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With thanks to Tim for editing and Kate for reading. The help was invaluable guys.

The mission had been a difficult one, get into Lebannon and extract the high ranking Libyan Government official. Achmed Fraub was a double agent. The man's cover had been blown by the release of information to the press from the US State Department following the September 11th atrocities.

The whereabouts of some of Bin Laden's closest supporters had been a little too explicit and after a witch hunt by the Libyans two men had been identified as the possible source of the information. One of those two men was already dead and Fraub did not intend to be the second victim. He had got out, gone to ground in Lebanon, his home town, and got a message out to Trout. Matt had been called by Trout and asked to pull the team together at short notice.

Deke was skiing in Canada and in the time available was unable to get a commercial flight out. Trout had promised a military flight but snow storms had grounded everything. Nick, in New York for a family Christmas, had reported that after a particularly cold night he had slipped on the frozen sidewalk. He had only just been released from the emergency room. His arm was heavily strapped and in a sling and he had three stitches in his forehead. He was in no fit state to participate.

Turning to Margo and Benny Ray, Matt put the phone down and said simply, "I guess it's just us guys."

Trout had detailed information on Fraub's location. Margo had been to Lebanon before and after reviewing the intel they decided the three of them could carry out the mission safely and successfully. And so it had proved. They had encountered no difficulties, they had their man and were on the way to the harbour where a contact of Margo's had a small boat waiting to ferry them out to a submarine patrolling in international waters. Benny Ray was driving a beaten up VW camper van with Matt sat beside him up front. Margo and the double agent sat behind. They had slowed down through narrow back streets to avoid piles of rubbish lying around when the van was sideswiped and pushed towards an old school building partly demolished during the war and never rebuilt.Benny Ray had been looking to his left when the van was hit, looking for a turn Margo had indicated was around here somewhere. The seat belt did nothing and his head hit the side window. The window shattered on impact but not before the blow had broken his nose. Blood spurted and pain shot through his head.

The attackers reversed to take a second go. Matt, Margo and the agent took the chance to escape the vehicle. Margo pulled the agent to the rear of the van and into what little cover she could find, turning back to do what she could to deter the attackers from ramming the van a second time. The attacking vehicle was an old military truck and wasn't easily stopped. Matt noticing that Benny Ray had not followed him out of the van turned back and yelled when he saw the blood and his second in command struggling with his seat belt. Matt could smell petrol and wanted Benny Ray out of there fast. He leaned back into the van and grabbed the collar of Benny Ray's jacket to drag him across the passenger seat.

The buckle had jammed. The damn thing hadn't prevented him from being thrown forward, thought Benny Ray, but now it was trying to get him killed. At Matt's yell Benny Ray pulled out his knife and cut the webbing strap. He turned to Matt and saw the truck approach for a second time. He shouted a warning to Matt and threw himself flat on the seat, covering his head with his hands. Matt turned and ran following Margo. A split second later the truck hit the van and the sound of tearing metal ripped through the early morning. The truck stayed put and men jumped down from the back firing at Matt and Margo's position.

As soon as the truck stopped Benny Ray was out through the driver's side window. His way to the rear of the van was blocked by mounds of partly demolished building and moving forward he tried to gain a position where he could fire on the truck's inhabitants and at least slow the men in pursuit of Matt and Margo. The driver he took out with a single shot.

"Bastard." He muttered as he gingerly wiped the blood from his nose on his sleeve. He moved forward trying to ascertain if there was anyone left in the truck when a hail of gunfire made him dive for cover, jarring his whole body as he hit the ground and sending waves of pain through his head once more. He returned fire and the van exploded. The truck went a second or so later.Both vehicles were an infernno. Over the comm link Benny Ray could hear Matt's voice demanding a sit rep. He told Matt there was no way he could get to them and they both agreed that he would make his own way to the harbour and they would rendezvous there. They also agreed to maintain radio silence as much as possible.

The explosion and fire had finally attracted the local militia and Benny Ray beat a hasty retreat. As always his attention to the details of their route out and surrounding area was first rate and mentally he was already planning an alternative route. With blood still dripping from his nose he made his way cautiously through the streets which now echoed to the early morning sounds of any major city. If he didn't make the harbour soon he was going to attract some very unwanted attention. Lebanon was still a dangerous place for foreign nationals, especially ones that were bleeding and heavily armed. Twice his route was blocked, once by a group of militia who looked like they were taking an early morning coffee break and then by another building which had collapsed into a small alleyway. Urban regeneration was obviously not a term applied here Benny Ray thought sourly.

