The Bonds Of Brotherhood


1. - 10. | 11. - 16. | 17. - 22. | 23. - Epilogue


Stepping into the surgical waiting room, Chris felt his heart clench at the sight of his oldest friend, forearms resting on his knees, head drooping, every line of his normally strong form betraying his weakness and fear. Crossing to the slumped body, the blond settled into the chair next to Buck and rested an arm across the slumped shoulders. "He'll beat this one, big dog," Larabee encouraged, using his old nickname. His effort was rewarded with a soft chuckle.

Straightening and leaning back in the chair, Buck took comfort in the arm resting around his shoulders. So many times over the years Chris had been there for him, ready to carry him through the trials and tribulations. Wilmington knew that a lot of people couldn't understand why he would stand by his friend during those years between Sarah and Adam's death and the start of Team Seven, but Chris had been his rock in their early years together in the Navy and after they resigned.

Buck could remember the first time he had been forced to kill a man, he had made it through the mission only because Chris had forced him to continue, riding him hard. Afterward, when they returned, both of them had gotten stinking drunk, but that time it had been Buck who had been unable to face the day. While the blond had sobered up the next day, the mustached man had sought refuge in the bottle. He would have been written up, except that his friend had covered for him.

And that was just one example. No. It hadn't been easy watching Chris try to kill himself with alcohol, but it was the right thing, the only thing, he could do for his brother.

Now Wilmington once more sought the safe haven of Chris' care. JD had been injured before in the line of duty, but never like this. The sight of all that blood and all those pieces of metal sticking out of him... A shudder coursed over the brunette.

"He's going to be fine," Larabee assured. "The docs gave us a good prognosis. It just looked worse than it really was."

"But you didn't see him," Buck whispered, closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the wall. "God, Chris. We were getting Josiah and Vin away from there when the thing blew. It knocked me clean off my feet and I was at least twenty feet further away than JD and Vin." He swallowed hard. "When I turned back, all I could see were bits of metal embedded in JD's back. He wasn't moving. I thought..."

"You thought wrong," Chris informed, his voice strong and firm.

Blue eyes opened and turned to peer into the hazel ones that had always seemed to be there for him. Searching the depths of those eyes he knew so well, Buck saw no fear, no doubt, only confidence and he felt that confidence flow into his battered heart. Sitting straighter in his seat, the dark head began nodding slowly. Yes. Chris was right. JD was fine. Taking his first deep breath since the explosion, Wilmington's head lifted. Worry still dwelt within him and would until the kid was home safe and back on the job, but there wasn't the crushing fear, the despair that had been tormenting him.

"Any idea how much longer?" the ladies' man asked.

Chris smiled, a small smile of victory. He, too, was still worried about JD, but was glad to see his old friend back. "No idea," he admitted. "But there's a pretty nurse over there who might have an idea." Larabee bit back a laugh as his friend's head whipped around to take in the beautiful blonde nurse. "Maybe you could use some of that Wilmington charm of yours to find out how he's doing."

Buck swallowed. "Probably not up to par," he admitted. Taking a deep breath, he offered a small smile of his own and observed, "But then, I start so far ahead of you normal men that even dead in the grave three days, I'd have more luck than you."

A soft laugh escaped the blond as he saw his friend's eyebrows bob. That was Buck for you. Watching his friend walk away, the team leader leaned back in his chair and sighed. He wondered, not for the first time, if his team had been cursed. "Why do bad things happen to good people?" he queried, thinking of the book someone had given him shortly after Sarah and Adam's funeral. If memory served, the book had turned into a nice pile of ash that night.

Feeling his phone vibrate and wincing that he had forgotten to turn it off, Chris pulled the device from its place on his belt and read the message on the small screen: Room 323. Turning his cell off, he replaced it and settled back to await word on JD and make sure his oldest friend was alright.

+ + + + + + +

The sound of gurney being moved reached the two men speaking quietly in the next cubicle.

"Moving Josiah up first," Vin observed softly. He received a nod in response. Fighting the painkillers that were coursing through his system, the Texan struggled to find the words of comfort he knew his friend needed right now, but his mind wouldn't cooperate. With a silent sigh, he decided to just go with whatever came to mind. "You're a good man, Ezra Standish. A better man than you want to be."

The auburn head snapped up and green eyes stared at the prone man in disbelief. Ezra could only blink at the words his friend uttered. How could Vin say such a thing? Surely, knowing who he was, having seen his darker side, the Texan couldn't be serious.

The sharpshooter's mouth twitched toward a smile at the look of utter astonishment on his friend's face. "Didn't say you were perfect, Ez," he teased. He then continued in that same serious tone he had first used, "But you are a good man."

Ezra noticed Vin trying to gather liquid and offered the prone man a sip of water.

Tears pricked the back of the Southerner's eyes as Tanner's words worked through his cloak of depression and wove a healing magic within his tattered heart and decimated soul. "Vin," he began before being cut off.

"Ez," the Texan interrupted. "I can't tell you you'll wake up tomorrow and the pain will be gone. I can't tell you that when you walk outside, the sun will be shining and the world filled with magic. But you will get better a little bit each day. And you need to listen to the good things in your life. What you and Petra had..." Here Vin's faltering voice trailed off. This was as painful for him to say as it would be for Ezra to hear, but it had to be said. "You never had Petra, Ez. She played you." Taking a deep breath, he fought the pull of unconsciousness, needing to be heard. "The only thing you can do is not let her win." Finally Vin lost the fight to speak his thoughts.

Seeing his friend's eyes close, Ezra slumped in despair. "And how do I do that when I don't know how to face the day?"

"Don't give in to what I know is eating at your soul," came a voice from the entry to the cubicle.

Ezra's head whipped around to see Nathan standing in the doorway. Color flushed his cheeks at the thought of his friend having overheard Vin's statements.

Nathan saw the embarrassment on Ezra's face. From what he'd just overheard, Ezra's reactions and behavior suddenly made much more sense to the medic. Fixing broken hearts wasn't his strong suit, but maybe he could offer a life preserver to keep Standish afloat. "Vin's right, you are a good man," Jackson insisted. "And good men get hurt worse by lies."

The auburn head dropped at these words and the truth of them. Much of his life before joining the FBI had been lies. While at the FBI he had nearly been destroyed by lies. Now lies had once more cost him, only this time it was self respect, hope and his heart.

Taking in the downcast visage, Nathan squatted down beside his friend. "Vin's right, you care and that makes you vulnerable but it also makes you strong."

Ezra snorted, still unwilling to accept the words of his friends. "And about what, exactly do I care other than myself?" Standish demanded.

"You care about us, you care about your job, you care about those kids you visit every week in the hospital that we're not supposed to know about. And, even though you don't want to be seen that way, to see yourself that way, that side of you is a lot closer to who you are than the masks you wear."

Green eyes met brown and stared deeply into them, seeking a lie in the kind words. He found none. What he read in Nathan's eyes was compassion, truth, love, and friendship. There was no judgment or deceit.

