Slow Descent into Hell

by Angie

Buck released the Velcro closures on the body armor, drawing a deep breath as the air cooled the sweat trapped beneath the vest. He watched as Vin trotted down the steps from the second floor of the warehouse. Chris was in a cluster with Ezra and Josiah as they reviewed the contents of the wooden crates. Nathan was following the last of the criminals to the waiting ambulance.

"Where's JD?" Vin asked as he pulled the elastic band from his hair and ruffled it with his fingers. Sweat caused the sharpshooter's hair to hang in curly clumps.

"I think he's still in the surveillance van," Buck answered. "He was there a few minutes ago."

"Buck, come take a look at this," Chris called, motioning for both of them to join him.

Inside the surveillance van, JD finished making a copy of the recording of the bust. He stowed all of the headsets that Buck had dropped off to him a few minutes earlier. Sweat rolled down his face, making his eyes sting. The rear doors opened and he turned, expecting to see one of his teammates. What he did see made his heart clench. Swallowing hard, he raised his hands and moved toward the doors. No sooner did his feet touch the ground than he felt something strike the back of his head, sending him into darkness.

Even as he was recording the serial numbers on the packages of explosives, Buck glanced toward the nondescript van they used for surveillance. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up and his 'spider senses' were on full alert. "Hey, Ezra, do you mind seeing what's keeping JD?"

Glancing up from the books he had retrieved from the warehouse offices, which had been the main headquarters for the men they had busted, Ezra gave a nod. He slipped his sunglasses from his pocket and strode toward the brown van. The rear doors were open, probably to permit a breeze to circulate. As he rounded the door, his foot slipped in something. He looked down, expecting to see oil or some other noxious liquid; instead, he saw a puddle of blood. "JD!" he called as he eased his weapon from its holster. The interior of the van was empty. "JD! If you can hear me, answer me!" Ezra called again, as the hair on the nape of his neck stood up.

Buck looked up when he heard Ezra yell. Immediately, he dropped what he was doing and began to jog toward the van. The others also followed, drawing their weapons and scanning the area for any threat.

"He's gone," Ezra said.

"Maybe he just went to take a leak," Vin suggested.

"But there's this," Ezra said, indicating the puddle his foot had slipped in.

"Somebody has him!" Buck said, his eyes darting around.

"Let's get someone out here to finish the cleanup and get back to the office," Chris said.

+ + + + + + +

JD groaned softly as he opened his eyes … to darkness. He tried to move and found that he couldn't. Thick shackles secured his wrists and ankles, preventing him from being able to move. Something pressed against the back of his neck, making it impossible for him to lift his head. Fear bubbled in his stomach as his voice echoed back to him when he called out. "Buck? Guys?"

+ + + + + + +

The team reached the office, Chris already having called in an APB for his missing agent. Buck was building up to an explosive rage as he tried JD's cell phone again and again. He was the last one to see JD in the van and felt guilty for having left him alone. It wouldn't help for any of them to try to console him; he was beyond comforting with empty promises.

"Somebody has him!" Buck said as he glared at the back of his cell phone. "And they grabbed him right out from under our noses!"

"We'll get him back," Nathan said.

"Alive?" Buck challenged.

Once at the office, the men went to their computers and phones. Josiah called up all the cases where JD played a significant role. Nathan called the hospitals, checking to see if the young agent had been brought in. Ezra called some of his CI's, offering them cash for information. Vin stowed the equipment from the van and made coffee for all of them. Chris was on the phone in his office with Travis, coordinating the teams of men being put on JD's case. Buck was making the hard call, to JD's girlfriend.

"He's missing?" Casey asked, her voice rising. "How could he go missing? Why wasn't someone watching him?"

"I just saw him a few minutes before he went missing. He was … he was just doing his job," Buck explained. "We'll find him, Casey."

After she closed her cell phone, Casey closed her hand around it as tears burned in her eyes. She looked around the commons area where her classmates laughed and mingled. She hated that she couldn't even tell her friends what her boyfriend did for a living. JD told her that it would be too dangerous. A man strode past her and dropped an envelope into her lap.

"Hey, you dropped this!" she called, rising with the envelope in her hand. Before she called out again, she noticed the name scrawled across the envelope in bold black marker, Chris Larabee. By the time she looked again, the man was gone.

Clutching the envelope tightly, she ran for the parking lot.

+ + + + + + +

In the unrelieved darkness, JD groaned. It was getting colder. A muscle cramp in his calf caused him to fight the shackles. When the cramp eased, he drew shuddering breaths, trying to calm himself. His head ached; a dull, throbbing pain that felt like someone was taking a jackhammer to the inside of his skull. He was so desperately thirsty.

+ + + + + + +

Casey stood at the security desk, the envelope clutched to her breast. The guard had called the Team 7 office and told her to have a seat. When the elevator bell sounded, she looked toward the doors. Buck and Ezra scanned the lobby before coming toward her.

"Oh, Buck!" Casey exclaimed as she rushed forward. Muscular arms enfolded her and she burrowed into them, sobbing. She felt the trembling hands that brushed over her hair, heard the low murmur of comforting words. Finally, the sound of someone clearing his throat caused her to draw a deeper breath and pull away from the comforting embrace.

"The guard said you had something for Mr. Larabee?" Ezra prompted.

"Just this," Casey said, holding out the envelope. Ezra took it, handling it carefully by the corner. "A man dropped it in my lap and walked away," she added.

Without another word, Buck kept his arm around Casey and the three of them moved toward the elevator. "Did you get a look at the man who gave you the envelope?" Ezra asked.

"Not really. He just dropped it and kept going," she replied.

They reached the office and everyone looked up expectantly. Ezra moved toward the conference room. After lowering the envelope to the table, he dug in his pocket for his knife. With the greatest care, he slid the blade under the flap and sliced it open. Upending the envelope, he looked with curiosity at the flash-drive that landed on the tabletop. Nathan offered out rubber gloves to prevent Ezra from destroying any fingerprints that might be on the device.

It took only a few minutes to discover that there were no prints on the flash-drive. Josiah brought in a computer that wasn't connected to the office system and had extra firewalls installed. As soon as Ezra accessed the device, it made contact with the Internet. A few seconds passed with the little hourglass turning in the center of the screen. Finally a button appeared on the screen with two words in the center, 'Missing Something?'

Ezra glanced around at the others, waiting to see what they thought he should do. Chris nodded and Ezra moved the cursor to click on the button. The screen pixilated, then coalesced into another scene.

"JD!" Casey exclaimed. "My God!"

Buck's arm tensed around the petite young co-ed as his jaw tightened.

