by BMP

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Kelly, stared down the hallway after them, shuffling his feet, wishing for all the world he had his jacket. Then Richter’s words penetrated his mind. He glanced thoughtfully at Richter. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll just use that phone.” He picked up a pockmarked phone from the floor, reassembled it and used it to call down to the waiting police crews.

Richter turned away in disgust. He didn’t mind directing the extra guns down toward Goldman and Martinez, but he didn’t need anyone’s help up here. Nor did he like the sense he got that Kelly had been left to guard him not the militia. He said nothing.

“Why don’t you go around the back corridor,” he said to Kelly. “It’s clear.”

Kelly made no move.

“Alright,” Richter said disgustedly. “You stay here with these two and I’ll go down the back corridor.”

Kelly only glared back.

“Fine,” Richter snapped and sauntered off, muttering his loathing under his breath. Even as he moved off he realized it was the better plan. He didn’t need Kelly or anyone else stumbling across the injured agent somewhere in the back of the floor. Wherever the man had gone off to, he could damn well wait until the shooting stopped. If they were all lucky, the man had found a quiet place to pass out and wouldn’t reappear until Richter’s bluff was played out. Should have sedated him as soon as the doctor left, Richter thought sourly. Now it would all have to wait until they finished nailing down the loose militia.

Kelly watched him go. Certain that Richter was up to something. He reported the move to Buck.

Neither had time to wonder what Richter might have up his sleeve as the gunfire suddenly escalated in the exit corridor. Flared into a fierce, short firefight. Then stopped abruptly.

Vin and Ezra’s voices sounded in his ear, snarling, tumbling over top of each other in a tangle of words.

“Put ‘em down. On your knees. Git down. Drop your weapon.”

There was the brief sound of a scuffle.

“You alright, Ez,” the Texan rasped after a moment.

“Splendid, Mr. Tanner,” came the acid reply, only slightly out of breath. “I’ll send the dry cleaning bill to the militia.”

Kelly couldn’t see, but he could almost picture the sniper’s toothy return grin.

At the end of the corridor, the fire door banged against the inside wall. Tanner stood silhouetted in the red light.

“Clear,” he snapped.

“Stairs clear,” Ezra reported.

Coming in from the connecting corridor, Josiah and Nathan reported. “Corridor’s clear.”

Buck and J.D. moved forward, guns up, catching Nathan and Josiah at the connecting corridor. They swept forward, together. “Clear,” they reported.

Martinez stepped in from an exam room on their right. Kelly heard him mutter his own name and Team number. No reply was made.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Tanner’s whisper floated onto the line. A red and black silhouette at the end of the hall, he had his shoulder pressed into the door closest to the fire exit. He threw himself against it hard as his whispered words gave wings to his teammate’s heels. Kelly held his breath.

As Buck drew closer he could see that the door and the rest of the corridor for 25 feet all around was riddled with holes, pockmarked, spattered, scorched by gunfire. The door itself was Swiss cheese. It cracked under Vin’s shoulder, but it held closed. Wouldn’t budge. Blocked tight. Buck halted.

From the fire stair, Ezra threw Buck the militia machine gun. He had the two men face down in the corridor, half in and half out of the fire door. Their opposite hands were yanked across their backs and cuffed together, with Ezra’s single pair of cuffs. He was rifling their clothes for more weapons.

Josiah saw him wince as Tanner threw his shoulder against the door one more time.

This time a pain-filled voice swore from inside the exam room door.

“Hold your damn horses,” it said. “I gotta move the nightstand.”

There was a sliding noise; then the door gave, Vin practically falling into the room. In the doorway stood a stocky, broad-shouldered agent, holding one arm limply at his side. He blinked at them. The red exit light shone blackly on the blood that dripped off the ends of his fingers.

The six unfamiliar agents who appeared on the other side of the door took absolutely no notice of Goldman’s pain. Four of them brushed him aside as they shouldered into the room.

There was one single collective gasp as they beheld the bed. Covered in shattered glass and plastic. Soundly holed. Riddled as badly as the door.

Goldman followed their gaze blandly. Immediately after the shooting had started he had realized the virtue of his decision to leave the bed. Unfortunately the door had provided no cover at all, the bullets barely slowing down as they passed through its cheap, hollow interior and slammed into the bed behind. It took Goldman two full minutes of the fire fight to scramble out from behind the door, now bleeding from a hole in his arm. The other side of the doorway was safer but now he had a hard time getting a good shot off at the militia in the fire escape.

Nico had noticed and made a nasty comment about pulling one’s own weight.

Goldman had remarked that while he was having trouble sighting the fire stairs he did have a clear shot on Nico’s door and could prove it if Nico liked.

Goldman suddenly realized why these men were all staring at the bed. By that time, he discovered that the men had already realized there was no blood on the sheets and no body in the bed. Now they were staring at him intently. Goldman forced his brain to catch up.

“The bed’s empty,” he said, his tongue feeling thick and realizing that he was still a few minutes behind.

Suddenly, two hands were wrapped in his collar and he was pushed back and down onto the floor. Two blazing blue eyes bore down on him. “Where is he?” the man demanded fiercely, applying a knee to Goldman’s chest and twisting his collar tighter.

Goldman would have liked to answer. The man was talking about the prisoner obviously. No, not a prisoner, Goldman thought. Larabee. Denver ATF. He would have liked to give the man him the information he so clearly wanted. But he didn’t know where the man had staggered off to. And he could no longer draw breath to reply.

