Not Kidding Around

by Beth Green

Universe: ATF

Character: Buck

Author's Notes: Although Buck is the main character, the rest of the guys all show up sooner or later. This story was written in response to a challenge offered by Q'Mar: 'A lost child brings up memories and emotions for several members of the Seven. Try to include candy, a cape, too much sun, a bedtime story, sweet potatoes, and a fancy clock.' Thanks to Helen C. for the beta work. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.

Chris Larabee was glad that he had waited until the other members of Team Seven had left the office before reviewing Ezra's latest expense report. Chris smiled as he read, finally breaking out into full-throated laughter. Ezra took enough liberties as it was with his expense reports. It wouldn't do to let the team's undercover specialist know how much amusement his reports actually provided the leader of Team Seven. Ezra's current report was exceptionally well done. Chris had to admire the sheer effrontery of the man in expensing out the following: "One (1) simulacrum representation of suspect Phillippe Kenta and the concurrent consultant fee for the professional services of Mama Martine."

Unfortunately for Ezra, Vin, who had acted as bodyguard for Ezra on this particular operation, had already filled Chris in on the details. In his verbal report to Chris, Vin had related the ongoing difficulties they'd had in getting enough evidence to secure an air-tight case against Mr. Kenta. "Seems like every time we had the trap set for Kenta to walk into, he'd somehow manage to duck and weave enough to leave himself plenty of wiggle room to create a 'reasonable doubt' when he got taken to court."

"Ezra may have looked calm and cool on the outside, but he was hotter 'n a hornet on the inside. That last night, when Ezra and me were having to redo our plans for what seemed like the hundredth time, I made the comment that it was too bad we just couldn't put a curse on Mr. Kenta." Vin's eyes sparkled as he continued his tale, his face reflecting his amusement. "Ezra jumped up so quick I damn near fell out of my chair."

Vin recalled the incident clearly. Ezra clapped his friend on the shoulder, neglecting to maintain his usual air of formality in his enthusiasm. "Vin, that is an absolutely wonderful idea!"

Vin's voice reflected more than a little confusion as he responded, "It is?"

Ezra rubbed his hands together as he began to plot. "Oh, yes, indeed. I know my enemy quite well. His grandmother is from Haiti. A voodoo curse would have more than nominal significance for Mr. Kenta. All we need to do is to secure the services of a bokor." In an amazingly short span of time, Ezra was able to accomplish his goal. Vin did not care to delve into the details of how speedily Ezra managed to find a Voodoo Priestess in Denver.

Whether it was the due to the assistance of the Priestess, Mama Martine, or merely the capriciousness of fate that finally gave them the break that they needed, Mr. Kenta finally allowed himself to be fully taken in by Ezra's con the next day. Team Seven gladly arrested the man.

Ezra had conveniently left Mama Martine's occupation off of his report, as well as the fact that the "simulacrum" was, in fact, a voodoo doll. Chris shook his head admiringly at the exercise in creative writing. He shrugged, "What the hell," and signed off on the report. He supposed that the alleged expense was probably realistic for that particular service.

Chris closed the folder and filed it in his "Out" box. It was Friday evening, past time for him to be leaving the office. If he stayed any longer, the phone would ring and something else would call for his attention. As if the phone carried its own curse, no sooner had Chris voiced the thought to himself than his phone began to ring. He half-considered not answering it, then picked up the receiver. He knew better. If he didn't answer, the caller would be reporting something urgent that would require his immediate attention. If he did pick it up, it would be some nonsense or other that could wait until Monday. Chris barked his name into the receiver with an abrupt, "Larabee," as his voice reflected his irritation.

"This is Officer Matthew Morton at MegaMall. Is an agent by the name of Buck Wilmington in your employ?"

Shit. This couldn't be good. Chris was tempted to be noncommittal until he had more information. However, if Buck was in trouble, then Chris' hesitation would merely add to it. He answered, "Yes."

"There's been an incident involving a lost child."

