Lest I Should Forget

by Limlaith

Disclaimer: They don't belong to me ... and the universe belongs to Mog (many thanks to her). So I guess the only thing that belongs to me is the dialogue. And the gratuitous use of the comma.

Warnings: No real warnings. Look out for multiple points of view as the story develops. No sex, so smut, just lots of angst. I'll have to see if the comfort part of that equation happens in a sequel. Poor Ezra, I do love him so, but he suffers a lot in this narrative.

Feedback: I thrive on it.

Size: Approx. 200K

He never would remember that day. What happened before.

It was odd, really, thinking back on it.

The strangest things he could remember with the most incredible accuracy. Little details. Things most people would never notice. That was his stock in trade.

A successful sting is all in the details. He could remember the phone numbers of the last five places he'd lived. Atlanta, Reno, D.C., Montreal, St. Thomas. He could remember his mother buying him ice cream when he was five. It was orange sherbet, and he didn't like it. The girl selling it had red hair.

He could remember the license plate number on his first car and the combination to the safe in a bank he once helped rob in LA, but he never would remember what happened that day.

Not at least until he woke up.

Everything after, he remembered ...

+ + + + + + +

There was a roaring in his ears like standing beneath Niagara Falls. So loud, it hurt to think. A pressure on his chest like an anvil, and a blacksmith was hammering a whole suit of armour. Each attempted breath and the hammer would fall; sharp, concussive pain resounding through his entire body. The heat around him made it all the more difficult to breathe. And he couldn't see. Not for the longest time, minutes that felt like years, would his eyes register anything other than a blinding, pervasive white.

And then there was the smell.

The olfactory sense preserves memory the longest, the most accurately, with the greatest specificity. Sometimes, he would be driving his car and a smell would come to him through the open windows of his Jag, and instantly he would be transported somewhere else in time, to some other place he had lived or had known. A restaurant in the Latin Quarter. A train station in Prague. A leather boutique in the Mercato di San Lorenzo. Chris.

But at the time ...

He remembered smelling flesh burning, and hair, and had the miraculous presence of mind to roll. He remembered rolling over and over and over on what could only reasonably be debris-ridden cement. Then there was grass. He could smell the grass, feel it beneath him as he rolled.

Down, down - an incline, then.

Cool, damp, soft.

Breathing was coming easier now, but still nothing was before his eyes. Instinctively he lay still. A fear, a premonition he couldn't yet understand kept him absolutely silent and motionless, face down in the grass. For a little while.

Pounding, pounding, pounding - his heart and his head in turn - a rush of blood inconceivable for someone still lying prone. Oh mother of God it hurt.

The blacksmith was trying to remove the vertebrae from the back of his neck and forge a molten metal plate to his skull. So hot and agonizing he almost cried out, mouth opening into the grass, hands clinging to handfuls of earth. His legs thrashed behind him, and he gasped and convulsed like a goldfish amidst the shards of its shattered bowl.

Then stillness again. The initial agony passed, leaving in its bloodthirsty wake relentless, slow-ebbing waves of pain. Breaths coming in short pants. Voices and shouting filtered through the haze, and he stiffened. It was hard to make out their words, hard enough to hear anything over the hissing flow of lava where his brain used to be.

Sirens cried in the distance and for some reason, this did not give him hope. No, they mustn't find him.

Above all else, they mustn't take him - whoever they were.

Crawling on the earth, he began to plan his escape. Escape from what or to where didn't concern him as much as the desperate need to try. Never lifting his torso from the ground, he used his arms to pull him along, grabbing cupped handfuls of earth and grass and rock to inch him forward. Filthy. He must be getting absolutely filthy.

Something was digging into his ribs and he risked bending an elbow to finger it, pat it beneath a suit coat he didn't realize he was wearing. It was hard, angular, holstered - a gun! Excellent. He would remember it was there, should he need it.

His body was listing, the slant of the earth begging him to descend, further from the noise, further from the heat. Heat blaring like a jet engine, unbearably loud and buffeting. But lower was cooler, cooler and quieter, and he followed it.

Attempting to see made him angry, frustrated and terrified, so he closed his eyes against the light and lowered his face to the grass. Abruptly, like a mountain, or a stone to an insect, something rose before him, solid and punishing to his hands which crashed into it and scrabbled on its sides.

More concrete. A curb - not a mountain, then.

He slithered along the curb, keeping it on his left and the chaos further away on his right. Soon enough, too soon perhaps for the fear of being seen, the curb ended, sloping off to meet his ground. The safety of the ground, the safety of lying down. Oh, but he knew he had to keep moving. The thought of escape clamored like a gong inside his head.

An effort to open his eyes, squinted shut in pain and struggle, gave him hope. Not everything was a sheet of white. Nighttime. It must be. There was darkness now along the edges of his vision, blending inward toward the giant sunspot at the center. Dim things and shady made themselves known. An aluminum can. A stick. A rock. Fuzzy and mutated, they were there, and they gave him hope.

A tall, glowing shape loomed before his warped plane of vision - tall at least to someone who is flattened on his belly - and he attempted to make out its dimensions. Wide enough for a car. Tall enough for a man. Light dancing on its surface like a flame through a watery window pane. He could hide behind it. Just that much further and then he could rest.

Heroic effort brought him to his hands and knees. He could feel particles of gravel embedding themselves in his knees and wondered what had happened to his trousers. Logically, a suit coat has matching trousers. A shame that his were so ruined. Slivers of glass made themselves suddenly known, and he grit his teeth as continued movement only drove them deeper into the meat of his palm. And then the heat and the brightness was gone. The sound was muffled, but echoed, as he crawled behind the thing he sought. Smooth, metal, not empty as he rapped upon it and felt his way behind it.

It stank. A garbage bin most likely. All manner of filth and degradation to be found no doubt. An oily, oozy smell and something slick beneath his hands. Nastiness.

But it was safe and he was hidden. And he could rest. Thank God.

+ + + + + + +

"What the fuck happened! Can somebody tell me that? Can anybody tell me what the fuck happened!?"

Chris Larabee was shouting at the top of his lungs, arms and hands extended from his sides in total exasperation. And confusion. And shock. All those feelings and more pummeled him, rocked him, and made him momentarily numb, before anger won out and he exploded in rage. Exploded much like the warehouse had half an hour ago.

Firemen with hoses and EMTs with their field kits and police and the inevitable gaggle of reporters were swarming about in semi-organized chaos. Buck was in the back of an ambulance being fed oxygen and treated for minor burns. His prize moustache was singed. His unshakable good humor, badly shaken.

Nathan, looking far paler than any black man should be able, was standing watch over Vin. The sharpshooter was out cold, bleeding hot, and might not live. Shrapnel is a vicious thing. Shock waves and long drops are worse. Josiah was right there at his friends' sides, saying what prayers he knew, making up the ones he didn't, staunchly driving away the urge to recite the Dies Ire. JD looked lost, not daring to get too close to Chris, not wanting to leave Buck's side, wanting to be of some help, any help, in a situation that was pretty much helpless. So he wavered, paced, chewed on his thumbnail, and fought like hell not to cry.

