Ninety-Six Hours – The Aftermath

by Angie

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It was late in the afternoon when the men at the ranch began to waken. JD immediately claimed the computer and began to type up his notes of the case while they were fresh in his mind. Nathan started a pot of coffee and began putting together the fixings for a large pot of beef stew. Vin took a cup of the coffee and headed for the deck. Ezra brewed a pitcher of chamomile tea and took a cup to join Vin. Josiah sat in the kitchen with Nathan, although neither man said much. Chris lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling when he could no longer sleep.

“Is your slumber still disturbed by nightmares, Vin?” Ezra asked.

“Nah, I’m feeling better. Just wish we knew how Bucklin was doing,” Vin answered.

“How about Mr. Dunne? Does it appear that he is resting undisturbed?”

“He thrashed around a lot in his sleep over the past few nights but I kinda figured it was because of his bed partner,” Vin said with a warm blush. “What about you, Ez?”

“I am still frequented by the image of Mr. Wilmington as the crate was opened and my mind will not let go of the piteous sounds he made in the hospital. What would you say to a little covert reconnaissance at the hospital?”

Vin’s eyebrows rose slightly.

“Emily said we couldn’t see him until she said it was all right.”

“Then we shall have to make certain that Dr. Franklin doesn’t see us. Gather Mr. Dunne and let’s go,” Ezra said softly. “I’ll make an excuse for Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson.”

With a smile and conspiratory wink, the men parted company. Ezra took his empty glass and put it in the sink. He dried his hands and leaned against the counter.

“I am taking Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne into the city to try to lighten their spirits. Please inform out illustrious leader that we will pick up our evening repast on the way back this evening.”

“That sounds good, Ezra. I’m sure it will be better to keep them busy. I’m thinking we’ll take a trail ride tomorrow,” Josiah suggested.

Tossing a two-finger salute, Ezra left the house. The two younger men were already waiting beside the Jag. They all jumped in and headed for the hospital.

+ + + + + + +

After lunch, Buck finally worked up the courage to talk to Emily about what he was feeling. Pacing in the confines of his room, he spilled his guts.

“Ever since I woke up in the hospital, I’ve felt … inadequate. For the first time, I realized that I can’t protect anyone. It’s like everything I’m doing is all a façade. I mean, we’ve gotten so close that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be without them.”

Emily shifted slightly in her chair and tipped her head up to meet his gaze. She could almost feel the anguish and despair rolling off of Buck. He stopped at the window and looked down at the parking lot.

“I killed that woman. Even though it was found to be a ‘good’ shoot.” He huffed a bitter laugh, “As if any time a person dies can be good. I killed her and I got away with it.”

“You think you should have been punished?”

“Everyday of my life, I will have to live with that woman’s blood on my hands and on my soul and now I have the husband’s blood on me too.”

“You didn’t kill him.”

“But I put it all in motion, didn’t I? If I hadn’t killed his wife …”

“If you hadn’t killed her, the bank robber with the gun probably would have killed her,” Emily said quietly. Chris had told her about the hooting and she had requisitioned a copy of the reports. Just then, her pager beeped and she checked the message on the LED. Her car alarm was going off and hospital security wanted her to meet them in the main floor elevator lobby.

“Can you excuse me? I need to pop out for a few minutes.” Emily slipped on her shoes and left the room.

The three ATF agents waited until the elevator door closed before slipping down the hall and into Buck’s room. They found him staring out the window when they opened the door.

“That was quick,” Buck began as he turned around. “JD! Vin! Ezra! Dr. Franklin said you wouldn’t be here today!”

JD was immediately swept into a bear hug. Even as the air was pressed from his lungs, the young man returned the hug with all the strength he could manage. After a minute, Buck released JD to embrace Vin with one arm while shaking Ezra’s hand with the other. For a few minutes, no one spoke. Finally, Buck began to talk.

“Emily said you couldn’t come until we hashed everything out. How’d you get her to agree to allow you in today?”

“Well, we didn’t exactly tell her that we were coming by and we can’t stay,” Ezra said.