Nathan saw the desperation in the green eyes, the need to believe, yet an unwillingness to do so. Wracking his brain for further proof, Nathan thought of the day he had spotted Ezra in the children's ward while he'd been visiting Raine. Those kids had clung to Ezra, each seeking a little of his attention, each expressing their love for the man. "Listen for those kids' voices, think about the love they have for you, the love you have for them. Look for your brothers who are surrounding you, watching over you, supporting you when you stumble and there to keep you from falling. Let us be strong for you."

"Those brighter days will come," a groggy voice from the bed whispered as a blue eye cracked open.

Shaking his head and grinning slightly, Nathan stood and rested a hand on Ezra's shoulder. Leaning in, he whispered, "You don't need the mask. We all know you're hurting and the only one you're fooling with it, is yourself." Then squeezing the undercover agent's shoulder one more time, he turned and stared at the nearly unconscious Texan, shaking his head at the fact the man was still conscious at all.

"I assume the room is ready?" Ezra asked, trying to keep the note of hope out of his voice. In truth, he was feeling rather drained and wouldn't mind resting.

"Room 323," Nathan confirmed. "Josiah just got settled and is sound asleep. I expect both of you to be the same as soon as we get there." Seeing the protests forming on the two exhausted faces, he held up his hand to forestall any arguments. "No. You will both rest and sleep. If this was the MacDougherty case, we're going to need you healthy as soon as possible."

Before any arguments could be presented, the room was invaded by hospital staff there to move Vin.


Chris opened the door to room 323 and paused, an amused smile on his face. In the three beds lay three of his men, all sound asleep and all looking far more innocent than any one of them had a right to look. Leaning against the doorframe, he folded his arms in front of him.

Hearing the door open, Nathan looked over from his seat between Vin and Josiah and smiled at the team leader. Standing, he walked over to his friend and whispered, "Look like little kids, don't they?"

A soft chuckle escaped the blond as he advised, "Don't let Josiah hear you say that."

An answering chuckle sounded from the medic. "Don't reckon the other two would take too kindly to it either."

"No, they wouldn't," a voice drawled from the middle bed.

"Indeed they would not," a cultured Southern voice agreed from the far.

"Nor have some of them been children in a very long time," a deep voice informed from the near bed.

The two men standing in the doorway just shook their heads at the responses from the three patients. "Mr. Larabee," Ezra greeted, formally, pushing himself into sitting position. "What word do you have on our young friend?"

Stepping into the room and allowing the door to shut behind him, Chris tried to figure out the best place to stand so both Vin and Josiah could see him. His two friends were on their stomachs because of the first degree and very few second degree burns on their backs; they had been lucky. Finally deciding to stand between the two beds, Chris moved and made sure that both injured men could see him. He then turned and saw Nathan taking a seat at the foot of Ezra's bed.

"Well?" Nathan demanded, impatient to find out how their youngest fared.

Larabee smiled at the command. "JD came out of surgery with no problems and a lot of stitches. Right now he's in recovery with Buck sitting watch. Some of the shards did go pretty deep, but nothing vital was injured. The doctors have him on a broad spectrum of antibiotics to prevent infection. The most serious injury was the long shard up by his shoulder. As the doctor pointed out, the kid's rib cage did its job and protected his lungs and heart. Unfortunately, the metal cracked the two ribs that stopped it."

"Ouch," Josiah commented, wincing in sympathy.

Nodding in agreement, the blond continued. "The surgeon got it out, but basically, JD has two broken ribs in his back."

"How long is he in for?" Vin inquired, his voice little more than a whisper as he blinked owlishly.

"Not sure," Chris admitted. "A lot of that depends on JD, how well he heals and how well he obeys the doctor's instructions and what his insurance will cover. I imagine they'd like him here about a week, though, just to make sure nothing happens."

"What are our plans for when Mr. Dunne arrives?" Ezra asked, trying not to sound anxious to get away from the others. The truth was, he was tired and just wanted to be by himself, to let himself hurt without worrying about others, and to have some time to really think about what both Vin and Nathan had said to him.

"Once everyone is settled, I figure you, me will head back to the ranch and Nathan can probably go home to Raine. I can't imagine Buck leaving JD here on his own tonight," Chris advised.

"And tomorrow?" Josiah asked, his barely open eyes roving between his two sons.

"Tomorrow everybody is going to rest," Nathan commanded, his voice declaring he would brook no opposition. "Ez... er, Peter needs a quiet day at the ranch to continue healing and you and Kyle will stay here and do what the doctors say. If, and that is a big if, the doctors say you can leave, then one of us will take you out to Chris' ranch where you will continue to follow doctor's orders and get better."

"Monday I'll be at the ranch with those who are convalescing and Nathan and Buck will be working with Team Four to determine what exactly is going on with this case," Chris apprised. "For right now, E... Peter and I will stay until JD comes down from recovery."

+ + + + + + +

In recovery, Buck sat in a chair beside his friend's bed, grasping the too-still hand in his own. "I'm so proud of you," he whispered to the unconscious man. "The way you went in there and got Vin out. Then when the still blew, you covered Vin's body with your own." The sight of all that metal protruding from JD's back reasserted itself in Buck's mind, aided by the many stitches now decorating the younger man's back. It had been too close this time. Swallowing back the bile that threatened at the thought of losing JD, Buck admonished, "Don't you ever do anything so stupid and... heroic again, you hear me? I've lost too much in this life and I don't aim to lose you, too."

Reaching out his other hand, Buck brushed aside a stray lock of hair that had fallen across JD's forehead. "Reckon I should let you know you have more stitches in your back than a pair of 501 jeans, but doc says if all goes well, you'll be back at work in no time. Well, six to eight weeks. I guess all that milk you drink paid off. Doc said it was a miracle that big piece of metal didn't puncture your lung, but your ribs stopped it. Broke 'em in the process, but that's a little easier to fix than a punctured lung. Of course, you're going to be laid out in bed on your stomach for a while, but I'll be here with you, at least as much as I can." Taking a deep breath, Wilmington continued, "Travis has Nathan and me working with Team Four on this case..."

JD heard a familiar sound rising and falling. It was reaching out to him in his save little cocoon. He knew there was a reason he wanted to stay in the dark place that felt so safe, but the voice seemed more important at the moment. If only he could remember why. Finally deciding he had no choice but to find out, the young computer expert put the tracking skills Vin had been teaching him to use and followed that gentle ebb and flow.

As he moved closer to the voice, other things began to distract him from his goal. There were soft sounds in the background that he couldn't quite identify. Moving even closer to his goal, he became aware of a dull ache in his back. Continuing on, the dull ache increased until it became pain, but still he needed to find that voice. The sound resolved itself into words now, "... me working with Team Four on this case..."

Those words brought back a name, which he quickly applied to the voice. "Buck," he tried to say. It was little more than a breath of air passing his lips, but the sound stopped and he felt the gentle pressure on his hand increase to a more comforting level. Dunne struggled to squeeze back.

