Before the Dawn

by Beth Green

Part 4
Team Seven headed out. JD, Josiah and Vin were in the surveillance van. Chris and Nathan drove separately. Ezra and Buck followed behind, in Ezra’s Jaguar. They would not make their appearance at the warehouse until the rest of their teammates were in place.

While they were waiting, Ezra decided to verbalize the concern he’d been feeling in respect to his partner’s physical condition. "Mr. Wilmington, I couldn’t help noticing that you appear to be a bit under the weather. You know that we already have more than enough incriminating evidence to send these miscreants to jail for a considerable length of time. If you’re unfit to provide backup. . ."

Buck cut him off, angry that Ezra would question his ability. "If I wasn’t able to cover your sorry ass, you damn well better know I’d ‘ve said something. Even with a touch of flu, I’m more than able to do what needs to be done. Don’t you go ragging on my ass. I know my job, and I’m damn well prepared to do it!" Buck was feeling lousy enough, without Ezra adding to his misery. You’d a thought that they’d worked together long enough that the man wouldn’t be doubting his ability. Buck was truly offended by Ezra’s remarks.

Ezra hadn’t managed to survive as a successful undercover agent without a finely-tuned ability to read people. He regretted angering his partner, but did not regret having questioned his ability. He’d seen how Buck kept rubbing at his stomach, wincing from time to time. He’d noted the dark circles under his eyes, the paleness not quite hidden behind the tanned face. "I’m sorry. But, I haven’t lived to a ripe old age without the skill to assess those around me. Despite your pretense to the contrary, it’s obvious to me that you are not operating at peak efficiency. I merely needed to ascertain that you are not attempting to delude yourself as to your current condition. By your acknowledgement, I’m at least reassured that you are not pretending to yourself that nothing is wrong. I accept your word that you are able to provide adequate support during this mission."

Buck’s head was spinning at Ezra’s convoluted answer. He wanted to ask him, "Could you repeat that; this time, in English?" However, he accepted the fact that Ezra’s idea of English did not always agree with his own. He decided to focus on the one thing that Ezra said that was crystal clear: his apology. "All right, then."

The two men sat silently: Buck, because he was still a little ticked at Ezra; Ezra, because he was mentally preparing himself for the upcoming operation. Finally, they received the signal that they’d been waiting for. Their teammates were all in place. Ezra turned to Buck, giving him a nod, as he announced, "It’s show time."

Buck’s answering smile was brief. He slipped on his sunglasses, instantly adopting the stern character of Ezra’s bodyguard, as he preceded his partner into the building.

Vin had entered the warehouse via the skylight. His perch in the rafters gave him an excellent view of the setup. He didn’t like what he was seeing, and quickly informed the others. "Boys, we’ve got four men in the open, with two more hidden. The extra shooters are separated, one on the east side of the building and one on the west." Vin did not bother stating the obvious. There was no way he could cover them all. Hopefully, these guys would give in without a fight. Somehow, he doubted it. He held his rifle ready, and watched the scene as it unfolded.

Ezra, using the alias of Ed Sanders, met with the criminals. He was accompanied by his bodyguard, Buck, whom he simply referred to as "Mr. B." Ezra had to admit, no one who did not know Buck would have guessed that he were suffering from any sort of illness. In his leather jacket and sunglasses, he did an excellent job of presenting a menacing façade. Ezra himself was dressed impeccably in a suit from one of the more exclusive men’s wear suppliers, as befitted a criminal of his supposed stature.

A mutual search revealed no hidden wires. The criminals were too unintelligent to consider that there might be a microphone concealed in the suitcase which Buck was zealously guarding. Therefore, the surveillance van was able to record their transaction undetected.

As part of their effort to bring down the top man in this particular gun running operation, Ezra had insisted that he would deal with no one other than Mr. Madison himself. Therefore, he had to carry on as if he were not perfectly well aware of the fact that the man was out of the country.

He and Buck faced four men; two familiar, two unfamiliar. Ezra turned toward the strangers. "Mr. Madison?"

An older gentleman with thinning, slicked back hair responded to the name. Neither Buck nor Ezra so much as twitched to indicate that they knew that the man was an imposter. Ezra and "Madison" simply nodded to acknowledge one another.

Ezra got straight to the point. "Do you have my merchandise?"

Madison directed one of his henchmen to open a nearby crate. An impressive collection of weaponry was revealed. Ezra then used the code word which indicated that he was about to spring their trap. "Excellent."

At Ezra’s word, JD and Josiah left the van, ready to provide additional backup. JD joined Chris at the back entrance, while Josiah stood with Nathan at the front.

Buck was tired of being the strong, silent, Mr. B. He was more than happy to announce, "ATF! You’re all under arrest!" Before he could finish his speech, the air was filled with flying bullets.

Vin shot one of the snipers before the man could get off a shot. He quickly turned to the second man. Vin fired without conscious thought, knowing that the second shooter had Ezra dead to rights. There hadn’t been a damn thing Vin could do about it while he’d been targeting the first man, who’d been after Buck. Vin took out the second man cleanly with a head shot, but not before he saw Ezra go down.

