ATF Universe

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Wednesday – 2100 hours – Larabee Ranch

Why are we doing this?

Why are seven grown men sitting around playing cards and telling tales as if we don't have a care in the world, when tomorrow we have a big raid?

If Mr. Dunne doesn't stop that incessant drumming, I may have to resort to physical violence. The young man cannot be still. He's in constant motion either physically or verbally, and tonight he insists on drumming his digits on anything within reach.

I don't know how the others can stand it, but as I look from man to man, they seem to be oblivious to the annoying percussion.

I laugh as Mr. Wilmington slaps J.D. on the back of his head. Apparently I am not the only one who was annoyed by the noise. The drumming has stopped but now an impromptu wrestling match has erupted. After a few minutes of struggling, Mr. Dunne finds himself in a headlock and Buck is rubbing his knuckles on the top of J.D.'s head. I am told this is called a "noogie" and it is supposed to be playful.

I found it to be disconcerting, and Mr. Wilmington found my reaction to be very painful when he attempted to "noogie" me last month. He should know better than to try to sneak up on me, or heaven forbid, Mr. Tanner.

Vin is sitting on the hearth across from me with that half smile of his as he watches the wrestling match. Mr. Tanner takes great pleasure in the simple things of life, things like watching his "brothers" play. It warms me that he so willingly enjoys things that were largely absent from his childhood. I wish I could do that – just enjoy the simple pleasures, but it has long been ingrained in me that appearances are everything and that something as simple as wrestling with your "brother" is a waste of time. It surprises me sometimes how similar we are as a result of our upbringing, or rather, lack thereof.

In many ways Vin is an oxymoron. On the one hand, he is like a child enjoying everything that is simple and free. And on the other hand, he a very dangerous man, not only with a rifle, but also with his bare hands. Although I am very accomplished in the Martial Arts, I would never wish to test my abilities against Mr. Tanner. Vin's military training and the survival skills ingrained by his childhood make him a most formidable opponent. Funny how those same experiences make him such a doggedly loyal friend.

Vin is the one who educated me on the art of the "noogie." Unfortunately for Mr. Wilmington, it was after he had attempted this apparently playful act upon my person. I did express my regrets, but Buck complained that he wouldn't be able to entertain the ladies for a month. It wasn't really my fault. It was simply an instinctual response to an attack upon my person.

Josiah's rich laughter draws my attention to him. You wouldn't think it was the night before a big bust by looking at him. He launches into one of his philosophical stories about brotherhood or some such nonsense as Mr. Dunne slips free of Mr. Wilmington and the wrestling match continues. Josiah catches me watching him and he nods to me and smiles as he continues his story. Somehow the smile, the rich baritone voice and the rhythm of his words seem to ease my tension somewhat, and I think that the Profiler of Team Seven knows this. Of course he does. Why wouldn't he? He has spent his entire career getting inside the heads of criminals and figuring out what makes them do what they do and predicting what they may do next. Not that I'm a criminal, mind you. I have done some things in the past that are questionable in some people's minds, but I have never crossed the line. Of course, my former coworkers in Atlanta are of a different opinion.

My teammates accuse me of cheating at cards, but playing with skill is hardly cheating. It's just that everyone else plays so poorly. And if it were truly a concern, they wouldn't continually invite me back. I think they all know that my winnings show up at the next gathering in the form of quality foods and beverages.

I smile back at Josiah, hoping that I am communicating that I am fine, and that I am ready for tomorrow. My poker face is good, but these men have known me long enough to learn my tells. I'm not certain he believes me.

As our Team medic, I know Nathan doesn't. He has already quizzed me on how well I've been sleeping and eating during this case. I assured him that I'm fine, but Nathan said, "Uh-huh. And I'm the Pope. Have you looked in a mirror lately?" And I did look. I don't know why. I already know how tired I am, but the dark circles under my eyes confirm it. All of us complain about Nathan's hovering, his tirades over how poorly we take care of ourselves, but none of us would ever trade it. Nathan is an honest man with a genuine caring heart. We've had our disputes from time to time because we come from worlds with distinctly different morals and ethics, but I respect him and I hope he feels the same for me.

As I watch him now, I see him chewing on his lower lip and I know he is worried about tomorrow. He is concerned whether someone will be injured in the raid, and if that happens, whether he has the skills to do enough, to save our lives if need be. None of us expect miracles, but his skills have come into play far too many times for my liking.

Chris growls and calls a halt to the wrestling match as the lamp on the end table crashes to the floor. "You're paying for it," he informs Buck and Buck complains that it wasn't his fault that J.D. kicked the table and broke the lamp. He grumbles that J.D. should pay. Of course it escalates into a debate and I again wonder why we do this the evening before a raid.

