TYPE OF FANFIC: Gen
MAIN CHARACTERS: Chris, Vin
Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, A Small Circle of Friends #14, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. The story is based on the "DOA" episode of Counterstrike. A slash version was published in Seven Card Stud #16. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels and Mary Fallon Zane are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright Wilson, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-15-2011. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)
The police officer in the lead cruiser slammed his fist down on his horn, a slow-moving pickup lurching ahead and then finally pulling over to the curb. The patrol car sped past, the trailing ambulance right on his rear bumper. A bright red Jag trailed the paramedics.
Reaching Summit Hospital and Trauma Center, the DPD officer headed straight for the wide emergency bay, squealing to a stop just far enough ahead of the doors so the ambulance could stop in front of them.
Behind the ambulance the Jag also stopped, two men climbing out and moving straight to the rear of the ambulance, their guns in their hands. Their eyes scanned the area around the ER, making sure there were no threats to the precious cargo inside.
The paramedic who had been driving climbed out and jogged to the rear of the ambulance, pulling open the doors and reaching in to drag out the gurney inside. The second medic jumped down holding an IV bag in his hand.
The wheels on the gurney dropped down and locked into place, and they were moving toward the doors, which whisked open with a soft hiss.
Inside they were met by several nurses and two doctors. "Triage Three," one of the physicians said, leading the way into the nearby room.
As soon as the gurney cleared the door, one of the nurses stepped up, stopping the two armed men from following it inside. "I'm sorry, but you'll need to wait out here," she told them, her gaze flicking nervously from the men's faces to their drawn weapons.
One of the men, a handsome, dark-haired fellow, nodded, but he didn't look too happy about it.
Seeing that they intended to follow her order, she turned and slipped back into the triage room.
The two DPD officers joined the two armed men. The older of the two men said, "I want at least one uniformed officer stationed outside his door at all times until further notice, understood?"
The two officers nodded, taking up positions on either side of the door, both men glancing nervously at one another.
The older man who had given them the order stepped away, reaching for his cell phone in his jacket pocket as he did.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the office of ATF Team Seven, a telephone rang. And, after lobbing a wadded up piece of paper at Buck, Vin snatched up the receiver, saying, "Agent Tanner, ATF." The smile the handsome man had been wearing disappeared an instant later, a change which apprehended the attention of the other two men in the room. "Yeah," Vin said a few seconds later, "where are ya?"
The thickening of the sniper's accent told the men who were listening that something was definitely wrong.
"We'll be there soon as we can," Vin said and hung up. He looked over at Buck, asking, "Where's Nathan?"
"He took Raine for her ultrasound," he reminded the sniper. "Why? What's wrong?"
Vin ignored the question, rising and grabbing his suit jacket from the back of his chair. He pulled it on. "Call 'im," he said, adding, "let's go."
"Vin, what's going on?" JD asked, scrambling out from behind his desk to follow the sniper from the office, Buck hot on Dunne's heels.
"Trouble," was all the sniper said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Nathan sat, holding his wife's hand, as they stared at the images of their first and, as of yet, unborn child.
"Everything looks perfectly normal," the obstetrician said, smiling at the happy couple. "Do you want to know if it's a boy or a girl?" she asked them.
"Yes!" Nathan said at the same time as Raine said, "No!" The couple looked at each other and burst into giggles. The doctor just grinned, leaning back and waiting.
"It doesn't matter," Nathan said, "but…"
"I already know," Raine said softly, her eyes filled with love for her husband.
"You do?" Nathan asked, surprised.
She nodded, then glanced over at the OB, saying, "It's a little girl. I can feel it."
The physician nodded.
Nathan's jaw dropped open. "A little girl?" he breathed, goose bumps breaking out across his skin. He was going to be a daddy, have a daughter, before too much longer.
The doctor nodded again, smiling at the man's stunned expression.
Jackson's cell phone began to play a Dobie Brothers tune and he quickly fished it out of his pocket and opened it, saying, "Uh, yeah, hello?"
Raine watched as her husband's expression clouded with worry and he said, "Okay, I'll be there as soon as I get Raine home… Yeah, I will. You, too."
Nathan closed the phone and turned to the doctor. "Are we done?"
The doctor nodded, then looked at Raine and added, "I'd like to see you again next month."
"Okay," Raine said, sitting up with Nathan's help. As soon as the doctor had left she looked at Nathan and asked, "What is it?"
"I'm not sure yet. I need to get over to Summit."
Her eyes rounded. "Is someone hurt? Who—?"
"I'll call you when I know what's going on," he told her, helping her off the treatment table and waiting while she gathered up her clothing so she could dress.
She could see he was worried. "Nathan, go on and go, I'll call Shay and have her take me home when I'm done here."
Indecision warred briefly, then, he asked, "Are you sure?"
She nodded. "Go," she said. "I need to get dressed and then make another appointment, and I have to go pick up some more vitamins from the pharmacy, so it's going to be a while."
"What if Shay's busy?" he asked, wanting to make sure she got home safely.
"Then I'll call Tina," she replied matter-of-factly. "What are you waiting for?"
He nodded, then leaned over and kissed her. "You're a saint," he said.
She grinned. "I'll remind you that you said that the next time I get a craving for a Wendy's cheeseburger at two in the morning."
He grinned, kissed her again, then bolted out the door.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin, Buck, and JD burst into the ER, immediately spotting their two worried-looking teammates. They hurried over to join them.
"Any news?" Buck asked anxiously.
Ezra shook his head. "They took him… somewhere," he said, shaking his hand in the direction of the treatment rooms, obviously rattled. "We got him here as quickly as we could, but…"
Josiah stepped up next to Vin, resting his hand on the sniper's shoulder as he said, "They still don't know if he's going to make it. They haven't been able to get him stabilized."
Vin visibly paled, but he drew a deep breath and asked, "Travis?"
"He was still in court," Josiah replied. "I left a message with his secretary, and with the prosecutor's office."
"Gentlemen," a voice called.
They turned to find Dr. Vivika Sahir walking up to join them. The tall, slender woman did not look happy.
"Doc, how is he?" Buck asked her.
"His vitals have stabilized, but we're keeping him in ICU for now," she told them in her slightly accented voice. "Michael Levine is with him right now. Mike's a specialist in toxicology. If you'll come with me, I'll take you to see him."
"I'll wait here for Nathan, then come find you," Josiah told them.
"Third floor," Dr. Sahir told him. "Ask at the nurses' station and they can point you in the right direction." The doctor started off, the agents trailing after her.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The room Dr. Sahir took them to was larger than a normal ICU unit, but still cramped, especially with five agents trying to crowd in around Chris' bed.
"Mike," Dr. Sahir said, "these are Agent Larabee's men."
The doctor looked too young to be a specialist in anything, but the ATF agents knew he must be, or he wouldn't be working at Summit. Levine stuck out his hand and Ezra, being the closest, shook it, saying, "Doctor, what can you tell us?"
"Michael Levine," he said by way of an introduction. "I'll be one of Mr. Larabee's doctors," he added, but the men weren't watching him, their attention was on the nurse who was carefully cleaning up a cut on Chris' forehead. The unconscious man was hooked up to a heart monitor and had two clear IVs running. On one side of Larabee's neck was a large, ugly, purple-black bruise.
Clearing his throat, Levine added, "He's stabilized, for now, and we're running tests to see if we can determine what was in the dart he was shot with. Until then we'll monitor him carefully and wait."
Josiah and Nathan appeared in the doorway, Orin Travis behind them. "Gentlemen, we need to talk," the Assistant Director said matter-of-factly.
The others filed from the room, Nathan slipping in once they were gone to speak to the two doctors and get a full understanding of what was happening so he could brief the team, and the AD.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Five minutes later the agents and the AD were standing in a small break room on the third floor.
"Doc said Chris is stabilized, for now," Buck told their boss.
