The Circle


Rating: PG 13

Disclaimer:  I  do not own or profit from the use of the Magnificent Seven characters. Thank you to MOG for the creation of the ATF.

Comments:  I should begin by saying this is not an original idea, and there will be astute people who know where I got the idea.  Thank you to MOG for betaing and being 'picky.' Thank you to my friends who kept prompting me to finish this. This is my strange holiday gift to all.

Archivist's Note:   This fic was previously hosted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in September 2006.

Vin dropped his chin down slightly and sauntered to the bar.  He glanced back and forth seeking out the familiar face and found him at a table. Turning to the bartender he gave his order. "Corona."

With beer in hand he moved further down the bar so he would be right across from Chaz instead of seeing the back of his head.  "ID confirmed," he mumbled as he sat on a  vacant stool and looked over to see whom Chaz was talking to, and maybe pick up bits of the conversation.

Vin almost choked as he saw the perp's companion.  He swallowed again to stifle the coughing fit threatening to bubble over. Tanner took in a breath through his nose and let is slowly out his mouth. He didn't have time to listen to their conversation, but Vin knew what it was about. "On the move," he mumbled with the bottle by his lips. The longhaired agent kept his head down as he passed the table and followed Chaz outside.

Head bowed, he looked broken. It was just like he felt before. Tanner shook his head. The guy he saw just looked familiar. Didn't everyone have a twin? It was all a mistake. He was wound up so tight he saw things.

The sharpshooter placed his hands on the door, about to exit. He just needed to take onw more look, and settle his nerves. Vin turned his head and immediately realized he shouldn't have turned.

Quickly, he pushed open the door, and took in a gulp of air.  Chaz had made it across the street. Vin jogged across the road to see Ezra come out of the shadows. "Remember me?"

"What?" Chaz replied as he stepped back.

Standish flashed his badge. "You're under arrest, for the attempted murder of a federal officer."

The police cars blocked escape routes onto the street. Panicking, the perp decided to dart into the park, but Ezra swiftly stopped him.

Tanner was surprised when the southerner tackled Chaz. "I don't need this shit." Vin mumbled under his breath. He figured he had to intervene when Ezra started throwing punches at the man on the ground.  The sharpshooter gestured for the police to stay back.

Vin bent down and shoved the undercover agent. "Ez, get off him. . ." The southerner stayed firmly on top, his hands wrapped around Chaz's neck. Vin gripped Ezra's hands. "Stop. . ." That not working, Tanner grabbed Standish's face. "Knock it off!"

Ezra looked up, jolted by the grip on his chin. "Don't speak to me like I'm demented!"

Vin let go and peeled the southerner's hands off of Chaz's neck. "Then get that sick f***ing look out of your eyes."

"Boys, you're putting on quite a show." Tanner and Standish both peered up to see Josiah and Nathan.

"Ez, Chris wants him to be able to talk." Jackson put out his hand to the southerner.

"He would have been able to, " Ezra stood up on his own and started to walk forward. "In a couple of days." Vin placed himself between Standish and Sanchez who was assisting Chaz.  "I wasn't going to leave marks." The undercover agent explained.

"Hand him over to the boys in blue." Vin said to Josiah with a nod.

As Chaz was escorted past the men, Ezra got in a final shot. "Fine, another time," he stated as he punched the perp in the gut. The exporter coughed.

Sanchez straightened the criminal and placed the cuffs on his wrists, pushing into the awaiting officers ready to Mirandize him.

Nathan raised an eyebrow at the commotion.  "Where did a nice southern boy like you learn that?"

"Boarding school." Ezra replied as he adjusted his shirt.

Jackson shook his head and continued. "Good news, if you hadn't hung up on Chris he would have told you—JD's awake."

Sanchez was smiling as he returned to the group; the same grin Vin knew was plastered on his face, Ezra's and Nathan's.  It was pure relief.  Standish slapped Jackson on the back.

"Glorious news," The southerner rubbed his chin, looking like he was trying to wipe the smile off his face, but not succeeding. The officer in charge was calling out to them.

Vin looked at Josiah. "There are some people I want to talk to." Tanner gestured behind him toward a bench where the teenagers they had met a few nights ago were gathered. The sharpshooter had seen them during the stakeout.

Some of the kids were standing on the bench, trying to see what was taking place. "Trey, come here for a sec."

Trey jumped down, almost losing his oversized sneakers in the process. "You're one of those agents. . ."

Vin pointed to a nearby tree. Trey shrugged his shoulders and followed the ATF agent. Tanner leaned against the trunk. "Yeah, we think we know what's happenin' to your friends.  But I need your help."