One of the firemen, with more guts than brains, tried to keep Chris back, telling him he was only in the way. That he should go to the hospital with his men, or go home and try to sleep.

Chris wondered if on the weekends the man also tried holding back the tide.

"One of my men is in there. One of my men!" He yelled, getting in the fireman's face and jabbing a finger toward the blooms of smoke, as if the volume of his voice or length of his arm would make the message any clearer to the poor bastard who was just there to do his job.

The explosion had nearly leveled the entire warehouse, had blown out all the windows and doors and mostly collapsed the ceiling. No way in hell anyone survived that blast. And if they had, the fire would have killed them. Chris knew it. Everyone knew it.

The fireman wiped a greasy hand across his sooty face and looked like he wanted to say something reassuring, but God only knew what that could be. So finally, the man handed Chris hard hat and told him, no, asked him to stay with the fire engines. He'd be of no use to anyone if he collapsed from smoke inhalation.

So Chris just stood there in disbelief, having no answers, feeling nothing but an ever expanding hole where his heart used to be - like the fire raging in the building was somehow burning him slowly from the inside out. And soon there would be nothing left but soot and ashes there too. Something dark and charred, hopeless and lifeless.

This was too much déjà vu, and Chris turned his back on the engines and the water and the raining ash and groaning metal. A sob, a gigantic dry sob leapt out of his chest, and he battered it back down where it belonged, in the hollow wreckage of his soul. The last thing he was going to fucking do was cry.

JD was doing enough for both of them. When Buck was able to speak again, he'd asked their surveillance genius if Ezra had gotten out in time, and JD didn't have an answer for him. Not any answer Buck wanted to hear. He'd taken hold of the kid's collar in both fists and had shaken him like a dog with a chew toy, yelling in JD's frightened face that he didn't want to hear that Ezra was dead. Ezra couldn't be dead, so JD better Goddamn well tell him something else.

Only there wasn't anything else to say. So Buck had finally gathered the kid in his arms while he cried, while they both cried, while they stood there crying and trying to tell themselves that it wasn't true.

They were still consoling one another and Chris didn't want to be anywhere near that, so he avoided them and sought out Nathan and Josiah. He didn't exactly want to be there either, but he knew he needed to be. Vin needed him; he needed all of them.

"How is he?" The expression on Chris' face would have fooled anyone else to thinking that he really didn't care. The thin line of his lips, the hard set of his jaw, the clearly impassive shutters drawn on his eyes. But the way he held Vin's hand and stroked it absently, looking anywhere but at his friend on the stretcher, at all the tubes and the EMTs, couldn't possibly fool his friends.

"They're about to take him out, Chris." Nathan's voice was water-logged, his eyes glistening, but he nodded assertively, for hope maybe, or out of a stubborn conviction that Vin would be just fine Goddamnit. As many times as the team medic had heard that bullshit line, used even if they couldn't stand or walk without aid, Chris knew that Nathan would give his right arm for Vin's blue eyes to open and hear the lie one more time.

Vin was fine. Just fine.

Almost on cue, the stretcher lifted, wheels clanking against the back of the ambulance as the paramedics shoved him inside, and Vin was being taken.

There was that sob again, the gasping, sucking breath that Chris couldn't fight. All he could do was return Nathan's nod.

"They've got him stabilized, brother," Josiah told him unnecessarily. "He made it off the roof by way of," he stopped then, laughing like he couldn't help it, like he hoped it wasn't the last time their sharpshooter would turn into the Human Fly and do something perilously stupid. "Vin grabbed the power lines that came into the building. Damn fool used his belt to swing down them toward the ..." Josiah waved his big, blunt hand in the general direction of the place Vin had been found.

Somehow the word pole managed to escape him. The pole against which Vin had been flung when the shockwave hit. The pole at the base of which they had found him, upside down and backwards, pieces of metal and glass embedded in him so that he looked like a porcupine. Or a stegosaurus. That was JD's first impression, he admitted later, though he didn't say it at the time. He was to busy throwing up.

A slam of doors and a slapping hand on the back of the ambulance, and the vehicle was all lights and sirens, wheeling off to Denver Memorial, their so-called second home.

"You can go with him, Chris. We can take care of things here and start on the paperwork."

Josiah meant well, but he didn't know that what was left of Chris' heart had died in that building, and now he was just watching until they carted out the charred remains of yet another person he was stupid enough to care about.

Ludicrous. Absolutely asinine to fall in love. Ever. Much less a second time, much less with a teammate. Much less with a man.

Too stupid to even bare exposing to the light of day, to the harsh light of hope. The irony was choking him, and Chris tried to cough it up. He expelled a rough phlegmy noise like a clotted laugh, and shook his head.

No, this was part and parcel of the Larabee experience. Pulling loved ones from fires, identifying their remains and then burying the pieces of their bodies in big, cushy coffins. Planting flowers on their graves. As if the dead fucking care if their coffins are lined in silk and someone puts fresh flowers on their graves. But that was his life - to live with death.

How Chris could always recognize the sound of Buck's footsteps he didn't know, but he turned around to see Buck and JD approaching, still hanging onto one another, still drying their eyes. He wanted to hit them, both of them, or at least hit someone.

He could hear it now, the eulogies, the kind words. Oh and wasn't Standish a brave agent, sacrificing his life in the line of duty. He was a good friend and an even better teammate. An all around good guy. Kind to orphans and widows, or some such shit.

Maude would be there, would probably wear a veil, and some black designer creation by Vera Wang no doubt. She would cry gigantic, perfectly formed crocodile tears and tell them all how much she loved her boy. Her boy who never came to work before 9:30, had to be coerced to join them at the saloon, and hadn't really ever tried to get to know his team in a year and a half.

Ezra was a good guy alright, damn good at what he did, and even better at never getting close to anyone. And Maude would host some over-the-top, grotesque wake with food catered by Wolfgang Puck and tell such wonderful, fond, self-centered stories about Ezra and his childhood. A childhood she hadn't even bothered to be a part of. The bitch.

Buck stopped a few paces back, keeping his distance as though he could see the rage billowing off of Chris like a cloud of steam. He spoke halting, hiccupping words that he tried to patch up for JD's sake if nothing else. "Me 'n JD are goin' to the hospital. They say I'm ok," he averred, seeing objection rise within Nathan as well as Chris could. "We'll be there when you wanna join us." A nod and a tight reign on JD's shoulders, and the two of them walked off toward Buck's big red truck glowing like charcoal in the emergency lights.

Chris wanted to yell at him. Yeah, run you miserable cowards. Leave me here to deal with this. But he knew that wasn't right or fair, and frankly he couldn't breathe right at that moment. The fire was almost out, so he couldn't blame the smoke for the tears in his eyes. Josiah saved him from having to speak. The bulky giant of a man addressed Chris by way of Nathan.

