Mind Games

by freeformchick

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Vin, Chris and Josiah stared at the piece of paper that had been in the envelope that Scott had given Vin. It had two words on it.

“Strike One.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Chris demanded, holding the paper so tightly that it crumpled and tore. Vin looked puzzled.

“I’m not sure.” Vin frowned. “What I don’t understand is how Samuels knew what to write before we gave him the information.”

“The false information,” Josiah said uneasily. “Do you think he knew that we were giving him fake information when he called last night? He’s definitely watching us, otherwise he wouldn’t have warned Chris and me to stay here this morning. Maybe he knows that we couldn’t find any Jason Cummerford in the city.”

Chris’s cell phone ran. He grabbed it and snapped, “Larabee.”

“I’m disappointed in you, Mr. Larabee. I thought we understood each other. And instead I find you trying to fool me with fallacious information. This does not do much for the spirit of trust.”

“What the hell does ‘strike one’ mean, Samuels?” Chris demanded, ignoring the ominous words. Vin and Josiah listened, trying to figure out what Samuels was saying from Chris’s terse words.

“You lied to me, Mr. Larabee. That is your first strike. You’ll be receiving a package this afternoon. It will contain a videotape and new instructions. You’d do well to watch it the entire way through; it contains some information that I’m sure you will find enlightening.”

“Have you even tried to contact Cummerford?” Chris asked, grasping at straws. Samuels laughed.

“Jason Cummerford does not exist, Mr. Larabee. At least not in this city. I knew that, and instructed you to find him to see whether I could be sure of your honesty. It appears I can’t. And I’m afraid Mr. Dunne and Mr. Standish will pay the price for your deception.”

“Wait! We were doing what we thought would keep JD and Ezra uninjured,” Chris said desperately. “What was I supposed to do, Samuels? For all I knew, if I said there was no Cummerford in the city you would have killed them. I was trying to keep them alive.”

“That may be so, but you attempted to deceive me, and I will not let that go unpunished. If ever you cannot fulfill my instructions, Mr. Larabee, you would do well to tell me so, instead of trying to deceive me.”

“Damn you, Samuels.”

“No doubt, Mr. Larabee,” the man said affably. “Tell me, is Mr. Sanchez nearby?”

“Why?” Chris asked suspiciously. He glanced at Josiah, who raised his eyebrows in response and waited.

“Tell him to go and watch over Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Jackson. It wouldn’t do for them to wake up alone. You and Mr. Tanner will have to take over following my instructions. I would advise doing as I say, Mr. Larabee. You don’t want to make your friends’ pain any more prolonged than it must be.”

Chris clenched his fists in impotent anger. “Why are you doing this, Samuels? What’s in it for you? You ask us to locate a non-existent man, send my men on fool’s errands, for what? What is it that you want?”

Samuels laughed softly. “This is a game, Mr. Larabee. I thought you would have realised that by now. I am doing this because it is entertaining for me.”

“Entertaining? Damn it, Samuels, most people go to movies or something for entertainment! They don’t kidnap and torture people!”

There was a pause before Samuels spoke again. “Do you have any idea what it is like to have a genius’s IQ, Mr. Larabee? Have you ever thought how utterly frustrating it must be to be so far beyond everyone around you that you can’t even interact with them normally? To know the answers to the puzzles that rule their lives. To be so far ahead of the world that even books by Tolstoy, Aasimov, the greatest authors of history are like children’s storybooks. Do you have any idea how long a day can seem when you are far more intelligent than normal people?”

Chris swallowed, stunned by the man’s questions. Samuels continued, “I don’t imagine you do. Well, Mr. Larabee, I do. I know all of that. And that is why I do this. Human beings are the one thing that no amount of intellect can predict. We react differently, depending on upbringing and temperament and countless other little idiosyncrasies that make humans unique. I could play this game a thousand times over, with a thousand different players, and each time the reactions would be different. The next time I play, my players might just admit that they couldn’t find the man I asked them to find. The one I send to meet Scott might kill him, just to show me that they can hurt me too. It is a fascinating process, the human mentality, and it is one of few things that has any entertainment value for me anymore.”

“You’re doing all this because you’re bored?” Chris asked incredulously. Samuels seemed to be considering his question before answering.

“That is a rather blunt way of putting it, but I suppose so, yes.”

“So if this is all a game, why do you need to hurt Ezra and JD?” Chris asked, trying to reason with the man. Samuels’s laugh sent chills down his spine.

“Don’t be fooled by my choice of words, Mr. Larabee. After all, Russian Roulette is also a game.”