Trey looked around then pointed to himself doubtfully, "My help?"

Vin nodded. He tipped his head in the direction of the bar. "You know that guy who just left." Trey knitted his brows as he glanced at the bar.  Tanner turned and pointed to the man in question. "Mean lookin', with the scar?" He was walking away into the night.

Trey whistled then wrapped his hand on the back of his neck. "Yeah, seen him around."

Vin pulled 3 twenty-dollar bills out of his pocket. "I need you to follow him and tell me where he goes." Tanner placed the money in the Trey's palm then closed his hand around the money.  "But don't get caught." He didn't want to get the kid involved, but who knew the streets better then someone who lived on them. Trey would be able to get in and out of places without anyone noticing, while Vin was completely unfamiliar with this territory.

The street kid shook his head, pushing the money away. "Fair is fair and you're helping us. . ."

Vin stepped back; grinning at the sense of honor the street hadn't vanquished from the teenager. And Tanner knew he had found someone he could trust. "Kid, you know that fair doesn't get you a hot meal and a bed for the night-take it."

Trey nodded, and stuffed the money in his jacket pocket. "I'll be fine."

"You take care and call me on my cell iffen somethin' comes up." Vin said as he began to walk towards his friends.  Tanner stopped and turned around. "You still have my card, right?" He added, thinking in all likelihood Trey had tossed the card.

"I got it." He replied. "Later." Trey walked towards his friends at the nearby bench.

Vin jogged over to Nathan, Josiah and Ezra. He bit his lip hoping he was doing the right thing.  One step at a time he told himself. Tanner had to be sure.

"Are you saying he lucked out?" Buck interrupted in disbelief.   He was pouring a glass of water for JD, which was filled precariously to the top. Luckily, Chris noticed and pulled the mustached agent's hand up before the liquid spilled to the floor.

Larabee transferred some of the water to another glass. Wilmington nodded and wrapped Dunne's free hand carefully around the cup so he could slowly sip the water.

"Yeah, they would have killed him, but then found out he was ATF," Vin explained what they had learned from Chaz at the preliminary interview. "Saved his life." Tanner grinned and rested his hand on Dunne's foot.

Wilmington looked at the boy in the bed. Still pale, but eyes wide and struggling not to close. Dunne was taking it all in, like the others, like Buck. "Damn lucky they didn't want to kill a federal agent. Damn lucky."  The mustached agent momentarily gripped his friend's shoulder. When they were at home, Buck would read him the riot act, but for now the mustached agent was happy the criminals hadn't wanted to cross that line.

Chris was seated, his legs extended in front of him. "Why don't you head back to the hotel to rest."

JD looked at Buck and nodded. When he first awoke the young agent had talked some, but then divulged his jaw hurt and  head pounded when he talked. The doctors assured him it would pass in a few days.

"I don't even know where we're staying." Buck laughed, knowing he dropped his bag somewhere but not exactly where.

Ezra sighed. The undercover agent was leaning against the wall under the television.  His arms were folded behind him. "The usual, some place on the side of the road."

 Larabee shook his head. "This isn't a road trip where you stop at the first motel with a clerk least likely to be a homicidal maniac."

"It surely isn't a vacation at the Four Seasons either." Ezra mumbled under his breath and the team chuckled.

Josiah and Nathan were sitting on the empty bed.  Jackson coughed. "You know Chris I can't believe you said that out loud cause we never have encountered a homicidal clerk bent on. . ."

There was a pause and the team broke out into laughter.  Dunne laughed and held his ribs, broken from the assault. Buck grinned. This was the best celebration of life and survival.

"You're all replaceable." Chris growled half heartedly, sending the team again into fits. Larabee threw his hands up into the air and Vin shrugged his shoulders then rested an arm on Ezra's shoulder as he continued to chuckle.

Wilmington too found himself gasping for breath, then wiping the tears from his eyes.

"I think it's time we allow Brother Dunne to get some rest." Josiah pushed himself off the bed, leaving a large indent in the mattress where he had once been.

Nathan also got off the bed. "He's right and Buck you need some rest."

Ezra stepped away from the wall. "I'd be happy to stay with Agent Dunne."

Chris answered cutting Buck's response off with a glare. "Great, night JD." He said as he headed toward the door.

Tanner got behind Wilmington and pushed him forward. "Night kid, see ya tomorrow."
Buck nodded to his bedridden friend. JD replied with a nod and a thumbs up.

They were at the elevator when Buck remembered he had left his jacket back in the room. Granted, he could have done without it, but the task would make him feel more at ease—one look to see JD was fine. "Guys, I'll meet you downstairs. I forgot my jacket."

