Those Whom We Serve

by Firefox

Disclaimer: I do not own the characters featured in the Magnificent Seven. They belong to John Watson / MGM Worldwide / Mirisch / Trilogy / CBS. (Life is simply not fair.) This fanfic is purely for fun, no monetary value or profit of any kind is attached to it, so please don't sue me (I'm broke anyway).

Author's Notes: This is my first ever attempt at fanfic, so please don't be too brutal if you don't like it, but feedback is welcome. Also, I'm a Brit, so if I'm not 100% on all the US emergency services, titles and roles etc, apologies – I"ve only got tv as a reference! Thank you to all of you talented fanfic writers out there, especially Nancy, Gloria and Lady Angel who all inspired me, to my pal Paula for her beta-genius and, as then, now and always, this is for Glo...

"I am simply trying to indicate that Mr. Wilmington's tardiness has been the very reason for our singularly overwhelmingly tedious experience..."

"SHUT UP EZRA!" Vin and Buck both shouted in unison.

Ezra Standish harrumphed, glowered, and threw himself back into the well-upholstered seat of the BMW, green eyes blazing and handsome features creased in a scowl.

"Jeesh! That mouth..." Vin Tanner whispered, shaking his head and repositioning his hands on the steering wheel. They were all tense and fractious, having spent a very long, mind-numbingly boring day, driving miles to some hick courthouse for a trial that ended up being adjourned anyway.

The three ATF agents were tired and irritable, and now faced a long and tedious drive home through rush-hour Interstate traffic. It was dark, cold and, as usual, Ezra was loquacious, which was having the effect of grating on the nerves of the other two, and the whole situation looked like it might end in a heated, perhaps fist-punctuated, argument – not for the first time, but still a prospect to be dreaded.

Vin yawned and stretched his neck, trying to ease the hard knot of muscles that seemed to have formed across his shoulders. The traffic was building much more rapidly than he had expected, and it looked like they were going to be in for a long haul home. He hated traffic. It frustrated him, tired him and made him bad tempered. Those feelings were more acute when he was driving a car like this one, powerful and sleek, capable of eating the miles effortlessly, but prevented from doing so by an ants" nest of commuters. The BMW's potent engine purred beneath him and his right foot itched to press the accelerator.

Up ahead, a string of bright red tail-lights was slowing to a halt. "Shit...", Vin breathed. They eased to a stop in the midst of the multiple queues of vehicles.

Buck Wilmington groaned in the back seat. "Aw hell! No way I'm gonna be home in time for my date..."

"How incredibly fortunate for the young woman in question, although, sadly, no doubt there will be voluminous quantities of other such unwitting females, arranged like sacrificial lambs before the insatiable altar that is the ego of Mr. Buck Wilmington!" Ezra's drawl gave the words an acid etch.

Buck growled. "I swear to God Ez..."

At that moment a chopper swooped very low over the lines of cars, its powerful search-light cutting a swathe of almost daylight across the vehicles. The rotors" beat was loud enough to drown the noise of the engine.

Vin leaned forwards, craning his neck to look up through the windscreen. The chopper was heading almost directly up the line of traffic.

"Flying eye traffic reporters?" Buck asked. Vin shrugged.

"Dunno." He stared at the skyline up ahead and, in the darkness, could make out the searchlights of other helicopters, a long way up the road. Frowning, Vin unlatched his seat belt and pulled the door handle. With the door open, the noise of multiple rotor blades was instantly obvious, together with a distant wail of sirens. Vin stood on the door sill and looked ahead as far as he could see, squinting slightly in the cold air. All he could make out was a cluster of emergency vehicles, coloured lights whirling on their roofs, and several bright patches of floodlighting.

"Looks like a major incident" he said, folding his long frame back into the driver's seat. Ezra was already pulling the mobile emergency light from the glove compartment, the window down, ready to attach the spinning light's magnetic grips to the roof of the car.

"Hit it Vin!" Buck shouted, and Ezra pushed the siren. The black BMW began to nose its way to the hard shoulder, the other vehicles inching out of the way to let them through. Vin drove as fast as he dared past the stationary lines of traffic, swerving into the verge when he had to pass an awkwardly positioned car or wide-bodied truck. The car's big tyres bit sharply into the dust and gravel at the edge of the highway, showering the bodywork with grit as they drove half on / half off the raised bank at the edge of the road.

