Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Thanks to Mog for ATF
Main Characters: Vin, JD
Warnings: ome violence
Summary: Gang violence rears its ugly head when an attempt to create a safe area is challenged.
My thanks to all who supported me and whose comments helped this story progress. And thank you to Blackraptor for generously allowing me to archive with them.
The thundering of feet echoed through the hospital corridors as five earnest men sought out assistance. An astonished orderly pointed to the ER while flattening himself back against a wall to avoid being trampled as the imposing agents hurried by.
The man in black leading the pack entered the ER and threw back the first curtain he came to.
He quickly slid shut the drape around a startled man and his attending physician, but before Larabee could intrude further, Josiah Sanchez's large hand closed around his wrist and gave it a quick tug. Chris's gaze followed the direction of the gray-haired man's bobbing head and found dazed blue-eyes focused on him. Feeling some of the crushing tension holding him melt away, Chris, instantly followed by the four other team members, approached an end bed and the semi-upright positioned Vin Tanner.
"What happened?" Even as Chris asked, he was examining Vin's bruised and bloodied features. The sharpshooter's hair had bunched into curls from the heat his body was radiating, and Chris's heart clenched to see Vin's gaze turn liquid and spill, sending a solitary tear rolling down through the dust and grime coating his cheek. Chris glanced around at the others' equally worried features before looking back at Tanner.
The Texan blinked to dispel more forming tears and took a shuddering breath. "The new Mission hall..."
"The vacant liquor store your local pastor recently purchased?" Ezra asked.
Vin nodded, slowly. "Someone fire-bombed it."
"You were there?" Nathan urged.
"Yeah, I was there to help them decorate while lookin' to organizin' future sports events with the kids...basketball, fastball...maybe street hockey..."
All were shocked when Vin's face crumpled and he grabbed Buck's arm. "I'm sorry, Bucklin...real sorry."
Already struggling with Vin's condition and also wanting to know what happened, Buck went a shade paler as he feared where Vin was going. "JD?"
The gathered men suddenly scanned their immediate surroundings. In their haste to answer the call from the hospital, it hadn't occurred to them that JD had neither replied to Buck's text, or turned up.
"He came to help me talk to the kids about street hockey." He gulped down a sob. "We were just outside the buildin' when..."
"Where is he?" Buck interrupted. His eyes widened in horror when Tanner's gaze moved to the curtained area next to him. Turning, Buck raised his trembling hand to yank back the curtain dividing the two cubicles and groaned to see JD lying in the next bed unconscious, and bandaged.
The doctor with JD looked at the men staring at his patient. "Vin wanted to explain the situation to you first. In the blast, JD suffered a blow to his head, and has been unconscious since then. We're monitoring him closely, and won't be releasing him until he's been conscious and coherent for at least twenty-four hours." He looked over the rim of his glasses at Vin. "Mister Tanner was unconscious for a short while, too, and so will also be staying with us overnight."
Vin straightened, wincing at the pinch to his bruised ribs. "No, we need to move on this before the trail goes cold."
Josiah left the group and walked outside the room to place a call. Buck was perched on the edge of JD's bed and holding onto one of the boy's slack wrists. He sighed as his wandering fingers traced stray hair hanging down over JD's bandaged forehead. "Shoulda made you stay and fill the dishwasher, Kid," he whispered.
Josiah returned. "ATF Team Five is at the bomb site, now. I explained our connection, and Earl's promised to keep us in the loop."
A furious and animated Tanner grabbed Larabee's forearm. "I heard we lost two kids in the attack. Whoever did this are murderers. I want this case, Chris."
The team leader nodded. "And we'll get it, but let Team Five work on it until we can take over." Chris indicated for his team to get chairs before he walked over to JD and Vin's doctor. He momentarily placed a hand on JD's bare, scraped shoulder before addressing the physician. "May we have some privacy?"
The doctor checked his watch, and nodded. "These two are due to be transported to a room. I can give you until then. After that, I have a further battery of tests to run."
"Thank you," Chris acknowledged. Once the doctor left, he took up a seat next to Vin, while the other men surrounded both beds. A shaky Buck planted himself between JD's bed and Chris, never once losing contact with his partner.
"Vin, fill us in, and include JD's involvement," Chris more asked, than ordered.
The guilt over JD's condition was painfully clear in the Texan's eyes as he looked across to the youth's position. JD was the team's youngest, and while he was a considerably more than capable agent, he was still pretty green over many things, especially life in general, and all six looked out for him, even Vin, despite being only six years older.
'Jeezus, Kid, I'm sorry.'
When a hand encircled his wrist, Vin looked down at it, and then up into the green eyes scrutinizing him.
"None of this is your fault," Chris assured. "Now, gather your thoughts about earlier, and talk to us."
SIX HOURS PRIOR
Vin smiled on hearing his stomach grumble. He'd been painting the walls of the local church's new Mission hall for several hours, so he reckoned he was due a break. Pastor Doug Clegg must have read his mind because had the thought no sooner left Vin's mind, a selection of sandwiches and cakes were brought from the rear of the building by Doug, his wife Isla, and several of the local youth club's older kids. Vin wiped off his hands and with a smile, took Isla's burden from her and placed the platter on an upturned crate. Coffees were poured from numerous thermos flasks, and cans of soda were passed around when the small group of workers sat down on the laid out dustsheets to eat.
While they chowed down, Vin talked to the teenagers about future plans. One lad asked him about the games they were planning on taking up.
"Did you get a chance to talk to that friend of yours about street hockey?"
Vin swallowed his mouthful of coffee and nodded. "Yeah. JD said he'd be happy to come down. He plays a mean game, been playin' since he was a kid." Vin chuckled. "Heck, come to think of it, he ain't much older than some of you guys."
"Is he on a personal day, too?" Doug asked.
Vin nodded. "Uh huh, all my teammates are. Just come off a tough...uh, yeah, the boss figured we were all due a break."
"Oh Doug, just ask already," Isla scolded. "What he's meant to be asking, is would JD be willing to come down here now? In a couple of hours a whole bunch of our youth members are calling in to see this place, and when we mentioned your idea, they all seemed very eager to learn how to play."
Tanner rolled on his hip to one side and dug his cell out from his jeans pocket. "Cool. I'll call him now." He dialed. "Hey, Kid, are you free? Only I got some kids here at the new Mission, and more comin' down later, who seem real keen to learn street hockey and...yeah? Neat. Thanks." He smiled at the young, expectant faces looking at him.
"JD's just finishin' up lunch, and said he'll be straight down." He laughed at the cheers, and rounds of hi-fives and fist-bumps.
"Can JD drive himself here?" one girl asked.
"Sure, but he doesn't have a car."
"How's he getting here, then?" one boy half queried, half mocked. "His daddy bringing him?" He winced when his sister, Sadie, elbowed him in the ribs.
Vin wondered what he should divulge, and decided JD was always one for the truth. "Well, Elias, JD's never known his dad, and his mom died a short while ago. As for how he's gettin' here...I guess he'll just ride down on his blue Kawasaki Ninja ZX10."
Vin grinned at the reactions and resumed munching on a sandwich. Recalling how much the kids liked his own bike, he'd felt confident that mentioning JD rode one, would impress.
"Let's finish painting this wall, and by the time we're packing up, JD should be here," Pastor Clegg suggested. "And don't forget, the ideas box is still open until Sunday evening for the mural for that very wall. I'm looking forward to judging them down to the final three." He noted Vin's curious glance.
"There's to be a closed ballot for the youth members and leaders to decide which of the final three the winning design becomes," Doug explained.
Tanner nodded, approvingly. "Great idea, that'll really make this place feel like it's theirs."
"That's what we're hoping," Isla agreed. She lowered her voice. "A new home and new hope by Thanksgiving. We need to turn these kids away from the street gangs beckoning to them."
In the living room of the apartment Buck and JD shared, and while seated in his recliner reading a newspaper, the former eyed the latter, who was dressed in jeans and a fresh shirt and slipping on his leather biking jacket.
"Going out, Squirt?"
JD looked at him. "Nah, I thought I'd go to bed dressed like this." He easily ducked the cushion aimed at him.
"Cute. My point..."
"Oh, so there's a point, now?"
"MY POINT...is that it's your turn to load the dishwasher."
JD shrugged. "Sure, okay, but Vin's waiting on me, so I'll do it when I get back."
"Nuh uh, new leaf, remember? No more stockpiling jobs, we get it done straight away." He saw JD's crestfallen expression as the boy moved toward the kitchen.
JD sighed. "Yeah, you're right I guess."
Buck's grin widened. He already knew he was going to let the kid off, but knowing JD was willing to hold up his end of the bargain made the offer a lot sweeter. He stood.
"Aahh, go ahead. I got it." His heart warmed at the huge smile from JD. "But you owe me one!" He outwardly cackled when JD jogged over and quickly embraced him.
"Thanks, Bro. See you later."
"Stay out of trouble!"
Walking backwards, JD snatched up his helmet and keys. "Don't I always?" He gave one last grin, and left.
'No!' Buck shook his head and began gathering up the dishes. "You're a mug, Wilmington..." he chuckled, "and you know you'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Outside the soon-to-be new Mission hall, and having received a text, Vin leaned against the street lightpost positioned outside the main door as he waited for JD to arrive. He pushed away from his resting place when a familiar engine buzz approached his position, and once JD's feet hit the ground, Vin fist-bumped his teammate.
"Thanks for bein' so quick They're real eager to talk about this."
JD thumbed off his helmet and ruffled his mussed hair. "Cool, can't wait to get 'em started." He looked at the faded and peeling pink exterior of the ex-liquor store. "Great building, and a great location, too; though If I remember right, this used to be a pretty active corner for the VQL."
"Sure was," Vin agreed, "but not anymore."
The Vara Quinto Lobo street gang, or VQL, were growing in numbers weekly, and it was a daily battle for police and clergy alike to protect kids in the immediate area from being recruited, whether willingly - or not. Doug and Isla had been a driving force since arriving in Purgatorio a year ago, and as Vin had always been involved with the local youth club, he slipped easily into the new order - and liked how it was going.
JD, like Vin, had gotten caught up with a street gang when young, but unlike Vin, street hockey, and computers, along with his mother's deteriorating health, had helped JD break away. Vin's sanctuary came in the formation of a youth center by a minister very similar to Doug, and from his first visit, he never looked back, and was why he wanted to give something of himself in return. Vin had been pretty sure, due to his background, that JD would help if asked - and he'd figured right.
Vin slapped a hand on JD's arm. "Come on, I'll show you a safe place to park your bike, and then I'll introduce you to Doug and his missus, and the kids that are already here." He smiled. "There are more comin' over later."
"Sounds like a plan," JD replied with a grin. He tugged off his gloves and dropped them into the seat box.
Just as the pair and the bike passed by the front door to head for a side entrance, a car screeched past them and slowed. Two doors opened and through a semi-lowered, tinted window they could see something was tossed in through the building's main door. Seconds later a powerful blast out through the open double doors propelled the two agents off their feet. Both JD and his bike took off, the twisting vehicle somehow managing to whack JD in the head before landing on top of the boy, who was already unconscious as he hit the nearby blacktop.
After feeling a heavy impact to the side of his face, Vin's airborne body hit the pavement hard and then rolled several feet. Lifting his aching head, he looked back at the black smoke belching out of what was once the main entrance, and at what seemed like shredded paper floating like snow through the air, before his head smacked down on the pavement one last time and all went black.
HOSPITAL ROOM - TWO HOURS LATER
Due to more tests to be run, Team Seven were urged to go home and return in the morning. A reluctant Buck was persuaded by Chris to go with him so they could collect fresh clothes for the injured pair.
With all tests completed, and in the semi gloom of his overhead light, Vin was sitting up in his bed while mulling over the day's tragic events. He couldn't get past believing he should have seen this coming. A group acknowledged for their anti-gang stance had purchased a building that effectively put out of business one street corner of a resident mob of hooligans.
Vin glanced across at JD. He still hadn't woken up, compounding the Texan's guilt about asking him down that day, and adding to his anguish about not anticipating trouble. Worse still, was the earlier confirmation that two kids had indeed died in the blast; one instantly, and one in the hospital just after arriving in the ER. The Pastor and Mrs. Clegg, and everyone else, got out with cuts, bruises, smoke inhalation and shock, and though deeply relieved they had, it brought little comfort to the Texan as he pondered on how to put this right.
He tried to sleep, but due to the overwhelming information overloading his tired mind, could only toss, turn, and clock-watch. With a pained grimace, Vin eased himself out of bed and sought out his clothes. They were a little worse for wear, but useable. Once he'd picked up his cowboy boots, the sharpshooter gingerly walked over to JD's bed. Vin stared at his friend before leaning in to briefly touch foreheads and whisper into JD's ear.
"Forgive me for leavin' you, Kid, but I gotta do this. I know you're gonna be okay, and I know you'll understand why I left. I'll be back soon - so wake up, y'hear?" With a final squeeze to JD's hand, Vin returned to his bed, arranged the covers and pillows to look as though he was in it, switched off the lamp, and then moved to the exit.
