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Damien Scott hated the jungle.

 

Everything that flies, slithers and crawls was here. Not to mention the oppressive, unrelenting heat. He hated being drenched in sweat under his green cammo fatigues and thirty pound tactical vest. He hated the insects who considered him their own personal blood bank.

 

But what he hated most were the terrorists who hid out here.

 

And he wanted nothing more than to take out his irritation on those assholes who forced him to tramp through Sierra Leone for the past two weeks to find them. Whitehall had put Section 20 on their scent when British Intelligence agents identified this cell funneling weapons and drugs into the UK to finance their activities. It was Twenty's job to root them out and dismantle the cell by any means necessary.

 

Damien felt the weight of his MP-5 rifle slung across his chest. He smiled to himself. He was good with that.

 

He blew out a breath and lowered his binoculars, shifting slightly in his crouched position behind a fallen tree. He turned his head to wipe the sweat from his face on his sleeve and glanced over at his partner. Michael Stonebridge was looking every bit the poster child for British military special ops in his own fatigues and vest. He even had the boonie hat and stripes of face paint to complete the ensemble.

 

Damien reached for his canteen and took a long drink as Michael continued to keep an eye on their targets through his own binoculars. They had finally located the cell, consisting of twenty-five members, in a small village on the far side of the tropical rainforest and had been doing recon for the past three days, observing their movements and routines.

 

The well-armed terrorists had completely enslaved the village's population, forcing them to package the drugs and assemble crates of weapons. They beat anyone who worked too slow or just for fun. The women were at their beck and call for food, leaving most of the villagers going hungry. As far as Whitehall knew, this had been going on for months.

 

"Shit," Michael suddenly cursed under his breath.

 

Damien dropped his canteen and snatched up his binoculars. "What is it?"

 

Michael's voice was hard. "It's happening again."

 

Damien watched as one of the terrorists grabbed at one of the teenage girls, laughing, pulling at her clothes. She screamed and fought, beating her small fists against his chest, terrified. Her struggles only further enflamed him, pulling her roughly to him, one of his hands squeezing her breast. His comrades laughed and shouted, encouraging him, and he turned abruptly, dragging her into the main building they had taken over as she continued to scream and sob.

 

Bile rising in his throat, Damien threw down his binoculars. "Goddammit, Michael. I can't keep watching this," he ground out. "We've gathered enough intel. If Locke doesn't give us the green light tomorrow I'm going in there myself and tearing those fuckers apart."

 

Michael lowered his binoculars and pinned Damien with an intense gaze. "I'll be right beside you, mate."

 

Their comms crackled in their ears, catching their attention.

 

"Bravo One," came Julia Richmond's soft voice.

 

"Copy," Michael replied.

 

"Bravo Three and Four approaching," she advised them.

 

A minute later Damien heard quiet rustling in the trees and thick foliage behind them and then Julia and Kim Martinez were crouching down next to them in their own cammo fatigues.

 

Kim tilted her head toward the village, her voice low. "Any changes?"

 

Damien's jaw clenched. "Same shit, different day."

 

Julia's voice was resigned. "Another one?"

 

Michael gave a terse nod.

 

Julia sighed deeply, sadness mixed with anger in her eyes. "Those poor girls…"

 

"Bastards," Kim spat.

 

"Michael and I have had enough," Damien told the two women. "We know where the guards are stationed, what shifts they keep, their sleeping patterns, everything. We've got enough intel to move on them. I don't know what the hell Locke's waiting for, but we're ready to go in there ourselves."

 

"Not to mention the fact we need to shut this operation down before they ship out those drugs and weapons," Michael added.

 

"Well, Locke wants to see both of you as soon as you get back to camp," Julia said.

 

"And if he still won't give the go-ahead after you talk to him…" Kim caught Julia's eye and she nodded. "…count us in," Kim finished.

 

"Copy that," Damien replied. He looked to Michael. "Let's go."

 

With a final nod to Kim and Julia, as the women took their place behind the tree, Damien and Michael moved stealthily into the forest, heading in the direction of Twenty's base camp.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

They arrived fifteen minutes later, having announced their approach over comms, and nodded at one of the sentries on duty at the edge of camp as they passed by him.

 

There were no abandoned buildings deep in the jungles of Sierra Leone, so Twenty's crib was made up of several well-camouflaged tents. One was for main operations, two were shared barracks for the eighteen men and women contingent assigned to the mission, and one was the makeshift mess hall.

 

Damien and Michael headed straight for the ops tent. Fired up for a confrontation with Locke, Damien shoved aside the flap and strode into the tent. He scanned the interior quickly, past the row of techs sitting in front of their laptops and the large, hanging map, finally spying his commanding officer standing at the briefing table, surveillance photos spread out over the surface.

 

He walked quickly over to the table, coming to a stop on the opposite side from Locke, Michael right beside him. He slapped his hands down. "Boss, we—"

 

Locke held up a hand, cutting him off. "I'm giving the go-ahead for an assault on the village just before dawn."

 

Damien's mouth snapped shut, the wind taken out of his sails, as Locke continued.

 

"This needs to be a swift, coordinated attack. We cannot afford to get into a firefight. We're outnumbered, out-gunned and there are too many civilians present. The chance for innocent casualties is high. Hence my hesitation in striking immediately until I had as much information as possible." He looked pointedly at Damien. "I know very well what's going on there, Scott, and it turns my stomach. But charging in there without a solid plan would only make things worse."

 

Damien cleared his throat. "Sorry, boss."

 

"What is the plan, sir?" Michael asked.

 

"Three teams of five," Locke began, looking down at the surveillance photos. He pointed to several areas. "First team will split and eliminate the five guards around the perimeter of the village. They will then secure and protect the civilians." He pointed again. "Second team will secure the weapons and provide back-up for the third team's assault on the main building." He looked back up at Damien and Michael. "You will both be on the assault team along with Richmond, Martinez and Williams." He paused. "Capturing one of them alive for interrogation would be ideal, but your mission objective is elimination."

 

Music to Damien's ears. Those fuckers were going to pay for what they'd done to those people. "Copy that," he replied forcefully.

 

"Yes, sir," Michael echoed, then held up his closed fist to Damien. "Let's go help that village."

 

Damien knocked his first against Michael's. "Hell, yeah, buddy. Hell, yeah."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien's blood thrummed in his veins, every muscle tense, his body waiting to explode into action.

 

He didn't do waiting well.

 

Damien would have preferred an assault in the dead of night, but he understood Locke's desire to wait until there was at least a hint of light in the sky. Night vision goggles were all well and good when you only had an enemy in your sights. But they cast everything in indistinct shades of green and black—easy to mistake a friendly for a target. And there were friendlies throughout the village.

 

So they waited at the edge of the jungle, surrounding the village in their designated team spots until they could use their natural vision, which had already become accustomed to the darkness during their silent trek through the jungle from base camp.

 

It wouldn't be long now…

 

Locke's voice was suddenly in his ear and Damien's pulse jumped.

 

"Alpha team—proceed."

 

"Copy that, Zero," came Corporal Owen Anderson's quick reply. "Alpha team engaging targets."

 

Damien's grip tightened on his rifle and he looked to his right, where his team was stacked up beside him—Julia, Michael, Kim and Daniel Williams. He caught each of their eyes, received nods in reply, intense, focused expressions on all their faces. They were all ready to go, eager to dish out payback on behalf of the villagers and put an end to the cell's activities in the UK that had already taken innocent lives in senseless violence.

 

Damien turned his attention forward again, eyes on the main building, watching intently for any movement as he waited for Alpha team's report. His ears strained to pick up any sounds of a scuffle or a suppressed gunshot, signs the mission was compromised. But the only sounds he heard were the nocturnal birds and insects around him.

 

No more than a minute later Anderson's voice was in his ear again.

 

"Zero, targets are down. Moving to secure friendlies."

 

Damien blew out a slow breath. Step one was a success. The guards had been taken out quickly and quietly. Alpha would now just as quickly and quietly wake the villagers and tell them to remain inside their homes, flat on the floor.

 

Now for step two…

 

"Copy, Alpha," Locke replied, voice steady. "Charlie team—proceed."

 

"Copy, Zero," Corporal Marc O'Donnell answered. "Charlie team moving to secure weapons stockpile."

 

The last thing they needed was for the enemy to somehow gain control of the large amount of weapons and turn them on Twenty's soldiers. The mission, and most likely their lives, would be over if that were to happen. Charlie team just needed to take out the three guards who watched over the crates.

 

Then it would be Bravo team's turn to begin the assault.

 

Damien felt a bead of sweat trickle down his temple, his heart rate increasing by the moment. Waiting…waiting…

 

Thirty seconds later O'Donnell's voice was back in his ear.

 

"Zero, targets are neutralized. Weapons secure. Charlie team standing by."

 

"Copy, Charlie," Locke acknowledged and Damien shifted, preparing to rise from his crouch, sensing his teammates doing the same.

 

"Alpha—status?"

 

A brief pause, then Anderson was back. "Zero, nearly done. Stand by."

 

A long minute ticked slowly by. Damien shifted again. Gripped his rifle tighter.

 

"Zero, friendlies secure. Alpha team in position."

 

"Copy, Alpha," Locke responded. Damien tensed, jaw set. "Bravo team—proceed."

 

"Copy, Zero," Damien answered quickly. "Bravo team moving to main building." He turned to his teammates, voice a harsh whisper. "Go, go, go!"

 

As one they rose, perfectly in synch, breaking past the tree line with long, swift strides, rifles up and at the ready. A surge of adrenaline flooded through Damien's body as they crossed the open ground, all five of his senses heightened and on alert. It was a rush like no other. Better than a high from any drug.

 

His focus was on the building, but his head was on a swivel, looking for unexpected threats left and right.

 

Halfway to their objective everything went sideways.

 

The door to the main building was suddenly thrown open, and a teenage girl, her clothes in disarray, was pushed roughly outside. She stumbled and fell on her side as a man stepped out after her, laughing, his pants open.

 

It all happened at once.

 

The young girl couldn't stop her startled reaction at seeing five armed soldiers advancing toward her, immediately drawing the man's attention. His head whipped to the right, eyes widening. Before Damien or anyone could get a shot off, the man shouted, alerting everyone inside. Michael fired a quick burst and the man's chest tore apart in a spray of blood as his body fell backwards across the doorway. The young girl screamed, terrified, scrambling backwards on all fours. Julia yelled at her to come to her and she lurched to her feet, propelling herself forward. Her eyes were wide with fear, tears on her dark face. Julia caught her and told her to run into the jungle. She nodded and did as she was told, as Damien cursed.

 

The plan was shot to hell, as they would be if they kept advancing, outnumbered as they were with sixteen heavily armed men inside. Having lost the element of surprise, it would be a deadly bottleneck if they attempted entry through the door now. They'd be picked off one by one.

 

"Back, back, back!" Damien shouted just as gunfire erupted in front of them.

 

Men were streaming out the door, firing as they went and more were shooting out of the three windows, the early morning hours exploding with violence.

 

Bravo team scattered, diving for any cover they could find. Damien ducked behind a large crate of packaged drugs as Michael chose another crate across from him and did the same. Julia and Kim dove behind a pickup truck as Daniel leaped into the back.

 

"Zero! Bravo team has been compromised!" Damien shouted into his comm. "We're taking fire! Engaging targets!"

 

Locke's reply, calling for Alpha team to move in to assist and for Charlie team to maintain position at the weapons stockpile, was nearly drowned out by gunfire as both Damien and Michael opened up on the enemy.

 

The firefight was fierce, bullets slamming into the crates, the tightly packed drugs inside the only thing preventing Damien and Michael from being torn to pieces. Shards of wood exploded, sending splinters back toward Damien's face and he turned away, looking toward the right. He spied Kim, Julia and Daniel just as pinned down as he and Michael, but still keeping their enemies at bay with deadly accurate shots.

 

Damien turned back and leaned out sideways from behind the crate, snapping off several rounds. They found their target, the man's head nearly exploding as he dropped to the ground. Damien did a quick count and saw at least eight bad guys still standing outside, plus the three shooting from the windows and two from the doorway, all of them using AK-47's—the terrorist weapon of choice.

 

Multiple sustained bursts of gunfire further off to Damien's right signaled the arrival of Alpha team joining the fight. Michael's rifle angrily spat out rounds next to him, nearly deafening Damien. Another quick look around the crate showed Damien that several of the terrorists were being driven back closer to the building under Alpha team's onslaught.

 

"They're falling back!" Damien shouted to Michael.

 

His partner nodded and popped up over the top of his crate, eagerly looking for another target. Michael squeezed the trigger rapidly as an answering burst of gunfire sounded in return.

 

Damien watched in horror as Michael's body suddenly jerked multiple times, a splash of blood arching through the air as his partner was knocked off his feet, landing backwards in a heap, eyes closed, not moving.

 

"NO! Michael!"

 

The cry was torn from Damien's throat, his heart slamming against his chest as he dropped his rifle and threw himself into the line of fire, diving for his fallen partner. He hooked a hand around the strap of Michael's vest and dragged him back behind the crate. His hand came away bloody when he released the vest and he looked down to see Michael's upper left arm red and wet.

 

Damien started frantically searching Michael's body for where the other bullets had struck, oblivious to the gunfight around him, focused solely on saving his partner. Because he couldn't be dead. He couldn't. Damien refused to accept that possibility.

 

"Michael!" he shouted, running his hands over his partner's head, neck and arms. "Michael!"

 

Why couldn't he find where his partner had been hit?

 

And then he saw—three rounds embedded deeply in the chest plate of Michael's vest—just as Michael's eyes flew open and he gasped, his back arching. His hands started pulling at his vest as he struggled to breathe, to draw air in.

 

Damien's heart slowed it's staccato beat, the fear draining from his body with the realization that Michael was still very much alive before him. He caught his partner's shoulders.

 

"Mike! It's okay! Relax. Breathe slow. You took three in the vest. You got the wind knocked out of you."

 

Michael nodded, let his body go limp, and pulled in a long, rattling breath. He blew it out, coughing. "Oh fuck, that hurts," he groaned, touching his chest, then grimaced as he curled his right hand around his wounded upper left arm.

 

The firefight around them violently made itself known again as rounds tore into the crate and kicked up the dirt around them.

 

"Enough of this shit," Damien cursed, then shouted into his comm. "O'Donnell! You've got all the toys in that stockpile! Find something useful!"

 

"Already on it!" came the shouted reply. "All teams, get clear! Move, move, move!"

 

Damien didn't know what O'Donnell was planning but he didn't waste any time in obeying the order. He dragged Michael to his feet, threw his partner's right arm over his shoulder and beat a hasty retreat back toward the jungle. Off to his left he could see Kim, Julia and Daniel racing for safety as well, just as he heard O'Donnell again.

 

"Three…two…one…zero!"

 

Damien and Michael were nearly at the tree line when Damien heard the unmistakable sound of an RPG being launched. A split second later the building exploded in a massive, blinding fireball, red and orange flames shooting skyward.

 

The concussion wave slammed into Bravo team, knocking them forward and dropping them to their hands and knees in the dirt as debris rained down over them. Damien flipped himself over, realizing that he'd left his rifle behind the crate, and scrambled for his sidearm. He needn't have bothered.

 

The building had been obliterated, along with anyone within the blast radius. Damien's sharp gaze swept the area, weapon at the ready, but all he saw were bodies. Some whole, most in pieces.

 

Damien glanced over to Michael, on the ground beside him. "We never can seem to bring Locke back a live one, can we?" he cracked.

 

Michael tried to laugh, but put a hand over his sore chest. "Oh fuck, don't make me laugh, mate," he groaned.

 

"All teams! Send sit-rep!" Locke's voice suddenly barked over comms.

 

Charlie and Alpha teams jogged up just then, both Anderson and O'Donnell giving Damien a thumbs-up. Damien holstered his sidearm and pushed himself to his feet, as did the rest of his team.

 

"Zero, Bravo Two," he replied. "All teams accounted for. No casualties. Targets have been eliminated. Report mission success."

 

"Copy, Bravo Two," Locke answered. "Good work, all of you. Prisoners?"

 

Damien grinned. "Sorry, boss. They're all extra crispy."

 

There were chuckles all around and Damien could practically see Locke's expression. Michael shook his head and Damien just shrugged, smiling.

 

"Understood," Locke finally replied, his annoyance with Damien's flippant response coming through loud and clear in just one word. "I owe Whitehall a call. Get those weapons and drugs ready for transport and assist the locals in anyway you can until I can get an aid team in."

 

"Copy that, boss," Damien answered, then turned to O'Donnell.

 

"Nice fucking work, dude!" he laughed, knocking fists with the corporal. "You saved all our asses."

 

"Nothing I like better than turning the enemies' own weapons on them, sir," O'Donnell grinned.

 

"What the hell is with you Brits and that 'go on zero' crap, though?"

 

O'Donnell looked at him in confusion as Michael hung his head, shaking it.

 

"How do you Yanks count down, sir?"

 

Michael stepped forward then, addressing O'Donnell before Damien could reply. "Please, mate, don't get him started! It won't end well. Trust me."

 

Damien crossed his arms over his chest, his expression smug. "That's 'cause you know I'm right, Mikey."

 

Michael shook his head again, ignoring him and speaking to O'Donnell instead. "Send two of your men back to camp for a truck. Have them bring back our extra water, MRE's and medical supplies. The rest of you can prepare the weapons and drugs for transport back to base."

