Disclaimer: I do not own the main characters (still not sure who really owns them… I gotta get that information someday). They belong to whoever owns the Magnificent Seven.
Thanks: To Mog for the ATF universe. Wyndewalker, Wnnepooh, and C. Coombs for introducing me to it.
Warnings: None that I can think of.
A Winter Wonderland
JD Dunne, the youngest ATF agent ever hired, could not believe the situation. He rarely saw an opportunity where he led the others, but now he had no choice. If they were to remain alive, he had to lead. He was one of the best computer experts in the agency, a better than average marksman, and a fairly decent agent, if he said so himself. He was not familiar with being in charge.
He had become proficient at all the myriad things his teammates insisted he learn from them – hunting, riding, gaming, first aid, tactics, debating, research, paperwork, boxing, aikido, knife throwing, survival skills of all kinds for many different situations. But proficiency was not the same thing as expertise nor was it enough when one of his friends was depending on him. Especially in the middle of a snowstorm high in the Rocky Mountains.
“Vin,” he kept his voice gentle, not wanting to startle the tracker. Vin had taught JD many of his outdoor skills, but that was before. The quiet outdoorsman was different now – the sly prankster was gone, the soft-spoken comments were gone, the gentle gleam of a highly intelligent, quirky mind was gone. Vin Tanner was the shadow of who he had been – and that fact might very well kill them.
Pale blue eyes looked up at him, acknowledging JD’s call, but the other man didn’t move. From hard won experience, JD knew Vin wouldn’t move or act until the younger man told him to or managed to trick him into it.
“We need to get moving, Vin. Can you get us home from here?” He forced himself to ask. He knew better than to expect an answer. He almost couldn’t remember Vin’s voice. Almost.
The longhaired man studied the terrain – mountains on all sides, steep incline ahead and to the south, clouds low against the mountains as they deposited their snowy burden on the slopes. It was a long, could wait for JD before Vin finally nodded.
With a sigh, JD dragged himself to his feet. He was so tired butt they had to keep moving. He carefully squashed the tiny fire, trying to kill it without releasing too much smoke. Once it was dead, he began replacing the sod of the fire pit, working hard to hide all trace of their sojourn in the clearing under the big cedar. “Is it good enough to fool them?”
Vin glanced at the clearing and nodded up at the tree. JD frowned and looked at the snow-laden branches. It took a moment before the younger agent realized what the tracker meant. He limped to Vin’s side, offering his hand. JD ignored the reluctant with which Vin took the offered hand and the painful expression on his face when he was pulled to his feet. Once he was certain they were out of range, he threw a densely packed snowball, showering the bare spot with a fine covering of white.
He turned to Vin and nodded curtly, “Let’s go.”
A slight twitch at the corner of Tanner’s lips was the only visible reaction to JD’s imitation of their boss, Chris Larabee. Then it was gone and Vin headed out. The slow painful movements and the defeated slump of his friend’s shoulders nearly made the younger man scream in fury – but he kept silent. There was too much of a chance that they were still being tracked.
“Am I doing it right?” JD’s quiet question brought Vin’s head up with a snap. In his hands, the younger man held a roughly oval greenish-white hoop. He held it out towards his friend. Reluctantly the other man removed his hands from under his arms and stretched them out to take it.
Dark hazel eyes watched as his friend studied the hoop, turning it with his snow-burned hands. The long, tan fingers were red, chapped, and swollen; the skin on his palms was torn from their slide down the side of one of the mountains. The pale blue eyes studied the framework and the heavy lacing carefully before returning it.
“Will it work?”
Vin shrugged without any interest, turning his attention to the falling snow.
“I don’t want to die out here, Vin.” JD whispered, staring at the rough snowshoe he was making. His voice was raw and to his horror it cracked. “I hate what happened, but I don’t want to die. I’ll miss Buck and the others, but—” A gentle touch on his shoulder brought his words to a halt. It was the first time Vin had initiated anything. He looked up and saw sorrow in the blue eyes staring at him.
“Ya miss Chris an’ Ezra, don’t ya?” The computer expert asked, pushing his hair back. The other man nodded, moving restlessly in the tiny shelter. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ez so happy as he was at Christmas. He was wearing that hat you gave him an’ talkin’ to Josiah about the card tricks he taught the boys at the orphanage an’ he had the biggest grin on his face.” JD’s voice grew wistful. “You think Josiah’ll be waitin’ for us? You don’t think he’s given up, do ya?”
