Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

Part 15
Chris dropped the phone. Turning on his heel, he strode to the door and flung it open. The chair outside the door was empty, but looking down the hall he saw two uniformed policemen standing by the nurses station. They were talking with two other men whom Chris recognized. The older one, wearing a well-tailored suit and leaning on a cane, was David Montgomery. Montgomery had been a decorated ATF field agent until a fall while chasing a suspect had left him with a permanent back injury. He was now AD Travis's assistant. The much younger man with him was a new agent, Bobby Fewell. He was temporarily assigned to Team Three and was a friend of JD's.

All four men looked up as Chris charged down the hall. Montgomery stepped forward, leaning on his cane, to intercept him. "Chris," he started, then stopped at the look on Chris' face. "You know, don't you?"

Chris nodded. He couldn't seem to think. "Vin called me." He didn't even recognize the voice that came from his mouth as his own. "I've got to get...get over there." He looked at the two policemen. "You're on guard duty here?"

"Chris." Montgomery said soothingly. "I'll stay here with Agent Standish. AD Travis has requested extra men from the Denver PD to augment security here, and Agent Fewell will drive you to University Medical Center."

Chris nodded. He kept hearing Vin's voice in his head, telling him to hurry. Then another thought interceded and he fixed a steely glare on Montgomery. "If Ezra don't tell him anything, understand? Nothing about Buck being...hurt." The words stuck in his throat.

Montgomery looked nonplussed. "Surely," he started.

Chris cut him off. "Nothing, damn it! I'll tell him or Vin will tell him. You don't tell him anything."

"He's going to notice you're gone," Montgomery pointed out reasonably.

"Then you tell him I got called into the office, that I went to get something to eat...lie like a rug if you have to but you don't tell him a damn thing about Buck. And don't leave him alone!" Without waiting for a response, Chris turned on his heel and strode down the corridor to the elevators. He could hear the soft pad of athletic shoes as Fewell followed him.

It wasn't until they were in an Agency car--Fewell had a motorcycle, Chris vaguely remembered--that he asked, icily, "What the hell happened?"

Fewell gulped. "I really don't know. My team is over there--at JD's-- at the site, working with the Denver PD bomb squad. Team Four went to Agent Standish's home to check for more bombs."

"I don't give a fuck what Team Three or Team Four are doing," Chris forced the words through clenched teeth. "What the hell happened to Buck?"

"I don't know," the kid said miserably. "I was in Agent Montgomery's office when he got the call. I didn't hear details."

Chris leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "Why University?" he asked. "It's clear on the other side of town!"

Bobby Fewell took a deep breath. "It's the best trauma facility in the whole state," he said simply. He paused, his eyes on the traffic around him. "Agent you want me to call JD?"

'JD. Shit. JD! How do I tell the kid his big brother is--

'He's not. He'll be fine. Buck has to be fine.'

"No," Chris said finally. He reached for his cellular phone, punching in the automatic dial buttons first for Josiah Sanchez, then Nathan Jackson. Neither man answered. Chris didn't leave a voice mail message. Then he held the phone in his hand for several minutes, hesitating. He closed it without calling Dunne. "I'll call him when I know...something more," he said quietly.

Neither man spoke for the rest of the drive.

Fewell dropped Chris off at the Emergency entrance to the bustling University Medical Center. Chris came through the automatic doors and went straight to the central reception desk. "Buck Wilmington," he snapped. "Where is he?"

The receptionist didn't even look at her computer screen. "Are you Agent Larabee?"

Chris nodded tersely.

"Trauma Unit." She pointed. "Down that hall, make a left, go through the double doors." Chris was moving before the last words had left her mouth.


Larabee heard the familiar voice the instant he crashed through the double doors. There was a large waiting area on the right. Vin was sitting there on a shapeless orange loveseat, but he stood up rather dizzily as Chris approached. The sharpshooter had a wide bandage across his forehead. His long hair was crusted with dried blood. Instead of the shirt he'd been wearing earlier, he was wearing a blue surgical-scrub, with more bandages peeking out from underneath the short sleeves. He was still wearing his jeans though. The denim was covered with irregular brownish-red splotches.

"Are you all right?" Chris demanded.