Opening the door a little, Vin peeked into the corridor. It was deserted, even the nurses' station. Stealthily he left the room, and padded along the shiny corridor floor. Once through the door to the stairwell, Vin pulled on his boots and tentatively made his way down to the main entrance. Timing it carefully alongside the milling medical and security staff, he finally made it through a sliding door to the outside. Relieved to see a cab waiting in the allotted rank, Vin patted the pocket his wallet was in and climbed inside the vehicle. In moments, the cab was heading for Vin's chosen destination.
He felt a pull through the darkness...words that lassoed his heart and wouldn't allow him the satisfaction of staying in his safe, warm, quiet sanctuary.
>>... Forgive me for leavin' you, Kid, but I gotta do this. I know you're gonna be okay, and I know you'll understand why I left. I'll be back soon - so wake up, y'hear...? <<
'Vin...stay. Hurt, you're hurt...stop him, Buck...help, stop...'
JD's eyes sprang open to unfamiliar surroundings. He felt his heart pounding - could hear his breath...
His panic rose when he found he couldn't move. His head felt like a lead weight, and his right arm stung if he tried to tug it from whatever was embedded in its skin. 'Vin, wait. Buck? Anyone? Buck...'
Hearing his cries on passing, Nurse Lyle pressed the buzzer next to JD's bed as she tried to calm the confused and agitated young man. "There, there now, John. You're okay. You're in the hospital. John, John, can you understand me?"
Hearing the door opening the nurse looked expectantly for the doctor. Instead, the worried faces of Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington greeted her. The large, mustached man approached.
"Allow me, darlin'." As he took over, he looked back at her. "Can you give us a minute? Please?" The moment she hesitantly left, Chris guarded the door and Buck carefully scooped JD up and held him close.
"Hey, hey...it's Buck. Come on, Li'l Buddy, take a breath and look at me."
After having flattened his ID against the door glass to wave away medical staff, Larabee moved to stand at the bottom of the bed and continue observing. His eyes glanced sideways to Vin's bed, but the Texan was sound asleep. 'Probably taken something', Chris decided. He smiled when he saw Buck's magic working and JD finally looking at them as though he recognized the pair.
"Welcome back, Kid," Chris said, softly.
Still panting, JD stared at him. He needed to say something, but what? Suddenly very sore and tired, the youth relaxed and rested against Buck's chest, but his gaze never left Vin's bed.
Chris became unnerved at how the wheezing boy's eyes stayed focused on Vin's sleeping form. The blond moved closer to the still sharpshooter and rested a hand on what he thought to be Vin's shoulder or back.
Chris grabbed the covers and yanked them back. "Aahh, hell. Damnit, Tanner!" His anxious gaze met Buck's.
Buck offered a knowing smile. "Go, I got this." Sensing JD becoming uneasy, he held him a little tighter.
With a nod, Chris smiled at JD and gave his arm a squeeze. "I'll find him, Kid," he promised. He then hurried out of the room, and the hospital.
'Goddamn, ornery, Texan.'
Despite dawn breaking, arc lights lit up the damaged building, and surrounding debris, as CSI, ATF agents, and cops sifted over and through the rubble. Vin paid the cab driver and stood quietly surveying the scene. He felt the sting of tears to his eyes, but then he spotted Team Five's leader, Earl Blake. Pulling himself together, Vin approached the perimeter close to the man.
Busy jotting down notes, Earl turned to find who was trespassing. He relaxed on seeing Vin. "Hey Tanner, I heard you were hurt and in the hospital."
"I was, just got out and figured I'd come see..." he tailed off as the words stuck in his throat.
Earl smiled sympathetically. "Sorry man, I know you're close to these folk."
"How're the others...the survivors?"
"All home as far as I know. Pretty traumatized, but mostly bruises, cuts, smoke...you know."
Vin nodded. He did know, but it was nice to hear it confirmed. He gestured toward the building. "How bad?"
"Salvageable, but it'll take time, and money. Did the pastor insure it?"
"Yeah, he did."
Saying the words helped some. Maybe this place wasn't a lost cause after all. One thing Vin had already decided was that no one was taking this place away from them - especially the VQL - even if he had to rebuild it brick by brick with his own bare hands. He realized Earl was talking. "Sorry?"
"I asked how JD is. Was he released, too?"
Another wave of guilt over leaving JD before he'd woken, swept over the Texan. "Uh, no. He was still out when I left. Was plannin' on goin' back soon..."
"...Good. He'll be glad to see you."
Vin turned sharply at the sound of Chris's voice from somewhere behind him, and instantly regretted it as his head spun and his ribs pinched at the action. In seconds, Chris was next to him with a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"He's awake...JD...and Buck's with him," Chris affirmed. Larabee saw the guilt in the liquid blue eyes and for a brief moment, he could almost visualize Vin's bloodied, disheveled features as if the bombing had just happened.
"Come on...you shouldn't be here." Chris wasn't about to take any nonsense, however Vin didn't offer any. He simply let Chris guide him to the Ram and drive him back to the hospital.
During the journey, Chris glanced across at his tormented partner and broke into the silence. "We'll get 'em, Vin."
Tanner's eyes closed and he eased his aching head back against the cushioned support. "Hell yeah," he whispered.
Several hours later and back at the hospital, Vin's disappearing trick earned him an extra day under observation. Consequently, he and JD would be discharged together the morning after next. By lunchtime, the team was back at the office and looking into the case with Team Five, leaving JD and Vin alone until their return later. The pair had just finished lunch and were sitting up in their beds.
"You okay...?""I heard what you..."
Both smiled, coyly. "You first," Vin insisted.
JD swallowed, and then looked across at his roommate in earnest. "I wanted to explain that, when I was still out...I heard what you said to me." He shook his head. "But I didn't tell anyone that you'd left, I swear."
Tanner's grin widened. "Hell, I know that, Kid. Shoulda figured Chris would've worked it out fast. Just my bad luck him and Buck visited early, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess." JD's fingers picked at the stark white cotton sheet, indicating something was troubling him. "Why'd you go? I mean...what did you think you could do, back there?"
Moving gingerly in the bed, Vin turned toward JD. He figured the kid deserved an explanation. "Do you recall what the buildin' looked like before the ambulance took you away?"
JD shook his head. "No."
Vin sighed. "Me, either. I needed to see what those bastards did, and what we were left with."
Fearing the worst, JD's eyes filled. "And?"
The Texan shrugged one shoulder. "We can fix up the buildin'...but we'll forever be two kids down." Vin's voice quivered. "Can't fix that."
There was a long pause. "I'm sorry," JD said, finally.
"Ain't neither of our faults, Kid." Vin straightened in the bed and hoped his words sounded more sincere than he felt them to be. He was still uncertain if he shouldn't have anticipated the attack. "But we will be the ones to put whoever did this, behind bars."
JD nodded. "Soon as I'm out of here, I'll start networking. There'll be tweets, or messages out there. Might have to decipher them, but I'll do it."
Vin offered a crooked smile at JD's conviction, and never doubted him for a moment. "I'll talk to the kids who were there that day. Somebody'll know somethin' by now. It's a tight-lipped community, but the deaths will have rocked it, and that'll work in our favor, I reckon."
JD's cheek dimpled. "Get me cell phone numbers...and I'll give you connections."
With events, and lunch taking their toll, Vin yawned and eased himself down in the bed. "Consider it done."
Around 3:00 pm the next day, and standing with agents from Team Five, Chris and his own team studied the whiteboards covered with photographic evidence. "A Molotov cocktail?" He frowned, "But there was an explosion."
Earl Blake nodded. "There were open paint cans and stripper inside the building, and a portable heater with a small propane tank." He mimicked an explosion with his hands and mouthed one word. 'Boom.'
"Two children lost their lives because of it," Josiah scolded.
Blake raised his hands. "Not making light of it, Sanchez. Just pointing out that we believe there's a strong possibility the intention was to damage, not kill."
"They can call it any way they like," Chris snapped, "but we prefer to consider it as first degree murder."
"Not to mention the attempted murder of two Federal agents," Buck said around a snarl.
"How are the guys?" Blake asked.
"Physically they'll heal," Chris replied. "JD remembers nothing after leaving home." He sighed. "Vin, on the other hand..."
Blake caught the reaction to Larabee's words from his teammates. He nodded, sympathetically. "And they're sharing a room, right?"
Chris huffed out a breath and nodded. He understood exactly what Blake was suggesting. Their joint involvement meant that Vin's pain was now JD's pain, too, whether he remembered the details, or not. "Actually, we're about due to swing by the hospital. Thanks for the update."
Blake offered a tight smile as the five men moved to leave. "I know how much you guys want this. We'll keep digging until you're ready to take over."
Buck slapped him on the back, Josiah and Ezra shook his hand. Chris simply glanced his way, and then left the briefing room.
That evening, in an attempt to lighten the mood while visiting Vin and JD, Ezra initiated a poker game and used grapes as ante. An hour or so in, Josiah smacked Buck's hand as he reached over and took one of JD's 'chips'. Buck popped the juicy treat into his mouth while gesturing with his head toward JD.
"Don't reckon he'll be needing it again tonight."
Eyes turned to look at JD. His cards were flat against his chest, his head was tilted back on his pillow, and he was sound asleep. A quick glance at Vin convinced them he was fading fast, too. Chris folded, stood, and smiled at Tanner.
"Reckon you need some shut-eye." The pair extended hands and grasped each other's forearm. "I'll be here in the morning at ten to pick you and JD up, okay?"
Vin nodded. "Thanks. Be good to go home."
"Not your home," Buck grinned. "We're all bunking together, Junior."
Vin was about to complain when Chris cut in. "We're taking over the case day after tomorrow. We can get on top of it with yours and JD's input, even if you're not yet fit for regular duty."
Blue eyes flashed gratitude for not being excluded.
Buck leaned in and embraced both men's shoulders. "We'll be like one, big happy family."
The others chuckled. Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Always the optimist, Buck."
Chris ducked under Buck's arm to escape the huddle. "Nathan, I need you to liaise with forensics, nudge them along if need be, but get me as much recorded evidence as is available. Josiah, Ezra, I want you at the incident site first thing to run a critical eye over the place...talk to the locals..."
"Now, when you say 'first thing'," Ezra cut in.
Chris smiled, but it was more predatory than friendly. "I mean, get there early. There's more than one seven o'clock in the day, Standish."
Ezra returned the smile. "I can hardly wait." His eye caught Buck leaning over JD and the touching words from the man sobered him to consider the more personal side to this investigation. "I will call you later to arrange a stratagem for the morning, Josiah."
Ezra made a quick touch to his forehead. "Goodnight, gentlemen." He nodded to Vin, and gently patted JD's leg as he left.
Aware visiting time was almost up; Buck saved his final words for his housemate. He leaned in, collected up JD's cards, and set them down on the nightstand. After fussing with the bed covers, he spoke into JD's ear. "I'll be back in the morning to take you home, Li'l Buddy. Place seems real empty without you. Sleep easy, Kid."
Straightening, he turned to Vin and stared long and hard. When the Texan nodded to the silent question, Buck winked and gestured that he was leaving. To others, his actions could appear brusque, but those who loved Buck knew how much the big-hearted man hurt to see his friends injured, even took it personally, especially if it was JD. Right now, Buck was on a low simmer, but just one tweak could instantly send him boiling over.
10:30 am the next morning, and the glare-off between Chris and Vin in the hospital room finally drew to a close. Vin mumbled something incoherent and begrudgingly plopped into the waiting wheelchair. Buck grinned, he and JD already had their own tussle. He leaned over and ruffled JD's dark hair, causing Buck's smile to widen when the youth ducked away and grumbled at him.
The door opening unexpectedly had Buck and Chris armed in an instant, and Vin and JD subconsciously reaching for where their own weapons should be. Startled stares came from the two people frozen in place at the door. Chris instantly apologized to Pastor and Mrs. Clegg, whom he'd spoken with the previous day, and re-holstered his H&K. JD stared blankly at the strangers, while Vin looked on, his expression a mix of delight, and relief.
"Good to see you lookin' well," Vin said.
Doug and Isla moved in closer. "You, too," Doug replied. The pair shook hands.
JD stared in confusion when the woman approached him and touched his bruised, scraped cheek. "I'm so sorry your offer to help our Mission resulted in you getting hurt."
Understanding kicked in and JD smiled. "No need for you to be sorry, ma'am, it's not like it was your fault."
"I hope it hasn't put you off meeting with us again, JD," Doug said.
JD straightened proudly in the chair, though not without wincing at the pull to his bruised ribs. "Not a chance, sir."
The pastor touched his shoulder. "Name's Doug, son - and thank you."
Isla tugged her husband's arm and addressed the foursome. "We can see you're heading home, so we'll leave you to it. We just wanted to see for ourselves that these two boys are okay."
Vin eyed the married couple's bruises and bandaged hands and arms and once again, much to his frustration, blue orbs welled up. "I'm real sorry about Sadie and Elias..."
Doug squatted down in front of Vin's chair. "As are we, but we will honor their memory by not being defeated by these madmen." He smiled, softly. "There was nothing you could have done, Vincent, so please release the guilt burdening your heart and join us at their memorial to help us celebrate their lives...short though they were."
He looked over to JD. "We'd love for you to come, too, if you're able."
"Try stopping me," JD rasped through a tight throat. He felt Buck's hand rest on his shoulder.
Vin coughed away the emotion in his throat. "We'll be there."
"If it's okay with you, Doug, we'll all be there," Chris promised.
