Maybe there really is something to the whole Friday the 13th thing, Chris Larabee thought, watching as William Hector Trent reviewed the list of weapons they were hoping the man would sell them. And, when he did, they'd bust Trent's sorry ass, do the necessary paperwork, and then go home for a long weekend; he'd give his team Monday off and to hell with the brass. They'd earned a little down time. But his little voice kept whispering that it wasn't going to be that easy. Not if the start of the day had been any example.

For the first time in a very long time, Larabee could appreciate why people chose to stay home on Fridays that fell on the 13th. To put it simply: thus far today, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong – with a vengeance. If he'd been smart, he would have had Ezra reschedule this meet for sometime next week, but he didn't want to spook Trent.

Larabee's gaze flickered to his left where Standish stood, looking cool and detached, nothing more than the well-paid middle-man bringing together two parties who each had something the other wanted: guns and money. And once again the ATF team leader had to admire the man's consummate skills. Ezra was as smooth an operator as anyone would find, and Chris watched as Standish edged up next to Trent, speaking casually, trying to nudge the deal along to completion.

What the hell's taking so long? Larabee wondered, gaze sweeping over the open landscape where he and Standish stood with Trent and two of his enforcers. He didn't like feeling so damn exposed, but Trent had insisted. The unfinished plaza was framed along all four sides by the skeletons of buildings still under construction – yet another medical or technology park going up along the I-25 corridor. City officials called it growth, progress, but to him it just looked like more sprawl. Larabee knew more of Trent's men were waiting just beyond those half-finished buildings, as were members of his own team and several plainclothes Denver PD officers. Hell, given the way the day was going, they'd be lucky if they didn't all stumble over one another before this was over.

"This is a lot of merchandise, Lawson," Trent said, handing the sheet of paper back to Larabee after he had scanned it using a hand-held device that would transfer it to his waiting men – men who would, Larabee hoped, put the order together for delivery.

"Styles here told me you could handle something that big on short notice," Chris replied, sounding just a little hot over all the posturing. "Guess maybe he was wrong. C'mon, Vic, let's go find a man who's willing to deal. We're wasting time here." Larabee turned and took three steps back toward his truck before Trent's voice stopped him.

"Carl," Standish called.

"Hold on, Lawson, hold on. I didn't say I didn't want to do business. I just said it was a lot of merchandise on short notice. I can cover it, but it's gonna cost you extra. I'd just like to see your cash before I have the boys load all this stuff."

Chris had turned back to face the arms dealer, green eyes studying the man carefully. Hector Trent was in his mid-forties but he looked younger, having kept himself in very good shape. His reddish-blond hair was cut short and was free of any silver, giving him a decidedly military appearance that was only enhanced by the gold-frame aviator sunglasses he wore, the dark lenses hiding intense blue eyes. He was cold and greedy, and one of the biggest arms dealers they'd gone after.

"You want to see my money," Chris repeated, glancing at Ezra, who gave him a small but obvious nod. "Yeah, all right, guess that'd be fine."

"Hector, I can assure you, Mr. Lawson is ready to pay generously for the requested merchandise," Standish added in his smooth southern drawl. He pulled a small card from inside his suit pocket and handed it to the man.

Trent read the figure on the card and nodded, the corners of his mouth curling into a smile. "This is generous, Carl, really. But I'd still feel better if I could see the cash."

"Gonna have to call in one of my men," Larabee said.

"Just one," Trent warned him, jerking his chin in the direction of his two enforcers.

Larabee nodded his understanding, then pulled out his cell phone, which was also recording the entire conversation, and pressed the number that would speed dial Buck's phone.

Wilmington answered a moment later, asking, "Yeah?"

"Bring the money in. Just you," Chris said and terminated the call. He slipped the phone back into his pocket to continue recording.

Silence fell as they waited, Buck appearing a few minutes later in the black Jimmy he had borrowed for the meeting. He entered the plaza, hurrying along the winding drive before pulling up and parking alongside Larabee's Ram. The driver's window came down and Wilmington handed out a silver briefcase to Chris, who passed it on to Ezra.

Standish opened the clasps and flipped up the lid while balancing the case on one forearm. Trent grunted appreciatively when he saw the stacks of one-hundred dollar bills waiting inside. "So, can we do business, Hector?" Standish asked the arms dealer.

Trent nodded, smiling, then gestured to his two enforcers, one of whom unclipped his cell phone from his belt and called someone, telling them to, "Send the truck as soon as it's ready."

Silence fell again as they all waited. After several minutes had passed, Trent asked, "So, Carl, what do you plan to do with this little arsenal you're purchasing?"

"That's my business," Chris replied coolly.

"Yes, it is indeed," Trent replied with a shrug.

A large SUV appeared at the entrance of the plaza, moving slowly. It was clearly weighed down by the arms it carried and Chris felt his heart begin to race. Their luck was turning. It was going to work after all.

