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Twilight's Last Gleaming by Deirdre

This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.


Prelude:

July 2 2001, twilight

The gentle music that caressed his ears kept him in the comforting cocoon. The soft spray kissed his face like a graceful butterfly's wings. He inhaled deeply, the scent of the air was salty and combined with the breeze and the rhythmic tide, it left him in a hypnotic state. Gulls cried softly overhead and the rushing waves were stronger than a lullaby. He licked his dry lips and tasted sand and salt. Prying an eye open, he viewed the scene from an impossible angle. The foaming spray licked at his feet and rushed to his knees. Foam? Waves? Salt Air?

"Ocean..." he rasped, his dry throat protesting. He raised his head and regretted it immediately, as he was rewarded by a fierce pounding. His stomach rolled and he tried to catch his breath, totally confused by the presence of the alluring green sea.

"Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore..." he muttered, wincing and groping blindly with his left hand. His fingers touched fabric, then flesh. He jerked his head up and saw the open, unblinking gaze of a corpse, his throat slashed open.

"Shit!" he hissed, kneeling up and noticing the man wore a uniform and a badge. A nearby scream split the tranquil twilight sky and his head shot up. A group of middle-aged tourists and some teenagers were gawking at him. The roar of the ocean and the screaming pain in his head didn't quell the cries of horror from the onlookers. He blinked as a flashbulb caught him full face, blinding him for a few seconds. He raised his hand to shield his eyes and saw the bloody knife he held.

"Aw, fuck..." he dropped the knife and eyed the crowd again. They were on a boardwalk, raised above the sand. Several buildings dotted the landscape behind them and a pier jutted out in the distance to his right. It was lit up by a scheme of rainbow colored lights; a large ferris wheel and several other rides garishly assaulted his pained gaze. Where the hell was he? What happened? The roaring headache didn't supply any answers. A siren wailed in the distance and he quickly shook his head clear. He stood and staggered a few feet, attempting to seek aid. But before he could open his mouth, one of the now growing crowd shouted "Get the cops... that guy killed a cop... hurry!" Another flash of light jarred his aching eyes.

His legs took over and he fled under the safety of the network of pilings below the boardwalk. He knew not where he was going, only that it would be far away from the persecutors. He ran until his sweat-slicked skin stuck to his soaking wet clothes. He ran until his sides ached and his legs were rubberized. The pilings ended and the black night became his friend. He eyed a cluster of old, delapadated buildings, whose windows were covered with boards. He went past the first two and decided to enter the third. He managed to crawl up the steps to the second floor and over near the window. A board was unhinged and he pushed it aside.

He collapsed against the wall, raising his face long enough to see the distant lights of the ferris wheel. The whirling colors only aided his dizziness, creating a distorted kalidiscopic effect. Then the venomous fangs plunged into his burning brain, scaring a cry from his dry throat. The stifling room seem to shrink and he found it difficult to breathe. The darkness surrounded him, even the phantoms that lurked in the shadows scorned him. It was an agonizing pain, beyond the pounding jackhammers in his head and the throbbing ache all over his worn body. He clenched his fists and eyes, pushing against the wall of agony. Their faces haunted him; a grievous, horrid loss of two stellar federal agents... two good friends. Their presence seemed to surround him and his guilt drove them away. Exhaustion took over and the pain in his head reached a shrieking cresendo, sending his body through a black velvet void and onto the floor.

February 12, 2001, Denver

Soft folds of conversation fluttered around the two men. The quiet hum of the voices reflected the light and airy atmosphere in the large room. Cream walls were accented by pale pink and jade adornments and pictures. Large, flourishing plants displayed their leaves proudly from elaborate, ceramic planters. The tables were outfitted in crisp, pale pink linen cloths, bone china with delicate blossoms on the front and glistening crystal. A waitress bowed gracefully and left a new overladen plate, taking the empty one with her.

"Awful nice o'ya, Ma'am," the blue-eyed man drawled, giving the blushing girl his best smile.

"Hey, now," Buck Wilmington warned, kicking his partner under the table, "button up that killer smile, Slick, you're on duty."

"Pays t'advertise," Vin Tanner beamed, cocking an eyebrow at the older man. He tugged at his collar and made a face, scowling at his partner across the table. "Yer just lovin' the hell outta this..."

"Why can't you relax?" Buck chuckled, eyeing the squirming body, "You clean up real pretty." He winked at the sharpshooter, who was outfitted in a gray designer suit, white shirt and a gray and mauve tie.

"If I didn't know better," Vin scowled, tugging at the tie and wincing as Buck kicked him. "I'd swear Ezra did this on purpose," he noted of Wilmington's usual partner in crime. The two were highly successful when working as a duo undercover, but Standish was on vacation. The meet wasn't scheduled for two more weeks. Then a rumor circulated that the much-sought-after Asian Mob Lord was arriving from Beijing early. Vin was recruited to stick with Buck for this afternoon's detail.

"Quit playin' with that tie," Buck chastised, "You're supposed to be a successful businessman."

"Feel like I'm wearin' two sets o'skin..." the Texan muffled, stuffing another dumpling in his mouth, "... just don't set right."

"Yeah," Buck said with a straight face, "I can see how it's affecting your appetite. Jesus Vin, you're gonna put this place out of business."

"I'm a growing boy," Vin crowed, eyeing the dazzling display of oriental delicacies.

"You keep eatin' like that and your gonna grow right out of that shirt."

"Please... help... me... I'm dying... please..."

"Aw, hell Kid," Vin responded to the message that both he and Buck heard through their micro-sized earpiece. "...it ain't been but a few hours."

"Yeah," Buck agreed, plucking an eggroll, dumpling, a skewer of chicken, two stuffed shrimps and a bunch of chicken wings from the large tray. "You should be in here doing real work. This is life and death stuff." He winked at Vin, as both smiled, hearing the string of curses that the youngest spilled into the comm-link.

"Ya watch yer mouth, J.D.," Vin teased, "Hey Buck, did ya try these bitty chicken legs?"

"Delicious Vin," the other replied, his mind whirling, "Here, have the last jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon, I insist."

"Nah, ya keep that one, Bucklin," Vin caught on, smirking. He could just imagine J.D.'s stomach growling. "I got plenty o'these mongolian steak pieces, egg rolls, dumplin's and a pile o'bitty critter legs."

"...bitty critter legs?" Josiah boomed, trying not to laugh at J.D. Dunne getting more furious with the antics of the two other men. He and the youngest were outside the gourmet Oriental restaurant. They were housed in the surveillance van, eating would-be hamburgers. Nathan was battling a stomach virus at home. The blond leader of the group, Chris Larabee had jury duty. The buy wasn't supposed to take place for three more days, which would mean both Chris and Nathan would be able to join them. This was preliminary stuff, staking out the best known gathering spot for Xun Chang and his contingent. The Asian mob lord was a major player in the international arms game. The F.B.I. heard from their overseas operative that Chang was looking to score big in the Denver market.

"Yeah, 'siah," Vin responded, picking one up and squinting. "Ain't quite sure what the hell it is... ain't as big as m'little finger."

"Frog's legs," Buck said somberly, then grinned broadly as Vin paled.

"Aw, hell..." Vin dropped the tiny morsel and glared at Buck. "Yer shittin' me!"

"You can clean him up but you can't take him out," Josiah winced at the tracker's colorful assessment.

"How's your lunch, Kid?" Buck inquired, craning his neck to see the van across the street. As if he knew he was being watched, the youngest flipped an irreverant salute to his best friend.

"Hah!" Vin rasped, shaking his head and taking another eggroll, "and ya say I need cleanin' up. That's real Ivy League." He saw Buck fidget and smiled. "Ya gotta go again? Damn yer worse than an old man."

"Shut up," Buck scowled, "I drank a lot of water."

"Go on," Vin nodded, "there ain't nuthing goin' on here."

Buck dropped his napkin and made his way to the men's room. He was washing his hands, when his beeper went off. He frowned and pulled it out, then his concern rose as he read the numbers. He exited the bathroom and quickly found the payphone in the corner.

Vin eyed his watch and nodded as the waitress removed the empty tray. She smiled at him, her delicate features were perfectly suited for the tiny face.

"Would you care for some dessert?"

"Whatcha got?"

"Pineapple, almond cookies, ice cream..."

"Ice Cream," Vin declared, pouring another cup of tea.

"Vanilla, Chocolate or Orange?"

"Yes, yes and yes." Vin grinned boyishly, giving her another deep blush. He sat up and drained a glass of water and watched her leave. "Vin, yer a handsome devil," he cooed, eyeing his reflection in the mirror on the adjoining wall. He straightened his tie and heard J.D. and Josiah laughing. "Somethin' funny?" he snarled.

"Aside from you talking to yourself and preening..." J.D. chuckled, "No... not much, Vin..."

"Jealous, Kid?" Vin egged, then his smile faded when he saw Buck's pale image reflected in the mirror. He whipped around and stared openly at the colorless face and hand gripping the railing on the small steps that led into the Dining Room. He covered the mic on the tie clip he wore and caught Buck's eye.

"What?" he mouthed, his face a mask of concern. "Aw, hell... Chris was in an accident... Ez..." he watched the head shaking negative. "Nate? Who then? Talk to me Buck..." he implored of the tall man who was now in front of him. His posture left his back to the surveillance van.

"Everything okay?" Josiah asked.

"Fine," Vin replied and covered the mic again. "What the hell is it?" he tugged on Buck's sleeve, not liking the solemn face at all.

"Frank... Frank..." Buck swallowed, still in shock.

"Sit down, before ya keel over," Vin ordered, but Buck shook his head. He handed Buck a full glass of water and saw his hand trembling as he took it. The motion sent the water onto the table, before Buck got the glass under control.

"Dammit Buck! What the hell happened?" Vin hissed, his eyes frantic. He gripped Wilmington's navy blue sleeve hard.

"Frank's dead," Buck said flatly, eyes dark and dull. "I can't believe it, Vin. He's gone... Jesus..."

"Aw, hell, Bucklin," Vin whispered, swallowing hard, "I'm sorry... he was a helluva guy," he noted of Buck's first partner. He broke in a very young Buck Wilmington, and they were partnered for six years, until Frank Delassi retired That was when Buck was assigned a new partner, a brooding blond named Larabee. But in the dozen years since, they'd grown very close. The Delassi's had no children and unless he was on assignment or in the hospital, Buck went to the Delassi's every Tuesday night for dinner. More often than not, he took J.D. or Vin with him; they all had been adopted by the gregarious couple. Vin knew how deeply Buck felt about the older man, who was like a father to him. "His heart?"

"No... he was murdered..." Buck rasped, the harsh pain increasing with every moment. His mind was numb and his senses dulled.

"What!" Vin hit the back of the booth hard, "How? When?"

"I don't know..." Buck stammered, running a shaking hand through his hair. "...all the details... the cop said they tortured him first... made her... watch... Fuck..." he choked, wiping his moist eyes. He'd taken his comm-link and mic off at the telephone and they were still in his trembling hand.

"Vin, something going on?" Josiah demanded, not liking Buck's back to his vision.

"No," Vin hissed, peeling his fingers off the mic, "...we're jus' talkin' 'bout the kichen and back door, in case we gotta run," he replied, then covered the mic again.

"...they uh... someone... a Detective Baker... beeped me..." Buck swallowed hard, taking a breath to settle his quaking nerves. "...she... Grace... couldn't... they found my numbers on the fridge... damn." He paused, covering his burning eyes with his shaking hand. He then took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. "They think it might be one of our old cases, someone looking to settle a score. They want me to come over..."

Vin saw how hard Buck was struggling and realized the older man would be no good to him in this state. He glanced at his watch and noted the approaching hour of three p.m., when their detail was ended.

"At the house?" Vin guessed and saw the dark head dip. "Go on... I got this."

"Chris'll shit a brick." Buck managed, thinking of how adament the leader was about the rules. Breaking cover was taboo and Buck hesistated, drawing his pained eyes at Vin. "I can't just leave you... what if..."

"Yer a liability, Buck," Vin insisted sharply, gripping Buck's arm, "Yer head ain't here. Our relief'll be here in fifteen minutes," He noted of the F.B.I. agents they were working with. "J.D. and Josiah are right outside. Ya look awful sick t'me," Vin eyed the rapid swallowing and gray complexion. "I'm thinkin' yer about t'heave, best get t'the bathroom..." he opened his palm and Buck dropped his equipment into the outstretched hand. Vin slid his free hand into his pocket and dropped his keys in Buck's palm.

Buck took the keys and blinked, before gripping Vin's hand. His strong grip was full, and his eyes reflected the heartfelt gratitude at what the young agent offered. He caught the emotive stare and nodded once, before retracing his steps. He walked past the bathrooms and out the side entrance of the large restaurant.

"Where's Buck going?" J.D. demanded.

"Bathroom."

J.D. and Josiah exchanged a curious glance at the sharp tone, not usually found in a Tanner voice. Josiah peered through the binoculars, through a swirl of snow and saw the waitress reappear, putting what appeared to be a mountain of ice cream before Vin.

"Holy Shit!" J.D. exclaimed. "Vin you dog... Vin?" J.D. cocked his head as the sharpshooter never made a move to lift a spoon. His arms were at his sides and his head bowed. "Is he praying over his ice cream?" J.D.'s voice rose and Josiah shrugged.

Vin watched the ice cream melt and thought of the last time he'd seen Frank. It was just two weeks ago. He and J.D. stopped over after their hockey game. Grace immediately plied food into them, clucking her tongue at Vin for being so thin. He smiled, recalling how the small things the couple shared said so much of their love. Her hand on his shoulder every time she passed him. His 'thank you, Cara Mia' after every meal and the little stolen kisses in the kitchen. How they took a walk every night and held hands. What a tragedy... he couldn't imagine how horrible Buck must feel.

His mouth suddenly became as dry as the desert and his glass was empty. He rose and walked over to the stand by the kitchen, where a large, icy pitcher of water stood. He lifted the pitcher and saw a blur of suits through the small glass window over the kitchen door. He bent lower and whispered into the mic.

"Josiah... Buck's sick... I need ya in here... Josiah?"

"What the hell?" Josiah pulled his headphones off and adjusted the balance. The burst of static caused him to jump. "Vin... copy?" He eyed the back of the gray suit, standing rigid by a group of plants.

A group of men in dark coats crossing through the entrance caused the eldest agent on the team to sit up straight. Josiah frowned and pushed the expensive goggles against his face. "What the hell's the matter with that boy? Where's Buck? Vin didn't see 'em yet." He pulled his mic up and hollered, "Vin! You got company... four jacks all packin'..."

"Vin, snap out of it!" J.D. barked, eyeing the quartet enter the restaurant.

"Damn!" Vin rasped, grabbing his ear at the loud static that bit it hard. He pulled the piece out and moved closer to the door.

"Buck!" J.D. shouted, "Buck, get out of the bathroom, Vin's got company. Buck?"

"Where the hell is Buck?" Josiah growled, pushing the buttons on the recorder of the expensive camera. It was tiny, but effective, hidden inside the plant by the kitchen doorway.

Vin put the pitcher down and turned, just as the kitchen door opened a bit. It was just enough for him to see who was in the back. "Shit!" he whispered. "Chang's here... it's going down... I..."

"Vin..." J.D. hissed, pulling off the headpiece as another burst of static erupted. "I can't hear him, Josiah. He must be near a transmitter or they're blocking it from the other side. BUCK! Buck, can you hear me?"

"Come on, J.D." Josiah tossed his equipment down and bolted, "We're outta time, call it in."

J.D. radioed for backup and then picked up his gun, before sliding from the seat. He squinted through the harsh sunlight and snow and paused for traffic. He held up his badge, halting the vehicles and followed Sanchez across the street.

Vin pulled out his gun and laid it against his hip. He shifted the plant and slid the camera out, hugging the wall with his lean body. He eased into the alcove and peered inside the door. He saw Chang and one of his men, talking to another well dressed man, with a trio of tough characters behind him. Vin couldn't be sure, but he thought it was Lee Danning, who ran most of the cocaine trade in southwest quandrant. Vin's brow furrowed, wondering what the two had cooked up. They were on the far side of the room, leaving a solo guard at the door. Vin slid his gun into his waistband and the camera into his pocket. He slipped through the door and was glad his blackbelt training was up to date. With a slip of his wrist to the other's neck, he incapacitated him. He lowered the man quietly to the floor and took his weapon. He placed the camera on top of the utility cart, where it would record all the action. He tossed the felon's gun and clip into a bowl of flour, as the door behind the enemy opened. Two burly guards carried a large crate up from the cellar. They waited for Chang to nod and set the box down, before popping the lid. Danning moved in and selected a rifle, taking several minutes to inspect it. The sample that Change provided at their first meet, across the Pacific, had passed every test. The Asian lord then nodded to Danning, who opened a smaller crate and moved away. Chang gave the signal, and his right hand man bent and tasted the white powder. After sampling, he nodded, and Chang shook hands with Danning.

"We have a deal, Mr. Danning. Your merchandise is ready. I trust you have made the proper transportation arrangements?" the Asian inquired.

Once Danning gave his consent, Vin eyed the doorway, waiting on backup. Where were they? The guards began to leave and Chang and Danning turned to follow. With a final glance, Vin had no choice and sprang into action.

+ + + + + + +

"ATF Freeze!"

"Shit!" J.D. hollered, hearing Vin's call to arms. He raced through the dining room, "Get down, everybody on the floor," he ordered to the half dozen diners. The rapport of gunfire had the women screaming and the agents worried, as the sped through the room.

The world class sniper's catlike reflexes took over and he eliminated the three guards flanking Chang. Danning was trapped, knowing he had to get by Vin to escape. Chang pulled out a gun, which went flying, when Vin shot the mobster's hand.

"Get on the floor, before I blow yer balls off!" the irate agent hollered at the mobster, keeping himself well hidden. The graying import, began to babble in Chinese. Vin caught parts of it and bristled at the use of the word 'diplomat'. "Understand this ya maggot, ya ain't never seein' them rice pattie's ya like s'much again. Now hit the floor!" Vin fired again, shattering his kneecap. The motion sent the elderly millioniare down in a heap. Danning used that distraction to charge, hitting Vin hard in the side and sending his gun skittering across the tile floor.

The two men grabbled and Vin felt a flash of pain in his side. He poked both of Danning's eyes and then flipped him over. He straddled the struggling man from behind, yanking him up by the hair. He picked up the knife near Danning's hand and grit his teeth. His blue eyes were bulging and his teeth were clenched, when the felon eyed a gun nearby.

"Try it... I'd love t'make sushi outta ya..." Vin raged, pressing the blade against the man's throat hard enough to draw blood.

"Vin down!" a deep voice boomed and the younger agent dropped. He heard the bullet fly past and a groan. Turning, he spotted Chang's body prone against the wall. The older man was holding his shoulder.

"Thanks, Preacher." Vin nodded, "tough old bastard, I plugged 'im twice."

"You okay?" J.D. asked, motioning the wounded guards to move into the corner.

"Yeah Kid, I'm fine." Vin muttered, as two patrolman ran into the room.

"Dining out today, Danning?" one of the cops said, shaking his head.

"Tanner, ATF," Vin flipped out his badge. "Ya hold this piece o'garbage outside, 'til our backup gets here... thanks," he nodded and walked to stand by Josiah. "Damn..." he whistled.

"You read my mind," Josiah returned, eyeing the cache, "...millions on the street, easy. You're gonna be famous, Son."

"No I ain't," Vin muttered, wincing and bending to examine the expensive, imported rifles.

"Hey, Vin, " Josiah said somberly, catching the younger agent's elbow, "You mind not bleedin' all over the evidence. I hate extra paperwork."

"Huh?" Vin blinked and straightened up. His brows creased as Josiah pulled the expensive gray jacket to the side. "Shit... shit... Chris is gonna kill me."

"New shirt?"

"Yeah..." Vin winced, eyeing the large bloodstain spreading all over the Larabee custom made garment, "...cost more than all the shirts I got put together..."

"Fainting might work," J.D. suggested, tossing a towel to Vin. "...just blink and be incoherent... moan and stagger a lot." The youth grinned at the Texan, "You know, just like you do every day."

"Thanks, Kid." Vin shook his head, swayed and staggered.

"Yeah, that looked pretty good," the youthful agent clamored, motioning for the backup agents, who just appeared in the room.

"Vin, sit down," Josiah ordered, shoving the blinking man onto a stool. He ripped the shirt open and heard Vin's audible hiss. "Sorry, didn't mean to hurt you."

"Didn't hurt..." Vin returned, annoyed that he'd become so lightheaded, "it's all them buttons flyin' the hell all over. Chris is gonna..."

"Whoa!" Josiah grabbed the Texan who fell forward into his arms. "J.D. get a wagon!"

"I'm fine, 'siah..." Vin protested, as two strong hands forced him onto the floor. "I can walk... I..."

"Take it easy, Vin," Josiah pressed the cloth against the slash Vin's left side, under his ribcage. "Where's Buck? Chris is going to blow a gasket."

"He's uh... he went... he... sick... he... was..." Vin paused as Josiah's voice seemed far away.

"Vin... Vin..." The eldest tapped the pale face, whose eyes were drooping. He saw the mobster grinning and the filthy slurs that came out of his mouth. Unlike his partner, Josiah understood the foreign dialect and pulled his gun. "You say one more word about him and I'll blow your head clean off."

"Ambulance is here." J.D. dropped to Vin's side and eyed his friend carefully. His hazel eyes grew large when he saw the amount of blood saturating the towel. "I was only kidding... I didn't think it was this bad."

"It's not... just bleedin' alot. He'll be okay," the experienced veteran replied and looked at the glazed blue eyes, "Vin, I'm gonna get that jacket off you, okay?" He saw the short bob of the tangled head and eased him forward. He handed the jacket to J.D., who kept gazing at the back door.

"Josiah, where's Buck? He's not outside..." J.D. worried. "What if they had somebody out back? What if they took him?"

"He's sick... ya leave 'im be... my decision... mine... fault... ya tell Chris... my call..." Vin slurred, "...water..."

"Sure Vin," J.D. hopped up and got a glass of water, but by the time he returned, Vin was passed out. He moved aside as the paramedic's entered and began working on the wounded agent.

"You call Chris?" J.D. asked Josiah, who was washing Vin's blood from his hands.

"Do I look like a fool?" Josiah replied, as he tossed a towel aside and sighed.

"You're older," J.D. decided, "You should call him."

"Coward." Josiah muttered and eyed the clock. "He said last night that closing arguments were done, all they had to do today was get a verdict. I'll wait a little while, until Vin gets checked out. We'll know more then anyhow. I'll stay here and get the tapes and wait for the CS team. You keep Vin company... and J.D..."

"Yeah?"

"Find Buck."

J.D. saw the flash of anger in the stormy Sanchez eyes and swallowed hard. He put his gun in his shoulder holster and trotted outside to the van. Cell phones were taboo while undercover, but he dialed Buck, hoping the agent retrieved it from his car when he left. He flipped his own phone off, after nine rings. As he drove to the hospital, he wondered what happened to Buck. The team usually worked so well together, all seven seemingly able to sense the other's moves and work in unison. He pulled into the parking lot and wondered what would cause a highly decorated agent like Buck, who'd take a bullet for any of them, to desert his partner. He tried Buck's beeper and frowned as a beeping sound piped up from Vin's jacket. He shoved his hand in the pocket and pulled out Buck's earpiece, mic and his beeper.

"Fuck..." he hissed, pounding on the steering wheel, "Buck, what the hell did you do?"

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington stood up from the narrow, garish orange stall in the fast-food restaurant and flushed the toilet. Vin was right; his stomach rebelled loudly about ten minutes into his journey. He paused long enough to rinse his mouth, face, wash up and grab a coke on the way out. He gulped it greedily, his insides torn to ribbons. As he exited the main highway and turned onto the quiet street where the Delassi's lived, he remembered the day Frank retired. After thirty years of federal service and a wall full of citations, it was time. Grace was a wonderful woman and the two enjoyed their life. They traveled extensively, most recently returning from a safari in Africa. They were active in sports, gardening and their community. His coke threatened to reappear, when he saw the gathering of cars outside the pretty house. The flashing lights were a start contrast against the gray sky and swirling snow, they burned a hole in his brain. The meat wagon made him flinch.

"God..." he moaned, pulling up and pausing for a moment. Then a patrolman came over and he flashed his badge. "I'm Wilmington, I was called by Baker." He moved past the green rookie and entered the house. A large, lean black man approached, his close cropped dark hair touched with gray.

"I'm Lonnie Baker," he said, gripping Buck's hand and flashing a gold shield. "You're Wilmington?"

"Yeah, Buck... Wilmington." He licked his lips and eyed the normally neat living room, now littered with torn up furniture and broken glass. "Where's Grace?"

"Upstairs, the doctor just got here and her sister's on the way. He's back here..."

Buck nodded and followed the tall officer through the hallway and towards the cellar steps. He ducked down as the slope in the ceiling approached, and kept his numb legs moving. "Jesus..." he cried out painfully, backing up from the horrible sight. Frank was stripped to the waist and in a kneeling position. His arms were bent upwards, tied to a beam in the ceiling. His head drooped onto his chest, a crismson river covering the lean form. "How..." Buck managed, eyeing the lab crew gathering evidence.

"Slow..." the detective said bitterly, "... real slow. She said they busted in about nine o'clock this morning. They tied her up over there," He motioned to a lawnchair nearby. "then they tied him up and tortured him... used their fists first, then lots of stab wounds and slashes, burns, and his throat is bruised, looks like a garrot of some kind."

Buck eyed the powder room in the corner and bolted, leaving his soda in the toilet. After cleaning up again, he looked at himself hard in the mirror. "Get yourself together... for Frank. Grace is gonna need you," he berated his pale image and took a deep breath. Returning to the carnage, he saw that the body was now on the gurney, being zipped up inside a bag.

"Sorry," he managed.

"For what? Being human?" the detective replied, "Let's go back upstairs, where we can talk."

They sat at the kitchen table, Buck nursed a ginger ale and watched Baker flip out a notebook.

"You got any idea who might do something this violent? Had he gotten any threats... letters or calls?"

"No..." Buck sighed, "This is out of left field."

"Maybe he didn't want to worry you. Could be he didn't want whoever did this to find you."

"No, we had no secrets. He would have told me." Buck decided, "Did Grace get a look at them?"

"They wore ski caps, both male and white. One was stockier than the other. They were in dark green uniforms, like a mechanic wears. It took her awhile to get free and run to the neighbors. She was incoherent... the guy next store came over and found him... called 911."

"You said you thought this was tied to one of our old cases? Why? He had two partners before me."

"One dead and one in Florida, he's on vaction, we contacted him." Baker flipped through his notepad. "Mrs. Delassi mentioned that they were both young. She said the heavy set one acted crazy and when he started getting too carried away, the other one got nervous. She couldn't be sure, but she thinks the other one mentioned your name. She said they were wild, screaming and giggling."

"Stoned..." Buck sighed, shaking his head in disbelief. It still seemed so surreal. How could Frank be gone?

"Yeah," the dark head bobbed, "Now she was in bad shape when I talked to her, maybe she'll be clearer later. But she swears she heard him use your name... she was worried about you. She only let the doctor look at her, when I told her I spoke with you. How many cases did you work on together?"

"Hundreds..." Buck sighed, his body was completey numb. He was working on nerves. "Almost seven years worth. "They didn't come any finer than Frank Delassi."

Lonnie Baker heard the admiration in the younger man's voice and nodded. He'd been where Wilmington was, and like every cop, his partner was more than a brother. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington. I buried my first partner too... Jack Summerfield. It's been ten years, but it never goes away."

Buck didn't say anything, but managed to nod his head. He couldn't believe Frank was gone. He studied the gray swirls in the white formica of Grace's kitchen table. He made a vow to find the bastards who'd killed his friend and sent them to hell... in small pieces.

"I'd like you to start reviewing your old cases, find the ones that stuck out... where the perp's made a threat. We'll check the prisons and see if any were parolled recently."

"I need to see Grace..." Buck said flatly, rising from the chair. He didn't hear Baker's words, or feel the card pressed into his hand with the detective's number on it. He trudged up the stairs and towards the large, sunny room at the end of the hall. He knocked on the door and a gray-haired man answered.

"I'm here to see Grace..." Buck said quietly.

"I'm sorry, she's not able to..."

"Buck?"

Buck clenched his eyes shut as her shaky voice tore into his heart. He took a deep breath and eyed the ceiling, trying to pull himself together. Finally, he exhaled and entered the room. She looked so frail and lost, not the confident, busy lady who endeared herself to all she met. His long legs covered the distance to the bed in three strides. He sat on the edge and wrapped her in his arms. She didn't say a word, she just sobbed hard and it broke his heart.

"I've given her a sedative," the doctor whispered to Buck, pointing to a bottle. "She shouldn't be left alone."

"She won't be." Buck said quietly, rocking the distraught woman.

"If you need anything..." the physican offered, leaving his card before slipping from the room.

He continued to rock her, using a gentle hand to brush the short, dark hair. At sixty, she looked much younger, and he saw their wedding picture on the wall nearby. Forty years together, a partnership forged on true love and bound by faith and hard work. Shattered in a few hours by a pair of animals.

"Why? Why Frank?" she choked through watery eyes, gazing up at the handsome young man she loved like a son.

"I don't know, Grace," he managed through a shaky voice. He felt her tiny hand come up and touch his cheek.

"You be careful." She whispered, eyes full of fear, "Don't let them... do..."

Then the tears started again and he gathered her close, rocking her and shushing her in a low voice. Finally he heard the even breathing and lowered her onto a bank of pillows. He pulled a light quilt up to cover her and kissed her forehead. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table, it was almost five p.m. He dialed Vin and left a message on his voicemail, then he dialed Chris Larabee's cell phone. It was busy and he tried to redial for several minutes. He finally left word on Chris's home phone, figuring the leader would be there by six p.m. He started to dial Josiah, when the phone rang. Grace jerked and Buck lifted it, speaking quietly to Frank's brother Dave in New York. He then took the phone off the hook, ensuring her the sleep she needed. As he crossed the room, he took down the photo on the chest of drawers. It was on the day Frank retired. Buck's hair was longer and he didn't have his trademark mustache. He took the photo to the chair by the window and slumped down, his heart aching and his mind numb.

"They're gonna pay, Frank..." he whispered, eyeing the rose trellis in the back yard. He winced at the small bench where Frank and Grace sat every evening, sipping their coffee. "You got my word."

Part 2

The bright snow glinted through the windshield, only adding to the driver's building headache. He fumbled in the glove compartment and pulled out his beeper, cell phone and a bottle of Tylenol. He popped two of the pills and swallowed them with a bottle of water. Draining it, he sighed heavily, glad that the three day trial was over and his civic duty was done. He cranked the heat on, warming up the chilly vehicle and started the car. He put the wipers on and punched out Vin's cell phone, but got no response. He then tried Buck's and got the same results. Frowning, he dialed J.D.'s and got a busy signal. He was about to dial Josiah, to find out how the detail went, when he eyed his dormant beeper. He pushed the beeper on and read the numbers that spilled out. He eyed the last group of unfamiliar digits and frowned. He punched out the numbers and headed south, out of the courthouse parking lot.

Josiah watched the hour of five p.m. approach as the lab crew continued to clean up the crime scene. He was just finishing up and ready to hitch a ride uptown with one of the departing patrol cars, when the phone on the wall in the kitchen rang.

"Detective Muller."

Chris frowned and it took him a few seconds to regroup. The words 'Detective Muller' caused his stomach to drop. "This is Chris Larabee, ATF agent. I got a message to call this number on my beeper."

"Hold on..."

Chris waited and heard the tired policeman's voice call out. "Anybody here call a Chris Larabee?"

Josiah waved and inched around the lab crew, heading for the phone. He nodded to the detective and walked towards the large freezer, away from the noise.

"Chris?"

"Josiah?" Chris replied more harshly than he'd planned, "What's going on?"

"Swing by and pick me up," the gray-haired agent requested, "I'll fill you in on the way to the hospital."

"Hospital?" Chris's voice rose to an unnatural level and his headache suddenly took a turn for the worse. "What the hell happened? Who got hurt?"

"Take a guess."

"Dammit Tanner..." Chris hissed, slamming his hand onto the steering wheel.

"Trouble does seem to find that boy." Josiah walked back towards the door. "Chang's gang showed up, the Old Man was waiting in the kitchen and we nailed him. Lee Danning, too..."

"Danning? What's his angle?"

"Guns for coke... Vin got cut in the take down."

"How bad?"

"Slashed in the side, it bled a lot, he's in surgery now. J.D. said the ER doctor told him Vin would be fine. He was more upset about ruining your fancy shirt."

"What fancy shirt?"

"Ooops... You didn't hear that from me."

"I'm around the corner, I'll be right over." Chris flipped the phone off as he pulled his sleek, black Ford Mustang into the curb. He flipped his badge to the officer who approached his car and then stepped out. He saw a group of agents behind a large surveillance van and headed over.

"Chris?"

"Matt," Chris replied, recognizing the DEA agent who was working undercover in Danning's organization.

"You missed quite a show." Kelly Harris, the senior DEA assigned to the case complimented. "That kid really put on some moves. You might want to see this..." he nodded to the video terminal inside the van.

Chris watched the black and white images scramble past in reverse motion, before the technician pushed the play button. His face remained passive during the short transaction. His eyes flinched slightly when he saw the knife fly under Vin's gray jacket. He watched until the black screen came up, and now his jaw was clenched in concern.

"What happened to Wilmington?" Kelly accussed angrily. "Ted said Tanner was working with him. He blew out before the bust went down. " Harris noted of the conversation he'd had with the senior agent who was the team's relief.

"I don't know." Chris gripped both his hips and scowled. "But I'm gonna find out..."

"Friend or no friend, Larabee, you better not cover for him..."

"I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear that," Chris drilled, eyes glowing, "...and I don't think you're in any position to be pointing fingers, Kelly," he growled and walked towards Josiah, who was waiting by the car. He jerked his head and didn't speak until they were at the corner, turning onto the expressway.

"Where the fuck was Buck!" Chris exploded, unleashing his fury.

"I don't know, Chris..." Josiah answered truthfully. "He slipped out just before it went down. Vin mumbled something about him being sick... said it was his call. We can't find him..."

"Sick?" Chris scoffed, white-knuckling the steering wheel. "He'll be wishing he was fuckin' dead when I get done with him."

"Chris, we need to hear Buck's side..."

"Buck's side?" Chris growled, turning into the parking lot of the hospital and heading for the ER. "Buck's place was at his partner's side. He deserted Vin, broke cover and walked out? There's no excuse for that. Vin could have been killed!"

"I know that Chris," Josiah got out of the car and jogged to keep up with Larabee's long strides. He grabbed his arm and saw the fury in the green eyes. "You calm down a minute and think on something. This is Buck Wilmington we're talking about. You know him better than any of us... Buck wouldn't desert his partner unless it was a real emergency, something must have shook him up good. They were ten minutes from the end of their shift... it was quiet... he had no way of knowing."

"Let go of my arm." Chris jerked free and strode through the doors. "Tanner?" He quizzed the receptionist at a keyboard. He sighed impatiently while she checked several images on the monitor.

"He's in recovery," she pointed to an elevator, "There's a waiting area on the third floor, Dr. Johnson, the surgeon, will be available in a few minutes. Mr. Tanner will be going to room 414."

Chris didn't say a word during the tense elevator ride, but Josiah saw the tell signs of rage. The tension in the jaw, vein bulging in his neck and those deadly eyes. He followed Chris to the waiting room and watched as the blond requested Dr. Johnson. J.D. jumped up as soon as they arrived.

"A nurse came out a little while ago and said he did good, that he's gonna be fine."

"Did you talk to Buck?" Josiah asked, before Chris's fury spewed from his lips.

"I can't reach him. I've tried his cell phone, his house and work."

"Goddammit Buck..." Chris hissed, seeing bloodstains on the lining of Vin's gray jacket, which was folded on a chair next to J.D.

"It's good to see you're so concerned," J.D. leveled right back, "He could be laying in an alley somewhere dead. You don't even care..."

"Take it easy, J.D.," Josiah soothed, as Chris shook his head and walked away, pacing in the small room. "I'm sure he's fine. Why don't you check some of his hangouts? Maybe stretch your legs a little?"

"Yeah... okay," J.D. agreed, tossing a smoldering glance at Chris's back.

"Mr. Larabee?"

They all turned when a tall, dark woman entered the room. Her exotic good looks and accent bespoke a Jamaican background. Chris moved forward and reached his hand out.

"I'm Chris Larabee." He nodded, shaking her hand, "How's Vin doing?"

"I'm Dr. Johnson and he'll be fine." She reassured, moving her hand to her side. "The wound went from here to here," she traced a path on her side, several inches long. "We had to repair some small bleeders. He lost quite a bit of blood and his hemoglobin count was low, so we gave him a transfusion. I'm keeping him on an I.V. overnight as a precaution. He'll be going up to his room shortly, if you'd like to wait there."

"Thank you," Chris sighed and shook her hand again as she left. J.D. grabbed his leather Avs jacket and angrily brushed past Chris without saying a word. The blond cocked his head and began to frown and Josiah stepped over.

"He's upset," the eldest assessed, "He's been tied up here for hours, worrying about Buck. He needs to get some air. You okay, Boss?"

Chris didn't reply, but his features lost a bit of their tension. Josiah saw the brief flicker of doubt in the icy green eyes and thought it might be worry. J.D.'s message struck a chord, even if the leader wouldn't admit it.

"I'm gonna head back to the office and start putting the report together. I'll update Kelly and Orin. I'll stop back later..." he gripped Chris's shoulder and headed for the elevator. J.D. was still waiting and Josiah asked for a ride downtown. He shook his head a little, noting that the long dark hair and hockey jacket would lead an unassuming eye to believe the youth was still in school. He was unaware the blond was next to him, until the small chime sounded, alerted them of the doors opening.

"Thanks, Josiah, You saved his life."

"That boy promised me six weekends working as a counsler at camp this summer," Sanchez noted of the camp he helped organize for handicapped and mentally challenged children. "Can't afford to lose 'im. Somethin' about that long-haired, cussin' Texan... he's like the damn Pied Piper..." He shook his head and saw a brief smile play on Chris's face. "I'll stop back later."

He'd filled Vin's pitcher with ice chips. He'd paced and paced in the small room. He'd watched the traffic patterns on the busy highway outside. He finally saw the white bag in the corner of the closet. He poked around and drew out a torn white shirt and felt his gut clench at the large amount of blood on it. His anger resurfaced and once he was sure Vin was settled in, he was going to find Buck Wilmington, if it took all night.

The door opened and he placed the shirt on the ledge by the window. He watched as Vin was carefully placed in the bed, with his I.V. alongside. The nurse read a chart that was attached to the gurney and adjusted the drip on the fluid in the plastic bag. She took his blood pressure, temperature and other vital signs, before turning to leave.

"He's doing fine," she answered the silent, brooding face across from her.

"Can he have water?"

"Ice chips..." she called out, "The nurse's station is just down the hall. You press that red button if you need anything."

"Thanks." He paused a moment, leaning over the bedrails to study the sleeping patient. Vin's chest rose and fell and he heard the soft hush of his breath as it passed the parted, slack lips. He pulled the sheet up a little higher, when he saw the pale form tremble a bit. He saw the knife again in the video, how with a flick of a wrist, he'd be viewing Vin in the morgue.

"You're gonna kill me, Cowboy."

He restlessly shifted in the hard chair, finally flipping the television on. Game shows didn't interest him and settled on a rerun of Barney Miller, when the door opened again. A pretty, dark-haired nurse approached with a can of ginger ale.

"The man in 404 didn't even open it," she offered.

"Thanks," Chris nodded and popped the top. He sipped the cold beverage slowly as Barney Miller ended and he sat through two episodes of Taxi. His grumbling stomach complained just as a soft cough from the bed, pulled his attention. He stood and leaned on the rails, turning up the low lights just a bit. Vin's pale face furrowed and a slip of tongue ran along his dry lips. Chris waited and cocked his head watching the signs of life return. First the eyes twitched, the tongue navigated the lips again, the nose wrinkled, the brows furrowed and finally slivers of blue appeared.

"Vin? Vin?" he called softly, patting the sharpshooter's shoulder. He watched the confused twin blues blink at him without interest.

Vin blinked and yawned, staring sleepily at the expensive watch at his eye level. He moved his head a little and saw a familiar blond haircut. He squinted his eyes and the blurry face came closer.

"Larabee?" he croaked, wincing and clutching his dry throat.

"Hey..." Chris smiled down, pulling his hand back to the rail. He heard the click of the tongue investigating the dry mouth and smiled sympathetically. He'd been there himself and knew how wonderful the ice chips would taste. "Hold on..." He pushed the button, raising Vin to a semi-erect position. "Incoming..." he warned the drowsy patient, who parted his lips on instinct. Carefully, Chris spooned a healthy amount of ice slivers into the waiting mouth. A low moan of pleasure was his reward. Vin munched on a few more spoonfuls, before his sated eyes peeled open again and squinted at his friend.

"How you doing, Cowboy?"

Chris's soft tone held enough concern to give the blue-eyed patient a weak smile. He gave a small nod, held his arm up and locked Larabee's forearm, giving him a silent response.

"You just can't let a week go by without giving them nurses a show," Chris teased watching Vin's reign of confusion continue.

"Don't recall..." Vin murmured, shivering slightly. "Damn it's cold in here..."

"That's because you have no body fat," Chris replied picking up the torn, bloody shirt. "Hey, I got one that looks something like this, only mine has buttons and no blood."

"Not really..." Vin grimaced and gripped the rail hard, his jaw clenching. "I was fixin' on tellin' ya... it was in yer closet at the office. Bucklin said it looked great. I'll get ya... a..noth..er..." He hissed and pressed back against the bed, trying to get comfortable. He was very drowsy and it was hard to keep his eyes open. He squirmed and tried to sit up, only to meet a firm hand on his chest.

"Don't worry about the shirt, Vin," Chris eased him back onto the bed. He saw Vin furrowing his brows and cocking his head. It was a dead giveaway, the sniper was trying too hard. "Forget about it for now, Vin. You just get some rest. You got another scar to add to your collection. You got a cut in your side, but the doctor sewed you up fine."

"Chris?" Vin blinked as a vision of a broken crate of rifles and the rapport of gunfire filled his head. He saw a leering face and felt a slash of pain in his side. Then he saw an awful image, Buck Wilmington's face full of deep pain. "Buck?"

"Can you tell me about Buck?"

The blond saw a flicker of confusion before Vin dropped his head. One hand came up and pulled the tangled hair from his face. The hand slid over the confused blue eyes and Chris cocked his head, waiting. A long sigh was his only reply.

Vin tried to weed through the muddy mire in his sleepy brain. Fleeting images of Oriental bodies and bullets were all he could recall. He rubbed his eyes and looked over at Chris, and saw the anger simmering in the green eyes. What happened to Buck? He heard the unmistakeable tone of accusation in the voice. Something went wrong... very wrong. Then another image appeared, a body in the corner riddled with bullets.

"Aw, shit... he's dead, ain't he? I fucked up..." he stiffened his body and swallowed hard to control a wave of nausea.

Vin's body jerked and Chris grabbed a group of paper towels, holding it by the injured man's mouth, but nothing came up. He rested a hand on Vin's shoulder and waited for the labored breathing to regulate. He saw Vin blink and the blue eyes darting, reaching for something beyond the edge of the muddled brain. "Don't push too hard, Vin. It'll keep..."

"No... I see... bits and pieces..." Vin's voice was fading. "...bodies in the corner... Bucklin?" The voice caught and Chris tapped the pale face, noting the lower lip being bitten.

"He wasn't with the dead at the scene, Vin. He left before it went down... he left you alone."

"...he's sick... told 'im t'go..." Vin frowned, not liking the anger in Chris's tone. He didn't know all the pieces, but he knew he had to protect Buck. "...I... called... it... I..." the raspy voice trailed off, even though his mind told him there was more, his eyes wouldn't comply.

Chris waited but the steady breathing told him Vin had slipped back into his recovery cocoon. He lowered the bed again and got an extra blanket from the closet, pulling it up over the shivering body. Visiting hours ended and the nurse came in to remind Chris that he had to leave. He nodded and made his way to his car. He wasn't aware of his path of action, until he pulled up in front of Buck's condo. He was still clutching the shirt, when he climbed the stairs. The house was dark, the only light was the one over the door on the patio. Chris walked around to the back of the house, where Buck usually parked, but the spot was empty. He went back to his own car and just as he sat down, he saw a set of headlights flicker behind the house, then die. He threw his body from the car and strode quickly. His anger increased with every step and by the time he reached the back door, the unmistakable tall body was just a few feet in front of him. Just as the key clicked and the door unlocked, he made his move.

Bud and Terry Wilson had been Grace and Frank's best friends. They lived just up the street and had come immediately to the shaken woman's side. Grace's sister Mary arrived and some other friends and Buck slipped out, promising to return in the morning. The cold air bit his skin, but he didn't feel it. He didn't feel much of anything, it was almost surreal. He couldn't believe it yet, Frank being gone forever. The dull headache had been riding him hard for hours now and he needed to sleep. Grace would be counting on him and he wouldn't let Frank down. He'd promised his first partner a long time ago, he'd take care of Grace. He slid from behind the wheel and headed for his door, keys in hand. He was lost in thought as he unlocked the door and turned the knob.

Buck heard the crunch of snow on gravel behind him and turned, seeing only a brief flash of burning twin green lasers. Before he could utter a sound, he was slammed forward into the front door. He bounced off the wood and landed on all fours, inside his foyer. A click of a light switch sent illumination into the neat room.

"Where the fuck have you been?

He caught his breath and spit out a wad of blood from his split lip, before he turned and saw the irate face of Chris Larabee.

"Chris, I can explain," Buck defended, "...you see..."

"Explain?" Chris interrupted, his nerves fried, "It's been six Goddamn hours, Buck! We didn't know if you were dead or alive. Explain that!" Chris raged, lifting the stammering body and shoving hard against the nearby kitchen wall. "You see this nifty, little invention? You punch numbers in it and talk to people." He slammed the phone down, "It's called a fuckin' telephone!"

"That's enough, Chris!" Buck jerked free, spitting another wad of blood into his sink. "Look, would you just listen for a minute?"

"Listen?" Chris gritted, "Oh yeah, I'm all ears. I want to hear why you left your partner to face the fuckin' Chinese Mafia by himself."

"What!" Buck's heart dropped into his stomach, which was rapidly approaching his feet. "Vin?"

"Vin?" Chris repeated the shaken voice derisively, "Now you ask?" He paused and saw the shock descending into the dark blue eyes. Guilt hovered in the air, before settling on the tall man's shoulders, like a cape of misery. "So you're wondering..." Chris turned his back and moved away, back into the foyer. He bent over and picked up the garment, balling into a tense fist. "...is he home? Is he in the hospital? or Is he in the fuckin' morgue! You son-of-a-bitch!" Chris's venomous words were hurled at the stunned agent, along with the bloody shirt.

Buck froze when the once pristine white shirt landed about eight inches from his feet. More than half of one side was now stained maroon. His fingers trembled violently as he bent to pick it up. A vision of Vin's gray body on a slab, covering in blood, stabbed at his brain. "Oh Jesus... Vin... What happened?"

"You mean aside from his partner deserting him? Let's see... he was left to face a half-dozen deadly killers by himself... Oh and then there's the knife that Lee Danning shoved into his side..."

"Fuck..." Buck rocked back, raking a shaking hand through his hair. "I'm sorry, Chris, I shouldn't have left him."

"No, you shouldn't have." Chris spat back. "You'll both have plenty of time to reflect on that little infraction, during your suspension." He paused, his chest heaving in anger. He took his wool coat off and tossed it onto a vacant kitchen chair. Even the pain in Buck's face and the heavy guilt he wore, didn't take the red fury away. "I'm waiting Buck."

"Is he okay?" Buck's voice was small and unsure. His chest ached so bad, he laid his shaky hand on it, pressing against his wool sweater.

"He's lucky... a few more inches and he'd be sleeping in the blue room," He noted of the morgue.

Buck's sigh was audible and seemed to take the little energy he had left. He took his leather jacket off and tossed it aside. He sunk into a chair at his kitchen table and rested his face on his crossed arms. The scent of Tanner still clung to the shirt and that made the pain worse. He almost felt Frank glaring at him, knowing that was the first rule he taught Buck.

"Never leave your partner to dance alone..."

"Huh?" Chris moved closer, trying to hear the choked voice.

"First thing Frank taught me," Buck murmured, wiping his moist eyes on Vin's bloody shirt. "He would have busted my ass good..."

"Would have?" Chris cocked his head. Why was Buck talking about Frank Delassi in the past tense? "Buck?"

"Yeah, okay..." Buck brought his head up, looking directly at his boss, "It was quiet, nothing happened in the whole time we were there. It was about quarter to three, I guess, I was in the bathroom when my beeper went off. It was a detective... Baker his name was," Buck paused and took a deep shuddering breath. "Frank... somebody murdered him... tortured him to death... made Grace watch..."

That scattered cluster of words hit the blond like a hail of bullets. It was the last thing he expected to hear. He'd known Frank as long as he knew Buck. He was a fine agent and good man.

"They... he... the cop..." Buck stammered, as the events of the day began to eat at the numbness that engulfed him. "think that it's tied to an old case of ours... Jesus, Chris, you should see what they did to him... it took hours... he suffered... the bastards made her watch."

That's when he broke, the numbness stole away into the darkness and the bitter tears finally fell. He bit his bloody lip and clenched his fists, pounding the ceramic tiles on his kitchen table. Over and over he banged the table, his hands wrapped in Tanner's bloody shirt. The salty tracks ran into his gashed lip, sending a welcome stinging pain into his anguish-racked body.

Instinct and a dozen years of knowing the man made Chris move, his anger now disapated. He rested his hands on Buck's shoulders from behind, squeezing them hard. It was no secret that Buck cared for Frank like a father. He knew the pain that racked his friend and held on, letting the fists pound in frustration, until the head sank down again.

"My God, Buck... I'm sorry." Chris whispered, resting a hand on the back of the sweaty, dark head. Finally, Buck's head came up and he wiped his face on a group of napkins Chris handed him. He took several deep breaths, and watched Chris disappear. A few minutes later, the blond came back, with two glasses and a bottle of Jamison's Irish Whiskey. He took the shot that Chris offered and waited until the other's glass was raised.

"He was a helluva guy..." Chris toasted.

"They don't come finer..." Buck agreed, tossing back the bitter liquid. Chris poured them each another shot and he sipped this one slowly. "I'm sorry, Chris... I'd cut my arm off before I'd let anybody hurt that boy..."

"I know that Buck," Chris sighed, feeling the deep anguish in Buck's repentance, "Josiah tried to tell me that you had a good reason."

"I called your machine and Vin's... tried Josiah and J.D. but the lines were always busy. I didn't want to wake Grace."

"How's she doing?" Chris drew his eyes up.

"Awful." Buck hushed, his red-rimmed eyes painful to look at. "She looked right at me, Chris, she said 'Why Frank?'" Buck sighed, staring at his oldest friend. "I didn't know what to tell her..."

"We'll get him, Buck." Chris vowed, tossing his shot back.

"...them... she said there were two of them... white males... young..." Buck took a deep breath, "I'm gonna find them... and God help them when I do... badge or no badge..."

"Won't get any argument from me," Chris supported. "I have to report it, Buck, I can't let a thing like that go by, Orin and the brass would have my ass. You and Vin will most likely be suspended."

"I deserve it, Chris," Buck admitted, "What happened with Frank... was no excuse. I shouldn't have left him... he could have been killed. I was gonna ask for some time off anyway, to help Grace with the funeral plans." He jerked his hand back, the moisture from his tears caused the maroon bits to cling to his skin. Vin's blood.."How's he doing?"

"They did a little surgery on him to repair some minor damage. He got some blood and he's on an I.V. The Doc said he'd be fine. He couldn't remember much... he thought you were dead..."

"Aw, hell..." Buck winced, see Vin's telltale blue mirrors. "I fucked up good..."

"I'll need a statement, Buck, Kelly was pretty pissed off at the scene," he said of the DEA leader.

"Yeah... I'll stop over in the morning," His head turned towards the doorway as new voices sounded.

"Buck!" J.D. appeared in the dining room, his face flushed from the icy wind outside. "Where the hell were you? I've been worried sick. I even went to the city morgue. Why didn't you call?"

"J.D.." Chris rose and stood in front of Buck, putting his hands up defensively. "Calm down..."

"The hell I will," J.D. was irate and would not be denied. He pushed past Chris and grabbed buck's sweater. "You damn near scared me to death... I thought you were dead."

"I'm sorry, Kid," Buck stared hard into the red faced fury. "I tried calling you, I couldn't get through. Something came up and I had to bolt."

"What the hell was so important that you deserted your partner?" J.D. shoved Buck and moved back a little. "He got stabbed you know... If Danning had a gun..."

"J.D." Chris moved between the two men and tried to calm down the angry young man.

"No, Chris, it's okay..." Buck now saw Josiah's angry face behind J.D.'s irate one. "I deserted them too... I'm sorry Josiah, Kid." Buck paused and took a deep breath, before retelling the awful story. By the time he finished, he was spent, exhaustion written on every feature. Josiah shook his hand, offered his condolances and left. Chris went outside for a minute, giving J.D. some time with his best friend. The youth then departed to pick up his girlfriend Casey at the airport. The pretty law student was coming in from Phoenix. Chris pushed Buck towards the stairs that led to the bedroom.

"Get some sleep. I'll crash in the guest room." Chris supplied.

"You sure?" Buck's voice was a little surprised, something that made Chris wince.

"What's the matter? One of your harem leave an unknown social disease in there?"

"Fuck you, Larabee!" Buck parried weakly and then his eyes caught the photo of himself with Frank and Grace at their last wedding anniversary. His eyes filled with bitterness again and he clenched them shut. He felt Chris embrace him briefly and the leader's words made a solid impact.

"I'm right here, Buck," Chris vowed, thinking of all the years he'd known Frank, "and they're going down.

"Buck swallowed hard and nodded, then retreated up to his bedroom. He shucked his clothes off and slid under the warm, flannel sheets. Cloaked in darkness, he let himself grieve for the man who'd become more than a friend. Tonight he would mourn Frank Delassi, tomorrow he would begin a quest to avenge his death.

+ + + + + + +

The day droned on and he felt like his head was full of mud. The initial report, endless questions, a revised report, more questions, brief snatches of freedom to call Grace. Finally Orin and Kelly were satisified. They had a statement from Vin; J.D. and Josiah were scheduled for the afternoon. Chris had been more than fair, and he was grateful. He didn't condone the events by any means, but Buck felt his silent support. The suspension was fair too, he deserved that. The video was the hardest... watching that knife come up and Vin not seeing it... a few inches difference. He shook off the image and remained at the conference table, totally exhausted. He'd spent a restless night, tossing and turning, yielding little rest. He still had to go over to see Grace. He'd packed a bag, deciding on staying with her until the funeral was over.

Chris walked Orin to the elevator and while the head of the directorate was sympathetic, he had to enforce the rules. They talked for a few minutes, Orin had known Frank well and was sickened by the incident. He was on his way over to see the widow, once he picked up his wife.

"Evie and Grace are good friends. Evie was devastated... " Orin looked up as the doors slid open. "I'll be in touch."

"Thanks Orin," Chris extended his hand. It could have gone much worse. Buck could have been penalized severely. The suspension would give him time to grieve and help Grace. He walked back to the empty meeting room and saw Buck's deep sorrow etched on every feature of his sad face. He winced and drew a deep breath, before flanking him.

"Buck?"

"Huh?" Buck blinked as the hand tapped him.

"I need a favor."

Buck looked up and frowned, "I'm listening."

"Vin's ready to be discharged, I told him I'd swing by. I still have a mountain of paperwork to do..."

"You're a lousy liar, Larabee," Buck relayed as he stood, "That's why you're a desk jockey."

"You sure?"

"Yeah," Buck took a deep breath. Vin had been on his mind throughout the day. He wanted to see him, needed to hear the soft drawl of 'Aw hell, Bucklin'. He smiled as the echo played in his head. Chris knew it too, 'paperwork my ass' he thought. "Thanks, Chris... I won't let you down again." He vowed, shaking his oldest friend's hand.

"That's enough for me," Chris replied, tossing the pained figure a half-grin, "Wilmington's word is good as done."

"Damn right!" Buck laughed weakly, heading for the elevator.

Buck paused outside the doorway, studying Vin Tanner, who was half-dressed. The Texan's lunch tray was untouched, save the cola, which was in the trash. His boots and jeans were on, but his chest was bare. He was nodding thoughtfully as a doctor warned him about his downtime, rest and recovery.

"I hear ya, no call t'get huffy..." Vin protested, wincing as he raised his arm so the old dressing could be removed. "Ya think I was a child or somethin' the way ya carry on so..."

"History is on my side, Handsome." the slender hand patted Tanner's scowling face.

Buck smiled at Rain Jackson's comment as the pretty doctor moved aside. Buck's smile faded when he saw the horrid slash on Vin's side as the fresh dressing was applied. He heard Vin's intake of breath as the slender fingers of the physician traced his ribs.

"Damn yer hands is cold." Vin complained, scowling again.

"I iced them up just for you," Rain teased, patting his cheek again as she eased his shirt on. "You're so cute when you get mad."

"I think yer confusin' me with Nate."

"No way, Sweetie," she helped him off the bed, watching him carefully button up. "He's cute all the time... especially in the hot tub..." She teased, leading him to a tall chair by the window.

"Aw, hell..." Vin wrinkled his nose and complained, "If that ain't a fetchin' picture, Nate naked and wet... damn..."

"You hush up!" Rain smacked his sleeve and saw Buck's pale face. "Sit down, Vin, I'll bring you a wheelchair." She shook her head as the scowling face started to protest. "No you can't leave without it, yes it's a rule and with all the miles you've put on our wheelchairs, you should know better than to ask."

"Hmmph!" Vin grumbled, "Next thing ya know ye'll be sproutin' blond hair," he noted of her mind reading ability, not unlike Larabee's.

She moved into the hall and embraced Buck. "I'm so sorry, Buck. Nate was very upset. If there's anything we can do..."

"Thanks Rain... I mean that." Buck released her, eyeing the doorway to Tanner's room. "The boy's cranky, that's a good sign."

"He's worried about you, I couldn't get him to touch his lunch," Rain said gently, resting her hand on the handsome face above her, "...and he's not the only one."

"Time heals all wounds, right?" he asked bitterly. "It's such a waste, Rain. Frank for those two animals... shit." He fisted both hands, only to have her unbend one and slide her own into it.

"It gets better, Buck," she said from experience. "When my father was killed. I was full of hate. But having good friends who care about you, surround you with love and support..."

"...and kick your ass when you need it?" Buck thought aloud.

"Yes..." she nodded, squeezing the hand hard. "I'm here, Buck, so is Nate. Josiah, J.D. Ezra, Vin. and especially Chris. If anyone knows about pain, it's that man..."

"Yeah..." Buck dipped his head, "...sorry to dump on you Rain..."

"You hush up, White Boy..." She teased, kissing his cheek and rubbing the mark. "Don't shut us out, Buck."

"Okay," Buck nodded, then found a small smile, "How come he's Handsome and I'm White Boy?"

"We all have our crosses, Honey," she laughed, pointed to the empty wheelchair and made her way down the hall.

Buck pushed the wheelchair into Vin's room and quietly to the side of the bed. Vin was dozing in a tall chair next to the bed. He looked pale and drawn and Buck hated to disturb him. The decision was taken out of his hands, when the phone rang and the blue eyes jerked open. The patient's body lurched and Buck pushed him back.

"Buck!" Vin's eyes widened, while one hand latched onto the flannel shirt sleeve. "Where ya been? Ya alright? Did ya call? I tried t'stay awake... damn painkillers..."

Buck felt a tug inside as the open display of worry in Vin's voice and the concern shining from the pale blue eyes. He rested his hand on the sniper's shoulder and gave a good squeeze, as he picked up the phone.

"Tanner's House of Prostitution."

"Hey..." Vin protested, unsuccessfully swiping at the phone and fighting the strong arm that kept him pinned to the chair. "Cut that out..."

"No Sister, you have the right number. What convent was that? How old? No, that's not to old to become a convert. We got some fine little gals who can teach you the moves."

"Dammit Buck!" Vin wheezed, as his laughter sent pain ripples through his tender side. "Ya tryin' to kill me?" Vin reached up for the phone and saw the horrified look on Buck's face. "Aw, hell, Buck... I didn't mean it like that... Buck?" Vin took the phone and watched as Buck walked to the window, his back to the injured man. "Sometimes ya got shit fer brains, Tanner."

"A characteristic we've been aware of for quite sometime," a Southern drawl echoed.

"Shut up the hell up, Ezra!" Vin shot back, glaring at the phone. "Ezra?" he frowned, staring at the phone. "Ezra!" his voice raised, a smile splitting his face. "Ain't ya supposed t'be in some swanky resort gettin' laid by a French..."

"Ever the gentlemen," Standish smirked on the other end. "There is a rumor circulating that a sizeable amount of your blood was left in Chinatown."

"Don't believe everythin' ya hear." Vin kept his face on Buck's back. "How's Paris?"

"Full of good wine, exquisite cuisine and smartly attired snobs."

"Reckon yer right at home then."

"Smartass!"

"I try," Vin retorted sharply. "Ya comin' back?"

"Sad to say," Ezra relayed, eyeing the evening traffic on the Champs D'Elysees. "Josiah told me about Frank Delassi. How's Buck?"

"Busted up," Vin hushed, feeling the pain rolling off Buck's tense body.

"Furthermore, he mentioned that the dead vermin responsible were drug addicts and most likely it was a random act of violence?"

"Reckon... they ain't sure." Vin didn't want to upset Buck, so he kept the answers neutral. He heard the unusual sound of a long string of Standish curses. "Damn Ez, ya made me right proud."

"Excuse me, I didn't mean for you to hear that."

"Why the hell not?" Vin scowled, "Ya ain't as invisible as ya think, Ez."

"How are you, Vin?"

"A few pints down and a scratch on the door." Vin eased, smiling at the sincerity in Standish's voice. "By the time ya haul yer sorry ass back here with all m'gifts, I'll be right as rain."

"Gifts?" Ezra scoffed, fighting a chuckle, "Surely you jest?"

"Hell no," Vin crowed. "Ya best be haulin' a pack of 'em., bein's as I'm so weak and hurt and all... many, many expensive gifts, 'specially chocolate ones." His eyes moved to the window, when he heard Buck laugh.

"To think that some uneducated souls describe you as 'shy'," Ezra replied, smiling broadly now, "Charisse and Anisette are waiting, Reluctantly, I must bid you adieu."

"Ya got one o'them buy one, get one free hooker deals?"

"Your humor is in worse shape than your dwindling blood supply." Ezra drolled, the gold tooth glinting, "See that you remain intact until I get back to the Continent."

"I'll try," Vin promised, "Hey, Ez, thanks fer callin'... ya didn't hafta bust up yer trilogy."

"Menage a trois..." Ezra corrected and rolled his eyes. "I really must work on your diction."

"Ya stay the hell away from m'diction and any other movin' parts..." Vin tossed back and heard Buck laughing hard at the window.

"Is Buck still there?"

"Yeah, hold on... Ya watch yer back comin' home, Ez." Vin paused, "Leastwise get some o'that expensive insurance at the airport. Ya know that kind the doubles up when ya crash? Ya put m'name at the top o'the list."

"You sentimental fool." Ezra grinned, warming to Vin's voice. The smile faded when Buck got on the phone.

"Only two girls, Ace?" Buck pried, "You're getting old..."

"My monetary limitation is dwindling..." the other defended. "I asked myself 'What would Buck do?' and here I sit penniless, but sated." He smiled as Buck's laugher filled the earpiece.

"Spoken like a true rogue," Buck grinned.

"I was deeply saddened to hear about Frank Delassi's death. He was good man, Buck. A truly decent soul, there are so few among us."

"Thanks, Ezra." Buck paused and the silence made him uncomfortable. "Hey, can't have you gettin' tossed in jail for not payin' the hotel phone bill." Buck rasped. "I gotta get Cinderfella here home before he turns into a pumpkin."

"Yes, it is late," Ezra stood up, seeing Buck's painful face in his mind's eye. "Take comfort in the fact that Frank lives on within you, My Friend, his spirit never shined brighter." He heard a deep exhale of air and a rustling noise.

"Damn, Ezra... What the hell did ya say? Ya took all the air outta Bucklin..." Vin perplexed.

"I merely passed on the fact that Charisse say to tell Mr. Wilmington that young Buck looks just like him."

"Young Buck looks just like him?" Vin repeated. "Bucklin, yer family tree's sproutin' French roots?" He asked and saw Buck's blushing face break into a smile. "See ya, Ez..." Vin hung the phone up and tried to stand up, sucking air through his teeth as a pain shot through his side. He felt an arm brush past and latched on, gripping hard.

"Give you a hand?" Buck's voice dropped as he offered his arm.

"Ya always do, Buck." Vin answered, staring hard at the older man with such intensity it made Buck flinch. "It was my choice, Buck, my doin'... ya got no call t'be wearin' them worry lines."

"I'm sorry, Vin." Buck helped the slender man upright and eased him into the wheelchair. He sighed hard and dropped his head, staring at his hands. He saw the knife again and this time, it went upwards, ripping through Vin's heart. "Shit... I damn near got you killed. Stupid, fuckin' selfish..."

"Shut up!" Vin's sharp tone brought the dark head up and he didn't hide the rage in his blue eyes. "Ya ain't got a selfish bone in yer body. Quit feelin' sorry fer yerself. It's done... I'm fine. The state ya were in... hell... we could both be layin' on a slab."

Buck studied the intensity in the blue-eyed Texas terrier's eyes. He nodded, licked his lips and gathered up Vin's things. He sat on the bed, eyeing the stains on the gray jacket. "It was a bad move... I should have told that detective I'd be over later... I should have..."

"Shoulda, woulda, coulda," Vin snapped, his eyes angry, "It's all bullshit, Buck."

"I keep seein' you in that tape, Vin," Buck shook his head, "A few more inches..."

"Chance we all take, Buck, everyday. I'dda been worryin' about watchin' out fer yer ass and mine... that's a lotta ass to keep track o'" He frowned when Buck didn't grin. "It's done, Buck, leave it be... okay? Ya got more important things t'worry on." He offered his hand and waited and Buck finally took it. "How's Grace?"

"Sedated. Shook the hell up... devastated... He was her world, Vin. I can't believe he's gone." Buck whispered, swallowing his pain. He clenched his eyes shut, took a deep breath and dropped his head. He felt a delicate touch on his shoulder, so light it felt like butterfly wings. The hand traced a pattern, before resting, the tension increased and he felt the gentle tug on his neck.

"He was a good man, ya were lucky t'call him friend," Vin hesitated, groping to find the right words. "I ain't real good with words, Buck... I wish I could say it better... whatever ya need... ya got this..."

"Thanks, Vin," Buck replied, raising his head and taking the hand offered, gripping it tight. "Frank sure got a kick out of you and the Kid."

"Josiah told me the junkies what done it got themselves killed." Vin broke the silence. "Ya still think yer tied inta it somehow?"

"The detective said Grace thought they mentioned my name... but hell, Vin, they're were high as a kite and she was in shock... I don't know... been pissed off at them all day."

"Fer dyin' on ya," Vin assumed, "'afore ya had the chance t'get at 'em... know the feelin', Buck." Vin waited, watching the emotions play on the older man's face. He reached his hand out and laid it on Buck's sleeve, gripping it below the elbow. "Ya remember t'keep the best part o'him with ya... bein' bitter's only gonna eat away at ya... he'd hate that, it weren't his way. Ain't many that come along like Frank. I learned alot from him..."

"Me too," Buck whispered, "It hurts, Vin..."

"I know," Vin hushed, wincing at the unusual forlorn Wilmington face, and the anguished voice, devoid of the high spirits that were his trademark. "What happened t'yer face?" Vin puzzled, noticing the swollen lip, bruised cheek and slightly puffy eye.

"I ran into a wall," Buck replied, touching the lip unconsciously.

Vin furrowed his brows and thought on a conversation he'd had earlier that morning with his best friend. Chris and Orin stopped by to take his statement. Orin departed and the blond deposited a change of clothes. He spoke briefly with the drowsy sniper, before leaving. Vin waded through the bits and pieces and plucked a few out. The clues fell into place: that he'd change clothes at the office, turning off on Pike Street because the highway was backed up, that street wasn't anywhere near the road from Larabee's, but was close to Buck's.

"Goddamn interferin' no-account jackass..." Vin hissed, pounding his fist against the arm of the wheelchair. "I'm gonna kick his ass good fer this. Who the hell does he think he is? He ain't got call t'be poundin' on ya."

"He did and it's done," Buck interrupted, his lips turning up at the Texan's agitated face. "He didn't know about Frank, Vin. All he knew was that I bailed out and left you hanging by your balls." Buck paused and rubbed his weary eyes. "He stood by me today, it could have gone a lot worse...

"Ya sittin' fer awhile?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, taking a deep breath.

"Reckon I'll be joinin' ya... Chris gave me the score."

"Chris was fair, too fair, maybe. I don't want folks thinkin' he's showin' preference. Kelly was mad as hell." Buck recalled of the sharp-tongued DEA agent.

"Kelly outta look in a fuckin' mirror..." Vin scoffed, squirming painfully in his chair. "Hell, Max Dempsey shot one his own men... Les and Tyler got picked up fer usin'..." He growled defensively of the other agent's men. "I'm thinkin' on givin' him a piece o'my mind... badmouthin' ya like he done..."

"You keep that colorful yapper shut, here?" Buck warned, leaning forward and smiling at the furrowed brows over the angry blue eyes. "Hell, Vin I got you broke in just right. You go bustin' up Kelly and I gotta find me another cuss-spouting, short-tempered, sharpshootin', chocolate-addicted, hockey-playin', blue-eyed, long-haired Texan."

"Ya fergot handsome and lots of endurance..." Vin piped up, as Buck handed him the plastic bag of clothes and pushed the chair out the door. He nodded to Mike, who Rain got to escort them to the exit. The orderly knew the ATF members well and got a kick of the crusty Texan.

"No, I didn't," Buck deadpanned and winced, ruffling Vin's curly hair. "Lots-of-endurance? Keep dreamin', Son."

"Hah!" Vin shot back, raising his face backwards to find Buck. "Shows what ya'll know. I'm just like that pink bunny, ya know 'he keeps goin' and goin'..."

"That's not what the pretty, red-headed gal in the Office of Counsel says. Worst five dollars and five minutes she ever spent."

"Shut the hell up!" Vin laughed, clutching his side, "Ya stay away from her. She's a nice girl, not the kind that yer hooked up with."

"Nice?" Buck wrinkled his nose as the elevator descended. "That's something you use to describe the weather or a birthday cake, not a fine lookin' woman like that. She really knows how to fill out a sweater."

"Sounds like some kind of Lady," Mike's dark face broke into a smile.

"Hell, Mike," Buck eyed the curly head below him and winked at the orderly, "I'd drink her bath water."

"Aw, Jesus, Buck!" Vin gasped painfully, clutching his side as laughter rang through the elevator.

"You okay, down there, Slick?" Buck bent over and saw the blue eyes full of tears from laughter. "Don't go bustin' them stitches... Rain's off duty, you'd likely get Barbara the mad-stitcher..." he said of the nervous intern. "I heard she sews up holes that ain't supposed by closed..."

"Buck... please..." Vin gasped, then clutched his stomach and doubled over, unsuccessfully muffling a cry.

"Aw, Shit, Vin," Buck pushed the chair into the lobby and dropped down, trying to see the face clenched in pain. "I'm sorry..." He rested a broad hand on the smaller man's back. His eyes were drawn to the hand covering the bandage.

"Gotcha!" Vin's head shot up, the smug face smiling triumphantly.

"You'd like to give me a heart attack, wouldn't you?" Buck warned, leaving Mike with the chair to get his car.

"He's something else," Mike complimented, still chuckling at the elevator ride.

"He sure is," Vin replied, watching Buck run for the car.

They rode in silence for a few minutes, then Vin turned to the somber driver. "I seen yer bag," he noted of the gym bag in the back seat, "I'd like t'see her. I get a ride home with Chris later."

"Vin, all kidding aside," Buck said serioiusly, "You lost a lot of blood, you need to rest. There's too many bugs floatin' around. You don't need to be catching anything while your weak."

"Fine," Vin replied, eyeing the snow covered street. "Ice isn't s'bad... reckon I can get there on m'own... course I'm a little dizzy and I haven't eaten..." He planted the bait and waited.

Buck scowled, casting an eye on the smug Texan. "You'd do it too, wouldn't you? Take that damn motorcycle out on the road." He sighed and moved to the right lane. "Alright, but you're not moving off her couch." He saw the smug grin and wanted to swat the smirking face. "Why didn't you eat your lunch?"

"Couldn't," Vin nestled his head against the headrest and shut his eyes. "...m'mind was busy... can't eat when I'm frettin'."

Buck shook his head as that tug gripped his gut again. It only took a few minutes until Vin's mouth parted and the soft breathing became regular. He glanced at the features, now at ease, looking far too young. Twenty minutes later, they were at their destination. He opened the door, bent over the slumbering figure and unclipped the safety belt.

"Musta dozed off..." Vin yawned, turning his body stiffly from the seat. He hesitated a moment, letting the dizziness settle down. "I'm fine... quit fussin'..." he grumbled at the hand hovering near him. He let Buck steady him and then slowly walked to the door.

"Mary," Buck greeted Grace's younger sister, kissing her cheek and ducking inside. "This is Vin Tanner, he's a friend of mine."

"Yes, I recall your name from Grace's letters," she greeted, eyeing the pale young man. "Please come in."

"Buck..."

Vin winced at the frail voice and felt his gut clench when he saw Grace Delassi coming towards them. He watched in amazement as Buck enveloped her into an embrace and she gained an immeasurable amount of strength. Vin allowed himself a small smile, Buck did have that effect on those he loved.

"Vin..." Grace noticed the shy young man standing a few feet behind Buck. She left Buck and moved closer, extending her arms.

"Grace," Vin rasped, eyeing the strangers in the room and feeling his face color. "I... uh... I wanted t'see ya... t'let ya know..." Vin's sentence was cut off when the widow unknowingly embraced him, sending a wave of pain onto his handsome face. His eyes widened and he bit his lip, as he put his arms around her. He saw Buck moving in, worry stamped on his face. "It's okay, Buck..."

"What's this?" Grace saw the plastic band on Vin's wrist. Then she saw the pain in his eyes and how pale he was. "The hospital? Were you hurt?"

"I'm okay..." Vin tried to assure her. He felt the small hand brush his side and pulled away, flinching.

"You're not well..." She worried, feeling the bandage. "What happened?"

Just lost a little blood is all..." Vin was feeling very unsteady and cast a hopeful gaze at Buck. The taller man wasted no time in moving to his shaky friend's side.

"Sit down before you fall down. I'll get you something to eat, then your going to bed." He guided the protesting body to the kitchen and watched Grace bustle into action. He smiled as she clucked her tongue and tore into the now blushing Texan. He crossed his arms across his chest and leaned against the counter, as Grace piled food onto a plate. The dining room table was laden with food, gifts from the neighbors and many friends the couple had.

"It'd take me two days t'finish all that... I can't..."

"You hush up and eat." Grace scolded him, gripping his chin in her hand, "You made him laugh, Vincenzo..." she paused, her dark eyes filling with tears. "He cared for you... I care... I don't want you to get sick. You eat, you get well, for me, okay?"

Vin swallowed hard and felt his eyes fill as the pretty widow kissed his forehead, resting her hand on his face. "Such eyes..." she caressed his face and sighed, before moving to the coffeemaker.

Buck bit back a smile as Vin's fork poked through the food. He ate some of it, then paused, wrinkling his nose at a group of pasta.

"Problem, Slick?" Buck eased into the vacant chair next to Vin. He stuck a fork into his lasagna and eyed his younger friend's puzzled face.

"What this green stuff?"

"Pesto, it's good, eat it," Buck commanded, spearing a meatball. "Vin..." he warned, seeing the hand sliding toward a large napkin. "You weren't gonna wrap that up and throw it away?"'

"... course not..." Vin stammered, "I was... I needed a napkin is all."

"Uh-huh..." Buck smirked. He finished his own plate and Vin managed to get through most of his. , before Buck saw the blue eyes blinking. "Come on..." He helped Vin stand and led him to the small guest room, off the den. Vin was asleep within minutes of curling up on the bed. Buck pulled the quilt over him and stood watch for a minute. He felt a small tug on his sleeve and smiled down at the pretty widow.

"He'll be okay, yes?"

"Yeah... that boy is as tough as they come." Buck remarked, slipping from the room and into the quiet den.

"How about you, Buck?" Grace sat down on the couch next to Buck, linking her fingers into his and looking at the handsome face. She raised her free hand and rested it against his cheek. "How are you?" His deep sigh and the pain in his eyes, gave her the silent response. She rested her head against the broad shoulder and felt his arm around her. "We'll get through this together, bello ragazzo... We're a good team, no?"

"The best in the west..." Buck choked, feeling the full impact of her tender words 'beautiful boy', "I'll always be here, Grace. You know how I feel..."

"Yes, " she whispered through her tears, "I love you, too."

Part 3

April 20th, Denver

It was a gray, chilly day and Buck pulled the wool collar of his coat up, his breath scoring the air in white puffs. He walked the familiar path and finally stopped, standing by the grave. He stood for several minutes, saying a few prayers, then blessed himself and kissed the cross on his neck, before slipping it back under his collar. It was his mother's celtic cross and he'd worn it every day since she died. He took a deep breath and felt the cruel wind slapping his windburned face.

"Hey Frank," he touched the icy cold, rounded marble marker and smiled. "Grace is doing great. You'd be so proud of her, I know I am. She put the house up for sale this week, she's moving back east to live with Mary," he said of her widowed sister. "Being around kids will be good for her," he thought on Mary's three small grandchildren who she babysat twice a week. "We're up to our asses in work, got three investigations going on. The Av's are having a helluva year, Sakic is playing out of his mind. They're gonna bring the Cup home, for sure," he noted of Colorado's outstanding hockey team. "You ought to see J.D. and Vin... they sure get a good workout," he thought on the two younger men, who played for an adult ice hockey league.

He paused and raised his head, glancing far back through the trees to the car. J.D.'s dark head was bouncing back and forth, a sure sign the radio station had been changed. The Kid was a heavy metal freak. He kicked some loose gravel by the edge of the grave and sighed again.

He almost heard Frank's gruff voice bellowing at him.

"I'm doing better," he answered the silent call. "It still hurts like hell, but the guys have made all the difference. I gotta tell you, Frank, I couldn't have gone through this without them. Sometimes I pinch myself, you know?" He paused again and thought of Vin Tanner and chuckled. "Vin's got a good bug in 'im and made the mistake of taking a sneezing fit Sunday at dinner. Before he could blink, Grace had him bundled up in the my guest room." He recalled Grace's Lasagna dinner for the gang. "His fussin' didn't fool anybody and she stayed for two days. The boy can eat like four linebackers... don't know where he puts it."

The wind picked up and he shivered, despite the wool garment and sweater he wore. His handsome face tightened and his cold fingers slid across the smooth marble.

"Grace gave me some stuff... a box... said you told her if... when you left..." Buck's voice broke. "Shit... I bet you're laughing your ass off, huh?" He choked, rubbing his eyes. "I didn't open it yet... I tried... but... it wasn't ever the right time, until today. Something feels different inside... Josiah's says it a 'healing pain'. Chris has been so solid, I never realized how strong he was... Jesus I'm babbling like a fool..." Buck remained silent for several more minutes and nodded, patting the stone again. "You rest easy, Frank, I'm doing fine."

J.D. jumped when the car was basked in silence again. "Hey, I was listening to that!"

"I'm surprised your ears aren't bleeding," Buck chastised, "You're gonna be deaf by the time you're thirty-five. How can you listen to that shit?"

"Rock and Roll, food for the soul..." J.D. crowed, pausing and waiting.

"If it's t'loud, yer t'old!" a croaking voice finished.

"I thought you were sleeping." Buck pulled out of the parking spot and eyed the shaggy head rising in the rear view mirror.

"...was doin' fine 'til some Old Man turned the music off." Vin complained.

"You two wouldn't know good music if it bit you in the ass."

"Don't go there, Buck," J.D. argued, "You'll never win that argument."

"I don't know Kid," Vin leaned forward, resting his face on his arms between the front seats. "There's a lot to be said about Lawrence Welk's Greatest Polka Hits on an Eight Track Player..."

"Fuck you, Tanner," Buck laughed, shoving the long-haired Texan backwards. "You sure, Vin?" he eyed the tired face in the mirror.

"Yeah, I'll take a raincheck. I'm beat..." Vin yawned and flopped back, dozing again. The car slowed down and he picked up his weary eyes as the corner of his street loomed ahead.

"You take your medicine?" Buck eyed the hand rubbing the throat in the mirror and the flinch of the cobalt eyes. He saw Vin screw his face up and mimic his words. "I heard that... go on and swallow them razor blades... don't make a damn bit of sense..."

"He took it," J.D. defended, "...with some Mountain Dew, a bag of Fritos and a bunch of chocolate cupcakes."

"How appetizing." Buck chuckled. "Okay Slick, here's your stop." Buck pulled over and slipped out, unlocking the trunk. He took the heavy equipment bag and slid it onto Tanner's leather-jacketed shoulder. The two younger men had hockey practice, which Buck caught the tail end of. They sure made a good team, Vin the speedy winger and J.D. a rushing defensemen.

Vin knew why Chris Larabee was coming to Buck's tonight. It was the right time and Buck would be with the two people he needed most. He wanted to say something, to let Buck know how he felt.

As if sensing the sudden stillness in the Texan's blue eyes, Buck rested a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm okay, Vin... really." He knew Vin was passing on dinner so he could be alone with Chris and J.D. Insight such as that was just one of the many reasons he admired Vin so much.

"Yeah..." Vin squinted and tried not to swallow. "Listen Buck, thanks fer askin'... it meant alot t'me."

"Me too, Tanner," Buck used a gentle tone and the emotion caught the younger man off guard. He gave a light squeeze to Vin's neck and walked back to the car, still seeing those large blue eyes. "Damn things are worse than lasers..." he muttered, sliding behind the wheel.

The pizza was long gone and the beer bottles stood in a row, like steadfast soldiers. J.D. eyed the clock on the wall and raised his eyebrows at Chris. The blond's face never changed, he was drinking coffee, having stopped after two beers. As the hour of eleven p.m. approached, Buck was sitting on the sofa next to Chris Larabee. The box was on the floor at his feet. J.D. saw across from them, on the loveseat.

"You don't have to do this, Buck." Chris finally broke the silence.

"Yeah... I do." Buck replied, "I'm sorry, I didn't think it would take this long."

"s'okay Buck," J.D. relayed, catching the blue eyes with his own. "You take all the time you need. We're not going anywhere."

Buck sighed and lifted the lid, taking it off and setting it to the side. He picked up a letter and inhaled sharply, seeing Frank's handwriting. He eyed the objects beneath and opened the envelope. He started to read, but felt the pain surging.

"Damn the light in here is bad," he rasped, rubbing his eyes.

"That's cause you're old..." J.D. joked and saw Chris slide his hand over, resting it on Buck's shoulder.

"I'm the designated reader, only two beers..." Chris decided, taking the letter.

Buck smiled at the familiar tone of Chris Larabee's voice, one he never got tired of hearing. He chuckled, recalling their first day together. Chris with his short hair and GQ looks and him with long hair and a mustache. It didn't take long for him to come to respect his new partner and care for him like a brother.

"Buck?" Chris waved a hand in front of the frozen face, until the eyes blinked. "Where were you?"

"In Mattleman's warehouse on a cold day in January, twelve years ago." Buck smiled.

"The day you met?" J.D. asked, watching both men wearing identical grins.

"The day we got assigned our first case together, without knowing it." Chris supplied, "Frank had just retired and Buck was riding solo for a few months. It was an arson case, a bad one."

"As I recall, I saved your sorry ass..." Buck touted.

"Like hell you did!" Chris retorted, "Denver's finest was ready to haul your hippie ass to jail..."

"Hippie?" J.D. laughed, "Buck?"

"Had hair longer than Vin's...." Chris grinned.

"No way..." J.D. shook his head. "Like Vin's?"

"Nah," Buck cocked his head, thinking on the sharpshooter, "Vin's a whole lot prettier..."

"I'm gonna tell him you said that," J.D. noted.

"Not if you want to live to see your next birthday, you won't." Buck warned then sighed. "McKenzie was the head of Team Two, Chris was one of his men. I'd been assigned to them on paper, while I was undercover."

"So, you met at a bust?" J.D. inquired.

"Chris persuaded the cops that I was their collar. I was in cuffs and he had his knee on my back, when McKenzie showed up." Buck laughed, recalling the look on Chris's face. "You damn near shit a brick..." Buck remembered, "I'm not working with that hippie..." he mimicked Chris's voice.

"Best decision that doughnut guzzling bastard ever made," Chris's green eyes twinkled as Buck smacked his leg.

"That's for damn sure." Buck replied, pulling out Frank's shield. "Shit..." he traced the numbers on the metal and sighed. Several citations were next, along with Frank's college ring, a Denver Bronco's jersey with Delassi on the back and a large book. "What the hell?" Buck eyed the dark green eight-by-ten photo album and took it out.

"Wow..." J.D. exclaimed, "Are they all about you?"

"I can't believe it... these go back to our first summer." Buck's voice was almost hushed as he turned the pages of the scrapbook. Photo's of a young Buck Wilmington, fresh out of college appeared.

"Why'd you join?" J.D. asked.

"I majored in Sociology and in my junior year, I got a job for the summer at the Federal Building. I started reading up on the jobs and decided it was for me. The summer after I graduated, I passed the test and went through the training. Then I got assigned to the office in Baltimore, Frank was my training officer."

"I'm glad you joined..." J.D. said quietly.

"Me too Kid," Buck replied, smiling warmly at his young friend. "Who'd be here to keep you butt in line? Teach you the fine ways of romancing a woman."

"Yo Buck," Chris pleaded, "Some of us don't have a strong stomach."

Buck continued to turn the pages, J.D moved over to his other side, so the mourning agent was between his two closest friends. With every page, more years passed, countless articles on Buck and Frank's sucessful busts.

"Oh My God!" J.D. grabbed a photo of a much younger Buck. Clad in skin tight jeans, sandals an oversized white shirt and long dark hair, cascading down past his shoulders, it didn't resemble the man next to him. "Wait until I show Vin..."

"Like hell you will." Buck took the photo back. "Damn, I was good looking..."

"'Was' being the key word there," Chris grinned, watching J.D.'s face light up. He continued to watch the pages turn, full of articles and photo's of the two of them. "Oh My God, Buck, get rid of that one..."

"Is that you?" J.D. howled, grabbing the photo. "You look like a reject from Dance Fever. Wait until Vin sees this... he'll bust every stitch." He eyed the photo again of a very young Chris Larabee with a red shirt and tight white pants. "How drunk were you?"

"First of all, Vin's never gonna see that," Chris warned, already hearing Tanner's evil laugh. Somehow, in Vin's hands, the photo would end up blown up as a poster, displayed in the lobby."Second, we were on duty..."

"As what, Danny Terrio look-alikes?" He noted of the host of the disco show, which his cable company featured in reruns.

"No, we were staking out a disco that was importin' liquor illegally over the border." Buck said, "Jesus, Chris, how did you get in those pants?"

"It wasn't easy..." Chris winced, still seeing Vin's devilish grin. "How much?"

"You ain't got enough greenbacks, Pard!" Buck laughed, wiggling his eyebrows.

"You take credit cards?"

"I'll think on it," Buck promised.

"What's that?" J.D. nodded to a gray cloth sack.

"It can't be..." Buck lifted the item with great care and took out an antique revolver.

"That's a beauty," Chris commented, as a collector of antique firearms, he knew quality. "Late eighteenth century, French, I think."

"It's been in his family for generations... passed down from father to son... Jesus... he never mentioned... I thought he'd give it to Dave's boy Danny. My God..." Buck's voice broke and he held the prized item to his chest. He took a deep breath and swallowed the tears. "Go on, Chris..."

"You sure?" the blond asked, unfolding the letter. "It might be personal."

"I got no secrets from you two," he rasped, feeling J.D.'s arm around his shoulder.

"Okay," Chris eyed the short letter and began. "Well Buck-o, I guess if you're reading this, I got called home to supper. I know you'll take care of my Grace, I'll rest easier, knowing she has you by her side. You know I hate goodbyes, so I'll keep this short. I lived a full life, did a job I loved, served my country and married the best woman God ever so fit to put on this sweet earth. You were my crowning achievement, Son. I never was so proud as when I walked by your side. Take Care, Frank."

Buck took several heaving breaths, clenching his eyes shut. He pushed back the emotional tide, despite J.D.'s firm grip on his shoulder and Chris's words of encouragement.

"Let it out, Buck," Chris advised, watching the struggle.

"I'm okay," Buck choked, carefully replacing every object. He held the letter against his chest and pulled out his mother's cross. After a short prayer, he raised his eyes heavenward.

"You look out for Frank, Mom, he's new up there and don't know his way around yet." He concluded and kissed the cross, before slipping it beneath his shirt. He rose and embraced each friend briefly, before resting a hand on each shoulder.

"Thanks..."

"Wait until Vin sees these," J.D. chortled, waving the photos.

"Kid, you just made the sorriest mistake of your short life." Buck vowed, taking chase.

"You'll never catch me," J.D. jumped over a footstool and headed for the door. "Don't trip over your walkers... Isn't it past your bedtime?" He tripped and fell, the other two quickly captured the struggling hostage. "Buck, I was only kidding. Chris, can't you take a joke? Chris? Buck?"

"How do you want to do him?" Chris asked, grabbing the youth's arms and pinning them behind his back.

"Hey, I got an idea," Buck winked at his blond friend, "Pam left a box of blond hair dye here," he noted of an old flame, "What do you think? Might turn the Kid's luck around, we can even spike his hair, cut it like Rod Stewart's."

"Buck, that isn't funny!" J.D. muffled against the carpet as Buck grabbed his legs. "Buck... Buck..."

June 1, Baltimore, MD

The balcony from the hotel room commanded a fine view onto the busy Baltimore Harbor. Throngs of tourists crowded the busy walkways, restaurants and attractions. Dinner had been wonderful, Phillip's Seafood had lived up to it's reputation. The hour of eight drew near and Delaney exited the room. The night air was chilly and forced a quick step. The ten minute walk led to a non-descript tavern called 'Jugs n Mugs'. Hardly a befitting place for a union such as theirs to be born.

It was dark and the heavily painted women who danced on the bar looked worn. Delaney's blue eyes worked their way around the room.

"Can I help you?"

The waitress was stuffed into a blouse two sizes too small and the snapping gum in her mouth didn't help.

"Coors Lite?"

"Yeah... anything else?" the tired voice asked.

"Tony Kennedy? Does he work here?"

"Never heard of him." the tired voice answered.

"I think if you try hard, you might remember him." the fifty dollar bill easily changed possession. Recognition sparked in the server's eyes. "Delaney. You let him know I'm here. I'll be in that back booth."

The beer was cold at least and it didn't take long for the body to appear. The careful blue eyes observed him as he approached. Anthony Michael Kennedy, thirty-nine years old and fresh out of Cumberland Federal Prison. He'd served eighteen years for a list of charges, including illegal possession of weapons, assault and battery and extortion. He stood three inches over six feet and in excellent condition. The body was lean, all muscle and the eyes were dark and mean. A head full of curly black hair sat well over the olive complexion and dark eyes on the man's face. He slid into the seat across the filmy table. The dark eyes were hooded and suspicious, something Delaney didn't like to see.

"You understood my intentions on the phone?"

"Yeah," Tony replied, "You don't look the type..."

"Killers come in all suits of clothing, Mr. Kennedy. I assure you, I'm quite serious. I've been planning this for over eighteen years."

"You got my parole moved up, I owe you." He nodded, acknowledging the dismissal nearly ten months ahead of time.

"It was worth every penny," Delaney mused of the large 'donation' the senior member of the parole board accepted. "We have a lot of work to do and only a few weeks to get it done. First, a job in Denver. I've cleared it with your parole officer..."

"Fuck!" Kennedy grinned, draining his beer, "You got balls..."

"You'd be surprised what people will do in the name of science. I've arranged for you, on paper, to become a part of a research project I'm conducting on biological toxicology."

"What the hell is that?" Kennedy's face twisted in disgust.

"Germ warfare..." Delaney sighed, "The warden at the prison, the parole board and your parole officer were all given a full report. Your unusual blood chemistry and DNA are essential in the program I've mapped out. I got you a job in the maintance department of the Federal Building, that way you will be able to move freely around the building. You'll have to report to the parole office in Denver, until we move into the final phase of the plan."

"As long as it ends with that bastard lying dead at my feet..." Kennedy loathed of Buck Wilmington. The years slipped away in his mind and he saw the young federal agent who used him. He still saw the gun coming out and the silver badge. He befriended an old High School buddy and gave him a job, or so he thought. Wilmington used him, set him up, worked next to him for months, all the time compiling evidence. That smug face in court as he was led away, was the one he saw every day since he went to prison. He wanted to see that face again, right before he killed Buck Wilmington. "I don't give a fuck about the phases of your plan."

"Understand this," Delaney leaned forward, blue eyes glowing, "I've been waiting eighteen years for this. You'll follow my plan to the letter..." the voice lowered and became feral. "You fuck with me, Mr. Kennedy and you'll end up next to Wilmington on a slab at the morgue or worse..."

"Worse?"

"Much worse..." Delaney warned, "I've got hundreds of little allies in vials... deadly allies... that will cause you indescribable pain. I know all about you, Mr. Kennedy; I know you can taste his blood... like I can. We do it my way, you'll watch him suffer in inches."

"...and after?"

"I have that arranged as well," Delaney thought on the deadly virus collection that would be worth millions in the right hands. The years working in Europe for many top secret Government projects had exposed all the right names. After careful study, a middle-eastern dictator had provided the right amount of zero's on a proposal to buy the collection of toxic chemicals. "While the rest of this Godforsaken country celebrates Independence Day, we'll be on a private jet, heading for the Mediterranean. Be ready at six a.m., I'll pick you up outside."

Kennedy watched the odd figure leave the room and frowned. He didn't trust Cameron Delaney, but if the quack led him to Wilmington, that's all that mattered. He departed for his room above the seedy dive and snagged a fleshy dancer going off duty. As he drove into her, he eyed the stars in the sky out the broken window and saw the bloody face of Buck Wilmington. He laughed and slapped the girl's backside hard, before grabbing her hips and sating himself.

Cameron Delaney pulled the car over by the harbor, watching the moon reflect on the water. Soon the fruits of the many years of labor would be ripe and the juice would be all the sweeter. The years away from the United States didn't change the feelings inside. Eighteen years peeled away and the bitterness returned. The lies that Wilmington and Delassi spewed in the hot courtroom. Emma's face the day when they heard the shot, that her husband would rather go to hell then to jail. The body slumped over a desk, blood pooling on the black and white lies in the paper. They'd moved because of the press hounding them, no relief for the poor widow. The illness got progressively worse, the cancer spread until Emma was dead. But Cameron had used the years in Europe well.

Majoring in biochemistry and attaining a PhD led to a lucrative job for the Euro-Center for Toxilogical Research. From the onset, as a microbiologist through the parade of awards as a top specialist in toxicology, Delaney never wasted a minute of work. Research that capitalized on scientific knowledge in the areas of biochemistry, organic chemistry, cellular and molecular biology, immunology, nutritional biochemistry, and pharmacology.

Attaining the job in Denver was easy. Once Emma died, there was no reason to stay in Switzerland. It didn't take long to track down Wilmington and Delassi there. Deep within the bowels of the Federal Building in the city, was a secret Government laboratory. It's sole purpose was to fight biological warfare. The research was specifically designed to define biological mechanisms of action underlying the toxicity of a multitude of drugs. This research was aimed at understanding critical biological events in the expression of toxicity and at developing methods to improve assessment of human exposure, susceptibility and risk.

More importantly, it allowed free rein in the realm of Buck Wilmington. Delassi's death still angered the scientist, but in the months since, a new plan emerged. Careful study of his haunts, likes, dislikes, friends, lovers and daily routine, had yielded a more painful demise. The plan evolved, to make him suffer... like they had.

"The time is near, Father." The wind lifted the auburn hair and Delaney eyed the heavens. "Your death will be avenged. He'll pay... and so will they... with their lives."

June 20, Denver, early morning

The seven were working on several major cases and that meant all of them were putting in extra hours. It wasn't even seven a.m. and the entire team was already busy at their desks. Chris paused just inside the door to the large wing that was home to team seven. Josiah was returning from the cantina in the back of the room, stirring a cup of coffee. Nate and J.D. were behind him, each clutching a mug; the youth had a large powdered doughnut in his mouth and a bagel in his hand. Buck and Ezra were huddled at the southerner's desk. The leader's eyes narrowed when he saw money in a pile under the stapler by Standish's computer. His green eyes followed the stares of the pair, over to Vin Tanner's desk, at the far edge of the room.

Vin was sitting sideways, his booted feet crossed and propped on an upside-down trashcan. The Texan loved hot weather, so the blast of air conditioning didn't set well with him. He was wearing a denim shirt over a harley davidson t-shirt. He was studying something of great interest in the newspaper on his lap. In his hands, was the object of the gambling pair's interest. Chris moved closer to Standish and Wilmington, keeping his ear to the discussion and his eyes on Tanner.

"...no way... you just lost yourself a bunch of dead presidents," Buck bragged.

"Ye of little faith," Standish countered, watching Tanner's hands work their magic.

"Come on Vin..." Buck prayed, watching the nimble fingers working. Then the object they were so intent on sailed through the air, making a perfect arch, before landing in a trash can.

"Shit!" Buck slammed his fist at the same time Ezra unleashed a cry of victory, snatching up the money.

Vin lifted his face, shook his head at the pair and scowled, "I swear, Ezra, ye'll make money offa yer own funeral."

"You cheated!" Buck accused, taking the long, unbroken orange peel from the trash. His blue eyes narrowed, wondering about Ezra's all too cool suggestion of the bet. After all, he'd never seen Vin eat an orange, let alone peel one without a break.

"I beg your pardon," Ezra bruskly denied, heading for the cantina and a cup of coffee. Vin's booted leg appeared against the wall, blocked his path. The Texan's palm came out, the face still glued to the newspaper.

"Give it over..."

"Certainly not... as the victor..."

"Give it over or I'll tell Bucklin about ya riggin' his car so's we could hear him caterwallin' them Godawful Elvis songs..."

"What!" Buck launched himself at the the conman, who'd reluctantly handed over half the payoff. "What do mean rigging my car? Ezra!" Buck growled, chasing the fleet-footed undercover agent through the room.

Chris smiled and entered his office, dropping off his briefcase, laptop and a newspaper. He listened to his voicemail messages, flipped on his computer and then headed for the cantina. He paused at Vin's desk, wondering what had captured his friend's interest.

It was an article about the upcoming Fourth of July festivities. It listed the details of the celebrations, fireworks, concerts and other events in Denver and around the country. Vin loved history, Chris knew that much from the library of books at the Texan's house. He felt strongly about freedom and was quietly a true patriot.

"Sure would be somethin' t'see..." Vin mused, popping a slice of his orange into his mouth and flipping the paper in half. "Hey Cowboy..." he smiled up at his best friend, pulling his feet down. He lifted his large mug and rose. "Ya buyin'?"

"What's that?" Chris edged his head towards the paper and Tanner's comment.

"Oh... there was a bit in there 'bout the Inner Harbor at Baltimore havin' a huge fireworks show."

"We got some pretty decent fireworks around here."

"Yeah, I guess... but they's havin' a reenactment at Fort McHenry and they got all them Civil War battlefields in that neck o'the woods..."

"So what's stopping you?" Chris asked, pouring Vin some coffee. Vin frowned, sat down at the table and pulled a large danish from the box and a doughnut as well. He saw Chris wrinkle his nose at the sugary pile on the paper towel in front of him.

"Yer a snob, Larabee," he grunted, taking a bite and deliberately letting a wad of cream linger on his lips, before capturing it with his tongue. He left the powered sugar mustache in place and watched the green eyes crinkle and a soft smile form. Chris sipped his coffee as Vin devoured his stack of pastries.

"Well?"

"Oh..." Vin belched, giving Ezra cause to roll his eyes, before leaving the room. They were alone and Vin felt a compulsion to speak. This time of year always brought up painful memories. He turned to Chris, who saw the need reflected and gave his younger friend his undivided attention. "Ya know m'dad was in the army, stationed in Texas. I turned thirteen that spring and we planned t'get back east, see all the historic stuff, all the battlefields and such. I got maps and planned the whole trip. I did the gas, mileage, motels, all the battlefields... made red dots on the places we was gonna stop at and blue lines connectin' 'em. We was gonna finish up at Fort Sumter," Vin paused, still hearing his father's voice, "'We're gonna see the rocket's red glare, boy'..." he spoke his father's words from long ago. "I was real excited... school was almost out and I had the days counted. He come down t'breakfast that day and the phone rang. He took the call in the other room... I could hear him hollerin' and cussin', it wasn't often he got riled up like that. I finished and ran fer m'books, so's I could get t'school. He caught up t'me in the driveway and hugged me hard, nearly took m'breath away. It scared me Chris... I remember feelin' tingles all the way t'school. I got a bad feelin' that I'd never see him again..." Vin stopped and swallowed hard, exchanging a brief glance at his best friend.

Chris realized by the eyes and the voice - that damned quiet drawl, emotion catching on every word - that Vin had never spoken of this before. That his best friend, someone who could touch him deep inside with a single glance, was baring his soul, took the blond's breath away. "You okay?" Chris rested a hand on the tension riddled forearm and saw the shaggy head dip once.

"They was waitin' when I got home, spoutin' nonsense about an 'unfortunate incident on the firin' range'. Hah," he snorted, still angry after all these years. "Unfortunate my ass, I knew they was lyin' and they knew it... I hauled m'ass upstairs and ripped all the maps up... ripped them inta a thousand pieces. I busted his picture against the wall. I was so pissed off at him... stayed mad fer a good long while."

"God, I'm sorry, Vin." Chris winced, still feeling the simmering rage brewing in the sky eyes.

"He taught me everythin' Chris, from the time I was a little feller. Huntin', trackin', how to read the stars, all the stuff his father learned him. But shootin', that was somethin' he didn't count on. I was so good by the time I turned thirteen, it scared him. He'd take me out t'the desert and follow me, seein' if I could find m'way."

"You were lucky, Vin. Some people go through a whole life without a father like that."

"Thanks, Chris." Vin paused, finishing his lukewarm coffee. "I packed m'backpack the night before the funeral. I took off right after and headed north... back home t'New Mexico... back

t'Lone Wolf." He stopped and saw the grayhaired man who'd raised his father. "He didn't have no phone... he didn't know... he took it hard..." Vin recalled the painful first days. "But we did okay. That Old Man finished the job m'dad started. We went huntin', trackin', fishin', he knew more about history than any of them fussy teachers in them fancy colleges... he learned me good Chris."

"That he did, Vin..." Chris agreed strongly, hearing the pride in Vin's voice.

"I just turned nineteen, was workin' two jobs. I was in town when they come. Time I got home, they was drivin' off. A bunch of redneck, drunken bikers. Sheriff said it was a Goddamn accident." Vin scoffed, "Accident my ass, they put four bullets in 'im... I took what that Old Man learned me and found every one o'them bastards..."

"I'd have ridden with you..." Chris said quietly and saw Vin's small smile.

"Thanks, Cowboy." Vin sent his gratitude easily, "I found out that the State o'Texas paid good money fer bringing in murderin' bastards like that bunch. Did okay fer awhile, until Eli Joe set me up... took t'ridin' solo again."

Chris nodded, feeling honored that Vin shared his brief history. He knew the rest, that fateful day in December when a wild bountyhunter chased a felon into a raid in Denver and Vin Tanner locked eyes with a green-eyed soldier whose soul shared the same demons.

"You got plenty of time now, Vin," Chris suggested, pouring himself and Vin a cup of fresh coffee. "Take a couple weeks..."

"We ain't never gonna get done in two weeks. We got t'much cookin'." He paused, reaching for the sugar jar. "I'll get there... gonna plan it right, hit as many places as I can. Maybe fly into Boston and head south through Philly, Gettysburg, Virginia, Charlston and Savananah." He frowned as the two reached the doorway. "I been hearin' his voice lately, Chris. I like t'finish the trip we planned."

"Funny thing," Chris read the silent invite in the stirring blue eyes bearing in on him. "I was thinking on a trip back east. Haven't been to Gettysburg in ten years. I wouldn't mind some company, strictly for splitting expenses of course."

"Of course..." Vin grinned, bouncing off his heels. His smile faded and he gazed hard at Chris Larabee. "Ya sure?"

"You bet," Chris smiled at the boyish gleam in Vin's eyes. "You tell Paul Tanner's boy, I'd be honored."

"Reckon I can do that."

"Reckon you better get your skinny ass to your desk and some work done." Chris sauntered off, feeling like the richest man in Colorado. He was talking on the phone to the Accounting Division about funding, and happened to walk to the fax machine. From the corner of his eye, he saw Vin hovered over a printed map from the internet. A red pen and a blue pen were next to his hand. He read the upside words of the map of Pennsylvania. Nearby were maps of Boston and Virginia. He smiled all the way back to his desk. He thought of the boy who'd dreamed of seeing the places where destiny made men heroes. He thought of another blue-eyed man named Tanner, who died before he got the chance to show his boy the untold wealth of history.

"You did a helluva job, Captain Tanner," he whispered, eyeing Vin's profile through the glass. "I'll take it from here."

+ + + + + + +

It was almost eight a.m., when the six shuffled into the conference room, prepared to go over their pending cases and the upcoming week's activities. Chris also updated them on the Saving Bond drive, the Red Cross Blood Donation schedule and the Fire Safety film that was mandatory to attend.

"Oh Vin, you're on closeout." Chris ended the meeting, bracing for the explosion.

"Shit, hell and damn!" The Texan slammed his folder, scattering his neat pile of notes all over the table. Chris aside, the others all broke into laughter and hooted at the angry sharpshooter.

"You watch that fuckin' mouth of yours, Slick," Buck teased, "Some of us got delicate ears."

"Come on Chris," Vin begged, "I can't stay cooped up in that bitty room all day."

"You make it sound like a phone booth, Vin," Chris continued to make notes in his schedule without looking up. "It's your turn, you've been trading off with the others for months. It's got to be done, end of discussion." Chris never looked up from the papers in front on him. "Take those two boxes with you. You can come back for other one after lunch."

Vin kicked the legs on the chair, growled once and stacked the two boxes on a vacant chair, before wheeling it towards the door. Closeouts were something they all dreaded. A process that required the reviewing of closed cases, making sure the summary sheet on the front inside of the folder contained all the pertinant details of the case and finalizing the file. This was flipping through the folders to ensure that all the documents were secured property and that nothing was forgotten. It was time consuming and in a room without windows, which Vin hated. The Files Room was large, but the case review area wasn't.

Vin wheeled his chair off the elevator on the first floor and headed for the ATF File Storage Room. He shivered as the blast of cold air hit him. Upon entering the large room, he eyed the many aisles of file cabinets. He wheeled quickly into the smaller room, which had a long review table, and a desk with a computer. It was empty, which gave him a little more breathing room. He stacked the boxes on the long table, took out a pile of folders and sat down. After reviewing each folder carefully, signing the close-out form and attaching it, he date stamped each one and initialed it, before setting it aside. Once he had ten folders done, he moved to the computer to update them. Then he went back to the table and began the process all over again. The folder's that contained errors, were put to the side and sent back with notes attached, so the agent who prepared it could update it. Chris was so adament about their reports and red-penned each one over and over, until they were right, seldom did a folder of Team Seven get returned

The morning hours left finally, chased out by the hungry agent's growling stomach. The room was warm and Vin took off his denim shirt. He eyed the hour of twelve p.m., just as he phone extension on the wall rang. Vin shoved back the chair and padded over to the tan phone.

"ATF, Agent Tanner."

"Hey, Vin, It's J.D.. We're going to Milo's for roast pork sandwiches and ragin' cajun fries. You want in?"

"Aw, damn Kid, that's hittin' below the belt," Vin winced, his hunger pains increasing. "I'm runnin' behind. I still got t'get the last o'this batch done, if I'm gonna get the other box finished by quittin' time. I'll pass."

"Hey, I'll save you a trip, I'll bring the last box down."

"Thanks Kid..." Vin glanced at his watch, "Is Chris there?"

"Yeah," J.D. replied, noticing Josiah, Ezra and Nathan were already gone. The blond was at the door, ready to join them. "Chris!"

"Damn, J.D.!" Vin winced, grabbing his ringing ear.

"What's up?"

"I'm gonna push right through, get this done," Vin shifted the phone to the other hand, "Should be wrapped up by four or so, I'm gonna leave from here, got some errands t'do. Ya headin' t'the Saloon?"

"Not tonight," Chris replied, "Billy's overnight with the Cub Scouts at the Zoo and I'm cooking Mary dinner at her place."

"She's a brave lady," Vin imparted.

"I cook okay!" Chris defended.

"Let me guess?" Vin coughed, covering up his laughter, "Chicken and Dumplin's?"

"What's wrong with my Chicken and Dumplings?" Chris scowled, hearing Tanner laughing on the other end. "You seem to eat enough of them."