"Hey there, kid," Buck said, his face breaking into a broad grin at the movement of his friend's lips. He knew it had been his name the young man had spoken. Looking around, he caught the nurse's eye. She smiled and walked over to check on the patient. "Everything's going to be fine now, JD," he assured, leaning back, out of the nurse's way.

+ + + + + + +

Travis stood next to Abram Cavenaugh, leader of Team Four, watching as the rest of the team and several forensic investigators picked up pieces of shrapnel littering the ground. "Think it's MacDougherty?" he asked.

Cavenaugh stood silently for several minutes. "It has all the markings of it," he admitted. "The large-scale production site, the C-4 used to destroy the evidence, the willingness to eliminate any and all witnesses..."

The Assistant Director nodded. "Tanner and Sanchez were both still unconscious when I was there. Hopefully we'll be able to talk to them and find out what they saw." Travis watched as Abram nodded, though he didn't look happy about that statement. "What?" he asked.

Turning concerned eyes toward his boss, Team Four's leader expressed his concern. "MacDougherty doesn't like leaving witnesses," he pointed out. Seeing Orin agree, he continued with his thought. "If they had time to tie Sanchez and Tanner to the still and rig the C-4, they had time to find the men's ID and find out who they are."

A curse escaped the older man as he thought of all the implications. Finally with a sigh, he pointed out, "They're in the hospital at least overnight. One of Larabee's men will most likely be with them. We'll just alert them to the possibility that MacDougherty or one of his men might be by."

"And after they're released?" Abram asked.

Sighing deeply, Travis looked out over into the woods. "After that they'll probably recuperate at Larabee's ranch," he admitted softly. "It's a fairly defensible position, but maybe we should see about getting some extra protection out there for them."

"Might be a good idea," Cavenaugh agreed, wondering how quickly his team would be able to wrap up the case. He knew that the only real way to ensure the safety of his fellow agents was to close the case. The two men were distracted from their conversation just then by one of the other members of Team Four calling out and waving them over.

+ + + + + + +

In a middle-class suburb of Denver, in a nondescript raised ranch style house, the MacDougherty gang was gathered out back around the grill with the radio tuned to a news station.

"Shouldn't there have been a news story about them?" Colin asked. "Or at least about the explosion?"

Franklin MacDougherty leaned back in his lawn chair and contemplated the question. "It's possible that they aren't releasing any information," he assumed. "Ongoing investigation or something like that."

"Think we should worry about it?" Brad Anderson asked as he flipped one of the steaks.

Taking a sip of his beer, Franklin contemplated the question. "Not yet," he decided. "Let's give it a day, then we'll see what we can find out." With another sip of beer, he declared, "If they did survive, we'll just have to take care of them.


The dim light of the hospital room seemed to emphasize the quiet in the room. Straightening and moving away from the window, Buck looked at the three sleeping forms. It still seemed strange to him to see them all resting on their stomachs, but then he thought about their wounds and felt a shudder run down his spine.

Josiah's and Vin's backs were red and obviously burned, but there were only a few places where the burn had been second degree. The light sheets covering them hid the worst of the blisters.

Tanner also looked a little odd with his foot raised to reduce the swelling from when he'd twisted it after stepping in the gopher hole. According to the surgeon, that fall might have kept JD's wounds from being worse.

He sighed as his eyes rested on Josiah. Running his fingers across his mustache, Buck couldn't help but wonder what scars his teammates were still hiding from each other. In a way he could understand why Josiah would never bring up such a loss. Having lived through losing Sarah and Adam, as well as seeing what it did to Chris, he, himself, wasn't willing to open up that sort of pain for anyone. His heart ached at the thought of that loss, though. For all the years Chris had had Sarah and Adam, how many more had Josiah had his own family? Leaning his back against the wall, he sighed and wondered if they would be finding out.

His eyes moved to the third man in the room. The sight of JD's back was like something out of Wilmington's nightmares though he would never say it to the kid, especially after coming so close to losing him. Swallowing against the fear that rose up, Buck walked over, settled in the chair next to JD's bed and took Dunne's hand in his own, reassured by the warmth of the skin.

As he took Dunne's hand, the ladies' man saw a brown eye open and a smile appear on his brother's face. When sleep once more claimed the computer expert, Buck relaxed back into his chair and closed his eyes, soon joining the others in slumber.

+ + + + + + +

In the hallway near the room where four men slept, a maintenance worker pulled the mop out of the disinfectant-ladened water once more and smiled at the nurse on duty that rose from her desk to respond to a call.

As soon as she had her back turned, the man propped his mop against the wall and swiftly moved to the desk. Scanning the information on the desk, he soon found the charts for the patients in the ward. Flipping through the names, he frowned when he found the two for which he'd been searching. When he'd started off down by the morgue, he had been upset, but not surprised to find no mention of the two agents. Unfortunately, that had only complicated his search. So, floor by floor, with a methodical patience, he had searched and now his labors were rewarded. Scanning the information on the charts quickly, he gathered what information he needed and returned the paperwork to its appropriate place.

Hurrying back to his mop, he was once more wringing out the tool when the nurse returned, unaware of his use of her desk.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan leaned back against the headboard of his bed and stared out the window at the moonlight. It was a beautiful night and all his friends were alive and would remain so. Once again they had escaped death that always seemed to hover on the horizon. But what worried him even more than his friends' physical health, was Josiah's current mental state, the bleeding of his past and present together and the loss and anguish Nathan knew Josiah would once more experience when he realized that Ezra and Vin were not his sons.

Thinking back, he could remember the day Josiah found out about the death of his boys and his wife.

Shifting his car into park, Nathan peeled his hands off of the steering wheel and fisted them. They were still shaking. He had just been getting off of work when he heard the news and had been told that his friend wasn't reacting well at all.

With a concerted effort, Jackson managed to shove aside his own pain at the loss of those he considered family and thought of his friend. Taking several deep breaths, he pulled the keys from the ignition and opened his door.

Exiting the car and closing the door behind him, Nathan had taken two steps toward the house that had always been filled with love, joy and laughter and heard a terrible crash from within followed by the sound of splintering wood.

As fear lanced through him, Jackson started running. He threw open the screen door and turned the knob on the front door. It was locked. Pounding on the door, he called out, "Josiah! Open the door! Josiah! It's Nathan! Open up!"

He received no response. After a few minutes there was the sound of more splintering wood. With a curse, Nathan reached behind the light by the door and withdrew the spare key, for once glad that Josiah hadn't listened to his lectures on the dangers of keeping a key there.

Opening the door, he left it standing open and felt anguish flood his heart as he took in the destruction within the house.

With a tremulous heart, he stepped into the living room and absorbed the chaos. The couch had been torn and broken. The armchairs Josiah and Rose had spent months trying to find were now little more than kindling with a few scraps of fabric still attached. The coffee table Josiah and Kyle had refinished together was irreparable.

Swallowing back the bile that threatened at the sight of the shattered picture frames and torn pictures, piles of shattered pottery and gouges in the walls obviously from the impact of the objects that got in Josiah's way, Nathan moved through the living room and found equal destruction in the den.

