by Armaita

Have you ever been eye-to-eye with a shark? Okay, maybe that's too drastic. Have you ever gone to the zoo, stood by the tiger, panther, or lion cage, thinking it was empty, and then suddenly found yourself nose-to-snout with a predator so stealthy you didn't even know it when it arrived? One part of you is simply scared out of your mind, another is idly noting that the stripes aren't as impressive up close, and a third is thinking that you're damn lucky you aren't in the cage with it.

Somebody really ought to find a way to put a protective cage around ATF Team 7.

I know they're Assistant Director Orin Travis' pets, but they're still some darn scary pets, not tame, and not recognizing any law but their own. Sure, they get the job done, highest arrest record, most cases solved, et cetera...but has anyone noticed that they also have the highest injury rate, the most perpetrators killed, and an annoying way of sticking together?

Last December, for example, Wilmington threw one of my fellow IA members through a wall. Yes, you heard right, through it. By the time I got there, they'd formed a protective wall of bodies in front of Wilmington . Larabee was glaring down at the man who'd just been thrown, and I swear, every other member of Team 7 was almost matching his look.

I heard that back when the team had just formed, Dunne flinched if anyone so much as glanced in his general direction, Tanner avoided eye contact like the plague, Standish insulted with his tongue instead of his eyes, Jackson only glared at troublesome patients, and Sanchez was more likely to spout a Bible verse at you than throw a harsh look. Evidently, Larabee is a bad influence.

So, I entered the Team 7 bullpen at a dead sprint to find all seven men glaring at the IA agent, who's holding an arm like it's broken, and Larabee says, "Unless you have proof of those accusations, O'Connor, don't set foot on this floor ever again."

Then Standish...well, you know Standish. He lets rip with a whole bunch of legal mumbo jumbo about slander and pending charges. I'm having trouble keeping up, and I have a law degree!

Finally, Tanner speaks up, and I have to strain to hear him. "It'd be a real shame fer ya ta have another misunderstandin' with the wall. Maybe next time, we'll let Bucklin make it a window."

"Now," Larabee says, smiling in that way that nobody in the whole Federal building dares call a smile; I've heard that seasoned criminals wet themselves when Larabee unleashes that...apparition, "are there any other complaints you would like to lodge against us?"

O'Connor is on his feet in an instant, backing away from the Seven Horsemen (yes, I know it's technically four) and muttering nearly incoherent apologies. He didn't dare brave that floor for three months afterward, which is impressive, because O'Connor's office is on that very floor. We had to relocate his office until Travis could convince Team Seven to stop intimidating the poor man.

Clearly, Team Seven is out of control. The other teams, for the most part, disagree. They believe that all of Internal Affairs is out to ruin Team Seven for no reason other than that we all take our jobs too seriously. While I cannot speak for the rest of my department, I have made it my personal vendetta to bring Team Seven down a peg or two specifically because I do not believe they are doing their job. Nowhere in the manual is proper agent behavior outlined as the prank-pulling, paper airplane-throwing, IA-scaring, and general disregarding of rules and regulations shenanigans in which those cowboys incessantly engage.

It is a well-kept secret in Internal Affairs, this determination of mine. After the past, nine IA people that openly went up against Larabee and crew and lost, no one is bragging about my being the next champion for the cause of professional conduct in the workplace. Everyone knows, but they are being careful that Team Seven not get wind of me. It has never happened before, but I wouldn't put it past any of those agents to issue a preemptive strike if my presence was made known.

Thus it was a great surprise to me when O'Connor peeked over the wall of the cubicle we share. This might be another reason why I am so eager to put Team Seven in its place...Roy O'Connor has become a royal annoyance ever since his 'accident', always complaining about those agents. Roy O'Connor looked around the wall we shared, saying, "Henry? I think I've got something on Larabee and his bitches."

That's another problem, but one I'm not certain of how to deal with just yet. Ever since his 'misunderstanding' with the wall, Roy has gotten vindictive. He puts twice as much effort into his work as before and gets better results than half the department put together, but I sometimes worry about all that anger he totes around.

Sighing, I reach a hand out for the folder I see cresting the divider. "Roy, how many times do I have to tell you..."

