Mind Games

by freeformchick

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Vin glanced at the men in the van with him. Chris had made a few calls and gotten them two dozen agents as backup for their rescue operation. Most of them were men and women whom Vin knew, but the tension in the small space was almost insufferable. The four vans that had come with the backup were heading to a building compound for ‘management weekends’ according to the records Josiah had found, breaking quite a few speed limits at the same time.

They pulled up on one side of a hill. The compound was on the other side. Getting through the gate was going to be a problem. At least, they thought so, until Emily Corbeau approached Chris and Vin. She was about JD’s age, athletic and very pretty. She said tentatively, “There’s a guy guarding the gate. We’ve got pretty good cover from here for a sniper. I’m not trying to belittle your abilities, Vin, but in the state you’re in, your nerves are hardly at their best. Maybe one of the others should take the guard down.”

Vin nodded, knowing that she had a point; he and Chris were both as tightly-wound as piano wires, and he wasn’t sure if he trusted his sniping abilities right now. Normally he’d be fine, but normally he didn’t have the lives of two of his teammates resting on his trigger-finger.

Emily gestured to one of the agents who was lying on his stomach, tranquilliser gun aimed at the gatehouse. The sniper nodded, focused for a few moments and pulled the trigger. The guard dropped like a sack of potatoes. Vin and Chris motioned for the other agents to follow them, and they headed down the hill, shoving the guard’s body into the gatehouse and binding him hand and foot with duct tape, gagging him just in case he came around before they’d found Ezra and JD.

“Right,” Chris said. “Josiah pulled the specs for this place; it’s a square with a garden in the middle. Holland, you and your team take the west wing, try to find Samuels and Caine. Brador, you and your team get east wing. Gregorov, Riley, Daniels and Forbes, you’re with Tanner and me. We’re getting my agents out.”

They tried the handles of each door they passed – most were, predictably, locked – and shot the locks off, checking each room for their missing colleagues. Most of the rooms seemed to be storage rooms, but one was familiar to Chris and Vin; the whitewashed concrete room that JD and Ezra had been in on the first video.

They kept going, finding that room empty. Vin shot off the lock of another door. He and Chris entered the room first, expecting the worst. Nothing had prepared them for what they found.

Ezra was sitting on the room’s sole bed, his back against the wall. His throat was mottled with bruises, and what skin they could see looked about the same. A bandage was wrapped around his head. He held a badly injured JD in his lap, gently stroking the younger man’s hair, though he was looking at Chris and Vin with undisguised relief on his face. JD was staring into space and trembling, tear tracks clear on his face. Rope burns encircled his wrists and there was barely any part of his body that wasn’t injured somehow. Chris held up a hand to prevent the other agents from entering; they didn’t need to see this.

“Ezra?” Vin ventured. “What happened?”

JD shuddered at the sound of Vin’s voice. Ezra patted his shoulder and looked back at the sharpshooter, fury clear in his eyes and his voice, which was hoarse and painful. “I’m not sure, Mr. Tanner, but I can guess. He was tortured. And there is a guard in this place who has an appointment with the business end of a gun.”

“Is JD . . .?” Chris trailed off. Ezra shook his head.

“No, he is not all right. Neither am I. But both of us will be exceedingly glad to bid this place farewell.”

“Can you both walk?”

“Perhaps; we haven’t attempted to stand as yet. I don’t think it would be wise for me to move far from JD’s side. He . . . I seem to be a source of comfort. Is our path to freedom unobstructed?”

“It will be,” Vin growled. “If Samuels or anyone else tries to stop us, they’ll be dead before they know it.”

“Come on. Let’s get out of here,” Chris said. Ezra slid to the edge of the bed and stood up, gently pulling JD with him. Despite his assurances that both could walk, Ezra’s knees buckled and JD let out a sharp cry of pain. Vin and Chris moved forward just in time to stop both men from collapsing.

“Thought you said you could walk, Ez,” Vin said, tightening his grip to keep the Southerner from falling. Ezra managed a pain-filled smile.

“Perhaps I over-exaggerated a little. Being carried may be very well for a child, but a grown man finds it a tad humiliating.”

“Tough luck, pal. You aren’t in any shape to walk anywhere,” Vin informed him. “Chris an’ me are strong enough to take you an’ JD to the cars.”

Ezra’s eyes widened. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

He was proven right when Chris grabbed JD to keep him from falling. The young agent pushed himself away from Larabee with an inarticulate cry of pain, catching himself on the edge of the bed.

“Oh, God! Don’t touch me!”