 

O'Donnell nodded. "Copy that, sir," he answered, then turned to his team, leading them back toward the weapons stockpile.

 

"Let's go tell these people it's okay to come out and see what we can do for them," Damien said to everyone else. "Split up, take a house and let's gather them all in front of the main water well."

 

There were nods all around and then Julia stepped forward. "Michael, let me look at your arm first," she said.

 

"Yeah, Mikey, let her kiss your boo-boo and make it better," Damien smirked, smacking Michael between his shoulder blades.

 

Michael gave him the finger. "Fuck you, Scott."

 

Damien winked as he walked away from his partner. "Catch up after she puts a band-aid on!"

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Now that the explosions and gunfire had ceased, most of the villagers were cautiously peeking out of their windows or doors as Damien and Bravo and Charlie teams approached. They went house to house, explaining they were British military, that they were there to help and asking everyone to come outside and gather together.

 

Damien's anger flared at the state of the men, women and children in front of him, at what the terrorists had put these innocent people through for months. There was still lingering fear in their eyes, in their gaunt faces, their bodies mottled with bruises and cuts, their clothes dirty and torn. The teenage girls were the ones that tore at Damien's heart, those that had been violated repeatedly. They were held tightly by their mothers, their expressions vacant, dark eyes hollow. How they would ever recover from this Damien didn't know.

 

"Jesus…" Michael muttered beside him, his expression of anger and sadness mirroring Damien's own. As did all of his teammates around him.

 

Damien took a step forward. "There aren't words to express how sorry we are for the suffering you've all been through. I wish we could have been here sooner. We do have a truck on its way with food, water and medical supplies. We'll assist you in any way we can until aid workers arrive in the next few days."

 

A man walked toward Damien, and though injured and weary from his ordeal, he stood straight and carried himself with authority. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, with a slight build, his close cropped black hair beginning to grey at his temples. He extended his hand, which Damien accepted. He could tell the man was putting as much strength as he could into clasping Damien's hand.

 

"My name is Ibrahim Bangura," he introduced himself, voice deeper than Damien had been expecting. "I am the head of this village. And there aren't words to express our thanks for coming to our aid. We thought our plight would surely end in all our deaths at the hands of those monsters."

"No one will ever do this to you again, Ibrahim," Damien replied strongly.

 

There was movement then in the small crowd and Damien looked up to see the men and women parting to let someone through, bowing slightly and nodding their heads.

 

Ibrahim released Damien's hand and turned around just as an elderly woman stepped out from the crowd. She was small and stooped, using a cane. Her short hair was silver-white and she had to be in her early-eighties. She had a colorful shawl around her thin shoulders, the only brightness Damien had seen in weeks.

 

"Mama! You shouldn't be out of bed," Ibrahim gently admonished her as he moved to her side, draping an arm across her shoulders. "You're still not feeling well."

 

She coughed wetly and said something to him in Krio, the native language of Sierra Leone, continuing to walk toward Damien. She came to a stop in front of him, her brown eyes full of kindness and warmth. She smiled and reached out to take Damien's hand in both of hers, Damien noticing how warm her skin was. She spoke Krio again and Ibrahim translated.

 

"My mother, Fatmata. Our spiritual leader," Ibrahim explained. "She wanted to meet our rescuers and express her gratitude. She bestows upon you many blessings for what you have done for us."

 

Damien bowed his head. "You're very welcome, ma'am."

 

She smiled again and tugged on Damien's hand, bringing him closer. She reached up to cup Damien's face and kissed him gently on both sides. She stepped back then, squeezed Damien's hand briefly, then turned around and began walking slowly away, assisted by Ibrahim.

 

There were instantly low wolf whistles and snickers from Damien's teammates as he turned to face them.

 

"Damien Scott—ladies man extraordinaire!" Kim laughed.

 

"You just can't help yourself, can you?" Michael teased.

 

Damien felt his face heat with a tinge of embarrassment. But he puffed out his chest and smirked. "What can I say? When you've got it, you've got it."

 

He gave a cocky wink and walked away to groans and laughter behind him.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Three days later, Damien trudged wearily down the ramp of the military transport plane and onto the tarmac. Back in London. Finally. He stopped and stretched, his entire body aching from the long, uncomfortable flight. These transport planes were great at hauling cargo. Human beings, not so much. He breathed in deep of the cool summer night air, a welcome relief from the humidity of Sierra Leone.

 

He reached into the pocket of his tan cargo pants and withdrew his pack of cigarettes, lighting one up as the rest of his Section 20 teammates and support personnel flowed out of the plane behind him like water. He took a long inhale then coughed several times on the exhale. He looked down at the cigarette. Maybe it was time for him to quit, as Michael had been bugging him to. He took one more inhale and exhaled smoothly this time, blowing a thin stream of smoke up into the air as his partner, Julia and Kim exited the plane and came to a stop beside him.

 

Damien dropped the cigarette and crushed it beneath his boot. He turned to his friends. "Anyone up for a beer at my place?"

 

Michael nodded. "Yeah. I'm in."

 

"Ladies?" Damien asked with a grin.

 

Julia shook her head. "I’m knackered."

 

"And all I want is a hot shower," Kim replied.

 

"You boys have fun," Julia said with a smile and a wave, as she and Kim walked off toward the main base.

 

Michael turned to Damien. "Actually, a hot shower does sound like a good idea…"

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien pressed Michael's chest up against the cool, blue tiles of the shower wall. His voice was a low rumble against his partner's ear.

 

"Is this what you had in mind?" he asked, kissing down the long column of Michael's neck.

 

Michael grinned. "It's exactly what I had in mind. Ahhh…" he trailed off as Damien's hand reached down between his legs and curled around his long, uncut cock.

 

Michael's hands flexed against the tile as Damien stroked him, kissing across his shoulders as the warm water fell down upon them, careful to avoid the plastic wrap covering Michael's gauze bandage on his upper left arm.

Michael's cock grew rapidly against his palm, his partner reaching behind them both to grip Damien's ass, trying to pull him even closer. Damien released him then and turned Michael to face him, their mouths practically slamming together in their hunger for one another. It had been over two weeks of close-quarters living in tents with no privacy. They were about to make up for lost time.

 

Their mouths slanted across each other's, tongues sliding together in a sensual dance as their hands roamed over miles of slick, bare skin. Damien could never get enough of Michael's taste, his touch…

 

Michael groaned into the kiss as their erect cocks rubbed together, and he pushed his hips forward. Damien gave an answering groan, his cock giving a throb, and he backed them up a step, underneath the warm water. He broke the kiss and saw the need in Michael's hazel eyes, hitting him low in his belly.

 

"Damien…" Michael breathed.

 

He gave Michael a swift, hard kiss and turned him, urging him toward the wide, deep built shelf built into the rear of the shower that they had used as a bench many times. Michael went eagerly, lifting himself up onto it and spreading his legs, bringing Damien between them. They kissed again, hard and fast, Damien framing Michael's face before pulling back and dipping his head.

 

His mouth found one of Michael's flat, wet nipples and latched on. Michael pulled in a sharp breath and one of his hands fell heavily onto the top of Damien's head, pressing him against his chest. Damien laved Michael's erogenous zone with his tongue, encouraging the nub to pebble hardness. He sucked then, drawing it into his mouth and Michael's head tipped back.

 

"Yeah…" he encouraged, fingers tightening in Damien's wet hair.

 

Damien sucked harder as his hand wandered across Michael's smooth, slick chest, his fingers finding the nipple's twin. He rolled the nub until it was achingly hard as well, tugging slightly as he grazed his teeth over the one in his mouth.

 

Michael's body jerked at the dual stimulation, a gasp falling from his mouth. "More…" he pleaded.

 

But Damien denied him, pulling off completely, ignoring his partner's sound of protest, and dropped to his knees. A moment later Michael's sound of protest became one of pleasure as Damien took his cock deep in his mouth.

 

Michael's taste exploded across his tongue and Damien groaned. He opened his mouth wider, took in nearly all of Michael's length—steel wrapped in silk, so warm against his tongue—and drew his mouth slowly back up before dropping back down again. Michael fell back against the shower wall, spreading his legs wider as Damien sucked, bobbing his head.

 

"Fuck…" Michael moaned, trying to push his hips up, get himself deeper in Damien's mouth.

 

Damien's hand once again curled around Michael's long length, stroking firmly, quickly, easing the foreskin back and down as he sucked on the swollen head. His tongue pushed hard on the bundle of nerves on the underside and he was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath from his partner and a burst of pre-come on his tongue. Damien hummed in response, sucking harder, his tongue dipping into the slit, trying to draw out more of the slightly salty fluid.

 

He felt Michael's cock throb hard in his grasp, felt his own respond in kind. After weeks of no intimate contact he knew his partner was already on the edge. As was he. Sure enough…

 

"So close…" Michael gasped.

 

But Damien once again denied his partner, letting Michael's cock slip heavily from his mouth and standing up. Not yet…

 

"You fucking tease," Michael cursed.

 

Damien laughed. "And you fucking love it." Then his eyes darkened and he pulled Michael to him, sealing their mouths together.

 

Michael surged up against him, returning the demanding kiss, wrapping his arms around Damien as Damien slid him down from the bench. He pulled away from the kiss, seeing the heat in Michael's gaze before turning his partner around and bending him over, his forearms now resting flat on the bench.

 

Michael immediately widened his stance as Damien's hands went to his ass, spreading him apart, exposing his partner's entrance. Damien's cock was achingly hard, his body thrumming with the desire to bury himself inside Michael. But first…

 

He dropped to his knees again and leaned forward, his tongue laving firmly over the small, puckered muscle.

 

Michael's reaction was instantaneous. He gave a short, sharp cry, his body jerking first forward, then quickly back, telegraphing his need for more. And Damien obliged him eagerly, laving his tongue again and again over Michael's most sensitive, intimate spot, pressing more firmly each time.

 

The sounds he was pulling from his partner drove Damien's arousal even higher, his cock releasing a stream of pre-come as Michael's body began to shake beneath his hands.

 

"Damien…please…" Michael ground out, voice high and tight.

 

Damien pressed his tongue forward one more time, just pushing past the tight muscle and Michael cried out again, reaching for his cock.

 

But Damien denied him for the third time, rising to his feet and blocking Michael's hand. Michael growled in frustration as Damien straightened him up and turned him toward the shower wall so that the water flowed between their bodies. Michael slapped his hands against the tile, looking over his shoulder, his eyes filled with such raw desire it nearly took Damien's breath away.

 

He molded his body briefly to Michael's, holding him close, burying his face against his partner's neck, kissing and nipping the wet skin. He pushed his rock hard cock between Michael's legs, against his partner's heavy balls and Michael dropped his head against Damien's with a low moan. The sound vibrated against Damien's chest, straight down to his cock, and Damien sucked in a breath, his body tight with restrained desire he could no longer contain. He needed to be inside Michael now.

 

He moved back, one of his wet fingers seeking out Michael's entrance, rubbing firmly, pressing forward just as Michael shifted his hips backward. Damien's finger slipped inside and his partner exhaled, eyes falling closed. Damien stretched him quickly but carefully, a second finger joining the first until Michael pushed back hard.

 

"Need you in me…" he panted.

 

Damien needed no further encouragement. He withdrew his fingers and took himself in hand, guiding his slick, wet cock to the puckered muscle. A moment later the swollen head slipped inside and twin groans echoed in the air, bouncing off the shower walls.

 

Damien paused, going no further, knowing how much Michael loved the first, initial feeling of penetration.

 

Michael's fingers curled against the tile once again. "Fuck…" he whispered hoarsely.

 

Damien pushed forward then, his cock slipping further in with each small press of his hips until he was buried deep, his groin flush against Michael's ass.

 

"Christ…Mike…" he ground out, his partner's body sensuously tight around him.

 

"Feel so fucking good…" Michael responded, clenching his internal muscles around Damien's cock.

 

Damien jerked at the sensation, exhaling sharply, feeling himself release another burst of pre-come and he could no longer hold still. He gripped Michael's hips and shifted his own back, nearly withdrawing all the way out of his partner's body, until just the swollen head of his cock remained inside.

 

He pushed forward in one smooth motion, burying himself once again inside Michael. Michael gasped, tipping his head back, eyes falling closed, mouth open, as Damien set a fast, smooth rhythm, in and out of his partner's body.

 

Damien let himself drift into sensation as he and Michael moved together, over and over. The steam wrapped itself around him in its warmth, the water flowing over his chest, down Michael's back and between their bodies, where they were so intimately joined. He watched his cock slide in and out of Michael's body in erotic fascination, listened to the sounds of pleasure he was pulling from his partner, felt his slick, naked skin beneath his fingertips.

 

It nearly overwhelmed Damien, but he wanted it to last, even as he knew it couldn't. The extended foreplay, having been denied each other for weeks—he could already feel his orgasm building, stirring at the base of his spine, his heavy balls tightening. His rhythm faltered just as he felt a tremor race under Michael's skin.

 

"Deeper…" Michael ground out.

 

Damien thrust again, changing the angle, and Michael shuddered.

 

"Right there, right there…" he gasped, one of his hands drifting down between his legs.

 

But Damien pushed his hand away before he could touch himself. "No…just like this…"

 

Michael's frustrated whine was cut off as Damien pushed in harder, finding that spot once again. Michael shook, pressing back to meet Damien's thrusts.

 

"Fuck…don't stop…don't stop…almost…" he rambled, an instant before his body went taught and he threw his head back with a shout of completion.

 

Michael's body tightened around his cock as his partner came, painting the shower wall with the thick, white streams of his release, pulling Damien's own climax from him. He cried out Michael's name as his orgasm surged through him with lightening speed, his cock pulsing deep inside his partner, filling him with the slick, wet heat of his release.

 

He sagged against Michael as he came, wrapping his arms around his partner, feeling his rapid heartbeat beneath his palm. Michael leaned into him, an arm wrapping back around Damien's waist. They stayed that way for a long minute, soaking in each other's warmth, until Damien slowly slipped from Michael's body.

 

His partner sighed and turned in Damien's arms, their mouths meeting for a slow, languid kiss as their heartbeats and breathing slowed. Eventually Michael eased back, framing Damien's face with his hands.

 

"Missed you," Michael murmured, resting their foreheads together. "Missed this."

 

"Hmm…." Damien hummed in agreement, skimming his hands slowly up and down Michael's bare back, a soft smile crossing his face. "No more missions where we don’t get a hotel room."

 

Michael chuckled and raised his head. "Copy that."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien settled himself against Michael with a cough and a tired sigh, resting his head in the crook of his partner's neck as Michael drew the sheet over their slightly damp, naked bodies. He draped an arm over Michael's chest, his eyelids growing heavy. The all-over body ache was back, even after the hot shower. He hoped finally sleeping in a real bed and not on a cot or in an airplane seat would ease his sore muscles. Damn, he was getting old.

 

He was nearly asleep, hoping Michael had enough energy to turn off the small bedside light because he didn't, when his partner's quiet voice had him opening his eyes again.

 

"What do you think Locke would say if he knew about us? Or Kim? Or Julia?"

 

Damien shifted, moving back slightly so that he could look at Michael. "Kim and Julia would say it's about fucking time," he grinned. "And Locke?" He shrugged. "What could he say? We're of equal rank. We're not breaking any rules."

 

"No," Michael agreed. "But he's old-school, by-the-book. He'd be concerned we'd put each other first, ahead of the mission."

 

Damien huffed out a breath. "Well, I hate to tell him, but I've been putting you first long before any of this started between us."

 

Michael cocked his head. "Like the other day, turning away from your post and pulling me out of the line of fire?"

 

Damien's voice was strong. "Damn straight."

 

He pushed himself up and leaned over Michael's body, his gaze falling to the mottled bruising in the center of Michael's chest that was just beginning to fade. A familiar jolt of fear raced through his body again. He leaned down placed a gentle kiss on the bruises.

 

Looking back up, he caught Michael's soft gaze. He swallowed thickly. "You scared the fucking shit out of me, Michael."

 

Michael brushed his knuckles against Damien's cheek. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

 

"Don't ever fucking do it again."

 

Michael smiled gently. "Copy that."

 

Damien pushed the sheet down their bodies and shifted, straddling Michael's legs, on his knees. He lowered himself down, chest-to-chest, his forearms on the bed, and touched his lips to Michael's, his eyes sliding closed.

 

Michael sighed and opened his mouth under Damien's, his arms winding around Damien's back. Their tongues did a slow dance, in no hurry. They'd taken the edge off in the shower. Now they could take their time.

 

Damien let himself drift into the kiss, their mouths parting to come back together, letting it grow and build, a little deeper each time. Damien usually wasn't one for kissing when it came to the men he slept with. It was more about finding release. But with Michael he couldn’t seem to get enough. Because each time was different. Each time they brought different emotions into it. Each time was something new.

 

He was addicted to Michael like no one else he'd ever been with, man or woman. And it wasn't just physical. He had a connection with Michael that ran deep, like he'd never experienced before. It scared him, and excited him, all at the same time.

 

Damien's hips began moving, seemingly of their own accord. Short, rolling motions, rubbing their soft cocks against each other's. Michael hummed into the kiss as their erections grew, as Damien's arousal and desire grew, bit by bit. A slow wave building inside him.