"I'm real good at nibblin' and shiftin', specially when it comes t'yer damn Chicken and Dumplin's. Face it, Cowboy, yer a one hit wonder and it's gettin' old fast..." Vin crowed, "I can fix a plate so's it looks like I cleaned up."

"Shift your ass back to work, Tanner," Chris growled, tossing a glare at Buck who was listening on the extension.

"You gonna meet us over there, Vin?" Buck laughed, eyeing Chris's stone-face.

"Yeah," Vin agreed, "Ya tell Ezra t'dust off that piece o'leather he calls a wallet, he's due."

"Will do, Slick," Buck agreed, hanging up the phone. "It's too late to change the menu now, Chef Larabee." Buck winked and met Chris in the hall outside their office. "Shiftin' and nibblin'..." he recalled aloud and laughed again.

"It's not that funny, Buck," Chris warned.

"The hell it isn't..." Buck patted Chris's back as they got on the elevator.

By the time one p.m. rolled around, Vin hit the enter key, securing the updated information for the last folder. He'd filed most of the folders in the outer room, and left the remaining couple dozen for later. He decided to get some Mexican takeout from Pablo's on the corner. The small eatery served spicy Mexican dishes and was one of Vin's favorites. He ordered the "Texas Grande" a large platter with a sampling of just about everything on the menu. He ate quickly and washed it down with a Corona, before making his way back. With any luck, he'd be on his way home by four o'clock. He patted his pocket and realized his I.D. badge was in his desk. He couldn't get out of the parking lot without it. He jogged up to the garage entrance of the Federal Building and caught the elevator. The office was empty and he quickly retrieved the laminated likeness and trotted back down the hall to the elevator.

He didn't look up right away when he got on, and suddenly noticed the paint splattered coveralls next to him. He glanced at the man's face and nodded, but then he saw the eyes so dark they were nearly black and the crescent shaped scar on the man's right cheekbone. The face was familiar but Vin couldn't place him. He didn't realize he was staring until the man moved back, clearly uncomfortable. The paint-splattered shirt reached forward to punch a button on the wall, and Vin's heart began to beat hard. There was a tatoo of a serpent, wrapped around the man's wrist. He swallowed hard and his mouth went dry. A 'danger' message flashed in his head, in red pulsating letters. Who was this stranger? He snuck a fast glance in the mirror in the corner and etched the rest of the features into memory .

Vin ducked off at the first floor and turned the other way, away from his destination. He paused at the box housing newspapers, fumbling for change. Carefully, he eyed the stranger, who was now talking with a well dressed Government employee. Vin flipped the box open and slowly bent down for a paper, eyeing the white Government I.D. badge, trimmed in light green.

"F.D.A?" he mumbled of the color code, staring at the odd pair. They walked slowly around the corner and Vin followed, chucking the paper in the trash. The cold grip in his gut was his instincts telling him that the man was bad news. He ducked behind a large truck and got a closer look. He got the first three letters on the badge, unaware that the pair knew they were being observed.

"How did you manage to pick up Tanner?" Delaney hissed, the blue eyes noticing the Team Seven sharpshooter several feet behind them.

"It was an accident, he got in the elevator. Take him out?" he guessed, thinking of the knife in his boot.

"No... not yet..." the scientist mused, "Let's find out what he knows. Follow him, see where he goes and report back to me."

Vin watched the pair disappear into the freight elevator at the back of the garage and frowned. He waited several minutes and went back to the file room. Maybe it was his imagination running wild. No... that tatoo was like a knife in his gut. He sat at the table and closed his eyes, concentrating on the tatoo. He slowed his breathing down and blanked out everything in his mind , but that tatoo.

Tony Kennedy saw the agent disappear into the room identified as the ATF File Storage Area and slid through the side door. He crept around the outer room, marking the large deserted file area. He noticed the room the agent was in, had only one entrance. He saw the long-haired agent from behind, sitting in front of a pile of folders. Smiling, he left the room as quietly as he entered.

"Damn..." Vin slapped the table. "I seen him before... in a picture... shit..." he thought hard and flipped through the pile of folders he was waiting to file. Buck's familiar scrawl appeared on the summary sheet and then he dawned on him, where he'd seen that image before. "Shit..." his face froze in time, locked on the blurry image in his head. He left the file and went to the computer, looking up Buck's file numbers. He raced into the larger room and plucked the thick folder from the shelf. He flipped through the pages, until he found what he was looking for. Dropping in front of the computer, he logged onto the Internet, calling up the newspaper archives. It took a few minutes and more searches and some police records, but there it was. He printed out the image and grabbed a legal pad and began to make notes. He downloaded other articles and printed them out, not bothering to read them, until a photo of a funeral caught his eye. It was the funeral for a cop who'd commited suicide, a Captain Newlander. But the face in the photo below the headline, was the one that jerked his heart. There, supporting the dead detective's widow, was the same face he'd seen downstairs, younger and thinner, but the same person. The green and white badge, indicated they worked for the F.D.A. The man with the serpent was Tony Kennedy, identified in the photo during the arrest in a Maryland warehouse. It was Buck's first case, Frank was his partner. It was no coincidence the two were here, but Kennedy wasn't due for parole until next year. Buck had checked that out himself.

He flew to the phone and then cursed, realizing that the wall extension didn't get outside lines. The rest of the team was scheduled to meet with the arson investigation unit of the Denver P.D. this afternoon, comparing notes on a series of bombings. Vin quickly punched in Buck's extension upstairs, deciding to leave word there and then get to a phone and find the team.

"Buck, I gotta find ya... Ya won't believe what I seen... it's about..." Vin frowned as the line went dead and the lights in the outer room went out. He ran to the table and gathered up his notes and the other information he'd compiled. He shoved it into the folder and bound it with rubber bands. Frantically, he eyed the room, which had nowhere to hide his valuable evidence. Then he made the only decision he could.

Kennedy changed into dark blue overalls and a ski mask. He held the gun against his hip and moved slowly in the darkness, towards where he'd seen the door. He already disconnected the phone line in the hall, at the power box and shut the lights off as he entered the room.

His file secure, Vin grabbed the only weapon he had available, a heavy, metal triple hole puncher. He eyed the dark room and crept through the doorway. He felt a sting, like a wasp or bee, on the back of his neck and whirled around, swinging the heavy object and making contact. His legs were like rubber and the floor turned to quicksand. He went to his knees, as a heavy weariness overwhelmed him. The loud sound he heard was his labored breathing and he slid to the floor. The last thing he saw was a heavy boot coming at his groin.

"That hurt, you little prick," Kennedy grunted, kicking the nearly sedated man several times. He knelt down and yanked the stuperous head up by the hair. The eyes were half-mast and a long line of drool ran from the slack agent's lip. "Sweet dreams, pig," he whispered, hauling the now inert man over his shoulder. The large canvas gurney was by the door and the slight body fit inside well. Tony dumped several boxes of recycled paper ontop of the drugged agent and tossed the ski cap under the paper as well. He made a trip back to the small room and searched it. He was careful to keep his gloves on and not to mess up the box of folders. Not finding anything crucial, he grabbed Tanner's denim shirt and headed back to his victim. He peered outside and pushed the cart through the corridor towards the freight elevator.

"One little piggie went to market..." Kennedy chirped, wheeling the cart into the back entrance of the large laboratory hidden underground. Dr. Delaney had the only key to the private lab in the back, so there was no fear of being seen. He lifted the lean body from the cart and laid him on the examining table.

"Excellent." Delaney said, eyeing the prize."What did you find out?"

"He was reading folders, old cases... the room was clean."

"He must have recognized you..."

"...or you..." Kennedy shot back, eyeing the syringes and bottles on a metal tray, "What are you going to do to him?"

"Mr. Tanner has now become a key member of the success of this operation." Delaney tied a small rubber hose around the slack agent's arm and tapped his pale skin, searching for a vein. "With a little help... he'll become a perfect little puppet."

"What's that stuff?" Kennedy watched the syringe filling with amber colored fluid.

"X-16... Something they've been using in Europe on prisoners... usually for questioning. Unfortunately, it has some rather nasty side effects and can't be approved for the general public. It's a chemical compound that wipes away short term memory, but that's for later. Now, I need to find out just what agent Tanner knows."

"Sodium penathol?" Kennedy guessed of the second syringe.

"Yes," Delaney eyed the clock as the long-haired patient began to moan and move his head. "That dart contained a very mild anesthetic." A fast swab on the arm and the needle slid inside, the only sound was a gasp from the unwilling patient. "Now, we'll find out just what Mr. Tanner knows. Then will see about his induction." Delaney eyed the amber fluid in the vial. "I'll have to dilute it, I don't want to lose him too soon."

Kennedy nodded and moved the limp body to a tall chair in the corner. It reclined slightly and Tanner seemed comfortable. The dark-haired man shook his head as the mad doctor took a seat next to the drugged agent.

"Can you hear me, Mr.Tanner?" the scientist watched the closed eyes furrow and a tongue lick the dry lips. His body was totally relaxed and he was completely under the power of the drug.

"Yes..." the raspy voice replied.

"Excellent... showtime, Mr. Kennedy..." Delaney called to her assistant, who picked up a tape recorder. The doctor eyed the nearby large vial full of X-16 and smiled evilly.

Part 4

The session was short and went smoothly. Tony was bored with the slow pace at which Delaney was operating. He kept his cool because if the plan worked, Wilmington would suffer. In the meantime, the money was good and he'd put up with the mad scientist routine. He drew his attention back to Tanner, who was being quizzed about his knowledge of Frank Delassi's death.

"Who killed Frank Delassi?"

"Don't know..."

"What do the police think?"

"...two junkies done it..."

"So the case is closed?"

"No... maybe..."

"But you aren't satisfied?"

"No."

"Why?" Delaney pressed, but Tanner remained silent, his forehead creased in concentration. "What were you doing in the File Room?"

"Closin' out old cases."

"What happened on the elevator this afternoon?"

"Seen him."

"Who?"

"Tony Kennedy."

Delaney saw the victim's fists curl up and his teeth bare in defiance. He was angry and Kennedy looked uncomfortable. "Why are you angry?"

"They's up to somethin'... gonna hurt Bucklin..."

"They?"

"Yeah... him and... and... the other one... works fer the FDA..."

Delaney sat back and glared at Kennedy, who snorted and raised an eyebrow. Tanner knew both of them.

"How did you know about the FDA?" Delaney asked of her employer, The Federal Drug Administraion.

"...seen the ID badge... green and white..."

"How did you recognize Kennedy?"

"...eyes... scar... tatoo... seen 'em before... couldn't put 'em... bothered me..."

"But you did find out."

"Yeah... I seen his face... in a picture... paper... bein' arrested..."

"By Buck Wilmington and Frank Delassi?"

"Yeah... got the file out... knew it was him... saw the other one too... in a clippin' from the funeral..."

"You're sure you can make an identification?"

"Yeah... Newlander's kid... FDA... seen the two of 'em talkin' in the garage... need t'warn Bucklin..."

"Did you speak to anyone of your suspicions?"

"Nobody there... Gotta find Chris... Buck... tell 'em..."

"So you didn't speak to anyone about what you uncovered?"

"No... gone all afternoon... at a meetin'..."

"But you're going to tell them?"

"Yeah... they killed Frank... gotta tell Buck..."

"Buck won't believe you... he's mad at you."

"No, he ain't..."

Delaney smiled at the tinge of hurt in Tanner's voice. Using the right words, a seed of doubt would be planted deep inside his subconscious. Just the right thing to aid them in the next phase of the plan. "I'm sure you are aware that your decision and testimony led to his suspension."

"He ain't mad at that... yer crazy..."

"Am I? He's spoken about it to J.D. and to the others. How you could have told prevented his embarassing testimony before his superiors. How you let him down. Now the rest of them are wondering about you too."

"That don't make any sense..."

Of course it didn't, Delaney agreed, but that wasn't important. Only that deep inside, he would wonder about it, without knowing why. Time to move on, Tanner hadn't told anyone of their whereabouts yet, so it was time to erase his recent memory. The amber liquid had been diluted, so Tanner wouldn't become an unfortunate statistic like some of the other guinea pigs. As the needle entered his skin, the vein rolled. "Dammit..."

"What?" Kennedy moved forward, eyeing the point of the syringe being navigated under the squirming man's skin.

"His vein moved... there..."

Finally it was done. He hissed and shuddered, gasping a few times, before slumping back, sleeping deeply.

"I don't get it," Kennedy frowned. "If that stuff takes his memory away, what was all that business about Wilmington blaming him. He ain't gonna remember it..."

"He won't remember the words or the specific sentences. But the doubt was planted. That's what he'll remember and it will cause him a degree of uncertainty. Something that will be built upon after Phase two a couple days from now when Dunne disappears."

"They'll blame him?"

"They'll be hard pressed not to..." Delaney smiled and patted the denim-clad knee on the gurney. The clock read three-thirty and the drug would keep him under a heavy blanket for a few hours.

"Let's move him outside... near the HazMat dumpster."

"What about the shirt?" Kennedy picked up the denim garment.

"Uh..." Delaney paused, eyeing the chart on the wall. "The rest of them are out for the afternoon. Put the shirt on the back of his chair upstairs at his desk."

Kennedy easily lifted Tanner and moved him through the doors and up a short flight of stairs. The restricted area in question was a sunny courtyard, surrounded by high fences. Several heavy steel dumpsters were locked and waiting for the contents to be picked up. It was only accessible by certain key personnel and the Hazardous Material disposal team. The next pickup wasn't until six a.m., and Kennedy had disengaged the roaming camera temporarily. So the area would be free and clear. He laid Tanner on the ground, eyeing the sun overhead. He moved back inside to the airconditioned bay area and fingered the toolkit where the denim shirt was buried. Once he planted the shirt, he had to finish with the packages for the upcoming activities. He was just finishing, when at six p.m, Delaney reappeared, dressed in a new suit.

"Let's move... it's time..." the scientist eased through the door and bent over the victim. "Mr. Tanner?" The soft taps to the face were answered by a furrowed brow and labored breathing. "He's coming back... we have about ten minutes. Get him in the van."

The ride was a short one and Kennedy backed the van up to a group of tall bushes behind the train station. It obscured the view from all angles and he easily deposited Tanner on the soft earth. He eyed the bulge in Tanner's pocket, but Delaney said not to touch the wallet. He slapped Tanner's face a few times, until the body jerked and a low moan slipped out. He saw the eyes twitch and moved out of sight, back to the van and drove off.

Sick. Pain. Dizzy. Hot. Words ran together in Vin's troubled mind. He forced the images to part and slid his eyes open. He blinked up at the sky and couldn't see the sun. He panted in confusion, wondering where he was and why he felt so very sick. His head was pounding and any movement, even blinking his eyes, caused a terrific wave of nausea. He continued to breath for several minutes, until a wave of severe abdominal pain forced him to move.

"Oh God... " he curled up into a fetal position as the hot pain sliced through his head and guts.

"Is somebody there?"

Vin was fighting the pain and it took all his concentration. A voice? Was somebody near? All he could see through his clenched eyes, were several rows of tall bushes. He heard the voice again and saw gray pants.

"Are you okay?"

"I... can't... I... don't... sick..." Vin hissed, curling up tighter.

"There's a trash can a few feet from here. I can help you up..."

Vin felt a pair of arms on his back and forced his legs to uncurl. He got to his knees and grabbled wildly, before an arm snagged his tightly. He managed to get to his feet and stagger forward, lurching like a drunk on a three-day binge. His legs threatened to give out, but he held onto the wire rim of the trash container and threw up. The effort was too much and after surviving the dry heaves, he sank to his knees, gasping as the area around him flew by in a whirl of color and texture.

"Are you going to pass out?"

"Huh?" Vin coughed, dispelling lingering remants from his mouth. He sat down on the ground and blinked, shaking his head.

"Are you in pain?"

"Yeah... head hurts... and... shit..." Vin hissed curling up again.

"Stomach cramps?"

"...worse... these ain't cramps..."

"I have a bottle of water in my briefcase."

Vin kept his eyes closed and took several deep breaths. The dizziness began to subside and he felt the bottle tap his shoulder. He twisted off the cap and took a few sips, rinsing and spitting several times before taking a few small sips. The world righted itself and the pains began to subside. His head still hurt, but he could handle that. He eyed his rescuer and the expensive suit of clothes with suspicion.

"Where'd ya come from? Where are we?" Vin asked, staring up at the stranger.

"Let's get you out of the sun," Cameron Delaney helped the dazed man stand and guided him through the tall overgrowth of bushes and under the canopy of the waiting area. She saw him flinch and eye the train tracks and empty station. "I got here early, the train isn't due for thirty minutes. I heard a cry of pain and went to investigate."

"Thanks." Vin nodded, grateful for the cool station, which shut out the offending sun. He sipped his water and his mind began to wander. What the hell was he doing here? Was he on duty? Was he supposed to be tailing a suspect? Jesus, he felt shitty.

"Perhaps I should call 911... you look awful..." Delaney asked, trying not to smile in relief that Tanner looked at him as a stranger.

"No... that ain't necessary." Vin whispered, his mind flying at a record pace.

"Is the pain better?" The scientist pressed, knowing the small recorder in the pocket of the suit was recording everything.

"Yeah... m'head hurts though... feelin' a bit dizzy..."

"What happened?"

"Dunno." Vin shrugged, "Last thing I recall is... is... havin' coffee with Chris."

"Is Chris your wife?" Delaney inquired, backtracking in time and adding up the lost hours. When did Tanner have coffee with Larabee?

"Hell no," Vin hissed, "He's m'boss... it was early this mornin'... before seven."

Nearly twelve hours! Excellent... Delaney silently applauded. The diluted serum worked beautifully. Vin Tanner had just made the whole plan smooth sailing. If he didn't have a relapse, the other symptoms should disappear by tomorrow evening, allowing him to rest easy. Tanner need a good night's sleep, he'd be busy the day after, Delaney smiled as the plan unfurled in advance.

"Are you sure I can't take you to a hospital?" The mad doctor pressed, knowing the long-haired agent's dislike of large medical facilities.

"Nah... I'm startin' t'feel better. Reckon I just passed out and laid in the sun t'long." Vin replied, looking at the well dressed stranger hard. "Listen, thanks again. If ya hadn't come along..."

"Oh, don't think about it, I was glad to help. What were you doing out here? Were you picking someone up?"

"Dunno," Vin whispered, fear setting in and taking hold. How could it be this late? He concentrated hard and still came up empty. The last clear thought he had was leaving the cantina with Chris. What did the stranger say? Waiting for the seven p.m... .a little early. Twelve hours? He lost twelve hours of his life. His hand ran through his tangled hair and his eyes began to dart frantically.

"My train is pulling in, I hate to leave you, but... I have a pressing meeting. Please, let me call someone for you. You shouldn't be alone in this condition." Delaney sympathized.

"Yeah, thanks," Vin replied shakily, taking the cell phone. He eyed the terrain and did come mental calculations. Then he punched in a number.

"Hello."

"Ezra? Ya busy?"

"Vin?" Ezra moved from the patio of his condo, where he was enjoying wine with baked brie and raspberry sauce. He turned down the stereo, which was sending the soft refrains of classical music throughout the room. He eyed the clock approaching seven p.m. and cocked his head at the strange breathing pattern in his ear. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm about a mile away... at the train station... east side... under the overhang."

Ezra filled in the missing pieces as best he could. Something was very wrong, clearly evident in Vin's horrid breathing and the trace of fear in this voice. The sudden end to the sentence told him just how frightened Vin was. "I'll be right over."

"Thanks Ezra..." Vin handed the phone back and thanked his rescuer, who ran to catch the train. He sat lost in thought, trying to put the pieces together. Another wave of pain across his abdomen sent him in half. What the hell happened?

+ + + + + + +

Buck left the gym after a good workout and headed for his car. He was headed to The Saloon to meet Josiah, Vin, J.D. and Nathan. It was almost seven when he completed the short walk from the fitness facility to his car. He stopped whistling and cocked his head when he spotted Vin's bike. Curious, he moved closer and eyed his watch. He couldn't be still in the File Room or could he? Buck jogged to the elevator and punched the up button. The File Room was dark and Buck slid his I.D. badge through the meter, releasing the door. He flipped the lights on and walked through the large room.

"Vin? You still here?" he called out and ducked his head into the review area. Vin wasn't there. He retreated and went upstairs, thinking maybe the Texan was there. Maybe if he ran late, he was catching up on his work or reading his email. The office was as empty as the reading room.

"Vin!" Buck called out, walking towards the sharpshooter's desk. He frowned at the favorite worn denim shirt, strangly out of place without it's owner. He pulled Vin's drawer open and spotted Vin's keys. "What the hell?"

Now he was starting to worry. Vin mentioned he was hoping to be done by four and had erranrs to run. Something was wrong. He thought for several minutes and popped his head into Chris's office, looking for note from the missing man. He had his hand on the phone to dial Larabee, when he saw his own desk through the glass. Maybe Vin's bike was acting up and he came back here to call for a pickup. But why didn't he take his keys. Buck punched the numbers in and his voicemail alerted. Vin's voice came on and got Buck's attention fast.

"Shit!" he hissed at the urgency in Vin's voice and the sudden slice of his message being cut off. He pushed the number four and the audio responded that the message was left at two-thirty. He got a sinking feeling in his stomach and dialed Chris quickly.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra lost no time in going to the aid of his friend. He moved quickly from his car and eyed the now crowded station. He took the stairs two at a time, until he was at the top. He saw the disdain on the faces of some of the onlookers and heard one man hurling vulgar insults at a spot just beyond his vision.

"VIN!" Ezra hollered, spotting the Texan huddled on the grass just off the platform. He was kneeling, hunched over and his shirt front was covered in vomit. He looked awful; his eyes were clouded in pain and he was swaying, barely able to remain upright.

"You know this derelict?" a silver-haired senior citizen asked, poking at Vin with his cane. "Get him out of here. We don't need his kind here."

"His kind is far preferable to yours, Sir," Ezra frosted, leveling a cold, hard stare, "Kindly remove that cane or I will." He waited until the grumbling old gent left and knelt by Vin's side.

"Easy, my friend, the calvary has arrived." Ezra soothed, laying a hand on Vin's face. Despite the sunburn, he was clammy and drenched in a cold sweat.

"Get me outta here..." Vin hissed, large eyes gazing at the people staring at him.

"Perhaps we should go to the hospital?" Ezra said, his hard stares parting the onlookers like the red sea. He had Vin's arm draped over his shoulder and was nearly supporting all his weight.

"No... just need t'rest a bit... please, Ez?"

If the raspy voice hadn't done it, the baleful eyes did. Ezra got Vin situated in the car and headed home. Vin didn't say a word during the trip and the southerner didn't press him. One look told him it was all Vin could do to stay awake. He led him inside and sat him on the bed in the guestroom.

"Vin, are you injured?"

"No... don't think so..." Vin sighed, raising an arm so Ezra could peel the soiled shirt off of him. "Don't recall bein' this sick..."

"What happened?" Ezra asked quietly, noting the sunburn on Vin's cheeks and nose, along with the part of his arms from the short-sleeve downward.

"I don't know..." Vin shivered, as the airconditioning wrapping around him. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, remaining that way until a small tap on his bare shoulder.

"Here, you're dehydrated..." Ezra offered a glass of ginger ale, which Vin sipped while thinking. "What's the last thing you do remember?"

"Uh... coffee with Chris this morning." Vin said, lifting his worried face to his friend. He swallowed hard and handed Ezra the glass. "I lost twelve hours, Ezra..."

"You're ill and were lying in the sun for quite some time," Ezra tried to reassure, taking the empty glass from the trembling hand. "Would you be more comfortable with a hot shower and change of clothes?"

"Yeah..." Vin nodded, "I'm sorry 'bout this, Ez... bustin' up yer night..."

"Hah!" Ezra snorted, pulling a pair of light cotton sleep pants and a tee shirt from his dresser. "What's an evening out with Cameron Diaz compared to rescueing a vomit-riddled friend?"

Vin managed a small grin and then his face blanched. "Shit... " he bolted for the bathroom, hitting the wall twice before Ezra steadied him. Vin pushed him back and shut the door, jerking his pants off just in time.

Ezra waited until the toilet flushed and tapped on the door. "Vin?"

"I'm okay..." he grunted, tugging the door open. He eyed his haggard appearance in the mirror and didn't hide the fear in his eyes. He saw Ezra cool face behind him and felt the reassuring tug on his shoulder.

"You take a shower, get changed and then we'll talk. Don't push too hard, Vin, we'll figure it out."

"Okay..." Vin sighed, then turned, catching the green eyes, "Hey, Ez... thanks... Ya got no idea how good it was t'see yer ugly mug..." He saw the glint of the gold tooth as Ezra smiled, before leaving. He'd taken the old clothes with him and Vin turned the shower on, hoping the steaming water would clear up the mess in his head.

Ezra eyed the packets of taco sauce that were in Vin's pocket, along with his wallet. He dialed Chris Larabee's phone and waited.

Chris had just kissed the chablis from his lover's lips, when the phone rang. He ignored the annoying sound from his jacket pocket nearby and continued his tantalizing exploration of Mary Travis's throat.

"Chris... you should answer that..." Mary said huskily, pulling his face from her neck.

"I'm busy..." Chris denied, kissing her mouth and caressing the firm skin under the hemline of her teeshirt.

"Chris..."

He sighed and pulled himself free, striding across the kitchen into the dining room. Mary went back to tossing the salad as he picked up his phone.

"Hello..."

"Chris?"

"Ezra, this better be good," he growled, still feeling the strong desire as he eyed the pretty blonde widow.

"It's Vin..."

"What happened?" Chris's voice rose and his jerked his slumped frame completely upright. The sharp tone caused Mary to appear immediately, concern written on her face. He held his hand up, and waited, listening for Ezra to continue.

"I'm not entirely sure and unfortunately neither is he," Ezra paused, "He called a little while ago from the train station near my house. He asked me to pick him up."

"What the hell was he doing over there?"

"I don't know and his last memory is of coffee with you this morning, the rest is blank, but he's very ill. He was huddled on the platform vomiting when I arrived. He refused a trip to the hospital. I got some ginger ale in him and he's showering. He also had a rather nasty bout of diarrhea. He's very clammy, cold sweats and had a bad headache. I didn't want to alarm him, but he's got a rather nasty bruise on his inner arm, where it bends."

"Somebody drugged him?"

"That would be my guess... although he did have a visit to Pablo's, I found some taco sauce in his pocket. It could be he's suffering from food poisoning."

"That don't give you amnesia..." Chris snarled, running a hand through his short hair.

"He's very upset..." Ezra warned, hearing the sharp tone in the leader's voice.

"Yeah, okay, Ezra, I'll be right over. Call around, maybe Vin talked to somebody else before he got sick."

"Will do," Ezra pushed the phone off as the shower stopped. A few minutes later he popped his head into the room and saw only the top of Vin's head. The rest of him was buried under a pile of blankets. Ezra moved closer and saw that the sick man was fast asleep. He left quietly, not wanting to disturb him.

"What's wrong?" Mary asked, seeing the strain on Chris's face.

"Something's wrong with Vin. He called Ezra's from the train station over there. He can't remember what happened to him. Ezra said he's pretty sick, like maybe he has food poisoning. I'm headed over. Do me a favor and call Nathan. I want him to meet me there. Damn..."

"He'll be okay," Mary stroked the tense jaw, seeing the worry that only the Texan could bring to his face.

"Yeah... sorry about dinner."

"It'll keep... I be here where you come back. We can have a picnic..." She teased, smiling when he groaned and kissed her. The phone rang again and cut his passion off.

"Larabee."

"Chris! Thank God," Buck exhaled, "Listen, I think something happened to Vin..."

"It did, Ezra found him at the train station over his way, sick as a dog. Why?"

"I found his bike here and his keys and got worried," Buck relayed, "Listen to the message he left me at two-thirty."

"What the hell did you stumble into Cowboy?" Chris groaned, rubbing the tension from this eyes. "Meet me at Ezra's, round up the gang..."

"Is he okay?"

"From what Ezra said, it sounds like food poisoning, except the last thing he remembers is coffee this morning. Plus, Ezra said he's got a bruise on his arm..."

"Damn..." Buck hissed, "I'll update the others and see you over there."

Ezra was talking with Nathan on the phone, when Chris arrived. He took one look at the anxious blond's face and pointed to the guest room.

"Chris just arrived," he said eyeing J.D.'s car pulling up. "Josiah and J.D. are here as well. Okay, see you soon."

Chris sat on the side of the bed, and rested a hand on Vin's shoulder, staring at his face. He moved his free hand, wiping sweat from the cold, clammy skin. Vin shuddered and his eyes peeled open, and he tried to pull away.

"Easy, Vin..."

"Chris?" Vin croaked, blinking and licking his dry lips. "...thirsty..."

"Here..." Ezra handed Chris a cold glass of ginger ale.

"Sit up, Vin." Chris coached, handing him the soda. "Whoa..." he grabbed the wobbly hand and guided it safely. "Better?" he inquired as Vin took several small sips. "How you feeling, Vin?"

"...like stir fried shit..."

"Your sense of humor wasn't damaged," Ezra noted wryly. "How's your stomach?"

"Rocky... m'head hurts..."

"Ezra said you can't remember anything?"

"No..." Vin hushed, slumping his shoulders. His eyes caught the pile of clothes and he remembered the state he was found in. "Sorry, Ez..."

"I thought we cleared that up," Ezra scolded, "I never met anyone so fond of apologizing without fault."

Chris saw the same thing Ezra had, the red marks when the sun burned Vin's unprotected skin. The eyes were clouded and pained, and the bruised arm had him worried.

Vin saw Chris's worry lines and followed the green gaze downward.

"Shit!" he hissed, his fingers brushing over the purpled flesh. "Where'd I get that? Goddammit!"

"Take it easy, Vin..." Chris warned, grabbing the wayward clenched fist.

"Vin! You look awful!" J.D. announced entering the now crowded room with Josiah in tow.

"Well I guess I ain't as snappy as ya'll look when yer pukin' yer guts up, J.D.!" Vin lashed out, the fear frying his last nerve. "Fuck..." he swore as the rumble in his intenstinal track moved him from the bed and into the bathroom.

J.D. started to open his mouth to apologize, but Chris silenced him with one look. He jerked his head at the door and the others left quietly, shutting it behind them. Chris waited and watched as Vin reappeared and slowly got back to the bed. He sat on the side, staring at the seafoam green carpeting. Finally, he brought his head up, meeting Chris's worried gaze.

"Alright Vin, let's add up what we do know, okay?" Chris asked and saw the head dip once. "You talked to me about noontime, said you were going to leave by four. Ezra found taco seasoning packets from Pablo's in your pocket. Buck got a message from you at two thirty..." He paused when Vin sat up straight and swallowed hard.

"What kinda message?" Vin drilled, eyes darting as he tried to recall... anything.

"You said you needed to find him, that you 'saw somebody' and then the line was cut off. What do you remember about when you woke up?"

"Somebody talkin' t'me... was waitin' fer the train... heard me hollerin'... haulin' me up... throwed up in the trash... hurt a helluva lot... couldn't hardly focus... called Ezra..."

"That was almost seven. Who was the person who helped you?"

"Dunno." Vin shrugged, "It's real fuzzy... gray pants... reddish hair... I don't know Chris..."

Vin's voice was annoyed and Chris pulled back. "Okay, Vin." He crossed the room and sat next to the forlorn figure on the bed. "It could be you had food poisoning and were chasing whoever this person was you had to tell Buck about. Maybe you passed out and laid there in the sun, until somebody found you. That bruise could just be from them pulling you to the trash can..."

Vin didn't answer and Chris knew he wouldn't, he'd said all he as going to say. "You thirsty?" He saw the head bob and left to get Vin a glass of water.

"Jesus, you scared me, Vin." Buck was out of breath and his anxious voice caused Vin's head to pop up. He rested a hand on Vin's slumped shoulder. "Who'd you see Vin? You didn't call anybody else, so it had to concern me. You sounded frantic... Who was it?"

"Stop!" Vin screamed, backing up and putting his hands over his ears, the pain in his head was pulsating like a hot red beacon. "I don't know... I can't remember... I'm sorry I fucked up... " he moved to escape the pain and the questions, seeking somewhere dark to hide. He stumbled and ended up on his knees, crawling toward the corner.

"What the hell did you, Buck?" Chris growled, putting the water down and bending over Vin.

"He freaked out, Chris... I just asked him about the phone message... I..."

"Get out!" Chris ordered hotly.

"Look, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."

"Get... out..." Chris said in a low and lethal voice that moved Buck from the room. He didn't force Vin to rise, but knelt next to him, waiting for the tense body to uncurl. Finally, Vin's hand came up and latched onto his arm. Chris guided him back to the bed and waited until the water disappeared. He heard Nathan's voice outside and eyed his pale friend.

"Nate's here... I think he should have a look at you, okay?"

"Yeah..." Vin whispered.

Chris made a beeline to the patio and grabbed Buck's arm, jerking him from the converation he was having with Josiah.

"What's the matter with you, upsetting him like that?"

"I didn't mean to upset him," Buck said quietly, "I was just... I wanted to find out... I'm sorry, Chris. When I found his keys and heard that message I thought the worst."

"How's he doing?" Josiah asked breaking the tension.

"It could be food poisoning... but I don't like that bruise." Chris took the beer J.D. offered and sat down. "Hell, there's thousands of employees in that building. No telling who Vin saw..."

"Nate?" Buck turned as the healer joined them.

Chris cocked his head as Nate spoke, absorbing the words carefully.

"He's sleeping. It could be he got sick from lunch and passed out, got too much sun."

"What was he doing at the train station?" J.D. denied.

"Maybe he was chasing whoever it is he told Buck about and passed out. Maybe they took the train." Josiah theorized.

"I don't think so..." Chris shook his head, "I don't like that mark on his arm."

"I don't either," Nate agreed, "It could be a bruise, Ezra said somebody pulled him up at the train."

"But you don't think so?" Ezra guessed and saw the dark head nod.

"No, I think he was drugged, that mark is similiar to when a vein is blown. Maybe it'll come back to him. Right now, he needs to rest and get some fluids. No more questions... he's really shook up He barely answered me, but his eyes were talkin' real loud."

"Chris, it might be wise for you to stay," Nate advised, "He's really upset."

"I'm not going anywhere." Chris indicated. "Sorry I chewed your head off Buck..."

"s'okay Chris..." Buck replied.

While his friends worried about him several yards away, Vin Tanner's heart pounded so hard against his chest wall, he flinched. Nate said not to worry, that he probably ate bad food and passed out in the sun. But Vin was worried... and the hammering heart and black wall in his memory were too much to bear. He let go and surrendered, his brows creasing as far beyond on the outskirts of his mind, he heard a chilling laugh. "Buck..." he whispered as he slipped into the void.

June 21

The dawn crested on a new day and Chris hoped it would bring some answers. He stretched and eased back into the comfortable chair on Ezra's patio. His bare feet were crossed at the ankles, supported by a small table. He sipped a large mug of expensive coffee, the southerner had it custom blended and sent from New Orleans, and watched the rosy sky shine on the city coming to life. He turned his head as the patio door slid open and Ezra appeared. He took the seat across from Chris and sipped his own mug of coffee.

"Did you sleep at all?" Ezra asked the weary face hovered over a slow rise of steam.

"Yeah... Vin only got up a couple times." Chris yawned, "He's been sound since two a.m. I got two meetings this morning with Orin and the Denver Police Department about the arson investigation. I can shake free by two or so, I'll come by and pick Vin up."

"I have work I can finish on my laptop..." Ezra understood Chris's silent request. He'd been thinking on Vin during the night and decided he'd made a large error in judgement by not taking him to a hospital.

"Spit it out," Chris eyed Ezra and saw the shadows of doubt lurking on the fine features.

"I should have taken him to the hospital. What if he was poisoned?"

"I thought about that..." Chris mused, "I almost dragged him out at one a.m. when he stumbled out of the bathroom. He turned me down, said he was fine... sort of..."

"His choice of words were a bit less refined?" Ezra guessed, mentally hearing the salty tongue of the sharpshooter.

"Just a bit," Chris agreed, finishing his coffee. "I'm going to talk to him again." Chris drained his coffee and gave a quick squeeze to Ezra's shoulder. "He was lucky you were here."

It was after seven a.m. when Vin's eyes peeled open. He heard voices and stared at the strange bedroom. Then the events of the night before returned and he scrubbed his face with one hand and pushed himself up. He sat on the side of the bed and tested his balance. The dizziness was gone, the headache much dimished and his stomach was only slightly queasy. Seeking to quench the fire in his mouth, he rose and stumbled through the hall. His stomach rebelled slightly when his senses were assaulted by one of his favorite all time smells, bacon cooking.

"You look like shit, Cowboy," Chris placed several strips of bacon on a roll that already had eggs and cheese on it. He took a bite of the tantalizing sandwich and watched Vin slide past, giving him a silent salute on his way to the fridge. "That's not a good idea, Vin..." Chris warned as Vin's hand reached for orange juice. "It's got a lot of acid in it... Ezra chilled some gatorade... drink that. He's got tea brewing for you, too... something herbal for upset stomachs."

"...'kay..." Vin whispered, shuffling back to the table.

"Vin?"

"Huh?"

Chris chuckled at the toussled hair and sleepy face. The blue eyes were barely open and the body language bespoke a need to return to the bed. "Nevermind..." Chris took another bite and rose, getting the gatorade. He poured a glass and set it in front of the confused soul, who took a good gulp.

"I'm fine..." Vin's annoyed tone answered the penetrating green glare. "It musta been the food... passin' out in the sun didn't help. I ain't dizzy no more and m'head don't hurt s'much. Stomach's iffy... but better."

"Anything come back?" Chris asked and saw the shaggy head shake and dip down. Vin rubbed his eyes and yawned, blinking rapidly. The gatorade was gone and Chris refilled it, jerking his head for Vin to return to bed. "You rest up... I'll be back this afternoon to take you home, okay?"

"Yeah..." Vin stood and made his way back to the guestroom. He paused at the doorway and turned back, staring hard at the his concerned friend. "How am I gonna fix the hole, Chris?"

Chris studied the lost blue eyes and heard the fear in the raspy voice. He moved forward and rested a hand on Vin's shoulder. "You're not, Vin... we are... okay?" He watched the head dip once and gently pushed him towards the bed.

+ + + + + + +

It was just after seven a.m. when Buck arrived at Marie's. The small coffee shop was down the street from the Federal Building and a favorite for the early riser's on their way to work. He inhaled the wonderous scent of bacon, coffee and fresh apple-cinnamon muffins. His dark head rose above the crowd at the counter, who were seeking sandwiches and tasty treats to go.

He moved past the throng to the back booth, bending to profess a sincere apology.

"You're late."

"Traffic was a bitch," Buck tried, tipping the pretty woman's face up and kissing her, "Forgiven?"

"I'll think about it..." she mused, blue eyes narrowing, "...a proper penalty that is..."

"You're gonna kill me, J.C.," Buck groaned, eyeing the delicious figure across from him. "Did you order?"

"I did," she answered, sliding her foot from her shoe and running it up the inside of his thigh. The effect sent the coffee sputtering from his mouth.

"Dammit..." Buck hissed, shoving the troublesome foot away, "Quit doing that... I got to be in work in a half hour."

"Pity." She denied, smiling as the waitress appeared and set two plates down. She watched as he drifted off, stirring his coffee. The eyes were dark with concern and she rested her hand on his. "What's wrong?"

"Huh?" Buck blinked, squeezing the soft hand, "Oh, sorry Darlin'... nothing for you to worry your pretty head about."

"Did something happen at work? One of your teammates?"

"Vin... well, he got sick yesterday, passed out clear across town..."

"That's dreadful," she frowned, "Was he on stakeout or something?"

"No... we were all out, he was in the Files Room... he don't know how he got over there. He's pretty shook up. Nate thinks it's food poisoning maybe..."

"Ouch!" She winced, "I've been there, you want to just curl up and die."

"I saw that first hand," he agreed, thinking on Vin the evening before. "How'd your meeting with the board go?" As she used her normal animated gestures to reply, he realized it was almost six weeks since they'd met. Leaving work one night, he'd seen the stunning redhead in the parking lot, staring at a flat tire. An hour later, after he'd changed the tire and cleaned up, she insisted on buying him dinner to thank him. He agreed to dinner, but not the treat. The rest was six weeks of heaven.

"You're going to be late..." She cast an eye on the clock.

"I got a few extra minutes, Chris has a meeting this morning..." Buck tossed a couple of bills on the table and rose. They walked quickly to the Federal Building and towards the main doors. His eyes twinkled and he ducked into the dark cover of the underground parking facility.

"What are you doing?" She argued, "This isn't the way to..."

"Sometimes you talk to much... " Buck silenced her with a long, probing kiss. His hands cupped the firm backside and he pulled her close. He groaned and inhaled the musky scent of her skin. He felt her hand slip down and rub him provocatively.

"See you later, sailor..." she said huskily, nipping his neck hard enough to elicit a yelp. She winked and left him grinning painfully. She walked back to the lobby and slipped in the ladie's room. She eyed smiled at the smug reflection, running a finger across her bruised lips. The feeling of euphoria that surged through her was beyond compare. Good looks and charm aside, he was a great lover. She'd lured him quickly and he was completely under her spell. He accepted her erratic hours and hectic schedule, a ruse used to prevent her identity from being revealed to his friends. He was pressing for her to meet them... she laughed at the irony of that. She couldn't wait to see his face when he discovered the truth. She cast a mental image of his face, twisted in pain and disbelief, standing over the corpses of his friends. Turning and leaving the room, now that Buck was out of the way, Jamie Cameron Newlander a.k.a. Cameron Delaney, eased back into the dark belly of the building, widening her deadly web.

June 24

"I thought this day would never come," Kennedy complained, eyeing the planes taking off.

"An unfortunate delay," Delaney answered of the Vice President's unexpected visit two days prior. The airport had been screaming with security and secret service men. Now that things were back to normal, it was time to move to phase two. "Is everything secure?" she asked.

"Yeah, all those babies are tucked away nice and tight," he noted of the explosives. "I'll put the call in at nine."

"Excellent," she tossed her head, the single braid secured the reddish mane. "I'll see you down there."

"Roger Boss," Tony saluted as she left. His eyes stared openly at the full breasts and tight butt. "Damn what a waste... a body that fine stuck with a fucked up mind." He turned the engine over and moved the van into level four of the parking garage.

Nine a.m. Team Seven office

J.D. was on his way to the Forensics Lab, when the phone rang. It was a quiet morning, with most of the team missing. Buck was being cross-examined at the courthouse, finishing up his testimony against an arms dealer. Chris, Josiah and Ezra were spending the day with Denver Police Department as part of an Arson stakeout across town.

"ATF, Dunne." J.D. sat up straight and nodded, "Yessir, we'll be right up." He hung the phone up and cast his gaze around the nearly empty room. Nate was in the conference room, with photo's of the previous arson cases linked to the same felon, spread out for review. Vin was at his desk, typing a report.

"Hey guys," J.D. called out, watching Vin's head rise and Nate's poke out from the doorway. "Orin wants to see us... now."

"What's up?" Vin said, walking towards the youth.

"He didn't say... but he stressed we move fast."

"Okay, Kid," Vin waited for Nate and they made their way upstairs to the Division Director's office. The secretary knew they were expected and waved them right through.

"Good Morning, Orin," Nate said, nodding to the figure in the chair.

"It was... until ten minutes ago. A threat was phoned in at the airport, several bombs in a variety of locations.," he rose and moved towards them. "J.D., you and Nathan will report directly to Captain McGillis at the command center just inside the entrace to the arrivals area. Vin, you pick up Candy on your way out there. You'll be partnered with her."

"No way!" J.D. complained, "How come Vin gets Candy?"

"Thanks, J.D.," Nate grumbled, smacking the youth's arm.

"Because I said so," Orin steeled, watching Vin grin.

"Besides, she likes Vin..." Nate teased, elbowing the youth. "You ain't as cute as him."

"Shut up, Nate!" J.D. complained, heading for the elevators.

"You two pick up your gear at the airport. Vin, yours is downstairs, make sure you and Candy are ready when you arrive."

"Yessir..." Vin nodded.

The trio arrived in the parking lot together. J.D. and Nate headed for Nate's car, pausing long enough to watch Vin greet his partner.

"Hey Lady," Vin enthused as Candy greeted him warmly.

"It's a shame you can't turn on a two-footed female like that," J.D. teased, watching Vin get his gear on and readying his canine partner. The chuckling duo departed and Vin rode with Candy in the Van with the other canine teams.

+ + + + + + +

By eleven o'clock two more bombs were found. Nate and J.D. were on level four of the parking facility. Vin and Candy were at the other end, far out of sight.

Candy's tail wagged and she buried her nose under the back tire of a car.

"Ya got somethin', Girl?" Vin asked, squatting to peer under the vehicle. The sharp yelp caused him to turn as the German shepard fell over. "Hey..." he bent over the still body, eyeing the orange dart in her hind leg. He reached for his comm-link, clipped to his belt, but a blow to the back of his head, ended that act.

"Quickly," Delaney hissed, as Kennedy pulled the body up. The bombs had all been planted in the terminals. The main teams were over there, leaving the two backups, Dunne and Jackson and Tanner and the dog, to search the parking area. They kept in contact every fifteen minutes, so time was important. She held Tanner upright and Kennedy disabled the commlink and took off the ATF jacket and protective gear, followed by the shirt. "Hold him, now..." she warned, as Kennedy eased his body forward, so he was lying on his stomach on the ground.

"You sure he won't feel this?" Kennedy asked of the strange action she was planning.

"No, this shot of lidocaine will take care of that," she said of the anesthetic, "...for a good two hours. There... all done..." she put the syringe away and opened the black box, her eyes shining.

"I can't watch this," Kennedy turned away, the very sight of the object made him shiver.

+ + + + + + +

Buck was trotting down the steps of the courthouse, when his beeper went off. Frowning, he dialed the number to Orin's office. The receptionist answered and quickly updated him.

"There was a bomb scare at the airport, you're to report there."

"Will do," Buck replied, flipping his cell phone and hurrying to his car.

+ + + + + + +

"That's it," J.D. exclaimed, pushing the button on his comm-link. "Vin, we're done here, copy?" He waited, then exchanged a frown with Nathan. "Vin, can you hear me, copy?" J.D. turned to his partner, wearing a concerned face. "Nate... something's wrong..."

"Maybe, or just maybe his comm-link isn't working... Let's go."

The two moved quickly through the cavernous parking level, turning twice before entering the sector where Vin should be. Both sets of eyes peeled, left and right, guns drawn.

"Candy!" J.D. whispered, pointing to the dog lying dormant by a red sportscar.

Nate knelt down and felt her pulse. He checked her eyes and gently rubbed her head. "Drugged... probably a tranquilizer..."

While Nathan was examining the dog, J.D. began to look around for the missing member of their team. He was several feet away from his partner and didn't see the arm rising behind him, bearing a weapon.

"J.D.!"

At the cry of his teammate's voice, the youth spun, weapon drawn. He felt a sting in his thigh at the same time he saw blur of motion as Nate's body flew through the air. J.D. went down in a heap, his eyes wide, his breath shallow. His tongue was thick and he fought with his last ounce of strength to warn Nathan. His eyes slid shut as the shot sounded, the last image he had was Nate falling.

"What did you do that for?" Tony Kennedy hissed, rising from the ground. He knelt by the stricken agent, as blood pooled underneath him. "Are you crazy? This place is crawling with cops."

"Not in this sector and we're losing time. Get Dunne to the van and move out... now!" she commanded. She climbed into the back of the van first, helping to pull the unconscious agent in after her. She smiled as Tanner's bewildered form appeared at the end of the ramp.

Part 5

Buck pulled up to the command center and quickly donned his gear. Captain McGillis recognized him and quickly got to his side.

"What do we have, Cap?" Buck asked.

"We found three... I need you to head over to the parking facility. Dunne and Jackson are looking for Tanner."

"How long since he checked in?"

"Almost thirty minutes... Get moving and keep me posted."

Buck took off, moving quickly through the concrete driveway and towards the parking area. He was about to head to the elevator, when he stopped, seeing the unmistakable shape of the Texan. He was far below and to the side, at the exit of the fourth level of the parking garage.

"What the hell is he doing?" Buck said aloud, watching Vin sitting on a concrete wall, a little to still. He was about to call to the sharpshooter, when his gaze caught movement far to the right. His heart nearly stopped when he saw a large man carrying J.D.'s body towards a white van with a catering logo on the side.

"J.D.!" Buck screamed, waving frantically at Vin. "Vin... Vin... Shit!" he hissed, pushing his comm-link and calling Tanner. "Vin, there's a white Van heading right at you... they got J.D. Vin get your ass in gear!" Buck screamed, running down the long, winding drive. "Cap, did you copy that?"

"Yeah... we're on it Buck..." He barked, ordering a net drawn to the exits and backup to the fourth level.

Vin blinked and peeled his eyes open, sighing heavily. He shook his head, trying to clear the ringing in his ears. A concrete wall and the smell of oil and gas surrounded him. Where was he? What happened? His eyes slid shut again and he jerked himself awake. Why was he so tired? Why was he on the ground? He grunted and pushed himself upright, staggering to combat the lightheadedness. He managed to get to the sunlight, finding a small section of a wall and fell on it. He was wheezing and his head felt like it was full of oatmeal. He kept opening his eyes wide and letting them slide shut, trying to combat the awful feeling.

"s'wrong..." he slurred, his thick tongue blocking the words as they fought forth. His head moved when a blur of white caught his side vision. A car... van... turkey... wine... he tried to focus on the picture on the side. The window peeled down and he pulled himself to his feet.

"Vin!" Buck screamed, as the van slowed to a stop near the still unmoving agent. He watched Vin approach the window and pushed harder. His lungs screaming and a pain splitting his side. He swallowed wrong and a coughing fit ensued, slowing him down. He rounded the curving drive and towards the fouth level.

"How you doing?" Kennedy asked the dazed man, who looked stoned out of his mind. "We're done with our delivery. Okay if we go?"

"Huh?" Vin blinked, his thick tongue moving slowly. He swayed as the awful dizziness returned. It was hard to hear over the ringing in his ears.

"Can we leave?" Kennedy asked, pointing to the exit behind Tanner.

"Leave? Yeah..." Vin replied, totally bewildered. He saw the man's arm extending from the window and reached for it.

"Thanks, Man... Good Luck." Kennedy gripped the agent's hand, fully aware of the camera on the ceiling behind the stricken agent.

Vin watched the van pull onto the deserted road to his left and disappear under the overhang.

He continued to stare for several minutes, until a shrieking colletion of words penetrated the fog.

"What the fuck is the matter with you?" Buck screamed, grabbing Vin's collar and shoving him hard."Those bastards just drove off with J.D..."

"J.D.?" Vin rasped, blinking at the image of a dark-haired youth then turned his muddled head towards the empty driveway.

"Cap... they went right by Vin and took the utility road... copy?" Buck hollered into the comm-link.

"Got it Buck, we'll try to catch 'em before they hit the interstate. Did you get a plate?"

"Negative..." Buck reported, glaring at Vin. He growled and gripped Vin by his collar again and shoved him hard. "Did you know what you just did? You signed J.D.'s death warrant, you stupid..." Buck froze when he realized they were still missing an agent. "Where's Nathan?" He screamed, pulling the silent agent back into the enclosed lot. He cast his eyes around, as Vin mumbled.

"I... uh... Nate?" Vin tried to absorb Buck's wrath. The words slowly formed into a cognitive thought. Somebody took J.D. and drove by him. He winced as Buck's rampage continued

"Yeah!" Buck grilled, eyes bulging, face red with anger. "Nate and J.D were looking for you. You've been out of contact for over a half hour. Dammit Vin, I..." Buck's heart nearly stopped when he spotted a slow stream of blood, running from between two cars. "Jesus... Nate!"

Vin jerked as Buck's bellow filled his world. He staggered after the larger man, his heart pounding frantically.

"Aw, hell..." Buck hissed, dropping by the stricken agent's side. "Nate? Nate? Please..." He prayed, his fingers searching for a pulse. "Thank God... " he sighed, pushing his comm-link. "Cap... I got a man down... I need a wagon, stat... he's hit in the side and losing a lot of blood. I'm in the fourth level, thirty feet from the turnoff, behind a red sportscar."

"On it's way, Buck, ETA three minutes..."

"Nate... hold on..." Buck willed, pressing his hands against the wound on the agent's lower abdomen. He saw legs shuffling and looked up seeing Vin's bewildered expression.

"...Nate?" Vin looked at the dusty complesion and the large amount of blood. He moved to kneel down, but the fire shooting out of Buck's eyes stopped him stopped him cold.

"I'd say you've done enough." Buck didn't hide the revulsion in his voice. "You let some bastard cart J.D. away and you left Nathan in here... he damn near bled to death... Where the hell were you?"

"I don't... can't recall... I'm sorry..." Vin was barely able to talk, the full effect of Buck's words took hold of his insides and turned them to icy shards, ripping violently through his body.

"Sorry ain't gonna cut it this time," Buck growled, "Get out of my sight."

Vin backed up as the ambulance screamed nearby and a police car followed. The blue and red lights made a strange pattern on the gray walls, almost mezmerizing. He felt them brush past him and watched through a cloud as Nate was tended to and loaded into the wagon, Buck at his side. The older agent never gave him a second glance.

"Candy?" he said distractedly, watching a policman lifting the still dog.

"She's okay... I'm gonna get her to the vet."

Vin started to follow, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Nuh-uh," a voice behind him halted. "Captain McGillis wants to talk to you... let's go."

Vin sighed and followed the well-muscled officer, carefully trying to maintain his balance. The ringing in his ears wasn't as bad, but he as dizzy and confused. He tried to remember why he was here. Bomb. One word but it helped to fill the gaps. He'd been with Candy looking for bombs... but that's all he could recall. He slid out from the backseat of the patrol car, once they reached the base camp. He didn't have to hear the irate police chief's voice to know he was furious. His eyes were glowing and his face red.

"Tanner! What the hell happened?" McGillis screamed.

Vin shrank back and swallowed, trying desperately to find the words that would fill the horrid gap. He swallowed hard as the large body moved closer, forcing him against the rear of the car.

"Well?" The angry captain bellowed, towering over the shaken smaller man. "I'm waiting... You better have some answers, Son, because you're in deep shit."

June 24, noontime

The arsonist had struck twice before over the span of three weeks. The profile called up past incidents in Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis and Memphis. If the pattern held true, he'd strike at a chemical company. They had an idea of what he looked like, from a man whose likeness was found at fires all four cities. Mid-forties, caucasian, forty to fifty, athletic dark hair and blue eyes. The best photo they had from St. Louis, revealed a missing digit on the third finger of his left hand.

"Hell, this guy looks like half of Denver," Josiah complained, searching the plaza next to the Harte Chemical Corporation. "Ezra, you got anything?"

"Negative, however I must say you cut a handsome figure. Not everyone would be able to wear red and white stripes so well."

"Shut up, Ezra..." Josiah complained, eyeing a group of workers headed towards his food cart. The hot dogs and saurkraut, hot sausage and peppers and deli sandwiches were ready to go. Ezra was across the broad plaza, reading a newspaper on a bench. "You could at least have the decency to sweat, Ezra..." The preacher hissed, wiping his brow.

"A gentlemen does not 'sweat'," Ezra drolled, turning the page and raising an eyebrow at the toiling agent.

"I got a customer at three o'clock," Josiah drilled, wiping his face and using the motion to point his tongs. Ezra nodded and casually rose, walking slowly towards a man who looked just like the one in the grainy photos. Chris was thirty feet to the side of the man and moved when he heard Josiah's call. He moved forward slowly, using the black glasses and red tipped cane to his advantage. He spotted the man's hand slipping in his pocket and moved quickly.

"Hey watch where you're going!"

"I'm sorry..." Chris apologized, stumbling into the man and sending them both to the ground. His eyes flew to the left hand.

"Oh... I didn't realize..."

"May I be of assistance?" Ezra knelt down and watched Chris's hand slip into the man's pocket.

"Yeah, you can read this fucker his rights!" Chris jerked off the glasses and held up a detonater. "Packer, Willis... we got 'im."

"You arresting the wrong person. I'm the victim of their careless attitude... their killing us all with their pollutants. You'll be sorry... you'll regret this day... chemicals kill..."

"Guess you'll find out soon enough, they mix up a real nice cocktail on death row," Chris relayed, thinking on the five fatalities associated with the bomber.

The area was invaded by a mixture of vehicles, all bearing flashing lights. Chris watched them lead the cuffed man off, still spewing threats.

"Nice work," the police captain noted, approaching Chris.

"Thanks, Dan," Chris replied, then saw the hesitation in the man's face. "Something wrong?"

"Yeah, we just got a call, there was a bomb scare at the airport, three of your team we're called in this morning as backup. They were searching the parking facility..."

"...and..." Chris pressed, Ezra and Josiah next to him were equally concerned.

"One of them was kidnapped and one wounded..."

"Shit!" Chris punched the top of a metal trashcan and kicked it as well. "What happened?"

"I'm afraid it gets worse..."

"Oh Christ," Chris's face drained of all color, "...dead?"

"No, Agent Jackson was seriously wounded, but expected to recover. Agent Dunne was taken away and the other agent is being detained by Captain McGillis for his questionable behavior."

"Define questionable," Ezra asked angrily.

"That's something for Captain McGillis to answer. He's still at the scene with your man."

"Josiah, you and Ezra get over to the hospital, I'll go talk to Vin." Chris suggested, "Stay with Rain until I get there, she'll be shook up."

"Okay, Boss," Josiah left, Ezra in tow.

+ + + + + + +

Buck paced the small waiting area, phone pressed to his ear. He was waiting for the police to update him. A van matching the description of the one that fled the scene was spotted across town. He'd already contacted the F.B.I. and they were on the case. Two agents appeared at the hospital, waiting to take his statement and Nathan's.

"Yeah... I'm still here," Buck stopped pacing as the voice finally came back on. "Okay, thanks, keep me posted." Buck flipped the phone off. "Shit..." Before he could take a breath, the phone rang. "Hello..."

"Talk to me, Buck..." Chris said, having heard from the brief call to Steve Harris, one of McGillis's men, that Buck was involved. "What happened?"

"I'll tell you what happened." Buck roared. "Vin damn near got Nate killed and J.D... hell he might be dead already. They drove right past him, he even fuckin' shook the driver's hand."

"What?"

"You don't believe me... watch the tape..." Buck paused, "I saw him, Chris... he just sat there. I screamed at him... I saw that bastard carrying J.D. to a white catering van. I warned him, told him they were coming at him. He shook the guy's hand, and let him go! Then I got down there and Nate's lying just behind him... bleedin' the hell all over." Buck paused, hearing the forced breathing and nothing else on the other end. "He ain't your fair-haired boy anymore... he blew this one big time. If J.D. dies, he's gonna pay..."

Chris heard the venom in Buck's voice, and attributed his emotional reaction to the close bond he held with J.D. He didn't want to think of what might happen to Buck if J.D. did turn up dead. There was something very wrong with the picture, but Buck was too close to see it.

"How bad's Nate?" He asked, eyeing the turnoff at the airport.

"In surgery," Buck gritted, "...he lost a lot of blood... bullet's in his gut... it don't look good."

"Is Rain there?"

"No, McGillis said he'd get on of his men to bring her over."

"Okay, Josiah and Ezra are on their way."

"...and you're not?" Buck asked, voice rising a pitch. He heard the distinctive sounds of airplanes taking off and lost his cool. "Well I guess you just showed your true colors."

"Buck..." Chris's response was dialtone. "Shit..." He pulled up and approached the staked off area, flipping his badge to gain entrance.

"Bill... What happened?" he asked the senior investigator.

"Take a look," McGillis replied tersely, pointing to a video moniter in the back of the large police van.

"Where's Vin?" Chris stepped inside and looked around, but didn't see Tanner anywhere.

"I'll get him." The irate detective issued and left.

Chris watched the video carefully, concentrating the first time on Vin only. The second time, he watched the man enter the image carrying an unconscious J.D. over his shoulder. He was tossed into a white van with a turkey and other food items on it. The van pulled out and approached Vin, who never noticed it. He winced when Vin approached the van and talked with the driver, then shook his hand and the van disappeared onto the utility road. He closed his eyes and pinched his fingers on the bridge of his nose.

"Anything on the van?" He asked, turning slightly as McGillis returned.

"We found one abandoned in an alley downtown," McGillis replied, "We're dusting it. The back was empty, but there were traces of blue fabric that might be from Dunne's jacket. There was blood in there too..."

Chris's mouth formed a grim line as his eye met Vin's. The first thing he saw was pain... deep and profound in the blue eyes, which stood out against the pale skin.

"Are you okay, Vin?"

"...m'fine..." Vin mumbled, eyeing the image on the screen behind Chris. "How's Nate? Nobody'll tell me anythin'."

"He's in surgery, bullet's in his gut," Christ answered. "What happened Vin?"

"I don't know, Chris." Vin stared hard at his best friend.

The words didn't effect him as much as the hopeless look in Vin's eyes. Defeat was riding high in the emotive blues and it wounded Chris. "What can you remember?"

"Candy found somethin' under the rear tires of a red car. I bent down t'look and she fell over. She had a dart in her... somebody hit me. Next thing I recall is Buck screamin' at me, grippin' m'shirt."

"Vin, can you explain that?" Chris pointed to the image of the agent talking to and shaking hands with the kidnappers. "You realize J.D. was in the back?"

"No..." Vin whispered. "I was mixed up... dizzy... m'ears was ringing... I was real confused... I'm sorry, Chris." Vin hushed, his insides aching.

"I'm taking him to the hospital to get checked out. It sounds like he was drugged... which would support his disorientative state in the video."

"This isn't over, Larabee," McGillis interjected.

"It is for now," Chris moved past the commander, "Wait by the car, Vin." He gave a tug to the shaken man's shoulder and waited until the shaggy head disappeared. Then he turned back to the leader of the bomb squad. "He's looks awful," Chris drilled, "Did it ever occur to you that he was drugged? That this whole thing was a setup?"

"What occurs to me is that he was missing for thirty minutes. His comm-link was fine... he never responded to Dunne and Jackson calling to him, or to Wilmington when he got to the scene. That video told me what I needed. I'm recommending suspension pending the outcome of the investigation."

"Don't threaten me or any member of my team," Chris issued sternly, flicking a slow gaze before retreating.

Vin was in the care when he got there. Vin didn't saw a word on the short ride to the hospital. Chris noticed him squirming and wincing.

"Did you hurt your back?"

"...no..." Vin lied, settling back despite the pain. No matter what position he placed his body in, the pain in his back flared up. He didn't mind... it couldn't compare to the pain in his gut. Try as he may, he couldn't get the image of Nate's blood pooling on the concrete. How long had the agent being lying there? Why didn't he look for Nate and J.D.? Why was he talking to the kidnappers? He swallowed hard and clenched his eyes shut, trying to push the blood away.

"Vin?"

He jumped as Chris touched his shoulder. He realized they'd stopped and Chris was holding the door open. He slid out, pulling the ATF jacket closer, despite the hot air.

"I want a doctor to look at you. I think you may have been drugged." Chris spoke as they approached the elevator. Vin nodded once and followed him inside.

+ + + + + + +

The first thing he was aware of was wetness. His nose twitched and the musty scent of mold and mildew surrounded him. He peeled and eye open and looked around, slowly moving his tongue around his dry mouth. He wasn't tied up and yet he couldn't move. He blinked and forced his eyes open, eyeing the dank basement. Old furniture, broken lampshades and piles of newpapers were in his field of vision. He was lying on a concrete floor and raised his head gingerly. This was a decision he immediately regretted. Pain slammed into his head and forced him back down. His mind wandered, trying to put the pieces together. He remembered arriving at the airport, searching for a bomb and... and...

"Oh God," he croaked, his voice like sandpaper, "Nate..." The vision of the bullet slamming into his partner left him cold. Was Nate dead? What happened to Vin? Was he here too? "Vin... Vin... are you here? Is anybody here? Help! Help!"

Nobody answered his cries and the more he moved, the worse the pain became. He rolled onto his side and managed to get on his hands and knees, then forced his legs to work. It was a decent sized room, but half of it was full of clutter. A cot, chair and table were in the cleared area he was in. He stood on the chair and peeked out the barred windows. Trees... and dirt... out of the city... the color of the dirt told him that. What the hell was going on? He slid back down and sat on the cot. The close wall of heat forced him to remvoe his jacket. He fingers traced a small cut over his eye and he sighed in frustration. The brief bit of movement left his dizzy and he fought back the urge to pass out. He curled up on the cot, laying down restored his equilibrium. Lying in the musty cellar, not knowing who his captors were or their intent, left J.D. Dunne feeling totally powerless.

+ + + + + + +

She stood for a moment, eyes glued to the large amount of blood scoring his clothing. Her chin quivered and a small sob snuck out. In an instant, the body moved and she allowed herself to let go.

Buck grabbed her as her knees buckled. "Easy, now... he's strong... the doctor thinks he'll pull through this fine."

"Buck..." Rain sobbed against the broad shoulder. "I can't lose him... I... I yelled at him this morning for drinking milk from the carton. I can't remember if I spoke to him after that."

Buck got a soft chuckle from the pretty woman's worry. It was the kind of thing you'd dwell on. He frowned, thinking just yesterday he balled out J.D. twice. "Don't you worry about that, Honey. He knows you love him, it's on his face every time he mentions your name."

"What did they say? How long has he been gone? How bad was the wound?"

Buck eyed the clock which read one-thirty p.m. "It's only been about an hour and a half. It's in his gut. I don't much more than that. He lost blood, they transfused him. His vitals were good."

"Gut wounds are bad..." she said from experience, wiping her eyes. "I'm sorry, Buck."

"For what?" He tipped her face up and wiped away a stray tear. "He's gonna be fine. If I had a wife as pretty as you waitin' for me, I'd climb back from Hell naked." He declared, gaining the smile he hoped for.

"Buck, How's he doing?" Josiah entered the room and embraced Rain.

"Still in surgery..." Buck said, shaking his head behind Rain and wiggling his hand to indicate that it was touch and go.

"Come on, Honey, let's get some coffee. He'll be in there awhile."

"Okay," Rain sighed, letting the kind-hearted preacher lead her away.

"The van has been located," Ezra updated, "The fabric swatch is the same material as J.D.'s jacket and the blood type matched. He's still alive."

"You can't be sure..." Buck vented, not angry at Ezra but needing somebody to thrash.

"There is no logical reason to remove a corpse and carry it with you. If they wanted him dead, they would have killed him in the garage. They are holding him for a purpose. He is very much alive."

Ezra spotted Vin entering the room, just behind Chris. The leader stopped in the hallway, embracing Rain and speaking with her. Ezra moved, but not fast enough. Buck was a blur as he moved past, Vin never had a chance.

With every floor they rose on the elevator, the pain got worse. He was barely able to move by the time they exited. He kept one foot in front of the other, seeking relief. He eyed the row of plastic chairs and frowned. He turned to speak with Chris, he wasn't sure if his legs would carry him any further. He didn't hear the irate voice, by the time his body met the wall, he was already gone.

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Buck screamed, lifting Vin and slamming him into the wall.

"Buck... don't..." Ezra tried in vain, only to be rebuffed by an elbow to his midsection.

"Buck, let go... Buck let 'im go..." Josiah tried to pry the fists from the blue lapels of the jacket.

"What the hell did you do?" Chris growled, eyeing Vin's prone body sliding down the wall. Buck's fists were the only thing keeping him upright. "Get off of him, Buck! He's unconscious..."

Buck finally saw through the red wall in front of his eyes. He uncurled his fingers, eyeing Vin's stilled face. He backed off, letting Josiah lead him away.

"I'm fine..." he issued, breaking the large man's grasp.

"Vin? Vin?" Chris tapped his face.

Ezra appeared with a nurse, who motioned to a room nearby. "Follow me..."

Ezra and Chris carried Vin into the room and took his jacket off. Chris ran to get a doctor, while Ezra unbuttoned Vin's shirt and removed it, so the nurse could take his blood pressure and examine him. He wasn't prepared for the grisly sight that met his stunned eyes. Neither was the nurse, whose hands froze inches from the bed.

"Oh My God..." Ezra's shock and revulsion was evident in his speech and his face. He moved from the room, dimly aware of Chris and the doctor. He grabbed Buck and forced him to his feet, by now his anger was boiling over.

"What are you doing?" Buck jerked his arm free.

"Illuminating your narrow mind..." Ezra growled, shoving Buck towards the door. "I trust that should answer any lingering questions."

Buck froze, screwing his face up in horror. His mouth went dry and he looked past Chris's hand on Vin's shoulder. He vaguely was aware of the look of paralyzing agony on Chris's face, which quickly turned to molten anger. He saw the dangerous glow in the green eyes as they met his own shocked ones.

"Satisfied, Buck?" Chris seethed, not relinquishing his grip on Vin.

"Jesus..." Buck gasped, running a hand over his face, unable to get the gruesome sight from his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Buck remained frozen in place, his eyes drawn to the gruesome display marring Vin's Tanner's flesh. A cotton cloth, perhaps four by eight inches, was attached to the sharpshooter's back, bearing a message written in blood. His mind traveled back in time to the garage and he heard his cruel words echoing loudly. They swirled around a brief glimpse of Vin's confused eyes and caused his own to clench shut.

"What do we have?" The doctor asked, peering down at the grisly display. "How long was he unconscious?"

"He just blacked out a few minutes ago," Chris supplied, reluctantly moving away to give the doctor more room. "But he lost about a half-hour earlier..."

"Most likely when the barbaric individual responsible did that," Ezra's stomach churned.

"It looks like they used a staple gun," Chris said of the half dozen metal clamps buried in Vin's upper back. "He didn't feel it, at least not until about twenty minutes ago," he reflected on Vin squirming in the car.

"...and earlier?" The doctor asked, lifting Vin's eyes and flashing a light in them. The nurse was drawing blood samples, while the doctor continued his examination. "...there's a lump back here," his fingers moved over the base of Tanner's skull.

"Somebody clubbed him, he was on a bomb detail at the airport, out of contact for thirty minutes. When he was visible again, he was dazed, very confused, dizzy, disoriented and he said his ears were ringing."

Buck frowned and cursed himself inwardly. How come he hadn't seen that? Vin wouldn't let anything happen to Nate or J.D. He couldn't tear his eyes from the blood marks on Vin's discarded shirt. He thought on the incident a few months back, when another bloody Tanner shirt met his pained gaze. How Vin easily dismissed his guilt. Now the situation reversed and he hadn't been as receptive.

"He uh... was slurring his words..." Buck noted quietly, feeling the eyes of the other's on him.

"I'd say they used lidocaine on him, the symptoms you mentioned are often side effects. His vitals are strong, I don't think they'll be any lingering residual effects. His tetnus is up to date?"

"Yeah." Chris nodded.

"Well then I'll remove these and clean up his wounds. I'm ordering some xrays, just to make sure his head injury isn't serious. Most likely a very minor concussion. I don't think they'll be an infection, but I'll hold him over for observation, just to be on the safe side."

"Thanks Doc," Chris nodded, then rested a hand on the physician's sleeve, when he picked up a silver instrument. "That's evidence... the only thing we have. An agent is missing and another was wounded. The F.B.I. is just outside, they'll need to see it."

"Okay, make it quick." The impatient physician agreed.

"What's up, Chris?" Dave Kominski, a senior F.B.I. agent addressed the ATF leader as he entered the room. "Jesus, what kind of sick fuck are we dealing with?" His eyes narrowed as he took in the bizarre message scrawled in blood. "I'll need photos..."

"I got a camera in the car," Josiah said from behind Buck in the doorway, "I'll be right back,"

The nurse jiggled the tubes of Vin's blood and Buck moved away, seeking refuge at the window. He stared out on to the sunny afternoon, wondering where J.D. was. How bad was he hurt? Was he still alive? He thought on Nate fighting a battle in the OR and glanced at Rain, talking quietly with Ezra. Josiah went by with his camera and disappeared into the room.

"Buck Wilmington, six six five one, Buck Wilmington six six five one..."

Buck moved when the intercom announced a call for him. The closest phone was the one in the room Vin was lying in. He moved just inside the door, picked the phone up and punched in the numbers.

"Wilmington."

"I trust Agent Tanner delivered my message for you."

"What?" Buck's stomach dropped to his feet. The voice was synthesized and tinny.

"Little Boy Blue who's shown no remorse, the lost lamb is waiting but soon for a corpse."

Buck shoved Josiah aside and read the ghoulish crimson lettering on the cloth still attached by metal teeth to Vin's flesh. It was identical, word for word. "You fuckin' animal," Buck screamed, drawing the attention of those present. "There won't be enough left of you to fit on a postage stamp when I get done with you."

Chris moved to Buck's side and the tall agent moved the phone, so both men could hear.

"Temper, temper, Buck... you wouldn't want young Dunne to suffer the consequences of your wrath."

"How do I know he's alive?" Buck asked, paling at the thought of his best friend in the clutches of a madman.

"Of course he's still alive!" the artificial voice sounded wounded, "What good would he be dead? That's no fun..."

"Let him go, you coward, it's me you want." Buck pleaded.

"All in good time, the game has just begun. Give Agent Tanner my best, he was so helpful today."

"You fuckin' bastard, I'm gonna... shit!" Buck slammed the phone down, hearing dial tone on the otehr end. He moved from the room, needed air. Suddenly the smells and sounds of a busy hospital turned his stomach. His long legs took him to the stairs and to relief.

"Buck!"

"Let him go, Josiah," Chris halted the well meaning preacher. "He's gotta cool down."

A little while later, Dave Kominski appeared carrying the two sample bags. "I'll put a rush on it, Chris..."

"Thanks Dave," Chris nodded and returned to the room. The doctor was swabbing Vin's back with an antiseptic. As soon as he finished stitching, the nurse applied bandages.

"I'll contact admissions and let you know what room he'll be in," she said, as an orderly appeared. "Right now he's going to get some x-rays."

"Okay, thanks..." Chris nodded, giving Vin's shoulder a pat as he rolled by.

The hours dragged on, Josian remained at the hospital with Rain. Ezra stayed with Vin, just in case the person responsible made another appearance. Chris returned to the crime scene, going over it step by step with the F.B.I team. Josiah called to say that Nate made it through surgery and was listed as stable but critical. He was in ICU. Chris was in the van watching the tape again, when his cell phone rang.

"Larabee."

"Agent Kominski called, the Lab results are back," Ezra said quietly from Vin's bedside. "The blood on the message was the same type as Vin's. Undoubtedly from his excursion earlier this week."

"Yeah..." Chris nodded, thinking on Vin's missing hours before he was found so sick. "Did his blood work turn up anything?"

"No. I mentioned the incident to the doctor, but there are dozens of drugs that could have done that, or it could have been food poisoning. His x-rays were negative."

"He awake?"

"I was told he was during his xrays, but he's been sleeping since he returned."

"Okay," Chris sighed, eyeing the approaching hour of five p.m. "Anything from Buck?"

"He's at the office, going over old cases."

"Okay, get him on the phone. We'll meet at the hospital and go over what we have."

"Will do," Ezra complied hanging the phone up. He eyed the body curled on his side and frowned. "Would you like a drink?"

"How'd you know?" Vin rasped, peeling his eyes open.

"As a veteran of your bedside vigils, certain things are always apparent. You lick your lips, wrinkle your nose, furrow your brows, then peel an eye open." Ezra moved closer, handing Vin a cup with a straw.

Vin pushed the red button and allowed the bed to rise. He made the mistake of easing onto his back and yelped, balling his hand into a fist. A white hot pain shot up his back, taking his breath away.

"It might be best to remain on your side." Ezra noted, watching the water disappear.

"How's Nate?" Vin managed, between clenched teeth.

"In ICU, stable for now. The doctor is very confident he'll recover. The bullet nicked his intenstine but did little damage. He's lost quite a bit of blood." He saw the shadows of guilt appear as Vin turned his face away.

"That serves no purpose. You had no idea he was wounded, therefore, you bear no blame."

"Easier said than done..." Vin replied, "Anythin' on J.D.?"

"No, the van was found abandoned across town. There was a phone message that matched..." he paused as Vin looked up at him.

"Matched what?" Vin said warily, reading Ezra's eyes.

"The back pain you're experiencing was caused by a message that was stapled on a cloth there."

"Aw shit..." Vin curled up, pulling the sheet up. His mind began spinning, trying to find something, anything... but all he saw was Buck's irate face. "Bucklin..."

"Is taking this very hard. The message was for him. The caller alluded to his guilt in some previous encounter."

"What'd it say?"

"Little Boy Blue who's shown no remorse, the lost lamb is waiting but soon for a corpse."

"Sick bastards..."

"An apt description."

"Hell... with all the felons Buck's put away..."

"Quite..." Ezra agreed, "The nurse said if you roused, you were to eat a dinner tray."

"Ain't hungry..." Vin denied, still seeing J.D.'s body on the tape.

"That won't do either of you any good. How about a compromise? A light tray, broth or a sandwich?"

"Yeah, okay..." Vin blinked, rattling his empty cup. "...m'stomach's wavin'... scare up a coke?"

"Certainly." Ezra disappeared, leaving Vin to stare at the beige walls of the room and play the tape over again in his mind.

+ + + + + + +

When Buck arrived it was almost seven p.m. He went to ICU first, just missing the visiting hours, which were from six p.m. to seven p.m. He managed to get a glimpse of the unconscious agent through the small window in the door. He looked awful and Rain looked exhausted. He eyed the hours listed on the door and made note to be here at one p.m.the next day.

He thought on Ezra's message for the meeting. It made sense, to brainstorm and go over what they had. Erza hadn't mentioned where they'd meet, so Buck headed for the elevator. The lady at the desk in the lobby looked up Vin's room for him. He padded down the hall and peeked inside. Ezra's back was to him, the southerner was staring out a window. Vin was lying on his side, his eyes dulled with pain. He wasn't aware he was being observed and didn't hide the grimace on his face. Buck watched nervously as Vin shifted several times, trying to find a comfortable spot. He saw the staples embedded in Vin's flesh again and heard his harsh words at the airport. As he was thinking on what to say, Vin turned and spotted him. Their eyes met and neither said a word.

Vin saw Buck and still felt the sting of the other's cruel words at the airport. He knew Buck was upset, kneeling in Nate's blood while J.D. was being carted away was reason enough. But it hurt, it hurt a lot and he wasn't ready to feel good about it yet. So he nodded slightly and turned his head, away from Buck's penetrating gaze.

Buck swallowed hard and accepted the hard line on Vin's face. He couldn't blame him, but he hoped in time, Vin would forgive him. He slipped in the door and remained near the wall. Five minutes later, Josiah and Chris arrived. The preacher was carrying a file and Chris had a large envelope. He paused in front on Buck and looked at him hard.

"You okay now? I need you head, Buck."

"Yeah, I'm sorry, Chris."

"Okay," Chris nodded, moving to the bed. He deposited the large envelope on Vin's tray and sat on the edge of the bed. "The nurse said you refused the painkillers?"

"Don't need 'em... "

"You tryin' to convince us or yourself?" Chris asked, seeing the unmistakable lines of pain on the younger man's face. "Vin, somebody nailed metal into your hide... that hurts... hurts like a bitch. I did once by accident in my barn. Put one in my thigh... "

"I'm fine... leave me be..." Vin said harshly. His back did hurt like a bitch and he didn't want to be compliant. He wanted them gone... he didn't want to feel the sympathic eyes bearing down on him.

"Fine." Chris got up, realizing Vin had shut him out. "But know this, I got one agent down and one missing. I need you on this one, so you're gonna take that fuckin' painkiller and get some sleep tonight. Are we clear on that?" He stared hard until Vin nodded, then cast his eyes the other way.

"Okay, what we have is an unknown person or persons who have a vendetta against Buck. The words on Vin's back were his blood type, most likely taken when..." Chris opened the envelope and drew some photo's out of the van at the airport.

"Blood?" Vin's head turned, his eyes wide. "Whaddya mean blood? It was written... in my blood?" He watched Chris nod once and turned his face away again, shoving it in the pillow.

"...when you were missing three days ago."

"Where's the note?" Vin said, pulling himself upright and facing the group.

"Here's a picture." Josiah handed the color photo to Vin, whose face turned ashen when he saw it.

"Little Boy Blue whose shown no remorse, the lost lamb is waiting but soon for a corpse." Josiah read. "Let's break it down..."

"Little Boy Blue..." Ezra mused, "Blue refers to a officer of the law, a.k.a. a man in blue..."

"Little Boy..." Josiah noted, "Young Agent... rookie... uh... an early case?"

"Good." Chris nodded, "the lamb is J.D."

"He better not be the corpse..." Buck hissed, moving closer to the circle near Vin's bed.

"The corpse is not Mr. Dunne." Ezra denied. "It says 'waiting for a corpse' refering to someone else."

"Me?" Buck guessed, "He's gonna make J.D. watch? Shit..." he raked a hand through his hair.

"The truck?" Vin asked.

"Stolen. Nothing we could use..."

"You know Chris," Josiah said, thinking on Vin's disappearance. "Vin's message to Buck that day came from the File Room. He said he saw somebody..."

"Which means there's a strong possibility that someone working within the confines of the Federal building is involved?" Ezra ascertained.

"So who do we trust?" Buck asked.

"The same ones we always do," Chris slid the photo's taken from the video image at the airport out. He eyed each face in the group carefully, before finishing his thought, "... us..."

"Vin, you saw the driver close up. Anything?" Chris asked, as Vin furrowed his brows.

"...I go from seein' Candy with that dart in 'er... to Buck screamin' at me... sorry..."

"Unfortunately the airport's surveillance camera's aren't meant for close ups. We blew up the image of the man talking to Vin... but got nothing. Same with the shot of him toting J.D. Only that's he tall and muscular."

"This didn't start with Vin..." Buck said, "This started with Frank..."

"That's a long shot Buck," Josiah appraised, "Why would they kill Frank and stop?"

"Josiah's got a point," Chris agreed, sitting in a chair and eyeing Vin biting his lip in pain. "The voice on the phone mentioned 'the game' whoever it is, wants to lure Buck in slowly. They've taken too many pains to make it work out... too much detail. Frank's death doesn't fit the profile."

"Maybe... but I still think it might be a link."

"Ezra, did the F.B.I. come up with anything on parolees?" Chris asked.

"They're working on it, eighteen years worth of cases is a long list of cretins to uncover."

"Okay, Josiah, did you talk to Rain?" Chris asked, "I don't want her staying alone. Not with a nut out there."

"The F.B.I. is assigning her someone," Josiah nodded, watching Vin's discomfort growing. "I'll stay and keep Brother Vin company."

"Okay," Chris nodded, "How 'bout it Vin?"

"Reckon it's a touch uncomfortable..."

"Just a touch?" Chris repeated, seeing the hands clutching the sheets in a death grip. "You get some sleep, I'll be by to pick you up in the morning. I pushed the F.B.I. briefing off until the day after. You go home tomorrow and get some rest."

"Get some rest?" Vin hissed, moving to fast and unleashing the pain. "J.D.'s God-knows-where and Nate's got tubes runnin' in 'im in ICU... How the fuck am I gonna rest?"

"You're gonna rest because I need you working on this team." Chris drilled sternly. "You'll be a lot of pain tomorrow and you'll need those painkillers. The day after, you report to work."

They filed out, leaving the preacher watching Jeopardy while the nurse administered a painkiller to the reluctant patient. Chris was right, of course, he welcomed the relief and allowed himself to sleep.

Part 6

June 25

The restless sleeper tossed and turned, clutching the pillow in a deathgrip. He was chasing a criminal through the crowded streets of the city. It seemed they were running in slow motion and he heard the strain of his breathing and his heart thumping. He heard J.D. screaming for him and pushed onward. He ran down a dark alley and into a building. His eyes adjusted to the inky blackness, until an overhead light was flushed on him, blinding him. He gasped and shielded his eyes, stumbling through the room.

"Buck... Buck... where are you?"

"Kid... I'm here... J.D.!" Buck screamed, sitting upright in bed. Sweat poured off of him and he took his long frame from the bed. "Dammit!" He hissed, eyeing the approaching hour of five a.m He eased off J.D.'s bed and padded towards the bathroom, his face marked with the signs of too little sleep and too much worry.

He'd combed the streets for hours, hunting for a sign... a clue... something. He just couldn't go home. He found himself at J.D.'s apartment at one a.m. and let himself in with the spare key. He eyed the piles of sports equipment in the corner and walked into the kitchen. He grabbed a beer from the bottom shelf and settled down at the table. J.D.'s baseball jersey hung over the chair next to him, still bearing the dirty badge of sliding into home plate. He fingered the cloth and felt his gut clench. He never felt so helpless, being a pawn in the game of a psychopath.

"The Kid's tough," he mused aloud, confident in J.D.'s ability to defend himself and withstand whatever the kidnappers would throw his way. They all teased J.D. because he was the youngest, but they didn't baby him, ever. "I'll find you, J.D. and God help that animal when I do." Buck vowed, draining his beer.

He got back to his own place just after six a.m. He'd shaved, taken a shower and wrapped a towel around his waist He was heading for his bedroom, when he heard a noise. He paused at the door and listened, but then relaxed when a familiar scent wafted by as a firm body pressed against him from behind. The well versed hands slid beneath the towel, taunting him.

"Dammit Jamie," he cursed, grabbing her hand and pushing it away.

"Sorry, the door was unlocked," the redhead apologized, standing in the doorway and eyeing the lean body. "I missed you last night, I called but..."

"I wasn't here, I was at J.D.'s..." Buck frowned, padding into his room and pulling his drawer open.

"I saw a report on the news... I'm sorry Buck..." she offered, watching him clench his eyes shut in pain. She smiled, so broadly that she had to cover her mouth with her hand. It felt better than she ever dreamed and she moved forward, wrapping herself around his body.

"I can help..." she kissed his chest, nibbling and teasing. "Don't shut me out, Buck."

"I'm sorry, Jamie, but I can't shake it," Buck rested his hands on her shoulders, "He's out there somewhere, alone probably hurt... " Buck paused as tongue and teeth continued their motions. "I'm gonna hunt them bastards down and string them up for this." He finally pushed her away, "I gotta get dressed and get to work."

"I'll make some coffee," She excused herself before her giddiness gave her away. She laughed over the rushing water in the faucet, still tasting her prey on her lips.

+ + + + + + +

The growling stomach woke him up, a painful reminder that he hadn't eaten since breakfast yesterday. He picked himself up and began to explore the room again. Countess times the day before he'd done the same. This trip wasn't any different, he found the same debris, newspapers, busted furniture and piles of trash. He was frantic... and felt like a caged rat. No escape, no relief. How was Buck going to find him? He heard a loud creaking sound and threw his head up towards the ceiling. A trapdoor opened and a ladder slid down. He raced towards it, only to be halted by a gun.

"Back up, pig..." Tony Kennedy warned, waving the dart gun.

J.D. watched the man climb down, the gun was trained on his chest. He stood calmly, as the tall, muscular criminal touched the floor.

"You won't get away with this. They'll find you..."

"Sure they will, Dunne," Kennedy agreed, smiling evilly, "That's all part of the plan. You're the lure..." he grinned, "Don't worry, you'll have a front row seat when the fireworks start. You'll watch that bastard get what he deserves."

"Buck?" J.D. guessed, realizing who he'd bait for.

"Boom!" Kennedy laughed, "Splattered all over... maybe even all over you... that'd be a nice touch. Turn around."

"Go to hell."

"Suit yourself," Kennedy aimed the gun and J.D. backed down, recalling how sick he was the night prior.

"Where you taking me?" J.D. asked, still not complying.

"Even dogs get fed and put out to go... Come on, we ain't got all day. Turn around, hands behind your back"

J.D. turned around and put his hands behind his back, but when he felt the handcuff clip on, he rebelled, shoving the larger body as hard as he could. He was grabbed by the collar and slammed into the wall. He slid to his knees, grunting as stars danced in front of his face. Blood ran from where his lip was split. A blindfold was put on and his hands were secured. He stumbled up the ladder steps, guided by the hand on his waist. He was led into a room and forced onto a bench. The handcuffs came off and he heard a sound of a lock turning.

He whipped the blindfold off and eyed the small room without windows. A small bathroom, bearing a toilet and sink was in the corner. He saw the sandwich from a local convenience store sitting on the table in front of him, along with a bottle of soda. Painfully, he hobbled into the bathroom and washed his face. He didn't have a mirror, but felt every bruise on his battered body. His hunger pains moved him back to the table and as he ate, he wondered on the chilling clues about Buck's death.

June 26th

"You look like shit, Buck..."

His haggard image agreed with him and nodded back. The dark circles from lack of sleep matched the bloodshot eyes, reddened from endless piles of folders that were read. He'd put in a twenty-hour day yesterday, leaving only to get a few hours sleep, shower and change of clothes. It was now nearly five a.m.and the start of another day. Would this dawn bring an answer? He'd combed through endless records, checked on convicts he'd locked up, scoured team busts where he'd been involved in a takedown, but all roads led nowhere. He was taking to the road today with Josiah and two F.B.I. agents. They were tracking down stores that the explosive might have been purchased in. J.D. was in his thoughts constantly and with every passing hour, his nerves were fraying a little more.

He shaved and made his way to the kitchen, not tasting the bagel that was waiting. The phone rang and he answered it, grimacing at the bitter coffee he'd swallowed.

"Hello."

"Buck? You meeting Josiah at the office?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I'm picking Vin up and I'm going to need the file I left on my desk. Meet me in the lobby with it on your way out."

Vin was being questioned by the F.B.I this morning. Orin and Chris were required to be there as his immediate supervisor and division directorate. He hadn't thought about Vin since he'd left the hospital a night before. The comfortable camaraderie he'd once shared with the Texan was gone. Try as he might, he still saw an empty desk where J.D. should be sitting. Chris's voice snapped him out of his trance.

"Buck? You still there?"

"Yeah... I'm heading over there now... what time?"

"Seven."

"That's awfully early for sit-down," he noted of the interrogation session scheduled by the F.B.I.

"That's not until eight, we're meeting at Orin's first." Chris paused, feeling his anger building. He heard the noise made by Buck and could see his face twisting. "You got a problem with that Buck?"

"Hell no," Buck replied sarcastically. "Practice makes perfect..."

"I'm gonna chalk that up to you being emotionally overwrought," Chris bristled, turning onto Vin's block. Another derisive sound could be heard from the other end of the line. "What the fuck is your problem now, Buck? He was drugged, the bastards fuckin' stapled a note to his back... He feels bad enough about Nate and J.D., he don't need you adding to it. I'm warning you, lose that attitude..."

"Back off," Buck spat back, angry at himself at much as at his boss. Deep down inside, he knew Chris was right, but some part of him still saw Vin shaking hands with a terrorist who had J.D. Vin was less that two feet away and saw his face, yet could produce not one feature. He didn't need Chris on his back, so he relented, biting down his distaste. "Yeah, seven... I'll be there." He concluded, hanging the phone up and heading for the shower.

"Dammit!" Chris tossed the phone on the passenger seat and slid from behind the wheel of his classic Ford Mustang. He saw the F.B.I. agents outside Vin's and flipped his badge as he approached the door. Vin opened it before he even knocked and turned away, without a greeting. Chris followed him through the entryway into the kitchen and took a seat. He noticed the empty coffeemaker and the lack of dishes in the drainer. He eyed his best friend, whose face was still a little too pale and didn't hide the shadows lurking. But it was his eyes that were too painful to look at, full of unwarranted guilt.

"Did you eat?" Chris said and saw the shaggy head shake negative. "Vin..."

"It wouldn't stay put... saved m'self a trip t'the John." Vin tossed back, "I'm fine... had somethin' last night."

"What?" Chris pressed, eyeing the empty trash can.

"Don't recall... didn't have no taste..."

"Josiah called, they're moving Nate out of ICU today."

"That's good."

It was the first sign of outward expression from the sharpshooter in two days. Yesterday he'd been withdrawn, barely audible and refusing assistance. Chris dropped him off from the hospital and left to meet the F.BI.. He'd kept in contact with Vin on the phone and stopped in at dinner, but the end result was the same. Today the shock was worn off and Vin went into his protective shell, turning inward and defensive. It was the only way he knew to protect himself. Chris knew how hard he was battling, they'd stopped to see Nathan on their way out yesterday and Vin had blended right into the wall. Nathan was asleep and his coloring was improved, but the beeps of the monitors, tubes, IV and other paraphernalia had sent the Texan scuttling into the hallway. Since joining the team, he'd allowed himself the luxury of friendships; that familiar bond of brotherhood that had given him so much, now was breaking his heart. He'd didn't say a word all the way home, he didn't have to, his eyes spoke very clearly.

"We'll head over at lunchtime..." He offered and saw the head dip once. "Talk to me, Vin..."

"Nothin' t'say..." Vin denied, shoving his slight frame from the kitchen doorway.

"Look Vin, we're not going that route again. It wasn't your fault. If we're gonna catch this freak, I need your head on tight."

"I'm fine, let's go..." Vin shoved his feet into boots and headed for the door.

Chris caught up to him, grabbed the tense shoulder and spun him around. He didn't hide his anger and used his index finger to back the irate blue eyes into the wall.

"Quit sulking and lose the 'poor-Vin face', it won't work. It's done, overwith and you wallowing in that fuckin' pity pool won't cut it. Now get your ass in gear. J.D.'s out there somewhere." Chris shoved past him and strode to the car. It was several minutes before Vin appeared, his face was full of anger, which was good. He was fighting back.

"Yer a son-of-a-bitch, ya know that Larabee?"

"...takes one to know one..." Chris tossed back, fingers caressing the gear shift as the car roared to life.

+ + + + + + +

Tony Kennedy was enjoying the vision that was known as Miss July, when the phone rang.

"Don't move, Darlin', I'll be right back," he vowed, hitching his pants up. "Yeah..." he sighed, cradling the phone in his hand.

"Get moving, there's been a change in plans." Delaney whispered, her lithe body swathed in silk sheets.

"What kind of change?" He shoved the remaining half of a doughnut in his mouth and frowned. "You know that kid is pain-in-the-ass... he comes at me every time I let him out."

"Would you shut up..." she hissed, eyeing the door. "It goes down this morning... just after seven."

"Give me a little fuckin' notice why don't you!" He growled, banging his fist to the wall. "How the fuck am I supposed to get downtown in rush hour traffic?"

"Be creative, just get it done. I'll call you afterwards, we'll move out tonight."

"Yeah... okay..." He slammed the cell phone down. "Shit... I'm fuckin' loco taking orders from that crazy broad. Fifty thousand dollars don't seem like much of a bargain anymore."

With one last lusting look at the well-endowed star-spangled beauty, he picked up his keys and headed out the door. The old abandoned house was located well east of Denver, with a hint of the Kansas border in the distance. He'd have to put pedal to the metal to get ther e on time.

J.D. jumped when he heard the car engine. He took his bruised, battered body onto the cot and looked out the window. He heard the engine sounds fading and his heart sank, it wasn't someone coming, it was the big guy leaving. The youth eased his aching body back on the bunk. One eye was swollen shut and his ribs were bruised. He fought the guard at every given opportunity and would do so again. He stared in frustration at the trap door in the middle of the ceiling. Too high for any chair and locked from the other end, it was the only way out. He eyed the large bag that had been tossed down to him earlier. He pulled out a donut and a can of soda and ate his meager meal.

"Where are you Buck?" He sighed, eyeing yet another day threatening to break into the confines on his prison.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat on the end of the bed, body damp and spirits dismal. His shoulders slumped and he made no effort to put on the sock that was balled up in his hand. He sighed heavily as the ripe body pressed into his back, the firm folds of flesh pressing invitingly. Two hands wrapped around his waist and a soft kiss was planted on the back of his neck.

"I'm sorry, Darlin'," Buck said softly, "I won't be myself until we find J.D."

"Give me a little credit, Handsome, okay?" she pouted, nibbling his neck and pulling him backwards. "On your belly, Buck, I've got something to chase that tension away," she said, eyeing the clock. She needed a delay, didn't want to risk him running into Kennedy in the garage.

"Look, Jamie, I know you mean well, but I'm not in the mood to..."

She silenced him with a long, probing kiss and caressed the firm muscles on his back. "Trust me..."

He sighed and stared into the beautiful blue eyes and suddenly found himself lying on his stomach. He heard her leave and a few minutes later, the ding of the microwave. The lights went off and a fat jade candle was lit, it's oriental scent was alluring. He felt her straddle him, nesting comfortably on his lower back. Then something warm and wonderful was being massaged into his flesh.

"God... what is... that..." he groaned as it was absorbed into his skin.

"A little piece of heaven," she replied, peeling his towel away and getting to work.

+ + + + + + +

It was almost seven when Buck flashed his badge to the security guard and pulled into the parking lot. He'd intended on being at his desk by six, but the extra hour sleeps and the massage were worth it. He didn't remember much after the strong fingers and hot oil penetrated his upper back, the next thing he knew the alarm went off, it was six-fifteen and Jamie was gone. He felt better though, the knot in his back was gone as was his headache. He punched the button on the elevator and eyed his watch..seven oh five, tough... he mentally answered Chris's irate face. Josiah was at his desk on the phone with forensics. Ezra's desk was empty and Buck quickly went to Chris's office. He flicked the light on and jogged over to the desk. He picked up the folder and then his heart froze.

"Josiah!"

Josiah cut his call short and ran for Chris's office. He paused in the doorway and saw the look of shock on Buck's face. He quickly strode to the desk, while Buck was punching numbers on a telephone.

"Answer... answer..."

"Larabee."

"Thank God..." Buck's head dropped and he left out a huge sigh.

"What's wrong?" Chris asked.

"Where are you?"

"Just got in the elevator, why?"

"Early... you're an hour early... we beat the bastard this time..."

"Buck, what the hell are you talking about?" Chris demanded.

"I picked the file up and there's a picture... polaroid... taped to your computer screen. It's a picture of you kneeling at Sarah and Adam's grave... a recent one... there's a red 'x' on your body."

"Alright, call it in... I'm between two and three... I'll be right there."

"Okay..."

"Chris?"

The blond jerked slightly at the soft call from behind his right shoulder. He'd forgotten Vin was there. He turned around to update his companion and began dialing the F.B.I. office on his cell phone.

"Buck found a picture on my computer... looks like they were planning another attack, but we're early today. This time... " Chris paused as Vin's eyes grew wide, and his hand went under his jacket. He jerked his head and the sting on the side of his neck slowed his motions. He saw Vin drop the gun and felt the muzzle of a gun pressed to his neck. He was dimly aware of Vin screaming and the hiss of an aerosol can, before everything went black.

"Where are they?" Buck hollered, frantically pacing the sealed off corridor on the twelth floor. The two F.B.I agents that they were paired with that day had arrived, along with another pair. They eyed the four elevators in the corridor, all which were making stops on every floor. Ten minutes seemed liked forever.

"Who the fuck is he talking to?" Buck screamed, getting another busy signal. Two of the elevators were ascending towards them and the men split up. Each assumed the position and six guns were trained on the doors as they slid open.

"I assure you, I'm on your side," Ezra kept his arms raised and saw Josiah rise from his kneeling position and turn away.

"It's only Ezra."

"Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra deadpanned, "What's happened?"

"We found a picture... Chris this time. Buck got a hold of him on the elevator ten minutes ago. We're still waiting..."

Ezra joined Buck and the others as the last remaining elevator came to a halt. They heard the cries of pain before the doors opened and the grips on the guns tensed up. The door slid open and revealed a body crumpled on the floor, writhing in agony.

"Vin!" Ezra called out, seeing the Texan curled up, hands over his eyes.

"Where's Chris?" Buck screamed, grabbing Vin by the shirt collar and shaking him. "Where is he? Dammit Vin..."

"Get him out of here." Charles Davis, one of the two agents working the case said to Sanchez.

"Buck, let go of 'im, he's hurt... Buck!" Josiah peeled Buck off the stricken Texan and Ezra slid in, gripping his shoulders.

"Let me see, Vin..."

"He sprayed... somethin'... it's burnin' like hell..." Vin cried, fighting Ezra to uncover his eyes, which he were sure were on fire.

"Chris's cell phone..." Josiah added, nodding to the discarded phone. "Ezra get him in the bathroom and flush his eyes. I'll get a paramedic team..."

"...he was big... blue... coveralls... bug on pocket... red and white... bug juice... bad... smell... sawed-off shotgun..."

"Okay, Vin," Josiah pulled him up and allowed Ezra to lead him away. Buck was already on his way to the garage, with the other four F.B.I agents. They ordered the exits sealed and began to search the cars in the parking lot.

Buck jerked when he saw the large van at the end of the row. He gripped his pistol and edged forward, with two agents flanking him. He nodded when he saw the red oval on the side of the van with white trim and a dead bug. The front was empty and they surrounded the back.

"F.B.I.!" the agent in front of him screamed, pounding on the back door. The door popped open, revealing a terrified exterminator. He was tied up, blindfolded and clad in his underwear.

"Shit!" Buck kicked the door in frustration.

"Wilmington..."

Buck peered inside and eyed side of the cannister near the victimized worker. Taped to the side was another message, in bold black letters, printed from a computer.

"Fuck!" Buck raked his hand through his hair and clutched his eyes shut.

Ezra half-carried the moaning agent to the nearest men's room and to the first sink he could access. He shoved his face close to the sink and turned the faucets on.

The one thing that penetrated the agonizing wall of pain, was the word 'blind'. Vin was sure he was blind, after all his eyes were on fire. He'd never felt a pain as severe as this and was beyond comprehending. He felt hands guiding him and the cool rush of water. Stern words entered his fire-filled haze and he complied.

"Don't touch your face, the chemical is most likely on your hands...." Ezra grunted, fighting Vin to gain control of his arms. He got a handful of soap and scrubbed Vin's hands good. The he forcing his head low and cupped the cold water, splashing in the swollen, red eyes. He felt the slick hand gripping in desperation, the short pants and stifled cries were the only sounds Vin could utter. He flinched when the hand snagged a section of his shirt and latched on in a vice-like grip.

"Right here, Vin," Ezra reassured, answering the silent plea, "Despite the excruciating pain, your loss of vision is temporary. I've been there..." Ezra grabbed a group of paper towels and pulled the sopping wet head from the sink.

Ezra? That's the voice he heard. He relaxed a little and put all his trust in the smooth operator. Despite the reassuring words, he didn't believe Ezra. How could his eyes be on fire and he not be blind? Ezra was speaking again and he tried to listen and obey the commands.

"Blow your nose," he ordered, "Good... now gargle and rinse your mouth..." He managed to get Vin's jacket off and toss it to the floor. "I'm going to take your shirt off... okay?" He waited until the head dipped once and unbuttoned the white cotten shirt. After peeling his tee-shirt off, he sat Vin on the floor and pressed sopping wet towels to his eyes.

"Ezra!"

Josiah? Was he here too? Then more voices, stranges ones, peeling the cold cloth away. Speaking to him, sounds... clicks and bangs... orders being given... strange hands... strange voices... Where was Ezra? He snaked his arm out... Ezra?

"Over here," he answered Josiah's call and started to move away as the paramedic's entered.

Vin's hand shot out and snagged his wrist, pressing it painfully. "Careful, Mr. Tanner, that's my dealing hand..." Ezra soothed, squeezing Vin's shoulder to reassure him.

"Okay, let's have a look..."

Vin relaxed when he felt Erza's hand. Ever few seconds the little tug on his shoulder would flex, Ezra was still there.

"Okay, Buddy, I need you to blow your nose and rinse your mouth..."

"...been... there... done... that..." Vin coughed.

"Do it again for me, okay?"

Vin complied to what the strange voice asked.

"Okay, I'm gonna rinse your eyes out now. This is a solution of water, mineral oil and soap. It won't hurt you." The paramedic noted the gasping and eyed Ezra. "Does he have asthma or any breathing problems?"

"No... I don't think he ingested any of the chemical, I think that's panic..."

"Mr. Tanner, I need you breath real deep for me, in through your nose and out your mouth... Good... again... good." he rested a hand on the anxious man's shoulder. "Just relax now," he moved him flat.

Vin laid back and then a wonderful cold fluid was eased through a cloth on his face. He moaned in pleasure and relaxed. Something soft was under him... he tried to sit up and a hand locked on his shoulder.

"Leaving so soon, Vin?"

"Ez?" Vin gasped, head moving slightly.

"Okay, he's gonna need to take a shower and get any of the residual chemical from his hair and pores. Fresh clothes too... also, he shouldn't be alone for several hours, in case he has breathing problems." The paramedic stated.

"I'll take care of that," Ezra stated, "I've experienced this myself and know the drill."

"Good. If he develops any problems, take him to the ER. I'm gonna leave this bottle of solution. Keep it on the compresses and on his eyes for the next few hours, until the swelling goes down and his vision clears up."

"Thanks..." Vin coughed, hand fumbling until another gripped his.

"You're welcome, buddy," the paramedic collected his equipment and moved out. A hour later, freshly showered in the gym on the first floor and wearing a new set of clothes, courtesy of the Eddie Bauer store down the street, Vin was lying on the couch in Chris's office. The room was quiet and both his eyes were covered with the cold, wet cloth. He could hear Ezra and Josiah whispering nearby.

"I ain't deaf..." Vin protested.

"Sorry, Vin..." Josiah moved closer. "Buck called, they found a van in the garage with an exterminator tied up. They found another note..." He saw Vin's fist clench and the Adam's apple darting frantically.

"No trace..." Vin asked, daring to be hopeful.

"Sorry Vin..." Josiah winced at the soft exhalation of breath. "Buck's out with the F.B.I. tracking down any possible leads."

"Shall I?" Ezra imparted, eyeing the notes he'd written while talking to Buck.

"The new centurion and the old guard, comrades bound by arms and more. Soon their blood will run free and you'll feel pain as none before."

Vin didn't say a word, he'd retreated again, back deep inside to a place where they couldn't find him. Why didn't he react faster? Couldn't he have gotten a shot off? First J.D., now Chris... Chris... he heart sank as as dark cloud invaded his sanctity. What if he never saw the brooding blond again?

+ + + + + + +

Meanwhile, in the lobby of the Federal Building a long line of workers were waiting. The staff of security guards was double checking every employee. It was a slow process and the sympathetic guard was nearly undone by the red-headed beauty who stepped up to his station.

"Is there a problem?"

"No, Ma'am... just routine. Pays to be careful."

"Certainly," she handed over her handbag and stepped through the metal dectector. "Thank you," she purred, heading for the elevator. She noticed one was sealed off and a team of F.B.I. agents hovered around it. Smiling, she entered another one and pushed the down button, before flipping her cell phone.

"Yeah..." a tired voice answered.

"Problems?" She inquired.

"None. Got out clean." Kennedy answered, as he entered the interstate heading east out of town. Her plan had been sound. Intercept at the fifth floor, punch all the numbers, slowing down the ascent. Disable Tanner and pickup Larabee. He dumped the unconscious agent into a large, canvas dumpster on wheels, used by painters to transport equipment and dropclothes. He was off the freight elevator and into traffic, by the time they found Tanner.

"Excellent!" She grinned. "I'll have a full day to put in here. We'll leave at midnight. I'll need your help loading the boxes into my van."

"That's gonna be tough... they're gonna have that whole area under a blanket."

"Perhaps, but you have cover. The hazardous material needs to be transported twice daily. Midnight is the normal pickup. I've hidden my toxicology collection in the hazmat containers. All you have to do is flip your badge. If the guard wants to check, let him... trust me, they won't look that close, they're overnighters are ready for their pension and the words 'Hazardous Waste' scare them."

"Yeah, okay... midnight?"

"Yes, you leave Dunne and Larabee in your van. Make sure they're incapacitated and leave it near the park," she said of the predestined area about a mile away.

"Ten -four Boss... " he tossed the phone away. As he cast his eyes on the slumbering blond behind him, he thought on Buck Wilmington. He hated him in High School. Captain of the football team, always had girl on each arm and a half dozen more trailing behind. He'd lost touch after he graduated, he moved away. Then one day four years later, he spots Wilmington being roughed up by a couple toughs. A few inquiries led to the startling fact that the former All American was up to his ass in gambling debts. He mentioned it to his boss, who agreed to cover the loan, sizing up Wilmington as a ripe pidgeon. For months they'd worked the warehouse together, unaware the whole time that Wilmington was a rookie Fed undercover and he was in the middle of a huge takedown. Eighteen years in prison he thought of these golden days ahead. He intended to make Wilmington suffer... if the crazy broad got in the way... she'd go too. He reached back and patted the face of the silent observor.

"Don't you worry, blondie... me and you are gonna get real well acquainted.

J.D. was pacing again when the trap door opened and a body dropped down.

"Chris!" He ran to the opening, but it was shut already. He knelt by his friend's side and untied the ropes, which had burned the captive's wrist's raw. He gently pulled the tape from Chris's mouth and pulled him onto the cot. He eyed his small bounty of food, which he was collecting like a rat. Thankfully, he'd saved a soda. He sat on the floor next to the cot and waited, until a sharp hiss drew him to his feet again.

Chris felt a pain slam into his head and a wall of nausea rising. His stomach convulsed and he felt someone pulling him upright. A voice urged him... a young voice... ordering him... pulling him. He sank to his knees and vomited. He felt someone wiping his face and handing him a can.

"Spit..."

"J.D.?" Chris croaked, taking a sip of the soda and wiping his mouth. He squinted painfully at the youth's marred face. "Fuckin' bastard's gonna pay for that..."

"Take it easy," J.D. led Chris back from behind the rows of newspapers to the cot. Chris sat up and sipped the soda again, eyeing the prison.

