Highway Heroes

by Joy K

Chris Larabee sat in the hospital room trying to make sense out of something that would never make sense: how two of his men, ATF agents, were struck down not in a raid, but in a senseless accident. One moment they had been laughing and teasing as they left his ranch house, now they were silent and still except for the sounds of the machinery that supported their lives and monitored their conditions. It was so unreal. He kept waiting for someone to wake him up from this horrible nightmare.

He prayed someone would wake him up.

An uncharacteristic sniff from across the room drew his attention.

Ezra wiped his eyes with his index finger, his handkerchief forgotten in his pocket. He took a couple of deep breaths in a vain attempt to control his emotions, but it had been too much and too long.

"I'm sorry," Ezra whispered, bolting from the room.

Chris' gaze followed Ezra to the doorway. He looked back at the man in the bed and then to the door.

"I've got him," said Josiah solemnly, heading for the hallway.

"Thanks," Chris said softly, watching Team Seven's profiler follow the undercover agent. Chris' heart ached for Ezra, knowing full well the guilt, the responsibility for his friends' condition that he was feeling right now. Nothing would relieve that remorse other than their survival and return to 100% capacity. And even then, Standish would still punish himself.

Chris sighed, knowing he would do the same thing.

Yet, it wasn't Ezra's fault. It was no one's fault. That's what made it so incredibly unbelievable. Just hours ago they were laughing and teasing...

+ + ATF + +

"Would you guys get out of here?" Chris growled as JD and Vin tripped over each other, laughing.

"Yes, Sir, Mr. Larabee, Sir," Vin said, snapping a salute.

Chris slapped the back of his head as Vin laughed.

"Hey!" JD protested as Buck slapped his head. "I didn't do anything!"

"I know, Kid," said Buck. "That's for what you're going to do."

JD laughed and shoved Buck out the door of Chris' ranch house. They wrestled their way to the driveway, to the waiting vehicles. With a final shove, Buck pushed JD away and paused to button up his coat.

"Woo-wee, it's chilly out tonight," he commented.

"Ya coming, Ezra?" Vin asked as he stepped off the porch. Josiah and Nathan had spent the evening at the ranch as well, but they had chosen to head home at a reasonable hour.

Ezra buttoned his expensive wool coat and wrapped a scarf around his neck before stepping into the cold.

"Good night, Mr. Larabee," he said.

Everyone groaned at the formality.

"There is nothing wrong with good manners!" Ezra shouted at his teammates, completely destroying the illusion of proper etiquette.

Vin laughed and climbed into his Jeep and attempted to start the engine. It groaned pathetically and so did he.

"Problem, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin rolled his eyes even though Ezra couldn't see the gesture in the dark.

"Would you like a ride in a nice, warm, reliable vehicle?" Ezra offered.

"Yeah," Vin conceded. "It's too damn cold to try and fix her tonight."

Chris stood on the porch and shook his head. It wasn't like this hadn't happened before.

"Get in, JD," said Buck, trying to corral his roommate into the truck so they could head home.

"No way," said JD. "If Vin's going in the Jag, so am I!"

"That makes no sense, Boy," said Buck. "Why make Ezra come over to our place just to drop you off when..." Buck shook his head when he realized he was talking to air. JD was already in the back seat of the Jag.

"Race you home, Honey," Buck teased.

Ezra grinned at him and opened his door.

"You will not," Chris ordered. "It's cold. There's likely to be fog on the highway. You watch yourselves on the way home."

"Yes, Mother," both Ezra and Buck answered at the same time. They looked at each other and laughed.

Chris shook his head, walked into the house, slammed the door and shut off the porch light growling about ungrateful friends.

Buck gunned the truck and peeled out of the driveway, scattering gravel in his wake just to antagonize Chris a little more. He raced down to the highway leaving the Jag behind. As fast as the car was, Ezra was a cautious driver, not willing to risk life or limb, or the expensive car to the poor weather conditions.

Within a few minutes Buck was far ahead of them as the three friends in the Jag enjoyed the smooth ride of the vehicle.

"Mr. Tanner, desist!" Ezra ordered as Vin tuned the radio to a County station.

"Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses," Vin sang loudly along with the radio.

Ezra winced. Tanner had absolutely no sense of pitch. Or taste in music for that matter. He reached over and pushed the button for the Jazz station.

"Aww," Vin and JD groaned at him. Then, as if they had the same thought at the same instant, both of them belted out, "Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses!" drowning out the radio.

The men rode along laughing and joking until the fog became very dense. Ezra slowed the car down to a crawl. It was difficult to see where they were going, so he focused on the white line at the side of the road to keep him on path. Vin and JD were silent, allowing the southerner to concentrate on the task at hand.

The normal thirty-minute drive had now stretched into forty-five and they still had a long way to go. They weren't exactly sure where they were because the fog was disorienting.

"Stop!" Vin called urgently.

Ezra slowed the car and pulled off onto the shoulder of the highway, now seeing the same problem Vin did. About thirty feet ahead of them, headlights were facing them on their side of the highway. With two lanes in each direction on the divided highway, it was clear that a car was on their side of the road. The headlights were at a strange angle to each other and far too low. Something was definitely wrong.

"Let's see if we can help," Ezra suggested as he reached for his cell phone.

Vin was already out of the car heading over to the scene as JD crawled out of the back seat.

The single vehicle was upside down with the front end wedged at a 45-degree angle against the concrete median. It looked like it had rolled. Vin tugged vainly at the passenger door, but it was too badly mangled to get it open.

"Ezra, flashlights?" he called. He looked over towards the Jag, but couldn't even see it through the murkiness.

JD seemingly materialized from nowhere as he approached through the dense fog.

"I can't get in from this side," said Vin. "Let's try the other side." He and JD moved to the median, choosing to climb over it rather than going around the back of the car.

"Vin? JD?" called Ezra as he approached with a flashlight. "Help is on the way."