The midnight blue Expedition pulled to a stop behind Trent and his two men. No one got out of the SUV, the two enforcers stepping back to open the rear of the vehicle themselves. Inside were several crates that held the assault weapons, illegal ammunition and plastic explosives Larabee's list had requested. One of the two men opened a crate, pulling out two of the HKs and tossing one to his partner.

"Ah yes," Ezra said, "I'm sure Mr. Lawson would like to examine the–"

Then, before Larabee or Standish had a chance to react, the enforcers brought the weapons up to bear on the two ATF agents. And several things happened in almost the same moment.

Wilmington threw the Jimmy into gear and stomped on the gas. The vehicle lurched forward, tires squealing, as he attempted to give Larabee and Standish some cover. Chris and Ezra each bolted in opposite directions. And, up on one of the unfinished buildings, Team Seven's sniper saw the enforcers' intent and pulled the trigger on his rifle, dropping one of the two men before he could open fire. The second man got off a single burst that went wild, missing both Larabee and Standish, when he was struck by Tanner's second bullet.

Lastly, up on another one of the buildings, a second sniper opened fire as two men lurched out of the front of the SUV, both armed and firing.

Ezra went down, a victim of the sniper's shot, before he could reach the Jimmy. Both of his hands were wrapped tightly around his upper thigh as he cried, "I'm hit!"

Chris heard Standish yowl and stopped at the front bumper of the Jimmy, dropping and firing his own weapon to keep the two men from the front of the delivery truck from killing Ezra, who was down out in the open. He had no idea the undercover man had been hit by a sniper's bullet.

"Chris! Be careful!" Buck yelled, inching the Jimmy closer to Standish.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Where are ya? Where the hell are ya?" Vin muttered, ignoring the comments crossing his comm unit, his eye pressed tightly to the ring of his rifle's scope, searching for Trent's sniper before he could kill Ezra or Chris.

Three buildings; take 'em one at a time, he told himself, all of his considerable focus coming to bear on the structure directly across from him. He checked each floor, looking for movement, a telltale flash from scope or barrel, a disrupted or out of place shadow… and found nothing as seconds ticked by.

He shifted to the building on his right, finding nothing there as well, more precious seconds passing by.

Vin could "see" what was happening on the ground thanks to the voices in his ear and he knew he had to hurry. Ezra was still down in the open and Chris was using the Jimmy to creep closer to the man so he could grab Standish and drag him to safety. But in order to do that, Larabee would have to make himself a target.

Why're ya waitin'? Tanner asked the invisible sniper. Hell, Ezra might as well have a target painted on him. But then he knew. He was doing what Tanner had done himself while in the Army. He was waiting for Chris to make his move. He was waiting for Larabee to line up with Ezra, and when he did, the sniper could take out both men with a single shot. Cocky sonuvabitch. But it meant he had to be in the four-story building on Tanner's left.

Vin started his hunt at the top, his piercing gaze sweeping left to right and top to bottom. There!

And the sniper was getting ready to drop Tanner's best friend as soon as Larabee stepped a little farther away from the Jimmy. No fuckin' way 'm lettin' that happen, asshole…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris's gaze flicked from Buck to Ezra and back again. He had no choice. There was no way he could leave Standish out there to die. Hell, he was surprised Standish wasn't already dead. The sniper could have finished him off at any time. So why hasn't he? Larabee wondered as he started out for the fallen man, but even as he did he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Shit! He was in someone's crosshairs and he was dead certain it wasn't Vin's.

"Damn it," he hissed, realizing why the sniper had waited: to draw him out into the open – two birds, one stone. But he just didn't have a choice.

"Chris!" Buck yelled into his lip mike. "Move, move, Trent's men are comin'!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Wilmington's cry echoing in his thoughts, Vin's focus collapsed to the single reality of the sniper who was going to kill two of his friends. His heartbeat slowed and his breathing stopped as he lined up the shot and gently pulled the trigger on his rifle. Through his scope he watched the sniper jump when the bullet passed between the narrow gap between the two thick boards that almost completely concealed the man, burning a path along the back of his neck. Not a kill, but it had spoiled the man's shot and that was exactly what Tanner had intended. If he had killed the sniper, he might have gotten off the shot even as he'd died.

Tanner watched the sniper shift his attention from the agents on the ground to the building where he was hiding, searching for Tanner just like Vin had searched for him a few moments before. But the ATF agent knew he wouldn't be spotted if he didn't move from his hide. Lying concealed at the corner of the unfinished first floor, Tanner cast no telling shadows, and the mix of light and dark made the area appear flat, even when he was lying there.

When Tanner saw the sniper's attention shift back to what was happening on the ground, Vin fired again, but this time the sniper was able to get off another shot as well.

Damn it! Vin knew he had to keep the other sniper occupied long enough for Chris to grab Ezra and drag him to cover behind the Jimmy, but there was only one way he was going to be able to do that.

His focus still on the sniper, Tanner purposefully shifted position and watched a deadly smile curl the other man's lips as he swung his weapon in Tanner's direction. His heart racing, Vin allowed himself to become more of a target, which completely apprehended the other sniper's attention. Tanner brought his own rifle up, knowing it was going to come down to speed and accuracy, just like a shootout in the Old West.