Vin gently wiped a tear from the younger man’s cheek and nodded. Ignoring the pain wasn’t an option and JD could not stop the tears from falling as Vin checked the bandage around the younger man’s side. “Denver’s too far, Vin. We’ll never make it in this weather.”
The fact that Vin didn’t try to deny JD’s statement scared the young man far more than his own pessimistic thoughts did. Outside the snow continued to fall, slowly, softly, and with deadly consequences for the unprepared. JD looked down at his blue jeans and tennis shoes. Then he looked at Vin, noting the ragged shirt and torn jeans. They definitely were unprepared for snow.
“We can’t go any farther, can we? Not tonight.” He asked. Vin shook his head, dropping close to the fire. “Remember that movie we watched last week? The one where they built a fire under their bedrolls? Think it might work?”
Vin shrugged, noncommittally. But he added several branches to the fire. It was their only chance at surviving the night.
His movements were jerky as he helped Vin dig a long, shallow trench. Together they scattered the fire’s coals up and down the trench. They covered the coals with broken branches to act as fuel and then using the cold, thin piece of metal they had carried for so long, they covered the slumbering fire with a layer of dirt. Then and only then, they placed the blankets they were using as capes on the insulated fire. It wasn’t much, but curled close under the wool, with the extra heat from the coals, they might survive the night.
“Anything?” The word was terse, the tone curt, the speaker an unmoving statue.
“No, sir.” The paramedic kept his eyes on the men working through the rubble. He didn’t want the statue’s attention to focus on him.
A sudden flurry of activity caught both men’s attention. Two firemen, each partnered with an armed policeman climbed out of the half buried basement. They paused and turned back, kneeling amid the ashes and burned rubble to reach for the edge of the black coroner’s bags. More firemen and police officers joined them, forming an honor guard as they carried them to the coroner’s wagon. One of the men handed a bundled item to the fire chief.
“No!” The smoke damaged croak, Buck Wilmington’s reaction to the sight, made men and women in the designated safe area wince in sympathy. Only the belt strapping him into the wheelchair prevented him from trying to reach the bodies.
“Buck, don’t.” Chris Larabee placed a gentle hand on his oldest friend’s shoulder. The bandaged hand stood out starkly against Wilmington’s dark coat, emphasizing both men’s condition. “You don’t need to see them. If it’s them, you don’t want to see.”
“I won’t believe it! I can’t!” I’d know if he was –“ The mustache quivered for a moment before steadying. “It cain’t be them, Chris. It just cain’t.”
The reserved team leader didn’t respond. His eyes were focused on the approaching man. For a second he was at the scene of another devastating fire being approached by another sad looking man in a fireman’s outfit. Releasing his grip on Buck’s shoulder, Larabee stepped forward, meeting the fire chief’s eyes.
“Agent Larabee?” The man’s voice was raw from exhaustion and residual smoke. For most of the night, the firemen had fought to control the flames destroying the building. They had known they were the only hope of the two ATF agents chained in the basemen. Three firemen had died, trying desperately to reach them. Their last radio transmission was that they had found the agents and then, to everyone’s horror, the roof collapsed. Silently, the fire chief held out the item in his arms.
The charred leather stank – reminding Chris of something he didn’t want to remember – a night that had destroyed him. Ruthlessly shoving the memories away, he opened the coat, recognizing the melted Conchos on the burned shoulder and the long fringes. It was Vin’s favorite, his pride and joy. The heavy leather was scorched but whole – unlike its owner.
Inside the jacket was a cracked, discolored helmet. One side was badly misshapen from the flames. But it was still whole, irreplaceably damaged but whole. It held two blackened wallets and matching badge holders. As he opened the first badge holder, he felt as if he had been sucker punched.
Until he saw the federal ID cards and the matching badges, Chris had been able to deny what he knew to be true. Throughout the long hours he had encouraged his wounded subordinates, reminding them how resourceful the two youngest members of the team were, telling them their friends would be joining them soon. Unshed tears clouded his vision. The rage he had felt earlier, while waiting for information on the kid he considered a second son and the young man he thought of as a younger brother vanished in the face of the wave of fury and hate that assaulted him.
