Summary: How far will Keel go in order to ensure the success of a mission, and the safe extraction of all involved - including Curtis?

Categories: Adult
Characters: Chris Keel, Sam Curtis
Genres: Angst, Action/Adventure, Case, Hurt Comfort
Warnings: None
Chapters: 3 [Table of Contents]
Series: None

Word count: 23322; Completed: Yes
Updated: 17 Sep 2004; Published: 17 Sep 2004

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Author's Notes: Huge thanks to Chya for providing me with the inspiration to write this by sharing the below mentioned episode with me, for her encouragement and feedback, and* well, just for being there* and to Kate for her invaluable insights and input, without which this probably wouldn't have worked. Inspired by Michael Biehn's splendid suffering in The Magnificent Seven episode, 'Inmate 78'.


"You're clear on the pick-up time, right?" Sam Curtis' voice cut through the rattles and coughs of the elderly car engine as it struggled to carry its load to the top of a particularly steep incline, distracting Chris Keel from his efforts to nurse it through this sticky patch.

Chris glanced across at his partner sitting in the passenger seat beside him, feeling the irritation rising in him and driving him to respond without thinking. "For the tenth time, yes, I'm clear! Forty-eight hours from when I drop you off!" He saw Sam stiffen slightly at the aggressive tone in his voice and sighed inwardly, knowing that the both of them were only reacting to the effects of normal early mission nerves aggravated by the heat and humidity of this backwater of a Central American state. Aware of their passenger listening in from the back seat, he raised a reassuring grin and spoke again with slightly less feeling. "I was at the briefing too, remember?" And hating every moment of it, he added silently to himself, recalling his dismay at the prospect of what their boss was outlining even though it involved him doing one of the things he loved best - flying. But it was what was supposed to happen after that filled him with gloom.

Initially Harry Malone, head of CI5, had made it sound like a simple job - escort a government envoy on a fact-finding mission to meet a local political leader - but as the briefing had progressed and the full implications had been revealed, it had become clear that it was anything but. The envoy - Stephen Collinsby - wasn't actually an official government representative, and the local politician - Esteban Morales - wasn't really a leader but a rising star in the opposition to the current hard-line ruling party in his country. And the meeting between them had to be kept totally secret or there would more than likely be a serious breakdown in the already difficult diplomatic relations between the two countries, not to mention a speedy and probably violent end to a promising political career.

Collinsby was a successful though almost reclusive businessman whose ventures spanned the globe, but he had a particular interest in this part of the world and was known by reputation to Morales, which had made him an acceptable ambassador. The meeting was to take place behind the walls of Morales' fortified villa on the outskirts of the main city in the region that formed his power base, but in agreeing to the meeting the politician had been quite clear in his ground rules. He would receive Collinsby for 48 hours - no more, no less. He should be delivered and collected during the hours of darkness - no unknown cars could or would be allowed into the compound - and he would be permitted only one aide to accompany him inside the villa. He would be under Morales' protection while in his home, but once outside the gates he would be on his own - and there could be no doubt the villa would be under observation by the politician's enemies who would be keen to know what was going on. But if the meeting was a success, it could lead to mutually beneficial and lucrative trade agreements between the two governments in an anticipated future where Morales took his inevitable position as leader of his country.

When pressed, he'd made a couple of concessions in the interests of simple logistics. He would arrange for a car to be left at a deserted airstrip just inside the border nearest to his home, and there would be accommodation organised in town so that whoever did the dropping off and picking up would have somewhere to wait with a chance of remaining undetected. He did, after all, have a vested interest in having the whole thing go well. But if anything went wrong or any questions were asked, he would deny all knowledge of any of them.

"Well, there's a surprise," Chris had muttered, drawing yet another of those special Malone glares down on himself. But there'd been no question of which of them would be carrying out which role on this one. Sam, with his facility for languages and appreciation for the finer things of life, was certainly the ideal choice of escort for the fledgling diplomat. Not only would he be able to understand what was going on around him, but he'd feel at right at home with the kind of high level fencing match this promised to turn into. Chris, on the other hand, fitted the job of delivery boy to a T. Fly 'em in, drive 'em to the door, hang around for a couple of days, pick 'em up and fly 'em home. Sounded really easy, and he knew he should be grateful he wasn't going to have to stand around listening to the posturing and fancy footwork that passed for business between government negotiators. But the thought of sitting on his butt for forty-eight hours in what would no doubt be some fleabag room with nothing to do but count the cracks in the ceiling really didn't fill him with much more enthusiasm.