Both rifles came up; both men fired. And both bullets found their targets.

The head of Trent's sniper snapped back from the impact of a bullet entering his skull and he dropped heavily to the floor, already dead.

Tanner was hit center mass, the force knocking him off the unfinished floor, his arms windmilling frantically as he fell to the ground.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris reached Ezra just as the rest of Team Seven and the police arrived, right on the heels of Trent's people. The result was expected – men scattered in all directions, gunfire barked, and here and there a cry echoed across the plaza as someone went down.

Larabee grabbed Standish under the arms, lifting him off the ground just as a bullet dug into the ground near both of them. Chris jerked, hunching over Standish, expecting the next shot to kill him. But the next shot never came.

Chris hauled Ezra over to the Jimmy, both of them crouching behind the vehicle, Larabee doing his best to stem the flow of blood Standish was losing. Wilmington slipped out of the Jimmy to help, his big hands wrapping around Ezra's leg and pressing directly on the bleeding wounds while Chris jerked off his light jacket so they could use the cloth to pack against the entry and exit wounds. Buck pulled off his belt, using that to secure the jacket tightly in place.

And then Larabee's little voice whispered in his ear, telling him to look over his shoulder. He jerked his head around, eyes widening with horror when he saw Tanner stand, his rifle coming up in his hands faster than Chris ever imagined it possibly could. A moment later, and before Larabee could even glance in the direction Tanner was focused so intently on, two shots rang out almost simultaneously and the sharpshooter was tumbling off the edge of the unfinished building, his arms gyrating wildly.

"Vin!" he cried.

"Shit!" Wilmington howled, slamming his fist against the door panel of the Jimmy.

Moments later, silence fell across the plaza.

"Chris, are you hit?"

Larabee jerked as Nathan's voice reached him moments before the medic arrived, taking over from Wilmington. The ladies' man was immediately on his feet, running to where they had seen Tanner fall.

"I'm fine," he managed as he scrambled out of Jackson's way, but he couldn't force himself to follow his oldest friend at first, too afraid of what he might find at the building. But he knew he had no choice. He couldn't escape the truth. Still, getting his rubbery legs to cooperate was much harder than he expected.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah had heard the frantic cries from Chris and Buck, and when he saw Wilmington charging toward the building where Vin had been hiding he felt his heart seize inside his chest. He hurried after Buck, silently praying that Vin was all right.

When Sanchez caught up to Wilmington, the big man was slowly helping Vin to his feet. The sniper was clearly unsteady on his feet, as well as pale and gasping for breath, but he was alive, and it didn't look like he was bleeding. Josiah glanced heavenward and breathed, "Thank you, Lord."

"Junior, you all right?" Buck asked, grabbing the younger man's arms to steady him and peering into the sharpshooter's face. "Answer me, Vin, are you all right?"

"Yeah… 'm fine," Tanner said, trying to fill his lungs, but he was unable to do so, each breath getting harder and harder to draw. But he still flashed Wilmington a cocky grin. "Don't think… Trent's sniper… c'n say… th' same."

"Hell, Junior, what were you two doin' up there, playin' chicken?" Buck asked, starting to smile himself as he released Tanner and took a step back.

"He's waitin'… for Chris 'n' Ezra… t' line up," Vin explained, slowly unzipping his black jumpsuit, his hands shaking with reaction. Maybe that would help him catch his breath.

"And you decided to give him another target," Josiah guessed, shaking his head. Sometimes he had to worry.

Tanner nodded. "Y' should see… th' beatin'… m' vest took," he panted, pulling his suit open so they could see the damage in the center of his chest, but just as he did, Larabee arrived on the scene.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Chris stormed, his face red with anger. He reached out and grabbed Tanner's upper arms, not sure if he should punch the man in the nose or give him a hug. "Damn it, Vin, you could've gotten yourself killed! Of all the stupid–"

"Chris," Buck interrupted, reaching out to grab Larabee's shoulder as Tanner grew even paler and his knees buckled.

"Vin?" Larabee yelped. "Vin, what's wrong?"

Tanner dropped to his knees on the ground, his eyes widening with fear.

"Vin, what is it, son?" Josiah asked, stepping up next to the sharpshooter as well.

"Vin!" Larabee barked, fear surging through him.

"Feels like… 'm breathin'… through… a straw," Tanner managed in short, wheezing gasps. Then, as the other three men watched, he fell over, still fighting to draw a breath, his fingers clawing at the top of his vest. Chris and Josiah immediately began to strip off the gasping man's jumpsuit and vest to make sure he hadn't somehow gotten shot.

"Nathan!" Buck cried, but his voice was drowned out as a pair of ambulances pulled into the office park, their sirens wailing. He sprinted for the vehicles, which pulled up next to the Jimmy where Jackson was still working on Standish. "We need some help over here!" he called to the medics as they were climbing out.