"How's Nate? Is he dead?" J.D. blurted, thinking on the nightmare he'd had over the last few days.

"No... he's gonna be fine."

"What about Vin? We couldn't find him..." J.D. fretted, thinking on his missing friend.

"He was drugged... bastards stapled a note to his back... they're after Buck..."

"Chris, what are we gonna do?" J.D. inquired, glad he wasn't alone and feeling guilty about that.

"I don't know, Kid..." Chris sighed, resting his throbbing head against the brick wall behind him.

June 27 8 a.m. ATF Offices

Ezra, Buck, Josiah, Charles Davis and Timothy Wells, the two agents working with them from the F.B.I., along with four more senior F.B.I. agents were in the ATF conference room, adjacent to Chris Larabee's office.

"Let's go over it again," Davis suggested, scanning his notes.

"They weren't followed," Wells chipped in, "We had 'em from Tanner's place, no company."

"Then how they'd know?" Buck asked, "I mean Chris got in early..."

"They were here already," another agent suggested, "They had all the pieces, they only needed Larabee. Someone was in the parking lot and updated the perp when Larabee drove in..."

"Anything turn up on the fifth floor?" Josiah asked. The fifth floor was the one that was used to spring the kidnapping. It was closed for asbestos abatement and only accessible to maintaince workers and the contractor's doing the job.

"No... looks like they dumped him in a paint trolley and used the freight elevator," Adams noted. "While we were waiting for the elevator to stop at every floor, they were in the parking lot and gone."

"So we got nothing..." Buck broke his pencil in half, tossing an accusatory stare at the doorway.

Vin read between the words and glared back, sending a steely look at the tall agent.

"Agent Tanner, please have a seat." Mitchell Flushing said. The thirty-year veteran was spearheading the effort to track down the kidnappers of the two missing federal agents.

Vin shuffled over to the only empty seat, which was next to three F.B.I. agents. His co-workers were at the other end and looked up briefly as he entered.

"We have some business to finish here, then you're up..." Flushing relayed.

Vin nodded and remained silent, his hands folded in front of him on the shiny woodgrain table. He would have felt a lot better answering the penetrating questions he knew the F.B.I. had ready for him, with Chris at his side. Larabee's presence would have made all the difference and he couldn't help feeling the void inside.

"The maintainance workers weren't scheduled to report to work until 9 a.m. A crew of six and all have alibi's for that hour." Wells read from his notebook.

"So anybody could have been up there..." Buck dismayed.

"No, they still needed to get in the building," Josiah noted, "ID badge, or visitor's pass... but they had to enter. What about the garage?"

"The camera was disengaged, we're installing a new one," Davis updated.

"A fuckin' lot of good that does Chris!" Buck complained.

"Agent Wilmington if you cannot control your emotional outbursts, I'm going to ask you to leave!" Flushing ordered, glaring at the tense agent.

The meeting pressed on for two more hours, details, videos, blown up maps of the airport and garage were covered. Then at 10 a.m., the recess was called. The rest of the ATF and the two F.B.I. agents working with them were dismissed to tackle the investigation. Vin sat quietly, hands on his lap, staring at the woodgrain on the table.

"Is there something I can do for you, Standish?" Flushing asked, rising to his full height.

"No," Ezra replied, moving to the vacant chair next to Vin. To the untrained eye, Vin was the picture of ease. The hands were loosely on his lap, body reclined in the chair and face calm. But looks were deceiving and Ezra's eyes weren't untrained. Vin was a tight spring, ready to uncoil; Ezra took a seat next to him and saw the unshielded relief pour out of the blue eyes.

Vin hadn't even know Ezra was still in the room, until his voice sounded. He let out a small breath and thanked Ezra silently, feeling stronger already.

"Aren't you detailed to interview Jackson this morning?"

"Mr. Jackson, by his physician's call, will not be available until this afternoon. Furthermore, my presence is required here."

For three hours they grilled him, and the facade he'd so neatly built up around himself, started to crack. Question after question about the events at the airport and in the elevator. For every 'I don't know' or 'I can't remember' an even toughter follow-up was issued. Then they started to ask about his background in Texas, his bounty hunting days and the perps he'd put away. They're questions alluded to involvment and Ezra bristled and objected, but was met with iron resistance. Flushing threatened to throw him out if he kept interfering. Vin was coming unraveled. His shirt was soaked with sweat, his face was damp with it and his voice was shallow and unsteady.

Ezra crossed the room to get him a glass of water and slowly walked back, reading Flushing's notes upside down as he passed. The words 'subversive', 'last to join team', 'questionable background', 'suspected murderer', 'non compliant' and other incriminating phrases littered the yellow tablet at his wrist. Ezra noted them and quietly rejoined Vin, handing him the water. Finally at three p.m., they concluded the questioning. Tomorrow morning they were going to the airport to the scene of the crime. Vin would do a walk through of his actions when J.D. was taken.

"Don't leave town, Agent Tanner. Also, I'll need your badge and gun, please."

"What?"

Ezra winced at the shocked quiet rasp, tinged with fear. He rested a hand on Vin's damp shoulder and gave a small tug. "It's standard procedure, Vin..."

"Fer who?" Vin tossed back, now regrouped and angry, "Ya think I done this? That I hurt Chris..."

Vin rose and pulled his badge and gun sliding them onto the table. "Go t'hell!" Vin hissed, striding from the room.

"Vin... Vin..." Ezra jogged after him, reaching him at the elevator. "Wait a minute!"

"Ain't nothin' left t'say," Vin growled, angrily punching the down arrow.

"Isn't there?" Ezra goaded, "You can hide that fear that's knawing at you from them, but not from me. You've been stripped of several hours of your life, missing pieces of time during which two horrid crimes were commited against friends. It's natural that you would question yourself... and wonder."

"Ya sound like them jackels..." Vin spun around, eyes wide and a vivid blue, "Ya think I done it too!"

"No!" Ezra shot back, jade eyes flashing, "Of course not!"

It wasn't the words but their sharp tone that made Vin relax. The elevator opened and they got on, riding a few floors in silence.

"I'm sorry, Ez... I didn't mean t'sound ungrateful. Thanks fer bein' my second..."

"Excuse me?" Ezra perplexed, then saw a small smile born on the younger man's face as it rose.

"Back in the Old West, a fella stood by his friend, through the thick of it, when he's called out... was his second... somebody watchin' his back, standin' by 'im. I'm beholdin', Ezra..."

"All in a day's work," Ezra shifted uncomfortably, giving Vin a new grin.

"Yer full o'shit, Ezra."

"Would you like to eat before or after we visit Nathan?"

"After, m'stomach's jumpier than a pack o'frogs in matin' season."

"Charming," Ezra moaned, shaking his head and flipping his raybans on as they headed into the daylight.

+ + + + + + +

The hours seemed to tick by in snail-like slowness, each second pregnant and presenting grave difficulty. The small room seemed to have shrunken with each passing hour and the two men tried to keep their santity. Chris sighed and eased his tense frame from the position he'd assumed on the floor. At least J.D. had finally stopped talking. For the first day of their confinement, the youth's nervous energy had poured out, in a rambling, bunch of unrelated thoughts. Now he was spent, worried and wondering about their future.

They'd been drugged and moved the night before, only to find themselves back in their prison come morning. It didn't make sense and Chris suspected something had gone wrong with their plan. They were bait, a flesh and blood lure to spell out Buck Wilmington's death. The wall of muscle, a well armed and trained guard that was their gatekeeper, made regular appearances, dropping food in the hole and shouting at them. But that's what he was... muscle... the paid help. Chris drew his brows together as he wondered on the brains behind this effort.

"It's an inside job," Chris said, causing J.D.'s head to rise from where it rested on his knees. The bruises were fading a little and Chris almost grinned, realizing the boy wore them like medals.

"Yeah, I figured... from what you said about being grabbed from the elevator."

"It's more than that," Chris sighed, "That guard is the muscle, but he had access to the building."

"He must have a job there..."

"Yeah, but the person who hired him, that's the real catch. It's somebody who's got a lot of power. " Chris mused, pressing his fingertips together. "They know the pressure that comes with a missing federal agent. The universal net that's drawn up, the network of connections that's opened to all agencies. It's a gutsy call, taking two of... transporting us out of state."

"Out of state?" J.D. frowned.

"Yeah, that's why we were trussed up last night, but something went wrong." Chris theorized. "The leader must work in the Federal Building. Maybe the net got to tight and they got caught. Mabye they have to wait until things die down a little... I don't know... " Chris sighed, "But I'm sure we'll be moved."

While the two prisoners discussed their fate, Tony Kennedy got another phone call.

"Yeah... " He pulled his legs from the table top and stood, stretching wearily. It was almost four p.m. and he was hungry.

"It's in the final phase, another six hours or so will complete it," Delaney said, "I've cleaned up the files, erased all the disks and have the container ready."

"You sure?"

"Don't get insubordinate!"

"Well, hell, Lady, you had me haul 'em clear across the state last night..."

"I miscalculated," Delaney spat back. The dozen deadly virus cultures she was selling to the Middle Eastern Dictator were all ready or so she'd thought. One was damaged and she had to get a replacement. It wasn't nearly as effective, but he wouldn't know that. The delay had held them up by a day. But now, all systems were go.

"Same bat time, same bat channel?" Tony asked, grabbing his car keys.

"Yes, midnight." She dictated, hanging up the phone.

+ + + + + + +

Vin hung back in the doorway, as Ezra approached the bed, placing a large, chocolate milkshake on the tray in front of the dozing wounded man. Nate looked awful and Vin felt worse. He jerked as the vision of the bloodied body appeared, along with Buck's irate face and accusing words.

"Greetings and salutations, my friend," Ezra stood and looked down on the blinking body in the bed.

"Ezra?" Nate croaked, wincing at the pain shot through his side.

"No need to rise," Ezra joked.

"Any new leads?" Nate inquired, wondering on the fate of his two friends.

"No," Ezra shook his head and pushed the milkshake closer. "I'm afraid we've uncovered little. One of the assailants works within the confines of our building. We've not been able to track down the methods of tranportation used."

"How's Buck holdin' up?" Nate asked, sipping the sweet treat.

"Like a wet cat in a fryin' pan..." Vin said angrily.

"Vin?" Nate moved his head, "Hey... how you doin'? Josiah told me what them bastards did to you? " Nate paused, searching the doorway. "Vin, you can come in the room, I ain't gonna bite you."

"I ain't so sure... wouldn't blame ya if ya did..."

"Cut that out!"

Ezra jumped a bit, startled at the loud and decidedly angry tone if the wounded man's voice. His dark eyes were clouded with anger and he was glaring openly at Vin. The Texan looked guiltly and silently moved a little closer, hovering at the foot of the bed.

"I can't... keep seein' ya bleedin' the hell all over... right behind me... dammit..."

"You were drugged Vin... and worse..." Nate met the stormy blue eyes and nodded. "You can't help Chris or J.D., if you too busy beatin' yourself up. You're lettin' them win, Vin... that's what they want."

Vin sighed and raked a hand through his tangled hair. The movement gave Nate a good look at the wear and tear on the younger man. The dark circles stood out on his pale skin. The eyes were still slightly swollen from their abuse the day before and the lack of sleep was evident.

"Damn, " Nate said in disgust, "I never figured you for a quitter."

"I ain't givin' up." Vin shot back, almost trying to convince himself.

"Then put some meat on that scrawny body of yours and get your sorry ass to bed." Nate ordered, "Keelin' over ain't gonna help anybody."

"Well said," Ezra winked at Nate, both eyeing the figure shuffling closer to the bed.

"... and Vin?" Nate said waiting for the bleary eyes to rise, "You might want to throw in a shower too..." he wrinkled his nose and grimaced, giving Ezra a chuckle and sending a light into the blue eyes.

They were in the lobby, heading out to eat, when Josiah and Buck entered. The two pairs of agents stopped several feet from each other, an invisible line of tension pulsated strongly. Vin saw the lasers shooting from Buck's eyes and stood firm, sending his own message back.

"Nathan is awake and doing much better," Ezra broke the uncomfortable silence.

"How you doing, Son," Josiah asked, searching Vin's face, "How did it go?"

Vin flipped his empty wallet and moved past them. Josiah winced and tossed a look at Ezra, who just shook his head.

"He looks awful..." Josiah said.

"A punishment for being mortal," Ezra defended, "The barbarians tortured him for five hours, raking up every miniscule infraction of his youth and more. I'm going to try to get some food in him ,then take him home."

"Watch your back, Ezra, you'll disappear too," Buck snarled.

He wasn't far enough away that he didn't hear the awful words and the stinging accent. He wheeled around slowly and for a brief, lingering moment, he saw the flashing 'do not trust' signal in their eyes. A wall of rage built to a deafening roar and he lauched himself at Buck, sending the larger man into a group of seats in the lobby.

"Shut yer fuckin' mouth!" Vin screamed, straddling Buck and raising his fist.

"Go on... it ain't gonna bring them back. Twice you had the bastard two feet away and both times you let him go. Chris and J.D. turn up dead, it's on your head...."

Vin gave an inhuman cry and fought the strong arms that lugged him off Buck.

"Vin, calm down... you're both upset... cut that out..." Josiah warned, grabbing the flailing arms. "Go outside and cool off."

Vin winced and and rocked back on his heels, as an invisible voice began to chant in his head. They didn't believe him... they'd suspected him all along. They don't trust you anymore. He shivered as the inner voice got stronger and eyed the faces of the men near him. The lack of support he know felt nearly took the floor from his feet. He jerked his head and stumbled, nearly running into a group of visitors, as he headed out into the black night.

"Nice work, Buck," Josiah accused, "You don't think he feels bad enough, he's got the F.B.I. making him the top of their most wanted list and he needs you to bully him too?"

"You trying to convince yourself or me, Josiah?" Buck retaliated, "I don't think it's any coincidence that he was there both times. Amnesia? maybe... but it's awfully convenient..."

"Enough!" Ezra shouted, "You're conduct is not only disgraceful but disgusting. Before you sling any more arrows, I'd suggest you look in the mirror," Ezra shoved Buck hard enough to stagger him. "Get out of my sight."

He ran to catch up with Vin, who was pacing by the car. Vin turned as he approached, his blue eyes were practically glowing.

"Get me the fuck outta here..." Vin hissed, "...take me home..."

"Very well." Ezra agreed, unlocking the door.

Ezra stayed until almost ten p.m., waiting until the large bowl of pasta he'd prepared for the silent team member had been consumed. Vin had gone to bed and Ezra did the dishes and waited a good hour before leaving. As soon he heard the engine, Vin's head popped up. He donned his boots and padded into the living room, snatching the keys to his bike. Then he waited, and peeked

outside the window. Sure enough, just up the street were the stakeout team. While Ezra was busy in the kitchen, Vin had been busy too. He'd sat crosslegged in the middle of his bedroom floor and meditated. He heard his grandfather's voice... the strong, deep tone brought him immediate comfort. His words blended with another voice, combining to give him the fuel he needed.

He crept out onto his patio and climbed up the trellis onto the roof. He crawled to the edge of the long row of condo's and then slid down. He glanced behind him and secure in his stance, he let the cloak of darkness guide him. He heard them again, their voices blended, now giving him strength.

"Start at the beginning, Vin," they said.

Vin heeded the call that Chris and Lone Wolf guided him to. The beginning, the day in the file room where he lost all those hours. He find the missing piece of the puzzle and get his friends back.

He stepped up his pace and hoofed it to the garage. It was several miles and he welcomed the breeze and compiled his thoughts as he briskly strode along. He didn't want to be stopped by the security guard. He waited until the retired cop's back was turned and slipped by the gate. He speed quickly to the File Room and used his ID to gain access. He slid the plastic through

the scanner and waited for the green light to blink. A short time later he left dejected, as the room brought back no clues as to what spurned him to call Buck that day. Who had he seen? Why had he been so insistant on telling Buck? He decided to go upstairs to his office and headed for the elevators. He was walking through the garage, when he saw the reflections of taillights on the asphalt. Curious, he walked towards them.

+ + + + + + +

"That's the last crate," Delaney said, stepping out of the Hazardous Waste Vin. The yellow and black containers were ideal hiding places for the deadly cargo. She turned to Kennedy and took the keys from his hand. "Help me lock up and then follow the route outlined. We'll meet in Kansas tomorrow as planned."

"You sure you can handle those two?" He inquired on the sedated pair in the larger van parked several blocks away in an alley.

"Yes, I'll give them enough sweet-dreams juice to last well into tomorrow morning.

"Be careful with Larabee, he's dangerous... don't let him get close..." Kennedy's voice trailed off as he headed towards the freight elevator.

Vin wasn't close enough to hear the voices, but he saw the image in the reflection of the driver's window. The dark eyes... dark hair... he'd seen that face before. He jerked and hissed when an image of a catering van and a driver behind the wheel scorched his brain. This was the kidnapper... was Chris in that van? He edged closer and peered inside. He was about to head for the phone, when something in the corner caught his eye. He eyed the area outside, still quiet in the dark and crawled in the van. He eased through the hazmat containers and bent down, picking up a black object with a gold seven on the side. He flipped it over and saw the gold number 1 on the other side.

"Chris's beeper..." Vin turned to head back out of the rows of boxes and heard voices... close by... right outside. "damn..." he whispered as the door slammed shut and locked, entombing him in darkness. He used his hands to grope along the boxes and along the metal of the panel to the back door. No good, it was locked tight. The motor roared to life and the motion send his body flying. He landed hard against the crates and slid into a sitting position. He kicked himself inwardly for his poor decision. He was armed only with his car keys, nobody knew where he was and he had no idea where he was going. The only light, and a small one at that, was that Chris and J.D. might be there. He rested his head against the wall of the van and eyed the inky darkness. The lull of the motion along with the two days lack of sleep, sent him into a uncomfortable rest.

Part 7

June 28, Kansas

The seemingly endless black ribbon on Interstate Seventy that had been his companion since he left Denver continued to roll out in front of him. His dark eyes caught the sign noting the next exit a half mile ahead. He cast his gaze to the well drawn out map next to him, and followed the directions she'd indicated.

It had been a long night and he'd only had two quick stops for coffee and fast food. As he neared the exit, which was just shy of Topeka, the disc jockey on the classic hits station he'd found announced the hour of eight a.m.

"How the fuck did you find this place?" he murmured, eyeing the deserted stretch of road he'd turned onto. He was driving the black van with new plates, courtesy of a junkyard, bearing the precious cargo she was planning on selling to some raghead contingent from the Middle East. In the refrigerated containers in the back of the van, were a dozen of the deadliest biochemical compounds in creation.

She was driving a small paneled truck, which she'd outfitted herself. The two prisoners were drugged, blindfolded and shackled to walls inside. They were switching cars well south of the dumpy motel she'd found to suit their needs. She spent a lot of time on this campaign, ensuring that each stop was well off the beaten track. The no-tell motels were all dives; painted, peeling pale sisters of the seediest lot.

The plan was to drive at night; stopping over at the list of dives during the day. She would have time to work on her specimens and update her computer. He'd have time to eat, sleep and visit with his favorite centerfolds. After they switched, he was heading to town to a nice big stack of pancakes and a side of sausage. By the time he arrived at the hotel, she'd have the key waiting. The room was as the end of the row, far from the eyes of the proprietor, whom she'd keep occupied while he unloaded the human cargo.

"Right on time..." he murmured, eyeing the large pink flamingo on the long-since-active cafe. It was in the middle of nowhere and he pulled behind the building. She was already walking towards him, when he hit the brakes.

"Let's make it quick, I'm starving." Tony jumped out of the car, dangling the keys.

"In a minute, I need to check the toxins... I want to make sure they're alright."

"They're fine..." he protested and shook his head as she moved in front of him. He eyed the firm backside encased in skin tight blue jeans and wet his lips. She moved to the back and snapped her fingers.

"Yeah, okay..." he moved in front of her and slid the key in the lock.

A door slamming brought the stowaway to his senses. Vin jerked his eyes open and peered into inky blackness. His face was pressed against the floor of a van. He sat up and felt the hard boxes next to him and a tidal wave of memory came back. He'd seen Chris's beeper and the guy from the airport who grabbed J.D. He heard muffled voices and the crunching of gravel beneath boots right outside. He winced as his legs shed the pins and needles of being bent in a small area and he rolled onto his knees, crawling to the back door. He braced himself to spring, intent on lauching himself at the driver. He heard the lock give as the first sliver of light was born.

June 28, Denver

"Talk about a waste of taxpayers money," Tim Wells said, as he and his partner approached Vin Tanner's residence. They were taking the suspended agent to the airport to go over the area of the kidnapping. They approached the surveillance vehicle and tapped on the window.

"You girls didn't wear yourselves out, did you?" he teased, jawing with the overnight crew, while his partner, Charles Davis, rapped on Tanner's door. He was recapping the end of a movie he'd seen the night before, when his partner bellowed.

All three agents ran up the street and to the door, where the irate senior agent stood.

"Something wrong?" Wells asked, Kenny Cooper and Bill Wright were behind him.

"I don't like it..." Davis said, "I've been leaning on the bell for five minutes. Any chance you two missed him leaving?"

"Hell no!" Cooper tossed back, "We'll check out back."

A few minutes later, a red-faced Agent Cooper was unlocking the front door. Davis barged past him, looking through the empty room and hearing the stillness in the house.

"What the fuck happened?" Davis roared, eyeing the two shuffling agents.

"The patio door was unlocked... there's a bootprint in the mud by the trellis... looks like he went topside," Wright nodded to the roof.

"Wells, get on the horn with the rest of his team..." Davis ordered, then turned to the other two, "You two better start praying..." he warned, punching the numbers to Flushing's office. "Yes Sir, I'm here now..." Davis frowned, running a hand through his hair, "When?... No, he slipped out last night... waltzed right past them!" he hissed, glaring at the shamefaced duo. "What's the last signs of life you saw?"

"Standish stayed until eleven... then the lights went out..." Cooper reported.

"Yeah, it fits alright... We'll be right there... Yes Sir, I'll make sure they know to report directely to you." He glared at Cooper and Wright.

"What's up?" Wells paused, having started to dial the ATF office.

"You two assholes really fucked up this time!" Davis roared, "A Hazmat van pulled out around midnight on it's normal run, only it didn't come back this morning at six. Guess who turned up in the garage video, strolling right towards the opened back of the damn thing..." Davis screamed. "I don't hear you!"

"Tanner?" Wright cringed.

"No, Sleepin' fuckin' Beauty!" He ranted, jabbing Cooper in the chest. "You take shit-for-brains and get downtown. Flushing wants to see you ASAP."

"Yes Sir..." they mumbled, easing out the door.

"It's ringing..." Wells handed the phone to his partner.

The air in the team seven office would have been frosty, even if the air conditioner wasn't blasting. Josiah and Ezra had both been in early, hoping to get an early start on what both suspected would be a long day. Flushing had left a message on Ezra's voicemail when he got hime, stating that Vin would be picked up by the Davis and Wells in the morning and taken right to the airport. The southerner glanced at Buck's vacant desk and felt his face flush in anger. He knew Buck was torn up with guilt over J.D.'s and Chris's attack. But to take out the frustrations on Vin was unmerited. He was passing the printer, when the phone on Josiah's desk rang. He saw the senior agent's hand cover his face and the gray head shaking. He moved quickly to the side of the desk, just as the ex-minister's face became visible again.

"No, Sir, I haven't seen him or talked to him. Yes, Standish... I don't know about Buck. Hold on..." Josiah covered the mouthpiece and drew his lips into a grim line. "When's the last time you talked to Vin?"

"Last night... just after ten, he was exhausted. I sent him to bed, cleaned up the kitchen, waited for an hour or so, then departed. What's happened?"

"It ain't good..." Josiah shook his head. "Ezra left his place around eleven... I'll call him now." Josiah stood. "I understand... yes... we'll meet you down there." Josiah sat the phone onto the cradle and moved away, picking up the photo on his desk of Vin and J.D., in all their hockey regalia. He shook his gray head as his eyes lingered on the soft-spoken Texan. "What the hell did you get yourself into, Son?"

"Am I in the room?" Ezra's frustrated tone broke Sanchez's daze.

"Vin slipped out after you left, they got him on video downstairs around midnight. They claim he stole a Hazmat van and took off."

"That's preposterous!"

"Not to Flushing it ain't... he claims they got Vin dead to rights..." he punched Buck's number on the phone.

Buck flipped his badge to the security guard and drove ahead. He was running late and despite oversleeping, he was tired. He'd met Jamie at The Cruise Room in the Oxford Hotel. The Sinatra-esque lounge was a favorite of hers and they'd been there several times. He was in a foul mood when she called. He'd just left the hospital and was spitting nails at Vin Tanner, when she got him on his cell phone. She said she had to fly to London on unexpected business in the morning, and would be gone for over a week. So he met her and over a few beers, he let the steam pour out. He was just turning the corner of level three, when his phone rang.

"Wilmington..." Buck screeched to a halt in the first spot he came to and jumped from his car. "No ... I haven't talked to him... what!" Buck slammed his fist on the roof of the car. "Goddammit! I knew it... Don't you tell me to calm down, Josiah. Shit... Yeah, I'll see you there."

His face was still flushed with anger when he met his teammates at bottom level. He saw Flushing waving to him from the security office and didn't waste his steps. Ezra and Josiah were somber and Buck gave them a quick glance, before eyeing the monitor.

"Roll it..." Flushing ordered. "This is from the street camera..."

The digital readout read 12:01:38 a.m. when the unmistakable image of Vin Tanner strode past the empty spaces where cars usually parked. He walked directly past the camera in long strides, and was lost from view.

"This is from the camera at the loading dock..." Flushing nodded. "That's the missing hazardous material transport van. It was due back by six a.m. We have an APB out on Tanner and the van."

The digital readout showed 12:04:58 a.m. and was an obstructed angle of the side of a large black van. A good part of the screen was obscured.

"What's wrong with the picture?" Josiah asked.

"It should be a clear shot," the security guard said. "But the beam it's planted on is a common roadway for rats. It clears up later... the rat moved on I guess..."

"There..." Flushing pointed, as Vin's profile is seen briefly at the foot of the screen. He peers inside before entering the van. A few minutes later, a man's arm, appears at the bottom of the screen, shutting the door. The van then moves out.

"That's your proof!" Ezra growled, "He could have been forced..."

"...and I could be Bill Gates..." Flushed shot back, "The last shot..." he nodded and a view of the van from street level was seen of a single driver behind the wheel. "There's barely enough room in the back on those for a small person to manuever. It's full of refrigerated hazmat cargo bins. No way somebody was inside waving a gun at him."

"Who was the pickup for?" Ezra inquired.

"The van in question was used to transport hazardous material from labs and hospitals around town. We're checking on it's normal trip sheet, but I'll bet we got all no-shows." Flushing reported.

Ezra noted Buck's change of demeanor. Since watching the footage Vin disappearing into the van, he'd gone stone cold silent. His brows were furrowed in thought over stormy blue eyes and he was biting the corner of his lip. As they walked back to the elevator, the normal parade of cars were lined up; a line of federal employees readying themselves for the new day. Once they were alone in the elevator, Ezra spoke.

"I hope your brooding demeanor means that you've come to your senses."

"It don't feel right," Buck returned somberly. "I shot my mouth off last night... hell, I didn't mean half of that shit."

"A pity Mr. Tanner might never hear those words."

"Thanks Ezra," Buck's voice was clipped.

"End of Round Two..." Josiah moved between them. "The important this is to find them or figure out where they're headed."

"What's troubling you?" Ezra continued to press the puzzled Wilmington face.

"What was Vin doing here at the hour?" Buck shook his head. "..and why did he climb in the back of that van. That ain't like him..."

"If they called him, the FBI would have it on tape..." Josiah exited the box and led the way to their office. "Unless he remembered something..."

"Okay, I'll buy that he could have gone to sleep and something came back to him," Buck agreed, picking up his coffee mug, "But climbing into the van..."

"He was staring down..." Ezra suddenly stopped, "He saw something..."

"Chris or J.D." Josiah squinted in thought.

"No," Buck denied, "he would have reacted differently, he'd have been more animiated."

"Perhaps proof of their whereabouts?" Ezra suggested and the others nodded. They stood in Chris's office, eyeing the busy morning traffic. Despite the brilliant sunshine, a day never dawned so gloomy.

Back in Kansas...

"Ugh!" Tony grunted as a solid force shoved the heavy metal door into his chest. The resulting impact send him sprawling onto the ground. A blur of motion and a combination of solid kicks and head blows told him his opponent was a black belt. Just as suddenly, the whirlwind was stopped when Delaney clubbed him with a small crow bar from the back of the van.

"Tanner!" she shrieked turning the body over. "How the hell did he get in there!"

"The 'how' isn't important now..." Kennedy concluded, spitting a wad of blood from his mouth and coughing. "Here, I'll do him..." He waved for the gun and saw the crazy light appear in her eyes.

"Aw shit..." he murmured, kicking up the pebbles by his feet. She cupped his chin in her hand and studied his face.

"No," she tapped the handsome face and stood up, "You're correct in your assumption that he is expendable, but not now. Buck told me last night that Tanner's high on the F.B.I's suspect list. No doubt this will only add fuel to their fire. There's a gas station on the way to town.... I think a stop in necessary." She prodded his chest with her toe, "Put him in the front seat..."

Ten minutes later, Vin Tanner was strapped securely in the passenger's seat, which was reclined slightly. He wore dark sunglasses and an empty can of Pepsi rested in his hand, which was near his lap.

"Perfect," she rolled down the window and shut the door. "Make sure you pull up close to the entrance where the gas jockey will see him... and the Hazmat markings on the door."

"That's playing with fire." Kennedy shook his head, "We got away clean, they don't know where we are. You're giving them a roadmap."

"Not if we play our cards right. Pick up a map inside from... uh... Georgia. Study it carefully, walk over and discuss it with Tanner. Just low enough for Goober to pick up on it."

"...and give Barney Fife a description of me?" Kennedy shook his head. "That's great..."

"No, of Tanner..." She pointed to the baseball cap lying on the floor near the stunned agent's feet. "Pull that on... use your glasses. You look like a million other strangers, besides he won't notice you, you'll have your back to him. Take care of it... I'll see you at the motel. I'll leave the van around the side, near the end unit. You can unload Larabee and Dunne while I'll chat with the owner."

+ + + + + + +

An hour later she pulled into the hotel, eyeing the road. She saw the van in the distance and pulled in at the end of the row. She unlocked the back and stepped inside, watching the two prisoner's turn away from the abusive sunlight.

"Like rats in the bowels of a ship..." she laughed watching the blond giving her a feral look. "Ah... the dangerous one, yes... the brooding team leader..." she stared back just as boldly, running a hand up the expensive, fitted dark pants. "...pity, we could have had such fun..."

Chris curled his lip up in disgust, "...you'll make somebody a nice toy in the Federal pen..."

"Prison?" She tossed her head back and laughed, "By the time those bumbling fools figure out what's going on, I'll be out of this insipid dustbowl of a country for good."

European accent but not a native... 'for good'... she's been here before. Chris added up the clues and gaged her age to be a little younger than him. Lean, almost athletic, takes care of herself, expensive clothes, boots, smart... killer eyes... no remorse. He shifted his disinterested gaze to J.D. who was staring wide-eyed as she approached him.

"Young Mr. Dunne... the team boy wonder..." she rested her hand on his face and he spit at her, earning a sharp slap. "You need to be taught some manners..."

"Buck's gonna kill you... You never get away with this..." J.D. moved away from the mad woman. "He'll find you..."

"Oh but I'm counting on that," she stood, "What fun are fireworks without an audience?"

Fireworks... fourth of July... how much time had passed... where were they... Chris ran a new list of questions through his head. She stopped again in front of him, resting a hand on his face.

"You're a very attractive man, Mr. Larabee. Dare I say virile and full of stamina?" she tapped the sneering face. "Perhaps... but I doubt if you could match Buck... now that man knows how to please a woman."

Chris's expression didn't change but J.D. looked like he was about to lose the contents of his stomach. He stared hard at the kid until he swallowed his fear, tossing the dark head back again.

"Woman?" Chris grunted eyeing her with disgust, then chuckling. He saw the pretty face grow cold and a small tic in her lip. Good... that got to her. She left them again, shutting the doors.

"Chris... You don't think Buck... I mean... he couldn't..."

"He could and he did..." Chris recalled Buck's bragging about the 'most beautiful creature God ever created'. "Jamie..." he recalled Buck's story. She worked in the Federal Building which gave her access and she was a chemist.

They weren't in the dark long when the door opened again and a large male entered. He grabbed J.D.'s head and forced it back, holding a knife and whispering in J.D's ear. "Listen up, Kid... you try anything, I mean you so much as sneeze, and I'll cut you're friend. Lots of little cuts... just painful enough to be bothersome... and scar that pretty face of his... comprehende?"

"Yeah..." J.D. growled, rubbing his wrists as shuffled along. It was a small, clean motel room. Kennedy forced him towards the bathroom.

"Hurry up, I ain't got all day..."

The smell of breakfast hit him hard, he eyed the coffee, hot sandwiches and cookies on the table. He exited the bathroom as Chris hobbled by. His eyes darted toward the body behind the leader, but Chris shook his head just slightly.

"Not now..." he mouthed to J.D. Not with a knife pressed in his back. The newspaper lying on the bed told him they had time... several days worth. He'd come up with a plan... right now they had to stay cool. They each had one hand shackled to the underside of the bed. Once the meal was completed, they were cuffed securely again.

Kennedy disappeared and returned, nudging the door open with his foot.

"You boys don't mind sharing, do you?" He grunted, dropping the body he'd slung over his shoulder.

"Vin!" Chris bolted, testing the bonds of the shackles, straining to reach his dazed friend. Vin remained on his hands and knees, breathing heavily.

"So that's how it is, huh?" Kennedy laughed, seeing the look in the green eyes from the tiger on the bed. "Pretty Boy here is your Achilles heel?" He knelt down and jerked the matted hair up, watching the blue eyes blink stuperously. "Welcome back fuck-face..." he backhanded Vin sharply, sending him crashing to the floor.

"Don't fuckin' touch him..." Chris growled, watching the boot being brought back for a kick.

"Or what?" Kennedy goaded. "What are you gonna do about it?"

"You take this cuffs off and I'll show what the fuck I can do." Chris's voice remained low and he saw a flick of fear in his keeper's eyes.

"Sorry, I got orders to keep you two intact until showtime." Kennedy recovered from the unnerving green glare. He knelt down in front of the curled up body and jerked him up by the hair again, causing a small yelp. "But Pretty Boy here, him I can play with... just can't mark that pretty face."

Vin saw only splashes of color in the blackness. Voices were around him, close by, cutting and hurtful, like the hand that stuck him. His head was pounding and his stomach lurching with every breath he took. He was hot and his shirt was sticking to him... Lord but he was thirsty.

"Water..." he thought aloud, dreaming of a icy cold glass of the life sustaining beverage.

"He speaks..." Kennedy hauled the body up again, by the hair. "You ain't movin' so good now... where's them fancy blackbelt moves... huh..." he punched Vin in the stomach, toppling him forward onto his chest. Kennedy laughed and hauled him back, listening to the stream of threats coming from both Dunne and Larabee. He eyed the roll of silver tape and decided it was time to shut them up again. Before he could react, a stream of vomit hit him in the chest.

"Bad timing, Vin..." Chris flinched, watching the Vin trying to curl up again.

"Shit... you fuckin' dog... you did that on purpose..." He kicked Vin hard in the stomach.

"Mister, you just made the worst mistake of your short, pathetic life..." Chris vowed straining against his bonds, as the door flew open.

"Stop it!" Delaney moved in and placed both hands up. "I warned you about your temper. Get him next door."

"He's hurt," Chris leveled, adding up the mental clues again about them needing Vin's face. "He's needs looking to..."

"Alright," she agreed, "But know this, Dunne remains in here alone with Mr. Kennedy. You try anything and he'll pay the price."

"Do I look crazy to you?" Chris screwed his face up. He saw Kennedy move by and over towards J.D. He slapped a piece of tape over the youth's mouth and shackled his legs. J.D.'s eyes were like saucers and Chris nodded once, assuring him of their safety. She unlocked the manacle and he slid off the bed, dropping to Vin's side.

"Vin, you with me?" Chris pulled him upright and tapped his face. The blue eyes blinked at him without consent. His limber fingers gently probed the back of Vin's head until they found a small lump. Vin tensed up and buckled his body, hissing as the fingers hit the tender spot. "Easy... sorry... Come on..."

That voice managed to penetrate the darkness, cutting through the colors that danced in his dazed world. He felt the strong arms lift him and relaxed as the voice calmed him. He trusted the voice and his fear eased up. He stumbled along... as the voice guided him... and then he felt a soft bed.

"That's it..." Chris eased him against the backboard of the room next store. While he filled the ice bucket with water and got a towel to clean Vin up, he noted the laptop on and the binders of data nearby. What the hell was she planning? He saw the two crates plugged into the wall. Something had to stay cold... He moved next to Vin, whose eyes were slits against a pale face. He wiped the vomit away and got Vin to rinse his mouth.

Vin frowned when the order to spit came. He must have gotten hit hard into the boards... got his bell rung good.

"Did we win? Who fuckin' hit me? What... number... he... was..."

"Damn..." Chris sighed, realizing Vin was really confused, thinking he was in between periods of a hockey game. He lifted a glass of water and supported Vin's head. "Come on, Cowboy, drink for me..." he nudged the slack lips.

Cowboy? Vin blinked hard and struggled to open his eyes wide, trying to make the colors go away. Cowboy? Images of a gun... an elevator... pain in his eyes... Chris was missing... Chris... Cowboy.

"...rissss..." he slurred, hand groping and catching the cuff of a shirt.

"Right here, Vin. That hard head of yours got another dent in it..."

"...no tell Nate... he'll... he'll holler..."

"Okay..." Chris smiled, watching the brows furrow. Then the eyes shot open and Vin gasped. Suddenly, Chris realized the clouds parted. Vin's hand gripped his wrist and the eyes were frantic, going around the strange room. He met Vin's gaze and shook his head. "You just take it easy, you hurt your head." he warned, silently advising Vin to play the game. "Lean forward, so I can get a look..."

Vin slid forward, resting his aching head against Chris. The blond kept his lips near Vin's ear and whispered. He heard her rustle the paper bag the food was in and took advantage. "Near as I can tell, were in Kansas... near Missiouri." he recalled of the town printed on the back of the fire escape map on the back of the bathroom door. "We got time yet... she's planning something for the 4th... J.D.'s holding up good. Don't piss that guy off... " he waited and felt the head nod. "Good... you okay?"

"...been a long fuckin' week..." Vin hissed and felt Chris pat his back as she came closer.

"That's enough playing doctor," she motioned. "Times up..." she cuffed Vin's wrists behind his back and he rolled over on the bed, breathing heavily. She secured his feet and tied a blindfold over his eyes. She had work to do and didn't need him watching. She knocked on the wall and Kennedy reappeared, shoving Chris hard through the connecting door.

Chris eyes bore into J.D., the youth nodded, letting him know he was okay.

"Vin's groggy... but he'll be okay..." He said, before the tape was slapped on his mouth. Kennedy secured him to the radiator, before blindfolding him. He laid against the carpet, in the dark, adding up the clues and trying to devise a plan. The hours inched by and he dozed off... waking when he was jerked upright and shoved into the bathroom. The cuffs were taken off and he rubbed his sore wrists.

"You got five minutes... we're headin' out..." Kennedy said.

While he waited for J.D. to get done, he ate the sandwich and cookies he was given. It was dark outside and they were once again entombed in the back of the truck. The motor sounded and the motion of the road along with the sedative in the food sent the two prisoners into darkness. As Chris fought to stay awake, he wondered how Vin was holding up and hoped that somehow the Calvary would come.

June 30th, ten p.m.

Jamie Cameron Newlander was her father's daughter. She looked like him, thought like him and still felt the pain of that awful day when he'd taken his own life. Delassi and Wilmington put the gun in his hand, with their testimony. James Cameron Newlander was only forty-five when he took his own life. The awful lies in the paper that labeled her father... lies spewed by Buck Wilmington in the courtroom. Twenty years he'd worn that badge and in a few short weeks with burning words, Buck Wilmington had taken that away. Her father wasn't dirty. He'd been undercover for the F.B.I. and working with the very group Buck Wilmington was trying to bring down. She clenched her eyes closed still seeing how he aged that day... the burning image of him being led away in handcuffs... the shot from the back of the house... his blood pouring over the very image of himself in handcuffs on the newspaper under what remained of his face.

"Damn you, Buck Wilmington..." she raged, flinging a fist at the Indiana sky. Larabee was secured in the truck and Kennedy had taken Dunne and Tanner with him. She eyed her watch and waited, wondering how that phase of the plan was going.

June 30th 10 p.m., Clarksville, Tennesee

"Pay attention, Pretty Boy," Kennedy thwacked Vin Tanner in the head and smiled as the eyes blazed in fury and a boot lanced out, nearly hitting him. "Temper... temper..."

They were just outside town, the summer sky was starless and the air thick. The new wheels were parked just behind the leering guard. It was an old white van, just beat up enough not to attract attention. The deadly toxins that Delaney was selling to the small, middle-eastern country were safety tucked away in a portable refrigeration unit with her in Indiana. He grinned at the red marks scoring Tanner's wrists were the ropes cut into his flesh. Dunne was in the back of the new van, trussed up and scowling. He grabbed the back of Tanner's shirt and shoved his face into the back of the van.

Vin saw J.D.'s large eyes glaring in fury at the guard. His muffled cries of anger and the jerking motions of his body, only made the guard laugh.

"I'll tell you what, the kid had some fire in 'im..." Kennedy put a stronger choke hold on Vin. "You understand this... you do exactly what I told you. You pull in, get gas, make sure Goober gets a good look at you and you pull out. I hear so much as one wrong word... or see you as much as sneeze the wrong way... Dunne gets a bone broken or maybe a knife slash or both. You're not back here on the minute, he gets it."

Vin locked eyes with J.D. and hoped the kid would contain his temper. If they planned on escaping, he wanted them both in one piece. He was jerked back and shoved hard into the side of the van.

"Understand this, ya maggot... ya hurt that kid and I'll fuckin' cut yer balls off... " Vin snarled, eyes hot.

"You fuck this up and I'll snap his wrist like a twig... for beginners." Kennedy countered, slamming his fist against the door. "Eighteen years in prison learns a man a thing or two about pain... and humiliation."

Vin's head shot up at the veiled threat and he saw a dangerous smile on Kennedy's face.

"He's a real pretty kid... bet he's got a nice, tight ass..."

Vin rammed his head into Kennedy's stomach and sent the larger man hard into the van. A solid fist to his gut took his air away and already off balance, he fell hard to the ground. He looked up dizzily as the van opened and Kennedy stormed inside. The large body blocked the view but Vin winced when J.D.'s muffled scream pierced the night air. He managed to get up and stagger to the van, watching Dunne write on the floor, curled up. From the angle it was either a kick to the groin or the ribs. Either way, a very painful delivery.

"Kid..." Vin gasped, and saw the dark head nod.

"No more warnings... next time I'll make him scream..." Kennedy slammed the door and shoved Vin forward, towards the Hazmat van. The prisoner had nothing on him but the keys and the interior was bare. He sliced Vin's ropes and eyed the road. "That little action cost you, you're two minutes behind. You're not outta that station by ten-seventeen exactly, I snap his wrist or worse."

The plan was easy enough. The local news station did a live remote weather broadcast from spots around town. On Friday nights, it was from the diner right next to the gas station. The Hazmat van and Vin Tanner would be clearly captured on camera. The entire trip should only take fifteen minutes. The pin on his collar was a microphone and Kennedy would be watching in the dark... with J.D. at his mercy.

Vin pulled into the gas station and jumped out. He pulled the ten dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to the bored attendant. He picked up the nozzle and began to pump the gas. He couldn't see a clock and began to get nervous. He skirted around the truck and saw the clock on the wall, well past ten fifteen.

"Shit..." he spun around and headed back to the pump.

"That feller's awful nervous..." Slim Wakins commented from inside the station. He came every night to keep his friend Bart Rowland company. "Hey, I seen that truck..."

"Yeah... he's jumpy alright..." Bart stared hard at the stranger.

Meanwhile across the street, Connie Summerfield was giving the weather highlights. Just behind her, captured by the camera, was a nervous young man pumping gas into a black van. The cameraman noticed the van and closed in, capturing the anxious, long-haired man who was in a hurry.

"Billy, what is it?" Connie asked.

"Maybe nothing... but there's something not quite right about that guy..."

"Get the plate..." She directed as the van pulled away from the lights of the station and into the darkness.

"Too bad for you kid, Pretty Boy fucked up... he's late..." Kennedy laughed and watched Tanner fumbling with the door and jumping in the car. He flipped off the small television and sighed. The gas station was at the end of town and he was parked on a deserted road in the darkness. He got out of the van and unlocked the back, hauling the fiesty kid up by the collar. He threw him outside and kicked him hard, smiling as a rib cracked. He untied the groggy victim's hands and pulled the wrist up.

Vin watched in horror as J.D. was thrown out of the car and kicked. He pulled up and threw himself out of the van and at Kennedy, just before damage was done to J.D.'s wrist.

"Get offa 'im... I done it..." Vin sailed into the larger body, sending them both to the ground. He got in a few good shots, before Kennedy put a choke hold on him, rendering him unconscious.

J.D. felt like his chest was on fire, the pain seared into him. Through watery eyes, he watched Vin fight and he panicked when he saw the Texan slump motionless.

"Don't get your bowels in an uproar, Kid, he's not dead... yet." the guard laughed, tossing Vin like a ragdoll into the van. He tied his hands and feet, then loaded the struggling youth inside.

J.D. winced as the door slammed, sending them into darkness. He rubbed his face against the floor until the gag worked free. He coughed several times and laid back, sucking in air and running his tongue over his dry mouth.

"Vin... Vin..." J.D. coughed hoarsly, nudging the sharpshooter's leg with his bound feet. He kept calling to Vin until a soft moan answered him. "You okay?"

"...never better..." Vin hissed worming his body upright and leaning against the wall of the van. "How bad ya hurt?"

"Cracked a rib... hurts like hell." J.D. grunted.

"...I'm sorry, J.D...."

"'s'okay, Vin..." J.D. relayed. "Buck's gonna kill that guy. What are they after, Vin?"

"He slipped up," Vin recalled, "...said he was away fer eighteen years... must have been one of Buck's first takedowns."

"But he didn't know Chris then..." J.D. bit his lip, not wanting Vin to hear the pain in his voice. His injured side was on fire.

"It ain't about Chris... they're usin' y'all... t'hurt Buck... he's hired help... she's the brains..."

"Who is she Vin?"

"I ain't sure..." Vin paused as a blurry image in his memory fought to be born. "But I know I seen her... the train..." he jammed his eyes shut. "She found me that day..."

"Planted you there, too..."

"Yeah... shit..." Vin sank back, recalling the lost hours and the fact she worked for the FDA. What had she done to him? Would she hurt Chris? He wondered about his missing friend and the veiled clues to the showdown on the 4th of July.

While the captives discussed their fate, the guard drove the hazmat down a steep ravine, well hidden. He jogged back to the new van and slid behind the wheel. He pulled out the cell phone and punched in the numbers.

"Yes?" Delaney jumped when the phone rang.

"Mission accomplished."

"...and..."

"Went down just like you said... they did a close up of Tanner and the van on the weather broadcast..."

"Excellent!" She smiled, "I'll see you tomorrow afternoon. Don't get lost and for heaven's sake, don't attract a state trooper. I can't afford you to be late... I'll need Tanner for the presentation tomorrow evening."

"Don't worry... your guinea pig will arrive fine. I'm gonna chow down and get some shut eye. I'll be there by three at the latest. I can already smell that salt air..." he recalled of the oceanside community.

"Spare me the poetics..." She complained, shutting the phone off. The sedative she'd injected Larabee with would keep him sleeping into the new day. It was almost midnight when she finally decided to get some sleep. Deciding against the hotel, she slept on a blanket in the back of the truck. The small travel alarm would wake her before dawn. Tomorrow began the countdown to victory. First, part one of the demonstration for the buyers. Then the video message for Wilmington. The sight needed to be prepared for his arrival. After he got his heart broken by watching the evening in hell with his two best friends, he'd be blown to kingdom come, in a shower of red, white an blue rockets.

"I've got a yankee doodle sweetheart..." she sang, laughing as she relished her plan.

July 1st

Sweat clung to every feature of his face and every inch of his body. His chest was heaving and his sides ached, yet he pressed onward. The gun was slipping, as sweat loosened the grip. He shifted hands and dried his right hand off, before switching back. He continued to run, following a haphazard trail through the woods. In the distance, he heard the dogs barking as the state troopers lent a hand.

It was dark and he fought hard to see... woods... trees... movement ahead... a small clearing... a body... a body? He dropped to his knees and his stomach lurched, his gut was ripped open and he unfurled a silent scream of unbridled agony. He gripped J.D.'s lifeless body against him, running his hand through the tangled, dark hair. The youth's flesh was bruised and distorted, almost unrecognizable. Long slashes from a knife made crooked paths across his torso and legs. Several bullet holes riddled his spent frame. Movement again... a figure between the trees... he laid J.D. down and closed his unseeing eyes. He rested his hand on the lifeless shoulder for a second, before moving on. He fired, he heard a grunt of pain, the figure moved onward... he followed... twigs snapped... an owl hooted... sweat poured freely now... he jerked his head and fired again. A thud... he moved forward, heart beating wildly... he turned slightly and saw the uniforms and bodies of the others circling in.

They'd trapped him... he crept forward... raising his arm in a warning. Another clearing... another body... blond hair, lifeless green eyes... he growled and tore forward... drawing his gun and firing at the figure over the body. The others fired with him... too late... too late... too late... his brain chastized. The figure jerked and spun, eyes large and stunned... drilling into his. Blood poured from several wounds, he fell to his knees and Buck dropped his gun in horror and shame. Too late... too late... too late... he realized his mistake. The bloodied arm reached out to him, blue eyes imploring, the mouth opened forming his name and a river of blood shot forth.

"NO! VIN! VIN!" Buck screamed, as the body toppled forward.

He was on the floor of his bedroom, the sheets tangled around him. The clock, phone and an old paperback book, all were on the floor with him, swept off the nightstand in a blind rage. He sat back against the bed and used the end of the sheet to wipe his sweating face. His arms were trembling badly and it took him five minutes to regain composure. The red glowing numbers on the clock read five a.m. A nightmare again... worse this time. The others ended with him finding J.D., this time he'd killed a friend. Absentmindedly, he wiped his hands on the sheet, as if Vin's innocent blood still stained them. He stumbled into the bathroom and jumped into a cold shower, mentally punishing himself for his unconscious actions. What if the dream played out? What if Vin died? Oh, it wouldn't be him that pulled the trigger, but he'd be just as guilty. How could he have been so blind? What if his stupidity led to J.D. or Chris's death? He shaved and got dressed, the phone rang and he found it among the sheets on the floor.

"Yeah..."

"Buck, we got a lead..."

"When? where?" His attention was now drawn to Josiah's voice.

"A gas station outside Topeka. A couple days ago a truck pulled in, the old man that runs the place identified Vin as a passenger. It was the Hazmat van... he described it to a tee.

"Passenger? You sure?"

"He claims some big guy came in, bought a soda and some gas. Then, he took a map of Georgia outside, talked to Vin... they pulled out and headed south."

"A couple days... why'd he come forward now?"

"You didn't see the morning news?"

"No..." Buck froze, something in Josiah's voice gripped him. "They're not dead?"

"No, but it don't look good for Vin... CNN will probably show it again."

"Hold on..." Buck crossed his large bedroom and flipped on the color television in the corner. He found CNN and sat on the edge of the bed as a reporter walked down the center of a small town.

He pushed up the volume as the young man began to speak.

"...just after ten p.m. according to witnesses. He pulled in there," the reporter's arm pointed to an area where several cars were now parked. Buck recognized the suits with notepads... F.B.I. agents on the scene. "...reported that he was very nervous, sweating and anxious to leave. The van was stolen several days ago from the Federal Building in Denver, Colorado and is believed to be connected to the kidnapping of two A.T.F. agents, Chris Larabee and John Dunne."

"Jesus," Buck sighed and raked his unruly dark hair. Chris's and J.D.'s likenesses were shown. Then an image of Vin came on. The split screen showed a sketch on the left and a photo on the right. They were identical. He tried to concentrate on the voice of the reporter.

"...Tanner the F.B.I.'s leading suspect. The drawing was taken from a witness who saw him in the van in Kansas two days ago. The photo was positively identified by the owner of this gas station, here in Clarksville, Tennessee. His motive for this horrendous crime is not known at this time, but drugs have not been ruled out as playing a role in his downfall. The once highly decorated agent..."

"Fuckin' load of shit..." Buck screamed, turning the television off. "Where does he get off spoutin' rumors about Vin bein' on drugs. Goddammit..."

"Calm down Buck and get down here... Ezra's on his way. I think we need to talk to Orin."

"You'd get further spittin' in to the wind," Buck lamented. "But I guess we gotta try..."

"We'll meet you in an hour at his office." Josiah hung the phone up and punched the off button on the television in the team seven conference room. He refilled his coffee and froze when he passed Vin Tanner's desk. He sat down and eyed the neat work area. A miniature Stanley cup sat next his nameplate. Several small hockey figures bearing sticks were next to it. Several small cacti were in an oval piece of pottery. A small, terra cotta wolf wearing a turquiose kerchief sat ontop of his computer. He eyed the two photo's on Vin's desk. He picked up the first one, sipped his coffee and smiled. It was of a pretty young girl, an undersized boy of about five, with large blue eyes and unruly light brown curls and man with an army uniform on and wearing Vin Tanner's face and unmistakeable smile. It was the last photo Vin had of the three of them, taken by his grandfather right before his mother died.

The other photo was snapped by Ezra after a rare, hostile Tanner-Larabee argument. It had been over a procedure that Vin broke in obtaining information about the owner of several bars that were feeding liquor to minors. The argument had been loud and nasty and shortly after Vin joined the team, still getting his feet wet. Ezra took the still from the video J.D. got from the van and gave it to Vin. The two profiles were equal in intensity; both grim faces, unsmiling and tense, inches apart, eyes dueling fire. Vin treasured the photo, which as Ezra had seen right off, reflected Vin's twin role as Chris's friend and team leader Larabee's agent.

Josiah sighed and felt a pang of pain as he looked around the empty office, which suddenly seemed cavernous. He could hear the ghosts of J.D.'s bantering with Buck, the amused look from Vin or single word that could cut Ezra to size, Chris in the doorway, shaking his head as his band of merry men.

"Like a tomb..."

"Hey Ezra..." Josiah looked up, replacing the photo and eyeing the single, small sign hanging on the fabric walls above Vin's desk. It was the first thing Vin hung up the day he first sat at the desk.

"A memorable quote..." Ezra smiled painfully, seeing a mental image of the mischievous Texan grinning beneath it.

"Yeah..." Josiah agreed. He recalled that day, as they watched Vin unpack his few things. A large coffee mug, the pictures and the sign. Buck took one look at the sign and clapped Vin on the back, exclaiming 'that's pure genius, Son...' Vin blushed, not used to physical contact or the gregarious Wilmington nature.

"Life's too short to eat bad pizza..." Josiah read, toasting the Texan with his coffee mug. He deposited it at his desk and followed Standish to the elevators.

July 1, noon, on the Atlantic seaboard

It was the same, yet it was different. The years melted away and she watched a very young girl barely eighteen and just graduated from high school, walk along the golden shore. The lazy blue waves rolled in, bringing so much hope... so much promise... a future in medicine. Then a black storm cloud arrived over the ocean and an angry wind blew up. The soft sand turned coarse and bitter, dancing around her and stinging her eyes. A shot rang out... the blue ocean turned blood red and her father's corpse washed up. She screamed and saw one face appear in the dark cloud, the teeth bared in a nasty smile.

She clenched her eyes shut and pushed the hatred down along with Wilmington's garish likeness. She was close... so close she could taste it. She took several deep breaths and let the sounds of the current day appear again. Children laughed and played at the surf's edge, blankets and colorful umbrella's dotted the crowded beach, bodies of every shape and size milled about, laughing and talking. Radios played, kites flew, rafts crested the fiesty ocean and Jamie Cameron Newlander had come home.

"Soon father..." she whispered, turning from the tourist mecca and following the sandy road back to the private stretch of land. The walk allowed her to clear her head; the next few days would be busy. The Iranians had arrived already and were at a nearby hotel. She would meet with them for dinner and then bring them to the compound for the eight p.m. demonstration. A thrill ran through her, giving her tingles all over. The final culmination of years of research and dozens of failed tests were now nestled safely at the compound. They waited for the first human subject to arrive from the south. Vin Tanner didn't know it yet, but he was going to make her rich... filthy rich. She laughed and punched the access code into the gate. She followed the path up to the large building, swallowing the bittertaste that the past brought back. She'd bought the warehouse years ago and spent a fortune renovating it. She saw the old truck parked next to the building and the countdown began.

"Thomas Wolfe was wrong..." she mused, "You can come home again... to die..." she thought of the mustached agent.

Earlier that morning in Denver

"No."

It was only one word, spoken softly but the power of it's path bounced off the immaculate walls and floors of the large office. Two of the men on the southside of the gleaming desk sat silent, the third rebelled, rising and redfaced.

"What do you mean 'no'... half our team is missing... you can't expect us to sit around and wait for those bastards to..."

Buck Wilmington's speech was cut short but a revisiting of the word.

"No," Orin Travis repeated, wiping his glasses before replacing them. He knew the frustration they felt and hadn't slept well either. He'd seen the morning news and had a meeting with the F.B.I. shortly to discuss the situation at hand. "I sympathize with your plight, Buck, but the answer remains the same. You were hired to do a job; to serve that badge... as an agent of the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms. You're juggling three cases now," he bristled, eyeing the solemn faces on Sanchez and Standish. "Do you think Carl Formassi will wait while you shirk you responsibilities?" he noted of the arms dealer they were seeking out.

"My responsibility is to my team. They're out there somewhere and I'm not gonna sit around here while they're missing."

"Your responsibility is to that badge!" Orin snapped. "You're not Superman or Batman... you cannot just drop your duties and go storming across the country," he strode around the desk to eye the irate agent face to face. "Believe it or not, there are a large number of well trained Federal Agents working for the F.B.I whose job is to find the missing agents."

"The missing agents!" Buck barked, gripping both hands into fists, "Is that all they are to you?"

"Of course not!" Orin growled, "Don't you dare take that tone of voice with me. I've known Tanner and Dunne as long as you; I've known Chris for sixteen years..." he paused, turned toward the window and took several breaths to regain his composure.

"With all due respect, Orin," Josiah spoke quietly, "We got less than half a team. How are we supposed to set up the Formassi deal? The Arson case and that outfit selling guns to kids on the southside are one thing, but..." he noted of their most pressing cases.

"I'm aware of that." Orin turned back, "But I need Ezra and Buck to meet with Formassi. We've been pulling him in for months. After I meet with Director Flushing," he noted of the F.B.I agent, "I'm stopping down to see Mike Ryan... they've wrapped their two cases and have some spare time and bodies," he said of the efficient team four group. "You've been temporarily assigned to Mike's group."

"Very well," Ezra nodded. He knew Orin was right, but it didn't make them feel any better. The phone rang before they got a chance to argue any further. Josiah stood by Buck, resting a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. He felt the tension and saw the dark circles.

"Still fightin' demons?"

"Yeah..." Buck managed, flicking painfully as the dream resurfaced. "This one was worse... not only are J.D. and Chris mutilated, but Vin's there... reaching out to me and I gun him down..." he bit off the rest and exhaled sharply as the preacher's hand clamped hard on his shoulder.

"When?" Orin asked and nodded, picking up his remote and flipping the television on. CNN sprung to life and the three agents crossed the room to get a better view. "I'm on my way. They found the Hazmat truck," the director stated, putting his suitcoat on.

"Where?" Ezra asked.

"Just south of Clarksville..."

"It was too hot to handle," Josiah noted, thinking of Vin's likeness on the news from the night before.

"Tanner's prints are all over it, in the back, the doors, the wheel..." Orin paused at the door, seeing the hostile looks on their faces. "Despite what you may think, I haven't given up on Vin Tanner. I consider myself a good judge of people and I've not been proven wrong yet. Keep me posted... report to Mike after lunch."

They sat in silence, watching the coverage of the F.B.I. team that was surrounding the van. Ezra winced as Vin's photo was shown again.

"Jesus..." Buck sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "What a fuckin' nightmare."

"...Tanner is believed to have been the lone occupant of the vehicle. The F.B.I are tracking the path taken and believe he and the group holding the missing agents are headed south, the location is rumored to be Georgia. He is considered armed and dangerous and is on the F.B.I.'s most wanted list and state and local law enforcers have been called out."

"He would be safer with a red target on his back," Ezra spat in disgust.

"What the hell are they doing in Georgia?" Josiah frowned, "Buck, you ever work a case down that way?"

"No, not that I can remember. Lost a few through expedition over the years..." he paused, trying to recall names and faces.

"They're not heading to Georgia." Ezra turned the television off as the stock market report came on. "Despite our illustrious division leader's claim of intelligent life at the Bureau," he noted of the F.B.I., "One would have to be blind not to see through that ruse...Mr. Tanner is a plant and we have work to do. We still have several hours until we report to Mike, I'd suggest we go over the clues again."

Part 8

Vin squinted and sat up, stretching painfully and eyeing the strange room. It was about fifteen feet square, no windows and had a concrete floor. A door with no knobs or handles, only operational from the other end, was across from him. His groggy mind cleared and he recalled somewhere during the night, being handed a bag of food from Hardy's. He and J.D. wolfed down the burgers and... J.D.?

"...Kid?" he croaked, shaking the drug-induced stupor off. He blinked up at the high ceiling and the lone lightbulb far overhead. How many hours had passed? Was it day or night? His vision was a little blurry and he rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. He heard a moan and crawled over a few feet to where another body was. His fingers found a thatch of hair... dark hair... and he felt the warm neck and solid pulse. He tapped the bruised face and winced at the labored breathing. He gently rolled J.D. over and lifted the filthy blue shirt, wincing again as the purple and blue bruises stood out. "... fuckin' bastard... I'm gonna kill 'im..."

"Get in line." J.D. hissed, opening his eyes and shoving Vin's pawing fingers away. "Where are we?"

"Hell if I know..." Vin sighed, helping J.D. sit up. "How ya doin', Kid?"

"...be doin' a lot better if I was home..." he paused and gave his friend a small smile. "I'm still breathing, Vin."

"Yeah..." Vin agreed, then eyed the room again. "Chris!" He lurched to his feet and staggered, dropping by the still figure's side. The dark pants and dress shirt were filthy and the normally immaculately groomed man was tattered, his hair was dirty and his face bruised. Vin knelt down and felt for a pulse. Chris was a little pale and his breathing was funny, but he was in one piece. A quick check revealed no bones broken. He saw J.D. drop down on the other side of their leader, breathing heavily.

"J.D... .don't be movin' around s'much... ya push one o'them ribs into a lung and ye'll be sorry..." Vin warned and saw the dark head nod. "Chris... Chris..." Vin repeated, louder and tapped the face below him. The eyes twitched and shot open, glaring angrily and a sharp breath stole between clenched teeth. Vin stiffened when a hand shot up and gripped the back of his neck painfully. "Whoa! I'm one o'the good guys..."

Chris woke up and saw the faces he'd been so worried about. They were real and beside him... still alive. He heard the soft drawl and clutched the tense neck, needing to feel the skin and reassure himself. Without losing that deathgrip, he turned and grabbed J.D.'s arm, nodding slowly to the worried youth. He turned his gaze back to his best friend.

"Damn."

"That about covers it," Vin agreed with the tired blond and helped him sit up. "Yer still in one piece... nothin' important was hurt."

"You got any idea where we are?" J.D. asked.

"East Coast..." Chris paused, recalling a vague glimpse of the landscape when the bitch let him out to urinate and eat several hours before. "You okay?"

"Never better." Vin said disgustedly, "That bastard cracked a couple o'the Kid's ribs..."

"J.D.?" Chris stared hard at the bruised face.

"I'm okay, Chris..." he flicked an eye to Vin who shook his head. Too late, Chris saw the worried youth's face. J.D. could be read like a book.

"What happened?" He asked, studying each of them.

"Ya best be keepin' yer distance from me... m'face is plastered from coast to coast..." Vin spat.

"They used Vin last night... set him up... at a gas station in Tennessee..."

"Tennessee?" Chris frowned, "...and..."

"That bastard was holdin' J.D... gave me fifteen minutes t'drive into town... get gas..." Vin paused. "He was timin' me... I was late gettin' back... he was beatin' on J.D... was ready t'break his wrist..."

"He showed us the news this morning." J.D. recalled. "They think Vin's in on it... between how we got taken in Denver, they got video's of Vin in the garage the night they left and at the gas station..."

"How'd you end up here, Vin?" Chris wondered.

"The F.B.I. grilled me fer five hours... I was pissed off... m'nerves were fried." Vin sighed, "I'll tell ya what... Ezra stood ten feel tall." he paused thinking of the southerner's support. "We was leavin' the hospital and we run into Josiah and Buck. Buck wouldda liked t'separate m'head from the rest o'me..."

"Buck wouldn't do that!" J.D. defended his friend.

"Buck's head so far up his ass, Kid, he don't know what he's doin'" Vin spat tersely. "He wasn't workin' on all cylinders after ya disappeared. By the time Chris got took... he lost all reasonin'."

"He'll come around." Chris consoled both of them. "He's feeling guilty... she's after him. That's a lot of pressure to wear."

"Yeah, well... " Vin continued. "I kept thinkin' on it... couldn't sleep... so I decided t'go back... kept hearin' a voice... 'start at the beginning'..."

"At the airport?" J.D. guessed.

"No, at the File Room." Vin countered, "That's when this started. I seen somethin' that day... 'member I called Buck?" He slumped, "Nothin' comes back... what the fuck did that bitch do t'me?"

"...and..." Chris pressed, wanting to get Vin beyond this area.

"I was gonna go upstairs and I seen taillights shinin'... it was midnight... so I went t'get a closer look. It was a Hazmat van... loaded with crates... I thought I seen somethin' in the back... crawled in t'get a look... it was yer beeper. The door slammed shut and locked..."

Chris sighed and eyed the concrete room, just as the door opened. All three prisoners stood as the pair walked in. A pizza box slid across the floor towards them and three plastic cups of soda were placed on the floor, along with napkins.

"Eat up..." she ordered, "You have ten minutes."

Before they could inquire any further, she left, the door slamming behind her.

"What's the plan?" Kennedy yawned, seeking a soft bed.

"After they eat, you take them to the shower room. There's clothes there, too. Then you bring them back and lock them up. You have until five p.m. to rest. Then you get Larabee and bring him to me. While I'm working on him, you bring Dunne into the arena and get the camera started. I want that film Fedex'd to Buck tonight."

"You sure about this?" Kennedy asked, "Larabee's tough... he could hurt that kid bad..."

"It won't get that far... but Wilmington won't know that... let him suffer. He'll wonder if his oldest friend killed his best friend. That kid will be screaming for him... it'll be worse than bullets..."

"What time will you be back?"

"I'm bringing Amahl and his group here at eight p.m. You have Tanner ready, just as I explained. The lab is all set up..."

"Okay," Tony answered, "...but you're on your own in there. I'm not gettin' near that fuckin' thing. " He noted of her cargo.

"You won't be needed." She purred, "You make sure Tanner's friends have a front row seat behind the glass." she thought on the partioned room she'd designed. "All in all, it should be quite an evening."

Chris, Vin and J.D. looked up when the door opened and the large male appeared, waving a dart gun.

"Move!" he ordered, grabbing Vin with his free hand and shoving him.

"Fuck off!" Vin barked, shoving the burly brute back. J.D. joined in and pummeled the guard. Chris moved too, but froze when she appeared and shot Vin with a dart.

"You've been warned. He's expendable," she lied, "I can hurt him... do things to his mind... this is a tranquilizer, the next one won't be..." she waved to the J.D. who was kneeling by Vin. "Pick him up and get going."

Chris and J.D. carried their friend through a dark hallway and into a large room. Several shower heads were on the wall and they eased Vin down.

"You two get those filthy clothes off..." she said, "Get cleaned up, fresh clothes are in that area behind the half-wall," she waved the gun to the right. "Tony... take care of him..." she motioned to the limp body on the floor. Chris and J.D. didn't budge, standing protectively in front on Vin.

"You fuckin' touch him and I'll rip your balls off..." Chris warned, eyes flashing at the wolfish look on the large guards face.

"Really, Mister Larabee..." her voice was bored. "Must you make things difficult? I have a schedule to keep and I warned you." she pulled out a slim black case and flipped it open. A cylinder of liquid was inside. "Pity... I've seen what this does... he'll scream..." she loaded the drug into the gun and pointed it at Vin's helpless body.

"We'll take care of him..." J.D. said, kneeling and unbuttoning Vin's shirt. Their shoes were missing when they woke up and the tattered remnants of their clothing came off easily.

She eased back, keeping the gun trained on the trio as they bathed. The hands of the clock gave her a satisifed smile, as the the plan moved forward. By the time they were finished and safely secured in their cell, she was floating in a sea of giddiness.

+ + + + + + +

Amahl Kyaham eased his body from the hot tub in the hotel. It wasn't much of a hotel, but then again, he wasn't here on vacation. He didn't like America, the 'great Satan' his countrymen called the United States. He thought of the village he'd grown up in as he walked back to his room. Piruz was a small village, north of Qazvin and right on the Caspian Sea. His father was a fisherman and the small house had been full of love. But Amahl was not content to be a poor fisherman and he joined the army, rising through the ranks until he became a part of the Shah's inner circle. Now at fifty, he had wealth beyond his dreams, a beautiful wife and three fine children. But as he finished dressing, he paused and thought of his father. A man who had a tiny house and no more than a few coins to his name, but a man who slept peacefully at night and died happy. A rap on the door and the voice of Rahim, one of his two bodyguards, drew him back from happier memories at his father's knee, outside the tiny house, staring up at the stars.

"Yes?"

"Do you need anything?" the guard inquired.

"No... wake me at six p.m. We'll leave for the Blue Grotto at six-thirty," he noted of the dinner with the American woman at a nearby seafood restaurant. His contacts in Berlin confirmed her shady business dealings. It was rumored that a similar sale to an Oriental chemical company had been the reason she left the highly coveted position in Europe. The price was high, but then to possess the deadly toxins would reap enumerable benefits. It would also cement his new staff position within the government.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was sitting on the floor, his head resting on his drawn up knees. The loose fitting black cotton pants and from fitting tee shirt were already slightly damp. J.D. wore simliar clothes, but in a olive green. Vin was in gray cotton pants and a white shirt. All three wore canvas sneakers that matched their clothing. A low moan drew his head up and he pushed himself off the floor. He approached the cot and saw J.D. sit up on his own cot.

"Vin?" Chris shook the sharpshooter's shoulder. Two confused eyes blinked up at him and then closed again.

"...thought I was dreamin'... " Vin sighed, trying to move the oatmeal from the inside of his head. He felt Larabee's hands grip him and move him upright. He rested against the wall behind him and kept his eyes closed. A cold bottle nudged his hand and he peeled an eye open. He eyed the clothing on J.D. and Chris and his hands felt the fabric on his own pants.

"Where's the party?" he croaked, untwisting the cap on the bottle of water. He drank greedily, wiping the excess as it ran off his chin.

"Nearby." Chris replied, mentally trying to discern how many hours passed. "... soon I think. You okay?"

"Yeah..." he rubbed the sore spot on his arm where the dart hit him. "I'm gettin' tired o'this shit..."

The door opened and Delaney entered. She paused as Kennedy moved past her, keeping the dart gun trained on Vin's chest.

"Well, you look much better. I guess you've been wondering who I am?"

"You're the whore that Buck's been fuckin'..." Chris said flatly, watching her color rise.

"You'll pay for that remark..." she hissed, "Buck Wilmington will pay dearly for his disgraceful transgressions to both Tony and myself. The countdown begins tonight."

Vin cocked his head and furrowed his brow at the name Tony. Another name materialized... Kennedy. Kennedy? Why did he know that name? He stared hard at the man and a pain lanced through his head, so severe it caused him to clutch both sides. He felt Chris's hand on his back and sat up, blinking hard.

"Ah... a side effect I forgot to warn you about. You are my most prized specimin, Mr. Tanner... even if you don't rememer our painful past sessions."

"Yer... yer... the lady at the train station... ya fucked me up good and I ain't fergot that... " Vin rasped.

"Enough small talk, Mr. Larabee if you would be so kind.." she saw the green eyes narrow and clucked her tongue. "That painful toxin is still loaded in the dart gun." she threatened and Chris felt Vin back up slightly. "Not to fear, you'll see your friends in a few minutes. Turn around please, hands..." she cuffed him and shoved him forward. "Tony, know what to do..."

They moved through a dark corridor and into a room set up like a boxing arena. The ring was on the floor, divided by what Chris recognized as electical poles. He heard the hum of a motor and felt himself shoved down onto a chair. The cuffs were locked into a ring on the wall behind him. She also plied his legs apart and secured the ankles to the chair.

"You're a very attractive man, pity you have principles..." she purred from behind him, licking the sweat from the side of his neck.

"Don't flatter yourself," Chris said calmly, trying to ignore the firm breast rubbing against him and the nipping teeth on his flesh. "I've had better in the shower by myself..."

She laughed and stood up, massaging the back of his neck. "I do love your dry sense of humor..." She paused and drew the syringe from the black box on the shelf behind her.

The sting was sharp and sudden and Chris hissed in shock. His eyes widened as the burning sensation spread through him, causing every limb to tingle. He blinked as she moved in front of him, leering at him, her face becoming distorted.

"A little something your country hasn't approved yet... a very effective hallucinogenic."

Chris jerked in the chair forcing his body back and began to gasp and pant. The room exploded in a sensation of vibrant color and sound. Brilliant shades of blue and purple melted in front him, small bursts of hot pink and orange teased his eyes. Butterflies appeared, so beautiful in a rainbow of color that he wanted to touch them.

Jamie saw the wide-eyed wonder and felt his tension building. She went behind the chair and uncuffed his hands. Immediately he started grabbing the air, grunting and gasping as the drug intensified. Eyeing the clock on the wall, which read ten minutes to five, she smiled and hitched up the short skirt. She unbuttoned her blouse and straddled the taut frame. She placed her hands on both sides of his face and pushed his head back.

"Hello Chris... you like me don't you?"

Chris blinked as the woman appeared in the kalidiscopic sea he was floating in. She was beautiful with turquoise eyes and deep coral skin. His eyes widened at the spectacular bright pink breasts that were dangling in front of him like ripe fruit. A fire exploded inside him and he growled, grabbing the fruit and tasting them. Sweet... like peaches and pineapples... he groaned and felt his head drawn away. He saw her changing colors again the lips teased him like ripe strawberries. He grabbed her face and kissed her hand, needing to sate the beast inside.

Jamie groaned as the animal she knew existed inside Chris Larabee took control. She felt him hardening and ground her hips against him. The growl brought a smile to her as his tongue scorched the inside of her mouth. She slid a hand down and released his pent up passion. He growled again, his eyes fevered and his breath hot and hard. He clutched her hips and rammed her hard, giving her the painful pleasure she'd sought. Just as quickly, it was ending. The first euphoric moments that the drug created would turn bitter and release the beast. He slumped, sated and spent, his head lolling. She pulled herself free and cleaned herself up. Then she put his passion back in his pants and zipped the fly. She drew his head up and kissed the slack lips, patting his face in consolation.

"What a waste... God you're an animal..."

She left him and moved across the room, testing the currency of the barriers. It was a large area, each side more than ten feet. The poles housed enough current to sent a painful shock to anyone who hit the slim metal wiring that connected them. She activated the camera and checked the video recorder. The door opened and Dunne and Tanner appeared, followed by Kennedy.

"Chris!"

She smiled evilly at twin cries of concern. Both were cuffed soundly and on their knees. Tanner tried twice to rise, only to be hit in the chest with the large rubber bat Kennedy carried. The last shot sent him sideways onto the floor. Dunne moved in, putting his body between Tanner and Kennedy. She smiled at the cub, his hazel eyes full of fire.

"Excellent..." she whispered, watching Larabee rouse. She crossed over and bent behind him, whispering in his ear. "Chris?"

"...mmmm..." Chris groaned and winced as the fire started again. It was worse this time, it hurt his chest and legs. He'd never felt pain like this and the scenery changed. He stared in muted horror at the beast across the room. It was hideous, six feet tall... hairy like wolf, yellow eyes and dripping fangs.

"Do you see him? Vin Tanner... Oh dear, I hope you're not too late..."

Vin? He knew that name... his body exploded in a flash of blinding rage. Vin... Vin... He grabbed his head as the pain intensified, nearly splitting his skull. He screamed, raising his head and letting the bellow bounce off every wall.

J.D. knelt up at Chris's horrid call. He flinched when he saw the blond, who resembled a wildman. The eyes were glazed and unseeing, the body taut with rage.

"Kid..." Vin whispered, still trying to find the air that had been taken from his lungs. He remained on the floor, curled up and viewing Chris from a distorted angle. "Chris!" he hollered, trying to rise, only to have a boot shove his head down. From where his face was pressed to the floor, he saw J.D. shoved into the makeshift ring onto a large blue mat.

Chris heard his name called and saw the wolf leave a huddled mass on the floor. The voice made his head scream in agony. He clutched it and bent in half, trying to push it away. His blood boiled, sending an agonizing wave through his body.

She moved up and bent over his distorted frame. Her words were issued softly, but struck him like bullets. "Vin's dead... you failed him... you must kill the beast... kill the beast..."

Chris's head cocked and he began to pant. He swiped the spit running from his mouth and saw the wolf pacing.

She watched the action and pushed a button, turning the video equipment on. The microphone was connected to a machine that would distort her voice. She was out of range of the camera and Kennedy was in diguise, dressed in a cloak as a medevil executor. His hooded face completed the look.

"Showtime Buck... Welcome to your nightmare ... Tonight's feature is made just for you. The ancient Aztecs had a delightful little ritual that was called deathmatch. The victor was declared when he separated the loser's head from the body... while the unfortunate opponent was still conscious. Of course, Mr. Larabee has a slight advantage... a lovely little narcotic I introduced him to. But enough prattle... on with the show." She ended the audio portion as Chris growled and leaped at J.D. She flipped on the electonic barrier, sealing them inside. Tanner squirmed unsuccesfully beneath Kennedy's boot and she watched the free leg kick his groin hard, stilling him for the near future.

"Kill the beast... kill the beast," Chris screamed, jumping on the large monster. "Kill the beast!"

Chris slammed into the wolf, shoving his furry head hard onto the mat. The beast's large yellow eyes matched the putrid fangs, which were dripping with blood. Vin's blood... his mind called out... he grabbed the head and slammed it again, then wrapped his hands around the monster's throat.

"J.D... hit him... fight back... he'll kill ya... ya gotta fight back... J.D..." Vin's coaching was cut short by a boot pressed into his throat.

J.D. heard Vin and realized what he had to do. He'd defend himself as best he could and try not to hurt Chris. He wouldn't give her the satisifaction. He felt Chris's hands close on his throat and snaked his own hand up, striking Chris hard above the collarbone and taking his breath away. As he rolled off, J.D. pulled Chris's legs from under him and he fell to the mat. The younger man sprung over, trapping Chris beneath him.

"Shit!" He hissed, feeling the powerful strength coursing through the lean body under him. Whatever she'd given Chris had given him superhuman strength. Chris's elbow shot back, clipping his cheek and splitting his lip. He grunted and held on, but the stronger man won out.

Chris flung his tortured backwards, sending the wolf into the barrier. He heard the animal cry out in pain as the current hit his body. He tossed back his blond head and cried out in triumph, then felt the animal hit his legs.

They traded blows; fists and feet found flesh and bone. Bruises appeared, blood splattered the ring and both were exhausted from the powerful current that riddled them when they hit the barrier. Chris kicked his feet hard, cracking J.D.'s ribs and sending his body to the tarp.

He didn't get up and she smiled, nodding to Kennedy.

He eyed Tanner's squirming body under his full weight and moved his feet, reaching the machete at the edge of the ring. Larabee was pacing the ring, hands above his head, growling , his glazed eyes shining in triumph. He saw the machete land and picked it up.

"Kill the beast... kill the beast..." she called out, "Take his head..."

"Kill... the beast..." Chris repeated, raising the blade and flinging it.

"No!" Vin screamed, tearing towards the ring. Kennedy slammed the rubber bat into his gut, sending him into a pile on the floor, still and silent.

Chris's head cocked when he heard the scream. He squinted at the walls of red and black shimmering fire that surrounded him. He felt the heat of the flames as they licked at his feet. He screamed as they fire consumed him, clutching his head as the pain reached an unmatched cresendo. He was unconscious before he hit the mat.

She flipped the button, turning off the camera as Kennedy eyed the bodies. "You know what to do. I'll be back at eight p.m. Have Tanner ready and make sure that tape is edited and taken promptly."

+ + + + + + +

The thrill started building as she showered and dressed. By the time the summer breeze whipped through her hair, she was tingling. The bout went better than expected and the show at eight would only add to her excitement. By the time she reached the private room, upstairs at the Blue Grotto, she was on cloud nine. She reached the top of the stairs and two burly males grabbed her.

"What's the meaning of this?" she hissed, struggling in vain as they held tight on each side.

" Habib and Rahim," Amahl introduced, toasting her with a full glass of blood red wine. "My two bodyguards. A man in my position must be careful. Jafar..." he nodded to his aide who moved in with a leering smile.

She bristled as the slow search began. He frisked her legs, just past the knees and then moved around her. He dumped her purse out on an empty table and noted the contents. He picked up two silver CD's.

"The analysis of the samples." She answered, "The data, testing, all the notes, the dates and toxicity levels of each one. Everything you asked for."

"Did you bring them?" Amahl asked as Jafar moved behind her.

"No, of course not!" She denied. "I get half the money and you get half the samples, after the demonstration tonight." She bit her lip as the aide's hands rode up under her skirt and probed between her legs. She didn't understand the dialect, but the lecherous laugh was universal. His hands moved up her back, around her waist and under her blouse. "That's enough!" she warned as his fingers crept over her flesh, squeezing and pinching.

"He is quite adept and finding hidden weapons." Amahl grinned, "Leave us..." he ordered and all three men departed, locking the door. "You are a very attractive woman, Miss Newlander," he kissed her hand and sucked her fingers.

"I'm a businesswoman," She warned, jerking her hand away. "Shall we?" She picked up the discarded objects from her handbag. The sooner this dinner was over and the final figures determined, the better.

"You understand if any of this information is not correct, if so much as one sample is tainted, you will be punished harshly. I have ways to torture you that would please me very much." He warned, sliding his hand under her skirt.

"We don't have much time," she pushed his hand away and picked up her fork. "Shall we..." she speared a piece of crabmeat and flipped open her notebook.

+ + + + + + +

Pain. A single word that never meant so much as it did at this moment. Pain. It throbbed in his head in pulsating red letters. Pain. It existed in every inch of his tender flesh. Pain. It met his gaze as he peeled his eyes open. He didn't dare move, the effort of opening his eyes was nearly blinding. He was alone in a room with little light. Alone?

"Vin... J.D..." Chris croaked, remaining flat on his back on the floor. Then a image so horrifying filled him that it both terrified and repulsed him at the same time. A brutal expanse of time and a vivid picture of him rutting her. He took her like an animal, full of lust and without remorse. "

"Fuckin' bitch!" he groaned, clutching his throbbing head. He remembered being tied to a chair, a sting of pain... and then the brutal event. A series of razors slashed his guts, sending him from the floor and towards the toilet in the corner. He dropped over the bowl and vomited, so hard and forceful it took his breath away. The room swam around and he clutched the porcelin with all his might. Finally, the room stopped whirling and the waves of agonizing pain slowed down. He swiped the spit from this lips and felt the swollen mouth. His fingers found bumps and cuts scattered all over his body. He pulled his shirt up and saw the blue and purple bruises, flinching as his fingers made contact with the tender area. Then he saw his hands... swollen and angry. A fight... a bad one... his mind remained clouded.

"What the fuck happened?" he cried out, grabbing a bottle of water and cleaning himself up. After washing the blood away, rinsing his mouth and drinking, he began to worry. Then he heard his own voice, bouncing off every wall. He jerked his head towards the ceiling and saw a monitor come to life. He heard his voice again, screaming 'kill the beast' and watched in muted horror and silent rage as he beat J.D. Dunne to a pulp.

"No!" he choked in horror, dropping to his knees as the close-up of his face appeared eyes glazed to a fevered pitch. The camera panned back, revealing the machete glistening above his head. The triumphant scream was echoed by Vin's horrid call in the background. "Jesus fuckin' Christ!" Chris anguished, dropping to his knees and clutching his abdomen as the bile rose. He scrambled, hugging the toilet and letting the bitterness flow out. Then he sank to the floor, stunned, shocked in paralyzed in pain.

+ + + + + + +

Dead. That's the word that came to J.D.'s tortured mind when he regained consciousness. Nothing could hurt this bad and still be alive. Every inch of him screamed in pain. His head was splitting and he sat up, eyeing the empty room. Empty. Chris and Vin? He touched the swollen eye painfully and felt the cheek underneath already distorted in shape. His lips was split and painful to move. He tasted the metallic blood in his mouth and eyed the water bottle nearby. He took a mouthful and spit out a wad of blood, before consuming the cold beverage. Cold...that's what he felt inside. For a horrid moment, he thought maybe Chris and Vin were dead. Then he remembered Chris saying that she was planning on luring Buck to them for the final showdown on the fourth of July. They weren't dead, but they could be hurt. He ran his hands along his ribcage and felt the pain. Bruised, cracked or broken, it hurt like hell. His back, his hips, hell everything hurt. He curled up on the floor and tried to find a position that didn't cause every part of him to ache. One thought kept repeating in his head.

"I'm gonna kill that bitch..."

+ + + + + + +

Cold. Colder. Vin shivered in the darkness and felt the icyness inside and out. The inky blackness was unrelenting and timeless. How long had he been here? Where was he? He heard the hum of the air conditioner and felt the icy blast across his naked flesh. Naked? Yes... his skin was pressed to a cold, hard, metal surface. No... he felt cotton fabric on his middle... he still had his underwear on. He couldn't move, straps bound his throat and hips. His legs were spread eagle, cuffed to the ends of a hard table. His arms were fully extended straight out past his elbows. He could only move his head a few inches.

Cold. The kind of bone shattering numbness that comes with paralyzing fear. He was scared. He'd never felt so trapped and helpless. Naked and bound to a table... totally at their mercy. The goosebumps on his flesh were sprung as much from what his mind told him she would do to him, as from the chilly atmosphere.

Cold. He shivered from worry. Where were Chris and J.D.? Were they dead? No... yes... he couldn't think about that. He kept seeing Chris's glazed eyes, J.D.'s body and the machete. He clenched his eyes shut as he heard the thud when it severed J.D.'s head. Before he passed out, he heard Chris scream. It was sound like he'd never encountered. He felt his eyes fill up when he recalled the blurry image of the guard taking J.D.'s body. Chris's eyes... unseeing and unblinking from the pale face in the middle of the ring. Lying flat out, not moving. He heard the guard grunt in disgust. The words came back. '...fuckin' idiot went and died... she ain't gonna like it' Died... dead... whatever she'd shot him up with killed him. A hand on his icy ribcage caused him to jerk in the dark.

"Hello Vin..."

"I'm... gon... gonna... f..f..fuck... fuckin'... k...k...kill. ya... b...b...bitch..." Vin stammered, the cold air causing his teeth to chatter.

"Oh, I don't think so," she cupped his face with both hands, "You're freezing..." she ran her hand down his torso and felt him flinch. "I apologize for the air conditioner, but the samples have to be kept cool."

Vin squirmed in the dark as the hand manuevered over him and then gasped when the lights came on. The sudden invasion blinded him, but the binding straps didn't allow him to move. He cried out and blinked as the harsh light hurt his eyes. Through blinking eyes, he saw her put on a lab coat and gloves. She went to the wall and picked up a phone.

"Well?"

"All done," Kennedy replied, "I'm heading back, should take about two hour or so..."

"You're sure?" she pressed.

"Yeah, logged onto the laptop and started tracing it. It's on it's way to the airport. Wilmington will get it tomorrow morning early." He peeled off the wig, he'd already scrubbed the makeup off in the bathroom. He'd driven south two hours and mailed the tape via Federal Express. "I edited it just like you asked."

"Excellent. Keep track of it, I want to know when he gets it." She hung the phone up and turned to a glass window in the wall. Amahl and his aide were watching her and Vin curiously. "Gentlemen welcome," she greeted, walking over to a large container on the floor. "It's time you were introduced. The young man on the table has volunteered to be my first human test subject for a brand new toxin I invented."

"What the fuck is that?" Vin hissed, pressing his back against the table as she approached. His mouth went dry when he saw the object in her right hand. His eyes were wide with fear and he struggled in vain as she drew closer.

"Vin!" Chris screamed as the monitor went on again. "Shit..." he pounded the floor when the image appeared. Vin was strapped, nearly naked and totally helpless to her evil whims. He saw the blue eyes wide with apprehension and felt Vin's heart pounding. Then he saw her right hand and his stomach fell through the floor.

"Vin!" J.D. called out, the worry in his voice matched Chris's. He sat up in his cell and watched his friend struggling. He hand unconsciously ran over his throat as he eyed the straps that confined the vunerable body. Then he saw what she carried and felt his guts churn. "Oh My God..." he croaked and bolted for the toilet as his stomach revolted.

"Get away... fr...fr..from... m...m...me ya f...f...fuckin' lunatic!" Vin hissed, as she waved her hand inches from his terrifed wide eyes, which were a vivid blue. He was quite handsome and she used her free left hand to gently brush the long, brown curls from his face. She traced a line from his temple, past his cheekbones and across his lips. "If you struggle, you will only make it worse. This represents years of hard work and you're the first human test subject. This is my future... something completely unknown to the scientific world... worth millions. For you, dear Vin," she brushed his forehead and traced her finger over his ear and down his neck. "I'm afraid the future isn't so rosy... your remaining hours won't be so pleasant, it's a dead end for you." She stood up and lowered her right hand, watching his eyes grow wide like azure saucers. His Adam's apple bobbed in a fury and his breath came in shallow pants.

"No!" Vin screamed.

The anguished call bounced off every wall in the confined room. Chris tried to dispell it, clutching his hands to his ears. The camera showed the terrified blue eyes, which ripped his heart wide open. The blood-curdling scream that split Vin's lips shattered Chris's soul. Try as he might, he couldn't tear his gaze from the screen. He heard every chilling word she said and his eyes were riveted to the object in her hand. As it descended closer to Vin's trembling ,vunerable flesh, his whole world crashed in.

"Vin!"... he screamed, pounding his bruised fists into the wall.

J.D. heard Vin's cry and it went right through him. Like Chris, he was terrified of the object in her hand and of words she spoke. His mind added up the clues and the deadly game she was playing with Vin. He was a human guinea pig for some sick toxin she'd invented. He watched Vin lying naked and exposed and the terrified look in the Texan's eyes. The camera closed in on her hand and he heard Vin scream again. He clutched his eyes closed and covered his ears, he couldn't bear to watch Vin be tortured and die.

July 1st, eight p.m., Denver

"That's it guys, go on home..."

"Ten four, Davey..." Josiah returned to the operative on the corner, taking the headphones off. He was in the surveillance van with Jack Connelly of Team Four. Buck was with Ezra and Chuck Miller, who'd been working undercover for Formassi's gang for some time. Ezra was going to be brought in gradually over the next couple weeks. Buck was his bodyguard. They had spent the afternoon with Miller, making the rounds to some of Formassi's hangouts. Josiah felt awful for Buck, the rogue was like a pressure cooker about to explode. Thank God Ezra had a cool head and knew how to manuever Buck's moods. Josiah eased out of the van and crossed the street. Mike Ryan the team leader was inside a sports bar. He requested the three of them meet him privately there after their shift was done.

"Mike," Josiah nodded, flagging the waitress for a beer. It would be a few minutes before Buck and Ezra arrived.

"What'll it be?" the perky blond server asked the newcomers.

"A pitcher of Coors, four glasses and some menus," Mike Ryan ordered. They discussed the case for about ten minutes, eyeing the large menu and sipping the cold brew. Then Buck and Ezra arrived and Josiah expelled a long breath. Buck looked awful.

"How you doing, Buck?" Josiah asked as the forlorn figure slid next to Mike and across from him.

"I'm here..." Buck snapped, pouring a beer and gulping down half of it. He wiped the foam from his lip and slammed a fist on the table, sending the bowl of pretzels three inches to the right. "What the fuck am I doing here?"

"Maintaining your sanity," Ezra offered, staring at Buck's lost eyes. "Don't lose sight of what's important, Buck."

"Lose sight!" Buck vented, glaring at the southerner, "How can I? I see J.D.'s face every fuckin' time I close my eyes... shit... I can't sleep... can't eat..."

"Evenin' Brother..." Josiah turned to Ezra and smiled, "Glad to have you back in one piece..."

"I had my doubts..." Ezra mused, tapping his glass to the preacher's and offering a small smile. "But it's nice to know I'd be missed."

"It ain't you as much as the thirty dollars you owe me."

"What happened to turning the other cheek?" Ezra pursued, nodding to the waitress.

"That's a real challenge, bein' as how I'm sittin' on 'em..."

"Enjoying yourselves?" Buck shot angrily, draining his beer and refilling it.

"Slow down, Buck..." Mike warned. Twenty years as a team leader and numerous awards had earned him the respect of all who knew him. The jet black curly hair was just starting to go silver and the blue eyes were just as intense as they were when he wore a rookie's badge. "Losing your head won't get them home. Neither is getting drunk..."

"You don't own the rights to their friendship," Ezra warned, "Josiah and I have an equal stake in this. We have at least two days, maybe a little more. The clues indicate the Fourth of July as the culmination. There will be another contact... most likely tomorrow."

"He's still... they're still alive, Buck," Josiah added, "We'll find them. They're bait to lure you in. That shark's gonna raise it's head and we'll be there to blast it off."

The waitress appeared and they ordered sandwiches. After she departed, Mike eyed all three and laid a fatherly hand on Buck's sleeve.

"I'm sorry about this. I know how bad you want to be out there on the hunt. But orders are orders, my hands are tied too."

"I'm not blaming you, Mike," Buck sighed, raking his hands through his hair. "I'm just so fuckin' frustrated..."

"Look, I can give you a half day on Tuesday," he indicated of July 3. "You're not due back until noon on Thursday. It's not much..." Mike sighed and took a sip of his beer.

"It'll be enough..." Josiah nodded. "...and we're grateful."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed, knowing how much red tape the senior agent would mire through to get the extra hours.

"Yeah... thanks Mike... I'm sorry about today..." Buck offered, dropping his head. He knew his mind had wandered and several times Ezra's sharp tongue had saved them.

"Water under the bridge, Buck," Mike nodded as the jukebox across the way came to life.

Ezra winced as the familiar haunting notes began to swirl around the room. He saw Buck clench his eyes shut and shake his head.

"That's just perfect," he whispered, chest full of pain. "Somebody would have to play that fuckin' song..."

They remained silent, each remembering snatches of Vin Tanner, as his favorite song hovered over the table. Then the stanza that hit a little too close to home slammed into Buck hard and he pushed himself from the table.

"Desperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no younger...
Your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home...
And freedom, oh freedom well, that's just some people talkin'...
Your prison is walking through this world all alone ."

"Damn sorry assed Texan..." Buck muttered, walking away.

"Did I miss something?" Mike asked perplexed as Buck disappeared into the men's room.

"Buck and Vin had words the night Vin disappeared." Josiah noted gravely, equally moved by the song.

"Buck made some rather disparaging remarks..." Ezra added, thinking on Vin's collection of Eagle's CD's. They were a favorite of his and Ezra recalled fondly the day he, Nathan and Chris arrived early in the office and caught Vin singing the end of the song. He was holding the picture of his parents. His voice was sweet and low, nearly wistful. None of them said a word, slipping back into the hall and leaving him to his memories. "I'm sure they've been revisited nightly when he attempts to sleep."

"Damn..." Mike sighed, "...that's rough. Vin's a good kid, can't see him holding a grudge."

"True," Ezra agreed, "But this is a rather large heart in jeopardy..."

The song ended just as the waitress reappeared with their food. When Buck emerged, he looked pale and drawn, except for a hint of red to his eyes. Ezra doubted if Buck tasted the food and he left quietly, his blue eyes lost and longing.

+ + + + + + +

Vin didn't think it was possible for his mouth to be any drier. He didn't hear a word she said after he saw it. Now she was waving it over his face. The scream slipped out uninvited, a single word denial of the impossible situation. He was gasping for breath, his eyes wide and terrified; he felt her hand on his face and jerked, then he saw her lips moving and tuned in on what she was saying, keeping his eyes shifting towards it.

"Not to worry, Dear Vin, soon you will feel Lucky," Jamie purred, stroking the cold skin on his chest.

"L... l...l...lu...cky?" Vin croaked, limbs now trembling from cold and fear.

"Yes," she cooed, waving her right hand over his large eyes, dangling her prize, "...short for Lucifer. A fitting name, don't you think?"

Vin stared in muted horror at 'Lucifer'. He'd seen pictures somewhere... maybe he'd seen it on television on the discovery channel. But right here in front of his eyes, it was the scariest object he'd ever encountered. Over six inches long and sporting at least thirty pairs of legs, it was blood red with a black mark down in's back. Pinchers snapped open and shut, anxious to sink into tender flesh.

"Wh...at... the... f...fu...fuck is... is..." Vin's teeth chattered.

"Oh, yes, you did inquire earlier," she agreed, "I suppose it's only fair to give you some background information. After all, you two are going to become quite well acquainted."

She moved away for a moment and he let out the breath he'd been holding. He jammed his eyes shut as sweat rolled into them, stinging him. Stinging... his heart clenched at the word, which now held an all new meaning. He opened his eyes and saw her push a button on the wall and a camera in the corner sprung to life. Another one right next to him on the wall, also came on.

"Gentlemen," she turned towards the wall. "Can you hear me?" She waited for the heads to nod and proceeded. "Good, let's begin then." She walked over towards the glass and held up her pet. "For the record, this is July 1st at 8:10 p.m. This is an adult Chilopoda of the Myriapod family." She turned it over and watched them back up on the other side of the glass; their faces wrinkled in disgust. "It's native home is deep within the South American Jungle. Some have been known to grown well over eighteen inches in length and boast over sixty pairs of legs. This modified front pair with the sharp edges," she indicated the jaw-like appendage, "normally would dispense venom. But after years of research and unsuccessful attempts, thanks to a brave primate named Socrates, I have achieved Nirvana."

She walked back over to Vin and smiled as he pressed his wiry frame against the metal surface. "This is our test subject, a lean specimin of the ATF variety. How kind of you to volunteer." she ran her hand up his tense thigh and smiled. "Excuse me, Mr. Tanner, I believe you would be more familiar with Lucifer's common name, a centipede - of the deadliest variety. There are ten more like him, each the proud distributor of a deadly toxin. They been adapted to a colder climate and are now ready. My little hybrids are now a lethal army and ripe for breeding. Each female can lay dozens of eggs... just do the math. Some of the deadliest diseases known to man: Smallpox, anthrax, ebola, cholera, maleria," She paused eyes glistening as her victim's heart pulse raced at record speed. "and all of the varieties of plague, you remember, an acute, contagious, epidemical and poisonous fever. These consist of three strains: pneumonic, bubonic, and septicaemic."

"Yer fuckin'... outta... yer... mind..." Vin stammered in the frosty air. "Ye'll never... get... get... away... with... it..."

"Oh, but I will, my handsome, young sample..." she traced her fingers across his belly and watched him swallowing rapidly. "While the rest of this inferior continent is celebrating Independence Day, I'll be jetting across the Atlantic with seven figures in a Swiss Bank Account. I do so love that number, don't you?" she teased his flesh with circular motions. "Alas, Poor Vin, by that time you'll be in rather dire straights."

Chris twisted on the floor in his cell, sweat pouring down his face. His fists were clenched so hard, his nails bit into the flesh. As he eyed the demented villianess, his mind began to shift and file every word she said.

"...that's only eight..." he cocked his head, "...eleven centipedes... eight diseases..." Did she forget the others or where three of the creatures hosting a less virulent strain of toxin. He made a mental note and did more calculations. Fourth of July was still three days away... she hinted Vin would still be alive. He still had time to stop her from killing Buck and save Vin. His mind flashed to the headless body in the macbre boxing ring. Was that an illusion or had he really killed J.D.? Her voice drew him back to the screen.

"Hold it in, Vin..." he willed the tense body on the screen through his voice, "...don't give her the satisfication. I'll find you..."

Vin licked his dry lips as she turned back toward the window. "Mr. Tanner's progress will be recorded, via these cameras and his vital signs will be noted. You'll have every given opportunity to view him via the monitor. Wouldn't want to get too close... it's highly contagious. The beautiful part of this plan is that as a scientific object, they are more easily made available through customs and can be bred quickly. They can be slipped into the population, both civilian and military, and render a whole city to it's feet. Their power is endless. They seek out moist, dark places and their sharp claws attack the skin. After piercing the flesh, the toxic material enters the bloodstream through the wound, leaving a trail of swollen skin in it's wake. There is a brief burst of intense pain and the victim quickly loses consciousness. After several hours, the symptoms start to appear. It's showtime..."

"You're dead bitch..." J.D. hissed, his eyes filling. His stomach was a mess and his heart was aching. Every time he looked at Vin, he thought of the early days of Vin's joining the team. How quickly the quiet Texan had become a close friend. He'd learned so much from Vin both on duty and off. Just last spring the two of them spent four days in New Mexico. Vin took him to the desert and taught him about tracking. He was so easy to like... and the next to Chris Larabee, the toughest man J.D. ever met. He'd seen Vin stare down cold blooded killers and his precise shooting was nothing like any of them had ever encountered. Then there was the short-tempered, cursing demon he played hockey with... His train of thought was interrupted when she moved over Vin's naval.

Moist, dark places... Vin's mind told him. His eyes widened in horror when her left hand danced across the elastic waist of his boxer shorts.

"Oh that would be too easy... wouldn't it..." she decided and saw him biting his lip. His eyes were mezmerizing and spoke volumes. She laid the creature down on Vin's ribcage and then moved back to watch.

"Zone out, Vin... don't look... " Chris ordered, drilling the screen with his eyes. "Zone out... zone out..."

He was only able to lift his head a few inches, but it was enough to see the outline of the centipede. He didn't have to see it... it's many legs were making swift movement down his abdomen. He felt the cotton on his boxer's move and clenched his eyes shut. He heard the thumping of his heart, so loud it sounded like a cannon.

She watched, her body tingling in anticipation as the creature's head lifted and it made it's decision. With deep, diabolical thoughts firing across a synapse or two, the centipede stalked it's helpless victim. It silent journey was marked every few seconds with a slight hissing sound as the horrid thing's razor sharp claws encountered fabric.

Vin shuddered and gasped as the many legs left ticklish sensations on his tender skin. He was breathing so rapidly, he thought he'd hypervenilate. Then he breathing slowed and he slowed his heart rate. Just as quickly as the fear came, it was strangled by an unseen hand. He put himself back in control and regulated his breathing. He stared hard at the clock on the wall, it's red rim became his focal point. He felt the creature slithering across across his groin and kept his eyes trained on the clock.

Jamie frowned in displeasure when her squirming, heart-racing test subject suddenly went into a trance like state. That was no fun... she eyed the clock and wondered what on earth happened to him. His features were calm and relaxed and his muscles slack. His chest rose in even motions and his fists uncurled, now resting flat on the table.

"That's it, Cowboy... " Chris coached, standing and moving closer to the monitor. He watched Vin's face go slack and the tense, blue eyes trained on the clock. He saw the dismay on her face and got a small lift. "Attaboy... zone out... zone out..."

"Well... well..." her voice rose in surprise when the creature slid out from the other side of Tanner's shorts. it moved across his thigh and hip, hovering briefly by his belly, before moving ahead.

Vin felt the dozens of legs moving on his skin, leaving it tingling and itchy. He felt his heart begin to race again as it drew closer to his neck. He heard the sharp clicking sound of it's claws snapping open and shut. His steady breathing trembled a bit and he felt the sweat pouring off his head and down his neck.

"Moist and dark... Oh God..." his mind screamed as the deadly invader crossed his collarbone.

"Hold on Vin... hold on... don't let her win..." Chris seethed, fists clenching in agony as the monster inched it's ugly head over Vin's chin. He felt like a knife-like pain when a single hiss of air escaped Vin's clenched teeth as the predator crawled across his nose and mouth. "I'm coming for you Cowboy... you gotta hold on... zone out... zone out..."

"I'm tryin'... I'm tryin'... Jesus Christ I'm tryin'... " Vin screamed in silence, answering the mantra in his head.

The smell was awful and he sucked his breath in, willing the horrid odor away. It's slimy body was stretched across his face diagnally, covering his mouth and nose. It's fearsome head was just below Vin's right eye. It raised it's head in curiosity, appraising the moist orb below. Vin watched in horror as it swung it's head back and forth, as if weighing it's decision.

Chris saw the change and felt his heart drop through the floor. Vin's nearly concave abdomen began to rise and fall rapidly. His flat palms balled up into fear-fused fists. He felt his eyes fill up with rage when the fuckin' thing slung across Vin's face. He couldn't begin to imagine how terrified his friend was.

"Hold on, Vin... I'll find you... zone out... zone out... don't let her win... You can do it... " He said in a strong voice, pressing his palms to the wall and drilling his eyes into the image on the screen.

"I can't... I can't... shut up... leave me alone... " Vin screamed back silently to the meddlesome voice. "Oh God... it's looking right at me... I'm fucked... I'm fucked... "

The snapping razors were right above his eyeball, so close they were blurry. He heard the clicking sound... over and over... as the beast mulled over it's decision. He felt the many legs dancing on his face and sliding in his nose and mouth. Just when he thought his worst fear would be realized and the razor-like stingers would pierce his eye, the head bobbed and it moved across his eyebrow and towards his ear.

"Aw fuck..." Chris hissed, watching the centipede moved towards Vin's ear. "Not that..." his heart fell. Every kid's nightmare, having a bug crawl in your ear and get trapped inside your brain. The rage inside him that had been building was now well past the redzone. He was beyond ranting and raging... he was in a dangerous area. A coldness decended on him and left him a numb predator. He would kill her... that much he knew. "I'm here Vin... I'll find you... I'll..." His vocal chords were cut off when the ugly beast's head rose. It was nestled on Vin's shoulder. "No! Bitch!" Chris screamed as the venomous talons hit the target.

For a brief moment, when the antenna's of the centipede brushed his ear, Vin's heart nearly stopped. Not that... anything but that. He didn't want that fuckin' thing crawling inside his brain. Then the room faded away for a moment and the silent voice in his head slid out of the shadows. He felt it in his blood and it gave him an unnerving calmness. The creatures legs shifted and it moved on, through his soaking wet hair and down on the curve of his back.

Snapping it's toxin-plump injectors together in glee, the looming centipede aimed at the moist, firm flesh of it's victim. It struck like a devil possessed, sending a burst of toxin into the deep puncture.

"Shit!" J.D. screamed. pulling the hair on the side of his head he'd been clutching. "Vin... Vin... she's going down. I promise..." J.D. vowed through the tears in his eyes. The horrid ordeal left him shocked. He saw the creature crawling over Vin's face and had to turn away, not able to fathom enduring something so vile. Strangely, when it stung Vin, he was silent. Then J.D. looked again and saw the silent scream on Vin's face.

"Fuck... Aw, fuck..." Chris paced, eyes drawn to the screen. Vin hadn't uttered a word. When the centipede struck, his blue eyes shot open and he'd issued a strangulated gasp. His mouth was a wicked oval and tears ran down the sides of his face into his long, wet hair. Then the fierce gasping began and eyes darted briefly towards the door. His fists opened and closed and he groaned a little. She'd moved away, taking the creature back to a large container plugged into the wall.

Despite the agonizing burst of pain when he'd been bitten, Vin now felt like he was floating in a sea of numbness. His tongue felt thick and his eyes were growing heavy. He saw her move away and felt something else. He heard the voice again, ordering him to hold on. He knew now where the voice came from... he felt it as much as the table under him. He took a deep breath and found the camera's eye. A brief burst of pain lanced through his head and he sent his final plea airborne.

Chris's skin pricked when Vin twisted in pain and stared right at him. He felt himself go numb and his green eyes were locked onto the picture. The call went right through him, taking his breath away and at the same time, giving him a small flag of hope. It wavered briefly... Vin heard his call.

J.D. saw and felt the same thing Chris did. He knew when Vin's head swiveled, who he was looking for. Was it possible that Chris was alive? Was here down here too? Vin was still alive... there was still hope. Somehow, Vin found Chris... and he'd find both of them. They'd get out of this together or send that bitch to Hell trying. The single word sent a tremor through him and renewed his faith. After it left Vin's lips, his whole body sagged. The only movement was the rising and falling of his naked chest. The screen went black and he sat on the floor, still seeing the large blue eyes and hearing the word called.

"Chris!"