Sam obviously felt he himself had drawn the short straw on this one, given that he would be personally responsible for their charge for the entire period of the mission, which explained his desire to go over the minutest detail of the plan at regular intervals. And Chris could sympathise with him on that, wishing that there were some way they could stick together. But any deviance from Morales' instructions would lead to an immediate termination of the agreement, so he knew they'd have to make the best of it.

He threw another glance across at his partner, hearing Collinsby's heavy breathing from behind them as the car's engine settled down to a more regular note once they crested the top of the hill and started on the downward slope again. Below them the flickering lights of the city lay half hidden in the heat-haze spreading out across the valley, their appearance signalling the approach of darkness that would hopefully mask their arrival. But Sam was frowning, dark brows drawn down over cool, at this moment green eyes that were staring past him in distant calculation, and he could almost see him mapping out every step of the next forty-eight hours despite the fact he had no clearer idea of what he was walking into than Chris did.

"We're making good time," he said lightly, trying to reassure both his passengers that things were still under control. "Have you there in plenty of time for dinner." He was pleased to see a reluctant grin creep across Sam's face as he focussed on him again. "Hope you'll spare a thought for me while you're sipping brandy and enjoying the hospitality of our esteemed host."

"Why should I? You're always complaining you never have enough time for yourself, time to think, time to catch up on your sleep - well, now's your chance. Two days of rest and relaxation - can't think of anything better." Sam's grin spread, eyes sparkling as he observed Chris' sour expression, knowing full well that this wasn't the way he'd hoped to spend his next bit of time off.

"Yeah, right. Well, you'd just better hope I don't enjoy it too much and forget to come fetch you." Chris heard the sharp intake of breath from behind him and cursed inwardly. Their passenger was finding the whole experience way more stressful than expected, starting with the low level flight over the border in the small twin-engine Beechcraft and the necessarily bumpy landing on the poorly maintained strip, and going downhill from there. "It's alright, Mr. Collinsby, just joking. I'll be there."

He caught Sam's glare as he glanced over his shoulder to give the unassuming-looking middle-aged man sitting there an encouraging smile. He could see their passenger was sweating heavily despite the fact all the windows were open, but that wasn't really surprising given that the air blowing in had all the refreshing qualities of a blast furnace. "You OK, sir?" he asked politely, returning his gaze to the winding and badly pot-holed road unfolding before him.

"No, not really. This isn't exactly what I'm used to, you know!" Collinsby was nothing if not forthright, as they'd discovered, and Sam was beginning to wonder how he was going to handle the -what could be - very delicate discussions lying ahead. But that wasn't really his problem, he reminded himself. He just had to make sure the man stayed alive long enough to report back on the outcome. And he didn't really like the idea of having to do it alone with his only backup some distance removed. Although he knew he and Chris could keep in touch by phone, the need for split-second timing on the second part of the mission was worrying him - he didn't want either of them sitting outside Morales' place waiting for the other any longer than absolutely necessary. And given the circumstances, he could do without Chris winding their charge up before they'd even got him to his destination.

"Well, not much further." He heard the American continue. "Another half hour, hour at the most and you'll be able to take a nice cold shower." He looked at him sideways, amazed at his conciliatory tone but oddly reassured by the set look he could see on his face, telling him Chris was enjoying this about as much as he was. Not that the prospect of a cold shower wasn't pretty appealing right now, he thought, pulling his shirt away from his sweaty skin and flapping it to get some air circulating. Collinsby's dismissive grunt had Chris' jaw tightening further, his hands clenching on the steering wheel, and Sam found himself smugly glad that his partner was getting his fair share of the man's superior attitude before he escaped to his peaceful bolthole for the duration. With a satisfied grin he settled back into his seat and waited for this phase of the operation to end.


"Stay out of trouble, OK? And don't be late." Sam's parting words as he'd grabbed his bag and hustled the nervous businessman from the car to chivvy him on through the small dark door that had opened in the high and very solid gates guarding the entrance to Morales' villa echoed through Chris' head, bringing a rueful grin to his lips. Well, it sure looked like his chances of achieving the first of those goals were heading down the tubes fast, he thought, eyeing the car that had loomed out of the darkness to block the narrow street ahead of him, even as his mind was racing to find a way round the obstruction.