He had to find cover, people were coming onto the streets on their way to work and school. He was not going to get to the harbour undetected. His nose had finally stopped bleeding but he felt sick. Ahead of him was a warehouse that looked long since abandoned. He made his way inside and contacted Matt. They too had not made it to the harbour and were being sheltered by Margo's contact. It was agreed that they would lay low during the day and try to exfil as soon as it went dark and the streets emptied. Benny Ray signed off and looked at his home for the next few hours.

The place was empty. Few internal walls still stood but there was the remains of an office in one corner. Light flooded in through broken windows high above and Benny Ray slowly made his way to the office. There was no door to the room which smelt of goodness knows what but looked comfortably gloomy. A pile of what looked like old sacking was stacked in one corner. Benny Ray made his way to it and sank to his knees. He was more tired than he realised, his head and face ached horribly and he still felt sick. His stomach lurched and leaning forward on all fours he suddenly vomitted. His stomach settled and out of the corner of his eye he saw movement. He turned to look, pulled his Glock out of its holster and scanned the area. It could have been a rat or even a stray cat or dog, but it wasn't. A child appeared from the corner of the room. He was dressed in rags, had bare feet and was dirty and thin. He looked about ten.

"Stay where you are." Benny Ray ordered sternly.

The boy looked at him curiously and didn't seem to be afraid. He stepped forward. Benny Ray was going to repeat the order when he vomitted for a second time. When he looked up again the boy was standing beside him and behind the boy in the gloom he could make out another three figures. More children. He put down the gun. The tallest boy spoke,

"Are you alright, Mister?"

His English was heavily accented but perfectly understandable.

"I will be when I stop spraying my innards all over the place." He muttered to himself.

The boy held out a grimy cup, "Water, Mister?"

Benny Ray shook his head and pulled his own canteen from the back of his belt. He knew the water in that was clean. He doubted anything here was. Settling back on his haunches he realised he must be a very odd sight and smell. The front of his jacket was covered in blood and he stank of blood, sweat and vomit. His face was still streaked with camoflage paint and he was heavily armed, the MP5 slung across his back. Despite this the kids weren't scared. The tallest boy called the other children forward. He didn't speak to them in English, so that probably meant they didn't speak it, Benny Ray thought. The boy did the introductions,

"I'm Daniel, this is Rika, Tomaz and Sebe."

The last was a small blonde haired boy no more than about five Benny Ray guessed. He held the hand of the girl Rika and sucked the thumb of the other hand. He had large blue eyes which somehow reminded Benny Ray of his youngest.

Benny Ray returned the favour,

"Benny Ray." and he held out his hand until Daniel took it and they shook. Rika giggled but said nothing. A silence descended upon the small group until Benny Ray reached into his hip pocket and pulled out two Hershey bars. Daniel's eyes lit up, he knew what they were.

"Hungry?" Asked Benny Ray, who since vomitting had found himself decidedly unhungry.

Daniel nodded gently, took the offered bars, broke them into four equal pieces and handed them out. Sebe took his thumb out of his mouth and took a small bite of the candy. He smiled and gobbled down some more. He suddenly stopped eating and stepped towards Benny Ray offering him the last piece of chocolate. The other three who had all finished looked guilty that it had taken the youngest amongst them to offer to share. Benny Ray took all this in and was amazed that these street kids showed more humanity than many of the people he had met in his line of work, when they had nothing of their own.

"Do you live here?" he asked Daniel. The boy nodded. "When was the last time you ate?"

Daniel thought, "Yesterday. Rika stole a cabbage."

Benny Ray was stunned, "You cooked a cabbage?"

Daniel cocked his head to one side and smiled, " No, we just ate the cabbage."

Benny Ray grimaced. Cabbage had never been his favourite and raw cabbage was worse.

"Where did you steal the cabbage from?" He asked.

The two children exchanged a few words and Daniel replied, "There is a restaurant not far from here and she took it from there."

"Can you show me?" Said Benny Ray standing up and feeling his stomach calm.

"Ok Mister."

It was an odd group that finally made their way onto the streets. Daniel had 'found' some cothes for Benny Ray to wear and by the damp feel of them when he put them on, he guessed they were 'found' on someone's washing line. The four children walked with Benny Ray and no one paid any attention. They were soon in an alleyway that ran past the restaurant and Rika shyly pointed out the back door. With a whispered "Stay put", Benny Ray drew the Glock from under his shirt and approached the door.