Black spots danced alarmingly, beguilingly in the air in front of him. He tried to look around them for a familiar face. He spotted Martinez. Pressed up against a wall, with an elbow in his throat. Goldman’s eyes traveled up the elbow to the face of the largest man he had ever seen.

Now the sound had gone bad, as well as the picture, and a rushing noise filled up Goldman’s ears. He felt his eyelids settle down.

Just as suddenly, the pressure was gone. The sound came back on, and as it cleared he heard someone with a soft southern accent telling someone named Tanner that killing another agent was likely to “irrevocably blemish” his record, thus “irretrievably damaging” his future “potential for advancement.”

The dancing blobs cleared, and Goldman was treated to the sight of Richter and that other guy from Denver nose to nose in the corridor, fighting apparently, although they couldn’t have been shouting because Goldman couldn’t follow the words. He tried to rub his throat, but he couldn’t move his left arm. Rolling his head sideways, he saw why. Martinez was holding it under his right knee.

“Hold still, dammit,” Nico spat.

Martinez looked up at a tall black agent that Goldman didn’t remember seeing. “They said you’re a medic,” he snapped. “Could use a bandage here.”

The unfamiliar agent’s eyes narrowed coldly. “Use your shirt,” he said. “My bandages are reserved.”

The other agents looked at the man with surprise, but did not dispute. Their faces closed ranks into like expressions. It dawned on Goldman that they must have all arrived together. Who are you? Goldman thought fuzzily. But the words didn’t leave his lips.

Then he let out a yelp as a sharp stabbing pain shot up and down the whole length of his arm. He swore at Martinez, who had just tied a knot mercilessly into his bleeding arm.

“Quit yer bitching,” Nico growled.

“Fuck you,” Goldman shot back, which only made Nico grin.

Richter and Kelly had finished arguing apparently, but Goldman couldn’t figure out who won. It was Kelly who stalked off, taking the unfamiliar agents with him as if they were tied onto him with a string. But it was Richter who looked seriously steamed. Richter watched them go, then looked down at the two agents on the floor. He regarded Goldman silently with pursed lips. Then suddenly squinted up both ends of the corridor.

“Where the hell is Pirelli?” he asked suddenly.

Two police officers appeared in the doorway. “Ambulance is waiting,” said one jerking his thumb backward up the corridor.

“I’m fine,” Goldman snapped irritably. Or tried. He was vaguely aware that it had not come out clearly.

Richter glared at the patrolman. Then at his agents.

He pointed down at Goldman. “Take him to the ambulance,” Richter snapped. He didn’t wait for them to move but turned to Martinez. “Get up,” he ordered. “Find Pirelli.”

Nico rolled his eyes conspiratorially at Goldman, then rapped him once, hard, right on the knot over his bullet wound, before sliding past Richter out the door.

Richter ignored the hiss and snarl of his agent on the floor and stalked back up the hallway.

On his feet now, Goldman shrugged off the helping hands of the local police. More police officers materialized around him. Two EMTs in blue jumpsuits shuffled out of the connecting corridor, two body bags swaying gently between them.

For the first time, Goldman began to wonder whether he hadn’t lost a few minutes back there at the exam room. Outside, under street lamps that seemed way too bright, he counted four militia men, in black, kneeling, face down, or sitting, surrounded by seething police men.

Now he was certain he had lost some time. He was pressed down onto the bumper of a nearby ambulance. He gave up trying to figure it out, and gave himself over to the surprisingly gentle ministrations of the EMT who began to treat his arm.

The seven of them had long since fanned out through the clinic. Dismantling closed doors. Police moved out of their way.

There was no information about Larabee’s current condition, and it began to dawn on Buck that Chris might well have left the building, or perhaps tried to and was now lying bleeding in some other stairwell. He pushed down the choking lump that was climbing up his throat and forced himself to think straight.

Kelly retreated up the back corridor, noting almost absently that the two corpses had been hauled away. He stopped short. Pirelli’s two targets. Wasn’t Pirelli supposed to have joined them? He should have entered the firefight before Nathan and Josiah, before Kelly. Should have preceded all of them up the corridor. He had not arrived. A cold hard lump accompanied the implications that presented themselves to his mind. He redoubled his efforts.

The rest of Team Seven began to spread. To the stairwells and upper floors. To the roof. To the basement. They were calling Chris’s name. Buck radioed a description to the cops outside.

Richter was directing the cleanup in the front reception area. Curiously silent on the subject of his own missing agent. Cool. Collected. His face closed down. Revealed nothing. Kelly’s jaw muscles began to burn where he had his teeth clamped together. He turned toward an area he had not explored yet and found himself before the pharmacy door.

It was more of a storage closet really. The lock had been sprung—by one bullet that had smashed its mechanism and continued on into the storage room interior.

Kelly took a breath. He thought to call Buck, but the words stuck. He pushed down the images in his head and steadied himself, gun before him. He stepped sideways and reached across the door to push it slowly open. Nothing happened. He poked his head cautiously around the corner.

There were two men in the room. One was relieved to see him. The other was long past caring.

At Kelly’s slow entrance, Jimmy Pirelli’s eyes got even wider, a silent plea written large across his face. He was bent backwards, against the broken glass of a formerly locked pharmacy cabinet. As Kelly looked closer he saw that Pirelli’s right arm had been driven straight through the glass door front and then out again through the glass in the left side. Chris’s back blocked Kelly’s view of the rest of Pirelli, but he could see that Larabee was leaning, bracing himself against a nearby shelf.