"Let's see if we can't go help 'em sift through the rubble, Nathan. It's all water and smoke now."

"I've got extra Maglights in the van."


The two of them set off as though they could accomplish any damn thing of any use, and Chris found that his feet and legs had turned to lead. He couldn't make them move, but somehow the ground moved to him. He met it face first and didn't remember anything else for a while.

Biting, pungent, God-awful.

"What the hell is that!?" Larabee struggled against the arms holding him and the reeking pestilence at his nose.

"Ammonia, brother. Poor man's smelling salts. Here, take a few deep breaths."

"Not with that fucking thing at my nose." Chris swiped at it with all the energy and coordination of a newborn. Maybe a newborn colt, as he tried to stand and found himself grappling for purchase and balance. All wobbly legs and gangliness.

"You doin' ok?"

Compared to what exactly, Chris wanted to retort, but the words wouldn't come as his mind hadn't quite yet grasped the gist of standing upright.

"Smoke will do that to ya," some foreign voice next to him informed them.

It wasn't the smoke, he wanted to say. Grief also does that to a man. And a nose-dive to the pavement would be the least of his worries.

"I'm fine," he finally said, the usual line. "Let go, let go, I'm fine." He sniffed and wiped at his nose, not caring that it felt like and smelled like blood.

"Lemme take a look at that, Chris." Nathan's voice, so kind, so helpful, so unyielding.

"You touch me and I'll rip your fingers off." Snarled more than spoken. Chris didn't want to be touched, looked at, poked, prodded, examined, or so much as whispered to. "Are we gonna go in there and take a look or what?"

Now he remembered what he was thinking before he passed out. Yes, he passed out. He most decidedly did not faint. And it was the smoke that caused it, not the vacuum effect of knowing a gold tooth and a golden ring might be all that was left of the man inside that sucked all the air out of his lungs. He pushed past all the comforting, concerned arms of whomever the hell was next to him, not turning to look at them, and skulked toward the ruins of the warehouse.

As much as he had been gripped by the horror of entering minutes earlier - surely it had only been minutes - now he was consumed by a desperate, frantic need to find him. He had to find Ezra. He had to keep strangers' hands off of him. Give the man the respect he damn well deserved and not treat him like another statistic or a lab rat or whatever those crime scene guys did. This was Ezra in there. Ezra's in there.

That was the last thing he had yelled when the bombs went off.

It's strange how the mind can rapidly, fervently deny all those things that its senses tell it. There was no sound of explosion, no singeing, booming heat, no smell of things dying and burning, no sight of Vin's body flying twenty feet and clothes catching on fire. There was absolutely no animal wail of grief that burst from his mouth.

It's equally bizarre what things the mind creates and recreates in the place of all its senses are telling it. Even now, Chris could swear he heard Ezra's laugh just around the corner. That self-amused, haughty, aristocratic sound he made when he had just said something that no on would understand until five minutes later. Or that infinitely rarer, more precious, honest twitter he made when caught unawares, surprised and entertained by something. He could see Ezra standing there smirking into his dimples, gold tooth catching the sunlight, emerald eyes wicked and clever, and never ever telling. He swore for a second there he could smell him. That heady, complicated, beguiling hint of something deeper. Just like the man himself.

I am the quintessence of diligence and vigilance, Mr. Larabee. You needn't worry on my account.

"I ain't worried for you." It was a lie, but it felt right at the time. "You'll be perfect as always."

"Was that a compliment that just issued from your lips, Mr. Larabee?" How was it possible to hear a smirk over the phone? Ezra made it possible.

"Yeah well don't hold your breath 'til the next one. Watch your back."

That was the last conversation they'd had, and he could hear the words in his head as clearly as if they were speaking it now. He hadn't even said goodbye.

One loathsome foot at a time, Chris stepped across the blackened threshold into the warehouse to join the men already working on clearing the rubble, stabilizing the structure, and finding the bodies.

"Goddamn you, Ezra. Goddamn you to Hell, cause if you ain't there when I get there, I'm gonna find you and kill you a second time." Chris kicked a piece of glass at his feet and put on a pair of gloves. Josiah and Nathan were right behind him. They had the good grace not to gasp.

+ + + + + + +

"Second degree burns on his back and legs. We had to shave off most of his hair. Sir?"

It usually didn't take more than a glance or half a smile and Buck Wilmington was all eyes and ears, and hands, for any female anywhere near. This one was having trouble getting him to pay attention.

"Sir," she looked down at her charts again, tucking one wayward lock of brown hair behind her ear, "a Chris Larabee is listed as next of kin. Should I speak with him?"

Wearied blue eyes turned on her, accompanied by the vaguest excuse for his roguish smile. "He'll be here later ma'am." He hoped. "I'll do for now."

She had kind eyes, chocolate brown, sympathetic eyes that reflected the grief and worry surrounding the man in front of her, and she reached out a hand. "He's going to be alright, Mr. Wilmington. He is."

At the hopeful lift of his brows, she looked at him as if to say would I lie to you? And then she smiled, a warm, gracious smile as kind as her eyes. "A friend is he?"

Buck simply nodded and looked away to hide his tears.

"Well your friend has a lot of fight. We re-inflated his lungs and got his heart to beat better on its own. He's going to need skin grafts on a couple of tricky spots and he has sustained a fairly serious concussion, but other than that, he is stable now. None of his wounds ran deep. Most of his injuries were from the force of and proximity to the blast." Seeing that she was losing him to the details, she gave him a little squeeze on his arm and nodded towards the private room in the ICU, and the prayerful form of JD sitting by the bed. "You can sit with him too for a while if you like. I know it isn't allowed, but I break the rules from time to time. Go on."

Buck almost forgot to thank her; he didn't even ask her name. A first for him.

He hadn't heard much past the 'he's going to be alright' part. That's all he needed to know. Vin looked like a shorn sheep. Or Sampson maybe, Josiah might say. All that wonderful hair gone. An ugly bare patch in back covered with some sort of foul-smelling goo. Bandages everywhere.

Vin was on his stomach, positioned strangely but breathing steadily - the beep on his respirator attesting to that fact. Buck wanted to laugh at how Tanner would struggle and complain and curse and howl to be tied up to all those tubes and crap, made to lie face down. He never kept his back to any door. But it was too sad to be funny, and as close to home as it was for Buck, he knew it was exponentially closer for Chris.

Buck placed a gentle hand on JD's shoulder and heard him sniffle. He knew the young man's eyes were as swollen and red as his, so he spared him the embarrassment of looking. "He's gonna be fine, JD." God he wanted to sounded more convincing than that. "Doctors say he's stable, and that most of his injuries are superficial. He'll be back to being able to shoot tics off a dog's ass in no time." Weak humor at best.

JD found a bare, uninjured patch of skin and laid a hand on it, as if to reassure himself that Vin was alive, maybe reassure Vin in his sleep. His other hand carded through his long, dark hair, not succeeding in bring it to any order, but at least giving his trembling fingers something to do.