Doug patted Vin's knee and stood, nodding his thanks to Chris and Buck as he did so. Isla leaned in and kissed both young men on their cheeks, then with a wave, the pair left.
That evening, at the CDC, the seven met up to catch up on the day's findings. Now, at 3:00 am, the apartment was in silence as Chris and Vin, and Buck and JD slept. Buck and Chris were on borrowed pullouts; Chris with Vin in JD's room, and Buck in his own room with JD, while the two casualties took the beds.
Something disturbed Chris and he sleepily turned toward the bed. In the moonlight streaming through the window, he saw Vin tossing and turning, but it was more than that, the Texan was - crying. Quietly, Chris got out of bed and moved to Vin's side. He found him asleep, while sobbing softly and mumbling some sort of apology. It was only when he heard the names 'Elias' and 'Sadie', did he realize where the sharpshooter's head was. He placed a hand on Vin's warm, bare back.
"Hey...Vin...wake up. Tanner, come on now, wake up...WHOA!"
Chris barely dodged a flying punch when Vin sat bolt upright, fists swinging as if fighting for his life. Setting one knee on the bed, Larabee caught the flailing limbs, and suddenly found himself looking into wide, misty blue eyes.
"You with me?"
Vin blinked twice, and finally looked at Chris before taking in his surroundings. His shoulders relaxed and Chris released Vin's wrists.
Chris frowned. "For what? You were dreaming - not your fault."
Vin stared at Chris, his gaze filled with sorrow. Chris had never seen the Texan so lost, and when he spoke, his voice was hitched and painfully raw.
"In my dreams, I...I keep seein' the blast, but...but then I see Sadie and Elias just...lyin' there...broken and bleedin'...I can't make the images stop..."
Trembling, violently, he felt strong, warm arms encircle him and gave in to the short embrace. It was rare for Vin to accept physical comfort, but Chris had acted instinctively, and it felt right for both of them.
Having been alerted by the voices, Buck ducked back from his peek inside JD's bedroom, but not before he caught Chris's acknowledging glance. He jogged back upstairs, and wasn't surprised to see the lamp on, and JD sitting up in the bed.
"Everything okay, Buck?"
Buck padded over to the bed and sat on the edge. "Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."
JD's eyes narrowed. "Don't lie to me, Bro."
Buck sighed and rested a hand on JD's covered leg. "Alright, Vin's been dreaming, but I swear, he's okay."
JD nodded and carefully eased back down under the covers. "Vin, uh...in the hospital, he's been crying in his sleep," he said, softly. "I'm worried about him, Buck, Vin's gotta stop thinking this is somehow his fault."
Seeing the pain in the boy's gaze, Buck gestured for him to shift over. He climbed on top of the covers and lay close to JD. "We'll sort it out, just like we always do. Now, go back to sleep."
"Sure hope so."
"Have I ever lied to you?"
"There you go then. Now close your eyes - can't sleep if they're open."
Buck grinned, relieved to hear some of JD's sass returning. He waited patiently until JD's breaths evened out and took a quick glance at the sleeping youth. His heart ached, but his determination to be there for JD and Vin meant he could let nothing stand in his way to help resolve this tragedy. Buck would struggle, but needed to swallow his own hurt for the injured pair and the loss of two young lives in order to stay sharp, and focused. He knew only too well how emotions could be a liability.
Wearily, he raised his arm, switched off the lamp, closed his eyes, and with fingers wrapped around JD's wrist, Buck slept.
Two days on found Team Seven deeply entrenched in the investigation. From the office, Vin was calling every contact he knew, while JD was at his work station and pursuing every Tweet, Facebook message, and email from Vin's known contacts, while also tapping into text messages from any phone numbers known, or acquired. Any lead gleaned, he instantly messaged to Ezra and Josiah who were out looking for witnesses and/or information. Due to the intense efforts, a picture was forming, and it was worth the monster headaches both JD and Vin were struggling with.
Ezra and Josiah were trawling the neighborhood stores and streets. As anticipated, nothing useful was forthcoming, but between their combined analytical and profiling expertise, they were quietly building up a portfolio of who knew something, and who didn't.
Buck and Nathan were working together in one of the briefing rooms, analyzing crime scene photos and the painstakingly gathered, catalogued, and processed evidence by Team Five and CSI of what was left of the Molotov cocktail and what it hit. A print had been successfully lifted from a portion of the glass bottle that carried the lethal components into the building, but there'd been no hits through AFIS, so the two agents hoped to find other clues in the tangle of fragments they were left to work with.
Chris walked quietly into the room and scrutinized the workspaces laden with evidence. "How'd they get a print?"
Nathan looked up. "The heat of the glass seared off a portion of a glove finger. CSI lifted the print from the underside of the material not stuck to the glass."
Chris nodded his approval. "But it's not in the system."
"No." Buck eyed his long-time friend. "Yet." He resumed his efforts. "But we'll get him."
Chris smiled at the determination. "Yeah." He turned to leave. "I'm gonna ride out with Vin - he's anxious to get off the phone and hit the streets."
"You think he's up to it?" Nathan asked.
Larabee looked back as he exited. "He's up to it."
Opting to drive his Ram to appear less 'official' while out trawling the streets, Chris surreptitiously studied his partner as they motored around. Vin was quiet, but his eyes were everywhere as they passed doorways, bus shelters, derelict buildings, and alleys. He suddenly sat bolt upright.
Chris complied, and had barely parked when Vin leapt out and approached a white male standing on a street corner and next to a large white van.
Ralphie Haralson, supplier of all things pharmaceutical from his familiar white van, rolled his eyes on spotting a Federal agent walking his way. "Mister Tanner, long time no see."
Vin glanced around. "Relax, Ralphie, I ain't here to bust you, just ask a few questions."
Haralson eyed the man's injuries. He'd heard a couple of Feds were caught in the blast. "This about the Mission hit?"
"Terrible thing. Those poor kids."
"Glad you agree," Vin hastily replied. "Now tell me what you know."
Haralson was caught off-guard by the passion in the question, but he kept his game face on. "Got nothing to offer..."
Vin shoved the man up against the unyielding brick wall, catching him, and Chris by surprise. "Don't bullshit me, Ralphie. There's nothin' that goes down here you ain't aware of, or involved in. Now, spill." He gave the man another hard thump against the brickwork for good measure.
"Vin!" Chris took hold of the Texan and wrenched him away from the startled drug dealer. "Ease up!" he warned as he faced the angry sharpshooter.
Glaring at Chris, Tanner pulled away and walked up to the parked, white van. He pulled out a large knife from a sheath on his belt and easily cracked open the van's doors before he rolled out a fitted, sliding rack from inside and gestured to it. Picking up an unopened cardboard box, Vin tossed it onto the ground and stamped on it while Haralson grimaced.
"Easy way or hard, way - your choice." Vin picked up another box.
"Okay, okay!" Ralphie paused and glanced furtively around. "But you're asking a lot, man. These guys take no prisoners."
"Then let's make this brief," Chris intoned.
"I'll give you one name."
"One name's all I need," Vin assured as he replaced the box and rejoined Chris and Haralson.
There was a pause. "Mi?aelo Guarez - locally known as Guerrero."
Recognition flashed in Vin's eyes and he straightened. "Did he give the order?"
"Yeah." Ralphie ran a nervous hand over his perspiration dotted features and moved toward his van. "Word is he also threw the bottle."
In the second briefing room, JD maneuvered his neck and shoulders to relieve the stiffness accrued during his intense morning's computer searches. He'd set the room up to brief the team on his findings and now returned to the bullpen to round them up. Walking in, he glanced across to Vin's empty desk, and then around the room. The place was deserted, even Chris's office. JD rubbed at his eyes and sighed. Tomorrow was the memorial for Elias and Sadie, and that thought sent him to snatch up his jacket off the back of his chair, and head out.
Passing the room Buck and Nathan were in, he stopped momentarily to inform them of his intentions, but realized quickly that they likely wouldn't approve, or understand, why he suddenly needed to go visit the Mission. Due to him being unconscious at the scene, JD felt detached from the events of the investigation, yet was linked emotionally. The strain from such conflicting feelings was taking its toll and JD now hoped visiting the site would help. As he headed for the elevator, his iPhone chimed and up popped a picture Vin sent to them all of known gangbanger Mi?aelo 'Guerrero' Guarez, with the header 'He's our guy - let's prove it.'
Seeing the message didn't change JD's plans, but as he left the building, an idea formed and he decided to catch a bus instead of taking out one of the team's pool trucks. Being on light duties, he was dressed in sneakers and ripped jeans, and he anticipated his appearance would be perfect for his formulating plan. He just hoped it wouldn't piss off Chris to have not run it by him first. On the bus he did some net surfing, and by the time he reached the mission, each of the team had a full profile on Guerrero. However, the twenty-two-year old gang leader had once served time in Juvie, a fact that would bring to light that he didn't throw the bottle the print was recovered from.
The drive back to the office for Chris and Vin was strained. Vin was staring at the intel from JD and kept shaking his head.
"Ralphie wouldn't lie to my face."
"He'd be crazy if he did." Chris glanced at Vin and signaled to enter the parking garage. "Okay, Guarez's prints are in the system, so we're looking at a last minute change of plan, or more than one Molotov. Either way we have a lead, and that's what we run with."
"Wish we had more before tomorrow."
Chris parked up and shut off the truck's engine. "Let's deal with tomorrow separately. You, JD, and the community need to celebrate two young lives, and then say 'goodbye', and that's what tomorrow's about - right?"
Vin opened his door. "I guess, but then..."
Chris exited the truck looked Vin in the eye and nodded. "...Then we get the bastards."
All but JD were in the office waiting on Chris and Vin. On entering, Chris sensed a mood change.
"We getting somewhere?"
Buck spoke first and gestured to a photo of the fragments. "This baby was designed to burn. It's one part liquid laundry detergent, two parts gas..."
Vin cut in. "...Like the military used in Iraq for burning out their enemies from houses?"
Buck and Nathan nodded.
Referring to his notebook, Josiah joined in. "That makes some sense. No one was giving much away, but we did discover that over the last year the VQL have escalated the violence. This isn't the first 'burn out' the neighborhood's suffered."
Ezra continued. "Previously it was beatings, stabbings, shootings - the usual gang activity, but it was suggested to us there's a more militant edge to their methodology lately."
"Sounds as though Guarez has recruited ex-military to the VQL," Nathan noted.
Chris pursed his lips. "Or ex-military have infiltrated the VQL with their own agenda."
"Ain't necessarily military," Vin defended. "The Fallujah tactics are no secret, shoot, they're probably listed on Wikipedia."
"You're likely correct," Ezra nodded, "but it still remains an alarming development in street gang activity."
"JD's been viewing footage from traffic cams - said he'll have something soon," Buck informed.
Mentioning their youngest's name caused the six men to look around. "Where is JD?" Chris asked.
Realizing they were the only team members who had been in the building with JD, Buck and Nathan exchanged discomfited looks. "Uh, good question," Buck answered.
JD stepped off the bus, shoved his hands into the pockets of his brown leather jacket, and walked the block to the burned-out Mission. When he got there, the boy was visibly shocked at the blackened smoke damage to the entryway, and shuddered at the thought of anyone caught up in there when the home-made bomb hit. He was so lost in his thoughts he didn't notice a youth wearing VQL colors walk over and stand beside him.
"You one of those that got hurt in there?"
JD jolted at the unexpected question. "Huh?"
The youth pointed to JD's bruises and healing scrapes. "You look pretty banged up, I figured..."
To his credit, the young agent recovered quickly. "Uh, yeah...yeah, I got hurt here." He gestured to the youth's black and white bandana. "I'm guessing you aren't part of the youth group." He detected a flash of regret in the dark eyes.
"No. Got me my own homies."
JD seized the moment and shrugged. "You're not missing much." He saw the question forming - the bait was taken. "If I don't come here I get slammed back to Juvie. Been told to shape up, or they'll try me as an adult next time."
"An adult? What are you? Sixteen?"
JD squared his chin. "Nearly eighteen!"
"So - seventeen." The youth smiled. "Name's Fig."
"Was just about to meet up with my bros - you wanna hang out?"
"Sure...oh, wait, gotta meet my shrink in an hour. Raincheck?"
Fig offered his hand and did a series of movements ending in a fist bump, which JD managed to follow. "Some other time, then. Later, Kid."
JD waved and turned to leave. 'Kid? He can't be that much older than me.' Pleased his spur-of-the-moment plan had panned out; JD took one last emotional look back at the Mission before heading for the bus stop. Now all he had to do was persuade Chris to let him run with an idea he had yet to tell him about.
On his return to the Federal building, JD went straight to the second briefing room, where he'd earlier set up ready for when the guys were all back and available. Happy he was set to go, he stuck his head around the door to the bullpen.
"Hey guys, you free now?"
Eyes turned his way and soon all seven were in the briefing room and watching a giant monitor. Using his iPad, JD controlled the pictures displayed on the screen, which showed how several traffic cams had caught the incident at the Mission. It also showed Vin stepping outside to wait for JD, JD arriving, and the pair just going out of shot when the doors blew, though the rear end of JD's Kawasaki could be seen rising through the air, causing sharp intakes of breath. JD zoomed in on the passing car's activity prior to the blast.
