Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

Part 18
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Terminal C
JD Dunne walked up and down the long hallways of the airport. His body sagged with fatigue but he couldn't rest. Couldn't even sit down. Nervous energy forced him to keep moving.

The airport was a mess; crowded with people even at two in the morning. When the flight from Miami had landed JD and Nathan had learned that high winds in the Dallas area had grounded planes throughout the afternoon and evening. Hundreds of people were stranded at the airport; their flights cancelled, desperate to get to wherever they were supposed to be going.

Some people had been transported by courtesy vans to nearby hotels. The majority, though, stuck it out at the airport, in busy Terminal C, the "hub" for American Airlines. The winds had died down, flights were taking off again, but the entire schedule was in disarray. Bad weather in other parts of the country wasn't helping anything.

The first flight out for Denver, originally scheduled to depart at 4:20 a.m., had already been postponed until 4:59. Rumor had it the flight was going to be delayed taking off in Philadelphia, which was suffering through a heavy snowfall. Nathan and JD were "standby" on that flight, but the ticketing agent didn't hold out much hope. The last four flights out of Dallas to Denver had been scrubbed. JD and Nathan were so far down on the standby list they weren't even showing up on the computer.

JD passed the waiting area for Gate 35 again. He spotted Nathan, dozing restlessly, one foot on JD's carry-on bag, his own in the seat next to him. The woman on the other side jiggled her screaming baby. JD winced--the woman and baby had been on the flight from Miami and the infant had yelled the whole way. At least four other people were juggling crying babies too; several older children played a game of tag around the filled seats.

JD kept on walking. Most of the shops were closed for the night with iron-mesh grills pulled to the floor. The "Alamo"--a bar--remained open as well as a coffee kiosk and an ice cream stand. JD bought a bottle of water at the coffee place--any more caffeine and his head would explode--and kept walking.

He was alone in the crowded airport.

He passed a bank of phones and hesitated, fingering his cell phone in his pocket. 'No use calling again,' he thought. 'They would have called if anything--'

His phone rang.

JD shakily punched the button. "Yeah?" 'Should have answered with my name--but nobody else would be calling--'

"It's me." Vin sounded bad--exhausted, maybe hurting. "He's out of surgery."

A wave of reaction swept over JD; he leaned against a pillar to keep his trembling legs from folding underneath him. "Is he--"

"He's still hangin' in there," Vin said. JD got the distinct feeling Vin wasn't telling him the whole truth about Buck's condition. "Any idea when you're gettin' home?"

"No." JD sucked in a deep breath. " straight with is he?"

There was a long pause. 'JD, he's not breathin' on his own," Vin finally said, reluctantly. "They've got him on a respirator right now. But he'll be okay, JD. You know Bucklin. He ain't goin' to quit fighting."

JD's hand clenched tight on the phone. 'Respirator. Oh, God...' He remembered something and managed to force out "What about Ezra? How's he doing?"

There was a distinct snort over the phone. "Hell, he's right here...or he was. He went to get somethin' to drink. He discharged himself from the hospital a couple of hours ago." There was a murmur of voices in the background, then Vin's voice came back on again, sounding rushed. "JD, I've got t' go. Call when you know somethin' about what plane you'll be on."

"Vin--" JD started, but he was talking to empty air. He closed the phone and leaned back against the pillar.

Alone in a crowded airport, JD Dunne wiped the tears from his face.

University Medical Center, Denver

The nurse stopped at the entrance to the ICU cubicle and turned to look at the three men following her.

The long night had taken a toll on all of them. Mr. Larabee-- the tall one in black--was obviously wound way too tightly. He was practically vibrating with pent-up tension, just looking for something to detonate him. His face was set in harsh lines. His ice- green eyes looked at her, then flickered to the closed door behind her.

She didn't know the names of the other two men. The long-haired one immediately behind Mr. Larabee must have been the other man caught in the explosion that had critically injured her patient. The news bulletins and hospital gossip had said there were two ATF agents in the apartment when the blast went off. Mr. Wilmington had been directly in front of it. She'd heard one of the surgeons commenting he must have realized what was about to happen and tried to take cover--those few feet he'd gained had made the difference between critical injury and immediate death.

Although death might still be the result.

The long-haired man had a wide bandage across his forehead. Vicious black bruises marred his handsome face and dried blood stiffened his hair and clothing.

She had no idea who the third man was. Another team member, she assumed. He didn't look very healthy either--if he got through the next ten minutes without passing out, she'd be amazed. Even now he was leaning on the wall like that was the only thing keeping him vertical. She couldn't help herself, she had to ask, "Sir, are you all right? Do you need to sit down?"

Wrong move. The man straightened his spine. He snapped, "I'm quite well, thank you." He had a distinct southern accent.

The man with all the bruises had turned to look at him; Mr. Larabee seemed oblivious. Bruised Man said, "Go easy, Ez. She don't mean nothin'."

