Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

Part 11
Robert Orlowski had been born in a tiny Polish "pocket neighborhood" in Chicago forty-eight years ago. He had always been a big boy, bigger than the other kids in the neighborhood who called him "Bolo" and came to him for help when bullies from other neighborhoods crossed the invisible lines that divided Chicago's South Side.

By the time he was twelve, Bolo had discovered his talent and his love: making things blow up. He was good at it. Joining the Marine Corps at seventeen had honed this talent. When he had got out of the Corps ten years later, it had taken just a few words in the right ears, and Bolo Orlowski had a job for life.

He was semi-retired now--by which he meant he had enough money to live on and no real challenges in mind. He only took jobs if they appealed to his artistic sense, or if they were for old friends, or if they were especially lucrative.

The job for Marcus Hoyt met all of his criteria. Bolo was on a plane within two hours of the phone call from his old friend, and by eleven o'clock that evening he was in a nondescript rental car outside a converted warehouse which housed the loft apartment of ATF Agents Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne. Dunne, Bolo understood, was out of town, and wasn't the target anyway. No, the challenge here was to set a bomb to take out only one person: Buck Wilmington.

Bolo averted his eyes as a Denver PD patrol car drove slowly past the building. The car turned left at the stop sign. Bolo got out of the car, reaching for the white jacket and bags of fragrant Chinese food in the back seat. The jacket was his but he'd purchased the food two blocks away at a busy eatery called the Oriental Pearl. Carrying the bags, he briskly trotted up the steps to the entrance door. It was one of those where you had to be buzzed in; that wasn't usually a problem. He just randomly hit buttons until someone released the lock. He grinned. Someone was always waiting on someone.

Once in the vestibule he looked at mailboxes until he saw the listing for B. Wilmington/JD Dunne. 'Idiot. You'd think Feds would be a little more careful with their own security.'

He started for the stairs. He had fifteen minutes before the patrol car would make another round in front of the building.

Plenty of time.


Vin shifted his lanky body in the uncomfortable chair. He had long ago decided that hospitals deliberately purchased chairs specially designed to be unforgiving to the spinal cord.

A faint sound came from the still figure in the bed. Vin straightened up, reaching over to cover Ezra's hand with his own, careful not to disturb the IV line. "Ezra? You hear me?"

His friend stirred, one hand coming up to swipe fretfully at the oxygen tube. Vin had been expecting that and caught the errant hand, detangling the IV. "Com'n Ez, wake up."

Thick eyelashes fluttered on pale cheekbones. Finally two clouded green eyes opened, taking in the surroundings blankly before focusing on Vin. "Mr. Tanner." The voice was faint, blurred with sleep and drugs. "Have you returned so soon from your jaunt in the wilds?"

Vin felt a slow smile cross his face. "Hey, Pard. You got more tubes stuck in you than one of those kiddie playgrounds at McDonalds."

" analogy," Ezra gasped. He tried to raise one hand toward his throat, only to stare at the dangling IV tubing. "Dear there no inch of my flesh these miscreants... haven't pierced with their savage needles?" He coughed painfully.

Vin reached for the cup of ice chips next to the bed. He dug a few out with the spoon and offered them to Ezra. "Here. Nurse said your throat would hurt."

Ezra accepted, sucking the ice greedily. "My throat...isn't the only...thing." He closed his eyes. "So, how was your pursuit of piscatory excellence?"

"Y'know, Ez...if you wouldn't use them ten dollar words you might not need to have that oxygen tube stuck up your nose."

"Touché." Ezra coughed. "Could I trouble you for...some water?"

"Sorry, Pard. Nurse says you have to stick to ice chips for awhile yet." Vin offered him another spoonful.

Ezra nodded. "Would it be...terribly cliche for ask what happened to bring me to...this den of vampires masquerading..." he trailed off, breathing deeply from the nasal canula.

"Think you'd better stop talking for awhile." Vin glanced up at the monitors above Ezra's head. Unfortunately, since joining Team Seven, he'd spent enough time in hospitals--as both visitor and patient-- that he knew which one was the "pulse-ox" and that Ezra's reading was too low. "Looks like that little food poisoning bug was too much for you."

Ezra nodded slightly. A frown creased his forehead and he opened his eyes and looked around the room. "Mr. Wilmington?"

