His fault. No matter how much Sam Curtis tried to rationalise his guilt away, no matter that no one else blamed him, least of all Chris, it lingered. His fault. He should have known, should have guessed that it was just too easy. His fault, his own damn stupid fault that his partner of two years was currently lying unconscious in a hospital bed after six hours in an operating theatre while a team of surgeons tried to save his leg.
Sam sighed heavily, running his hands once again through his now thoroughly disordered hair. He ached everywhere, and was so damned tired it just wasn't funny anymore. Both Backup and Malone had made attempts to send him home, but he'd refused, part of him marvelling at the fact that he'd faced his Chief down, the rest of him wondering what the hell the consequences of that were going to be. Thankfully, Malone for once hadn't insisted on getting his own way, seeming to recognise Sam's need to be here even if he couldn't do a damn thing. After fixing Curtis with a stare that even in his distressed state had the CI5 agent mentally straightening both his spine and his clothes, he'd merely instructed him to keep HQ informed of any changes in Keel's condition. He then added that he expected Curtis in the office first thing in the morning for debriefing, and that he expected answers, the inference being that he expected Sam in a fit state to provide those answers. Backup had merely squeezed Sam's shoulder sympathetically before following their boss out of the door.
So now he sat here in this small hospital room, watching his partner's chest rise and fall with each breath he took. He was thankful for that at least as it gave him some measure of peace, knowing his partner still lived. It had been touch and go for a while. The blast that had shattered Chris' leg had also sliced open his femoral artery, and Sam was honest enough to admit to himself that it was only his own quick action and basic medical training that had stopped Keel from bleeding to death before the paramedics could get to him. It did little to alleviate his guilt though.
Chris shifted slightly in the bed, murmuring something Sam couldn't catch. Sam shifted closer, but Keel settled once more, a frown marring his handsome face in his sleep. Pain or nightmare? Curtis couldn't tell, but there seemed to be little he could do at the moment, so slumped back in the chair, his own eyelids drooping as the events of the night caught up with him.
"So, you think these guys are ever goin' to move, or what?"
Curtis glanced over at his impatient partner, smiling at Keel's wide grin. The dark clothing and the camouflage face paint he wore made him look almost demonic. And very attractive, Sam thought briefly before forcing his mind onto more practical things. "I think that the Met's armed response unit will take its own sweet time, and we'll be playing tag-a-long when they do."
Keel sighed heavily. "Remind me why we're here again?"
"I believe Malone mentioned something about the spirit of co-operation."
Curtis wasn't surprised to hear Keel's snort at that last remark. His partner was not overly fond of the Met, or PC Plod as he referred to them en masse. And Curtis had to admit that in this case he shared Keel's view of exactly how much they were contributing. While CI5 had a wide remit, including anti-terrorism, this situation didn't seem to fit in to what they normally did. A fringe religious organisation had settled into a farmhouse, and the Met had received information that they were armed. Keel seemed to take this in his stride, but Curtis had to admit that this was a slightly more common situation in the States than it was in the Home Counties. And while the Met were taking the situation seriously enough to despatch the armed response unit, they didn't take it seriously enough to involve CI5 in anything more than a 'oh, you're here - well you might as well muck in' way. It grated, even on Sam's relatively even nerves, and it was driving Keel 'bug-shit', as his American partner so charmingly put it. One of these days, Curtis was going to ask him just where he picked up these phrases. And when Keel got irritated, it always seemed that Curtis caught the fallout. Right now, his partner was wound up with the need to be doing something, anything, and it was starting to get on Curtis' nerves.
The Head PC Plod was heading in their direction, head down as he made his way through the scrubby bushes towards them. Hesworth - that was his name, Sam remembered - nodded tersely at each of them, before turning his concentration back to the house. Even at this distance, Sam could see shapes moving in the lit windows.
"Looks like somebody's home," Chris murmured in his ear. Sam gave a noncommittal grunt in reply, but Hesworth scowled slightly at Keel, before finally relenting and actually speaking to them.
"Well chaps..." Hesworth's voice was as stiff and formal as the man seemed himself. "We're about ready to move, and I understand that one of you CI5 bods is coming along for the ride."
"I thought we both were," interjected Curtis softly. This time the scowl was aimed at him.
"I was told one, and one it is," snapped Hesworth. "May I suggest that one of you remains behind with the second team in case they're needed. Not that that will happen, of course."
"Of course not," Sam replied smoothly, exchanging an amused look with his partner that went unnoticed by Hesworth.
"Whose turn is it?" asked Keel.
"My turn? What about last week?"
"Doesn't count. It's definitely your turn to get shot at," Sam replied, now grinning openly.
"Why is it that every time I ask you, it's always my turn?"
"Stop asking then."
Keel narrowed his eyes at his friend. "Like that is it? I think you're pulling a fast one, Curtis. You Brits are so untrustworthy. Must be all those private schools."
"I'll have you know I went to my local comprehensive."
Hesworth cleared his throat. "When you gentlemen have quite finished..." he bit out. Curtis and Keel exchanged another long, amused look, before Keel sighed and checked his weapon, suddenly all brisk business. Instead of his normal Smith and Wesson, for this operation he'd requisitioned a Colt Commando assault rifle, and although he seemed calm, Curtis could almost feel the way the anticipation was singing through the younger man's body. It was definitely distracting, and, aware that he was probably watching Chris more closely than the situation merited, he turned to Hesworth to ease some of his tension.
"So what has recon told us?" he asked.
"Nothing we didn't already know." Hesworth's voice was almost bored, and Sam frowned. There was such a thing as being overconfident, as he'd reminded Keel more than once, and Hesworth was demonstrating all of the signs.
"No more information on how many of these guys are armed?"
"We're not expecting too much trouble. It's not like they're the IRA, Mr. Curtis. Just some religious nutters waiting for the end of the world. Millennium fever and all that."
"Booby-traps?" asked Keel, his attention still fixed on his weapon. Hesworth snorted.