Chris growled, "What sort of an incident?"

"It seems that the child's mother believed that Agent Wilmington was in the act of kidnapping the child, rather than trying to provide assistance." The man hesitated, raising Chris' level of concern. "At her very strident cry of alarm, several of the bystanders took it upon themselves to attack Agent Wilmington."

Chris silently cursed to himself: 'Shit and double damn.' Aloud, he asked, "How bad is he hurt?"

"Fortunately I arrived before any serious harm was done." He paused, then continued, "At least I think I did. It probably would be a good idea if Agent Wilmington were to visit the Emergency Room, just to be on the safe side."

"Damn it! You get the name of every asshole who attacked my agent in case we decide to file charges of assault and battery. While you're doing that, my men and I will be on the way to the mall to discuss the situation." Chris began the round robin of phone calls that would alert the rest of the team to the situation, even as he made his way to his truck.

+ + + + + + +

Earlier that day, Buck had done his best to convince Chris to let him leave the office before five o'clock. He explained, "That fancy clock I got for the Travis' anniversary still ain't workin' right. I haven't had the time to take it back to the store I bought it from, and their anniversary party is only two days away. If I don't go today, I don't know when I'll be able to get it taken care of."

Chris leaned back in his chair. "Hell, just take it back and give them the money. That's a gift that's always appreciated."

"Aw, Chris, that's too easy. It's the thought that counts. I want to get them something that shows I took more than two minutes to think about their wedding anniversary."

Chris waved him out the door. "Have it your way. 'Bye."

Buck's face lit up with an ear to ear grin. "Thanks Chris. Thanks a lot." He quickly left, not wanting to give Chris a chance to change his mind.

Buck had been wandering the mall for several hours after he returned his gift. The store manager swore he'd have the clock repaired by tomorrow. With nothing better to do, Buck decided to take in the local scenery. He gazed longingly at a statuesque blonde. Buck had observed the lady once already today, at Radio Shack. He'd also noticed the engagement ring on her hand. He sighed. "Doesn't mean a man can't look."

As he watched, his attention was drawn to a small child being jostled by the passing crowd. The child was staring at the sea of legs that surrounded him, obviously confused. Buck watched as the child wandered first to the right, then to the left, then to the right again. Finally, the boy began to trail after a crowd of laughing teenagers. The child's demeanor indicated that he didn't know any of the teens. Buck slowly approached. Doing his best to appear harmless, he squatted down so that he was at eye level with the small boy. "Well, hello there."

The child returned his smile, as well as his greeting. "Hi."

Encouraged by the smile, Buck continued his quest for further information. "You look like you might be a little lost."

The child shook his head. "Nope."

Buck didn't believe the boy for a minute. Rather than accuse the kid of lying, he stated, "Well, you're kind of young to be at the mall all by your lonesome. Did somebody bring you here?"

The child nodded.

Buck grinned at the simplistic response from the kid. He realized that he needed to be a bit more specific in his questioning. "So, who did you come here with?"

"My mama."

Buck looked around them with exaggerated care. "I don't see her here. Do you?"

The boy shook his head. "No." His face showed his concern as he continued, "I think she might be lost."

Buck bit down on his lower lip so that he would not laugh out loud at the child's answer. He didn't figure the little fella would appreciate the humor of the situation. Buck reached into his back pocket and pulled out his ATF ID. "My name is Buck Wilmington, and I'm a police officer. What's your name?"


"You got a last name?"


Buck sighed. This could take a while. "So, what is your last name?"


Buck reached out a hand, offering to shake Davey's. The child ignored the gesture. The tall man continued, "Davey, do you remember where you last saw your ma?"

The boy paused in thought while sucking on a fingernail. He finally pointed in the vicinity of the Sears store. "Over there."

Buck figured it wouldn't hurt to let the kid take a quick look around the general area, to see if the boy could find his mother before they involved mall security. However, with Davey being knee high to a grasshopper, the boy couldn't see much from his current vantage point. Buck offered his assistance. "How about I let you come up here where I am and take a look around? Maybe you can find your ma before she gets any more lost."

