Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em...damnit!
Thanks to Mog for ATF
Characters: Chris, JD, Vin
Ratings/Warnings: Some bad language
Summary:Team Seven in a life and death pursuit, but can they save their leader?
A story written to Celebrate Mike's birthday.
My thanks to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
White-knuckled hands gripped the wheel of the black, Federal, GMC Yukon truck as Buck took another highway bend on two wheels. In the front passenger seat, Vin's equally bloodless fingers held onto the dashboard while, in the two rows of seats behind, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra rode out the curves without complaint. Five grim faces stared forward and scrutinized the innocuous-looking white van burning rubber ahead of the truck. The vehicle pursuit was called in to dispatch, but the men were in no mood to wait for backup because, inside the van was their youngest agent, JD Dunne, and team leader, Chris Larabee.
"Watch it, Buck...the overpass..."
"I see it, Vin."
"If he takes a right they're headin' for open countryside..." Vin knew he was stating the obvious, but couldn't help himself. "Where the fuck is our backup? We need a spike strip!"
Buck slewed the truck to the right to avoid a heavy, bouncing, shattering object that was tossed their way from the sliding side doors of the van. Despite wearing seatbelts, the momentum threw his four companions hard to the side before the truck straightened up and regained its former speed. However, the van had made some serious ground on them.
"I'm speculating that the defunct packing case now littering the highway confirms there are, or were, weapons in that vehicle," Ezra put forward.
"I'm beginning to think this transaction was not about weapons changing hands," Josiah suggested, looking up from a folder resting in his lap.
"Care to explain?" Nathan asked before anyone else could. Any reply was interrupted by Buck's curse.
"Fuck! They've gone right."
"Josiah?" Nathan prompted on seeing Vin and Buck's features go dark.
The vehicle sped up before it eventually took a hard right, and Josiah steadied himself with a hand on the back of Buck's seat while he continued. "Remember when JD hacked, uh, accessed all of Tarrant's offshore transactions and he said 'this is almost too easy'."
"Indeed," Ezra answered.
"This man has eluded several agencies. His every movement is calculated and guarded. Until this planned bust, no one could pin him down on so much as a parking ticket. Yet suddenly, not only did we have details of his bank transactions, but were neatly guided to interactions with one of the largest gunrunners in the country. We went after Gus Levine, and not only was there no meeting, but..."
Another sharp bend had fingers grasping for handholds.
"...Someone succeeded in isolating Chris long enough to take him."
"Larabee said more than once that this felt off," Vin growled.
"HEY! Are y'all forgetting that they got JD, too?" Buck hollered out while almost losing the truck's sliding rear end on a now more twisting road.
"Of course we haven't forgotten, Buck," Ezra assured, "however what Josiah says makes alarmingly good sense, and I fear JD's involvement was merely an unlucky happenstance."
"O-o-h, well that's alright then," Buck fired back sarcastically.
"Easy, Bucklin," Vin said, softly while his mind reeled with the new information and the disturbing idea that Chris was a target all along.
"Mister Wilmington, under the circumstances, I will allow you that indiscretion, but be assured, that will be your final opportunity."
"Boys!" Josiah barked out. "This is not the time for falling out."
"Jeezus," Buck said, changing the subject. "Is that van filled with rocket fuel?"
Attention turned to the white van fast disappearing as it was expertly maneuvered around the winding bends. Buck was just beginning to fear they might lose it when the vehicle began to slow a little. "What the...?"
His heartbeat quickening, Vin put both hands on the dash and leaned forward. His eyes widened and with cries from the others ringing in his ears, he called out in horror.
"Oh no...God help us...NOOOOO!"
Chris Larabee was trussed up like a turkey and uncomfortably positioned on the floor of the fleeing van. He moved slightly to relieve the ache in his back from where the bench running along the side panels pressed hard against it, but wouldn't give the two goons, both armed and smirking, the pleasure of seeing his discomfort. His ribs pinched, and bruises and grazes on his face smarted. Blood dripped from a split to his right brow, producing a bright red stripe down his face, while drips running down his jaw dropped onto his neck and shirt. He'd put up a hell of a fight while being kidnapped.
Larabee couldn't come to terms with that truth. He lived on his nerves, wits, and instincts. Why hadn't he paid more attention to those nagging doubts dwelling in the pit of his gut? Even before JD declared his cyberpunking to be way too easy, Chris found their assignment going too smoothly for his liking. He'd pulled Ezra off undercover duties when detailed information of a meeting between Tarrant and Levine was acquired even before the undercover expert could formulate a plan.
While suspicious of his findings, JD had been his usual, meticulous self, and so was in no doubt the bank transactions he'd uncovered were legit, which now led the team seven leader to believe that, whatever went down this day had been planned for some months.
But for what purpose?
Chris looked across at JD, equally hog-tied, and after having his head smacked against the van's exterior when captured, was looking pretty dazed. He managed to reach out a foot and kick at JD's boot. The young agent groaned, causing the goons to chuckle. With dark bangs hiding his eyes, JD raised his head a little and when he caught Chris's eye, he winked. Chris bit back a grin. 'Sassy little shit'. The guys were teaching him well.
Both agents were surprised when, after a man in the front seat mumbled something, a goon dragged one of four packing cases from the very back of the van. Their astonishment grew when the side doors flew open and the man tossed the case out onto the road. Confused, JD glanced at Chris, but Larabee's heart was soaring. If these men needed to throw objects into the road, they were attempting to either dump evidence, or hinder someone...or both. Something inside told him the guys were close. He could almost hear Vin yelling 'hold on, Cowboy!' and could imagine Buck mumbling about how JD could find trouble in an empty room.
The van's speed increased, and the road became considerably more winding, tossing all in the back around like rag dolls in a box. Voices from the front turned from satisfied, to anxious, causing Chris to speculate. He figured the diversion hadn't worked, and his conjecture was confirmed when the van door opened again. JD looked up and received a backhand across his face for the effort.
"Hey, meathead, keep your hands to yourself," Chris warned.
"Or what?" The goon goaded.
"I'm fine, Chris," JD said hastily, despite tasting blood. The last thing he wanted was to have the men set on Chris again. He groaned when he received another smack.
"Shut up. You're just an extra, it was Larabee we wanted."
The next utterance from the front caused Chris's heart to constrict, and JD's eyes to go impossibly wide. The goon smiled at the order.
"Good point, Lou, that'd sure slow 'em down, some." He transferred his gun to his companion's free hand and with both his own hands, hauled JD to his feet and toward the door.
JD dug in his heels. "NO!"
Chris's mouth was dry, but he managed to speak. "Get your fucking hands off my agent!"
His green eyes glared in a mixture of horror and fury as the second goon raised one of the guns; his intention to shoot JD as they tossed him out of the moving vehicle, painfully clear. With the hope of somehow knocking the bullet away from its intended target, Chris was on his feet in a flash and he threw his trussed body at the shooter.
Despite his own panic, the gunshot caused JD to glance back over his shoulder. "CHRIS!"
Moments later JD knew how it felt to fly.
Buck barely saw the small body ejected from the van before he slammed his foot on the pedals. He wrestled with the wheel to stop the truck before it hit the tumbling youth, and finally slid sideways to a tire-squealing stop as JD's body disappeared below his eye line. He held the wheel in a death-grip, unable to move as the image of JD bloody and broken bouncing underneath them tormented him. A rush of air, and the sound of doors opening, jolted Buck out of his trance. He punched the seatbelt clip and shot out of the driver's door almost as fast as JD had exited the van, easily overtaking Josiah and Nathan, and arriving seconds behind Vin.
Tanner squatted down next to the curled up body, but it was Buck's trembling hands that reached out to touch JD's curved back. The brunet was sure he would feel blood and broken bones, so jolted when JD's body jerked at his touch.
JD groaned, and Nathan was suddenly there. "Let me see, Buck." As he turned JD slightly, a vision of red was the first view they got.
Vin saw blood and hastily stood. He walked a little way forward, his gaze never moving from the disappearing van. He closed his eyes in dismay. On opening them, the sharpshooter stalked over to the truck and grabbed the radio handset.
"Dispatch! This is Tanner, Team Seven. Where's our fuckin' back up!?"
>> "Dispatch. Three units are en route to your location, and four are heading to an alternative intersection with the intention of intercepting the target vehicle." <<
While grateful for Federal vehicles with GPS tracking for dispatch to keep trace of police units, the fact they'd failed to intercept the van before it left urban limits, and that JD was possibly seriously injured as a result...Vin couldn't bear to think about how Chris was faring...pushed him to the edge. He started punching and kicking the truck's bodywork. A hand on his shoulder grounded him.
"Vin, we need to get JD into the truck."
Tanner blinked and he was back in control. "He's okay?"
Ezra made a face. "Not okay, but he's alive, and coherent."
Even though JD curled into a ball the moment he left the van, he'd hit the ground hard and then bounced for what seemed like hours. He knew his injuries would be bad, but the fact that he could hear Nathan talking to him rallied the youth more than he believed possible.
"Aaahh, oww, please, don't touch me." JD felt sick and really didn't want to throw up with the guys watching.
"I need to examine you," Nathan said a little harsher than he meant. All he could see was a vision of red, and he feared it was bad. He threw a grateful glance to Buck when he intervened.
"Come on, Kid, we need to see how much road you damaged." Buck couldn't believe he could muster a joke, but it had the desired effect. JD uncurled to reveal a scalp wound, which explained much of the blood, and a large amount of abrasions and bruising, even for JD.
Nathan's skilled hands worked quickly, but diligently, and it took a minute or so, but he soon declared JD break-free except for his left arm. However, he warned instantly that the resulting damage would need urgent attention and no doubt several weeks to heal. With a nod to Buck and Josiah, the former of the pair having a vise-like grip on the boy, the EMT prepared to get JD to his feet.
