Left Behind

by Carol Pahl

Universe: ATF
Main Characters: JD, Buck,
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The Magnificent Seven belong to Mirish, MGM and Trilogy. The ATF universe was created by Mog and she gave permission for others to write in this universe.
Synopsis: This story takes place during the first few months after JD has joined the team. Another take on how JD and Buck's special bond developed. Any similarities to other stories of this nature are pure coincidence.

Part 1

Buck Wilmington replaced the receiver into the cradle on his desk phone, a puzzled look on his face mirrored his thoughts. Had he just heard the voice, a soft-spoken lady's voice, correctly? Shaking off his wonderment, he looked around the bullpen.

Vin, decked out with headphones playing some twanging country tune, labored to finish his reports before the end of the month. Standish's immaculate desktop reflected the standard Florissant light fixture overhead since the dandy left early for the day to pack. Josiah continued a conversation that seemed to be never ending. His partner's desk was also vacant. Nathan left early to take his girlfriend to the airport. Her family was visiting during the long Labor Day weekend. Buck glanced at the desk across from his and shook his head, hoping to clear up the mysterious phone call and stood when a light on his phone went off. Good. Chris' line was free. Debating with himself, he knew this message needed to be delivered personally.

Team lead Chris Larabee, head of the Denver, Colorado, ATF team, looked up from his computer when the lanky agent knocked on the doorframe.

"Hey, Buck. Come in." Larabee ran his office with an open door policy. When the door was open, anyone on his team was welcome to enter. A closed door meant he was busy and preferred to only be disturbed in case of extreme circumstances.

Stepping into the office, Buck hesitated by the door. "Care if I close this?"

Larabee nodded and motioned with his hand. "Not a problem. What's wrong?" Silently, his mind raced through several scenarios that would cause his long-time friend to request a closed door meeting.

"JD told you he was headed back east for the weekend?" Buck asked.

Larabee nodded, "Why?"

The elite ATF team, formed under Larabee's direction included the standard required members plus a couple of bonus positions. He'd hoped the team would gel into a well-oiled machine, a feat yet to happen. Wilmington and undercover Agent Ezra Standish shared a love of Las Vegas; women for one and gambling for the other. The profiler Sanchez and medic Jackson, colleagues before joining the team, retained their close relationship outside of the office setting. Larabee and the sharpshooter Tanner possessed a connection neither could explain, leaving the technology expert, JD Dunne, the odd man out. Though Dunne came with glowing recommendations from his previous law enforcement superior, he'd yet to find camaraderie with anyone on the ATF force. Not only was JD younger than the rest of the men, he looked like he belonged in high school. He excelled with the electronic gadgets but usually participated on raids from the relative safety of the surveillance van.

Wilmington scowled. "Any reason to think he was lying to you?"

"Buck, why this sudden interest in JD? I gave him the rest of the week off. Said he'd be back after the holiday and that he'd let me know if because of the overbooked airlines he wouldn't be able to be in until Wednesday." Mentally recalling the conversation, Chris shook his head. "He didn't come right out and say he was headed back east; I just assumed he was."

"Well, he didn't. The kid had surgery this morning and they need someone to come pick him up. Some kind of complication so he needs a 'responsible party' to be with him before they'll release him."

This is not what Larabee expected to hear. "Who called you? How did they get your number?"

Buck stood and paced a few steps. "Call rolled over to my desk. I think she was trying to reach Nate first but since he was gone, the nurse kept pushing zero until she got a warm body. Since you were on that conference call and Josiah preaching to someone, I answered. Lady said Dunne gave them the office number. The kid planned on taking a taxi home. Who goes and has surgery and then takes a taxi? That's just plan stupid!"

"Do you know what kind of surgery? When?" Chris fired off the questions, his mind racing through the list of an ingrown toenail or a wart removed to something much more sinister. "Same day surgery means it can't be too serious."

Sitting back down, Buck muttered, "Still, he should have told someone. Someone should have known, gone with him. Something. Not go alone."

