Movieverse one-shot, set approximately two years before the final encounter with Rasputin. Hellboy's exploration of a desolate dimension becomes a dangerous game of survival for his team. I own nothing except my story events. Rated M for violence and O/C death. Thanks to all readers who continue to drive up the views on this fic, and reviews from you are very appreciated!

Just after midnight in the fire lit calm of his library, Professor Bruttenholm counted himself relieved and grateful, but also for the time being, virtually forgotten while seated across from a solemnly brooding Hellboy. With eyes cast down, his face leaning into and hidden by the bulky knuckles of his stone fist, his demon son had gone silent for most of the past two minutes.

Unnoticed, Bruttenholm took in hand his walking cane and moving the stick to vertical, craftily let it fall to the the floor. The clatter snapped Hellboy out of his mute absence, and he immediately reached down to retrieve the cane. Taking it back with a blink of thanks, the aged professor then pinned Hellboy with a look he knew well. Pop was about to dig in.

"Son, you've had a harrowing time of it. Will you be unable to sleep tonight?"

Taking a quick read of the library's antique clock, Hellboy began an abrupt rise from his chair.

"Sorry, Pop. I've been talking a blue streak and keeping you up late." He halted when his father politely cleared his throat.

"I was not at all hinting to run you off," he thinly smiled, then bore down with, "I've heard no 'blue streak' from you; only the plainly clinical facts of the tragedy, but there is...more, I believe?"

Hellboy could have gone the rest of his life without repeating what he'd personally shared with Ben Hart during his excruciating final moments, but to refuse or only humour Pop was something he'd never feel right with. He hadn't revealed it to Manning, not to anyone. The hours previous after the survivors' arrival back at HQ had stretched out long with receiving his own wound treatment and keeping Liz company in the med wing because he wanted to. Then being hounded by Manning to get out of there and into his office to spell out the events concerning Ben Hart's death. The boss insisted that he and agent Guillermo Sanchez submit hard copy drafts of their witness accounts, on the spot. Each time he threw them a nervous "Hurry, please!'", Hellboy could actually feel sorry for Manning's rattled state over being recalled way after normal hours to handle this most dreaded of directorial duties. He himself was far better satisfied not having to verbally record or dictate to a stenographer, and his one hand performed fairly fast over the keyboard. And when he'd seen the pressured rookie agent sitting opposite, anxiously chewing his lip over the composition of his report, he mouthed to him a mentoring, "Just the facts, Gill." Pop had called asking to see him right after he needed to believe his own eyes. Wanted to sit with him awhile – so, here he was.

"Ben.." Hellboy spoke the name with remorse. "When part of his body was all I could salvage...I thought about his wife and kids."

"Dr. Manning and the district field commander have gone to their home to offer assistance and condolences," sighed the professor, "and explanation of the death to the extent that Washington may permit."

Hellboy shared his father's distaste for the form letter sterility of what the Bureau extended at a time like this.

The older man composed himself to hear the very worst with his request, "Now, dispense with your courtesy of coddling my sensibilities, and tell me, Son, what his widow should never wish to know.." He leaned fully back in his armchair and closed his eyes, indicating his readiness to pay keen attention.

Hellboy had at the first, been too respectful of Pop to give him a full colour account of that savage death. But this time, the Prof could well visualize Ben in unspeakable agony, fully aware that he was soon to die. Could hear his gut curdling screams as cliff walls shut closed upon his body like cold-blooded live things. Brutally pinioned upright in a wretched shock of despair as Hellboy jammed his arm down inside the narrow fissure to feel nothing left of the man below his diaphragm – all flesh, bone, and internal organs crushed to bloody sludge. The bitter hopelessness of saving the doomed remnant of him, and Ben in his final torment, desperate to be heard.

"He was nearly gone, but he wanted..asked me to-" The thrust of what Hellboy hesitated to say as his jaw clenched at the memory, was realized with unerring instinct by his listener.

Bruttenholm sorrowfully and sympathetically enunciated each chilling word. "He asked you to kill him."

Hellboy slowly raised grave eyes to his father. "He had only minutes left. I held onto him, until. He tried hard to say the names.."

"Of his family," the professor sadly assumed.

Hellboy dropped his hands heavily to the arms of his chair. "And the last thing he ever saw in life, turned out to be this face."