Chris cut in on seeing two men with flaming bottles half-stepping out of the front and back doors of an old Ford and throwing, before diving back inside and the car screeching off. "...Two Molotovs being thrown." He looked to the others - confirmation of their earlier conversation.
JD tapped his screen and on the large monitor, grid lines focused in on the isolated, bandana-covered faces of the two bottle pitchers, while mugshots furiously flashed up next to the frozen images. "Face recognition is tight on the guy wearing a cap, but there's maybe enough detail showing of the eyes, nose and brow to match the other - providing he's in the system, or holds a driving license." He apologetically turned his head to the others. "This may take a while..."
As he spoke, a beep sounded and the flickering mugshots stopped on one man. "...or not," JD grinned. He tapped some more, and brought up images of the mugshot, arrest sheets, and copy of a driving license for Guarez.
"Got him! Print me a copy, Kid, and send the details to my phone." Vin instantly exited the room as JD sent the data to the bullpen printer.
Chris glanced at Buck and Josiah. "Go with him. GO!"
Buck nodded and he and Josiah headed out.
"Now we need to identify the second man," Ezra noted. "I doubt Guarez will give him up."
Chris nodded. "Okay guys, good work, now let's make this watertight. Dot every 'i', and cross every 't'. JD, send this intel to Team Five, and DPD - once we arrest Guarez, I reckon the neighborhood's in for a rough ride."
Nathan and Ezra left the room. Chris also moved to leave.
Larabee turned back to his young tech. "JD?"
The boy took a nervous breath. "I, uh...I went back to the Mission, earlier."
Larabee's eyes narrowed. "And?"
"I made a connection. Met a VQL member named 'Fig', and he assumed I got hurt in the blast - which technically I did - so I didn't lie when I said so..." He noticed Chris's lips purse and the vein in his head begin to pulse. 'Just say it, JD.'
"He asked me if I wanted to hook up with his..." he air quoted with his fingers, "...'Bros'...and I took a raincheck. I reckon I could get a camera in there, wear an earwig..." His statement was met with silence, and not the good kind, judging by Chris's expression. He dropped his gaze and spoke fast and uncertainly.
"I know I should've run it by you, but there was no one in the office, and I had this urge to go visit the bomb site and it all kinda happened so fast..." he sighed. "Sorry."
Chris took several steps forward until he was directly in front of JD. "If you'd gone to that meeting without us knowing your plans, I'd be kicking your ass all the way to indefinite suspension...but you didn't. Let's get this arrest, and tomorrow's memorial over, and if need be, we'll talk about this some more."
Awe shone in JD's wide eyes due to Chris not ripping him a new one. "Okay."
Chris walked toward the door. "You get a message either to me, or one of the others next time, got it?"
JD nodded. "Got it, Bossman."
When Buck, Vin, and Josiah arrived at the known VQL hangout, DPD were waiting and ready to assist in Guarez's arrest. Wearing Kevlar vests, the three agents approached the abandoned corner store now doubling as the VQL's headquarters and with guns raised, walked straight up to three posted lookouts.
"Federal agents, step aside."
Vin's words hung in the air for a few seconds before the three young men folded under the pressure of at least a dozen weapons pointed at them. The entry into the building was noisy and swift as the armed group called out their IDs and intentions. From behind a barrage of determined bodies, Guarez stepped forward to face his imminent custodians.
"What is this?"
"This is you about to go down for murder, Guarez," Buck replied, even as his gaze constantly maneuvered between the armed gang members in the room.
"Weapons out, and on the floor - NOW!" Josiah ordered. Reluctantly, the gang members complied. DPD officers swiftly moved in to collect them up.
"Murder?" Guarez sneered, "you got the wrong hombre, Feds. Where's your warrant?"
Vin held up his iPhone and played Guarez the footage of him throwing the Molotov into the Mission hall.
"That could be anyone," Guarez defended.
"Not according to this..." Taking out the printout from JD, Vin slapped the paper onto the gang leader's chest. "We have probable cause, hombre. Turn around."
Josiah nodded he had him covered so Vin patted Guarez down and then pulled the man's hands behind his back to snap on cuffs. He noted fresh burns on the gang leader's fingers.
"Nasty burns. Looks like you've been playin' with fire, Guarez." There was no reply.
Vin leaned in, his voice was callous and gruff. "You killed two kids in that attack, and if it was down to me, I'd douse you in gas and let you burn right here and now." He felt a flicker of satisfaction in the glimmer of concern in Guarez's cold, brown eyes.
"But the law states you go to trial; and you rottin' in prison for what's left of your sorry life isn't a bad compromise." With a vicious tug, he led the gang leader out of the building while quoting him his Miranda Rights.
"We'll get you home, Brother, one way or another," one gangbanger called out as the cops were leaving, "or die trying."
Walking backwards out of the room, Josiah offered a feral grin. "You can pretty much guarantee the latter if you try keeping that promise."
Once the officers and agents were gone, and even as he was texting on his phone, the temporary self-appointed leader turned to his followers. "This is war."
Not long after being booked in, Guarez was led to an interrogation room. Vin and Chris were waiting for him inside, but it was quickly evident the gang leader would be exercising his right to remain silent. The room was eerily quiet as the two agents stared out their prisoner. Still standing, Chris leaned back against the two-way glass and was first to speak.
"Y'know, Vin, Mi?aelo's kinda pretty for a fella. He'll do well in prison - with the right 'guardian'."
Straddling the chair opposite Guarez, Vin offered a feral grin. "I reckon it's the least we can do to make sure he gets locked up with the right guy to meet his needs. What d'ya say, Guerrero? You ready to meet some new 'homies'?"
The man never cracked, but his eyes told a tale of apprehensive dread. "I'll be out on bail before you got chance to finish the paperwork."
Chris sucked in a sharp breath. "Oooh, no, uh-uh."
"Flight risk," Vin added. "Plus, this is a murder charge. Straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200...to be banged up - for life - homie."
Chris moved closer. "Who threw the other bottle?"
Vin shrugged. "Not gonna help you much, but it might give you a cell with a better view."
"He wouldn't protect you."
"And we will get him, so here's your chance to play nice - which is more than you gave Sadie and Elias." Vin stood and closed in on the seated man. "That was their names - Sadie and Elias Capello. Lost their Mama last year in a firebombing at the sweatshop she worked at. No doubt another show of force by the VQL on taking over the district." He leaned in.
"As long as I have breath in my body - that will never happen. Comprende, Mi?aelo?" When the man just smirked, Vin lost control. He dragged the gang leader up out of the chair and slammed him against the glass several times between yelling at him.
"YOU THINK MURDER'S FUNNY? COME ON THEN - LAUGH NOW - HUH? - NO? - NOT FUNNY ANYMORE? - LAUGH NOW, DAMNIT!"
Watching from the adjoining room, Ezra and Nathan rushed out and into the interrogation room to find Chris desperately trying to control Vin. They helped Chris separate the pair, and while Nathan checked out Guarez, Ezra and Chris manhandled Vin out of the room. With a knowing glance to Ezra, Chris went back inside, shutting the door behind him.
Vin yanked his arm out of Ezra's grip, but was openly shocked when the southerner body-slammed him back against a wall.
"I will NOT allow you to lose your employment over a low-life like Guarez, Mister Tanner. Now, you either get a grip, or I will be forced to expend energy on you that my body is neither happy to, nor used to employing." He saw the fury in the man's blue eyes fade before Vin bowed his head and huffed out a breath.
He looked up. "Okay, let go, Ezra, you make a good point."
Slowly, Ezra released his iron grip on Vin's body and neatened his own attire. "I'm glad we have an understanding."
Vin pushed away from the wall. "You been workin' out?"
Standish looked awkwardly around. "Please - I have a reputation to protect."
Vin grinned, but it quickly faded when Chris exited the interrogation room. "Chris, I..."
"Go home before I kick your butt outta here. I'll swing by in the morning to pick you up for the memorial."
Vin's anger returned, but it was underlined by an appreciation of what Chris was doing. Without a word, he turned and walked away.
Chris looked at Ezra, and then Nathan, who spoke when he joined the pair.
"Guarez is fine, but he's lawyered up."
Chris shrugged. "Good, I'm done with the jerkass, anyway. Let's get out of here." His teammates followed in his wake. "I want to talk to JD - we need an ID on the second guy - NOW!"
The next morning, all aggravation was set aside as Team Seven, dressed in black suits, white shirts and black ties, joined Pastor Clegg and hundreds of local residents for Sadie and Elias's memorial. With the church packed out, many stood outside and listened to the ceremony over specially located speakers as Doug took the gathered family, friends, and neighbors through the short time he'd known the pair, from around the time they'd lost their mother to a firebombing.
Doug looked sadly to the distraught father in the front row. "Sadie took up her mother's role magnificently, despite being the youngest of the pair. Elias found more responsibility came his way when dear Mr. Capello's health deteriorated with the onset of MS, believed to have been caused by the stress and anguish he suffered from the loss of Althea.
"Coming to the youth club became a respite for the youngsters, some time to themselves where they could forget about school, and family responsibilities, and just be the fourteen and thirteen year-olds they were. I was always amazed at how upbeat they were despite all they'd been through, and I was blessed to have been able to call them my friends. I will miss them - we will all miss them." He addressed their father.
"Ramón, you are not alone. We are all here for you, and I would consider it an honor if you will allow me to continue to visit with you."
The grieving father nodded and touched his hand to his heart in thanks.
"One day last month, in our old church hall, we took a video of the kids as they played basketball. Ramón has kindly agreed to let us show it." A tear escaped beneath the rim of Doug's glasses.
"Sad though this time is, now is our chance to remember two young people, full of life, and hope. They put so much love and expectation into a new beginning for the youth of this neighborhood, and will forever be with us as a part of this community."
Pastor Clegg left the pulpit and the screen behind him flickered to life. It showed youths familiar to Vin, laughing and shouting out as they played a game of basketball. The church echoed with a mix of sobs, and laughter as the game played out on screen and showed happy teenagers running from one end of the makeshift court to the other, while having fun.
Seated between Chris and JD, Vin's stalwart expression slowly crumbled as he and the others watched Elias laugh and pick up a squealing Sadie to stop her from getting the ball. JD finally had faces to go with the names, and he couldn't stop trembling. Buck stretched out his long arm to rest his hand on Vin's shoulder, effectively sandwiching JD between him and Vin, while offering Vin comfort, also. Chris's hand had moved to Vin's arm, but he wasn't sure if he was attempting to comfort the Texan, or hold onto him. The blond had an uneasy feeling Vin was on the verge of taking off.
His own eyes welling, JD heard a sniff and looked up at Vin, but the sharpshooter turned his face away, unwilling to allow the younger man to see his tears. JD's chin wobbled and he simply squeezed Vin's arm, to be reassured when Vin gently punched his thigh in return.
The sounds of screams seemed to surprise the congregation within, and it became quickly obvious they were not on the film but were coming from outside. Moments later they too were screaming as gunfire sounded and bullets flew in through the open church doors and tore through windows, showering flying glass over the folk inside.
Chris was already on his feet and armed. "DOWN! EVERYONE GET DOWN!"
Team Seven, and members of the DPD in attendance, burst into action as they braved the onslaught of ammunition to face the threat outside. Chris grabbed JD's arm, causing him to look back in surprise.
"Stay down and stay here in case you go in undercover, we can't risk them ID-ing you." He could see JD's thoughts were in turmoil. "Take care of Mister Capello and the Pastor and Mrs. Clegg."
JD nodded to accept his responsibility and instantly seek out his charges. Chris rejoined his teammates, who were already scrambling over and through terrified prone bodies and dodging gunfire as they advanced toward the open, bullet-pocked wooden doors.
Josiah was first to the doors. Closing them would be the easy option, but there were still people outside huddled on the steps and cowering against the railings to avoid the bullets. Judging by the fact there were no bodies lying around, it was quickly decided the purpose for the attack was disruption, however, the hit was callous, with no guarantees not to hit innocent folk, so there was no clemency intended for the return fire.
Within moments and by means of brief hand gestures and signals from Chris, Team Seven took point. DPD officers brought up the rear as they exited the church and fired back at the black, tinted-windowed van parked in the street with its back doors open and spewing ammunition from inside the darkened interior. For several seconds the scene resembled a Wild West shootout as the valiant, exposed agents and police officers took, and returned fire.
Vin stopped and assumed a position to shoot out the vehicle's tires. His timing was spot on as the unseen driver decided to flee the scene, but was almost instantly running on rims. Giving chase, Team Seven had little trouble cutting through the small recreational area directly opposite the church to cut short the bend the SUV screeched around and get ahead of the struggling vehicle. The furious and determined agents formed a semi-circle in the street and fired at the van's grill until steam poured out and the hood flipped up. They then maneuvered position so that all sides were covered.
"We start shooting through the panels if you aren't out of there in five seconds!" Chris promised more than threatened.
DPD officers had caught up, surrounded the rear of the vehicle, and now were holding position while also calling out for those inside to lay down their arms. For a tense few seconds there was silence before doors opened slowly, and voices from inside called out not to shoot. Guns were tossed out, followed by bandana-covered faces peering out of the opening doors.
Law enforcement officers and agents worked as one to get all occupants out, and flat to the ground on their bellies with hands linked behind heads. In less than a minute, five shooters and one driver were disarmed and cuffed, traumatized civilians were helping each other to their feet, and a fleet of squad cars and ambulances were arriving on scene.