Was his long time friend actually thinking of someone other than his next conquest? This wouldn't be the first time Buck adopted a stray.

"You want to handle this or do you want me to?" Chris closed the folder in front of him, ready to leave and collect the young man.

"What?" Buck said, startled from his own daydreaming. "No, no, I'll go. I'm finished for the day. Know you want to finish those financial statements before the long weekend." Buck rose again and headed toward the door. "I'll call you, once I get him home. Never been to his place." The agent continued to talk to himself as he left the office and returned to his desk. A few minutes later, his PC shut down and desk cleared and locked, he left the office still muttering about JD's foolishness.

JD reclined on the chair, resting on his right side, wishing his stomach would stop rolling. This morning the plan seemed so simple, now he felt stupid for thinking he'd be walking out of the Same Day Surgery site with a Band-Aid and a few stitches and no one the wiser to his little adventure. No way did he expect to sport 32 staples and a drain firmly stitched into his cheek and him feeling too weak to even stand.

The doctor said the blood tumor had been as huge as a grapefruit. Who ever heard of a blood clot encapsulating itself deep in the gluteus maximus muscle? He planned four or five days to regain his strength and get back to work, no one knowing of his butt surgery, not wanting a repeat of all the jokes and pranks after his fall a year earlier. No! No way did he want the agents at the Federal Building to ever know about this surgery!

"Hey, kid. Heard you need a ride." Buck stepped into the small room, surprised at the younger man's pale complexion. The boy had fair skin but right now he looked whiter than the Styrofoam cup sitting on the small table by his chair.

Startled, JD looked up at the tall agent looming over him. What was Buck doing here? How did he know? Not Buck, not the biggest jokester on the team?

Wilmington grabbed a straight chair and dragged it closer to JD's head. Speaking softly, almost tenderly, he asked. "Care to tell me what happened?" He'd seen the look of pure panic cross his younger team member's face. "The nurse, Betty. She called. Said you needed a ride home," he explained, watching and waiting for JD to regain control. What was this place? The desk clerk said the kid could leave as soon as he was dressed. The young man had yet to speak and looked like death warmed over.

"I'm sorry. I only gave them Jackson's phone number because I had to put down someone. They shouldn't have called you. I told them I'd get a taxi. Where's Nathan? Why are you here?" The young easterner's voice was barely audible, his embarrassment tangled his tongue.

A women dressed in a Garfield decorated smock pulled open the curtain separating the two men from the central nurse's desk. "Hello. Are you Mr. Dunne's driver?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued her spiel as she closed the curtain. "Let me show you how to care for his drain. I have his script ready for the pain pills." She grabbed a pair of examination gloves from the box on the wall and pulled back the blanket covering JD's body.

He moaned "No" at the same time Buck shot up from the chair and stumbled trying to escape the cramped area.

"WOAH, ma'am. Let's just slow down a minute. JD and me, we work together and, sure, I'll give him a ride home but nothing was said about needing to nurse him, too. He scowled at JD's scared face. "Where's Nathan when you need him? This is his kind of stuff. You should have talked to him beforehand." Buck raised his hands up as if to block her words and shook his head negatively. "No way. Nope. No can do!"

The nurse glanced at the retreating form while JD tried without success to ebb the flow of tears from his eyes. He didn't know the size of the bandage covering the surgical site, but felt his bare cheek cool off rapidly with the blanket removed.

"Sir, it's not that hard," she coaxed. Amazing how tall, strong looking men were so squeamish seeing a few staples and some blood. "John will be able to do this for himself tomorrow. He just needs some assistance for the rest of the day. If you won't do it, we have no choice but to admit Mr. Dunne to the hospital overnight," she threatened.

"NO! No hospital," JD suddenly regained his voice. Swallowing his pride, he begged, "Please Buck. I don't want to go to the hospital."

The large, puppy-dog eyes, pleading for his help, drew Buck back into the room. "OK, kid, but guys like me don't want nothing to do with other guys' bare butts."