"Five minutes, Buck and we come up and get you." Chris replied as he entered into the elevator. He turned, pointed to his watch and the elevator doors slid closed.

Wilmington jogged down the hall and stopped as he came to JD's room. Ezra was talking.

"I wish to remind you of my request to stay at the hotel." Standish said quietly. Wilmington could see the southerner had pulled up a chair near the bed.

JD voice was deep and crackling from disuse. "Seemed like a good idea at the time. I'd seen it work for you" Dunne paused for a moment. "Shoulda known I couldn't be like you."

"Like  me?" Ezra replied in disbelief. "I believe my mother can list all of my faults in alphabetical order."

The young agent coughed and Buck almost stepped forward. He placed a hand on the wall to stop himself. "You're the best." JD said to the undercover agent.  "Guess I have a lot to learn."

There was silence in the room; the buzzing from the fluorescent lights permeated the hallway. But, Buck could still hear Ezra's reply. "Don't we all, JD."

"Don't we all." Wilmington said under his breath and slowly backed away from the door. The jacket could wait until tomorrow. Ezra needed this time with JD. Buck glanced at his watch. He had 3 minutes to spare.

JD turned and tried to get comfortable. He shifted, careful not to tug on his stitches. His spleen was gone. He wondered if they really did pickle them with formaldehyde in order to study them later. Dunne tried to sleep, not like he had a choice. He felt like shit and sleep meant he wasn't thinking, at least for awhile. "Damn," he turned, then ended back in the same spot.  By not moving he didn't flare anything up. JD settled for putting the back of the bed up higher.  The guys were taking turns visiting him.

He flipped through 'Car and Driver' Nathan left him earlier.  Dunne had been informed Chaz wouldn’t give up the name of the person heading the ring. And now JD blamed himself. He should have paid more attention. The patient threw the magazine in frustration.

He had let that kid down. Finally, after a week, the dead body had a name-Jason Conel.  JD didn't know if it was better or worse. Dunne felt more disconnected when the body was John Doe. But, Jason was different. Jason  was alone without any dignity when he died. Jason didn't think anyone cared for him, since no one was willing to help him.

The young agent gripped the fitted sheet in his fists.  JD had f***ed up all around-going out with Chaz, not helping Jason, even blurting out he was an ATF agent. It may have saved his life, but it seemed wrong. Dunne let  go of the sheet and crossed his arms around his sore torso. He stayed there, head bowed lost in his thoughts.

"What do you want?" JD said when he looked up, knowing the words sounded callous. Vin was standing in the doorway. Dunne didn't know how long the quiet man viewed the young agent. It was unnerving. JD was tired of the babysitters and their obligation to watch over the fallen man.

Tanner shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the magazine. Vin picked it up and placed it on the other bed. "Did you read about the new Mustang?"

JD glanced up to the sharpshooter, his stare full of sarcasm.

Vin  shrugged his shoulders again and sat on the  spare bed, flipping through the magazine.

Dunne left his arms crossed and watched as Tanner read the magazine, sometimes pausing on a page longer than the others. JD's temper began to rise. Why was Vin here when he could be out finding the people responsible for Jason's death? "I don't need someone 24/7."

Vin closed the magazine, rolled it up, tapping it lightly on his leg. "I know, kid."

JD took in a deep breath to control his rising emotions. The young agent didn't like being patronized.  The team may have more experience, but they didn't know how he felt every minute of every day. "Vin, no offense, but how the hell do you know how I feel?" Dunne pressed the button and allowed the bed to shift down into a lower position. He tried to turn away from the sharpshooter, but instead looked up at the ceiling hoping he could count the dots and fall asleep. "A kid was killed in front of me and there was nothing I could do." The injured man added softly.

Dunne was glad Tanner didn't respond. He blinked, not knowing if it was from the tears threatening or from fatigue.  JD heard Vin drag the chair across the room.  "JD let me tell ya a story," the sharpshooter began. He had moved the chair next to the bed. JD turned his head away-he didn't want to hear any of Josiah's f***in' parables or Vin's tall tales.

Tanner continued. "There was this kid I knew who decided to run away, on account life looked better on the street than at the other side of a belt. This is what he told me." Vin laughed.

Dunne shook his head. What was so funny about a homeless, abused kid?

Vin cleared his throat. "So on the street the little guys need protection and he fell in with this kinda gang." Tanner paused, collecting his thoughts.  "They wanted to get off the street and figured they needed cash."