+ + + + + + +

A light came on and JD blinked before clenching his eyes shut. After several seconds, he opened them again, looking around the confines of his cell. "Buck?" he called, hoping that the light meant someone had found him. "Buck, where are you?"

+ + + + + + +

"He's hurt!" Casey said. Buck reached up, pulling her face around to his chest again. Nathan nudged them aside, his eyes scanning the image closely. In the lower corner of the screen, a clock counted down to zero and the image disappeared. The button appeared again with the same taunting question in the center. Ezra glanced up to Chris before clicking on the mouse again.

+ + + + + + +

After the fifth or sixth time the light came on, JD realized that there was water running across the floor. He knew that as soon as the water reached the light, he would be electrocuted. He began to panic, fighting the restraints and screaming in fury at his helplessness.

+ + + + + + +

"Something's wrong," Vin commented. "He's seeing something." The image disappeared and Ezra automatically clicked on the button to turn it on again.

+ + + + + + +

"No! No!" JD screamed. "Turn it off!" JD realized that there was a camera several inches from the floor and he directed his cries in that direction. "Please! Turn it off!"

+ + + + + + +

"He's screaming 'turn it off,'" Josiah said. Suddenly, there was a bright flash and sparks just before the image went dark. The button returned, but this time it was a different message. 'What Happened?' Ezra's hand jerked away from the mouse like he'd been burned. He looked up at the team leader for guidance.

A few moments later, the screen changed again.

+ + + + + + +

The light bulb exploded, small shards cutting into JD's bare shins. Suddenly, there was a gurgling sound and cold water rushed over his feet. He screamed, imagining that he would feel the electricity any second. In the darkness, he screamed until his voice was hoarse. The water was achingly cold and rising at an alarming rate.

+ + + + + + +

"Dear God!" Ezra exclaimed softly. Buck's eyes locked on the screen and filled with horror. Instead of the bright light, the screen was now filled with a soft blue glow. In the bottom of the screen, they could see the water swirling around JD's legs.

"There's sound with it now," Nathan noted of the small, flashing icon next to the countdown clock, which now gave them sixty seconds to watch. Ezra reached out to turn up the speakers. What they heard was heart wrenching. JD was sobbing, begging for Buck to help him.

"Why can't we trace this?" Chris yelled. The others looked up in surprise, seeing the technician from Team 4 flinching in the doorway.

"The signal's bouncing all over the place. It isn't sending long enough for us to get a fix on it," the man answered apologetically.

"Why JD? Why is he doing this?" Buck asked.

Before anyone could answer, the office phone rang. Chris snatched it up and barked his name. Immediately, he snatched up a pen and jotted down a note, 'trace the call.'

It was a gravelly voice that taunted him when he answered the phone. "I have something you lost, Agent Larabee."

"What do you want?" Chris asked.

"I want you to watch him suffer before he dies," the man replied. "Every time you activate the image, more water pours into his little cage. What are you going to do? Watch and hurry his death along or turn it off and let him die all alone down there?"

"Who is this?" Chris asked.

"You killed my son. Anton was a good boy, Agent Larabee," the man said before the line went dead.

"It's Anthony Perali! He's got JD," Chris said as he dropped the receiver back into the cradle. He remembered the case. Anton Perali and some of his friends were selling handguns to gangs all over Denver. It had taken weeks for them to figure out where they were stashing the weapons. The boys were using an old mineshaft as their base.

"The cave?" Buck asked.

"Gotta be," Vin agreed.

"Let's go!" Chris said.

"What about the computer?" Ezra asked.

"He said that we're causing the water to fill the cell every time we activate the link," Chris said. "He told me I could either click on the link and watch him die quickly or leave it and let him die slowly and alone."

"I'll get someone to stay here with Casey," Buck offered.

"No! I'm going with you!" she protested.

"You have to stay here! The maniac could be out there waiting for us," Chris explained. Josiah had already called downstairs and there were two female agents waiting in the bullpen when they stepped out of the conference room.

"We'll call you as soon as we have him, I promise," Buck assured Casey.

The six men piled into the suburban and roared out of the parking building. It would take them almost an hour to get to the cave where the Perali boy had been killed.

+ + + + + + +

The lights went out and JD didn't know whether to be relieved or more worried. The cold water had reached his hips and he was beginning to think that he would die there, all alone. Despair washed over him in waves, along with the pain from his twitching and aching muscles. His lower legs were beginning to throb, while his lower back was sending lightning bolts of pain along his spine.

+ + + + + + +

The office switchboard forwarded the call for Chris to his cell phone. "What do you want, Perali?" Chris asked as soon as he recognized the voice.

"I want you to hurt like I hurt, Larabee. I want you to know that the kid died because of you! Because you couldn't let my boy live!" Anthony Perali ranted.

"Your boy was shooting at me! What would you have me do, offer him an ice cream if he stopped? We tried to get him to surrender! He was just a kid, for God's sake, I didn't want to have to kill him!" Chris replied. "Where is JD? Tell me where you left him."

"In the cold, dark place. Just like the way you left my boy," Perali answered as the line went dead.

Chris remembered that Anton had run into the mineshaft when the final shootout began. He had followed the teenager into the dark, damp tunnels; dodging the bullets Anton occasionally sent his way. When Chris caught up with the boy, he was standing on the precipice of the deep elevator shaft. Chris ordered him to surrender.

"Give it up, kid. Don't make me have to kill you," Chris had said.

"You're not taking me back to him. I won't go!" Anton shouted.

Chris had stepped out from behind the rocks. The old mineshaft had a single electrical line overhead that connected all of the low-wattage bulbs and provided the dismal amount of light in what would have otherwise been complete darkness. In that wan light, Chris could barely see the gun the teen was holding. It was a fluke that the light glinted off of the kid's watch crystal, alerting him to the fact that he was going to shoot. Chris fired first, sending Anton Perali's body into a three hundred foot deep hole. It had taken three days to retrieve the body.

"He's in the Four Deuces mine," Chris told the others. "Call and have an ambulance and Life Flight dispatched."

+ + + + + + +

The water had slowed but it was still creeping inexorably higher. Lethargy was taking over. JD struggled to keep his eyes open. The cold water helped to numb the pain in his back. His teeth were chattering so hard that he could hear them. His arms and shoulders hurt so badly that he just wished for unconsciousness. When the water reached his armpits, he was forced to hold his head up or risk inhaling it.

+ + + + + + +

As soon as the suburban came to a stop, six men quickly exited. Even as they were closing the doors, a shot rang out, shattering the front windshield. Josiah and Buck dove for a nearby rock. Vin shoved Ezra behind a tree while he dropped behind a large stump. Nathan hit the dirt, using the vehicle for cover. Chris ran for the nearby opening of the mine.