"You ready?" Chris asks me quietly, just loud enough for me to hear. Chris is a hard man in many ways; he takes no flack and leads with an iron fist. But the safety of his team comes first, even if he is reluctant to show that he cares. Like most of us, he needs that aloof aura to keep people from getting too close.

I nod and assure him that I am ready, even though my stomach is in knots. I am not a fool. I know that tomorrow something could go wrong and any one of us could die. I know that I could die, and I know that much of the success or failure of the raid lies in my ability to read the gun dealers. The safety of my coworkers lies in my hands. My friends' lives…

Chris grimaces as if he knows what I am thinking.

"Go home and get a good night's sleep," he tells me, and then he tells everyone, "That goes for all of you." There are groans and complaints about "mother hens" and "baby sitters" and then I smile.

I know exactly why we do this little ritual. It's more than just a ritual or a lucky charm, not that I would ever downplay anyone's belief in doing things the same way to have a good outcome. I've heard of athletes wearing the same shirt to prolong a winning streak and if being together the night before a bust is part of what makes Team Seven so successful, I'm all for it. It's just that I don't personally believe in luck. I abhor gambling and leave nothing to chance. Especially where my survival is concerned.

I know this is a way for the team to work out the nervous energy together, to let off steam. But it is more than that. It is an attempt to hang onto one more piece of normalcy when we know everything could go wrong and our world could change tomorrow.

I'm surprised that I regret that I'm not always present at these events; the circumstances of the cases often prevent my participation. But tonight I'll take J.D.'s drumming, Buck's teasing, Josiah's philosophizing, Nathan's hovering, Vin's quiet humor and Chris's grumbling about damages to his house. I find it oddly comforting.

I rise from my chair and gather my jacket. It's time to go. The others follow suit and there is an exchange of slaps on the shoulders, punches to arms, of which, gratefully, I am not a part. They understand that it is an invasion of my personal space. But each man in turn gives me a smile and a nod. Their way of including me while respecting my comfort zone.

I nod in return. None of us knows what tomorrow will hold, but tonight we are a team; I dare say, a family. And I know without a doubt that tomorrow six men will watch my back and I will watch theirs.

As we leave the house, Vin slugs me in the arm and I laugh. No matter what happens tomorrow, I will always remember the night before.

+ + + + + + +

JD should take drumming lessons. He’s got pretty good rhythm. I wonder if he could do as well if he was doing it on purpose?

He’s just burning off nervous energy. I feel the same way inside, but I learned long ago how to bottle it up and use it to my advantage. Glad JD never had to learn that. It’s kinda fun watching him bounce around and drive everyone nuts. It’s the same every time we get together before a raid. Anytime now, Bucklin’s gonna whap him upside the head and the wrestling match will start.

Yep. There he goes. Team Seven presents Buck “Lady Killer” Wilmington versus JD “Baby Face” Dunne in our pre-raid wrestling smack down. Oh! Good move. No, Kid, twist the other way. Under. Under! That’s it. Uh-oh. He’s gotcha now. Noogie time.

I look at Ezra. He’s wincing. Must be thinking about his own noogie experience. I don’t know whatever possessed Buck to think he could noogie Ezra. Ezra’s got this – uh – safe zone that you don’t invade and putting your hands on his person, as he would say, is definitely entering the danger zone. Buck knows that, but Buck don’t really care about personal space. Likes to hug. Likes to hug a lot. Took me a long time to get used to that. Not sure Ezra ever will.

Damn, Ezra. Let it go. Buck did. I can see those gears grinding. Buck knows you didn’t mean to maim him. And it was kinda funny. Gave me lots of material to tease ol’ Bucklin with.

It kinda scared you, didn’t it? Not that you’d ever admit it. Hell, I know I wouldn’t. But I’ve seen you in action, and you’re good. Real good. I sure wouldn’t want to fight ya.

I smile then, glad that we’re on the same team, but I feel the smile fade. I know that feeling; It scared you that you lost control for that split second. But ya couldn’t help it, Ez. It was pure instinct. When someone sneaks up on you, you gotta protect yourself. Ain’t no one else gonna do it. You and me, maybe we understand that too well.

That’s it, Kid! Nice move. You may be smaller than Buck, but you’ve got quickness on your side.

Josiah’s talking about brotherhood as we watch two of our brothers acting like total fools, wrestling on the floor. Huh. I want ta jump right in with them. Guess that makes me a fool, too. I won’t though. Can’t take the risk of jamming a finger or something. The guys are counting on me to watch their backs tomorrow and I can’t shoot if I mess up my hands.

Hope I don’t have to. If I have to shoot it means someone’s in danger and I’ll be real happy if that don’t happen.