"He'll be okay," Vin soothed. "Chris is with him." He saw the battle waging on Ezra's face and forestalled any more questions. "Go back to sleep, Ez. I'll tell ya all about it in the mornin'."

7:30 am

As early morning light flooded Buck's fourth-floor hospital room, Chris slowly stood up from the chair next to the bed. He stretched muscles protesting from too much sitting and surveyed his friend with an anxiety he'd never have allowed to cross his face had Buck been awake to see it.

He walked over to the window and stared out at the hospital grounds below. A white marble statue surrounded by flowering plants was directly in front of the main entrance. The helipad was to the west, past a parking lot. Farther on, pathways studded with benches meandered around huge trees.


Larabee turned at the sound of his name. Buck's dark blue eyes were open, watching him. "Hey. You're awake. How're you feeling?" Chris walked back to the side of the bed.

Buck didn't answer. He looked around the room, then back at Chris with an alarmed expression on his face. "Ezra?" He started to sit up.

Chris put a hand on his shoulder to hold him back. "He's okay. Doin' better. Vin said he woke up for a few minutes around four this morning."

Buck grinned. "That sounds like his timing." The grin vanished. "What're you doin' here, Pard? You and Junior get tired of tryin' to catch Old Pete?"

Larabee smiled. Old Pete was their nickname for the giant catfish supposedly lurking in the depths of the lake in Wyoming. "Think Old Pete is waiting for you," he said easily.

Buck shook his head. "Why'd you come back so early?" He frowned. "How'd you even know where we were?"

"Well, not 'cause you called me," Chris couldn't resist pointing out. He sighed. "Hoyt was ROR'd two days ago."

"Son of a --"

"Yeah. And of course, the first thing he did was bail out his gang. Then someone in Travis' office got a tip that Hoyt knew the identities of the two undercover ATF agents who'd brought him down. Judge thought you were with us, but he couldn't get 'hold of Ezra, so he called me at the cabin."

Buck's eyes widened. A look of understanding crossed his face. "Then you couldn't reach either of us," he finished quietly. "Shit, Chris, I'm sorry. I should of called you."

"Yeah. You should have." Chris took a deep breath. "But I shouldn't have thrown you into a wall, either."

"Is that what happened?" Buck managed a grin. "I don't remember much after you came bustin' in ta Ez's room. How'd you figure out where we were?"

Chris sat down in the chair. "The Judge found out Ezra had been admitted here. Guess someone in the Denver PD finally thought to review the 911 tapes from yesterday. Vin and I were just gettin' back into town when he called us."

Buck knew how nerve-wracking that long trip would have been for his friends. "Damn, Chris, I'm sorry," he repeated. "I meant to call you...seemed like every time I thought to do it, I got sidetracked." He paused. "What am I doing here, anyway?" He nodded at the IV in his arm. "You didn't throw me into a wall that hard."

Chris managed a chuckle. "No. You passed out right after we got here. Dehydration, low blood sugar--basic exhaustion. Milder version of what's wrong with Ez. What happened anyway? Thought you said you were feelin' better?"

"I was. Thought Ezra would start improvin', too. But when I called him yesterday he couldn't even talk. I just grabbed some clothes and ran to the truck." Buck shook his head. "Didn't get my watch or my cell, even. Hell, I'm not even sure I locked the door behind me. When I got there..." Buck's eyes dimmed with the memory. "Hell, Chris, he was puking up blood. I didn't know what was wrong with him. You sure he's gonna be okay?"

Chris nodded reassuringly. "Doctor says he's doing okay. He's been stable for almost six hours and they took out one of the IVs. It was close, though, Buck. If you hadn't got him here when you did..."

Buck closed his eyes. "So when do I get out of here?"

"Around noon, probably. They want to make sure you can keep down some breakfast before they take out the IV." Chris changed the subject. "Guess who's guarding your door? Our old buddy Hamilton from the Denver PD."

Buck snorted. "Bet the prick loves that assignment. Can't believe they never got rid of him." His eyes snapped open, startled. "Why's anyone guardin' my door?"

"Well, figure it out," Chris drawled. "If Hoyt knows who you and Ez are, you're both in danger. And we're kinda short-handed at the moment, remember?"