"I always told him I'd cut my hair when he did." JD looked up then, at Buck, eyes so full of sorrow Buck didn't know he could stand it. "I just didn't think it's be like this." His narrow shoulders hitched in an unvoiced sob, and he turned back to watching Vin. "I just can't," a fierce shake of a dark head, and he continued, voice smaller than before, "Ezra should be here. He'd complain about the chairs and the bad food and the badder coffee, and he'd make us laugh. He'd make Vin laugh. He always made everybody laugh. And he'd sneak us Starbucks and weird pastries and I can't believe he's gone." A sob was voiced then, and Buck slowly drew one of those damned uncomfortable chairs to sit beside his young friend. "How're we gonna tell him when he wakes up?"

The slow drip of fluids and the beep of monitors filled the stale silence for a few heartbeats, and it occurred to Buck that time is measured differently in different parts of the hospital. In the ICU, it's always measured in heartbeats. "Ya know, Vin, JD." His voice not any louder than a hum, he tried to infuse it with strength. "It'll probably be the first thing he asks when he wakes up. He'll know already, but he'll ask just the same." Buck rubbed slow circles on JD's back and snuck a hand onto the bed, laying it quietly on Vin's lower back. "And then we just tell him, son. We just tell him."

Tell him that there would be a departmental funeral and a lot of hours asking stupid questions like why bad things happen to good people. But that's what hospitals are, the places where bad things have happened to good people, mostly, and other good people try to undo them. They are places where everything blends into hours of waiting in rooms painted unnatural shades of vapid colors, Ezra had said, with furniture engineered by sadistic chiropractors in collusion with malevolent osteopaths. For all the words the man used, he always hit it spot-on. An actor who never missed his mark, never broke character, never once invited them to his town house for cards.

Ezra folded himself in and out of their lives like a contortionist. Or a magician. Sneakiest, trickiest, most unreadable bastard Buck had ever known.

"You believe in Heaven, Buck?" JD sounded like he desperately needed the answer to be yes.

"Sure, JD." Nowhere else Sarah and Adam Larabee could possibly be. "I believe in Heaven."

"You think Ezra made it there?"

Such an innocent, sweet, totally heartbreaking question. And it made Buck laugh. "Kid, if he ain't picking the lock, then he's playing St. Peter in the highest stakes game of his life. And you know as well as I do that even God can't win playin' cards against Ezra." He laughed even as fresh tears slid down his face.

At least it got him a perk of a smile from one corner of JD's mouth, a wistful smile he wished wasn't associated with any memories. Just memories now. He sniffed as he spoke again. "Buck?"

"Yes, JD?" Still there, after all.

"You don't think it would hurt any to pray for him? Just in case?"

In case God didn't love Ezra Standish as much as they had? "No, son. It wouldn't hurt any." At least Josiah certainly wouldn't advise against it. Buck didn't know of what use he thought prayers for the dead, but if anyone's might be heard or heeded at all, it would be JD's.


Silence expanded around them, long and heavy, but not so heavy as it might have been as Buck watched JD fold his hands neatly next to Vin on the bed and move his lips in silent petition. Old tears glinted on the edges of his dark lashes and shone on his pale cheeks, but none new fell. And if prayer gave JD the strength not to fall apart, then maybe they could all borrow some of that, ride on its coat-tails for a while. They'd need it. Especially Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Steady breaths. Deeper than before. That was encouraging. There were no sirens now, less shouting, no heat.

His hands unconsciously fumbled in his coat for a handkerchief and he blew his nose. It stung, like his eyes, and most of the skin on his hands and face. He smelled like the inside of a fireplace. He brought his hands close to his face and began biting the shards of glass, still embedded, out of his palm. The wounds were irritated, but already healing. They itched.

Folding the cloth in half, and then in half again, he began to clean some of the stickiness off his face, and apparently that was a very bad idea. The cloth might as well have been made of needles. Tentatively, he used his other hand to tap at his cheeks and forehead. Swelling. Stinging. Like a very bad sunburn. Not blistered, not at least that he could feel. Not bleeding, not like his hands and knees were bleeding. A rhinoceros was still sitting on his chest, and evidently his head was caged inside a maraca belonging to a violent Mariachi.

Trying to see produced more positive results, however. Blurry yet, and dim, but he wasn't blind. That was something.

If only he knew where he was, why he was there, and what the hell he had been doing to get there. More importantly, he needed to know how he was going to get away. There was great danger and he had to warn someone. He knew that, he knew it, and someone was after him. He knew that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Standing sounded more plausible than it had when this adventure began, so he felt along the wall behind him, shoving against it for leverage, and slowly stood. It took a while, still, for this to seem like a good idea. Gradually, his balance returned or arrived for the first time, and he cautiously crept around the side of the dumpster.

There was another building. Yes, naturally. Hiding between one thing and another means, obviously, that there are two things involved. One of which was a corrugated tin structure. He groped his way around the corner and along the side, hands fluttering across the warped metal, body creeping like a large drunken rat on the wall of a sewer. He smelled like a sewer. Or rather, that was the smell that lived behind the dumpster and had now taken residence upon his person.

He kept walking, limping, using the noise of activity behind him like compass, heading due south from its north pole. Soon he had to leave the security of the building beside him, and more than once he stumbled as he fled. Pretty slow and lumbering for flight, but he couldn't shake the impression that he must get away, fast and far. More ground sloped, longer stretches evened out, and before long the sound behind him was dim. His vision was clearer, not that there was much to see, but he made his way toward the trees. Trees. He must be outside the city somewhere. Denver. That is where he had been. Where he lived.

That knowledge bubbled up like a balloon of air out of deep water and popped on the surface of his mind. As did his only clear memory of one other person.

No name - just a face, with stormy gray eyes. Someone he knew he shouldn't trust, but did. Someone he knew he shouldn't anger, but did. Someone he knew he mustn't love.

Resin-scented darkness engulfed him. The crunch of sticks and leaves and cones underfoot. Bark was sharp and unfriendly, but he lowered himself behind the bole of a great tree and sat with his forearms draped over his knees. He was far more exhausted than he should be. Or maybe not, considering he didn't know how he should be, exactly. But it had taken all his strength to walk to where he was now, to drop like dead weight upon the ground.

Furtive scrabbling in the undergrowth. The sigh of wind and creak of branches. A cool breeze.

His senses registered these things as if they were important, as if he had spent a lifetime cataloguing minute detail. Before sleep claimed him, he tried to fit together odd pieces of things that played on the backs of his eyelids. Violence, fear, treachery. Guns and men with guns. Living in hiding; hiding in plain sight. Shuffling cards. A hotel room with a green bedspread. A house with many tall windows and wooden floors. The smell of sweet tobacco and hay. The smell of wood polish and gun oil and leather. And the last thing he remembered hearing. Watch your back.

