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Blackjack by alyse and chya [Reviews - 20]
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Category: CI5: The New Professionals > Slash
Characters: Chris Keel
Rating: NC-17
Genres: Action/Adventure
Warnings: Adult themes

Summary: When an assignment goes wrong, and Chris Keel is captured, his captor hands him over as a gift to an arms dealer with a reputation for ruthlessness. But is this man what he seems? AU for a certain key aspect of the series.





Notes: Many thanks to our excellent beta Lou, for the eagle eyed spotting of typos and for surviving 215 pages with her sanity (relatively) intact. Thanks to Niamh for checking stuff out and to Chya's Dad for information about boat maintenance.

~*~

"Sorry, Chris... 'm sorry... "

Chris Keel held his dying partner in his arms as the gunfire around them faded to nothing, and desperately tried to stop the steady flow of blood that poured from the Englishman's chest. "No, don't-!" Chris tried to tell the man who was not only his partner, but also his best friend to save his energy even though he knew in his gut that it was too late.

"Shhh..." the dying man stopped him, raising a hand weakly, attempting to brush away the dark hair that insisted on flopping into his eyes.

Badly needing to do something, anything, Chris did that for him, taking one bloody hand off the gaping chest wound to push away the strands that stubbornly stuck to the sweat on his friend's forehead, leaving a streak of red on the clammy greying skin.

"You're... you're on your own now, mate," the Englishman whispered, his dying breath rattling in his throat, and as Chris watched the life slip out of his partner he felt the overwhelming grief rise up with an intensity such as he hadn't felt since Teresa, and fought to suppress it, knowing that much as he wanted to, now was not the time to grieve. He closed the sightless grey eyes with trembling crimson-streaked fingers, vowing to avenge the loss of his closest friend and colleague with a fiery vehemence that came from the very depths of his soul.

A clattering on the floor alerted Chris to the fact that their - that his - enemies were still out there, and he let the corpse he was holding slide bonelessly to the floor as he rolled to his feet, all too aware that he had to secure his own survival before he could do anything else.

The men with guns blocked one doorway to the little room, so Chris launched himself at the other as the grenades that rocked on the floor started hissing. But even his diving roll was not quick enough to get through before the steel door slammed down shut.

Thick clouds billowed out from the grenades and Chris' eyes were tearing as he began to choke on the thick, pervasive gas. He tried to smash the barred window but the bulletproof glass resisted every attempt. Legs turning to jelly and lungs burning from the gas, Chris made a last-ditch effort and stumbled towards the other doorway, knowing that only bullets awaited him there. But it was already sealed.

Hammering out his frustration on unyielding steel, he cried out in denial as he slid to the floor, hacking and coughing his way into unconsciousness beside the body of his best friend.

~*~

"Sir!"

His Chief of Operations' yell across CI5's control room told Malone that there was a problem. Spencer never lost his cool to this extent, and one look at his operative's face told him that whatever it was it was serious. He gestured for Spencer to precede him into his office, firmly closing the door against the curious faces in the main room.

"Yes, what is it?" he asked sharply.

Spencer's face was grim. "Keel and his partner haven't checked in yet, sir."

Malone gave him a keen look. "It wouldn't be the first time that Mr Keel has chosen not to check in at the appointed time, and I can't say that his partner has reined that tendency in as much as I'd hoped when I paired them together. I wouldn't panic just yet, Mr Spencer."

Spencer swallowed heavily. "There's more, sir."

Malone felt his heart sink, knowing from long experience what was coming next. "Well, spit it out, man."

"The last time they checked in, Keel told me that they were checking out a warehouse that they'd been tipped off contained a weapons depot. Richards has been monitoring police traffic in that area, sir, to assist them if possible. The police were called to that location only half an hour ago."

"And?" asked Malone, now even more convinced that something was desperately wrong.

"There's a body, sir."

"One of ours?"

Spencer avoided his gaze. "We can't say, sir. It's always possible that they ran into some trouble and vacated the area..."

"But then they would have checked in so that we could perform a clean-up exercise, if nothing else," completed Malone, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"Yes, sir," confirmed Spencer.

Malone thought hard for a moment. "Just one body?"

"So far, sir."

Which meant that there was a possibility that one of his men was alive at least, since it was apparent that whoever had died and whoever had done the killing, having the body found wasn't a consideration.

He nodded, to himself more than to Spencer, suddenly feeling old. Losing an agent was never easy, and it ate deep into his soul.

"Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir."

"And, Mr Spencer?"

His Chief of Operations turned smartly on his heels, having taken his previous instruction as dismissal. "Yes, sir?"

"See if you can get hold of my opposite number in MI6. We know they have operatives in the area. Let's see if they've heard anything."

"Yes, sir."

This time Spencer left for real, leaving Malone alone with his dark thoughts.

~*~

Light... Dark... Light... Dark...

Chris squeezed his eyes shut against the dazzling light that flicked on and off with continuous monotony in the tiny room, but he could still see it, bright even behind his eyelids. It hurt his eyes and he had the beginnings of a headache that beat time with the light. He didn't know how long he had been here, but he knew what they were trying to do.

Light... Dark...

He shivered, the room becoming colder, his skin prickling with goose bumps and he reflexively tried to curl up. But the straps pinning him to the hard wooden chair wouldn't let him so he braced himself to ride out the cold until the heat began again. He vowed again to himself that he wouldn't break before his captors did and that he'd find some way out of here with the sole purpose of avenging Tommy's death.

Light... Dark...

A sharp report, loud in the silence, startled him and his eyes flew open. Rationally, he knew it was a sound designed, along with the light, to keep him awake and put his nerves on edge. Right now though, more than anything, it echoed the sound of the gun that had fired the bullet that had murdered his best friend and partner.

He still saw Tommy lying in his lap, the blood soaking into his clothes and pooling on the floor. Even now, tied down to this chair and completely naked, his bloodstained clothes gone, he could still see Tommy's blood streaked over his own skin, smeared and flaked over tender bruises that were starting to purple where fists had beat at him the last time he had been visited.

Light...

Tommy had laughed while they were staking out this place, grey eyes dancing merrily while he regarded the whole Monaco lifestyle that surrounded them as a load of pretentious crap. Give him a quiet pub, a good strong real ale and a packet of B&H any day of the week. Chris had laughed right along with him, ribbing him for drinking swamp soup when a good Bud and the odd Lucky was a much healthier combination. Tommy talked a lot about Ellie and the kids, three, with a fourth on the way, and Keel had been round to dinner a few times, Ellie insisting that Chris needed a good square meal once in a while to compensate for all that junk food...

Oh shit, Ellie and the kids...

Dark...

Chris' teeth chattered as the cold started to penetrate his skin, driving deeper in places, penetrating the bone, his shivering cramping his muscles and stretching sore bruises. How would he ever explain to Tommy's wife that he'd failed to save her husband, failed to cover his partner's back? She didn't know what they did exactly, but she wasn't stupid.

Light...

The door crashed open, startling him again and, squinting against the dazzling light, he made out the dark, shadowy shapes of the two figures that entered, accompanied by a soft gust of warm air that made him shiver more. The light stayed on as it had done on the previous visits and he prepared himself for another round of being used as a punch bag, trying hard and failing not to feel exposed and vulnerable about his nudity.

To his surprise, a beaker of water was presented to him and he involuntarily licked at dry lips, feeling the swelling of yet another bruise there, still faintly throbbing. But he hesitated; it could hold drugs that he wasn't about to take willingly. His head was yanked back and he clenched his jaw, stubbornly determined not to drink, but expert fingers dug into his neck, forcing his jaws open, and water flowed. They let him go as he heaved deep breaths, swallowing and choking on the fluid.

He didn't feel any different and it didn't taste odd. Maybe the water was okay after all. The man with the gruff voice asked him the same questions again. Who was he? Why had he come here? Who else knew? Chris resolutely refused to answer. He didn't have a whole lot of information anyway, Malone saw to that, but he wasn't about to give up the little he had. He owed Tommy at least that much.

A shiny blade appeared in front him, and he flinched internally but refused to show the men any fear, though he was sure that his uncontrollable shivering would probably be attributed at least in part to it. As the blade touched the skin inside his left knee, the man hissed words meant to humiliate, disparaging comments about his naked manhood and taunts over the ease of his capture, his incompetence implicit.

The first cut wasn't really that painful, the cold anaesthetising his skin somewhat, but as the room temperature started its slow climb back up, the shallow, haphazard lines of blood that decorated the lengths of his inner thighs and arms sent increasingly urgent signals of pain to his brain. Chris bore them stoically, staring defiantly at the men through eyes slitted against the light, and let the verbal slurs pass him by. One of them brought a bag over and the other, the knife man, dipped his hand in, retrieving a handful of white powder, spilling some carelessly to the floor.

Slowly and deliberately, the man clamped his hand over Chris' right thigh, rubbing the coarse, white powder into the long shallow wounds. He had maybe two or three seconds to wonder what the powder was before the searing agony burned itself into his brain.

~*~

Cassandra Lewis placed the telephone back in its cradle and tapped the handset thoughtfully with one scarlet painted nail.

"Problems?" asked a cultured voice behind her. With the ease of long practice, she controlled her reaction, turning calmly to face the man who the world knew as her employer. Cool green eyes surveyed her thoughtfully. The man was definitely part cat, creeping up on her without her being aware of it. She was good, but he was better.

"The two parties we were interested in..." One eyebrow rose quizzically. "It appears that they may have bitten off more than they can chew."

"Details?"

She tapped the phone thoughtfully again, wondering how to phrase this. "It appears that Hazim Pasa has acquired a house guest."

A sudden frown on his part. "Only one?"

"Apparently," she replied smoothly. "It appears that one of the parties is... no longer in the game."

He showed no reaction to that, his own eyes narrowed thoughtfully while he stared at her, considering their options. She kept her expression neutral.

"Impact on us?" he asked eventually.

"Minimal." He nodded, his own expression still thoughtful. "Should I take any action?"

"No," he replied. "But keep me informed."

"Yes, sir."

~*~

Dark... Light...

Sweat poured off Chris in the sweltering heat of the tiny room, rivulets mingling with the trickles of blood from the many shallow cuts that scored his flesh, the salty fluid only adding to the pink stained white grains of sea salt that invaded the drying wounds, making them sting and burn with an intensity that such minor cuts had no right to. His headache was slowly blooming to a crescendo in time with the light and his eyes were grainy and constantly tearing. The gunshot sounded and he jumped, gasping as the small movement provoked an answering stinging from the salt-encrusted cuts.

Dark... Light...

He was so tired, any sense of time long gone and while he knew that at some point he would say and do anything for an hour of sleep, for now he rejected that idea out of hand, stubbornly holding on to his vow to escape at the first opportunity.

Dark... Light...

The light stayed on as the door opened, a gust of cool air following the two men in. They gave him water that he lapped up eagerly, his parched mouth craving the cool moisture. His stomach gurgled and he tried to recall the last time he had eaten but couldn't and felt sick at the mere concept of food.

A third man came into the room and informed those already present that Stuart Carstairs was on the phone. One of them left with the third man leaving the other to put a small, glaringly shiny silver box on the back of the chair and run wires from it to his tits and to - to his - to - oh, Christ, he knew what was coming and felt the first small cracks appear in his defences at the knowledge even as he tugged violently against his restraints, clawing at the wooden arms.

Trying to distract himself, he wondered why the name Stuart Carstairs seemed familiar. His mind didn't seem to be quite as sharp anymore, probably due to the exhaustion that was creeping insidiously through him. He struggled to focus, frightened a little by the effort it took, and finally recalled the briefing they'd had that had described people of note that they might come across in their investigation into the gun-runners working out of Monte Carlo. Carstairs was a major, if reclusive, figure in the gunrunning underworld with a reputation for excessive ruthlessness and a warped taste in male companionship that left his lovers as broken wrecks.

Chris got no further as the other man quickly returned and started to hurl verbal abuse at him, direct and to the point. He tried to ignore the words, letting them wash past his ears as he had before, but it became increasingly difficult as the man touched him roughly in intimate places, brutally pulling, pinching and slapping all over his body. He paid particular attention to his face as well as the far more sensitive areas before reopening clotting wounds, causing the salt to burn again, to gain his attention as he spoke. Cruel words of Keel's own worthlessness, his current and final status in this life as a helpless lump of meat to be broken down and ground into mush, useless and incompetent, no longer a man.

It went on and on, the words flowing even after the hitting stopped and the electric shocks began, sudden and excruciatingly explosive. Words and jolting agony intermingled in his brain, white-hot electric fire ripping him apart inside and out, while he fought it all every inch of the way, bellowing out his screams in an effort to release some of his suffering and gain some control. But his exhausted mind, aching to grieve for Tommy under the overload of physical pain, latched onto things he would normally have discarded and he took his first step onto the slippery slope of self-condemnation as he began to believe the words riding on the back of the unending river of unspeakable agony.

~*~

Harry Malone watched his Chief of Operations heading towards his office with a sinking heart. From the grim look on Spencer's face, he knew that the news was not good. With an effort, he schooled his face into its normal stern expression, refusing to give anything away.

Losing a man was never easy, and while he'd tried not to permit himself any hope since the body had been found, despite his best efforts he'd been unable to extinguish the last sparks. Until now.

With a heavy sigh, he watched as Spencer opened the door to his office. The pair of them stared at each other for a long moment until Malone forced himself to ask, "I take it there's some news, Mr Spencer?"

"Yes, sir." Spencer's voice was as subdued and serious as his expression. "We have a positive identification on the body the police found. It's Tommy Yates."

Malone closed his eyes briefly; the only weakness he allowed himself. "Has anyone spoken to Mrs Yates?"

"Not yet, sir. Do you want me to send someone round?"

Malone shook his head decisively. The responsibility was his and his alone, and he would not shirk it now. "No, I'll do it. Is there any sign of Mr Keel?"

"No, sir, nothing yet. We're still monitoring police frequencies and there are two teams in the area trying to follow up any leads, but they haven't found anything."

It seemed unlikely that they would either. The men that Yates and Keel had been after were too canny to be brought down by something as mundane as a simple homicide, even if the victim was a CI5 agent. "Do we even have a hint as to who may have him?"

"No, sir. Yates and Keel's hotel rooms were cleared before we even knew they were missing. Notes, laptop, everything went, although from our perspective it's unlikely there was anything there that would help our targets. And when Keel checked in with us, he just said that they were following up a lead about a potential weapons depot. He didn't say whether or not they knew which of the major players it belonged to." Spencer paused before admitting, "And I didn't ask, sir."

Guilt. It was plaguing all of them, as it always did when they lost one of their own. He knew that there was no point in telling Spencer not to blame himself as the man would undoubtedly continue to do so, no matter what he said. He limited himself to a small nod, his mind caught up with what he was going to tell Ellie Yates about her husband.

"Sir?" Spencer was looking at him hopefully. "I don't suppose MI6...?"

"No, Mr Spencer. They don't know anything." Spencer's shoulders slumped further. "It was always a long shot," Malone went on to explain gently. "The only reason they informed us that they had operatives in the area was so that we wouldn't screw up their operation. We don't even know how many people they have in there, just that whoever they are, they're in deep. The only reason Yates and Keel were given the code phrase was so that if they did happen to trip over MI6 operatives they wouldn't do anything stupid like try to arrest them."

Spencer gave a brief, unamused smile. "Yes, sir," he sighed.

Malone echoed the sound, his fingers resting lightly on the two personnel folders on his desk. "They made it clear that they weren't going to put their operative or operatives at risk, but they did say that if they heard anything useful or could do anything without risk to their operation, they would do so." He sighed again. "I suppose that's the most we can hope for."

Spencer nodded again. "Yes, sir." He drew himself back into his professional persona with an obvious effort before asking, "Is there anything else, sir?"

"Not at the moment, Mr Spencer. But keep me informed."

"Yes, sir."

Spencer returned to the main office, no doubt to pore over the limited information they had about Yates and Keel's assignment, to see if there was any hint, any clue that they'd missed earlier, the need to do something probably overwhelming the man. He wasn't the only one. A subdued air hung over Ops, every agent touched by Yates' death - and by now everyone would know that Yates was the one dead - and Keel's disappearance.

They could only play a waiting game now, and he wasn't really any better at that than any of his agents.

But first he had to pay a visit to Ellie Yates and tell her the bad news.

~*~

Light... Dark...

He was hungry, no, starving, his stomach nauseous with emptiness, the infrequent supply of water not enough to assuage it. The gunshot sounded again and he flinched, sore and aching muscles trembling under sweating skin. Or maybe he was shivering, he couldn't tell anymore, his nerves badly frayed and the constant residual burning in his chest and groin, competing with that in his arms and legs, kept him tensed up, aggravating swollen bruises. Unable to sleep for - how long? - someone he hadn't been meant to hear had mentioned three days, but he had no grasp of how long ago that had been. Deep exhaustion had taken a firm hold and his mind wandered erratically, grasping at thoughts that slipped away like quicksilver, only to be interrupted by vivid images slashed over the top.

Light...

A part of him knew he was hallucinating when Tommy stood in front of him, beckoning him to go down to the pub. Chris could almost taste the Bud that was waiting for him, and struggled to move, to join Tommy, but he was held fast, unable to budge as Tommy suddenly dropped low, the same as he'd done on the night he'd died, right after he'd tripped and the alarms had gone off.

Dark...

The single gunshot sounded and Tommy flew backwards into the room that Chris was securing. Tommy's reactions had been slow, he should have taken out his assailant easily before the shot was fired but he had hesitated. It didn't matter that he'd had his own job to do, Chris should have been there, should have taken care of Tommy, should've compensated for Tommy's hesitation, should've taken the bullet for Tommy.

Tommy'd had family left to live for.

Light...

And it stayed on, but Chris was unable to focus past the dazzling beam anymore, though he knew the men were there. He no longer felt vulnerable in their presence, only resigned; he knew his place now and any comments on his physical appearance, on the mess he'd made of himself, simply passed several feet over his head.

He accepted the offered water hungrily and swallowed hard to keep it down after drinking it too fast. The questions began again and he talked at them now, rambling on inconsequentially, giving them nonsense as he wandered from one thought to another with no logical progression. A hand grabbed his jaw and forced him to look up through his swollen, sore eyes.

A question was hissed in his face, "Who are you?"

Chris smiled as he replied, "Screw you," even as he asked himself the same question. No, he knew who he was, at least his name if not much else, but he had only a tenuous grip on his sense of self, and could feel it slipping rapidly away.

The other man came at him with something in his hand, and squinting, Chris tried to make it out, an oxygen mask? With a tube running from it. He heard the sound of water rushing, and saw it pouring out of the mask onto the floor. He looked up at the man and could only see a dark formless shape, but his mind, increasingly confused, tried to fit the shape to people he knew.

It was Tommy who reached out with the mask, pushing it towards his face, Malone who grabbed his hair, forcing him to stop thrashing, to keep still and Teresa who pushed the mask firmly over his mouth and nose, the gushing water filling his throat, stomach and lungs.

He was convinced that he was drowning until the mask was whisked away, leaving him to choke and vomit the water back up, his muscles cramping violently in their efforts to expunge the fluid from his system. The words started up again as the mask was reapplied, giving him no time to recover, and his mind shattered with an overpowering fear of drowning.

~*~

"Hazim!" His lieutenant's voice cut through Hazim Pasa's thoughtful staring at the grainy monitor, watching their prisoner as the light flickered on and off in a repetitive and unending stream.

"Yes?" he asked impatiently. His second flinched back from his tone, which boded ill. He wondered what had spooked the man so badly. Ahmet lacked the imagination to fear most of the time, which at least meant that he also lacked the imagination to plot to overthrow Hazim even if sometimes he wished for a more competent and resourceful lieutenant. Still, Allah would provide, he hoped.

Ahmet swallowed heavily. "We've had some information from one of Macarthur's men..."

"And this is supposed to be trustworthy?" Hazim's voice was sceptical. It would not be the first time that Macarthur had used disinformation to outmanoeuvre him.

Ahmet swallowed again. "Yes, sir. It appears that..."

"Yes?" bellowed Hazim impatiently. Ahmet, if possible, grew even paler.

"It appears that the two men who raided our depot, the ones we were tipped off about and told were Macarthur's men..."

"Weren't," completed Hazim. His mind started to work out worst-case scenarios. "Were they Carstairs'? Is that why Carstairs contacted me?" If they were Carstairs' men that would explain why the Englishman had contacted him rather than the other way around, for all his call had been all business. He wasn't entirely convinced, however, that Carstairs wasn't some kind of mind reader and had wanted to hear his voice to determine what he was up to. Although, raiding his depot wasn't Carstairs' normal M.O. Razing it to the ground, perhaps.

"Worse, sir."

Worse than Carstairs? "What?" he asked, unable to quite keep the nervous tremor out of his voice.

"They're CI5, sir," his lieutenant finally managed to spit out.

Hazim's heart sank. CI5. He'd thought that up until now he'd managed to avoid their attentions, believing that they would be focused on the bigger sharks in their small pond, but he'd obviously been deluding himself. "And we killed one of them," he stated baldly, unable to believe that things had gone so badly wrong. His mind was racing. "Macarthur set us up," he whispered, the conclusion the obvious one. "He tipped them off and then he tipped us off so that we would go in there shooting and draw CI5's attention away from him onto ourselves."

Ahmet was watching him uncertainly. "Do I kill this one too?" he asked, gesturing towards the monitor.

"No!" shot back Hazim. One dead CI5 agent was bad enough, but two corpses pointing at him... The international organisation would hunt him down for the rest of his days. He frantically tried to figure a way out of this mess. The fact that heavily armed CI5 agents hadn't kicked down his door yet gave him some hope that they hadn't yet tracked the fiasco back to him. Now all he had to do was get rid of this other agent as soon as possible, without killing him. Killing him in a blind panic was obviously what Macarthur would hope that he'd do, and he wasn't going to play the American's games if he could help it.

There was only one glimmer of hope; someone that Macarthur didn't dare touch yet...

"Get me Stuart Carstairs on the phone."

~*~

Light...

He wasn't dead yet, at least he didn't think so.

Dark...

Chris was so very, very tired, that he didn't think he was strong enough to hold out much longer. He had almost reached a place where they couldn't touch him anymore and already his body's constant, violent shaking was happening to someone else. The gunshot sounded and he yelped, his nerves shot to hell, before he subsided into a wet coughing fit. He hadn't reached that place yet, but he was working on it, that stubborn part of him clinging desperately to the vow that he wouldn't break, that he would escape, one way or another, even if he couldn't remember why that promise was so important to him anymore.

Light...

He saw people he knew, both alive and dead, floating around the room as ghosts, haunting him, taunting him and drew away from them as best he could, unable to trust any one of them again. Unable to trust anyone again. They wanted to kill him and he hadn't fought the enemy this hard, for so long, to be murdered by those he had once loved and trusted.

Dark...

He was on his own.

~*~

"Ah, Stuart..." Hazim Pasa darted forward nervously towards the Englishman, his hand outstretched. Carstairs coolly ignored it, seating himself comfortably in the high backed chair positioned in the centre of the room. With Carstairs seated and Hazim standing it should have been the Englishman at a psychological disadvantage but instead the Turk felt himself start to sweat nervously. Carstairs hadn't waited to be shown to a chair, hadn't bothered to exchange pleasantries and even now was watching him closely, a trace of sardonic amusement on his face. Hazim found himself wondering just how much the Englishman already knew about his predicament.

Had it been anyone else, Pasa would have taken offence at his attitude, but not with this man. Carstairs' actions weren't calculated to insult, probably because he thought himself so far above mere mortals like Hazim that it would never cross his mind to stoop that low. No, his attitude screamed superiority and yet even that couldn't anger Hazim. It was a superiority founded in fact. Why else would he need Carstairs so badly?

That need also made his hands and his voice shake as he sought to fill the ominous silence with meaningless chatter, sitting down in the room's other chair, offering his 'guest' various refreshments, which were wordlessly refused one after another. Unfortunately all his nervousness served was to irritate his chosen benefactor.

"What do you want, Hazim?"

Carstairs' bored voice cut through an amusing anecdote that Hazim was attempting to leaven the heavy atmosphere with, and the arms dealer gaped for a moment, once again caught on the hop by the Englishman. It was an aspect of their unbalanced relationship, and Hazim could no longer delude himself that their relationship was anything but a master and servant one.

"Want? Why, Stuart, nothing of course. I merely thought it pleasant for two old friends to sit and talk..."

The Englishman merely raised his eyebrows at that, his cold, green eyes frankly disbelieving, and once again Hazim found himself babbling to fill the silence. Carstairs let him get away with it, a slight frown gracing his handsome face, either hoping that Hazim would let the real reason for his request for Carstairs' visit slip among his inane ramblings or that he would shut up soon.

Finally realising that he was merely irritating his protector further, Hazim decided that he needed to reveal the real reason Carstairs was here.

"I have a gift for you," he said, pasting what he hoped was an avuncular smile on his face.

"A gift?" repeated Carstairs, his tone giving nothing away and his expression as mask-like as it usually was.

"Yes. A small token of my esteem."

Again a faint trace of sardonic amusement crossed Carstairs' face and Hazim refused to let it throw him. With a peremptory clap of his hands he summoned one of his flunkies, the man wheeling in a trolley adorned with, of all things, a television set.

Hazim snuck a quick look at the Englishman's face but once again Carstairs wasn't giving much away. His face wore its habitual bored expression, the only emotion that Hazim had ever seen there, but his grey-green eyes had a slight glitter to them that told Hazim that maybe, just maybe Carstairs was intrigued in spite of himself.

It was this thought that leant a confidence to his movements, imbuing his actions with his normal flamboyant demeanour as he switched the set on, revealing a bare room. The only furniture shown on the monitor was a rickety wooden chair.

It was occupied. A man, young, obviously naked, tied to the chair, his face concealed by his slumped posture. The picture was grainy; the monitor only showing black and white, but still the man's despair came across clearly.

Carstairs was interested, betraying himself by leaning forward slightly to get another look at the monitor, the glitter in his eyes more pronounced although his expression remained bored. With a silent prayer to Allah, Hazim began to believe that there was a chance to get out of this situation with both his testicles and his empire intact.