The other man closed his eyes. "My apologies, Miss--" he opened his eyes and shot a look at her nametag--"Miss Schuller."

"Can we go in?" Mr. Larabee suddenly demanded.

Lisa Schuller had the distinct impression if she didn't get out of the way the black-clad man was simply going to go around her--or through her. She held up her hand, praying that whatever was restraining the rage she could sense in the man continued to work. "Dr. Culver left instructions to allow all three of you to visit Mr. Wilmington for a short period. But only one of you can stay with him." Shivering a little bit at the look on Larabee's face, she was suddenly very glad that Culver had decided to override the usual restricted visitation in ICU. 'I wouldn't want to be the one to tell this man he had to leave.'

She stepped aside. "Fifteen minutes, gentlemen. Then two of you need to go back out to the waiting room." 'Or down to ER and get yourselves admitted,' she thought.


Chris' world narrowed to focus only on the still form in the bed. He stepped to his friend's side, sinking down into the one straight chair beside the bed and gripping Buck's hand gently, careful not to disturb the IV feeding into it. The hand was cold as ice.

Chris stared at Buck's white face, absorbing the shock of the respirator keeping him alive. The face was so pale and still-- marked with livid bruises--there seemed to be nothing of the laughing, vital Buck Wilmington left. In spite of the monitors telling him differently, Chris was flooded with the irrational fear his friend was gone. Panic seized him; his heart pounded in his throat. He gripped Buck's hand tighter, the desperate reflex of a man seeking a life rope.

"You okay, Cowboy?" The soft drawl broke the spell, drawing Chris back from the abyss he faced.

Chris tore his eyes away from Buck to look at his other two men. His eyes widened in surprise. He really hadn't looked at either of them in hours--it hadn't registered how bad they both looked.

He'd been focused on the thought of Buck for so long; now--his hand physically holding Buck with him--he realized he had others to care for as well. The anger keeping him sane tinged his voice as he growled, "You two look like shit. Get the hell out of here before you both fall down."

Two pairs of eyes--one set washed-out green, the other tired blue- - swung to look at him. Two faces--one bruised, one pale as milk-- set in stubborn lines. Two heads started to shake negatively.

"Git going," he ordered. He tightened his grip on Buck's lax hand. "I'll stay here with Buck. Go get some sleep and somethin' to eat." He frowned, considering places. "Go to Ezra's. There's still a PD guard on it."

Both Vin and Ezra recognized the look and knew there was No Room For Discussion. That didn't mean they didn't try. "I--" Ezra managed to say before he was cut off.

"That's an order." Larabee's voice was soft, silky--filled with true menace. As the two men watched, he turned away, his whole attention focusing again on Buck.

Josiah would have uttered something proverbial--such as "There is a time and a place to argue, a time and a place to acquiesce." Vin and Ezra exchanged looks. Neither of them wanted to leave Buck or Chris, but they both knew their leader too well. His whole energy needed to be centered on Buck now--they were distracting him from the Task he had set himself--to drag Buck away from dark place his spirit now resided and bring him back into the world of the living.

And at least Ezra recognized he was fading fast. 'And Mr. Tanner looks worse than I feel.' He nodded at Chris and stepped out.

"Chris, you need some sleep--." Even as Vin said it he knew it was a useless attempt

"Go, Vin." Chris didn't look at him. "Take care of Ezra. You can come back after you've had some rest."

Vin hesitated. "You'll call if--" he faltered before the piercing green gaze that swung to impale him. "--when he wakes up," he finished.

Chris stared at him, then his face softened just a bit. He nodded.


It was a measure of how exhausted they both were that it didn't dawn on either Ezra or Vin until they got to the main lobby that they didn't have a vehicle at the hospital. Vin's jeep was at Chris' place; Ezra's Jag and Buck's pickup were still at Ezra's; and Chris' truck had either been impounded or was still sitting in front of Buck's blown-out apartment. Vin shivered, remembering his last look at the Ram: the windows had all been shattered by the force of the blast.

Ezra dropped into a chair in the waiting area. "Well, Mr. Tanner, do you have any brilliant resolutions on how to solve our current transportation dilemma?" His southern accent was deeper than usual and the words sagged under a load of exhaustion.

"Guess we call a cab," Vin returned tiredly. He plopped into the seat next to Ezra, stretched his legs out in front of him, and reached for his cell phone. He froze. "Shit."

Ezra had closed his eyes. He didn't open them but he moved his head a bit as he said, "Elucidate, sir."

When Vin didn't say anything, Ezra's eyes snapped open and he looked at Tanner worriedly. "Vin?" He followed the other man's gaze and took in the huge irregular patches of dried blood that covered the knees and lower legs of his jeans. "I take it that's not your blood?" he asked quietly.

Vin shook his head slowly. He felt like someone had punched him in the gut. "I didn't think--" He remembered kneeling next to Buck's body in the aftermath of the explosion--it seemed like a lifetime ago instead of just scant hours--feeling the blood soak into his jeans, but he hadn't thought about it since getting to the hospital. 'Shit, Chris has been lookin' at that all night...'