 

Michael's fingers ghosted over Damien's sides and back, raising gooseflesh in their wake. His hands drifted further, over the swell of Damien's ass, cupping and encouraging Damien's movements, holding him close, and Damien could feel his partner's heat, centered in his groin.

 

Their cocks were hard now, delicious friction as they pushed and slid against one another's. One of Michael's hands drifted, his finger searching, until Damien felt it rubbing against his entrance. Damien groaned into the kiss, his cock giving a throb at the thought of Michael buried deep inside him.

 

He eased back from the kiss. "Yeah…" he whispered.

 

Michael kissed him again and Damien could sense his partner's arousal at the thought as well, his cock hot and heavy against Damien's stomach. Michael turned his head toward the bedside table, his hand reaching out, searching for and finding the tube of lube next to the lamp. He went to flip open the cap, but Damien rose up onto his knees and took the tube from him. He opened the cap himself and coated two fingers of his right hand. Michael's eyes darkened at the realization of what Damien was going to do, and he ran his hands up Damien's muscular thighs as Damien reached back behind himself.

 

He exhaled as his own fingers breached his body, stretching himself, eager for Michael's cock. He withdrew his fingers quicker than he should have, his body not quite ready after two weeks, but he didn't care. He reached for Michael's cock then, slicking it with the clear lube, finding the head wet with pre-come, peeking out of the foreskin. Michael sucked in a breath as Damien stroked him, his hands tightening briefly on Damien's thighs before releasing them. Damien shifted, moving up Michael's body, just past his groin, and reached behind himself again. He took Michael's long, hard length in hand and guided it to his entrance. He rubbed the swollen head against the puckered muscle, teasing them both, before lowering himself down.

 

He tipped his head back, mouth falling open as just the head of Michael's cock slipped inside him. He heard Michael groan underneath him, his partner's hands rising up to settle on Damien's waist. He looked down then, pinned by the desire in Michael's gaze. Never breaking eye contact, Damien lowered himself further, pulling in a sharp breath but relishing the burn as his body stretched around Michael until he had taken all of him in.

 

He paused then, soaking in the sensation of Michael so deep inside him, resting his hands on Michael's bare chest. Michael rubbed his thumbs against Damien's hipbones, hazel eyes dark. This time it was Damien's turn to tighten his muscles around Michael's cock.

 

Michael pressed his head into the pillow, hands gripping Damien's hips. "Fuck…" he cursed, just as Damien felt his cock give a hard throb in response.

 

Damien drew in a breath at the sensation and slowly rose up onto his knees, letting Michael's cock slip nearly all the way out of his body until just the engorged head remained inside. He sank back down in one fluid motion, drawing groans from them both as he set up a smooth rhythm.

 

He rode Michael long and slow, taking him as deep as he could, over and over, letting the wave grow steadily inside him, knowing the wait would be worth it when it finally crested and swept him away. He watched the same wave build inside Michael, saw it in his eyes, in his soft, panting breaths that matched Damien's own, in the growing heat of his skin under Damien's hands.

 

Damien changed his angle slightly, pushed down a little harder, wanting Michael even deeper and his breath stuttered as the head of Michael's cock found that spot that made him shake. His groan rumbled in his chest as he did it again, the sensation shooting straight to his cock, which released a burst of pre-come. One more time and he gasped.

 

"Mike…" he breathed harshly, riding his partner faster now, the wave rising within him.

 

Michael tightened his hold on Damien's hips as Damien rose up and down. "Right there? Like this?"

 

Damien's voice rose as he ground himself down on Michael's cock, his partner's hips pushing up in counterpoint now. "Oh fuck, yes…"

 

Damien's cock pulsed again, clear fluid dotting Michael's chest as Damien rode the wave toward blessed release. Almost there, almost there… His eyes closed, waiting for the rush to overtake him…

 

Only to open his eyes wide as Michael suddenly held him down, stilling his movement, his climax abruptly suspended.

 

Michael shook his head, a gleam in his eyes, a curl of a smile in the corners of his mouth. "Not yet…"

 

And just like that, his partner had turned the tables on him, denying him just as he had done to Michael.

 

Damien's growl of frustration was cut off as Michael hooked a hand around his neck and pulled him down into a deep kiss as he rolled them, reversing their positions, still joined together. Damien found himself blanketed by the heat and pure strength of his partner's body—hard muscle wrapped in smooth skin. He groaned into the kiss, entwining his arms around Michael's broad back, wanting, needing, his partner even closer.

 

Michael rolled his hips, dragging a moan out of Damien, breaking the kiss as his partner lifted himself up slightly and mirrored Damien's rhythm—long, slow, deep thrusts.

 

It was exquisite torture for Damien, being brought down from the precipice only to be sent back up, inch by inch. He raised his head and captured Michael's mouth for short kisses as their bodies moved together.

 

It wasn't long before Michael's long cock found the spot once more and Damien's breath hitched, his own cock giving a throb against his stomach.

 

"Harder, Mike…" he pleaded gruffly, wrapping his legs around Michael's waist, pressing his heels against his partner's low back.

 

Michael obliged him, the heat of arousal in his eyes searing into Damien as Michael snapped his hips. Damien gasped as his partner found the spot again and again, the rush of release beginning to sweep over him once more. He reached between their bodies for his cock. Just a few strokes is all he needed…

 

Michael's hand curled around his wrist before he could touch himself. "No," he said, another gleam in his eye, echoing Damien's words again. "Just like this…"

 

Denied again, Damien whined low in his throat as Michael's payback continued. But then his partner took it a step further, taking both of Damien's hands and curling them around the wooden slats of the headboard, squeezing them in place, his message clear.

 

Damien's arousal skyrocketed as he gripped the slats, now unable to touch himself or Michael, giving himself over willingly to his partner's mercy. And Michael took his time, slowing down again with long thrusts until Damien's head was spinning, so caught in the grips of the overwhelming sensations Michael was creating inside him, his body begging for release.

 

And when it finally came, when Michael finally let him come, the tidal wave sweeping through him took his breath away. He cried out with the intensity, his cock jerking, pulsing, coating his stomach and chest with thick streams of his release. He was still shaking when Michael fell over the edge with his own cry of completion, hands gripping Damien's hips. Damien's back arched, his hands tightening on the headboard as Michael's cock throbbed deep within him, filling him completely, and a tremor ran through him at the intimacy of the moment.

 

His hands fell from the headboard, his chest rising and falling rapidly as Michael leaned down over him, breathing just as fast. He caught Damien's eye, a trace of heat still lingering in his gaze, before he dipped his head down.

 

"Jesus Christ…" Damien's voice wavered as he watched Michael lick him clean with long swipes of his tongue, swallowing down the evidence of his release.

 

Then he raised his head and captured Damien's mouth, sharing the last with him, letting him taste himself. Damien groaned as he swallowed the few last drops, mixed with Michael's own unique taste.

 

They eased apart long moments later, Michael gently slipping from Damien's body, and he sighed with the loss of their connection. They rolled to their sides, facing each other, entangling their limbs, Damien's body heavy and pleasantly exhausted. He answered Michael's soft smile with one of his own before letting his eyes drift closed. Just as sleep rushed up to claim him he heard Michael's faint whisper.

 

"I'll always put you first…"

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Late morning sunlight tickled the backs of Michael's eyelids, pulling him slowly from sleep. He released a long breath, stretching, blinking his eyes open and found himself looking at his still sleeping partner. A crease of worry furrowed Michael's brow. Damien had slept fitfully all night, which was uncharacteristic for him. His tossing and turning had woken Michael several times. Even now his expression wasn't relaxed and Michael wondered what was troubling him.

 

As if sensing Michael was thinking about him, Damien stirred, groaning slightly as his eyes fluttered open. He immediately blinked against the morning light and rubbed a hand over his face, which Michael now noticed was paler than normal.

 

Michael frowned. "Hey," he said quietly. "You okay? You were tossing and turning all night."

 

Damien started to speak but began coughing deeply. He sat up, turning away from Michael, and Michael lay a hand on his back. The skin under his palm was warm, too warm. Michael sat up as well as Damien's coughing began to subside. His partner cleared his throat several times and swallowed gingerly.

 

"Hang on," Michael said and rose from the bed.

 

He padded out of the bedroom and into the bathroom where he filled a cup with water and brought it back to Damien, who drank it gratefully.

 

"Thanks," Damien said, voice gravelly, as he set the cup on the bedside table. "Guess I really do need to cut back on the smokes." He tried to smile but it didn't quite reach his eyes.

 

Michael looked at him with concern. "Are you sure that's what it is?"

 

He reached out and touched the back of his hand to Damien's forehead. His partner swatted it away, glaring at him.

 

"You're definitely warm," Michael said.

 

"I'm fine, mother," Damien replied, annoyed.

 

But then contrary to his words, he immediately started coughing again. As it subsided once more he winced and rubbed his temple.

 

"You are most definitely not fine," Michael stated. "Come with me to the base hospital. I've got an appointment in a few hours to have my arm looked at. Make sure Julia stitched me up properly," he grinned. But then it faded as he took in Damien's complexion. He thought of the health risks they took in the countries and environments they worked in. The jungle had been full of insects, spiders. Had Damien been bitten by something and hadn't realized it? He lay a hand on Damien's shoulder. "Have the doc give you the once-over."

 

Damien sighed. "I'm just tired."

 

Michael squeezed his shoulder. "Humor me, mate."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Michael glanced away from where his scowling partner sat in a plastic chair, sitting up straighter on the bed when a tall, red-headed woman in green fatigues and a lab coat entered the glass-walled exam room, closing the door behind her.

 

She glanced down at the tablet she held, then back up at Michael, a pleasant smile on her face and in her green eyes, behind her stylish glasses. She held out her hand as she approached and Michael could see the Captain's bars on her uniform.

 

"Sergeant Stonebridge, I'm Doctor Carter," she introduced herself, setting the tablet down on the bed next to Michael. "You're here for a follow-up exam for a bullet wound you sustained in the field?"

 

"Yes, ma'am," Michael replied, rolling up the sleeve on his light blue t-shirt, exposing the white gauze wrapped around his upper arm.

 

She nodded and carefully removed the bandage, revealing the line of stitches. She examined them closely and the skin around the wound. "Any pain?" she asked.

 

"No, ma'am," Michael answered.

 

She nodded again and straightened up. "I don't detect any signs of infection and see no reason to redo the stitches. Your field medic did a fine job."

 

Michael grinned. "I'll be sure to tell her that."

 

Doctor Carter moved to a cabinet next to the bed and withdrew a fresh bandage and gauze wrap, then returned to Michael. "Come back in three days and we'll remove the stitches," she told Michael as she rewrapped his arm.

 

"Will do. Thank you, Doctor," Michael said, rolling his shirtsleeve back down.

 

As if on cue, Damien began coughing. He was looking worse now and Michael's concern rose.

 

"Ma'am, would you mind taking a look at my partner?" he asked as he stood up from the bed. "He started not feeling well this morning."

 

"Michael," Damien glared at him.

 

"Shut up, Scott," Michael glared right back.

 

"Of course," Doctor Carter said, sweeping her hand out toward the bed. "Hop up."

 

Damien shook his head, shooting Michael another annoyed look as he walked past him and got up onto the bed.

 

"What are your symptoms, Sergeant?" she asked.

 

Damien shrugged. "Body ache, cough, headache, fever maybe. It's just the flu."

 

Doctor Carter nodded thoughtfully. "Could be, but…where was your last deployment?"

 

"Sierra Leone," Michael answered.

 

A look flitted across her face before Michael could identify it, but the hair on the back of his neck stood up.

 

She removed the stethoscope from around her neck and listened to Damien's heart and breathing for several moments before moving back over to the cabinet. She opened a drawer and brought back a scope and a thermometer. She put the thermometer in her pocket and asked Damien to open his mouth. She used the lighted scope to peer down his throat for another moment before switching out the scope for the thermometer and passing the sensor end across Damien's forehead. It beeped and she looked down at the display.

 

"You do have a 100.3 fever," she confirmed. "Let's do some blood work just to be on the safe side before I give a diagnosis," she told Damien.

 

Damien shrugged again. "If that's what you want."

 

Doctor Carter patted his leg. "Sit tight." She pressed the intercom button on the wall next to the head of the bed. "Amy?"

 

Michael noticed the nurse at the desk outside the exam room lift her head.

 

"Yes, Doctor Carter?"

 

"Could you please bring me a blood draw kit?"

 

"Right away, ma'am."

 

Michael saw the nurse move away from the desk as Doctor Carter picked up her tablet again. "Let's get a chart started on you, Sergeant," she told Damien, beginning to type.

 

The nurse entered the exam room shortly, carrying a tray. Doctor Carter set down her tablet and took the tray. "Thank you, Amy," she said and set the tray down on a small, rolling table as Amy left the room.

 

She moved the table over to the side of the bed and Michael could see a pair of latex gloves, alcohol wipes, two small vials, a small needle attached to a short tube, a strip of blue rubber, a cotton ball and a bandaid on the tray. Doctor Carter snapped on the gloves then picked up the rubber strip and turned to Damien. She wrapped it around Damien's right arm, above his elbow, and tied it tight.

 

"Make a fist for me," she told Damien.

 

He did as she asked and she tapped two fingers against his skin just below his elbow. "Again," she said and he opened and closed his fist for a second time. She tapped again and nodded. "Good."

 

She turned back to the tray and tore open the alcohol wipe packet, swiping the pad several times over Damien's skin. She picked up the needle next, removing the protective end and bent over Damien's arm. "Little prick," she said and Michael couldn't help but chuckle.

 

"That he is, Doctor," he cracked.

 

Damien gave him the finger and Doctor Carter smiled at both of them as she held the needle in place and attached one of the vials to the end of the short tube. She removed the rubber band and Michael watched as Damien's dark red blood filled the first vial and then the second. Doctor Carter removed the needle then, recapped it, set it back on the tray and placed the cotton ball over the small drop of blood on Damien's arm. She covered the cotton ball with the bandage and bent Damien's arm up.

 

"Hold that there for a few minutes," she instructed him as she gathered up the tray. "I'll have the results in ten minutes or so," she said and left the room.

 

The advantage of being in a military hospital as opposed to a civilian one, Michael knew, was that there were many fewer patients, allowing tests to be run much more quickly.

 

Damien lay back against the bed, irritation written clearly on his face. He coughed again. "This is a waste of time," he groused. "Just give me a couple of aspirin and a glass of orange juice and I'll be fine tomorrow."

 

Michael sat down in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest and cocking his head at his partner. "You're going to be one of those grumpy sick blokes, aren't you?"

 

Damien shot him a look. "Bite me."

 

Michael laughed. "I rest my case."

 

Damien huffed out a breath and closed his eyes and the smile slid from Michael's face. He hadn't liked Doctor Carter's strange expression earlier and a tendril of concern took root in the back of his mind.

 

He didn't try and engage Damien in further conversation, wanting his partner to rest, so he occupied himself with people watching outside the glass walls of the exam room, fellow servicemen and women like himself waiting to be seen, sitting on chairs or standing.

 

Ten minutes or so later Michael sat straight up in his chair at the sudden commotion in the hallway and waiting room. He heard raised voices and stood just as Damien stirred and sat up in the bed. Michael looked at Damien in confusion and took a step toward the door, intending to find out what was going on. Only to freeze abruptly when several figures dressed in surgical gowns, gloves, clear plastic safety glasses and surgical masks with built-in respirators appeared, practically running. One of them was Doctor Carter. They began pointing at everyone in the waiting room and giving some sort of commands that Michael couldn't quite make out, but the message was clear—get out.

 

"What the fuck?" Damien said behind him as everyone in the waiting room stood and began moving quickly down the hallway.

 

The tendril of concern in Michael's mind blossomed into full-fledged fear as Doctor Carter and the other two men burst into the room. One of them went directly to Michael while Doctor Carter and the other man went to Damien. The man next to Michael took hold of his arm.

 

"Sergeant Stonebridge, step away from Sergeant Scott and come with me," the man ordered.

 

Michael pulled out of his grip. "Not until you tell me what the bloody hell is going on!"

 

Doctor Carter looked over to Michael, her expression grim. "Sergeant Scott has been infected with the Ebola virus."

 

Michael's heart stopped and he forgot how to breathe. Blood was rushing, pounding in his ears as the floor dropped out from under him at Doctor Carter's words. He locked shocked, uncomprehending eyes on Damien.

 

Caught so completely off guard, he didn't resist when Doctor Carter took hold of his arm this time and led him out of the exam room and into the next one over. Dazed, still trying to keep eyes on Damien in the next room, he let Doctor Carter get him up and sitting on the side of the bed.

 

Someone else appeared in the room, also in full protective gear, carrying a hazmat suit draped over an arm and holding a tray. Doctor Carter took the tray and the person lay the suit on the foot of the bed and left the room.

 

Michael's mind continued to spin as Doctor Carter quickly and efficiently drew several vials of blood from him.

 

Ebola.

 

This…this couldn't be happening.

 

He watched as the two men in the room with Damien began getting him into a hazmat suit just as Doctor Carter helped him get into his own. She had him sit down on the bed again when he was done. He felt claustrophobic, completely enclosed from head to foot, breathing in the sharp smell of plastic and rubber.

 

"We have a dedicated quarantine and isolation unit on the second floor," she began, and Michael blinked, struggling to follow what she was saying.