“I’m sorry,” Chief Daniels’ voice broke into Chris’ thoughts.
“How bad are they?” He forced himself to ask.
The older man sighed and glanced at the shaken men who had uncovered the bodies. “We made the id off the badges. The metal box they were in protected them from the fire.”
Chris nodded and turned away. He met Buck’s clear blue eyes and saw the jovial spirit inside him die. He watched silently as burned, bandaged hands formed into fists and pounded on the heavy plaster casts covering his legs. He beat the paramedics to Buck’s side.
“We have work to do, Bucklin.” He noted his voice was rough. “We can’t lose it yet.”
Buck looked up, tears of rage and pain streaking his face. “It’s finished, Chris. Josiah ain’t gonna be leaving the hospital soon. Nate’s too busy keepin’ him from breaking free to move outta there. Ezra’s in jail for trying to kill Hodges. You and me are useless.” He hung his head. “We’re broken. We ain’t the Magnificent Seven anymore.”
“No. Vin and JD would be riled to hear you say that.” Chris looked over his shoulder at the rubble fast disappearing under the falling snow. “We have to finish this for their sake.”
“I want him, Chris.” The low growl was something Chris hadn’t heard in a long time. Normally Buck was happy-go-lucky, even his temper a fleeting thing. Only a threat to JD Dunne truly showed the mustached man’s fiery anger, but that was nothing compared to the icy rage he was displaying now.
“So do I, Buck.” Chris’ cold quiet words made the paramedics shiver. “Let’s go talk to Hodges.”
“Are we still going the right direction?” JD fought to keep moving.
Beside him, Vin shuffled awkwardly across the packed snowdrifts. He paused to look around before nodding. JD took the slight nod as acknowledgment. He refused to stop until he got Vin to safety. Chris would never forgive him for leaving Vin out here, especially now that he couldn’t help himself.
Slowly but surely, they crested the ridge. JD turned around to see if they were being followed. His movements were awkward, hampered by the uncomfortable pine needles he’d stuffed under his clothes. But the discomfort was worth the price as the prickly needles trapped his body heat, insulating him from the falling temperatures. He could see only trees and snow behind them, even their tracks vanishing in the slowly falling snow. Facing forward with grim reluctance, he saw more snow, more mountains, and more trees.
“I think we need to rest, Vin.” He spoke softly, trying not to break open the scabs on his lips. His hands and feet were no longer painful and that worried him. He looked over at Vin and saw the same lost, dejected expression that had been there since the warehouse had gone up in flames with their teammates in it. “We need shelter, if we want to live.”
Vin nodded and began plodding forward, at an angle to their original path. JD could only follow. He hoped that Vin was responding to his request, because Vin was their only chance. If Vin had faded back into the silent void he’d been slipping in and out of, they were both dead men.
He knew a bit about surviving in the wilderness, but he knew it wasn’t enough to get them to safety. He had to keep Vin focused, keep him thinking about their survival. JD was not about to lose his last family member, not even if he had to get down on his knees and beg for the older man to hold on.
And in exchange, we’ll drop—” The D.A. was pushing hard for a deal and was shocked by the intrusion.
“We drop nothing.” Chris Larabee snarled, slamming the door open and ushering Buck into the negotiating room.
“Larabee!” The lawyer stood, leaning his hands on the table, trying to intimidate the ATF leader. “You have no say at this point of –“
“No deals. Hodges’ men snatched two of my men. We’ve got videotaped proof of his orders. If he wasn’t released by 4 pm, they were to be killed. He just added two counts of premeditated murder to the charges against him.” Pale blue-green eyes glared at the D.A., faring him to argue. “You don’t make deals with the man who ordered the deaths of two of my team.”
The D.A.’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened. “B—but you said he gave you until 4pm. That isn’t premeditated murder, that’s attempted murder.”
“We don’t know what happened. Hodges’ warehouse on Fourteenth burned to the ground early yesterday evening.” Buck stayed motionless in his wheelchair, his eyes and face completely devoid of emotion as Chris spoke. “According to the photographs we received, my people were handcuffed to the central pillar in the basement. They burned alive and so did three of the firemen who tried to get them out of there.” He set a pair of charred badge holders on the table in front of Hodges.