“There’s no other way to get you out of here,” Chris said gently. “I have to carry you, JD. I’m sorry it hurts, but there’s really no other way.”

Pain was clear in JD’s dark eyes as he nodded, steeling himself for the rush of pain. Chris knelt beside JD and carefully lifted the smaller man into his arms, wincing in sympathy at the moan of pain his touch elicited. JD grabbed at Ezra’s hand, and the Southerner rose with Chris, wavering on his feet until Vin appeared at his side to keep him on his feet. The sharpshooter asked quietly, “You okay, Ez?”

“How far away are the vehicles?” Ezra asked, equally quiet. His face showed an intense amount of strain, simply from standing.

“Too far. C’mon, Ez, you can sacrifice your dignity for one night. You’re hurt.”

Ezra nodded. “Don’t move too far from JD, Mr. Tanner. I’m not entirely certain what happened, but I am sure that he is in a fragile emotional state. And don’t try to remove that collar. From what he told me, if you try to pick the lock a lethal dose of a chemical will be released. When you find Samuels he should have the key. Until then, don’t tamper with it.”

Vin nodded his understanding and lifted Ezra, carrying the Southerner easily. Ezra wasn’t as small as JD, but he was certainly not a huge man like Josiah. Making sure JD could see Ezra, Chris and Vin exited the room.

One of the agents outside let out an explosive curse. “Fuck! What happened to them, Chris?”

“We don’t know,” Chris said tightly. “We’re going to get them to the cars. Can you handle the cleanup here?”

The same agent nodded. “Count on it. The bastard is going down.”

“The bastard, as you so bluntly put it, is far from ‘going down’.”

All the agents turned at the sound of the cool, even voice. Samuels sounded older than he had on the video and the phone. Standing beside and a little behind Samuels were Ashley Caine and a tall, muscular man whom Chris recognised as one of Caine’s bodyguards. All three carried firearms, and Caine and the guard both held hostages. Ryan Davis and Emily Corbeau, two of the agents on Holland’s team, were held firmly by arms around their throats, guns pressed under their chins.

“Hold it right there, Mr. Larabee,” Samuels drawled. “I do believe we’ve reached an impasse. You have the advantage of numbers and, if I’m not mistaken, the burning desire to see myself and my associates pay for what you consider a crime. Whereas I have your agents, and no particular need for them to remain in one piece.”

The guard holding Ryan jerked his arm tighter around Ryan’s throat, and the young agent gasped as his breathing was impeded.

“Mikhail,” Samuels said warningly, “We need them both alive, for now. Let the boy breathe.”

He turned his attention back to Chris. His gun, unlike those of Caine and Mikhail, was pointed directly at the leader of Team 7, while he held what looked like a remote control with only one button in his other hand. He said coolly, “My associates and I will be leaving, Mr. Larabee. If you attempt to follow us, I will have your agents killed, quite painfully, and I will activate the collar around Mr. Dunne’s neck. If I do so, it will take him five days to die, in agony. I’m sure you don’t want that, so it really would be in everyone’s best interests for you to cooperate with me.”

“What do you want?” Chris asked, controlling his anger with an effort. Samuels chuckled.

“Ashley, Mikhail and I will be leaving. We will take your agents with us. At the first sign of pursuit, I will have Ashley shoot the woman. If I continue to feel that you are following, I will have Mikhail shoot the young man. If that fails to dissuade you, I’ll have no choice but to activate Mr. Dunne’s collar.”

“Go,” Chris snarled, defeat evident in his voice. He couldn’t risk the lives of JD, Ryan or Emily, no matter how much he wanted to shoot Samuels where it would hurt most. The rules of hostage situations stipulated ensuring the safety of the hostages first. Samuels nodded, smiling.

“I thought you would see it that way. You law enforcers are always so predictable at this point in the game.”

One of the agents growled, “This is a game?!” in a voice filled with disgust and rage.

“Easy,” Vin said softly. “Don’t piss him off.”

“Sound advice, though a little crudely put, Mr. Tanner,” Samuels purred. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we must be leaving. We’ll give you directions to find your agents once we’re far enough away. I’d advise you to take care of Mr. Standish and Mr. Dunne in the interim; I must admit Ashley and Mikhail were rather . . . exuberant . . . in their entertainment this evening.”

He, Caine and Mikhail – they hadn’t heard a last name for the brute of a guard – began backing up towards one of the doors, Caine and Mikhail still holding their guns under the chins of their hostages. Keeping his eyes on the furious ATF agents, Samuels reached back and opened the door. Chris watched helplessly, furious at the thought of any of the three escaping justice.