The sharpshooter leaned into the bed and rested his hands on the rails. "And there was this older kid who had a great idea-have the kids fight, people bet on them. Well, people...they're kinda funny. . .They want to see something bad, so the ante was upped and they were fightin' to the death."

JD turned his head to face Vin. Dunne nodded in understanding. He swallowed the lump
in his throat and took in a deep breath.  The young agent closed his eyes.

Vin slowly removed his hands from the bars. "Kids fighting to survive and my friend he watched his best bud .  ." Tanner exhaled through his mouth.  "I, my friend," Vin stopped then relaxed.  JD had fallen asleep. "Was ashamed for a long time. . ."

Tanner flipped through the magazine for the tenth time.  Vin closed the magazine and let his head fall back. He stretched his legs out before him. "Hey, cowboy," Tanner said his eyes closed, sensing Larabee had come to relieve him.

"How is he?" Chris replied as he nudged Vin's legs.

Tanner sat up and opened his eyes. "Sleepin'" The longhaired agent stood up and stretched, vacating the chair for the leader.  Vin cleared his voice. "Listen, I'm gonna check somethin' out."

"Okay," Chris stepped away from the bed. Vin followed.  "Do you want backup?" The team leader asked.

"Nah," Vin shook his head, feeling confident. He was going to talk to Trey. "Nothing serious but it may lead to somethin'."

Larabee nodded, trusting the sharpshooter's instincts. "Take care of yourself."

Vin grinned. "I always do." He looked one last time at JD and headed out the door. The young agent needed the rest. Hopefully, he would awake with a little less guilt too.

Tanner drove to the meeting place. Vin worried over his decision to involve Trey.  Involving a kid…but when you grew up on the street you weren't just a kid. There was no one else who could track a person through the streets unnoticed like someone who lived on those same streets. Hopefully, when this was all over, he could talk to Trey about getting off the street. 'Course it would be the kid's choice.

Vin pulled over and Trey emerged from the shadows of the park. The teenager opened the door of the sedan and sat in the passenger seat. Trey had his hand near the door handle.  Tanner nodded, understanding the lack of trust. "What have ya got for me?"

"That guy?" Trey shook his head; a patch of curly hair fell into his eyes. "He's f**kin around, down by the warehouses."  The young man took out a slip of paper with  a street address and directions to the location.

Vin took the paper and placed it in his pocket. "You know what's goin' on?"

Trey shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't get too close—fancy cars and lots of people."

Tanner looked out the window for a minute. Vin didn't know how this kind of stuff continued. Why did people want to see others-kids, for God's sake, try to kill each other? And why did JD have to get in the middle? Now Vin had to confront so much. Part of him wished it was a coincidence and he hadn't seen the face in the bar. Tanner cleared his throat. "Kid, you did well." The sharpshooter slipped his hand into his jean pockets and pulled out a roll of bills. In total it was one hundred dollars in smaller bills.  Vin placed them in Trey's hand.  Tanner didn't push, but wanted to help the young man.  "Listen, how about we meet tomorrow? I've been where you are. I know what it's like." The sharpshooter didn't want to be a user. He also knew life on the streets was hard, but getting off of them was even more difficult. "Look, no strings. You show at about noon and we'll get a burger and talk. You don't, well, I understand."

Trey seemed to think about it for a moment, letting the money rest in his hands. "'Kay, thanks."   He replied as he clenched the money and carefully placed it in an inside jacket pocket which he zippered.

"Later," Vin said as Trey opened the car door. The young man gave a slight wave as he disappeared into the night.

Tanner pulled away from the curb and looked at the address. He decided to check it out tonight then report back to Chris and the team. No Lone Ranger for him.  He just wanted to check the perimeter and the area so a plan of infiltration could be made.

He killed the lights and parked a mile down the road from the site. Being careful to blend in and not be noticed he made it to the warehouse, which was bustling with activity.  Vin took a look at the plate numbers of some of the vehicles, Rolls Royces, Bentleys and some Mercedes.  Tanner whispered a few of the numbers under his breath so he would remember them later.

The longhaired agent could hear the cheering emanating from inside the building.  There were windows high up on the structure.  Vin went around back and began to climb—he had to know the set up inside.  The wood building was slick from the dampness in the air. He made sure his footing was secure as he tossed some boxes into the dumpster and used them to reach the windowsill.  He pulled himself up enough so he could see inside to the fighting below.

Vin swallowed. It hadn't changed—still the same people, not the same individuals but cut from the same cloth.  And they were happy and excited about what was taking place in center ring.

Tanner knew the outcome, just as he did twenty years ago.  The scared one filled with fear would never beat the one filled with hate.  The champion hated the other because a loss meant loss of life and prestige.  The one filled with fear didn't understand.  There would be no mercy.

