ATF Universe


The four men descended upon the man in charge of the rescue efforts.

"What's the delay?" Chris demanded. "Why are you just standing here? Three of my men are out there!" he shouted, waving his arms toward the open hangar door.

"If you haven't noticed, Agent Larabee," the man replied. "There's a storm front coming. Right now, it's probably in full swing where your men are. We can't risk putting anybody up in the air."

"So you're just gonna leave 'em out there?" Buck questioned.

"Look," the man began. "I understand that you're worried for your men. I want nothing more than to send my people out there to look for them. But I'm not about to risk any more lives! We have to wait for the weather to improve, or we may have more than just one aircraft down!" he finished, returning Chris's icy glare.

The four ATF agents sighed in unison at the man's logic. They knew he was right. They couldn't risk more lives. They stepped back from the table that had been scattered with maps and weather reports and let the man get back to work.

Chris watched his men as they eased back from the table. He tried to unclench his fists, tried to relax, but it was just so damn frustrating! He was out of his element now. Outranked. Basically, a civilian. He couldn't order any of these people around. Hell, he hadn't even been able to out-glare the Search and Rescue commander!

Nathan was looking at some of the medical equipment with some of the S&R paramedics. He'd actually known a few of them from some medical conferences he'd been to.

Buck was going over the maps with the S&R commander, trying to understand and figure out just where the plane may have gone down, what the three missing agents would be in for if they'd survived. IF. Chris sighed and ran his hands down his face. Then something caught his eye.

Josiah was standing by the hangar door, looking outward. But not at the sky.

Not at the weather. There was something else occupying the big man's thoughts. The ATF supervisor made his way toward the former missionary.

"What's on your mind, Josiah?" he asked.

When he didn't answer right away, Chris began to worry.

"Search and Rescue people won't go up in this stuff," Josiah finally said, nodding to the rain and dark clouds.

"That's right," Chris responded, warily, wondering where the big man was going with his words.

Josiah closed his eyes a moment, and Chris thought he saw him wince, as if remembering something painful. Still, he said nothing, but waited for the big man to go on. After taking a deep breath and letting it out, he opened his eyes and turned to Chris.

"I'll fly in it," he said, a slight waver in his voice. "I can find them," he added, with more determination.

When Chris gave him a confused look for a reply, Josiah went on to explain.

"Learned to fly a small bush chopper when I was with my father at the missions," he began. "It was the only way for some of the tribes to get supplies. Later on, toward the end of 'Nam, I flew medivac choppers. I've flown in worse weather than this, sometimes on just a rotor and a prayer, after getting shot up."

Chris didn't know what to think at that moment, torn between wanting to know more about Josiah's past and figuring out how the hell they were going to get clearance to not only get a helicopter but permission to take off. In the years they'd known each other, the big man never once mentioned his experience as a helicopter pilot. His personnel file made no mention of him being in the military, either.

"You get me a bird, and I'll fly us out of here," he continued, breaking Chris's train of thought.

Chris looked up at the big man, saw his determination, regained his own and nodded.

"Go get the others," he ordered.


Ezra felt his head begin to lull as the pounding of the raindrops overhead matched the rhythm of his skull. He jerked his eyes open as the sudden flash of the reason they were here flooded back into his mind.

Easy Standish, the last thing needed here is to lose the small grasp of reality we hold. He began to shift his uncomfortable position but sharp pokers of pain shot up his leg and arm reminding him of his own personal problems. If I weren't in so much agony, I might actually find amusement in this situation. He fought back the cry lodged in his throat and brought himself to his feet.

"Ez . . . " the soft voice gripped at the undercover agent's heart. JD indeed was the youngest in age but the sheer innocence being portrayed at this time of misery in his words, rammed the other man with remorse. First, why was it he in the role of responsibility and second why did the call of his name rip another piece of his heart out?

"I'm coming Mr. Dunne." Ezra hobbled across the small length of plane from the cockpit to sink to his haunches in front of the young agent, who was trussed up in something similar to a straight jacket and pain creasing every line of his face. "How may I be of service?" He tried to keep his own agony from his voice but the change in JD's eyes told him he had failed.

"You - okay Ez?" Dunne attempted to maneuver himself to a better vantage point but it made the nylon material shift causing it to rub against his wound. He couldn't contain the yelp of pain as it escaped his throat.