Josiah’s words catch my attention again. Brothers. That’s a great word. Always wanted a brother when I was growin’ up. I wonder if he’s doing that intentionally? Josiah tells a lot of stories, some of them are a bit hard to follow, but this one has a clear point. It’s reminding us of what we have. He sounds like he’s just shootin’ the breeze, but he’s making a point and it’s a good thing to remember our uniqueness, our brotherhood, especially when everything could go to hell tomorrow.

Nathan calls out for Buck and JD to be careful. It’s his nature, ya know. He’s fiercely protective of his own and he gives every ounce of himself to help any one of us. Hell, he’d do his best to help anyone. He’s got more compassion than anyone I’ve ever met. He berates his skill, puts himself down, but he’s saved us all more than once. What he does is the difference in keeping someone alive until the paramedics arrive. I’ve seen him put his hands right into a bleeding wound and… Damn. I really don’t want to think about that. I really hope Nathan ends up with nothin’ medical to do tomorrow.

“Watch out!”

Uh-oh. Too late. JD’s big feet just took out the lamp on the coffee table. I’d give it the count of three before Larabee growls.

One… two… Damn, I was off. He’s put an end to the wrestling match. Hah. Look at Bucklin’s face. He ain’t gonna pay for the lamp. Says it’s the kid’s fault. Takes two to tango, Buck… or in this case, wrestle.

Chris says somethin’ to Ezra. They’re good men. Both of ‘em. Chris can growl and bite, but if he does, he’s got a good reason. And Ezra, I swear sometimes it’s like he enjoys poking a stick at a bear just to rile Chris. And he does rile him. Those are the times ya keep your head low and stay outta the crossfire. But tonight neither one of them wants or needs the fight. Tonight, like the rest of us, they just need us to be a part of each other ‘cause tomorrow – well, I don’t want to think about what could happen. We’ll all do our jobs to the best of our abilities and hope that it’s enough.

Yep. Chris is tellin’ us to go home. Ezra gets up first and everyone else follows. I punch JD in the arm and Buck practically squeezes the life outta me. Funny how everyone just nods at Ezra. I mean, it’s what he’s asked – when he finally got so frustrated with the physical contact. But it don’t seem right to leave him out. As we walk outside, I slug him in the arm and when I see the shock on his face, I laugh. He laughs, too, and I know it was the right thing to do. We’re brothers. That’s what brothers do.

There is a destiny that makes us brothers, No one goes his way alone;
All that we send into the lives of others, Comes back into our own.

~ Edwin Markham

Thursday – 0547 hours – Standish Condo

I'm up early. I know everyone thinks I sleep late all the time, but I don't. And if I do, it's only because I've not been able to sleep. Insomnia can be a gift for someone who has to be up all night, but most of the time, it's a curse.

I've been ready for the raid for over an hour already. I was up at four and worked out with a Tae-bo tape to burn off some of the energy. It's not the same as going to the gym, but it will suffice. I've gone over every detail of the case and I'm ready as anyone can be. I've read the entire newspaper, skimmed the Wall Street Journal and watched the news. And I still have over an hour to kill before I'm due at the office. Maybe I'll go in early and hit the coffee shop on the way.

Thursday – 0550 hours – Somewhere in Purgatorio

I hate the time change. Runnin's not as much fun when you have to go before the sun's up. Maybe I should'a gone to the gym. Carl would'a let me in early. He would'a spotted weights for me.

Who am I tryin' to kid? I never lift weights on raid day. I always run. It's how I get the jitters out so I'm not drumming on everything in sight, like JD.

Kinda nice out, though. Nobody around to get in my way. No one to bug me.

Wonder if the rest of the guys are sleeping. Damn. It's hard to read my watch when I'm running in the dark. Oops. Gotta head back. Reversing course.

Chris'll be up by now. He's always in early on raid day. And I bet Ez is too. Don't think he sleeps much the night before. He told me once that he gets up and works out early. He keeps stuff like that real close to the vest, like it's a national secret or somethin'. Says it'll ruin his reputation if folks know. Can't see why, though. It just keeps up the image that he's lazy, always late and so full of himself that… Ezra, you old dog. That's a great way to keep 'em off guard. They don't expect you to be as sharp as you are.

One more mile. Should go over the set up again. I'm on the catwalk, four stories up. JD's in the communications van. Buck's at the southeast door with Jim from Team Two. Josiah and Nathan are at the southwest door. Ezra's inside. Chris comes in later to make the buy.

Six bad guys probable. More possible. Timmons is the seller; he's slightly whacked and real paranoid. The overgrown ape with the red hair is his right hand man and the most likely to shoot first and think later.

We wait for the go signal. Either Ez or Chris can call a no go or a danger signal.

Ah, home. Got just enough time for a shower and grab some ‘a Nettie’s cookies for breakfast.