Carefully, the nurse drew back part of the dressing, exposing a neat row of metal staples. Buck swallowed as he peeked at the angry red skin. "By tomorrow, the skin will loose some of the puffiness. You will need to watch for any fever and signs of infection."

Nodding in agreement, even though his head was silently screaming the opposite, "I'll watch, but kid, I wish Nathan was here, get him check this out." He looked at the nurse and explained, "He's the team EMT."

The nurse smiled; glad that she wouldn't have to cover her bluff about the hospital. "Now about the drain…"

The ride to JD's apartment was a quiet affair. Buck wanted to be mad at the younger man for drawing him into his care but couldn't. This wasn't the first time Wilmington had looked out for the younger agent, but keeping a cohort safe during a bust was a heck of a lot easier than dumping blood and who knows what else from that thing stitched into JD's backside.

JD sat quietly, eyes closed, trying to not rest any weight on his left side. As he leaned against the passenger door of Buck's pickup, his mind raced, trying to find a way to explain everything. It all seemed so simple a week ago. He'd have the surgery, get a couple of extra days off, plus take advantage of the long weekend to heal and return to work with none of his teammates the wiser about his injury.

A year earlier, he patrolled a beat in the large eastern city were he and his mom called home. She wanted him to go to the university, get a boring and safe job as a banker or investment advisor. He wanted adventure and to make a difference in the world. So, instead of wearing a designer suit and manipulating an endless parade of numbers, he chased purse snatchers in between dodging bullying from his fellow officers or rescuing cats that climbed high or dogs that found their way into the sewers.

That day, adrenaline surged through his veins as he chased the street thug. With each step, he gained on the fleeing thief, though his stride was shorter, his legs churned in pursuit. The purse snatcher ran down the street, dodging between buildings and flew down cement steps. The thug harassed and stole from older women in his precinct. For the first time, an officer had a visual of the suspect and the chase was on. Officer Dunne needed this collar, if for nothing more than to prove to the more seasoned officers that he was worthy of their respect.

A steady rain soaked both hunter and prey. Flashes of lightening illuminated the chase while the cracks of thunder imitated the sound of gunfire. Gaining on his quarry, the officer missed seeing the discarded newspaper advertisement littering the third to last step. As his foot landed on the slippery paper, it slid off the edge, launching JD into the air. Unable to grab the railing, he came down hard, his backside striking the rim of the last step and he landed in the middle of an inch deep puddle of water.

"Play time, Dunne?" laughed Rick Stromer, JD's partner, splashing the water onto the younger man's lap as he trotted past to continue the pursuit.

JD struggled to rise, rolling onto his hands and knees, trying to ignore the throbbing in his back. Crawling back to the steps, he used them to stand upright. Damn. Falling on his ass in the middle of a chase would only fuel the fire of ridicule he'd have to endure from the rest of the officers. He took a few tentative steps, checking that nothing felt broken, glad his leg bore his weight. Grabbing his hat, he resumed the hunt only to find his partner dragging the purse snatcher towards a patrol car.

The next morning, his desktop was littered with yellow rubber duckies and other baby bath toys. Officer Dunne swept the plastic into the wastebasket and steeled himself for more ribbing. He ignored the deep blue and purple bruising starting at his waist and descending almost to his knee. Was upholding the law worth the torment he received from the rest of his squad?

Finding a parking spot close to the front door of the apartment building, Buck waited for JD to climb out of the vehicle. He'd help if asked but wasn't about to crowd the younger man.

JD rented a room in a former hotel, a grand place in its glory days but time, weather and vandals had been hard on the lady. The property had once been a resort but the growing city of Denver swallowed it, leaving it surrounded by strip malls and busy highways rather than shady trees and a bubbling stream. An investor, with the help of redevelopment grants, promised to convert the derelict buildings into affordable housing. The project took time and lots of cash, so the developer was allowed to rent out some of the rooms as renovations proceeded.