The trees stood sentinel as his head drooped upon his breast and he drifted into strange dreams.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan got over the shock first. He was trained medically, after all, and was more accustomed than many at seeing carnage and death in its various forms. Chris was beyond shock, or maybe too steeped in it to notice. Josiah felt overwhelmed.

An arm here, a leg there, a torso disembodied at the waist. Everything burnt and blasted, mostly unrecognizable. Synthetic clothing melts to flesh when burned. Airline safety engineers recommend that all passengers wear natural fibers, cottons and wools and leathers, in case a fire should break out in the airplane cabin. Panty hose will attach itself to the skin never to be removed without hours of surgery.

Evidently, so will polyester shirts and nylon socks.

There were, in all, twelve bodies removed from the warehouse, each one less recognizable than the last. It took several hours to bag them and label them and label the scene and photograph, and always more water dripping on their faces. Outside, a midnight moon was riding high.

There was nothing more they could do there, they were told. The Medical Examiner would determine which limbs belonged to which people and then they would be called to identify the body of their undercover agent.

Chris just stood in the midst of ruin and the stench of death wearing a vacant, concave expression. His eyes and nostrils stung from the fumes; his hands were scraped and cut; his jeans were sodden and soiled. He tried to keep his mind from imaging Ezra's last thoughts before dying. At least it would have been a quick death, better than a gunshot, the way that man lived, or a car wreck, the way he drove, or cirrhosis of the liver, the way he drank. Larabee was one to talk. All he wanted for the foreseeable future was a bottomless bottle of whiskey and a glass. He might even forgo the glass.

"We're gonna head over to the hospital, check in on Vin. You need a ride?"

Nathan stood at a respectful and safe distance, sharing a worried look with Josiah, as Chris could feel the lifeblood drain little by little out of his face. He shook his head.

"Ok, chief. See you there."

Each one of the men had a different nickname for him: Chief was Nathan's; Josiah called everyone brother; Vin teased him with cowboy; Buck had several. JD played it safe with boss or sir because still didn't know that he was treated as an equal.

Each one of them had some diminutive or endearing pet name that they called one another, except Ezra, who steadfastly refused to address them by anything other than their formal names. Mr. Larabee. Mr. Sanchez. Mr. Tanner. Time and time again Chris had told him it was unnecessary. It was irritating, it was ridiculous, it was almost condescending. Ezra's jade eyes would twinkle and he would respond, "Nevertheless." As if that explained it. As if that excused it. As if he didn't have twelve thousand other words he could say.

The retreating footsteps of Nathan and Josiah drew Chris back to the present, and he followed them out of the bombshell into the equally black night. They made the drive to the hospital, lights and sirens, in half an hour, Chris following Nathan's car in his big, black Dodge. Ezra had once joked that it was difficult to see him if he was standing next to his truck. As a matter of fact, Chris should just die his hair black and be done with it, since his clothing is as monochrome as it is unimaginative.

Only Ezra had said it more eloquently than that, more personally, like it was his way of mentioning how much he liked the wheat-blonde mess of Chris' mane. Circuitous and lengthy. Prim and circumspect. Ezra.

Ezra was all the things Chris wasn't, and it drove him to distraction. That absurd gold tooth, and his neurotic disinclination to drink domestic beer, Ezra was such a confused mixture of pretense and idiosyncrasy, and loyalty and sense of duty, and Goddamnit Chris missed him. He wasn't supposed to miss him, not yet, not already. Missing someone was supposed to come later, after the tears and the shared memories and returning to work to find an empty desk, not driving eighty miles an hour on the highway with only the sound of road noise and the wail of sirens.


All of Team 7 knew its way to the ICU. They knew their way around the Emergency Room and the waiting rooms, and all the floors and levels of Denver Memorial. They knew most of the orderlies and the graveyard staff. Vin even talked with the janitors, but that was Vin. As much as they hated hospitals, they sure spent an extravagant amount of time in this one. Chris wondered if they all weren't suicidal in one way or another, or just possessed a really unhealthy disregard for their own personal welfare. Actually, it was Ezra who had wondered that, and damnit but Chris could actually hear him saying it in that unhurried, caramel sweet Southern drawl.

Josiah stopped in the hospital chapel for a quick prayer, probably not so quick, and Nathan and Chris rode to the ICU in silence. They didn't stop to check in at the desk, just walked the length of the hall until they found Vin's room. Regulations be damned, the nurses knew better than to try to kick them out. JD was asleep in a chair, which was a medical miracle as far as Chris was concerned, how anyone could sleep in those chairs. Buck was still awake, and looking the worse for it, bent low over Vin's bed, murmuring to him in his sleep.

"He's not in a coma, Buck. Talking to him won't help." Insensitive bastard to the core, those were the first words out of Chris' mouth.

"Won't help him or me, pard?" Buck's eyes were hard, but not accusing. They'd dealt with each other for too many years to count and Buck wasn't about to be phased by any of Chris' moods: sour, sourer, and just plain nasty.

So Buck turned his gaze back to the man on the bed wrapped in miles of gauze and plastic tubing, and told him that Chris was here.

Larabee wiped his mouth with his hand and took a spot opposite Buck where he could see Vin's face. This would normally be the point where he would move hair away from Vin's eyes or mouth, anchor it behind an ear or something, only there were no long, curly brown locks, and Chris had to settle for reaching out and touching his cheek. Then he withdrew his hand and leaned back in his chair, looking over at Buck with tormented eyes.

The nurse with the kind smile appeared in the doorway; she was new, Chris didn't know her, and Nathan went out to confer with her in the passageway. He always wanted all the details, encouraging or not, and always asked to read the charts. It made more sense to him than it did anyone else, so that was fine. Kept him purposefully busy too, in stead of just waiting and waiting, and letting his stomach congeal with the worry that was eating Chris'.

"He's gonna be fine, Chris," Buck said, calm and certain. "He'll need skin grafts and they've given him something to ... lessen the swelling in his brain. I wanted to tell 'em that their ain't much brain there that a little swelling could hurt." Despite his jest, Buck stretched out his fingers and laid the gentlest of touches on the back of Vin's head, somewhere that wasn't scalded. "They'll have to wake him in a few hours, but for now they're letting him sleep. I reckon we could all use some of what they're giving him. 'Cept JD there. Kid's plum tuckered out."

Chris tilted his head to look at JD and allowed himself a small smile. Somebody should be able to sleep this night. "Do we know what happened, what went wrong? This was supposed to be a straight gun deal. Nobody said anything about explosives."

"We won't know much til Vin wakes up. He was the one with the birdseye view." Buck sighed heavily and shook his head. "Trainer wasn't there. Just his thugs. Stands to reason that he knew the jig was up and set the place to blow. Thank God Vin saw the place was loaded and got the hell out of there when he could."