Thursday – 0639 hours – Twelfth Floor, Federal Building, Team Seven Office

Traffic was a nightmare and the new clerk at the coffee shop was terribly slow with the latte, but still I'm at my desk twenty minutes before the appointed hour. Mr. Tanner is amused at my presence. He is always present at least thirty minutes before required. He grins when I push the paper bag across my desk to his. He picks it up and looks inside and licks his lips. He pulls out the sugary confection and takes a bite. His eyes roll back and he moans with pleasure. And I laugh, but I feel a slight jealousy that he can enjoy such a simple thing so much. But then I realize it isn't the enjoyment that I envy. I enjoy fine wines and gourmet dining regularly. No it isn't the food; it's the open expression of that pleasure. Something I have been trained from day one to keep locked away.

"Thanks, Ez," he mumbles around a mouthful of pastry. "I like raid day."

I laugh then, and realize that this has become our routine for the day of a raid, if I'm able to be at the office that is.

Chris sticks his head out of the office, having heard the noise. He nods to me, acknowledging my arrival, and then goes back to his preparations.

Vin finishes off the pastry and nods towards the weapons room. I finish my coffee and follow him. This too has become a part of our routine. I watch him as he prepares his weapons for the bust.

The first time I happened to come into the room when he was preparing, I was impressed with the quick confidence with which he approached his work. Every movement was performed without hesitation, giving the assurance that he was well practiced with each step. The only hesitation Vin showed was over my presence. I realized that I was interrupting his routine and I attempted to leave, but he stopped me. Somehow he recognized that I needed the reassurance of knowing that my backup was fully prepared, and since that time, when I am in the office before a raid, he invites me to watch.

I almost laugh as I watch him check his shoulder holster, his ankle holster and his knife. A man as dangerous as Vin Tanner doesn't need all the weapons, but Vin leaves nothing to chance. I find myself re-checking my own shoulder and ankle holsters as well.

A ruckus outside tells us that Buck and JD have arrived. Vin puts his rifle in its case and taps his hand on the top before we leave the room. I nod my thanks that he allows me this little idiosyncrasy. He grins and calls out, "You got doughnuts, JD?"

+ + + + + + +

I hear the elevator ding right on cue. Six-thirty-nine on the nose. For a guy who comes off being unpredictable, I could set my clock by him. He comes over to his desk and I smile a welcome. He may act like he thrives on the unknowns of undercover life, but he's a man who lives by routines when he's not under. I've been on assignment with him several times and livin' like you’re someone else always unnerves me. I found myself needing the security of a set routine to remind me who I am. I kinda figure it's the same for Ez.

Bet he's got that yummy pastry in that sack. He passes it over to me and I look inside. Ah. Glazed Danish. Yum. I stopped with Ezra at the coffee shop where he gets these things. Hell, I'd never pay that much for sugar and dough, but I sure won't pass it up if Ez is paying. Oh man, this stuff is heaven.

I savor each bite of the pastry and know that Ezra's watching, so I ham it up just a bit, but this stuff is seriously good. I don't know why Ezra keeps buying it though. He never eats it. He doesn't eat before a bust. Says his stomach won't handle it and he wants to keep his edge.

I nod towards the weapons room as I finish the pastry and Ezra follows me. Maybe the pastry is his way of trading with me for watching me prepare. Or maybe it's just one of those routines that no one wants to break for fear that something will go wrong.

Ezra follows me into the room and I start with my rifle. It's the same every time he's able to be here before a raid. The first time he kinda stumbled into the room while I was getting ready. It didn't bother me to have him there, just kinda disrupted my routine. He was gonna leave, but I saw something. Can't say exactly what it was, but it just occurred to me that maybe watching me prepare would relieve any question about his backup being ready. Maybe it could help calm his nerves a bit so he could be just that tiny bit more focused. I invited him to stay and it's been our routine ever since.

I hear Buck and JD come in and I know exactly what the kid's got. A large coke and a dozen donuts. Three cream filled, three jelly, three chocolate bars, two maple bars and an apple fritter. I finish putting my rifle in the case and pat her for good luck. "You got donuts, JD?" I holler and Ezra grins.

Thursday – 0755 hours – Team Seven Office

The final meeting goes well, each man verbally repeating his assignment, a reminder to each of us that the others will be watching our backs, as well as a reminder of where each man will be if something should go wrong.

I have to leave first. I need to go and meet my contact and start the wheels in motion. No one wishes me luck, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Luck is fickle at best, and nothing beats good planning.

Mr. Larabee will be joining me at the meet, since he is serving as the buyer for this case. I know that Vin will be on the catwalks and Nathan, Josiah, and Buck and will have positions at the entrances to the warehouse. JD will be in the surveillance van. He describes it as being "stuck" in the van, but he does so much more. His job is key in our ability to communicate with each other. I know he wants to be where the action is, but his voice relaying my words to our teammates is what makes everything go smoothly. I must remember to remind him of his importance later. For now, I must focus on the events that lie ahead.