Standish didn't know what else to do for the young man except place a comforting hand on his leg. He patted it gently and was happy when he saw Dunne begin to relax once more.

"Thanks Ez." JD blinked several times, slowly bringing the southerner into focus. "For everything."

The undercover agent cocked an eyebrow at the statement. "I don't believe that crashing our plane requires a "thank you, Mr. Dunne."

JD couldn't stop the giggle from bubbling up inside. "Well, you did such a good job of it . . . " Both men let the laughter take over as they drew strength from the other.

"As I always say, JD, if you're going to do something, do it well." Ezra smiled for the first time since the trial had begun and was overjoyed when a similar smile was returned.

"We gonna get out of here, Ezra?" Dunne's voice caught as he finished his words.

Standish paused to choose his words. "Have you ever known Mr. Wilmington or Mr. Larabee to give up?" He watched the other agent take in the full content of the words.

"No." It was a simple response but held a newborn energy.

"Then my answer to your question would be, yes JD, I believe we will get out of here."

They each stretched out as easily as possible and sat listening to the growing storm. Ezra realized once again that he had almost drifted off. He shook his head hard to shake some of the cobwebs and was about to stand up to go check on Vin when he felt a shift.

What was that? Standish did a quick sweep with his eyes and saw nothing out of place but he felt it again, this time followed by a low moan from Tanner.

"Ez?" The Texas drawl was slightly slurred but coherent.

"I'm here Vin." The agent drew himself upright as quickly as his battered body would allow, throwing a concerned glance at the resting form of JD. He sighed as he noticed the man hadn't moved. Good. One of his injured team members was enough to deal with at a time.

Standish tried to place some weight on his ankle but bit his lip at the torture that shot through his body. "Damn." The curse left his mouth before he had a chance to stop it.

"Ezra? You okay?" The southerner heard the building panic in the pained voice and hastened his steps blocking out his agony.

"Its alright, I'm alright. Just stay calm." Standish finally laid his good hand on the ex-bounty hunter's shoulder and felt the other man relax.

"I felt something." Vin made sure, that he didn't move any part of his body but his lips, as he relayed his suspicion to the other agent.

"I know. I felt it too, my friend. The only question is, what was it?" Ezra slid down the bulkhead to the floor and rechecked the binding he had made on the sharpshooter's leg. Something wasn't right. He'd checked and double checked, to see that the line was taut, when he'd tied it off. Now, the line was slack with a good two inches of play in it. Ezra frowned, something was nagging at him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Vin's pained voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Ez, it raining?"

The confusion in the voice caused Standish to jerk his attention to the lean man's face and what he saw made his heart beat faster. There was a thin sheen of sweat along the bandage across his forehead and his face was flushed. Dear Lord, he has a fever! The agent took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself. Its not uncommon for an injured body to develop a low grade fever. Nathan said so himself. A shiver of fear ran through the Southerner, as he touched his friend. Yes, but when someone has a fever, they should be hot, not cool.

"Ez?" Vin's voice began to rise when there was no response to his question.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner, yes it is raining." He leaned back against the wall still attached to the plane as he saw the other man relax somewhat.

"Good, I was afraid I was hearing things."

Standish was about to comment on the certain things the sharpshooter heard when the plane lurched sideways about three inches, and all three men lurched with it. Three high pitched screams of pain drowned out the rain. The cessna lilted in the back and moved a few more inches toward the tree where he'd tied off his makeshift traction for Vin.

Ezra's eyes closed against the pain and he forced them open. Swallowing hard, he regained control over his suffering. He wanted to scream in frustration. He'd stabilized the plane and yet, it was still moving. This seemed impossible to the agent until he saw the ground outside the plane. The rain had turned the ground below the plane into mud. And the rocks he'd so carefully wedged under the plane were sliding in the muck.


"Dear Lord . . . " His words disappeared as a cry of anguish from the passenger part of the plane mixed with an inhuman growl from the copilots seat bombarded his senses. He knew in that instant, they were going to die.

NO! They weren't going to die. He wouldn't let them.

Ezra hobbled as quickly as he could to the nylon covering the nose of the plane. Pushing it aside, he carefully lowered himself to the ground. The light rain soaked his hair and the heavy locks fell into his eyes, making it difficult for him to see.