Pirelli’s arm stuck out awkwardly, hung up in the jagged glass. Blood dripped on the floor from Pirelli’s arm. More blood dripped down the red matted sleeve of Chris’s white doctor coat. Judging from the amount pooling slowly on the floor, the two men had held this position for several minutes.

The blood did not hold their attention. All three men in the small space now focused their full concentration on the gun that was shoved quite determinedly up and under Pirelli’s jaw, jammed into the hollow between his neck and chin.

Kelly licked his suddenly dry lips.

“Chris?” he croaked hesitantly.

There was no response except for a slight repositioning of the pistol grip in Larabee’s blood-slicked right hand.

Pirelli was white faced with fear and blood loss. Unable to move without driving more glass into his lacerated right arm. Larabee shifted his weight slightly and Pirelli cried out sharply. Kelly could see now that Pirelli’s left arm was trapped against a metal shelf, under Larabee’s right hip. The angles of his fingers suggested they were broken. Kelly could see that Pirelli’s body was angled so far backward that he needed both legs to keep from sliding down onto the jagged shards under his armpit.

“Chris?” Kelly said again, a bit louder.

Larabee turned his head slowly. Toward him. To Kelly’s immense relief. But his relief was short lived. The eyes were unfocused. Unfocused and furious. Successive tremors ran through Chris’s whole body, except for the gun. Arm braced against the same shelving unit that trapped Pirelli’s left arm, Larabee leveraged the pistol against Pirelli’s chin to keep the hand steady. It was clear to Kelly that any involuntary twitch in a finger would blow Pirelli’s head clean off.

“Let him go,” Kelly ordered. His voice firm. But soft. Careful not to startle either one of the two men. Larabee continued his burning glare. Even unfocused, it sent a chill up Kelly’s spine. He ignored it, not even sure who or what Chris believed he was seeing.

For a moment, just a moment, Kelly saw the green eyes clear. Focus. Pin him.

“He killed them,” Larabee whispered.

Kelly had no time to reply.

The gun hand relaxed suddenly, unaccountably, until without further warning Chris pitched forward on to his face, sliding down across Pirelli’s body and pulling his arm further into the glass. Pirelli screamed as the jagged edges drove their points up into the flesh of his underarm. Kelly winced as he heard Larabee’s head thud onto the worn linoleum.

Without hesitation, Kelly called into his headset. He’d found him. Ludicrously, he radioed Nathan that Chris was hurt.

Ignoring Pirelli’s hollering, Kelly slid his arms under Larabee and flipped him over easily. Surprisingly easily. There was blood on his white coat. Blood on his hands. Deep gashes in the knuckles and in his left forearm beneath the ripped sleeve of the coat. And in the soles of the bare feet. Beneath the open coat, the greenish healing bruises stood out against livid new ones, still red and starting to purple up. Clearly Pirelli had put up a good fight. But in the end, it was Pirelli’s gun that was tucked into the elastic waistband of Larabee’s pale green scrubs.

Kelly looked up at the agent who was trying to pull himself up, to free his impaled arm using the broken fingers of his other hand. He looked back down at Chris and wondered how the hell he had won this fight.

“He’s crazy,” Pirelli spat as if in answer, casting a venomous glare down at Larabee, who was now tucked tight against Kelly’s chest. Kelly glared back up at him. And Pirelli remembered what he had forgotten when Kelly had magically appeared in the doorway and asked Larabee to let him go. He was alone. By himself. His allies had fled.

Pirelli yanked his arm free as his feet slipped in the blood on the floor. He suddenly felt dizzy. The room began to close to a dim tunnel. He sat down heavily, forcing himself to strip off his shirt. He wadded it under his arm to stop the blood.

Kelly was lightly tapping Larabee’s cheek, speaking his name. He was rewarded with twin slits of green.

“Stay with me,” Kelly said, holding two fingers to the side of Chris’s neck and wishing Nathan would hurry.

The eyes caught his face and fluttered wider. Chris gasped suddenly and tried to pull away from Kelly, with more strength than Kelly would have believed possible.

“They’re dead,” he gasped, folding his knees up to his chest. He looked at Kelly desperately. “They’re dead.”

“Yes,” Kelly agreed, not knowing what else to say.

He knew instantly he had made a mistake. Chris jerked suddenly away from him, Kelly’s hands sliding off the sweat-slick skin. Larabee’s hand fumbled for the gun that had been in his waistband. It was no longer there. He looked wildly, ferociously at Kelly and scrabbled to his knees.

Kelly lunged for him, grappling, trying not to hurt him any more.

“Help me out here,” he grated at Pirelli, who sat to one side, pale and clenching his right arm tight to his side.

“Fuck both of you,” Pirelli snapped in disbelief.

Chris slipped Kelly’s grasp and lurched to his feet. Inexplicably, a gun appeared in his shaking hand.

“Shit!” Pirelli gasped and scrabbled the spare two feet across to the door.

Kelly leaped to his feet and threw himself between Pirelli and Larabee. The hand, arm, and gun shook wildly and Kelly feared Chris would spasm on the trigger. The papers would report that ATF Agent Ryan Kelly was shot dead with his own gun.

“Chris,” he said desperately. “Give me the gun.”

As he said it, he met the green gaze. Fury animated Chris’s body. But his face was contorted into a raw grimace. His eyes were blazing.

