Magnificent Seven ATF bar
The Carnival

by Heather F.

Disclaimers: Not mine, no money made,

Acknowledgements: Mitzi, she puts ideas in my head and helps stories come alive; Meg T. she knows something about commas. MOG she started ATF AU...((my Mom she gave birth to me...though at times she denies Dad because he's Dad, though at times he denies that brothers because they are more obnoxious than me...and my dogs because they keep the bad boy friends from coming back...oh and my sister because she's the angel so that leaves me to fill in the rest....and thanks for the atomic theory, the idea of ice, windows and the such))....but I digress.

Warnings: My bad English grammar and spelling...but I don't recognize it so it really doesn't bother me nearly as much as it should...others point it out though.

Plot: Yes there is one. Buck, Ezra, Chris, story with the others making a respectable showing. And yes even Vin gets a bit dinged up.


"Gawd damn it's hot." The grumble over the tiny headsets stretched agreeing smiles across agents' faces as they moved inconspicuously through the milling Saturday late morning crowd.

The 4-H County Fair and Carnival had been in full swing since Friday afternoon. Carnival lights and music carried over the excited voices of kids and parents alike. The heavy equipment tents featured big names such as John Deere and Ford Tractors as well as the little local businesses such as Jack's Ace Hardware and the such.

The animal barns sat on the west end of the fair grounds near the show ring and auction yard, while Main Street lay on the far east end of the grounds. A grass parking lot sat to the North and parallel to it boarding the South side was the old dirt race track used for the heavy draft horse pulling contest…always a big ticket item on a Friday night.

Amongst the throngs of families, laughing kids, obliging parents, carnival workers and 4-H administrators, roamed ATF agents. Seven moved amongst the crowd while hordes worked behind the scenes running leads and checking facts.

Someone had threatened to 'bomb' the Fair. Amongst the revelers, the cotton candy smeared faces, and the mounds of Nacho chips buried in too little processed liquid cheese, worked seven men trying to stave off the impossible, with an unimaginable sea of support.

Team Seven did not work alone, but they did move amongst the revelers in their own form of solitude.

Team Seven walked and observed sweating under airless, unmoving, summer heat.

The heavy oppression of draping humidity promised to make the day sticky and miserable for all those caught outside without the benefit of air conditioning.

"Hell Buck, this ain't hot," JD's young voice spoke with an air of superiority and experience, "you should see Boston in the summer time, your pansy ass would melt….Ain't that right Ezra?" Dunne shaded his eyes as he measured the Ferris Wheel, bottom to top, aimlessly wondering if he could really scale his way down from the top if he ever had too. Probably could.

Chris rolled his eyes at the sound of his agent's voice, as he walked passed the exotic animal display. He stared at the giant tiger that lay in her water trough and faced into the enormous fan that sat kitty corner just outside her cage. She rested her massive head on the rim of the 100gallon trough and closed her eyes to the crowd, soaking up what little reprieve the blowing fan had to offer. Chris watched the tiger for a moment longer and couldn't help but think she had a good idea.

As he walked away his mind wandering back to another time…it would probably be in everyone's best interest if they kept their undercover agent away from the big cat exhibit. He didn't want Ezra getting 'adopted' again.

Chris wiped his brow on his sleeve and squinted through the crowd behind the protected lenses of his sun glasses.

Buck was right. The unusual muggy heat reached the scales of miserable.

"Mr. Dunne, not even your wretched hazy, hot and humid summers in Boston could compare with the hellacious burdensome atmosphere of the Carolinas or Alabama." The tired southern drawl stretched the words out as if leaving them to broil in the Denver heat wave.

"Should try St. Lucia if you want hot and muggy….like a furnace down there." Josiah's deep chuckle rumbled over head sets. The large profiler wiped his brow and surveyed the Ford Trucks that sat shaded from the sun. They just weren't as good as his old Chevy 'Burb'. He did not see the other agents furrow their brows trying to picture where St. Lucia sat in a geographical sense.

"It's just above South America," Nathan's exasperated voice answered the unasked questions. Jackson swiped at a persistent fly that buzzed the corner of his eye, looking for moisture. What he wouldn't give for desk duty today.

"Duh, Nathan, we knew that," Buck's sarcastic remark had the others laughing. Clearly they had not known but no one was willing to admit it.

"Why must we be here again?"

"Ezra quit yer whining." Vin watched the others wander slowly amongst the displays and rides. He scrutinized parents pushing strollers, witnessed how the other agents made sure that the strollers indeed carried infants or toddlers. Older children held onto sweat slick hands and pulled invariably in the opposite direction that their parents walked. Teenagers roamed the crowds like young bucks scanning the currents of people, trying to appear cool and unruffled while wearing pants that hung too low on their hips almost to the point of obscene. Vin wondered how cool they would look if they got 'pantsed.'

"Don't do it Buck," Larabee spoke over his mike as he spied Wilmington heading for the Candy Apple cart to speak with the smiling pony-tailed vendor. Vin snapped his attention away from a young man and his apparent girlfriend to where he had last seen Buck.

"Mr. Larabee, why is it we must always take these kinds of duties?"

"Because Ezra," the irritated sigh filled earphones, " I'm the devil and you're one of my pissant minions." The exasperation in Larabee's voice had the others laughing.

"I knew it," a soft disheartened Southern whisper slipped over headsets.

"Has anyone swept through the live stock barns?" Larabee ignored the grumbling of his undercover agent and the snickers that fed the Southerner's cocky rebellious attitude.

"I did the beef and dairy barn," JD piped up. The young agent watched the kids on the Tea Cups and hoped that when their shift was over at the Fair they, themselves, would have time to go on some of the rides.

It still shocked JD that someone or a group would sink so low as to do something as crazy as bomb a 4-H fair and carnival.

The young agent scanned the crowd. There were no soldiers here. Just families… moms and dads and their kids. Who in their right mind would seek to destroy a beautiful Saturday, why blow up a place that hallmarked everything good and wholesome in life?

"Brother Nathan and myself, did the poultry, goats and sheep barn," Josiah craned his neck around as a man in camouflage pants walked past him. The man had long greasy hair pulled into a pony tail. A thick chain looped from his wallet to a belt loop. Heavily used, well creased, black boots seemed too hot on such a scorcher day.

Just as Josiah was about to call it in, a small girl ran up to the unwholesome fellow shouting, "Daddy! Daddy! Look what I won!" She held up a yellow stuffed snake with a red tongue hanging out.

The big man bent down and enveloped the slim girl in his arms and swung her slight frame easily up to his eye level. "Well, Sweet Pea, that is just the purtiest thing I've seen since you and yer ma." The burly man gave his daughter a kiss and continued walking down the paved lane taking in the sights.

Josiah watched them for a moment and turned his attention back to the conversation over the tiny ear pieces.

"Well, Ezra I guess that leaves you the Pig Barn." Chris's smiling voice was easily discernable over the background noise of the carnival.

"Oh please, Mr. Larabee," Ezra's indignity heralded his every intention to fight the order. Josiah could picture him trying to find an exit or suitable excuse to escape his current circumstances. "You are still not sore about that tiny little remark…"

"Hell, Ez," Buck's chuckling voice burst through the headsets, "you're the only one I know who had the balls enough to tell Chris, he was a walking argument for Pro-Abortion."

This earned snickers and grunts from the others.

"Ain't ever seen Chris toss someone through a window before," Vin added his own two cents as he wiped sweat from his brow.

"Especially his own living room," Nathan laughed.

"Yes well, I didn't hear anyone refute the claim," Ezra pointed out unabashed by his earlier remarks a few days ago, " and it did produce the desired results." Standish knew he made his point.

The other team members nodded in silent agreement. That had been the first time in weeks that JD had actually smiled. Since the last bust, JD had withdrawn into himself. It had been a particularly violent end to a month long investigation. In the end, JD had a righteous shooting, no one had argued it. Not even IA…they had investigated it because it had to be done but everyone involved knew it had been righteous. If JD had not pulled the trigger then Nathan would have been dead as oppose to just suffering a concussion. Killing another person was tough enough, but to have that person be just a young, hot headed teenager looking to make a name for himself, thinking himself immortal, well that had drawn first blood from JD's heart. He had killed someone not much younger than himself. After that day, he had become morose and un-talkative and hardly smiled.

At least until a few days ago.

Last Sunday, Chris and Ezra butted heads again, like two Pit Bulls locked in the same room. At first, it was just small verbal jabs spoken with a smile, but the underlying tension blossomed. The others had watched, anxious to stop the escalating discontent. But when Chris and Ezra both realized they had JD's attention, the nature of the fight changed. The tension had leached out and a common goal, other than making the other miserable, had seemed almost attainable. The one liners, the snide remarks, while stinging in their own right, had been more amusing than vindictive. In fact, it had seemed both warmed up to the challenge of making the most outrageous sarcastic comments and veiled threats. Right up until Chris had tossed Ezra through the living room window of his ranch. Well not really tossed, if the others were pressed to recount the true bare facts. It had come about more as a pair of missteps on both parties, than any true intentions of sending someone through a glass window. It had simply come about as an accident, wrong place, wrong time, and Josiah's big feet in the way. But in the countless retellings of the story, embellished by those who had witnessed said event, it came across as if Larabee had picked Standish up over his head in a blind fit of murderous rage and hurled the undoubtedly deserving undercover agent out the window in a fit of anger. This rendition of the 'facts,' though, not nearly close to the truth, was infinitely more fun to relate to others. Despite, how Standish had come to be outside the Larabee home, the effect had been the same. As the undercover agent had slid through some shrubbery in a rain of protective glass, JD had cracked his first smile in a long time.

It had broken the ice.

Even now, walking through the sticky heat of a humid day, smiles and laughter still rolled through the group just thinking about that particular event.

"Ezra go." Chris's directive brought wandering minds back to the Fair and the current escalating debate.

"Why me?"

"Ezra just go," Nathan responded, bringing a weary hand to his forehead. The sno-cone stand he just passed looked good. The ex-paramedic turned around and headed back. Nathan would be damned if he was forced to sew anyone up today. Hopefully Ezra would keep his comments to a minimum. Though he was amusing most times.

"Who would raise Swine anyhow?" Standish fished for an understanding ally.

"Brother Ezra," Josiah's schooling voice hailed amused insightfulness, "without swine you'd have no pork chops or ham."

"Well thank you, Mr. Sam the Butcher Man," Ezra retorted.

"Hey, ain't he from the Brady Bunch?" JD asked no one in particular.

"Think so Kid," Vin responded.

Ezra continued as if no one had spoken, "And I'll have you know, Pork Chops come from the frozen food section of your local grocer….not some Pig Barn."

"Ezra you had better be walking in the direction of the barn," Larabee warned.

"He is," Vin answered back. The sharpshooter watched the undercover agent from the shade of a large over hanging maple tree. Tanner sat comfortably on an old Backhoe tire that had been converted to a circular bench. From the comfort of his shaded seat, while he licked at some ice cream, he watched the slow progression of the Southerner. Vin chuckled when Standish scuffled the toe of his sneakers in frustration, kicking up a small cloud of dust.

"He's pouting, guys." The amused laugh had the others joining him.

Standish lifted his eyes from the ground and surveyed the area. He spotted Tanner under the shade of the tree sitting on some mammoth tire. The undercover agent flipped off the sharpshooter.

"Play nice Ezra, there're kids around."

"Hey Ez, ya know where beef jerky comes from?" JD's taunting voice had the Southerner bobbing his head in satiric mimicry of Dunne's voice.

"The plastic, greasy jar, next to the register at every Ma and Pa gas station across this desolate state…."

"Oooohhh, he is pouting, isn't he?" Buck piped up. Wilmington leaned against the Frosty Treat vendor cart enjoying the cool air that blew from the refrigerator.

"I don't care what he's doing as long as he's heading for the Pig Barn," Larabee's order and threat were not masked exceedingly well.

Ezra sighed. The sacrifices he made for the team were just too much. Sacrifice myself above and beyond what a normal human being would do for another, at least according to Mother and still no appreciation from my friends…It should be criminal. Pigs….indeed…..Who would even buy a piglet, knowing that it would grow into a pig….And to think that people ate such things, himself included. He shuddered at that thought. Meat did not come off the hoof…It came from under cellophane, just behind the refrigerating mist at the grocery store.

Standish gazed around the crowd as he slowly made his way toward the 4-H fair side of the community festival. He paused and watched some of the games. He had learned to beat most as a small child. Maude did allow him to indulge in such nuances in order to practice his skill and turn his own profit. Besides when he won a fair amount, not many could complain. How could a grown adult or organization berate a 'lucky' kid when they themselves rigged the games for their own profit. Ezra smiled wickedly to himself….He almost longed for the days when others saw him as just a young, wide-eyed child too innocent for any mischief or treachery.

As the undercover agent perused the crowd, his gaze fell on another man and his partner. They looked hauntingly familiar.

Standish slowed to a stop.

The three men stared at one another. Recognition settled on them simultaneously.

"Good Lord." The worry in his voice had the others pausing.

Chris stepped back from the pony rides away from the squealing kids. He put his hand to the side of his head, forcing the little ear piece deeper into his ear.

Nathan sidestepped a crowd and found a quiet spot. JD backed away from the rides. Vin slowly stood up and Buck suddenly stopped speaking to a gorgeous brunette.

"What is it Ezra?"

"Hughes's henchmen just spotted me…." Ezra immediately began removing the earpiece as discreetly as he could, using the passing crowd as camouflage.