 

"It's being prepared now," she continued. "You and Sergeant Scott will need to remain in these suits until we can get you both upstairs." She paused and reached out to lay her hand on Michael's arm. Her voice softened. "I know this is a lot to take in. And I know you have questions. I do, too, as well as our epidemiologist, Captain Clive Robbins, who is in with Sergeant Scott now." She looked over into the next room. "Okay, your partner is in his suit. Let's go back in."

 

She squeezed his arm and Michael could only nod and follow her, his throat too dry to respond.

 

The second Michael was through the door he pushed past everyone and went to Damien's side where he sat on the edge of the bed, immediately clutching both of his partner's shoulders.

 

"Hey," he said, voice rough.

 

Damien gave a short nod, his eyes still radiating the same shock Michael was feeling. "Hey," he echoed, his voice muffled from behind the suit.

 

Michael squeezed his shoulders in reassurance then moved to stand next to him, keeping a hand resting between Damien's shoulder blades. He looked up at the two men next to Doctor Carter. One was looking down, consulting a tablet in his hands. But the other was flicking a glance between he and Damien, and Michael knew he was taking in how close they were standing, at Michael's hand still touching Damien. Michael immediately tensed under the man's scrutiny, and his hackles rose even further when the man looked directly at him with a barely disguised look of distain on his hawk-like features.

 

"I'm Captain Robbins," the man said tersely. "I need to know exactly where you were in Sierra Leone. We need to inform their government and get a team out there immediately." He reached his hand out to the side and the second man handed him the tablet, which he then in turn held out to Michael and Damien.

 

Michael looked down to see a map of Sierra Leone. He pointed to the areas that Section 20 had been in on their hunt for the terrorist cell. "We started here and ended up here."

 

Captain Robbins nodded and took back the tablet as Michael turned to Doctor Carter.

 

"I don't understand," he said. "I thought the Ebola virus had been eradicated in Sierra Leone years ago after that major outbreak."

 

"Viruses are resilient creatures," Doctor Carter replied. "They can lie dormant for years." She turned to Damien. "We need to determine exactly how you were exposed, Sergeant Scott, and how long ago."

 

Damien looked at Michael and shook his head in confusion, just as a lightbulb went on in Michael's head.

 

"Ibrahim's mother," he said. "She was sick, coughing."

 

Michael turned back to Doctor Carter. "She kissed both sides of Damien's face."

 

Doctor Carter nodded. "That will do it. Ebola is spread via bodily fluids—coughing, sneezing, saliva, blood. How long ago was this?"

 

"Four days ago," Michael answered.

 

She nodded again. "Symptoms can manifest anywhere from two to ten days after exposure."

 

"You suspected this, didn't you?" Michael said to her, remembering the strange look that crossed her face. "Because I assume testing for this virus isn't standard."

 

Doctor Carter sighed. "Yes, I was afraid this might be Ebola after where you said you'd been deployed and Sergeant Scott's symptoms. Ebola presents as the flu. But I was hoping I was wrong."

 

Damien finally spoke, his voice hollow. "Give it to me straight, Doc. I know how bad this is. Mortality rate is, what, 90%? Am I a dead man?"

 

Damien's words were like a punch to Michael's gut, but Doctor Carter's response cut him off at the knees.

 

"I won't lie to you. No vaccine or medication exists for the treatment of Ebola," she began. "And the virus has been replicating in you for several days. It's already doing damage to your internal organs, which is what it attacks and shuts down, leading to death." She paused and Michael once again struggled to comprehend the enormity of her words.

 

"We can keep you hydrated and maintain your oxygen levels and blood pressure as best we can and provide pain medication. But what it comes down to is the strength of your own immune system."

 

She paused once again and Michael could sense her hesitation at what she was about to say next and his chest tightened.

 

"You have a 50/50 chance of survival."

 

Michael's breath left him in a rush as his stomach plummeted, his heart slamming against his chest. His hand flexed against Damien's back as they turned to look at one another.

 

Damien Scott was the strongest person Michael had ever known, but for the first time ever he saw fear in his partner's eyes.

 

The door to the exam room opened and another person in protective gear came in. "Quarantine is ready, doctors," she said.

 

"Who is your commanding officer?" Captain Robbins asked. "We need to get your entire unit tested immediately."

 

Michael swallowed past the dryness in his throat. "Lieutenant Colonel Philip Locke," he replied. "Section 20."

 

Captain Robbins turned to the man standing behind him. "Sergeant, get on it."

 

The man nodded. "Yes, sir," he replied and quickly left the room.

 

Then Michael had to step aside as Doctor Carter and the woman got Damien fully up onto the bed and pulled up the sides. They released the brakes on the wheels and began rolling the bed out the door. Michael followed behind, along with Captain Robbins.

 

It was a silent procession down the deserted hallway to the elevators and up to the second floor. When the doors opened Michael was staring down a short hallway, at the end of which was a set of sliding glass doors. As they got closer he could see the large, red lettering on them:

 

QUARANTINE AREA

AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY

 

The doors slid open to a beehive of activity. Medical personnel were moving quickly about the area, which contained a central nurses station and six glass-walled rooms. Each had two doors, one for entrance in clean protective gear and one for exit into a dedicated area for removal and disposal of the protective gear. The personnel were preparing beds and various pieces of medical equipment, a sense of urgency to their movements. As Michael glanced into the empty rooms he prayed he would not soon be seeing his teammates filling them.

 

Doctor Carter wheeled Damien into one of the rooms and Michael made to follow, but Captain Robbins stopped him with a hand on his arm. Michael snapped his head to him.

 

"Come with me," Captain Robbins told him. "I need to ask you a few more questions."

 

Michael didn't want to spend another minute with this man but he had no choice.

 

"Fine," he said tightly, giving one more glance to Damien before following Captain Robbins to the room next door.

 

Michael sat in a plastic chair next to the bed while Captain Robbins pulled up a rolling stool across from him and consulted his tablet, typing.

 

"I need to determine your level of possible exposure to the virus," he said, then looked up, staring hard at Michael with cold, dark eyes. "What is the nature of your relationship with Sergeant Scott?"

 

Michael's eyes narrowed. "Partners," he answered.

 

"Homosexual partners?"

 

Michael heard the barely disguised disgust in the man's voice and his jaw clenched. "Yes," he gritted out, then abruptly sat back against the chair, Doctor Carter's words from earlier suddenly coming back to him.

 

"Ebola is spread via bodily fluids"

 

Concerned only for Damien, it finally slammed into Michael with the force of a freight train that he, too, could very well be infected.

 

"Are you involved in a sexual relationship?"

 

Michael blinked, the question pulling him from his thoughts. He ground his teeth together. "Yes," he snapped.

 

"When was the last time you had sexual intercourse?"

 

Michael bristled at the increasingly invasive questions. "Last night."

 

"Did you use a condom?"

 

Michael felt his face heat up and the muscle in his jaw jumped. "No," he answered tightly.

 

Again the look of distain on the epidemiologist's face and anger blossomed within Michael. Even though gay soldiers had been serving openly in the British military for over a decade, there were still those who thought men like he and Damien were a disgrace to the uniform and didn't belong.

 

Already on edge, Michael's temper flared. He jabbed his finger toward the tablet. "You have our medical records. We both have pristine bills of health. We're in a monogamous, committed relationship," he said fiercely, hating that he had to defend himself to the likes of this man.

 

"I'm not judging you or your lifestyle," Captain Robbins said smoothly, fake sincerity dripping from his words, which only angered Michael further.

 

"Really?" Michael leaned forward menacingly, his voice low. "Because it bloody well seems like it to me."

 

He knew he should have let it drop and not responded. Robbins might be a doctor, but he was also a Captain, outranking Michael. He was quickly heading for an insubordination charge but he just didn't care.

 

Captain Robbins' eyes flashed. "I'd watch your tone, Sergeant," he warned.

 

"I'd watch your snide looks and bigoted attitude, sir," Michael challenged right back, undisguised venom in his voice.

 

The tension in the room was palpable, overwhelming. His emotions already on the razor's edge, Michael's hands clenched into fists, on the verge of an action that would certainly earn him a dishonorable discharge if Robbins said another homophobic word.

 

Thankfully he was spared from having to make that choice. Out of the corner of his eye he spied someone hurrying into Damien's room, drawing his attention away from Captain Robbins. He noticed the nurses removing his partner's hazmat suit and getting him into hospital garments as this new person walked briskly up to Doctor Carter and handed her a tablet. A moment later they both looked pointedly at Michael. He had no doubt they were looking at his test results and his pulse quickened.

 

Doctor Carter motioned to Captain Robbins, who immediately left the room without another word to Michael. Michael watched as he joined Doctor Carter, who handed him the tablet. He couldn't hear what either of them were saying, but he didn't need to. Not with the way Damien's head suddenly snapped in his direction.

 

He had the virus.

 

Michael sat stock still, his mind gone blank, the world out of focus around him. He stirred when he heard the door to the room open and Captain Robbins stood before him, two nurses behind him.

 

Michael swallowed. "I'm infected?"

 

Captain Robbins' dark eyes were cold, the corners of his mouth twisted, as if he were staring at something foul. "You are," he stated without a hint of compassion in his voice.

 

He turned to the two nurses. "Get him prepped," he told them and left the room.

 

Michael felt the first stirrings of fear take hold of him, swirling in gut as the nurses approached him. His brain spinning, trying to comprehend he may have been handed his own death sentence, Michael let the nurses remove his hazmat suit. But it wasn't until they had him take off his shirt that he realized they were also turning on monitors next to the bed and prepping an IV bag.

 

It slammed into him then what was happening. What Robbins was doing—keeping he and Damien apart.

 

Anger burned through him with the intensity of a raging fire. No one was going to keep him from his partner's side, not if these might be their last days together.

 

He charged up to the wall separating him from Damien, slamming the side of his fist against the glass. Three heads immediately swiveled in his direction. Damien and Doctor Carter's eyes were wide at his unexpected violence while Robbins mouth compressed into a tight line.

 

"What the fuck is going on?" Michael shouted. Another slam of his fist, every muscle in his body straining. "You put us in a room together or so help me God, I'll break down this wall with my fucking hands!" Another slam of his fist. "You hear me??"

 

Michael's heart was pounding, breathing hard. Damien was looking at him like he'd lost his mind, having no idea what had transpired between Michael and Robbins. Doctor Carter turned to Captain Robbins, speaking rapidly, gesturing at Michael. Michael couldn't hear what she was saying but her anger was apparent. As was Damien's when his partner suddenly realized what was going on. His eyes flashed and he attempted to get out of bed, but Doctor Carter held him back, still speaking to Robbins. The Captain turned his head sharply toward Michael, his jaw clenched, then looked back at Doctor Carter. He said something to her then spun on his heel and strode from the room.

 

Michael pounded his fist against the glass again, though with less force this time, drawing Doctor Carter and Damien's attention once more. Doctor Carter lifted her hand from Damien's chest, saying something to him and his partner nodded and settled back on the bed.

 

Doctor Carter crossed the room over to Michael and pressed the intercom button that allowed conversation between the isolation rooms.

 

"Calm down, Sergeant Stonebridge," she said softly. "I'm having a bed brought in here for you."

 

Michael exhaled and felt his anger start to ebb away. He nodded. "Thank you, ma'am."

 

He shifted his gaze to his partner who was looking back at him with blue eyes filled with apology.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

By the time a second bed and all of the required medical equipment was brought in to Damien's room and Michael joined him, his partner was lying in bed, bare-chested, hooked up to monitors and an IV, wearing a pair of light blue cotton sleep pants. Michael quickly went to his side, curling a hand over the top of Damien's shoulder, then turned to address Doctor Carter.

 

"I absolutely refuse for either of us to continue to be under Captain Robbins' care," Michael told her, his tone brooking no argument.

 

Damien glanced up at him. "Mike, what the fuck is going on?"

 

Michael's jaw muscle jumped. "He disapproves of our lifestyle," he informed his partner tersely.

 

Doctor Carter held up her hands. "I apologize profusely for Captain Robbins' actions and attitude. I am as upset as you are," she said, and Michael heard the sincerity in her voice. "But please don't worry. He now has his hands full testing the rest of your unit and coordinating a response with the Sierra Leone government." She paused. "You are under my care only now."

 

The tension in Michael's body began to fade, knowing neither he or Damien would continue to be subjected to the Captain's bigotry.

 

Doctor Carter's expression turned serious. "You both know what you're up against. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. A lot," she said, pulling no punches, for which Michael was grateful. He needed to know what was ahead of him.

 

"If you make it through the first week to ten days after the initial infection your chance of survival greatly increases," she continued, giving Michael a much needed ray of hope.

 

"And we will do everything we can for you," she assured them, then paused, looking at them both intently. "You need to do something for me, though."

 

"What's that?" Michael asked.

 

"Fight," she stated simply. "Don't let this virus win." Her expression softened, glancing between them both. "I can tell you've got a lot to live for."

 

Michael looked down at Damien at the same time his partner turned to him, silently giving strength to one another. Michael's hand squeezed Damien's shoulder.

 

"Copy that," they chorused, not breaking eye contact.

 

When they did look back at Doctor Carter she was smiling at them. "Keep that attitude," she said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to put a plan of care together with my staff. Sergeant Stonebridge, let's get you into some hospital garments and have the nurses start an IV."

 

Michael extended his hand to her. "We're going to be spending a lot of time together. Please, call me Michael."

 

Damien raised his hand. "Damien, Doc," he grinned.

 

She squeezed Michael's hand with her gloved one. "Kaylee," she replied warmly. "I'll be back with you both soon," she said then walked out of the room.

 

Michael started to turn away from Damien to go over to his own bed where the nurses were waiting, but his partner snagged his wrist. Damien's expression had grown somber, fear still in his blue eyes, but now overlaid with guilt.

 

Damien's voice was thick. "Mike…I'm so sorry."

 

Michael shook his head, his throat tight. "Don't. You had no way of knowing. Don't think for one bloody minute that I blame you."

 

He leaned over and kissed Damien to reinforce his words. His partner returned the kiss strongly and when they parted his eyes were clearer. Then he chuckled.

 

Michael looked at him curiously. "What?"

 

Damien shrugged, a grin on his face. "That was quite the impression of The Incredible Hulk you were doing, Mikey. No shirt, pounding on the glass. Thought your skin was going to turn green," he smirked.

 

Michael shook his head. "You are such a wanker," he laughed, Damien joining in.

 

It was the last time laughter would echo in the room.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The hours ticked slowly by.

 

Doctor Carter came by several times to check on he and Damien, bringing them a light lunch. She had no news yet on how the testing was proceeding with the rest of Section 20, but Michael took heart that no one else on his team had been brought in. Besides the two nurses that were assigned to he and Damien, the only other people they saw were members of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. They spoke with both Doctor Carter and Captain Robbins and had deemed the base hospital's level of quarantine and containment more than adequate and did not see the need to transfer he and Damien to a civilian hospital or other facility. For which they were both grateful, preferring to remain under Doctor Carter's care after being regarded more as lab specimens than human beings by both Robbins and the ECDPC doctors.

 

Michael asked for a chair to be brought in so that he could sit next to Damien's bed. He had expected the standard plastic hospital chair, but to his surprise they brought him in a large, comfortable high-backed one so that he could lean back and relax. He was grateful for the staff's thoughtfulness as he knew he would be spending hours in the chair.

 

He was sitting in it now, the IV he was hooked up to, keeping him well hydrated, on a rolling stand next to him. He was dressed in a plain white v-necked t-shirt and the same light blue sleep pants as his partner. The only sound in the room was the steady beeping of the monitors next to Damien's bed.

 

The corners of his mouth turned down in concern as he looked at Damien. His fever had continued to rise, now at 101.5, and he had been dozing off and on. His eyes were closed now, his face steadily losing it's normally robust color. Michael leaned forward and curled a hand around his partner's. He was glad that he was still asymptomatic and would hopefully remain that way for the next three to four days as Damien had. He wanted to be clear-headed and aware of what was happening to Damien for as long as possible. To be there for him and do whatever he could.

 

And if the worst happened…he needed Damien to know he wasn't alone.

 

Michael exhaled slowly, trying to banish the grim thought, remembering his own trial not so long ago. This wasn't the first time he had a killer inside him. But back then he knew there was an antidote to the neurotoxin ravaging his body. And he knew without a doubt that Damien would save him.

 

But there was no antidote this time. He couldn't return the favor and save his partner. They only had their own sheer force of will to live to save themselves. He took comfort in the fact that he wasn't ready to give up and knew the same was true of Damien. They both had too much to live for. Still too much to do. And besides, soldiers didn't go out like this.

 

"Michael."

 

The voice over the intercom startled him and he looked to his right to see Locke, Julia and Kim standing on the other side of the glass wall. He stood quickly and made his way over with his IV stand, his pulse jumping.

 

"Have you all been tested yet?" he asked instantly.

 

"We have," Locke said. "And we're all clear."

 

"The whole unit is," Kim added.

 

Michael exhaled harshly in relief. "Thank God."

 

"How are you?" Kim asked, voice quiet.

 

"And Damien?" Julia looked worriedly past him to his sleeping partner.

 

"I'm feeling okay for now. Damien…" he glanced over his shoulder and back. "His fever keeps rising."

 

"And there's nothing that can be done for either of you?" Julia asked, frustration in her question.

