Book One: Embers

by Sue Kelley

Part 23
"That girl was confessin' before we even got around to askin' her any questions," Vin said with a certain grim satisfaction. "She was still talkin' when I left. And Marcus Hoyt's in shit up to his eyebrows."

"Hoyt ordered her to kill Buck?"

"Yeah. And Buck wasn't the only one. Two other people she's killed under orders from Hoyt, patients in this hospital."

"But I don't understand," JD said. It was the first thing he'd said since Vin's return. "She's a nurse. Why would she kill people? What kind of hold did Hoyt have over her?"

"Long story. For one thing, though she went by 'Ava Sanchez', her real name is Yvette Morales. She's one of Pedro Morales' kids."

Chris frowned deepened. "That doesn't make sense. Morales isn't into gunrunning. He doesn't even like guns."

"Too busy killin' off people with his drugs and prostitution," Vin agreed. "But apparently Yvette--or Ava--tried to break with the family. Changed her name, went to nursing school. Got into some kind of trouble--guess we'll find out more about that later--and Hoyt helped her out. She said--an' I believe her--that she didn't realize he was 'buyin' her soul' until he came around for repayment. And then he had a double hold over her--he knew who she really was. The right word to the wrong person and she'd have lost everything she'd worked so hard for. Least, that was the way she looked at it." Any sympathy Vin might have felt for the young woman vanished as he looked at the peacefully sleeping Buck Wilmington and realized--had Chris been just a few seconds slower in reacting--Buck would be dead now.

The ICU was finally calming down from the horror of the afternoon. Still, no one had made any attempt to kick either JD or Chris--or now, Vin--out of Buck's room. On the contrary, one of the nurses had even brought in more chairs. JD sat in one, as close to Buck as he could manage, holding his "big brother's" hand clasped tightly in his. Buck had woken up briefly in all the commotion after Chris had stopped Ava Sanchez from killing him. He'd managed a wink at JD-- greatly relieving that young man--before slipping back into sleep. A stunned Dr. Culver--apparently having a hard time believing a hospital staff member could be a killer--had taken the time to reassure them Buck's condition continued to improve and his vital signs were stronger every hour. The surgeon had even mentioned possibly removing the respirator as early as tomorrow afternoon.

Vin frowned as he looked at his best friend. Chris still sat in the same chair where he'd spent so many hours keeping vigil. He'd turned it a bit so he was facing Vin at the foot of the bed, but every few minutes he'd look over his shoulder at Buck's face and the monitors mounted over the bed. And he still clasped Buck's right hand as tightly as JD did the left.

'Stubborn cuss is goin' to collapse himself if he don't get some sleep soon,' Vin thought. He'd tried to get Chris to go out to the waiting room for some rest and had been firmly rebuffed. Chris wasn't ready to leave Buck yet. Hell, Vin knew how he felt. Even with the doctor's reassurances that Buck was improving, Death still hovered too closely. He was still on that respirator. Vin for one wasn't going to rest easy until Buck was breathing on his own. Not to mention out of ICU. Couldn't rest with those damn monitors beeping and chirping. It was impossible not to look at them.

But there was something else, a look in Chris' eyes Vin didn't recognize and didn't like. Something bleak and bitter and deep. Something that reminded Vin of the stories he'd heard about the "old" Chris Larabee--the man who had nothing left to live for, the man on whom everyone had given up.

Everyone except Buck Wilmington.

Vin's eyes strayed back to the figure in the bed. 'Do you have any idea how much he cares about you?' he silently questioned the sleeping man. 'How much he depends on you? You're always tellin' me I saved Chris. Or "the team" saved him. No way, Pard. We had the easy job. You did the hard part. You pulled him back from that cliff he was standin' on. Hell, Buck, you're still his anchor. And not just his. You're JD's anchor. Ezra's, too. Maybe even mine. You're the glue that holds us together, Pard. And don't ever doubt that...'

"Hoyt's SOB attorney's going to have a hard time getting him released now." Chris' voice was cold.

Vin shivered at the look on his friend's face--a look of hatred and vengeance that was unfortunately mirrored on JD's. He knew how they felt; he felt the same. Hoyt's attorney shouldn't even try to get him out of jail. His client was safer where he was.

"Anything new on the actual bomber?"