Suddenly everything swept over him, making his head swim. He closed his eyes against a surge of nausea and felt cold sweat break out on his face and the back of his neck.


Ezra sounded really alarmed now. 'Good goin', you're supposed to be takin' care of him, not scarin' him half to death.' Somehow he couldn't seem to open his eyes. "I'm okay," he slurred out.

"That is highly debatable," Ezra snapped. Vin felt him take the phone from his hand, heard the tones as a number was pressed into the keypad, then heard Ezra's voice requesting a cab to the hospital. "You can shower at my home; I'm sure you can find something in my wardrobe you can tolerate to wear." Rueful amusement suddenly tinged Ezra's voice. "Although, I am quite aware our taste in wearin' apparel differs."

Vin was gripped by a sudden fierce longing for his own place. Going home wasn't possible though. He'd never find a cab driver willing to drive into the Purgatorio at this time of the night. 'Besides, I got t' stay with Ezra.' He was too tired to even think why that was so important.

By the time the cab--driven by an elderly man who was quite amazingly verbal for four-thirty in the morning--pulled up in front of Ezra's condominium complex, both agents were on their last legs and fading fast. Ezra fumbled some bills out of his wallet and turned to the paved walkway. His hands went in a reflexive gesture to the pockets of the overlarge jacket he wore. His arms dropped to his side. "Mr. Tanner, I hope you have a key, otherwise the esteemed officer there will have the opportunity to arrest me for breakin' into my own home."

Vin fumbled in his pocket for his keys, clumsily sorting out the correct key. At least, he thought it was. His eyes followed Ezra's to see the patrol car, lights off, parked in front of a familiar battered blue and white pickup. The sight of Buck's vehicle affected him strongly. Shaking his head, he handed the keys to Ezra. "Go on ahead. I better tell 'em who we are."

Vin slowed as he approached the vehicle, knowing he was being watched through the mirrors. He carefully pulled out his identification, making it obvious it wasn't a weapon. The young female officer had her window down and a flashlight ready to check the badge. The light flickered to Vin's face, briefly blinding him, then switched off. "Agent Tanner."

"Any problems?" he asked, remembering like an echo asking the same question of the patrol officer outside Buck's place.

"It's been quiet," she said, not meeting his eyes. She reached for her radio. "HQ has tightened the security since...I'll call in that you're here. How long will you be staying?"

"Couple o' hours." Vin struggled with his bitterness. 'Helluva lot a good having the Denver PD on guard did Buck.' Shoving his hands in his pockets, he strode up the walkway to Ezra's open doorway. His friend was standing in the entranceway reading what appeared to be a note. Vin carefully closed and locked the door behind him. "What's that?" he asked.

Ezra folded the piece of paper in neat quarters. "A note from the cleaning woman. She took my bedspread to the cleaners." A high- pitched laugh spilled from the southerner's lips. "Poor Mrs. Seburn. She deserves extra for dealing with the mess my abode was no doubt in."

Tired as he was, Vin knew hysteria when he heard in. He grabbed Ezra's arm. "Ezra...go to bed."

The other man swayed. "I need to make up the bed in the guest room," he muttered faintly, protestingly.

"I know where stuff is," Vin assured him. "Goin' t' take a shower first, anyway." He guided the other man down the hall toward the master bedroom. With the exception of the missing spread on the bed, the room looked as spotless as it had the other times Vin had seen it. There was a faint smell of furniture polish and carpet cleaner in the air. "I'm goin' t' borrow somethin' to wear, okay?"

Ezra nodded, dropping on the bed. He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the triple dresser. "There should be..." his voice trailed off and he put his head down on the pillow. He was asleep before Vin found a pair of sweats in the bottom drawer. Like all of Ezra's clothes, they looked brand-new. Throwing them over one shoulder, Vin went to the side of the bed. His muscles protesting, he pulled the other man upright and managed to wrestle him out of the Denver PD jacket. Ezra never flickered an eyelid. Shaking his head ruefully, Vin pulled off the too-large shoes and swung Ezra's feet up on the bed. Reaching across, he pulled the blanket loose and tucked half of it over Ezra. He switched off the light and left the door open a few inches.

Exhaustion dogging his steps, he padded down the hall to the entranceway. Double-checking the lock and dead bolt, he had reached for the light switch when something caught his eye.

There had been an addition to the hall since the last time he'd visited. Now, on the marble-topped table, in addition to the prim floral arrangement in a Chinese bowl, there was a framed picture. Vin picked it up with an unsteady hand. He recognized the scene. The members of Team Seven were gathered around the grill, behind Chris' house, each holding his beverage of choice in hand. The occasion had been Chris' last birthday.

Vin cautiously touched Buck's face. The ladies' man had one arm thrown around JD's shoulders and the other elbow leaning on Chris.

Carefully, almost reverently, Vin replaced the photo. Trembling fingers reached to click off the light switch.