"You didn't call JD, did ya, Chris?" Buck asked, alarmed. "No reason to ruin his vacation--"

"No, I haven't called him, or Nathan, or Josiah...yet." Chris steeled himself for what he knew was coming. "And I won't, but you have to stick with Vin or me. When they let you out of here, you're going to my place until Hoyt's back in custody."

Part 12

"This is not...fair," Ezra groaned, turning restlessly to one side. His various tubes and wires tangled around each other.

Patiently, as he had been doing all morning, Vin straightened out the tangle and smoothed the blankets up over the miserable undercover agent. "Want ta' try some more water?" he asked gently. Glancing over at the rolling table, he added, "or apple juice?"

Ezra just groaned again and buried his sweaty face in the pillows. Vin sighed and eased back into the chair. He couldn't blame Ezra. The hospital staff had started him on small amounts of liquids around eight that morning. The first few sips of diluted apple juice had gone down well, but within a half-hour Ezra was plagued again by the violent nausea and vomiting. The vomiting continued long after the scant contents of his stomach had been emptied in painful dry heaves. Concerned that the blood vessel in his throat would re-open, the hospital staff increased the IV fluids and the anti-nausea drugs, but still encouraged him to take in fluids orally. After a couple of hours of this, whatever energy Ezra had managed to recover through the night had been exhausted, and he curled up in his bed, gray- faced and sweating.

Vin, who was a lot like Ezra in a lot of ways, understood that the Southerner was humiliated at having others see him in his weakened condition. Ezra was like a wild animal when he was sick, preferring to crawl into his den with no one bothering him until he recovered. Vin was much the same way. Unfortunately, the worse Ezra felt, the more the hospital staff poked and prodded him, causing him to retreat further and further behind his poker mask.

There was a light tap on the door and it swung open to admit the blond-haired Dr. Baker, followed by Chris. The doctor had a clipboard in his hands and was studying it with a frown. Chris looked worn out, although he had apparently found a chance to run down to his truck for a change of clothes.

"Where's Bucklin?" Vin asked.

"Changing." Chris cocked his head at the doctor. "Dr. Baker here just discharged him."

There was a groan from the huddled pile of misery in the bed. "Unfair," Ezra gasped. "Mr. Wilmington consumed...double the amount of that Epicurean disaster than I did..."

"There's no telling the way an individual will react to a toxin," Baker said. He was still frowning at the chart, but he finally put it down on the foot of the bed. "Not feeling very well, are you, Mr. Standish?"

"Right now I'm wishing...that Mr. Larabee would follow through on his frequently-expressed...intention to shoot me."

Baker chuckled at the mock-glare Larabee threw at his patient. "You've had a rough morning. Your body needs rest. I'm going to stop the PO fluids for now and give you a sedative. We'll try again in a couple of hours to get you to drink something."

Ezra sighed. "Fine."

Baker raised his eyebrows. "Fine? Now I know you aren't feeling well. Dr. Murray warned me you'd be trying to sneak out of the hospital by now."

"If he could stand up, he would be," Chris quipped.

"I understand you two were fishing up in Wyoming?" Baker asked Chris and Vin. "Catch anything?"

"Caught a mess o' trout," Vin answered.

"I love fresh trout," Baker admitted.

"Vin's got a great way of cookin' it, fried up with onions and garlic and some salt pork--" Chris stopped as he was pinioned by an emerald glare from the bed. He grinned. "Sorry, Ezra," he apologized.

Ezra closed his eyes. "Mr. Larabee. Mr.Tanner. When I recover from this...ailment...I have every intention of strangling both of you...with my bare hands."

Both his teammates grinned and the doctor laughed outright. "Well, I'd better do my part so that you can get back on your feet to do that," he commented, picking up the clipboard. He caught Chris' eye, then Vin's. "Gentlemen, if I might see you outside?"

"Oh, of course. Discuss my case behind closed doors," Ezra grumbled. "I am, after all, only the patient here."

Vin patted his leg through the blanket. "Be right back, Pard."

"The nurse will be in with that sedative," Baker said. He looked inquiringly at his patient. "You aren't going to protest?"

Ezra shook his head. "Right now, could kill me...and I'd not only thank you, I'd leave you all my worldly goods."

