversation. Her body ached from the enforced confinement. Years of Marine training urged her to get up and crack some heads, if only to get the circulation going again. She resisted the temptation mightily, aware that her men were probably going through the same things. Being captured without a fight was not in the Marine Code. However, they had stopped being Marines as soon as they were captured. Had, in fact, stopped even being U.S. citizens. They were officially persona non grata to the U.S. government. Her orders were clear. "You get captured, we don’t know you." Easy enough to remember, she supposed. After all, it wouldn’t do for it to come out that the United States of America sent in armed squads to blow up buildings of third world countries at taxpayer’s expense.

Kael smirked under her hood. They were officially on their own now. No black suited U.S. Embassy official would come knocking on the door of wherever they were, demanding their immediate release. ‘Well, Gunny. You got em into this mess. It’s up to you to get em out. Right?’ Right. Turning her stiff neck so she faced the rest of her group, Kael cleared her throat, speaking softly in a voice that did not carry up from ground level. "Ok, guys, you know the drill. We’re not at war, so the Geneva Convention’s out the window. Name, rank and serial number is just movie stuff. As far as these goons are concerned, we’re just a bunch of mercenaries from Outer Nonamia out blowing up buildings for kicks. Got me?"

Grunts of assent came from the rest of the group as they resisted their training and awaited their fate.

The rough hands came again, hauling the soldiers up from the ground and dragging them into some type of building. Kael concentrated on counting the steps from the entrance to wherever they were going to be held, noting that the floor curved steadily downward and the air became noticeably cooler and more humid with each step.

Their hoods were removed one by one and each soldier received only a glimpse of their surroundings before a rifle butt to the back of the skull sent each into darkness. Their unconscious bodies were dragged, still bound at the wrists, and dumped into two tiny, dank cells. Steel doors clanged shut with finality and retreating bootsteps went unheard by the group.


Kael was the first to return to consciousness, pain pounding sickly in her temples. Her bound hands prevented her from rubbing the stinging knot on the back of her skull, and as she tried to sit up, a wave of dizziness convinced her that movement was not the best course of action at the present. Instead, she laid back down, her head pillowed on someone’s well muscled thigh. Staring up at a water-stained, crumbling ceiling, her eyes traced the path of several silken webs that ran from the corners of the small cell to the caged light which hung down from the ceiling on a rusty chain.

Movement from beneath her head caused her to sit up once again, rolling with the waves of dizziness as they washed over her. Blinking her eyes to clear her vision, she moved away from the figure beneath her, her back pressing against a chilled, damp wall. "Andrews, you ok?"

"Will be as soon as you give me the plate of the truck that mowed me down," the young man mumbled, struggling to come to a seated position. Like Kael before him, he gave up the effort, crumpling back to the sodden ground and moaning. "Where the fuck are we anyway?"

"Holding cell of some sort," Kael replied, looking around for the first time. The cell was a rough square, approximately ten feet by ten feet, barely large enough for its three occupants to sit without becoming tangled up in one another. The walls were made of crumbling cement, liberally smattered with mostly illegible graffiti. Water ran in continuous streams down the walls, pooling on the cement floor and running down into a large drain in the center. There were no beds, chairs or toilet facilities. The place stank of excrement, death and despair.

Andrews finally made it up to a seated position, looking around as well. "Reminds me of P.S. 62 in the Bronx," he sneered. "What about Sleeping Ugly over there?" He gestured with his head toward the still unconscious Reingold, then groaned and leaned his aching skull back against the damp wall. "Fuck."

As if hearing his name mentioned, Reingold struggled into awareness, the stench of the fetid water flowing into the drain beneath his head causing him to screw up his face in disgust. As he lifted his head from the floor, the others noticed a green slime had liberally coated his close cropped reddish blonde hair.

"Nice look for ya, Goldy," Andrews sneered. "Green is definitely your color."

"What the hell are you talking about, asshole?" Reingold asked, propelling his body out of the pool of water and scrabbling up to lean against the wall, rubbing his head against the crumbling cement to rid himself of the slimy mass clinging to his skull.

"Shut up. Both of you." Lifting her head, Kael looked around the cramped quarters again. "Reg, Kelly, you guys alright?"

Soft moans came from the west end of the tiny cell. "Yeah Gunny, we’re alright in here," PFC Bryon Kelly answered, his voice muffled behind the feet of thick cement separating the two cells. "How about you?"

"We’re ok," Kael answered. Her piercing eyes lanced into the men sharing the cell with her and when she next spoke, her voice was raised just enough to capture the attention of her other two men in the adjoining cell. "Alright, guys. This isn’t gonna be fun, but we’ve been trained for this eventuality. Just remember to keep your heads on straight, don’t give ‘em any information, and try your best to hold on till we figure a way out of this. Understood?"

All the men voiced their consent bravely, promising they wouldn’t break under whatever tortures were going to be inflicted on them. Kael fixed Reingold and Andrews with a significant look. "I’m proud of you guys. Just trust in yourselves and each other and we’ll get out of here."

Reingold cracked a grin that lit up his whole face. "Don’t worry about us, Gunny. We’ll take whatever they can dish out and then some."

"Good," Kael grunted, trying to find a more comfortable position for her aching body. "Now let’s just stay calm and wait to see what they’ve got in store for us."


Several hours later, the steel door to Kael’s cell blew open and two heavily armed guards stepped partially inside, looking menacingly around for a moment before reaching down and pulling Andrews up from the floor.

The brash young soldier’s eyes widened in fear and his dark skin paled for a moment before the customary smirk reappeared over his broad features. "Give it your best shot, coppers," he said in his best James Cagney accent. "You’ll never get me to rat."

The smart remark earned him a hard shot across the jaw, but Andrews refused to let his knees buckle. Turning his head toward his companions, he flashed them a brief, confident smile before he was dragged from the cell, leaving his two squad mates to stare at one another in silence.


The poke to the jaw did nothing to ease the pounding in his head, Andrews observed as he was dragged along through the twisting corridors of the underground structure. Adapt and overcome was one of the mottoes of the Corps and he tried to do both. He really did. It was, however, a bit difficult trying to adapt when one saw everything in quintuplicate. Overcoming was damn near impossible.

Instead, he just went along for the ride, spying everything through a fog of pain and nausea which clenched sickly at his belly as if it had grown roots and planned staying on awhile. He was thankful to whichever gods might have had pity on poor Marines when he was finally dragged through one last doorway and thrown into a hard, high-backed wooden chair. His cuffs were released, then his arms were bound in back of the chair, stretching the muscles in his shoulders to the point of protestation.