They had driven some distance before a Highway Patrolman waved them to a halt and Vin twisted the wheel sharply, to leave the BMW parked at as steep an angle as he dared up the bank. Grabbing their ATF jackets, all three jumped out of the car.

"Federal Agents!" Buck shouted at the Patrolman, who waved them past the barriers and into a scene straight from hell itself.

What seemed like scores of vehicles were scattered across the complete width of the road, some burning, some shattered, some unidentifiable. A pall of smoke, shifting into swirling vortexes in the downdraft from the hovering helicopters, floated above the carnage. There were numerous fires burning, and an eye-stinging, acrid stench filled the air. The noise was cacophonous. Sirens, helicopter rotors, gushing water from fire hoses, commands being shouted, the roar of flames, the crackle of radios, pumps running, vehicle engines, fire trucks – a dissonant roar that seemed to vibrate the air itself.

The three stopped in their tracks. "Holy shit…" Buck whispered.

"The Chief's over there!" Ezra shouted, waving his right arm. They ran up to the bulky figure of the Fire Chief, who was yelling into his radio, trying to make himself heard above the din. He looked at them as they approached.

"We're Federal Agents…anything we can do?" Vin yelled.

"FBI?" The Chief roared back, his face and heavy jacket stained with soot.

Vin shook his head. "ATF" he yelled.

The burly man shrugged. "Right now, I'll take all the help I can get…"

Instinctively, Vin, Buck and Ezra split up, running into the confusion.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra could see what looked like it had once been three separate vehicles, but was now nothing more than a mountain of twisted metal, with something that still vaguely resembled the body shell of a saloon car at its base. A voice suddenly cut through the surrounding noise, "Get me some help over here, NOW!" Ezra saw two figures and, ducking to avoid a treacherous jutting piece of metal, scrambled towards them.

Under a portable arc-lamp a doctor knelt over a prone figure strapped on a stretcher, covered in a blanket.

Ezra had to kneel to get into the confined space. "Here doc! I'm a Federal Agent. What can I do?"

The doctor looked across at him, her hands frantically ripping the perforated top from a plastic envelope containing a sealed unit of liquid. She was quite uncommonly beautiful, with a huge riot of shining chocolate-coloured curls held off her head with something that was obviously losing its grip, for wayward wedges of spiraling brunette hair seemed to be escaping everywhere. Her generous mouth and dark eyes were set in an expression of tension and there were streaks of dirt and blood on her high cheek-boned face. Her emergency jacket, with its reflective panels, hung open and he could see a stethoscope hanging around her neck.

"Hold this!" she barked at him, handing him the soft pouch of liquid, its transparent tube attached to an IV in the arm of the patient. Ezra took it. "Higher!" She flicked the tube with a fingernail and Ezra saw the drip of clear fluid fall into the neck of the pouch.

Ezra looked down at the figure below him. She was a middle aged woman, her greying hair matted to her forehead with blood and sweat, her head held in a neck brace and her body, with the exception of her arms, swathed in an emergency blanket. Incredibly, she was conscious. From a contorted and dirt-streaked face, warm grey eyes looked up into his face and a small smile touched her mouth.

"What's your name, agent?" the young doctor snapped at him.

"Agent Standish ma"am."

"No, Agent Standish, What's your name?"


"Well Ezra, this is Belle", the doctor said in a totally different voice, soft and gentle, indicating her patient with a dip of her head, her hands busy all the time she spoke, ferreting in her emergency case for a hypodermic and a small glass bottle. She held the hypo, inserting the thin needle into the neck of the bottle and withdrawing some liquid into the plunger. With amazing speed, she inserted the needle into Belle's arm and slowly pushed the plunger home. Belle's eyes closed as whatever was in the hypo began to take effect. Ezra looked across into the doctor's eyes, and the doctor shook her head. She leaned over the woman, close to her ear, her voice totally soft and gentle. "Belle? Belle? Can you hear me? It's Ruth… I'll be back in a minute or two when I've found some nice strong men to carry you to the ambulance, okay?"

There was not a flicker of response from the stretcher.