 

Michael shook his head. "There's no vaccine for Ebola. They can only keep us hydrated, monitor our blood pressure, give us meds for the pain when it gets bad…" he trailed off.

 

Kim shook her head fiercely. "I can't believe this happened."

 

Michael addressed Locke. "Any word from the village?"

 

Locke's expression was serious. "Sketchy reports, but what I'm hearing so far doesn't sound good." He paused. "Could be more than half the village is infected."

 

Michael hung his head with a deep sigh at the tragic news, his thoughts going to those innocent people who had already suffered so much.

 

Then he took a breath, squared his shoulders and raised his head, looking directly at his commanding officer. It was time he knew everything.

 

"Something else you might have heard, sir, regarding Scott and I, that we should have told you—"

 

Locke held up his hand, stopping Michael. "I've known about the two of you for months."

 

"As have we," Kim chimed in, smiling, as Michael's jaw dropped.

 

"For a couple of special ops soldiers you're bollocks at keeping things a secret," Julia teased.

 

Michael turned back to Locke. It was all well and good that the girls were happy for him, but it all came down to the man in charge. "Boss?"

 

Locke crossed his arms over his chest and Michael tensed. It would be completely within his rights as commanding officer to transfer one of them out of the unit if he so chose and there was nothing he or Damien could do about it.

 

"As long as your relationship doesn't compromise the unit or our missions, I have no problem with it."

 

Michael released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding at Locke's words, watching as he let his arms fall to his sides, his voice softening as he glanced to Damien, then back to him. "And you're going to need each other now more than ever." He cleared his throat. "And if we can do anything…"

 

"Actually, you can," Michael said, knowing how hard this was going to be for his team. And for he and Damien. "Promise me you won't come back to see us until this is over. One way or another."

 

Kim's mouth dropped open. "But…why?"

 

"Because we don't want you seeing us like this," Michael explained. "If the worst happens…" He swallowed hard. "We don't want that to be your last memory of us."

 

Julia looked utterly stricken at his request, but she didn't fight him on it, respecting his wish. Locke was silent as well for a long minute before he gave one strong nod of his head. Then he reached up and put his palm hard against the glass. Michael could see him fighting against his emotions and his voice was gruff when he spoke.

 

"You stay strong. Both of you."

 

Michael put his hand on the glass as well, his chest clenching, and he found it hard to speak. "Copy that."

 

Locke let his hand fall, and with a last look at both he and Damien, walked away.

 

Kim stepped up next, her brown eyes full of warmth. She put her hand on the glass. "We'll be back on mission soon," she said, her voice wavering slightly. "All of us." Then she, too, was gone.

 

Julia was last, and the depth of caring and concern on the expressive face of his long-time friend and teammate hit him hard. She put her hand against his. "You can beat this. Don't you dare let me down." A hint of a smile flitted across her face before she moved off down the hallway.

 

Michael pulled in a ragged breath as he watched them disappear from view, desperately hoping it wasn't the last time he would ever see them.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien woke an hour or so later, but there were still tired lines around his blue eyes.

 

"How're you feeling?" Michael asked as he raised the head of Damien's bed so that his partner was in more of a sitting position.

 

Damien shrugged. "Been better."

 

He coughed, clearing his throat and Michael poured him a glass of water from the pitcher beside the bed. Damien finished the glass just as one of their nurses, Jessica, walked into the room, pushing a tray with their dinner. She smiled at them both, her ebony skin in contrast with the white respirator mask she wore.

 

"Room service!" she said brightly, and Michael couldn't help but return the smile. Jessica's bedside attitude had been upbeat since the moment she introduced herself to them. She never looked at them as men who were possibly dying, instead doing her best to keep their spirits up.

 

"Prime rib?" Damien said hopefully, grinning.

 

"Alas," Jessica replied, removing the covers off the plates with a flourish. "Tuna noodle casserole."

 

Damien groaned and Michael chuckled. "Cheers," he said to Jessica as he rolled the tray between his chair and Damien's bed.

 

Jessica moved to the other side of Damien. "Let's see how you're doing, shall we?" she said to him.

 

She looked closely at the monitors and the level of fluid in his IV bag before consulting his chart and then taking his temperature. The thermometer beeped and the corners of her mouth turned down slightly.

 

"You're up to 102," she told Damien. "I'm going to increase your anti-inflammatory meds, see if we can't get that down." She patted Damien's arm. "Be right back."

 

She moved off to the other side of the room, to the drugs cabinet, and Michael's concern for his partner rose again, each time his temperature did. He glanced at Damien. His partner's face was impassive, but Michael knew him too well and knew he was disguising his own concern.

 

Jessica returned with a syringe and injected the contents into Damien's IV bag. She patted his arm again. "We'll have you feeling better in no time," she smiled encouragingly.

 

She capped the needle and disposed of it in a biohazard containment box, then moved over to Michael, holding up the thermometer. "Your turn."

 

She passed the sensor over Michael's forehead then looked down at the display when it beeped.

 

"Normal," she pronounced and Damien snorted.

 

"Trust me, he's anything but," Damien smirked and Michael was glad to see a spark of humor from him.

 

"More than you'll ever be, mate," he cracked back and Damien gave him the finger.

 

Jessica shook her head inside her suit. "You two eat up." She leaned forward. "And if you clean your plates I'll bring you green Jello for dessert," she winked before walking away.

 

Despite Jessica's "incentive", Damien picked listlessly at his food, eating less than he had at lunch, before pushing away the tray. Which Michael pushed back toward him.

 

"Have a little more. You need to keep up your strength."

 

Damien gave him a sideways glare. "You really are more annoying than my mother, you know that?"

 

Michael just stared right back, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrows, channeling the look his foster mother had given him many times until he finally gave in and did as she asked.

 

Damien locked eyes with him for a long minute before blowing out an exasperated breath. "Fine," he grumbled and picked up his fork again.

 

The corners of Michael's mouth twitched. He patted Damien on the head as his partner managed several more bites before putting his fork back down. "Good lad. You'll get your Jello."

 

Damien gave him the side-eye again and Michael smiled despite his worry at Damien's increasing lack of appetite and how warm his skin had felt. He pushed the tray out of their way as Damien settled back against his pillow, staring up at the ceiling. Silence reigned as Michael watched Jessica and their other nurse, Lucy, moving about their station on the other side of the glass wall. He thought Damien had fallen asleep when his partner turned his head toward him.

 

"Got a pack of cards? A game of strip poker would definitely make me feel better," he joked.

 

Michael chuckled. "Sorry, mate."

 

"Then what the hell are we supposed to do in here?"

 

"We do seem to have an abundance of time on our hands." He settled back against the chair. "Guess we'll just have to talk."

 

Damien looked confused. "About what?"

 

Michael shrugged. "Anything. We never really get time to talk. We're always chasing down some bloody terrorist or we're—"

 

"In the sack," Damien leered and Michael shook his head.

 

Damien turned on his side to face Michael. "So let's talk about sex, Mikey," he grinned.

 

Michael felt his face heat up. Leave it to Damien to suggest that as the first topic. Hardly surprising, though, since he was the most sexual creature he'd ever known. But if it kept him alert and focused on something other than the virus he'd talk about anything.

 

"What do you want to know?" he asked, already regretting the question.

 

"Where's the most unusual place you've ever had sex?" Damien smirked.

 

Michael's mouth opened. "Are you serious?"

 

"Hell, yeah, buddy! Spill!"

 

Michael hesitated. His sex life, unlike Damien's he was positive, had always been rather tame. His partner was about to be very disappointed if he was hoping to hear about a public sex escapade.

 

Then he remembered something from years ago and a smile crossed his face.

 

"Oh, this is going to be good, I can tell," Damien grinned.

 

Michael settled back against the chair. "I was a cadet, stationed at HMS Raleigh, the basic training facility for the Royal Navy," he began. "I became mates with Henry, who was in my class and also in my barracks. You know how it is in basic, confined to base for weeks, a bunch of randy blokes needing an outlet."

 

"Hmm…indeed I do," Damien smiled.

 

"Henry and I hit it off in more ways than one. We started sneaking around, finding any place we could for a wank or a suck," Michael continued, realizing now how much Henry looked like a younger version of Damien. "We really wanted a proper shag, but there was no place private enough for that. Until we spent the day on the training ship that's permanently docked at the base." He paused. "And we found the captain's quarters."

 

Damien laughed. "You didn't."

 

"Oh, we did! We snuck out of the barracks that night and onto the ship. I was scared shitless the entire time we were going to get caught. But we didn't. We shagged till morning and barely made it back before roll call," he finished with a grin.

 

"I'm impressed, Michael!" Damien laughed, which turned into several coughs.

 

Michael's brow furrowed as Damien caught his breath. He leaned forward and tapped his knuckles against Damien's arm before his partner could dwell on his sickness. He needed to keep him focused on anything else.

 

"Turnabout is fair play, mate. What about you? I'm sure you've got plenty of stories to choose from," he teased.

 

Damien swallowed and cleared his throat. "What kind of sex-crazed addict do you think I am?"

 

Michael arched an eyebrow.

 

"Okay, okay. Don't answer that," Damien conceded, then began his story. "When you live in or around Detroit, chances are you're working for one of the car manufacturers. Before I joined the Army I was working at the Ford plant. I had a thing going with his guy Jeff. He worked on the same assembly line as me.

 

"We were at my place one night, decided to go for drinks. Didn't want to drive so we walked the few blocks, which took us past the plant. On the way back a couple hours later we were buzzed and horny," Damien grinned. "We start walking past the plant when Jeff suddenly charges across the front lawn, where they have the cars on display that we manufactured there. One of them was a sweet, cherry red Mustang.

 

"I don't know what the hell he's doing and chase after him. He pushes me against the Mustang, tongue down my throat, hand down my pants. I'm getting into it when he pulls back, says he wants to do it in the car."

 

"Oh, don't tell me…" Michael trailed off.

 

Damien grinned. "Oh, yeah. I'm just drunk enough that this sounds awesome. Since we made the cars we knew how to get into them and a minute later we're naked in the back seat." He winked at Michael. "I got rode hard in that pony car."

 

Michael groaned loudly and Damien started laughing, which transitioned into another round of coughing, this one more severe than the last. When he was finally able to stop, all trace of amusement was gone. Michael saw the uncertainty again in his eyes, the seriousness of the situation coming back as he fought to catch his breath.

 

Michael leaned forward and grasped his hand, his voice low. "Don't you give up on me, Scott."

 

Damien tried for a smart-ass grin. "You can't get rid of me that easily." Then he sobered. "Same goes for you, Mike. You're looking down this same barrel." He tried for another grin. "You've got to stick around. You complete me, remember?"

 

Michael grinned and huffed out a breath, regretting ever having said those ridiculous words to his partner. "You wouldn't know what to do without me."

 

Damien looked away, then back, his words gruff. "Yeah, well…I don't want to find out."

 

Michael swallowed hard as he squeezed Damien's hand. "Neither do I, mate."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It was a restless night for Michael.

 

He found it difficult to fall into deep sleep in the environment he was in, and with the thoughts weighing heavy on his mind. He lie awake listening to the steady beeping of Damien's monitors, ears straining for any change in the pattern, determined to keep vigil over his partner, afraid he would lose him if he slept.

 

At some point he did fall into an exhausted sleep for an hour or so, and blinked open dry eyes to the semi-dark room. He immediately turned his head toward his partner, finding him still asleep, his face pale and drawn. Michael blew out a long breath and took a moment to take stock of his own body. He was tired, but other than that he felt fine. No body aches, cough or fever. But he knew he was running on borrowed time. This was his second day after infection. His symptoms would begin appearing in another two days or so. Then his battle would begin. He could only hope by then Damien would be past his own crisis and on his way to recovery. So that if the worst happened to himself, he at least knew that his partner was going to survive.

 

Movement outside the glass wall drew Michael's attention from his somber thoughts and he saw Jessica and Lucy enter the nurses station, relieving Claudia and Megan, the two night-shift nurses. The four women conversed for several minutes, going over his and Damien's charts before Claudia and Megan took their leave.

 

Jessica looked over into the room and saw Michael watching her and she gave him a bright smile and a wave. He mustered up his own smile and lifted his hand. Jessica said something to Lucy, who nodded her head and Michael saw Jessica begin putting on her protective gear. Michael rubbed his hands over his face and then adjusted the head of his bed to bring himself into a sitting position. Jessica entered the room a short time later and made her way over to his bed.

 

"How's my favorite patient this morning?" she grinned.

 

"Don't let Damien hear you say that," he teased her.

 

"I won't tell him if you won't," she winked.

 

Michael turned serious. "How is he?"

 

"His fever rose slightly overnight. But his vitals are stable."

 

Michael's mouth tightened and he gave a short nod.

 

"And you?" she asked as she passed the thermometer sensor over his forehead. "Any symptoms?"

 

He shook his head. "I feel fine."

 

The thermometer beeped and Jessica looked at the display. "Still normal. Let's keep it that way, okay?" she smiled. "I'm going to change out your IV bag and Damien's," she told him and walked back to the drugs cabinet.

 

Damien stirred then, shifting on the bed, blinking sluggishly several times before turning his head toward Michael. It was apparent the consistent fever was beginning to take its toll on his partner, his eyes and complexion dull.

 

"Morning, sunshine," Michael said, forcing down his concern.

 

Damien grunted and scrubbed a hand over his face and his dark stubble as Jessica walked up beside him.

 

"Well, hello, sleepy-head," she smiled at him as she changed out his IV bag. "How are we doing this morning?"

 

Damien shrugged. "Same," he replied, voice still gruff with sleep.

 

Jessica checked his vitals and took his temperature. "102.5," she said and adjusted the flow of Damien's IV. "I'm going to increase your anti-inflammatory meds and I want you drinking as much as you can," she told him. "You need to keep yourself as hydrated as possible."

 

Damien nodded and she poured him a glass of water, raising the head of his bed. As he drank she addressed them both as she changed out Michael's IV bag.

 

"I'm going to turn the lights up and bring in your breakfast. Doctor Carter will be by in a little while to check on you." She gave them both a smile and left the room. A moment later the lights brightened.

 

"You look like I feel," Damien said.

 

"I didn't sleep much," Michael admitted.

 

Damien looked around the sterile room. "Not exactly the Ritz, is it? Remind me to speak to the manager, demand we get upgraded to a suite." The corners of his mouth twitched and Michael was glad to see another flash of humor from him.

 

"One with a hot tub, eh?" he replied with a grin as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He arched his back, trying to work out the kinks, then stood and made his way to the bathroom, taking his IV stand with him.

 

When he returned he felt a bit more refreshed, having splashed some water on his face. He saw that Jennifer had been and gone, their breakfast on the rolling tables next to their beds—pancakes, scrambled eggs and orange juice. He moved his table over to the chair next to Damien's bed and sat down.

 

He picked up his fork and began eating, noticing Damien's movements were lethargic as he picked at his own food. He did manage to eat about half, and this time Michael didn't press him for more as Damien closed his eyes and leaned back into his pillow. Michael finished off his own breakfast then combined their dishes onto his rolling table and pushed it over near the door.

 

He was on his way over to his bed, intending to let Damien rest when his partner suddenly spoke.

 

"Mike?"

 

Damien's voice was oddly strained and Michael quickly turned to him. Damien's brow was furrowed, his mouth in a tight line and his hand was on his stomach. Michael's pulse jumped and he crossed the space between them in two long strides. He grasped his partner's shoulder.

 

"Damien? What is it, what's wrong?"

 

Damien groaned slightly. "I'm gonna be sick," he ground out, doubling over.

 

Michael dove for the small, empty trash can near their beds, nearly pulling out his IV line in his haste. He brought it up just as Damien leaned over the side of the bed and vomited into it. He brought up everything he'd eaten, coughing and gagging, Michael helpless to do anything for his partner.

 

It was a long minute before Damien was able to lift his head, his breathing ragged, his face chalk white. He spit one more time into the trash can then gave a small nod of his head for Michael to take it away. Michael set it down on the floor then turned to look out at the nurses station, intending to get Jessica's attention, but she had already seen and was moving quickly toward the door, pulling on a fresh gown, gloves, glasses and mask.

 

Michael turned his attention back to his partner, easing him back against the bed then poured him a half cup of water. Damien took it with a hand that shook slightly, swishing the water around his mouth as Michael lifted the trash can up again. Damien spit, took a small drink and then handed the cup back to Michael.

 

"Thanks," he said, voice rough.

 

Michael set the cup and trash can down and ran a hand gently over Damien's head as his partner closed his eyes, Michael's worry continuing to increase.

 

Jessica appeared on the other side of the bed then, Michael having not even heard her enter the room, his focus on Damien. She had a small plastic bucket in one hand that she set down on the rolling table next to the bed. She had a syringe in her other hand and injected the contents into the IV port.

 

"Anti-nausea meds," she explained. She disposed of the syringe and once again adjusted the drip rate of Damien's IV. She gently squeezed Damien's arm and he opened his eyes. "Your stomach should settle soon," she told him. "And I've increased your fluids. Now get some rest."

 

Damien nodded weakly and closed his eyes again. Michael lay his hand on Damien's wrist and rubbed his thumb softly against his partner's too-warm skin. He swallowed hard at Damien's pale complexion, at what had just transpired, the next sign of his worsening condition.

 

"There's no blood," Jessica said.