"What kind of animal blows up a dozen of his own men?" Chris was voicing his thoughts aloud, wondering how in the hell Ezra's cover had been blown. That was a near first. Ezra's cover was never blown by him; it always came back to a traitor or a mole or some heinously negligent slip of investigative work. In this case, Chris feared the latter.

Thank God indeed that Vin had spotted the C4 strung around the barrels of gasoline on the warehouse floor. His nearly hysterical shout into his wire had brought the team barreling out of the surveillance van, but hadn't been enough to save Ezra. Ezra who wasn't wired. Ezra who had gone in alone.

"What made you charge out of the van like that," Chris demanded, coming round to it. Buck had led the charge, and like lemmings, everyone else had followed. "You think that running into an exploding building is standard operating procedure?"

Buck didn't dignify the remark, his usual style and flare for banter understandably curbed. Instead he averted Chris' gimlet stare and said, "I already called Travis. He said he'd be here within the hour. He sends his condolences."

"I don't need his fucking condolences. He hated Ezra more than I did."

"Oh and we all know how much that was."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Chris let his ire get the best of him, his voice rising above acceptable levels for the ICU ward. JD jumped awake, reaching for a gun that wasn't there. Nathan stuck his head in the door with a hissing warning to watch their mouths, like some insipid school grade teacher reminding them to use their inside voices please.

"Only that in all the time we knew him you never said one Goddamn thing to let him know how much you cared, never did anything to show him how much you appreciated him, and never gave him half the slack you give the rest of us."

"That's total bullshit Buck," except that he was right about the caring part, "And it's none of your business anyway. He knew his place, knew how important he was. He was as much a member of this team as any of you."

Buck snorted like he couldn't resist, and leveled Larabee with a sneering, "Yeah, he knew his place alright, and you did your level best to put him in it."

Chris gripped the arms of his chair like he was ready to vault from it, leap right across Vin and throttle the snotty life out of the son of a bitch across from him. "Just who the hell do you think you are to tell me ..."

"Guys ..." A scratchy, raspy slurring voice cut right through the shouting. "Guys, would ya mind shuttin' the hell up. Yer scarin' the kids. 'N some of us got blowed up today 'n are tryin' ta sleep." A foggy blue eye was open, blinking back the grog and trying to focus. Stubborn cuss that he was, Vin was speaking past his respirator and around the tube in his nose, which meant he was probably using air his lungs couldn't afford to spare. Chris and Buck shut their mouths, right before hovering over their prone friend and inquiring after his health. That made him chuckle, roughly, coughing as much as laughing. "How the hell d'ya think I am?" Then his brow furrowed and he struggled to move.

"Lay still now." Nathan scurried to the bed. "You aren't supposed to move, and if you try to, we'll just tie you down where you are. You're mighty banged up and you have to lay still for a while."

"How's it look?"

"Like fried chicken, Junior."

Vin mumbled something obscene, giving Buck a one fingered salute with his left hand.

"Hey Vin," JD now, soft and hopeful, eternally sweet, "It's good to see you awake. You had us all really worried. Really worried, Vin."

"S'ok JD. How's Ezra? Did he make it out?"

The long leaden silence that followed that question sufficed for an answer, and Vin attempted to bury his face in his pillow, thumping weakly on the mattress with one fisted hand. Nathan said something about getting a nurse, and Buck said something comforting to JD, but all Chris could really hear from Vin was a repetitive soliloquy of blasphemy, damning God in all his names and forms and in several Indian dialects.

"They haven't found him yet, Vin, but they will. And I swear, we'll get you to the funeral even if we have to wheel you there in this bed, IV stands and all." Chris had put his hand on Vin's forearm to stop his futile pummeling of the mattress. "You did what you could, Vin, you did what you could." Like that was any consolation.

Vin just nodded against his pillow, but didn't say anything else as the nurse came in and began to run her tests, and take her notes, and say all the requisite, even heartfelt, chirpy nonsense that is somehow supposed to bolster a man who has been nearly killed in an accident that took one of his best friends.

Chris took it as his cue, or his excuse, to leave, and swept like a harbinger of doom from the crowded room which had gotten far too upbeat for his frame of mind. He refused to dwell on Buck's words even as they nagged at him. Refused to admit that he'd treated Ezra any differently from any of them.

Buck didn't know the half of it. How Chris had never given in to the craving that carved out his gut, never let himself act on feelings that weren't supposed to feel right or so damn good, never let himself dream of it. And now he never would.

And never is a Goddamn long time.

+ + + + + + +

Buck knew where to look for Chris.

Orrin Travis had arrived at the hospital, as promised, and had spoken almost exclusively to Chris. Buck knew they would all hear about it come morning, so he hadn't pressed. The Assistant Director had said a few words to Vin, or over him, had spoken with Chris, and had left in a dour mood. Had left Chris in a dour mood. As if Chris needed any assistance in that department.

Chris had disappeared shortly afterwards, without a word, just got in his truck and drove away.

And now, Buck knew to go looking for him. Moreover, he knew where to find him. There were only a couple of places Larabee could or would be at this hour, could or would allow himself to drop his guard and get royally plastered.

In all fairness, Inez Recillos had called Buck when it first became apparent that Chris was off the wagon. Again. He hadn't just fallen off the wagon, he was taking an Olympic spring-board dive. Inez had already locked the bar, but she knew better than to send Chris away. According to her, he was industriously working himself into a solid, angry drunk, the tried and true method of escapism by way of liquor, which no matter how often he tried it, never really worked. But damnit that didn't mean Chris wasn't going to try some more.

Buck met Inez at the back door, the expression on her olive-toned face telling him just how bad the situation had gotten. This was once a familiar dance, watching over Chris while he silently or violently self-destructed. They knew the steps well, but it had been so long since the last time they had to do this, Inez just shook her head, handed Buck her keys, and kissed him good night. The swish of her skirts and exotic scent of her hair receded into the night.

Luckily, lucky for whomever had been at the bar that evening, Chris had arrived near close, and there had been few patrons left to witness the onset of his precipitous decline. Fewer people to start a fight is always a good thing. Chris was in the dark, in a corner, cradling a nearly empty bottle in his lap. He had scratched the label off with what looked to have been a knife, shreds of paper littering the mahogany table top; long, thin lines scarring the shiny glass of the bottle. His hazel eyes didn't twitch as Buck hooked the leg of a chair with his ankle, scooted up, and sat down with all the appearance of a man who intends to stay. Come hell or high water. Knowing Larabee, Buck was bracing himself for the former.

Chris' gaze was fixated on some point the wall opposite, and Buck sufficed himself to wait it out. If it took Chris all night to speak, he'd be there; when Chris finally passed out or puked, he'd be there. He'd been there for twelve years and - how do they say - for better or worse, this was his place. Maybe his penance.

Buck used to laugh, "Lord knows I love ya, Chris, cause sure as hell nobody else does," and Chris had laughed with him. He hadn't always been like this, but grief does funny things to a man, and Buck had seen them all. All the not-so-funny things a man does in the throes of an emotional agony so deep it nearly kills him.