The D.A.’s ski tan vanished as he stared at the charred leather. He swallowed thickly and closed his notebook. “Who?”
“Vin and JD.” Buck’s raw voice made all three civilians wince.
Hodges looked at Chris noting the soot that smudged both ATF agents. He saw the bandages, bruises, and casts – his frown deepening thoughtfully. The thick, heavy scent of scorched metal, burned wood, plastic, and worst of all, the sickening scent of seared flesh clung to both men. The crime lord waved his spluttering lawyer to silence. “My boys?”
Chris met Hodges’ pale gray eyes. “We don’t know yet. The medical examiner is pulling records. There were a lot of bodies to identify.”
“Found them still handcuffed to the center post, just like in the photo your boy sent me.” The head of team seven glared at the man cuffed to the table. “They didn’t have a chance.”
“Lawrence, I want you to talk to Romero. Tell him to get a list of who was at the warehouse to the medical examiner. Then go see Doc Adams, get my boys’ files to delivered – do it personally.” The gangster stared at the table, his face aged in just the few minutes since Larabee’s appearance. His lawyer stared at him in shock. “Go, Lawrence.”
“But, sir…” The lawyer didn’t want to leave his client to the mercy of the two grim-faced federal agents.
“I thought Brad would keep Joshua under control.” Hodges ignored his lawyer’s horrified gasp. “They were supposed to grab Wilmington and Standish. If they couldn’t testify, the case would fold. No one, not even that slime Standish, was supposed to get hurt.”
“Mr. Hodges, do you realize that everything you say here is being recorded?” The D.A. asked woodenly.
“I am neither senile nor forgetful, Mr. O’Connell.” Hodges glared at the D.A. “I may sell arms to foreign nationals, but I have never knowingly harmed anyone, especially not a federal agent. Hellfire, man, I have let slip information that kept the idiots from walking into my competitors’ traps just to make sure the Feds had no reason to go on the warpath.”
His lawyer moaned. “Sir, you just signed your death warrant.”
“Go on, Lawrence. You don’t want to be here for this.” Hodges’ tone was gentle as he dismissed the lawyer. “Just do what I told you to do. I made plans just in case everything went sour. I didn’t expect it to be this bad though.”
The lawyer stood, picked up his briefcase, and bowed his head. “I’ll take care of everything, sir. Goodbye, sir.”
Hodges waited until his lawyer was gone before turning his attention to the D.A. “My boys were all I had. What do you need from me?”
Ezra Standish was pacing the small cell. Because he was an ATF agent, they could not lock him up in a normal cell. Instead, he was placed in solitary confinement, surrounded on all four sides by reinforced concrete. The only window was the small view port in the door. It was four strides from back to front and three from side to side.
There was still no word on his teammates and he was getting impatient. If he thought it would help, the distressed undercover agent would have been pounding out his fear and anger on the walls. But he knew better. All that would garner him was broken bones and an angry jailor. He raked his hands through his hair, not caring about his appearance.
The thin clatter of a key in the door brought him to a stop. He turned, his eyes brightening with a touch of hope.
“Come on, Ezra.” Chris’ bleak face and cold eyes made Ezra slump.
“The fire is out?” He struggled for his composure. “Did you find our young companions?”
“They’re dead.” The flat, icy tone told its own tale.
“And Mr. Sanchez?” There was no hope left in the southerner’s voice. He stepped through the open doorway.
“He’s stable. The doctor will release him in time for the funerals.”
“Back in the hospital. He tried to walk on his casts and re-broke something.” Chris shook his head. “Couldn’t let you out until I talked to you.”
“Have you killed Mr. Hodges yet?” There was no venom in Ezra’s question. He asked it as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
“No.” Chris led the way down the corridor to freedom. “He dropped all charges against you. Said he understood why you went after him.”
“He ordered the deaths of my friends and I do not have enough men that I call friend to risk losing even one of them.” Ezra straightened his shoulders. “He will pay for Mr. Dunne and Mr. Tanner.”
“Drop it, Ez. They wouldn’t want this.” There was no anger left in Chris Larabee. It had all vanished, as all his emotions had vanished when the two bodies were removed from the rubble. “They wouldn’t want you in jail.”
At those words, Ezra bowed his head. “No, but I cannot leave them unavenged, Mr. Larabee.” Tears pooled in the southerner’s eyes. “They must not be buried alone.”