Part 19
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport Terminal C

Noises gradually filtered through to Nathan's consciousness. Somewhere, nearby, a baby screamed unceasingly. There was a pop! and a crackle of static, then a too-calm masculine voice announced "For your safety this airport practices heightened security measures. Please maintain control of your carry-on baggage at all times and notify Airport Security if someone places items in your luggage without your knowledge."

'That's stupid,' Nathan thought fuzzily. 'If it's done without your knowledge how can you report it to Security?'

Memory came rushing back to him and he sat upright with a start.

'Ouch.' His neck was stiff from the position he'd been sleeping in. Nathan looked around the crowded waiting area wildly. 'Where's JD?'

Then he saw the boy, standing with his back to the crowd, staring out the window where the first streaks dawn could be seen on the horizon.

As if he'd felt Nathan's gaze on his back, JD turned around and met his eyes. The younger man started back toward his friend, dodging around three giggling kids.

"Did you get any sleep?" Nathan asked. The medic was annoyed at himself for dropping off. One look at JD's tense face answered his question even before the younger man shook his head. JD pushed his backpack off the seat next to Nathan and wearily dropped into it.

"Vin called," he said quietly. "Buck made it through the surgery."

Looking at him, Nathan knew there was more.

"He's on a respirator." JD sounded like the words were catching in his throat.

"That's not really as bad as it sounds," Nathan tried to reassure him. "Trauma like that...the body and brain go into shock. The respirator just helps take the strain off--"

"Yeah." JD stared ahead at nothing. The nervous energy that had fueled the kid ever since Nathan had told him the news was gone now. JD was starting to fold in on himself. Nathan had seen it before and knew it wasn't good.

"Who did it?" JD suddenly asked. Rage--more than rage-- unfocused fury-- burned in his eyes and strangled his words.

"I don't know." Nathan gripped JD's shoulder. "Buck wouldn't want you running off doing something stupid."

"I'm stuck in this airport; it's not like I can do anything. I'm not even with Buck and he might...die." JD's voice dropped on the last word. His face changed, grief replacing the rage. He looked at Nathan almost desperately.

Nathan would have given anything to be able to provide JD some comfort. Unfortunately the little information he had about Buck's injuries wasn't reassuring. All he could say was the truth. "Buck's a fighter, JD. He won't give up." He changed the subject. "How's Ezra?"

JD's face relaxed a little. "He must be doing okay. He discharged himself from the hospital."

"He did what?" Nathan leaned his head back. "Stubborn southern cuss," he grumbled.

JD grinned weakly. "You know Ezra."

"Yeah, I do. Wish I could say that surprised me." 'Actually I'm surprised he never tried that trick before. Course if he did it when I was around I'd pin his hide to the wall. Bet he knows it too.'

The intercom crackled again. 'Passengers awaiting departure for flight 1235 non-stop service to Denver, please check in at Gate 35."

Lakewood-Saint David's Hospital, Denver

Craig Baker was due to get off duty at six a.m. He was more than ready. It had been a long shift in the ER, capped off when ATF Agent Ezra Standish had disconnected himself from the IV and cardiac monitor and blithely announced he was recovered and discharging himself. Baker had tried reasoning, bargaining, and even resorted to threats.

He had the distinct impression this last had his patient laughing at him.

The Federal big-wig--Montgomery or whatever the hell his name was- - had tried to help. He'd even given Standish a direct order to remain in the hospital. Standish had responded with some flowery rhetoric that basically translated to "Jump on this and spin."

After Standish had departed in his borrowed clothes, Montgomery had looked at Baker and shrugged. "Team Seven makes their own rules," he'd said.

Baker's pager went off. 'Oh, shit, not an emergency. I really need to get out of here.' Reluctantly he pulled it out and checked the extension, muttering a vague "thank you" that it wasn't ER. Then he frowned. Grabbing the phone, he punched in the extension for the lab.

He recognized the voice that answered. "Patti, it's Craig." He and Patti Amons had moonlighted in the same research lab a couple of years back.

"Craig. You wanted to look at the latest labs on Standish in 4712? They're pretty interesting."

Baker sighed. "Mr. Standish discharged himself AMA a couple of hours ago."

"Oh." She sounded surprised. "You want me to send these down to Medical Records then?"

Baker fought a brief battle with himself. He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes to six. Ten more minutes and he could head for his apartment and a precious twelve hours off duty. He sighed, cursing his curiosity. One of his professors in medical school had said he was like a dog with a tasty bone when it came to diagnosis. "Hang on to them, Patti. I'm on my way down."

Patti had a cup of coffee waiting for him when he walked into the lab, shivering since the place was always freezing. 'The morgue has to be warmer than this place.' She had the results of Standish's most recent labs--drawn approximately an hour before his unscheduled departure--displayed on the computer, side-by-side with the previous results.

Baker frowned, tired eyes flicking back and forth between the two reports. "Well, at least he was improving."