"It won't be much longer, Larabee!" Perali called out. "He'll be dead and it's all your fault!"

"Come on out and face me like a man, Perali!" Chris countered. "Come on out and tell me why your son would rather face death than be returned to your custody. What were you doing to him? Huh?"

While Chris was taunting Perali, Buck and Josiah inched around so they could get behind the deranged man. They could hear the team leader, challenging the man and Perali's stuttered denials.

"He was my son, I loved him!" Anthony shouted.

"In some sick, perverted way?" Chris goaded. "The last thing he said to me was that I wasn't going to return him to you."

"I never hurt my boy! You killed him!"

"If you didn't touch him, you let someone else do it," Chris shouted.

Buck signaled Josiah, he could see Perali. The man was squatting down behind a boulder, a deer rifle clenched in his hands. As they watched, Perali hefted the gun, resting the barrel on the rock as he took aim at something beyond the bushes.

Josiah slowly bent his knees, his hand reaching for a baseball-sized rock. Buck nodded, agreeing with the unspoken plan. As soon as Sanchez tossed the rock, Perali's head jerked in that direction. Buck leapt out from behind the tree, grabbing the rifle with both hands. Anthony Perali was several inches shorter and not as heavily muscled but he was strong. He managed to retain his grip on the gun, snapping the stock into Buck's jaw. To his credit, Wilmington didn't release his hold, even though his vision was dotted with flashes of red and gold. Josiah moved quickly, striding up behind the deranged gunman. He brought his gun down across the back of Perali's head, dazing the man and causing him to release the rifle. Perali turned, swinging drunkenly at the larger man. Josiah grinned, a truly fearsome sight, as he sent a hard left to the man's chin. Perali's head snapped to the side under the force of the blow, momentum carrying his body around in the same direction. Buck, having only an instant to decide what to do, snapped the stock into the man's jaw, repaying the earlier attack. Perali hit the ground like a sack of rocks and lay still.

"Chris, we've got him!" Buck yelled as Josiah rolled the man over and handcuffed him.

"Go, I can handle him," Josiah said, knowing how badly Buck needed to look for JD.

+ + + + + + +

The water continued to rise. JD was able to turn his head only a little, buying precious time. The blue light hadn't come on again and he wondered if it was because the water had cut the power off or if his friends had given up on him.

'Don't think that way!' his inner voice scolded angrily. 'You don't even know if the others know what happened to you!'

"Buck, hurry," JD whispered into the cold darkness.

+ + + + + + +

Back in the office, Casey glared at the female agents. She knew that they meant well but she would really have preferred to be with the others when they found JD. Her coffee cup empty, Casey got up and headed for the coffee pot across the room. The tall brunette agent glanced up to see what she was doing before returning her attention to the report she was typing at Vin's computer. Casey waited until neither of the agents was looking in her direction, then she slipped into the conference room. Ezra had left the laptop computer on the table when the others bolted from the office. The screen saver had kicked on, a slow-moving ATF icon bouncing across an ebony backdrop. With a trembling hand, she reached out to the mouse. Instantly, the screen saver disappeared, replaced by the taunting red button. The cursor rested on the lower corner of the image and she clicked the mouse button.

Agent Leslie Bischoff looked up at Casey's blood-curdling scream from the conference room.

+ + + + + + +

Buck's feet slipped only once on the loose ground litter. Chris and the others had already entered the mineshaft, following the sound of a generator in the distance. As the sunlight from the entrance faded, Buck slowed to allow his eyes to adjust. "Chris?" he called out.

"Watch your step!" Nathan called back to him, his voice much closer than Buck had thought it should be. Suddenly, a beam of light illuminated the ground in front of him. The tunnel curved to the right sharply. As Buck reached Nathan, he saw the rest of the team just ahead.

"We'll need more flashlights and some rope," Vin was telling Chris. "There's no telling how far this tunnel goes."

"Buck, you and Ezra get back to the truck and radio for help. I'll grab what rope and supplies are in the truck and come right back," Chris said.

"No! I'm going with Vin," Buck stated.

"You're going to the truck to wait for help! Vin and Nathan can take the flashlight and follow the tunnel," the team leader replied firmly.

"Chris," Buck protested.

"I gave you an order, Buck," Larabee replied, his voice tainted with both anger and concern. "When the rescue team gets here, I'll need you to help them bring their equipment down. If JD's where I think he is, it's gonna be hard to get to him."

After considering Chris's words, Buck stared hard at Vin. In the darkness of the mineshaft tunnel, Tanner nodded, silently giving his word that he would do everything in his power to find their young friend. Nathan handed Ezra his flashlight, moving to follow Vin along the uneven corridor.

Josiah was just dumping Perali on the ground near the truck when the others emerged from the mouth of the mine. He watched as Chris opened the tool chest that was bolted to the bed of the truck right behind the extended cab. Two bundles of rope, two pairs of leather gloves, a bag of belay clips and the big, heavy first aid kit were pulled from the efficiently packed chest. Chris and Buck stared long and hard at each other before the team leader gathered everything into his arms and strode quickly away.

Ezra snapped the cell phone closed and directed his words to Buck, "The search and rescue unit will be here momentarily and Life Flight is stationed on the parking lot some three miles farther along the blacktop road." Almost in response to his speaking, the low rumble of a four-wheel drive vehicle filled the air. The truck rolled to a stop and six men leapt out. With the speed and efficiency of long hours of practice, they unloaded their gear. Hardhats with spelunking lights and climbing harnesses were secured by four of the men while the other two men stacked supplies on a Stokes basket.

In the darkness, Vin carefully tested his makeshift harness. Nathan and Chris carefully unwound the rope, making certain that there were no tangles along its length. Vin had secured the flashlight to his belt so that he couldn't drop it. They had followed the sound of the generator to the opening of the elevator shaft. In the inky darkness, Vin couldn't see anything but the tracks on the ground indicated that something heavy had been dragged over the edge.

"Ready?" Nathan asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be," Vin answered.

"Don't take any unnecessary chances," Chris admonished.

"Cake walk," Vin replied glibly. When Chris and Nathan were both in position, Vin carefully backed over the edge of the shaft. Giving one final look at his friends, he nodded. Chris carefully fed the rope around his hips, letting Vin down slowly. Nathan fed the second rope, his feet braced against a natural hollow in the rocky wall.

The sound of the generator grew steadily louder as he dropped farther down in the shaft. Vin concentrated on keeping his feet against the wall. His breath sounded unnaturally loud, even over the low rumble of the machine and he had to tell himself that the walls were not closing in on him.

