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Through the Fire

by Lilith

This is my first fanfic, so some feedback would be nice, though not necessary. :-)

Disclaimer: Soldier of Fortune/Special Ops Force and all the characters therein are the property of Rysher, et al; this is a recreational endeavor, no profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended. I respectfully thank The Powers That Be for allowing me to indirectly dabble for awhile in the little universe they've created.

Rating: R, for violence, language, adult themes and sexual content.

Summary: When a mission in Colombia goes awry with disasterous results, the team must find a way back to friendly soil alive.

6 August 2000
1334 Hours
Somewhere in the Colombian Jungle

Margo was fading fast, and Matt could tell that it was a physical struggle just to keep her eyes open. She was leaning against the window of the van, her weapon propped up beside her, one hand trailing down beside her to continually stroke Benny Ray's pale, sweaty forehead.

"You okay, kid?" His voice seemed too loud in the strained, exhausted silence, and he turned around in his seat to catch her tired eyes.

"Yeah, I'm fine." She nodded wearily, reaching up to rub at the bridge of her nose.

"Are we almost there?"

"Another forty-five minutes to the border, and we're home free," Matt told her. He turned back to the road, navigating through a series of potholes so deep they could have been craters. "Go to sleep. You look like hell."

"Ever the gentleman," she retorted, but shook her head. "Someone's got to keep an eye on Benny Ray. I'm all right."

He glanced at her through the rearview mirror and recognized her plea. They were all exhausted. Nick had fallen asleep in the seat beside him ages ago, and was now snoring above the muted roar of the van's old engine. They had forced enough painkillers to knock out a horse down Benny Ray's throat, and now he lay pale and silent across the back seat, his head in Margo's lap. "How is he?"

"Alive." Margo ran her fingers across the sniper's face, pointedly looking at the bloody bandage wrapped around his right thigh. "He's running a fever, though."

"Damn." Matt chewed his lip in frustration. "I thought you said the wound was clean."

"We're in the jungles of Colombia, for God's sake," she spat back. "I said I did my best. There's not much you can do with half a first aid kit in the middle of nowhere. I wish Rico was here." She was furious, and terrified that Benny Ray was going to die. Truth be told, Matt was scared himself. "One of these days, we're going to die on one of Trout's 'easy missions'. We should have had air support, the Colombian Army be damned."

"I know. Trout really should have known better." He hunched over the steering wheel, flexing his hands as though they were around the throat of his boss. Once again, a case of need-to-know information had left them with less than they needed to know, and now Benny Ray was shot, everyone was exhausted, and they were still forty-five minutes from a safe border.

'Safe' being a relative term, of course.

Another backward glance, and he saw the telltale slick of moisture on Margo's cheeks as she bent over Benny Ray, tenderly cradling his head in her arms. "Close your eyes, Margo, and get some sleep. This road was clear when we came in." When had they come in? It couldn't have been yesterday. Was it the day before? Two days ago? Had it really been seventy-two hours since they'd last slept? "I promise I'll wake you up if something happens."

"I can make it until we're over the border," she told him. "I'll keep you awake, and make sure Benny Ray's all right."

He was too tired to do much more than nod wearily, concentrating on keeping his eyes open and not driving off the road. Forty-five minutes...

6 August 2000
1306 Hours
Somewhere in the Colombian Jungle

The van had stopped. Margo felt the cessation of movement with a distant, clinical sense of detachment, and her fingers brushed against Benny Ray's forehead as if to reassure herself that he was still there.

"Margo? We've got company," Matt said tightly, apparently giving Nick an elbow because the ex-DEA agent squawked in sleepy surprise. "Hope everyone's Spanish is convincing."

Spanish? Oh. They must still be in Colombia. Damn. Margo forced open leaden eyelids, crawling back to consciousness with Herculean effort. She had fallen asleep. She didn't want to wake up. She didn't want to face anything more dangerous than a pillow. Right now she couldn't even think in English, much less Spanish.

"Margo?" Matt was talking again. She'd never heard him sound so tired. "Margo, you fell asleep on me, kid."

"I'm awake." It took incredible will to get her eyes to focus, and as she did, she saw the two green trucks pulling over beside the van. "Where'd these guys come from?" She looked at her watch. Seventeen minutes to the border.

"Soldiers, looks like." Nick frowned, and for once, Margo was just too exhausted to offer some acerbic remark about his habit of stating the obvious. "On patrol."

"The Colombian Army never patrols this road," she stated, fumbling around in her brain for some reason to her words. "We've never seen trucks like that on the satellite images."

"Which means that we were followed out of San Pablo." Matt swore violently, and scrubbed a hand across his face as the soldiers approached and surrounded the vehicle. "Maybe we can talk our way out of this."

"I doubt it. Those are Don Castillano's men. I recognize the patch on their shoulders." With a rapidly sinking heart, Margo watched one of the soldiers motion for the window to be rolled down. On his shoulder was the bright red star that was the emblem of Domingo Castillano. They had stopped the minor drug lord from receiving his shipment of stolen U.S. munitions, but had failed to retreat fast enough when he retaliated. Margo's stomach clenched as she stole a quick glance at Benny Ray and the bloodstained cloth around his leg, and felt his shallow breathing against the palm of her hand. I'm going to get you out of this, she promised silently. Just hang in there, okay?

Matt rolled down the window, but before he could speak, the soldier brought the butt of his gun up against his face. There was nothing Margo could have done. They were all too sleep-deprived and sluggish to really respond. Unable to resist, she fell limp as they dragged her from the truck, the shock of hard ground doing little to wake her. We were almost there… Her face pressed to the dust of the road, she rose halfway when they hauled Benny Ray out and unceremoniously dumped him beside her, but then rough hands seized her arms and wrenched them behind her back, tightly tying them with rope.

Margo squeezed her eyes shut as they rolled her over on her back. Oh God… They were pulling at her clothes, harsh fingers restraining her as she struggled against her bonds. "Goddammit, don't you touch me!" she shouted in Spanish, along with other, even less ladylike epithets until one of her assailants finally shoved a gag so far down in her mouth it made her retch. She chewed at the fabric, trying to force it out, but more rope, this time around her face to secure the gag, quickly squashed that idea. The smell of cheap cigarette smoke was so overwhelming she wanted to vomit.

The soldier unbuttoned his pants, and straddled her as his fellows held her down. Unable to look, she fought against him until one of the others gave her such a clout in the head that her whole body just sort of relaxed and stars swam behind her eyelids. She didn't want to see what they were doing, but it became painfully obvious when the first stab of agony tore its way up her spine.

The first time hurt the worst. After that, she started feeling a little numb and disconnected, as a second took the place of the first, and after the second, a third. Wave after wave of pain ripped through her, and after a while, she just gave up, gave into the pain and the humiliation, silent tears streaming down her face. It went on for what felt like hours. Margo lay there in the dusty road, blocking out the sights and the sounds of her violators, and tried not to feel anything. She thought she heard Benny Ray call out her name, once, softly, weakly, but he was so distant, so far away…Where are you? she wondered vaguely, and then bit down on the gag as another jolt of agony tore through her innards. Blood filled her mouth from where her teeth had fiercely connected with the inside of her cheek, and she almost choked on her own saliva. She was past screaming. She was past praying. She just wanted to die. Please, God, just let me die…

Just when she thought she couldn't possibly stand it any longer, and death was surely just around the corner, blessed darkness rushed in, and she passed out.