His eyes harden, and I think he's picked up the Larabee Glare pretty well. "I'm just calling it like I see it, Williams. Besides, you'll agree with me once you read this. The bust went completely to hell; there was a huge shootout. Standish failed to drop his cover, ended up shooting Sanchez twice when the big guy tried to calm him down, poor bastard. I've got Larabee on a questionable shot, got one alleged perp in the back. I haven't got anything on the others, but if you head down there, you're bound to catch Wilmington in a sexual harassment violation or Tanner making threats. If you wait until they get back to the office, I'm sure you can rat out the Kid for hacking into the Pentagon or Mossad's secret files or some such."

I blinked at the venom and fanaticism in his voice. In Internal Affairs, we are supposed to maintain impartiality. Most agents take this to mean that we are not a part of the back-slapping, gun-toting brotherhood of active agents, that we should hold them in some sort of disdain. I think that if one of said agents is abusing the trust and power given him by his teammates and badge, then he should be removed from service.

"You want me to look into it?" I asked, amazed that Roy O'Connor didn't want a shot at them himself.

"Definitely," Roy said, smirking. "They've gone to the hospital to be with Sanchez... I've got the address here somewhere...ah" he found it quickly, "like I said, the faster you get there, the more violations you'll find."

I stared at Roy, seeing inconsistencies my job required me to notice. "How do you know all this?" I stammered out.

Roy smiled. "I'm IA, we know everything," he intoned.

I felt my eyebrows scrunch together. "Right, but..."

"Time's a-wasting, Henry," he chided. "You want these guys as bad as I do, right? Take the file, ask some questions. That's your job, isn't it?"

"Of course," I said, still confused. However, the call to arms was too true to ignore, so I jumped in my sixteen-year-old station wagon, (keeping the world safe from dirty agents doesn't pay well) and drove to the hospital.

I worked my way up to the lounge where most of Team Seven purportedly waited for their resident psychologist to pull through. Instead, I found only Agent Dunne, typing away madly at his laptop. Roy O'Connor's warning about the kid goes through my head as I approach the young man.

"What do you want?" Dunne snaps, not looking up from his computer. Did I mention he had his back to the door and could not possibly have known I was there? I was stunned and did not immediately speak. "Look, mister, I'm a little busy right now, so either state your business or get out."

Right. Note to self: the youngest member of Team Seven has teeth too, and he's not afraid to use them. "Uh, my name's Henry Williams, ATF. I'd like to ask you some questions."

For some reason, this sentence caused Dunne to jerk his attention away from the computer screen. He looked me over and then casually says, "Oh. You're IA. What do you want to know, Agent Williams?"

"What?" I stutter. "I never said..."

Dunne rolled his eyes. "No, you didn't, but what other section of the ATF would have an agent interested in formally asking questions at a time like this?"

'Touché,' I thought. "Congratulations, Agent Dunne. I apologize for not thoroughly identifying myself sooner." The young man waved a hand dismissively. It's a gesture I've seen Standish use frequently. I guess Larabee isn't the only bad influence. "First of all, I'd like to ask if you know anything about the shot that Agent Larabee took..." I let the question trail off, a practice meant to trick guilty agents into giving up more information than they intend.

Agent Dunne chuckled. "You will have to be more specific, Agent Williams. I think Chris took down twice as many perps as the rest of us."

Damn. Well, it was worth a try. "The one where he shot someone in the back, Agent Dunne," I reply dryly, trying not to show how his easy dodge of the question rattled me.

Dunne's brow contracted in concentration. "Oh, you mean the guy who was after Vin! See, Vin had just come down from the rafters and one of the perps got a hold of Buck's gun and tried to shoot Vin in the back, only Chris got the bastard first."

He nods assertively and I groan internally. The kid is so straightforward, so bluntly honest that I can see there is no way Roy O'Connor's claim has any root in reality.

"What about Agent Standish?" I ask, determined to salvage at least part of this interrogation. I mean, how does one put a positive or at least innocent spin on shooting a teammate?

"Oh, that's really not as bad as it looks," Agent Dunne replied smoothly. "It's what I'm working on right now. Do you want to see?"

I sigh. The boy is an unimpeachable witness. "Sure," I say moving to sit next to the young agent to see his computer more clearly. The screen is split into two displays, each a different angle of the warehouse.