Vin was able to place one hand against the glass; it left a print as he wiped it down the glass in communion with the young man about to die before him. Tanner didn't know why he decided to bang on the glass over and over again.  It was a stupid act. It would be noticed.  But, maybe it would give that kid a chance to fight back-to win.

Tanner stopped. Quickly, he made his way to the dumpster. Vin had to make it back and tell the others so this could be stopped. He landed with a thud as his rubber sole hit the pavement.

Chris hated paperwork. It caused his foot to tap nervously.  He glared at his right foot as an active reminder to cease tapping. He didn't want to wake the kid. Of course, it was too late.

"Hmmm, Chrissss?"  JD blinked, yawned then closed his eyes as he mumbled, "What happened to Vin's friend?"

Larabee put the paperwork to the side and pulled his chair up closer to the bed. "Vin's friend?"

Dunne placed his arm over his eyes. "Yeah, some sort of fight, like Jason's. . ."

"A fight?" Chris humored the young man. The doctors probably had him pumped with pain medication. "Go back to sleep, kid."

JD sighed in return. "No, no," Dunne mumbled. "Ya know, kids fighting kids."  The young agent yawned in his struggle to become alert. "Can ya ask Vin if the kid died?"

"I'll ask him. . ." Larabee patted Dunne's arm, and he lulled of to sleep again.

The  team leader looked out the window and was only greeted by his image. What was JD talking about? Larabee had to ask Tanner. The seed was planted and took root.

Chris picked up the phone and dialed Vin's cellphone only to be directed to voice mail. He clicked the receiver and dialed the hotel. There was no answer. Chris was about to slam down the phone when he remembered the sleeping patient. Instead he  pulled the phone as far away from JD as possible. He had to wait six rings until Wilmington answered. "Buck, can you check on Vin for me?"

"What am I dorm mother?" Wilmington grumbled.  "Everyone should be on a freakin' leash." Buck mumbled.

"What was that?" Chris raised his eyebrows, knowing his friend had said something.

Wilmington cleared his throat. "Just looking for some shoes-forget it."   Larabee could hear the opening of the door. Then the sound of knocking. "Damn, what if I walk in on him. . ."

Chris  rubbed  the side of his temple. These men tried his patience.  "Buck. . ."

Wilmington could be heard knocking a little louder. "Yeah, yeah, I should travel with my chicken."

Larabee made a mental note to get rid of the chicken when he got back to the office. All he wanted was for the mustached agent to open Vin's hotel room. "Buck. . ." Chris raised his voice, then looked guiltily at JD. "Please. . ."

"That's right, Chris, I'm gonna track down the maid and get her to open the door at 2 am!" Wilmington's voice was filled with equal annoyance. "You woke up Ezra."

Larabee covered his face with his hand.  Everything had become very complicated. Through the phone the team leader heard a strange noise. "Buck, what the hell was that?"

"Ahhhh, Ez got the door open."  And his friend's explanation was enough. Chris would find out the damage later. "He's not here." Buck announced.

"Damn it!" The team leader braced a hand on the wall.  "Any notes, anything?"

"No," Wilmington replied. "Chris, what's going on?" He added with concern in his voice.

Larabee punched the wall. "I don't fuckin' know but I will find out."

Vin didn't see the two men in black waiting for him. And he certainly didn't get a chance to I.D. them before a strong hand grabbed a fistful of the back of his tan, suede jacket and threw him against the wall of the building. 'Damn, damn, damn,' he thought to himself. He started with a diatribe, which he hoped sounded dumb and innocent. "Hey! What's the problem? C'mon, I was just lookin'..."

The young agent turned his head slightly over his shoulder, trying to get a look at whomever stood behind him but the only new information he gained was how much pain brick inflicted on a forehead when it was slapped violently against the hard surface.

A rough voice also corrected his action. "Well then look at the fuckin' wall and shut the fuck up."

Tanner stumbled slightly as his feet were kicked apart in an attempt to spread his legs. A set of hands patted him down, efficient and professional. Weapons checks were obviously nothing new to the unseen individual. Vin breathed a silent curse as one of the hands pushed aside the longhaired agent's jacket and stopped at his Glock.

"Got something," said the voice behind him. Vin was again forced flat against the wall and his weapon was pulled from the holster at the small of his back.

The other assailant, shorter but with an equally stocky build, kept a gun pointed at Vin and clicked the Nextel phone occupying his other hand. "We've got one. Armed. At the
back entrance."