"We need to get you to the hospital," Nathan advised. As he spoke, Ezra and Vin joined them.
"JD, now don't be doing your 'I'm fine', routine..." Buck started.
"No," JD puffed, as his aching ribs hindered his breathing. "No...time..."
Finally on his feet, JD's trembling right hand grabbed Vin's arm. "Chris..."
Tanner swallowed the emotion clogging his throat." I know, but they're too far ahead..."
"...Think I know...where they're...going." He coughed. "Chris..." JD tried to take a deeper breath, and grimaced for his trouble. To the backdrop of approaching sirens, he tried one more time before his knees buckled.
Raised voices echoed around him, but as he lay on the floor of the van, Chris's focus was on the searing pain that was trying to make him vomit. Without his vest, he was unprotected from the bullet fired at JD, and which cut through him when he tried to divert the gunshot; and though he instinctively wanted to plug the hole it caused, he couldn't raise even a finger, let alone a hand. His mind ordered him to listen to the melding voices, while also battling against itself to insist he move. However, rough hands ensured the latter took place and he was hauled upright and pulled back into his original, seated position.
Chris couldn't stop the teeth-clenched groan as pressure was applied to both the back and front of his body just under his right arm, and it was then it occurred to him that the bullet went straight through. He focused the pain to sharpen his senses and succeeded in determining what the voices were saying.
"Boss wants him alive."
"He's not going to die. It's only a half-hour flight."
The word 'flight' somehow brought JD back to Chris's mind and that moment when JD sailed out through the van's door. There was no way he could have survived...was there? The image rallied Chris and a murderous, green glare focused on the men trying to plug his wound.
"You'd best let me die 'cause, for what you did to that kid - if I get through this - you sure as hell won't."
One goon laughed. "Big words for a man hog-tied, and with a gunshot wound."
"I've been shot before," Chris growled out, his voice low, "and I'm still here." He enjoyed seeing both men pale a little, but lost momentum when they pressed into his wound and caused him to screw up his face in pain.
The pain subsided a little when the van took a sharp left and began climbing, causing the gunmen to stumble.
"Hey, Lou. Whatchit!"
"There were cops ahead with a spike-strip. What should I have done? Drive up to 'em, get out, and shake hands?"
"Did they see you?"
There was a huff. "Give me some credit, Gil. I'll just have to take the scenic route."
"We'll be late," the second gunman reminded.
"But we'll get there, Floyd," Lou barked. He spoke to the man in the seat next to him. "Call ahead, Cob, and tell the pilot we're running late."
With a nod, the fourth hoodlum did as asked. He turned to Lou. "They want to know our ETA?"
The man pondered a second or two. "We're going to add at least a half-hour..."
Chris listened, but the bandaging of his wound was making him light-headed. He could see the watch on Gil's wrist. If Lou's estimation was right, and unless the guys caught up with them soon, within three hours of he and JD being snatched - he'd be airborne, and heading to God knows where.
A prone JD was settled on the Yukon's central seats with Nathan attending, but the EMT was not happy. "You need hospital attention..."
"No..." JD attempted a smile. "Soon, I promise, but we gotta go now."
Vin watched Buck climb into the back seats with Josiah, so he jumped into the driver's seat. He looked back, and down at JD. "Where we goin', Kid?"
JD licked his lips, and while Nathan searched for some water, the boy looked up and replied. "I faked being out of it...was nearer to the driver than Chris." He coughed. "Heard him say they're heading for Steamboat Springs Airport...there's a Cessna, or...an Encore? Not sure which...waiting."
"Cessna has a Citation range," Josiah told the others, while patting JD's arm for reassurance. "Likely it's a Citation Encore, a favorite private jet."
JD nodded and his eyes closed for a few moments. When they opened, they filled. "I don't know why they're taking him there...I'm sorry." He could see Buck lean over and gently squeeze his wrist; however it was Vin's clasp to his unstrapped arm that caused JD's bandaged head to turn.
The Texan offered a tight smile. "You did real good." He looked at the others. "I know a short cut up through the mountains." Ezra climbed in next to him and Vin nodded toward the radio.
"Inform dispatch of the new headin', and call Steamboat Springs and inform the F.A.M. to locate and observe..."
"Drive, Vin, I'm on it," Ezra ensured, and with the radio already in his hand.
"Buckle up!" Vin hollered, and seconds later their vehicle was screaming down the highway after Chris.
Buck looked toward the front of the truck as part of him wanted to be up there heading the charge to recover his long-time friend; but right then, a bigger part of him kept him anchored to JD. When the time came for action, he'd be ready, but right now JD needed to stay grounded until they could get him, and Chris, medical help.
JD's eyelids flickered open and he looked up at Buck.
Figuring Nathan would want JD to remain conscious; Buck smiled at the head bandaged, sweat-soaked youth. "Can you tell us what happened during the bust?"
The brunet felt a supportive squeeze from Josiah who was sitting next to him. Nathan nodded and smiled approvingly, and Buck could also see that, despite Vin's concentration, he and Ezra were also eager to know what happened.
"Sure," JD replied.
Nathan propped the prone boy's head and chest up a little with volunteered jackets, and they all waited for JD to start. When he did, Vin floored the vehicle. 'Hold on, Cowboy!'
ONE HOUR AND FORTY-FIVE MINUTES EARLIER
At a distant vantage point from their target warehouse, Chris climbed out of the driver's seat and joined Vin, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah at the open back of the Yukon. They were already wearing their vests and various preferred armory, all they needed now were mics and earpieces from JD. In the parked up surveillance van, JD clambered from the front seats into the back of the vehicle, while Buck jumped out and joined the others. He glanced at the warehouse.
"Looks pretty quiet."
Vin nodded absently, as he too stared at the building. "Too quiet."
Ezra lowered a pair of field glasses. "There are vehicles on site." He pointed and passed the glasses to Chris who took a good look. He smiled, briefly.
Josiah frowned and looked at his team leader. "Despite all the Intel, we really have no guarantee that Gus Levine will come here in person."
Still holding the glasses to his eyes, Chris stared at Tarrant before he lowered them and answered the profiler. "Reid Tarrant will still be a good arrest." He glanced at Vin at the exact moment Vin looked his way. The piercing, ice blue stare reflected exactly what was in Chris's mind. 'Good, but not what we came here for.'
"Okay, you have your positions, get your equipment from JD and get going."
Buck raised an eyebrow. "You're not coming?"
Larabee offered a crooked smile. "Of course, but I need active, technical backup."
"At the risk of sounding obtuse, isn't that why JD's here?" Ezra asked.
Chris moved toward the surveillance van's sliding door. "Yup. Now get your gear." He slid back the door and chuckled as he heard Buck mumbling.
'Man, I hate when he does that."
With a push from his feet, JD's chair glided across the van's floor and turned when the door slid back. In his lap was a box of zip-lock bags containing audio gear and as each of his teammates approached, he unzipped the corresponding bag and handed over the equipment. Chris was last.
"Sound check in five, guys."
Chris wasn't surprised to see JD already had his headgear on. He glanced around to check his team was kitted up, before looking at JD. "We'll do it now. Guys - go!"
JD was about to question the decision, but thought better of it, and simply nodded. Due to the men's proximity, as they walked away JD turned his back on them and flicked a switch for each whispered test, and was rewarded by a rude noise from Buck, and a birdcall from Vin, as well as the correct responses from the others. The young tech turned around when Chris spoke.
"Set the equipment to auto, grab the camera, and come with me." He caught a grin as he watched JD's Jaw drop.
"Huh?" Even as he spoke, Chris's words sank in and the youth scrambled to his feet. "Uh, sure thing, Bossman."
The chair shot back and JD tried to put a lid on his excitement as he crouched down to open the safe, remove a small digital camcorder, and re-lock the door. He turned and with a dazzling grin, held it up triumphantly.
Chris turned away. "Follow me." He finally released a smile as he walked toward the warehouse. Man, was he ever that enthusiastic? A high-pitched 'blip' heralded the van doors being locked, and he fully expected JD to come bounding up behind him any moment, so Chris was surprised when he heard JD talking softly before finally catching up.
"The guys report they're in position."
The team leader was impressed, and also a little frustrated with himself for forgetting how JD was everything a kid of his age should be, and more, yet was also becoming a true professional, and all this while maintaining a degree of youthful innocence.
"Thanks, Kid." He pointed. "The schematics show an area toward the back and an elevated position where you can get a good overview of the interior." He turned to see JD had pulled his iPhone out and called up the warehouse plans.
Chris nodded. "Yeah. I'll come up with you, and once I'm satisfied with your position, I'll join the others."
Close to the building, the pair cautiously crossed a small courtyard and went flat to the warehouse walls. They edged their way toward a small back door and after opening it, peeked inside. Seeing it clear, Chris led them inside and allowed a few moments for their eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior. They both looked up to the metal platform at the same time, and nodded at each other. Keeping close to the back wall, and ducking behind the odd pile of cases and wooden stacking platforms, they made their way toward the stairway.
JD had begun recording the moment they got inside the building. He and Chris turned sharply when a gruff voice spoke from behind them.
"Stop, disarm slowly, and place your hands on your heads."
Chris simply glared at the six men standing behind them. JD inadvertently recorded the encounter when he turned, and while distant and heavy gunshots sent Chris into fight mode, the young tech had just enough time to fold up, and slip the camera into his back jean's pocket before he was tackled to the floor by a mountain of a man.
Chris waited for his moment, and although distant gunfire would not have been his chosen mode of distraction, he took his opportunity nevertheless. The team leader was slight of build, but every inch of him was toned and his physique belied the raw intensity bubbling within. In one bound, he took out one man with a sharp, sideways kick, before head butting the next man. The clash of heads split his brow, but undeterred, Larabee went for a third goon, but before he could, the remaining adversaries kidney punched him to the floor and then kicked and struck out at the downed agent, despite having the advantage of several guns on him.