Squinting, he peered into the mist shrouded darkness, searching for something, anything, that he could use to prevent the plane from sliding any more than it had. An ominous creak from the plane, combined with a few small rocks slipping at his feet told the agent, that he'd better hurry. He spied a large branch that had broken off of a tree, about thirty yards from the plane. Picking up the makeshift walking stick, he'd discarded when he'd climbed back into the plane earlier, Ezra used the stick to get over to the branch. He was panting with exertion when he made it, after what seemed hours.

Another tiny shift from the plane, accompanied by a piteous cry, made him ignore the screaming pain in his wrist and ankle and hurry. He quickly unhooked his belt and looped it around the branch. He hooked the belt through the loop and pulled until it was tightly cinched.

Grimacing, the southerner tugged on the branch, abandoning his walking stick. Sweating and straining and feeling like he couldn't go another step, Ezra somehow managed to get the branch near the plane. Now, if only he could wedge it properly, the plane would stay where it was until they were found. If, we're found, passed unbidden through his mind.

Studying the wreck, he determined that if he could push the branch far enough, it would fit neatly under a large boulder, that jutted out from the side of the cliff. Cursing and sweating profusely, were things Ezra abhorred, but for the next fifteen minutes, he did both. However,when he was finished, the branch was in place and the plane wasn't going anywhere.

+ + + + + + +

Chris glanced around the inside of the helicopter. Buck had just snuck in, various maps folded up under his jacket. Nathan had just gotten in a few minutes before, carrying his third acquired bag of medical supplies. Josiah was up front in the pilot's seat becoming reacquainted with the various instrument panels and so forth. He looked out the window. So far, so good. Nobody seemed to have seen them get into the chopper. But he knew that once Josiah started up the big helicopter's rotors, that would change. He looked again at the big agent up front. Something was wrong. It was taking too long. He unstrapped his seatbelt and went forward.

"Josiah? You okay?" he asked quietly, putting his hand on the agent's shoulder.

He got no response. But he watched as the beads of sweat dripped down Josiah's face. He saw the hands shaking as they held a loose grip on the control stick.

"Josiah?" he asked, a little more insistently. "You sure the weather ain't too bad?" he asked, hoping that was the reason for the big man's nervousness.

Josiah closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "They need us," he finally said as he opened his eyes and slowly began flipping switches, starting the main rotor up, ignoring Chris.

Finally, after hearing the main tower calling to him on the radio, asking what he was doing, Josiah looked over at Chris. "We got company coming!" Buck shouted, pointing out the window at the helicopter's proper crew as they ran toward them.

"Now or never, Josiah!" Chris shouted.

"You better strap in, Chris," he said. "It's gonna be a hell of a ride."


Ezra painfully circled the plane, just to be certain it was completely stable. Everything looked secure and he was making his way back to what was left of the nose, when he tripped over something in the gloom. Somehow, he managed to avoid falling on his injured arm. However, his ankle twisted painfully in the mud. The string of curses, in several languages, that emanated from the Southerner, would have left Maude stunned. Closing his eyes, Ezra breathed deeply, willing the pain away.

After several long minutes, it subsided enough that he noticed what he had tripped over. To his delight, Standish realized, that he had found one of his suitcases. When he'd scanned the area before, it hadn't been here. He could only assume that when the plane had shifted, the suitcase had been uncovered . Picking up the suitcase, Ezra leaned heavily against the plane, as he made the short walk back to the nose. After shoving the suitcase in, Ezra struggled to drag himself back into the plane. He made sure to exaggerate his entrance, so that he wouldn't frighten Vin. Low moaning from Vin and JD crying in the back greeted him.

"Well it would seem I have the situation finally under control," Ezra announced much more cheerfully than he felt. His injured companions needed reassurance and he was determined that he would give it to them, even if it was a total lie. The lessons he'd learned from Maude paid off at the strangest times, he thought wryly.

"'Bout time Ez," Vin said giving him a weak version of his lopsided grin.

Ezra could see that Vin was breathing rapidly and was in terrible pain. He was about to check on him when he heard JD call out.

"Ezra?" The youngest of the seven said between sniffles.

"I'll be right there, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said. "Let me check on Mr. Tanner first."

"Kay," came the miserable reply.

"Go check JD," Vin gasped as he heard Ezra move towards him. "I'm fine."

"As you wish," Ezra smiled humorlessly. He knew Vin was anything but fine. Vin appeared to have suffered the worst in the crash, but Ezra knew that he was more concerned about the two of them. Vin had easily discovered that Ezra was hiding his own injuries and Ezra knew it weighed heavily on the sharpshooter. He also knew that guilt and frustration over his inability to use his survival training to help were eating Vin up. Sighing, Ezra patted Vin on the shoulder and made his way to the back.