"Like I said, we're aren't really expecting much trouble. We do know what we're doing, gentlemen. We are the professionals in this instance." With that last dig, he wriggled his way back to the rest of his team.
"Asshole," grunted Keel softly.
"Couldn't have said it better myself, mate," grinned Curtis. He caught Hesworth's eye as he gestured towards the two CI5 agents.
"I think he's ready to move out," he told Keel. Keel nodded, starting to move into position before Sam's hand on his arm stopped him. "Chris..." His voice tailed off for a moment, unsure of what to say now that he'd started. "Watch your back, eh mate?"
Chris met his eyes for a long moment, before grinning at him, his teeth startlingly white in his darkened face. "Sure thing."
Sam watched the first team move off, still uneasy for some reason he couldn't pin down. They were good, he had to acknowledge that, moving silently through the undergrowth, Chris matching and even surpassing their grace. He watched until they were lost in the darkness and the landscape.
And then the world turned to fire.
Sam woke up with a start, sweating profusely. Nightmares now - just what he needed. Bad enough to relive the fiasco over and over again when he was awake, but to dream about it too? He'd never get any peace.
He should have insisted that Hesworth take Chris' comment about booby-traps seriously and do a proper recon. He should have insisted that the two of them go as a team instead of letting Hesworth split them up. He should have listened to his gut. He'd known something just wasn't right, and just because he couldn't pin it down, couldn't point to a concrete fact and say 'there - that's what's wrong', he'd let Chris walk into trouble.
But the worst thing - it hadn't been Chris' turn. It had been his. He'd been slightly pissed off because Chris couldn't seem to remember what happened one day to the next, or didn't seem to care. It had almost become a standing joke between them. He'd tell Chris it was his turn on principle whenever his partner asked, waiting for the day that Chris finally argued back. But he never did, and he hadn't last night. And it had almost cost him his life.
He should have... He could have...
"Hey," came a soft voice from the bed, startling him from his reverie. He lifted his head and met his partner's gaze. Chris' eyes were slightly bloodshot, the skin beneath them looking almost bruised it was so translucent. There were butterfly bandages adorning the slash on his cheek, and the skin around the cut was discoloured and bruised. He looked like crap, but marvellously, wonderfully alive.
"Hey," Sam finally replied, his voice equally soft. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone blew me up. What happened?"
"Someone blew you up." That startled a brief, soft laugh out of his partner, before Chris' face creased in pain as the movement shifted his leg. Sam reached across him and hit the call button for the on-duty nurse.
"How bad is it?"
"Well you're alive and that's always a good thing." The grey-blue eyes that met his didn't waver, demanding a full answer. "You lost a lot of blood, and your leg was in pretty bad shape. They've fixed it up, but I wouldn't plan on any long trips for a while. They put enough metal in there to trip any airport metal detectors." The joke fell a little flat.
"So how bad is it?" Keel could be annoyingly persistent when he put his mind to it. Sam sighed heavily.
"Chris, it could have been a lot worse. They aren't telling me much - I'm not next of kin. But the surgeon did make some encouraging noises, when he talked to Malone after surgery. They don't want to commit themselves at this stage, but when do they ever?"
Keel's eyes bored into him, but before he could push, the nurse came in to see to him, and Sam made good his escape, with a muttered comment about needing to contact Malone.
Malone wasn't available, so Curtis left a message with Tina Backus. He was surprised to realise it was only 7.30am, although thankfully that meant he wasn't going to be late in for this debriefing that Malone had mentioned. He really was not in the mood to rehash the events of the previous twelve hours. If he had his way, he'd crawl into bed and sleep for a week, preferably two.
The nurse had gone by the time Curtis arrived back at Chris' room, but it appeared that she'd been able to arrange for some pain relief at least, and Chris looked a little better than he had. Still not too good though.
Apparently, Chris had much the same thoughts he had. "You look like shit," he grunted as Sam sank gratefully into the chair next to the bed.
"Nice to see you too, sunshine," Sam responded with a slight smile. All he got was a keen look and a grunt in reply. "Remind me not to try and hold a conversation with you first thing in the morning."
"If you don't know that by now, after working with me for two years..."
"Yes, I know," interrupted Sam gently, glad that the topic was off Chris' injury, "but much as I would love to stay and chat, Malone is expecting me in any minute now."
"How much trouble are we in?" Keel demanded.
Sam frowned at him a moment, his tired brain trying to come to terms with the rapid change in subject. "Why? What have you done that you haven't told me?" Keel scowled at him, and Sam's brain finally caught up with his mouth. "Last night you mean? None that I'm aware of, but if I'm wrong I'm sure Malone will correct me. At length and in great detail." He smiled wearily at Chris. "It was a Met operation that went wrong. If anyone fucked up, it was them. You just got caught in the mess."
He stood up and shrugged into his jacket, wincing slightly as sore muscles abused by a night in a plastic chair protested.
"We got caught in the mess. We're a team, remember."
"I'm not the one lying in a hospital bed."
Keel snorted inelegantly. "Doesn't change the fact that they fucked up, and we catch the flack."
"Don't we always?" That got him an ironic laugh. "By the way, I spoke to Backup. She's coming by as soon as I get back to HQ."
Keel scowled again. "I don't need a babysitter."
Sam fixed him with a cool look. "I never suggested that you did. But Backup's been worried about you and she wants to see that you're okay for herself. The last time she saw you, you were hooked up to an IV and out cold. Cut her some slack, Chris."
Keel had the grace to flush slightly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to take it out on you." Sam smiled reassuringly at him, before heading out the door. Chris' voice stopped him.
"Thanks." Sam frowned slightly, confused.
"I wasn't so out of it last night that I don't remember that you were there for me. Thank you."
That didn't do much to help his guilt. "Chris..."
"Get outta here, Curtis, or you're going to be late." Chris' eyes were shut, and his face was wan. "Don't want Malone chewing you out for my sake."
"I'm your partner, Chris, and that's what partners do." Sam paused before adding softly, "And I'm your friend too."