"Good. We're going to..." Vin's voice was cut off by JD's chilling scream as they both disappeared from sight.

"JD! Vin!" called Ezra frantically. He ran to the median and turned the beam of light towards his friends. The southerner gasped as he saw what they had not seen in the fog. The car had overturned on an overpass and Vin and JD had jumped over the median into nothingness, falling from the divided overpass through the gap between the northbound and southbound lanes.

Ezra struggled to catch a breath as it sank in that his friends had fallen to the roadway below. "Vin! JD!" he called frantically, his heart pounding wildly. He shown the flashlight towards the ground below, but it was of little use. He could see no further than a few feet in the thick fog.

"Vin! JD!" he screamed again as he moved seemingly on autopilot. He ran for the end of the overpass, knowing that most of them had some sort of ladder or staircase for emergency workers. There was no question of who to help first. The victim in the car would have to wait. If Vin and JD had survived the fall, they would be on the roadway below and in danger of oncoming traffic. And with the thick fog, a driver, no matter how alert would never see them.

Somehow Ezra found his cell phone in his hand and he placed a second call to 9-1-1 as he scrambled to find the path to the road below. He reported that additional help was needed, but he couldn't tell them what overpass he was on. The operator calmly told him where to look for the identifying number on the bridge and Ezra relayed the information as he stumbled down the steep steps.

"Vin! JD!"

Now on the roadway below, he tried to gauge where his friends would have landed, scanning the area with the flashlight.

He sucked in a breath and his heart seemed to stop as he found JD. The young communications specialist was in the middle of the road, sprawled awkwardly on his stomach. Blood was pooled near his face.

Ezra's heart pounded relentlessly as he felt for a pulse. His relief on finding it was short lived. He could hear a car coming. Every bit of training he had ever had screamed at him not to move his friend, but none of the training had dealt with someone in the middle of the road on a dark foggy night. He had no choice. As carefully as he could he placed his hands under JD's limp arms and dragged him to the side of the road. He cautiously maneuvered the young agent onto his side, since JD was bleeding from the mouth and nose, and he was afraid he might choke.

The undercover agent turned back towards the road. He needed to find Vin. The approaching car passed as he held his breath and prayed - prayed that he would not hear a horrible thud of car hitting flesh.

Letting out a breath as the car passed, Ezra strained to see through the fog. He had to find Vin. Trembling hands made it difficult to shine the beam of the flashlight with any steadiness. Hearing a groan, Ezra focused the light in the direction and hurried towards the sound.

He nearly dropped the flashlight as he slid to his knees beside a bloodied Vin in the opposite lane of traffic. If that vehicle had been going the other direction...

'Stop it!' Ezra forced himself to focus on the immediate need. Faced with the same decision of moving his injured friend or leaving him at the fate of traffic, Ezra made the same choice a second time. He stood, becoming angry with himself as his legs shook. He needed to be strong right now. The nerves could settle in after Vin and JD were safe.

The other shoulder of the road was closer, but Ezra chose to drag Vin to where he had moved JD. He needed them together to do what he could while he waited for help. Settling the sharpshooter next to JD, Ezra fell to his knees beside them. His legs would no longer hold him up. He shined the beam of light over his two friends, taking a shaky breath. There were so many obvious injuries. Where could he even start to help them?

Nathan would know what to do, but the medic wasn't here. Ezra P. Standish was all his friends had until real help arrived.

He wasn't really conscious of his actions as he dug his cell phone out of his pocket and set the flashlight on the concrete next to him. Ezra ran one bloody hand through his hair as he dialed.

"C...Chris?" he said stuttered into the phone.

+ + ATF + +

It was the call no one ever wanted to receive. When Chris heard Ezra's trembling voice on the other end of the line he knew instinctively that something was wrong and that it was bad. What scared him the most was the fact that he had to work to get Ezra focused enough to tell him what was going on. The undercover agent was not easily rattled, but he was truly shaken. At first Chris feared that Ezra was injured and unable to communicate clearly, but with some firm coaxing and a pointed order, he got the undercover agent on track and was given the grim news. Vin and JD were seriously hurt in some kind of an accident.

"There's so much blood..."

"Ezra! Ezra listen to me," Chris ordered sharply. The undercover agent was losing focus again. "Did you call 911?"

"Yes, they're on the way," he replied. "I don't know what to do, where to start, there's so much blood..."

Chris hated to be harsh with him, almost certain the southerner was also injured or in shock, but injured or not, Ezra was the only lifeline that Vin and JD had at the moment. "Think, Ezra!" he demanded.

"Need Nathan," Ezra said softly.

"Basic first aid, Ezra," Chris ordered. "You know what to do."

"A-B-C," muttered Ezra.

"That's right," Chris assured. "Airway, breathing, circulation. Just do what you can. Help's on the way."

Chris continued to hold the cell phone, listening for anything as he quickly put on his boots and grabbed for his coat.

He heard a distant groan and then Ezra's voice telling someone to be still. It was a relief of sorts to know that at least one of them was alive, but frustrating that he couldn't help.

Chris cursed as the connection cut off. He dialed Ezra's number, but it simply rang and went to voice mail. Grabbing the keys to his truck, he ran out the door, dialing Nathan as he went.

The only thing worse than receiving a call like this was passing on the news to someone else. He told Nathan all he knew. There had been an accident. Vin and JD were hurt, how bad he had no idea, except that one of them was groaning and Ezra said there was a lot of blood. It wasn't much information, but it was all he had.

Nathan had been Nathan. He had tried to reassure Chris as much as he could and took on the task of calling Josiah and Buck, leaving Chris to focus on driving on the foggy highway.

Chris cursed the fog. He cursed the 'luck' of his team. He cursed whatever fool had caused the accident, fervently hoping it hadn't been Ezra.

Larabee drove far too fast in the poor conditions. His single advantage was the hundreds of times he had driven this highway. Even in the dense fog he knew the turns, he knew the exits and on ramps. But even his knowledge couldn't get him to his friends fast enough.