8 August 2000
0238 Hours
San Pablo Mission

Matt was the first one to come to, and was promptly greeted by a pounding headache and a mouthful of hay. Rolling to his side, he discovered that his hands were firmly tied behind him, and he was in what appeared to be a cell, solidly constructed of stone. The equally stone floor was liberally strewn with straw. In one wall was a small, high window, firmly barred, through which wan moonlight trickled. He squinted in the gloom, making out the vague outline of a very thick wooden door along the opposite wall, also barred. Around him, in various heaps where they had been dropped, were Nick, Margo and Benny Ray.

Memory came flooding back to him, and so did the awful realization that they were in a really bad situation: Oh, shit. We're in San Pablo. In the clutches of Don Domingo Castillano, the exact worst place they could be.

Trout had been very clear about the nature of the mission: get in, get the munitions, get out, and under no circumstances make contact with anyone. Well, that had been blown when Benny Ray had been shot, and Matt had absolutely no idea how Don Castillano's men had managed to beat them to the border. Twenty minutes, and we would have made it. Maybe if he'd kept himself a little more awake and driven a little faster, they would have been okay. Now they were stuck, Benny Ray was out of commission, and he had absolutely no idea of what they were going to do next.

He could hear Nick coming awake nearby, and squirmed around to face the other man. "Nick, you all right?"

The ex-DEA groaned. "Dis ain't no four-star hotel, dat's for sure."

"I hear you. Your hands free?"

"Nope." Nick uttered something that was a cross between a defeated laugh and a sigh. "I feel like a damned Christmas turkey. I don't suppose dey let you off easy, right, Boss?"

"Not exactly. Roll this way. I'll see if I can get at your knots." The two men maneuvered so they were back-to-back, and Matt proceeded to pick at the ropes binding Nick's hands. Whoever had tied the knots had known what they were doing, and had tied them tight enough to restrict a great amount of movement. When the first strand finally came loose, Matt's fingers were almost numb from the strain. "Almost…almost…there!"

Moving quickly, Nick slipped off the rope and started untying Matt. It didn't take nearly so long, and in a few minutes, both men were sitting up and massaging the pins and needles out of their hands.

"No one else is awake?" Nick asked, somewhat pathetically. It was clear that he was not at all at ease with their current situation, and Matt didn't blame him one bit.
Crawling over to where Benny Ray lay insensate on the floor, Matt rolled him to his back and into a more comfortable position, checking his pulse and feeling his forehead. "He's still out, but he's too warm. Pulse is strong, though." From what he could see in the dim light of the cell, the bandage on the sniper's leg was sodden and caked with blood, but no worse for wear. The blood didn't appear too fresh, so perhaps the bleeding had stopped.

"Oh, gawd." Nick's pained exhalation caused Matt to turn. "Boss, you'd better cummere."

"What is it?" But he knew the second he saw. Margo was curled on the ground, long-dried tear-tracks cutting through the dust on her face, blood crusting at the corner of her mouth, her clothing torn and, in what little ambiance there was, stained with... "Oh, God. Those bastards." An almost overwhelming rage flooding through him, he gingerly brushed her bangs back from her eyes, revealing the livid bruises and scrapes inflicted upon her. He glanced at his watch, trying to gauge the length of time since the incident had occurred. "August 8? We've been out for two days?" Margo shifted slightly, a soft sobbing sound escaping her lips. Matt reached for her hand, but she jerked away. "Margo, it's me," he whispered to her. "It's Matt." He gently untied the gag, and pulled the blood-soaked fabric from her mouth. It was a wonder that she hadn't drowned in her own blood.

She took another breath that caught halfway in her throat, curling up even tighter into a protective, fetal ball. A lone tear slid down her cheek. Fury thundered in his ears, and Matt forced himself to take several deep breaths, slipping off his jacket and tucking it around her shoulders. "We should sleep while we can," he told Nick. "We don't know what's coming next."

For once, the skinny little man had nothing to say, and moved off to keep an eye on Benny Ray. Matt made short work of the rope that bound Margo's hands, wincing as he saw where her wrists had been rubbed raw. Settling down beside her, he stared out the window before closing his eyes, wondering how they could have gotten into this hell in the first place.

8 August 2000
0652 Hours
San Pablo Mission

A heavy boot in his ribs rudely awakened Matt, and he lay gasping and blinking on the straw-strewn floor, blinded by a flashlight beam. It took him a moment to remember exactly where he was and what had happened, but the memory recovered itself rather quickly.

"Get up." The words were in heavily accented English, punctuated by another swift kick.

"All right, all right," Matt groaned, putting up his hands to ward off more blows. There was nothing he could accomplish by resisting, especially since the four other guards accompanying his assailant all carried semiautomatics. He was painfully aware of Margo's body against his back. It had to have been his imagination that she felt so small and frail. She hadn't moved since he'd lain down beside her some hours before, and her motionless frightened him.

Matt staggered to his feet, his stunned diaphragm hiccupping sharply as he started breathing again, dull pain echoing through his entire ribcage. He concentrated in taking deep breaths to overcome having the wind kicked out of him. "Where are we going?" he dared to ask.

"The Don would like to ask you questions." The guard swiftly retired the roped around Matt's wrists. Gesturing to the others, he let loose a rapid stream of Spanish at his compatriots, which Matt correctly interpreted to be a command to check the others' bonds. One of the guards moved towards Margo, his hands lingering a little too long near her lifeless body.

"No," Matt called out, and the guard turned slightly to regard him with contemptuous eyes. "Don't hurt her any more. If you leave her alone, I'll go quietly." He could feel Nick's heavy stare, and out of the corner of his eye, caught the little man's infinitesimal nod of approval.

The guards conferred a moment, and in the end, left Margo alone. As promised, Matt allowed them to roughhouse him through the halls, reminding himself of Margo's still form every time he was pushed into the stone walls.

They turned so many corners that he was quickly lost. It seemed like the guards were going in circles just to confuse him, and indeed, they might have been. If they were truly inside the San Pedro Mission, then Don Castillano's private quarters would be on the second story. Matt looked long and hard, but saw nothing to indicate any staircases. Perhaps this was one of the outbuildings, then. The guards led him into a room very similar to the one he had just left, and proceeded to tie him to a chair. Then, they walked out and promptly locked the door behind them.

Matt looked in dismay around this new cell, trying to work the ropes to a tolerable tightness. Judging from the morning sun streaming through the barred windows, he was on the other side of the building. The floor was strangely absent of the covering of straw that seemed ubiquitous throughout the area. There were large dark stains on the stones, and he looked away, knowing instinctively that he was sitting in a seat once shared by several dead men. He shuddered involuntarily, hoping that the Don's 'questions' had nothing to do with knives or guns.

The sun had moved almost a foot across the wall by the time the door opened again, and Matt had almost convinced himself to doze off. This time, the guards were escorting a short, stout little man in a well-tailored business suit. It was obvious from the way Don Castillano moved that his broad build had nothing to do with fat, and everything to do with muscle. The drug lord stood in front of his prisoner with the haughty ease of a tiger surveying his prey, his hands clasped behind him in a position faintly reminiscent of the military's own 'at ease' posture.