+ + + + + + +

The reason for JD's tears was obvious immediately. When the plane had shifted, one of JD's arms had come lose from Ezra's makeshift splint. The fabric had held fast while the piece of wood had twisted, forcing the broken bone into an odd angle. It looked to Ezra like it had made the fracture more severe. Their youngest lay on his side, helplessly watching as Ezra made his awkward progress to the back. The undercover agent used all of his skills to keep his distress from JD, as he knelt beside him.

"Well, Mr. Dunne, it would appear you have a problem," Ezra commented. "You're going to need to sit up so I can reconstruct your straight jacket."

JD stared directly into Ezra's eyes, but his expression was completely blank and he said nothing for several seconds, until Ezra began to worry. "JD?"

The boy blinked, as if noticing for the first time that Ezra was there. "Huh?" he asked in a confused voice.

"Can you sit up for me?"

Ezra didn't know how he was going to reset the splint.  The only way to realign the bone was to have JD pull from his end, and that was going to hurt like hell if he could even do it. The new injury was on the same side as the horrible wound behind his shoulder.

JD nodded and with Ezra's help, he was able to get into a seated position. Ezra started to to check the bandage on JD's back, but when the kid realized what Ezra was doing, he begged him not to touch it. The Southerner could see that the bandage was soaked with blood and he knew that he was going to have to change it soon. He also knew he couldn't pull on the kid's arm without perhaps doing even more damage. He'd have to settle for doing what he had done before - wrapping the broken limb to keep it immobile.

"Alright, Mr. Dunne, this is going to be somewhat painful . . . " Ezra gently eased the injured arm back onto the splint and began to re-wrap it as best he could with his one good hand. JD didn't make a sound, but tears flowed in a stream from his large, dark eyes. When Ezra was done, he tied JD's arm to his body. The other splint still looked okay. JD's hand was useless, but at least he wouldn't feel so helpless if one arm was free. Once everything was back in place, Ezra eased JD back down.

"Ezra?" JD asked shakily.

"Yes JD?"

"What happened?"

Ezra frowned. "The plane slid in the mud, that's all."

JD's brow knitted in confusion. Ezra's instincts told him he hadn't answered JD's question. Did the kid not remember the crash?

"I want to go home now," JD sobbed, closing his eyes as a tear ran across his nose.

"So do I, Mr. Dunne, so do I," Ezra told him softly, as he pushed JD's hair out of his eyes. JD relaxed as Ezra continued to stroke his hair and in less than two minutes, he quieted. Ezra was grateful for that, but at the same time, he knew it might not be a good sign. JD had to be in too much pain for normal sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Vin listened to Ezra and JD. He knew the kid was hurting and scared. Hell, they all were. Vin also knew that all of Ezra's hard work to stabilize his leg had been ruined when the plane moved. There was no longer any tension on the injured leg and every time he moved a fierce pain shot through him. Vin heard JD tell Ezra he wanted to go home.

"Me too, Kid," Vin whispered to no one.

Vin heard Ezra clumsily making his way back to the front. Even knowing Ezra was close, he still jumped when he felt Ezra's hand on his shoulder. He grunted in pain as he moved his leg.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

It's OK," Vin hissed.

"You, Mr. Tanner are a lousy liar. I'm going to check your leg," Ezra said as he removed the plastic bag.

Ezra began untying the boards around Vin's leg. Vin's breathing got faster as the pain increased. When Ezra fumbled clumsily with the knots and accidentally tugged on Vin's leg harder than he meant to. Vin gasped and sagged against the nylon strips securing him to the seat.

"Vin!" Ezra cried, grasping the sharpshooter's face with his good hand.

Ezra panicked when he saw what little color the sharpshooter had in his face fade away as he jarred his leg. He'd passed out from the pain.

"Hands . . . cold," Vin shivered at Ezra's touch, as he came to again.

"Forgive me," Ezra said. "Next time I will try to warm them first."

"'Preciate it," Vin gasped as he touched Ezra's arm. "All wet."

"That's what happens when one goes outside to play in the rain," Ezra smiled even though Vin couldn't see him.

Vin inhaled sharply. "Hurts Ez," he said softly, staring with his unseeing eyes.

