Title First Darkness Falls...
Genre CI5 The New Professionals
Series Yes - the eighth in the Conversations series, sequel to 'Terms of Endearment'. Previously posted to NewProfessionalslash
Author Alyse (alyse@CI5Ops.co.uk)
Archive CI5 Operational Control (http//www.CI5Ops.co.uk), Britslash
Category Curtis/Keel.
Rating 15 for language

Spoilers/Warnings No spoilers. But one hell of a lot of angst, even for me (cue death threats ))

Summary Chris makes a rash decision and Sam has to deal with the consequences, which he doesn't do very well.

Feedback Yes please, to alys4@easynet.co.uk . Constructive criticism welcome, flames will be used to melt chocolate, and we all know what I'll do with that )

Disclaimers They belong to Brain Clements and David Wickes Productions. They don't belong to me - if they did we all know what they'd be doing. I don't make any money from this. I have nothing but my own warped imagination and therefore I'm not worth suing. )

Kudos Many thanks to my excellent beta Lou, stepping admirably into the breach )


First Darkness Falls

by Alyse

 

Sam

I can't believe he did that. I can't believe he did that. I can't believe he said that, and I can't believe it hurts so much...

****************************

Backup was concerned. It wasn't the first time she'd been worried about one of her co-workers - for all of Malone's 'first rule' there were very few agents within CI5 who followed it to the letter. However, it was the first time she'd been concerned about Sam Curtis - at least when he wasn't in the field. He and his partner, Chris Keel, had an uncanny knack of getting into trouble when they were on assignment, and so she'd become resigned to the feelings of anxiety she felt on those occasions. This time, however, neither of them was looking down the barrel of a gun. In fact, Keel hadn't shown up for work yet. They'd all been working so hard recently it wouldn't surprise her if he'd slept in, and it was a sign of how much stress they were under that she doubted that Malone would call him on it even if he had. Even Sam had only just managed to arrive on time...

Sam. The thought forced her mind back from its wanderings. Sam Curtis, Agent 37, known by some of the newer agents within CI5 as 'The Iceman' but never to his face. None of them had that much of a death wish, and for all of his charm, which he had in spades, Sam was also known for his ruthlessness. The one agent who was most likely to follow the first rule, the one agent who seemed never to let the, sometimes horrific, cases they dealt with get under his skin. Sam Curtis, who currently looked like shit.

She doubted that anyone else would spot it. Sam was too good at hiding how he was feeling, presenting a mask to the world that few could penetrate. Herself sometimes, definitely Chris and of course Malone. She would swear that their boss was a mind reader. Sam had told her in one of their lighter moments that as far as he could see Malone had sold his soul to the devil at a young age, and of course signing up to CI5 meant that they'd sold their souls to Malone. He'd quipped that it was a close thing as to which of them had the worst deal.

There was no sign of that famous wit now. He was keeping himself aloof from the other agents currently checking into HQ, not joining in the regular trading of jokes and insults. Instead, he was sitting to one side, staring at his monitor with a bleakness in his expression that chilled her. She wasn't sure that she'd ever seen him looking quite so remote. She watched as Spencer sauntered past his workstation, saying something to the English agent that drew a slight smile of acknowledgement out of him. It faded as soon as Spencer was past, and Sam's attention turned inwards once again.

And then Backup's monitor sparked into life with the satellite feed she'd been waiting for, and she dismissed Sam from her thoughts, focusing on the task in hand. When Keel finally showed up she'd tackle him about it. Until then she had some potential weapons movements to track in the former Soviet Union.

*************

"Chris." Backup's voice calling after him stopped Chris Keel in his tracks.

"What?" he asked, trying hard to keep the irritation out of his voice. It had been a rough night, he was tired and Sam...

He tried not to think about Sam. Unfortunately it seemed that Backup was of a different mind. "Is Sam okay?" she inquired, her expression concerned.

"Sam?" he asked back, his mind blank, wondering what Backup was asking, what she knew.

"Sam," she shot back, her tone slightly sarcastic. "English guy, your partner. Tall, dark, handsome, although if you tell him I said that I'll deny it. Ring any bells?"

"I know who Sam is, Agent Backus," he replied impatiently. "What about him?"

"He came in this morning looking like death warmed over. I just wondered if everything was okay. Do you know what's wrong?"

Chris had a very good idea of what was wrong, but he was damned if he was going to tell Backup. "What did he say?" he hedged.

She snorted. "Sam's a master of prevarication. When I tackled him on it he just that he was tired. Said he hadn't slept much. But I have to say that he looks terrible. God, I hope it's not flu. That would be all we need." Three agents were out with that, adding to the pressure the remaining active field agents were under, so Chris could understand her concern. She frowned slightly, taking a good long hard look at him. He shifted uncomfortably under her piercing gaze. "You don't look too hot either. You were with him last night, weren't you? You didn't do anything stupid did you? If the pair of you are hung over, Malone is going to have your balls."

"We weren't drinking," fudged Chris. She made a little disbelieving sound, her look suspicious. Chris frowned again. "He might be a little under the weather, but I'm sure that whatever's wrong he wouldn't appreciate you trying to mother him, Backup." His voice was sharper than he'd intended and Backup drew back, her own frown creasing her brow.

"There's no need to bite my head off, Keel," she replied, sounding a little wounded. "I just wondered, that's all. You can't blame more for being concerned."

Great, thought Chris. It seemed he'd hurt another colleague. "Sorry, Backup. I didn't mean to snap. Just..." He ran out of steam, unable to think of an excuse for his behaviour. Luckily she provided one.

"It's okay, Chris. We're all a little on edge. It's been a tough few months. No wonder Sam's coming down with something. I wonder if he caught it from Donaldson?" she mused.

"Maybe," said Chris noncommittally. He really didn't want to get into this, but Backup was looking at him expectantly. "We... I left him quite early last night. He didn't seem so hot then." It was true enough, he justified to himself. Sam had definitely not been too hot, but that had more to do with him than with any illness. He almost wished he could tell himself that there had been an ugly scene, but there hadn't really. He'd gone to Sam's, said what he felt he had to, and then Sam had become very quiet, and got that expressionless look on his face that Chris hated. He'd then said very calmly and quietly that if Chris had finished he'd like him to leave. And Chris had. And that was that - the end of a five and a half month relationship, the longest one that Chris had had since he'd come to England. Just like that, like it was nothing. Like it wasn't even worth arguing over. Chris was honest enough to admit that he would have preferred an ugly scene, go out with a bang and not a whimper, if only to prove to himself that it did mean something.

Strange really, he thought, only half listening as Backup prattled on, he'd always thought that Sam would be the one to call it quits, to say enough was enough before it got serious. But Sam had left it to him to do, probably because Sam hadn't cared enough to end it. Only, Backup said that Sam looked terrible, and if he didn't care then why would he look so bad...?

He suddenly realised that Backup had fallen silent, and was looking at him expectantly, obviously waiting for an answer. He frantically searched his memory, but for the life of him he couldn't figure out what the question had been. He shrugged slightly, and Backup rolled her eyes.

"I said," she repeated with an edge to her voice, "that even if Sam is coming down with something I doubt it's the only thing that's bothering him. I think you should talk to him."

"Why me?" Chris protested automatically.

"Because you are his partner, and the only person he actually opens up to." The edge in her voice was even harder now, and Chris decided that discretion was the better part of valour and didn't argue any further. If he did, she might push him to explain why he didn't want to talk to Sam, and god knows he didn't want to get into that.

"Fine, whatever," he sighed. He had no intention of broaching the subject with Sam, even if Sam were willing to talk to him and Backup seemed to guess this. Her eyes bored a hole in his back as he took advantage of her hesitation and escaped to the relative sanctuary of the coffee machine.