Samuels apparently hadn’t counted on the hostages taking matters into their own hands.

In a swift, fluid movement, Emily Corbeau reached up with her left hand and dug her fingernails into Caine’s wrist, going for the nerves. At the same time, she pulled a derringer from her wrist holster with her right hand and squeezed off several shots, ducking away from Caine as the dealer’s deadened fingers loosened their grip on her gun and let it fall.

Several things happened at once.

Ryan twisted out of Mikhail’s grip and grabbed at his gun.

Mikhail slammed his fist into the side of Ryan’s head, and the young agent reeled from the blow.

Several of the agents with Chris opened fire, trying not to hit Ryan or Emily in the process of gunning down the three criminals.

Samuels staggered back, blood appearing in three widening circles on his shirt. He slid down the wall, leaving a grisly trail of crimson, but was still conscious.

Caine’s gun went off, though at this distance Chris couldn’t see who had been shot.

Mikhail, taking advantage of the confusion, bolted. Several agents fired at him, but he vanished through the door that Samuels had opened. Three agents went in pursuit.

Samuels, leaning against the wall, barked out a harsh laugh. Blood spotted his lips. He raised his hand, the one holding the remote device, and pressed the button.

JD screamed and began writhing in Chris’s arms. Angry red lines spread from the collar, going down his neck and vanishing under his shirt, and reaching his face. His muscles began to tighten, and Chris started to run. He’d seen what the chemical in the collar did when used in small doses, and he doubted that this was a small dose. The other agents could clean up what was left; he had to get JD some help.

JD’s screams echoed down the tile-floored corridor. His reaction to the chemical was much faster than it had been when Samuels had sent the video; there was no doubt that this was a full dose. Vin followed Chris at a run, apologising to Ezra when the Southerner cursed at the painful jolting.

“Fuck ‘sorry’, get JD some help!” Ezra snarled, sounding as far from his normally cultured self as possible.

Natasha Gregorov, one of the agents with medical training, was following them, speaking into her cell phone as she ran. “We have two agents down, medical assistance needed. Cranial contusions, burns to the arms and legs, fractured or broken bones in the arms and hands, broken or cracked ribs, and some sort of chemical has been introduced to Agent Dunne’s bloodstream. He’s having a severe reaction; symptoms are muscular spasms, nausea and intense pain . . . thank you.”

She looked at Chris and Vin. “Ambulances will be here in less than five minutes. Until then, let’s get them to the van and I’ll see what I can do.”

+ + + + + + +

The ambulances arrived two minutes later. Two minutes that had seemed like a lifetime to Chris and Vin. Natasha had been able to ease Ezra’s pain a little by giving him some of the morphine she carried in her field kit, and she’d managed to stop JD’s muscles from spasming quite so badly, but she couldn’t counteract the chemical coursing through his veins, not with the supplies she had on hand.

The paramedics quickly loaded Ezra and JD into the two ambulances. JD had calmed down a little by the time the ambulances arrived, seemingly reassured by the presence of his fellow agents. Vin went in the ambulance with him, while Chris traveled with the less badly injured Ezra.

The two paramedics with Vin and JD were aghast at the extent of the younger agent’s injuries, but quickly swallowed their horror and got to work. One began covering the burns and cuts with antiseptic ointment while the other inspected the collar around JD’s neck. She checked the fit of the leather, frowning at the snugness. She turned to Vin.

“Agent Tanner, this collar needs to come off. It’s very tight, but I think I can remove it. There’s going to be some blood, not enough to seriously endanger Agent Dunne, but it will be there. I’m not going to cut anywhere near the jugular or carotid, but I still need you to take this gauze and stem the bleeding as much as you can. I’ll have to press into his skin to get the knife under the leather.”

Vin nodded, taking the gauze she handed him and moving to JD’s other side, keeping out of the male paramedic’s way. The woman carefully pressed her knife into JD’s neck, maneouvering the blade under the leather and carefully, slowly cutting. Blood appeared and Vin blotted it away with the gauze. JD had by this point lost consciousness, a small mercy, and didn’t move as the paramedic removed the collar with agonising slowness.

She frowned at the angry red burns where the dermal patches had rested, reaching over and taking some soothing cream to spread on the burns. Her partner glanced up and said tensely, “Rachel, some of these look infected. We’ll have to watch out for fever at the hospital.”

The woman nodded. “Have to get the lab to run tests on his blood, find out what that chemical is. Agent Gregorov didn’t know.”