Kelly was staggered. What was it about the two dead militiamen in the back corridor that had Chris upset like this?

“What are you doin’, Pard?” the voice asked gently. Calmly. Almost casually. Wilmington. Kelly nearly sagged with relief.

He saw Larabee’s eyes widen. The last of the blood drained from his face. He tried to speak. The green eyes filled with tears.

Buck saw it coming before Kelly did.

“Catch him,” Buck snapped springing forward even as Chris’s knees buckled. Kelly reacted swiftly, but Buck still got there first, folding the blond agent down to the floor.

Nathan shouldered his way into the room.

“Get him,” Jackson snapped with a glance down at Pirelli.

Josiah’s giant arms reached into the space and dragged Pirelli out into the hall. Kelly retrieved his gun and followed, breathing hard, suddenly needing the air.

Chris was still trying to speak. He struggled to pull away from Buck.

“Keep still, Chris,” Nathan said, straddling Chris’s legs and pinning him down.

“Told you to get out,” Chris choked out, coughing.

Buck and Nathan exchanged a bewildered glance.

“What are you talking about, Chris?” Buck asked, holding his struggling friend in both arms. Trying to keep him still. Close now he could see the yellow-green bruises on his face, the slowly fading lines where stitches had been absorbed or removed, the hollow cheeks under the days-old scruff. Could feel heat coming off him through the coat. Could smell the sweat and the fever. The battered body felt thin inside the circle of Buck’s arms. And Buck didn’t know where this fight could still be coming from.

At the sight of the fading bruises across the side of Chris’s face, Nathan tried to shine a light into Chris’s eyes.

“He’s hot, Nathan,” Buck muttered. He felt cold inside. “Lost a lot of weight.”

The look Jackson threw Wilmington carried with it the rage the medic was fighting to put aside. No shit, Jackson thought angrily. Like I hadn’t noticed.

Nathan cut the coat off, peeling the matted material from Chris’s arm. It stuck to the cuts. He had no time to be gentle, he tore it from the drying wounds and eyed the purple, green, and red bruising that covered Chris’s side. “Lift him up,” Nathan said. He felt his jaw clench together as he saw the matching bruising all down Chris’s back, some still clearly boot-heel shaped. His assailant had shown no pity, even around the bullet hole, which Nathan could see had begun to fester, confirming the medical reports he had read. He pressed his hand against the discolored spots above Chris’ ribs, clearly visible. Chris’s knees bucked, but his attempts to throw Nathan off were steadily weakening. “Feels like his ribs are still busted,” Nathan said, forcing his clinical mind to override his anger. “Ease up if you can.”

Buck slid his arms obediently upward to Chris’s chest, murmuring all the while in Chris’s ear.

One by one, faces crowded at the doorway. Buck knew who they were without looking. The gasp was J.D.’s. It was followed by a murmured curse. Then silence. Ezra planted himself in the doorway, on guard. He heard Vin in the corridor outside softly, threateningly ordering Josiah to let him by. He heard Josiah’s equally soft voice telling Vin there wasn’t room for all of them. To let Nathan work. Buck kept his concentration on Chris, kept talking to him, trying to hold him still. Avoiding his ribs. Trying not to hurt him.

“Stop struggling,” Nathan ordered the injured agent fiercely.

It penetrated the fog.

Chris stopped struggling. His eyes were glassy now. He was shivering and his breathing was hard, harsh.

In the rasp, Buck almost missed the whispered words. Quiet. Half growl and half a sound that Buck hadn’t heard since that sunny morning nearly four years ago. Buck had been struggling for dear life to keep Chris pinned down the first time he heard that sound, too. It had taken him days to shake that strangled sob from his memory.

Rocketed back in time, it took Buck a full second to process the words Chris had just spoken. “He told me you were dead.”

The eyelashes fluttered. The green eyes unfocused.

Buck stared, trying to understand.

“Went back for me,” Chris whispered through cracked lips.

Then the eyelids closed completely. The body in Buck’s arms went slack.

Nathan didn’t hear the words, but he felt Chris go limp, and he saw Buck jerk as if someone had stuck him with a hot poker. In one move, Wilmington slid his long limbs out from behind Chris and rose to his feet, swearing violently. Before Nathan could even react, Buck grabbed Chris under the arms and hauled the unconscious form backward, over the shattered glass littering the floor, shoving him up against the dented steel door of the cabinet below the splintered panes.

“What the hell are you doing?” Nathan snapped, as Buck dragged Chris out from under him and over the glittering shards.

They crunched under Buck’s knees. He was oblivious to the glass, but not to Nathan. He shoved the medic aside, climbed across the still form and grabbed the slack jaw hard. He gave it a firm shake. There was no response.

Furious now. Nathan protested.

“Shut up,” Buck snapped over his shoulder.

Nathan shut up. He could count on one hand the number of times he had heard that tone from Buck. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. And he didn’t know who he was afraid for.

“Chris,” Buck said fiercely, over the hammer of his heart. He gave the jaw a harder shake. “Open your eyes, god damn you, and look at me.”

When there was still no response, Buck banged the blonde head, frustratedly, against the metal cabinet door.

J.D. leaped forward. Ezra shoved him back into the hall, and turned his head away. Nathan stared, momentarily paralyzed by disbelief.

At the sharp thunk, the green eyes fluttered. Snapped suddenly open. The blond gasped and stared straight into Buck’s blue eyes.