Buck and Ezra began returning fire as they headed for cover. Ezra hadn’t taken two steps before he felt the firey pain of a bullet as it tore through his right shoulder. The force and shock of the impact dropped him to the ground as his weapon fell from suddenly numb fingers. The gunfire faded around him as he lost focus. His eyes blinked at the odd view of rafters, when just a minute ago he’d been facing down the Madison gang.

Buck stopped his dash to safety in mid-stride when he saw Ezra go down. He cursed silently to himself, angry as well as scared. He changed direction as quickly as he could, praying that he could avoid getting hit long enough to drag Ezra out of the line of fire. By some miracle, he was able to haul the man behind the nearest stack of crates without either of them getting shot.

Those members of Team Seven who hadn’t seen Ezra get shot, knew of it soon enough when Vin yelled into his headset, "Ezra’s down!"

Chris’ voice came over the headsets, "Josiah, JD, cover the front and rear entrances. Nathan and I are going in." Chris and Nathan ran to the center of the warehouse, guns firing, hoping to distract the criminals from Buck and Ezra.

JD took up the position formerly occupied by Chris, while Josiah covered for Nathan. JD tried not to think about the fact that Buck and Ezra didn’t have the protection of the bulletproof vests worn by their teammates. He hated waiting, but accepted it as his role in this operation. Knowing his friends, he really doubted that any of the criminals would make it as far as the door. However, that didn’t stop him from hoping that one of ‘em would. Especially when he heard that Ezra was down. He narrowed his eyes in anger. He really, really wanted to put a bullet in somebody. He waited, tense with anticipation.

Chris had been carrying on a continuous conversation with Vin, trying to keep track of how many of the Madison gang were still mobile. They were down to the last two, one of whom was the Madison impersonator. Chris was calling urgently, "Where is he? Do you see him?"

The familiar bark of Vin’s rifle was followed by the announcement, "One down, one to go. I still don’t see the last man. Wait a minute. What’s that?"

Chris heard what had caught Vin’s attention: the roar of an automobile engine as it was floored. It didn’t take long to find the source, as it was heading right at him. Chris barely had time to get off a shot before he was forced to jump out of the way of the speeding vehicle. He let go an impressive string of curses as he reported over his headset, "Goddamn car! He’s heading for the back of the building!"

JD heard Chris’ warning just as the vehicle came into view. Gun held rock steady, JD let out a breath as he squeezed the trigger. By the suddenly erratic motion of the car, JD knew that his bullet had found its target. Although the results of his actions took only seconds, JD watched as if it happened in slow motion. The car careened out of control. It bounced off of one of the building’s support pillars, and then into a pile of crates. The solid objects absorbed the force of the vehicle’s momentum, causing it to slow to a stop. Unfortunately, JD was one of those solid objects.

Chris watched, appalled, as the car crashed into the stack of crates next to JD. Chris began running as JD disappeared from sight beneath the rain of debris.


+ + + + + + +

Without a headset, Buck had no idea what the situation was with the Madison gang. All he knew was, there was still gunfire so the bastards had not yet been taken down. He crouched defensively over Ezra, frustrated at the forced inactivity and worried as hell. The man looked like shit.

Ezra was all too aware of his surroundings. He was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe, but held on to his consciousness tenaciously. He clutched his gun in his left hand, prepared to defend himself and Buck should it become necessary.

Buck was alarmed at the amount of blood that Ezra was losing. His friend was pale and noticeably short of breath. Buck cursed his helplessness as he held pressure to the wound. There wasn’t a whole lot else he could do. They needed Nathan, dammit! It seemed to take forever, but he eventually heard the healer’s familiar voice.

Vin had directed Nathan to Buck and Ezra’s location. Nathan was wise enough to announce his presence before he joined his friends, to avoid getting himself shot. "Buck! Ezra! It’s me!"

Nathan removed the first aid supplies from the backpack he carried. He quickly busied himself with Ezra’s care. He updated Buck on the progress of their teammates while he worked, sharing the information from his headset. "We’ve got all but two of those bastards; no, wait, we got all but one." His hands suddenly stopped in the process of applying a pressure bandage. He turned to Buck, his face grave. "Buck, Chris needs you at the back of the warehouse." The two men made eye contact. Buck’s breath caught in his throat at the fear he read in Nathan’s eyes. "It’s JD."

Buck didn’t wait to hear any more. He rose from his crouched position. He was momentarily dizzied with the shock of pain which tore through his belly at the abrupt change in position. Nathan had been too focused on Ezra to notice. Buck held his right arm tucked tight to his side, which seemed to help ease the pain. He took off, quickly weaving his way to the rear of the building. He arrived to find Chris frantically pulling at a tumbled pile of broken crates. He dreaded the answer to the question he had to ask: "JD?"

Chris’ voice was harsh as he replied, "He’s under here somewhere."

With Buck’s help, it wasn’t long before they found their fallen friend. Chris had fully expected to find the kid hopelessly crushed. Somehow, the contents from one of the crates had formed a protective barrier of sorts, leaving JD wedged against the wall of the building, with most of the debris held off of his body.

