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by TEAM 7
Ezra Standish was a man who lived to gamble. Every waking hour held one moment of chance to another. This day wasn't any different, except today the conman knew from the moment he crawled out of bed was a day of hell. Every fiber of his being had screamed to jump back under the covers and call off any and all appointments. Unfortunately, the agent's need to not disappoint one Chris Larabee went against those voices.
And now he and Vin Tanner were paying the consequences.
"Stand up!" A giant of a man grabbed Standish's Armani jacket by the collar and jerked the man to his feet.
"Do you mind? This piece of haberdashery is worth more than your life." Ezra gritted his teeth as he heard the fabric rip.
"Really, little man. I wouldn't worry about it if I were you. I'm sure they'll buy you a new one for your funeral." The captor laughed loudly.
"That's better than what you'll get." Tanner's Texas drawl floated up to the pair.
The bad guy shoved the undercover agent against the wall and was about to turn to deliver a silent spell to the sharpshooter when another voice stopped him.
"Leave him, Harry. You'll get your chance to make them hurt later. Right now we have to move." A sharp dressed man of middle age stepped from the shadows, bringing a 9mm glock to rest on the two captives. "That was a very bad move, Mr. Simpson, or is it Standish?" Enrique Coronado smiled slightly.
"It's Agent Standish." Ezra tried to straighten to his full height, but his already bruised ribs protested.
"Ah, yes. Agent Standish of the ATF. Tsk, tsk, tsk. You should have known better. I am not a man to play with because, in the end, it's a lose-lose situation. Get them into the van, Harry. The plane leaves in an hour." Coronado turned and left as quickly as he had arrived.
The muscle man let his grin widen as his boss disappeared around the corner. "Now to finish what I started." Harry landed a vicious kick to Tanner's side and smirked as the agent doubled over on the floor gasping in pain.
"Get the hell away from him." The conman stepped forward, forgetting his own agony.
"You want some too, little man?" The captor started to give the other agent his complete attention when a whispered plea interrupted him.
"Ez, don't." Vin raised his head slowly, still trying to get his breathing under control. "He's not worth it."
Standish tried to ignore his partner's sound words, but in the end, he knew his friend was right. The confrontation would have to wait for another day.
Harry pulled Ezra over to an old work van and yanked open the rear doors. Ezra contemplated the two feet between the floor of the van and the ground and sighed. Considering the pain from the beating he'd already endured and the fact that his hands were cuffed behind his back, he wasn't sure that he would be able to manage to get into the van without assistance. He hated the thought of asking his captor for anything.
Ezra was spared the indignity of asking for aid when Harry took his arm and steadied him as he stepped painfully into the back of the van. The southerner didn't quite trust Harry's benevolence and was prepared for the vicious shove the criminal gave him. He stumbled but didn't fall, and felt a grim satisfaction at the blatant disappointment on Harry's face. If the situation hadn't been so dire, Ezra would have laughed in his face.
Harry turned his attention to the long haired agent on the floor. Vin had finally managed to get his breathing under control. His ribs hurt like hell. It felt like at least a couple were broken. Just like the rest of him. This assignment had weighed heavily on all of them from the minute Chris had told them about it.
"Black Monday" was a notoriously succesful gang of smugglers. They would smuggle anything you wanted and guaranteed delivery, as long as you could pay. And no one ever welshed on a deal with the gang. At least no one alive had ever welshed on a deal. They'd left a string of 32 bodies across Florida, Texas and California, not all of them customers. Vin knew that at least six undercover agents had died at the hands of the gang. They'd been tortured and killed and dumped in public places with a note that read only "BLACK MONDAY" pinned to their bodies.
Vin's thoughts were interrupted when he felt the pain in his ribs flare up as Harry practically jerked his handcuffed arm out of its socket, hauling him to his feet. Gasping in pain, Vin was pulled towards the van.
Ezra managed to get his body between Vin and the metal floor as the sharpshooter was shoved roughly into the van.
"Mr. Tanner, I would appreciate it if you would not bleed onto my leather shoes," Ezra spoke dryly.
"I'll try to avoid doin' that, Ez." Vin gave him a weak imitation of his customary grin.
The two men fell silent as their tormenter slid into the driver's seat of the van, and Enrique Coronado took the passenger seat.
"Let's get rolling," snapped Coronado. "If we miss that plane, Bastida will have our asses. He wants that money in Mexico City by Friday night, or the buyer backs out. No American cash, no guns ... no guns, no deal with McDermott and his boys and no return trip to Denver. No deal with McDermott, and we're stuck in Mexico with our lives worth less than a Mexican peso."