As expected, Sam ignored him when he finally snuck into the main office armed with two cups of coffee. One glance, colder than Dante's vision of hell, to acknowledge his offering, and that was all. Chris ignored the 'get to it' looks Backup was aiming in his direction, and settled down at the desk opposite Sam's to nurse both his coffee and his misery, until such time as he was needed. With any luck, the next mission would see him walking in front of a bullet and he wouldn't have to face the consequences of his rather rash actions the night before.

Sam barely spoke to him for the entire morning, focusing on writing up his report on the last assignment they'd been on. Chris tried to follow his lead - they were both drastically behind on paperwork - but found his concentration sadly lacking. He was constantly aware of Sam sitting opposite him, tracking his partner's every move as Sam walked too and from his desk to the coffee machine, skirting around him at a safe distance each time. The only positive sign was that each time Sam brought back two cups, depositing one on Chris' desk without a word. By lunchtime Chris was almost at screaming point, desperate for some reaction from his lover - his ex-lover - any reaction at all. He was torn between yelling at the man or throwing himself onto the floor at Sam's feet and begging forgiveness; for what he hadn't figured out yet.

Malone came to his rescue, with yet another mission, calling the pair of them into his office for a briefing. Backup and Spencer were also summoned into the inner sanctum, and Sam managed to position himself so that they both were between Chris and him. Thankfully only Backup appeared to notice but she limited her reaction to raising an eyebrow in Chris' direction, which he ignored sullenly as though that in itself would stop her quizzing him as soon as they were out of everyone else's earshot.

Malone's briefing was short and to the point, as usual. They'd been investigating a suspected arms dealer, one Thomas Belmont, for months, sometimes getting close but always failing to catch the man or uncover any evidence at the last moment. It was becoming a source of frustration to all of them, and to Malone in particular who was starting to consider taking this individual down as a matter of CI5 pride, for all of his admonishments to them to obey the first rule - never get emotionally involved.

They'd received another tip-off, although if this was anything like the last two it wasn't worth the phone bill their anonymous benefactor had run up calling it in. A deal for several cases of small arms was going down in a warehouse near the London Docks, supposedly being supplied to Basque separatists as they upped their campaign for freedom. Given the small size of the shipment, it was unlikely that their main target would be there but there was always a chance that they could nab one of his lieutenants and disrupt his operations. There was also a chance to potentially access more information which could assist in further dismantling Belmont's operations. One of the nuggets they'd gleaned on earlier ops was that his subordinates were armed with laptops as well as automatic weapons, and these were synchronised on a regular basis with Belmont's main system. Grab one of these, and access it before the hard drive could be wiped remotely, and they would be able to download Belmont's entire delivery schedule for the next few months. Even if they didn't catch the bastard, they could seriously hamper his business.

It was Sam who sounded a note of caution, wondering aloud how reliable the information was, given the wild goose chases they'd been sent on in the past. He also, of course, put himself in Malone's firing line.

"While I understand your concern, Mr Curtis," their boss barked, "we cannot ignore this lead because the last few haven't panned out as we hoped."

"I understand, sir, but..."

"No buts, Mr Curtis," Malone ground out. "And I would thank you not to second guess *me*."

Chris opened his mouth to defend his partner but shut it abruptly when Tina, anticipating his protest, kicked his ankle, hard. Sam, meanwhile, was muttering a 'yes sir, sorry sir,' in Malone's direction. Having to apologise to Malone was sure to improve Curtis' mood no end, thought Chris a little miserably. Indeed, Sam still had a half defiant look in his eyes. Before Malone could call Curtis on it, Backup insinuated herself smoothly into the conversation.

"I take it, sir, that you want Spencer and I in on this op because of our computer expertise?"

Malone gave her a sharp look, which she returned innocently. "Correct, Miss Backus. If we are to access this information, we have a very small window of opportunity. As far as the intelligence we have goes, something will prevent us once Belmont becomes aware that his deal is off."

Well, that was informative, thought Chris. Spencer seemed to be of the same mind. "Something, sir?"

"That's all we have, Mr Spencer. We are unable to determine what that something is, although it has been suggested that it is either an electronic device generating an electromagnetic pulse which can be triggered from a distance wiping the hard drive, or a small explosive device liable to take out the laptop, and potentially the user."

There was a short silence while the agents digested this. "Let's hope it's the former," muttered Spencer. "Although with Keel's propensity for finding explosive devices..."

It was a matter of opinion whose look was the frostiest; Malone's, Keel's or, Keel was surprised to note, Sam's. Whoever it was, the combined effect had Spencer subsiding and once more Backup stepped into the breach.

"So the plan is that we hit this warehouse, grab whoever's there and access the information on the laptop?"

"Assuming there is a deal on, assuming that someone is there, and assuming that they have the laptop," interrupted Chris. Malone turned his glare on Chris and this time it was Sam who came to the rescue.

"Will the priority be to access the information or disarm whatever the device is, sir?"

"Ordinarily I'd say disarm the device, however if it is something capable of generating an EMP, it's new and we may trigger it anyway by tampering with it. I'd suggest that we determine whether the device is explosive in nature before we start messing around with it, and then make getting whatever we can our next priority. Any more questions?" At the various shakes of heads, he barked, "Well, get going then."

They scrambled out of his office, moving with the type of organised chaos that only comes with practice, grabbing headsets, armoured vests and tool kits. They were ready to move within five minutes. While this supposed meeting wasn't scheduled for another couple of hours, experience told them that arriving early and moving into position would only give them an advantage.

It was a long drive to the Docks without the normal banter between Curtis and Keel. Sam drove in silence, while Chris sat in the passenger seat, staring out of the window. In the back, Tina and Spencer sat talking quietly about the upcoming assignment, respecting the other agents' need for silence. By now, the tension between the two men was apparent even to Spencer, and he kept exchanging worried looks with Backup which Keel occasionally caught sight of in the rear view and side mirrors. Keel could understand their concern. The last thing that you needed going into a potentially dangerous situation was friction between members of your team. However, he couldn't think of anything to say or do that would raise the emotional temperature in the car above its current sub-zero.

Sam didn't speak until they'd reached their destination, and then only because Backup asked him a direct question.

"How do you want to approach this?"

He gave the question due consideration as he strapped himself into his bulletproof vest. "Two teams?" he suggested calmly, finally meeting her eyes, and then glancing at Spencer for confirmation. Both Spencer and Backup agreed with quick nods. He didn't look at Chris, either taking his agreement as read or not caring. "Spence with me," Sam added, "and Backup with Keel."

Backup and Spencer exchanged surprised looks, and it was Spencer who put it into words. "You're splitting up?" Ironic, thought Chris, how accurate the question was.

Sam's attention was focused on sliding a fresh clip into his weapon, and he shrugged without looking up. "Makes sense," he replied. "Malone wants you two here for your hacking expertise, so if we're going to split up one of you needs to be on each team."

It did make sense, being entirely analytical and logical and therefore in keeping with Curtis' character, but Chris doubted that was the real reason behind Sam's suggestion. He could understand Sam being pissed at him but he had optimistically, and it appeared foolishly, hoped that it wouldn't carry across to their work. He also noted rather cynically that Sam had paired him with Backup, which meant that it was he and not Sam who would be grilled. Sam was no fool. She had that light in her eye which meant she had something on her mind and she wouldn't rest until she shared it, and he had no doubt that she'd share it with him. Could this day get any worse?