“We just had to see you and let you know that the bust went down last night and that we’re okay,” JD announced.

“And, on that note,” Emily announced from the doorway, “you will be leaving now, gentlemen.”

For a moment, Vin thought JD might object, but he only threw Buck a quick hug and moved toward the door. Vin and Ezra followed JD’s lead and made their goodbye brief before moving toward the door. Emily followed them out into the hallway and closed the door behind her.

“Just which one of you came up with this brilliant idea?” She demanded.

“It was my responsibility, Dr. Franklin. We wanted to ascertain Mr. Wilmington’s state of health and inform him of the success of the bust in the hope of alleviating some of his anxiety. I persuaded Mr. Dunne and Mr. Tanner to accompany me,” Ezra said without flinching in the face of her anger.

“And who tampered with my car?”

That would be me, Ma’am. I just set my foot on the bumper and bounced it a little. I didn’t do it any harm,” Vin admitted.

“Is there anything you would like to confess to, JD?” Emily asked after fixing him with a hard gaze.

“No Ma’am. But I do want to tell you that I’m not scared of Buck any more. When he’s ready to go home, I’ll be there for him.”

“I’m glad to hear that, JD. I’m sure we will have to discuss that during our next session. Now all of you go home! I will let you know when he’s ready to talk to all of you.”

Since the visit with Buck was cut short, they decided to drive around for a while. When Ezra’s cell phone rang, he pulled it out and looked at the caller ID.

“Gentlemen, I believe I am about to be on the receiving end of a most unpleasant discourse,” Ezra announced.

“What?” Vin asked.

“He’s about to get his ass chewed!” JD crowed from the back seat.

“What part of ‘not until Emily says it’s okay’ did you not understand? She just had him talking and opening up and you go down there and stir everything up! In case I haven’t made myself clear before, stay away from Buck until Dr. Franklin tells us that she’s ready for him to see us!”

Thoroughly chastised, Ezra managed to ask what they wanted him to bring back for supper.

+ + + + + + +

Emily waited until her breathing had calmed before she reentered the room. Buck was staring out the window as his friends walked across the parking lot. She kicked off her shoes and curled up in the chair again.

“Can we pick up where we left off?”

Buck turned and looked at her. The set of his shoulders was not as tense as it had been. He moved to sit on the end of the bed. His eyes were shining with so many things as he studied his hands. When he looked at her, sadness had settled in his eyes.

“Did you mean it before when you said that JD was scared of me?”

“What do you think?” She asked. She wanted him to speak his fears without her giving him words to twist or confuse.

“I suppose he has every right to be afraid of me. I drew my gun on him, for God’s sake! I tossed him on the floor and put my gun right in his face!”

“Why do you think you did that?”

“Because I was remembering the night I was taken. They came into my room and fell on my back. One of them gagged me while another one shot me with something. I felt the weight on my bed and I thought they were coming back for me.”

“So you didn’t intend to hurt JD?”

“God no! I didn’t know it was him! I would never hurt JD!”

“How would you feel if I told you that JD said he isn’t afraid of you anymore?”

The dark blue eyes looked up and bore into her. She had found the catalyst to get Buck to talk and it was his young friend.

“He told you that?”

“Yes. Just now, in the hall. He says he will be there for you when you’re ready to go home.”

+ + + + + + +

Ezra and the others arrived at the ranch with the requested meal and a quantity of beer and soda. Chris only gave them a hard glare when they came thru the door. Josiah took the carry out bags and set them on the kitchen table. Nathan took the drinks and shook his head at them. Chris had ranted for almost an hour after the phone call from Dr. Franklin.

The meal was eaten mostly in silence until Josiah finally spoke.

“How did he look to you, Ezra?”

“Tired, almost to the point of exhaustion.”

“He seemed awfully glad to see us,” JD announced, trying to take the pressure off of Ezra.

“Emily said he was talking to her. She thinks that it might be just a couple of days before we can see him. He’s having a hard time at night. He’s still having the nightmares.”

