Disclaimer: As you all know, they don't belong to me. I just like to play with them. Don't worry; I won't hurt them—much! (Warning: This is m/m slash. As always, you're not required to accept the mission, but should you decide to do so, the Secretary disavows all responsibility for what you're about to read…)

A Hollow Prison

By Hogan's Helga

H H H H H

My heart, all mad with misery,

Beats in the hollow prison of my flesh.

(Titus Andronicus)

H H H H H

"...But he saved my life, Colonel! I can't just leave him here!" The young sergeant looked up at Hogan, his eyes pleading. He was sitting next to his injured companion, a young lieutenant who looked no more than twenty. "If he hadn't pushed me out of the way, the Krauts--!"

"--Would've killed you," Hogan finished. "I know, Johnson. But you've got to go tonight. You'll accompany Sergeant Major Mulvaney and his two soldiers. They've already been fully briefed on the route and the pickup point. You're a lucky man, Johnson. You arrived in the nick of time. The next sub pickup won't be for another month."

"Another month? But the lieutenant--!"

"--Can't be moved at the moment," Hogan reminded him. "He'll need that time to recuperate in order to get back on his feet."

"He's right, Johnson," a soft voice whispered from the bunk. Hogan and the others turned to the injured officer. Johnson let out a relieved laugh.

"Eddie--! I, um, I mean...Lt. Edwards! You're awake--! Sir...how do you feel?"

"Like a train hit me," Edwards mumbled. Weakly, he took Johnson's hand. "You'd better go, Johnny...like the colonel said."

"But Eddie...?" Johnson choked on his words. "How can you expect me to--?"

"I expect you to do your duty, Sergeant," Edwards said firmly. "Your job is to get your butt back to our lines and back up on a plane. Don't worry about me, Johnny..." Edwards voice began to fade as he slipped back into unconsciousness. "...Wasn't such a big train anyway..."

"Colonel?" Kinchloe walked up to Hogan and handed him a message. "Just came in, Sir. The sub's standing by at the rendezvous point." Hogan nodded.

"Sergeant Major!" he called. A dapper Englishman with straight-laced, military bearing marched--not walked--up to Hogan and came to rigid attention, snapping off a precise salute.

"Yes, sir!" he shouted. Hogan blinked in surprise. Over the sergeant major's shoulder, Kinchloe winced, and farther down the tunnel a loud explosion resounded.

Before Hogan and others could react, Carter stumbled into view. He was covered from head to foot in black soot, his jumper still smoking.

"Carter, are you all right?" Newkirk shouted, running to his friend. Looking slightly dazed, Carter shook his head in confusion.

"Um...the beaker...it just sorta fell off the Bunsen burner. There was a really loud noise, and it just fell right off." Still in a fog, he started back to his lab. "Darnedest thing...?"

"Newkirk!" Hogan snapped. "Keep an eye on him." Newkirk nodded and trotted off after Carter.

Mulvaney was a thorough professional, Hogan knew, but he was also a pain in the butt. They would all be glad to be finally rid of him. In contrast to the British Sergeant Major's booming voice, Hogan spoke in low tones as he gave Mulvaney his final instructions. Mulvaney listened attentively while standing at parade rest the entire time.

"Any questions, Sergeant Major?" Hogan asked, bracing himself for the reply.

"No, sir!" Somehow Mulvaney was even louder this time. The sound of glass shattering near Kinchloe's workstation told Hogan something had fallen off one of the shelves. The darn thing probably vibrated off from all the noise, Hogan grumbled.

"Very good, Sergeant Major," Hogan said instead. "You and your men will move out at exactly 2100 hours. Cpl. Newkirk and Sgt. Carter will escort you as far as your first rendezvous point. From there you will be handed over to the Underground, who will ensure your safe passage to the sub." Hogan held his hand out to him. "Good luck, Mulvaney. And Godspeed."

"Thank you, sir!" Mulvaney shouted, taking Hogan's hand and giving it a good, hard shake. Hogan didn't wince but was only too happy when Mulvaney finally released it. After returning Mulvaney's salute once again, Hogan did an about face and hurried up the ladder that led to the barracks upstairs. The sooner he got away from Mulvaney, the happier he'd feel.

H H H H H

Hogan looked up at the knock on his door. Without waiting to be asked, Kinchloe stuck his head in.

"Sir? The kid's awake...thought you'd like to know."

Hogan nodded and smiled. The 'kid.' He'd inadvertently made a comment to Kinchloe that Lt. Edwards looked little more than a kid, and the name had stuck. He frowned and thought that he'd have to talk with his men about showing the young officer the proper respect afforded his rank.

Still, the kid's only a second lieutenant. How much respect can he expect to receive? As these thoughts and others flashed through his mind, Hogan made his way down into the vast network of tunnels below Stalag 13.

"Hey...welcome back, Lt. Edwards," Hogan said by way of greeting. The injured officer was propped up on his bunk with several pillows, and he was currently trying to eat some of the soup that LeBeau had prepared for him. At the sight of the senior officer, Edwards made a move as if to get up. LeBeau, mindful of his patient's injuries, gently but firmly shoved him back to the pillows.

"Don't try to get up, Edwards," Hogan said easily. "And that's a direct order." The corner of his mouth twitched a little, and his dark eyes twinkled in amusement. "You had us a little bit worried there, Lieutenant. Except for that short spell two days ago, when you ordered Sgt. Johnson to head back home, you've been out like a light." Hogan took the bowl of soup from LeBeau, and sitting down next to the young man, began spooning soup into his mouth.

"So, Edwards...Eddie? Is that what they call you? Eddie?" At Hogan's words, Edwards stared dumbfounded and nodded without speaking. "Okay, Eddie," Hogan said, oblivious to Edwards' stare. "Johnson said you're from the 233rd Bomb Group?" He made it a question, rather than a statement. Edwards nodded wordlessly.

Hogan flashed him a friendly smile, his dimples appearing briefly. Again, Edwards stared at Hogan, forgetting to open his mouth in order to be fed.

"Come on, Eddie," Hogan said, looking at him quizzically. "You gotta make like a baby bird and open wide." Edwards automatically complied, and Hogan spooned him a few more helpings. Finally, Edwards turned away tiredly and shook his head. LeBeau immediately appeared by Hogan's side and took away the half-finished bowl of soup.

"So tell me..." Hogan began. "The 233rd...? It's located near Southampton, right?" Edwards shook his head.

"Wessex," he mumbled. Hogan slapped his head as if suddenly remembering. Again, he smiled down at Edwards, this time a bit embarrassed.

"Of course, Wessex! How could I forget? Tell me...is Maj. Pulaski still the S3 there? He and I got together in London a couple of times and--"

Edwards shook his head, puzzled. "I don't know any Maj. Pulaski, sir. When I was there, the S3 was--" He stopped. "I don't think I should say anything else, Sir."

"Of course, Edwards," Hogan readily conceded. "You must be tired." He got up to leave, only to turn around again, as if he'd just remembered something. "I know...Capt. Sutton! Worked in avionics!" He laughed aloud and winked wickedly. "A real ladies man, I heard. As I recall, he had a girl in Sussex and another one in--"

"Sir...I'm sorry, but I don't know any Capt. Sutton, either." Edwards looked suspiciously at Hogan and the other men who were watching. "I don't understand...?" At his suddenly watchful glare, Hogan relented. He sat back down on the bunk and this time gave Edwards a genuinely friendly smile. Edwards went suddenly still.

"I'm sorry, Lt. Edwards," Hogan explained. "But that was necessary. It's just a little test to make sure that the Krauts haven't planted a spy in our midst."

"Aye...these here Krauts are a sneaky bunch," Newkirk chimed in agreement. "Always trying to get in on our business!"

"Thanks for the assistance, Newkirk," Hogan said dryly. Newkirk grimaced and turned back to whatever he was doing.

"You said it was test," Edwards said softly. "Did I pass?"

"With flying colors!" Hogan assured him. He placed his hand on Edwards' shoulder and squeezed gently. "Now try and get some sleep, Lieutenant. You've got to get your strength back up before we can send you home." Touching his forefinger to his hat, Hogan stood and walked over to Kinchloe...

H H H H H

Edwards followed the senior officer with his eyes. He felt his heart hammering in his chest, his throat suddenly constricted. He could still feel the spot where Hogan had touched him on the shoulder. You're an idiot, Eddie! Edwards swallowed around the dryness in his throat. He's the senior POW, for God's sake! If he knew what you were thinking right now, he'd have you court-martialed!

The sound of laughter coming from the radio station caught his attention. Hogan and the black sergeant, Kinchloe, were sharing a quiet moment together. Hogan slapped the NCO on the back in a friendly manner and then climbed the ladder topside.

As he watched Hogan interact with Kinchloe, Edwards felt an inexplicable stab of jealousy course through him. No...! He groaned. Not again! Never again!

H H H H H

The sound of confident footsteps climbing down the ladder caught Edwards' attention. As always, when he heard these particular footsteps, the young man's heart seemed to leap. And as always, he silently cursed himself for being a complete moron. He swallowed several times, trying to get his breathing under control. His heart hammering in his chest, he waited for Hogan to make his daily appearance.

If everything the other guys said about Hogan were true, then besides being able to walk on water, balance the world on his shoulders, and win the war almost single-handedly--the colonel was all male with a rogue eye for pretty women and a glib tongue with which to charm them.

It had been two weeks since Hogan and his men had rescued Edwards and Johnson, literally snatching them from the very hands of the Gestapo. His wound was almost healed now, and he was sitting up on his own. Yesterday had been a milestone when he'd been allowed to make the trek to the latrine alone.