It did. He should have known better than to ask. They were only halfway across the cluttered foreyard in front of the warehouse, on the way to their respective positions when they came under fire. Either the deal was going down earlier than they'd been informed and their information had been incorrect - again - or they'd been set up. Chris was paranoid enough to believe the latter. As he'd told Sam once, just because you were paranoid it didn't mean that the bastards weren't *really* out to get you. Sam, shit. He'd lost sight of his partner, and Spencer, when they'd dived for cover. He and Backup were pinned down at one side on the foreyard, and Spencer and Sam had been heading towards the other side and were, he presumed, equally trapped. He had a very bad feeling about this, and he couldn't shake it off. He grabbed at the microphone on his headset, wondering why the hell neither of them had thought of it first. Beside him, Backup snapped off a couple of rounds before ducking back behind their cover.

"Sam? Sam?" No answer. He couldn't be that pissed. "Spencer?"

"Copy Keel." The voice crackled into his earpiece.

"Position?" he asked professionally.

"We're pinned down about a hundred yards to your left."

"Can you retreat?"

"Negative." There was a slight pause before Spencer added, "Curtis has been hit."

Time seemed to freeze for a second before Chris found his voice. "Bad?" He was quite proud, he noted absently, at how calm his voice sounded. A projectile cracked into the crate next to him, and he flinched away before snapping off a couple of shots automatically, his free hand pressing the earpiece into his ear so that the noise didn't drown out any reply.

"No, just winged." Sam's voice, a little rough, but Sam's voice nonetheless. "I take it that you and Backup are pinned down too?"

Chris exchanged a quick look with Backup, who shook her head. "Affirmative. Calling for assistance now..." Backup nodded and snapped her mobile phone off her belt.

"Oh Malone's going to love this," sighed Spencer over Chris' earpiece.

"He's lucky we're coming back in one piece," snapped Keel. "Well, some of us anyway."

Backup interrupted their bickering. "Bad news, guys. It's going to be a while until any assistance reaches us."

"Let me guess," threw in Chris, sarcasm permeating every word. "We're a little short staffed at the moment..." She flipped him a wry smile by way of response, and he sighed, defeated. His earpiece crackled into life again.

"No chance that the pair of you can get out of the line of fire?" Sam again. "Spence and I are stuck here for the duration..."

"Negative," responded Backup smoothly.

"Shit," hissed Sam. Chris could sympathise with his feelings. "You do realise," Sam added, "that if those goons in there decide to circle around behind us, we are well and truly fucked?"

"Thank you for pointing that out," replied Backup a little acidly. "Being as we're such amateurs, we hadn't figured that out for ourselves." There was no response from Sam to that snide remark.

It was some indication of Chris' current emotional state that he hadn't, in fact, realised how precarious their position was until Sam had pointed it out. With some effort he dragged his mind back on track, and focused on the task in hand. He and Backup were pretty well positioned, at least for any attack from the front. They were sheltering behind a cluster of large wooden packing boxes, which provided them with ample cover. If the worst came to the worst, they should be able to shift a few of them to provide some cover to the rear. Like children building a fort, he thought wryly. As for Sam and Spencer... He shifted slightly towards the left hand side of their shelter, trying to see into the rest of the yard. Nothing. He wouldn't be able to get a visual of their position without risking getting his head blown off. As concerned as he was about Sam, the thought didn't appeal. He couldn't help but wonder, however, how precarious their position was.

As if in answer to his unspoken thoughts, a flurry of shots sounded out from the warehouse in front of them. He ducked back instinctively before realising that they weren't aimed in his direction. At the same time, he could hear Spencer swearing over the headset.

"Spence?" he queried, trying to get a good shot into the cavernous darkness of the warehouse doorway.

"I'm fine," the English agent replied, sounding a little breathless. "Last one was a little close, that's all."

"How close?" demanded Backup.

"Well, you know how I was talking about getting my ear pierced..."

Chris grinned to himself, glad that Spencer's sense of humour, at least, appeared to be surviving intact. His smile, however, faded when the implications of Spencer's statement sank in. "How much cover have you two got?" he demanded.

"Well, it covers me" shot back Spencer. "But with Sam's big head, who knows?"

"We're fine," interjected Sam tetchily. "You just concentrate on getting you and Backup out of this." Chris grimaced at the irritation evident in his partner's voice as Backup glanced sympathetically at him. "Backup?" continued Sam. "Do we have an ETA yet?"

Backup spoke into her phone again. "About twenty minutes, if we're lucky."

Chris caught movement out of the corner of his eye. "Hate to tell you this people, but I think that our luck may have run out." It seemed as though their mysterious attackers had come to the same conclusions that Curtis had - namely that by circling around behind the CI5 agents they could catch them in a pincher movement and eliminate them with ease. Like rats in a trap.

Chris and Backup retreated slightly, placing cover between themselves and their encroaching opponents. He wasn't sure whether Curtis and Spencer had that option, and so there was nothing to do but try and pin their attackers down and hope that it bought his colleagues some time at least. With that in mind he began to lay down a suppressing fire and noted that Backup was doing the same. She was also delivering clipped instructions to Spencer and Curtis, informing them of what they were doing. A quick telling look in her direction and then he spun on the balls of his feet, aiming towards the open warehouse door while Backup continued to concentrate on their rear.

Sam and Spencer were also aiming towards the warehouse. With the eerie clarity of vision he got under fire he could see the ricochets from their bullets bouncing off the doorframe, sending splinters into the air. Momentarily flustered by the firepower they were coming under, their targets retreated slightly, and that gave Chris the opportunity he was looking for.

"Go!" he yelled into his mike, continuing to fire rapidly, aware of the gun starting to feel warm in his hands. Behind him Backup was more restrained, concentrating on picking of her targets if they were foolish enough to raise their heads but still providing Curtis and Spencer with the cover that they needed.

Chris didn't cease firing until something skidded into his leg with a muttered curse. Ducking back into cover, he met the eyes of his partner, bright and fierce in a dusty face. Spencer was just behind him, having made a slightly more graceful entry into their makeshift lair than Sam's slide. Chris automatically reached out his hand to help his partner to his feet, and after a slight hesitation Sam took it - with his left hand. He hauled himself to a sitting position, back to the boxes, exhaustion and pain etching themselves into his face. He was favouring his right arm, the sleeve torn and dark first with blood and now dirt. Chris set himself on automatic pilot, pulling his knife out of his ankle sheath and using it to cut Sam's sleeve open to examine the extent of the damage.

"I'm fine," hissed Sam, pulling himself away abruptly.

"Sure you are," replied Chris calmly. "And I'm still a virgin..."

The bleeding had slowed to a sluggish trail. He couldn't tell any more until he had a good look at it, and there were other pressing priorities right now. He wadded up the torn sleeve he'd cut away, placed it over the wound and placed Sam's left hand firmly over the top of it.

Backup was still popping off shots to their rear to discourage any curious visitors, and Chris started to pull boxes from their front, being careful that they weren't exposed, and piling them to their rear. The adrenaline was still pumping through his veins and he didn't waste time or breath explaining, but Backup and Spencer were highly trained CI5 agents and caught on very fast, Spencer holstering his weapon and assisting while Backup stayed out of their way, weaving a path around them with the true grace of a dancer.

In less than two minutes they had a relatively sturdy if untidy barricade both to the front and rear, and not a moment too soon. Just as Chris was drawing his own weapon, and turning towards the warehouse again, his partner's weapon was already in his hand and he was aiming in Chris' direction. Chris instinctively threw himself to the side as Sam's weapon rang out. He didn't even spare a glance behind him as he heard the heavy thud of a body falling to the floor. Instead he threw himself down beside Sam, his weapon once again trained on the warehouse doorway.