"I know," Ezra sighed. "The ropes loosened when the plane moved. I'm afraid I'm going to have to tighten them again. I'm sorry."

"Figured as much," Vin said putting his head back. "JD sleeping?"

"Yes," Ezra answered confused at the change in subject.

"Better give me something to bite on," Vin said closing his eyes. "I don't want to scare him if I yell."

Ezra looked around the plane but couldn't find anything. He eased himself out of the nose and found a twig that looked strong enough that Vin wouldn't be able to bite through it. Ezra crawled back in and moved next to Vin.

"I found this," he said, holding it to Vin's lips. The sharpshooter opened his mouth and Ezra placed the stick between his teeth and told Vin to bite down.

"Are you ready?" the Southerner asked, knowing that Vin couldn't possibly be ready for what he had to do to him.

Vin wearily nodded his head and Ezra went back outside.

It was still raining and he shivered as he left the protection of the plane. He hobbled over to the tree to figure out what he could do. He knew he wasn't strong enough to pull the ropes tightly enough, but an idea came to mind. He untied the two ropes holding Vin leg then knotted them together behind the tree. He searched in the darkness until he found a branch that was the right size. Forcing the branch between the knot and the tree, the agent began to twist the rope.

+ + + + + + +

Vin really didn't want to do this again. He remembered the pain from the last time and he felt the tears slide down his cheeks. Come on Ezra, just get it over with, Vin thought. Just then he felt the rope on his ankle pull tight and he tensed. Biting down hard on the stick, Vin tried to keep from crying out, as the rope continued to pull tighter. A muffled scream escaped his lips, as he felt the bones grind against each other. It was the last thing he remembered as he gratefully gave in to he darkness.

+ + + + + + +

When Ezra saw that the rope was tight he gave it one more twist for good measure. Now came the tough part. he thought. Somehow, he had to secure the branch to the tree. Using his shoulder to hold the branch in place, Ezra picked up the extra ends of the rope. He used his good hand and his teeth to tie the branch to the tree. When he was finished, he wearily pushed off the tree and headed back to the plane. He crawled under the nylon then secured it before continuing inside. Night had fully descended by then and the plane's interior was dark and very quiet.

Lightening flashed and Ezra could see that Vin had passed out again. The sharpshooter had to be in shock, but Ezra didn't know what good it would do to try to rouse him. Working by feel, and occasional lightning flashes, he secured the boards around Vin's leg and replaced the plastic bag over it. The temperature was beginning to drop and Ezra shivered in his wet clothes. He grabbed the suitcase he found and opened it. Inside were some shirts and slacks. They were a little damp but they were a hell of a lot dried then the stuff he had on. He struggled out of his wet clothes, easing the soaked fabric over his injured arm and ankle with painstaking slowness.

He was shaking violently with chills by the time he had struggled into the drier clothing. He put on three of the shirts to try to keep warm. Ezra checked to make sure both Vin and JD were covered with the pieces of nylon he had cut to use for blankets. He checked the pockets of the suitcase and found the bottle of Advil he had wished for earlier, but it took him several frustrating minutes to get the child-proof cap off with one hand. Once he had succeeded, he was tempted to down a handful of the tablets, but he opted for just one, for now. He doubted they'd make a dent in Vin's pain, but once he'd collected some water, he'd give him some. He swallowed his own pill dry and wrapped a thin piece of the nylon around himself.


All they could do now was wait, but as he sat there in the near-total darkness with his two companions either asleep or unconscious, Ezra was made acutely aware of how alone they were.

He didn't know if he had ever felt so useless, and he knew for a certainty that he had never been as miserable. He, Ezra Standish, had stayed in the finest hotels and dined at the most exquisite restaurants the world had to offer, but right then, he'd trade every one of those experiences for a warm bed at a Motel 6 and a cheap pizza.

He searched in the darkness for the candy bars he'd found in JD's backpack. He didn't know how badly Vin was hurt. It would probably not be a good idea to feed him unless he asked for food. Same with JD. But just the same, he'd better save it, just in case. He found the cold french fries, instead, and killed a few minutes by counting them. There were 23. He ate 9 of them. He figured he deserved the extra two for doing all the work.

Self-serving bastard to the very end, Ezra snickered to himself.  The end - when would that be? And, there would be and end. They'd either be found and rescued, or, they'd die.