Part 9

The headache woke him up. It was a driving, blinding pain between his temples. He groped with his free hand to feel for a wound of some kind. Free hand? He peeled an eye open and the first thing that met his vision was a machine. The box with green and red digital lines and numbers was the only light in the dark room. He spotted an outline in the darkness next to his aching head. It was a bedstand of sorts and the distinct image of a pitcher was visible. He sat up and hissed as his body wavered, threatening to spill out of the bed. He tried to reach for the water vessel and frowned as his right arm wouldn't move.

"What the hell?" he grunted, pulling hard. "Jesus..." He winced as a shrill alarm blasted his ear. "...Christ, what kinda hospital is this?" he curled up, pressing his head into the pillow, covering his ear with his left hand. It didn't help, the awful ringing persisted. He clenched his eyes shut and they twitched as the sweat poured down his face and into them. He tried to pull away from the restraints again, throwing his legs off the bed.

"That won't do at all!" a sharp voice addressed him.

His legs were tossed back on the bed and his head was shoved hard onto the pillow. He tried to fight back, but the arms were stronger and pressed hard on both his shoulders. Through the haze of the blinding pain, a new trauma occured. The scent... antiseptic... he knew that scent. A face appeared in his subconscious... auburn hair... killer eyes... a syringe... He blinked and shook the image free, only to have another take it's place. A red body with dozens of legs and snapping claws... deadly plague... plague... dead... .His eyes shot open and he blinked against the harsh light that had appeared above him. She was close, he could feel her hot breath on his neck. He managed to muster up a bit of saliva and spit it at her.

"Fuck off Bitch!"

"You have a rather short fuse," she noted, feeling him weakening. "If you don't calm down I'll bring Lucifer in to babysit you. He does miss you so..."

Lucifer? He frowned as the red centipede appeared in his brain. "Aw shit..." he grunted, struggling against her, as the terrifying ordeal reappeared.

"Or maybe I'll let him play with that arrogant blond who you seemed so taken with... There is that lovely, cold table in the lab and those straps..." She watched his eyes widen in horror, his flushed face pale and the Adam's apple bobbing. All the fight left him and he sank back, defeated.

"That's better." She moved away and adjusted the tangled lines on his hand, before flipping the switch.

Vin's weary eyes followed her as she moved around the small room. There was no clock, but in the corner of the box with the green and red lines and numbers, was the figure 02:00:45. Two a.m. His confused mind tried to put the jambled pieces together. Last night... a cold room... strapped to a gurney... eight o'clock. Six hours had passed. He eyed the small room again as she wrote in a log book. A pitcher of water stood nearby, condensation huddled on it's yellow plastic skin. A bag of potato chips, a sandwich wrapped in plastic and a box of cookies were on a tray next to the pitcher. He swiped the sweat from his face and eyed the pitcher again. God, he was thirsty. He sat up and tried to reach it again, but it was just beyond his grasp.

As if sensing his eyes on the prize, she commented without looking up. "All in good time. If you're a good little lab rat, you'll get your reward."

"Why ya doin' this?" Vin asked, "Why ya after Bucklin?"

"Bucklin?" she laughed and closed the log book. She rose and crossed the room to a metal cart. It was the only other object in the room, other than the chair she'd been sitting on. She laughed again and wheeled the cart over. "How touching!"

Vin flushed with color at his mental slip up. It was name he alone used to address his big-hearted friend, whose dark blue eyes filled with warmth every time he used it. Vin pulled back slightly when the large needle came out of the top drawer of the cart.

"Not to worry, I've already inserted a central line." She paused and drew the blood, eyeing the pain-filled eyes. "I must say, the symptoms are appearing much quicker than I'd anticipated." She capped the vial and carefully noted the time and date on it. She put in a small plastic case on the chair. "I suppose since you'll never see 'Bucklin' again..." she paused and saw his brows furrow and watched him swallow hard. Was the pain from his illness or from his aching heart? That gave her a bigger smile. "My father was James Newlander." She handed him the pitcher, which had a straw in lieu of a spout. She removed some more tools and watched his eyes grow wide in apprehension as he consumed a large amount of water.

"...s'that supposed t'mean somethin' t'me?" Vin replied without looking at her. He took a few minutes to collect his breath, having drank so quickly. He eyed the small room again and wondered if his last breath would be drawn here. He shivered as a mental picture of dead lab rats lying in the trash appeared.

"He was with the Bureau over twenty years and they murdered him!" She snapped, gripping the bedrails with both hands hard.

Vin looked at the flashing eyes and saw the lunacy very clearly. Newlander? He cocked his head and a grainy image appeared of a newspaper photo. Before he could grasp it... it was gone. He'd need more, he'd have to press her. He rubbed his eyes hard, pushing the pain back.

"Buck didn't murder anybody." he said tiredly.

"I was there!" she hissed, eyes flashing. "It wasn't long after graduation." her eyes glazed over and her voice trailed off, then grew hard again. "They lied to his superiors, said he was a 'dirty cop' that he murdered his own men. They... they..."

"They?" Vin puzzled and then thought back on the word 'graduation'. He did the math and frowned. It had to be a long time ago, the words from the first note came to mind. Little Boy Blue... Suddenly the other half of 'they' appeared. "Ya killed Frank Delassi?" he said in horror and watched her smile.

"That was an accident... they were only supposed to torture him... to make Wilmington come to me. But actually I like this plan much better." She smiled so evilly it made Vin flinch. "He'll kneel in front of me and kiss my feet... he'll beg," her eyes lit up with an unholy glow, "... he'll grovel... " she paused and smiled slowly, "then I'll listen to him scream... and watch when he becomes a human rocket. Three cheers for the red, white and blue..."

"Yer nuts..." Vin grunted, shaking his head at her lunacy.

"Speaking of which," she yanked the sheet back and placed her hand on his crotch.

"What are ya doin'!" Vin sat up, ignoring the room spinning around.

"Getting a urine sample, I need to measure the toxic... Ow!" She jerked back when the underside of her wrist was gripped painfully. "Fine, have it your way. I'll have Tony come in and assist me." She locked onto the blue eyes which gave no quarter. The grip on her wrist intensified. She didn't flinch, but raised an eyebrow and stared back. "Understand this, if you persist in this fashion, I'll secure your other limbs and let Tony entertain himself." She felt the pressure leave up a little and saw the hot eyes flinch. They darted around the room, like a rat seeking a hole in the wall.

"Ya sick fuckin' bitch..." Vin pulled his hand back and snatched the urinal before she could. He wondered why she didn't object until he realized he was wearing underwear. It was impossible for him to get his shorts off with his arm tied down. He pressed his back against the bed and stared at the ceiling. He felt his face grow warm as her hands moved. He mentally drew up an image of Lucifer and his army running over her body, while it was tied down. The stinger plunged over and over into her eyes and then the beast crawled down her throat as she screamed.

"There now, that wasn't so bad," she poured the urine off into a small plastic container and snapped a lid on. "Now roll over so I can record your temperature." She saw the hostile face screw up and a fist clench. His eyes moved to the instruments on the tray, zoning in on one in particular. "Yes, I could get the recording from your ear... but you've misbehaved."

Vin eyed her cautiously and rolled to his right, grabbing the rail with his left hand. His eyes rested on the shorts, next to the pile of clothes on the floor. He waited until her hand touched his hip and moved.

It happened so fast, she was caught off guard. His fist caught her hard on the breast, sending a wave of pain through her body. She gasped and doubled over, and that quickly he spun, forcing her back against him in a choke hold. She couldn't breathe and saw black spots dancing in front of her eyes. She heard his satisfied grunts and tried to worm free.

"Understand this, ya ugly demon seed... I'm gonna tie yer fuckin' ass up and let that thing loose on ya... I hear tell they like dark, moist places."

She actually panicked for a minute, until the sirens rang out. She heard him cursing and yanking at the secured arm. It seemed like forever until Tony appeared. She saw the large fist fly by and heard Vin's cry of pain. The pressure disappeared and she sank to her knees. It took several minutes, but she rose on shaky legs and gripped the rail. Tanner was curled in a ball hand covering his throbbing groin. He was blind with pain and didn't have the energy or oxygen to object. She nodded her head at her assistant.

"You okay?" Tony asked.

"I'm fine... he caught me with my guard down. It won't happen again," she hissed and picked up the thermometer. "Mr. Tanner will cooperate... and I've changed the vital sign appraisals. Every two hours instead of four," she ordered, and saw the victim's blues eyes flash in hostility. "Is that another objection?"

"... yer gonna be the prize bitch in yer cell block... hope yer fonda brooms..." Vin grunted, in such pain he was beyond caring. His head was pounding with such force it created a wall of red in his vision. The pain between his legs matched it in intensity.

"Get him on his belly..." she shrieked, snapping on a new pair of plastic gloves.

"Shut up Pretty Boy..." Tony snarled, turning Vin and slapping his backside hard enough to produce a red imprint. He moved to the head of the bed and pressed his hands on Tanner's shoulders, forcing his slight frame into the mattress. "Now that is one tight, little ass..." he whispered in Vin's ear and saw the face flush.

Vin bit his lip and his whole body went tense as the probe recorded his temperature.

"One hundred point two... hmmm..."

The pressure on his face from the cloth limited his breathing. He felt his eyes drooping and tried to surrender. Then he was flipped over and air became available again. He sucked it greedily and turned his aching head away from the sinister duo.

"Not so fast," she pinched his leg and caused the eyes to jerk open. "We're not done yet."

"I am..." Vin mumbled, closing his eyes. "Shit!" he yelped, body jerking and eyes wide as a small electrical charge went through him.

"A cattle prod... very effective." She noted and stared down at the confused eyes. The blinding headache would be followed by the severe body ache, confusion and anxiety as the fever rose. The glands would swell and make it difficult to swallow. But that was in the near future. She wanted to see if his nerve endings were challenged. He needed to drink more water as well, so she could flush his kidneys. She nodded to Tony, who lifted the now limp body and she pressed the straw to his lips.

"...don't wanna..." Vin mumbled, blinking his eyes.

"Drink!" she ordered, "Do you want to be punished again?"

"...hah..." Vin snorted, raising a defiant eyebrow. "...gonna kill me?"

"Tony, tilt his head back and hold his nose..."

"No... " Vin pulled away and took the container. He sipped for awhile and his eyes started to slide shut.

She took the pitcher away and secured his other hand to the rail. She moved to his feet and pulled out a small group of pins.

"OW!" Vin yelped, as the pain pricked the sole of his foot. The pattern was repeated up and down his torso. He was forced to drink again and while she wrote some notes, he dozed off. She felt around his abdomen and he never fliched or showed signs of distress. She pulled the sheet up and gathered up her notes.

"Any problems with the others?"

"No," Tony replied, "Dunne's not doing so good, Larabee really whipped him. He never moved... didn't eat his dinner. Larabee gave me some lip but I shut him up. We done for the night?"

"Yes, I need some sleep," she admitted, feeling bone weary. "The monitors will go off if there's trouble. He'll grow weaker and more disoriented with each passing hour. I'll collect more samples in the morning. Amahl wants a copy of our little lab rat's progess..." she moved the long, matted hair from his face.

"Did you get the money?" He said as they turned the light off and left the unconscious man to his disturbed sleep.

"No, he wants to see the video of Tanner's depreciating condition. We're meeting at six p.m. He'll view the material in the observation room with Tanner on the other side of the glass." She paused as they approached the sleeping quarters. "Then he'll wire his lawyer and have half the money transferred to a new Swiss Bank Account. Once we get the confirmation, he gets half the samples."

"...and Tanner?" Tony asked, staring wolfishly at the ripe body. She peeled the lab coat off and had a form fitting body suit on under it.

"I haven't decided," she paused, eyeing the tight buldge straining against his jeans. "He's quite resilient... determined... stubborn... that might give him some extended time. One one hand, I should record every change... until he's dead. On the other hand, if he lingers past the fourth..."

"You don't need him anymore, right?" Tony leaned against the doorframe. "You got all that money... why hang around? What if the Feds catch wind of us? I can do 'im tomorrow night and dump his body offshore."

"NO!" she said to the thought, "I've never had a human subject. I'll need to do an autopsy."

"When?" Tony asked, "You said as soon as Wilmington buys it, we're on a speed boat to Florida and then a private jet out of the country."

She sighed and eyed the clock. If her projections were correct, he'd be dead by the early morning hours of July 4th. There would still be time... "Goodnight," she said, "Wake me at seven. I want to watch the news. I want to see his face when he gets that tape. Maybe I'll call him... Oh that would be a treat!" she noted of Buck Wilmington."

"But what about Tanner?"

"Let me worry about Tanner. If worse gets to worse, he'll end up scattered to the four winds like his three friends." She shut the door and slid into a long, satisfied sleep.

While the dungeon mistress slipped into a contented rest, the victim of her torment was not so lucky. The nightmare started again. He was strapped to a chair... and dozens of the red beasts covered the floor. The surged like a flood and covered his feet, ankles and legs. They dropped from the ceiling, hitting his shoulders. The stingers plunged into his tender flesh and the screaming began.

"Vin!" Chris sat up, all the breath gone from this tormented body. He was drenched in sweat and swiped the river that flowed down his face. He slid his legs onto the ground and gripped the sides of the mattress, taking several deep breaths. The nightmare was worse than the real events of the day. Varied images of J.D.'s bloody body and Vin's helpless one crowded his head. The centipede was magnified, as large as Vin and using it's pinchers to attack his jugular. Blood gushed from Vin's eyes and mouth. "Fuck..."

He let his shaky limbs lead him to the bathroom. The low wattage bulb over the mirror revealed the well-honed body slick with sweat. He eyed the swollen face and winced at the bruised, discolored flesh that looked back at him. What J.D.'s fists didn't do, Tony's did. He eyed the purple marks on his ribcage and ran a hand over the area; not broken but for how long? What sadistic games did she have lined up for the next day. Two days... two days until the climax with Buck. Two days to get himself and his friends the hell out of here.

"Well?" he asked the lost face in the mirror. "Any ideas?"

July 2, nine a.m. Denver

Ezra paused in the large room outside Mike Ryan's office. Most of the team were already in the field, only two members were in the large work area. His green eyes winced as they encountered the slumped set of shoulders several feet away. Sitting at a makeshift desk, the rogue looked up as the gambler approached. He offered a large cup and a bag.

"Black, no sugar. One raspberry and one cheese," he noted of the coffee and danish.

"Thanks." Buck nodded, making no attempt to eat. He sipped the strong brew and raised an eyebrow. "This ain't Tanner blend..."

"Bite your tongue," Ezra frowned, painfully taking in the gaunt face, dark circles under anguished eyes and the shadow of a beard. "Haggard..."

"You're too kind," Buck sighed, rubbing his eyes and then the back of his neck.

"More nightmares?"

"Same shit... different scenario." Buck paused, "This time it was the desert... buzzards eating J.D.'s eyes... Chris's were gone already. They were tied up, beaten, bloody... Chris's arm was missing... " Buck pounded the desk. "I'm sick of this Ezra... I can't sleep at night... can't function during the day... Christ when will it end?" He buried his exhausted head onto his folded arms on the makeshift desk.

Ezra had no words, nothing he'd say would comfort his friend. He moved in and gently massaged the back of Buck's neck. He felt the muscles give way and a brief respite from the tension. The phone rang and Ezra picked it up, beating Buck's weary hand.

"Standish, ATF... yes... right away... I... very well."

"What?" Buck's head rose and he saw the change in the conman's eyes.

"The F.B.I. intercepted a delivery by Federal Express. It's a videotape with your name on it. They're waiting in Flushing's office."

Buck pushed past the southerner and flew out the door. He took the steps quickly, not wasting time on the elevator. The small group looked up as he entered.

"Where is it?" Buck demanded.

"Take it easy, Wilmington," Flushing addressed the sharp tone and flushed face on the younger agent.

"Don't you tell me to take it easy!" Buck growled, throwing the glass of water someone handed him against the nearest wall. "I got friends out there... damn, fine lawmen... missing... hurt... taken by a bunch of terrorists. Where do you get off..."

"If you won't calm down and cooperate, I'll have you removed." Flushing warned.

"No," a new voice said firmly, "you won't and show some respect for the badge."

"Mike?" Buck's eyes shot up in surprise as the tall, lean man stood by his shoulder. "I thought you were with your team."

"I am..." the senior agent replied, gripping Buck's shoulder once.

"Thanks," Buck whispered, letting the veteran lead him to a vacant chair.

"FedEx received it last night at seven fifty p.m. in Leesdale, North Carolina."

"North Carolina?" Josiah said, entering the room. He'd been phoned by the Flushing group as well. "I thought they were headed to Georgia," he challenged them. Flushing just shrugged and pushed the play button.

The first image was of J.D.'s terrified face. It was a close up and the prior beatings from his tenure was evident.

"Jesus, Kid..." Buck sighed, his hand nearly reaching out to brush the errant dark locks from the youth's forehead. "Chris?" he cried out... the green eyes were dark and glassy, a cruel grin split his face.

"He's high..." one agent noted.

"You think?" Josiah commented straightfaced and Ezra hid a grin.

It wasn't long, but by the time it ended with Chris screaming 'kill the beast' and a brief glimpse of J.D.'s bloodied, battered face, still and silent on the ground, Buck was as white as a sheet. Then there was the unholy scream from Chris and feral look in his glassy eyes as the blade glinted above his head.

"No... No..." Buck gasped, rising from his chair. "Chris... don't..." the thud sent Buck rocking hard back on his heels. His knees buckled slightly and Mike Ryan steadied him and sat him down.

"Anything?" the dark haired team leader asked of the F.B.I. leader.

"No." he replied, rewinding the tape. "No prints... we're sending a team to Leesdale..." a phone ringing interrupted him. He crossed the room and picked it up. "Yes? When? Put it through..." he motioned to Buck.

Buck took the phone and waited, then felt his blood boil when the garbled voice came on. "Did you enjoy the show Bucklin?"

Buck winced as if a knife gutted him when the normally warm Tanner nickname abused his ears. "I will kill you." he said in a calm voice that surprised him and the others.

"I'm afraid that's not part of the equation."

"You're a coward... or you'd show your face."

"Oh but that's part of the game... I thought Dunne did rather well. He screams for you in the still of night, you know. Over and over until he's hoarse or until the pain overwhelms him."

"Shut up!" Buck screamed, "Who the fuck are you? Answer me! Why are you doing this?"

"There will be no atonement for what was done. Only when your blood runs like a river under my feet, will the scales be balanced. Tune in again for the conclusion of this episode... same Buck time... same Buck channel..." the voice mimicked the old Batman television series.

Buck continued to grip the phone, seemingly unaware of the dial tone blasting into his ear. Flushing took it and replaced it on the cradle. "Let's go over what we have..." he said, flipping a thick folder open.

Buck stared at the table and zoned out the arrogant F.B.I. agent's voice. He'd put up with this bullshit until the meeting was over. He owed Mike the rest of the day, but after that, all bets were off. He'd find the bastards who had J.D. and Chris. He'd start in North Carolina where the tape was mailed from. Vin... he winced again, hearing his insulting words and seeing the sharpshooter's face in the hospital lobby that night. What if Vin was dead? What if he never go to make amends?

+ + + + + + +

Time lost all meaning. Seconds, minutes, hours... days? He sighed and blinked rapidly as the slow parade of sweat drops rolled down his heavy lids. His hand had long grown weary of swiping them. He turned his aching head and coughed, expelling something onto his chin and the sheets. The coughing spells left him dizzy and made his chest heavy. A tight band of pain gripped his tender skull with a cruel hand and with each movement of his heavy limbs, the joints vocalized their protest. His eyes grew tired of the same walls, same view of his right arm tied to the rail, same view of red and green lines on the monitor, and he slid them shut. Sometimes if he concentrated, he could remember where he was, other times the void frightened him. If it was a hospital, why weren't his friends here? Nobody ever came except the coat. The masked features were blurry and his head too heavy to lift, but the white coat always moved into his vision.

He closed his eyes and drifted awhile, until a prick in his arm caused his heavy eyes to lift. He saw the blurry coat and his heart began to hammer. The coat meant pain: poking, prodding, pinching and prying. He moved his hand up weakly, pushing the coat away.

"...no... ple...ease... go... 'way... no... hurts..." Vin whispered, his voice dry and coarse.

She pushed the hand away and capped the vial of blood. The mask covered her face and she wore a heavy garment, gloves and other protective gear. She watched the camera on the wall spring to life, turning and capturing the fevered body on the bed. The blue eyes were glassy and lost in a wet flushed face. She recorded his vital signs, pleased that he was fighting so hard. She was afraid after the first twelve hours, that he was going downhill too fast. But now his body was adjusting to the virus and trying to fight back. His temperature was just one hundred point nine and his blood and urine confirmed that the toxin was doing it's job. She eyed the feeble body and pushed the record button on the remote in her pocket

"July second, two p.m, subject has been housing S-470-16 for eighteen hours. Symptoms are consistant with time elasped. Fever, headache, maliase are now accompanied by congestion in nose and chest. Subject is breathing heavily through his mouth and expelling phlegm with difficulty." She paused, eyeing the shivering body and dulled eyes. "Chills and stiffening of joints have appeared. Update at five p.m. during demonstration for client." She grabbed his left shoulder harshly and pushed his body over. The small cry of pain confirmed the already tender joints. Her fingers cruelly prodded the flesh from the base of his skull, down his back, over his hips and onto his legs. She ignored his cries of pain as her callous fingers left a throbbing path down his body.

Vin's face was pressed into the rail and his tired eyes raked in the sight of the same crack in the wall he looked at each time the coat rolled him over. God it hurt... like no other pain he'd felt. His whole body was screaming. It was so hard to breathe... The fingers were pushing and pulling his flesh and he cried out, trying to lift his arm to fight. Why didn't Chris stop the coat?

"...hris... C...C...C...hris..." he pushed his face up hopefully, blinking and squinting, seeking the safe harbor of green eyes.

"How touching." She rolled him back and eyed the clock. She didn't want him fading for his company later. She injected him with penicillin and pushed the button, bringing the back of the bed up. She held the pitcher out and watched his face leap forward, the burning mouth seeking cold water. Just as his tortured lips hit the straw, she cruelly pulled the cup away.

"...no..." Vin choked, his desperate plea dissolving into a severe coughing fit.

She left his struggle for a few minutes, then relented and gave him the water. Like a tired infant, he gulped greedily, the excess spilling over his neck and chest. His left hand rested on her wrist, fearful that the desired prize would be taken. She pulled the nearly empty container away and his face screwed up. The hand gripped her wrist and the beguiling eyes pleaded with her.

"...please... doctor?" Vin squinted at the strange outfitted visitor. "... hurts... find Chris... need..." Vin curled up as a violent pain wracked his abdomen. "Oh... God..." he gasped, eyes clenched shut. It felt like an army of razors were hacking their way through his stomach and heading for his intestinal track. Something was wrong and his heart began to hammer. The voice made a picture in his head. An evil face under reddish hair... the auburn changed to blood red hue and a centipede appeared, large and menacing. Fragmented memories returned, creating a pain so intense it took him away.

She saw his shoulders heaving and nodded, shoving a basin under his mouth as the water came back up. "Subject has experienced vomiting and rigidity to the abdomen." She caught him as his eyes rolled and he slumped. She laid him back and disposed of the basin. She made a mental note to increase his penicillin before the demonstration and have Tony clean him up.

+ + + + + + +

It was barely a whisper, but a thunderous explosion wouldn't have roused the blond faster. His eyes shot open and he winced as every muscle on his tender, battered flesh howled. He raised his head and cocked his ear, listening attentively. A dream... but it seemed so real. Seeking to quench his thirst, he rose and painfully shuffled to the bathroom to get a drink of water. He splashed the cool liquid on his hot skin and the hazy clouds that roamed in his head parted a bit. He shook the lethargy away, like a dog ridding fleas and flexed his sore back. He soaked his hands in the cold water, seeking relief from the swelling. He glanced at the bruised hands and wondered about J.D.'s face and body. Guilt stabbed at him and in his mind's eye he saw the large hazel eyes and winced.

"Fuckin' bitch is mine..." he vowed, flexing his fingers under the icy water.

"...Chrissss..."

His jerked his hands from the water and wheeled his lithe body around. That was no dream; the soft drawl was in the room with him. He moved towards the outer room and saw the lone illumination in the dark cell.

"Vin!" he choked, frozen in place as a close up of the Texan's body appeared on the monitor. "Oh God, Vin..." he eyed the tell tale signs of a serious illness and his heart sank. A wet dark helmut of hair plastered his face, hollow and hopeless. Phlegm stuck to his lips and chin, as well as the pillow. The sheets were soiled and the body shaking with chills. The eyes were the worst, large and lost, they sought refuge. He saw Vin's hand snake through the chrome bed side and the face follow, looking upwards for a shelter in the storm.

"...Chris... there?"

"I'm sorry Vin..." the helpless spectator sank back onto his cot as the image faded away. His head snapped up again as the door opened. He leveled a cold, hard stare at her through a bruised face and one swollen eye. He slowly rose, flexing his back and standing straight, crossing both arms across his chest.

A hail of bullets wouldn't have chilled her more. That single, penetrating circle of green ice cut through her like a laser. She squared her shoulders and tried to shake off the unnerving, almost hynoptic gaze.

"Tony will be arriving in six minutes to take you to the shower room. After cleaning yourself and changing, you will be given a brief time to dine, before practice commences." She waited, but still he stood and stared her down. Wasn't he curious? She stole a sideways glance at the television monitor, seeking to rid herself of the inner tremors caused by his silent strength.

"I've had a rather trying night and day with my blue-eyed lab rat... poor thing he suffers so... calling for you... wondering why you've deserted him." A flinch... just a small one in the left eye... and a single tic in his cheek. That hurt him and gave her a thrill.

"He'll be here where they're scraping what's left of you off every wall in this Hell hole." Chris promised calmly.

"I studied your little group of uh... what was the phrase that blonde slut in the Denver Post called you... the Magnificent Seven..." She struck back, one fist clenched but still the face remained a stone mask. Damn him... she vented silently. "The Magnificent Six just doesn't have the same ring. Of course since you, young Dunne and Buck will join my sick little rat in Hell..."

"Speaking of the Eternal Motel Six for cowards, how is dear old Dad?" Chris hissed and saw her face pinch and go pale, save for two bright red spots on her cheeks. She slapped him hard and he grabbed her wrist. With one stealth move, he flipped her and pulled her back against him, gripping her throat.

"Kill Dunne!" She screamed as his hand grew tighter. Just as she was beginning to lose her struggle, a sharp scream pierced the night air.

"J.D.!" Chris hollered, tugging his hold tighter, "You tell that prick to bring him here or I'll snap your fuckin' neck."

"You release me now or he'll be cut to ribbons... Tony!"

Another scream and Chris's hand wavered. Then a sound of heavy, unsteady feet in the outer hall. Tony appeared in the doorway, dragging J.D. with him. The youth was nearly unconscious, blood running from his nose and mouth. A cut across his forearm was spilling crimson as well. Chris's eyes went to the knife in the henchman's hand, still dripping crimson ribbons.

"Your call, Larabee..." Tony warned. "I'll slit his Achilles tendon..." He placed the knife against J.D.'s lower ankle and Chris relented, releasing the vixen. Another slap to his face followed.

"You're a fool..." she hissed, rubbing her sore throat. "Do you have any idea of the power I possess."

"You're possessed all right," Chris sneered, then jerked his head towards the youth. "Let him go."

"Understand this," she poked his chest, "I need you and Dunne for the show... bloody and missing pieces will do, as long as you still draw a breath. But Tanner is expendible. I can make his remaining hours a living hell. You haven't seen the kind of pain I can cause." She leaned in close when she saw him pale and moisture beads form on his upper lip. Lines of sweat trickled down his neck and she leaned in and licked them off slowly. "That homegrown poison that is ravaging him can be intensified. I can always bring a couple of Lucifer's deadly brothers to visit him..." She whispered in his ear and nibbed the lobe.

Chris pulled back as the water he consumed threated to reappear. Actually that idea appealed to him, covering her in vomit would be an improvement.

"Leave Dunne here and feed them now. Then in ten minutes, take them to the shower room. I'll meet you in the maze." She turned and stormed away.

J.D. was thrown at him and the propelling force knocked them both back onto Chris's cot. He slid free and eased J.D. onto the bed, eyeing the damage on the young man's body. Old and new bruises and cuts melded together in a colorful display. The cut wasn't bad, just enough to bleed good and create a show. He left the silent Bostonian and eyed the lone towel in the bathroom, he ripped it in half and soaked half in the cold water he'd left behind. He returned to find two large hazel eyes looking up at him. He took a deep breath and his pained gaze went from J.D.'s hurt eyes to his bruised fists.

"...Don't Chris... that's... what... she wants... drugged... not your fault..."

Jesus the Kid's easy reply was worse than the physical pain he felt. The guilt was even stronger now. But J.D. was right. "I'm sorry," he said, sitting by the bed and wiping the blood from the still groggy youth's face. "Drugs or not... I could have killed you..."

"Don't!" J.D. pushed the helping hand away and sat up. Chris ripped the dry cloth into strips, while J.D. washed his arm with soap and water in the bathroom. After the bandage was in place, he returned. "Did you see..." he paused, eyeing the vacant monitor.

"Yeah..." Chris sighed, "He's fading... we don't get help to him soon..."

"Don't say that!"

"J.D. you heard that list... it was the who's who of fuckin' deadly diseases..."

"Vin wouldn't give up on you!" J.D. retorted as the door opened.

"I'm not giving..." Chris cut his reply off as the box was pushed in the room by a boot.

"Ten minutes!" Tony warned, locking the door behind him.

July 2, four p.m. deep in the large warehouse

"Well?" Tony asked, leading her into narrow entryway. They walked for several feet before it split, a path to each side. "Lights, camera, action..." he pushed a button on the remote in his hand and the lights high above on the catwalk came to life. "Up there," he grunted, pushing her to the right and towards what appeared to be solid wall. He pushed another button the seamless barrier slid open, revealing steps. She quickly trotted up them, to a darkened control booth. The smokey glass prevented anyone from seeing in, but gave a commanding view of the maze below. Nearly a dozen replicated images of two bound figures were scattered throughout the maze. The were tied back to back in chairs, and blindfolded. They were so lifelike, it was amazing. Under each chair was a different explosive and colorful rocket.

"Unbelievable!" She clapped her hands. She spent several minutes trying to determine where the real Larabee and Dunne were. The blond was in black pants and tee shirt, the youth in army fatigues and olive tee shirt. "Incredible... they were worth every penny," she said of the great expense to create the lifelife replicas.

"Come on down and touch 'em..." Tony called out. "But first, push that green button on the panel... .the one on your left."

More lights came on, and the mirrored walls were revealed. Now the dozen images had doubled. The thought of Buck Wilmingon's impossible race against time to find his friends before the bombs began to blast was too much. She laughed and clapped like a child on Christmas morning.

"Push the yellow one..." Tony called out and Dunne's voice echoed from every wall.

"Buck... Buck... Buck help me..."

"How on earth?" She hadn't planned on that and he waved her to join him.

"I recorded him when he was sleeping. Got all kinds of stuff planned for Wilmington. Go on... touch 'em..." He coached as she drew near the first pair of dummy-hostages.

The blond hair was so real and the skin so lifelike and soft it caused her to gasp and pull back. The skin actually gave way when touched. Hairs could be seen on the 'Larabee' arms. She lifted the eye covering and gasped again.

"My God..." she touched the face and expected the sensual lips to sneer. "Amazing..."

"He's gonna be out of his fuckin' mind." Tony promised, "Between Dunne screaming for him and him tripping off explosions and the limbs flying... what a party!"

"Where are they?" she crooked her head and realized how different the perspective was at ground level. From above the path was cleary seen to the exit and freedom outside. But down here... it was a different world.

"Come on..." he took her hand and with three turns, she was at another set of stairs. He led her to an identical booth to the one she was first in. Dunne and Larabee were tied up, side by side and gagged. They had front row seats.

"I love it... " she purred, seeing the events unfolding in Larbee's eyes. She pulled his gag off and saw the familiar sneer curling up. "You'll have front row seats, no extra charge."

"I got an extra charge all planned..." he threatened, "Gonna shove one up that tight ass of yours and blow you clear to Baltimore."

"It happened in here..." Tony interrupted, eyeing the large room. "I trusted that bastard... gave him a job... felt sorry for him. Hometown football hero gone sour. Gambling debts up his ass... living in a fuckin' box... shit... he set me up."

"That was a real chore..." Chris tossed back sarcastically.

"You won't be tossing them funny lines around on the Fourth," Tony shot back, "You and Dunne will watch him like a rat, running through that maze. He can't win... but he won't know that. Every time he gets within a foot or two of the dummies... BOOM... limbs flying at him... burning flesh. Them fucker's are even pumped full of shit that looks like blood and guts... he'll be out of his mind by the time the big one goes."

"You two deserve each other," Chris studied the room and made a mental note of the path to the only escape. So this was where Buck and Frank took down James Newlander and his dirty dozen. That's what the press called them. Government agents, local cops, two attorneys and some politicians. All dirty... taking bribes and killing anyone who got close. They brought guns and coke in from South America and sold them to representatives up and down the East Coast. It was a sweet thing until Buck and Frank smashed the ring. Buck's first case... he was a rookie and Frank was his partner. He flicked an eye to Jamie... J.C. Buck called her. The mystery woman in the parking lot. Six... eight weeks ago he'd met her. J.C. Jamie Newlander... no Delaney... J.C. Delaney.

"You can stop those wheels turning, Chris darling." she ran a hand up his chest and he pulled away. "You can't escape... My my... look at the time. Here I am a mess and company coming. Tony..." she nodded, tying a blindfold on J.D. and pulling him to his feet and prompting him with a small pistol. "You take Larabee back to his cell. I'll... uh... entertain Mr. Dunne..."

"Touch him," Chris dared, standing and throwing off Tony's meaty paw. "Go on..." he glared, taking a step forward.

"Not to worry, Chris," she cooed, running the gun across the tense youth's inner thigh. "My taste runs to rutting beasts, but then you knew that... you were soooo good..." she oozed, watching his face color and eyes flash. She led J.D. away and nodded to Tony. "Get that rat ready, Amahl will be here at five sharp."

"Got it," he called back, "bath time for Pretty Boy..." He laughed and tied a blindfold on Chris before leading him back to his cell. The shackles on his legs made it difficult to walk and by the time they got there, he was running behind. He locked the door and ran to the lab, quickly donning his protective gear. The small room with Tanner in it was just to the side.

"Jesus..." he complained as the foul smell hit him. "You even smell like a rat..." he pulled the sheet down and nudged the body. "Hey Pretty Boy, wake up... bath time..." The body was unresponsive and that disappointed him. He untied Tanner's right arm and lifted him into a chair. He wheeled it next store, where a large tub of tepid soapy water was waiting. The blue eyes shot open as the tender flesh hit the water. "Well now... this might be fun after all..." he shoved the confused face under the water and waited. It came up sputtering and a hand weakly struck out.

Vin coughed and shivered, eyeing the soapy water. He coughed violently, spewing water, phlegm and soap onto the green-clothed chest. He felt his wet hair grabbed and blurry mask appeared.

"Spaceman?" he choked, eyeing the strange head covering.

"Yeah... and you try that again and I'll knock you out of orbit." The heavy suit had him melting already and he roughly turned the weak body, using the large sponge to wash away the grime, filth and other waste that clung to the shivering, confused soul. He saw the blue eyes flash and both weak fists bat at him, when he roughly sponged the lower body.

"...hell ya doin'?" Vin gasped, "...fuckin' takin' m'nuts off... leave me be... go 'way..."

"Sorry, Pretty Boy, the Boss wants you cleaned up for the company."

"Boss?" Vin blinked confused, "Chris?"

"Yeah," Tony laughed at the confused face and hauled him up.

"Damn..." Vin hissed as the ground gave away or where his legs made of rubber. He would have gone right down, but the big body in green wrapped him in a towel and laid him on a large table. The hands were rough... too rough as they dried him off. He tried not to scream but the throbbing in his head and the angry pain in every joint protested. His cries were muffled against the cloth his face was pressed into. By the time he was shoved into a pair of soft cotton pants and a tee shirt, he couldn't hold back anymore and cried out in pain. He curled up, looking for the black curtains that danced by his eyes.

"Not so fast..." Tony warned, wheeling the presentable lab rat into another small room.

"You're late!" Jamie called out, walking over to take Vin's vital signs. The bath had lowered his temperature a little and it hovered near one hundred and one. The other signs remained the same and the labored breathing, coughing and relentless pain were right on track. Soon the disorientation would set in and his mind would fade out. The lungs would fill as the fever rose and he'd drown, coughing and choking on his own fluids. "Get him on the table."

Tony wheeled the unconscious Tanner to the pale green room off the lab and laid him on the table. He drew the sheet up and she connected all the probes and electrodes that would give the foreigners what they wanted.

"I'm fine here," she ordered, watching the fever rise and the victim's skin begin to glisten. "Amahl and is aide will be here in twenty minutes. After a brief show, I'll be dining with him in town and discussing the time frame for Wednesday," she noted of the Fourth of July. "Jafar will remain behind and you give him the blue box, Amahl paid for them." she noted of the tapes of Vin's transformation. He'd already collected some CD's outlining the prelimary experimentatin. She was saving the rest of the final payment. "Don't wait up..."

"Amahl pay for that too?" Tony asked, raking his eyes to her ass and saw her smile. "You got no morals, Lady..." he shoved off and went to rid himself of the heavy suit and eat some dinner.

The show went better than expected and Amahl was impressed with the deterioration he saw in less than twenty four hours. He asked the right questions, took the right notes and left his aide to collection of the video tapes and data. He was more interested in the ripe American woman's body. They left at five thirty for dinner. She drove and allowed his roaming fingers to play on her inner knee.

Jafar paced outside the warehouse, eyeing the blanket and other mementos from the afternoon on the beach. He was hungry and the sooner he collected the merchandise, the better. He eyed his watched and sighed, decided to call the other two and tell them to go on to the restaurant. He'd meet them there. He left the back door open, airing the hot car out, while he dialed.

"All done..." Tony pushed the final button and the tape spit out. It joined the CD and other notes in a dark blue box with a lock. He snapped the lid on and hustled it outside. The Iranian was talking on a cell phone. Tony tried to get his attention, but the dark-skinned man was walking further away, eyeing the beach nearby.

"Fuck' im..." Tony decided, tossing the box under the passenger's seat and heading for the bathroom. All the water he drank setting up the maze was coming through him. He never gave Tanner a second thought as he raced through the lab to the bathroom.

The blue-eyed opossum opened on eye painfully as the large body skittered by on the other side of the glass. The penecillin shot the coat gave him earlier, combined with the bath, gave him renewed strength. He sat up and waited for the room to stop spinning and dropped onto the floor. He went to his knees and it took a few seconds to right himself. He staggered out into the lab and eyed the unopened coke that the green-suited body left. He popped the top and drained half, belching loudly and finishing it. He staggered past the table and saw his body strapped down and a... a... red... snake? no something else... it chilled him and he turned away, gaining the door. He was just about to decide which of the moving floors in his vision was real, when a hand grabbed his shoulder.

"How the fuck did you get loose?" Tony screamed. He'd seen the body in the lab and finshed up, grabbing only a pair of heavy gloves and a mask.

Vin turned and stared hard at the man's eyes. He was about to ask for help. He didn't know where he was? This wasn't a hospital. Who was this guy? Then the eyes came back... and the tortured memories. The tub... the room... the humiliation. He shoved the body hard, and watched as the larger man fell, surprised by his thrust and scared by the deadly consequences of skin contact. The man's dark head clipped the side of a the sink and he fell dazed onto the floor. Vin ran, haphazard and loose, hitting every wall in the narrow corridor. He passed several doors and pulled at the knobs. One had a key in it and he turned it, pressing the door open.

Chris heard the door and rose, crossing the room as far as the leg shackle would take him. It was attached to the wall and gave him room to move around freely. He doubled his hands together, making a crude club and waited. The door opened and for a few tense seconds, neither body moved. Two sets of eyes grew wide with shock and one mouth fell open. Confused blue eyes full of pain met stunned green ones, full of emotion. His heaving chest forced his tongue to work the prize name through his battered lips.

"Vin!"

Part 10

Vin froze, trying to untangle the multiple images before him. They swam in and out, distant then close, nearly out of focus. The sharp summoning of his name sent a rippling wave of pain through his aching head. He winced and staggered back, clutching his damp curls with both hands, pressing his temples hard. Then a fierce pain attacked his stomach and his shoulders convulsed. He cried out and dropped to his knees in the hallway. The coke came back with an attitude.

Chris watched helplessly as the blue eyes blinked in confusion. Vin made no attempt to enter the room and seemed nearly unaware that he was there. Then Vin dropped out of sight beyond the doorframe, his bare feet the only thing Chris could still see. He heard the awful retching and flinched as Vin's cries of pain snuck out between coughs. Finally there was thump and Vin rolled onto his back in the hall. Chris pushed everything aside but getting Vin the hell out of there.

"Vin! Get your ass up... come on, Cowboy, I need you." He called out, only able to see Vin's knees and legs. He waited several tense seconds, the sweat pouring down his battered face, stinging the cuts on his face and lip. Finally a knee rose up and so did Chris's hope.

"That's it... come on Vin... get up..." Chris coached and watched the body roll sideways and a hand grip the door frame. Vin crawled into the doorway, his mouth and chin covered in vomit and phlegm. "Wipe your face..." Chris dictated and watched the puppet-like movements of Vin's trembling hand. That done, he kept encouraging the lost man until he was on his feet, clutching the doorframe, chest heaving. "Look at me, Vin," the blond said softly. Vin's head cocked and he rubbed his eyes. "You with me?"

Like the rays after a storm, the clouds parted and a face came into view clearly. Vin's eyes shot open in shock when he saw his best friend. His gaze went from the swollen, discolored flesh on Chris's face, the black eye, the cut and abrasions... down to the manacled leg. He licked his lips and studied the face again.

"Chris..."

It was barely a whisper, but to the anxious leader it sounded like the Hallelujah chorus. He released a painful breath and ran a hand through his short blond hair. He kept his eyes trained on Vin, hoping to appeal to him while he was lucid. "Listen Vin, we gotta get out of here..."

"Okay..." Vin nodded, turning away. "I'll go find a nurse..."

"No!" Chris screamed, causing Vin to jerk back and hit the wall in the hall. The Texan's eyebrows furrowed and the pale eyes narrowed. "This isn't a hospital Vin. We're prisoners here... You, me and J..."

"...don't like it here." Vin interrupted, "The one... she... it's a coat... she hurts me... I wanna go..." Vin rambled, watching the floor moving beneath his frantic eyes.

"I know you do, Vin..." Chris winced, watching Vin slip away. "Vin, listen to me... Vin look at me!" He hissed sharply and the head popped up.

"He hurt me Chris..." Vin blinked and began to shiver. He wrapped his arms around his chest, "... he said... ya told him... I didn't wanna bath... he hurt me, Chris..."

"Shit!" Chris swore, a wall of fire coursing through his veins at the thought of his dazed, disoriented and weak friend being abused by that animal. "Vin, look at me..." he directed and saw the wet mop of hair rise from the sweat-slick tee shirt. "He lied to you and I'm gonna hurt him for what he did to you. But right now, we gotta get out of here. Okay? Where is he?"

"Who?" Vin blinked, eyeing the strange place. "...kinda fucked up hospital is this?" He paused and the pain in his joints and back began to throb. His mind drew up an image of a stark room, a small bed and being alone and abandoned. He drew his head up and watched the blond man's lips moving. "I kept lookin' fer ya... ya never came..."

Bullets couldn't have done more damage than the soft, raspy plea and those torturous blue eyes. He swallowed hard and pushed his feelings away; right now they needed to get free. That started with unlocking the leg irons. "Vin, listen to me... where's Tony... the guard..."

"Guard?" Vin frowned, swaying and grabbing air.

"Get in here before you fall down!" Chris demanded.

Warning signals flashed without abandon in his fevered mind. Danger... deadly... stay away... He shook his head, trying to get rid of the overwhelming feeling.

"No! I can't..." he protested verbally without understanding why.

"You'll kill him if you get to close. Deadly disease... the plague... the plague... He'll die too..." his inner voice warned.

"Vin, I won't hurt you," Chris replied, misreading the fear in his friend's darting eyes. He was huddled on the floor, shaking violently and desperately confused. Chris thought up several different ways of killing the bitch who did this to his friend, something slow and painful...

"I can't Chris," Vin said with clarity. The clouds parted again and he began to recall a few things. He was infected with a deadly disease... one that could and would kill anyone who touched him. He stood up and grabbed the doorframe, eyeing his best friend's battered face. "I'll kill ya... she... she... Oh God..." he swallowed hard as the awful moment returned. He felt the straps on his body and his hand rubbed his sore throat, recalling the thing crawling on his face. "... it was a... a... fuckin' thing with a hundred legs... they's all over m'face... crawlin'... it stung me..."

"I know Vin, she made us watch. She'll pay for that, you got my word," Chris vowed. "How'd you get loose?"

"Hit 'im... he wasn't payin' attention... " Vin blinked, eyeing the leg irons. "... he got the keys?"

"Yeah..." Chris nodded, then reached both arms out when Vin lurched, nearly toppling over. "VIN!"

"No, I can't touch ya..." Vin coughed. God it hurt to swallow. "I'll be playin' poker with the devil soon enough. Don't need yer sorry ass hangin' on m'coattails." Vin coughed several times, swiped his mouth and saw the Larabee mask disappear briefly. A flash of an internal pain so intense radiated from the swollen green eyes and caused Vin to flinch. He felt it too... slashing his guts with wild abandon. "I'll kill ya Chris... I can't come near ya..."

"It's my decision Vin and I'll take my chances," Chris offered, watching Vin stagger and go to his knees.

"I won't..." Vin coughed. "I'll find the keys... he's out cold... I think... where'd I leave 'im? Damn..."

"The Lab?" Chris guessed, recalling her meeting.

"Where's that?" Vin gasped, pushing himself up and onto his feet.

"I"m not sure," Chris sighed, then recalled the sound of the footsteps. "I think maybe it's behind you, up the hall somewhere."

"Okay," Vin sighed, turning around and holding the doorway in a deathgrip. He watched the floor rising and falling and tried to catch the uneven surface. "Dammit... won't stay still."

"Shit," Chris muttered, watching Vin's right leg rising and dropping, as if trying to step on an escalator. "Vin, it's flat, it's not moving. That's your fever. Just hold on good and take small steps. Hurry now... " He watched as the body leveled and disappeared. He craned his neck and cocked his head, listening for a body to fall.

Vin took his time, holding the walls, doorknobs and anything else with dimension. "It's flat... ya can't fall... Chris needs ya..." he coached himself, as the floor rose and fell. Finally he spotted the body on the floor and bent over it. The man was all muscle and turning him over took all Vin's energy away. He sat hard on the tile floor in the bathroom and sucked in the fleeing air. Finally, he saw a glimmer of silver and snagged the keys. They wouldn't budge. He fumbled for several minutes, finally getting them off the leather belt. He felt around the hip and back, but found no weapon. He pulled himself up, using the sink and ran the cold water, dousing his face. He took a few small drinks and saw the bottle of penicillin. He shoved the bottle in his pocket and staggered back to find Chris.

It seemed like forever before Chris heard the uneven footfall to his right. He heard the ragged breathing and awful coughing, growing closer. Then it stopped. His eyes were burning a hole in the wall outside and he waited.

"Vin!"

"...ris..."

"Yeah, keep moving. You got the keys?"

"Huh?" Vin rasped, eyeing the strange hall. Where was he? Why was he on his hands and knees? Was that Chris's voice? Why didn't Chris help him? "Chris... there..." Vin's hand fumbled, rising to grasp the one that always responded. "Chris... are ya... can't get up..."

"Fuck!" Chris swore. The voice was close by. "VIN!" Chris hollered, putting a sharp, injured tone to his voice. He waited and sure enough he heard movement.

The painful echo of his best friend's voice drove him forward. He inched his way over the rising and falling of the floor. He pushed onward... Chris needed him... Chris... Chris... he kept telling himself, one hand slapping the floor.

Chris saw the sopping wet head and face appear in his doorway. Vin was on his hands and knees, crawling slowly, pain etched deep in his face. "That's my boy..." Chris applauded and saw Vin's head turn. His green eyes saw the glint of silver in Vin's hand. "Toss 'em... hurry... " Chris ordered.

"Huh?" Vin perplexed, curling up on his side in the hall. The cold cement floor felt good against his hot skin. He let his eyes droop. "... tired..."

"No!" Chris and saw the blue eyes jerk open. "Give me the keys, Vin. Now!" Chris bellowed, realizing that sharp tone was the lone light in Vin's delirium. Sure enough the hand fumbled and the keys were produced. He watched Vin eye the silver ring from an odd angle, the wet head was still on the floor. "Sit up," Chris said harshly and watched Vin's body jerking. He felt awful, he knew how hard Vin was trying. Finally the body was sitting up and facing him. The owlish eyes were fighting hard to stay open and Chris wiggled his fingers. "Toss' em..."

"What?" Vin coughed, body flopping sideways. He caught himself and righted his body, remaining upright, but swaying.

"The keys, Vin..." Chris exasperated, gritting his teeth in frustration.

"Oh..." Vin nodded, cocking his head at the silver object. "..okay..."

"Thank God," Chris muttered when they hit the floor near his feet. He grabbed a discarded end of a towel nearby, still covered with J.D's blood and used it to handle the keys. There were several of them and it took time to find the right one. He stole several glances at Vin and frowned as the body curled up again. "Vin, wake up... Vin..." he kept at it until the head moved. Finally, one leg was freed. Vin was on his hands and knees, moving forward. Chris only saw his butt disappearing. "Vin, where are..." he was about to inquire on the journey when a body appeared, all muscle and menacing. "Shit..." he tugged at the stubborn lock as Tony Kennedy appeared and kicked Vin visciously in the gut. He broke free just as Tony's gloved hand grabbed and pulled Vin up by the hair with his left hand.

"You're gonna pay for that, Pretty Boy. I'm gonna carve you up like a fuckin' Halloween pumpkin..." Tony warned, raising his right arm.

Chris saw the glint of silver and slid the keys in his pocket. He drove forward, slamming the large man into the wall. The knife arched, narrowly missing Vin's neck. Chris covered Vin's body with his own, using his hands and knees, and careful not to touch the sharpshooter. The back of Vin's head was just inches below his own. He pulled the keys from his pocket and tossed them ahead of Vin. "Go get J.D. Vin... Find J.D..."

"...D?" Vin coughed, eyes trained on the silver on the floor ahead.

"Yeah," Chris grunted as Tony's meaty fist hit his back. "Get out of here Vin... J.D's hurt bad..."

"...hurt?" Vin repeated, as a fog bank rolled in. Chris's words propelled him forward. He crawled from beneath... beneath what? Where was he? He saw keys and an image of J.D's lying bleeding . J.D. needed help. He kept moving, following the command to get J.D... help J.D.

Tony watched Vin crawling away without any interest. Bastard had one foot in the grave and couldn't even stand. He'd find him later. Right now, Larabee needed a lesson. He grunted as an elbow was thrust sharply in his gut and a fist found his jaw.

Chris watched Vin crawl away and turn the corner. He elbowed the soft area under Tony's ribcage hard and then shot a right, clipping his chin. The first round came on their knees, both exchanging several blows. Then Chris slammed Tony's head into the wall and the larger man crumpled. Chris staggered like a drunk, the forceful beating left him breathless, dizzy and barely conscious. He turned the corner where Vin had gone, but the next corridor was empty. Where did he go?

Vin collapsed against a wall and felt it move. He tumbled backwards into an empty room. It was cold in here and felt good to his hot skin. He'd just rest a minute, his heavy eyes could no longer stay upright. He kept breathing raggedly through his open mouth, letting his aching body rest. His hand relaxed and the keys slid out.

Chris's head went left and right, eyeing the two paths his lost friend could have taken. Before he could make a decision, a bullet hit the wall near his head. That got his rubbery legs moving and he staggered forward. He moved towards the large area at the end of one of the corridors. It was pitch black and he was forcing his blurry eyes to work, when another shot was fired. This one didn't miss.

Vin heard a noise and his eyes jerked open. He paused and swallowed hard, wincing at the razors that now seemed to have taken residence in hit throat. The noise was followed by another one, louder and all too familiar. Words drifted into his head about finding J.D. and getting help. Another image appeared more a feeling than a picture. Chris shielding him from harm, a glint of silver above his head. A knife. What happened to Chris? What had he done?

"I didn't help... " Vin feared, moving his leaden limbs. Had he left his friend at the enemy's hands? "Chris?" He muttered, rising to his feet, then another name forcefully entered his hot brain. "... no J.D..." he jerked his body in the dark hall. Which way to go? He staggered ahead, letting the floor rise and fall beneath his bare feet. He paused and found himself kissing the floor again. He tried to push the black curtain away but sighed instead and closed his eyes.

Chris was on his back, the force of the small explosion near him had sent him flying backwards. He felt a flow of warm, sticky fluid on his face and absentmindedly swiped a flow of blood. His back hurt, having come in contact with something hard. His eyes finally adjusted to the darkness and he jerked backwards, when his hand touched hair and skin.

"Vin" he guessed, seeking a pulse, "Jesus..." he hissed, sitting up despite the agonizing pain in his back as his sticky fingers retracted. They'd sought a warm throat and a pulse, instead they met a cold floor. The head was severed. He swallowed the bile in his throat and forced his eyes to stare harder. Short hair... not long... he sighed in relief. Then he saw whose face it was and curled his features in disgust. "What the fuck?" he cringed as the light came on and his own image looked back at him. It was real... too real... he saw a scattering of limbs... and J.D's sizzling torso on a chair. The maze... he was at the very edge. He managed to stagger a few feet, before a sharp pain in his right thigh sent him to his knees.

"Not so fast, Tough Guy," Tony panted, trotting over to where the bloodied Larabee was on his hands and knees. He slammed his fist into the area on the gasping blond's lower back. He'd seen the box Larabee made contact with and the harsh blow sent the prisoner sprawling. He watched the pain-hazed green eyes glaring at him through swollen, discolored lids. He bent over and let his hand rest on the hilt of the knife that was buried in Larabee's upper thigh. He twisted it and ripped it free, enjoying the agonizing scream that was followed by the jerking body lying limp and defenseless.

He stood up and kicked at Larabee with his boot, satisfied that he was down for the count. The damage to the room was slight, contained to one set of dummies. Without the keys, he couldn't put Larabee back in his cell. He frowned for a moment, then smiled, thinking of the metal table Tanner had been belted to. He could leave Larabee there and find Tanner and the keys. He hoped that raghead was fuckin' that crazy bitch good. He needed time to find Tanner and clean up before she got back. He got the unconscious man in a fireman's hold and moved out of the room, flipping the lights off. The light in the hall ahead was enough and he quickly made his way to the Lab, dropping the body to the table. He cut the pants leg away and eyed his handiwork. Just bad enough to bleed alot and cause pain. He eyed the bottle of perioxide nearby and smiled evilly.

"Later, Tough Guy," he promised, letting his hand cup the supine figure's groin. The wound was high on the thigh, right under his right cheek. He turned the blond over over and wrapped it quickly with a bunch of gauze from the cart near the wall behind him. Tying a knot, the bandage quickly began to grow sodden with Larabee's blood. He flopped him on his back and secured the wrists, throat and feet. With one final caress, he left to find Tanner.

Vin woke up and sat up. How much time had passed? Minutes or hours? Chris said J.D. was hurt. Was he hurt bad? Chris said to get J.D and get help. He crawled forward and saw a light ahead. With every movement, his body protested, seeking the black void that took the pain away. But J.D. needed him and Chris was depending on him. Chris? A sick feeling washed over him as that feeling of dread returned. That somehow Chris had saved him. He found a doorway and hoisted himself up. His eyes were out of focus and the room was blurry, but then he saw something so vile and horrid that it stole his words. Chris' head was lying about four feet away. Vin's jaw dropped in muted horror and a pain like he'd never felt ripped through him. His jaw trembled and he backed up; his heart wouldn't and couldn't accept was his eyes told him. Then he saw the chair and J.D's body tied to what was left of Chris. The youth's left arm and leg were gone and a gaping hole was where his chest should be. The face was gone... charred and smoldering. "

"No... No... Oh God... What did I do?" Vin whispered as the reality set in. He backed up quickly and hit a lever on the wall. It pinched between his shoulder blades and the mangled bodies of his friends drove him from the room. His fevered brain couldn't adjust and the pain that throbbed in his head and every limb was taking it's toll. He staggered back into the hallway, dropping to his knees as his stomach rebelled. The vomiting left him weak and weary, but a bullet hitting the wall over his head, ended that. He staggered forward, made three turns and fumbled in the dark, hitting a series of buttons. Voices blasted his ears... causing him to jerk as daylight seared his anguished features.

"Buck... Buck...."

"J.D.?" Vin hushed, hearing his dead friend's voice. The voice was calling over and over in his head. Was J.D. telling him to get Buck? To get help? To find Buck? "Find Buck..." he mumbled, listening to his delirious mind. He staggered outside and saw a car, the back door was open. He fell into the back, falling onto the floor of the vehicle. The images of the mangled corpses of his friends brought the chills back with a vengeance. He pulled the blanket on the seat over him and curled up, letting the darkness lure him away.

Jafar's jaunt to the nearby beach ended with a lively discussion with two blonde's in thongs. They were staying in a nearby hotel and he'd agreed to meet them later. He loved having sex with American women. They were so uninhibited. He finally made his way to the car, closing the open door and making his way to the front seat. He turned the air conditioner on full blast and waited for the American to deliver the tape. It was almost six o'clock and he didn't want to waste more time. Just as he was about to go back inside, he saw the tip of the box. He pulled it out from under the seat and flipped it open. Everything was in order, so he turned on the ignition and pulled away.

Tony flipped the sound system off and locked the maze, before following Tanner outside. How the bastard was still on his feet amazed him. Even the shot didn't phase him. He saw the car pull away and panicked. He eyed the new, bare footprints in the sandy dirt that lead a clear path from the door to where the car was parked. They ended at the very spot where the door had been opened.

"Shit!" he ran to his van and put the wheels in motion.

+ + + + + + +

It was lazy time of day, the sun was going into a low mode, the stragglers were still on the beach and the boardwalk traffic wouldn't kick up for a couple more hours. All in all, being on Smuggler's Road this time of day was an easy gig. Officially, it was known as Route 9, but for as long as anyone could remember, this long stretch of road leading up to the Donnelly's was known as Smuggler's Road. It was said that several hundred years ago, pirates used the area to hide their loot. Every now and again, some fool got themselves into trouble out this way, digging for gold.

Calvin Sanford's meaty right hand drifted into the bag of pretzels on the empty seat next to him. A local cop for over thirty years, the fifty-five year old veteran was on his last tour of duty. The end of the busy tourist season would spell his retirement. A nice pension, time to travel and see some of the world, maybe even visit his brother down in Mississippi. At six-foot three and two-hundred and thirty pounds, the African American patrolman was imposing. He eyed the outline of Donnelly's in the distance and thought on how much the dinner theater/shopping complex meant to the seaside resort town. The tour buses that spilled in from as far north as New England, for three day jaunts and neighboring towns for just a matinee show and time to shop. All those buses and blue-haired ladies put money in the community. A car flew past doing well over the speed limit and Sanford shook his head.

"Damn fools will never learn," he muttered, flipping on the sirens and pulling out from behind the large brush that covered either side of the road.

Jafar looked in the mirror when he heard the sirens and cursed in his native tongue. He pulled the car over and reached for his wallet. Amahl would have his head if he caused any trouble. He eyed the large, dark-skinned policeman approaching and put on his best tourist face.

"License, registration and insurance," Calvin said, peering at the foreigner through dark sunglasses.

"Certainly Officer," Jafar complied, "I am very sorry, I got carried away. I guess I was speeding a little bit."

"Just a bit," Calvin replied shaking his head, "How long are you staying?"

"Only a few more days," Jafar replied.

"You realize that you were doing close to seventy in a thirty-five mile an hour zone?"

"No, Sir, if I did, of course I would have slowed down," Jafar emphasized with his gleaming white teeth.

"Yeah..." Calvin sighed, shaking his head as he walked back to his patrol car to call it in.

Tony slowed down as soon as he saw the flashing blue and red lights ahead of him. He pulled into the overbrush and cut his engine off. He quietly opened his car door and eased his long body from the vehicle, jogging closer to hear what was going on.

Jafar eyed the flashing lights in the rear view mirror and shook his head. What was taking so long? Finally, he saw the cop leave his car and walk back, writing a ticket. Good, that meant no hassle. He'd sign it and leave. Just to be on the safe side, he eased his hand to the gun concealed beneath the fast food bag on the seat next to him.

Calvin finished the ticket and was writing the date on the bottom, when his eyes flipped to something in the back seat. At first glance, it looked like a blanket covering beach paraphenalia on the floor of the car. But then he spotted a scalp, a good-sized line of flesh and a thatch of dark, curly hair. It was a body covered in a blanket. He kept his distance from the car, slid the ticket book into his waistband and drew his weapon. His keen eye didn't miss the hand shifting towards the passenger seat.

"Sir, please step out of the vehicle."

"Is there a problem?" Jafar's eyes narrowed when he spotted the gun aimed at the door.

"I'm not gonna ask you again," Sanford's voice lowered, "Put your hands on the doorframe and ease it open." He ordered and watched the body reacting slowly, a little to slowly. He saw the slightest hesitation and pulled his weapon up. "Don't try it, Dirtbag... Outta the car, now!"

Jafar's father always said he was impetuous; he was right. The foolish Iranian pulled his gun and fumbled, sending a shot into the doorframe. Sanford fired almost at the same time, his aim was true. Jafar's lifeless body spilled out over the doorframe.

Calvin was reaching for the victim's neck, confirming what he already knew to be true, when the 'body' sat up. "Shit!" he hissed, jumping back and drawing his weapon. "Police, freeze!"

Vin didn't realize he'd drifted off until a loud burst of gunfire jerked him back into the land of the living. He sat up and blinked, vaguely hearing a voice screaming at him. He didn't move, rather he collapsed weakly against the bottom of the back door. A car... he pondered rubbing his aching eyes. What was doing in a car? Then it came back to him, the bullets and the bodies of his two friends. Lifeless limbs strewn about a warehouse floor and J.D.'s features and flesh burnt off his face.

"Oh God..." he gasped, the waves of memory giving him a wicked pain in the chest. Then he saw a gun aimed at him through the window and an angry dark face.

When the man didn't answer, Calvin skirted the vehicle to get a better look. He a young, caucasian male, twenty-five to thirty, long brown hair and by the looks of him, high on something. He didn't see a weapon, but took no chances, he opened the door and peered inside, noting the barefeet nearby.

"Come on out of there, Son..." he ordered, aiming the gun again. He frowned, the kid either didn't or couldn't hear him. Then he looked closer at the flushed-face, covered in sweat. "Wait a minute... I know you," he murmured, "We got papers on you... I seen you on television. The F.B.I. is looking for you. You're..."

"Tanner... Vin... ATF..." Vin gasped, before dissolving into a coughing fit.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Calvin moved closer and the kid went nuts.

"No... no..." Vin screamed, fumbling with the doorhandle just above and to his right. "Don't come near me... she gave me... I got... some fuckin' plague... ye'll get sick... stay away... don't come any closer..."

"Alright, now just calm down, Tanner," Sanford said, pushing the button on the radio on his shoulder. "I'm gonna back up real slow and you slide outta there, okay?"

"...'kay..." Vin agreed, watching the large man ease his frame backwards towards the tall overbrush. By the time Vin got off the seat and stood up, the ground began to swirl around. He blinked and watched other man's mouth moving but couldn't hear the words.

"This is Sanford, I need backup out here. I got one of them missing ATF agents. Tanner, the one the F.B.I. is so hot on. Send..."

"No! Don't... No!" Vin's hoarse scream caused the officer to pause. He misinterpreted the raving voice and flailing arms. He mistook the wild eyes, not realizing they were aimed behind him. It would be the last mistake he made.

"Look, Son, I ain't gonna hurt you. Just..."

The words died in his throat as the blade severed it, killing him within seconds. Tony wiped the blade on the dead cop's back and eased him to the ground. He saw Tanner staggering like a drunk, trying to get away. He calmy strode behind him and struck him hard in the back with a large piece of driftwood he'd picked in the overgrowth. Tanner went to his knees and Tony's boot well delivered in his gut, forced the body into the dirt. His boot on the back kept the pressure up, listening to the wheezing breaths and waited for the darting blue eyes to shut. After several minutes of debating, he thought on the cop's words. He already reported in and they knew he found Tanner. Smiling, he saw a way to solve the germ-ridden problem. The sicker he got, the more nervous it made him handling the fevered body. He pulled his knife out and eyed the protective gloves he wore. He bent over and pressed Tanner's slack fingers over the hilt. He eyed the large blanket in the back seat of Jafar's car and quickly wrapped the body up in it. It took about twenty minutes, but he got Tanner and the dead cop in the back of his van.

He eyed Donnelly's Dinner Theater in the distance and recalled the nice piece of private beach behind it. It was just where the boardwalk started. The buses usually dropped off the tourists there and picked them up later. He started the car and slowly drove to the highgrass next to Donnelly's property. Twilight was falling, the sky was a brilliant dark blue. The buses would be spilling out soon, dumping the passengers for the eight p.m. show. In the meantime, his days as a busboy in the large dinner theater came back. There was an access road, off the main one, that trucks used for deliveries. It was deserted and lead right to a perfect stretch of beach.

"Pretty Boy," he called out to Vin's stilled body in the back, "You're gonna give them fat broads from the city something to talk about all the way home." He laughed as his ingenious plan. He'd seen the news earlier and Vin Tanner was at the top of the F.B.I's most wanted list. That additional pressure was something the bitch was worried about. Combined with the cop's report and what the tourists would see, the nails had all but sealed Tanner's coffin.

July 2 2001, twilight, Denver

"You watch those moves, Lady, you're gonna get arrested and I ain't got any bail money."

"You don't have any pockets, either, Brown Sugar," she murmured, kissing him deeply and running her hands up his naked thigh.

"Rain... don't... do... that..." Nathan grunted, her deft moves had taken his breath away. "... it... ain't... right..."

"We're married..." she pressed her lips against his throat and caused a groan. Then her husband's hand came up and pushed her back. "What happened to the wild man who made love to me under the conference room table with his boss in the next room?"

"He got older and smarter," Nate chuckled, recalling how close Chris had come to catching them one Friday night late, soon after they married. He thought he was alone, Rain came to pick him up. She looked great, smelled better and it was after eleven p.m. Who thought Chris would stop in his office after dropping Mary off.

"How you doing, Baby?" she stroked his anxious face, not missing the worry lines.

"Lousy... feel like a damn fool. Stuck in the hospital... three friends missing. Shit... " he

"They'll find them..." She tried to coax a happier mood into her lover, but it failed.

"I don't know, Rain." Nate denied, wincing as his side pulled, "I got a bad feeling. Vin as much as shows his face and some trigger happy cop is gonna blow it off. He ain't got a chance."

"Not with talk like that he doesn't," a deep voice chastized. "Don't lose faith, Brother."

The theme song from Jeopardy was just starting when the door opened and two bodies entered.

"Josiah, don't preach, not tonight," Nate said crossly, "Where's Buck?"

"With Orin, I'm picking him up in an hour. Orin's orders were to see he got home and got some sleep. You look better, you're not that unpleasant shade of gray anymore. Your cheeks are actually flushed." Ezra noted and saw Rain giggle and cover her mouth. "Oh..." he smiled knowingly and winked at the pretty woman, "Well, no matter the cause, it's an improvement."

"How's he doing?" Nate asked of his missing friend.

"Horrid," Ezra answered, "He's lost weight, doesn't sleep much..."

"...when he does, he's troubled by bad nightmares." Josiah added, grinning at Rain, while Ezra extended a 'fatherly' hand on her slim shoulders.

"My Dear, have I ever told you how very enchanting you are?" the southerner purred and was rewarded with a soft slap on his wrist.

"You're full of shit, Ezra." She retorted, "Bribery?"

"I'm appalled that you would use such a term in my..."

"You plannin' a Pearl Harbor?" Nate interrupted, raising an eyebrow at the conman. "...on Buck?"

"We're just looking out for his best interests," Josiah noted, handing Nate a large container of Ice Cream. "Mocha chip..."

"You play dirty, Preacher," Jackson grumbled, taking the bait.

"We wouldn't ask if his appearance wasn't so dreadful." Ezra added, sliding a new copy of 'The Perfect Storm' video in front of the grinning patient.

"Am I that easy?" Nate turned to his wife.

"That's how I snagged you..." she winked, squeezing his hand. "I'll get you something. He'll get eight good hours. I'll be right back."

"To quote our missing Texan," Ezra eyed the pretty doctor as she left, "You my good Mr. Jackson, 'sleep in shit'."

"Thanks, I think..." Nate chuckled, taking a spoonful of his ice cream.

"Sure looks good," Josiah raised an eyebrow.

"Not on your life," Nate denied, pulling it away. "Any new leads?"

"Not since the call this morning. Orin show you the tape?" Josiah asked and saw Nate dip his head.

"Hit me like a bullet. Musta killed Buck." Nate shook his head. "What do we do now?"

"Well, we're running out of time," Josiah eyed the date on the corner of the television. "Brothers, we need a miracle.

July 2 2001, twilight

The gentle music that caressed his ears kept him in the comforting cocoon. The soft spray kissed his face like a graceful butterfly's wings. He inhaled deeply, the scent of the air was salty and combined with the breeze and the rhythmic tide, it left him in a hypnotic state. Gulls cried softly overhead and the rushing waves were stronger than a lullaby. He licked his dry lips and tasted sand and salt. Prying an eye open, he viewed the scene from an impossible angle. The foaming spray licked at his feet and rushed to his knees. Foam? Waves? Salt Air?

"Ocean..." he rasped, his dry throat protesting. He raised his head and regretted it immediately, as he was rewarded by a fierce pounding. His stomach rolled and he tried to catch his breath, totally confused by the presence of the alluring green sea.

"Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore..." he muttered, wincing and groping blindly with his left hand. His fingers touched fabric, then flesh. He jerked his head up and saw the open, unblinking gaze of a corpse, his throat slashed open.

"Shit!" he hissed, kneeling up and noticing the man wore a uniform and a badge. A nearby scream split the tranquil twilight sky and his head shot up. A group of middle-aged tourists and some teenagers were gawking at him. The roar of the ocean and the screaming pain in his head didn't quell the cries of horror from the onlookers. He blinked as a flashbulb caught him full face, blinding him for a few seconds. He raised his hand to shield his eyes and saw the bloody knife he held.

"Aw, fuck..." he dropped the knife and eyed the crowd again. They were on a boardwalk, raised above the sand. Several buildings dotted the landscape behind them and a pier jutted out in the distance to his right. It was lit up by a scheme of rainbow colored lights; a large ferris wheel and several other rides garishly assaulted his pained gaze. Where the hell was he? What happened? The roaring headache didn't supply any answers. A siren wailed in the distance and he quickly shook his head clear. He stood and staggered a few feet, attempting to seek aid. But before he could open his mouth, one of the now growing crowd shouted "Get the cops... that guy killed a cop... hurry!" Another flash of light jarred his aching eyes.

His legs took over and he fled under the safety of the network of pilings below the boardwalk. He knew not where he was going, only that it would be far away from the persecutors. He ran until his sweat-slicked skin stuck to his soaking wet clothes. He ran until his sides ached and his legs were rubberized. The pilings ended and the black night became his friend. He eyed a cluster of old, delapadated buildings, whose windows were covered with boards. He went past the first two and decided to enter the third. He managed to crawl up the steps to the second floor and over near the window. A board was unhinged and he pushed it aside.

He collapsed against the wall, raising his face long enough to see the distant lights of the ferris wheel. The whirling colors only aided his dizziness, creating a distorted kalidiscopic effect. Then the venomous fangs plunged into his burning brain, scaring a cry from his dry throat. The stifling room seem to shrink and he found it difficult to breathe. The darkness surrounded him, even the phantoms that lurked in the shadows scorned him. It was an agonizing pain, beyond the pounding jackhammers in his head and the throbbing ache all over his worn body. He clenched his fists and eyes, pushing against the wall of agony. Their faces haunted him; a grievous, horrid loss of two stellar federal agents... two good friends. Their presence seemed to surround him and his guilt drove them away. Exhaustion took over and the pain in his head reached a shrieking cresendo, sending his body through a black velvet void and onto the floor.

July 2, Denver, eight p.m.

Buck strapped the helmet on and sat on the treasured object. He ran his hand along the chrome and sighed. He could almost hear the laughter that had become such a part of him. He clenched his eyes shut and saw the boyish grin, that damn lock of hair that always hung in his face. He eyed the tidy garage, all the shelves with the tools, spare parts, motor oil and other paraphenalia.

"Damn Kid..." he whispered painfully as J.D.'s voice bounced off every vacant wall.

How did one life-loving, enthusiastic, gutsy kid take such a huge bite out of his heart? Two years and it still seemed liked yesterday when the brash youth waltzed into the Team Seven office. Leather jacket, mirrored sunglasses and cocky attitude. He smiled when he remembered the Boston College grad's first encounter with his new team leader.

"I'm Chris Larabee," the blond offered with his hand.

"Cool!" J.D. boomed, eyes shining as he eyed his hero. Chris's reputation spread wide and far and J.D. was no different than the others. They'd all come to appreciate the difference between the man and the legend.

"Damn death traps," he muttered, climbing off Dunne's prize bike. He chuckled softly as he left the garage, pulling the door closed. How quickly J.D.'s boundless energy and need for competition had been harnessed when Vin Tanner joined the team. Vin was closest in age to the youth and the team's two youngest quickly became good friends. Ice hockey had been the beginning, but now they funneled that competitive edge into other sports. Everything from dirt biking to rock climbing to skydiving. The latter scared the rogue so bad, he couldn't watch the twin terrors.

He walked for awhile, needing the time to think about a plan. Orin dropped him off at J.D.'s, he needed to be near the youth. There was a coffee shop about six blocks away and he'd phoned Ezra to meet him there. He didn't want to go home... he dreaded the nights and wanted to avoid the inevitable terrors in the dark.

He saw an black mustang cruise by and his heart clenched for a moment. Chris's prized possession, his classic mustang. It was a beauty and worth a fortune. He smiled warmly and recalled the afternoon Chris called and said to 'be outside in ten minutes'. So he waited and then laughed when the mustang pulled up with Sarah in the passenger side. The pair held up their wrists, bound by plastic handcuffs. Buck didn't miss the glint of the diamond on the pretty girl's finger, which matched the one in her husband-to-be's eyes. Wasn't too many times in your life when you get lucky enough to know a man as rare as Chris Larabee, let alone call him friend. He was so lost in thought, he didn't realize he wasn't walking alone anymore.

Ezra watched the emotions playing on Buck's face for several minutes. Finally, he got out of his car and approached the forlorn man. He stood abreast of him and waited, and then the tired eyes finally looked up.

"Hey Ez, didn't hear you."

"I didn't want to intrude," Ezra offered quietly. "Would you like to go inside?"

"I don't know... " Buck sighed, rubbing the back of his aching neck. "I feel like a stranger in my own skin. Does that make any sense?"

"Yes, very much so," Ezra agreed. He'd never met anyone with a heart the size of Wilmington's and couldn't imagine the pain it now housed. "A crowded establishment doens't fit the bill. How about a steak, caesar salad and chocolate mousse?"

"I'm sorry Ezra, I know you're trying." Buck sighed, "But I'm just not in the mood for eating out tonight."

"My Good Man, you've never dined at Chateau Standish," Ezra corrected and saw a small smile forming.

"No fancy sauces or wine older than me..." Buck warned.

"Commoner," Ezra dismayed, leading the way to the car.

Dinner was quiet but Buck appreciated Ezra's letting him settle into his mood. They didn't talk much, just about the case and Nathan's progress. Ezra cleaned up the dishes, glad that Buck had eaten. He'd denied the wine and served iced tea instead. Now the sleep aid was in Buck's coffee, which was going down easy with the chocolate mousse. He saw the mustached agent smile, then laugh.

"Did I miss something?" Ezra asked, bringing his own coffee out onto the patio of his home.

"Remember the time your next store neighbor dragged her visiting cousin over here?"

"My crystal stemware has yet to recover," Ezra stated of the high-pitched, annoying woman's voice. Constance Evans had long since moved out, but that Saturday night was a favorite story of Bucks. He'd conned the rogue into doubling and then paid for his generosity, when Wilmington refused to leave.

"Another wonderful double date..." Buck laughed, shaking his head.

It was good to hear Buck laugh, even if it was brief. He enjoyed Buck's company and envied the ease at which the tall man was in any given situation. He was charming to a fault, intelligent, extremely funny and well read.

"Hey, Ez... listen... I want to thank you... I know I haven't been myself..." Buck paused and thought on how protective the southerner had been with Vin. "You know, you're okay, Ace."

"I'll remind you of those words the next time I ask for my poker winnings." Ezra teased, watching how comfortable Buck had settled into the chair. "You are more than welcomed to stay here."

Buck nodded, "Thanks Ez... but it might be a rough night. I haven't slept through since... well the nights have been a bitch is all."

"Night terrors can be very troubling."

"I keep seein' Chris and J.D., dead in all different ways." Buck raked a hand through his hair and hunched forward, pushing the half empty cup of cofee away. "I get there just after they..." he paused and rubbed his weary eyes. "Then there's a stranger near the bodies and I fire... shit... all I see is his eyes... shocked and blue."

"Vin..." Ezra sighed, "That is a reflection of your subconscious dealing with the trauma of your last parting."

"Yeah," Buck agreed, "but that don't make it any easier." He lifted his head and stared hard at the conman, "What if... I don't get the chance to tell him..."

"You're putting the cart before the horse," Ezra snapped, not liking the melancholy that sat on Buck's chest. "Tomorrow is a new day, I'm sure..."

"I told Orin I'm taking annual leave the rest of the week," Buck interrupted, "I can concentrate and Mike deserves better," he said of the supportive team leader. "I'm gonna go over everything again, we missed something." Buck yawned, suddenly unable to keep his eyes open. "Listen Ezra, thanks..." He offered his hand and the other took it and hauled him upright. Buck saw a glint in the green eyes as Ezra spoke.

"Not a problem," Ezra paused, patting Buck's shoulder, "as long as you don't mistake me for Miss Salmon of 1999..."

"It was Miss Catfish and even sleep deprived, I wouldn't make that mistake." Buck yawned, following Ezra towards the guest room. "She had a set of teeth on her...and talk about acrobatic..."

"Please," Ezra waved his hand, "...spare me the details."

Part 11

July 2, Atlantic seaboard, 8 p.m.

J.D. groaned as the water he'd consumed now needed to be expelled. Every movement sent waves of pain through his battered body. His swollen, bruised face ached, along with his back and head. The ribs were another story, every breath brought a hot pain and he tried not to move. But now he had no choice. He hissed and winced as he inched into the bathroom, the reflection in the glass over the sink started him. One eye swollen shut, his face was streaked with blue and purple bruises. His lip mangled and puffy.

"You look like shit, Kid... " he groaned to the man in the glass, thinking of Buck. After he finished, he walked around the cell, trying to force some life in his fatigued body. He kept wondering about the shots he'd heard. It seemed like hours... it may have been hours, he had no sense of time. It wouldn't have been Chris, the bitch mentioned she needed both of them.

"Vin?" His voice was laced with fear. Didn't she hint that Vin was expendable. "Vin ain't dead..." he corrected himself. She wouldn't have poisoned him if she were going to shoot him. "Unless," he theorized, still pacing. What if Vin got loose somehow... what if Tony shot him? His frustration began to build and he pounded the door, screaming in vain.

It was late when Jamie returned, she entered the compound and immediately sensed a change. She hurried to the lab and into the small room adjacent. The bed was empty.

"Tony!"

"I can explain..." He started, immediately putting his hands up defensively.

"Where's Tanner?"

"He got loose, hid in the back of that Iranian guy's car. I went after them and almost caught them, but a cop got there first."

"A cop... My God..." She shrieking, breaking several empty petri dishes against the wall. "How could you let this happen? How did he get loose?"

"I guess you fucked up there... He clubbed me and when I came to, he'd given the keys to Larabee. "

"Larabee's missing!" Her eyes flashed and Tony paled, watching the killer rise.

"No... he's in there," he jerked his head toward the lab. "Tanner got away while we were fighting."

"What about the police?" She calmed down, realizing that since no squad cars were outside, they cover was intact.

"I took 'im out... left him on the beach," he noted, "They think Tanner did it... A bunch of tourists getting off the buses behind Donnelly's got there just as Pretty Boy decided to wake up... holding the bloody knife over the dead cop. They'll be busy looking for him..."

"I deal with you later," she said coldly.

"Look, you told me this morning that the heat was coming on too strong. That the Feds were beefing up the roadblocks... this takes the pressure off."

"Dunne?"

"He's okay..."

She brushed past him and flipped the light on, smiling as she saw the blond bound to the table. His skin was pale beneath the colorful bruises on his face and she saw the small pool of blood under his right thigh. She danced her fingers along his chest and past the waistline of the shorts. She caressed him and leaned over, just inches from his lips. Although he remained asleep, he was stirring under her deft fingers and several small moans escaped.

Chris never got tired of staring at Sarah. He watched her swaying her hips and smiling boldy at him from across the room. The castle was over five hundred years old and nestled in the heart of the Highlands in Scotland. The fire in the hearth gave the room a warm glow, casting an ethereal

light on her delicate features. Her curly dark hair hung loose, softly folding around her chest. The translucent violet nightgown enhanced the body he craved and he felt himself stirring for her touch.

The three week trip to the British Isles had been a dream of hers and a way to celebrate their first anniversary. They roamed the land of her ancestors by day and romanced with wine and candles by night; celebrating the special love they shared. She was the most wonderful creature God ever made and he ached to hold her. He sat up, letting the sheet drop away and opened his arms. She danced away, raising an eyebrow and settling on a rug by the fire. He growled, lunged and covered her body, grinning wolfishly as she smacked his bare skin, rolled him over and straddled him. She nipped his neck and then kissed him deeply, shuddering as his hands caressed her lower back.

"A dilis rún!" she cried out as he filled her with love.

He kissed her back, absorbing the Gaelic expression for 'Oh true love" which Sarah learned from her Grandmother. They explored each other and rested, sleeping wrapped in Cupid's cloak. As Dawn broke, she caressed his fine face, her heart full every time she drank in his features. A soft kiss found her palm as two green eyes opened.

"You're late..." she whispered, letting her soft hair rain over his face.

"Late?" he sighed, shifted so he could hold her. He nuzzled the fine skin between her neck and shoulder and felt his head drawn up.

"Aye, Darlin'..." She teased with a mock accent. "It's time to make a miracle." She laughed and ran her fingers through his hair when his eyes widened in amazement. A baby... a child born of this wonderful creature. He reached up and cupped her face, drawing her near.

"God I love you Sarah..."

Jamie smiled and pulled back from the lost man's kiss. She strapped his hands down again before he realized the erotic adventure was a dream. She bent over, tracing the outline of his lips and watched the eyes peel open.

"What... what..." Chris croaked, blinking at the bright lights above his head. He jerked his head, feeling a tight noose-like sensation near his neck. His arms and legs were also bound. "What the fuck?" he mumbled. "Ahhhhh..." he growled, testing the leather as reality set in.

"That bitch must have been some piece of ass..." she gloated, watching his face turn into a mask of revulsion.

He struggled in vain against the tight bindings and then hissed in frustration when he realized his predicament. A hot shot of pain lanced his right thigh and he bit his lip. He continued to pull and test the restraints, until the pain in his leg stilled him. Sweat rolled down his face and stung his eyes. He kept his hands clenched into fists and watched her move closer.

"Now that you're awake, we can take care of that." She nodded to the wound, then let her fingers roam over his still semi-erect form under the pants. "...I can take care of that too..."

"I'd sooner fuck a snake..." he grunted, trying to move away from the prying fingers. The fact that his couldn't control his body make him angrier. "...course not much difference is there?"

"Lift your body up so I can get your pants off." She ordered bruskly, then frowned impatiently as he refused to comply. "If you make me cut them off, not only will I turn the temperature down and let your precious balls freeze, but I'll be forced to visit young Mr. Dunne and teach him a few things."

"You give a whole new meaning to the word whore..." he shot back, lifting his rump so she could get his pants down. He couldn't swallow the cry of agony, when she ripped the fabric that had dried over his wound, sending a wall of white-hot pain through him.

"Tony..." she called out and waited for the door to open. "Roll him over and hold him down..." she ordered, holding the dart gun against him. Once he was turned sideways, his hands and feet bound on one side, she examined the wound. It wasn't serious, but it bled a bit and needed to be cleaned out and stitched. She disappeared for a moment, to get some soap and water.

Tony kept the gun trained on Larabee from a few feet away and saw the blond's green eyes darting and the puzzle on the prisoner's face. He grinned, knowing Larabee was thinking about Tanner.

"Your ass ain't nice and tight like Pretty Boy's," he teased and saw the fire spark in the green eyes. "He sure felt good, all covered with warm, soapy water."

"Good thing you like that tub," Chris gritted, trying to force the image of Vin helpless against the brute from his troubled brain. "...cause after I beat you within an inch of your life, I'm gonna fuckin' fry your ass in it..." he said of an electricution.

"Big talk from a walking corpse," Tony goaded, watching Jamie return. "You'll never see the light of day again." He saw the eyes darting again and grinned. "Oh... uh... I forgot to tell you... Pretty Boy made a real impression on the law here in town. He's now enemy number one... they think he slit a pig's throat."

"They'll never... catch... fuck..." Chris hissed as the rough hands grabbed his buttocks and scrubbed the dirt and debris from the wound. "...catch him."

"You better hope he dies first, cause if they do, they'll make him suffer. This ain't Mayberry."

Chris furrowed his brow and thought on Vin's plight. Vin must have found a cop, but Tony killed him. Did Vin tell the cop where they were. Not likely, or they'd be moving out. Where was Vin? Did he call home? He frowned and thought of how confused Vin was. The idea of his sick friend wandered around a strange town with a target on his back, started a molten fire inside. How much time had passed? He drew his eyes from the wall when she passed by, his stomach churned when he saw the sneer on her face.

"Acid..." he mumbled, thinking of watching her skin dissolve and every twisted feature melt away.

"Much as I enjoyed our trip the other day..." she misconstrued of his meaning, "I have a rather busy day tomorrow and I don't have time to play with you right now. It won't be long justice is done and his death is avenged."

"You're daddy's little girl alright," Chris snorted, "...you're a lunatic too."

She grabbed a bottle from the table and walked behind him. The fury on her face and the sound of the bottle smacking the table made him flinch. She grabbed the back of his leg with her left hand and poured peroxide over the open wound.

"Jesus fuckin' Christ," Chris hissed, his tortured body buckling against the leather bindings. "Shit..." he bit his lip, blocking the scream that was pressing against his teeth. The burning sensation took his breath away and a red wall of pain descended, blurring his vision. He collasped and gasped for breath, trying to find relief from the pain.

"You gonna stitch that?" Tony asked, watching the gleam in her eye.

"No..." she said in an almost trancelike voice, "turn on the burner on that lab table and heat up a knife."

Chris paled and tried to swivel his head. A knife... cauterize... she was gonna burn him. "Sick... fuckin'... bitch... I'm gonna nail... you for... this. Enjoy it too..."

She saw his head turning, tranfixed by the reflection of the flame in the glass window. "Not to worry, Chris," she brushed a hand across his damp forehead and smiled when his face wrinkled in disgust. "that wound has to be sealed... later. Right now, it's time for you to be punished for your crime."

"Crime?" Chris panted, the burning in his leg not subsiding at all.

"...for maligning my father's name..."

"He didn't need my help... ate his gun all by himself," Chris gasped as her hand connected with his face with a resounding crack. She marched out of the room and Chris's eyebrows furrowed.

"Fuckin' stupid Fed," Tony gloated from across the room. "You're gonna hurt now... she's a wicked bitch..."

The door slammed and Chris tried to move his head backwards, hearing the determined footsteps approaching. He flinched at a harsh sound of something cutting the air near his head. Before he could react, a motor sounded and the metal table he was strapped to, moved. It halted when he was in a near upright position.

"When I visited the Orient, I witnessed a criminal being punished by the authorities. Caning is an acceptable means of discipline in many countries. Ten strokes is the normal sentence," she decreed, "...but an infraction such as yours isn't normal." She held the cane at arm's length, pivoted and delivered the first blow.

Chris hissed as the razor-sharp instrument cut the flesh on his lower back. The strikes rained down on his lower back, by the fourth or fifth, the skin split open. He was covered in sweat and had already bitten through his lip. He felt the blood running down his back and covering his buttocks. He pressed his face against the metal surface and clenched his eyes shut. The sweat on his body mingled with the blood and the burning, stinging sensation was pulling him under. He felt the razor like pain ebbing away and the room grew smaller and smaller.

By the tenth strike, his body jerked as soon as the switch cut the air, creating a whirling hiss. She began to play with him, striking the air several times, just to see him jump. Then he stopped jerking and she pouted. She dropped the bloody cane and eyed the gaping wound on his leg. "Give me that knife..." she demanded. As Tony made his way over, she eyed the bottle of peroxide and smiled. The crisscross line on his lower back were bleeding, creating a rather interesting pattern as the red streaks ran down his body. She poured the solution into a quart-sized container and poured it over the marks on his back. The liquid hit the bloody areas and foamed up, the burning sensation roused him immediately.

Chris didn't stop the muted cry from pushing through his lips when his back caught fire. His body jerked and strained and he pulled against his restraints, his eyes bulging. He bit off the rest of the agony, determined not to give her what she wanted. His stance was short lived. Once the red hot metal of the blade hit his leg wound, his screamed, buckled once and lost consciousness.

"Put him in with Dunne. Leave some linens, food and water. It's late and we have a long day ahead."

+ + + + + + +

Vin looked around the dense jungle and sighed wearily. The humidity was suffocating him, his cotton garments clung to him, sealed to his skin by the sweat that poured from his spent body. His long hair hung limply; a tangled mass of rattail-like tendrils that clung to his face and neck. He cast a long gaze upwards, seeing the unending mass of overgrowth and brush. It was eerily quiet and he couldn't move. The thick muddy water of the riverbank seeped closer, running in his nose and mouth...choking him. He sputtered and gasped, spitting it out and blanched, horrified when a large centipede rode out on the bile.

"Noooo!"

Vin sat upright and blinked in the darkness. The dream was over but the terror was real. He was covered in sweat, gasping for breath and every inch of his body was crying in pain. His head was the worst and his hand groped in the dark, seeking a wound to explain the horrid, searing pain there.

It took several minutes for him to collect his breath. Finally, it slowed down enough for him to regain a little of his strength and crawl to the window. He lifted the bottom on his soaking wet teeshirt and wiped his eyes. He heard the call of the ocean and his head tilted, his keen nose scenting the air. Salt in the breeze... he was close to the shore. Ocean? He frowned. They don't have oceans in Denver.

"What the fuck?" he rasped, eyeing the strange, dark outlines of buildings below. He hitched his aching body up and out of the upper half out the window. He sucked in great gulps of air and welcomed the slight breeze that caressed his burning skin. A wave of dizziness caused him to slide back inside and down against the wall. Closing his eyes, he rubbed his temples with both hands, grimacing as his head threatened to explode. Trying to collect his scattered thoughts, images began to form. J.D. and Chris in a boxing ring, J.D.'s body, Chris's tortured eyes, a white lab coat, a rough male's hands on his body, a large, red insect crawling over his face.

"Shit!" he jerked his eyes open as the reality hit him hard. He had to get help... help... call the police. He crawled to the doorway and an invisible hand hit his chest. More images ravaged his burning brain. A bed... he was tied to it... pain and humiliation... Chris telling him to go... a shot... a loud bang... Chris and J.D.'s limbs strewn about a warehouse floor... J.D's face on fire.

"Oh, God... " he choked, eyes filling, "What did I do?" Somewhere inside a message flashed that his actions caused the horrid incident. He escaped from... from where? The brute chased him... fired his gun... Chris and J.D. were killed. He crawled to the steps, his fevered brain trying to escape the vision of his dead friends. He pulled himself upright and managed to stagger down the steps, hitting every wall. As the salt air greeted him, more messages startled him. Deadly... plagues... fatal disease... the centipede... the lab coat... the mocking laugh. He was dying... dying. He trudged up the wooden ramp and onto the deserted boardwalk, a small bait shop was at the end. Vin peered in the window and saw the flickering image of a television. He was about to knock on the door, when his face appeared on the screen.

"...Tanner. He is pictured here from the photo taken last evening by a tourist. The knife used in the fatal attack on Officer Sanford is shown in his hand. The F.B.I has confirmed that they are seeking Tanner and he is considered dangerous. The murder suspect is still in the area and police say they will take no chances in apprehending him." The local reporter paused as the anchor man asked her about the rumor of the wanted man carrying a deadly disease. "That's the rumor we heard and the F.B.I is calling a press conference at six a.m."

Vin saw a body moving in the room and silently backed away, fearing for the other as well as himself. He held his breath and flattened his body against the wooden walls and waited. The blue light went out and he peeked again. He grabbed some change from the tip cup outside the door and crept away. He staggered down the darkened boardwalk, the words echoing in his head and an image of a dead cop with a slit throat appeared. He saw the bloody knife in his own hand. What the hell happened? He needed help... he couldn't go to the police... or a hospital. Chris was dead. He felt no pain inside, rather a disconcerting numbness. The loss was just to great to bear and he pushed it away, denying it. It seemed like forever as he skulked along in the shadows. Finally, he spotted a payphone. He opened the door and smashed the light, before dropping a quarter in the slot.

July 2, Denver

It was a wonderful hot summer day, the kind that is endless for a ten-year-old boy. A wonderful group of hours that stretched magically through baseball games, fishing trips and other boyhood adventures. He was with Pete, Jimmy and Todd, his three best friends. They were headed for the arcade to play pinball. They gathered around the hottest machine, which was brand new-all slick and shiny. The bells rang crazily, sending his blue eyes spinning with the silver ball. The bells rang and rang...

He jerked his eyes open and winced at the large red digital numbers on the bedside clock. He blinked at the strange walls, before staring again at the numbers. Three-eighteen a.m. The bells from the pinball machine were long ago silenced. He sighed and sat up, swinging his lean legs from the bed. He picked up the ringing phone and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

"Yeah..."

"We have a collect call from," he raised his head as a beep sounded and a soft drawl filled his ear, "...it's Vin..."

+ + + + + + +

"Shit!" He jumped up and flipped the light on, pressing the phone to his ear. "Yeah, go ahead." He covered the phone, eyed the doorway and hollered. "Era... Ezra..." He heard the click of the charge as the disheveled host appeared in the room. "It's Vin... get on the horn..."

Ezra wasted no time moving to the kitchen and picking up the cordless phone. He returned to the guest room and pulled a notepad and pen from the top drawer of the chest. He eyed Buck's concerned face as they both listened intently, waiting for the raspy breathing to turn into a voice.

"...there... anybody..."

"Where the hell are you? Do you know the F.B.I is looking for you? You're at the top of the fuckin' most wanted list." Buck's fear turned into anger, the molten variety was spurned by the horrendous days past. Endless days of worrying and long nights filled with dark terrors. He saw Ezra glowering at him and read the anger on the Southerner's face.

"Contain yourself or we'll lose him. What's the matter with you?" Ezra whispered, covering the mouthpiece. But Buck didn't hear him or pretended not to, his face was still contorted in anger.

"I need help... I'm in trouble..." Vin countered, reeling from Buck's onslaught. Buck? He shook his head in confusion. He didn't call Buck... did he? The operator said Buck wasn't home... How did he get Buck? The angry voice broke his puzzlement.

"Trouble?" Buck snorted in contempt, "That's putting it mildly. You hightailed outta your place, didn't call anybody. You let that temper of yours get..."

"Shut up!" Vin broke in, "...ain't got long... can't afford t'be seen." he hollered, wincing as his harsh voice pierced his already throbbing brain. "They... the tv... they... say I killed a cop... they're huntin' me..."

"Who? What cop? Where are you?" Buck demanded, frowning as he finally heard something over the fragmented words. The fragile tone of the voice and the staggered breathing spelled out trouble.

"Hold on..." Vin sighed, eyeing the dark boardwalk in front of him. He kept the phone booth door open and looked around. He saw a menu lying in the trash can by the booth and grabbed it. He eyed the matching sign on the window across the boardwalk. "... menu says... Old Country Pizza ... Mystic Cove, Maryland."

"Maryland? What the hell are you doing there?" Buck thought outloud.

"...don't know... Got took from the parkin' lot the day I let out." Vin rasped, rubbing his head and wiping the wet flow from his face. "It's hard t'remember... I can't... think... m'head hurts..."

"You gotta try, Vin!"

Vin cried out and dropped the phone as Buck's voice sent a knife through his head. He heard voices from the dangling phone, but didn't pick it up. There were two blurry receivers and his hand fumbled, trying to snag the right one.

"Wonderful!" Ezra snapped. "Not only did you not ascertain the whereabouts of Chris and J.D. but you've scared our only lead away. Can't you hear? He's injured... or ill..."

"Alright, Ezra," Buck defended, "I'm sorry... Vin? Vin? Shit... Vin, pick up the phone..."

"...'lo... there... Bucklin?"

Buck opened his mouth to reply but the soft call of 'Bucklin' stole his breath. He wiped his face with his hand and took a deep breath.

"Yeah, Vin... sorry about shoutin' at you."

"... she said ya wasn't there... thought I called Ez..."

"You did, Vin. I'm at Ezra's. He's here too."

"Ez... there?" Vin hoped, needing to here the southerner's voice. Hearing Buck's had given him a little strength. He needed his friends now more than any time in his life. They were his only hope; their trust was his lifeline.

"Yes, Vin. Are you injured?" Ezra asked softly, hearing the awful breathing.

"I'm dyin' Ez..."

"What!" Buck screeched, jumping from the bed. "What do mean 'dying'?"

"...got some plague... they done stuff t'me... bad stuff..." Vin rambled, his delirious mind bringing up the images again. "...tied down... couldn't move... big bug was crawlin' on m'face... hundreds o'legs... stung me..."

"A centipede?" Ezra guessed from the clues. "That's not fatal, Vin..."

"...they was fucked with... put the ten plagues in 'em... I got one... I'm dyin'... can't let anybody near... cops are huntin' me..." the burst of information left Vin breathless and he spent several minutes gasping and coughing painfully.

"Are Chris and J.D. with you?" Buck pressed, watching Ezra writing.

"Oh God..." Vin whispered, wiping the large amount of phelgm from his chin and sliding to the floor of the booth. His legs couldn't hold him up and the vivid images came back. "I'm sorry, Buck... they're dead... I thought... I tried t'get away... Chris said t'go... a 'splosion... legs and arms all layin' all over... he didn't have no face... I done that..."

Ezra watched the color drain from Buck's face and the phone slide from his hand. He saw Buck cover his face with his hands and heard the shuddering breaths. He drew his attention back to the phone. He snapped his fingers and Buck raised his eyes. He covered the mouthpiece and sharply addressed the forlorn figure before him.

"He's very likely housing a high fever and possibly delirious. There is no reason to believe what he thinks is real. He could have easily dreamt it. If you've ever had a high fever, you know the illusions they create are quite real."

Buck took a deep breath and picked the phone up, wincing as he heard Vin sobbing in the distance on the other end. He open his mouth and tried to speak, but couldn't produce a word.

"Vin! Vin!" Ezra's voice was sharp. He felt every bit of the Texan's pain and desolation, but he didn't have time to cushion the blow. "Answer me, this instant!"

"Huh?" Vin choked, hiccuping in the phone.

"Pull yourself together. If we are to come to your aid, you need to help yourself. What about the dead officer? Did that happen after you escaped?"

"...don't recall a lot after they was blowed up... just wakin' up on a beach with a dead cop next t'me. Folks on the boardwalk... took pictures... I had a knife... they started hollerin' I was a murderer... cops were comin'... I ran..."

The explanation took all the strength from the caller and he left out a long burst of air, punctuated by several wet coughs. The two men on the other end of the phone took in the information. One was writing notes, the other was sitting on his bed, quietly absorbing the tale. His mind ran back and his heart began to pound.

"Wait a minute, Vin... Mystic Cove?"

"Yeah..." Vin rasped, desperately trying to stay awake. "...know it?"

"It was a good thing you ran, Vin. That's a town that doesn't like strangers. It's the kind of town that people disappear from. You'd have been fish food by morning. Where you hidin' out?" Buck asked.

"...old buildin' at the end o'the boardwalk." Vin took a gulp of air and fought off passing out. "Factories maybe... I'm hold up in the third one, up top. Shit..." Vin hissed and toppled over as a wave of dizziness passed over him.

"Vin! Vin!" Buck heard the painful voice and the slurred speech that now was silent. "You okay?"

"...here..." Vin coughed and paused to catch his breath, "...feel like fried shit... m'head's poundin' like a jackhammer... throwed up... hell, everythin' hurts."

"I know those buildings, We'll get a flight tomorrow." Buck ordered, "You stay put Vin... I'll find you."

"Yeah," the voice was fading and distant, "I keep seein' 'em Buck..."

"Damn..." Buck swore softly, feeling his stomach drop at the painful voice. He could see the large sky eyes wide and anguished, riddled with unwarranted guilt. "You hang in there, Vin, okay?" He waited and there was another long pause, followed by more ragged breathing and coughing. Then the shattered voice that was barely audible.

"...about all o'this... the fight..." Vin swallowed hard, recalling the harsh words they parted with, "...I'm sorry, Bucklin..."

"You got nothin' to be sorry for, it was all my fault," Buck's voice was deep and sincere, "... and I'm sorry too, Vin, for everything. You keep that shaggy head up, Son, the Calvary's coming."

"Buck... wait!"

"What?" Buck replied anxiously, hearing the tone change drastically.

"Iffen I don't... If I'm dead when ya get here..." Vin paused, licking his dry lips. "Don't let 'em cut me up, Buck."

"Aw, hell." Buck bit his lip and felt his eyes welling up. An autopsy; an image of Vin's pale body gutted like a deer gave him a shiver. He pushed that thought away and took a deep breath, regaining his voice. "Quit talkin' like that! Ezra's right, you gotta keep your head up. Quitter's never win and winners never quit. We'll be there tomorrow."

"...word Buck," Vin pleaded. "...s'important t'me... please... beggin' ya."

That he couldn't refuse, try as he may. The lost voice swirling in the soft call and the very real possibility that Vin might be dying. "Okay, Vin, I'll watch your back."

"Thank... you..."

The dial tone caused his whole body to jerk. He sat numb on the bed and looked up only when Ezra pulled the phone from his hand.

"Come on," Ezra prodded gently, like Buck, haunted by Vin's plea. "We have work to do."

"Work?" Buck blinked.

"Yes, we now have a large clue and we're going to start at the beginning."

"At the airport?" Buck said, putting his shoes on.

"No, at the file storage room. Those lost hours and the person Vin was trying to warn you about. We missed something. Call Josiah and have him meet us there."

"I'm calling the airlines first..." Buck said, dialing information.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. sat up the darkness, his heart pounding frantically. The sudden movement sent a wave of pain through his injured ribs and took his breath away. It was several minutes before he regained his flying oxygen. Something woke him up. A cry of pain, that's what it was. He stood and moved slowly, until his foot hit a body. A body? He knelt and groped over a flat bank of cotton housed muscle, until he felt a pulse under short hair. Short hair...

"Chris!" he cried out, feeling the pulse again and sliding his hand over the nose and mouth, insuring the body was real and alive. "Can't see a fuckin' thing..."

"Might want to turn on a light, Kid..."

"Chris!"

"Don't make me shoot you, J.D." Chris grumbled as the loud voice slashed the throbbed space between his temples.

"Sorry," J.D. apologized, pulling Chris to a sitting position. He heard the cry of pain and felt the hand grip his arm painfully. "What's wrong?"

"Fuckin' bitch whipped me..." Chris complained, sucking air through his clenched teeth. He heard footsteps and then the light came on. He raised a hand up, shielding his eyes, which were still adjusting. He felt J.D. pull him up and try to get him to the bed.

"Fuck... fuck..." Chris swore as the agony rippled through the tender flesh on his back. He gripped the youth's shoulder painfully and cried out again.

"OW!" J.D. slipped up, letting his call of pain go airborne. The strong hand clamped to his shoulder sent him to his knees.

"Sorry..." Chris hissed and eased his body onto the bed.

"...s'okay..."

"Help me with the shirt?"

"Sure." J.D. said, standing in front on the blond, who was bent forward, arms resting on his knees. Chris lifted both arms, barely suppressing a cry of pain. Despite his tender touch, the open wounds clung to the fabric and the effort it took to pry it free, caused real pain. J.D. never wavered, pushing the cries from his head and continuing with his progess. Finally the shirt was free, but the youth wished it wasn't. The fine flesh of Chris's lower back was covered in blood and purplish cross marks. He felt an anger rising in him, for the damage done to this friend, the terror she'd inflicted on his missing friend and the murderous intent for his best friend.

Chris felt air hit his back and sucked in two long breaths. He wiped the flow of sweat pouring down his face and sighed. He heard silence and that was discomforting. He raised his pale eyes painfully and saw the white knuckles clutching his black shirt. He raised his gaze further and saw the pure rage shining from the youngest's hazel eyes. He rested a hand on the tense youth's forearm, just as Dunne spoke.

"I will kill her."

Chris flinched at the words and watched J.D. disappear into the bathroom. The shirt was left on the floor and he heard the water running. It wasn't so much the words spoken, but the quiet determination he'd used. Looking back, the kid held up well and Chris was proud of him. When J.D. turned around, holding a soapy towel, he let that pride shoot right across the room.

J.D. saw the admiration in Chris's face and blushed, before moving forward. He sat next to Chris and gently washed the mess from his back. Twice he made trips in silence to the bathroom, each time taking more of Chris's spilled blood with him. He heard the cries of pain and saw the white knuckles Chris gripped the bed frame with. He used the last clean spot on the wet towel and wiped Chris's perspiration from his pale face. When the last wound was cleaned, J.D. brought Chris a glass of water. He sat next to him and saw the unvented anger radiating off the blond.

"Free shot..." he offered his face, with the drink, seeing the throbbing pain in the green eyes.

Chris looked up at the invite and saw the kid jut his chin out. He chuckled and grabbed the back of the youngest's neck, gripping it hard. "Thanks, J.D...."

J.D. moved and got more water, getting three glasses into Chris, who he suspected was going to get a fever. He watched Chris flinch as his right leg was eased onto the bed. The leader was lying sideways, breathing heavily. "What's wrong with your leg?"

"That bastard cut it... If Vin got away, it was worth it..."

"Vin? He's alive!" J.D. exclaimed, "I heard shots... I thought... what happened?"

"He got loose, somehow," Chris let his eyes slide shut. "He's all mixed up... burnin' up with fever. He got the keys and I got loose, but then the guard appeared. I jumped him and told Vin to go. I was trying to get away, when he stabbed me." Chris ended, then clamped a hand on J.D.'s shoulder. The youth was sitting on the floor next to the cot and moved to look at the leg. "Don't... it's fine..." he peeled an eye open and saw the anger again, rising on the bruised face. He saw J.D. wince and rest a protective hand over his injured ribs. Kid's gotta be hurtin' bad, he thought and let his eyes close.

J.D. was lost in thought, mentally killing the bitch a hundred ways. What if Buck got here and she hurt him? What if Vin died alone out there? What were they gonna do? What did she have planned next?

"I'm proud of you."

The quiet group of words interrupted his train of questions and he turned, swallowing hard. Coming from Chris Larabee, someone he admired second to none, they were so much more than words. He felt his skin flush warm and studied the blond's face, eyes closed but pain twitching under the pale lids.

"Does that mean you won't call me 'Kid' anymore?" J.D. questioned, grinning a little.

"No fuckin' way..." Chris grunted, peeling one eye half open and spotting the flush of pride his words caused. He closed his eyes again and ruffled the tangled dark hair. "...Kid..."

+ + + + + + +

Vin trudged along in the dark, feeling worse with every labored step. Each footfall jarred every aching bone in his body. The sweat was never ending, running down his face and stinging his eyes . The blinding pain in his head caused him to stumble and stagger like a drunk. He concentrated on keeping his balance, watching for the pier and the bait store. That's where he knew to turn off to find the building again. The public restrooms off the beach loomed ahead After he was finished in the bathroom, he managed to find the water fountain on the side. He took a long drink and fumbled until the pill bottle in his pocket opened. He swallowed the penicillin with difficulty, over the swollen glands in his throat. He was almost back to the turnoff, when he saw the flashing red and blue lights by the abandoned buildings and cursed. He staggered to the edge of the boardwalk, down the ramp and underneath. The sand was hard and cold under his barefeet. The water washed over them, giving relief to the burning soles. The gentle sway of the tide was comforting to him. He inhaled the salt air and trudged along.

As he forced himself onward, he thought back in time, to when this whole mess started. All the mistakes he'd made slashed at him hard, critical choices that J.D. and Chris paid the ultimate price for. His heart constricted when he thought of his two lost friends. Gone forever was J.D.'s infectious grin and enthusiasm. He sighed and felt his chest bind, recalling the joyous whoops that accompanied the many sports they shared. The weekends camping, hiking and rock climbing. The ice hockey games, kayaking, raquetball, skiing and so much more. The kid loved sports and he enjoyed their time together. Chris... the very thought brought his stumbling steps to a halt. The pain was too overwhelming and he dropped to his knees. The green eyes that were his safe harbor were closed forever. He felt the water lapping at his waist and let the sound of the tide hitting the pilings, drown out his lone, soulful cry of pain. It was a far worse pain than the physical torment his body was in. He felt as is his soul was wrenched from his body, leaving a bloody, ragged hole in it's wake.