Still armed, the six teammates repositioned to stand together. Buck glanced around and suddenly paled. "JD...?"
"...Is in the church taking care of those in there, along with Doug and Isla, and Mister Capello..."
Chris was interrupted when a gunshot from inside the church had frightened, screaming people hurrying out from the building, and the six men running hell bent for leather back to the minster, fearing the worst.
Crouching close to the pulpit, and during a lull in the shooting, JD thought he heard something at the back of the church. Gun in hand, he walked through an apse that led to the vestry, cautiously opened the heavy door, and peered inside. A window facing the side street was broken open and fresh glass lay on the floor. At the same time he realized someone was behind the door, a hand grabbed his gun and tried to wrench it off him. The young agent managed to turn and kick the door shut to protect those outside. A split-second later, he was grappling for control of his Colt with a man masked with the VQL bandana colors. In their struggle, the thrashing pair body-slammed each other against the walls of the small room until they stumbled to the floor. There they continued to wrestle for possession. JD's still-bruised ribs objected to the effort when a knee in his side made him cry out and lose momentum. He suddenly found himself pinned down by the bigger, heavier man and desperately trying to guide the gun barrel away from his face.
Just outside the vestry, Doug attempted to protect a terrified Isla and Ramón. Isla couldn't hold back the scream when a gunshot sounded from inside the sealed room.
Buck led the charge to get back inside as six earnest agents fought against the surge of frightened, fleeing people exiting the church. The gunshot and a scream from within had quickened heartbeats and seemed to slow down time. With guns in hand, the agents finally broke through the throng and looked around the interior. Buck caught Doug's eye from the huddle of three bodies close to the pulpit and his long legs had him with them in seconds. While comforting his distraught wife, and a frightened Ramón, Doug bobbed his head toward the vestry.
"In there, hurry."
With his hand on the doorknob, Buck waited until his teammates were in position, and with a nod from Chris, he turned the knob and pushed open the door. "ATF!"
Digging deep to find some strength, JD managed to force the gun lower until it was between them. Both hands strained to turn the weapon toward the other man and just as it got to gut-height, the gun went off.
Hearing a scream from outside was the first sign for JD that he wasn't dead. Shakily he pushed off the body lying on him onto the floor, and then managed to get up on his haunches to catch his breath. He touched a hand to his shirt and it came away soaked in blood. At that moment, the door burst open and he looked up in alarm, only to be relieved when Buck, followed by Chris, rushed into the room.
Buck holstered his gun and went to JD, while Chris walked straight to the masked man lying on the floor. The latter checked the man's carotid pulse.
Buck carefully pulled JD to his feet. He saw the blood. "You hit?"
Still a little dazed, JD looked down at his shirt, and then back up at Buck. "It's not mine."
To be sure, Buck ripped open the once white shirt.
"Dude, I just bought that." Even as he spoke, JD was resting his forehead against Buck's shoulder, glad of the support. He stared down at the man he'd been fighting with and suddenly felt sick to his stomach.
Buck took a shaky, relieved breath to see no wounds in JD's flesh. Noticing the pale boy glancing at the dead gangbanger, he rested his chin on the dark head and spoke, hoarsely. "It was you or him, JD."
JD looked up at Buck, took a breath, and nodded. "Sure."
The big man forced a smile. "We can buy you a new shirt."
"I suggest you put in a claim, Mister Dunne. I will be happy to assist you in the matter."
Ezra's words broke the tension and the seven couldn't help but allow themselves a smile. Vin tapped Nathan's arm and gestured to the broken window overlooking the side street.
"Let's go check no one else is out there."
Chris grabbed Vin's arm and looked to both agents. "Be careful."
Nathan nodded. Vin's cheek dimpled. "Always, Cowboy."
As they left, Chris turned to Ezra and Josiah. "Take care of Doug, Isla, and Ramón, get them some medical attention."
Both men nodded and left.
Larabee moved toward Buck and JD. "You okay, Kid?"
Still a little winded, JD nodded. "Yeah, thanks." He swallowed. "Sorry, I should've checked the room..."
"No way, Kid..."
Chris looked at Buck and in agreement shook his head at JD. "No, I should've thought of it. You did well to contain the situation."
JD finally straightened, and hoped no one noticed him favor his ribs. "So, do I go in?"
"We got 'em all, Kid," Buck argued. He noted both agents' stares. "Well, we got the ones that hit here."
"Someone else is driving this now, Buck," Chris advised. He turned to JD. "All we need is a few camera shots to ID those still active - get some names."
JD nodded. "No problem. I just wear an earwig, collar mic, and a button-Cam to the meet, and take enough footage to get some shots so we can use facial recognition. I may even get lucky and learn who threw the second bottle." Even as he spoke, JD already had another plan forming, involving more technology.
"We don't have time for a planned, full-on undercover op, so footage will be our prime objective. Let's get back and get you kitted out. Do you need to go home for some clothes?"
JD shook his head. "No, I put the ones I met Fig in the other day, in my locker..." he smiled, coyly, "...just in case."
Buck huffed. "So, I guess it's a done deal."
JD grinned. "Ha, Dunne Deal...you made a funny..." He noted Buck's stony stare. "Was just saying..." They all looked when Pastor Clegg entered the room. He glanced at the dead body, and then to JD.
"I just wanted to know if you're alright."
JD's cheek dimpled in a crooked smile. "I'm good, thanks." He shook the hand offered by the pastor.
"Thank you - you're a brave young man." He looked between the three of them. "You all are." Doug sighed. "How could they do this terrible thing on a day such as this?"
"Don't try and analyze them," Chris advised. "They have no consciences, and aren't worthy of our consideration."
Outside, Vin and Nathan each took a side of the street and checked every alley and parked car.
They came together underneath the broken church window and Nathan pointed to the immediate area. "I'll get CSI over here."
Vin nodded and watched him leave. He stared around, his expression feral. "Listen up! Ain't nowhere you can hide, assholes!" he yelled out. Holstering his gun, Vin walked back to the church entrance.
From an apartment across the way, Kareem Huston first observed the two agents, and then the one remaining - the one who had arrested Guarez. He heard the man holler out, and smirked. "Already am hidden, Fed."
He pulled out his phone and sent a text, all the while watching until Vin was out of sight.
By late afternoon, JD was kitted up and on his way by bus to the Mission area. He figured the VQL was staking out the place, albeit covertly, and so hoped either Fig, or another gang member would see him there and he'd make a connection. JD swallowed against a dry throat. He wasn't going to dwell on it, just focus on getting the photos and evidence needed to stop this gang intimidation.
In briefing room two, Chris, Ezra, and Vin were watching the images coming from JD's button Cam. "You okay, Kid?" Chris asked into the small, concealed collar-mic he was wearing. He grinned at JD's reply.
"Yup, now quit talking to me or folk here'll think I'm the bus 'crazy'."
Vin pushed fingers through his hair. "I should hit the streets. After this mornin', I reckon there'll be a few folk out there more willin' to share."
His gaze still on the screen, Chris nodded. "Okay, but take Buck."
Tanner turned to go. "Will do."
Ezra, seated, and poised to ensure the recordings were uninterrupted, looked up at Chris as the man watched Vin leave. "I have this, Chris."
Chris nodded. "I know, but I reckon Vin'll tolerate Buck watching out for him more than me right now."
"Fair point. What of Guarez?"
"Arraigned this morning and charged with first-degree murder. No bail, so no danger of him amscraying out of Denver. The guys arrested earlier will be charged tomorrow."
Ezra offered a tight smile. "Good to know."
When JD arrived at the Mission hall, he was surprised but pleased to see the place a hive of activity. It looked like many of the local residents had rallied after the morning's horrendous incident and turned out to help clean and redecorate the place. Scaffolding had been erected on the outside ready to repair and paint out the peeling pink paint on the walls of the old liquor store.
He quickly ducked back around a corner when Isla came outside with a tray of mugs for the workers. No one but Travis and Team Seven knew about JD's covert op, and he didn't want to blow it before it had even started.
"Dodging the work, Jake?"
JD turned to see Fig stood there and grinning at him. JD grinned back. "Hell yeah, got better things to do than pitch in with that."
"Yeah? Like what?"
JD's cheek dimpled. "Okay, I don't, but my folks think I'm helping out, so I had to come see how they're doing for the..." he air quoted, "...'report' they'll want when I get home."
Fig nodded approvingly. "I like your style, Jakey. You wanna hang out?"
JD grinned. "Sure. Where?"
"That's for me to know, and you to find out." Fig wrapped an arm around JD's shoulders and led him away from the Mission.
With Ezra and Josiah running the facial recognition program JD had set up, Fig was identified as twenty-three year-old Mark Ferris. To date, he'd stayed out of correctional institutions, therefore his fingerprints were not on file, so he was kept on the 'possible' list in regards to the second bottle thrower.
Close to where the get together was due to take place JD was blindfolded, but thanks to the button Cam, the team had a front row seat as to where he was taken. Chris relayed the information to Vin and Buck and in minutes, the pair were parked in an alley two blocks away.
Inside a backroom of a disused local diner, JD blinked when the blindfold was taken off and light flooded his dilated pupils. He looked around at a motley group of mostly males, ranging in age from around ten, through to early-to-mid-twenties. One gang member stepped forward to pat JD down before rejoining the others.
"Fig tells us you wanna hang out with us."
JD looked at the man speaking, and tried not to smile at the thought that not one of the gathered gang were hiding their faces. With that in mind, JD made a mental note to cautiously position his body in order to provide as much facial detail as possible. He nodded.
"Sure, beats being around..." he used a mocking tone, "...'Pastor Doug and his merry band'." He was a little relieved to see most of the group smile, or snicker.
"What you do time for?"
Taking a leaf out of Ezra's book about keeping to the truth whenever possible in order not to get caught out, he smiled. "Hacking."
Kareem Huston raised an eyebrow. "Hacking what? Your school records to change your grades?" Now the group was laughing at JD.
JD nodded. "Yeah, to start with. It was when I stole launch codes from the Pentagon I got into trouble." Not strictly a lie, he'd had the codes right there at his disposal, he just never planned to use them, just prove he could get in. Kareem looked impressed.
"Could be useful." He gestured to the others. "This is a brotherhood. We live and die for each other in our battle to control this neighborhood. Can't trust cops, so we look out for ourselves. You reckon you can handle that?"
JD couldn't help appreciating how a speech like that could sway an impressionable youngster, or a lost or lonely soul. "I can handle it."
Kareem stood and put a hand on JD's shoulder. "There'll be an initiation - to prove your allegiance to us. Stick around, this'll be fun."
JD nodded and all at once the others approached and guided him and Fig back into the diner, where they helped themselves to shakes and sodas before turning out any non-VQL seated in there and taking up the whole space. JD turned to individuals to ask them questions, or just chat about whatever anyone would give up, all the while sending precious footage back to be analyzed.
He pondered on when the leader had said about living and dying for each other. Guarez was in custody - which suggested they could be planning to do something to retaliate for his arrest. Was that what the attack on the Memorial was about? Was there to be more? What was his initiation to be? JD suddenly felt anxious about where this might lead.
In their Yukon, Vin was getting antsy about sitting and not doing. Buck was having his own private apoplexy about JD being alone in the middle of enemy territory with evening drawing in, but at least they could hear all that was going on through their earpieces. From behind the wheel, Buck glanced across at Vin.
"What is it you want to do?"
Vin shook his head. "Dunno, just feel I should be doin' somethin'."
Buck smiled. "You are, Vin. JD's just around the corner, and we're here looking out for him, and for that, I'm grateful, Pard."
Tanner was about to reply when the truck's windshield shattered and Buck suddenly slumped unconscious over the wheel. The horn blared with the weight of his body pressing on it, but even before Vin could draw his gun, his door was yanked open and many cruel hands dragged him out and forced him to the ground and onto his knees. He felt a muzzle pushed into the nape of his neck.
"We should just off him now," one voice said.
"No! Kareem's got plans, we gotta bring him in."
A sack was shoved over Vin's head. As he was hauled to his feet, the Texan kicked out and began to fight back, but a vicious blow to a point between his neck and shoulder drove him back to the ground. Helplessly dazed, his hands were tied and he was frisked before being dragged along the street and flung into what he figured was a van. Moments later Vin was driven away, and his heart clenched at the sound of the fading horn where Buck lay injured, dying - or, God forbid - dead.
Back at the diner, JD had taken out his iPhone and activated a game he'd installed - but it was no game. If a finger touched the screen - a necessity in which to play - it would instantly transmit a fingerprint image back to his laptop, which was running software linked to the AFIS database while simultaneously running a comparison to the print lifted from the Molotov bottle. Attracted by the noise the game made, and JD's chuckling, several of the youths joined him and Fig to see what he was doing. Soon the phone was being passed around as each member tried their luck in 'blowing up' a variety of military targets guarded by gofers in helmets, who squealed loudly when hit.
Back at the office, Ezra was in the briefing room and monitoring both the results, and the live streaming from JD's button-Cam. He looked up when Chris poked his head around the door.
"We've lost touch with Vin and Buck - probably ducked out for some food, or a bathroom break - but seeing as they're not answering their cells either, Nathan, me, and Josiah are heading over there." He nodded toward the laptop. "Let me know if we get a hit?"