"Major Matthew Shepherd. What a surprise." The Don's cultured English was that of an educated man. With his muscular body and keen intelligence, Castillano was a very dangerous, unpredictable enemy. When Matt didn't answer the drug lord merely smiled, faintly amused, and spoke again. "You do realize what great danger you are in, do you not?"

Matt wished for Nick's gift for snappy, irritating retorts, but he suspected that that sort of movie-style defiance would only gain him acquaintance with the men whose blood stained the floor. The Don would remain unperturbed in the face of insolence…until he ordered his toadies to break Matt's skull.

"You are a very talented man leading a very talented team, Major," Castillano said, and Matt could just taste the hint of true admiration behind the silky words. Castillano himself was a former military man, and that made him all the more perilous. "It is a true shame that you will all have to die."

There was inspiration. "Do what you want with me. Let the others go," Matt heard himself saying. In his mind's eye, he saw Benny Ray on the day the sniper had been shot, blood streaming down his leg and face as gray as death, insisting he could walk on his own. Nick, for once uncharacteristically serious as they all piled into the van and spun the tires in an effort to get away. Margo, who had fought against her third sleepless day in order to watch over Benny Ray, and had paid so dearly. "They were only following my orders."

"Your orders?"

"My orders."

"And where do you get your orders, Major?"

"Nowhere."

"I see." The drug lord thoughtfully stroked his neatly trimmed beard. "So, do you routinely stage militant maneuvers in foreign countries just for fun? A risky business, to be sure."

Matt didn't answer, and Castillano began to pace slowly. "Tell me, on these…missions…do you normally bring your lover? Does the atmosphere of danger make your lovemaking sweeter? A woman is a great liability to take care of. Or do all of the men share her…as I am sure mine have done?"

Another inspiration, one that hit Matt in the side of the head, and made his vision go indistinct with fury. "Margo is not my lover," he ground out, angry beyond reason and filled with the shame that should have belonged to her attackers. He could feel the ropes cutting through his wrists, and the slick of blood on his skin. He wished it could have been Castillano's blood. "When we escape, I will personally kill everyone who touched her, and I know I won't be the only one after their heads."

"You seem so sure of yourself." Don Castillano smiled thinly. "What makes you so confident that you will escape? I want you to know, Major, that I am watching you every moment of the day. Now, where did you get your orders to steal the munitions that I legally purchased?"

"Nowhere."

At a nod, one of the guards delivered a blow to Matt's face that left him slightly stunned and drooling blood. "That is the wrong answer," Castillano said calmly.

"Where did you get your orders?"

"Nowhere," Matt repeated, and this time, the blow came from the other side.

"I am a very patient man, Major," the drug lord told him. "And I suspect that I will be able to wait for the answer much longer than you."

"Wait as long as you want, it'll never come, bastard." He spat blood off to one side, gingerly probing a loosened tooth with his tongue. A hard hit to the back of his head made stars spark before his eyes.

"I see we will have to discuss this later, when you are much more compliant." Castillano gave the guards an idle gesture. "They will do what they wish with you, Major, and I can guarantee it will not be pleasant. When you feel the urge to speak with me, I will be ready."

The door hadn't even clicked shut when the guards came at him with several blunt objects, and Matt silently retreated inside himself, away from the rest of the world, the blood leaking from a thousand different places, and the agonized wailing of his body for mercy. Staying conscious was a show of his personal strength, but after a while, strength didn't matter.

* * * *

He didn't remember passing out, only the slow realization that he was back in his own cell, with Nick peering down at him with concern, told him that he must have lost consciousness. "Margo?" he asked thickly, his tongue and lips swollen to what felt like twenty times their normal size.

"Sorry, Boss, it's just me," Nick said with his usual candor. "Dey usually do dere negotiating with blunt objects, or are you just a special case?"

"I hope I'm just a special case," Matt groaned, "but I suspect it's the former. How long was I out?"

"Six hours, maybe?" The weaselly little man shrugged. "It's been pretty quiet. Dey seemed to be interested in just you."

"Lucky me." He rolled over to his side, easing himself upright. "How is Margo? Is Benny Ray holding up?"

"He was awake for a little while," Nick told him, "an' he was talking okay, but Margo's still out."

"Still?" Matt glanced over at her motionless form. She hadn't moved. The only thing to indicate that she was still alive was the slow rise and fall of her ribcage. What if she was in a coma? What had those bastards done to her? "Did the guards try anything after I left?"

"Naw, thank gawd." He shook his head. "Dey tell you what dey wanted, or just feel like roughing you up a bit?"

"Castillano wants to know who we work for," Matt said, gingerly probing one of the larger bruises on his shoulder. "He knows we redirected his munitions shipment."

"I bet he's pissed."

"Pissed doesn't even begin to describe it. We're dealing with a very patient man who cares nothing for our lives."

"Comforting, ain't it."

Matt looked around, and focused on Benny Ray. "You said Benny Ray was talking? How's he feeling?"

"He said he was okay, but you know him…" Nick shrugged, the only thing he did eloquently.

"He'd say he was fine if he was missing both legs and several major organs." Matt chuckled dryly.

"Just so long's they didn't get my trigger finger, Major…" Benny Ray's voice was hoarse, but everyone could hear the wry smile in the Southerner's words.

Matt moved over to where the sniper lay. "How are you holding up?"

"Got any more of them huge pills, Major?"

"They took all our supplies, but I'll see what I can do." If Benny Ray actually admitted needing painkillers, then he was truly hurting. "How's your head?"

"Not all there. Still feelin' a bit chilled." The sniper looked around. "Where the hell are we, anyway?"

"San Pablo, I think. Castillano knows we diverted his munitions, and he wants to know who we work for."

"And I take it them bruises ain't the result of you getting' in a bar fight, sir?"

"That's correct."

Something frightening dawned in the sniper's eyes as he finally saw Margo's insensate form, and he struggled halfway up to reach out and smooth her dark bangs from her clammy forehead. "They do anythin' else to her?" he asked, the vicious intensity of a protective pit bull in his tone.

"No. I wouldn't let them touch her." Matt frowned. "How…?"

"I watched 'em, Major." Benny Ray's words were heavy with loathing. "I couldn't do a damn thing. She fought them off for a while, but then they hit her, and she passed out. I tried to do something, but…" He shook his head, and Matt could see the moisture glistening as tears threatened to fall. "Has she woken up yet? Has she said anything?" He was almost pleading.

"Nothing. She hasn't even moved." Staring at the dark bruises on her face, he slowly bit into the side of his lip. Please, Margo, give us something. He hoped she could hear them.

"Coma?" Benny Ray lightly ran his fingers over the dried blood on her cheeks.

"We don't know. She wouldn't wake up earlier."

"Oh, darlin', if you can hear me, I promise I'll kill those bastards," the sniper whispered to her, easing himself over to curl around her motionless body. "An' if you wanna help me, the last one's yours." He looked back up at Matt. "It's gonna be hell bustin' outta here, right?"

"More or less. I counted at least ten guards, but I guarantee there's more."

"Dat's a given, with da boss aroun' and all," Nick interjected. "We'll be lucky if da odds are twenty to one."

"I like those odds," Benny Ray told him, "if they get us outta here."

"What're you gonna do, glare at 'em until dey go away?" The ex-DEA narrowed his eyes. "Dey took all our guns, an' dey got us surrounded."

"You're the ray of sunshine today, amigo."