Ezra relayed what little information he had about the mineshaft to the rescue workers while they suited Buck in their extra gear. Soon, all seven of them were heading for the dark opening in the side of the mountain. Josiah was with the State Patrol officer, who had responded with the search and rescue team. Perali was seated in the back of one of the cars, glaring furiously at anyone who came near. As the last of the men disappeared into the mineshaft, Ezra dug in his pocket for the small flask he carried for occasional indulgences. The smooth amber liquid warmed him from the inside, causing him to shiver slightly in spite of the temperature around him.

"Save a sip for me," Josiah prompted as he reached Ezra's side. The flask swung in his direction immediately and the older man accepted it. The liquor was smooth, aged to perfection, and went down easily. "Damn, but that's good," Josiah complimented as he handed it back.

"A hundred and fifty years in a climate-controlled, hand-made cask has that effect on good spirits," Ezra replied.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's feet touched the ground and he stood, reaching with one hand for the dangling flashlight. The sound of the generator came from directly behind him but the echo told him that it was still some distance away. In the narrow beam of light, he surveyed the ground along the tunnel. The metal track for the mine carts was still intact, disappearing into the darkness.

"Vin?" Chris called as he felt the weight on the rope slacken.

"I'm alright. I'm at the bottom of the shaft. Give me some more line," Vin called out. In response, both ropes loosened. "It's farther down the tunnel," he explained. "I'm going to check it out."

"Don't untie yourself!" Chris called urgently.

The small, dark hole was the very last place Vin Tanner wanted to be. He shivered; the temperature was several degrees cooler than outside. His sensitive nose picked up the carbon dioxide given off by the gasoline generator as he moved closer.

When the search and rescue team reached the elevator shaft, they began driving supports into the stone walls for the pulley system they would use to lower their gear and themselves. They hung a large, battery powered light on one of the hooks, angling it down the tunnel. Chris got close enough to the edge to follow the twin ribbons of rope until they vanished in the dark beyond the light.

"Not too close," one of the rescue team warned, "It's a long way down."

Buck was helping the men as they unloaded the basket and began unfurling their ropes. He knew that they wouldn't let him go into the shaft. In his mind's eye, all he could see was the terror etched on JD's face from the last time they had activated the computer link. He hated the thought of the young man being all alone, trapped in the dark with rising water. Buck refused to even consider that they might be too late. He simply couldn't even fathom that thought.

The past three years had been good, for all of them. At first, when Chris introduced him to the incredibly green, incredibly young agent, Buck had asked if his friend had lost his mind. But Chris was confident that JD was what the team needed to round out their assorted talents. When it came to light that the kid was staying in a seedy motel until he could find a place to live, Buck had offered the use of his spare room. Like long-lost brothers, Buck and JD had connected. Buck filled a void in JD. The young man had grown up without a consistent male influence and hungered for the type of male bonding that normally occurred between a boy and his male relatives. For Buck, JD filled the space his mother had never filled. All of his life, Buck had wanted a brother or sister. It wasn't until he was a teenager that he discovered that it had been nothing short of a miracle that his mother had him and was unable to get pregnant again. Moving from town to town, Buck had longed for a consistent playmate, something that only a sibling could provide. Now he had JD. They watched movies together, went to sporting events together, even double dated on occasion.

Vin reached the end of the tracks and found the generator. He followed the power cords to a round, metal cylinder with several opaque windows. A table made from boards laid across an old mine car held a laptop computer. A thick, black hose snaked away into the darkness. It took a minute to untie the rope from the harness so he could get to the tank. Finally, he dropped the rope and crossed the uneven, rock-strewn floor. Condensation clung to the transparent panels and Vin used both hands to wipe it away. What he saw caused his heart to race.

Two of the rescuers were slowly descending the shaft. Between them, the Stokes basket, with all of their supplies lashed securely, swung and spun slightly on its own rope. Part of the way down, they stopped to drive another piton and hang another light, angled toward the ground far below.

Standing near the edge, Buck watched as the light illuminated the black shaft. He felt so useless, so completely helpless, just standing there. Behind him, he could hear Nathan with the remaining search and rescue members, going over the last few injuries JD had suffered and explaining the young man's medical history. Suddenly, there was a sound that made Buck's heart leap into his throat. It echoed strangely in the tunnels, coming back from several directions until it sounded like fireworks going off. It was the sound of a 9mm gun being fired.

Vin stepped back as the water poured from the cylinder near his feet. He had both hands clenched firmly on his weapon and stood, shuddering as the chill air cooled the sweat on his body. The water was icy cold, even through his heavy boots. In the span of three heartbeats, the water had drained from the cylinder. Vin holstered his gun and picked up a rock to attack the lock keeping him from opening the lid. Finally, the small lock busted and was flung into the dark. The lid opened easily, slamming into the nearby wall with the strength of Vin's push on it.

JD's body hung in the shackles, his hair forming a curtain around his face. Vin, with shaking hands, reached out and pressed his fingertips at the pulse point, praying to feel anything. The skin was cold to the touch, the tissue beneath it stiff and unyielding.

Matt Prescott and Dave Trademore dropped as quickly as was safe to the ground below. Matt shed his harness and raced forward while Dave guided the basket down. As the light from his helmet swept the room, Matt saw the man on his knees beside a larger cylindrical shape. The man's posture spoke of intense sorrow, as did the silent heaving of his shoulders. Matt crossed the small chamber, careful of the uneven floor, which was slick with water. His eyes widened as he surveyed the interior of the cylinder. From the pale, bluish tinge to the flesh, he feared that they were too late. Stripping off his climbing gloves, he reached out to press his fingers to the shackled man's neck. The extremely cold feel of the flesh registered on his mind and the medic changed his appraisal of the situation.

Dave dragged the basket out of the tunnel and lowered it to the ground. He grabbed a lantern and turned it on, illuminating the room around his position. "What have you got?" he asked of his partner.

"I need bolt cutters, hurry!" Matt replied.

At the top of the elevator shaft, Chris and Nathan struggled to retain their hold on Buck. It had taken all of their combined strength to move him away from the edge so the other rescuers could descend. A couple of minutes later, another pair of arms took hold of Buck and Chris found himself thankful for Josiah's considerable muscle.

Realizing he was overpowered, Buck slumped against Chris' shoulder. Once he knew that Buck wouldn't hurl his body into the shaft, Chris offered what assurance he could. Buck could only nod, his throat too constricted to allow sound to pass.

"We need to wait to find out what's happened down there. Hold on, Big Dog, just hold on," Chris murmured as he absorbed the shudders from Buck's body. Nathan shook out a blanket and draped it around Buck's shoulders, knowing it would help ward off shock. Ezra offered his flask. Chris took a swallow, then pulled away from Buck long enough to tip it to his lips. When Buck had taken a couple of swigs of the aged liquor, Chris returned the flask and pulled Buck close again.