JD somehow shoved the big man off him and despite a pinch to his ribs, neatly bounced to his feet. His martial arts training came to the fore and for a while, Vin would have been proud - until someone grabbed JD's shirt collar, spun him around, and dumped him face first onto the concrete. He was then unceremoniously dragged along the rough cement by his feet until he was lying next to another prone body. Groggily he looked across to see Chris lying on his back, bleeding heavily from a head wound, and staring back at him. He didn't miss the guns aimed at their heads, either, or the fact that a gun battle was still going strong somewhere ahead of them.
Larabee's stare intensified and a sneer adorned his handsome face when one man stepped forward. "Tarrant. Is this your set-up? No, wait, you're a yellow-bellied sonofabitch, this is Levine's planning, right? Aaarrggh."
Tarrant stamped down hard on Chris's knee. "Either way, you're my bitch now, Larabee." He glanced across at JD and smiled. "And I get two for the price of one."
Chris wanted to shout out and protect his youngest agent, but feared it would just make things worse for JD. "Says you; he's just a tech."
Tarrant gestured and the two agents were painfully hauled to their feet. The gunrunner came right up into the blond's face. "Nice try, but every crook within your jurisdiction, and beyond knows that the mighty Chris Larabee only runs with the best."
He jerked his head, and his goons bound Chris and JD's hands behind their backs before relieving them of all armory and communication equipment. The pair were then frog-marched out through the narrow doorway. The constant gunfire made it impossible to call out to the rest of the team - they would never hear - and Chris limped away while unable to stem the wave of emotion assaulting him as he feared for the lives of his teammates - friends - brothers.
The blond squinted when sunlight flooded his face, and opened them just in time to see JD struggling with a big guy who, with another man, seemed to enjoy almost running the bound youth toward a waiting white van. JD said something, Chris couldn't quite catch what; but his fury and helplessness intensified when he watched the goons hurry toward the van and smack JD's head hard against its side panels. JD was dazed, but not out. However, Chris had no time to protest because he too was now being bundled inside the van.
The men dumped JD on the floor, near the back of the driver's seat, while Chris had his feet kicked from under him to land hard on his butt on the unforgiving van floor. He winced slightly when a wooden bench running along the van's side cut into his back; but all pain momentarily subsided when he saw two armed men close the van door to ride with them when the van tore off, leaving Team Seven, and the surveillance van far behind.
An exhausted JD finished his recall, and noticed the truck was quiet.
Vin's voice broke the silence. "Should've known."
"What?" Nathan asked.
"All that gunfire and no injuries...it was just meant to pin us down, is all."
Ezra nodded. "That would appear feasible."
"Yet we still have no idea who took Chris, and why," Josiah stated.
Buck looked down at JD, anxious he might be troubled by the focus on Chris being taken, even though he was, too. Somehow knowing what was on Buck's mind; JD smiled, weakly, and spoke softly.
"I don't know why, but it was definitely Chris they wanted." He grimaced at a spike of pain. "That's why I got tossed out of the van - I was just...extra."
The engine's roar seemed loud in the resulting quiet. Vin was already taking the trail he knew of, unaware that it was one that joined up with the route the thugs took.
"But it's okay," JD continued. "If they hadn't done that, you guys might never have known where they were going." He couldn't see the admiration in his teammates' eyes due to concentrating on controlling his pain, and trying not to worry why the truck's interior, and the guys' faces weren't so clear right now.
"By the way, could someone get this camera out of my back pocket? It's hurting my butt."
Pain and blood loss were threatening to take Chris out of this nightmare, if only through unconsciousness, but the blond was having none of it, and kept his focus by attempting to loosen the bonds on his wrists. Confident the goons didn't see him as a threat right now, Chris observed them for some time and could see an opportunity emerging. Blood made the ropes on his wrists slick and he did a mental 'whoop' when one hand slipped free.
Chris couldn't see much of their route from his position, but he did know they were heading up, and that it was toward an airfield. Determined to stop them from reaching this destination, Chris waited patiently. Knowing whatever he did would need to be fast, his green eyes took in every minute detail, until all at once his moment came.
Empowered by sheer guts, and the determination to get some distance between himself and his captors, Larabee leaped to his feet when the two goons guarding him lapsed in concentration. With rope dangling from his right wrist, he clasped his hands together and took one guy out with a hard, two-fisted slam to his face. Simultaneously Chris kicked out at the other man with the intention of disarming him, but the impact forced the cocked gun in his hand to go off.
In the driver's seat, Lou cried out and slumped forward over the wheel. a shocked Cob reached across from the front passenger seat. He shoved the dead man across, and wrestled desperately to keep the van on the road, tossing Chris and the second goon mercilessly around in the back as the vehicle skewed left and right. Just as Chris slammed into the unforgiving door panels, Cob raised an arm in front of his face and screamed out. In that moment, the van sailed over the edge of the mountain road, and flipped in mid air, tossing all inside like laundry in a drier. With a sickening crunch of buckling metal, the van landed on its roof and slid a little further down the grassy incline until coming to a stop against a tree.
Coming around to find a weight pinning him down was disconcerting to say the least. However, once Chris realized it was one of his unconscious captors, he centered his efforts on shifting the lump, while silently astonished that JD actually managed to get back up after this hefty guy tackled him to the ground in the warehouse. Once free, Chris lay on his back for a moment to catch his breath. While there, he mentally tallied his aches, and took in his surroundings.
Nothing or no one was moving, and Chris quickly worked out that, unless he had two broken legs, he needed to get going before these fellas woke up. He knew this would hurt, but even as the thought crossed his mind, Chris sat up. His face screwed up in agony and he rode out the pain, while trying not to cry out. By the time he struggled into a squatting position, Chris was dizzy, and hurt pretty much everywhere; however, his biggest shock came when the knee Tarrant had stomped on buckled underneath him.
The blond panted through the waves of pain. In a while, he held the arm of his crudely bandaged shoulder close to his body, and used his good arm and good knee to propel himself on his butt across what was once the van's roof. The luck of his survival stayed with him when he saw the sliding door had been buckled in the plummet, causing it to pop open enough for his slim form to squeeze through. However, it was not altogether a painless maneuver, as twisted metal snagged his shirt and punctured the skin beneath, not to mention him having to get to his feet in the first place.
The force of the final push through caused Chris to land face down in the grass outside. For a moment or two, he considered staying put, but soon the Larabee grit kicked in and he forced himself to roll over and sit up. Chris gently shook his head with incredulity when he realized that even his butt hurt. By means of a massive effort, the hand of his good arm curled around the van's wheel arch and once again, he hauled himself upright, but then he needed a minute while his quaking body bore the pain that followed the exertion. Once his head cleared, Chris took in his new location. It was a short but tough climb back up to the road; nevertheless, it needed to be done. With a grunt, he pushed away from the safety of the van and while favoring his injured side, limped toward an upward trail that offered him saplings and roots to use as handholds. A dryness in his throat caused Chris to cough.
'Man I could use a drink.'
After only ten or so minutes, Chris was struggling. Blood from his gunshot wound was seeping through the makeshift bandages and now he regretted not ripping off a shirt or two from the unconscious men back in the van before setting off. Blinking away sweat from his eyes, he looked up at the undulating, crushed trail that the tumbling van had left in its wake and groaned, inwardly. Chris knew he had to keep going, but his strength ebbed with every drop of blood spilled and the pitching and rolling of the landscape made him painfully aware of how dizzy and dehydrated he was.
Chris swiped a hand over his glistening face and prepared to make another upward surge when his foot was grabbed, bringing him down face first. His wound hitting the ground hard and his injured knee taking full impact caused him to scream out in pain, but he had no time to recover as rough hands spun him around onto his back. His eyes opened to see Gil and Floyd, both battered and bloody, but armed and standing over him. Gil grabbed at Chris's shirtfront.
"Going somewhere, Fed?" Ignoring the cry of agony when Chris was hauled upright, Gil got right into the wilting man's face.
"You killed Lou and Cob, and you'll pay for that, but first, we've got somewhere to be. You might've made us late, but we don't plan on missing the appointment. Mister Levine is expecting you, and he doesn't like to be stood up."
Bleary, green eyes tried to focus on the men he thought he'd outwitted. "Levine?" Chris croaked. "What does that asshole want with me?"
He grimaced and stumbled when Gil urged him to walk forward.
Gil and Floyd exchanged looks and then shrugged. What the hell. Fella was as good as dead, anyway. The former spoke. "You may not be the only Fed team, but you're the one team whose name causes unease among syndicates from all over the US."
Floyd continued. "You lead that team, and your name especially comes up way too often. The boss wants to expand, and reckons taking you out will give him the power, respect, and support to do so."
Chris huffed and couldn't resist a smug reply. "You couldn't be more wrong. Yeah, I lead a team, but with or without me, they'll go on, and be stronger than ever. Your boss is deluded if he thinks taking me out will make life easier for him and the other pond scum out there."
Air whooshed out of Chris's mouth and nose as a punch to his gut winded him. Unable to straighten, he fought the inky blackness threatening to take his sight and senses, and painfully gulped in air. Gil leaned in.
"The team may go on, but they'll be two down." The man sneered. "I watched that kid bounce off the blacktop after he left the van. His head split open like a smashed melon."
Chris gritted his bared teeth as he fought against the pain from his numerous injuries. His green eyes flashed with grief, and fury. "And for that..." he spat out, "...before anything happens to me, and after I've sliced it off with whatever blunt instrument I can lay my hands on, I'm gonna enjoy taking your fat head and stuffing it up your own ass."
Gil laughed, but there was an element of nervousness about it. He yanked Chris upright and he and Floyd started dragging him along a different route to which Chris was originally taking.