Every time, every single ugly time, Buck had held on and waited it out.

Of all things, of all the weird or aggressive things Buck had expected, singing wasn't one of them. In an off-key, croaky lilt, Chris began to sing. Words to an old song, a song that every jazz musician worth his salt knows, but Buck only knew because of Ezra.

It's quarter to three
There's no one in the place except you and me
So set em up, Joe
Got a little story I think you should know
We're drinkin' my friend to the end of a sweet episode
So make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.

Buck didn't think Chris could get that drunk. He'd never heard him sing before, but Chris' hand was fairly stable as he ended the line and raised the bottle to his lips for a noisy swig, so maybe not as drunk as Buck had worried.

Granted, there weren't many people he'd ever heard of who could take on an entire bottle of Johnny Walker and live to tell the tale.

Chris sloshed a glance him, his annoying, ever-present, shadow of a guardian angel, and tilted his bottle to one side. "You gonna sit here, 'n knowin' you you are, then you best have a drink." When Buck accepted and swallowed a mouthful, shuddering as it hit his empty stomach, Chris smirked. "Everybody still at the 'spital? Good." The fewer witness the better, he seemed to think. "Inez give you her keys?" He nodded back, mirroring the bob of Buck's head, and took another drink. "You wanna know the one single most thing ...," he paused, retracing his tipsy verbal steps, "The one thing that annoyed me the most?" About Ezra was the implicit ending to that question. "The way he used to eat his food."

Buck's eyebrows drew together in a neat, bushy line. He had never given half a thought to the way Ezra ate, much less how the man's totally impeccable table manners could be of annoyance to anyone. Chris ate like the rest of them, like it might just be his last meal, so he was hardly one to complain.

"He used to cut his salad in pieces before takin' a bite. An' he always held his fork in his left hand like some bloody European. 'N he always kept his food separate." This statement was accompanied by hand gestures, Chris partitioning and erecting imaginary walls between nonexistent food on the bare table top. "Like he couldn't stand it if, God forbid, the asparagus touched his steak. Prime filet mignon, on the rare side of medium rare. Why he didn't just eat it raw is beyond me."

Buck supposed he could, if asked under threat of death, tell someone what kind of steak Ezra ordered, but Chris had obviously paid much more attention than he had.

"But then again ... he always was." That puzzling declaration seemed to make sense to Chris, somewhere in his addled mind, and Buck took a moment to respond.

"He always was what, pard?"

A fey little smile turned one corner of Chris' mouth, and he uttered, "Beyond me." For a flash of an instant, heart ache indescribably profound washed over his face, eyes glossing, jaw tightening. Then it was gone, replaced by morbidity and all that anger that forever simmered somewhere too deep in Chris to be touched.

Buck's mouth opened on a small gasp, eyes widening with new comprehension. "You sure sound like you loved him an awful lot, for someone who hated him so much." It was an unfair gauntlet to slap down on the table, but Buck never was one to mince words.

A hateful, truly ferocious glare was shot at him, and then Chris laughed, a snide bark of a sound, and rose from the table, heading for the bar. He bumped into tables as he moved, kicking chairs that had the audacity to be in his way, and swung around the end of the long counter to retrieve another bottle.

So that's how it was.

Buck sat there dumbstruck, his mind rehashing all the conversations he'd had with Chris about Ezra, all the things Chris swore he hated about the other man, all the irritations and the things that got under his skin, and Buck remembered with equal clarity conversations just like it that they had shared about Sarah. How she got under his skin, drove him crazy, he couldn't understand her, she ticked him off.

Arithmetic was never Buck's forte, but he should have been able to add one and one long before now and come up with something other than absolutely no clue that Chris had very soft feelings for their undercover agent. That was a convoluted thought even for Buck, and he tried to pick his way through it as he watched Chris crack open another bottle and grab two glasses from the shelf.

All he found himself doing was shaking his head, part denial, part disbelief, part total un-comprehension. Like a recipe for a really bad shot. It wasn't right, wasn't natural, wasn't like anything he thought he knew about Chris Larabee, and soon his face wore an expression that squinted his eyes and left his mouth ajar.

"You're gonna catch flies, Bucklin." Chris tumbled the glasses to the table and somewhat accurately poured them both a drink.

Buck still had nothing to say, another first for him on this day, or maybe that would make it a second, but suddenly he knew he needed that drink. He would have downed his in one swallow, but Chris stayed his hand, raising his own glass and pronouncing a toast.

"To Ezra P. Standish. Conman, card-sharp, impostor, swindler, thespian, and one of the best men I'm ever likely to know."

Buck saluted the toast, agreed with all of it, swallowed, plopped his glass on the table, and was still searching for a coherent sentence. Sad when a drunk can out-think you.

"Didja know he ironed his socks?" One blond eyebrow was arched, smugly confident that Buck didn't know any such thing. Chris was talking, which was good in and of itself, but Buck was having trouble following, playing catch up to Larabee's inebriated musings. "And," a hiccup broke his stride, "an' he only called Maude mother. Never mom or ma. I bet he called her mother when he was three years old." Hazel eyes shot wide open and Chris' head lolled back a few inches. "That's a terrif...terriffing... scary thought. Ezra as a child. I bet he could play poker before he could read. I wonder if Maude read to him or if she had the hired help do it. I wonder how many nannies Ezra went through. I bet he went through lots, or maybe not, like I bet he never made a mistake in his whole perfect little manipulated existence."

Over the initial surprise of it all, Buck felt a swell of earnest sympathy build within him. Chris had worked with Ezra all this time and never said anything. Buck had known him since the Navy, and Chris had held this secret from him. He'd been carrying this dead weight around with him for a year and a half. And never let on.

"So that's why you treated him different." Buck hadn't meant to say the words aloud, but there they stood.

"He was different." Honest, immediate, solemn. A shrug of one shoulder, and then a withering, derisive half-grin. "I guess I don't have ta worry about 'nymore. Do I?" Chris threw another mouthful of whiskey down his gullet and slammed the glass to the table. "I just wish I'd had the chance to tell him anything."

It was miserable, the tone and the words, heart sick and grief-stricken, and with that, Chris shoved the table away from him and stood, stumbling toward the door.

Startled, Buck asked, "Where do you think you're going?"

"Hospital." Chris waved a hand in the air as if shooing gnats away from his head. "Need to walk some of this off. I'll pay Inez tomorrow." He struggled with the front door for a moment before unlocking it and pushing his way out into the wee hours of night, leaving Buck just sitting there. Stunned. Bewildered. A bunch of adjectives Ezra could have come up with.

And Buck would sit there a while longer, until it dawned on him that Chris was out there somewhere walking in a drunken stupor and was likely to get himself hit by a car.

He roused himself and followed in Chris' wake, only just remembering to lock the door.

+ + + + + + +

Daylight awoke him, the first hint of long pink fingers creeping over the horizon, pulling back the thick quilt of night and tucking it away behind the trees.