Vin shook his head. "If it was Bolo Orlowski, we can't prove it. Miami ATF did send a couple of agents to talk to him. Course he says he hasn't left home in a week; his wife backs him up." Vin shrugged. "They're checking airline records and credit card charges, but if it was Bolo, he hasn't stayed in business this long by leavin' a trail."

"Buck had to have seen something," Chris insisted.

"And we'll just have to wait until he can tell us what it was," Vin pointed out.

"How much damage was there to the apartment?' JD asked suddenly. He flushed uncomfortably as the other two turned to look at him. He looked even younger, suddenly, and miserable. "I mean, I know it's not important, not with Buck...but...I'm sorry..."

The harsh lines the last few days had carved into Chris' face softened slightly. "Hell, JD, it is important. It's your place, too. No need to apologize for worrying about your home."

JD stared down at his hand clasped with Buck's. He wouldn't look at either of them.

"JD," Vin said softly. "It's your home. Nothin' wrong or bad or selfish about carin' about it. And the good news is, the damage can be fixed. They've already done some emergency repairs so that the rain can't leak in. The worst of the damage was confined to Buck's bedroom. Pretty much everything in there was destroyed. But I bet we can salvage most of the rest. One of the investigators told me the neighbors can probably go home next week. It'll take a while longer to fix your place back up, but you will go home again, JD." He smiled. "You and Bucklin both."

"Vin's right. And in the meantime, you'll stay at the ranch," Chris offered. He rummaged in the bag of food Vin had brought and snorted. "Ezra doesn't get back here soon, his salad'll wilt."

Vin had worried about the undercover man's absence as well. "I'll go call him," he said, standing up. Sitting had stiffened his muscles again and he winced. "He probably conked out for a nap at his place. Don't think he was feelin' at all well when we left."

"Wait." JD looked startled, and alarmed. "Didn't you say Ezra was driving Buck's pickup?"

"Yeah. So I could have the Jag. Why?" Vin was starting to get an uneasy feeling.

JD's eyes widened. "The pickup's here. In the parking lot. I saw it when we came in from the airport."

Chris shot to his feet. "Shit!"

"JD, where?" Vin snapped.

"The parking lot to the east of the main entrance. Almost at the end, the last row. About halfway down, I think."

"Stay here. Don't you leave Buck!" Chris slammed out the door. Before Vin followed him he took one last look at JD. The younger man was standing, holding Buck's hand but facing the door.

Vin nodded at him grimly. He didn't need to say anything. JD would protect Buck with his life if need be.

Vin followed Chris out the door.

Nathan Jackson turned from the reception desk in the ICU waiting room as Chris Larabee shot past him. "Chris?" he started.

Vin grabbed him. "Nathan! When did you get--never mind. Come on!"

Not having the slightest idea what was going on, Nathan shrugged and followed his two teammates to the elevators.

The sun was setting behind the hospital and the parking lot was already filled with the lengthening shadows of dusk. "I don't see it," Chris snapped.

"See what?" Nathan was giving up hope that anyone was ever going to answer his questions.

"Damn!" Vin turned and started running in the opposite direction. "We came in the other way," he yelled over his shoulder. "JD would have been looking on the other side of the lot."

Chris spotted Buck's pickup first. "There!" But Vin was closer, so he got there first. Running up to the driver's side door, he looked in the window. "Shit! He's in here!" He pounded on the window. "Ezra!"

Ezra was slumped across the seat, his head on the passenger seat. One arm was pulled over his head in such a way they couldn't see his face. Vin stared at the still figure intently, but he couldn't tell if Ezra was breathing or not. "Ezra!" He tried the door again. "It's locked."

"Stand clear," Chris ordered. Before Vin could stop him, or even realize what he was about to do, Chris drew back his fist and slammed into the window with all the force given him by the last stressful days. The window shattered into tiny fragments. Ignoring the blood streaming down his hand, Chris reached in and released the lock on the door. "Ezra!" he snapped, yanking the door open.

Nathan pushed past the other two men. One foot on the running board, he leaned in over the unmoving figure. "Ezra?" he said, shaking the still form, "Can you hear me?" He looked up. His two friends could see the fear in his eyes. "Vin! Go get some help from the hospital. We need a stretcher now!"

Vin took off without a backward glance.

"Nathan?" Chris' voice demanded answers.