 

Michael pulled his gaze from Damien to see Jessica putting the trash can inside a large, red biohazard bag, sealing it closed.

 

"What?"

 

"There's no blood in his vomit," she said. "That's a good thing." She set the bag down near the door then came back and stood next to Michael.

 

"You look like you could use a shower. Why don't you go get cleaned up and get some rest yourself? Claudia left fresh clothes for you both in the bathroom last night."

 

Michael glanced to her and shook his head. He was staying right here. "No, I—"

 

"It's okay," Jessica interrupted him. "I'll stay here with him."

 

Michael shook his head again, looking back to Damien. "I'm good. I—"

 

"Michael."

 

He turned his head at the tone of her voice.

 

"You need to take care of yourself, too," she said gently but firmly.

 

Jessica was right and he knew it. He needed to be strong for Damien as long as he could. But still he hesitated.

 

"He'll be fine," she reassured him. "Now go."

 

Michael finally nodded. Jessica smiled at him and removed his IV line. He gave a gentle squeeze to Damien's wrist and let go. Nothing was going to happen in the ten or fifteen minutes it took for him to shower. He gave a backwards glance over his shoulder as he walked across the room to the bathroom, then closed the door behind him.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Michael stood in the shower, eyes closed, and let the hot water cascade down over him for long minutes, easing the tension in his body. He soaped himself from head to toe then rinsed. He braced one hand against the wall and let his head hang, wishing the water could wash away his anxiety as it could the soap, swirling down the drain and away.

 

Damien's body was a ticking time bomb. So was his. And the counter was running down toward zero. Only there would be no joke this time.

 

Michael's hand bunched into a fist. He had never felt so uncertain, or scared, in his life. Scared that he wasn't going to have the time to say the things he should have said before all this happened. Scared that he was going to lose Damien just when they had truly found one another. A connection like theirs was one in a million, forged in the blood and violence that surrounded them. Unbreakable.

 

Michael took a long, steadying breath and raised his head, his jaw set.

 

He wasn't going to lose him. He couldn't.

 

They would fight. They would survive this.

 

His inner strength solidified, Michael turned off the water and toweled himself dry. He slipped into the fresh underwear, socks and sleep pants and noticed a shaving kit had been left for he and Damien as well. Michael ran a hand over his lower face, over the scruff, and decided to take an extra few minutes to shave. Unlike his partner, who had perfected the art of the stubble, Michael preferred to be clean-shaven. Not that he didn't mind when Damien's scruff rubbed against his bare skin, though.

 

He smiled at the thought, at the memory, and set about lathering up his face and running the razor across it for the next few minutes. He had just rinsed and wiped the excess shaving cream off his face when he heard voices beyond the door. Doctor Carter must have arrived. He hung the towel on the rack and pulled on the fresh white t-shirt and opened the door.

 

Only to freeze where he stood.

 

Not only was Doctor Carter in the room, but both Jessica and Lucy, all of them surrounding Damien, moving quickly, urgently, the monitors beeping irregularly.

 

For the second time in two days, Michael's heart stopped beating.

 

No. No…

 

He felt the floor starting to drop out from under him and he forced himself to move, his chest clenching, his stomach twisting. He was across the room in just a few, frantic strides and at Damien's bedside.

 

His partner's face was shiny with sweat, eyes open and glassy, his head moving restlessly, an oxygen cannula in his nose, some sort of blanket covering him from his neck down.

 

"What is it? What's wrong?" Michael demanded.

 

Doctor Carter shot him a sideways glance. "His fever spiked to 104.5. We're trying to lower his body temperature with the cooling blanket. His blood pressure is erratic and we're pushing meds to get it stabilized, giving him oxygen. We've started another IV as well."

 

Michael felt a pit open in his stomach as he stepped back and let Doctor Carter work, once again overcome with a feeling of helplessness as he watched his partner fighting for his life.

 

He had no idea how much time passed before Doctor Carter, Jessica and Lucy stepped away from Damien's bed, his partner now still, his eyes closed. He startled slightly when Doctor Carter put her hand on his arm.

 

"His vitals are stable," she told him. "His oxygen stats have improved and his temperature is coming down."

 

Michael swallowed hard against a bone dry throat. While he was relieved at her words, he also heard what she wasn't saying.

 

"It's only temporary, isn't it?"

 

Doctor Carter paused, then gave a short nod. "The virus is multiplying rapidly at this stage of infection and attacking his vital organs."

 

Michael squeezed his eyes closed and ran a hand over his face. He pulled in a shaky breath and nodded. He didn't trust himself to speak.

 

"He's a fighter, Michael." Doctor Carter squeezed his shoulder in reassurance. "I'll be back to check on him later."

 

Michael watched out of the corner of his eye as she and Lucy left the room, not taking his focus from Damien. Jessica walked up beside him and took his hand to reattach his IV. He spared her a glance, her brown eyes warm and full of sympathy and understanding.

 

"He can beat this."

 

Michael cleared his throat. "He will," he replied strongly, then sat in his chair next to Damien's bed.

 

He slipped his hand under the cooling blanket to curl it around one of Damien's. His skin was so hot despite the chill surrounding him. He squeezed his partner's hand.

 

"Damien? Can you hear me?"

 

Silence was his answer.

 

"That's okay. You just rest, mate," he said quietly, his voice catching as he settled back in the chair to wait, still holding Damien's hand.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Time slipped past Michael as he sat at Damien's side. He was vaguely aware of Doctor Carter and Jessica coming and going, but his full attention was on his partner, whose skin was steadily cooling under Michael's palm, but still warmer than normal.

 

Michael hadn't realized his eyes were starting to slide shut until Damien's hand flexed against his and he startled, sitting straight up in the chair. Damien was shifting, his head moving on the pillow.

 

Michael squeezed his hand, tried his question again. "Damien? Can you hear me?"

 

"Hmmm…" Damien's forehead furrowed and he pulled in a breath, his eyes fluttering open.

 

Michael exhaled in relief as his partner became more fully conscious and lucid. "Hey, you with me?"

 

Damien's tired eyes focused on Michael. He cleared his throat. "Yeah…I'm here," he rasped.

 

"It was your turn to scare the shit out of me," Michael tried to joke.

 

The corner of Damien's mouth turned up. "Turnabout, Mikey."

 

"Yeah, well, we're even now." He leaned forward and kissed Damien softly. "Let me get you some water," he said, then released Damien's hand to pour a cup from the pitcher.

 

He raised the head of Damien's bed slightly then held the cup for him as he drank down several long swallows. Damien blew out an exhausted breath as Michael set the cup on the tray and sat down in his chair. His partner looked around the room, then down at himself before settling his gaze on Michael. His voice was subdued when he spoke.

 

"Ever get the feeling the universe is telling us to reconsider our line of work?"

 

Michael cocked his head. "If you hadn't joined the military, what would you have done?"

 

"Fireman…cop," Damien answered with hardly any hesitation. "I wanted to be a part of something bigger than me. A brotherhood. To belong," he said. "Probably because I never really had a family, after mine fell apart when I was a kid."

 

Michael nodded. "Yeah, I could see you as either of those. But I think a soldier fits you better."

 

"What about you? What if you weren't a soldier?"

 

Michael grinned. "I wanted to be a professional boxer."

 

Damien smiled and nodded. "I've seen you go a few rounds with the heavy bag. You've got the skills. So what happened?"

 

"I, umm…I got arrested," Michael admitted.

 

Damien's eyebrows shot to the top of his forehead. "You? Got arrested? Mister 'I always play the cop in Cops and Robbers'?"

 

Michael shrugged. "I started boxing at a local gym. Ended up falling in with the wrong crowd there, ran wild for awhile." He paused. "Having grown up in care, moved from home to home, I guess I was looking for a family, too," he said. "Ended up boosting a car, got nicked. I was seventeen and ended up with a decent copper. He suggested joining the military to get me on the right path before it was too late. I took his advice to heart." He spread his arms open. "And now here I am."

 

Damien's expression shuttered. "Yeah…here you are," he said quietly, sadly.

 

He started to say something else but stopped, looking away from Michael.

 

"What?" Michael asked softly, the atmosphere in the room suddenly heavy.

 

Damien hesitated before turning back to Michael, and his breath caught at the fear once again reflecting from his partner's tired eyes.

 

"We've been through a shitload, Mike," Damien said, voice rough. "Faced down too many terrorists to count, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, more gunfights than I can remember and I didn't bat an eye, even though I could've died at any moment." He swallowed hard. "But this…this scares the crap out of me."

 

The vulnerability in Damien's voice, in his admission, tore at Michael. He reached again for Damien's hand, forcing the words past the emotion constricting his throat. Damien needed to know he wasn't alone.

 

"I'm scared, too."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Despite Doctor Carter's warning, Michael still wasn't prepared to watch Damien's condition steadily deteriorate throughout the day. He couldn't keep any food down, and his coughing spells were getting longer and worse, leaving him panting for breath. His temperature, which had come down to 102, rose back up to 103.5 and remained that way in spite of the cooling blanket. He was awake for short periods, his face pale, his normally bright blue eyes dull.

 

Michael had never seen his partner look so frail, so weak, and his chest clenched with the knowledge that he was losing Damien right before his eyes. And there was nothing he could do.

 

The pain began later that evening as the fully-blown virus began attacking Damien's body in force. It grew slowly worse, Damien's face twisted into a grimace, his jaw clenched, his body moving restlessly, his hand clutching Michael's in a bone-crushing grip as each new wave assaulted him.

 

"It hurts, Mike," Damien panted raggedly. "Fuck, it hurts…" He squeezed his eyes shut and turned on his side, toward Michael, curling in on himself.

 

Michael held onto Damien's hand with both of his, moisture pricking at the backs of his eyes at his partner's suffering. "I know," he replied, voice thick. "I know…"

 

Desperate to distract Damien from his pain, he shook his hand slightly to get his attention. "Hey…hey."

 

Damien's pain-filled eyes cracked open.

 

"We never got to finish our West coast holiday," Michael said, forcing a smile to his face. "Where else should we go?"

 

Damien tried to laugh at the out-of-the-blue question. "Vegas," he answered without hesitation.

 

Michael shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Why am I not surprised? What about Paris?" he suggested. "You could use some culture in your life."

 

"Vegas showgirls—that's all the culture I need." Damien winked then groaned, bearing down on Michael's hand, eyes squeezing closed, head dropping as the pain grew in intensity.

 

Michael's stomach twisted and he looked over his shoulder to where Doctor Carter was standing at the drugs cabinet.

 

"Doc," he called to her. "Can you give him some more?" he asked, referring to the pain meds she had started Damien on at the first sign of his distress.

 

Doctor Carter turned to him, syringe already in hand and walked over to the bed. Damien shook his head when she approached.

 

"No," he panted. "No more. Messes with my head. Can't…can't focus." He locked eyes with Michael. "Want…to be awake."

 

It was easy for Michael to read between the lines—Damien wanted to be with him as long as he could, until his body could no longer fight against the virus and he eventually lost consciousness.

 

Michael swallowed hard but shook his head. "You need to conserve your strength. Let your body rest instead of struggling." He squeezed Damien's hand. "Take the meds, mate. Please."

 

Damien hesitated and Michael waited for his protest but his partner grimaced again, his eyes tightening with pain and he gave a terse nod. Doctor Carter stepped up and gave Damien the injection and a minute later his body relaxed and his eyes drifted closed.

 

Michael hung his head and took a breath, fighting not to completely fall apart. He wished he hadn't told his teammates to not come back. He could use a friendly face right about now and some moral support.

 

Doctor Carter stepped over to him and lay a comforting hand on his shoulder. He lifted his head, his eyes filling with moisture.

 

"I feel so helpless," he whispered brokenly, a single tear breaking free.

 

"I know," Doctor Carter said quietly. "So do I. All I can do is give him fluids and pain medication." She swept her hand out in front of her, bitterness and frustration in her voice. "All this technology, all that modern medicine has to offer and it's useless against something so small you can only see it under a microscope."

 

She took a breath and squeezed his shoulder. "But I'm not giving up on him. And neither should you."

 

Michael set his jaw. "Never. Damien's the toughest bastard I've ever known." He felt a smile try and force its way to the surface. "No way will he let something that small kick his ass. He knows I'd never let him live it down if he died."

 

Doctor Carter chuckled. "You two make quite the pair."

 

Michael looked back at his partner. He lay a hand on Damien's head and gently rubbed his thumb across his dark hair, damp with sweat. "Yeah…we do," he whispered.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The next morning found Michael in his usual spot in the chair beside Damien's bed, watching his partner sleep. Or try to, Damien's body shifting restlessly, his forehead furrowed in discomfort. He was still on oxygen, his fever steady at 102.5, his skin pale.

 

Michael leaned forward to lay a comforting hand on Damien's arm and he fought to keep his expression neutral. As much as he wanted to deny it, he'd felt the body aches begin when he woke this morning. He knew it wouldn't be much longer before it was himself lying in bed. But he was determined to put it off as long as possible. Once he was hooked up to monitors himself he would no longer be able to be this close to Damien. Which is why he had yet to tell Doctor Carter or Jessica or Lucy that his symptoms had begun.

 

In the silence, alone with his thoughts, Michael contemplated his possible death. It made him think of the letter nearly all British soldiers wrote, to be delivered to a loved one upon their death. He realized his was still addressed to Kerry. Michael vowed to himself that when he and Damien were out of hospital, because they were going to survive this, he would be writing a new letter, addressed to Damien.

 

As if sensing Michael was thinking about him, Damien made a soft noise, his head moving against his pillow. Michael once again rubbed a hand soothingly over his partner's short hair, trying to help him settle, his skin too warm under his palm. But Damien stirred, coming slowly awake, sluggishly blinking open normally bright blue eyes that had gone dull with pain and exhaustion.

 

"Hey," Michael whispered.

 

"Hey," Damien echoed, voice rough. He swallowed with difficulty.

 

"Want some water?" Michael asked and Damien nodded.

 

Michael raised the head of Damien's bed then poured his partner a cup of water, inserting a straw. He held the cup and Damien pulled in long swallows. He started coughing and Michael got an arm behind his shoulders, helping him to sit up straighter.

 

Damien's coughs were hard and deep, his body shaking. When they finally subsided, he lowered his hand from where it had been covering his mouth and both he and Michael froze.

 

Damien's hand was coated in splotches of blood.

 

Michael's stomach twisted in fear as Damien turned to him with wide, horrified eyes, blood in the corner of his mouth.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Jessica had Damien cleaned up and settled back in bed shortly, and he was quiet and subdued throughout. But his eyes held a weight, a resignation, that made Michael's heart clench painfully at the thought that his partner was giving up.

 

Jessica gave Damien's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "I'll let Doctor Carter know. I'm sure she'll be here shortly. I'll be back in a few minutes."

 

Michael sat back down in his chair as Jessica left the room with the sealed biohazard bag. He was at a loss for words and a strained silence reigned as Damien stared straight up at the ceiling, his expression blank.

 

Long minutes later Damien turned to him and once again there was resignation in his eyes. Michael saw his throat work before he spoke, his voice thick.

 

"Mike…I need to say some things."

 

Michael's heart skipped a beat, a hollow feeling opening up inside him. He knew it was "the talk". He shook his head vigorously.

 

"No. No. We are not doing this," he forced out, his throat closing up with emotion. "I'm not listening to this."

 

He tried to stand, to get away, but Damien gripped his arm with more strength than he thought his partner currently possessed, halting his movement.

 

"Yes, you damn well are going to listen to me, Michael," Damien said forcefully.

 

Michael's shoulders dropped and Damien's hand slid away. He turned his palm up and Michael took his hand. As painful as he knew this was about to be, he also knew he couldn't deny his partner the moment to say what he needed to. He steeled himself and nodded.

 

Damien swallowed again before he began, his words heavy, heartfelt. "Thank you, Mike. You pulled me out of a dark, dark hole when you found me in Kuala Lumpur. I know you couldn't stand me when we met, but you still gave me a chance. Gave me a purpose again."

 

He squeezed Michael's hand. "I hadn't had a true friend in more years than I could remember until you came along. You showed me it was okay to let down my walls, my bullshit exterior. To open up and care for someone again."

 

Damien's voice cracked and Michael's eyes flooded with moisture. "Damien…" he breathed hoarsely, dropping his head.

 

Damien slipped his hand from Michael's and lay it gently on the top of Michael's head. "Love you, Mike," he whispered brokenly.

 

Something inside Michael shattered. It was the first time Damien had spoken those words and it had to be here, now, like this.

 

He shoved himself away from Damien, standing, unable to look his partner in the eyes. He turned sharply from the bed, his movements jerky as he strode quickly to the corner of the room, out of Damien's line of sight. He sank down, his head on his knees, shoulders shaking as he let the silent tears fall.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Michael blew out a long breath as he studied his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He was exhausted and it showed. Yesterday had taken its toll on him, both emotionally and physically.

 

Doctor Carter had been a constant presence as Damien's condition continued to worsen rapidly. He coughed up blood a second time, yet more confirmation the virus was becoming more aggressive, attacking Damien's vital organs. He was in constant pain, his fever back up to 103, his skin pale and sweaty. He drifted in and out of consciousness as Michael sat by his side.