The men in the back heard the hollow echo of the engine reverberate against the corrogated tin walls of the warehouse and the soft whir of the garage opener as the mechanism pulleyed the heavy door up and open. The van lurched forward, out into the damp darkness of a midsummer Denver night. The abrupt motion rolled Vin onto his side, and Ezra watched with sudden concern as his partner groaned and fell into a racking spasm of coughing, recovered, and licked with his tongue at a trickle of blood that escaped his lips.
"Don't worry 'bout it, Ez," the younger man whispered. He coughed again, his face twisting in pain, then gathered the breath to continue. "Best be thinkin' 'bout what we're gonna do when we get to the airport."
Ezra nodded, hiding his worry from both of them. "I somehow doubt that we will be going all the way to Mexico with the rest of this party," he whispered back. "Hence, we must do something to escape before we get to the plane. I am willing to entertain suggestions."
Tanner calculated the travel time. "We got half an hour, maybe a little longer, to come up with something. But bailin' out the back doors ain't gonna help us much, even if we could do it."
"Not part of my plan, my friend," Ezra murmured. He grunted in pain as the van took a sharp right and threw him against one of the steet struts of the vehicle's unpaneled interior. Vin rolled against another and gasped aloud as it dug into his already battered side.
"Sorry the limo service ain't up to your standards, boys," Harry laughed from the front seat. He slammed on the brakes, and the two men were tossed against the metal legs of the rear seat. Ezra winced at the sound Vin made. He whispered the man's name again, but Vin just grunted and dropped his head to the floor, eyes closed.
The southerner shifted his weight slightly, curling his legs into a cradle for the inert form of his partner. Another sharp turn ground Ezra's cuffed hands against the sharp edges of a metal support, but Vin's body was held in place by Ezra's own, protected from further movement.
*Not that it will make much difference in the long run,* the southerner thought ruefully. He'd read the reports ... he knew what the Black Monday gang likely had in store for the two of them. If Vin was lucky, he'd never wake up.
The truck turned another corner, and Ezra strained to keep Vin within the security of his legs as the vehicle jolted to a stop. He gasped for breath, his own bruised ribs protesting the pull of the damaged muscles anchored to them, and coughed at the fumes from the van's exhaust as the engine idled at what he assumed was a stop light. In the distance, Ezra could hear a siren. It would be a small miracle if they got pulled over ... a small miracle that might save his and Vin's lives, and allow them to deliver the information that would bring Black Monday down.
But Ezra didn't believe in miracles. Didn't Josiah always say that the Lord helped those who helped themselves?
The light changed, and the truck lurched forward. Ezra held Vin steady and studied the interior of the van with sharp eyes. No tool box... no tire iron or jack ... nothing but bare metal floors, stained with Vin Tanner's blood. The unconcious man caught in the makeshift embrace of Ezra's limbs coughed again and let out a gurgling gasp. Alarmed, Standish tried to turn the younger man further on his side, hoping gravity would pull the fluid from his windpipe and ease his breathing. Fear lanced through him ... fear that he might lose this man, whose stubborn refusal to be turned away had made him the first real friend that the southerner had had in far too long a time. Ezra fought it down and struggled to center himself. There must be a way out ...
He resumed his intense scrutiny of their moving prison. There was nothing ... nothing but bare metal walls and wiring.
*Dear Lord,* he thought. Maybe Josiah's god had been listening.
He looked down at Vin, saw the puddling of blood and viscous fluid that had drained from his parted lips, listened to the breathing that had eased slightly. Biting his lip against the protests of his own bruised body, Ezra used his feet to manuever Vin's limp form until the man was sprawled face down, his cheek to the floor, his legs spread wide to keep him from rolling. Then another small miracle; the van swung into another sharp turn and Ezra allowed himself to be thrown across the floor and into a rear corner of the van's hollow shell. Bracing himself as best he could, Ezra strained to raise his cuffed hands to the wiring that fed battery power to the tail lights. His shoulders ached and pain lanced across his ribcage, but he persisted until he achieved the small triumph of feeling his fingers curl around the small plastic-coated strands.
He hesitated, knowing what the cost of his desperate deed might be. Vin coughed again, his body shuddering and then relaxing as his labored breathing resumed. Images flashed through Ezra's mind: an easy grin of welcome ... a glass of champagne paid for and waiting for him, on the table at Inez' saloon ... a shadowy figure sitting by his hospital bed ... a young man walking unwelcomed into his condo ... a framed postcard and a cactus and a conch shell on his desk.
Ezra tightened his fingers and yanked at the wiring.
His desperate gambit worked. Every electrical system in the old van went out. The driver cursed, ignoring the passenger's demand to know what was going on, concentrating instead on steering the van down a darkened street with no headlights, running lights, or brake lights.