"His heartbeat's too fast, Chris. Feels like it's skipping. And he's barely breathing!"


'This is a nightmare. It has to be a nightmare.'

Chris stood just inside the treatment bay and for the second time that day watched as hospital personnel fought desperately to save one of his men.

Nathan stood next to him. The paramedic kept his eyes glued to the cardiac monitor. Ventricular tachycardia. Chris had heard a doctor say it, Nathan had repeated it.

The doctors had quizzed them about Ezra's health. Any history of heart trouble? Any recent illness? Chris had told them about the food poisoning, the fact that Dr. Baker had commented about Ezra's irregular heartbeat. "This isn't food poisoning," one of the doctors had muttered.

Vin had gone upstairs to check on Buck and let JD know what was going on. The lanky sharpshooter hadn't said a word since they'd found Ezra in the parking lot.

Chris rubbed a hand across his stinging eyes. He was so exhausted he couldn't think past Ezra lying in front of him and Buck on a respirator upstairs.

Chris' carefully constructed world was falling to pieces around him.

And this time, he wasn't sure he could survive it.

A high-pitched buzzing pulled his eyes to the monitors. "Oh, shit, no, Ezra, don't do this," he heard Nathan mutter.

"What?" Chris demanded.

An alarm blared loudly.

"V-fib!" yelled a doctor.

Chris stared at the monitor. "Oh my God," he whispered.

Ezra was dying.

Lakewood-Saint David Hospital

Dr. Craig Baker parked his car in the physician's parking lot at five-thirty. He wasn't due on duty until six, but after spending most of the afternoon trying to tell himself he had to be mistaken about Ezra Standish, he'd finally accepted the fact he wasn't going to be able to let go of his curiosity until he knew for sure.

He didn't think he'd get anywhere if he called Standish and asked him to drop by for a checkup and some blood tests, but if he asked Chris Larabee to get his agent to come in, that might work. He'd understood from both Lauren Murray and the ATF agent Montgomery that Larabee was the one person Standish might listen to. And even if he didn't agree, he might at least obey.


He decided to call University Medical Center and check on Buck Wilmington's condition. If Larabee was there--and he had the strong feeling he was--he'd ask to speak to him.

University Medical Center Intensive Care Unit

JD looked up as the door opened. His eyes widened as he took in the look on Vin's face. "Vin?" he asked, rising to his feet.

Vin's eyes flickered to Buck's sleeping face. "Come on out here, JD."

Scared, JD followed Vin out into the corridor to see his friend lean against the wall, then slide down to the floor. Vin buried his face in his hands.

"Vin?" JD knelt at his side, desperately needing to know--and at the same time fearing to hear--what was going on. "Did you find Ezra?"

Vin nodded.

"What!" JD reached out and shook his shoulder. "Is he okay?" 'Stupid question,' he told himself. 'If he was okay, he'd be here. And Vin wouldn't be acting like this.' "Vin," he whispered, aware that one of the nurses was watching him from her desk, "just tell me what's wrong."

Vin rubbed his hands over his face and then dropped them. He stared straight ahead at nothing, avoiding JD's worried gaze. "We found him in Buck's truck. He's unconscious, they've got him downstairs now. Hell, JD, he musta been there for hours! Why the hell didn't I go looking for him earlier?"

"Unconscious?" JD slid down next to Vin with a thump. "But...what's wrong with him?"

"I don't know." Vin shook his head. He took a deep breath. "It don't look good, JD. That's why I had you come out here. Don't think we need to risk Bucklin hearin' somethin's wrong right now."

"Agent Tanner?"

Both men looked up. The nurse behind the desk was holding the phone out. "It's a Dr. Baker over at Lakewood St. David Hospital. He asked for Agent Larabee, but--"

Vin nodded. "He's the doc that took care of Buck and Ez after that food poisoning." He made to stand up. JD was quicker and got to his feet, then helped his friend to stand. Moving slowly, Vin took the phone from the nurse.



"Three hundred!"


Ezra's body arched as the electrical current flowed through his body.

"No conversion."

"Push one amp sodium bicarb. Raise to three fifty."



Ezra's body jerked again.

"Come on, you SOB!" Chris Larabee yelled at his friend.