"Hmm, tempting offer. But killing patients wreaks havoc on my malpractice insurance," the doctor quipped. He smiled sympathetically. "Hang in there, Mr. Standish, you should start to feel better soon."

"Be good," Chris ordered, following the doctor and Vin out the door. Once it had swung closed, he eyed the doctor steadily. "What's wrong?"

Baker took a deep breath. "I'm not exactly sure," he admitted. "He should be responding better than he is." He frowned. "And his bloodwork keeps coming back with abnormalities. Significantly different than Mr. Wilmington's results, or the results of anyone else who has been treated for this toxin."

"What's that mean?" Vin asked.

His concern was mirrored on Chris' face. "Doctor?"

"I'm going to knock him out for awhile, let his body get a chance to rest," Baker said slowly. "That may be all that's needed...but in the meantime, I want to run some more tests. We might be dealing with something more than just food poisoning here."


Buck eased himself down into the chair beside the bed. His muscles ached with fatigue, but he was afraid if he lay back down in the bed someone would take it in their head to keep him in the hospital. Bad enough Chris was insisting that he go to the ranch instead of his own place.

He reached over and picked up the newspaper a volunteer had brought by that morning. Chris had obviously thumbed through it but not read it carefully; the folds were still intact. Buck glanced at the front page then leafed through to the second section, the "City/State" section.

The headline blared up at him: LOCAL ENTREPENEUR ARRAIGNED ON FEDERAL WEAPONS CHARGES. Under the two-column heading was a large black and white photo, obviously from stock footage.

"Oh, shit," Buck breathed. The picture had been taken at some large social event. Marcus Hoyt, resplendent in black-tie, beamed at the camera, his arm possessively around the slender shoulders of the young woman with him.

The caption read "Marcus Hoyt and his niece Sarah Bryant at last month's Jubilee Ball to benefit AIDS research."


The newspaper dropped from nerveless fingers as his mind flashed back...

Hoyt had invited "Edward Steen" to join him for a day of spring skiing at his lodge at Keystone. Surprisingly, he'd also made a point of requesting Steen's bodyguard/assistant, "Brian Jakes", come along. "He don't usually seem to notice I exist," Buck had commented on the drive.

It was a small party, less than a dozen people. Most of them were gathered around the massive stone fireplace in the living room when Buck and Ezra arrived. Hoyt immediately offered hot buttered rum. Ezra raised an eyebrow and commented he usually preferred his apris- ski drinks to be just that.

Buck wandered out onto the deck that surrounded three sides of the lodge. He leaned against the cedar railing and stared at the mountain towering above.

"Mr. Jakes?"

He turned at the hesitant feminine voice. "Sarah!" he gasped, then quickly recovered himself. "Ms. Bryant, I mean." He flashed his best grin. "Beg your pardon for bein' so forward."

She laughed. 'Oh, hell, she even laughs like Sarah,' Buck despaired.

Sarah Bryant was wearing a royal blue sweater with cream ski pants. A cream-colored parka was slung over her shoulders. Buck remembered the silk blouse he'd "helped" Adam pick out for his mama that last Christmas. It had been just that shade of blue...

"You're staring at me, Mr. Jakes." Dimples deepened as she smiled. "Do I have dirt on my nose, or something?"

Buck had to smile. "No way. I was just...admirin' your sweater."

"I bought it in Switzerland last year. It's my favorite color," she explained.

"I know," Buck said, then shook his head. "I mean--"

She ignored his discomfiture as she came closer to him. "I'm glad you came."

He raised his eyebrows. "So you're the reason I got an invitation?"

She tilted her head to one side and smiled a little. "I enjoyed our talk at the party the other night. So, do you ski?"

"Yes, ma'am, I do." 'This is a mistake,' Buck thought. He indicated the mountain behind them. "Care to join me on the run, Ms. Bryant?"

"Only if you call me Sarah," she pouted. "Ms. Bryant makes me sound like an old maid schoolteacher."

"An' you surely aren't that...Sarah." Buck took a deep breath. "I'm...Brian."

She smiled again. "I know."

The afternoon was wonderful. By accident or design, they were separated from the rest of the party most of the day. Buck was uneasy when he realized it had been hours since he'd seen Ezra. "It's gettin' late," he told Sarah, glancing at the setting sun. "I'd better go track down Edward. He's got some shin-dig tonight."