Of course, LeBeau had stood by quietly, making sure that he didn't fall on his face. Edwards smiled. The small Frenchman treated him like a little brother, hovering over him like a mama chick. It had been LeBeau's responsibility to care for him during his convalescence, and he had gone about his duty with gusto.

But now, Edwards was well enough to be left alone for hours at a time during which he did the rehabilitation exercises that Sgt. Wilson, the medic, had prescribed. He was on his fifteenth repetition of bicep curls when Hogan walked in. Edwards jumped to his feet and saluted. Hogan returned it with mock gravity.

"At ease, Edwards," Hogan said. "You know we're pretty casual around here, so you don't have to keep saluting every time you see me." Hogan leaned offhandedly against a metal wall locker in a pose that Edwards had come to recognize--thumbs stuck in his pockets, campaign hat pushed far back on his head, revealing a dark lock of hair.

"Just stopped by to see how you were doing." Hogan nodded approvingly. "I see you're keeping up with your exercises. Good. The sooner you're on your feet, the sooner you go home."

"Yes, sir," Edwards mumbled. He always felt tongue-tied around the senior officer. Edwards feared that Hogan knew exactly what he was thinking and feeling every time he looked at him; therefore, Edwards couldn't bring himself to look him in the eye. This only made the younger officer feel more awkward, and invariably Edwards ended up doing something incredibly clumsy, like trip over his own two feet.

And today was no exception.

"Why don't you show me some of those stretching exercises that Wilson prescribed?" Hogan asked. Edwards nodded mutely. He sat down on the mat and positioned himself in the required pose and then proceeded to demonstrate. After a few repetitions, Hogan called a brief halt.

"Edwards...?" Hogan spoke softly. He crouched down next to the younger man and placed his hand on Edwards' shoulder. "Is there anything you'd like to talk to me about--?" Edwards jumped at Hogan's touch. He felt like a hot poker had been unexpectedly placed on his shoulder. Confused and ashamed, he struggled to his feet only to become entangled in the awkward position that he'd been in. Somehow he managed to put some distance between them.

"I-I'm s-sorry, sir," Edwards began. But Hogan had already moved away from him. The senior POW turned, his eyes blazing, and glared at the humiliated younger man.

"Lt. Edwards, I don't what your problem is, but I hope that you solve it soon. Because if you don't...I'm recommending that when you return to England that you're permanently grounded. Is that understood, Lieutenant?"

Edwards nodded miserably. The next moment, he remembered that a superior officer had just asked him a direct question, and scrambled to his feet, coming to some semblance of attention. "Yes, sir. Understood." But Hogan was already halfway up the ladder.

H H H H H

"I don't get it, Kinch," Hogan said worriedly. He had called Kinchloe to his quarters the first free moment he'd had that morning to discuss their young guest. "Does he seem all right to you? I mean every time I try to talk to him, he withdraws into a shell. Almost as if he's afraid of me or something. What do you think?" He took out a pack of Lucky Strikes, and first offering one to Kinchloe, took one out for himself and lit it quickly. His actions were clean and fluid, those of long practice.

Kinchloe accepted the cigarette and made a deliberate show of lighting it, inhaling deeply. Seeing Hogan's eyes on him, he released a long stream of smoke and shrugged, keeping his expression neutral. Kinchloe had an idea about Edwards, but didn't dare voice it.

After all, when he first started working closely with Hogan, had he not had a similar problem? A 'problem' that's under control, he told himself firmly. He glanced over at Hogan who had walked over to the single window in his quarters and opened it, leaning against it while smoking quietly, unaware of Kinchloe's scrutiny. Completely under control, Kinchloe repeated.

Knowing that Hogan was waiting for a reply, Kinchloe tried to find some alternative explanation. "Well, sir...the kid's only twenty. And an officer. It can probably be a little daunting to someone that young to suddenly be placed in a position of responsibility. What was he? The navigator, right?"

Hogan nodded.

"And he was flying only his second combat mission when his plane got shot out from under him," Kinchloe said. "Add to that the fact that only he and one other man survived--"

"And that he got himself shot," Hogan added. "According to Johnson, Edwards actually took the bullet which was meant for him. That's the stuff of heroes, Kinch. Not this frightened, nervous little boy who twitches every time I enter the room. He can't be that afraid of senior officers. I mean...when I was a second looey, I was more afraid of my company first sergeant than of any colonel on base."

Kinchloe chuckled. "That explains why you were third in your class, sir. You were a really bright kid." Hogan gave him a sardonic smile, which quickly dimmed.

"Kinch...I'd look you do me a favor," he began.

Kinchloe closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable question. Please, don't ask me what I know you're gonna ask me, he pleaded silently.

"Could you--?" Hogan left the question unfinished.

Kinchloe slowly opened his eyes and nodded. "Sure...why not?" he asked with an exaggerated shrug. "I mean isn't that what we radiomen are trained to do? Listen and take notes?"

This time, Hogan gave him a boyish grin and punched him playfully on the arm. "Thanks, pal."

Grinning in turn, Kinchloe forced himself not to stare at his CO. He insisted that the flip-flop in his stomach was due to the distasteful assignment he'd just accepted and had nothing to do with Hogan's dimples and twinkling dark eyes.

Yeah...he's nothing at all, he repeated ironically.

As Hogan turned his attention to some paperwork, Kinchloe took one last look at him, noting his CO's thorough immersion at the job at hand. His lips twitched in wry tolerance, knowing that Hogan had already forgotten all about him.

The colonel's nothing to me...! He reminded himself again, and then shook his head at his own folly as he walked out of Hogan's quarters. "He's only everything," he murmured, and without a backward glance headed towards the tunnel entrance.

H H H H H

It didn't take Kinchloe long to confirm his suspicions about Edwards. He made it a point to bring the wounded officer his meals and sit and talk for a few minutes with him, just shooting the breeze. They talked about home, school, sports. They talked about army life, the Air Corps in general, and B17s in particular. Edwards was excited to know that Kinchloe had experience as a navigator as well as radio operator.

He became more talkative when he found out that Kinchloe had been Hogan's radioman in England.

"What was he like as a pilot?" Edwards asked.

"Pretty much the way he is now," Kinchloe said with a shrug. "Brave, brilliant, easy-going--a good man to work for, and a good friend." He looked speculatively at the younger man. "Why are you so interested in the colonel anyway? Is he a long lost relative or something?"

At his question Edwards abruptly clammed up and wouldn't say anything further. Kicking himself for being careless, Kinchloe tried another tack. Glancing askance at Edwards, he grinned suddenly and punched him on the arm in an unconscious imitation of Hogan.

"I know what we should talk about--girls! Kid, after being in this hellhole for two lousy years that's about any of us ever think about--or talk about. Everyone that is except Carter. He only thinks about explosives." Looking down, Kinchloe shook his head and chuckled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Edwards looking at him, suddenly attentive.

"Just think, Lieutenant...In another few weeks you'll be back home. Warm beds, hot showers...girls!" Kinchloe sighed. "While we'll be stuck here. Helping others escape, but not being allowed to escape ourselves."

"Is that how the colonel feels?" Edwards asked.

"What? About being stuck here while others leave?"

"Yeah...that! And...about girls--?"

"Oh, Lieutenant, make no mistake in this area, sir. When it comes to the colonel, believe me it's never 'girls' he thinks about--" Kinchloe paused when a certain gleam came over Edwards eyes. "--It's women." The light died out in the lieutenant's expression and was briefly replaced with disappointment. Satisfied that he had what he wanted, Kinchloe stood to go. "And don't worry, sir. Soon, you'll be getting the pick of the litter!" Smiling, he bid Edwards goodnight and went topside.

However, as he emerged from the tunnel, Kinchloe was anything but smiling. Man, oh man...That kid's got it bad all right...bad for the colonel! What was worse was that Edwards practically wore his heart on his sleeve. Once you knew what to look for, it was obvious. Lt. Edwards was in love with Col. Hogan. Love? More like a crush, Kinchloe amended.

He paused at the top of the stairs. Well...maybe it's obvious to someone who's been there. Unbidden, Kinchloe's own feelings for his friend and commanding officer came to the fore. He had long resigned himself to being Hogan's trusted aide and confidante--his sounding board about plans, missions, and even women--whatever Hogan might feel a need to get off his chest.

Kinchloe had made up his mind to be there for him. If he couldn't have Hogan's heart, then he was happy to be his right hand man. Kinchloe thought again of Edwards. He had to somehow convince Hogan that it was imperative to move up the rendezvous with the sub. For the kid's own safety, Edwards had to be sent back and quick.

Before something happens, he added. Something like the other prisoners finding out.

H H H H H

Thump-slap! Thump-slap!

Kinchloe threw the tattered baseball methodically against the barracks wall and caught it on the rebound. Although athletically smooth, his actions were absentminded, almost automatic. Three days had passed since he'd decided to talk with the colonel, and he had still to gather the nerve to bring up the subject.

Some 'right-hand man' I've turned out to be. Too chicken to confront the colonel about the lieutenant's little problem.

Thump-slap! Thump-slap!

Actually, Kinchloe worried that once the colonel became aware that another man could view him as a potential lover, then his uber-macho boss might suspect others of the same thing. Or worse, Hogan might finally see through Kinchloe's careful mask and discern how he really felt about him, even send him packing.

Thump-slap! Thump--?

Kinchloe's silent musings were abruptly interrupted when his baseball failed to make its expected return to his glove. He blinked momentarily puzzled and looked around. Unexpectedly, someone tapped him between the shoulders, making him jump. He whirled round, but saw no one. Annoyed, he shoved his fists on his hips and growled, "Okay, Wiseguy! You've got about a second before I--!"