"What the Hell are they doing here?" Buck's urgent disbelief verbalized what ran through the other's minds. "Didn't he leave the country?"

"Ezra can you filter back into the crowd?" Larabee started walking in the direction of the 4-H barns.

"Chris, he took out his ear piece," Vin reported as he started making his way to the undercover agent. Though Ezra was dressed in well worn Levi's, sneakers and t-shirt, his hopes of not meeting one of his 'associates' and being recognized apparently didn't work.

Tanner watched as two men converged on the lone Southerner.

It did not look good.

Hughes was the big fish that got away. It was the one that marred a nearly spotless record. In the end, the warehouse had been destroyed, a whole block had gone up in flames, weapons had been destroyed and men had been injured. It was where the others had learned fire both fascinated and terrified the southerner, discovered just how much Vin could not stand to be confined in any sense of the word; and it was where Buck had taken a bullet to the shoulder snapping his clavicle. It had been a hellacious bust. No one won. The only good that did come out of it was they did not lose the 50K that Ezra had brought with him for the buy. Standish had somehow had enough sense to grab the overladen carrying case and make good his escape. Except for the dancing flames. Those had mesmerized him.

It was all in the past. Hughes had gotten away, but had been rumored to have cleared out of town, headed for different shores.

Until now.

Tanner quickened his pace, weaving in and out of the crowd, mumbling apologies as he shuffled people to the side as he skipped, jumped and worked his way between the throngs of people. Occasionally he hopped up to peer over the heads of the people trying to catch a glimpse of Standish.

Finally, the crowd thinned and Tanner broke into a jog, quickly crossing the distance to the three men. From the looks of it, Ezra was being 'encouraged' to go with the two men.

He, of course, balked.

Tanner smiled, A pain in the ass to the end…at least he was theirs.

"Sullivan!" Tanner shouted out. All three men turned and faced the approaching sharpshooter.

"Buck, JD? Can you guys see anything?" Chris asked as he wove his way toward the area where he hoped to find his agents.

"Nothing yet pard,'" Buck huffed out. The big agent ran the gauntlet through the thick crowd and now seemingly narrow lanes.

"Still by the rides," JD swore as he jogged down another dead end blocked by vendor carts.

"Still by the Truck display," Josiah breathed out. The big man pushed his way through people offering apologies to those that did not move quick enough.

"Can't see'em," Nathan's worried voice was punctuated by his soft repetition of 'excuse me' as he forced his way through the Saturday morning crowd.

"Shit," Larabee whispered to himself as he listened to what he could hear of the conversation over Vin's head set.

"Sullivan, where ya think ya goin'?" Tanner's cock sure tone had the three men stopping.

"He's with us." The big man gripping Standish's upper arm raised a lip in a snarl.

"Federal agent," Tanner flashed his badge, "and you boys don't want him…He's in a bit of trouble with us."

"Funny, my boss says the same thing," the second man spoke while pushing Standish and his partner ahead of him, keeping Tanner from reaching out and snatching their 'guest'.

"Still at it, huh, Sullivan?" Tanner's gruff demeaning snarl had Standish raising his eyebrows in mock shock.

"I have no idea what you gentlemen are talking about," Ezra kept his eyes on Vin silently hoping the others would show up.

Hughes had always claimed that Sullivan or Ezra had stolen the 50K from him. Hughes had figured that even though the weapons had never truly changed hands, and though Sullivan had not truly handed over the cash, even though the building had exploded around them, and the weapons had been destroyed, Sullivan had run with the cash. Cash that Hughes had thought rightfully belonged to him. When it was thought the crazed gunman had left the area, all was forgotten.

Apparently not.

"You're coming with me Sullivan," Tanner reached out to push the one over muscled henchman out of the way so he could grab hold of Ezra and physically draw him back across that invisible line to safety, within Vin's personal space, into his realm of physical protection.

"Ahh, you see gentlemen, I'm a wanted man," Ezra started trying to release his arm and head for Tanner. Impeccable timing Mr. Tanner…impeccable.

No back up visible. Could be worse….

Tanner stepped forward to grab Ezra, slightly turning his shoulder to the bodyguard closest to him.

Things went awry.

The bodyguard wasted no time and brought a punishing meaty fist down on the junction between Vin's shoulder and neck. The sharpshooter was driven to his knees.

Ezra tried to snap his arm free when he saw Tanner go down.

A lady screamed. A father grabbed his 2 year old son and turned his back to the four men fighting, shielding the boy with his body.

The crowd reacted, to the noise and movements.

Tanner tried to regain his feet but a solid boot to the side of the head sent him sailing sideways and falling limply to the ground.

Standish broke free of the first henchman and brought a side elbow into the bridge of the man's nose. The Hughes's security man swiveled his head just enough to catch a glancing blow off his cheek bone. Standish stepped through the blow with hopes of continuing his momentum and pivot on the second man.

A pistol shot rang out.

It snapped, almost like a fire cracker or a child's pop gun that was a little too loud and held its sound just a little too long.

Someone else screamed. An older sister grabbed her younger brother and threw him to the ground, covering him with her body. An old man with a cane dropped his walking stick and shielded the two children with his aged worn back.

Standish screamed and crumbled to the grassy dirt in a spiraling motion, clutching his bleeding leg.

Only two men still moved with any determination and alacrity. They grabbed either arm of the undercover agent, hauled him to his feet and sprinted for the grass parking lot.

Larabee heard the shot. He pulled his weapon and shouted, "ATF!"

Over the head sets, five voices could be heard shouting variations of "ATF! Federal Agents!"

Covered children watched quietly, awed and frightened, their bodies hidden and protected by crying and seething adults. Anger, frustration and terror roared through the cowering masses like a forest fire on a hot brittle day.

Five men converged on the scene, where one man lay crumpled on the ground where he had fallen. Blood streamed down from the cut on the side of his head. Long blood caked tresses of brown curly hair covered the side of his face.

Nathan dropped to one knee and rested his hand on the side of Vin's neck, "He's alive."

Larabee nodded, "Anyone see them?" The others merely shook their heads as they scanned the crowd.

A young girl frightened to near tears spoke up, her voice strong but scared. "That way," she pointed to the North, toward the parking lot. "They went that way." Four of the men instantly took off in that direction.

The black man turned and smiled reassuringly at the young girl who could not have been more than eleven. "Thanks ma'am."

The girl simply nodded either not realizing or not caring about the tears that streamed down her ruby cheeks. She slowly brought her tiny brother up from under her and hugged him fiercely.

Nathan chuckled to himself when he heard the younger brother mutter, "Quit it Sissy…'fore someone sees…."

Jackson then looked up and singled out one person in the gathering crowd and calmly asked, "call for an ambulance." That one person and three others flipped open cell phones.

Nathan turned his attention back to the sharpshooter who started to stir, "Easy Vin, ambulance is on the way."

Tanner brought a heavy hand up to his head, "Oh shit."

Nathan turned his gaze to the North side of the Carnival, in the direction of the parking lot, "Oh shit is right, Vin…son of a bitch."


"Git'im in the car!….git'im in the car!" Shawn urged as he whipped the driver's door open, heedless of the struggle his partner found himself embroiled in with the injured man. The driver side door smashed into the Chevy pickup beside them.

The back door was eventually thrown open and Standish was bodily shoved into the car. The undercover agent rolled onto the seat, spreading blood in his wake. He gripped his thigh tightly between his two hands, cinching down on the muscles trying to tourniquet the pain and blood flow with his bare hands, all the while scrambling for the opposite side door. Breath and spittle sprayed from between clenched teeth.

Manny shoved Standish further into the car as he folded himself into the tight confines of the backseat.

Ezra pressed his back into the seat and curled his legs toward himself. He reached for the door handle closest to him.

A sharp fist slammed into his left eye, slapping the right side of his face down onto the door's arm rest.

"Try it again and I'll break your hands," Manny growled. A set of hands kept Ezra's head pinned to the door arm rest, well below any windows.

"Git us the fuck out of here!" Manny hissed as Shawn tried to feed into the line of traffic pulling out of the fairgrounds.

"Shut the fuck up!" Shawn hissed back as the car lurched into the slow stream of traffic winding its way through the rows of parked cars and trucks. There was no where to go. They had not planned on running into Sullivan today or anyone for that matter. Boss had sent them there to purchase a 'Beef' later that night, a show of support for the kids and the community. Hughes had a twisted macabre sense of right and wrong. Running into Sullivan today had been a bonus and obviously a curse.

Shawn kept an eye on the car in front of them; they did not need a fender bender now.

Manny scanned out the windows, searching for any signs of Feds or police.

"Shit here they come!" the man in the back seat, whispered out in a harsh overload of adrenaline. "Geezus! Is that Larabee?!…..We're f***ed…..damnit,….Sullivan what the Hell did you do to get Larabee's attention?! Are you f**ed up or what?!"

Standish blinked. The sweat that dripped from his forehead into his eyes hardly registered. Larabee and the others were coming…They were coming…

The driver slowly but methodically moved the car toward the front gate. Only a few yards to go……

"Keep it cool." The driver looked in the review mirror. "Damn it! Keep his head down!" the driver's shout dragged his partner's attention from the side window over toward Sullivan who once again attempted to raise his head up over the window in hopes of giving the others a chance to see him.

A solid blow smashed his wounded leg.

Standish did not bother holding back the scream that erupted as he tried to bolt upward and curl inward all at the same time.

The driver ignored the blood curdling scream and faced forward again.

Almost there……

+ + + + + + +

Larabee stopped dead in his tracks. The others gathered around him frantically searching the crawling cars that slunk their way toward the only exit gate.

Then the howl. They heard it….the muffled scream. For a brief flash, Larabee spotted three people in a maroon Buick Le Saber.

"There they are!" JD shouted pointing out the car a few rows from where they stood. Larabee was already running towards his own black truck.

Josiah, Buck and JD sprinted behind him.

The Buick suddenly spun its wheels. It pulled out of line, side swiping cars, as it shot through the chain link gates.

The Black Ram pickup with its vortex engine, rammed its way out of its spot, leaping itself into its own lane. Its driver did not care nor heed any form of defensive driving.

With police siren blasting and blue dash board light flashing, the black Ram bullied its way out of the dirt parking lot. Cars and smaller trucks gave way out of respect and self preservation.

The ram roared to life, skipping from dirt to paved road. The man behind the wheel was expert enough to harness the power of the truck and not allow it to fish tail. No speed was lost.

Four tires gripped the paved road and shot the vehicle down the stretch of highway hot on the heels of a maroon car.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rocked back and forth in the back seat. He continued to slouch down unable to sit up as pain ripped through his leg. His hands were covered with blood, his sock was soaked, the blue denim had taken on a dark maroon to black color. Blood seeped thickly between his fingers.

"Geezus he's gonna bleed to death before we even git'im to Hughes," Manny spat out in disgust. He whipped off his belt and shoved the Southerner's hands away from the wound. Standish did not cooperate. He was too intent on cinching down on the pain, on slowing the blood flow. Nothing else existed in his world.

"Gawd damn it!" The big man snapped out another punch colliding with the side of Standish's jaw. Ezra's head snapped around again, spraying the side window with spittle and blood. The hands slackened slightly. The big man wrapped his belt around his captive's mid thigh twice and cinched it down tightly. Standish cried out and arched his back. His bloody hands reached for his wounded leg again. The big man slapped them away until he got the knot tied.

"Should keep ya alive until our boss kills ya."

Ezra merely leaned back against the door and the seat and stared at the man through sweaty bangs and vibrant green eyes.

"Shit, we got a black Ram on our ass!" Shawn spat out checking both his side mirrors before looking to Manny in the rearview glass.

"Well lose 'em!"

"Ya think Sherlock?" Shawn spun the wheel throwing the Buick into a smooth U-Turn.

He flipped off the Black Ram as he sped by it in the opposite direction.

"Gawd Damn Larabee….I can't believe it…of all the dumb ass luck..," Manny whispered from the back seat, watching the Ram skidding to turn in behind them. He turned his attention to the man bleeding beside him, "you got Larabee tailing you…I can't believe it…Geezus Christ…"

Standish managed a weak smile and a half hearted shrug, "only the best," he mumbled out.

+ + + + + + +

"Gawd damn, sonofabitchin' bastards," Chris spit out.

Buck grabbed the handle above the passenger side door and hung on for dear life. From the corner of his eye, he noticed JD slide across the back seat on his shoulders with his feet in the air into Sanchez…. Seat belt JD…wear your seat belt.

Chris flattened the accelerator to the floor and shot after the maroon car. The big engine roared to life.

+ + + + + + +

"I can't lose him," Shawn spit out as he wove through light country traffic. He avoided the highways and their tire shredding road strips. They had managed to pick up and lose the few county police and State Troopers that had joined the fray. None kept close. Shawn was a professional driver, trained by the government itself no less. Not many could match his skill nor his control of speed. In fact, Shawn knew no one who equaled him in driving, until now. Larabee hung on him like a shadow. The only thing keeping the crazy SOB of an ATF agent from catching him was the nature of his pursuit vehicle. The truck just couldn't do it. In fact, Larabee had pushed and maneuvered the truck through paces that would have its manufacturers scratching their heads and smiling with pride.

Larabee matched Shawn's skill and may even surpass it.

The driver swore. Like Hell.

He made his move. With a sharp cut of the wheel, the Buick crossed lanes, speeding over the double lane rural road, and dove off the pavement onto a dirt country lane.