"Excuse me for statin' da obvious, den!" Nick grumped off to stare out the window.

"We've gotta out of here," Benny Ray said, snuggling Margo's head into the crook of his arm. "Major, you been outside?"

"You could say that." Matt winced as he touched a bruise on his forehead. "I don't think we're in San Pablo itself. It's got to be one of the outbuildings, because Castillano is around, but I didn't see anything indicating that this is less than some sort of jail facility."

"Dat man's motto is 'don't do anything you can let your toadies do for you'," Nick said from across the room.

"We've gotta get out of here," repeated Benny Ray, glancing at the window for emphasis. "We've been gone…how long?"

"We've been incommunicado for two days," Matt told him. "Trou-I mean, someone's bound to get worried if we don't show."

"Dey couldn't have dis place wired, could dey?" asked Nick, looking around. "Dis place is archaic."

"Do you even know how to spell 'archaic', Delvecchio?" Exhaling a deep sigh, Matt got to his feet and started pacing. "During our…talk…Castillano said he was watching us all the time."

"It wouldn't be hard to conceal a bug in these walls," Benny Ray observed. "Major, did you notice if there was anyone else bein' held close to here?"

"I'm afraid not. All the doors are the same, solid wood." It was getting a little easier to talk around his swollen lips, but his head still ached. "We obviously can't crawl out of the window." Nick grudgingly rejoined the group, and the three men discussed possible escape plans in hushed tones over Margo's still form.

Some hours and twelve useless plans later, the door opened again, and the cranky-looking guard delivered a tray containing a large plastic jug of water and four bowls of what looked to be oatmeal. Miraculously, the meal included spoons. "Eat," the soldier commanded, and then promptly left just as suddenly as he had appeared.

"Aw, da room service here sucks." Nick prodded suspiciously at his bowl of glop.

"What, don't tell me you was expectin' McDonald's?" Benny Ray quipped. He shifted Margo slightly in his lap, and dug in. "'S not that bad."

"Yeah, like Elmer's glue's not that bad." But he shut up and ate anyway.

After everyone had eaten, Matt took the water and gingerly pulled back the bandage on Benny Ray's leg. The wound was red and swollen, but at least the bleeding had stopped. In the dim afternoon light, Matt was able to determine that the area was at least clean, and Benny Ray's short battle with fever had probably been due to fatigue and shock, not infection. Still, the sniper hissed in pain as Matt splashed water over the wound and used a different section of bandage to bind it.

"Ideally, you'd be in a hospital right now," Matt told him.

"I know, sir, but I'm not complainin'." Wetting the cuff of his sleeve, Benny Ray gently washed the blood and dirt off Margo's face, smoothing her unkempt hair with his fingers. "As long as we're talkin' 'bout ideals, none of them bastards'd've done to Margo what they did."

"We're going to kill them," Matt said matter-of-factly. "Once we're out of here, none of them will live to sunrise."

"Amen," the sniper agreed.

"When can we start?" asked Nick.

"As soon as we can." Matt finished with Benny Ray's leg and took a swig of the water himself. Surprised, he swallowed hard, offering the jug to everyone else. It wasn't water, it was an alcohol solution. He wondered if the alcohol was to disinfect the water, or to just make them more complacent."Drink up," he instructed. "I know it's warm and tastes...off, but it's all the water we're going to get. We can't have anyone dehydrating."

"How does water get off?" Nick wondered. "Hey, this tastes like-"

"Probably to disinfect everything," Matt said quickly, and was abruptly silenced as the door opened again. This time, four guards came in, and gestured to the New Yorker and the major.

"You and you. On your feet."

"Why us?" Nick wanted to know, but his answer was a quick backhand across the face that shut him up, and left him stunned enough to comply.

Matt allowed himself to be hauled completely upright, trying to ignore the bruises on his back and legs. Here we go again. Catching Benny Ray's eyes, he wordlessly let the sniper know that under no circumstances was he to let Margo get hurt again. Matt needn't have said anything; the sniper was in perfect understanding of the situation, and nodded his acquiescence. Then, there was no more time for chitchat, and the guards shut the door behind them, leaving Benny Ray and the still-unconscious Margo alone in the cell.

8 August 2000
1639 Hours
San Pablo Mission

Benny Ray sat in the silence of the cell, watching the door and listening to Margo's slow breathing. He wanted her to be all right. He had washed the dirt and blood off her face, but she was still so pale and lifeless. "Come on, darlin'," he whispered. "Just gimme somethin'…"

As if in response, a soft sigh escaped her lips, and she shifted slightly. "Sweet Pea," said Benny Ray, "you gotta eat somethin' sometime. Can't have you weighin' the rest of us down when we get outta here."

That struck a chord, and Margo's eyes fluttered open, focusing with great difficulty on the closest thing, his face. She said something that sounded vaguely like his name, twisting around to get a better look at him. "You're up….?" Her voice was hoarse, and he could tell that just breathing hurt.

"Hey, darlin'. How're you?" He poured some water into his cupped hand and made her drink. She didn't resist, swallowing what few mouthfuls she could manage, and then her head collapsed back against his chest, eyes half-lidded with pain.

"Hurts…"

"Yeah, I imagine it does. D'you feel like eatin' somethin'?"

She glanced at the bowl of oatmeal-like glop and shuddered. "Probably be sick."

"At least drink some more, then. That'll make you feel a little better."

She managed a few more sips, this time with a little more energy than she'd had before. "Your leg?"

"Leg's okay."

"Liar."

"I'm just worried 'bout you, Sweet Pea. You're gonna be okay, you know that?"

Margo took a shaky breath. "I'll make it." There was no conviction in her hollow words, and the deadness in her eyes scared him. There was nothing behind the greenness, no hope, no sparkle, nothing to indicate that Margo Vincent was still in there.

He desperately wanted to tell her that he'd been there, that he'd shared her torture, how badly he wanted to kill those men. She must have read his thoughts, because she whispered, "You were there, weren't you?"

"Yeah. I wanted to kill those bastards, and I will, Sweet Pea, believe me-"

Margo continued as if she hadn't even heard. "I hear you say my name…I thought it was God." Benny Ray blinked in surprise, and leaned forward. Her voice was so soft he had to strain to make out her words. Her lips barely moved. "Thanks," she murmured.

He couldn't think of anything to say, just stroked aside her sweaty bangs, and gently kissed her forehead. "We're gonna get through this, Sweet Pea. I promise. I won't let anythin' else happen to you, okay?"

For just a brief moment, there was a flash of something akin to fear in her eyes, but it was gone as soon as it had come. "I know," Margo whispered, and wearily laid her head back against his chest. Two breaths later, she was asleep.

9 August 2000
0110 Hours
San Pablo Mission

Benny Ray had tried to stay up and wait for Matt and Nick to be returned to the cell, but somehow, Margo curled safely in his arms, he fell asleep. The cell was lit with pale moonlight when the door finally opened, and Nick and Matt were unceremoniously dropped inside. The sniper came instantly awake. "Major? Nick?"

"I'm here, Benny Ray." Matt sounded terrible, but at least he was conscious. His words were so badly slurred that the sniper wondered briefly if the major had been hit in the head one too many times.

"Yowza. Thank gawd dat's over wit'," Nick groaned. "I tell you, Boss, remind me never to piss him off again."