He didn't even get to Malone's office before the bad news hit. As soon as he'd walked through the door, Backup was waving a newspaper in his face. As soon as he saw the headline, he swore. "The Sun's calling it 'England's Waco'," she added.
"Shit, shit, shit," was all he could say. "They mention us?"
"No," she replied, "but that doesn't matter, since the Powers That Be are looking for scapegoats, and somehow the flack always seems to come in our direction."
"Malone seen this?" he demanded, waving the now crumpled newspaper in her direction.
"Of course I have, Mr Curtis," said an icy voice behind him. "My office, now."
Shit indeed, Sam thought, catching Backup's sympathetic look as he followed their boss into his office.
He had the presence of mind to close the door behind him. Judging by the expression on Malone's face, he was about to suffer a major dressing-down and he didn't particularly want witnesses. For a brief instant he was grateful that Chris wasn't there - his partner had an unfortunate tendency to want to defend himself, whereas in Curtis' opinion it was better to keep your head down and suffer in silence. Malone did not take well to anything that could be considered as answering back. It wasn't for nothing that some of the younger agents had started to refer to him as 'the Demon Headmaster' behind his back, although personally Curtis preferred the more apt description of 'Satan Incarnate'.
Malone stared at him for a long moment, and Curtis shifted uncomfortably, unable to shake the suspicion that the old bastard knew exactly what he'd been thinking. "Perhaps you'd like to explain, Mr Curtis."
Curtis blinked. He definitely wasn't on the ball this morning. He could only stare confused at his boss, and echo him. "Explain, sir?"
Malone gave him a hard look. "May I suggest that you start by explaining why you felt the need to come into the office this morning looking like an unshaven hobo, and move on to an explanation of just why one of my best operatives is lying in a hospital bed."
Curtis couldn't quite suppress a wince at Malone's sharp tones. It was too early and his nerves too raw for this. "I came straight from the hospital, sir." He didn't quite manage to keep the sharpness out of his reply, but Malone let any suggestion of insubordination slide for the second time in twenty-four hours. Would wonders never cease? "As for the second question..." Curtis let his voice trail off. The truth was he didn't have any easy answers. "We walked into a trap."
"I gathered that, Mr Curtis. What I want to know is exactly why you walked into the trap. Elaborate for me, if you will."
Curtis provided what details he could, sketchy though there were. Malone kept frowning throughout his recital, his eyes boring into the agent. When Curtis wrapped up his brief statement, Malone leant back slightly in his chair, clasping his hands in front of him, still fixing Curtis with his steely gaze.
"So the Met lead the team, and you and Keel followed the instructions that you were given, is that correct?"
"Did you feel that the Met shared all relevant information with you, Mr Curtis?"
"Did you share all relevant information with them?"
"We didn't have any information, sir. As I said, this was their operation. I understand that you wanted us there to co-operate, but... Well to be perfectly frank, they didn't appear to consider us much more than a nuisance."
"You didn't have any information?"
"No, sir." Curtis frowned slightly, wondering why Malone seemed determined to labour this point. He didn't have to wait long to get his answer.
"I have been informed by my opposite that one of you raised the issue of potential booby-traps with the officer in charge of the operation, an Inspector..."
"Hesworth, sir. And Chris asked the question, that's all. Why weren't even given access to the information those... the Met had."
"Why did Mr Keel feel the need to ask the question, then?"
"In a situation like that you have to consider all options, including potential traps. Hesworth informed us that he had no reason to believe that there was anything of that nature waiting for us." There was another long pause before Curtis continued, his voice and manner subdued. "I should have pushed it, sir, but I didn't."
Malone met his gaze for a moment before making a dismissive gesture with one hand. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing, Mr Curtis." Curtis wasn't convinced, but didn't let it show. Malone sighed heavily. "Tell me again. Everything this time."
It was a long day. Malone made him go over the same ground again and again, wanting to know who said what and what happened when. Ass-covering, as Keel would say, but at least Curtis knew his boss well enough to know that Malone was concentrating on covering all of their asses. While he could be a bastard to work for at times, when the chips were down he backed you up to the hilt.
Sam tried to answer the barrage of questions as best he could, but it was difficult. So much of the previous night was a blur, and he was still trying to deal with his own guilt. Malone seemed to sense that there was something he was trying to hide, and was ruthless in trying to get it out of him, only easing up when Curtis finally repeated that he should have pushed harder for information.
By the time that Malone dismissed Curtis from his office, with a final barked command to the effect that he expected a written report on his desk within three hours and then he expected Curtis to get some sleep, Backup was back from the hospital. She provided Sam with hot coffee, a modicum of sympathy and a list of things Chris wanted from his flat. Sam briefly considered following Malone's orders and leaving Chris until he'd had some sleep, but a mixture of guilt, affection and the desire to see how his partner fared with his own eyes won out. The report was done in two and a half hours and although it wasn't up to his usual standard it at least made some sense. He left it on Malone's desk with a post-it note saying that in the event of any questions he could be reached on his mobile.
He made a quick detour by Chris' place on his way back to the hospital. It was no tidier than it normally was, and it seemed to take him forever to locate some clean clothes and Chris' portable CD player. By the time he actually reached the hospital he was in a foul mood. And so was Chris it seemed.
"Where the hell have you been? I thought you'd be here hours ago."
Sam counted to ten, and when that didn't work he counted to twenty, before he was able to answer the question with some degree of calm. "I got here as soon as I could." He didn't offer any justification, anything to give Chris an opening. He wasn't that much of a fool, and he and Chris had fought just often enough so that even he spotted the danger signs, unobservant as he often was when it came to interpersonal skills. He told himself he was humouring his injured colleague, but the truth was probably closer to the fact that Sam was just too damn tired. Avoiding Chris' eyes, he sank into the uncomfortable plastic chair.
"What did Malone have to say?" He really, really did not want to talk about this right now, but he knew Chris well enough to know that if he didn't spill now, Chris would worry at it like a dog with a bone. As it turned out, the question was answered for him.