Since dropping his companions off outside the obviously heavily protected home of their host just after 8 p.m., he'd been making his way down into the heart of the town, navigating himself in a circuitous route towards the address marked on the map they'd found in the glove compartment of the car, hoping to throw off potential tails. He'd taken a few minutes before they'd left the airfield, after hiding the plane in a ramshackle hanger, to memorise the address details and the general layout of the surrounding streets to save time later, pocketing the key that had been taped to the map. But it was obvious that, despite his efforts, he'd been observed and followed from Morales' place. And he knew he couldn't allow himself to be trapped here.

He threw the car into reverse, turning to rest his arm across the top of the passenger seat as he focussed on what lay beyond the rear window and prepared to accelerate backwards, swearing viciously at the sight of another car moving to box him in. The sound of gunfire had him ducking down below dashboard level, and he felt as much as heard the bullets thumping into the bodywork behind him, scrabbling for his own gun which he'd transferred from his bag to his jacket pocket back on the plane. But a voice raised in anger shouted what sounded very much like an order, though he didn't understand the words, and the shooting stopped abruptly. He lifted his head cautiously to see dark figures moving towards him from the vehicle in front, the glint of the faint light thrown by a distant street lamp reflecting off steel telling him they weren't coming to enquire after his health. The car suddenly became very claustrophobic, and on impulse he shoved the door open and leapt out to meet them. Belatedly he remembered his backpack, tucked down behind the passenger seat, but he didn't have the time to go back for it and in any case he couldn't afford any encumbrances if he was to move fast enough to get out of this mess.

A few lights came on in the surrounding buildings, but no-one opened windows to protest about the noise or find out what was going on and Chris was quite sure there'd be no calls made to summon the police to his aid. Not that he wanted them involved - if the authorities got even the faintest whiff of why he was there, Morales would call the whole thing off and leave Sam and Collinsby hanging out to dry. So he'd just have to find a way to lose his new playmates and then lose himself.

The smell of gasoline reached his nostrils, telling him that one of the bullets had hit the fuel tank, and he moved rapidly away from the car to give himself some space to work with. There were three men approaching him confidently from ahead, he noted dispassionately, another two from the opposite direction, guns now hidden but replaced in a couple of instances by knives as they worked together to try and herd him into the confined space of what looked like a blind passageway between two houses. He could feel the weight of the Beretta pressing against his hip through the loose cotton jacket, but now he knew they weren't planning to kill him out of hand he didn't want to provoke a change of heart by using it on them. Not that he could have gunned them down in cold blood anyway - that wasn't his way, not now.

The men closed in on him, dark eyes fierce and forbidding, weapons held loosely but with obvious competence, and he knew if he was going to make a move he'd better do it soon. He shifted suddenly, feinting to dodge one way then spinning off in another direction, dancing between two of his attackers to slip out of their intended trap only to find two more blocking his way. Beyond them part of his mind registered the pool of liquid spreading slowly out from around the rear wheel of the car, and he wondered vaguely how he might use it to his advantage, but he tucked the idea away for his subconscious to work on as he brought his full focus back to the men before him. His training asserted itself smoothly, allowing him to act and react almost without conscious thought, possible strategies leaping into his head for consideration and adoption or rejection at lightening speed. He could hear the scuffling footsteps behind him and he instinctively launched himself forward, using feet and fists to inflict passing damage on those in his path as he tried to bundle his way through them. He managed to take one of them down with an elbow to the jaw, seeing him fall away with a fleeting surge of satisfaction, but the other one got a grip on his arm and seemed content just to hold him in place while the pack closed in. A snapped-out side kick caught the leading one in the groin, sending him reeling back with a strangled groan, but that just appeared to piss the others off and they started yelling at him and each other in what had to have been Spanish, the hand on his arm tightening painfully.

Ignoring them, he brought his leg down and kept turning, using his momentum to swing the man holding him round and into the others, sending them tumbling backwards but unfortunately taking him with them as the grip on his arm held fast. He fought to free himself, feeling more hands trying to drag him into the writhing pile of bodies under him but determined to resist their pull. A sudden sharp burning sensation in his left shoulder had him gasping in surprise, but the adrenaline racing through him numbed the pain before it had a chance to take holrootand he lashed out with a fist at the face looming in front of him. It connected solidly with his assailant's nose, the man's head cracking back against the one behind him, and the hold on him was immediately loosened enough for him to get away, dimly noting the bloodstained knife falling from nerveless fingers to clatter onto the road as he did so.