"OK, kid. What floor?" Buck asked as he paused by the bank of elevators.

"Can't use those," JD mumbled as he slowly headed down a long hallway, past what had been the hotel's restaurant. "Got to use the back stairs; this way."

They entered a separate building originally used as a dormitory for the resort workers. The hallway connected it to the former hotel building. A second walkway connected the third floors. Someone nailed plywood to the roof and railings to protect residents from the Colorado winter winds and snow. The current residents referred to the walkway as the tunnel.

The two men climbed the four flights of stairs. By the last landing, JD held a death grip on the railing, pulling himself up each step before pausing to regain his strength to tackle the next one. Buck couldn't understand why they couldn't use the elevator, not realizing they were in a different structure. He wondered if JD would have made it up the stairs alone but he kept his concerns to himself. He'd make sure the boy made it to his room and call back later to check on him.

Reaching the fourth floor, Buck's eyes danced around the squalid setting. The hallway looked nothing like the rest of the complex. The doorframes lacked their woodwork and the walls were splotched with assorted colors, like someone tried to obliterate something.

Dunne finally stopped by the one door that still hung straight on its hinges and fumbled in his pockets for the door key, his other hand resting against the wall while his breaths were short and shallow. Wilmington slipped the key ring from the slack fingers and swiftly opened the door, not wanting his friend to collapse in the public hallway, steps away from the privacy of his own room. Pushing open the door with his foot, the taller man carefully grabbed the shorter man's waist and guided JD into the room, stopping abruptly as he scanned the small room's layout.

A small couch covered with a well loved blue quilt, sat against the wall. A large box, the heavy kind used to ship laser printers sat in one corner with an old wooden chair, missing its back, brightening the room with its yellow paint, nearby. Across the room from the couch was a counter, holding a few dishes and canned goods. A combination microwave and refrigerator, the kind used by college students was the only other item in the room.

"This is where you live?" Buck asked, shock evident in his voice. He heard of living with the bare necessities but this was squalor.

JD shuffled to the broken chair and sat down gingerly, still feeling nauseous. His back ached from sitting awkwardly on the short drive from the surgery center. "It's home," JD replied as he removed his denim jacket, wincing at the sharp stab of pain in his backside. "Thanks for bringing me home, Buck." He garnered all of his meager strength to look at the other man and pleaded, "Please, please don't tell the others. Please? I'm fine. I can take care of myself."

Mulling over the request momentarily, Buck nodded in agreement. "Your secret's safe with me, JD, but you do need to tell Chris, and call Nathan. Have him check that," he pointed at Dunne's jeans. "I'll leave, let you rest." He looked at his watch. "Not quite two hours since that nurse did it for you. How about I help you empty that drain thingy, then you can sleep for a while and not have to worry about it."

JD almost refused the offer of help but knew there was no way he'd have the energy to empty the grenade shaped bulb, measure and record the drainage and make the journey to the restroom to dispose of the bloody fluid.

Once the procedure was completed, JD crawled onto the couch and pulled the quilt up to his shoulders. Buck watched in amazement as the normally energetic computer whiz shut down, exhausted. Confident JD's bathroom was behind the only other door beside the one they entered, he was surprised to be staring at the far wall of a small clothes closet. JD's ATF windbreaker hung on one hook. Several shirts hung on hangers on a short rod and a couple pair of jeans were stacked on the one shelf above the shirts. Two well-taped cardboard boxes sat under the clothing. He stepped back into the room, still holding the disgusting plastic beaker.

"Down the hallway. Bathroom's down the hall, first door other side of the steps," came a muffled reply from under the quilt.

Wilmington stormed into the deserted outer office and made a beeline for the team leader's door, not waiting to knock.

Looking up, surprised at the intrusion, Chris saw the normally jovial man standing threateningly before his desk, his eyes angry enough to burn holes through concrete.

"What do you pay JD? He get the same wages as the rest of us?"

Wrinkles creased the blond man's brow as he wondered what sparked Buck's fury.