"Thanks," he muttered briefly, catching and holding Sam's eyes. His partner didn't reply, but nodded once, his eyes guarded. There seemed nothing else to say.

The gunfire from outside of their shelter slowed to a shot in their direction every now and then, just to let them know that they were still trapped. When Chris was satisfied that they were not in imminent danger of having to face another all out assault, he sheathed his gun once more and gestured to Spencer to take over observing the front before turning his attention to his injured partner again.

"I don't suppose anyone has a med kit?" he asked as he examined the ugly gash in his partner's bicep. It was a purely rhetorical question; he didn't expect anyone to be that prepared and so he was surprised when Backup reached into one of the zip pockets of her combat trousers and produced a small combat field dressing kit, handing it to him without even a flourish. When he looked inquiringly at her, she smiled grimly.

"We've come to the conclusion that no matter where we go with you two, we go prepared. The pair of you get injured more than any other team in CI5." Chris glanced at Spencer and got a quick grin of confirmation.

"That's because we get shot at more often," explained Sam, his voice tired. His eyes were closed and his head was resting against the box behind him.

"Yeah," grinned Spencer. "We know that too, that's why we brought extra ammo." That startled a wry laugh out of Sam, who opened his eyes to give Spencer an amused look. Once again, he avoided looking at Chris.

After giving Sam's face a searching look, Chris made an impatient 'gimme' gesture to Backup for the med kit and set about cleaning Sam's arm. The kit was basic, but it would do - sterile swabs and a bandage, but no antibiotics or painkillers. The 'help will get to us quickly' kit rather than the 'we're stuck in the middle of nowhere' kit. He used the swabs to clean the wound and some small butterfly bandages to hold it shut until it could be sewn, and then wrapped some gauze and a bandage around it to hold everything in place. Neither Backup nor Spencer offered assistance, focusing on their own tasks. Sam was his partner, and therefore his responsibility, and while normally he'd do this without a second thought he got the distinct impression that Sam would have preferred someone else on this occasion. Not that he blamed him under the circumstances.

"What happened?" he asked quietly as he fastened off the bandage. It was Spencer who answered the question.

"Ricochet, I think?" Which would explain why the wound wasn't a serious as it could have been, as most of the force behind the bullet would have been dissipated before it hit Sam. Otherwise it could have shattered the bone.

Sam nodded by way of reply, his fingertips tracing over the bandage, before he tugged on it to test its security. "Thanks," he said, not looking at Chris.

Unable to watch his partner avoiding looking at him, Chris turned his attention to the other members of their team. Backup was speaking into her phone again, and met his eyes, shaking her head slightly. He presumed that that meant assistance would not be on its way anytime soon. Spencer was watching the front for any activity. He, like Sam, was injured although it seemed minor in nature - a shallow gash at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, probably caused by a flying splinter rather than anything else. He caught Chris' glance, and grinned, his eyes bright with adrenaline.

"Ever feel like you're starring in a remake of Zulu?" he asked exuberantly. This was such an echo of his own earlier thoughts about forts that Chris had to grin back. Spencer in the field was so different from the often staid appearance the agent gave in the office.

"What?" he asked. "A few stalwarts holding off the hordes?"

Sam didn't appear to share their enthusiasm. "Might I point out," he asked acidly, "that most of the troops in Rorke's Drift died in the first charge? I wouldn't get too enamoured with that picture, guys."

"I hate to agree with Sam," commented Backup, peering once again to their rear. "But as well as historical accuracy, I have to say that none of you are Michael Caine." There was a muttered chorus of 'Thank God's and she turned and gave the three of them an evil look, before turning her attention back outside their rudimentary shelter. Chris joined her, since Spencer seemed to have the front covered and the last attack had come from the rear.

"How long until we can expect the cavalry," he asked her, sotto voce. She treated him to a wry twist of her lips.

"A while," she said. "Ops says that they'll get someone to us as soon as they can. We're to stay in position until then."

He snorted. "Like we have a choice?" She shrugged noncommittally. He couldn't help but glance over his shoulder towards Sam, who was helping Spencer keep watch to the front. When he turned back she was watching him with wise eyes.

"He'll be fine," she said softly. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

************

Instead of the twenty minutes they'd first been told, it took almost an hour for backup to arrive and relieve them. In that time, while they were subject to almost constant harassment from small arms fire, no one approached their position. Chris could only presume that ambushing four unsuspecting CI5 agents was a slightly different prospect from charging four agents who were sheltered, armed and aware of your intentions. They'd killed seven during that one abortive charge on their position, and that had to have given some of them second thoughts.

Malone, however, was less than pleased with their performance. Despite CI5's remit there were certain elements in authority who were less than thrilled with their tactics, and seven dead bodies in England's capital did not make good press, no matter how justified. Neither did pitched gun battles. And when Malone was pissed, they all got some.

He was considerate enough to delay bawling them out until Sam had returned from CI5's medical centre, his arm sewn and bandaged properly, and then he laid into them. None of them escaped unscathed, although he saved his choicest words for Curtis and Keel. He was especially thrilled when he found out that Sam had been placed on two weeks sick leave. He appeared to take that as a personal insult - the straw that broke the camel's back as it were.

They stood there and took it. What else could they do? Chris tried to protest, and was shot down in flames. For once, Sam didn't defend him. Instead, he stood at the rear of Malone's office, his head bowed, staring at the floor. Even though it hurt, Chris couldn't blame him for being unwilling to step into the breach, not now.

Finally, Keel had had enough. He snapped, and in no uncertain terms, and a loud voice, informed Malone that he was damn lucky that they'd come back at all. If they hadn't reacted as they had, dealt with the situation as well as they had, he'd have had even more agents to bury to add to his track record so far. And then he stormed out, slamming the door behind him, not waiting around for the fallout from his words.

He made his way straight to the CI5 gym, working out some of his anger and frustration on a defenceless punching bag. He would have preferred something more strenuous than punching an inanimate object, but no one around was fool enough to spar with him when he was in this mood. That was where he was when Backup found him.

She watched him for a few minutes, until he acknowledged her presence, and then gave a little 'sit beside me' pat to the bench next to her. After a moment's hesitation, he gave in.

"So," he asked, not really caring, "am I suspended?"

"No," she replied calmly. "Once again your partner pulled your ass out of the fire, and earned another dressing down from Malone, which I'm sure given that he probably feels like death warmed over he really needed." Chris fought down a sudden surge of guilt, and spotting it she patted his knee comfortingly. "He survived," she soothed. "And he starts two weeks sick leave, which I'm sure will do him the world of good." She gave him one of those intense soul-drilling looks she specialised in, and had him shifting uncomfortably. "I think you owe him some thanks," she added softly. "And maybe an apology?"

He sighed. "Anyone ever told you that you're psychic, Backup?" he asked tiredly.

"Frequently," she replied dryly. "I'm not really - just observant. I just like to cultivate this air of mystique."

Chris laughed sourly. "Figures," was all he said, staring morosely at the wall. She watched him for a few moments, and then patted his knee again.

"Relax," she said. "Malone will forgive you. To tell you the truth there's a betting pool about how long until you blew your top about something. You've actually lasted longer than any of us expected."

"You bet on the pool?" he asked. "Backup, I'm hurt you have so little faith in me."

She smiled. "Hey," she said, her tone light. "I bet on the high numbers. Still surprised me though. Must be Sam's calming influence." At the mention of Sam's name, his mood darkened once more. Sensing this she gave him another reassuring smile. "Sam will forgive you too," she added softly. "He always does."

"Maybe," he said noncommittally, doubting it.