Tanner was unable to make out the muffled reply as he was forcefully turned around. The phone's owner, however, translated the answer. "We hold him here."

Vin folded his hands casually in front of his body but the motion garnered an intense reaction. Tanner's muscles tightened as the pistol aimed at him rose slightly.

"Don't move!" yelled the man who'd appropriated the ATF agent's Glock. Tanner slowly moved his hands apart, keeping the palms forward and turned the move into a shrug. "I was just checkin' out the fancy cars," the sharpshooter explained, gesturing with his neck to the myriad of vehicles. "I could make some sort of score. You bet on those fights?"

He received only a grunt in response. He didn't know from which idiot the sound came. Not that he cared; it was just small talk and meant to relax. Tanner caught the guard with the gun shifting his eyes down the alley and in that second Vin capitalized on the opportunity. He landed a backfist to the thug on his left and with a quick shift of balance, sidekicked the man to his right. It stunned them. One man's hands went to this face, the other's to his groin. Tanner ran, stumbling at first, until gunfire skipped off the pavement before him and forced him to stop. Like a caged animal he took a few steps back but was trapped in the beam of a flashlight.

The light cut through the black night. The sharpshooter squinted trying to make out the figure walking towards him. He was tall and broad-shouldered and Vin saw a weapon stiffly held, pointed in his specific direction. The ATF agent placed his hands in the air.

The two men who Vin escaped from came forward and got in a few shots. Tanner coughed as his ribs were repeatedly punished. He dropped to one knee. The tall man grabbed one of the agent's arms and pulled him to a standing position. He patted him down again and stopped at the back pocket. Carefully, he took out Vin's badge. Tanner stifled the groan. All the shit had hit the fan.

The man opened the badge and swore softly. "Shit." He flipped the leather bi-fold around, showing it to his associates.

One of the idiots, who was now unconsciously nursing the hand he'd bruised against Vin's ribs, repeated the curse. "Man, what did we do to piss off the ATF?"

Tanner gave a strained chuckled. "Ya almost killed one?"

The shorter man snapped a hand out, grabbing a fistful of Vin's hair and yanked back firmly. The agent's breath caught in his throat when he felt the cold barrel of a 9-mm press into the soft tissue under his jaw. "Maybe this time we finish the job."

"Cut the shit, Tim," the new man berated, holding up a Nextel of his own. "Boss wants to see him."

Tanner spit; trying to work up some saliva as his mouth went dry. He took in a deep breath. The sharpshooter slowly walked forward. It was strange to walk to the building filled with so much light in a deserted warehouse district. How could something be so alive when it contained death?

The foursome entered through a back entrance, away from the eyes of the crowd enjoying witnessing a murder. Vin took the wooden steps slowly, at each step he whispered the same thing, "Sneak in, sneak out, sneak in, sneak out. . ." He must have kept too slow of a pace since the man behind him shoved him forward. Tanner caught himself by holding on to the railing. Vin balled up his hand contemplating striking back. He calmed down when three guns were pointed at him.

Vin shrugged his shoulder and let his hand run across the railing. He could feel the splinters touching his skin. There was only one flight left before he  faced the demon.

The ATF agent paused at the threshold to the office. Eli Joe turned away from the window that looked down onto the main floor of the warehouse. Dressed in a stylish suit, Joe looked smug, the king of his perverse kingdom. Eli looked Vin over and the sharpshooter assumed he had been recognized.

"Hey," The agent said in an informal greeting. Vin walked in and let his hands rest on the back of the chair.

"What does the ATF know?" Eli said as one of his henchmen tossed him the badge, "Agent Tanner?"

Vin blinked. He was a little runt when he met Eli Joe; the teenager hadn't given the young Tanner a thought then so why would he be remembered now? However, the Federal agent remembered the devil before him who sent so many boys to their unmarked graves. Eli watched over the destruction of Matt, Vin's best friend. Tanner shrugged his shoulders. "Pretty much everything. They sure as hell know I'm here." He took a step toward the back door in the office. "So I'm outta here."

The other man stared at Vin for a long moment then let out a laugh. "I don't think so. If they knew you were here, this place would be crawling by now." Eli Joe stepped from around the desk as two of the henchmen blocked Vin's exit. "You must believe in God and miracles. I've moved locations twice since the last problem. No one is going to find me and tomorrow I'm in Brazil."

Vin crossed his arms and turned. "So what are you gonna do? Can't believe you'd kill an old friend." he replied, not breaking eye contact, waiting for the flicker of recognition.

Eli Joe seemed to be straining, "Tanner? Tanner." He repeated the name as if it was from a foreign land. "Don't remember you." Eli picked up the badge again to study it. "But, whoever you are-you're dead. My men made a mistake last time. We won't make it again."