"Are you looking for this, mon ami?" LeBeau peeked up at Kinchloe from underneath the sergeant's right side. Grinning innocently, he produced the baseball, held delicately on his fingertips. Grumbling, Kinchloe snatched his ball back.

"What's the idea, LeBeau?" he asked, shoving the precious ball into his jacket pocket. "You know it's the only one I've got left." He started walking towards the perimeter of the outer fence.

"I am sorry, Kinch," LeBeau readily apologized, running to catch up. "But you looked like someone with much on his mind. Perhaps you would care to talk about it?" By then, the two friends were walking along the fence, well within the 'No Man's Land' limit, a narrow strip clearly marked with a low wire which ran parallel to the outer fence, warning all personnel away. Overlooking the off-limits strip stood two guard towers, which were manned 24 hours a day.

After several minutes of strained silence, LeBeau cleared his throat. "Kinch...?" He spoke tentatively, not wanting to chase his reticent friend away. Kinchloe was an extremely private man who seldom confided in the others. LeBeau suspected that his senior NCO might at times share some of his personal thoughts with Hogan. However, he was observant enough to know that most of those conversations probably involved the colonel talking and Kinchloe listening.

"Perhaps if you let me speak discreetly with the young lieutenant...Let him know that the colonel is off-limits--" Kinchloe whirled on LeBeau.

"What--!?" he shouted, stunned. A movement above him caught his eye. The guards on each tower were coldly studying them, their fingers slowly caressing the triggers on their .30mm machineguns. Kinchloe swallowed and hastily grabbed LeBeau by the collar, steering him in another direction. When they reached the relative safety behind Barracks 5, he turned on the small Frenchman.

"What do you mean by that?" he asked, keeping his voice low. LeBeau shrugged.

"That the lieutenant needs to set his cap for another one. The colonel is not for him--"

"LeBeau, what are you talking about?" Kinchloe demanded, afraid that the French corporal knew exactly what was going on.

"Kinch, my friend...I am a Frenchman. I know about such things...about the many shades of Love, all the forms that Love can take." His gentle eyes lit in amusement. "Do you think that all I have ever known in my life is the love between that of a man and a woman?" He looked expectantly at Kinchloe, but before the black NCO could reply, continued on. "I am more than aware of the delicious, but forbidden love of two men for one another. And of two women."

LeBeau smiled as Kinchloe's dark countenance expressed his shock. "Oui, mon ami...I have tasted the sweet flavor of a man with my lips--" He closed his eyes as if reliving the ecstasy of the moment. "--Experienced the intoxication of sharing nights of passion with one whose bravery was beyond measure, whose responsibilities were more than any one man should bear." He paused in sad reflection.

"He needed those brief moments, I know...They were a respite from his dangerous work with the Underground. In time, he was imprisoned and executed." LeBeau's voice broke slightly, but he shook off Kinchloe's hand, composing himself after a moment. "But I am comforted with the knowledge that I was able to give him comfort and pleasure. That I allowed him a few fleeting moments to forget the war...if only a short time."

LeBeau looked up at Kinchloe; his face, which only seconds before had been haunted by past pain, was warm with compassion. "But why should I explain all of that to you, eh, Kinch?" He placed his hand gently on Kinchloe's arm. "You and I both know that you love someone such as I have described. A man who carries the world on his shoulders. A man for whom we would all gladly give our lives...and some of us, even our hearts."

They stared at each other for a long time, neither speaking. Finally, Kinchloe cleared his throat. "Some of us?" he asked. "Do you mean that you--?"

"--Could love mon colonel?" LeBeau finished. "But of course! What is there not to love about Colonel Hogan? So handsome, so brave, so brilliant, so kind--!"

"Okay, okay!" Kinchloe interrupted, impatiently holding up his hands. "I get the picture!" He sighed, shaking his head. "So, if you feel that way, why haven't you, um, 'tasted' the colonel's 'sweet flavor'?" Kinchloe folded his arms across his chest and grimaced in distaste at these last words.

LeBeau smiled, unperturbed by his friend's sarcasm. "Is it not obvious, mon ami? I cannot ask for the colonel's love for the simple reason that he already loves you."

"What--?!"

"Although he does not know it yet," LeBeau amended hurriedly. "But he loves you, nevertheless!"

Kinchloe shook his head in disgust and started walking away. "You're nuts!" he grumbled, but stopped willingly when LeBeau grabbed his sleeve. "Nuts!" he repeated, jabbing his finger into LeBeau's chest. However, LeBeau was practically jumping up and down in his excitement to be heard.

"Non! Listen to me, my friend!" he insisted. "Does not the colonel confide in you more than he does the rest of us? Does he not seek out your counsel when he is feeling particularly low or is unsure of his decisions?"

Kinchloe nodded, but still looked unconvinced. "That doesn't mean anything, LeBeau! Only that he trusts me because I'm his friend!"

"Yes, you are his friend," LeBeau conceded. "And yes, he trusts you...But Kinch, I have watched him sometimes when it seems--how do you say it?--that the world is too much with him...?" He looked at Kinchloe for confirmation at his proper use of the idiom. The radioman nodded. "And then I have observed him after you and he have had one of your 'friendly chats.' Kinch, he is a different man entirely!"

Kinchloe rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to retort, but LeBeau overrode him. "And I've also seen the look he gives you when he thinks no one is looking. I don't know if there are even words to describe such a look of hunger mixed with gratitude, friendship...and love."

"Hunger?" Kinchloe asked skeptically. LeBeau shrugged.

"Perhaps it is a bit of an exaggeration," he admitted, but hastily continued when Kinchloe growled disgustedly. "But there is a definite sense of yearning."

" Yearning…? Yearning for what...?"

"Who can say?" LeBeau shook his head and shrugged. Then, taking hold of Kinchloe by the arms, he glared up at him with a heated intensity. "But I know one thing, my friend. If you do not make an effort to find out what it is the colonel yearns for, you shall regret that decision for the rest of your life." With those words, LeBeau released his friend and stepped back, his eyes never leaving Kinchloe's.

After a long moment, Kinchloe spoke softly. "You're right, Louis," he said. "But what happens if he throws me out on my keister? What'll I do if I lose him?"

"I do not know, my friend," LeBeau answered honestly. "But what will you do if you never try?"

"Or if someone else beats me to the punch?" Kinchloe murmured, his thoughts going back to Edwards. LeBeau punched him playfully on the arm.

"Oh, do not worry about that one, Kinch. He is much too young, too inexperienced for a man as worldly as the colonel. Non...what the colonel needs is a lover who is his equal, one with whom he can safely lay open his heart and his soul. A man who can lead him--gently but firmly--into a new, undiscovered world of love, pleasure, and passion that can only be shared by two men. No mere boy could hope to accomplish such a daunting mission, Kinch. But a man who has the colonel's absolute faith and trust, a man whom he respects above all others...you are that man, Kinch. In fact, you are the only man with whom Colonel Hogan could hope to fall in love."

"Not even you?" Kinchloe teased, pleased by LeBeau's words despite his initial skepticism. "I guess I'd better go have a talk with the colonel about Lt. Edwards," he said with an impish smile. "I mean...I'd hate to break the poor kid's heart in the next couple of days."

"As I said, mon ami...Do not worry about the young lieutenant. I believe that I am quite capable of providing him with enough...um...distractions to keep him out of trouble." Kinchloe rolled his eyes and slapped his forehead.

"You're a lecher, LeBeau! You know that?" He laughed out loud. "He's just a kid!"

"Yes...but oh, so ripe for the plucking." LeBeau gave Kinchloe a wicked grin and rubbing his two palms together, headed in the direction of their barracks. Kinchloe stayed back a moment longer, letting his friend's words of encouragement sink in. Easy for you to say, he thought nervously. But not that easy to do. What am gonna say to him anyway? Hey, Sir...I'm in love with you. Would you care to go bed with me?

Kinchloe shook his head, his shoulders slumping. How about--Hey, colonel...would you like me to suck your--! He stopped, closing his eyes in self-disgust. It's not about the sex, he told himself. It's about wanting to be close to him. About wanting to share everything I have--my heart, my body, my mind and my soul--with him. It's about being able to tell him openly that I love him, to wake up every morning next to him...to have him be the first thing I see each day and the last each night. And like Louis said...to help him put aside the war for just a few moments a day by taking him to a place of solace.

He thought for a moment and then grinned. Okay...the sex wouldn't be too bad either. Brother, I'm as bad as Louis...!

Making up his mind, Kinchloe straightened his shoulders and started for the barracks.

H H H H H

The angry shouts spilling out into the late afternoon from Barracks 2 propelled Kinchloe into an all-out sprint.

"You take that back!" Kinchloe recognized Edwards' voice.

"Make me! Or are you too chicken, you little fairy--!"

"Why you--!" This was accompanied by more shouts and the sounds of flesh pounding flesh.

"What the hell?" Kinchloe muttered. Ahead, he saw that LeBeau had also broken into a run. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Sgt. Schultz, the Stalag 13 Sergeant-of-the-Guard, hurrying in the same direction at a painful jog.

The next moment Kinchloe was in the middle of a no-holds-barred free-for-all. The door to Hogan's quarters jerked open, and he emerged, a thunderous expression on his face. "What's going on here?" Hogan roared. "Break it up! Break it up!" The brawl continued unabated. "Sgt. Kinchloe! Get these men under control!"