Vin nodded, in spite of the obvious visual evidence that he wasn't. His face was sheet-white, and bruise-like smudges were visible underneath his eyes. "Chris--"

"Where's Buck?" Chris demanded. "How is he?"

"He's still back there." Vin waved toward another reception desk and behind it, another set of double doors with an imposing "No Admittance Beyond This Point" sign. "Nobody's said nothing to me yet. Chris--" his voice shook. "Chris...he wasn't breathin' when we got here. He stopped breathin' in the ambulance and...and they bagged him all the way in."

"Oh, God--" Chris looked around, then dropped limply onto the orange couch. Vin sat next to him. He looked terrible. 'He's got to be in shock,' Chris thought numbly. But he couldn't say anything. His mind kept trying to wrap itself around the thought that Buck hadn't been breathing. That Buck could be...

As always, he couldn't deal with the emotions. He cut them off, forced them back, felt the anger coming out and welcomed it. Anger would give him strength. "What the hell happened?" he growled.

Vin rubbed his hand over his eyes; Chris noticed he was careful not to touch the white bandage. "We got there," he reported tiredly, staring unseeingly at the wall. "The cop on duty said everything had been quiet. I called you, and --Buck," there was just the faintest hesitation in his voice before the name, "Buck went upstairs to get some clothes and stuff." Vin was speaking by rote, his eyes never blinking. "He yelled my name--and then, the loft...there was this...God-awful noise and--"

The double doors slid open and a gray-haired man in scrubs and a lab coat stepped out. He stopped at the desk, and the elderly woman in a crisp pink smock pointed toward Vin and Chris. The man approached. "Are you two here for Buck Wilmington?"

Chris stood up. "I'm Chris Larabee." His throat was so very tight as he forced out the next words. "How is he?"

"Mr. Larabee, maybe you'd better sit down."

"I don't want to sit down! Tell me how he is!"

Vin reached up and put a hand on his arm. "Chris...go easy...he ain't the enemy here."

Chris clenched his fists, fought for control. 'God, this can't be happening.' He covered his eyes with one hand. "Just tell me how he is, please."

The man nodded. Sitting down on another shapeless seat across from the two ATF agents, he looked pointedly at Chris until he, too, sat. "I'm Dr. Culver."

The name was vaguely familiar to Chris but he couldn't remember why. He tensed, waiting for the next words to come from the doctor's mouth.

"Mr. Wilmington is in extremely critical condition. His blood pressure is very low; he's not breathing on his own. We have him on a respirator. I suspect massive internal hemorrhaging. We're taking him up to OR immediately."

Chris couldn't breathe, couldn't think. The words reverberated like an echo chamber. "Can I see him?" he managed to ask.

"There's no time, Mr. Larabee. Every second right now could make a difference."

Chris looked up. His eyes flared with anger. "Then what are you waiting for?"

"Mr. Larabee, we have him on a respirator," the doctor said gently. "We have to have consent from his next of kin before--"

"I'm his damn next of kin!" Chris voice was a ravaged whisper. "You can call the Legal Office at the ATF, or you can take my word for it...but I have his Power of Attorney for medical decisions. Just give me the damn papers to sign and go--" his throat closed up and he couldn't say anything else.

Culver nodded and stood. "I'll have the nurses keep you posted with what's going on. You can wait here, or in the surgical waiting room on the second floor."

"Doc--" Vin started. "Is he...gonna make it?"

Culver met Vin's eyes, then his own flickered toward Chris. "We'll do all we can," he said quietly. "Mr. Wilmington has to do his part wouldn't hurt to pray for a miracle."


They went to the second-floor waiting room--which looked exactly like the room they'd just left except it was done in mauve and gray rather than orange and beige. The furniture was still that squishy, shapeless stuff that made Vin's spine feel like it was going to snap in two.

Vin got them cups of hot black coffee from a machine tucked into a corner. On the way back, his attention was caught by a discreet sign: "Cellular phones prohibited in this facility with the exception of Main Floor Lobby and Waiting Areas."