His pain calmed some as his vision eased back into sharp focus. Taking advantage of what was sure to be an all too brief respite, the soldier looked around at his new accommodations. It appeared he was in an office of some sort, quite Spartanly decorated. A desk filled much of the space and a large picture of Saddam Hussein hung behind it, bordered by the Iraqi flag on one side and the banner of the Republican Guard on the other. The floor was cheaply tiled and barren of any coverings. Andrews smirked internally. ‘It’s gotta be a bitch to get the blood out of Berber.’

Seated behind the desk, resplendent in his Guard uniform, was obviously the Commandant of this little pleasure camp, his black, close cropped hair gleaming in the mellow light. A luxuriant mustache sprouted beneath his nose and the man stroked it reflexively as he attended his paperwork, giving off the calculated air of a man much too busy to have time to deal with ruffians such as the one now seated before him.

After a long moment of silence, the man’s dark, cunning eyes lifted from the desktop, scanning the seated form of Andrews with as much fascination as one would spy a particularly interesting insect on the sidewalk. He looked at the guards bracketing Andrews like bookends, speaking rapidly to them. Both men nodded and grabbed their weapons to their chests, standing like statues.

Finally, the man looked back at Andrews, smiling slightly and stroking his moustache again. He fired off another rapid sentence, then sat back in the chair awaiting a response.

Unfortunately for the Marine, Andrews was a last minute addition to the squad, having been called up from a cushy job stateside when the original explosives expert came down with the flu. As such, his training in the local flora and fauna of Iraq left much to be desired. He neither spoke nor understood a word of Arabic.

Never one to allow such a minute detail disrupt his work, Andrews met the patiently waiting look from the Commandant with a challenging stare of his own. His effort was rewarded by a rifle butt to the stomach and he hunched over, gasping for air, suddenly thankful that he’d skipped breakfast that morning. Looking back up, Andrews shot another challenging glare toward his tormenter and was again rewarded with a blow to the stomach, leaving him breathless and coughing.

Getting his breathing back under control, the Marine gathered his wits and straightened slowly, trying to adopt a casual posture against the snakes of pain in his guts. "Listen, Colonel Klink," he said in the strongest voice he could muster, "it should be obvious to you by now that I don’t understand a word you’re saying. You could jabber at me like a monkey on the rag till the next millennium and I still wouldn’t understand ya. So why don’t you just cut to the chase, beat the crap outta me like a good little thug and take me back to my buddies, huh?"

His breath came out in a gush and he swore he could feel the weapon’s stock against his spine as the next blow to his stomach came full force. The world around him greyed out for a moment, and when he came to, the Commandant was slowly getting up from behind his desk, meticulously straightening the creases in his uniform. He favored Andrews with a toothy smile. "You Americans are so predictable," the man said in English so lightly accented that Andrews knew he had spent quite some time in the States. "All bluster and bravado, yet when it comes right down to it, softer than the belly of a pig."

"You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree, m’man," Andrews retorted. "I’m about as American as Mao T’se Tung." Two rifle stocks jammed into the nerves of his shoulders, slamming the Marine back against the hard wood of the chair, a hiss of pain escaping through tightly pursed lips.

"You take me for a fool," the man observed, coming around to the front of the desk and perching against it with one hip, casually studying his fingernails. "No matter. What you lack in bravery, you in no way make up for in civility. I, however, am a man of good breeding. I can be polite, even if my guests don’t understand the meaning of the word." He pressed down the fabric of his uniform jacket, then braced his palms against the desk, leaning forward slightly. "My name is Kamran Al-Hassein and I am the commander of this Unit. And you, my American friend, were caught trespassing on my land. I would like to talk with you about this. Civilly. Why don’t we start with your name?" Al-Hassein smiled again, spreading his hands. "After all, you know mine."

Andrews smirked. "John Fuckin’ Doe. Next question?"

At the Commander’s nod, two rifle stocks came down on the long muscles of the soldier’s thigh. Andrews cried out in pain, slumping in the chair once again, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead and under his nose. "Your name, American."

"Benito Mussolini from Bum Fuck, Egypt," Andrews gasped out. A thundering blow to his jaw snapped the Marine’s head back against the chair and the world spun crazily on its axis for long seconds.

"Your name."

"Dom Perignone, 1936," the soldier moaned. A blow to his right collarbone, the bone snapping like a rifle shot, the sound echoing throughout the sterile room.

Al-Hassein walked over to the semi-conscious man, lifting the sopping hair and peering into the soldier’s pain glazed eyes. "Why do you have to make things so hard on yourself, my friend?" False compassion rang through his voice. "The pain will end if you just tell me your name."

Andrews gathered what little bilious spit was left in his mouth and shot it at the Commander’s face, hitting him directly between bushy black eyebrows.

Al-Hassein stepped back, wiping the spittle from his brow and nodding to one of the guards. Andrews screamed as the butt of the man’s rifle came directly down between his spread thighs, squashing his genitals like a ripe melon. The Marine’s arms and legs drew inward as he hunched over, vomiting squarely into his abused lap. Then he passed out cold.

Sighing and shaking his head, Al-Hassein cleaned his wet fingers on an immaculate white handkerchief. "Take him down to his friends," he ordered the guards in Arabic. "Unbind the others and let them live with his pain tonight. We’ll start up again tomorrow."

"Yes, my Commander," one of the guards intoned. "Will there be anything else, sir?"

"No food or water for any of them. Oh, and make sure none of them gets a wink of sleep tonight. That will be all."

"Yes, Commander." Unbinding the unconscious soldier from the chair, the guards removed him from the room.

Pressing his handkerchief back into his pocket, Al-Hassein returned to his seat behind his desk, sighing again. "Americans," he mused sadly as he picked up his pen. "Such pitiful representatives of humanity. The world will be much better off without them."

Only the walls of the office heard his thoughts as the Commander returned to work.


The slamming open of the steel door scared Reingold out of a year’s worth of growth and he jumped up from his place by the drain, barely avoiding the body of Andrews as it was thrown into the cell. The guards laughed and retreated from the cell, slamming the door tightly shut behind them.

Kael gathered the young man up in her arms and gently turned him over so his face could be seen. Dried blood crusted around his nostrils and mouth. One side of his jaw sported massive swelling and the first hints of horrid bruising that seemed to take shape before their eyes, competing with a day’s growth of beard for space on his face.

"Aww shit, Gunny," Reingold whispered, taking stock of his companion. "What did they do to him?"

"A little manual persuasion," Kael replied shortly, noting the fractured collarbone by the odd angle of the Marine’s right arm. Laying the unconscious body gently down on the wet ground, she lifted the front of his thin robes, baring Andrews’ swollen abdomen.