The eyes of the three younger agents dropped to the tabletop.

“She tells me that you’re also having nightmares, too.” Chris prodded.

Three pairs of guilty eyes rose and met the hazel eyes.

“She didn’t tell me what nightmares you were having, just that you were having them. I need all of you on top of your game if we’re going to continue to work together.”

Shock registered on the faces of the three young men as Chris got up from the table and walked out onto the deck.

The next day, Josiah insisted that they take a ride on the horses. Nathan’s horse had been carefully exercised and pronounced well enough to ride again. Sandwiches were packed and canteens filled with water and iced tea. They rode along the fence line, checking to make sure that none of the fences were down. It was a tedious chore, but it gave them an activity to perform and kept their minds from sitting idle.

+ + + + + + +

Buck wakened at the light touch of the nurse as she took his vitals. For the first time in several days, he had slept without the awful nightmare waking him and he smiled. He attacked his breakfast tray with a vengeance, finally finding an appetite. By the time Emily arrived a couple of hours later, he was about to bust with all the things he wanted to tell her.

+ + + + + + +

For two days, the reports from Emily were fairly positive. Buck was talking, openly and honestly about what he was thinking and feeling. He had rehashed the situation surrounding the death of Mrs. O’Neil until he could talk about it without feeling the need to wash his hands. He knew in his mind that he had dealt with the issue before and just needed to fit it back into the proper place in his mind.

On the other hand, Buck was lonely. He missed his friends fiercely. It didn’t stop him from shamelessly flirting with every nurse he saw, though. He had several of them eating out of his hand and phone numbers and dates planned with several more. Emily could only laugh when she arrived in his room to find that one of the nurses had brought Buck some special treat.

“You’re going to fail your physical if you don’t stop indulging in all of those treats,” she warned him.

“Comfort food, doc. It’s just comfort food and I need comforting. When are you gonna let the guys visit? It’s been three days! I’m doing everything you asked me to do. We’ve talked about everything under the sun, my ma, Sarah and Adam, JD and the others, when are you gonna spring me?”

“Soon. Very soon, I think. There are still some things we need to talk about,” she said as she reached into the insulated bag and drew out the bottle of water she had put there that morning. Buck turned to protest.

“Aw, come on doc, you’re just …”

Emily looked up when Buck fell silent. His eyes were fixed on the water bottle in her hand and he was breathing shallowly. A look of horror covered his face as he backed away from her.

“Buck? What is it? Can you talk to me?”

It was happening again. Unbidden, the memories from inside of the box rolled thru his mind like a freight train. The distinctive label on the water bottle was the same one he’d seen in the wan light of the flashlight while in the box. The nauseous feeling hit him without warning and he bolted for the bathroom. Emily had come to her feet to go after him but stopped at the sound of retching from the bathroom.

When Buck emerged from the bathroom, his eyes were red and swollen and he was covered in a light sheen of sweat. He crawled into the bed and pulled the blanket up to his shoulder. Emily reached out to touch him and he flinched from her hand.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was just reaching the horizon when they finished with the trail ride. They had found a section of fence in need of repair and had spent most of the afternoon working on it. Each one of them was thoroughly and completely exhausted when they stumbled into the house after tending to the horses. Chris walked past the answering machine and pressed the button while he fished in the refrigerator for something cold to drink.

“Chris, it’s Dr. Franklin. I need you to call me as soon as you get this message.”

Without listening to the rest of the message, he picked up the phone and dialed her number.

“Dr. Franklin, Chris Larabee. What happened? Is Buck all right?”

“He’s had a flashback, a bad one. I think it might do him some good to see all of you as soon as possible. Can you come?”

“Give us an hour,” Chris said and hung up the phone.

After quick showers and changing clothes, the team piled into the suburban and headed for the hospital. JD struggled to hold his fear inside. He could tell that the others were as nervous as he was. They parked the vehicle and raced into the hospital. They crowded into the elevator and Nathan punched the button for Buck’s floor.