He handed one cup to Chris and then pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket. He'd left the jacket in Chris' truck but for some reason he'd thought to grab it before he climbed in the ambulance with Buck. He had a slip of paper in his wallet where he'd written down the number for Ezra's room at Lakewood-St. David's. David Montgomery answered. He said Ezra hadn't woken up yet but he was restless and moving around a lot. Just before they hung up, he added that Team Four had found a bomb in Ezra's condo and had successfully disarmed it. Vin let the phone drop into his lap.

"What?" Chris asked. Vin started; he'd thought Chris' whole attention was on the double doors leading back to the operating rooms. "Ez okay?"

"He's still sleepin', but restless." 'Damn I need to get over there before he wakes up. He don't need to wake up with someone he barely knows sittin' beside him. But I can't leave Chris alone like this either...' If his head would just stop pounding maybe he could figure something out...

"They found a bomb at Ez's place," he said out loud. "Got rid of it. Maybe it'll tell the investigators somethin'."

"Was anybody else hurt? At Buck's?" Chris added the last words with difficulty. His eyes strayed back to the double doors.

"No." Vin hesitated. "I'm no bomb expert, but it looked t' me like it was just set to take out one person. Buck was gettin' clothes...I'm guessin' it was in his closet or maybe the chest of drawers." He paused. "I bet he saw it," he added quietly. "Just before the--before it happened--I heard him yell my name."

Chris nodded, saying nothing. After a few more minutes of silence, he pulled his own cell phone out. Never taking his eyes off the double doors, his fingers punched in an auto--dial sequence. "Nathan?" he said after a few seconds. "You need to come back. And bring JD with you. There's been..." he stopped, seemingly unable to say the word "bomb". Vin took the phone from him.

"Nate, it's me."

"What's going on, Vin?" Nathan's voice sounded worried even through the distorted connection. "Where are you, anyway? Wyoming?"

"No. We're in Denver. Ezra's in the hospital and Buck...Buck was caught in a bombin' this afternoon." He could see Chris wince at the words. Nathan started to sputter questions but Vin just kept talking. "He's in surgery now. Get JD, Nathan. We need you t' come home."


Nathan parked the rental car in the hotel lot. His duffel and backpack were already in the trunk. He and Rain were due to meet JD and Casey for dinner. It was their first get-together since he and JD had arrived in the Sunshine State. Different life-styles, really: he and Rain had so little time together between his job, the extra courses he was taking at night, her med school classes and her work at the hospital, that they had just wanted time alone. Long walks on the beach; intimate, romantic dinners in small restaurants off the tourist path; making long lingering love in the hotel room.

Casey and JD were younger, more caught up in the "party-time" atmosphere of Spring Break in Florida. Or at least Casey was. Nathan suspected JD would have had just as good a time--maybe a better time- - if he hadn't been constantly surrounded by a pack of wild college kids determined to party down every minute.

He and Rain had talked, while he'd quickly packed. They'd decided it would be best if she came along with him. She could stay with Casey while he and JD headed to the airport. Maybe Casey would even want to come back to their hotel with Rain. Nathan would turn in Rain's rental at the airport--she could use the one JD had.

Rain tucked her hand in his pocket as they started for the imposing glass entrance. Nathan put his arm around her. Normally they weren't demonstrative in public but right now he needed her strength.

It had taken patient questioning--patience he really didn't feel, he'd wanted to yell through the phone at Vin until the sharpshooter gave him all the answers--but he'd managed to find out Buck and Ezra had suffered some kind of food-poisoning and had stayed in Denver when the rest of the team left. Nathan's conscience kicked him hard. 'I knew somethin' was wrong with Buck at the airport. I knew Ezra didn't look good. I should have done something!'

Ezra was still in the hospital being treated for the food poisoning. Buck had somehow--Vin sounded in shock, he wasn't giving details-- got to his own place.

And a bomb went off.

After Vin had hung up, while Nathan was throwing his things into his bags, Rain had called a friend who was a nurse at University Medical Center. The friend knew about Buck's admission--the bombing was big news in Denver --but all she could tell Rain was what Vin had already told Nathan.

Extremely critical condition. In surgery right now.

"Hey, Nathan!" JD called from across the lobby and waved enthusiastically, then headed toward them leading a giggling Casey by the hand. Casey's round faced was tanned and she had flowers in her hair. JD's fair skin was sunburned a painful-looking pink and he was wearing a shirt with bright orange parrots on a dark blue background. Except for the fact the shirt fit him, it looked like it could have been purloined from Buck's wardrobe--Nathan's unconscious smile faded.