"I'm very glad to hear that," the man replied, his relief clear in his tone. "Where's Mr. Jackson?"
"No doubt trying to wring as much from the doctors as he can manage," Ezra replied.
"What happened?" Vin asked, his gaze darting from Ezra to Josiah to Travis.
"Chris was called first," Josiah explained, "when he was done, he stepped outside to get some air."
"It didn't go well?" Tanner questioned.
Ezra's expression turned slightly sour. "Mr. Dower has some well-paid talent working for him. No doubt they used all of their considerable skills to try and trip up Mr. Larabee during his testimony."
"Given their expressions when I was called next, I doubt they succeeded," Travis replied dryly. "But we can't assume that this has anything to do with Dower, or his trial."
"But who else could it be?" JD asked.
The others shot the youngest agent incredulous looks as Travis added, "Chris, and Team Seven, has a great many enemies, as you are all well aware."
"But it's most likely related to Dower, given the timing," Josiah said.
"We should not have allowed Mr. Larabee to go out there alone," Ezra said, glancing back at the door. "Samson Dower has followers everywhere."
"Like the AD said, we don't know if Dower's the one responsible," Buck said, trying to ease Ezra's and Josiah's obvious guilt.
"Ain't a coincidence Chris goes down right after we bring in the guy whose testimony will convict Dower 'a domestic terrorism 'n' murder."
Travis nodded. "But we need evidence, Mr. Tanner. Get on it. Find out who did this."
"We should start with known associates of Mr. Dower," Ezra said.
"Dower's cadre doesn't have more than six trained fanatics," Buck argued. "And only Dower knows the men in his support groups, and he's in jail."
"Think they wanted to exchange Grant for Chris?" JD asked. The existence of the witness was supposed to be unknown, but there was no way to plug all the leaks.
"You can never tell with nut-jobs like this," Buck replied, shaking his head.
The others nodded their agreement with his assessment. The conversation stopped as Nathan stepped in to join them.
"Doc says that whatever hit Chris didn't do what it was designed to do," Nathan told them.
"Too close fer my taste," Vin replied, a sour-looking expression on his face. "We've gotta find these assholes."
"Watch out for yourselves," Travis cautioned them. "This might be about the team."
"You think we might be next?" Buck asked him.
"They seem to know who we are," Travis replied.
"Way I see it, we've got two options," Vin said. "We sit tight 'n' wait fer 'em t' make their next move, or, we make ours."
"I can imagine your choice, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, a small smile on his lips.
"Damn straight," Vin replied.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In one corner of the well-appointed laboratory there was a small television set resting on a shelf above the workspace. It was currently playing the local news.
"…Police have called on federal authorities to help boost security at the federal courthouse. This in preparation for the upcoming trial of accused home-grown terrorist Samson Dower. Arrested by authorities last month after a lengthy undercover sting operation, Dower was charged with the bombings of two Planned Parenthood clinics, an all-Black elementary school, and a Spanish-language radio station. Federal prosecutors are denying rumors that a surprise federal witness is the real key to their case…"
An older man looked up, frowning as he listened to the report. He shook off a sudden sense of foreboding and said, "Turn that off. It's all just propaganda, anyway. I need that solution." He gestured to a flask containing a clear, amber liquid.
A young woman walked over and turned off the TV, then picked up the flask and carried it over to the man, who was old enough to be her grandfather.
"You'll only make yourself crazy, watching that stuff," he told her, adding the solution to a yellow liquid he was working over, and then beginning to stir.
"They didn't mention the attack," she replied, her brow furrowed in a mixture of worry and anger.
"Did you really think they would? They're fools. Either they haven't diagnosed the symptoms yet, or they're trying to keep your attack quiet while they investigate who was responsible."
"I just want to get this over with," she said pointedly, her words lightly accented, wishing he would hurry.
"Have a little patience, my dear. This caper has been very profitable," he said, his expression turning decidedly hungry as he added, "And it has brought us together, now, hasn't it?"
She nodded but otherwise ignored him, watching as the liquid in the beaker he was now holding over a flame changed to a clear blue.
"Beautiful, don't you think?" he asked, holding it up. "We're looking at our future with this little chemical. This will reverse the progress of the poison, as well as the process, almost immediately upon being administered." He sat the beaker down and reached out, cupping her cheek and then dropping his hand to cup one of her small breasts. "Are you sure your target will capitulate?"
"My father's intelligence has been very thorough," she replied, pressing herself against his palm. Glancing at an open file folder that was lying on the top of the lab bench, she stared at the faces of the seven men who had taken her father away from her. "They're all so predictable," she said quietly, shaking her head.
The old man chuckled, his fingers kneading her breast with a hunger that still surprised him. He pulled her in to him, forcing a kiss on her, even though he could see she wasn't interested. But then he felt her body begin to respond, which triggered his own reaction. Thank God for Viagra, he thought as he reached up under her shirt to unclasp her bra.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Images assailed his consciousness, twisted and fuzzy. He was standing out in front of the federal courthouse, wishing he hadn't given up smoking when Sarah had gotten pregnant. He could really use a cigarette right now…
For a moment the familiar pain of loss reared its head, but he wasn't able to latch onto it, hadn't really been able to now for a few months. And that had awakened a new kind of guilt in the man. How could it hurt less to have lost his wife and son? How could he ever not feel the devastating anguish he'd slowly grown accustomed to?
The images continued to play out around him, beyond his ability to control. A woman leaving the courthouse caught his eye. She was a little taller than Sarah had been, but she had the same color hair…
He felt his heart constrict a little, and the familiar cold fingers of loss squeezed his heart. It was comforting somehow, and he tried to look away from the woman, but his gaze was steadily drawn to the briefcase she was carrying. It was just like the one Sarah had bought for him when he'd gone back to school, taking classes so he could enter the police academy all those years ago…
If he let himself, he knew he could remember every detail of the party they'd held, just the three of them – Sarah, Buck and himself – but the images kept rolling forward, pulling him unwillingly along with them.
The woman who looked like Sarah walked to the curb, climbing into one of the waiting cabs, and then she was gone. He watched the back of her head, almost, but not quite wishing that this stranger had been the one who'd died, and Sarah was still alive, still waiting for him at home… But he hadn't had those kinds of thoughts now for months…
He glanced back at the building, wondering if the hole he felt in his heart would ever heal, and desperately hoping it didn't. Somehow, if it did, he would have to face the fact that she was really gone, for good. And Sarah had been his life, the other half of his soul, when she'd been murdered. A large part of him – the better part, he knew – had died right along with her.
There was no way that hole could be healed. Not ever.
There were still nights when he found himself sitting in the darkness, contemplating eating a bullet, but those nights had started falling further and further apart. He resented it. Ever since he'd accepted Orin Travis' offer to build a SRT team for the ATF the pain and loneliness had eased, there was no denying it. Working with Team Seven had given him a sense of purpose again, provided him with a reason to go on living…
And that, he knew, made him feel guilty as well. How could he want to live when Sarah was dead? He wanted to be with her, and if that meant he was dead as well, then, so be it.
But it was getting harder and harder to believe it…
He watched as other people entered and left the federal courthouse, thinking about how his friendship with Vin, in particular, had seemed to have filled some tiny part of the void that had been his life after Sarah had been killed. He wasn't sure why, or what it meant, but Tanner's friendship had eased a little bit of the pain he'd felt.
But was that right? Shouldn't he continue to hurt like he had? If he didn't, wasn't it an indication that he didn't love Sarah as much as he had?
How could friendship ever fill a hole left by the loss of love?
Movement in his peripheral vision captured his attention: another woman, walking in his direction… He started to turn his head, knowing without thinking that he was seeing a gun in her hand. But by the time he'd turned his head to look at her she'd gotten two steps closer to him.
As he looked at her face he noted the sunglasses she was wearing, so large they gave her a bug-eyed look that was a little disconcerting. But he could tell, even in the few seconds he had to look at her, that she was attractive. Then he saw her arm begin to rise.