After what felt like forever, Vin and one of the rescuers were brought up from the depths. It was apparent from the dejected slump of Tanner's shoulders that the prognosis was not good. As soon as the harness was removed, Vin strode up the tunnel as if the hounds of hell were on his trail. Josiah and Ezra rose to follow, leaving Nathan and Chris to handle Buck, who stared, stunned, as Vin retreated.

When the basket finally appeared, Buck moaned. Even in the dim light, he could see the blue-gray pallor of JD's face around the intubation tube. The portable ventilator was delivering oxygen to JD's lungs. As soon as the basket touched the ground, two of the rescuers immediately resumed the CPR that had been stopped so they could bring him up. After several minutes, they paused, grabbing the basket and rushing toward the exit.

Clutching Chris for comfort, Buck followed the basket, blithely unaware of the tears that poured from his eyes. Once they reached daylight, the basket was quickly loaded in the back of the rescue vehicle. Chris pushed Nathan and Buck into the cab just before it pulled away. Josiah was already behind the wheel of his suburban, waiting for the team leader to get in.

"He's not going to make it, is he?" Buck asked.

"They're doing everything they can," Nathan assured the distraught man.

In the suburban, Ezra rubbed Vin's shoulder. The normally laconic man shuddered under the soothing touch. He had yet to speak of whatever he had seen at the bottom of the shaft. Chris reached over the front seat and gave Vin's knee a firm squeeze. Blue eyes locked on hazel and Chris saw a kind of despair he had never witnessed in Vin's eyes.

"He was dead, Chris," Vin said. "It was full of water."

There was something about the way he said it that made Chris sorry he had let Vin go down the shaft by himself. Something so horrible about what he'd seen that made the younger man double up in the seat and sob. Chris felt a tremor run through his body as he rested his palm on the back of Vin's neck, offering what little comfort he could.

+ + + + + + +

By the time the suburban reached the hospital, Nathan and Buck had already been tossed out of the examining room and were well into worrying themselves into a frenzy. Buck looked like he had after the loss of Sarah and Adam, shell shocked. Nathan stood like a sentinel, staring at the blinds that had been closed, as if he could somehow see through them.

"Have you heard anything?" Chris asked.

"He's dead," Buck murmured, the horror of it all becoming too much as he suddenly leapt up and started for the exam room doors. Like a well-oiled machine, Josiah, Chris and Nathan turned to create an immovable object for their irresistible force. "I gotta be with him," Buck pleaded.

"Let the doctor's do their job," Chris said.

"But he's dead!" Buck protested.

Chris turned to Nathan, clearly there was something more to it than he had been told.

"The tank was filled with cold water. Hypothermia may have bought enough time," Nathan said as if by rote. "He's not dead until he's warm and dead."

It was a phrase Chris and the others had heard before. They lived in an age where medical science could do amazing things. Children went into frozen ponds and were pulled out, dead for all intents and purposes, only to be revived at a hospital some time later. Skiers were found buried in avalanches and survived. It was a glimmer of hope but it was all they had, for now.

"I should be with him," Buck protested again.

Almost in response, the door opened and a petite female approached them. "Are all of you here with Mr. Dunne?" she asked. Ezra and Vin rose from where they had been seated, crowding in to hear what news she had to give them.

"My name is Dr. Penelope Stark. I need to speak to Mr. Dunne's next of kin or someone with a power of attorney for medical decisions."

"We are JD's family," Buck said.

"And we have the POA on file," Chris added.

"Very well, first of all, Mr. Dunne is stable at the moment," she began.

"He's alive?" Buck asked incredulously.

"His heart is beating but his breathing is being supported. We are warming him slowly. For now, his condition is critical but stable. He will be moved to the ICU in a little while. Do any of you know if he has an advanced medical directive?"

"He does," Josiah answered, surprising the others.

Buck's eyes met with Josiah's. "How do you know?"

Ignoring the question, Josiah looked to the doctor, "Heroic measures are allowed." She nodded, then looked uneasily around the arch of men before returning to the exam room. Almost immediately, Buck grabbed Josiah by the arm.

"Leave it, Buck," Chris ordered, his hand closing on Buck's wrist. There was a long moment of intense tension before Buck's hand loosened its grip on Josiah's arm. Chris insinuated his body into Buck's line of sight and braced for whatever his friend said or did. Buck shifted slightly to glare at Josiah as he moved with Vin and Ezra to a cluster of chairs in a corner.

JD was finally moved out of the ER and into a room in the ICU. The guys were allowed a brief visit before they were banished to the hall. Vin and Buck took their positions at the doors, where they could see their young friend. Chris called Orin to bring him up to date while Ezra went to the office to pick up Casey. Nathan hovered around the nurse's station, gathering any information there was to be had.

Josiah slipped away, unnoticed. He made the drive to his house, where he opened the small vault that protected all of his important papers. With shaking hands, he withdrew the thick sheaf of papers and tucked them into his pocket. From there, he went back to the hospital. Not to the ICU, but to the chapel for a heart-to-heart with the Man Upstairs.

The next week was agonizingly long for the members of Team 7. An EEG showed minimal brain activity and the doctor was concerned with what damage may have been done. A feeding tube was surgically attached to JD's stomach to deliver nutrition and hydration. After the third day, Dr. Stark allowed them to sit in the room, one at a time, for twenty minutes every hour. Buck took this as a positive sign, while Vin saw it as being given an opportunity to say goodbye. He could hardly shut his eyes without seeing the image again of JD's blank stare as tendrils of his hair floated on whatever stirred the water in the tank with him.

On the seventh day, Josiah sought Dr. Stark and showed her the papers he had been carrying in his pocket. "Do the others know about this?" she asked.

"No, I had hoped it wouldn't come to this," Josiah answered.

"Do you want to tell them or do you want me to do it?"

"I'll do it," Josiah answered. "But I would suggest that you have several orderlies here in case … just in case."

The small, private waiting room was decorated tastefully and furnished with comfortable sofas and chairs. Josiah waited until all of the others were seated before he entered the room with Dr. Stark and closed the door behind him.

"There's something I have to tell you," Josiah began, fighting to get words past the lump in his throat. "JD came to me shortly after he joined the team. All of you know the circumstances surrounding his mother's death. Well, it left JD with some very definite views on what doctor's refer to as 'heroic measures.'"

Chris felt his heart clench and his eyes darted to Buck, who was shifting nervously in his chair. On the other side of the room, Nathan suddenly leaned forward, his eyes focused solidly on the sheaf of papers that Josiah held in his hand. Ezra and Vin also shifted in their seats as Josiah continued.