"See?" Agent Dunne asks. "Just before the bust gets shot to hell, the buyer's chief of security gets a call. The phone call must have blown Josiah's cover, because everybody...well, let me play the audio for you too."

The young agent punched a few keys and suddenly the bust is audible as well as visible.

"Mr. Sanders, I've received some disturbing news," said the buyer.

"I had hoped you would finally be told," Standish, aka Sanders replied.

The buyer looked genuinely confused. "You did?"

"Of course, Mr. Gratel. No one should be forced to go through life with the disgusting toupee you have selected."

I can almost hear the buyer's teeth grinding in frustration.

"This is no embarrassment of mine, Sanders. I have just been told that your bodyguard works for the ATF."

"You must be mistaken, Mr. Gratel. My selection process is thorough and effective."

"It is not effective enough, Mr. Sanders. Will you deal with him or should my men do the honors?"

I feel queasy. How can a man talk about another man's proposed death as though it were a chore to be eagerly carried out?

Standish sighed on the tape. "No, I thank you for your kind offer, Mr. Gratel, but I am perfectly capable of taking out my own trash." Without warning, Standish spun and shot Sanchez twice, once in the leg, and once high in the shoulder, where a Kevlar vest, if he'd been wearing one, would not provide cover. Apparently unconcerned by the acts of violence he had just committed, Standish turned back to the buyer. "As agreed, Mr. Gratel, your ordnance has been loaded into trucks behind the warehouse. If you wish, you may send men to check."

Even through the grainy quality of the tape, I can see Mr. Gratel's smile. "No, Mr. Sanders, your reputation precedes you. I trust that the merchandise is as you say it is. Here is your money."

"Thank you. It has been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr.Gratel."

Abruptly, the call of "Freeze, ATF!" echoed through the warehouse as doors and windows were kicked in. Perps drew weapons, but most fell before they got a shot off. Agent Standish somehow managed to drag the considerably larger and heavier Agent Sanchez to cover. He disappeared off the one display, but was still visible on the other, creating a tourniquet for the leg and applying pressure to the shoulder wound.

"That's enough," I whispered.

Dunne protested, "But you haven't seen the part that clears Chris yet, Agent Williams!"

I imitated his earlier dismissive gesture. "I'm beginning to question the validity of this investigation," I admitted.

"Really?" Agent Dunne asked eyes wide. "I mean, that's great, but aren't you supposed to question everybody first? Gather evidence and everything?"

I shook my head, staring at the floor. "Something just isn't right," I muttered.

"What, about the case?" Agent Dunne seemed eager to clear his comrades' names. "I can show you the rest of the tape if you want."

"No, it's not Team Seven," I explained. "The guy who gave me this information knew I would do my job."

"Which is making our lives miserable," Dunne quipped.

My head snapped up and I studied him a moment before I realized he was joking. I smiled. "Right. He knows I'm more fair-minded than him, but still he sends me over here to take you guys on with trumped-up accusations. Why?"

Agent Dunne frowned in concentration. "It sounds like he wanted to set you up, maybe get us caught up in it to, but why send you over here with something that would take no more than ten minutes to clear up?" His eyes widened as they traveled to the door I had entered a scant five minutes prior. "Get down!"

I froze. I am well aware of that fact. The trouble is, I'm simply not cut out to be a field agent, so when a Kalashnikov-toting mercenary begins firing at me in the middle of a hospital, I'm beyond flat-footed. I'm absolutely paralyzed.

Fortunately, Dunne isn't. He tackles me to the floor in one motion. Unfortunately, we managed to catch several bullets on the way down. As my vision faded, I saw the shooter leave the doorway. More shots sounded and then came blessed silence and darkness.

+ + + + + + +

"I don't know! He just kept saying he, and then we got interrupted by the shooter!"

"Brothers, we should be patient. The doctors say he will probably be alright. There shouldn't be any memory loss. Until he regains consciousness, we can only wait."

"Try tellin' that ta Chris, here. All he wants ta do is round up a posse and go after the bastards that done this. Right, Cowboy?"

"One of these days, Tanner..."

"Yup, but not today."