Bruttenholm reflected on all he'd heard from first to last in brief silence, then stood to firm a supportive grip on his shoulder and kindly attributed, "Agent Hart would have well appreciated, Son, that you didn't let him die alone."

He nodded his acknowledgement that Pop had meant for him to take some comfort in that.

"Now, please enlighten me on this?" He indicated the layered white bandage wrapping his son's substantial left arm from wrist to elbow.

"Peeled it on the cliff edge."

Bruttenholm winced. "And how is our Miss Sherman coping with her injuries?"

"Hanging onto Ben's weight separated her shoulder. She's beating herself up for the fail...and having it rough because she's never seen anyone – die that way."

"Not many have," he sighed, in remembrance of past lost agents.

"When the med wing releases her, she's asked for me to pick her up."

"And that will be?"

Hellboy rechecked the wall mounted clock. "Thirty-eight minutes from now."

Catching the note of anxious anticipation in his son's voice, the elder man turned on a faint smile of indulgent understanding.

"Thanks, Pop. I need to drop in at home and try harder to get rid of – this." Residue of the unnameable black sludge still stained his neck and face above his clean shirt. It had seeped into and filled the recesses of his stone arm, and as he rotated his wrist, dislodged tarry plugs sloughed off and dropped to the floor.

"Leave it, Son," Bruttenholm dismissed. "I hadn't given you the chance, and – have I ever turned you away for being grimy?"

The corners of Hellboy's mouth twitched up as he nodded goodnight to his father, and walked to the golden doors.

"Two more," mused the old man, watching him go, "who wish not to be alone tonight."


Red was invited inside the curtained-off cubicle where Liz awaited her release. She looked drowsy, as he'd expected, and glad to see him. She sat on the side of an infirmary bed, loosely dressed in a sleeveless wrap-around flannel shift and socks, her left arm prominently out front in a stiff blue sling. The attending nurse closely supported her.

"She's been flighty," the woman informed, patting Liz's knee.

"Well, you look a lot better, now," Liz complimented with the slurring cheer of a happy drunk.

"Yeah," he grinned, "our identical dirt is gone. Is that your meds talking?"

"Taking me home?"

He quickly took the arm she held out to him as she shifted a hip downward to touch a foot to the floor.

"No, no," the nurse insisted, holding her back. "You're much too unsteady to walk."

"No chair. Red will carry me." Stubbornly set on this alternative, Liz retained her grip on his stone thumb. "Carry me!"

The nurse shrugged and nodded, then briefly checked the condition of his bandaged arm.

"Since you're responsible.." She handed him a small plastic bag of several pill containers with an instruction sheet and explained the dosages for pain control. "And Liz should go directly to bed."

"I'll take care of that, M'am," he assured. Liz playfully snatched the bag from his hand, hooked her fingers to stretch open the neckline of his shirt and tucked the package inside.

"Are you going to be a handful?" he chuckled. He leaned in to lift her from the bed, keeping her injury to the outside, safe away from pressure. She sighed a lazy little trill and worked her good arm around to rest at his back. The nurse looked over the arrangement and gave them permission to leave.

"Hurt much?" he murmured to his charge, as they left the wing.

"It did. A lot."

Liz looked peaceful, sleepy and all content to ride in his arms. He figured there was no particular need to hurry the stroll home.

"Anything you want?"

"Higher," she specified, as he felt the movement of her free arm beginning to seek for an adjustment of position. He halted and raised her by degrees until their heads were brought level and she'd reached upward to snug the bend of her elbow around his neck. Seemed to be just what she wanted, when she tucked nearer in with a push of her left cheek to the side of his face. She might not be acting this way if not for the initial morphine, he realized, but he was free to take his own pleasure in cradling her soft warmth to his body, her trusting need to cling to his strength, and the damp lengths of her freshly washed hair brushing the base of his throat.

"Red, you're my friend," she drawled hazily in his ear, "my big, strong friend, and you stopped me from falling in.."

His voice lowered to an intimate purr. "I won't let you fall, Liz." His arm flexed a small hug around her back and he almost let it out - "I love you."