"You know I can't divulge what each of you earns." Chris stood, ready to face down his angry team member. "JD…how is he?"

Not to be deterred, Buck repeated, "He does get paid, correct? He's not one of the interns, slaving away while waiting to get offered a real job?"

"Why the sudden interest in JD's wages? Of course he gets paid. He might not be at the same pay grade as the rest of you with more years of experience but he's paid according to scale."

Sinking down into the chair, Buck sighed, releasing the anger built up inside him. "The kid lives in a run-down, one room apartment. Has a 'dumpster dive' couch and a busted chair. Uses a cardboard packing crate for a table. He didn't even have his own can… shares with the other tenants on his floor."

The team leader scowled. "I've been by his address. Looks OK from the outside, looked like it was getting renovated." He had driven by the complex shortly after JD joined the team and didn't notice that the building looked derelict.

"His place makes Vin's apartment look like a millionaire's mansion. I'm surprised I didn't see any rats scurrying around there. Must figure it's too much of a trash heap even for them."

The blond looked at his distraught friend. "Is he alright? Did he say what happened?" he asked, leaning against the corner of his desk, concern evident in his voice.

Buck nodded. "Yeah, he told me but I can't tell. Promised the kid I wouldn't say but he knows he'll need to talk to you about it, maybe once he's feeling stronger." Unfolding himself from the chair, he turned to leave, his slumped shoulders revealing the burden of confidentiality.

Also standing, Chris spoke, "Buck, wait. Anything you can share? Is he alright alone? Does someone need to check on him?" He knew his friend was catching a late flight to Vegas.

Buck stared at the empty bullpen, his eyes stopping on JD's desk, almost seeing the young man intently working at his computer, his hands flying over the keyboard. JD, the Ivy League graduate from back East; a rich kid without a care in the world. Was that all smoke and mirrors, an attempt to hide a scared, lonely, young man? He'd seen the large, expressive eyes, today, missing their inner spirit.

"Buck?" Chris asked again, interrupting his friend's musing. "What about JD? Nathan's busy for the weekend. Should I stop by?"

The field agent shook his head. "I'll stop, on my way home. Maybe take him a can of soup and some soda."

JD turned again, unable to find a comfortable position. He'd slept for a couple of hours before the pain reminded him of the need to take care of a couple of things. This wasn't at all what he expected. His back hurt, his stomach wouldn't stop somersaulting and now his head pounded. How had his mother tolerated the pain from her surgery, the nausea from the drugs and the general feeling of restlessness?

He pulled his laptop from its hiding place under the middle cushion and waited for it to boot. Sitting up was worse than lying down. Maybe some water would help. He hadn't consumed anything since last night except for crunching on some ice at the surgery center. JD stared at his refrigerator, willing it to open and a cool bottle of water to float to him under its own power. That guy on 'Star Wars' made it look so easy to have mind control over matter. "Guess I'll have to get it myself," JD grumbled, rising slowly. He set the laptop on the box and took the few steps to the counter, grabbing the edge, waiting for the room to stop spinning. The nurse said something about being dizzy. What else had she told him?

Looking at his watch, Buck hustled toward his truck. He should have enough time to stop at the Circle Mart, get some chicken noodle soup and soda, drive to JD's and still get to the airport in time to catch the red-eye to Vegas later tonight. Reaching into his inner pocket for his keys, his hand froze. The pills. He didn't give JD the pain pills.

A sharp rap at the door woke JD from a light nap. He struggled to untangle himself from the quilt and get his legs onto the floor without putting any weight on his surgical site. "Coming," he answered, when another rap repeated itself.

By the time he undid the chain and turned the deadbolt, he knew Buck was waiting on the other side of the door. Chris would have yelled first. "Hey, Buck. Come in."

The older agent set his sack of groceries on the box and looked over his team member. The kid looked paler than he had at the medical center. "I forgot to leave your pain meds. Sorry, kid. Brought you some soup, too. Fresh from Circle Mart."