He reached the scene of the accident nearly 40 minutes later. Flares on the road and flashing lights of emergency vehicles cast an eerie glow in the fog. Chris pulled over to the side of the road and parked the truck behind Ezra's unscathed Jag.

How the hell had Vin and JD been injured if the Jag was in one piece?

Grabbing his flashlight, he exited the truck and headed up the shoulder of the highway until he found a police officer. Chris identified himself and asked about the injured men as the officer led him to the scene commander. He could see the single car upside down, but there was no sign of his men or what had happened to them.

"You're Larabee?" the Sergeant asked.

Chris nodded. Ezra must have told them he was coming.

"Your men stopped to help the accident victim." The Sergeant grimaced. He hated to convey bad news to anyone, but when it was something so senseless, it seemed a million times worse.

"I think the fog obscured their vision."

"What happened? Where are they?" Chris impatiently.

"It appears they climbed over the median to go around the car."

Chris motioned with his hands as if to say, "So what?"

"Agent Larabee, what they didn't see in the fog, is that they were on an overpass."

Fear surged through Chris as the implications hit. They had fallen.

He couldn't stop the instinctual impulse to look over the edge. He saw nothing but fog and knew that is all his friends had seen.

"They're on the way to Denver General," the Sergeant added.

"They're alive?" asked Chris in a hushed voice.

"Yes," said the Sergeant. "Standish insisted that he go in with one of the men." He looked at the shaken blond with concern. "Do you want an escort to the hospital?"

Chris shook his head. "I've got lights and sirens if I need them."

The man put his hand on Chris' shoulder. "I hope they're all right."

"Thanks," said Chris, truly appreciating the Sergeant's concern. "The other victim?"

"He's fine. A few bruises," he replied with a shake of his head. "Paramedics took him in just to be safe."

"Drunk?" Larabee asked.

"Don't know, yet," the Sergeant replied, "but it's likely."

Chris closed his eyes, cursing under his breath. This was totally pointless. Vin and JD had been hurt trying to help someone in distress who chose to drink and drive.

"We'll find out for sure, and we'll charge him," the Sergeant offered. It wasn't much, but it was all he could do.

"Thanks," said Chris, shaking the man's hand before heading for his truck. He needed to get to the hospital.

+ + ATF + +

Striding through the Emergency Room doors with an air of authority, Larabee did a quick scan of the waiting area, easily spotting his team. With less distance to travel, Buck, Josiah and Nathan had arrived at the hospital before him. Off in the far corner of the chairs, the men had unconsciously set up a perimeter around Ezra.

The southerner was seated on a hard plastic chair, slumped forward, his elbows pressed into his knees and his forehead resting on his fisted hands. There was an empty chair on either side of him as if attempts at approaching him had already been made and his teammates had backed off.

Buck stood near the window, staring out. Having teammates injured was hard on all of them, but when JD was involved it was particularly hard on Wilmington. He and JD were more than roommates - they were like brothers.

Josiah sat across from Ezra, his head slightly bowed, eyes closed. No doubt he was praying for his teammates.

Nathan met Chris' gaze as the team leader joined the vigil. Shaking his head, he said, "We haven't heard anything, yet."

Chris nodded and walked forward, sitting purposefully next to Ezra.

From this vantage, he could see the dried blood not only on Ezra's clothing, but also on his hands and face. There was a long tear in the knee of his pants.

"Are you all right?" Chris asked quietly.

Ezra sat up and took a deep breath. Chris didn't miss the trembling hand as Ezra pressed the offending appendage against his thigh to stop the shaking.


Chris grimaced. A single word with no flowery explanation, no obvious denial of the facts. But the shaking hands and simple speech spoke volumes about Ezra's true status.

"Mr. Standish?" The young doctor who spoke intruded into their space.

Ezra nodded. "How are they?"

"We're working on them," the doctor said, brushing off the question. "We need to know a little more about the scene. Doctor Maxwell said you were there before the paramedics?"

Chris frowned as Nathan moved in close, taking a protective stance between Ezra and the doctor.

"He did what he had to do," Nathan growled.

The doctor raised his hands in surrender. "I understand. That's between you and Dr. Maxwell. I just need to know how Mr. Tanner was positioned when you found him."

"I found JD first," said Ezra. By his answer, it was obvious that the Southerner wasn't thinking clearly. "He was on the road. I had to move him."

"You did right, Ezra," Nathan affirmed.

The shaken agent looked at his teammate. He seemed to soak up the support, and then turned his focus on the doctor.

"JD was on his stomach. His uh..." Ezra paused for a steadying breath. "His right arm was beneath him and he was bleeding from the mouth and nose."

Subconsciously Team Seven closed in around Standish as he told of their downed teammates, but he didn't seem to notice.

"I'm sure his leg was broken, maybe both," Ezra rambled. "I think he may have landed feet first and fallen forward hitting his face..."

The Southerner paused as the images of JD flooded his mind. Things he never wanted to see. Things he hoped he could forget. Feeling Chris' hand on his shoulder, Ezra looked at him and took another deep breath.

"And Mr. Tanner?" asked the doctor.

"Vin was on his back, more on his right hip I think."

"Which was it, his side or his back?" the doctor tried to clarify.

"I didn't want to move him."

"It's all right, Ezra," Nathan assured again, as he placed a hand on the under cover agent's other shoulder in support.

"His leg was broken. There was blood."

"Enough," said Nathan, glaring at the doctor. Standish was plainly shaken and this physician needed serious help in the area of sensitivity. "I'm going to take Ezra and get him cleaned up. If you need more information, you can talk to him when he's up to it."

Nathan turned his focus back to the slightly shocky agent. "Come on, Ezra. Let's get you cleaned up. You'll feel better in some clean clothes." Nathan took Ezra's arm and pulled gently until the Southerner stood and moved with him past the doctor.