They turned their attention to JD’s hands. Rachel let out her breath in a long hiss. “Jesus. I’m not supposed to say this, but I hope you killed the guy who did this, Agent Tanner.”

“Last I saw him, he was bleedin’ from three bullets to the chest. I don’t think he’ll last long enough for another ambulance.”

The man spoke again. “We’ve got multiple breaks in the fingers and bones of the hands, possible breach of the vein in the left thumb if this discolouration is anything to go by. We can’t set these here, Rachel, he’ll need surgery. All we can do is strap his hands to boards and keep him from moving them too much.”

Vin bit his lip. “Do you think he’ll get the use of his hands back?”

“I can’t say,” Rachel said without looking up from her work, carefully taping JD’s hands and fingers to small plastic boards. “We won’t know until he’s had surgery to fix all the bones. There are very small bones in the hands, and they’re some of the worst to break. But you’ve got the best medical team there is waiting at the hospital.”

Vin nodded, silent, looking at the battered form of his friend as the paramedics worked. He only hoped the best medical team was enough for JD and Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah looked up as Vin entered the room, looking as though he’d been through hell. He fell into the seat beside Josiah and dropped his head into his hands, scrubbing his face with his fingers.

“Vin?” Josiah asked, the name loaded with a dozen questions. Vin looked up and nodded.

“We found them. Your information was right. Came up against more resistance than we thought, but we got them out.”


Vin covered his eyes with his hands, and when he spoke, his voice was choked. “Jesus, Josiah, I didn’t think a man could be hurt that bad. I don’t think there was a single part of him that they didn’t hurt somehow. It’s like they knew exactly what would break him, too. They smashed his hands. The doctors still aren’t sure whether he’s gonna be able to use them again.”

Josiah exhaled sharply. “Where is he now?”

“Surgery. They’re trying to fix his hands, an’ he was bleedin’ inside. He was really out of it when we got to them, Josiah, he didn’t even know me an’ Chris at first.”

“Did you get the ones who did it?”

“Tried to,” Vin replied. “We had to leave before we could be sure they were dead or in custody. We’re waitin’ on Aaron Brador to tell us the final deal.”

“How’s Ezra?” Josiah asked, tearing his mind away from what would happen if JD lost the use of his hands.

“Not great,” Vin admitted. “He was strangled pretty bad the first night, an’ he was bleeding inside his skull from when Caine attacked him. He’s bruised badly, an’ the doctors reckon there was some internal injury as well. They’ve got him in surgery to try an’ fix that, but they reckon he should be okay. Nate an’ Buck still haven’t woken up?”

“They were awake earlier, but one of the nurses gave them sedatives about two hours ago,” Josiah told the sharpshooter. “Said they needed the rest.”

Vin cracked a grin, though it was a far cry from his normal smile. “Bet Buck was spittin’ nails about that.”

“Oh, yes. It took Dr. Russell ten minutes to argue him into submission. She’s a strong-minded woman, which is about what’s needed to deal with Buck. Nathan’s a much better patient.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. How’re they doin’, anyway?”

“Better. Nathan should be able to go home by the end of the week, and if Buck’s vitals stay the way they are he’ll be released the day after tomorrow.”

Vin sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I reckon he won’t go home until he knows JD’s gonna be okay. Chris’s waitin’ outside surgery, you know, annoyin’ the hell out of all the nurses. His knee’s gotta be killin’ him, but he won’t ask for any pain relief until he knows what the situation with JD an’ Ezra is.”

“That man cares deeply about his team,” Josiah said softly. “I doubt there’s anyone who could influence him when it comes to Team 7. Though Jared might come close.”


“The nurse who managed to convince Buck that he couldn’t run off to help you and Chris find JD and Ezra,” Josiah explained. “‘Convince’ is probably the wrong word; bully might come closer.”

Vin chuckled. “That must’ve been interestin’. This Dr. Russell put male nurses on duty till Buck gets better, then?”

“In this room, yes. She’s obviously heard about him trying to coax the women into letting him go early.”

They both lapsed into silence, the forced small talk breaking off. Their thoughts were on the two men in surgery upstairs, and on wondering whether those responsible would be brought to justice.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was just thinking about getting up when Chris appeared in the doorway of Buck and Nathan’s room. Unshaven, clothing wrinkled, deep circles beneath his eyes, he looked as though he’d been up for days. Which, to be honest, was about the truth.

Nathan smiled and held his finger to his lips. Buck was still sleeping, and Josiah had gone to find some coffee. Vin was slumped over in an uncomfortable hospital chair at the room’s single small table, his head resting on his folded arms.