The man closest to Wilmington nodded, going around to the back of the ambulance with his partner, grabbing their jump kit and other equipment before following Buck back to where Chris and Josiah waited with Vin.

"Do something. He can't breathe," Larabee snapped. He was holding Tanner in a seated position, one hand rubbing the sharpshooter's bare back, the other caught in Tanner's panicked grip. Vin's eyes were wide and glazed with fear, his lips were beginning to turn slightly blue.

The medics dropped down on either side of the sharpshooter and went to work. "What happened?" one of the two men asked as he checked the bruise already forming on Tanner's chest.

"He was on the first floor of this building," Josiah said. "He took a bullet hit to the chest and fell about eight feet. He looked a little stunned and he was pale, but he was all right. He started having trouble breathing as soon as we found him."

Chris watched as one of the medics dosed Tanner with abuterol and then slapped on a high-flow oxygen mask with while the other man injected Tanner with something. "What's that?" he asked.

"Aminophylline," the medic replied, which told Larabee nothing, but he nodded, hoping it worked, because Vin was getting more blue around his mouth.

"Easy, pard, easy," Chris whispered into Vin's ear when the man's grip tightened on his hand.

The medics waited a few moments, then the older of the men shook his head. "It failed," he said.

Vin made a small noise – half-squeal, half-whimper – his mouth open under the mask, his shoulders rolled forward as he tried hard to suck in some air.

"Hang on, Vin," Chris told him. "Hang on. We'll get you through this." Tanner's fear-filled blue eyes met Larabee's, begging the older man to help him. But Chris had no idea what he could do. "Easy, Vin," he managed, watching as the blue eyes began to glaze more, then finally closed as the sharpshooter passed out.

The older of the two men was on a phone to the hospital, telling them what was happening. "We need to get a breathing tube into him," he said and his partner nodded, moving Tanner away from Larabee.

The paramedics worked in practiced unison, but Larabee could see that Vin's jaw muscles were clenched tightly shut.

"Damn it," the older medic hissed softly after he managed to pry Tanner's mouth open. "His tongue's writhing and his vocal chords are spasming. We're not going to get an airway past this."

"What're you doing?" Chris asked as the medics established an intravenous line and then administered multiple drugs in rapid sequence, but the men didn't reply.

"What's happening?" Buck asked the medics, but they ignored him as well.

Nathan who had come up to watch, pulled the three men back and said softly, "They're giving him a sedative and a drug to induce paralysis."

"What?" Wilmington yelped.

"It's to combat the resistance from his muscles, tongue and vocal chords," Jackson assured the ladies' man as they all watched as the paramedics tried and failed to thread a breathing tube down Tanner's throat.

"Let's go," the older man said, issuing a sharp whistle to get the attention of one of the other medics who had been working on Ezra. But Standish had just been loaded into the back of one ambulance. Another paramedic grabbed a gurney and brought it over.

"We're losing him," the older man growled as they rushed Tanner to the second ambulance. The rest of the team gathered at the back of the vehicle, waiting anxiously as, desperate now, the medics tried to punch a hole in Vin's windpipe.

"Missed," the older man growled.

"We're close to losing him," the younger man said, grabbing an ambu-bag to pump oxygen through the mask held over Tanner's nose and mouth. But he knew Vin's airways were so narrowed that only wisps of the lifesaving gas were getting in.

"I'm an EMT," Nathan barked. "Let's go!"

The older medic looked up, then nodded and lurched out of the back. "Get in!" he snapped, already on his way to the driver's side door.

The younger man kept up his work on the ambu-bag as Nathan joined him. Buck closed the door, slipping an arm around Larabee's shoulder and guiding him toward the Jimmy. The fact that Chris was allowing himself to be guided away told Buck more than he wanted to know about the man's mental state. He was in shock. "We'll meet them there," he told the blond. "He'll make it, Chris. Vin's tough, you know that."

Chris's head came up, green eyes flashing. "He wasn't breathing!"

"He'll make it," Buck snapped with all the conviction he could muster. Vin had to make it. If he didn't, they'd lose Chris as well.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nathan listened as the older paramedic called the hospital even as he pulled out of the plaza, siren beginning to wail. The ATF medic caught the words "cyanotic" and "failed intubation" and then, "Request oxygen tank at ambulance bay." He watched as the man listened to a short reply and then ended the call with "Gotcha, we'll be there in less than ten."

Looking back at Tanner, Nathan willed the younger man to hang on. He reached out, taking Vin's hand in his own and squeezed the unmoving fingers. "Fight," he said into Tanner's ear. "Don't you give up, Vin. We need you. Chris needs you."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

They pulled up at the hospital, two orderlies running up to help pull Vin out of the back of the ambulance. Nathan scrambled out behind them, hurrying to keep up. Vin still wasn't breathing, was dying, and he knew it.

"Don't stop at the entrance!" a nurse snapped, pointing to where another nurse straddled the entry doors to the resuscitation room, waving them in.