"Aww bloody fuck," Reingold whispered again, taking in the injuries. "Think he’s got something busted inside?"

Kael gently probed the muscled abdomen, feeling for warmth or involuntary guarding. "No. These guys know what they’re doing. They want us around for awhile yet." Her eyes tracking down to the massively swollen bulge hidden beneath Andrews’ Marine issue Jockeys, Kael took a deep breath and gently tugged them down by the waistband.

Reingold’s gasp echoed through the tiny chamber, his eyes wide, his face pale, his hands involuntarily cupping his own groin in sympathy for the sight that greeted his eyes.

"Don’t go passing out on me now, Shooter," Kael warned, gathering up her own robes and ripping off a large swath of cloth from the hem. "I’m gonna need your help here, so buck the hell up."

"I . . .I don’t think I can take this, Gunny," he replied in a tremulous voice.

"Step to, Marine!" Kael’s low voice rang out. A sharp sound followed as her callused palm connected with the panicked man’s cheek.

As if in a trance, Reingold reached a hand up to caress his cheek, looking at his commanding officer with wide eyes. "Why’d ya hit me, Gunny?"

"Because you were acting like a horse’s ass, Shooter," Kael commented, tearing the cloth in two and dipping both parts into the chilled fetid water that pooled on the floor of their cell. Folding both cloths into neat squares, she pressed one over Andrews’ groin and the other over his abdomen. "Not worthy of Johns Hopkins, but it’ll do for now." Her eyes lanced up at Reingold who seemed to have regained some of his coloring. "I’ll need your help for this next part," she said softly, pulling up the Marine’s undershorts and pulling down his gown.

"W-what do you want me to do?"

"Rip off a piece of your robe about this big," she said, indicating the length by the spread of her hands.

Doing as he was ordered, Reingold handed the cloth to Kael. "What do you need it for?"

"His collarbone’s fractured and mis-aligned. I’m gonna need your help to set it properly, then we’re gonna bind his arm to his chest. We’ll have to take it off before the guards come back, but it’ll lessen his pain for now. You ready?"

"I . . .I think so."

Kael looked at him, her eyes warming. "You’re a good man, Shooter. C’mon. Help me lift him up." When the soldier was leaning against her chest, Kael gestured to her companion. "Ok, hold his arm straight out. Yeah, just like that. Now keep holding and don’t let go, alright?" At the Marine’s nod, Gunny took a deep breath, clenching and releasing the fingers of her numbed right hand. "This is gonna hurt like a bitch. Thank the gods he’s unconscious. Ready? One. Two. Three. Now." With a sharp jab, Kael drove the heel of her hand into Andrews’ collar bone. The two ends of the bone aligned with a sharp snap.

Reingold gulped convulsively. "I think I’m gonna puke," he groaned, his face pale once again.

"Steady, Shooter. Almost done. Now bring his arm across his body gently so his hand’s against his other shoulder. Perfect. Now hold his arm there nice and tight while I push him up so I can bind it to his chest."

Within moments, the job was done and the still unconscious Andrews rested more comfortably, his head and shoulders pillowed in Kael’s lap. She looked up at the still pale Reingold and smiled slightly. "Good job, Shooter," she commented warmly. "Ya might never make it as a Medic, but I think I’ll keep ya around anyway."

Reingold smiled sickly at her in response.

Making herself more comfortable against the crumbling wall, Kael reached down and gently stroked Andrews’ sweat soaked hair. She raised her voice slightly. "Reg and Kelly. You guys still with us over there?"

"Yeah, we’re here, Gunny. We heard what you were doin’ in there. Andrews’ alright now?"

"He’ll live. Now listen up. I’ve been through this drill before. It’s a sure bet that sleep’s the last thing we’re gonna get tonight, but that’s ok because we’re Marines, right?"

"Right!" came the shouted, proud response.

"Good. I want us all working every minute of the night. Study your cells. Look for any weaknesses. Study the guards’ patterns very carefully. Watch the way they open the doors. Watch the way they close ‘em. Look ‘em in the eye and let ‘em know you’re not afraid. If we work together, we can find a way out of this, alright?"

Yells of assent echoed through the cells.


Reingold sat with his back hunched up against the cell wall, dripping wet from the impromptu shower the group had received to make sure no one was sleeping. The fat nozzles of high pressure hoses had protruded through the small slit in the steel door, water blasting from their mouths with dangerous force. Andrews had screamed shrilly at the blast, then slipped into merciful unconsciousness yet again, Kael’s body wrapped protectively around the wounded soldier.

Running a dripping hand through his hair, the young Marine studied Kael’s huddled form, watching as the glittering blue eyes darted around the room, resting on nothing for more than a second before moving on. ‘What’s going through that mind of yours, Gunny?’ he thought. In his own way, Reingold loved Kael. She was almost like that tired cliché of the sister he never had. They’d met in basic and had pretty much been together ever since, their interests and talents meshing well; their goals meshing equally well. He felt no sense of jealousy when the woman quickly surpassed him in rank. Chose to follow her willingly into hell and back, seeing the excellent leadership abilities even back when they were young and green as spring branches. His nickname came from the fact that he was an expert marksman, but she was his better in even that. In fact, in his considered opinion, and one which he never minded sharing loudly and often, especially while on a bender, he couldn’t think of a single Marine who was her better at anything. ‘What went wrong this time, Kael? We were supposed to just go in, do the deed and get out. It’s not like we’ve never done this sort of thing before. When did you finally find your conscience?’

He opened his mouth to ask the questions his mind was speaking, then shut it quickly, catching Kael’s eye as she perused the room yet again. The gaze that dropped back down to the injury riddled form in her lap was filled with guilt and self-loathing. He remembered that look well. It always came over her face when she talked about the death of her beloved brother Kevin.

Reingold slumped back against the wall as he remembered the story of Kevin’s death in a hazing mishap at VMI. Kael and her brother had been as close as two peas in a pod; sharing everything. Their mutual goal was to follow their much honored father into the prestigious halls of the Academy, to honor the memory of the man whom each worshipped.

Unfortunately, at that time, the gender rules were strictly enforced and though she could have passed every entrance exam easily, Kael was denied admission. She fought hard for the right to enter the school, but to no avail. Loathe to talk her brother out of his dream of attending, Kael said goodbye to Kevin one late summer morning and never saw him again. She blamed herself for his death, rationalizing that if she had only fought harder to change the archaic rules, her brother would never have died. No one could talk her out of the feeling; she carried it with her still. She vowed on his grave to spend her life proving to the powers that be that a woman had as much right in the military as a man. ‘And damn if you didn’t do it, Kael. I know that somewhere, Kevin’s looking down at his big sister, proud as hell. I only wish you believed it.’