His gaze raced down the woman's moving limb and he realized, too late, that she was, indeed, holding a gun.
A split second later he felt the dart strike his neck, the impact snapping his head back. Pain erupted like an explosion in his neck, his throat, his head. Immediately, he was falling, twisting, to try and protect himself from another strike. The building undulated wildly in his rapidly darkening vision as he felt himself falling, still twisting as he did.
He felt his forehead strike the concrete, and a new pain blasted through his consciousness, raw and electric.
He saw feet, running toward him, then faces, all swimming in and out of focus. Then, as if from a long distance away, he heard Josiah's and Ezra's voices, and someone else, calling for an ambulance…
He began to spiral into an inky blackness that sucked the air from his lungs. He struggled, fought, tried to hold on, but the force was too great and it carried him away, flinging him in circles like a whirlpool, or some wild kids' carnival ride.
He disappeared into that blackness, only to bubble up through it again sometime later. At least he thought it might be sometime later…
The swirling sensation upset his stomach, and, moments later, it rebelled. He heaved, feeling the bile coming up his throat and burning over his tongue. Again and again his stomach tried to turn itself inside out, but he couldn't do a damn thing about it.
He moaned, his fingers clawing for some kind of purchase. Then he felt someone taking his hands, holding them, squeezing them in a reassuring way. A cool cloth was wiped across his face. It felt good, and he sighed softly, grateful for the kindness.
Someone called his name.
He knew he should recognize the voice, but he couldn't remember how to remember… He heard it come again and felt himself floating closer to an answer…
He blinked, forcing too-heavy eyelids to rise. A too-bright jumble of colors and movement met his eyes and he immediately squeezed them shut again as his stomach threatened to rebel for a second time.
Yep, it was definitely Vin. He knew he needed to open his eyes, talk to the man, find out just what the fuck was going on, but he wasn't at all sure he was up to the task…
He tried opening his eyes again, this time forcing himself to hold them open until the fuzzy swirl in his field of vision slowly resolved itself into something intelligible: his men, all standing at the foot of… his bed?
"His eyes are open," he heard Buck say.
No shit, Sherlock, he thought back at the man, but he couldn't find his mouth to form thought into words.
He knew rather than saw Vin move closer, then reach out and run his hand up and down along Larabee's arm. "Chris, can y' hear me?"
Chris blinked once, then again, finally able to focus on Tanner's worried face. "Yeah," he slurred thickly.
"Thank God," he heard Josiah say.
"Ya back with us?" Vin asked, still worried, but covering it up rather well.
"Helluva way to get a vacation, stud," Buck teased, but the worry in his voice was clear as well.
"You had us worried," Nathan added, not bothering to hide his anxiety.
It took him a moment to process it all. They were worried. They were worried about him. Something must have happened to him. "Where the hell am I?" he asked, trying to sit up, but it was immediately clear he had little if any control over his limbs.
Vin stopped his effort with a hand pressed lightly to his chest. "Easy, Chris, y' hit yer head when y' fell. Y' need t' lay still."
He almost smiled at the thick Texas drawl. It was rarely that bad, but when Tanner was worried… Oh, yeah, they were all worried… about him.
The blond frowned. "I— I don't remember… How long have I been out?"
"Almost two hours," JD supplied.
Chris reached up, rubbing gingerly at what he discovered was his now-bandaged neck. "Feels like I got shot."
"The doctors pulled a small dart from your neck," Nathan told him. "They're running tests on it now."
A dart? But he'd seen the gun in her hands. Had it just been a dart gun? But why…?
"Y' got any idea who did this t' y', Chris?" Vin asked him.
"No… I was just getting some air… out in front of the courthouse," he said, the images from earlier beginning to clarify in his mind. "We were going to go over the final details of our reports with the prosecutor once Orin's testimony was over… I decided to get some air before we got started…"
"Chris," Vin interrupted, "I got a good look at that dart. Whoever wanted t' nail y' had t' do it from almost pointblank range. Y' remember anyone gettin' that close?"
"I… I don't know," Larabee replied, unsure if the images of the Sarah-lookalike and the other woman with the sunglasses that were still flashing through his mind were real, or just dream fragments. "Maybe… I'm not sure."
"Try to remember, stud," Buck pressed.
Chris frowned, trying to recall what had seemed so clear just a few seconds ago. "There was someone… a woman, I think. She was wearing big, dark glasses. She was kind of pretty…"
"You remember that?" Ezra asked, slightly amused.
"I think so," Chris replied, missing the tease. "It's all pretty fuzzy, to tell you the truth."
There was a sharp knock on the door before a DPD officer stepped into the doorway holding a wrapped gift. "This arrived for Agent Larabee a little while ago," the officer said. "Your bomb boys have already had a peek at it. They said it's pulsing, but apparently it's not going to explode." He sounded dubious about the last.
"Who knows he's here?" Ezra asked, frowning.
"Supposedly no one," Josiah replied.
"Well, maybe this'll give us an idea who does," Vin said, stepping over to take the six-inch-square box, complete with a bow, and a small gift card. The sniper pulled the card off, saying, "Y' gotta love 'a surprise." He handed the tiny envelope to Chris.
Chris fumbled a little, Nathan taking the card from him and opening it. He pulled out the small business-card sized piece of paper inside, reading out loud, "Chris Larabee, get well soon."
"Didn't know anyone cared," the blond grumbled, then nodded to Vin. "Go ahead, open it."
The sniper unwrapped the box and lifted the lid. "Here y' go," he said, pulling out a cheap digital watch, still in its plastic case. He handed it to Ezra, who had his hand out to receive it.
The undercover man removed the watch from its clear plastic case and examined it. "It's not really you," he said, handing it to Chris.
"I hope not," the blond grumbled, peering suspiciously at the watch face, "it's running backwards."
JD leaned in to get a better look. "Uh, looks like it's some kind of a timer."
"More surprises," Vin said, pulling a small digital recorder from the box the watch had come in. With another nod from Chris he pressed the "play" button.
"Agent Larabee," a female voice said, "welcome to the last day of your life. You have been injected with a poison that is infecting your bloodstream and your nervous system. I know because I delivered it, personally. Do you remember? You went down like a ton of bricks. You'll be dead in twenty-four hours. I possess the only antidote. I offer you a simple trade, your life for the traitor, Andy Grant. If you don't turn Grant over before he testifies against Samson Dower, you will die. You will be contacted again with further instructions."
Without a knock, Orin Travis stepped into the room. Seeing that Chris was awake, he headed straight to the man's bedside and looked down at him. "I just received a call from Samson Dower's lawyer, says Dower would like to talk…"
"Why?" JD asked.
"His lawyer couldn't explain, just said he represented Dower and Dower wanted to talk to someone from Team Seven… as long as it was done in the next twelve hours."
"He's most certainly involved," Ezra stated flatly.
"The prosecutor isn't happy about it, but he's agreed to let one of us speak to Dower," Travis told them.
"I should be the one," Ezra quickly said. "I was the one working undercover in Dower's organization. I know him better than anyone."
Travis nodded his approval and Standish left the room to set up the meeting.
A technician came in, glancing nervously at the small crowd in the room. "Uh, I need to draw blood, can you gentlemen wait in the hallway?"
Dr. Sahir opened the door just in time to hear the technician's request. "Dr. Levine needs a new sample," she explained, holding the door open so the team and Travis could exit.
"I don't feel so bad," Chris said, his comment directed at the doctor. "Can I get the hell out of—?"
"No," Vivika interrupted him. She waited until Vin, the last one out, had left, then closed the door and walked over to the bed to speak to Chris while the tech drew the blood sample. "I'm not surprised you're feeling better," she told the blond. "Your immune system has recovered from the initial shock, so, for now, I would expect you to feel all right. Unfortunately, Dr. Levine has isolated at least a dozen toxic elements on that dart we pulled out of your neck. You need to stay here."