"Oh, I'm such a mess!" she lisped next, her self-deprecating humour still pleasant. She dropped her head back to model a comically inebriated stare into his eyes, holding the pose for his opinion. Short of energy, she relaxed her features back to normal, and he obliged with open admiration, studying the pale heart shape of the face he'd loved for so long, her bewitching black-lashed eyes and the elegant arch of her brows. The charm of her soft pink lips captured his dreamlike attention until he noticed her slight pout of impatience for some response.

"You look great," he smiled, "and you smell good."

It had been nothing unusual for Liz to spend time with him during her mid and later teenage years. She had been the one juvenile Bureau resident; a girl without family, often confused and lonely. Despite owning a physique advanced in maturity to way beyond his actual years, Hellboy was always ready to be the true kid that lived within. When he was free from work, they entertained themselves for long hours with games, movies, talk and comic books. It was the best of all times when he made her laugh, and if she happened to fall asleep on his couch, he would escort the youngster back to her own room. Nobody took overt notice of the odd friendship. They lived inside the BPRD, after all. But since she'd progressed to middle twenties, it had become his ongoing secret torture to believe that he was the one alone in love. For now, she needed him to be a motivated caregiver, and that's what he would do. On the approach to his door, he slowed his steps to prolong and savour every forbidden, sweet sensation aroused by the beauty he held close.

A muted background of soft rock greeted Liz as he carried her inside. She began to hum along, panning her gaze around the floor and furniture to spot her favourite pets among the cats perched and lounging on every surface possible. She wriggled her bare right arm down between their torsos to warm away a shiver in the moderate cool of his room.

"You stay here," he instructed, settling her onto his couch, "while I fix the bed." He unfolded a nearby throw blanket which Liz had brought long ago, and draped it around her shoulders.

He rid his shirt of the lumpy bag of pill bottles with an accurate pitch to a counter by the fridge.

She sat obediently to watch his operations on the truck bed as he first unbolted one of the wooden box side rails and removed it to a place against the rear wall. He stripped off the sheets and pillowcases and tossed them away in a rounded bundle through the air. She became fascinated when he brought fresh bedding and began to fit a sheet to the mattress, snatching it up to stand on end like it weighed no more than a playing card, and flipping it over to finish off the remaining corners. The top sheet resounded like the crack of a whip as he snapped it flat in mid-air. In his large, rudimentary way, he assembled everything necessary for her overnight comfort.

"Suzy Homemaker," she teased, her laugh musical.

He laughed along, pleased that she was able to express a little genuine amusement after the misery of the past afternoon, but in the next minute she wilted, lamenting, "It must be – all grief at Ben's house."

He returned to her side, hearing her groan at the lurch of her shoulders as she began to sob.

"You did everything you could." He replaced her slipping blanket and cautioned gently, "Don't move so much."

"We came so close." She looked across at him and let her long held tears overflow.

"You didn't lose him, Liz." His mouth tightened in self reproach. "But I did."

"I can't stop seeing his face," she mourned, "h-hearing him!"

"I know...I know," was all he could say as she sagged limply against him, then curled childlike on his lap enfolded in his arms, seeking solace with the one whose traumatic memories, second by second, duplicated her own.


Their escape path as far as the grey horizon had looked safely clear at the time, clear at least of the alien tall rooted stalks that could sense their approach and aim low, swooping attacks to lash at them. And Ben Hart, then first ahead, had discovered how easily the limber willowy stalks were broken off their bases with well placed side kicks. He'd chosen a straight ten-footer to use, sweeping and stabbing at the ground as he tested to detect any spontaneous eruption of the traps they'd managed to evade behind them. Liz walked briskly several steps back beside agent Gill Sanchez, covering Hart with firearms drawn and keeping alert for potential danger in all directions.

It became perceptibly more difficult for the human agents to breathe. As Hellboy guarded the rear of his team, he felt a crushing pressure building in the angry, low hanging sky. It magnified and concentrated on him like a ton of iron descended on his shoulders, collapsing him to his knees, then to his hands. It vibrated again through his body, a hollow voice of demand, darkly fiendish with the promise of imminent devastation – 'Blood sacrifice!'. Some god-force of these plains dogged the agents unseen, commanding and manipulating hazards to materialize in their way. Hellboy felt more absolute that his team was being marked for retaliation. All or any one of them could be singled out for notice, but the force's creations weren't infallible. Only five minutes earlier, a dense grove of white, dagger thorned vegetation had shot up to enclose them all like a gigantic iron maiden, and Liz had swiftly laid down a swath of blowtorch concentration to burn a gap through, while Hellboy broke down and held off the inner growth encroaching around them. The amputated trunks crouched and writhed, their limbs spurting thick streams of pale, corrosive ichor. The team had run through the sizzling rivulets, suffering little more than seared clothing.