He sighed and turned his gaze away from the two figures, not really surprised when the nozzles entered again, blasting them all with their icy jets. Mercifully, Andrews remained deeply asleep, the brunt of the blast borne by the brave woman protecting his battered body with her own.


The night passed slowly and quickly at the same time. At regular intervals, icy water drenched the group, preventing sleep, preventing thought as their bodies shivered and trembled in the cold, still air of the cells.

After several tense hours, Andrews finally came fully awake to find himself propped in Kael’s lap, a pair of concerned blue eyes looking down at him. "How are you feeling?" Kael asked, continuing to stroke the wet hair from his forehead.

He tried to crack a smile, though his face felt like he was holding a pool ball in his cheek. "Alright," he rasped, then looked around as if only now fully aware of his position. A leer curved the undamaged side of his face. "Hot damn, Gunny. If I’d have known that the way to get between your legs was to get the shit beaten outta me, I’d ‘a had Goldielocks over there rough me up a long time ago."

At her arched eyebrow, Andrews laughed, coughing and gasping as pain tore through his abused gut. "Aww shit," he groaned after getting his breath back. "This just hasn’t been my day."

"You’ve had a time of it," Kael agreed, shifting slightly beneath his head. "C’mon. We need to get you sitting up. The guards should be back soon."

Andrews cried out as Kael shifted his position, grabbing her arm with feeble strength. "Can’t sit, Gunny. Gotta lie down. Lying down is good. Real good." His breath came out in whistling gasps as sweat came again to bathe his temples.

Kael held out determinedly against the weak thrashing of the Marine. "Sorry, my friend. Up is where you need to be right now. Can’t have those guards coming in and thinking we’re giving you special treatment, can we?"

"Sure we can!" Andrews grasped, still struggling as the torn muscles in his abdomen screamed in time with his suddenly racing heart. The pain between his legs throbbed more sickly than a rotted tooth. "Gunny! Gunny, c’mon. Please. Oh fuck." Now seated, he collapsed back against Kael’s chest, wheezing loudly as the room spun around him. He felt chilled hands at the back of his neck and stiffened.

"Hold your arm tight against your chest. I need to take the bindings off."

"You . . .ya don’t have to do that, Gunny. They’re not very observant guys. Maybe they won’t even notice, huh?" He gasped again as his C.O. ignored his protestations, gently removing the bindings holding his collarbone together. He roared in pain, struggling to move up and away from the body trapping his own in a strong embrace of agony. "Damnit, Gunny! Do you have to be such a fuckin’ Sadist? First you get us thrown in jail and then ya about kill me! What next??"

The body behind him stiffened. Her hands dropped away as if his skin were suddenly made of molten steel. "You’re right," the strangled voice sounded in his ear.

"Aww, Christ," Andrews muttered, struggling to turn his head slightly. "I’m sorry, Gunny. I got a big mouth, ya know. Sometimes I just don’t know when ta close it. Don’t take nothin’ I said personal, Gunny, ok?"

"No. You’re right. It’s my fault that we’re in here."

Struggling against his body’s betrayal, Andrews managed to wrench himself around, reaching out a hand and laying it on the muscled forearm of his commander. "This isn’t how any of us pictured it turning out, Gunny," he said. "But them’s the breaks, right? To tell ya the truth, I wasn’t too fond of seeing those little tykes in pieces either." Taking a chance, he removed his hand and gently grasped Kael’s chin, forcing her dull blue eyes to fix on his. "We’re not all like Epps, Gunny," he said softly, willing her to believe. "I haven’t known you all that long, that’s true. But I can see you’re a good leader and a damn fine Marine. When we get outta this, I’ll be happy to cover your ass anytime alright?"

Forcing out a small smile, Kael nodded her dark head, reaching up and gently clasping his uninjured hand with her own.

The doors blew back open and two guards stepped in, eyeing the three drenched captives, sneering, before they reached down as a unit and grabbed Andrews away from Kael. The Marine’s scream was high and breathless as his arms were wrenched behind his back, the previously set bone bulging, straining against his skin like a malignant growth. Marshalling his strength against the blackness encroaching on his vision, Andrews struggled to get his legs beneath his spasming body, determined to walk out of the cell like a man.



After he was thrown into the chair, trying with all his might not to black out as his hands were again forced behind his back, Andrews’ eyes widened with shock as, with a nod, Al-Hassein dismissed the guards from the room.

Taking in Andrews’ look of mild surprise, the commander smiled, displaying a row of brilliant white teeth. "I thought that today, our meeting might be better served by just having us chat, man to man as it were," the Iraqi explained, standing in front of the bound captive, his hands loosely clasped behind his back. "My guards sometimes get a little too . . .shall we say . . .possessive of my rank in our society. They don’t like to see me slandered." He shrugged. "I am sure you know how it is." Reaching out, he ran a fingertip along the Marine’s swollen jawline, smirking as the man pulled his head defiantly away from the gentle touch.

Wiping the sweat from his hand off on Andrews’ tattered robe, Al-Hassein straightened and stepped back slightly, his eyes sparkling with false compassion. "Where’s your sharp tongue, my American friend?"

Andrews’, acknowledging that discretion was the better part of valor, decided against telling the Iraqi interrogator exactly where he could shove his compassion and remained silent.

Al-Hassein smiled and nodded as if Andrews had spoken aloud. "It’s good to see that you Americans have some manners after all." Shifting his weight, the commander casually crossed his arms over his broad chest, looking down at his captive with interest. "Perhaps that civility can continue into today’s discussion, no?" He smiled again. "Perhaps your telling your name was just too hard a task for you yesterday. I’ve decided to start with something a bit more simple. Which branch of the American military are you assigned to, my friend?"

When his captive failed to answer, the commander reached out his arm again, grasping the man’s jaw in one hand and squeezing slightly, warning. Andrews winced and bit back a moan. "Please talk to me. You needn’t feel any more pain, you know."

Andrews remained silent, and the hand became like a vice. He hissed out a pained breath.

Al-Hassein sighed and released his grip. "I really would rather not hurt you anymore, my friend. It pains me to see you like this. It pains me deeply. Just tell me which branch you’re from and I’ll send you back to your friends. I’ll even arrange to have some food and water sent in. Maybe let you get some sleep tonight? Hmmm?"

"Go to hell, you Iraqi pig."