"If you've identified the toxins, then you can make an antidote, right?" Chris asked.
Vivika frowned. "Let me have Michael come in and talk to you. He'll be able to give you more details than I can on the poison. But, until he gets here I want you to rest, all right?"
Chris sighed, but he nodded, knowing that she was just trying to help him as best she could. "Yeah," he agreed. Besides, although he might not admit it to anyone, he felt like shit. The odds of his actually being able to get on his feet and walk out of there were slim to none. Maybe if he rested a little while he might be able to change those odds. Glancing at the watch, counting down twenty-four hours, he sincerely hoped it was so.
Vivika picked up the phone on the small bedside table and punched in an extension. A moment later she said, "Michael, it's Vivi, Mr. Larabee is awake and says he's feeling better. He's like to leave. I was hoping you might be able to explain why that would be a bad idea… All right, thanks." She hung up the receiver, then said to Chris, "He'll be right down."
The technician finished and slipped from the room.
"Thanks," Chris told the physician.
She nodded and left, Dr. Levine sweeping in a few minutes later with a laptop in his hands. "Let me show you what we've found in your last blood sample," he said, coming over and opening the computer on the rolling tray near Chris' bed. When he had up what he wanted Larabee to see, he swung the small table around so Chris could see the screen.
Chris peered at the information, none of which made any sense to him.
Dr. Levine stepped around so he was able to point to various things on the screen as he said, "What we're looking at here is a compound poison. The toxins are being carried through your blood stream by a microcapsule, which is dissolving at timed intervals to deliver a stead dose of the poison. But," Michael added, pressing the enter key to bring up a second screen, "and here's where we know somebody really good has to be involved… The microcapsule is rearranging after each release, so the compound is essentially mutating on a regular cycle."
"Which means nothing to me, Doc," Chris said, knowing he wasn't going to like the answer anyway.
"To put it simply, we can't keep up with the damn thing."
"You're saying it's impossible to come up with an antidote," Chris challenged.
"No," Dr. Levine replied, "we can come up with one, eventually, but there's only one chemist in the world who can come up with it quickly enough to save your life, and that's the one who made the poison to begin with."
Chris closed his eyes. That was about what he'd expected to hear, but it didn't make actually hearing the words any easier.
"I'd like to keep you here, under observation," Levine added.
"No," Chris replied. "If I'm going to die, I'm sure as hell not going out lying on my back in a hospital bed."
"Look," Chris said, cutting the man off, "you said yourself there's only one person who can help me. Let me do what I do best – what my team does best. My team will find this chemist."
Levine hesitated for a moment, but he could see in Larabee's eyes that the blond wasn't going to be cooperative, and he couldn't really blame the man. "All right, but there are certain signs you'll need to watch for, and when they show up, you have to get back here, pronto, understand?"
"Tell Nathan," Chris replied, already thinking about how to begin the search for the man who was trying to kill him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Ezra was cleared into the federal prison and escorted to a private interview room. A few minutes later Samson Dower was brought in, his shackles secured to the chair the guard had pressed him into. There was a thick pane of bulletproof glass separating the two men.
"So, Sam, how are things going for you?" Ezra asked, slipping into the speech patterns and persona of Vic Styles, his undercover alter ego.
"I bear my burdens for the good of my people," Dower replied, a slight smirk on his face.
"White people, you mean."
"Naturally," Dower replied with a slight tilt of the head.
"How's it been for you, cut off from your friends… your family," Ezra stated rather than asked.
"Can't deny that hasn't been hard… Vic," Dower returned.
"Is there someone special in your life?" Ezra asked casually.
"Don't we all have a special woman in our lives? 'Less of course you're a queer."
"Who is she?" Ezra asked, trying to look bored, but it wasn't as easy to pull off as it was usually.
Dower smiled. "Now, Vic, that wouldn't be fair to her, now would it?"
"Why not?" Ezra replied. "Surely she believes the same as you do. I'd think she'd want the whole world to know that she was standing by you."
"She's a warrior," Dower said. "She doesn't need glory."
"A terrorist, you mean?" Ezra asked almost sweetly.
Dower snorted and grinned menacingly. "Ah, Vic, you gotta know by now that my people can reach out and touch you – any of you – anytime we want."
"Here?" Ezra asked, gesturing and glancing around.
"Anywhere… I've got believers in the universities, cooking your hamburgers, even in your hospitals… each and every one of them ready to strike without fear. We're resolved to win this fight, Vic, whatever the price."
"And the down payment is Chris Larabee's life?"
Dower shrugged. "There's some collateral damage in every war, my friend, but, in the end, the white race will triumph, you mark my words."
"And if we don't care to pay that price?"
Dower shrugged again. "Well then, I'd recommend you listen to the will of the people, follow their lead."
"That's not going to happen," Ezra told him bluntly. "You have to know that."
"You don't follow the will of the people, the people rise up and smite you – best you remember that… Vic."
"Yes, well, sometimes right triumphs over might… over ignorant fears."
Dower shrugged one last time, still smirking. "Well then, I guess the chitchat's over, isn't it. Say hello to your boss-man… or should I say… say goodbye."
"I'd say you'd better grow eyes in the back of your head, Sam," Ezra told him, his tone as cold as a shard of ice. "Anything happens to Larabee, there won't be a prison cell in this country where you'll be safe."
"Better to die for a cause you believe in than live in a land of mongrels and fags."
Ezra stood and walked out. He wasn't going to get anything from Dower, and he'd heard more than enough already. Dower was doing nothing more than gloating.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In his office, Chris scanned the surveillance pictures from the federal courthouse, looking for the woman who had shot him.
"Anyone ring a bell?" Buck asked, walking in and hitching his hip on the corner of the desk.
"Not yet," Chris replied. "I wish everything wasn't so damn fuzzy…" He trailed off, looking more closely at one of the pictures. "Here, she might be a candidate. She was wearing sunglasses… Here, try this one, too."
Buck nodded. "Okay, I'll see what we can find."
"Crosscheck the photos with passports… She probably entered the country shortly after Grant was arrested."
"What makes you think she's from out of the country? She could've been a local girl, someone sympathetic to his cause," Buck reasoned.
Chris shook his head. "I don't know… We've never turned up any leads on family, or a close female friend for Dower. So maybe he's been keeping his family, or his wife, girlfriend, whatever, out of the country. Besides, that voice on the recorder, it had an accent of some kind."
"He's forcin' us to dance to his tune," Buck grumbled.
"So let's stop playin' his game," Vin said from the doorway. "Let's hit him where he lives, make 'im play our game."
Chris found another picture and held it up for Buck to see. It was of the women who had reminded him of Sarah. "You recognize her?"
"No," Buck replied.
"Am I talkin' t' myself here?" Vin snapped.
"I heard you," Chris said, "but what you're thinking is impossible."
"Says who?" Vin demanded. "I c'n convince Travis t' go along, y' know I can."
Chris' head came up again and his eyes narrowed. "Look, I might not be team leader much longer, but while I am we're doing this my way."
"Fine," Vin snarled, then spun on his heel and stormed away.
"He's got a point, you know," Buck said quietly.
Chris shot his longtime friend a warning glare. "We're not using Grant as bait. He's how we punch Dower's ticket for life."
Buck held up his hands, palms facing Larabee to show he wasn't going to fight with him. "All right," he said, "but if you ask me, it sounds a lot like you're givin' up without much of a fight here, stud. That really what you want to do?"
Chris sighed, his gaze falling to the photos on his desk. He couldn't deny it, but was that really what he was doing? He knew he was tired. Tired of aching inside, tired of missing Sarah and his son, tired of trying to keep on going when all he really wanted to be with Sarah and Adam… He knew it wasn't fair to the others, and that had been enough to keep him going, but now…
Now he had an excuse.