But the recklessness that had driven Standish to draw to that inside straight had a price; the electrical power deprived of its route to the rear lighting arced into the handcuffs binding the bloodied wrists of the man who had broken that connection. Ezra's body spasmed at the small but painful shock that jolted through him. He came to rest on his side, his fingers twitching and the taste of copper in his mouth, dazed and only semi-aware of his surroundings. When white light suddenly flooded the back of the van, and the blare of an air horn split his ringing ears, Ezra had only moments to comprehend what was happening and try desperately to curl himself around Vin Tanner's body before the back doors crumpled inward and the whole vehicle shuddered, lurched sideways, and rolled over.
Peering through the high ground cover that bordered the clearing, JD nudged his partner. "There's Ezra's Jag," he said, pointing to a car parked in front of a run-down warehouse building in the center of the clearing. "The guys must be inside. Looks like Vin's worrying about getting past the front door was for nothin'. I guess those 'Black Monday' guys aren't as sharp as we thought," he added with a light chuckle. Realizing that his fellow agent hadn't responded to anything he'd just said, the young ATF man glanced at Buck to see if he'd been listening. He was surprised to find his teammate intently studying the area before them. "What's up, Buck?"
"Well, you keep an eye on things while I go let Chris know that everything is going according to plan." Keeping his body low to the ground, JD rose to head back to report their findings to their superior.
"Wait a minute, kid," the older agent said as he grasped JD's arm and pulled him down beside him.
"What's wrong, Buck? Did you see something?" JD whispered, as his eyes quickly scanned the perimeter for any movement.
"Naw, that's just it, kid. It's too quiet. You'd think they would at least have a lookout posted. Somethin' don't seem right about this. I think we better go in for a closer look."
As the two cautiously made their way toward the building, Buck motioned for JD to take the rear as he headed toward a side window. Crouching below the window, gun in hand, the seasoned ATF agent slowly raised up to take a quick look inside the old warehouse. His cursory examination showed no signs of life within the dilapidated structure. Thumbing the button on his radio, he said, "JD, the place looks empty. Give me a minute to get up front and then we both go in."
"Gotcha, Buck," his radio crackled back.
Buck pushed open the front door about the same time that JD entered from the rear. Guns drawn, both agents carefully swept the expanse of the room, slowly making their way toward each other, looking for telltale signs along the way that the space had been recently occupied.
As the two agents approached each other, Buck suddenly stopped. "Damn it," he cursed, an angry edge to his voice.
"What is it, Buck?" JD looked up to see his partner stooping down to retrieve an object from the floor. He continued to scan the building for danger as he waited for Wilmington to respond.
"It's Ezra's watch," the tall man answered softly.
"Oh, God," Dunne uttered. "That means they've been made, Buck."
"F*CK!" Buck stood up and looked directly at his partner, a mixture of anger and fear clearly readable in Wilmington's eyes. "Damn that f**king Martin for insisting they wear a tracking device. That's probably what gave them away."
"I don't get it, Buck. Knowing all the high tech gadgets that 'Black Monday' has at its disposal, why did Chris go along with Martin, especially when both Vin and Ezra thought wearing a tracker was a bad idea?"
"Because Chris didn't have a choice, kid," Wilmington said disgustedly. "That FBI dick evidently has connections with more clout than Travis, somebody trying to ride on the coattails of a big bust. When Chris refused to have the guys wear the tracker, Travis said it was an order that went beyond his powers to supercede. Travis said Chris should consider himself lucky that Vin and Ezra weren't forced to partner up with two of Martin's men."
"What are we gonna do now, Buck? We got no idea where the guys are. Or if they are all right," he added, making no attempt to keep the worry out of his voice.
"I'm going to keep looking, maybe there's a clue around here somewhere. You are going to head back to the car and apprise Chris of the situation." As JD turned to leave the same way he had entered, Buck added, "Watch your back, kid."
JD gave the older agent a weak smile and said, "I will, Buck." On his way out he followed closer to the wall, still wary of possible trouble. About half way to the rear exit, he stopped short. Bending down, he touched his fingers to the floor. "SH*T!" he exclaimed. "Buck, you better come over here and see this."
Concerned, Wilmington looked up from the desk he had been rifling through, stuffed a piece of paper in his pocket and bounded over to his partner. "Whatcha got, kid?"
Raising up and turning to face his friend, JD held out his fingers, the tips covered with a red, wet substance. "It's blood, Buck. Looks like one or both of the guys has been hurt."
"DAMN! As if Vin and Ezra don't have enough problems already." Seeing the worry etched on his young partner's face, the taller man tried to reassure him with, "But, hey, you know Vin and Ezra. If anybody can get themselves out of a jam, it's those two. They'll be all right, kid," he added, more to convince himself than JD.
