Disclaimer: The characters and the places of the Magnificent Seven do not belong to either of us, nor have we made any money from this snippet.
Happy Birthday, Carolyn.
Thanks, Mackie, for the quick beta.
* Statements enclosed with "<< >>" denotes radio conversation between the ATF team.
* Statements enclosed with "** **" denotes bad guys' conversation heard over JD's bug.
* Statements enclosed with "/// ///" denotes thoughts.
* This is a snippet in the ATF universe
by Katie and Shellie
"Turn, turn, he's goin' left!"
"I see it." Hands walking the wheel like a sea captain in a high storm, Nathan manhandled the van through the turn.
Pressing his lips to the mike, Chris relayed the message. "Josiah, we're headin' north down the mountain. North."
<<"Copy that. We're just a few cars behind.">> Edged with static, Josiah's reply crackled through the radio. <<"Anything else from JD?">> His question was probably for Buck's benefit. The two were in a Ranger just seconds behind the surveillance van.
"No. The bug's still workin' and his signal's comin' through just fine. We're not gonna lose 'im."
Headlights and the glow from a full moon glossed the wet road, marbling streaks and eddies into white, black and blue. He knew Vin followed Buck and Josiah in an SUV, and that he'd eventually pass them all and take the lead whenever he got the chance. This late at night with heavy traffic and the weather working against them, the chase could take longer than any of them wanted.
**"Damn, I think we picked up a tail."**
"They made us," Ezra announced.
///'Bout time they noticed./// A merciless grin stretched flat against Chris' teeth. Rough and disjointed sounds from the bug taped to the small of JD's back filtered through their system into the van.
Residual dread still surged from time to time when Chris remembered the moment Thurman and his men found the first bug on JD. Hearing a fight through speakers didn't lend a quality of distance; instead, enduring the aural experience of slapped flesh and involuntary grunts expelled from lungs gave Chris the strange sensation of being sucked into the fray with JD. If only he'd been able to help him, instead of merely listening.
"Good thing you thought about plantin' that second bug, Ezra."
"One of many hard lessons learned from past experiences." Swaying gently from side to side in the back of the vehicle, his fingers poised steadily over the controls of the surveillance equipment, Ezra refrained from looking at Chris when he answered. "We still have the tracking devise if they discover the second bug."
"Let's not borrow more trouble than we already got." Nathan pulled hard on the wheel, lips rolled in as he concentrated on driving. "He's heading for the turn-off, Chris. Better let Buck know." Glancing into his rearview mirror, Nathan twisted to look over his shoulder then turned his attention back to the road. "And Vin. He should be comin' up on us pretty soon."
Before Chris could answer, the speakers sputtered back to life.
**"I can't shake 'em. We'll nev-- lose ---- on this road -- too many curves."**
Josiah's voice, clearer and potent with anger, broke in. <<"Chris, they're headin' for I-70.">>
"Yeah, we know, Josiah. Hold on." Dropping the mike to press both hands against the dashboard, Chris leaned hard into his door as Nathan took a curve fast enough to drive his stomach into his throat.
Sounds from the car they followed spurted from the van's speakers in staccato pulses. As advantages went, it wasn't much. But since it was their only link to JD, it had become a lifeline. The decision to send JD in undercover instead of Ezra had been based solely on the fact that Ezra's face would be quickly identifiable, and because none of the others on the team had JD's talent for manipulating electronic equipment, which just happened to be Mace Thurman's cup of tea.
**"I knew y--- were a fed when I s-- you."**
Despite the poor quality of the transmission, the dangerous edge of anger came through loud and clear.
**"They're r---- behind us, Mr. Th--man. What do you w--t me ta do?"**
A horn blared intensely loud, then faded quickly in a doppler affect as the car sped by them. Chris ignored the distraction.
**"Get rid of -im. Throw him out, may- that'll give us e-- time to lose th-."**
Immediately, JD's voice, raised in alarm, blasted over the speakers. No words untangled themselves from the quagmire of noise, but anguish and fear cut through as sharply as a blade.
A door opened in the car ahead. Accompanying sounds through the speakers gave the listeners in the van a strange stereo affect.