"Her back is broken in at least three places and she has a ruptured spleen", she said, very quietly, but in a matter-of-fact fashion, to Ezra. She shook her head. "I've given her a huge dose of morphine, but there's nothing else I can do…" Her eyes looked levelly into Ezra's. "There are others here that I may be able to save…"

Ezra nodded, a sinking feeling in his gut. "I understand doctor." The doctor scrambled to her feet, closing her emergency case, and Ezra saw "Dr R Darrell" stenciled on her jacket.

"She may come round, but that's a helluva whack of morphine in her arm, which will stave off the pain. Just keep your cool and I'll be back as soon as I can."

Ezra nodded again.

"Don't you leave her, Agent Standish…"

"You have my solemn word on that doctor…" he said clearly, as she ducked out from the wreckage.

+ + + + + + +

Buck ran across to the other side of the road from Ezra, where he could see a small knot of people gathered in a huddle around what was still the fairly identifiable cab of a van. The rest of the vehicle was mangled beyond all recognition, the back axle and rear portion of the bodywork, together with the back doors, were nowhere to be seen. As he drew closer, he could see two fire fighters, a paramedic and a doctor. One of the fire fighters was wielding an oxyacetylene cutting torch, which sent showers of sparks up in a wide arc beside him, spiraling smoke into the already fetid air. The other fire fighter and the paramedic were shielding someone from the sparks with a fireproof blanket, both of them holding firmly on to a metal rod that disappeared under the blanket and the doctor was holding his stethoscope over his patient. Buck ran to the paramedic, a slight, young girl with short-cropped red hair.

"Federal Agent! Can I hold that? There must be something more useful for you to do…" he shouted at her above the rushing noise of the oxyacetylene cylinder. The doctor looked up.

"Agent! I could use a hand here!" The doctor shouted above the din. Buck crouched down under the shield of the blanket and his face paled.

In what had been the passenger seat of the van, a young, heavily pregnant woman was sitting, wedged at a curious angle. Her long blonde hair was thickly matted with blood where it hung over her left shoulder. She was fully conscious, her young face contorted in an attitude of terror, her hands clutched to her swollen belly. The breath came from her throat in short, tearful gasps. There was a blood pressure cuff around her right upper arm, attached to a monitor from the doctor's emergency equipment. A steady beep emanated from the metal encased apparatus. The young, fair-haired doctor was obviously listening for the baby, his stethoscope pressed firmly into the young woman's right side. What made the bile rise in Buck's stomach was the sight of the other end of the metal rod the fire fighter and the paramedic outside held. It emerged, smeared with blood, from the woman's left shoulder and jutted out at least a foot in front of her. The horrendous object was, effectively, skewering her to the seat.

"Save my baby… please just save my baby…" the words spilled out of her mouth in between her gasps for breath, over and over again. "Please… just save my baby… Save my baby…"

Buck placed one of his bear like hands gently on the side of her face, looking straight into her panic-stricken eyes. "Ssshhhh," he said, a lot more calmly than he felt, "… everything's gonna be fine…. Look at me…. That's it … ssshhh now…everything's gonna be okay, I promise…"

The doctor seemed to have finally located what he was listening for, and he pulled the stethoscope out of his ears and replaced it around his neck. He was very fair, with clear green eyes that reminded Buck a little of Ezra's, and a slightly lugubrious expression. He smiled at the young woman. "Listen to me Carla", he said clearly, with just the right balance of sympathy and assertiveness in his voice, "I can hear the baby's heartbeat clearly… it's regular and strong, but you have to calm down, or you'll go into premature labour. Take even, slow breaths…" he instructed her.

She tried to breathe in, but the inflation of her lungs drove a scream of pain from her lips as the expansion of her chest moved the rod. A fresh rush of dark blood flowed down her hair and over her left arm. "Easy! Easy!" the doctor cried.

Buck winced, his stomach churning at the sight of her agony. "For Heaven's sake doc! Can't you give her somethin" for the pain?" Seeing anyone in pain upset him, but seeing a young, pregnant woman in pain was agonizing.

The doc shook his head. "I've given her everything I dare… any more drugs might harm the baby…" He turned to her again. "Carla! Carla listen to me! They're nearly through out there. As soon as we've cut the rod, we'll get you to hospital…" She was trembling, she didn't seem to be able to hear him.