The doctor headed back into the exam rooms assuring Chris, Josiah and Buck that he would keep them informed.

"What the hell was that about?" Chris asked.

Josiah sat down beside him. "Ezra was in the exam room when Doctor Maxwell went off on a rampage about the moron who moved Vin."

Chris cursed.

"My feelings, exactly," said Josiah. "Nathan got there just about the end of things when Ezra told the doctor that he was responsible for moving Vin. Actually, Nathan said that Ezra said, 'I'm the moron. But what's done is done and you're wasting time focusing on me when Mr. Tanner needs your attention.'"

Chris grimaced. Ezra's words were true, but his sarcasm and anger wouldn't win him any high marks with the doctor.

"Maxwell had him removed to the waiting room. Nathan says he spent the next twenty minutes trying to assure Ezra that he had done the right thing."

"Doesn't sound like it worked," said Chris.

"Hell, no," Buck joined into the conversation. "How do you convince someone that a crippled friend is better than a dead friend?"

Crippled. The word struck hard as Chris began to piece together the information. The doctor was angry because someone moved Vin.

Chris swore.

Vin might be paralyzed.

If he survived.

+ + ATF + +

Nurse Jenna Dawson led Nathan and Ezra to the staff lounge. She knew Raine Jackson and had met her husband, Nathan, numerous times. After ascertaining that Ezra wasn't seriously injured, she had guided them to the lounge and retrieved a pair of scrubs for the agent. She watched as Nathan wooed the shaken man to the sink and helped him wash the blood from his hands and face.

It was easy to see what Dr. Jackson found attractive in her husband, and it wasn't just his handsome features. The man had a gentleness and compassion about him that was rare. He was taking great care of a distraught friend when he had every right to be just as worried.

Nathan took the supplies she had offered and tenderly cleaned the scrapes on both of Ezra's hands, expertly placing bandages on the heel of each hand. He spoke softly to the patient the entire time, assuring him that he had done all anyone could do for his friends.

When it came to dressing the knee, Nathan asked for her assistance. It was a deeper scrape and required first flushing the area, and then picking out some bits of rock that were embedded in the abrasion.

Ezra, for the most part, sat silently enduring the ministrations. He stared at his hands but didn't really seem to be looking at them.

"Can you slip these on?" asked Nathan, holding out a set of blue scrubs to Ezra.

Ezra mechanically took the clothing from his friend. Jenna excused herself while he dressed, saying that she would be back in a few minutes.

True to her word, she returned with a plastic bag for Ezra's damaged clothing, a small bottle of orange juice and a packet of cookies.

Nathan thanked her for the kindness, and made sure Ezra ate a cookie and drank some of the juice.

The Southerner followed Jackson's instructions without conscious thought, eating part of a cookie and taking a drink when Nathan handed him the juice.

Fortunately, Nathan could see what was coming before it hit him and grabbed a trashcan, holding it for Standish while his stomach rebelled.

+ + ATF + +

The waiting was interminable. Each minute they waited seemed like hours as they hoped for some information, any information on their friends. Chris' limited patience had long ago expired. His frustration and anger continued to build with each minute that passed without word on Vin and JD.

While Ezra remained silent in his thoughts, the remaining team members had vented their anger verbally, promising retribution against the drunk driver. Whether any of them really would harm the man was unlikely, but having somewhere to focus their frustrations kept them from chewing on each other or innocent people around them as they waited.

But even that had now been stolen from them. Sergeant Tucker, after wrapping up at the accident scene had come to the hospital to follow up. He needed a statement from Ezra, but one look at the man and he knew the questions could wait. Receiving the lab results from the doctor, he let out a frustrated sigh. He had to inform Larabee and his men that the driver was not intoxicated. It was simply a case of an eighty-six year old man disoriented by the fog and going up the off ramp into the wrong lanes of traffic. There was no villain, no one to blame for the senseless accident. No way to rationalize the injuries to two young men who had simply stopped to help.

Chris looked around the waiting room. He gave a nod to the fire chief. They had worked together on a recent arson investigation. There were paramedics, Denver Police officers, ATF agents, some he didn't recognize at all. It was no surprise to him that as word started filtering out about the accident, even in the middle of the night, that fellow law enforcement officers and firefighters joined Team Seven in their waiting room vigil, showing support for their fallen. It was an honor that Chris sincerely appreciated but wished they didn't need.

When a doctor came to speak to them, there was no privacy. Every law enforcement officer and firefighter edged closer, wanting to know the fate of his or her comrades. It never occurred to Chris to ask for some space. All he wanted to know was if Vin and JD would be all right.

Head injury.

Trouble stabilizing.



Chris didn't absorb all the details of JD's injuries. It was the major words that shook him. He glanced over to Nathan and the Paramedics who waited nearby. The look on their faces showed their understanding of the details and that it was serious. He looked away quickly, not wanting to acknowledge that losing JD was a real possibility, but his eyes fell on Buck. The glazed look on his face confirmed the fears.

"And Mr. Tanner..."

Chris didn't want to hear the doctor's next words. He didn't want to hear that he had lost a friend; or that he could lose two friends today. Or that their lives would be changed forever. He wanted to hope that they both would be fine and everything would go back to normal. Taking a deep breath, he listened anyway. He needed to know.



Possible spinal cord injury.

Chris cursed. He felt Buck's hand rest on his shoulder. As torn up as Buck was about the news, he was still offering support.

"Chris?" Buck interrupted his thoughts. "He asked if someone wants to go be with Vin until they take him to surgery."

Chris looked over at Ezra, thinking that maybe after all he'd been through that Ezra needed to be with Vin. The look of guilt on the southerner's face was like a blow to the stomach.

Ezra shook his head at the silent question from Chris. There was no way that he could bring himself to face his friend whom he had probably crippled for life. He ran a shaky hand through his hair before returning his elbows to his knees and resting his forehead on his fists.