“You with me?” Buck asked. His throat was tight. His temper was rising with his desperation, and he fought to keep both down. He watched Chris struggle to focus.

C’mon, Chris. Fight.

“Buck?” Chris mumbled. The eyes narrowed, struggled to understand.

“Right here, Pard,” Buck answered. His hand slid up away from Chris’s jaw to grip the back of the blond head. His heart thudded hard against his breastbone. “I’m right here.”

“We’re all here,” Buck added more forcefully. “All of us.” His hand tightened in the sweaty blond hair, as if to confirm his words.

The green eyes cleared for a moment, then unfocused again. Rolled backward.

Buck gave the head another shake, his fingers clenched in the damp hair.

“You hear me?” he demanded, his voice rising, more strident. His vision blurred, and he blinked the moisture off impatiently. “Chris?”

The blond head lolled almost drunkenly.

Cursing violently, Buck grabbed Chris under the shoulders and hoisted him up a little straighter. The blond gasped sharply as torn muscles pulled across broken ribs. Buck felt Nathan’s hand grab his arm, but he threw it off.

The green eyes focused. Widened in surprise. “Buck?” he rasped. Confused. The words were broken by the harsh breathing. Fading so Buck could hardly hear them. “Fire… Dead… Told me… Went back...”

“God damn it!” Buck snarled. A wave of white-hot fury rolled over him, burning everything but the icy pit in his stomach.

His hands shook. He fought to control them as he grabbed both sides of the battered face, forcing Chris’s eyes to turn toward him.

“Who told you we were dead?” Buck growled.

The green eyes looked back at him. Confused.

Buck swore again, the cold in the pit of his stomach climbing up his spine. Nathan was practically crawling up his back. Adamant, saying something.

“Who said we were dead?” Buck demanded, louder now, shoving Nathan back with his elbow.

Pressure applied suddenly to a badly punctured arm elicited a howl from the hallway outside. Chris stiffened. Straightened. Green eyes glared at Buck with sudden clarity.

“Richter said you were dead,” Chris breathed. Anger suddenly animated the bloodless face.

Half alert now, partly focused, Chris tried stubbornly to push away from the cabinet.

Buck held him back. “It’s all right,” Buck breathed, the air shuddering as he fought to control it. He pushed the sweat-soaked blond hair roughly back from Chris’s forehead. His hand lingering there, unwilling to break the contact.

“We’re all right,” he repeated, his voice sounding strangely thick.

His mind whirled.


His fury threatened suddenly to choke him. He focused back on his injured friend beneath him. He knew what needed to be done now. But Chris didn’t need to hear it.

Buck licked his lips and glanced back toward the furious medic behind him. Then he locked eyes with Larabee. “You let Nathan take care of you,” he ordered. He waited for the feverish eyes to focus again. “You hear me?”

He didn’t add that he was leaving, but Chris was still Chris, no matter what shape he was in. And he seemed to sense what Buck had in mind. A blood streaked hand twisted into his sleeve. Buck gently untwisted it. “Do what Nathan says,” he said firmly. “I’ll be back.” Then he climbed to his feet.

Nathan slid into the spot Buck had just left, the elbow he had received to his chin forgotten as what Richter had done began to sink in. He let it sink no further. Buck could have his revenge. Nathan had to get the bleeding stopped and then get a blanket over his shivering teammate. As he staunched the blood oozing from Chris’s arm, Nathan listened with one ear for an ambulance crew. What the hell was taking them so long?

Buck turned his face to the door. He did not look back. The doorway was filled. He felt like they were sucking the air from the storeroom. He shouldered his way through them, not looking at or seeing any of them until his eyes lit on Vin.

He grabbed the sharpshooter’s arm. “Get in there and stay with him. Don’t leave his side,” Buck ordered. His voice was controlled. His face was controlled. Every muscle in his body was carefully controlled. “Tell him we’re all right. All of us. Keep telling him until he gets it through that rock hard head.”

Vin eyed Wilmington. The fingers dug into his arm, but he didn’t jerk away. He nodded. “What are you going to do?” Tanner asked, suspicion evident in his tone.

“Find Richter,” Buck snarled softly. He did not elaborate. What happened next was best left between Richter and him.

Vin didn’t press, but he knew that whatever Buck had planned, Richter was going to pay and pay dearly.

Buck hesitated a moment under the sniper’s sharp gaze. He attempted to turn away, but the words still echoing around in his head were too big to hold onto. They threatened to spill out. He felt like his insides weren’t big enough to hold them and the anger, too, and Buck wanted to keep the anger. He had plans for the anger. So he released the words.

“He told Chris we were dead,” Buck said softly, venomously. “Told him we got killed going back for him.”

Vin ripped his arm suddenly from Buck’s grasp. He whirled toward the end of the corridor, but Buck grabbed him and spun him back toward the storage room.

“Stay with Chris,” he grated. “Make sure he understands we’re alive.”

Buck didn’t wait for acknowledgement. He wasted no more words but strode away toward the reception room.

Vin literally saw red. He had to wait for it to clear. Wait to grip some sort of calm. Calm the pulse in his temple that called for Richter’s blood. Push it out of his system before he went into that storage room. His teammates yielded to let him through. He got his breathing under control, then slid over the broken glass to take his place at Chris’s back.

Nathan spared him a glance, and Vin could see the tension in the medic’s face. “He’s out again,” Jackson grated. “You see an ambulance crew out there?”