+ + + + + + +

JD looked up as Samuels and Mikhail entered the room he and Ezra had been taken to. It was smaller than the previous room, but it contained a bed large enough for the two of them and was warmer than the concrete room. Ezra was sleeping. His fever was low, and the doctor didn’t think that there was anything to worry about. JD had been sitting and watching him since returning two hours earlier.

Mikhail walked over and jerked JD to his feet. “Come with us, Agent,” he said roughly, tying a blindfold over JD’s eyes again. The long march down the corridor reminded JD anew of being walked to his execution, and he had to stop himself from shuddering in Mikhail’s grasp.

He was taken into another room, guided to a chair and the blindfold was removed. He blinked as the light hit his eyes and glanced around. He was sitting in front of a table, and Samuels was on the other side. As he watched, Samuels opened a briefcase and took out a vial and syringe.

“What’s this about?” JD asked, a note of nervousness in his voice despite his efforts to sound unconcerned. Samuels didn’t answer; drawing some of the straw-coloured liquid from the vial into the syringe, he replaced the vial and turned to JD.

“This will keep you conscious, long enough to make the point anyway.”

Those words sent a shudder of fear through JD. Mikhail’s hands tightened on his shoulders as Samuels stood and approached, the evil-looking syringe glinting in his hand. He knelt beside the chair and angled the syringe at JD’s throat.

JD jerked away, cursing as Mikhail’s fingers found his wounded arm again. The huge guard clamped one hand around JD’s injured arm and with the other grabbed JD’s chin. His fingers pressed into JD’s jaw as he angled the agent’s head up, baring his throat like a sacrifice about to be killed.

Samuels plunged the syringe into JD’s throat. The pain was negligible compared to the pain JD had felt two hours earlier when Mikhail had exacted his payment for JD’s requests, but it was still a foreign object in his neck and cause enough to be alarmed. Mikhail’s hand on his jaw prevented him from moving, and the angle was restricting the flow of oxygen to his lungs. Black spots danced in front of his vision. Then Samuels pulled the syringe out, Mikhail released JD’s jaw and JD could breathe properly again.

Samuels returned to his seat behind the table. He looked past JD and spoke.

“Mr. Larabee. As you can see, I have selected Mr. Dunne to participate in this demonstration. Mr. Standish is currently a little unwell, and my medical staff tell me that it would be inadvisable for him to join us this afternoon.”

JD twisted around in the chair and saw another hulking guard, this one holding a video camera. He realised with a sinking feeling that Samuels was sending a tape to Chris, and that he was probably there to provide subject matter that would be sure to infuriate his employer.

Samuels continued talking. “As I said, I don’t appreciate being lied to. Mr. Dunne will show you what happens when you attempt to deceive me.”

He held up the remote and pressed a button. For an instant, JD dared to hope that the collar didn’t work. Then he felt two burning patches on the sides of his neck, and a lance of pain shot through his chest.

“Oh, God. What is that?”

“That, Mr. Dunne, is the chemical in your collar. Just a small dose, enough to show Mr. Larabee exactly what happens when he lies to me. Unfortunately for yourself, the effects of the chemical are only just beginning.”

After the initial lance of pain as the chemical entered his body, the effects were slow to show themselves. JD felt a gradual heat rising in his abdomen, as though he’d contracted a ‘flu or some other virus and was running a fever. This was much faster than a normal fever, however.

He looked down at his hands and noticed them shaking. A sudden spasm shot through his arms and hands, the muscles tightening in response to the foreign chemical in his bloodstream. His fingers curled in to claw at his palms. His legs jerked as the same muscular spasms worked their way down his back and legs. He kept his seat with some difficulty; Mikhail had removed his hands from JD’s shoulders and had gone to stand by the wall, watching impassively.

A bolt of pain speared through his stomach, like a bullet tearing through him. He curled forward and tensed the muscles of his abdomen as tremors ran through his shoulders and back. He clenched his teeth against the whimper that threatened to burst from his throat, determined not to give Samuels the satisfaction of hearing his pain.

A shaft of fire ignited inside him, so suddenly that JD couldn’t keep back the startled scream of pain. His concentration was shot, so that the next bout of spasms that wracked his body sent him crashing to the floor, instinctively wrapping his arms around his stomach in a futile attempt to ease the pain. His arms and legs jerked spasmodically, out of his control in the grips of the chemical.

He heard Samuels talking, but the words didn’t make any sense as his body thrashed. Moans and cries escaped his throat without him intending to make a sound; he’d told himself that he could endure anything Samuels put him through, as long as he didn’t cry out, but he hadn’t figured on his own body betraying him.