"Get your ass in gear, Tanner!" the sharp voice bellowed, "You're a damn mess... suck it up and get moving..."

"Chris!" Vin gulped, coughed and let his moist blue eyes scan the underside of the pier. The voice was so clear... he could have sworn his best friend was next to him. He pulled his shaky legs up and swayed, blinking at the blurry outline of the pilings. "Chris..." he voice faded, but the message remained and spurned him onward. His legs picked up their pace and he fought the urge to collapse. He reached the end of the pier and kept going. Before long, he was far from the boardwalk and the sun was coming up. The stretch of beach ended and he eyed the rock formation that jutted out ahead of him, extending an arm into the water. He hesistated, eyeing the moss covered, slippery rocks. He dropped to his hands and knees and slowly climbed over them, not feeling the cuts the sharp edges were making in his feet. Exhausted, his energy spent, he collapsed on a flat rock. His churning stomach rebelled, all over the place. He was so weak and disoriented, he didn't see the stranger behind him.

July 3rd, 4:30 a.m. Denver

"Josiah's here." Ezra noted as the car pulled up. He eased out of his own car and Buck followed. They waved to the eldest and made their way to the ATF File Room. Ezra swiped his ID badge through the slot and waited for the green light. The small note sounded at the same time, unlocking the door. Buck flipped the lights on, while Ezra waited for Sanchez. He spotted the bag and was relieved that the ex-minister thought to bring coffee.

"You have the news on?" Josiah said, entering the small room off the main area. He sat at the table, watching Buck looking around the empty room.

"No, why?" Buck asked, without turning around.

"Well, it's not good..." Josiah said, lifting three cups of coffee out, along with creamers and sugar packets.

Ezra picked one up, stirred cream in it and took a sip. "What have you heard?"

"Heard it on the radio," he stirred three sugar packets in the coffee and took a sip. "Vin's in Mystic Cove alright, and there's a rumor that the cops found a video. They're claiming Vin's carrying bubonic plague..."

"Wonderful!" Buck exclaimed, slamming his fist on the wall. He kicked a chair, before righting it and settling at the table. He drank his coffee black and welcomed the bitter taste it left, which matched his mood. "He might as well have a target painted on his back."

"They'll never bring him in alive," Josiah agreed, "They'll shoot to kill..."

"Not if we find him first," Ezra noted. "We've secured three seats on a six-forty flight to Baltimore, via Charlotte, we arrive at one-thirty. Buck believes it's about two hours to Mystic Cove from there."

"They're calling a six a.m. press conference. We best get done and get to the airport. We can catch CNN over there." Josiah replied eyeing the room. "Alright, Ezra, it's your show..."

Ezra stood up and tapped Buck on the shoulder. "I need your body..."

"Excuse me?" Buck squinted, while the conman rolled his jade eyes.

"Upright," Ezra clarified, "Go to the phone. Vin was in here when he called you. He was frantic... he'd seen someone. We assumed he saw them in person. What if he saw something in the file or on the computer."

"Jesus, Ezra, give me something easy, why don't you?" Buck charged, "There's hundreds of folders out there..."

"Stay with me, Buck, I know it's a strain," Ezra countered. "He was on the phone and was cut off."

"Somebody was following him," Josiah added."If they cut the line in the hall..."

"I'll go," Buck offered, trotting to the box in the hall. "OKAY!" he yelled, quickly rejoining his friends.

"Yes," Ezra nodded, hanging the phone up. "He had only seconds..."

"So if he found something... a file... or a printout from the computer..." Josiah frowned, "but the room was empty. We searched it..." He looked at the floor and chairs in the barren room.

"Maybe we didn't look in the right place." Ezra's pale eyes went skyward. His gaze went from the phone, to the door and then back to the ceiling.

"Yeah..." Buck agreed, jumping on a chair and then the table. He moved the fiberglass ceiling tiles around and stuck his hand in the empty berth above. "Bingo!" he cried out, jumping down and dropping the folder on the table.

Josiah took the rubberbands off and opened the thick folder. Ezra and Buck came behind him, each scanning Vin's notes.

"FDA... green and white... DEL..." Ezra read. "Tony Kennedy..."

"That can't be... he's in jail. I checked that myself." Buck denied, staring at Vin's familiar scrawl.

"Check again," Josiah said, handing Buck his cellphone. "Get that warden out of bed if you have to."

Buck flipped through the folder until his notes appeared. He dialed the number, leaned over and stared hard at the newsclipping, while he waited.

"Jesus fuckin' Christ," he swore, eyeing the face in the picture. "Why didn't I see it sooner? She looks just like him."

"Who is she?" Josiah asked, reading some of Vin's handwritten notes.

"Jamie Delaney..."

"That woman you were seeing, the scientist?" Ezra asked.

"Yes, uh... this is Agent Flushing of the F.B.I.," Buck lied, shrugging at Josiah's glare. "I need to speak to the warden, it's a matter concerning national security." Buck's face darkened, "Then get him up... now!"

"Jamie Cameron Newlander..." Ezra read of the old clipping. "Her father was the officer who headed the dirty dozen, he commited suicide, rather than face his accusers. Delaney... it states here was her mother's maiden name, she was European."

"I remember that," Josiah nodded, "The press wouldn't leave her alone. They left the country. The daughter was in college..."

"Apparently," Ezra read through Vin's many printouts, "She made quite a name for herself overseas. She's a highly decorated member of the scientific community. Her speciaility is toxicology and biochemical warfare."

"Looks like the boy did his homework," Josiah noted of the well documented notes.

"He's always thorough," Ezra agreed, "He'd make a good detective. I guess when her mother died, she had no reason to stay abroad. It states here, Mrs. Newlander died of cancer last year."

"I'm gonna add that bitch to the family reunion personally," Buck vented, hurt and angry at the way he'd been abused.

"What's this all about?" a gruff voice barked in his ear.

"It's about you fuckin' up and three damn good federal agents who might die because of it. I want to know when Anthony Kennedy was released and why. His parole wasn't up until next year."

"Do you know what time it is?" The irate warden cried.

"It's gonna be time for your funeral if you don't move your fat ass faster!" Buck screamed.

"Always the epitome of charm," Ezra grinned.

"So she's planning on getting revenge on Buck and got Kennedy to help. He's got a score to settle too..." Josiah replaced the documentation and watched Buck's face ready to implode.

"How the fuck did that happen?" he roared, slamming his fist on the table and sending the creamers flying. "When??? Jesus Christ, you fuckin' idiot. Do you know what you've done?" Buck screamed. "Shit, he hung up on me."

"I can't imagine why," Josiah deadpanned, "What'd he say?"

"She got Kennedy released a few months back, as part of a work/study program. Some shit about his rare DNA or blood or something. Dammit, he was here the whole time..."

"Alright, we know the who and the where and the why." Josiah supplied. "Fill in the pieces Buck."

"I think we should update Nathan, he shouldn't hear about Vin on the news," Ezra worried.

"Yeah, that's on the way to the airport," Josiah agreed.

"It was my first case," Buck stated, as they left the room. "Frank was my training officer. They suspected Newlander and about a dozen other cops, politicians and lawyers of a big operation. Kennedy was working for them, in the warehouse." He stopped by Josiah's car and handed him the folder. "They knew we went to the same high school and asked me to go undercover. I was the college golden boy gone wrong. The stud, star quarterback now up to his ass in gambling debt. I lived off the streets, eating out of the trash and hung around the pier. Kennedy found out about me and got me in. I was under for about four months, feeding them information." He sighed, "That bitch used me... Christ, I blamed Vin and I was the one who fed her..."

"Buck, that won't help anybody," Ezra warned, eyeing the guilt-plagued man, "Come on, we're wasting time."

An hour later, the trio stood by Nathan's bed, watching the recovering agent's stricken face. Josiah called Mike Ryan from the hospital room. Their temporary team leader was sympathetic and said not to worry, he'd talk to Orin.

"I'm sorry, Nate, I know it's a shock, but we didn't want you to hear it on the television," Josiah sighed, "We gotta get moving, we'll call you..."

"Josiah," Nate said finally, "You tell Vin... you tell that sorry-assed Texan... you tell him..." he choked, swallowing hard.

"Yeah," the preacher nodded, squeezing the upset patient's shoulder. "I will, Brother."

Nathan watched them leave and his heart sank. If what they said was true, if Vin had been doused with any form of the plague, he was dying. He might be dead already. He rested his head in the pillow and waited for the hour of six o'clock to arrive. CNN came on and the news conference from Mystic Cove was relayed. The F.B.I. spokesperson, a gray-haired agent out of the Baltimore office, confirmed what his friends told him. They showed still pictures of Vin on a table with a large insect on his chest. They confirmed that the biological evidence found later on the tape , supported the theory. Then they showed the picture of Vin with a bloody knife over a cop's body.

"Oh God," Nate moaned, rubbing his forehead, "What did they do to you Vin?" He didn't see the knife or the corpse. All he saw was the lost blue eyes, large with shock and pain.

+ + + + + + +

"Buck... Buck..." Ezra prodded the large body next to him. The blue eyes were transfixed on the screen and the lower jaw quivered a bit. "We have to go... we're boarding..."

"Huh..." Buck blinked and looked at Ezra. "Yeah..."

They clipped their belts on and the plane took off. Buck stared out the window, still not able to get the picture of Vin's stricken face from his mind. What if Chris and J.D. were dead? The thought of losing all three of them was a huge burden to bear. It was his fault and he might be too late to rectify the problem.

"We have the advantage now," Ezra said, reading Buck all too well, "She doesn't know we've discovered her whereabouts."

"We'll catch 'em, Buck," Josiah added. "F.B.I. be damned."

Buck said nothing, his eyes remained fixed on the clouds beneath him. "He's already dead... I've lost them all. Why didn't she just kill me? It wouldn't hurt this bad."

"You've answered your own question," Ezra said quietly. "... and we don't know if Vin is dead."

"He's got the plague... it don't get deader than that!" Buck retorted.

Ezra went to reply, but Josiah clamped a hand on his arm and shook his head. Ezra nodded, understanding the wise blue eyes of the preacher. Nothing they would say would help Buck now. He was lost in a storm and the only light was on the Eastern horizon.

+ + + + + + +

"You alright, Son?"

"Huh?" Vin gasped, wiping acidic residue from his nose and mouth. He squinted back to where the voice came from, several yards back on the beach. His blurry vision saw a single figure in pale colored clothing. He could make out white hair, but that was about all. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath and opened them again. The blurriness abated and he saw it was an elderly man. The old gent took several steps forward, and Vin put both hands up defensively. His inner alarm sounded immediately.

"NO! Don't come any further... I'm bad sick and it's catchin'... ya best stay clear o'me..."

"You don't climb down form that rock, you'll fall and split that fool head open" the old man shouted back, waving his cane.

"I'm fine, just restin'... got dizzy..."

"You're not from around here..."

"No, Sir..." Vin replied, sitting on the rock and taking deep breaths as his stomach whirled. "Ya best keep yer distance," Vin worried, watching the tall man come within ten feet. His eyes skirted the horizon as the sound of a distant motor was heard.

"You got the heat after you?"

"What?" Vin croaked, his throat as dry as a desert. He dissolved into a coughing fit and came dangerously close to falling onto the jagged rocks on the side of his perch.

"Dammit, Son," the old timer warned, waving his cane. "Get your fool self down from there."

"Back up... way back..." Vin warned and waited until the old timer moved. He then made his way carefully to the water's edge, dropping onto the sand and curling up. His head was pounding and his muscles and joints ached, his throat was raw... he wanted to die. He lifted his face and saw that old guy was safely up the beach. He rested his eyes for a moment and dozed off. The icy water tickled his toes and legs and jerked his eyes open. He sat up too fast and the beach flew around like a wicked carousel. "Shit..." he crawled up a few inches and saw a white bag.

"High time you woke up."

Vin craned his neck to see where the voice came from. The old man was a safe distance away, sitting on a bench. His features were still a little fuzzy, but the cane was striking. It looked like a dark wood, cherry or mahogny. It had a large round gold top, like a ball.

"You look like ten miles of bad road, Son." the white-haired figure relayed. "Go on... figured you needed some grub."

"Thanks... I don't have no money." Vin opened the bag and pulled out a cold bottle of coke and grilled cheese sandwich. There was also a pack of crackers.

"Money?" the cane rapped against the bench. "Got more than I'll ever need in the bank. When you get to me my age, money don't mean a damn thing. Health... that's all I worry about and the open hand of a friend."

"Good advice," Vin agreed, eating the sandwich slowly and taking a good gulp of the soda. He doubted whether the finest lobster dinner would taste this good. "Name's Vin..."

"Ben," the old guy nodded. "So you on the lam?"

"Ya don't recognize me?" Vin asked, taking another small bite of his sandwich.

"Why, should I?" Ben squinted, "My eyes ain't what they used to be, Son. You're a white fella with long hair and short on skin. You one of them way out rock stars?"

Vin laughed and took a sip of his coke. "No, Sir... If I had that kinda money... hell..." He had to eat the sandwich slow because his glands were swollen and swallowing was painful. "Just figured ya might have seen me on the tube."

"Television?" Ben scoffed, "Don't own one. You got the law after you?"

Vin relaxed a little, choosing his words carefully. "Yeah... I'm in some trouble, it weren't nothin' I done. I was used... set up..."

"What about your family?"

"Ain't got no blood kin," Vin swallowed the last of the sandwich and his shaking hands fumbled with the cracker wrapper. Frustrated when they wouldn't work, he gave up, putting them in his tee shirt pocket. He sipped the coke again and eyed the horizon. He had to find shelter, somewhere the cops wouldn't look. Somewhere he could hide...

"What about friends? Young fella like you must have plenty."

"Yes, Sir, reckon I'm real rich there... they don't come finer. They're comin'... I just gotta find a place t'hide fer awhile."

"You in the Mob?" Ben quizzed and heard the laughter.

"No!" Vin chuckled, belching a bit of coke, "I'm one of the good guys, I carry a badge."

"Cop?"

"Fed"

"F.B.I.?" Ben wrinked his face in disdain.

"No, Sir... different branch."

"Good." Ben rapped his cane on the ground. "Don't trust 'em. They're a shifty lot. Never liked J. Edgar Hoover... strange bird, that one..."

Vin didn't know what to make of that remark, so he let it slide. He stood and took a deep breath, trying to make the swaying beach stop rolling.

"You need to rest, Vin," Ben saw the signs of illness and fatigue. "What's wrong with you? You won't get better running around in the sun. Another few hours, this beach will be loaded with tourists. Holiday you know..."

"Yeah..." Vin sighed, scratching his ragged head.

"I know a place... Bootlegger's Cove. Nobody's been down that place... hell it must be thirty years. Sure was hoppin' during Prohibition."

"How far?" Vin asked, eyeing the shoreline.

"Two miles or so... keep walking, you can't miss it. You'll be safe enough there." He paused, "Your secret's safe with me, Son. I don't trust them city slickers..."

"Much obliged..." Vin nodded, "I best be movin' along..."

"Good Luck, Vin..."

"Thanks, Ben," Vin trudged along, keeping one foot in front of the other. The sun was beating down on his back and his whole body was throbbing with pain. He stumbled several times, dropping to his knees. Once he fell flat out, resting his face on the hot sand. But a pair of green eyes bore into his subconscious and he shoved his weary body onward. The pounding surf matching the tempo of the pulsating pain between his temples. His eyes were out of focus and his breathing shallow. His legs gave out and he kept up, crawling slowly. Then the sand got flat and hard, cooling to the touch. He raised his sweaty head and saw the cove. He crawled inside and found a high, dry spot. The cool air was a welcomed relief to his hot skin. He curled up and let out a long, raspy breath, letting the echo of the gulls and the song of the sea lull him to sleep.

Part 12

Chris used his machete to cut his way through the dense forest. The heat was unbearable, the thick humid air choked him. Sweat clung to every inch of his skin and an army of various bugs, flying and footed, crept into every crevice. He couldn't see beyond the thick folliage in front of him. His heart hammered in his chest and he felt his pulse racing. Something was wrong, an ominus cloud hovered over his wet head. He slashed through a thicket of overgrowth and stepped into a small clearing. Exhausted, he dropped to his knees and gasped for breath. Then he saw a body on the ground. The shape was all too real... he crawled forward and the figure became more defined. Long hair... lean torso... skin slick with sweat.

"Vin..." he whispered, using his last ounce of energy to haul himself over the body. The eyes were gone, the black sockets empty and accusing. A large red centipede crawled out of the vacant eye cavity, lifting it's head in defiance. The tail extended from Vin's ear, the long body housed inside his friend's brain. "Noooooo! Vin! Vin!"

"Shit!" J.D. jumped up too fast and cried out as his damaged ribcage protested. He winced and painfully sat on the bed, resting a hand on the thrashing body. "Chris! Wake up... Chris!"

"Vin!" Chris jerked his eyes open. His face was coated with sweat and there was a slight slash of color on his cheeks.

"It was a dream..." J.D. reassured, rising only when Chris's eyes focused again. He made his way to the bathroom and returned with a cold towel and a drink. Chris sat up, hissing painfully as the ribbons on his back throbbed relentlessly. The stilled leg was a dull pain, but every movement caused the dormant dragon to shoot fire. He gulped the water and J.D got him more. Finally, he sighed and looked around.

"How you doing, Kid?" Chris panted, realizing the signs of the fever building.

"I've been better..." J.D. relayed. "I'll be fine when I watch them take her body parts away in many, many small bags..."

"I hear that..." Chris agreed. "Looks like breakfast came..." He nodded to the box on the floor.

J.D. took out the twin bottles of orange juice, cupcakes and bagel sandwiches. Chris was starving and wolfed the food down, sucking the life from the orange juice. Just as they finished, the monitor came on. Both heads jerked upwards as a CNN bulletin appeared.

"Is that a live feed?" J.D. asked, eyeing the date and time. "July 3rd... twelve-ten p.m... ."

"Looks like it..." Chris bit back a cry of pain as his back flared up, trying to concentrate on the reporter's words.

"We're going back to our correspondant in Mystic Cove, Caroline North." the anchorperson said, "Carolyn... can you give us an update?" The reporter's mouth was moving, but no words came out. "We'll go back to Carolyn in a moment, let's recap the events from earlier this morning."

"That's Vin!" J.D. shouted, as the photo of Vin with the bloody knife appeared.

"Shh!" Chris growled, eyeing the photo.

"...the dead officer was not killed on the beach. His patrol car was found outside the city, along with the body of an Iranian tourist. It was at this spot that Officer Sanford first relayed he'd found the felon, Vin Tanner."

"Felon!" J.D. argued, only to be shushed by Chris. He glanced over and flinched at the smoldering anger beaming from the pale green eyes.

"The F.B.I and the local law enforment agency are working together to solve the mystery. The dead man has not been idenified yet, but he's believed to be an employee of a cabinet member. His possible connection is to the kidnappers has created a new wrinkle in this cat and mouse game. The other startling fact was that Tanner, who the Federal Agents believed to be heavily involved in the kidnapping, is infected with a form of bubonic plague. He's considered dangerous and a public health threat. Senior Agent Charles Flushing, from Denver who is spearheading the effort to find Tanner, said no chances will be taken with the safety of the public."

"Fuck!" Chris fell back as the gravity of the situation left him reeling.

"Chris? They can't fix that... can they?"

"No..." Chris's dull voice replied. "They're gonna hunt him down."

"Have they had any leads on Tanner?" the anchor asked to the reporter, as Vin's photo was shown.

"He looks scared..." J.D. hushed, seeing the wide blue eyes.

"Be a fool not to be..." Chris sighed, feeling totally helpless.

"That's what we're waiting on, Jim," she answered, as a group of men, some in suits, some in uniform approached a podium. A cacophony of questions were thrown to the puffing policeman at the microphone.

"Hold it," he hollered, waving his hands. "I've got a statement. I'm Lee Williamson, the police chief here at Mystic Cove. Vin Tanner, the renegade ATF agent in question..."

"Renegade!" J.D. protested and Chris silenced him.

"...is the leading suspect in the murder of Officer Calvin Sanford. He disappeared last night and a manhunt is underway to find him. I'm turning this over to Pete Sinclair of the Baltimore branch of the F.B.I."

"Thank you Captain," he nodded, "I have a brief update on the whereabouts of ATF Agent Tanner. Some teenagers lurking on the boardwalk last night, spotted him near a phone booth. We've sent a Hazardous Control Team to the sight and his fingerprints were confirmed. We have not ascertained yet who he contacted. He was spotted near a restroom, then he disappeared under the boards. The witnesses said he was in pretty bad shape. We've scoured the buildings, hotels, and other businesses in that area and haven't found anything. It's very possible in his weakened condition, he passed out under there and the tide carried him away."

"No... no... he can't be dead..." J.D. slumped.

"Does that mean you're calling off the search?" A reported asked.

"No, not at all. We've alerted the coast guard, in case his body washes up. We're tracking down his associates and trying to find the employer of the dead Iranian."

"Was he one of the kidnappers?"

"No, we're not sure if he is involved, or just was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The officer stopped him for speeding. It's very possible Tanner stumbed out of the overbrush and killed the pair..."

"Fuckin' idiots..." Chris spat, "Christ, that F.B.I. has their heads up their asses. He can barely walk..."

The screen went blank for a second, then the door opened. "Good afternoon, my prized pets... I hope you enjoyed the news break."

"You bitch!" J.D. lunged, managing to knock her off her feet and get a punch in, before Tony Kennedy clubbed him. J.D. crumpled in a still pile on the floor. The booted foot rose, as if to strike, but the cool voice of the prisoner, halted it.

"You touch him and I'll cut your balls off..."

"You didn't get enough whipping last night?" Jamie asked, "You watch your mouth or I'll let young Mr. Dunne taste the cane... and it won't be his back." She paused, stroking J.D.'s firm thigh. "He won't be able to pee for a month."

Chris paled and his eyes turned to green embers. He made two fists but controlled his tongue.

"Tony, take Dunne to the recreation area. Get him ready."

"Wait!" Chris said, rising painfully as J.D. was dragged out.

"All in good time... " she answered the raging face. "Enjoy your afternoon... shame about Mr. Tanner. I did hope to spend a long time on his autopsy... I guess the sharks will beat me too it."

"He's not dead," Chris said quietly, squaring his shoulders.

She wanted to reply, but something about his stance and quiet confidence, silenced her. When she left, Chris let the mask fall off and grimaced in agony. The physical pain was all too real, but the emotional trauma of losing Vin and J.D. being tortured was too much of a strain. He sat on the bunk and then jerked his head up. The phone... Vin called home... Buck most likely. That meant if they left at first light, they'd be here soon. Hope sprung in his heart and he dragged his body to the bathroom. He had to keep drinking to beat the fever.

"The party ain't over yet, Sister..." he growled.

Baltimore, July 3rd, 1:30 p.m.

The landing gear was barely down, when Buck was on his feet. Ezra placed his arm on the middle seat, casually blocking Wilmington's exit. He knew the older man was impatient and anxious to get to Mystic Cove. He saw the dark blue eyes narrow in annoyance at the meandering passengers in the aisle.

Josiah pulled down their bags from the overhead and moved back, allowing his two friends to exit. Buck's long strides took him out the door and down the long tunnel into the airport. He'd no sooner stepped into the arrivals area, when a trio of dark suits appeared, blocking his way.

"Wilmington?" a pasty-faced blond asked.

"Who's asking?" Buck returned and rolled his eyes when an F.B.I. badge was produced. "Is that supposed to impress me, Kid?"

The blond flushed in anger at the other agent's use of the youthful term in a derogatory manner. His two partners, both older and seasoned, stepped in and blocked his passage.

"I'm Wilson," the larger of the pair grunted, "...this is Cobbs," he tossed a thumb at a shorter, but stockier black agent. "That's Carson," he noted of the flushed rookie. "We're from the Baltimore office. We're here to take you to Mystic Cove."

"Like hell..." Buck jerked his arm free.

"Is there a problem?" Ezra asked, moving to Buck's side. Josiah flanked the other side and glared openly at the strange trio.

"Not yet," Wilson answered, giving the newcomers the once over. "As I was saying. We're from the Baltimore office." He flipped his badge. "We were sent here to bring Wilmington to the command center in Mystic Cove."

"By whose authority?" Josiah inquired.

"The head of the task force, Mitchell Flushing..."

"Aw, fuck..." Buck hissed, tossing his bag on the ground. Both hands rode on his lean hips and his face was enraged.

"Can we meet you there?" Ezra suggested, knowing the denial was coming.

"Sorry, no dice," Wilson moved in, glaring at Buck. "You're in deep shit now, don't make it any harder." He pulled his coat back and revealed a pair of handcuffs.

"That won't be necessary, " Ezra placated, turning to Buck. "Keep a cool head," he advised, moving in front of Buck and placing his back to the F.B.I. team. He made small motion of his hand over his lip. Buck nodded once, not needing the advice, he didn't intend to give Vin up.

"Yeah, okay..." Buck agreed, glancing in annoyance at the trio flanking him. "Where we headed?" he asked as they walked along.

"You got luggage? Cobb asked.

"No, just this," Buck supplied of his small duffel bag.

"Then we're headed south," he returned, "The command center is at Fourth and Sparrow. It's an Coast Guard recruiting office, they just moved. There's a Dairy Queen next store, you can't miss it."

"Take is easy, Brother," Josiah gave Buck's shoulder a firm squeeze as they parted ways in the large parking area.

Four p.m. Mystic Cove

"Where have you been?" Jamie screeched in the cell phone. "I've been dialing you for hours. We need to change the meeting."

"Eleven p.m. tonight," Amahl responded. "You are lucky I am giving you a second chance. Don't fuck it up again. You will not be able to contact me, I have left the area. Thanks to your inept Mr. Kennedy, I've lost my most trusted aide.

"If he wasn't speeding, that cop wouldn't have stopped him," she retorted, "...he was to blame as well."

"Still," the Iranian seethed, "...that will cost you dearly..."

"Understood," she replied. "Same place... I'll be waiting with the remaining samples, documents and the CD's."

She sighed in relief at the dialtone. She'd been shocked that he even bothered to call her. A part of her worried about retaliation, but she shrugged it off. After all, he'd been clearly impressed with her knowledge of biochemistry and toxicology. He'd even hinted that his government might want to utilize her talents again. She stepped in the recreation area, smiling at the terrified look on J.D. Dunne's face. The abandoned greenhouse was about ten miles from town and perfect for her little game. The trip had been tedious, the roadblocks made it necessary to change the route. The normally crowded roads leading to the seaside resort were doubled due to the impending holiday. This made the local policeman short-tempered, especially at taking orders from the Feds. Tony had come through again, providing a false bottom in the van, where a gagged and bound Dunne was hidden. The van was full of balloons and other red, white and blue decorations. One beguiling smile and a revealing bikini top over tight shorts had eased their journey.

"Is everything ready?" She asked and saw Tony nod. "Good," she squatted in front of the battered youth and grabbed his face. "I bet you were a boy scout, you look the type. Always be prepared, right?" she laughed and tapped his face. "Do you like my little garden? I've invited some special guests, just for you. You'll meet them very soon."

J.D.'s wide eyes quickly skirted the large, cavernous room. It was brutally warm, resembling a jungle atmosphere. The thick folliage was hard to see through and J.D. could only guess what lurked beyond his sightline. He was on his knees, hands tied behind his back. His broken ribs were burning with every labored breath he took. He thought on Chris's words and squared his shoulders, not giving her the satisfaction of fear.

"How about a little 'good luck sendoff' before your journey?" she mused, pulling out her phone. She dialed the familiar number and waited.

Ezra turned the ignition off in the aqua Toyota Camry they'd rented and left the cool interior. The hot sun and close air hit him hard, as he walked around the car. He waited with Josiah for the F.B.I. team to lead Buck from the dark sedan in front of them.

"...rough ride..." Josiah commented, eyeing Buck's disheveled appearance.

"Undoubtedly," Erza agreed. He touched Buck's arm gently as they passed. He let his concern show in his glance and saw a brief nod of thanks from the other.

The rooms inside were buzzing with activity. The largest area was a busy network with computers, phones and a large city map on the wall. Before they had time to adjust to that scene, they were shuttled into a side room. The door closed behind them, leaving the three ATF agents facing a very irate Mitchell Flushing.

"Sit down!" he ordered the trio and directed his glare at Buck Wilmington. "Start talking, Hot Dog... What possessed you to withhold evidence?"

"I didn't withhold any evidence," Buck shot back, "I didn't have time to..."

"Bullshit!" Flushing returned, moving around the table to loom over the red-faced agent. "Tanner called you last night. We've got the phone records from the booth he used..."

"Good for you," Buck snapped back. "You really live up to those initials," he directed, hearing Ezra cough. He snuck a brief glance and saw the southerner covering his smile. On the plane, Buck referred to the F.B.I. as 'Fuckin' Bunch of Idiots'.

"You got all the answers, huh Big Shot?" Flushing's index finger jabbed Buck's chest. "You're decision to hide that information may have cost him his life."

Buck paled for a moment, thinking of Vin's frail voice on the phone. Then his resolve returned and he stood up, throwing the offensive finger away.

"Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?" he raged, "I'm not some flat-footed rookie who don't how you weasels work. You got no intention of bringing him in alive. He might as well have a target on his back."

"One phone call and I'll have you arrested for..." Flushing's warning was cut off by a phone ringing.

Buck blinked in surprise and pulled his cell phone from the pocket of the short-sleeved white cotton shirt he wore. "Hello..."

"Buck..." J.D. croaked, swallowing the sob in his throat. As long as he lived, he'd never forget how wonderful Buck's voice sounded at that moment.

Josiah moved with unusual grace and caught Buck as he rocked back on his heels. He tried to get the mustached agent to sit down, but was refuted. He and Ezra exchanged a worried glance, wondering if the coloring that ran swiftly from their friend's face, was the news they dreaded to hear.

"Kid?" Buck whispered, running his free hand over his damp eyes. "Are you okay? Is Chris with you?"

"We're okay, Buck. Listen, I only have a few seconds." J.D. read the index card in front on him. "Listen carefully, I'm only gonna say this once. I need you to go to this website," the youth gave the address and eyed the room, wondering where the webcams were. "I gotta go... Buck, I..."

"J.D.! J.D.!" Buck screamed, clenching his eyes closed at the dialtone. "He's okay... they're okay..."

"Hah!" Flushing grunted, "You know better than to believe a kidnapped victim's statements."

"You say one more fucking word and so help me," Buck flicked off Josiah's restraining hand. "He gave a web address. We're supposed to tune in..."

"Let's go," Flushing hissed, brushing past Buck.

They huddled around the computer and watched as a picture appeared. It looked like dense jungle. There was no audio, until the sounds of heavy breathing and footsteps were heard. Then J.D.'s profile appeared, and Buck's hand went to the screen. His fingers touched the area where the swollen, discolored flesh was. The dark hair was plastered to a sweat covered face.

"Kid..." he gasped, pulling his hand back.

J.D. couldn't breathe. Between the awful humidity and his injured chest, he was truly struggling. His legs gave out and he began to crawl. One hand after the other, trying to find a way out of the maze. The trail became narrow and the vegetation was now pressed against his skin. He swiped the river of sweat from his face and forced his aching body to move. He felt his hands hit something wet and realized that the dry dirt was moist. He felt a small breeze and saw a hint of daylight. He pressed forward, the dense air was robbing him of oxygen and he feared passing out. The path was so narrow now, he had to press his shoulders together. He thumped something hard and realized there were walls on the other side of the foliage. He saw a small bridge and inched his body over it, using the rough wood beams to guide him. His eyes were heavy and his limbs even more so. He was in the center of the crossing, when a loud crack caused his half-mast eyes to snap open. As the boards gave way, he noticed the shallow water and something else. His heart began to race and his limited air was reduced to panting fervishly. Something was moving in the water, he realized when he landed in the warm pond.

"Buck!" he screamed as his terrified eyes saw the approaching visitors. They surrounded him, slick skin shining evilly. They moved silently, but quickly found the trapped human prey. J.D. tried to get away, but he couldn't move. His limbs wouldn't work; too long his lungs were deprived of much needed air. They swarmed over him, clinging to his skin. The little bit of air he had was choked off as one encircled his neck. He felt the pain as they began their feast.

"B... Ba..." his call to his best friend was silenced.

The screen went black and Buck's skin faded to a whiter shade of pale. The room was deathly silent for a second, then Buck's phone rang again. He lifted it to his ear, but didn't say a word. His eyes were dull with pain and his body numb with shock. In the back of his foggy mind, he felt Josiah and Ezra surround him.

"The time has come, my friend, to speak of many things. At eight p.m you'll turn back the sands of time and pay homage to the murdered king. Come alone or the faces you long to see, will have a fiery end to their suffering."

Buck flinched as the dialtone came on. He let Ezra take the phone and felt Josiah's hand push him toward a seat. Someone handed him a glass of water and he drank it slowly. He lifted his eyes and gave a knowing look to Ezra, before Flushing's face appeared.

"Start talking..." the commander ordered. "We didn't get enough time to trace that..."

"They want me to meet them later tonight. They didn't say where..."

"Larabee?" Flushing pressed.

"I don't know..." Buck shrugged.

"May I suggest a brief recess?" Ezra inquired, "He's suffered a great shock and even you would be hard pressed to pursue any more questioning at this time. Reconvene at six p.m.?"

"Okay," Flushing agreed, already late for a briefing with the police. "There's a hotel up the street called The Salty Dog," he relayed, "We've taken several rooms there. Orin is expected at any time. Be back here at six and don't be late, you'll be watched."

With that he turned away, but Ezra's voice stopped him. "I conclude that you left Denver late last night."

"So?" the F.B.I. agent asked.

"Did you perchance, check your voicemail?" Ezra played his trump card. He figured when Flushing left, someone would assume his position in the Denver office. But that wouldn't have been until seven a.m.

"What?" Flushing squinted at the well dressed southerner. "No..."

"Then you accused Mr. Wilmington unjustly. The information regarding Mr. Tanner was directed to your voicemail. In the future, I would suggest you check for ammunition, before you pull the trigger," Ezra bristled, as Josiah got the shaken Buck to his feet. "Kindly step aside," he sneered, watching the red-faced senior F.B.I. agent reluctantly move.

"Let's walk," Josiah said, taking their bags from the car. "The car might have acquired ears."

They took their bags from the trunk and moved up the street.

"Thanks Ezra, you saved my ass." Buck finally felt some blood returning to his cold skin. "How'd you think of that?" He noted of the well-timed phone message.

"A moment of inspiration," Ezra deflected.

"What'd she say?" Josiah asked of the downcast agent next to him.

"...showdown at eight o'clock." Buck eyed the familiar body of Orin Travis on the balcony of the seaside resort on the corner. "...just me... alone... or else..."

+ + + + + + +

Chris shuffled painfully across the floor of the cell, feeling like a man of eighty. His back throbbed relentlessly and his leg ached. He knew the unending thirst and headache, complimented the flush on his face the fever brought. He gingerly eased himself down on the bed and began to clean the wounds on J.D.'s back and arms.

He'd lost sense of the time, limping painfully around the cell trying to stay conscious. With every step, he'd wondered about J.D. and what the bitch was doing to him. Then the door opened and the brute dumped J.D. on the floor with a bag of food. It took forever for Chris to move the unconsious youth to the cot. He couldn't lift him, his back denied that. He ended up dragging him by his collar across the floor. That effort landed him no the floor next to J.D., gasping for breath and fighting through a wall of pain. Finally, he sucked it up and got the kid onto the cot.

When he found the pulse to be normal and the breathing regular, he'd slumped in relief. The dark hair clung to the youth's face, his green tee shirt was soaked with sweat. It was then he noticed the puncture marks on J.D.'s arms. He peeled the shirt off and saw more, on his chest and back. He made several trips to the bathroom, before bathing the still sleeping youth's face, neck, arms and chest. He lifted J.D's arm and examined the wound carefully. If he didn't know better, he'd swear they were snakebites. But this many? The kid would have died almost instantly. Before he could ponder on it more, two things happened. First, J.D. began to thrash and moan, flailing his limbs and then screaming.

"Easy, J.D.," Chris soothed, ducking an errant fist. "Cut it out!" He barked, realizing the gentle tone wasn't getting through. "You're fine, I gotcha..."

Somewhere deep within his slumber, that voice penetrating the thick layers of fear. His heart slowed down and he caught his breath. He knew that voice and now understood whose arms were pinning him down. He felt the cool cloth on his face and sighed.

"Cr....cr...isss..."

"Yeah, Kid, it's me. Take it easy." Chris watched the even breathing and slumped. The brief battle with a semiconscious youth left him spent. How was he going to overpower that six foot plus wall of muscle? He turned J.D. over in the cot and took his weary bones off the bed. He shuffled to the sink once again and took another bit of cloth from the pile in the water. Just as he turned back, the second thing occured. The monitor came to life. He paused and narrowed his green eyes, watching a jungle scene. By the time the short video concluded with J.D. calling for Buck, as a half dozen snakes attacked him, Chris was shaking with rage. The snakes were non-venomous, props used by her to inflict torture. He dropped by Dunne's side and used the soapy water to wash the wounds on his back. He left J.D. and picked up the paper bag by the door. He moved back to the bed and took out the contents.

Two bottles of ice tea and two sandwiches were on top. Underneath were two changes of clothes. Chris placed the piles on the floor and felt a hand clutch his arm. He turned and saw the wide terrified hazel eyes, still lost in the jungle. Carefully, he pried the fingers from his flesh and gripped the hand tightly. He laid the other hand on J.D.'s neck and gave a little tug.

"You with me, Kid?" he asked and the eyes blinked, refocusing. "They weren't venomous, she was trying to scare you."

"It worked."

Chris smiled a bit at the terse response. The kid had vinegar alright. The eyes closed again and the body flipped over, wincing slightly.

"Hurt bad?" Chris asked, and saw the head shake.

"No..." J.D. relayed, staring at the wounds on his arms, before turning his eyes back to Chris. "I talked to Buck."

"When? He's here?" Chris asked hopefully.

"I don't know..." J.D. admitted, "All I got to say a statement she wrote. Then she took the phone and it... I had to crawl through that jungle. I couldn't breathe, Chris... there was no air. It was so hot... I couldn't see. Then the damn floor caved in... snakes all over me... shit..."

The brief recapture of that horrid trip, left the youth exhausted. He rested an arm over his eyes and sighed heavily.

"I want to go home, Chris."

Chris flinched as if punched by Mike Tyson in the gut. The voice that met his ears wasn't a federal agent, or a member of his ATF team, rather it was a lost child. One far younger than the brave body on the bed before him. A boy tired of being pummeled, bruised, battered and used; someone tired of fighting brutes by day and demons by night. A tired soul aching to see the sun again. Something deep inside Chris reacted. Something he hadn't felt or used in years. He reached his hand out and slid it to the side of J.D.'s neck, so it rested against his jaw. He rode his thumb along that tense jaw and heard another voice. The words he spoke were not as a federal agent, or a team leader or even a friend. It was a father's voice, one he'd embraced in the short time he'd been gifted with it.

"I know, Son," he calmed, "and I'll get you there, I promise."

+ + + + + + +

The Lobster Shack was unusually crowded. The casual eatery was usually full to capacity, but the holiday brought in extra bodies. Josiah eyed the mob and retreated, turning to his friends in the doorway.

"All full..." he sighed. Orin greeted them cooly, immediately suggesting a 'walk' in the fresh air and some dinner. More likely, he wanted to talk to his team alone. A veteran of a forty years of federal service, he was all to aware of the powers of the F.B.I. "Any ideas?"

"Maybe," Buck eyed the road and the dozens of shops, restaurants and stores. The streets were crowded, as tourists of every size, shape and color spilled over the concrete walkways. He let his mind wander back in time and saw himself in a younger man's clothes. A fresh-faced rookie undercover agent with long hair and penchant for Mexican food. "There used to be a couple good bars near the dock."

"Let's go," Orin dismissed, following the forlorn agent. "I saw the video, Buck," he noted of the footage that aired on CNN moments after the web feed. "Based on her previous actions, I'm sure it wasn't what it looked like."

"Until I get my hands on the kid and he curses at me..." Buck growled, thinking of the dark head that always ducked out of his reach. Suddenly the hazel eyes seemed so far away. He sighed painfully and walked ahead, using his quick strides to gain momentum. He didn't want them to see the tears in his eyes.

"Let 'im go, Ez..." Josiah reached the southerner's shoulder, seeing Standish's gaze shift and his feet move faster.

They saw him duck into a worn, wooden one story building with a beaten sign on the outside. The whitewashed words read "Pistol Pete's". Stepping inside, the cold air was soothing and the place was cozy and immaculate. Square tables held denim blue cloths, along with linen napkins and the usual tableware. Jimmy Buffet was playing in the background and only about ten patrons were seated in the room. They found Buck's body by a window, his pensive profile staring out over the sun setting on the water. None of the other three missed the red-rimmed eyes. The waitress appeared as they each took a seat. She set down a pitcher of beer and four mugs and waited under they scanned the menu. After ordering, Ezra spoke first, breaking the silence.

"Our fearless leader will protect him," he eyed Buck, whose head bobbed once.

"Yeah... but who's gonna protect Chris?" Buck worried, eyeing the restless water. "...and what about Vin?"

Orin sipped his beer and sighed, "I talked to the coast guard before you arrived at my door. They're still searching but hold little hope. There was a strong undertow last night and a high tide. The last sighting of Vin was shortly after you spoke with him. He headed under the boardwalk, the tide was already coming in."

They silence hung heavy as each man absorbed the words. Josiah took a long draw from his beer and eyed his watch. It was almost six o'clock. He turned to Orin and spoke quietly.

"You got the file?"

"Yes, I had a short visit with Nathan this morning. I had just enough time to make a copy of all the information inside. The original is in the safe in my office. I'm meeting with Flushing as soon as we're done. What are your plans?" he directed to Buck, still gazing at the water.

"I'm meeting her at eight. If I don't come alone, she'll kill 'em both."

"Where?" Ezra asked, and saw the grim line on the tense mouth. "You're not intending to go alone? She'll kill you, just as she planned."

"Christ, Ezra... " Buck turned with a flush, angrily confronting the man next to him. "Give me a little credit, will you? I ain't no Goddamn, stupid-ass rookie. I'm not pulling a lone ranger," he noted of the question hinting at him going in alone. "Going in without backup would be suicide. I got a plan."

He took a sip of beer and studied Travis's face. "I'm not sure you can hear this; it's not illegal and you'll get a call when it's ready to go down..." he paused, "I don't want the Flushing and his goons fuckin' this up, not with J.D. and Chris on the line. I trust them," he inched his thumb as his partners.

"Did anyone notice where the men's room was?" Orin asked innocently, which gave Josiah a smile. As the graying director left, Ezra and Josiah turned to Buck.

"It's like this..." the rogue stated, spelling out the details.

+ + + + + + +

Who was that coughing? He struggled against an invisible opponent and tried to sit up. He was cold, shivering so much his teeth ached from the violent dance they did. It was dark and wet and musty. The cold air seeped through his thin clothes, gripping his bones with a solid fist. His head hurt something fierce, as if jackhammers were being shot through his tender skull. Someone coughed again and the noise stabbed his eyes. He forced his body up and peeled his eyes open. Another bout of coughing raised his eyebrows. He was alone in... in... where? Where the hell was he?

"...cave..." he answered his mind's question. He was sitting against the cold wall of a cave. His face and body were soaked with sweat and the art of swallowing was becoming difficult. He shoved a trembling hand in his pocket and drew out the bottle. He popped more penicillin into his mouth and forced them down, past his swollen glands. He rested a bit, his foggy brain adding up a group of disconnected clues. A dead cop... Buck's voice on the phone... Chris's arm lying by itself... a black, smoldering mess where J.D.'s face should be... the voice of that bitch.

"Oh God... I killed 'em..." he hushed, feeling an ax, broad and heavy, hit his chest. The force took his breath away and he felt the tears slip from his eyes. His breathing was shallowed and stuttered, as sobs snuck between the gulps for air. Suddenly, in the middle of his meloncholic spell, Buck's voice cut sharply. "...I'll find you..." he repeated, hiccuping. "Buck..." he gasped and forced his legs to work . He swayed in the middle of the cave, eyeing the blackness around him. Which way? He eyed the tunnel ahead and pushed sore feet forward. He stumbled for quite sometime, before he felt cold air kiss his face.

"...close... out..." he told himself, staggering badly. The narrow walls widened and he used his hands to guide him in the inky atomosphere. Suddenly, he was standing at the edge of a wide berth. He heard water lapping below and squinted into the semi-darkness. "Shit..." he moved swiftly, falling as his tangled limbs didn't cooperate. "Get up... " he ordered his lax legs. "...boat... fuckin' boat... phone... get up..."

He crawled, inching his way down over the cold hard surface, until it leveled out. He lifted his aching head and saw a ramp. It took forever, but then he was at the side and with a huge push of effort, he tumbled over the rail. He spilled out on the deck, his arms and legs splayed at all angles. He gulped air violently, feeling like a fish that had been caught. His eyes were wide and darting all around. Finally, he rolled over and crawled towards a door.

"Buck... Buck..." he whispered hoarsly. "...call Buck... phone... coming soon... help... Buck..." his words followed without sense, and he tumbled down the few steps into the galley. He landed on his back next to the small, woodgrain refrigerator. His arm shot out and pulled the door open. His shaky hand shot inside, his glazed eyes spotting a container of orange juice. He hitched himself up and rested his back against the bottom of the sink. He gulped the juice greedily, not caring about the overspill. It ran down his chin and onto his neck, finally settling on his heaving chest. Sated, he tossed the empty container away and burped. "Buck... call... help..." he eyed the room and then saw the room in the back. He crawled forward. There was luggage on the one berth, along with two black trunks. The other bunk was empty. There was a small desk in the corner and he used the sharp edges to pull his body up. He squinted as his eyes tried to find which blurry form he could use. He groped blindly, snatching someting small and dark. His weak legs collapsed and sent him to the floor hard. He saw red and yellow stars dancing ahead of his eyes and chased them away. His prize rested on his chest and he groped it, fingering the dials and buttons. Something clicked and voices shot forth. He panted desperately, as the man inside the box continued to speak. He strained to hear the words over his loud gasps for air.

"...large crowd is still expected along beach tonight. After dark, the sky will light up with fireworks. More on the patriotic kickoff to the Fourth of July festivities tommorow after a check on traffic. Mystic Cove newstime... seven forty-five..."

Vin's fingers fumbled with the dial until the voices went away. A radio... not a phone. He tried to stand again, but his sleeping limbs wouldn't cooperate. His arm slid off his chest and hit the floor. He thought of a lazy balloon with the air let out... slowly falling to earth. That's just what he felt like. He tried to make his mind work, but it was too hard. The tide rocked the boat gently and he sighed once, as his eyes slid shut.

+ + + + + + +

"You two ready?" Buck whispered, eyeing his partners. They were crouched in the high grass about a mile from the compound. It hadn't changed much and Buck knew even if Orin stalled, the F.B.I. would be closing in by nine p.m. or so. The former warehouse was located outside town along the beach. It was a half hour in good traffic, but the roads were jammed with tourists, that would buy them some extra time, but not much. He spread the crudely drawn map on the ground beneath them. "Here's the main road into the compound. It's got a gate on three sides, that leaves the beach open. I'll be coming in the front way, and I'm sure Kennedy will be there. You two backtrack to this point," he fingered a dark spot, "it's a sting of rocks that go out over the water, follow that to Smuggler's Cove... here..." Buck pointed again, "it's a group of caves, you skirt past that and you'll see a rough stond walkway, almost like a ladder, built into the hill. You go up that and to the right. You'll see the back of the warehouse in the distance."

"We'll get there," Josiah slid his hand into his pocket and drew out a chain. He put it on Buck's neck and saw the other frown.

"What the hell is this?" Buck picked up a strangely shaped cross. "A oldtimers surfer's cross?"

"Show some respect," the eldest scorned, "that's an original. I added a little something on the back..."

"A mic?" the mustached agent stuck the cross under his shirt.

"Ez and me both have ears on... we won't be able to take to you, but we can hear you."

"Thanks Josiah..." Buck eyed his watch and stood up. "It's almost ten of eight, I gotta go. Be careful on the path to the house. The growth back there is as tall as you, there's not telling what she'd got planted out there. It could be booby trapped."

"Your concern notwithstanding," Ezra folded the map up and put it in his pocket. "I doubt that scenario will develop. She's too smart not to think you've not alerted the authorities. She's cannot use the main road. She'll you that path to exit and quickly."

"Good point," Buck agreed, "...but be careful just the same." He held out his hand palm down and the other two each covered it with one of their own, "Let's do it! It's time for that bitch to sleep with the fishes."

+ + + + + + +

The pawns were in place, tied and gagged above the maze. The gatekeeper was pleased, her pale eyes glittering excitedly. Jamie stood in the doorway, her slim body encased in black. The form fitting pants and tee shirt made her skin seem unnaturally pale. She'd cut her long hair short, it now was blunt shaped, curling under her ears. The belt around her waist held her full holster and beretta, a knife, several grenades and a few smoke bombs. Everything else was already safety packed.

Buck was driving toward the main gate of the complex, when his tires were shot out. He'd been driving slowly, so he didn't struggle to bring the car to a halt. He eased from behind the wheel, holding his hands above his head. He began walking, until a familiar voice caused him to stop.

"Just like old times, Buck-o..."

Buck turned slowly and eyed Tony Kennedy, who'd added a good twenty pounds of muscle to his frame. "So's how life in the house of many doors, puta?"

"You think you're funny?" Kennedy bristled, "You won't be laughing so hard when you and them two friends of yours are in a hundred different pieces."

"Big talk from a small man..." Buck spat back as Tony forced him against the car and cuffed his hands. "I'm gonna enjoy every minute of..." Buck flinched as Tony began frisking him. "...wiping the floor with you."

"Shame about your pretty little friend Tanner," Tony pressed his hand against Buck's back and forced his head against the car. He pressed his lips close to Buck's ear, "...he was a nice piece... such a tight, sweet ass..."

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Buck growled, slamming his foot onto Tony's and elbowing him in the gut. The action as short lived as he was slammed hard in the small of his back with the gun.

"Shut up and turn around..." Tony ordered, slamming Buck against the car and forcing his legs apart with a boot.

"I'm not packing..." Buck hissed as the hands crept up his leg.

"Yeah, I can see that..." Tony commented lewdly, slamming a fist into Buck's groin. "Damn... that was you... who could have figured?"

Buck doubled over and gasped for breath, as multiple colors paraded in front of his eyes. He felt Tony shove him in the car and remained silent, waiting for the pain to pass.

"You're fucked, Buck-o..." Tony mock-sang, "You ain't getting out of here alive."

"...and you're still a fuckin', ball less wonder," Buck grunted, "Always the bridesmaid, eh Tony?"

The headlights coming up the road gave her a thrill. She saw them dim twice, Tony's signal that he'd picked up Wilmington. She glanced at her watch and pushed the side, lighting up the face. It was exacly eight o'clock. Tony walked from the car and pulled the passenger side door open. Buck climbed out and she walked towards him, eyeing the lean body in khaki shorts, a tan and navy shirt and docksiders.

"He's clean... the car too, I swept it," he noted of the electonic device in his own car.

"We don't have much time," she walked towards Buck and let her eyes rake over his body. "Hello Darling... miss me?" she pouted, pressing her body against his and running the Beretta up his thigh, pressing it hard into his groin.

"Don't flatter yourself," Buck snorted, "Your talent would fill a thimble."

"Tsk... tsk..." she brought the gun up and ran it along his lips. He jerked his head back and spit in her face. She slammed the gun against his cheek, opening a long gash. "Get him inside! It's time for the trial to start."

Chris and J.D. both lifted their heads, when a door slam drew their attention to the right side of the maze below them. The two-way glass prevented anyone from looking up and inside, but they could see out and had a clear view of the room below. Chris felt J.D. straining against his bonds, when Buck was led into the far end of the room. He had blood running down his face and was shoved hard into a chair.

"The crime you are about to be charged with, took place in this very room." She began, waving her gun to the lofts above. "Eighteen years ago, on a summer night not unlike this one. During the botched operation, to uncover a ring of criminals in this area, you planted evidence against a true hero, a man who lived for justice..."

"Justice?" Buck's voice rose, his eyes blazing. Blood dripped off his chin and he swiped it against his shirt. "He wouldn't know it if he choked on it. He was dirty for years. The evidence was..."

"Evidence?" She screeched, "There was no real evidence, he was framed..."

"That wasn't possible and you know it," Buck retorted, "His own people suspected him. They had evidence going back years. Videos, pictures, bank deposits, affadavits..."

"Shut up!" She screamed, pressing the gun to her head, "You're twisting this all around."

"Well I guess if anyone knows about being twisted, it'd be you," Buck sneered, gaining a rifle butt in his gut from Tony. He dropped his head and struggled to breath, wincing as her hand raked his hair painfully, drawing his face up.

"They found him guilty because YOU lied. You and that diego.."

"You... killed... him... Frank..." Buck gasped and saw her laughing.

"That was an accident, he was supposed to be tortured, to lure you in. Those fools were high and got carried away. But all's well that ends well..." she sang, laughing giddily.

"You're as crazy as he was..." Buck finally righted himself, "...you gonna eat your gun to? You Daddy's Little Girl? Cowards way out..."

"Enough!" She screamed, shoving the gun hard in his throat, cutting off his air. "You've been found guilty of murder, Buck Wilmington. Because of the horrendous crime you've commited, your friends will pay the price."

"Chris! Kid..." Buck screamed, jumping to his feet, only to be slammed down in the chair. He saw into a darkened room, as a curtain was drawn in front of him. Just inside on two chairs, back to back, were Dunne and Larabee. They were tied back to back, blindfolded and gagged.

"Oh that it should be that easy," She laughed. "You have two minutes to find your friends, then the 'fun' will begin." She laughed, "All in all, it should be an 'explosive' time..."

Buck's vision was cut off as a hood was shoved over his head and tied under his chin. He felt the cuffs unlocked and stood up, struggling for a moment, before pulling the mask off. He ran into the darkened room towards where he saw his friends. Instead of touching flesh, he slammed into something hard and ended up on his ass.

"What the fuck?" he hissed, then saw the illusion. "Shit..." he stood up and began to move through the maze. "Chris... J.D..." he called out, eyeing the dozens of images. He glanced at his watch as the second hand sped by. "Dammit..." he huffed, quickening his pace. Finally, he turned right and fell onto his friends. He moved to untie them, and saw the explosive device attached to their bodies. "Fuck..." he yanked off J.D.'s blindfold.

"Don't worry, Kid, I'll... Kid?" He waved a hand in front of the unblinking gaze. "What the hell?" His hand crept onto J.D.'s throat and he felt..nothing. "Dummies?" he ran quickly to the next pair and yanked off Chris's blindfold. That way, he could see which one's he'd found in the mirrors.

"Times up..."

"What?" Buck hollered, racing blindly and hitting another mirror as an explosion sounded. "No... shit..." He ran toward the tangled mess of limbs and Vin's broken voice came back. That his friend had possibly gone to a watery grave, blaming himself for their deaths. "I'm gonna fuckin' rip you to pieces, you heartless bitch!" He screamed, tossing an arm away. Where J.D. and Chris really here? Where were Josiah and Ezra? His heart froze in his chest and his body stiffened when the voice slammed into him.

"Buck! Buck! I need you... Help... Buck..."

"J.D.!" Buck screamed. He ran through the maze, his gut clenching as another explosion sounded.

Part 13

Mystic Cove, eight-twenty p.m., along the beach

Josiah trudged along, eyeing the rocky outgroup that Buck identified as Smuggler's Cove. His long strides took him past the rocks and caves and around to the other side. In the distance, slightly behind him and not one to ever be shy, he heard his partner's drawling compliants.

"Lord, give me strength," the preacher eyed the sky, "...or a fast bullet."

"I heard that!"

"Ezra, I got fifteen years and a whole lot of pounds on you. Do you hear me complaining?"

"I was not meant for trevails through the sand," the southerner scoffed, wiping the sweat from his brow, "Any inclination of such, would have been silenced by my admittance into the French Foreign Legion."

"Aren't they the lucky bunch..." Josiah grumbled, starting to climb up the rocky ladder. He walked a few feet at the top, waiting for Ezra to join him. He eyed the outline of the sprawling building, just as Buck described it. He grinned at the panting, sweating conman and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "You ain't gonna keel over, are you Brother?"

"Hah!" Ezra snorted, "A Standish does not 'keel over'."

"Yeah," Josiah agreed, his blue eyes twinkling, "I guess that's why there are so many of you."

"Humorous, Mr. Sanchez, very humorous," Ezra grumbled, trudging towards the building. They were near the back of the building, Josiah had his gun aimed at the lock on the door, when they heard Buck's anguished cry and an explosion. Both men fired and Josiah kicked the door in, they wasted no time slipping inside and proceeding to their friend's side.

Mystic Cove, F.B.I. command center, eight-twenty p.m.

The federal agents, local law enforcement personnel and other brass all jumped with Mitchell Flushing's meaty fist hit the conference table, causing bodies, cups, soda cans and anything else not nailed down, to dance in the air. The contents of the file slid along the polished surface in front of a calm Orin Travis.

"I can't fuckin' believe this..." Flushing ranted, "You of all people should no better. Those overgrown juvenile deliquents you saw fit to give badges to..."

"...could wipe the floor with your finest," Orin interrupted, eyes flashing in a staid face. "... and we're wasting time. In this traffic, it's a thirty minute drive or better to that warehouse. I suggest you wipe that spit off your chin, change your depends and get moving."

Flushing didn't miss the snickering from several of the Mystic Cove police. He squared his shoulders and shot an index finger at the smug ATF director.

"This isn't over," Flushing sputtered, "I'll have Wilmington before a panel over this. His conduct has been deplorable."

"You don't wear the color green very well," Orin countered and rose to his feet, "and you couldn't carry Buck Wilmington's shoelaces, " he replied calmly, before turning to the others gathered. "You all have a copy of the map and an outline of the warehouse. We don't know what we're walking into, so be aware of the ramifications of your actions."

"What about a helicopter?" a voice from the back said.

"If required," Orin nodded, "and only after we're in place. We don't want to tip our hand, not with the lives of the hostages at stake. The coast guard is on call. Gentlemen, let's get to the dance."

Mystic Cove, eight-twenty p.m., Smuggler's Cove

The gentle movement of the water rocked the vessel like a large cradle. On the deck, the crates were waiting, their inhabitants skittering nervously inside. Inside, the remainder of the material was packed, along with over a dozen years of research, documented and cataloged. The water lapped against the boat, which was primed for it's trip south. While his partners tred far above on the rocks over his head, Vin Tanner's troubled sleep was interrupted by visions of centipede's stingers and headless torsos. Too weak to move a limb, he fought his battle alone, sopping wet head tossing fitfully. His chest heaved in time with the motion of the boat, while his eyes twitched under pale lids. At the height of the nightmare, wracked in pain, his lips parted ever so slightly.

"C...c...r...issssss..."

+ + + + + + +

Buck ran haphazardly through the maze, tossing aside the mangled mannequin's limbs. His heart was pounding so hard, he grabbed his chest, fearing a heart attack. He felt along the mirrors, trying to uncover the illusion. Sweat poured down his face as his frantic eyes darted, adjusting to the darkness. Another explosion ahead of him, moved his limbs faster. He ran into a mirror, raising a lump on his cheek, when he was distracted by J.D.'s voice.

"Buck! Help... Buck... Buck... I need you..."

"Kid!" Buck screamed, kicking the mirror and shattering it.

"I'm touched," Jamie said, moving into the private viewing area above the action. "Much as I'd like to stay and chat, Gentlemen, duty calls. After disposing of that loathesome murderer," she pasued when a distinct growl emerged under Chris's gag. "Tsk... tsk... cat got your tongue, Dear?" She ran he hand along his face and smiled as he jerked his head free. "I shall miss you, you're a sexual predator, second to none. However, as I said, after Buck is blown up before your eyes." She grabbed J.D.'s face and laughed openly at the tears in his eyes. "I have a date down the coast with an Iranian and a Swiss banker. It's been real," she purred, sliding her hand up J.D.'s trembling thigh, "Don't bother thanking me for the front row seats, you won't be in them long. There's enough firepower under your pretty little asses to blow you to New York City."

She disappeared silently, leaving them once again alone. J.D.'s eyes were riveted to the floor below. He saw Buck scrambling through the maze, like a crazed rat. Chris wasn't watching, he focused all his attention on the ropes binding him. His body was fueling a slow fever; the added moisture was to his advantage. The sweat trickled down his back and arms, giving his wrists just the right amount of lubrication. Grunting in pain, as the sweat burning into the stripes on his back, he battled the ropes and felt the tide turning in his advantage.

"Anything?" Josiah called ahead in the large labyrinth. He jerked a door open and found another empty room. Boxes of video equipment lined the floor. He left and padded down further, pausing at Ezra's elbow.

"Good Lord..." Ezra swallowed hard, flipping the lights on. His eyes were glued to the table, his mind seeing pictures from CNN of Vin strapped to it, with a large centipede on his face. He felt every bit of the Texan's helplessness, looking at the leather straps. He stood over the table, noticing the large amount of blood upon it. "Someone was here, not to long ago."

"She's been a busy girl," Josiah commented, eyeing the lab and opening a door. "Hey Ez..."

He walked into the small room, which was set up as a hospital room. He picked up a chart on the floor and read the information on it. "Vin's vital signs..."

Buck's screams caused the men to run from the run, darting up the narrow hallway and into yet another corridor with many doors.

"Times up, Darling!" Jamie's voice halted the big man in his tracks. A series of explosions rocked the floor, sending Buck flying backwards into the nearest wall of mirrors. He covered his head and lay stunned, as bits and pieces of debris and body parts rained down on him.

Chris heard J.D's frantic muffled crie under the gag and lifted his head. He saw where Buck was laying and frowned. Something wasn't right. What was she up to? With a final thrust, he pulled his hand free and quickly untied his feet. He pulled the gag loose and stood, gripping the chair as the room swayed a bit. He ground his teeth against the pain and staggered over to J.D. He untied the youth and walked to the panel.

"Which one?" Chris hissed, eyeing the many buttons on the control board. When silence was his answer, he turned back, eyeing the shocked youth. The hazel eyes were trained past the room, onto the floor below and Buck's body. "He's not dead and that has me worried."

"What?" J.D. blinked, "What do you mean?"

"She's got this place loaded to blow us to kingdom come. That little sendoff wasn't it, something's missing. Which one, J.D.?" Chris demanded, hauling the youth by the arm, "How do I talk to Buck?"

Buck roused himself and opened his eyes, coughing as dust entered his lungs. He rubbed the stinging orbs and refocused.

"Shit!" He spat, shoving the rolling head of Chris Larabee away from him. He stood and shook his head clear, wincing slighly as his back pulled. The door... she ran out the door. She must have, it was the only way out. He headed for the lone door in the now exposed stage and laid a trembling hand on the knob.

It was then that Chris Larabee realized where the lethal amount of explosives were.

"That one, Chris, two over," he shouted at the moving blond's finger.

"Buck stop!" Chris screamed loud enough to wake the dead.

"Jesus!" Buck fell backwards, shaking all over from the floor. He raised his dazed face to the area above him. "Chris? You okay?"

"Fuck no!" Chris vented, "I'm pissed."

"Uh-oh..." Buck whispered of the legendary Larabee wrath.

"She's got that door rigged with a bomb, a big one." Chris eyed the exposed wiring above the door which ran across the ceiling and around the room. "The whole place is wired... and loaded with fireworks. We need the bomb squad and backup. Ez and Josiah with you?"

"Yeah, they're in here somewhere," Buck eyed the darkness above. "Where are you?"

"Up here, double glass, you can't see us." Chris pushed a button and the door opened to the floor below.

"Us?" Buck stood. "J.D.?" His heart soared.

"He's scratched up and dented, but salvagable," Chris replied, getting an angry glare from the youngest.

"You make me sound like a damn leftover at a firesale..." he complained as Chris gave him a pat on the back.

"You update Buck," Chris ordered, "You find a phone and get the cops down here and a bomb squad. You tell them the meeting place with the Iranians." Chris pushed the panel he'd seen her push and a wall slid open. "Kennedy is still in here, so keep your eyes open. I want him, J.D.!"

"Not as much as I do..." the other spat back, kicking the chair over. "Where are you going?"

"To skin that bitch alive!" Chris vowed, heading into the dark tunnel. Before J.D. could reply, the wall slid shut again.

"Kid?"

"Bu..." J.D. started to reply, but found his air cut off by a broad chest. He sagged in Buck's arms, as the many days of his torturous trip came to an exhausting climax. He didn't mind that the strong arms were crushing the air through his burning painful ribs. For once, he didn't mind the large hand was ruffling his damp hair. He didn't stop the tears from spilling or the choked sob that crept out of his throat.

Buck couldn't say a word, every attempt died in this throat. He hung on to J.D. like a lifeline, not denying the confused sensation of euphoria and fear that gripped him. He felt every bit of sinew and bone and embraced the spirit that was J.D. Dunne.

"...ccnnt brthhd bck... ltgg.."

"What?" Buck choked, swallowing the lump in his throat and wiping an eye.

"I can't breathe!" J.D. gasped, pushing away from the large body.

"Where's Chris?" Buck asked, eyeing the empty room.

"He went after her." J.D. answered.

"How?" Buck perplexed, "He didn't pass me."

"A secret panel, over there somewhere." J.D. winced, realizing he had no idea what Chris pushed. "I'm sorry Buck, I didn't see how he opened it."

"That's okay, Kid," Buck pushed the bruised body towards the door. "We gotta find Ezra and Josiah before they go near that door. Come on."

"Buck, how'd you get here so fast?" J.D. asked as they jogged down the stairs. He felt every vibration and had to pause, when the pain go too bad.

"Vin called last night," Buck stopped and waited for his younger friend to catch up. He flinched at the ray of hope in the youth's eyes.

"Vin's alive?" J.D. gasped, "I knew it... Buck you can't believe what she did to him... we had to watch. It was awful, some fuckin' centipede loaded up..."

"Yeah, I know, Kid." Buck eyed the large room, ducking the hazel eyes.

"What's wrong?" J.D. demanded, grabbing Buck's arm. "Oh God, he's dead?"

"We're not sure, but it don't look good. A witness saw him head under the boards after the phone call. They had high tide last night..."

"No, you're wrong!" J.D. shoved the comforting arm away.

"Look J.D.," Buck started, "I don't..."

His sentence was cut off by a bullet that narrowly missed his head. He shoved J.D. on the floor and covered him with his body.

"It's Tony..." J.D. clenched.

"Where?" Buck whispered, eyeing the darkness.

"There!" J.D. pointed, as a fleeing figure moved towards the wall. Sunlight cut into the room briefly, before disappearing again.

"Ezra! Josiah!" Buck screamed. "Where the fuck are you?" He demanded, hauling J.D. upright. "Kennedy headed out front. I'm going after him. J.D.'s with me. Don't go near the door, it's rigged , the whole room's wired. Get the bomb squad. Chris went after Jamie," he hoped his friends heard him. He ushered J.D. to the spot he'd seen Kennedy in and eyed the old window. With little effort, he heaved it open and a bullet sailed by, nicking his arm. He watched until Tony's back was turned, the large body heading for the car. He climbed out and pulled J.D. with him, sitting the youth on the ground behind a trash dumpster.

Tony was about to turn the ignition, when a hand clamped on his throat. He went for the gun, but a karate chop to his larynx ended that move. The door opened and he was pulled out, face to face with an irate man bent on revenge. His lack of air drove him to his knees. He clutched his throat and doubled over, only to have his head pulled up by the hair.

"Get up," Buck growled, tucking the discarded on the roof of the car. He flexed his hands, his fingers tingled with anticipation. A small trickle of blood ran from the graze on his arm. "Kid, get over here."

J.D. limped painfully towards the car, sitting his aching bones down on an overturned crate. One hand rested across his throbbing chest. He raised his pained eyes at Buck, then watched Tony get to his feet.

"Pay attention, Son," Buck kept his eyes on J.D. as his fist connected with Tony's face, "... maybe you'll learn something."

Tony grunted and tried to fall, but Buck wouldn't be denied. "That was for Frank," he grilled, using a double combination. A right to the stomach and a left uppercut to the jaw, sent the kidnapper to his knees. "That was for Chris Larabee you bastard." Buck growled, putting his hands together to form a crude club. He slammed it into Kennedy's back, driving him to the ground. He then kicked the lower back, and drank in the cry of pain. "That was for J.D. Dunne and this," He picked up the bleeding mess of bones with his left hand and slammed his right fist into the face, breaking several bones. "is for me."

J.D.'s face paled under his bruises. He'd never seen Buck like this and hoped he'd never see the display again. It scared him to think his best friend could turn into a killing machine. Tony's face looked like raw hamburger and was covered in blood. It soaked his shirt and his arms hung limply by his sides.

"Buck... he's had it..." J.D. warned, afraid Buck was going to kill him and lose his badge.

"The hell he has," Buck snarled, bringing the sack of flesh up again. "I haven't even started my i-n-t-e-r-o-g-a-t-i-o-n," he drew the word out and smiled evilly. "This," he growled, eyes glowing lethally, "is for Vin Tanner, you mother fuckin' son-of-a-bitch," he slammed Tony head first into the passenger side window of the car, leaving a bloody smear on the cracked glass. He picked up the gun and knelt by the body, which was splayed on the ground on his back. "Where's she headed?" Buck demanded, waving the gun.

"...gonna kill me..." Tony gasped, spitting blood on the dirt. "I'm not armed... you can't..."

Buck laughed outright, loud and bold, giving J.D. a real chill. The youth paled, truly fearing Buck's mind had snapped.

"How 'bout that, J.D.?" He inquired, turning to the stunned youth. "He thinks I want to kill him, now that's funny. It's fuckin' hilarious..." Buck turned, firing the gun into Tony's kneecap. He enjoyed the scream and wild eyes looking up at him. "Oppps... sorry, my hand must have slipped." Buck crowed, cupping his ear. "What's that? I didn't hear that location? Be a real shame if my hand slipped again... what with you having another knee, two elbows and uh... uh... " Buck jammed the gun hard into Tony's groin, getting another yelp of pain, "...a pair of peanuts..."

"S..s...south..." Tony stammered, "...ten miles south, five miles off coast. She's got a boat in the cove..meeting Iranians... Amahl something... she's... she's... selling him the centipedes and... and... other stuff..." He pleaded, feeling the gun still pressed against his groin. "Don't hurt me... please..."

"You make me sick," Buck spat, "I bet Vin didn't beg... not once. I bet even when that fuckin' thing was walking on his face, he kept his balls. You fuckin' yellow-bellied scum..." Buck slammed the gun into Tony's head and his hand quivered. He saw J.D. covered by snakes and heard Tony laugh; he saw Vin strapped to a table with that thing on him and heard Tony laugh. His fingers twitched, itching to move. He was choking on endless waves of rage that consumed him. He didn't realize he was shaking so bad, until he felt a tug on his sleeve.

"You can't kill him."

"Why the hell not?" Buck said, turning to meet the new voice.

Ezra laid a hand on the tense shoulder and chose his words carefully. He and Josiah witnessed most of the fearsome display.

"For one thing, I do not intend to spent my free time shuttling back here to visit you in prison. For another, you still owe me a considerable amount of money, for plane tickets and rental car fees and..." He stopped as soon as the tension began to ease up on the muscle under his touch. "..and it's what separates you from him," he nodded to the pile of refuse at his feet. The dark blue eyes met his green ones and he saw the signs of normalcy return. He left out a breath as Buck sighed and dropped his head. He gave one strong tug to the shoulder and turned back to Josiah. "I'll wait here with Mr. Dunne for the local authorities. You two see if you can locate our missing leader."

Ezra said, as Josiah herded Buck towards the car.

"Buck?" J.D. limped painfully towards Buck, eyes drawn to the bruised fists. "You okay, Buck?" he asked quietly, the wind lifting his hair. "You scared me..."

"I am now," Buck took a deep breath, inhaling the salt air. He sighed and gripped the back of the youth's neck. "I know, I feel it too," he said of the tight band on his chest. He stared hard at the young agent and didn't hide the tone of his voice. "I'm proud of you, John Daniel," he choked, swallowing hard. He saw the flush of color under the bruises and cuffed the cheek once lightly, before heading for the car.

"We need a boat," Josiah said, sliding behind the wheel.

"Yeah," Buck sighed, bringing the past up again, "I know a place. There's a hidden dirt path off this main one, it leads out to the marina. Let's get moving, before Flushing gets here."

The fact that the explosion hadn't sounded yet had her worried, but she had to leave or she'd miss her payoff. Besides Tony was there and would kill Wilmington himself, if worse got to worse. She jumped onto the deck of the boat and untied the lines. She moved over to the controls, checked her map and fingered the route once. Nodding, she flipped the switch and the motor came to life.

"Only place you're going is to Hell, Bitch!"

"What?" she spun around, shocked to see Chris Larabee behind her on the deck of the twenty-six foot motorboat. She shoved the throttle and the boat lurched, sending the unstable man crashing to the deck. She kicked him hard in the lower back, the cry of pain giving her some time. She accelerated and moved the boat out of the cove. As they headed into open water, she glanced back at Larabee, who wasn't moving. Not satisfied, she eyed the crates lined up and recalled the gun she'd left there.

As the red curtain of pain dissolved and Chris got he breath back, he opened his eyes. Through blurred vision he saw her legs move past and shot his hand out. He rolled over and clawed at her thighs, then found a fist to his eye. He managed to get to his knees and slam her back, sending her hand onto the deck. He hit her head again and then staggered to the controls, bringing the errant speeding vehicle to a stop. He flipped the lights on, picked up the radio and pushed the red button.

"May... day... May... may... day..." he gasped, feeling his legs turning to rubber. "Larabee... ATF ag...agent. Twenty... twenty-five foot boat off Mystic Cove... need help... need..."

"Chris?" Buck grabbed the radio of the boat they'd borrowed. Josiah flashed his badge and told the owner to call the police and give their location. Buck just stormed on board and started the motor, doing an eery impression of Chris Larabee. They couldn't see them yet, but it was dark.

"Buck?" Chris said as the radio slipped from his grip. He suddenly found himself on his knees. He glanced at the deck and didn't see her body. "Shit..." he pushed himself up painfully and lunged forward. She'd moved towards the crates and he saw the reason. They both hit the deck at the same time, his body landing ontop of her back. They grunted and rolled, exchanging blows. The gun slid free and both hands reached for it, the motion send it skittering across the deck. The next moment took both combatants by surprise. So shocked, they paused, each gasping in wide-eyed amazement. Chris recovered first, his hoarse, heartfelt cry split the night air.

"Vin!"

+ + + + + + +

The boat swayed to and fro, only adding to the shocking apparition. Chris felt his heart slamming into his chest wall. The green eyes couldn't believe the vision before them. On his hands and knees at the top of the stairs leading below, was a bedraggled Texan. The long hair hung limply over his face and the horrid sucking sounds indicated the severe breathing problem. But he was alive and ten feet away, and that was enough for Chris Larabee.

"Vin, pick up the gun. Vin! Vin!" Chris cried out, but the body never moved. Jamie went to move and Chris slammed her again, sending both of them prone on the deck.

Vin stared at his fingers curiously. His eyes widened and narrowed at the way they were pressed to the floor. He cocked his head and heard voices, but couldn't understand them. He'd been dreaming and thought he heard Chris call. He crawled up the stairs seeking his friend and his body now was almost topside. Something was touching his hand. He brushed his fingers on the metal and the shape took form.

"Gun?" he coughed, asking himself in a strange voice.

"Yeah Vin, that's it." Chris exalted, then his smile slowly faded. Vin hadn't heard him and didn't appear to be aware. "Vin! Dammit look at me!"

"Huh?" Vin's body jerked as a loud voice hit his aching head. The sound cut into his temples like a saw. "...hurts..." he cried out, falling forward and clutching his face. "...loud..."

Chris avoided the raspy plea and screamed louder, knowing Vin held both their lives in his hand. "Vin, sit up... now!"

"...kay... tryin'... s'hard... hurts..." Vin slurred, sucked in a breath as he sat up. The gun wobbled woefully in his weak hand and he squinted into the dark fog. Two bodies were across from him. He rubbed his eyes and the buzzing sounds in his ears became words.

"...shoot... her... Vin... Vin... me... Cowboy..."

Chris saw the change as soon as the word left his lips. The shaggy head popped up, the eyes widened in recognition. The lower lip quivered and a lazy tongue slid out. Two hands gripped the gun and raised it, shaking badly.

Vin blinked, wondering if the loud buzzing sounds were real. He raised the gun and stared hard.

The last word hit him like a rocket, making his chest ache. Suddenly, the blurry male had blond hair and Vin's heart clenched.

"...rissss...." he whispered hopefully.

"Yeah, Vin, it's me." Chris replied, trying desperately to block out the plea in the lost voice.

"Sorry to bust up your tender reunion," Jamie elbowed Chris in the throat and knelt up, grabbing his head by the hair. "Give me the gun or I'll kill him, Vin."

"No... kill... him..." Vin pledged, raising the gun. It shook horridly and she laughed. Chris felt an anger rising and grit his teeth over the pain in his body.

"Shoot her, Vin," he ordered, fixing his eyes on the lost blue ones.

"...can't..." Vin denied, worrying about his blurred vision. Now there were four bodies instead of two in front of him and he didn't know what to do.

"Do it," Chris commanded, sending all his confidence to the shaken man in his voice. "Now!"

Vin reacted on faith, letting Chris's voice guide him. He fired and fell forward, the gun flying from his grasp.

Chris groaned when the shot went wide and her foot made contact with his knee. She scrambled over him and got the gun.

"Foolish boy," she laughed at the pathetic huddled mass on the deck.

Chris felt that anger rising again, rearing it's head like a deadly snake. It boiled inside of him, churning and whirling at a deadly speed. He eyed Vin curled up in a ball and heard her laughing at him. That was her fatal mistake. The boiling rage spilled over, turning his steam of fury into a blistering vaporous mist.

"Get away from him, you fuckin' bitch!" Chris hurled, pulling his body up. Then he saw the gun directed at Vin's head and screamed.

"No!" His voice and body moved in one fluid motion, covering his fallen friend. The bullet slammed into his left shoulder, but he never moved. He kept Vin under him, not letting an inch of the Texan visible. He snaked a hand out and grabbed her ankle, sending her spiraling backwards. She shot errantly, hitting the area behind him. Chris didn't have to turn to know she'd hit the engine. He pushed off of Vin and she fired again, hitting the controls and sending a shower of sparks in the air. He felt a blade near his hand and pulled the grappling hook from it's perch. With a warrior's call, he sprung forward, slamming the hook into her and skewering her to the deck. He disregarded the scream and blood foaming from her lips.

The momentum took him to the deck and he coughed harshly, trying to get his breath. The sky spun above him at a dizzying pace, making his stomach lurch. The smell of burning wiring and spilled fuel moved his body. He crawled over to Vin, snatching the only orange lifejacket available. He pulled Vin's prone body up, trying to ignore the pain pouring from the wound on his shoulder. He slid the slack arms in the holes and tied the ropes haphazardly. Smoke swirled nearby and he groaned, realizing Vin was dead weight and he couldn't lift him. The Texan was in front of him, he back resting against Chris's chest.

"Vin!" he coughed, biting his lip at the pain in his throbbing shoulder. "VIN, Wake up... We gotta go."

"Go?" Vin slurred, his heavy eyes remaining closed.

"Yeah," Chris grunted, trying to lift himself and then on unsteady legs, lift Vin. He ended up back on the deck, Vin draped over his legs. He righted the sharpshooter and tried again. "VIN, this boat is gonna blow up and I can't carry you. Goddammit, get up!" he screamed and felt the shaking form's shoulders jump.

The loud buzzing sound came back and made his head hurt. He whimpered and tried to cover his ears, but he couldn't move his arms. The words appeared slowly and it took all his concentration to understand them. Chris was mad. The angry voice was shouting at him. What had he done?

"...sorry... risss..." Vin whispered, head lolling on his chest, "...do wrong?"

"Damn," Chris gasped, feeling such a terrific pain in his chest it took his breath away. Tears pooled in his eyes, brought on by the lost soul. The confused, hurt voice hit him like a hail of bullets. He used his right arm to pull Vin back against him, the sopping head resting under his chin. He snaked his hand under the tee shirt and felt the heart hammering furiously against the hot chest wall. He didn't need a thermometer to know how dangerous Vin's fever was. He let the moment pass and pushed the strong emotional party away. "Well then, Cowboy," he vowed, drawing his last bit of energy into a forceful mass, "I guess I'll be strong enough for both of us."

By some miracle, he dragged Vin's arm across his shoulder and hauled him upright, gasping as the pain shot through his shoulder. He lurched forward, sending both of them into the side of the boat. He pushed Vin's body onto the rail and gripped his waist. He caught the confused eyes and held them with his own.

"The boat's on fire, Vin, we gotta go. You got a life jacket on, you can't drown. I'm gonna push you over into the water. I'll be right behind you." He started to move and saw the blue slits dart and felt a hand clamp onto his arm in panic. "I won't leave you, I promise. I'll be right behind you," he answered the silent plea. "Trust me." That's all it took, the tangled head bobbed once and Chris shoved him over. He was ready to join his friend, when a voice beckoned.

"You can't leave me here," Jamie begged, her chest covered in blood. It poured from her mouth with each word. She saw him turn and his face soften, and her hopes raised.

"No," Chris replied, eyeing the crate near his feet. "I won't leave you alone. What's a sendoff party without some friends?" His fevered mind gave his voice a sing-song quality. He lifted the small crate over her face and tilted the top. The scream and look of absolute horror on her face gave him a guilty pleasure. The centipedes swarmed on her. One crawled in her ear, another latched it's hooks onto the wound in her side, a third crawled into her mouth as she screamed. As the flames licked the floor and he hooked his lean body onto the rail, he saw one on her face, it's razorlike pinchers spearing an eyeball. He jumped and swam to where Vin was bobbing. He hooked his injured arm around Vin's throat and began to swim. The explosion drowned out her screams and sent debris flying. Chris fell the concussion hit him hard and he blacked out, clinging to Vin.

"Josiah!" Buck screamed, seeing the fireball ahead. "Can't you make this go faster?"

"You pushed it too hard, Buck, the engine's smoking." Sanchez replied. "The coast guard isn't far... Buck? Buck, you can't..." The preacher sighed and shook his head as the body dove off the boat and began to swim. "...swim after him," he concluded and picked up the radio.

Buck's long strokes were propelled by fear. It drove him forward at a record rate. He paused when he began to hit debris and let his eyes adjust to the pieces floating nearby.

"Chris! Chris!" he screamed, searching every piece.

Vin's eyes opened in wonderment, as the sky lit up. The colors were beautiful; spirals of red, blue and white making patterns in the night. They made spiderwebs and flying wheels of flame. Fireworks? His fuzzy mind showed him the word 'holiday'.

"Fourth..." he murmured, eyeing the sky in childlike wonder. "...pretty lights... Chris..." he felt the body next to him moving away. The head was limp and sinking under the water. "No... go... no..."

He pulled the wet hair and the head popped back up.

"Shit!" Chris pulled his face from the water and grabbed Vin. He retained his hold and used his good arm to propel them towards the shore, which wasn't far away. Twenty feet... nineteen feet... he kept his eyes zoned on the shore, but his limbs failed him. Twice, he blacked out, taking them both under. His arms were heavy and his eyes dull. He mind was willing but his body was beyond the limit. His arms and legs were made of concrete.

In this space and time, Vin's fevered brain allowed him a moment of clarity. He knew what Chris was trying to do and why it wouldn't work. Alone, he had a chance, but he couldn't pull both of them. He gazed at the rockets in the distance, bursting into shades of pale green and gold. He thought of the words another man wrote not far from here, two hundred odd years before. A poem that had become the national anthem. The fiery glow from the burning boat gave his face an ethreal glow. He took the jacket off and used his last ounce of strength to slide Chris's limp arms inside. The blond head popped up and the eyes blinked at him.

"What the hell are you doing?" Chris slurred, trying to shake himself awake.

"Ya gave me more..." Vin pulled Chris close, hanging onto the vest, "than I dreamed o'... but I gotta go alone now. Ya can't come with me, Chris."

Chris's eyes fought to stay open and his thick tongue worked in his mouth. His keen gaze realized that Vin was completely sober and clear. He frowned at the cryptic clues, his mind denying what he heart heard.

"...I ain't gonna be far, ya call me and I'll come..." Vin coughed as his head slipped, sending him under the water up to his eyes.

"Vin!" Chris hissed trying to figure out why his own arms were like lead and wouldn't move. He relaxed a bit when the head popped up again.

"Ya won't be able t'see me, but I'll be right here, Cowboy, always..." Vin sighed, and thumped a limp hand against Chris's chest. "It's the Twilight's last gleamin'...goodb..." his voice choked, preventing the finale and he turned away, his blue eyes full. He eyed the shore, and gave Chris a solid push towards land.

"What?" Chris's eyes snapped open as the words hit his brain. "Gleaming..." he fumbled, his brain flashing slowly. A brief shining light... he jerked his head frantically, not able to see Vin anymore. "No..." he whispered, fingering the vest. "... no... " he choked. His body was consumed with a leaden bleakness; an emptiness that make his heart ache dully and induced a cold quivering in his belly. He raised his head skyward and unleashed a cry of pain and desolation, as his soul shattered.

"Vin!"

"Holy Christ," Buck panted, hearing the unearthly call. He spotted a blond head bobbing and swam with all his might. He snaked a strong arm around the lolling head and pulled him to the shore. They were shin deep, he was carrying Chris, when the body jerked and shoved him away.

"No... Vin..." Chris protested and collapsed, trying to reenter the surf.

"He's gone, Chris... they lost him yesterday," Buck's heart was breaking at the anguish on Larabee's pale features.

"No, he's right there... on boat... I put this on him," Chris raised his face up weakly to Buck, "Don't you understand? He took it off... put it on me... fuckin' hard-headed Texan. I gotta find..." He tried to move, but his limbs wouldn't work. "No... not like this... not after... no..." he mumbled incoherently, tears sliding down his face.

"Aw, hell..." Buck choked, not sure what to do. Chris must have been delirious. "I'm sorry, Chris..." he pulled the leader to the shore and laid him on the bank.

"There!" Chris lurched, "...he is... there..." he struggled against the strong arms that held him.

"What?" Buck jerked his head. He peered intently and saw a brief head surface, then disappear. "Shit! Aw, shit..." he ran back in the water.

Chris sucked the agony in and hauled his throbbing head up. It was only a few inches, but it took all the strength he had. He watched Buck's strong strides take him back into the water and saw the lean body disappear beneath the surf. He wasn't a religious man, but now he prayed. He prayed to hear that raspy voice that drove him to distraction. He prayed to see those blue eyes shining in mischief again. He prayed that his soul would be restored. He prayed through eyes burning with tears that now scoured the horizon, seeking two bodies.

Vin watched the exploding lights in the sky until they got blurry. All of a sudden, he felt so very light, as if his body were weightess. He relaxed and let himself go, enjoying the sensation. His head didn't hurt anymore and he decided it was time to let his body sleep.

Buck eyed the dark surf and found the spot where the head disappeared. He dove under, propelling his legs downward. He swam until his lungs grew fiery, threatening to burst. He turned back, his oxygen deprived body seeking air. Then his fingers brushed something soft and firm. Skin. His hand jerked and he found hair, lots of it. He grabbed it and shot forward, breaking the surf and pulling Vin with him. He turned the body over and tilted the face up, tucking him under his left arm. He took several huge gasps of air and then made his way to shore.

He dropped down next to Chris, who jerked as if shocked when Vin's body hit the beach with a thud. Buck cough and sputtered for a few seconds, gulping air greedily. Then he saw headlights, as a Jeep pulled up at the top of the sandy road. Two young men got out and headed towards them, with a flashlight.

"He's not breathing!" Buck flipped Vin over and tilted his head back. He opened Vin's mouth and cleared his airway.

"You know CPR?" Chris gasped, pain shooting through his shoulder.

"Sure," The older one moved forward, until his buddy jerked him back.

"No way," he denied, turning to his friend. "You can't, he's the dude from TV, you know the one carrying the plague."

"Shit!" the other hissed, backtracking. "Hey man, I got a new baby at home..."

"You son-of-a-bitch," Chris roared, swaying on his knees.

"Chris!" Buck screamed, breaking Larabee's glare. "I need you, Vin needs you. Start pumping." Buck commanded, placing his mouth over Vin's open one and giving him the breath of life.

"Leave the fuckin' light, get on the phone and get some help!" Chris ordered the two bodies.

"Sure, sure man..." The older one dropped the light and pulled out his cell phone.

"That dude's crazy," his friend whispered, "Just signed his own death warrant."

Chris ignored the pain in his shoulder that was fired up with every motion. He continued to pump Vin's chest, ignoring the blood running down his face. He glanced at Buck's dark head and worried. What if they were too late? Would that bitch claim two victims? He shook off his fear and continued his activity. Buck's head came up and he watched the other gasp for air. He paused, swiped the blood from his face and took a few unsteady breaths.

"Wanna switch?" He asked and saw a hand fly out in defense.

"No!" Buck coughed, trying to get his breath. The long swim over, coupled with the one to rescue Vin had taken all his strength.

Chris knew what Buck meant and swallowed hard. He saw Buck tenderly reach down and brush the tangled hair from Vin's face. He eyed the face clouded with emotion and felt proud. Buck never hesitated and he'd never forget that. He only prayed both men would be around so he could tell them.

Buck eyed the pale face of the young Texan and decided he'd never seen Vin so close up and relaxed. He never noticed just how fine his features were. He brushed and errant lock of hair from the slack face and felt his heart clench. The suffocating sorrow turned in a wall of raging pain. He gripped Vin's wet collar and lifted his upper body, shaking him hard.

"Don't you die on me, you stubborn son-of-a-bitch. Breathe!" he roared.

"Buck... don't..." Chris's voice wavered as a horrid cloud of reality sank over them.

"Goddammit Vin," Buck shoved Chris's hand away, "Open your eyes!"

"Jesus," Chris gasped and fell back stunned, as two large blue eyes popped open and a loud shuddering breath was heard.

"Damn... damn..." Buck sighed, feeling euphoric. He brought Vin back against him, supporting him while the smaller man rid himself of half the ocean. Buck felt the terrific trembling and was so overcome by the powerful event, he couldn't speak. He held Vin tight, tucking the Texan's back against his chest. He rested his chin on the wet, tangled hair and let his tears of gratitude fall.

"Vin?" Chris's hoarse and heartfelt voice wavered as his hand reached out. "You with us?"

Vin was lost in a dark place. A cold void full of shadowing fear and blue confusion. Was this another dream? Chris wasn't real, was he? He couldn't stop shaking and his teeth were dancing. He felt the hand on his face and pulled back, his heart began to hammer and he shook his head in denial.

"Damn," Chris flinched, seeing the confused face before him. Vin had no idea where he was or what was happening. His eyes were dull with pain and clouded with uncertainty He sighed heavily and tried again. "Vin, it's okay, you're safe now. Buck's gotcha and I'm right here." He paused, gulping several breaths of much needed air and pushing the wall of blackness away again.

"Take it easy, Slick," Buck soothed, feeling the terrific trembling. He pulled Vin closer, hoping to ward that internal chill of fear off the suffering man. "You gave us a good scare."

Chris heard sirens wailing and sighed in relief. He kept his hand on Vin's cheek and tapped it lightly. "Hear that, Vin? Help's on the way. You're gonna be fine. I'm gonna be right next to you."

Vin cocked his head and leaned into the touch. It was more than reassuring. He felt his tremors slowing down and tried to concentrate on the words. He didn't understand him all, but his mind flashed one word, 'safe'. He slowed his breathing down and began to relax.

"That's it," Buck eased, feeling the change. He saw the flash of pain on Chris's face and noticed the bloody hole in the left shoulder, then he saw the large area of crimson hair. "How bad?"

"Hurts like a bitch," Chris grinned, pulling his hand back to pull himself up a little better. His smile faded when Vin reacted.

It changed that fast. 'Safe' was gone. His heart began to hammer and it was hard to breathe. The uncontrollable trembling followed and his breathing faltered. Another word came, the word that 'safe' meant.

"What the hell happened?" Buck wondered, feeling the change.

"Chris!" Vin gasped, blinking wildly.

"Easy, Cowboy," Chris kept his voice calm and gripped the back of Vin's neck. "You can't lose me that fast." He watched Vin blinking and staring at him hard. He saw the eyes widen in shock and then realized Vin was aware. The trembling hand came out and touched his face. Chris swallowed a waver and fought to control his emotions. "I'm real, Vin and I won't leave you. Buck's here too."

Vin tilted his head, feeling the strong arms holding him and snaked his eyes backwards. A flash of white teeth, a wet mustache and dark hair met his blurry gaze. He righted himself, snuggling backwards and opened his lips.

"...cklin?"

It was only half of the nickname that meant so much to him, but it still could gut him like a fish. He smiled and ruffled the damp hair.

"You look like shit, Vin."

"...ya fuck... buck... ya buck... fuck..." Vin stumbled, angry that he couldn't get his usual comeback out. "...aw, hell..." He heard the twin voices laughing and felt an overwhelming sadness come over him. He grew very cold and began to shake uncontrolably. The melancholic dagger ripped through his chest and freed his scattered emotions. He began to cry and didn't know why. He felt Buck pull him closer and Chris move in, resting a hand on his cheek.

"You go ahead, Vin," Buck's voice was warm and low, full of emotion. "You earned it."

Vin let his clouded gaze fall to Chris, whose hand was brushing the tears away. He saw so much in the green eyes and wanted desperately to hold on. He felt himself slipping away and the cold fear came back.

"Chris!" he panicked, eyes darting frantically. His hands jerked spasmatically, clawing air. He felt the hand cup his chin hard and stop the quivering.

"You won't die," Chris vowed, reading the fearful eyes. "I won't let you. You got my word."

That was good enough for Vin. He felt the protective shield close in, a strong gold armor that glittered in the sun. The lock on the haven was a brilliant green and it's strength gave him peace. He felt his eyes close and his last thought snuck through his pale lips.

"...safe harbor..."

Tuesday night, nine p.m. St. Michael's Hospital, Mystic Cove

Carolyn Wolfe eyed the clock on the wall over the fax machine and sighed. Two more hours until her shift was over. Three to eleven wasn't her normal shift, but the holiday brought in extra bodies and that meant additional paperwork. She continued to read the lastest concerns from the nurses about the projected cost of living raise. The administrative offices were on the first floor of the new building. She was reaching for the spreadsheet she'd printed out, which listed the ratio of nurses who left for the better paying hospitals in the surrounding communities. The phone rang and then she noticed it was the hot line. Her phone had a bank of extensions on it, direct lines to several of the other departments and a special number reserved for emergencies.

"Carolyn Wolfe, can I help you?" She stood and immediately reached for a tablet of paper. "Yes... how soon? How many? Yes, I did receive that notice from your office and I understand the ramifications. Are you familiar with this facility?" She paused and kept writing. "We just moved to a brand, new five-story addition three weeks ago. The old hospital is right next store, the ER would be the perfect choice. I'll make the arrangements..." she kept nodding and writing. "Here's my cell phone and beeper..."

She hung up the phone and took a few seconds to catch her breath, then she dialed Mark Cressman, the CEO of St. Michaels to update him. She then contacted the switchboard. The operator, Judy, answered on the first ring.

"Judy, it's Carolyn, I just got a call from Colonel Blackburn at AMRIID, we're going to be getting some casualities in from that manhunt. They've been exposed to a potentiallly deadly disease. I want you to call a 'yellow alert'. Yes, follow the protocol just as we do in the drills, conference Room C," she answered of the meeting place and grabbed a large green file from the top shelf. "Thanks Judy." She hung up and moved towards the conference room, punching numbers in her phone.

"Houskeeping," a voice answered.

"Dan?"

"Yeah, this is..." the supervisor for housekeeping paused as the voice on the intercom announced the alert. "...didn't know we were having a drill."

"It's no drill, Dan, it's real. This is Carolyn Wolfe from Admin." She flipped the lights of the conference room on and dropped the folder on the table. "I need you to meet a Colonel Blackburn at the entrance of the Old ER, I'll have Stan Shaw meet you over there," she said of the security guard on duty. "You are to give the Colonel whatever he wants and needs... and he needs it ASAP. The Colonel is from the Army's Infectious Disease Center and his team will be taking over the Old Emergency Room."

"Is this about that guy that killed the cop... that sick Fed?"

"Yes, now please get over there, the Colonel is already on his way, ETA is less than ten minutes."

After calling security and notifiying the guards at the gate, she turned her attention to the group spilled around the table. Representatives from every department were waiting for the cause of the alarm. She took a deep breath, opened the folder and began to speak.

Part 14

At the warehouse, nine fifteen p.m.

"Is he breathing?" J.D. asked, eyeing the bloody pile by the car. Team Seven's youngest was sitting on the crate, trying not to breathe.

"To quote our former comrade from Texas," Ezra steeled, "I don't give a rat's ass." He cocked his head as sirens approached. "That was fast..."

The caravan of a half-dozen cars stopped several yards away. Ezra craned his head to see past the darkness and squinted when a door slammed. He made out two figures, one of whom walked in front of the headlights.

"John Dunne?"

"Who's asking?" Ezra replied, moving in front of J.D.

"It's me Standish," a second voice answered.

"That's Orin," J.D. whispered, "What's he doing here?"

"He came out earlier today, when we got Mr. Tanner's message." Ezra answered, then projected his voice at his superior. "I am here with Mr. Dunne. He needs to be transported to a hospital. Josiah and Buck have gone after Mr. Larabee and that vile creature. Her accomplice, Mr. Anthony Kennedy, is resting a few feet from where I stand."

"Use your phone," Orin shouted, pulling out his cellphone. A few seconds later, his cell rang.

"Travis. Ezra, pay attention. Because of the potential contamination, you and Dunne will be transported to St. Michael's hospital, nearby. The Army's Infectious Disease Team will be in charge. They're sending a chopper to pick you two up. ETA is five minutes. What direction did..." he paused as an explosion interrupted his train of thought.

"That one," Ezra answered, closing his eyes.

"What?" J.D. pulled his aching body up. "That might not be Chris... maybe it's... maybe..."

"Buck knew a short cut to a nearby marina," Ezra continued, "they should be in transit on the water."

"I'll alert the coastguard to radio them to stay put. The army chopper can pick them up too." Orin replied, "Put J.D. on the phone."

Ezra turned and handed the phone back, trying not to think of the explosion or see the pain in J.D.'s eyes.

"Hel...lo..." J.D. was suddenly very tired and he ached.

"How are you, Son?"

"I'm okay..." he paused and thought on Chris's words earlier, "... a few scratch and dents, but salvagable." He blinked hard, hoping that Chris wasn't dead too.

"Did you have any contact with Vin?"

J.D. heard the catch in Orin's voice and knew what he was asking. He shook his head before responding. "No, Sir... I haven't seen Vin since before she... before he..." J.D. bit off his sentence. "Is he really dead, Sir?"

"It looks that way, J.D. The Army cannot afford to take any chances. You, Josiah, Buck and Ezra will all have to be detained at St. Michael's."

"What about him?" J.D. jerked his head at the body nearby. "He's got a bullet in his knee... might need a stitch or two... " J.D. heard Ezra chuckle and shifted the phone.

"He'll be taken to St. Michael's too. I'll talk to you later, J.D. Hold your head up, Son..."

"Thank You, Sir," J.D. nodded, feeling the words more than hearing them. He handed the phone back to Ezra as the sounds of a helicopter were heard.

Meanwhile, back at the beach, nine-thirty p.m.

On any given day and time, a night like this would have been full of romance and soft whisperings. The tide sang a mezmerizing lullaby and the moon glittered suggestively off the dark water. But as the sea breeze lifted his hair and the salty spray kissed his forlorn face, Buck Wilmington waited in fear. He kept a vigil over his two friends, both so pale and lifeless.

The headlights from the car above and the flashlight kept the small area illuminated. Vin was lying so still it was painful to watch. Buck caught himself staring intently at the sharpshooter's chest, waiting for the slight rise and fall to cease. He was careful to touch Chris and that hurt. He was afraid he'd contaminate him. Luckily, the blond wasn't bleeding, both wounds were quiet at the moment. He sat by Vin's side, wincing at the awful rattling breath that was forced from the pale lips. His belly was ice cold, gripped by a silent terror.

"Hello!"

"Huh?" Buck blinked rising and moving in front of the two prone bodies in the sand. He squinted at the two policeman standing at the top of the dune, a good thirty feet away.

"Can you identify yourself?" the taller one asked, flashing a light at Buck. "We're Maryland State Troopers. We got a call about the Federal Agent suspected of murdering a local..."

"He's no goddam killer!" Buck lashed out. "He's damn near dead and where the hell is the ambulance? I've got two friends hurt bad..."

"You work with... with..."

"Yeah," Buck called back, "that wounded agent with the light hair is Chris Larabee, leader of ATF team seven. I'm Buck Wilmington and this," Buck knelt by Vin and rested a hand on his slack shoulder, "is Vin Tanner, they don't come any finer..." Buck warned.

"You stay put," the stocky one replied, "Our orders are to keep you contained until the Army chopper gets here. They dropped off your friends and their ETA is about five minutes."

Buck's face screwed up, "...friends... Dunne and Standish?"

"I don't know, we weren't given names," the taller one answered.

Buck's attention was then drawn to the familiar whir of blades in the sky. He threw a hand over his eyes and saw the approaching helicopter. It set down on the sand, up the beach. He turned back to Vin and waited for the small, harsh breath to come forth.

"That's it, Slick, you just keep on breathing..." Buck commanded, lifting Vin's limp hand.

"Don't touch him," a deep voice ordered from behind, "Step away from him now!"

"You from Earth?" Buck greeted weakly, eyeing the spaceman-like Hazmat suits approaching. The bright yellow garments covered the army men from head to toe. "I'm Buck Wilmington, ATF." he nodded to Chris, "That's my boss, Chris Larabee and this is Vin Tanner." He moved as one man dropped by Chris and the other, older and larger, by Vin. He watched as the younger man probed Chris's hairline, as he administered oxygen. "He took a bullet in the shoulder and got hit by debris when the boat blew up. The bitch... uh... suspect Jamie Newlander, didn't make it. My partner Josiah Sanchez and I were following in another boat. I jumped in and got them out of the water. Vin wasn't breathing... I gave him mouth to mouth." Buck's voice faltered as he watched the grave expression the man examining Vin wore. Even through the protective shield, he saw the grim face clearly. When Buck finished speaking, the other man raised his head, his eyes were a mix of shock and admiration. "I'd do it again!" Buck vowed adamently.

"I'm Second Lieutenant Gary Miller," the Army medic responded, "and I'd say this boy's damn lucky to have a friend like you." He did a quick assessment of the patient's vitals and slipped the oxygen line over his wet hair. Other than a few cuts on his face, there didn't appear to be any broken bones.

Buck moved aside when the third man arrived, bearing a stretcher. He watched while Chris was loaded on it and taken to the chopper. Then the stretcher bearer returned, kneeling by Vin.

"What's our ETA, Mark?" the medic asked the newcomer.

"Five minutes," he replied, easing the still body onto the stretcher.

"Good, because I don't think this boy has ten in him. Let's move..." Miller hollered, lifting one end of the stretcher. "You too," he urged Buck, who seemed distracted. "Were you injured?" he called out as they moved towards the open door.

"No..." Buck whispered, creeping into the vehicle. He buckled up and felt his heart pounding, as the two medic's worked on his friends. He felt his own heart beating rapidly as he watched the two medics work quickly and efficiently. Within minutes, they established IV'S on both unconscious agents and intubated Vin. The lionhearted agent's eyes were glued to Miller, as he rhythymically squeezed the ambubag in his hand, delivering life sustaining oxygen to the stricken Texan. Ten minutes... the numbers buzzed in his head. Was this Vin Tanner's last sunset?

St. Michael's, nine-thirty.

"I feel like we're in a bad science fiction movie," J.D. complained, eyeing the yellow space suits.

"We might be," Josiah replied, looking at the empty first floor of the former hospital. "Wonder if Mel Gibson is free?" he wiggled his eyebrows and Ezra chuffed, rolling his eyes.

"Positively eerie," Standish noted of the deserted floor. "One can almost imagine an axe-bearing maniac running rampant."

"Thanks Ez..." J.D. wheezed from the wheelchair.

"You two, are in here," the female voice directed, pointing to adjacent rooms. "Strip, shower and I'll be back for you."

"I think she likes me," Josiah deadpanned, giving Ezra cause to grin. With a nod, each man disappeared into their rooms.

The room was clean and not unlike any other hospital rooms he'd seen. White walls with light blue wallpaper, a bed, television, nightstand but no phone. Ezra saw the yellow trash can and read the directions. He took his jewelry off and laid it on the nightstand. His clothes came next, and he put them in the trash container. The hot shower felt good and he jumped a bit when a female voice appeared next to the curtain.

"I'm leaving scrubs for you. Don't leave this room. There will be food brought in soon."

"Thank you for..." he jumped again as the door slammed, "...being such a charming companion."

When they got to the room, J.D. stood up and stepped away from the chair. He began to undress, but two of the yellow suited staff moved in and cut his clothes away. He was then herded into the shower and finally into a robe. He was taken to a room down the hall and stepped up onto an examination table. The robe dropped to his waist as the taller of the figures stepped forward

"Are you a doctor?" J.D. asked the dark-skinned woman inside the suit, as she examined the puncture marks on his back and arms.

"Yes, I'm Major Kendra Taylor," she answered, "I'm one of the team of medical personnel from AMERIID called in to help with containment. This is Corporal Dennis Toner, he's a nurse."

"AMERIID?" He glanced briefly at a young white face in the other suit. The assistant was taking notes.

"U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease," she cantered, "This facility was closed down a few weeks ago. It will be our headquarters until we are sure the threat is gone." She spoke as the stethescope hit his chest. "The medic on the helicopter said your lungs were clear, " she paused "...take a deep breath for me."

J.D. teeth clenched together as the breathing caused the pain to increase. He continued to take deep breaths, as best he could, every time she asked him. Finally she took the plugs from her ears, "Your lungs are intact, but we don't want them to collapse. You need to continue to take deep breaths and cough, if possible. This will help keep them inflated and prevent pnemonia from developing. Dennis will give you Tylenol with Codeine for the pain." She glanced at the many puncture wounds. "Snake?"

"Yeah... lots of 'em... no venom," J.D. hissed as something cold hit the wounds and stung him. He clenched his teeth, as the liquid medicine hit his skin.

"They're not deep, but can be quite painful, especially if they get infected. We'll leave them open for now. Let's see that arm, you're lucky, it's healing fine," she appraised, cleaning the old knife wound. After stitching it, she ran her hands on the purple and blue chest.

"OW!" he yelped as her fingers hit his ribcage. He gripped the table and felt tears spring to his eyes. He finally was able to push the red wall of pain away.

"Lay back please, I'm going to take an xray." Once that was done, she continued, nodding to Toner, "Subject A, John Dunne, appears to have several broken ribs, along with a half dozen puncture wounds from a non-venomous reptile attack and a minor wound on his arm. Subject will be placed on an IV for minimum of forty-eight hours, after which the antibiotics will be given orally. Tylenol with codeine will be given for pain, when required."

"I didn't have any contact with Vin," J.D. wondered aloud. "I'm not sick..."

"You're very lucky and we're not taking chances." She nodded, picking up his arm, "Make a fist, let's find a nice vein. We're going to keep a close watch over you."

J.D. flinched as the needle entered his arm. Two vials of blood were drawn. Dennis helped him slip on blue scrubs and then walked him back to his room. He passed Ezra's room and saw the doctor taking samples. He gave a brief wave, but before Ezra could respond, the doctor's beeper went off. Both men shared a startled look, when a voice came over the beeper.

"...Major Taylor to the ER, incoming. Major Taylor to the ER, incoming."

"Dennis, I'm done with Mr. Sanchez. Finish up Mr. Standish's BP and temperture, record everything in the computer. Have the samples taken upstairs to the lab." She said of the makeshift laboratory on the next floor. The staff at St. Michaels had reopened the old lab and now several lab technicans, chemists and other personnel were getting set up.

"Buck?" J.D. whispered, grasping the doorway in pain. Then another thought struck him, "Chris?"

With that, she was gone. The three ATF agents stared at the armed guard by the exit at the far end of the hall, wondering how badly their missing friends were hurt.

+ + + + + + +

Gary Miller didn't miss the raw emotion in the blue eyes of the man across from him. He was practically bleeding for his two friends. The senior army veteran eyed the battered blond. Despite the variety of bleeding wounds and colorful bruises, he thought the young man had a good chance. He sighed and eyed the younger patient. How the kid was still breathing, amazed him. Usually the plague would have killed it's victim by now. He adjusted his eyes back to Wilmington.

"Your outfit together long?" he asked, hoping to break the dismal silence.

"Chris..." Buck's hand went out towards the pale blond, then retracted. He drew them together in his lap, nervously twisting his fingers. "...we go back twelve years. He's the best... a helluva of an agent and tough as nails. Vin..." he whispered, his hand itching to pull the loose strands of wet hair from the pale face. Hoping, somehow, Vin knew he wasn't alone. "...he uh... he's new to the team, but he's got something... in here..." Buck tapped his chest. "Deadly with a rifle, scary you know?" He took a deep breath. "It's not true... what they said about him. He didn't kill the cop, he's not on drugs... they... she... used him. Folks should know. Hell, the damn TV had him crucified... it's not right. He's a good man, a damn sight finer than most I know..."