He looked at the youngest agent, lying so still. It wasn't natural for the kid to be so quiet. There were times when he thought JD never seemed to shut up, but right now, he would love to hear the sound of that exuberant young voice.

He leaned his head back against the bulkhead. He was so tired. He fought to stay awake, knowing the other two were depending on him, but it was a losing battle, and eventually a light sleep claimed him.

He'd slept for perhaps an hour or so when something woke him up. Oddly, he realized it was the fact that the rain had stopped. It no longer masked the sound of Vin's labored breathing.

JD was moving around in the seat behind him, trying to sit up, a feat that was made difficult by the fact that he couldn't use either arm.

"Lie still, JD," Ezra whispered, fearing that the kid would wake Vin up, if Vin was in fact even asleep.

"Can't," JD whispered back. "I gotta pee."

Ezra reached back and pushed against JD's good shoulder to help raise him to a sitting position. From there, he was able to get to his feet, although when he did, Ezra's heart leaped into his throat. If the kid lost his balance, he'd come crashing down on top of Vin.

He grabbed the waistband of JD's pants and eased the boy carefully around Vin. He decided he should go out with the kid, even though he didn't especially want to move from where he was. If JD lost his footing, he had no way to break his fall.

He and JD both realized at the same time that there was another good reason for Ezra to be there.

"Got a problem, here, Ezra," JD said. Ezra had already seen what the problem was. There was no way JD was going to get his pants open without help.

Ezra cleared his throat. "Uh . . . well, yes, that would appear to be the case . . ." He maneuvered himself so he could reach around the kid's waist from behind. "Do pardon my familiarity," he joked as he unsnapped the button and pulled the zipper down.

"Just don't enjoy it," JD admonished embarrassedly.

Ezra felt the blood rushing to his face as he self-consciously eased his fingertips under the waistband of JD's boxers and pushed them down, preferring to ignore at all cost the fact that they had an opening in the front.

Thankfully, JD was able to manage the rest of the job on his own. When he had finished, Ezra reversed the process, but he was unable to refasten the top snap with only one hand. At least it wasn't a button fly, and for that he was immensely grateful.

"Thanks, Ezra," JD said softly.

"My pleas . . .. uh . . . you're welcome, Mr. Dunne."

JD seemed a bit better than he had been a few hours before, but as Ezra was daring to hope that maybe the nap had helped the young agent, JD began to stagger away from the plane. The terrain was uneven, and it was dark, but even in the moonlight, Ezra could see that his gait was oddly stiff, and he was dragging his right leg. "JD? Where are you going?" He frowned.

JD stopped and turned to him. "I'm gonna go home."

Ezra limped over to him. He made JD look at him, but it was too dark for his Ezra to get a good look at the kid's eyes. "JD, you have to come back to the plane."

"I don't want to. My back hurts Ezra. Everything hurts. I don't like it here."

JD's voice was calm, and that frightened Ezra more than if he had been hysterical. He gently tossled JD's hair. "I don't like it here, either, JD, but we have to wait for Buck."

"Buck's coming? Where is he?"

"He'll be here. I promise. So will Chris. Chris will be mad if you leave." Ezra hated to do that, but he knew how much Chris Larabee's approval meant to the kid.

JD acquiesced and allowed Ezra to lead him back to the shelter of the wreckage. With monumental effort, he got the boy settled again.

"Are you hungry JD?" he asked him, hoping the kid would say yes, even though he didn't have much to feed him.

But JD shook his head. "Where did the cat go?"

"Excuse me?"

"The cat. Where is it?"

Ezra sighed. Why was this happening? He kept his voice calm. "There's no cat here, JD."

"Yes there is. My clothes are on it. It was . . ."

He didn't finish the sentence. A small tremor jolted his right side, and Ezra expected him to cry out, but, it was over quickly and JD was suddenly quiet again.

Ezra said his name, but JD didn't respond. This was bad, he knew, but his head was so muddled that he wasn't sure what he could or should do about it, if anything.

Once again, all Ezra could hear was the sound of Vin's pain-wracked breathing.

"Vin?" he whispered, in case the other man was asleep.

"Ez . . ." Vin choked back a sob. "It hurts so much, Ez . . ."

Ezra made a move to touch him, but thought better of it. He didn't want to startle him or cause him any more pain. "Would you like some water?" he asked. It was the only comfort he could offer. The little reservoir he'd made in their nylon canopy had collected rainwater just like Vin had said it would.