The signpost stating the distance to the airport told the agents in the Federal truck that they'd made good ground, and now needed to keep a sharp lookout ahead for the van. Lou had been wrong. A trooper did see the van turn off, and while cops kept an eye on the plane ready to depart, several squad cars were now following the main route to the airport in the hope of heading off Chris's kidnappers. With the team knowing Chris was shot, and JD also needing medical attention, a Flight for Life chopper was already at the airport and standing by for instructions.
Inside the truck, tension was high as all that could be done was for Vin to skillfully tear along a little-used country road barely wide enough for two vehicles, while his companions were jostled left and right. In the back, and although staring through the windscreen like the rest of the guys, Buck was still leaning over the back of the middle seats. His one hand was holding up the bag of a field I.V. that Nathan had set up; while his other clasped the hand the I.V. needle was embedded into.
His focus was jolted away from facing front when he felt the grip of the hand in his, weakening. Buck looked down at the kid he considered family and forced a smile to hide his concern.
"Hey." He waited for the pale, battered, sweat-drenched youth to look up at him.
"Wouldn't be falling asleep on me now, would you?"
"Nah..." JD noted Buck's eyebrow rise and he smiled, weakly. "Trying not to."
JD was aware that Nathan was checking him over, but a quiet 'damn' from the team EMT drew his gaze down to where his legs rested on Nathan's lap. He heard Buck's anxious voice.
Jackson had once again lifted JD's tattered shirt up to press the bruised belly. He saw the youth hiss and wince several times. "On a pain scale of one to ten, JD."
JD swallowed, took a shaky breath and looked apologetically at Buck. "Eight to...nine."
Tanner looked in the rearview mirror and just beat the others to the question. "What is it?"
Nathan glanced at Buck before answering. "Some distension of the stomach."
There was a pause before Buck reacted at JD. "You're in that much pain? Why didn't you say something?"
JD looked up at a horrified Buck and his eyes misted over. "You knew I was in pain, why would I keep on about it? 'Sides, you guys have enough to worry about. I'm fine, really. We gotta focus on finding Chris..."
Vin's tone was one that no wise person ignored and JD rolled his head toward the driver's seat. "Yeah?"
"What you've done is...real gutsy, Kid, and gave us a fightin' chance of findin' Chris, but you don't get to do that to us. We're a team, we work as one, or we don't function."
JD couldn't speak for the emotion choking him. Finally he squeaked out a pitiful 'Sorry'.
Vin felt guilty that he made JD feel bad, and was struggling for the right words. Fearing JD would take that the wrong way, his liquid eyes glanced to Ezra for help.
Standish smiled down at JD. "What Mister Tanner is trying to say is that no one on this team is considered expendable, and you would do well to remember that." All but Vin was looking at JD, and no one missed the boy's pallor go more gray.
JD's tired gaze scanned the group. His next words confused them, but prompted instant replies. "Guys, promise me each one of you will keep looking for Chris."
"You know it."
"You have our word."
JD squeezed Buck's hand. "Buck? Promise me."
JD wiggled his hand free of Buck's and raised his little finger. "Pinky swear, Bro."
With his own eyes shimmering, Buck's little finger linked around JD's. "I swear. We're gonna put this team back together, Kid, you'll see."
JD smiled and visibly relaxed. He started to giggle.
Buck tilted his head in confusion. "What's so funny?"
Pain caused tears to squeeze from the corners of the prone boy's eyes as his uncontrollable giggles turned to laughter. JD waggled the sock-covered toes of his left foot. "When I got tossed from the van...I lost a sneaker. They cost me a hundred and forty bucks."
Buck didn't know why, but he chuckled softly, as did the others, but the brunet's grin disappeared when he watched JD's eyelids flicker, his eyes close, and his body and face go slack.
Buck's anguished holler startled Vin and he almost went off the road. "Bucklin!"
He saw Ezra reach for the radio, and his stomach flipped. "What?"
Standish gave him an anxious glance before speaking into the radio and asking for the Flight for Life chopper to meet up with them urgently.
"I can't rouse him." Nathan said. "JD's given all he can, and needs to go to the hospital, now."
Buck shook his head. "I'm not leaving him."
"Buck you made a promise to JD, we all did," Josiah reminded. "Our word was so important to him, that he wouldn't let go until he got it."
Buck was in hell and once again took up JD's hand and squeezed. Two friends in need, and he wanted to be there for both. How could he not be there for Chris, a man he'd considered a brother for years? Or for JD, the boy he practically adopted the moment they met. The vehicle's occupants were jostled when Vin unexpectedly skidded the truck to a halt and jumped out. Buck looked up sharply and watched the Texan pacing around outside; moments later, Vin disappeared over the embankment.
The sound of distant rotor wash overhead got louder. Nathan took control and shouted over the noise to the astonished men still looking to where Vin vanished. "Go after him! I'll stay with JD until he's aboard the helicopter."
Ezra and Josiah snapped out of their bewilderment and exited the vehicle. Buck looked down at JD. He shuffled his position to lean over the seat and touch his head to the boy's sweaty brow, and then with a pat to Nathan, headed after the others.
Nathan got out of the truck and as he looked up at the hovering chopper, he shielded his eyes from the late afternoon sun and the dust being blown around him. In seconds, a man holding a casualty basket was being lowered on a safety line. Once he was down, Nathan filled the doctor in, and between them, they prepared JD for transport.
"Do you need me to go with you?" Nathan asked. It went against what he promised JD, but this was Nathan Jackson, EMT, talking, and his priority was his patient.
The doctor was now fully strapped in and holding onto the basket containing a swaddled and unconscious JD, and which was also attached to the line. He shook his head.
"It'll be too tight up there. We'll be taking him to Yampa Valley Medical Center. It has a grade four ED."
Nathan nodded and shook the man's gloved hand. He leaned in to JD, but due to the hovering helicopter, his words of encouragement could not be conveyed privately.
"You hang tough. We'll all be with you soon, Kid, including Chris."
The doctor raised one thumb as he spoke into his radio. Moments later, he and the basket were rising with an unavoidable spin due to the overhead downdraft. The moment Nathan saw JD going into the chopper; he grabbed his medical bag, locked the truck, checked his gun, and headed down over the banking.
While driving, Vin's shoulders ached and his head throbbed from the concentration of keeping the speeding truck on the narrow mountain road, and his grim determination to catch up with Larabee's kidnappers. He had already been furious about the whole business, but when JD bounced out of that van, it took his building trepidation to a whole new level. Lord knows how, but JD survived the callous attack, and brought with him a direction to go, if not a reason for Chris's abduction. But the kid needed help, and Vin's anxiety was through the roof at the vulnerability he was experiencing. He wasn't used to feeling this way.
When JD's condition reached crisis point, it caused Vin to instinctively slow down, and he would never know if it helped, but during that action his attention was directed to something at the roadside just ahead of them. His senses on alert, and his focus absolute, Tanner leaped out of the truck and jogged toward the disturbed ground at the edge of the embankment. His gaze followed the line of tire marks in the dirt and grass and without a second thought, he took off down the incline and half ran, half bounced on his butt toward the battered white van that he'd spotted resting on its roof in the grass below.
"Larabee! Chris! CHRIS!!"
Reaching the van, Vin hurried around to the shattered windshield and ducked left and right to see inside. The two men in the front were clearly dead, but what about the back? It was too dark to see inside so the Texan moved around to the side door. The buckled metal was jagged in places, so for that, and to preserve evidence, he took off his top shirt and used it to pull the door open wider.
Vin's heart sank when he found the interior empty. His eyes scanned the buckled roof, and moved along the walls to what was once the van's floor. His blue eyes flashed at the sight of the bloodstains.
'Damnit! Where are you, buddy?'
Voices drew his attention to the area surrounding the van. He turned to see his teammates gathered around him.
"Vin?" Buck was all business, now.
Vin shook his head. "He's not here." His eyes raked the ground close to the van door and soon he was following a trail. "Chris fell here...got to his feet...went this way." He frowned. "He's limpin'."
They all turned and reached for their guns on hearing rustling, and relaxed when Nathan joined them.
"JD?" Buck asked.
"Safely away and heading to Yampa Valley Medical Center." He tried to smile. "He's in good hands."
The mood changed from compassion to determination. "Let's find Chris," Buck stated. Rotor wash cut into the stillness and the men looked up.
"Why is the Flight for Life chopper returning?" There was an element of alarm in Buck's question.
Vin's head was turning left and right as he listened. He, Josiah, and Ezra came to the same conclusion together. "It's a different helicopter."
Vin did a quick study of the ground and led the charge. "This way. Let's go!"
Chris was never going to help these men, and the fact that he had very little strength left made the task of being awkward a lot easier. Unfortunately, the two goons were having none of it and with a clamped grip underneath Chris's arms, they half-dragged, half-carried the blond through the woods, neither caring about his wounds, or the stray thicket ripping at his shins. Chris's chin rested on his chest as his head drooped forward. His struggle had been a valiant one, but now he was spent. Blood loss had finally beaten him, adding to the pain spiking throughout his body with every movement.
A helicopter overhead got him looking around, but his captors appeared uninterested, and after a long time hovering, it flew off. He was wondering where they were going, and if he could stay awake long enough to find out, when the helicopter returned.
He quickly realized this chopper sounded different - lighter, and his suspicions were soon founded when Gil and Floyd picked up their pace. Chris rallied and dug his feet into the unyielding ground.
"No!" Chris couldn't stop the cry out when Gil put pressure directly on his gunshot wound.
"We were told that if we failed to make the airport deadline, we'd switch to plan B; so if your guys have our plane grounded, it won't matter, we're going to meet up with Mister Levine, and nothing or no one can stop us."
All of Team Seven's members were fit, and this was the sprint of their lives. They ran one behind the other. Vin and Buck lead the way and were already well ahead as their hands and arms thrashed left and right to clear a path through the dense undergrowth. The hum of rotor wash was close - too darned close - suggesting that the chopper was either down, about to land, or on the verge of taking off. They couldn't let that happen. Once Chris was on board and in the air, he'd be lost to them. Just ahead, through the trees and brush, there was a clearing where they could see a man clambering onto an already rising helicopter. Pace for pace with each other, Buck and Vin ran full stretch and jumped.