The comfortable couches where family and friends had spent so many hours relaxing and having fun were destroyed. The antique sewing machine that was Rose's pride and joy lay in scattered chunks across the back wall of the room. The television had a fist-sized whole in it and the remains of the VCR were scattered on the floor underneath. Catching sight of a paper sticking out from underneath it, Nathan scanned it:" Left you a message. Press play. See you soon. Love Rose, Peter and Kyle".

Swallowing, Nathan folded the paper and looked at the tape that had obviously been ripped from the machine. He would have to see if he could get it repaired. Someday Josiah would want it.

A crash sounded from the direction of the kitchen drawing Nathan out of his thoughts. A loud cry rattled the widow of the house and caused Nathan to quicken his pace.

Afraid of what he might find, Nathan burst into the room and stopped in his tracks.

Shards of glass covered the floor. Pots and pans had been thrown all over the room. Food items had been scattered, littering the kitchen. And in amongst all that chaos, Nathan saw his friend, sitting on the floor, a small plate clutched to his chest as tears streamed down his face and sobs wracked his strong frame.

His own heart breaking at the sight, Nathan slowly and carefully made his way across the kitchen until he was next to his friend. Sweeping aside a few shards of glass, he sank down next to the distraught man and slipped an arm around him, drawing him close.

"They're gone," Josiah whispered.

"I know," Nathan said, his voice every bit as tear laden as his friend's.

Sniffling, Josiah pulled the plate away from his chest and showed it to Nathan. "When I first met him, Peter refused to eat off of any plate but this one. Even when Kyle teased him about it being a baby plate, Peter still used it. Rose told me why; it was the last gift Peter and Kyle's father gave him before he died."

Reaching over, Nathan reverently touched the plate bearing the image of the gingerbread man, tracing the outline of the faded form.

"They're gone," Josiah choked out as his grief once more came to the fore, shaking his body with each sob.

Not knowing what else to do, Nathan pulled the grieving man closer and held on tightly.

Closing his eyes against the memory, the medic felt that pain as intensely as if it were new. The sound of movement caused him to open his eyes. Moonlight poured through the window, illuminating Raine's face, lending an ethereal quality to her beauty. Not ready to speak, he reached out a hand and traced it gently along her cheek.

Seeing the pain in her husband's eyes, Raine reached up and cupped her own hand over Nathan's, pressing it close. Reaching out her other hand, she rested it against his cheek. "Tell me, baby," she encouraged softly.

"I don't know if I can do it again," he said, his voice rough with old pain and new tears.

"Josiah?" she asked, remembering what he had told her earlier about his thinking Ezra and Vin were his dead sons. Seeing Nathan nod, she leaned forward until her forehead rested against his. "Together, Nathan," she advised softly. "We all get through this together."

+ + + + + + +

Chris quietly turned the knob on the door to the guest room. He knew it was foolish, but he needed to check on Ezra and make sure the undercover agent was fine. With so many of his family hurt... He shuddered slightly at that thought. Family. Even though they all knew they had long ago passed the bonds of friendship, the idea of once more having a family was still new and strange to all of the seven, and at times, Larabee wasn't sure he was ready for the risk.

Peeking in, he spotted Ezra sleeping soundly, sprawled on his stomach. Warmth spread through Chris at the thought that Ezra trusted him enough to sleep with his defenses down. Closing the door silently, the blond moved down the hall to the den, his initial goal.

On the return ride to the ranch, he and Ezra had barely exchanged two words. It wasn't until he had dinner ready on the table and Standish hadn't answered, that he sought out the Southerner. Chris finally found him looking utterly lost, sitting in a chair by the big picture window staring at nothing, a picture of the team in his hand with a smaller picture of Maude tucked in the corner.

Settling in the seat opposite, he had reached out and drawn the frame from his friend's hand and looked at the image of seven men, seven brothers, standing together, It had been a fun day, a day when nothing seemed to matter except the here and now.

Slowly, Larabee had managed to draw the information he sought from the healing man. As the tale came out, Chris could do nothing but offer his presence as comfort.

When he was still young Maude had found a man who made her very happy. Unfortunately, that man was also not nearly wealthy enough to catch her interest. Yet even the apparently avaricious Maude Standish had a heart. Still young and believing in love, she had given up her latest scheme and settled with this man.

Those years had been the happiest of Ezra's life to that point, with his mother smiling and laughing all the time and the man's big booming laugh filling his days. It was enough to make him believe life was good. Then they had found out the man's secret. He already had a wife and children in another state and under another name. Devastated, Maude had immediately packed up Ezra and the two of them never looked back. Josiah was a lot like that man, the man Ezra thought of as his father. True, he didn't feel he needed a father anymore and Josiah was a friend, a brother, but he hated to think that the lie they were perpetrating on Josiah would irreparably damage that relationship when the profiler came to himself.

Chris had offered what assurances he could and the two had eaten a quiet meal before Ezra retired to his room, the medication sapping what little energy he had.

After taking care of the horses and making sure the house was set for the night, Chris had settled down to read. Eventually he retired, but awoke sometime in the middle of the night, concern and worry eating at him. Getting out of bed he headed to his office, stopping to check on Ezra.

Now, seated behind his desk, he logged into his computer and then connected to the office. There was some research he needed.

Using his passwords and clearance as a team leader, he quickly retrieved everything he could find on the MacDougherty gang. It would take a while to read through, but something was bothering him.

As the first faint pink of dawn lined the sky, a curse tumbled from his lips. He needed to talk to Travis and find out if the AD knew about his finding. If he did know, Larabee thought, there'd better be a very good reason he'd kept the information to himself.


"Buck?" JD called out softly, peeling his eyes open. He had been in and out of it since the explosion. He remembered freeing Josiah and Vin and he remembered the explosion, but the rest was sort of a blur.

"He had to leave for work, kid," Vin advised, his voice raspy as his need for water became known.

Turning his head in the other direction, Dunne soon found himself facing Vin who was also lying on his stomach. His muddled mind tried to figure out why they were both on their stomachs, but failed to reach any conclusion. "Why are we lying like this, Vin?" he asked.

"Who's Vin?" a baffled voice asked from the other side of the room.

Shooting his friend a puzzled look, JD tried to figure out who it was and why they didn't know Vin. Were they sharing a room with a stranger?

The sharpshooter sighed and called out. "He meant me, Dad. JD just sometimes confuses me with a friend of his from school." He hated lying to Josiah, but every time someone mentioned his real name, or Ezra's, Josiah became very agitated, which caused problems. The last time it had been a nurse who had called the long haired man "Mr. Tanner" that had gotten Josiah into such a state that he had eventually passed out. Seeing the question in JD's eyes, the Texan sighed again and explained as quietly as he could, "Remember, I'm Kyle, Josiah's son. Our poker-playing friend is Peter, my older brother and Josiah's other son."

The explanation didn't clarify anything for JD, but the young Bostonian simply nodded that he understood he was to call Vin and Ezra, Kyle and Peter and pretend they were both Josiah's sons. "But why are we on our stomachs?"