Patti nodded. "But look at this." She clicked a few keys. "I pulled this one up. Mrs. Martoli...she ate at Duchienne that same night."

Baker's eyes widened as he saw what she was talking about. "That doesn't make sense." He pondered. "Pull up the results on a Buck Wilmington from earlier today. He was in..." he paused, "Room 4716."

Patti typed a series of commands into the computer. A new screen came up. Without being asked, Patti displayed the three reports side by side. Studying them, she finally said, "Wilmington and Martoli had virtually identical profiles. Standish? Similar in some values but the key ones are completely different."

"So Agent Standish had something more wrong with him than food poisoning. Question is...what?"

Intensive Care Unit, University Medical Center

Chris sat on the edge of the seat next to the bed, his eyes straying between the monitors above and the figure within.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee. We can try to keep him as comfortable as possible. His organs are won't be much longer now."

Chris heard what the doctor said but didn't acknowledge it. His eyes drifted to the small, distorted face. He heard the soft click as the door closed, then opened and closed again. Without looking up, he knew Buck had come back into the room. The lanky ladies man sat back down in the chair in the corner where he kept his vigil. Chris didn't look at him. He couldn't look away from the burned body of his only child.

Early that morning, when it had become obvious to the medical staff that nothing they could do was going to save the child, they had increased his painkillers. For the first time in four days, Adam rested. Even in the depths of the drugged sleep he occasionally whimpered, but the terrible throat searing screams had stopped. Chris was grateful for that, but selfishly he wished his son could know he was there with him. He wanted to look in the child's eyes one more time before they closed forever.

With nothing to do but look at the still figure and listen to the gradually slowing beep of the cardiac monitor, Chris gradually became aware of other things he had blocked out over the last four days. Life and death in the living hell of the burn unit. Screams. Sobbing. Not all from children like Adam.

The nauseating smell of burned flesh.

The peculiar look on the faces of the staff: compassionate but reserved. Sympathy buried miles under a cool professional persona. Check your emotions at the door.

Chris looked over at Buck. The man was hunched over in his chair, head hanging down, praying maybe? His hands were clasped loosely.

'Too late for prayers, Buck,' Chris thought bitterly. 'We were too late. Too late for anything...too late for everything...'

Adam's breathing faltered. Chris' eyes flew back to his son.

The alarm on the cardiac monitor sounded for the last time.

Chris' eyes snapped open, the death-knell of the alarm echoing through his memory. He was standing up, leaning over the bed anxiously, before he realized the alarm had sounded only in his dreams. Buck's monitors still traced a steady pattern.

Wearily Chris dropped back into the chair. Almost automatically he slid his hand back over Buck's.


That was how the doctor had described Buck's condition last time he came in. Critical but stable.

Alive, but not. Suspended halfway in between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

Something changed. The hand clasped in his moved slightly, the fingers curling just barely around his.

"Buck?" Chris breathed, leaning forward. "Can you hear me?"

Slight flicker of eyelashes on the bruised cheekbones.

"That's it. Come on, Big Dog...wake up for me," Chris coaxed gently. He tightened his grip on Buck's hand.

Tired. He was so tired. Just wanted to sleep...drift away...

But something was keeping him here. An anchor, gripping his hand. A voice he knew...but the tone was wrong...something was wrong.


The door opened and the nurse walked in. Chris spared her a quick glance. "I think he's startin' to wake up."

The nurse stepped closer to the bed and studied the monitors. "I'll page the doctor." She left quickly.

Chris watched, hardly daring to breathe, as Buck's eyelids flickered again. Flickered and finally opened. Dazed blue eyes drifted around the room before coming to rest on Chris. The grip of the hand on his fractionally tightened.

Chris felt a wave of relief so strong he almost fell forward out of the chair. He closed his eyes briefly, coughed to clear his throat. "Hey, Pard, about time," he said gently.

Buck's eyes widened. Panic leapt into them. His face contorted as his body feebly struggled.

The door slammed open again for the nurse. "He's fighting the respirator," she announced, leaning over the bed. "Mr. Wilmington, you need to relax."

Buck didn't even look at her, his frightened eyes on Chris. Standing up, Chris put his free hand on Buck's forehead and leaned close. "Buck, it's all right. Don't fight it. They've got a tube in your throat to help you breathe. Just relax and breathe with it. Don't try to fight it." To the nurse, he growled, "Get back."

She didn't argue, stepping away from the bed. Chris shifted his attention back to Buck. He vaguely realized he was pitching his own breathing to match the rhythmic pumping of the machine.

Slowly the look of panic eased. Buck kept his eyes glued on Chris until they flickered closed again.


Vin sleepily opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling above.

'Where the hell...'

He shifted on the leather couch and set up a chorus of screaming protest from a million nerve endings. He groaned.

With the pain came the return of memory. Vin looked around wildly. Bright late-morning light streamed through the windows into Ezra's living room. "Shit!" he said aloud, trying to sit up. "Buck!"