Now he had an opportunity to just let go and move on to whatever came next. And he hoped, prayed, that that was some kind of reunion with Sarah and Adam, but his doubts kept him moving around the images on his desk, trying to find the woman who had shot him.
He was scared, he knew. Scared that he might die, scared that he might end up in Hell, separated from Sarah and Adam forever, an eternal extension of the reality he'd been living for two years now.
What if dying left him in the same situation he was in now?
That truly would be Hell…
But what if there was a chance he might see them again? What if he died and he was reunited with them, to live out an eternity with them? That was what he wanted, wasn't it?
At least, he thought it was.
But he really wanted the dark, longing pain to end, finally, one way or the other.
"I'm going to go see how Vin's doing," Buck said softly, pushing off the edge of the desk.
Chris looked up with a start, having forgotten the man was even there. He nodded.
Buck paused. "He cares about you. He's just trying to do the best he can…"
"I know," Larabee replied.
"We all do. We all are."
Chris nodded, unable to look up and meet his friend's eyes.
"Least you can do is try as hard as we are." And with that the ladies' man stalked out of the office.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The young woman pushed open the door to the lab and walked in. She glanced around, noting that the room was empty except for the older man, who was working under a fume hood in one corner of the room.
She walked over to him, sliding her hands over the tops of his shoulders and then leaning over to lightly kiss the back of his neck.
"Is the antidote ready?" she purred, then nibbled his wrinkled skin.
"Of course," he replied, feeling himself begin to respond to her kisses, "just like I told you. It was ready an hour ago."
"Where is it?" she asked, biting him, but not hard enough to cause pain.
He moaned softly and closed his eyes. "In the blue fridge…"
She stepped away, walking over to open the door and check inside. There was a test tube rack inside, and in it a single test tube. The liquid it held was pale blue. She took it out and held it up to the light. "This is it? It's finished?"
"It is," he replied, turning his attention back to the experiment that was running. He heard her walking back to him, then felt her press her breasts against his back as her hands slid over his shoulders, her fingernails teasing at his tiny nipples through the cloth of his shirt.
"You make all this craziness worthwhile," he said on a sigh.
She stepped back and took hold of his shoulder, turning him toward her. He looked up at her in breathless anticipation. She's hadn't been this demanding since the first time…
She stepped in between his opened knees and bent to kiss him. He reached up, sliding his hands under her shirt, reaching up to cup her bra-covered breasts in his hands, then reaching behind to unfasten the hooks. But this time she pulled back.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In his office, Chris leaned back in his chair, running his trembling hand over his face. He was sweating buckets, and he felt terrible, but he just didn't have the energy to call for someone.
There was always a part of him that welcomed pain – that part, he knew, that blamed himself for Sarah's and Adam's deaths. Pain seemed a fitting punishment for not being there when she'd gone off the road…
His stomach cramped and he pushed back from the desk, his arms coming up to press against his midsection. Before he even realized it, he had fallen out of the chair.
He looked up and saw someone standing over him.
It couldn't be…
Listen to me, damn it, Sarah said, her hands coming up to rest on her hips. He knew that stance, and that look. She was pissed. You might have made up your mind to lie down and die, but it's wrong, Chris, wrong, she told him. You're not ready. It's not your time.
Chris looked away. How could she know?
No, don't you look away from me, Chris Larabee. You know exactly who I am. You can't deny me; I'm no hallucination.
"No," he breathed. "Not real…"
What, you think I'm some sort of chemical manifestation? she snapped at him, her green eyes flashing dangerously. He'd always loved the way her eyes flashed when she got mad…
I'm not, she argued. I'm real. And I'm trying to save your stubborn hide.
"Where have you been, sweet woman?" he asked, staring up at her, lost in her beauty, lost in the way her hair fell in loose curls around her face… "I need you, Sarah."
I know, baby, I know, she said, her voice soft now, loving. But this is wrong, Chris. You're giving up. You have so much more ahead of you, but you have to want to live.
"I don't want to," he groaned, tears springing into his eyes. "Hurts… God, Sarah, it hurts so damn much without you."
Her expression was desperate. Chris, you can't. One day we'll be together again, I promise you, but this isn't that time. If you give up now… The desperation shifted to fear. You have to fight this, Chris. Do you hear me? If you love me, you have to fight. You have to live.
"Can't," he groaned, the cramps coming again, then fading.
Please, Chris. If you love me, keep fighting…
He heard the new voice and looked up, watching as Sarah faded into nothingness. "No!" he cried, reaching out to her, but it was too late.
"Chris?" JD stepped around the side of the desk to find his boss lying curled up on the floor, tears streaming from his eyes. "Oh my God… Nathan!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah and Vin made their way across campus at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Buck was sure he'd tracked down the right girl, and she was in the States on a student visa. The two agents were at the university to see if they could find her.
They entered the building that housed the biochemistry and chemistry department. And, after asking a student for directions, they found the main office and made their way to a reception desk.
"Hi, can I help you?" a young woman asked with a smile.
"We're tryin' t' find this girl," Vin said, nodding at the piece of paper Josiah was unfolding.
The profiler handed the page to the girl.
"Oh, sure, I know her. Her name's Trude Hall, she's an international student, from Germany. I have a couple of classes with her," the girl replied. She looked up at the two agents. "And you are?"
Josiah removed his ID and let her look. "We're federal agents. We'd like to talk to Miss Hall."
The girl swallowed hard. "Um, I'm not sure where she is…"
"Can you look up her schedule?" Josiah asked.
"You'd have to get that from the registrar's office, but I can check and see which lab she's working in," the girl replied, stepping over to a computer and logging in. A few seconds later she said, "Here it is. She works in Dr. Ladner's lab. He's on the chemistry faculty."
"Dr. Stanley Ladner?" Josiah asked, frowning.
"Yeah," the girl replied. "Trude's his graduate lab assistant." She reached over and grabbed a sheet of paper that turned out to be a map of the building. "Dr. Ladner's lab is… right here," she said, marking the page with a yellow highlighter. "The elevators are just down the hall."
"We appreciate all your help," Josiah said, flashing her a friendly smile.
"Sure," she replied, obviously curious, but too afraid to ask.
The two agents left the office, Vin stopping when they were back out in the hallway. "You know this Latner guy?"
"Lad-ner. And, no, but I've heard about him. He was up for a Nobel Prize in chemistry a few years ago. We've got the right girl."
Vin nodded and they started for the elevators, but, when they reached the stairs first they took those up to the third floor, then walked down to the room the girl had marked.
Josiah pushed the door open. The room inside was dark and he felt along the wall until he found a light switch and flipped the switch on.
They moved into the lab, Josiah looking through some papers he found on a desk, Vin checking the space.
"Tell me somethin' about this guy," the sniper said as he worked.
"Well, he was an antiwar activist, a hippy back in the late sixties, radical professor in the seventies, and an award winning chemist in the eighties."
"Could they make whatever they used on Chris in here?" Vin asked, making his way over to the back wall where there were several refrigerators and freezers.
"Absolutely," Josiah replied.
When Vin opened the first of the refrigerators he stopped. "Uh, J'siah… think I just found our Mr. Einstein."
"What?" Josiah said, starting over to join Vin.
"Can't think 'a why else there'd be a dead guy in the freezer, can you?"
Josiah stopped beside Vin, staring at the older man who had been crammed into the appliance. "That's Ladner," the profiler confirmed. The man's eyes were still open, a look of surprise on his face, but the hole in his forehead told the agents that Ladner wouldn't be helping them, or anyone else.
"Damn," Vin breathed. "She's one step ahead 'a us."
"Not for long," Josiah replied, his tone determined. "Let's go talk to campus security and the registrar, maybe we can find her."
Vin nodded, but he had his doubts.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three hours later Josiah and Vin were back in Denver, at Summit Hospital and Trauma Center.