Gary Miller felt every bit of the younger man's pain. He did know, he had buddies too, good ones, that went down in Viet Nam. Sometimes that war seemed like it was a hundred years ago and other times it was like yesterday. How many times had he ridden in choppers over a dense jungle and watched his friends clinging to life.

"I do know," he said slowly, "...and I'm sorry. Hell, he hung on this long... kid's got guts."

"He wrote the book," Buck said, reaching a hand out again and retracting it.

When the helicopter landed, the door didn't open right away. Buck kept his eyes on Miller, who was poised over Vin. He was prepared to ensure that the breathing apparatus sustaining his patient's life would not be affected by disembarking the helicopter. The gray eyes under the shield were narrowed in concern and Buck watched him shake his head slightly.

"Oh God..." he whispered, reaching for Vin.

"No!" Miller put his hand up, "He's still alive... I don't know how, but he is," he paused, as a rap on the door sounded. "... about damn time..." he muttered, as the panel was opened revealing a

plastic tunnel. The tunnel was from the helicopter to the ER entry. Buck watched as first Vin, then Chris were whisked away, amidst a small patrol of yellow suited figures. He stood on uncertain legs and slid out, wobbling a bit as he landed. A strong arm caught him under the elbow.

Relieved of their patients' care, the medics watched helplessly as they disappeared into the building

"You okay?" Miller asked, seeing the face drain of color.

"I don't... I'm kinda numb..." Buck managed, forcing his legs to work.

"I gotta go back to base," Miller said, "Good luck..."

"Thanks," Buck returned, still walking forward.

"Hey, Wilmington," Miller called and saw the tall man turn. He saluted and saw the slumped shoulders straighten a bit, before the clouded blue eyes found life and the hand came up, repeating the gesture.

Buck gave the departing soldier a wane smile and let the yellow arms propel him into the ER. The atmosphere changed instantly. He saw Vin disappear into a large cubicle with glass walls. His unconscious friend's clothes were cut away and shoved in a hazmat can. He saw them move in and surround the pale body, taking blood and vital signs. Vin's limbs flew around like a limp ragdoll's and made Buck's stomach fall. Then Vin was turned on his side, his back was swabbed and large thin needle was headed towards his spine. Then the curtains on the glass walls were drawn, cutting off his view. He was shoved towards a bathroom and ordered to shower.

"Chris?" He asked, pushing the intrusive arms away. "I got feelings you know," he snapped, eyeing the dark-skined face under the mask. "I'm no Goddamn cow to be prodded along." He shoved the offensive hand away and felt his face flush with heat. "Now I got two friends that could be dying. I want some fuckin' answers! What the hell are they doing to him?" he eyed the now curtained room several feet away.

"Okay, calm down," the army man said, putting a hand up to halt the guards ready to enter the area. "I'm Sergeant Tyrone Johnson. I'll be taking care of you and Larabee. He's on his way next store, to get a CT scan on his head, just to make sure there's no problems, then he'll go to the OR to get that bullet out. He'll be brought back here and his bed is right there, across from yours."

Buck followed the gloved hand waving to two bed directly across from each other in the vacant large ER floor. Twin televisions were suspended from the ceiling and a small stand with a pitcher and cup were next to it. A kidney shaped basin and a clear bag with toiletries were in the center of the bed. He took a deep breath and raked a shaky hand through his hair.

"Your buddy Tanner?" Tyrone asked and saw Buck's head rise slowly. "They'll take blood, start him on an agressive antibiotic cocktail. They're not sure what he might have, so they need to do a few tests. There's a possibility he has Anthrax, which can cause internal bleeding. That's what the lumbar puncture is for. It's an invasive diagnostic test, in which CSF..."

"CSF?" Buck interrupted, listening intently.

"Yeah, it's stands for cerebrospinal fluid, it's extracted for examination and pressure of the spinal column is measured. They'll insert that thin needle between L3 and L4," he paused and tapped Buck's back. "...right here. They'll draw out some spinal fluid and test it for uh... well it can determine a whole list of diseases. But what they want is clear fluid... no blood. That would probably rule out Anthrax, him being infected this long."

Buck paused and licked his dry lips, studying the curtained wall and then the shielded face. "You a doctor?"

"Second year resident," Tyrone replied.

"Can you find out for me, Doctor Johnson," Buck asked quietly, "...please..." he swallowed hard, but not before his voice broke. He dropped his head and let out a long, hard breath. He felt a gloved hand grip his shoulder and drew his head up.

"Sure... it'll take a little while. I need you to take that shower and get those clothes off. Then we're gonna have to take care of you, okay?"

"It's fatal, isn't it?" Buck rasped, feeling the full ramifications of the deed of vengeance.

"I'm afraid so... in most cases."

Buck nodded and shuffled into the shower, suddenly feeling like a man of eighty. He scrubbed his skin raw and slipped on the green surgical clothes left on the sink. He took a long drink with unsteady hands and eyed his reflection carefully. Alone, in the bathroom, he thought of his two friends battling for their lives, because of him. Guilt struck him hard, sending him onto the closed toilet. He swallowed back the nausea and got to his feet, leaving the bathroom. Two guards eyed him carefully as he made his way to his bed. He attempted to get closer to the curtained room, but two yellow-suited figures stopped him. He was shuttled to his bed and his arm wound was dressed. Then blood samples were taken and an IV line was inserted. He filled the small cup twice with ice water, gulping it quickly. The icy sensation slid down his windpipe and into his hollow stomach, causing it to cramp. He flinched and rested a hand there, just as the door to the glass walled room opened. He saw Tyrone walking slowly towards him and his heart sank. The contents of his stomach rebelled and he yanked the kidney dish. He was just spitting out the last mouthful, when a hand came to rest on his back. His muscles tensed, his hands trembled and he slowly raised his head.

Lower Downtown Denver, 9:30 p.m

Rain Jackson made her way up Blake Street, drinking in the unique atmosphere of the neighborhood that had been her home since birth. LoDo was the place where Denver was born, about one-hundred and fifty years before. Rich in history and overflowing with flavor, the unique section had it's share of ups and downs. Currently experiencing an urban renewel, the historic homes, some dating back well into the 1860's, stood proud and tall among the dozens of art galleries, restaurants and loft apartments. These were the result of many of the old warehourses had been renovated. It was a place where horse-drawn carriages competed with cars and buses on the busy streets.

Her mother's people, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, lived on these grounds long before the white man settled here. She inherited her exotic beauty from her mother, who met her father over thirty years ago in jazz club in the very neighborhood. He was an African American piano player and among the best on the circuit at that time. He was twenty years older than her mother, but they loved each other and found happiness here. Two years after they wed, Rain was born. The only child of the union, she was doted on by both parents and showered with love. She was only twelve when her mother died from cancer and that helped make up her mind about her career. Although she was gifted artist and one day had dreams up her own gallery, for now the call to medicine was stronger. Her father's death two years before had been violent and bloody. A hot summer full of racial tension and several white supremacy groups in the area, led to violent confrontations. Her father was playing at a small bar when the firebomb went off. He never had a chance.

Nathan, she smiled and felt her insides tingle when his image was born. Those soulful brown eyes and warm smile, reflected the good man inside. A truly decent soul lurked in that fine body and there were so few left. She met him here too, part of a neighborhood watch group organized during the strife of that summer. Her father and some of the others formed the group, which got support from several law enforcement agencies. Nathan's friends came to lend a hand and were a key ingredient in the arrest and conviction of the group responsible. Nathan had been the reason she could deal with the hatred that filled her since her father's murder. He was the calm of her storm and she loved him deeply.

She eyed the stars in the sky and let the cool breeze lift her long hair off slim shoulders. Normally, a night like this would have found the couple strolling through the streets, seeking a cafe au lait in a corner cafe. Maybe they'd take in a Rockies game at Coors Field, then they'd count the stars and find love in each other's arms. But this wasn't an ordinary night. One of Nate's brothers, yes, that's what they'd become, was lost to him.

The doctor's let him go home at noon and by the time he was settled on the couch, CNN reported the Vin was presumed dead, lost at sea. She'd been in the back of the house and her heart stopped when she saw him. He didn't say a word, but his face was ashen and mournful. She took the remote from his hands and gathered him close. She wrapped him in her arms and brushed the tears on his face away. She tried to turn the television off, to take away the image of Vin's face from his view, but he denied that.

"Don't shut me out, Nathan," she whispered, turning his pain-lined fine towards her.

"Jesus, Rain, Vin..." his voice broke. "The things they said... lies... it hurts..."

"I know, Baby," she eased drawing his head onto her shoulder. She turned away from the image on the screen. She blocked out the shot of Vin's wide-eyed terrified face on the beach. She drew up another one, of the shy smile and glorious eyes lit up in mirth. Few people got to see that side of Vin and that hurt the most. That the gentle soul and sensitive spirit she knew, the young man whose poetry brought tears to her eyes, was lost forever. She rocked Nathan until the pain meds kicked in and he fell asleep. She had to be on duty at three and roused him before she left. He ate a little soup and went back to sleep. Milo Sinclair, their eccentric next door neighbor, came over to stay with Nate while she was gone. The elderly gentlemen was a retired schoolteacher and an old friend of her father's.

She stopped in the Golden Panda and picked up some Shrimp Lo Mein, Chicken with Cashews, Egg Rolls, Hot and Sour Soup and Vegtable Fried Rice. She shifted the package of Chinese food in her arms, inhaling the exotic aroma. She sighed and made her way up to Eighteenth Street and frowned when she heard male voices from inside. She glanced at her watch, which read almost ten p.m. Turning the key, she was suprised to find Milo gone and Mike Ryan sitting on the sofa with Nate.

"Mike?" She greeted curiously, then saw the light shining in Nate's eyes. "Honey?" She placed the large bag on the table and entered the spacious living room of their loft. "I got Debbie to take the rest of my shift. What's going on?"

He answered her with a kiss and squeezed her hand, and his eyes spoke loudly, shortly followed by words. "He's alive..." Nate whispered, "That sorry-assed Texan is alive!"

"Vin? But how?" she turned to Mike.

"Orin called me about a half-hour ago," he said standing up, "I was leaving Coors Field when I got word. I thought Nate might like to hear it from me, before CNN screws it up."

"Buck found Chris and J.D. in a warehouse in Mystic Cove. This ties into a case, Buck's first, eighteen years ago. Anyhow, the bitch that was behind this, Jamie Newlander, blamed Buck for her father's suicide and disgrace. He was F.B.I., but dirty and got caught." Nate paused, out of breath.

"So," Mike took over, "She took off in a boat, with samples of germ warfare... a deadly cargo of some sort. She had buyer waiting offshore. But Chris got on the boat; they're not sure of the rest. Buck and Josiah followed them. The boat exploded and Buck dove in the water; he pulled Chris and Vin from the sea."

"Where did Vin come from?" Rain asked confused.

"The boat apparently, but we don't know how he got there. They're all at a hospital in Mystic Cove, a St. Michael's. The Army sent their infectious disease team in to take over. Orin doesn't know much, Chris is in surgery, he took one in the shoulder. J.D.'s okay, just banged up a bit." Mike halted, eyeing Nate's expression.

"...and Vin?" She asked, squeezing his hand.

"He's alive," Nate said gruffly. "Well he is..." he answered Mike's dark gaze.

"I know that, Nathan, but... I don't want you to get your hopes up." His blue eyes went to Rain's expressive dark ones, "Orin said... they think he's got the Bubonic Plague or Anthrax..."

"Oh My God..." She choked, putting her hand to her throat. "Oh Vin..."

"Quit buryin' him!" Nate pulled his hand away, wincing as a pain lanced through his healing side. "He ain't dead... he hung on this long."

"I uh... I gotta go..." Mike faltered, feeling the tension building. "You take care, Nate. If I hear anything, I'll call."

"Thanks, Mike," Nate nodded and Rain walked him out.

"I didn't mean to upset him..." Mike frowned, "Hell, I don't want Vin to die... but..."

"I know, Mike," Rain said softly, rubbing the muscular arm. "He's too close... it's gonna hurt. Thanks for coming."

The dinner was quiet, Nathan picked at his food, his eyes hooded and distant. Later, in the quiet of the night, he laid in her protective embrace. The curtains ruffled and offered a view of the starfield outside. She was dozing off, her head resting on the back of Nate's shoulder, her arm slung over his waist. She thought he was asleep, he'd lain so still and quiet. Then she heard his voice and bit her lip as her eyes filled, it never sounded so fragile.

"Please... God... don't let him die."

Old St. Michael's ER 9:30

"Somebody get on the phone to Denver and get his medical background..." Kendra Taylor barked, entering the tented-area to change her hazmat suit. "What are his vitals? We'll need a lumbar puncture," she hollered, entering the glass room. "Angie, four units, type and cross," she ordered the nurse, "How high's his temp? Come on people!"

Her expert eyes took in the presence of the ventilator at the bedside. The ventilator was a machine about the size of a small dishwasher. A plastic hose, about one-inch wide, ran from the machine and was connected to Tanner's endotracheal tube. The smooth rhythmic sound of the ventilator was all she needed to hear to know that the machine was doing the breathing for the young agent. She saw he was hooked up to a cardiac monitor and was not surprised to see a rapid but normal tracing of the electrical activity of his heart.

"Temp is 105.3, ventilator rate is set at 16, BP is 70 by palpation," Mollie Muldoon, a thirty-year old staff sergeant replied. She moved in and rolled him, so Angie could cut the rest of his wet clothes off.

"How much fluid is in?" Kendra fired back.

"We've got 2 peripheral IV's running wide open. The fourth liter of normal saline is just finishing."

"Mollie, set up for a central line. I want 500 cc bolus of Hespan now and start him on low dose Norepinephrine. Increase the dose until he has an adequate blood pressure" she directed of the effort to counter the shock, trauma and stress that sent the young man's blood pressure plummeting. The precise measuring of the drug would insure that blood flow to vital organs, like his kidneys and brain, was maintained while minimizing the harmful side effects that often occurred. "Let's get that cooling sheet under him," she noted of the electric cooling blanket which would help lower his high body temperture. "... and I want Tylenol suppositories every four hours." She frowned, eyeing the near lack of movement from his chest. "Sandy!" Kendra turned to Lieutenant Alexander Dunkirke, catching his intense blue gaze, "Call next store and get the vascular on-call over here stat, I'm going to need a hand getting that central line inserted in his neck."

"On it," the forty-year-old handsome physician replied, from the doorway. "Oh, Gary said Tanner was non-responsive when his buddy pulled him from the ocean, he aspirated water." he noted of the threat to pneumonia, especially with the patient comatose.

Angelina Cruz looked up after placing the vials of blood in a tray. "...take these upstairs..." she asked the blond doctor. The lab on the upper floor was reopened and AMERIID laboratory technician's awaited their samples.

"Sure..." he said, "I'll get his medical bio from Denver..." he noted, grabbing the tray and departing.

"Angie," the Major called out, while cupping Vin Tanner's flushed, wet face. " I want to start him on Penicillin and Erthyomycin. I'm going to put an arterial line in..." The physician picked up Vin's limp right wrist and inserted an arterial catheter in the radial artery, which would be used for drawing blood gases and monitoring his blood pressure.

Taylor looked over at the monitor and noticed with relief that Tanner's blood pressure was responding well to the fluids and medication. After taping and securing the lines, she was ready for the spinal tap. "I need both of you to roll him over and hold him, while I swab," the Major directed, carefully cleaning the area and lifting a thin needle from the surgical tray. She waited until the nurses were finished and holding the unconscious patient steady in a fetal position. Then she carefully began the process of penetrating the skin and spinal canal to obtain 4 tubes of fluid. Once completed, she applied pressure and a bandage, carefully easing the ill man onto his back. "It's clear..." she held the vial up and saw Tyrone Johnson appear.

"Is that the one who gave him mouth to mouth?" she asked , jerking her head towards the curtained area where Buck was.

"Yeah, he's pretty shook up." the dark eyes watched the twenty-five year veteran of many battles and field hospitals work with lightning effiecency. "He's clean and Sandy's putting in a IV with penicillin."

"Bloodwork, urine and sputum, from both of them," she drilled to the young man who nodded, while inserting the foley catheter.

"Larabee's in the OR... but I'll get Wilmington's done," he hesitated, "Looks like it isn't Anthrax..."

"No, but whatever it is," the Major replied, listening to Tanner's chest via a stethoscope, "... it's killing him. "I need a portable unit... he's loaded with congestion." After ordering the chest x-ray, she felt the swollen glands under his jaw.

Angie was finishing up the nasogastric tube, wiping the blood from the flushed young man's nose.

Hearing the tell-tale sound of secretions in the critically ill man's endotracheal tube, Mollie moved in to suction him. She carefully inserted a suction catheter into the tube and collected sputum for culture. This was a very uncomfortable procedure, but a necessary one. She remembered all too well a patient who died after his tube had been clogged by a thick plug of mucous.

"I want him suctioned every four hours," the Major directed, placing a sheet over Vin's waist. The cooling blanket was set at a temperature that would help conquer the intense body heat and would be adjusted as his temperture dropped down to a normal range. Despite Mollie's efficient skills, the suctioning caused reflex coughing. The patient's weak body jerked in helpless spasms, subsiding as Mollie reattached the ventilator and finally the procedure was done. Angie sponged his face, neck and chest with a cold cloth.

"I'm John Kofsky," a voice greeted. "I'm the Vascular surgeon," he moved in and tilted the critically ill patient's jaw. With a steady hand, he then proceeded to insert the line into Vin's neck. Prior to initiating a flush through the central line, he checked it for blood return. Satisfied, he turned to the two nurses. "Keep it clean, call when the chest xray is done and I'll check to make sure the placement is right. Until we know it's in the correct spot, don't give any fluids or medications through the line." he said, nodding to the Major and departing, anxious to lose the hot, hazmat suit.

"Thank you," she nodded to the surgeon and then turned her attention to her staff. "I want to know the results of those cultures ASAP," Kendra directed, of the samples Mollie was collecting. "I'll talk to Wilmington and then update his friends. One of you will stay with him at all times."

The two nurses nodded, as the forceful entity left for the hazmat tent. Mollie collected a urine sample and took it, along with the sputum culture upstairs to the lab. Angie stroked the young man's face, noting the fine features below the watery sheen. A staunch Catholic, she began to recite the rosary silently, while she recorded his vital signs and watched the monitors. Her only company was the reassuring whoosh of air being pumped into the handsome patient's lungs. She sighed and wondered if he would open the eyes she knew were destined to be blue

Old St. Michael's, First Floor, 10 p.m.

The forced cough was painful and brought tears to his hazel eyes. They lingered and lounged on his heavy lids, seeking company on their way down his bruised face. J.D. was in an upright position in the bed. An IV tube brought antibiotics into his body and he sucked the coke he'd been given dry. He shook the empty can and tossed it in annoyance at the trash can.

"Looks like Kobe can sleep easy," Josiah wryly noted of the Laker's star. "You okay, Son?"

"Worried..." J.D. managed, stiffling a yawn. "Why can't we get a phone. I need to see... talk to Buck. Why won't they tell us who got brought in? What if Buck's hurt. What if Chris..."

"Ezra's working on it," Josiah interrupted, flipping the television on. He flicked through the channels until a reporter came into view. He turned the sound up and noted the outside of the hospital.

"...were brought in a short time ago, they appeared to be alive and we're waiting for an update. One of the suspects was killed in the explosion. Jamie Cameron Newlander, shown here in a press photo from..."

"Dammit!" J.D. shoved the tray away so forcefully, he felt a burning sensation in his ribs and stiffened up, crying out in pain. He clenched his eyes closed and forced himself to breathe, not trying to fight the tears in his eyes. He felt Josiah's hand on he shoulder and nodded. "...too fast... didn't suffer..."

"Well," the preacher eyed the likeness on the screen. "I'm guessin' she'll have all of eternity dodgin' pitchforks to make up for that."

"What about Chris?" J.D. asked the microphone bearing anorexic poster child on the screen.

"The other suspect, Anthony Kennedy had a bullet removed from his knee. He is being treated for other injuries sustained during a struggle with the federal agents..."

"Struggle?" Josiah chortled.

"...will be kept in isolation and monitored. If he continues to be virus free,over the next few days, he'll be transported to the Federal Penitentary. Larry..."

"Shit!" J.D. cursed. "What about Chris and Buck?"

"Mr. Larabee is in surgery and our resident rogue is resting comfortably and without injury." Ezra noted, being herded into the room by a yellow suit. "This is Lieutenant Dunkirke, he has come to collect samples and has news of our friends.

"What's Chris in surgery for? What happened to him?" J.D. demanded, coughing again and gripping the rails.

"I don't think I have to warn you about moving around like that. You've got to protect those lungs." Sandy warned. "Chris Larabee sustained a wound to his left shoulder and a head injury, from the explosion we're presuming. He's listed as guarded and is in surgery right now. His CT scan was good... most likely a concussion."

"and Buck?" J.D.'s eyes grew wide when he saw the flicker of the doctor's eyes through the mask. "What's wrong with Buck?"

"He wasn't injured," the physician hedged, sensing the young man anxious state was due to a close relationship with the older agent he'd met upstairs. "However, he is at considerable risk due to his exposure."

"Exposure?" J.D. frowned, "To Chris?"

"No, to Vin Tanner," he paused.

"He's alive!" J.D. exalted, "I knew it... I knew he wasn't dead. Jesus..."

"Thank God," Josiah heaved a long breath and bowed his head in prayer.

Ezra turned away, not wanting the others to see the emotion on his face. He already knew what the doctor was going to say, having been updated already. He moved to J.D.'s side and his face betrayed him.

"What?" J.D. said seeing the sadness in Standish's gaze.

"Apparently Vin was on the boat, somehow," Ezra said quietly, laying a hand on the youth's shoulder. "...and after the explosion, Buck found Chris and Vin in the water. Vin... wasn't breathing. Buck gave him mouth to mouth."

"My God," Josiah marveled. "It's a miracle." He turned back to the doctor, "How's Vin, Doc? What are his chances?"

"They're drawing spinal fluid out to determine what he might or might not have, Anthrax and a form of the Plague are suspected."

"Good Lord!" Ezra gasped, gripping the rails to Dunne's bed. The gravity of the words hit him, even though he'd been trying to prepare since seeing the awful video. "They're fatal?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so..."

"He can't die..." J.D.'s voice trailed off, his eyes seeing Buck's face. He heard Ezra voice but not the words and vaguely had a sense of Josiah comforting. He nodded absentmindedly to them as they left, allowing the doctor to take samples. He closed his eyes in the darkness of the room and his bitter tears fell. "Buck... you can't leave... I need you..."

Across the hall, Ezra and Josiah waited for the doctor. They sat in silence, each absorbing the startling news. Josiah sighed deeply, running a hand through his hair. Vin and Buck... both lost. Like his partner, he'd been preparing himself for the worst, seeing Vin's ordeal. But Buck's sacrifice had given life and perhaps taken it away in the span of a few breaths.

"I don't think I've ever encountered a braver act," Ezra finally said. He liked Buck Wilmington. How could you not like the man? He'd chosen the desk next to the charming rogue for that reason. He envied the gregarious aura the exuded from every Wilmington pore. Despite his complaints, he enjoyed their double dates and the effortless genius at which Buck manuevered everything that is female.

"Be strong and of good courage," the preacher's steady voice quoted a Bible passage from Deuteronomy, "do not fear or be afraid, for the Lord thy God it is he who goes with you; he will not fail nor forsake thee."

"Yes," Ezra nodded of the insightful passage, "it would appear Buck was not alone on that stretch of sand."

"We're never alone, Ezra," Josiah peered at the gambler, whose eyes were clouded and downcast, "He's always with us..."

"Josiah," he turned, watching the wise blue eyes regarding him. "Perhaps when the doctor leaves, we can partake in a prayer."

"Partake it shall be, Brother," Josiah nodded, wondering how Buck was coping.

Old St. Michael's ER, 10:15 p.m

Buck's eyes stared intently at the somber dark ones regarding him. He shoved the sloppy kidney dish aside and took a shaky breath.

"Well?" he asked Tyrone, his gut as cold as ice.

"The fluid was clear..."

"Jesus, aw Jesus," Buck gasped, head reeling. "He don't have Anthrax?"

"No, but that means that Bubonic or Pneumonic Plague have just been bumped up to number one," Tyrone offered, gripping the downcast shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington,"

"Buck..." the rogue choked, swallowing hard. "...thanks... the plague... so how bad... Shit, that's a dumb question."

"No, it's not," Tyrone sympathized, swaying at the sacrifice this man made to save his dying friend. "and yes, either usually are. But he's been infected for forty-eight hours and he's still fighting. I think that has the Major hopeful. Don't give up hope Buck, without that, you got nothing."

"Yeah... he's full of piss and vinegar," Buck thought of the cranky Texan's mood and found a soft smile. "his guts alone will keep him breathing." His eyes flicked to the empty bed. "Chris?"

"Still in surgery, but holding his own. He'll be back down here during the night."

"J.D.?" Buck's eyes rose. "Shit, the damn Kid's probably fussin' and cussin'. Can I call him?"

"Uh... let me check..." he eyed the imposing figure approaching. "That's Major Kendra Taylor. She's in charge. I better get to work," he swabbed Buck's arm and took two vials of blood, followed by urine and sputum. He nodded and departed, as the Major drew up.

"How's Vin?" Buck asked, eyeing the curtained glass wall to this right.

"He's alive," she answered dryly, "for how long, I don't know. We've managed to stabilize his vital signs for now, but his temperature is soaring, almost 106."

"Yeah, I could feel his skin burning through his wet shirt."

"Do you realize the risk you took when you adminstered CPR?"

"Why does everybody fuckin' get in my face about that?" Buck bristled, blue eyes blazing. "He wasn't breathing, for Christs's sake... he's a good friend." He tossed an icy look at the brown eyes regarding him. "I'd do it again... " he answered the lingering look. "I want a phone, I want to talk to J.D. Dunne."

"I'm sure if Colonel Blackburn decides to allow..."

"Allow?" Buck vented, "This isn't Russia for Christ's sake, it's America. I want a Goddamn phone. That Kid's been through Hell and he needs... I need to talk to him."

"I'll see what I can do," she replied, handing him a chart. "I need to ask you about your medical history. "

Buck answered the questions and finally she left, seeking the stairwell. He slipped under the sheet and sunk into the bed. He eyed the empty bed across from him, suddenly needing to see Chris Larabee's face. He thought on the dark days after Frank died and how strong Chris had been. He cast a gaze at the curtained glass room, the only light in the darkened ER. He got a lump in his throat when Vin's face appeared in his mind's eye. A mental 'whooping' sound accompanied the euphoric face, split wide with a smile. It was the face he'd worn for hours after his hockey team won their leagues championship just a few months ago.

"Life's too short to eat bad pizza," he whispered, wondering about that sign on Vin's desk. "Life's too short.." he began again and wondered about Chris. In the darkness, he let his own fears creep up his chest and slide out of his heart. What if he got the Plague too? Who would look out for the Kid? Damn fool was still green. He'd make a helluva agent, Buck saw that right off. But it took years of seasoning. Years of learning, the kind of learning that doesn't come from a book, just from experience... from life... from the right hand... like Frank's. The kind of education he'd gotten from Frank Delassi, well they didn't come any finer. And what of Chris Larabee? What if the brooding leader lost both his best friends? Would that be too much to bear? Even for a Larabee?He was still pondering, when the weariness overtook him and he dozed off.

Old St. Michael's ER, 1 a.m.

The dark ward caused him to shiver and he looked quickly around the vacant cavity, as spectre's of the past lurked at every turn. It was too quiet and way too eerie, like the set of a B horror movie. He adjusted the drip on Buck Wilmington's IV and took his vital signs. The tall patient never stirred. He was almost finished, when movement in the shadows caused him to tense.

"Tyrone?"

The earnest resident jumped and snarled at the slight body next to him.

"Dammit, Girl!"

"Big, bad Tyrone is afraid of the dark?" Angie teased, eyeing the body in the bed. "Was he a hero or a fool?"

"Hero." Tyrone said without thinking.

"Just like that?" She whispered, still gazing at the handsome face relaxed in slumber. "He might die..."

"...and therein lies the difference," Tyrone replied, eyeing Larabee's vacant bed. "That's the stuff you can't teach or learn, it comes from within. That's the stuff that wins wars in cold trenches on foreign soil. It's because of him... guys like him... and the real meaning of the word sacrifice, that we're breathing free air here in the U.S. of A. He'd do it again... without batting an eye... and that is the difference. Larabee?"

For a minute, Angie slowly absorbed the young resident's words. She leaned down and brushed an errant lock of hair from Buck Wilmington's face. She left her hand linger on his cheek for a moment and nodded. He sighed deeply and turned towards the touch, a smile forming.

"Larabee?" Tyrone prompted.

Buck felt the soft touch and tried to draw up a picture. He took a good breath and let it out slowly, snuggling into the small hand. His mind was blank for a minute, then the horrid events rushed forth. He wanted to open his eyes and see... see... Chris... Vin... J.D... .It was all muddled. He was lost in that netherworld of deep sleep, a slave to his strong subconscious. Words buzzed above his head and he slowly roused himself.

"He won't be over until later," Angie answered, "They ran into some complications..." She filled him in as they moved away.

Complications. The word hit the struggling body hard. Complications. His mind mulled the word over. Difficulty... problem... setback... snag... Chris? Chris? Why couldn't he remember where Chris went? Chris? Buck's body jerked in the bed as another image formed. Shot. Was that the problem? The wound to his... his... shoulder. Yes, that was it... his heart hammered as another thought crept within his churning mind. Head injury. Chris... Chris... the harder he fought, the heavier the wall became, until it overcame him. When Tyrone looked back briefly, as they pair entered the old Admin offices further off the large room for a briefing, Buck Wilmington was resting, still and silent.

Sandy entered the former office cluster that housed the Admin and Business offices. He paused in the doorway and eyed the exhausted body in the folding chair. Her normal pristine appearance was long gone. The heat inside the hazmat suit left her short, dark hair a limp mess. Dark circles lounged under her eyes and her uniform was rumpled. The body was nearly sliding from the chair. A half dozen more sat around a large vacant desk, awaiting the rest of the troops. A smile creased his handsome face and he crossed the room silently, placing a large mug of coffee in front of the weary frame. He raked a hand through his shaggy blond mane and then rested both on the slumped shoulders. He massaged them firmly, dropping his voice low.

"You cut a fine figure, Major..." he paused as one eye opened and glared up at him. He winked boldy, "I'll get a couple specimen cups and some Mad Dog," he noted of the cheap wine. "Show you a good time?"

"Get your sorry white ass in a chair," Kendra snapped, slapping the hands away, "Your Mama didn't wear out enough rulers on your behind, when you were a child." Twenty years of friendship gave her the power. They'd been through wars and scares and waded through swollen bodies, too many days dead under the brutal sun. They cried on each other's shoulders more than once and nursed each other through too many close calls. Sandy had been the first person she called when Malcolm died. Although she never married, Malcolm and William were her crown jewels. Like most single mothers, it was a struggle, overcoming the lure of drugs and other teenage temptations. She'd fought the battle and won, only to lose her oldest to a drunk driver. William was eighteen now, a tall, graceful boy, who had his mother's eyes and fierce drive. He was a freshman majoring in Sports Medicine at the University of Virginia.

Sandy laughed and slid into the chair next to her, eyeing the fatigue.

"After the brief, you get some sleep. Did you eat?" He frowned and saw the head bob once. "I got a couple old saltines I've been saving."

"You're all heart," she drolled, rousing herself and shaking the slumber waves off. "Claire's goin' straight up to heaven." She shook her head, thinking of Sandy's bride of over a dozen years.

"Luckiest day of her life," Sandy crowed, reading the notes he'd taken about Vin Tanner and the other sick men, "the day she fell in my arms."

"Fell in your arms?" Kendra rolled her dark eyes, "Your ass was diving for cover, you knocked her clean over." She recalled of the encounter with the former photojournalist during a close call in Turkey.

"That's not how I remember it," he argued, nodding to Tyrone and Angie. Dennis trotted in behind them.

"Hmmphh..." Kendra glared at the winning grin and turned to the newcomers. "Dennis, any change in Dunne?"

"No, he's holding steady. So are the other two. I called over to the main building, Larabee should be ready in a hour or so."

"Larabee..." she flipped through her notes, "bullet removed from left shoulder, broken collarbone..."

"...splinted and immobile," Toner backed up, eyeing his own notes.

"The leg?" Sandy asked of the infection the surgeon uncovered while debriding dead tissue. "Open and drain twice daily..." he eyed Tyrone, who would be the principle caregiver, "...irrigate with normal saline, then pack the wound with saline soaked gauze and cover with dry."

"Okay," Tyrone copied the orders down. "What about his back?"

"Dr. Rivera said the raised welts didn't appear infected," Kendra recalled the conversation with the surgeon. "He sent cultures over, we'll swab too and evaluate. He's on Ancef," she read of the postoperative infection fighter, "and Penicillin. He's running a fever..just over 100. Dr. Rivera said his leg was a mess... let's add Gentamycin in the IV. Tyrone, you keep your eyes open... he had contact. He's already weak..."

"Okay," the tired medical man agreed, "Wilmington's stable... no change."

"...and that leaves Mr. Tanner..." Major Taylor sighed, "Angie?"

"Mollie was suctioning him when I left, she was having a tough time." the pretty nurse paused, her dark eyes studying her notes. "His temp is up a full degree, his blood pressure is a little labile," she noted of the erratic reading. "But we're able to maintain his systolic pressure above 90. He's still tachycardic with his heart rate around 120" she paused, thinking of the rapid heart action, "...and his urine output isn't great but it's been around 30 cc's an hour so far. His airway pressures are climbing and I'm starting to worry about that, although his oxygen saturation is still hovering around 95."

"The Lab said his cultures are bacteria free..." Sandy noted, "His lungs are a mess... he's developed patchy bilateral infiltrates, " he noted of the chest x-ray. "I talked to Roger Davenport in Atlanta," he said of the senior CDC analyst "He's putting together a rapid recovery team. They'll be here in the morning."

"Good," Kendra nodded, "We're gonna need him. Something's killing that boy..."

"What have we eliminated?" Tyrone asked, eyeing the death list.

"Anthrax," Sandy noted, sipping his coffee, "Ebola, West Nile... uh..."

"Bubonic Plague?" Angie asked. "...or another variety."

"Suspected at first but we can rule them out," Sandy replied, "Examination of Tanner's groin, underarms and neck revealed no buboes," he noted of the swollen and tender lymph nodes of which it derived it's name. "...and it's been three days and he's still alive..."

"No hemhoragging or black sores..." Toner ruled out pneumonic plague. "So what are we looking at?"

"I don't know," the tired Major sighed, "and I'm afraid our answers might be gone up with that boat," she noted of the explosion that took the creator of the deadly disease. They reviewed the material recovered from the Iranian's boat, but she wondered about the missing information that had been on Newlander's boat. "Anything from Denver?"

"About her?" Sandy frowned, "No... the F.B.I's got a team digging through her lab... it's gonna take awhile, there are thousands of records to go through."

Kendra nodded thoughtfully,"Okay, until the lab boys can give us something to go with in terms of what we're looking at, we have to continue to treat him based on the clinical picture. If his blood pressure is unstable, we probably haven't caught up on his fluids. Lets give another 500 cc's of Hespan and give him a total of 200 cc's per hour of IV fluids. We'll assess his fluid status in four hours and turn down the IV rate if it looks like we're overloading him"

Tyrone grunted in approval and continued to make note of the orders as The Major continued to plan the care that would be given.

"I really hope that we're not looking at Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome developing here. I don't know if he could fight ARDS too," the blond lieutenant frowned as he thought of battling yet another life threatening complication.

"Well, we've got him covered with antibiotics if it turns out to be pneumonia and we could change him over to pressure control ventilation to limit the potential lung damage. Also, we could always put in a couple of chest tubes prophylactically," the young resident offered, eager to practice his chest tube insertion skills.

"Yes to the change in ventilation and no to the chest tubes." Taylor directed sternly at Tyrone. She remembered all too well being a resident and eager to practice her skills, but this wasn't the time or place for that. "I'd like his urine output to be a little higher and it wouldn't be a bad idea to start him on low dose Dopamine to help his kidneys and force some fluid through them... let's go with 3 mcg/kg/min. Does he have any bowel sounds?" She took a gulp of coffee and Angie nodded.

"Good, let's start feeding him with Nutrisource at 20 cc's per hour via the nasogastric tube. If he tolerates that, you can slowly increase the rate to 75 cc's per hour. I must admit that I'm out of ideas with his temperature. I do remember warming a patient once by putting him on cardiopulmonary bypass but I don't think we have the equipment or a perfusionist on hand."

"There is one more thing we could try." Angie interrupted."When I was in training we were able to control fevers by bathing the patients in a mixture of cool water and rubbing alcohol. I know that hospitals stopped doing that, but I sure remember it helping."

"Hey, that's a great idea. My mother swore by it and it does bring relief," Sandy pressed, eyeing the Major, "It can't hurt, let's give it a try." He waited and saw the dark head nod in agreement.

"We better hope for a miracle," Major Taylor rose and they sprung to their feet, saluting her. "Because that boy's peakin'. Sandy, you stay with him... I'll need Mollie tomorrow."

Part 15

"Come on, Darlin'" Mollie coached, suctioning the muck from the tube, "Just a little more, I know yer hurtin'..." She finally completed the process and eyed tangled, messy strands of wet hair that seemed to be everywhere. She lifted the damp face and pulled all the errant hair behind his head, tying it of with an elastic band on her wrist. Tucking it under again, so it formed a small knob, she turned the pillow and eased his head down. She sighed and eyed the fine features, if anything, he looked even younger now. "Ye keep fightin', Vin me boy, do ye hear me?"

She moved away to ring out a sponge and eased the cool cloth over his face, neck and chest. She peeled the cold blanket off him and proceeded to bathe the hot skin. She began to hum, recalling an old Irish song her mother sang. Although she'd been living here for over ten years, she never forgot the wild beauty of County Mayo and the strong woman who'd raised six children.

"Over in Kilarney, many years ago... My mother sang a song to me," she paused, soaking and ringing the cloth again, she wiped the handsome face. "In tones so soft and low. Just a simple little ditty, in her good old Irish way... And I'd give the world if I could hear... that song of hers today."

She paused and eyed the heart monitor, noting the calming effect her soothing words had. She bent lower, stroking his hair and continued. "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral... Too-ra-loo-ra-li... Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral.. Hush now, don't you cry." She smiled and then chuckled. "Did ye not mind it then? Well, that's a blessing, since I love to sing and yer a captive audience. I think we'll be good friends, Vin Tanner."

Sandy paused in the doorway, watching the multi-talented caregiver at work. Mollie and Angie were a good team and the young man was in great hands. He only hoped one day, Vin Tanner would wake and thank his benefactors. He watched as she spoke in low tones to the fevered man stroking his face and crooning. He smiled, she had a lovely voice and blushed through her visor, when she caught his eye. He put a box with a dozen bottles of rubbing alcohol on the cart and winked at her.

"Mollie you're enough to lure a man from his vows," Sandy teased, reading Tanner's vitals signs

"...and yer still carryin' the devil's tongue," she swatted him.

"From now on, we do alcohol baths, it should help bring that fever down. There's a report on the meeting with all the changes," he noted of the brief she'd missed.Go get some sleep, I've got the overnight... " he ordered, moving to Vin's side. "Go on..." he chuckled, watching her eyes lingering on the still body. "I think I know my way around..."

Old ER, six a.m.

Tyrone blinked as an arm shook him. He squinted up at Lieutenant Alexander Dunkirke, who nodded and dropped his body onto a cot. The makeshift sleeping area housed four cots and they slept in shifts. He scrambled off his bed and washed his face, taking a minute to toss back a pint of orange juice. Grabbing a breakfast sandwich from the tray on the table next to the door, he gobbled the hot egg and cheese creation on his way to his charges.

Chris was tired. Tired of running... of this endless chase. Where was he? The darkness was unending and the pain in his body was crippling. His head ached terrifically, as if an ax rested in the center of it, his shoulder burned and throbbed in time with the hot pain in his leg. He was alone and lost... he pushed forward, seeking relief to the pain. Then he felt skin, someone was near, touching him. He tried to reach out, but his arms wouldn't move. What the hell was wrong?

Tyrone stopped by Wilmington's bed first, the dark head was still firmly pressed into the pillows. He took vitals and recorded them, before moving over to check on Chris Larabee. The pale face was tense and he frowned at the clenched jaw. He'd read about the ATF leader in the brief they were all given. Did this man never ease up? He shook his dark head and checked the IV. Penicillin and Gentamycin were flowing from the plastic bag through a line into the blond's vein. He saw Sandy's signature on the orders, at three a.m. when Larabee arrived. He noted the vital signs the senior doctor listed and set about updating them. His temperture was up, just past 101, blood pressure was stable at 110 over 70 and his heart rate was slightly elevated at around 100. With swift and sure movements, he peeled the dressings down a bit and took a peek at the leg wound and back lacerations. He was just rolling the patient back into place, when the right hand shot up, gripping his forearm painfully.

"Hey Man, take it easy, I'm one of the good guys..." Tyrone tried, marveling at the strength the fevered man housed. "You're a bad ass huh..." he eyed the scowl, hovering over closed pale lids. The eyes underneath twitched furiously, racing and darting in time with the raspy breathing. "Sure wouldn't want to mess with you. Chris, can you hear me?" He gently peeled the hand away, "You can't move that arm, it's got your IV line in it, okay?" He saw the lips move and heard the distinctive sound of a dry mouth clucking. "I've been there," he noted of the awful sensation, "It ain't pretty..."

Chris heard the voice and frowned again. He didn't know that voice. Where were... were... who? Images swirled and he tossed his head, grunting as they brought up waves of pain. A boat, an evil smile, an explosion, Vin sinking under the waves... .Buck's voice saying 'he's gone'. No. No. Chris shook his head, that wasn't acceptable. No... he couldn't be... gone... Vin... Vin...

"Vin!"

"Jesus!" Tyrone rocked back, shocked by the loud and firm fear in the in voice. The eyes remained shut but the body was trembling in rage and panic.

"Chris?" Buck's voice sang out before his eyes opened. He heard the call to arms and fought his way through the mire that was his netherworld. Chris needed him, he heard the leader scream Vin's name. They were in trouble. "Chris..."

"Get back in that bed!" Tyrone ordered, pressing Larabee's flailing body, while eyeing Wilmington's rising one. "He's just having a bad dream."

"Chris!" Buck blinked and realized the blond was in front of him, just a few feet away. He ignored the attending physician and dragged the IV pole with him.

"Look, I can play dirty, Buck," Tyrone warned, "I'll put something with a kick in that IV and knock the stuffing out of you. Get back in that bed!"

"Chris," Buck shoved the offending arm away and leveled his IV pole. Then he bent over and gripped the right hand, noting the drugs running in it. He saw the fine sheen formed over the handsome features and recognized the fever. "Does he got... Is he?" Buck turned to Tyrone who shook his head.

"Too early to tell, most likely it's from his leg. There was an awful mess of pus and infection that the doctor dug out."

"Vin?" Buck said, his sleep-logged eyes drifting to the only light in the dark room. The yellow haze was shining through the curtains on the glass prison. That's what is was... closed walls that took Vin from them.

"He's still breathing, his fever's up a little, but he's fighting hard as he can. We haven't been able to pinpoint the cause yet."

"Damn..." Buck's shoulders slumped. "This is one battle that might be too much... even for a Tanner." His blue eyes went back to the scowl on Chris's tossing face. He chuckled and shook his head. "Damn fool can't even relax when he's sleeping."

"He's doing good and you need to get back to..."

"I'm staying," Buck vowed, "You best get me a chair." Several minutes later, he sat down, intent on keeping his vigil until the green eyes glared at him.

"You hungry?" Tyrone asked, "We got some breakfast sandwiches and danish. Your food won't be over until after eight."

"Yeah, thanks," Buck nodded, "You better open that curtain before he wakes up. He's not gonna like that."

"Not my call," Tyrone shrugged, "The Major's in charge."

"Hope she has a tough hide," Buck vowed, knowing how furious Chris would be.

"She's the toughest SOB I ever met and I'd ride through Hell for her." The medical man noted, then saw Buck smile and laugh.

"Oh, this ought to be fun," Buck chuckled, "...cause Chris is the original definition of 'tough SOB'."

Tyrone departed to get Buck some food and left the two men alone. Buck sighed and eyed the damp blond hair sticking up off of Chris's head. He left the hand go for a minute, putting the errant stands back in place.

"Come on Stud... Open them eyes and talk to Buck." He paused, shaking his head at the angry look on the still sleeping man's face. "Vin's still with us... he's fighting hard..." he stopped as the IV's and other paraphenalia suddenly hit him hard. The sight from the night before, Vin's limbs flying around as the ER team fought to save his life. His life... Chris's life... J.D's... How many lives would Jamie take with her? He raised his head and gripped Chris's limp hand with all the anger mustered up inside him.

"Damn that bitch to hell..." he seethed, the guilt pangs attacking his insides harshly.

"...been there... done that..." a weak voice countered.

Buck's head shot back down over the chrome rail and saw two green slits peering at him.

"Hey... hey there Larabee," his voice wavered and his eyes softened.

"....breakin' my hand..."

"Sorry!" Buck stood and studied the face below him. "I am sorry, Chris, for all of this."

"...shut up..." Chris scowled again, pulling his hand free and flexing it, hoping to restore circulation. "...shoot you..."

"Well now that would be a feat, since you're naked and the only heat your packin' is a fever."

"....drink..." Chris begged, seeking relief for the fire that raged in his mouth.

"Sure," Buck nodded, then spotted the fresh pitcher nearby. It took him a minute, being careful of his own IV lines, but he managed to pour a full cup and get a straw inside. The sated moans slipping from the lips that now gripped the straw, gave him a smile. "It ain't Coors..."

"...better..." Chris rasped, "...head..." he moaned, raising a weak hand.

"Nuh-uh, " Buck denied, grabbing the arm. "Leave that alone. Tyrone's already pissed off at me."

"Who?"

"He's the doctor assigned to us. We're in The old ER at St. Michael's Hospital in Mystic Cove. J.D, Ez and Josiah are upstairs, they're all fine. You had surgery last night, gave them a rough ride. Your left shoulder is wrapped up, you must have broken something. That leg was infected... you got a concussion..."

The assault of the words made Chris grimace as he formed them into something that made sense. A hospital... Mystic Cove... shoulder... head... the explosion... bodies... Vin... Vin. A lost set of blue eyes, wide and confused, burned a hole inside deep.

"Vin!" Chris sat up too fast and even Buck's arm didn't break his motion. The green eyes ran around the empty room. Empty... no Vin... Was he dead? "No... Vin... God..." He sank back, his tortured face riddled in anguish.

"Huh?" Buck blinked, first fighting the demon Larabee and now eyeing the crestfallen likeness. "Oh Shit, Chris, he's not dead!" Buck sat down and watched the head turn. "He's in there..." he nodded to the glass room far across the room. "He's awful sick, Chris. Shit, last night they thought he had Anthrax... there's no cure." His voice wavered ad dropped and he felt the tremor in Chris's body and winced. "But they ruled that out. Only..."

"...what?" Chris croaked, seeing far too pain in the hooded dark blue eyes.

"...they think he's got the Plague..."

"Aw, fuck..." Chris clenched his eyes shut for a moment and let the horrid words sink their deadly talons in his heart. The he took his face to the blue Wilmington agony and followed their path. He saw the curtains and frowned.

"I can't see him..."

"I warned them," Buck whispered, shaking his head as Tyrone arrived back. He put a paper plate in front of Buck, with a sandwich and danish. He set down a large container of orange juice.

"Good guy," Tyrone put up both hands defensively as Chris observed him crossly. "Remember?" He spent the next few minutes updating the injured man of his condition. The green eyes penetrated him like hot ice and he didn't wonder that this man was so intimidating.

Chris listened to each word and stared at the dark-skinned face in the hazmat suit. Only one thing was on his mind.

"Open... curtain..." he sighed, then saw Tyrone look at Buck as the rogue hid a smile.

"It's not my doing, Chris," Tyrone apologized. "He's in there for your protection too. Until we can..."

"Open... fuckin' curtain..." Chris demanded, shoving off the yellow arm and sitting up. The short trip nearly toppled both of them. The room spun around, with such a fury that it took Chris's breath away. He sucked frantically as the pain descended like a Viking, slamming a broadsword into his throbbing skull. He felt arms catch him and the cool sheet under his head. The word 'plague' hit his brain again, sinking venomous fangs in deeply. Vin didn't have the plague. He knew that, why didn't they? He gasped in pain and fought the arms pressing him to the bed. He felt a river of sweat move down his lean body and gasped. He knew what was wrong with Vin. He could save his best friend. Vin's life depended on him... now... he had to tell them... for Vin. He parted his dry lips and spoke.

"Jesus," Tyrone grunted, holding the strong body down.

"No... no... Vin... no..." Chris whispered, before the lights went out and he was engulfed by a river of thick, black mud.

St. Michael's Hospital, 7:30 a.m., Wed. July 4

The familiar distaste of early morning filled his mouth and his lone thought was of toothpaste and a hot shower. He sat up in the bed, swung his legs over and rubbed his eyes. He squinted as the daylight pouring in from the slits in the blinds, siloutted a familiar body.

"Mornin'..." the deep voice greeted, "Now I appreciate how much effort it takes to create the 'Ezra Standish' we all know and love," he noted of the haggard body glaring at him.

Ezra stole a glance backwards at the bathroom which housed twin doors connecting the rooms they were occupying. He leveled a cold look at the large agent and scowled, standing and brushing past him.

"Remind me to have a lock placed on that door," he mumbled, staggering to the bathroom. "...or at the very least a string of cowbells." He bent over the sink and scrubbed the fog from his face, before turning the shower on. He picked up the blue toothbrush and broke the cellophane. His hand fumbled for the toothpaste, only to have it dangled before his eyes.

"You may find this hard to believe, but I've been grooming myself for a good many years. Unless this room is on fire, there is no reason for you to remain at my side," Ezra snapped, violently assaulting his helpless teeth. The wide grin from the preacher only made his sour mood increase.

"How is Mr. Tanner?" he directed, lathering his face.

"A doctor was up a few minutes ago to look in on J.D.," Sanchez replied, "he works for the Major, his name's is Johnson. They ruled out Antrax and the Plague..."

"...and?" the southerner paused, his heart slamming unevenly, the razor wavered for a minute, before relaxing in his grip.

"He's barely holding on, his temperture is up, his lungs are a mess..."

"He's a Tanner," Ezra said slowly, eyes distant as they recalled the sly maverick who'd become so important to him. "He'll prevail."

"From your lips to God's ear," Josiah sighed, watching the steam building.

"Yes, well, I might not be the best party to entertain His ear," Ezra turned, "Perhaps you can use your persuasive tongue, while I shower."

"Don't be long," Josiah warned, shoving off the doorframe, "Johnson says a Colonel Blackburn wants to question J.D." He paused, smokey eyes meeting jade, "He'll be up in about ten minutes."

"Understood," Ezra nodded, equally concerning about the youth.

J.D. eased back onto the bed as Dennis Toner took away the bath material, leaving Tyrone Johnson behind to examine the young man. The inspection was brief and the doctor seemed pleased.

"If you continue to be symptom free, you and your friends will be released in a couple days. Here," he sat a tray of eggs, ham, hashbrowns, toast and all the trimmings in front of the quiet patient. The juice went down swiftly and the hazel eyes seemed uncomfortable.

"Is Chris okay?"

"Your boss?" The resident tried, seeing a slight spark and the dark head rise a bit, "He came back from the OR during the night. He had a bad infection in his leg..."

"I only had soap to clean it with," J.D. voiced, frowning and dumping two packets of sugar in his coffee.

"You did fine," the physician relieved, "He's running a fever and we're treating it, along with his other wounds. His collarbone's broken, he'll be laid up awhile..." He paused as two bodies appeared in the doorway, immediately moving to either side of the bed. He smiled under his hazmat visor at the protective older pair.

"I'm Tyrone Johnson, I was just telling J.D. here that your boss is holding his own. He came back late from surgery, they ran into a messy infection in his leg. But with the right antibiotics and rest, that should clear up fine. His collarbone is broken, it's immobilized... he's running a slight temperature, but considering the degree of the infection, he's gonna have a rough couple days."

"Vin?" Josiah inquired, glancing from the dark face behind the visor to the shadowed one in the bed. "...and Buck?"

Josiah's gaze was trained on the doctor, but Ezra saw the flicker of anger in J.D.'s hazel eyes and the deathgrip on the fork in his hand. Curious, he kept his own eyes fixed on the youth's and saw ire residing where concern should be. Recalling the reaction to Buck's CPR efforts the night before, he mulled over his potential choice of words.

"Tanner," Johnson sighed, looked at all three faces, before settling on the oldest one. "is critical and while he's fighting hard, it doesn't look good. The samples we took from him, aren't consistent with any of the deadly virus's suspected. His fever is dangerously high, he's developing what we suspect is a very serious, if not fatal, respiratory infection..."

"He's gonna die... and so is Buck!" J.D. blurted out, "Why are you even here? You can't save him... He's gonna die just like Vin... Dammit!" He shoved the tray hard, nearly toppling it, only Ezra's quick hands saved the accident.

"Uh..." Tyrone hesitated, seeing the raw emotions pouring from the youth in the bed. "Buck, he's doing fine. No signs of... he's fine. You should be proud of him of what he did, I would if he was my buddy." He stopped when he saw the raging hazel eyes and fists clutched, pressed into the bed. He saw the gray head of the older man shake and nodded. "The Colonel is on his way up, he's got some questions. The Maintainance Dept. sent a couple phones over. You can't dial outside, but you'll be able to talk to your friends. I'll hook 'em up after the Colonel leaves."

"Thank you," Ezra said, "For what it's worth, Mr. Tanner is an individual who's been graced with a rather exorbitant amount in internal fortitude. Don't count him out..."

Tyrone nodded and left, shutting the door behind him. Ezra and Josiah exchanged a long look of concern, giving the patient a fit.

"Don't do that!" J.D. raged, "I'm sitting right here. I got the right to be pissed off." He grabbed the fork and began to shovel his breakfast in, swallowing without tasting.

"J.D...." Josiah began. "What Buck chose to do..."

"Save your breath, Preacher, and can I eat please?" He glared, rubbing his aching ribs, "It hurts to talk and that Colonel will be here any minute."

"As you wish," Ezra pulled back, moving across the room to the spare bed, over which sat two more breakfast trays. They'd barely finished when a tall, imposing figure in a hazmat suit entered the room. With him was Major Taylor, who made the introductions.

"Good Morning, Gentlemen," she began, "This is Colonel Jack Blackburn, he's the C.O. at AMERIID. He's compiling a report on the incidents that lead up to the outbreak. This is John Dunne, Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez. They are all members of Chris Larabee's ATF Team."

"How are you, Son?" Jack's voice was deep and the tone commanded attention.

"I'm fine," J.D spat back, still angry, "...and I'm not your son."

"Ouch..." Ezra whispered to Josiah, moving in to prevent any more damage. The session was brief and the commander didn't mince his words. He recorded the information on the events as J.D. recalled them, most of which matched the disc they found on the dead Iranian. He was relieved that other than his teammates, no encounter was made with the public. He reviewed the questions he'd prepared on his sheet and noted the time. He still had to interview Wilmington and the press conference was approaching fast.

"I want to thank you for your time, I know how much those ribs hurt. You get some rest. If you continue to be symptom free," he turned his dark gaze to the two standing agents. "You three will be released on Friday."

"Chris and Buck?" Josiah asked.

"Larabee had limited physical contact and we're confident that the fever is from the infection in his leg." He recalled information Dunne had just given him, "you indicated that in your testimony as well. Wilmington, however, had oral contact and any time there is an exchange of saliva... well the risk is much greater."

"The other guy said he was fine!" J.D.'s voice rose and his heart began to pound.

"He is... for now." Blackburn was cagey, "But, it's still very early."

"...and you have no idea what's killing Vin or how to attack this mysterious virus?" Ezra commented,.

"No, I'm afraid we don't. The CDC will be here within the hour and assisting our efforts in the Lab. An invisible enemy is always the most dangerous." He turned to face the head of the medical team. "Major...."

Kendra eyed the trio carefully, before following him out the door.

Isolation room, 8 a.m.

"Good Mornin' Darlin'," Mollie crooned, stroking Vin's flushed, wet face upon taking over for the departed Angie. "Did ye miss me then? Let's have a look at ye..." She frowned as she read the rapid heart rate, "I'd like to think that's due to meself bein' so close to ye..." she sighed and adjusted his IV drip. She took blood and urine samples, cleaned up his soiled linens and then eyed the ventilation hose. Her keen ears heard the ever present sounds of congestion lining the endotrachel tube. She moved closer, resting her hand on his face again and bent low.

"I'm sorry, Boy-o, I know yer sufferin' and this is going to hurt ye... but I can't have ye chokin' on me..." She stroked his face and brow, keeping her voice close to his ear. "Ye keep fightin', Darlin' Boy," she caressed the fine lines of his face, "Tis yer word I want..." She moved away and carefully inserted the suction catheter into the tube. The process of collecting the excretions lining the airway was underway. The last two went well, but this time his weak body protested. He coughed on reflex and his helpless thin frame jerked in erratic spasms. Mollie reattached the ventilator, ending the procedure and using her hands and voice to soothe him. The violent attack had his heart racing and she kept an eye on the monitor.

It was dark, so very dark and he was scared. His heart hammered and his felt his last breath lingering. Death hovered nearby, grining evilly at him with yellow rabid teeth. The stench from the spectre surrounded him, tightening it's bony fingers around his delicate throat. He felt the little bit of air he'd fought so hard to take in, fade away. His heart trembled and he heard Death laughing cruelly, then another voice, soft and sweet, filled his lost world. His breathing eased and his heart slowed, he knew that voice, the Angel was back. Every time she came, she chased Death away. He feared her, and and scurried back into the shadows, leaving a slimy residue in his wake. She surrounded him, her silken touch felt like delicate butterflies dancing on his skin. He yearned for that touch and sought her out, crying for her. Then the wonderous sound surrounded him, it's melodious tone calmed his fears and soothed his ravaged soul. She wouldn't let Death have him; his Angel would protect him. He let the joyous sounds comfort him and reached out to her.

"Easy, Lad," she cooed, using a damp cloth to wipe his saturated face. "It's done... Did I not promise ye'd feel better? That mess is gone and it's time fer yer bath." She paused and kept her eyes on the fluxuating heart rate. With soothing movements on his forehead and cheek, she gentled her voice. "Don't let this accent fool ye, I am Yank, too. Did ye know that? Me Da was saloon keeper in Boston. Me mother was a singer, fresh off the boat. Eighteen and full of life she was... a beauty too. Me Da said the sun never rose until she smiled. They were poor but happy, they lived in the flat near the tavern. After they were married, Brian, Pat and Mike came before I was born. Mary Kathleen Muldoon," she laughed, bringing the bowl of alcohol and water nearby.

She pulled the cooling blanket off him and began to wash his fevered body. "Can ye imagine such a name? My Da called me Mollie, since me mother was Mary, too. Then Danny was born and wee Brigid was last. Six of us in that little flat, but we were happy." She sighed, her emerald eyes growing moist. She wrung out the cloth and rolled his weak body on the side, so she could bathe his back and legs. "Then some drunk took a knife to me Da... dead before he hit the floor. I was only five, and I don't remember much about him. I have pictures, I favor him... " her voice trailed off as she worked the alcohol bath into his skin. She turned him back and soaked the cloth again, tenderly wiping his handsome face. "Me grandparents had a farm in Mayo... me mother was heartbroken, five of us and a new babe to care fer. So we moved back to Ireland. I came home to America after nursing school. Me Uncle Dan, Da's brother, he was in the Army, a 'lifer' ye'd call him. He got me started and here I am."

The bath complete, she pulled the cooling sheet up, covering his body, and smiled again. "Here I am pratherin' on and on... and yer not gettin' a word in edgewise." She brushed the few strands of hair that clung to his face and frowned, "Ye've got lovely hair, but it's a wee bit untamed... " she smiled again and eyed the fine features gracing his face. "But I think it suits ye... ye've got a untamed heart and a bold spirit, Vin Tanner. Aye," she nodded, picking up his limp hand, "Ye make me think on the lyrics from a song called 'The Bonny Young Irish Boy'" she smiled and sang a small verse.

"His cheeks was of the roses and his hair was of the brown, and hung in ringlets heavy to his shoulders hanging down. His teeth was of an ivory hite, his eyes was black as sloes; He'd charm the heart of any fair girl, no matter where he goes." She pushed the last of the damp tendrils from his face and continued, "Ye've got a soft smile, too, I'm wagerin'... Would ye like another song then?" She patted his cheek and rose, crooning as she completed her ministrations.

"In Mountjoy jail one Monday morning, high upon the gallows tree. Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of liberty. But a lad of eighteen summers, yet no one can deny. As he walked to death that morning, He proudly held his head on high."

She recorded his vital signs, glad that his temp was not rising anymore. It was dangerously high already and she knew if it didn't break soon, complications could set in. She recorded the information and went into the chorus of 'Kevin Barry' an old favorite of her uncle's.

"Just before he faced the hangman, in his dreary prison cell, British soldiers tortured Barry Just because he would not tell, the names of his brave companions... and other things they wished to know 'Turn informer or we'll kill you' Kevin Barry answered, 'no'"

She bustled around the glass room, pouring her heart into the end of the song as she finished her task. She fed the nutrisouce into his gastro tube and was glad he tolerated it. She then picked up the limp hand and studied his features as she ended the song. She used her free hand to stroke his face, all too still and waxen.

"Calmly standing to attention, while he bade his last farewell, To his broken hearted mother, whose grief no one can tell. For the cause he proudly cherished, this sad parting had to be. Then to death walked softly smiling, that old Ireland might be free . Another martyr for old Ireland, Another murder for the crown. Whose brutal laws may kill the Irish, but can't keep their spirit down. Lads like Barry are no cowards, From the foe they will not fly. Lads like Barry will free Ireland. For her sake they'll live and die."

She finished and remained by his side, wiping the fevered face again. "I'm thinkin' yer not unlike Kevin, the other lads as well. That Buck, now he's a brave one... " he voice faltered as her heart clenched. Thinking on the decision he'd made so easily, she blessed herself and with her eyes on the critically ill patient's face, which seem to relax at her touch, she began to pray.

"Please don't go... Angel... I need ye... yer my light... thanks... thanks... stay... heal... touch... my soul..."

Old ER, 8:30 a.m.

Buck was dozing in a chair next to Chris, when a hand tapped his back. He sat up and squinted at a new, much larger, figure in a yellow hazmat suit. He recognized Major Taylor and Tyrone, who flanked the newcomer.

"Buck," Tyrone said, pulling the IV pole out of the way, "This is Colonel Jack Blackburn. He's our boss, he's the C.O. at AMERIID. He's got some questions for you. Here..." Tyrone handed him a cold bottle of ice tea and Buck nodded, draining half of it in one gulp.

"How are you feeling, Son?" Blackburn inquired, curious to meet the man who'd made such a courageous choice.

"I don't think I'm feeling anything now, Sir," Buck said dejectedly, glancing from Chris's pale face to the glass prison where Vin lay dying.

"I've been in this business for a lot of years, Wilmington," Blackburn advised, reading the guilt on the younger man's long face. "I've seen my share of miracles. The very fact that the young man is still breathing, despite his horrific ordeal, says a lot about him."

"He's all piss and vinegar," Buck grinned, "with a big dose of Texan guts..."

"What can you tell me of his actions? You were the first person he contacted, after breaking loose."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, sipping the ice tea and watching Chris's chest rise and fall. "He uh... busted out of the warehouse and managed to get in the Iranian's car. Tony followed the car and killed that cop. He took the knife and body back to the beach and framed Vin. He knew the tourist trade and the schedule of those bus groups that unload down there." He stopped and snaked his hand through the chrome as Chris shifted uneasily, his handsome face twisted in a nightmare. "Easy, Chris... turn that glare down..." His voice cut through the haze and the blond's features went slack again and his breathing leveled out. "Anyway, Vin hid in an old warehouse and snuck out after dark to call me. He must have wandered under the pier and then over the rocks. I can't believe he found Smuggler's Cove... that's where her boat was hidden. He must have collapsed inside..."

"And Larabee?" Blackburn pressed.

"Chris followed her from the warehouse. They fought on the boat, I guess, and he got Vin off of there just in time. I saw the explosion an found him in the water. He was screaming for Vin... I didn't realize Vin was there, until I saw his head go under. I pulled him out, he wasn't breathing, I did mouth to mouth and Chris did the chest massage. There were a couple guys who pulled up, but they didn't get near us."

"We've spoken to them and the state troopers as well." Blackburn directed. "So as far as you know,Tanner didn't come in contact with anyone else?"

"No, I don't see how. He was scared to death of being shot down. Flushing saw to that... Shit..." Buck's anger rose. "If he dies..."

"It won't be your fault," Blackburn read the guilt that crossed the handsome agent's face. "She's the only one to blame and her accomplice won't ever see the light of day again. You get some rest, Buck. We'll talk later, I'll be back to take Larabee's statement." He paused and moved to stand next to the dark-haired again.

Buck looked up at the movement and the hand offered. "Sir?" He queried, hesitant to respond.

"Men like you are few and far between, Buck Wilmington. What you did on that beach took more guts than bravest man would admit to housing. No wonder Orin Travis is so proud of this group. It's an honor, Son."

"Thank you, Sir," Buck whispered, feeling his face flush. He winced at the strong grip and felt Tyrone grinning through his mask. He finished his ice tea and flipped the television on, seeing the outside of the hospital on CNN. He turned the volume up, propped his feet on Chris's bed and settled in to watch the show.

Old St. Michael's Hospital, 9 a.m.

The terrain was beautiful and in such vivid colors it took his breath away. The sky was a brilliant blue, dotted with cotton-candylike clouds. The grass was a fresh green and the graceful wind carried it's sweet scent. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the sensation of the wind on his handsome face. The seductive voice of a babbling waterway tempted him and he heeded the call. The water was sparkling and rushing forward, eager to please. He remained on the bank, letting his lean strides take him through the row upon row of gorgeous wildflowers. They winked at him boldy in all shades of purple, lilac, yellow, pink and white. He wanted to bury his face in them, but a strong force compelled him to move forward.

Then he heard voices in the distance, light and carefree. His heart began to hammer and his legs moved faster, the flowers parted in respect, forming a path for him. The voices grew stronger, caressing his ear and making his heart sing. He knew those voices. Then he saw a cascade of dark curls and the body he knew as well as his own, sitting in a pastel dress under a large tree. He moved quickly down to the bank of the river, but a barrier hit him. He couldn't cross to her... she looked up and smiled, the light of pure love radiating from her face. His heart stopped and he cried out, frustrated at his inability to reach her.

"Sara... Sara..." he called out, and fought the barrier at the river. Suddenly, the sky grew dark and stormy and he was propelled backwards into the dark void again.

Buck heard Chris moan and saw his face screw up in pain, thinking of his injured back and leg, he summoned Tyrone. By the time the healer reached the bed, Buck was trying to keep Chris in it, the strong body fought him.

"Easy Chris," Buck tried, but the blond wasn't hearing him. Tyrone added something to his IV and the movement stopped. Chris took a deep breath and resumed his rest.

Part 16

St. Michael's Hospital, 9 a.m., Wed. July 4

Dozens of reporters shifted restlessly, squirming in the occupied rows of chairs. The large meeting room on the second floor of the new annex of St. Michael's Hospital was setup for a press conference. The fifty-year old medical facility recently opened a five-story addition, leaving the former three-story building vacant. There were plans in the process to convert two floors into doctor's offices, with the ground floor, where the old ER was, being utilized as a clinic. For the near future, during the duration of the outbreak of the deadly infection, it would be the AMERIID's headquarters. It was in the former Emergency Ward where the three contaminated ATF agents were being isolated and treated. They would remain in the care of the Army medical personnel until the quarantine was lifted.

The broad mix of media covering the event shifted in the folding chairs anxiously. Some flipped through the media kit that was handed out, which gave a brief overview of the situation at hand. It contained profiles of the agents, a rough outline of the events up through their arrival the night before and a short sketch of the treatment area and medical team. They all looked up when an imposing man of perhaps fifty or a little better, stepped onto the podium, dwarfing a bank of microphones. His silver-streaked hair complimented his dark eyes and penetrating gaze; his uniform bespoke his military background. Two older men in business suits, a tall black woman with an army uniform and a police officer, flanked him. The army man took charge, tapping the microphone before casting a lingering gaze over the slowly hushing room.

"Good morning," his deep voice suited his commanding presence. "I'm Colonel Jack Blackburn of the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. We're based not far from here in Maryland at Fort Detrick. As the Department of Defense's leading facility for all medical and biological concerns stemming from biological warfare and infectious disease, we've been tasked to contain the current outbreak. My team consists of doctor's, nurses and biochemists who are all working very hard to identify and contain the outbreak; and of course to save the life of Agent Tanner. He is the only case we have so far. These are highly skilled personnel and our unique state-of-the-art research facilities will be working hard to conquer this potential threat. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta was notified last night, and a team will be arriving this morning." He turned to the somber man to his right. "This is Orin Travis, he's the Director of the Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Denver. Team Seven, which falls under his jurisdiction, comprises of four of the agents who have been directly affected by this ordeal. In addition to Tanner, the other agents are Larabee, Wilmington and Dunne. Two other members of Team Seven, Standish and Sanchez, are under observation. Also with me are Major Jackson, the doctor heading my team, Captain Lee Williamson of the Mystic Cove Police Department and Senior Agent Mitchell Flushing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Agent Flushing orgainized the group who spearheaded the effort to capture the two felons who perpetrated this horrendous crime. Each of us will be covering a segment of the briefing. I'll start with Captain Williamson who would like to update the citizens and tourist of the area. Captain..."

"Thank you Colonel Blackburn," the other nodded, "The photo you are not viewing is of Agent Vincent Tanner, who was infected with a potentially deadly disease. If you saw our emergency broadcast last night, you'll recognize his photo. We're still not certain what he contracted, but the evidence the F.B.I. confiscated from the Iranian's boat and from the warehouse, indicated it might be one of several, all of them deadly. Among this evidence, was videotape of the disease being introduced to Agent Tanner. We know from the video, as well as the documents gathered, that the threat is very real. I urge you, if you've seen this man, or came in contact with him, to please call the number on your screen. The Army is seeking to contain this outbreak and if you feel you've been exposed, call that number immediately. As far as the manhunt and the suspects, I'll let Agent Flushing give you those details." He stepped aside to let the F.B.I. director pass by.

"Thank you Captain for your support throughout this crisis. I want to extend my sincerest sympathy to the family and friends of the slain police officer." He paused and shook the Captain's hand, giving Orin Travis cause to frown. "As far as that murder, the suspect in custody, Anthony Kennedy has confessed to killing the officer. He was one of two individuals who were responsible for the kidnapping of ATF agents John Dunne and Christopher Larabee, along with the torture of Agent Tanner. The other suspect, who was the instigator of the idea and whose funds and background in biochemistry and toxicology gave her ample weapons, was Miss Jamie Cameron Newlander. Her father, James Newlander, was an F.B.I. agent who headed the infamous ‘Dirty Dozen' crime ring in this area eighteen years ago. He commited suicide rather than face his accusers and punishment. It was his death that spurned her actions. She's been living in Europe and had established herself quite well in the Germ Warfare arena over there. After her mother's death last year, her goal became to punish the two men she felt responsible for her father's arrest and ultimate death. That would be Agent Frank Delassi and his then rookie partner, Buck Wilmington. Delassi was retired and murdered last winter, by two individuals hired by Miss Newlander. Apparently, they botched the job and she was quite upset. It was at that time, she concocted the scheme to take revenge on Agent Wilmington, by kidnapping and using his oldest and newest friends, to lure him into a trap. Agent Tanner was an accident, apparently. He stumbled upon the operation at it's onset and she used a variety of mind alternating drugs on him. She was killed in the explosion last night, off the coast, that injured Agent Larabee. Mr. Kennedy is being charged with a long list of federal crimes, along with first degree murder. Currently, he is in an isolated section of the Old Building, after treatement for a gunshot wound and other injuries. Despite his prolonged exposure to Tanner, he shows no signs of the sickness. If he continues to be symptom free, on Friday he'll transferred to the Federal Penitentary and kept in isolation. He confessed to his crimes and gave a lengthy statement, as well as outlining the details of the entire plan. His inquiry was supported by a diary we found, belonging to Miss Newlander, in the warehouse."

"What about the Iranians?" a voice interrupted from the center of the pack.

"Two were slain in the gunbattle last night, when several F.B.I agents approached the boat they were in ten miles south of here, about five miles out to sea. The other lingered long enough to tell us that Amahl Kyaham, a high ranking government official, purchased the infected army of deadly centipedes from Miss Newlander, along with other germ warfare research data. We confiscated all of it, except that which was destroyed in the explosion. The fourth member of their party was the individual killed by the slain police officer. Mr. Kennedy supplied that information. Apparently, Mr. Tanner escaped from the warehouse and hid in the Iranian's car. From what Kennedy saw, it appeared that the officer asked the Iranian to get out of the car, and he resisted and pulled a weapon. He was killed and while the slain officer attempted to speak with Tanner, Kennedy killed him. Kennedy then tranported Tanner, along with the body, to the beach. He chose that spot specifically, knowing the tour buses drop off there. Mr. Tanner fled the scene and contacted Agent Wilmington later that evening. We originally surmised he drown, the last sighting of him was under the pier, but he managed to find Smuggler's Cove. It was there, we feel he stumbled onto Newlander's getaway vehicle."

"You've been saying all along that Agent Tanner was heavily involved in this kidnapping. Are you now stating that wasn't so?" a woman from the front row inquired.

"Yes, Agent Tanner, as I stated earlier, was drugged and used by the two suspects. His fellow agents provided some material supporting this, as did Agent Wilmington when we questioned him this morning. In addition, Miss Newlander wrote extensively of her use of a variety of mind alternating drugs on him, as well as her plans to infect him."

"Will he live?" another asked.

"Major Taylor will be giving the medical report in a few minutes." Flushing replied, "Yes?" he nodded to a young woman in the back.

"What about the explosion? Are you sure she's dead? What was on that boat?"

"The only witnesses we have are Larabee and Tanner. Neither of them are conscious at the moment. We'll interview Agent Larabee as soon as he's able. Agent Wilmington supplied that Larabee followed the suspect to the boat."

"That's a little convenient, don't you think?" an angry reporter from the center of the pack instigated. "He just happens to be on the her escape boat... on his way to a hugh payoff. He's got cardboard credentials, a murky background as a bounty hunter and he was a murder suspect. He doesn't even have the qualifications to carry that badge."

"Goddammit!" Buck roared, slamming his hand down on the tray by Chris's bedside. The loud voice caused the blond to twitch, but not rouse from his deep sleep. Wilmington's dark blue eyes blazed with fury. He threw off a hand the tried to steady his own. "Get the hell away... Where the hell does that prick get off, sayin' shit like that. Fuckin' idiot... look at him... he couldn't find his own ass with a roadmap... Shit..."

"You tear the IV line out and you'll have this former defensive end to answer to..." Tyrone shoved the flying arm down and felt the heat radiating off of the irate patient. "Calm down, now Buck. You know how reporters are..."

"He's gonna be a dead fuckin' ragsheet wipe when I get done with him..." Buck growled, his insides churning.

Repulsive repitilian-skinned eqine fertilizer..."

"That's telling 'im, Ezra," Josiah's dry voice concurred, watching the green sparks shooting from the elusive agent's eyes. "Hey, I know that weasel..."

"His name's... uh... uh..." he frowned, trying to recall the reporter's name.

"Hayes."

"Yeah, J.D." The preacher nodded, "that's it, Lennie Hayes. He's the freak who hangs out at all the crime scenes."

"There was a rumor that he failed to pass the police exam several times, something to do with the psychological profile..." Ezra recalled. "I certainly hope our fearless leader didn't hear those remarks."

"I didn't hear an explosion," Josiah answered, eyeing the floor below. "I'm guessin' he slept through it." The telephone in front of J.D. rang, interrupting their conversation. Ezra waited, but the youth made no attempt to pick it up. Finally the southerner answered.

"Good Morning Mr. Wilmington..." Ezra paused, relieved to hear his friend's voice.

"How'd you do that?" Buck frowned, giving Tyrone a grateful thumbs up at the successful linking of the phone line.

"Process of elimination," the conman tossed back, "Had it been Mr. Larabee, there would already be a hole in the ceiling above your head, due to the caustic remarks by that walking pile of refuse." He paused and joined the others, eyeing the feed from CNN on the television in the room.

"Excuse me?" Orin Travis bristled and shoved Flushing aside and his dark eyes burned a hole through the chest of the smirking reporter. "Who the hell are you to question Vin Tanner's qualifications?" His voice was loaded with buckshot and silenced the room. "I want to make it clear, that at no time was Vin Tanner's integrity questioned by myself, our command or by his teammates."

"Damn, Orin looks good when he goes Old Testament," Josiah smiled, watching their senior supervisor lashing out.

"Teammates?" another reporter in the first row queried.

"Yes, teammates," Orin repeated, "On paper, they're seven individuals brought together to achieve a common goal in the pursuit of justice and law enforcement. I've worked in this business for over forty years and I can tell you without hesitation that they are second to none. I've never encountered a group who worked so cohesively, efficientely or effectively. They have a special bond... they are without a doubt a team, they act as one, and that innate sense of each other, has been to our benefit. They are the creme of the crop."

"Orin's kickin' some serious ass..." Buck crowed, lingering on the subtle southern accent in his ear.

"Ass is the correct definition," Ezra drolled, his distaste for the reporter evident.

Orin Travis paused and glowered at the weasel who was fiddling with his recorder. "Hayes, isn't it? You're the last person who should be accusing anyone of a lack of qualifications."

"Me?" Hayes shot back, "How do justify hiring the likes of him? He's got the grade without..."

"The likes of him?" Orin seethed, his icy tone cutting Hayes in half. "The 'likes of him' is the living, breathing embodiment of the word 'integrity'. Something I'd expect 'the likes of you' couldn't comprehend. In over four decades of experience, I've seen some fine, promising careers end in the morgue. All their formal education meant nothing when it came to what it takes to carry this badge. Vin Tanner doesn't have a formal degree from a college, he has PhD from the school of Life. His expertise with a weapon is second to none, he has the eye of an eagle, a keen and insightful mind and an uncanny ability to read people. He's a child of the land and was taught well to read all her signs. He can track any criminal in just about any given situation with unbelievable accuracy. His talent at studying a crime scene not only benefits the ATF, but other local, state and federal agencies as well."

He paused and thought of the sludge that Flushing fed the media about the quiet Texan. "Furthermore, he's one of the finest men I've had the privilege of knowing. His physical skills compliment his work, but it's his moral fiber that sets him apart. He's a very special young man and I'm praying for his safe recovery. His death would be a mortal blow to his friends, his coworkers and everyone who is lucky enough to know him. Does that answer your ridiculous question?"

"Never heard Orin say so much in one place..." Josiah marveled, "Bet he was force to be reckoned with in his day."

"Undoubtedly," Ezra agreed, watching with some degree of satisfaction at Hayes shifting uncomfortably. A map went up on the screen behind Orin and he explained the details of the capture.

"Hey, Ez? How's the Kid? Can I talk to him?" Buck pressed, needing to hear the youth's voice.

"J.D.?" Ezra inquired of Buck, but his eyes went to the youth, who turned away. Ezra went to touch his shoulder, but Josiah shook his head. "He's asleep, Buck, he had a rough morning. The physical exam, followed by the questioning session from the good Colonel were trying to say the least."

"Damn..."

Ezra winced when he heard the painful dejection in the rogue's voice. "How fares our fearless leader?" He asked, changing the subject.

"Out cold, fever's up over 100, collarbone's busted, bound to his chest. He looks awful..."

"...and Vin?" Ezra said softly and heard Buck hiss. For several seconds the dead air on the phone was suffocating. "Are you there?"

"Huh... yeah, Ez..." Buck stammered, eyeing the curtained panelled glass room. "He's alive... but..." he sighed, rubbing his throbbing temple. "He's on his way out, I think, Ezra. He's fighting hard but... he's so sick... now they think he's got some kind of infection in his lungs. They just wheeled in an x-ray machine. We haven't seen him... he's in a isolation chamber, all glass with curtains."

"That won't last long," Ezra mused, thinking of the irate blond with hot green eyes. "I'm sure our team leader will change that policy."

"Put it in the bank..." Buck added, trying to shift the uneasy weight that remained firmly on his back. "I wish somebody would wake me up..."

"Somebody soft and curvaceous, with a firm body and talented tongue?" Ezra teased, easily feeling Buck's guilt over the phone.

"No, I wasn't thinkin' of you, Ace," Buck returned, smiling as Ezra's distinctive mock-annoyed chortle sounded. He knew what the conman was trying to do and was grateful. He sighed and gained a little strength from the warm Larabee breath that danced on his hand. He watched bandaged arm rise and fall and felt his own heart falling.

Ezra felt the winds of despair and had half a thought to slip past the guard and sit be his depressed friend. "I want you to know, Buck," his voice was true, "what you did last night on that beach, was the single bravest thing I've ever encountered. So, my friend, hold your head up and take comfort in the fact that were it not for you, he would be lost to us now, forever. That is something too painful to dwell upon."

Buck was moved by Ezra's words, and felt every one of them way down deep. He flicked his shadowed face towards the glass prison and felt the daggers of pain again. He reached a hand out towards where Vin lie and it lingered, trembling, before he covered his eyes. If he could just see Vin, touch him, talk to him, let him know that they were fighting with him. He sighed again and thought on Ezra's words and Orin's as well. That brotherhood they shared was the difference... all the difference.

"So, Ace," his voice cracked and he cleared his throat, "does that mean I don't still owe you $32.50 from the poker game at Nate's last month?"

"Certainly not," Ezra huffed, smiling as he always did around Buck, "One thing has nothing to do with other. Actually, with accrued interest the figure has escalated somewhat. By my calculations..."

"Escalated my ass," Buck chuckled, feeling very much alone in the large, empty room. "Hey, Ez, you keep an eye on the Kid for me, okay? I'm worried about him. He's gotta be pretty shook up." Buck paused, thinking on J.D.'s silence. "He don't want to talk to me, does he?"

"He's young, Buck, and he's been wounded inside. He's scared and confused right now, he'll come around."

"Listen Ez, if this all goes south, and I buy the farm, I want you to know something."

"Good Lord, as if the swill masquarading as breakfast weren't bad enough to digest," Ezra said sharply, "I don't need a chaser of moroseness. You are far from the grave..."

"Hell, all I was gonna do was tell you to take care of Black Beauty for me. You're the best qualified." Buck noted somberly of the thick, neat, alphabetized and ranked index of his stable of beauties.

"Oh," Ezra sat up and smiled again, his tooth glinting in the sun. "in that case, perhaps an arrangement can be negotiated."

"Sounds good to me," Buck chortled, "I'm thinking three figures maybe four..."

"I'm thinking they're pumping some serious narcotics through your IV line..." Ezra teased, grinning again. He ducked his head up as Major Taylor stepped up to the microphone.

"Hey, that's our doctor." Buck directed, turning his attention to the screen.

"Good Morning, I'm Major Kendra Taylor of AMERIID. All the men in question are under my care, isolated in the Old Hospital. The initial three agents, Dunne, Sanchez and Standish are on the first floor. Tanner, Larabee and Wilmington are in the ER on the ground floor. Tanner is in an isolation chamber. Hazmat suits and gloves are worn at all times by all of my staff." Kendra went on to describe her team and the methods used to track down the elusive predator.

"John Dunne was the first patient admitted. He has broken ribs, cuts, bruises and some puncture wounds. He does not exhibit any signs of the sickness and is closely monitored. Standish and Sanchez are also being monitored. If these men remain symptom free for forty-eight more hours, they will be released."

"What infected Tanner? We were told he had the Plague?" a reporter shouted out.

"From the initial information we received on the disk recovered from the accident scene, the Plague was one of the possible deadly toxins involved. We felt upon the initial inspection in the ER, that he had Anthrax. A lumbar punture was done and spinal fluid was extracted, but it was clear. We've also ruled out all forms of the Plague, Ebola and West Nile. He was unconscious upon arrival and has remained in that state. He is in critical condition and on a ventilator. From interviews with those he contacted, primarily Buck Wilmington, we know he had severe headaches, body ache, joint pain and congestion. His fever is dangerously high, almost 107 and the glands lining his throat are swollen. We have pinpointed this as a bacterial infection and are aggresively treating it with antibiotics."

"So you don't know what this is or how it's spread?" a woman in the first row asked.

"No, we haven't identified the toxin yet, and we're fairly confident it is only spread through direct introduction to the body." She paused and took a sip of water, "As far as the other two men in quarantine... Chris Larabee sustained a wound to his left shoulder. He has a broken collarbone, assorted facial lacerations and bruises and a concussion as a result of the explosion on the boat. He had wounds on his back from a whip, they were slightly infected. He also suffered a stab wound to the back of his upper right thigh. This was badly infected and he's taking antibotics via an IV, to combat the effects of that infection. He is running a fever, but we do not suspect at this time, that it's from the bacteria. His cultures were all negative and his glands aren't swollen as Mr.Tanner's are. As for Mr. Wilmington, I'm sure you're aware by now, from the media kit you have, of his contact. When he pulled Tanner from the water, he wasn't breathing. Wilmington gave Tanner mouth to mouth resuscitation. He is being closely monitored and tested for signs of sickness."

"If I may interject something here," Orin bent near the microphone, "There were samples of the toxins taken from the Iranian boat when it was seized, and these have been tested and ruled out. However, we believe the remainder were destroyed in the explosion, and thus lost to the medical team."

"So you're flying blind?" A voice in the back hollered. "How do you know the full ramifications of this thing?"

"We don't," Kendra answered, "and we're running out of time," she sighed and took another drink. "The CDC is helping us with the work in the lab. They've never seen the likes of this before. The F.B.I. in Denver are scouring her lab there, we're hoping they might find something. There will be another briefing this time tomorrow," she nodded and stepped away, anxious to talk with Sandy about the x-ray. She flipped open the cell phone as soon as she got into the small room next to the press area. She motioned for Orin to follow her. "It's me Sandy, well?" She closed her eyes and expelled a breath. "Okay, so were sure it's ARDS? I'm on my way."

"Vin?" Orin confirmed, his face growing ashen at the side of the conversation he heard. "What is ARDS?"

"Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome." Kendra paused and took a breath, "It's an inflammation of the lungs that can be very damaging, even fatal. The lungs can collapse and lose their ability to receive oxygen. When the capillaries are damaged, they leak fluid into the lungs. This makes it very difficult to breathe... uh... for the lungs to absorb oxygen and expell carbon dioxide."

"Where did it come from? How did it happen?"

"Well, sometimes it comes from a direct blow, a severe bruise or inhaling smoke, fumes or other toxic substances. Other times, as I suspect in this case, it comes from a severe trauma... stress in the presense of an infection. Depending on the severity it can take up to six months or a year to fully recover and often the patient has bouts of coughing, anxiety, fatigue, depression and other effects of post traumatic stress."

"How do treat this?"

"He's on a ventilator and other than some medication to reduce anxiety and discomfort, there is little we can do. The mechanics of the ventilator are supporting his breathing until he can do so himself, when his lungs are healed. The supplemental oxygen is helping him breathe. Hopefully, we can keep him comfortable and hope that complications don't arise."

"How long will it last?"

"That varies... some patients recover fairly quickly, in a matter of days. Others suffer complications and it takes weeks, even months. There is no way to tell and right now, my primary goal is identifying the bacteria that is killing him."

"I'd like to see him."

"No way," she denied, "I'm sorry, nobody gets in there. By Friday, I suspect three of your men will be available. I have an internal phone with each group. You can speak to Wilmington if you'd like?"

"I would, Thank You..." He moved to the phone on the wall and memorized the two numbers she gave him. "Major? What are his chances?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Travis, I wish I could paint you a nice, rosy picture, but unless we get a miracle, his body won't be able to fight much longer. It's amazing he's still alive... it really is."

"He's a Tanner..." Orin mused, thinking of the quiet story Vin shared with him once long night while they waited for Chris to come out of a coma. He dialed the number and waited. "Hello Buck, How are you, Son?"

"Wishing I'd wake up and this whole thing would be a bad dream." Buck was back in his own bed, Tyrone was changing Chris's dressing and bedding, with Angie assisting him. "Hey, thanks for takin up Vin's back. I swear if I get a hold of Hayes..."

"For once I would be inclined to look the other way," Orin paused, "How is Chris?"

"They're cleaning him up now..." Buck paused as a flurry of activity occured near Vin's glass prison. "Hold on..." he put the phone down and eyed Tyrone's moving body. "Hey, what's wrong with Vin? Tyrone answer me, Goddammit... shit..." He picked the phone up, "Sorry, everytime they go running in that glass room, I damn near die... They won't let us see him..."

"They have to be strict, Buck, they don't know what's making him so sick. I think I can enlighten you on the cause of the recent alarm." He then told Buck about the lung problem . "I'm sure if you ask the doctor, he'll update you. Keep the faith, Buck, without that you have nothing."

"I'm trying, Orin, but it's hard..." Buck paused, raking a hand through his hair and rubbing the pounding pain behind his eyes. "You talk to Nate? He's gonna be worried... he probably watched that..."

"No, but I'll call him now. I'll check in with Josiah as well and talk to you later."

"Okay, thanks Orin," Buck went to hang the phone up.

"Buck?"

"Yeah," Buck pulled the phone back and frowned.

"You're to be commended for your actions on the beach last night. Heroic doesn't seem to cover the measure of what you did."

"I'm no hero, Orin." Buck said flatly, "not by a long shot, but thanks."

He hung up and stared at the ceiling, wondering how J.D. was. He'd tried calling several times, each time getting Josiah. He knew eventually J.D. would come around, but in the mean time, it was painful. He knew the kid was scared, hell, he was scared himself. The quiet, empty, darkened room did nothing to help. The only person he could reach out to was trapped in his own nightmare. He watched Chris's chest rise and fall and the tension in the handsome blond's face. Despite his pounding headache, he was restless. He made several trips to Chris's side and around the large area. He nearly got to the glass box, when Tyrone caught him and steered him back . Lunch came and went and Tyrone filled him in on Vin's condition. They were losing hope, he was fading and they didn't know how he was still hanging on.

Three p.m. July 4th

J.D. clenched his eyes shut and forced his head further into the pillow. Why wouldn't that damn preacher leave him be? Ezra left awhile ago, but Josiah and his damn, raggedy bible were a fixture at his bedside. J.D. was angry, at Buck, at the bitch who caused this, at everything. It fueled his cold fear and slid effortlessly into his brain. He punched the pillow harshly, his anger at Buck resurfacing.

"Would it have made a difference if it was a bullet?"

"What?" J.D. peeled an eye open and there they were. Those damn smokey eyes that seem to have the ability to see right through him. His own eyes hovered on the bible for a moment as Josiah leaned forward.

"A bullet, J.D.," he repeated, "Would that have made a difference? If Buck took a bullet for Vin?"

"That's apples and oranges," J.D. blurted, "Leave me alone, Preacher. Go find somebody else's soul to save."

"Alright, J.D., but I have one more question. If you were on that beach last night and Vin was in your arms, not breathing. Could you have turned away?"

"I... it... Vin?" J.D.'s jaw trembled and his brow's furrowed. Josiah's words drew up a picture of Vin's exhuberant whoop when they won the hockey championship a few months back. Then there was the limitless patience in the New Mexican desert when he spent four days teaching J.D. how to read the world around him. He got a lump in his throat and his eyes burned again as Buck's face in the office came into view. Teasing him, swatting him with a folder, teaching him... teaching him. God, without Buck... His confusion grew again. He closed his eyes as Josiah stood and rested a hand on his shoulder. He tensed at the touch and drew a sharp breath.

"Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not and ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven." The preacher said, quoting Luke. He left the youth to his conscience and went back to his room.

J.D's mind whirled and he tossed in the bed, the burning pain in his chest was matched by the ache in his heart. He drifted into a restless sleep, plagued by nightmares. Vin kept washing up on the beach and J.D. stood by and did nothing. Then Buck's body appeared in a rough gathering of foam and sea spillage. His white face was cold in death and a centipede ran from his shirt. J.D. screamed and sat up, gasping for breath.

"Buck no... God I'm sorry... dead... Buck..."

"Whoa!... J.D. are you okay?"

The deep voice and the southern one roused him from his dream. Ezra and Josiah appeared in the doorway. Somebody handed him water and he gulped it gratefully. He didn't realize how badly he was trembling, until the second glass of water spilled onto his bed. He saw the darkness outside and realized how late it was. He saw the tray in the corner and Ezra moved towards it.

"It's cold, would you like another one?"

"Yeah, thanks Ezra..." he managed, "What time is it?"

"Almost nine o'clock," Josiah handed him the ginger ale from the tray. "You want to talk about it?"

"Yeah, I think I do, Josiah," J.D. eyed the phone. "I hope I'm not too late."

Josiah nodded and brought the phone closer. He gave the youth a brief squeeze on the shoulder. Ezra appeared with a bowl of soup, a sandwich and a huge piece of cake. A quart of milk completed the meal. He left the tray and watched the trembling hands fingering the keypad.

"Four-seven-two-two," Ezra said of number the youth sought.

"Thanks."

Buck was watching an old episode of Hill St. Blues when the phone rang. He shoved the empty dish of ice cream away and took a swig of cherry coke, before picking up the phone. His headache was worse and he didn't like the parade of bodies moving into Vin's cubicle. He truly feared his friend's time was drawing to a close. Chris hadn't awakened yet and that worried him too. What if Vin died before Chris got a chance to see him?

"Yeah...." his voice was dull and flat. One hand was tossed over his eyes, they ached too.

"Buck?"

"Kid!" Buck gasped, smiling in relief. "Damn, it's good to hear your voice. You okay? Ezra and Josiah behaving?"

"I'm fine, Buck," J.D. paused, trying to control the quake in his voice. Hearing the warm tone he'd grown so accustomed to now filled him with fear. What if Buck had what Vin did? "I'm... Jesus I'm sorry Buck..." he blurted, not hiding the choking tone. "I was so mad... I couldn't... I didn't mean... Are you okay?"

"I am now, Son..." Buck sighed, gaining unmeasurable strength from the youth's voice.

Ten p.m. Denver

"No!"

Rain Jackson's raised and determined voice split the night air. She grabbed the stack of clean clothes and put them back in the dresser. Turning back to her husband, she saw a fleeting glimpse of remorse on his face.

"You don't understand, Rain," Nate tried, casting his dark eyes on the beautiful woman who'd taken his name, "What Orin said this morning about being us being special... a team... I need to be there... it's tearin' me up inside."

"I do understand, Honey," she moved to his side and sat beside him on the bed. She kissed him gently and rested her hand on his face. "I know you feel torn apart, but there's nothing you could do there. You damn near died on me Mr. Jackson and you're not well enough for a trip like that. They're in quarantine, you couldn't get near them, even if you were strong enough."

He sighed and dropped his head, she was right of course, he felt awful. His side hurt and even the short walks around their home wore him out. He knew the doctor's ordered a month of recovery time, his insides were still healing. But still...

"Listen to me," Rain's soft voice caressed his cheek, "Vin's in a bad place now, and he could die. But if they find out what's causing this and they can turn this around, he's still a long ways from being well. He'll be in that hospital for some time, he'll be weak, physically and drained emotionally. A trauma like this does all kinds of emotional damage. That's when he'll need his brothers. You need to get well... strong... so you can be strong for him. Okay?"

He thought on her words and wondered again how he got so lucky. She was one helluva partner and he couldn't live without her. He turned back and nodded, returning her kiss and groaning.

She pulled away, her face crossed in worry.

"What was that? Are you in pain?"

"I wouldn't be," he grunted, "If you weren't wearing that damn musk..."

She laughed and knelt up on the bed, resting her lips against his forehead. He pulled her close, burying his face in her chest, inhaling the wonder of her scent.

"I think you have a fever, Brown Sugar," She teased, pulling him off the bed, "You're gonna need to get cooled off..."

"Doctor's orders?" Nate croaked, helplessly following her towards the large shower.

"Signed, sealed and delivered," Rain returned, dropping her robe.

Eleven-fifty-seven p.m. July 4th

"Shhh... there now, tell Mollie yer troubles Lad," she finished the alcohol bath and already cleaned his tube. His coughing spasm was especially severe and he was still trembling. She lifted him forward slightly and rubbed his back, watching the tension in the waxen face. "Ye've got too many frown lines, Boy-o. Yer safe... ye just worry on breathin', I'll take care of the rest. Do ye hear?"

Vin was scared. The dark place was so cold. So very cold, more than before. Even the Angel couldn't warm him. He clung to her, he felt her near and heard her sweet voice. But he was tired and so very cold. He was truly lost and so very tired. Something was wrong and his heart was pounding. He felt like a deer with the hunters closing in... he had nowhere to go. He heard her voice again and tried to follow, but he just couldn't. He was shaking in fear... .fear of what? What was wrong?

Chris took a deep breath and inhaled the intoxicating aroma of a thousand wildflowers. The heady scent filled him, leaving him giddy and drunk in pleasure. The warm sun basked his skin and the soft earth cradled him.

"What?" He jerked, his eyes shooting open and his pulse quickening. Something ripped a hole in his paradise. He felt a horrid pain in his chest and sat up, sweat pouring freely down his body. A cold fear filled him and propelled him forward. Something was terribly wrong. His legs moved in a drunken gait, haphazardly crushing the palate of flora. The song of the river next to him turned from a happy melody to a shrieking cachophony of discord. He covered his ears, trying to block out the high shrill that sent a knife through his head. His face fell when he saw Sara again. She looked beautiful. The other side of the river was breathtaking. Nothing on earth could match the moving scenery. It brought tears of regret to his eyes. He reached out to her, trying to cross the river again, only to be met by the invisible wall.

"Sara... Sara..."

Then another sound filled him with a meloncholic ache. The sweetest sound he'd ever heard and one that he'd carry to his grave. A sound so joyful, it brought tears to his eyes - his child's laughter. Something so distinct, he could pick it out over all other voices. God, how long had it been since he'd heard that wonderous music?

"Adam?" he whispered, afraid to look. The giggling boy's voice was full of happiness and wonder. The water splashed near the magical laughter and then another voice blended with his dark-haired son's. A voice full of whimsey and mischief; a voice that alone had the power to heal his tender soul. He dared not look, afraid to see the luminous blue eyes he knew as well as his own. But the laughter was intoxicating and he turned toward the sound.

"Vin..." he gasped painfully. His best friend was romping with his son in the middle of the river. Vin had Adam upside down and was tickling him. Then he swung the small boy upwards and held him close. The two faces turned to him, each wearing identical grins. It was a sight that both filled him with joy and terror at the same time. It was at that moment, that he realized what the river represented. It was then he understood why he couldn't cross over. Vin's smile faded and he lowered Adam down. The boy scampered toward the bank, pausing knee deep.

"Come on, Vin..." the little voice lured.

Chris's heart filled with terror when Vin turned away from him, breaking their powerful link.

"No!" He screamed with such intensity it caused the younger man to jump in the water. The Texan's face changed dramatically. The mask of illness that looked at him now was pale and sickly. Dark circles rimmed his sad eyes and Chris saw him struggling for every breath. He sank in the water, it quickly rose to his neck. He closed his eyes and lifted his hand toward Adam again.

"No!" Chris dropped to his knees and reached out, the sun disappeared and the sky turned dark. Angry black clouds exploded, sending hot, hateful spewing wind in his face. The shrieking intensified and he had to scream over it to be heard. He saw Vin's hand pull back and the sad face turn towards him.

"Vin, don't go... you can't..."

"I'm tired, Chris... I can't go on... I'm tryin' Cowboy... but it's so hard... I don't know what to do..."

"Give me your hand, Vin... I can help you." Chris pleaded, watching the river drain the life from the Texan. The lips were blue and the skin tinged as well. The bloodless lips moved, but Chris couldn't hear his voice.

"Vin!" Chris screamed, fighting the wind and the rain. All the feeling he'd housed inside for his best friend, exploded, giving the air a dancing blue light. He reached his arms out and saw Vin lift his body, just as the river threatened to take him. He saw the spectre of Death hovering, waiting to claim the weakened soul.

"Fuck off!" Chris screamed at the phantom. "You can't have him. VIN! Give me your hand." He saw the head lift weakly and the pale eyes full of such despair, it lanced him. He knew Vin was fighting hard and that hurt even more. "Trust me..." He screamed and reached out. Vin's head lifted weakly and his hand moved. Chris leaned over the riverbank further, careful not to touch the water. Their fingers were just inches apart... He alone had the power to save his friend.

"Vin!"

"Jesus!" Buck jumped from his bed, nearly falling flat on his face. The room spun wildly and he grabbed the IV pole to steady himself. He drug it with him, across the tile floor to the thrashing body in the other bed. He flicked the overhead light on and saw the leader drenched in sweat. The pale face was locked in anguish, fighting a battle known only to him.

"Chris, wake up, you're having a nightmare," Buck grabbed the tossing wet head and two eyes jerked up, darting wildly around the room. The breathing was ragged and unsteady, painful even and the body was trembling. Tyrone appeared, just as Chris's right fist flew up, clipping Buck on the chin.

"What did you do?" Chris gasped, heaving painfully, trying to find some air. "I had him Buck... his hand was right here... I could have saved... I had... Dammit Buck..."

"You okay?" Tyrone pulled Buck to his feet and eased him into the chair next to Chris.

"Yeah," Buck rubbed his sore chin. The light made his headache even more painful and his throat hurt. He felt hot all over and saw Tyrone staring at him funny. Buck just shook his head and pushed the approaching hand away. "Leave it be... for now..." He saw Chris tugging at the IV and moved forward, "Hey! Cut that out...."

"Chris, if you don't calm down..." Tyrone moved quickly, trying to secure the IV line. He produced a syringe and Chris sat up and shoved the metal sidebars down, throwing his feet over the edge.

"Ahhh...." he grimaced, clutching his injured leg. The white hot pain shot through him and he wasn't prepared for it, the intensity nearly drove him back behind the black curtain.

"That's it!" Tyrone approached the IV line, only to have the syringe belted away.

"Don't fuckin' touch me!" Chris raged, "I'm not crazy or dreaming... just listen to me. I can save him. I know what's wrong with Vin. She told me... that crazy bitch." He stood, gripping the side of the bed and testing his injured leg. "Move!" Chris ordered the large body encased in a bright yellow suit. "I'm seein' him..." he declared, taking a step, only to have Buck appear.

"Chris, you got to calm down, you ain't making a damn bit of sense...."

"You take that fucked-up spaceman and get the hell out of my way!" Chris snarled, green eyes blazing. "I'm gonna see Vin and you and the whole fuckin' army won't stop me."

Part 17

Twelve-o-five a.m. July 5

"Checkmate" Josiah declared, popping the black bishop in his mouth. Ezra's last defender went down without a fight and quite nicely with a chaser of coffee.

"Hah!" Ezra frowned, eyeing the oreo-turned chesspiece disappear. "So much for a rematch. You've ingested all of my men."

"Nice and fresh." Josiah grinned, eyeing the makeshift chess board. The white team was assorted mini chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies and sugar wafers, which were the King and Queen. A brave row of cheese nips served as the pawns. The black team consisted of mini oreos, mini brownies and chocolate wafers as the king and queen. Hershey kisses stood valiently as the pawns. Well, one brave kiss remained, the preacher put the rest out of their misery. "Tastiest game I ever played."

Ezra eyed the sad board and shook his head. "To think I've resorted to playing the world's greatest game with mass produced confectionary creations."

"Poor sport," Josiah toasted, "Okay if I eat your queen?"

There wasn't a line of verbs and nouns invented that Ezra could have used or would have dared, not following that line. Plus the wagging preacher's eyebrows and deep-voiced delivery made him laugh outright.

"All is fair is love and war," Ezra decided, plucking the pink sugar wafer from in front of Josiah. "You play a fair game."

"Hell, this is nothing," Josiah teased, "You should see me with mini liquor bottles..."

"The gauntlet has been thrown," The southerner grinned. "You my friend, have met your match."

"Hey, look at that," Josiah tossed the newspaper aside. The army sent up a box of magazines and books, as well as the newspaper. The preacher was looking through the television section and flipped on the button. The screen came to life and he began surfing for the right station.

"What?"

"The Ezra Standish Story is on." Sanchez grinned and handed Ezra his empty thermal mug. "Filler 'er up, Brother, easy on the sugar."

"Do I look like a common steward?" the conman repelled, rising and taking the cup.

"I think you'd look real pretty in a penquin suit, probably pick up some good tips." Josiah paused and watched Ezra prepare two cups of coffee on the counter by the wall. "Probably pick up a few old widows too..."

"You humor leaves a lot to be desired," Ezra sat the cup down. He glanced at the television as a familiar theme song began to play. A smile split his face and he settled onto the chair next to Josiah's bed. He propped his feet on the bed and frown at the seagreen scrubs. "This coarse material is wreaking havoc on my skin. Perhaps a moisturizer..."

"Ezra, you worry me..." Josiah turned, plucked a chocolate chip cookie from the tray and settled back to watch Paul Newman and Robert Redford in "The Sting".

Twelve-ten a.m. July 5th

Sandy Dunkirke finished reviewing the results of the CDC's breakdown of the most recent Tanner's samples. He walked across the large doctor's lounge and headed for the coffee pot. A crash and the sound of loud voices, took him into the hall. He made short work of the distance to the quarantined area. His pale eyes went to the window of the ER door and he saw Larabee arguing with Tyrone. He punched the intercom button and caught the last end of the verbal duel.

"Shit!" he ran for the hazmat tent to get a suit on and picked up his cell phone. He punched in the beeper number they used for emergencies; then he dialed Kendra directly.

"Major, get down here, we got a situation! I need you STAT!" That done, he punched the triple three's on the end of his last message, setting of the small alarms on the first floor and in the Lab. He punched in the location and jumped into a yellow suit. By the time he was approaching the ER door, he saw Kendra flying through the doors from the stairwell.

"What's wrong!" she demanded

"Larabee's up and on a rampage. He claims he knows what wrong with Tanner. He won't tell unless he gets to see him."

"Hold him off, I'll be right there. Did you alert Roger?" she inquired of the head of the CDC's team that arrived the day before. They were working on the second floor in the Lab, hoping to breakdown the bacteria.

"I sent the Emergency signal through a beeper and also set off the alarm signal." He heard footsteps on the stairwell as several bodies appeared. The Major put her hand up, halting the group.

"Hold it!" she ordered, "Roger, get a suit on, you too Angie. You'll go with Sandy and myself to talk to Larabee. The rest of you stand down for the time being. You can report back to your posts."

+ + + + + + +

"What the hell is that!" J.D. hollered, sitting up in the dark room and covering his ears. Ezra appeared in the doorway, keeping half his body in the hall.

"Don't get up, I'll find out," he assured, following Josiah down the hall to the nurses station.

"What's happened?" Ezra demanded, wincing as the series of tones finally ended. He saw Dennis Toner, the nurse on duty, flip a red book open and eye a series of codes.

"Go back to your room," Dennis said without looking up.

"On the contrary, young man," Ezra rebuffed, "I demand to know what emergency has occured that you need to remedy by searching through a confidential code book."

"MacKenzie, Lopez," Toner directed of the two guards that stood farther down the hall. "I gotta go downstairs to the ER. You keep them here..."

"It's Vin?" Josiah asked softy, catching Toner's arm. "Look Son, he's our friend..."

"I'm sorry, I can't tell you. Please go back to your room. Once I find out, I'll update you."

"See that you do," Ezra stated coldly. "As it turns out, I'm not very tired. I feel like stretching my legs." He eyed the corridor leading to the emergency exit and Josiah choked back a grin.

The preacher clapped a hand on Standish's shoulder and nodded to the approaching guards.

"Ezra's got a dry sense of humor, it takes awhile to catch on to him." He physically turned Ezra away, "Isn't that right Ezra?"

"Unhand me this instant!" Ezra jerked free, "Mr. Dunne is upset, I shall be in his room, dispelling that disquieting look on his face." Without looking back, he made his way to J.D.'s side.

"Well?" J.D. demanded, "What did they say?"

"An emergency downstairs..." Ezra approached the phone.

"Vin?" J.D. whispered, heart clenching. "Buck... Buck might know..." he watched as Ezra dialed the numbers, then hung the phone up. "It's been taken off the hook. I'm afraid we'll have to wait."

+ + + + + + +

"Don't touch that!" Sandy hollered, watching Chris Larabee trying to inch his bound left side closer to the IV on his right arm. The pole moved precariously and threatened to fall. "You've got a serious infection in that leg..."

"Chris, if you just calm down..." Buck tried, easily reading the fury in the green eyes.

"Calm?" Chris drew his head up, sweat pouring down his face, "I am calm, Buck," he snarled while hurricanes danced in his eyes. "I will see Vin..."

"You'll do no such thing," Kendra directed, brushing past Sandy and grabbing the tetering IV pole.

Chris turned at the new voice and stared hard at the tall woman. He straightened up and narrowed his gaze. "You in charge?"