Chris stood to join Buck in following the doctor. The ladies' man would be allowed to walk with JD's gurney on the way to surgery. Catching Nathan's eye, Chris nodded towards Ezra.

Nathan nodded in agreement. He would keep an eye on Ezra. He exchanged glances with Josiah and they both moved closer to the undercover agent as Chris and Buck left the waiting room.

+ + ATF + +

Chris stopped at the entry to the cubicle where Vin waited. Two doctors stood together conferring over some x-rays and images, presumably of Vin's injuries. A nurse was checking Vin's nasal canula, speaking softly to him.

Vin was a mess. His face was bruised and swollen on the left side and a large bandage covered some injury above his eye. His head was immobilized to prevent further damage to his spine. His right arm was bandaged in several places and blood seeped through the largest bandage just above his wrist. Bruising was already beginning to show on his torso. His right leg was temporarily splinted.

Hearing a whimper of pain, Chris moved forward. The nurse smiled and nodded, encouraging him to come closer.

Vin's eyes were closed tightly as he panted through the pain.

"Take it easy, Cowboy," Chris said softly.

"Chris?" Vin opened his eyes.

Larabee moved closer to his head so Vin could see him.

"Guess we should'a looked before we leaped..." Vin gasped and then clinched his eyes tightly again.

Chris swallowed. Here Vin was, all busted up and trying to crack a joke to make it easier on him. The blond looked at the nurse for permission as he reached for Vin's hand. She nodded and he gently lifted Vin's hand a couple inches off the bed and held it.

Immediately Vin's long slender fingers wrapped around his and squeezed hard as he rode out the pain. Eventually Vin started to relax the grip, as the surge of pain lessened.

"JD?" he asked as he opened his eyes.

"On his way to surgery," informed Chris. "He got pretty banged up, too."

"He'll be okay?" Vin gasped as another wave of pain hit. He cursed vigorously and squeezed Larabee's hand like a vice.

"Can't you give him something?" Chris asked of anyone who could hear.

One of the doctors broke away from the conference and did a quick check on Vin. "We've given him what we can until we get the head CT back. We're expecting it any minute," he assured.

"M' back hurts so bad," Vin complained.

Larabee looked at the doctor, giving him a hard glare. Sure the man had years of schooling and supposed expertise in his field, but at that moment all that Chris cared about was the incredible pain that Vin was enduring. From past experience, he knew that Vin had a very high pain threshold, and if Vin were complaining even after some pain meds had been given, it had to be unimaginable.

"I know," said the doctor, soothingly. "Just a little longer and we'll get you into surgery and take care of that."

Chris frowned. This couldn't be the jerk who yelled at Ezra. He looked at Vin's eyes, noting that there wasn't as much fear as just moments ago. The guy was pretty good at calming his patient.

"Here's the CT results," said a technician as he entered the room.

"Great," said the doctor in the same low tone. He smiled at Vin. "See? Just a little while more."

Vin closed his eyes and started to squeeze Chris' hand again as the doctor moved away to look at the results and make his final decisions about possible spinal surgery and taking care of the fractures.

All too soon, and yet not soon enough, Vin was wheeled away from Chris to surgery.

And the waiting continued.

+ + ATF + +

Buck had been quiet since he returned from escorting JD to surgery. What he had seen wasn't JD. It couldn't be. His friend had horrible bruising on his face, both eyes blackened and swollen. His jaw seemed puffed-up twice it's normal size and it was at an odd angle. He was receiving oxygen through a tube since the damaged jaw and swollen nose made airflow difficult.

Buck wanted to touch him, to hold JD's hand or something, but one arm was splinted and the other had an IV attached. The lumps under the sheet indicated an injury to his lower legs but he couldn't see to what extent.

"Hey, Kid," he had called softly to the unconscious agent as they hurried the gurney down the hallway to the operating room. "You're going to be just fine, you hear?"

The nurse had given him a sympathetic smile as they left him standing outside the operating room doors.

He had slowly made his way to the surgery waiting room, knowing that the others would join him there at some point.

If only he had made JD get in the truck, maybe all this wouldn't have happened.

Buck closed his eyes.

Maybe he could have forced JD to ride home with him and spared his injury, but if he had, maybe it would be Vin and Ezra in the hospital instead of JD. Or worse. If Vin and Ezra had fallen and no one had been there to help, maybe they'd be...

Buck cursed. 'What ifs' were useless. The situation was what it was and there was no changing it.

He closed his eyes and let out a sigh.

"Want to talk about it?" Josiah asked as he sat down beside Buck.

Buck gave Josiah a half smile and a shake of the head. He appreciated the offer but knew if he talked he wouldn't be able to keep his emotions in check.

Wilmington looked up as Ezra and Nathan came through the door, wincing at Ezra's defeated appearance.

"Maybe you should talk to Ezra," Buck suggested in a hushed voice. "He needs to know it's not his fault."

"He won't hear it," said Josiah, "until he's ready."

Buck shook his head as Josiah walked away, knowing that Josiah's words were aimed at him as well.

+ + ATF + +

"Why don't you try to get some sleep?" suggested Nathan.

He fully expected the response he received, a shake of the head from the weary southerner.

"All right then, just do me a favor?" Nathan shifted some magazines off of the padded bench seats in the surgery waiting room. "Just put your feet up here. Rest that knee a bit."

"It's nothing," Ezra protested softly.

"Humor me," said Nathan, slightly surprised when Standish gave in and put his feet up on the couch. The scrape on Ezra's knee was minor and wasn't really of concern to the medic, but Standish had to be exhausted. The adrenaline had burned off long ago and the emotional and physical drain was taking over, and even as hard as he was fighting it he was having a difficult time keeping his eyes open.

Nathan folded up his jacket and placed it between Ezra's shoulder and the back of the couch, hoping that Ezra would give in and nap a little. "You know," he said softly so that only Ezra could hear, "you aren't to blame for what happened. You did it right, Ezra. No one will think any less of you if you sleep a bit. Staying awake won't make the surgery go any faster."