The gurney was rolled into the room where a young, dark-skinned woman grabbed a laryngoscope and a breathing tube. "Over here!" she called.

Jackson stepped back out of the way and watched as the paramedics and orderlies transferred Vin onto a stretcher. The doctor pushed Vin's teeth apart and slid in the curved laryngoscope blade.

The doctor watched the breathing tube slide in beneath the droopy epiglottis. "Home free," she muttered, pushing. But then she heard a click as if the tube had hit laryngeal cartilage and bounced away from the windpipe and into the esophagus. Was it in or not? No time to check. "Call Tom!" she shouted. "Get a cric set!"

Nathan watched one of the nurses dashing off to get the instruments for cutting a hole in Tanner's trachea. He was shaking, but couldn't bring himself to leave. Not yet. Not until he knew – one way or another.

"Wait. Look," the respiratory tech said. Jackson's gaze shifted and he watched as the tech released the ambu-bag for exhalation and the transparent tube misted up.

The doctor listened to Vin's stomach as the tech squeezed the bag again. "There is no gurgling that would signal entry into the esophagus," she said, moving her stethoscope to his chest and listened again. "Breath sounds are faint and choked by wheezing, but they are there. Thank God."

The respiratory tech checked the pulse oximeter. "O2 is climbing slowly," he said. "He's getting oxygen."

Another man Nathan guessed must be "Tom" burst into the room, loaded for bear.

"We're okay," the doctor said in a relieved sigh. "Tube's in. Thanks."

"Okay, Vivi, but give me a call if you need me," the man said with a smile and left.

Nathan swallowed, feeling his palms beginning to sweat. He knew the real problem now was getting the air back out of Vin's lungs. They were pushing air in mechanically through intubation, but they couldn't mechanically help Vin exhale. And if they forced in more air than could seep out, pressure would build until blood return to the heart was blocked. The cure, he knew, was pharmacological.

"Lana, epi zero-point-five IM, magnesium two grams IV and Solumedrol 125 IV," the doctor called across the room.

"Two of Mag?" the nurse asked.

"Yes," the physician affirmed.

Nathan nodded, his brain automatically translating. Epinephrine was a potent bronchial muscle relaxer. Solumedrol was a steroid that would suppress any inflammation, but wouldn't kick in for hours. The magnesium was the secret weapon. Used for decades to suppress uterine contractions in premature labor, Jackson had read that it had also shown promise for relieving severe airway constriction.

He watched as the doctor checked the hole in Vin's neck. Luckily it was small and off to the side. Then she shone a penlight into Tanner's pupils, hoping that they shrank to pinpoints. If so, then, at the very least, some part of Vin's brain still lived. When he saw her nod at the reaction he knew Tanner's pupils had constricted. There was nothing more he could do here. It was time to go find the others and tell them what was happening before they stormed in to find out themselves.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nathan found the others in the ER waiting room. Larabee was pacing, Josiah and JD sat on the couch, each lost in his own thoughts, and Buck stood at the window, staring out at the parking lot.

Chris stopped, green eyes locking on Jackson's brown. "Nathan?" he asked, his tone as scared as the man had ever heard it.

The medic nodded. "He's breathing. They're doing all they can for him. We're just gonna have to wait now."

That wasn't what Larabee wanted to hear, but it was the best he was going to get for the time being and he knew it. He nodded and started pacing again.

With nothing else to do, Nathan said, "I'm gonna go ask about Ezra."

"Good," Buck replied. "Maybe you can find out more than we could."

"I'll try." Jackson headed off.

What the hell was Tanner thinking? Chris fumed silently. But he already knew the answer. He had been protecting Ezra, and him. Vin had made himself a freaking target in order to save their sorry hides. But what if Trent's sniper had gone for a head shot? Christ.

Stupid, Larabee concluded. Goddamn stupid move! But he knew he could expect nothing less from the sharpshooter. It was Vin's job to cover them and he took that responsibility seriously – too seriously sometimes it appeared.

Just hang in there, Chris told his friend. Don't you give up now, Tanner. Not before I can kick your ass for thinking you made a better target than we did.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The doctor stepped out into the hallway, composed herself, and then walked down to the waiting room. There were five men there, all of them waiting as patiently as they could for her to speak.

"Are all of you here for Mr. Tanner?" she asked them.

"Yes," Larabee said, stepping up to her. "Vin's an ATF agent, part of my team. And, before you ask, we're the only family he has, so whatever you have to say you say to all of us."

"I see. I'm Doctor Vivika Sahir." She proffered her hand and Larabee took it. Then, with what she hoped was an optimistic smile, she said tentatively, "Agent Tanner is stable for the time being. He's sedated, so it's impossible to tell how his brain is doing right now, but his oxygen level is holding. I really wish I could tell you more, but we simply cannot be sure at this time… However, I think he has a good chance."

"Chance?" Chris snapped at her.

"A good chance," she corrected him.

"What happened to him?" Buck asked her. If it had been any other circumstance he would have been flirting with the attractive young woman, but that was the last thing on his mind at the moment.