The car hit, its front bumper nearly slamming into the dirt. The back end sailed upward, throwing its passengers into the back of the front seat. Manny braced himself while their prisoner merely slid to the floor of the car with a plaintif groan and still clutching his leg.

Shawn never lost control of the car. The Buick kicked up dust as it sped down the narrow, non-shouldered dirt road.

+ + + + + + +

"Where the hell is he going?" Larabee hissed out in anger. He kept the car's trunk just under his bumper.

Josiah sent up endless prayers as they shot down the dirt road. There was no soft shoulder. A mountain side sat to their left and a sharp drop graced their right side. Large pines occupied both the upper and lower parts of the lane. The mid morning sun cut shafts of light through the canopy casting everything into undulating shadows.

There was no room for maneuverability. No space for mistakes or corrections.

There was no real spot to knock the other car safely out of commission. Instead, Larabee literally stuck to their bumper.

Two people were easily visible in the car The third had disappeared from sight. The occupants of the pickup remained quiet.

Around blinding turns, over bone rattling pot holes, the two vehicles kicked up dust and gravel and hogged the road.

The Buick fish tailed for the first time, as it careened around a corner. It came face to face with an on coming pickup. In a flash of time, instinct kicked in and both drivers reacted, mirroring each other's movements. With no where to go, the pickup took the ditch, its driver acting not only on instinct but his skill as a log truck driver. He took the ditch hoping to avoid killing the idiot in the red car driving too fast on such a road. He never saw the black Ram that tailed it like an ominous spectre of doom.


The red car swerved as well, its driver also acting on instincts. For the first time in his life, the driver's instincts failed him.

The maroon Buick shot off the side of the road. Still traveling forward, its right tires lost contact with the road , spinning over air. With nothing to support its weight, and with its forward momentum, the car careened over the embankment and log rolled down the wooded incline.




"Protect him, Lord."

The driver of the white Ford pickup was already on his cell phone. He fumbled to open his door and step from his truck.

Larabee pumped his brakes and shifted the Ram down to a stop fighting the wheel on the rolling surface.

He threw the truck into reverse, spun its wheels until the back end swung around and faced the left side of the road in a perpendicular manner.


Larabee threw the truck into second gear hit the four wheel drive button and nudged the accelerator, "Hold on".

The truck moved forward. The Ram's front tires left the graded road and lurched downward threatening to topple nose first down the incline. The passengers were thrown forward harshly. Larabee felt his seat belt cinch tightly across his chest. He pressed the accelerator further toward the floor. The tires gripped the side of the mountain's wooded face and pulled the rest of the truck off the road.

Larabee gritted his teeth and with no second thoughts, drove the truck down the side of the mountain following the path of the Buick.

Foliage whipped, scratched and beat the marauding truck. Thick, low branches smashed into the windshield, momentarily, blinding the driver.

"Oh Shit!" JD braced his feet high against the back of Buck's seat and was forced to keep his hands pressed flat against the ceiling. Wilmington gripped the dashboard with one hand the other held onto the handle by his head.

Josiah thanked the Lord for the reckless abandonment of his team. And quietly wondered just who in their right mind would ever insure Chris Larabee and his vehicles? A thought struck him, "Chris? Airbags?"

Larabee fought with the wheel and answered without looking up, "He's in the Buick, Josiah." The curtness of his tone dissuaded any more foolish questions.

Despite the insanity of their maneuver or maybe because of the surrealness of their situation, Josiah and the others chuckled.

The Dodge dove headlong through the forest.

The driver of the white Ford slowly dropped his hand from his ear, bringing his cell phone down to his hip. He stared open mouth as the taillights of the Dodge Ram disappeared from sight. The man gawked in open mouth shock ignoring the tinny plaintive pleas of the 911 operator to disclose his location and the nature of his emergency.

The sounds of smashing foliage, snapping twigs and sticks resonated unseen from below. The violent path cut by the rolling vehicle seemed virtually invisible, as if the forest had simply swallowed the car. Larabee followed like a hound on a fresh scent. Only the fresh barkless scars on standing pines marked the brutal descent of the car. The horrific screech of tearing and twisting metal filled the area.

Branches and shrubs gouged black paint from the body of the truck. Stumps and small depressions in the ground stole the truck's alignment away. The black Ram bounced, jolted and rocked its way down the mountain with no intention of being left behind.

The marooned dented roof of the Buick worked its way into view, camouflaged by the thick undergrowth.

Larabee rocked his battered truck to a stop. The maroon car had ceased rolling. It had become wedged against an ancient pine. The passenger front quarter panel had molded itself around the tree, its mangled bumper biting into the trunk. The car was momentarily anchored.

A wind fallen Ponderosa forced Larabee to stop a hundred yards from the other car. With a curse, Larabee threw the truck into park and shoved the brake to the floor. The truck rocked as heavy treaded tires gripped for purchase. Tires stopped turning but the Ram still slid forward, the back end slowly swinging around trying to pass the engine. The rear quarter panel slammed into a tree, jarring the occupants of the truck. The bumper scraped heavily along the bark, peeling painfully from its braces, tearing itself back away from the undercarriage of the truck. A piercing screech cut through the area.

The truck lost its forward momentum.

All sound stopped.

They spilled out of doors before the truck even lunged to a complete stop. Its back fender hooked and anchored the Ram to the old unyielding tree.

Buck splintered off from the rest of the group, heading South of them, hoping to flank the kidnappers…just in case….just in case those idiots were lucky idiots.

Buck ducked and shoved branches out of his way. His heart hammered in his throat. He thought of nothing but circling around. He gave no thought to Ezra's chances of surviving the wreck, gave no thought to the shape the undercover agent was in at the moment. Instead, he concentrated on gaining his position and removing any possible threat to his team.

+ + + + + + +

The Buick sat cockeyed on all four wheels, leaning precariously to the right, threatening to spill even further down the slope if given the slightest chance.

Larabee had his gun out, close to his body and raised to fire, an extension of his eyes. He boldly approached the crumbled car.

He passed through slivers of sunlight. Shadows and light bent and molded across him as he closed the distance to the car with confident determination. His feet never struggled for balance, his hands never wavered. His dark hazel eyes focused on the person behind the shatter lined glass, the unwavering gun barrel mimicked his steady line of sight.

Larabee cocked his gun and approached the front side of the Buick, towards the door that shielded the most frantic movement. People still sat behind the spider cracked glass. Each movement rocked the car, tilting it, threatening to send it careening once again down the slope.

The silhouettes were too big for his missing man.

Chris strode purposely to the driver's side door. No hesitation marred his steps. He stepped up to the glass, gun raised, just millimeters from the glass. Without warning or identification, without a sound, he squeezed the trigger.

The Sig barked once. A deafening, solemn toll that rang through the deathly still forest. Nothing moved, not even the air stirred as a small spray of red splashed onto the inside of the window and the one moving silhouette disappeared from sight, tipping across the front seat.

Larabee merely changed the aim of his gun and turned his attention toward the back seat.

The back door shot open with a cry both metallic and human. Two men tumbled from the vehicle and down the steep incline, one hidden behind the other.

Larabee dashed to the mangled trunk of the car, his gun raised to fire.

Standish slid face up, on his back on top of his captor. He stared directly at Larabee for a brief moment before heavy ferns blocked his wild descent from view.

A sharp flash of metal caught a stray stream of sunlight. Did the captor have a gun?

Larabee swore. He lowered his Sig and gave chase. He crashed through the underbrush chasing the bodies of the two tobogganing men. JD and Josiah followed behind.

Under branches, between trees and through bushes the ATF men followed the crazy slide of the others.

Larabee cursed the thick woods.

The steep incline finally ended at a small stream. One could cross the stream with an easy stride. The slope immediately began climbing back up on the other side.

Broken shadowed images stood camouflaged behind the thick foliage on the other side of the stream a few yards up the slope.

Larabee squinted, trying to piece together the broken images. Was it a rifle? Did whoever hid behind Standish have a gun? Chris fingered his Sig.

"Back off!" The hoarse order held no hint of surrender. The speaker remained nearly invisible in the cloaking darkness afforded by a thick overhanging canopy and forest growth.

Chris inched forward fighting to put scattered images of the speaker into place. He could just make out the unclear lines of his undercover agent. A straight line seem to run under where Standish's jaw should be…was it a gun barrel? Gawd Damn it!

As Larabee contemplated what to do, noise from just to the side of kidnapper snapped everyone's attention to the east.

Buck broke through the underbrush just a few yards from the kidnapper. Without warning, the unseen man redirected his stance.

Larabee brought his gun up trying desperately to see through the natural camouflage that mocked his eyes.

A Shotgun blast exploded.

Buck's eyes widened. His chest and abdomen were punched violently backward, his shoulders and head thrown forward with his legs. He sailed back, his arms flung garishly out in front of his body. He flew. He flew until he disappeared amongst ferns and fallen leaves. His hands and feet were the last to hit the earth. His head rebounded, reappearing above the ground cover only to disappear again.

The forest became ominously silent watching this theatre of death play out. A small breeze moved leaves and small branches.

Standish let out a strangled cry. A blood curdling "NO!" ripped through him and he fought with his captor.

Under the protection of shifting shadows, poor light and behind the shielding body of Sullivan, Manny dragged the weakly struggling man up the slope, deeper into the shadows. It was just a damn Fed…what the Hell was Sullivan's problem?… A Larabee Fed…that made things a lot worse, but still. Manny cinched the crook of his arm around Sullivan's neck and literally dragged the Southerner across the mountain side before heading upwards. Larabee would be relentless.

The bullets that started tearing through the leaves, and pinging into the ground and surrounding tree trunks only served to hasten Hughes's security man into action. Sullivan still fought with him. The big man swung the gun down and slapped it off the injured leg. Standish let out another howl and tried to drop to grip his leg. Manny smashed him between the shoulders with the gun, stunning him. The henchman started dragging the dazed man further into the shadows, deeper into the forest.

Chris started firing without realizing it. He fired where Manny had stood. He aimed high. He squeezed the trigger not bothering to discern shadows and figures. He aimed up over Standish's height and pulled the trigger, repeatedly. Someone was screaming in the background. Someone was crying.

Someone needed help. Chris fired until his gun clicked….and clicked and clicked. The empty Sig smoked in his hand.

JD screamed Buck's name even as the big man disappeared, seemingly consumed by the monstrous ferns.

"Buck!" JD ran to his fallen partner.

Josiah tumbled and slid down the slope toward Larabee. The leader never took his eyes from where Standish and his kidnapper had stood.

"EZRA!!!" Larabee hollered at the top of his lungs. Frustration and fear mingled freely.

Standish paused in his fight to regain his feet, listening to the man he could no longer see. The undercover agent fought back the tears, the fear and the flood of anger that threatened to consume him. Buck Wilmington dead…Buck was gone…Oh God Buck was gone.

"YOU'RE A DEAD MAN!" Larabee's enraged voice rang out again. Hatred and vile spite dripped from the blatant promise. A proclamation.

Standish swallowed uneasily and silently agreed with Larabee's pronouncement. Yes, he was a dead man, either way he had lost everything, but somehow it did not compare to the savage brutal loss of Buck Wilmington.

Ezra Standish had nowhere to turn, no haven in which to escape to.

Sullivan allowed Manny to pull him further away from the existing carnage.


"We'll get'im brother…we'll get'im," Josiah didn't bother touching Larabee. The man had already killed today. Had already stepped across that boundary that they had been trained to ignore when the time came. A lesson not many could or were willing to learn. Chris had done it. Done it to save the life of a friend. Now he just lost another friend.

Josiah didn't touch him, not out of fear of what Chris would do to him, but what his touch would do to Larabee. They needed him sharp, focused. Buck was gone; Standish ripped from them; Vin's condition an unknown. Touching Larabee now, would be like grabbing a shorting high voltage wire.

If they were to stop the violent jerk of emotion or electricity, they first had to find the source of the problem. They needed to get Standish back.

Chris was right. Hughes' man was a dead man.

Josiah looked longingly at Dunne. The kid walked toward and then shied away from an unseen spot on the ground. Sanchez watched as the young man tried to approach his prone friend only to stop abruptly, unwilling to acknowledge the death that lay at his feet.

The boy was truly a boy now, and lost. Frightfully lost.

Chris left Josiah and started toward Buck in ground swallowing strides. He crossed the stream and the short distance to the curtain of Ferns that hid the body. Larabee pushed JD out of the way and knelt down. With a steady determined hand, Larabee felt for a pulse. He did not look to Wilmington's face, did not stare at the body that lay flat out ensconced in greenery. Instead, the leader of team seven bore his gaze up the wooded slope in the direction that one of his agents had been dragged. Torn away from him and his very protection. He let one man down, one friend dead and now another lost.

Blood drooled from the corner of Buck's mouth, his eyes stared blankly up at the canopy of trees. One leg lay twisted under the other, his arms were flung out from his sides. He appeared dead.

Larabee waited….and waited. He cursed. JD teared beside him, fighting his own rushing emotions.

Then he felt it. A bump. A solid bump. A long wait and then another one. And finally a breath.

"He's alive." Chris pushed himself to his feet. He briefly faced his two agents and then started up the slope, "JD, stay with him."

JD stood quietly staring at the ground. "He's alive…he's alive….he's alive," the soft mantra slowly sunk into a shock muddled brain.

The young agent finally focused on Josiah. Sanchez was fumbling with the protective vest Buck wore under his shirt.

"JD?" Sanchez looked up at the young man. "You ok?"

"Chris needs help getting' Ezra…He ain't gonna watch his own back."