Ezra could sense the anxiety in Chris's voice. He nodded. "Of course. We've matched the prints of several young offenders, but as of yet, not the perpetrator of the heinous firebombing."
"It's a start." With a nod, Chris left.
Inside the van, a bound and unsighted Vin was helplessly thrown around as the vehicle turned corners at high speed. Despite this, he'd succeeded in keeping track of the turns and felt confident they weren't far away from where he was taken. The van stopped and Vin prepared himself for a fight when the doors opened.
Maybe if he could break away he could get back to...
"...There are guns trained on you, Fed. You wanna die right here, then go ahead and try something."
Tanner heard the arming of several guns and with a heavy heart, resigned himself to not struggling. Being dead wouldn't help toward getting assistance for Buck. "Fine, no tricks."
Before he could fully scramble toward the door, someone grabbed his arm, dragged him across the dirty van floor and out through the doors. Vin barely kept his balance as his feet hit the ground hard and fast, and he was then pulled along the sidewalk and into a building.
While driving along after visiting several elderly parishioners, Pastor Doug Clegg halted his car and stared at the group of masked youths bundling a blindfolded man into a rear entrance to their HQ. There was something alarmingly familiar about their prisoner, and he quickly took out his cell and dialed 9-1-1. "God forgive my sharp tongue but, not on my watch you brutal, hardhearted degenerates."
Buck could hear someone panting, and forced open his eyes to see what was wrong with Vin. A fiery agony ignited in his shoulder and as he cried out in pain he quickly realized the panting was from him. Taking short, sharp breaths, Buck peeled himself off the bloodstained wheel to rest back against the seat, but screamed out in agony when the open wound in his back touched the leather.
He knew he was bleeding out, badly, but couldn't locate his cell to call for help, though he'd heard its ringtone just as he was waking up. Buck was in no fit state to look for it, so while fighting nausea, dizziness and blurred vision, his trembling fingers reached for the ignition button and the Yukon fired up. Grateful it was an automatic due to his right arm being useless; he reached over with his left, shifted into 'drive', and hit the gas.
The edge of a chair seat hit the back of Vin's legs and he was forced to sit. His arms were pulled over the seat back, and he was bound with rope to the chair. The rough material of the sack brushed his whiskers and cheeks, and mussed his hair as it was yanked off. Vin blinked, even though the room was dimly lit. While he was frisked again and relieved of his earwig, Vin glanced around at the faces staring back at him. He realized no one was masked - clearly it wasn't their intention to let him walk out of there alive. He stared back at them in defiance.
"You already shot one Fed, you plannin' on shootin' me, too?"
Kareem Huston smiled coldly. "Sure - eventually." The gang leader looked toward a gloomy corner and a large, well-muscled male came forward. "When you arrested Guarez, you took away family - killing you will be our declaration to the cops, the Feds, and the whole of this neighborhood that no-one messes with the VQL family. Webber, he's all yours."
Kareem stepped back into the shadows to join the others, and a big man moved to stand in front of Vin. With a cruel grin, he raised his meaty fist and punched Vin in the jaw, instantly splitting the sharpshooter's lower lip and the inside of his cheek.
Vin's head snapped to the side as he reeled from the blow. He spat blood and revealed bloody teeth when he smiled. "You hit like a girl."
As Webber took a step closer, Vin's leg came up and his boot connected with the man's private parts. His enjoyment at seeing Webber double over and squeal like a girl was short-lived as the big guy recovered far quicker than humanly possible and laid into Vin's face and body over, and over again, while those gathered watched in silence.
With Josiah riding shotgun and Nathan in the rear of the Ram, Chris was almost at the surveillance location when a black Yukon careering along the road almost took them out. Chris swerved sharply and watched in shock as the truck rolled straight into a lamppost. Even as he and the others were exiting the Ram, Chris had a bad feeling about the familiar truck. He hauled open the driver's door and the feeling turned into a stone-cold brick of dread settling in his gut as he found Buck's semi-conscious form slumped over the wheel.
"Buck! Buck!" Chris leaned in and sat his long-time friend back. He was surprised to see dark blue eyes looking at him.
"They...masked...took Vin..." Buck slumped unconscious and even before Chris could call out, Nathan was prying himself between the two men to take over.
Josiah's liquid gaze held Chris's. "I've called for an ambulance. How bad?"
Chris looked down at his shaking, bloody hands and then up at Josiah. "Through and through, exited at the back. He's lost a lot of blood." The blond blinked away the emotion welling in his eyes. "He said they took Vin."
"Who? The VQL?"
"Buck didn't specify - I guess so." Larabee's gaze hardened. "I'm gonna kill 'em." He went for his collar mic. "JD..."
"Don't, Chris. Let him work this. Knowing about Buck won't help." Josiah's words were some of the hardest he'd ever spoken, but he knew it was the only way. JD was in there already, he was possibly their only chance to find out where Vin was right now.
Fighting the emotion caused by the dilemma of knowing his best friend was missing, one close friend was seriously hurt, and another was alone in the middle of a turf war, Chris nodded his agreement. "Call Ezra. Update him, and ask him to tell JD to step things up."
"Should he mention Vin?"
"Not yet, JD's poker face isn't the best." Chris looked up when an ambulance screamed toward them. 'Thank God.' He waved them down and directed the paramedics to the truck.
Wiping his hands on a cloth from his bag, Nathan joined them. His eyes said it all. "He's lost such a lot of blood."
Chris watched as Buck was prepped and then put into the back of the ambulance. He'd never been so torn - go to the hospital with Buck, or search for Vin. With a heavy heart he decided on the latter. One agent missing and one active in a volatile field had to be his priority. His voice was husky as he spoke to Nathan.
"Stay with him."
With a bob of his head, Nathan jumped in after Buck, leaving Chris and Josiah to watch helplessly as the ambulance drove away.
Back in the briefing room, Ezra was getting hits faster than the software could process, so it was taking a long time to work through the queued prints before one finally matched the print found at the scene. At the same time as the laptop beeped to alert him to the match his cell rang, and as he reached over to retrieve it, he stared over at the laptop monitor. With a small inset screen also showing JD's button Cam images alongside the result icon, Ezra's eyes widened. "Oh, dear Lord."
In the diner, JD and his curious ensemble looked up from the iPhone when Kareem came back in and laid a hand on JD's shoulder.
"Time for your initiation, Jake. You ready?"
JD stood to face the man. "Sure."
"Good man, let's go." He kept a hand on JD's shoulder and, followed only by Fig, walked him into the backroom that JD was initially taken to. It was dimly lit, filled with older gang members, and echoed with the sounds of flesh and bone being struck, accompanied by pained grunts.
JD was handed a loaded shotgun and he stared in surprise at Huston. "What's this all about?"
"You ever shot anyone, Jake?"
JD fought not to react. "No. Have you?"
"Killed a cop last month, but he wasn't my first. You got the balls to kill someone?"
JD knew his upper lip was sweating; he could taste the saltiness when he licked his lips. "I'm not a killer."
"You wanna be a part of the VQL, you have to show us we can trust you."
"That's a whole other issue. I don't need to commit murder to prove my loyalty. What if I refuse?"
Kareem nodded to the shotgun. "One barrel is loaded. You try anything - like pointing it at me, I got at least a half dozen guns trained on you. If you fail to fire, then you get a bullet after we shoot him."
JD turned to see who he was referring to...and felt his whole body go numb.
While Josiah waited for Ezra to pick up a call, Chris drove the short distance to where Buck and Vin had been on stakeout. He parked up, and the pair exited the truck and leaned into the back. Josiah reached underneath the front seats, pulled out a black cloth bag and unzipped it. He passed Chris his black Kevlar vest with the bright yellow 'ATF' letters emblazoned on it and as Chris put on his, Josiah took off his suit jacket and did likewise.
"Try Ezra again," Chris urged, but even as he spoke, Josiah's phone rang and Ezra's name showed on the caller ID.
"Ezra, I've been trying to..." Josiah looked sharply at Chris. "What? Good God. Call DPD...wait..." He broke off talking on hearing distant sirens. "Sounds like they're already heading this way." Josiah could see Chris was desperate for information, but Josiah had one more thing to say.
"Head for Denver General. Nathan's already there - Buck's been shot." He could just hear the sharp intake of breath before shutting down the call. Josiah turned to Chris and placed a hand on both his shoulders.
"The second arsonist has been successfully ID'd by JD's fingerprint game, but there's another more pressing issue from images received from JD's camera..."
In the backroom of the VQL's headquarters, JD walked in front of Vin and faced him. He could just see a hint of blue through the swelling eyes of the face of a man he loved as a brother, yet that small flash of color spoke volumes alongside the tight-lipped semi-smile.
JD's eyes glistened as he cautiously shook his head 'no' at the Texan. Vin was giving him the go-ahead to kill him to save JD's own life, but the young agent already knew he'd rather die than be responsible for the death of one of his brothers of the heart. He jolted out of his daze when Kareem spoke.
"Shoot his head right off his shoulders. I wanna post what's left of it to the ATF while the cops are trying to figure out whose body they found."
Ready to do whatever was needed to get them out of this, composure washed over Team Seven's youngest. He raised the shotgun up and released the hammer.
"I got this."
JD's intention was to swing around and fire off the barrel at Kareem, despite the likelihood of taking a bullet aimed at him, but before he could, commotion and a call of 'ATF' from the diner caused uproar in the room. With his followers in disarray, Huston raised a gun and pointed it at JD who was turning to face him. Gunfire blazed bright orange in the semi-darkened room.
Now aware both Vin and JD were inside the VQL's center of operations, Chris urgently gave out orders to the gathered DPD officers. On a count of three, they first took out the lookouts then entered the diner. Chris ID'd himself as Josiah and DPD officers swiftly dealt with the surprised youths seated inside, quickly disarming them of armaments worthy of a small militia. Suddenly, from a backroom, a mix of men and youths swarmed into the diner - some armed, some not. Chris, Josiah and their backup were attempting to deal with the fresh threat, when they heard a gunshot.
Ezra was a fit man, so his breathlessness as his dash to the hospital ended when he hurried into the surgical waiting room, was more from fear than low energy.
He took a sharp breath on seeing Nathan seated on a chair in one corner, rocking, and staring at his bloodstained hands. He felt his heart clench when Nathan raised his head and the man's haunted, deep, brown eyes looked up at him.
"Please say he's not..."
Nathan stood. "Buck was rushed straight to surgery. Doc said that, until they got in there and assessed the damage..." He swallowed, dryly. "He bled a lot - he's real weak...."
"Buck's as tough as they come, not to mention the man would never leave JD in this way." Ezra pushed back the tide of emotion rising to his throat.
Nathan sighed. "Not out of choice." He slumped back in his seat. "Lord, what a mess. Vin missing, Buck fighting for his life, and JD right in the thick of a turf war."
The southerner sat down next to Nathan. "Now, as you know, I'm not a man who takes gambling lightly, in fact you could say I abhor gambling and as such, leave nothing to chance - so, when I tell you that at Thanksgiving, we will be together - all seven of us, you know you can take that to the bank."
The two men sat together, and waited, until both looked up and then stood when a surgeon entered the room. Nathan approached. "Doc?"
The man pulled off the mask hanging loosely around his throat. "I'll give Buck credit, he's a fighter. He's come through surgery, but he's quite poorly and I've kept him sedated until his vital signs pick up." He smiled, sadly. "It went well, but it's up to Buck, now. Have his family been informed?"
Ezra gestured to himself and Nathan. "Some of us are here, and the others are on their way."
The surgeon nodded. "Good, Buck's going to need that support. He's in SICU. Once he's settled, I'll have someone come and get you."
The two agents watched the physician leave, and with an exchange of hopeful looks, re-took their seats. All they could do was keep waiting; for Buck to be moved and improve - and with the others on an operation and out of contact - for them to call in.
In the diner's backroom, Kareem didn't see the shotgun's bullet coming, a fact reflected in the expression on his face as his lifeless body dropped to the floor. The recoil from the gun momentarily took JD by surprise - allowing enough time for an armed Fig to grab the discharged weapon, wrench it from JD's hands, and use the butt to strike JD hard in the face. He then tossed it aside, slammed and locked the door and pointed his own gun at Vin, but somehow JD recovered quickly enough to tackle him to the floor before Fig could fire.
The pair fought and wrestled for possession of Fig's weapon, and in the struggle, the gun was repeatedly pointed Vin's way. Weakened by the earlier beating, Vin was struggling to rock his chair fast enough to roll over, so the Texan closed his eyes to wait for the inevitable gunshot. He didn't have to wait long, and just as the sound of a shot echoed around the room, his chair toppled to one side.
Both of JD's hands enclosed the one of Fig's holding the gun. Fig was fighting dirty, but luckily, due to their ongoing struggle, the knee aimed for JD's groin went high and caught him in the ribs instead. Each time Fig managed to turn the gun toward Vin, JD succeeded in guiding it away. The young agent glared up at the youth on top of him.
"Give it...up, the cops are here, Guevara's going down, Huston's...likely dead. It's...over!"
Fig's eyes blazed with a hatred JD had never seen in them before. "Those kids dying was a mistake, should've been the Feds!" Once again he turned the gun Vin's way.