"Is he an asthmatic?" she asked them.

"No," Chris replied immediately.

"But he is just getting over a rather bad case of bronchitis," Nathan told her.

"Ah," she responded, nodding slowly. "Well, it appears that the trauma of the gunshot and the fall triggered what we would call a sudden asphyxic asthma attack if he were an asthmatic. But, in any event, the results were the same."

"Can we see him?" Chris asked her.

"Not yet. I'll come back when I know more. I won't be long."

"Thank you, Doctor," Josiah told her.

She nodded and smiled thinly at Sanchez before turning and heading back to the ER.

"Vivika Sahir?" JD asked softly, watching her go. "What kind of name is that?"

"Indian," Josiah replied. "But no accent, so she's as American as the rest of us."

"I don't care if she's from Mars," Chris growled, "as long as she can get Vin through this."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Dr. Sahir returned to her patient and checked his chart. Arterial blood gas analysis showed his oxygen levels were good, but the carbon dioxide level was still sky-high, indicating that he was failing to exhale fully. She listened to his chest again, his breath sounding louder – hisses now, rather than tight squeaks.

"Lana, let's give him another gram of mag and another epi," she told the nurse.

"More mag?" Lana asked skeptically.

"Mmm. I think it's working."

The nurse drew up the magnesium while the respiratory tech rechecked the ventilator. "Ten breaths a minute, low volume per breath," he reported.

Dr. Sahir stepped over. The lung pressures, to her relief, were not climbing. She checked the bronchodilator mists that were running down the breathing tube. The paralytics should be wearing off soon, she knew, but for now Agent Tanner was still inert. There really wasn't any reason she couldn't allow the others in to see their friend so she turned and went back to the waiting room, the five men crowding around her as soon as she had crossed the threshold.

"Something wrong?" Nathan asked her.

"No, I was just thinking, there really isn't any reason why you shouldn't visit Agent Tanner, but just for a few minutes. We'll be moving him into a room soon."

"We appreciate that, Doctor," Buck told her, flashing her one of his most charming smiles.

She nodded and led them back to the resuscitation room where they immediately gathered around Vin's bedside. She could tell that they were worried about the plastic tube that looped out of Tanner's mouth, but there was nothing she could do about that.

"Hey, Vin," JD said, reaching out to rest his hand tentatively on the sniper's arm.

Buck leaned over JD's shoulder and added, "You hang in there, Junior. Everything's going to be just fine. You've got a real pretty doctor takin' care of you. She's gonna make sure you're just fine."

"That's right," Nathan said, reaching out to give the unconscious man's shoulder a gentle squeeze, "you're gonna be just fine in no time."

"We're all here for you, son," Josiah added said over Jackson's shoulder. "And Ezra's doing fine, too. I know you'd want to hear that."

"I think that's enough for now," Dr. Sahir told them, touched by the affection they obviously had for her patient.

Four of the men filed out, leaving Chris alone at Vin's bedside. She was about to ask him to leave as well, but then Larabee reached out, his hand closing around Vin's upper arm. "You listen to me, Tanner," she heard him say softly. "You don't give up. You hear me? You don't give up. We need you too much for that."

"He doesn't strike me as a quitter," Dr. Sahir said softly as she stepped up to the opposite side of the bed and started to check Vin's lung sounds again.

"No, he's not," Chris said. "You know how he got himself shot?"

She glanced up and shook her head. "I'm assuming it was in the line of duty?"

Larabee nodded. "Yeah, you could say that. Another one of my men got shot. I was trying to reach him before he got himself killed. Vin made himself a target so the sniper who shot Ezra wouldn't kill him, or me, when I went for him."

"That was very brave," she said sincerely.

"Yeah, it was. Stupid, but, yeah, it was brave, too. He won't see it that way, though. As far as Vin's concerned, he was just doing his job." Larabee snorted softly and shook his head. Then he looked up, meeting the doctor's dark eyes. "He has to make it," he told her softly, his voice hushed by the emotion that was tightening his throat. "We can't afford to lose him… I can't lose him."

"We'll do our best, Agent…?"

"Larabee. Chris Larabee," he told her.

"We'll do everything we can, Chris. I promise you. And he is doing well."

He nodded, looking away from her sympathetic eyes. "Thank you, Doctor."

She nodded. "Why don't you go get some coffee? We'll know more in an hour or so."

Chris looked back down at Vin, wanting to stay, but knowing he wasn't doing the man any good, and he needed to find out if Ezra was out of surgery. He nodded. "Let us know if anything changes."

"I will," she assured him.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Forty-five minutes later Vin was semi-conscious and trying to pull the breathing tube out, the nurse fending away his sluggish hands asking hopefully, "Dr. Sahir, can I sedate him?"

"You bet," she told Lana and headed for the waiting room. This time only Larabee remained. "Are your friends eating?"

He shook his head. "Josiah and Nathan are with Ezra – the man who was shot. Buck and JD headed back to the federal building," he told her and then wondered why. He was babbling. Not a good sign. "Is Vin all right?" he forced himself to ask.