Spasms made the muscles in his back so rigid that curling into a ball to relieve the cramping of his stomach was out of the question. The muscles in his legs contracted until his calves were almost touching the backs of his thighs. His back arched and his arms jerked, joints cracking. His entire body jerked as though in the throes of a fit.

JD didn’t know how long it went on. After the first few minutes, his mind was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the pain, and he didn’t even hear Samuels talking anymore. After an indeterminate period of time, he felt hands under his shoulders and knees, and movement. No blindfold this time; whoever was carrying him seemed to know that he wasn’t in any condition to know or care where he was being taken. The sound of a door being opened registered, and he was unceremoniously dumped on a bed. The jolt sent waves of pain through him, and he gladly embraced blackness.

+ + + + + + +

The next video arrived at four p.m., wrapped in plain paper and addressed to Chris. An envelope came with it, instructions written on the outside telling them not to open the envelope until they’d watched the video. It was only Chris and Vin left, now at Chris’s ranch; Josiah had done as Samuels had ordered and returned to the hospital, though while he was there he intended to look over everything they had on Samuels, to try and figure out where he might be keeping JD and Ezra. The idea of Buck or Nathan waking up alone was repugnant to all three men, and Josiah knew that Vin would better be able to deal with Chris than he could.

They put the tape in the VCR and steeled themselves for the worst. Vin was pacing, unwilling and unable to sit down long enough to watch the tape. Chris was seated on the couch, leaning forward as though his proximity to the VCR would make a difference to its content.

The tape began with an image of a small room. Two chairs sat on either side of a table, both empty. The door opened, and three men walked in. A tall, muscular man that neither agent recognised. Jake Samuels. And JD Dunne.

As he was guided to one of the chairs, Vin and Chris could see that JD was wearing an evil-looking leather collar with a small metal box set in the front. The guard removed the blindfold that had been covering the agent’s eyes as Samuels sat down in the other chair. The supplier removed a vial and syringe from the briefcase, ignoring JD’s query, and drew some of the straw-coloured liquid into the syringe before turning to the agent who was being held in place by the large man behind him. Samuels’s next words chilled Vin to the core.

“This will keep you conscious, long enough to make the point anyway.”

The guard angled JD’s chin up, baring his throat, and Samuels stuck the syringe in. He returned to his seat and looked directly at the camera.

“Mr. Larabee. As you can see, I have selected Mr. Dunne to participate in this demonstration. Mr. Standish is currently a little unwell, and my medical staff tell me that it would be inadvisable for him to join us this afternoon.”

The mention of Ezra being injured sent bolts of anger through both watching agents. JD turned and gazed at the camera, slight confusion registering on his face. Vin swore under his breath and continued pacing, his speed slightly faster as Samuels continued talking.

“As I said, I don’t appreciate being lied to. Mr. Dunne will show you what happens when you attempt to deceive me.”

He held up a remote and pressed the button. For a few moments nothing happened, then JD’s voice broke the silence, slightly shaken.

“Oh, God. What is that?”

“That, Mr. Dunne, is the chemical in your collar. Just a small dose, enough to show Mr. Larabee exactly what happens when he lies to me. Unfortunately for yourself, the effects of the chemical are only just beginning.”

The guard moved away from JD and stood by the wall, watching impassively. JD’s hands started to shake. The tremors worsened, moving to his arms and legs. The watching agents could see JD’s jaw clench as he struggled to keep from crying out.

“Goddamnit,” Vin growled, his hands clenching into fists as a scream escaped JD’s throat. JD crashed to the floor, doubled over and clutching his stomach, arms and legs jerking spasmodically. Samuels spoke again.

“This is what happens when you try to lie to me, trick me or otherwise go against the spirit of cooperation,” the man said, looking down at JD, who seemed not to notice Samuels’s words. The agent was convulsing as though he was having a fit, soft cries and moans of pain filtering to Vin and Chris through the bad quality of the tape. Both men were intensely glad that the others, especially Buck, weren’t watching this tape.

Samuels looked at the camera again. “You will find your next instructions in the envelope that came with this tape. I suggest that you follow them to the letter, unless you want to receive another tape of Mr. Dunne suffering. Of course, I could use Mr. Standish next time, or simply fulfill my promise as to what will happen if you don’t cooperate. I’m loath to begin sending you parts of your agents, but rest assured that if you continue to try and deceive me, I will do whatever I have to in order to convince you that you should act otherwise.”

The tape stopped. Vin silently slit the envelope with a letter-opener and pulled out a piece of paper.

“What does the bastard want us to do this time?” Chris asked through gritted teeth. Vin wordlessly handed him the piece of paper. Chris read it out loud.