"Put it this way," she said. "At least the pair of you haven't come to blows yet, have you?" She gave him a cursory examination. "Nope," she said. "No bruises or abrasions that I can see." She smiled again. "You know that Michaels and Wiersbowski had a stand up knock down fight this morning?" He shot her a startled look, and she nodded. "Yep, Richards and Spencer had to separate them."

"I thought those two worked well together."

"They did," she sighed. "But six months living in each other's pocket..." Her voice trailed off, her meaning clear. "They aren't the first," she added sadly. "And unless things start looking up, they're unlikely to be the last." She seemed to give herself a mental shake. "And look at it this way," she added briskly. "You and Sam have been under at least as much pressure as those two, and up until today yours was the only partnership that wasn't showing any cracks. I tell you, I'd be damn surprised if there weren't some major changes in partnerships whenever the new recruits start. There are people in here who are sick of the sight of each other, and Malone's too smart not to recognise that. He'll cut you some slack, because the main reason you had a go at him was because he had a go at Sam, and he didn't have any justification. He's already apologised to Sam..."

"Malone?" he interrupted. "Apologising?"

"Yeah," she grinned. "I know. However, he's unlikely to make a habit of it, and I really wouldn't expect him to apologise to you. You *were* out of order after all. No, he'll let it slide this time, because he's relieved that there are some partnerships that are still working."

"I'm not sure that it is, Backup," he answered sadly.

She gave him a long, steady look. "You're doing better than most, Chris." He didn't look convinced. She sighed. "Come on," she said. "You can't sulk in here forever."

"Where's Sam?" he asked abruptly. At Backup's raised eyebrow, he added, "I think I owe him an apology or two."

She gave him a faint smile. "I think you might owe Malone one, too."

 

************

Sam was back in the main office when Chris sought him out, talking quietly to Spencer and Rebecca, his laptop already packed away and hanging over his fit shoulder. Chris couldn't believe that he was taking work home with him in his condition, but knew better than to say anything. Instead he hung back, waiting for Sam to finish speaking. Sam glanced in his direction once, and then ignored him. It was a pattern that Chris was becoming intimately familiar with.

He waited until Sam headed towards the car park, and then followed him. "Sam," he called after his partner. "Wait up!" For a second he was convinced that his partner was going to continue to ignore him, and then Sam slowed his steps, not stopping entirely but allowing Chris to catch up. The pair of them made their way to Sam's car in silence, Chris occasionally glancing at Sam's grim face, wondering how to start the conversation.

"At least let me drive you home," he said finally, as Sam threw the laptop into the boot.

"I'll be fine," said Sam, his voice expressionless.

"Sam, you can't drive with your arm..."

"I'll cope," replied his partner, cutting him off.

"Sam... Please..." His partner turned and looked at him, and for a moment the mask slipped and he caught a glimpse of the pain Sam felt in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered. The mask slipped further, Sam's eyes now truly haunted.

"Sorry?" Sam's voice was caught half way between a laugh and a sob. "Sorry..." he added bitterly. "I don't want to hear it, Chris. I don't..." He turned away, fumbling in his pocket for his car keys, his eyes bright with what Chris realised with a sinking heart were unshed tears. It shocked him to the core, shaking the foundations of everything he'd believed about their relationship, such as it was. He flailed uselessly for words, anything to build upon his earlier, clumsy apology and take away the pain and grief in Sam's eyes. Sam spared him the task, adding in a voice barely above a whisper, "Just leave me alone, Chris, please." He stopped, struggling for self-control, and then added in a more even tone, "I'll talk to you when I come back on active duty." With that he swung open the car door, and clambered inside, ignoring Chris' last heartfelt, "Sam!"

Chris had to step back as Sam abruptly threw the car into reverse and with a screech of tires and no backwards look, drove away. He stood there, his world crashing around his ears, until Backup moved to stand next to him. He hadn't even realised that she'd followed them down to the garage. She watched him for a long moment, her dark eyes cautious, and then she sighed. "Come on," she said. "You can apologise to Malone while the going's so good, and then I'll buy you a coffee."

****************

Sam had himself more or less under control by the time he reached his apartment, although he was shaken, embarrassed and furious at himself for permitting Chris to see how upset he was, for even letting Chris get to him like that. He would be furious at Chris too if he could be. At the moment all he could feel when he thought of his partner was pain. He much preferred the numbness he'd first felt when Chris had dropped his bombshell the previous evening. That numbness had enabled him to get through their break-up with at least a modicum of dignity intact, keeping his face and demeanour expressionless while somewhere deep inside a voice just screamed, 'No!'. Instead he'd heard his own voice as though it came from a long distance away as he'd calmly told Chris to leave.

That same numbness had enabled him to go into work today and face Chris, somehow secure in the knowledge that it would stop himself from making a complete fool of himself and throwing himself at Chris' feet and begging, 'I don't know what I did wrong, but tell me, please, and I'll put it right. I promise, please, just take it back...'

Any dignity he'd salvaged then though was in shreds after the fiasco today. The surety, and the numbness that had inspired it, disappeared the second he'd laid eyes on Chris that morning. How he'd got through the day without humiliating himself he didn't know. He could only pray that if anyone had noticed anything amiss with his behaviour, they'd put it down to his injury or basic exhaustion. Curtis was by nature a private man, and the idea of having let his self-control slip to the extent that those around him became aware of his inner turmoil was abhorrent to him.

He clung to his illusion of privacy as if that was the only thing now that mattered now. In a way it was. The only thing he had left was the job, and if he couldn't hold himself together through this, behave as though nothing had happened, he could kiss that goodbye too. If it ever got out that he'd had the bad taste to fall in love with his partner, his male partner, and been rejected by the same, his career would be over. You didn't trust someone who had shown that much error in judgement with delicate missions like those he and Chris were trusted with. He had two weeks to get his act together, and then... who knew?

Here, in the relative safety of his place, he felt secure enough to let go of the act he'd put on for his colleagues' benefit. He was tired, so tired. He hadn't slept much the night before, turning Chris' uncaring words over and over in his mind, looking for a loophole; a way out he hadn't spotted at the time, something to indicate that his partner hadn't meant his words. The fact that he hadn't found it hadn't made his rest any easier.

And now his arm was throbbing with a dull ache that told him that it wouldn't be long before the painkillers the doctors had given him would wear off and he'd be left in pain again. That was the problem with arm wounds. It was almost impossible to keep the limb immobile even in a sling, even if he hadn't discarded said sling as soon as he'd left the infirmary. He hadn't wanted to make it obvious that he would have difficulty driving home, not wanting to have to rely on Chris and not wanting to ask anyone else for fear of the obvious comment - 'Can't Chris...?'.

He'd broken a window when he was nine; playing football on the estate he'd grown up on. He remembered that his father had given him hell for that, one of the rare occasions his father, not much given to dishing out punishment, had used his belt when the back of his hand wasn't deemed enough. That's how his mind felt at the moment, like broken glass, shards of pain coming through the fog of exhaustion and misery. Pain from his wounds, both physical and mental. It was sheer stubbornness that dragged him to his feet and into the bedroom, tired hands fumbling to undress and pull on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, trying hard not to jog his aching arm more than necessary. It was ingrained training, courtesy of his father, that dragged him to the bathroom to clean his teeth and wash up before he could succumb to sleep.

There were two toothbrushes in the mug in the bathroom cabinet, one blue and one green. One Chris' and one his, a rare concession to the fact that Chris slept at his place... used to sleep... Sam's mind blanked out the rest of the thought.

Chris had joked that it was apt, one blue, one green, like the colour of their eyes. Sam had never given much thought to his eye colour. If pushed he would have said grey, which is what it said on his passport. Chris, however, had insisted that they were green...