"Disrespectful," Ezra muttered, fighting to stay awake.

"No, it's not," Nathan admonished. "You need to rest so you don't make yourself sick. We're going to have some long hours here ahead of us."

"Thanks to me..." Ezra's muttering was even softer as his eyelids drooped and his head dropped forward.

Nathan gently pushed Ezra's head against the folded jacket.

He smiled sadly as Ezra finally gave in and let sleep claim him.

"No, Ezra. They're alive, thanks to you."

+ + ATF + +

With Ezra sleeping covered by his teammates' coats, Nathan turned his attention to the other members of his team. Physical injuries, he could handle, but the emotional wounds he and his teammates struggled with were more Josiah's department. Still, he could do everything possible to make sure his friends took care of themselves, something that people waiting in circumstances like this usually failed to do.

The accident had happened sometime around one o'clock in the morning, and it was now nearing six o'clock, but getting anyone to leave the waiting area to do something as "trivial" as eat, would be unlikely. Nathan talked to a few of the extended law enforcement family who waited with Team Seven, and several men and women jumped at the opportunity to do something tangible.

Soon Ezra was covered with blankets instead of the jackets that had been offered. A pillow replaced the jacket under his head. The southerner slept through the changes without so much as a murmur or a shift in position, attesting to his exhaustion.

Less than forty minutes later, two coolers appeared filled with beverages and sandwiches. A basket of fruit was added to the growing collection. A hospital volunteer set up a large coffee maker and a firefighter brought in a five-gallon jug of water.

Nathan picked up some of the wrapped sandwiches and walked around to each of his teammates. He placed sandwiches in their hands and told them to eat. One of the firefighters followed him, giving each man a cup of coffee.

When Nathan was satisfied that the others were actually eating, he sat down on the couch where Ezra still slept. He closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed the back of his neck wearily. Opening his eyes again, he found a sandwich held in front of him.

He chuckled and accepted the offering.

"Thanks, Katherine."

Nathan looked at Ezra as he moved restlessly. He tucked the blanket around the southerner's legs before looking back to the Paramedic.

"Make sure they know the food is for everyone," Nathan asked.

"Sure thing, Nathan," Katherine replied. She looked at Ezra as he began to really thrash in his sleep.

"NO!" Ezra shouted as he sat up suddenly, startling everyone.

Nathan put a calming hand on Ezra's ankle.

"You're all right," he said soothingly.

Ezra blinked at Nathan for a moment, trying to push away the horror of his nightmare and figure out where he was.

Looking around the room to gather his bearings he suddenly felt like the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room - the awkward object everyone knew was there and no one chose to talk about.

Everyone was looking at him.

He swallowed uncomfortably and ducked his head failing to see the sympathy and empathy on the faces.

Paramedic Katherine Taylor stepped in to ease the awkward moment. "There's enough food for everyone," she invited. "Team Seven would like to thank you for being here and they ask that you help yourselves."

When the focus was turned to the food, she returned to Ezra with a sandwich and a cup of coffee. His eyes widened and his face paled at the sight of the food.

"No, thank you," he said with a shake of his head.

"Ezra, you need to eat," Nathan encouraged.

"I can't." Ezra closed his eyes and sucked in a breath and blew it out slowly. The thought of putting anything into his mouth made him nauseous.

Nathan set aside his own sandwich and coffee, wondering if there was going to be a repeat performance of Ezra losing what little he ate earlier after he had bandaged the southerner's scrapes.

"Take some deep breaths," he said softly, knowing that Ezra was already mortified about drawing attention from the nightmare. He didn't need to throw up in front of his peers as well. Seeing the slightly panicked look on the southerner's face, Nathan stood and took Ezra by the elbow.

"There's a restroom right around the corner."

Ezra gratefully exited the waiting room with Nathan.

Chris watched them with concern. He turned to Orrin Travis, who had joined them about an hour earlier and excused himself from their discussion, following his agents into the hallway.

He rounded the corner and entered the restroom, finding Ezra bent over the sink, spitting. The undercover agent took sip of water from the paper cup in his hand and rinsed and spit.

Larabee frowned. There was no evidence of Ezra being sick, and Chris had been too close behind them to have missed it, not that he wanted to witness it. So Standish hadn't been sick, but was repeatedly rinsing out his mouth. The blond raised an eyebrow at Nathan.

The medic shrugged in response. He wasn't sure what had precipitated the obsessive behavior.

After the third cup of water, Chris reached out and put one hand on Ezra's forearm. He removed the paper cup from the southerner's hand with his other hand, crumpled it and tossed it into the garbage can.

"You all right, Ezra?" He asked.

Ezra refused to look at him. If he didn't meet that gaze, he didn't have to tell the truth.

"Sergeant Tucker wants to get your statement." Chris folded his arms across his chest and leaned against a stall frame, looking at Ezra in the mirror. "Are you up to that?"

The southerner looked up, catching Chris' reflection in the mirror.

"Might as well get it over with," said Ezra.

"That's not what I asked," said Chris, unfolding his arms and stepping forward as Ezra turned to face him. "I asked if you were up to it."

Ezra looked at him uncertainly. How could he tell his boss, one of the few people he truly respected, that he was a coward and didn't want to think about the incident at all, much less make a report on it?

He took a slow deep breath, averting his gaze.

"I'll stand with you," Chris offered.

Ezra shook his head, unaware of the movement.

"You need to be debriefed," Chris suggested uncertain whether he was trying to help too soon or not soon enough.

Ezra knew that Chris was right, but he didn't want to think about what had happened, what still could happen because he hadn't done enough or because he'd done it wrong.

Without warning he slammed his fist against the mirror, sending little spiraling cracks out from the point of impact.

Chris winced, knowing from personal experience how much that hurt. Nathan simply waited for Ezra's next move.