"I'm Major Kendra Taylor of AMERIID, that's the infectious disease branch of the Army," she paused, "and yes, I'm the head of the team that's been assigned to contain this outbreak."

"I want to see him," Chris stated, not blinking or flinching. "NOW!"

"That's impossible, you're getting back to bed and if you don't cooperate, we'll use force and restraints. Your choice."

"Get out of my way," Chris said quietly.

"Look, Mr. Larabee..." Kendra's patience was wearing thin and she felt the strength this blond ATF leader possessed. She remembered Tyrone warning her about Larabee's power.

"No, you look," Chris steeled, gritting his teeth, and jabbing an index finger into the yellow-garbed suit. "That's Vin Tanner in there," he seethed, chest heaving. "You genius's haven't figured it out yet, have you?"

"We've got the very best tech's from AMERIID and Atlanta working around the clock," Sandy defended, his hackles rising. Who did this Larabee think he was?

"Well you can tell your rocket scientists take their hands off their asses and get to work..."

"Who the hell do think you are!" Sandy charged, moving closer, only to have a hand smacked across his chest.

"Lieutenant, that's enough!" Kendra warned strongly, then turned back to the irate ATF agent.

"I'm the biggest pain-in-the-ass you've ever encountered," Chris leveled, "I know what's wrong with him and I can save him, now let me see him."

"No," Kendra denied, "You're wasting time that your so-called friend can't afford to lose."

Buck winced visibly when the words 'so-called' slipped from the Major's lips. He saw the green fire sparking inside those dangerous eyes, while lave started to form and moved quickly. He put himself between Chris and the Major, grateful for Tyrone's steadying hand on his pole.

"Hold it, both of you!" Buck shouted, then turned to the Major, "With all due respect Major, you're out of line. Vin Tanner is a whole lot more to Chris that a friend. They're closer than brothers and talking to him like that won't accomplish anything." He then turned to Chris and his anger grew. "Now you're going to listen to me Chris Larabee..."

"Get out of my way, Buck," Chris pressed, only to have his words cut short.

"Shut up!" Buck hollered, grimacing as pain lanced through every fiber of his body. His head was pounding and his back, legs and neck ached. He knew the chills he was feeling were due to a rapidly rising fever. "Now listen to me you stubborn, son-of-a-bitch. If you know what's killing that boy, then you tell these people. Your Goddamn line-in-the-sand routine ain't gonna cut it this time. He's dying, Chris, you've been asleep all day... you haven't had to hold your breath every time they go running in that glass prison. It ain't your heart that's damn near stops..." He sucked in an uneven breath, clutched his trembling hands into fists and felt his energy sapping, "Vin will die... Do you understand that, Chris? Quit playing this fuckin' macho roulette game and give 'em what they want!" He growled, then closed his eyes for a moment as the room flew around. He kept them closed and and lowered his voice, using a softer tone, which cracked at the end. "'cause I ain't feeling so good, Chris..."

"Buck!" Chris moved as the taller man when to his knees. He felt a pain stab his chest as the realization hit him hard. He saw Sandy and Tyrone half-carry the mustached agent back to bed. He vaguely was aware of Sandy putting something in Buck's IV line. He made his way over to Buck's side and stared hard.

He saw a long-haired hippie in handcuffs wearing a cocky grin and introducing himself as his new partner, a dozen years gone by. He saw the same grin again and again, everytime it flashed it gave him the same reassuring tug in his gut. Those warm blue eyes hovered over his bedside countless times after he was wounded or injured. That wonderful laugh that preceded or concluded every Wilmington tall tale, bawdy story or practical joke. A twinkling blue gaze boldy smiling at him, with a beer bottle toast, the first time he asked a pretty brunette named Sara Conley to dance. He recalled the warm rogue's embrace just seconds after the beauty became his wife. He swallowed hard as he remembered that same, famous Wilmington heart bursting all over the waiting room just minutes after Adam was born. He recalled all to well the tears that fell from his own eyes, when he saw the look of pure adoration and awe on Buck's face the first time he held his godson. He felt that pride building his chest, when the last picture took hold. An image he'd never forget, on a Maryland beach - a sea-soaked lean body cradling the limp, lifeless form of his best friend. He clenched his eyes shut as the picture zoomed in vivid color and form. He saw God's hand on Buck Wilmington's back, as the dark head bent over Vin's bloodless lips and that strong heart made the ultimate sacrifice. His hand trembled as it brushed it across Buck's forehead and he felt the heat rising. Just then the blue eyes opened and looked up at him. He managed a half-grin and moved his good hand.

"You look like shit, Buck..." he choked, his voice unsteady.

"Fuck you, Larabee..." Buck returned, gripping the hand hard and sending a silent signal of strength to his oldest friend.

Chris broke the amazingly strong, almost electric current and turned back to Major Taylor. He sat down next to Buck, and raised his eyes.

"You need to get in your bed, Mr. Larabee..." She presssed, concerned for his health.

"Mr. Larabee is back in Indiana with my mother," Chris said quietly and kept his hooded eyes on the visor that hid her face. "Don't push your luck..."

"Okay, Chris, I'm sorry," She consented, "What do you know?"

"It's homegrown," he sighed, gazing the glass prison, not hiding the pain in his eyes. "...that slipped out one night, she said it was 'homegrown' and if I didn't behave, she'd use a 'deadly' brother of that fuckin' thing on Vin. Didn't you get a tape or something?" He recalled hazily watching CNN in the cell.

"Yes, but she never mentioned what she was using... the clip of the introduction of the bacteria to Mister... Vin... was brief." Sandy confirmed.

"You're lucky," Chris hissed painfully, recalling all to well the horrific ordeal. "She made us watch... he never flinched... not once, that fucking thing was crawling in his shorts... on his face. He showed that bitch!" the blond paused, clenching a fist and not hiding the admiration in his voice. "Socrates," he said eyeing the group. "Was that on the tape?"

"No," Kendra frowned. "Who is Socrates?"

"A primate she used... uhm... the same stuff that thing... venom or whatever... " Chris rambled.

"This primate was infected first and survived?" the Major's voice rose in anxiously.

"Yeah," Chris muttered, feeling all strength leave him.

"Wait a minute..." Roger Davenport, the senior tech from the CDC group said. "Socrates... the chimp, he's number sixteen."

"Sixteen?" Tyrone lifted Buck's head and helped him get a cold drink of water.

"Yeah... in the material the F.B.I. sent... uh... tapes, records... that name, Socrates, he was number sixteen."

"Roger, get on the phone to Denver," the Major barked, "Get that chimp here STAT. Get the Airforce to lend a jet if you have to..." She eyed the clock and calculated the traveling time, then at the glass box behind which Vin Tanner was fighting for every breath. "Hold on, Tanner, the calvery's coming."

Chris looked up wearily at the faces in front of him. Three exhausted sets of eyes, he saw beyond them to the other yellow-garbed bodies moving about near the isolation room where Vin was hidden. All these people were here to save his best friend's life. He shifted his gaze from the triple threat eyeing him, back to Buck's weak smile.

Buck saw the color drain from Chris's face and managed to open his eyes a little wider. "Hey, Boss, it's gonna take a lot more than a stinkin' bug to bring old Buck down."

Chris smiled a bit and felt Tyrone's hand on his back.

"Come on, you got to get back to bed. You're dressings are a mess."

Chris rose and took a deep breath, taking the hand that Major Taylor offered. "Don't let them die..."

It was barely a whisper and she felt the desperate want behind each word. She gripped the good elbow of the worried leader and felt every bit of the penetrating green eyes. This was a man who bled bright red for his men and that made the battle even tougher.

"I'll give it my best shot," she said, steadying the faltering steps, "... Mister Larabee... " she grinned and saw the handsome blond lift his face.

"Yes, Ma'am, I bet you kick some serious ass," he tossed back and heard both Sandy and Tyrone laugh outright. "Please, can I see him? There might not be another sunrise for him. I need... Vin needs to know..."

She paused, sighed and looked deep into the pale green eyes. She saw his him swallow hard, choking off the last words. She knew how much this was hurting him and gave a small nod.

"Okay, Sandy, get a wheelchair." She felt the long, exhale of Larabee's breath cross her face and eyed him cautiously. "You can look through the glass, that's as close as you get, understood?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded, "Thank you... Major..." A clatter of metal caused them both to turn. Chris shook his head at the body rising unsteadily from the bed.

"No!" Kendra left Chris and placed both hands on Buck's shoulders. "Absolutely not. Lay down in that bed now."

"The ladies love me, Chris..." Buck croaked, wagging his eyebrows, "She can't keep her hands off of me."

"In your dreams," Kendra shot back, "You're running a fever of a hundred and one," she read over his shoulder of the chart on the table next to the bed. "You're in no position to..."

"I'm going around you or through you," Buck protested weakly, "Your call..."

"All you ATF agents this stubborn?" Tyrone asked, shaking his head.

"Only team seven," Chris boasted, settling in the wheelchair. "Buck will come right back, won't you?"

"Huh?" Buck frowned, trying not to fall over. "Yeah... sure... Don't let me get too far ahead of you." He wobbled and faltered, then with Tyrone helping, walked towards the glass room. The Major took the wheelchair and notified Sandy and Roger to update the others.

The trip seemed much longer to Chris, but finally he was parked next to the cold glass. He licked his lips and felt his heart racing. He heard the familiar hiss of the ventilator and held his breath as the curtain parted.

It was dark and the coldness was all around him, as if he were encased in ice. He felt her healing hands and tried to relax, knowing his Angel would protect him. She was quiet now, and he needed to hear her voice. Then he felt pressure inside his throat and tensed up; it was starting again -the choking thing -he hated it and the struggle started anew.

"No... no... please... not that... that hurts... stop... stop... stop... God, when will it stop. I can't breathe... it hurts... stop... stop."

"Mollie?" Sandy stuck his head in the isolation room and noticed that AMERIID's best nurse wasn't in her hazmat suit. "New orders?" he inquired and saw the pretty dark head bob.

"Directly from the Colonel," she answered of Jack Blackburn, their boss, "Just before I came on duty. Gowns and masks, it's not airborne, so we lose that charmin' suit..."

"You almost done?" He asked of the suctioning of the artificial airway.

"Aye," she nodded, without taking her eyes from the ghost-like face on the bed. "Easy Darlin' Boy... I know it hurts ye..."

"We might have a break, Larabee woke up and identified a primate that had the virus first and survived. Roger's on the phone with Denver making arrangements to have him flown in."

"That's grand news!" she looked over at the physician briefly, then turned back to Tanner. "Did ye hear, Lad? Ye hold on now, there's a light shinin' in front of ye... ye keep fightin', Bonny Vin..."

"Uh, Mollie... Larabee and Wilmington are outside. The Major said they could see him... You okay?"

"We're fine..." She answered, concentrating on her task. That done, she proceeded with his alchohol bath. "What's wrong with ye then, Darlin' Boy?" Mollie clucked her tongue and finished bathing his back and lower extremities. She gently rolled him over and wrung out a fresh cloth. "Yer a bit off, tonight... Let's see now," she paused to start washing him again

Chris didn't realize how long he'd been holding his breath, until a light, reassuring touch on his shoulder caused a staggered exhale. He nodded and tried to relax the death grip he had on the arm of the wheelchair. Once again, Buck was there, with a steady hand that never failed. His eyes followed the curtain until the room was revealed.

"Jesus..." he whispered, flattening his back to the chair. The sight before him shook him to the core. He was more than grateful for Buck being by his side. Amidst a garish forest of clear plastic tubing and shiny bags of fluid, there was young man lying unnaturally still. His skin was so pale, it was nearly transparent. Dark circles rode on his gaunt face and the unmistakeable aura of death lingered too close. Chris stared hard at the stranger, trying to find something to hold on to. This wasn't Vin... it couldn't be... this man's pallor reeked of the grave. A tube connected to a ventilator was securely taped to his face, so as not to slip out. Another ran into his nose, leading down to his stomach. Four other tubes violated his body. One line went in his neck, one in his arm and one in his wrist, each carrying live giving fluids. The fourth was the catheter that took the urine from his body.

"Major," Sandy whispered, disturbed by the shocked expressions on the faces of Tanner's two infirmed friends. "Mollie said the Colonel gave the word to dress down."

"Okay, pass it along," she directed, watching the blond man in front on her fighting hard to remain in control. "I'll give you a few minutes to visit, then you both are going back to bed."

"He's dying..."

"What?" Buck spun, not recognizing the defeated Larabee voice next to him. Like Chris, he wasn't prepared for the ghastly sight on the other side of the glass. Vin Tanner had a perennial tan, was extremely active in any kind of physical endeavor and full of life. This pale imitation before him wounded him deeply. That since finding a home with team seven and learning the value of friendship, he'd taken a huge bite out of life and laughed. But now Buck was worried. Somewhere, deep inside that coma, Vin Tanner was searching for the road home. There was, perhaps, only one voice that could guide him back. That voice was now wavering, housed in a body that was cloaked in defeat. If he didn't see it, he wouldn't believe it, not of Chris Larabee. They didn't come any tougher.

"Talk like that ain't gonna do him any good. He needs you, Chris... more than anything else he's ever needed. You can't..."

"I'm not God, Buck!" Chris said sharply, cuttting off the sermon. "Christ, that's not Vin... it's some... one... thing..." he stammered, "... out of a Goddamn science fiction movie. He'd hate that, Buck, you know he would. All them tubes running in and out of him... that damn machine breathing for him..."

"It's an endotracheal tube," Kendra supplied, "and yes, it is breathing for him, he's too weak to do so on his own right now," she admonished in a tight tone. "The central line in his neck gives us direct access to a large vein. This is used give fluids, measure the amount of fluid in the body, or to give medication that might be irritating to smaller veins. The one in his arm is an intravenous line, like the one you have. Lastly, a special arterial catheter is inserted into the radial artery in his right wrist and used for drawing blood gases and monitoring blood pressure. I'm sure you recognize the Foley," she noted of the urine collector. "He's also developed Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome."

"What's that mean?" Buck asked, seeing Chris's head drop and his eyes close. He didn't miss the right hand now balled into fists, resting in the leader's lap.

"It's a trauma; an inflammation of the lungs that makes it very difficult to breathe. It can be fatal..." she paused, hearing the blond man next to her suck in air painfully. "This is important, in addition to a lingering cough, this condition, like any other traumatic stress syndrome, causes anxiety, fatigue and depression. If he survives this, he'll still have emotional wounds that might take a few months to heal. He'll need you... " Her eyes rested on Chris Larabee, who raised his head and studied the glass. She moved to the wall and pushed a button, allowing contact with the nurse within.

Chris saw past the sterile sea of vines and paraphenalia and tried to find Vin again. He needed to see those trusting blue eyes. He noticed Vin's hair was pulled back and tucked under his head, making him look even younger and more vunerable. Just to the right of his head was the ventilator with its reassuring "whoosh" of air being pumped into his lungs, a sound repeated sixteen times every minute. Then he noticed the movement near Vin. A gentle hand was bathing his chest and neck. The musical quality to her voice was serene and calming. Then he saw her lay a hand to Vin's face and bend low. She stroked his cheek and brushed the damp locks of hair that clung to his forehead. All the while, she never stopped talking.

"That's important," Kendra whispered, "Patients in a coma can hear most everything you're saying. I've had some recall entire conversations in startling detail. Remember that, when you're near him, talk to him, encourage him."

"Kick his ass?" Buck asked, watching the pretty nurse with dark curls peeking from a mask and bright emerald eyes, work he magic.

"If that's what it takes," the doctor replied, nodding. "I'll be back in about ten minutes. If we're lucky, we should have a serum ready sometime tomorrow night. If you get in that bed, let that IV do it's work and rest up, I'll okay a gown and mask and you can visit him tomorrow." She frowned at the somber blond, "I won't tolerate that though, you lose that long face and defeatest attitude or I won't let you near him. He'll sense that... he can't afford it, are we clear on that?"

Chris paused a moment, shifted his eyes to the tall doctor and then nodded. She studied his face a moment, then left.

"Thanks," Buck supplied for Chris, whose eyes were still glued to the glass. Tyrone got Buck a chair and helped him sit. He also gave each of the visitors a tall cup of ice water.

Sometimes the darkness seemed colder. Vin always felt better when... there... there it was... she was speaking. Breathe, breathe, breathe... he followed a silent command. But he was to tired, he wanted to let go. He got angry. Why didn't she make the hurt stop. He couldn't breathe, it hurt to much.

"Make it go away Angel... I don't want to stay here anymore... I'm so tired...."

.She gently eased the cloth over his legs and chest, pausing to rinse. "Did I tell ye what a fool I am for Disney movies? It's a good thing I have me nieces and nephews to take to the cinema. Wouldn't I be the fine sight? Cryin' a river over a cartoon creature and a pretty song? Ah, but ye have to love them, especially the sad ones. They get to ticklin' me heart good and that's a fact." She moved closer to his face, wiping every fine feature and pulling the damp locks of hair from his forehead. "Yer not talkin' to me tonight, Boy-o. Where's me fightin' soldier then? Don't ye quit now! I won't be forgivin' ye, Vin me boy..." She sighed, not happy with the change she detected. "How 'bout a song? Would that cheer ye a bit? I remember one from a movie I saw when I was a wee girl."

"I'm sorry... don't be mad... don't leave me... it's so dark here and yer the only light I got... that's better... feels good... yer voice... so sweet... I need ya Angel... sing fer me... I need yer light... .thank you... thank you..."

"When ye wish upon a star... makes no difference who ye are ... Anything yer heart desires... will come to ye.." She paused and took his hand, resting it against her face and stroked his forehead with the other. "If yer heart is in yer dream... no request is too extreme. When ye wish upon a star... as dreamers do... Like a bolt out of the blue... Fate steps in and sees ye through... When ye wish upon a star... Yer dreams come true... " The last line came out hard and her voice broke. She blinked back tears and cursed inwardly. Don't get attached, Mollie, that's breaking all the rules. Why was it that the special ones always broke her heart? He was special, she knew without hearing a word uttered. "Ye listen to me Darlin' Vin, I'll not lose ye... Where's yer heart then? Where's me Bonny Lad that was fightin' so hard?"

"Look at that," Tyrone moved his hand. "See his heart monitor? He's responding to her."

"Damn..." Buck smiled, still tingling from the moving musical medicine recital. He'd noticed that somewhere during the emotional display, Chris moved his hand to the glass. Five fingers splayed out, pressing hard against the cold divider. He saw the glint of moisture in Chris's eyes and heard the raspy breathing.

"She's good," Chris said thickly, damp eyes shifting from the monitor back to Vin's placid face. He didn't need to see the blinking red numbers, he'd felt the change. Vin was reaching out to the gifted nurse. In his dark world, he was lost, but not alone.

"She's better than good," Tyrone imparted, "My granny would say she has 'the gift'. I've seen her pull patients back that has no scientific reason to be living."

"Well now," she stood up and kept a clasp on Vin's hand. "Ye've company and hear I am pratherin' on and on... Ye'll have to excuse me, Lads, I've got the gift of gab, ye see. I'm Mollie Muldoon."

"Aren't you my fiance?" Buck asked, and saw the beautiful eyes crinkle up in affection.

"Are ye the father of me five babes, then?" She countered and drank in the deep laugh. "Leavin' us on the dole and me babes with no Da?"

"This is Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee," Tyrone directed. "How's he doing?"

"He's a bit off tonight," she gave the limp hand a good squeeze, "But I workin' on his temper. It's not a quitter I'll be tendin' to, and he knows it. His fever's down a bit and he's breathin's a wee bit better." She eyed Buck carefully and slid her gaze to Tyrone, who merely nodded once, confirming her suspicion. "Well then, it's to yer own beds. Buck, me boy, I'll be over to see ye when the sun wearin' her new dress."

"I think I'm in love Tyrone," Buck teased, patting his heart and giving her his best grin. He tried not to let it show, but it lingered. The headache, the sore throat, the ache in every bone, the urge to cough and the fever all spelled worry. "How's the weather in Elkton?" he inquired of the eloper's haven.

"Come on Romeo," Tyrone rolled his dark eyes. "Chris, I'll be right back," he helped Buck to stand and then waited.

"Mollie," Buck said somberly taking his eyes from Vin's waxen likeness to her face, "Keep him close, huh? We can't lose..." Buck swallowed hard and his voice broke. He rubbed his eyes and turned away, letting the doctor guide him to the bed his weary body sought so desperately.

She knew men like Buck Wilmington and they were impossible not to like, love even. He wore a patriot's heart, and wore it well. Brave lads like Buck fell too swiftly on battlefields around the world. She'd be damned if she'd lose two on her shift. She watched Tyrone settle him back in the bed and adjust his IV, adding more antibiotics. She shifted her eyes to the blond, Chris Larabee. The intensity in his eyes put the chill on her, right to the bone. The green eyes were bearing hard on Vin's face. She sensed a strong connection and felt his fear.

"He's a fighter," she drilled, "Don't ye be draggin' yer chin, not around him. I'll not tolerate that..." she warned protectively.

"He's a Tanner," Chris replied, "and thank you, Mollie Muldoon, for saving his life."

"Yer a wee bit generous there, Chris, I've not..."

"You have," Chris interjected, "I know... he knows... I can feel it. You're the only light he has... you're all he knows in that Hell he's lost in..." Chris paused and moved the chair closer to the intercom. "You hold on, Cowboy," his voice wavered a bit as the whoosh of the ventilator, the tube in Vin's throat and the one his nose all became too much to bear. "...or I'll kick your ass all the way back to Denver..." he broke off, hoarse and haggard. "Damn..." he whispered, dropping his head as the pressure built in his chest. What if Vin had no tomorrow? Suddenly the artificial breathing machine seemed to be hissing at him and the walls closed in quickly. His heart was pounding and his head throbbed. He felt Tyrone behind the chair, "Get me the hell out of here..." he gasped with a shuddering breath.

"Ye've got a good friend, there, Boy-o," she said to Vin, her heart aching for Chris Larabee. "He needs ya... yer Chris does." She read the blond easily and knew how hard he was struggling. "So ye buckle up and get yer blood boilin' again."

Despite the medicine to combat the pressure in his head and the ache in his leg, sleep didn't elude him. His dreams were dark and angry as he battled his subconscious. Tossing fitfully, his sweat drenched face was twisted in conflict. He awoke at dawn at was more exhausted than before he fell asleep. Tyrone gave him his pain meds and a large glass of juice. This time, the slumber was deep and heavy, he never moved. He didn't feel the cool water bath the fever or the sting of the antispetic on his wounds. There were no dreams, just a numbing sea surrounded by haunting blue eyes.

It was just after nine a.m. and Sandy Dunkirke was tired. He just about hit the cot, when his beeper went off. "Shit!" he hissed, reading the numbers. He dialed them wearily and rested his face against the wall near the phone. One hand remained on his face, before moving upwards through his tangled, golden locks. "What's up?" he paused and nodded, "Yes, Sir, I'll tell them and get right up to the Lab. Yes, Sir... Yes... I understand." He hung the phone up and made his way across the room. He bent over the small figure curled up on the cot and shook her arm.

"Whaaattt?" a groggy voice asked.

"Sorry Angie, you and Dennis got new orders. The Colonel just called. You two are to report back to base for a briefing at noon."

"Okay, I'll tell Dennis," she paused, "What about the others?" She referred to Sanchez, Dunne and Standish.

"They're being discharged later this morning, as soon as Dunne's IV is done and Tyrone gives him the once over. Good Luck," he wished and watched her gather her things and head out. He eyed the clock and sighed, "No rest for the weary..." he gobbled a bowl of cereal, tossed a cup of coffee back and grabbed a yogurt on his way upstairs to the Lab. Socrates was finally in town and the sooner they got their sample, the sooner they could develop the serum. He passed the quiet ER en route and updated Mollie. She just set a bowl of soapy warm water down beside a very flushed Buck Wilmington. They'd moved the stricken agent's bed across the room the night before. It now rested just next to the isolation chamber, giving Mollie quicker access to her two patients.

"How's he doing?"

"His fever's up, nearly 102," she said, wringing a cloth out.

He read the worry lines in her eyes and rested a hand on her shoulder. "Keep your head up, Irish, help's on the way. Socrates should be here any minute, Tanner's holding steady... his temp is down a little, just over 105."

"He's fightin', tis true," she lamented of Tanner, while wiping the handsome rogue's face. She found a smile as two blue eyes opened and one winked at her. "...but he's losin' hope, I can feel it, he's tirin' out..."

"Then you convince him to hold on," he eyed the clock, "With any luck, we'll have an antidote by this evening..."

"Then maybe it's his ear ye need to bend a wee bit," she nodded at the blond leader, who was struggling to sit up. "It's his voice Vin's waitin' to hear..."

Sandy nodded and backpedaled, meeting the blond across the room as he sat up and blinked.

Chris's head was pounding with a fury and the room was swimming. His leg throbbed and he already hated the restrictive binding on his arm. The first thing he noticed, through burning green eyes, was the empty space where his friend's bed had been.

"Buck!" he grabbed the railing, pushed the clamp and released the side, swinging his legs around. His impulsive actions were met by a seagreen wall of cotton.

"He's fine..." Sandy held the body firm.

"You're green..." Chris mumbled, still half asleep.

"No suits needed, just gowns and masks, it's not airborne." He noted then saw the eyes roving again. "He's over there, we moved him, so Mollie won't have to travel as far."

Chris looked across the room to where Mollie was bathing Buck and singing. He could hear Buck's voice and weak laughter. Buck always managed to find a smile; to use his humor to take the edge off of fear. "How is he... are they?"

"Tanner's holding his own, his temps down a little. Wilmington's temp is up just over 102 and he's exhibiting all the same signs your younger friend did. But, Socrates is here and I'm heading up the lab now, to help with the serum development."

"How soon?" Chris sighed, taking a glasss of water and some pills from the doctor.

"Tonight, suppertime, maybe..." Sandy took the probe from the blond's ear and smiled. "You're down to 99, that's great. Now let's change your leg dressing and you can have breakfast with Buck."

"How come he's not in a glass box?" Chris frowned, rolling over to give the physican access to his injured limb, "and... if... he's got what Vin has... why is... Vin... still in... there?" he clenched through his teeth as the pain in his leg accelerated rapidly.

"Vin's too weak to breathe on his own or fight off any infection. So as long as he's on that ventilator and comatose, he'll stay in there. It's protecting his immune system." The healing hands quickly did the change and then eased the leader to an upright position "After you eat and get some fluid in your system, Mollie will put the gown and gloves on you and you can visit with him." Sandy thought that Larabee would embrace that news. Hell, he damn near plowed a hole through them last night trying to get at the stricken agent. But he sat silent, no expression on his face. "Did you hear me, Chris?" he said gently, and saw the head rise.

"Yeah," he sighed, dejectedly. He couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of depression that engulfed him.

"You think he's on his way out and maybe you're just a little afraid to be in there alone with him... just in case..."

"It's not that..." Chris said, "I just... I guess seeing him like that... all those tubes running in him and a machine breathing for him." Chris ran a hand through his damp hair. "Hell, he even looks like a corpse... I wasn't prepared... it hit me hard..."

"That's understandable," Sandy agreed, "Given the situation you witnessed, your reaction was normal. When we see someone we care for in a state like that for the first time, the 'gut reaction' is "Jesus, he's dying..." He saw the troubled face nod and then rise to search his for an answer. "How about I help you get a shower, get you in some scrubs and get some food in you. Then, you'll feel better. What will help you and him the most is touching and talking. He needs to feel you're there for him, hear your voice, feel your touch. I've been doing this a lot of years, Chris and it works... it's the key ingredient. He's lost and he needs you as much as the serum."

Chris listened intently for several minutes and mulled over the doctor's advise. He thought carefully on the vivid image of Vin in the bed and the feelings it caused. He took a deep breath and nodded, suddenly the urge to be near Vin was overwhelming.

"Okay, Doc... lead the way..." He surrendered and sat down in the wheelchair.

+ + + + + + +

"You need to chill, Ezra," Josiah advised, watching the pacing conman enter J.D.'s again. The restless soul was making regular trips through the room and down the hall. His response was a single glare before departing again.

"He's gettin' almost as good as Chris," J.D. noted of the irate look they'd gotten. "Buck still doesn't answer..." J.D. hung the phone up and picked up the remote control, channel surfing for something to watch. "Hey... it's Major Taylor..." he put the remote down and eyed the door "Ezra!!! Ezra!!!"

"I was right outside the door and the use of unnecessary force was not warranted." Ezra said, striding in the room. "Where is the fire?"

"There!" J.D. pointed, turning up the volume.

"...break late last night," The Major continued, "Chris Larabee, the leader of the ATF team and a patient in the restricted area, regained consciousness and revealed vital information to us of a conversation he had with Ms. Newlander. She told him the agent she infected Mr. Tanner with was 'homegrown', and we've now determined it to be an especially virulent strain of Streptococcus Pneumoniae, that she developed. We also found out, from this conversation and research work we've now discovered in her Denver Lab, that she used several primates in her experimentation. One survived, his name is Socrates and he's now inside the Lab. From him, we'll be able to develop a serum for Socrate's Fever, which this new strain has been named."

"What exactly is that and how is it spread?" a reported asked.

"It's a violent bacterial infection and spread by direct contact. The symptoms are high fever, chills, headache, joint ache, stiff neck and lung congestion. Buck Wilmington, whose heroic actions on the beach saved Vin Tanner's life that night, has also come down with the Fever. He is the only new victim and that is due to his CPR effort. He's being treated in same fashion and will get the serum as well. We hope to begin administration of it by later this evening. Agents Sanchez, Standish and Dunne will be released later today. That's all I have for now..." She moved away from the podium, despite the questions tossed at her.

"Well, I guess you got the news..." Tyrone said, watching the three glum faces. "Hey, don't bury them, yet. You two can go, the guards will escort you downstairs, there's a Mr. Travis waiting for you. Dunne will join you later, when his IV is done and I've finished his physical. Go on..."

"Can't we visit Chris and Buck?" Josiah asked, beating Ezra to the punch.

"Not now," he eyed the clock, "The Major is really strict about that. They need to rest and are considered the equivilent to ICU patients. She's set up visiting hours for restricted personnel of one p.m. to three p.m and five p.m to seven p.m." He saw the angry faces and put a hand up. "Hey, don't shoot the messenger. Look, your boss wants to talk to you, you need to give a statement to the FBI and the local police. You also need to get some clothes and stuff. Your wallets, weapons and other personel affects are being held by Travis. I'd suggest after the briefing, you get settled in the hotel room he set up and get some lunch."

"Can we bring them stuff?" J.D. asked, "...and when can I leave?"

"In an hour and a half or so," Tyrone dictated. "You want to bring chow in here, that's fine. As a matter of fact, there's some old furniture down the hall downstairs, a sofa, some chairs and tables. You could set up a visiting area on the far end of the ER. Just a thought..."

"Alright," Josiah rose, held a hand out. "Thanks for everything. Come on, Ezra, Orin don't like to be kept waiting."

"Is that repulsive reptile with him?" Ezra asked, remaining by J.D.

"Who?" Tyrone laughed, taking a sample of blood.

"Flushing." J.D winced and held the cotton ball over his arm.

"Oh," he shrugged, "No, he was alone."

"I'll be back, J.D.," Ezra said, "If that's acceptable, to escort you out of here."

"Thanks, Ez." J.D. nodded gratefully. Finally, Tyrone was done and he was alone. He shut the television off and laid back, thinking on the hours to come. Would they get the serum to Buck and Vin in time? Would he friends survive? Was there a miracle on the horizon?

+ + + + + + +

It was a wonderful sensation; he was floating in a deep aqua sea and the cooling waves of water felt unbelievable. Then there was that lilting voice nearby, sending ripples of comfort through his aching torso. He felt her hands on his face and concentrated on the words.

He was born and raised in Ireland in a place called Castlemaine.
He was his father's only son, his mother's pride and joy.
And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.
At the early age of sixteen years, he left his native home.
And to Australia's sunny shore he was inclined to roam.
He robbed the rich, he helped the poor, he shot James McAvoy.
A terror to Australia was the wild colonial boy."

He peeled an eye open and unleased his best smile, stopping the lovely song in it's tracks. He saw her bend closer and was mezmerized by the bright emerald eyes.

"...ain't that a crime of some sort?" He gasped, sitting up and unleashing a string of coughs. He grabbed the chrome bedrail and hung on, the violent coughing spell caused tears to spring up.

"Easy Lad," she cooed, rubbing his back and waiting.

"...hidin' something as beautiful as you behind all them masks?" He coughed again, doubling over and losing a mouthful of watery phlegm. The effort caused a wave of pain up his back and neck, splitting his already pounding head. "Fuck..."

"Watch yer mouth, Sailor!" she warned, wiping his face and easing him back against the pillows.

"Sorry," Buck gasped, taking several long breaths and finally regaining his composure.

"When's that miracle cure coming?" he teased, hoping to dispell the butterflies in his gut.

"This evenin'," she replied, handing him a mouthful of ice chips. "There now, isn't that grand?" She knew his throat was sore and the coughing only made it worse.

"It ain't Guiness or Jamison's, but it'll do."

"Now why did I know ye'd be a rouser?"

"A who?" Buck finally felt a little better.

"Using that handsome face and what I'm sure is a fine voice to lure unsuspecting young lovlies over the brim of a pint?"

"Are you sure you've never been to Denver?" Buck teased, laughing and falling softly into the valleys of her voice.

"I'd have remembered you, Love," she smiled, stroking his flushed, warm face, "...and that's a fact."

"Marry me?" Buck raised his eyebrows and his hopes.

"How about ye help me finish me song first?" She brushed an errant lock of his dark hair. "I chose it special fer ye, it suits ye..." she noted of 'The Wild Colonial Boy'.

"It's one of my favorites." Buck admitted, "I'm a big fan of Irish folk music and have quite a collection of CD's.

"Well, then," she gave him another spoon of ice chips. "Let's hear what ye've got, Buck me boy."

"One morning on the prairie as Jack he rode along. Listening to the mockingbird a singing a cheerful song. Out stepped a band of troopers, Kelly, Davis and Fitzroy. They all set out to capture him, the wild colonial boy" Buck crooned, feeling his spirits rising a bit. He saw her eyes widen in surprise at the quality of his voice. He rested a bit, letting her take the next verse.

"Surrender now Jack Duggan for you see we're three to one. Surrender in the Queen's high name for you're a plundering son" She sang defiantely, acting out the part and nodding to Buck to reprise his role. He smiled and nodded, using his hands to form make-shift pistols.

"Jack pulled two pistols from his belt and he proudly waved them high. 'I'll fight, but not surrender.' said the wild colonial boy." Buck grinned and continued. "He fired a shot at Kelly, which brought him to the ground. He fired point blank at Davis, too, who fell dead at the sound." Buck paused and nodded, his pretty nurse stepped right in, took his hand and joined him for the last line.

"A bullet pierced his proud young heart from the pistol of Fitzroy. And that was how they captured him, the wild colonial boy." She laughed through the end, when Buck dramatically clutched his heart and 'died'.

"Ye've a fine voice," she admired, smiling under her mask. The affection reached up to her eyes, crinkled in mirth. "Truly, ye do..."

"Thanks Mollie," a new voice added dryly, "His head barely gets through the door on good days now."

"You're just jealous 'cause you don't have two 'Open Mic Night Awards'." Buck defended, grasping the hand offered warmly. "...and your not..." he coughed, doubling over and felt the hand leave his, patting his back firmly. "... not... overnight... sensation... at... Sean...a...chie...s..."

"Seanachies?" Mollie's head lifted, meeting Chris Larabee's concerned eyes hovering over his mask.

"An Irish Pub near Buck's place at home," the leader replied, "Buck fancies himself to be a singer."

"Fancie's hell..." Buck choked, gripping Chris's hand for all it was worth, waiting for his pain-wracked body to recover. "You're... just... just... jealous..."

"Yeah, that must be it, Buck," Chris deadpanned, rolling his eyes. Mollie watched the two and saw a lot of history and feeling between them. The kind of friendship that never breaks. The kind that even though a few years and miles might separate, would always.

"Well, now, Buck need his rest," she said, pushing him back on the pillows.

"Never," Buck rasped with a bold wink and twinkle in his eye. "A Wilmington never sleeps on the job. I'm ready whenever you are, Mollie."

"Ye couldn't afford me, Darlin' Buck," She countered, patting his leg affectionately and eyeing Chris's concerned eyes. "Don't be long, Chris. I've got a new gown and such waitin'..." she noted of the visit with Vin.

"I'll be right there, Mollie," he replied, as she made her way to the small room adjacent to the isolation room. "So Bucko, how's go it?"

"Aw, hell, Chris, I'm okay," Buck complained, easing his aching torso onto the cool sheets. "This bug has met it's match!' He vowed and saw the green eyes lighten up a bit. "Mollie says Vin's holdin' his own... that's good. That boy is the toughest SOB I've ever met, he'll pull through, Chris..." Buck promised, dissolving again into a fit of coughing. He curled on his side and once more felt Chris's hand on his back.

"Easy there Big Guy," Chris teased, "Save that hot air for Mollie's ears."

Buck laughed weakly as the medication kicked in and his heavy eyes fell. Chris waited until he was sleeping and studied every well known feature with a cautious eye. Buck and Vin, his two b est friends... he shuddered and pushed the thought away.

"Don't leave, Buck..." he whispered, patting the heavybreather's shoulder and departing towards the isolation room. He didn't talk while Mollie got him ready and wisely, she remained silent. With a firm squeeze to his arm, helped him inside and to a chair near the bed. He first reacton was to quell the rebellious efforts in his stomach. His breakfast was dancing in glee inside, anxious to re-emerge. He hand trembled and he took a huge breath, trying to get a grip on his racing emotions. Finally, he found the strength to pick up the limp hand, hissing audibly at the icy fingers, a corpse's grip.

"Jesus..." He dropped the hand and pressed his back into the chair, away from Vin.

"It's the cold blanket," Mollie reassured, "His skin feels like ice, but that's needed to get his temperature down. Go on..." she coached.

He took a deep breath and started again. He picked up the limp hand and wrapped his fingers around it. He leaned over a bit, his heart hammering with Machine Gun rapidity. He bit his lower lip and swallowed the acidic bile that managed to get as far as his mouth. The whooshing of the ventilator and the tubes running rampant distressed him. His hand trembled and he opened his mouth, but couldn't find any words. The pale face, so thin now and the shell-like lids covering those eyes he so needed to see were troubling.

Vin felt the change. Deep within the black hole that had become his home, he felt fear replace hope. Something was wrong... very wrong. Tremors of quivering trepidation wore cloaks of anxiety. He felt the fear close in, flapping it's wings in his face and smothering him.

*"Angel... where are ye?... I can't breathe... don't leave me... somethin's wrong... God, is this it? Don't go, Angel... not now... Angel?"*

"What?" Chris stammered, eyeing the heart monitor's racing numbers and moving as Mollie pulled his hand away. He saw the change in Vin's respirations, reflected in the nurse's worried eyes.

"There now, Darlin' Boy?" she coaxed, picking up his limp hand. She used the other hand to

stroke his face and brush his hair. "I'm sorry... yer fine... easy Lad... ye've a visitor. So best foot forward now, do ye hear?" She paused, eyes flicking to the monitor which was starting to level out. "Yer Chris is here... he's waitin' to see ye. I'll not leave ye, Bonny Vin," she cupped his face and smiled. "Ye've got me word on that. So ye stop this fussin' and behave, now..." She pulled back and turned to the pinched Larbee features.

She lowered her voice and whispered. "I know yer a wee bit frightened, it's takes adjustin' to, but ye've got to remember, Chris, he can feel ye. He can sense yer fear, that's what set that monitor off. He needs yer confidence, yer strength... he needs yer faith, Chris, as much as any medicine." She saw the eyes lock onto hers and waited for the blond head to dip once. She lifted his hand and merged it with Vin's, then stepped out to the doroway.

Chris took a deep breath and pulled every bit of internal fortitude he could muster into a surging wave. He gripped the hand fiercely and rested it against his own cheek. He leaned over far, his lips hovering near Vin's ear. "Hey, Cowboy..."

Mollie smiled and felt tears welling as the heart monitor leveled out and Vin's breathing was even and true. "Aye, Lad," she choked quietly, "Yer Chris... he found ye..."

Buck rested his aching eyes a minute, before resuming his lunch. The rich chicken soup went down easy and now he was picking at a turkey sandwich. He took a long sip from the straw resting in a bottle of ice tea and watched Chris through the glass. He sighed and put the bottle back on the tray. Chris looked scared to death, his face was a pale mask, somber and sullen. His eyes, however, told a different story. They shifted uneasily, every few minutes, from the sharpshooter's still face, to the many tubes running in his helpless body and then winced at the hissing breathing machine.

"Give 'im hell, Chris..." he whispered, "...get him riled up... don't just sit... there..." he faded away, letting the medicine work and shutting out the harsh lights that hurt his throbbing head.

"Shit..." Chris sighed, letting Vin's hand go for a moment to flex his fingers. He winced as the limp appendage made a dull thump, when it hit the bed. "Sorry... " he flinched, still not able to adjust to the nearly gray skintone and the cold fingers. He leaned forward, shook the circulation back into his hand and picked up the icy hand again. "How come this comes so easy to Mollie? She's only known you a few days and she knows just the right thing to say. You're my best friend and I can't think of a fuckin' word..." he sighed and cocked his head, nearly hearing a raspy chuckle emerge from the slack lips. "You're laughin' your skinny ass off somewhere, aren't you?" He paused and furrowed his brows, as his mind began to spin. He studied the fine features on the pale face and looked past the gastro tube and ventilator hose. "You know Vin, some of the best conversations I've ever had, have been with you, the ones where we don't say a word. I guess that's one of the things that makes it easy. You're the perfect fit, Cowboy..." his voice tensed up as suddenly his throat narrowed, "... so don't you get any half-assed ideas about checkin' out..." The brief spill of nouns and verbs left him silent again. He looked up as Mollie entered the room, quickly coming to Vin's side.

"Did ye have a nice visit then?" she asked Vin, wiping his face. "I'll be right back, Boy-o," she noted, before turning back to Chris.

"Already?" He asked and saw the nurse's head nod.

"It's been over a half-hour, Love," she moved behind the wheelchair. "...and ye need yer rest as well. Ye have yer lunch, take a nice nap and then I'll bring ye back this evenin'. Plus yer friends are comin' in a bit."

"Okay," Chris decided and leaned forward over the rail, studying every inch of Vin's face. His stomach lurched again, as the fear rose up and gripped him good. What if Vin slipped away while he was gone. "I'm not real hungry..."

"Nice try," Mollie sympathized, seeing the mix of yearing and fear on his handsome features.

"Vin, I gotta go," Chris relayed, squeezing the frigid fingers. "The boys are visiting. You know how fidgety J.D. is..." he paused and licked his dry lips, "I'll be back, Vin, I promise, okay?" He carefully placed the hand under the sheet and moved his own free hand higher. "I'm right here..." he rasped, tapping the cold chest over the fighting Texan's heart.

+ + + + + + +

Orin Travis stopped in the entryway, adjusting the gown and mask. He was slightly ahead of the three released ATF agents. He paused as their footsteps were heard and waited until they joined him. A slim figure with bright green eyes approached, greeting them warmly.

"Mr. Travis is it?" Mollie asked, nodding to the eldest of the quartet. "I'm Mollie Muldoon and I've been takin' care of the lads." She took a few minutes to update them on their friends conditions and then paused again. "We've set up a visting area just over there," she pointed to a cluster of sofas and chairs with two tables between them. "Once Buck and Vin are stronger... in the meantime, I can take two of ye to see Vin..."

"I'll go," Orin said and saw Ezra step forward, "and Mr. Standish will as well."

"Good," she nodded, "Buck and Chris are both sleepin', but yer welcome to wait..." she eyed the clock, it was ten past one p.m. "Ye've got until three..."

"Thanks," Josiah nodded, eyeing the heaving chest of J.D. Dunne. "You alright, J.D.?"

"Yeah," the youth whispered, trying to control his urge to vomit. He was glad he'd picked a light lunch at the coffee shop in the hotel. His stomach was a massive, churning pool of acid. He watched Orin and Ezra follow the nurse and then took a hesitant step towards Buck's bed.

"Go on," Josiah prompted, "I'll sit with Chris."

It was the longest journey that the Bostonian ever took. It seemed to take forever until he was finally at Buck's side. The roses that scored the rogue's cheeks were unsettling. He shifted uncomfortably, trying to get rid of the band around his chest and keep his lunch intact. His eyes filled when the words 'potentially fatal' loomed again. He kept his back to the glass, not bringing himself to look at Vin. Twice he moved around the bed, trying to find a comfortable spot.

"Jesus Kid, you're wearin' me out..." Buck whispered, keeping his eyes closed.

"Buck?"

"No, Mel Gibson..." Buck replied, peeling an eye open. He smiled warmly and reached a hand up. "Hey Kid... You're lookin' good. I was afraid Ezra might damage you." He teased and saw the youth's Adam's apple bobbing fearfully. He also saw the large eyes filling up and felt the deathgrip on his hand. "Ease up there, Son, I gotta use this hand again..."

"Huh?" J.D. blinked, "Oh, sorry Buck... Uh... How you doing?" J.D. winced as soon as the words came out. "Shit!" he pulled his hand back and slapped the chrome railing. "...fuckin' stupid thing to say..."

Buck smiled at the flashing eyes and colorful words, "Watch that mouth," he teased, "You're hangin' around that testy Texan too much!" Buck was joking, but the smile left his face when he saw J.D. blanch and avert his gaze. Puzzled, he was about to inquire on J.D.'s strange reaction, when Tyrone approached.

"You didn't finish your lunch," the doctor eyed the half-eaten sandwich and untouched brownie. He placed two bottles of coke on the tray.

"I was hopin' to get some help..." Buck relayed. "...it's awful hard to combat these dizzy spells."

"Oh," Tyrone picked up the sandwich, "Why didn't you say something. I can..."

"Nothing personal, Tyrone," Buck raised an eyebrow, "But your dainty hands ain't the ones I was hopin' to lure... uh... get help from."

"Uh-huh..." Tyrone put the sandwich down and smiled, "You waitin' on Mollie?"

"Well, she is a helluva sight prettier than you, " Buck returned, "...smells better too..."

"He always this shy?" Tyrone asked the dark haired youth who remained silent.

"J.D.?" Buck said gently and shook his head at Tyrone.

"What?" J.D. blinked and saw both men eyeing him funny. "Sorry... thanks for the soda..."

"No problem," The doctor nodded, "I'll be back later, Romeo..."

"Thanks, Man..." Buck nodded and trained his eyes on the troubled youth.

"Spill it, Kid..."

"I can't..." J.D. denied, "Don't ask me, Buck, not now..."

"J.D., I ain't gonna die," He tried, "You got Buck..."

"Don't say that!" J.D. flinched, "Don't make a promise you can't keep," his voice rose in anger.

"Dammit, J.D. that's enough!" Buck pressed his aching head back into the pillows. He felt a straw nudging his lips and peeled an eye open. J.D.'s hand wavered a bit, and Buck covered it, steadying the bottle and taking a long draw. "Thanks..." He waited until J.D. took his own bottle and put his uneasy body in to the chair.

"I'm sorry, Buck, I didn't mean to upset you..."

"That's okay, J.D.," Buck's head was pounding now and he shut his eyes again. "This headache is wearin' on me a little, so I'm gonna close my eyes. How about you telling me what Josiah did to keep them guards upstairs from killing Ezra?" The voice was hesistant at first, but then the words spilled out. Although they lacked the usual Dunne enthusiasm, they were appreciated. Every now and again, Buck opened his eyes. He noticed J.D. never turned around, he kept his back to the isolation room. The youth's words faded away as the patient returned to his fitful sleep.

+ + + + + + +

"Well, Darlin' Boy, it's yer day fer visitors," Mollie boomed, stroking his face and crooning a few soft Gaelic words. "Ezra and Orin are here, so best foot forward now..." she turned to leave and saw the heart monitor jumping. "What's all this then?" she frowned, taking his hand. "Don't be shoutin' at me, Vin Tanner!" She paused, watching the erratic signals.

"Is something wrong?" Orin asked and saw the pretty nurse turn and whisper.

"Before ye came, I just finished cleanin' out his breathin' tube. It's painful and upsettin to him." She turned back and leaned over the bed. "Ye missed yer song? Is that it?" she brushed her fingers across his forehead. "Well then, we'll make a short one..." She did a few verses of the sad song, Molly Malone, keeping her eyes on the monitor. Finally, the numbers evened out. "Yer a spoiled Lad, ye know that?" She teased, "I'm not leavin' ye... Orin and Ezra want a word. I'll be back..."

She waited for one of the men to step forward and finally Ezra did, taking the cold hand. They'd been instructed on the importance of speaking and touching. It was not something the staid southerner was used to, but for Vin Tanner, he'd make an exception. He paused and looked at the nurse, still marveling at the effect she had on Vin's vital signs.

"You, Dear Lady, are a rare jewel, glittering in a sea of desperation."

"Another silver-tongued devil," she smiled, "Yer Buck has a way with words too."

"Mr. Wilmington is a modern day Renaissance man," Ezra replied, "and a wonder of medical science." He raised an eyebrow and she laughed, immediately getting his message.

"Twenty minutes," she warned, departing.

"You know Vin," Ezra started, leaning over the rail and trying to push away the awful hissing of the breathing machine. "This business of standing over your unconscious torso is getting all too familiar. I'm afraid I shall be forced to start charging you a bedside fee. Then again, your inability to retain anything higher than a five dollar bill would present a problem."

"...snake..." Vin thought, listening to the new voice. It confused him, the image didn't match the voice. It wasn't a harsh sound, although there were so many words and they sounded like a Sunday best suit, he liked the sound. "...fuzzy snake... fuzzy, warm snake... don't stop talkin'... it feels good... them fancy words... fuzzy snake... yer good... stay... keep talkin..."

"...and furthermore," Ezra continued, keeping his eye trained on the steady numbers on the monitors, "you are in desperate need of one of your gastronomical extravaganzas. The ability to count your ribs is much too disturbing. I dare say I will be responsible for the tab at Mad Max's..." He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the Tex Mex bar that Vin and J.D. went to after practice. "Good Lord, I must be getting delirious." He saw Orin moving in and noticed that half of their time had elapsed. He bent lower, putting himself nearer to Vin's gray face. He kept his grip with one hand, and moved the other to pat the icy skin on the bony shoulder. "Your journey is not yet done, my friend. Fate led us on the same road and I would be lost on this path without your light. So come back to vista that leads to the stream," he thought on Vin's favorite mountain haunt. He'd spent a morning with him a few months back, watching in amazement as Vin's skilled eye captured breathtaking images of nature and wildlife on film. "I'll be waiting..."

+ + + + + + +

It was after seven p.m. when the visitors left. Chris watched Tyrone take a large trash bag with pizza boxes, soda bottles and other snacks remnants away. It was good to see them again, having come so close to losing those who he held near. Buck managed to stay awake and eat some pizza, but Chris saw the rapid progress of the infection. Buck's fever was up and pain was etched in his sweating features. Mollie had put a cold blanket on him and bathed him at regular intervals. He took a deep breath and watched the clock.

"Can I see him?" Chris asked Tyrone, who had returned from his trip to the trash dumpster. He donned new gloves and garments and eyed the glass room. "There getting ready to bring the serum down." He saw the blond head shoot up and the greens eyes widen in hope. "How about you wait by Buck and I'll check with the Major?"

So Chris waited patiently, upset by the horrid breathing that Buck was producing through the slight opening in his mouth. Seeing the robust, gregarious charmer so still and silent, was upsetting and gave his stomach cause to churn.

"Dammit, Buck, say something," he pleaded quietly, but the lips remained silent. He watched a flurry of movement as Major Taylor, Sandy and another man quickly entered the glass room. He swiveled his body around and saw the tall, dark-skinned woman step forward and introduce the antidote to Vin's body. Sandy emerged and made his way to Buck's side, imitating the effort.

"How soon?" Chris asked.

"No way to tell, we're gonna keep a close eye on both of them. If the fever starts to come down, then we'll know we're on the road home." He watched the blond head turn and study Vin's prone body. "As soon as the Major is done with him..." he answered the silent call. Chris nodded and watched as Vin's tube was cleaned out. He clutched the arm of his wheelchair when the slight body jerked and coughed. He bit his lip so hard, he felt pain. Then it was over and he left out his breath. Mollie remained by Vin's side throughout the ordeal, talking to him and rubbing his back. Finally he saw the Major speaking with the man by Vin's bed.

"That's Roger Davenport, he's the head of the team from the CDC," Sandy supplied, recording Buck's vital signs. He waited until they appeared by Buck and moved Chris out of the way and got him fresh gloves and a mask. He placed the concerned leader next to his best friend and eyed the clock. The drug had been in the fallen man's system for thirty minutes. "I'll be right back," he said, leaving to ask Mollie a question. The nurse was speaking with Kendra about Buck Wilmington. Chris nodded and took up Vin's limp hand.

"Hey Cowboy, it's me... they shot you up with the good stuff. They put the cure in you... " Chris paused, willing the closed lids to open. "So you get ass in gear and fight this fuckin' thing." He gave the hand a good squeeze and kept his silent vigil.

"...where were ya..." Vin reached out, not knowing the name but embracing the deep feeling. the voice brought. He felt strongest when the hard voice was near. He felt like he was winning the fight, that as long as the hard voice and strong hand held him, he could win. "...I'm tryin'... fightin' like hell... don't go again... I need ya here... need yer spirit... I... Oh God... Oh God... Oh God... what's wrong... Oh God... No... No...No..."

"Vin!" Chris screamed, standing on his bad leg and nearly buckling over. The still body suddenly lurched, limbs twitching and jerking in pulsating spasms. Vin's back bucked and sent the tubes into a wicked dance. His head twisted back and forth and his neck was rigid, every vein standing at attention. Foam leaked through the tape securing the tube to Vin's mouth. "Jesus fuckin' Christ!" he screamed, "No... No..." he protested as he was forced back into his chair and a sea of green cloaked bodies invaded the room.

"He's seizing!" Sandy called, shoving the wheelchair outside and into the main aisle. Then the door shut and the curtains closed. Chris remained frozen, his heart beating wildly in his chest and his mouth a twin of the Sahara. He clumsily moved the chair over to where he could see the large glass wall. His eyes turned to Buck, who remained still and quiet. Vin...the image of the twisting limbs caused a ache so terrific in his chest, he pushed his hand against the bandaged shoulder.

"Don't take him," Chris whispered, eyeing the cross on the wall above the glass room.

Part 18

The well trained team moved into action, led by the veteran, Kendra Taylor. She saw his heart rate soar to over 150 and his blood pressure zoom to 160/90.

"Get him off that ventilator," she barked at Sandy, while turning off the alarm on the cardiac monitor. "...and bag 'im." She ripped the tape off his mouth and felt the iron-like jaw clamping on the endotracheal tube, amidst the foam spewing from his jerking mouth. "Sandy, give him 10 mg's of Valium, IV push, before he bites through the tube!" she moved quickly, ripping the cabinet doors near the bed open and getting a bite block and returning to the patient.

"Mollie," Sandy handed the ambubag to the nurse, who immediately began pumping air into the tube. The doctor quickly did as ordered, then picked up his stethescope. His bright eyes narrowed, when he listened to the victim's lungs. "He's still chomping on that tube, he's getting no air... Vecuronium?" he turned to his boss for direction.

"Yes, 10 mg's IV push..." she said of the drug that would relax all his muscles. Sure enough, within one minute of Sandy introducing the drug, Vin's body fell dormant again.

"His heart rate is falling," Sandy noted of the digital 120, "His BP is 80/45..." the tense voice concluded.

"Give him 500 cc's of Hespan, that should level out his pressure," the Major ordered, as she reattached the ventilator. "Also, 50 cc's of Dextrose, 50 % IV push, and get on the phone, he needs an EEG," she directed, knowing that the muscle-paralyzing drug would prevent them from seeing physical signs of another seizure. The EEG would allow them to see any seizure activity in his brain. "Start him Dilantin, loading dose of 1 gram," she said of the anti-convulsant agent. "Mollie, I want Neuro checks once an hour..." She flipped a penlight out and checked his pupils. His limp hand didn't respond to pressure, nor did his fingernail or toenail beds respond to pain. But that was not uncommon, given the muscle relaxant that had been administered. Hopefully, that would change in the next twenty-four hours.

"I'm going to talk with Larabee and check out Wilmington." She strode to the door, Roger followed, his mission to get the EEG machine, Sandy and Mollie cared for the now corpse-like Tanner.

What could be taking so long? The muffled louds calls and blurring bodies moving behind the curtain turned his insides icy. Chris Larabee was not a man who was kept waiting. He pushed back from the wheelchair, steadied his body, using the chrome rail of Buck's bed for leverage and moved. He placed a tentative foot on the ground and stood, wincing at the pain shot up his leg. With a final glance at the steady rising and falling of Wilmington's chest, he turned and limped towards the isolation room. He was about to enter, his anxiety turning to anger, when the door opened. He jerked his head past the tall body cloaked in green and saw Mollie putting something in Vin's IV line.

"What do you think you're doing?" Kendra asked, physically moving the weaker body. "No weight on that leg for another week. Do you want to undo all the good doctor's work? Get in that chair!"

"No until I see him," Chris shoved the arm off and swayed so badly, that if not for her standing there and grabbing him, he'd have fallen.

"Not to mention that you have a serious concussion, complete with blackouts and dizziness..." She manuevered him to the chair and waited until some color returned to his face. She moved past him to check on the other patient. His vital signs hadn't changed and she saw Mollie appear, quickly kneeling next to Chris's chair.

"Are ye alright then?" she asked, having heard him in the doorway. "Chris?"

"No," Chris replied, drawing his face up and looking deep into the emerald eyes before him. "I won't be until Vin..." he turned away, back to where the doctor stood. "Buck?"

"His vital signs are steady. Mollie, I want you to keep an eye on Buck. I don't want a repeat episode..."

"Vin?" Chris said, grateful for Mollie reassuring massage on his back.

"The seizure is frightning but not fatal. We had to give him some medication to calm him down. We're going to do EEG on him, to study his brain functions. Until he starts responding again in a day or two, it's the only way we'll have to check for any more seizures," Kendra replied.

"Any more!" Chris hissed, eyes wide, "Jesus... was that from the serum?"

"We don't know, which is why I want Mollie with Buck. Also, I need to talk with you about how you want to proceed."

"Proceed?" Chris squinted, his pounding head making his brain scream.

"Mr. Tanner's records indicate he has no living blood relatives. Orin Travis told me you, that is, the team, have become his family. Also, Orin mentioned that you have Mr. Tanner's power of attorney and that is vital."

"Power of..." Chris frowed and took a cold plastic cup of ice and water from Mollie, quickly draining it. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm going to call Mr. Travis now and have the others come over, I'll lay out the scenario and you can decide how you wish to proceed. All of you can discuss what you feel Vin would most want, but the final decision, legally is yours." Kendra saw the confusion and sighed, "Basically, to continue and give him the serum, risking more seizures and potential brain damage... or..."

"To let him go." Chris's words were extracted painfully, like an abcessed tooth.

"Yes, to withdraw all aggresive activity. I'll make that call now..."

Chris used his good arm to move himself over to the window. The curtains were opened again and he stared long and hard at Vin's state of repose. Through the glass, between him and his best friend, a variety of words swooped low, threatening his position.

'Aggresive'... 'proceed'... 'family'... 'final decision'... he blinked at that one, for it's weight was truly cumbersome. The most offensive word slammed against the glass hard, 'brain damage'. He sucked his breath in and gripped the handle of the chair hard. Then he lowered his head and raised his hand. He pushed his fingers against his eyes, trying to force both the pounding headache and pulsating words from his brain. 'Final '... 'final decision'... the word kept clashing with 'brain damage'. He drew his pained eyes to the cross above him.

"What'll I do now?" he rasped, swallowing so hard it gave him a terrific pain.

Ezra kept glancing at J.D. and wondering how to proceed. He'd remained silent on their trip back to the hotel. He'd said little during the visit and his troubled eyes stuck out against his bruised face. Josiah was out on the balcony of the large suite they were sharing. It had two bedrooms, a large living room and a small kitchenette. J.D. was on the floor, slumped against the couch, watching a movie. Ezra doubted if he heard any of the dialogue. Before he could put together his motivation speech, there was a rap on the door.

"What's happened?" Ezra inquired with concern, as soon as he saw the Division leader's face.

"I just got a call from Major Taylor. Vin had a seizure about forty minutes after they gave him the serum."

"Oh God!" Ezra slumped against the doorframe, his eyes and posture screaming defeat.

"No, he's still alive," Orin sighed, as Josiah appeared. "But she wants us down there immediately. It concerns his future and how to proceed."

"Alright," Josiah nodded, grabbing the rental car keys and the Good Book. "J.D., you need help getting your sneaks on?" He knew that bending and putting pressure hurt the youth's ribs. He and Ezra exchanged a worried glance. The youth continued to stare dully at the flickering light on the television. "Did you hear me, Son? We have to go back to..."

"I'm not going!" J.D. blurted, turning the volume up.

Josiah stormed through the room, shutting the television off. "Look at me, John Daniel..."

The caustic tone in the preacher's voice caused J.D.'s head to rise, along with a red flush on his face. They didn't understand and he didn't blame them. He couldn't tell them what was wrong... he was too ashamed. They had every right to be angry and he had no defense. He felt himself tremble, looking into Josiah's stormy eyes. He was really angry and J.D. reluctantly moved, getting his sneaks on.

"Sorry," he mumbled, avoiding the glare, or so he thought. A large hand clamped on his shoulder as he tried to pass.

"Not so fast," Josiah nodded for Ezra go with Orin and they left. He waited for the troubled young man to turn and face him. He saw so much sorrow in the hazel eyes, it pained him. "I know something's eating away at you, Son and keeping it bottled up won't help."

"Can we just go, Josiah," J.D. jerked away and rumbled to the door.

"J.D..."

"Please, Josiah," he turned, his eyes pleading, "Not now... and no verses, okay?" he eyed the large hands engulfing the worn Bible.

They gathered around Buck's bed, the infirmed man was rousing slowly, under Mollie's talented hands. The alchohol bath was done and she'd changed his damp linens. She stroked the handsome face, crooning a Gaelic lullaby. Finally, a smile broke on the rogue's face and two eyes opened.

"Musta have been a helluva honeymoon..." he teased, eyeing the kind-hearted nurse.

"Didn't I warn ye, then, Love, about me wicked ways..."

Buck was going to reply, but noticed that her words didn't reach her eyes. The emerald green gaze that usually was bright and crinkled in mirth, was dull and creased in worry. Something was wrong, very wrong, he grabbed her hand hard and coughed. His eyes shot past her and another blurry body to the glass room. He sighed heavily when he saw Vin still hooked up to his army of hoses.

"God, I thought... shit... sorry..." he apologized and felt her hand stroke his face.

"Here," she held his head up and gave him a good, long drink. "Better than a pint?"

"I'd drink piss if you were holding the cup," he coughed againg, grateful for her strong arms around him. "Sorry..."

"No, me name's Mollie and ye well know that! I'm thinkin' 'Sorry' is some poor soul ye left in a cheap room." She waited under the weak man's laughter died out and gave him a solid pat on the back.

"Allow me," Ezra stepped forward and pulled Buck upright, while Mollie pushed the button, easing the bed back forward.

"Ace?" Buck squinted, eyeing the gambler's blurry face. "...the hell's goin' on..."

"Major Taylor would like to discuss... uh... that is to say..." Ezra stumbled.

"We need to talk about Vin."

"Chris?" Buck looked past Ezra to the bearer of the hard, cold tone.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, waiting for Josiah to push him closer. "We're all here... the family..."

The last word came out on a choke and Buck's color left his face. He swallowed hard, gave a fleeting look to the pale-faced sharpshooter, encased in a glass tomb and then pushed his body back against the pillow.

"Oh God..." he swallowed hard and felt his eyes filling up, as a weight grew in his congested chest.

"First of all, I want to commend you on your support for each other. That will be an important part of your decision." Kendra began. "As you know, Vin's condition has been deteriorating. The fact he survived this long is nothing short of a miracle. The serum we derived from Socrates was our last hope. There is no way to tell yet, what damage that seizure did or if continual dosage of the serum will result in more seizures and potential brain damage."

Chris flinched and squirmed as the words came out again. 'Potential brain damage', just three words but put together and used with Vin Tanner, changed everything. A brain-damaged Vin was something that hurt so deeply, he couldn't fathom it. He shifted again, trying hard to concentrate on the Major's words and not the body behind the glass.

"...so in cases like this," she continued. "We present the family with options. We can continue with treatment and give him more of the serum. It's very possible that the seizure wasn't related to the serum at all, rather just bad timing, a result of his high fever and there won't be another one. But, there's just as much of a chance that he's rejected the serum. That continual use of it will cause him more episodes. You can discuss your choices, to continue aggressively fighting this bacteria or we can discontinue treatment and allow nature to take it's course. Legally, the final choice will be Mr. Larabee's. Take your time, I'll be in the doctor's lounge. Are there any questions?"

"Buck's okay, I mean, wouldn't he have had one too, if it were the serum?" Josiah asked.

"No, as in any medication, all of us have different reactions. I am encouraged by Buck's system accepting the serum and we feel confident he'll make a swift recovery. His fever should drop down to normal in the next couple days. It will be a couple weeks before he feels himself again, but he's on the right road."

"So, Vin's condition could improve as well?" Ezra noted.

"Yes, perhaps... " She waited and then left.

For a few awkward moments, there was silence. Then, Orin moved forward, standing by Buck's side.

"Buck?"

"Jesus," Buck winced, flashing to a picture of a cranky Vin stalking around the office. The drawl was always more pronounced when he was tired or angry. He looked through the glass again, hoping Vin would turn and wink at him wickedly, as he did after pulling one on Ezra. He thought long and hard and then turned back, looking at Chris. The blond's face was totally expressionless and void of feeling. He then turned back to Orin Travis. "I think... I... want him to have every chance. I vote for the serum."

Orin gave the rogue's shoulder a squeeze and turned to Josiah.

"This never gets any easier," he said, thinking on his previous experiences. "There's no right or wrong answer. It troubles me to think of that drug hurting Vin... giving him brain damage. I think I'd like God to decide what road lies ahead for Vin. I'll support whatever decision you make, Chris, but I vote no."

"Ezra?" Orin turned to the gambler, who was now staring at the glass, his body pressed against the wall.

"The odds aren't in your favor, Old Friend," Ezra whispered, eyeing the ghostlike pallor of his friend. "But I'm a betting the house on you to win..." he winked at the sharpshooter's profile and briefly touched his hand to the glass, before turning. "I vote yes."

"J.D.?" Orin moved his gaze to the brooding youth, who was by Buck's head and not making any attempt to look at Vin. He didn't give a reply and Buck turned his face sideways.

"Kid?" Buck read the face "What's wrong? Why can't you look at him? He's your friend too... a damn good one..." Buck's words died in a frightful coughing fit, bringing both Ezra and Josiah to his side.

"Easy there, Big Guy..." Josiah warned, hauling Buck up and putting a towel in front of his mouth.

"Here," Ezra waited until the heaving gulps died down and supported a glass and straw, allowing the infirmed man to drink.

"Thanks," Buck rasped, wiping the tears the onslaught of coughing produced. "Kid? I'm waitin'..."

J.D. clenched his eyes shut and Vin appeared. The Texan was healthy and hooting, skating full force down the ice. The tricky wrist flicked and the puck glided easily in to the net. Then there was the skilled tracker who taught him so much on their desert treks. Vin's eagle eye and steady hand in the loft of a warehouse, keeping them safe. Then Vin in a wheelchair, in a nursing home in a vegatative state. "I vote no." he said dully, slumping in the chair next to Buck and dropping his head. A few seconds went by and he felt a hand on the back of his neck. He didn't have to look up, he knew it was his best friend's. Buck was giving him silent support.

"I vote yes," Orin said and turned to Chris. "Chris?"

Chris let his gaze rest on each of his friend's faces for several long minutes. Then he turned to the glass and studied the specter that was posing as his best friend. He caught Sandy's eyes, as the doctor lifted Vin's lids to check his pupils. Chris nodded his head slightly toward Vin and saw the masked man pause, before nodding back. He took a deep breath and turned back to his friends.

"I know that wasn't easy for any of you and I respect all of you, I want you to know that. Thank you." His voice was barely audible and turned to Buck, whose hand was wobbling woefully. He took the hand and gripped it fiercely. "Buck... I..."

"Quit jawin'..." Buck choked, feeling every bit of the blond's pride in that grip and the admiration shining from his green eyes. "Go on now... Vin's callin'..." he returned the grip, sending his support.

Sandy appeared in the alcove and waited. "How about the rest of you spend a minute with him?"

Josiah, Ezra and Orin immediately entered the room. Buck and Chris exchanged a worried look when J.D. made no move to follow.

"Goddammit J.D.!" Buck lashed out weakly, "Get your ass in there... Vin..."

"Shut up,Buck!" J.D.'s voice was shaking and his eyes were full. "Don't make me..." he ignored Buck and sent his plea to Chris. The wheelchair moved awkwardly until it was beside the troubled youngest member. He felt a hand on his back and raised his moist eyes and saw Chris's support. "I'm sorry, Chris..."

"Don't apologize to me, J.D." Chris answered thoughtfully, "You're entitled to your decision. Just remember, you're the one who has to live with it."

J.D. knew Chris meant more than the decision to visit Vin. He studied the leader's eyes long and hard. "I can't... talk... about it..."

Chris's intense stare caught more than fear in the hazel eyes. Guilt shone freely and his face puzzled. "J.D. you've got nothing to feel guilty about..."

"Don't..." J.D. pressed, feeling the walls closing in.

"Okay, Son," Chris agreed, "But I'm worried about you and we will talk about this..."

Buck remained silent as Sandy came over and moved the wheelchair into the now empty room. He turned to J.D. and caught the emotional profile. He'd never seen the youth in such pain and reached his hand out, taking the tangled black locks off the kid's forehead.

"What's hurtin' you so bad, Son, that you can't tell me?" his voice wavered and J.D swallowed hard, turning to Buck and letting two tears roll down his face.

"I'm sorry... Buck..." he rasped, before bolting from the room.

"J.D... J.D..." Buck called after him, slamming a fist into the pillow. What was the kid ashamed about? There was no mistaking the look of shame on his face. He saw Ezra and Josiah follow, while Orin reappeared with Major Taylor. He turned his aching head to the glass and watched Sandy depart, leaving Chris Larabee alone with his heavy decision.

Chris took three deep breaths, slow and long, calming the tidal ware of emotion cresting in his aching chest. He concentrated solely on the fine features of Vin Tanner. He let his eyes roam over every one, before resting on the long, thin fingers. Skilled hands that could shoot a target with the same accuracy as writing a moving poem. He stared at those hands for awhile, feeling them caress his heart. He pushed the mocking whoosh of the ventilator away and stood up, ignoring the pain lancing up this leg. He moved his trembling hand through the forest of unfeeling plastic vines and sought one thing. There was only one person who could answer the question. He put his hand to Vin's throat and let his fingers rest against the icy cold skin. He pressed the skin hard and then smiled with a familiar ease. The life force that ran rampant under this fingers, pulsating with an attitude, gave him his reply. Once again, Vin had taken the pain away.

"Thank you, Cowboy..." he choked, feeling his eyes fill up. He returned to his chair and turned his face to the door, nodding to the tall, dark-skinned Major on the other side. She opened it a crack, surprised that he beckoned.

"I've made..." he paused and picked up Vin's limp hand, "We've made a decision..."

+ + + + + + +

Orin Travis waited for several minutes before approaching Chris Larabee. The leader of Denver's most decorated ATF team was sitting by Buck Wilmington's bed. His face bore the marks of the physical pain of his injuries, as well as a deeper, more profound tribulation. He glanced at Buck for a moment, glad to see the easy slumber.

"You're your own worst enemy," he said and saw the green eyes flinch. He sighed and pulled up a chair, taking a moment until the blond head rose. "The decision has been made, you need to move on."

Chris heard the words and nodded, but the question lingered. Had it been the right decision? Until those blue eyes looked back at him with clarity, the question would remain tucked away deep inside. It gnawed at his guts, leaving fleeting pains and a heavy weight. He flinched and absentmindedly rubbed his sore shoulder. The pain was so frequent, he'd gotten used to it. Buck began to stir, moving and moaning in his sleep. He cast a glance at the fevered agent and saw the slumber-ridden face twisting and creased in anxiety. He pulled his hand over the rail and gripped Buck's shoulder, giving it a good squeeze.

"It's okay, Buck..."

It took several more minutes, but the tall body settled back into a deep sleep. Chris glanced past Orin into the glass prison. He locked on to Vin's profile and the forced rising of his chest. His eyes stole to the cross again and he sat up straight, before turning to his supervisor.

"I need a favor," he asked, the gears in his mind snapping into place, despite the raging headache.

Orin leaned in and listened as Chris quietly made his request. He nodded, rose and gave the troubled man his hand, gripping it solidly as he left.

Two a.m., Saturday July 7th

Mollie sighed and eyed the clock again, frustrated that her exhausted body wouldn't cooperate and fall asleep. She rose and poured two cups of black coffee, lacing her own with sugar and cream. She quietly made her way from the sleeping area back to the ER.

Chris liked the darkness; he understood it's power and lure, perhaps a little too much. He eased his aching body back into the couch and rubbed his throbbing thigh. The green scrubs that Sandy helped him into, were cut off high on the right thigh, allowing them to change his dressings. His leg was propped up on the table in front on him. Restless and unable to drown the Furies that shrieked in his gut, he began to roam. He found himself unable to go on, his body finally giving in to the pain. So here he sat, at the very far end of the ER in the makeshift visiting area. Gloom was his companion and he embraced it's cold hands. He peeled an eye open as the intoxicating aroma of fresh, strong coffee engulfed him. His hand shot and and took the steaming mug, as his eyes rose to his visitor.

"Don't you ever sleep?" he asked the weary nurse, exhaustion was written on every feature. She slumped on the sofa next to him, and arched a weary eyebrow.

"Sleep?" she tossed back, "With all the racket yer makin' wrestlin' yer demons?"

"They're winning," Chris sighed, sipping the coffee and easing his throbbing head back onto the sofa.

"Don't do this to yerself, Chris," she paused, eyeing the intense face, shadowed by the nightfall.

"It was the right choice..."

"Was it, Mollie?" Chris replied, pulling his gaze from the blackness surrounding him to the light in her eyes.

"He spoke to ye... it was his choice... ye can't doubt that or ye've nothin' left..."

"I don't know Mollie," Chris's voice trailed off and he took another sip of the coffee, before sighing heavily. "Was it the right choice for Vin? Or, was I being a selfish bastard?"

"Selfish?" She drew back, her voice rising sharply, "Yerself? I'm thinkin' they're words that never meet..."

"You don't know me, Mollie," Chris turned and studied her face, "What if what I thought I felt was my own greed?"

"Yer daft!" she placed her half empty cup on the table and saw the grimace of pain on his face. She also noted the hand rubbing his injured leg.

"I can't lose him," Chris said honestly, "Until he opens his eyes and I see him... I won't know if what I felt in there was me holding on out of selfishness."

"Buck told me ye suffered quite a bit before Vin came to ye. He said what ye share was something rare and special. I saw with me own eyes how ye 'speak' to him and I heard his call to ye. That faith, Chris, is what ye heard; it was his voice, don't doubt that. Ye stand by yer call, Chris Larabee, follow yer heart."

Chris finished his coffee and drank in her words. He felt them battle the Furies and the tide of the battle shifted. His mind slipped back in time to when he placed his hand on Vin's throat. The shot ran up his arm like an electrical charge. He heard Vin as clear as day, screaming at him not to quit.

"Quitters never win and winners never quit..."

"Aye," she smiled and rubbed her hand on his arm, before reaching down and resting her hand over his own. "Now yer talkin'! Are ye done spoutin' yer nonsense then? It's not the dew of youth I've got on me side, ye know. I need me beauty sleep..."

"No, you don't," Chris said so seriously, it took the smile right off Mollie's face. He moved his hand over hers and gripped the fingers, before lifting them to his lips and kissing the healing hand. "If there ever was beauty Lady, it's you." He paused and saw the blush settle nicely on her face. "She smiles at the departing Eve and her radiance lights up the heavens. Oh to have the glorious Dawn as my lover and touch the face of God."

"That's beautiful," she choked, moved by both the words and the wistifulness of his voice. "I don't think I know it..." she paused, "Browning? Wordsworth? Keats?"

"Tanner," Chris beamed, smiling softly. "He can paint pictures with words..."

"...and turn on me waterworks," her voice wavered and she blinked back a tear. "Come on Love, it's past yer bedtime." She rose and stood, offering her arm in support. "Can I help?"

"You already have," Chris said, casting a wane smile and letting the tired nurse help him back to bed.

Mary Travis frowned and eyed the red digital numbers glaring at her from the clock on her bedstand.

"Two-thirty?" she croaked and sat up, groping for the phone. She had the received halfway to her ear, when a scary thought made an unwelcomed appearance. "Oh God... Vin... Hello?"

"He's fine," Orin replied to the shaky voice he'd heard. "But we had a close call. He took a seizure after they gave him the serum. The doctor's asked us to discuss how we should proceed."

"You're not giving up on him!"

"No," Orin stated, "But that final decision was Chris's and it was a hard one. Vin needs the serum to survive, but there is a risk that additional doses will cause more seizures... and potential brain damage."

"Oh My God..."

"Which brings me to disturbing you at this ungodly hour..." he paused, "Chris has a favor and I wanted to catch you before your flight in the morning." His daughter-in-law was flying to Maryland to be near Chris, Vin and Buck. He spelled out the request and waited.

"I understand," she whispered, seeing the pain on Chris's face clearly and feeling her heart clench. She wanted to hold him close and chase that fear away. She not only understood his request, but it brought tears to her eyes. She wished everybody could see that side of him, known only to those who took the time to look. "I'll see you around four p.m."

Saturday, July 7, 5 p.m.

She took a deep breath and steeled herself against the vision before her. She gripped Orin's hand tightly and clenched her eyes shut. The mask and gown she wore weren't waterproof and that might be a problem. Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes again, painfully viewing the ashen, stilled body of Vin Tanner. Or was it? How could this gray, waxen likeness be the valiant warrior and gentle spirit that she'd come to care for. The tubes that ran in and out of his body were disturbing, as was the hideous noise the machine attached to a hose leading to his mouth was making. Her gaze flicked briefly to the steadfast figure, dozing by the bed. She ached to hold him, but reserved that for another time. She moved past him and leaned over the bed, kissing her fingers and then placing them on Vin's forehead.

"Hello, Vin," her voice broke and she picked his limp hand up. The icy sensation nearly caused her to drop it.

"It's the blanket," Chris offered, seeing the shock on her face. "...for his fever."

She moved her free hand to stroke Chris's cheek, not able to utter a word. His crooked smile brought new tears.

"Hey Lady..." he murmured, capturing the gloved hand and kissing it. He saw the deep emotion cresting in her eyes and returned it. Orin cleared his throat and nodded, leaving the two to a private visit. Chris stood tentatively, testing his bad leg. The curtains were drawn and he took the liberty of embracing her, inhaling the wonderous, intoxicating scent of her. "God... Mary..."

She let herself fold into him, feeling the muscular chest that had become her haven. She raised her face to his and saw him scowl.

"Damn mask..." he cursed, aching to capture her lips.

She laughed and turned back to the bed, stiffening when she saw Vin.

"Talk to him... touch him... Mollie says it helps..."

"Mollie," She paused, recalling Orin's conversation. "She's the nurse who has been caring for him?"

"She's a helluva lot more than that," Chris said, his voice full. "You had to be here... see how she talks to him... reaches him. She touches him, sings to him... when she leaves, the monitors go nuts."

Mary nodded, recalling all to well when her own mother was in a coma and the effect talking to her had on both the family and the patient. She leaned lower, stroking Vin's face and hair.

"I miss you, Vin. Billy sends his love. He drew some pictures for you and Buck. Wait until you come home and see how good his wrist shot is," she smiled, thinking on how much her blond son thought of the Texan. "He thinks your quite the hockey star..."

"He's young and doesn't know any better," Chris supplied, sitting back down and taking the pressure off his leg.

"Well I see ye have a beautiful lady tendin' to ye..."

Mary turned as the musical voice sauntered through the room. "I'm Mary Travis, Chris told me you've been taking wonderful care of Vin. Thank you..."

"Yer welcome," Mollie nodded, moving in and taking Vin's vital signs. Mary moved Chris's chair to the edge of the bed, giving her more room. She watched in amazement as the nurse never stopped talking the whole time.

"Well?" Chris said, watching her remove the thermometer. Her smile gave him his answer.

"Just over 101... he's down another degree..." The smile reached her eyes. "If he keeps this up, he'll be over his fever soon enough." She turned back to Vin, "Yer keep fightin' Bonny Vin, yer winnin' the battle. Now don't ye be givin' me any lip..." she warned, beginning the task of cleaning his tube. Sure enough, he began to cough and gag, easing only when it was done. The monitor's raced and she began to sing to him, soft and low, while stroking his face.

"Wow..." Mary whispered, moved by the healing force. She then took Chris's hand and placed an object in the palm. She saw his eyes widened and go from the object to her face. He kissed her forehead and squeezed her hand. "Thank you..."

"Major Taylor," She recalled, "said it had to be wrapped in plastic to protect Vin from germs."

"That don't matter," Chris said, standing and limping to Vin's side. He eyed the collection of tubes near Vin's throat and chest and frowned. Then he got an idea and picked up Vin's hand, turning the palm over. "Mollie, do have any more of that tape?"

"Aye," she nodded, finishing with Vin, "What would that be?" she looked at the object carefully wrapped in plastic.

"Vin's soul." Chris replied, taking the medicine pouch that belonged to Lone Wolf's grandfather. It was Vin's most treasured possession and something he turned to when he was troubled or in pain. He believed very strongly in it's power. He taped the plastic protective treasure to Vin's hand. He lifted the hand and rested it on the Texan's fighting heart. He bent over the pale face, touching the side of Vin's neck.

"Hey, Cowboy," Chris directed, once again trying to will the blue eyes to open. "Can you feel it? He's here... look for him, Vin, Lone Wolf is right here... take his hand..."

His world was one of darkness and confusion, a combination of his weak body's fight and the drugs he was given. It was so cold here and he was all alone. Wait... what was that? Voices... someone was near. There was a strong hand on his throat, the warmth caused him to tremble. Then he heard the voice and felt a pain shoot through his chest as something gripped his heart.

"...God... it hurts... wait... it's warm here... it's not s'dark..."

Then he felt something that he'd been missing for nearly ten years. A force so powerful it shook him to the core. The pain and fear were quickly dispelled, as he fell into the strong embrace of his beloved grandfather.

"Yer here... I can feel ya... I miss ya... I'm lost Grandfather... I can't find the light... I can't find m'way home... help me... show me... stay... I need ya..."

Mollie and Mary exchanged a shudder when Chris's face lit up with emotion. Both watched him close his eyes and expel a deep breath, while swallowing hard.

"Look..." Mary gasped, eyeing Vin's face, "What's that?"

"That's Lone Wolf," Chris rasped, taking a cloth and gently wiping the single tear that ran down Vin's cheek. "He's bringing Vin home..."

Sat. July 7th, 6:30 p.m.

"Easy Lad," Mollie crooned, eyeing the anxious face in the bed, "It's not wise to break the hand that's healin' ye..."

"Huh?" Buck blinked free of the nightmare and tried to fight his way through the heavy stupor that engulfed him. He didn't see the caregiver clearly, he didn't have to, he knew whose hand was wiping his face. He recalled the vivid dream where he was wrestling with Jamie. She was standing over Vin's dead body, laughing at him. He'd grabbed her arm and snapped it in half. "Did I do that?" Buck's voice wavered when he saw Mollie rubbing and flexing her arm. "I'm sorry..."

"Ye'll pay fer it to Boyo," She smiled, "I'll make ye sing fer yer supper," she teased and frowned when no smile split the handsome face. She lowered her voice and tilted his face towards her. She saw the unmistakeable signs of guilt and remorse. "I'll have none of that, Buck Wilmington!" she chastized, "I've no time to drag ye from a pity puddle."

"I'm sorry, Mollie," Buck sat up and swayed as a wave of dizziness hit him. A strong arm grabbed him and he detected the distinct scent of CK and knew the owner. "Thanks Ace..."

"Perhaps I should let you fall," Ezra retorted, "and let the tile floor knock some sense into you."

"It was so real," Buck's hand shook as someone handed him a soda. "Vin was dead and she was abusing his body, laughing at me..."

"Vin's fever has fallen, he's accepting the serum," Ezra replied and saw Buck's eyes widen as his head swiveled.

"No shit!"

There it was a beautiful, albeit weak, Wilmington winner, splitting the handsome man's face. Ezra and Mollie exchanged a small grin and watched Buck cover his face with a trembling hand. Ezra rested his own hand on Buck's shoulder and gave a small squeeze.

"I'd suggest you dust off your tonsils if you want to eat some of that savory seafood before it gets too cold," Ezra warned and saw Buck sniffing the air.

"Crabcakes," he muttered and sniffed again. "Caroline's???"

"How on earth would you know that?" Ezra wondered.

"Nobody makes crabcakes like Caroline's," Buck responded, "It's not too far from here..."

"Quite delicious," Ezra agreed, "I'll get you platter."

"Thanks Ez..." Buck nodded watching the southerner leave. "Hey, he doesn't have a mask on..."

"No, now that the serum is working, they're only required to protect Vin while he's on the ventilator."

"How long?" Buck said, turning back and drinking in the beautiful smile.

"A few more days at the very least. We have to wait until he's conscious and he can breathe on his own again."

"I miss him."

Mollie smiled at the wistful expression on Buck's face that matched his voice. The concerned friend was facing the glass wall, staring hard at Vin Tanner's supine form. She brushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes and rested a hand on that handsome face.

"Aye, I'm bettin' the first pint he buys will be fer yerself."

"That's gotta be a crime of some sort," Buck murmured, captivated by the pretty face, "Keeping that beautful face hidden under a mask." He kissed her hand and watched the blush settle on her cheeks.

"Somebody should warn the female population of the East Coast that you're on the road to recovery."

"Mary!" Buck turned back, smiling as the blond woman approached and bent over, kissing his forehead. "Mary, hey... you're here..."

"And to think some people are under the impression that Einstein is dead," Ezra drolled, placing a hefty platter in front of the grinning patient. "Mrs. Travis is quite right, a call should be sounded to lock up the young and unsuspecting female population."

"Shut the hell up, Ezra!" Buck chuckled, "Mary, when did you get here?"

"This afternoon," She answered, feeling a surge of relief at seeing Buck conscious and upright. "It's good to see you, Buck, I've been so worried..."

"Hell, Mary," Buck winked at the pretty blonde, "It's takes more than some damn bacteria to keep Old Buck down. Besides," he sat up and grinned, taking a forkful of the golden crabcake in front of him, "Here I am eating the best seafood on the planet, surrounding by beauties..."

"Thank you," Ezra raised an eyebrow and watched Buck nearly choke on his food.

"I wasn't talking about you, Ace," Buck tossed back and swallowed his food, "So how long before he wakes up?"

"That's a question I can't answer, Love," Mollie replied sympathetically, squeezing Buck's slumping shoulder. "That's up to him, but if yer Chris and his grandfather have their way, he'll be winkin' at ye in two shakes of a lamb's tail."

"Huh?" Buck frowned, "...grandfather..."

"Lone Wolf," Ezra replied, "Mary was kind enough to bring out Vin's medicine pouch."

"Smart as well as beautiful," Buck complimented, reaching for her hand. "That was a great idea, Mary."

"I wish I could take the credit," she answered honestly, "It was Chris's idea after the seizure..."

"That's why he earns the big money," Buck nodded of their boss. "How's he doing?"

"He's being a bit pigheaded," Mollie answered, "He needs to rest, that leg is inflamed again."

"He'll rest!" Mary warned, "If I have to tie him down," she saw Buck smile evilly and swatted his arm. "You men are all alike!"

"I'll drink to that," Mollie agreed, "...and I'll supply the restraints."

"Hell," Buck complained, fanning his face, "Is it getting hot in here, Ez?"

"Decidedly," the gambler replied, smiling at Buck's impish grin.

"If you two simpletons will get your minds out of the gutter," Mary dictated, "I've got something to read to you. Ezra, can you get the others?"

"Certainly," he replied and went to round up Orin, J.D., Josiah and Chris, who were eating in the vistior's area.

Buck watched Mary reach a hand in a large satchel she carried and pull out several pictures. He smiled when he saw the crayon and marker images.

"Looks like Billy's been busy," he remarked and saw Mollie cock her head. "Billy is Mary's little boy, he's six."

"These are for you," Mary handed Buck three pictures and watched his face light up.

"Hey, look at that!" Buck held up the first picture which showed a figure in bed, the crooked mustache identifying him. There were six nurses, very shapely, surrounding the bed. "That boy knows his stuff!"

"He knows you," Mary grinned as Buck picked up the second picture. He was joined in this one by J.D., Chris and Vin. There were dead bodies on the ground beneath them, which was covered in red ink. Then Buck's face became very somber when he saw the third picture. He was sitting on the ground holding Vin. He smiled and traced the image of Vin's long hair in the drawing. He saw a golden ray, like a aura, behind his likeness.

"Damn," Buck choked, seeing the boy's admiration in the photo. Then he saw another figure, way to the side. It was in pieces, mostly legs and arms and a head. "Who the hell is that?" he cocked his head up.

"That's Lennie Hayes," Mary's voice was clipped and her face was pinched. "Billy saw the news conference. I let my anger get the best of me. I was uh... a little upset..."

"I wasn't," Buck's voice grew cold when he recalled the reptilian reporter's lewd comments about Vin Tanner. "I wanted to kill him... I still do..."

"I'll mention that to him," Mary replied.

"What!" Buck sat forward, his face a mask of concern. "Mary, don't..."

"You stay away from him," a new voice warned. "He's trouble..."

"You're not my father and I'm not sixteen, Chris," Mary shot back. "I called Eve Carleton and got the okay from CNN to get a profile on Vin and Buck. It needs to be shown. The world will see the real meaning of the word hero and I want Vin's name cleared."

"Fine," Chris said of the news and Mary's old college roommate that worked for the cable conglomerate. "Just stay the hell away from that lunatic."

"Excuse me?" Mary drew back, "I don't tell you how to take down gunrunners, don't tell me my job." She retaliated, not upset by the hostile green eyes.

"Truce!" Josiah placed himself between the two. "I'll go with Mary,"

"Now hold on a minute!" Mary angered.

"In my official capacity." Josiah concluded.

"What official capacity?" the irate reporter demanded.

"A large and menacing representative of the ATF's finest," Ezra added, "Chris is correct in his description of that loathesome creature. He's been arrested numerous times for assault and since Orin dressed him down publically," he noted of the news conference, "He's been drinking as well and making subtle threats. It would serve no purpose to confront him alone."

"How the hell do you know all that?" Chris's brows furrowed at the southerner, who just raised an eyebrow and lifted his lips slightly. "Sorry I asked..."

"Alright," Mary agreed, "I don't like it, but I guess I'm outnumbered." She put her hand back in the large satchel and drew out more paperwork. She lifted a large, paper circle, with red trim and the word 'Hero' written in crooked blue letters. It was on a red and blue ribbon, which Mary put over Buck's head. "That's from Billy," she paused, bending to kiss his cheek. "...and me..." She smiled at the blush that rode on Buck's face as he fingered the handcrafted item. The others clapped and whistled, giving him cause to grin sheeplishly.

"Thanks," he managed, his chest constricting.

"There's more..." Mary picked up a sheet of paper. "I hope I can get through this... Billy wrote a letter, I told him I'd deliver it." She paused and eyed the careful rows of words that her son had spent so much time printing. "Dear God," she began.

"You got to admire his style," Josiah grinned as Mary continued.

"...my name is Billy Travis and I'm six years old. I live in Denver with my Mom, that's in Colorado down here on earth. I know you're real busy up there, but I got a favor. My friends Buck and Vin are real sick. Mom says that maybe they might be going to heaven. I know you could use them, they're real good at catching bad guys. Vin is real smart and he teaches me lots of stuff. He laughs good and tickles me. He never gets tired teaching me stuff or answering my questions and sometimes I got a lot of them. Buck laughs good too and wrestles me good. He knows a lot about sports and girls."

"His most valuable assets," Ezra added, giving Buck a grin.

"...So I was wondering if you could help the doctor get them better. I know it's not right to ask but I don't want them to... go..." Mary's voice quivered and she took a deep breath. "I'm alright," she answered, feeling Chris grip her free hand hard. "You see, God, I watch the news and there is lots of fighting and wars and killings and people that are sad. So we need Buck and Vin down here... they make smiles and I need... need... damn..." she clenched her eyes shut. "I swore I was going to get through this..." She let Chris take the letter and let her tears fall, joining the ones that Mollie was wiping and Buck as well.

"...They make smiles and I need them. Vin can make rainbows inside me, did you know that? Buck can make me laugh so hard I spit up."

"Another charming asset," Ezra teased, hearing Buck chuckle.

"Do you know my Dad? His name is Stephen Travis," Chris continued, fighting his own wavering voice. "He's an angel up there somewhere. He looks like me but he's real bigger. I love my Dad and miss him everyday. But with Vin and Buck learning me things, keeping me safe and making me laugh, I'm growing better. So if I promise to say extra prayers, be real good and not fight with Andy Knight will you let them stay down here?"

"Andy Knight?" Ezra asked.

"A bully at school Billy was having problems with. Chris talked to him about it," Mary supplied.

"Do you know Santa Claus?" Chris continued, his pride swelling, "I'm mailing him a letter too, but in case it gets lost, could you tell him I don't need nothing for Christmas this year? All I need is Buck and Vin, you could tell him for next year too." Chris paused and swallowed hard, "Damn..." he took a deep breath and finished the moving letter. "Your friend, Billy Travis. P.S. If you see my Dad, tell him me and Mom are doing just fine. We got Chris to keep us safe and I love him a lot." Chris choked and paused to take a steadying breath, "Vin says they don't come any better than Chris Larabee and Vin's always right. When I get scared, Vin tells me 'yer a Travis, Billy,' and that makes my heart get real tight. So you tell Dad, we're okay. Thanks , Billy."

For a moment, nobody moved, other than to wipe away a stray tear or swipe a damp eye. Finally, Buck found his voice again and raised a hand to Mary. Taking the small hand he gripped it firmly.

"I'll tell you what," he said, voice choked with emotion. He fingered the handmade medal on his neck and raised his eyes to meet hers. "that is some son you have produced, Mrs. Stephen Travis."

"Thank you," Mary whispered, using her free hand to grip Chris's shoulder. She knew the letter moved him and his head was down as he reread the letter. Finally he folded it and returned it o her. "I'm saving it to read to Vin..." she placed it back in a large envelope and put it in the bag. She pulled out several more colorful drawings. "I know he can't see them, but..."

"We can tape them on this side of the glass," Mollie suggested, "Facing inward, so when he wakes up, he'll see them. It's a fine thing and Buck's right, that's quite a boy ye have, Mary."

"Thank you," Mary handed the pictures to her and felt the tug on her hand. She bent lower and kissed Chris softly, then let her face rest against him. "I miss you..."

"Yeah," Chris's husky voice stirred her. He eyed the clock which was nearing the hour of seven.

"Why don't you escort Mary to the elevator?" Ezra suggested, realizing they needed a moment alone. "We'll be along in a moment."

While the others watched Buck finish his meal and complimented him on his drawings and medal, Mary and Chris quickly made their way to the deserted end of the ER. Chris stood painfully on the leg that was killing him. He held her close and kissed her hard, swearing as his encumbered shoulder got in the way.

"What's the rush?" Mary pulled back breathlessly, taking time to get a breath before those magical lips captured her again. His tongue ran rampant, scorching her to the core.

"If Mollie catches me on this leg, she'll kill me," Chris supplied, nipping her neck.

"Well now," Mary chuckled, keeping her hands on his hips so his arm didn't hit her. "That is news, somebody who puts the fear of God in Chris Larabee?"

"If she could shoot I'd get Orin to put her on the team," he teased, but his voice held admiration. "She saved Vin's life, Mary. For those first precious hours, when they were scrambling to get a grip on this thing, she was his lifeline. She's good." he concluded.

"She must be," Mary raised an eyebrow at the high tone in his voice. "I'll see you tomorrow, try to get some rest and stay off that leg." She pushed him back in the chair and chastised him when his free hand slid suggestively across her backside. "You'll pay for that!"

"Is that a promise?" Chris grinned as the others joined them.

"Mollie's looking for you and she's not happy," Josiah moved Chris's chair. "You're a brave man, Chris."

"It was nice knowing you," Ezra added, grinning widely as the nurse appeared.

"Did I not tell ye to stay put?"

"I am put!" Chris argued, ducking as the hands took control of the wheelchair.

"Don't ye be turnin' a twisted tongue!" She warned, "I saw standin' with me own eyes. Ye've no sense about ye..."

The others laughed as they got in the elevator, confident that their injured friends were in the right hands.

Part 19

Sunday, July 8th, 11 a.m.

The Strudel Haus was not busy and that was rare for a Sunday morning. Josiah and Ezra entered the Alpine-themed cafe and saw Mary and Orin at a corner table. The room was pleasant and it's decor was reminiscent of a German Country Inn nestled in the Alps. The center of the room had two large steam tables, overladen with food. The Sunday brunch was a bargain at $9.95 and both gentlemen quickly gave their order and sat down. After they filled their plates, they discussed Mary's project.

"What's you game plan?" Josiah asked, his large hands deftly peeling a shrimp and snaring a hefty amount of cocktail sauce.

"That depends on Buck," Mary replied honestly, taking a forkful of the omelet before her filled with mushrooms, red peppers, tomatoes and cheese. "I don't want to push him until he's ready. The Major said she would be glad to speak with me and would ask a Sergant Johnson, Lieutenant Dunkirke and Mollie to give their accounts. I'll decide how much I need after I speak with them. I've done some background in Denver on the initial kidnapping and interviewed the F.B.I. agents involved. I have the footage from the gas station and the video's that Newlander made." She chewed and swallowed the tasty fare and picked up the chilled Mimosa and took sip. "The Major seems to think that Vin will have little recall of the events. According to the records that they recovered from Jamie Newlander, he had a high temperature early on."

"May I make a suggestion?" Ezra asked, handing the waitress his empty plate. The melon and prosciutto went down easy, as did the pile of shrimp. He nodded and the perky server filled his glass with champagne and orange juice.

"Sure," Mary nodded, putting butter on a toasted bagel half.

"Sometimes capturing the moment in reflection is very effective. If you wait until Buck is stronger and he's agreeable, you could go back to the beach. That is the crux of the story; the spot where his gallantry was so effortlessly exhibited."

"Ezra, you missed your calling!" Mary smiled, "Good editors are hard to come by..."

"Hah!" he returned, standing to peruse the offerings.

"It's a good idea," She nodded, "I talk to Buck about it..."

"You're quiet today," Josiah handed the eager waitress his empty plate and took a sip of strong black coffee. He looked over at Orin, who was eating Cinnamon French Toast stuffed with bananas. He pulled the larger plate to the front, which was filled with ham, eggs, sausage and fried potatoes.

"I have a meeting with Flushing this afternoon..."

"That's enough to give you indigestion," Ezra sat down, accompanied by a plate of chicken marsala and wild rice. A potato pancake with fresh apples and sour cream sat on a smaller plate.

"It has to be done," the director replied, and eyed his daughter-in-law, "Would you like to be present? We're going to cover the whole case, from Frank Delassi's murder through Tony Kennedy's trial date. It would give you the A to Z..."

"Where is the vermin?" Ezra speared a piece of chicken and looked up.

"He was tranported to the Federal Pen yesterday," Josiah answered, "I watched them take him away. Buck sure put the suffer on him," he recalled of the marred face and battered body. He saw Ezra's mouth form a grim line and the anger flash in his eyes. "It's all done now, Ezra..."

"I think not," Ezra looked over at the preacher, "It will never be over for Buck and Vin. Even if Vin doesn't remember the details, he'll be forced to confront the wicked repercussions. The public recalls the sinner well, but not the exonerated. Buck's nobility is to be commended, but deep inside, he's suffering. I'm sure that will only grow as Vin struggles to regain his health."

"That's why I'm doing this report," Mary interjected, taking a piece of honeydew, "I want the world to see the whole story. I want them to feel Vin's pain and see what true courage is when the see what Buck did. I want them to forget that bast... Lennie Hayes's words."

"Mary..." Orin warned, seeing her pale eyes flash with anger. "Don't let this get personal."

"Isn't that calling the kettle black," she retaliated, raising an eyebrow. "I heard the venom in your voice when you dressed that son-of-a..." She paused as Josiah smirked.

"You're hanging around Chris too long," Josiah commented on her minced swearing.

"Give a man enough rope and he'll hang himself," Ezra imparted, finishing his pancake.

"That was part of my plan," Mary agreed, "I intend to use that clip against him, supporting it by the previous accountable yellow reports he's done. He won't be able to show his face in Denver."

"If Chris catches up to him, he won't have a face," Josiah remarked, recalling the leader's icy rage when he caught a CNN replay of the press conference.

"That might be an improvement," Mary teased, finishing her strawberries. "What time is the meeting, Orin?"

"One o'clock."

"Damn," she tapped her spoon against the cup, stirring the coffee. "I wanted to spend the afternoon with Chris."

"I don't think he'll notice," Ezra added, "I spoke with Buck this morning and he said Chris had a bad night. His fever spiked back up to 100 and his leg is inflamed. He had a bad bout with nightmares and gave Mollie a good workout. She gave him something to settle his stomach and increased his painkillers. He's not expected to rouse until this evening."

"But still..." Mary pouted, needing to be with the man she cared so deeply for.

"You're right, Mary," Orin countered, "The public needs to see the whole story, the real story. Flushing will be flying home tonight. He's agreed to wait until next weekend to get statements from Chris and Buck. That Major can be very persuasive."

"Alright," Mary nodded, eyeing her watch. "It's after twelve, I'll go back and get my equipment."

"Speak of the devil," Ezra growled, rising as Lennie Hayes approached. "How unfortunate for us that you stumbled from your trash receptacle before the crack of noon," he spat, moving in front of Mary.

"Shouldn't you be out shopping for a new flea collar, Hayes?" Josiah added, not letting the crude reporter upset him. For some reason, the slimeball set Ezra's usually calm exterior into overdrive. He reasoned that was because of a sly Texan named Tanner.

"Nice to see you sober for a change, Sanchez," Lennie retaliated. "Damn shame all those innocent women and children aren't here to have breakfast. Course, them being gooks, they don't really count..." he sneered, seeing Josiah's eyes fill with shame as he relived the horrors of Viet Nam and a questionable raid.

"Get out!" Mary stood, eyes shooting fire, "Before I forget I'm a lady and take away any chance you have of reproducing."

"The bitch with the iron girdle," Lennie laughed, his breath reeking of alchohol. "What's wrong, Lover boy Larabee didn't nail you to the bed last night?"

"Ezra!" Josiah jumped up, as with two well timed punches, the southerner felled the drunken reporter and had him in a choke hold. The diners lost their conversations and were staring aghast at the display. "That's just what he wants... Ezra, snap out of it... Ezra..." Josiah physically removed the irate Standish and pulled him into the empty dining room next to them.

Orin held up his hand to stop the waitress that was attempting to dial the police. He flashed his badge and she put the phone down. He turned to his daughter-in-law whose foot was twitching to kick the stuperous man between his splayed legs.

"Mary..."

"Just once can't you look the other way?"

Orin moved in front of her, picked Hayes up by the scruff of his collar and got him to this feet. He 'escorted' the dazed man outside and into the parking lot. Two motorcycle cops who were stopped at a red light, had seen the brawl through the glass. They approached cautiously and the ATF director filled them in on the events. Hayes, wisely, pressed no charges and staggered off, muttering about getting even. Orin returned to the restaurant, where Josiah paid the bill and Mary was in the alcove, talking to Ezra.

"Are you alright?" Mary asked, seeing the raging face.

"I'd feel better if that reptile's head was separated from the rest of him," Ezra ired.

"Now that's funny," Josiah said, putting the loose bills in his wallet, "'cause it didn't look like his head you wanted to separate."

"That is something not discussed with a lady present," the southerner replied, smoothing his ruffled chestnut locks. He gratefully took the glass of water Orin offered.

"That's okay, Ezra," Mary whispered for his ears only, "I wanted to crack his nuts too!"

"You okay, Ezra?" Josiah asked, seeing the red-faced conman sputtering and coughing up small slivers of ice. "You're gonna get spit on your fancy shirt."

"I think I need some air," he managed, seeing the small smile Mary wore, "You My Dear, are quite a woman."

"Thank You, Sir," Mary kissed his cheek, "and I mean that, Ezra," she said softly, tucking her arm in his and enjoying him blush.

Sunday, July 8th, 2 p.m.

"You should have seen her, Buck, she was spittin' nails!" Josiah commented, filling the rogue in on the morning's activities.

"Yeah?" Buck sat up, wearing a satisfied smile.

"If given the proper tools, she would have attempted to eviscerate him," Ezra supplied.

"E what?" J.D. asked.

"Eviscerate," Josiah replied, "What they did to Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart."

"Oh..."

Buck was so started to hear the youth's voice he spun in the bed and the room flew around. J.D. arrived alone after lunch, stating that he'd skipped the breakfast meeting to sleep in. He looked better, although the disquietness in his hazel eyes told Buck different. He still wouldn't look at Vin, skirting the glass walls and keeping his back to them. Buck tried talking to him, but J.D. got upset, so he pulled back. He winced as the dizziness returned and closed his eyes. He felt the large hand on this shoulder and nodded. "I'm okay, Josiah. The Major said even though my fever broke, this damn infection did a job on me. She said it will be a couple weeks until I'm better. Like a superflu in overdrive."

"I think I'm gonna take a walk," J.D. announced, rising from the chair he'd been glued to for two hours. He wanted to talk to Buck, but for some reason, the atmosphere at the hospital made him lightheaded.

"Leave?" Buck's voice rose and his weak body attempted to follow. "You just got here..."

"I need some air, Buck," J.D. replied, but the concerned look on his best friend's stricken face halted him in his tracks. "I'm okay, it's just too closed off in here."

For a few minutes, there was an uncomfortable silence as they watched the youth head for the exit. Buck settled back into the bed, the dizziness wreaking havoc on his stomach.

"What the hell's wrong with him?" Buck fretted, trying to control the nausea within, "Why won't he talk to me? Hell, he ain't looked at Vin yet..."

"He's in pain, Buck," Josiah tried to placate the irritated man.

"Is that right?" Buck tossed back derisively. "You must be a genius, Josiah."

"Enough! Christ, Buck, my head's splitting wide open and I don't need your sarcasm."

All three heads turned to face the bed opposite Buck where Chris Larabee slept. Since Buck's fever broke, the leader's bed was moved across from him. All three patients were now close together.

"Sorry," Buck winced. Chris looked awful. His fever gave him a flush of color and his eyes were rimmed red with pain. The constant wincing was due to every moment on his inflamed thigh. Buck eyed the clock and did the mental math. Mollie was due at two with his pain killers. The nurse was still tending to Vin. Since the Texan's fever was now down to normal, the medical staff was testing his responses to pain. His limbs twitched in proper response when the nailbeds under his fingers and toes were tested. They were pleased with that as well as his improved breathing. Although the ventilator remained hooked up, the whooshing was gone. Vin was breathing oxygen from the tube on his own. His blood gases were good and his CT scan negative. He was making great progess. But Chris's relapse took him from Vin's side and that made him angry. Buck saw Josiah and Ezra both move in unison when the blond sat up and attempted to get out of bed. "Chris, you better stay put."

"Mind your own business...." Chris growled, "Get the fuck away from me Ezra or I'll eviscerate you."

"Indeed, a one-armed eviscerating machine," the southerner placed both hands on the struggling man's shoulders and forced him back. Josiah had gone to get Mollie, who reappeared in full fury.

"Ye better get that skinny arse back into the bed, Chris Larabee," she warned, shoving him hard. "Do ye not see these shadows I'm wearin' today? Did ye think that was a new fashion trend? The undead look?" She paused and saw him study her. She drew out a syringe and vial and quickly filled it, putting it in his IV line.

"What's that?" Chris stammered, "I don't need anymore Goddamn sleep..."

"Well, I do!" She hollered, green eyes blazing. "Who do ye think was cleanin' up all the orifices that ye were leakin' so nicely all night and all morning?" She waited for the flush on his face to increase and continued, "I've not slept in two days and have a nap planned fer this afternoon. I swear on me sainted mother's grave, if ye step one toe from that bed, I'll tie ye down meself," she paused, narrowing her angry eyes ."...and order an enema as well."

"You wouldn't have the bal..." Chris jerked.

"Wouldn't I?" She raised an eyebrow, "Try me!"

Finally the standoff ended as Chris slumped back onto his wall of pillows. His scowl remained and she waited, then bent over him. "He's doing much better. His temperture's down, he's responding to pain stimulation and..." she waited, watching the handsome face turn towards her, hope resting in his eyes. "He's breathing on his own, through the vent."

"Goddammit Tanner!" Chris exuded, his face splitting into a smile.

"If ye behave, ye take a good sleep and eat yer supper, ye can spend time with him this evenin'." She offered her hand. "Do we have a deal or do I get me widest rubber hose?"