His legs were not as well protected. Buck had removed most of the debris from JD’s lower body when he suddenly stopped. He closed his eyes, grimacing as if he were in pain. "Shit!"

Chris reached over to help shift the remains of the last crate. He was stopped by Buck’s fierce grip. "No, Chris, stop!" Chris froze at the panic in his friend’s voice. "There’s a piece of that crate stuck through his leg."

Chris echoed Buck’s sentiments. "Ah, hell!" He spoke into his headset, "Nathan, we need you at the back entrance, now." He vaguely registered the voices over his headset as Nathan requested Josiah to take his place at Ezra’s side. He put in a call for an additional ambulance, as well as more manpower from the ATF to help with the post operation cleanup.

It didn’t take long for the rescue workers to arrive. They had already been sent for when Ezra had gone down. The paramedics efficiently set to work, reinforcing the gauze which Nathan had wrapped around JD’s thigh where it had been impaled by the remains of a crate. The wood, a one by two spear, projected obscenely two feet above JD’s leg. The paramedics explained that they needed to keep the wood stable, so that it wouldn’t cause further injury until it could be removed surgically. They also wrapped JD’s head wound. Buck bit his lower lip when he heard one of the men announce, "pupils unequal and sluggish." Buck didn’t have to be a medic to know that that wasn’t good. Although his stillness was scarey in the usually animated JD, Buck was grateful for it when they began sawing at the one by two. At least the kid was spared any further pain. They reduced the wood from its two foot height, to a more manageable hands-width above the site of the injury.

Ezra had already been sent to the hospital in the first ambulance, with Josiah riding shotgun. The stretcher carrying JD was carried to the second ambulance. Buck climbed into the front where the medic had requested he ride, explaining, "You’re a big guy, and this is a small ambulance. I’d rather not have to work around you." Buck agreed, although he really thought that he’d do more good in back with JD. He knew that, with head injuries, it was important that the unconscious person hear a familiar voice. If anybody could call JD back from wherever he’d gone to, it was Buck.

Part 5

Buck hung back, feeling a little lost after they arrived at the emergency room. The hospital staff efficiently rolled JD into an examining room, directing Buck to the waiting room area. He stared at the closed door for a minute before slowly making his way to the designated area.

Josiah was already there, having ridden in with Ezra in the first ambulance. He asked, "How’s JD?"

Buck shrugged in answer. "Too soon to tell." He winced as he eased himself into one of the plastic waiting room chairs. The pain in his gut was gnawing at him, so much so that he wanted to pull his legs up, just to ease some of the strain. He wrapped his arms around his midsection. He saw the concern in Josiah’s eyes, and distracted him with a question of his own. "How’s Ezra?"

Josiah sighed. "Even with the oxygen, he was breathing pretty hard. He was awake when I left him. I expect that’s a good thing." He and Buck settled in to wait.

It was not long before Nathan and Vin joined them in their vigil. Chris would be along as soon as he could. As head of Team Seven, he needed to help with the cleanup operation at the warehouse. They envied him. At least he had something to distract himself from worrying about JD and Ezra. Chris eventually made his way to the hospital waiting room.

Soon after, the doctor appeared. "I’m Dr. Smith. I understand you’re here for Mr. Dunne and Mr. Standish?" He noted their affirmative nods, and continued. "Mr. Dunne is on his way to surgery to remove the foreign object from his leg. In addition to numerous contusions, he also has a concussion. The CT scan was negative for any serious head trauma, but we’re still obviously concerned."

"Mr. Standish is currently in surgery for repair of the gunshot wound to his upper right chest. He had a chest tube inserted to improve his breathing. Barring any complications, they both should make a full recovery."

"You can head on over to the surgical waiting room area. Just sign in when you get to the desk, and the staff will keep you updated. Any questions?"

Nathan was worried about JD’s head injury. He asked, "Did Mr. Dunne regain consciousness at any time?"

The doctor replied, "Yes, briefly. He was understandably confused at first, but was easily reoriented."

Nathan breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that the longer someone was unconscious after a head injury, the worse the prognosis. He conveyed his thanks, leaving the doctor free to attend to his other patients.

The remaining members of Team Seven rose to head to the surgical waiting room; that is, all but one. Chris, who was in the lead, stopped at the door when he noticed that Buck had made no effort to follow. "You comin’?"

Buck grimaced in answer as he remained in his seat. He did not move from the half-curled position he’d adopted. Buck had a sneaking suspicion as to the reason behind his belly pain. Now that he knew that JD and Ezra were going to be okay, he judged it safe to ask Nathan the question that had been lingering in the back of his mind. "Hey, Nathan, how can you tell if you’ve got appendicitis?"

All eyes in the room turned to Buck after he’d asked his question. Chris’ heart sank at what he saw. "Shit."