He gestured once again to the small screen, the epitome of generosity. "A worthy gift, no?" he asked, beaming. "I assure you that he is fair, although you cannot see it here. And best of all, no one knows that I have him or where to find him."

Carstairs leant back in his seat, his eyes still fixed on the screen with the kind of concentration the man was renowned for.

"I take it, then," he stated calmly, "that CI5 don't know that you have him? They think him dead, along with the other agent that you killed?"

Hazim's insides turned to ice. "Stuart..." he started to stutter, only to be stopped in his tracks by Carstairs turning his gaze onto him. Fixed in that icy stare, he started to wonder if he'd survive this interview never mind any subsequent investigation by CI5. Ever since he'd realised that his nemesis had set him up, he'd existed in a state of pure panic, the knowledge driving him to Carstairs, knowing that he was probably the only man who could possibly turn the mess to his advantage. A foolish hope, he realised now, and yet...

Carstairs had turned his attention back to the monitor, obviously dismissing Hazim from his thoughts although his hulk of a bodyguard still watched the arms dealer suspiciously. Maybe, just maybe, Carstairs wouldn't have him killed for this error of judgement.

"CI5?" he protested weakly.

"Don't play games with me, Hazim." Carstairs leant forward again, almost devouring the man on the screen with his eyes. "And don't think that I will permit you to drag me into your sordid little mistakes unwillingly. I'm getting a little tired of pulling your backside out of the fire, and I'm beginning to wonder why I bother."

Some instinctive sense of self-preservation told Hazim that now was not the time to protest his usefulness and enrage his protector further.

"Have you broken him yet?" asked Carstairs abruptly.

"We are close to..." Hazim began before Carstairs' cold eyes once again stopped him in his tracks. "We have not, no, but I do not believe that it will be long," he added meekly.

"You won't," stated Carstairs confidently. "You haven't yet and if he was going to break he would have done so by now." He sat back in his seat again, steepling his hands in his lap and turning his full attention on his supplicant. "Besides," he added calmly. "You don't break a man like this one with cruelty." He waited for his words to sink in before explaining, "He will have been trained to withstand that if CI5 are as good as their reputation has them."

"How then?" asked Hazim a little sulkily.

"Why, with kindness of course," replied Carstairs, gracing him with a small smile.

Hazim didn't argue, too caught up in the hope that was beginning to swell in his chest. "You will take him, then? As a gift to you?"

Carstairs' look almost burned through to his soul and he shrank back, reminded once again both of the man's reputation for ruthlessness and unforgiving nature. There was a long silence as Hazim fought back his terror, and then Carstairs once again gave him a smile, even icier, if possible, than his previous look.

"Why not?" he asked gently. "It will be a challenge to break a CI5 agent, to turn him utterly against his former colleagues and tie him to me. Especially if you haven't tried to mislead me as to his looks."

He rose gracefully to his feet, almost animated for once. "Take me to him," he commanded.

Hazim didn't even contemplate disobeying.

~*~

Dark... Light...

The light stayed on and the men entered. They stood silently for a long time before one of them, a new voice, snapped a command, something to do with the light.

Dark...

The new voice said something else and a dull light suddenly illuminated the room and Chris was left alone with the owner of the new voice. His vision blurred and headache pounding erratically as it lost the trigger for its tempo, Chris could barely make out dark hair flopping. Tommy? he wondered, though it didn't matter who it was, he knew they were going to hurt him anyway; even Teresa had hurt him.

He flinched back as the man drew closer and whispered to him and though he didn't register the words, he dimly recognised a soothing gentleness in his tone. He felt fingers at the straps that held him immobile, and as he was freed, he sagged forward in the chair, crying out wordlessly and unable to help himself as limbs cramped and muscles locked in violent protest at their freedom after being held immobile for so long.

The man pulled him out of the chair and onto the floor, wrapping him in something rough but warm, a blanket maybe, and pulling him into a close embrace. There was no touching, no restricting, no violation; simply strong, warm arms holding him lightly, the gentle voice reassuring him much as a parent might comfort a terrified child. Without comprehending why, the thoughtful human contact snapped something inside Chris, and he realised with fractured horror that if this man had asked him any question at all at this moment, he would have answered as truthfully as he could. His shaking body convulsed into harsh broken sobs for long minutes in the comforting arms before sliding into fevered unconsciousness.

~*~

Tina Backus stood nervously in Malone's office. New to CI5, she hadn't yet figured her boss out, and was unsure what she had been summoned for. She had been called into Malone's office to find him engrossed in a report, or more accurately, staring at a photo from the file with an acute sadness.

She stood waiting patiently for a few minutes before Malone put the photo down and closed the folder, stamping it 'MIA'. He picked it up, along with a case file and another that had been marked 'KIA' that she recognised as belonging to Tommy Yates, the agent that they had cremated yesterday. She hadn't known Tommy or his partner, never even met either of them as far as she knew, as they had been out in the field on one mission or another in the few weeks since she had arrived. But from what she had heard, he had been well thought of. Both of them had.

"Sir?"

"Ah yes, Miss Backus, " Malone pinched the bridge of his nose, squinting as if attempting to relieve himself of a headache, before putting his glasses back on. He handed her the three files and began, "I have a little..." he broke off and put his glasses back on the desk, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath.

Tina had the distinct impression that he was struggling to hold himself together. For want of something to do while she waited for the man to compose himself, she opened the top file; the one marked 'MIA' and looked at the photo. It was a black and white close up, and the young man in it was looking over his shoulder at the camera, laughing at something, all cheeky dimples and twinkling eyes.

"Sir, who is - was he?" Tina felt that she needed to say something, anything, to ground Malone again.

Malone smiled softly, his stone fašade almost in place although a little softened round the edges. "Christopher Keel. An American ex-Navy SEAL. Came to us last year under difficult circumstances." He chuckled slightly. "Do you know, when he joined us, that young man stood right where you are now and thanked me?" Malone's eyes grew unbearably sad. "Thanked me, " he repeated, "for giving him a second chance at life."

Tina stared at her boss, unable to reconcile this picture of barely controlled humanity with the ironclad chief she was getting to know.

Malone sighed and replaced his glasses, almost as if flicking a switch back to his normal self. "If you wouldn't mind, Miss Backus, I'd like you to close the case file on the database and archive these files. Flag it for further investigation should relevant information arise and cross-reference."

"Yes, sir," Tina replied softly. "Was there anything else, sir?"

"No thank you, Miss Backus." Tina turned to leave but the older man spoke again, stopping her mid turn and she looked back at him. "It -" he sighed, "It's never easy in cases like this. It's never easy to lose a good agent like Mr Yates, and it's even harder when a good agent must be presumed dead, like Mr Keel; we may never know what happened to him. But they knew the risks, and so do you. We must always look forward, never back. You do recall the first rule?"

"Yes, sir. Never get emotionally involved," Tina replied, instinctively recognising that his words were less for her and more for himself.

"And it's not an easy rule to follow, but it's there for a reason. Mr Yates and Mr Keel are perfect examples of that reason. Remember that during your time with CI5, Miss Backus, and you'll find it far easier to deal with the fortunes and misfortunes of those around you."

Tina was silent for a moment, but as Malone was clearly not going to say anything further, she took her leave.

~*~

Cassandra waited for her employer on the private dock to his estate, as was her usual practice. She'd been unable to persuade him to take her with him, despite her best efforts, and to be frank she had to see his point. Pasa wasn't the one they needed to worry about and his request for a meeting was probably because he wanted some favour rather than any attempt to outflank her boss. Carstairs had a reputation for ruthlessness, and it was proving beneficial.

She relaxed slightly when she caught sight of Stuart's dark hair in the returning motorboat, and Nathaniel was obviously driving the boat, his large dark skinned frame clear even at this distance. Stuart, however, was not sitting up in front as he usually did. His attention seemed to be fixed on something in the belly of the small craft and her instincts began to scream at her, prescient prickles of danger running through her spine, sparking goose bumps on her skin.

She let none of this show to the men clustered around the dock, her pose that merely of a loyal servant waiting for the return of her master, her glacial expression and neatly tailored appearance acting as a barrier to any close human contact, although that was unlikely to be the only reason for the men keeping their distance. She was gaining a reputation for ruthlessness almost rivalling that of her employer.

As the motorboat drew up next to the dock, she saw for the first time what had so taken up her employer's focus. A man - hurt, obviously, and unconscious. The CI5 agent - it must be.

She met Stuart's eyes, her own challenging, and for once he deigned to explain. "Hazim Pasa has offered me a present and it would have been churlish to refuse." His voice was slightly mocking of the other gunrunner, and there was a lightness in his tone that was belied by the seriousness in his eyes. She nodded briefly, not trusting herself to speak out here where they could be overheard.

"Yes, sir," she returned efficiently, her manner the perfect imitation of someone resigned to her master's foibles. "Should I summon a doctor?"

"No," replied Carstairs, leaping nimbly out of the boat and gesturing for his bodyguard, in fact, his head of security if there was such a post in his organisation, to pick up their new houseguest and join them on the dock. Other guards were already moving to secure the craft. "He's CI5, which is probably why Pasa was so desperate to be rid of him. We can't let anyone know that he's here, and I don't think that physically he's too badly hurt. Just get hold of some antibiotics and painkillers, and arrange for one of the spare rooms to be made up."

"Yes, sir."

"One in my wing." Close to the heart of Carstairs' organisation and currently only occupied by her employer and herself.

"Yes, sir."

"Arrange for a guard outside the door too, but only one. I doubt that he'll be capable of moving around much at the moment, and I want him to feel it's for his protection more than for ours."

"Yes, sir. Do you want me to find someone to nurse him?"

Carstairs shook his head, his attention focused on the man hanging limply from Nathaniel's arms. "No," he stated calmly. "I'll do it." He turned his light eyes onto Cassie. "I want everything that he gets, all the support, comfort, approval - hell, even food and water - to come from me. He's going to be reliant on me for everything."

She nodded, understanding. "Yes, sir."

"And eventually..."

"He'll be yours, sir," she completed for the benefit of those around them.

"Precisely, Cassie," he replied with a cold smile. "See to it."

"Yes, sir."

~*~

When Chris regained consciousness, the first thing he became aware of was the sound of whispered voices. They were too low for him to make out the words, but one of them was a woman's and even in Chris' current half-aware state he could pick up on the concern underlying whatever she was saying.

The other was familiar - the same soothing tones that had rescued him from the nightmare he'd been inhabiting for the last few... days? Weeks? Even now he wasn't sure.

He cracked open his eyes to see crisp, clean white sheets. A hospital? He was safe in a hospital? A surge of relief went through him, expressing itself as a long, heartfelt sigh.

The whispering stopped.

"He's awake." The woman's voice, and he managed to open blurry eyes to look on an attractive face, topped by an elegant blonde coiffeur.

"So I see." His rescuer's voice, cool and cultured with a hint of steel underlying it. Now that he had liberty to listen he realised that the accent was English. "Leave us."

The woman's face disappeared from his line of sight with a brief and toneless, "Yes, sir," and Chris would have to be less aware even than his current state not to hear the anger underlying the words. He wanted to warn his benefactor - there was something in the woman's voice and the way that she carried herself that told him she was dangerous - but he was so tired, too tired to keep his eyes open any longer and his dry throat couldn't make more than cracked and meaningless sounds.

"Here..." That same soothing voice and something was pressed against his lips. Blessed moisture filled his mouth for a few, precious seconds as he sucked greedily at the straw before it was taken from him, echoing the torture he'd been subjected to.

"Gently," said that voice. "You'll make yourself sick if you try to drink too much too fast."

Recognising the wisdom in the words, he sucked more carefully at the straw when it was returned to his lips, only taking what he thought his shrunken stomach could handle. Even then, he had to fight back the nausea once the water hit there, leaning back into the arms that supported him as sweat broke out on his forehead.

A strong hand rubbed his back while that voice continued the same soothing litany that had calmed and reassured him in his cell. He took in gulping breaths until the urge to vomit up the water passed, and then he sunk weakly into the waiting arms.

"We'll see if you can keep that down, and then I'll have someone make you some broth. See if you can keep that down too."

The thought of food made him feel even more nauseous, and once again he had to fight against the urge to vomit, wracking shudders shaking his entire body. The arms that held him rocked him gently, a hand stroking soothingly through his hair, making him feel safe for the first time in what seemed like forever.

Plundering his waning reserves of strength, he opened his eyes to look at his rescuer for the first time.

It wasn't surprising that in his delirium he'd thought the face Tommy's. This man had the same dark hair, falling forward over his face the way that Tommy's sometimes did too. But there the resemblance ended. The hair was darker - closer to black than Tommy's dark brown, the face more classically handsome. The eyes were grey, but a grey edging much closer to green than to Tommy's grey-blue. The eyes were guarded, small lines of stress crinkling the corners, and steel lurked in their depths, unlike Tommy's, which always seemed to hold a hint of laughter.

The stranger silently let him satisfy his curiosity until Chris' eyes left his face and he started to look around the room.

"I'm not in hospital," Chris stated dully, that fact finally impinging itself on his consciousness. The room was clean and expensively decorated but there were no machines, no hint that this was anything other than a private residence.

"No." That was all his saviour said. No elaboration or meaningless chit chat and he made no further effort to put Chris at his ease, his eyes growing even more guarded, looking more like coloured glass than any windows to his soul.

"Where?"

"You're safe. That's all you need to know for now."

Had Chris had the energy he would have protested, argued, demanded to know where he was. But he didn't have the energy to do more than to sink down into the soft mattress as his mysterious benefactor removed the supporting arm and rose gracefully to his feet. And to be frank, if he owed this man his life, which he didn't doubt, it seemed wrong somehow to question his motives. If Chris had been in better possession of his wits he may have questioned his own rationale, but in his current drained state all he knew was that he didn't want to say or do anything to make this man angry with him. He owed him, and right now this was the only person who had showed him any kindness. He didn't want to lose that - didn't think that he could survive without it. Not yet.

So instead he just lay there, looking at the man who stood there watching him, waiting for... something. What, he didn't know.

"Can you stand?" The tone was neutral rather than the almost intimate gentleness that had been there when Chris had first heard it, and yet he still wanted to please this man. He tried to rise to his feet, faltering when his aching limbs refused to co-operate. The throbbing in his abused muscles was echoed in his throbbing head, his headache still present despite the removal of the lights that had triggered it in the first place.

Strong arms caught him again, and he rested his suddenly flushed cheek against cool, crisp cotton, imbued with a scent that he was coming to associate with safety. "Easy," came that soft, cultured voice again. "I've got you." Once again, slim but strong hands tenderly stroked over his back, calming him down. "Let's try again."

This time he had help, his arm slung over his saviour's broad shoulders as the other man helped him to his feet and supported him when he succeeded. "We're going to try and get to the bathroom," the Englishman said. "We'll take it slow, but we need to get you cleaned up."

With a dull shock, Chris realised that he was still naked. He'd grown so used to his naked vulnerability that it was almost natural now. He had no time to dwell on it, his whole concentration needed to make sure that he stayed upright as they made their way across the room.

The doorway they went through led to a bathroom - large and luxurious although the pounding in his head didn't give him much scope to appreciate it. His own personal knight in shining armour made sure that he was safely seated on the closed toilet seat before releasing him and moving to the shower, turning it on and beginning to fill the room with warm steam. Chris suddenly realised how cold he was.

His insides grew almost as cold as his clammy skin when he realised that the man in front of him was neatly stripping himself of his clothes. Catching his suddenly panicked gaze, the Englishman smiled reassuringly and came to crouch in front of him, his eyes once again warm and compassionate.

"We need to clean those wounds, Chris," he explained, and while Chris wondered how this man knew his name, he was too tired to pursue it. "The best way to do that is with a shower. We need to get the salt out and a bath wouldn't clean them properly. I really don't think you're up to standing up in the shower on your own, are you?"

The logic of the words penetrated the cotton wool in Chris' head and he dredged up the strength from somewhere to shake his head, still watching the man in front of him warily.

The Englishman nodded. "I'm not going to hurt you, Chris," he continued persuasively. "I'm just going to make sure that you can stand up and that your wounds are clean. Okay?"

A nod and the Englishman seemed satisfied with his willingness to go along with it. He stripped down to his boxers efficiently, but left them on. Whether that was to reassure Chris that whatever his intentions were they weren't carnal, Chris didn't know but was reassured anyway. His body, Chris noted absently, having no carnal interest himself, was fit and toned, and whomever this man was he took pains to stay in shape. He was strong too, the strength that comes from wiry endurance rather than artificial muscle building, effortlessly supporting Chris' weight when the American's legs threatened to fold underneath him.

"I'm not going to lie to you, Chris," his saviour murmured as they prepared to climb into the shower. "This is going to hurt, but it won't last long and I wouldn't make you go through it if it wasn't necessary."

Chris gave him a searching look, looking deep into the now candid green eyes and reassured by the compassion he still found there. He nodded briefly and steeled himself for the agony he knew was coming.

It did hurt, screaming agony tearing through his nerve endings as the warm water dissolved the salt crystals still present in the shallow cuts on his body. He whimpered helplessly, the toned body and strong arms wrapped around him the only things holding him upright as the pain washed through him even as the warm water washed his body clean. The Englishman held him gently as the shudders coursed through his body, his words once again soothing him as he washed the wounds clean as quickly and efficiently as possible, obviously realising that it was better to get it over with rather than to try and be gentle and only prolong the agony.

Finally the pain eased to a dull throbbing all over his body, and he realised that he was gripping his companion tightly, his blunt and torn fingernails digging into the Englishman's flesh, although not a sound of complaint passed the other man's lips. The Englishman let him cling to him, running the shower head gently over his body, washing away the sweat and the blood - Tommy's and his own - away along with the salt. He was grateful for that, for the opportunity to be clean again, and he was more grateful than he could say for the Englishman's gentleness.

His companion helped him out of the shower, once again sitting him down on the lid of the toilet when his shaking legs refused to support his weight and wrapping a soft, fluffy and clean smelling warm towel around him, patting it gently against his skin so as not to aggravate his injuries any further. He was helped into clean, soft pyjamas that magically appeared and amazingly was even handed a toothbrush, still in its packaging, to take away the brackish taste in his mouth.

While he cleaned his teeth, still seated on the toilet and leaning awkwardly over the sink, his saviour casually stripped off his wet boxers - silk, Chris would guess, and now permanently ruined - and dried himself off. Chris averted his eyes, unsure whether the flood of heat he felt was due to fever, embarrassment at the other man's nudity or something else. His companion didn't seem at all disconcerted, as unfazed by his own nakedness as he had been by Chris'. Chris felt more composed, however, when that nakedness was covered again by clothing.

He was helped to his feet again and supported into the bedroom where he was lain down on clean sheets again. Someone had been in the room while they'd showered, he could tell. The sheets had been tidied up and there was a bowl of soup resting on the bedside table, the steam curling upwards. Chris watched it mindlessly, the effort of bathing draining his last remaining reserves of strength. Sitting innocently next to the bowl were two bottles of pills, looking like any prescription bottles. He eyed them a little suspiciously as the Englishman opened first one, then the other and took a pill from each, offering them to him.

"Painkiller," he explained for one, "and antibiotics," for the other. "You need to take them, Chris. You're already running a low-grade fever. We need to stop it in its tracks."

He gave the Englishman another searching look but there was no deceit in his eyes and once again Chris was reassured as to his motives. In spite of himself, he was beginning to trust the man and his protest was token at best. He took the proffered tablets meekly, swallowing them down with the glass of water offered.

And then the Englishman picked up the soup bowl, gently feeding Chris a spoonful at a time, giving his abused stomach plenty of time to adjust to the watery broth so that Chris didn't bring it straight back up again. When he'd forced down the few, pathetic morsels that he was capable of coping with, the Englishman didn't push him to take more, just rose to his feet and tucked the bedclothes snugly around the American, before picking up the bowl and preparing to leave the room.

"Wait," Chris protested past his tortured throat, forcing his aching arms to push himself up into a half-sitting position. "I don't even know your name."

The Englishman turned to look at him again, and Chris didn't know whether it was his own tormented psyche that made him see a shadow pass across the other man's eyes or whether it was really there.

"My name is Stuart," he answered gently. "Now get some sleep, Chris. I'll still be here when you wake up."

~*~

He woke sometime during the night, his head pounding worse than it had even in his captors' cell, and soothing hands were there to calm him down, a cool cloth pressed to his hot forehead and cool water to quench his thirst. Once again he meekly swallowed painkillers and antibiotics and drifted back into slumber.

~*~

"How is he?" Cassie kept her voice even with an effort, watching the man tossing and turning on the bed rather than looking at her employer, mainly because she wasn't sure that she wouldn't lose her temper if she did so.

"He's running a fever, but the antibiotics haven't had a chance to kick in yet." Stuart sounded tired but when she snuck a look at him out of the corner of her eye he looked as composed as he always did.

"Do you want me to call a doctor?" she asked neutrally.

"No. There are still the same problems. The fewer people who know right now, the better. And I don't think it's quite reached that point." He glanced quickly at the door and then turned his attention on her, his eyebrow raised quizzically. She knew what he was asking.

"I ran a sweep when we put him in here. We're clean."

He nodded again, the mask dropping slightly although that was becoming a much rarer occurrence. "You don't approve, do you, Cassie?" he asked calmly.

"It's your decision, Stuart," she replied stiffly. "I think the risks are unacceptable, but it's too late to worry about it now."

"You're right, it is my decision," he stated icily. "And I don't believe that the risks are unacceptable." They glared at each other for a moment, before he looked away and sighed tiredly, running his hand through his disordered hair. Rather guiltily, she wondered if he'd been here all night. "Are they?" he added more gently, his voice persuasive and she felt her spine stiffen instinctively. When he got that tone in his voice she knew that she'd be hard pressed to argue with him. "Pasa offered him to me. I didn't ask for him."

"And you don't know why he did that?" Her tone was almost scathing.

He shrugged, his eyes fixed on her face. "Because someone decided to tell him that he had a CI5 agent and he was in a panic to offload him onto someone else, and since Chris is not unattractive he thought that he'd curry favour with me at the same time."

He was so damn slick sometimes that she just wanted to hit him and keep on hitting him, the anger and the fear in her bubbling up to almost overwhelm her. She controlled her reaction with effort. "Does he know that you're aware of his plan?"

"Of course. I made sure that he did, and then pulled his arse out of the fire anyway. You should know me better than that, Cassie." Should she? She was no longer sure that she did. He turned his attention back to their houseguest. "And he is attractive," he added thoughtfully.

She fought back the jealousy. It was of no use, not here and not now. Besides, she wasn't entirely sure that was what he meant. He probably meant that the CI5 agent's attractiveness would lend credence to him accepting him. Probably. She was no longer sure. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask snidely if that was why he'd accepted him, but she quashed the thought as unworthy of her.

"So what happens now?" she asked.

"We continue on as planned," he replied evenly. "There's no reason we shouldn't. This doesn't change anything."

Doesn't it? she wanted to ask again. Doesn't this change everything? She kept silent though, her attention once again focusing on the tormented figure on the bed. The CI5 agent seemed to be in the grip of a nightmare, his head tossing from side to side as he moaned softly. Stuart reached out one hand and gently ran the damp cloth he held over the man's forehead, making soothing sounds. Keel sighed and settled deeper into sleep.

"Put it this way, Cassie," Stuart elaborated. "If I'd left him there they would have killed him. And he'd be of no use to anyone dead." His voice was cold and professional again, and the mask was firmly back in place.

She permitted herself a small snort, refusing to be taken in by his apparent disinterest. She knew him too well to be fooled by it. "As long," she said dryly, "as he doesn't end up getting us killed."

"He won't," he answered, his expression serious and a little irritated at her questioning of his judgement. "I'll make sure that he stays out of sight and to all intents and purposes everyone will believe that he is only here for one reason."

"Even him?" she asked with a smirk.

His eyes darkened briefly. "If it comes to it, we'll tell him what he needs to know and no more."

"But you're not intending to tell him if you can help it?" she couldn't resist asking. "Of course not," she answered her own question, almost with a purr. "You don't believe in sharing information unless you have to, do you, Stuart?" It was a cheap shot and she knew it and couldn't find it in her to care, wanting something at least to get underneath his armour, even if it was a jibe.

He didn't rise to the bait, but watched her with those cool eyes, seemingly unmoved either by her logic or her digs. She gave up the unequal struggle. "Do we let anyone know...?"

"No." His reply was unequivocal. "Pasa may let something slip, but I want no leaks about his presence here from our end. None, is that clear, Cassie? No one must know."

Paranoia, she thought, but she could hardly blame him in his position. She limited her reply to a toneless, "Yes, sir. Will there be anything else?"

His eyes darkened further at the ice underlying her reply, and for a brief second pain flickered in their grey-green depths before the mask was resumed. "No, Cassie," he replied equally tonelessly. "I can cope from here."

She felt another brief pang of guilt but crushed it ruthlessly, turning smartly on her heel to leave him alone with his 'present'. He'd made his bed, and now he would have to lie in it, no pun intended.

~*~

He was burning, fire consuming him, burning hotter and fiercer than the salt in his wounds, and he was still burning, nothing putting the flames out, not the cool cloth that he sometimes felt running over his body or the cool water that soothing hands encouraged him to drink. Nothing.

He saw faces sometimes - Teresa's often, the faces of friends and colleagues long dead, and Tommy's. Tommy's was the one he saw frequently, a crease of concern between dark brows and he begged forgiveness for not saving him, for not being there when his partner needed him. And unlike earlier, when Tommy had tormented him and hurt him, this Tommy didn't. This Tommy talked to him in soothing and reassuring tones and tried to put out the fire that was burning him up.

Without success.

~*~

Cassie risked a quick glance along the corridor before proceeding into their 'guest's' room. The guard on duty avoided her eyes, probably because she made him nervous. She made most of them nervous. They weren't entirely sure what to make of her. Had she held the same position in anyone else's household as she did in Carstairs', her room as close to her boss', they could have dismissed her as his woman, someone to be held in contempt or lusted after in idle moments. However, Carstairs' preferences were no secret, even if she knew that they weren't quite as clear cut as was generally believed. That left them unsure and on edge, not used to dealing with women in a position of power. She wasn't someone's property, no one owned her and yet none of them quite dared to take advantage of that fact. She was almost hoping that they would. She could use some mindless violence to release some of the unbearable pressure that their tenuous situation was building up in her.