He scrambled to his feet and turned to sprint towards the shadowed mouth of the side street he could see leading off this one thirty or forty yards ahead, hoping it would offer him alternative avenues of escape once he reached it. He risked a glance over his shoulder, his pounding heart lurching at the unmistakable sight of a gun being aimed at his horribly exposed back, and he automatically started weaving across the street as he ran to try and throw off their aim. But when the expected shot came, mingled with another peremptory sounding shout, it didn't seem to pass anywhere near him. There was another shout and another couple of shots, the last of which ricocheted away somewhere to the accompaniment of an almighty whump! that had his head snapping round to see his car going up like a fireball as the sparking heat of the bullet ignited the fuel on the ground followed instantly by what was still left in the tank. And that was all the distraction he needed to allow him to reach the corner and disappear into the darkness beyond, sprinting down the narrow streets, seeking life and bustle to get lost amidst until he could find his way to the refuge of his safe house.


The gentle breeze blowing down from the mountains behind the villa nudged away the oppressive heat of the day, and Sam drew in a deep breath of the bougainvillaea-scented night air as he followed his host's head of security out onto the broad terrace at the back of the house. Collinsby and Morales were already there, tall frosted glasses of something containing what looked like fruit juice in their hands, looking out over the carefully contrived wilderness of the floodlit grounds protected from public view by the high walls which surrounded the compound.

The envoy looked much better for a shower and change of clothes, thought Sam, admitting that he'd also enjoyed that experience once he'd got over his fit of pique at being searched and relieved of his weapon by the non-communicative security man who'd been there to greet them as they stepped through the door in the gates. He'd known they were unlikely to let him carry a gun during his stay, but it didn't stop him feeling naked without it. At least he'd been given a room next door to Collinsby's so he could keep a close eye on him, though it was obvious that his charge was feeling confident enough now he was safely inside the house to venture out without Sam's protection. He'd have to have a word with him about that, he thought.

"Ah, Mr. Curtis, I believe." Morales came towards him, hand extended and a polite smile on his face - a smile that Sam could see wasn't reflected in the shrewd brown eyes. "Welcome to my home. I understand you will be assisting my honoured guest during our brief discussions. Can I offer you a drink?" He was turning away even before Sam had a chance to answer, giving him a very clear appreciation of his perceived status at this shindig. He sighed inwardly, seeing Collinsby's indifferent glance and clamping down on a surge of irritation at the thought of spending the next two days being treated like some lower life form. But regardless of the heavy security clearly demonstrated by the silent dark-suited men standing statue-like at strategic points around the house, and the armed guards he could see patrolling the grounds, the businessman was his responsibility and he wasn't about to let himself be put off his stride by either man's manner.

Accepting the drink the white-coated servant handed him, he moved to the balcony railing where he could keep an eye on the surrounding area while still being in a position to hear the conversation of the two principals. He swallowed a yawn, allowing himself to think briefly - and just a little enviously - of his partner, probably already stretched out asleep on a bed somewhere in town, promising himself the opportunity to get his own back when the mission was over, before once again clearing his mind of everything but the task in hand.


Chris closed and locked the door behind him, sagging back against it and trying to catch his breath as his gaze automatically swept his surroundings. He reached for the switch on the wall beside him, squinting against the comparatively harsh light of the low-wattage single bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling to see what he'd walked into. A one room apartment, he realised immediately, with a small bathroom opening off it to one side and the most basic of kitchen facilities compressed into a corner. The furniture was cheap and worn from over-use, threadbare curtains hung limply to either side of the single grimy window, and thin, coarse-looking blankets covered the narrow bed pushed against the damp-stained, peeling paper adorning the far wall, but in his current condition he couldn't remember anything ever looking more inviting. Even the stuffy, humid heat of the place, and the obvious lack of air conditioning to counter it, couldn't dampen his relief at being able to stop running.

With a groan he pushed himself away from the door, finally allowing himself to acknowledge the raw burning pain engulfing his left shoulder and chest, sending waves of nausea through him as he continued to press the heel of his palm against the wound there. He sank gratefully down onto the bed, cautiously lifting his hand away to get a better look at the damage.

Although thankfully the black fabric of his cotton jacket had avoided him attracting unwanted attention on the street, the front of it, along with his T-shirt, was soaked through with blood and he was alarmed to feel the bleeding start again immediately the pressure came off the laceration. Painfully he shrugged his way out of the jacket, removing his gun and placing it on the bed beside him before dropping the garment in a heap on the bare wooden floorboards. The tighter T-shirt proved more of a problem to remove without jarring his shoulder too much, and he ended up hooking his fingers into the rip made by the knife and simply tearing the material away until he could get at the wound.