Struggling to stay conscious, Chris screamed out in agony when Floyd leaped up into a descending chopper, turned, and yanked Chris in by his arms while Gil got his shoulder under Chris's butt and pushed. Larabee instinctively kicked back, receiving a blow to his jaw for his trouble, but he did succeed in sending Gil into reverse and toppling backwards. Simultaneously, Floyd had hollered for the pilot to ascend, creating mayhem as Gil scrambled to his feet and was forced to cling to the rising lower main frame of the cabin until Floyd could haul him aboard.
With Gil at last inside the cabin there was a sudden jolt to the helicopter. He turned to see two agents, and each man was clinging to a landing skid, one on either side of the cabin. They were struggling to draw their weapons at the same time as holding on, so Gil took his opportunity. Stretching one leg outside the open doors, he kicked out at Vin. Tanner took several blows to the face and shoulders, but he hung on. However, a firm blow to the center of his chest was a hit too many and one hand lost its grip, leaving the Texan dangling in mid-air.
In spite of his deteriorating condition, from his prone position on the floor of the open, sparsely furnished cabin, Chris could see Vin's battle. He was too far over to help out and cursed himself for being too weak to move. From the other side, Floyd fired at Buck, and then mirrored Gil to begin stomping on Buck's bloodless fingers. The enraged team leader was close enough to help this time, and drawing on a pocket of reserve strength, he raised a leg, placed his boot against Floyd's butt and with an agonized grunt, pushed. Chris heard a yelp just as he passed out from the effort, and so missed the reward for his hard work when Floyd went ass over teakettle through the doorway and gravity took his spiraling form toward the retreating ground.
Clinging on for dear life after his leap off the ground, and with his long legs dangling freely, Buck hauled himself up until he could wrap his arms around the skid. He attempted to draw his gun without having to let go, and ducked just in time when Floyd fired at him. Buck gritted his teeth as a hefty boot stomped down on his numbing fingers, however, just as he feared he would be unable to hold on, the goon above him hollered out and went sailing over Buck's head and downwards. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the brunet got his gun into a firing position and directed it at the cockpit. The pilot looked back just as Buck took aim.
"Set us down!"
Vin swung precariously in the rotor's downdraft as his searching hand tried to retrieve its grip on the landing skid. A few seconds more and the chopper would be clear to turn and fly off, and that truth had the sharpshooter triple his efforts. He focused on pulling himself within grabbing distance of the skid, and his entire body quaked, and sweat from the effort as several times his fingertips teasingly brushed the metal. Vin screamed out his determination and moments later he regained his hold. Back in control, Tanner swung his legs up and around the skid, and could see Gil leaning over in an attempt to locate him. He got a hand on the edge of the cabin's lower frame and stretched up with the other.
A surprised Gil had no time to react as Vin's grip on his ankle took his foot from underneath him. The goon crashed down hard on the small of his back, and lay half out of the chopper. The extra weight caused the craft to dip to one side and as Gil slipped Vin took the opportunity to drag the sliding body fully out to send Gil tumbling toward the ground.
After taking a moment to catch his breath, Tanner struggled to haul himself upright, and once he had both hands on the cabin's frame, his forearms took the strain. He was just scrambling in through the door when Buck yelled out the landing order.
Regardless of wanting to go to Chris, the priority was to land safely, so Vin stood, leaned over into the cockpit area and pointed his own gun in the pilot's face. "What he said, and set down at Steamboat Springs airport. GO!"
Vin considered heading for the nearest hospital, but with them being close to the airport, he figured having cops, and trained paramedics to hand might be the safest way to go.
With his focus on keeping the gun barrel at the nape of the pilot's neck, Vin stood astride Chris's prone body, leaned over to the side where Buck was clinging, and reached out his free hand. Buck slammed his own hand into Vin's, and in a combined effort, Buck was eventually pulled into the cabin. He squatted down next to Chris.
"How is he?" Vin asked.
Buck looked up at the Texan. "Unconscious, and bleeding. This gunshot wound looks infected, too." Buck's hand reached out and tenderly touched Chris's face. "Hey, Stud, you with us, Buddy?"
Larabee moaned, softly, but didn't wake. Buck could see the anguish in Vin's eyes and stood. He gestured for him to move. "I got this, Vin. Go to Chris."
The sharpshooter's welling blue gaze radiated gratitude, but Vin didn't move until Buck's gun was positioned in place of his. The brunet watched Vin go to Chris and his simmering anger flared as the reality of what Chris and JD had been through fueled his fury. He leaned in to the pilot and lifted one of his earphones.
"I can fly one of these birds," he fibbed, "so I won't think twice about putting a bullet in your brain if you do anything but fly straight to Steamboat Springs airport."
The pilot pointed and Buck could see an airport in the distance and nestled in a valley. Buck patted the man's shoulder.
"Just a bullet to your balls, then," he tormented. "Now radio the tower that we're coming in and to put Flight for Life on standby."
Vin kneeled down next to Chris and gently took the man's hand. His liquid gaze scrutinized every graze, cut, contusion, and bloodspot, and with each registered injury, his anger increased and his body trembled. He hadn't seen much of JD after watching the kid tumbling across solid blacktop, but he'd heard every moan and hitched breath from him, and the concerned comments from the guys. Chris's condition shocked the Texan. The blond looked frail and deathly pale, as if his lifeblood was leaching away before Vin's eyes. Tanner set Chris's hand down and rested the back of his own against the clammy brow. Once again he was shaken, this time by the heat there.
"Can I have your shirt, Bucklin?"
The raw request instantly raised Buck's anxiety levels as with one hand he awkwardly took off his top shirt, and handed over the white tee beneath. He watched Tanner carefully remove a blood-sodden, makeshift bandage before gently folding the tee and placing it over and around both bullet holes.
"It's not enough."
Vin had surrendered his own top shirt for JD, and without a second thought, he stripped off his tee and mirrored his previous actions. Goose bumps rippled across his toned, tanned bare flesh when air from the open doors wafted across the cabin's interior, but the event didn't register with the worried Texan.
A quick glance around located a first aid kit. Reaching for it, Vin opened the box and sighed with relief at the discovery of several pressure dressings. After applying and securing two over the shirts for extra absorption, Vin took another sealed package and ripped it open with his teeth. The action revealed a thin, foil blanket, which he took out, opened up, and draped over Chris's still form.
Buck cuffed the pilot's head and pointed to his watch. His reply from the man was a five-minute signal.
"Five minutes," Buck relayed.
Vin took up Chris's cold hand. His thumb absently stroked the back of the hand in his and he leaned in. "Hang in there, Cowboy, we're almost there."
Powerless to assist, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra watched in horror while Vin and Buck perilously swayed from the rising helicopter's landing skids. Their hearts flip-flopped between their stomachs and throats as they saw first Vin, and then Buck almost dislodged, but the mesmerized agents at last moved when they watched first Gil, and then Floyd inelegantly tumble out of the craft, to land on the windswept ground below.
When the three agents reached them, one man was screaming in pain, the other was still and silent. Both had been disarmed during the fall, so arresting the goons presented no problem, although it took a while to locate the missing guns. While Ezra and Josiah were doing so, Nathan made the two men comfortable, and called for paramedics and law enforcement backup so that he and his companions could go after their missing brothers. He looked up when Ezra and Josiah were running toward him. The latter was holding his phone aloft.
"Buck got a message to us. They're heading for the airport."
Nathan made a decision. "You two go, I'll wait here for our backup and then hitch a lift." His determined expression halted the arguments and with handshakes, the three parted company.
A touch to his face and affectionate words of comfort roused Chris and he tried to force his heavy eyelids open, but made no headway and so gave up. Gradually, familiar voices filtered through to his numb mind, along with a persistent thrumming sound that sent vibrations through his exhausted body. He felt cold, despite being convinced that he was sweating, and Chris was again almost at the point of drifting away from the rising barbs of pain when a phrase dragged him back from the brink.
>> Hang in there, Cowboy, we're almost there. <<
"Vin...?" Chris was shocked at the lack of power in a voice that under certain circumstances was described as powerful enough to shake buildings.
"Hey, Chris. Can you look at me? Chris?"
Larabee's brow wrinkled as he pondered the request. His eyes were closed?
It took some effort, but after a lot longer than Chris appreciated, he had a blurry view of a face he loved.
Vin grinned, and hoped it hid his concern over how he knew Chris was really doing. "We're about to land at Steamboat Springs airport. From there you'll be transported by air to Yampa Medical Center."
Chris's confusion was making him agitated. "Wh...where?"
"Don't sweat the details. Just rest easy." Vin swallowed hard. "It's good to see you, Chris."
Larabee nodded, even as his eyes were closing, but they flew open when he heard a new voice.
"Hey, you napping on us already, Stud?"
"You bet, Pard."
He nodded, but that final effort was more than Chris could handle and he gave in to sleep. Vin looked at Buck. No words were spoken, but the undeclared message was clear. They wanted this to be over.
Regardless of the pilot's order, Buck and Vin decided circumstances were dictating their situation, and so on the floor, Vin braced himself and protected Chris, while Buck hopped over into the co-pilot seat, while never once taking his gun off the pilot.
On the airport tarmac, Cops, FBI agents, and paramedics protected their faces with their arms as the descending helicopter kicked up dust. On landing, the pilot raised his hands in surrender and went quietly with police officers, while the FBI agents, along with Vin and Buck, supervised Chris's switch from one helicopter to the much larger Flight for Life craft.