"Yessir!" Kinchloe shouted. "LeBeau! Newkirk! Carter!" He peered through the melee, trying to locate his friends to help him break up the fight.

"Nobody calls me that and gets away with it--!" :Ugh!:

"Oh, yeah? Well, I just did!" :Ooomph!:"

Kinchloe spotted Lt. Edwards go down after being struck with a solid blow to the cheek, blood streaming out of both nostrils. With a snarl of anger, Newkirk swung a powerful roundhouse at Edwards' attacker--a new man who was still in his flight suit.

"I don't care if you are a bloody officer!" Newkirk shouted. "Eddie's a friend of mine!"

"Newkirk! Break it up!" Kinchloe reprimanded in annoyance. He needed his friends to help him, not make matters worse. At that moment, he caught sight of Carter who ducked underneath a chair that flew over his head, smashing into the far wall. Kinchloe rolled his eyes. Oh, brother! This was not going well.

A figure suddenly flew by him, shoving Kinchloe into Schultz who had just appeared in the doorway. Both Kinchloe and Schultz went tumbling backwards, Kinchloe's fall softened by the considerable bulk of the sergeant-of-the-guard. "Sorry, Schultzie," he muttered, scrambling to his feet and hurrying back to the barracks. Schultz meanwhile was left to wallow helplessly on the ground, struggling with great difficulty to regain his feet.

Kinchloe ran back inside just as Foster leaped in front of him in order to chop down to no effect at the man-giant who'd thrown the chair at Carter. All Foster succeeded in doing was turning the large airman's ire upon himself. Luckily, Foster's smaller size helped him slip out of his opponent's grasp.

Hogan in the meantime was shouting at the top of his lungs, while pushing his way forcefully through the sea of combatants, grabbing a man here and another one there, and unceremoniously tossing them aside. Kinchloe paused, momentarily nonplussed at the sight of his commanding officer actually bulldozing his way through the brawlers. He shook his head in admiration. The guy's got guts...Gotta love a guy like that!

Carter and LeBeau, who had happily leaped into the fray as soon as he'd entered the barracks, jumped the giant airman from behind. Carter grabbed him from around the neck, while LeBeau latched onto one of his arms. The behemoth tried shaking LeBeau off like a gnat, but the determined Frenchman managed to somehow hang on. Carter, meanwhile, was squeezing with all his might, when unexpectedly, the enormous American flyer backed into a bunk, catching Carter in a death crunch.

"At-tennn-tion!" Kinchloe shouted. He grabbed Sgt. Olsen by the collar before the fierce-looking 'outside' man could jump in, and hauled him back, using the junior NCO's own momentum to toss him outside. As he did so, Kinchloe slammed the door shut; therefore, he didn't see Olsen land head over heels on top of Schultz--who had finally regained his feet--causing both men to topple over.

"I said, 'Break it up!'" Kinchloe roared. His voice cut through the noise of battle, causing every man present to freeze in place. "At-tenn-tion!" Everyone suddenly snapped to attention.

"What the hell was that all about?" Hogan asked, his voice deceptively quiet. His eyes fell on Newkirk and one of the new men--a First Lieutenant. "The new men--I want you in front of my door, at attention--Now!" Both men jumped to do as ordered. A groan coming from behind one of the bunks caught their attention. LeBeau quickly ran over and with a shout of concern helped Edwards to a sitting position.

"Lieutenant...you are not hurt?" he asked, gently combing back Edwards' hair, which had fallen over his eyes. The young navigator shook his head groggily, but then gasped in sudden pain when he attempted to stand. "Mon Colonel, I believe his stitches might have been torn open!"

"See to him," Hogan ordered. LeBeau nodded and was about to open Edwards' shirt, when the officer shook him off.

"I'm okay, LeBeau!" he complained. "Just leave me alone...okay?" With that Edwards struggled to his feet, holding painfully onto his side as he did so. LeBeau looked on helplessly, wanting to give him assistance, but standing back as requested.

"Lieutenant!" Hogan's sharp tone stopped Edwards. "I'm not used to having my orders countermanded by my junior officers." Edwards looked up at him, startled at first; however, this was soon replaced by a look of stubbornness. Hogan held his eyes for a moment, and then slowly nodded. "Very well, Lt. Edwards...if you're as well as you say you are, then I want to see you in my office as well."

"Sir, I--"

"Now, Lieutenant! Move it!" Hogan shouted. Nodding, Edwards swallowed nervously and hurried to do as ordered.

"Yes, sir," he mumbled.

Hogan was about to turn his wrath on the rest of the barracks, when Schultz breathlessly stumbled in the door.

"Was ist los?" Schultz gasped, fumbling with his weapon. "Col. Hogan, please...! You promised no more 'monkey business'...after the last 'monkey business'...!" He looked around the room, mouth agape, wide eyes registering his surprise. The barracks was a shambles, the men's clothing torn, and their faces bloodied. There had obviously been a fight in the barracks, which was strictly against camp regulations and usually resulted in a minimum stay of 30 days in the cooler.

"Fighting in the barracks?" Schultz demanded unnecessarily. "That is strictly 'verboten'!" He closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths. "Col. Hogan, I will have to report this to Kommandant Klink immediately--!" Schultz stopped in his tracks. If his eyes had been wide before, they were bulging now. Abruptly, he lost his power of speech and could only point impotently at the three American flyers who did not belong in the barracks. Edwards and the two other men blinked back.

"C-C-Colonel H-H-Hog-g-gan...!" he stuttered.

Hogan's demeanor instantly changed. Gone were the dark thunderclouds. A bright smile and twinkling eyes magically replaced them.

"Fighting?" he guffawed. "What--you call this fighting?" He waved an arm broadly around the room and placed the other one around Schultz's shoulder, firmly facing him away from the downed airmen. "Schultz, Sgt. Kinchloe and I were merely giving the men a class on the last battle of the American Revolution--the Battle of Yorktown!"

Schultz gave him a look of utter disbelief, warring with one of sincere, childlike desire to believe in what Hogan was saying. "A-A class on the American Revolution?"

"Of course!" Hogan replied, surreptitiously waving his free arm and inciting his men to agree vocally. They caught on quickly and immediately chimed with several 'Yeah,' 'Right, sir!' and other shouts of agreement.

The three downed flyers, still standing next to the door leading to Hogan's quarters, exchanged uneasy glances. Their presence in Stalag 13 was supposed to be a secret, but standing directly in front of them was the camp's sergeant-of-the-guard. Although he had obviously seen them, Hogan had so distracted and confused him that it was possible he had already forgotten about them. The German sergeant was currently facing away from them, but if he turned around again, it would be all over for them.

"Yeah, Schultz!" Kinchloe called, while behind Schultz's back, he sidled up to their temporary guests and urgently ushered them into Hogan's quarters. The lieutenant was about to protest after Kinchloe indicated that Edwards should also go in, but Kinchloe glared him down. The black NCO pointed at Schultz's back, then at Hogan, then back at himself.

The message was clear: 'Get in--or else!' (The 'or else' part, Kinchloe allowed the lieutenant to fill in for himself.) As soon as he had all three safely stashed in Hogan's quarters, Kinchloe turned back to Schultz. "The colonel and I had just gotten to the part where Cornwallis was about to surrender!"

"But Cpl. Newkirk, here, who was reenacting the whole British Army's part of the battle got a little carried away," Hogan added.

"As you can see, Schultzie," Newkirk chimed in, "I was unfairly outnumbered by the bloody Yanks!"

"Hey, watch who you call a 'bloody Yank,' you...you, darn Redcoat!" Carter protested, grabbing Newkirk by the collar. Annoyed, Newkirk slapped Carter's hand away, prompting LeBeau to jump in and pin back both his arms.

"Hey! What are you doing, LeBeau?" Newkirk shouted.

"I represent the Marquis de Lafayette, bringing in the French fleet to assist in the battle!" LeBeau explained gleefully. "Vive la France! Vive les Americains!"

"--And that's when you walked in, Schultz," Hogan said, leading the portly sergeant to the door. "The colonists--with the assistance of their loyal allies, the French--had just defeated and overthrown the hated British rule." Shouts and cheers from the American contingent of POWs met his speech. Glowering, Newkirk crossed his arms in disgust. Hogan acknowledged them with a jaunty wave of his cap. Turning back to Schultz, he became suddenly serious and asked, "We were about to reenact the Battle of Alamein and the defeat of Rommel's Afrika Korps. We sure could use a German to represent the defeated side."

Kinchloe stepped up on Schultz's other side and pressed his finger into the friendly German sergeant's large tummy. Grinning disingenuously, he teased, "You could take the part of a whole tank battalion, Schultz. Come on...how about helping us out?"

"Oui, Schultzie," LeBeau pleaded, clapping his hands excitedly. "Please? I get to play the part of the French Vichy collaborators--the Fascist pigs! You and me--we get to be on the same side!"

"Bloody traitor," Newkirk grumbled. Carter tsked and shook his finger in gentle reprimand.

"Sticks and stones, Newkirk," he clucked. "Louis isn't really a traitor. He's just gonna act like one."

"Well, I never trusted the little bugger," Newkirk insisted. "Bloody frog eater!"

"What do you say, Schultz?" Hogan asked. "Care to join us in our little reenactment? It'll be fun. I promise we won't trounce you as badly as Montgomery did Rommel."

"We don't have any weapons powerful enough on our side," Kinchloe muttered, with a pointed look at Schultz's ample girth.

"Jolly Joker," Schultz grumbled. Then pausing a moment, he gathered his inner strength, and asked the question he dreaded. "Col. Hogan...who are those men standing next to your quarters?" Hogan quickly waved Foster, Olsen, and another POW over to his door.