What he saw didn't do his feelings of nausea much good. The knife had sliced into the flesh and muscles of his upper chest a couple of inches below the collarbone, leaving a four-inch gash that was obviously going to take more than a Band-Aid to fix. Bright red blood was welling from the length of the cut, spilling down over his chest to be absorbed by the already saturated cloth still clinging wetly to his ribs. Cursing under his breath, he rose a little unsteadily to his feet and walked carefully over to the kitchen area to seek out something he could use to try and halt the bleeding. His head spun dizzily, his body showing its disapproval of this unwanted activity, but he forced himself to focus on searching through the meagre contents of the units by the small sink as well as the flimsy chest of drawers under the window.

It was obvious from the few personal items lying around, and the miscellany of household and general paraphernalia he found in the drawers, that someone else had been - or maybe still was - living here, and he wondered distantly where they had been moved to for the duration of his stay. But his throbbing shoulder and the blood dripping redly onto anything he leant over told him in no uncertain terms what he should be concentrating on, and he applied himself to gathering up anything that might help stem the flow, carrying them back to the bed with him. As an afterthought, he returned to delve again into the kitchen cupboard and pull out a bottle of some unrecognisably branded local spirit that he hoped might act as an antiseptic. Not that he thought he had a hope in hell of preventing infection getting a foothold without the antibiotics he'd carried in his emergency medkit - still in the car now doing service as a bonfire for the street dwellers of this fair city - but he knew he had to at least try.

A kitchen knife allowed him to cut away the rest of his T-shirt and he used a hand towel wrung out under the feeble flow of water from the bathroom tap to wipe away the blood as best he could. That done he picked up the bottle, tugging the stopper out with his teeth and recoiling from the - what smelled like - at least 150 percent proof fumes that wafted up at him, before they could impact too much on his already whirling senses. On second thoughts, he decided to risk a quick sip to help steady his nerves, but regretted it immediately as the crude liquor burned down the back of his throat and made him cough and splutter, aggravating the pain and setting his eyes watering again. Blinking away the tears, he dragged in a few more deep breaths, knowing there was no point in waiting for the hurting to go away because it was about to get much worse. So, before he could change his mind, he pulled away the towel he'd been pressing against his shoulder with his left hand and quickly tipped a healthy measure of the liquid over the wound.

The pain went from manageable to excruciating in a split second as the alcohol seeped deep into the open cut, sending the muscles of his torso into spasm and forcing him to clamp his jaws together to stop himself yelling out. For long seconds he teetered on the edge of the black chasm of unconsciousness, but he tenaciously hung on and gradually the agony receded. Breathing returned slowly, the frozen muscles holding his lungs captive releasing their grip reluctantly and his chest expanding in stuttering stops and starts as air found it's way between his clenched teeth. He struggled to open streaming eyes, the coppery-bright taste in his mouth telling him he'd managed to bite the inside of his lip, making his stomach churn and bile rise into his throat. But with an effort he swallowed it back down again and scrubbed a hand across his face to wipe away the tears so he could once again focus on what he needed to do.

A wadded, relatively clean, tea towel held in place with a strip of fabric cut from a table cloth seemed a good first step towards getting the wound to close, but from the look of it he had a nasty feeling that it wasn't going to be enough. He'd had sufficient experience with injuries in his time with the SEAL's, as well as since joining CI5 - both his own and those of his team-mates - to have a pretty good grasp of when medical assistance was essential rather than just recommended. But with the option of seeking outside advice and aid denied him, he knew he would have to rely on his own limited knowledge to keep himself going. And that knowledge was telling him that unless he could get the bleeding stopped damn quick he wasn't going to be in any condition to get himself out of here, let alone be there at the appointed time to ensure Sam - and Collinsby, of course - got out safely as well, which had to be his first priority.

He levered himself further onto the bed, pulling the lumpy pillows in their grey-white cases behind him as he leant back wearily against the wall, his eyelids drooping rebelliously as his body tried to remind him of the fact that he hadn't slept in far too long. But much as the idea appealed, he knew that falling asleep now could be tantamount to signing all their death warrants, so he pushed the makeshift dressing harder against his shoulder, using the resultant increase in the pain level to jolt himself back to wakefulness. Then, trying to ignore the cold sweat breaking out on his exposed skin despite the sauna-like temperature of the surrounding air even this late in the day, he concentrated all his efforts on staying that way long enough for the consistent pressure to hopefully have the desired effect.