Nathan, too, was mentally berating himself. He’d noted Buck’s signs of distress: the discomfort, the paleness, the flushed cheeks; but, he’d shrugged them off as being a physical reaction to the day’s events. He stepped up to Buck, resting the back of his hand against the man’s forehead. He could feel the heat radiating off his body. He continued his physical assessment, asking questions. "You got pain in your belly?"


"Where at?"

"Well, most of the time it seems like my whole gut, but other times, more on the right side."

Nathan frowned. "Most of the time? How long you been hurting?"

Buck didn’t think that the small aches that this had started with five days ago counted for anything. So, he answered, "A day or so."

"Does the pain come and go, or is it steady?"


"Any nausea, vomiting, diarrhea?"

"Nope," he mentally added, "Thank God."

Nathan stated, "Sounds like it could be your appendix. Need a hand getting up?"

Now that he no longer had to hide his condition, Buck admitted, "Yep." When he tried to straighten up, it was obvious that the movement caused considerable pain. Buck sat hunched over, his head by his knees, with his arms wrapped tightly around his belly. He felt Nathan’s hand squeeze his shoulder, giving him something else to focus on besides the excruciating pain. He heard him say, "How about we get you a wheelchair?" Buck was obviously in no condition to argue.

Vin announced, "I’m on it," as he hurried up to the ER admissions desk. He returned a minute later, with both a nurse and a wheelchair.

Nathan helped Buck to pivot into the wheelchair, so that he wouldn’t have to straighten up from the only position he was comfortable in. As Buck’s status changed from that of visitor to patient, Chris directed the others to the surgical waiting room. He’d stay with Buck.

Over the next few hours, Chris received progress reports as first Ezra, then JD was moved from the operating room to the recovery room. Both would be moved to Intensive Care once they recovered from the anesthesia.

By the time they’d both been transferred to the intensive care unit, Buck was on the way to the operating room for his own surgery. Given his symptoms, as well as a CT scan highly suggestive of appendicitis, they were going to operate.

Chris, Vin, Nathan, and Josiah were rotating between their friends in the ICU, and the surgery waiting room. They all happened to be there when the surgeon made his appearance. Nathan had told them it should only take an hour or so, so they were quite concerned when more than three hours had passed and Buck was still in surgery.

The surgeon looked as tired as they felt, as he made his report. "Well, it was definitely his appendix. And, I’m sorry to tell you, it had ruptured." He let the frustration show in his face, as he continued. "This man was hurting for a lot longer than a day or two. His appendix was damn near gangrenous. I cleaned out everything as best as I could, but I’m afraid infection has already set in."

"The infection is currently overwhelming his system. He’s going to be in ICU for the next few days. We’ve got him on some high-powered antibiotics. Basically, we’re hoping he can hang in there until the antibiotics kick in."

Chris could barely speak through the fear which tightened his throat. "You mean, he could die?"

The doctor nodded. "I’m sorry. His condition is critical. But, he’s young and strong. The next twenty four to forty eight hours will tell."

The men sat in stunned silence after the doctor had left. Finally, Chris broke the silence. "Goddamn macho asshole son of a bitch is gonna get his ass kicked when he wakes up. He’s so tough, he thinks he can ignore what his body’s trying to tell him, and gut his way through appendicitis."

Josiah, the peacemaker, offered, "He’s had a lot on his mind, what with JD and everything."

Chris winced at the thought of JD. Damn, he didn’t want to be the one to tell the kid about Buck.

As if Josiah had read his thoughts, he offered, "I’ll tell JD, if you like." He added, "When he’s up to it."

Chris nodded, then wiped a hand across his weary face. "We’ll just play it by ear."

Vin was reeling from this latest blow. He sat slouched in his chair, staring at the toes of his boots. He announced, "This sucks."

Josiah patted his back, offering what little comfort he could. "That it does, brother, that it does."

Part 6

The remaining mobile members of Team Seven set up a rotating schedule for their hospital vigil. There would always be one man at the bedside of each of the three in Intensive Care, while the forth man would be resting.

When Ezra Standish awoke in the ICU, he remembered in excruciating detail everything that had happened prior to his awakening, other than the surgery itself. His shoulder ached like someone had thrust a rapier through it. As, he reflected, the surgeon technically had. He uttered the one word which succinctly summarized his feelings. "Fuck."

Nathan had noticed when Ezra’s monitor showed an increase in his heart rate. He watched the frown lines crease across Ezra’s face, and had been leaning toward his fallen friend to assess his level of consciousness when the soft "Fuck" was uttered. Nathan nearly laughed at the fact that that certain four letter word was the first one spoken by the refined gentleman. However, he couldn’t blame the man. He must be pretty damn uncomfortable, lying there with a surgical wound and a chest tube sticking out of his side. Nathan ignored the crude comment. He inquired, "Ezra, you awake?"

Ezra opened his eyes to the sight of Nathan hovering over him. He sighed. "Unfortunately, yes."