JD's body strained and quaked with his efforts to pull the gun back toward them. "Then...you'd've killed...me!"
His declaration caused Fig to stop struggling and stare down at JD. It was enough to enable JD to get the upper hand, but as the gun moved between them, he couldn't prevent it from firing. For the second time that day he felt the thud from the blast vibrate through his stomach. JD turned his head on hearing Vin's chair go over.
Lack of success in trying to shift confused, motivated, and, in some part, armed bodies away from the door where he'd heard a gunshot, was driving Chris crazy and he was starting to lose it. He fired his gun in the air toward a part of the ceiling that was already down, and all activity stopped. His gaze feral, Larabee aimed his gun in the general direction of the crowd blocking the door.
"Move away, NOW!"
Josiah and any free officers instantly joined Chris and in seconds the remaining group was disarmed, dispersed, and herded into the diner with the other youths to wait on police transport. Chris rushed to the door and turned the handle. His frustration was compounded to find it locked. He banged his fist against it.
"I'm shooting off the lock! Step back!"
Josiah placed a firm hand on Chris's chest and eased him away. "Allow me." He took a deep breath, stepped back and then shoulder-charged the door, splintering the wood and frame to take it clean off its hinges. Guns raised, he and Chris rushed inside.
As he and Ezra walked into SICU, Nathan checked his watch. Buck's surgery had barely lasted an hour and a half, so that had to be good news. The pair quietly entered the room and the nurse in attendance looked up, smiled, replaced a clipboard on the bottom bed frame, and then left. Both men approached the bed where Buck lay hooked up to machines and an IV, but before either of them could consider taking a seat, Buck's surgeon entered the room and joined them. He spoke in a low voice.
"The wound was caused by a low-velocity weapon. The bullet spiraled but it didn't flip, and its path declined enough to exit below the capsular ligament. So - less damage was caused to the shoulder than I first feared, to now leave the blood loss and infection as my main concerns. During surgery the wound was successfully debrided, and Buck received four units of blood - type specific, so to be cautious I've put him on a seven-day course of antibiotics, and on a morphine drip that Buck can control himself when I reduce his sedation." The doctor smiled. "I'll leave you all in peace, for now."
Nathan and Ezra thanked the man before returning their attention to Buck. After sitting down, Ezra cradled his cell in his hand, willing it to ring and for someone to inform them the op was over, and that all four of their teammates were in good health and on their way.
Dismissing the noise from the diner, and shrugging off the sickening feeling of déjà vu he'd experienced while wrestling with his second armed gunman in one day, JD scrambled to his knees and crawled over to Vin and his overturned chair. "VIN!"
He reached out to touch his motionless friend and jolted hard when one of Vin's swollen eyes opened. "Jeezus!"
"Get me up."
Vin's order came out as a husky whisper, and even as JD stood to up-right the chair he still wasn't sure if Vin had been shot. He was about to lift when the door splintered and burst inwards. Instinctively JD let the chair go, dropped, and covered Vin with his body.
Chris's first image through the door was to see his two agents in a huddle on the floor.
He and Josiah got to them in moments and were openly relieved to see they were both alive. Seconds later JD was helped to his feet and Vin's chair was righted, but the relief was short-lived when Vin's injuries became evident. Chris untied his friend.
Tanner shook his head and kept his eyes on JD. "I'll live," he said, softly. "Buck..."
"Still alive and in surgery by now." Chris saw the tension in Vin's shoulders ease a little and carefully took hold of him. "Let's get you out of here and to the hospital, Pard."
Vin wasn't about to argue and rested heavily against Chris, but he stopped them from walking when he heard JD and Josiah talking.
JD thanked Josiah for helping him up, but even as he did so, his eyes were scrutinizing the now vacated room, and the two bodies on the floor that he'd been directly responsible for. "Oh no..." His eyes closed and he turned his head away. "Not again..."
"Now, son, Buck's already had this talk with you," Josiah reminded. "Would you prefer it was you lying there dead? Or you and Vin?"
JD's breathing quickened and his chest tightened on hearing Buck's name mentioned, and he quickly realized a few of his teammates were missing - and one noticeably. He glanced toward Chris. Dried blood on the blond's shirt and hands set alarm bells ringing and JD's questioning stare latched onto Josiah's compassionate gaze.
"Where are the other guys? Where's Buck?" He was surprised how strained his voice sounded. He forced a grin. "Don't tell me - he dozed off again on stake-out? I swear that guy could sleep in the eye of a twister..."
"I mean, I know he worries about me when I work solo, and I'm real grateful an' all, but..."
The boy stopped talking and tried to swallow the emotion threatening to choke him. JD felt his knees start to shake and his chin gave a little wobble when Josiah set a hand on his shoulder, and he could barely speak his next heartrending inquiry. "Please tell me he's not dead."
Already deeply affected by Buck and Vin's injuries, and now JD's angst-filled question, Josiah wrapped one large hand around the boy's head, the other around his back, and pulled him in close. "I promise you, when Buck left us for the hospital, he wasn't dead," he whispered into JD's ear before easing back a little to look at him.
"But he has been shot, and was badly hurt."
It took a few seconds to register Chris's voice, but eventually JD turned his head to look at him. Seeing Vin's battered features also looking his way snapped him out of his daze. "Yeah?"
"You need to get checked out, too. Let's leave this to DPD, and get to the hospital."
JD nodded, took one last look around, and then he and Josiah followed Chris and Vin out and toward one of several waiting ambulances.
At the same time as Nathan and Ezra waited at Buck's bedside, they got busy. Nathan wrote up his report, while Ezra had the presence of mind to bring JD's laptop with him and was reviewing the stream of data from earlier. Aware that many of the VQL's gangbangers had been taken into custody, Ezra sent his fingerprint findings directly to DPD to assist them in their ongoing investigation. He reached for his cell when it rang.
"Mister Larabee, good to hear your voice...ah, I see..." He glanced at Buck. "No change, but he's holding his own...yes, understood."
Nathan looked his way when he closed down the call. "Everyone okay?"
Ezra closed the lid of the laptop. "We still are seven - as to whether all are in good health remains to be seen."
"Plain English, man."
Ezra's eyes reflected his sorrow. "Mister Tanner has suffered at the hands of his captors while young JD..." He swallowed, "...has brought his day's personal death toll to three."
"Are they heading here?"
"Yes. They should be with us anytime soon."
Nathan glanced at Buck. "Why don't you go down to the ED and meet them, Ezra. I'll stay with Buck."
Ezra stood and straightened his attire. "Excellent idea, my friend." He reached over to squeeze Buck's covered leg. "Your family is soon to be together. What say you make an appearance for them, Mister Wilmington?" Directing a touch of fingers to his forehead at Nathan, Ezra left.
In the back of the ambulance, Vin was laid out on a trolley bed and receiving treatment from the attending paramedic, and fluids and painkillers through an IV. On the opposite bed, Chris was seated watching Vin. Next to him, JD was sitting hunched over, his head resting in his hands, and was gently rocking. Vin's restricted gaze caught Chris's, and the team leader nodded. He reached out and halted JD.
"Talk to me."
"What's to say?" JD looked up, his face bruised and swollen from where the shotgun butt hit him. "Buck's been seriously injured, Vin's face looks like mush, and I killed three men only just older than myself today."
"You saved the Clegg's, Mister Capello's, and Vin's life, and likely many more because of your actions."
JD's eyes filled. "That thought's the only thing keeping me sane right now." He winced and held his side.
Chris figured JD had taken a hit to the ribs, so eased the boy's jacket back and saw blood on his shirt. He sat upright. "What's this?"
The memory of Huston's gun going off and his side burning just before it all kicked off flooded JD's mind. He waved off the question. "Just a scratch."
Chris took a closer look and gestured to the paramedic. "What hit you?"
"It's nothing, just a scratch from when I was wrestling the gun off Fig." He twisted to the side for the paramedic to take a look." Honest, I'm fine, it just stings a little."
"This is more than a scratch, and will need attention," the man confirmed.
JD's eyes widened and he glared at Chris. "No, damnit, it's fine, I need to go see Buck."
"Once you're checked out."
All eyes turned toward the supine Texan. "Been a rough day and you need help. Bucklin'll understand." Vin's drawl was soft, and hindered by swollen lips. He managed a smile, albeit lopsided, when JD nodded.
"Sure, okay." The young agent hissed when the paramedic irrigated the wound and applied a bandage. He took JD's hand to hold it in place.
"We're almost at the hospital, so this'll be okay until you get to the ER." He smiled, held JD's chin, and turned his face left and right and gestured to JD's swelling jaw. "Looks nasty. Need to clean up those scrapes, too."
JD rolled his eyes and applied an ice pack from the paramedic to his face. "Awesome."
"Could've been worse," Chris reminded, his gaze now back on Vin.
JD ashamedly hung his head. "Yeah...sorry."
"Got...no reason to be," Vin said before his swollen eyes slowly closed and his features went slack.
Chris looked to the paramedic, who had turned back to Vin to check him over. He gave a reassuring smile. "Just the meds kicking in."
"Don't give me any of that stuff," JD warned. "I need to stay awake." He turned his head toward the doors when they opened. He hadn't even realized the ambulance was no longer moving.
"I won't let them, Kid, you have my word," Chris promised as he got out of the vehicle and helped JD down.
Ezra was waiting right there in the ambulance bay and Chris handed over JD's care to him. "Josiah's liaising with DPD, and then he'll be here. I'm going to see Buck, and then I'll be back." He gestured to JD. "He needs medical attention before he goes up to Buck, see that he gets it."
"Will do," Ezra promised. He put an arm around a flagging JD. "Come, Mister Dunne, there's an ER bed with your name on it." He leaned in as they walked. "How is Vin doing?"
"Putting a brave face on it, as usual."
"It's what we do," Ezra said with a knowing smile.
JD shuddered. "God, Ezra, he took a hell of a beating," he said, softly.
"It would appear that you have suffered similarly," the southerner pointed out.
The boy shook his head. "Not even close." He looked imploringly at Ezra. "How's Buck doing?"
"Exceptionally well under the circumstances, and will be all the better knowing you're with him, so let's get you treated, shall we?"
"Let me just go check..."
"JD, Buck is not awake, so let's get you taken care of, and then you can stay with him for as long as you like."
JD was not happy, but the fact he didn't argue made the walk into the ER less fraught. Ezra sighed, inwardly. Events had taken its toll on many innocents. With two children dead, two of their team not yet out of the woods where injuries were concerned, and numerous others injured and traumatized, there would be no 'quick fix' for this case.
After Vin was given some initial treatment, he was taken for a CAT scan to look for any damage to organs and soft tissue, and also bleeding in the brain. Chris waited patiently for his return, and smiled to see Vin was more alert when he was wheeled back into the curtained area.
"Looking brighter," Chris said, not knowing who he was trying to convince more, himself, or Vin.
"Headache's easin' some," Vin confirmed. "When can I see Buck?"
"When you're cleared for a room." Chris leaned in. "I'm sorry, Vin."
"This one got away from us. I have no idea how they knew you were staking out their place."
Vin attempted a smile. "Hardly rocket science, was it? We'd already arrested Guarez, and the jerkasses who shot up the church. Not much of a leap to figure we'd be watchin' 'em."
Chris pursed his lips. "All we've really managed to achieve is to slow them down for a while - it'll never be over."
Vin reached out and his fingers encircled Chris's forearm. The blond reciprocated.
"Sure, but they've lost three of their top guys, had dozens taken into custody, and now they have us watchin' 'em, too."
Chris offered a crooked grin. "Damn straight."
While Vin was gone, JD was treated. He tried to keep calm, figuring they'd likely keep him there longer if he kicked up a fuss. He heard the Texan return just as his attending physician looked him in the eye and smiled.
"All done. A bullet made a nasty little gouge in your side. The three sutures I administered however, will dissolve." He scribbled on a pad. "No broken bones in your face, but it could take up to a week for the swelling to go down so I've written you a prescription for Percocet. If they make you nauseous, take them with food. You should only need them for a few days."
Ezra reached out to take the script. "I will attend to this as soon as my young friend is ready to leave." He leaned into JD. "A bullet, Mister Dunne?"
JD cautiously sat up and shrugged. "Like I said, just a scratch." He turned to the doctor. "Can I go, now?"
The doctor nodded. "Yes, I don't see why not. Any problems, don't hesitate to return."
JD shook the man's hand. "Thanks, Doc." He eased himself off the bed and turned to Ezra. "Let's go see Buck." He looked up when the curtain was scraped back and Chris looked in.
JD nodded. "Told you I was fine." He noted the stare. "Just saying..." He stood, relieved to be on his feet, but even dodging his head, he still couldn't see Tanner. "How's Vin, Chris?"
"Just taking a nap, and is about to go up to a room, soon. We're waiting on the results of his CAT scan, but the Doc seemed confident there were no initial signs of internal bleeding. He's gonna be kept in tonight, either way."
"Will you let us know when we can visit?" Ezra asked.
"Chris..." JD interrupted, "...did you see Buck?"
Larabee nodded. "Yeah, Kid, I've seen him. He's doing good, and having you there'll make all the difference."
"Sure hope so." JD sighed and checked his watch against the clock in the hall - 2am. "Let's hope today's better than yesterday, huh?"
"Of that, I am confident," Ezra said with a hint of a smile.