Shaking his head, the commander thrust out an arm, the heel of his hand striking the broken collarbone dead on. Andrews’ scream was breathless as he slumped in his chair, unconscious.

The commander stepped back, blowing out a breath of disgust. "Allah be my strength," he whispered to the walls in his own language before turning and summoning his guards back into the room.

"Get him out of here and bring me another," Al-Hassein ordered when the guards arrived.

Nodding, the two guards released Andrews’ wrists and dragged his limp body up from the chair, holding him suspended between them. "There’s a man and a woman in the cell with him, my Commander," one of the guards said, "and two other men in the adjoining cell."

The commander’s eyes widened. "A woman?!"

"Yes, Commander. Should we bring her in to you?"

Al-Hassein cupped his chin in thought. Perhaps he was mistaken? He fancied himself quite a scholar of the U.S. military, and knew of no women who were trusted enough to belong to an elite terrorist squad. Perhaps these weren’t Americans after all?

He sighed, the beginnings of a headache pounding at his temples. Orders had come from on high this morning to break these American bastards. His leader was gearing up to cross into Kuwait and the Americans were rattling their sabers, warning against such action. If Al-Hassein could prove that these people were really American terrorists, sent into the country to kill innocent civilians, the United States could well be forced to stay out of Arabian affairs. He smiled inwardly. The glory of Allah would be his.

So, the question remained. Were these truly American soldiers? His instincts told him yes, even if the presence of a woman among them stirred the pot a little. Would he be able to get anything important from her? That was doubtful. If she were here with the rest, it must be in some minor support role. Her mind wouldn’t contain anything of importance to his mission. Women’s minds rarely did. "Bring the other man from the cell. We’ll try him first."

"As you wish, my Commander."


Al-Hassein took time to study the new prisoner as he was strapped to his chair. This new man was almost a total opposite from his previous captive, with his light colored hair and pale skin. Where the previous man was stocky, this prisoner was long and lanky, thin almost to the point of emaciation. The commander clucked his tongue softly, mildly disgusted. Summoning up his rapidly depleting reserves of polite civility, Al-Hassein smiled and stepped around his desk to face his prey. "My name is Kamran Al-Hassein. Welcome to my home." He spread his arms wide in a friendly welcoming gesture. "I realize you are probably thinking that you’re about to receive the same treatment as your friend. Let me put your fears to rest, my friend. He talked. Told me everything I needed to know. All I need from you is a few loose ends tied up and you’re free to go."

At the expression on Reingold’s face, the commander’s bushy eyebrows rose in mock surprise. "I’m hurt that you don’t believe me. Deeply wounded. You are my guest here. Why would I lie to you?"

Reingold smiled slightly and shook his head. "If my ‘friend’ had told you everything, sir, you wouldn’t have thrown him back in the cell still alive. He would have served his purpose and damn sure wouldn’t look good as an example of a misguided young man shown the error of his heathen ways by a benevolent mentor, now would he. I don’t think even your own people would believe he had made some trumped up confession of his own free will."

Al-Hassein’s brows contracted. Out-maneuvered. By an American, no less. The thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. He willed his face to remain relaxed as his mind sorted through various plans in an attempt to save face. He smiled broadly, falsely. "You watch too much television, American. Your friend is alive simply because I have no need to see him otherwise. He put up a brave fight, but in the end, he was persuaded to tell the truth." He took a step closer to the bound captive. "You seem a bit too intelligent to have need of the same persuasive tactics, am I right?"

Reingold pretended to give the question serious thought. "If you mean that I’m too smart to need you to beat your version of the truth out of me, then you’re right," he agreed. The sneer which bloomed looked very much out of place on his open, friendly face. "I wouldn’t tell you the time if I were standing in front of Big Ben with a gun to my head."

His chair tilted crazily back on two legs as the blow to his face thundered into his head, shattering his nose and several front teeth. Coughing harshly on inhaled blood, the young man jerked forward, righting the chair as he spat blood and teeth shards from his furrowed lips. "There goes another candidate for TV Confessions with Saddam," he rasped. The second blow ended his torment and Reingold sagged against his bonds, his breathing shallow and rapid.

Al-Hassein stepped back, snarling as he viewed the blood dotting his immaculate uniform. "Get him out of my sight. Bring the other one back here, conscious or not. I want answers and I want them now!" With a disgusted sigh, the commander looked at the clock. He had promised his superiors answers by the end of the day. Time was rapidly slipping away from him and that put him in the foulest of moods. If Hussein got wind of these failures, the captives would look like poster children for the Good Health Society compared to how he was sure to look after a session with his leader’s master interrogators.


Reingold was holding a compress tight to his nose as Kael tended to what was left of his mouth. The cell door opened and Andrews was thrown in. Dropping her rags, Kael caught the Marine’s slumping body before it hit the ground, staring up at the guards as they sneered at the captives. After a long moment, they turned and left.

Kael gathered Andrews close to her, examining what was left of his face. His eyes were horribly swollen and blackened, his nose crushed, his mouth a bloody hole. "They didn’t break me, Gunny," Andrews slurred through a mouthful of broken teeth. "The bastards tried, but I didn’t tell ‘em anything."

"Ya did great, Andrews," Kael said gruffly, ripping another swatch from her robe and tending to his heavily bleeding facial wounds. "Rest now and let me take care of your face, alright?"

Andrews struggled against her, straining to open his swollen eyes. "No, Gunny. Don’t waste your time. Please. I . . .I did it this time . . .but not next time. Next time, I’m gonna crack, Gunny. I can’t hold out anymore. You don’t know what it’s like in there. You don’t . . . ." The young soldier began to choke on his own blood.

"Shhhh, Paul. Shhh. Relax now. I won’t let them hurt you anymore. I promise."

"No! It’s too late. Too late . . .for me, Gunny. Please . . .please fix it so I’m still a hero, ok?"

Kael’s blue eyes widened. "What are you saying, Paul?"

Andrews’ tortured eyes met her own. "Please, Gunny. End it. Here and now. Please. Don’t make me sell out." He struggled weakly again. "Please, Gunny. I’m beggin’ ya. Don’t let me die a traitor."

Kael tore her gaze away from the pleading, anguished soldier, looking over at Reingold who was staring at the scene with wide, frightened eyes. She looked back down at Andrews who met her gaze unflinchingly. "Are you sure you want this, Paul?" She tenderly stroked his swollen face, needing desperately to know the answer. "Absolutely sure?"

"I’m positive," he gasped. "Help me. Please." The last word came out in a tortured whisper.

Taking in a deep breath of stale air, Kael nodded, reaching over with her free hand and gently cupping his face on either side. "Anything you . . .want to tell your family?" she asked uncomfortably, her throat suddenly dry at the duty she had been given.