“Now that you have been enlightened as to the penalty of deceiving me, I have another task for you. At six p.m. tonight, the young man Mr. Tanner met will be waiting in the diner near the park. You will both meet him there, and he will give you something. Don’t be late.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Chris walked into the diner at exactly six p.m. A waitress greeted them and asked if they needed anything. Vin ordered two sodas so that they wouldn’t be kicked out, and scanned the room for the youth he’d met at the fountain. The kid was sitting at a corner table, sipping a soda, with a duffel bag sitting on the chair next to him.

Vin and Chris walked over and sat down across from him. The youth glanced at Chris. “Tanner,” he said by way of greeting. “And I guess you’d be Larabee.”

He reached into his duffel bag and pulled out a brown-wrapped box. “He told me to give this to you. Wait, don’t open it here,” he exclaimed as Chris pulled the box over and began to remove the paper wrapping. At Chris’s questioning look the kid explained, “I saw some of what Jake put in there . . . it’s nothing you want to open in a diner. You want to be somewhere where there aren’t people. You don’t want to attract attention. Besides, Jake said to tell you not to open it until I’m gone.”

He stood and left, once again climbing onto a motorcycle and roaring off into the night. Vin looked out the window. “The park’s kinda empty. You want to open it there, Chris?”

They stood up. Vin left some money on the table for his soda and they went across to the park, sitting down on the fountain where he’d met the youth that morning.

Chris opened the box and let out an inarticulate cry of rage. Vin stared at the bloodied Armani jacket, the lock of black hair and the two watches, fear and anger welling up inside him. Samuels had done his research well; he knew that the seven members of Team Seven had some sort of bond that made them as close as brothers. Sending them personal items – personal items covered in blood – cut to the core of the two men.

“Damn it,” Chris growled. “We have to get them out now.”

A tinny ring filled the air. Chris and Vin looked at each other for a moment before Chris realised that his cell phone was ringing. He took it out of his pocket and said tersely, “Larabee.”

”Chris, it’s Josiah. We figured out where Samuels might be!”

“Are you sure?” Chris asked, hardly daring to hope that their profiler might be right.

”No, I’m not sure. But I’m pretty damn close to sure. Buck and Nate woke up, and we put together the information we have on Samuels, added some stuff that isn’t fact but makes sense, and it pointed to two places. One’s registered to a company here in Denver, so I figure it’s not that. The other one is registered to a C. Xavier.”

Chris didn’t see the connection. “What’s that got to do with it, Josiah?”

”Charles Xavier is the ‘hero’ in one of those comic books JD reads. Has a genius IQ, something like that. Samuels is young enough to be into comics, Chris. It fits. It’s all we have to go on right now, and it’s damn well worth a try.”

+ + + + + + +

JD woke up slowly, the muscles of his arms, legs and back screaming at him every time he so much as twitched. For a moment he couldn’t remember why he hurt so much, then it came back. Samuels, the video, the collar . . .

The leather still sat snug against his skin, the places where the dermal patches touched his neck burning slightly. He went to reach up and try to ease the chafing of the leather, but his arm protested the movement, sending a wave of pain through him. He groaned again, not wanting to open his eyes yet. Instead, he focused on his surroundings, trying to determine whether he’d been put back with Ezra or had been taken somewhere else.

He could feel pressure around his wrists, upper arms and waist; ropes, from the harsh rasp against his skin. He was upright, leaning backwards at a slight angle, wood hard against his back. A niggling half-image formed in his mind, though he couldn’t focus enough to put all the pieces together. He groaned again, his head throbbing at the effort of thinking.

A hand touched his hair, smoothed it back from his forehead. Buck was always going on at him to get it cut. Was it Buck here? No, that wasn’t right . . . Buck hadn’t been captured. Ezra?

Warm breath tickled his neck. He frowned slightly; that wasn’t normal. He opened his mouth to ask Ezra what the hell he thought he was doing, but he was silenced by the kiss that claimed his lips.

His eyes flew open and he was face-to-face with Mikhail. The big guard grinned and licked his lips.

“You taste even better than you look,” he confided. JD took in his situation in a second; he wasn’t in the room he’d left Ezra in. Instead, he was in a large, unfamiliar room, tied upright with his arms spread out, hard wood pressing against his back. He realised with a sinking feeling that he was bound to a crucifix. Mikhail was standing in front of him, blocking his view of the rest of the room.

“Mikhail, don’t be all day taunting him,” a lazy voice requested. Mikhail moved to one side and JD saw Caine sitting on the large bed, tossing a long, thin metal rod from one hand to the other. The bed sat across from a fireplace in which a fire was burning. Caine put the long rod into the fire, leaving one end out, and watched it begin to heat up. She picked up another rod, this one with some sort of design at the end, and placed it in the fire as well.