“Hey, Chris. You have news?” Nathan asked softly. The black-clad leader of Team 7 nodded and came to sit by Nathan’s bed.

“Ezra got out of surgery a few hours ago. The doctors stopped the internal bleeding and fixed his head. He had a fracture in his skull from hitting the floor when Caine was kicking him. His throat’s gonna be sore for a while, and they want to keep him for a few days to make sure there aren’t any complications. They’re worried about the amount of blood there was in his braincase when he got to surgery, and that he passed out in the ambulance. He’s still touch and go.

“JD just got out of surgery. They’ve done what they can for his hands, but it’s extremely uncertain right now; we won’t know for sure whether he has full use of them until the bandages come off. He’s pretty bad, got a high fever and infection has set in because of his injuries, but they’ve got him on antibiotics and a whole bunch of other medicines to combat that.”

“What about the chemical Vin told me about?” Nathan asked. Chris’s face broke into a relived smile.

“The doctors weren’t sure what it was, much less how to treat it, but Aaron Brador showed up at midnight with the antidote. Took it right from Samuels’s office. JD’s muscles are gonna be sore for a while, and he won’t be able to handle food for a few days, but he’s not gonna die. Not from the chemical, anyway,” he added, his voice gaining a deep note of concern and fear. The chemical might not kill JD, but he was close to being taken from them anyway, due to the extent and severity of his injuries.

“Did we lose any agents last night?”

“Nope. Emily Corbeau was nicked by a bullet, but she’s been treated and gone home. Some of Brador’s people were grazed, but no fatalities. The only agent in hospital from the other teams is Ryan Davis; he got hit in the arm. Should be fine though.”

“And the ones behind this rigmarole?”

Chris’s face darkened. “Samuels is dead, Caine in a coma. We’re not sure what happened to the kid Vin met. The guard escaped, though, and from what Ezra said he’s the one who did the most damage to JD.”

Nathan sucked in a breath, horrified at the idea that the man who had hurt JD so badly was free. “We can’t tell him, Chris.”

“I know. Not now, anyway. Maybe later, when he’s healed some, but he can’t deal with it right now.”

“When can we see him and Ezra?” Nathan asked.

“That’s what I came down here for. I figured they shouldn’t have to wake up alone. I talked to Dr. Russell, and she okayed you and Buck leaving your room as long as you stayed connected to your IVs and stayed either in wheelchairs or in chairs. Jared and another nurse are going to be here in half an hour to take you up.”

“I’m surprised Dr. Russell agreed.”

“She knows our team, and she knows that you and Buck will both be restless until you see JD and Ezra. She’s trying to arrange a four-bed room, but that might take a few hours,” Chris explained. “They put Ezra and JD together; Ez seems to be able to deal with JD in this state.”

Nathan’s blood ran cold. “What do you mean, in this state?”

Chris sighed. “When we found them, JD was . . . almost catatonic, I guess. He’d been tortured so badly that he withdrew, and most people scare the hell out of him. Ezra seems to be able to get through that fear, probably because they went through that hell together. It’s gonna be a slow recovery for both of them, Nate; despite what Ezra said to us last night, he’s far from himself. We’re gonna have to watch out for them both.”

“Did you think we’d do otherwise?” Josiah asked from the door. “We’re more than a team, Chris; we’re a family. The only family some of us have. We’re gonna fight this together.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra lay with his eyes closed, listening to the various muted sounds around him. It sounded different to before; he was sure that there had been no beeping or rapid footsteps audible from the room he and JD had been imprisoned in. Samuels could have had them moved again, he supposed, but surely he would have woken had he been relocated.

His head was pounding, as though he had some sort of imp in there, hacking away at the backs of his eyes with a pickaxe. His throat and lungs felt as though they were on fire, as well, and he could feel numerous bruises peppering his body. There was a strange feeling halfway down his torso as well – the skin there felt tighter, and slightly sore. Perhaps it would be better if he went back to sleep for a few hours – or a few days. Maybe until he’d healed properly . . .

A hand reached out and took one of his. “Come on, Ezra, the doctors said you’re going to be okay. Wake up, okay?”

Ezra frowned slightly. Was he hallucinating? He could have sworn that was Chris’s voice.

He heard movement as whoever it was leaned forward. “Ezra? Can you hear me?”

Ezra risked opening his eyes. Unless his hallucinations were visual as well as aural, and very detailed, he was lying in a hospital room, Chris sitting beside his bed and holding one of his hands. The black-clad leader smiled in relief.

“About time. You’ve slept in a long time, even for you.”