Suddenly, he snapped shut the wallet. "Tanner!" The scarred man shook his head. "I didn't think you'd last on the street. Guess you did though and became a bonifide ATF agent."

Tanner shifted his weight on to his right side. "Yeah, I figured a snake like you would always slither somewhere else." Vin added a grin to the insult, which was returned.

Eli chuckled and looked around at the empire he had built. "Snake?" The criminal leader made a quick motion with his hand and smiled at the reaction it garnered. "Maybe. Still have to kill you though."

Tanner had involuntarily flinched back from the action and cursed himself when he saw the pleased look on Joe's face. The longhaired agent crossed his arms and walked past Eli to look upon the destruction below. "See ya still using kids." Vin gestured out the window, avoiding a conversation about his death.

It was in-between a match. The floor was being mopped, leaving bloody streaks. The crowd was dissipating, chatting excitedly. Scanning the masses, Tanner saw the body being dragged away. Tanner rested his forehead against the cold glass, following the dead teen's body until it was out of his sight. Vin felt his toes curl in his shoes. He wasn't a kid anymore. He reminded himself repeatedly as he stared at the stain, the only evidence of the death fight. He had to stop it, now.

"Using them?" Eli Joe stood next to him. "I'm giving them a chance. . ."

Vin wiped down the shoulder closest to his old nemesis. He felt dirty having a simple conversation as the lives of the kids were threatened. Tanner let the contempt and anger erupt in his voice. "To die? Think they would rather live...Matt wanted too," Vin added as he lashed out with a backfist connecting with Eli's nose.

A second later, two men grabbed him and threw a few more punches to his already
strained ribs. A few words from Joe finally broke it off. "Let him up." Eli wiped the blood from his nose and neatened his hair, long and slicked back. One of his henchmen handed him a handkerchief. "If they beat the champion, they live. You know the rules. " Joe looked at the swatch of fabric in his hand, scarlet with blood, then threw it in the trash, the bleeding had ebbed quickly. His eyes flicked to Tanner.  "Figured I could give you that punch, since you're going to die."

"And here I thought you wanted to make some money..." Tanner gave a twisted grin and tried to ignore the feeling of his mouth going dry. He needed time to get out of this mess, and time for the guys to save his ass.

The criminal leader made his way to his desk. "No money is worth your kind of trouble when I'm leaving tomorrow. " Joe gingerly touched his nose. "You know the criminals aren't as stupid as you think."

"Stupid? Nah." Tanner glanced at the two men hovering near him. "Fuckin' idiots-that's about right." Vin interlocked his hands and let them relax in front of him.

"So, do you want a quick and easy death?" Eli replied, lowering himself into his chair.

Tanner easily picked up on the simple power game that Joe was attempting. He stepped forward but one of the thugs placed a hand on his shoulder, which he shrugged off. "How about we make a deal?"

"If it involves you walking out of here-I don't think so." Eli leaned back in his chair and placed his feet on his desk.

"You let those kids go. I fight instead. I lose-fine, I'm dead. I win, you still can kill me. You leave town. Either way you got yourself one more day of fightin', a good show and a shitload of money." Tanner hoped his speech sounded convincing. He wasn't just gambling with his life but the lives of others. "You're gonna have a blackbelt fighting a...well, an idiot," Vin grinned.

Eli Joe placed his feet back on the ground. He seemed to be making calculations in his head. "You're making sense."

Tanner smiled in relief. A plan had formed depending on a lot of what ifs and pure luck. At least the best ATF team this side of the Mississippi was on his side. Shit, would they even know where he was? Would they even know he was missing? They damn well better be able to use their skills and find him -fast. God, he hoped so.

Buck looked around the hospital room. Standing alone in one corner of the room, Ezra ran a hand down his face, in order to encourage his mind to wake up properly. Nathan stifled a yawn and Josiah was seated heavily in a chair. Wilmington looked down to the sweats he was wearing with a hole near the elastic and the stained sweatshirt he had thrown on. Hell, he wasn't even wearing socks. The mustached agent had just stuffed his feet inside his sneakers. But, they had all changed.  "How the hell did you guys have time to change?"

Standish lifted an eyebrow to the strange inquiry. "You requested five more minutes of sleep."

Wilmington cringed. He just wanted a little more sleep. Who knew in five minutes the guys could make themselves look presentable.  "Junior picked a bad time to go AWOL." Buck said as he retied his shoes.

"He didn't go AWOL." Chris replied through grinding teeth.  "He's in trouble."