JD was in front of them now. "Nathan! Rain! How's the vacation going? You guys look--"

And then he just stopped, his eyes glued to Nathan's face.

In the few seconds before Nathan could speak, JD changed before his eyes. Gone was the giddy kid on vacation. In his place was the stolid, no-nonsense, mature beyond-his-years agent that occasionally came out in times of stress. And seeing that JD always scared the crap out of Nathan, because it meant things were very bad indeed.

"JD--" he started.

"Who is it?" JD's voice was too calm, although his eyes were searing pools of agony. He dropped Casey's hand and stood in front of Nathan, his head tipped up a little so he could look him directly in the eyes. Rain moved away from Nathan and came up beside Casey, sliding one arm around her shoulders.

"Who?" JD insisted. "How bad?"

Nathan's mouth was dry. He had to swallow twice before he could speak. "We've gotta go home, JD," he finally managed. "Someone planted a bomb in your apartment."

A look of shock crossed JD's expressive face. "A bomb? Who'd--" he shook his head. "Was there a lot of damage? Boy, Buck'll be pissed-- "

And then he stopped. And he looked at Nathan. And Nathan saw it in his eyes as he realized what Nathan couldn't say."

JD started shaking his head in denial, even as the hard-as- nails agent disappeared to be replaced by a kid...a kid in fear for his big brother. "No. No. Not Buck...he couldn't...he wasn't there, Nathan! You know that! He went to Wyoming with Chris...and Vin...Nathan, he wasn't there!"

"I'm sorry, JD," Nathan said, his own heart breaking at the look on the kid's face. "We've got to go, kid. Buck needs you now."

Part 16
Lakewood-St. David's Hospital, Denver

Ezra Standish sleepily opened his eyes and saw an empty chair.

That kick-started his foggy brain as nothing else could have. Memory came flooding back, along with the realization he was in the hospital and why.


Ezra couldn't remember the last time he woke up in a hospital without at least one of his teammates near by keeping vigil. Well, yes, he could was that last time in Atlanta, when his world had collapsed in huge chunks around him. When his mentor, his friend, had framed him, betrayed him, and then walked away.

Months later, he'd woken up in a hospital in Denver.

His eyes opened and focused blearily around him. Pale green walls. Not his bed. Not his bedroom. Where was he? Who was he?

"Ezra? You awake?"

Adrenaline kicked in. His heart started pounding. The voice said "Ezra". Not Eric or Edward or Evan or Andrew or any of the other dozens of aliases he used to protect his real life when undercover. His cover was blown--he threw himself to his side, he had to get out, had to get away--he saw a door. He could get there--


The door opened and hand caught him, guiding him backward toward that hated bed. He was panting now, cornered, terrified--

"What the hell is going on in here? Ezra? You're awake!"

"Think he's a mite startled." A slow, drawling voice.

"What'd you do to him, Kid?" The voice belonging to the hands that held him directed the words above his head.

"I didn't do anything!" The first voice protested. "He just woke up!"

"Easy, Pard, you just need to calm down a bit." That was the voice of the man that held him.

The cooler voice from the door said, "Vin, go get the nurse."

Vin. Kid.

He recognized the voices and the people and sagged back in the bed, no longer fighting Buck Wilmington's hands. He turned his head and met the worried eyes of JD Dunne, who'd been sitting in the chair next to the bed but was now standing up. "My apologies, Mr. Dunne." He could hear the ragged edges of his own voice, the breathless panting for air. He closed his eyes and tried desperately to restore his calm facade.

The pain--which had been held at bay by panic--crashed over him then and he gasped, trying to curl into a ball to escape it.

"Ezra?" Another worried voice, this one deeper, close by. "Are you in pain, son?"

The first time Josiah Sanchez called him "son". It wasn't the last.

"Gentlemen," he gasped out. "What are you all doing here?"

There was a startled silence in the room. He pried open his eyes to see confused looks on JD's and Buck's faces, and Nathan's--and where had he come from--and a sad look on Josiah's. Vin was back in the doorway and he just shook his head.