Ezra appeared in the archway leading to the kitchen. "Mr.Tanner? Are you awake?"

"Damn it, Ez, that's a stupid question." Groaning and sweating, Vin made it to a sitting position on the couch. He stared balefully at Ezra as the other man came closer. Ezra's hair was damp from a shower, he was dressed casually--for Ezra--in khaki slacks and a pale yellow shirt. With the exception of his marked pallor, he looked well rested and a lot better than Vin felt. Groaning again, the sharpshooter swung his feet to the floor. "Shit, I feel like a building fell on me," he said without thinking.

"Well...that is a fair approximation of what actually occurred," Ezra pointed out. "Mr. Larabee called. Mr. Wilmington woke up briefly."

Vin let out his breath in a great sigh and leaned his head back. "That's good, ain't it?"

"Mr. Larabee did seem relieved. Mr. Wilmington is still critical, but his condition has stabilized. I daresay if we offer to relieve our esteemed leader of his vigil temporarily, he might actually agree to getting some sleep."

Vin nodded, trying to stretch without moving any impossible task. A shrill whistle sounded from the kitchen. Ezra hopped up nimbly and padded in that direction. "Tea, Mr. Tanner?" His voice drifted behind him.

With difficulty Vin followed him. "Not if it's that herbal crap you drink," he said suspiciously. "Got any coffee?"

Ezra looked up from pouring steaming water into a china teapot. He shook his head. "I'm embarrassed to admit I seem to be out," he admitted. He reached up into a cupboard next to the sink. "I do, however, have ibuprofen." He set the small white bottle on the table next to a glass of orange juice. "And orange juice."

Vin opened the bottle and dumped three pills in his hand, swallowing them with the chilled juice. He watched Ezra pouring the greenish- yellow tea into a dainty cup that matched the teapot, and shook his head. "Ez, why don't you just dump a bag in a mug?"

They'd had this conversation before. Ezra responded as expected. "Appearances, Mr. Tanner, are everything." He sipped the steaming beverage and sighed happily.

Vin shook his head. "I need a hot shower."

"I took the liberty of putting some items of wearin' apparel for you in the hall bathroom." Ezra took another sip. "And a razor."

Vin paused to throw a grin over his shoulder. "Thanks...that but don't make up for you not havin' any coffee."

The blue jeans Ezra had left for him were so stiff Vin had to wonder if they'd ever been worn, much less washed. They weren't the greatest fit in the world but they would do. Vin looked around but the clothes he had been wearing the night before were missing. His shoes and jacket were where he'd left them though. Ezra had left him two designer shirts to choose from and a blue sweater Casey had picked out for JD to give Ezra the Christmas before. Vin had never seen Ezra wear it and when he looked at it he could see why. It was a size too big for Vin which made it definitely too large for Ezra. Vin pulled it over his head.

Ezra had poured the rest of his tea into a travel mug and was ready to go when Vin came down the hall. The hot shower had loosened tight muscles and Tanner was starting to think he might actually survive. As Ezra locked the door behind them, Vin glanced over at the police car at the curb. He stood stock-still as the idea came to him.

"Vin?" Ezra looked at him, concerned.

"Just thought of somethin'." Vin jogged to the street, a puzzled Ezra trailing behind. The officer stepped out of his car as they approached. "Agent Tanner," he said, nodding his head. His eyes flickered to Ezra. "Agent Standish."

It was the same officer who'd been on duty outside Buck's place the day before.

Vin blinked. In a way, that was good. He rushed into his question. "Are you guys keepin' logs of who all comes around here?"

The officer didn't ask why he wanted to know. He reached into the car and pulled out his notebook. "Here, we just kept a record of who actually went into Mr. Standish's apartment or the two on either side of it. Well, until yesterday--then the order came down to keep notes on all comings and goings and to call in if anyone actually went to Mr. Standish's door. Mr. Wilmington...since that was an internal access building we kept records on everyone that went in or out. The detectives have them now. And I think they made a copy for the Feds...for your guys."

Part 20

Chris looked up as Buck shifted again. He stood up, ready to move into Buck's line of vision. His friend had woken three times since that first time early this morning. Each time he had started to panic when he registered the invasive tube in his throat, realized his breathing was not his to control. Each time Chris had managed to calm him but it was taking longer as Buck became more aware. He also seemed to be in a lot of pain. They were having to be careful how much pain medication to give him in order not to depress his system any further. Chris understood that but it was hard for him to see Buck so uncomfortable.

Buck also seemed to be trying to tell Chris something but Chris couldn't figure out what it was. He'd reassured Buck that Ezra and Vin were okay; told him JD and Nathan were on the way back from Florida (he still hadn't been able to reach Josiah which didn't really surprise him. That area of Mexico was notorious for "dead" zones). Buck's were glazed with pain and shock but he kept trying to communicate something to his old friend.

Chris felt helpless and he hated it.

He looked up as the door opened and Dr. Culver came in again. He glanced at Chris and then stepped to Buck's side. "The nurse says he's agitated," he said in a low voice.

