FORTY-THREE

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Mark could hear the drone of muffled voices before a bright light hit him in one eye, then the other. "He's coming out of it," he managed to decipher from the man right up in his face. Fighting his way out of the darkness came at a harsh price. The nasty nail-in-the-head, eyelids-like-lead, queasy feeling brought to mind some crazier moments of his younger days.

Only worse. Much worse.

"Call me if you need me," the stranger then said.

Mark groaned and lifted his hand to the pulsating part of his skull that used to be his forehead.

"Hey, boss."

Now that voice Mark knew. He eased his head sideways to see Bruce's face swimming in front of him. Was he dreaming? "What happened?" His voice cracked from its lack of use since . . . How long ago?

He attempted to sit up but didn't make it. "Fuuuck," he gritted, sinking back down to whatever the hell he was lying on, feeling like his muscles were full of knots and a Sumo wrestler was the one working them out.

"Here, let me help." Digging his forearm under Mark's shoulders, Bruce lifted and twisted, leaning him back against the wall while repositioning his legs so that his feet touched the floor.

Like an old man Mark sat slumped with his memory scattered into pieces, a jigsaw puzzle inside his head. After a moment, sections began to take form, outer edges filling in, and suddenly one thing was perfectly clear. "You're back."

Bruce dragged a chair over and sat down in front of him. "They pulled me out yesterday, putting all of this in motion I'm afraid. You're in the Nest. It's Saturday"—he glanced at his watch—"almost noon."

"They did this?" Mark shook his head, sending it into migraine territory. "Shit," he groaned, pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead.

Bruce stood up. "I'll find you something to eat. And some Tylenol."

"You're awake." Agent Carter came barging into the office at a fast clip.

As the two men passed each other, Bruce bumped the agent's shoulder, almost spinning the guy around. "My bad," he muttered.

Carter paid no heed, taking Bruce's place on the chair and leaning forward to prop his elbows on his knees. As those sharp eyes drilled into his, Mark could only assume the man was checking out the size of his pupils.

"Worried about permanent damage?"

He must have passed some test since Carter slapped his thighs and straightened. "Morris called the Pentagon and spoke with the assistant commandant, asking about Major Morgan's previous postings. Could be just his paranoia, but we couldn't take that chance. Besides, we already had what we needed, all of Morris's shipping documents, and they line up with what you had on file. Dates, times, locations, they all coincide. We now have direct evidence that Morris was staging insurgent attacks on Marine arms deliveries and shipping them to Gus. The MPs have picked him up. We have no way of knowing if he passed any of his suspicions on to the Chilvatis . . . which is why we had to move fast."

"You could have just asked," Mark said, rubbing his temples. "What the hell did you do to me?"

"Taser . . . fucks you up pretty good." Carter smirked.

Mark glared back at him.

"Hey, you're a big guy. We couldn't have you fighting us off in the middle of the street. This way the Chilvatis will think you're a hostile witness and maybe buy us a little more time. Plus, we couldn't risk them getting to you first if Morris did indeed raise any red flags." He shrugged. "There was no time to explain."

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