"Who? You mean, those men?" Hogan stepped aside and allowed Schultz to see the three men for himself. They waved at him. "What about them?" Schultz closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Those weren't the men he had seen earlier, but to admit that out loud would be to admit that Hogan was up to his usual 'monkey business' again. 'Monkey business' that could result in Schultz being shipped to the Russian Front.

"I see nothing...Nothing!" Schultz muttered haplessly and quickly exited. Hogan and Kinchloe exchanged smirks, while his men cheered and slapped him on the back in congratulations.

Kinchloe shook his head in admiration. "Sir, we can all only be grateful that you're on our side."

"You can bloody well say that again, mate!" Newkirk agreed. "'Cause the reverse is too terrible to even think about!" Hogan grinned in appreciation of the barbed accolades. Abruptly, his friendly demeanor changed yet again--his countenance reflecting a cold intensity that was frightening to behold.

The others unconsciously took a step back as Hogan turned on them. "As for the rest of you..." he began only to stop. A wicked gleam flickered briefly in his eyes. "I'll let Sgt. Kinchloe take care of you later. Kinch...in my quarters. Let's see to our 'guests.'" With that, he executed an about face and stomped into his office, Kinchloe at his heels.

The door slamming behind them shattered the silence that ensued.

H H H H H

"Sgt. Kinchloe, may I present our latest guests, Lt. Anderson and Sgt. Rider. They were escorted in a little while ago by one of our contacts. It seems that the lieutenant and sergeant are both from the 233rd--Lt. Edwards' unit."

At Hogan's words, Kinchloe flashed them a look of surprise. Shaking his head, he said sardonically, "It's nice to see such a touching family reunion." Edwards and Anderson glared at him, and then exchanged baleful looks. There was an air of open hostility between them, something obviously carried over from before.

At their looks of mutual animosity, Kinchloe suddenly understood. Anderson must know or suspect something about Edwards, he thought. He probably realizes that the kid doesn't fly a straight course, that he vectors a little to starboard. And of course, he's being a jerk about it. Kinchloe remembered that it was Anderson whom Edwards had punched, apparently for saying something derogatory.

In contrast, Sgt. Rider was busily concentrating on the toes of his boots. Clearing his throat, the huge man looked up at Hogan and spoke apologetically. "I-I guess we were out of line, sir." He shrugged sheepishly. "Heck, I don't even know what started the fight. One minute, Cpl. Newkirk and Sgt. Carter were explaining the operation to me, the next I was getting jumped from behind."

"I don't care what started it!" Hogan snapped. "Isn't there enough war out there for you clowns? Whatever your personal differences, it's ended, gentlemen--as of now! You jeopardized the lives of my men and almost blew our entire operation! If that had been the camp kommandant, and not Sgt. Schultz, the whole thing would've been over." He took a step forward and glared at each man in turn. "Any more darned fool nonsense like that, and I will personally turn your sorry carcasses over to the Krauts! Do I make myself clear?"

Shamefaced, Edwards and Rider nodded. Anderson glowered defiantly, but seeing the livid expression on the senior officer's face, nodded as well. Hogan held Anderson's eyes a moment longer, openly assessing the junior officer. Then giving them one final disgusted glare, he turned and headed to a map that was lying open on his worktable.

"Kinch, c'mere a sec."

Kinchloe joined him and they conferred in low tones. "This is the area where they were shot down," Hogan said. "And approximately here and here--" He pointed at a couple of spots. "--The Underground has reported sighting a secret air defense battery emplacement." Kinchloe nodded, remembering the reports that he'd received a few days before. At last, Hogan called his three guests over.

"Gentlemen, according to your reports, your planes were shot down over this location, right?"

Edwards leaned over the map and nodded. "Yessir. We were tasked with taking out the ball bearing plant located...here." Hogan placed a pin on the spot that Edwards indicated. "But the place is really well-defended with ack-ack batteries, sir. We were met with so much flak, we coulda gotten out and walked on it."

"Yeah...that's what happened us," Rider said. "The first bomb run we did--the one that Lt. Edwards' plane got shot down on--didn't take out the target. So, HQ sent us out again. And we got our butts kicked--again!" He shook his head. "It was like triple ack-ack out there."

"Rider's correct, sir," Anderson agreed. "We didn't stand a chance. Before we even released our bombs, the squadron had lost something like six planes. As we came in for our bomb run, our B17 took a several direct hits. Lost both our starboard engines over the target and were barely able to drop our load. Then, as we were pulling out, the Me109s took over. That's when the skipper bought it." He blinked rapidly and swallowed before trusting himself to speak. "Our controls were completely shot. It was all I could do to hold her steady long enough to give the crew time to bail out. I don't know how many besides Rider and me made it."

"It was suicide, plain and simple, Colonel," Rider added quietly. "During the mission briefing, the G2 reported that the air defense batteries around the target had been reinforced--and boy, they weren't kidding! It was a turkey shoot out there! After we went down, I saw at least four other planes flame out. No parachutes."

"This mission has already cost the 233rd something like twenty planes, sir. That's two hundred men. And we still haven't taken out the target!" Anderson didn't bother to hide his bitterness.

"Which means that HQ is gonna send out another sortie in a coupla days," Edwards said quietly. "And the 233rd or some other unit is gonna get itself blown right out of the sky!"

Hogan stared at the map for a long moment, not speaking. Kinchloe watched him, knowing that he was probably seeing the men and burning planes in his head, reliving the terror and agony of their final seconds. It was a scenario that they all knew only too well, having gone through it themselves. Slowly, Hogan looked up until their dark eyes met.

Kinchloe almost winced at the pain that he could see reflected in Hogan's soft brown eyes. He had to fight a sudden urge to cross over and put his arms around him, to hold him close and tell him that it wasn't his fault, that he couldn't do it all himself, that he was just one man. He wanted to soothe away the creases that two years of constant worry had left around his eyes.

Just once, I'd like to help you let go, Kinchloe thought. To massage those strong shoulders of yours that seem hell-bent on holding up the whole world.

An image of Hogan lying in bed beside him flashed in Kinchloe's mind. It was an old fantasy that had haunted Kinchloe's dreams when he'd first arrived at Stalag 13. With Hogan sleeping only a few feet away, separated by the thinnest of doors, Kinchloe had found the cold, lonely nights almost unbearable. It had taken all of his self-discipline to remind himself that the flimsy door was representative of the wall of command that a leader placed between himself and his men.

Furthermore, Kinchloe knew that the silver eagles on Hogan's shoulders were a much more formidable barrier than the barbed wire which encircled the camp. Any possibility of a more intimate relationship between the two of them had about as remote a chance as the war ending tomorrow. Therefore, Kinchloe would just have to keep his wishes to himself.

"Okay, fellas, you're dismissed," Hogan said, nodding toward the door. The three downed airmen mumbled their 'Yessirs' and shuffled outside. "Not you, Kinch." Hogan's soft voice stopped Kinchloe before he followed them out. Wordlessly, he turned and waited. Hogan still stood hunched over the map, studying it carefully. He'd taken out a set of calipers and was busy measuring distances and elevations in his head, computing complex mathematical tables with a speed and accuracy that dazzled his men.

"It's possible..." Hogan muttered to himself. "We might just be able to pull it off...but--?" Kinchloe knew better than to interrupt his CO while he was so deeply immersed in his planning. He's probably even forgotten I'm here, he added ruefully.

As if to prove Kinchloe's point, Hogan lit a cigarette and walked over to the open window. His back to Kinchloe, Hogan smoked quietly for several minutes, lost in his thoughts. Knowing that whatever weighed heavily on Hogan's mind would take awhile, Kinchloe grabbed the sole chair in the room and plopped down. Stretching his legs out before him, he crossed his arms and prepared for a long wait. Watching Hogan closely, he was suddenly aware of every tense muscle straining underneath the signature leather jacket.

Leaning his chair back on its two back legs, he studied Hogan's profile. As he did, Kinchloe was again struck by his CO's chiseled good looks, which at times could melt his heart with their endearing lost boy quality. Unbidden, images that he'd fought for so long to forget came forward-- erotic images of Hogan that had warmed many of his cold winter nights...

...Hogan's eyes are closed dreamily. A smile of contentment plays across his lips. Kinchloe leans down and kisses him fully, his tongue playfully searching for Hogan's. He runs his brown hands down the length of his lover's pale torso, his hot touch bringing soft sighs of encouragement. Smiling, Kinchloe kisses Hogan on the neck, and then slowly travels down his chest. His tongue leaves a long, wet trail, until he reaches the tightly muscled abs. Pausing, he runs his tongue sensuously across Hogan's lower abdomen, a thrill of excitement pulsing through him…

The chair slamming back to the floor snapped Kinchloe back to the present. Hogan whipped around, startled by the sudden noise. He gave Kinchloe a look of surprise, which told Kinchloe that he had indeed forgotten all about him. Kinchloe stared back sheepishly at Hogan, almost tasting him in his mouth.

"Sorry," he managed. Hogan gave Kinchloe a strange look, causing him to shift uncomfortably in the chair.

"Kinch...? You okay?" he asked.

"Um...Yessir," Kinchloe said innocently. "Why do you ask?"

"I'm not sure...?" Hogan said softly. "For a minute there I thought--?" He stopped and shook his head. "Never mind," he said with a boyish smile. "I think I'm getting wire happy." He headed back to the map on his table. "Give me another couple of minutes. I think I almost have it." With that, Hogan bent intently over the map, elbows on the table, his back to Kinchloe.