"Keeps gettin' that way when he tries to wake up," Chris admitted.

Culver finished examining Buck and stepped back, frowning. "We've increased his pain medication but he seems to be fighting it." He gestured to the broken leg, encased in plaster and slightly suspended. "That's a bad break...not even considering his other injuries. And then there's the respirator."

"He doesn't like that much."

"I don't imagine he does, but I don't want to try to wean him off yet. He's lucky only three ribs were broken, but they're on the same side as the lung that collapsed." Culver looked up and studied Chris' face. "Mr. Larabee, you need to take a break."

Chris felt his spine stiffen. "No." It was curt.

"You won't help him if you collapse."

"I won't."

Culver narrowed his eyes. "You know I could have you forcibly removed."

If it was meant as a threat, it backfired. Exhaustion cleared the path for anger. Chris eyes flashed green fire as he growled, "You don't want to try that."

Culver held up a calming hand. "Let's not get into a snarling match, okay? Believe it or not, I am not the enemy. Yours or his."

The anger ebbed, leaving Chris feeling drained. "I know that," he admitted tiredly. He rubbed his eyes with the back of one hand. Part of him knew the doctor was right--he had to get some rest, but every time he closed his eyes the nightmares came.

And he couldn't stand the thought of leaving Buck alone.

There was a tap on the door and it opened. Chris looked up to see the very welcome form of Vin Tanner step in. "Hey, Cowboy," he greeted Chris, blue eyes in his swollen face keenly assessing him. A slight grin quirked his lips. "To quote look like shit."

"I just made the same diagnosis," Culver said dryly. He started to leave. "Please consider getting some sleep, Mr. Larabee, before I have to pick you up off the floor in order to reach Mr. Wilmington."

"He's right, you know," Vin said quietly after the door closed. He walked to the head of the bed, resting a gentle hand on Buck's shoulder. "Hey, Bucklin."

Chris quickly looked at Buck's face. There was a flicker of movement but he didn't wake up. Feeling worn out, Chris dropped back into the chair. "Where's Ezra?"

"He's out in the waitin' room. AD Travis and that Montgomery fella are here too. Want to talk to you, said they want to update you on the status of the case. Team Three arrested Hoyt and his guys this mornin' but Hoyt's swearin' he didn't have anything to do with bombing Buck's place and his lawyer's tryin' to get him released again."

A spurt of fresh anger gave Chris energy. "What?" He growled. He hadn't thought too much about Hoyt during the long night, but now the thought of the arms dealer was enough to give him a focus for his rage. 'Montgomery, too. I owe that SOB a punch in the jaw for letting Ezra find out what was going on.'

He looked at Vin. "You'll stay with Buck for a few minutes?" It wasn't really a question.

"Make it longer, get yourself some sleep. And Ezra's got you some coffee; we stopped on the way in."

'Coffee.' Coffee was good. Caffeine would help to clear his head. "I don't want to be gone too long, Buck gets real agitated..."

Vin snorted. "Hell, Chris, he's probably seein' you and thinkin' the worst. You look bad, Cowboy."

Angry words came to Chris's lips, but he stopped them with an effort and considered what Vin had said. 'Maybe,' he thought reluctantly. He nodded. "You come get me if he needs me."

Vin gestured for him to leave. "Better get out there 'fore Ez gets himself suspended--don't think he's real high on Montgomery's list right now."


Ezra took the last swallow of cooling tea from his travel mug and sat it on the floor at his feet. He flipped through the sheets of paper he held in his hand--Xerox copies of the police surveillance logs on his and Buck's homes.

Nearby, AD Travis was talking with Chris about the status of the investigation into the bombing. Marcus Hoyt's attorney was raising Cain downtown about his client's arrest, trying to say there was no evidence linking Hoyt to the bombing and therefore he should remain free while awaiting trial on the illegal arms sale charges.

"We don't know for sure Hoyt was behind it," Montgomery pointed out.

Chris Larabee fixed him with a poisonous glare. Ezra struggled to suppress a grin: he knew that look well. "Who the hell else could it be?"

"Your team has a high 'case solved' rate," Montgomery pointed out. "That tends to piss people off. Not to mention your winning personalities." He pointed at Ezra. "Standish, here, probably has a personal enemies list longer than Nixon's."

Chris' eyes flicked to Ezra. "What about the bombs?" He choked a little on the last word. Ezra looked at him in concern. He could tell his boss was exhausted, but he knew Larabee well enough to know he wouldn't want to show any weakness in front of Travis or Montgomery.

"They were the work of a pro. Deliberately designed to do minimum collateral damage, but more than enough to kill the one that set them off."

"But they didn't kill," Ezra said, the thought suddenly occurring to him.

"Wilmington was on the bomb squad before he joined the ATF; he's had specialized training in demolitions. He probably realized he'd set off the fuse and jumped back a few steps."