As JD watched, the Mikhail took out a knife that was starting to get all too familiar.

“You owe me two more, Agent,” Mikhail said in a low purr. “Getting that tape off, and getting the doc to check over your fancy-mouthed friend. Did you think I was just going to forget our deal?”

“I couldn’t exactly come to you,” JD shot back. “The door was locked, you know. Made it hard to find you and make good on our deal.”

Mikhail grinned, as though JD had said exactly what he wanted him to say. “You’re here now. So I’m going to take what’s mine.”

He used the knife to cut JD’s shirt away, baring the agent’s stomach. The three cuts stood out in stark contract to JD’s pale skin, each one about ten centimetres long. Mikhail lowered the knife and made a fourth cut, perpendicular to the first three. JD gritted his teeth and refused to make a sound as the blade was slowly dragged through his flesh. He knew it wasn’t going deep enough to hit anything important, but it felt as though it was cutting deep. Mikhail raised the knife and looked at his handiwork, considering. He made the fifth cut across the previous four, making the tally. As he pulled the knife across, it tore the broken skin from the other four cuts, making all five bleed anew.

“There,” JD forced the words out. “My debt’s paid now.”

Mikhail held the bloody knife above JD and grinned. “You’ve paid the debt that we agreed on. But I kinda think I’d like to make a new deal, Agent.”

JD opened his mouth to ask what Mikhail was talking about, but the guard placed the bloody knife over JD’s lips. “No. Don’t talk. That’s the trouble with Jake’s little games – he’s too easy on the pawns. I always said he needed to put the fear of God in them.” His grin turned feral. “Or the fear of someone, anyway. Don’t reckon that many of them believed in God anymore, after we finished with them.

“Jake’s a good man, you know. Not many will hire a convicted criminal. But then Jake isn’t one to care about a man’s past, as long as that man stays loyal to him. And this is a good arrangement, better than any other job I could get with a conviction to my name. A place to stay, food, money, he even lets me use the ones he’s finished with for entertainment. And all I have to do is make sure a couple of guys every few years don’t escape.”

“Every few years? How long has Samuels been doing this?” JD asked, ignoring the blade resting lightly on his mouth. Mikhail grinned.

“He’s twenty-five, and I’ve been with him since he was about seventeen. I’d say he’s played this little game about six, seven times all up. The longest break was this last one; we had to move the compound closer to the city, and Jake wanted to be sure that he knew everything about your team before he began the game. Had to know who to take, what sort of things to get the others to do.”

“So why me and Ezra?” JD asked, trying to learn something – anything – that would give him insight into how Samuels’s mind worked.

Caine answered, standing up and moving over to the crucifix. “You’re the youngest, taking you made them all feel like they failed to protect you. Funny reaction, if you ask me; even a young guy can take care of himself, and it wasn’t like they could have done anything. Hell, we had you and your friend out of that warehouse even before the gunfight started. As for the fancy man, well, it was more process of elimination. Couldn’t take Tanner; he’d make far too much trouble, and even Mikhail might have had problems keeping him in one place. Wilmington’s too attached to you to make an interesting hostage; watching his reactions when he finds out what has happened will be far more entertaining for Jake. Jackson was out of the question; having no trained medic makes the captives much more reliant on us. Sanchez is too powerful to risk; he would’ve had a chance at overpowering Mikhail. And Larabee has to stay free, of course, otherwise what’s the fun in the game? You have to watch the leader’s reactions to finding out that two of his agents are captives.”

She paused, then grinned. “Besides, I took a liking to Standish once we’d done some research into your little team. It’s always more interesting, taming the wordy ones. The intelligence makes it more of a challenge.”

Caine’s words chilled JD, and he hoped that Ezra was still okay. He remembered the insanity in Caine’s eyes and the warning Scott had whispered to him earlier when he brought him and Ezra water. He’d said that Caine was dangerous, and JD got the feeling that Scott’s black eye and other bruises had been caused by the dealer.

Mikhail started toying with JD’s hair. “You have nice hair,” he informed the agent. “Soft and smooth, like silk. Like a girl’s hair. I like soft hair.”

“I’m happy for you,” JD said sarcastically. “Now get your hands off me.”

Mikhail’s grin widened and he brandished the knife again. “I could always use this for more than fulfilling our bargain,” he warned, sounding pleased about the prospect.

“Samuels doesn’t want me dead.”

“What I do won’t kill you. Not physically, anyhow.”