 

Midway through the day Damien's blood pressure dropped dangerously low and he began to have trouble breathing. Doctor Carter and Jessica worked to stabilize him, managing to get his blood pressure back up and then fit him with a full oxygen mask. But as he continued to struggle for each breath Doctor Carter feared she would have to intubate him soon, to take as much pressure off his already taxed system as possible.

 

Michael's emotions were raw, once again overcome with a feeling of helplessness, Damien's heartfelt confession still ringing in his ears, praying he would have the chance to also say the words he'd kept locked inside for far too long.

 

He'd barely slept last night, listening to Damien's monitors as he lay there in the dark, and it was only with effort that he was able to leave his bed and walk to the bathroom this morning. His body aches were more pronounced today and he'd begun coughing while in the shower. He put a hand to his forehead, detected the slight warmth against his palm. He dropped his hand and gripped the edge of the sink, determined to not let on to anyone the state of his declining health. He couldn't succumb now, not when Damien hung so precariously between life and death. His partner needed him. Needed his strength to help him fight.

 

Michael took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and left the bathroom. Jessica hooked up his IV again and patted his back, her eyes warm above her mask as he moved past her to sit in his chair. To begin his vigil again.

 

Damien's eyes were closed, his breaths making small puffs of condensation against the oxygen mask. Michael took his lax hand in his.

 

"Don't you fucking give up on me."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

"Mike?"

 

Michael startled, realizing he'd dozed off in the chair. He scrubbed a hand over his face, his dry eyes.

 

"Mike?"

 

Damien's voice had an odd, disconnected tone to it like Michael had never heard before. He turned quickly to his partner, his pulse spiking. He stood and lay a hand on Damien's upper arm.

 

"Damien? What is it?"

 

Damien's hand drifted to his chest, fingers flexing. "Something…something's wrong," he panted. "Mike, I—"

 

Damien's eyes suddenly rolled back in his head and his body went limp, a split second before alarms began blaring from the monitors. Michael watched in horror as Damien's heartbeat flatlined.

 

"NO! NO! Don't you do this!" he cried, ripping off Damien's oxygen mask.

 

He began CPR, pumping Damien's chest, catching Jessica and Lucy out of the corner of his eye bolting from the nurses station, scrambling into their protective gear.

 

He gave Damien two rescue breaths then resumed chest compressions. "Stay with me, stay with me, stay with me…"

 

Then Jessica and Lucy were there, a crash cart between them, pulling Michael away. He staggered back, chest heaving, his blood pounding, roaring in his ears, nearly drowning out Jessica and Lucy's shouted instructions to one another.

 

He stood, numb with shock, as the two nurses worked frantically over his partner, trying to save his life, to restart his heart. Jessica called for a medication that Lucy quickly injected as Jessica prepared the paddles on the defibrillator.

 

"Charged 200! Clear!"

 

"Clear!"

 

Michael's body jerked when Damien's did, his partner's limbs flopping against the bed.

 

"No pulse! Bagging!"

 

"Charging 300!"

 

A long tone from the machine.

 

"Clear!"

 

"Clear!"

 

Michael flinched again as Damien's body arched off the bed then back down.

 

A change in the alarm filtered through Michael's brain, replaced with a different, quieter sound.

 

"I've got a pulse! He's back in normal sinus rhythm."

 

Michael felt his own heart start beating again at Jessica's words. He pulled in a harsh, ragged breath and stepped forward, reaching out a hand that shook slightly, needing to touch his partner, to reassure himself that Damien was still with him.

 

Tears pricked the backs of his eyes as he felt Damien's pulse fluttering under his fingertips. But for how much longer? How much more could his ravaged body take before it could fight no more and Michael lost him forever?

 

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The hours passed in a haze for Michael, sitting at Damien's beside.

 

Doctor Carter had made the tough decision to intubate Damien after his cardiac incident, his system too weak, and now a ventilator breathed for his unconscious partner.

 

Michael was taxing his own system to the limit as well, his nerves frayed as he watched Damien's heartbeat like a hawk, ignoring his ever-growing fatigue, his headache, his sore throat.

 

"Stay with me, Damien," he whispered, hoping his partner could hear him.

 

Michael blew out a breath and sat back against the chair. He could see Jessica at the drugs cabinet. Either she, Lucy or Doctor Carter was in the room with them at all times now. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, rubbing at his dry, tired eyes. He straightened up and pushed himself to his feet, intending on heading to the bathroom to splash some water on his face.

 

But the moment he took his first step the world around him tilted and his vision swam. He staggered, grabbing for the back of the chair but missed as his knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor, his IV stand crashing down beside him. Deep, harsh coughs wracked his body as heat raced through it. As the virus raced through it.

 

"No, no, no…" he rambled as Jessica dropped to her knees beside him. Not now. Not when he didn't know if Damien would recover. He couldn't let the virus take over yet.

 

But he was helpless to stop his body from shaking, from the darkness that rose up to overtake him.

 

His battle had begun.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien was choking.

 

There was something in his throat.

 

He couldn't breathe.

 

He gagged, trying to draw in air, trying to open his eyes. Panicking, disorientated, he started to struggle, trying to raise his arms, but his limbs were so heavy.

 

Hands were on his shoulders, holding him still.

 

No! He couldn't breathe!

 

A voice cutting through the darkness, insistent…

 

"Relax, Damien. Relax. Open your eyes for me…"

 

Tamping down his panic, he forced himself to do both and a red-headed woman's face swam into focus above him, wearing a surgical mask and plastic safety glasses. Who was she? Where was he?

 

"Damien, it's Doctor Carter." She smiled warmly at him. "Welcome back, soldier."

 

His brain slowly caught up. Ebola. Quarantine.

 

His eyes must have expressed his realization for Doctor Carter nodded at him. "You have a tube down your throat that's been helping you breathe. I'm going to remove it. As I pull, I need you to blow out, okay?"

 

Damien have a tiny nod, noticing another woman step up on the other side of his bed. His still-foggy brain struggled for a moment. Jessica. One of his nurses.

 

"Okay, ready?" Doctor Carter said. "Blow."

 

Damien gagged, blowing out as best as he could as the tube was swiftly removed from his throat. He coughed, his throat on fire, and Jessica was there with a cup of water and a straw.

 

"Small sips," she told him as the head of his bed was raised up.

 

The water was cool in his parched mouth and throat and he drank gratefully for a few moments. He nodded and Jessica took the cup away. He cleared his throat, feeling the fog in his brain dissipate further even as he felt the exhaustion in his body. Every part of him ached, as if he'd gone ten rounds in the boxing ring and he felt as weak as a newborn.

 

"What happened?" he rasped.

 

"Three days ago your heart stopped," she began and Damien's eyes went wide. "We nearly lost you. Michael did CPR until we could get into the room. You were too weak to breathe on your own so we had to put you on a ventilator, waiting for you to wake up." She put a hand on his shoulder. "Glad you're back with us. You're a lucky man."

 

With the mention of his partner's name Damien suddenly didn't care about himself, realizing that he couldn't see Michael. Just an empty chair. His heart stuttered.

 

"Michael," he forced out, voice tight. "Where is he?"

 

Doctor Carter's expression clouded over and she stepped aside.

 

Michael was in his own bed, lying deathly still, eyes closed. He was wearing a full oxygen mask and was covered with a cooling blanket.

 

"When it hit him, it hit him hard and fast. More aggressively than with you," Doctor Carter told him. "I won't lie. He's struggling. He's barely been conscious these last three days. His vitals are weak and we can't get his temperature down."

 

Doctor Carter's words were a punch to Damien's gut. He swallowed hard past the constriction in his throat. "He used all his strength on me, didn't he?"

 

She didn't answer, but her expression told him all he needed.

 

He squeezed his eyes closed. "Dammit, Michael…"

 

Doctor Carter touched his arm and he looked up at her. "It hasn't all been bad news. I believe you're past the crisis. Your vitals have stabilized, your fever is gone. Give it another day and I'll run a blood test, see if the virus is still present or not."

 

Damien nodded distractedly, his attention focused only on his partner. What did it matter if he survived and Michael didn't?

 

"Can you move our beds closer together?"

 

"Absolutely." Her eyes were warm with understanding. "I think it will be good for him to know that you're there." She looked past him. "Jessica? Give me a hand?"

 

"Of course," Jessica replied, stepping back up to the side of Damien's bed. He could see the smile in her eyes over her mask. "Glad you're awake. It's been too quiet in here."

 

An answering smile touched the corners of his mouth as she and Doctor Carter slowly wheeled his bed and his monitors closer to Michael. "I promise to make it up to you and go back to being a pain in the ass patient."

 

She chuckled, but Damien's humor fled as he got a closer look at Michael. Now side by side he could see how badly his partner looked—his face pale and drawn and damp with sweat—weaker than Damien had ever seen him and his chest clenched.

 

Jessica and Doctor Carter lowered the side rails on the beds then stepped away, giving he and Michael some privacy. Damien reached over and curled his hand around Michael's wrist. Even with the cooling blanket his skin was too hot. He rubbed his thumb against Michael's skin, but he didn't stir at the touch.

 

Damien had flashes of Michael sitting next to him as it got bad, as the pain became all-consuming, talking to him, telling him not to give up. Moisture gathered in the corner of his eyes. He hated that he hadn't been there for Michael in the same way, that he'd been struggling all alone.

 

His voice was thick with unshed tears. "Mike, it's me. Can you hear me?"

 

No response and Damien's heart fell with the unrealistic expectation that this was like the movies and his partner would magically wake at his voice.

 

He gently squeezed Michael's wrist, his voice low and gruff. "It's your turn to fight now, buddy. You're the toughest son-of-a-bitch I know. You're not going to let this beat you, are you?"

 

Silence was his only answer.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Despite Michael's lack of response, Doctor Carter encouraged Damien to keep talking to him.

 

So that's exactly what Damien did throughout the long day, fighting through his fatigue, talking about any topic that sprang to mind until his body demanded he rest. And when he woke he started all over again.

 

He was going to bring Michael back to him.

 

But despite Damien's best efforts, Michael's condition continued to deteriorate as his own continued to slowly improve. It meant nothing though, if Michael would not be by his side. Continuing on without his partner was not an option.

 

"Damien?"

 

A familiar female voice over the intercom roused Damien from his somber thoughts and he looked away from Michael and toward the front of the room. His first smile in days crossed his face at the sight of Julia Richmond on the other side of the glass wall.

 

"I thought Michael told you not to come back," he quipped.

 

She gave him a crooked grin. "I won't tell him if you won't." Then her expression turned serious. "How are you? And Michael?"

 

Damien blew out a long breath. "It's been fucking hell," he admitted. "This virus…it's serious shit, Julia. Doc told me my heart stopped. Mike started CPR. Helped save my life."

 

Julia's hand covered her mouth. "Damien…"

 

"Doc thinks I've beaten it, though. She's going to run another blood test tomorrow. I do feel better. Not great, but better."

 

Julia nodded. "Thank God," she breathed. Her gaze slid away from him. "And Michael?"

 

"It's not good," he said quietly. "It's hit him even harder than me. His body's just…shutting down." Damien struggled to say his next words, to even voice the possibility. "We might lose him, Julia."

 

Julia looked stricken as his voice broke, her eyes suddenly bright. She swiped at the moisture there as she shook her head in denial. "No. There's no bloody way in hell he's not going to beat this, too." She hit her fist lightly against the glass, frustration in her action. "I feel helpless out here. I wish there was something I could do," she said.

 

"There is," Damien replied quietly. "You can stay awhile."

 

A soft, understanding smile crossed her face. "Let me find a chair."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Julia's visit boosted Damien's spirits, but the feeling faded as the evening wore on, as Michael's condition grew increasingly worse. He looked on anxiously as Doctor Carter and Jessica worked to raise Michael's blood pressure, the monitors chiming a warning tone, the sound sending a chill racing down Damien's spine.

 

He hadn't realized he'd clenched his hands into fists until the tone finally subsided and he pulled in a shaky breath in relief, feeling his fingernails digging into his palm. He let his hands relax and was about to ask Doctor Carter what Michael's status was when Lucy hurried into the room and handed her a tablet. Doctor Carter studied the screen for a long minute, reading the contents intently. Even though Damien couldn't see her frown behind her mask, her concern was clearly evident in her eyes. Damien's hands clenched again.

 

Doctor Carter finally nodded and handed the tablet back to Lucy, then turned to Damien.

 

"What?" he asked tightly. "What's wrong?"

 

She stepped up to the side of his bed. "We've managed to get Michael's blood pressure back up to normal. For now," she qualified. "But his body temperature is still dangerously high." She paused. "And his latest test result just confirmed that his kidneys are beginning to shut down."

 

Damien's stomach plummeted. Michael was slipping away from him. He turned from Doctor Carter to his partner. Even in his unconscious state Damien could see the pain etched on Michael's face. He pinched his eyes closed with his fingers, keeping the tears at bay.

 

"I wish there was more I could do for him," Doctor Carter apologized.

 

Damien dropped his hand into his lap and looked down, nodding as he pulled in a ragged breath. His gaze glanced across his paracord bracelet and it gave him pause.

 

"Actually, there is something you can do," he told her, unfastening the bracelet and handing it to her. "Can you put that on his wrist?"

 

She looked at the bracelet curiously and Damien shrugged. "It's kind of my lucky charm," he explained. "Got it when I joined Delta and I never take it off." His voice softened. "But he needs it more than me now. Needs all the luck he can get."

 

"I might be a medical doctor and my career based in science, but I'm a big believer in hope and luck," Doctor Carter said as she fastened the bracelet around Michael's wrist. "I've seen miracles happen."

 

Damien reached over and lay his hand on Michael's arm, his finger just touching the bracelet, hoping for one of those miracles.

 

"I said this to Michael…you two make quite the pair."

 

Damien heard the smile in her words and he couldn’t help but huff out a small chuckle. "They say opposites attract, right?"

 

"How did the two of you even meet? How did an American end up serving in the British military?"

 

The corner of Damien's mouth crooked into a smile as he turned to look at her. "That's a long story. And most of it's classified." He paused, his words sincere. "But I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Mike. I wouldn't have stayed if it wasn't for him."

 

"I haven't known you both for very long, but I can tell your connection runs deep. Both personally and professionally."

 

"When you do what we do, trying to find someone outside of this life who understands…?" Damien shook his head. "It's nearly impossible. Only someone who lives it with you can relate." He sighed. "But it's a double-edged sword, knowing that because of the life you live you're going to lose them…" he trailed off, turning back to Michael.

 

"You haven't lost him," Doctor Carter said emphatically. "I saw how hard he was encouraging you to fight, to beat this. He's not ready to leave you."

 

Damien tried to have faith in her words. In his partner's will to live. He set his jaw.

 

"Good. Because I'm not going to fucking let him."

 

Doctor Carter smiled behind her mask. "That's what I want to hear. But right now it's late and you're going to get some rest."

 

Damien started to shake his head and she held up a hand. "I'm going to be here all night. I'll look after him for you," she reassured him. "You're on the mend and you need to stay that way."

 

Damien reluctantly nodded his head but did not let go of Michael's arm as Doctor Carter lowered the head of his bed and turned down the lights in the room.

 

He closed his eyes but lay awake long into the night, listening to the beeping of Michael's monitors, keeping watch over him, knowing without a doubt his partner had done the same for him.

 

Always got your back, Mike. Always.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien scooped the last of his tasteless oatmeal onto his spoon and into his mouth. Not exactly his choice of breakfast, preferring hot coffee, pancakes and bacon, but he was glad that Doctor Carter had deemed him well enough to start him back on soft, solid foods. After she had taken several vials of blood from him. He'd know soon if he was free of the Ebola virus. But he knew he was. He was still weak and wouldn't even attempt to try and stand up, but he no longer felt the deep, all-consuming pain of his insides twisting, of his body on fire from fever.

 

Like what Michael was experiencing right now.

 

Damien pushed his rolling table off to the side and turned his head toward his partner. Michael's condition had remained unchanged last night, still hovering precariously on the edge of succumbing completely to the virus. He knew because he was awake for most of the night, unwilling to let up with his vigil. And true to her word, Doctor Carter had been there all night, constantly monitoring Michael's vitals. Damien could practically sense her frustration in being unable to do more than that. He knew exactly how she felt.

 

"How's my favorite patient this morning?"

 

Damien glanced to his left at Jessica's pleasant voice.

 

"I could use some coffee," he said hopefully.

 

"I wasn't talking to you," she quipped as he walked past his bed and over to Michael's to change out his IV bag.

 

Her brown eyes were smiling behind her safety glasses and Damien couldn't help but grin in return. She had been an endless ray of hope in the darkness. Always upbeat, never looking at he or Michael in pity, doing her best to promote a positive attitude in both of them. When he and Michael got out of here, because they were getting out of here, they were giving her roses and taking her out for a surf and turf dinner. And Doctor Carter, too. That's the least they could do.

 

"Well, tell your favorite patient to wake his ass up, will you?"

 

"Did you hear that, Michael? Are you going to let him talk to you like that?"

 

Damien chuckled. "Trust me, I've said worse to him."

 

Jessica tipped her head. "Why does that not surprise me?"

 

Damien's humor slid away as he looked down at his partner lying so still, so pale. "Any change?"

 

Jessica shook her head. "The same," she said and Damien blew out a frustrated breath.

 

"But he's not any worse," she emphasized. "That's a good thing."

 

"And there's something else that's good."