Vin shook his head, suddenly finding it hard to breathe, let alone speak. He propped Chris up against his shoulder, one hand against the clammy forehead. “I got you, Cowboy,” he said, forcing the words past the jagged lump that had risen in his throat. “We’re all here. We’ve got your back.” He hoped somehow, somewhere in the black void of unconsciousness, Chris would hear.

At last they heard the unfamiliar voices outside. Josiah had to literally move Ezra and J.D. aside to let the ambulance crew come in. The little room got suddenly hot and crowded. Vin was ordered from the room. He lingered uncertainly at the wall, until his friend was rolled safely onto a stretcher. Then he ducked gratefully outside. Behind him Nathan rattled off a list of stats and medical information as the EMTs prepared to take Chris away.

“Where’s Buck?” J.D. asked, looking suddenly around.

Ryan Kelly followed Dunne’s gaze. He had gone up the hall to fetch an EMT and inform Richter what had happened to Pirelli.

Buck was nowhere to be seen. Kelly swore. He saw Tanner slink sideways into the hall.

“Where is Wilmington?” Kelly asked more forcefully.

Josiah looked at him blandly, but his eyes sparked. “Head start,” the profiler said.

“To what?” Kelly asked, his voice growing hard. A bad feeling was rising belatedly in the pit of his stomach.

“To get a crack at Richter before the rest of us,” he replied and smiled unpleasantly. Kelly was reminded of the stories he had heard, about what the former preacher’s teammates backhandedly referred to as “getting Old Testament.”

He stifled another curse.

“Look,” he said as calmly as he could manage. “We’ve got Chris. I’ll make an official complaint. Let the brass deal with Richter.”

Josiah’s smile never wavered, only his eyes grew harder. “You’re talking about the kidnapping,” he stated. His voice deceptively pleasant. He watched the puzzlement blossom on Kelly’s face.

“You’re not,” Kelly said matter-of-factly, realization dawning. More swear words echoed in his head and he wondered absently when he had started swearing so much.

Josiah shook his head. “We would’ve let it go with just a threat for kidnapping. Shit move, sure. But Chris wouldn’t let it go further than threats for that. Not on his account.”

He spoke conversationally. With infuriating calm.

Kelly felt like fire ants were crawling through his insides. What the hell had Richter done?

“Nope,” Josiah continued as if Kelly had spoken. The smile gradually being replaced by something far more chilling.

Kelly swore to himself and willed Sanchez to just spill it already.

“But for telling Chris we were dead. And that we got killed going back for him.” He shook his salt and pepper head. “For that Richter pays in blood.”

Swear words ran rampant through Kelly’s head. And he knew down to the cold hollow in his stomach that the swearing had become a habit since Chris Larabee got killed and he ended up chasing around after him with Team Seven. That was when the swearing started. And he knew it would not stop until they all got back to Denver and back to normal.

And that would not happen until and unless he now went and prevented Buck Wilmington from beating Senior Agent Matthew Richter to death—or perhaps just shooting him outright.

He turned a baleful, serious eye back to Sanchez.

“That way,” Josiah said, pointing down the corridor in the direction Buck had gone.

Ezra Standish unfolded himself from the doorway as the stretcher emerged. “We’ll be along directly,” he said in the drawl that was now devoid of any of the warmth and charm usually associated with the climes of the man’s native region.

Kelly fixed both of them with a hard gaze.

They stared impassively back at him. Except Nathan and Vin, who followed the stretcher from the storeroom, headed in the other direction.

“One for me, Ez,” Vin said, his voice low, as he turned away.

“Sorry, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra drawled, real malevolence in his tone. “My vengeance card is filled today. Mr. Larabee has claimed every dance.”

“Give ‘im hell,” Nathan grunted as he passed. He and Tanner turned and hurried after the two EMTs.

J.D. Dunne cracked his knuckles.

Shit shit shit shit shit! Kelly thought. For a second he thought to simply turn and follow Vin and Nathan. Walk away. But he couldn’t. Couldn’t walk away while three other federal agents watched with tacit or even outright approval as Richter got the hell beat out of him, perhaps even killed.

He was reminded suddenly of Pirelli.

He stood in front of them. All of them.

“If you do this,” he said, “you’re no better than Richter or Pirelli.”

“We’ll soon find out,” Josiah answered evenly, leading the way up the hall.

Kelly had no choice now but to follow.

When he saw the mustached agent coming, Richter had not been concerned. Pirelli and Goldman were on their way to the hospital. Hurt but not seriously. The militia were secured and on their way to processing and interrogation. He was on his way up, up, up. He had allowed himself to savor the moment, the back pats, and congratulations from the local authorities. Feeling magnanimous, he had included Martinez, letting him bask in the glory, too. After all, the man had redeemed himself after the stairwell. Goldman had held the room despite the number of bullets flying into it. Even Pirelli had done his job well—except for the dustup with the Denver agent. Richter meant to ask Pirelli later just how a man in Denver’s condition had managed to beat him in a fight. Overall, things had gone splendidly.

Perhaps it was this golden aura that blinded him when a frowning, puzzled-looking Buck Wilmington asked him to come back inside to clarify some evidence in the fire stairs. He graciously agreed, generously remembering to thank the man for his team’s timely help. Remembered to inquire how his team leader was doing.

“You must be relieved to see him again,” Richter said smoothly, kindly.

Wilmington gave him a grateful smile. Had Richter not been so busy wondering what sort of people actually name a child Buck, he would have noticed that Wilmington’s smile never reached the hard blue eyes. But he didn’t notice.