Buck shifted his position until he was kneeling right next to the doctor, alongside Carla's uninjured right arm. He picked up her hand, very gently, and enfolded it in his own. "It's okay Carla… Carla…look at me… that's it… look at me… Hi Carla, I'm Buck, I'm gonna sit with you until they finish out there, if that's okay?" Buck's constant stream of gentle words, in a soft Texan accent, seemed to centre Carla's attention, and her eyes finally focused on him. He smiled broadly, trying to convince her that he was in control, that it would turn out fine. Fighting to keep the edge of fear from his own voice, he spoke. "That's it… now you just sit there and let the doc do all the work… c'mon now, talk to Buck. So darlin", what you gonna call that baby of yours?"

Her eyes focused on him, trying to take in his words and, very slowly, in between the tiny gasps of air she was taking, she answered him.

"If's... a ...boy, we're... going... to… call him... Nathan" she said, in a shivering, quiet voice, but calmer.

Buck smiled widely, trying to ooze calmness and tranquility. "One of the most honourable names in the world ma"am. With that name he'll grow up to be a fine man, that I promise you. I have a friend called Nathan… he's a doc like…like…"

"Paul," the doctor said, a quick smile flashing across his face.

"…Paul, here… and I know if my Nathan were sittin" here right now instead of me, he'd be saying the same things I am… keep calm, listen to the doctor and hold on… everything's gonna be okay…"

Buck hoped with all his heart that he wasn't lying to her.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was appalled at the carnage all around him. His throat was catching with the acrid stench of whatever was permeating the air along with the smoke and fumes. Suddenly, away to his left, something exploded in a huge fireball and rushing whoosh of flames and instantly running fire fighters jogged past him, dragging hoses and shouting instructions. He could see three men, now very close to the edge of the conflagration, frantically waving at them and he ran towards them.

There were two fire crew members and a man with a reflective jacket saying "Doctor" on the back, standing on what was left of the road, looking up and shouting. Just above their heads, about seven feet off the ground, was a grotesquely contorted pile of metal, which, Vin realized with sick horror, had probably been a motor home. It had been almost sliced horizontally by another, completely indistinguishable vehicle, the roof of which had scythed through the back of the RV, about two feet from its roof, creating a nightmarish, box-like structure.

"Get me a frickin" ladder!" the fire fighter shouted. "There's a kid up there! We can see his feet!"

Vin sprinted over to the fire fighter, already shedding his jacket. "I'll get him!" he yelled.

"No way sir…" the fire fighter said sternly.

"I'm a Federal Agent!" Vin shouted, throwing his jacket on the ground and wrenching his sweatshirt off over his head, "… now give me a goddamn leg-up!"

The doctor didn't give a damn about protocol, he cupped his hands and hoisted the lithe young Texan upwards. Vin caught the edge of the metal tunnel and heaved himself into it. It was narrow, claustrophobic, only about two feet high and hot as Hades. He could see the soles of the child's shoes in front of him, about seven feet away. The young boy seemed to be lying face down, almost completely straight. Vin could see his hands.

"S"okay kid…" he said calmly, inching his way towards the prone figure by crawling on his elbows. The floor of the tunnel was hot, Vin's skin was protesting and he was already sweating. "Hold on buddy… I'm comin".

Quite unexpectedly, he heard an answering whimper.

+ + + + + + +

Belle opened her eyes, slowly, and Ezra smiled down at her. "Hi there…" he said gently.

"Hello Ezra", she answered groggily.

"You remembered my name! For a lady in your position, that shows exactly the kind of indomitable spirit I have always found irresistible in a woman," Ezra purred in his most comforting voice.

Belle smiled at him, a little crookedly, but with real humour. "Oh you Southern boys! All think you're Clarke Gable!" she said.

"Who might he be?" Ezra teased softly.

She continued to smile, but Ezra saw her face crease with pain. Praying that she couldn't hear the tremor in his voice, he took her hand in his and spoke. "If I may be so bold, Madam, would you consider it too much of an effrontery if I were hold your hand for a moment?" He was still smiling.

"Your mother raised you with charming manners," Belle said, her voice hoarse.

Ezra flinched inwardly. "Where are you from, Belle?" he asked, deflecting any more conversation about Maude.

"Born in Atlanta, but lived in New York, then Chicago, then here…"

"Atlanta! Why glory be! A Southern Belle no less!"