"It looks like it's screaming," Gill panted to Hellboy, glancing back. "Why is everything in this place only white, gray and black?"

No questions were ever answered here, either. The force held its name and origins silent, and Hellboy had drawn nothing from it except its choice to spike him with the unchanging cryptic threat. It now left Hellboy invested with the grim knowledge that his team had been designated as pieces in a macabre game. Their narrow escapes, it taunted, were soon to end.

He had to get up. Fighting to stay conscious as the force compressed his lungs, Hellboy kept a constant visual on his people. Unaffected. Good. But Sanchez wheeled to come back to him.

It was no random chance he was the one held down, that he was too far away when he saw Ben Hart drop clean out of sight with a startled yell, and Liz diving to the ground after him. Just within reach of the demon, Sanchez was buckled to the ground. The young agent rolled to his back and sucked in a shuddering deep breath as the invisible crush began to lift away. Released, Hellboy immediately found the strength to curse his delay. He dug his boots hard into the peeling shale surface beneath them and bolted forward, revving another gear to join the new storm up ahead.

He flung himself down beside Liz lying prone at the jagged rim of a sinkhole, her legs frantically kicking as she fought to resist a headfirst drag into the rising level of black, viscous fluid. Her hundred pound body was under hard strain with both arms stretched down painfully taut, sunk to her elbows in the muck.

"Ben!" she managed to gasp,"Ben is drowning!"

Hellboy locked his left arm straight across the front of her shoulders to bar against the pull, and determined fast that Liz was overexerting to hold onto submerged Ben, just as tightly as he was clinging to her. He plunged his stone arm down by her hands to relieve her of the weight and clamped his fingers around something below, alive and moving as sluggish as anything sunk in a pool of glue. He could see there was no possibility of Ben's treading in this to keep afloat. Whatever else might be lurking below, Hellboy began to haul up his catch. Gill caught up to take Liz a safe distance away, where she crouched, trembling with pain.

An obscene, morbid chuckle returned to make itself known...'Blood sacrifice!'

Delivered up by Hellboy's steady pull, Ben broke surface, blackened and shiny, spitting and exhaling blasts to clear his mouth and nostrils, his saturated clothing dragging at him. Hellboy leaned deeper over the edge to hook a solid arm lock around the slippery agent.

"Huh, Red!" Ben coughed, attempting a laugh, "It's the worst feeling in the w-" In a heartbeat, the pit ceased to exist, leaving Ben dangling in empty air between the walls of a narrow rock chasm. Hellboy gripped him hard and saw that far below him, the walls' strata were thrusting out to close the fault, locking together like a blindingly fast closing zipper. The demon rolled sharply to heave him free, but over the grinding clash of interconnecting rock, he heard Ben roar in agony. Still tight in his hold, Ben was immoveable; seized, crushed...and still alive. Liz and Gill...Hellboy's fevered glare flashed to find them before he wrestled off his coat and forced his arm down the fissure space at Ben's side. He found only pulverized flesh.

Sanchez made his tentative approach with Liz, bringing a field first aid box. What to do for a man this hideously mangled? He didn't have to stay blinded by the sticky black mess of the pit. As Ben sipped pathetic half breaths through his mouth, Liz carefully wiped his lids and the orbits of his eyes with sterile water and gauze pads. If only Ben could have been spared reviving from his stupor of shock. He hesitantly opened his red-rimmed eyes to find Hellboy near, the first to see his emerging distress become an eruption of helpless rage, then frozen disbelief as his hands trembled to explore the limits of what he had become. Ben clutched panting at his sternum, and stared down with stark realization that below this level of his entrapment, he knew what Hellboy had discovered – that his body was utterly destroyed. He curled his hands into shaky fists and thrashed at the ground, brokenly snarling his grief. Sprawled prone in front of the dying man, Hellboy stopped him by getting close up.