Rather than ask Ezra if he was in pain, and giving the man the opportunity to deny the obvious truth, Nathan showed Ezra a small device which was attached to his IV line. "Good. I wanted to show you what they have hooked up to your IV." Seeing that he had Ezra’s attention, he continued. "You’ve got a steady supply of pain medication being delivered through this line, but the problem is, pain is never steady. It comes and goes. So, any time that you need a little extra, you just push on this button." Nathan demonstrated by giving Ezra an actual dose, not giving the man the chance to refuse. Thankfully, Ezra didn’t seem to mind.

Ezra was truly grateful when the pain medication kicked in, and he drifted off to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

The first thing that JD was aware of was his head. It felt like it was too big for his body, it ached so bad. His whole body was one big ache. He continued his self assessment, feeling along his right thigh. He frowned at the bulky bandage which he found there.

His movement drew Vin’s attention. "Hey, JD, you awake?"

JD opened his eyes to slits, groaning at the harsh light. Vin hastened to close the blinds, cutting down on the glare. "Okay, JD, that any better?"

JD cautiously opened his eyes, this time able to leave them open. He reported, "A bit," as he raised a hand to his aching head. He blinked at the IV line which he trailed, his brain moving sluggishly. Okay. He was in the hospital. However, he couldn’t recall anything he’d done that would’ve put him there. "What happened?"

Vin hesitated, wanting to check JD for any loss of memory. The doctor had warned them of the possibility, stating that it was not uncommon for someone with a head injury to lose as much as an entire day. The first two times JD had briefly woken up, he’d had no idea of where he was or how he’d gotten there. "What’s the last thing you remember?"

JD thought for a minute. He answered, his voice a question. "We were in the van? The Madison operation?" Vin beamed at him. He’d obviously given the right answer. At Vin’s nod, JD continued, "So how did I end up here?"

Vin proceeded to recount JD’s role in the takedown, from the perspective of his bird’s eye view.

JD pounded his fist on the bed in frustration. "And I don’t remember any of it." He suddenly had the feeling that Vin had not told him everything. He asked, "Is everyone else okay?" He knew that he didn’t want to hear the answer, when Vin’s face lost all expression and he no longer looked JD in the eye.

"There’s two besides you in Intensive Care. They had to remove a bullet from the right side of Ezra’s chest." He indicated the spot by pointing to his own chest. He hastened to add, "But he’s doing real good. They expect to be able to move him to a regular room in the next day or so. You, too, for that matter."

JD had been chanting silently to himself, "please not Buck, please not Buck, please not Buck." He prompted, "And the other . . .?"

JD read the sorrow in Vin’s eyes. "It’s Buck."

Ignoring his injured leg as well as the IV and various monitoring devices tethering him to the bed, JD immediately tried to get up. "Where is he? I gotta see him!"

Vin attempted to settle JD back into the bed. "JD, take it easy. He’s in good hands. Let the doctors take care of him. Right now, the best thing you can do for Buck is to take care of yourself."

JD was not listening. The more Vin tried to keep him down, the more he resisted. "No. You don’t understand. I gotta see him!"

Vin and JD’s struggles were interrupted by the nurse who’d come running at the sound of raised voices and the shrill whine of the monitor’s alarm. "Now, Mr. Dunne, lie back, relax, take it easy."

JD countered with, "You take it easy. It’s not your best friend who’s in Intensive Care!"

The nurse continued to speak in a low, soothing voice, as she injected a sedative into JD’s IV. "Mr. Dunne, I’m going to give you something to help you relax."

JD’s voice weakened as he sank back down onto the bed, still muttering, "I’ve gotta see Buck." JD’s eyelids fluttered once, twice, before they remained closed.

The nurse escorted Vin from the room. "Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to ask you to leave."

Vin indignantly disagreed. "Miss, JD needs his friends now more than ever."

The nurse scolded, "If this is an example of how he reacts to his friends, I’m afraid I’ll need to speak to the doctor about the possibility of restricting his visitors."

Vin tried to argue with the nurse, but the more he talked, the less she seemed willing to listen. He finally had to admit defeat, consoling himself with the fact that JD’s current nurse was scheduled to go off shift in another three hours. By then, when the excitement had died down, he planned to plead his case to the next shift.

Vin poked his head into the waiting room where Josiah was quietly reading. He related how upset JD had been, and the nurse’s reaction. Vin explained that he was going to take advantage of the unexpected free time to go home and shower and shave. Privately, he admitted to himself that he was feeling incredibly crowded in the confines of the hospital, and needed to get away for however short a time. Josiah waved him on his way.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat silent in his vigil. Buck was covered with a cooling blanket, as his temperature had soared dangerously high, above 104 degrees. He had tubes and hoses stuck in damn near every place it was possible to stick something. Chris closed his eyes. It hurt too much to continue looking.

As the day wore on, the cooling blanket managed to keep Buck from frying his brain, although he still remained feverish. From time to time he roused just enough to try pulling out his tubes. So, he now had the added indignity of being tied to the bed. Chris had objected strenuously, at first. He said that he’d make sure that nothing would happen to Buck. However, he had not counted on the strong-willed nature of his oldest friend. As sick as he was, a delirious Buck managed to free his hand from Chris’ grip, and had nearly succeeded in pulling out his breathing tube before a quickly administered IV sedative, in combination with Chris’s numbing grip, finally caused him to let go.