"That, son," Josiah replied, "would be because we all injured our backs. Vin and I have first and second degree burns on ours and you got caught in the explosion. They had you in surgery to remove metal shards from your back."

"Don't forget about the concussions," Tanner added with a smile.

"Ah yes, that would explain the splitting headache you have right now and the dull throbbing in my own head," Josiah intoned.

Blinking as his mouth fell open slightly, Tanner denied, "I do not have a splitting headache."

A low, rumbling laugh emanated from the injured profiler. "Yes, you do, son," he disagreed. "I can hear it in your voice. You've never been able to hide your pain in your voice or your eyes. Those eyes of yours make you a terrible liar."

JD chuckled softly, wincing at the pain the movement triggered in his back. "He's got you there, V... Kyle," he corrected.

With of huff of disgust, Vin closed his eyes, seeking escape in sleep. "No respect," he muttered softly as the other two chuckled.

+ + + + + + +

Buck shifted in the uncomfortable seat and once more contemplated going back to Team Seven's area in order to bring his own chair to his temporary desk.

Currently he and Nathan had relocated to Team Four's area so they could review the case notes and make sure they were up to speed. So far, they had been reading for several hours and finding that while there was plethora of information, very little of it was useful.

Something about the files they were reading was niggling at Buck, but he couldn't say exactly what it was. Shifting once more in his seat, he jumped at the sound of a folder slamming on a desk.

"Would you stop it?" Nathan growled out. The first few times Buck had shifted, he had been able to ignore it, but the memories that had visited him the previous night and chased away sleep, had left him tired and on edge.

Buck turned wide blue eyes at Nathan, stunned by the sharp words. "Sorry," he apologized, not entirely sure how to handle the angry medic.

Throwing down his pencil, Nathan rested his head in his hand. "No, Buck, I'm sorry," he apologized. "I know you were at the hospital with JD, Vin and Josiah all night and those chairs are anything but comfortable."

Accepting the apology, the ladies' man nodded. "Want to talk about what's eating at you?" he asked, ready to take a break from reading reports.

Leaning back in his chair, Nathan sighed again and stared at the ceiling. If anyone would understand what he went through with Josiah, it would be the mustached man. Taking a deep breath and slowly releasing it, he brought his head forward and looked into the eyes of his friend. "Let me buy you a coffee and I'll tell you all about it," he offered, rising from his desk

Never one to pass up helping a friend, Buck quickly rose and headed off to the break room. He had noticed Nathan's exhaustion earlier, but his own had claimed most of his attention. Settling in a seat at the small table, he gratefully accepted the mug of coffee from his friend. Taking a sip, he let out a small sigh of satisfaction. Looking into the haunted brown eyes, he commanded, "So... spill."

The corner of the medic's mouth turned up at the command. Staring into the dark liquid in his cup, he tried to figure out where to begin. "I know you went through hell with Chris after Sarah and Adam died," he said, looking at the other man and seeing the pain that was normally hidden, showing in the blue eyes. "Josiah had a different way of dealing with his pain...or maybe not."

With a nod of encouragement, Buck leaned back in his chair, curious and oddly comforted that he could share this with Nathan.

Taking another sip of coffee, Nathan sighed and admitted, "I'm just afraid that when he gets his memory back he's going to feel that loss again."

Leaning forward, Buck trapped the wandering brown eyes. "And you're feeling all that pain now," he sympathized. "And you're not sure you can go through it again."

Nathan swallowed and nodded.

Reaching out a hand, the ladies' man rested it on Nathan's forearm, giving a light squeeze. "I know," he said. "Every time Chris is hurt and calls out for Sarah or Adam..." He had to pause and swallow back the pain. "But you survived it once." He saw Nathan nod. "This time you don't have to do it alone. We'll all be here. You just tell us what to expect and we'll keep an eye out."

Feeling some of the tension that had been eating at him begin to fade, Nathan offered a small smile and said, "Thanks."

Seeing that his friend was better, Buck leaned back in his chair once more and suggested, "So tell me about Peter and Kyle."

Nathan chuckled softly and settled back in his own chair. "Now there was a pair..."

+ + + + + + +

Chris wove through the city streets toward the garage. He glanced over at his passenger, and frowned some more. He hadn't expected Ezra to be thrilled at the prospect of going into the office, but he hadn't expected the man to be completely apathetic either. "I want you to stay in my office and rest on the couch," Chris commanded, worried about the still-healing agent overdoing things. He received a listless nod in response. Suppressing a sigh, he wished he knew what to say, what to do to snap Ezra out of the depression, which seemed to blanket him.

For his part, Ezra had been aware of Chris' concern and of his eyes constantly shifting to look at him. The problem was he just couldn't muster the energy to care. Right now he was numb; completely and entirely numb. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew it wasn't a good thing, that it was probably just another part of the mourning process he was going through, but he just didn't care. It felt good to be numb emotionally, to not hurt, even for a little while.

The Ram entered the garage and Larabee pulled into his normal parking spot. Turning off the engine, he unbuckled and restrained himself from helping Ezra do the same. The doctor told him it would be good for Ezra to do those sorts of tasks for himself. Reaching for the door, Chris let himself out and then closed the door. Stretching as he waited for the sound of Ezra's door, he organized his arguments for Travis, even as he hated what he would have to share.

Seeing that Ezra had finally made his way around the truck, Chris led the way inside and up to Team Seven's offices.

Ezra followed the black clad man through the silent outer office and into the smaller enclosed one. Settling on the couch, he leaned back, suddenly tired. Shifting slightly he found a comfortable position and stared at the ceiling. He knew that he could look out the window, but he just couldn't seem to find the desire to do so. Perhaps if Chris had bothered to tell him why they had to come in prior to going to the hospital it would have been easier for him to find the enthusiasm to do more than drag along, but he hadn't.

"I'll be back in a little while," Chris said, concerned about his friend. If anything, it seemed like Ezra was drawing even further away from him rather than coming out of his depression.

As he headed for the elevator, he thought back to the day before, to when he thought Ezra was finally making progress. It had been when he was taking care of the others, when he had known what was going on with the case. Perhaps that was the key to helping Standish through this. Give him someone else to care about.

Stepping into the elevator, he punched the button for Travis' floor and leaned back against the wall. He would find out today when Vin and Josiah would be released. He knew neither man was in good shape given their concussions; he could use some extra help keeping an eye on them. Perhaps Ezra would like that responsibility.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. Stepping out, he made his way to Travis' office.

Orin saw Chris coming and waved him into the office. He knew that Team Seven's leader had other places to be and, honestly, Travis didn't want him around Team Four or the MacDougherty case just now. "What can I do for you, Chris?" he asked, taking a seat behind his desk.

Closing the door behind him, Chris sat opposite the Assistant Director. "We have a leak," he informed, cutting right to the chase.

Travis frowned at this pronouncement. "That's a serious accusation," he observed, leaning forward.

"And I don't make it lightly," Chris returned. "Last night I was looking through the MacDougherty case and found that there were no living witnesses."