Andrews closed his swollen eyes for a long moment. "Tell them . . .tell them I died well, Gunny," he whispered. A small smile crossed over his face. "Good luck," he added softly.

Kael’s eyes, pale orbs which could freeze the heart of any mortal, warmed with compassion, pride, and the quiet strength which always characterized her. "Good rest, my friend."

"Thank you," he whispered.

A quick twist and it was over.

Releasing her hold on his face, Kael gathered the body up to her chest, supporting the lolling head with one hand as she supported the limp form with the other. A sad, haunting melody sprung forth from her lips of its own accord, filling the chamber with its somber beauty as she rocked the unfeeling body of her comrade in her strong arms.

The last note hung in the air for a long moment before it faded out and Kael lowered her head to rest her brow atop the dark hair of Andrews. "Goodbye, my friend," she whispered.

Reingold cleared his throat to break the silence. "That was beautiful," he said in a strangled voice. "I’ve never heard you sing it before."

Kael lifted her head away from Andrews, her brow furrowing. "I don’t know where it came from," she said, puzzled. "I’ve never heard that song before in my life. It was just . . .there." Shaking her head to clear her confusion, the C.O. gently laid Andrews’ body on the cold damp floor of the cell, crossing his arms over his chest and brushing an errant lock of hair from his face. Shifting her position slightly, she moved to sit next to Reingold, who slipped an arm around her shoulders in an awkward hug. Kael sighed. "Let’s try and get some sleep before the hoses come again."

Within moments, all was quiet save for the steady dripping of water into the cell.


It was nighttime. And warm, at least when compared to the damp chill of her prison cell. The freshening breeze caressed her clammy skin delicately. The air smelled clean, with just a hint of woodsmoke which came up from the bonfire in front of her, being born off by the wind in the other direction before it could sting at her eyes. She noticed trees in the periphery of her vision and wanted to look around, take them in, but her eyes were focussed squarely on the bright burning pyre that grew as she walked closer to it. The haunting melody continued to spring forth from her soul, borne, like the smoke from the pyre, up in the wind’s gentle embrace.

Her heart was heavy and sad as she stared into the fire, the last note of her tribute fading in the night breeze. Off to her left, very nearby, came a voice which touched deep chords in her soul, though she had never before heard it. The words were foreign, but she understood them, as she suddenly understood the words to the song which had borne Andrews to his death, the song she had just now sung again, though to whom, she wasn’t sure.

"I wish I could have met him," the unseen figure at her side said, her voice full of warm compassion. "I’m sorry."

"He was my friend," she replied in the same unknown language, but speaking it like a native born.

"To be remembered like that is a good thing."

She wanted to turn her head; to look at the person who thought to offer her comfort through this un-understood grief, but her feet carried her closer to the fire before she could force her head around. "My friend," she found herself saying, stopping a short distance away from what she now realized to be a funeral pyre. "My friend."

The sharp sound of a door slamming off concrete walls as well as the sudden convulsive stiffening of an arm around her shoulders woke Kael from her dream. Still half unaware, she jumped into a fighting crouch, flinging off the arm pinning her against the wall and clenching her fists.

Two guards burst into the cell, both eyeing her closely, their hands tightening on their weapons. Kael stared back, then relaxed against the wall, taking a deep breath to calm her racing heart. The dream, which seconds ago had seemed so real, scattered and dissipated like fog in the morning sun.

Fully entering the dank cell, the guards grunted as they bent down to grab Andrews by the arms. The Marine’s head, unsupported by his broken neck, lolled backwards, the close cropped hair fuzzing the back of his skull pressing close against his shoulder blades. One of the guards eyes’ widened and he dropped the arm he was holding as if the chilled skin had burnt the tender flesh of his palms. His companion, taken by surprise by the action, dropped the other arm, allowing Andrews’ body to fall back to the water-pooled floor, his neck cocked at an unlikely, grotesque angle.

The first guard grunted and squatted, reaching out a hand to rest on the captive’s marble-like neck. Cocking his head, he felt around some more, before raising his gaze, his eyes taking in first his companion, then the two prisoners who sat against the wall opposite him. "This man is dead."

Kael allowed a smirk to form on her lips. "What tipped ya off, Einstein?" she replied in flawless Arabic.

The second guard snarled, lifting his weapon and stepping toward the seated captive before he was stopped by his comrade who stood and dusted his hands off on his immaculately pressed trousers. "We don’t have the time," he informed his companion, releasing the guard’s arm to force him to the cell door. "The Commander needs to know of this."

Grunting, the second guard allowed himself to be guided out of the cell, turning back only once to imprint the face of the woman into his memory.


Al-Hassein turned his head to look at the clock for the third time in as many minutes. Time, once a cherished friend, had turned into a deadly enemy over the course of one day. His evening prayers, once a bastion of peace in his otherwise chaotic world, had seemed to drag interminably. For the first time in his life, he found himself rushing through the rituals, needing to get them over with so he could attend to his duties.

He looked at the clock again, growling under his breath and slamming his clenched fist down on his desk, causing the myriad of scattered papers to shuffle in protest. He had an hour at the most before his superiors would call demanding answers.

Closing his eyes and rubbing at his temples, the commander forced himself to relax, contenting himself with the vision of the battered soldier when he had last seen him. The man would break quickly now, he knew. He had been a hairsbreadth from cracking during the last session before his pain carried him away, and with his consciousness, his secrets also retreated.

‘Not this time, my American friend,’ Al-Hassein promised himself. ‘This time I’ll have you begging me to reveal all your dirty little secrets.’ A malicious smile bloomed on his face as he pictured his new, opulent office in the Presidential palace and the "Friend of Saddam" ribbon that was sure to adorn his chest. His name would be spoken of in reverent whispers as the man who single-handedly prevented the loathsome United States from entering a war that was sure to begin just as soon as the first Iraqi tank entered the boarder into Kuwait.

His blissful reverie was interrupted when the empty-handed guards stepped diffidently into the room. "Where’s the prisoner?" he barked, his vision shattered in pieces and laying on the ground at his feet. Time suddenly sped up again and a nervousness totally foreign to him planted its seeds into his gut.

"He’s dead, my Commander," one of the guards replied.

"Wha-at?" Al-Hassein demanded, rising slowly from behind his desk. "What do you mean ‘dead’?"

"He lives no more, Commander. His neck was broken."

Al-Hassein flew around the desk, his teeth bared in rage. Stalking up to one of the guards, he planted a knee squarely between the man’s legs, causing the guard to gasp, hunch over, and loose his weapon. "You ignorant pig!" he screamed, spittle flying from dry lips. "I told you to take care with him!"