There was no sound from the door opening. On the other side of the door was a storeroom filled with cans and bottles. He couldn't read the labels but could tell for the most part what was in the cans. He grabbed as many tins of fruit as he could carry, backed out of the door and gestured to Daniel. The children ran forward and he loaded them up. As he turned back a door at the other end of the storeroom opened and a large florid faced man shouted "Hey" and started gabbling in a language Benny Ray didn't understand, but he got the message that the man wasn't happy. He stepped forward and with two short jabs laid the man out cold. Going through the door into the kitchen Benny Ray checked to see if the commotion had been noticed. A movement to his right made him bring up his arm to protect himself and the frying pan wielded as a weapon hit his arm. The young man with the frying pan squeaked in horror when he saw the gun, dropped the frying pan and turned to run. Benny Ray stopped him in his tracks with a chop to the back of his unprotected neck. Looking quickly round the kitchen, Benny Ray grabbed up a can opener from the work surface and stuffed it in a pocket. He sniffed at a large pan simmering on the cooker. Lunch was well under way. It smelled like chicken and it smelled good. Grabbing up the pan with its lid he backed out of the kitchen and into the alleyway. Within a few minutes they were back in the warehouse with the food.

The kids couldn't have eaten properly in weeks, maybe months. Benny Ray sat back and watched them fall on the food like vultures. They ate every last drop from the pan using their fingers. As they sat back after with full bellies Sebe burped and they all laughed. Having eaten the children settled down to sleep the meal off. Sebe came over and sat in Benny Ray's lap while Daniel stacked the cans of food in the corner with the opener. The other three children settled themselves around Benny Ray by the sacking. Sebe put his hands on Benny Ray's face and kissed him on the cheek. He said a single word. Benny Ray, a lump in his throat, didn't trust himself to reply to the little boy curled in his lap. He leaned back on the sacking and the children settled down to sleep even though it was only early afternoon. All five were soon asleep.

A sound had Benny Ray instantly awake. The outside door had been opened and voices raised. As Benny Ray awoke so did Sebe. He looked up at Benny Ray who put his finger against his lips to indicate silence. Sebe nodded in understanding. Benny Ray peered round the wall of the office and saw two men standing talking. A package went from one man to the other and whatever was being said wasn't friendly. One of the children cried out in their sleep and Benny Ray turned to check on them. Sebe had his hand on Tomaz' mouth to stifle any more noise, his eyes wide open in fear. The two men had heard the noise and were walking towards the office. Benny Ray came into a crouch, he couldn't let anything happen to the children. As one of the men drew level with him, Benny Ray kicked out at the man's kneecap. The man dropped to the floor and a blow to the back of his head with the butt of the Glock had him tumbling to the ground unconscious. The second man had held back, more cautious. He saw his comrade go down and as Benny Ray hit the first man's unprotected head the second man rushed in banging his knee into Benny Ray's ribs. With the breath knocked out of him Benny Ray staggered back. The second man pressed home his advantage, throwing punches most of which weren't connecting. Benny Ray held his ground, he knew the children were behind him. Stepping inside a wild punch he threw two of his own to the man's stomach. They both hit home hard. Closing quickly, Benny Ray wanted to finish off the man before the children saw too much. Having doubled over at the blows to his stomach the man threw his head back as Benny Ray closed in. The man's head connected with Benny Ray's face smacking into his nose. He cried out at the impact, blood once more spurting down his face. Benny Ray had had enough. Three sharp jabs put the man on the ground where he lay still.

"We have to get out of here," he said to himself and looking at the children cowering in the corner he continued, "it's not safe."

He risked talking to Matt.

"We're breaking cover. This place has been compromised. We will meet you at the harbour."

Matt had replied with "Roger that." before he realised Benny Ray had said "We."

Benny Ray bent down and called Daniel to him. "Can you show me a way to the harbour?"

The boy thought for a second and then grabbing his hand started pulling him to the door. The other three were already trotting behind. Matt was going to be mad as hell, Benny Ray knew but he could leave these kids behind as much as he could leave his own behind in this situation. He would cross that bridge when he came to it.

They moved slowly through the streets looking almost like any one else on the streets. Daniel led them on for over two hours. For the final 30 minutes Benny Ray had been carrying Sebe on his back. His nose had stopped bleeding but a dull ache threatened to take over his whole head. Daniel stopped at the end of a narrow alley. It had grown dark and cold very quickly. Rika was shivering in her thin T shirt. Benny Ray put Sebe down, took off his blood stained jacket and hung it over her shoulders. When she put her arms in the sleeves it swamped her, but her smile could have lit up the entire street. Now it was Benny Ray's turn to feel the bite of the cold. He checked his watch. 4.30pm 12:23:01. The day before Christmas Eve. They crouched in the alley looking out over the harbour. Benny Ray had explained to Daniel where the boat was moored and he had taken them straight to it. They sat huddled together for warmth as much as anything and eventually the signal came from the boat. Benny Ray moved the children out and they were soon clambering down the ramp that led to the boat. The boat barely looked big enough for four let alone the children as well.

A voice hissed out of the dark, "Benny Ray you better have a damn good explanation for this school outing."