His eyes were slow to open, his vision slow to register, but it came - gradually and somewhat painfully. The pain in his skull reawakened but it was subdued, less of a devastating flood and more of a lapping tide. He was chilled. His muscles were stiff with residual ache and with sleeping upright against a tree.

Good heavens. Besides waking him, sunlight also allowed him to see the extent of his injuries.

Most of the front of his clothing had been burned off, pin-striped wool fibers hanging in strips and tatters along his legs, the hair of which had been cleanly singed off. A leather belt still held to the waist of his trousers and there was something stuffed down the front of them that he hadn't even noticed the night before, something that had - angels and saints be praised - saved the most delicate parts of his anatomy from the fate of his legs and torso. It was a journal, a log, a leather-bound register with names and dates and dollar figures. Money exchanging hands, and quite a significant sum of money by the looks of it. A vast portion of the back of it was singed and charred, but the front half was intact, and for some reason this came as an enormous relief.

Taking the time to learn a little more about himself, he began to pat his various pockets searching for clues. A wallet was a wondrous discovery. Being in his rear pocket, it had been spared the explosion that must have eaten up everything in front of him. That must have been what happened. He was near the fire when it happened. A fire meant for him, perhaps.

His name! His name was Ethan Saunders. He had green eyes and brown hair. He was five foot nine, too stingy an estimate in his opinion - and weighed 165. Not bad, he supposed, and he was handsome. To his eye, very handsome. That was most excellent.

Abruptly, like an electric shock nearly making him jump out of his skin, he could hear a voice in his head. Your name is Ethan Saunders. You've been in San Quinten convicted of embezzlement for the past 5 years. And you hold a grudge against Chris Larabee and the ATF team that put you there.

He was a criminal, then. He shook his head fiercely, regretting that he did so, and tried to get the voice to come back. To tell him more about himself and fill in the mammoth gaps that seemed to be all he had going for him as far as memory was concerned.

Disconcerting. Very, very disconcerting.

He was a criminal with a vast amount of information regarding the financial operations of whatever group of people he dealt with - yes, he was sure it was a group. It's always some group, isn't it. He was not alone, of that he was certain. He had friends and associates. And a grudge against the ATF. This was a start. Unhappy, but, nevertheless a beginning.

A little fishing in his other pockets produced what was left of a hotel key to the Regency downtown - too bad he couldn't tell which room - and another pair of keys attached to what must have been a little electronic fob. Poor thing was toasted right out of its wits. Other things in his wallet included a remarkable amount of cash, credit cards, and a slip of paper with a series of hyphenated numbers on them. Curious, that. A locker, a safe, a brief case - something.

He tried to think of all the things that used combinations, and immediately put the numbers to memory. Out of habit, he guessed.

He also came upon a knife and a little gun, both in holsters on his ankles. Attempting to remove the holsters caused him to hiss and swear through his teeth, so he left them in place and wondered if the metal as well as the leather had fused permanently with his flesh. He didn't appear to be too horribly burned, not beyond a day's worth of lying out on a beach in St. Tropez. Yes, he could smell the salt and the sand and remember drinking a Puligny-Montrachet, Grand Vin.

Apparently he'd been there - and knew something about wine. Good to know.

Hunger voiced its displeasure loudly, breaking his thoughts. And thirst, even louder.

Movement would be necessary, then, so he raised himself slowly and stood for a moment trying to decide where he should go. Away was his first instinct, and it sounded like a good idea, but he still wasn't quite sure away from what. The noise and the activity of the previous evening was gone, or at least couldn't be heard from where he was.

He risked a stealthy glimpse around the trunk of his tree. Quite a distance he had achieved for himself in his wanderings last night. There was a shocking vision of what had once been a building, a warehouse perhaps, clinging precariously to the top of a small rise of land about two hundred meters away - to the south, as the sun was to his right. What remained of the edifice was black and wretched looking.

A chill ran up his spine that had nothing to do with the temperature.

He had to get away from that, whatever it was, and go home. Yes, home - even dressed, or undressed, as he was. There was something vitally important he had to do and he was sure that it would reveal itself the closer he got to Denver. There was what looked to be a dilapidated landing strip for aircraft a bit to the east. No planes, only weeds and white gravel. West, then, felt the best choice of action. An amusing thought came to him that this was what homing pigeons must feel like, knowing in their gut which direction was home. He was certain Denver, and home, lay to the west.

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends." His own voice surprised him. Very Rhett Butler. Perhaps too much Scarlett O'Hara. His driver's license had said New Jersey, but he knew that wasn't right. Then again, since he was a criminal, he probably had a dozen aliases and as many falsified pieces of identification. And apparently he could quote Shakespeare, which made him smile. Why, he didn't know.

It was strange, how his determination led him across so many miles and his innate paranoia kept him out of sight most of the way. It was hilarious how easily he stole some unsuspecting person's clothes out of the back seat of their car. They had just left the vehicle unlocked like that, silly people, and thought the clothes didn't fit, they were a damn site better than what he had been wearing.

He disposed of his suit, and everything but his socks and underwear in one of the dumpsters behind the Wal-Mart, and continued to walk into town. Stronger daylight brought with it a stronger headache, but his vision was vastly improved. He even stopped at a café for breakfast, playing off the concerned looks and inquisition of strangers, saying that he had been in vacationing in the Cozumel and had used sun oil in stead of sun screen, foolishly believing that staying in the water would protect him from ultraviolet radiation.

Lord but it was easy to lie; it rolled off his tongue with effortless efficiency and fluidity.

It was only when he stopped in the restroom - a room in dire need of cleaning - and looked in the mirror that he realized he should pick a better lie.

Perhaps six or seven days straight of lying under the sun, or even being dipped face first into the sun, would produce the color of his face. Now he knew what crème brulée felt like. That sounded heavenly, come to think of it.

Open-mouthed he stared at his reflection and turned his head from side to side, arriving at a full, sobering apprehension of how close he must have come to death. All his beautiful hair, which was auburn, not brown, thank you very much, was much abused, making his forehead much taller than it once had been. Neither had his eyebrows escaped maltreatment. They were sadly black around the edges and dusted off onto his finger tips when he touched them. The whole thing was bizarrely amusing, hilarious in fact, and he found himself doubled over in a royal fit of laughter.

It hurt to laugh, but he couldn't help it, and goodness gracious was that his laugh? Too high-pitched and feminine for a gentleman. Gentlemen do not guffaw.

Collecting himself, he looked again at his reflection and shrugged.

A little water wouldn't hurt, or rather, would do him good, because it did sting, so he kept it cold as he washed his face and hands. But he let them dry on their own. The paper towels looked vicious.

He left the washroom with a little better understanding of how he should act and what he should say, and made the executive decision to call a cab. He had enough money on him, after all, to take a cab all the way to Las Vegas. All he needed to do was go to the Regency Hotel, and perhaps, God-willing, find a different pair of shoes.