Nodding, Travis didn't even try to deny that information. He was well aware of the dangers this gang presented and of how witnesses never seemed to survive. "That doesn't necessarily mean that there's a leak here," he defended, not wanting to believe one of their own would betray them in such a way.

"I didn't want to believe it either," Larabee conceded. "But the facts are there. All three witnesses we were able to bring in alive were killed within twenty four hours of their paperwork arriving here."

A sick feeling invaded Orin's stomach. "How..."

Chris cut him off, "All the paperwork was handled by the same person."

Cutting the blond off before he could give a name, Travis said gruffly, "I'll look into it myself. I don't want you linked to this if it turns out to be more than a coincidence. The backlash will be bad enough."

With a nod, Chris continued, "I want protection for my men."

Leaning back again, Travis' frown deepened. "I'm not sure..."

"Vin and Josiah are the only two living witnesses we have. The only two who can identify members of the MacDougherty gang. There is no way I'm willing to risk their lives..."

"Point taken," Travis assured, raising a hand to stop the tirade. "I'll get right on that. Are they still going to be recuperating at your ranch?" Seeing the nod, he continued, "Good. I'll get something set up."

+ + + + + + +

Downtown, a businessman walked into a small appliance repair shop with a toaster under his arm. Setting the device on the counter, he waited for the clerk's attention. "Help you?" the clerk asked, sending a meaningful look at another customer in the store.

"My toaster's not working. I'd get a new one, but the wife is attached to this one," the businessman said, watching in the mirror behind the counter as the other customer left.

"They're in the back," Colin told Franklin, already aware of the topic of the meeting.

With a nod, Franklin MacDougherty walked into the back room. Taking the last free seat at the table, he looked at each of the faces. "Gentlemen," he started. "We have a small problem." He saw the nervous shifting and continued. "Our contact within the ATF believes that she has been found out. Also, Travis has ordered extra protection for our targets."

"Can we beat it?" one of the others asked.

MacDougherty smiled coldly. "Haven't we always?" he returned. "But this time it's going to take some sacrifices on our part."

"Sacrifices?" another man questioned, looking nervous.

The cold smile on MacDougherty's face only grew. "Cortland and Delaney have been wanting to step up in the organization for a while now," he noted of two of their sloppiest and most power-hungry members. "I propose we give them a chance to do so."

"You're going to have them kill those agents?" someone asked in disbelief.

"No," Franklin assured. "I'm going to have them do the meet while we handle the witnesses." Seeing the curious looks, he continued. "Those two won't go down without a fight and don't know enough to be a real danger to us. But, while the ATF is busy taking us down, they won't be paying that much attention to Tanner and Sanchez. That's when we strike..."


Josiah looked with concern at Kyle as the younger man prepared to leave their hospital room. Regardless of what the doctors said, his son still looked horrible. The bruises on his torso had darkened and now presented an ugly, mottled collection not entirely dissimilar to a summer sky right before a thunderstorm. He knew that they were still causing his boy pain and would continue to do so for a while yet. A swell of desire to take away Kyle's pain rose within Sanchez as his fatherly instincts rose to the fore. He fought off the urge to move over and hold the boy in his arms to assure him everything would be alright.

As his son turned to lift his shaving kit onto the bed, Josiah was able to see the burns marring his back and a wave of anguish rolled through him. He would do anything to spare his son this pain and discomfort. Though he knew Kyle's burns were healing, as were his own, they looked horrible and he knew that even the light weight of a cotton shirt was painful on the damaged skin. Riding in Larabee's truck out to the ranch would be excruciating.

Of course, he knew that a good portion of his concern was due to the horrible nightmares he'd been having. They left him with extremely painful headaches, and an undefined sense of dread where Peter and Kyle were concerned. "You're sure you're ready to get out of here?" he asked, checking once more to make sure his younger boy's ankle was no longer swollen. Seeing that Kyle was supporting his weight equally on both feet, he could only feel relief that at least that pain was gone.

Vin closed his eyes and fought off a sigh. For the two days and nights he'd been in the hospital, he'd had to pretend to be Kyle. In some respects, it wasn't that hard a role to play, but in others, it was just about the most difficult thing he'd ever done. Lying to friends, lying to anyone, didn't come naturally to the Texan; but a part of him couldn't deny how wonderful it felt to have a father who loved him, to know what it felt like to be wanted. Still, knowing that love, caused his heart to ache for all the loneliness he had endured as a child.

"Doctors say I'm ready to go," Vin replied, keeping his voice neutral.

"Hmm," Josiah replied, not necessarily agreeing with the doctors, especially since Kyle has sustained far more injuries than he had.

Smiling at the response that sounded a lot like Nathan's and Chris', the sharpshooter turned and met the concerned blue eyes of his friend. "I'll be fine," he assured. "Besides if everything goes right, you'll be out at the ranch tomorrow with us."

"I still wish your mother was here," Sanchez said softly, missing his wife.

Vin closed his eyes as the image of his own mother's face came to mind. He had lost her so long ago, but even now her face, her smile, her laugh or her voice would come to him when he least expected and leave him longing for her. "Me, too," he agreed too softly for Josiah to hear, his voice laced with the pain of loss.

The door opened just then, allowing Chris and Ezra to enter the room.

"Josiah, Kyle," Larabee greeted. A frown appeared on his face. "Where's JD?" he asked.

"Casey stopped by and took him outside for some privacy," Josiah informed, a knowing smile on his face.

"I see," Chris said with a smile of his own. Moving further into the room, he settled down in a chair, ready to visit for a while.

"Peter, good to see you," Josiah greeted softly, studying his older son. He could see the evidence of pain still on the boy's face, but it was the green eyes that told him the source of that pain wasn't all related to Peter's physical injuries. "How are you, son?" he asked, his voice soft and inviting.

Ezra had tensed at the mention of the name Peter. The last question, however, and its tone melted away all his tension and resentment he felt at pretending to be someone else. "I'm... better," he finished. It wasn't a lie. Physically he was better and healing more every day. Emotionally and mentally he still wasn't where he should be, but he knew he wasn't as bad as he had been. His discussions with Chris, Vin and Buck had done a lot to help him. "I am doing better."

+ + + + + + +

"You really doing better?" Vin asked, stepping out onto the patio at Chris' house. He shivered slightly as the cooling evening air caressed his bare torso.

A small smile curved Ezra's mouth. "Comparatively speaking, yes, I am doing better," Ezra admitted honestly.

Resting a hand on his friend's shoulder, the Texan squeezed slightly and moved to sit on the step, where his back wouldn't be resting against anything. There were things that he thought he should say to Ezra, that might help him, but he just couldn't do it right now. The whole situation with Josiah was weighing heavily upon him, especially since Nathan had spent the afternoon telling them about Peter and Kyle.

"It's not easy," Ezra stated.

"Getting over heartbreak never is," Vin agreed, feeling the faint wave of pain touch his heart.

"True," Ezra admitted, pushing away the pain that assaulted him at the mention of his recent experience. "But I was referring to our current experience with Mr. Sanchez," he explained.