"'S a little late for that, I think." The major rolled to his back, not entirely successful at hiding his pained grimace. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed something at Benny Ray; the small object landed near the sniper's hand. "How is she?"

"Asleep, for now. She did wake up, and was pretty lucid, but I guarantee we ain't walkin' outta here, Major." He gripped the object, turning it over in his fingers. It was a matchbook, still half-full. "Where-"

"I feel a burning desire to go home," Matt replied meaningfully, speaking as clearly as he could. Benny Ray quickly got the point.

"There's a fire in me tonight, sir."

"No, sleep now. I know you need it." A gesture to the moon, and the sniper understood. Almost directly overhead, the full moon would aid their pursuers in tracking them. In a few hours, the shadows would be longer, and they would have a better chance of escaping undetected.

9 August 2000
0320 Hours
San Pablo Mission

Matt crawled back to consciousness like a man crawling up a plate of glass. The cell was almost completely dark, which meant that the moon had moved enough for them to put their makeshift plan into action. Easing himself across the room, he pulled the book of matches from Benny Ray's fingers, after which the sniper woke rather abruptly, almost dumping Margo from his lap. "Major, you-"

Margo jerked awake, scrambling backwards in a panicked escape that no one was prepared for. A terrified squeak was forced out of her throat as she quickly retreated to the corner of the room. "It's all right, Sweet Pea," Benny Ray crooned. "Margo, it's just us. I didn't mean to wake you up. It's all right."

"Oh God…" She hugged her knees to her chin and started sobbing. "Oh, God, I…I thought…I thought you were…"

"Darlin', I would never do that to you, and you know it," he said firmly, trying to move over to comfort her, but wincing from the pain in his leg.

"Margo, we're going to get you out of here," Matt told her, reaching over and taking her in his arms. She offered no resistance, becoming a boneless doll as tears streamed from her eyes.

"Right now?" she asked, voice hoarse. "I don't want the…the guards to come back…"

"Right now. This very moment. But you have to hold it together until we get out, okay?" He looked into her green eyes, wiping away a stray tear with his thumb. "With Benny Ray out of commission, we need everyone we've got. I know it's hard, but can I count on you?"

She nodded stiffly, scrubbing at her eyes with the palm of her hand. "I'm okay." It was patently clear that she wasn't, but she was determined. "What do we do?"

"We start da fires of revolution," Nick told her.

After explaining the plan, Matt liberally soaked the door with some of the alcohol-laced solution in the water jug as Benny Ray expertly twisted handfuls of the straw on the floor into tight bundles. Setting the bundles on fire, Nick lobbed them out of the window. Soon, flames were licking up towards the window from the nice grassfire started outside. As the fire started to grow, there came the startled shouts of the guards, who ran outside to try and extinguish the blaze.

Nodding to Benny Ray, Matt lit the pile of hay stuffed up against the door, and then leapt backwards as the solid wood exploded into flames. Watching the soldiers outside, Margo looked back at him and shook her head: no one outside had noticed the small explosion inside the cell. Smiling, Matt allowed the door to burn for a few more minutes before shoving his booted foot into it, and it immediately collapsed outward with a satisfying whoosh as the flames were spread throughout the hall.

"The other timbers'll go here pretty soon too, and then the place will start to collapse," Matt said over the roar of the fire. "We have to find our way out of here in a hurry. Nick, you're with Benny Ray. Margo, you're with me."

"Do we know where they're keeping our weapons?" the sniper asked, leaning heavily on Nick.

Matt shook his head. "If you see any, grab them for the others. Good luck, everyone. See you outside." Glancing at Margo, who was pale but clearly more than ready to leave, he turned and made a running leap over the blazing door, stopping on the other side to slap off the sparks that had caught on his shirt. "Go!"

Margo took a deep breath, and launched herself through the flames. He quickly grabbed her, putting an arm firmly around her shoulders, and heading off down the hall. Looking back, he could see Benny Ray beating out the embers on his good leg, and Nick following him over. Everyone had made it out of the cell fairly unscathed, and now it was time to run.

The fire spread with frightening quickness through the dry timbers of the building. Already, the smoke was so thick that it was hard to see, and even harder to breathe. Matt's eyes streamed, and he kept Margo's face buried in his shoulder as they maneuvered through the burning hallways. Rounding a corner, he found himself staring at a panicked guard, and before the other man had a chance to react, Matt knocked him into the stone wall with a fierce kick and grabbed his gun. Stunned by the sight of one of her assailants, Margo froze when he appeared, and Matt had to yank on her arm to bring her back to reality. "You still with me, Margo?"

She took a shaky breath, and started coughing from the smoke. "Yeah," she said, but the high, unsteady tibre of her voice and the look in her eyes said otherwise, but there wasn't time to press the issue.

They ran into several dead ends, and were cornered another time by a wall of flames. Finally, through the corner of his eye, Matt spotted what looked to be the outside door. Running to it, he reached for the handle, eyes and lungs burning from the acrid air.

It was locked. It wouldn't budge.

Screaming in frustration, Matt pounded on the wood, rattling the hinges in a futile attempt to get out. "Open, dammit!" Gritting his teeth against the pain in his tortured shoulders, he body-slammed it, but it remained closed.

Margo knelt down and inspected the lock. "Shit! It looks like it's been welded shut." Just then, a section of the hallway behind them collapsed, and Matt dropped down to shield her with his body. Hot embers scorched his skin, and the resulting gust of searing, oxygen-deficient air made them both choke and gasp.

"You okay?" he wheezed, after the worst of the fireball was past.

Stifling a cough, she nodded. "What are we going to do now?"

Matt shook his head, glancing back over his shoulder for Benny Ray and Nick. "I honestly don't know." They were going to die, trapped in the fire just inches from fresh air and freedom.

"Maybe the others got out without us," Margo whispered, as Matt settled in beside her, his singed back gingerly resting against the obstinate door.

"I didn't see them behind us. They must have."

The heat grew more oppressive, and it grew harder and harder to breathe. Both of their eyes were streaming, and Margo had her sleeve up to her mouth and nose, trying to filter the air. Her free hand reached over and snagged Matt's. "I'm glad I'm not dying alone," she said hoarsely.

"Maybe we won't die," he told her, but he knew she was right. There was no way they could escape, with the door behind them welded shut and the hallway in front of them a wall of flames. "This isn't the way I wanted to go. It's too soon."

Margo was silent for a while. "When Castillano's men…" Her voice trailed off, and she cleared her throat and continued. "I wanted to die. I was prepared."

"If those bastards aren't already dead, I'll kill them myself," Matt said resolutely, wrapping her up in a bearlike embrace.

"Thank you, Matt." She hugged him back. He leaned down to kiss her forehead with fierce protectiveness, and was not at all prepared when she moved and kissed him full on the mouth instead. After a moment of shock, he kissed back, and then they broke apart, breathless from the moment and the smoke. "I should have done that a long time ago," she whispered. Her watery eyes held fear and pain that were totally at odds with her words.

"A long time ago," he agreed, and kissed again, more gently. "We were both overdue." Putting his hand down to get into a slightly less uncomfortable position, his fingers brushed against the gun stolen from the guard, and he stiffened.

"What is it?" Margo asked.

"I think I've figured out how to get us out of here," he told her, stifling a cough. "Stand back." Crawling as far away from the door as he could manage, Matt fired two quick rounds at the lock. The door swung open, and they both staggered out into the cool night air, gasping for the precious oxygen. Falling to the ground, they spent several long moments just breathing.