"Our people are analyzing the formulas from the papers you found in Dr. Ladner's lab," Dr. Levine told Josiah.
In bed, Chris groaned as he tried to sit up more.
Levine glanced over at the man, saying, "Take it easy, Chris. It's only a matter of time," he added to Josiah and Vin.
"That's what's got me worried," the blond replied dryly.
"What about the girl?" the doctor asked, ignoring Larabee's comment. "Any chance you might find her?"
"When she surfaces, it'll be on her own terms," Vin replied. He glanced over at Larabee. "Chris…"
The blond shook his head. "I know what you're going to say, Vin. Forget it. There's no way we're going to strike a deal."
"Damn it, Chris," Vin argued, "let me grab Grant back. We'll trade him for the antidote, then snatch him back again."
"They'll kill him as soon as they lay their hands on him," Larabee countered.
"Trust me," Vin pleaded. "I won't let that happen."
"It's not a matter of trust," Larabee argued. "It's just too damn risky. We stick to our present plan."
Vin huffed out a frustrated sigh. "Fine," he grumbled, then his blue eyes flashed as he added, "But it sounds t' me like yer just lookin' fer an excuse t' die." And with that the sniper turned and stormed out of the room.
Chris hesitated a moment, then met Josiah's gaze. "I don't want to die," he said, but the words lacked conviction.
"You sure about that, Chris?" was all the big man said before he followed after Vin.
"Look, you need to get some rest," Dr. Levine said, deciding it would be best to pretend he hadn't heard any of that. "We're going to draw some more blood now, and in another hour. Why don't you try and get some sleep?"
Chris nodded, but he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep.
Dr. Levine left as well, and, as soon as Chris was alone, he looked up to find Sarah standing at the foot of his bed.
Great, just great, Chris. You're still the boss, aren't you, still on the case, she accused him.
"What do you want me to do, give up?" he asked her.
No, but you could stop being so damn predictable! Stop doing things by the book. That's not who you are. It never was.
"It is now," he countered. Ever since she and Adam had died he'd gone by the book…
Chris, there was nothing you could've done to save me. You didn't do anything wrong.
The muscles in his jaw bunched. "I should've been able to do something. I should've been able to find out what happened!"
You know what your problem is? she asked him, but she didn't wait for an answer. You used to trust your gut. But now? Anything that makes you feel, anything that puts you out on a limb – bam! – you slam the door closed on it. You can't live like that, Chris. It's not who you are. Let Vin do what he wants.
"I can't," Chris growled, angry with his dead wife for the first time. "Look, just go back to whatever netherworld you came from and let me get back to work…"
You're not working. You're just waiting to die. You can't get rid of me that easily, Chris Larabee, she told him, hands coming up onto her hips. You have to decide to live, Chris. I can't do that for you. Vin was right, though, you've given up. You want to die. But that's wrong, Chris. It's wrong.
"It is not wrong," he argued. "I'm tired, Sarah. I'm so damn tired."
It's down to the three of us, Sarah warned him. You, me… and the Reaper, and we're losing, Chris. Please. Do whatever it takes. You have to live. You have to want to live.
"I'm ready to go," he said, his voice as tired-sounding as he looked.
You think you are, but you're not. You're not supposed to die now, Chris. You have a new job, a new team. It's what you've wanted ever since you got out of the SEALs. You have a family. They love you. They care about you. What do you think this is going to do to them?
"They'll be fine," Chris said, unable to meet her eyes.
No, they won't. They need you to lead them. They need you to be there for them.
"I am," Chris argued. "But I can't be here forever. They'll get by…"
Are you there for them? Sarah challenged. You put this team together five months ago. How many times have you had them out to the ranch?
"Jesus, Sarah, we're together eight to twelve hours a day," Chris argued. "The last thing they want to do is spend more time together."
Which is why they're all getting together at Josiah's house, renovating his garage into a space they can all use, right?
Or why are they all meeting at the Recreation Center, or the mission in Purgatory to help Vin out with the local kids.
You've never asked them, Chris! You call the team your family, but you don't even know what they're doing.
"I don't want them thinking I'm trying to run their lives."
No, don't you lie to me, Chris. You're afraid to get close to them, she told him. You're afraid of getting hurt again.
Trade Andy Grant for Dower, Chris.
Won't, you mean.
Sarah smiled. Well, at least you're fighting with me.
Chris' cheeks colored. "I don't want to fight with you…"
I want you to fight. Fight to live. And she was gone.
"Sarah?" he called, but there was nothing. The door creaked and a technician came in to draw his blood.
Damn it, he cursed silently. Damn, damn, damn…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The technician had just left when the rest of Team Seven pushed into Chris' hospital room. Vin was holding Larabee's cell phone, which was ringing. He handed it to the blond.
"Larabee," he said.
"I hope you're taping this, because I will not repeat it. These are your directions to the exchange location. Bring Andy Grant at nine-thirty in the morning. If I see the police, or if you try anything, you will never get the antidote," the woman said.
"We don't have him," Chris told her.
"That is your problem. Deliver him, or this will be your last night. Now," she said, "give me to one of your men. I want to pass the coordinates to someone whose mind is still functioning properly."
Chris handed the phone to Vin.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In his office at the Federal Building, AD Orin Travis sat with the federal prosecutor, arguing.
"Nothing is out of the question," Travis snapped. "I'm trying to save Larabee's life."
"I respect what you're trying to do," Nathaniel Trager replied, "but I have a responsibility, too. Hundreds of families have suffered at Dower's hands. Andy Grant is all that stands between him and the street."
"And who gave you Andy Grant?" Travis nearly roared.
"Team Seven, I know, Orin, I know, as well as you, but I can't let him go."
"Then expect a call from the national security advisor," Travis snapped.
Trager sighed. "Look, Orin, we go back a long time… What's so damn special about this agent?"
Travis thought for a moment, then snorted softly and met his old friend's gaze. "He reminds me of us… at that age."
Trager snorted as well. "All right, I'll talk to my superiors…"
"Damn right you will," Travis said. "They can pull this off."
A sharp rap on the door ended the conversation. A moment later Travis' assistant leaned in, saying, "Sir, it's Mr. Larabee…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
At the hospital the team and Travis waited anxiously in a small conference room. After nearly twenty minutes Dr. Levine hurried in looking frustrated.
"What's happening?" Nathan asked.
Levine leaned back against the table and said, "The toxin buildup is affecting his autonomic nervous system – breathing, eyesight, swallowing; all the functions we don't usually think about. They're starting to shut down."
"Then why don't you do something about it?" Buck snapped.
"There's nothing we can do until that antidote gets here," Levine replied.
"Six hours left…" JD added quietly.
"Y'all stick with Chris. I'll call y' later," Vin said, stalking out before anyone could stop him.
Travis watched the younger man go, then looked to the others. "Where are we?" he asked.
Josiah took the lead, filling the AD in on what they had, or rather, didn't have.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris woke slowly, his dreams lingering… Then he gasped. Sarah was sitting at the foot of his bed, crying.
"Sarah," he called, his voice weaker than he expected.
She looked up and met his eyes. It was all so damn real he shivered.
As she pushed off the bed, he actually felt it shift. But that was impossible, wasn't it?
I'm real, Chris. And I— She stopped, reaching up to hug her upper arms.
"What?" he said, trying to pull himself up in the bed.
She turned back to look at him, angry now. Why can't you at least try? she demanded. Do you honestly think dying is going to fix everything?
"Won't it?" he asked her. "I'll be with you, and Adam."
We're dead, Chris. And whether or not you're here with us, it's never going to be like it was before. We're not going to go for walks in the mountains. We aren't going to see our son grow up, get married, and have his own children.
I love you, Chris Larabee, but you're the most stubborn man I've ever known. And because I love you I'm going to be here, waiting for you, when it's your time. But this isn't it. You have so much to do, so many people who need your help.
"I need you," Chris argued.