JD grabbed the pill bottle, reading the directions. 'Take with food.' He poured a couple of the tablets into his hand and grabbed his lukewarm bottle of water. After swallowing the pills, he finished the rest of the water. "I don't think the soup will stay down, yet, Buck. Guess I'll try the soda first." He opened a can and took a few tentative sips, not wanting the pills or water to make a reappearance. "Thanks, Buck."

"Kid, why don't you grab a change of clothes and your pills, and come hang out at my place for the weekend?" Buck offered, not sure how his suggestion would be received.

The younger man shook his head negatively. "I don't need a babysitter. Just going to sleep anyway. 'Sides, aren't you headed to Las Vegas, meeting up with Standish?" JD sat down wearily. He was thankful that Buck returned with the pills but wished the older guy would now leave him alone.

Buck looked at the easterner. "Nope. Can't leave you alone. Nathan's orders," he lied. "Said you needed to have someone stay with you at least 24 to 48 hours. 'Til you're able to keep down solid food, you're stuck with me." Buck stuck his head in the closet, grabbed a small duffle bag and started stuffing a pair of jeans into it.

"I can pack myself," JD mumbled, rising from the chair. He knew he wasn't up to fighting with the larger man on this one. "But what about your trip to Vegas? Won't Ezra be expecting you?"

"Nope. I'm sure he's so deep in a game, he won't even realize I never showed up. You want to bring your laptop?"


Monday evening….

"Buck, thanks. I really enjoyed the weekend. I'd never been to Chris' ranch before. I'd love to get a place like that someday." The two men entered the main lobby of JD's apartment complex after spending a relaxing Labor Day with several other members of Team 7. Chris and Vin planned a long trail ride but invited Buck, JD and Josiah to join them for a bar-b-que when they learned the three had no other plans for the holiday. Though JD couldn't ride, he enjoyed the day exploring Larabee's building site and meeting several of the ranch's mounts. Chris promised him a ride, once a certain part of his anatomy healed. No questions were asked and JD offered little in explanation.

"I really appreciate you sharing your place with me. Guess it was pretty stupid to think I could keep the whole thing a secret from all of you." JD rambled as they approached the bank of mailboxes. "You don't have to stay. I can carry everything from here." Buck had the duffle bag and laptop bag straps slung over his shoulder. JD pulled his mail from the slot and stuffed it into the plastic grocery sack containing leftovers from the impromptu Labor Day picnic.

Turning around, the kid smiled. In less than a minute, Buck had struck up a conversation with another resident also collecting her mail, a shapely redhead wearing white leggings and a low cut, body hugging, pink, mohair sweater. The younger man reached for his bags but the older one held them tightly.

"I'll bring them up in a few, JD." Without taking his eyes from the woman's face, he shifted the two straps to the opposite shoulder, effectively blocking JD from retrieving them.

Shaking his head, JD headed up the stairs to his apartment, reminiscing about the previous few days. He originally thought Buck Wilmington was a big comedian, a goof-off, always clowning around. Even his constant bragging about his animal magnetism seemed phony but the past few days opened his eyes to the real Buck Wilmington, a caring, compassionate man that he'd be proud to call a friend.

Letting himself into the apartment, he sighed as he surveyed the sparsely furnished room. Someday, once the old bills from back east were paid, he would get a bigger place and some real furniture, a place where he could invite his friends over to watch a ball game or maybe play some cards. But not yet. He barely had room to turn around in the small room, let alone fill it with the likes of Josiah and Nathan.

The upbeat music from his cell phone interrupted his daydreaming. "Hey Buck," he said, reading the caller ID. "Did you get waylaid?"

“JD, get out! Get everyone on your floor out of there. The place is on fire. I heard an explosion and there's smoke coming out a window on the third floor of the hotel. If the fire gets to the timber box you call home, it will be too late. Do you hear me? Get everyone out. I'm calling 911 and I'll call you back!"

