Laura didn't know what woken her; it was still dark outside. Nevertheless, something was definitely keeping her from falling back asleep. Or maybe she was just worrying too much about the rescue mission.
Shouldn't they be back by now? Josh had said the longest part would be getting there and back. Drop the money, grab the hostages, and leave…God, please let Sam be okay, please! I could never forgive myself if something happened to him…
Thoughts continued to race around Laura's mind as she finally decided to get up and take a walk. Fresh air always cleared her mind, even when the clock said 3:18 a.m. A blanket around the shoulders would be useful.
But she had barely been outside a minute when lights appeared in the distant sky. As she watched, they slowly grew larger and more distinct, and a thumping sound started in. The helicopters!
Laura scrambled to the landing pad, arriving just as the first pilot switched the engine to idle, so the passengers could get out before he made way for the others. Josh climbed out first, to be promptly tackled by his girlfriend.
"Laura! How'd you—what're you doing out here?" he shouted over the engine.
Laura was so relieved to see him that she didn't even notice the ambulance that pulled up behind her. "Couldn't sleep! I've been out of my mind with worry—what took so long?"
"We hit a few snags." Josh turned to help a battered-looking girl in a labcoat, followed by Dr. Hall. His coat had spattered blood on it. Sam's dad, in turn, received a limp form from another man in army fatigues. Laura's hand flew to her mouth when she caught a glimpse of Sam's pale face and blood-soaked bandages. Paramedics met them halfway with a gurney.
"The leader tried to take out Dr. Hall as a last resort," Josh explained. "Sam didn't know he was wearing a bullet-proof vest. The doc said he should be okay once we get 'im to a hospital." He rubbed Laura's shoulders as the ambulance loaded up and drove away. "Come on, let's head back before I drop where I stand. We can go see him later when they've patched 'im up."
Laura stared after the receding taillights. "Who's the girl?"
"Katie Grant. She was the only one left in the place for three months. I guess she got attached to Sam while they were held prisoner together."
"Yeah," she replied absent-mindedly. She felt happy, and yet jealous at the same time. Sam was her best friend. Somehow she never really imagined what it would be like when he had a girlfriend of his own.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
It was gutwrenching for Jack all over again when he found Lucy and brought her to the main hospital. His wife burst into tears as soon as she walked into the room. Sam was hooked up to oxygen, sedatives, and a heart monitor as a precaution; he was lucky enough not to need a full ICU. Thick white bandages rendered half his upper body immobile.
"Lucy, Lucy, it's going to be okay," Jack whispered in her ear. "He's come this far with flying colors, and physical therapy should give him full use of his arm again. They're just going to wait 24 hours before taking him off the sedatives. Sam's a strong kid."
"I know," sobbed Lucy. "It's just so hard to see our baby like this. He looks so helpless." She watched Sam's bare chest rising and falling steadily. After a minute or so, Jack started to lead her to the door.
"We should get some sleep."
Lucy nodded calmly, but jumped with surprise when she opened the door. The girl, Katie, was poised to open it herself from the outside, showing equal surprise.
"I'm sorry! Didn't mean to intrude!" she apologized, thrusting her hands in the air. Light bandages were visible on her forehead and one wrist. "They treated some minor injuries and released me. I didn't have anywhere else to go, and anyway, I wanted to see how Sam was doing." She looked a little uncomfortable. "It's so weird to be around people again. Normal people, that is."
Jack couldn't resist a smile at the added comment. "He's sedated right now. Katie Grant, this is my wife and Sam's mother, Lucy Hall. Katie was alone up there for three months before we picked up that distress signal. All of this must have been beyond overwhelming. We were just about to get some shuteye in the lounge; you're welcome to do the same."
Katie nodded. "It's just…he's all I've got left." She glanced between the Halls and the doorframe at Sam, then uncertainly at Jack. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Oh, dear, of course not," said Lucy, taking the girl under her arm. "We're here for you, too, if you need us. It's the least we could do, after what you did for Sam."
Her new charge blushed. "It was a mutual effort. I thought I would go crazy, having not seen another living thing for so long. Then he kept me from losing my head completely when the nutcases showed up. He saved me as much as I saved him—you should be very proud."
"We are. Lucy pulled Katie into a one-armed hug. "But more than anything, we're just glad you're both safe."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Katie jerked awake for the millionth time…to yet another false alarm. The doctor had said it could still be a few hours before Sam woke up. However, the amazing reserve of patience she'd found at the lab seemed to have finally depleted itself.
No, Sam was as still and peaceful-looking as ever, masking how close a call it had been. Katie pulled the blanket a little higher on his chest—a hospital gown had proved impossible for the moment because of the sheer complexity and volume of the bandages on his shoulder. In a way, it made her feel guilty to have gotten away with nine stitches.
Stop it! she chided herself. You know you couldn't have helped what happened. And he's going to make a full recovery, anyway. Further thought was punctured loudly by a growl from her stomach. Dr. Hall may have been able to convince Lucy to take breaks, but he had no will power over Katie.
She knew she should eat something soon, though. Since arriving nearly 36 hours ago, she'd had only two of those plain hospital meals, both the previous day.
"I don't want to leave Sam alone," she said aloud. As if speaking it out loud would make it any more a convincing excuse. But seeing him get shot had brought out something new, something different in her. She couldn't bear to let anything else happen to him.
It won't do any good if you passed out from hunger, either, a voice piped up inside her head. There's vending machines with yogurt and Wheat Thins just around the corner. You'd be back in two minutes…
Katie's better judgment finally won over, with her stomach rumbling its agreement. However, no sooner had she reached the door when, right on cue, the sound of rustling sheets came from behind her. She looked over her shoulder.