Davey nodded. Buck reached for the child. "Alley-oop! How about we do this piggy-back style?"

Davey gave a high-pitched giggle of agreement. With the child riding atop his shoulders, Buck began a slow circuit of the immediate area. After ten minutes of wandering, Davey let out a yell that temporarily deafened Buck. "MAMA!"

A frantic-looking redhead began to fight her way through the crowd to where Buck and Davey stood. She screamed, "My baby!" All of the yelling and screaming was starting to attract attention. Davey began to wiggle. It was obvious the kid was in as big a hurry to get to his ma as she was to get to him. Buck began to assist the child back down to the ground. While he was in the process of doing so, the woman began to scream, "My baby! That man has my baby! Somebody, please, help!"

Buck was in the process of bending to set Davey on the ground when the first fist hit him. He stumbled back in confusion. Before he could right himself, a hard body hit him low in a football-style tackle. Buck suddenly found himself at the bottom of a dogpile of bodies. More than a few fists and feet pummeled his body as he curled himself into a defensive ball, offering the least surface area to hit. It seemed to take forever, but eventually the impacts lessened. He could hear men yelling; presumably, the mall security staff.

"People, back off! Back off! We got this covered!" Buck grunted in pain as one of his attackers aimed a vicious kick at his ribs in parting. He spat at the taste of blood in his mouth. He hurt everywhere. He still wasn't sure exactly what had just happened. He lay, stunned, trying to figure it out. He could hear a child crying. Huh. That was probably Davey.

A woman's voice shrilly penetrated the fog in his brain. ". . . And that's when I saw the man with my son. You hear about things like this in the news, but you never think they'll happen to you."

Buck was still trying to gather his thoughts when a voice announced, "You're under arrest!" The injured man gasped as his hands were twisted forcefully behind his back. His voice breathless with shock and pain, Buck gasped out, "What the hell? Wait just a goddamn minute!"

Ignoring his plea, one of the officers began to read Buck his rights. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."

Buck spoke angrily over the droning voice, "I know my damn rights! I'm an ATF agent, for God's sake! My ID's in the back pocket of my jeans. Since when is it a crime to help a lost kid find his mother?" Buck immediately felt a hand patting at his pocket. Buck tried to relax. This mess would all be cleared up in a minute. If only Buck's head would clear as easily. His blurred vision didn't improve with the rapid blinking of his eyes. Great. Maybe he had a concussion. Buck began to mentally catalogue his injuries. His face ached where someone had clocked him good. His left side hurt like a sonuvabitch. Hell, it was easier to figure out where he didn't hurt than where he did. Buck's chest ached with every breath that he took. Gingerly assessing himself, he squeezed his arm lightly over his left side, where he'd been kicked in the ribs. The tenfold increase in his pain was an immediate clue, as was the telltale give at the slight push. Damn! He didn't need to be Nathan to know that he had at least a couple of broken ribs.

Trying to take his mind off of the pain, Buck watched as the officers conferred. It seemed that they had decided that maybe they ought to confirm his identity. Good plan. Buck quickly amended that thought. It was an awful plan, if they should happen to talk to Chris. There was no telling how his friend would react to the news. Actually, that wasn't right. Buck knew exactly how Chris would react: badly. Hopefully Chris' immediate anger wouldn't cause his friend to say something incendiary to the mall cops. That would not help Buck's situation one bit. With his current run of bad luck, Chris would manage to make some comment that would result in Buck getting his ass thrown in jail. Buck closed his eyes, shuddering at the prospect. He ignored the fact that he might be shaking as his body responded to the vicious attack he'd been subjected to. The injured man really didn't want to think any more. God, how had everything managed to go to hell so quickly? His head felt too heavy to continue to hold up, so he gave in to the urge to lie back onto the ground. His eyes closed.