"Hey, let's go talk to Chris," Wilmington said as he clapped the smaller agent on the back. "I found something in the papers on the desk that just might lead us to the boys." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the piece of paper he had put there earlier. Handing the paper to JD, he asked, "What do you make of this, kid?"
Dunne studied the paper for a second and then looked up at his partner, a slight grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Some sorta number ... I don't know. But it's on Skyline Airways stationary. A number for a tie-down space, maybe? For a private plane?" he said encouragingly.
A broad grin spread across Wilmington's face. "Yeah, that's what I thought too, kid. It's time to round up the posse. We got us some bad guys to nail and some pards to rescue." He laughed as the two headed back to their vehicle.
The first sensation that hit him was pain. *I couldn't have been out long,* Ezra thought as he heard Harry and Enrique get out of the van. "Damn, Vin, I'm sorry," he spoke to the nearly unconscious man he was half laying on. Ezra struggled to move off of his injured friend.
Ezra was answered with only a moan from the sharpshooter. "Vin, we have to get out of here." The undercover agent had given up using his 'five dollar words' as Vin called them.
Vin tried to sit up when the intense pain forced him back down again. Instead of answering Ezra, he just shook his head.
"Vin, the vehicle is on fire. We have to get out." The smoke was becoming almost too thick to breathe.
"I ... can't ... you ... go," Vin gasped.
"Tanner, don't you quit on me, now," Ezra yelled at the injured man.
"I'm sorry." Vin said nothing more as he lost the fight to stay conscious.
"Damn it,Vin, you're the first person I ever let get close to me. I'm not going to let you die." Ezra made himself stop and think. *What the hell can I do handcuffed?* He could hear the voices outside the van. He wasn't sure what they were saying, but he could definitely hear them. *There has to be a way for me to let them know we're here.* Ezra started coughing, the smoke was getting too thick. *Oh damn, this is going to hurt!* Ezra drew his legs up then kicked as hard as he could straight out against the metal doors of the van.
Police Officer Michael Wiseman heard the sound coming from the back of the van. "Shit, someone's in there." He ran to the back of the vehicle and jerked open the doors. The smoke was thick, but he could make out the form of two people. He grabbed Ezra and was pulling him out.
"No, my friend, get him, he's worse," Ezra said between coughs, as he was trying to breathe.
Michael carried the other man and laid him on the ground, then went back for Ezra.
"Listen," Ezra began, "we're undercover." Ezra knew he had to get this man to understand. "Someone's trying to kill us."
"Why are you handcuffed?" the officer asked.
A paramedic was trying to give Ezra oxygen to help him breathe but, he kept moving away from the mask. "We're ATF ... undercover ... gang... Black Monday." He had to get a message to Chris and the others.
"Shit, I've heard of them." Every officer of every department had heard of Black Monday. Michael used the key to his handcuffs to release Ezra and then Vin.
"Two men that were in the front of the van, where are they?" Ezra asked, as his breathing was getting better now that he was out of the smoke-filled van.
"I don't know. They disappeared."
Ezra stopped to listen to the paramedic that was working on Vin. "Call ahead to the hospital. Have a surgeon on stand-by. We have extreme internal bleeding."
"I'm going with him."
"Mister?" the paramedic looked at Ezra.
"Mr. Jones, you'll need to be seen by a doctor as well. We'll take good care of your friend."
"NO!! I'm staying with him!" Ezra looked at the police officer, silently asking for his help.
Michael pulled Ezra aside. "What can I do?"
"As long as we're alive, we're in danger. I have to stay with him. I don't even know who we can trust anymore."
"What do you mean?" the officer asked, confused.
Ezra took a deep breath, deciding how much he should tell this man. Hell, if he would have been one of them, he and Vin would both be dead. "My name is Ezra Standish." He pointed to his fallen friend. "He's Vin Tanner. We are part of the--"
Michael Wiseman smiled, "The Magnificent Seven, hell everyone in law enforcement has heard of you."
"There's an FBI agent, Daniel Martin, he's on the take. He set us up."
Michael frowned, he hated to hear of a cop gone bad. "All right, you stay with Mr. Tanner in the hospital."
"We'll need to be checked in under an alias."
"Agreed. I'll stay with you, too," Michael offered.
"No, just contact Larabee in person, no phone calls." Ezra tried to focus on the man, but he couldn't keep his gaze from returning to Vin as he was being loaded into the ambulance.
"And officer." Ezra made sure there was no mistaking the threat behind his tone. "No one else will know of this, understand?"
Officer Wiseman nodded as Ezra let himself be helped into the back of the ambulance with Vin.