"Kid, why did you have to take a bullet for someone from IA? We all know their one mission in life is to make our lives hell."

"For your information, Buck, I took six bullets, not one."

"Will someone provahd the boy with a medal!"

"Ez! And I took those bullets because he's a decent guy."

"Decent? I guess there's a first for everything. Do you guys remember O'Connor?"

"And Delany?"

"And Frederickson?"

"And Hopkins?"

"And Sproston?"

"And Montoya?"

"And Kordowski?"

"And Lombard?"

"And Chambers?"

"All right! I understand we have a great track record of scaring off IA personnel, but if you won't be quiet..."

"Ah hell, Nate, you're the one that took on Sproston and Lombard at the same time!"

"...If you won't be quiet, you can leave! These men need their rest. Chris, go home, you look as bad as Ezra."

"Mah appearance is impeccable and as such beyond criticism..."

"Like hell it is. You're still feeling guilty, and won't take care of yourself."

"Is this true, Brother Ezra? You know you handled the situation perfectly. Ezra, look at me. I stood a far better chance of making it out of there alive with you shooting me than if they had."

"Okay, since Standish won't admit his innocence anytime soon, I'm taking this opportunity to organize us. We don't know who ordered the hit, so I want someone with our injured at all times. I know some of us have to head back to the office to finish up the paperwork, but we'll do it in shifts."

"Why not have one of us bring the forms back here?"

"Because, JD, then none of us would be paying full attention to guarding you, Josiah, or Agent Williams here."

"I am not 'one of the injured', Chris! I'm..."

"Fine!" the other agents chorused.

"Well, I am!"

"Brothers, I believe I can navigate with a crutch, and so..."

"Oh, no you don't. You're staying put. If I have to sedate you, I will."

"I'm rethinking the whole 'all IA agents are bastards angle', Chris."

"Why is that, Buck?"

"Well, ya see, the only one who isn't giving us a hard time is the one who's paid to do just that."

I heard chuckles traverse the room, followed by a gasp.

"Jeez, Buck. Don't make me laugh."

"Next time be careful where you take those bullets, then."

I groaned and shifted, only to cry out due to the excruciating pain. When my eyes opened, Agent Jackson had his hand on what I surmised was the morphine drip control. "No! Have to tell you..." I felt my strength fading, "O'Connor..."

"Yeah, Williams, we were just talking about him," Buck said helpfully. You know the guy?"

Desperately, I searched the room for JD. My gaze settled on his, and I silently willed him to understand. "He..." The room spun and pitched back into darkness.

+ + + + + + +

I woke again to pain and darkness, but felt stronger. What I mean is that the room was dark. I glanced around, noted the closer walls and lack of company, and suddenly felt claustrophobic and alone. Mine was the only bed in the room. There was one door. If there were windows, the shades were drawn in such a way that they blended with the wall. A beeping sound increased in speed and I realized I was hooked up to a heart monitor.

"It's okay, Henry."

That voice! I knew it from somewhere, but where?

"They left you all alone. Well, we can hardly expect them to look after you when they're busy shooting each other, now can we?"

Roy O'Connor was in my room! The heart monitor beeps gained speed.

"Henry, calm down. I'd like to talk to you about Larabee and his bitches without the interruption of a nurse."

The statement angered me, but my heart slowed down all the same. It was a familiar phrase, one that I knew how to react to in the office. "What do you want to know?" I said through gritted teeth.

Roy O'Connor leaned over the bed, half his face catching the faint light from the hallway. He looked like a Jack-o-Lantern, hollow and sneering. "Why did you help them?"

I was confused by his question; I thought we were talking about Larabee and Company, not my decisions. "I was doing my job."

Roy sighed. "Your job was to do what I couldn't. I couldn't get within a mile of Larabee without raising his suspicions. All you had to do was get them in one area by conducting interrogations and then let my man cut them down."

His man? The entire afternoon snapped into focus for me. "You knew I only wanted to take them down on principle," I said faintly. "That's why you could use me. Like Agent Dunne said, a fair-minded investigator like me would cut to the bottom of the accusations you leveled in less than ten minutes. You needed me to distract them, keep them defensive and off their game...tell me; did you care whether I got caught in the crossfire?" I could not keep the hurt from creeping into my voice.