Nathan and Josiah looked to the door of ICU and smiled on seeing JD and Ezra enter. The former waved in return to Nathan's greeting as he hurried straight to Buck's side. He reached out a trembling hand toward the unconscious man's bandaged shoulder, and then clutched one slack hand in his.
JD let the threatening tears fall. "Aww, Buck. Whatcha go and do this for?" He rested his forehead against Buck's and closed his eyes in a vain hope it would block out all that had occurred over the week. It didn't, and suddenly JD felt exhausted, and lost. He lost track of time and jolted when warm hands gently gripped his shoulders. He opened his eyes to see Chris standing there.
"Vin's in a room two floors up."
Taking a deep breath, JD straightened and nodded. "Can I have a minute?"
Chris patted the boy's back. "Take all the time you need."
"It's not that I don't wanna see Vin..."
Chris smiled. "He knows."
The others followed Chris out to visit Vin, giving JD time alone with Buck.
Nathan's reaction when he walked into Vin's room summed up the mood perfectly. He hadn't seen the Texan until now and was dismayed at the battered features facing him.
"Dear God, Vin...what did they do to you?"
Tanner peered through bruised eyes and spoke through clenched teeth. "Nothin' that won't heal. How's Bucklin?"
"Comfortable," Nathan replied. "JD's with him."
"Figured. Best thing for both of 'em." He looked to Chris, who had resumed his seat. "Kid did good, Chris - kept his head..." He swallowed dryly. "Paid a heavy price."
Josiah nodded and carried a chair over to the side of the bed, next to Chris. "As did you and Buck."
"Bucklin and me'll be fine. Killin' someone messes with your head. JD shouldn't be alone right now."
"He's not," Chris reminded. "And we'll be there for him for as long as it takes, just like for you and Buck. Now, didn't I hear the Doc telling you to rest and avoid talking too much?" He turned to the others. "He's got hairline fractures to both cheekbones."
"Lyin' here in bed on my back, ain't I?" Vin couldn't halt the grimace from the pain spiking through his body and face. "Okay, point taken, I'll shut my yap."
For the first time in what seemed like days, the four men chuckled. It felt good. Ezra offered to step out to get coffee. It took a good twenty minutes, and by the time he returned, Vin was sound asleep. Nathan pulled his chair closer to Vin.
"Vin was right, JD shouldn't be alone right now."
Chris nodded and stood. "I'll go."
Despite his weariness, JD remained standing at Buck's bedside and was talking up a storm. "...So I haven't seen the results yet, but everyone in the diner wanted to play on the game, so I reckon I got plenty of prints for analysis. The plan was all going so well until Kareem took me into..." JD's features crumpled.
"Aww Buck, If I hadn't had the idea to go in undercover to get photos and such, you and Vin wouldn't be here - like this - I'm real sorry, Bro..."
There had been an incredibly dense fog clouding his thoughts and weighing down every limb until - until those words - spoken by a voice he loved to hear - broke through the eerie silence and cleared away the murk. Problem was, the clearer his mind became, the more pain penetrated through along with it. The darkness was reclaiming him...
...But that voice. So much grief, so much pain. Buck opened his eyes and saw JD's head bowed. Something warm and wet bounced off his bare arm.
"...And now I have to accept the fact I've killed three men. What a mess. I can't get the images out of my mind...feels like my head's about to explode."
"Ruin...my nice white sheets if...it does."
JD looked up sharply to see a hint of blue peeking at him. But how could that be? Ezra told them Buck was sedated. "Hey...you're awake."
Buck's voice was low, and gruff. "How am I supposed to sleep with you begging me to wake up?"
'Damn, he heard that?'
"Me? Beg? Man, you get shot and your ego goes right through the roof." The pair stared at each other.
Despite the attached IV, Buck reached over and placed his hand on top of JD's. He squeezed, or hoped he did when JD's face scrunched up as he fought the emotion overwhelming him.
"We're gonna talk - get through this. We do what we have to, Kid, and if we didn't, there'd be even more innocent people hurt or killed by crazies like the VQL."
JD leaned in. "You could have died - Vin could have died. Jeeze, Buck, they had me holding a gun on him and ordering me to shoot."
Buck fought the urge to sleep for just a minute more. "Thank God it was you. Anyone else - and Vin would be dead."
Buck's eyes closed, and though JD desperately wanted him to stick around, he knew Buck needed to rest. "Thanks, big brother."
Chris had been watching Buck and JD from the door. Now the pair had stopped talking, he joined JD and after pressing the assist button, he rested one hand on JD's shoulder. "You brought him back."
JD didn't look at Chris, he stayed focused on Buck. "Nah, Buck did that all by himself." He tried to covertly swipe at his eyes.
"Like Buck said, we'll get through this. Vin, Buck, you...the team live to fight another day, right?" He smiled at JD's nod. "By the way, on the way up to see Vin, Ezra told us who the second Molotov pitcher was."
JD snapped to attention. "Yeah? Who?"
A doctor and nurse entered to answer the call button, and after telling them Buck had woken up Chris guided JD out of the room.
"Who, Chris?" JD urged.
"Mark Ferris - AKA 'Fig'."
JD's jaw dropped. "Fig? FIG! I was with that rat bastard the whole time - THE WHOLE TIME!" He raised his fist to punch a wall but Chris stopped him.
"Really? You want to add a broken hand to your list of injuries?"
JD's anger wilted. "No wonder he was watching the Mission..."
Chris gently punched his arm. "Why don't you go see Vin?"
They both looked when the doctor came out of ICU. The man was smiling.
"No way should Buck have woken up so soon, but he has, and all his stats are good. We'll move him out in the morning..." he checked his watch, "...uh, in a few hours, and into Vin's room. Maybe having Buck there will convince Mr. Tanner that another forty-eight hours in the hospital will do him good."
"I doubt it," Chris grinned.
"Look, these guys will sleep for some time. Why don't you all go home, rest up, and come back later?"
JD hadn't seen Vin yet. He went to shake his head, no.
"Actually, that's not a bad idea." Chris extended his arm and the pair shook hands. "Thanks."
"Can I see Vin? Just for a minute?"
Chris grinned. "Well hell, yeah, I'm not a tyrant..." he wagged a finger, "...don't you dare answer that." It warmed Chris's heart to see the beginnings of a smile. On the way to see Vin, he talked JD through the impending interviews for the shootings in the hope it would ease the young agent's worries - at least for now.
Outside Vin's room, Chris looked in through the window. He caught the eyes of his teammates and his gaze was enough for the three men inside to leave Vin's side and join Chris and JD in the corridor. As they approached, each man patted or squeezed the young man's arm and while Chris told them about Buck, and also what the doctor had suggested, JD went inside the room.
JD stood staring down at Vin for some time before a drawl broke into the silence.
"It's kinda unnervin', bein' stared at."
JD jolted, and then huffed out a soft laugh. "Shoot, quit doing that." He swallowed. "How're you doing?"
"'Bout the same."
"Glad we cleared that up." Vin's cheek dimpled.
"Thanks, Kid.""I'm sorry, Vin."
"Wait, what are you sorry for?""Why are you thanking me?"
The pair smiled.
"Me first. Why are you sorry, JD?"
"If I hadn't gone undercover you and Buck wouldn't have..."
"No way we could know it would've happened one way or another. At least this way I had a friend watchin' my back."
JD closed his eyes for a moment and nodded. "One way of looking at it I guess."
"The only way." Vin made a fist and the pair fist-bumped. "Go home and get some rest." Vin knew JD would struggle to sleep, but he had to start somewhere.
"See you later."
"You'd better, I'm gonna go nuts if you don't sneak me in some decent food."
"Burger and fries?"
They both knew Vin couldn't chew yet, but just ribbing in their usual way felt good. JD left the room and crossed over with Chris as he entered.
"You still here, Cowboy?"
"You are, so where else would I be?"
They exchanged looks and Vin nodded. "Gonna get some shut-eye. See you later."
"Chris. I want out by Thanksgiving."
Larabee nodded. "Even if we have to go straight from the hospital to McDonalds, we'll all be eating Thanksgiving dinner together."
Chris took JD home with him and put him in the room he usually doubled in with Buck when they stayed over. They were both still asleep when Chris's cell rang around 10 am. The blond sleepily rolled over, picked up the phone and peered at it. The number calling wasn't one he recognized. "Larabee." He sat up.
"Hey Doug. Yeah, both doing good, thanks. To me? Sure, I can swing by before I head to the hospital. Where? Okay, later." While wondering what Pastor Clegg wanted to talk to him about, Chris swung his weary body out of bed and went for a shower. After he dressed, he made breakfast and got JD up so the pair could talk before their day began.
THREE DAYS LATER - THANKSGIVING DAY
In Buck and Vin's hospital room, the injured pair were seated in wheelchairs while JD sat on the bed swinging his legs. With Buck sharing his room, Vin was easily persuaded to take an extra day to recover. Both casualties looked pale, Buck especially so, as Vin's features were still colorfully bruised, but both were in good spirits. JD glanced sideways at Buck. He was worried Buck was leaving the hospital too soon, but the doctor had given Nathan very specific instructions as to the care of both Buck and Vin, and with Chris insisting the team stay over for the Thanksgiving holiday, there was little chance of an unanticipated relapse.
Noise from the corridor heralded the arrival of whoever was driving home the three in the room, but JD was surprised that only Chris and Josiah came in.
"Brothers, you are free." Josiah's wide, toothy smile triggered a round of grins.
"So, McDonalds?" Vin teased.
"Not quite," Chris replied as he grasped the handles of Vin's chair. "But we do have a stop to make." He glanced at JD and winked.
JD's smile lit up his face as he slid off the bed and took control of Buck's wheelchair.
"Where we going?" Buck asked.
JD ensured the jacket with one empty sleeve was fully covering Buck's sling-supported arm and shoulder. "You'll see." He leaned over to look at Buck. "But we'll go whenever you and Vin want."
"Is there food?" Vin asked.
Chris pushed the chair out through the door. "Oh yeah."
Chris chuckled. "We'll be sure to liquidize any food for you."
Tanner huffed through continually clenched teeth. "G-r-e-a-t."
JD leaned in and spoke softly. "Really, Buck, if you're not up to this..."
Buck reached up and patted JD's hand. "I'll let you know when I'm done - promise."
Chris began to wonder about their decision to accept Pastor Clegg's invitation when they pulled up outside the Mission and Vin, Buck, and JD went silent. All three were genuinely surprised at their location, even though JD knew they were joining the Cleggs for the Thanksgiving meal.
The building's exterior was no longer pink, but white, though the scaffolding remained in place for more external work to be carried out. Chris turned to face his passengers.
"Sorry, JD, I didn't tell you the full story." He raised a hand. "Just trust me and Josiah on this, okay? We talked it over, and - well, I guess closure's a lot to hope for, but we think this visit will be good for you - for all of us."
Vin knew he hadn't hidden his reaction well, but he nodded anyway. Going back in there might just help. Minutes later, all five were out of the car and slowly heading toward the building's entrance.
As they walked into the hall the smell of smoke still lingered, but it was mingling with the aroma of fresh paint. There was still much to do inside, but the interior had been cleared enough to accommodate a large quantity of tables placed end to end to form one huge, bench-laden feast.
One wall was draped entirely in an oversized dustsheet, while around the tables stood dozens of residents and the kids of the Mission youth club, headed by Doug and Isla Clegg. Ezra and Nathan moved to greet their teammates, and as they did so the people gathered began to clap, which turned into tumultuous applause, whoops, cheers, and whistles. As it began to diminish, Doug and Isla stepped forward and went from man to man shaking hands, or hugging. They took particular time over JD, Vin, and Buck.
Doug's hand made a sweeping gesture. "Welcome. We hoped to be in by Thanksgiving, and while we're not fully up and running, we were able to progress enough to celebrate our first Thanksgiving here." He directed attention to the covered wall.
"The choice of Mural for that wall was decided unanimously. Vin, JD, would you do us the honor of unveiling it?"
Still a little taken aback, the pair walked up to the wall and each took a side. Vin looked to the youths gathered and raised three fingers, to which they responded.
"Three, two, ONE!"
On one, Vin and JD each grabbed a part of the sheet and pulled it away from the wall. There was a collective gasp and silence reigned for a while as all gathered stared at the full-length painting of Elias and Sadie, and the aphorism 'Having somewhere to go is a HOME; Having someone to love is a FAMILY; Having both is a BLESSING. We are blessed.
Eyes shimmering, both young agents walked backwards to join their teammates, neither one breaking eye contact with the mural. JD was being introduced to two faces he'd only known as names and images on a DVD, while Vin was reminiscing about two young people who were once full of life, and ambition, and hope. Chris squeezed Vin's arm.
The Texan looked at Chris and offered a genuine, but sad smile. "Couldn't be better. We can't bring them back, but now we'll always remember them - they'll always be with us."
Buck's arm looped around JD's chest and he pulled him back against him. "That's why we do what we do, Kid."
JD nodded and leaned carefully back against his surrogate big brother. "Yeah."
Doug and Isla called for all to take their seats, and soon, under the ever-watchful eyes of Sadie and Elias Capello, the new Mission hall celebrated its first Thanksgiving.
And as Seven men - friends - brothers, gave thanks, their hearts began to heal.
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