While Chris was being stabilized and prepared for transfer, Ezra and Josiah arrived on site, and filled in all Federal agents as to where Nathan was, and with whom. Just as the rescue team announced they were ready to depart, Nathan arrived in a squad car. He joined Buck, Vin, Josiah, and Ezra, who introduced them to the FBI agents assigned to Chris's abduction. In turn, he filled them in with information of the two goons, who had now been arrested and also airlifted to hospital.
The medical team confirmed there was no bullet in Chris, but he would need surgery and antibiotics to repair any damage and address the infection he was fighting. Their optimism that Chris would be treated in time to avoid major complications produced an air of relief among Team Seven. However, they would not be able to relax until all seven were together again, and right now, all but Chris was painfully aware that JD's condition was deteriorating when he left them, and no one knew how the kid was doing. In addition, at this point the team had no idea that Chris believed JD died when he was thrown from the van.
Rotor blades started up and all turned to watch Chris finally on his way to Yampa to join JD. Once the chopper was out of sight, the FBI agents went off to deal with the chopper pilot and the grounded plane crew, while the team tried to put the last three long hours behind them, pull themselves together and collectively head off to the hospital.
In a luxurious mountain retreat, a nervous Hispanic man glanced at his boss who was relaxing out by the pool. He returned the phone to its cradle and walked out through the open folding doors and onto the large patio area overlooking a stunning lake vista.
Without looking up from his iPad, and continuing to stroke his Labrador's head, Gus Levine, spoke. "I get the feeling this is not good news, Felipe."
"You would be right, Senor."
Setting down his iPad on a low, wicker table, Gus Levine, rising star in the seedy, volatile world of gunrunning, turned to his assistant. "Go on."
"Cob and Lou are dead; Gil and Floyd are in the hospital - Floyd is critical, and both are under armed police guard."
"Larabee?" Levine growled out.
"Your jet is grounded, the plane crew and helicopter pilot were arrested. Larabee has been taken to hospital under Federal protection." Felipe could see the knuckles of Levine's curled fist go white.
"Who told you this?"
"Where's Reid Tarrant now?" There was a pause. "Felipe?"
"His last words to me was his assurance to you that he will put this right."
Gus Levine turned, picked up his iPad, and relaxed back in his chair. "Keep me informed."
Felipe bowed his head. "Si, Senor Levine."
In an empty house on Central Park Drive, Steamboat Springs, Reid Tarrant was going over plans with his squad of ten gunmen. They were almost directly opposite Yampa Medical center, and planned to arrive on site in an ambulance they recently acquired. What the men were about to do was larger-than-life and way beyond reasonable force, but Tarrant was a man of his word; especially to someone he knew was going places and who he wanted to move up right alongside with. The original plan was to send a message to every syndicate out there, and to show that Levine was a man unafraid of the law, no matter who it might be.
The next actions Tarrant's men carried out would ensure the message got through, and the intended target eliminated. Reid smiled. If his Intel was right, and this set up was executed perfectly, Larabee would soon be dead, and most, if not all his team, along with him.
By the time the five agents arrived at Yampa Medical Center, daylight was fading and they were all weary. However, tired or not, it took them less than a minute to locate JD's room, and find out that Chris was in surgery, and the agents wasted no time on checking up on their teammates, starting with JD. The closer the rising elevator got to the floor where JD was located, the more Buck fidgeted. When the car stopped, Buck impatiently pried the opening doors, squeezed through, and jogged along the empty corridor looking for the room number. It suddenly occurred to him that there was no police guard outside the room, and he immediately grew angry. Buck looked back at his following teammates.
"Why's there no guard here?"
"I would suggest because JD wasn't the original target," Ezra replied. He could see Buck's anger rising. "I'll get on it," he suggested.
"The bastards tossed him out of a speeding truck, and now he's here, alone? Someone had better get to it." Buck turned and opened the door.
The southerner nodded his understanding of Buck's frustration to the others, and while they walked into JD's room, Ezra made some calls.
The hospital room was quiet and lit only by a dimmed overhead light. JD was asleep. His head was freshly bandaged, a nasal cannula fed him oxygen, and greasy ointment coated the grazes on his face, nose, and forehead making his skin appear reflective in the sparse light. JD's left arm was resting in a heavy-duty black sling, while the back of his right hand was fitted with an IV for medication and fluids.
Before a scrutinizing Buck could approach the bed, a doctor joined them. He smiled and spoke softly.
"Good evening. As you can see, Agent Dunne is resting comfortably. He broke his left forearm in two places, but the breaks are clean, so with some physical therapy he should be good to go in around six to eight weeks - maybe ten at the outside. There's no edema to the brain, although Agent Dunne is suffering a concussion; and he's had a deep scalp wound sutured, and glued. I performed abdominal surgery in the form of a laparotomy. We found there was a small bleed into the peritoneal cavity, and by means of aspirating the blood we were able to locate and isolate the damage before making the necessary and successful repair."
Doctor Fox looked at Nathan. "Yes?"
"Why surgery? Wasn't a CT scan and transfusion management sufficient?"
The doctor shook his head. "Agent Dunne was in shock when he arrived here. We needed to act swiftly to stabilize him. He has, however, received a unit of blood, type specific."
"He's okay...JD...he's okay, now yeah?"
Doctor Fox nodded to Buck. "Battered, bruised, scraped, and a little broken, but he's come through the horrific experience surprisingly well." He shook hands with the four men. "I'm heading up to the surgical unit to see how Agent Larabee is doing. I'll send for you when he's out of recovery."
Even as the doctor was leaving, Buck moved to stand next to JD's bed. He rested his forearms on the side rail and leaned over as he looked down. "JD. Kid? Hey, JD...it's Buck."
Ezra joined them, and he, Vin, Nathan, and Josiah moved closer to the bed. Smiles appeared on their weary faces when JD's head moved toward the sound of Buck's voice.
A grinning Buck lowered his head. "It's just me and the guys, so don't be opening your eyes, we've all seen 'em before." He relaxed as he leaned on the rail and winked at the others. Sure enough, just as he expected, JD did the opposite of what Buck asked.
"Doc says you're doing real good," Buck said.
JD grimaced as everything hurt when he tried to move. "Yeah, well he wouldn't say that if he was the one lying here." His bruised eyes gained focus and he stared at Buck.
"Chris?" The mention of his hero's name caused JD's throat to work overtime as he tried not to get emotional. "How's Chris, Buck? Fellas? Did you find him? Please say you found him."
Vin stepped forward. "Settle down, Kid. Chris is right here in the hospital." He glanced around and smiled. "The whole team's here and we're all in one piece."
JD sighed and his head sank back into his pillow. "Awesome." He frowned at Buck. "You gonna leave now to go see him? Can I come?"
Buck shook his head. "He's still in surgery, and besides, you can't go anywhere right now, so I'd rather stay here and bug you."
JD huffed out a soft laugh. "Still spouting crap, Buck."
"Pure Wilmington crap, son, and don't you forget it."
The arrival of two cops outside the door sobered the moment. Vin thumbed over his shoulder. "I'll see how well they've been briefed." He moved closer still to the bed and smiled when JD looked at him.
"Glad you're okay, Kid. Reckon Chris owes you his life."
JD's fat lip produced an extra-crooked smile and the boy blushed. "I'd bet my bike that it wasn't down to me but...thanks for that." He watched Tanner turn to go. "Vin."
The Texan's head twisted to look back. "Yeah?"
"Tell Chris I'm glad he's okay."
Vin nodded. "Sure will, but I'm thinkin' you can tell him yourself soon enough."
Outside the door, Vin addressed the two cops standing guard and asked them how much they'd been told. Satisfied with their answers, he kept walking, and eventually found himself in the waiting room of the surgical unit.
Waking up to the tickle of oxygen in his nostrils and the bleeping sounds of a heart monitor made Chris Larabee feel he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He could feel a dull ache under his right arm and gingerly raised his left hand and slid it across his bare upper torso until he located bandages. Chris winced at the pull. Yup, definitely still alive, a very lucky guy indeed. Relaxing for a moment, Chris swallowed and grimaced again. His throat hurt from where the breathing tube was removed after surgery, and he needed a drink, but before he could even consider how to get someone's attention, a pretty nurse was smiling down at him.
"Hello, Chris. I'm Annabel and I'll be taking care of you until you go to your room." She reached across to a nightstand, picked up a tumbler of water with a straw, and helped Chris take a few sips.
"I can tell you that surgery went well, your bullet wounds are neatly stitched, and you have a drainage tube in place. Due to dehydration through blood loss, and an infection you're fighting, you can expect to feel poorly for a day or two. You have a broken rib, and quite a lot of contusions, cuts and grazes. Your forehead wound has three stitches, and there's a scalp wound, which was glued, and is why your head is bandaged for now. Your right knee is swollen, but there's no serious damage and you should be walking unaided within a week or two." She offered the sleepy team leader more water.
"Sorry, that was a lot of information in one go, wasn't it? But I was informed you like to be put in the picture as soon as possible. Oh, which reminds me, your family is here." With a brilliant smile, she turned to leave.
"Can you find Vin...Vin Tanner, I need to..."
Annabel frowned. "We don't allow visitors in here, Chris, but..." she glanced cautiously around and then drew back a curtain to reveal a large window. Beyond it was a corridor, with two cops standing guard at the recovery room's entrance.
"There's a young man in the waiting room, who showed me his ID and told me his name was Agent Tanner. I'll bring him to the window."
Chris slowly nodded and watched her leave. Less than a minute later, Vin was standing in the corridor and at the window. The Texan grinned, and placed his open palm flat to the glass. Chris smiled, at least, he hoped he was smiling, he felt a little out of it and couldn't be sure. He raised a hand and curled it into a fist. Vin nodded and mirrored his movements, leaving his fist pressed against the glass the way his palm had been. The blond's gaze remained fixed on Vin until his meds pulled him back to a much-needed healing sleep. Vin only looked away when Annabel approached him.