"I'll stay with Buck….you go with Chris." Sanchez reached up and grabbed JD's tense arm, "Son? You up for this?"

JD paused and thought about it. He slowly nodded his head, growing confident with each second, "Yeah, Josiah….yeah, I am," Dunne looked back down at his fallen friend, "Buck's alive." His soft mutterance didn't go unnoticed.

"Yeah, JD he is," Josiah gently nudged the younger man in the direction Standish had disappeared.

Dunne took off after Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra tripped and would have fallen if the man beside him wasn't keeping a death grip on his arm. They continued to run up hill. Each step pushed more blood from the wound. Each step delivered them further from Buck's body.

Ezra fought for breath, fought the hitching sobs that stole his breath away.

He wanted to feel numb, needed it. It hadn't happened. Where was the cold numbness he had heard about, the deadly shock that dulled the brain? Instead, sharp clear pictures blitzed his mind…Larabee's enraged declaration rang in his ears. He couldn't shake them.

Nausea rolled through him like a storm surge.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sprinted up the mountain side. He ran, bringing his knees up high, taking ground swallowing strides.

He did not hear anyone follow him. After a few yards, with no sign of his quarry in sight, with his chest burning like a stoked fire, the steepness of the incline finally forced him to a walk.

He cursed his ineffectualness, cursed his lack of physical endurance, not realizing that he had covered a distance and a climb that would leave most Olympians yards behind.

The leader of Team Seven gazed over his shoulder when someone scrambled breathlessly up beside him.


Chris noticed his agent and nodded once in acknowledgement.

The two men continued on side by side. Josiah would be calling in the Calvary.

The two men continued up the slope. JD matched Chris step for step, movement for movement, mimicking the older man.

+ + + + + + +

The bodyguard made it to the top of the mountain and got his bearings. He knew where he would lead them next. If he could just keep the lead he would get them out of this forsaken forest and back to civilization,-- his turf. No one would find him once he hit pavement.

Manny snapped his head up when he heard the hounds. "Shit!" This had gotten out of control. The slap of helicopter blades over head brought his eyes upward. At least the heavy forest offered something positive. Nobody would be able to see them from up there.

The big man tightened his grip on Sullivan's arm and hauled the lagging man forward.

The two men struggled and fought their way through the pine forest. Standish tumbled and tripped again dragging his captor down with him.

"Gawd damn it!" The big man hissed, "if I didn't need you to keep me alive I'd shoot your sorry ass right now." He hauled the Southerner back to his feet.

Standish felt his vision blacken at the sudden change in height. His legs weakened and threatened to buckle. The world dipped and spun at an alarming rate. The numbness he had so wished for, engulfed him. Ezra failed to realize it.


He shivered.

Something pulled on his arm. Once again he found himself tumbling and fumbling over rough terrain.


+ + + + + + +

Larabee cut down the path. JD followed without question. The young agent nimbly skipped and jumped, swung his arms to keep his balance but maintained a steady few paces behind Larabee.

Two small targets instead of one large one.

Chris never once stopped for rest, never once broke the easy pace he slipped into once they reached the summit. Larabee and Dunne had searched the rock bare peak looking for tracks. They found blood instead, dark dried droplets that had already begun to crack in the summer heat. They were inconsistent and difficult to see, but they were enough, leading down a path on the South side of the mountain. A game trail really. Standish was leaving them pretty good markers. How much blood could one man lose and still move?

Hounds bayed in the distance. Chris had no intention of waiting. He would not lose time or distance now. He refused to play by the rules.

For that JD was thankful. If Chris had done the unthinkable and decided to stop, to wait for others, JD knew he would continue on alone.

Buck and Vin were down and Ezra missing. There was no way JD would stop. No way at all. They were wasting enough valuable time searching for sign of their quarry.

Chris hadn't stopped, hadn't even considered it.

Dunne finally found some insight to what a hound must feel when it was on the scent of a big cat or a bear. With their game only just in front of them, how could they stop now?

JD zigzagged, kicking up trail dust, his arms snapping out left and right helping his body to maintain his balance and his feet. The young agent barreled down the mountain trail hot on the heels of his boss.

They would not fail. Not again…and certainly not today.

Not today.

+ + + + + + +

Manny let a smile cross his dirt streaked face. They had made it.

Meridian Mall. Of all the places to have a mountain dump you off at…a mall. A shopping plaza with miles of parking lot and hundreds if not thousands of cars. All sitting unattended and shimmering in the Colorado summer sun.

The afternoon sun sat in the western sky casting the extensive parking lot into flickering pools of reflective light. Natural camouflage.

Manny smiled. Nature was on his side.

"Come on." Manny hauled his sagging captive to uncooperative feet and dragged him onto the tar covered parking lot.

The heat from the black top worked its way through the thick soles of his boots. Manny paid it no need and dragged his dull hostage between cars, row after row.

Car mirrors snagged Standish's arms and shoulders, tugging him back a step while the forceful hand on his upper arm yanked him forward repeatedly. The undercover agent focused only on placing one foot in front of the other trying to keep his balance in a rapidly spinning world.

Manny dragged Sullivan forward again, sending the man staggering to his knees. The large bodyguard cursed. This couldn't continue. Hughes's man gazed around the sea of parked cars shimmering in the heat of the day. He'd stash his prisoner and then find a phone and simply make a call.

+ + + + + + +

Chris paused when he broke free of the woods and found himself standing on the side of a paved road.

Not just any road. A four lane road divided by parallel yellow lines.

Sweat and dirt ran down his face as he tried to get a fix on his location.

"Meridian Mall," JD whispered as he pushed his way from the underbrush and thick trees onto the side of the road next to Larabee.


"They're heading for the Meridian Mall. " JD looked at Chris and shrugged, "Casey used to work there," Dunne headed east first at a fast walk that quickly morphed into a slow jog. Chris followed. The two men quickened their steps as the back of the Mall slowly came into view.

The sun glared down on them, baking their backs as the two agents headed east, toward the shopping center and back into the mayhem of civilization.

+ + + + + + +

"Another car?" Standish mumbled to himself as he once again found himself bodily shoved into the back seat of another vehicle. He didn't have the strength or the coordination to keep himself from falling to the floor. He found himself wedged between the front seat and the back, staring up at the grey interior ceiling and dome light. The seats were cloth. Blood would be hard to remove. That is why one should spend the extra money and purchase leather. Easier upkeep. Ezra grunted in disgust.

The sun through the car window felt good on his face. Not near as cold now. Yes, the heat felt good, made it difficult to breath, but it felt good to be out of the cold. The penetrating warmth pushed the bone brittle chill away…somewhat.

+ + + + + + +

few hours later…

Manny exited the mall wearing new clothes, sporting a new hair cut and eating an ice cream. He had phoned his boss and explained his situation on first entering the air-conditioned mall. Though Mr. Hughes was initially unhappy, the idea that Sullivan would soon be within his grip was enough to curb his anger. The fact Larabee had lost a man in the ensuing chase was something that both bothered and thrilled the Illegal Arms dealer. Larabee needed taking down a peg or two, but still to have a rabid dog like Larabee on your trail could also be very, very paralyzing.

Hughes assured his man that help would be coming, sit tight, he would be extricated from his current difficulties in no time. A few hours, but not much longer. Mr. Hughes, after all, was a careful man.

Manny stepped outside the air conditioned mall into the humid oppressive heat of the late afternoon and almost re entered the mall. Instead, he forced himself to walk along the sidewalk, and check the pick up parked in Section J. Employee parking: the farthest from the mall doors and normal employee hours should guarantee that the truck be there until at least eight pm.

Manny smiled when he spotted the truck. Sullivan would be going nowhere. Not until more of Manny's friends and co-workers arrived. The big man leaned against the tan brick wall and rested the sole of his foot against it. As he licked his ice-cream, he almost felt sorry for Sullivan. Knowing his boss, Hughes would have his personal physician fix the man up just so he could 'question' him and kill him later.

Manny shrugged. Not his problem. Too bad about Shawn. Larabee was an ice cold bastard.

The security man let his eyes rove around the parking lot. He paused and straightened up, dropping his foot down from the wall. He spied two figures jogging round the far corner of the mall.

"Shit." He lowered his ice cream and pushed off the wall.

Larabee and Manny noticed one another at the same time. Their eyes locked.

The few hundred yards that separated them was not enough, not for Manny.

The big man turned, dropping his vanilla ice cream cone to the white cement sidewalk, and started running.

+ + + + + + +

JD bumped right into Chris. The young man mumbled an apology and was about to offer an explanation when Larabee suddenly took off sprinting, pulling his gun.

Dunne's sharp dark eyes swung around the parking lot and immediately noticed the large man running down the sidewalk and around the corner. The West side entrance, bastard was probably hoping to lose them in the mall. JD took off running. His mind reeling with another thought…..

Where was Standish?…Oh God…was he dead somewhere on the mountain? Where was he? Chris and he had lost the trail for a while …had spent wasted time walking in circles. They had found the discarded shotgun and picked up the trail again….What if the delay cost Ezra his life?

Dunne gave chase peeling off from Chris and heading through the North Mall entrance. He knew this place like the back of his hand.

+ + + + + + +

Standish's labored breathing became more and more shallow. Sweat had long ago evaporated leaving a salty residue on his pasty skin. He wished someone would take the blanket off his face; it was making it difficult to breath. He couldn't seem to move.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah hung onto Buck's limp hand watching the slow even rise and fall of the Ladies' man's battered chest. He ignored the large winch truck that worked to pull Larabee's missused pick up back up onto the road.

K-9 units and police units lined the road. Radios squalked, competing with the heavy whine of the winch. Lights twirled adding to the confusion of the scene.

Dust blanketed everything. Running sweat cut dirty trails down the sides of flushed, determined faces. Rescue crews and law enforcement officers alike, worked in tandem each doing their best to help one another.

In amongst the controlled chaos, a quiet oasis surrounded the gurney that was carried toward the ambulance. The wheels refused to roll with any cooperation on the dirt road.

Josiah walked beside Wilmington's stretcher, keeping his hand on the prone man's upper arm. The large profiler's lips moved quietly mumbling unheard verses. The big man walked beside his fallen friend until Buck disappeared through the wide double doors of the ambulance. The profiler calmly made his way toward the front passenger door. He climbed in and immediately turned the radio to the proper channel. The driver opened his mouth to protest.

"Use your walkie," was all Sanchez had to say.

+ + + + + + +

Vin fought to keep his eyes open as he passed through a large, tan, doughnut shaped thing. It struck him as unusual. Perhaps this is what Lemon filling felt like…. He could hear people talking. Tanner tried to sit up and bumped his head on the inner ring of the doughnut. He heard a string of curses that mingled with his own. Nathan kept showing up, smiling down at him, except Vin didn't think it was a happy smile… Vin wanted to ask him something… Nathan kept talking, telling him to keep still. Nothing made sense.

Where was Chris? His head hurt… Maybe he should tell Nathan….

+ + + + + + +

Dunne sprinted across the polished floors of the mall, enjoying the brief spate of cool air. He pushed the side Mall doors open and found himself back outside, suffering, the draping Colorado heat. He ran into the parking lot, cutting Hughes's man off.

The man had a gun…a Gloc from the looks of it.

JD reached for his gun forcing the bigger man to suddenly changed direction.

Manny headed deeper into the parking lot.

Chris sprinted after him.

+ + + + + + +

Standish's heart raced. It beat so rapidly that it nearly fluttered in its haste to beat the too little volume of blood to the rest of the body.

His chest lingered, nearly failing to haul in enough smothering, thick air into his suffering lungs.

A chill settled back in his extremities. Nausea rolled through him.

Buck…Chris wasn't coming…Buck was gone….He'd have to get himself out…make his own escape, but to where?

Standish tried to move a hand. It refused. The effort left him exhausted, his mind wandering, confused and disjointed. Who would ever raise a pig? Perhaps name it Bacon Bits… A weak smile crossed his face.

The cold crept back on him. Buck would name a pig Bacon Bits…as sure as JD thought McDonalds was fine dining.

Buck was gone…

+ + + + + + +

Nathan paced in and out of Vin's hospital room waiting on Josiah. Buck still lay in surgery. Ruptured vessels. Thank God for modern imaging. A vascular surgeon and his team had been on standby. The paramedics at the scene had suspected some kind of internal bleeding and conveyed their concerns.

Jackson sighed. They had been lucky so far……

Sanchez had disappeared in search of any information on the others.

+ + + + + + +

Manny found himself running out of wind. This wasn't going to work.

He circled back around and headed for the yellow truck where he had stashed his captive. Time to employ his human shield. Worked once why not twice?

Larabee was gaining…

He noticed a mother and her three children. Toddlers. Leverage.

He made his move toward the three children and their mother. The mother noticed it, something in her instinctual make up had her swinging her head up. Shock and fear flashed across her face and then angry determination. She reached into her purse as she blocked her children from view with her own body.

The woman turned and faced the danger that rushed her. A metallic object in her hand.

Pepper spray or a gun?

Manny swore and changed direction. A prepared mother defending her children could be unpredictable on a good day….and this was far from being one of his favorites.

The pick up was his best bet….Sullivan had no fight left.


Ezra felt himself hauled from the car again. The stagnant air that had worked to smother and warm him suddenly disappeared. Thousands of tiny icy teeth bit into his skin. A breeze tore across his exposed skin, chilling him to his core. He moved his good leg once, in a feeble attempt to kick out at whoever grabbed for him. This earned him a sharp blow to the wounded leg. He managed a raspy groan and rolled his head in discomfort. The pain sapped him of the negligible strength he had left. The stimulation urged the heart and lungs to work a little harder. Muscles draped uselessly around bone.