Sam's face had twisted into a sleepy grimace, his good hand reflexively grabbing a fistful of the blanket. It was like watching a baby or toddler wake up. Katie rushed back to the bedside.
"Hey, Sam, it's me, Katie," she said softly. With the gentleness of a mother, she brushed Sam's dark hair off his face. His eyes fluttered slowly open, apparently with much effort. It took several seconds before they focused on Katie. She beamed at him through happy tears.
"W…where are we?" he whispered hoarsely. "What happened?"
"Shhh, we're back in Mexico. You and I are currently sitting in a hospital. Rykov and his remaining goons are in a maximum security prison until an international council can be appointed to try them. And your parents should be around somewhere."
"Everything feels stiff."
"I bet it does. Half your left side is covered in bandages to hold your shoulder together. It'll probably be like that for awhile, too."
Sam closed his eyes as he took a deep, pained breath. When he opened them, though, they were focused directly on Katie. "Are you okay?"
Blushing, Katie nodded. Gazes conveyed what didn't need to be said in words. But they only had few moments to share it—a strangled gasp announced the arrival of Dr. and Mrs. Hall. Katie stepped aside to let them see their son; Sam grabbed her hand before she could get far.
"Stay," he whispered.
"Oh, Sammy, I'm so glad you're awake!" his mother sobbed. "We've been so worried about you—don't you ever disappear like that again, do you hear me?"
"Yeah, yeah, okay, Mom," Sam groaned. Further protests followed a hair-ruffling from his dad. But his grip on Katie's hand remained firm.
"Hey Sam, can I have my hand back for a minute? I haven't eaten anything all day."
"Oh, sorry. Just don't be gone too long." He gave her a crooked smile.
Katie rolled her eyes. "I won't." She had hardly stepped out of the room before bumping into a whole group of people. There was Laura, the girl who had met them upon arrival, and the young Marine from the rescue mission. Then there were two boys about Katie's age, and a third guy who looked about ten years older.
"Is he awake yet?" asked Laura. Her expression was as if her life depended on the answer.
"Um, yeah, he's talkin' to his parents right now. It'd probably be a good idea not to crowd in, though." Katie glanced at the group around her. "I mean, not wanting to be mean…" She felt suddenly cornered and claustrophobic.
"No, it makes perfect sense," one of the boys finished for her. "Name's Brian, by the way. But I can wait my turn. Laura, you should go first."
"Huh?" Laura looked slightly uncomfortable.
"Yeah, Laura, you're his best friend," chimed the other boy. The group moved to find seats, and Katie left for the vending machines. Shyly, almost fearfully, Laura knocked on the door, and peeked inside.
"Come in," she heard Dr. Hall's voice call. Sam was still awake, his bed tilted up just a little. All the bandages made him look so helpless. Laura could only wave hi in response.
"Hey, Laura," Sam greeted her in a tired voice. "Mom, Dad, could you give us a couple minutes? Make sure Katie doesn't disappear on me. You know how she's scared of the crowds."
Lucy showed some reservation; Dr. Hall's hand on her shoulder finally guided her out the door.
There was a minute or so of silence, during which Laura took in Sam's general appearance. An IV in his good hand, the oxygen feed winding across his face, fading bruises on his bare chest and arms…and the hulking mass of white supporting his shoulder. Laura couldn't take it anymore, and burst into tears.
"Hey, hey, what's up?" Sam asked, his brow furrowing with concern.
"I feel like all this is my fault! I dumped the news on you after not seeing each other for so long, not even taking time to sit down and explain properly. And now, because of that, you're—"
"Laura, this isn't your fault!" Sam's words, though quiet, were so forceful that Laura was shocked into silence. "I chose to run off and not hear you out. I was stupid, yeah. I guess we were such close friends that I wasn't prepared to think that we would remain just that. I should have been happy for you, and instead I chose to be a jerk." This speech seemed to be wearing him out, but he continued anyway.
"This is in no way your fault, Laura. Every mission has its risks, and the decision to go lies entirely with me. Besides, if I hadn't gone, I might never have met Katie. Come on in."
Laura jumped as she realized someone was knocking. It was the girl she kept seeing everywhere. Despite having been in Mexico City for two days now, Katie was still in the ragged boys' clothes she'd arrived in, though the labcoat had finally been done away with. Now the embroidered patch, reading "Grant" in blue letters, was safety-pinned to the sleeve of her hooded jacket.
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" she asked in a small voice. She was holding timidly to her vending machine meal.
"No, you're fine," Sam answered quickly. "In fact, I was hoping you two could meet formally. Laura, this is Katie Grant." Laura saw the look he gave the new girl—the same one he'd once given her…
"Pleasure to finally meet you, Laura," Katie was saying, holding out a hand to shake. Laura took the offered hand. It was a little strange that Sam had come to love someone else. But Katie sounded like a nice girl to know, and Laura did get her own boyfriend first.
"We should hang out sometime," she offered. "I still haven't heard much about this terrorist adventure."
"Sounds good to me. I feel like I've missed so much, being cooped up in the lab."
"There's a coffee shop downstairs, if you want to go now. Seems Starbucks really has squeezed into everywhere possible."
"Yes, please take the conversation elsewhere—some of us would like to sleep, ya know. Don't bother saying goodbye," Sam cut in dryly.
Katie giggled as she bounced back to him and kissed his forehead. "I promise I'll be back later to check on you."
"Aww, get outta here," he muttered, waving her away with his good arm and blushing furiously. Laura had to smile to herself. Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.