You have me, Chris, then, now, forever, but that doesn't mean you get to give up! When the time comes, I'll be here, I promise, but, please, for me, you have to fight this. Let them do what they have to do in order to save your life.
He shook his head, saying, "I can't."
You mean you won't, she corrected. Chris, when did you get to be so by-the-book? That's not who you are. It's not the man I fell in love with…
He felt his eyes fill with tears. "It's… It's been hard, Sarah, so damn hard. The book's all I have left."
I know, she replied, going back to the bed and sitting down on the edge next to him. She reached out, cupping his cheek and he could feel her – feel the dip in the mattress, feel the cold where her fingers were.
I've been right here with you, baby, she told him. And I'll still be here when you win this. I miss you, too, but I love you. I want you to live. I want to see you smiling and laughing and kicking bad guy butt.
That forced a snort of laughter from him, and sent the tears rolling down his cheeks. "I can't… I don't— I'm so damn tired of hurting…"
It will get easier, she promised him. I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. You have a family now, Chris. They need you, too. They'll make it better. She smiled. Vin's going to make it better – he already has, hasn't he?
Chris had to nod. It was true. Ever since he'd met the man the pain had eased. He wasn't sure how or why, but it was true. Having Vin, having the team, did fill some of the gaping emptiness inside him, but there was still a hole left in his heart, one that could never be filled.
Trust me, Chris, she pleaded. Fight. Fight for them, for me, and it will get better.
"I'll try," he croaked, his voice rough and broken. He didn't want to fight. He wanted it all to be over, but she was asking him, begging him, and he knew he couldn't deny her anything… "I just miss you so damn bad…"
The door whisked open, and Sarah vanished.
"No!" Chris cried, reaching out to try and grab her, but it was already too late.
Ezra stepped in. "Chris, are you all right?" he asked. "I thought I heard you talking to someone…" He trailed off, noting the tears. "I apologize. Do you need a doctor?"
Chris shook his head, then reached up and brushed the tears from his face.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
This time Larabee nodded. "My imagination seems to be working overtime…"
Ezra walked over to stand at the foot of the bed. "Bad dreams?"
"I guess," Chris replied. "Just… scared," he admitted. "I used to think my death would come from a bullet, or a bomb, or some freak accident… I never thought I'd be waiting for it like this."
"No, of course you didn't," the undercover man said, unsure how to respond to the unexpected vulnerability. "None of us would know what to do in your unfortunate situation."
Chris lifted his arm to check the watch, but it was gone.
"Mr. Tanner took it," Ezra informed him.
Chris frowned. "Where is he?" he asked, but he already knew. "He's trying to get Andy Grant to come to the park, isn't he?"
Seeing no reason to lie, Ezra replied, "Yes."
"Get me Travis on the phone," Larabee ordered.
"Get me Travis on the phone," Chris snapped.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin waited until the U.S. Marshal who was in charge of Andy Grant's protection detail pulled up and parked in his driveway. Then the sniper stepped out of the shadows that ran along the side of the man's house, grabbing the man and pulling him back into those same shadows.
"Don't make me do something we'll both regret," he hissed into the man's ear.
"Travis send you?" he asked, having just gotten off the phone with the man a few minutes earlier.
"No, this is personal," Vin replied. He checked the watch Chris had received. "Four hours, that's what Larabee's got left."
"I can't do anything about it," the marshal replied.
"Yes, you can. You 'n' me. We're goin' t' do it together. Let's go," Vin said, starting for the man's parked vehicle.
"You're crazy," the marshal growled.
"I know," Vin replied. "Now, get in. Hands on the wheel, yer drivin'."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Less than twenty minutes later Vin was backing out of the safe house, dragging Andy Grant along with him, his arm wrapped around the man's neck, his Glock trained on the marshal who had brought him there.
"Now, you boys just behave," he cautioned the two other lawmen who had been guarding Grant, hoping he wouldn't be forced to shoot one of them.
"What are you doing?" Andy squeaked.
"You 'n' me are goin' for a ride," Vin informed him.
Andy's eyes were wide and wild. "You're not gonna let him take me, right?" he demanded. When it was clear the marshals weren't going to stop Tanner, he added, "You're supposed to be protecting me!"
"You'll be fine," Vin told him, "as long as you do exactly what I tell ya."
"Do something!" Grant cried as Vin dragged him to a car.
"Shut up and get in," Tanner snarled. "Yer drivin'."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Lying in his hospital room, Chris listened to the news reporter as she confirmed his worst fears. "…Justice Department officials have confirmed that an important witness in the Dower trial was kidnapped earlier this morning from a safe house. Officials are not commenting on who might have been responsible, although an unnamed source said that the witness was taken away by a single man. Now, back to Ed for weather…"
Somehow, he knew Sarah was there with him, watching the report. "It was Vin, wasn't it," he said rather than asked.
"He's going to get Grant killed."
You don't know that.
"He can already kiss his career goodbye."
Chris, he did it for you.
Chris looked up, meeting her eyes. "I'm trying, I really am, but this is wrong. Grant is going to die for me, and—"
Trust Vin. Trust all of them.
"I won't trade his life for mine."
Trust Vin, she told him again. Please. Trust him, and hang on. Just hang on a little longer.
Chris felt a wave of fiery pain sweep through his body and his back arched against it. He moaned lowly. It felt like claws had been sunk into his belly. "Hurts," he gasped, alarms beginning to go off.
I know, baby, I know, Sarah said, trying to reach out and help him.
Chris' body began to shake. "Sarah," he called, more afraid at that moment than he ever had been.
I love you, she said. Hang on, Chris, please… for me…
From the corner of his eye he saw the door swing open. Dr. Levine rushed in, Nathan and Buck behind him.
"Chris," the doctor called, checking monitors. "Can you hear me?"
Larabee nodded. He looked up at Buck and managed to choke out, "Vin."
"He's got Andy Grant," the ladies' man replied.
"Come on," Nathan said, helping Chris to sit up. "We have to get to the park. We only have an hour left."
"What are we waiting for?" Chris whispered.
A moment later an orderly was there with a wheelchair. Nathan and Buck moved Chris into it, Nathan pushing him from the room, Buck and the doctor following.
"There's an ambulance waiting for us outside," Levine told the agents.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Trude Hall slid out of her car and stood, looking down at the antidote. She thought briefly of just tossing it into the bushes, but her father had trained her well. She couldn't give up something that might end up being of value.
Leaning into the car, she lifted the lid on the small compartment between the driver's and passenger's seats. She dropped the bottle in and closed the lid. She had just closed the car door when she saw the ambulance pulling into the parking lot. It pulled up and parked in front of the woman's car.
Buck climbed out of the passenger's seat and stood, looking at her.
"Where's Andy Grant?" she demanded, glad that the car was between her and the man. He looked angry.
"He'll be here," the ladies' man replied. "Give me the antidote."
"Not until I have Andy Grant," she replied defiantly as a van pulled into the parking lot, the side door sliding open as it eased up close to the ambulance.
"This what y' want?" came Vin's voice. He stepped out of the trees that lined the park's parking lot, too close to her for comfort.
Trude's gaze swept over Vin and Grant. She gestured with a jerk of her head. "Put him in the van."
"Give us the antidote," Vin growled at her, moving closer and forcing her to move closer to the van, and to Buck.
"You'll get it after we're gone," she replied in kind.
"After you kill Grant, you mean," Buck tossed out.
"What happens to him is none of your concern, but what happens to Mr. Larabee matters a great deal, doesn't it, Mr. Tanner?" she asked, a gloating smile on her face.
In an instant both Trude and Vin drew their guns and had them pointed at each other. But Vin began to manhandle Andy Grant past her and toward the van.
"You acted true to form, Mr. Tanner," she said, smiling now that it appeared things were going her way. She stepped back, letting Vin pass with Grant.
"Y' know a lot about me," Vin said.