"Thanks," Vin whispered hoarsely.

Ezra fished around for the styrofoam cup he'd found earlier. With only the moon for light, he found his way out of their makeshift shelter and managed to dip the cup into the cold water. He had to be extra careful not to stumble and spill it since he needed his good arm to hold the cup, and he was balancing most of his weight on his uninjured leg at the same time.

He held the precious liquid to Vin's parched lips. The sharpshooter drank greedily.

"Easy, Vin," he warned him.

But Vin couldn't help himself. He was so thirsty . . . When he finished, he wanted more, so Ezra obliged. Even though each step was torture, he knew Vin's pain was far worse. It was the least he could do for him.

"I have some Advil," he told the young agent. "It probably won't help you much, but if you think you can swallow it . . ."

"Yes . . ." Vin interrupted him, daring to hope he might find some relief from the gnawing pain in his leg. Everywhere else hurt, too, but that was the worse. A constant, burning ache that was just one very small step from screaming agony. It was wearing him down, making him feel even more vulnerable and helpless.

"Hold out your hand," Ezra told him. When Vin complied, Ezra dropped three of the painkillers into his palm. Vin tossed them all back at once and gulped down more of the water. It was only a few seconds before he realized that was a mistake.

"Oh God, Ezra, I'm gonna puke again . . ."

Ezra moved as quickly as he was able to. He managed to get Vin's head into a position where he wouldn't vomit on himself, but he didn't get out of the way fast enough to avoid getting some of it on his own pants and shoes. Aw hell!

At least Vin didn't realize he'd puked on him.. The sharpshooter's breathing was coming in short, painful gasps, and he gagged a few more times. All Ezra could do was stroke his head while waiting for the attack to subside, mindful of the injuries he had there. Lord, there was so much blood in his hair . . .

He felt Vin's shoulders heaving in the darkness as a small whimper escaped him. Ezra knew he was crying again. He couldn't imagine how much pain Vin had to be in to be reduced to tears. He'd seen the young man in pain before, but before, there had always been some way to ease his suffering, or some promise of relief. Ezra couldn't even put his arms around him and offer him the warmth of his own body. Vin was hurt too bad, and he was too cold himself.

He found Vin's good hand with his and clasped it tightly. He was dismayed to discover that Vin was very warm, despite their lack of adequate protection from the chilled night air. "Hang on, Junior," he used Buck's name for him. He wasn't sure why. Mr. Tanner just didn't seem appropriate under the circumstances. He grabbed a loose piece of the brown nylon and wiped Vin's face with it, then tried to get as much of the vomit off of himself as he could.

"Keep talkin' to me, Ez," Vin whispered.

Ezra didn't feel like talking. He didn't want to do anything but sleep, and the smell of puke was making him nauseated. But as alone as he felt, it had to be worse for Vin, blinded like he was.

"Mr. Tanner," he began in his best orator's voice, "did I ever tell you about the time mother forced me take ballet lessons?"

Vin's expression didn't change - his face mirrored his torment. But he managed to choke out, "Ain't heard . . . that one . . . Ez."

"Well, it seems that her paramour at the time was a chairman of the board of directors of the corporate sponsors of the renowned Joffrey Ballet. A true patron of the fine arts . . ."

Ezra babbled on, certain at some points that he was making no sense at all. His own brain was too addled to articulate too many truly cohesive thoughts, not that he was actually experiencing any of those that he was aware of. But Vin listened, or tried to, and Ezra kept up the distraction as long as he could. His head was killing him by the time he was aware Vin had drifted off again. His ankle throbbed without mercy, and darts of pain pulsed up his arm with every breath he took.

Ezra tried to find a comfortable position in the cramped space. He then clasped Vin's hand again, so that if the sharpshooter needed him, he could let him know by squeezing his fingers.

Sometimes, Ezra's gut instincts told him more than he wanted to know. Right then, they were telling him that Vin Tanner was fighting to stay alive, and if they weren't found soon, he wasn't going win the battle.

Alone in the cold, quiet darkness, Ezra did something he very rarely did.

He prayed.


The noise of the helicopter as it flew through the rainstorm did not drown out the conversations of its four passengers. There were no conversations. Each of the four went about their tasks in silence. Each not willing to look another in the eye. Not willing to risk giving up hope. They'd been flying what Nathan said was a standard search pattern, picking an area on the map and flying over it from several directions, trying to get all the angles before moving on to another section of the map.