Unable to stop himself, Kinchloe imagined Hogan in the same position, without any clothes on. Ohhhh my…He stood abruptly and paced quietly, closing and opening his fists by his sides. Silently berating himself, he called upon his iron self-control and practically willed his heart rate and rapid breathing to slow down.

You and the colonel are never going to happen! It's just a wet, pipe dream! So you might as well keep your mind on business and your tongue in your mouth! Kinchloe felt a telltale throbbing between his legs and embarrassed sat down and crossed his legs. And get those ants out of your pants, Sergeant! Holy Cats! Tell me that the colonel didn't notice--please? And here I thought the kid had it bad!

Recalling Hogan's self-proclaimed program of clean sports and pure thoughts, Kinchloe grinned ruefully. Without much hope of success, he tried his CO's suggestions and ended up visualizing a shirtless Hogan running around in skimpy athletic shorts. Rolling his eyes, he concentrated on a spot in the ceiling and started breaking down the components of his short-wave radio in his head.

H H H H H

Studying the newcomers surreptitiously, Newkirk decided that Rider was an okay sort of bloke, but that Anderson had "Bleedin' sot" written all over him. Probably the kind of officer who gives his enlisted crew a hard time, he concluded. Determinedly putting them out of his mind, Newkirk instead concentrated on the phony identification papers he was forging for the pair.

However, try as he might, Newkirk's dark thoughts intruded on his consciousness, and as a result, his hand accidentally slipped, ruining the document he'd been so meticulously working on. Disgusted with himself--and Anderson (Because he was 'just the kind of blithering idiot who'll pick a fight with his own mates--even while behind enemy lines!')--the British corporal threw down his fountain pen and stood abruptly.

Fuming, he paced for several minutes until sighing, he got his anger under control. Sitting back down, he drew a fresh piece of paper and once again picked up his pen.

"Back to the drawing board, Peter," he muttered, and within a few moments, he was again fully immersed in his work.

Out of the corner of his eye, Newkirk saw Anderson motion Rider to follow him, and they moved off by themselves. Suspicious, Newkirk followed them into one of the branch tunnels. Hearing voices up ahead, he walked up noiselessly until he could see and hear them clearly. Remaining hidden behind a rock outcropping, Newkirk eavesdropped on their conversation.

"Look, Rider...I don't know about you, but I don't trust this whole setup. I say we take off on our own and head back to our lines tonight."

"But, sir, how can we? We don't know the terrain or the lingo. We don't have any papers, clothes--nothing! Col. Hogan says that the sub will rendezvous at the pickup point on Saturday. That's just a couple of days from now. What do we have to lose by waiting? He seems a pretty squared-away kinda guy."

"Well, I don't trust him!" Anderson replied. "Did you see how that panty-waist, Edwards, looked at him? Like they were long-lost lovers or something--?"

At these words, Newkirk formed a fist and was ready to jump in, when he was grabbed from behind. A hand was unexpectedly clapped about his mouth, and he found himself being pulled back with surprising force. Angry, he struggled against his attacker until he saw who it was--LeBeau.

Newkirk was about to protest, but LeBeau quickly placed his finger over his lips and shook his head, hushing him. The small Frenchman then tiptoed back to the spot that Newkirk had just vacated as a sign that they should continue to listen.

"I don't get it, Lieutenant!" Rider sounded impatient. "Just what exactly do you have against Lt. Edwards?" Anderson snorted in response.

"Rider, sometimes I wonder about you!" Sneering up at the larger man, he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, letting out a long stream of smoke. "I'll tell you what I've got against that pretty boy--!"

"Perhaps, you should tell us, mon ami?" LeBeau suggested, stepping out from behind cover.

"Yeah..." Newkirk echoed. "Maybe you should let us all in on the joke, mate." Both Allied corporals glared stonily at the Americans.

"Listen, you lousy Limey--" Anderson began, but that was as far as he got. Newkirk drew back his fist and belted him across the jaw. Anderson went down on his knees, his nose bleeding. Breathing rapidly, Newkirk stood above him, fists ready for a second go-round.

"The name's Cpl. Newkirk, mate," he said, raggedly. "Peter to me friends--!"

"And 'Halt!' to Scotland Yard!" LeBeau added helpfully. Newkirk glowered at him, but didn't object.

Turning to Rider, the Englishman held out his fists and demanded, "Well--? You want some of this, too?" Rider shook his head.

"Nah...not me, pal. The bum got what was coming to him. Besides, like the colonel said...there's plenty war enough for me with the Krauts." He looked down at Anderson and offered him his hand. Anderson slapped it away. Shaking his head in disgust, Rider muttered, "You are some piece of work."

"Shut up, Rider!" Anderson gasped painfully. Cupping his nose tenderly, he glared up defiantly at them. "I'll have you court-martialed, Newkirk! You struck a superior officer--!"

"An officer maybe, but hardly superior," Newkirk shot back unconcernedly.

"Think I'm joking?" Anderson wobbled to his feet. "Rider, you're my witness! You saw what happened. This guy hit me--totally without provocation and--!"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Lt. Anderson, sir," Rider said innocently.

"What do you mean, Sergeant?!" Anderson demanded. "You were standing right there! You saw--!"

"I saw you trip and hit yourself against the tunnel wall," Rider said easily. He nodded towards Newkirk and LeBeau. "The corporals here warned you that the tunnels were dangerous for people who weren't used to them. But you insisted on exploring them."

"What?!" Anderson spluttered. "I'll have you busted for this! For collusion!" Smiling, Rider crossed his arms and continued as if uninterrupted.

"We all know how you are, sir, when you get an idea in your head. No one short of Ike himself can get you to change your mind." His smile abruptly changed, replaced by a dark, menacing glower. "You've had it in for Lt. Edwards from the beginning. The whole squadron knows it. For my book, he's an okay guy. But as for you...well, let's just say that guys like you have a funny way of falling out of planes--without a parachute."

"Y-You're threatening me--?" Anderson gasped in disbelief. He turned to the others. "You heard him...! He threatened me--!"

Newkirk and LeBeau snorted in amusement. "Rider's right, mate! You are a piece of work!"

"But--?"

"Lt. Anderson," LeBeau broke in. "Listen carefully...for your own safety." He glared meaningfully at the American officer. "You fell and injured yourself, just as Sgt. Rider said. We found you and helped you. That is all there is to it. Except..." LeBeau paused.

"Except for what?" Anderson asked.

"Except for Lt. Edwards," LeBeau finished. "You are not to harass him in any way for the duration of your stay. You see, we have developed a certain fondness for the lieutenant. He saved the life of one his men--Johnson--when they were surrounded."

"Aye, that he did," Newkirk chimed in. "Johnson told us all what happened. Edwards pushed Johnson out of the path of a bullet that was meant for him, and was himself shot. The lad's still recuperating from his wounds--and that little row you started didn't do him any good."

"Oui! And I should know as I am the one who helped nurse him back." LeBeau took a step forward and held Anderson's gaze. "Lt. Edwards was willing to lay his life down for another's. For me, that makes him the kind of man that I want by my side."

"And what have you done lately for your country, Lt. Anderson?" Newkirk asked. "I mean, besides carry a personal grudge all the way from England and start a fight in the barracks?"

Three sets of steel-hard eyes glared at Anderson. He met them with a momentary defiance, but quickly looked away. Without further word, he headed back. The three men watched him as he disappeared around a corner and then followed.

H H H H H

After a brief search, LeBeau found Edwards in the 'infirmary' tunnel sitting wearily on his bunk. The younger man was painfully clutching his side, an immensely tired expression on his face.

"Good one, Eddie," he muttered. "Good and dumb. What'll you do for an encore? Charge up San Juan Hill?"

"I believe that's already been done," LeBeau said easily. Edwards looked up startled. LeBeau was leaning against the infirmary entrance, a tiny smile playing across his lips. "Of course, if you really wish to tear open your stitches--" He pushed away from the wall and started towards the slightly abashed officer. "--you could do it much quicker by simply taking a pair of scissors and--"

"Okay, okay!" Edwards interrupted. "I know that letting that Neanderthal, Anderson, get to me was stupid, but--" he paused. He felt LeBeau sit down next to him and jumped slightly at the sudden closeness. He shrugged, feeling uncomfortable.

"But sometimes you feel that if you do not strike back," LeBeau said quietly, "you will explode--eh, my friend?"

Not looking at LeBeau, Edwards nodded and softly admitted, "Yeah..." Unexpectedly, LeBeau's arm settled gently across his shoulders. Stiffening at the touch, Edwards' head snapped round as he faced LeBeau. "What the--?" At LeBeau's quiet look of inquiry, he stopped suddenly. "I--?"

Carefully, so as not to startle him further, LeBeau gently raised his hand until he was touching Edwards' face. Softly, he ran his fingers down the younger man's cheek. As he did, LeBeau was struck by Edward's dark and brooding good looks.

"What is it that you wish, cherie?" LeBeau asked. Looking down at his feet, Edwards shrugged, apparently not taking notice of the endearment. LeBeau smiled tenderly, running his fingers gently through Edwards' hair in a slow, soothing massage. Lying back, Edwards closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation. "Do you wish to be left alone, perhaps?"

At the question, Edwards sat up suddenly. Realizing what he had been about to let himself do, he nodded. "Yes...I-I want to be left alone, Louis," he stammered. "I--" He stopped at the warm touch of LeBeau's hand on his arm. "I--" Edwards couldn't continue. He felt on the verge of tears and didn't know why.