He placed the knife on a table near the bed and opened the top drawer of a desk, turning his back to JD for a moment. Caine wandered over and trailed her hand down JD’s cheek, her fingers caressing the slight cut made by her knife that first night. She cocked her head and said, “Puppy’s hurt himself. His face is all cut up, doesn’t match the rest of him anymore.”

“We can fix that,” Mikhail said over his shoulder. “We can make the rest of him match his face.”

Mikhail turned back to the crucifix, carrying a cardboard box with him. He stood next to JD and began to go through the box with one hand, the other returning to stroke JD’s hair. With an effort, JD pulled his head away and hissed, “I said get your hands off me.”

The guard’s eyes hardened. He grabbed JD’s chin and pressed his fingers into JD’s jaw. “You listen to me, Agent. I will make this very, very painful if you bug me. Now, I’m damn sick of your mouthing off. Anyone would think you’d been taking lessons from Standish at how to piss people off. I’ve noticed he’s good at that; sure pisses off Ashley, anyway.”

He chuckled. “Now she’s a woman to worry about, aren’t you, Ash? She went and asked Jake if she could have the Southerner for a while; teach him better manners. Just between us, Ashley’s a little rabid most of the time, right Ash? Thinks people are animals to train. Never made that mistake with me or Jake, but she does like to rough up the prisoners a bit.”

Caine grinned at Mikhail’s words, seeming not to take offense at what JD thought was an insult.

“Can’t see how you’re any better than he is,” JD shot back, ignoring the warning voice in his mind that told him to be passive for once and not try to antagonise Mikhail further. The voice turned out to be right as Mikhail’s expression turned hard again.

“Now what’d I tell you about mouthing off at me? Ashley was right about you at least; you are the most stubborn one Jake’s brought in, and Ashley and me have seen a lot of folks. You and Standish, and the rest of your team, you’re closer than any of the others were, too. Kinda makes me think that they’ll feel as though everything that’s been done to you two was done to them, too.”

He grinned. “It’s an interesting thought. I’ve done a lot in my time – most of it what got me in prison in the first place – but I’ve never tortured seven men at once. Figuratively speaking, anyway.”

JD’s eyes widened at his words.

“Get the fuck away from me.”

Caine leaned forward. “You know, Agent, you’re not the first. We’ve tortured plenty of others. You remind me a lot of Alex, actually; he looked a lot like you. Alex wasn’t the first either, but he was one of the best. Fought all the way. You have hair like his, too, only yours is a bit longer. His was longer than the other Feds, though. I always did think that was a bit strange for a Fed; usually they’re clean-shaven short-back-and-sides types. I think that was what made him interesting to me; he was different. Like you.”

“You two are disgusting, did you know that?”

Mikhail grinned. “They all say something like that. We’re monsters, or disgusting, or sick, or some variation of that. Hell, Agent, I’m not going to disappoint you if you’re so hell-bent on thinking that of us.”

He looked back in the box, toying with something inside, before looking back at JD. “You wonder how your fancy-mouthed friend is? It’s been almost two hours since Jake made that video; I’d bet your pal’s woken up now. You think he’s wondering where you are? I could always go and enlighten him,” he added, smiling wickedly.

“Keep the hell away from Ezra, you fucking psychopath,” JD hissed.

Mikhail rummaged in the box, looking for something in particular. “Trading insults with you is fun, Agent, but I have something even more fun in mind. Doing the verbal tango gets tired after a while, and I reckon me and Ash want to have some fun.”

Caine crossed back over to the fireplace and removed the first metal rod, now glowing red-hot. She returned to stand in front of JD, holding the glowing tip of the poker centimetres from his face. She studied the red-hot metal for a moment, before carefully, deliberately drawing it down his chest, leaving a line of fire behind.

JD bit back a scream, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of hearing his pain. Caine looked at Mikhail, a strange smile on her face.

“We have a stubborn one here, Mikhail. He’s not going to break easily.”

Mikhail finally found what he was looking for; he straightened, holding a serrated knife. He grinned at Caine, then turned to JD.

“We are gonna have some fun, Agent.”

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was beginning to think he’d have preferred being shot at the bust to this. Nathan and Buck had been awake for a few hours, and now that they’d done all they could from the hospital, Buck was going into apoplexy at not being allowed to go and help rescue them. Nathan had taken it calmly enough – oh, he was angry, and wanted Samuels put away, but that was to be expected. Buck, on the other hand, seemed as though he was going to get up and run to the rescue without even bothering to change out of his hospital gown.

The poor doctor was having a hard time convincing him that this would not be a good idea.