"Yeah, that too," Vin agreed, his eyes glued to the horizon. "How does he bear that pain?" Vin asked thinking of the pain of loss that both Chris and Josiah had suffered.

"One day at a time," Larabee replied, stepping away from the side of the house where he'd stopped when he heard the voices. He was about to turn and walk away when he heard Tanner's question and saw the pain in the emotive blue eyes. The look exchanged by Ezra and Vin didn't go unnoticed, but he ignored it. Choosing to sit between the two men, Chris leaned back and sighed. He wasn't sure what he could tell his friends, but they deserved a chance to understand what Josiah would be feeling and what he would most likely suffer again when his memory returned and he remembered what happened.

Listening to Chris' words, Ezra made a decision. For all the grief his older friend had suffered in the past, for all the pain he would experience when his memories returned., he would spend what time he could with Josiah and be the son that the profiler had lost, just for a while.

+ + + + + + +

"Hey, kid," Buck greeted as he settled into the uncomfortable hospital chair. "Promise you won't tell anyone and I'll let you have the sandwich I got you at the deli."

"I won't say a word," JD promised, carefully and slowly pushing up into a sitting position.

Seeing the young computer expert struggling, the older man's first reaction was to help, but, as he reached out to his JD, he realized that he didn't know how. Allowing his hands to drop back onto the arms of the chair, he waited for his friend to finish moving to a sitting position, feeling every twinge of pain he saw on JD's face. When Dunne was finally sitting, Buck moved the tray table into position and set out the sandwich and soda.

"Thank you," JD said enthusiastically as he reached for the sandwich. "I've been starving all afternoon."

Buck smiled at that admission. JD had been picking at his food during his stay. One of the reasons the ladies' man had stopped at the deli that afternoon, aside from the fact he had to stop by the ranch and pick up Ezra who wanted to spend time with Josiah, was to get something that might tempt the young man to eat. To hear that Dunne's appetite had returned could only be a good sign. "Well then eat up!" he encouraged.


Josiah stepped into the kitchen of Larabee's ranch. It seemed odd not to be at home, but with the three of them, Peter, Kyle and himself, hurt and his wife, Rose, out of town on a retreat, they needed someone to be with them, at least until the headaches and dizziness passed.

Glancing over at the clock, Josiah was surprised to see how late he had slept. Moving further into the kitchen, he retrieved a mug and headed for the coffee pot.

"You might want to dilute it," the sleepy Southern voice advised. "Mist... Kyle made the coffee this morning."

Wincing slightly, Josiah stared at the black brew and sighed. Taking a sip, he swallowed. It wasn't quite as bad as he thought. Sitting at the table and reaching for the paper, he observed, "The boy did seem to inherit his mother's skills with coffee."

Looking up at his friend, Ezra couldn't help the small smile that curved his lips. It was interesting to see this side of his friend, to find out more about him, and in some ways, though their ages were too close to let it be true, it was nice to have a father for a while. Standish noticed Josiah looking around the kitchen and trying to peer out the back door. "They went out to check on the horses."

A concerned look crossed the older man's face. "Kyle shouldn't be doing any heavy lifting," he observed.

"I assure you, Mr. Larabee will not allow V... Kyle to overdo."

With one last glance at the doorway, Josiah nodded and settled back in his seat, taking another sip of coffee and suppressing a wince at the strong brew. "How are you doing this morning, son?" he asked softly, catching and holding the roving green eyes. He was concerned about his oldest son. It had taken Chris, Buck and Nathan together to convince him that his boys were on his ATF team, but he still had reservations about the three of them working together. He was pretty sure it broke a rule of some sort. Of course, on the other hand, at least with them on his team, he could keep an eye on them. The profiler only wished that he could remember having them on the team with him.

Ezra looked stared into the blue eyes that held his own. A part of him wanted to lie to the man, but he knew he couldn't, wouldn't lie to Josiah. The compassion and understanding he read in their depths reached inside and provided a balm to the rough edges of his soul. "To quote my brother," he said, smiling slightly at the thought that Vin really was his brother, "I've been better, but then, I've been worse, too."

With a loving smile, Sanchez reached out and covered Peter's hand. "And you'll be better again, son," he soothed. "I promise." Holding the green eyes a moment longer, he smiled and nodded as he saw some of the tension drain from his boy. Sitting up, he looked around and asked, "So what's for breakfast in this place?"

+ + + + + + +

In the barn Vin continued to brush Peso, the only job Chris had let him do. The blond had been furious when he walked into the barn earlier that morning to see Vin mucking out stalls. A brief argument followed with Vin finally backing down when Larabee threatened to wake up Josiah. The last thing Vin needed this morning was a father coming down on him. It was bad enough he had a mother hen in the team leader.

His brush strokes remained even, but the more he thought, the angrier he got. He had been taking care of himself long before he met Larabee and had even been injured and survived. But, Tanner also knew a lot of his anger was based in frustration. Pretending to be Kyle was hard on him. It wasn't in his nature to deceive his friends. He had gone along with it in the ambulance and the emergency room to keep Josiah calm, but living the lie day after day was wearing on him. When the doctor has said he could leave the hospital, he had nearly shouted with joy to be getting away from the nearly smothering concern.

That had lasted only a day, but it had been the best day he'd had since the incident in the woods. He could be himself, relax, sleep, and not have to watch everything he said, remember to call Josiah "Dad" and refer to "Mom". Though he knew it wasn't, a portion of him felt he was betraying his own mother ever time he referred to Rose Sanchez by that title.

He and Ezra had spent time alone that day, talking, and sitting in silence. Together, he thought they had made some progress. It had been a lot harder for him to discuss his own experience than he thought it would be, but he could tell the struggle was worth it when he saw light in Ezra's eyes again. True, it wasn't the brilliant flickering that normally danced there, but there was an ember there now, enough to give hope.

"I'm just about done here," Chris called out as he replaced the wheel barrow and stepped to the front of the stall. He suppressed a sigh as Vin ignored him. It was one of two things, either Vin was sulking about not being allowed to do anything and ignoring Chris, or he was so lost in thought he just didn't hear. Though he hoped for the latter, there was little doubt in Larabee's mind that he was being deliberately ignored. "The doc said you had to take it easy. That you weren't to do any heavy lifting."

Stopping the brush strokes, Vin turned toward his friend, his anger finding an escape and a target. "I'm a big boy, Chris," he informed, his voice brittle. "Been taking care of myself since long before I met you. I know what I can do and what I can't. I know when I'm doing too much and when to stop," he continued, his voice rising in volume. "I don't need you treating me like I'm a little kid! I have a concussion, burns and a twisted ankle. The ankle's fine now. The headaches from the concussion aren't nearly as bad and my burns are painful as all get out when something rubs against 'em, but they're healing, too. Mucking stalls ain't hardly anything" he ranted, his face red as he glared at his friend.