She actually gave a small laugh, but Ezra instantly regretted instigating it, as she suddenly gasped and drew in her breath with a sharp hiss.

"Easy Belle…"

"You married, Ezra?" she asked, the effort of conversation obviously helping to distract her from the pain.

"To my intense regret, I have yet to find a young lady who considers me of suitable attraction…"

"Now that, young man, I do not believe…"

"Why Belle? Are you propositioning me?"

"Yes!" she smiled again.

"Well, as soon as you are in a fit condition, I shall expect you to make good on your offer!"

"You may have quite a wait…"

"I think you are toying with my affections Belle – a lady of your obvious breeding must be married…"

"Not any more, Ezra…"

Damn! He thought to himself. She's probably a widow. Great going Ezra. "That is most regretful…"

"Not at all" Belle replied with some vigour. "Stupid jackass ran off with his secretary – she ditched him of course – typical man – no feeling above the waist…" she was smiling again now, but her eyes were heavy. "I don't care, he gave me our son, so he wasn't a total bastard.."

Ezra couldn't help smiling. She certainly had some steel in her, this woman. He wished he could have met her and had a conversation with her before… before this. "What's the name of this undoubtedly charming child of yours?"

"John… he's a lawyer in Chicago."

"A lawyer! You must be very proud…"

She opened her eyes and looked at him. "All mothers are proud of their sons Ezra… we may not always show it, but I promise you… your mother is proud of you…"

Ezra flinched again. Maude? Proud? Most of the time she forgot he even existed. When she had remembered, even as a child, it was simply to use him as an adornment, a sort of fashion accessory, like a Filofax or a German Shepherd.

"Perhaps you're not as easy as you think you are to get close to," Belle said, as if she had been reading his thoughts.

"So, tell me about John…" Ezra said.

"Changing the subject? I rest my case…" Belle whispered to him.

He smiled down at her, clutching her hand tightly. It felt as if they were friends – had been friends for a long, long time – this steely woman and the contrary ATF agent, both natives of the Confederacy, both fighters, both strong personalities. Something in her eyes warmed him, comforted him, made him less fearful. He brushed the back of her hand against his lips.

"You are some lady…"

"Perhaps, once – a very long time ago…"

"Oh no Belle, still…"

The eyes regarded him shrewdly, smiling. "Ezra, I'm not an idiot, I know I'm dying…and don't bother to lie to me…" she said quickly as he opened his mouth to speak, "I don't want lies this close to the Pearly Gates…can't have a handsome Southern boy prejudice his chances…" Her voice was failing a little, her eyes clouding over.

He grinned at her. She tugged his hand, pulling him down to her, wrapping a comforting arm around him, just like he had prayed for Maude to do a thousand times and, very gently, he placed his head on her chest. There was too much noise for him to hear her heartbeat, though he was sure he could.

Absently, she stroked his head. "Beautiful hair you have Ezra… you're father must have been a site for sore eyes." Her whispering voice dropped away, her breathing became shallow.

"Ezra?" He could barely make the words out now. "She loves you...your...mother. I promise. Try to love her back." The effort was too much. The words stopped.

"This is no lie Belle, you are still, most definitely, a lady…" Ezra said, although she had slipped into unconsciousness.

He lay there with her for an indeterminate time - it didn't matter - time didn't have any relevance there, anyway. There, in the midst of devastation, it was as if they were removed from it at all. Like a silent wall existed between them and the mayhem outside. Ezra didn't even see Doctor Darrell duck her head back under the wreckage. She stopped, taking in the sight of the dying woman cradling the young ATF agent's head in her arms and quietly withdrew.

Eventually, Belle's breathing became intermittent, then, finally, stopped altogether. The hand enfolding Ezra's head, resting on his cheek, became cold. He listened, intently. There was nothing.

Ezra Standish closed his eyes and wept.

+ + + + + + +

Carla was holding Buck's hand in a grip like a vice, but at least she was still listening to him. He kept repeating the same calming words to her, but his mind was racing. He was sweating, his stomach churning with sick fear for her. The fire fighters seemed to be taking an interminably long time cutting through the rod. A stretcher and two paramedics had arrived a moment beforehand.

"Sunset Ridge chopper waiting, Doctor Hanson." The paramedic shouted above the noise.