Margo noticed the two guards coming around the corner of the building first, and, unable to speak, grabbed the pistol from Matt and fired. Two of her shots went awry, but the others found their targets, and the soldiers fell to the ground, silenced.

"Got to run for it," Matt hissed, and, hoisting one of her arms over his shoulder, they started for the jungle. Not bothering to be quiet, they crashed through the underbrush, trying to put as much distance between them and the flames of San Pablo as possible.

August 9
1305 Hours
Somewhere in the Colombian Jungle

At first, Matt thought they had been found and were being attacked when something whacked him across the chest. His eyes popping open, his fingers tightened unconsciously on the pistol until he realized that it was Margo, caught in the throes of a nightmare. She was shaking convulsively, ragged sobs wracking her whole body. His heart seizing up within his chest, Matt gently gathered her into his arms, crooning soft words into her ear. "It's okay. It's just a dream, Margo, just a dream."

Fresh tears cut wet trails through the soot and grime on her face. "Oh, God, Matt…they were after me…they had me again…" She coughed, and he guessed they were both suffering from the effects of the night's smoky escape.

"It's all right," he soothed. "We're out of there."

"I hope Benny Ray and Nick made it out alive," she whispered.

"We made it out. I'm sure they did, too."

One last shuddering sigh swept through her thin frame-when had she gotten so small and frail?-and she relaxed against his chest. "I'm so scared," she confessed. "I've never been this scared in my entire life." One hand moved down to her pelvis. "It hurts. Everything hurts. It hurts in places I've never hurt before."

"They didn't do any internal damage, did they?" Matt felt helpless, totally lost when it came to gynecology, and hating it. He wanted so badly to make her pain go away.

"I don't know." Margo shrugged, obviously feeling as powerless as he. "It hurts to walk, to-to move…" She blushed in shame. "I should have done something. I know how to fight, I had my gun; I was just so tired…If only…"

"We were all exhausted," Matt told her. "It wasn't your fault."

"I know that." Margo rubbed at her eyes, and abruptly changed the subject. "We have to get back to the van. Our radios are in there."

"I hope they're still in there." He tried to smile to soften the reality of their situation, but her eyes were hooded, and the set of her mouth indicated that she was still unconvinced. "It never hurts to check, kid. You know that."

Hauling each other to their feet, they checked each other over. Matt was covered with bruises and cuts, his lips still swollen, and his back and shoulders were spotted with first- and second-degree burns. He had on only his light undershirt, which was riddled with holes from flying cinders and blackened with soot. "It doesn't hurt," he said quickly as her soft intake of sympathetic breath. "Not much, anyway. I'll be all right." They were both grimy from the smoke, but of the pair, Margo had faired the best. She was still wearing Matt's jacket, which hid the ragged condition of her own clothes.

Taking care to be a little quieter in their escape, Matt took the lead and automatically fell into 'commando' mode, which Margo unconsciously imitated. It was midafternoon in the jungle, and the sun, high overhead, beat down mercilessly. His teeth clenched against the pain of sweat on his burns, Matt forced his thoughts elsewhere. Where had the road been? He tried to visualize it in his mind. Pulling up short, he turned to Margo, who straightened abruptly from her makeshift crutch and tried to pretend she hadn't been leaning so heavily on it. "Margo? Do you remember where the road was?" He knew she would know.

She dropped to her knees and pulled a chunk of moss from a nearby nurse log, using a sharp stick to engrave a map in the soft wood. "North was here, south was here, and east and west…Okay. The road went something like this, and San Pablo was here." She drew a squiggle in the log, and placed a small, waxy leaf for the former mission. "I don't know which direction we escaped in, so…" Sighting the direction of the shadows and the height of the sun, she pointed her stick to a spot that was closer to the leaf than it was to the squiggle. "I think we're here."

"That means we have to head north of northwest," Matt observed.

"We'd better go, then." Margo glanced over her shoulder, as if worried that Castillano's men would pounce on them from within the dense underbrush. "They'll have realized we're not dead, and will be after us." She patted the moss back into place, and pulled herself to her feet, muttering, "I'm fine," to Matt's concerned glance.

Her mapmaking skills proved to be true, but it was well after sundown when they finally came to the road. "We did it," Matt whispered, giving her a celebratory kiss on the cheek.

"We still haven't found the van yet," she reminded him, but she didn't avoid his lips.

"How are you holding up? Feel like walking a bit longer?"

The moon was low in the sky, but he could still see her pale complexion. "I'll make it. Let's go." She had given up being shy about her walking stick sometime before dusk, and now, Matt was willing to be it was the main thing that kept her standing. He wanted to stop and rest a while, if not for her sake then for his aching body, but each moment they delayed was one more moment the soldiers could find them.
It didn't take them long to find the van. Everything was exactly where they'd left it, with the exception of the few weapons that had been confiscated by the soldiers when they'd dragged everyone from the car. Margo's BDU coat lay in the dust where it had been torn off of her, and as they approached the vehicle, he heard her make a strangled noise and lurch for the bushes.

Matt was right behind her, holding her hair back as she retched dryly, having nothing to bring up. Once her guts stopped heaving, she collapsed back into his arms, shaking with the tears she was bravely trying to contain. "That's where they…I remember what they…I can still feel it," she moaned. "My skin crawls when I think of it."

"I need to go check for the radios," Matt told her. "You stay here, okay?"

"No, you need help." Her voice was not at all convincing. "I'll…I'll manage." She did manage, but she stayed on the side of the van farthest from the spot, refusing to look at it, and she did not move to retrieve her coat.

Inside the van, they found radios, water and the emergency food rations stashed there for such instances. Handing one of the water canteens to Margo, Matt made sure she drank before draining his own. They hadn't had anything since the night before, and Matt tore through two granola bars just as fast as he could get the wrappers off. He was so ravenous he would have eaten the wrappers, too, if Margo hadn't rolled her eyes in the first 'real Margo' gesture since this whole ordeal started, and handed him another one. She made an effort to eat, and did in fact choke down one, but refused any more. Matt was content to not force the issue, so long as she kept up her liquid intake.

After their hunger had been somewhat satiated, he turned his attention to the radios. After checking the batteries, he pressed the button, and called Trout.

"Matt, where the hell are you?" The worry and relief in their leader's voice was almost comical.

"Somewhere with half a team and no backup," Matt snapped. "Tell Chance to get his sorry ass up in a chopper and get us out of here!"

"Where are you? You're three days late!"

"Castillano's men tracked us to the border. Seventeen more minutes and we would have made it," he told him. "Benny Ray was shot, our cover was blown, we've spent the last three days in a cell in San Pablo, they played Spanish Inquisition part two on Nick and me, and Margo-" he had to swallow hard, blind fury choking him, "God, Trout, those bastards-"

"Is everyone all right?" Trout demanded.

"No, we're not all right," Margo said softly, speaking into her own radio. "There-there was a fire, and we don't know if Benny Ray and Nick made it out of there in time. They beat Matt up pretty bad, and they raped me, sir. A whole bunch of them."

"Margo-"

"Trout, when this is over, I want out," she said, her tone dead serious. "I want out, and I meant it."

"Margo, we can get counseling-"

"No!" she hissed, hot tears streaking down her face. "I don't want anything to do with this ever, ever, ever again. I'm going overseas and finding my brother."