Larabee had known something was bothering Vin. He also had overheard the conversation between Ezra and Vin the day before Josiah joined them. Though he should have known, Chris had been surprised by the pain Vin still bore over the whole Charlotte affair. He ached for the pain he knew Vin was carrying under the surface, being strong for others while not admitting he needed some support as well. Still, if Tanner wanted to shout, he would listen. When the Texan finished, the blond responded by simply raising an eyebrow.

Closing his eyes and regretting his explosion, Vin rested his hands on his hips, allowed his head to drop and took several deep breaths. When he felt he had control once more, he looked up into his friend's eyes and admitted, "I needed some time alone. I haven't had a chance to think or even rest since I woke up in my apartment before hiking." Seeing the understanding in Chris' eyes, he felt the need to apologize somehow for his outburst. "'Sides," he continued, "I was only taking little shovelfuls."

The corner of Larabee's mouth twitched once, twice, and the third time the twitch turned into a full blown smile and a laugh. He knew the last admission was Vin's way of apologizing and shook his head. "Let's go in and see what we can rustle up for a mid-morning snack," he suggested, opening the door to the stall and waiting while Vin stowed the brush and said goodbye to Peso.

"How about some brunch, instead?" Tanner asked the blond as he stepped out of the stall.

"Brunch?" Chris repeated, still smiling as he shook his head at Vin's question.

"Yep, brunch," Vin confirmed. "It's part lunch and part breakfast. Combines the best of both meals," he finished opening the screen door for his friend, a smile twitching at his lips, betraying the fact he was teasing his friend.

Stopping to stare at the sharpshooter, Chris could only chuckle again and shake his head. "I think you've been spending too much time with Ezra."

Vin chuckled and clapped a hand on Chris' shoulder. "Could be," he agreed, following the older man into the house. "Or it could be I'm just too hungry for a snack."

+ + + + + + +

Walking down the hallway, Buck smiled at Rita, the nurse who was just exiting JD's room. "Hello there, lovely lady," he greeted, his eyes twinkling as he thought about their upcoming date.

With a brilliant smile, the nurse returned, "Hello yourself."

Stepping past her and into the room, the ladies' man kept his head turned to watch the gently swaying hips as they entered the room next door.

"Ogling my nurse?" came the accusatory question from the bed.

Turning to look into the room, Buck's grin widened as he saw JD sitting up on the edge of his bed. "Hey, kid!" he greeted cheerfully crossing to his friend. "When did they get you up and around?"

"This morning," JD replied groggily, rubbing his eyes. "Still got me on pain killers," he supplied.

As he studied the younger man's face, Buck could only draw one conclusion. "And that's probably a good thing from the looks of you," he observed softly. Startled brown eyes rose to meet his. Taking a deep breath, he decided it was time to say what he'd wanted to since the two of them had found Vin and Josiah and freed them. "I want to let you know how proud I am of you," he said his voice reflecting his emotions. "The way you kept your cool in that situation and still managed to protect Vin when the still exploded, that's a courage that can't be taught. I'm honored that you're my friend and very glad to work with someone of your caliber."

JD swallowed. It wasn't often the others praised him like this and he stored away the precious, spoken words carefully. All the while he'd been in the hospital he had believed that somehow he had made a mistake, done something wrong, but here was his best friend, his older brother, telling him different. JD felt the tension and worry he'd been carrying begin to seep away.

Seeing that his words and meaning had been understood, Buck smiled and continued. "Of course, if you ever scare me like that again, you won't make it to the hospital let alone out of it! Do you have any idea what it was like to see you with all that shrapnel in your back? Haven't you learned anything from us? Like when to duck?"

"Buck," JD called in exasperation. He'd heard the teasing in the words and was grateful for it. He had also seen the very real fear in Buck's eyes and recalled seeing it at other times during this stay in the hospital.

"I'm just saying," Buck continued. "We can only keep mollycoddling you for so long. Eventually you're going to have to learn to do things right. I can't always be covering for you."

Dunne's mouth opened and closed several times as the color rose in his cheeks. "Mollycoddling!" he exclaimed. "Mollycoddling me? I'll have you know..."

"What's going on in here?" a stern voice from the door inquired.

Turning, Buck felt a sheepish grin on his face as JD's doctor strode into the room. "We were just..."

"You were upsetting my patient," the doctor said, glaring at the mustached man. Stepping past the almost squirming visitor, the physician smiled and winked at JD. "Need I remind you, Mr. Wilmington, that Mr. Dunne has suffered a trauma and a mild concussion? He should be resting peacefully."

"Yes, sir," Buck acknowledged meekly. Not many people scared the former Navy SEAL, but Doctor Reading was one of them.

Watching the exchange, the young computer expert had to fight his own smile. He liked Dr. Reading, not only because the others actually listened to him, but because the doctor was always straight with them. Sitting patiently while his pupil reaction was checked, JD then submitted to having his stitches examined. "What's the verdict, Doc?" Dunne asked as he readjusted his gown.

Writing a few notes on his clipboard, Dr. Reading smiled at his patient. "If the test we'll be running later comes back clean, you'll be free to go," he told the young man. Seeing the cheer that wanted to escape, he held up his hand. "Before you get too excited, I don't want you doing anything too strenuous. Those stitches need to remain in there for a while and believe me, you don't want to pull them out."

"Yes, sir," JD replied, excitement filling him as he thought he'd be getting out of the hospital and going home.

"I'll send the nurse in to get those tests started," Dr. Reading informed with a smile and a pat to the young man's shoulder. With a final stare at the now subdued older man, he left the room.

"Home," Dunne sighed, closing his eyes. He opened them again when the only reply he heard was Buck's restless shifting.

Wilmington saw his friend's eyes open again and read the suspicion in them. Releasing a sigh, he settled on the bed next to JD's. "About going home," he started.

"Oh, don't even tell me," Dunne began before trailing off.

"We think Vin and Josiah might be in danger so they're out at the ranch. Travis wants all of us together. If the MacDougherty gang figures out that you're part of our team and you're on your own, you could be a target, too."

"So I'm headed to Chris' place along with Ezra, Josiah and Vin?"

"That's about the size of it," Buck confirmed. "Of course, don't forget Chris will be there and the Josiah still thinks that Ezra is his son Peter and Vin is his son Kyle, so you'll need to call them by those names."

JD sighed. The weird business of Josiah thinking Ezra and Vin were his dead sons was one of the reasons he'd been looking forward to going home. It was just kind of creepy. "Yeah, I got it," he acknowledged.

+ + + + + + +

Franklin MacDougherty was relaxing on his back patio, watching his two year old daughter run around the yard, chasing after her new puppy. He was concerned about the threat to his organization and the plan they had devised, but he also knew they could handle it. His cell phone rang, distracting him. "MacDougherty," he greeted.

"Everything's in place," a voice on the other end informed.

Recognizing Colin's voice, Franklin asked, "The information?"

"Will appear to be coming from their organization."

"The targets?"

"Everything's set."

"Our friend on the inside?"

"Taken care of."

"Good," MacDougherty replied before disconnecting and replacing the phone in his pocket. Rising from his chair, he moved across the yard and quickly caught up with his little girl, relishing the squealing giggles as he lifted her high in the air.