The elevator ride was brief, but Ezra could almost feel the air thinning. He resisted the urge to look up and make sure they were moving. A hand closed on his shoulder and he looked back to find Vin giving him a confident smile. It was a little easier to breathe with the Texan’s hand grasping his shoulder. The doors opened and Ezra bolted out. JD took the lead as they moved down the hall. Emily came out of the room and closed the door behind her.

“Calm down, gentlemen. I can see that you’re a little wound up. Come down to the lounge and let me explain things to you.”

“We want to see him first!” Chris demanded.

“He’s only just starting to calm down. Please, come to the lounge and let’s talk first.”

Reluctantly, the six men followed the doctor to the lounge and took seats on the couches. From the way they perched lightly on the front edges of the furniture, it was clear that she would have to do some fast-talking to keep them from stampeding into Buck’s room.

“This morning, we were talking. He was lamenting the fact that he missed all of you. I was teasing him about passing his next physical if he doesn’t lay off of the rich snacks the nurses are ‘sneaking’ him. He turned around to tell me something and just went to pieces. I haven’t been able to get a coherent phrase out of him all day. I’d like to take JD in with me. I need to get him talking again.”

“What set him off?” Nathan asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve been going over it in my head and I can’t figure it out. If I can get him talking again, maybe he can tell me.”

JD came to his feet and started for the door. Emily started after him only to be stopped. Chris held her by the arm and drilled her with his eyes. That she had lost the trust of the team leader was immediately clear.

The room was dimly lit when JD moved to the huddled form on the bed. Buck was trembling as if cold even though the room was warm and he was covered with a blanket. The soft whimpering was heart rending.

“Buck? Hey, big guy, wake up and talk to me.”

The dark blue eyes came up and studied JD for a moment. He looked around the room and then back to JD. Carefully unwinding his hand from the blanket, he reached out for his roommate.

“JD? Are you real?”

“Of course I’m real! You’re in the hospital. You got Dr. Franklin pretty wound up. She said you two were talking this morning and you just shut down on her. Come on, sit up here and tell me what happened,” JD encouraged.

In the hallway, Dr. Franklin and the rest of the team eavesdropped on the pair in the darkened room. Chris kept a light grip on the woman to prevent her from entering the room until Buck and JD were ready.

“She was just sitting in the chair talking to me and then I was back in the box. I don’t know what it was. I was telling her that I wanted to see you guys. I’ve been doing everything I’m supposed to do and I told her I wanted to talk to you and she …”

Buck swallowed as his eyes dropped to the insulated bag sitting on the floor under the chair. JD followed his friend’s line of sight until he saw the bag. He picked it up and set it in his lap for a moment. What he saw in the bag touched a deep chord. He reached into the bag and pulled the water bottle out.

“It was this, wasn’t it?” He turned the bottle so Buck could see the label.

His heart leapt into his throat as he looked at the bottle. He nodded and shuddered at the same time. JD put the bottle back into the bag and put it under the chair. He got up and moved to sit on the side of the bed. Resting his hand on Buck’s shoulder, JD sighed.

“Those bottles were in the box with you, weren’t they?”

“I think there was something in the water. It made me have those crazy dreams and it’s what made me bleed, isn’t it?” Buck asked.

“Uh-huh, they found two different drugs in your blood. One that messed up your mind and one that thinned your blood. We found bloodstains on the inside of the lid of the box from your knuckles, they wouldn’t stop bleeding. You had blood all over you when they pulled you out. You had dumped out the water bottles. The doctor said it was a good thing you didn’t drink them all or you would have died.”

“I figured it was something in the water that was making me sick. I tried not to drink it, but the beef jerky made me thirsty. The dreams were so real, JD. I’m awfully sorry for scaring you that day. You know I would sooner die than hurt one of you.”

JD tightened his hand on Buck’s shoulder until he heard the deep sigh. When the others slipped into the room a few minutes later, he was sound asleep. JD waved them out of the room and eased off of the bed. He closed the door behind him and headed for the lounge.

“It was the water bottle. That’s what set him off,” JD explained.