But the answer came from Chris Larabee, who had somehow moved around and got to the head of the bed. "Well,'re here. Where would you expect us to be?"

Ezra stared at all of them. He was the newcomer. The black sheep with the cloud of disgrace hanging over them. They didn't even know him. He didn't know them. They didn't like him. He was so far past liking or disliking people he couldn't even remember what it felt like to have a friend. They couldn't trust him. He couldn't trust them, or anybody.

But they had stayed.

He was hurt, and they had stayed. Why? Because they were worried? Because they cared? Preposterous thoughts.

But because of them, he wasn't alone. For the first time in a long time, maybe his whole life, he wasn't alone.

And now he was. Something was wrong.

The door was open a few inches. He could hear voices outside. Maybe Chris--it had been Chris here last time he'd awoke, hadn't it?-- had just stepped out...but no, the voices weren't familiar. Closing his eyes, concentrating, Ezra willed himself to be able to hear.

"Brought you some coffee."

"Thank you." Silence. "Any word?"

"Both teams have reported in. They found a bomb at Standish's place, but they disarmed it and our guys and the Denver PD are examining it now. Preliminary reports are it's the same kind of device that took out Wilmington's."

Ezra held his breath, then cursed as he remembered the monitors. He forced himself to calm down. His pounding heart would set off that alarm any second now--

"How is Wilmington? Have you heard anything?"

"Called over to University Medical Center about twenty minutes ago. He's still in surgery. Doesn't look good."

Ezra stopped listening. He opened his eyes and studied the ceiling.

Buck was hurt.

He needed to get out of here.

His family needed him.


"We have to get to Denver," Nathan insisted.

"Sir, I understand what you're saying," the ticketing agent said, her tone frustrated. "But you don't seem to understand what I'm saying. I can't get you to Denver. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. This is Spring Break in Florida! Half the people in the country are going to fly into or out of this airport this week, and I think the other half are flying into Denver for spring skiing." She clicked a few more keys on her computer and shook her head, auburn curls flying. "Plus there's a snowstorm in the Northeast, another one in the Midwest, dense fog on the West coast and high winds in Texas!"

Nathan opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, JD reached across the counter and touched her arm. "Please," he said imploringly. "My best friend may be....he's hurt. Bad. We have to get home."

The ticketing agent looked up at JD. Her tense face softened as she took in his distraught face. Nathan held his breath. "Maybe..." she said softly. She looked back at her screen and typed in a series of commands. "Yeah..." she said to herself, "Now if that flight's delayed..." she typed again. After a minute a smile lit up her face. "Well, this doesn't get you to Denver but it gets you closer. There are two seats on a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. The flight's been delayed until ten-oh-six, landing in Dallas 11:36 local time. You're going to be stuck there until morning, but starting at 4:30 am there's a flight to Denver every hour. You should be able to get on standby and get there sometime tomorrow--before noon." She looked up apologetically. "That's really the best I can do."

Nathan nodded. "We'll take it."


Chris stared out the window. Not much of a view, actually; it was full dark now and the windows faced onto another wing of the hospital. But it was better than staring at those double doors leading to the OR that he'd been staring at for hours.

He reached one hand back to massage his neck, the muscles taut and screaming with tension. 'Over four hours with no word...'

Well, there was some word. About every hour or so, the phone would ring at the reception desk. The nurse--or whatever she was--would answer it, say a few words, put the phone down and then beckon to him or Vin. Always the same message--Buck was still in surgery. Still hanging on.

Still alive.

He stared out the window, not seeing. 'Hang in there, you son of a bitch. You die and I'll kill you myself.' He felt his lips curve into an unconscious smile as he could almost hear Buck's voice saying "Hell, Old Dog, that's a real threat!"

Finally leaving the window, he walked back to Vin. The lanky sharpshooter was sprawled half-on, half-off the sofa, dozing. His face was bleached pale in the flickering fluorescent lights. The bandage on his forehead was spotted. Chris caught sight of the dried blood on Vin's jeans and felt his stomach churn. He'd figured out that the blood was Buck's, not Vin's; and the thought of how much more of his old friend's blood must be staining the hardwood floors at his bombed-out apartment sent his mind screaming. He gasped, literally fighting to breathe. 'I've got to get out of here. Got to get some air.'