+ + + + + + +

I grab my share of the donuts and we go into the conference room. Last run through before the raid. Everyone reviews his position and there are no last questions. Everyone is ready.

Ez has to leave first. No one says goodbye and no one says good luck. Kinda like that rule in the theatre where you tell someone to break a leg instead of saying good luck. Ezra isn't real superstitious, but we all figure there's no need to push it.

JD's upset about being in the van again. He kept quiet until both Ezra and Chris were gone. Kid's wised up that way. He's learned not to upset the undercover team. I feel for him. It's gotta seem like he's bein' left out of the action, but he just can't seem to see the big picture.

"JD," I say. I wait until he looks at me. "Who do you want up in the rafters with the sniper rifle?"

"Geez, Vin," he says. "You, of course."

"Why?" I ask.

"Because you’re the best," he answers.

"And who do you want on standby with the first aid kit?"

"Nate," he says quietly. I think he's seeing my point before I finish it, but I go on anyway.


"Because he's the best." I can barely hear his answer.

"And who do you want in the communications van making sure we can hear each other and hear the call to move in?"

"J.D. Dunne," Josiah, Nathan and Buck chorus.

"Because he's the best," adds Buck.

JD grins at the praise, but he's still not too happy. "Being the best sucks," he complains.

I snort. Yeah, Kid. It does sometimes.

When brothers agree, no fortress is so strong as their common life.

~ Antisthenes

Thursday – 1248 hours – Warehouse on Front Avenue

So far, so good. Mr. Timmons seems a little irrational, but no more so than usual. Chris looks comfortable in his role. His skills as a buyer have really smoothed out. If he weren't our team leader, he'd make a good undercover agent. I'm watching his response as Timmons throws me a curve ball and I have to change our back-story. While his body language remains relaxed, I see a sadness in his eyes and wonder what put it there. Surely it can't be because I can lie convincingly at the drop of a hat. It's second nature to me, a skill I learned at a very early age. I'm still babbling to Timmons as I avert my gaze. Seeing that sadness makes me uncomfortable.

As I turn my full attention to Mr. Timmons, I sense something is not right. Most people perceive me as cold and calculating, and they would find it most unbelievable to know that like Mr. Tanner, I rely on instinct. Cold and calculating have their place, but instinct is what has kept me alive all these years. Mother taught me at an early age to read people, and although her purpose at that time was, well, less than ethical, the skill has served me well.

And now it is screaming at me that Mr. Timmons has something else in mind. I try to remain calm and not let my unease communicate through my body language. I can't pinpoint what exactly it is that is setting off my inner alarm, but as I scan the room, I see it. Or rather, him. Timmons has a shooter on the catwalk.

I give the danger signal and see Chris stiffen. We have three signals, one to stand down because the deal is off; a second to move in and make arrests; and the third, to signal when something is going wrong and someone is in danger. I don't know who the shooter is aiming for, but I can only hope it's not Mr. Tanner, because I know for a fact that Vin's entire focus will be through a rifle scope trained on the men surrounding Chris and me. Of course, I hope it's not me or Mr. Larabee in the line of fire either.

I hear Buck shout, "ATF, freeze!" and I know that JD has relayed the signal. Timmon's henchman to his right goes for his gun as Chris and I reach for our own weapons. I hear shots and somehow I find myself flying backward into a stack of crates and falling to the floor.

+ + + + + + +

It’s a little drafty up here. I guess heat doesn’t rise so well when there’s holes in windows. Catwalk could use a little padding. Hah. The guys’d make some joke about me needin’ a little meat on my bones.

I shift slightly to get more comfortable. Got a good view of Ez and Chris, and most of the warehouse. Got a blind spot below me and a corner area to my left that I can’t see clearly. Damn crates are blocking the view. But I got six bad guys spotted. I already relayed the positions to the rest of the team so they have an idea what’s what when they come through the door.

Sure hope they only got six. If they got anyone else, it’s gonna be a little hard to spot ‘em with my eye glued to the scope to protect Ez and Chris. I don’t like so many targets. Six guys plus Timmons and I don’t know which one could be the biggest threat. Ez thinks it’d be Big Red down there. And he’s probably right. He usually is. But every man down there is a threat and I’ll do my best to watch ‘em all.

Ez is being a good boy today, not moving around like he does sometimes. We talked about it. Told him sometimes he walks into my line of fire, and sometimes just the movement can distract. He got a little miffed. Okay, he got pissed off. I don't usually get into it verbally with anybody, but it was the wrong time on the wrong day and we both said stupid stuff. He was mad at me for telling him how to do his job and I got pissed at him because he was in my face. Like I said, stupid.