He might've passed out for a minute. He wasn't sure. The next thing Buck was aware of was someone removing the handcuffs. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. "Agent Wilmington, are you all right?"

Buck squinted up at the man through the one eye that was not swollen shut. "Do I look all right to you?"

The mall cop continued. "Would you like me to call an ambulance?"

Alarmed, Buck struggled to a sitting position. He emphatically stated, "No, I would not." He ignored the excruciating increase in the pain in his left side as a result of his precipitous action. Buck was trying his best not to pass out as sound and vision faded around him. An interminable agony of minutes later, he'd finally been able to reduce his pain to a more manageable level by simply not moving and taking short, shallow breaths.

By this time, Davey's mom had managed to soothe her son's hysteria. The child sniffled as he asked, "Why did those men hurt the policeman, mama?"

The mother looked at the fallen man and the officer standing over him, still holding Buck's badge wallet. Her disbelief evident, she questioned, "Policeman?"

Davey nodded. "Yes, mama. He showed me his badge and lifted me up high so I could see you over all the people and then we found you and you're not lost any more but then the bad men hitted him. Why did they do that, mama?"

Davey's mama had no answer for her son.

Buck heard the officer's phone conversation with Chris as his friend's voice grew loud enough to be heard yelling over the phone line. "Damn it! You get the name of every asshole who attacked my agent in case we decide to file charges of assault and battery."

Buck gave a silent cheer. 'You tell 'em, Chris.'

One of the officers introduced himself as the chief of mall security. He leaned over Buck and began to apologize. "Agent Wilmington, we're very sorry that this happened. Are you all right? Can I help you up?"

Buck didn't feel like getting up any time soon. He stalled. "Considering I just got used like a tackling dummy, I think I'll just set a spell longer. Maybe have me a good think on what charges I'd like to file against these fine gentlemen with muscles where they ought to have brains."

One of his attackers spoke defensively, "What were we supposed to do when a lady yells that someone's got her kid? Just let him walk away?" His fellow vigilantes offered similar sentiments.

The chief of security responded, "What you do is get mall security, who are trained to handle this sort of thing. What if this had really been an abduction and the kidnapper had a gun? You all could be dead now, and the boy, too. You think about that while we take your statements. None of you is going anywhere for a while."

Buck eventually decided that the hard tile floor was no good for his aching body. He turned to one of the security officers. "Help me up." After a little effort and a lot of pain, the injured man was up and moving.

Mindful of the crowd of gawkers, the chief of security announced, "Let's adjourn this party to the security office. Everyone follow me."

To Buck, the walk to the security office seemed to take forever. Each step caused a new wave of pain to resonate through his abused body. As if that wasn't enough, he was having trouble catching his breath. Although he didn't have a medical degree, he figured that his breathing difficulty was due to the fact that he had to take a lot of short, quick breaths rather than attempt any sort of normal deep breathing. It was the only way that he could bear the pain from his broken ribs. He shuffled slowly along in the wake of his attackers, directing grim thoughts their way. 'Yeah, you all need to spend a little time in jail. Assaulting a federal agent. That'll get you some quality time with some folks who'll be more than happy to return the favor. Next time maybe you won't be so quick to judge.'

Buck's teammates all converged on the security office at the same time. They were a formidable force. JD gasped as he got a good look at Buck's bruised face. "Buck, are you all right?"

Buck glared at JD out of the one eye that was not swollen shut. "What do you think?"

Josiah shook his head. "Buck, what are we gonna do with you?"

Buck's exhaustion was evident, a plea in his voice as he suggested, "Take me home?"

Nathan began to poke and prod at Buck's injuries. The medic shook his head. "I don't think so. The way you jumped when I touched your ribs, I think you broke a couple."

Buck disagreed. His disapproval would have been more effective if he didn't have to pause to take a breath between each word or two. "I didn't . . . break 'em. . . It was those . . . damn idiots . . . who took off . . .half-cocked . . . and decided . . .to try to. . .kill me . . . that did . . .the breaking." He swatted at Nathan's probing fingers. "Ouch . . . dammit . . . that hurt!"

