Sam Axe is the cheeriest man Michael Westen has ever met; he'd be grateful for that, were they not dripping sweat in an outpost hospital in the middle of Tripoli.
Michael's been pinned to a stretcher for three days, fighting off an infected wound he'd been stubbornly ignoring for two weeks more, the result of a knife fight gone bad in Nalut. He'd been trying to reach the border to deliver sensitive documents to – in a touch of irony that would have amused Michael, were he entirely conscious - Sam's CO, but had never made it. In his fevered state he had gone south instead of north; some young grunt had found Michael huddled on the back seat of a bus bound for Sinawin, and had the wherewithal to rescue him and drive him north to the outpost. The files exchanged hands and he was given a job in Nador running surveillance on a couple of wannabe despots who'd been planning to assassinate the king. To accomplish that end, they'd shunted his wound and began pumping antibiotics into his system intravenously.
During rare periods of lucidity, Michael learns about the life of his neighbor, in case he needs the intel some day. Sam's been there longer, though his attitude doesn't show it, and Michael suspects that he just enjoys the lazy peace of painkiller-soothed immobility. Sam told him that he broke his leg in three places jumping off a light watercraft near Malta, and the pins and slings pay testament to his story. He's a popular face in the ward, the cast extending from his knee to the tips of his toes is covered with a dozen messages – the scrawls of friends and every nurse in the unit. Someone brought him a portable fan during his convalescence, which he convinced a nurse to plug into the unit's generator, and which he shares in trade with every guy in the ward, making him even more popular.
Sam has visitors all day, but no one bothers Michael – only the nurses who come to check his IV and temperature, and the doctors who have hushed conferences about the way the deep cut on his shoulder is draining. If Michael were honest with himself, he'd understand that his snarling didn't make him seem very friendly, but the depth of his illness kept him from doing much more than glare.
On the third day, Michael's fever spikes, making the intolerably hot conditions seem surrealistically cold. From the middle of the bleary, shuddering world, Sam's voice comes, sounding eerily far-away.
"You feeling okay, Mike?" Sam gives a shit about how he feels in a consistent way, which automatically puts him a notch higher on Michael's emotional totem pole. He doesn't even mind the familiar shortening of his name – it sounds right coming out of Sam's mouth, for some reason.
Michael considers it as the temperature around him seems to change. "Hot." Hot is all Michael's been able to feel for days, even though he has bug bites up and down his arms, even though his chest aches. Then he feels a cool, nicely, pleasantly cool.
He opens an eye. Somehow, with his good foot, Sam's nudged the fan sideways, sharing the breeze between them.
His smile is a grateful one, he hopes, when he falls asleep.
The next morning, he cracks an eye open. It feels hot, but not a feverish sort of heat – arid heat, desert heat. The kid in the next cot has the fan, and Sam's reading an ancient magazine.
"So, Mike – do you think I'm a winter or a summer?"
Michael makes a face as he levers up onto an elbow, then sinks back down to the mattress, groaning. "Thank you."
"For the fan? It was almost midnight. Your turn." Sam returns the magazine to his chest. "Welcome back to the world of the living."
Michael's gaze breezes about the room, trying to regain his bearings. "How long was I out?"
"Just a day since your fever went up," Sam tells him. "Do you remember…"
"Your name is Samuel James Axe. You were born in June. You like fried chicken, beer and the Detroit Lions. You have a scar on the left side of your jaw."
Michael turns his head. Sam's propped up on an elbow, staring at him, his expression quirked into a comical affectation. Michael stares back at him, evenly.
"Boxers or briefs?" Sam asks dryly.
"Boxers," Michael says flatly. Boxers that were too tight but he didn't feel the need to add that. "Black. Probably silk?"
Sam eyes him right back. "You're not Special Ops, are you? You're in intelligence."
Michael just stares at Sam, with the sort of implacable glare that would frighten anyone with less experience.
"I know your type," Sam says, rolling his torso. "Spies. Got an ear open all the time. Can't say anything around 'em."
Michael says nothing, but he can't seem to tear his gaze away from Sam, even while he sleeps.
Immobile though he may be, Sam is always busy, usually writing letters. More often than not Michael will open his eyes and see Sam propped up in bed, a pile of chow in a paper plate from the mess hall on the mattress beside him and a mountain of letters on his bad leg. He knows a guy who knows a guy who can smuggle mail in and out of the continent for a small fee.