“I heard. I’m sorry, I never thought about it,” Emily apologized.

“You couldn’t have known. The thing is, how many other things are going to set him off? How do we desensitize him?”

“Give me a couple of days. I’ll keep you appraised every step of the way. I have an idea, but I need to get him ready.”

The drive back to the ranch was silent. JD sat against the door with one leg drawn up in front of him as he stared out the window. Nathan tried to talk to him only to get a fair impression of the Larabee glare from the kid’s dark eyes.

The nightmare was different this time. Buck found JD’s body in the sand and he was still breathing. When he looked up, Chris and Vin were coming toward him on horseback leading Ghost and Tigger. From behind the huge mound of sand, someone was shooting at him. He ducked low to protect JD. Chris and the horses were getting closer. He felt a hand reaching around and pulling his gun from his belt. Two quick shots sounded and a body fell behind him. Looking behind him, he saw O’Neil bleeding out on the sand. Looking back at JD, he saw the kid smile.

“Got your back, partner,” JD whispered.

Emily’s hands hovered over Buck as the nightmare began. When it didn’t develop into a full-blown night terror, she hesitated. Although he remained tense, he didn’t start whimpering or thrashing around again. When he smiled after a couple of minutes, she eased back into the chair.

+ + + + + + +

“Pair of deuces bets, JD,” Ezra reminded him.

“Five,” he said, tossing out the chip.

Vin picked up his hole card and looked at the other cards showing on the table. He checked his chips and those of the others before raising.

“Your five and five more.”

Nathan sighed and shook his head. There was no way he was going to bet on the garbage in his hand. He looked to Josiah. The profiler had been staring at his hole card for the past couple of minutes.

“Josiah? You in or not?” Vin asked.

“Fold,” he said with a disgusted sigh.

JD won the hand and raked in a sizeable stack of chips. He took the cards and dealt the next hand. They had been playing since they got back from the hospital, none of them being ready to even attempt to sleep. Half empty bottles of beer sat around the table along with the discarded wrappers from Vin and JD’s snack cakes.

Finally, around one in the morning, they began to drift off to bed. Ezra turned down the guest bedroom for the couch, to Chris’s surprise. Nathan and Josiah only nodded. They understood that they needed to be together in case the nightmares came for them in the night.

The office was dreary quiet the next day. The phones were turned down so that they could barely hear them ring. Each agent worked on his report on the warehouse bust. JD actually spent most of his time playing games on the computer as he had finished his narrative at the ranch. He kept looking over at Buck’s empty desk and sighing softly. Chris sent everyone home at two because there was nothing for them to do. Emily called to say that Buck had a good night and was still talking.

Over pizza and beer, the team played poker for several hours that evening. Ezra had taken to dealing JD winning hands in an attempt to lighten his mood. It was only about ten o’clock when the game broke up and everyone went to bed.

Chris jerked the blankets back and punched the pillow savagely. He had been roused from his sound sleep by the nightmare. He was back in the days after the funeral. The black mood had just about completely enveloped him. After consuming massive quantities of Jack Daniels, he sat down in the driveway with his gun. Only the thin crescent moon bore witness to the fact that he tried to take his own life that night. He had ejected and reinserted the clip a dozen times or more. He tried putting the muzzle in his mouth, against his temple, against his heart, and each time, Sarah’s face would swim into his mind’s eye. Finally, when he realized that he could not kill himself that way, he resolved to drink his way into oblivion. When Buck found him the next morning, he had drawn on his friend. In the dream, he actually killed him.

Throwing off the blankets, he got up and went to the window. The crescent moon was just preparing to set and the sun was beginning to color the sky when he stepped out onto the deck. Peso looked up from the corral and nickered softly, seeing the man. Ghost wandered over and Peso began to groom him gently. A few minutes later, Diablo wandered over and began to groom Ghost. Chris stood watching the horses for a while longer before he went in to make a pot of coffee.