“Agent Wilmington, I understand your concern for your colleagues, but I really cannot condone you leaving the hospital at the point in time,” the woman said firmly, holding her own against the glare that was aimed her way. Never mind that Buck could barely sit up in bed; the mustached agent looked about ready to kill anyone who got in his way.

“I don’t give a damn what you can or can’t condone, my friends are in danger and I’m not gonna sit around here while they suffer!”

Nathan sighed. “Buck, I’m as angry as you are about JD and Ezra’s capture, but the doctor has a point. I’m not going anywhere with these bullet holes in me, and you’re black and blue all over. And your gun arm is broken, so I don’t think you’ll be doing much shooting.”

The door opened and a nurse – his nametag read ‘Jared’ – walked in. “Time to check your vitals again,” he said. He walked over to Buck and firmly pressed him down onto the mattress. “Lie still, Agent Wilmington, otherwise I might have to ask the doctor to sedate you.”

His voice brooked no argument, and clearly this was one time Buck’s self-proclaimed charm would get him nowhere. Josiah suspected that the doctor had requested these two be nursed by male nurses until they were ready to leave the hospital – that way there was less of a chance that Buck would con his nurse into letting him leave.

“Josiah, come on. I gotta help them get this sorry son of a bitch,” Buck pleaded. Jared stuck a thermometer in Buck’s ear and made a notation on his chart, then did a blood pressure check and made sure the flow of pain medication was steady before turning to Nathan and giving him the same treatment. Buck cajoled, “I gotta, Josiah. You know how much I hate not being able to help.”

“You’re going nowhere, Agent Wilmington, as I believe Dr. Russell has told you,” Jared said firmly, replacing both charts at the end of their respective beds. “Obs are steady, Dr. Russell, but I’m worried about Agent Wilmington’s arm if he keeps moving around like that. Will you stop trying to get up!” he snapped finally, turning to Buck. “I understand that you’re worried but you aren’t going to be able to help anyone if you start coding again!”

“Again?” Buck queried. Jared glanced at Dr. Russell, who sighed and nodded.

“You woke up for a brief period of time yesterday evening, Agent Wilmington,” Dr. Russell explained. “However, you arrested from the trauma to your heart and lungs, and we had to rush you to surgery. If you continue to exert yourself this way, you might relapse.”

Buck sank back against the pillows, blinking. “Oh. I didn’t realise.”

“We’d hardly keep you here unnecessarily,” Jared said. “Your team has quite the reputation here; we know what you’re like when one of you is injured. I’m sorry to have been so blunt, but you are still not out of the woods yet. That goes for you as well, Agent Jackson.”

Nathan nodded. “I figured as much when we kept getting checked every five minutes.”

The medic’s voice was frustrated; Josiah knew that Nathan, as much as Buck, wanted to be with Chris and Vin, driving to the rescue of their missing comrades. Josiah himself wanted to be there, but Chris had wanted someone to stay with Buck and Nathan, and the backup he’d requested should more than make up for the deficit.

“I’m sorry I can’t give you better news,” Jared said quietly. “I know your team is close. But if it’s any consolation, the finest medical team this hospital has to offer will be yours if you need it.”

Josiah nodded gratefully. It wasn’t really a consolation; he knew Chris had requested the medical team, and that meant that Ezra and JD were hurt, and badly. But it was a small relief knowing that if his friends were injured, they would have the best care that Denver had to offer them.

“Jared, I’d like you to up the dose of antibiotics for Agent Jackson; that leg wound is slightly infected and I want to fight off infection as fast as possible. Could I speak to you outside, Agent Sanchez?” Dr. Russell’s words broke through Josiah’s ruminations. The big man nodded and stood up, following the doctor out of the room while Jared adjusted the IV over Nathan’s bed.

“Is there a problem, doctor?” Josiah asked once the door had closed behind them. Dr. Russell sighed and rubbed her temples.

“Agent Larabee called to request that we have a medical team standing by. From what I understand, two ATF agents are in possibly critical conditions. How do you want to proceed with this? I’m reluctant to give those men any more reason than they already have to worry, but I understand you won’t want to keep them in the dark.”

“I don’t know,” Josiah admitted. “I guess it’ll depend on what condition JD and Ezra are in when they’re brought here. If it’s bad, then Nate and Buck’ll need to know. But if Ez and JD are definitely gonna make it, we don’t need to tell them the extent of their injuries, not until they’re a little better. That’s what I figure’d be best. You’ll have to see what Chris thinks when he gets back.”

Jared came out of the room, closing the door behind him. “Agent Wilmington, despite his assurances that he feels fine, has gone back to sleep,” he reported. “Thankfully, Agent Jackson seemed more willing to accept that he can’t leave the hospital at this point in time.”