"JD came to me because he didn't want Buck to have to make these decisions. We talked it over, prayed about it, and I consented to take on this responsibility. JD asked that he not be left on a respirator longer than seven days," Josiah explained.

Pandemonium erupted as Buck leapt out of the chair. Vin, Nathan and Ezra also rose, all of them demanding or challenging the papers. Ezra, because he was closest, took the sheaf of paper and read over the paragraphs, recognizing that it wasn't a standard Medical Directive.

"It's true. JD doesn't want to be maintained on a ventilator for longer than seven days. He also goes on to say that nutrition and hydration are to be withdrawn after 14 days," Ezra said, his voice thick with emotion.

"That will kill him!" Buck shouted. "You can't do that! You'll kill him!"

"I'm sorry, Buck," Josiah said, feeling suddenly very old and tired.

"Gentlemen, per this directive, I have no choice but to remove the ventilator," Dr. Stark said. "I will allow each of you some time with JD." She left the room almost on tiptoes, fearful of igniting the powder keg. She made it to the door before the shouting match began.

"I can't believe you would do that to him! You can't be serious! I thought you cared for JD," Buck ranted. "He wouldn't want this! I know him, and he wouldn't want you to kill him like this!"

"Buck," Chris warned, seeing his friend about to cross the line.

"Don't you 'Buck' me! I've been living with the kid for the last three years, I know him! I know he wouldn't want this! I'm not going to let you kill him!" Buck shouted.

"At least give him another week," Nathan added.

Josiah leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and praying for the strength to see his promise through even though it would cost him everything. It had seemed so reasonable when he agreed to it all those many months ago. After all, what could happen to JD that would be serious enough to warrant the removal of life support? The cacophony rose as angry voices berated him and Josiah felt a little like Christ walking the streets of Jerusalem with his cross.

Finally, Chris convinced Buck to go with Vin into JD's room while he spoke to Josiah. Nathan slipped out to find Dr. Stark, he had some very specific questions to ask. Ezra, however, remained behind, making a fresh pot of coffee and pouring three cups.

In the end, there was nothing they could do. JD had renewed the Medical Directive faithfully every year on the anniversary of his joining the team. It was clear that Buck never read the papers his roommate had given him or he would have noticed the paragraph that fell under the heading of 'Heroic Measures' and would have seen that Josiah was named there as the person to make those decisions. The forms had been renewed only a few months ago and Orin said it was pretty iron-clad.

+ + + + + + +

They filed into the room late in the afternoon and took up positions around the bed. Buck took hold of JD's hand, tears streaming down his face as he leaned down to whisper into JD's ear. Chris stood right next to Buck, preparing to bear the brunt of his grief. Vin and Nathan took the other side of the bed with Casey, leaving room for the doctor to get in and do what she had to do. Ezra stood at the foot of the bed, bridging the distance between JD and Josiah, who leaned against the wall, feeling very much unwelcome.

"Ready?" Dr. Stark asked. It was a stupid question, she knew these men weren't ready to let go of the once-vibrant young man. She tried to tune out the continuous stream of words from Buck as he pleaded with the kid to forgive him for not stopping her from killing him. With trembling hands, she took hold of the respirator hose and gently separated it from the intubation tube. Immediately, Buck draped his arm across JD's chest and buried his face in his shoulder, sobbing. Casey clung to his other hand as tears rolled down her cheeks. As Dr. Stark stepped back from the bed, Vin moved into her place and reached out to press his palm to the top of JD's head. The doctor watched as JD's heart rate increased and then settled back into a normal sinus rhythm. His respirations slowed, causing the panel to light up but she had silenced the audible alarm. After a few minutes, she felt secure enough to call attention to the fact that JD was breathing on his own. "Gentlemen, if you'd allow me a moment," she said as she touched Vin's shoulder.

"No!" Buck protested, not lifting his head from JD's shoulder, "You can't have him! Not yet!"

Chris scanned the monitor, realizing that all of the lines were still moving, not the straight, flat lines of death. "Buck," he said calmly, "he's still here. Let the doctor have a look." Buck slowly drew back, staring in disbelief at JD's face. He could see the moisture in the tube that indicated air was still moving in and out of JD's lungs.

Josiah blinked, causing the tears welled up in his eyes to roll down his face before he slipped silently from the room. Walking blindly, he reached the chapel and sank to his knees to cry. "I don't know that I can do this anymore," he whispered to the Madonna and Child that adorned the corner of the small sanctuary, "I don't have the strength."

Ezra wiped the tears from his face with his linen handkerchief before turning to see that Josiah had gone. Dr. Stark also noticed the conspicuous absence and slipped from the room. She and Ezra paused in the hall.

"He's a long way from out of the woods but this is a good sign," Penelope said.

"But the rift may be irreparable," Ezra replied. "Excuse me."

Dr. Stark decided that she would give them a few more minutes before she put them out to remove the remaining breathing tube. With a glance into the room, she sighed, there was still so much that could be wrong that she didn't know where to begin.

A hand lit on his shoulder and Josiah ignored it. "I envy you your strength," Ezra said softly. "I doubt that I could have done it." Josiah huffed but remained silent. "When JD is recovered, perhaps you should ask to be relieved of this duty if it burdens you too much."

"I never saw it as a burden; I just never expected to have to make the decision. I kind of figured that I'd die before it came up. I didn't even know he renewed it every year. After we first talked about it, I didn't give it another thought."

"Do you regret the decision?" Ezra asked. He almost wished he hadn't when the pain-filled blue gaze fell upon him.

"No, I gave the boy my word and I kept it. He was adamant about not wanting to be kept alive like that. He told me about his mother dying. He was there for every minute of it, did you know that? He watched her waste away with only the machines keeping her alive. It scarred him, deep down, in ways he doesn't even understand. He knew Buck wouldn't be able to do it. He told me that he didn't want Buck to remember him that way, the way he remembered his mom," Josiah said.

At the back of the chapel, in the shadows, Chris realized what a sacrifice JD was willing to make to protect his friend. He only hoped that Buck could be made to understand that it was because of Josiah's love for JD that he had honored the young man's wishes. Seeing that Ezra would stay with Sanchez, he headed for the cafeteria to get something to eat.

Two days after the breathing tube was removed, JD opened his eyes. Buck was thrilled, too thrilled to realize that there was no recognition in the dark depths. The doctor warned that there was still a frightening lack of activity on the EEG, that JD's brain may have been damaged by the length of time he went without oxygen. To Buck, opening his eyes was just the first step to bringing the kid back to them. From that moment, he scarcely left the bedside, talking himself hoarse and sleeping only in catnaps while one of the others talked to JD. Josiah stayed away, only looking in on JD twice a day. The rest of the time, he spent in the chapel or at home. Orin had given all of them leave, knowing that they wouldn't be any good at work with their minds preoccupied with worry about JD.