An arm once again encircled his neck and hauled his head back, drawing him to his feet. He couldn't support his own weight any more. He sagged against the body behind his own, relishing the warmth of the contact.

Was it winter?… His toes were cold, his fingers too. Miserable.

"No closer…not another step…I'll kill'im."

Hadn't we heard this before? Ezra's mind wandered in a haze. Buck. Buck? Oh Gawd they killed Buck. He whispered the loss of his friend, "Ahhh Buck," So sorry, so sorry. Buck.

"Let'im go." Larabee fought the rage that roared through him as he caught sight of his undercover agent.

Chris ground his teeth, fighting with himself. His rage boiled. Standish stood on buckled legs, oblivious to his surroundings. Torn clothing revealed pale bruised and scratched skin. Dirt and forest litter clung to tattered cloth.

Larabee eyed his mumbling agent and then concentrated on the man hiding behind Standish.

"Put it down Larabee," Manny motioned with Standish's head for the gun to be lowered. "I'll kill'im, then you, and then start taking out all these shopping mall brats and their mothers." Hughes's man couldn't help but smile at the steady glare that met him.

Larabee was a tough bastard. Manny knew the ATF agent would sacrifice scum like Sullivan without a second thought, but not innocents. He had heard it said by some of his cohorts that Larabee would sacrifice anyone and everyone but his own damnable team…They also said never ever touch Larabee's team… Wilmington sure as hell got 'touched'. Not so invincible now, are you Larabee?

Chris ignored the directive and instead kept his eyes on his fading undercover agent, "JD I'm gonna shoot Sullivan, when he drops kill the Bastard who shot Buck." It was an order. A direct command.

The shouldering of responsibility had shifted away from the young one. Manny recognized the technique. Special forces had discovered with their snipers that their percentages increased if they had a partner…someone to share the responsibility in the killing of someone. Remove the nagging sense of right and wrong by turning the directive into a command, and if you provide a second person to help aid in shouldering some of the responsibility, you improve their kill ration.

Larabee just gave this kid the clear okay to kill.

Manny's smile brightened. The kid just to his side wasn't a killer, no way. He'd let Larabee kill Sullivan and then Manny himself would take out Larabee and then the kid….he'd get out of this, no problems. Hughes's man swiveled his eyes and took a measuring glance at the 'Kid' to his left. His heart plummeted. A young man as determined as his rabid ATF boss smiled back at him from behind an unwavering Sig.

Ezra slowly rolled his eyes toward Larabee. Shoot Sullivan… The undercover agent's mouth twitched into a sad weak smile. Chris had found them. A rescue? Chris shooting him? Or Sullivan? Who was he today? It didn't feel much like a rescue. Rescue from what? Buck's death? His fault. Maybe he should not have fought as hard as he did up on the mountain….maybe he should have been more cooperative, got out of this mess on his own and made good his own escape….But to where? Where could he hide from Chris and the others? From Buck's death… Ezra just wished it wasn't so, not like this, not by Larabee's hand. Not with the others cursing him. Or cursing himself.

The world swam in and out of focus. He couldn't feel his leg anymore. Things swarmed around him too fast, too haphazardly.

The silhouette of Larabee was still aiming a gun at him. Ezra felt someone standing behind him, holding him up….perhaps Josiah? Did Josiah hold him up so Chris could shoot him? It didn't seem right. The others didn't work like that…the rest of the world maybe, but not Team Seven, not his friends.

But Buck was gone. His fault…He messed up, got someone killed…Buck…Did Buck raise pigs?

Ezra felt the world heave and suddenly dip, only to then swirl rapidly on its axis. The sense of up and down, left and right disappeared. Nausea crashed through him like a breached dam, violent and sudden, his body acted accordingly. With his stomach in his mouth, the world turned black.

Ezra's upper body shot forward and downward as his abdominal muscles contracted and spasmed brutally.

Manny's eyes widened in horror as Sullivan suddenly and violently curled over and around his arm, becoming dead weight. Manny's shield melted from his grip, mortally exposing him.

Hughes's body guard redirected his aim, the barrel of his Gloc. following his eyes toward Larabee. His meaty finger started moving to depress the trigger the moment Sullivan began moving. Killing Larabee would gain him nothing but Manny couldn't help himself. He acted to save his life, a last ditch effort to make his pursuers hesitate, anything to divert their attention. Instinct really, perhaps just his training, he squeezed on the trigger.

Larabee and JD fired simultaneously.

Two shots echoed through the Denver early evening.

Manny flew backward, the unspent gun flying from his grip. He cursed Sullivan. Man was nothing but a pain in the ass since the day they met him. Son of a Bitch picked a fine time to puke his guts out and collapse.

Manny slammed into and over the parked car behind him. He slid down the trunk onto the bumper and finally to the pavement. He rested sideways in a crumpled heap. Unmoving, not even a pulse.

The two ATF agents ignored him and rushed to the man puddled just a few feet away from his captor.

Chris dropped down to one knee and slid a steady hand between Standish's chin and shoulder searching for a pulse, hoping he would be lucky for the third time that day.

Too fast and shallow, but it was there.

"JD call an ambulance," Larabee ordered without looking up. The kid hesitated just long enough for Chris to add, "he's alive JD…get a Gawd Damn ambulance!" Dunne walked a few steps away and keyed his cell phone as he picked up the dropped Gloc.

"Hang on Ezra," Larabee whispered as he checked the makeshift tourniquet. Blood still seeped from the bullet wound above the knee. He had seen Ezra placing weight on it so the bone had to be in good shape. Chris gingerly rolled his agent. Standish's legs untwisted from themselves and his arms flopped to the pavement. Larabee quickly started ripping Standish's pant leg open, trying to expose the bullet wound, evaluate the extent of the damage.

A salty residue made the undercover agent's face and neck gritty to the touch.

Standish lay limply, his eyes partially open and unmoving. The shivering had ceased. Sweat dried clothes scratched at Larabee as he watched the too rapid rise and fall of Standish's chest.

"You hear me Ezra, just hang on," Chris bit back the urge to holler at JD to hurry up with the ambulance. Instead, he gazed around the parking lot at the gathering crowd. He found nothing but anger at their curiosity. He focused his attention back to the agent laying bleeding in a parking lot. "You hang on; JD's calling an ambulance. So just hold on." Chris put pressure over the seeping wound, feeling the cold clamminess of the skin.

Ezra thought he heard voices, someone telling him to hold on…an angry voice, demanding him to hang on…keep fighting… Whatever for? He had gotten Buck killed.

Chris held his breath when he heard the mumbled voice, spoken unconsciously, barely audible. He tightened his grip on the Southerner, knotting his fist into the stiffened white t-shirt. "You hang on, you sorry ass Son of a Bitch, " he growled out as if the threat of his voice was enough to beat back the delirium.

Ezra wondered at the unseen anger. Buck…It was time to attempt his own emancipation. He truly did not want to be shot again. Buck was his fault but he hurt so much already.

Standish tried to move, hide, get away. Hadn't he been in a car?

Get away first. He fought to move. Push the tentacle like arms away and disappear under a car. The exertion clenched his stomach again.

He didn't hear Chris holler at him, didn't see Chris challenge the gathering crowd with a dangerous glare…Didn't even feel Larabee's hand over his chest, helping him roll over so he would not choke on his own vomit. Ezra didn't feel or see any of it…..just Buck flying backward. Don't want shot again, not by Chris…that would hurt even more.

It was cold.

+ + + + + + +

An aged mall security man watched and waited from the safety and obscurity of tinted dark glass. He had a perfect view of the parking lot. He dialed his boss.

Mr. Hughes would be unhappy about the loss of Manny. The situation could have been terribly worse though.

The car and men coming to meet Manny would be called back. There was nothing for them at the Meridian Mall. He watched the crowd gather around the two standing men and the two bodies. For a moment he thought the two men on the ground were dead, until one started trying to crawl under a truck.

Whoever it was, was desperate to get away from Larabee. The old man backed away from the window and returned to his post when the first sirens were heard heading down the street.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee jogged beside the gurney as the paramedics wheeled his undercover agent through the door. He kept one hand on the exposed forearm, careful of the IV that was taped to the medial aspect of the chilled limb.

"Josiah," Chris's voice was taut with anger and unspent frustration. He had left the scene of the shooting to go with Standish, leaving Dunne to deal with the intricacies of a crime scene. Larabee saw his profiler near the entrance doors waiting for their arrival. JD must have called them. "Buck?...Vin?"

Sanchez let his gaze linger on the undercover agent. Standish's right leg was elevated at the knee and bandaged, the pant leg had been removed. An oxygen tank sat between his calves and a hose snaked its way over his body to the mask that covered his nose and mouth. Ice packs wrapped in cloth sat nestled under Ezra's armpits, knees, neck and against his stomach.

The gurney sped through the pneumatic doors, down a short hallway and into the ED.

"Vin's ok, Nathan's with him." Sanchez matched Larabee's pace and kept beside the moving stretcher. "Buck's in surgery."

Larabee snapped his head up.

"I don't know, Chris…bleeding internally, they took him to Imaging and then right to surgery," Josiah spoke as he backed away from the stretcher giving the emergency crew room to work. As a team, they lifted Standish from the wheeled stretcher to an Emergency room table. "'Said it would be a couple of hours before we hear anything," Sanchez finished, never taking his eyes off the crowd that converged on the undercover agent like sharks at a feeding frenzy, except, the chaos was bent on salvaging not destroying something.

Orders were given and met with almost military precision. Clothes were cut away and discarded as space was made for the internal medicine , surgery and neurology people. Voices mingled and wove around the stretcher, each seeking and giving advice and direction.

Someone guided the two ATF agents away from their third, cautiously but persistently.

Chris let himself get backed out of the Emergency room. He kept his eyes glued to the area his agent lay, only catching glimpses of his man when someone moved or shifted position. Finally the heavy wooden doors swung closed blocking his view completely.

Larabee turned and faced Josiah. "Where's Buck?"

+ + + + + + +

The surgeon swore lightly to himself as he released the clamp, testing his delicate sutures. The vessel remained blanched then filled with blood, then leaked around the small knick he had missed.

The nurses had pointed out that this man, the big mustached agent was Mr. Larabee's oldest friend. Must be someone special to have braved and stormed Supervising agent Larabee for so many years.

The surgeon sighed, focused, and reached back into the body to fix the leak, never taking his eyes off the TV monitor that magnified his instruments and surgery site.

Tones beeped in the background, the anesthesiologist played with the IV drip and a team of nurses worked handing and replacing instruments as if reading their minds.

The surgeon ignored the soporiferous information and concentrated on repairing another member of ATF Team Seven. He had never met a group of men more dedicated to their job, each other, and the pursuit of punishing their bodies.

One day one of them would not get fixed.

Some day.

The surgeon swore, upon the grave of his dearly departed mother, that it would not occur on his shift. He would not be responsible for breaking up one of the most legendary groups in modern times.

Maybe one day he would write an article on this team, on their medical cases as they filed through his surgery suite. Maybe.. one day….not today, though.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah looked up as Larabee once again kicked the Coke machine. Nathan sighed. He wasn't going to put his life on the line for a soda machine. Not yet at least. JD continued to play games on his palm pilot. Sanchez had never seen the kid use it for anything else but to play games.

Reception had tried to ignore Larabee and his gang when they had first gathered at the 4C's Mercy Emergency waiting room, but when Mr. Larabee threatened to eat the heart out of a known 'users' chest for taking up breathing room, reception thought it better to give the ambulating members of Team 7 their own private waiting room.

Surgery… floor 9 could deal with them.

The nurses peeked their heads around the corner at the noise in the waiting area. They would need to call Harold come Monday. The coke machine would surely need a new front. Mr. Larabee would be a little poorer but apparently it was good therapy for the man. He couldn't be in three places at once. Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Standish had once again stretched their boss's resolve to the snapping point. He could pace angrily next to just one bed. He had three men down and could not silently threaten them to open their eyes. His men had been separated from him, in different areas of the hospital and it frustrated and angered the man beyond reason.

Mr. Larabee did not like, being kept from his men, forbidden to glare at them while they recovered from whatever foolish endeavor led them to be at the tender mercies of the staff of 4C's Memorial Hospital. Or so said Mr. Standish at one time when he himself had not actually been a temporary resident of the hospital.

Mr. Larabee could not be in three places at once and it boiled his blood.

+ + + + + + +

Dr. Thomas exited the recovery area removing his hat and booties while leaning against the nurses station. "They up here yet?" His answer came in the guise of a boot kicking a soda machine.

" I see Mr. Larabee is anxious," the doctor noted with a grimace.

The nurses merely nodded.

The doctor took a breath and headed down the corridor. They never truly prepared him for stuff like this in Medical School. Not even close.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in the recovery room, usually off limits to all nonessential personnel. Recovery was harsh. The reality of waking from anesthetic, the unpleasantness of post surgical wound scrubbing and patient positioning were done as tenderly as possible but also economically as possible. The wounds were raw, the skin puffy and the blood still red and warm. Recovery was for medical eyes only.

Chris Larabee sat in Recovery, the blatant exception to the rule, watching his undercover agent. He sat there for two very unavoidable reasons. First, Mr. Larabee would not be kept from one of his men, no matter who tried to bar his way, and he tended toward violence when met with opposition. Secondly, some of his men recovered smoother from the clutching disorientation and sickness of anesthetic when their boss sat beside them, shielding them. How they knew Larabee sat near them was a mystery. It made a difference however, and the recovery nurses had come to appreciate the ATF leader's help. Especially with Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish.