Sam closed the door behind him, kicking off his shoes and letting out a sigh of relief that the evening was over. Not that the time hadn't passed relatively sociably - the meal had been first-rate and the wine equally excellent, so good that he'd allowed himself to drink a whole glass instead of just taking the odd sip, as he normally would when on duty. Collinsby had been somewhat more liberal in his intake but, then again, no real business had been discussed between the two protagonists, just general chit chat and pleasantries. Sam was aware, however, that each man was sounding the other out, testing his strength of character, assessing how far he could be pushed if the need arose, preparing for the serious discussions that would start in earnest in the morning.

Although ostensibly part of the dinner party, it had become obvious to Sam very early on that he was considered one of the hired help, probably only just on a par with Jimenez, the head of security who, along with Morale's private secretary, made up the numbers. There'd been no women present - the politician had made an early apology for the absence of his wife and daughters, apparently out of the country visiting his ailing mother-in-law. "And I am, of course, with them," he'd confided with a conspiratorial wink, "though sadly laid low with a bad case of forty-eight hour flu." Sam had no doubt that in addition to providing an alibi, the plan was intended to remove the Morales family from the scene in case things turned nasty.

The conversation had been wide-ranging and Morales and his secretary were skilled at drawing everyone into it, but Sam had known that only one person's views were really being taken note of - and it wasn't him. So he'd sat back and let it ebb and flow around him, only responding when a question or comment was directed at him, until Collinsby had finally professed himself tired and taken his leave. Sam had excused himself at the same time in order to accompany his charge to his room, ignoring the pointed looks the man threw over his shoulder at him and sticking with him right to his door. Silencing his rising protests of rights to privacy with an icy glare before they could attract the attention of the omnipresent guards, he'd invited himself in with the intention of laying down some ground rules of his own.

"Nothing will happen to me here," Collinsby had said firmly when Sam had pointed out that it would be advisable if he didn't go wandering around the place without him again. "Esteban won't allow it."

Sam had bitten back a sarcastic retort about his lack of interest in what 'Esteban' would or wouldn't allow, knowing that wasn't going to help him. "Maybe not," he'd responded with a crooked grin. "But if my boss finds out I let you out of my sight, even here, he'll have my guts for garters."

"Not a pleasant thought," agreed Collinsby wryly, loosening up just a little.

"No." Sam had allowed his grin to widen at the concession. "So, perhaps you'd be prepared to humour me, let me do my job? It's only for a couple of days." Collinsby's grudging assent had at least been a step in the right direction, though Sam had a sneaking suspicion it would be forgotten by morning.

He realised that he was still standing staring vacantly into space with his hand on the doorknob, the gentle hum of the air conditioning lulling him into a daze, and with another weary sigh he flicked the lights on and padded across the terracotta tiles covering the floor of the comfortably appointed room. Cool, clean sheets beckoned, and he could feel every hour of the thirty-six since he'd last slept properly catching up with him. Running a hand through his hair, he headed towards the en suite bathroom, working at the buttons of his shirt as he went and thinking that another shower might be just what he needed to unwind himself enough to ensure sleep came immediately.


The vague sensation of falling brought Chris back from the verge of sleep again, jerking himself upright as he realised how close he'd come this time and shaking his head in a vain attempt to clear the cobwebs from his fuzzy brain. He could feel that he was drenched with sweat and the probability of infection raised itself in his mind again, though he fervently hoped the fact he was feeling so hot was just down to the still high ambient temperature of the room. He noticed dimly that it was getting lighter outside the window and squinted down at his watch to see with a burst of alarm that the night had all but disappeared, frightened to admit he'd had little awareness of the time passing by.

A cursory glance at his shoulder had his stomach lurching queasily at the sight of the blood soaking through the improvised bandages there, and he swore helplessly as he recognised that his worst fears were becoming reality. With more than 36 hours to go until the pick-up, and nowhere to turn for help, he knew he had to do something pretty drastic if he was going to be able to keep himself functioning long enough to see the mission through. And he had no illusions about the fact that, if he didn't, he'd be abandoning Sam and the man in their care in enemy territory with no way out - which was something he just couldn't countenance.