"Agent Larabee, this is Craig Baker, I'm the physician that treated- -"

"I know who you are, Doc," Vin said tiredly. Lord his head hurt and suddenly all he wanted to do was sit down somewhere and quietly pass out, then wake up to find he was still at the cabin in Wyoming and all this had been a dream. "But I'm not Larabee. This is Tanner. Chris can't come to the phone right now."

"Oh. Well, maybe you can help. I think I might have figured out what was wrong with Agent Standish--although it doesn't really make any sense--and I was wondering if you could--"

"Wait," Vin interrupted him, his heart starting to pound. "Did you say you know what's wrong with him?"

His change in tense hadn't gone unnoticed. The doctor's voice sharpened. "Agent Tanner, has something happened to Agent Standish?"

"He's down in the ER here right now, we found him passed out--he was probably out for a couple of hours, at least. They're calling it-- " Vin had to stop to think of the words. "Ventricular...something...tachy--"

"Ventricular tachycardia?"

"Yeah. That's it." Vin drew in a shaky breath. "Does that--"

"Agent Tanner, I need to speak to the doctor in charge, now!"

Vin stared at the phone. "But--"

"If it's what I think it is, normal treatment could kill him. I don't care if you have to pull your gun on the doctor, I need to talk to him!"


"Pulse eighty-eight and steady, Doctor."

The ER physician stepped back from the examining table and turned to face Chris and Nathan. "Interesting bedside manner you have, Agent Larabee," he said with raised eyebrows and a small grin.

"Whatever works," Chris said, his eyes on his agent. "How is he?"

"He's stable for now. Pulse is steady, breathing fine. We'll be moving him up to ICU soon. I want a close eye kept on him until--"

"Doctor! Pulse is dropping!"

The man whirled back around to the table. "What the--"

The door slammed open and Vin Tanner barreled in. "Stop!"

"Stop what? Who the hell are you?"

"Vin--" Nathan started.

"He's one of my men," Chris snapped. He stepped forward and grabbed Vin by the arm. "What's wrong?" He took in a deep breath. "Is it Buck?"

Vin shook his head. "No, he's the same. Chris, Dr. Baker called. He needs to talk to whoever's treating Ez, right now!"

"Pulse down to fifty, Doctor."

The doctor stared from Vin to Chris back to Ezra. "Who is Dr. Baker?"

"He's the one that treated Ez at Lakewood-St. David. He knows what's wrong with him! He says if you treat this like--whatever it looks like--you could kill him!"

"Vin!" Nathan croaked, scandalized. Bad enough his teammates were known throughout Denver for being the world's worst patients, now they were critiquing treatment protocols?

Another alarm sounded. The doctor looked up at the monitor, then grabbed his stethoscope. "Get me ten CCs--"

"No!" Vin yanked his gun from the holster. "Don't do anything until you talk to Baker!"

Everyone froze.

Chris looked at Vin, then at the doctor. "Do as he says." His voice was chipped ice.

The doctor hesitated, eyed Vin cautiously, then yanked the stethoscope from around his neck and stepped back from the table. Without a word he stalked to the door.

Minutes--probably no more than two but it seemed like a lifetime as Ezra's pulse gradually slowed and no one in the room seemed able to move--went by.

"You want to put the gun away, Cowboy?" Chris asked calmly.

Vin flushed and holstered the weapon quickly. "Sorry," he muttered sheepishly to the medical personnel who were all staring at him as if he were some sort of wild animal. "Had to make sure he'd listen to me."

"What did Baker think--" Chris started.

He was interrupted when the door swung open again and the doctor rushed back in. "Stop the IV. NOW!"

Part 24

JD had given up sitting and now he paced restlessly back and forth. Not that there was that much room, but he had to move around. The normal restless energy of a young man in his early twenties was compounded by stress and anxiety.

It had been almost three hours since Vin had literally flung the telephone down on the desk and gone racing out of ICU. JD had started to follow, then pulled himself up short as he thought about Buck. JD still hadn't figured out everything that had happened while he was in Florida, but he knew enough. He knew his best friend needed him.

That didn't ease his anxiety. Buck slept, the respirator still doing the job of breathing for him, the monitors carefully tracking his vital functions. JD had heard nothing from his teammates. He didn't even know if Ezra was alive or dead. 'He has to be alive...they'd have come and told me if he...'