“His sons were there, Ezra. They were ID’d a few minutes ago.”
“I am sorry for his loss but I cannot find it in my heart to forgive him for the actions he took. I will never forget what that man has cost us. And the charges against Mr. Hodges are they being bargained down into nothin’ the way D.A. O’Connell wanted?”
“No. He admitted his guilt in the arms deals. He gave us everything we asked.” The defeat in his voice was something no one had heard in Larabee’s voice before. “Everything, except their lives back.”
Ezra nodded. “Does Josiah know?”
“Yes.” Chris answered. “Ezra, the team is…”
“I understand. Without them, the team is gone.” Ezra winced at the pain that filled his chest at the thought. “You will be resigning, Mr. Larabee.”
“I’ll be here until Friday.”
Chris shrugged. “Buck is on medical leave until his legs heal. I think he will resign once that’s over. I don’t know about Nathan or Josiah. They haven’t said.”
Ezra pulled out his badge holder and looked at it for a moment. Then, with a last caress of the gold badge inside, he passed it to the other man. “My paperwork is up to date and IA knows where to find me if they so desire.”
“Ez, you don’t have to quit just because the team is –“ Chris’ voice cracked. “Any of the other teams would be happy to have you working with them.”
“Mr. Larabee, I have no desire to remain in the ATF without my friends to back up my endeavors. My father’s trust fund is enough that, with my retirement from law enforcement, I shall have no wants.” Ezra felt the tears gather in his eyes again. He had never admitted to anyone that he had money of his own, but somehow it seemed the correct thing to do – to reassure Mr. Larabee that his subordinate would survive. He turned his thoughts back to his fallen comrades. “When will the funerals be held?”
“I’ll call you when we know.” They stepped into the elevator and Chris turned to face his subordinate. “Leave Hodges alone. He’s paid for what happened.”
Ezra gave him his familiar two-finger salute. “I will be there. And I will not harm Mr. Hodges, if that is your wish.”
The rest of their journey to the lobby was silent, neither man acknowledging that this would be one of the last times they would see each other.
The undercover operator went directly to his Jaguar. Seeing Cuervo peeking out from under the vehicle, Ezra fought the tears that were trying so hard to get free. He solemnly asked the orange tabby, “Who will feed you now, Cuervo?”
When he opened the door to the Jag, the cat jumped inside. Ezra sat, not surprised at all that Cuervo climbed onto his lap. He shut the door, let his fingers stroke the soft fur, and let the tears fall. He felt was as if a gaping hole had been ripped through him. He trusted few people. He had even fewer people he called friends. He had told the truth when he said he didn’t have enough friends to lose one of them, but he hadn’t told his boss everything.
In all his thirty-two years, he had called two men his ‘brothers’ and meant it. Vin’s love for quiet had been very similar to Ezra’s, and the two had enjoyed many evenings comparing stories, history, and coming up with practical jokes to play on their teammates. Once they had discovered how much they were alike, they had begun spending time dragging each other to events they liked. And after a little while, they had grabbed JD and begun dragging him with them.
JD was the closest Ezra ever thought he would come to having a son. Oh, he knew JD was too old to be his son, but he still thought that way. He was careful that no one knew about it, hiding his concern and letting Buck be the young man’s official mother hen. Whenever he noticed JD was working on something, he had quietly encouraged the younger man, helping him with problems, and protecting him without anyone knowing he was there more times than he could count. All of Ezra’s contacts on the street knew they could earn a little extra money by passing along any information about the boy if they heard even the slightest whisper.
And now both were gone. The others on the team were his friends but they were nowhere near as close to him as Vin and JD. And with them gone, he didn’t know if there was any reason for him to stay in the ATF. It wasn’t like the team could survive. Their leader was resigning, the second-in-command was dead, and their youngest teammate was dead. Buck would not stay – Ezra knew that in his heart. That left two men, Nathan, who just barely tolerated Ezra, and Josiah, who was injured badly enough that he might not ever be on active duty again. He would turn in his resignation after the funerals.
With a sigh, he gently put the cat out of the car. “I’ll see you around, Cuervo.” He whispered before starting the engine. He glanced at the leather badge holders he had removed from Chris’ jacket and smiled grimly. He had work to do. He didn’t care what anyone said, he refused to believe. Unless he ran out of money and died, he would find a way to avenge his young friends, even if he had to track down every single man who had been present at their deaths to do so.