"I can do the same thing for you, if you want to." Michael just shrugs. "You don't have anyone back home you wanna talk to?"
"No," Michael says, somewhat coldly. He's feeling more himself now that the shunt's been removed. If he could get rid of the damn IV he'd be gone.
"No one? A girl? Swami? Birthday clown you used to like?"
Michael stonewalls him, and Sam just gives him an odd, suspicious stare. Of course he wouldn't understand – he's got four brothers, an intact family, a happy childhood to look back on. "I have friends everywhere. I was a military brat," Sam tells him, as he gives himself a sponge bath.
Michael tries not to let his eyes linger on Sam's bare torso – it's thickly muscled, tapering down into a narrow waist and a curved hip.
Sam peers cautiously over at Michael. A moment passes, maybe two. Michael stares at his lap, and then Sam says, "you can tell me, when you want to."
Michael's certain he never will.
The next day, someone drops a letter onto Michael's lap. He stares at it blankly for a good moment before cautiously picking it up.
It is predictably addressed to Sam.
"Catch," he says, flinging it to the left. Sam chuckles as he manages to grab it mid-toss. Michael sprawls out in his cot, bristling with nervous energy – they're making him wait a couple more days to make sure he's fully hydrated, but he could easily sneak out of the complex and get on to his next assignment. But it's not his health that's holding him back, and he's not quite ready to admit it to himself.
Sam's expression has turned thoughtful, and for all of his emotional reserve, Sam's being upset has an effect on Michael. "What is it?"
"It's this kid I had in my unit back in Iraq. He's having a hard time adjusting to being a civilian."
"Why did he leave?"
Sam's tone changes. "Got dishonorably discharged."
"Why?" Michael's tone of voice shows bored disinterest, but he keeps watching Sam's face.
"Someone on the team read one of the love letters he had on him. When we were back at base camp, he reported it to my CO."
"For a letter?"
"It was from Kevin's boyfriend." Sam says the last in a tone that's testing, as if he's trying to judge Michael's reaction.
Michael's response is only a non-reaction. "Was he a good soldier?"
"One of the best. Nice kid from the south." Sam frowns, sitting up. "This is a couple of months old. Hope he's all right." He puts it carefully aside. "I'll answer it tomorrow, my guy won't get back before then. Want to play cards?"
Michael moves toward the edge of his cot, sits up and picks up a pack. "Poker," he suggests.
"Three card stud," Sam props himself up on an elbow, disheveled and oddly magnetic. He holds out his left hand, and Michael stares at what it offers in silence. "Deal."
He's pretty sure he's the only one who feels the electric charge that passes between them along with the hand of cards.
Sam loves music. Someone's brought him a walkman with one ancient recording of Van Morrison's Greatest Hits, and he plays it constantly, humming to himself at odd points, memorized droning that gets on Michael's nerves.
Almost everything Sam does lately drives him crazy as they play cards and sweat, eat and talk and read the same letters and magazines over and over. While Michael's restlessness grows, Sam's lassitude increases. After a week, Michael decides he won't let it get to him; it won't matter for much longer, after all, he's almost well enough to leave. Sam's on crutches, and sometimes he hobbles over to Michael's cot and sits gingerly on the edge to play. Mobility has added a surprising tension that grows exponentially to their closeness, hands brushing as meal trays are exchanged, a swipe of a toe or of a finger across the backs of hands or a shin. It's a distraction to the job he needs to do, a confusing that he doesn't have time to deal with.
There's nothing keeping him here but doctor's orders, and he feels like disobeying them. On the sixth day, they unhook him from the IV and start him on oral antibiotics, a course he should follow for at least a week, he's told.
"Getting out of here soon," he tells Sam.
"Good to hear, Mikey." Sam seems inordinately quiet. He pushes his dinner around and skips their usual card game to sleep.
Michael gathers his clothing and dresses, slipping his shades into place as a final gesture of recovery. He keeps an ear to the ground and listens to gossip; in the mess tent he finds out about a military convoy set to ride over the border to Lorzot. It'll be a pain in the ass to cross Algeria, but he's done it before, and in harsher weather. No one's moving 'til the morning, and he's assigned to a cot in the barracks; he decides to take the long way to practice his cover ID.
He's busy trying to memorize his new name when he hears someone humming that familiar, off-key drone. He follows it through the shadows thrown by the barracks, until he bumps smack into Sam, who's been standing in the cooler shadows, watching the nothingness of the surrounding flatlands.