Ezra tried to get comfortable in the short seat found in the ambulance. He watched as one of the paramedics tried to make the ride as pleasant as they could for Vin. They had placed him in a reclining position, and an oxygen mask was over his mouth. They had started an IV, and Ezra watched the bag sway as the driver went around a curve. He just hoped Officer Wiseman could find Chris. Ezra could see breathing was painful for the sharpshooter, and wished the ambulance would go faster.
A few minutes later the ambulance pulled up in front of Four Corners Mercy Hospital. Ezra followed as they wheeled Vin into the ER. One of the nurses stopped him before he could go in.
"Mr. Standish, what happened this time?" asked a nurse that looked familiar.
"Hello, nurse Simpson," Ezra said, dragging her name from his memory. "Mr. Tanner and myself were in a small altercation."
"Well, I'll start the paper work," she said as she turned to go.
"I need for you to alter the names on the admittance papers," Ezra whispered, as he grabbed her arm.
"Are you and Mr. Tanner in some sort of trouble?"
"Suffice it to say it would be better for all parties concerned if you didn't use Mr. Tanner's name."
"I understand," she said. "And what name should I use?"
"William Smith," Ezra answered. "And I am Ezra Jones."
She smiled and went back behind the desk and began to fill out the paperwork. Ezra went and washed up. He had convinced the paramedics he wasn't seriously hurt. He needed to stay close to Vin and couldn't if they were to treat his injures as well.
When he came back out, they where wheeling Vin towards the elevator. He followed and got in the next one. He knew where the OR was and got out on the third floor. Ezra pulled up a seat close to the doors and waited.
Officer Wiseman headed over to the federal building. He was worried about Agents Tanner and Standish. He had to find their leader Chris Larabee. He pulled into the parking area and parked close to the door. He headed for the door and was waved past the security check after showing his ID. He was in uniform, but they double-checked. Wiseman headed for the information desk.
"Hello, officer, may I help you?" asked a pretty blonde.
"I'm looking for Agent Larabee. It's very urgent."
"Just a minute," she said and made a call. A few minutes later she hung up. "He isn't here. Team Seven was sent out on a call."
"Do you know where?" he asked. "It's very urgent. It's about two of his agents."
"Hold on one minute," She made another call. "Someone will be down to see you."
He waited a few feet from the desk so he wouldn't be in the way. A short while later an older gentleman came to the desk. T he guard pointed to him and the older man headed in his direction.
"I'm AD Travis," he said, holding out his hand.
"Officer Wiseman," he answered, shaking his hand.
"You have information on two of my agents."
Michael wasn't sure if he could trust this man. Ezra had said there was a leak in the agency.
"I need to see Agent Larabee," he said.
"If it's about Ezra Standish and Vin Tanner, you can tell me," Travis assured the young man.
"All right, but can we step outside?" Michael said and headed for the door.
A.D. Travis followed him out into the plaza in front of the building.
"I'm sorry sir, but Mr. Standish said there was a leak in the department," Michael apologized. "I didn't want anyone to hear us."
"I understand," he said.
"The two Agents are at the hospital," Michael began. "Mr. Tanner has suffered internal injuries. Mr. Standish said they would check in under aliases in case someone came looking for them. He sent me to contact Agent Larabee."
"Did Ezra say what case he was working on?" Travis asked.
"Yeah, he said their cover was blown working the Black Monday case."
"Damn!" Travis cursed. "The rest of the team got a lead on where the gang might be. I'll get word to him about Vin and Ezra."
"All right, sir. I'll head back to the hospital."
Travis watched as the officer left. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Chris's number.
"Chris, it's Travis. Vin and Ezra are at the hospital."
"What?" he heard Chris exclaim.
"Yes. Get over there as soon as you can. How did the bust go?"
"We got most of them, but a few are missing."
"Then Vin and Ezra are still in danger. Ezra had them check Vin in under a false name," Travis warned.
"We're on our way now," Chris said.
Buck watched as Chris closed his cellphone. He heard part of the conversation and knew what Chris was thinking. He was blaming himself for not putting his foot down about the watch, which had blown their cover.
Ezra gently lowered himself into the chair at the side of Vin's bed, placing himself between the recovering sharpshooter and the door. Faint light from the street lamps and the full moon cast a milky light across the center of the room and across the gambler's lap as he cradled his weapon.
Pain pinched in his wounded side and he jerked straight up, the effort sending more hot stabs of agony through his ribcage. "Uhhhhh." He shut his eyes to will away the pain and try to get his bearings, his mind clouded with exhaustion.
"You know, I had some absolutely inspired torture planned for you two." Harry's voice cut through the silence of the room, and Ezra couldn't control the short gasp that escaped from his lips. "Damn pity. Now you boys will just have to die from your basic dull and boring bullet to the brain."