Should'a seen the guys' faces. I think I kinda s'prised them. Ez has cut loose lotsa times. But I guess they didn't expect it from me. Guess what? I have bad days, too.

Anyway it simmered for a couple 'a days and then Ez comes in with one 'a them fancy pastries, like he brought today. Called it a peace offering. Surprised the hell outta me when he said I was right. Told me he was upset because I pointed out a tell, a sign that someone could pick up on and he was defensive because he took pride that he didn't have any tells. Called himself stupid and that made me mad. If there's one thing he ain't, it's stupid. Then he said he was a fool and that he was sorry. Said he knew I was trying to protect him and that I didn't deserve his crap when I was trying to help.

My respect for him went up a lot higher that day. Takes a lot for a man to say he was wrong. I told him to forget it. Everybody has bad days now and then.

I hope today ain't one of 'em.

I take a slow breath. Something's happening. I see Chris shift. To anyone who doesn't know him, it wouldn't mean a thing, but I could see the tension in that simple move.

Damn. I force my breathing to remain calm and even as I hear JD relay the danger code. What the hell do you see, Ezra? I hope to God it's on the floor because I can't chance taking my eyes off what's happening around you.

Buck's calling out "ATF, Freeze!" and Big Red's already movin'. Decision made. I take him down.

Everybody's moving and it's hard to get another target in the crosshairs. No! Ezra's down. Damnit!

I take another shot. I miss, but it makes Timmons keep his head down. Chris, get Ezra outta there!

Where is he? Where's the bastard that shot Ezra?

Keep cool, breathe. Move slow.

Damn! Look out Buck!

Where's the shooter? There you are, you son of a ... take the shot… take the shot.

Breathe. Squeeze.

One less bad guy.

The action's shifting beneath me and I have to move. I can't cover Chris and Ezra from here. Chris's got him out of the line of fire for the time being, but that can change as soon as someone moves.

"What the…uhhhh…oh gawd... I'm falling…"

Thursday – 1258 hours – Warehouse on Front Avenue

Somewhere in the back of my mind I recognize that I must have been shot, but for now all I can do is lie here, half on the crates, half on the floor, and try to breathe. It wasn't Timmons or his right hand man. I hope that Chris got out of the line of fire. Hope that Vin shot the bastard who shot me.

My body won't cooperate. I need to breathe but it seems impossible. It's odd that I feel nothing, but I hear everything. People are shouting, weapons firing, but the sound that is missing is my own breathing. I can't seem to do something as simple as draw air into my lungs.

I think I hear someone call my name, but I can't answer. I can't seem to focus on anything other than trying take a simple breath.

I have no concept of time, but it's getting dark and cold and I realize I'm failing at my job. I'm not protecting my teammates' backs.

I gasp for air, my body finally doing on its own what I cannot seem to force it do and excruciating pain robs me from the opportunity for a second breath.

I hear the horrific words, "Vin's down!"

Someone grabs my hand and calls my name.

"Sorry... I'm sorry..." I don't know if I voiced the words or not, but I hope they know. I hope they know that I didn't want…

Thursday – 1312 hours – Warehouse on Front Avenue

"Don't move, Vin," he yells. Well, that's not somethin' I was plannin' on doing anyway. Thinkin' I might a been a little better off if I was out of it right now. Between that guy slamming me on the back of the head, and the wall slamming me in the face, I ain't feelin' so hot.

The harness is biting, so I shift a little to ease it. Chris yells at me again so I just hang here swaying back and forth. Kinda feel like I'm on a swing. Didn't get to do that a lot when I was a kid.

Ah hell, I'm losin' it. I'm dangling up here thirty-something feet off the ground, bleedin', from the feel of things, and I'm thinking about swinging?

I look down at my hand and I start giggling. I'm still holdin' my rifle. How'd I manage that? Not that I'd want to drop it. It's damn expensive and hard to get her just the way you want her. But how'd I hold on when some guy hits me and throws me off the catwalk? Correction. Some dead guy. I can see him down there below me. His boss sure wasn't bitching at him all the time about wearing a safety line.


Damn. I gotta stop giggling like a girl. I can tell it's making Chris nervous, and truth is, it's makin' me feel like an idiot.

"I'm okay," I yell. Well, I thought I yelled, but Chris said "What?" so I must not have been very loud.

"Just stay still."

What's the big deal about staying still? Nobody's comin' up to get me, so it looks like I hafta get myself down.

"No, Vin!"

Sssss. Okay. You can breathe any time now. Note to self. Listen to Chris the next time he says not to move.

I slowly look up. My vision's a bit blurry, but now I can see it. The whole catwalk's hangin' by a thread and my moving around just made it worse.

"I ain't moving," I say softly, afraid if I speak too loudly that the whole thing will come down. Now I understand why no one's come up here to unhook me.