Nathan leaned far over the wheel, his eyes squinted as he pressed close to the windshield. "They're not stoppin'--" A dark shape erupted with blurring speed from the pursued car. Nathan pushed back in his seat and planted his feet on the brake. "Stop, stop! Tell them to stop --it's JD!"
"Stop! Stop now, damn it, stop!" One arm thrown over his head to press his palm against the ceiling, his knees anchored stiffly against the dash, Chris fought the vertigo rushing through him as the van began a slow spin on the wet road. Aware of Ezra tumbling in the back of the vehicle, he could do nothing but dig his fingers in and wait for the spin to stop.
First through the windshield, then through his side window until they rotated too far to see, he watched JD's body windmill through the air before it hit the road -- his form all elbows and knees stuck out at awkward angles.
The van pivoted almost all the way back around and jerked to a harshly vibrating stop that seemed to jar worse than the spin. Air rushed out of him at the same time his muscles unclenched. Chris caught his breath just as Buck darted past his window. Fumbling for the door handle, he spared a moment to check on Ezra and Nathan, making sure they were all right before hurrying to join Buck.
Buck held the wheel as steady as he could, squinting into the rain that made the road so treacherous. Bad enough driving these mountain roads at night, but add in the downpour and it was like an accident waiting to happen. From beside him, he could just hear a low voice muttering above the roar of the tires on the wet asphalt. He didn't want to guess if Josiah were praying or cursing. It seemed a fit night for both.
<<"Stop! Stop now, damn it, stop!">>
The hoarse shout coming through the radio almost didn't sound like Chris's voice. Chris didn't usually panic, but now a note of absolute fear echoed through the speakers. That sound, as much as the instincts honed from years of following Chris's orders, made Buck slam his foot on the brake. He felt the skid start, heard the sharp squeal of tires, and had a sudden, horrifying vision of plowing into the surveillance van in front of him.
Then the van's taillights slid sideways and its headlights were glaring in Buck's face. Josiah's curses rang in Buck's ears. Buck had only a split second to pray that Vin's reflexes were as quick as usual. He jerked hard on the wheel, forcing his Ranger to the left, out of the way of the sledding van.
Three pairs of headlights skewed widely, playing across the road like a kaleidoscope. When they came to rest, they spanned the road and illuminated the figure of a man rolling across the asphalt.
Buck barely remembered to slam the gearshift into park before throwing himself out into the rain. Cold water pelted down, stinging his eyes, but he didn't have time for it. The man on the road--it could only have been one person to spark that much terror in Chris's voice.
Buck ran, sliding a little on the treacherous pavement. Light reflected off each drop of the rain that sheeted down, making it hard to see more than a few feet ahead. He refused to think that JD might be dead, but he wouldn't be able to breathe easy until he knew just how badly he was hurt.
Finally he got close enough that his shadow cut through the glare of the headlights and he could see JD. Something unclenched in his chest as he saw JD on his feet. Hunched over and swaying like a drunk, bloody from scrapes on his forehead and cheek, but standing on his own. JD squinted bewilderedly at the lights, one arm held against his belly as he wiped futilely at the rain in his eyes. Buck slowed to give JD a chance to realize it was him.
"JD? You all right, son?" Given the tightness in his throat, Buck was surprised that his voice came out as calm as it did.
JD blinked at him slowly, dazedly. Buck thought that he was about to say something, but he just crumpled forward so gracefully that Buck almost didn't catch him before he hit the ground.
"JD?" The panic was back, sending Buck's voice up a notch.
JD shook his head against Buck's shoulder, fingers digging into his arm. "What . . . "
Cautious of the injuries he still hadn't determined, Buck shifted to brace JD's weight. Rain washed away the blood almost as fast as it welled out of the various scrapes that Buck could see, but JD's eyes were glazed and shocky, and his knees didn't seem quite willing to hold him.
A large shadow cast itself ahead of them. Buck looked back toward the vehicles, not surprised to see the rest of the team rushing to surround them, a steady wall of protection against anything stupid enough to threaten.