Roy smiled, and I became instantly afraid. "Oh, yes, Henry. I cared very much that you were caught in the crossfire. It was the only way to cover my tracks, you see."

The heart monitor beeped faster again, but Roy didn't seem to notice. "Now what?" I asked, terrified that he would shoot me.

The smile slipped, replaced by a sincere frown. "You will unfortunately suffocate," he said, pulling the pillow from under my head. "It is always a tragedy when one of our own dies," he concluded, placing the pillow over my mouth and nose.

"It's an even greater tragedy when one of our own goes bad," said a voice from under the bed.

Roy looked around in surprise before falling sideways to the floor. Whoever had been under my bed must have swept Roy's legs out from under him. The pillow was promptly removed from my face and put back under my head, and I saw Agent Jackson, checking my vitals.

Agent Standish calmly walked into the room, and detached a device from the heart monitor. "Mistah Dunne, I may require your assistance in retrieving the evidence from this contraption."

Agent Dunne was pushed into the room by Agent Wilmington, who abandoned the wheelchair as soon as he caught sight of my traitorous coworker. "It's not just a contraption, Ez," Agent Dunne protested, "That's a top of the line..."

"Where is he?" Agent Sanchez roared, entering the small room with Agent Tanner.

Agent Wilmington picked up Roy O'Connor by his shirt and slammed him against the nearest wall. "Why, I ought to..."

"Aw hell."

The expression caused every agent in the room to freeze and turn to face the speaker. Agent Tanner continued. "Chris, is that a window you're standin' in front of?"

Agent Larabee gave the smile he reserved for walking dead men, monumentally stupid men, and some combination of the above sorts of men. "What do you say, O'Connor? You want to go out the window or come along quietly?"

"B-But," Roy spluttered, "you said that was only if I accused your men without evidence. I didn't, that was Henry!" He pointed wildly, already light skin now deathly pale in fear.

Agent Larabee shrugged. "We know you gave the documentation to Agent Williams," Roy went even paler as Larabee concluded, "so I don't see much difference. Buck, shall we?"

Vin pulled up the blinds and Josiah and Chris opened the window. Buck released Roy O'Connor enough so that the man's feet slid back to the floor, but Roy didn't stop there. He kept sinking, clutching Buck's pant legs like a life preserver.

"Please, please," Roy begged, "I'll come quietly. Please don't kill me." Without further delay, Agent Jackson cuffed the sobbing man and led him out of the room.

Agent Sanchez sat down heavily in a nearby chair, rubbing at his shoulder wound, which had been aggravated by opening the window. Banter was struck up, sometimes including me, but mostly making sure all of their men were still in one piece.

Thinking of something, I asked, "You wouldn't have let your men drop him, would you Agent Larabee?"

Agent Larabee watched me closely for a moment, and then replied. "First off, anyone who's been through hell with us like you have can call us by our first names. So," he pointed to himself, "I'm Chris," he gestured around the room as he reeled off names, "the kid's JD, the one with the mustache is Buck, the one rubbing his shoulder is Josiah, the one that hasn't said three words together is Vin, and the one standing in the corner and trying to avoid eye contact with both you and Josiah is Ez."

"-ra, Mistah Larabee," Agent Standish quipped. "How many times must I inform you gentlemen—and I use the term loosely—that my first name has two syllables?"

"And the unlucky man that gets to drag that whining bastard back to the Federal building is Nate," Agent Larabee finished, completely ignoring the slighted southern agent. "As to your other question...on the record, no, we do not engage in...Ezra, a little help here?"

"As you wish Mistah Larabee." Ezra drew in a breath. "We do not engage in actions which may, at some later point, by some misinformed third parties be mistakenly perceived as coercive, assault, or battery."

I grinned. "What about off the record, Chris?"

He returned the expression, and answered in a voice overflowing with innocence. "Off the record, Henry, we're only on the second floor. I have no idea what O'Connor was worried about."

We laughed and talked late into the night. The men of Team Seven visited me as they could while I recovered, and I discovered something about the group of mavericks. The good news is...they are stealthy predators and I am in the cage with them. The bad news, well, as far as I can tell ATF Team 7 is only bad news for criminals and uptight Internal Affairs agents.