Dunne stared at the phone in disbelief. A fire? Had the older man said a fire in the main building? Pocketing the phone, he stepped out into the hallway, his nose sensing the first tendrils of smoke. "Fire! Fire!" JD yelled, pounding on the doors of the other apartments and the restrooms. "Get out now. The building is on fire!"

Tenants rushed from their rooms, the smell of smoke validating the agent's claim. JD rushed back into his apartment, grabbed the quilt from the couch and stuffed into the sack he'd been carrying. He snaked his hand into a corner of the couch and removed a small roll of bill, cash he needed to purchase a money order. Next he snatched the framed photo of his mom and added it to the sack. Her locket hung on the nail behind the picture and it went into his jeans pocket. If he was about to lose his home, he wasn't going without taking his few memories of his mother with him. When moving west, he packed his belongings in the small duffle bag. The few family mementos he saved were still in the two cardboard boxes in the closet. He'd added tape handles to make them easier to carry. Since they were never unpacked, it was easy to grab them both and the plastic bag before leaving the room.

By now, thick smoke filled the hallway and he felt for the handrail at the top of the stairs, hearing the voices of his fellow residents as they escaped from the building. At the second floor landing, he met the group returning.

"Get out! Get out before the fire gets here!" he yelled.

Amid the coughing, he saw the smoky face of the woman who lived next to him. "We can't. The doors are shut tight. We're trapped."

His mind racing, he felt the panic of the small group of people. "No, we're not. Follow me." Law enforcement training took over and he led them down a back hallway. "There's another door back here." He hoped the door would open once they reached it. Shortly after moving into his apartment, he scouted the building, looking for additional egress in case of emergencies such as this.

Smoke obscured the small amount of light available in the hallway and boards covered the broken windows, blocking any chance at natural light. JD set his precious cargo down once the group reached the steel door so he'd have two hands to operate it. Another of the male residents joined him as they pushed against the unyielding object. Dunne knew they would only have a few minutes to escape if they were able to open the door and a new source of oxygen flooded the building.

With a creak and a moan, the door opened onto a metal grate landing. "Wait, don't everyone crowd out here at once. I'm not sure how stable this thing is."

The other man stepped onto the old counterbalanced ladder, hoping his greater weight would make the rusty ladder descend.

JD pulled his phone from his pocket, hoping it was Buck calling back. "Buck, we need your help."

His fellow agent replied, "The fire department's on its way, kid."

"We don't have time for that. Come to the west side, near my car. I got a group of folks who need help getting down the fire escape."

Within seconds, the taller agent appeared below and added his weight to extract the ladder down into its extended position. Seeing the ladder in place, JD helped the rest of his fellow residents maneuver the tricky descent. When JD was the only left, he reached back into the building to retrieve his belongings and saw flames devouring the far end of the hallway. He had little time to waste.

"Buck," he yelled, his lungs burning at the effort. "Catch!" He tossed the plastic bag first, hoping the other man heard his plea, following it up with the two cardboard boxes. Nimbly, he followed the others down the rickety ladder, surprised at how it swayed away from the building. No time to worry about that now!

Reaching the bottom, he grabbed the sack and joined Buck, racing away from the conflagration.

"Keep going. Don't have time to move the car now, JD," Buck yelled, pushing his younger friend. "Head to my truck."

Sirens echoed off the nearby buildings as the flashing lights eerily lit the smoky parking lot. The rest of the residents scattered once they made it to the ground, leaving JD and Buck alone. The combination of smoke and recent anesthesia left JD weak, the rush of adrenaline fading fast. Buck tucked his free hand behind JD's back offering support and encouragement.

"Hey! Hey you two! Stop!" The bright beam of a halogen flashlight blinded the taller man and he raised his free arm to shield his eyes. A body flew into him, knocking him onto the pavement. "I told you to stop!" the voice screamed.

Buck shook off the smaller man, trying to gain his own breath back. "What the hell did you do that for?" In the dim light, he could see another body down on the blacktop. "JD! Get off him you …!"