After bringing him up to date with Chris's condition, the nurse concluded. "Chris'll be here for an hour, and then Doctors Shaw and Fox have decided he can go into the same room as John." She smiled. "Actually, a man called here - name was...Travers, I think. Anyway, they made their final decision after that. Do you know who he was? The man that called?"
Vin nodded. "I reckon so." He smiled. "Thank you, Ma'am. I'll go tell the news to the other guys."
Lighter of heart, Vin left the surgical floor to update the others with news that was not just good, but also a huge relief. The sharpshooter hit the elevator button for JD's floor, unaware of the single, occupied ambulance that was quietly entering the hospital grounds several floors below, although not actually on duty, or carrying a casualty.
Around two hours after first arriving at the hospital, and with the time approaching midnight, all seven teammates were together again. Both JD and Chris were asleep when Chris arrived in the room, and still were. This would normally be a time for the uninjured to rest up, but something in the air was inexplicably stopping them from doing so.
Sitting next to Chris's and JD's beds respectively, Vin and Buck were stretched out in their plastic chairs, but were both staring at the semi-closed blinds covering the door and window. Their own chairs dotted around the room, Ezra was sitting and scrolling through his phone, while Nathan and Josiah were going over their reports. Chris stirred and all eyes went to him. Vin sat up and leaned in.
"Hey; you need some water?"
Larabee nodded and gratefully sipped before his tongue pushed away the straw. "Sit me up."
Vin picked up the remote and gently raised the head of Chris's bed before shuffling his pillows into more comfortable positions behind him. The blond smiled on seeing four familiar faces looking his way. It took a moment to struggle with the emotion that threatened to overwhelm, but the iron control he was famous for slowly kicked in.
"Thanks, boys. I don't know how you kept up with us, but thank God you did." His eyes glistened. "I'm...sorry about JD..." he lowered his gaze, "...so very sorry." He was shaken when he heard Buck chuckle, and even more shocked when he looked up to see he was grinning, as were the others.
"Aaah, he's fallen out of bed so many times I reckon he's a natural bouncer." Buck's grin faded on seeing Chris's expression. "You okay, Stud?"
Chris didn't answer and a suddenly enlightened Josiah made a face, gently nudged Buck's arm and the group separated. Chris looked through them to see JD stirring.
The past hours caught up with Chris and one tear dropped from lower lashes to roll down his cheek. He stared at Vin. "The bastards told me they'd seen his head smash..." He took a breath. "Evil, fucking jackasses..."
"Don't hold back, Chris," Ezra smiled. "Say what you mean." He became more serious.
"Sadly it is clear the troglodytes had no principles in regards to your mental well-being, while thankfully they relied on cruel conjecture to implement their persecution."
Larabee's gaze moved from Ezra to JD, who was sitting up and staring at him. JD's eyes were threatening to spill, but he was smiling.
"Good to see you, Bossman."
Chris noticed the sling, and then slowly, JD's other injuries. "I can't believe you survived that..." He swallowed. "Good to see you, too, Kid."
"JD overheard where you were bein' taken. It gave us the advantage we needed," Vin explained. "He wouldn't pass out 'til we got caught up some."
Chris stared at his youngest agent. JD shrugged, and mouthed a silent 'oww' when his bruised ribs pinched.
"Least I could do after you took a bullet for me."
The teammates glanced around at each other as the details of what Chris and JD went though, sank in. Now, they could hardly wait to get them home.
The group eventually settled down in the hospital room and talked quietly about Chris and JD's abduction.
"I can't understand why Levine went to so much trouble. Tarrant could have just shot me dead right there," Chris speculated.
"I was able to talk to one of his men briefly," Nathan cut in. "I asked a similar question. He wasn't too coherent, but he mentioned Levine wanted a show-stopper. Maybe he intended to film... or broadcast his encounter with you Chris, as some sort of bargaining chip with other syndicate bosses."
JD yawned. "Dangerous business, filming something like that, once it's out there, it's out there for good..." He straightened. "Where's the camera from my pocket?"
Ezra removed the bagged item from his jacket pocket and held it up. "I'm afraid it is damaged beyond repair."
"But the memory card's good, yeah?"
Standish stared at the item. "It would appear to have survived, yes. May I ask why?"
Understanding where JD was going, Chris offered a tight smile and replied. "JD was filming right from the off." He looked at the young tech. "Did you get Tarrant?"
"Sure did. I got a shot of every man there that day...uh...yesterday?"
Ezra moved to the door. "I'll arrange for this to get to forensics forthwith."
Josiah stood. "Wait up, I'll take a walk with you and seek out some refreshments."
In a short time, JD was asleep. Buck moved over to Chris's bedside and rested a hand on his long-time friend's bare arm. "How are you really doing?" He glanced back at JD. "He can't hear you."
Chris allowed his frailty to show. "Been better. When can we leave?"
"Local cops and FBI agents are coming in tomorrow to talk to you and the kid - take your statements and such. Docs'll need to release you, but I'm guessing that might not be tomorrow."
Chris looked at Nathan. "I'll agree to whatever it takes to get back to Denver."
Taking the hint, Nathan stood and walked to the door. "I'll try and find out what time your doctors are on duty, tomorrow."
"No need to go now, Nathan," Chris said sincerely.
Nathan smiled. "It's no bother. Might as well get in early." As he exited the room, he nodded to the two cops outside the door, mentally recording that the previous pair must have gone off shift, and yet they hadn't been notified.
As soon as the door closed, Chris let out a long, low moan. "Aaah, God, everything hurts."
Buck and Vin exchanged glances. The former spoke. "Now we get the truth."
"Nathan's a good man, but I couldn't handle his fussing right now." Chris gritted his teeth and Vin passed him the button for a morphine hit. Chris shook his head.
"The pain is keeping me focused. Soon as I can, I'm going to talk to Travis about going after Levine..." He stared when Vin suddenly straightened, took out his phone and dialed.
"It's Agent Tanner. Sorry to wake you, Sir. 'Scuse me? Oh, yessir, doing okay, thanks. Mister Travis, did you call Yampa Medical Center earlier...? Thanks, I'll call you back." He hastily pocketed his cell phone, swapped it out for his gun, and moved to the window.
Buck stood, drew his Glock and walked toward him. "Vin?"
Tanner halted Buck, and then 'shushed' him before peeking out through the semi-closed blinds. Carefully, he twisted the rod to shut them, and then addressed the two alert men in a hushed tone.
"That's not our cops on guard, and I can see another four men dressed in black movin' around out there. They're packin' MP7s." He glanced between Chris and JD.
"We need to..."
Before Vin could finish he had to rapidly drop low when, accompanied by the noise of deafening gunfire, the glass behind the blinds shattered and imploded. Incoming bullets made the blinds ping, and clatter; however they thankfully deflected some of the barrage of ammunition fired from the corridor and into the room.
Vin scurried across the glass-strewn floor on his hands and knees toward Chris who, despite his pain, threw back the bedclothes. The sharpshooter grabbed Chris and pulled him out of the bed while simultaneously hauling the bed up onto its side. He pushed Chris to the floor and protectively put himself in front of the blond while bullets flew at, and over the bed.
In those first moments, JD awoke and was terrified when, in his sluggish confusion he was mentally transported back to the warehouse the day he and Chris were abducted. Meanwhile, Buck had also dropped low. He turned to JD's bed and tried to overlook the youth's terrified stare as in one smooth move he rolled over the bed face first, wrapped his arms around JD and took the brunt of them hitting the floor before spinning them both underneath the bed. Buck covered JD with his body while trying not to squash the injured, trembling, disoriented boy.
An adrenalin-fueled Chris looked at Vin. "Give me a fucking gun!"
In no position to argue the point, Vin slipped a Stoeger Cougar sub compact out of his ankle holster and into Chris's hand. The pair rested their guns on the side frame of the bed, and began firing, if only to send the message to whoever was shooting at them that they were armed too.
Hearing gunfire from Chris and Vin's positions, Buck looked a stunned JD in the eyes. "Stay down!" Recovering his Glock, Buck turned, peeked out from under the end of the bed, and also started firing. He felt his pant leg rise and his S&W M&P9 slide out of its ankle holster. The brunet's head turned sharply.
"JD, I said stay down!" he hissed.
JD awkwardly crawled up to join Buck. "I still got one good hand, Buck, and I'm not about to take any more shit from these guys."
Buck's eyes shone with pride for his protégé, but it was short-lived when their attention was drawn back to the task of returning fire. Theirs, Vin's, and Chris's combined efforts succeeded in temporarily slowing down the onslaught.
Josiah and Ezra were approaching the corridor to the hospital room when, as the raging noise of gunfire assaulted their ears; screaming, frightened staff ran past them. They dropped the refreshments they were carrying, drew their guns and cautiously ran to the bend that would take them into the long, straight corridor. The two agents were shocked to see six men spraying the window and door with gunfire, while another three, two dressed as cops, were dotted around ready to take over and ensuring no one interrupted them. When they spotted two men about to go into the room next door to the hospital room under assault, Ezra and Josiah shook off their astonishment and acted.
Nathan looked up when shrieking staff ran past the nurses' station he was visiting. He grabbed one woman's arm. "What's going on?"
The terrified nurse glanced back. "Men dressed in black, and two cops, are shooting at the room the police officers were guarding."
She had barely finished speaking when Nathan called for backup and then ran off to help his friends. He arrived at the opposite corner to Ezra and Josiah and stared in astonishment at the room's glass-free window and door. The tattered, dangling blinds threatened to reveal the people inside the room, as they appeared ready to drop away from the frame. Two gunmen were walking toward the empty hospital room next door, while the others appeared to be preparing to storm Chris and JD's room. Just as Nathan got set to advance, he saw Josiah and Ezra making their move. Three sets of gazes met, and with no need for words, the three teammates called out a warning before firing on the stunned gunmen who quickly regrouped to turn on them.