Leaving Vin dozing, he quickly went to the desk and told the woman behind it he'd be back soon and to page him if there was any news. She smiled, her eyes sympathetic, and nodded.

Chris turned on his heel and walked out of the waiting room, his strides lengthening as he approached the elevator. Punching the button for "Lobby" he dug his nails into his arms through the short trip down, then got off the lift and headed for the nearest exit.


Vin was half-asleep, half awake, caught in a restless world where dream and nightmare and reality merged. Over and over he heard Buck's voice yelling his name, then ear-shattering noise and darkness. His head pounded with the beat of his heart.

He felt the sofa dip next to him. Felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. He couldn't wake up.


Vin jerked back to reality at the sound of that voice. His eyes flew open to stare at the other man in shock. "Ezra!"

Part 17

The medical center complex sprawled out over two full city blocks. Chris walked the whole way around it, hands tucked deep into his pockets, shoulders bent into the chill wind. The rain had stopped but the temperature had sharply dropped with the advent of nightfall, and a bite to the wind suggested the encroaching clouds carried more than just rain.

He moved at a swift, steady pace, concentrating on nothing but the pounding of his boots on the pavement, the chill touch of air against his face. His mind worked desperately at shoring up the walls he'd structured around himself so long ago. Those walls were in danger of crumbling; the bedrock in which they had been entrenched had partly been his deep-seated faith that no matter what happened, no matter what he did, or said, or didn't say, Buck Wilmington would always be there.

A fragment of verse fluttered across his mind. He had no idea where he'd learned it. He frowned, pace unconsciously slowing as he tried to remember. What was it?

Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Don't walk behind me, I may not lead.
Just walk beside me, and be my friend.

He shivered.

The words could have been written with Buck Wilmington in mind.

He turned the corner and started downhill toward the front entrance of the hospital. The glass-fronted entrance was brilliantly lit, reaching out onto the dark pavement. A police car pulled away from the curb; stopped suddenly and reversed. The door opened and a figure stepped out.


Chris looked up at his name, eyes narrowing as he took in the figure stepping onto the lighted curb. "Hamilton." He could hear the ice in his tone. "What brings you here?"

The burly cop stuck his hands in his pockets. Surprisingly, given the weather, he wasn't wearing his heavy Denver PD-issue jacket but just his uniform with the long-sleeved shirt. "Drove your man Standish over."

Chris stopped in front of the other man; blinked; replayed the words in his mind. "What did you say?" He clenched his hands into fists to keep from grabbing the cop by the collar and pounding his face into the pavement, just for old time's sake.

"Standish." Hamilton smirked. "He found out about Wilmington."

Chris shook his head. "You mean they released him from the hospital?"

"More like he released himself. Discharged himself AMA." Incredibly, there seemed to be a hint of real admiration in the officer's sarcastic tone.

"How the hell did he find out?" Chris demanded harshly, taking a step forward.

Hamilton gave ground, his hands upheld. "Hey, it wasn't me that told him. Take it up with your buddies, the 'suits'. From what I figured out, he overheard a couple of them talking and pulled out the IV himself. Nothin' the doctor or that guy with the fancy cane said made any difference to him, he just out-talked them." No doubt about it, that was admiration in his voice. "I gave him a lift over here." He shrugged at Chris' glare. "Figured it was better than letting him take a bus or a cab. He was coming over anyway, I just thought I'd make sure he got here safely."

Chris forced back the rage. He knew Ezra. The man was acting exactly to form. Actually, he was behaving the same way any other member of Team Seven would do under the circumstances. Their own health or safety would always take a backseat to that of a teammate. That was the very reason Chris had warned Montgomery not to tell Ezra about Buck. 'I'm going to shoot that SOB Montgomery. Assistant to the Assistant Director or not.' He looked at Hamilton and grudgingly nodded. "Thanks, Sergeant." He turned to walk into the hospital.


Chris turned back.

Hamilton looked serious. "I hate your guts, Larabee. And I'm not crazy about Wilmington either. But...I never wanted something like this to happen to him. No matter what happened between us, you were good cops. You're probably good Feds. I hope Wilmington makes it."

Chris stared at him for a long moment, then nodded once. "Thanks." He turned his back and entered the hospital.