"How is he?" Nathan's hand rested briefly on Buck's shoulder as he moved to examine JD. He cupped his other hand around the back of JD's head, his thumb hovering over the angry red skin on JD's cheekbone, but he didn't try to move him out of Buck's grasp. "Damn, I can't see anything in this rain."
"Best move out of the road anyway," Vin said, just loud enough to be heard over the rain. "Traffic."
"Nathan, you and Buck move JD to the van. It'll have enough room to check him over there," Chris said. He rested a hand on JD's shoulder for just a moment before continuing, "Vin, Josiah, Ezra, let's pull everything over to the shoulder till Nathan's done."
"Hold on just a minute," Nathan interrupted. "Ezra, you mind pulling the van over here? I don't want him walking around too much till I know if anything's broken."
"My pleasure," Ezra answered, flicking the collar of his coat up like he'd just noticed the rain running down the back of his neck. He turned and hurried back to the parked vehicles, Josiah a step behind him.
Vin paused for a moment. "You want me to try to follow Thurman?"
Chris shook his head. "He's gone. We'll pick up the trail tomorrow."
"Sorry." JD said it so softly that Buck was pretty sure no one else heard him. He didn't have a chance to say anything before Ezra pulled the van up.
"Anything feel like you shouldn't move it?" Nathan asked.
JD shook his head as he gingerly straightened away from Buck. "I'm all right."
Buck, figuring that for an overstatement, kept one hand on his elbow just in case. Nathan caught his other arm and they half-lifted, half-guided him into the van and eased him onto the bench that lined the back half of one side. Buck sat beside him, resting a hand on his back to steady him as Nathan started his examination. Chris climbed into the van and sat in the chair by the surveillance equipment.
"We're good to go, Ezra," he said, then settled back to watch Nathan's exam with unreadable eyes as Ezra moved the van forward.
Buck knew the look on Chris's face, knew the lack of expression hid more emotion than the team leader was willing to reveal. Chris took it personally when one of his own got hurt. Thurman was in for a world of trouble when Chris caught up to him. Buck had every intention of being present during that meeting. In fact, Chris was going to have to hurry if he wanted to be the one to educate Thurman as to the better part of valor when dealing with a member of their team.
"Did you black out when you hit the road?" Nathan was asking JD, running a big hand through the hair on the back of JD's head. "What about now? Are you dizzy? Nauseated?"
"No. I don't think I hit my head too hard." JD managed a wry smile. "I was kind of trying to avoid that."
"Good thinking." Buck patted JD's back absently, then moved his grip to JD's arm as Nathan ran his hand lightly down JD's spine. Buck could still feel faint tremors shaking JD's body from time to time, but his eyes had lost the dazed look they'd had earlier, and he was answering Nathan's questions without confusion. Buck felt another knot unravel itself in his chest and grinned. "You never know when you might need it for something more than growing hair on."
"Does anything hurt more than you'd expect? Anything feel broken?" Nathan continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. He frowned slightly as he touched JD's side and got a gasped curse in response. "Maybe some cracked ribs."
"Yeah," JD answered breathlessly. "Had those before. Feels about the same."
Nathan glanced at Chris. "Far as I can tell, that's the worst of it. I don't think he's got a concussion or anything broken other than his ribs, maybe, but the only way to tell is to take him to the hospital for some tests."
Chris nodded. "Ezra, you want to head us in that direction? I'll radio Josiah and Vin so they'll know what's going on." He stood, looking down at JD for a moment before adding, "JD. You did a good job out there, kept your head even when things went bad. Good work."
JD blinked at him and looked like he wanted to protest. Buck nearly kicked him; Chris didn't hand out praise often, but when he did, it was for good reason. JD probably had enough bruises, though, and apparently enough good sense not to argue.
"Thanks." JD ducked his head as Chris turned away.