+ + + + + + +

The few times he drifted into awareness, Buck was only conscious of one thing: he was in Hell. He was trapped beneath a dark, heavy, oppressive fog. The fog was a physical thing, blanketing his mind and body. He panicked when he realized that he was having trouble breathing. At first he’d thought it was the fog that was suffocating him. Then, he realized that there was something stuck in his throat. And, try as he might, he could not lift his arms to remove the obstruction. He was in Hell.

+ + + + + + +

By day two of his hospital stay, JD had improved enough that he was to be moved out of the ICU. He still had a headache that wouldn’t quit, and was suffering from double vision. However, he was alert as he anxiously asked Nathan about Buck’s condition. He emphasized, "Don’t you lie to me." As bad as the truth was, he sat and calmly listened. His heart sank as Nathan reported that Buck’s condition was deteriorating. The toxins in his body were starting to affect his major organs, including his kidneys. If his condition did not begin to improve within the next twenty four hours, the prognosis was very poor.

Immediately, JD demanded to see his stricken friend. The staff made no objection. He was assisted into a wheelchair, while Nathan hovered nearby. Nathan had tried to prepare him for what he was going to see, but no amount of words could have prepared him for how truly awful Buck looked. He paused at the doorway of the glass-walled room, temporarily unable to go any further. Tears filled his eyes, as he realized that he had his own words to describe Buck’s appearance: he looked like he was dying.

He angrily swiped the tears away. He knew why the hospital staff had agreed to his visit. They thought Buck was gonna die. Well, they had another think coming. Buck wasn’t going to die. JD nodded that he was ready to enter. He took Buck’s clammy hand in his own. It was swollen, like the rest of his body, due to his kidneys failing under the onslaught of infection. He squeezed, leaning up close to Buck’s ear, wanting to be certain that he’d be heard above the whoosh of the ventilator and the beeping of the monitors. "You listen to me, Buck. You better get your ass back here, pronto, so I can kick it to hell and back. Anyone else would’ve seen a doctor days ago, but not you, Mr. ‘the pain ain’t so bad’ tough guy. See where that’s got you. Not a very nice place, that’s for damn sure."

"And, as far as our disagreement over the ring thing goes, I’m ready to accept your apology. So, start talking. I’m listening." JD gave the lifeless hand one last squeeze before letting go. He barely took note when he arrived in his new room. He couldn’t decide which was worse: his headache, or his heartache.

His spirits were lifted a little later in the day by the arrival of his new roommate: Ezra. Ezra’s chest tube had been removed, and he was expected to be able to go home within the next day or two.

Like JD, Ezra had stopped in to see Buck. Although perfectly aware of the gravity of the situation, he had no doubts that Buck was going to recover. He was allowed a few minutes alone with his friend, and took advantage of the time to speak a few words that he had no desire to share with an audience. "Buck. I must again apologize for doubting your ability to provide adequate backup. Not only did you perform admirably, but you quite possibly saved my life when you put yourself between me and the Madison’s hail of bullets. And, for that, I do thank you. Now, I have a favor to ask of you: get well, and soon." He decided to add a plea to Buck’s overgrown sense of responsibility. "JD needs you."

+ + + + + + +

Lost in the fog of his mind, Buck felt himself drifting farther and farther away from his painful existence. After an unknown amount of time, he found himself walking along a tunnel. The walk seemed endless, but there was a faint light which drew him onward. The closer he got to the light, the lighter he felt. He seemed to be almost floating as he neared the warm, comforting glow.

Despite the welcoming glow which urged him to continue walking on into the light, something caused him to hesitate. He finally recognized that something as a voice. He could not make out the exact words, but the voice was a familiar one. It was calling him back into the darkness of the tunnel, offering a different sort of comfort. He paused, torn between the darkness and the light. Then, from out of the darkness, another voice spoke, the words loud and clear: "JD needs you." Regretfully, he turned away from the light.

+ + + + + + +

With Ezra and JD now well on the way to recovery, everyone’s thoughts centered on their critically ill team member. Chris refused to leave Buck’s side. The doctor had said this morning that Buck might not make it through the next twenty four hours. Vin’s heart broke when Chris calmly accepted the death sentence. Vin knew Chris better than anyone. He knew that Chris was already in mourning for Buck. Well, dammit, the man wasn’t dead yet, and Chris had damn well better stop acting like he was.

Vin angrily approached Chris for a private talk. "Listen, Chris, don’t you be writing off ol’ Buck yet. Them doctors don’t know everything. Most especially, they don’t know Buck. You get back in there, and you tell him to fight this, you hear me?" Vin wanted Chris to fight for Buck more than anything. Whether he realized it or not, in fighting for Buck, Chris would be fighting for his own soul.

Chris returned to Buck’s side, contemplating the man who was like a brother to him. He swore he could almost feel the presence of death as it hovered in the background. He’d had to bear a lot of unbearable burdens in his life. He didn’t know that he could handle the loss of his oldest friend. As the day gave way to the night, Chris spoke to the unconscious man.