Vin stared at Ezra. "Ezra, what 'n' the hell'r you doing? You're supposed to be in the hospital!"

"I am in a hospital, Mr. Tanner," Standish pointed out. "How's Buck?" he added anxiously.

Vin shook his head, glancing over at the OR doors. "Don't know yet. He's still in surgery." He frowned. "How did you find out?"

Ezra dropped his gaze. His expression became carefully closed, shuttered. "I overheard Mr. Montgomery talking with young Agent Fewell."

"Hell, Ez, I'm sorry," Vin said softly. Standish's head jerked up. Vin went on, "You shouldn't've found out like that. I was gonna come back and tell you, but...hell, I didn't want to leave Chris until-- sorry, Pard."

"That's all right, Vin," Ezra said quietly. "Your place right now is with Mr. Larabee." He studied Tanner with a worried expression on his face. "Are you all right?"

"Me? I'm not the one who was pukin' up a lung!" Vin tried to grin. His head throbbed and he winced. "Can't believe they released you," he added. Then he took a good luck at the other man and groaned. "Shit. They didn't, did they? You snuck out?"

Ezra settled back gingerly against the upholstery. "You overestimate me, Mr. Tanner. Even I can't escape with a guard on my door and needles and wires stuck into every crevice."

Vin snorted. "Sure you could, if'n you put your mind to it."

" be honest, I didn't have quite enough energy to expend manufacturing a suitable scenario," Ezra admitted. "So I took a more direct approach."

"And that was?" Vin grasped at the conversation to keep his mind off his pounding headache and the churning feeling of panic in his gut every time he closed his eyes and saw Buck's battered body lying on the floor of the loft.

Ezra had closed his eyes. He looked bad. Exhaustion dragged at his words. "Surely you are aware, Mr. Tanner, that in this great country of ours it is against the law to retain a person against his or her will for treatment in a medical care facility unless said person has been deemed incompetent in a court of law or otherwise ordered to the treatment facility by authorized Agents of the law." Then he had to stop and breathe heavily.

Vin had the distinct suspicion Ezra had rehearsed that little speech on the way over. He thought about what Ezra had said, and then felt a slow smile cross his bruised and aching face. "Y'mean...ya just told the doc you were goin' t' leave?"

Ezra didn't look at him. "I wouldn't plan on using such a technique the next time you are injured or otherwise incarcerated in a hospital."

"Why not?"

"Because it is only effective if those around you are not willing to resort to brute force to keep you there for treatment." Ezra opened his eyes and translated, "In other words, had Mr. Jackson, or Mr. Sanchez, or, God forbid, our esteemed Mr. Larabee, been there--I wouldn't have had--in the vernacular--a hope in Hell."

Vin frowned. 'Well, shit.'

Then he took another look at the southerner. "Umm...nice threads, Ez. Don't somehow seem your style, though."

Ezra was wearing gray sweat pants and a bright red T-shirt advertising a local tennis club; both hung loosely on his slender frame. He had on a pair of dingy white Nikes that Vin suspected had at least two pairs of heavy socks stuffed in the toes, and a heavy Denver PD jacket that practically swallowed him.

"Well, when the esteemed Dr. Baker came to the correct conclusion that he was no longer going to be able to detain me, he decided there was some provision of the Hippocratic Oath that required him to procure appropriate attire for me. least more suitable than that deplorable hospital gown."

Two sets of double doors banged open at once. Chris Larabee strode in one set, his eyes shooting flames as he fixed his gaze on the undercover agent.

"Ah, damn," Ezra groaned, apparently recognizing the look.

And the doors to the operating rooms opened and Dr. Culver stepped out and headed in their direction.

Everyone froze.

Dr. Culver looked at Vin, then Chris; he frowned as he glanced at Ezra, then looked back at Chris. "Mr. Wilmington is quite a fighter. He made it through the surgery."

Chris was dizzy. He couldn't seem to catch his breath. Relief swam over him, weakening his knees. He dropped to the sofa next to Ezra. His mind filled with one thought. 'He's alive. He's alive.' He looked at his two friends. Vin was smiling widely in spite of the ugly black bruises that were starting to come out on his face. And Ezra--the undercover agent had leaned his head back against the nubby mauve upholstery and quite simply looked like he was going to pass out.