First, Michael's inundated by the scent of cheap whiskey; then he notices the heavy lean of Sam on his crutches. The older man grins at him blearily, clinking a half-empty bottle of opaque liquid against the screw bracing the crutches together.
"Sam. You smell like a liquor store," Michael observes.
Sam grins. "You've gotta work on your pick-up lines, Mikey." The alcohol's amplified his personality somewhat; a normally-cheerful Sam made artificially giddy.
"Where did you get the booze?"
Sam smirks. "Traded a couple of my Penthouses for a bottle. They brew it in the city somewhere, tastes like horse piss but the effect's the same."
Sam dims noticeably. "Having a little memorial." He sways backward, and Michael grabbed him about the waist, keeping them both upright until Sam can get back his balance.
Sam lets out a laugh. "Nice catch. Were you in Little League?"
"Third baseman." He doesn't tell Sam that he'd lasted only a week on the team before causing a fight. "Who died, Sam?"
"Remember Kevin, the kid I told you about?"
Michael awkwardly nods. "I'm sorry," Michael says. "An accident?"
"No. Suicide." Saying the word aloud makes Sam sober visibly. "His boyfriend found him hanging from the rafters at their apartment." He lowers his gaze.
"Sorry…" Michael tries, but Sam pushes him away.
"The note said he didn't know how to live without the Corps, and that the shame of being thrown out made him feel sick." Sam impotently digs his crutch into the sand, grinding it down. "That kid loved his country like no one you've ever seen, and now he's just another pine box in Florida." Sam leans heavily against the crutch, and Michael automatically reaches to help him up.
"I'm sorry, Sam," Michael says, and his voice sounds oddly cold and artificial. Spies may leave bodies behind, but they don't usually have to deal with the collateral damage.
Sam gives him an oddly hollow, artificial laugh. "Doesn't matter, right? Just another boy they can replace." Sam takes a long swig from the bottle. "I did everything I could to keep him safe. When we were alone, all he could do was talk about how much he loved Steven…"
Michael doesn't say anything, only watches Sam's expression for a moment. "You knew he was gay before his discharge?"
Sam leans away from Michael, staring out into the sandy expanse of land before them. "Like recognizes like."
Slowly, Michael feels himself relax. He looks into the middle distance, and with his own testing tone, asks, "why didn't you tell me?"
"Because who I fuck isn't any of your business." Some part of Michael recoils – he'd wanted to make it his business, he acknowledges to himself. Sam notices, and doesn't hesitate. "How did you make it through basic, Mike?"
"I ate mud 'til I learned to like it."
"You know. You went through it, too. If anyone even suspected…" He holds out an index finger, mimes cocking and shooting a rifle. "I couldn't get where I wanted to go unless I was a hundred per cent straight. That's what I had to do with the other part of me. The side that wants to grab and kiss you blind."
Michael doesn't turn away from Sam's look. "I know. I've got the same side, too."
Sam's gaze stays even and warm. "You never told me that."
"I'm not good at this, Sam. Haven't you noticed?"
Sam laughs softly and holds out the bottle. "Have some hooch." Michael takes the vessel, tries a sip and chokes. He blindly holds the bottle out and Sam takes it back, swaying over and into Michael. Sam laughs softly into his neck, then sobers again. "I just wish I could fix it for Kevin."
"You tried, Sam. It's all you could've done for him." A cut and dried, rational way to put it, and Sam looks away.
When Michael looks at him again, Sam's watching Michael somewhat slyly. "I never asked if you wanted to be friends."
"You never needed to," Michael points out.
"I knew it. Spies never wait for a damn invitation. One day you open your eyes and there's a drone in an Armani suit standing over your bed, pressing a bowie knife to your adam's apple."
"I wouldn't do that to you, Sam. You still owe me twelve dollars from our last poker game." Sam chuckles. "Are you all right now?" to his amazement, Michael realizes he cares.
"Don't worry about me. If it's life or death I choose life, brother. All the way." Sam leans in with his charming smile. The words echo between them as Sam leans in closer to Michael, closer, until the heat contrasts with the scent of his breath and envelops everything around Michael, and he doesn't even bother to deny what he's feeling…
They barely manage to pull themselves apart before a Humvee rolls by, its headlights flashing and delineating the sharp planes of Sam's face, the shocked glow in Michael's eyes. One of the soldiers recognizes Sam and salutes him – Sam manages a salute back before he turns away, toward the desert.
"We can't," Sam says.