Sucking in a deep breath to try and quell the nausea, he gingerly peeled the dressing away to examine his shoulder again, wincing as it stuck to the raw flesh and sharpened that throbbing burning pain again. The wound was still bleeding persistently, the skin surrounding it already showing the first signs of inflammation, and from the length and depth of it he was pretty sure that a doctor would have insisted on stitches well before now. In fact, he had to acknowledge, if he'd been out in the bush and one of his team had suffered a similar injury with no possibility of a medevac, and providing the mission allowed for a long enough stop, the team medic would have been doing exactly that. But right now he was all the team he had, which meant it was down to him to do what was needed.

He'd become fairly well acquainted with the art of stitching over the years, watching while members of the medical profession had inserted them in various parts of his anatomy, as well as in those of friends and team-mates. On one less than auspicious occasion, when their medic had been missing for some reason, he'd been the one doing the sewing - though if he remembered right the victim hadn't been particularly impressed with his handiwork, despite the knowledge that it had probably saved his life. But in every instance there had been anaesthetics to numb the pain and the proper sterilised equipment on hand to do the job with, and he had none of that here. Even if he'd had time to collect his backpack from the car before it had blown, and had access to the pre-packed sutures he carried in his medkit, the thought of doing anything with them himself just made him feel sicker. If it wasn't for the fact it might be the only course of action to keep him alive, he was sure it could more than likely be called self-mutilation. But then again, needs must.

He started to feel light-headed, the sensation reminding him that he'd probably already lost more blood than he could afford, and that as much as anything drove him to re-consider the options open to him as he pressed the towel back against his shoulder. There'd been a small sewing kit in the top drawer of the dresser, but he knew the thread it contained was unlikely to be strong enough for what he needed. Once again he cursed himself for having ignored his instincts and his training by not having transferred the essentials from his pack to his person, even though it was all much too late now. That failure had basically left him without the means to help himself, given that, apart from the limited resources of this room, he had only the clothes he stood up - or should that be sat down? - in to work with. And the contents of his pockets, he amended, which didn't amount to much - his wallet, some small change, keys... wait a minute, his wallet! Hadn't he...? Could he still have...?

Twisting awkwardly to fumble behind him, he fished his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and flipped it open with bated breath to rifle through the compartments. A hiccup of amusement escaped him as he caught sight of a familiar foil packet with a circular indentation tucked deep into the bottom of one them but he swallowed it down again, worried by the slightly hysterical edge to the sound. It wasn't that funny, he told himself sternly. After all, it wasn't like he hadn't got laid in the time since he'd put it there. It was more that on the rare occasions he got the chance to spend enough time with a woman to get to home base, he always seemed to end up with the independent type who preferred to rely on her own protection. But that didn't stop him always going in properly armed like the good soldier he was... had been... whatever... and he choked down another snort of alarmingly unhealthy laughter.

He dug further into his wallet, finally unearthing what he'd been hoping to find - the emergency suture he'd tucked in there way back when, probably at the same time as the condom he thought, vaguely recalling a SEAL's training lecture on being prepared for every eventuality, even during off duty hours. He couldn't remember the details, but right now he was glad he'd for once been paying attention. The small foil and cellophane package was a bit crumpled and creased, but it didn't look as if the seal had been broken so he knew he now at least had the tools he needed. Just so long as he could actually bring himself to use them.

Pushing himself shakily to his feet, he slowly re-traced his steps towards the kitchen to fetch the small lamp perched on a table by the single armchair, bringing it as close to the bed as he could get it. Switching it on, he removed the shade to give himself as much light as possible and dragged a rickety wooden chair over to stand it on before sinking gratefully back onto the thin mattress as his legs threatened to give out on him. He eyed the bottle still sitting on the floor by the bed with distaste, memories of his last encounter with it sending a shudder of aversion through him. But he'd seen the insidious effects of infection sneak up to take the lives of enough people to know he had to take advantage of whatever means were available to him to counter it. And that meant another round...

He sat for a few minutes with his eyes closed, just breathing deeply to try and calm his fluttering nerves. But he was certain that if he put it off much longer he probably wouldn't have the strength to finish the job so with a final gulp of air he reached for the bottle again, pulling away the dressing and splashing another couple of fingers of the spirit over the bloodstained flesh.

Although he'd hoped that forewarned would be forearmed, the flashing, sparkingly agonising hurt ambushed him in exactly the same way as before, gripping him in its iron fist and squeezing the breath from his already weakened body. He hunched over miserably, eyes clamped shut, gasping feebly for air that wouldn't come and praying for it to pass before his battered senses decided enough was enough. And it was close, the darkness threatening to engulf him despite the screeching skyrockets hurtling across his inner vision to explode into his brain.