"I had a great deal to say, Mr Keel, including asking how one of my best agents ended up in hospital. How do you feel?"
"Fine, my foot," Malone snapped, steeping fully into the room, Backup on his heels as always.
"It could have been worse, sir. I could have ended up in a body-bag." Sam was unable to suppress a flinch at the reminder, drawing Chris' eyes to him briefly. Unfortunately that also reminded Malone that he was in the room.
"Mr Curtis, I believe I told you to go home and get some sleep." It would appear that foul moods were going around. Judging by the look on Malone's face, Sam could only suppose that he'd spent the best part of the day since dismissing him arguing their case. And losing. Sam adopted his most diplomatic, 'showing his belly to alpha male' voice.
"Yes, sir I told you and you ignored me, or yes, sir you're just about to do it?"
"I'm on my way, sir."
"Really, Mr Curtis, I wasn't aware that this was on your route home."
"I asked Sam to collect some things for Chris, sir." God bless Backup, stepping into the breach where there was a good chance she'd get her head blown off, especially given Malone's current state of mind. Thankfully, Malone just snorted.
"Well then, on your way Mr Curtis. And I don't expect to see you again until 06.30 tomorrow morning. Understood?" he barked.
"Understood, sir." Sam felt a sneaking sense of guilty relief at the order. Whatever Chris wanted to say was going to have to wait. He placed Chris' overnight bag on the seat, and got an acknowledging nod from his partner, although thankfully Chris had the sense to keep his mouth shut. 'Tomorrow,' he risked mouthing now that Malone's attention was fixed on his partner, and got another slight nod in return. And then he left as quietly as he could, hearing Malone behind him.
"Well, Mr Keel, if you are, as you say, feeling fine, I'm sure you are up to answering a few questions about last night's fiasco..."
Sam's bloodstained clothing was still lying on the bathroom floor where he'd discarded it in the early hours of the morning, when Backup had managed to chase him away from the hospital for an hour or so. She managed this feat mainly by pointing out that the last thing that Chris would need to see when he woke up was his partner covered in his blood. Sam hadn't taken much persuading after that. Now he stared at the heap for a long time, his mind blank, refusing to contemplate just how bad it could have been. After an eternity, he mentally shook himself and fetched a carrier bag from the kitchen, shoving the clothing in haphazardly, putting the fact that his hands were shaking down to exhaustion. He'd get CI5 to dispose of it. He wouldn't have been able to face wearing it again, even if it hadn't been ruined, and if he'd thrown out all of his ruined garments over the years, the neighbours would have come to the conclusion that he was a serial killer long before now.
He stood under the shower for a long, long time, the water as hot as he could bear. Even though he'd washed any physical traces of the night before away earlier, psychologically he needed this. And Sam was a great believer in going with what worked.
He'd been in his flat for an hour before he finally slumped into bed, his hair still damp. He fell asleep immediately.
Sam was moving even before the sound stopped echoing in his ears. He kept low, as he'd been trained, his mind automatically sifting through the information available to him. Explosion, ahead of him. Triggered by the first team. Chris. Landmine? No - didn't sound like it. Not contained enough. Plastic? Maybe.
He was vaguely aware that he was communicating his tentative conclusions through his headset to the rest of the Met team, warning them to keep back in case he was wrong. He tuned out the chaotic chatter he could hear coming back to him - it made no sense, panic-stricken words as the team screamed at each other and tried desperately to contact someone, anyone still alive from the first team.
Dark. It was too dark to see much, even with the infra-red goggles he was wearing. The same thought must have occurred to whoever was still capable of rational thought from the Met, because the area was suddenly flooded with light, causing Sam to pause, shielding his eyes until they were used to the harsh illumination. Floodlights, his mind supplied. The trucks they'd arrived on had been mounted with floodlights.
When he could see again, he started moving forwards again, more cautiously this time. He could hear automatic weapon fire in front of him, but distant and it didn't appear to be coming any closer. Sam estimated the distance and decided that it must be coming from the farmhouse. Not a good sign. It meant they were more heavily armed than Hesworth had anticipated, and if they weren't shooting at the police, that meant only one of two things. Scare tactics, or they were shooting each other, or rather the defenceless among their number.
Sam put that thought out of his mind. There was absolutely nothing he could do about that at this point, except inform whoever was taking charge back there of the facts, and let it become somebody else's problem. His first concern was his partner, and any other officer who was alive.
He refused to contemplate Chris being dead.
When he finally crested the small rise that led downhill to the farmhouse, he stared into a vision of hell.
Sam woke up with a cry, his whole body shaking this time. For a second he stared at his hands, almost expecting to see them covered in his partner's blood.
Chris had been one of only two survivors, the pair of them being far enough back that the crude nail bomb hadn't killed them outright. The rest of the Met team hadn't been so lucky. Seven people killed outright, and the woman who'd lived was still in intensive care. With the internal injuries she'd suffered, Sam somehow doubted she'd make it.
Seven dead, two seriously injured. Hell of an early Christmas present. He sank back into his pillow heart pounding and panting heavily, and stared at the ceiling, trying not to think of anything. His brain was not co-operating, however. He'd spent almost three years in CI5, and six before that in MI6. And in the job he did, losing people was inevitable. He'd lost colleagues before, friends even. It was one of the factors that meant he tended to keep people at a distance. Losing someone hurt, even if that someone was only an acquaintance. And when it was a friend...
He dragged his mind away from that ruthlessly. Chris was not dead - he was alive. Injured but alive, and if his luck held as it had so far he'd be back on active duty rather than invalided out. There was no reason to suppose otherwise. He hadn't lost his best friend, and he wasn't going to this time. Next time could take care of itself. In fact he'd do his damnedest to make sure there wasn't a next time. The best he could do right now was get some sleep and be there for Chris whenever he needed him.
Sleep, however, was a long time coming.