"Bud!" he whispered, steadying his head, "If you've gotta hit something, hit me."

Liz choked back heavyhearted tears. What worse could be rained on them now? Anything, she knew. Anything. She forgot the ache of her useless left arm and crouched by Ben, taking his hand to hold.

"I'll break you out," she heard him say to Ben. But in response, the man reached his weakening right arm over Hellboy's shoulder and pulled him in tight. Their closeness and muted tones shut out anyone else. If Ben could talk...he had so little time left. He reared his head back in Hellboy's hand, seized by spasms of choking, his throat expelling bloody wisps and shreds of tissue. Hellboy drew him back into their private space, where Ben's shuddering clutch at his back intensified to frenzied clawing until he'd gathered up a fistful of the demon's shirt, and that, he clenched with white knuckled tenacity. His laboured efforts to speak faltered to faint rasping at Hellboy's ear. When Ben's cruel awareness of the ruin of his body and the future he'd lost mercifully dimmed out of his eyes, Liz watched Red lift away from their clinch, and his fingers move gently to close his lids. The malevolent player had claimed its prize, and Hellboy no longer felt the presence. White. Gray. Black...and hungry for the red. The most coveted sacrifice throughout every age of Man. He could have stopped all of this by being the first to bleed for it. He knew that now, too late, and his mind snarled a vow to the slate gray sky. "I got your weakness, right here. Learned it the hard way. I'll be back for you."

Red bashed away the rock pinning the front of Ben's body until he'd cleared the way to recover his remains. His duster lay spread out on the ground behind him. It was all the more grievous to finally lift Ben out, as his smashed vertebrae and spinal cord peeled away from the cliff. He laid him down on the tan canvas and folded his arms over his eviscerated torso. There was so little of him left. He sighed as he slowly covered him over and stood up. Red had seen enough of the monstrous rear wall to know there would be no respect in bringing home any more of the man who now rested concealed in his coat.

Liz waved Gill to go ahead and leave her side.

He sombrely volunteered,"Red, I'll carry him." He knelt and respectfully made folds of the duster into a secure, compact bundle. When he got to his feet with the remains of Ben Hart in his arms, the look he cast back at his companions was glazed with haunted disbelief.

Too spent to stand, Liz waited seated on the ground for the men to finish their tasks. Worried Red came to sit by her, and examined her disfigured shoulder as well as he could. She squirmed in the discomfort of her soaked, stiffened jacket.

"This black mess," she sighed, utterly weary, "sticks like a mix of tar, glue and paint. I don't care how much it hurts. Please, get this off?"

He freed her from the encasement of her jacket with several strategic cuts, then carefully set her left forearm across her middle and used his shirt to bind around her.

"You need a doctor."

She frowned, concerned that her leader seemed so subdued. "Do we go home now?"

"We're going home," he answered, sounding tiredly far away. "We're taking Ben home. Nothing will happen to us, now."

She looked at him, not questioning his calm, understated confidence in what he'd said.

"Red!" Liz swayed and snatched for the support of his arm. She trusted his stone hand at her back to hold her safe. "We lost him," she breathed, exhausted, "So sad and horrible, and I can't think anymore. Is it over?"


"You're getting into bed, now," he whispered, his fingers gently fondling her neck through the thickness of her hair.

"Bed," Liz fuzzily repeated, responding with an ill-advised one handed push off the back of the couch.

He picked her up before she could hurt herself and carried her to her designated half of the bed. Tugging her pillow into a supportive position, he checked that her sling was properly in place, and made her listen. "No arguments. Don't try to get out of bed without me. I'll know. You're on the rail side."

"You'll take me – to the bathroom – and all that?"

"Well..yeah." He pulled the light covers up over her, then left her side to attend to another step in her care.

Her eyes followed the retreating sweep of his tail as he went off to the bar sink to fill a water glass and before he returned, she had struggled up to sit.

"You're a bad little kid," he scolded with mock gruffness as he climbed onto the bed. He raised his own pillow into a back rest and reclined, holding up a pill bottle to study.

"Is that how you're going to sleep?" she interjected with groggy pique, "On top of the covers?"

"Don't get ahead of things," he chided, "Lie down and let me read this."