"The cocktail party at the Regency," Sarah said knowingly. "Uncle Marcus said he was inviting him." She hesitated. "Do you have to go, too?" She rushed on before he could say anything, "Because I hate cocktail crowded and smoky...I--" she turned pink. "I was wondering if you and I could have dinner."

Buck was wrapped in the warmth of her smile. He could hear himself saying, "I reckon we could manage that."

Buck walked out into the living room of the penthouse, wondering-- not for the first time--who the hell decorated a room in white leather, smoked glass and chrome. Ezra was standing at the windows, staring out at the lights. Only one small lamp was turned on and the room was full of shadows.

"You're goin' to be late for your party."

"And you don't want to be tardy for your dinner engagement."

It was the first thing Ezra had said since Buck had told him about his dinner plans on the drive back from Keystone. Wilmington walked over to the wet bar and poured himself a drink. "You goin' to be okay on your own?"

"I'm quite sure I can manage. It's you I am concerned about."

Buck flushed. "Ez--"

"This is not a good idea, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck slammed the glass down. "Damn, Ezra, we have a job to do, remember? How can it hurt getting close to Hoyt's niece?"

Ezra turned to look at him. "Because you aren't getting close to her because of who she is, Mr. Wilmington, but because of who she isn't."

Anger rolled through Buck. "I know what I'm doin'," he snapped. "If gettin' close to her gets us some information--"

"That might be Brian Jakes' excuse," Ezra said softly. He turned back to the windows and Buck could barely hear his words. "But you aren't Brian Jakes. And the Buck Wilmington I know couldn't use" any woman...much less one that so strongly resembles someone he cared for so deeply."

The anger drained away from Buck. "I know she's not Sarah," he sighed.

"Remember that, Buck. Remember who she isn't. And...remember who you are."


Wilmington looked up, startled. Vin was standing in the open doorway of his room, pushing a wheelchair in front of him. Tanner was staring at him in concern. "You ready, Pard?"

Buck took a deep breath. He picked up the newspaper and rolled it tightly, hiding the photograph. "Yeah," he said hoarsely. "Let's get out of here."

Part 13

Chris stood in the corner of the room and watched as Ezra fought the sedative flooding through his system. 'Damn stubborn cuss,' he thought. 'Can't surrender control even when he's miserable.'

But in that respect Ezra wasn't much different from his teammates. Most of the other people in the ATF office couldn't figure out how Team Seven managed to keep from killing each other, much less work together effectively. But they did work together--very effectively- - enough to be nicknamed (supposedly behind their backs) the "Magnificent Seven." The members--each with their own emotional baggage--had come together to form something more than just the sum of their parts.

Ezra Standish, the undercover agent with the unstable childhood who'd been betrayed and framed by his own mentor in the FBI.

Vin Tanner, orphaned as a child, a modern day bounty hunter turned US Marshal turned ATF sharpshooter, fighting to triumph over dyslexia and a childhood spent in foster homes and on the streets. Still trying to live up to the name his mother had told him was his greatest treasure.

JD Dunne, certified genius, fighting to be accepted as a man one minute and desperate for the approval and security he'd lost with his mother's death the next.

Josiah Sanchez, son of a hellfire-and-damnation minister; a former hippie, former anthropologist, former preacher, former cop--he'd once made the comment he'd seen justice from every angle and found it wanting.

Nathan Jackson, whose dreams of medical school had been unfulfilled due to lack of funds and family responsibilities. He carried the pain and bitterness of his mother's suicide deep in his heart.

And then there was Buck. Devil-may-care charmer carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but hidden only so that a few could see.

And Chris himself.

He never said it. He hated even to admit it, but Chris knew the secret to his Team's success. They were more than a team.

They were a family.

And no matter what they might say or do to each other, they faced the world with a united front.

Chris stood silently in the corner and watched as Ezra finally succumbed to sleep.


"Mind taking me by my place before we head out to Chris's"? Buck broke the silence which had existed since he and Vin had left the hospital. "I need to get some clothes an' things if I'm goin' to be under house arrest."

Vin glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "Better than bein' dead," he commented, signaling for a turn that would take him toward Buck's neighborhood.