"Won't be long now Carla…almost there darlin"…" Buck said, flicking a glance at the doctor.

At that moment the fire fighter with the cutter signaled that the lance was almost through the metal. The doctor leaned forward.

"Listen Carla… in a second you're going to feel a sharp tug as they sever the rod. As soon as it's separated, we're going to move you. I can't pretend it isn't going to hurt, but the worst is over, I promise…"

"It's okay Carla, I'm here." Buck stared straight into her eyes, trying to hold on to her courage for her. He would happily have changed places with her, anything was better than watching a woman go through this.

"THROUGH!" came a shout. At the same instant, Carla suddenly lurched forward and a horrific gout of blood poured from the back of her shoulder. She gave an ear-splitting, guttural scream that turned Buck's blood to ice, then passed out. The emergency monitor let out a sharp continuous tone.

"She's arrested!" Doctor Hanson shouted. The paramedics descended, literally pushing Buck out of the way, working on the stricken woman like swarming ants. They lifted her onto the stretcher. He could see Paul Hanson giving her CPR and one of the paramedics was charging the defibrillator.

"CLEAR!" Hanson shouted and everyone stepped back. He placed the paddles on Carla's chest, and Buck saw her arch off the stretcher.

"I've got output!" one of the paramedics yelled and they wheeled her away to the waiting chopper, leaving Buck standing, Carla's blood all over his clothes, in the middle of hell on earth.

+ + + + + + +

"Easy kid." Vin edged towards the prone figure. It was so hot it almost hurt to breathe in here, and the buckled metal reeked of paint and motor oil. Squashing himself up against one side of the space, Vin drew level with the young boy, who was laying on his stomach, completely still, his arms and legs straight, his tear-streaked face dominated by a pair of terrified blue eyes. "I got him!" Vin shouted over his shoulder, "he's alive... and conscious."

"Hi there." Vin said softly, smiling at the petrified child, "I'm Vin. What's your name?"

"K... K... Kevin..."

"Okay Kevin, here's what we're gonna do... we're gonna get you out of here, okay?"

"Don't move him until we get a back-board up there!" The doctor shouted up to Vin.

"Do you hurt anywhere partner?" Vin said quietly. Kevin shook his head.

Vin thought fast. He could barely breathe in the confined space, the hot air being drawn into his lungs was painful, and his chest was heaving with the effort. There was no way anyone else was getting into this hell-hole to help, and he and the kid were going to be roasted alive if they stayed here.

"Make it fast doc, it's hotter"n hell up here!" he shouted, placing an arm around the boy. Kevin was wearing a thick sweater and jeans, which would protect him from the heat of the surrounding metal for a while, but Vin could feel the exposed skin on his arms beginning to burn.

A clattering behind him, then the edge of a ladder appeared, swiftly followed by the head and shoulders of the doctor. "Christ!" the doctor said, squinting down the length of the "tunnel", "you're gonna fry up here." He turned to yell at the others on the ground. "MOVE IT!"

Vin looked into the child's fear-filled face and a knot of sympathy formed in his guts. He smiled. "S"okay buddy." Another huge explosion thundered from somewhere outside, and the metal walls reverberated with the sound. Instinctively, Vin threw himself as far over Kevin's back as he could, though the cramped space made any movement difficult.

"SHIT!" the doctor yelled and Vin heard a crash as the man must have fallen. He could clearly hear the crackle of flames now and see a weird orange glow reflecting off the metal all around him. The air was full of smoke and a retch was clawing its way up his singed throat. No time. There was no more time. If he didn't do something right now, they were both going to die in this hell-hole. "Hold on partner," he croaked at Kevin and began to push the child backwards. Any injuries Kevin had would probably be made worse, but anything had to be better than roasting alive up here. The space was so cramped it was impossible to get decent leverage and Vin, sweating, his skin burning, muscles trembling and the breath rasping in his throat, had to heave with all his might to get the small body to move.

On the ground, the doctor and fire crew had, temporarily, been beaten back by the surrounding flames.

"Hoses!" the fire team boss yelled, "Up here! NOW!"

Just as Vin thought his arms were going break with the effort, Kevin's body suddenly slipped backwards. Blinded by the smoke and heat and with the last of his strength, Vin gave a final shove.

"FOR GOD"S SAKE, SOMEBODY CATCH HIM!" Vin screamed as loud as he could.