As they approached the date for the removal of the feeding tube, Buck grew increasingly hostile to Dr. Stark. To her credit, she bore it well, maintaining her professional attitude each and every time she dealt with him. Buck was heartened that JD appeared to be improving. He turned his head at Buck's voice and seemed soothed by it. He would also allow Buck to feed him, a necessary function since they were still planning to remove the feeding tube and IV lines. To Buck, JD was in an infantile state, one he would 'grow' out of.

Four weeks after he arrived at the hospital, JD was discharged to a care facility. Josiah allowed Buck to pick the place, saying that his authority ended with the removal of the last of the supportive measures. Buck chose a place close to his home so he could spend as much time with JD as possible. When Orin returned the team to active duty, Buck took family leave; it would give him twelve weeks to help JD get back on his feet. It also kept him out of the office and away from Josiah.

Things developed into a new routine for the team. Chris and Vin visited JD nearly every day at lunch time, gradually tapering off to every other day, then every third day. Casey visited only a couple of times before she stopped; it was simply too much for her to bear. Ezra made his visits late in the evening, when it was quiet and he wouldn't be disturbed. Like Josiah, he had felt the sting of Buck's protective anger. Anyone who wasn't on his side was against him, according to Wilmington's line of reasoning and the southerner wasn't 100% on his side. Rather than bring ugliness into JD's room, Ezra waited until he saw the familiar truck pull away before he entered the building. Nathan made his visits early in the morning when he could catch the doctor who supervised the patients. He built a rapport with the man, giving him the inside track on JD's condition. Josiah made his visits on Sunday, when he knew Buck slept in. He held JD's hand and prayed with and for him before slipping away so as not to be caught.

The holiday season arrived, to be greeted coldly by the team. Against Travis' wishes, they had not hired a replacement for JD, preferring to work with one of the techs from one of the other teams when they needed someone. Since they were getting no active field-work cases, they spent most of their time in the office, reviewing records from gun shops and liquor importers for discrepancies. When their new secretary foolishly suggested decorating the office, she got such a glare from Chris and a cold shoulder from the others that she requested and got a transfer.

Thanksgiving was a dismal affair. Buck wouldn't come if Josiah was going to be there and Ezra wouldn't come if Josiah was excluded, so they cancelled the dinner they had planned. Chris and Vin had an early dinner with Buck and Nathan at Nathan's, then a late meal with Josiah and Ezra at Ezra's.

"Can you point to the red ball?" the therapist asked. Buck winced as JD's arm rose and swung in the direction of the large board of pictures slung across his lap. He got the red part right but he pointed to a red star. "That's good! You found the red star!" the therapist complimented. She was rewarded with a smile as JD's hand continued to pat the board. "Can you point to the green square?" the therapist asked.

Frustrated at how slowly JD was improving, Buck left the room. The doctor was not at all optimistic about any kind of real recovery. At best, he felt that JD might relearn to walk and possibly to dress himself, but little more. Resisting the urge to slam his fist through the drywall, Buck glanced out the window toward the parking lot. Several of the staff were outside, decorating the large evergreen tree that sat on a grassy island surrounded by asphalt. It was only three weeks until Christmas and five until he would have to return to work or resign. Chris had approached him about his prospects only a few days ago.

Two weeks before Christmas, Buck arrived to find Ezra in the room with JD. He hung back, watching the southerner interacting with the younger man. They had a large balloon, like the one the therapist used, and JD was trying to hit it or catch it, Buck couldn't be sure which. As the balloon bounced off of JD's upraised hands, Buck heard something he hadn't heard in a long time, something that was like music to his ears, JD laughed. Unable to stand there and unwilling to leave, Buck strode into the room, smiling.

Ezra saw the older man and quickly grabbed the balloon, carrying it to the basket in the corner. JD's smile disappeared as he stared after the brightly colored sphere. "We shall resume our game another time. I really must go," Ezra told JD, glancing nervously at the man who now blocked the only way out of the room.

"You don't need to rush off," Buck said. Immediately, JD turned his head and held his hand out for his friend to take. "It looked like you two were having a good time."

"I don't wish to intrude on your time, I'll come back later," Ezra said as he pulled on his coat and prepared to leave.

"Ezra, I know none of this is your fault," Buck said.

"But I didn't agree with the way you behaved toward Josiah so I was guilty by association. It is a concept I am intimately familiar with. Nothing for you to concern yourself over. I really must go."

JD huffed in irritation as he held his hand out toward Ezra. Something like 'aaahhh' came from his mouth as he scooted closer to the side of the bed. Finally, Ezra moved to take the outstretched hand, knowing that JD was going to pull him in for a hug before he let go.

Buck watched as JD threw his arm around Ezra's neck and patted him on the back. It was similar to the way Adam used to 'comfort' Sarah when she held him. Ezra submitted to the awkward embrace without pulling away until JD let him go. Without another word, Ezra hurried from the room.

+ + + + + + +

A week before Christmas, it snowed. Buck arrived early on Sunday morning, eager to share the frozen precipitation with JD, only to find Josiah and Vin were already there. They had JD, bundled from head to toe, in his wheelchair on the parking lot, watching them build a snowman. Parking behind the building, Buck stole around to some bushes where he could watch without being seen. When the snowman was finished, Vin used his scarf to tie a cardboard box to the chair and began filling it with snowballs. When JD was suitably armed, he and Josiah began tossing snowballs at each other. JD managed to get one of the snowballs from his box and lob it, hitting Vin in the back. The sharpshooter yelled, falling to his knees and then flopping onto his back on the ground. JD's joyful laughter made Buck's eyes sting with tears. Seeing how happy it made JD to hit Vin, Josiah made a playful run at the wheelchair, letting JD hit him in the chest. When JD's laughter tapered off, both men popped up and lobbed snowballs at him, letting them explode against the cardboard box and the side of the wheelchair.

The nurse stepped outside and called out that they needed to bring JD inside. It was obvious from the frown that JD wasn't ready to go in but Vin untied the scarf and removed the box while Josiah wheeled the young man toward the door. Buck slipped in through the side entrance and watched from behind the nurse's desk as the pair returned JD to his room. Josiah held JD up while Vin worked the snowsuit zippers and tugged off the insulated coverall. To Buck's surprise and delight, JD was able to stand on his own for several seconds, something he hadn't known his young friend could do.

After JD finished a cup of warm cocoa and a mug of soup, Josiah took his leave. He knew that he was pushing his luck in staying as long as he had but he'd been having too much fun with JD. He and Vin nodded to each other before Josiah left. Fifteen minutes after finishing his soup, JD was sound asleep. Raising the rails to keep JD from falling out of bed, Vin left too. Buck was in the room with JD before Vin had even reached his jeep.