Buck made a noise that was halfway between a snort and a laugh. "Yeah, I reckon it is at that."

Vin glanced at him again. There was a reason he'd talked Chris into letting him take Buck to the ranch while Chris remained at the hospital. He took a deep breath. "Bucklin, I need to know somethin'."

Buck seemed to brace himself. "What?"

Vin stared straight ahead at the car in front of them. Now that the moment had come he wasn't really sure he wanted to know the truth. "Is the reason you backed out of goin' to Wyoming...'cause I was going?"

Buck whipped his head around to stare at him. "What?" After a second, he closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. "Shit. Oh, no, Vin. Hell, I'm sorry. I never even thought 'bout that--why would it make a difference? Hell, I'm the one that invited ya!"

"Thought maybe you'd changed your mind," Vin said quietly. "Chris said nobody'd ever been up there but the two of you."

"Vin, ya gotta believe me. You goin' along had nothin' to do with me not going."

Vin managed a smile. "That's what Chris said. Those very words, even."

"Yeah. Well, he knows me pretty well." Buck's voice dropped to almost a whisper. "Too well, sometimes."

Silence stretched between them again. Vin stopped the truck at a red light. "So?" he said finally.

Buck sighed. He looked down at the newspaper he'd been twisting in his hands since they'd left the hospital. With a sudden movement he flipped it open.

Vin could see the picture enough to tell it was Marcus Hoyt with some young woman. Buck was staring down at the paper. "Hoyt had-- has a niece," he said abruptly.

The light turned green. Vin nudged the accelerator. "So?" he prodded.

"She was here, visiting...the whole time Ez and I were undercover." Buck was speaking with difficulty. "She...we..." he sighed again. "We got to be more than friends," he said finally.

Knowing Buck and his propensity for the ladies, that was not a big surprise. Vin couldn't figure out why his friend was so upset about it. "You were undercover," he pointed out.

Buck laughed harshly. "Yeah. And I told myself that I needed to get close to her, see if she knew anything...get information about Hoyt's business." He leaned his head back. "Damn Vin, she's just a kid. No older than JD. And I used her. And she--" he stopped abruptly.

Vin frowned. 'That don't sound right.' "You don't use people, Bucklin," he pointed out. " were doin' your job."

Buck snorted. "Yeah. My job. An' I'll just bet that makes her feel a whole lot better when she finds out the truth."

Vin didn't know what to say to him. They pulled up in front of Buck's building, and Vin left Buck in the truck while he got out to approach the squad car parked in front. "Hey," he said, flashing his ID for the officer. "Any trouble?"

The uniformed cop shook his head. "Been quiet since I came on at six."

Vin put his wallet back in his jeans pocket and nodded for Buck to get out of the truck. "We're goin' up to Agent Wilmington's apartment for a few minutes. You need to take a break?"

"Well, I could go for some coffee, now that you mention it." The officer turned the key in the ignition. "I'll be back in ten."

Vin nodded and jogged to catch up to Buck, who was already in the front entrance.

The loft apartment was actually a little neater than usual. For a change, there weren't any clothes strewn on the living room furniture and it looked like someone had vacuumed in recent memory. Vin never thought too much about Buck and JD's housekeeping (or lack of same) although Ezra had nicknamed the place the CDC and commented he had to get his shots updated every time they played poker there.

Buck headed for the stairs to his loft bedroom. "Help yourself to somethin' to drink. But I think all there is is Seven Up."

"That's okay." Vin started looking in the sofa cushions for the cordless phone. "Gotta call Chris an' tell him where we are."


Buck reached the top of the stairs and immediately had to sit down on the unmade bed. 'Whoa,' he thought, shutting his eyes against a wave of dizziness. He could hear Vin downstairs talking to Chris. "How's Ez?" he called when Vin hung up, reaching under the bed for his duffel bag. He shakily got to his feet and started for the closet.

"Sleepin'...finally," he heard Vin yell back.

Buck reached out to pull the closet door open. Too late he saw the telltale twisted red, black and yellow wires. In one heart-stopping minute he recognized them for what they were.

He stumbled back several steps. "VIN!"

There was a burst of searing light, then a horrible roaring noise. Buck's body was thrown up into the air.

He blacked out before he felt the pain.