+ + + + + + +

Emily studied the chart again. Buck’s blood work was much improved over what it had been when he first admitted himself. He had slept peacefully thru the night. They had discussed most of his deepest fears. With further counseling, he would continue to improve. Now that the walls were coming down around his emotions, she could begin to help him to deal with his fears and see how they influenced his interaction with others. There was one last thing she wanted to explore with him and she wanted the whole team there for him when she did it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris hung up the phone and looked at the men sitting around the breakfast table.

“That was Dr. Franklin, she wants to meet her at the hospital after lunch. She says she needs us all there for Buck.”

“Did she say how he was?” JD asked.

“She said he slept well and she thinks he’s ready for this next step.”

+ + + + + + +

The appointed hour came and Emily escorted Buck to the large storage space near the loading dock. The center of the floor had been cleared and several chairs sat around the perimeter. The ladies man shivered as he wondered what she had in mind for him. All she had told him was that the rest of the team was coming to see him thru this last hurdle. From the other side of the door came the regular tones of a back up alarm warning that a truck was backing into the dock. Emily took Buck out into the hallway to await the arrival of the others.

Chris led the team thru the hospital corridors following the orderly. Ezra was hanging back, offering support to JD who was a little apprehensive about what Emily had in mind for them. Josiah draped an arm around Vin when he appeared uncomfortable. Nathan brought up the rear, wondering what Emily had in mind for all of them.

They rounded a corner and the orderly opened a secured door. Chris stuck his head around the corner and smiled broadly when he saw Buck. He stepped out of the way as JD rounded the doorway and was dragged into Buck’s chest. As soon as JD stepped back, Vin surged forward. Ezra hung back, not wanting to put on a big show of his pleasure at seeing his teammate again. Josiah and Nathan moved in for a more macho, one arm hug and some vigorous back thumping. Ezra moved up finally to squeeze Buck’s shoulders firmly. Chris hung back and stared across the backs of the team and sent hazel beams of support to his friend.

“Okay, are we all ready? I want to take you in one at a time, Josiah first, then Nathan, Chris, Ezra, Vin and then JD. Buck will come in last. Let’s get started.”

Emily waited for the team profiler to move to the door and she followed him inside. A couple of minutes later, she returned for Nathan. Almost immediately, she opened the door and motioned for Chris. The three younger men looked uneasily at Buck as they waited for their turn thru the door. When she came back to the door, Ezra confidently moved forward. There was a much longer wait for her to return. Vin began to breathe deeply as he tried to quell the anxiety building in his chest. Emily opened the door and, instead of motioning Vin thru, she leaned against the door and studied the three men standing nervously in the hall.

“I’m next, right?” Vin questioned.

“Yeah, but we’re going to wait a minute. Are you all right?” Emily asked.

“Are you going to tell me what’s on the other side of that door?” Vin teased.

“No such luck. Let’s go,” she encouraged.

Vin threw a glance at the others and followed the doctor thru the door. The wait became oppressive for Buck and JD. The young agent was vibrating with nervous energy. He leaned against the wall and tapped his toes nervously as he drummed his fingers against the wall. He ran his fingers thru his hair as he pushed off of the wall and looked up at Buck.

“Take it easy, kid. You’re here for moral support, she’s not delving into your psyche.”

“You’re starting to sound like Ezra,” JD joked.

“Bite your tongue!”

The door opened and Emily wiggled her finger at JD. Buck paced up and down the short hall as he waited for the doctor to return. He could not imagine what could be on the other side of that door. He had been talking to the doctor exclusively for the past two days. She had dug into the deepest parts of his mind. They had discussed his hopes and dreams. He had dredged up all the old, painful memories of losing Sarah and Adam. Dr. Franklin knew more about him than any other person in the world. She alone knew how jealous he had been of Chris’s happy life and how guilty he had felt when they had died. He looked up at the door when it opened and drew a deep breath.

“Into the breech,” he whispered. ‘God, I am starting to sound like Ezra,’ he thought.