It was too good to last and Buck knew it. Two days before Christmas, he got a call from the nurse at the care facility. JD was running a fever. Buck was in the middle of putting up a few decorations around the apartment. He dropped the box of ornaments on the coffee table and flew out the door.

Because he was still officially listed on JD's paperwork, Josiah also got a call from the nurse. He turned off the pan of eggs he had been fixing and bolted out the front door. As he backed out of his driveway, he rang Chris to let him know.

Seeing Buck standing outside of JD's room almost caused Josiah to turn back but Nathan arrived a moment later. "Chris called and said something was happening with JD?" the medic asked as he skidded to a stop next to Josiah.

Buck turned at Nathan's voice and his eyes locked with Josiah's. Ezra arrived a moment later, wild-eyed and as close to disheveled as they had ever seen him. "What are you standing here for? What's wrong with JD?" Ezra asked as he stuffed his gloves into his coat pocket.

Meningitis, the doctor said, an aggressive strain but one they could battle with antibiotics. Unfortunately, it meant that they had to move him to an isolation unit. In an eerie repeat of the day they spent in the ICU less than three months ago, the team was once again on the outside looking in at their young friend.

"Some holiday," Vin muttered, his voice a cross between anger and profound sadness.

"Not that we were doing anything else," Ezra countered softly. Things were still tense between Josiah and Buck so none of them had planned any kind of celebration.

Saturday passed in agonizingly slow increments. Vin went out for lunch for all of them and Nathan brought in supper. JD's temperature hovered in the dangerously high triple digits in spite of the steady stream of antibiotics. Going against the directive, Josiah asked the nurses to start an IV to keep JD from getting dehydrated. Buck crossed the imaginary line in the corridor that the two men had been keeping between them all day to thank Josiah for granting that small concession. During the night, JD had a petit-mal seizure that had the nurses rushing to administer medication.

Sunday morning dawned cold and bright. Chris forced Buck to go with him to get breakfast, knowing that Wilmington needed a break. At the restaurant, while they waited for their order, Buck finally spoke the fear that was growing in his heart.

"He's never gonna be JD again, is he?"

"I wish I could tell you but I just don't know, Buck," Chris answered. He decided that it was time to force Buck to see why JD had made the decision he had made so long ago. "He did it so you wouldn't have to remember him this way. You know that, don't you?"

"What?" Buck asked, suddenly confused.

"He didn't want you to remember him in a long, lingering death."

After a long moment, the mental light bulb finally came on. "Like his mother," Buck said softly.

"Like his mother," Chris repeated. "He didn't want your last memories of him to be like this. He expected to die when the respirator and stuff was taken away."

"Damn. And he knew I wouldn't be able to make that decision. He knew I wouldn't let him go," Buck replied.

"And you haven't. But he wouldn't want you to spend your life waiting for him to come back."

"I got nowhere else to go. He's family," Buck said.

"I guess he's easier to deal with than I was, huh?"

"A hell of a lot easier in some ways. But the hurts you gave me healed eventually."

Their food was placed on the counter and they gathered up the bags. Buck did a lot of thinking on the short drive back to the care facility. He knew that he would have to go back to work. He knew he would be miserable but Chris was right, JD wouldn't have wanted him to throw everything away waiting for him to come back.

After they finished their meal, Buck decided that it was time to bury the hatchet. "Josiah, could I have a moment alone with you?" The older man looked up at him, surprised, it was the first time Buck had actually initiated conversation between them in months. Nodding, he got up from the table and followed Buck down the corridor. They stopped at the door to the small chapel. "Is it alright if we go in here to talk?" Buck asked.

"The Lord won't mind," Josiah said, trying to lighten the mood.

Once inside, Buck found that he didn't know how to begin. "Josiah, I've … I've done a lot of thinking." He paced the length of the aisle, pausing to stare at the small alter before turning, "Josiah …

I don't know who to say …"

"I've never been the type to hold a grudge," Josiah offered.

"It's just that … I didn't understand how you could … do that to him."

"I listened to him, to his fears, to his memories about his mother. Only when I was absolutely certain that he was fully cognizant of what he was asking me to do did I agree to follow his wishes."

"He knew that I couldn't do it," Buck said.

"He didn't want you to have to do it," Josiah replied.

When Buck and Josiah returned to the corridor outside of the isolation room the others glanced at them curiously. None of them could say what it was that was different but there was something easier about the way they walked, side by side, that let them know that the difficulties between them were at an end.

The sun crossed the sky and disappeared behind the mountains, leaving behind an ebony dome dotted with thousands of points of light. Softly muted Christmas music played in the background, though it may as well have been whale song for all the joy it brought to the six men sitting outside of the isolation room. The nurses tried, several times, to get them to go home for a few hours but none would go.

Around midnight, the nurse donned her protective gear and went into the room with JD. She began checking his vitals. After a minute, she turned to the window and smiled, his fever had broken. The relief was so great that Buck swept the poor woman off of her feet the moment she returned to the hallway and kissed her breathless.

The doctor made early rounds on Christmas morning so he could celebrate with his family. After examining JD, he agreed that he could be moved back to his regular room and could have visitors. The guys were overjoyed; at least they could all be in the same room, peaceably, for the first time in too long.

Josiah's voice was soothing as he read from the tattered Bible, "And lo, the Virgin gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger." A soft moan caused him to pause in his reading, looking expectantly at the young man in the bed. Buck, who was sitting at the bedside, bounced to his feet, wrapping his fingers around JD's hand. JD's eyelids clenched as his face took on an expression of discomfort. A moment later, the hazel eyes opened, flinching from the brightness of the room before settling on the anxious face of the man leaning over him.

A miraculous thing happened then, one that the seven men would remember for the rest of their lives. JD licked his lips, swallowed twice, then opened his mouth and spoke.

"Buck, you look awful," JD said softly.

Without missing a beat, Buck replied, "Now kid, you know that just ain't hardly possible."


It was a long three weeks before JD was strong enough to leave the care facility and return home. He had absolutely no memory of the events of the past three months. His last clear memory was of being in the van after the bust and getting the headsets from Buck. The doctor encouraged him to take it easy, not to push himself too quickly. If his memory of the incident didn't come back after a while, then the others would tell him.

The doctor could offer no explanation for what happened, other than that JD's body had simply needed the time to rewire itself. Josiah maintained, and the rest of the team agreed, that it was quite simply a Christmas miracle, one they gladly welcomed, just like the precious little baby born so long ago in a stable half way around the world.

Merry Christmas!