"Cherie..." LeBeau soothed, moving in closer. Nuzzling Edwards gently, he whispered, "You need not be alone, cherie. You need never be alone again..." Taking the younger man lovingly in his arms, LeBeau gently, but insistently pushed him down onto the bunk. Edwards looked at him questioningly, his expressive eyes showing his uncertainty.

"Louis...?"

"Yes, cherie...?" LeBeau managed between kisses.

"I don't know about this..." Edwards sounded half-panicked/half-eager. Without realizing what he was doing, he was removing his shirt. LeBeau never stopped kissing him--mouth, face, chest--as Edwards spoke.

"You don't know about what, cherie?" LeBeau worked carefully so as not to hurt Edwards, but his kisses and his touch nonetheless felt ultra-hot to his young lover.

"Louis...I've never done anything like this before..." Edwards stopped, embarrassed at the admission. LeBeau looked down affectionately at him. His eyes dancing merrily, he leaned down and playfully kissed him on the nose.

"Do not worry, cherie," LeBeau whispered, "I will show you." At LeBeau's words, Edwards finally relaxed, and ardently returned the Frenchman's enthusiastic kiss. Closing his eyes, Edwards smiled happily as he placed himself in LeBeau's very capable hands.

H H H H H

Hogan's back and shoulders stiffened, and straightening to his full height, he stubbed out his cigarette butt. Flicking it out the window, he turned and faced Kinchloe, his jaw clenched.

"We're taking out those guns."

Kinchloe swallowed. "Colonel...are you sure?" Hogan nodded.

"We've gotta put 'em out of commission, Kinch," he said. "These guns have taken out too many of our planes. Like our young guests said...the Eighth Air Force is only going to send out yet another mission to take out that ball bearing plant. I'd opt for taking out the plant, instead, but their security is too tight. The guns, on the other hand, are spread out over a wide geographical area...here and here." Hogan indicated two points on the map. The air defense emplacements were located north and south of the ball bearing plant, a half-kilometer apart. "Our Underground contacts reported that the security around the guns was rather light compared to the plant."

"Makes sense," Kinchloe said with a shrug. "The plant manufactures needed goods, while the guns are probably considered expendable."

"My thoughts exactly," Hogan said. Meeting Kinchloe's eyes, he grinned. "We're beginning to sound like an old married couple, Kinch--" he teased, "—finishing each other's thoughts before he says them. You'd better watch out, or you'll be darning my socks and washing my underwear before long."

"Humph!" Kinchloe grumbled, crossing his arms. "How come I'm the one who'll be stuck with the laundry?" he asked. "And just what'll you be doing while I slave over a hot stove?"

Laughing, Hogan placed his arm around Kinchloe's shoulders and began leading him to the door. "What'll I be doing?" he repeated, and leered. "Why, I'll be grabbing you from behind and taking you right there and then on the kitchen counter, of course. What else do married men do?"

"Drink beer and sleep on the couch," Kinchloe retorted. The image that Hogan's joke had conjured played havoc with his blood pressure.

"Well...that too," Hogan agreed readily, stopping when they reached the door. They stood shoulder to shoulder, their faces less than an inch apart. Kinchloe felt the blood rushing to his face, his earlier fantasies about Hogan coming back in a flood. Hogan quirked an eye at him. "Kinch? You okay?"

Unable to speak, Kinchloe nodded. Clearing his throat, he managed a mumbled, "Yessir..."

"Good, 'cause I need you to send a message to London." Holding Kinchloe's eyes with his own steady gaze, he explained. "Tell 'em to get ready, 'cause we're taking those guns out."

H H H H H

Anderson winced as Sgt. Wilson, the medic, placed the finishing touches on his bloody nose.

"Hey! Watch it!" he cried, his voice muffled. "That hurts!"

"Which will hopefully teach you not to wander into darkened tunnels alone, sir," Wilson retorted amiably. "I've been in this joint almost a year now, and I still get lost sometimes in this huge maze." He stepped back and surveyed his handiwork. "There...that oughtta do it!" Smiling, Wilson began packing the first aid supplies back into his small bag. The next supply drop was over a week away, and he had to somehow make each item last until then. Hopefully, the colonel wasn't planning anything dangerous between now and then. Unconsciously, he sighed as he snapped his bag closed.

"What is it?" Anderson asked. He wasn't really interested, but it seemed no one else cared to speak with him at the moment. It was a way to alleviate his growing boredom, not to mention loneliness.

Wilson shrugged at the question. "Nothing really," he said. "It's just that--" He paused, thought a minute, then sat back down again. "It's just that that little nose job I just gave you finished off one of my last rolls of bandages."

"So? Expect a run on heavy casualties any time soon?" Anderson asked sarcastically. Wilson gave Anderson a frank look.

"Want to know the truth?" he asked, and then answered before Anderson had a chance to. "I'm always on the lookout for casualties. It's a miracle we haven't lost more men with this crazy mission we've got here. Between blowing up bridges and convoys, stealing enemy war plans, and rescuing downed flyers, we've pretty much got our hands full here. Between you'n me, sir...I think we've been darned lucky that our casualty rate has been so low." Wilson pointed at his medical bag. "Lt. Edwards was lucky we had enough morphine and penicillin to keep him stabilized during his recent recovery." He paused again. "I just hope the colonel doesn't have anything planned before our next supply drop." Smiling apologetically, he stood to go. "Of course, if wishes were horses..."

With that, the medical corpsman gave Anderson a friendly wave and ducked into one of the many tunnels that seemed to branch off into the darkness. Anderson sat for a long time, thinking about Wilson's words. Until this moment, he'd assumed that Stalag 13's mission was that of rescuing downed flyers. Apparently, their mission was much more extensive--and dangerous.

I had the nerve to talk trash about Hogan and his men, he thought darkly. The American was suddenly overcome with embarrassment and deep shame. You've got a big, fat mouth, Andy! You're plain lucky Hogan didn't leave you to the Krauts after your little stunt this afternoon. And Newkirk! The Englishman had had every right to belt him across the chops. If the roles had been reversed, he'd have laid into Newkirk for mouthing off, as well.

"Face it, Andy," he mumbled. "You're nothing but a big, fat jerk!"

"That's the first intelligent thing I've heard you say yet, Yank!" Anderson looked up at Newkirk's friendly grin. "What do you say we start over, mate?" Newkirk asked, holding out his hand. "After all...we are on the same side." Anderson stared at him for a full five seconds before nodding slowly. Standing, he accepted Newkirk's hand in his, and the two Allies shook hands.

H H H H H

Kinchloe listened over his headset, taking notes in his rapid shorthand. Hogan stood over him, one hand resting on his shoulder, the other leaning on the worktable. He was almost cheek-to-cheek with Kinchloe, his expression intent on the message that Kinchloe was scribbling. The radio operator caught a whiff of Hogan's clean, soapy smell and immediately broke the lead on his pencil.

"Dammit!" In self-disgust he threw the useless pencil down on the table and signaled Hogan for another. Nodding, Hogan and the others frantically tore through place, searching in vain for another pencil.

Meanwhile, Kinchloe continued listening to the series of dots and dashes coming over his headset, and kept on decoding the transmission. As the others searched animatedly in both likely and unlikely places, Kinchloe took out a penknife and calmly began whittling the pencil's broken tip. A few minutes later, Hogan stood before him and dramatically presented a new pencil.

"Here you go, Kinch! A bona fide, brand-spanking new, number two pencil! Freshly sharpened care of Cpl. Newkirk."

Kinchloe stared pointedly at the pencil he was already writing with and finished transcribing the message from memory. Looking up, he grinned broadly and held out the message. "Here you go, Sir! A bona fide, brand-spanking new operations order! Freshly transcribed care of Allied High Command and yours truly!"

"Very funny, wise guy," Hogan said sourly. He snatched the message from Kinchloe's fingers and read it through. A brief smile of satisfaction flitted across his face. "It's a go for tomorrow night!" His men cheered in response. "We'll take out the air defense batteries at midnight, and the Mighty Eighth--represented by the 233rd Bomb Group--will do the rest!"

H H H H H

Kinchloe crouched in the shadows, blending easily into the deep gloom. He clutched the German Schmeisser close to his chest, automatically running his hands along its length, checking its operation. Glancing up at the clear, moonless sky, he wondered for the umpteenth time what he was doing playing commando. He was a radioman for heaven's sake—not Errol Flynn!

But here he was in charge of a three-man team, comprised of Newkirk, Carter, and him, tasked to take out the German artillery emplacement on the south side of the ball-bearing plant. Approximately one kilometer away on the north side of the factory, Hogan led the second team, which would take out the other gun.

At that moment, the signal to move in came over the walkie-talkie.

"Good luck, Baby Bear." Hogan's voice sounded scratchy and tinny over the handset, but it sent a warm sensation through Kinchloe.

"Roger, Papa Bear. Baby Bear out." Kinchloe passed the signal to Newkirk, who in turn, signaled Carter. His two men knew their individual tasks and what to do. Carter would wait, while Kinchloe and Newkirk took out the perimeter guards and gunners. When the coast was clear, Carter would set the charges and hopefully destroy the big gun that had cost the 233rd the lives of so many men. The whole operation wouldn't take longer than a few minutes, if everything went as planned.

Kinchloe moved stealthily toward the battery's outer perimeter. He spotted the first guard almost immediately and waited for him to pass. The guard was slowly walking his rounds. He looked more bored than attentive to the job at hand. In fact, he seemed almost oblivious to his surroundings.

Kinchloe shook his head in disapproval. If this was an example of the "super-race" then heaven help mankind. Waiting tensely until the somnolent soldier passed him on his rounds, Kinchloe silently stood up and moved in quick, soundless steps, hurriedly coming up behind the guard. Using his bayonet, he dispatched the guard, tossing the lifeless body into the underbrush.