JD looked about the cabin, surprised by it’s cozy warmth. When had they arrived at a cabin? The fire in hearth was bright enough for him to see Vin curled up on the couch. He watched the other man sleep for a moment before trying to stand. “Oh, man.” He moaned against the pain in feet.
Instantly, Vin was up, his swollen fingers wrapped around his Sig-Sauer.
“Sorry, Vin.” JD looked down at his feet, frowning at the bandages wrapped loosely around them. “What happened?”
A wry grin and a shrug were the only response. He flushed remembering Vin’s wounded throat. “Did you carry me?”
Vin put his weapon away and his hands began moving slowly. He pantomimed dragging the younger man to the cabin and building a fire. Then he mimicked talking to a phone and shook his head.
“No phones?” JD guessed. He studied his friend. “I didn’t think you were too sure where we were going.”
Vin flushed, looking sheepish. He wrapped his arms around himself, shivered, and then he pointed to his head and waggled his hand. JD nodded, suddenly understanding. Between the shock of seeing the rest of their team go down in flames, the battle they had fought for their own lives, and the numbing cold, they were lucky either of them kept their heads long enough to escape.
“Do I have frostbite?” JD didn’t want to look.
The silent tracker nodded and pointed to his own swaddled feet.
“Is it bad?”
Vin shook his head, indicating that neither of them was in danger of losing anything digits. He used his hands to try to tell the younger man something but JD could not make heads or tails of the motions. Finally he shrugged in frustration and stood. JD watched as his friend slowly limped over to a small door and pulled it open. Inside the closet were…
“Skis! Cross country skis!” JD was jubilant. They could make pretty good time from here on out. “How far to the ranger station from here?”
Vin shook his head, closing the closet door. JD didn’t have time to warn him before the figure hiding behind it slammed a billy-stick across his friend’s head.
“Vin!!!!!!!!” JD didn’t notice he was moving until he slammed into the assailant. Hands grabbed him, pulling him away from the man he had attacked.
A pair of the darkest blue eyes he’d ever seen glared at him as he was shoved against the wall. An unfamiliar voice growled. “That was stupid, son. You shouldn’t go attacking folks who wear badges. You’re under arrest for breaking ‘n entering, assaulting an officer.”
“What officer?” JD growled right back. “He didn’t identify himself and he attacked an unarmed, wounded Federal Agent!”
Silence met JD’s words. The man holding him didn’t let up, but he turned his attention to the deputy on the floor. “Maxwell?”
“I-uh. No, sir, I didn’t. I mean, I-uh.” The youngster flushed. The other officers tucked their weapons away, cursing their friend’s foul-up.
The fierce eyes turned back to JD. “Got any id on you that says you’re a Fed?”
“Call my boss, A.D. Travis. He’ll vouch for me.” JD struggled against the steely grip pinning him.
“You’re under arrest for breaking and entering until we clear this up. You understand, son?” The man stared at JD for a long moment, waiting patiently for a response. “You’ll get your phone call and a quick trip to the local hospital while we wait.”
JD nodded. “I want to check on Vin.”
“If you try to run, I’ll shoot you.” The man’s tone was serious.
“I don’t run out on my friends. You got my word.”
“What’s your name, son?” The grip on his shoulder lessened and JD was set on the floor. Immediately the young agent shuffled over to his friend.
“JD Dunne.” He responded quietly, kneeling next to Vin’s unconscious form. He ignored the deputies nearby and the quiet man watching him. He settled onto the floor and pulled his wounded friend onto his lap. He rocked Vin, his voice a soft singsong. “Vin, don’t let go. We’ve got to get back to Josiah and tell him what happened. Hold on, Vin, please. I know it’s hard, but just ‘cause you got me to safety don’t mean it’s over.”
Around him the uniformed men shuffled their feet, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
“Son?” The sudden appearance of a cell phone made JD look up. “You want to make that phone call? I already called A.D. Travis, he’s gonna meet us at the hospital. If he recognizes you, we’ll let ya go.”
JD noticed the paramedics had arrived and were waiting patiently for him to release his friend. Reluctantly, he let them take Vin and he took the cell phone from the sheriff. He stared at it blankly before dialing.