Nathan ignored Buck's protest. "I expect that it did. We need to get you to the Emergency Room, get you checked out. I'm gonna call for an ambulance."

Buck slapped at the cell phone in Nathan's hand. Still noticeably short of breath, he declared, "No, you ain't. This day has been bad enough without having to be paraded around the mall on a stretcher. I'll go, but not in any damn bus. I'll hitch a ride with one of you all." Buck glared at Nathan, letting him know that he would not give in. He needed to have control over some part of this hellish day, and, by God, this was where he chose to make his stand.

Nathan sighed. "Okay. Let's get going. You're riding with me and Chris."

Chris slapped his business card down on the security chief's desk. "You got any more business with Agent Wilmington, you talk to me. We're leaving."

Wisely, the security chief simply voiced his agreement. "Of course. I hope Agent Wilmington is alright."

Chris paused to stare at Buck's attackers. His pointing finger appeared as deadly as any weapon as he declared, "They're the ones that had better hope that Buck is okay. Assault on a federal agent is not something the government takes lightly." Chris was pleased to note that more than a few faces paled in response to the implied threat.

Nathan helped Buck to his feet. The team's medic was concerned over Buck's shortness of breath. His friend's color wasn't good. That could be from shock, or it could be a sign of something more serious. The sooner they got him checked out, the happier Nathan would be. Nathan's worry steadily increased when he noticed that he was gradually bearing more of Buck's weight with every step that they took. The medic asked, "You need to stop, take a break?"

Buck shook his head. His shortness of breath evident, he responded, "If I stop, I'll never get going again. Let's just get me to the truck." If determination alone were the deciding factor, Buck would have made it to Chris' truck. As it was, when they reached the parking lot Buck's legs gave out completely. Nathan eased him to the ground, quickly checking him over. "Damn, we need an ambulance!" JD was already on his cell phone, making the arrangements, before Nathan finished speaking.

Chris asked, "Can't we just take him in the truck and use the red light?"

Nathan took Chris aside. His voice low, he reported, "Buck needs oxygen, sooner rather than later. I think he's only got one lung that's working right now."

Buck was only hazily aware of the activity going on around him. Right now, it was taking all of his concentration just to breathe.

Nathan stated, "Help me sit him up. It should make it a little easier to breathe."

Josiah did one better. He simply situated himself behind Buck so that the injured man was half-sitting, half-lying in his lap.

Buck whispered, "Thanks."

Nathan scolded, "No talking, Buck. You keep your mind on breathing."

Buck nodded. He wished he didn't have to think about breathing. His chest hurt with every breath that he took. He couldn't seem to get enough air in. Buck tried his best to ignore the panicked thought niggling at the back of his brain: 'I can't breathe!'

An agony of time later, the ambulance arrived. Buck's frantic breathing eased a bit with the blessed flow of oxygen.

To no one's surprise, the Emergency Room physician diagnosed a collapsed lung. Buck tenaciously clung to consciousness until he was wheeled to the operating room to repair the damage to his left lung. Somehow, in his mind, to let go would be to die, something that he was not planning on doing.

After a little more than three hours, the surgeon arrived to report to the worried members of Team Seven. "The beating that Buck suffered damaged some of the blood vessels in his left lung. The resulting accumulation of blood resulted in the lung's collapse. Buck came through the surgery quite well, and we've been able to remove him from the ventilator. We've got him on some supplemental oxygen, but he's breathing on his own. Providing his condition remains stable over the next twenty-four hours, we should be able to move him to a regular room within the next day or so. They'll let you know when he's been moved out of the recovery room and into a regular intensive care bed."