Glazed green eyes looked up into vicious brown ones. Ezra fumbled with his gun, but his already weaken body refused to respond as fast as he needed it to, and Harry wrenched it from the gambler's shaking hand.
The muscle man smiled broadly and slammed the stock of Ezra's gun against his opponent's jaw, and the conman's vision blurred. He fought the desire to just slip into unconsciousness, but that was not an option. With the last of his strength Ezra rushed the bigger man, stretching his bruised ribs to the limit as he wrapped his arms around the villian's waist in a tackle Mean Joe Green would have been proud of. A scream of rage and desperation reverberated from the gambler's lungs as he shoved the man into the rolling cart near Vin's bed, and they both hit the floor.
Ezra fought like a man possessed. His overwhelming fear and the desire to keep himself and his friend safe numbed him to the pain he knew he should be feeling. Harry grunted then lifted the smaller man from his chest and slammed Ezra's back into the unconscious tracker's bed. Ezra let out a breathless groan as he felt the tip of his shoulder blade crunch against metal and his head whip back to smack into the railing.
"Oh, I like it when they fight." Harry grinned as he lifted his foot above the supine gambler and stomped his heavy boot down hard on his injured side. Ezra screamed as a new definition of agony was etched into his brain and he fought not to give in and pass out.
The door to Vin's room swung open, and two young and very upset nurses ran inside. "What in the..." They both froze as the villain pulled up Ezra's gun and aimed it at the women.
"Get over by the window." Harry's tone was quiet and forceful, and they slowly obeyed.
Ezra felt his ribs pressing into his insides everytime he took a breath, and he forced himself to set aside the panic threatening to take over. He was strangely aware of everything going on in the room, but his body refused to respond to his commands to move. He saw the nurses huddle together on the couch, and a wave of nausea spread through his gut as he realized the predicament he'd placed the innocent women in.
Harry turned his back to Ezra, realizing the agent was no longer a real threat, his rage turned now to the women in front of him. Ezra felt lightheaded and was unaware of even being on his feet until he actually took a step toward the larger man. Both women screamed as Harry aimed the pistol at the blond nurse, and Ezra pushed himself forward, letting his weight throw the villain off balance.
The gun exploded and the nurses ducked, then ran as glass from the window shattered.
Ezra barely realized Harry jumping to his feet, barely registered the muscle man grabbing his shirt and lifting the limp gambler in front of him. Ezra only knew this was it, it was over and he was a dead man.
Ezra saw Harry turn, pull the pistol up in front of him, heard the ungodly loud bang as one of his friends shot off a round into the bad man's head. Ezra stood on wobbly legs, trying to focus on the faces approaching him.
"Ezra? You look terrible." J.D.'s huge eyes stared at the wounded agent, and he put out a hand to steady his friend.
"Vin?" Ezra asked weakly.
"He's ok, didn't wake up at all." Chris' words sunk into the wounded man's skull, and he wanted to respond, thank the men he saw milling throughout the room for saving his and Vin's lives, but he could say no more. He watched as the walls began to breathe, and he felt a buzzing in his ears. He saw Chris in front of him, his lips still moving, but no sound emitting from their leader's mouth.
Ezra blinked. He was sure Chris was probably yelling at him for screwing up, and he was grateful his senses still hadn't returned. Ezra felt Chris' hand around his forearm and wondered why the man had such a worried look on his face, just as the gambler pitched forward into his boss' arms.
Chris saw the color drain from Ezra's painfilled face and he knew what was about to happen, so he was ready when the conman collapsed in his arms.
"Aw, hell, Ezra." Chris half dragged his friend to the couch and laid the unconscious form down gently. Sweat plastered his thin white shirt to his chest, and Chris could see Ezra struggling to catch his breath.
"Ezra!" Nathan's concerned voice was in Chris' ear and the doctor quickly joined them to look at the gambler.
The doctor quickly called for a gurney. He opened Ezra's sweat-soaked shirt and chastised himself for missing the seriousness of the man's injuries. Chris winced at the bruises covering his friend's left side, spreading to the edges of his ribcage. The physician palpitated Ezra's belly, causing him to gasp and push away the doctor's hands in one swift motion.
"Ezra, hold still now." Nathan's voice echoed through the room, but the doctor wasn't deterred. He moved the gambler's hand aside and continued to probe the bruised area near his ribs.
"Well?" Chris asked.
"Ribs are broken, won't know if they've punctured anything until we get him to the trauma room." The doctor looked into Ezra's glazed eyes and ran his hand around the conman's head. Blood coated his fingers as he drew them back, and the doctor shook his head. "Concussion too, looks like."
Two attendants arrived with the gurney, and they quickly moved the remaining seven out of their way to get to Ezra. They lifted the semiconscious man onto the sheets, each holding him firm with one hand as he slowly thrashed on the small bed, moaning incoherently.