“E-Ezra?” He whispered into the phone, not quite believing who picked up. He wasn’t sure why he called the undercover agent, except that he knew that his friend had more lives than a cat. He had not told Vin, but with Josiah in the hospital, there was only one other person he thought might have survived. “Ez, I need help.”
The stream of disbelieving curses that rang through the phone made him drop it. He stared at the thing as it were possessed by Satan himself. He had not expected that response. The sheriff picked it up and offered it to him but he shook his head and crawled over to where the paramedics were loading Vin onto a gurney.
“My name is Sheriff Dominic Hawke.” The voice rumbled in the back of JD’s consciousness as he let the paramedics poke and prod his wounds. A sudden flash of pain made everything go dark and he barely heard himself scream. Voices flared in controlled panic and he knew he was being lifted onto another gurney. Dimly he heard, “Your friend’s coming, son. You hold on.”
Ezra slid the Jaguar into a barely controlled left turn, ignoring the furious glare from the man he’d forced into the car. Chris had been reluctant to join him. Ezra, impatient to get to his friends and nearly incoherent from fear after hearing JD’s scream, had ordered his team leader into the Jaguar with language that had stunned the man. The flashing blue light on the dashboard and the sight of Standish’s spare weapon holster lying between the seats had done nothing to reassure him that Ezra hadn’t lost his mind.
“What do you think you’re doing, Standish?” The barely controlled fury in Chris’s voice
was nothing compared to the fear raging through Ezra’s veins. From what little he had heard, JD had not sounded good and he had not heard Vin at all.
“For once in your life, Mr. Larabee, just trust me.” Ezra ground out as he abused the Jag through another set of turns. He knew exactly, to the second, how much to push the car without sending it into a slide that would kill them. He’d already managed to lose three police cars that had tried valiantly to get him to pull over. If he could, he would break every single land speed record for Colorado in snow, and he would do it without damaging a single millimeter of the jet-black finish.
The blare of a horn and the sharp curse that slid from Chris’ lips made him smile grimly as he slammed the brakes and twisted the wheel. Like the responsive vehicle she was, the Jaguar whipped around into a perfect three-point turn. Lightly touching the gas, Ezra backed into the slush covered parking space next to the small hospital just outside of Denver.
“Are you crazy? You nearly got that fancy, low-slung speedster turned into a piece of junk!”
The deep voice yelling at Ezra from the hospital door made him yell. He recognized its inflections from the short telephone conversation. Still ignoring, Chris’ spluttering rage, the undercover agent slipped his badge and ID from a pocket and climbed out the car.
“Sheriff Hawke, you told me to meet you here. It sounded urgent, so I did my utmost to get here as quickly as possible.” The grim smile on Ezra’s face and the fast pace he set got him made the bigger man stop. “I believe you said you had a compatriot of mine.”
“I don’t know about that, son.” The sheriff glanced past Ezra towards Chris. “I just know he said he was an ATF agent. No ID on him though. He’s the one who called you.”
Chris barely got to their side before Ezra’s voice turned hard. “If this is a joke, you will regret it, sir. And if you would be so kind as to lead us to him, we can solve this little conundrum very quickly.”
“A moment more, Mr. Larabee, and all your questions will be answered.” The icy glare he shot was enough to temporarily silence. He handed over the two burned leather folders. “Does he resemble either of these men?”
He heard the harsh, in-drawn breath as Chris recognized the items he had purloined only the day before. In the glaring, blue-white light from the light post above them, the pictures looked washed out and old, the badges dull. The sheriff tilted them, running his fingers thoughtfully over the charred edges of the leather. Then he nodded, suddenly understanding the frantic phone call, the injuries to both men, the reckless driving, and the worn looks on the two agents confronting him.
“That’s them. They’re still in the ER.” The sheriff’s soft words hit Ezra like a ton of bricks.
“Both of them? You only told me you found Mr. Dunne.” He heard his voice straining and knew he had lost the mask he normally kept in place – his shock would be showing for all the world to see and his mother would be so disappointed in him. But at this moment, he realized he didn’t care.
“Didn’t know this one’s name.” The sheriff held out Vin’s ID. He shrugged ruefully. “Then you hung up too fast for me to tell you.”