Vin Tanner would still be violently sick but less likely to mumble and blindly fight the hands that tried to help him if Mr. Larabee were present to assist the recovery nurses….and Mr. Standish was less likely to shy and 'hide' to protect himself from whom ever tried to help him. The others recovered without incident--except perhaps for young Mr. Dunne, but Buck Wilmington easily soothed the young agent during those tortuous moments of recovery.

Surgical recovery immediately following surgery was a hidden world for the protection of family and friends. Chris caught a glimpse of it out of necessity and did not like it. Not one little bit. He hated it. Despised seeing his men disoriented and sick, unable to defend or take care of themselves. It sickened him to see them so helpless, so dependent. Vulnerable. To know that Vin's sharp tough physical exterior could be stripped away from him with a simple injection, to see Standish's sharp mind wiped from him by a few cc's of a drug.

It angered him to witness the infantile weakness and helplessness in his men after surgery. Didn't Standish realize why he needed to wear a vest at a bust? Couldn't Vin understand the importance of not ignoring procedure during a raid?

They could not only get killed, but they could end up in a recovery room. Recovery where they were unable to control their own bodies, deficient of all their natural defenses and abilities. Recovery where powerful people became infantile in their dependence.

Chris kept his distaste to himself. He lead these men, and they returned his leadership with devotion and loyalty. He would swallow his unease and sit by their sides when needed even though it disquieted him to his very core.

He watched as his undercover agent struggled to open his eyes and focus. He watched as lazy deep breaths fogged the oxygen mask that fit neatly over Standish's nose and mouth. The bruises looked pale as did Ezra's color. Blood loss they said. Twin I.V.s fed right and left hands. Ezra would hate them when he figured them out. A pillow rested under his right knee, slightly elevating the leg. The bullet wound itself was fleshy and messy, the amount of blood loss, exertion and shock had taken its toll. Infection had settled into the torn flesh. The heat nearly killed him.

Too hot one moment, too cold the next. His body didn't know which way to set its internal thermostat.

Larabee leaned forward when he saw Standish's lips move from under the mask.

Chris gently lifted the mask and put his ear to Ezra's mouth hoping to hear what he whispered over and over. Hoping that Standish would once again avoid Vin's body's reaction to anesthetic. He prayed Ezra would not erupt with bouts of repetitive vomiting like Tanner did on recovery.

"Sorry…so sorry….Buck…." and it started again, softly, barely, louder than an exhaled breath, "so sorry…so sorry, Buck…."

Chris replaced the mask and leaned slightly back, "Buck's fine." Chris would repeat it as many times as necessary until it sunk in…for both of them. He hoped to God he wasn't lying.

"He doing alright Mr. Larabee?" A recovery nurse stepped into their corner of the room and smiled reassuringly. Larabee merely nodded.

"We'll be ready to move him to ICU in a few minutes, if you can just meet us there you'll be able to sit with him again."

Chris nodded and stood. He kept a lingering hand on Standish's chest and stared at the bruised features that lay covered with liberal amounts of surgical iodine soap.

Larabee couldn't help but think he did not want to sit with Buck. Wilmington was too vibrant, too full of life. To see him like this….perhaps he could have Josiah do it….or Nathan….would Buck even know?

"Mr. Larabee?" The soft question was more of a request. Larabee nodded again and left the room.

He stepped into the small waiting area. The questions started immediately.

"How's Ezra?" JD popped up out of his seat discarding the magazine he flipped through.

Chris stared at JD. He would never allow the young man to sit with one of the others…not like he was forced to do, not if he could help it. JD deserved to see the others as tough, and in control, just as the others needed to be perceived that way.

Chris surveyed his three agents, "Thinks Buck 's dead….got to keep telling him otherwise, until it sinks into his thick skull….Any news on Buck?" He turned his attention to Nathan, "Vin downstairs?"

"Buck's still in surgery. Murray was working Emergency, she thought things would be okay. They've got Denny Fisher working to patch him up," Josiah explained without moving from his seat.

"Vin's down on Three, room 312, nasty concussion, CT looked good, should be ok," Nathan sighed, at least once they got the sharpshooter to lay still. Damn man lingered in and out of consciousness but when he did flirt with the waking world he moved. Couldn't hold a thought and became talkative about nothing. Frustrating. Thank goodness he remembered nothing about what brought him to this state. At least they weren't having to tie him down to keep him from rushing to Buck's side or running out to find Ezra.

"You alright Brother?" Josiah put down his magazine and stared up at Chris. Larabee returned the look, knowing that Sanchez recognized there was indeed a problem but that Chris did not wish to divulge it.

Standish had tried to hide from him, tried to get away from him in the parking lot. Not physically, Ezra had mumbled it, confused and disoriented, he wanted to hide. He had feared Chris, frightened that Larabee would shoot him in retaliation for Buck. That bothered the leader of Team Seven more than the day's events. It lingered like a bad taste.

Chris shook his head.

Sanchez let it drop. Privacy was at a minimum here.

"JD, I want you with Ezra," Larabee did not need to explain his orders. When Buck got out of Surgery he would be in the same ICU unit as Standish. "Every time he even so much as moves I want you telling him Buck's okay…You got it?"

JD nodded, already on his feet and heading for ICU. Ezra would believe JD. Standish had never lied to the young man, and Dunne had reciprocated the same kindness. A strange relationship indeed. Chris would work to keep JD from Buck's recovery room, he would keep the kid from seeing Wilmington so lost and disoriented that he did not resemble the man that the others looked up too as a steadfast dependable friend. Chris would spare JD the tarnished image….for as long as he could.

"Nathan go back to Vin," Chris met the healer's eyes, "and make sure he stays put. I'll be there as soon as I hear about Buck." Larabee felt his gut knot. He needed to see Vin…for his own benefit. He needed to see Tanner to reassure himself that the Texan was fine. It would have to wait; Buck was still an unknown.

Nathan followed JD to the bank of elevators.

Chris stared out the small window in the waiting room, not truly ignoring Josiah but refusing to meet the man's insightful gaze.

Sanchez lay the magazine to one side and leaned back in his chair. He would wait.

Larabee kept his eyes on the dark night sky. The temperature had begun to drop, the heat wave dissipated over the last few hours.

Minutes dragged by stretching into an eternity.

"He thought I wanted to shoot him….wanted to get away…idiot thought he could crawl under a car to get away from me." Larabee still stared out the window, feeling the anger and frustration, but mostly the hurt as it welled up inside him. He would never hurt one of his men, not purposely. "He was dying and all he wanted to do was hide from me." Chris watched the red blinking light on the side corner of the building across the alleyway.

Josiah nodded his head in quiet agreement. He knew what had happened. JD had explained to them when Chris had disappeared into recovery. Larabee would have shot 'Sullivan', in a non fatal area, wing Standish just enough to make the hostage double over, or drop from in front of the perpetrator with the gun. In doing that, it would give JD the killing shot. With the hostage down and out of the way, the agents would then be free to fire at the man who had shielded himself behind another human being. It was a tough technique to learn. Learn to shoot one of your own men, or an innocent victim so you could kill another human being. They all had 'run' through the procedure, practiced it and understood the dire necessity of it. Practice made it more seamless, everyone had a role and expectation. It did not erase the sense of responsibility that came with it.

Never had Josiah thought that Chris would reach out to and talk about it.

"Not just you Chris…" Josiah straightened up and willed Larabee to look at him, "Buck…he thinks Buck is dead; easier to hide from that than face it."

Chris shook his head in disagreement. Josiah wasn't there, he didn't see the frightened, determination to get away.

"Idiot thought hiding under a car would be safe." Larabee shook his head and chuckled at the absurdity of the image.

"Brother Ezra does get things a bit ass backward sometimes," Josiah pointed out solemnly, though humor laced his tones. He had to pick his words cautiously. Larabee reached out for the first time since the team's beginning. The stalwart blonde leader, rumored to be more of an angry machine than a human being by those who didn't know him, actually reached out for some type of consolation. Even if he didn't recognize what it was, Josiah did. Chris might have opened to Vin or Buck, but never about the team, never about his insecurities concerning the teams reaction to himself. Josiah waited.

Chris chuckled. "Sometimes?"

"He wasn't hiding from you Chris," Sanchez tried again.

"Thought I was going to shoot him," Chris reiterated.

"Weren't you?" Josiah raised his eyebrows with his inflection.

Chris pulled his eyes from the window and stared hard at the profiler. With a sad chuckle, Larabee nodded his head, a near imperceptible movement, "Yeah, Yeah I was, but not because of Buck."

Josiah nodded, "And he'll know that, once you tell him." The large man paused and sat forward fingering the pages of the magazine in a forgotten manner, "but I think he'll figure it out for himself…." Sanchez leaned back in his chair and shrugged, "or you'll explain it to him."

"Shouldn't have to," Chris whispered out to himself. Shouldn't have to, he should already know. He stared back out the window again at the lone blinking red light.

"No probably not," Josiah eyed Larabee, watching as Chris stared out the window searching for answers he already held, "but we don't know what Ezra saw, or heard, how he interpreted it especially when things spiraled out of his control…between the blood loss and heat, he probably saw a whole lot more than you and I, and none of it true," Sanchez leaned forward again, "you've got to talk to him Chris, tell him what happened from the time he got shot until he wakes up. You can't expect him to know, and you can't expect to know what he's been thinking, or thought he heard or saw….isn't any way either of you can do that." Josiah leaned back against the chair and stretched his arms over the back of the adjacent chairs on either side of him.

Larabee kept staring out the window. Maybe staring at his own reflection….What did he see in it? Maybe if he could get Chris to talk to Ezra, in the frame of straightening out Standish's skewed perceptions, perhaps Chris would see that there was no harm in showing concern for concern's sake.

"Chris, we treat him differently from any other group of people he's ever met, same with Vin and JD, even Buck and Nathan. Confuses the Hell out of all of them. You shake them up, get them turned around and they're going to fall right back on those instincts that have kept them alive for so long." Josiah watched the man in front of him with a critical eye….You're no different Chris Larabee…no different at all. You all see it in each other, but not yourselves. Josiah saw the consternation in Chris's stance. "He trusts you Chris, with his life, to protect him from others, even us, you keep him safe when things go down foul. ….We all do." Josiah chuckled, "Heck Chris, you even manage to protect Ezra from himself…and I think that just plain riles our brother."

Larabee let a weak smile cross his face. Yet, he shook his head in disagreement as he stared out the night blackened window. He sure as Hell wasn't seeking protection from me in the parking lot.


"Knock it off Buck." Larabee redirected the heavy hand that swiped mindlessly at the nasal canula.

Chris leaned over the bedrail and held down the one moving arm. An IV lay held in place by transparent tape. Yellow iodine soap still stained the back of his hand and part of his wrist.

The blue hospital gown had been loosely tied around his neck allowing the nurses and doctors easy access to the EKG leads.

The heavy hand struggled again. A foot moved as a knee bent. The white blankets shifted slightly and wrinkled.

Chris allowed a relieved smile to lighten his face, as he watched Buck's blue eyes blink open.

Wilmington struggled to raise his other hand. Chris shook his head and leaned over the bed and trapped the second hand, repeating his earlier words, "Knock it off Buck."

Larabee waited patiently as Wilmington's eyes roved around the room, searching for something but truly seeing nothing. His eyes rolled, blinked closed only to re-open.

Finally they settled on Larabee, "Ch…s." Buck blinked his eyes again, exaggerating the movement trying to will himself awake.

"Right here."

Buck blinked again and dragged in a deep breath. He stopped short, his face blanched and he screwed his eyes closed.

"Better not be doin' that again."

"No….sh…t," Wilmington breathed out in a raspy uncooperative voice. "What happened?"

"You gonna remember this time?" Chris smiled again releasing Buck's wrists.

"I don't know," Buck blinked again and surveyed the room this time taking stock in his surroundings… "ICU?" His voice was weak, barely a whisper. The beep of heart monitors, pulse oximeters and other assorted machines worked to drown him out.

Larabee nodded. It had to be proof that they, as a team spent way too much time in hospitals if they could wake up from anesthetic and name the ward.

"Ezra!" The hoarse gasp had the big man trying to lift his head from his pillow. He managed to tense some neck muscles.

"Easy…he's okay," Chris stepped aside allowing Buck a chance to see the bed next to his, "got'im right beside you."

Larabee would have to ask to have the two men moved to the same room when the time came. Ezra had come to twice, both times mumbling about Buck and whispering apologies and some foolishness about Bacon Bits. JD and Josiah had done their best to relieve the other man's fears.

"Shit….what hit me?" Buck prodded his lower chest with a flat shaky hand.

"Shotgun," Chris turned his attention back to Wilmington. He didn't bother moving Buck's hand back to the mattress.


"Downstairs with Nathan," Larabee smiled. Nathan had been coming up to the ICU periodically when Tanner was allowed to go back to sleep. Vin's sudden bouts of disoriented interrogation were driving Jackson crazy.

"How long?" Buck fought the heavy drowsiness that pulled at him. He fought it but despite his best intentions he felt himself get sucked down into the numb dark pool of drug induced apathy and sleep.

"You're here for the duration," Chris laid a gentle hand on Buck's shoulder as the blue eyes rolled and then struggled gamely to waken. "Go to sleep Buck, one of us will be here."