"It . . .it wasn’t us, Commander," the other guard stated strongly. "The woman caught him when he was placed into the cell. He was alive when we left. I swear it!"

The Commander turned to the second guard, his eyes glittering with feral intensity. The guard’s eyes were round and wide but the truth of his words came through clearly. Al-Hassein felt the anger at his own men leave him with the words. His mind spun. The circumstances of the man’s death became clear to him and he felt a hint of pride at the unsuspected bravery of the American prisoners. He never expected them to choose death over dishonor. Further never expected a comrade to end the existence of another. Life was just too precious to them. His mind’s eye pictured the skinny blonde man snapping his companion’s neck. The picture seemed wrong somehow, but he suspected that perhaps the Americans had some hidden strengths after all. "Go back into that cell and bring me the skinny one."

The guards nodded and were just about at the door when their commander’s voice pulled them up short. "No, wait." He looked at the clock again, thoughts running rapidly through his head. Surely the woman would be easier to break. She might not know all the answers, but even a woman would know her own name and the name of the military branch to which she was attached. This information was sure to be enough to appease his superiors for the time being. After he broke the woman, he could work on the remaining men at his leisure.

Time again became his ally as Al-Hassein smiled, stroking the corners of his luxuriant moustache. "Bring me the woman instead."

"Yes, Commander," one of the guards replied as both stepped out of the office, closing the door softly behind them.

Al-Hassein smiled and rocked back on his heels. Life was suddenly quite good again.



The Commander smiled to himself as he heard his office door open once again, not even bothering to look up from his paperwork as the guards stepped into the room. His good mood had grown in the few minutes he was forced to wait; grown as he realized that he wouldn’t even have to get his hands dirty during this particular session. Al-Hassein could be a very charming man when he had to be. He knew American woman liked that; their own men being too boorish to master the fine art of civility. He would just walk over to the woman, turn on the charm, let her know that her information would keep the others in her group from getting hurt, and in ten minutes, be on the phone to his superiors, basking in their accolades.

It was only when he heard the small group cross over to the chair sitting before his desk did the officer deign to look up from his work. His smile froze on his face as he took in the form of the figure being held between his two guards. Whatever he might have expected, it was surely not this. The top of her lush raven head came equal to the taller of the two guards. Her strange, pale, utterly fearless eyes lanced into his own, causing his heartbeat pause as the seeds of nervousness previously planted began to grow roots in his belly. The woman exuded strength, focus, and an utter darkness the likes of which the commander, who was well used to strong, dangerous, dark men, had never seen.

After a long moment, his own darkness rose to the fore again, dismissing the look he had been given from those strange eyes as a mere trick of the light. With a nod of his dark head, the guards forced the woman down into the chair. He stopped them from binding her arms behind her back however, as he chanced a look at her hands. Suddenly, he knew without a doubt who had ended the soldier’s life in the cell. Those hands were large and strong and Al-Hassein thought that if he just looked at them for long enough, he would see inches of dried blood coating them. A tendril of fear snaked through his body as his gaze trailed up the lean, yet voluptuous, form of the now seated prisoner, stopping to take in the proud jaw and high arched cheekbones of what even he would admit was a beautiful American woman.

Pushing the senseless fear down yet again, the commander affixed a welcoming smile to his face as he rose from behind the desk and crossed to stand before this new prisoner. "Welcome, young woman," he said in his most charming voice. "A pity that my friends didn’t remark on your ravishing beauty. I would have offered you only the finest hospitality had I known."

"Then I’m glad they didn’t," Kael responded in Al-Hassein’s own tongue, spoken without a trace of an accent. Again, the commander was left wondering, uncertain. Could these truly be Americans? Nodding again to his guards, Al-Hassein watched as they laid the woman’s arms on the arms of the chair, reaching down to secure her to the seat with thick leather straps. Her lean, tapered fingers curled around the edge of the chair arms, relaxed.

The commander allowed his countenance to darken as he looked up from his study of the woman’s hands to again peer into her glittering eyes. "Your friend was just about to bare his soul to me," he said, finding comfort in the speaking of his own tongue. "You prevented that from happening. Why?"

Kael’s lips curved into a sneer as she refused to look away from his direct gaze.

The two engaged in a silent battle of wills for long moments before Al-Hassein found himself unbelievably having to look away from the deadly glare of his prisoner. Clearing his throat against his discomfort, the commander gestured to his men, who raised their weapons. "Unfortunately, you did a very bad thing and must receive the proper punishment. It’s not something I want to do, believe me. But even I have my orders." He tried to make his voice sound sad, but failed miserably, so off balance was he by this strange woman sitting in his office as if she, not he, were the interrogator. He nodded again, a savage shake of his head, and watched interestedly as the rifle butts came down upon her unprotected hands, crushing the bones beneath the smooth, silken flesh, his ears awaiting the wonderful sounds of her screams of agony.

There was only silence. He forced himself to look up, knowing the woman had passed out just as her compatriots had before her, and irrationally disappointed because of it. Looked up to find those eyes still staring at him, the sneer still curled about the full lips of his captive.

"Is that the best you can do?" the low, melodious voice asked without a hint of the agony she must surely be feeling.

Al-Hassein forced himself not to gasp. Surely this woman was not human. "Who are you?" he breathed, barely aware that he was speaking aloud.

Kael chose not to answer him Instead, she leaned back against the chair, actually crossing her legs as the smirk on her face became a half smile of amusement. She was holding all the cards and she knew it. Worse, she knew he knew it as well. Her deceptively casual posture was deliberately designed to prod him into making a mistake.

Closing the distance between them, Al-Hassein’s wonder was evident on his face as he pushed a large thumb down onto the warm flesh of her crushed left hand. He stared at her face, determined to see some sort of reaction to this. There was none. Not even the involuntary tensing of her jaw muscles or the contraction of her pupils betrayed her pain. The amused smile remained. Her eyes seemed to laugh at his discomfort.

The commander removed his thumb and moved slightly away, trying to regroup. He was totally non-plused and reeling off balance. Al-Hassein was a competent military commander with many skirmish victories under his belt. None of his experience, however, had prepared him for this. His mind whirled. His broad shoulders raised, then settled as he wiped his hands down his uniform, huffing out a soft sigh of air.

The look of false compassion returned again to his eyes. "It doesn’t have to be like this, you know," he said finally, gesturing to her hands. "You understand my position. It was only business. You took something of mine so I had to take something of yours. Now that we are again on an even field, as it were, we can begin anew." Reaching outward, he used a fingertip to gently caress Kael’s square jaw. "All you need do is answer my simple questions and I can promise you that this interview can proceed most . . .pleasantly."