"We do. We counted on the fact that you would go to any length to help a friend – no matter how extreme or crazy. If not for you, none of this would have happened. You made it all possible."
Vin continued to push Grant closer to the van, Trude moving to trail him so she could follow Grant into the van and escape.
Then, suddenly, Vin shoved Grant, barking, "Run!"
Grant bolted forward along the side of the ambulance. Nathan grabbed him when he reached the end, hauling him into the ambulance where he would be safe. At the same time, Vin spun, grabbing Trude, forcing her gun up and away, then shoving her down onto the hood of her car, handcuffing her to himself before she had a chance to respond. The van immediately jerked into motion, tires squealing as it roared back away from the ambulance.
"Y' want t' see crazy, lady? I'll show y' crazy," Vin snarled.
He jerked her up and pushed her away, then opened the leather jacket he was wearing. Her eyes flew open wide when she saw the grenades, wired and obviously set to explode when the watch counting down Larabee's life reached zero.
"You're bluffing," she gasped.
"Y' know a lot about me," Vin replied, a feral snarl curling his lip. "Y' know 'm not the kind 'a guy who bluffs. Pick one, any 'a 'em," he told her.
"Pick one!" he snapped.
She jerked from the force of his words, but she pointed.
Vin brushed her hand back and grabbed the grenade she had indicated. He threw it into the trees.
Three seconds later there was an explosion.
Trude squealed and jerked back, trying to get away. All the men watching could see the terror on her face.
"Hey," Vin snapped, "not a lot 'a time left. Where's the antidote."
"Let me go. I'll give it to you."
"Don't work that way – antidote first," Vin told her.
Her eyes were drawn to the timer. "In the car! In the middle! The compartment!"
Buck darted over and leaned into the car. A moment later he pulled back and straightened. "Got it!"
Vin reached down and jerked a wire free as the watch counted down from three to two seconds.
A moment later Ezra and JD were there, uncuffing Trude and taking her away.
A sedan pulled up, the marshal Vin had used to get Grant climbing out and taking back his prisoner from Nathan.
Vin ignored the dirty looks the man sent his way and sprinted to the rear of the ambulance. Inside, Dr. Levine was administering the antidote. Chris' face was pasty grey, and he was wheezing.
"How long will it take t' work?" Vin asked.
"I'm afraid that's entirely dependent on Mr. Larabee and his metabolism," Levine replied. "He's running the race of his life…"
The doctor sat back, monitoring Chris' pulse. Nathan slid out, giving Vin the room he needed to climb into the ambulance.
The sniper settled next to Larabee and reached out, grabbing the man's shoulder and leaning over him to whisper into Chris' ear. "Chris… Come on, pard… Get it goin', cowboy, get it goin'."
The doctor used his stethoscope to listen to Larabee's heart and lungs.
"Damn you, Larabee, y' better not die on me now," Vin growled. "Cain't lose this, cowboy. Cain't lose m' family 'fore we even get started… Fight, y' bastard…"
Chris drew a deeper, less labored breath and forced his eyes open. Vin's forehead was pressed against the side of his skull, so he only had to turn his head slightly and whisper for Vin to hear him.
The sniper snorted and sat back, his eyes bright with unshed tears.
"Vin?" Buck called, afraid those tears were bad news.
Tanner looked down at the older man, a smile curling the corners of his mouth. But before he said anything he looked at the doctor.
Levine smiled and nodded. He could hear the sounds of the antidote working, Larabee's heart beginning to beat steadily, his breaths coming easier and easier.
"Vin?" Buck called again, a more desperate edge to his voice this time.
"He's gonna be all right," Tanner replied. "Fuckin' bastard's too damn ornery to die."
Chris smiled, and, catching sight of movement looked up to see Sarah smiling down at him.
You're going to make it, Chris.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When Chris woke he found himself back in the hospital. And, before he could force his eyes open, he felt Sarah kiss his forehead.
Thank you, she said.
"For what?" he rasped.
He nodded, cracking his eyes open. She was so damn beautiful… "You're gonna go now, aren't you." It wasn't a question, and his voice broke on the last word.
She nodded. I have to.
"But you'll be there… when I…?"
When it's your time, I'll be there, I promise.
And, until then, remember that I'm watching over you, and that I love you. I'll always love you.
"I love you," he managed. "And Adam."
We know, sweet man, we know…
He watched her fade into nothingness, but it didn't hurt as much as he expected it to. Still, he couldn't keep himself from reaching up and running his fingers through the air where she had just been. It was cold…
"Chris, you need something?" Josiah asked, looking up from where he had dozed off.
"No," Larabee replied thickly, "I'm… fine."
The profiler stood and stretched, then walked over to the bed. "You sure? You want something to drink?"
Josiah chuckled. "That you'll have to run by Dr. Levine first."
Chris grinned tiredly. "What did he say?"
It was Josiah's turn to grin. "That it looks like you're going to be just fine. They have a few more tests they need to run, but—"
"Damn, Josiah, they're gonna bleed me to death before I can get out of here," Larabee complained.
"Beats the alternative, doesn't it?"
Maybe it did at that. "Everybody okay?" he asked.
Josiah nodded. "Fine."
"Grant's testified… Dower was convicted."
"What about Vin?" he questioned, afraid Travis might have already fired the agent for removing Grant from protective custody.
Josiah smiled. "Other than worried about you, he's fine."
That put a surprised frown on Larabee's face. "But he took Grant."
"That he did, but Travis had already talked the prosecutor into going along with the idea, so he agreed to look the other way on Vin jumping the gun a little."
Thank God, Chris thought. Still, he hadn't sorted out exactly how he felt about the sniper's actions, but at least Vin would be around when he decided.
The blond yawned and Josiah suggested, "Get some more sleep. Doctor says it's the best medicine for you right now."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *
"What's taking so long?" JD asked as he and the others milled around in Chris' hospital room.
"Probably found some other test they ain't run on him 'n' decided t' try it out," Vin supplied. He was leaning back against the window, watching the others putter around, getting Chris' stuff packed up and ready to go.
Travis pushed the door open and stepped in to join them. He glanced around. "He isn't back yet?" he asked, surprised.
"Nope," Buck replied.
"How was he feeling?" the AD queried.
"I'm feeling much better, sir, thank you," Chris answered for himself as he was pushed into the room in his wheelchair.
Travis smiled. "Well, seems this last test took you longer than it took Mr. Tanner to take Andy Grant."
"I enjoy a good challenge," Vin returned.
"Yes, well, I think next time we should go through regular channels, with less at stake – like your life," Travis told the sniper.
"Didn't think we had that much time," Vin replied.
"For my information," Josiah said, "those grenades, they weren't all real, were they?"
"I was wondering the same thing," Chris added.
Vin's reply was a silent, one-shoulder shrug.
Ezra laughed. "A good poker player never tells you if he was bluffing."
"Well, I don't know about you," Buck said, "but I'm ready to get out of here."
"I'll go tell them that you're ready," Nathan said.
"I'll go get the Ram," Buck offered.
Seeing the look that passed between Chris and Vin, JD added, "I'll, uh, go with Buck – make sure he doesn't get lost."
"And we'll walk the AD to the elevator," Josiah said, reaching out to clap Ezra on the shoulder. The three men departed, leaving Chris and Vin alone.
Larabee looked up at the sniper. "Bluffing, huh?" he said, then added, "Why do I get the feeling I don't want to know the answer to that question?"
Vin smiled. "Well, Cowboy, I'll tell y', y' don't want t' know…"
Larabee scowled. "Thought I made it clear in the ambulance… don't call me 'cowboy.'"
Vin's grin grew wider. "Yep, heard y' the first time… Cowboy." He pushed off the window sill and grabbed the handles of Larabee's wheelchair. "C'mon, let's get the hell outta Dodge."
"Amen," Chris replied, grinning. And he was sure Sarah was watching, smiling as well.