True to the surgeon's prediction, Buck was moved to a regular room within two days after his surgery. Once Buck was out of danger, his friends reluctantly returned to work. Every evening, at least two of them would stop by. The hospital regulated the number of visitors any patient could have at one time. Although the hospital staff had been known to look the other way when it came to the members of Team Seven, it was Buck himself who enforced that particular rule. "It ain't fair that my roommate, Hosea, can't have all six of his kids visiting at one time, and then have to see the six of you all visiting me. Not that he'd ever complain about it, he's too nice a guy, but fair is fair."

Thus it was that this evening JD and Ezra were keeping Buck company. Buck toyed with the food on his plate. Ezra looked at the gravy-coated entrée and shuddered. "I see that the food has not improved any since the last time I visited this fine establishment."

JD frowned at the brown foodstuff. "What is that? Some kind of meat?"

Buck shrugged. "I think it's supposed to be chicken; or maybe turkey. You want some?"

JD waved his hands in negation. "No, thank you. You can have the mystery meat all to yourself."

Buck sighed and pushed the tray away. "You know, I think I just lost whatever appetite I may have had."

JD quickly apologized. "I'm sorry. Tell you what, I'll run out and pick up a takeout order of anything you want."

Buck shook his head. "No, thanks anyway. Besides, the only thing I really have a taste for right now is at the Kountry Kitchen, way the hell on the other side of the county."

JD questioned, "You sure?"

Buck nodded. "By the time you got back with anything, I'd be asleep. At least tonight, I know what I'll be dreaming of: the Kountry Kitchen's sweet potato pie."

JD smiled. He and Buck had shared more than one portion of that particular taste treat. "Oh, yeah. Nobody makes it quite the way they do, with the pecans on the top."

Ezra decided to offer his opinion of the Kountry Kitchen. "Only you would rhapsodize about a menu item from an establishment called the 'Kountry Kitchen.' I personally make it a point never to frequent an establishment whose owners don't comprehend the rudiments of correct spelling. That is why you will also never find me an habitué of the Quik Stop, Ernie's Eatz, or the Faymus Grille."

Buck shook his head. "You don't know what you're missing."

Ezra countered, "And I don't intend to find out."

Despite his statement, Buck received a surprise lunchtime visit from Ezra the next day. He announced, "I have brought you a present."

Buck stared hopefully at the brown paper sack carried by his friend. His eyes widened as he noticed a smell that was not representative of the usual hospital antiseptic. Buck's pleasure was reflected in his voice as he asked, "Ezra, is that takeout food I smell? Did you bring me real food?"

Ezra replied, "Yes, indeed." He proceeded to set the containers on top of Buck's overbed table. "While the contents of these containers may not represent my definition of the word 'food,' evidently I am in the minority in that respect."

Ezra laid out the containers of meatloaf, biscuits, and gravy, as Buck's mouth began to water. With the theatrical flourish of a born showman, Ezra opened the final container. Buck's delighted grin and exclamation of pleasure were ample reward for the time and effort Ezra had devoted to an hour-long trip across town.

"The Kountry Kitchen, and sweet potato pie! I can't believe it! Ezra, if you were a woman, I'd kiss you. Hell, come here and pucker up, I'll kiss you anyway."

Ezra couldn't help the blush he could feel rising in his face. He demurred, "Despite your generous offer, I believe I shall decline. Your verbalization of thanks is all that is needed or required."

Buck was completely ignoring Ezra, digging into the food as if he hadn't eaten in days. With the state of the hospital's cuisine, perhaps that was a fact rather than speculation. No matter. Ezra could not linger. "Well, I need to return to the office. Duty calls."

Buck paused in the effort of shoveling food into his mouth. "Hey Ezra, thanks again. I really mean it."

Ezra smiled. "I know that you do."

+ + + + + + +

That evening, visiting hours came and went with no sign of his friends. Worried, Buck tried calling JD, only to be transferred to his voice mail. His next call was to Chris. The phone was answered with a terse, "Larabee."