"Yes, he is doing wonderfully. He woke up and tried to remove his breathing tube so we had to sedate him, but that's a good sign. We will be moving him to a room now. I'll have the nurse let you know where."

"Thank you, Doctor," he said sincerely.

She gave him a sympathetic smile. "You're very welcome."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"You plannin' on spendin' the night?" Buck asked after he entered Vin's room to find Chris sitting next to the sniper's bed, head in his hands as he rubbed at his temples.

Chris looked up. "How's Ezra?"

"Still sleepin', just like when you saw him. But the nurse says he's doing fine. His vitals are strong, no fever… You know the drill."

Chris nodded. "Good. Good."

"How are you?" Wilmington asked his long-time friend. He didn't like what he saw, but he knew better than to press Chris on it.

"I'm fine. And, yeah, I'm planning to stay the night. You?"

"I'm gonna take JD home, see if he can't get some sleep. Nathan's with Ezra, in case he wakes up. Josiah said he'll spell him in a few hours. I'll come back to spell you, if you want me to," he said hopefully

Chris gave his friend a tired smile and shook his head. "No need. I'm not going anywhere."

Buck sighed. "Yeah, I kinda figured you might say that, but I wanted to make the offer – just in case you'd decided to be reasonable this time."

"You ever know me to be reasonable?" Larabee demanded, but a slight twinkle flashed through his eyes.

"Nope," Buck replied, blue eyes full of amusement. "But I also figure there's a first time for everything."

"Maybe the next time. Go on and get out of here. Oh, and call Josiah; tell him to stop by here first so I can go see how Ezra's doing later."

Buck nodded. "Will do. We'll see you in the morning."

Chris nodded, his gaze returning to Vin's face. Thank God the man wasn't still blue. He didn't think he'd ever forget that hideous color on Tanner's lips. When Buck was gone, he reached out and rested his hand on Tanner's arm, gently rubbing his thumb over Vin's skin. "You're doing good, Cowboy, real good."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"And Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked, his usually smooth southern drawl more than a little slurred by the pain medication he was on.

"He's doing fine," Chris told the man.

"Hector Trent?"

"In jail," Chris replied from where he stood next to the injured man's bedside.

"Good, then this wasn't a complete waste of our time and effort," Standish said on a sigh.

"No, it wasn't."

Ezra's eyes closed, but he said, "How is it that I find myself here, in considerable discomfort I might add, when I could have been reaping my just rewards in the next life?"

Larabee allowed himself a small grin. Standish never said something in five words if he could come up with ten or, better yet, twenty-five. "Trent brought a sniper to the meet, just like we did. Ours was better."

Ezra chuckled softly. "I never harbored a doubt on that front, Mr. Larabee, I can assure you of that. But how is it that Mr. Tanner was wounded?"

Chris drew in a deep breath and said softly, "Haven't got it from Vin yet, but I'm guessing that Trent's sniper was waiting for me to come out there to get you so he could get the two of us with a single shot. Vin managed to… get his attention. They fired on each other. Trent's man is dead. Vin fell and had some kind of asthma-like breathing attack the doctor said."

"Sounds dreadful," Standish slurred sleepily.

"It was. But he's doing fine now," Larabee repeated. "And so are you. You just need to get some more rest."

"Yes, I believe I shall," Standish said, slipping away with a soft sigh.

Chris waited for a few more minutes before Josiah arrived.

"How is he?" the profiler asked as he came in.

"Sounds pretty close to normal." Chris gave Sanchez an update on Ezra, then headed back to Vin's room. Tanner was still unconscious, but apparently resting peacefully. When the nurse came in to check on him an hour later, she found Chris sound asleep in the chair next to the bed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris awoke the next morning to a riot of noise – alarm bell, multiple voices and the unmistakable sound of retching. He jerked, coming to his feet only to find a nurse holding an emesis basin for Vin, who was hunched over the edge of the bed, spitting into the basin. Dr. Sahir was there as well.

"What's wrong?" he demanded.

The physician looked up. "Mr. Tanner pulled out his breathing tube," she explained, looking almost pleased by the event.

Larabee waited and watched while they cleaned Vin up and got him settled back in the bed. The doctor checked him over and listened to his chest. Tanner's disoriented gaze swept the room, coming to rest on Larabee, the growing panic fading as soon as he saw the blond was there.

When the doctor was finished, she took a step back and said, "You're doing very well, Mr. Tanner."

"C'n I go home then?" Vin rasped hopefully.

"Let me run a few tests and we will see if we cannot allow you to go home this afternoon. How does that sound?"

Vin nodded. And, as soon the doctor and the nurses left, he looked at Larabee and asked, "Ezra?"

"Don't worry, he's doing fine. Leg wound – through and through. It didn't hit the bone or anything important. He'll have to do some physical therapy, but he should be back in no time."

Vin's eyes closed and sagged back against his pillow. "Glad t' hear it." His eyes opened again and he peered up at Larabee. "Y' all right, too?"