"Margo-"

"My decision's made, sir. Now please send someone out to come get us." The last sentence was almost begging, and she resolutely cut the power on her radio, hugging her knees to her chin, silently crying to herself.

"Matt, I am truly sorry-" Trout began, but Matt cut him off.

"Apologies later, Trout, please. I think we can make it to the border, but there'd better be someone to grab us within twenty-four hours."

"Do you have any idea where Benny Ray and Nick are?"

"None, sir." He involuntarily looked out the window, into the darkness. "We have to move. We're too exposed."

"All right." On the other end of the channel, Matt could tell Trout was leaning forward, fingers steepled in thought. "When you didn't show, I took the liberty of recalling Chance and Rico from their vacations, and they can be at the border in half an hour with the helicopter. Deke can provide covering fire. When you and Margo are safe, then they can go back and look for Benny Ray and Nick."

Matt was suddenly too exhausted to argue. "Yes, sir." Deliberately not thanking the man, he signed off, and took a moment to give Margo a reassuring hug. "We're going to make it out of here, kid." Helping her into the front of the van, he climbed into the driver's seat and turned the vehicle back onto the road. Leaving the headlights off, he drove by the rising moon.

After a long while in silence, he looked over at her. "Were you serious about what you told Trout? About quitting?"

"It's for my own safety," she answered softly, still staring out the window and refusing to meet his eyes. "There's so much mixed up in my head right now. I know it wasn't my fault, but…John will help me sort things out."

"Where will you stay?" he asked.

"If I can't stay with John, there's a nunnery a few miles away."

"A nunnery?!" He narrowly avoided running off the road in his surprise. "You?"

"I would just be living there, Matt," she explained. "I was thinking about it last night. I was ready to die; I thought I was going to. I realized that there are a few religious issues I still need to work out before-before I go."

"A nunnery."

"Matt, I've been there before." Some of the sorrow and fear lifted from her eyes. "Remember when I visited John last summer? He took me to meet a friend of his, the Mother Superior over there, and they do a lot of charity work together. She said…she said they helped battered women…"

"Margo…"

"Don't say it, Matt. Just listen to me, because this is what I'm going to do." She was on the verge of tears again. "I want to get as far away from here as I possible can. I don't want to do anything that even remotely resembles this trip for a very, very long time, and if I don't leave the country, I'll end up being snagged by Trout in two or three weeks. Going away tells him I'm serious: I don't want to do this anymore. I'm not safe."

"Margo, he'll understand. He'll give you time off."

"Matt, I don't want time off. I want an indefinite sabbatical." She finally met his gaze. "This isn't the first time someone's tried to rape me in the line of duty. Being female is a liability, and I don't want to deal with it anymore."

"Tell me you're going to come back sometime," he said, trying to keep from pleading. He wanted to believe that the kiss they'd shared was a promise of things to come.

"I'll never be a nun, and I'll never be a civilian, Matt," she told him softly. "There's nothing else in my life to do. I just need to forget these last few days, and I won't be able to do that if I'm still at Hermosa Beach." Changing the subject, she pointed down the road. "Look, there's the border sign."

Tension slowly drained out of his shoulders, and he refused to look back as they crossed the border. He started to say, "We're safe," but froze, icy dread pouring over his body as he saw one of Castillano's patrol trucks parked on the shoulder. "Dammit!" he swore, and then said a few other choice phrases.

"Just drive by them," Margo instructed. "Maybe they won't notice."

But they did notice. The headlights of the truck came on, and the horn blared. Matt had Benny Ray's abandoned Glock up to the window and was about to fire at the other driver when the man got out of the car and started jumping up and down. "I don't believe it," Matt said, dubious as he slowed the van down, "but I think that's Nick!"

"What's it take ta get a ride outta here?" Nick asked, peering through the window.

"For you guys, nothing," Matt told him, and watched with profound relief as Nick hauled a slightly toasted Benny Ray into the back of the van.

"Sweet Pea," the sniper said reverently, and kissed Margo's outstretched hands as she reached to touch his face. "Major, we thought you was goners. After that ceiling came crashin' in on you, we figgured that was the end."

"Not quite," Margo whispered. "We thought you were dead. We couldn't find you after we got out."

Nick grinned, his cocky smile shining through the soot and grime that blackened his skin. "Hadda rack up a body count, but we stole one of their vehicles and blew da tires on da others. Target practice."

"I took out a bunch for you, darlin'," Benny Ray told her.

Her face darkened slightly. "Thank you. How's your leg?"

"'S okay, but I don't think Heloise's ever talked about gettin' bloodstains outta camo after they've set." The joke made the corners of her mouth twitch. "It's somethin' she'll need to address."

Suffused in the relative safety of friendly territory and the relief that everyone was together and alive, Matt leaned back in his seat and headed for the rendezvous point.

10 August 2000
0420 Hours
Los Angeles Hospital

The flight back had been uneventful, which was good, because Margo doubted she would have been able to handle any excitement. As it was, she was torn between a fierce desire to scream in rage and the desperate need to weep until the pain went away. Every time she opened her mouth, tears welled up in her eyes, and she knew she wasn't thinking rationally. The lady doctor at the hospital had been kind but firm in checking her over, clucking sympathetically at Margo's bruises and raising disapproving eyebrows at her low blood sugar. Margo could have cared less. She was exhausted and spent, and when the tests came back saying that there was no chance she'd gotten pregnant, she'd broken down in the middle of the office and cried in relief. She took the pain pills they gave her, and cried again when Matt brought her a fresh change of clothes and held her hand as the nurse gave her the saline IV that would balance out her electrolytes, and maybe make her stop feeling so damned lightheaded. When they'd been picked up by Chance and Rico and Deke, she had clambered into the helicopter and promptly fainted.

She had fallen asleep in the chair during her saline session, and was awakened some time around four in the morning by a very concerned Alison Trout. "What are you doing here?" Margo demanded, feeling peevish from lack of sleep and disturbed blood chemistry.

"Seeing how you are," the other woman replied, giving her a brief hug and sitting down. "So how are you?"

All resistance drained from Margo's limbs, and she struggled not to cry again. She was sure that the hospital staff thought her a veritable faucet of tears, and she knew the rest of the team had no idea of what to think. "I'm exhausted, I'm starving, I'm cranky, I've been beaten and raped and imprisoned and dragged through the jungle God knows how many miles after being dragged through a burning building and everything hurts and I just want to go home!" The tears started and this time, she couldn't make them stop. Beyond embarrassment, she buried her face a wad of Kleenex. When the nurses had given her the box of tissues, it had been brand new. Now, it was half empty, and the little garbage can nearby was threatening to overflow.

Alison gave her hand a hard squeeze. "We're all here, Margo. It's all right."

"No, it's not all right."

"If its any consolation, satellite pictures have indicated that no one escaped the fire in San Pablo."

Margo scowled at the far wall. "Bastards deserved to die."

"The fire's being blamed on a guard's carelessly thrown cigarette."

The stench of cigarette smoke. A sudden wave of nausea swept through her, and she leaned back in the chair, swallowing hard, trying to ignore phantom hands crawling on her skin.

"Are you all right?" Alison asked, truly concerned at Margo's abrupt change in pallor. "Do you want me to get a nurse?"

Margo shook her head, grateful there was nothing in her stomach. "No-no, that's all right."