"Ezra." It was a weak statement more than a question.

"Is fine,"

"Probably thinks I'm dead." The last word faded as chapped lips stopped moving and the easy shallow breath of sleep stole his words away.

A tight smile crossed Larabee's face. Buck was remembering more and more each time he woke up.

"Working on it Buck, we're working on it," Chris promised letting his eyes slide to the form in the next bed over.

+ + + + + + +

Buck couldn't tell if it was night or day. Couldn't discern even where the door was if he had to get up and leave. Not like he could move with any great speed or strength. Wilmington shut his eyes and then struggled to reopen them. Have to remember to quit doing that, might've fallen asleep. The ladies' man struggled to move a leg, adjust it to take the pressure off his back. Amazing how difficult it was to move something as simple as a hand or foot.

Night lights shone mutely around the room, casting things into shadows or lighting them under a bluish hue.

Buck rolled his head, cursing the nasal canula that blew in a gentle current of O2. He hated it. It made his nose raw and dry and it hurt. He raised a heavy uncooperative hand and worked to push the canula away from his nose. He managed to get it to his cheek. It blew air into his eye, making it water. Damn things. He worked with it a little more and finally had it resting somewhere near his forehead. Gawd he was tired.

Buck looked across to the next bed over. He found Standish facing his direction with his eyes open.

"'Ey pard'." Buck waited a brief second. He tried to scrutinize the undercover agent, but lethargy, shadows and painkillers worked against him. "You doin' ok?" Wilmington noticed the slightly open mouth, half hooded eyes and complete lack of movement. Almost the same look he used when in a meeting with Accounting. Buck smiled at his own private joke.

Probably a headache.

It was then Buck noticed none of the others were around. Must be night, no visiting hours. Good. The others should be home. No sense them being here just to watch him and Ezra sleep. Wonder where Vin is? Ezra…Buck tried to roll onto his side and face the other man but pain and uncooperative muscles kept his torso and pelvis still. Wilmington watched the unmoving agent in the next bed.


The half closed eyes blinked slowly and cautiously rolled in Wilmington's direction. Buck watched as the lips moved but no sound traveled over to him.

Wilmington crawled his hand up his mattress to his pillow and pressed the nurses call button. He wouldn't have to wait long. In ICU they had their counter desks right in the middle of the ward.

"Mr. Wilmington," a brunette smiled down at him, "you're awake…Is everything okay?" Buck was too tired to return the smile, though he tried. "I see you have tried to remove your oxygen," the nurse reached over him and readjusted the canula, "you just leave that be."

"Ezra," Buck whispered out. He felt so tired, terribly, terribly tired.

"What about Mr. Standish?" The nurse fixed the blankets around Buck's shoulders and smiled down at him.

Buck fought to keep his eyes open, "headache…Ezra." Buck licked dry lips trying to work moisture back into them. His eyes closed.

He felt an ice chip slip between his lips and thanked God someone had the brains to invent ice. Somewhere in the background he heard a sweet voice speaking softly to someone about getting something for the pain. Ezra…Buck fought to stay awake. Someone had to watch out for Ezra and Vin…wherever Vin hid.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah entered the ICU carrying a cup of coffee and a box of muffins, and snuggly under one arm, a collection newspapers. He laid the muffins at the nurses' station as a peace offering for the trouble that was sure to come later when the three downed agents got their wind back.

In fact, right now, down on the third floor, Chris, Nathan and Vin were going ten rounds, with JD laughing in the background.

Josiah had left them to their own devices and sought sanctuary from the noise in room 312 for the quiet beeping of ICU.

Sanchez carried a chair and placed it between the two beds and almost sat down. He stopped when he looked over to Buck and found the agent struggling to stay awake.

"Buck?" Josiah straightened, dropping the news papers to the seat of the chair.

" Josiah." The name was dragged down by exhaustion.

"How you feeling, Brother?" Sanchez gave Wilmington his whole attention.

Buck simply closed his eyes. "Ezra," he breathed out.

"Thank goodness you're here Mr. Sanchez," a nurse strode over to the profiler. Josiah placed his coffee down next to the chair.

"Everything alright?" Josiah looked from Buck to Carol, the morning ICU nurse.

"Mr. Wilmington has taken it into his head that he needs to keep an eye on Mr. Standish until one of you appeared this morning."

Josiah turned his attention to Buck, who lay wilted and drained, fighting to keep his eyes open, over to Standish who slept on his side, with two hands and their IV's near his face.

"What's the matter?" Josiah gazed back to the nurse, concern coloring his features and his voice.

"Headache.." Buck whispered out, struggling to keep dry eyes open.

"Mr. Standish woke sometime early this morning with a terrible headache," the nurse paused, eyeing both prone men, "most likely a result of the severe dehydration and blood loss."

She turned her attention to Josiah who stared from Buck back to Ezra back to Buck.

Carol continued "He was given something for the pain and dosed off…."

"Thinks I'm dead," Buck breathed out again fighting to stay awake.

Josiah grasped the situation in understanding. Sanchez nodded to the nurse and turned his attention back to Buck, "It's alright Brother, I'm here...I'll straighten him out…You go ahead and get some sleep. I'll watch him."

Buck barely managed a nod, "thanks." His eyes closed, his mouth remained parted and he simply fell asleep.

"Thank you, Josiah," Carol laid her hand on Sanchez's forearm. "He kept fighting it, kept saying he had to watch out for Mr. Standish …keep him safe until you or one of the others arrived."

Josiah nodded not surprised, "I'll keep an eye on them."

Carol nodded her appreciation and headed back to her pile of morning rounds.

Sanchez leaned over Buck's railing and fixed the blanket, covering the chilled hand with the IV taped to it. "You don't need to watch everyone's back, Buck….You got to give us a chance to watch yours." The profiler kept an eye on Wilmington for a moment ensuring that the man was indeed comfortably asleep.

Josiah turned to the Southerner and untwisted the IV that snagged itself on the bed railing. He then worked the second IV line from the side of Ezra's mouth. He noticed the teeth imprints in the malleable plastic tubing. Sanchez ran the line down below the undercover agent's bruised chin making sure that it could lead cleanly to the hand knotted by his mouth. Trying to chew his way out. Trying to find his way back from whatever trap he found himself.

"And you," Josiah gently admonished, laying a giant hand on the dirty brown hair, "have got to realize just how many people look out for you."

Sanchez surveyed the man sleeping on his right side with two hands balled by his face as if in hiding or seeking protection. Josiah reached down and moved the left hand and concurrent IV catheter away from teeth to hopefully prevent any premature removal of the catheter or extension set.

Josiah picked up his coffee settled down in his chair and snapped the paper out with one hand.

A little quiet time….. It wouldn't last. Perhaps he would get through the NY Times and get a chance to start on his L.A. papers before the others came up and dissected his reading materials for their favorite sections.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner rose to his feet and stood stalk still. He didn't dare breathe. The world had blackened on him, lights sparkled from the corner of his vision and he sensed the hospital room whirling out of control. He had been discharged but damn he felt like shit.

It would pass. It always did.

Someone spoke to him…but he couldn't quite bring himself to answer them.

"Vin?" It was Nathan. "You alright?…Need to sit down?"

The disorientation was complete enough that the sharpshooter did not feel the supportive grip that grasped his upper arm.

Nathan stood patiently beside the Texan waiting for the vertigo to dissipate.


Tanner finally heard the voice, "Yeah Nate I'm okay…jist give me a second."

"Take your time, we aren't in any hurry." Jackson kept his hand on Tanner as he reached around and gathered up the rest of his belongings. It would do no good to have Vin bending down only to fall on his face.

The sharpshooter opened his eyes and stood a little more soundly. He gently freed his arm from Nathan's hold, "Lets go." Tanner started toward his hospital room door with Nathan shadowing close behind.

+ + + + + + +

The two ATF agents heard the disgusted chuckling as they opened the door to a small 'private' room. They nodded their hello's to the uniform officer that sat outside, guarding the door. The chances of Hughes making an appearance at the hospital seemed slim at best but no one was willing to take any chances.

Late morning sunlight leached through the only window, brightening the small room with a soft glow.

Larabee sat beside Standish's bed with his feet up on the railing.

"What's going on?" Nathan asked he held the door open for Vin to shuffle through.

"Cowboy," Vin spoke in quiet greeting to Larabee. The sharpshooter kept his gaze on the sleeping man in the bed.

"You doin' alright?" Chris sat up dropping his boots to the tile floor. They hit with a tired thud.

"Yeah," Vin breathed out. He was alright in the sense that he was on his feet though his head wanted to be laying down. He felt significantly better than last night and earlier this morning when he puked his guts out the first time he tried to get out of the hospital bed. Compared to that, yeah he felt pretty good.

"What's goin' on?" Tanner directed the scrutiny away from himself.

Vin eased himself down into the only vacant chair. He leaned against the wooden arm rest and placed his head in his hand.

Ezra, for all intents and purposes, had a private room. The second bed closest to the door was empty. Buck would probably occupy it when he finally got out of ICU. JD was down with Wilmington at the moment. Tanner eyed the bed. If he was going to be here a while longer today waiting for a ride home from one of the others, perhaps he would catch a nap on the second bed.

"They took out the second IV," Nathan noted as he strode up to the left side of the bed. He eased the blankets back from Standish's midsection and right side to check the bandage that snuggly protected the Southerner's right lower thigh.

"Idiot chewed through his IV down at CT," Chris stepped back away from the bed. Now that Nathan and Vin were here he could get back to Buck. He would not take JD from his roommate. Chris watched Vin for a moment feeling guilty for not being with the sharpshooter more over the last eighteen hours. Nathan had stuck close to the sharpshooter and kept everyone apprised of Tanner's condition. Larabee knew it wasn't the same thing.

Josiah and Chris had spent their time in the ICU with Buck and Ezra until earlier this morning. JD had come and took Josiah's spot as Chris followed his undercover agent back down to Imaging. His overt concern lay in two facts; Hughes still ran loose and Standish still struggled to understand Buck was not dead.

Sanchez had then disappeared to get some lunch for them all down the street and mentioned picking up some more newspapers. Chris couldn't help wonder just how many newspapers that man read in a day? Of course, Josiah had warned them that Ezra might eat through his IV. Who would have thought he was serious?

Nathan shook his head amused. "Think maybe we could get that Lamp shade thing of Diablo's and put it around Ezra's head?"

Tanner chuckled and then tightened his hand around his forehead. Damn, no laughing. It hurt. Diablo hated his E-Collar. It kept the dog from eating his sutures out, but it did wreaked havoc with Chris's chairs and table. "Better not Nathan. Ez, here, would probably ruin all of Chris's furniture runnin' into shit." Tanner sighed. It hurt to talk. Maybe he'd just lay down when everyone left and just shut his eyes.

"Probably magnify his voice too," Jackson muttered to himself. He pressed on the swelling above and below the bandage, then rolled Standish's leg gently left and then right, inspecting the tissue around the circling gauze. He ignored the colorful bruising that marred the undercover agent's hip and lower leg, knowing the matching contusions covered his abdomen, torso and shoulders. The car wreck alone would have been enough to lay him up for a while.

Larabee watched silently as Nathan pulled the blankets back up and then walked to the foot of the bed. The ex-paramedic flipped the blankets off the bottom of the bed, exposing Standish's feet. Nathan began checking for pulses.

Chris let his eyes wander up to the undercover agent, who slept peacefully on his back. He looked helpless and innocent. The second IV had been removed, instead of replaced, from Standish's right hand down at CT. Helpless perhaps but by no means innocent.

"Where'd he learn to do that?" Vin closed his eyes trying to block out the harsh morning light. He had a terrible headache. Never thought about chewing stuff out…might work…depending on what it is… The sharpshooter cracked his eyes open a little and fought to focus on the undercover agent…probably learned it from Diablo… or maybe Ez taught the dog…?

"Who knows…been chewing on it in his sleep, finally worked his teeth all the way through it. Ran the whole liter out, soaked everything and lost more of what little blood he's got left." For some reason the IV pump hadn't been hooked up. Larabee shook his head. He had heard the dripping on the floor down in the corridor outside of CT but had ignored it until a puddle starting forming. They had to change Standish's gown, blankets and gurney. Chris stared at his undercover agent… Irritating man.

Nathan bit back a chuckle at the exasperation in his boss's voice. It did Chris good to play nursemaid to the others. It gave their leader a better understanding of patience.

"How'd the CT come out?" Jackson asked. He stepped forward and checked the other line that ran to the back of Standish's left hand. It seemed relatively intact. No teeth marks.

"Fine. They're pretty sure the headaches are from the blood loss, and probably some of the bruising. Nothing 's broke." Chris turned his attention to Vin. The Texan looked drawn and pale. "You doin' alright?" Larabee reiterated his earlier question but this time he stared at his sharpshooter, letting his eyes pickup whatever Tanner failed to report.

"Yeah, Cowboy, I'm fine." Vin didn't bother raising his eyes to meet Larabee's. It seemed too much trouble. Gonna puke maybe…

"You mind stayin' here with Ezra?" Chris resisted the urge to apologize to his younger friend for not being at his side, for not being there when he had been sick and hurt and under the care of strangers. Least Vin had Nathan with him.

"No I don't mind," Vin finally rolled his head back slightly, hearing something more than a request in the question. "Hell, between Ez, here, and Buck ya'll gonna be runnin' back'n forth playin' nursemaid." Tanner smiled weakly. No hard feelings, he did not begrudge Chris anything. Don't need no one fussing over me…not like those two.