Until then, she'd have to content herself with icy stares and barely concealed contempt for them.

With an internal sigh, she moved through into the room, her face assuming its normal emotionless expression. She didn't know why she even bothered anymore, he wouldn't notice at the moment if she walked in there buck naked. His entire focus was occupied with the CI5 agent.

The CI5 man's sleep was less tormented than the last time she'd been in the room and at first she thought this a good sign. Until she looked at Carstairs' face. Her employer looked exhausted, his hair mussed and he didn't appear to have managed to shave that morning. That shook her, but then, with her nerves on a knife-edge, anything out of the ordinary at the moment shook her.

Stuart spared her a brief glance before his attention was taken up totally with the man he was nursing. That worried her. With him this focused on Keel, it put him... them at risk of attack, an outflanking manoeuvre by their enemies. Or maybe that was his plan - to persuade their enemies out into the open when they thought he was distracted. She didn't know. As time went by, he became more and more chary of sharing information and in spite of herself that hurt. With an effort, she concealed that too, merely contenting herself with raising one eyebrow in deliberate imitation of Carstairs.

"His temperature's rising," Stuart deigned to explain. He sounded as drained as his appearance suggested and for some reason that annoyed her immensely.

"Oh?" she replied neutrally. "What would you suggest?" She wasn't entirely sure that she managed to keep the edge out of her voice, but if she hadn't he didn't call her on it.

"I think we may need a doctor."

She only just managed to bite back on her first, vitriolic response, although her second phrase of choice could hardly be described as diplomatic. "You can't," she stated baldly. "Stuart, you already said..."

"I know what I said," he interrupted her, "but his temperature is up and I can't seem to bring it down. I'm having difficulty getting the antibiotics and painkillers into him."

She tried for reasonable, not giving in to her anger. "Stuart, the only doctor that we even vaguely believe that we might be able to trust is a pathologist. And I don't think we need one quite yet." In spite of her good intentions, the words came out a little sharp, and he gave her an irritated look.

"Pathologists do receive medical training, Cassie. I'm sure he could cope."

"And you don't think that would be a little suspicious?" she asked, her temper starting to get the better of her. "You don't think that that would raise even more questions than calling in a regular doctor?"

"Better that than risk word getting out," he stated, his face set in stubborn lines.

She matched him for stubbornness. "That would be dangerous for both him and us." He said nothing more, but couldn't look her in the eye and her hold on her temper, already precarious, snapped. "So that's it," she hissed. "You want to throw all of our work here down the drain because you can't separate the mission from your libido?"

He looked back at her and his gaze hardened. "We don't have a choice, Cassie. If his temperature stays this high, he could die."

"And?" She made her voice ice, and his mouth thinned ominously.

"I'm hardly likely to let him die, am I? Not if..."

"Not if you're obsessed," she completed for him, her tone and stance remaining uncompromising. They locked gazes, neither of them wanting to give ground, and then his expression grew shuttered again. She wanted to scream with frustration.

"That's right," he replied coolly, the tiredness vanishing from his face to be replaced with that remote mask. He drew himself to his feet, the epitome of calm and collected. "Perhaps you could keep an eye on him while I change?"

It wasn't a request, and she knew better than to argue with him when he was this cold, limiting her reply to a cool nod.

For a long time after he'd left the room she stood there, staring down at the unconscious man in the bed in front of her, her own face as expressionless as her employer's. And then she sighed, settling herself into Stuart's empty seat, frowning as her mind frantically tried to figure a way out of this and failing.

It was a different man who walked back into the room barely ten minutes later; neatly groomed, shaved, not a hair out of place and no sign of tiredness. His eyes automatically settled on the figure curled up in the centre of the bed before he even looked in her direction, and she felt her irritation level rise again. However, since it would be of no use whatsoever, she pushed it back down again and made her voice as neutral as possible as she asked, "How high is his temperature?"

It was probably a sign of the distance that had grown between them over time, a sign of the pressure they were under, that a shadow of suspicion passed through his eyes before he answered her, his tone as neutral as hers. "I'm not entirely sure. The last time I managed to take it, it was around 103. However..." He gestured at the thermometer, lying discarded on the bedside table. "It's not proving easy to take it now that he's barely conscious."

"Unconscious?" she interrupted, leaning forward to look thoughtfully down at their 'guest', noting how his eyes were fluttering underneath almost translucent lids. "Or asleep?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "It could be a deep sleep. After the way Pasa treated him..."

He didn't complete the sentence but she caught his meaning clear enough. She also knew him well enough to catch the anger underlying the words, even if he didn't seem to be aware of it. She turned her thoughtful look on him.

"You could be overreacting, sir," she pointed out. "We should play a wait and see game."

"I've been waiting," he snapped out, and his impatient tone provoked another raised eyebrow. "He's not getting better. I'm positive that his temperature hasn't come down."

She couldn't resist giving him a long, cool smirk. "If you're that worried about it," she drawled, "you could always take it anally."

His eyes grew flinty and for a second she was torn between glee at finally managing to penetrate that icy veneer and regret for needling him so hard. The regret won, marginally, but by then it was too late; Stuart was firmly in control of his emotions again and back into controlled mode. "Thank you, Cassie," he stated, his voice and manner distant. "That will be all."

She opened her mouth, to apologise perhaps, but he turned his back on her, the dismissal obvious. She suppressed a sigh and stalked out. She couldn't, however, resist stealing one last glance over her shoulder as she left, and her last sight was of him settling himself into the vacant chair, unable to completely conceal the tiredness evident in the tense lines around his eyes, and leaning over the unconscious CI5 agent again. She could only hope that he wouldn't do anything stupid. It could cost both of their lives.

~*~

He ached all over, his muscles screaming in protest as he tried to roll away from the light that was aggravating him, even through shut lids. A small whimper of protestation escaped his lips as he tried to raise one arm to shield his eyes from the glare, the movement setting off the explosive devices that appeared to have been implanted in his brain.

The light thankfully dimmed, a soft murmured, "Easy, Chris," reaching his ears and once again a cool cloth caressed his forehead, dulling the pounding in his head slightly. He risked opening his eyes, blinking rapidly to try and ease the gritty feeling he had in them and squinting slightly - even the dim lighting hurt.

A face slowly swam into focus in front of him, light eyes showing their owner's concern. "Stuart," he croaked out, knowing that the name came from somewhere even though he couldn't quite remember at that moment from where.

That earned him a small smile, briefly illuminating Stuart's handsome face. "You remember who I am, then?" the Englishman replied, sounding relieved.

Chris glanced around the room again, re-familiarising himself with it while he tried to get his chaotic thoughts under control. It was too great an effort to confirm that he did indeed remember Stuart - who could forget a guardian angel in a hurry? - and so he said nothing, merely blinking rather sleepily, lacking even the energy to nod.

"Here." Once again, cool water was pressed on him, and the lack of interest in it was outweighed by the desire to please this man. In fact, once he forced a little down his throat he realised just how thirsty he was and managed to drink enough to satisfy even Stuart, that clear from the relief on the Englishman's face.

The water revived him sufficiently for him to start squeezing words past dry and uncooperative lips. "What...?"

"You've been ill, Chris," Stuart soothed, pressing the back of one hand against Chris' forehead, apparently attempting to judge how hot he felt. He must have been satisfied with what he found, because he nodded briskly to himself. "You had us quite worried there for a while."

"How long?" Chris whispered.

Stuart hesitated slightly before finally admitting, "Three days."

Stuart had been here the whole time, Chris realised with a lurch of his heart. The last three days, if it had indeed been that long and he had no reason to doubt Stuart's word, had passed by in a blur, but he remembered that each time he swam back towards consciousness, however briefly, Stuart had been there. Something else to be grateful to the man for.

Now that his scrambled brain was starting to function, he began to realise just how much the last three days must have cost his host. There were deep lines of worry and exhaustion carved into the man's face, and his eyes were dull. His smile, although restrained, was genuine and Chris tried his best to return it, probably not successfully. He felt a ridiculous urge to apologise meekly for putting the man to all of this trouble but couldn't quite get his mouth to form the words. Instead, he had to try and let his expression convey the sheer depth of his gratitude.

"Here." Once again something was pressed upon him and he swallowed meekly, vaguely recognising the shape of pills as they slid down his throat. Antibiotics and painkillers again, must be. "Good," breathed Stuart with another slight smile. "That will help."

He rose tiredly to his feet, and Chris had to fight against a sudden surge of panic, only his intense lethargy preventing him from begging Stuart not to leave. It must have shown on his face, however, because Stuart leant over the bed again, saying soothingly, "I'm not going anywhere, Chris. I'm just going to get you some clean and dry pyjamas, all right? I'm going to come right back."

It did little to calm Chris' fear, and he had to watch the man, not daring to let him out of his sight as he walked across the room, opening the door to speak to someone outside, only relaxing when Stuart started back to the bed again.

"There, you see," the Englishman soothed again. "We just need to get you into dry clothes."

It was the second time he'd said that and Chris wondered vaguely how he could have managed to get wet when he hadn't left the tenuous safety of the bed before he realised that the pyjama top was clammy against his cooling body. With a grimace, he realised that he must have been sweating up a storm. Pleasant.

A soft knock on the door heralded the fact that they had visitors and Stuart once again rose to his feet and walked towards it. Chris didn't panic this time, knowing now on some deep level that Stuart was not going to leave him. Whoever it was didn't enter the room but when Stuart returned back to Chris' sanctuary he came armed with a bundle of clothing, a bowl and a towel.

Chris was efficiently and gently stripped of his top and Stuart began to wash him clean of the results of three days of sickness. Normally Chris hated bed baths, finding them one of the less pleasant aspects of hospitalisation, and he'd certainly been hospitalised often enough. They were humiliating, brisk and somehow demeaning affairs, even if you managed to get a nurse who was sympathetic and didn't see it as a chore. With Stuart, however, it was different, the other man's hands moving over him surely but not callously. It should have been even more humiliating than normal given the experiences he had just been through but somehow it was only reassuring and soothing, maybe because it merely emphasised that no matter what happened this man was going to take care of him, which only increased his gratitude.

His top half was quickly cleaned, and he had to admit that he felt much better for it - almost human, a pathetic specimen of humanity to be sure but human. Stuart patted him dry and helped him pull a clean top on and then pulled the covers lower.

Chris couldn't help his reaction to that, tensing uncomfortably and pulling away, attempting to make himself as small as possible on the bed. The memories of the humiliating experience of being naked and vulnerable while rough hands and rough voices denigrated him were too fresh in his mind for him to relax, even with Stuart.

"I'll be quick," Stuart promised, obviously understanding his fear and keeping his voice soothing and gentle in response. "But we have to get you dry, Chris, if you're to get well."

There was logic in that, he knew, but he still hated every single second between Stuart removing his damp trousers and when they were replaced with clean, dry ones.

Thankfully, Stuart said nothing while he worked, and didn't attempt to make meaningless conversation or put on false cheer, and Chris was once again grateful that he'd fallen under the man's care. When it was over, he pulled the bedclothes back up to Chris' neck and gently brushed the short hair away from his forehead, once again lingering there to check the American's temperature. Another smile, and then Stuart's soothing voice was telling him to get some sleep. Unable to do anything but obey that voice, he closed his eyes and drifted into tormented slumber.

~*~

Cassie answered the sharp knock at the door with a curt, "Come in."

"Miss Cassandra?" The tone was sullen, but she let it slide, recognising that this guard wouldn't have dared leave his post outside Keel's room without her employer's express permission. "Mr Carstairs tole me to tell ya that the guy's feeling better."

Stuart had probably not given that precise message, but it was clear enough for her to let the guard's colloquialisms slide too, limiting herself to a sharp nod and watching the guard gratefully make his escape before turning her attention back to the screen in front of her. She couldn't focus on Carstairs' complicated financial transactions however, when her mind was working through the consequences of the CI5 agent's recovery. While one problem had been solved without any outside personnel summoned, the very fact that Keel was still alive and likely to both recover and stay with them for the foreseeable future merely threw up a host of other problems in its wake.

Not one to simply await the vagaries of fate, she began to calculate possible survival strategies to the various worst case scenarios she saw ahead. They may need them.

~*~

"How are you feeling now?"

Chris struggled to sit upright, his aching muscles and the tangled bedclothes conspiring to prevent him. "Fine," he hazarded cautiously. He certainly felt a little better than he had, although 'fine' may have been a bit of an overstatement. He was reluctant, however, to impose on his host's hospitality any further.

Stuart didn't look very convinced by his answer. Once more the Englishman placed the flat of his hand on Chris' forehead to check his temperature, gently brushing a few of the sweaty strands of hair back as he did so. "You feel a little cooler," he ventured. "Do you feel up to eating anything? Some soup maybe?"

The thought of food still made him feel a little nauseous but he knew that the longer he left it before eating the worse it would get. Gathering up the remaining reserves of his strength he nodded.

It was an effort, and once again Stuart had to feed him like a baby, which was humiliating to say the least, but he managed to force down most of the bowl and more importantly keep it down. It was with a vague sense of triumph that he sank back into the bed and gave Stuart a wan smile. The Englishman returned it with an approving one of his own. He didn't comment though, didn't say anything that would have made Chris feel self-conscious and Chris was grateful for that understanding response.

"Why don't you try and get some sleep?" asked Stuart gently.

"Because I've only just woken up."

The response was a little petty and Chris cringed at the ingratitude he could hear in his own voice but Stuart didn't call him on it. Instead the Englishman just tucked the covers up back up around him and explained, "You've been very ill, Chris and your body is telling you that it needs time to heal. That's all. The more sleep you get in now the quicker you'll get better." He paused to give the words time to sink in, watching Chris' face closely, and then he shrugged. "But it's your call. Would you like a book or a magazine instead?"

That really made him feel like an ingrate, and rather reluctantly he decided that Stuart was right. His body did need time, and it appeared that Stuart was going to give him that time. He should be thanking the man instead of pouting like a five year old. He hated being ill at the best of times, if there was such a thing as best of times when you were ill, but following hard on the heels of his ordeal at Pasa's hands all it was doing was making him feel even more useless and pathetic, if that was possible.

He glanced up nervously at Stuart, but the man's eyes still had that compassionate gleam in them he remembered on waking the first time, and he was shuffling down underneath the bedclothes before he even realised it. That got another approving smile from Stuart, which almost made it worthwhile.

Stuart rose to his feet and once again Chris had to fight down a sudden surge of panic. It must have shown in his eyes, because the Englishman soothed, "I'll be right back." Once again Chris felt completely pathetic, but also much better when the Englishman returned from the bathroom. It was stupid, but until he did - until Stuart was seated by his bed again - he didn't feel safe enough to go to sleep.

His dreams were tormented, demons haunting him through nightmarish landscapes. Demons wearing the faces of the ones he'd loved and hadn't been able to protect - Teresa, his father, Tommy. Demons that had knives for hands and blades for teeth, tearing into his flesh, their drooling saliva sending salt into his wounds...

He woke with a scream, his hands flailing to push the dead away from him, to stop the rotting corpses from smothering him under their weight. So panicked was he, it took a moment before he realised that what was holding him down was very much alive, warm and talking to him.

"It's all right, Chris, calm down. It was a dream, only a dream, it can't hurt you." The words, and more importantly the soothing tone, finally got through to him and he stopped thrashing, lying on the bed panting heavily. Stuart seemed to sense that he was back in the conscious, waking world and slowly released him, settling cautiously back into his abandoned seat and watching him closely, the concern obvious on his face.

"Okay now?" he asked.

"I think so. I... oh, shit, I'm sorry."

Stuart's lip was bleeding, and it could only have happened when he'd been trying to prevent Chris from doing himself an injury. The guilt that went through Chris at that realisation was both crippling and familiar.

Stuart looked at him quizzically for a moment and then, realising where Chris was looking, brought his fingers up to his lip, bringing them away red. He shrugged. "Don't worry about it," he insisted with a small smile. "I've done worse shaving."

But he hadn't done it shaving, Chris had done it, albeit unwittingly, and it was another thing to owe this man for. "I'm sorry..." he repeated helplessly.

Stuart shrugged and smiled again, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiping at his mouth with it. And then, apparently completely unconcerned, he started to straighten up, untangling the covers that Chris had kicked off in his tortured thrashings and once again tucking them around the American and then leaning down to pick a book up off the floor, which must have fallen there when he'd leapt to Chris' aid.

"Think you can go back to sleep again?" he asked softly, his tone sympathetic and his face concerned, although his eyes were shuttered.

"Not sure," admitted Chris. The nightmare was too fresh in his mind for him to be comfortable with sinking back into a state where it could re-establish its grip on him. Searching for something to say, something to stop Stuart looking so worried about him he glanced at the book in Stuart's hand. "What are you reading?"

Stuart glanced down at it. His mouth curled up in a reluctant smile. "Would you believe 'The Hobbit'?"

"Really?" That did surprise Chris. "That was one of my favourite books when I was a kid. Well, that and the Hardy Boys."

Stuart gave him another half smile. "Yes, well I haven't read it for years, probably not since I was a child, but... I don't know. I just felt like reading something... familiar, I suppose." He stared thoughtfully down at the cover for a moment, before looking back up at Chris.

"Would you like me to read it to you?" he asked a little diffidently, his face assuming an almost guarded expression and his eyes watching Chris closely. "It might help you sleep."

Like his mother used to read to him when he was very small. He nodded, and snuggled down into the mattress, letting Stuart's smooth, cultured and yet warm voice wash over him, making him feel safe.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit..."

~*~

"Any news?"

Cassie glanced up into her employer's guarded face.

"The usual," she replied, gesturing to the satellite pictures that they weren't supposed to have access to. It was surprising, however, how desperate some in the new Russia were for hard currency. "There's some movement at Macarthur's South American depot."

"Merchandise?"

She nodded. The images weren't clear, and she had the magnification turned up to maximum, just enough to make out some trucks on the rough, dirt track. "It appears so, sir."

He paused thoughtfully. "Do we have any idea who the buyer is or where they are headed?"

She shrugged. "Not since Macarthur plugged our latest... leak. However, there are some rumours that he's been in negotiations with certain groups in that general geographical area."

Stuart gave a brief snort of dry amusement. "Customers on his doorstep. How convenient." He moved in closer to stare at the sat pics, leaning over her shoulder to do so and she caught a faint whiff of his aftershave. "Can we tell what type of merchandise is being shipped?"

She shrugged. "This is the best resolution I can get, sir. But none of the boxes appear to be overly large. And none of the rumours I've heard indicate that it's anything but small arms, maybe some basic portable rocket launchers, but basically run of the mill stuff. If I'm right about the customer base, I doubt they could afford more."

He nodded again, still thoughtful, and then appeared to come to a decision. "Nothing we'd be interested in then?"

"No, sir."

"Very well, Cassie. Keep me informed."

"Yes, sir."

And with that he turned on his heel and walked out of the room without a backwards glance. Back to Keel no doubt. The longer this went on, the more it worried her.

~*~

Drifting aimlessly somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, Chris' confused brain tormented him with muddled images and feelings that he couldn't make sense of. Tommy was with him, his face by turns laughing as he had done in life, apologetic in dying, reproachful and accusing in death. It was in death that Tommy's face shifted slightly, accusing blue-grey eyes shifting to cold grey-green, nicotine-husky voice smoothing out to clear, cultured tones and face thinning to hard classic planes. With the change in faces, hard-edged grief-riddled guilt gave way to a tenuous sanctuary, a shelter from the storm-ridden emotions that he wasn't strong enough to cope with just yet.

Clinging to that shelter, Chris slowly rose into wakefulness.

A sharp loud report, sudden and unexpected.

Echoing round the room, round his skull and he flinched violently, yelping out loud as tautly stretched nerves overreacted, sending him scuttling backwards until he reached solid wall, curling up in automatic defence, arms shielding his face, trembling, Tommy, no, Stuart, screaming their dying accusations at him as the bullet exploded through their chest, blood spraying, searing electric shocks where crimson droplets burned into his skin...

"Chris, calm down, you're safe, it's all right, it's over, come on..."

Soothing tones, firm and strong, familiar and giving him reconnection to sanctuary. A hand on his shoulder, reassuring, another at the back of his head, softly stroking and calming.

As his pounding heart rate began to slow to its normal beat, Chris forced himself to relax slightly, gulping air and raising his head from his knees, opening his eyes and wiping the sweat away from his face with the sleeve of his pyjamas. He glanced to his left, to Stuart, watching him with open concern quickly shuttered even as he pulled Chris, still shaking into a gentle embrace.

Chris didn't object, his wildly churning body and mind contemptuously overriding his rational self in their desperate need for comfort, support and safety. Swallowing convulsively and taking deep breaths in a battle to bring his shattered nerves back under control, he lay against the warm refuge of Stuart's body and took stock of his surroundings.

So used to the sound of that gunshot coming out of nowhere, he didn't even question its source on this occasion and was therefore taken by surprise when he saw an unfamiliar man just inside the doorway picking up a heavy ornate metal snuff box off the parquet flooring.

"Fuck," he muttered shakily, overwhelming relief at the normality of the situation leaving him weak. "I'm shot away, sorry," he added cringing at the mild hysteria in his own voice. He pulled away from Stuart, reasserting some control over himself and sliding back down into the bed. He looked up at Stuart, whose expression was cold and guarded. "Sorry," he apologised again, and winced at his own pathetic fear of turning this man away from him.

He recognised that he wasn't himself, that he wasn't weak and needy like this, but his normal brash self-confidence had been undermined and almost destroyed in the nightmare of that little room. The rational part of him stubbornly retained the belief that he would get it back given a little time, while the greater, currently confused part of him only knew that Stuart was his saviour and his sanctuary and that he owed the man big time.

He watched Stuart push himself to his feet and turn on the man, maybe a guard of some sort by the rifle slung over his back. The guard was watching Chris with a condescending leer that he didn't really understand when Stuart stalked gracefully towards the man.

The guard's arrogance immediately turned to outright fear when he finally registered the frigid anger that was clearly emanating from Stuart and he started to shake his head, stammered apologies issuing from his lips.

"I thought my instructions were quite clear," Stuart's voice was calm but icy cool as he stopped less than a foot away from the man. "Nathaniel!" he called through the door before resuming his cold study of the shaking guard.

"I-it was accident! I s-sw - "

"Accidents only happen to the inept," Stuart told him. "And the inept have no place on my staff."

"No! P - please..."

A large black man with way too many muscles came into view, and Chris guessed that this must be Nathaniel when Stuart turned to him.

"This man needs to be shown what an accident costs," Stuart said coolly. "Flog him until he's unconscious."

Nathaniel inclined his head shortly and Chris started to protest, trying to sit up; his negative reaction to the guard's clumsiness had not been the man's fault, but Stuart turned a glacial stare on him and Chris hadn't yet regained the strength of mind to argue.

"And would you get Jack up here?" Stuart continued, "I think his attitude would be more conducive to aiding our guest's recovery."

"Sir." Nathaniel left with the guard struggling in his iron grip and Stuart closed the door. Chris noticed that the other man seemed to deflate a little before crossing the floor and standing over the bed, the blank expression that he was becoming familiar with over the other man's face. When he spoke, it was with a quiet anger that was at the same time dangerous, unyielding and brooked no argument.

"Don't ever question my actions again," he hissed. "And most especially not in front of my staff."

Chris sat up a little more and glared at him, the first glimmerings of his own natural assertiveness beginning to creep back. Blue eyes clashed with silver for a few brief seconds before the American had to look away, not yet even close to strong enough to hold that gaze and shaken by the ruthlessness he saw there. A ruthlessness that confused him. He was growing used to the coolness of the other man's nature that conflicted with the occasional warmth he saw, but the callous attitude that Stuart had demonstrated a minute earlier, was demonstrating now, was new to him, and shocking in that it had been turned on him.

He slumped back against the pillows, suddenly feeling all his aches and meekly apologised yet again in a feeble attempt to regain the feeling of safety Stuart had previously given him.

The silver-grey eyes stared at him for a moment longer, unreadable, before Stuart hurriedly left the room without a word or backward glance. And Chris shuddered as he felt very alone again.

~*~

"Was that entirely necessary?"

Cassie tried to formulate the question as neutrally as possible in the circumstances, watching as Nathaniel finally untied the unconscious man from the pillar in the centre of the courtyard and dragged his limp body away. Even so, she earned herself a harsh look from her employer, his irritation clear even though the sunglasses he wore concealed his eyes. She let it roll over her, water off a duck's back. "Before you ask," she continued coolly. "I swept this area this morning."

She kept her voice pitched deliberately low so that it wouldn't carry to the men clustered around the door into the dappled courtyard, several of them smoking while they talked among themselves, occasionally casting nervous glances in their direction.

Stuart stared down at them, frowning slightly, and they rapidly dispersed, obviously not willing to risk their boss' wrath in his current mood. His tone, however, when he finally deigned to reply, was cool but not hostile.

"You should know better than to ask that, Cassie. After all..."

"You have a reputation to maintain," she completed.

"Correct," he agreed, still coolly. She wasn't fooled though. She knew him too well.

"But this...? Tell me honestly, Stuart. Were you looking for an excuse to demonstrate your ruthlessness, or was this because of Keel?"

He didn't answer for a long time, still staring down into the empty courtyard. Once again, his sunglasses concealed his eyes and his expression, and this time she couldn't read his mood. Finally, he glanced up at her and replied slowly, "You know the drill, Cassie. Every now and then I have to do something to demonstrate to these hyenas that getting any ideas above their station would be extremely hazardous to their health. If I don't, they'd turn on us like the pack of wild dogs they are. We've already discussed this and agreed that it's the only way."

Keel then, she thought. The question was, was her employer really trying to reinforce his reputation after showing concern for their 'guest', concern that could be misread by the unimaginative as a sign of weakness, or was this personal? In short, had he lashed out because someone had startled his latest obsession or was he really as cool about this as he seemed. Which led to another question - was he really becoming the man that Stuart Carstairs' reputation had him to be?