He stopped to straighten the blanket around Buck's shoulders. It didn't need straightening but JD had to do something. He stared at the familiar features, so unfamiliarly quiet and still, praying for a flicker of response, another wink, anything, so that JD would know the man he had come to care for as best friend and big brother was still there.

He forced himself to sit down again. The whooshing of the respirator was so loud in the quiet room. He couldn't hear anything else. Trying to block it out, he said, "Y'know, should have come to Miami." His voice sounded strange, flat and almost tinny. He coughed self-consciously. "The room next to ours, there were five girls there from some school in Texas. You'd have loved 'em, they were wild. There was this party one night..." JD launched into an account of his vacation. He spoke automatically, not really remembering the events as much as reciting them. He talked about the parties around the pool at the hotel; the dances on the beach with the only light that of big bonfires; the long warm afternoons spent playing volleyball and splashing in the silken waves. He told Buck about Casey's two classmates and the other person they'd shared the two-room suite with- -someone who was the cousin of a friend's sorority sister. Jamie was younger than the rest of them, not quite eighteen--and sheltered. She'd had way too much to drink one night and a couple of guys had been intent on taking her for a walk on the beach. Knowing full well what they had planned, JD had played big brother for the girl, taken her back to the room and spent the night holding her head as she prayed to the porcelain god. Casey'd been kind of annoyed with him, but JD had known it was the right thing to do. "She talked a lot, you know? I mean, she didn't know who I was half the time. Her mom died a couple of months back and she didn't want to go home and see the house without her mom there..." JD stopped.

He knew the feeling. After his mother had died, their small apartment was no longer a haven from the world, but a cold, lonely place that mocked him for what he no longer had and hadn't valued enough when he did have it. JD had learned that "home" wasn't a place, it was a feeling. A feeling he lost with his mother's death but found again in a city two thousand miles from where he'd grown up, with six of the most annoying, irritating, crazy, wonderful friends anyone could ever ask for.

More than friends. Family.

And one special big brother.

"What the hell were you even doing there, Buck?" he asked, feeling tears tickling his eyes. He wiped them away impatiently. "You were supposed to be in Wyoming with Chris and Vin." The guilt he'd been feeling came to the fore. "I didn't even call you," he half- whispered. "I wanted to--" so many times, when he'd felt lost in the crowd of people so busy working at having a good time. "I can't turn my back on you for a minute, can I?" he tried to joke. "Chris should have known better than to leave you and Ezra alone in Denver. The miracle is that only our place blew up--" his throat closed up. He tightened his fingers around Buck's hand.

He felt a faint pressure on his hand and looked up quickly to see Buck's dark blue eyes watching him. "Hey, you're awake!" JD jumped up. "How do you feel? Do you need anything?"

Buck shook his head slightly. His eyes asked a question. He raised a finger and pointed at his roommate.

"Me? I'm fine. You're the one in the hospital," JD tried to laugh it off.

Buck was having none of it. His hand tightened on JD's. Those eyes that were all-seeing where his friend was concerned didn't waver from JD's face.

JD looked down. "I was scared, Buck. Heck, I'm still scared. But all that time trying to get here, and I didn't even know if you were going to still be...and now, with Ezra--" Too late, JD tried to stop the flow of words. He threw a frightened glance at Buck's face, almost groaning as he saw the determined look in his eyes.


"What the hell is taking so long in there?" Vin demanded.

"They'll let us know something as soon as they can." Nathan tried to sound positive and soothing. It didn't have much of an effect on the other two, both of whom were worn thin from the last few days.

Chris didn't say anything. He just stared straight ahead, his bandaged hand resting in his lap. They'd been forcibly ejected from Ezra's side when a nurse had noticed Chris dripping blood all over the floor. Another nurse had cleaned and bandaged the cuts--none were serious--and directed them to wait in an alcove where there were a few chairs and the coffee machine.

Vin poured another cup of the strong dark brew, not so much because he wanted it as because from there he had a clear view of the treatment cubicle where Ezra was. He stiffened. "Here comes the doc," he said, gulping a large mouthful. It was too hot and he winced.

The doctor--he was about Chris' height, with bright carrot red hair and freckles--came in. He made eye contact with all three of them individually before saying, "He's stable."

"I hate that word," Chris said in that eerily calm voice that meant he wasn't calm at all. "What the hell does that mean? Is he going to be all right?"