"You're shutting me out!" Her unexpected outburst caught his immediate puzzled concern, but he reasoned it was just one more overemotional reaction. In the moment, she looked as though she had shocked herself, and as she dropped her head down, she folded herself into a sad little ball. He set the bottles down and sidled close to her, knowing of nothing else he should do except to patiently await any explanation. She could cycle from mellow to angry to teary in a blink, but then she looked up at him and stunningly made clear, "I need you near me now, and not like a brother!"

It must have been strange and hard for her to say, he thought, even if less inhibited under the influence of medication. But her words so unnerved, and yet deeply pleased him, that he had to force his mind off the contemplation and back to the present need to restore her calm.

"Okay," he said quietly. With that, she seemed placated, and recovered herself.

"Can I have two?" she asked next, attempting a stretch over to see the little blue bottles.

He handed her the water glass and tipped out the pills. She looked forlorn and lost in her tent of a hospital gown. When she'd downed her pills, she handed back the tumbler and held still while his fingers traced along the strips of colourful tape applied to stabilize the soft tissues of her shoulder. He helped her settle back comfortably into her big pillow. "How about yours?"

He shook his head. "None. I'm staying all clear."

"I'm sorry to be trouble," she mumbled, fighting the droop of her eyelids. "I'm not mad at you. Now, please? Get in?"

Part way ready for an opposite mood swing to hit, he made an excuse to detour out of sight and get busy with rooting through a drawer of stuff that he never wore. His plan to drag his chair up to the bedside to spend the night in, had changed for the unexpected. He stripped out of his street clothes and pulled on a long pair of light fabric pants. No sleeping raw tonight, like his usual. On his return, he received an awkward smile from Liz, doing her uncoordinated one-armed best to lift the covers for him. As soon as he'd lain down next to her, she shuffled with uncertain balance to face him on her uninjured side. She'd have what she wanted as soon as she figured it out, he thought. He steadied her in her efforts, and the pleading expression she turned full on him then, was fit to break his heart.

"Hold me," she entreated, "so I don't think about anything else."

He closed in to slide his flesh arm beneath her neck, taking care to guard her skin from the irritation of his bandage. Her left shoulder and his stone arm, necessary to rest topside, left them with few options. She cushioned her cheek on his bare bicep, nestling in as his stone hand at her lower back drew her against his torso.

"Best I can do, under the circumstances," he whispered, not sure that she was still awake.

But her pleased sounding little voice answered, "You smell like cigars...and cedar." And then, the girl of his dreams gave him another reason to swallow hard when she cheekily pushed her uppermost knee between his stacked thighs and informed, "I'm holding you." Anchoring her slim calf behind his, she pressed her leg straight to elevate her pelvis up close against his groin. "Best I can do."

In need of an appropriately casual response, he breathed, "Nothing wrong with your legs."

Hellboy had to feel thankful for her lighthearted frame of mind, though she'd maybe innocently enough given him an immediate private struggle to cope with. And against everything he had ever wanted to have with her, he found himself ironically dreading that she might go further. He kept his hands entirely still and moved back his right thigh to keep its weight off hers. If it ever someday happened that they genuinely came together, he wouldn't let it be accidental, or with either of them not totally in the game. Right now, his strongly held hope was that she could escape her own pain and the evil they'd seen in deep, blank sleep, no matter what she might do to strain his resistance.

Predictably after an hour, Liz wanted a change of position. True of all bodies owning two arms and lying intertwined meant in her case that her good right arm, having been stuck beneath her, was numb and nagging for relief. Hellboy felt the small disturbances of her tugs and wiggles to move out of their entanglement, heard her little grunts of discomfort.

"Where are you going?" he whispered.

"To the other side of you."

"Let me fix that." He carefully extracted himself from the angle of her leg, got up and gave her a lift to the preferred spot. After completing the switch, he asked, "Anything else?"

Liz wriggled her back against him and directed simply, "Little spoon."

He closed his eyes as she snuggled her behind and backs of her thighs into his lap. Visions and yearnings reawakened and charged through certain of his zones, too delicious to mar with any talk. But the plan for arrangement of arms had to follow.

"Your left, now," she urged.

His hand hovered. It wasn't to land near her tender shoulder. Why he needed to feel this indecisive about finding the most neutral place to lay down his fingers, had never been his style. Jumping to obey point-blank instructions wasn't, either. "It is now, Pal,"he told himself.