For a long moment Sam stared at them blankly before reaching up and grabbing hold of the blue one. Another long, blank stare at it, now held securely in his hand, before he dropped it into the bin. A search of the cabinet revealed more items... a disposable razor, also Chris', which joined the toothbrush in the bin, and a bottle of Chris' aftershave, expensive but understated, which Sam carried carefully into the kitchen and placed in a carrier bag, his movements calm and controlled and, if he had but realised, numb.

Sam couldn't rest until the remainder of Chris' stuff was also safely stowed in the carrier, each item stowed with the same care as the first. There wasn't much. A sweater, some sweats that Chris slept in when it was cold, a change of clothes, a couple of CDs. It all looked very small and pathetic when piled in a heap. His task completed, Sam headed back to the bathroom.

It wasn't until he closed the bathroom cabinet and caught sight of himself in the mirrored door that he realised he was crying, and by then he didn't care.

***********

Chris' apology to Malone was better received than his attempt to apologise to Sam had been. While Malone still seemed to feel the need to chew him out that at least interjected a note of normality into an otherwise surreal day. He stood there, letting Malone's rant wash over him while his mind wrestled with the question of what to do about Sam. He was no nearer an answer when Malone finally ran out of words and irritably dismissed him.

Backup was lurking in the main office, obviously waiting for him. She really needed to take skulking lessons from Sam, he thought a little manically, fighting the almost hysterical urge to laugh. The ex-MI6 man could skulk for England, and frequently had. Unfortunately she didn't really need the ability to skulk convincingly since she'd chosen to position herself in such a way that the only way out of the room was to go past her. Chris sighed heavily and hunched his shoulders, deciding that the only option was to make a break for it.

He didn't make it. She executed a flanking action and cut him off at the coffee machine.

"Chris," she said, unsmiling.

"Backup," he acknowledged, trying to edge past her nonchalantly. She was wise to him, and stepped straight into his path.

"I take it that you've spent the last twenty minutes apologising to Malone," she added neutrally.

"So it seems."

"And Sam?"

He sighed. "I think you've seen how well my apology to Sam went. Now, if you don't mind?"

She anticipated him again, and once again prevented him from edging past her. This time his sigh had an edge of irritability about it. "Don't," she scowled, lowering her voice so that they wouldn't be heard. "I'm really not in a good mood and I don't want to spend the rest of the afternoon chasing you all over the complex to get a straight answer."

"To what?" he snapped.

"What's with you and Sam?" It was blunt, however he could do blunt too. In fact, he excelled at it.

"None of your business. Straight enough for you?"

Her scowl deepened. "You have a choice, Keel," she replied a little coolly. "We do this in public or we do this in private." Looking into her suddenly stern brown eyes, Keel made the only choice he could.

"Coffee?" he asked with studied politeness through gritted teeth.

"Smart boy," she said by way of reply, following him as he led the way out of the room.

The rest room was empty, few of the CI5 agents having time these days for anything more than bathroom breaks, and even they were in short supply. Consequently they had the place to themselves for the time being, at least until they were interrupted and dragged back to the daily grind. Backup snagged the pair of them coffee, ignoring Chris' sullen looks. For a long moment they stared at each other, neither willing to give ground, until Backup looked away, obviously deciding to be the 'adult' in this conversation.

"Would it help," she asked tiredly, "if I told you that I already know about you and Sam? That I've known since Tennessee?"

He stared at her, speechless, his mind racing as he searched for another interpretation to her words. She gave him a rueful smile. "You know, Chris, if you're going to share a room it's probably a good idea to mess up the other bed. Now I might believe that Sam had got up and neatly made his bed before I got there, but not you. And as I recall, you were up and he was still asleep." Her smile grew. "And naked I believe. Which was why you were reluctant to let me in in the first place, remember?"

He did. He'd been expecting breakfast or he would never have opened the door. She hadn't been happy and he'd been treated to one of the famous Backup scowls as she demanded to know why he hadn't called and let her know Sam was all right.

He'd muttered an apology, moving to block her as she attempted to walk through the door. Her scowl had grown worse, he remembered, until he'd explained, "Sam's asleep. He just came out of the shower and crashed..."

"I won't wake him. I just want to see that he's okay with my own eyes."

"I mean he *literally* came out of the shower and crashed. Last night." He'd punctuated his explanation with a toppling gesture of his forearm. It had taken her a second to catch on and when she had, a slow grin spread over her face.

"You mean he's naked?"

"No way am I letting you in here with Sam naked. He would kill me. Slowly."

He'd ignored her pout until Sam had interrupted, his voice sleepy. "Oh for god's sake, let her in Chris. She'll just stand there wittering until you do and I'll never get any bloody sleep."

Chris was painfully aware that he'd been rather spitefully pleased to see Backup blush a little when she realised that Sam had overhead her. However, she'd recovered enough to give Chris a little triumphant grin as she pushed past him. Thankfully, Sam had pulled up the covers so that only his chest was visible. Even so he'd felt a sudden, shocking surge of jealousy, almost frightening in its intensity when Sam had given her a tired smile, seeming genuinely pleased to see her in spite of his complaining. Probably an indication of his insecurity, he realised now, and although he should have gotten over that once Sam had admitted that he returned his feelings, he couldn't help but wonder if a lingering remnant of that insecurity had contributed towards the scene last night.

Backup was watching him as he thought, a crease between her brows indicating the level of her concern. "Chris..." she began, a little uncertainly. He cut her off.

"Have you told Malone?"

She looked a little offended, even though his tone had been tired more than accusing. "No I haven't," she retorted. Honesty forced her to add, "Although, if it seems to me to be getting in the way..." She let her voice trail off and looked at him expectantly. An invitation to him to spill his guts, it seemed. He debated whether to take her up on her unspoken offer, and then rather fatalistically decided that he had nothing to lose.

"There isn't anything to get in the way," he said softly. For a second it seemed that she was going to argue, perhaps offended by the way he seemed to be trying to deny what they both knew, and then, with a soft 'oh', she caught on.

"Is there anything I can do?" she offered cautiously. He shook his head.

"Just leave it, Backup," he said tiredly. "I screwed up and I'm just going to have to sort it out. If it can be sorted out..."

She gave him an encouraging little smile. "I told you, Chris. Sam will forgive you pretty much anything. We all know that. Why do you think we let you break bad news to him?"

As an attempt to lighten Chris' mood it failed miserably but he gave her a half smile anyway, more to head off any further attempt at levity on her part than anything else. She opened her mouth to say something else, and once again he cut her off.

"Listen, Backup, we'd better get back. We're down by Sam as well as everyone else now." For a second it looked as though she would argue, and then thought better of it, nodding reluctantly. He headed towards the exit, only stopping when she laid a gentle hand on his arm.

"Chris..." she began. "If you need to talk..."

It was a genuine offer, he realised. And there was both concern and affection in her eyes. She did care about both of them, he realised, even if sometimes she seemed to have a strange way of showing it. The knowledge gave him the strength to ask another favour.

"Listen, Backup. Don't say anything to Malone yet, okay? Sam and I... we'll tell him ourselves, one way or the other." She gave him a long, hard look and then nodded.

"Soon, Chris," she said. "I don't like keeping things from him..." And hadn't known how to broach the subject before now, he realised.

He nodded abruptly, knowing that he'd bought some time if nothing else. He'd worry about whether she'd continue to keep her end of the bargain when he knew whether there was anything for her to tell Malone. And that meant that he had to talk to Sam.

**********

He tried Sam's number several times that afternoon, and well into the evening, and received no answer except the click of the answering machine kicking in. So either Sam was not home, was not answering any calls or, and this seemed the most likely, was screening his calls. For a brief moment he had considered asking Backup to call him, just to check that he was all right, but he was reluctant to involve the other agent in their affairs even if she didn't seem to share his qualms about getting involved.