“I think . . . that under the circumstances . . . I’ve earned the right to sleep,” Ezra protested, his throat feeling as though it was stuffed with sandpaper. Chris snagged a glass of water and held it out.

“Here. Dr. Russell says you can have water, but solids are gonna hurt your throat for a while. And don’t make any sudden movements or you’ll rip your stitches.”

Ezra sipped the cool water gratefully, though swallowing proved almost too painful to bear, and moving his head was definitely out of the question. He suddenly recalled the events of the night before and asked urgently, “JD?”

“He’s here, too,” Chris answered, gesturing to the other bed where Ezra could see JD, still unconscious and swathed in so many bandages that he looked like a mummy. IVs and machines were hooked up everywhere, though at least JD was breathing on his own. Ezra knew how uncomfortable and frightening ventilators were. Ezra’s eyes went to JD’s throat.

“The collar? Dear Lord, Samuels gave him a full dose of that chemical!”

“Hey, calm down, Ezra,” Chris said soothingly – rather an odd tone of voice to hear from Chris, Ezra thought. “Aaron Brador brought in the antidote, the chemical isn’t going to kill him. His muscles are going to hurt for a few days, but he’ll be okay.”

“At least we’re out of that hell,” Ezra said softly. The effort of speaking brought a coughing fit, one so severe that it left Ezra gasping for breath with a burning sensation in his throat and lungs and black patches in his vision. Chris, looking alarmed, leaned forward.

“Hey, you okay? Maybe you shouldn’t talk; Dr. Russell said it might aggravate your throat for a few days.”

Ezra waved off Chris’s concern, concentrating on breathing properly. When he felt that he was in control of his body again, he asked, “How is JD?”

Chris looked down. “Not good. The doctors aren’t sure when he’s going to wake up, and the longer that takes him . . .”

“The less likely it is,” Ezra finished for him. He looked over at the still form of his young friend, remembering the horrible injuries JD had had the last time Ezra saw him. JD’s hands were wrapped in bulky bandages, hiding the damage done to them, but the memory was all too clear in Ezra’s mind. He almost didn’t want to know the answer to his next question.

“His hands . . .?”

Chris shook his head. “We won’t know until the bandages come off, and that could take anything from a week to two months, depending on how quickly he heals. Most of the bones in his hands and fingers were broken, and that will take a long time to heal. He won’t have much use of his hands for a while, and even after that it’s possible that he’ll lost up to ninety percent use.”

Ezra swallowed. “Good Lord, that will kill him.”

“We won’t let it,” Chris said firmly. “JD’s got a lot to live for, Ez, even if he does lose the use of his hands. And even that isn’t set in stone; he could fully recover. But he won’t recover if he falls into depression. We have to make him want to live.”

“It’ll be a long road. He went through so much. He’s going to need us all.”

“We’ll be here. Vin and Josiah are bringing Nathan and Buck down here as soon as Dr. Russell scares up some wheelchairs, and she’s working out a four-bed room for you all. We figured that’d be best for everyone.”

There was silence for a few moments. As Ezra’s head cleared, he began to remember what had happened at Samuels’s compound in clear, brutal detail. Every injury he’d seen on JD’s body, every bruise he’d felt on his own. The cool words Samuels had used to excuse his actions; the madness in Caine’s eyes; the cold cruelty in Mikhail’s. The Southerner shuddered, closing his eyes as though that could block out the images that danced before his eyes.

“Ezra?” Chris’s voice was worried. “Are you hurting? Do you want me to get the doctor?”

Ezra managed to shake his head, his eyes still closed. “No. Just . . . go and help Vin and Josiah. JD may wake up any time, and I expect he’d want Buck here. I’m all right.”

Chris was silent for a moment before he spoke again, his voice soft and understanding.

“What I said before, about us all being here, it stands for you as well, Ezra. You ever need us, just say the word.”

Ezra barked out a harsh laugh. “I have never needed anybody in my life, Mr. Larabee.”

“You’ve also never gone through anything like this before,” Chris said gently. “There’s no shame in admitting that you’re hurting, both physically and emotionally.”

“I will keep that in mind, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra lied. “Now, as I said, JD will undoubtedly want Mr. Wilmington here when he awakes. I intend to make the most of the silence until then and return to sleep. You should help Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Tanner bring our friends down here.”