"Get him to x-ray, I want a CT scan ..." The doctor's words faded as he followed the men out into the hallway.
Chris ran a hand through his hair as he watched the staff take Ezra from them. He cast a longing glance towards the pale form of his best friend, who still lay unconscious, and then at the rest of his team, as if he were torn as to what to do. "Buck, you and JD go with Ezra. I don't want him out of your sight until we know the status on the rest of Black Monday."
Wilmington nodded and cupped a hand on the back of his roommate's neck to get him moving. "Gotcha', pard. We'll pull rank if we have to."
"Josiah, see if you can find out what luck Team Three had with nabbing Martin. I want him found, no matter what reserves it takes."
Sanchez didn't wait for further instructions before turning and following after Buck and the kid. None of them would be able to rest until the man who had caused their partners' ordeal was caught, and heaven help him when that happened.
"What do you want me to do, Chris?" Nathan's soft voice sounded ominous in the now quiet room.
Larabee met the ex-medic's gaze before reaching down and picking up a chart from the end of Tanner's bed. "Read this and tell me what Vin's condition is. I want to know everything that happened to him."
Jackson swallowed back the lump that had sprung to his throat at the sight of Larabee's impenetrable mask crumbling before him. Their leader had blamed himself from the very instant they had lost track of Ezra and Vin. Nathan knew without a doubt that each injury, each agony the southerner and the sharpshooter had endured, would be scorched in Chris Larabee's memory forever. Long after physical traumas had healed, they would serve as painful reminders of an imagined failure that only Chris could see.
He waited until Larabee had taken up residence beside Vin before he began to read. It only took him a few heart-breaking moments to describe the surgery Vin had underwent to repair massive internal bleeding and to list the numerous other injuries in medical jargon. Broken ribs, fractured wrist, contusions, and cuts -- the list went on and on. "It looks like he's going to make a full recovery, though." Nathan ended his report on a hopeful note before closing the chart and replacing it in its spot.
"Was that all caused by the wreck they were in?" Chris's voice was low and menacing. "I mean, did you get a look at Ezra? He looked like he'd been hit by a semi." Jackson's positive closing remark had done nothing to gloss over the gut-wrenching facts.
Unfortunately, Nathan knew all too well what their leader was asking him, what he was thinking. He wanted to know if his fears, if all their fears, had been justified.
As soon as they had found out that their partners had been discovered, it was easy to read the thoughts that were flashing in each of their minds. All had heard horror stories about men made for cops while dealing with intricate gangs like Black Monday and had even seen evidence of such atrocities for themselves.
Jackson wanted more than anything to tell Chris that their partners had been lucky, that their injuries had come swiftly from the impact of the collision, but unfortunately, the truth was written in black and white and as plain to read as the matching bruises on Vin and Ezra's faces.
"Vin was worked over pretty good, Chris. Ezra too, probably. I'd say that the men who had them are the cause of most of this, not the accident." Nathan paused and ran a hand over his weary eyes. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be, Nate," Chris said quietly, picking up Vin's hand and holding it between both of his. "Martin's the one who's going to be sorry. Him and anyone ever associated with Black Monday. I'll see to that."
Midnight in a hospital. Quiet, but not deserted ... people dressed in white still padded by the open door, and from the direction of the nurses' station Buck could hear the clinking of metal on metal, the whir of a computer printer, and the distant beeping of a telephone.
The world kept turning. For other people.
His world, and the world of his friends, was frozen in time. It would not move again until two pairs of eyes opened, and two men wakened from their unnatural rest.
JD stirred, then settled again. The young man sat on the floor at Buck's feet, his body propped against the front of the chair, his head pillowed on Buck's thigh. Wilmington dropped his callused hand to the back of the boy's neck and let it rest there, feeling the pulse just below his ear, listening to the soft snoring.
It comforted him. The kid had fretted and paced and driven his partner crazy with his restless parading back and forth between this room and the one in which Chris Larabee kept vigil over Vin Tanner. After several hours and pleas from his partner, JD had eventually settled down, worn out from the late hour and the worry. Finally he'd nodded off, leaving Buck alone to watch the monitors that told him Ezra Standish was still alive.
In the silence of midnight Buck Wilmington watched and waited for the world to start turning again.
A big hand, deceptively gentle, shook a broad shoulder.
"Wake up, Buck."
Blue eyes blinked, and Buck Wilmington knuckled the crusty sleep from their corners, careful not to disturb the young man who still slept at his knee. "Chris?"
His friend was smiling. "Vin's awake. He's hurtin' ... but he's breathin' on his own. Even bitched about when he could go home. He's gonna be OK."