Ezra winced. He hated the thought that Buck had realized what was about to happen. Although if it ended up saving his life..."I didn't mean Mr. Wilmington. I meant the device the Bomb Squad found in my own abode."

All three of the other men frowned. "What about it?" Chris said impatiently. "You were in the hospital." His eyes narrowed. "We didn't even know where you were, there was no way Hoyt could have."

"Possibly true," Ezra admitted, "But once the explosion occurred at Mr. Wilmington's, any miscreant with half of his gray matter intact should have realized my home would be searched. Likewise, had the bomb at my home been the first to be detonated, Mr. Wilmington's home would be searched. It just seems to me that a 'professional' wouldn't have been so lax."

"He has a point there," Travis admitted.

"And I believe I may have deduced how someone gained admittance to my home." Ezra held up the sheet of paper he'd been reading. "At approximately nine-thirty yesterday morning, a van bearing the logo 'City Professional Cleaning Service' parked in front of my building and a man wearing a white coverall carrying what was assumed to be cleaning equipment gained entrance into my apartment. The officer on duty started to inquire into his bona fides, when he ran across the maintenance man for the complex, who confirmed I did have a cleaning person that always came on Wednesday." Ezra held up another sheet. "However, my cleaning woman, Mrs. Seburn, comes on Wednesday afternoons, not mornings--and as a matter of fact, she did arrive at 1 p.m.--by which time the bogus cleaning person had already departed."

Chris frowned. "Sloppy police work," he growled. "He took a chance, though, the police should have at least noticed him fumbling with the lock. Your cleaning woman has a key, doesn't she?"

"She does. However, if one thinks about the circumstances of my departure from my home on Tuesday--with Mr. Wilmington in attendance- - it stands to reason he didn't lock the dead bolt or set the security system. The standard lock on the on the front door is flimsy. I could pick it in under twenty seconds--indeed, I have. Someone not watching that closely could be forgiven for supposing the impersonator was simply fumbling for the correct key."

"Did the same cleaning service show up at Wilmington's building?" Montgomery asked.

Ezra shuffled through the other stack of papers and shook his head. His mouth was suddenly very dry. 'Dr. Baker did instruct me to drink voluminous amounts of fluids today.' Picking up his mug, he remembered there was a water fountain out in the hallway.

Montgomery flicked his eyes at Chris as the southerner left the waiting room. "For the record, Larabee, I did try to make Standish stay in the hospital. I even resorted to giving him a direct order." He gestured. "You can see how much good that did."

Travis chortled. "Mr. Standish doesn't respond well to orders," he said ruefully.

"He wouldn't have tried to leave if he hadn't overheard you talking about Buck," Chris snapped, although he knew if the idea had occurred to Ezra he would have done it anyway. He mentally grinned at the thought Ezra might try the same move the next time he was hospitalized. 'Won't work, Standish,' he gloated. 'I'll handcuff you to the bed if I have to. You know it, too.'

Out in the hallway, Ezra uncharacteristically gulped cold water from the fountain, then filled his mug. He took a few steps back toward the waiting room, then went back to the fountain for more water. Not only was his mouth dry as dust, his throat burned as well. 'Must be from that oxygen they had me on in the hospital,' he thought.

He dismissed any more thought about it from his mind and returned to the waiting room.


Everyone looked up at Vin Tanner's voice. "Come quick!" He disappeared back into the double doors leading to ICU. Larabee was right behind him and Ezra followed.


Vin leaned forward. Buck had been quiet since Chris had left but now he was starting to shift restlessly again. Eyelashes fluttered and he moved his head back and forth, grimacing around the respirator tube.

"Easy, Buck, relax," Vin said, keeping a reassuring hand on Buck's shoulder. He remembered waking up with a tube in his throat after getting shot once. It hurt like hell, worse than the gunshot wound.

Buck's eyes snapped open. He looked at Vin and relaxed for just a moment, then started struggling harder as his eyes darted wildly around the room.

"Easy, easy," Vin breathed. "Chris is okay. He's just out in the waitin' room."

That didn't seem to calm the patient. He couldn't move much of his body but what he could he was moving violently. One hand reached up and tried to grab the respirator.

"Buck! No!" Vin grabbed his hand.

The cardiac monitor started beeping wildly. The door crashed open and two nurses ran in. "What happened?" one demanded of Vin.

"He's upset about somethin'." Vin kept trying to soothe Buck but he could tell the other man wasn't even hearing him. Buck's eyes kept flitting wildly around; the dark blue orbs were panicked.

Vin knew what he had to do. With a last squeeze of Buck's shoulder, he slipped out the door as another nurse came in. He ran out to the waiting room.

"Chris! Come quick!"


He struggled to open his eyes. He was so would be so easy to let go...but something kept bothering him. Something important...

Twisted wire. Three strands. Red, black, yellow. Coiled at the top...


Seen it before...seen it somewhere... tired...

Have to wake up. Have to tell them...have to tell Chris.

Have to wake up...

Can't breathe...choking!



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