They trudged up the stairs nearly to the roof, until Buck stopped.

“Here it is,” he said, bending his tall, lanky frame to examine the bottom of the fire door to the roof.

Richter squinted then bent closer to see what the man was looking at.

He found himself suddenly over the railing dangling in the thin air. He flailed for a foothold, a handhold, anything before he realized Wilmington held him suspended.

“You struggle, I’ll drop you,” the voice in his ear whispered. It wasn’t a threat. It was a fact. Richter willed himself to be still. Fury and fear competed for control.

“Of course,” the voice mused coldly. “I might drop you anyway.”

“I don’t think your team leader would approve,” Richter grunted. He was held under one shoulder and across his neck. The pressure on his chin made it hard to speak. It got suddenly harder to breathe.

“His name’s Chris,” the voice snarled back. “Christopher. Middle name, Michael. Confirmation name Thomas. Last name, Larabee. Chris fucking Larabee. Remember it.”

Richter began to turn red from anger and lack of air.

“Had him almost three weeks. Took the time to make him think he got us killed. But you never even bothered to learn his name.”

It was the most innocent of Richter’s many transgressions lately. He hadn’t thought it really mattered until he felt himself slip down two more inches, the grip around his neck none too subtly loosened.

He scanned the stairwell below him for a railing he could possibly try to grab before he crashed into the cement basement three stories below.

He strained to look up at his captor. “Let me up now and I won’t press charges,” Richter bluffed.

The man found that funny enough to laugh. “You won’t press charges,” he said with certainty. “You’ll take your punishment like a man, you piece of shit.”

Richter’s mind whirled, hoping the punishment didn’t involve him breaking his spine on the concrete below.

The big agent hauled him up suddenly, rolled him over the railing and propelled him head first into the fire door. The agent pushed the door open and flung Richter onto the roof. Richter staggered forward trying to gain his footing on the slippery, wet tar and gravel surface. At least it had stopped raining.

Team Seven’s de facto leader came onto the roof behind him, stripping off his flak jacket and a host of weapons.

Richter belatedly reached for his holster, but his hand came back empty. He searched his memory. He hadn’t heard it fall through the stairwell.

Then he saw it in Wilmington’s big hand. The man flung it across the roof.

Richter’s grin glinted oily white in the darkness of the rooftop. Wilmington meant to fight him. Well, Wilmington had no idea who he was dealing with. Matt Richter knew more martial art forms than AD Rivers knew loopholes in the regulations.

He did not wait for his adversary to be ready. He simply attacked.

He was stunned to feel the air rush from his lungs as Wilmington’s big foot planted itself in the center of his diaphragm. Wilmington pushed him away. “Better show me something else,” he spat. “Because I’m going to kill you.”

One look at the man’s eyes, his face, his whole stance confirmed the words. It was not an idle threat. He began the fight in earnest now, wondering how long it would be before Nico lazily got around to being curious about what had happened to his boss.

When the stairwell did open, it was not Martinez who emerged. It was Them. He had begun to think of them collectively. He hated Them. Kelly included. He staggered backward from a blow but not before he delivered an elbow solidly to the side of Wilmington’s head.

He stepped back a moment. Regrouped. Groped for a new strategy.

Richter had landed more than a dozen solid hits. He had heard ribs crack. One of the man’s eyes was swelling shut. Blood dribbled down his chin. Still the big man didn’t seem to know when to quit. Had hardly seemed to care or notice that he had been injured. He had reach on Richter and he was deceptively fast for his size. He used both factors to his advantage.

Richter was tired now and getting more so. He was having trouble catching his breath. Blood was dripping into his eye from a cut above his eyebrow.

Just give me a gun, he thought sourly, as the other agents appeared. He glared at them all. Someone give me a god damn gun and we’ll finish it right now.

Of course, no one picked up his telepathy, and his throat was too raw to speak.

“Mr. Wilmington,” tisked the southerner. “You have selfishly taken all the good shots for yourself.”

Wilmington laughed. “Come on in Ezra,” he said, gesturing at Richter.

Standish eyed Richter as if he were something on the bottom of his shoe. “Don’t think it would be sporting,” he said. “Can’t think I’d have the self-restraint to use only my hands.” He nodded at Buck and settled back against the edge of the doorframe “Please continue.”

Richter spat out a mouthful of blood. The last kick to his head had him seeing stars. Now the roof was slowly revolving as the fatigue started to take its toll.

“What’s wrong?” Wilmington mocked him softly. “Easy to win when your opponent’s already hurt, isn’t it?”

Richter swore. Damn Larabee. Damn him and all his friends. No one was worth this much trouble.

He dodged a punch directed to his head and feinted sideways intending to land an elbow to Wilmington’s newly cracked ribs, but his steps were slowing.

The taller agent, twisted away, taking only a glancing hit. He continued his turn and landed a knee solidly into Richter’s lower back. Richter staggered forward, carried by his own momentum and slipped on the loose, wet gravel. He slid onto his elbows.

The knee landed in his back, flattening him onto the roof. Then his arms were yanked up behind him until he felt his shoulder pop out. He didn’t give the man the satisfaction of hearing him scream. He felt his head forced down onto the tar and gravel surface. Panting, he found himself face down, the gravel digging into his mouth. He spat, pushed with lips and tongue made a gap to breathe in.

“Buck,” said a voice that Richter dimly remembered as Ryan Kelly, goody-two-shoes liaison from Denver ATF. “Perhaps now is the time to stop,” Kelly said.