Eventually, though, the pain settled back to a trifling pulsating throb that seemed to resonate through his whole chest and up into his head, which at least had the effect of clearing away the fog that had being trying to wrap him in its suffocating folds. He took advantage of this probably brief respite to reach for the small pack containing the suture and rip it open. Dry-mouthed, he stared down almost spellbound at the pre-threaded needle glinting wickedly at him as he peeled back the protective strip covering it and pulled it out, reminding him of its exquisite sharpness and reason for being, and a shiver of apprehension ran through him. But he really couldn't afford to have second thoughts - not now - so wiping away the sweat that was trickling down into his already stinging eyes as he squinted down at his shoulder, he raised his left hand to press the edges of the wound firmly together. Then, gritting his teeth against the pain he knew was only going to get worse, he brought the needle up with a steadiness that belied the way he was shaking inside to make his first stitch.


The morning passed with expected tedium for Sam, listening but not listening to the murmur of voices from the deep comfy armchairs across the opulent living room. He had taken up position by the French windows leading out to the terrace, purposely choosing a straight-backed chair so that he wouldn't be lulled into a lapse of concentration by getting too comfortable himself. Jimenez had posted his own men outside, stationing himself by the room's main doors where he could cover all the entrances, and he and Sam had shared a glance of mutual approval and respect at the way each was carrying out their duty. But Sam had no doubt that, if the need arose, the man would shoot him down without a qualm.

The discussions were being carried out in a mixture of English and Spanish - Morales' fluency in both languages was already a matter of record and it appeared Collinsby had acquired a good grasp of Spanish through his business dealings. Sam had only been spoken to in English, though, and had seen no reason to broadcast the fact that he spoke anything else. He'd learnt from experience that you never knew what people might let slip when they thought you didn't understand.

Collinsby had obviously taken Sam's words of the previous evening at least partially to heart. When the phone by the bed had rung at seven that morning, jolting him from a sound sleep, he'd found his next door neighbour at the other end of the line, informing him bluntly that he intended taking a morning run round the grounds and that if he wanted to do his job he had five minutes to join him. Even at that hour the heat and humidity had been high, and both men had been sweating heavily before they'd gone a hundred yards. But his companion was a lot fitter than he looked, and Sam had spent a wearing half hour expending more energy than he really wanted ensuring that he kept a pace or so ahead of him. The man's slightly supercilious smile as he'd disappeared back into his room for a shower had given Sam the distinct feeling that he'd been pushing him on purpose just to annoy him, and he'd had to remind himself that the mission parameters didn't include competing with the person he was supposed to be protecting. On reflection, however, he knew that he'd be damned if he was going to let the superior idiot get the better of him.

After several hours of serious dialogue, broken only by a brief interlude for coffee, the two protagonists rose and stretched before moving out onto the shaded terrace, the ending of business for the morning clear from the way they slipped effortlessly into casual chat again. As he fell into step behind them, Sam tried to work the kinks out of his back without making it obvious, knowing Jimenez was observing him and weighing up his professionalism and abilities. Just as he'd been doing in return. And it was pretty obvious Morales was in good hands, even though Sam couldn't really say he'd warmed to his opposite number as a person.

The air outside, heated by the sun blazing down from the searing blue sky, was a sharp contrast to the air-conditioned coolness of the lounge, and Sam was grateful for the protective shelter of the striped awning covering the terrace area. The servants had laid out refreshments at one end but he didn't feel like plunging back into another bout of ritual humiliation so soon, so he let Collinsby and Morales go ahead. Their fading conversation formed a backdrop to his brief but careful survey of the surroundings as he paused by the balustrade overlooking the gardens, his eyes catching sight of his watch on their return from sweeping the area. Nearly one o'clock - only another day and a bit to get through and he'd be able to relax again. Like Chris was no doubt doing right then, he thought moodily. God, but he was going to make him pay somehow for pulling the easy part of this job. He brightened at that thought, deciding he might just start with their planned check-in that evening. Perhaps he'd call him late and let him stew for a bit. And woe betide his partner if he was anything other than wide-awake and waiting to hear from him when he did call.

"Mr. Curtis?" Morales' cultured tones cut through his reflections. "Do join us. The lobster is delicious and I can recommend the Chablis." The automatic response of Sam's taste buds was enough to wipe away the worst of his moroseness, so plastering a pleasant smile on his face he turned to join the others at the lunch table.


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