He hesitantly moved thru the door and froze in his tracks. He knew without being told that the large plywood structure in the center of the floor was the box he had been confined in for four days. His knees locked and he refused to move. When he could pry his eyes away from the box, he looked around the room at his friends. Josiah and Nathan were giving him supportive looks, Chris was glaring at the floor between his shoes, Vin and JD were looking at him with scared expressions and Ezra was staring at the box, his hands clenched tightly on the arms of the chair he was sitting in.

“Buck? Can you tell me what you’re feeling right now?” Emily asked from where she stood about a yard away from the ladies man.

“I’m, I think, I need to sit down,” Buck whispered. He made it to the chair and gratefully sank into it, breathing like a racehorse.

“Is this the first time you’ve seen the box?”


“Can you tell me what you remember about the box? From the beginning? Take your time.”

After several false starts, Buck finally got his brain to connect with his voice.

“I opened my eyes to darkness. I tried to sit up. I-I felt the space and found the water bottles and the flashlight. Then I found the note. I drank from one of the water bottles and that’s when the crazy dreams started. I turned out the light, I knew it wouldn’t last if I kept it on.”

Buck’s voice died out and he glanced back at the box. As his eyes swept the circle of his friends, he saw that they were all riveted on his every word. He swallowed hard several times before she handed him a bottle of water. JD gasped as he recognized the bottle, it was the same brand as Buck had been given in the box. He almost came out of the chair, until a look from Emily kept him in his seat. He opened the bottle and took several sips of water.

“I got sick and I threw up. It was … s-so cold. It, it took me a while to … work out that it was the, the … water making me feel sick.” He absently rubbed his knuckles. “I s-started h-h-hitting the box. I didn’t know … I didn’t know I was bleeding. I was sleeping a lot and the dreams … the dreams were s-safer. It was warm there.”

Drawing a shaky breath, he opened the water bottle and took several swallows. His hands shook and he wrung them together. He let his gaze drift across the box again. An overpowering urge coursed thru him, the urge to look in the box. He wanted to touch it, knowing that it couldn’t hurt him anymore. He came slowly to his feet and approached the box. About a yard from the box, he stopped as if encountering a wall. His chest tightened as he sucked in deep, ragged breaths.

“What else do you remember?” Emily asked.

“The dreams. I kept seeing people getting hurt in the dream. I got hurt, I was dying. I remember screaming for … someone to help me. I tried not to drink the water. I, I think I poured it out so I wouldn’t be tempted to keep drinking it. Hallucinations, … voices calling my name.”

“That’s when we found you. They put a microphone and a speaker down the air tube and we called you,” Ezra supplied quietly.

Buck’s eyes locked on the southerner.

“I thought I was going around the bend. I couldn’t tell where reality stopped and the dreams began. I was so cold and weak …”

Another staggering step brought him closer to the box. He reached out and tried to push the lid off but it didn’t budge. Vin and Josiah moved up and carefully lifted the entire lid off and eased it onto the floor. Emily had arranged to reassemble as much of the original evidence as possible inside of the box. Buck’s hands shook as he reached out to touch the bloody marks left by his fists on the side of the box. His knees folded and he collapsed beside the box. JD flew off of the chair and grabbed the trembling arm.

“Buck? Talk to me! Are you okay?”

“I’m so sorry, I never wanted to hurt you, JD,” Buck whimpered as he leaned heavily against the side of the box. “I can’t protect you, JD, I can’t protect anybody!”

“That’s okay, we all watch out for each other,” his young roommate assured him.

It took them a while to get Buck settled and into a chair. JD moved his chair so he could drape his arm across Buck’s shoulders while they waited for Emily to finish whatever else she had in mind for them. The doctor waited silently for several minutes before she spoke again.

“This experience has wakened old ghosts in other members of your team, Buck. Would it be all right with each of you if I shared some of the things you told me?” She waited until she got a nod from each man before she opened her notebook. She started with Chris.

“Chris told me that he was afraid of losing you. Watching you drink and punish yourself gave him a much clearer view of what you went thru when he lost his wife and son.”

Resting her eyes on Josiah, she continued.

“Your experience reminded Josiah of the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam. Images that he thought he had safely locked away came back to haunt him.”