“Thank you, Jared,” Dr. Russell said. She looked tired, taking off her gold-rimmed glasses and rubbing her eyes. “Agent Sanchez, I take it you will be staying with Agents Jackson and Wilmington?”

“If that’s all right.”

“The staff here have long since learned that the words ‘visiting hours’ mean little to ATF agents,” Jared said with a brief smile. “You stay with them as long as you need to. I’ll keep you up to date with the situation.”

“Thank you,” Josiah said, his gratitude clear in his voice. He didn’t miss the emotion and empathy in Jared’s next words.

“Hell, your team are like brothers, we all know that. If it were my brothers out there, I’d want to know what was going on.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke with the feeling that he’d lost quite a bit of time. He looked at his wrist, but his watch had been taken sometime while he was unconscious. The feeling of timelessness was unsettling.

He sat up slowly, mindful of the pain in his bruised stomach, and looked around the room. He’d been moved, he remembered that much, because the doctor had been worried about his head injury. JD had been taken somewhere with Samuels and that big guard, but he’d come back . . . wearing that contraption around his throat. Ezra felt his anger rise at the memory of the leather and metal collar, and the knowledge that JD was wearing it because of him.

The room was small, sparsely furnished with one bed – large enough for both of them – sheeted with plain cotton, and a table on the other side of the room. Someone had put a couple of bottles of water on the table, along with what looked like non-prescription painkiller tablets. JD was nowhere to be seen.

Ezra reached up and touched the place where the doctor had found his head injury. It was bandaged, and didn’t hurt quite as much. He could feel his own fever, but nothing dangerously high. He wasn’t worried about his own health; Samuels had seemed pretty anxious to have him seen to. What worried him was JD’s absence.

The door swung open, and the behemoth of a guard entered, carrying JD. The younger agent was semiconscious, unresponsive in the guard’s arms. Burns and abrasions adorned JD’s chest, arms and stomach, and his jeans were torn around his lower legs, showing burned skin and deep gashes that had been roughly stitched. His face was bruised and dried blood matted in his dark hair. The guard unceremoniously dumped him on the bed next to Ezra, an odd grin on his face.

“Good Lord . . .”

“The Lord has nothing to do with us,” the guard informed him. “I would’ve thought you’d have figured that out by now. God has no place here.”

“What did you do to him?” Ezra demanded. JD’s stillness alarmed him. The younger agent was conscious – at least, his eyes were open – but he wasn’t looking at anything, just staring into space. The guard’s grin widened.

“Ask him about it,” he replied as he exited, locking the door behind him. Ezra immediately turned his attention to JD, who hadn’t moved from the position he’d been placed on the bed in.

“Mr. Dunne . . . JD?” he asked tentatively, for once foregoing the formal address he preferred to use with his colleagues. Something told him that addressing JD the same way Samuels had been speaking to both of them would be a mistake.

JD blinked and turned his eyes slowly to Ezra. The emptiness there frightened the Southerner, more so than the tears that threatened to spill over. JD barely seemed aware of Ezra’s presence. Ezra had no idea what to do in this sort of situation. He would have given anything to know how Buck dealt with JD.

“JD . . . it’s me.” He cautiously reached out to touch the younger man’s hand, and was alarmed by the violent reaction his touch elicited.

JD screamed, awkwardly scrambling backwards on the bed until his back met the wall. He avoided touching anything with his hands, and Ezra cursed as he realised why. The fingers were twisted cruelly, and the skin on the backs of JD’s hands was distorted by the obviously broken bones underneath. Some of those bones stuck through his skin, ivory and crimson against mangled flesh. His fingernails had been torn off, leaving raw, bleeding wounds behind. Ezra was torn between horror and fury; as their resident ‘computer guy’, as JD called himself, the agent’s hands were very important to him. Without full dexterity and sensitivity, a lot of his prowess with computers and other technical apparatus would be greatly reduced, something that Ezra wasn’t sure JD could cope with on top of everything else that had happened to them.

Ezra took a chance and moved forward, ignoring his own pain at the sight of his friend’s pain. He cautiously reached out to the younger man and was shocked when JD clung to him like a child, sobbing.

“Oh, God, Ez . . .” he sobbed brokenly. Ezra, baffled by the sudden storm of tears, simply held his young friend and stroked JD’s dark hair, murmuring words that he hoped were comforting, saying whatever came into his mind. He didn’t bother trying to use large words, just said whatever he thought of. While he spoke, he prayed that their friends would find them soon, before either of them was pushed beyond their limit. JD was coming dangerously close to breaking, and if that happened Ezra knew that the Seven would crumble.