He didn't leave HQ until late, or early depending on how you looked at it, and then only after checking with Malone that it was okay. He really was not in the mood for yet another chewing out. He was sorely tempted to just go home and sleep on it, but he was realistic enough to know that if he had any chance with Sam it had to be now. Any longer, and Sam would get his armour back in place, if he hadn't already, and Chris might as well forget it. Besides, he felt he owed it to Sam to apologise sooner rather than later, even if his pathetic first attempt at grovelling had been rebuffed. It was the least he could do, even if Sam didn't want to hear it.

His final call through to Sam's flat also went unanswered, and this time he didn't bother leaving another message on the answering machine. Instead he decided that it was time for direct action and drove to Sam's place. He still had a key, after all.

************

Sam was dozing lightly on the couch when he heard the door open. He searched around frantically for his weapon, cursing the fact that he'd been distracted enough to place it out of reach, until he heard Chris' voice calling to him. It gave him a chance to school his face into at least some semblance of impassivity before Chris' head appeared around the doorway.

They stared at each other for a long awkward moment, Chris trying to make out the expression on Sam's face in the dim light cast by the streetlights through the window. Chris made the first move.

"You didn't answer the phone."

"I thought you might have taken the hint," replied Sam coldly. Chris sighed, absently jingling the keys in his hand, avoiding looking in Sam's direction.

"Can we not do this, please?"

"What do you want, Chris?"

Chris looked straight at him, once again trying to read his expression. "I wanted to make sure that you were okay..." he began, his voice subdued.

"I'm fine." Sam's voice gave no quarter.

"I wanted to say that I was sorry about last night..."

"You said sorry this afternoon."

"Sam... I..." Chris couldn't bear it anymore. He reached up and flicked on the light switch. Bright light flooded the room, forcing Sam to squint and raise his hand up sluggishly to shield his eyes. His eyes were slightly bloodshot, which could have been due to exhaustion. Chris knew that he probably looked that rough too. That didn't, however, explain his still tear stained face. He must have cried himself to sleep, thought Chris numbly. The thought gave him no satisfaction, instead triggering an ache deep within his chest. "Sam..." he began again.

"Piss off and leave me alone," snarled his partner, humiliated. "You said everything you needed to say last night, so just *fuck off*!" It was probably an indication of just how upset the Englishman was feeling if he was resorting to obscenities rather than his normal penchant for rational discussion. Chris couldn't think of anything to say, and stared at Sam dumbly, while his partner continued to rant.

"You want to know how I'm doing? Or did you want to gloat? I'm absolutely fine, couldn't be better. Absolutely fucking perfect in fact. Don't worry about me, Keel. As far as I know a broken heart isn't terminal." He sat staring at Chris, his chest heaving with the strength of his bitter outburst as he fought both for breath and control. Chris could pinpoint the exact moment when Sam forced his feelings back behind his shields, slamming the mask back into place, and adding more softly but implacably, "I'd like you to leave, Chris. You can put your key on the table."

And with that last comment he rose shakily to his feet, heading towards his bedroom. Chris let him go, knowing that the Englishman would need a few moments to compose himself again, and knowing that he also needed some time to get himself under control.

He was going to have to beg, he realised, staring at Sam's closed bedroom door. He was going to have to lay everything on the line, tell Sam everything that went on in his heart and in his mind and hope that it was enough. He was going to have to pray that Sam loved him enough to forgive him when at this point he wasn't sure if he could forgive himself.

*********

Sam was curled up on his side, his back to the bedroom door and the source of his pain, listening for the sound of the front door closing. A bad position, he knew, all of his training screaming at him that it made him vulnerable but he couldn't find it in him to care. Not now. Not when even breathing seemed to hurt, aggravating the tightness in his chest. And he wasn't going to cry, not again. He couldn't. He was empty. That's how he felt. Empty and useless and pathetic, and now Chris knew just how pathetic he was and was probably standing out there glad that he'd come to his senses in time. Any second now he'd escape and the door would slam and Sam's heart would break again. Any second now.

Except that it wasn't the front door that opened - it was the bedroom door. Sam scrunched down further into the bedding, praying that Chris hadn't come to gloat, or even worse, be sympathetic. He didn't want any more apologies, no matter how well meant. He wanted Chris to go away and leave him alone until he could face the man with his dignity intact.

Chris didn't apologise, nor did he approach the bed. Instead, Sam could hear a heavy sigh that had his entire body tensing in expectation of another rebuff. It didn't come.

"I didn't tell you about my wife, did I?" Chris said softly, his voice almost drowned out by the sudden frantic beating of Sam's heart. "I should have done, but I didn't... I couldn't..." His voice, if anything, seemed to grow even quieter and Sam had to strain to listen. "Maybe if I had... If we... If I'd been able to talk about it we wouldn't be in such a mess right now."

Sam said nothing, staring at the wall in front of him. The bedroom was unlit and he felt safe in the darkness, but he knew that if he turned over he'd be able to see Chris outlined in the light streaming through the doorway, and more importantly Chris would be able to see him again, see his face and be reminded of how pathetic he was.

"I'm sorry Sam." His partner was whispering now. "I fucked up, and I'm so sorry..."

He sounded close to tears himself, and Sam was tempted, so tempted, to turn around a see if his ears were deceiving him, but that would mean he'd have to reveal his own upset again, and he couldn't do that. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

"She died," Chris was saying. Sam had finally guessed that much at least from the way Chris never mentioned her name but still had photos around. At first he considered divorce, but you didn't keep a picture of your ex-wife around and besides, Chris had never complained about alimony payments unlike most of the divorced men he'd known. Chris, however, was still speaking. "It happened on our wedding day. Annie's father was an Admiral and my dad... he knew a lot of people, a lot of movers and shakers he always said. There were a lot of important people there. But security wasn't as tight as it should have been..."

Oh god.

Sam couldn't leave him hanging like that. No matter what else, Chris was his partner and he still loved the man, even if he wished he could stop. He rolled over and faced him, still keeping silent, unable to think of anything to say to ease the other man's pain. It seemed, however, that the simple act of looking at Chris gave the American the courage to continue even if Chris couldn't look back.

"There was one man, only one. Armed with an automatic. He mowed us down. Annie... her father... my father." Chris took a deep, sobbing breath and struggled to continue. "The only reason I'm still here is that I was holding Annie, kissing her. She was in front of me. She took four bullets in the back and I walked away without a scratch."

Chris finally looked at him, his eyes pleading for understanding. "It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life, Sam, and I lost everything. My wife, my father, my sister. My mother spent six months in a wheelchair after that, and she's... all of the light went out of her when she lost her husband and daughter. Do you see?"

He didn't, that was the terrible thing. He ached for Chris, felt his pain, but it was at one remove. He wished Chris had told him this earlier, but he couldn't see what difference telling him would have made. It didn't change the facts.

"I'm not supposed to be happy," Chris explained. He could see enough of Sam's expression in the light from the hallway to be able to make out his lover's incomprehension. "I figured out that I'm not supposed to be happy," he repeated urgently, trying to make Sam understand. "Or if I am bad things happen. People I care about die." He gave a harsh, un-amused laugh. "It's weird. The whole time we were together, I wasn't really happy. I mean, I was happy but not *really* happy. Cos I loved you, but I didn't think you loved me back. Right up until you told me that you did." He wasn't making much sense, he knew, but the words were coming in a rush and he didn't, couldn't hold them back, convinced somehow, rightly or wrongly, that he would only have one chance to get this out and make Sam see. "And when you did, I was *really* happy right up until I started to wonder what was going to fuck it up. And what do you know?" He laughed again, another harsh sound, more half way between a laugh and a sob than a genuine sign of amusement. "What fucked it up was me."