Unfortunately, it didn't seem like the man standing beside her was going to give her any answers - to either of these questions.

~*~

Sitting at the small table in the bedroom, with one hand propping up his chin, Chris stared blankly at the magazine in front of him. His other hand curled around a mug of coffee procured from the small coffee machine that Stuart had brought in as a gift to celebrate his first unaided foray out of bed.

He still felt weak as a kitten, permanently tired and emotionally drained, but strength, both inner and outer, was returning a little at a time and he felt increasingly grateful to Stuart for giving him the time, support and protection to regain what he had lost.

But Stuart frightened him and he wasn't entirely certain whether he was frightened of him, or for him. He seemed to be carrying some huge burden by himself that was almost... draining him, and Chris caught glimpses of a man who was fighting with himself. There were times when Stuart seemed to relax in his company, a flash of a charming smile making brief appearances before being quickly covered by a distant, mild amusement. Always, though, there was the sense of a menacing darkness about the man.

Chris shifted in his seat to ease the aching in his shoulders and hips, then cursed as he realised that he had dunked his pyjama sleeve in the coffee. He looked around in vain for a clean set, but there was nothing in view, so he wiped it across the fabric of the pants in an effort to spread the dampness and make it dry quicker.

The pyjamas were an annoyance in themselves. He was given fresh ones to change into regularly, but he was never given the option of other clothing, although he never actually asked for any. He didn't as a rule wear the things, preferring to sleep in his birthday suit, but since the... he'd been rescued, that first night after the shower, he'd clung to them, preferring them to the vulnerability that the alternative provided. It was stupid, he knew, since he'd never been ashamed of his body, and he wasn't now, but somehow wearing them felt safer.

He rolled a shoulder, trying to work out the kinks and immediately felt a little better. Encouraged, he decided to try some stretching exercises in order to begin getting back into some sort of shape. Being a very physical man by nature, it seemed perfectly logical to him that if he could get his body back in control then the psychological and emotional would follow.

It was shocking how much energy it took him to go through a simple stretching exercise, and he slumped back in his chair, exhausted and light-headed but resolving to do some more a little later on. Not for the first time, he wished he could just get a little uninterrupted sleep. He hadn't been able to get more than an hour since before...

There was a sharp rap at the door and Chris flinched at the sound...

...Tommy flying backwards, a shower of blood...

...holding onto the table as he brought his blood pressure back down with gritted jaw and deep breaths. Fuck, but would his nerves ever be the same again?

The sharp rap came again, but this time Chris was half-expecting it, so it didn't have the same effect and it was closely followed by the door opening and a smiling blond head peering round.

"You okay?" the blond man asked. "I heard some grunting and groaning and thought you might want a hand."

Chris smiled slightly, despite his wariness of strangers. "Just getting the kinks out."

The blond man opened the door further and slid halfway in so that his back was against the doorframe and the door was angled between his feet. He kept looking out into the corridor, and Chris noticed that he too sported a rifle over his shoulder.

"Right," the blond replied, blue eyes twinkling. There was a moment of awkward silence before he spoke again. "My name's Jack, by the way, what's yours?"

Chris hesitated, the stubborn refusal to tell the men in that small room anything kicking in momentarily. But then again, his rational side told him, Stuart already knows. "Chris," he muttered, going back to his now cold coffee.

"Pleased to meet you, Chris," Jack's voice held a hint of laughter that reminded him sharply of Tommy and he felt himself getting sucked back down into blood-spattered visions of death, pain and -

"Chris?"

He looked up to see Jack watching him with concern. "What?" he asked, defensively.

"I said, what's the magazine you're reading?" Jack asked conversationally.

Chris couldn't help but smile at the sense of normality in this man. He seemed to be a lot like Tommy in some ways, and that was quite a comfort. He picked up the magazine and looked at the front cover, raising his eyebrows as he saw the title. "Cosmopolitan," he replied, the surprise evident.

Jack chuckled, "Any good tips on improving your sex life?"

"I have no idea," Chris smirked, pleased that some part of his old self was starting to percolate through the quagmire of confusion within him. "But the lingerie section's informative."

Jack laughed again, after glancing out into the corridor. "Listen, I have to go. Have fun with the lacy knickers."

When the door closed, Chris was still chuckling, but left to his own thoughts, it didn't last for long. He had to get out of here.

~*~

Cassie concentrated on accessing the systems she and Stuart had spent so long on installing. Layer upon layer of security hindered her progress but she didn't grow impatient, knowing that the time spent on complying with the security protocols was never wasted. They had far too many untrustworthy employees to risk less encryption.

The door to her office was locked, as it always was when either she or her employer were involved in transactions of this... type. There was no risk of anyone walking in on her. She swept the office even more frequently than the rest of the compound, which was done on a regular and random basis. Only once in the nine months since they'd moved their operations here had they had a breach, and even that hadn't been serious. One bug found in a communal area, and still Stuart and she had ripped the island apart looking for the perpetrator. They'd found him, of course, and Stuart had taken appropriate 'steps'. She somehow doubted that Macarthur would find anyone who thought the payoff worth the risk of betraying them for quite a while.

That didn't stop her from being cautious, of course. Because the first time she missed something it would cost them both dearly.

She was in, and proceeded to quickly and efficiently process the transactions she needed to, keeping careful track of the names of buyers and sellers, tracking the movements of weaponry arising from their dealings across the globe to the nearest square foot.

That done she moved her attention to other matters - like attempting to circumvent CI5's own security protocols.

She was good, but they were very good. What drove her on, however, was the desire to find out as much about their 'guest' as she could. For both their sakes.

~*~

Chris cursed harshly as the loose pyjama top got in the way yet again. Trying to do even very basic exercise with the thing flapping about was useless. He jumped to his feet in a fit of temper and took two steps before having to lean against the wall for support as his knees and stomach cramped and dizziness assailed him. He hated being so weak! So tired...

Control and discipline.

He'd learnt all about the advantages of control in the SEALs as well as the advantages of cutting loose, and he needed the discipline instilled in him in the Navy to work his way back into shape. He'd already worked out that things were much easier if he didn't think about Tommy and the little room, if he didn't allow himself to feel any of the conflicting and turbulent emotions running through him and had used that very discipline to push them to the side, throwing himself into physical recovery.

Although, whenever Stuart visited, that discipline seemed to abandon him completely. Stuart made him think, made him feel merely by his presence, and he didn't understand it. When Stuart wasn't there, he felt the need to throw up mental and emotional barriers to protect himself, barriers that came tumbling down every time the Englishman appeared.

He made his way gingerly to the bathroom, switching the light on and removing his top ready for a wash, then stopped and stared at himself in the mirror. This last experience hadn't been the first time he'd been stripped in order to provoke a sense of vulnerability and humiliation, and probably wouldn't be last. He knew therefore, that once he could comfortably look at himself, feel at ease in his own skin, then anyone else looking wouldn't be too much of a problem.

And now that he looked, he was comfortable. He realised that all the fuss was in his own head along with everything else, along with... no, don't want to go there. But damn, he looked ill. No wonder Stuart was treating him like china. He hadn't realised how pale he was, accentuating the exhausted dark circles under his eyes, the livid bruises and sores that still decorated his chest and abdomen, arms and face. No wonder everything seemed to ache so much.

The door to the bedroom snicked quietly open, and he knew that that had to be Stuart. Nobody else came in unannounced. Well, nobody else came in at all, apart from Jack on that one occasion, and the blonde, Cassie, occasionally accompanied Stuart. Taking one last look in the mirror, Chris hiked up the pyjama top and put it on, leaving it hanging open, and left the bathroom, only to walk straight into somebody who wasn't Stuart. Somebody who pushed rough hands inside his shirt, running hands over bare skin, painfully rubbing at healing burns on his...

...tied down, naked, fingers pulling, pushing, pinching harsh and unstoppable... Tommy, Malone, Teresa and others watching and laughing...

...before being roughly pulled away and Chris stood staring, shaking in frozen shock at Jack, holding another man by the throat.

"Chris? You okay?" Jack's sharp voice snapped him out of it and Chris nodded mutely, legs turning to jelly and skin crawling as he quickly wrapped his arms around the top, holding it tightly closed.

He watched detachedly as Jack hauled the other man to the door and threw him out.

"You're not going to tell Carstairs are you?" the other man whined.

"Depends on you, Seb," Jack replied. "What's it worth?"

"Oh, come on Jack, I only wanted to play with the slut. And I'm not the only one who thinks that Carstairs should share his sex toys..."

Chris' tired and confused brain tried to assimilate the conversation, but was too stunned to do much more than record the words and he thought that maybe he should sit down before he fell down. He made his way tiredly over to the chair at the table and slumped miserably into it.

"Seb, what Carstairs does is his own business, now do you want me to tell him or not?"

"No! No, I don't... please..."

"Right, well I'll see you later and we'll discuss it then."

Leaving the door open, Jack made two mugs of coffee and plonked one down on the table in front of Chris, who made no move to take it.

"Sorry about that," said Jack breezily. "Can't get the staff these days."

"Yeah right," Chris sighed without humour, thankful for Jack's pragmatism in grounding him.

He wished that Stuart were here and asked Jack where he was. If Stuart had been here then Seb wouldn't have gotten anywhere near him. Stuart represented protection, but...

Jack shrugged, "Who knows? Closeted up with his PC and the ice queen I should think. If I didn't know better, I'd think those two were having it off."

"What do you mean?" Chris asked, thinking that he really couldn't handle any more confusion; he was just too tired to even think straight.

Jack looked at him in surprise. "You mean...? He hasn't...? Oh, shit, Chrissy-boy, you've got some learning to do."

Chris just stared at him dully and Jack leaned forward conspiratorially. "Drink your coffee. Carstairs runs the other way. You know, bent as a boomerang?"

Chris slowly picked up his mug, trying not to notice how much his hands were shaking. He knew full well the reputation Carstairs had when it came to his love life, but this was the first time he'd considered that in relation to himself and he didn't like the implications. "Am I a prisoner?" he asked.

Jack was thrown for a moment by the apparent change in subject. "I don't know," he replied honestly. "I suppose that will be decided when he tells you why you're here."

"And why's that?" Chris asked harshly, "To be his...slut? Sex toy?"

Jack looked away for a moment, then brought his frank gaze back up, meeting his. "Honestly? I wouldn't like to say, it's his business, not mine. Anyway, I should go, if he catches me in here with you..." He trailed off with a shrug and a smirk, draining his coffee.

"Yeah, you go," Chris muttered. "Wouldn't like to get you flogged too..."

"Hey," said Jack moving over to the door, "Don't think like that - Carstairs is a ruthless bugger, he doesn't need excuses to do people over."

Chris neither moved nor answered as he stared into his coffee and heard the door close behind Jack. If possible, he was even more confused than before. He didn't want to believe that Stuart had anything less than his best interests at heart, but... he'd seen the man's callousness already, and for the life of him, he couldn't see any reason why Stuart would be so protective of him. Unless Jack was right.

The sooner he could get out of this place the better. The sooner he'd be able to put it all behind him and get on with his life, forget about all this... this weirdness. The sooner he'd be able to avenge Tommy's death.

~*~

Frustration rising, Cassie sat back in her seat glaring at the uncooperative screen in front of her. CI5's security protocols were testing her hacking skills to the limit, and she wasn't an expert, just knew enough to get by in most instances. And she didn't really want to risk drawing attention to them by probing further and maybe giving them away.

There were other avenues open to her. They'd received a bare minimum of information about Keel from their usual source, limited mainly to name, rank, serial number while in the SEALs and a brief history of his time in CI5, but it wasn't particularly enlightening. She'd already tried to access Keel's Navy records and while many were sealed she had at least managed to get hold of his yearbook from Annapolis and determine that the man they had was indeed the same Christopher Keel who had graduated as an honour student in 1992. The picture was of a younger Keel, but Keel nonetheless. She'd printed out that information for Stuart, risking having a hard copy since if anyone was doing some snooping it wouldn't come as a surprise that they'd done some digging.

What did surprise her was that Keel's yearbook suggested that he was aiming for pilot's wings, and in fact had racked up a considerable number of hours in a plane under Annapolis' student programme and had been accepted into the Pensacola pilots' training programme.

How then, had he ended up as a Navy SEAL? It wasn't the normal route that pilots took.

Sighing heavily, she leant over her keyboard again and began to dig further. She was going to get something concrete for Stuart, even if it took her days to do it.

~*~

Chris stood in the middle of the room with his eyes closed, concentrating on relaxing every muscle. He cut through the maelstrom in his mind, diving to the core, connecting with his chi, focusing on it until the maelstrom was nothing but a dim breeze in the background, until the familiar tingling in his fingers and knees of chi flowing gently had him centred.

Focusing solely on chi, he opened his eyes, and with slow, controlled practice put his body through a short form, thirty-two moves only. Knees bent, arms loosely to the front, shoulders down, right leg one step forward, right elbow back...

A sharp rap at the door, and he paused, wavering as the breeze turned into gale. Focus! Focus on chi...

... left palm flat and raised, a slow circle, step out, turn...

... and the gale settled. Another sharp rap preceded the door opening, but he didn't pause this time, the flow uninterrupted. He extended chi, extended his senses to encompass the other person...

... slow loose open punch to the front, left elbow back, right fist up, right leg up and swing...

... not a safe person, not a dangerous person. No need to react.

... feet centred, arms loosely to the front, shoulders down, focus on chi...

Relax.

"Lovely stuff." Jack sounded impressed and Chris looked over at him with a small smile and a shrug, picking up his pyjama top and putting it back on. He wandered over to the coffee machine, his muscles still humming from the gentle workout, the aches almost a memory, but the fatigue still prevalent, constantly tugging him towards drowsiness.

"Coffee?" he asked Jack, who hesitated before answering.

"Yeah, go on then. Could use the caffeine. You do all that stuff? Karate and things?"

Chris shrugged. "Some. Basic Tai Chi's about all I can manage right now, though." He took a sip of coffee and put the other mug on the table. Jack came over and sat at the other side.

"Yeah, you still look dead knackered," he commented.

"Thanks. Just need a good night's sleep is all," Chris remarked, trying not to think about the nightmares that plagued what little sleep he did get.

"Carstairs keeping you up all n - ?" Jack bit off the comment with a grimace, "Sorry."

Chris shrugged, "Doesn't matter." He paused. "Where are we?"

"What do you mean? This place?" Jack asked.

"Yeah," Chris replied, "Last I knew, I was in Monaco."

Jack laughed. "Great place, Monaco, best birds on the planet! Or whatever else you're into," he winked. "City of sin and most of it's legal."

Chris laughed with him. "Easy to get to from here, then."

"If you have a boat -" Jack stopped right there. "You're not getting ideas are you? I can't tell you anything you don't already know, it's not worth my while, you understand?"

Chris tried to read the other man's suddenly intense gaze. Was he offering something? He couldn't be sure, and so took the words at face value. "Don't blame you," he said off-handedly.

Jack stood up to leave, his coffee finished. "You should get Carstairs to find some tranqs for you. You really do look done in, mate."

"N - " Chris bit off his automatic refusal to take sleeping pills as an idea began to form. "You're right, maybe I will."

~*~

Chris stared at Stuart across the table from under lowered lashes. The other man looked haggard round the edges although his usual mask of indifference was firmly in place. There were little lines of stress framing the luminous pale eyes, dark shadows forming beneath and tightness around his lips. He couldn't help but feel concerned for this man, but put that concern down to the debt he owed him for saving his life and giving him the chance to regain his sanity, ignoring the idea that there might be something more. He felt guilty at what he was about to do, but squashed it, focussing on his objectivity.

He wasn't entirely convinced that he was physically capable of doing what had to be done, but the need to escape this confinement and do something was rapidly overtaking his need to fully recover. He was still too exhausted in every way, but he only needed to get out and find a bolthole where he could rest up and plan his next move. How hard could that be?

"Stuart, " he began, "I - I was wondering..."

The other man leaned forward attentively. "What?" he asked, eyes searching Chris' face and the American was certain that he was completely transparent, but he forged on regardless.

He took a deep breath. "I was wondering if I could get something to help me sleep..." Shit, but this was harder than asking Malone for a day off.

"The nightmares," Stuart stated matter-of-factly, and Chris nodded. Stuart knew all about those having been there to soothe and comfort him every time he had awoken screaming and thrashing in his bed.

"I - I'm not sure how much longer I can keep going. I just need one good night..." He put as much defeat as he could into his voice. Not that that was hard, because it was, unfortunately, true.

"It might help if you didn't drink such copious amounts of coffee," Stuart told him, sipping his tea. "Too much caffeine - "

" - keeps me awake, so I don't have to..." Chris shook his head, swallowing hard. "I need something to knock me out completely. Something that'll keep the nightmares away." He looked up at Stuart with a desperation that wasn't entirely feigned. "Please."

Stuart sat in contemplative silence for a moment, then said, "I'll see what I can do."

Chris dredged up a smile of thanks, stamping down on the guilt that tried to take hold.

~*~

"... and I swear she was trying not to cry!" Jack laughed, and Chris joined in.

"Poor bitch," he chuckled. "What did she ever do to you to deserve that?"

"She's the ice-queen!" Jack said, as if that explained everything. "Deserves everything she gets. Anyway, time to go."

Jack approached the door, but before he reached it, Stuart appeared, blocking the doorway, his face six shades of arctic thunder.

The blond man paled and took a step backwards. "Sir!" he began smartly, "I heard a noise - "

"Quiet!" Stuart's voice snapped as he looked over at Chris sitting at the table. The American stood and took a step towards the other men, his good humour vanishing as he realised that Jack was in deep shit.

"Stuart, please," Chris said softly. "I had a nightmare and you weren't here, that's all. Please?"

There was a long angry silence.

"Get back to your post," Stuart spat at Jack. The blond man slipped quickly past Carstairs, throwing Chris a grateful smile from behind the other man's back before disappearing down the corridor.

Stuart stepped into the room and slammed a small brown bottle that rattled on the bedside table. "You shouldn't have that problem any more," he hissed icily.

Chris clenched his jaw as a spark of anger flared through him. What the hell was wrong with having somebody else to talk to? But he held it back.

"I don't want you talking to that man again. In fact, I don't want you talking to anyone else at all," Stuart told him in a voice that demanded obedience.

Chris snapped. "And why the hell not?" he said angrily, as he moved across towards Stuart. "I've been shut in here for fuck knows how long, going stir crazy! What the hell is with you? Think I'm gonna fuck my way through your household or some shit like that? Jealous?"

The room seemed to become abruptly colder, Stuart's expression hard.

"That question presupposes that I have feelings for you," Stuart said in a soft voice that was somehow harder than diamonds. "I don't."

Chris' next expletive filled argument died in his throat, as the other man's words hit him full force. There was a crashing disappointment and he had no idea where it came from, but it hurt. "Then why...?" he asked, his voice cracking.

"Get some sleep," Stuart told him and left the room.

Chris sat down hard on the bed, trying and failing to work out what had just happened. Angrily, he picked up the bottle of pills and stared at them, determined to get out of this madhouse before it screwed his head up any further.

~*~

Chris was taken by surprise, and not unpleasantly so when someone knocked on the door, and a blond head appeared.

"Jack," he greeted with a grin. "Didn't think you'd be back so fast."

"Well, the bugger's gone over to the mainland. Thought you could use some company," Jack grinned.

"I appreciate it, thanks." Chris went to the coffee machine, waving a mug at Jack.

"Thanks," Jack said, sitting down at the table. "Carstairs... he wasn't too hard on you after I left...?" he asked uncertainly. "You look even more knackered than before."

"Nothing I couldn't handle," Chris replied, putting the mugs on the table and sitting down. "What about you?" he asked.

Jack shrugged, taking a mouthful of hot coffee. "I daresay I'll get lumbered with scraping barnacles off the boats or something... but, I'll keep my head down and with a bit of luck, he'll forget about the whole thing."

"You wanna bet?" Chris asked, with a sly grin.

"Not on your life!" Jack laughed. "Money's something very close to my heart and I wouldn't waste it on a bet I wouldn't win." He took another gulp of coffee, "Did I ever tell you about -?" he broke off with a surprised yawn. "Shit, I didn't realise I was so - " he broke off with another yawn and stared at the coffee. "You bastard..."

"Sorry, Jack," Chris told him. "All's fair in love and war and all that crap."

"Fuck," mumbled Jack, slumping towards the table. "Well, go for it, I say... just make sure I... get somewhere... comfortable..."

Chris smiled to himself as the next sound to issue from the other man's lips was a deep snore.

With no knowledge of how quickly Jack's absence from his post would be noticed, Chris went straight to work. With Jack's build being fairly close to his own, he was able to swap their clothes. The rough fabric of the dark blue combats and tee-shirt was a sharp contrast to the soft pyjama's he'd been wearing and almost immediately chafed against still tender skin and the boots seemed heavy, a sensation of having his feet in clay. He figured he'd acclimatise to that quickly enough, and concentrated on keeping his head together long enough to get away.

He left the room with rifle in hand and took a last look at Jack snoring steadily, tucked up in bed. He desperately wished for a moment that they could trade places. It was too late though. He'd made his choices and had to run with them.

~*~

Some time later, he couldn't tell exactly how long, knowing that time stretched under pressure, Chris leaned against the wall and closed his blurring eyes for a moment. He'd made it through the big house to the dock undetected, but he was so tired from the trek and accumulation of sleepless nights that he was already having serious thoughts of crawling into a hole on the beach somewhere and curling up.

He wearily dismissed that idea as being wholly impractical though. He needed to get off this island before the alarm went up. There were too many people on the dock at the moment though, busy mooring a speedboat, its passengers already gone. He'd have to wait until things quietened down somewhat before making a move and tried to take advantage of the respite, gathering his wits and reserves of energy together.

He didn't have to wait long before the dock was empty of life and he took a deep breath to rally himself and move. It was an indication of exactly how below par he was that the first he knew of another presence was a gun at his temple.

Crap. He froze, keeping an eye out for an opportunity. The other person grabbed the rifle, throwing it on the ground some distance away and moved round to face him. Stuart was looking particularly deadly as he hissed furiously at Chris.

"You bloody idiot!" he snarled, the gun wavering slightly.

Chris brought a hand and a knee up simultaneously and sharply, knocking the gun from Carstairs' hand and doubling him up. The gun spun under some crates near the rifle and Chris decided to leave them, the detour would cost him too much. He sprinted for the speedboat, well aware that his steps were faltering, the skin on the back of his neck prickling as he expected a bullet to plough into him.

Rapid footfalls behind him told him of pursuit, and he quickened his pace, trying to find his second wind. Something crashed into him from behind, and as he fell he lashed out, satisfied at the grunt contact produced. But Carstairs was on him, on top of him, pinning him to the ground, putting his arm in a painful half nelson. He struggled against his captor futilely with rapidly waning strength and could only follow as he was dragged to his feet and shoved up against the side of the boathouse, splintered wood digging into his face.

Carstairs' firm body pressed into his, lips mere millimetres away from his ear.

"Listen, you bloody idiot, I'm trying to save your damned life!"

"S'funny," Chris ground out, trying to ignore the dizziness that was making his head spin. "From where I'm standing, feels more like prison."

Stuart grunted, "Do the words, 'Sunrise Over Easter Island' mean anything to you?"

"What...?" Chris tried to work out what the man was on about, but then recalled a briefing that happened in another lifetime. "Shit! You're - you're..." He felt Stuart relax and let him go, so turned around, back flat against the wall, but noting the other man's wary distance. "You're M I fucking 6?!" he exclaimed incredulously. "Why the hell didn't you tell me before -?"

"Shut up, Keel, before your mouth gets us both into trouble!" Carstairs snapped, then turned to face another figure approaching. "Nathaniel! Good timing. Take our errant guest back to where he belongs." He gave Chris a hard, cold, almost bitter look, and the American couldn't help shivering. "And make sure he's secure."

~*~

"What happened?" Cassie demanded, her eyes fixed on the bruises now beginning to purple along her employer's ribs.

Stuart glanced up, and darted a look at the closed door. Although they were the only ones in the room, his natural caution seemed to be asserting itself again. She impatiently fixed her eyes on him, refusing to let him wriggle out of this one. If something had gone wrong with his meet, she needed to know about it.

"Macarthur's men?" she demanded, her lowered tone the only concession she was willing to make to his paranoia. She didn't even bother reassuring him that the room was clean. If he didn't trust her by now not to open her mouth when there was a risk of them being overheard then there really was no hope for him.

He avoided her eyes, but thankfully for the sake of her blood pressure and his health this time he answered her. "Not exactly."

Very informative. She fixed him with a steely glare. He sighed heavily, and finally deigned to explain. She knew better than to assume it was because of her irritation though. He always had another agenda.

"Keel tried to escape. I stopped him."

"Then we're going to have to restrain him a damn sight more carefully than we have been," she snapped.

"He won't try again."

"How the hell do you know that?"

His gaze was even. "He won't. Believe me."

She wished she could. She really did. "Why?" Her tone was icy now, knowing him well enough to know that there was more he hadn't seen fit to share with her. Yet.

He met her eyes, his own tired and veiled rather than coldly distant. "I had to tell him."

It took her a second to figure it out, the words 'tell him what?' already hovering on her lips, and then an icy rage took over.

"You told him who we are?"

"I told him who I was," he corrected gently. She dismissed the semantics with an infuriated hand gesture.

"It won't take him long to figure out that I must be involved," she spat. "Why the hell...?"

"I didn't have a choice."

"Of course you did," she bit off.

His eyes snapped with his own irritation. "Such as what, Cassie? Shoot him?"

"That is always an option, yes."

They stared at each other in bitter silence for a long moment. He was the first to look away.

~*~

Chris squirmed uncomfortably on the bed, pulling at the handcuffs that kept his wrists fastened to the bedpost at his head. His bladder was aching and he was regretting in spades the amount of coffee he'd consumed before making his aborted escape attempt.

It had been a few hours since Nathaniel had brought him here, and he'd spent some time trying to figure out Carstairs' motivations and failing. He recalled that Carstairs had been a known figure in the gun-running trade for a good few years and that he had a reputation for ruthlessness, which fitted a part of the man Chris was getting to know, but there was the gentle caring side to the man which didn't fit, and now this shocking revelation that he was MI6.