Chris exchanged relieved glances with Vin over Ezra's body and then switched his attention back to the doctor. What he saw there sent the fear rushing through his veins again. "Doctor--" he couldn't remember the man's name--"He made it through the surgery. That's good. He's out of danger?"

The other two must have sensed his tension. They both looked at the doctor.

"He's goin' to be okay, right?"

Ezra didn't say anything, just stared at the doctor through green eyes that were too-large in his pale face.

"Mr. Wilmington is still in very critical condition," the doctor said carefully.

Chris listened numbly as the doctor went through a seeming laundry- list of injuries. Concussion. Shock. Blood loss. Fractured femur. Busted ribs. Internal injury. Collapsed lung.

He replayed the last bit the doctor had said. Ice cold chills shivered inside him. "What did you say? About his breathing?"

The doctor looked at him with sympathy. "We still have him on a respirator. He's not breathing on his own right now."

Hey, Chris." Buck stuck his head inside the door. "You busy?"

"Since when does that stop you?" Chris waved Buck to come on in. It was Buck's first day back in Denver after his ATF training. After Chris had left the Denver PD, Buck had gone to work on the Bomb Squad. He'd been there ten months when Chris had been tapped by AD Travis to form his own ATF team.

Buck knew it was coming. He and Chris had talked about it at dinner the week before. Chris assumed Buck realized he'd want him on the team. It surprised the hell out of Larabee that--when he'd called Buck to tell him the team was a "go"-- Buck had seemingly been surprised Chris was expecting him to join.

That shock had lasted maybe twenty seconds. Buck handed in his resignation that same day.

Chris was reviewing files. He didn't know exactly what he was looking for in this new team of his, but he knew--just as he'd known he needed Buck on it--that he'd know when he saw people if they'd fit. Each ATF team had specialists: Undercover, Computers, Profiler, Surveillance, Weapons, Sharpshooter...but Chris was looking for someone who could be a team member first, and a specialist second.

"What's up?" he asked Buck, seeing some papers in the other man's hand.

Buck hesitated. He seemed to be doing that a lot these days. Irritated the hell out of Chris. Since when did Buck not just blurt out whatever he was thinking?

"It's this Medical Power of Attorney thing," the taller man said finally. "You mind me putting your name down?"

Now Chris was really confused. "Hell, no. I've always been your POA, haven't I?" They'd been partners since they were rookies on the Denver PD. Buck didn't have any blood next of kin; Chris was as close as it got. Somehow, even in the black days after Sarah and Adam died, when Chris' grief and rage had swallowed him and sent him seeking oblivion anywhere he could find it--he'd never expected that to change. The thought that it had made him nervous suddenly, uneasy. What else had changed between them?

"You always have been," Buck confirmed quietly. "Even when--" he stopped. "I just--wanted to make sure you didn't mind."

"Just don't make me have actually do anything with it, and I won't mind," Chris cracked, desperate to lighten the tension.

It worked. Buck's grin broke out. "Do my best, Cowboy." He started out the door, then hesitated, turned back. "Chris...just in case it ever does come down to it...I don't want to be kept alive by machines, okay? Not like--" he stopped quickly but Chris knew what he was thinking about. Those four days in the burn ward with Adam. Buck had been there the whole time..."If I can't do it on my own, Pard, just let me go. Okay?"

'Well, forget it, Buck,' Chris thought harshly. 'You'd better start breathin' on your own cause I'm not giving permission to take you off that respirator. Not now.'

He broke into the doctor's carefully measured words. "When can we see him?" His voice was firm. He eyed the doctor challengingly, almost daring him to say they couldn't see Buck. Chris was spoiling for a fight, for someone to release his temper on. One tiny bit of sane control left kept him from lashing out at Vin or Ezra, knowing neither of them were in any condition for it.

The doctor apparently wasn't either. "He'll be settled in ICU in about an hour. He'll be on the fourth floor; I'll have the nurse notify you when you can see him."

'Fourth floor ICU. Oh, shit.'

Suddenly Chris remembered what he'd been trying to ignore all day. University Medical Center. Where Adam had died.

In the burn unit. Next to the fourth floor ICU.


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