The stressed undercover agent slowly opened his hand and examined his knuckles.

"That was really stupid," he said with self-condemnation.

Nathan took Ezra's hand into his and looked for any cuts.

Ezra shook his head ruefully and pulled his hand away. He wasn't injured. It was just another way to feel foolish... stupid... useless.

"I'll make the statement," he said.

Chris nodded, and followed Nathan and Ezra out into the hallway.

+ + ATF + +

Settling in a quiet corner of the room, Chris joined Ezra as Sergeant Tucker took his statement. Even though Ezra knew procedure, Tucker emphasized that it was only a statement of the events, not a judgment of any kind.

Ezra matter-of-factly went through the events that had occurred, pausing only occasionally when he felt like his emotions would betray him. He described finding his friends "Agent Dunne" and "Agent Tanner" as if the formality would keep him from feeling. When it came to describing what actions he had taken, the southerner was brief and vague preferring to make blanket statements rather than give the blow-by-blow details. Anything to keep from reliving the events.

"Thank you, Agent Standish," said Tucker.

Ezra nodded to him, then stood suddenly as a doctor walked into the waiting room.

Chris did the same, passing Ezra and moving to meet the doctor.

"Why don't we sit down," suggested the surgeon as Chris approached. Some ATF agents vacated their seats, provided room for the doctor and Chris to join Buck, Nathan and Josiah.

Ezra stood back from the group, wanting to hear, but not wanting to know if the news was bad.

"Mr. Tanner is out of surgery. It went very well," the doctor assured. "We took care of the fractures in his leg."

"What about his back? Will he be..." Chris' voice faded out. He couldn't bring himself to say the word they all feared: paralyzed.

"It's severely bruised. We won't know if there is permanent damage to the spinal cord until the swelling goes down, and that will take a few days." Seeing the fear on their faces he added, "I wish I could tell you one way or the other right now, but I am optimistic."

He let his words sink in before continuing. "He's in recovery right now, and we'll be moving him to a room in the orthopedic wing on the sixth floor soon. He'll be placed in traction to help keep him immobile and stabilize the fractures."

The doctor gave them a little more information and then excused himself from the room. There was little relief among those who waited. Yes, it was good that Vin was out of surgery, but the possible spinal cord injury was still an unknown.

And they were still waiting on word of JD's condition.

As Nathan explained some of the terminology the doctor had used, and what kinds of things they could expect, Ezra withdrew from his teammates, sinking down onto a chair on the far side of the room. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

If only he hadn't moved Vin...

+ + ATF + +

Time moved slowly. Firefighters and law enforcement officers came and left as their schedules permitted. Their presence was appreciated by Team Seven conversations allowing the men to distract their thoughts, at least momentarily, from Vin and JD.

Chris was torn between waiting for word on JD and wanting to be with Vin as he woke, but when he had asked to be with Vin, the doctor had refused. Hospital policy prohibited visitors from the recovery room. No exceptions. He could visit once Tanner was settled into a hospital room.

At that point, Dr. Raine Jackson had become their advocate. Because of her status on staff at the hospital, she was able to check on the progress of JD's operation from the Surgery Observation area. After briefly updating Nathan that JD's vitals were good and that the doctors had told her the surgery was progressing as planned, she headed for the recovery room to follow up on Vin.

And her lovely face was what Tanner saw when he woke. She was a little out of focus, but it was very calming to recognize someone and to know he was in good hands, whatever had happened.

"You got a sister?" he whispered hoarsely.

Raine laughed. "I'd expect to hear that from Buck, but not from a shy guy like you."

"Buck?" questioned the groggy Texan. "I know Buck."

"Yes, you do," said Raine with an amused smile.

"Buck likes women," Vin informed her. "Buck likes 'em tall. He likes 'em small. Hell, Ol' Bucklin likes 'em all."

Raine just shook her head. It was always interesting to see a patient come out of anesthesia, and the medications certainly had a strange effect on the sharpshooter.

"Hey, I rhymed, didn't I? I'm a poet and don't know it." Vin laughed at his own bad joke, and then frowned. "I don't feel so good."

"You just rest, Vin," said Raine.

The Texan closed his eyes and slipped back into oblivion.

"Well, at least he didn't come up swinging," said the Doctor, knowing that his patient would likely drift in and out of awareness several times before he was truly awake.

Raine nodded and stood by as the doctor checked Vin and set into motion the procedures necessary to prep him for moving to a room.

+ + ATF + +

Ezra made his way to the restroom for the third time in the past hour. The waiting room was too crowded. The stories people told just to ease the tension annoyed him. It made it seem that what had happened was trivial. Somewhere inside, he knew that each person was simply trying to deal with the tragedy in his or her own way, but reconciling those thoughts took more energy than the southerner had left, and escaping the room was easier.

Besides, he still couldn't get rid of that horrid taste in his mouth.

Or the smell of the blood...

Or the picture of the battered bodies of his friends...

"Don't go there, Ezra," he said softly as he looked in the mirror after rinsing his mouth and spitting in the sink.

"Don't go where?" asked Tony Nash as he entered the restroom. Tony was Katherine's partner. The two paramedics had been the first rescuers on the scene and had treated Vin and JD.

Knowing that Ezra wasn't going to answer the question, he held out a paper sack to him.

"What is it?" asked Ezra, throwing away his paper cup and accepting the brown bag.

"Katherine thought it might help," he answered simply.

Ezra looked inside. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Mouthwash.

"Thank you," he said gratefully, pulling the items out of the sack and opening the toothbrush package.

"No problem." The paramedic shifted nervously before he spoke again. "Katherine and I called in the CISM team."

Ezra frowned. Critical Incident Stress Management was a good program, but he could feel the invitation coming, and he really didn't want to think about the accident, much less talk about it.