"What's wrong with him?" Nathan questioned. "Ezra's never had a heart problem."

The doctor sighed. Vin noted his nametag read, "Dr. Howard" and wondered how many times the man got called "Howdy Doody" in the course of an average week. Then he forgot everything else as he heard the doctor's words.

"Mr. Standish was poisoned."

"Poisoned?" Nathan repeated in shock.

"Poisoned?" Vin was totally confused--how could Ezra have been poisoned? Where? When?

"Poisoned?" Chris hissed in fury.

"Essentially, yes." The doctor poured himself a steaming cup of coffee and gulped half of it in the first mouthful. "Mr. Standish can thank Dr. Baker for the fact he's still alive." The doctor shot a smile at Vin, apparently not holding any grudge for Vin pulling a gun on him. "And you too, of course." The smile vanished. "If we'd kept on treating him as his symptoms dictated, we probably would have killed him."

He looked at the three ATF agents. The fury was rolling off Chris in waves. Nathan just looked puzzled and concerned and Vin was busy going over the last eighteen hours in his head and feeling awful that he hadn't realized something was wrong with Ezra earlier.

"T-27 is a drug in development here in Denver at Riverside Pharmaceuticals," the doctor finally said when none of the other men seemed inclined to speak. "It's still in the experimental stages-- actually I think they just got the FDA approval to go ahead with field trials. It's intended to treat certain kinds of cardiac arrhythmia in patients who have shown abnormal sensitivity to--" he seemed to realize two-thirds of his audience didn't understand a word he was saying. "Well, it's a completely different chemical base than the drugs most prescribed."

"It's supposed to treat cardiac arrhythmia?" Nathan asked, puzzled. "But Ezra--"

"Well, yeah. If administered to a person having arrhythmia. But if you administer it to someone with a perfectly healthy heart-- normal heartbeat--the drug actually causes cardiac instability. Initially, a rapid heartbeat--ventricular tachycardia--leading to ventricular fibrillation." He paused to explain, "The heart is beating so fast it's just twitching, not contracting. Not doing the job."

"That's when you had to shock him," Nathan said.

The doctor nodded. "But, the drugs we used to try to stabilize his heart don't interact well with T-27. They slow the heart down--too well. Bradycardia. Had we kept on with the drugs we were using, we would literally have paralyzed his heart."

"But how did Baker know that was what was wrong?" Vin asked.

"Well, that's where Agent Standish's guardian angel comes in to play," Howard said, perfectly serious. "Baker worked for awhile at Riverside Pharmaceuticals. T-27 manifests as a very distinctive pattern in blood chemistry. Agent Standish was showing some of that pattern when he was in the hospital before. Baker realized the pattern was off, and it was earlier today that he remembered where he'd seen a similar pattern before. Of course, he couldn't see any way Agent Standish would have come in contact with the drug, but-- "

"You mean...when Ezra was in the hospital before--he didn't have food poisoning? He'd been poisoned with this T-27 or whatever?" Chris lurched to his feet. "What about Buck?"

Howard held up a hand. "No, he did have food poisoning. But he'd also been exposed to T-27. The food poisoning probably saved his life. He couldn't keep anything in his system long enough to do serious damage." He sighed. "This time it would have been different. He has to have taken in a pretty substantial dose...probably at least ten times the therapeutic level...within the last eight to twelve hours. And it had to have been consumed orally."

"You mean, somethin' he ate?" Vin shook his head. "Can't be. He hasn't ate anything."

"Eaten or drank. T-27 is an odorless, tasteless powder. But there's no doubt that he ingested it. I just got off the phone with Dr. Hastings at Riverside. She's the head of the labs and the one that originally developed T-27. She didn't believe me at first, but then Baker called her too. Anyway she faxed us the chemical breakdown and our lab here isolated it in Mr. Standish's blood."

"Is he going to be all right?" Chris demanded. "How do you treat it?"

"I believe he will be. We're going to have to watch him closely-- the next twenty-four hours are critical until the drug works itself out of his bloodstream. We'll move him up to ICU shortly."

Someone called his name then and he gulped down the rest of the coffee. "You gentlemen might as well go on upstairs and make yourselves comfortable. Mr. Standish will be up soon." He headed back to the treatment room.