The nightmare showed no signs of ending the next day. A hasty informal inquiry had been set up into The Incident, as Curtis was beginning to call it in his own mind, capitalising it without consciously realising. It should have been relatively easy after the grilling Malone had given him. However, by the end of the morning he was holding on to his temper only with supreme effort. It appeared that Backup had been right in her assessment that this was to be a blame placing exercise. Bodies weren't even cold yet, there was an ongoing hostage situation, and yet here he was in a room full of worthy individuals, each of them keen to place the blame somewhere else. Curtis would lay even odds that if they couldn't place it firmly on CI5 then Inspector Hesworth would no doubt be on the posthumous receiving end of a serious bollocking. Much as the man had irritated him, it still made him sick to his stomach. He hated political game-playing. It was one of the main reasons he'd left MI6.
He'd barely had a chance to grab something to eat before Spencer called him up to request his presence on site to advise on the hostage situation as he'd been in effect the senior officer on-site. Senior surviving officer anyway. Malone and Backup were already out there, which he could only presume was a good sign as far as CI5 was concerned. Looked like Hesworth would be made fall guy after all. The thought gave him no satisfaction, and even less thrilling was the thought of having to return to the scene, but he had no choice in the matter.
It appeared that Malone had taken charge for the time being. Curtis showed his CI5 identification to one of the police officers manning the mile wide cordon, ignoring the instinctively hostile reaction it engendered, and was directed towards his boss' position at the front line as it were. His steps faltered briefly as strode past the site of the explosion, the ground scarred and blackened. It looked much worse then he remembered, the daylight revealing the extent of the damage that the night had concealed, including some darkened patches that he recognised as dried blood. He swallowed convulsively around the sudden acid lump in his throat and struggled to keep his face impassive as he moved to join the group clustered at the far end of the field, making sure to keep his head down. It couldn't have been entirely successful because Malone raised one eyebrow inquiringly at him, but didn't comment.
"Glad you could join us, Mr Curtis."
Malone turned slightly and nodded at a man in a flak jacket standing close by. "Major Donaldson was about to give us a quick summary of what he and his men have found. Bomb disposal. They've been surveying the area since yesterday morning. Things have been pretty quiet since then, I'm pleased to say."
Donaldson was a bear like man in his early forties, Sam judged, with an air of quiet competence about him that was reassuring in a way that Hesworth's arrogance hadn't been. Sam nodded courteously at him, and the gesture was returned, not unfriendly but distantly professional. Donaldson's accent when he began to speak was softly Scottish, a lilt at odds with the cool technical professionalism of his words. "The area is clear, as far as we have been able to determine. The explosive device appears to have been hand made, consisting primarily of semtex and packed with materials intended to disperse on detonation and maximise damage."
"Nail bomb?" supplied Backup.
"That's the common term for it, yes, Miss Backus, although not strictly accurate since loose materials other than nails are often used. However, nails are sharp, readily available and cheap so..."
"And the detonation device would be a trip wire?" Sam interrupted.
"Correct, Mr... Curtis?" Sam nodded. "I believe then that you were here when the device was detonated?"
"Correct," was all that Sam offered, refusing to give into the urge to stare over his shoulder again at the scarred ground behind him.
"Can't have been pleasant." That was possibly the understatement of the year.
"Do we know what's happening down there, sir?" Curtis asked his boss, attempting to get the conversation back on safer ground.
Malone grunted briefly, his eyes drawn to the distant farmhouse. "It appears that the Met's information on the armed capability of these individuals was incorrect. From the little we've been able to determine so far, they are well armed and it appears well motivated. Hostage negotiation are on the case but are making little headway. We would seem to have reached an impasse."
"They're not negotiating?"
"No, Mr Curtis, they are not."
Sam nodded briefly. "That doesn't surprise me, sir." Malone turned and gave him a keen look.
"May I ask why, Mr Curtis?"
Sam took a second to marshal his thoughts. "I think they were expecting us, sir." At Malone's sudden sharp frown he continued. "Everything that happened suggests that they were expecting something. This area," he jerked his head to the patch of ground behind them, "is a public footpath. The triggering device appears to have been situated next to a stile. Correct, Major?" Donaldson nodded thoughtfully. "Placing an explosive device on a public footpath which could have been triggered by any member of the public? It suggests a degree of ruthlessness, or stupidity."
"It would have had to have been recently placed too," added Backup thoughtfully. "If Sam's correct, and people are through here all of the time..."
"It would have been triggered before now." Malone completed her train of thought, scowling.
"Which is why they were either expecting us, and placed it here specifically for us, or they're paranoid in the extreme," Sam continued.
"Or they're heavily enough armed that they could take the risk in being discovered now and holding out for another two weeks," Backup added. At Malone's sharp look, she elaborated. "The information we've received from the Met sir seems to suggest that they're a Millennium suicide cult."
"Which might also suggest that there aren't many alive down there."
Malone shook his head abruptly at Curtis' comment. "I disagree, Mr Curtis. Why leave the party early before the big bang?"
"They may not have had a choice, sir. It wouldn't be the first time. Jonestown? Waco?"
"I'm aware of the precedents, Mr Curtis." It wasn't quite a reprimand with Malone's voice more thoughtful than anything else, his attention riveted on the eerily quiet building.
"We know someone's alive down there, but not how many," commented Backup.
"Infra red cameras?" asked Sam.
"Not telling us much. It appears that they've covered the inside walls and ceiling with insulation and kitchen foil or something similar."
"The whole house? Must have been planning to cook one hell of a turkey."
"I think they were more concerned with us beaming messages directly into their heads."
"Do you ever get the feeling that we're the only sane people left, Backup?"
"We get shot at for a living and you think we're sane?" She had a point, he had to admit. Before he could pursue it, Malone turned his attention back to him, and Sam found himself instinctively snapping to pay attention.
"You heard screaming?"
"How long for?" Sam struggled to recall. Everything had happened so fast, and he'd been focused on reaching Chris. He'd treated everything that wasn't an immediate threat as peripheral at best.