"Buck, if you can hear me, you gotta know how much you mean to me. After losing Sarah and Adam. . ." He paused as the words stuck in his throat. The pain from that particular loss would be with him, always. "Well, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you hanging in there, even when I did my best to push you away. You saved my life. And, Buck, I’m asking you to do it again." Knowing Buck’s tendency to care for others before himself, he decided to appeal to it. "I can’t make it without you. You can’t die, you hear me? It’d kill me. I swear." Chris was silent for a time after that, revisiting some of the best and worst memories of his life. He swore that he’d long ago shed his last tear. However, he’d come pretty close to finding another tear or two when he’d been talking to Buck.

Once he’d regained his composure, he continued. "Hell, if you won’t live for me, think about JD. That boy is tearing himself up right now, thinking that he’ll never get the chance to make things right between the two of you. Don’t you think he deserves that chance?"

Chris eventually fell asleep, slumped in a chair at the bedside. About eight o’clock in the morning, a burst of activity woke him from his uneasy doze. He tried to squash down the fear which rose up, until he received an update on Buck’s condition. "What’s going on?"

He was immeasurably relieved when the day shift nurse turned to him with a smile. "His fever’s broken. We’re going to get rid of this cooling blanket, and then we need to get him cleaned up. His body worked up quite a sweat cooling itself down."

Chris was more than happy to leave the room and let the staff get to work. He quickly shared the good news with his friends.

Later in the day, Nathan met with Buck’s doctor for a complete rundown of his condition, and shared his report as the Seven minus one gathered in JD and Ezra’s room. "Well, the doctor says Buck’s kidneys are improving, as well as his breathing. He’s by no means out of danger, but they’re real hopeful that he’s over the worst."

Josiah offered a gentle reminder: "Never underestimate the power of prayer."

If Ezra were not endeavoring to maintain his dignity, he would have responded with his best southern preacher voice, "Amen to that, brother." However, he simply nodded in agreement. He knew that Buck was going to make it. As did they all.

Part 7

The next day, JD and Ezra were both discharged from the hospital. The normally good news did nothing to cheer them. They both wanted to stay at the hospital, keeping vigil over Buck. Both were frustrated in their desire. Nathan pointed out, "If you want to keep yourselves out of the hospital, you’re gonna need plenty of rest. That’s something that you don’t get hanging around the Intensive Care unit."

Chris offered to let the recovering men stay at his house. "I’ve got plenty of room. Neither of you are anywhere near one hundred percent. Ezra moves like an old man, while JD’s hobbling around on crutches. The doctor said that JD’s headaches and double vision will probably keep bugging him on and off for the next week or so. If you’re both together, you can keep an eye on each other. Someone will come get you every day and bring you over to see Buck, and we’ll call you the minute there’s any change."

Ezra was truly touched by Chris’ offer. He’d not been looking forward to trying to manage on his own. He supposed that he should have known that his surrogate family would see to it that he was well taken care of.

JD, too, thought the arrangement a reasonable compromise. Even though his heart told him that he needed to be with Buck, his body told him that he needed to take care of himself.

They stayed the rest of the day at the hospital, as Buck’s condition continued to improve. Before they left for the day, they received the good news that the doctor would be reducing Buck’s sedation starting tomorrow, with the goal of getting him to breathe on his own.

Next day Chris and Josiah sat beside Buck, one man on either side. When the staff began to reduce Buck’s sedation, Chris insisted that the restraints be removed. "He’s not going to wake up to find himself a prisoner. We’ll keep two men in here at all times, and we guarantee you we’re not going to let him hurt himself."

Buck began to respond to the decreased sedation. The nurse reported that he was doing more of his own breathing, and relying less on the machine to breathe for him, with each passing hour.

+ + + + + + +

Buck’s first glimmer of consciousness occurred when he became aware than he was trapped in a nightmare in which he was paralyzed. He knew that if he could just wake up, he’d be okay. Waking up proved to be exceedingly difficult. He decided to start with something simple, like moving a finger. He concentrated all of his considerable willpower on moving his right index finger.

Chris jumped. "Did you see that?"

Josiah hadn’t noticed anything. "See what?"

"I swear, I just saw Buck’s right hand move." He quickly wrapped both of his hands around Buck’s cool one. "C’mon, Buck, I know you moved. I know you’re in there. Squeeze my hand."

Finally, Buck heard a familiar voice, trying to help him wake up. He wanted to call out, "Chris," but was unable to make a sound. Shit! There was something in his throat, choking him! That’s why he couldn’t talk! He reached with his right hand to remove the offending object, only to find it restrained by something; no someone.

If Buck’s right hand rising up off of the bed hadn’t signaled his return to consciousness, the shrill alarm of the ventilator as Buck fought it let the entire room know. The nurse hurried up to the bedside, while Chris tried to talk some sense into his agitated friend. "No, Buck, listen! It’s me, Chris. You’ve got a tube down your throat, attached to a machine that’s helping you breathe. You gotta leave it alone. Work with it; don’t fight against it."