The world lurched a little under Buck's feet. "That's great, Chris," he murmured, even as his eyes strayed past Larabee's shoulder to the hospital bed. Chris followed the gaze. "No change?"
"Vin asked for him."
Buck sighed, and decided to change the subject. "Any word from Team Three?"
"Yeah." Chris leaned against the wall, looking down at JD, and a small smile teased the corner of his mouth. "They got the bad guys... Coronado, and Martin too. The kid was right ... that number you found was a tie-down space rented to Martin. The plane was taxiing when Moore and his team got there. They were able to stop the take-off, and the stuff they found on the plane ... cash, ledger books, a laptop ... has all the info they need to lock those bastards away. You and the boy did good, Buck. And so did Vin and Ezra. Wasn't for nothing."
"Don't mean much when he's lyin' there like that, Chris." Buck's voice was heavy with weariness and worry.
"I'd give a hell of a lot right about now just to hear one smartass remark from that son of a bitch," said Buck sadly.
"Make it ... worth ... my while?"
The world began turning again.
In the end, it proved quite easy to persuade the floor manager to put them together in the same room. As she admitted ruefully, "It'll save two other people." It certainly made the staff rotation easier, as the nurses who knew the Seven and how to deal with them could have their shifts scheduled more efficiently.
And, when it was time for them both to go home, those dedicated nurses would wave goodbye, grateful that these men whom they had come to know so well were recovered and returning to their jobs and homes.
And getting the hell out of the nursing staff's hair.
"I can walk!" insisted Vin.
"So can I," affirmed Ezra.
"Shut up," said Mrs. Martinne. "You're under my jurisdiction until you climb out of those wheelchairs and into whatever outlandish vehicles your friends have chosen to cart you home in. Once we're at the curb, I'll tip you out into the street myself ... but until then, Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish, *I* am in control."
Josiah and Nathan laughed out loud, and Chris couldn't help but chuckle. The little parade rolled down the corridor and past the nurses' station, where the departees were greeted with smiles, sniffles, and relieved looks, and on to the elevator.
Once out the front doors, they were met by Josiah's Suburban with JD at the wheel, followed by Chris' pickup, which Buck nosed up behind the bigger vehicle. With a bit of juggling, the patients were loaded into the Chevy. The overflow piled into Chris' truck for the trip to Buck and JD's apartment, where it had been decided that the invalids would recuperate.
"The building has an elevator, and JD's room is big enough for both of you," Chris had said in a tone that decreed "end of story."
"Share a room with *him*?!" the invalids had protested in unison, but their objections had been quickly overruled.
Now both were sprawled on the couch in front of a coffee table arrayed with food and drink that would have made their doctors blanch, glaring at each other and their friends over carefully guarded fans of playing cards. After a moment, Vin threw his hand down in disgust.
Buck sighed and did the same. "That's gratitude for ya. Ez, don't I get a better deal for havin' sat vigil over your wounded butt?"
"What makes you think I have control over the contents of your hand, Mr. Wilmington?" said Ezra innocently.
"Same thing that makes *me* think you do," scowled Nathan as his cards joined the others on the table.
"I'm certain that you are enjoying an advantage, as my wits are surely addled by those painkillers," defended the dealer. He eyed the remaining players. "Mr. Larabee? Mr. Dunne? Mr. Sanchez?"
"I'm out," sighed JD. "I gotta hang on to *some* money for the weekend. Casey's tired of pickin' up the check."
"I'm sure you make it worth her while," smiled Ezra.
"I'm out too," said Josiah. "Bad karma. I guess I shouldn't have 'accidentally' kicked Harry Tulle in the butt when I helped him into that interrogation room downtown."
Chris Larabee chuckled. "I think you should *win* a hand for *that,*" he said. "Worked for me." He lay down a royal flush.
Ezra paled ... a feat, considering he was still quite pallid from his ordeal. He folded his cards unseen and dropped them on the table.
"If that is the case, then I suppose I should be grateful to lose this hand to you, Mr. Larabee," he said.
"It's the painkillers, Ez," said Vin, chuckling.
"Pass him some more before he deals again," said Buck.
"Nope. No more dealin'," said Nathan. "These two are headin' for bed."
Protests were quickly overridden. Nathan took this fact as proof that his judgement was correct. The others helped Vin and Ezra to JD's room, which had been excavated for their stay, and both were soon dosed and settled, Vin in JD's bed and Ezra in a rollaway that had been rented for the duration.
Vin went somewhat willingly, but Ezra managed one last sleepy complaint.
"You're only doin' this because you lost," he mumbled to Nathan.
"Right. You lost, too." Jackson smiled. "But you'll live to fold another day."
"Indeed." Ezra nodded off.
Five men stood in the shadows, looking down at the two who had been restored to them.
Seven made one. One more time.
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