It occurred to him that Carstairs could just be trying to play head-games with him, but he knew the code. A code that no MI6 agent would ever give up, so the idea that he'd got it from someone else was quickly dismissed.

And there was something else, going back to the compassionate side of Carstairs. He knew that the rep the man had earned was in part due to the sadistic manner with which he used and abused his lovers, but he couldn't reconcile that with the warmth and concern that had been shown him. Unless the man was simply screwing with his head or playing a role. But which role? Where did Carstairs end and the MI6 operative begin?

He didn't know, and had the uneasy feeling that Carstairs himself didn't know.

He shifted a little in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure from his bladder, unwilling to humiliate himself, even if it meant that the damned thing burst.

A sharp rap at the door made him jump, but it was quickly followed by Jack's familiar head popping round, and Chris smiled in tentative welcome.

"I would offer you coffee," Chris grinned lopsidedly, wriggling his fingers, "but I'm a little tied up right now."

Jack grinned, partially suppressing a yawn, no apparent grudges held. "Yeah, yeah, you're just a lazy bugger really, any excuse." He paused, then said softly, "Sorry you didn't make it."

Chris shrugged dismissively. "I'm still alive and there'll be other opportunities."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Jack warned him. "I've known Carstairs to take a man apart for less."

"After all the work he's done in putting me back together?" Chris shrugged again, "We'll see." He paused awkwardly, then said hesitantly, "I don't suppose you could...?" He looked pointedly at the handcuffs, rattling them.

Jack looked at him reproachfully, "I'm probably the last person you should ask - "

"Jack, please," Chris interrupted, with an abashed grimace, "I really need the bathroom. We're talking terminal here."

The blond man stared at him for a moment, then glanced back out into the corridor before entering. "I don't have the keys for the handcuffs," Jack told him, "but let's see what we can do." He glanced around the room for a moment before settling on the coffee machine, and striding over to grab the half-full jug. He emptied the coffee into the bathroom sink before checking the corridor again, and bringing it over. "Use this," he said, before rolling his eyes at the impracticality.

Chris flushed furiously, but by kneeling up next to the bedpost, was able to see to himself more or less, although undoing the combats was a bit tricky, with Jack holding the jug with one hand and supporting his lower back with the other.

He was just letting out a deep sigh of relief when he heard Jack curse under his breath. He swivelled his head to look behind him, and let out a curse of his own when he saw Stuart standing there, rigid and impassive.

"Stuart," Chris began, fumbling at the combats, "I just - "

"I can see what you were 'just'," Stuart interrupted coldly. "How many excuses do you two need?"

Jack moved away slowly to empty the coffee jug, and Stuart didn't stop him.

"It's not like that!" Chris protested, wondering at the guilt he was feeling, exacerbated by the underlying, what, jealousy? in Carstairs' tone.

"I'm sure," Carstairs muttered a little bitterly, before turning to Jack who had come out of the bathroom. "You," he said icily, "will not come in here again. He," he stabbed a finger in Chris' direction, "is mine. Mine alone."

Chris clenched his jaw in anger at what he felt to be an insult, but chose to keep his mouth shut in light of the revelation Carstairs had made on the dock. If the Englishman really was playing a role, then he didn't want to force him into another ruthless act against either himself or Jack.

Within seconds, he was left alone, Stuart slamming the door behind them.

~*~

"Are you going to tell our... contact that we've been compromised?" she asked him when she'd cornered him again in his room. She'd finally got hold of her temper sufficiently to assume a fašade of politeness, icy though it was.

He frowned at her, and her intuition told her that something other than her had irritated him. And then he sighed, running his fingers through his hair in an act that she knew spoke of tiredness. Maybe it was unconscious or maybe it was designed to make her feel some pity for him. With Stuart you could never tell.

"We haven't been compromised."

She didn't bother to answer, raising one eyebrow in a move of frank disbelief, one she'd learnt from him and he had the grace to flush slightly and look away.

"Keel's CI5," he said, his tone almost appeasing. "He knows when to keep his mouth shut."

"We don't know that he's trustworthy," she protested, her temper rising again in spite of her attempts to keep it in check and face him with logic rather than emotion - something he personally excelled at.

"The information we have from our sources is that he is. He knew the code phrase. He's legit, Cassie."

"Are you sure," she continued, calmer now that he was pleading with her rather than simply overruling her, "that we can trust him with our lives? Because that is what you are doing, Stuart."

"I know." The green eyes that met her were candid. "But he didn't break, Cassie. Pasa had him for almost a week and he didn't break. We can trust him."

Her look was doubtful, she knew it, couldn't hide it and he must have seen it too, because he continued, his tone persuasive, "If you don't want to trust him, Cassie, then trust me."

It was underhand of him and she resented him for it. She did trust him, that was the most unfair thing about it, but while she trusted the man, right now she didn't know if she trusted his judgement.

Before she could argue further, pressure him any more, a yell pierced the silence and he was out of the door before she'd had time to do more than flinch.

~*~

Wedding cake with crimson streaked icing splattered through the air, bodies falling, screaming, as shots ripped through them. Teresa dying in his arms, mouthing the words, 'I love you' in Stuart's voice, Tommy sprawled over his lap, 'You're on your own now, mate', as water poured over his face, gushing into his mouth and nose, but coppery, changing to blood drowning him, fingers roaming, pinching...

Chris' eyes flew open with a scream of denial torn from his throat, the nightmare slipping away, but the fingers were still there, his tee-shirt pushed up and a hand tugging at his waistband. He tried to pull away, squirming, but the handcuffs held him fast. Focusing on the man leaning over him, his gut churned to see Seb, intense concentration on his face as he fought to get a hand down the front of Chris' pants.

With a yell, Chris used the spring of the mattress to launch his legs into the air, catching the man's neck scissor-like between his knees, flipping him onto his back. He exerted pressure, his left leg forcing the man's jaw back, his right pushing the vertebrae forward, intending to snap Seb's neck.

His yell must have attracted some attention though, because the door slammed open and Jack stood there, shouting at him to stop, apparently not daring to come into the room. Chris stopped with the pressure, but didn't relinquish his hold on the flailing man, uncertain of where he stood.

Another shadow in the doorway, and he saw Stuart behind Jack, giving the blond permission to enter, then Nathaniel appeared too. Chris locked gazes with Stuart for a brief moment and felt a shiver, as he found nothing but icy contempt there. This time, however, it was Stuart who looked away first, and Chris regretfully let go of Seb.

"Tie his legs down, and double the guard. Jack and Seb will do," Stuart told Nathaniel callously from the doorway, before spinning away and rapidly disappearing down the corridor.

The hurt that speared through Chris at this blatant disregard for his well-being took him by surprise with its intensity. It must have shown on his face, because Jack looked at him in concern as Nathaniel escorted a stumbling and cursing Seb outside and went to retrieve some ropes from somewhere.

"You're already his," Jack told him softly. "You just have to admit it to yourself, Chrissie-boy."

Chris glared angrily at him, his jaw clenched so hard it ached, before abruptly slumping back into the pillows, his breathing harsh as he denied Jack's words.

"So," said Jack lightly, cocking his head. "Who's Teresa?"

Chris looked at him sharply, "How do you...?"

"The name's come up a few times, along with Tommy. I heard you just now, too, before I realised that Seb was in here."

Chris leaned back again, eyes narrowed as he swallowed hard, staring at the ceiling. "She was my wife," he finally ground out, the bitterness evident. "And Tommy was my partner." The combined grief he felt at their deaths washed over him, fuelling the anger and hurt inside.

Nathaniel chose that moment to return with ropes, handing one to Jack. Chris put up a struggle, managing to double Nathaniel up with a well planted boot but restricted by the handcuffs there really wasn't much he could do, and when Nathaniel pinned him down with his full weight all the fight in him fled. Jack took Chris' boots off and tied his ankles to the bedposts at either side of the foot of the bed. Nathaniel checked and retied Jack's knots, pulling the ropes much tighter even as he threw Jack an enquiring look.

The blond man ignored the look and accompanied Nathaniel out of the room, taking his position outside with Seb.

Before the door closed, Chris heard a little of the conversation between them.

"No, Seb, Carstairs doesn't want him touched, he'll have us flogged if either one of us goes in there again."

"But it's not fair!" whined Seb. "I was told that Carstairs always shares his pets sooner or later, why not sooner?"

Jack sounded exasperated, "He quite obviously hasn't finished with this one, in fact, I suspect he's barely started. Until Carstairs says otherwise, leave him alone. I don't think he'll be too pleased to find this one damaged before he has his shot..."

The door shut at that point, and Chris tried to make himself comfortable. Not that that was the easiest thing to accomplish; with his hands cuffed to the left hand bed post and his legs spread, his spine was twisted awkwardly.

~*~

His back was aching badly by the time Stuart deigned to visit him, making Chris snappy and fractious on top of everything else. After closing the door, Stuart stood at the foot of the bed, staring at him. If Chris' temper hadn't been so frayed, he might have read concern and shame in the Englishman's eyes, but too wrapped up in his simmering hurts, both internal and external, he didn't. Resting his head on his arms, he settled for a hateful glare instead.

With a deep sigh, Stuart sat himself heavily on the bed, reaching a hand forward to stroke the hair back from Chris' forehead. The American pulled back sharply and Stuart dropped his hand with a regretful sigh, studying him.

After a long silence, Stuart eventually asked. "What was that all about with Seb? I thought we'd sorted out all this escaping nonsense down at the dock?"

"It had nothing to do with escape," Chris declared heatedly, "It was just a -" he paused as he realised that Stuart didn't know about Seb's lechery, "a clash of personalities."

Stuart's stare was penetrating. "Are you sure?" he asked softly. "I've seen the way he looks at you. Not like Jack; he just wants to be everyone's friend, but Seb, and one or two of the others... I have to make sure you're safe, Chris, you would tell me if any of them bother you? I'll kill him if I have to..."

Chris buried his face in his arms, forcing out a tight chuckle, muffled, to hide his disbelief.

"What's so funny?" Stuart asked, sounding a little peeved.

Chris looked at him with bitter humour edged with anger. "You! You want me to be safe, to feel safe, and look at me!" He rattled the handcuffs awkwardly.

"That's your own fault," Stuart said, his tone reprimanding. "I had - "

"My fault!" Chris lashed out with his tongue, "I didn't ask for this in any way shape or form! And I don't care if you're M umph - !" He tried to pull away from Stuart's hand over his mouth, but it was firm and his movements were severely restricted.

Stuart leaned close to his ear and whispered harshly, "Appearances, Keel, and don't forget it," before removing his hand.

Chris lay passively, his gaze resting on the bedside table, a focus point so that he didn't have to look at Stuart while anger still clearly radiated from him.

"Is it safe for me to untie you?" Stuart asked, his eyes narrowing slightly and after a few seconds hesitation, Chris nodded, still not looking at him.

Stuart grasped his chin and forced Chris to look at him, demanding. "I'm tired of playing games, Chris," he told him seriously. "Can I untie you?"

The American closed his eyes, the muscles in his jaw twitching, before he opened them again, meeting Stuart's intense stare. "Yes." He spat the word out.

After studying him for a few seconds longer, Stuart seemed satisfied and untied the ropes keeping Chris' legs immobilised. As the American stretched with a tired groan, he unlocked the handcuffs, taking a second to make sure the reddened rings around Chris' wrists were no more than minor bruises.

Chris sat up gingerly, rolling his head, trying to get the kinks out, wincing as he did so, and rubbing at his wrists. He stiffened slightly as Stuart moved behind him, then relaxed as the strong, dextrous fingers found stiff and aching muscles and massaged them back to life through the tee-shirt. Barely thinking about it, Chris pulled the shirt over his head, allowing Stuart direct contact with his flesh. He closed his eyes, enjoying the feel, the touch of those fingers, bringing him back to life in more than one way, nothing erotic, just comfortable, sensual, relaxing, his anger draining away and he felt his eyelids drooping.

"Don't suppose there's any chance of those sleeping pills?" he asked, though it came out as a soft mumble. The fingers froze, and he felt Stuart slide off the bed. He looked up, blinking through bleary eyes, snapping back to full wakefulness when he saw the bitter fury sparking from Stuart's eyes.

"After last time? I can't trust you, Chris. You'll just have to deal with your nightmares on your own." With that, Stuart stormed out of the room, leaving Chris to wince at the door slamming behind him.

~*~

It appeared that her employer was not going to even consider eliminating their most pressing problem. Cassie still didn't agree with that, and had continued to argue long and hard with Stuart about this, to no avail. She had a reputation for being stubborn, but she was an amateur when it came to Carstairs. At the end of the day in spite of her concerns and the way in which she'd expressed them he'd simply overruled her. Which stung.

Her objections were still valid, she knew that, and had been for a while but most especially in the light of Keel's abortive escape attempt. Under other circumstances she would have suspected that Carstairs was letting other, peripheral, concerns overturn his good sense, but she knew that the man was simply too professional to let emotion rather than his uncanny instinct for survival dictate his actions.

Wasn't he?

She trusted him as much as she trusted anyone, which had made his playing on her loyalty hurt even more, but in spite of what he had said he wasn't asking her to trust him. He was asking her to trust Keel, a man they knew very little about and who had already been in the hands of one of the least trusty individuals she knew, for all Stuart had said that Keel hadn't broken.

She stared at the computer on her desk wearily, her heart still bitter and the adrenaline rush of fury at Stuart leaving ashes in its wake. She was almost used to being afraid, knowing that fear was pretty much a constant companion in their line of work, and she was even resigned to the feelings of helplessness that all field agents went through sometimes, but this was almost more than even she could cope with. As she'd told Stuart, her life and his were in the hands of someone they didn't know, didn't know if they could trust and who, as far as she knew, had little reason to protect either of them, CI5 or not.

She needed more information about Keel if she was to salvage anything from this fiasco. Forewarned was forearmed, after all and in the face of Stuart's stubbornness it was all she could do to protect him.

Decision made, she moved towards her computer, and switched it on. Although she'd had little luck in accessing secure systems, perhaps she'd do better if she tried to build up a picture of the real man, rather than the agent. The internet was as good a place to start on that as any.

~*~

Tommy flew backwards, blood gushing from his chest, staining the floor with crimson, filling the air with a metallic scent that choked him... Water rose, swirling pinkly around his ankles, dragging him down, filling his lungs, his nose, tasting of blood and death and more...

He woke with another scream dying in his throat, his fingers clutching desperately at the covers while his heart pounded in his chest. He was alone in his room, left alone to deal with this by Stuart, the other man's patience having been worn thin by his abortive escape attempt and he really couldn't blame Stuart for that.

He did anyway.

The door to his room snicked open softly, and a silhouette appeared in the doorway. Jack, he thought at first, grateful beyond words for the other man's sympathy in the face of Stuart's anger, but when the figure moved into the room and the light from the hall outside spilled in, illuminating the man's face, he realised it wasn't.

It was Stuart.

Stuart said nothing for a moment, just looked down at him, his expression serious and shuttered, and then moved towards the bathroom, returning with a glass of water that he offered to Chris. While Chris gulped down the ice-cold water gratefully, Stuart moved to shut the door and put on the table lamp on the small chiffonier, letting its dim light illuminate the room, pushing back some of the shadows.

"Bad dream?" he asked as he moved back to stand by the bed, his voice neutral.

Chris nodded, looking away from the concern in those grey-green eyes because if he looked away it wasn't real and then he had nothing to feel guilty about.

Stuart sighed softly and moved to sit on the side of the bed. He avoided looking at Chris, maybe so he wouldn't have to be confronted with the pathetic state of the American, Chris didn't know. Whatever the reason, Stuart didn't say anything more, just sat there staring at the wall.

"Thanks," Chris said eventually, gesturing slightly with the glass, not wanting to appear even more pathetic.

Stuart spared him a glance, his expression unreadable. "You're welcome." The Englishman seemed to hesitate for a second and then added, still neutrally, "Did you want anything else?"

Pride had him answering, a little colder than he intended, "No, thank you." He cursed himself for that when he saw a minute flinch go through Stuart, so subtle that he thought for a moment that he'd imagined it. Stuart went back to staring at the wall and Chris joined him, a flush at his rudeness rising in his cheeks.

"If there's nothing else," said Stuart eventually, "I'll go -"

"Stay." The word was torn from his throat, panic at being left alone with the demons that haunted him rising up. "Please, stay."

"Okay." Stuart's tone was still neutral, but at least the Englishman was sitting back down on the bed.

Staring down at the water glass in his hand, Chris searched for something to say, something nice and bland and non-pathetic. "Did I wake you up?" He winced, knowing that that would only rub in the fact that Stuart may well have had to drag himself out of his own bed to come and deal with his pathetic 'houseguest'.

"No," replied Stuart calmly. "I wasn't asleep."

Which, thought Chris, mentally kicking himself, would explain why the Englishman was still dressed. "Sorry," he muttered, refusing to look at his erstwhile saviour. Stuart didn't have an answer to that, but when Chris stole a glance at him out of the corner of his eye, Stuart was watching him, his face concerned.

Seeing him looking, Stuart cleared his throat and asked, still neutrally, "Do you want me to read to you?"

"I don't need a bed time story," he snapped, and instantly regretted it as he watched the shutters come down and Stuart went back to watching him warily. He softened his voice to add, "Just stay. Please?"

Stuart searched his face for a long moment, and then nodded. He leant back on the bed, keeping one foot on the floor as though he were in an old Hollywood movie. Chris didn't know whether that was a conscious move on his part, a move designed to make Chris feel safe, or whether it was entirely unconscious. Stuart's eyes were fixed firmly on the ceiling now, which made a change from the wall, and Chris joined him in watching the shadows form there, placing his glass on the bedside table.

He didn't expect to sleep but exhaustion claimed him anyway, pulling him back down into darkness, his troubled dreams soothed by the man who stayed by his side.

~*~

Cassie followed Stuart into Keel's room, ignoring the startled glance their 'houseguest' threw her. She'd rarely ventured into this inner sanctum of his, at least not since he was sick, and he'd certainly never seen her with paraphernalia like this.

She ignored Stuart too, since she was still mad as hell at him. Once again they'd argued vehemently, this time all night and coming close to crossing the line into pure viciousness, and still she'd been unable to change his mind. Not content with blowing their cover, he now wanted to talk to Keel and see if they couldn't get something useful out of the American. She thought it was suicide and had told him so.

He'd won. They only thing that she could do to try and keep their asses out of the fire was to ensure that the room was clean before they had this dangerous conversation. And keep an eye on Keel. If she thought for one minute that he posed a serious danger to either of them, she'd have no compunction whatsoever to about taking steps. Permanent ones, no matter what Stuart thought of the matter.

She took her time sweeping the room, ignoring the irritated looks that Stuart was throwing her. She wasn't being petty - having long since come to the conclusion that it did no good with Stuart - but she was damn well going to be thorough about it. And he could go fuck himself if he wasn't happy.

Keel watched her in puzzled silence, obviously now clued into what she was doing but apparently at a loss as to why. He kept throwing Stuart these little questioning looks and for some reason that irritated her too. It was as though he expected Stuart to have all of the answers and, more than that, provide them on being asked. Stuart, however, was not playing ball this time and she could only be grateful he'd maintained his wits about him to do that much at least.

Finally she was as satisfied that the room was clean as she could be and gave Stuart a little unsmiling nod of her own before coming to sit neatly in the chair next to Keel's bed, leaving Stuart to stand.

She and Keel stared at each other for a moment, and she made sure that her face was expressionless, before Keel once again broke their gaze to look quizzically at her superior. This time Stuart answered him.

"Cassie works with me."

Keel frowned for a second before the light dawned on his face and he actually looked at her with new respect. She stifled the urge to comment, still maintaining her icy fašade. After all, she'd learnt from the best.

"We thought that it would be a good idea to discuss a little about what we're up to. And tell you why we haven't contacted CI5."

The last part of the statement surprised her as much as it seemed to surprise Keel, and she was hard pressed not to show it as he glanced between them again. She'd known, of course, that they hadn't contacted CI5 - any such contact normally fell within her sphere - but surely telling Keel that increased the risk that the American would go off half-cocked. Although, maybe Stuart was trying to head off any questions about that. Who knew?

Keel was frowning now. "Go on."

Stuart glanced at her, but she gave him no help. "We're in... a delicate position here. We can't risk letting CI5 know that you're with us because we're not entirely sure that they won't insist on trying to extract you."

"And that would be a bad thing why exactly?"

Stuart paused for a long moment, obviously to gather his thoughts together, and she stepped into the breach, making sure that she sounded both superior and bored. "Because if you disappear from here and reappear within the ranks of CI5 that automatically triggers all sorts of suspicions where we don't want them to be triggered."

Keel, predictably, protested. "Hey, no one is going to know that I turn up again in CI5's ranks. We don't normally go around sending out housewarming invitations."

"We know that, Chris," soothed Stuart, and she came close to despising him for taking the time instead of just overruling the man the way he overruled her. "But we also can't risk people wondering why you've disappeared from here."

Keel shrugged. "So they assume that you killed me, or otherwise disposed of me."

She snorted impatiently. "That won't work."

"Why the hell not?"

They bristled at each other for a moment, Stuart apparently content to let them sort it out themselves. "Because," she explained slowly, "that rather flies in the face of the reputation Stuart has acquired for himself."

By the way that he shuffled uncomfortably and glanced at Stuart out of the corner of his eye rather than looking at him directly she could tell that he had some knowledge of Carstairs' rep at least. Perhaps he wasn't as bad an agent as she'd suspected, although her opinion up until now had been based on the fact that he'd been caught in the first place and the rather pathetic figure he'd presented on his arrival at the compound. She couldn't resist a dig. "That is, after all, why Pasa was so eager to give you to Stuart."

"I thought the son of a bitch just wanted me off his patch."

Stuart interrupted them, his cool, calm voice cutting across their bickering effortlessly. "What were you doing at Pasa's warehouse in the first place?" His tone wasn't confrontational but Keel still bristled again.

"Looking for something," he hedged.

"I gather that," answered Stuart, sounding amused. "I didn't think you'd broken into an empty warehouse because you wanted to organise a rave. What were you looking for?"

"We had a tip off," Keel elaborated, his expression suspicious. "We didn't know the warehouse was empty."

"That's because Macarthur set you up," Stuart explained. Watching Keel's face she was able to tell both that the name Macarthur was familiar to him and that he was chagrined about being so easily caught out.

"Why would he do that?"

Stuart shrugged, obviously not wanting to give anything away and she could only be grateful for that amount of restraint on his part.

She was rapidly losing patience with this dancing around, and got straight back to the point while they exchanged another long look.

"What were you looking for?"

Keel gave her an irritated look. "It was part of an ongoing CI5 investigation and that's all I'm prepared to say." She snorted and folded her arms, glaring at him belligerently and opened her mouth to press him further but he beat her to it, going on the offensive for the first time. "Am I allowed to ask MI6's interest in this?"

She fixed him with an even harder glare but he didn't seem abashed, returning it with one of his own. Once again Stuart cut across the tension in the room.

"We're not interested in Pasa. We're... interested in Macarthur."

Quick as a shot Keel came back with, "Why?"

Another almost nonchalant shrug from Stuart, but she knew him well enough to realise that he was observing the American's reactions closely, searching for any little give aways. "He's moving up in the world, and we like to keep our eyes on men like him. We're interested in where he's getting his merchandise from."

"And that's all?"

She watched Stuart give him a considering look, and wondered how much her superior was going to give away. She needn't have worried, now that he was actually quizzing their guest he was back to full professionalism.

"That's enough."

Keel looked between them again, his eyes sharp. "So where do I fit in?"

"You don't," she interjected coldly. "I presume you don't have any useful information about Macarthur if you were after Pasa and Macarthur isn't likely to be interested in you unless he thinks that Stuart is obsessed with you."

Stuart gave her another irritated look, and she treated him to a small, icy smile.

"Do you know anything about Macarthur that we could use, Chris?" he asked.

Keel paused for a second, obviously considering things, and then shook his head. Did he really have nothing useful, she wondered, or had he taken that time to decide whether or not to lie?

"Well, Cassie," Stuart turned to her, "I suggest that we go back to the old plan and keep tracking movements and seeing if we can arrange a meet without it seeming like us who want it."

Keel's look was darting between them again. "What did you mean?"

She gave him a contemptuous look. "Tracking weapons movements," she explained superciliously.

His expression grew annoyed. "I know that that means," he snapped, "I meant... the other stuff."

"Oh," she breathed slowly, rather enjoying the frown blossoming on his face again. It was petty of her, she knew, but she was rather enjoying his confusion. "You mean about Stuart being obsessed with you?" He squirmed in his seat slightly, flushing at her knowing smile. "Well," she smiled, "with Stuart's... reputation... the only reason that he would have for keeping you here... well..."

He understood, she saw, his flush deepening as he stared down at the floor. "I'd figured that much out," he muttered. She wondered idly whether he'd start scuffing at the carpet with his toe, just to complete the picture of a chastised schoolboy he appeared to be trying to perfect. "What I meant is... well..."

Stuart finally decided to put him out of his misery, fixing Cassie with an icy glare of his own. "What Cassie is trying and failing to say," he drawled, "is that we've been waiting for Macarthur to make a move but the bastard is too cautious. He won't stick his head above the parapet so we can blow the fucker off. However, when Pasa 'gave' you to me, that gave us an opportunity to convince him that I'd become so obsessed with the idea of breaking you, of making you mine that I would be distracted and he could move against me before I realised what was going on."

She watched the American absorb this, before he said, very quietly, "Oh." She supposed there wasn't a lot else he could say in the circumstances, but at least he wasn't trying to pull any macho bullshit, which surprised her a little.

She couldn't resist, however, adding a rather snide, "The best thing for you to do, Keel, is to play stupid and enjoy the luxuries while you can. Shouldn't be too difficult."

It was a direct hit, Keel colouring with mingled annoyance and embarrassment. She should have anticipated Stuart's frown though, given how protective he'd been of Keel so far. She lifted her chin and met his disapproval defiantly. He seemed to decide not to comment in front of Keel, but turned to reassure the other man.