"What happened?" Nathan prompted as he sat on the other bed with Josiah.

"He told me a story. . ." JD replied quietly, as the bed hummed so he was in a seated position. Buck sighed seeing the saddened features on his friend. It was bad enough the young agent was feeling bad about witnessing a murder, but Dunne was now feeling guilty about Tanner too.

Larabee placed a hand on the young man's shoulder. "About a kid who died in a deathmatch.  . . " Wilmington smiled slightly, recognizing Chris was trying to absolve JD of his guilt. "What did you two find out?'

"This group has been leaving bodies all over the US." Jackson explained as he shook his head. "They went overseas for awhile and now they're back. "

Josiah added more information. "No one knows who the head is, although there is quite a list of potential suspects."

Buck eyed Chris, who was not satisfied with the answers. Ezra, silent in a shadowed corner stepped into the light. "Are there any patterns? I would also like to review the list of suspects."

"What we do know is that they stay in town for a couple of weeks and then move on." Nathan stood up and adjusted the IV pole. "I'll give you all a copy of the list."

Josiah sighed and rested his hands on his thighs, wiping his palms. "Usually they get high rollers together at an abandoned warehouse or somewhere remote."

Chris moved away from the bed and looked out the window. "Vin told me he was going to follow up on a lead."

Buck looked around the room. The men all shook their heads. They had no idea where the sharpshooter had gone. Josiah, though, scratched his stubby beard. "He was talking to those kids. . ." Sanchez moved off the bed. "Brother Nate and I will follow up."

"What about the locals?" JD asked from his bed.

Standish cleared his throat. He joined Jackson and Sanchez by the door. "I will discuss matters with the local law enforcement. If that is fine with you, Agent Larabee?"  Chris nodded. "I will also see if Mister Rumio  has decided to be more co-operative."

"We need some answers." Larabee replied without turning around. "And I have a feeling we don't have a lot of time."

Wilmington tried to shake off the feeling of impending doom. As dawn tiptoed over the Seattle sky, Buck didn't know if having a fifth cup of coffee would help to settle the feeling that gripped his soul.

Ezra relieved Chris at the hospital after his fruitless experience with Chaz.  Standish warned them to expect a phone call from the district attorney's office regarding threats of assault.  "I assure you, all the evidence is circumstantial."  The undercover agent stated to Larabee.

Chris was pacing; Ezra's problem would be easy enough to deal with.  Time was against Vin though.  Buck silently passed another cup of coffee to the blond leader.

"Can't you patch into that ESP thing you two have going on?" Wilmington said jokingly, trying to lighten the morose mood.

Chris narrowed his eyes.  Buck knew he was going to be blasted by his friend for making light of the situation. Until Josiah and Nathan came through the door with a kid in tow, "Found someone who can help." Sanchez presented the young man. "This is the boy, Trey, that Vin has been talking to."

Nathan cleared his throat and glanced at the teenager.

Trey crossed his arms as if trying to protect himself from the scrutiny. The skittish boy eyed the door. He looked at the men, raised his shoulders then let them fall with a sigh. "He said he was going to meet me, later on. . ."

"He never came back to his hotel room." Chris interrupted, trying to glare the teenager into co-operating.

Trey rolled his eyes in response. "Seems like a guy who can take care of himself."

Buck placed a  hand on his friend's chest, before the leader decided to attack the teen. "He can, but right now he's in trouble and we need your help." Wilmington explained.

The boy raised his hands up. "Hey man, I don't know you.  I don't owe you anything." Trey took a step back.

"I know where you're coming from son." Josiah approached with outstretched hands of peace. "You can trust us-you know you can. I was with Vin when we met you. . ."

"If  something happens to Vin I don't think you want to live with that guilt, kid." Buck added softly. He understood the young man's distrust of authority. All of the adults in his life had let him down. How could they be any different? But, so much rested on Trey's shoulders and he would not be able to carry the burden of losing the one person who actually gave a damn about some street kid.

Trey bit his lip and finally decided to tell the team what he knew. The teen revealed where he had sent Vin.

"Okay, we need  a warrant and the help of the local PD." Chris barked out his orders. Ezra already had started dialing numbers on his cellphone.

Trey shook his head. "They won't listen."

"We'll make them listen." Standish covered the phone receiver.

Buck placed an arm around the shoulders of the young man. "You don't know how persuasive Chris Larabee can be, kid, when he wants to."

Trey shrugged off Buck's hand. "Listen, tell your friend . . ." The teenager eyed the door.

Wilmington nodded to the youth. The kid had helped out and wanted to leave. "You'll be able to tell him yourself when we get him back."