But what I don't get… Ezra. If they're all with me, then Ezra must be…

"Rescue team's on the way, Vin."

I wish I'd stop swaying – it's making me dizzy.

The catwalk groans and shifts and I slip a little lower and can't do a damn thing about it. My heart is racing and my head's pounding. It ain't lookin' too good. Ain't a whole lotta chance that the rescue team's gonna get me down before this whole thing comes crashing down.

And I deserve it. Ezra's dead and I failed him.

Stop it, Tanner. You don't want to die, and Ezra would be real pissed off if you did.

Uhh. Everything's starting to hurt now. Wish you'd hurry up, Cowboy. Somethin's wrong with my arm. Can't move it. Bet I dinged some ribs, too. Had to if I hit the wall that hard. My rifle's getting really heavy.


"Hang in there, Vin," he answers.

"Gotta drop my rifle. Catch it?"

"I'm right here. Let it go."

And I do. I let it go without hesitation. I know without a doubt Chris will keep his word.

I don't hear a clatter, but I do hear a curse. He caught it, but it caught him, too, I bet.

"Help's here, Vin," he calls up to me.

I rest my head against the wall. I'm getting really dizzy. Oh gawd, Ezra. I'm so sorry.


Sorry Cowboy. I'm tired. Gotta rest now…

Thursday – 1830 hours – Mercy General Hospital Surgical Recovery Room

Floating. What an odd feeling.

Mr. Standish? Why is someone using my full name? I don’t know that voice, do I? It can’t be one of the guys. They all think my name is one syllable.

Syllable. That’s an odd word. S-Y-L-L able. Able to do what? Float like me?

Why am I floating?

No, I don’t want to wake up. It feels so – huh? No, I don’t want to come back. You come here and float with me.

I think I’ll just rest for a while.

Thursday – 1833 hours – Mercy General Hospital Room 413

Ah hell. Hospital.

"How're you doing?"

How the hell do you think I'm doing? I growl to myself.

"Fine," I tell him.

He snorts in disbelief.

Right back at ya, Larabee. How can you be sitting here with me when I'm responsible for Ezra being dead? Go away.

I close my eyes to ease the headache, but when I open them, he's still sitting there. For a minute I wonder where everyone else is, and I think that maybe they don't want to see me. Larabee's here because he has to be. But I don't think on that long. I know them too well to believe that about them.

I try to move, but I'm too sore.

"You want the rundown?" Chris asks.

I nod. Once. I'm not dumb enough to try that move again and cause myself that pain a second time. I can tell without any doctor's report that it's gonna be a couple days in this prison, then a while at home.

"Moderate concussion. Right shoulder's dislocated."

He stops while I groan my disappointment. I had a dislocation a couple of years ago. Not looking forward to that again.

"Lots of bruises, and a major case of the brick-wall version of road rash."

"Great," I respond with sarcasm.

"Could've been worse," Chris says softly.

"How?" I complain bitterly. Oh, I know I could'a been hurt worse, but nothing could be worse than losin' a friend.

Chris gets this odd look on his face, like maybe my response isn't what he expects. Well his ain't what I expect either. He's actin' like nothing happened.

"I'm tired," I say, and I close my eyes.


I hear him, but I ignore him. I need some time alone to sort stuff out, and the only way I'll get it here is to pretend I'm asleep. I don’t ask about Ezra ‘cause I already know he’s dead and there ain’t any point in poking a fresh wound – for either one of us.

I pretend to sleep, but I know Chris ain’t fooled. I hear him sigh, but I don’t care. Ezra’s gone. I failed. Nothing’s gonna change that.

He sighs again. It’s gettin' on my last nerve.

Stupid. What was I ever thinkin’ letting these guys get close?

I shift and bite back the groan as the pain in my shoulder flares. I wait for Larabee to comment but he says nothing. Not a damn thing.

The pain ain’t going away so I shift again. This time he sighs.

“You wanna keep it down?” I growl. “I’m trying to get some sleep.”

“Hit the pump,” he says.

“No. I don’t need any more pain meds.” I say. “I need quiet.”

“Vin, stop being bull-headed. You’re hurt. It’ll help you rest.”

"I am not being bull-headed and I'm not going to take any more of the damn painkillers."

"Why not? You can't tell me you're not hurting."

He's pushing it.

"Let it be, Chris. I don't want the stuff." I accidentally move and I regret my words.

He sighs again, waits a couple minutes and then says, “Spill it.”

I glare at him. No use pretending to sleep now. “What the hell do you want me to say? I failed. Ezra’s dead. Can’t change it by talking about it.”

He stares at me, shocked. Then he starts shaking his head with this… this… look.

“Vin, Ezra’s not dead,” he says.

I take a couple of real slow breaths. I thought he said Ez ain’t dead, but my mind’s a little messed up from the meds.