"If there is anything that you can help with," Stuart said, his tone almost gentle, "we'll bring you in on it, but at the moment I'm sure you understand that about the only thing you can do is play the part so that you don't blow our cover."

She scowled, wondering why the hell he was taking the time to bother with this crap instead of just telling Keel to stay put and behave. The last thing they needed was for this hothead to go off half-cocked, which in spite of this conversation she believed was still a risk. However, she bit her tongue as Stuart turned a hard and cold look on her. Pissing him off any further wasn't going to do any good, even if she did have provocation.

And she'd had enough provocation to last a lifetime.

~*~

Strobe lights speared through his brain as Teresa knelt above him, caressing, stroking, laughing cruelly, as spiteful words spewed from her mouth, her well-manicured nails lengthening into sharp talons that ripped at his skin. He pushed her away, even as he never wanted to let her go but his hands passed straight through her, and she faded away to the tune of a Gatling gun, screaming in terror...

"No, no, no!" gasped Chris, tumbling into full wakefulness, panting and sweating, the image of Teresa fading in seconds.

"It's okay, Chris, come on, you're safe." Stuart's voice accompanied his warm arms encircling him, though he sounded tired, and Chris forced taut muscles to relax as his night terror fled, allowing Stuart to embrace him. When his breathing returned to normal, he looked up at the Englishman, noting how exhausted he looked. Not surprising really, since he'd been there every time Chris woke screaming from his constant nightmares.

"You should get some sleep," he told Stuart softly.

The other man chuckled wearily, "What, with you carrying on like the hounds of hell are on your heels every night? I can hear you through the walls." He knocked on the wall behind him for emphasis.

"I'm sorry," Chris looked away, embarrassed and ashamed, leaning against Stuart's chest. "I just - I don't know how to stop them." The admission was hard for him; he had healed so well in just about every other way that the weaknesses of both having the constant nightmares and the lack of sleep were taking their toll, and it was a sign of how desperate he was becoming that he could admit it so easily.

"I'm sure it's natural," Stuart told him, rubbing his shoulder in reassurance. "Torture, losing your partner, not to mention this place; it's no wonder you're having problems. But you're right; I do need some sleep myself and I can't in here."

"Why not?" asked Chris, then winced as he realised how that must have sounded. "I mean - "

"I know what you meant," Stuart sighed. "I'm just - more comfortable in my own bed."

Chris nodded in understanding, but remained silent.

"Tell you what," Stuart suddenly said, and Chris was almost certain there was a calculating undertone in there somewhere, but couldn't fathom it. "I'm going to sleep in my own bed, it's only next door and if you have any more nightmares, you're welcome to join me there anytime, and no one'll stop you, okay?"

"Thanks," Chris pulled away with a chagrined smile. "But I'll be fine. I'll just try and make sure I don't make too much noise in future." He didn't meet Stuart's eyes, knowing full well the lie hidden in his words, and biting back on the request for sleeping pills.

Stuart nodded slightly, then stood, stretching. "The offer's always open," he said as he departed for his own room.

Chris lay in bed for a long time, staring into the darkness, trying to catnap without falling into deep sleep, unwilling to face the horrors there, unwilling to face the offer that Stuart had made but, exhausted as he was, it was inevitable that sleep would drag him down into hell.

Ellie Yates stood in the cemetery, visible through the thick glass of his apartment window, her fatherless children in her arms, all of them staring at him in bitter, accusing hatred...

~*~

"Shit, Chrissie-boy, you look like the living dead!"

Jack's voice jolted Chris out of the light doze he had been slipping into at the table and he shook his head slightly to try and clear away the mugginess. As much as he hated the idea that Stuart's presence, although it didn't stop the nightmares, gave him some comfort, the dark dreams somehow seemed much worse when he wasn't there. And he felt like a helpless child for it, even as he craved the other man's touch.

"Think I could make a Hollywood career as a zombie?" Chris asked the other man who leaned on the doorframe without actually entering.

Jack laughed, "No, mate, you'd scare away the real monsters." He paused, "I saw Carstairs come out of here in the early hours again this morning..." He left the unspoken question hanging, and Chris shook his head in reply as he gulped at cold coffee.

"No," he sighed, finding the dregs in the bottom of the mug intensely interesting. "I'm not in his bed yet, if that's what you want to know."

"Yet," Jack said softly. "But you will be, sooner or later, won't you?"

Chris stared at his mug without really seeing, grinding his teeth a little before answering. "Probably."

There was a long pause before Jack spoke again. "Sorry about the other night, but I'll make sure Seb doesn't bother you anymore."

"Seb," Chris rolled the name on his tongue for a moment as he fiddled with the mug, recalling the intrusive feel of the man's fingers, not at all like Stuart's. He looked over at Jack. "Seb should get his ass out of this place before it's too late."

"What do you mean?" asked Jack cautiously.

"Stuart doesn't know what Seb tried to do," Chris explained, and Jack nodded; he knew that. "But sooner or later he'll find out, and..." he paused a moment, frowning slightly. "And from things Stuart's said, I don't think he'd survive the fallout."

"Can't you just not tell him?" asked Jack, and Chris shook his head with a humourless laugh.

"You don't understand, Jack, sooner or later he'll get it out of me. I'm too tired to play word games, keep watching every word I say..." He didn't tell Jack about the obligations that he felt to the man, about the way Stuart made him open up, about how he felt like a traitor every time he had to lie or hide a truth from Stuart. "Sooner or later I'll tell him everything."

Jack nodded, although he clearly didn't understand. "Don't worry about it. Seb has money so I'm sure I can help him find... alternative accommodation."

Chris smiled slightly at Jack, a small sense of relief at knowing that Stuart might not have to exact any form of retribution on his account again. "Thanks."

~*~

Chris had been reading his way through 'The Hobbit', although he found his attention wavering when it wasn't being read to him in Stuart's cultured voice. To be frank, he'd forgotten how depressing the ending was. Exciting enough when Bilbo ventured into Smaug's lair but the death of Thorin Oakenshield was not doing anything to lighten his mood. Too close a reminder of another death, even though the circumstances were very different.

Lost in his thoughts, he stared out of the window at the light glistening on the waves beyond the compound walls, while his mind was remembering a pair of eyes that were the same blue-grey as that sea, laughing at him in friendship. He didn't hear Stuart come in at first and only a prickling sensation in the back of his neck, the product of long experience of dangerous missions, alerted him to the fact that he wasn't alone.

Stuart's green eyes were unreadable and they stared at each other for a long moment, Chris frowning as he tried to figure out why Stuart was being so quiet. Although it pained him to admit it, he missed the other man in his bed, even if Stuart was only there to give comfort, and he'd seen less of him in the past couple of days. He was forced to admit that, in spite of himself, he missed Stuart during daylight hours too.

Stuart tilted his head slightly, looking for all the world as though he were examining Chris, trying to figure out what went on in his head. To Chris, who seemed these days to spend most of his time trying to figure out what went on in Stuart's, it was a surreal experience.

"Chris," Stuart finally said, the word sliding slowly out of his mouth, almost, Chris thought, like a caress before quashing that thought as he'd quashed the other uncomfortable thoughts he'd had while in the care of this man. "What exactly happened between you and Seb?"

The question had come, as he knew it must, as he'd told Jack it would, realising it was inevitable after Seb's early morning flit. "A clash of personalities," he said, glancing out of the window again so that he wouldn't have to see Stuart's eyes, have to lie to Stuart's face, the guilt in him still rising up to consume him.

"So you said," commented Stuart, a hint of wryness in his tone. "Now how about telling me what happened, exactly?"

He found it difficult to meet Stuart's eyes, feeling like a guilty schoolchild as he gave him a sideways look from underneath his eyelashes instead. "You saw what happened..."

It didn't satisfy Stuart, and the Englishman's tone hardened slightly in annoyance; at him or Seb, he couldn't tell. "Did he touch you?"

He didn't answer that question, didn't need to, knowing that the flicker of his eyes away from Stuart's face gave the other man the only answer that he needed.

He kept staring out of the window, not wanting to see the expression on Stuart's face, not wanting to see contempt or anger or even pity. He heard Stuart sigh, and when the Englishman's voice came it was almost toneless, no anger in it, maybe just a little concern and, unless he was mistaken, a little hurt. "Why didn't you tell me?"

It was the idea that Stuart might be hurt that finally got him looking at him, straight in the eye, searching Stuart's face for a hint of what he was really feeling. Stuart's face was set in that mask again, even his eyes were shuttered but he couldn't look away again, couldn't disappoint Stuart again like that.

"I don't know."

It wasn't a good answer, and he saw the flare of disappointment in Stuart's eyes anyway. That hurt. It hurt a surprising amount, and he tried to fix it. "I... I know what happened to the guard, Stuart. What you did... I didn't..."

"How admirable." Acid dripped from Stuart's tongue, mingled hurt and anger and yes, still disappointment. "I do what I have to, Chris. I told you that..."

"I don't want you to. Not on my account."

"Your concern for my staff is touching." Still bitter, and now those vivid green eyes reflected the hurt.

"Damn it, Stuart." His voice was tired. "I'm not concerned about your staff. I'm concerned about you. I... I don't want you to have to do that."

The sincerity must have been clear in his voice, and a myriad of emotions flickered through Stuart's eyes at that; surprise, guilt, uncertainty, leaving Chris to wonder how long it had been since anyone had cared about what Stuart had had to do in the name of his cover, and how he'd coped. He was having difficulty in reconciling the cold mask with the warmth he knew lay underneath it. Maybe the mask was a way of letting Stuart do what he had to do and stay sane. The more he knew of the man, the more he wondered and the more convinced he became that that was exactly what it was. And if so, he didn't want to add to Stuart's burden.

Stuart's eyes dropped first this time, still with that hint of uncertainty and maybe even gratitude in them, and his stance became less confrontational. His voice, when it came, was softer this time, sounding more like the man Chris just knew hid behind Stuart's armour.

"I'm going to have to give the order to search for Seb. Make an example of him." He hesitated tellingly, but didn't ask Chris whatever else he knew, didn't ask Chris if he'd tipped off Seb and Chris was grateful for that.

And then his eyes met Chris' for a brief second, still confused and uncertain, before he left the room, not quite fast enough to appear to be running although Chris would lay odds that he was anyway.

So Stuart's men were going to look for Seb anyway, all because of the fašade the man had to maintain of the big, bad arms dealer. He could only hope, for Stuart's sake, that they didn't find him.

~*~

Burning, aching, knives cutting into his skin, salt rubbed into the wounds. Tommy holding him down while Teresa took handfuls of white crystals and ground them into his screaming flesh and Malone stood by watching and cruelly telling him he deserved it, that he deserved everything for being so incompetent as to be caught and worse - get his partner killed...

Chris sat abruptly upright in the bed, a hoarse scream dying in his throat to be replaced by heavy panting as he struggled to shake the fear. There was no Stuart to comfort him, to rub his back or to hold him and banish the demons from his mind. There hadn't been a Stuart for what seemed like forever and no matter that he'd told the man not to worry about him, to get some sleep, right now he still felt utterly abandoned. He was finding it more and more difficult not to take Stuart up on his offer and only a stubborn sense of mingled pride and fear kept him from bolting down the corridor like a frightened rabbit.

His heart still pounding and shivering slightly, both due to the sweat drying on his clammy skin and the after effects of the nightmare, he buried himself under the covers, his exhausted mind reasoning childishly that if he hid under there the nightmares wouldn't find him. It was a forlorn hope. Still shaking, his exhaustion dragged him almost immediately back down into an uneasy slumber.

He woke less than an hour later, once again screaming and once again alone.

If Jack was startled by his emergence into the corridor, he didn't show it. The Englishman opened his mouth as though to say something but when Chris avoided his eyes he seemed to think better of it, merely watching Chris with a cynical look in his own eye as the American sidled down the corridor towards the neighbouring room.

Chris couldn't help but pause shamefaced at the entrance to Stuart's room, his hand on the door handle, and dart a quick glance back underneath lowered lashes towards Jack. Thankfully Jack was no longer looking at him, standing to attention outside Chris' room, his eyes facing straight ahead. Chris hesitated, but greater than the embarrassment and the shame at his weakness was a desperate need for the security and comfort Stuart represented to him now and after a few seconds he pressed down on the handle, sliding the door open almost silently and crept in.

He froze in his tracks, his heart pounding frantically in his chest as Stuart sat bolt upright, the moonlight glinting off the barrel of the gun he had trained straight at Chris' head. For a long moment neither man moved and then Stuart lowered the weapon with a muffled curse, running his hand through his hair.

Chris still hesitated in the doorway, unable to look Stuart directly in the face, the need for the other man's presence warring with the need to flee. Stuart made the decision for him, shuffling sideways along the bed and throwing the covers back, an obvious invitation to join him, although his expression was as shuttered as it usually was, as far as Chris could tell from the sideways glances he stole in the moonlight flooding the room. The gun had disappeared as rapidly as it had appeared, and he had no idea where to, and wasn't sure if that made him feel more or less safe. He dithered for a moment longer and then dived for the tenuous safety of the bed.

Stuart still stayed silent, merely contenting himself with pulling the covers back up over Chris and then settling himself back down into the soft, welcoming mattress, facing Chris, his head resting on his arm. Chris lay on his back, resolutely staring at the ceiling and refusing to look in Stuart's direction, too nervous and ill at ease now that he was here to completely relax, wondering whether at any second Stuart's mask would fall and instead of the person he suspected lurked underneath it he would be confronted with a Stuart Carstairs who had earned his reputation in spades. He was half convinced, in fact, that no matter what the reality of the man was, Stuart would, at the very minimum, make a pass at him. He just wasn't quite as sure how he would react if Stuart did. Despite everything he knew or suspected about the arms dealer's reputation, still, on some deep, instinctual level, he trusted him. In fact, Stuart had become the only concrete and trustworthy thing in his life since he couldn't even quite trust himself at the moment. He strongly suspected that if Stuart did want him sexually he would agree to it, simply because he was so terrified of losing his anchor among all of this insanity not to and simply to prolong that feeling of safety and warmth. Was that such a bad thing? he wondered.

After lying there rigid for several minutes barely breathing, expecting a pounce that never came, he realised that Stuart's breathing had evened out and that the Englishman was dead to the world, or at least sleeping as easily as someone with his conscience could. He let out the breath he'd been holding for what seemed like forever with a long ragged sigh and finally relaxed, soon following his saviour into slumber.

This time the nightmare that woke them was Stuart's.

For a long second after Chris was dragged back into consciousness he lay there, disorientated both by the unfamiliarity of the room and whatever had woken him. He hadn't been dreaming, as far as he could tell, and his heart, although beating faster than its normal resting rate, didn't have the rhythm of terror that signalled a foray into nightly hell. He lay there, still and quiet in the light of the false dawn, listening for whatever it was that had woken him.

It came again; a soft and low sound, almost like a whimper. Frowning slightly, he shuffled around on the bed, turning to face Stuart.

It appeared that Stuart was as controlled when sleeping as he was when awake. There was none of the thrashing around or yelling that Chris indulged in when his demons came to haunt him. Instead, Stuart limited himself to a minimal amount of twitching, his hands, resting up on the pillow next to his face, clenching and unclenching repeatedly, and the occasional soft sound of distress escaping him. His face, however, so guarded when he was conscious, was tortured now, expressions of fear and pain flitting across it, each only lasting a fraction of a second but long enough to get Chris' heart pounding again.

"Stuart," he whispered to no response. "Stuart?" When that also didn't get a reaction, he reached out and apprehensively shook the Englishman's shoulder, remembering all too well the leashed violence he'd faced when he'd first entered Stuart's sanctuary. The last thing he wanted was for Stuart to lash out at him - more for Stuart's sake than his own.

The Englishman came awake with a start, his green eyes darting around the room before coming to settle on Chris. "You all right?" he asked, his voice husky with sleep and the concern coming through clearly for the first time since Chris had been very ill and Chris permitted himself to bask in it for a moment. "Another nightmare?"

There was a trace of an accent there too, one that Stuart didn't normally show. Rough and warm, it seeped through the Englishman's normal cultured tones, and was surprisingly attractive.

Suddenly realising that Stuart was watching him closely, his expression growing even more concerned, Chris forced himself to answer. "No, not me but..." He hesitated for a second before rushing on to add, "But I think you were."

He chewed on his lip a little nervously, wondering what Stuart's reaction to being observed would be and watched, with a strange sense of disappointment, as Stuart's face assumed its normal, shuttered expression. "Oh," was all the Englishman said, rolling onto his back and staring at the ceiling.

"Want to talk about it?" Chris hastened to ask before he had time to think better of it and let the Englishman resume his normal reserve.

Stuart shrugged lightly, his expression still guarded. "Not really." Chris' disappointment must have shown on his face because Stuart looked away and something close to guilt passed across his face.

Chris took advantage of it. "You get them often?" he pushed. For a second he honestly thought that Stuart was going to refuse to answer him, but then the other man hesitated tellingly.

"Everyone gets nightmares every now and then, Chris. It's nothing to worry about."

Chris scowled. He wasn't worried - he was concerned. There were dark circles under Stuart's eyes indicating that the man had been getting as little sleep as Chris himself, despite moving into his own room. Chris, however, could at least catnap during the day. He doubted that Stuart had that luxury. "So why now?" he persisted. "Is it because of mine?"

"Not really."

"Not really?"

Stuart gave him a slightly irritated look. "Are you always this pushy?"

Chris shrugged, a little hurt in spite of himself. "I just wondered if I could help, that's all."

He tried very hard to keep the hurt and bitterness out of his voice and thought he'd been mostly successful. However, it still seemed to have an effect, Stuart sighing again, and finally replying, his tone exhausted, "They just tend to come when I'm tired, Chris. That's all."

"Oh." He turned the idea over and over in his mind, examining it and what it meant to him. There was guilt at the fact that Stuart was, in effect, suffering from nightmares because he'd been too busy taking care of Chris to worry about himself but overlying that was a desire to know more about the man lying beside him, and a desire to perhaps provide the same support for Stuart that Stuart had so far provided for him. It was this desire rather than anything sexual or any need for comfort that had him shifting slightly on the bed, rolling onto his side to face Stuart and tentatively draping his arm over Stuart's waist. "Okay," he breathed, pressing a little closer.

Stuart tensed slightly at the feel of Chris' fingers brushing over his bare skin, and then he relaxed, wriggling the arm caught between their bodies free and sliding it under Chris' head so that the American was cradled within it, his head resting on Stuart's shoulder. He made no other move though, even though Chris still half expected him to try and turn it to his advantage, merely murmuring softly, "I'm fine, Chris. Go back to sleep."

~*~

For some reason, when Chris woke the next morning it was with an immense feeling of well-being, the type of well-being that comes from a good night's sleep, in a warm bed next to a warm and comfortable body. He lay there, drowsing contentedly and basking in the warmth, spooned around his companion, his face pressed into the back of someone's neck and a familiar scent filling his nostrils. A scent suggestive of safety, affection and security.

Stuart's scent. He came awake abruptly, freezing in position as a couple of things dawned on him simultaneously. The first was that he really was wrapped around Stuart, every inch of him pressed up against the other man, and the second was that he was half-hard. Hard on the heels of those revelations a third fact impinged on his consciousness. Stuart appeared to be naked.

He hadn't given much thought the night before to what Stuart was wearing when he'd joined Stuart in the bed, and since he was wearing the pyjamas that had been his more or less constant outfit since he'd arrived here, meaning his skin was covered where it touched Stuart's, it had been dark and Stuart hadn't emerged from underneath the covers he simply hadn't noticed. In fact it hadn't occurred to him that Stuart would be naked and it should have done if he'd had his wits about him. After all, it was hot and personally he too preferred to go commando in those situations. It was only a lingering insecurity on his part that had him clinging to his cotton nightclothes now.

Of course, that didn't help his current situation, or the sense of embarrassment he felt at being so pathetic and needy as to crawl into bed with his naked benefactor without a second thought. He cautiously started to edge away from Stuart, trying to extract himself from their entanglement without waking the other man.

"It's perfectly normal, you know," drifted a drowsy voice from the lithe body lying next to his.

He froze again. "Sorry?" he stuttered, hoping that Stuart wasn't referring to what he really already knew he was.

Stuart rolled onto his back and gave him a sleepy, amused look. His hair was tousled and he needed a shave, and once again there was that subtle hint of an accent underlying his voice. "I said it's perfectly normal. It's a normal, male, biological reaction to being warm and comfortable and there's no reason to either worry about it or be ashamed of it."

None of which did a great deal to reassure Chris. He shuffled away a little further and avoided looking at his host... captor... whatever Stuart was. In spite of the Englishman's assertions he still felt very embarrassed about his physical response to the closeness of the man. In fact, it suddenly occurred to him that Stuart was quite right, and it was the normal male condition on waking, which probably meant that even now Stuart was lying next to him naked and in the same condition. And that was even less reassuring. He couldn't resist a quick glance towards Stuart's crotch, hidden by the covers, to check if his supposition was correct, but Stuart had stretched out and raised one knee, resting the flat of his foot on the bed as he lounged there, and consequently Chris couldn't get a clear view.

He had no idea what to say or do. When he woke with Stuart in his bed that was different. That was entirely due to Stuart coming to offer him comfort and the Englishman was usually fully dressed when he woke up. A dressed Stuart he might be able to handle, but a relaxed, sleepy, tousled and naked Stuart was outside his realm of experience.

Next to him Stuart sighed and scrubbed one hand over his face. He stole a quick glance at the Englishman's face to see that Stuart had resumed his mask again, and that somehow did reassure him a little. "Did you sleep all right?" Stuart asked him neutrally.

"Yes, thank you," he muttered, stealing another sidelong glance. Stuart nodded thoughtfully, but said nothing more, his gaze fixed at some point on the ceiling. Chris hesitated, and then burst out, "I'm sorry..."

That finally got Stuart looking at him, the Englishman frowning at him slightly and in spite of himself he quailed a little, even now reluctant to do anything that made the other man angry with him, or regret being there for him.

"What for?" asked Stuart.

"Last night... I'm sorry that I... I mean, I didn't mean to disturb you, " he completed sheepishly, his gaze dropping to watch his hands twisting the covers nervously rather than to see the disappointment or pity or irritation or worse - lust in the Englishman's face.

Stuart, however, answered gently, "I told you that if you needed me, Chris, I would be just here and I'd rather that you came to me if you needed to rather than have to cope on your own."

Stuart may have had a point and may well have been sincere in what he said, but Chris couldn't resist muttering, "Sorry," again. Another sidelong glance caught a hint of what he thought was sadness in those remarkable eyes before Stuart got the mask up again. It sent a pang through him, that he could make his man sad and he couldn't leave it like that. "You needed your sleep..." he began hesitantly, trying somehow to make amends for his clumsiness.

"And you don't?" It was a perfectly reasonable question, and Stuart phrased it as such, with no underlying anger or sarcasm, leaving it merely as a question of fact and one he couldn't argue with. He shrugged, picking lightly at the covers with one fingernail, trying and probably failing, he thought, to appear completely unconcerned by it all. "Still," continued Stuart, yawning lightly and stretching a little again, "we both seemed to have slept a little better than normal. Not a bad thing to do then."

The stretching only emphasised the line of Stuart's body and once again brought home to Chris both his masculinity and his attractiveness. It confused the hell out of the American, and he could only frantically put it down to a lingering sense of gratitude, a connection between the two of them based on Chris' need for Stuart's reassurance. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, he said, rather aimlessly, "I may have reconsidered if I'd realised last night that you slept in the nude."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he cringed internally, wondering what the hell Stuart's response to that would be, not feeling up to another demonstration of the Englishman's ability to turn cold in a fraction of a second or to fighting him off if the Englishman took it as an invitation. Thankfully, Stuart didn't take offence; maybe, Chris was beginning to realise, because there were no witnesses to the familiarity growing between them. Instead, Stuart just gave him an amused look and commented, "If I'd been expecting company I may have put some clothes on."

Chris couldn't resist a little smile at that, and glanced at Stuart from underneath lowered lashes. "Just one question," he risked slyly, seeing how far Stuart's good mood would stretch. Stuart raised one eyebrow quizzically. "If you sleep in the nude, where do you keep your weapon?"

For a second Stuart just stared at him, his expression blank and Chris just had to give him a long, slow and sly grin. For once the Englishman returned it, chuckling lightly and parrying back, "Now, that would be telling, wouldn't it?"

Chris basked in the warmth of their banter for a moment, much as he had in the physical warmth when he'd first woken. The moment didn't last long however, a knock on the door heralding the intrusion of the real world into their little oasis of companionship. He noted that Stuart had assumed his normal shuttered expression before the door was even opened.

If Cassie was surprised to find the two of them in bed together, she didn't show it although her expression may have been a little more glacial than usual. Instead of being flustered or embarrassed, as Chris himself was, she appeared as cool, calm and collected as normal, not even her employer's state of undress fazing her. She merely handed her boss a list of the day's activities and commenced a rundown of his business dealings while Chris shuffled awkwardly in the bed next to him. He wasn't sure whether Jack's entrance before he could make excuses and leave improved or worsened matters, and so kept his head lowered, staring at the pattern on the bedcover.



Jack limited himself to a mild, "Breakfast, sir," although he did glance once in Chris' direction only to be ignored by the sheepish American. He placed the tray down next to the bed, wondering if either of them would notice that he'd convinced the kitchen to send up two portions. Standing outside Chris' room all night, supposedly on guard although guarding what he wasn't quite sure, it hadn't missed his attention that Chris hadn't come back. The nightmares, he supposed, hearing Chris' cries through the door, but not daring to go in, not and risk Carstairs' wrath again.

He began to sidle back out, hoping to avoid his employer's notice, much as he had over the last few days but he was out of luck.

"Stay."

No mistaking either the instruction or the ice with which it had been phrased. Carstairs fixed him with a penetrating stare, and he froze, automatically standing to attention although it had been a long time since he'd been in any organisation, official or otherwise, that required it. Old habits, apparently, died hard.