Buck squeezed his arm gently, just enough to show that he felt the same way. Now that the immediate terror of losing his friend had passed, he had a chance to realize just how well JD had handled the situation--and how lucky they all had been. If Thurman had decided to shoot JD before throwing him out of the car, if JD had fallen just a little differently, if Chris had been just a few seconds later with his warning, or Buck and Vin a few seconds later with their response . . . It didn't bear thinking about, and Buck didn't intend to dwell on it. Not now, anyway, in the light of the van with JD alive beside him and Nathan's familiar voice droning on. Later, when he was alone and trying to sleep, he'd probably relive the moment again and again. But for now, he just wanted to sit back and be thankful that JD was all right.
Guiding JD to a stop, Buck wrestled with his keys one-handed to unlock their apartment. The key finally turned and he pushed the door open. JD listed heavily to one side. Buck caught him and steadied him through the entrance. Stuffing his keys into his pocket, he fumbled for the light switch just inside the door and turned it on.
Behind them, Nathan squeezed through then shifted to JD's other side. "Those meds are kicking in fast. We'll be lucky to get him into bed before he falls asleep on us."
"Just -- point me in the right -- direction." His words slurring and his body wobbling bonelessly in their grip, JD's head dragged forward. With a quick "whoa" of surprise, Buck managed to balance JD against his side.
The small hallway shoved them together, cramming their shoulders against each other and tossing them from wall to wall. In short order they shuffled into JD's room and helped him sit on the edge of the bed.
"I can take it from here. No use in both of us doing this." Buck guided JD back to the pillow, slipping his hand under his neck when his head lolled back gently.
He heard Nathan's grin through his words. "You just want to be the one to embarrass him later with stories of how you had to tuck him in."
A distant knock and then the door opening in the living room cut off Buck's reply.
Nathan quickly left. Buck heard him greeting Chris and Vin, their voices rumbling through the walls. The noise thickened as the rest of the team entered the apartment.
Early morning light tinged the blinds in JD's room, providing just enough illumination for Buck to see what he was doing. After pulling off JD's shoes, Buck carefully tugged the comforter out from under JD and covered him. Bulky padding wrapped around JD's injured ribs was visible through the over-sized v-necked scrubs he wore. His ragged shirt had been discarded in the emergency room, leaving him shivering in the air-conditioning. One of the nurses had kindly offered him a spare scrub top.
Settling down on the edge of the bed, Buck held still for a minute, soaking in the familiarity of their apartment and letting his soul feel the calmness of being home. Right on cue, the 'what ifs' he'd been juggling earlier rose to the surface of his thoughts again. With a sigh of resignation he accepted them, knowing they'd have to be put to rest before he could find peace.
So much of his team's survival depended on individual instincts, partner loyalty, and their ability to work together as a team. It was an equation he was familiar with from the days he'd worked Homicide with Chris, before the thought of joining the ATF ever entered his mind. It had grown even more true after he'd become part of Team 7. He did a dangerous job. He took risks because he had to, because playing it safe didn't get the job done. He put himself in insane situations, knowing too well that he could wind up dead before the day was up.
But he did it, just like they all did, armed with the knowledge that he was damn good at his job, that six men who were equally good were watching his back, and that the job *had* to be done. Each time he risked his life, he saved many others. It kept him going, kept him coming back each morning even when he was tired, bruised, discouraged, disillusioned. Even when he watched one of his friends come close to dying.
Because they all believed. They all had faith that they were doing an important job, and that they were the ones best equipped to do it. JD had had that faith when he'd taken the assignment, and Buck had seen it in his eyes again when they'd talked over options for catching Thurman as they'd waited at the hospital. Faith would ultimately let him sleep tonight, knowing JD had survived to do the job another day.
Quietly closing the door on the fear and questions in his mind and the worrying thought that he'd be too late one day to save JD, or be at the wrong place at the wrong time and let one of his team members down, Buck smiled as he gently touched JD's shoulder. JD's eyes struggled open just long enough to register his presence.
" . . . 'kay?" he mumbled.
Years of exposure to JD first thing in the morning had given Buck practice in interpreting half-asleep gibberish. This was comparatively easy.
"Yeah, everything's fine. Get some sleep. We've got work tomorrow."
JD sighed, finally giving in to the sleep that had been dragging at him. Buck stayed where he was, though, just for a few minutes, just long enough to be sure JD wasn't going to wake up again, before finally going out to join the planning session in the living room.