"I'm glad you're on our side," Chris managed, shaking the hand and watching Mollie leave. He glowered openly at Josiah and Ezra, then heard the muffled laughter from across the floor. "Shut up, Buck!"

"I'd give half my salary to have that on film," the rogue gloated. "You should have seen your face! Skinny ass, leakin' holes, rubber hose threats. Did she put you in your place."

"It does paint a pretty picture," Josiah agreed, "'course it could have been worse. She could have called called you a 'fat arse', now that hurts."

Buck's laughter surrounded him as he dozed off, his eyes glued to his best friend's profile through the glass. Now when the chest rose and fell, his own did as well. Vin was breathing, he was fighting back.

"He's a Tanner," Chris yawned, as his heavy eyes closed.

July 8th, 9:07 p.m.

"I hope my life insurance policy is up to date," Buck whispered through his mask. "'cause Mollie's gonna roast my balls if she catches me in here."

"I heard Tyrone tell Sandy she'd be back at nine-thirty." Chris replied, his hand gripped in Vin's limp one. His eyes hadn't left the stricken man's face in the two hours he'd been sitting by Vin. As soon as Sandy departed to call his wife at nine p.m, Chris gave Buck the high sign. The rogue managed to stagger to the outer room and get gloves and a mask on and hobble inside. Now his stomach lurched even more. Looking at Vin close up was the hardest thing he'd ever done. His hand wavered for several seconds. His eyes painfully took in the ravages of the illness. "Jesus he looks frail. I'd never think of Vin as frail." He winced painfully at the thin arms and gaunt face. He didn't need to peek under the blanket to know the ribs were showing. "Boy's gonna have some serious fattenin' up to do..."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, "Talk to him, Buck, touch him... Mollie says he needs to feel we're here."

He paused, watching Buck's face fill with emotion and his eyes threaten to spill. Twice the hand came out and wavered. "Vin," Chris leaned over and spoke loudly. "Buck's here, he's out of bed and doing good."

"Hey, Slick," Buck croaked, wincing at his unrecognizable voice. He snaked a hand through the maze of tubes and found a spot next to Vin's neck. He kept his hand there, rubbing the bony collarbone and patting the stilled shoulder. "I sure miss seein' them baby blues of yours. Mary brought some pictures from Billy. Wait until you see them, he's got one where you're holding the Stanley Cup," Buck heard Chris chuckle and eye the drawing of Vin holding the NHL prize hockey trophy.

Chris's pleasant visit was interrupted by his raging headache. The concussion syndrome was powerful and stuck without warning. He dropped Vin's hand and grabbed his head, causing Buck to react as well. "Chris! Chris! Shit, I'll get help."

"No, I'm okay," Chris hissed, pressing his eyes shut.

"Chris! Jesus God...Chris!"

"Buck I said I was okay," the leader's voice was pinched at the upset rogue's call.

"No... no... look..." Buck smacked Chris's leg and the blond growled, but then snapped his head and shot out of the chair. Vin's eyes were wide open, staring at the ceiling.

Vin's hopes were sagging and his spirit falling. The darkness had no sense of time or place. He was tired of plodding through the murky kingdom. The voices were comforting, the new one was kind and filled him with warmth. He wanted to embrace it and drink it up. The hard voice still was his mainstay. When the hard voice was gone, he was full of fear. Then, suddenly, the hard voice changed and it scared him. Now the darkness was gone... a blurry light was in front of him.

"VIN!" Chris screamed, bending over the bed. "Buck, get somebody," he tossed back as the wavering body made its way to the door. "Vin... Vin... can you hear me?" Chris asked, watching the disinterested face below him. Vin never moved, never blinked or reacted. His pale eyes remained trained on the ceiling. The words 'brain damage' entered the room uninvited. Frantically, he waved his free hand in front of the all too wide eyes and hoped. There it was, he sighed and gripped the limp hand. Vin never moved a muscle, but his eyes did. They began to follow Chris as he moved from side to side, testing them. "That's it, Vin, You can see me!" Chris moved far beyond Vin's head and watched the eyes roll up as high as they could. He moved back and the eyes followed him. "He's awake!" Chris announced as a trio of bodies filled the room. The new arrivals began talking at once and flipping out instruments. Chris was forced backwards, due to their arrival and his leg giving out. The reaction from his best friend was instantaneous.

"Mr. Tanner, Can you hear me?" Kendra asked, "How's his reactions?" she inquired as Sandy began to press a pen under his nailbed. Vin's limbs twitched, but his eyes began to roam, and fear filled them.

He didn't know if this new place was better at all. Strange faces surrounded him, covered in cloth and masks. Commands were issued harshly and he felt pain as they pricked his toes and fingers. His eyes roamed, seeking the other one. The one with the blond hair... the one with burning eyes. The eyes that he needed. His heart began to hammer. Where did he go?

"Stop that!" Chris issued, spotting Vin's frightened eyes. Although his head had yet to move an inch, the eyes were very much alive and full of fear. "You're scaring him." He stood and hissed as his leg roared and agony filled him. He hobbled over, shoving Tyrone aside. "Move! Vin... Vin... calm down. You've been real sick, but you're gonna be fine. This is a hospital."

"No," Kendra whispered as Sandy attempted to intervene "Let him go... look..." she pointed to Vin's eyes, now relaxed and trained on Chris Larabee's face. His monitors reacted to, instantely leveling off.

"Vin, can you hear me?" Chris asked, still fearing brain damage. He felt something brush his leg and looked down to see Vin's hand move. "Okay, Vin," he leaned closer, so the younger man could hear him. "If you understand me, tap your finger once." He took his gaze away long enough to look and sure enough the thin finger came up once and tapped the bed. This tiny moment elicited cheers and caused Vin's eyes to flinch. "Okay, Vin, are you in pain?" he shifted and the finger raised again and lowered. "Your head?" The finger came down once. "Your chest?" The finger came down several times.

"That's because your lungs are weak," Kendra addresed him, "That will go away as you get stronger."

The questions continued for a few minutes, until Vin's eyes began to slide. Chris didn't hesitate and gripped the limp hand tight, lowering his body. "Vin, look at me," he directed and the heavy eyes fought to stay open. "Do you know who I am?" He felt the hand move and left it go, holding it by the wrist against him.

"I don't know yer name... I don't..." Vin paused, wanting the hand holding him to stay. "...but I know who ye are... I know... yer right here..." Vin offered with all his heart.

Chris felt his eyes fill and made no attempt to stop the moisture. One finger moved across his chest to where his heart was and tapped several times. He locked onto the hope in those blue eyes shining up at him and smiled.

"You bet your ass, Cowboy," he choked, as the blissful look faded and the eyes closed. He gripped that hand until Sandy gently caught him as he swayed. He didn't remember passing out, but then with a concussion, that was expected. Later in the still of the night, he lay awake; his gaze trained on Vin's sleeping body. He held onto those trusting blue eyes and the awesome feeling that filled him as Vin reached out and touched home.

Monday, 8 a.m.

"Good Morning," Kendra greeted two of her patients. Chris was at Buck's bedside, waiting for the wheezing agent to finish his breakfast. Buck coughed a great deal during the night and had Mollie a little worried. He managed to croak to Mollie that he was fine, but the senior doctor wanted to check him anyway.

"I hear you had a rough night," she asked, reading his chart.

"I'm okay," Buck managed, finishing his orange juice. "Mollie get her Irish up?"

"Not often," The Major answered, telling both men how concerned the nurse was for Wilmington. "Your temp is okay." She felt around his glands and he winced slightly. "Your glands are still tender, but that's to be expected. Open up..." She peered into his throat and then listened to his chest. "I'm gonna start you on something stronger to help break up that congestion, but it's gonna keep you snoozing, it's strong."

"Not yet," Buck protested, wheezing through a weak smile, "I didn't have my bath."

"Funny, that didn't cause Mollie to lose any sleep," the doctor commented dryly, giving Chris a smile. "How's the headache? dizziness?"

"Comes and goes," Chris replied, "I slept pretty good, my leg's a little stiff but not quite as sore."

"Good, you continue to stay off of it and that will improve. Just remember you still have a concussion. I've got good news, we're going to attempt to take Vin off the ventilator this morning."

"That's great!" Buck exclaimed, accenting his excitment with a burst of coughing. "Is that what that new bed is for?" He motioned to the bed, bedstand, oxygen and empty IV pole. He saw the Major nod and coughed again, giving his friend cause to move.

"Damn Buck," Chris wrinkled his nose in distaste.

"Sorry," Buck glanced over at his friend, "You watch your commentary or I'll cough on your food."

"When do we do this?" Chris asked the doctor.

"We?" She peered down at him.

"We," Chris replied and waited a long moment for her to nod.

"Alright, let's get you in a mask and gloves." She nodded to Mollie who was approaching. "I've written new orders for Wilmington." She handed the chart over to the pretty nurse. "When you're done, we'll be waiting."

"I won't be long," Mollie answered, sitting on the edge of Buck's bed. The tall man's bed was raised up a bit and he was reclining on the pillows, his eyes closed. "Top of the mornin' to ye, Love..."

"Is that you Mollie?" Buck's voice was suspiciously frail. Chris just stood up and was gripping the rail with his free hand. He turned and narrowed his eyes in doubt. Two dark blue slits appeared in Buck's face and his hand reached out, wobbling woefully. "I can barely make you out..."

"Nice try, Stud, but she's a pro," Chris commented on a familiar Wilmington sympathy move.

"Excuse me?" Mollie's mock-indignant tone and raised eyebrow caused Chris to raise his own eyebrow.

"I didn't mean that kind of 'pro'," he denied, "I meant skilled and intelligent, not the wide-eyed wannabe's that Buck usually plies his best moves on.""Thanks, Chris," Buck grimaced, "I was reelin' her in... "

"Well that confirms me suspicions that ye've nothin' but hair under yer hat," Mollie swatted the rogue's leg and returned his winning smile.

"...and what do you mean 'wide-eyed wannabe's'?" Buck demanded of a grinning Chris Larabee.

"I'm a veteran of the trenches, Bucko," Chris said, using Frank's nickname, which gave his friend a warm smile. "I've seen most of them, wannabe's is being kind."

"Fu..." Buck started and saw Chris's bemused expression as Mollie bit back a grin.

"Ye were sayin'?" she cut him off with a paper cup with the new meds. "There now, that keep yer lovely eyes busy fer the rest of the mornin'."

"Jesus!" Buck spat out his tongue, trying to rid himself of the bitter aftertaste. "Is that what you Army folks do with leftover rat poison?"

"Ye watch yer mouth, Buck Wilmington, I still have me wide rubber hose," Mollie warned, patting the side of his thigh. She handed him a small container of apple juice and watched his face change.

Chris laughed outloud at Buck's blanched expression as he pressed his butt deeper into the bed. The suddenly silent agent pulled the sheet up to his chin and Chris ducked his head again, his face wearing an easy smile.

"...and I'm thinkin' it could do with a bit o' stretchin'..." Mollie teased and helped Chris steady himself. She saw that smile appear again and wished he'd use it more, it suited the handsome face.

"Mollie, you ever think about putting in for a transfer?" Chris asked, winking at Buck over his shoulder.

"Hold it a minute Mollie," the Major requested as she approached the trio. "I want to speak with both Buck and Chris." She met them at the foot of Wilmington's bed. "I just want to remind you of a few things concerning Vin. This infection nearly killed him and he fought it off with everything he had. He's going to be very weak for some time, and most likely will sleep for the next few days. The ventilator causes friction inside, that will leave his throat raw and sore. Even if he were strong enough to speak, it's doubtful if he would be able to. Also, between the sustained high fever, coma, seizure and the medication taken to combat the seizure, he's likely to be very confused. So don't be alarmed if he doesn't recognize you at first."

"That's temporary, right?" Buck asked.

"It should be," she nodded, "but until he's able to speak and we can assess him, we won't know if there was brain damage. I'm confident he'll be fine," she directed at Chris, whose face paled. "but I had to warn you. The first thing we'll do, when we go inside, is to check for a 'cuff leak'. There is an inflated area near the end of the endo tube that seals off the space between the trachea and the tube. This is the cuff. We'll deflate it and listen for air. If we hear air we know there is no cuff leak and it's safe to extubate. If there is no air moving through that space, the trachea is swollen and we can't remove the tube. The reason I'm telling you this is that it might be a little frightening for both you and him."

"I understand," Chris nodded, "What about that other tube, the one in his nose?"

"Not yet," she shook her head, "He's not able to take in clear fluids yet. We'll try tomorrow afternoon or evening, if he's able. He'll go on oxygen and just a single IV line. I'm going to keep the heart monitor on until he's conscious and stronger. Are you ready?"

"Yeah..." Chris turned back and gave Buck's leg a tap.

Buck gave him the thumbs up and watched Mollie put a gown on Chris and a glove on his free hand. He then turned his eyes to the glass and held his own hand out.

"It'll be good to have you back in the fold, Tanner." He watched the Major bend over Vin and tap his face. He saw Vin's eyes open with the same wide-eyed stare he'd seen the night before.

"Vin? Vin?" Kendra asked the blank face, tapping the pale cheek. "I'm Major Taylor and I'm going to remove that tube from your throat."

Vin eyed the white room again and the strange face looked down at him. He took his gaze from the dark face and around the empty room. What was this place? He heard the voice but the words didn't register. He drew his brows together when the hand cupped his chin and held his gaze. The words got louder and his heart began to hammer. Another face appeared, his limbs wouldn't move and something was crawling on his body.

"...No... no... no... get away... yer hurtin me... who the hell are ya... get the fuck away... Oh God..."

"Calm down!" Kendra saw the eyes darting frantically and monitor going crazy. "Nobody is going to hurt you. Vin, look at me... Vin..."

"Just when I was gettin' used to talkin' to the backs of yer lids," she smiled at the open soulful eyes. "What's all this then?" Mollie said calmly, moving to his side and brushing the hair off his forehead. "Don't ye be usin' that language in here, Vin Tanner. Did I not tell ye before about yer temper. Ye quit yer shoutin', Bonny Blue Eyes..."

Chris had seen Vin's terrified look and the Major recognized the need. She moved aside and let Mollie and Chris flank Vin near the bed. Chris let the skilled nurse take the lead and watched the metamorphosis. From the moment her voice surrounded him and her hand touched him, the change was startling. His eyes widened in emotion and filled with moisture. The heart monitor settled down and Chris saw Vin's hand, then arm move slowly. The wobbly, thin fingers touched her face as tears slid down his cheeks. Chris swallowed the lump in his throat.

"Angel... Angel... Angel... Angel... Angel... yer real... Oh God... yer here... yer real... help me... I don't understand... I can't believe yer here... Angel... I feel yer touch... Oh God... Thank You... Thank You..."

"Aye, Lad," she nodded at emotive eyes, which were a glorious shade of blue. She rested her hand on his wet cheek and used a piece of gauze to wipe the tears away. The tube in his mouth didn't stop his eloquent silent call. She heard him quite clearly. "Yer welcome, Sweet Vin... and yer safe. Did I not tell ye I'd take care of ye? Yer in a hospital and we're all here to help ye. This is the doctor, she's going to take that tube from yer throat. It's gonna be a wee bit frightnin' fer a minute or two, but I'm here and so is yer Chris."

"Hey Cowboy," Chris greeted warmly, taking Vin's other hand and giving it a good tug. Vin didn't appear to hear him, his eyes were still trained on Mollie. He gripped the hand tighter, recalling the Major's words and realizing how confused his best friend must be.

"All right then, Vin, I'll be right here," Mollie moved away and saw the eyes grow frantic as the Major moved in, then once he realized he could still see her, he calmed down.

"Okay, Vin, I'm going to take the tape off now," Kendra kept her voice low and even and kept an eye on his monitor, which was a little jumpy. She gently removed the tape and waited, "There now, that wasn't so bad. Now I need you to listen carefully. I want you to take a deep breath, as deep as you can. Then you wait for me to say "EXHALE" and then I'll take the tube out. Okay?" She moved her dark eyes to his hand, watching his finger tap the sheet once. "Good, now take a deep breath." She waited and saw his chest rise and moved into place. "EXHALE!" She pulled the tube out and turned him, letting Mollie move to suction him.

"What's wrong?" Chris asked, as Vin coughed and his body jerked. The gagging sound had him alarmed, so did the frantic blue Tanner eyes. "Take it easy, Vin..." he gripped the hand harder and eyed the doctor.

"That's normal, Mollie's going to remove the excess by suctioning his mouth."

"There now," Mollie cooed, finishing her task as her patient sank back weakly against the bed. "I know that's nasty, but it's done and ye did fine. Easy Lad..." she wiped his sweaty face with a damp cloth and saw the eyes peel open again. She rubbed some balm on his cracked lips and watched him close his eyes in comfort. "Aye, I bet that feels good. We're going to move ye to a new bed and put some oxygen on ye. Then I'll give ye some ice chips, won't that be lovely?" She saw the eyes blink and smiled. "I'll be seein' ye in a wee minute."

With a silent protest, Chris moved out of the room, as Sandy and the Major moved Vin's gurney out of the isolation chamber. With well practiced moves, they settled him in his new bed. The single IV remained in his arm, quickly hooked up to the new pole.

"Fifty percent oxygen by facemask," Kendra directed, pulling the rail up and letting Mollie ease the facemask on the anxious patient.

"Can I give him water?" Chris asked, nodding his thanks to Sandy for moving a chair as close to Vin's side as was physically possible. He settled into the chair and instantely latched onto Vin's hand, which was dangling out of the rail.

"No, not until later this afternoon, when we're sure he won't need to be put back on the ventilator. " Sandy answered, "A couple hours, Chris, then you get some rest." He saw the blond head dip and left with the Major.

"I'll get some ice, ye can give him ice chips." Mollie turned to Vin and lowered her face, smiling as his eyes perked up. "I'll be right back, in the meantime ye can visit with yer Chris. Best foot forward, now, I warned ye about yer manners." She moved out of his line of vision, but kept close enough to watch. It was time to pull back and let nature take over. He needed to find his way back to home. The brows creased and the blue eyes narrowed as a space replaced the line of vision where she had been standing. She stole a look at Chris Larabee, who was patiently waiting for Vin to find him. "Yer a smart Lad," she thought to herself, knowing how worried he was but realizing he couldn't push Vin or force him. The hands remained locked in place and slowly the head turned. For a second, they stared at each other, then Chris leaned closer and Vin cocked his head. His eyes narrowed as he studied the face before him.

"Hey Vin, It sure is good to see you looking back at me." Chris said evenly, although his heart was pounding. The hand was so thin, every finger a fragile reminder of the horrid ordeal and weight loss. He saw Vin flinch and realized how delicate the frail hand was. "Sorry." He eased his grip and sighed. What was that blank look? Temporary confusion or brain damage? He shifted in the chair, trying to think of something to say. "Jesus, Mollie can't stop talkin' and I can't start." He shifted again and watched the eyes following him. He noticed that Vin's hand relaxed and the monitor was even. Mollie slid by, putting a large cup of ice on the bedstand and held out a spoon.

"Can ye manage?" she asked Chris, who nodded and slipped his hand free. "Just slip the mask up, give him a spoonful and then put it back. Just a wee bit of ice, now, don't overdo." Mollie positioned the cup securely between the bedside and rail. She popped the lid, making it easy for the one-armed man to care for his friend. She saw Vin's head moving, following her every motion. She leaned over and smiled, stroking his face. "It's a long night I had and I need a wee nap. Yer in good hands with yer Chris. Ye keep a civil tongue!" She teased and moved away.

Chris frowned as Vin's face deflated. His head craned weakly until he couldn't see her anymore. He hesitated a moment, then he tapped Vin's leg. The head slowly turned, the same blank face staring at him.

"How about some ice?" Chris asked and saw Vin nod once. "Okay, I'm gonna just move your mask for a second, I won't hurt you." His own hand trembled as Vin's eyes almost appeared wounded. Did that last phrase ring a bell? He slid the mask up and then scooped out some ice. The bed was raised at a perfect angle and he waited, the spoon hovering nearby. "There you go," he eased, screwing his mouth up when some of the ice slid down Vin's chin. "You're still a sloppy drinker, Cowboy. Can't take you anywhere." He caught the fleeing chips and slid them between the parted lips. Vin's eyes shut and a weak moan of pleasure escaped his colorless lips. Small wonder, going all this time with a dry mouth. "Nectar of the gods, huh?" he asked.

"...damn m'chest hurts... why's m'heart hammerin'... Angel... damn... I'm shakin' all over... ice... hell yeah..." Vin nodded and watched the blond man carefully. Every time he looked at those green eyes, he felt such a warm tide rise, it engulfed him, taking his breath. He felt... felt... safe... that was it. "...God that's good... damn ice never tasted like this... " he closed his eyes as the remnants dribbled out of his mouth. He didn't care, it was wonderful sucking on the few he'd captured. The blond was talking again. "...cowboy?... cowboy?..." Suddenly Mollie's words slammed into his skull, causing the eyes to jerk wide open. "...yer Chris... yer Chris.." that's what she'd called him. "...my Chris?... my... my... Chris!" Suddenly the strong blond man with the intense green eyes was more than a name. Every memory crashed back and his chin wavered, he raised his hand, his eyes wide in joyful sanction. He moved his lips under the mask as his shaking hand sought what he needed to feel.

Chris smiled broadly as the hand touched his face and the lips parted under the clear plastic mask. The brief cloud of condensation didn't cover the one word that silently was formed on the pale lips. "It's about damn time, Tanner," he growled, then grinned like a fool. The silent call of his name was never so eloquent. He settled back in the chair, keeping his hand locked in his best friend's. His fears were resolved and he saw the blue eyes filling up again. They fought to stay open and he frowned. "Get some shuteye, Vin," he ordered, as the eyes continued to fight. He felt the weak hand try to grip him better. "I'll be right here, Cowboy, you got my word."

"...damn that feels good..." Vin sighed as he surrendered.

The exhale was barely audible, but to Chris Larabee it sounded like an orchestra. Vin was totally relaxed; resting contentedly, safe in green harbor.

Monday 2 p.m.

Fresh from her nap, with a hot shower and clean clothes to her credit, Mollie headed back to the ER to check on her trio of patients. She saw from a distance that they were all in various stages of sleep. Vin, of course, was under deep; Chris was just rousing, stiffly moving his injured limbs around the tangle of sheets; Buck was standing, doubled over slightly, coughing into a large paper towel. He deposited it into a trash can and was cleaning his hands with a premoistened antibacterial towlette, when she approached. She studied the handsome profile and felt herself warm inside. Before she knew it, that silly smile was on her face.

"Careful, Lass," she warned herself, calming down the butterflies that hovered in her stomach.

"Hey, I'm ready for my bath," Buck wheezed, wiggling his eyebrows and giving cause for Chris to groan loudly.

"Your animal magnetism is gonna put me back in the ICU," Chris muttered, letting Mollie steady him on the side of the bed. He took the cold bottle of ice tea she offered and took a healthy swig.

"Thanks..."

"Yer welcome," she eyed him carefully, he looked much better. "See how nice you do up when ye behave. Ye look nearly human," she decided, "I'll check on yer two mates and they we'll see about gettin' rid of that lovely smell ye've picked up."

Chris took two sniffs and managed half-a-smile, "Guess I am a bit ripe..."

"Hey... Hey... How 'bout them hands of gold giving the old Buckmeister a good scrub." Buck pleaded his case as the pretty nurse met him halfway and locked her arm in his.

"Is that what that smell is?" she wrinkled her nose in distaste "...animal magnetism is it? Nothin' that a nice hot shower won't cure. Yer mates should be here soon and bring ye proper clothes."

"Now hold on!" Buck protested, disolving into a fit of coughs. Chris raised his ice tea bottle in a mock salute, grinning lewdly, which only made Buck more fiesty. "How come he gets you and I don't?"

"Comes with the title," Chris comforted as he gingerly made his way to Vin's side. He noticed the oxygen mask was replaced by a nose cannula.

"Now, don't tell me I was wrong about that big heart of yers and those dancin' eyes." Mollie cocked her head and watched his smile form. "Surely, ye've a wee bit of compassion fer the poor Lad, him with only one arm and a bum leg. Don't ye be fergettin' his concussion."

"Shut up, Chris!" Buck laughed as the blond eased himself into a chair, sat his bottle of tea on the side and lifted his lips just a enough to grate on the large man. Buck's smile increased when his loud voice brought Vin's eyes open. He looked awful. He was a ghastly shade between gray and pale; his lips were even colorless. He'd lost weight and the hair pulled back into a knot behind him made him seem much younger and ever more gaunt.

"Hey Slick!" Buck boomed, striding to the side of the bed, "Damn it's good to see them baby blues of yours." The smile disappeared from his face when Vin's eyes went wide with suspicion, with just a hint of fear reflecting back at him. His stomach fell when Vin pulled back from his approach, trying to force his frail body further into the bed. He slid sideways, closer to Chris and his hands gripped the sheets tightly.

"Take it easy, Vin, it's just Buck." Chris addressed the startled younger man's apprehension. "Buck Wilmington. You remember Buck, he's a friend, a good one. Vin?"

Vin stared hard at the mustached face hovering near the side of the bed. Buck? Slick? Friend? Chris wouldn't lie... he studied the face harder, but his heart hammered loudly, sounding out an alarm. A silent voice whispered in his ear, of blame and guilt. Another face appeared, a young man with dark hair and hazel eyes. A black man in a pool of blood. The voice came back, sneering of this dark-haired man's contempt. He shook his head, trying to dispell the seeds of culpability, planted by the villianess weeks before.

"Vin?" Buck's voice nearly disappeared and when Vin shrank back, there was no mistaking the body language. "Fuck..." he whispered, brushing past Mollie and down to the far side of the room.

"Buck!" Chris called, "Come back here... dammit... Buck..." Chris stood, trying to will his body to split in half.

"I'll go," Mollie offered, nodding to Vin. "Yer the one he needs to hear."

"Vin, look at me!" Chris directed sharply. The weak body rolled sideways, curling up into a fit of coughing. "Shit!" Chris moved forward, using his single arm awkwardly. He managed to snake it under Vin's arm and pull him upright. "Sit up, you'll choke. Spit that shit out..." He left go of the wavering body long enough to get a tissue under Vin's mouth. Once the phlegm was disposed of, he gave Vin a heaping spoon of ice chips. Vin turned his body back and rested against the bed. The head turned at stared at him curiously. As soon as Buck left, the hands lost their death grip on the sheets and the body relaxed. The eyes lost their will to remain open, slowly sliding shut as the last bit of ice was consumed.

"Buck's a good man, Vin, he's a close friend. You can trust him, Vin," Chris said gently, watching the last shard of blue eyes regarding him before they lost their battle. Chris slumped back in the chair and took a long swig of his ice tea. He wiped the excess from his upper lip, keeping his eyes on the ailing body. Something inside made him believe Vin heard him. The background info on Jamie that Mary dug up came back to haunt him. The drugs she used on Vin were linked to preconceived ideas; sick thoughts planted into the pliable drugged mind. Would Vin's nightmare ever be over?

"Fuckin bitch!" he hissed, gripping his fist and eyeing Vin's face, still troubled in his sleep.

When Mollie caught up to Buck, he was outside on the patio. Once the infection was determined to be bacterical and spread by direct contact, the ban was lifted. The small patio was outside the end of the large floor. It had a scattering of chairs and tables, the large trees gave it a restful look. He was slumped on a bench under on of the trees. The handsome face was open and easily read. He was leaning forward, his elbows resting near his knees. His hands trembled slightly and his eyes were so wounded, they were painful to look at. She thought on her actions and sat down, taking one hand in both of hers and holding on. For several minutes, they sat like that, until he finally spoke.

"I did that to him, Mollie."

She winced at the pain in his voice and saw it reflected so clearly in his eyes. She moved one hand upwards, brushing the dark hair from his forehead. "No, ye didn't. The Major told ye about the medicine and the coma and the aftereffects of this..."

"No... no... not that..." Buck sighed, biting his lower lip, "I know he's confused, he'll get over that. You saw his face, he damn near tried to burrow in the bed when I..." Buck stopped to take a deep breath. He cast his eyes at the brilliant afternoon sky. How had everything gone so wrong? "He blames me, Mollie. You saw his face... How can I take that away?"

The voice was barely a whisper and she saw the weariness in the deep blue eyes. "It's been weighin' on ye, hasn't it? Ye've been shootin' down the sheep at night?"

"What?" Buck found a small smile. "Losing sleep?" He shrugged and shook his head a bit. "Why didn't she just kill me outright?"

"If ye start wadin' in yer pity puddle, I'm leavin' ye... " She warned, "Ye know the answer to that as well as I do. She's dancin' a jig with Lucifer and still yer lettin' her win. Do you not see? This is what she wanted. To make ye suffer."

"Yeah, well, she succeeded," Buck spat out tersly, then jumped and brought his head up when the musical lilting voice turned into sharp, harsh notes.

"Stop it," Mollie turned his shoulders to face her, "I won't have that bitch take ye with her. Look at me!" she waited until he turned, his face studying hers intently. She lowered her voice and moved her hand to rest against his cheek. "This job's carried me to all four corners of this fine world Buck Wilmington. I've seen sights that would curl yer hair. I've worked with Sandy and Kendra in filth and muck. I know what's its like to fight the devil for a soul. To chase a fever away and feel sweet breath against me cheek." She paused and felt his eyes on her. "What ye did on that beach, for yer friend, was the bravest thing I've ever heard. So don't ye disgrace that by lettin' her win. He needs ye, Buck, be patient with him. Ye know she used drugs on him... twisted his mind up. Give him some time, give him a wee bit of that fine heart, that's what he needs."

Buck not only nearly drowned in the words offered, but lost himself in those gorgeous emerald eyes. He chased a stray curl with his finger and saw in the sunlight, just how beautiful she was. He pulled her forward and kissed her forehead, before cupping her chin and finding a smile.

"You're beautiful Mollie, you know that," his voice was low and he traced a finger down her shirt over her collarbond and tapped just under it, "... and that starts from here." He saw her blush and felt her breath quicken. He smiled and pulled her head down, so it rested on his broad shoulder. He wrapped his large arm around her slim shoulder and decided it felt good. They sat for some time, basking in the sun peeking shyly through the treetop.

"So how far is Elkton?" Buck finally broke the peaceful air, inquiring on the elopement capital. Her laugh was sweet and gave him a broad grin. "I read about a judge up there that's an Elvis impersonator. He does the vows in a white vinyl suit, singin' and swivelin' his hips."

"What a romantic!" she giggled.

"Oh, it gets better," Buck grinned, "Yesterday's paper had a coupon for a diner in them parts that has a $5.99 dinner buffet."

"...and generous too..." she quipped, relaxing as his fingers stroked her arm.

"Make me a promise?" Buck said, his voice serious. She drew her head up and looked at him. "When this crud finally leaves me, will you share a sunset, some wine and a lobster dinner?"

She held back a smile and snuggled back down against the strong shoulder. "All for $5.99?"

she teased and drank in the wonderful sound of a deep laugh. She felt his arm tighten on her shoulder and felt his lips brush the top of her head. "Aye, Lad, I'd like that..."

Chris jerked away when a hand rested on his shoulder. He looked up just in time to see a pair of lips descending. "Mary?" he managed, before she kissed him.

"How you feeling?"

"A little stiff and sore," he shrugged, turning back to Vin.

"It's good to see him out of that room," Mary decided, moving by Chris to study Vin better.

"...that prison..." the leader decided, "He's so weak..." Chris's voice trailed away, "He can't even talk, the ventilator rubbed his throat raw. But Major Taylor says if he stays on the IV treatment for ten more days, does his breathing exercises, gets rest and starts eating, he can leave here once he's off the IV."

Mary noticed he didn't use the words 'go home'. "Speaking of leaving, I'm on the six p.m flight to Denver. I've got that profile on the governor and I'm traveling with him and his aides all week.

"My profile's better," Chris said seductively, sliding his hand over her hip.

"You won't get any argument from me," Mary answered, kissing him again. "I talked to Buck earlier, did he tell you?"

"No," Chris said, glancing at the path where he disappeared.

"A couple hours ago. He agreed to talk about it, but not yet, he's not ready. He's not going back to Denver for awhile." She paused as Chris's head rose. "Unfortunately, Orin talked to him too. He's been suspended for five weeks for use of excessive force against Kennedy. But in a way he was relieved. I don't think he's ready to go back, his voice sounded... distant?"

"He's got some healing to do," Chris agreed, "Jesus, he's been through hell and back, I think we all need some down time. I've got six weeks until this this comes off," Chris motioned to his injured left shoulder. The Major warned me about the side effects of the concussion."

"So when are you coming home?" Mary asked, watching him study Vin.

"When's he's ready, however long it takes."

"You slay me, cowboy," she murmured, feeling his devotion to Vin like a tidal wave. She drew him close, before two bodies appeared.

"Keep it clean, kids," Josiah's dry voice advised. "How you doing, Boss?" He extended his hand, which Chris took and let the larger man pull him up.

"I'm doing time with my Lady," Chris tossed back, "Nothing personal," he nodded to Ezra who returned one with a sly smile as the pair strolled towards the private visiting area. As he turned back, he noticed Vin blinking, startled awake by Josiah's deep voice. He saw Vin's eyes dart around and his head rise slightly, watching Chris leave.

"Easy, Brother," Josiah reassured, careful not to startle Vin further by touching him. Instead he remained in Chris's vacated chair. "He'll be back, he's visiting with Mary Travis."

Mary Travis. Vin eyed the slim blond woman walking by Chris and his eyebrows raised in recognition. He turned back and looked at the crayon drawings on the wall. A small blond boy with an infectious laugh. A condo in a city with a beautiful mountain as a backdrop. A computer... typing... a newspaper. He nodded, he knew Mary.

"You remember Mary?" Josiah saw the heavy eyes glued to the crayon drawings. "There from Billy, he missed you. J.D. was a little under the weather, he's back at the hotel."

J.D.? Vin cocked his head and coughed, as an image appeared. A dark -haired youth racing down the ice after a puck. A warm smile, an enthusiastic face, a trusting pair of eyes... eyes of a friend. He felt a quick stab of pain then and furrowed his face, turning back in confusion to the large man in the chair. He stared hard at the cross hanging from the man's neck. He was drawn to the hand made silver piece. His hand wobbled, but managed to reach out, fingertips brushing against the metal. He blinked and swallowed, coughing so hard, he doubled over. Four sets of arms moved in, splitting duties. Two gathered him up easily, turning him sideways and tapping his back. The other two appeared with a towel.

"Dispose of that," Ezra advised, holding a cloth under Vin's lips. He saw the wary eyes regarding him as the phlegm disappeared. "Well done, Mr. Tanner."

Vin's eyes drew near each other in confusion again. He knew these men. He felt the larger one turned pillows and easing him easily back onto the bed. The strong hands guided a spoonful of ice towards him and he accepted it, munching happily. The cross dangled in front of him, spinning on the rough chain. He reached out again, touching it and looking at the graying hair atop the kind face.

"...siah?"

It was a rough whisper, but it brought two broad smiles. Josiah leaned down and nodded, patting the top of the shaky, thin hand. "Yeah, Son, it's me, Josiah Sanchez. Good to have you back in the fold." He saw Vin nestle into a cloud of contentment, relaxing as familiarity brought comfort. Then he saw the blue eyes study Ezra again.

"Hell, Vin, that's only Ezra, no cause for alarm."

"Thank you," Ezra replied sarcastically. "It is good to see you amongst the living again, My Friend."

"Fuzzy snake..." Vin blurted in a rasp of a whisper, wincing in pain. His eyes wide in blue recognition.

"That's about the best description of Brother Standish I've ever heard," Josiah decided, joining Ezra in a round of laughter.

"I'll drink to that," Buck added, clapping Ezra's shoulder, "Good to see you Ace!"

"Likewise," Ezra grinned, feeling relieved that the sun finally rose after weeks of dark despair. Chris and Mary wandered back and Vin's bed was buzzing with the chatter of warm voices over heartfelt smiles.

Vin watched them all carefully, feeling utterly content. He didn't have all the pieces yet and still the confusion gnawed at him, but with them here, nearby, he could fight through the fog.

"Here," Mollie said, nudging Buck's hand. "The Major okayed him to have water. He's breathing good, we don't anticipate the ventilator returning. "I'm bettin' his stomach think's his throats been cut..."

"I don't think this is a good idea," Buck denied, trying to give the platic cup back.

"That's yer problem, Bucko, ye think to much and hurt yer arse." She snapped a lid on the cup and stuck a straw in, pushing him over towards the patient. "Go on..."

"Hey Vin," Buck tried to sound confident, his guts churning as the large blue eyes studied him. "How 'bout a drink? I'm buyin'!" He waited and watched the blank face remain expressionless. His heart sank and his hand wavered, before the head cocked.

Vin stared hard at the man before him, offering more than water. He looked past the dark blue eyes, deep inside the tall man. Feelings rose strongly inside him, trust , faith, kindness, strength, laughter, generosity and bravery. That was the strongest feeling and he nodded, accepting the gift. It was so sweet, he groaned as the cool liquid slid down his throat. He closed his eyes, sated like a greedy king on a throne. The straw was taken away and he swallowed the last of the liquid over his tender throat. A word formed and burst forth, surprising both him and the gift-giver.

"Buck...lin..." Vin rasped weakly, sending his gratitude with his eyes. He saw the other blue eyes fill up and a broad smile form under the mustache. He felt that large hand grip his smaller one and left it here, letting it become his anchor as he slipped away in a sea of tranquility.

Part 20

Monday, July 9, five p.m.

"You have no heart, Ezra!" Buck complained, tossing his cards onto the table. He stood and stretched as the gambler raked in the 'pretzels'.

"If I calculate correctly," Ezra paused, counting the salty snacks by two's. "You owe me twenty five dollars."

"I'm good for it," Buck countered with a wink, giving Ezra cause to grin. The rogue turned to watch Josiah and Chris finish their chess game. "Josiah, you keep eatin' those pawns and we can't have a rematch." He noted as the former minister tossed two Hershey kisses in his mouth and grinned.

"Plenty more where that comes from, Brother," Josiah replied as Chris moved a oreo-bishop forward.

"Check," the blond said, easing back in his chair and rubbing his throbbing temples.

"Shame on the lot of ye, ye've turned me rest area into a den of inequity," Mollie frowned, making her way to Chris. "I saw that face ye made, did I not warn ye about that concussion?" She paused at his side and waited.

"I hear you," Chris replied, "I'm almost done mopping up Josiah."

"Mopping up?" Josiah's eyebrow went up as he moved his knighted pretzel nub and took a tootsie-rolled rook, "Gettin' kinda cocky, Boss."

"Check-mate," Chris added, moving his queen peanut butter cup into position. "What's up?" he saw her eyeing Vin's sleeping form.

"I was wonderin' if ye'd lend a hand with his CPT," Mollie said of the chest physiotherapy. She'd explained the procedure of helping to clear his lungs of accumulated mucus. "All ye need do is sit near him, he's better with ye closeby."

"Okay," Chris said, rising and facing Ezra, "Dinner?"

"I was just leaving," the Southerner rose and studied Buck's concerned face. "I will return post haste with our missing comrade and our evening meal."

"You got the order?" Josiah asked and saw the chestnut-head nod.

"Yes," Ezra pulled out a long list selected from a nearby Chinese restaurant. He saw Buck worry lines increase and bent over the seated figure. "He'll come around Buck. Whatever is troubling him is starting to come to the surface."

"I hope so, Ace," Buck sighed, "'cause I miss that kid..." He gave Ezra's arm a pat and went to join Josiah, who found reruns of M*A*S*H on television.

"Vin got his hair back," Chris rasped over the pounding in his head as he settled onto a chair directly next to the bed. Mollie had already given Vin a thorough scrubbing, including his matted hair. He now looked much better, the light brown locks were dried and curling over his shoulders. The cotton pants and pastel teeshirt helped too. Josiah provided them with street clothes and Mollie felt if Vin 'dressed the part', he'd feel motivated. His lungs needed a lot of work and the CPT was the first step. He'd managed to keep a light clear liquid snack down earlier, so his gastro tube was gone.

"Are ye there, me Bonny Vin?" she asked gently, rubbing his arm. He made a face then peeled his eyes open. "Ye nearly slept through supper. Come now, Love, it's time to earn yer keep."

"Huh?" Vin rasped, shaking all over as she pulled the sheet back and turned him on his side. "Hey," Vin whispered, eyeing his friend. "Ya okay?" He saw the pain etched in Chris's face and ducked his head to try to see past Mollie.

"I'm fine, you just listen to Mollie."

"Hi Angel," Vin smiled up at her, nearly melting her heart.

"Hi yerself," she grinned, placing a tentative hand on the peach cotton covering his back. "Now ye've got a lot of congestion in yer chest. This will help ye cough it up. Then we can work on ye gaining some strength back in yer lungs, okay?" She saw his eyes wide open and staring at her, as his confused mind struggled to capture her words. Then the head bobbed and she continued, "This is called CPT, and it'll clear yer chest out. We start by moving all that secretion from yer lungs. This is called 'clapping'." She cupped her hand with the fingers together and held it in front of him. "The cupping technique cushions the blow of the hand during clapping by trapping air between the hand and chest wall. Are ye with me?"

Vin listened and looked at her hand, his labored breathing made it hard to concentrate, but he understood her intent.

"Good, then we'll proceed." She placed a bath towel over his back and then used both hands in a steady force, making a sound like a galloping horse. "Now I need ye to take several deep breaths, if ye feel the urge to cough, say the word 'huff' hard instead. Do ye understand?"

Vin's brow furrowed and he saw Chris's face swim into view. His cocked his head in confusion, concentrating on his friend's voice.

"Huff, Vin," Chris saw the puzzled, pale face trying to comprehend. "Like this," Chris forced air out over the word 'huff' and waited, watching until the blue-eyed sharpshooter finally nodded. After several weak, deep breaths, Vin huffed.

"That's grand, Love," Mollie lauded, holding a paper towel under his lips. "Ye can pay up, now... come on..." she waited until phlegm was produced. "Good Lad." This procedure was repeated twice more on different areas of his back, before moving to his chest for three claps. Finally, the exhausted man was done, wheezing heavily. "Here, sit up for a bit," she eased his shaking body upright and over the side of the bed. "Are ye alright then?" she felt his hand snake onto her wrist in a good grip and read his panic. "I'll not let ye fall. I've got something to make yer breathing better. She moved to the bedstand and got the prepared mixture of Ventolin, Atrovent and some normal saline. She put it inside a plastic container which was hooked up to the oxygen delivery system. She took his nose canulla out and put the misted mask over his face. "There now, that will help ye breath a bit easier. Ye have a nice visit with yer Chris and I'll get yer supper tray."

Vin was too exhausted to think about eating. He was totally spent, the workout on his chest and back had him dizzy. He glanced up several times, getting reassurance from the green-eyed blond. He felt stupid being so tired from doing nothing, let alone the large voids of memory. Although the events that led up to this strange hospital were hazy, his long hours in bed made him cranky. He was frustrated and scowled, gripping his weak hand into a fist.

"You quit that swearing or I'll tell Mollie," Chris read the angry face. "You've been sick Vin, you damn near died. It's gonna take some time to get your strength back. It's not a race; there's no timer. I'm not going anywhere." He saw the features ease up a bit and the weary blue eyes regarding him over the face mask. "Your job now, your only job, is to get well. That starts with your lungs. Now that you'll be getting food again, you'll start to feel stronger."

Vin nodded, hearing most of the words through the buzz in his head. He swayed twice, before a strong pair of arms found him.

"Whoa!" Buck teased, grabbing the unsteady figure. "How about I hitch you up so you can rest your back against the headboard?"

Vin thought for a moment and pointed stubbornly to an empty chair. His scowl bespoke his determined stance.

"No way," Chris denied, "Besides, your dinner will be here in a few minutes."

Vin sighed and relented, lifting his arms and allowing Buck to move him back onto the bed. He nodded and snaked a shaking arm out, snagging Buck's arm.

"Your welcome, Slick," Buck replied, ruffling the freshly washed Tanner locks, "Damn it feels good to be able to do that again." He laughed as Vin weakly tried to move away from the Wilmington hand.

Ten minutes later, Mollie reappeared with Vin's tray, which consisted of clear broth, apple juice and lemon jello. She saw his face wrinkle up as soon as the lid was drawn up. She took his mask off, replaced the canulla and scolded him.

"Ye'll eat it and ye'll like it," She warned, "If ye keep it down, tomorrow we'll add a wee bit."

"...lucky... me..." Vin gasped, coughing and jerking his shoulders. He raised his face obediently as Mollie eased a spoonful of warm broth into his mouth.

"There now, that's lovely, isn't it?"

"Vin!" Chris warned, watching the sniper's brow furrow in contempt. "That's delicious, isn't it?"

Buck laughed outloud, with Chris grinning broadly as Vin's middle finger snaked out on the sheet behind Mollie.

"Did I miss somethin'?" She asked, eyeing the two older men who were wearing sheepish faces.

"Vin was just saying how much he likes having Chris's company for dinner," Buck relayed, elbowing his oldest friend.

"Ye best clean up yer mess," Mollie held a container of juice under Vin's mouth, allowing him to draw from a straw. "Yer own supper is comin' and that place isn't fit fer a beast."

"You go ahead Buck, I'll be over in a minute." Chris answered, as the large man gave Vin's cotton pants a tap and left.

Chris eased his aching head back onto the vinyl and slid his burning eyes shut. Truth be told, he felt like shit warmed over and would be glad for the feel of a mattress. But the J.D. business needed to be resolved and he was hungry. There would be plenty of time for sleeping later. He nearly dozed off, as Mollie's sweet voice filled the air. She sang a sad song about a soldier heading off for battle, leaving his sweetheart behind. He managed to peel an eye open and saw Vin's eyes transfixed on Mollie's face. The pale lips opened and closed, taking in every bit of the light meal. He thought maybe Vin was right, she was an 'angel'.

"Good Lad," she beamed, cupping his chin, "I've got reports to write up. Ye rest up now and I'll bring ye a wee bit of water ice later." She promised, picking up the tray.

"Thanks, Angel..." Vin wheezed, trying hard to stay awake.

"Yer welcome, Me Bonny Vin," she patted his cheek and left the two friends to visit.

Chris didn't realize he was dozing until a hand shook his shoulder. His eyes shot to Vin first, who was snoring softly. Somebody stuck a Denver Bronco's baseball cap on his head. He moved stiffly, sitting forward and yawning, as his eyes focused on gray designer pants.

"Dinner has arrived along with our missing young Dunne," Ezra relayed, watching Chris narrow his eyes and rub them. He'd suffered concussions before and knew how frustrating the unrelenting pain was. "Do you need a hand?"

"In a minute," Chris answered, hoping the fire in his brain would subside. "Dammit..."

"Hey, you two gonna dine alone?" Buck asked from the other side of the bed. "We got everything laid out, J.D. and Josiah are getting ice. You okay, Chris?" It was several seconds before the blond head dipped once.

Josiah placed the ice bucket on one of the two square tables by the wall. Several couches and chairs were set up with tables between them. A television was tuned into a reply of the baseball game from the night before. He watched J.D. look with hesitation at the group on the other end of the room. The youth took a deep breath and let it out slowly, both hands were clenched in fists.

"Why don't you go get the others?" Josiah asked and watched as the youngest team member walked slowly across the room.

It wasn't very far, but to J.D.'s disturbed body, it felt like forever. Every tile seemed like tar, causing his leaden legs to stick to the floor. Sweat ran feverishly down his back, causing the red tee shirt to stick to him. His breathing became labored and painful over his still healing ribs. His face was no longer swollen, the bruises faded to pale yellow and green blotches. Finally, he was a few feet from the foot of the bed. His mouth was drier than the Sahara and his insides were turning to ice. Then Vin's eyes opened and seemed to look right through him.

Vin heard voices and fought through the murky darkness. He didn't want to fight these horrid images anymore. A wicked mix of vile insects with thousands of legs and jaws snapping with venom sailed by. They were followed by an even scarier vision of J.D. and Chris with their limbs missing. His heart hammered and he moaned, moving his hands, clawing at the black air, needing to get out.

"Easy, Slick..." Buck bent over as soon as he saw the face twist up, sweat bead on the pale forehead and the arms twitch. He gently shook Vin's shoulder, worried about the ragged breathing. "Vin... wake up... it's a bad dream." Finally the blue eyes shot open and he eased the groggy patient upright.

'Thank God' was his first thought as he saw Buck's worried face. He glanced over and saw Ezra helping Chris stand. The blond's pinched features reflected pain and Vin was about to call to him, when another body appeared.

"Hey Kid..." He whispered hoarsly, wincing as his raw throat protested. He offered a shaky hand to the wide-eyed youth, whose face screwed up in denial. There was no mistaking the look that met his eyes. The fists were clenched at his sides, pressing hard into the cutoff shorts he wore. WIthout uttering a word, J.D. turned and bolted.

"Aw, hell..." Vin choked, the enormity of the guilt-ridden Dunne's face kicked him hard in the gut. So severe was the blow it forced the dinner he'd consumed to reappear. "He blames me... Fuck... Oh God..." Vin doubled over in pain, flailing his arms wildly as he lost his balance and nearly toppled from the bed.

"Buck, grab him, he's falling forward!" Chris barked at his dazed oldest friend, whose face lost all color.

"J.D!, J.D.!" He screamed at the fleeing youth, while his strong arms automatically clutched Tanner. "You got him?" He asked Ezra, who moved quickly to take the heaving body from him, just as the bile spewed forth.

"Go!" Ezra commanded, grabbing the quaking sharpshooter. "It's all right, Vin," he lowered his voice, using his free hand to rub the sweaty peach cotton fabric clinging to the dazed man's back. "It wasn't your fault. J.D.'s just upset about you being so ill..."

Vin wanted to tell them all to 'go to Hell' but didn't have any air left. He tried to break free of Ezra's hold, but could not. He was shaking all over, dizzy and sharp pains stabbed at his insides. Another hand appeared with a wet towel, which wiped his face. Then a cup appeared and from far away, someone said to drink and rinse, which he did. After draining a little more water, he saw J.D.'s condemning eyes and collapsed into a field of arms.

"He's passed out," Ezra announced, easing Vin back into his bed. He pulled the sheet up and glanced at Chris, who looked like he was about to explode. "Chris?"

"I'm okay Ezra," Chris simmered over the concerned looks of both Josiah and Ezra. "Somebody get Mollie..." He watched Ezra move towards the doctor's lounge and Josiah easily picked up the soiled towel, left over from Vin's clapping exercise. He watched the the eyes darting under the pale, closed lids and heard Vin moaning in his sleep. He moved his hand, gently squeezing the bony shoulder, until the fear left his unconscious friend.

Two blocks later at a railing that led to a short group of wooden-hewn steps leading to the beach, Buck finally caught his quarry. He grabbed the red shirt and spun the youth around, pinning him hard against the retaining wall. His blue eyes were flashing with fury and his rage was in overdrive.

"What the hell was that?" He roared, watching the hazel eyes flinch. "What's the matter with you?"

"Leave me alone," J.D. tossed back, trying to work free from the iron grip.

"No, not this time!" Buck retorted, chest heaving in anger, "He's barely hanging on, he damn near died last week and where have you been? He's your friend J.D., and I want an answer!"

"I won't Buck, don't make me, I can't..."

"Too Goddamn bad!" Buck screamed, digging his fingers into the flesh under the shirt, "You're going back there and apologize to him for making him puke up what little food we got into him. If you'd shown up over the last few days, you'd know that was the first real food he's eaten. They finally took that damn tube outta his nose. Jesus, J.D. how could you leave him racked with guilt like that?"

"Guilt?" J.D.'s voice rose in astonishment.

"Yeah, with a capital 'G'," Buck pontificated, "Christ, how could do that to him? He can barely hold his head up."

"It wasn't his fault!" J.D. blurted, eyes wide in honest shock, "That's crazy!"

"Not to him it ain't," Buck declared, "and your performance back there demands an answer. What's eating you, J.D.?"

"I can't... I won't... Don't make me, Buck, I don't want you to be ashamed of me." J.D.'s voice broke at the same time Buck's hold on him did. He stumbled down onto the beach and moved a few feet away, eyeing the relentless surf. A group of seagulls fought loudly over a mashed remnant of a soft pretzel, while a pair of lovers shared a quiet moment. The surf crashed through again, just as Buck reached him.

Buck paused for a moment, when he drew abreast of the troubled young man. He saw the raw emotion reflected in the hazel eyes, not threatening to spill. He'd never seen J.D. so upset and couldn't imagine what would cause him to act this way.

"Ashamed?" Buck repeated softly, resting a light hand on the slumped shoulder, "J.D., I could never be ashamed of you. What's got you so bottled up that you can't talk to me?"

"Oh God," J.D. gasped, crossing his arms across his chest and rocking slightly, "I don't know how to... You're gonna be so ash... disappointed... in... me..." his voice broke and he took a huge gulp of air and swiped his eyes.

"J.D., look at me," Buck requested gently, waiting until the troubled face turned. "I could never be ashamed of you. Whatever it is that's ripping you apart inside, it stays here. Talk to me, Kid..."

J.D. walked a few feet away, studying the disturbed sea, which seemed like perfect symmetry. He inhaled the salty air and gathered up the courage to speak. Finally, he turned back and faced his best friend.

"It happened so fast," he recalled, "One minute we were standing by the warehouse, then Orin shows up with the F.B.I and there was an explosion," he clenched his eyes shut. "I thought Chris was dead." He blew out an air of recollection and cast a lingering gaze at the descending sun. "Then these guys in yellow suits showed up and hustled us into a helicopter. There was a tent leading to the door of the hospital... they took our clothes... made us shower. Dr. Taylor examined me and wrapped my ribs. They put an IV line in and... then... then..." he stammered, trying to hide his shame. He turned away as the flush of remembrance rose, giving his chest cause to tighten. "They said the three of you were coming in... that you... you..." he paused and took a deep breath.

"Come on Kid," Buck coached, massaging the tense shoulders, "Let it out..."

"That Vin was dead on the beach and you gave him mouth to mouth," he blurted in a very young voice.

"J.D.?" Buck started, only to be cut off.

"Ezra let out a sigh of relief so loud, I swear they heard him in Baltimore." J.D. recalled, "Josiah sent his praise to God and I turned away. I hid, Buck, I didn't want them to see how pissed off I was. I was angry, angrier than I've ever been. I thought you were going to die too."

"Is that what's been eating at you? Is that why you ran?" Buck's voice dropped and he saw J.D. turn away, his face colored as the dark head nodded. "J.D., this job don't come with guarantees, you know that. Hell, life don't come with promises like that, I could die tomorrow..."

"No, not like that." J.D. denied, scowling at the other man, "It's not the same, Buck. You knew... knew he... they said he had the plague. You knew and you did it anyway."

"I'd do it again," Buck said with utter conviction and without hesitation. He saw the shame rising again and grabbed the slumped shoulders. "Get your head up and pay attention," he advised and waited until the pained eyes met his, "J.D., it wasn't just me you were afraid to lose. You were scared for Vin too."

"Huh?" J.D.'s confused face rose.

"A few minutes ago, you said 'I thought you would die too'." Buck recounted, gripping the back of J.D.'s neck hard. "That 'too' was for Vin." He released the troubled youth and watched as he walked to the surf.

J.D. watched the tide rolling in and out and felt every bit as churned up as the murky water. He thought back on his harsh reaction that night. He re-examined his turmoil and fear and wondered if Buck was right. What would his life be like without the colorful Texan. A huge hole appeared in his gut and he turned back.

"I guess maybe I didn't think of that," he concluded. "I couldn't see past my anger at you for doing that... making that choice... Hell, I don't know, Buck..."

"You mean a lot to him, Kid and he needs you now," Buck reached out, seeing a light flicker in the emotive eyes. "You've given him a part of his life back, an important part."

"How's that?" J.D. quizzed, moving back to where Buck stood.

"Close your eyes a minute," he advised, resting his hand on J.D.'s back and making slow circles, hoping to ease the tension. "Think back on your championship game last spring," he recalled of the hockey match. He waited and sure enough, a slow smile spread on J.D.'s face. "Do you remember the look on Vin's face when the final buzzer went off?"

"Do I!" J.D.'s voice burst forth, he was practically beaming.

"Keep thinking on that grin Vin wore..."

"It could have lit up the whole city," J.D. gushed, opening his eyes and relaxing under Buck's strong hands.

"Yeah..." Buck agreed, "Remember afterwards at Max's," he inquired of the pub they went to after the game to celebrate with the team. "We couldn't get him to shut the hell up." Buck chuckled, recalling the unusual sight of a highly animated Tanner. He painfully recalled how troubled he'd been afterwards.

"He was flyin'!" J.D. boomed.

"I want you to think hard about that smile, that laughter, the way his eyes lit up..." Buck's voice grew somber, "That was the kid whose basket at the buzzer won the city title game. That was the quarterback who threw the winning pass with one second left to win the championship in his senior year. You understand?" He asked, seeing a tiny flicker appear, he pressed onward. "Think back on your four years in High School. Remember the way you felt when you finally got the balls up to ask a girl out? The sweaty palms and damp underarms on that first date? The awkward moments after your first kiss? It's that night with your girl, wrapped up in an old plaid blanket at the bonfire before the big game in November. It's all the special moments during the Christmas season; the carols, the skaters, the lights on the trees, the little kids lining up for Santa, that wonderful spirit that makes you smile all the time. It's kissing your best girl under the mistletoe and taking her to Midnight mass. It's that look on her face when you hold her close watching the lights on the tree. It's the clumsy trip up the ladder of maturity; sharing and caring the highs and lows over four years with friends you'll never forget. It's learning more than you can find in a book."

J.D. slowly absorbed all the priceless information his older and wiser friend imparted. He recalled too, all the moments that helped him grow in his four years at Boston University. Buck was right, that was more precious than anything he got from a book. He nodded slowly, something starting to turn over in his mind.

"You're the little brother he never had, J.D." Buck stated, "The one he'd have celebrated that winning basket with, the one who'd have sprayed beer all over him after that touchdown. The one who would have teased the hell out of him after catching him kiss a pretty girl in your dad's car. You're the one he'd have turned to when he was hurting inside. You see, J.D., while you and me were having the whole Norman Rockwell teenage years, Vin was living in poverty with this grandfather on a reservation. That's why what you given him is so priceless. That light in his eyes after the hockey games, after you two go jumping from airplanes or motorcrossin' in the mountains. Every time you two come back after some adventure, he's got that glow, that spirit, that's what you've given him, Kid. That's your gift." He saw J.D. swallow hard and his eyes fill up. He gripped the back of his neck and gave a good squeeze. "He needs you J.D., more than he ever has. He's got a tough road ahead, he's gonna need all of us to help him."

"He's taught me so much, Buck," J.D. raked a hand through his hair and studied the persistant waves rolling onto the sand. "Sometimes I can't believe he's only a few years older than me." J.D. took a long pause and recalled all the adventures they'd shared. From the very start it felt right. He'd liked Vin right off and relished how over time, that shy smile had evolved into a full fledged laugh. From the hockey games, motor cross races, skydiving, rock climbing and other athletic enterprises they shared, he'd seen Vin grow. Little by little, Vin opened up, gaining confidence and comfortability. Then there was the five days in the desert in the spring. "You can't believe how much he knows, Buck. When we were in New Mexico last spring. He taught me to read the stars, how to track, he knows about animals and plants... about life Buck. He's so smart... deep, you know. He's got the soul of a poet... an artist... he awed me, Buck." J.D.'s blissful look changed drastically to a dark cloud. "How can I look at him now?" he feared, recalling Buck's words and thinking on Vin suffering unduly over him.

"Straight up, like you always do," Buck dictated, "He's a smart guy..."

"Yeah," J.D. let out a deep breath. They started back to the hospital, each lost in thought. As they approached the building, J.D. halted suddenly, turning to a startled companion. "I want you know, Buck, what you did on that beach, knowing you could die... it was the bravest thing I've ever heard. I'm proud of you, Buck." he stammered, his emotions riding high. "I don't think I could have ever done that."

"I do," Buck said with such power it took the other's breath away.

"How can you be so sure?" J.D. asked, eyes wide.

"Because I know you, John Daniel," Buck's voice was thick and he cast an arm over the youth's shoulder.

"Thanks Buck," J.D. choked, face coloring slightly. "I don't have anything to give him. I should have bought him a present or something." He eyed the ER door approaching rapidly.

"You give him this," Buck pulled J.D.'s right palm open. "It's all he's ever asked for."

Chris finished the platter in front of him and took a long swig of ice tea. He denied the fortune cookie and handed the dirty plate to Josiah. The food went down easy, a nice combination of exotic spices mingling with chicken and shrimp. He lifted his injured leg off Vin's bed and winced, feeling the healing skin pull. He eyed his friend carefully, wondering how the display by J.D. would affect him. He seemed to be sleeping easy, only a few moans and twitches indicating nightmares. Just as Chris reached for the daily paper that Josiah left, voices drew his head in the direction of the door on the far end of the room. His face grew cold and hard when J.D. approached. He stood and moved to the foot of Vin's bed, not hiding his displeasure.

"It's okay, Chris," J.D. said plainly, "I won't hurt him. I was wrong and I'm sorry. I'd like to tell Vin that..." He broke his sentence off as the icy green glare undid him.

"I'm waiting," Chris answered, needing to hear it.

"It's done, Chris," Buck defended, standing next to the somber youth, "Leave it alone. Nobody feels worse about this than J.D. does. He had some things he needed to get off his chest."

Chris didn't budge, not ready to relinquish Vin's delicate psyche just yet. He squared his shoulders as J.D. moved closer.

"I want your word, J.D.," the leader required, and took the hand the youth offered.

"I promise, Chris, I'm here to help him."

"You better be," Chris warned, "Because if he ends up back in that glass room..."

"Chris..." Buck's voice was tense, "Leave him be."

Reluctantly and with a last glared warning, he left the two youngest. J.D. settled into the vacated chair, feeling the green Larabee's lasers burning into him. He leaned over the bed and remembered Buck's words about Vin's nightmares. The older man said to watch out for signs of distress. Looking closely at Vin for the first time, he saw all too clearly the signs of the savage infection. He'd lost weight, his color was awful and hands seem so frail. J.D. picked up the frail hand near the rail and gave a small squeeze.

"Hey, Vin. I'm right here, if you need me."

He sat for some time, putting his racing emotions back in order. Vin wasn't going to die and when he was stronger, J.D. would explain his irrational behavior. He looked up as Josiah appeared, placing a plate of food in front of him, as well as a container of soup.

"I'm not hungry," he denied, only to have the large hand rest on his back.

"Now that's what I call snowing in July. J.D. not hungry?" He smiled and brought the wheeled table holding the tray closer. "Go on and eat, J.D. Are you okay?"

"I am now, thanks to Buck." The youngest picked up a fork and rolled some lo mein noodles around it. "I was... angry... at myself for feeling... mad... about Buck saving Vin. Does that make sense?" he asked, shoveling the food in without tasting it.

"I think so," Josiah nodded, "As long as you realize what caused it and you work on fixing it. We all have fears, J.D., you only reacted naturally. You first thought was losing someone you cared about." He paused, guessing what the pained expression was from, "That anger you felt was fueled by the fear of losing Buck. Later, you were overwhelmed by guilt because of Vin."

"What am I gonna say to him, Josiah?"

The voice sounded so young it made the older man wince. He gave a gentle tap on the youth's shirt and smiled.

"Follow your heart," he advised with a solid pat and left J.D. to ponder.

J.D. finished the lo mein and fried rice. He was one bite into the succulent egg roll, when Vin began to moan and twitch. The stricken man's chin trembled and his hands fluttered against the sheet.

"Nightmare," J.D. whispered, thinking on Buck's warning. He swallowed his food and stood up, leaning over the bedrail. "Vin, you okay?" he asked tentatively, resting a shaking hand on Vin's shoulder.

"Vin!" Chris rose as his Tanner-radar went off. A large hand clamped on his shoulder and forced him back down.

"Hold back, Chris, J.D. needs to do this," Josiah commented, pacifying Buck as well. The blond kept his seat, wearing a troubling frown. Buck stood up, hands on his hips, his worried gaze on J.D. He willed his confidence over the distance, hoping the youth would remain strong.

It ended the same way as the other dark visions did before. He was strapped down, unable to move. Someone... something... evil lurked in the darkness. Cold hands caressed him and a monsterous creature crawled over his helpless body, stinging and biting. Then the high-pitched laughter started as his breathing was cut off. Just as he was going under, a strong hand reached ou and grabbed him. His eyes shot open, his breathing was harsh, causing a deep, wet coughing fit.

"Easy, Vin, I gotcha," J.D. pulled the weak body up and over, grabbing a handful of towels. "Spit it out," he coached, catching a large wad of phlegm. "Is that all of it?" he waited and the shaggy head dipped once. "Good job, Vin!" he enthused, pulling the body upright and wincing at how light Vin was. He guided a large mug of ice water to the trembling man's lips and held it as he drank. "Nightmares are a bitch!" He commented and saw the head bob in agreement. He pulled the mug away and watched painfully as it took Vin several minutes to regain his breathing. The frail hand remained clutched to his own and that gave him hope. He held on, waiting until the head rose up. The confused blue eyes were full of doubt and fear.

Vin knew before his eyes opened it was J.D. He recognized his voice right away. Flashes of happy moments, warm and sunny flooded into his mind. Sports and laughing, in all seasons, through snow and sun showers. Happy times shared with a good friend, a younger brother. Then the guilt filled him. Voices nagged his brain screaming at him. 'He blames you... it's your fault...' Crestfallen, he sank back onto the bed, his heart heavy as he recalled the face the fled earlier.

He raised his blue eyes to the younger man's concerned face and opened his lips.

"...sorry... so sorry... my fault..." he rasped, losing his breath.

"No... no... Vin..." J.D. shook his head and grabbed Vin's face, which fell with the last word. "It's nobody's fault and I'm the one whose sorry. I got so scared... I thought you and Buck were gonna die and I blew it. Jesus, Vin, I'm sorry for making you puke and feeling so bad. I don't know what to say... Honest to God, I never meant to hurt you."

Hurt me? Vin's face screwed up. J.D. didn't hurt him. What was he babbling about? He tugged the hand and sent his confusion upwards.

"...hurt me... no hurt... J.D.?"

"You're not mad at me, then?" J.D.'s voice was rising in hope.

"...mad?" Vin shook his head, "...no... no mad... okay?" he offered and saw the youth smile. "...good..." he decided, sighing in relief. "...food?" He sniffed, eyeing the egg roll.

"I don't think so," J.D. eyed the greasy fried item, "You'd puke again and Chris would kill me. I'd be in the next bed," he proclaimed and his heart flooded with warmth at the weak laugh. The action caused more coughing and J.D. guided Vin through it again. "How 'bout some soup? It's egg drop..."

"Okay..." Vin laid back as J.D. used the button to bring the bed up. It took Vin a few minutes of resting his eyes and taking some breaths, before he had the strength to open his mouth.

"Now that's the prettiest picture I've seen in some time," Josiah noted, watching with the others as J.D. gently ministered to the ailing man in the bed. Vin was reclined in a three quarter position, his lips opening as J.D.'s hand guided each spoonful of soup in carefully. When he was done, he wiped the excess from Vin's chin and lowered the bed, before taking his guard's chair.

"Hand me a coke, Buck?" Chris asked, standing on weary legs. His head was pounding and the bed was screaming at him, but he had one job left. "I've got some fences to mend." he said, taking a cold soda and a clap on the back from Buck.

J.D. looked as a shadow crossed next to him. He nearly choked on his fortune cookie, unable to read the solemn Larabee face.

"He's okay, Chris and he ain't upset anymore. We had a talk and I got some soup in him but not too much I didn't want him puking again and..."

"Come up for air, Son," Chris grinned, handing the soda to him. "It's not Coors Lite, but it'll have to do until we get out of here and I can buy you one, okay?"

"Okay," J.D. grinned, and took the hand offered. "I'm sorry, Chris. Here I guess you want the chair back."

"You say 'I'm sorry' again, and I'll give you something to be sorry for." Chris teased, "You stay put, I'm headed to bed. Vin's in good hands, you're watching his back," he lauded and limped away with J.D.'s beaming grin following him.

"There... J.D?"

"Huh?" J.D. turned back to Vin. The eyes weren't open, but the brows were furrowed. The wavering hand was fumbling blindly. "Yeah... I'm here, Vin," he answered, grabbing the wayward fingers.

"...stay..."

"You got it!" J.D. boomed, letting out a huge sigh of relief and feeling stronger than he had in weeks.

"...thank... you..." Vin sighed, letting himself relax as sleep overtook him.

Chris collapsed in the bed, totally spent and grimaced as his pounding head pummeled him. He felt somebody pull a sheet over him and heard the bedrails snap. He turned a lip up, too weary to open his eyes. He knew who it was, none of his team smelled that good. The soft crooning was the right medicine and the kind fingers massaged the pain and tension from the back of his neck and his temples.

"Thanks Angel..." he whispered, feeling the soft hand stroke his face as he drifted off.

It was always the same place, dark and forboding, a cold hell filled with anguished screams that were his own. His naked body was bound head to toe to something cold and hard. Thousands of tiny legs moved effortlessly across his body, doing a deadly dance. Dozens of razor-sharp teeth sank into his skin, releasing a boiling stream of venom. The pain was unbearable and as the featherlite tendrils walked across his face, sinking their jaws into his skin, he heard her shrill laugh. It drown out his silent scream, silenced as the beast crawled down his throat.

"Vin!"

Chris sat up so fast, the whole room was spinning. His deep sleep had been savagely interrupted by his best friend's silent call to arms. It was real... too real and he used his only arm to rattle the side of the unyielding bed.

"Goddammit!" he hissed, watching Buck rise in a hurry. "Buck, get me out of this fuckin' thing!"

"Yeah, hold on," Buck's long strides brought him to the bed in a flash. He got Chris on his feet and steadied him as they raced to Vin. Each man took a separate side, flanking the troubled sleeper. Buck flicked the overhead light on, casting an eerie pall on the pale man. Chris rested his good hand on Vin's face, eyeing the eyes darting frantically under closed lids. The breathing was fast and shallow, the limbs twitched and the chin trembled. Small, troubled moans escaped the pale lips. The Texan's body was firmly pressed into the bed, the muscle tone told both men where he was still trapped. Buck shook Vin's shoulder as Chris leaned over, tapping the pale face.

"Shit!" the blond hissed, "He's strapped to that bitch's table and that fuckin' bug is biting him. Goddammit!" His frustration was born as their efforts went unrewarded.

"Vin, wake up," Buck said firmly, shaking the sweatsoaked shirt. Tanner's face was coated with moisture as well, lathered up from his terrific nightmare.

"Come on, Vin," Chris tried, sliding his hand down over Vin's heart, which was hammering loudly. "It's no good, he can't hear us..."

"I got an idea," Buck took his eyes from Vin's frantic face and met Chris's tumultuous gaze. "We could sing. It always worked for Mollie, especially when he was in the worst of it..."

"Yeah," Chris sighed, lost and grabbing at straws, he worried that Vin was too delicate to fight on his own much longer. Before he could add anything else, he saw Buck's dark head lower, his mouth close to Vin's ear. One strong hand took Tanner's and the other stroked the top of the tangled head. Chris took Vin's other hand and bend forward, as Buck's rich voice broke the stilled night air.

"Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
You been out ridin' fences for so long now.
Oh, you're a hard one, but I know that you've got your reasons.
These things that are pleasin' you
Can hurt you somehow."

It took until that point for the startled team leader to find his voice. It was not just the tender look on his face, but the soothing tone of his voice that caught his attention. With each word sung, that guiding hand motion on the troubled head began to heal. Finally at the next stanza, Chris recovered and leant his voice to the mix. Their voices blended easily, surrounding their lost friend with a bath of melodic rhapsody.

"Don't you draw the queen of diamonds, boy,
She'll beat you, if she's able.
You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet.
Now it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table,
but you only want the ones that you can't get. "

The digital numbers read twenty past two a.m. and Mollie sat up in a hurry. A beeping noise bedside alerted her to Vin's heart monitor. She kept it on at night, wary of his horrid nightmares and their effect on his heart rate. She ran down the corridor and stopped dead in her tracks, her own heart landing in her mouth.

'What's wrong?" Sandy whispered, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and padding up the hall behind her. "Mollie?" he eyed the tears running down her cheeks and took the hand she shoved back at him. Her other hand was on her lips, bading him to keep silent.

Both amateur singers saw the change evolving and grinned broadly at the same time. They tore their gazes away from Vin long enough to share a smile, then returned to their duty. Chris kept Vin's hand in his own, bending low so Vin could hear him. Buck used his right hand to stroke Vin's head, his left gripping the sharpshooter's firmly. As Vin's breathing started to regulate and the whimpers die out, Chris lost his voice. He swallowed hard, letting Buck do the next verse solo.

"Desperado, ah, you ain't gettin' no younger.
Your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home.
Freedom, oh, freedom.
That's just some people talkin'
You're a prisioner walking through this world all alone"

"You're gettin' soft, Muldoon," Sandy whispered in her ear, putting his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. His hawk eyes saw the numbers on the monitor regulate. "Come on, we're not needed here. That's medicine the best doctor couldn't produce."

"Aye," Mollie agreed, capturing the vision of two friends, in the still of the night, using everything inside of them to reach out and console a lost brother. It was a sight burned deep in her heart. As Buck's voice sauntered through the room, she got a chill and led Sandy lead her back to the doctor's lounge.

Chris took a good breath and joined Buck to conclude the song.

"Don't your feet get cold in the wintertime?
The sky won't snow and the sun won't shine.
It's hard to tell the nighttime from the day.
You're losin' all your highs and lows.
Ain't it funny how the feeling goes away?
Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate.
It may be rainin' , but there's a rainbow above you.
You better let somebody love you...
let somebody love you... before it's too late."

Thank you. Vin called out in the dark but nobody heard him. The pain was gone, she was gone, the beast was gone. He took a deep breath and smiled, trembling as his limbs moved freely. Thank you... thank you... thank you... he drifted off, feeling a sense of peace he thought he'd lost forever.

As the last note drifted across the darkened ER, both singers remained locked in place, amazed and wearing smug, self-satified grins. Vin was sleeping peacefully, his breathing was good and his heart wasn't racing. His body was totally relaxed, all the tension gone. His features were soft, not tense and fearful.

"Damn, we're good!" Buck whispered, chest puffed out in pride.

"Don't give up your day job, Buck," Chris groaned, stiffling a yawn. He waited a full five minutes before he let Buck convince him to get back to sleep. Their respite was short. Neither was fully relaxed, each wary of the troubled sleeper. Sure enough, just after five a.m. the moaning and twitching started again.

"Dammit!" Chris stood up, having not put the bars in place this time and he and Buck got to the bed at the same time. Each grabbed a limp hand and waited. Chris looks up expectantly. "Well?"

"Uh..." Buck's sleepy mind scrambled. "Flintstones, meet the Flintstones, they're the modern stone age..."

"Buck!" Chris hissed, not hiding his annoyance.

"Well you think of a song," Buck countered, "I thought up the last one."

"Yeah... okay..." Chris winced as Vin's uneasiness increased and his moans picked up. The limbs began to twitch and the eyes moved quickly. "Actually, there is a song I always liked. Took on a whole new meaning after I got to know Vin." He paused, recalling the words. He leaned low, keeping his grip and letting Buck's broad hand repeat their previous ministering efforts.

"He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he'd never been before.
He left yesterday behind him you might say he was born again, might say he found a key for every door."

Buck's smile would have lit up all of the East Coast. Not only was it a good song, it was the right song and he easily understood why Chris's face shone with such intensity. This song meant a whole lot to the leader as well. In Vin he'd found his soul. He bent over the troubled Texan and let his own voice blend in with the blonds, easing the younger man's fears.

"When he first came to the mountains, his life was far away on the road and hanging by a song.
But the strings already broken and he doesn't really care, it keeps changin' fast, and it don't last for long.
It's a Colorado Rocky Mountain High,
I've seen it raining fire in the sky
The shadows from the starlight are softer than a lullabye.
Rocky Mountain High, ...in Colorado....
Rocky Mountain High."

Chris continued on, letting Buck get a towel to wipe Vin's damp face. The next two verses were particularily moving to him, he saw Vin so clearly there. He studied the fine features closely, gripping the frail hand and feeling just how much he almost lost.

"Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the stream, seeking grace in every step he takes,
his sight is turned inside himself, to try and understand, the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake...
Now his life is full of wonder,
but his heart still knows some fear,
of the simple things he can not comphend.
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more.
More people, more scars upon the land."

Buck returned, carefully wiping Vin's now serene face with a damp cloth. He picked up the tune when Chris's voice broke. He was beside the blond and gripped his shoulder, giving it a heartfelt squeeze. Chris slumped in the chair, dropping his head as Buck's strong voice guided them all home.

"It's the Colorado Rocky Mountain High,
I've seen it raining fire in the sky.
I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an Eagle fly .
Rocky mountain high
It's the Colorado Rocky Mountain High,
I've seen it raining fire in the sky. "

+ + + + + + +

Tuesday morning saw Josiah and Ezra depart for Denver. Orin needed them to follow up leads and close out the mountain of paperwork on the three cases pending. With any luck and a week-and-a-half of extra hours, the pair would be able to return at the end of the following week. Hopefully, this would coincide with Vin's discharge, as his two week IV treatment would be concluding . The breathing therapy exercises would be increased to build up his weak lungs and he'd have an inhaler to use for awhile. After conferring with the medical staff from AMERIID, it was decided that Vin's emotional well being was dependant upon his team rallying around him. Some R and R in the sun near the beach would be just the ticket.

Vin still slept a great deal of the time, rousing only for meals and therapy. He took his therapy sitting in the chair on Tuesday and with Mollie and Buck guiding him, managed two brief steps by Thursday. The muscles rubbing, massaging and stretching that the skilled nurse had been doing paid off. She hoped to increase his movements over the next ten days.

It was early on Saturday morning and Vin decided to surprise Mollie. She wasn't due for another twenty minutes and he wanted to meet her halfway. Normally, she loaded him in a wheelchair, taking him to the bathroom to shower. He sat on the edge of the bed and eyed the distance.

"All set?" Buck asked, placing his hand under Vin's right elbow.

"Might as well be five hundred miles," Vin muttered, nervous sweat beading on his forehead.

"That's why those chairs are set up," Chris nodded to the three chairs placed at intervals between the bathroom and Vin's bed. From there, it was only a short distance to the makeshift 'living quarters', where the then scrubbed and dressed Texan would have his morning meal. "Come on..." Chris stood and gripped Vin's left elbow. "Slow and easy..."

"Yeah, like the pace you keep at work..." Buck teased, hoping for a smile. He watched Vin swallowing hard, eyes wide and glued on the path ahead. He felt every muscle on the weak body straining. "You're doing fine," he eased, watching the thin frame stagger forward.

"Whose fuckin' idea was this?" Vin rasped, sweat pooling on his face.

"Yours," Chris replied, "Two more steps... one more... touchdown!"

The pair eased their trembling friend into the first chair. Like any good coach, Buck was prepared with a water bottle slung over his free shoulder and a towel around his neck. He gave Vin a drink and then dampened the towel.

"Thanks," Vin's voice was hoarse, as he took the towel and wiped his face. He eyed the short distance and grimaced as the weak legs under him. His daily early morning runs seemed like a lifetime ago. "Hell... I used t'go fer miles without feelin' like a whipped dog."

"Vin, you're being too hard on yourself," Chris met the troubled gaze and rested his good hand on the slumped shoulder. "A week ago, you were in a coma , you damn near died on us. It's gonna take some time, hard work and a shitload of sweat." He paused and saw the face mull over the words. "You think we got the right man for the job, Buck?"

"Hell , yeah..." Buck winked at Vin and swiped the wet curls.

"Cut that out!" Vin pulled away. "Let's get goin'..." He took a deep breath and let his two friends help him stand. The next chair was further and the last one further yet. He was only halfway to the second chair, when he felt his legs giving out and began to panic.

"Chris!" his voice wavered and his heart hammered. His wide-eyes were riveted to the chair. "I can't ... do... this..."

"Sorry, that's not acceptable. Get your ass moving..." Chris didn't dare look at the fearful face. He cast a look behind them, at the ground covered and caught a glimpse of Vin's thin frame. He exchanged a concerned look at Buck, who also saw the ravages of weightloss and illness.

"Damn Vin," Buck boomed, gripping the trembling arm tighter and a little closer to his side, "You lost your ass!"

"What do you mean lost?" Chris quipped with a sly grin.

"Shut the hell up, both y'all," Vin's scowl matched the spice in his voice. "Ya leave m'ass alone. I can... can... .st..sti...still... kick... yer... sor...sorr..sorry... ass... Lar...a...bee..." Vin choked, legs buckling as they reached the next chair. For several minutes, he gulped air, not taking the bottle. He leaned back in the chair and someone wiped his face. Then the nozzle of the water bottle hit his lips and he latched on, like a drought-ridden suckling pig.

"Slow down!" Buck pulled the bottle back, "You already puked on me twice this week. We got plenty of time. You just rest a minute, your doing great Champ." Buck rubbed his shoulder and saw Chris shaking his head. Buck frowned, disagreeing. Vin made it this far, he'd go the distance. The sudden silence was deafening.

"Quit talkin' behind m'back!" Vin coughed, doubling over. He grabbed the towel from Buck and threw his water up.

"That's it, Vin," Chris decided, wary of the heaving body trying to find air. "My bed's a few feet away, you rest up, we'll finish later. You did great, Cowboy..."

"Fuck that!" Vin shoved the towel away and lifted his arms. "Park yer own ass... iffen... ya ... can't... keep... up..."

Buck shrugged and grabbed an arm and Chris's storm clouds remained as he took the other one. It took all Vin had to get to the third chair. Soaked in sweat, his spaghetti-legs gave out as they reached the goal. Buck and Chris easily got him into the chair. As the coughing, sweating patient sucked in sweet air and fought off nausea, his two friends cheered wildly, clapping him on the back. Finally, he brought his damp head up and saw the drunken grins they wore. He managed to find one of his own.

"I'm buyin'..." he vowed, sending his thanks with his eyes.

"Hell, it's gonna snow!" Buck boomed, winking and grinning back.

"Well, now what's all this?" Mollie paused, the clean clothes, towels and other bath items in her hands. She sat them on the table outside the bathroom door and strode over to the triumphant blue-eyed devil. She saw the proud grins his partners in crime wore and couldn't help smile herself.

"Hey Angel!" Vin sat up straight, blinking and fighting a yawn. "Surprised?"

"Ye did all this? Ye walked over?" Her grin broadened at the nearly youthful glow on his face. She cupped his chin, "I'm proud of ye, me Bonny Vin." She encouraged, but her trained eyes didn't miss the fatigue, or the harsh gasping. "How about ye rest a wee bit before yer shower?"

"Well, if ya insist," Vin's relief was audible, his eyes darted to the large, overstuffed sofa a few feet away. He snuck a furtive gaze back as his own, which seemed like a hundred miles. His eyes darted back for a few seconds, no way he could get back there... "Might as well camp here, save ya some wear 'n tear... " he decided, sneaking a peek at the lively nurse.

"Ever the gentlemen," Chris grinned and winked at his best friend.

"I'll get his IV and the oxygen unit," Mollie said.

"I'll give you a hand," Buck moved next to Vin, "Come on, Speed Racer," he got Vin over to the couch, while Chris grabbed the blanket from the base of his bed. He tossed it to Buck, who grinned and shook his head. Vin's head was on the pillow and he was out like a light. "You done good, Son!" Buck whispered, pulling the blanket up. He moved across the room to help Mollie, while Chris took the large chair next to Vin. He flipped the television on and studied Vin sleeping.

"Sweet dreams, Vin," he hoped, wondering if the awful nightmares that plagued his friend would ever end.

Part 21

Sunday morning, two a.m

Buck's sleep was restless, tossing his large frame around the small bed. He couldn't settle down, his troubled dreams were spent wondering and worried about Vin's reaction. The decision was made to wait until he was physically stronger, before prodding him about his memory. From the initial questioning, he remembered only bits and pieces. A blackness with Chris screaming at him to "Go... get away and 'call Buck'. He did remember hearing Buck's voice and running... but no more, not until he woke up. It was here in the stealth of night, he allowed his fears to surface. In the dark, when no prying eyes could see his unrest. Despite the reassurances from J.D. and Chris, he still blamed himself. What of Vin? Jamie pumped him full of experimental drugs. God knows if there would be any lasting effect. He sighed and shifted again, inhaling deeply and trying to find peace in his sea of slumber.

"Pepperoni..." He mumbled, dreaming. The scent was intoxicating and making him thirsty. He sat up in the dark and padded to the bathroom, getting a drink. He saw Chris's head pop up and look after him.

"How 'bout a beer run?" the leader whispered, watching Buck approach.

"Don't tempt me," Buck replied. "Damn dream woke me up... never dreamed in smells before."

"Well, it must be a helluva dream, cause I smell it too!" Chris's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Pepperoni?"

The two exchanged an incredulous look and Chris eased his body out of bed. They padded across the room and stopped several feet away. It began as a shock, turned to chuckling and ended with Buck doubled over in laughter. Chris moved to Vin's side, his face split into a wide grin. Buck flipped the low light on, shaking his disheveled dark head in amazement.

"Jesus!" He marveled, eyeing the pizza box on the tray in front of Vin. Then he saw the sharpshooter's face and laughed harder. Sauce made a randy mustache and cheese lingered like a impromoto goatee. A half of a piece of pizza sat squarely on the slumbering man's chest, rising and falling with each wheeze. He saw the evil grin spread on Chris's face and the blond head dip towards the box.

"You hungry, Buck?"

"Always!" the other responded, picking up the box. They silently made their way to the visiting end of the room. Chris settled on a chair, while Buck got sodas, plates and napkins from the small area nearby with a mini-frig and cabinet.

"How the hell did he pull this off?" Buck's voice was full of admiration. "Hell, he don't even have a phone... or pockets for that matter!" he noted of the near naked body and the lack of cash. "Well," he flopped down and popped the lid, handing Chris a slice. The leader took a large bit and chewed with smug satisification. "Well?" Buck repeated, "Ain't you even curious?"

"Nope," Chris returned, taking another large bite and sloshing down a mouthful of Sprite. "I learned a long time ago, never to doubt the powers of Vin."

"Hell, this stunt would even make Ezra green..." Buck decided, scarfing down a slice. "I'll tell you what, that sorry-assed Texan knows his pizza." They munched happily for awhile, then Buck wiped his mouth and started to chuckle. He tapped Chris's leg. He motioned to the bed and Chris turned, then coughed over his own laughter.

"Aw, hell... " Buck frowned, "he didn't only get but half a piece. That's a shame..." he said of the sharpshooter's hand. Vin didn't open his eyes right away, his hand found his slice and he began chomping on the old, cold slice on his chest.

"No it isn't," Chris countered, grinning again as the 'blind' Tanner continued to munch. "You snooze, you lose. That'll teach his greedy ass to order pizza while we're sleeping."

"Hell," Buck sat forward, "I didn't think of that. That was a low down, onry thing to do..." He stood up, smiling as Vin's hand blindly snaked up to the tray over his bed, seeking the box. Buck hauled Chris up and they quietly walked over, each flanking the bed. The hand groped around frantically, the pale face screwed up in puzzlement. Finally, one eye peeled open, an angry brow following it.

"What the hell? What'd ya do with m'pizza?" He growled, sitting up and eyeing the sauce-smudged faces next to him. "Goddammit! Yer a low down pair o' bow-legged jackels... takin' a sick man's pizza whilst he's sleepin'."

"Low down?" Buck accused.

"Bow-legged jackel?" Chris hung over the bed, dangling the last slice before the watering mouth below. "Buck, what do you call somebody who waits until his friends are asleep and orders a pizza?"

"A no-account, greedy, pizza-guzzling pig!" Buck chimed, watching Vin's guilty mask.

"It weren't like that... ya fell asleep 'afore it happened... I was gonna share..."

"When?" Chris glared, swiping the slice past Vin's clawing hand.

"How'd you come by this pizza anyway?" Buck's eyes narrowed. "You got a phone hidden under there?" he tugged at the large sheet covering the irate body.

"Get the hell away!" Vin slapped at the hand. "It was a present..."

"From who?" Chris eyed the blue eyes darting towards the exit door. His own followed and Vin saw his goose was cooked.

"From the Environmental Technician..." he grumbled, eyeing the cleaning cart and trying to snatch the solo piece.

"Who?" Buck's face puzzled up for a minute. "The janitor? You got brass balls, Vin. That old retiree? He only makes a few extra bucks to compensate for his pension."

"He didn't pay fer it!" Vin tossed back angrily, "...and give me m'fucking pizza!" he took the slice from Chris. He munched and scowled at the two. "Least ya two cheap-assed thieves could'a sprung fer a drink. I'm barely able t'swalla..."

"What, didn't you order a soda too?" Chris quipped, pouring Vin a glass of water.

"I thought on it... guess I musta dozed off fer a minute... right before ya stole m'food..."

"Possession is nine-tenths of the law, Pal," Chris tossed back.

"Besides, it would have been a shame for it to get cold," Buck decided, "So who paid for it?"

"Vin?" Chris's eyes narrowed when he saw something he coudn't pinpoint flee Vin's blue eyes.

"Ezra" Vin answered the oppresive stare.

"Ezra?" Buck repeated, face wrinkled, "our Ezra?"

"No, the janitor's dog!" Vin rolled his eyes. He dropped his gaze for a moment, taking a few good breaths. "Turns out he gave the old guy money... told him t'care o'me... even gave him a list o'stuff..." Vin broke off his thought and swallowed hard. "Damn nosy Conman..."

"What kind of stuff?" Chris eyed the area and then lifted Vin's hand. "What the hell?" he eyed the familiar orange stain on the fingertips and got a flashback to Adam. "Cheese Jax?" he laughed, thinking of the chedder snack food.

"Where's your stash, Slick?" Buck lifted the sheet and picked up an empty bag, coated with orange cheese dandruff. "You're gonna be pukin' all over again. What the hell were you thinking?"

"...been thinkin' about real food..." Vin tossed back, "...broth and eggs and noodles... shit... feel fine... ain't gonna get sick..." He saw Buck moving towards the small cabinet near the side of the bed. "Get the hell away from there!"

"Damn!" Buck laughed, pulling out a bag with candy, pretzels and cookies. "All the food groups are well represented!"

"Looks like we hit the Mother Lode, Buck!" Chris moved in, snatching the bag.

"We?" Vin crowed, angry at his immobilized state. "Whaddya mean 'we'? Ya keep yer damn hands offa that. Goddammit Chris..."

"You say one more word and I'll tell Mollie," Chris threatened, a move which silenced the irate slight body. "I'll hold on to this until you're ready for it. Jesus, Vin..." he eyed the contents of the bag, "It's like a Haloween acid trip..."

The late hours and Vin's constant blinking caused the trio to break up the party. Buck gave Vin a soapy towel to get cleaned up and then made his way to his own bed. Chris threw the pizza box, sodas and evidence in a bag and placed it strategically on the bottom of the trash bin. Later, as the three were in darkness again, just as they were dozing off, the two older men heard a faint comment from the far side of the room.

"Aw, hell..."

A long moment of silence followed; then a series of coughs and moans ensued.

"Chris... I ain't feelin' s'good..."

Another pause and more coughs and gagging sounds. "Bucklin... ya there... I need a hand..."

"Do you hear something Buck?"

"Nah, must be one of them weird dreams again, Chris," The rogue responded in the dark, easing his body from the bed. He saw Chris struggling and gave him a hand silently.

"I ain't kiddin... Chris..Buck... somebody... help!"

The rest of the sentence was cut off by the unmistakable sounds of a stomach's upheaval. Before the two on their feet could act, the light came on and a body flew by.

"What's wrong, Love?" Mollie cooed, rushing to the struggling body in the bed. "Hold on... here ye are..." she moved a basin under his mouth and pulled his hair back. She saw the other two loitering at Chris's bed and her anger rose. "What's wrong with the two of ye, then? Yer poor Vin is sufferin' and ye stand there like two jackasses. Have ye lost the use of yer limbs as well as yer senses? The poor lamb is near death's door," she comforted the 'victim', giving him a drink after he rinsed his mouth out. The weak body rested against her, his blue eyes batting in a near-swoon state.

"Poor lamb!" Buck roared, face irate.

"...near death's door..." Vin agreed, nodding his head and snuggling against Mollie, his gloating face and smug grin out of her line of vision. "I'm feelin' awful dizzy..." He raised his eyebrow boldy, only fueling their fire.

"Is his own fault," Chris spat back, glowering at he smug face of his best friend. "He ate a shi... uh... a lot of junk. Pizza and cheesejax and candy and..."

"Yer a wicked pair of banshees to be spoutin' such tales," Mollie lashed back, rubbing Vin's back and letting him rest against her. "Are ye alright then, Love?"

"Did ye say somethin' Angel?" Vin rasped 'weakly', fluttering his eyes and trembling. "I can barely hear ya..."

"Now that does it!" Buck stormed over, glaring at the comforting nurse, "You don't for one minute believe this charade? You're worse than Ezra... he's got him all wrapped up too!"

"Charade is it?" Mollie defended her charge, nodding her head to the vomit-filled basin. "Does that look like a charade? Is he not shakin' all over from the effort?"

"He's shaking from the effort alright, but not the one you thinking" Chris turned back towards his bed. "Touche... Cowboy..."

"Bucklin... I think I need t'go..." Vin raised his arm up.

"You know where you can go," the sputtering agent replied, tossing a plastic urinal at the smirking Texan and heading for his own bed. "...and you can take this with you."

"Do ye need a hand?" Mollie asked, only to have the patient regain some of his strength miraculously.

"No!" Vin sounded, backing up and twisting. "Uh... I mean... I think I'll be okay," his lowered his voice and settled back into the bed. "Thanks Angel... sorry t'have bothered ya. Don't mean t'be a burden..." He raised his face smugly at Buck and then grinned as Mollie pulled the sheet up, patting his cheek.

"Yer not a burden," she replied, "Yer Me Bonny Vin... me very own Blue-eyed Angel..."

"Oh, I'm gonna be sick!" Buck lamanted, pulling the sheet over his head. Chris just laughed and gave the sharpshooter a half smile. Just when the Sandman was making his rounds, a drowsy drawl lingering in the darkness.

"Ya think they'll have pancakes an' them bitty sausages fer breakfast?"

"You're cruisin' for a brusin' Vin," Chris warned.

"...or a gag..." Buck promised, "Get that mangy head down and get to sleep!"

"Damn yer a cranky pair... must be hell gettin' old an' onry..." Vin decided, hearing Chris's colorful retort as the power of sleep overtook him.

Friday Afternoon, July 20th, Doctor's Lounge in the Old ER at St. Micheal's

"Any questons?" Major Kendra Taylor asked, directing her intense stare at the six men scattered around the table. The meeting between her team and the members of Team Seven had been to discuss Vin Tanner's discharge and his upcoming weeks of recovery. The emotional rebound would not be found without some tempermental outbursts and bouts with depression. That was normal for a man in Vin's position. Both the ARDS and the near fatal illness that ravaged his body, were more than enough to place a strain on the struggling patient.

"Just so you understand," Sandy leaned in, resting his arms on the table. "We've seen this before, so we're talking from experience. Sometimes patients come back great in a few weeks, for others, it takes longer. You can't force him; you have to give him plenty of time and space."

"...and an open hand," J.D. mused lifting his palm. He exchanged a warm grin with Buck, recalling their conversation on the beach.

"Exactly!" Kendra agreed, "He knows the road ahead won't be easy, and I get the impression he's not very patient." She smiled at the chuckling and head shaking in the group.

"Hah!" Ezra choked, nearly spitting out his coffee.

"I hear that, Ace," Buck agreed, "The words 'Vin' and 'patience' would get you all choked up."

"He's plenty patient when it counts," Chris's tone silenced the others. They all knew what he meant; Vin could sit in a tiny closed area in a loft for hours with a rifle scope to his eye. So efficient, he blended in with the background. He slowed his whole system down, breathing low and steady, zoning in on the focal point.

"Yeah," J.D. shook his head, "He's amazing. I couldn't squat hidden in tight space for hours like that and stay focused. He makes it look easy... Jeez." He shuddered, thinking on the mental stamina.

"It's as if he's invisible," Ezra recalled of the few times he'd been with the skilled sniper. "He just disappears, truly remarkable."

"Until it's time," Josiah agreed, "then he gets the job done. It's a helluva responsiblity, especially afterwards. It takes him hours to come back."

"Come back?" Sandy cocked his head.

"Vin usually has down time after a hit," Chris relayed, "Josiah's right, it's a helluva responsibility. He's the last line of defense and he takes that to heart. That kind of pressure builds up during those hours he's waiting in the dark. He's our guardian angel, high above, looking out for all of us. But when it's over, it takes him awhile to recharge. He's usually totally drained, emotionally and physically. It's his quiet time..."

"That inner strength you all have described is exactly what he'll need," Kendra observed.

"How did he take it?" Josiah asked of the earlier meeting the medical staff had with Vin. He was now with Mollie, having a late lunch in the afternoon sunshine just outside the ER.

"He seemed to understand, he was quiet." Sandy recalled.

"He's holding back," Chris replied, he'd been at the morning meeting with Vin and recognized the fleeting eyes. "It's hard for him to not be strong. He's a very active person. He runs five miles or more every morning. Most of his free time is spent pursuing very active sports. He thinks this fatigue is a sign of weakness; he's angry at his body betraying him."

"Wow," Kendra's sharp eyes looked at Chris with new respect. "You saw all that? You're good."

"I know Vin," Chris replied softly, sipping his coffee. "He'll be fine." He paused, lifting his lips into an evil grin. "I'll kick his ass if he doesn't."

"Well, then," Kendra said, sliding a list to Josiah. "That's the rehab schedule, for all three of them. The hospital pharmacy will fill the prescriptions. Also, I need to see all of them next Friday for a followup."

"They'll be there," Josiah replied, rising and shaking hands with the AMERIID folks.

"Listen," Chris said, shaking the strong hand of Major Kendra Taylor. "I want you to know how much your dedication meant to me. Your team was aces all the way; you should be very proud of them. I won't forget that... what you all have done... ever. I'm very grateful."

"Your welcome, Chris," she smiled, "I'm good at kickin' ass too!"

"Yeah," Chris grinned, "I can see that, Major. I'm glad you're on our side. Thanks again."

"Yer awfully quiet, Love," Mollie watched the thin young man picking at his food. "There's nothing wrong with being scared."

"I ain't yella!" Vin barked, flashing anger in his blue eyes.

"That's not what I said!" she bristled, giving it right back, "Ye watch yer tongue and don't be so brazen. Don't be puttin' words in me mouth," she warned and saw him relax, his shoulders slumped again.

"I'm sorry, Angel..." he murmured, peeling a banana. "I hate this." He tore into the fruit, attacking it relentlessly. "Fell asleep talkin' to Chris this mornin'..." he tossed the peel with distaste into the trash can. "Damn that fuckin' bitch to hell fer what she done..." he vented, letting out the pressure that had been building for the last couple days. A rather vivid dream of himself being strapped to a table and an evil scientist with flaming hair and a centipede woke up his two friends. He didn't stop screaming until he saw Chris's face in front of him. The look of sheer terror in the green eyes silenced his own screaming. Buck looked awful too, not able to produce a word. During the horrid coughing fit, with his two friends aiding him, small pieces of the story were given. That this evil woman, the pyschopath with a twisted mind, could cause such pain in his friends, made him furious. He'd been silent ever since, holding his anger and rage inside.

"Easy Love," Mollie cooed, watching him tremble with anger. His whole body was tense and the quaking arms ended in two fists. "How long have ye held that in? "

"...had a dream... couple nights back," Vin's raspy voice forced it's way past the grim line of Tanner teeth. He punched the wooden bench hard and his chest heaved in anger. "I wanted t'kill her... t' blow her head off... I wanted... I needed... shit!" he smacked the bench again.

"She's long gone and ye can't let her hurt ye like this. Do you not see? She's won then. Ye need to let out that anger, Vin, or she'll torment all yer nights. I know it's hard, yer memory is coming back in pieces, but ye've got a grand set of mates." She thought on the special group of six and how strong they were. Her smile softened, when she thought on one special man, with a rogue's smile and a kiss that took her back in time to her first love. She sighed and recalled the wonderful nights spent with Buck this week. Long walks and deep talks, fingers intertwined as they laughed. Stolen moments in the moonlight on this very bench, his kisses burning deep into her soul.

"Damn," Vin laughed, seeing the star-struck face and recognizing the dreamy look, "Bucklin strikes again!"

"He's grand," She blushed, dropping her head. "I've not felt like this since... well... in quite some time."

"He's a good man," Vin looked away and shivered, feeling Buck's strong arms on his shoulders. How many times had that happened? Buck was always there with those strong arms, that booming laugh and that great heart. "He's... special..."

"Yer pretty special yerself," she kissed his cheek and brought up a nice blush. "It's nice to have yer color back," she teased and took his hand. "I'm a better person for the knowin' of ye, Vin Tanner and that's a fact."

"Hey now," Buck strolled over and eyed the intimacy. Intervening at the right moment, when he saw Vin struggling. "Invalid or not, you keep your tongue away from my woman, Slick!"

"She's too good ya," Vin rasped, still reeling from his uneven emotional storm. He let Buck pull him up and turned to give Mollie a warm hug. "Angel... I... can't remember exactly... but I got these feelin's deep down... when I was lost, dyin'... yer hand was the only thing there... I clung t'ya... that light... yer light... was all I had. Damn this ain't comin' out right!" He kicked the bench and his face scowled.

"Hey, watch that temper," Buck teased and rested a large hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "Ya need more time?"

"I... yeah, thanks Buck." Vin offered and took a deep breath, his eyes filling. He lifted his face, full of hope. The overflow of tenderness shone brightly from his eyes and Mollie gasped softly, taking his face in both hands.

"Yer Chris warned me about those lovely eyes... God in Heaven is any girl safe in Denver?"

She heard Buck laugh and smiled at the handsome man. "Vin, ye've been thankin' me all week. Ye gave me back just as much. I'll never ferget ya... yer such a brave Lad... Yer welcome." She kissed his forehead and pulled him into a hug.

"Buck!" Vin hissed, wagging his fingers.

"Somethin' on your mind, Vin?" Buck teased, wearing an impish grin.

"Don't fu... uh... mess around..." Vin scowled, craning his neck to see where Buck's other hand was.

"Buck..." he warned and saw the hand emerge.

"Before all your feathers get ruffled," Buck laughed, "Here... go on," he urged, "Don't embarass me now..."

"Since when did ya need help there?" Vin returned, taking the pastel colored gift bag. "Here," he offered the pretty present to the curious caregiver. "It's not much... compared t'what ya gave me... it ain't hardy nothin'... but... well... Thanks... fer savin' m'life..."

"Jesus," Buck chuckled of the stumbling offering, "...and to think Ezra says you're eloquent."

"Shut the hell up!" Vin chuckled, smacking Buck's arm. "...s'that eloquent enough fer ya?"

Mollie blushed and sat down, letting the bag rest on her lap. She pulled the pastel tissue paper apart, noticing the great care that was taken wrapping it. Glittering pastel ribbons cascaded down form the handles and a small note card said simply "To Angel, from yer Vin". She traced the lettering and felt tears welling.

"It's lovely," she gasped. "Ye did a beautiful job wrapping it..."

"Him?" Buck choked, "You don't see huge globs of glue on brown paper to do you?"

"She don't need t'hear about that!" Vin snapped, face turning crimson, "...'sides that was a long time ago, I didn't have no tape and I was injured."

"You had a cold!" Buck's eyes lit up as he remembered the sorry package that arrived in work on rainy day for Josiah's birthday lunch. Josiah's stone face stared so hard at the shoddy wrapped box, Vin nearly died on the spot. Then one lip turned up, then another and the great body shook with laughter. He cuffed Vin on the neck and mentioned that it was the only gift wrapped with love. The others, of course, didn't see it quite like that. The bumpy, bulky converted brown bag with dark stains where glue leaked through had become a favorite source of Vin needling. Ezra took a special delight in the chore, often leaving brown bags on Vin's desk.

"Oh..." Mollie's voice died in her throat as she lifted a white lid off a small box. The object inside took her breath away. With trembling fingers, she lifted the silver chain and through a waterfall, eyed the beautiful silver claddagh suspended before her. The two hands holding a heart with a crown upon it had become a popular symbol of friendship, loyalty and love. "It's beautiful... I've never seen the likes of one so fine... amethyst?" She whispered of the heart shaped stone cradled in the hands dotted with Marquisites. "Me birthstone," she noted of the pale purple gemstone, "How did ye know?"

"I asked," Vin managed, his heart soaring at the fact his small gift had stolen her breath..

"See how your taste has improved since I've been influencin' you?" Buck bragged, not missing the quality of the jewelry or the shine in Vin's blue eyes. "You done good, Son!" he whispered, clapping the younger man on the shoulder and getting a winning Vin smile as a reward. He drank that grin in, carefully tucking it away to savor it later.

"Ezra helped," Vin added, "...aside from the pretty wrappin's..."

"Them soft hands of his do come in handy," Buck grinned, pulling the weeping Mollie into a gentle embrace. "Hey now, you can't get tear stains on the boy's gift," he teased, using his finger to remove the salty streaks. "Here," he took the necklace and unclasped it, then moved behind her, clasping it around her neck. "Now that is magnificent!" he boomed, moving in front of her and eyeing the beautiful pendant.

"Ye better be talkin' about me claddagh!" she warned, following his gaze and getting the mighty Buck to blush. This gave Vin such a fit of laughter, it caused a coughing spell. After many frantic minutes of backclapping and Vin putting his inhaler to use, he waved off the assistance.

"...m'okay now... thanks..." he gasped, taking careful breaths. "I seen that fer the first time last year," he nodded to the Irish design. "Remember Buck, when Mike Ryan and his wife rehitched?"

"Renewed their vows," he corrected, "Yeah, that was some party."

"Mike Ryan?" Mollie asked, still admiring the pretty gift.

"He's a leader on another team," Vin replied, "Next to Chris, none better. He's a helluva guy."

"I'll second that," Buck agreed, "Mike gave Annie a new wedding band, a claddagh, during the ceremony. It had her birthstone as the heart. He told us the story behind the design; the man who was enslaved created it as a symbol of his loyalty to Ireland."

"Well," Vin said, taking the hand Mollie offered and squeezing it, "I got t'thinkin' on what ya done. Ya know them first days... I don't recall much... lots of darkness... bein' trapped... lost... alone. That was the worst feelin'... " Vin shuddered and sighed, "But then an angel was there... a sweet voice... like nothin' I ever heard... guidin' me... holdin' me... healin' me... " he decided. "So I called Ezra and he done the rest. Ya see Angel... t'me... ya held m'heart in the palms of yer hands... and I ain't never gonna... " He turned and walked a few feet away, dropping his head and trying to compose himself. Mollie went to follow and Buck shook his head, pulling her back. Vin finally returned, hands shoved in his pockets. He nodded to the bag. "... ya best dig a little more..."

"More?" Mollie shook her head, "Vin you didn't have to..."

"Wasn't 'cause I had to," Vin stated firmly, "I wanted to... s'important."

"Angel My Own," Mollie read on the framed poem that was handprinted and framed in sky blue.

"Your chicken scratch is improvin' Slick!" Buck commented, reading over Mollie's shoulder.

"Ye wrote this?" Mollie's eyes widened and her voice was stunned. She saw Vin blush and nod, smiling shyly. "Fer me? Saints in heaven..."

"No, that ain't the crowd Vin hangs with," Buck chuckled, "He's 'laughin' with the sinners..."

"Would ye read it?" Mollie handed the framed artistry to the shaken Texan.

"Angel My Own," Vin began. "By Vin Tanner..." He took a deep breath and began.

"I've heard about the Angels wings
Spun from hope and sewn with faith;
bound by love and lighter than the wind.
I've heard about how Angels sing
sweet and pure; radiant joyful music
born of God's hand and echoed so
beautifully in every Child's laugh.
I've heard about the strength that Angels bring
God's first team of sentinels, fierce and strong
They guard the souls of all of Adam's children
Using their protective shields to keep safe the fold
I've heard how Angels protected the newborn King
Surrounding a manger on a cold winter's night
Those mighty wings unfurled, unleashing a powerful light
A glorious chorus sent heavenward, praising the sight.
To be lost and alone in the dark is a terrible thing
I was drowning in a river so black, it defied time and space
Just when Death tried to steal my last breath away
I felt those strong wings chase Death away.
They cradled my wayward soul, shivering and cold
Giving me hope when my fear was untold
Wrapping me in faith and keeping me safe
I felt like God had caressed my face.
It was then that I dared to reach out in the abyss
I heard a faint sound, sweet, sure and true
The lyrical melody lit up my shadow world
The voice and the notes healed my fragile soul
Angel my own, you harkened the call
Angel my own, your wings broke my swift fall
Angel my own, your song gave me faith
Angel my own, you'll stay in my heart"

For a moment, the only sound was Mollie's sobbing. Vin stood unsure, the poem shaking slightly in his trembling hands. He opened his mouth to say something but closed it again. Then the dark-haired nurse as in his arms and his face broke into a wide smile. He saw Buck's beaming face and didn't duck when the large hand ruffled his hair.

"Damn Vin, how the hell am I gonna top that?" Buck praised, "Didn't I tell you I rubbed off on that boy?" He saw Josiah wave from the doorway, indicating that the medical team was leaving.

"Vin, the Major and Sandy are getting ready to leave, then we'll be headin' out."

"Oh