Jogging along the shadows, he met up with Newkirk. The Englishman held up two fingers and then made a slashing motion across his neck, indicating that he had taken out two guards. Giving him a thumbs-up, Kinchloe slapped him on the arm and urged him forward. They still had the gunners to take out.

Taking what cover he could find, Kinchloe located the area of the woods where Carter waited and signaled him to be ready. Carter waved an acknowledgement. Even from fifty feet away, the younger man's excitement at the upcoming pyrotechnics was palpable. Kinchloe and Newkirk exchanged a chagrinned look, and Newkirk shrugged as if to say, "What can you expect?"

Kinchloe pointed at a tent they had spotted earlier that the Germans had set up for sleeping. He nodded at Newkirk, and the two men split up, approaching the tent from opposite directions.

"Kinch—look out!"

The next instant, a loud rifle shot broke the night's stillness.

"Kinch!" He recognized Carter's voice calling him from far away.

At the same time, Kinchloe felt as if a heavy hand had shoved him unceremoniously to the ground. Landing on his back, he gasped for air, the wind knocked out of him. Confused, he gazed up at the stars overhead. Funny, they seemed to be spinning.

All of a sudden, the clear night rang with explosive bursts of machinegun fire and the sound of screams. Someone again called his name—"Kinch!"—but it sounded faint, a poor connection, he thought. He suddenly felt tired, and try as he might he couldn't keep his eyes open. As the stars spun faster and faster, the night, along with the deadly noises that accompanied it, faded to nothingness.

H H H H H

"What happened?" Hogan hurried to Kinchloe's side. Both artillery batteries had been taken out, the mission a success. Yes, thanks to my brilliant planning, the mission was a success, he thought bitterly, executed with only a minimum of casualties—my best friend. Not killed, thankfully, but badly wounded. He looked down at his friend, fatigue and guilt weighing him down. Kinch, what have I done?

"The lousy kraut took us by surprise, sir. He must have been answering the call of nature, when he spotted Kinch." Newkirk sounded angry, anxious, and guilty all at once.

"Yeah, boy…um, sir," Carter broke in. "I tried to warn Kinch, but it was too late." He stared at his feet. "I took care of the Kraut, sir."

"Where's Kinch?" Wilson came running up the side tunnel, LeBeau following closely at his heels. Wilson immediately examined the injured noncom. He worked quickly, doing what he could to stem the bleeding and clean the wounds. After an interminable period, he finally straightened and looked at Hogan. "He's lost a lot of blood, sir. He'll need an immediate transfusion."

Newkirk, Carter, and LeBeau immediately stepped forward, rolling up their sleeves.

"Take what you need, Wilson," Newkirk said. "Kinch is me mate…I don't need all of it anyway."

"Oui, Wilson," LeBeau chimed in, nodding. "It is the least we can do for our friend."

"Boy, I'll say," Carter agreed. "Why, Kinch would do the same for any of us, and more!"

"Okay, fellas," Hogan broke in. "I know Kinch appreciates your volunteering. But if there's anyone here who's gonna donate blood, it's me."

"I'm sorry, sir," Wilson said with a shake of his head. "But none of you can give Kinch your blood."

As one, the men shouted in protest. Hogan had to yell at the top of his lungs to get them under control. When at last they had quieted down, he glared at Wilson.

"Okay, Wilson…explain. Why can't we donate blood?"

"Because none of you happens to be his blood type—AB Negative." At their looks, he shook his head helplessly. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Well, we'll find someone in camp with the same blood type," Newkirk insisted.

Wilson again shook his head. He looked as tired as he felt. "I've got the blood type of every POW on file. Kinch is the only one with this particular blood type."

"But, how do you know?" Newkirk asked. "You haven't even checked."

"Look, I don't know much about this stuff…I'm only a medic. But Kinch happens to have just about the rarest blood type there is. Believe me…stuff like that, I remember."

"What if we radio London for a special medical supply drop?" Hogan asked. "We could get something here within the next thirty-six hours."

"Yeah, boy…um, sir!" Carter agreed. "That would be great!"

"Sir…Kinch doesn't have thirty-six hours. He needs a transfusion now!" Wilson looked as if he'd rather be anywhere but there. He had just condemned a man whom everyone in camp knew was the colonel's personal friend to death.

Hogan shook head. "No…I won't accept that." He stepped closer to Wilson, his dark features menacing in the dim tunnel lighting. "I refuse to give up on him."

"I don't think you'll have to, sir."

The men turned at the sound of the new voice from behind. Anderson, Edwards, and Riley all stood there looking determined.

"What do you mean, Anderson?" Hogan asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, we couldn't help overhearing," Edwards began by way of explanation.

"Never mind all that," Hogan snapped. "What did you mean just now, Anderson?"

"Sir, I just happen to be AB-Negative. At least, that's what my dog-tags say."

The next few minutes were a whirl of activity. The men quickly cleared a table and moved it next to Kinchloe. Without waiting to be told, Anderson lay down on it. He rolled up his sleeve and waited patiently for Wilson to finish his preparations.

LeBeau, meanwhile, came up to him and gently placed a pillow behind his head. "There, mon ami, this should be more comfortable."

"Yeah, boy…um, sir," Carter said next. "Sir, I'd like you to have this." He placed an object in Anderson's hand. At the lieutenant's look, Carter explained proudly, "It's my lucky rabbit's foot. I've taken it with me all our missions. It works great!"

Anderson smiled. "Thanks, Carter…but I don't want to take your rabbit's foot. I mean…won't you need it for your next mission?"

"Gee…I hadn't thought of that." Carter looked suddenly doubtful about giving up his lucky charm.

"I tell you what, Carter. What if I just borrow it this once? I mean, I sure could use some luck here. When it's all over, I'll give it back to you?"

"Gosh, boy…um, sir, that's a great idea!"

The others came one-by-one to wish him luck and thank him for volunteering.

"Are you sure you want to do this, Anderson?" Newkirk asked. "Kinch is our mate, and we'd go to hell and back for him, but you--? You hardly know him."

Anderson looked away momentarily unable to meet Newkirk's eyes. Finally, he turned back and nodded. "I've learned something about myself, Newkirk. Something I don't like. I owe a lot of people—" Unconsciously, he glanced over at Edwards who was sitting quietly next to LeBeau. "This is just a little bit of payback. You guys risked your lives to take out the guns that have cost my unit so much."

He shrugged, words suddenly failing him. He nodded at Hogan who leaned against the tunnel wall, his thumbs stuck in his bomber jacket, a hard look on his usually open features; then at Kinchloe who lay deathly still on the bunk next to him. "Like I said…I owe you...all of you."

"Okay, mate," Newkirk said. "Good luck."

H H H H H

He feels oddly separated from his body, as if gently floating in a pool of darkness.

Where am I?

"Wilson, how is he?"

"It'll be touch and go for a while, Sir, but he's going to be all right thanks to Lt. Anderson."

"And that special medical supply drop last night. HQ sure came through for us."

"Yessir…the penicillin and morphine are exactly what he needed to help pull him through."

The voices sound familiar, but he can't place them. Unconcerned, he enjoys the strange sensation of being carried away like driftwood.

"Colonel…Anderson, Edwards, and Riley all rendezvoused safely with the sub. Also, HQ reports that he 233rd successfully took out the ball-bearing plant without the loss of any planes."

He smiles. For some reason the knowledge makes him happy, but he doesn't know why.

"Is there any change, boy…um, I mean, Colonel?"

Carter, how many times do I have to remind you how to properly address the colonel?

"No, not yet."

Colonel, you sound like you just lost your best friend.

"Sir, you haven't had any sleep for almost forty-eight hours."

"Yeah, boy…um, I mean, sir. Why don't you get some sack time? Me and the guys can sit up with him."

"Let us leave mon Colonel alone, mes ami."

"But he should get some rest!"

So…what else is new?

"Andrew, there's only one thing that will convince the colonel to get some sack time, and it's not us."

"It's Kinch opening his eyes and coming back to him."

Now what do you guys mean by that? I'm just fine…I feel great, in fact!

A hand squeezing his own suddenly brought up him short. One minute he was floating in some dark, formless ether. The next, an uncompromising heaviness told him that the laws of gravity were once more weighing on him. And the pain—not unbearable but certainly noticeable—informed him that the painkillers he'd been given were wearing out.

He realized disinterestedly that the strange sensations he had been experiencing were probably morphine-induced dreams.

"You have to wake up, Kinch. I can't make it without you…You're my right hand, my strength. I need you, Kinch."

He struggled to open his eyes, to speak. He had to let Hogan know that he was there for him, that he would always be there for him, supporting him…loving him. He felt his hand being pressed against something wet.

Willing his hand to obey him, Kinchloe squeezed Hogan's hand in answer. Struggling to open his eyes, Kinchloe blinked against the light. He gazed into a pair of reddened brown eyes, noting the wet tracks that led from them.

Kinchloe's heart swelled with love and affection for this man who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. At the same time, he realized that he would never be able to express his feelings openly, that there would never be a happily ever after for him and Hogan.

As he looked into Hogan's guilt-ridden, pain-filled eyes, Kinchloe acceded that all he could ever hope for was his commanding officer's friendship, respect, and trust.

"I'm here, Colonel…I'll always be here for you, sir." At Hogan's answering smile, Kinchloe nodded to himself.

He smiled, willingly accepting the gift of Hogan's friendship, respect, and trust.

It might be all he could hope for, but it was more than enough.

Finis