He turned and saw Matt at his shoulder. Matt drew back when he saw the state of Benny Ray's face. Both eyes were now blackened and blood had dried in patches down his chin and neck. The nose was badly swollen and misshapen.

"Major, we can't leave them behind." Benny Ray pleaded.

"And we can't take them with us." Matt retorted angrily.

Daniel listened to their conversation and tagged at Matt's belt, "We'll be good Mister." He promised tears in his eyes.

Matt looked down at the boy and then turned back to Benny Ray, "No, Benny Ray, no."

Sebe who had hardly lost physical contact with Benny Ray since the fight that afternoon, peeked out from behind his legs. Benny Ray looked down and Sebe smiled that angelic smile again.

"If they don't go Major, neither do I. We'll find our own way out." He stood his ground.

"Benny Ray this is ridiculous. Get in the boat and that's an order." Matt had lost all patience.

"No Sir, no can do."

Another voice entered the fray. Margo hissed at both of them.

"What is the hold up?"

She didn't wait for an answer. Taking in the scene before her she could guess at what was happening. She grabbed Rika who was still shivering and took her on board. Tomaz followed her. Benny Ray turned and picked up Sebe and boarded the boat. Daniel stood there looking at Matt. His eyes glistened with unshed tears and he held out his small hand. Matt took the hand and Daniel led him onto the boat.

The journey was slow and bumpy. The children were seasick and sat sadly huddled together on the single bunk. Margo had taken one look at Benny Ray's face and proclaimed that she could do nothing for him and that it would probably need surgery. She threw him a towel and told him to wash up. By the time he came out of the bathroom, Margo had done much to placate Matt's anger, but not enough to prevent Benny Ray getting a resounding tongue lashing.

"Major, it don't matter what you say. I had to help these kids."

With his anger at Benny Ray sated Matt became practical once more and bombarded Benny Ray with questions about what next for the four. Benny Ray had no real answers suggesting only that Father Bob might be able to help. Matt's final comment before they transferred to the waiting sub was, "Trout is going to love this."

On the sub Sebe would not be parted from Benny Ray and they ended up sharing a bunk. The other three slept on two bunks in the cabin next door. When Matt finished reporting to Trout, who, as he predicted, was not best pleased, he returned to the cabin he was sharing with Benny Ray. He found his second in command holding the small child in his lap, asleep but smiling contentedly.

"What did Trout say?" Benny Ray asked.

"He wants your head served on a platter." Matt quoted.

As Benny Ray started to explain once again, Matt held up his hands, "It's okay Benny Ray, I'm not an ogre, I understand, it's just...... this is complicated."

"Complicated don't make it wrong Sir." He said quietly.

Matt nodded, "I know Benny Ray, I know."

The child stirred and gently Benny Ray placed the boy on the bunk and covered him with a blanket. Benny Ray guided Matt out of the cabin and carried on the conversation in the corridor so as not to wake the child.

"What is Trout going to do about them?" Benny Ray asked with concern.

"He isn't happy but he is pulling what strings he can. Fortunately he is a very influential man."

Benny Ray leaned back against the wall and ran his fingers through his hair which was still damp from the shower he had taken once he was on the sub.

"One helluva Christmas Major!"

"Well it will be for those kids thanks to you Benny Ray."

Both men looked at the sleeping form.

"I feel guilty." Benny Ray explained looking at his feet.

"About your own kids?" Matt probed.

"Yeah this is the second year in a row that I've not been there Matt and it hurts like hell. Mary Ellen will make me jump through hoops to make it up to them and like an idiot I'll do it."

"Not an idiot Benny Ray, just a loving father."

Benny Ray knocked his head gently against the wall and then closed his eyes. He found it hard to explain this even to his best friend.

"If I loved them enough then I would be there for them," he said suddenly angry with himself, "but I'm on a submarine in the middle of an ocean."

"And if you hadn't taken this mission four kids would still be starving on the streets of Lebanon."

Matt was calm and logical, he sensed Benny Ray's pain but was unable to do anything about it.

"I know," Benny Ray retorted hurt and confused, "but it's always a good cause Matt and someone is always saved but my kids are at home, I am here and some other guy is watching them open their presents."

All Matt could do was squeeze his shoulder in comradeship and tell his second in command to get some rest. Benny Ray nodded and went back into the cabin. Not disturbing the boy he lay down, rested his arm behind his head and stared into the dark thinking of the joy on his children's faces. Joy he wouldn't see again this year. The other hand brushed away a stray tear and he closed his eyes to sleep. Matt was right at least these four children would have a better life now and maybe after all that was a good cause worth making the sacrifice for, and there was always next year.

Finis

Merry Christmas to one and all and a joyful New Year.

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