Michael understands. It might not matter to him, but to Sam discovery means the destruction of years of work, of a dishonorable discharge and coming home to his father in disgrace. Much later, Michael will learn about Sam's dirty dealings in East Germany, and the paper-thin promise of his second chance at service, but for now he just nods, straightening his sunglasses. "Yeah, I'd better help you back to your cot." Sam willingly leans on Michael's shoulder as another thought occurs to Michael "Sam, are you still on pain meds?"
Michael just raises an eyebrow. "How do they mix with the rotgut?"
Sam grins. "Beautifully."
Michael's instincts are rarely wrong; when he comes to see Sam the next morning he's between bouts of vomiting that will leave him in the infirmary for another two days.
"Remind me never to drink the cheap stuff again," Sam grumbles.
Michael slides Sam a small packet of pictures and documents. "I'm going to Monaco after I finish the Nador mission. They're looking for someone who knows something about rifles."
"And you thought of me?" Sam smirks.
Michael lets the question linger. Maybe he thinks of Sam when he thinks of big guns, maybe he doesn't, but he's not going to say it. "I heard you're looking to get into black ops."
"If I can make it through training. I dunno, I've gotta do some thinking, and decide before my hitch is up."
"If you want in, I'd love to have you on the team, Sam."
"I'll think about it." Sam holds up a manila envelope. "I got this from Kevin's mom this morning." He peels it open and shows Michael a golden trident pin. "She said he wanted me to have it."
Michael suddenly understands why Sam's pushing himself so hard. "Kevin's why you can't give up."
Sam nods, just a little less morose than before.
"Well…" Michael groped for words. "I haven't signed your cast…"
Sam brightens. "I thought you weren't interested."
"Oh Sam, I'm always interested in you." Sam watches him thoughtfully, but Michael knows he won't say anything. They'll see each other later, work together, and if he's trustworthy then Michael will tell him everything. "Do you want me to…" Sam proffers a Sharpie from the dresser. "I'm going to have to watch out for you," Michael notes.
"Me? Nah. I'm pure as the driven slush," Sam says.
"And just as dirty."
"Wouldn't you like to know?"
Michael smirks, returns the Sharpie to Sam, and pushes back his sunglasses. "I'll find out Sam. It's only a matter of time." Michael declares to the sound of Sam's laughter and the footfall of his own retreat.
Michael knows where to find Sam the day they repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'. It's more a matter of combing the gravestones to find the right one. He follows a winding footpath to a simple granite tombstone. There sat Sam, carefully plating a small American flag in the swampy earth of the burial plot.
"I knew you'd find me," Sam says.
"Lover's intuition?" Michael asks, kneeling beside him.
"Soldier's sense." Sam arranges a bunch of daisies in the mount beside Kevin's gravestone. Sitting back with a sigh, he observes, "It's a hell of a day, Mikey."
"Yeah." But they both knew what lies ahead.
"Always so expressive," Sam complains fondly, getting up. "Maybe it's a new beginning."
"Maybe," Michael suggests. "Fi and Campbell want us to come over tonight for dinner."
"Is Campbell cooking?" Sam's arm has slipped around Michael's waist as they walk back up the path.
"Shit. I'll sneak in some beef jerky." Michael's arm wraps around Sam's waist. "Do you remember what you wrote on my cast?"
"Mysterious," Sam says. "I have to admit I still don't get it Mikey. Someday, what?"
"It means whatever it should mean," Michael says, deliberately inscrutable.
Sam turns Michael around. "It says someday we'll work together in Monaco and I'll see you. Or maybe someday we'll be together in Tunisia and we'll sleep together and wait too long to figure out if we made the right choice…."
"Or some day I'll see you in Miami after losing everything, and when you offer up the Caddy and your life, I'll realize I love you."
Sam grins as they exit the cemetery. "That's a lot of meaning in a few words. Westen to the end."
"Would you expect anything less, Sam?"
Sam grins. "Hell no," he says, with a leer. "I'll take you as you are."
Michael fixes his sunglasses and slides into the Charger's passenger-side seat. "And you wouldn't want it any other way?"
Sam pecks Michael briefly on the lips. "No."
Michael clutches Sam hard to his chest for a moment, then firmly pushes him away. "Then let's get rolling."
"Spies," Sam mutters, putting the car in gear. "Always kissing and running."
But there's affection in his voice. And it makes Michael realize that he wouldn't have Sam any other way, either.