He was forced to stand there, simmering in resentment at being given a command like a dog, and rather bitterly wondering whether Carstairs would follow it up with a 'heel' or a 'beg' while the Ice Queen droned on. Actually, he thought rather cynically, sneaking another glance at the American who was still staring down at the bedcovers, he was sure that at any time now Carstairs would have the 'beg' option covered if he hadn't already.

It was a petty thought and he couldn't really blame Chris, to be honest. In Chris' position he would have done the same, although he probably would have given in earlier. He was nothing if not practical and if nothing else Carstairs was wealthy. And money was very dear to Jack's heart. It usually was when you started in life with nothing, not that Carstairs would know or care anything about that.

He listened to Cassie's summary of Carstairs' business dealings, keeping his eyes fixed front like any other good, well-trained and brainless goon, but all of the while he stored things away in his memory, wondering if there was anything he could turn to his advantage. It was a rare opportunity to get to know what transactions Carstairs was conducting and the man had a keen nose for a good deal. On the few previous occasions he'd been privy to some of the information he'd invested some of his savings along the same lines and made a tidy sum. Besides, it took his mind off the man in the bed beside Carstairs and he couldn't really afford a great deal of pity for him, although he quite liked the Yank. In spite of everything that Keel had been through, and he'd heard enough rumours about the condition the man had been in when he'd been given to Carstairs to draw some conclusions as to what, the man didn't appear to have lost his spark of spirit or capacity for surprise - demonstrated by his abortive escape attempt only a few nights ago.

Cassie was finally wrapping up with some comments about needing to discuss their latest deal in the Eastern Bloc. She gave him a long, cool sideways look as she stopped, the inference being that she didn't want to talk about it in front of witnesses. He gave a little internal shrug of resignation. He didn't really expect her to; she was too closemouthed and secretive for that, probably why she suited Carstairs so well. He resisted the urge to smirk, reflecting that she suited him for most things anyway and he appeared to have Chris for the rest. Which was probably why she'd been even more of a cold-hearted bitch recently than she normally was, and that was saying something.

He stifled the urge to yawn, hating night duty but volunteering anyway in case Chris needed him, needed to talk or something. While he wouldn't risk going in to the room, he was quite prepared to talk to Chris if he came out of it. That could only be to the good, as long as Carstairs didn't get suspicious or jealous.

Carstairs was talking now, idly buttering some toast before handing it to Chris. Christ, he'd have the man eating out of his hand before too long - literally. Chris took it wordlessly, playing with it rather than eating it, obviously still embarrassed at the situation, not that Carstairs seemed to notice or care about that. With an effort, Jack forced himself to pay attention.

"...shipment still arriving this afternoon?" Carstairs was asking.

"Yes, sir," replied the Ice Queen, as efficient and cool as always. When Jack had first come to this island, about eight months previously, and heard the scuttlebutt about Carstairs' reputation, he'd wondered how she fit into things and more importantly whether he'd have a chance with her - a good looking woman like that. She'd only need a good seeing to to melt, he'd mistakenly thought. However, the few attempts he'd had at striking up a rapport had failed dismally and before long he'd discovered that she was as ruthless as her employer. Since he rather liked his wedding tackle where it was, he hadn't tried again.

"Good," Carstairs replied, giving Chris a long, thoughtful look that had the American squirming a little self-consciously. "I think it's about time that we arranged some more suitable clothing for Chris. Now that he's feeling a little better, he can hardly spend all day in his nightclothes. See to it, Cassie. I'm sure I can rely on your inimitable good taste in picking something out."

"Yes, sir," she replied, making a notation on her ever present pad. "Could you give me your size please, Mr Keel?"

Chris told her, his whole face brightening at the thought of being allowed to dress like a human being. You had to hand it to Carstairs, Jack thought cynically. He was a master at the art of head fucking. He had Chris so turned around now and used to his situation that the poor bastard was actually grateful for being allowed something as simple as clothing. It was sad and a little pathetic, really. Mind you, maybe Carstairs had had as nasty a surprise about Chris trying to escape as Jack had, and was... what? Trying to give him some freedom so that he didn't feel the need to try again? Or trying to make him feel more like a guest than a prisoner? He just couldn't figure the man out, to be frank.

He suddenly realised that Carstairs was giving him a thoughtful look, and he felt his spine stiffening, wondering what was coming. Carstairs' next question, however, was still aimed at his Major-domo. "Do you think you could arrange for something to come with the rest of the supplies this afternoon, Cassie?"

She paused, giving it due consideration. "I'd need time to arrange a full wardrobe, sir, but I'm sure I could arrange something... suitable."

Carstairs nodded approvingly. "Do that. If you can arrange it I think we might also arrange for Chris to see some of the compound." Chris' gratitude at clothing was nothing to the joy that the thought of some freedom to roam. If Keel had a tail, thought Jack cynically, it would be wagging about now. Maybe it was. He really didn't want to think about what they'd got up to last night. Chris' face positively lit up, a big beaming grin, and not even Carstairs' added, "With an escort of course," dimmed his enthusiasm much and although he scowled a little that seemed to be more for show than anything else.

Escort. Now, he could do that and mooching around with the American, no doubt lounging by the pool and doing nothing in particular, sounded like an ideal way to spend the day. Beat patrol around the compound anyway, or tending to the boats. And, indeed, Chris was turning a hopeful look on Jack.

"Not him." Carstairs' voice was cold and uncompromising, and he treated Jack to the full force of his glacial gaze, the guard quailing a little at the threat implicit in it. It appeared that Carstairs wasn't going to forgive him in a hurry for being someone the American turned to rather than Carstairs himself.

"But, Stuart..." Chris interjected a little hesitantly, obviously as chary at raising the man's ire further as Jack was himself.

"No." Carstairs didn't take his eyes off Jack as he answered Chris' plea, and the American didn't attempt to push any further, giving Jack an apologetic look. "I want you to inform Nathaniel to arrange a suitable escort for Chris. Someone he trusts, and is competent."

He flinched internally at the reminder of Chris' abortive escape attempt. He'd been lucky to escape with only a tongue lashing from both Carstairs and Nathaniel rather than a more literal lashing. And he had no desire to stick his head back up above the parapet to argue about this. He was well aware that the only reason Carstairs hadn't exacted a more comprehensive retribution was because he didn't want to alienate Chris.

Chris, however, decided that the parapet was an ideal place to be, and recklessly stuck his own head above it in blatant disregard for his own self-preservation. "I've already said that I won't try to escape again, Stuart," he muttered, a hint of anger in his tone. "I won't. I promise."

Oh, Carstairs was definitely good, moving effortlessly to head off the hint of rebellion. His look actually softened a little, and he patted Chris reassuringly on the knee. "I know you won't, Chris. That's not what I'm worried about." Keel's anger subsided a little, to be replaced by a slightly bemused expression as Carstairs continued, "Have you found Seb yet?"

The question this time was aimed at Jack, and he answered neutrally. "Not yet, sir. But we're working on it."

"Then you will have to work on it faster," insisted Carstairs. "I want to make an example of the man. I want it to be known what will happen to anyone who attempts to hurt Chris. Do I make myself clear?"

All of which was said for Chris' benefit rather than his. He limited himself to a muttered, "Yes, sir," not wanting to turn Carstairs' famous temper onto him. Chris was still looking a little mutinous, but Carstairs headed that off with an instinctive ease that once again had him admiring the man's technique even as he despised him personally.

"I'm not suggesting you can't look after yourself, Chris. I just don't want you to have to." That soothed whatever ruffled feathers Chris had, and once again the American was back to looking at Carstairs with just a hint of hero worship in his eyes. Carstairs was a smooth bastard all right.

Seemingly satisfied that he'd got his point across to both Chris and Jack, his boss turned those pale eyes back on Jack and coolly dismissed him. Jack turned sharply on his heels, but not before he spotted Carstairs rising gracefully from the bed and start towards the bathroom, as naked as the day he was born. His last sight, before he shut the door behind him, was of Chris' burning face.

"Was that strictly necessary?" asked Cassie sounding amused as she coolly surveyed Stuart, leaning casually against the bathroom doorway and staring thoughtfully at the door Jack had gone through. He broke his gaze to give her an enquiring look. "I swept this area just before you went to bed last night. It's clean."

He gave a noncommittal grunt at that, and turned his attention back to the door, frowning slightly, the wheels in his head obviously turning. "I think you should put some clothes on. I think you're embarrassing your guest."

Chris could feel his face burning even more at the subtle jibe but he couldn't help it. He stared down at the bedcovers again, very conscious of Stuart's nudity and Cassie's amusement, a simmering resentment building up in him at the humiliation he felt, and he was sure that that was what Stuart had intended. It was that which prevented him from looking up, even though he heard Stuart pulling some clothes on. He didn't want Stuart to see the anger he couldn't hide, mainly because if he started yelling he wouldn't be able to stop and may leave Stuart with no option but to punish him. Stuart's words about Seb had sunk in all too well.

"Sure it doesn't bother you, Cassie?" he heard Stuart ask, his tone almost teasing.

She snorted with laughter. "I've seen it all before, Stuart. It doesn't shock me any longer."

The words sank into Chris' brain and he felt a sudden, shocking surge of what felt like jealousy. But it couldn't be, because that would mean... His mind shied away from the thought and he let the anger take hold as a way of suppressing it, feeling it build up in him, almost relieved. Anger was familiar and he could handle that while he couldn't cope with all of these new, conflicting and confusing feelings.

He heard Cassie continue, "You seem to be in a better mood anyway. Care to share?"

The anger was still curdling away at his insides as he heard Stuart reply, "Good night's sleep. Does wonders for your disposition, and I think Chris slept a little better too."

In spite of his good intentions anger finally escaped. "Why the hell did you have to humiliate me like that?"

Stuart sat on the edge of the bed, his eyes meeting Chris' furious blue ones steadily. "I needed to get a message across."

"What message?" Chris snarled. "That you're fucking me?"

Stuart's gaze didn't waver. "In part," he admitted. "But mainly that you're mine and I won't tolerate anyone interfering with that. That, more than any guards, will keep you safe from guys like Seb." He cut-off Chris' instinctive objection to that, continuing, "And yes, while I wasn't aiming for the 'fucking' angle, I wanted to convey the impression that we're heading in that direction."

"Why?" he muttered sullenly.

Cassie answered him, her tone cold and impatient. "Because why else would Stuart keep you alive, Chris?"

Stuart gave her a hard look but didn't dispute her interpretation. Instead he turned his attention back to Chris and continued quietly, "I'll do what I have to do to keep you safe and to do my job."

Cassie scowled slightly, but at what he was too angry to figure out. "Jack won't say anything anyway, so you wasted that little performance," he spat out.

Stuart's gaze was even. "Sure about that are you?" he asked calmly. Once again there was that hint of sadness in Stuart's eyes and for some reason that took the wind out of his sails, no matter how hard he tried to cling onto his anger. Stuart continued persuasively, "You can't trust anyone here, Chris. Don't make the mistake of thinking that because it costs Jack nothing to be pleasant to you that you can rely upon him, trust him. You can't."

"I suppose I can't even trust you," he retorted a little bitterly, a dark and twisted part of him even enjoying the pain that briefly flashed through Stuart's remarkable pale eyes. Once again it was Cassie who answered, her tone cold.

"Even we don't have that vested an interest in keeping you alive, Keel."

And once again, Stuart didn't dispute her.

~*~

Revelling in his relative freedom, Chris powered steadily through the chlorinated water, allowing his mind to consider his situation. Escape was nigh on impossible and to be quite frank, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to, although he would prefer to have an escape route lined up just in case; rule number seven. Having established that he was in no immediate danger, in fact quite the opposite, he was intrigued by Carstairs' operation. Emotional complications aside, he knew that he couldn't take on Carstairs or any of the other arms dealers by himself, but he was in a perfect position to acquire information which would enable CI5 to take measures.

Of course, knowing now that Stuart was MI6 made any steps that he might take on CI5's behalf redundant. But information was something else entirely, especially considering MI6's reluctance to divulge the same except on an absolute need to know basis. And more than that, maybe, just maybe, he could dig up some kind of lead on the object of his own mission.

Which all came back to the same problem. He needed to communicate somehow with CI5 and let them know that he was still alive at least. He understood Stuart's reasons for not contacting CI5, but was quite sure that if he contacted them himself advising that it was an 'own resources' situation, then not only would they keep their distance, but backup and resources would be available to him that weren't right now.

It did cross his mind that he could simply ask Stuart for access to communications, but from his own observations the man was so paranoid about leaks and he'd already given his reasons for keeping CI5 out of it, that it was a given that he would say no. Hell, there wasn't even a phone in the place and no one carried so much as a mobile. But there must be something somewhere. Someone like Carstairs would not operate blind.

He looked up to see a familiar figure talking to his escort who was relaxing under a parasol. Finishing his last length, Chris hauled himself out of the pool and wandered over to his towel.

Jack finished his conversation with the escort and wandered over to Chris. "Good workout?" he asked.

"Yeah," Chris replied shortly, uncertain as to how that humiliating little bedroom scene had affected their rapport. He scrubbed the towel briefly over his face before straddling the sun-lounger to let the sun dry him off properly.

"You okay?" asked Jack. "You seem a little tense."

Chris shook his head and sighed. "Doesn't matter."

Jack settled himself on a plastic chair next to him. "Come on, give," he wheedled. "It's not like you have a whole heap of other people to talk to."

Chris smiled a little and expelled a long breath. "Really, it doesn't matter. I just... no, nothing."

"Talk to me, Chrissy-boy. It's not about that farce this morning is it? If so, don't worry about it on my account, I'm used to his nibs' little head-games. I'm just sorry you got put on the spot like that."

Chris really did smile and leaned back, looking over at Jack. "Thanks. It's good to know that someone around here seems normal. But, uh, that's not really the reason I'm... tense. Well, maybe in part but..."

"But what?" asked Jack. "Missing the little woman waiting for you at home?"

The smile vanished from Chris' face for just a split second before he chuckled again. "Something like that. There are people back in the UK that probably don't know that I'm still alive. I mean, I'm caught in a gilded cage and feel kinda guilty that there are people worried about me back home, or worse grieving while I'm soaking up the sun. Maybe it'd be easier to handle if I were chained up in a dungeon somewhere."

Jack nodded slowly. "I can understand that," he said thoughtfully. "But I'm afraid you're out of luck. The only communications on this island are locked up in the ice-queen's office, and with all the security she has round it, it's tied up tighter than Fort Knox." Jack looked at him speculatively. "You know, you could... persuade Carstairs to let you use - "

"No!" Chris interrupted rather more sharply than he'd intended. "No," he repeated more gently, "that's somewhere I'm not going and even if I did, I don't think it'd do any good."

"Okay, okay," Jack held up a hand in surrender. "Just a suggestion. What about getting the ice-queen to post a postcard for you?"

"Like she would," Chris snorted.

"You're probably right," Jack shrugged. "One of these days that bitch is going to get hers. Someone'll have it in for her sooner or later. Do you know that there's not a single person on the island who likes her? Well, apart from in the obvious sense and you don't have to like a woman to want to shag her."

"Don't let her catch you saying stuff like that," Chris smiled. "And she's not really that bad, just runs a tight ship as far as I can tell."

"That's as maybe," scowled Jack. "But she knows how to rub everyone up the wrong way."

Chris stared hard at him for a few seconds. "You tried to get laid with her, didn't you?" he asked with a sly grin. "What did she do? Chew your balls off?"

Jack blushed and hung his head. "Couldn't walk straight for days afterwards," he muttered before standing. "I ah, I should go, see you later, okay?"

Chris laughed again and leaned back, closing his eyes to doze in the sun.

~*~

Cassie stretched her arms above her head, wincing as the muscles in her back cracked. She'd spent too long in the same position, crouched over the keyboard, over the last few days, but activity on Macarthur's part had increased considerably recently, and she was trying to keep track of it all. It had taken priority over almost everything else in the last twenty-four hours, ever since the phone call they'd been waiting for had come. Macarthur wanted to meet.

He'd tried to cover his intentions by inviting Pasa along too, in an effort to make it appear like he just wanted to touch base, discuss business in general terms rather than had an ulterior motive, but neither she nor Stuart had been fooled. Pasa had, though, and she'd had to field calls from him too, transparent attempts at trying to find out whether Stuart had any concerns, whether Stuart was going to be there to back him up. Macarthur worried the Turk, and given what the American had tried to do to him in the name of 'business' she couldn't blame him for being twitchy. Despise him, maybe, but not blame him.

Still, with Pasa there, Macarthur wasn't likely to try anything too obvious, and she'd come to the conclusion that it was safe for Stuart to meet him, as safe as anything in their line of work. She'd communicated her opinion to Stuart, and for once he'd listened to her, although cynically she had wondered if that was only because he'd come to the same opinion on his own.

So, doing the only thing she could to keep them both safe, she'd gone to work, pulling together everything she could about the competition and stepping up their surveillance. In between times, however, she'd managed to put together quite a dossier about their houseguest and she was forced to admit that he seemed to be on a level, which was a relief the way that Stuart had brought him in on their operation and the fact that Macarthur was finally making a move.

She glanced at the buff folder, lying on the desk next to her. Their usual sources had now come up with a little more information, nothing that they couldn't have been expected to find with a little judicious bribery anyway. That, combined with information on Keel's life gleaned from various sources, built up a picture of a troubled young man who had risen above the tragedies besetting him and become an asset to his country. She now understood why the pilot had become a SEAL, and why he'd been recruited into CI5. Details of the massacre at his wedding had been spread over the front pages of newspapers both nationally and internationally.

The fact that many newspapers now kept their archives online had proved very useful.

As well as the details of his short-lived marriage, she'd managed to find out that he'd been decorated several times for bravery, although she couldn't help but wonder whether he'd had a borderline death wish when she reviewed the scanty information available. In short, here was someone who appeared incorruptible on the surface, at least not for financial reasons. She'd also managed to find out that the Keels were wealthy, and Christopher Keel was the only surviving member of that family.

That gave her some reassurance at least that he wasn't going to betray them. He seemed almost pathologically honest and honourable, and wasn't lacking in courage. And as Stuart had already informed her, Pasa had been unable to break him, one of his tentative forays into making it up to her after giving them both away to Keel.

She tapped her finger thoughtfully on the file. Incorruptible under normal circumstances, with a streak of loyalty running through him a mile wide...

This had distinct possibilities.

~*~

Jack stood in Carstairs' office waiting for his employer to return. The ice-queen had ordered him there perfunctorily to receive instructions, to do what, God only knew, but on his arrival Carstairs had hurried from the room telling him to wait.

Ever on the lookout for opportunities, he glanced about the immaculate office on the off chance he might find something interesting. Of course, the sheer tidiness of the place made the buff folder lying in the middle of the desk stick out like sore thumb.

Glancing quickly at the doorway, he sidled over to the desk and lifted the top open, craning his neck around to see what was inside without moving the file. It was a sure bet that Carstairs would notice if it had been moved.

The top page was a summary of the contents in the bitch-queen's neat handwriting. Skimming quickly down, Jack was disappointed to find that it was only research on their houseguest, a given security precaution. He was about to close the file, when something caught his eye; a statement referring to Keel's status as the sole survivor and beneficiary of the not inconsiderable Keel estate.

Glancing back at the door again, he quickly thumbed through the attached hard copies and found a copy of a newspaper article that gave more details, and his eyes widened as he realised exactly the kind of wealth Keel had access to.

Voices from the corridor interrupted him, and Jack dropped the file closed, stepping back to lean nonchalantly against the wall as Carstairs stormed in, his foul mood obvious behind his glacial exterior. He was given snapped instructions informing him of his reassignment to the boathouse and dismissed.

~*~

"It's too dangerous," Stuart stated flatly. Cassie sighed again, her gaze darting between the two men in front of her, both of them as stubborn as the other. Stalemate.

"I'm trained for this type of work," Keel stated through gritted teeth. "I've done undercover work before..."

Stuart kept his voice low as he interrupted, "This is different, Chris. This isn't undercover work - this is you."

She could see both of their points, to be frank. Keel was itching for action, and Stuart seemed to be unable to get out of the protective mode he'd slipped into almost as soon as the CI5 agent had crossed their path. However, she was beginning to tire of the discussion. They'd been 'discussing' Macarthur's invitation for hours, and were no further forward. Chris was still adamant that he would accompany Stuart and Stuart equally adamant that he would not.

Deciding that it was time that she stepped in, she interjected as gently as she was able, "Macarthur will be expecting you to take Chris with you, Stuart." She ignored the look of triumph Keel shot her employer, although it did amuse her somewhat, even in the current serious circumstances. "You have, after all," she continued, "attempted to convey the impression that you are... rather..." She hesitated for a second, glancing between the two men, Keel frowning and Stuart with his normal mask-like visage, before settling on the least controversial wording. "Attached to him."

It was difficult to say whom that statement impressed the least. Keel shuffled uncomfortably in his seat, glowering at the floor, and Stuart fixed her with a steely gaze. She smirked internally, waiting for the inevitable comeback, just wondering which one of them it would be.

Stuart didn't disappoint. "All the more reason," he stated glacially, "to keep Chris as far away from Macarthur and his ilk as possible."

She shook her head almost regretfully. "It won't wash. You've done everything apart from take out a full page ad in the Times to convey the impression that you're so wrapped up in Chris you wouldn't notice if the bomb dropped let alone if Macarthur decided to make a move on you. You have to take him with you or he'll get suspicious and he's too wily not to. We haven't come this far for him to spook now."

Keel was scowling again, she noticed, but that appeared to be a habitual expression for him, at least when she was around. He alternated his glare between the pair of them, obviously settling on sharing out his irritation equally. "So?" he demanded. "I go, right?"

Stuart was equally irritated; giving himself away with the lowered eyebrows and cold, grey eyes. "You have no idea what you are getting into, Chris."

"I've done undercover work..."

The American's protest was abruptly cut off quite impressively, she thought, if a little unorthodoxly. She couldn't, however, really critique Stuart's technique. If she remembered correctly, he was a very good kisser. She just wasn't quite sure that Keel would agree.

When Stuart pulled back, the American just gaped at him. Stuart began to elaborate on the problems they would face, pointing out that Macarthur was known to use sophisticated surveillance equipment - why else would they sweep the whole compound as frequently as they did? - and they could guarantee that they would be under constant watch. Cassie, however, was more interested in watching Keel's reaction, the beginnings of an idea starting to form in her mind.

"Constant watch, Chris," Stuart reiterated, his tone now irritated. "I don't think you know what that means."

"It might work, Stuart," Cassie interjected quietly, still watching Keel closely. The American was back to staring at the floor, his expression now not irritated or angry but confused and, unless she was mistaken, a little ashamed. She knew why. She'd watched each and every emotion he felt as it flickered across his mobile face. Shock, confusion, anger, fear. Desire. And finally shame at the desire. In fact, each and every emotion he would be expected to experience if this whole situation was real. She was beginning to believe that maybe it was, for Keel at least.

She turned her attention back to her colleague, whose face she could also read with ease, this time at least. He was not happy with her and she hastened to explain. "We know that Macarthur will be expecting you both, and we know that he'll believe that Chris is..."

"My catamite," Stuart replied coldly and she caught Keel's flinch at the word out of the corner of her eye.

"Not necessarily," she replied calmly. "What was it you told Pasa? That you don't break a man like Chris with violence, but - "

"You break him with kindness," he interrupted and she could see the wheels in his head start to whirr.

"That's right," she continued persuasively. "And you do it slowly. If Macarthur has any sense he won't expect you to hurt, humiliate or force Chris in anyway." She shrugged. "He won't necessarily expect Chris to be sharing your bed by now, although he might expect you to be trying, cautiously of course." She was beginning to convince Stuart, she could tell by the way he was carefully weighing her words up and she leant in for the kill. "And all Chris has to do is react the way he is now."

Chris' flush deepened and Stuart frowned at her, trying to understand what she meant. She glanced at the American and took pity on him. It would be up to Stuart to figure out what she already knew. She wasn't going to enlighten him. "Someone who's been badly treated, and saved from it by someone he's not entirely sure whether to trust, someone he hasn't figured out yet. Who he's not quite sure what they want from him, or what he's willing to give." She gave them both another considering look. "In short," she added with a slight smile, "it shouldn't require any acting ability whatsoever."

Stuart snorted at her gentle jibe, but didn't seem to pick up on the hidden meaning of her words. She could tell by the thoughtful expression on his face, however, that he was turning the idea over and over in that keen mind of his, looking for flaws, and she could tell when he finally decided that it was workable.

Eventually he slowly said, "Okay," and then simultaneously qualified it and quashed Keel's enthusiasm with an added rider, "He's not going in armed. No, Chris," he ruthlessly overrode Keel's objections. "No way in hell is Macarthur going to believe that I let you have a gun, and the last thing I want is for one of his overenthusiastic guards to shoot you." He frowned a little fastidiously. "I'd have to take steps and it could get messy."

Cassie stifled a chuckle at Keel's offended face, obviously feeling that Stuart had just cast aspersions on his abilities. "It's not a bad idea to have someone watching your back," she added thoughtfully, pushing back the pang she felt at the thought that this time she wouldn't be there to do it. She was, however, gradually becoming used to it. You had to in this line of work, or go insane.

Stuart scowled at her. "I am not letting Chris have a gun," he repeated.

"Oh no," she hastened to reassure him. "I'm not suggesting you should. You're right, it's too dangerous. But still," she smirked at the American, "we know that Chris is perfectly capable when it comes to unarmed combat."

Keel actually unbent enough to smile at her, the reminder of the way he'd dealt with Seb obviously balm to his wounded ego. Stuart, however, rolled his eyes. "I have the feeling," he said pessimistically, "that this is going to be a very long trip."

~*~

"Hey."

Chris looked up from the magazine he was reading by the pool to see Jack approaching him. "Hey yourself," he replied with a smile. "Been keeping out of mischief?"

"Yeah, Carstairs had me cleaning out the boathouse." Jack wrinkled his nose in disgust. "You wouldn't believe the crap in there."

"I was in the Navy, Jack," Chris laughed, relaxing as Jack appeared to be as friendly as usual. "Believe me I can."

Jack shrugged and rolled his eyes in mock dismay before squatting down next to Chris' sun-lounger. "So, you still trying to get out of this place?"