Tonight was number one, about Liz choosing him to take care of her. And it was about his taking this chance to scope out how real, how deep was her need of him, when she'd specifically requested to spend the night with him in his bed – and yeah, asked him to hold her. And did she ever think about wanting him? But he knew the limitations. He laid his hand along the outside of her knee, where his fingertips easily drifted to the narrowing behind, and gently brushed over her soft, fine skin. And there, he stilled the motion.

"Feels nice," she sighed, and promptly fumbled her right hand down past the obstacle of her sling, to take hold of his fingers and draw his arm across her waist. She wasn't finished there, as she turned his hand over and began to warmly circle her palm on his, letting him feel a deliberate affection. She pushed back against the hard musculature of his legs and torso, and laced her fingers contentedly through his. It still had to be the fact of the drugs, he figured.

"I can really feel where your huge strength comes from," she praised, awed to sincerity. "Your body is – so amazing." Liz felt too, the rise of his deep breath at her back, and his fingers answering with a gentle pressure.

Through the hours, lasting troubling images, bouts of restlessness and spears of guilt jolted Liz from sleep, and each time, she found him always close to comfort and reassure. Near dawn, she lay back, wanting to see him clearly, to broach some things left unsaid, and a matter of curiosity.

"Gill told me he felt so useless out there," she began.

"Not any more. I had a talk with the kid in Manning's office."

"Ben," she reminisced, "loved adventure and the unknown."

"It hurts, alright. The waste of his life, how hard he died."

She frowned minutely, unsure that she should ask. "When he got so close, what did he say to you?"

"It was between us," Red answered with reserve, "and the sooner I forget it, the better."

"I understand. We're partners, with the same experiences, same griefs.."

"Partners, yes," he repeated with a scant smile, "But it's not all grief."

"No, not all grief. I'll come back from the gloom," she promised, covering a yawn.

He lightly stroked her arm. "You'll be healing for weeks."

"It will take that long for the torn ligaments and muscle damage." She lowered her eyes, then gave him a deeply grateful look. "I really appreciate you taking care of me like this – not only because I needed watching over, but for all the rest that only you would understand..."

He listened, warmed all over that his special girl valued being close to him while the stress of injury and heavy sorrow was so fresh and painful. He knew she could see it, too – his heart pumping a little faster inside his bare chest. "It's about time for pills."

He went off to his minimal kitchen to warm the glass of milk she asked for. Though the light of early morning was breaking at ground level far above them, their nest here was where she wanted to be. She sat up on her knees, the better to enjoy watching him walk back to her. As he took a seat on the edge, she thanked him for serving her; then something more in her gaze of sleep deprived come-hither as she finished off her drink, made him pay suspenseful attention. Another level for them, only hours old and fragile, he thought; but now she approached him, shuffling tall on her knees while managing the handicap of her sling, with her free hand extending to touch his face. His hands shot out to catch her by the waist as she tripped forward. Her knees dragging down the inner drape of her gown had tightened it short enough to pull her over. Very suddenly aware that Red was now supporting her balance, Liz rolled her eyes and chuckled at her own clumsiness. He lowered her compliant body to the bed and fixed the covers around her, as she watched his every move with a relaxed smile.

"You didn't let me fall," she sighed.

His eyes smiled into hers. "I know."

"And now, I owe you a good morning's sleep." She beckoned to hint at his empty place.

Red lifted the covers again. All morning in, to nap beside Liz. He could really wrap his head around that. She was through the worst now, and after he rested up – as team leader, he would have to deal...

He slid his flesh hand across the bed to Liz, and in the middle under the covers, found hers reaching to find him. He closed his fingers around her small right hand, adjusted into his pillow, and stared up at the ceiling. Attached to his hand, Liz could feel plainly that he hadn't yet relaxed. She turned to study the telling profile of his face. Even though his eyes sometimes closed, the tensions working the corners of his mouth and contracting his cheek muscles were not easing away. When he sighed and bent his stone arm up to his pillow, she squeezed his hand. Pulled out of his thoughts, a mildness returned to his eyes at her affectionate smile of understanding.

Her soft, steady gaze drew him nearer to the fingers waiting to caress his face, and to her lips whispering, "Let me hold you."