Nathan looked from Chris to Vin. "What the hell is going on?" he demanded. "How could Ezra have been poisoned by some experimental drug. Those things are supposed to be kept under lock and key, for God's sake! And he's exposed not once but twice?"

"We're going to find out," Chris growled. "You two get over to his place. Tear it apart if you have to. I'll call in and have a tech crew meet you there. We'll get the hospital--or this Riverside Pharmaceuticals--to give our lab guys the breakdown--Vin? What?"

Vin looked up at him, his blue eyes glittering coldly. "That damn tea!" he swore. "That's the only thing he drank this morning. It has to be in the tea!"


Chris knew something was wrong the second he stepped through the double doors leading to ICU. The door to Buck's room was open and he could hear raised voices within. Chris' exhausted body responded sluggishly to the surge of adrenaline. Before he could get down the hall, JD stuck his head out of the room. The young man's panicked expression lightened somewhat when he spotted Larabee. "Chris!"

Chris reached the young man's side in a few long strides. "What's wrong?" He started into the room.

"It's my fault," JD said miserably. "I slipped and told him about Ezra. Now he's upset. Chris, I think he's really hurting but he won't let the nurse give him anything--"

Chris took in the scene quickly. The nurse--she was a young one he'd seen before--had a syringe in her hand but every time she made a move toward the IV Buck would shake his head wildly. The movement had to be agony with the tube in his throat; Buck's face and neck were beaded with sweat and harsh lines of pain furrowed his forehead. His eyes--as expressive as ever--fell upon Chris and he seemed to immediately relax slightly. Shaking his head, Chris rounded the bed to grasp Buck's outstretched hand. "You are one stubborn cuss," he lectured gently. "Buck, you've got to stop fightin' them all the time. And you've got to stop fighting that tube."

Buck locked eyes with Chris. His widened, as he tried to communicate something. He glanced at JD, then back at Chris.

Chris sighed. "Ezra is going to be all right." He forced a grin. "Looks like you'll have him as a roommate for awhile."

Buck's eyes flicked over to the empty bed on the other side of the room, then he looked back at Chris. His gaze was demanding. Sighing, Chris settled into the chair, grasping his friend's hand tightly, and told him as much as he knew.


"I'm sorry, Chris," JD repeated.

They were out in the hallway. Buck had finally surrendered to the painkillers being pumped into his system, and the nurses had asked the two ATF agents to step out while they prepared the other bed in the room for Ezra. Chris refused to let Buck out of his sight, so he leaned against the wall and rubbed his eyes wearily. JD's voice seemed to come from so far away. It took him several minutes before he could respond. "Sorry for what?" He could hear the exhaustion dragging his own voice.

"For telling him about Ez. I didn't mean to, I was just so worried when you guys went racin' out of here..."

"It's okay. I would have told Buck myself. Nothin' good ever came from hidin' things from him." Chris frowned as he thought about that statement and then wondered how much Buck was hiding from him.

"Where's Vin? Still down with Ezra?"

Chris shook his head. "He and Nathan are on the way to Ezra's condo...see if they can figure out how he got poisoned."

"Nathan?" JD questioned. "How did Nathan get here?"

Chris opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again. After several seconds, he laughed. "Actually, JD...I don't have a clue!"


"Vin...I don't see anything in here but tea," Nathan said in frustration, gesturing at the teabag he'd just dissected on Ezra's kitchen table.

The two of them had beaten the Forensics team to the condominium. Vin used his key to let them in and led Nathan straight to the kitchen, pulling out the canister where Ezra stored his special tea. Nathan had wanted to wait for the investigators but Vin had to know if the drug was indeed in the tea. Finally acquiescing, Nathan pulled a bag at random from the few remaining in the canister, donned gloves and a surgical mask from his ever-present med kit, and tore the bag apart. "They'll do a chemical analysis but I sure don't see any signs of anything in here."

"Damnit, there has to be!" Vin ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "Nathan, I was with him all morning, most of the afternoon. All he had was some tea. Oh, and water at the hospital, but he got that from..."

"Vin?" Nathan asked when Vin stopped talking.



Vin blinked and shook his head, like someone awaking from a dream. "Damn," he breathed. "It was in the water."

"What? That's impossible--" Nathan followed Vin's gaze to the kitchen sink.

It took almost a full minute for him to realize what Vin meant.

"The water filter!"


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