 

Damien and Jessica looked over as Doctor Carter entered the room and stopped next to his bed.

 

"What's that?" Damien asked.

 

"Your test results came back negative. No sign of the Ebola virus." She smiled at him behind her mask and lay a hand on his arm. "You still have a lengthy recovery process ahead of you but you did it. You won this battle, Sergeant Scott."

 

"Never doubted it for a second," Jessica chimed in.

 

Damien turned back to his partner and took his hand. "You hear that, Mike? I beat it. It's your turn now, buddy."

 

Michael's hand twitched against his.

 

Damien's pulse jumped in shock and elation, but before he could say anything to Doctor Carter and Jessica his joy quickly turned to fear as Michael's entire body began shaking uncontrollably. His hand pulled out of Damien's as his back arched and his head twisted from side to side.

 

"Seizure!" Doctor Carter shouted as alarms blared from Michael's monitors.

 

She pulled Damien's bed away from Michael's and moved quickly between them, completely focused on her patient. Damien watched in mute horror as Michael's body flailed, thumping against the bed, fists clenched, limbs rigid. Doctor Carter shouted something to Jessica, who was already in motion, sprinting for the drugs cabinet. She was back in a heartbeat with a syringe and swiftly injected it's contents into Michael's IV port. Damien held his breath as Michael continued to shake for several more seconds before his body finally went limp and the alarms fell silent.

 

"Jesus Christ…" he breathed, feeling himself start to shake in the aftermath.

 

Doctor Carter and Jessica worked over Michael for long minutes before Doctor Carter looked his way. Her grim expression told Damien all he needed to know—Michael's body couldn’t take much more.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

A deep, hollow pit opened inside Damien as his bed once again lay alongside his partner's, Michael's hand in his. It had been an hour since Michael's seizure, and while the shaking had stopped, his vital signs continued to fluxuate.

 

The last time Michael's body had turned on him, Damien had held the cure in his hands and he'd saved his partner's life. Now there was no cure. Nothing for Damien to shoot or blow up to save Michael. And he was afraid that as strong as he knew Michael was, it wouldn't be enough for his body to survive this second deadly assault.

 

A wave of overpowering emotion swept through him, his heart twisting painfully at the thought of watching his partner die slowly right in front of his eyes. He brought Michael's hand over to rest against his chest, remembering what he had told his partner, the last thing he confessed before it all went dark on him.

 

It couldn't end now. They still had too much to do together.

 

Damien swallowed past the constriction in his throat, spoke through the unshed tears in his eyes.

 

"You want to go to Paris? We'll go to Paris," he promised. "I'll even let you take me to the damn opera if that's what you want." He pulled in a ragged breath. "I just need you to open your eyes. Please, Mike…" His voice broke and a single tear slipped free. "Don't leave me…"

 

Michael's head moved slightly.

 

Damien's pulse leaped again, terrified he was about to witness another seizure. But instead he watched Michael's eyes flutter. Damien's breath caught and he leaned over, still holding Michael's hand.

 

"Mike? Can you hear me?"

 

Michael's head moved again, toward Damien, his eyes struggling to open.

 

"Yeah, that's it…" he encouraged his partner, his heart slamming against his chest. "Open your eyes for me…"

 

And Michael did. Slowly, and with effort, but he did.

 

It was the most beautiful sight Damien had seen in days and another tear broke free. "Are you with me, buddy?"

 

Michael's brow furrowed, eyes blinking sluggishly as they tried to focus, before finally settling on Damien's face. Damien could see the pain and exhaustion written clearly within their depths, but a tiny smile touched the corners of Michael's mouth.

 

"Damien…" he whispered.

 

He squeezed Damien's hand, and with that small gesture the overwhelming despair that had been threatening to crush Damien vanished.

 

Michael had come back to him.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien studied the cards in his hand, his expression carefully neutral. He flicked up a glance to Michael, sitting across from him, before laying the cards out on the rolling table between them with a flourish.

 

"Straight flush, buddy!" he hooted.

 

Michael slapped his own cards down. "Oi! You're cheating, mate!"

 

"I'd only be cheating if this were strip poker, Mikey," Damien smirked.

 

Michael rolled his eyes and shook his head, a long-suffering grin sliding across his face.

 

For Damien, his partner's smile was still a sight for sore eyes.

 

It had been a rough two weeks for them both but especially for Michael. It had been touch-and-go with him for three days after he regained consciousness, and another four before his blood test, too, came back negative for Ebola. It was the longest seven days of Damien's life.

 

But now here they were, finally, wearing pajamas and robes, sitting on the sides of their beds in their regular hospital room on the third floor. And soon they'd be in their own bed in their own room. Damien was counting the hours.

 

"What's this about stripping?"

 

Damien and Michael turned their heads at the same time to see Kim walk through the doorway, followed by Julia.

 

"Did we miss all the fun?" Kim continued, laughter in her eyes.

 

"Party's just getting started now that you two are here," Damien replied, pushing the rolling table out of the way.

 

Kim went to Michael with open arms as Julia did the same to Damien. They all embraced warmly, smiles all around.

 

"It's so good to see you," Kim said sincerely. "You guys scared the shit out of us."

 

"I thought for sure one, if not both of you, would have come back to see us even though I said not to," Michael said teasingly.

 

Damien fought not to laugh as Julia shifted beside him.

 

"I can't believe you'd think we'd ignore your wishes," Julia replied, affronted.

 

Damien had to clench his jaw once again to conceal his amusement at what he knew to be Julia's mock-hurt.

 

Michael was immediately contrite. "Julia, I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

 

Damien could no longer hold in his mirth and barked out a laugh. "Dude, she did come back. You were asleep."

 

"Did you really think we were going to stay away?" Julia smiled softly at him.

 

"I should have known," Michael said, his thanks in his expression.

 

"Speaking of staying away, where's the boss?" Damien questioned.

 

"Outside. He got a call. He'll be up in a minute," Kim said. "So are you guys getting sprung tomorrow?"

 

"That's the plan, yeah," Michael answered.

 

"Good, because Julia and I are taking you guys out to the nearest pub," Kim smiled.

 

Michael flicked a glance in Damien's direction. "Oh, umm, thanks…but we…we've got plans…" he uncharacteristically rambled.

 

"We're going to have sex. All day." Damien said bluntly, smirking.

 

"Jesus, mate," Michael groaned as Kim and Julia laughed.

 

Damien shrugged, grinning. "Cat's already outta the bag, dude."

 

"Speaking of that," Julia said, her expression softening. "It wasn't the right time before, but Kim and I want you to know that we're truly happy for you both." The corner of her mouth twitched. "It was about time you both got your heads out of your asses."

 

Damien and Michael chuckled as Kim continued.

 

"And it explains a lot, too," she said, looking directly at Michael, arching an eyebrow. "Like why you and I never hooked up."

 

Michael's cheeks flushed pink and Damien laughed at his embarrassment, but his partner was spared from responding when Locke walked through the door.

 

"Boss," Damien nodded as Kim and Julia stepped aside, making room for their commanding officer.

 

Locke strode between Damien and Michael and gripped each of their shoulders. "Knew you could beat this, lads."

 

"Take more than a virus to put us down, sir," Michael smiled.

 

Locke clapped their shoulders and stepped back.

 

"What's the news from Sierra Leone, boss?" Damien asked.

 

Locke's mouth tightened. "Not all good, I'm afraid. Ten of the villagers have succumbed. Including Ibrahim and his mother, I'm sorry to say."

 

"Dammit," Damien muttered as Michael dropped his head.

 

"Seven more are infected," Locke continued. "But now that they're receiving proper medical treatment their chances of survival have increased." He looked at Damien. "If it hadn't been for you getting sick, Scott, and thus alerting everyone to the outbreak, the entire village may have been wiped out."

 

Damien felt nothing but sorrow for the kind people who had already suffered so much, but he was glad something good had come out of all of this.

 

"Doctor Carter informed me that you're both being released tomorrow," Locke said, changing the subject.

 

Michael nodded. "In the morning."

 

"Good. You've been on holiday long enough. Time to get back to work," Locke said matter-of-factly, but Damien could hear his underlying humor and relief.

 

"Copy that, boss," Damien replied as Locke turned to leave, Julia and Kim following him.

 

The three of them walked out the door, but then Locke turned back around in the doorway.

 

"By the way, I was just informed that Captain Robbins has received a new posting." He paused. "In the Falklands." A grin touched the corners of his mouth. "Cheers, lads." And then he was gone.

 

Michael's mouth dropped open and his brow furrowed in confusion as he turned to Damien. He hooked a thumb at the empty doorway. "Did you…?"

 

Damien held up his hands and laughed. "No, dude. I didn't say a word to him."

 

"Then how the bloody hell…?"

 

Damien laughed again. "I have no idea, but I'm really fucking glad he's on our side."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Late the next morning Damien took a seat next to Michael in Doctor Carter's office, grateful that their ordeal was minutes away from finally being over. They were going home.

 

Doctor Carter smiled at them from the other side of her desk. "Well, gentlemen, thank you for being my guests for the last few weeks, but I'm kicking you out."

 

Michael and Damien exchanged grins as Doctor Carter leaned forward, resting her forearms on her desk.

 

"But make no mistake," she said. "You still have a lengthy recovery period ahead of you for the next two to three months before you can be cleared for active duty. The virus rampaged through your bodies. Expect joint pain, muscle aches, headaches, possible changes in vision. I'll be monitoring you closely with check-ups every Friday, but come to me before that if you experience any kind of severe side-effects, okay?"

 

"Will do, Doc," Damien confirmed.

 

She sat back in her chair. "One last thing. Even though the virus has cleared your blood, for men, it's still possible for it to be present in your semen for several months. The chances are low you could re-infect yourselves, as some studies have shown that Ebola survivors build up natural antibodies to the virus. But still…" she reached one hand into each of the pockets of her lab coat and produced two condoms with a flourish. "Have a good time, but glove up for me, boys," she grinned.

 

Damien barked out a laugh and accepted the two foil packets as Michael's cheeks once again turned pink.

 

Doctor Carter flicked her hand at them both. "Now get the hell out of my hospital."

 

Damien and Michael stood in unison and gave the Captain a sharp salute and a wink before turning on their heels and striding out of the office, Doctor Carter's laughter echoing behind them.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Damien pushed open the main doors of the hospital and came to a stop on the sidewalk. He closed his eyes and lifted his face up to the sun, inhaling deeply of the first fresh air he'd breathed in two weeks. He exhaled in a long, smooth breath and opened his eyes to find Michael doing the same.

 

Their gazes locked and Damien was instantly glad that Kim, Julia and Locke had come to visit them yesterday, because all he wanted to do right now was be alone with Michael. And from the heated look in his partner's hazel eyes, the feeling was mutual.

 

"I know the doc just cleared us, but I'm feeling the need for a more…thorough exam," Damien drawled.

 

Michael's mouth quirked. "You are still looking a bit pale there, mate."

 

Damien gave him a sly smile. "You too, Mikey. You, too."

 

Michael swept a hand out in front of him. "Then by all means, let's make sure we're both fit for duty."

 

Damien was still grinning when the taxi dropped them off in front of Michael's house.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Michael had no more than closed the front door behind them and Damien had him pushed up against it, his mouth sealed to his partner's. He couldn't suppress his groan of pleasure at the first taste of Michael in weeks, at the feel of Michael's body so close to his own once again.

 

Michael surged up against him, his arms winding around Damien's back, clutching fistfuls of Damien's shirt, his grip almost bruising in its intensity. He tilted his head, deepening the kiss, and their tongues danced together.

 

Damien groaned again and rocked his hips as his cock throbbed hard within the confines of his jeans. He felt an answering, growing hardness behind Michael's cargo pants and he rocked his hips again. He swallowed down Michael's moan as his partner's hands released their hold on his shirt to travel downward to cup his ass. He pulled Damien tighter against him as he bucked his own hips and in a moment they were rutting against one another.

 

Damien's head was swimming, lost in Michael as they moved together, and the sudden, sharp sensation of his impending orgasm took him by surprise. His cock throbbed, releasing a burst of precome and Damien pulled back from the kiss, breathing hard. Not yet. He didn't want to come yet. He wanted to make this last.

 

And as he caught Michael's gaze, pinned by the overwhelming emotion in his partner's hazel eyes, everything…slowed.

 

Their touch softened, their kiss gentled, their bodies relaxed, melting into one another. Damien skimmed his hands up under Michael's grey t-shirt and slipped it up and off of his partner. Michael's fingers deftly unbuttoned Damien's dark blue shirt and slid it off his shoulders where it pooled on the floor on top of Michael's.

 

Damien ghosted his hands up Michael's smooth, bare chest, over his collarbone and up the sides of his neck to frame his partner's face. Michael smiled softly at him and Damien brushed a thumb across Michael's cheek.

 

"Missed you," he murmured.

 

Michael dipped his head to answer him with a kiss and then they moved as one toward the stairs. Articles of clothing dropped behind them like breadcrumbs as they climbed and they were naked by the time they reached the bedroom.

 

They tumbled down onto the bed, limbs tangling together in the bright sunlight streaming in through the window, casting their bodies in highlight and shadow. Hands roamed over miles of bare skin, the urge to touch, to be close, overwhelming with the need to reassure themselves they were here with each other. They had survived.

 

They kissed languidly, their mouths coming together and parting again and again, Damien's arousal growing slowly this time, gentle heat spreading through his body. He moved back from their kiss to slowly, painstakingly, map every inch of Michael's body with his hands and mouth, relearning his partner after their separation. By the time his chin bumped the head of Michael's erect cock his partner was shifting restlessly beneath him, one hand in Damien's short hair, the other on his shoulder. And when Damien licked a long stripe up the length of Michael's hard cock and sucked hard on the head Michael gasped and bucked his hips up. Then he tugged on Damien's arm, pulling him back up his body, rolling them so that he was on top, straddling Damien's thighs.

 

Michael smiled down at him as he ran his hands up Damien's chest, his fingers brushing through the dusting of soft, dark hair. Damien ran his hands up Michael's thighs at the same time, coming to rest on his hips, thumbs rubbing against smooth skin. Damien's throat tightened as he looked up at his partner. He'd nearly lost this. They'd nearly lost each other.

 

Michael raised his right arm and Damien saw his paracord bracelet, still on his partner's wrist. Michael hadn't said a word about it since he realized he was wearing it after he woke in the hospital. But he didn't need to. Damien had seen the understanding, how moved Michael had been by the gesture, in his partner's expressive eyes.

 

And what he saw now in those hazel eyes made his breath catch in his throat as Michael released the clasp and fit the bracelet back around Damien's wrist. Michael bent down, forearms on either side of Damien's head. Damien ran his hands up Michael's broad back as his partner moved in even closer, their mouths almost touching. Michael's next words were whispered feather-light against Damien's lips.

 

"Love you."

 

Damien's chest clenched as Michael closed the tiny distance between them, the first-time words echoing in his head as they kissed. Damien squeezed his eyes closed, keeping the moisture at bay as he tightened his hold on Michael. He rolled them then, the urge to be buried inside of his partner overpowering now. He pressed down with his hips, sliding his cock against Michael's and his partner pressed up in answer, groaning, breaking the kiss. Michael's eyes were blown wide and he nodded at Damien.

 

"Yeah…"

 

Then slick fingers prepared his way as a condom was rolled on and moments later Damien was easing his swollen cock inside of Michael. Twin groans echoed in the sunlight as they joined together for the first time in weeks, Michael's body stretching around Damien's, pulling him in.

 

"Slow…" Michael whispered, and Damien wouldn't have it any other way. They weren't rushing this.

 

Their bodies moved together as they kissed, their mouths parting to come back together. Damien rolled his hips, sliding his cock in and out of Michael in long, slow, deep strokes, over and over. Michael held him close as they rocked against one another, their skin hot, faces flushed, but not from fever this time.

 

Damien let himself go, let himself fall into Michael as they made love so achingly slow and perfect. He stopped thinking and just let himself feel—feel Michael's heat, his strength, his heartbeat against his chest, his soft breath on his face. The world fell away around him. There was only he and Michael in this moment, in the sunlight, safe and very much alive in each other's arms.

 

Long, long minutes later Michael's body trembled beneath his and Damien eased back from their kiss. He caught his partner's gaze for a moment, saw he was there, standing on the edge, waiting to fall. And Damien caught him as he did, as Michael's eyes closed and his neck arched, mouth falling open as his cock pulsed between their bodies and he shook in Damien's arms.

 

"Damien…" he breathed, voice breaking, hands gripping.

 

The sight, sound and feel of Michael's release pulled Damien's from him, catching him by surprise and he gasped as he came, pushing in deep. His cock throbbed, filling the condom, tremors racing under his skin as Michael's body surrounded him with tight heat.

 

They held one another through their quiet, but powerful release, until their bodies relaxed and their breathing slowed. Their kiss was gentle and lingering, Michael's hands softly caressing Damien's back. When they parted, there were matching smiles on their faces.

 

Damien cocked his head. "What do you say we never go through something like the last two weeks ever again?"

 

Michael arched an eyebrow at him. "It's your fault we got into that mess in the first place, mate. I hope you've learned your lesson."

 

"My fault?" Damien sputtered, laughing. "And what lesson is that?"

 

Michael mock-glared at him. "That no one is allowed to kiss you but me."

 

That was one lesson Damien had no problem learning over and over and over again.

 

THE END