He kept his eyes closed until he heard Chris’s footsteps recede, still marveling at the fact that he’d pretty much given Chris an order and the sharp-tempered man hadn’t taken umbrage. He released the tight control he’d been keeping over himself, and began to tremble. It was one thing to know that he and JD were safe, and quite another to believe it. His mind knew that Chris wouldn’t have been so calm if Samuels and Caine were still loose, but it wasn’t his mind that was in control right now. It was his instincts, his heart, and both were badly bruised from what he and JD had been through.

He felt tears sting his eyes and silently cursed his weakness. ‘Now what would Mother say? Well, for one thing she would still be unimpressed that I choose to remain a civil servant. But she’d be most annoyed if I showed any weakness.’

Funny, though, he couldn’t remember why he cared what his mother thought anymore. He was a grown man, wasn’t he? Surely he could do what he chose to, no matter what Maude might think. He was strong enough to make his own decisions; he wasn’t a child anymore.

Though he didn’t feel particularly strong right now. He hadn’t even been able to stop Caine and Mikhail from torturing JD.

Tears leaked from beneath tightly closed eyelids, despite Ezra’s efforts to stop them. He clenched his hands and wished that Samuels and Caine were right in front of him, so he could take revenge and make them feel everything they’d inflicted on himself and his friend. Thinking about them turned out to be a mistake; their faces contorted into laughter as he saw, over and over again, Mikhail carrying JD’s limp form and dumping him roughly on the bed; as he heard JD’s weak cry of pain, Caine’s maniacal ranting as she attacked Ezra; as the scent of blood once more invaded his senses. A choked sob escaped his throat.

“. . . Ez . . .”

A weak, soft voice invaded his thoughts and he opened his eyes, his vision blurred from tears. He turned his head slowly, wary of the pain still throbbing in his head, and saw a dark blur moving where JD’s bed was. He blinked his eyes clear and saw the younger man looking at him with concerned eyes.

“. . . Ez . . . you . . . k?”

He managed a brief smile. “I’m fine, JD.”

A short laugh erupted from the other bed, though it sounded weak and thin. “Bull . . . shit.”

That brought a more genuine smile. “Very well. I’m not fine, and I suspect I won’t be for some time. I expect you’re feeling much the same.”

“’Bout . . . right. Head’s . . . killin’ me.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t be talking,” Ezra suggested regretfully. He knew that it was a good sign that JD was awake, but with the extent of his injuries the younger agent was by no means out of danger. Come to think of it, he probably wasn’t either, otherwise Chris wouldn’t have been pussyfooting around him.

“’M . . . ‘lright,” JD managed, sounding exhausted from the simple effort of speaking. “Where’re . . . th’others?”

“On their way,” Ezra assured him. “Mr. Larabee was here a few moments ago, but he went to assist Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez in bringing down Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Jackson. They’ll be here soon.”

“Why d’you . . . do that, Ez?”

“Do what?” Ezra asked, genuinely puzzled. He wasn’t aware that he’d been doing anything out of the ordinary.

“Call . . . all’f us by . . . last names.”

Ezra blinked. “I . . . I suppose I wasn’t aware that I did. It’s how I address people.”

JD shook his head. “No. You . . . talk ‘bout . . . old ‘ssociates . . . with firs’ names. Why’re . . . we diff’rent?”

He sighed. “I hadn’t wanted to have this discussion, JD.”

“Spill . . . Ez.”

He looked up at the ceiling for a few moments, gathering his thoughts. “You’re aware of what happened in Atlanta. After that, I told myself that I wouldn’t allow myself to become close to my colleagues, in case it ever happened again. Addressing you all by your surnames is a way of distancing myself, I suppose. I feel safer when I don’t have connections to people and places.”

“Ev’rything’s . . . got risks, Ez. Even . . . friendship.”

“I suppose. It’s hard, that’s all,” Ezra admitted. “Atlanta hammered home the fact that I don’t belong anywhere.”

“Stop . . . self-pityin’ . . . crap. You b’long . . . with us,” JD said labouriously. “You . . . got me through . . . that.”

That. Yes, he knew all too well what that was. Would have given anything, in fact, for himself and JD to be spared the knowledge of that.

JD was watching him closely. “Why . . . you cryin’ . . . b’fore?”

“You don’t feel like crying?” Ezra asked, surprised. JD shook his head.

“Not . . . what I meant. You . . . cryin’ ‘cause . . . hurt, or . . . other reasons?”

Ezra was silent for a few minutes, going over JD’s words. Yes, he hurt, but there were myriad other reasons why he felt like crying, not the least of which was the fact that he’d been helpless to help himself, much less JD, while in Samuels’s clutches. Finally, he sighed and admitted, “Not just because I hurt.”