The question was asked jokingly, but Chris sensed an undercurrent that there was more to it. "If someone offered me a ticket I wouldn't object," he replied with a chuckle.

Jack was still laughing when he said, "Tickets are available if you can pay the fare."

"Fares are expensive these days," Chris replied blandly, "so I'm told."

Jack shrugged. "Depends on how badly you need the vacation," he replied. "Think about it and I'll see you later."

Chris stared after Jack thoughtfully. He really wasn't in any hurry to leave at this exact moment in time, having committed himself to the meeting Stuart was going to with Macarthur, but knowing that an escape route was possible, he kept it in mind.

~*~

She was trying very hard not to worry about how things were going to turn out over the next couple of days. It was hard, though. In spite of her continuing irritation with Stuart, she did care about him and worried about him. Because of the nature of their work, he went into situations like this meeting with Macarthur more often than not, but it didn't mean she had to like it.

She wasn't sure whether the fact that this time he was going in with Keel rather than alone was a good thing or a bad thing. True, it provided him with cover but since the whole intention of having Keel accompany him was to persuade Macarthur to make a move, that obviously upped the ante. And she wasn't going to be there to watch his back. No one was going to be there to watch his back.

Except Keel.

Taking a deep breath, she sat down in her computer chair and stared into space, trying to make some sort of sense of her disordered thoughts.

First of all, there was concern that Stuart was going into a situation that could spiral out of control and place him in danger.

She examined that thought, considering it before dismissing it. Stuart was a professional. They both were. They'd gone into this job with their eyes open, knowing the risks. He thought fast on his feet, and usually managed to turn the situation to his advantage, disarming his opponents more with a well placed turn of phrase and hint of sarcasm than any need for the unarmed combat she knew he was so good at.

Usually.

She took that thought out and examined it too. Usually. It came back to Keel again, and that was the real source of her concern. She was worried that he would spend so much time watching over the American that he would forget to watch his own back. She was honest enough to admit to herself that there was an element of jealousy in there too. Not for the sexual side, although in spite of that little scene this morning she doubted that Stuart and Keel had progressed that far. No, that part of her relationship with her superior had been over a long time before they'd been assigned to this mission, and even then she'd known that Stuart's tastes ran in more than one direction. He'd never been less than honest with her, but it had been fun.

Now that she'd acknowledged the jealousy she found it eased somewhat and she was able to view the situation more objectively. Having Keel along would increase the risk to Stuart, but she had seen and heard enough of what had happened to Seb to know that the American was capable of holding his own if it came to a firefight. He was hotheaded, she'd gathered that much, but Stuart was nothing if not calm and collected and consequently they might make a good team.

Assuming, once again, that Stuart did not let his feelings for Keel overrule his good sense.

Or Keel let his for Stuart overrule his.

She'd heard that CI5 recruited the best, so perhaps she was underestimating Keel. To do him justice she had to acknowledge that Keel had withstood Pasa's little games and hadn't broken. Come close, perhaps, but hadn't, and she wondered if she would have been able to say the same under similar circumstances. Maybe not. And given what she knew about Pasa and his methods, it was a little uncharitable of her to look down on Keel because of the wretched state he'd been in when Stuart had been given him.

It was also becoming more and more obvious to her that Keel was developing feelings for her superior, feelings that she suspected were returned.

Back to the jealousy again.

She sighed heavily, and began, once again, to untangle her professional concerns from her personal ones. The professional ones she was going to have to see if there was a way of minimising risks. As for the personal ones, well, she was just going to have to deal with them on her own. They couldn't be allowed to intrude here, because that could be catastrophic.

Keel, presumably, had to be competent. He was physically recovered and seemed to be making his way back mentally. His feelings for Stuart were likely to lead him to want to protect Stuart, and watch over her colleague closely. Nathaniel was as trustworthy as anyone they had in their employ. That didn't say a great deal, but for some reason he'd staked his personal honour and loyalty on Stuart, and that counted for something. Stuart was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. Macarthur wasn't likely to try anything on his yacht. It was too close, too personal and the man was too cautious for that. He'd be too worried that any fallout could be traced back to him.

It was a cold comfort but all she had.

She sighed heavily, flicking idly through Stuart's schedule for the next few days. With her superior occupied with Macarthur she was going to have to take over more of the regular meetings, but she did many of them anyway, understandable given Stuart's reputation for being a bit of a recluse. No one really expected to do business with him face to face and therefore protests when she turned up were token at best.

A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts.

"Come in."

She was expecting one of the guards, with some minor problem that they could deal with themselves if they had anything approaching rudimentary intelligence. She wasn't expecting Keel.

They stared at each other for a few moments, and she made sure that she kept her expression blank although she was a little nonplussed by him coming to her.

"Yes?"

Cool but not impolite. She'd already indulged in enough borderline histrionics in his presence and she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of any more. Or unsettle him the day before he went undercover.

Keel shifted a little uncomfortably in the doorway, his blue eyes turbulent.

"Can I come in?" he asked, his tone also low and polite, lacking the underlying hostility that was often there.

"Of course." She gestured to the seat opposite her desk, peering past him through the doorway to make sure that no one was lurking in the corridor outside. "Is there something I can do for you?" she asked as he sat himself a little reluctantly.

He hesitated for a brief, telling moment, and her heart sank, wondering what the bad news was. She needn't have worried.

"I wanted to say thank you. For interceding with Stuart for me."

The words were strangely formal and his expression was a little strained. It was probably quite a blow to his pride that he was driven to thanking her, and she had to revise her opinion of him again. That didn't stop her tone being cool as she answered, equally formally, "I was doing my job, Mr Keel. I believe what I told Stuart, and I believe there is no other option but for you to accompany him."

He flinched at that, and the colour rose angrily in his cheeks, but he bit back on his automatic response and instead replied a little stiffly, "That's as maybe, Ms Lewis." There was a slight stress on the Ms Lewis, an emphasising of the distance between them and an acknowledgement that they were allies through need and not through choice. She couldn't quite suppress the small smile at that, as he continued, "But I am grateful that you persuaded him anyway."

She permitted herself a small chuckle. "You don't know Stuart as well as you might think you do if you think that anyone can 'persuade him'. He persuaded himself once he had all of the facts."

He bristled at the suggestion that he didn't know Stuart well, and she was tempted to make some snide remark about sharing his bed not meaning anything before reminding herself that she was being good. However, after a moment, he actually unbent enough to give her a small answering smile. "I think you underestimate yourself, Cassie. You persuaded him, and I am grateful."

"Because it gives you a chance to go after Pasa?" she asked bluntly, taken aback that he'd unbent enough to actually use her name. He coloured again.

"Because I go stir crazy sitting around doing nothing, and this is the type of thing I was trained for," he admitted.

Honest and to the point. Another step up in her estimation. "Just don't get so enamoured with going after Pasa that you put Stuart in any danger, Chris," she warned, but making sure that she didn't sound aggressive. Just concerned.

Forthright blue eyes met and held hers. "I won't," he promised. "I'll watch his back."

She nodded once, coolly saying, "See that you do." It was as far as she was prepared to go for now, and he seemed to accept that, rising to his feet and nodding solemnly himself before leaving her alone to her thoughts.

She wasn't going to be there to back Stuart up. She'd just have to trust Keel to do that part of her job for her, watching out for Stuart and hope he wasn't too hotheaded to do it.

Her mind a little easier, she turned her attention back to planning for the meeting she had in a few days' time.

~*~

Chris stood next to Nathaniel at the front of the speedboat breathing deeply with his eyes closed as the salt spray flew over them. Opening his eyes, he smiled as he took in the vast expanse of open water as the sleek machine cut through the low waves, revelling in the feeling of pure freedom that it gave him.

He could almost tangibly feel his old self re-emerging from its cocoon of need and vulnerability by the second and, leaning easily against the console, stretched cat-like, knowing that he was ready to take on the world again. More than ready. Given half a chance, he would take on the world, or more specifically, those who had murdered his partner. That thought brought a spark of anticipation in the form of a small, evil smile to his lips.

In the distance he could see the small shape that would be Macarthur's yacht and glanced back at Stuart who was sitting in the back with his eyes closed in concentration.

Chris turned fully and regarded the Englishman. His first thought was that Stuart was feeling seasick, but that was quickly dissipated when those silver eyes flew open in a face that was cold as stone. It came to Chris that he'd seen that look before on other people, even himself. It was symptomatic of a man preparing himself to go into battle, go undercover or any other situation that needed a certain amount of disassociation from self.

The mask that Stuart now wore was of Carstairs the ruthless bastard, and Chris found himself tensing with worry for the man. He far preferred his Stuart, the one that showed compassion, engaged in easy, witty conversation and that Chris trusted implicitly. He did not like this other Carstairs who did things that were against every moral instinct the American possessed, and who he could not trust one iota because one day, it could be him that the Englishman had flogged or worse for perceived transgressions.

Cassie had called him Stuart's latest obsession and while Chris couldn't see that his Stuart would ever do anything to harm him, he knew Carstairs' reputation in breaking his lovers down to less than nothing, and could well believe that the other Carstairs would have no compunction in doing exactly that when he tired of this obsession.

Obsession.

Stuart wasn't the only one getting obsessed.

The kiss that Stuart had pressed on him mid-conversation with Cassie had shocked him in more ways than one. One part of him was angry that the man had had the gall, even though he'd been half-expecting a pass to be made at him. But another part was inexplicably guilty; it had felt... right. Apart from his own pride spurring his anger, it had been comfortable, mildly sensuous and... right.

Chris shook himself and turned back to the yacht looming ahead of them. Now was not the time to be thinking about these sorts of things, and he focused on the job ahead like the professional he had been and was about to be once more.

~*~

Even for a one-eighty-foot luxury yacht, the lounge was spacious, but Macarthur's considerable bulk and loud persona seemed to fill it to capacity. Chris bore the assessing gaze that raked over him from the man with cold glare, but did not miss the calculating that was going on behind the boisterous exterior.

While Stuart was exchanging curt pleasantries with the other American, a movement caught Chris' eye and he saw a vaguely familiar face, moving out from behind Macarthur, that of Hazim Pasa. He was uncertain for a moment but when the Turk spoke, Chris knew with absolute conviction that not only had this man been responsible for his torture and therefore Tommy's death, he'd actually been there, been one of those that had so nearly destroyed him.

"Now, now Christopher, behave," Stuart's voice murmured close to his ear and Chris forced himself to relax as much as he could, dredging up a cool smile from somewhere and mentally cursing Stuart for being a patronising bastard.

Macarthur bade them sit and make themselves comfortable.

"Drink?" the big American asked Stuart, holding up a decanter.

"White wine, dry," Stuart replied crisply. "Thank you."

"And your... companion?" Macarthur's eyes flicked over to Chris and back to Stuart. Chris opened his mouth to reply, but Stuart was there before him without missing a beat.

"He'll have a mineral water," Stuart answered, patently ignoring the daggers that Chris was aiming at him, although the CI5 agent did not object which seemed to speak volumes to Macarthur.

After some idle chitchat where nothing of importance was spoken, yet undercurrents were vying for position, Macarthur announced that it was time to get down to business, looking meaningfully at the bodyguards.

Stuart dismissed Nathaniel as Pasa and Macarthur dismissed their men. "No extraneous personnel," McArthur reiterated to Stuart, flicking his gaze at Chris.

"He stays," Stuart told the big man in a tone that brooked no argument. Macarthur hesitated for a second before nodding his acceptance and silencing Pasa's objections with a glare, though neither man seemed happy with the idea, constantly glancing apprehensively at both Stuart and Chris.

~*~

The following morning, Chris found himself bored out of his mind simply at the prospect of another day full of listening to Carstairs, Macarthur and Pasa sorting out the tiny details of their dealings. Yesterday afternoon's discussions he'd found interesting and had stored a lot of information away on the arms deals that they were setting up and negotiating, information that could be useful for CI5 and for his own future reference.

But then they'd gone on to talking nitty-gritty, the kind of nitty-gritty that was uninteresting and uninformative to anyone but those immediately involved. It had gone on over dinner and well into the evening, and as they were already back at it over breakfast, Chris was becoming restless.

Stuart seemed to notice and smiled indulgently at him. "Chris, why don't you go outside and play sailor for a while?" He looked sideways at Macarthur. "That's if our host has no objections?"

Macarthur seemed a little relieved and waved a hand in the general direction of the door. "Please, be my guest."

"Thanks," Chris muttered and headed outside, relaxing almost the instant he was out of the turbulent atmosphere inside that lounge. He spotted Nathaniel in the speedboat on the port side towards the aft, constantly alert, scanning both the yacht and the ocean for any sign of trouble.

Walking along the starboard deck, Chris noted the positions of Macarthur's men, automatically forming a deck plan in his mind in case of trouble. Not that any was expected, but it was his habit, one that had saved both his life and others in the past and therefore a habit that he was more than happy to indulge in.

Leaning over the deck rail he looked down at the hull, admiring the cleanliness as far as he could see below the water line and deciding that the yacht must have been in dry dock fairly recently to have had the algae and barnacles removed. He heard footsteps on the wooden decking and glanced up to see a couple of men walking towards him and tensed slightly, more on instinct than from any real indication of trouble.

"Well, well, if it isn't our little playmate," one of them sneered as they approached. Chris froze as he recognised that voice from that little room. There had been three men, three voices. One had been Pasa's and this one was another. When the other man spoke, he knew he had the third of his tormentors standing right next to him.

"Did you enjoy the experience? Have you shared with Carstairs all those nasty little toys you liked so much?" the second man laughed.

"Can you even get it up anymore?" the first one asked, taunting. "We tried to fry..."

Chris' hold on the railing tightened as he blocked out the two men and tried to control the anger that threatened to burst within him.

"What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" the first one sneered.

"Nah, he's gotta save it for licking Carstairs butt - "

A fist landed squarely on the second man's mouth splitting his lip, as Chris lost any semblance of control and let his temper have free reign. The first man barrelled into him from the side and Chris crashed headfirst into some steps. He shook off the dizziness and black spots that danced briefly across his vision and wiped away the trickle of blood that tried to run into his eye.

He looked at the blood that smeared his fingers and chuckled slightly, looking up at the two men with adrenaline fuelled hatred and determined that neither of them would live to see another day. The two men were on their feet, their faces having lost a little of the arrogance as they watched him warily, waiting to see what he would do. He charged them both, punching, slapping and hitting with an athletic grace that an observer might have called choreographed. As the two men yelled and screamed, Chris kept laying into them, carried away by the adrenaline rush, ignoring the few hits to his body that they got in.

A flat palm to the first man's face and he was on the deck screaming as his broken nose spurted blood and mucous. A straight arm to the throat and the unfortunate second man was flying over the railing, choking before plunging into the sea. The first man was back on his feet, backing away from Chris who was stalking him with the intensity of a predator. The American pounced, but was pulled up sharply by a hand on his collar, making him hop backwards to keep his balance.

"No!" he yelled wildly, turning on the man who had stopped him, raising an arm to strike him down.

As he turned, he came nose to nose with Stuart who was looking furious, and froze. A split second stretched into eternity as they locked glares, their faces mere millimetres apart, memories of that kiss flooding their senses.

"What the hell is going on here!" Macarthur's voice broke the moment and Chris yanked himself out of Stuart's hold.

"The fucking bitch just laid into us!" the man with the bloody nose squalled through the bubbling blood, lying on the ground with a hand to his face and his middle. "Ahmet's gone overboard, and that bitch is a fucking nutcase!"

Macarthur directed his men to see about Ahmet, then turned his glare on Carstairs as Pasa made an appearance, fussing in horror over his men.

"What happened?" Stuart asked neutrally even as he studied Chris carefully, taking in his injuries.

"Threw out the garbage," Chris muttered darkly, turning away from the thinly veiled concern in Stuart's eyes. The hand was on his shoulder again and with one violent movement he shoved it forcefully away.

"Chris, you should have stayed where either Nathaniel or I could keep an eye out - "

Chris spun round, eyes blazing. "For fuck's sake! What the hell does it take to get it through that thick head of yours that I can take care of myself, that I have done since way before you showed up, that I... I..." he trailed off as Stuart calmly took his handkerchief from his breast pocket and leant in slightly.

"You're bleeding," the Englishman stated simply, and for some reason Chris felt all the wind go abruptly out of sails as he allowed the man to dab at the cut, probing at it a little to find out the extent of the damage. "I know you can take care of yourself, Chris. I've always known that, and even if I didn't, that little display just now proved to me that you can. But, I've said it before, and I'll say it again; I don't want you to have to."

Chris glowered at the Englishman and pulled away. "I'm not a china doll, Stuart. Stop treating me like one." He reached up a hand to the cut and showed the Englishman the blood on his fingers. "I might bleed, but I don't break."

Stuart stared at him for a moment, his expression unreadable before addressing Macarthur. "If you'll excuse me for a short while, I think we should see to the wounded. We can discuss this mess a little later."

Macarthur nodded his agreement, that calculating air about him again, although Chris was too wound up to wonder about it as Stuart led him towards their cabin.

Pasa stopped them, agitation clear in his body language. "What about my boys, Carstairs? I'll need some form of compensation you know - "

"Compensation?" Carstairs hissed angrily as he backed Pasa against a wall. "Don't you realise how easy Chris was on your boys? Don't you know how much he owes both them and you? Don't you understand that the only reason I don't turn you over to him right now is that you feature in my plans."

Pasa stared at the Englishman wide-eyed and sweating, his mouth moving as he swallowed convulsively, unable to get any words out.

"You'd better hope that you continue to feature, Hazim, because once I'm done with you, I'm going to leave you alone with Chris in a little room much like the one you had him in."

Chris didn't have to make any effort whatsoever to muster up an expression of evil hatred, and Pasa visibly shrunk beneath the assault the two men managed to inflict without so much as touching him.

~*~

Chris maintained an icy silence as he stalked into their luxurious cabin slightly ahead of Stuart. That was another thing to be pissed about. A yacht this size, with all of its capabilities for catering to large numbers of guests, and Macarthur, for reasons best known to himself, had decided to put them in the same cabin. For some reason, hard on the heels of the fight with the Pasa's men and still riding high on a surge of adrenaline, it infuriated him now.

He turned and faced Stuart as soon as the he heard the door close behind them, expecting the Englishman to undergo one of those sudden mood swings that seemed to characterise 'this' Carstairs - from compassion to cold ruthlessness in one easy step.

Bracing himself for an argument, relishing the idea of one when his nerves were still singing with aggression and looking for an outlet, once again he was undone by both the compassion and simple concern he saw in Stuart's gaze.

The Englishman's eyes traced a line up to his brow again, stifling a sigh as he took in the damage that Pasa's men had done. It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that he'd done much more damage to Ahmet and whatever the other one was called - somehow there hadn't been time for a formal introduction once his fists were involved - but pride stopped the words in his mouth.

As they stood there, staring at each other, he felt a slight change in the motion of the boat, indicating either a slowing down or a change in direction. That got him talking.

"Think they're going back for that son of a bitch?"

He couldn't quite keep either the note of pride in his abilities or the challenge out of his voice, but Stuart didn't call him on either of them, merely continuing to watch him closely, his expression now unreadable although there was still a hint of concern in his eyes.

"I would imagine so," he replied neutrally. "I would imagine that Pasa would insist on it. He hasn't so many loyal men that he can afford to lose any."

He moved towards the small fridge as Chris stood there watching, frowning slightly and wondering why Stuart hadn't laid into him as soon as they were somewhere private. Once again, he couldn't hold his tongue, knowing that his mouth was going to get him into trouble again.

"Aren't you going to tell me what a bad idea that was? How I should keep my temper and not go looking for trouble?"

Stuart's concentration was focused on emptying a couple of ice cubes into his handkerchief, and he didn't bother looking at Chris as he replied, "Would that do any good, Chris? You already know my feelings on the matter."

"I can look after myself," he ground out again, knowing that it was a pointless repetition of the same old argument.

Stuart seemed to feel the same way if the sigh he let out was any indication. "And I've already made my feelings on that matter known too." He walked over to Chris, gently guiding the American over to the bed, a hand placed firmly onto Chris' chest telling him to sit down. "I know you can look after yourself, Chris," he repeated patiently. "But it's my responsibility to make sure that you're safe." As Chris opened his mouth to protest at the presumption of that statement, Stuart cut him off with a small smile. "Just consider it my way of watching your back, okay?"

There wasn't a lot he could say to that, and so he subsided, glaring mutinously at the Englishman as Stuart pressed the makeshift icepack to his head. It hurt and he let out a hiss, but Stuart didn't remove the compress and it didn't take long until the coldness numbed the area. Stuart removed the icepack every now and then, checking the bleeding, until he was satisfied with the results.

Once the pain had eased and before the bleeding had slowed, Chris was forced to sit there, with Stuart standing so close to him he had no problem in picking up the man's subtle scent, a combination of clean sweat and the understated hint of the aftershave he wore underlain with what he presumed was the smell of Stuart himself. It confused him, being redolent of safety and so much more, and it was more that confusion than any sense of anger or frustration that kept him quiet. He tried not to think about it, but with Stuart standing so close to him he couldn't help but replay that one kiss over and over in his mind again.

He didn't know whether Stuart understood why he was so quiet, but whatever the man's thoughts he was equally subdued. The few nervous glances that Chris stole at his face gave him little clue as to what was going on in that complicated mind, with Stuart's expression staying concerned and almost gentle as he continued his ministrations.

It suddenly occurred to Chris that maybe Stuart's protectiveness sprung not out of possessiveness but some need to feel responsible for someone, some sense of loyalty. Or maybe, just a need to feel that protectiveness was something he was still capable of. He'd been having some difficulty reconciling the public and private faces of Stuart Carstairs. Maybe Stuart was too - living day in and day out under the scrutiny of men who would probably turn on him in a heartbeat, with only Cassie allowed to see past that and even then, Chris suspected, she wasn't privy anymore to the Stuart he was allowed to see.

That gave rise to another feeling - guilt - and he clung to it, finding it much more familiar and therefore easier to deal with than the other, confusing feelings that having Stuart this close to him invoked.

Feelings that came back in a rush as Stuart finally removed the icepack once and for all and met his eyes.

For a long moment they both froze, staring speechlessly at each other. Stuart's free hand crept up towards his face, stroking lightly over the bruise that was forming on his jaw, a light and delicate touch. There was a question in his eyes, a question born of concern and caring, and Chris answered it the only way he could.

This time he initiated the kiss.

It started off as slow and gentle, a pushing together of lips very similar to the almost chaste kiss they'd shared in Stuart's office, but then Chris deepened it, opening his mouth and dancing the tip of his tongue along the Englishman's lips.

Stuart's own lips parted and let him in, giving him free reign to explore and, to his immense surprise, the sensation went straight to his groin. That confused him too, and he forced it out of his mind, giving himself over to sheer sensation and not letting his brain get too involved in this.

Stuart's hand was still cupping his face, the Englishman not doing anything more than simply responding to Chris' actions. He brought his own bruised and cut hand up to return the gesture, sliding it over Stuart's cool skin, feeling the prickle of Stuart's stubble under his palm as he stroked his thumb over Stuart's cheekbone.

He tentatively brushed his tongue over the tip of Stuart's, too nervous to move this too fast, still not quite sure of why the hell he was doing this except that he owed Stuart. And Stuart cared about him. And, he realised with a slightly sinking heart, he cared about Stuart.

The kiss didn't last long. When it finally sank into him what he was doing, he pulled back, startled at his own daring. He wasn't the only one startled, as Stuart's eyes met his again, equally confused. He watched as the Englishman tried to put his mask back on, not particularly successfully, and avoided his eyes, his gaze finally settling on Chris' cut knuckles.

"I'll get some more ice," he said, his voice sounding a little uncertain. This was a side of Stuart he hadn't seen before, and seeing it gave him a slight pang. He certainly didn't want to make Stuart's job any more difficult.

He waited until Stuart returned from the fridge again, his handkerchief now sodden but still doing the job, and the ice soothed the stinging in his knuckles, cut from the blows he'd inflicted on Pasa's men. Stuart still avoided his eyes, and he was at a loss himself of how to move past this.

"Did you mean it?" he asked abruptly. "About letting me have Pasa when you don't need him anymore?"

That startled Stuart again, and the green eyes shot up to meet his, Stuart apparently regaining some of his confidence at being back on familiar ground. "I meant it," he replied cautiously, his eyes searching Chris' face warily, obviously wondering what the American was thinking.

"Good," grinned Chris wolfishly. "Let me know when. I can wait as long as I know I'll get the son of a bitch in the end."

It was the closest he could come to admitting to Stuart that he wasn't going to make things difficult for him. As close as he could come to an apology for losing his temper. He frowned though as another thought occurred to him. "Just tell him that if his men come within ten feet of me I'll consider them fair game."

Stuart's mouth quirked up in a half-smile. "I'll tell him," he said. "I'm sure that after today's little demonstration he'll listen to me. Just..." He gave Chris another searching look. "Just do my blood pressure a favour, Chris, and try to stay where either Nathaniel and I can see you, okay?"

He bristled instinctively at the suggestion before the plea in Stuart's eyes got through to him and he reminded himself of his decision to try not to make this any harder for Stuart than it already was.

"I'll try," he gave grudgingly.

This time Stuart's smile was more genuine, although he dropped his eyes quickly, apparently focusing on Chris' hand. The mask was more firmly in place now, but Chris had the feeling that Stuart was still feeling as confused by his actions as he himself was.

"Can you cope from here?" Stuart asked, his voice neutral.

"Sure."

"Okay. I have to go and deal with Pasa and Macarthur. Try and stay out of trouble." The words were light enough, but Stuart's expression was serious. "I'll see you at dinner."

"Okay," Chris replied, watching as Stuart walked out of the door. The Englishman didn't look back.

With a heavy sigh, Chris let his now aching body fall back onto the bed, staring at the cabin's ceiling while he puzzled over the latest events. More than running into Pasa's men, and Stuart's promise that he could have Pasa himself, the events in this cabin took prominence.

He couldn't believe that he'd kissed Stuart.

He couldn't believe that he wanted to kiss him again.






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