Barely glancing up at Nathan, she went on.

“Your emotional devastation reminded Nathan of the things he saw in the Gulf war. He witnessed the survivors of torture and young men devastated by all the death and destruction.”

She regarded two of the younger men.

“Nightmares plagued the three younger members of your team. Ezra was reminded of an accidental confinement he endured as a child. Vin was reminded of a time when he was injured and confined when he thought he might die before being found.”

Emily turned pointedly on her chair and studied JD as he sat beside Buck.

“And I think you know some of what troubled JD. You frightened him terribly with your violent, although perfectly understandable, reaction to him startling you out of a sound sleep. But what you don’t know is how deeply he was affected by seeing you in there. It was a reminder of what he had lost and what he could still lose, you.”

Buck drew a deep breath and sighed. His eyes wondered from face to face, seeing shining support in each pair of glistening eyes. For the longest time, he stared at Chris. All of the pain and anguish he had been feeling slowly dissolved until he felt his heart beating evenly in his chest.

“You have all been forcibly been reminded of just how fragile is human life, and how often you face death. I’ve read over your charts and medical histories and it amazes me that you have not had a crisis like this before now. Each of you has been near death a handful of times and for some reason, this was the one that affected you the most. It was the catalyst for the pain and memories that you have locked away to protect yourselves. Buck still has a way to go but he has taken the first step. You have all taken the first step. There are still others for Buck and I’m sure that with all of you supporting him that he will make a full recovery.”

One by one, the others approached the box and stared into it. Now that Buck was safe, it wasn’t so terrifying. Emily made a note of a most appropriate form of therapy for them and set in her mind for the next Saturday to meet with all of them again. She allowed them another hour together and they ordered in supper. When visiting hours were over, the men reluctantly left the hospital. They were all feeling better than they had in days. Over supper, Vin had filled Buck in on the circumstances of the undercover mission. Chris had then informed the ladies man of the brave, lifesaving actions of his young roommate. JD blushed furiously and insisted that he had only been trying to save Vin, he didn’t think he had done anything particularly heroic.

Dr. Franklin kept Buck in the hospital for another week to make certain that he was dealing with his emotions. The nightmares had stopped and he was eating well. When the coveted day arrived for him to be discharged, the whole team showed up to receive him. They were all a little puzzled by the doctor’s request that they all meet her on the construction site near the hospital, but they were only too happy to comply.

When they arrived, there were several fire trucks and police cars keeping a broad perimeter on the site. A crowd of curious onlookers had gathered to see what all the excitement was about. Team 7 piled out of the suburban and followed Emily to the area nearest the fire trucks. There, in all its gruesome glory, was the box. Seven axe handles rested against the side of it. Emily nodded as they approached and, one by one, took up a weapon.

They spread out around the box. Each man nodded to the others as they indicated that Buck should take the first swing. Heaving the axe over his head, Buck buried the head of the axe in the lid of the box. Six answering blows further shattered the plywood cage. In twos and threes, they rained destruction on the box until it was reduced to kindling. Emily walked forward and handed Buck a bottle of charcoal lighter. He sprayed the liquid on the splintered wood until the bottle was empty. Waiting until the firemen were ready with the hoses, he struck a wooden match and cupped his hand around it until it was well ablaze before dropping it into the rubble.

A loud ‘whoosh’ sounded as the fluid caught fire and they all stepped back. The fire was allowed to burn until the wood was rendered unrecognizable before the hoses were turned on it. As the first hiss of water meeting fire began, Buck turned and started away from the site. The rest of the team fell in behind him, each man reaching out to touch the ladies man along the way. They climbed into the vehicle and made their way to the ranch.


It was another month before Emily cleared Buck to return to full duty. She had been meeting with him on a declining schedule to slowly wean him off of their sessions. The others continued to meet with her occasionally, just to chat, usually. When she turned her final report in to Judge Travis, she highly praised them for having survived something that would have destroyed a team of lesser men. They had not only survived, they were stronger for having endured.