As one, Chris and Ezra stalked through the ER door, looking for their friends. They ignored the outraged gasps as nurses tried to stop them. Neither noticed the sheriff’s gesture for them to be let pass. A pair of deputies standing near a room at the end of the hall drew their attention like a flames draw moths.
“Let’em pass, boys.” The sheriff’s voice echoed up the corridor. “Let ‘em pass.”
The two men swept into the room and froze, staring at their friends.
Vin was resting, his eyes closed and hidden under his left arm. The right arm was handcuffed to the side of the bed. His hands and feet were encased in bandages and another graced his head. What they could see of his chest was bruised and reddened. The worst of his injuries, though, was the nearly jet-black bruises that decorated his throat and neck. An IV snaked around his arm, held in by enough tape to tell them he had removed it at least once and that the nurses were not putting up with his refusal to accept the medications.
On the far side of the room, JD slept, his face slightly marred from windburn and bruises. His hands too were bandaged, but unlike Vin, they could not see his feet. The nasal canella running across his face reassuring them that although the young man was unmoving he was alive.
“Don’t say I never gave you anything, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra whispered as Chris quietly went to his best friend’s side. He kept his grin to himself as he walked over to JD’s side. He let his hand rest on the young man’s blanketed chest, confirming to himself that he breathed before picking up the phone.
“Room 134.” He spoke softly, his voice light. JD didn’t move or show any signs of waking. He waited patiently for the man on the other end to pick up the line. “Mr. Jackson? Our compatriots are alive. How soon can you move Mr.’s Sanchez and Wilmington? I see. As soon as I speak to their doctors I believe I will see about moving them to Four Corners. Will you tell them? Thank you, Mr. Jackson. Yes, Mr. Larabee is fine now. We have their souls back, they will not be leaving us now.”
Ezra hung up and carefully settled himself into the seat next to JD. He met the sheriff’s glance and smiled happily. “We owe you, sir. If it is within our power, just ask.”
The sheriff grinned back and shook his head. He nodded to his deputy. The young woman smiled and quickly removed the handcuffs from both of the injured agents. “Just doing our jobs, Agent Standish.”
JD opened his eyes groggily. At first he had no idea where he was. Then he remembered. He jack-knifed up, ignoring the pain as his stitches pulled. “Vin!”
“Easy, son.” Buck’s familiar voice made him turn, eyes wide.
“I saw – we saw – Buck?” The confused words and shocked tone brought a huge smile to Buck’s face.
“I’m here. So is every one else.” The lady’s man wrapped his hand a little tighter around JD’s clenched fist. “We’re all a little battered, but we’re all alive.”
“Everyone?” He croaked, before taking a long sip from the straw Buck held to his lips.
A soft chuckle made him look around the room. It was one of the four patient rooms he knew weren’t used much any more. Vin was in the bed next to him and Josiah was beyond him. On the far side of the room was an empty bed, obviously Buck’s.
“Cat got your tongue?” The harsh whisper brought a smile to JD’s face as Chris gently thumped the sharpshooter.
“Stop that. You’re not supposed to be talking.” The team leader grinned as he chided Vin.
“So, where shall we put this?” Ezra and Nathan came into the room, pushing a large screen TV.
“Aw, hell.” Buck grumbled at the glare he got from the medic.
“I see Mr. Dunne has graced us with his presence.” The huge smile on Ezra’s face warmed the younger man. “Just in time for the celebration.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve, kid.” Buck grinned happily. “We’re all here, all alive, and Ez there talked the staff into letting us watch the ball drop in New York. So he got us that to watch it on.”
JD settled back against his pillow and watched the others fiddle with the TV. He could ignore the little aches and pains now. A quick glance at Vin convinced him that the other man was fine. The despair and vacant sorrow was gone. Instead, there was the normal quiet happiness he saw when the group was together. Before he could look away, Vin looked up and smiled. His bandaged hands moved, signing slowly, “Thank you.”
JD nodded, letting his attention wander back to Buck. The older man was ignoring the pretty nurse attending him. Instead, he was watching JD, his eyes still carrying a bit of pain and loss. JD ignored the increasing pain as he gripped Buck’s hand firmly. “I’m okay, Buck.” He whispered.
“Yeah, you are, kid.” Buck smiled as he replied.