"A few minutes, sir. I can't say exactly." When exactly had the shooting and screaming stopped? He thought that it had started straight after the explosion, and hadn't it already stopped by the time he'd reached Chris? Or had he been so focused on his partner that he'd tuned it out? He thought the former, but he couldn't be sure. He did a rough mental estimate of how long it had would have taken him to scramble from the control centre to this field. "Three to four minutes, give or take."
Malone nodded, lost in his own calculations. "Hardly enough time to kill anyone in the building, especially if they were running and hiding while you were doing it." Unless they were all trapped in one room, like fish in a barrel, Sam thought but didn't say. "We have to assume that we do in fact have a hostage situation, and act accordingly."
"Yes sir," replied Sam, echoed by Backup.
"Thank you for your assistance, Major," Malone continued. "If we need the army's help again..."
"Aye, well you know where to find me." He nodded briefly to Backup, before turning to Sam. "You're damn lucky to be alive, man, but you knew that. If it had been a minefield..."
"True enough, but still, you know that there are mines that don't trip until the second time you disturb them?"
"I've had some experience with mines, Major." One look into Sam's face had Donaldson deciding to save his breath. He heaved his pack onto his shoulder, and with a final wry look at Sam quit the field.
"He's right, you know. It was a damned stupid thing to do. I could have lost two agents that night." Malone's look wasn't entirely unsympathetic.
"Meaning that you'd probably do the same again."
"Probably sir." That forced a reluctant half-laugh out of the older man.
"While I understand your motives in this instance, training you cost a lot money, Mr Curtis. Try not to do too many stupid things, hmm?"
"I'll try sir." He wasn't going any further than that. Malone gave him an absent acknowledging nod before heading off to speak to some of the senior police officers clustered further along the field.
"Are we in charge?" Sam asked Backup softly once he judged Malone was out of hearing distance.
"Not officially," she answered wryly. "You okay?"
"Because you don't look okay."
He shrugged, studiously avoiding her eyes. "I'm fine, Backup." His tone dared her to argue, and Backup hadn't got where she was today by not knowing when to pick her fights.
"If you say so." She followed Sam's gaze to the scarred earth around the stile. "It's a mess, isn't it?"
"It was, yes."
She gave him an oblique look out of the corner of her eye, obviously choosing her next words with care. "Sam... If you want to talk about it..."
She knew better than to push her luck, and retreated gracefully to join Malone, leaving Curtis alone with his thoughts. Sam barely noticed her leave, engrossed in his own thoughts.
Chris was closest to him, lying face down on the hard, unforgiving earth. Even as Sam scrambled over the rise, his partner was struggling to raise his head. Alive then, thank God. Sam could feel some of the tension ease out of his body.
He slid down the bank on his back, weapon in his hand and eyes fixed on the farmhouse, ready for any trouble. None was forthcoming. He could hear yelling behind him, but the only sound coming from ahead was that of dogs barking, obviously roused by the noise.
Chris was already rolling over and he helped his partner settle onto his back, his mind subconsciously cataloguing the grunt of pain from Chris as he did so. Keel's face was very pale in the moonlight, and what little light was spilling over the rise from the vehicles behind him. There were darker smears on his face - dirt or blood Sam couldn't tell in the moonlight. He didn't waste any breath asking his partner whether he was okay or not - it was obvious that he wasn't. Instead, Sam stripped off his gloves with rapid economical movements and began to run his hands over his partner's form, checking for injuries. Chris hissed as his hands moved along his flanks, the sound seeming unnaturally loud in the still silence following the explosion. Broken or bruised ribs most likely. He moved down to his partner's legs. There. Something wet and warm pulsing over his hands. Blood, and lots of it. Chris was bleeding heavily from a wound in his thigh. Sam's hands fumbled at his own belt, stripping it free before wrapping it around the top of Chris' thigh and pulling, hard. Another gasp from Chris, but no other sound. He felt a brief surge of pride at Chris' calm, but then what had he expected? The man was an ex-Navy SEAL.
He crept up to Chris' head, keeping his own head lowered, and his eyes peeled for trouble. "You're bleeding and heavily. The tourniquet will hold for now. Can you breathe?" he whispered in Chris' ear. It wasn't as stupid a question as it sounded - Sam needed to know how badly Chris' ribs were damaged.
"Not bad," his friend breathed back, his voice thready. "I don't think anything's broken."
"Can you sit up a little?" Chris tried before falling back with a muffled groan. Sam could see him shake his head slightly.
"No," he gasped. "But it came from the front." Which meant that Chris was unlikely to have any serious injuries Sam couldn't see. His flak jacket should have protected him from the worst of it, and now that Sam's eyes had adjusted a little to the darkness, he could see the lighter streaks on Chris' jacket, indicating impact sites. Just to be sure there'd been no penetration, he eased the side straps free as gently as he could, and slid his hands underneath, searching for any telltale wetness. None. He allowed himself a brief moment of relief. It was bad, but it could have been a lot worse.
Now that he had a chance to catch his breath, he could hear the urgent squawking in his ear, as the Met officers left behind attempted to contact him. He dragged his attention from Chris long enough to acknowledge them quietly, and give them a brief summary of events, concluding, "All officers down, at least one requiring medical assistance. The rest, I don't know their condition yet. I'm on my way to check it out."
"Roger that. We'll send someone down to assist."
"Negative. We don't know what we're dealing with yet. There has certainly been one explosive device..."
"Nail bomb, I think," interrupted Chris weakly.
"Possible nail bomb. There could be others. Get a medical team out here pronto and get the bloody bomb squad out here. We're going to need them before we can do anything."
There was a long pause before the rationale of his decision was accepted. Sam met Chris' eyes. They both knew what the situation meant. It could be a while before Chris could be evacuated. All they could do was make him comfortable in the meantime.
However, first Sam had to see whether anyone else was alive. He gestured to Chris, letting him know what he was going to do. They'd been working together long enough that they could communicate effectively using just hand signals. Before he could move out, Chris grabbed his arm, and pulled until their heads were close together. "Explosion came from down there," he whispered, jerking his head down towards the edge of the field. "Hesworth went through there first, over the stile I think. He musta tripped it."