Part 14

Vin clambered to his hands and knees and stayed there, swaying. His ears were ringing and his head ached with a horrible pulsing throb that made him sick to his stomach. Supporting himself on one hand, he wiped the other over his brow, feeling the warm stickiness of his own blood on his fingers.

'What the hell--'

He forced open eyes that felt full of grit. The air around him was thick with grayish-brown dust. It stung his eyes, caught at his throat.

Slowly, memory seeped back. He was at Buck's apartment. He'd been on the phone to Chris...then Buck had yelled his name--


He tried to rise to his feet and was forced back down by a wave of dizziness. Mindlessly, he crawled on hands and knees to the staircase.

The top half of the staircase was gone.

The loft wasn't there anymore.

He could see the leaden Denver skies through a huge, gaping hole where the wall and ceiling of Buck's bedroom used to be.

"Buck!" Vin choked out. His throat screamed in protest. He coughed and tried again. "BUCK! Answer me!"


A darker shadow against the dust moved. By instinct Vin moved toward it, staggering forward like a drunk, clinging to walls and battered furniture. He moved around the sectional sofa. Behind that had once been a wall of windows, arched glass set into the stone walls.

The glass was gone now, no doubt lying four stories below in a glittering rain of death.

Buck was between the sofa and the windows, lying in a boneless pile, arms and legs sprawled anywhere, blood pooling underneath his body.

"Oh, damn, Buck." Vin fell to his knees beside his friend, afraid to touch him, afraid to know, afraid not to know. He hesitantly bent low over the still body, two fingers desperately pressed into the side of the bloody neck. "Come on Buck...I know you aren't can't be. Give me a sign here..."

There was a tiny flutter underneath his fingers; Buck's faint breathing cooled his cheek. "That's it, hang in there. You hear me, Bucklin? You hang on!"

He couldn't pull the battered body close to him as much as he wanted to hold the bigger man back from the shadow of death that was lurking to claim him. Any movement could be dangerous...fatal. Vin clasped Buck's hand tightly in both of his, trying to force life into their joined clasp. His ears still ringing from the blast, he couldn't hear sirens but he knew help must be approaching. He just had to keep Buck alive until it got here.

He knelt close to his friend, ignoring Buck's blood soaking into the knees of his own jeans.

'Hang in there. Just hang in there...'


hris Larabee woke, startled. Sitting up straighter in the uncomfortable chair, he quickly checked Ezra, thinking perhaps the undercover agent had made some sound. Ezra had slept like the dead for hours, barely moving. As Chris watched, Standish's head moved a little against the pillow but he showed no other signs of waking.

Chris sighed and stretched, standing to work out the kinks in his back. The room was shadowy and chilly. The one window faced north and the sky, which had been heavy with storm clouds all day, was darkening with the approach of evening.

Suddenly alarmed, Chris checked his watch. Almost five p.m. Anxiety churned his stomach. 'Buck. Vin. Where the hell are they?' He'd last heard from his two friends when Vin had called from Buck's apartment around one-thirty. 'They should have been to the ranch hours ago. Vin should have called.'

As he reached for the bedside telephone to call his home, it rang. Chris grabbed the receiver. "Larabee!" he snapped.

"Chris." Chills cascaded down Chris' back. Icy fear clenched his bowels. He knew, without Vin having to say more than that one word, that something was terribly wrong. "Vin, where are you?"

"At University Medical Center. The Trauma Unit--"

"You hurt?" Chris interrupted.

"Not me." Tanner's voice broke. "Chris, get over here right now. It's Buck." Chris could hear him take a ragged breath over the phone. "Chris...there was a bomb in his apartment."


Chris' mind slammed to a screeching halt. The pale beige walls of the hospital room disappeared, to be replaced by the vision that for so long had haunted his thoughts. Darkness, and police cars...the burned out hulk of his pickup...Sarah and Adam...dead.

'Not Buck. God, please, no. Not Buck.'

He became aware that Tanner's voice was still talking in his ear but he hadn't heard anything after that word "bomb." "Vin?" he said, his tone pleading, recognizing it for what it was. 'Tell me he's okay...tell me it's all right...'

Tanner's voice was rough with fear and urgent as he said "Chris. Hurry. Just...hurry!"


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