"Matt told me what you were planning," she said softly. "My father says he's more than willing to pay for any of your expenses. If, of course, you were serious."

"I was."

Alison sighed uncomfortably. "Why, Margo? Why go halfway around the world to-to…"

"I'm not going to be a nun, Alison, I'm just living there."

"Then why go there?"

"Because no one else knows where it is, and my brother is close."

The other woman seemed about to say something else, but she apparently changed her mind. "Well," she said finally, "I hope you find what your looking for, Margo. Everyone will miss you when you're gone."

Margo inwardly winced at Alison's choice of words. "I'm not a civilian, Alison. I will be back."

"Take as much time as you need," she said, smiling sympathetically. "This was never supposed to happen."

"Is it ever?"

Giving Margo's hand one last reassuring squeeze, Alison got to her feet. "I'm going to go check on Benny Ray, all right? When you're done, Matt wanted to take you home."

"Okay." She didn't feel like protesting. "If-if he's awake, could you tell Benny Ray something for me? Only if it's not disturbing him?"

"Of course."

"Could you tell him…" She swallowed again, feeling another wave of tears coming on. "Tell him thanks for everything, please?" She would have preferred to tell him in person, to take his strong hands in hers and kiss his fingertips, but fatigue left her pinned in her chair.

"I'll tell him that." Alison smiled, and then disappeared down the hallway, leaving Margo alone in the room, an almost-empty bag of some liquid stuff slowly draining into her arm.

She shivered in the stillness, suddenly terrified of being alone. With her free hand, she reached for the phone on the nearby table, dialing John's number.

"Margie?" His voice echoed over the long distance, and she started crying again.

"John, how did you know it was me?"

"Your Major Shepherd called me," he said, and she could tell he was close to tears himself. "I am so frightened for you, Margie. When he told me what those men had done…No creature under God should endure such pain."

"John, I'm coming over," she whispered, not trusting her voice any louder. "Remember when you introduced me to Mother Maria last year?"

"I have already contacted her," he told her. "She was as shocked as I, and insisted that you are very welcome to come as soon as you wish, and stay as long as you need."

"Matt told you everything?"

"He told me what you had told him."

"I don't remember what I told him."

"Where are you right now?"

"In the hospital."

"Are you all right?"

"They said I was mostly fine." She wanted to tell him face-to-face about the hellish mixture of emotions she was feeling, the anger, betrayal, loneliness, the pain and fear. And the shame. Shame that she hadn't done anything to protect herself. I had my gun right there, dammit…

"Margie?"

She was jolted back to reality. "Yeah, I'm here."

"You drifted away for a moment."

"I'm sorry. I'm so tired. I had to hear your voice."

"I am glad you called," John told her. "I am catching the next flight over."

"John-"

"No," he said, adamant. "You are not flying over here by yourself. I know that was your intention."

A ghost of a smile flickered across her lips. "I love you, John, you know that, don't you?"

She could hear his own echoing smile. "As I love you, little sister. Now sleep, and I will pray for you. God will be watching your dreams."

"Thanks, John."

"Take care, Margie." The line clicked off, and she gently placed the phone back in its cradle. Curling up in the chair, she dozed for some time before actually falling asleep. She didn't even feel the nurse take away the empty bag of electrolytes. The next thing she knew, Matt was gently shaking her.

"I'm taking you home now," he whispered.

"Benny Ray?" she asked.

"He's doing fine. They were able to remove the bullet, and he's sleeping like a baby right now." His eyes flashed brief, dark amusement. "Like we all should be."


Margo nodded, too tired to really get involved in a conversation. She let Matt help her down to the waiting car, and instantly fell back into an exhausted, dreamless oblivion.

* * * *

At least she was sleeping quietly, Matt mused, as they pulled into the Silver Star's parking lot. C.J. and Chance had left some of the lights on, and that, combined with the first streaks of dawn in the sky, took the edge off the night's darkness.


Hoisting his somnolent companion into a fireman's carry, Matt nodded a quick thanks to C.J. as the Brit held opened the hotel door. It had been decided that everyone would crash here for simplicity's sake. "She went out like a light the second the car started moving," Matt explained. "The doctor said she'd probably do nothing but eat and sleep the next few days."

"Fine by me," Rico said, from his vantage point near the window. "So long as she actually does eat something."

"I'm sure she will." Once upstairs, he gently tucked her into the waiting bed, kissing her gently on the cheek. "Sweet dreams," he said softly.

Before he closed the door, he paused, and stood a moment just looking at her. The bruises on her face would heal in a matter of days, but the scars on the inside would last a lifetime. He remembered Trout saying that the fire had left no survivors. No one suspected that, by a unanimous decision, Chance had turned the chopper around after Margo had fainted and they'd opened fire on the still-smoldering ruins and the few soldiers who had made it through the night. "Retribution," he whispered in the darkness, knowing that although Margo would appreciate the gesture, she would never find out. On a whim, he crossed the room and readjusted her blankets. God, he loved her. She was beautiful, intelligent and resilient, but he hoped that her resiliency hadn't been pushed too far this time. He wanted so badly for her to stay where she could be protected in his arms, but her reasons for leaving made perfect sense. He could only count the days until she felt healed enough to return, and pray that fate smiled on her recovery.

He gave her one last gentle kiss, and then shut the door quietly behind him.

15 August 2000
1100 Hours
The Silver Star Hotel in Hermosa Beach

"Margo, are you sure about this, darlin'?" Benny Ray asked for the thousandth time, leaning heavily on his crutches as he watched her pack. "There's gotta be other ways to work this out."

"I'm sure," she told him again, fastening the locks on her suitcase and hefting her duffel bag to her shoulder. "My plane leaves in two hours." Giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, she twisted her fingers through his. "I'll be back. I promise. I'm not leaving forever."

"Sure feels like it," Matt said from the doorway, not quite joking. "Your brother's downstairs waiting for you. You know the chaos in the airports these days."

"Yeah." She waited until Benny Ray had crutched his way down the stairs, lingering back a moment. It was the last time she had to be alone with Matt for who knew how long. "I'll miss you," she said.

He took one of her bags and pulled her to his chest. "Just take care of yourself, okay?"

Margo reached up and kissed his lips softly. "I will. You take care, too."

"Don't worry about me."

"I do."

"It's my job to worry about you." They turned to the door, and she followed him downstairs.

The general attitude of the people assembled was that was supposed to be a hearty, happy send-off, but in reality, it resembled something far more funereal. Even Nick was fairly subdued, going so far as to give Margo a quick, uneasy hug.

"Watch out for her, padre," Benny Ray said to Margo's brother in a whispered aside. "Don't go lettin' her beat herself up too bad."

"I would not allow that," John said, smiling at the sniper to show he understood the request. Turning to his sister, he took her bag from Matt. "We should go." She nodded, and after a quick flurry of goodbyes, both Margo and John got into their rental car and drove away.

A few miles down the road, she glanced back at the hotel, her friends still gathered on the front steps looking forlorn. "I hope I'm doing the right thing," she whispered. "I just know I can't stay here."

"Have faith, little sister," John told her. "Your heart will tell you when it is time to come home again."

"I know." Heaving a melancholy sigh, she leaned her head against the window, and closed her eyes.

Finis.

Copyright 2002 by Lilith

Email me: legend_of_lilith@yahoo.com

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