"Tripwire I think. Felt like that."
Sam nodded briefly. They hadn't triggered anything before then, and the path they'd been on had been fairly well trodden. It didn't mean that there wasn't anything else, though. He took a deep breath and inched forward slowly. He trusted his friend's judgement when it came to the assessment of the situation, but just because the device had been triggered by a trip wire didn't mean that there weren't any other unpleasant surprises waiting.
Now that it was quiet again, even the dogs having decided to shut up, Sam could hear some soft moaning from his left. He inched in that direction, eventually coming across a still form. A female officer, much more seriously injured than Chris, lacerations across her hands and face as well as her legs. There was little Sam could do for her except assure her that help was on its way and make her as comfortable as possible. He wasn't sure she heard him. He didn't dare move her given the risk of internal injuries but at least she didn't seem to be bleeding from anywhere as heavily as Chris.
He got just close enough to the other casualties to determine that there was nothing he could do for any of them. It appeared that all seven were dead, some of the corpses badly mutilated by the flying debris. He swallowed hard. He'd seen a lot in his career, but this level of damage was enough to turn even his stomach. Once he'd determined that the officers nearest to him were dead, there was little point in proceeding further and risking triggering another device. He raised his head cautiously to take a good look around. From the little he could see, it appeared that the body closest to the source of the explosion was missing its head. Hesworth he presumed.
He inched his way back to Chris, informing his contact softly of what he'd found. His partner's breathing was erratic as he tried to control the pain now that the shock and the numbness had worn off. Sam loosened his makeshift tourniquet, allowing blood to flow to the injured limb before tightening it again. Chris opened his eyes to look at him, a question in them.
"All dead but one," he answered briefly. Chris nodded.
"Never thought I'd be glad that CI5 were relegated to the back," he whispered. Sam gave him a wry smile, knowing there was no vindictiveness in the statement. If Hesworth hadn't been quite so petty, there would have been a good chance that Chris' corpse would have been up there with the others. Thank God for small mercies indeed.
Sam eased of his outer jacket and eased it under his partner's head. For once Chris didn't protest, limiting himself to a small grateful smile, concentrating on breathing through the pain. Now all they had to do was wait for the cavalry.
It was the hardest thing Sam had ever done.
"Sam." Someone was shaking his arm gently. "Sam."
Curtis' attention was slammed back into the present, focusing on Backup's brown eyes. "Sorry."
"I thought we'd lost you there for a second." Her concern showed clearly on her face, negating the attempted humour in her voice. Sam's gaze was inexorably drawn back to the bombsite and Backup followed his gaze.
"It was quiet afterwards, you know," he commented absently. "All of a sudden the shooting seemed to stop, and all I could hear was those bloody dogs barking, and Chris trying to breathe..."
"Don't do this to yourself, Sam," she said gently. "Chris is going to be okay."
"Then he lost consciousness completely..." added Sam, ignoring her.
"Sam." She made her voice sterner, jerking his attention back to her. It seemed to work. He sighed raggedly, and ran his hands through his hair, giving her a smile, weak by his usual standards but better than that vacant stare he'd had when she'd first approached him.
"Sorry," he offered again. She smiled back.
"This got to you, didn't it." He arched one eyebrow at her sarcastically. "I don't just mean Chris getting hurt. The pair of you have been hurt before, more times than I like to remember," she added dryly. "And you know he's going to be okay..." She frowned at him, worried.
"It was my turn," he interrupted. It took Backup a second to cotton on.
"Then why was Chris..."
"He was winding me up. You know Chris. Hates being still. He pissed me off, so I told him it was his turn." His gaze was self-mocking. God, what did she say to that. She didn't blame him, knowing the pair of them as she did. She doubted Chris would blame him either. But that was irrelevant, since it was obvious that Sam blamed himself.
"Have you told Malone?" she asked, knowing that if anyone could head off this self-recrimination it would be their boss.
"Told me what, Miss Backus?" Damn but that man could move quietly when he wanted to.
"Curtis thought he heard dogs last night, sir," she lied smoothly.
"That wasn't in your report, Mr Curtis."
"Sorry, sir. I've only just remembered," replied Sam, his face impassive as he avoided looking at Backup. "I'm not sure that it came from the target location."
"I'll contact Spencer, sir," offered Backup. "We can contact local suppliers, find out if they purchased any dog food. That might indicate if there are dogs down there."
"Do that, Miss Backus," instructed Malone, never taking his eyes from Sam. "If there are dogs down there, I want to know about it. With the way our luck has been panning out recently, they'd be attack dogs and bloody big ones at that."
"Yes, sir," replied Backup, moving slightly away from them and flicking open her mobile phone.
"Anything else?" Malone asked Sam.
"Nothing that wasn't in my report, sir." Malone nodded briefly, giving him another searching look.
"Well, there's nothing else you can do here, Mr Curtis. We appear to be adopting a wait and see approach for now. There's still two weeks until the New Year. Let's not do anything precipitous, hmm?"
"We'll leave that to the Met." He gave Curtis another searching look. "Get some rest, Mr Curtis. I somehow doubt we'll have a quiet Christmas." When did they ever, wondered Sam. "Go home."
"I promised Chris I'd visit this evening, sir." Sam thought he'd better say something rather than be caught out and risk the lecture he'd narrowly missed the day before.
"Hmm. Rest after."
"Yes, sir." The man was getting positively clucky in his old age.
"See that you do."
He'd had enough time to shower before visiting hours. For some reason he felt he needed it. Changing into a pair of jeans and a casual shirt, he reached the hospital just as visiting hours started.