Kael’s smile of amusement turned to one of outright seduction. Her glittering silver-blue eyes darkened and narrowed wantonly, causing the Iraqi’s entire body to respond quite against his conscious will. "Perhaps," she replied softly, her own eyes blazing a path down Al-Hassein’s uniformed body, coming to rest on the area between his legs. An ebony eyebrow curved. "If you’re sure you have the stamina for it, that is."

His jaw opening in shock, Al-Hassein stepped back again. Reaching into the breast pocket of his uniform, he pulled out his ever-present handkerchief, wiping his fingers furiously as he stared at the prisoner still wantonly eyeing him. "You Americans are amazing," he choked out, stuffing the rumpled, damp cloth back into his pristine uniform coat. Used to the covered deference of Muslim women, the commander was out of his element and he knew it. The line of seduction he had just laid on the American would have been an affront of the most horrid to one of his own, yet she accepted it as if it were her due and even had the utter gall to chastise his manhood.

Black blooms of rage flared up behind his eyes as he stared at his prisoner, grinding his perfect teeth in rhythm to the clenching of his fists. Well groomed nails dug divots into the warm flesh of his palms causing dots of blood to well up and surface.

Keal kept up the act, knowing she had the Iraqi on the ropes. One more blow and he’d go down in a heap. In a deep, throaty voice, she purred, "Are you sure you’re man enough to take me on?"

Bellowing in rage, Al-Hassein threw up his right arm, intending to strike the impudent woman’s face with all his strength, determined to mar the beauty she was so effortlessly using against him. The blow never landed. Instead, it was easily deflected off a rock hard forearm as Kael ripped from her bindings with ease, blocking the thundering blow and the one that followed it. Standing, she drew back her head and butted the frozen commander while at the same time urgine a sharp knee into the manhood she had just mocked. Al-Hassein went to his knees, wheezing and retching as his stunned guards looked on with wide eyes.

"Guess not," she sneered, landing an elbow to the muscled mid-section of the guard to her left, causing the weapon to fly from his tight grip. In her zeal, Kael had forgotten about her injured hands and the weapon fell from her grasp to clatter onto the tiled floor of the office. Turning quickly, she threw a sweeping round kick at the second guard, connecting with his upper chest and sending him to the ground beside his commander.

The first guard regained his footing, clamping a huge hand on one broad shoulder, intending to spin the prisoner around to face a right cross he was readying. Instead, his nose met with a backfist and he released the woman, howling and clutching at his face as streams of blood sprayed through his clenched fingers.

Tears of pain stung at Kael’s eyes as her crushed hand made forceful contact with the guard’s face. She blinked them back savagely, a feral grin blooming on her face. The second guard scrabbled for his gun, only to be stopped as the heel of Kael’s combat boot crushed his hand. "Paybacks are a bitch, boys," she taunted, swinging around and leveling the still keening Al-Hassein with a front kick to his face.

The guard whose hand she crushed managed to grab for her long robes, pulling her off balance. As she struggled to right herself against the desk, her bracing hands screamed out their torment, refusing to bear her weight as she tried to kick her captor off. Snarling in rage, she gathered herself and kicked out and back, grinning wildly as she heard a howl and a satisfying thud. The guard flew halfway across the room, a large swatch of her tattered gown still fluttering in his uninjured hand.

Dodging to her left to avoid the screaming Al-Hassein, Kael gathered up the remnants of her robes, making for the door. The first guard managed to pick up his sub-machine gun, trying desperately to aim at the retreating figure through the haze of blood filling his eyes. His shots went low, splintering Kael’s shins. She went down, her weight landing on her injured hands and the world greyed out around her momentarily.

Seeing the demon woman go down, Al-Hassein struggled to his feet again, holding together his badly torn chin and gagging at the blood that pooled in his mouth. Stumbling over to the prisoner laying on her side, he watched as she continued to weakly struggle toward the door and freedom. A flush of rage suffused his features as he lashed a booted foot into her abdomen and chest again and again until she finally stop moving. With a final kick which felt as if it had ruptured something internally in the woman, the commander dropped to his knees, panting, his blood streaming from his face to land on the once white robe of his prisoner.

Five heavily armed soldiers burst into the office, their weapons held at the ready.

Saliva frothed from Al-Hassein’s mouth, so complete was his insane rage. A woman had nearly defeated him. A woman! A stupid, useless American woman. Rising, he took out his rage on the squad of guards who stood blinking stupidly at the bloody scene before them.

"What were you waiting for?!" he screamed, his eyes bulging from their sockets. "Allah?!?" Up and down the line he went, raining down blows on each of his men until he was too tired to lift his arms. He looked down at the huddled form of the prisoner at his feet, kicking the body again once more just for the sheer pleasure of it.

"Get this carcass down to the cells and bring me back the skinny pig. Five corpses will decorate my prison by the time this night is over. Do it! Now!!"

Two of the soldiers bent over and grabbed Kael under the arms, a third leading the way out of the office. Kael’s shattered legs trailed limply behind her, a trail of blood marking her passage through the bunker.


Reingold was ready for action as he heard the guards troop down the hallway. He had heard the sounds of gunfire above his head and knew something had gone horribly wrong. At first, he had entertained the notion that Kael had gotten free and taken care of business, but the sounds of many booted feet dashed that fantasy, leaving his muscles coiled and ready for anything.

The door pounded open and his commander was thrown in, the front of her robes painted red with blood. Black power burns told him who had borne the brunt of the weapons fire he had heart. His heart constricted sharply and his vision trebled as a snarl twisted his face.

"You fucking bastards!" he screamed as the first of the guards reached out to grab him. Carefully laying Kael’s body on the ground, he pistoned upward with his legs, giving his blow the strength it needed to release the gun from the guard’s suddenly nerveless fingers. "What the fuck did you do to her, huh?" Reversing his grip on the gun, he clouted the guard under the chin, flipping him into the man behind him. Flipping the gun in his hands once again, he raised it to high port, taking a split second to aim. Bullets sprayed out from the weapon’s muzzle, cutting into the two fallen men. He looked up into the barrel of a weapon pointed directly at his head.

Tongues of fire leapt from both weapons at once. American and Iraqi alike went down, dead before they hit the ground.

All was silent for a long moment until desperate knocking was heard from the adjoining cell. "Gunny? Shooter? What’s going on in there?"

Only a cold silence answered the two Marines.

Continued..Part 2


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