“Ezra’s not dead,” he repeats.

“Oh, thank God!” I whisper.

“He was shot. He’s in surgery right now, but he’s still with us, Vin.”

Damn it all. I feel tears in my eyes and as much as I don’t want to cry, I can feel the moisture trickling down my cheeks and pooling in my ears. I can't even wipe 'em away with one arm trussed up to my chest and the other'n poked full of IV's.

“Josiah and Nate are up in the surgical waiting room. As soon as they get any news, Josiah’s going to come down and let us know.”

Chris acts like he don't even see the damn tears. I'm glad. Nothin' more awkward than crying in front of another guy. I let the words sink in for a bit, but it’s still hard to believe.

“I saw him hit,” I say. Chris nods. “When I fell, everyone was with me, ‘cept JD, but he was outside. Nobody was with Ezra…”

Chris’s lips quirk into that slight smile of his. “You’re missing some time there, Cowboy.”

I frown, and again I regret it. It pulls the skin tight and aggravates the scrapes on the side of my face.

“You were unconscious for a while after you hit the wall. We were with you because Ezra was already on the way to the hospital.”

I feel stupid for a different reason now, but I’ll take this stupid anytime. Ezra’s alive.

I ponder on it and I realize something’s still missing. “You said Nate and Josiah are waiting for Ezra. What happened to Buck and JD?”

Chris grimaces. “Well, I’m not exactly sure yet what happened, but JD messed up his knee. McAndrews from Team Two said he took a header getting out of the van.”

I groan. JD’s going to feel really dumb if he really was injured tripping out of the van, but McAndrews is known for stretching the truth.

"Consider the source," I say. "How is he?"

Chris's got that damn smirk on his face again as if he knows something I don't, which he does, but that's not what I mean. I'm not talking about him knowing about JD, I'm meaning that he knows I'm going check on all the guys before I really rest.

"Wrenched it pretty bad. He may have ligament damage. Might have to have surgery.

I wince in sympathy, and then I wince for real. Gotta remember not to stretch the skin – makes it crack and start bleedin' again.

Larabee dabs at my cheek with a tissue and this time I hiss. This really sucks. It's going to take at least a couple weeks for the road rash to heal up. Just great.

He nods to the painkiller pump.

I nod.

He gives me a hit of meds and I try to relax. Won't sleep 'til I know Ezra's going to be all right.

Friday – 0237 hours – Mercy General, Room 239

“It’s all right, Ezra.” I hear the voice, but I know it’s not all right.

I smell something – what’s that word for clean? That one that hospitals use? Anti-something.

Hospital? O Lord, something has happened.

Stop telling me it’s all right and let go of my hands. I can move if I want to. I don’t want to be here. I want to float away. I don’t want to be…

Hell, now he’s telling me to breathe. Can’t he see I don’t care about breathing? I’m nauseous and I’m going to…

Breathe. I’d curse but I can’t seem to remember any words right now. He tells me to breathe slowly. Gawd it hurts when I breathe.

Leave me alone! You’re making me hurt.

No. I’m not going to open my eyes.

Hospital? O lord, something has happened. I can smell the antiseptic and I hurt like hell, so I must be alive.

What happened?

I’m hurt. How?

Ooohh. Bust went bad.

What happened? Think Ezra.

Stop that. Every time you say something I forget what I’m thinking. Who's talking, anyway? Why can't I think?



Why is it that your mind won't work when they give you something for pain?

Nathan! It's Nathan who keeps badgering me to wake up and open my eyes.

Nathan? Why is Nathan here?

Something happened. What happened?

Someone else is hurt.

NO! I don't want to calm down. I want to know what's wrong. Where is everyone else? They're always here. Josiah's not here. Was he hurt? Buck. What about Buck? He should be here annoying everyone with his lewd stories and hitting on nurses. My head hurts. If Buck's not here, JD must be hurt. No, wait. That's wrong. JD was in the van. Oh no, Buck!

Let go of me. Damn, that hurts!

No, I don't need more meds, I need to think.

I can't remember what I did, but I must have screwed up. I called the danger code! Chris was with me.

Sniper. There was a sniper.

What the hell happened?

Oh… that feels good. Wait. You let them give me more pain medication. No! I need to figure this out. Chris isn't here. Was he hurt? Or Vin. Chris would be with Vin if he were hurt.

Is it were hurt or was hurt?

Hurt. Someone's hurt. My fault. I should have warned…

How do they expect me to open my eyes when they give me more meds? Hah. I don't even know where my eyes are…

I have to remember. What do I remember?

The floor was cold. Everyone was yelling… I’m so tired…

Yelling. They were yelling…

Oh Gawd, not Vin…

I am NOT crying.

Even if I were, how could I stop? I can't even open my eyes.

No. Just let me be…

Let me rest…

Let me…


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