"I used to think CISM was for wimps. You know, guys that just couldn't handle the tough stuff." Tony shrugged, "But I've gone through the debriefing process a few times. Told myself it was just to support Katherine." He snorted. "Who was I kidding? It helped me as much as it helped her. Sometimes..." Nash paused, gathering his thoughts.

"Most of the time I can deal with the blood, the broken bodies. But when it's a kid, or a co-worker, or a friend, everything changes." Tony shifted his weight to his right leg. "Anyway, since Katherine and I have to go back on duty in an hour, we set it up for tomorrow. It would be good, if you feel like it, if you could meet with us and just talk through things."

He looked at Ezra, waiting for any kind of a response. "It would be helpful to Katherine, " he added with a smirk.

Ezra allowed himself a half-smile, fully understanding what the paramedic was offering.

"Thank you," he said. "I'll think about it."

Tony nodded to him as he left the man to brush his teeth and use the mouthwash. After brushing his teeth three times, Ezra finally returned to the waiting room.

+ + ATF + +

"JD." The word was barely a breath from Buck's mouth as the doctor entered the waiting room.

Conversations fell silent as the doctor sat down across from Buck and Chris.

Chris steeled himself for the worst. He didn't like the look on the doctor's face.

"Mr. Dunne is out of surgery. We're situating him in the Intensive Care Unit right now."

Buck sucked in a breath at the implications of JD being in ICU. Chris rested his hand on Buck's forearm in support.

"The fractures in his arm and leg have been repaired. He has a fractured jaw and a concussion. For the time being we haven't completed treatment for the jaw fracture. Our first concern is maintaining his airway."

The doctor looked at the concerned faces in front of him, knowing that he could not give them the news they hoped for.

"We have him on ventilation to assist with his breathing. The jaw fracture obstructed his airway and we're concerned about how long he was without oxygen on the scene."

The information hit like a ton of bricks. No one had mentioned that JD had stopped breathing. Chris looked across the room at Ezra.

He could see Ezra's shoulders rise and fall as the southerner struggled to catch his own breath. The dazed expression disappeared as Standish dropped his face into his hands.

"We won't know if there are any residual effects of the obstruction until he wakes up. Once we're certain that his airway is stable, we'll complete the jaw repair and wire his jaw closed."

Chris again fell back to watching Nathan's expression as the doctor spoke. The team medic understood the ramifications of JD's condition. Unfortunately, Jackson's demeanor wasn't very encouraging.

"Can I see him?" Buck's question was barely a whisper.

"I'll send a nurse to let you know when he's settled." The doctor looked at the four men closest to him. "I would say it'd be best to limit his visitors."

"Someone needs to be with him," Buck protested.

"Someone can be with him, with the normal exceptions," the surgeon countered. "Just please keep it to one person at a time, no more than two."

Buck cursed softly, worry overwhelming him, before burying his face in his hands in a vain attempt to hide his tears.

Josiah stood and moved next to Buck, placing a hand on the back of Buck's neck and massaging gently.

Chris took a deep breath in order to control his own emotions.

"Thank you," he said softly.

The doctor nodded and excused himself.

For the second time that morning, Nathan explained the details and implications of what the doctor had told them.

Chris rubbed his forehead as Nathan spoke. He could feel a headache coming on. But, more than that, he felt an overwhelming disappointment that they had no resolution. When surgery was over, the doctor was supposed to come out and tell you everything was fine, that life would go back to normal. But it wasn't okay. JD might never wake up, or he might have brain damage, and Vin might never walk again.

Feeling the need to have the rest of his team together, Chris asked Nathan to get Ezra to come and sit with them. Through the past couple of years of working and playing together, they had become much more than a team, they were family. And more now than ever, they needed to be together.

Seeing the frown on Nathan's face, Chris turned to look at Ezra.

The undercover agent was gone.

+ + ATF + +

Ezra sat on the floor of the staff restroom one floor down from the surgical waiting area. He had needed to escape the waiting room, which seemed to close in on him tighter and tighter with each passing moment. Moving without thinking, he instinctively avoided the restroom on the surgical floor as well as the chapel, both were places the others might look for him. Running away from the closed in feeling, he'd found the elevator, gone down one floor and found the staff bathroom. He'd entered the room and locked the door before allowing himself to slide down the wall and sit on the floor.

The only problem was, he still felt like he was being smothered. His whole world was caving in on him.

What had he done? Why had he moved Vin? Why had he subjected his friend to a lifetime in a wheelchair?

And JD? He should have checked him closer. He should have known he was having trouble breathing. Now JD might have brain damage and never be...

Ezra took a deep, shaking breath. When he had discovered JD wasn't breathing...

Tears filled his eyes as his body trembled with emotion, and even though he didn't recognize it, shock. He wanted to cry, to let loose of some of the fears and pain, but the tears refused to fall.

Ezra wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged tightly, hoping if nothing else, to stop the shaking.

JD's bloody face invaded his mind. Vin's crumpled leg.

"If only I hadn't stopped..."


"If I hadn't told them to go help..."


"If I'd told them to go around the back of the car..."


Ezra thumped the back of his head against the wall with each self-recriminating thought.

"If I hadn't moved them..."

"If I'd noticed JD wasn't breathing sooner..."

"If Nathan had been there instead of me..."




"Ezra? Open the door."

Ezra looked at the door. Chris was knocking in sync with his thumping. The agent shook his head, and then resumed his 'thunking', his body shaking uncontrollably.

"Don't you have a key?" he could hear Chris ask someone in the hallway.

Ezra took another shuddering breath and closed his eyes just wanting it all to stop. The next thing he realized was someone was putting a blanket around him.

"Can you get him up?" asked a voice he didn't recognize. "There's a couch in the lounge. We can put him there until a doctor takes a look at him."

Ezra wanted to protest. He wanted to tell them that he wasn't hurt and they should be focusing on Vin and JD, not him. But nothing seemed to work. He was too damn tired and he couldn't stop shaking.

"It's all right," soothed Nathan as Ezra's tears finally began to flow.