Buck hung onto the familiar voice of his best friend, using it to drag himself to consciousness. His eyes fluttered once, twice, to no effect. The face above him remained out of focus. What the hell was happening? What was Chris talking about? Don’t fight the machine? What machine? Buck reached out a single finger, trying to confirm what Chris was saying. Chris allowed him the limited movement, as he tentatively touched the plastic tubing.

Chris smiled as Buck’s clouded gaze cleared. He watched as the panic gave way to recognition, and continued talking. "That’s it. You’re touching your breathing tube. If you’d just relax a minute and quit fighting it, you’ll figure out pretty quick how it works."

Buck prayed that Chris was right. He closed his eyes, frowning. His hand clenched around Chris’ provided the connection to reality Buck needed. He listened, and was finally able to detect a pattern to the machine’s actions. It was still torture, but it was a manageable form of torture.

Everyone in the room relaxed as the ventilator alarm was silenced. With his return to consciousness, Buck’s breathing continued to improve. By the end of the day, they were finally able to remove the breathing tube.

JD was there for the momentous event. Buck was allowed a few ice chips, which helped to ease his irritated throat. His voice a hoarse whisper, he pointed to the now silent ventilator. His eyes were bright with pain and anger as he declared, "That," he gestured at the machine, "was torture. I ain’t lying, and I ain’t exaggerating. I’m just stating the plain, simple truth."

Listening to Buck’s heartfelt words, JD winced in sympathy. He hoped he never had to find out what it was like to be tied down with a tube stuck down your throat. He held on to Buck’s hand, gently patting his shoulder, as he responded, "I know, Buck. And, I’m sorry." He hoped Buck knew that he was sorry about a lot more than the ventilator. Now was not the time or place to talk about it, but there would come a time.

+ + + + + + +

The time took longer to come around than JD would have liked. Although Buck was able to leave Intensive Care once he’d been removed from the ventilator, he still required another five days of hospitalization before he was discharged from the hospital itself.

Buck and JD had done a lot of talking while Buck was hospitalized, but most of it was inconsequential. Once they returned to the familiar surroundings of their condo, they were both ready to speak their minds. They spoke simultaneously.

"Can we talk?"

"We need to talk."

They burst out laughing, happy to be so in tune again. The laughter quickly died down, as Buck stated, "You first. I do too much talking, as it is."

JD was quick to defend his roommate from himself. "No you don’t. I missed it like hell when I didn’t hear your voice for all those days. Talking isn’t your problem; it’s mine. I should’ve told you at least a little bit of the mess that’s been swirling around in my head."

Before Buck could add his two cents’ worth, JD continued. "And I’m not talking about the concussion. I’m talking about the ring, and Casey. My heart tells me we should get married and run away together. But my head tells me I’m nowhere near ready for marriage, and all the responsibilities that come with it. I’m only just figuring out how to manage on my own. I need to get my head on straight before I involve anyone else."

"That’s why I even considered moving out of here, getting a place of my own. I’ll tell you, that was about the stupidest idea I ever had. I don’t have any problem living with you. You’re like the brother I never had. Although sometimes you try to be my father and mother, too, and that gets to be a bit much. One thing for sure, it’s the best feeling in the world, to know that someone cares about you enough to worry if you’re sick. . ." He stopped, suddenly overwhelmed with memories of Buck’s time in the Intensive Care unit, and his fears that he would never have the chance to set things right with his roommate and best friend.

JD blinked at the tears which suddenly clouded his vision. Buck hugged him close, as JD released all of the tension from the past week. It didn’t take long for the storm to pass. He was more glad than he could say to have a shoulder to lean on, taking advantage of the offered support. He finally pulled back, swiping a hand over his face. "Now, let’s see, where was I?"

Buck joked, "Bein’ stupid?"

Instead of taking offense, JD agreed. "Yeah, I was. First off, I didn’t find out what Inez had said until long after I blew up at you." At Buck’s look of confusion, JD supplied, "She saw Casey coming out of the bridal salon, and you figured that meant that she was getting married. Fact is, she was there getting fitted for a bridesmaid dress."

"And second, I was a lot more mad at myself than you. Somehow, I felt like you’d caught me out leaving Casey standing at the altar." At Buck’s incredulous look, JD stated, "I told you I wasn’t thinking too clearly."

Buck decided he needed to redirect a little of JD’s anger toward himself. "Be that as it may, you got one thing absolutely right: I broke my word to you. And for that, I’m more sorry than I can ever say."

JD rested his hand on Buck’s shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze. "Apology accepted."

Buck paused a moment, staring off into space with a strong feeling of déjà vu. He’d swear that JD had said those words to him recently, but he was damned if he could remember when. Ah, well. He placed his hand over JD’s, making sure to clarify how things stood between the two of them. "Friends?"

Buck smiled as a grin broke out on JD’s face. It reminded Buck of the way he felt when the sun finally shone after a stretch of dark days. JD answered, "Forever."

They sat together, enjoying the warmth of their shared friendship, feeling its pull more strongly than ever.


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