Chris was alone and asleep. Sam settled himself into the chair, content just to watch his partner sleep for a while. It was strangely reassuring watching the even rise and fall of his chest. Even if his conscious mind had accepted that his partner was alive, and was going to be well, his subconscious still appeared to be wrestling with the concept. Hence the nightmares. He wondered how long before Malone realised he wasn't sleeping, and he was shipped off to see the CI5 shrink. Not long, he supposed. Malone was too sharp not to have missed the signs of stress in his face, and draw the correct conclusions.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there just looking at Chris before Chris started to stir. He had enough warning to school his face into friendly concern and nothing more before Chris' eyes fluttered open. There was a long moment before Chris focused on him, raising himself up into a half sitting position on seeing him, before his body protested and he was forced to sink back into his pillows.
"Getting a bit a head of yourself there, aren't you mate?" teased Sam, rather proud of how steady his voice was. He got a noncommittal grunt in reply, before Chris' sharp eyes focused on him again.
"Still look like shit," his partner snorted.
"You or me?"
"Probably both of us." Sam gave a half smile in reply.
"Am I allowed to ask how you're feeling, or will I get my head bitten off?"
Chris slumped even further back into his bed. "If you have to ask you deserve your head bitten off," he replied a little bitterly. Sam said nothing, staring at the floor rather than his friend until Chris relented enough to mutter, "Sorry."
There was genuine regret in his eyes when Sam finally met them. "S'okay. I deserve it."
Chris frowned for a second, attempting to puzzle Sam's meaning out of his words before giving up less than graciously. "Why?"
"You wouldn't be in here if it wasn't for me." On the way to the hospital Sam had reached the conclusion that it would be better get it out in the open. Left to his own devices Chris would brood, and not only was that not healthy for him in his current situation, it wouldn't be good for their partnership. If that was to be salvaged, Sam was going to have to take what was coming to him, let Chris get good and mad and hope that while it might not eventually blow over, then at least it might be forgiven and forgotten about.
Chris was staring at him like he'd lost his mind. "It was my turn," he elaborated. "I should have been the one down there, not you."
"Why did you tell me it was my turn then?" asked Chris perfectly reasonably.
"You were driving me nuts." Chris blinked at him. "Whenever we're waiting to go in somewhere you're like a cat on a hot tin roof. Figured I'd let you drive Hesworth nuts for a while."
Sam sat back with a heavy sigh. "So are you mad at me?"
"Yes," said Chris. "But I'll get over it."
Sam stared at him for a long time, speechless, as Chris avoided his gaze and stared at the ceiling. Knowing his partner's temper he'd expected fireworks. Yelling, fury, blame then icy silence. This was too damn easy, and not just because Chris was in no condition to beat the crap out of him. Slowly, the penny dropped.
"You knew," he said slowly. "You knew all along it was my turn."
Chris shifted a little uncomfortably before looking at him and giving him that half smile that usually had him running for cover, knowing all hell was about to break loose. "Yes," was all he said.
"Why?" Sam ground out.
"Cause I figured I was driving you nuts and you wanted me to go and drive Hesworth nuts for a while."
Another long silence finally broken by Sam's harsh, "Bastard!"
"You can talk," retorted Chris. They glared at each other until Chris couldn't resist any longer. "Mad at me?" he asked, grinning at his friend.
"Yes," said Sam. "But I'll get over it." He hesitated, on the verge of telling Chris just how hellish the last two days had been, not to punish him, but more to apologise some more. Apologise, and perhaps explain to his partner just how much he meant to him. He didn't get a chance.
"Hey guys," came Backup's cheerful voice from the doorway. Chris' face lit up, but whether that was because Backup was there or because she came laden with chocolates, Sam couldn't tell. Chris had a sweet tooth that had to be seen to be believed, and Sam had teased him more than once that he would end up failing his next physical. He hoped it was the chocolates anyway.
"How are you doing?" she asked, moving into the room. The question was aimed at Chris but her gaze swept in Sam too.
"He blames himself," replied Chris, making a beeline for the confectionery.
"I know," she replied.
"It's not his fault."
"I know that too." The pair of them exchanged an amused, co-conspirator look.
"Hey. Still in the room here," pointed out Sam, only to have that amused look turned on him. It was too much. "Backup, can you give us a second please?" he asked, never taking his eyes away from Chris.
"Sure," she agreed readily, rescuing a chocolate from the box and moving back towards the doorway. "I'll see if I can find some of that swill they call coffee."
"Chris..." he began, not sure what to say now they were alone.
"Bosnia," interrupted Keel.
Sam stared at him, confused. "Country in the Balkans," he returned.
"Wasn't your turn, you went first."
"And the point would be?"
"If you'd been hurt, how would I have felt?"
Sam gave that due consideration. "Probably the same way I do now," he replied slowly.
"Hmm hmm. No matter how it happens, no matter if it was my turn or yours, fact is if one of us is hurt the other's going to feel guilty."
"Who are you and what have you done with my partner?" Chris gave him a scathing look. "When did you get so reasonable?" Sam continued.
"When I get myself blown to kingdom come, end up in pain in ER and my partner still manages to look like he's had less shuteye than I have."
"Stop worrying about me," Sam scowled.
"Stop making me worry."
"You're the one in here."
"One track mind."
"Like you don't have?"
Sam managed to muster a grin. "Thought you looked pleased to see Backup." An old joke and an old rivalry.
"She came with chocolates. You don't."
"So the way to your heart..."
It wasn't quite back to their usual standard of banter, but it was close. However, Sam still felt the need to ask.
Chris returned his look calmly. "We will be." He grinned suddenly, brightening up his whole face and throwing his dimples into relief. "If you bring chocolates tomorrow." A moment's thought had him adding, "And CDs. Good ones this time."
"Britney Spears it is then, mate," replied Sam, shaking his head in exasperated affection. "I'll see you tomorrow then," he added, rising to his feet.
"Counting on it," said Chris with another of those earth-shattering smiles.
It was starting to snow when Sam finally left the hospital, leaving Chris to Backup's tender mercies. The next two weeks were likely to be miserable ones at best, camped out in a field in Surrey, wondering whether or not some nutters were going to blow themselves to hell, and if so who they were going to take with them. But for the first time in two days, Sam Curtis knew some peace.
Summary: A mission goes wrong, and Curtis has to come to terms with the consequences.