There was no keeping the tears in now, and despite his best efforts a couple escaped to roll down his face, glistening in the light spilling in through the doorway. "I'm sorry," he whispered again, scrubbing at his face with the back of his hand.

Sam finally spoke, his voice, whether he knew it or not, cold. "You said you didn't love me," he said. "You said that you didn't think you ever had. And you lied to me every time you said you did."

Chris flinched. He hadn't said he'd lied, but he could see why Sam would see it that way. He struggled for something, anything to say to ease Sam's pain. "I thought that it would be easier that way. If you believed that I didn't love you, maybe we could just go back to what we had before. I'd settle for friendship if I couldn't have anything more, and you'd be safe."

"Friends?" Sam's voice fairly dripped with venom. "You make me fall in love with you, tell me that you strung me along for the ride, that you never loved me, rip my heart out of my chest and then you think you can make it all better with a 'Let's be friends'?"

"You'd be safe," Chris protested weakly.

"Safe?" The bitterness faded from Sam's voice to be replaced by bewilderment as he repeated, "Safe?"

Chris shrugged resignedly. "I got scared, Sam, and it was stupid and more than anything else I regret hurting you. Oh god, I never meant to hurt you. I managed to convince myself that you would be relieved not to have me mooning after you. That you didn't really love me, that you were humouring me and that you were probably going to say something before we had to tell Malone. At least if I broke it off you might not ask for another partner."

Sam's anger sparked again. "You're contradicting yourself. First you get worried because I love you and that means I'm going to die. And then you decide I don't love you, that I'm going to dump you and so it's up to you to break it off," he stated coldly. "Which is it Chris?"

"Both, either, I don't know," replied Chris wretchedly. "I never said it made sense, Sam. I was completely messed up. Sometimes I believed one and other times the other. And sometimes I didn't know what I believed. It's not like you ever said the words, Sam."

"You knew how I felt!" Sam retorted angrily, stung by the accusation.

"Sometimes," admitted Chris. "But then I'd convince myself that I was wrong."

"So this is my fault then?" asked Sam softly, the anger draining out of his voice. "It took me a month to work up the courage to tell you how I felt, and two weeks later you dump me." It was difficult to tell whether the loathing that had replaced the fury in his voice was aimed at Chris or himself. "You're saying I left it too late."

"No, Sam," he insisted, equally softly. "You're right, I should have known how you felt. You might not have said those particular words, but you did tell me. I just didn't listen. And for one reason or another I couldn't tell you how scared by it all I felt." He sighed. "Let's face it, Sam. We haven't been very good at talking about how we feel."

"No," agreed Sam softly.

"I want you to know that I never doubted how I feel about you, Sam, not for one second, no matter what I said last night. I *do* love you." Sam gave him a steady look, but whether he believed him or not Chris couldn't tell. He didn't give any indication. "You have to understand how I was feeling. You said yourself that it took you a month to tell me how you felt. You must have been scared too?" Sam still didn't answer, just continued to watch him with the same guarded expression. "Why?" he asked, needing to know.

"I thought you'd use it against me somehow," replied the Englishman slowly. There wasn't much anger or denial in his voice, just a kind of remote sadness. Chris stared at him in surprise.

Oh shit. "And I did," he replied dully. Once again, Sam said nothing. "I'm sorry, Sam," he breathed. Then the crunch question. "Can you forgive me?"

"I don't know," replied Sam quietly, that same tired sadness in his voice. "I'll have to think about it."

It was an honest answer, and Sam's expression wasn't angry, just tired and beaten. It would have to do for now. He knew Sam well enough to know when to push and when not. He'd hurt Sam and now Sam would just have to decide whether he wanted to risk being hurt again.

But before he could do that, he needed all of the information. And since Sam had been honest with him he could only return the favour.

He rose cautiously to his feet and settled himself on the end of the bed, facing Sam. He spent a moment searching for the right words. "I love you, Sam, and if you love me too I can only hope that you're willing to give me another chance." He paused, rubbing his hands nervously on the legs of his jeans. "But before you make your decision, I guess you should know what that will mean."

"Ground rules?" asked Sam, a touch of humour in his voice for the first time. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "But we kind of missed the most important one, Sammy. We forgot to set the rule that means we tell each other stuff." Sam was watching him closely, his eyes dark. "I don't mean everything, Sammy. Just the important stuff. Like me telling you about Annie, about getting scared of you dying. Of being afraid that you were humouring me and would do so right up until it was time to tell Malone."

Sam still said nothing, shifting slightly so that his face fell back into the shadows. Chris didn't know if he'd done it consciously or not, but it sent a shiver of foreboding through him. He reached out and lightly touched Sam's leg. "I'm not saying that was your fault Sam. I'm just saying that somewhere along the line we stopped talking. Used to be that I could tell you anything, and I don't know when that changed."

"Except about your wife," stated Sam softly. "You never told me about that." His face was still in shadow and Chris couldn't read his expression easily. "Is that what your nightmares are about?"

Chris shivered involuntarily. "Yes," he breathed. "Even now. And sometimes..." He looked at Sam, his face vulnerable. "And sometimes you're there too..."

Sam didn't speak at first, but after a moment he leant forward and covered Chris' hand, still lightly resting on his leg, with his own, and squeezed it gently. His silvery-green eyes were troubled. "I need time, Chris," he said softly.

"I know," replied Chris. He turned his hand over underneath Sam's and captured his partner's fingers with his own. "Just do me a favour, and don't take three weeks this time... I'm not sure I can wait that long." He tried to smile, aware that it wasn't very successful and he probably just looked miserable.

Sam drew back slightly, his face guarded again. "I need time," he repeated, a slight edge in his voice. Chris sighed.

"I know, Sammy. And I'm not trying to push you, really. I just... Sam this is hurting me too and I just want to know where I stand, if there's a chance. Is there a chance?"

He held his breath for what seemed like an eternity until Sam answered his question. "Yes." His voice was quiet, barely above a whisper, but for all of its lack of power it still managed to fill Chris with such a surge of relief he felt weak with it.

"Thank you," he said sincerely. Sam met his eyes for a long moment, and then nodded once, unsmiling. His fingers, however, tightened briefly on Chris' and then he withdrew his hand.

"I'm tired," he said slowly, an obvious hint for Chris to leave him alone with his thoughts. Chris nodded, and drew himself up from the bed. For a long moment he debated whether to say something else, tell Sam again that he loved him, but he couldn't bring himself to push the other man any further. And he knew that Sam would consider it pushing.

Instead he contented himself with a simple, "I'll see you soon," trying to convey with his eyes and expression what he couldn't in words. Whether Sam understood him or not, he nodded again, his expression serious.

Chris closed the bedroom door behind him, and leant against it, struggling for composure, his mood swinging wildly between bubbling optimism and near tears. When he'd set out for Sam's place, he'd seriously doubted whether Sam would even be willing to listen to him, and now it seemed that he had a chance at least, which was more than he'd dared wish for. For the first time in more than twenty four hours, or maybe longer than that, he felt hope and some peace. It was too early to tell whether Sam would eventually forgive him, but still...

The sun was starting to rise as he walked slowly down Sam's front steps. The dawn of a new day. Who knew what it would bring?

Chris

I know that even if Sam forgives me it's going to be a long time before he tells me he loves me again, and I can't say that I blame him. I can wait. I have before. I have a second chance, which if I'm honest is probably more than I would have given him if the positions had been reversed.

And I love him. What else can I do?


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