Now you speak, Richter thought. His stomach lurched violently as his other shoulder popped out of joint. He fought not to vomit into the air hole he had just created.

“Buck!” another voice joined, alarmed now, higher, more strident, even as Richter felt the pressure on the back of his head increase, felt his face ground harder into the rooftop.

He had one last trick in him before he would give up. Play dead, he thought. He stopped flailing. I’m dead. I’m out. Ease off the pressure you stupid bastard, he thought furiously, as if he could force the words into Wilmington’s tiny little brain. He tried to make himself convincingly limp.

Oxygen, an IV line and fresh blood coursed into the battered body. Bruised lungs inflated. Memory returned.

Dead. All of them. Dead. Because of me. I killed them. They’re dead.

Familiar searing, white hot pain.

Dimly a distant voice interrupted. …All here.

All here?

He struggled to make sense of his confused thoughts.

He believed if he could just get his eyes open, he could figure it out.

He fought to get his eyelids unglued.

His head left the pillow with the effort.

“Easy, Cowboy,” came the startled response.

The whole room lurched. And he succeeded in popping his eyes open, just as water and bile rushed up his throat. He ripped the mask off his face, rolled into his restraints, and vomited over the side of the bed.

An EMT in blue loomed instantly over him. He tried unsuccessfully to move her aside, looking for that voice.

Why was the room moving?

Ambulance. The word came to him.

A face came into focus. Two blue eyes, as familiar as his own were staring down at him. Vin. He grinned in disbelief, feeling his lips crack. His eyes stung. He blinked it away impatiently and examined the blue eyes. Worry was written all through them.

He frowned. Worry? About what?

He ignored the EMT. He ignored his stomach. He ignored the swaying vehicle. He grabbed Tanner’s proffered hand like a lifeline as memory plowed into him hard, leaving him gasping.

The EMT pulled out another set of straps. Restraints.

Tanner said something Chris had never heard him say to a woman.

She dropped the strap without a word.

Vin pulled the oxygen mask back down over Chris’s face.

“Wait,” Chris coughed. He looked around the ambulance.

Tanner waited. Impatient. But he waited.

“Where’s Buck?” Chris asked, coming fully awake now.

Tanner shrugged, but a fraction of hesitation, the sideways flick of his eye gave him away. Told Chris as much as he needed to know.

“Give me your phone,” Larabee snapped, getting both hands free now.

Tanner’s eyebrows shot up.

The EMT protested.

“Give me the god damn phone,” Chris spat, beginning to cough.

Tanner fished it out of his pocket. He watched Chris fumble with the buttons. Brow furrowed in concentration, laboriously entering words into a text message. Tanner pulled the oxygen mask down over Chris’s nose and mouth. Larabee didn’t protest, his full attention on the phone. He hit send.

Then he lay back and closed his eyes, breathing hard. Concentrating gratefully on the quiet Texas drawl that washed over him and the hand that closed firmly around his own. Like an anchor, holding him here.

The phone vibrated in the dirt, twenty-five feet away, next to Buck’s flak jacket and his weapons. He heard the hum. Heard it rattle against the gravel. Twice. It stopped.

Buck’s head snapped up. Now he was going to have to go over there and get it.

He glanced at the phone, glanced at his three teammates, his friends, who stood tensely at the stairwell door. Ready to jump in and pull him back from committing what would surely be murder. He glanced at them and back down at Richter below him. If he had made a mistake, he knew these men would lie for him. But he would ask them not to. If he made a mistake.

But he hadn’t.

“Get up,” he snapped in Richter’s ear.

Richter didn’t stir.

Buck pressed him down hard into the gravel, grinding him once more with his knee as he pushed himself up to stand.

Richter grunted painfully and began to move.

Wilmington went to his phone, while Richter struggled to his hands and knees. He spat out the bloody gravel and pushed himself up.

Across the rooftop, Buck activated the light and read his text message.

Josiah, J.D., Ezra, and Ryan Kelly were startled to hear him laugh. Out loud. And real.

Buck hauled Richter up by his collar and pushed him across to J.D. and Ezra.

“Drive this trash to the hospital,” he spat.

Ezra grinned contemptuously at the bruised and bloody Richter. “Rest assured. We shall hit every pothole on the way.”

J.D. cuffed Richter’s hands behind him. “So you’ll behave,” the young agent said, a note of warning in his tone.

Kelly led Richter into the stairwell.

J.D. turned back to Buck.

He was certain Buck had meant to kill Richter. And certain they wouldn’t be able to stop him. He would lie at the trial, of course. And Buck would have his head. But he’d go to jail for perjury anyway, and gladly. The phone had saved both of them from the sentencing.

Then he realized that Buck had not planned to kill Richter. More like show Richter what it feels like to know death is coming. To know that he was powerless to stop it. J.D. shivered.

Then his eyes fell on the phone, still open in Buck’s hand. “What was the message?” he asked suddenly curious.

Buck flipped the phone around for his teammates to read.

In neat block letters the message read: DON’T MAKE ME COME BACK THERE. --C.L.

Ezra grinned and shook his head in disbelief. Josiah and J.D.’s relieved laughter rang out over the rooftop into the night.

In the stairwell, Richter waited with Kelly, whose narrowed eyes promised no intercession of mercy. He fervently wished that the whole damn lot of them, and Larabee especially, had, in fact, died when that warehouse blew up.