"You're under arrest for looting. On your knees!" Buck felt the gun press into his side.

"I don't know what game you're trying to play here, mister. I just helped my friend escape the fire. These are his things. Go help someone who needs it." The words flowed with venom.

He ignored the officer and ran towards the other downed man, finding another security guard sitting on top of an unmoving Dunne. "Get off him. He lives here." Buck pointed back at the inferno behind him. "The man just had surgery last week."

Another explosion sent debris flying in all directions, followed by a loud crash of metal striking metal. Fearing the fire more than the need to validate their identities, the two in uniform fled, leaving Buck alone with the downed man.

"Kid, come on. Got to get moving. That's it. I've got you." Wilmington snaked his free arm around JD's waist and dragged him away from the scene. Reaching his truck, he leaned the younger man against the vehicle while he dug in his pockets for the keys.

"Buck, I don' feel so good." JD clutched the sack close to his chest as he slid down the side of the truck.

Not wasting any time, Buck stuffed JD into the truck, threw the two cartons into the pickup box and climbed into his own seat. Knowing that traffic would only get worse around the scene, he made the decision to drive JD directly to the hospital rather than waiting for an ambulance. He hoped he'd made the correct decision.

Buck sat, then paced, then sat again. The small waiting room offered little space to stretch and work off the growing tension in his gut. He'd tried to reach Chris but the call went to voice mail. What could be taking the doctor so long to examine JD's backside? Had something broke when the security officer tackled him? The kid looked pale and too passive when they arrived at the ER.

"Excuse me. Are you Agent Wilmington, here with John Dunne?" the medical clerk asked, gently touching Buck's arm while trying to get his attention.

He stood so fast he almost knocked the woman over, catching her arm and steadying her before she stumbled. "He ready to leave?"

She shook her head, "No, the doctor would like to speak with you. I'll take you to a room."

The dread hiding in his belly grew and his feet felt like they were wearing blocks of concrete. "How's JD?" were the first words from his mouth when he met the doctor.

"I need to ask you a few questions first. I'm Dr. Markham and I've been examining Mr. Dunne. Are you a relative?" The female doctor set a laptop on the desk and motioned for Buck to take a seat.

"No, ma'am. We work together. JD stayed with me after his surgery. Just his luck, his building catching on fire tonight, after I brought him home. What's the matter? Why the questions?" Being a friend moved to second place allowing Agent Wilmington's senses guide his responses.

"I'm afraid I can't share any health information with you, not without Mr. Dunne's permission. Can you tell me what happened tonight? Before he was stabbed?"

"Stabbed? JD wasn't stabbed. He was tacked by some oaf who though he was stealing his own stuff. I got him up and to my truck." Buck stood, pacing in the small space before turning on the woman. "If the kid's been stabbed, then this is a criminal case. JD's a federal agent and so am I, so you'd better start telling.."

The woman stood, matching the larger man's stance, interrupting his tirade. "I don't have to tell you anything, Agent Wilmington. I was hoping you could share with me what happened. I will not be bullied by you or any other law enforcement officer. That young man was impaled in his chest by something. I removed shards of glass, scraps of material. He's lucky. Whatever was used, was deflected by a rib, rather than slicing into his lung."

Buck melted into a nearby chair, reliving the night's events and unable to pinpoint any attack. JD was fine coming down the fire escape, just a little winded. Were the uniforms a ruse in an attempt to capitalize on the residents of JD's building misfortune? "I'm sorry, ma'am. JD and I haven't known each other very long but I consider him my friend. I never saw anyone attack him. He was carrying a bag with some of his stuff and…" Buck ran his fingers through his hair. "It was my fault. I heard something break when he tossed me that bag; there must have been something glass in that bag he was carrying. It all happened so fast."

"Agent Wilmington. There will be a legal investigation. I have called authorities but if Mr. Dunne was injured by the fall and not by any criminal activity." Her voice softened. "Would you like to see him, now? He's resting and he'll have to remain hospitalized for a few days."

Part 2