"Yep," Chris replied, trying to suppress a smile. "Thanks to you." He paused for a moment, then added, "But if you ever do anything like that again…. I'll shoot you myself. What the hell were you thinking?"

"Wasn't thinkin'," Vin replied honestly, voice sounding unusually rough and scratchy. "I was tryin' t' save your ungrateful ass. Ezra's, too."

"And you did," Chris replied. "But makin' yourself a target isn't– It's just– I don't want you to– Hell, Vin, you're not expendable!"

"Never thought I was," came the raspy reply, blue eyes closed once more. "But I didn't figger you or Ez was neither."

Chris smiled thinly at that. "I appreciate that, Vin, but…" He trailed off and sighed heavily, not sure what to say. "Couldn't you just have shot him?"

"Hell, Lar'bee, I did shoot 'im… just couldn't kill 'im." Vin paused for a moment, then asked, "What happened after that?"

"You don't remember?"

"Wouldn't be askin' if I did, now would I?"

Well, the Tanner logic was still impeccable. Larabee moved his chair closer to the bed and sat down. "You got hit in the chest."

"That much I know," Vin replied dryly, his hand coming up to gingerly explore the ugly bruise.

"Hurts, huh?"

"A mite."

"I'll bet," Larabee said, shaking his head. He'd never met a man with a higher pain tolerance, and he wasn't at all sure he wanted to know how Tanner had come by it. "Few minutes after you were hit you stopped breathing."

Blue eyes rounded. "What?"

"The doctor says it's like you had an asthma attack or something."

"That why they had that damned tube down m' throat?"

Chris nodded. "They had to do your breathing for you for a while."

Vin shook his head, his hand moving up to rub absently at his throat. "'M breathin' now just fine. Can't I get out 'a here?"

Larabee shook his head. "You heard the doctor. If the tests look good, then you can go – maybe. And by God you're not going back to that death trap you call a home. I'm taking you out to the ranch for a day or two."

"Hell, Chris, ain't no need for that," Vin argued, but there was no real passion behind it and Larabee knew it.

"I think there is."

Tanner rolled his eyes, but he didn't argue any more. A couple of days at the ranch sounded too good. "Think they'd let me go see Ez?"

"Probably… If I take you in a wheelchair."

"Aw hell, didn't get shot in the leg, y' know."

"Hey, you want to go or not?"

"Hell… Oh, all right, I'll let y' give me a push."

"Glad to hear it. But only if the doc agrees you can go."

Vin sighed heavily. "You're gettin' soft, Cowboy. Time was you'd just wrangle up a chair an' take me."

"Just getting wiser is all."


Larabee sighed. There was no winning with Tanner. "I'll go see if I can find the doctor." He started out of the room, but paused, turning back. "And I damn well better find your scrawny ass lying right there in that bed when I get back. You hear me?"

Tanner sighed dramatically. "Yeah, I hear ya. Didn't get shot in the ear neither."

Larabee's eyes narrowed. "Tanner…"

"Fine, fine, I'll wait right here for ya," Vin growled, looking more than a little annoyed. "There, that make ya happy?'

Chris smiled. Okay, so maybe he could still win one occasionally. "Yep."

Four days later

Chris watched as Ezra slowly crossed the living room and sank down into one of the recliners. The man was still limping and he leaned heavily on the handsome cane he had picked up from somewhere, but he was finally out of the hospital.

Standish sighed gratefully as he settled into the chair. That accomplished, he carefully leaned back and pushed the footrest up so his leg was elevated. He sighed again.

"How're you feeling?" Chris asked him, waiting for the others to bring in the food from the kitchen.

"The pain is tolerable," Ezra replied. "And they assure me I'll make a full recovery. However, it will occur in its own good time, not on my desired schedule; more is the pity."

A soft chuckle filled the room and Tanner spoke from the sofa. "Why can't y' just say it hurts like hell but you're gettin' better?"

"Barbarian," Ezra replied with tolerant affection. "However, I will take this opportunity to thank you for saving my life, Mr. Tanner. Needless to say, I do appreciate your actions on my behalf."

"I was just doin' m' job."

"Be that as it may, I am in your debt."

Tanner pushed himself up and looked at Standish. "Y' don't owe me nothin', Ezra. If I'd seen that man before the shootin' started, y' wouldn't 'a gotten shot."

"None of us is perfect," Chris said, finally able to relax now that his team was whole again – tattered, but whole.

"Some of us just manage to come closer to that desired state than others," Standish intoned with his usually audacity.

Vin snorted. "Guess that'd be you?"

"No," Ezra replied sincerely, "not I, Mr. Tanner."

Vin blushed furiously and shook his head. "Hell, Ezra, I was just watchin' out for m' friends… m' family."

Chris and Ezra exchanged glances. And what could you say to that?

Vin dropped back down. He'd gotten the last word – again. He smiled.


Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, Ouch! #16, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of the multi-media zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, and Lorin and Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 10-19-2005. Art by Shiloh (