Outside the hospital, the man driving the phony ambulance watched as around a dozen squad cars and a SWAT truck, all running full lights and sirens, screeched to a halt next to the main entrance. Officers carrying weapons ran into the building, leaving four cops outside to stand guard. Realizing he could no longer help those inside, the man started up the vehicle, and with a blast of sirens, hurried away from the hospital as if on a call. Once clear, he cut the sirens, and made his way to the house in which his associates were based with the intention of telling Tarrant that his plan may have failed.
Vin pulled out his last ammo clip and exchanged it for the spent one in his Sig 229. For now, Chris was okay for bullets due to his firing being restricted by the pain he was in and because he couldn't move much. Vin's head suddenly tilted to listen. He heard movement outside the room next door and hissed out a warning.
"Bucklin, to your side, watch out."
JD struggled to move, but Buck flipped onto his flank instantly, and was now facing the curtained window of the room next door. However, they both looked back at Vin and Chris when fresh gunfire started up, only this time it was a little further away, and sounded familiar. Buck and Vin instantly jumped up and with guns aimed, crunched their way over shattered glass toward the bullet-riddled door hanging by one hinge. Out in the corridor it sounded like a good old-fashioned Wild West shootout. Tanner checked that Buck was ready, and then reached out and snatched at the handle of the semi-open, bullet-pocked door.
The shooters were surprised to suddenly be surrounded by armed Feds. Once SWAT and police officers also appeared on the scene, most of the gunmen surrendered, and those that didn't paid for it with a well-aimed bullet. The momentary silence from lack of gunfire was replaced by SWAT hollering out orders for everyone to disarm and lay face down. The five, team seven members instantly complied and waited for officers to locate their IDs. Once they were allowed to get up, they went back to Chris and JD.
The injured pair lay amid the debris that was once an immaculate hospital room. Both were in no doubt their injuries had sustained some damage. Chris's drain was out, his brow and side were bleeding again, and he'd aggravated his broken rib to the point where he was having to take shallow breaths. JD could see blood on the front of his own gown and figured he'd pulled the stitches of the small incisions in his stomach. Despite all this, they both knew they'd miraculously survived an event they never should have - twice. JD looked over at Chris.
"Shoot, Chris, you sure know how to piss someone off."
Chris knew he shouldn't, but was unable to stop a snort that began a deep, breath-stealing laugh. JD grinned at his hero, and was soon laughing hysterically right along with him. That was how first Vin, and Buck, and then Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan found them; bleeding, dusty, surrounded by devastation, and helpless with laughter. Regardless of having numerous small cuts from flying glass and, in Vin's case, a grazed arm from a bullet coming a little too close for comfort, he and Buck glanced at each other, and then at the other three. Buck spoke.
"What did we miss?"
Looking at the laughing pair, Vin's pearly-white smile cut through his dirt encrusted features and lit up his handsome face. "Now ain't that a beautiful sight?"
His expression quickly changed and he went to Chris, and Buck to JD. The two kneeled down and each held one of the pair now sobbing from exhaustion, against their chests. Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra closed ranks to allow this very personal moment to remain so.
In a while, Chris's husky voice drifted up through the companionable silence. "Get us home, fellas."
Two days on and Reid Tarrant feared the worst. Ignoring the breathtaking views around him, he stood before a seated Gus Levine and expected a bullet any moment. Why else would Levine's goons drag him all the way out there? He looked up when Gus spoke.
"I blame myself. I seriously underestimated that team, and their leader, and now instead of basking in a triumphant assertion, I find myself teetering on the threshold of a Federal investigation." He saw Tarrant frown and explained.
"Larabee will now have the bit between his teeth. He is no longer merely a thorn in my side, but has become a nemesis. Retribution is a powerful force, and there are now seven eager adversaries baying for my incarceration or demise, whichever comes first." Levine stood.
"I need people I can trust. Are you with me?"
Tarrant's eyes grew wide. "Absolutely."
Levine nodded and they shook hands. "Stay low. I'll be in touch."
One week later and Chris was back at his ranch, seated on the porch, and currently in a glare-off with Nathan. "I'm the boss here, and if I say I'm fit for work, then I am."
"And I saw your x-rays and medical notes and I don't care if you're head of the Bureau, you are most definitely not fit for work."
"Just Nathan will do, Chris."
The blond looked at his tactical medic and explosives expert, and cracked a smile. He nodded to Vin as the Texan joined them with some drinks. "Vin..."
Taking a seat, Tanner shook his head. "Don't be lookin' to me for support, Pard. Nathan's right. In three of the longest hours of my life, we almost lost you. Quit gripin' and accept you need to be one hundred percent fit to do what we do, and more importantly, we need you fully fit to keep this crazy roller coaster ride on the rails."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "You getting all philosophical on me, Vin?"
Vin sipped his drink and his cheek dimpled in a grin. "Nah, been watchin' CSI Miami - show's full of that kinda shit."
They laughed, including Josiah who overheard as he exited the house.
"Chili's nearly ready and has a kick like a mule."
"JD and Chris shouldn't be eating spicy food just yet," Nathan scolded.
Josiah sat with them. "I've made a milder version just for them."
All four men looked up to see Ezra's Jag glide up the long drive and into the yard. Parking up, the southerner climbed out, neatened his clothing, and approached the group seated on the porch. Chris frowned.
"Are Buck and JD still at the hospital?"
Ezra leaned against a porch roof support. "No, they're on their way."
Vin noticed the twinkle in Ezra's eye. "What?"
Standish grinned. "You'll see."
To their curiosity-piqued relief, Buck's Chevy was soon in sight. Moments later, he and JD stepped out of the car and into the yard.
"What the hell?"
"Outstandingly vibrant, don't you think?"
"I may need sunglasses."
"It's reflecting against his skin, he looks sickly."
As they walked together toward the others, Buck noted JD's huge grin and chuckled. JD held out his arm with its fresh lime green cast.
"Cool," Ezra repeated as he sat down, "such an atypical adjective from yourself, Mister Dunne."
JD mock-pouted. "Well I like it."
Vin gently punched JD's good arm as he passed by. "Just as well seein' as you have to live with it for six weeks."
JD sniffed the cast and poked his arm under others' noses for them to do likewise. Most of them politely refused. "It smells funky...don't you think it smells funky?"
In need of a drink, Buck ushered JD away from the amused, seated group and into the house. "It should go well with your bedroom, then."
Laughter echoed around the decking. When it died down, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra stood, excused themselves, and followed the pair indoors. Chris watched them leave, and then cast a curious glance toward Vin.
"Something we said?"
Vin offered a dimpled grin. "I reckon they sensed you wanted some quiet time."
Larabee raised an eyebrow. "I do?" He nodded at Vin's return stare. "Yeah, guess I do." Unable to hold back the grunt of pain when he stood, a stiff Chris limped to the end of the porch and leaned against a support post. He stared out toward the mountains and sighed.
"Levine's out there, Vin, Tarrant, too; flipping us the bird and planning the next deal."
Vin rose and joined Chris. He leaned against the opposite side of the same post and also looked out at the breathtaking vista. "Don't mean nothin'. You're alive, which takes that bird they're flippin', and shoots it right back at 'em." There was a pause.
"But it was way too close, Cowboy."
Chris put a hand up to his bandaged side and glanced at Vin. "I'd go through it all again to put those two smug bastards behind bars." He shook his head. "But I can't risk putting you guys through what JD suffered."
"Don't reckon that's a decision you can make, pal."
Chris made a face. "Last time I looked, I was still in command of this team, right?"
"Oh sure," Vin agreed. He raised an eyebrow and jerked his head behind him. "We always let you lead - don't mean we can't be the ones pushin' from behind you sometimes."
Chris turned to see his team standing behind him on the porch. JD looked small, young, and vulnerable standing in front of Buck and with his healing injuries still painfully visible, but his expression was the most resolute of all as he spoke.
"Chris, you once told me that while we don't go looking for trouble, it often finds us, and it usually hurts when it does - but that's the risk we take to protect and serve." He touched his strapped arm.
"Do I want to relive the moment I flew out of a van and hit the highway at around sixty miles an hour? Hell no, but if your order to get our man meant there was a chance it could happen again, I'd still do it." He looked back and up at Buck, and then around at his teammates.
"Any one of us would, for you."
The declaration and the determined men standing behind it choked Chris with unexpected emotion. He turned to Vin, and a shimmering blue gaze accompanied a resolute nod from the Texan, which simply made Chris falter further. He coughed to buy himself some time and regain his composure.
"Have you all been watching CSI Miami?"
Laughter erupted and Nathan quickly filled in Ezra, Buck and JD as to why the reference was made.
Buck cut into the hilarity. "Nah, I see Chris more as New York CSI's Mac Taylor - Mister Cool with a hidden heart of gold."
Ezra raised his hands. "Enough! May we please eat before these candy-coated plaudits send me hyperglycemic?"
Despite more laughter, there were sincere glances towards Chris. They almost lost him, and as far as this team of brothers was concerned, that was unacceptable. Moving toward a long wooden table with benches running along its sides, some of the group sat down while others brought the food out. Josiah said a small prayer thanking God for their dinner, and for keeping them together. He then dished out the chili, and urged the men to help themselves to fried beans, salsa, tacos, fajitas, cheese, sour cream and cheese. After Ezra refilled juice glasses or refreshed empty beer bottles, Chris tapped his glass of fruit juice.
"Guys, we've got tough and likely dangerous tasks ahead; a heap of merchandise to get off the streets, and lots of corrupt and dangerous people to put behind bars. Added to that, we have evidence that Levine's not going to let his issue with this team go." He glanced at Vin.
"A shrewd man once referred to what we do as like being on a roller coaster." Chris raised his glass. "Here's to us."
The six friends joined him in the toast.
Chris offered a shit-eating grin and tapped the offered tumblers and bottles with his glass. "As it happens, I like the roller coaster. Long may we ride."
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