He was about to say more, but they heard voices outside, and Ezra was aware that tears were still running down his cheeks. He quickly swiped at them and said urgently, “Can this wait, JD? I don’t want to have this discussion with our colleagues.”

“Gotta . . . sometime.”

“I know. But not now.”

“Secret’s . . . safe with me,” JD assured him, smiling, then wincing as the movement pulled the cuts on his face. At that moment, the other five members of Team Seven entered the room, Buck and Nathan being pushed in wheelchairs with IV poles attached to the armrests. Behind the five ATF agents walked an orderly.

“Hey, kid! You’re awake,” Buck burst out as they entered and saw JD’s eyes open.

The orderly grinned. “I’ll let Dr. Russell know. You two, stay in those wheelchairs or I’ll tear strips off your hides,” he admonished Nathan and Buck, turning and walking quickly from the room. Josiah and Vin placed the wheelchairs between the two beds, then Vin turned to Chris.

“You. Sit. Now.”

Ezra only then noticed that Chris’s right knee looked as though it was bandaged, and he was limping slightly. The black-clad leader of Team Seven took one look at the determined expression on Vin’s face, sighed, and sat down in the chair nearest the beds. Vin gave a half-nod of approval and snagged the other chairs for himself and Josiah.

“How’re you feeling, kid?” Buck asked eagerly. He reached out to take JD’s hand and pulled back suddenly, his face shocked when he saw the bandages swathing JD’s hands. He swallowed and glanced at Chris, mutely asking if Chris knew the extent of the damage to JD’s hands. Chris shook his head.

“Buck . . . stop. I’m . . . not dyin’. . . or nothin’,” JD protested.

“How are you both feeling?” Chris asked quietly. “Dr. Russell warned me that you’ll both feel poorly for a while.”

“The doctor was right,” Ezra muttered. “I feel terrible.”

“You look like someone used you as a punching bag,” Buck said. Ezra froze, flashing back to Caine’s assault. The rope burn around his throat seemed to sear anew and he couldn’t breathe. He started gasping for air, clawing at his throat.

Josiah’s eyes widened as Ezra started to choke, and he leapt from his chair and was instantly at the agent’s side. “Ezra! Ez, calm down. You’re safe!”

His words didn’t seem to be getting through the panic that enveloped the Southerner. The monitor by his bed started beeping frantically, and Josiah was pushed aside by a small, dark-haired woman in a white coat, and several orderlies. The woman – the doctor – swiftly injected a drug into Ezra’s IV, and after a few moments he calmed and fell into an uneasy sleep. The doctor sighed and turned to the rest of them.

“He should be all right. Panic attacks are common after abductions. Do you have any idea what set this one off?” she asked.

“I said something about Ez looking like he’d been used as a punching bag,” Buck said guiltily. “I didn’t know it’d make that happen.”

“No, there was no way you could have known. If anything, it’s better that it happened now rather than later. We know one of the triggers, and we can be alert in case he has another attack. He doesn’t seem to have done himself any additional harm, so it’s doubtful this episode will have any lasting impact on his recovery,” she assured Buck. She turned to JD, checking his vitals and making sure the IVs were properly connected. “It’s good to see you awake, Agent Dunne. How are you feeling?”

“’M . . . fine.”

Buck chuckled, despite his worry, at JD’s habitual response. Even Dr. Russell seemed amused as she continued to check JD’s injuries. She finally straightened up and announced, “Everything seems to be in order. We’ve got you on a steady drip of morphine for the moment, Agent Dunne, but we’ll reduce that slowly as your recovery permits. Let someone know if the pain gets bad and we’ll increase the dose. The nurses will be checking you every ten minutes, but the call button is there if you need anything. Now, gentlemen,” she continued, turning to the other agents, “I realise that you pay visiting hours little mind, but I really can’t condone so many people in a high-dependency room after hours. Until Agents Dunne and Standish can be safely transferred to a low-dependency room, I can only allow one, possibly two, of you here after visiting hours. And until I can arrange a four-bed room, Agents Jackson and Wilmington will have to return to their room at night. I’m willing to bend some of the rules for you, but I can’t bend them all.”

“We understand,” Chris said, hating the restrictions but understanding the need for them. “Thank you for what you’ve done.”

“As one of my nurses said to Agent Sanchez, you seven men are like brothers. We just have to imagine what it would be like for us to have loved ones in such a position to empathise with you.”

She turned to leave. “I’ve left instructions for the nurses attending Agents Jackson and Wilmington to come here for their rounds. When Agent Standish wakes up again, please have one of them page me.”