Nathan went through the medical bags again, his mind conjuring all the possible injuries the missing three team members may have and the proper treatments for each injury. He wiped his brow and let out a sigh, knowing deep down that there was no way in hell he'd be able to predict what injuries they'd find. He only hoped that the three were still in good enough condition TO treat. Well, at the very least, they'll need warm blankets and IV's, he thought, getting the IV kits out and partially set up.

He'd leave the oxygen tanks in the chopper, he decided. Between he and Chris and the other equipment, there would just be too much. He glanced over at Buck. He'd shown the other man the basics on how to work the winch system for the cables and stokes. It had been awhile since he, himself had used them, but he remembered and Buck was a quick learner.

Buck ran his hand through his hair again. He'd been hooking and unhooking the stokes basket to the cable and practicing with the winch, making sure that when the time came to rescue his comrades, he would be able to work the mechanism flawlessly. Nathan was the expert, having actually flown in rescue choppers before, but his medical expertise was needed today, so he'd shown him how to work the system as best he could. When he'd been looking at the maps of the area where the plane was supposed to have gone down, all he saw was mountainous terrain.

Josiah didn't think there would be any flat areas to land, so he told them to prepare to be lowered to and raised from the crash site with the rescue helicopter's winch cable and stokes. The aircraft had two stokes baskets inside and the mustached agent practiced switching the cable from one to the other. It was becoming an easier task each time. But he knew that would change when there was acutally somebody in the baskets. And, there WILL be somebody in the baskets, he reminded himself.

Josiah checked the instrument panels again, making sure he was on course. The high winds had thrown them off a few times, sending them off course and to different altitudes. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, trying to chase a memory away. I can do this! he admonished himself. This isn't Laos. There is no enemy shooting at me. I have a fully loaded and working bird, not some patchwork piece of flying crap, he added, trying to boost his confidence. But no matter what the big man told himself, he still couldn't keep his knuckles from turning white as they held onto the control stick.

Chris looked at each of his men in turn, satisfied in a supervisor sort of way that each had a task and seemed to be doing it well. Though, he did see the tension in each of their faces, bodies. If he could see himself in a mirror, he was sure he'd look just the same. He'd been sitting next to Josiah in the helicopter's cockpit, ignoring radio calls from the real Search and Rescue team demanding their helicopter back. They were threatening him with all sorts of crimes and punishments. But none of them cared about the consequences of their actions, only wanting their three coworkers back with them safe and sound. He was looking at the maps, looking at the ground below, trying to pick out landmarks, trying to find their friends. He pulled at the harness strapped to him. Nathan had a similar one on. He and the paramedic agent would be lowered to the ground when they found the plane, when they found the others. God, please let them be alive, he prayed. I can't go through this again. I can't lose any more people. He looked at Josiah again.

"You okay, Josiah?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah," the big man whispered. "Just been awhile, is all," he added with a half smile.

"Talk to me," Chris said.

He'd seen the preacher's white knuckled grip. He knew that somewhere inside there must have been a reason he hadn't flown in so long. Why he never bothered to tell the others about his ability or his time in Vietnam. Josiah took a deep breath. Contemplated whether or not he could even think about what he was feeling, let alone talk about it. He let the breath out and looked at Chris.

"Last part of seventy-four," he began. "I was flying a supply and medical chopper in and out of Vietnam and Laos." At Chris's questioning look, he explained, "Wasn't in the service, I was still working the missions with my Father. We helped whoever needed help. Didn't matter whose side or which war."

Chris just nodded, silently urging the older man to go on with his story.

"Most times the armies just paid us no never mind. I flew a rickety old piece of shit, held together with duct tape and bungee cords," he went on. "We painted crosses all over the damned thing, hoping that they'd understand that we were just flying missions of mercy. Most of the time, it worked."

"And sometimes it didn't," Chris stated, his gaze meeting Josiah's.

"Vietcong moved into Laos and the US followed," Josiah continued. "One of those missions the US denied, of course. Anyway, my Father and I in one bird and another priest and pilot in another were evacuating the injured children from one of the villages. Musta had about fifteen kids in each bird, barely got 'em off the ground."

Chris looked hard at Josiah. He knew something awful must have happened. He could see the tension in the big man's face, the pain of the memory in his eyes. He hoped it wasn't a mistake to make him talk about the past.


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