Nathan watched the silent conversation and understood the gist of it, "We better get down to Buck. He's liable to have JD push his bed up here just to be with these two troublemakers." Jackson headed for the door, leaving the sharpshooter with the sleeping undercover agent, "You have any problems, Vin, just ring the nurse's button, they'll get us."

Tanner merely nodded and hoped those two hurry up and left. All he wanted to do was lie down on the extra bed and get some sleep. Gawd damn he didn't want to puke again.

+ + + + + + +

"You sure he's okay to leave alone?" Chris waited to ask his question as he and Nathan stood in the elevator. Even though, Vin had been discharged by late morning, the others were loathe to leave him alone. As a result, they planned on keeping the Texan close by until one of the others went home, and then they would take Vin with them.

"Yup," Nathan kept his eyes on the dwindling light display that indicated the passing of floors. Floor six to floor nine. Least they got Vin off of Three. They were slowly pulling the team closer together.

Jackson felt Larabee's disbelieving gaze.

"He's probably already sleeping in the empty bed next to Ezra's..."

Both men paused and then stared at one another, "Oh shit."

Nathan quickly held up his hands stalling Larabee from hitting the 'stop' button on the elevator.

"Chris there ain't no way those two are going to cause any problems today," Nathan pointed out trying to soothe his own apprehension at leaving Standish and Tanner in the same room in a hospital. "They've got Ezra sedated, on painkillers and antibiotics this morning, and Vin can't stand up without getting dizzy…They'll sleep through the rest of the day….Trust me." Nathan paused and leaned back against the wall of the elevator, "besides they're gonna discharge Ezra tomorrow morning…just waitin' for him to wake up enough to eat somethin' with out getting' sick…antibiotics have knocked his fever down, infection in his leg is clearing up and the dehydration is almost rectified." Nathan smiled slightly to himself and then turned his head slowly and met Chris's gaze, "he's not going anywhere…even if Vin could stay on his feet long enough to help him."

Larabee nodded and then looked toward the closed doors. He wasn't sure who Nathan was trying to convince. Maybe Chris would have Josiah spend the afternoon with Standish and Tanner, just to make sure those two didn't cause trouble.

Damn man chewed through his IV in his sleep….Gonna put a gawd damn E-collar around his head. He best not be teaching my dog any bad habits….


"Hey Buck," JD leaned over the bedrail watching as his older friend blinked his eyes. Dunne waited as the glazed blue eyes opened and closed in a lazy fashion before slowly roving around the room.

"You in there Buck?" Dunne leaned over his friend smiling and waving his hand.

"JD?" the voice was hoarse and soft.

"In the Flesh." Dunne's exuberance laced his voice.

"Shiiit," Buck drawled out, closing his eyes as a light smile brightening his drawn features.

"What the hell does that mean?" JD leaned back away from the rail in mock disgust.

"You're suppose to be watchin' out for me, aint ya?" Buck cracked an eye and stared at his young friend. The nasal canula had been taped high to his cheek bones to prevent him from swiping it out.

"Yeah , so?" JD stared at his friend in confusion. He stepped on Josiah's copy of the Chicago Tribune. The Austin Review lay somewhere under Buck's bed. Where the devil does he even get those papers? Ain't nothing worth reading in them anyhow…least nothin' ya can't catch on TV.

"Where's my blonde nurse with the big…?" Buck's lecherous smile was a shallow shadow of its former self.

"Hell Buck, you ain't got enough strength to appreciate it so don't go getting worked up over nuthin' you can't take care of…" Dunne chuckled out.

"Don't be rubbin' it in kid," Buck closed his eyes and settled back against the bed and pillow. He knew he had to be in tough shape if his hospital bed felt comfortable.


JD pulled his chair closer to the bed and swiped the Boston Globe off the seat. "He's doin' okay. Vin's with'im right now."

Buck opened his eyes again and raised an impossibly heavy hand.

"They're both doin' fine Buck," JD promised as he leaned against the rail, resting his chin on his arms. "They discharged Vin this mornin', and Ezra'll probably go home tomorrow." JD sighed and stared at Wilmington trying hard not to imagine the scene in the mountains. The replay of Buck flying backward, landing lifelessly amongst a floor of ferns. "You got the worst of it Buck. The others are doin' fine…Hell Ez, walked away from that wreck with just bruises…you're the one who got messed up the worst."

Buck rolled his head and stared at his young friend, "No, kid. You boys did."

JD furrowed his brow in confusion, "I ain't the one laying here in a hospital bed looking like Dr. Frankenstein cut on my chest."

Buck smiled weakly, "Hell no kid, ya ain't; yer just the one who had to live through it." Buck paused, letting the oxygen from the canula feed his hungry lungs. "If it wears too deeply on ya, you talk to someone about it," Buck paused for effect, "you got it?"

JD smiled and leaned back a little spreading his arms, "Hey Buck, I'm fine; ain't nuthin' eatin' on me…nuthin' at all."

Wilmington merely nodded and closed his eyes, "Sure kid, sure."

JD averted his eyes, looking to the floor at the National Enquirer….That made him pause. Josiah reads grocery store trash too? JD reached down and picked it up, the headlines catching his eye. Elvis seen walking with the Bog man down a Florida street….

JD shook his head, trying to concentrate on the newspaper and dismissing Buck's earlier comment. Ain't havin' a problem with what happened...none at all. Everyone lived, no one died…no reason to be havin' any difficulties. No reason at all. Hell if anyone's still messed up its Buck and maybe Ezra….

JD thumbed through the Enquirer, his mind replaying the image of Buck flying backward, his head rebounding off the ground. Elvis saves a New York Family while in the Everglades…that sounded interesting, better than just sitting here stewing over nothing. Damn Buck…what did he know anyway?

Buck watched JD from the corner of his eye. Maybe he'd talk to Chris or Josiah….Find out about Ez, too.

Wilmington settled against the pillow and drifted to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Buck opened his eyes, listening to softly whispered words coming from his left. He drew in a deep breath and halted it short. Pain ripped through his chest, wrapping around to his back. He shifted a hand, feeling the tape pull at the hair on his arm. The IV.

A set of booted feet crossed at the ankles rested on his mattress. He nudged them with his leg.

"Hey, ya suppose to be entertaining me, not reading some…" Buck squinted at the newspaper held in… Nathan's hands? Nathan? …"Home and Gardens?"

Jackson lowered the magazine and leaned over to stare at Buck, "Josiah's."

Buck nodded in understanding, "What happened to the National Enquirer?"

"Nurses took it to their break room, next issue comes out tomorrow …. Josiah'll probably bring it in."

"Good, cuz I was wonderin' what happened to Elvis." Buck rolled slightly and gazed around the room--no longer ICU. "Hey when…."

"This afternoon, ya in Ezra's old room." Jackson put down the magazine, "You want some light?"

"Yeah." Buck watched Nathan stand and walk to the window and felt a sting of jealousy at the free movement. "Where's Ez and Vin?"

"Their at the ranch Josiah and Chris took them out there this morning." Nathan pulled the light drapes away from the window, allowing a thin beam of sunlight to cut through the gloom of the small room.

"They released him this morning -- his breakfast stayed down, and his attitude was on the rise."

Buck chuckled weakly. It burned his chest. "Chris straighten Ezra out about what happen in the parkin' lot?"

Wilmington easily read Nathan's questioning expression, "JD told me…."

The ex-paramedic nodded realizing that such things were not easily kept from the rest of the team, no matter the situation, "Josiah's handin' it."

Buck clucked his tongue and shook his head. Chris should deal with it…but he probably thinks that Ez got it figured out…doesn't see a problem. Ezra probably doesn't realize the need for an explanation, fool man thinks himself into a corner most times and accepts some incidents as unfortunate and deserving, probably thinks he shoulda done somethin' different. Josiah would handle it jist fine…still it shoulda been Chris…The big dog should've ironed things out himself.

Nathan read the contemplative look and worked to redirect it. He tapped the "Home and Gardens" magazine in his hand, getting Buck's attention. "Buck they'll figure it out. Those two have been workin' together, and pissin' each other off too long not to know the drill." Jackson paused and leaned back in his chair rubbing his face, exhausted by past few days. "Let it go Buck…least for now." Nathan sat forward again .

"…Oh and Elvis allegedly met the Bog man who turned out to be a Bog woman and they slipped back into the glades somewhere…They're hoping for a follow up in the next issue." Nathan then sighed, "JD bet that Vin could track them down and find out what's really going on…Ezra took the bet sayin' Vin wouldn't be able to find and I quote, 'his skinny gluteal mass with a compass and set of directions, and laid fifty bucks down to anyone who would take the bet,"

Buck let out a whistle. Jackson merely nodded.

"No one, of course, took the bet, which you can imagine got Vin all riled up." Nathan rubbed at his forehead, "Josiah then felt he needed to add that trailing something as large as the Bog man and as distinctive as the 'King' would not be a challenge even for someone as scrambled as Vin…" Nathan sunk back down into his chair and stared at Buck, "It pretty much went down hill from there…Chris finally threw'em all out on their ears, after he made Ez take his meds. Then he had JD swing your truck around and had Josiah stuff them other two into it and hauled their complainin'asses out to his place."

"Damn, wish I could have seen it."

Nathan dropped his hand and looked at Buck with tired eyes, "Ya did Buck, ya just don't remember…Sometimes I think you're the lucky one."

"I'm feelin' it Nate." A small smile graced Wilmington's face softening his sarcasm. He sobered and asked, "Hughes?"

Nathan sobered and pulled his chair closer, "Gone to ground. Think he tucked his tail and moved onto greener pastures…Ez should be safe for now…or until his smart mouth pisses Chris off again." The ex-paramedic sighed, " ain't got a clue as to why Chris keeps haulin' Ezra's whinin' ass out to his place to recuperate."

"Sure ya do Nathan," Buck smiled back, closing his eyes as he shifted position on the bed. His muscles felt leaded and his belly now hurt as much as his chest. Gawd he hated feeling this way.

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Nathan breathed out.

Buck nodded, "Think Hughes 's gonna give up that easily?"

"Don't know. He lost two of his men. Didn't get his hand on Sullivan and thinks he might have killed you, though by now I'm thinkin' he knows that didn't happen." Nathan shifted in his seat. "Don't worry though, Chris got Ryan and his bunch keepin' an eye on his place and Ez. And Vin's out there with Josiah, so iffen those three don't kill each other I think they're pretty safe."

"When do I get out of here?" Buck asked, letting his eyes close. He felt as if he had run a marathon. He was tired and beat up and had no strength left to raise his head if he had to. He wanted out -- to be in his own apartment in his own bed, but at the moment he couldn't be sure he could move a foot to slide it off the bed let alone stand to walk.

"Not for a while Buck," Nathan leaned forward and slid the blanket back up around Wilmington's bandaged chest.

+ + + + + + +

3 days later…

Buck eased himself out of the pickup truck. The insurance company had refused to total the Ram and opted to fix it instead. The truck refused to be aligned properly. The wheel jumped and vibrated more than usual, and a case of oil sat in the bed. Josiah offered repair suggestions, and so far Chris had ignored them. Sanchez's suburban was, after all, looking for a place to die.

Wilmington stepped onto the gravel driveway and clung to the door handle. His vision swam and he wanted nothing more than to lay down again.

"You okay Buck?" Chris stood at the front bumper of the truck judging how much independence to give his old friend. They were shoving people out of hospitals way too early these days.

Through the roaring in his ears, Buck could hear laughter and shouts coming from the house.

Josiah was bellowing at…Vin, from the sounds of it. JD had the volume up on the TV to hear over Josiah's voice. Cartoons…Looney Tunes from the sounds of the jingle. Nathan slammed the door to the kitchen. The kitchen door, Buck recognized, because it sounded as if it swung back open and slammed into the living room wall which hit the pool cues and rattled the old iron triangle that rested against the wall. Ezra must have done something to anger Nathan. Imagine.

The sound of a ringing dinner chime competed with Josiah's voice and Porky Pig's "That's all Folks!" and the, "Gawd damn it Ezra! How many times have I got to tell you not to do that?!….you ken just keep ya sorry ass on the floor until ya can git your own weak carcass back on the couch yerself!…And don't you dare even think about stayin' down there!…Chris'll be here any minute with Buck and he ain't gonna have time for your stunts."

It battled with "Vin! You eat my dinner one more time I'm gonna reach down your throat, grab your ass and turn you inside out! You hear me?! Vin?!… JD turn down that Gawd forsaken Television!"

"What was that Josiah? I can't hear ya; the TV's too loud!"

Both Buck and Chris looked at each other and then at the ranch house.

"You feel like Pizza?" Chris asked, raising his eyebrows.

Buck leaned heavily against the passenger side door, "Yeah, Yeah I do."

"Lets go." Larabee walked back around to the driver's side door and swung it open. Buck eased himself into the truck, using the creased and re-straightened running board.

Larabee reached across the seat and waited patiently as Buck struggled to slide the seat belt across his torso. Chris guided Wilmington's shaky hands and clicked the belt home.

"Ya think they'll be ok?" Buck breathed out, leaning against the head rest.

"Think I care?"

The Ladies' Man merely nodded and chuckled, "Let's go pard."

The black Ram backed up and swung around. The big truck jolted and lunged slightly, causing Wilmington to rest a protective arm across his chest. Chris mumbled a low apology and promised himself a visit to the adjuster. He guided and cajoled his truck to go forward. Tail lights dimmed and disappeared down the wooded driveway and back toward the chaos of town.