Outside, the doctor heard Vin's shout and rushed forwards, just as the child's inert form fell from the wreckage. The doctor caught the little boy safely in his arms.

Water suddenly rushed up the mouth of the tunnel, hissing where it came into contact with the hot metal, but far from relief, the water created an instant, suffocating cloud of hot steam. Blinded, unable to turn around, Vin could only scramble backwards, scrabbling for purchase with his hands, until he felt his feet drop over the edge of the metal. With a final heave on his arms, Vin fell.

His legs buckled underneath him as he hit the ground, collapsing into a pool of water. Two fire fighters helped him swiftly to his feet. Shakily, Vin stood, gulping wonderful cold air into his lungs.

The firemen half dragged, half carried Vin out of harm's way.

"What's your name, agent?" One of the fireman yelled at him, beaming.

"Tanner... Vin Tanner..."

"Well Agent Tanner, that was one hell of a rescue! You okay?"

Vin nodded, finally beginning to get his breath back. The skin on his arms was bright red, his chest and throat hurt like hell, but he was alive. He was alive. Jeesh! That was pretty damn amazing.

From somewhere, he heard a familiar roar. "Vin? Vin? Vin!" Buck ran up, seeing the firemen and fearful for Vin, his expression was distinctly nervous, but a smile of relief broke across his face when he saw Vin standing. "You okay pard?"

Vin nodded. "Yep... mostly..." he said. He took in Buck's strained, tired face and bloodstained jacket. "You?"

"Yeah… mostly."

The paramedics checked Vin over, but, despite their recommendations, he refused to be taken to the hospital.

"You're gonna be hellish sore for a few days, agent," the young paramedic said as Vin eased his red, aching arms back into his jacket, "but I don't think there's any permanent damage. Drink plenty of water, and get some rest." He grinned. "Well done, Agent Tanner..."

Buck clamped an arm around his friend's shoulders. "C'mon, let's go find Ezra and get the hell outta here."

The chaos was beginning to settle into some sort of order. The emergency services, working in concert, were carefully and systematically gaining control of the mayhem. Together, Vin and Buck walked through the wreckage, avoiding the fire hoses and debris, splashing through the water that seemed to cover everything, looking for their friend. Vin spotted him first, walking towards them through the still drifting smoke, his head bent and an unfathomable expression on his face. Vin frowned.

"Ezra?" Buck said. "You okay?"

Ezra nodded, but said absolutely nothing, a reaction that, in all the time they had known him, the other two had never witnessed.

"Let's get the hell outta here.." Vin croaked.

+ + + + + + +

The ATF office was just beginning to get into gear at 9.30a.m. the following morning. There was a buzz of activity and the smell of coffee. Vin, sore and croaking, sat at his desk. Buck was standing by the water cooler, filling a paper cup. A phone rang. The door opened and Murray, from the main desk, strode into the room.

"Wilmington?" he yelled.

"Yo!" Buck responded. "Over here Murray!"

"You got a message from a Doctor Paul Hanson out at Sunset Ridge Memorial Hospital – says he's had a helluva job tracking you down, but he thought you'd want to know."

Buck paled. "Know what? What's it say?"

Murray consulted the yellow "urgent" message slip in his hand. "Nathan arrived safely... mother stable and baby well – all indications good."

A huge grin cracked across Buck's face and he punched the air in a closed fist salute. "YYEEESSSS!!!!" he shouted.

Murray looked around the room. "Tanner?"

Vin looked up. Murray consulted another slip. "Yours is from a Doctor Forrester at County... it says 'Tell Agent Tanner Kevin ate two hamburgers for breakfast!'"

"Well, whaddya know?" Vin shook his head, smiling. "One tough kid, that..."

"Oh," Murray added, "and he also said to tell you that Fire Chief Lyons is recommending you for a bravery medal."

"Way to go, cowboy!" Buck shouted. The other members of Team 7 clustered around Vin, slapping him on the back and smiling.

Ezra Standish pulled back from the crowd around Vin and returned to his desk. After a moment's hesitation, he picked up the telephone receiver and punched in a number. The noise around Vin's desk seemed to recede into the background as he heard the handset being picked up at the other end of the line.

He took a deep breath. "Hello mother..." he said.

The End

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