Buck began, "Hey Chris, it's me . . . ," only to be cut off by an abrupt, "Sorry, can't talk now," from his friend. He stared worriedly at the phone as he was left contemplating the dial tone. He had too much time to do nothing but worry. His roommate, Hosea, had been discharged from the hospital earlier in the day, so Buck had no one to talk to. He was tempted to ring for the nurse, just to relieve the solitude, but stifled the impulse. The nurse had better things to do than to keep his mind off of worrying about his friends.

An hour later, Nathan arrived. Buck's concern ratcheted up a notch at the worried look on his friend's face. "Nathan, what's up? What's going on?"

Nathan raised a hand to stop Buck's flow of words. "Now, hold on a minute and I'll tell you. First off, you got to know that no one's hurt bad."

Buck couldn't help the anxious "What?" that escaped.

Nathan ignored him. "Come to find out there was a bomb at the warehouse we raided tonight. We almost didn't find out in time. Vin was up in the rafters, as usual . . ."

Earlier the Same Evening

Vin couldn't put his finger on it, but something felt off about tonight's operation. The Redmond gang seemed to be following the script for the arms deal, but Vin could feel the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. His internal alarm had saved his butt enough times that he knew not to ignore the warning. He raised the binoculars to his eyes, scanning the crates around the floor where Chris and JD were waiting to inspect the stolen weapons. The Redmonds approached one of the crates, followed closely by Chris and JD. The sharpshooter's eye was caught by something odd about the crate. From this distance, it was difficult to figure out what he was seeing. It took Vin a moment to sort through all of the possibilities in his mind, but his brain finally supplied the most likely answer as to what it was he was seeing. Safety immediately took priority over stealth as he hollered, "Bomb!"

Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra hardly needed their headsets to hear Vin's warning due to its excessive volume. Chris and JD immediately responded by identifying themselves to the Redmonds as ATF agents. Fortunately the Redmonds were much more concerned with escaping from the possible explosion to react to their imminent arrest even as everyone began running toward the exit. They almost made it before the bomb went off.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan updated an anxious Buck on the injury count. "Vin's got a couple of cracked ribs. They should heal up with no problem. He managed to get a little too close to the fire, so his eyebrows got a little singed and he kind of looks like he's got a bit of a sunburn. JD ended up with a broken arm and a concussion. He's gonna be okay, but the doctors want to keep him here overnight because of the head injury. So, anyway, it looks like you'll be getting yourself a roommate. They'll be bringing JD up shortly." No sooner did Nathan finish speaking then they were joined by JD. The young man was being pushed in a wheelchair by one of the nurses, followed closely by the remaining members of Team Seven.

JD sat with his head propped up in his hands, looking as if his head was too heavy to hold up without assistance. A small kidney-shaped bowl sat in his lap. The nurse assisted JD into the next bed. JD groaned with the motion. He began to announce, "I gotta . . ." He didn't need to finish the thought. It was obvious what the problem was. The nurse thrust the bowl under his chin while he threw up the meager contents of his stomach. He lay back, utterly spent. "Oh, my head."

Buck stared worriedly at his friend while Nathan patted his shoulder. "He'll be alright."

Ezra decided that he should try to provide a little distraction. Buck had enough problems of his own without worrying over JD. "Mr. Wilmington, it is unfortunate that JD has to join you under these circumstances. Nevertheless, it could have been much worse."

Vin commented, "No thanks to me."

Chris turned sharply to look at his friend. "What the hell are you talking about? If it wasn't for you, we'd probably be at the morgue instead of the hospital."

Vin shook his head. "I knew something was wrong. I just couldn't figure out what it was until it was almost too late. I looked right at the damn bomb and didn't know what I was seeing."

Chris continued to defend his friend from himself. "Between the dark and the distance, it's a miracle you were able to see anything at all."

Vin was not hearing what Chris was saying. Guilt at the forefront of his mind, he continued. "If I hadn't 'a been so damn slow, JD wouldn't 'a gotten hurt."

Chris' frustration at the long day and the near disaster bubbled to the surface as he listened to Vin's unwarranted attack on himself. Chris moved swiftly and suddenly to stand toe to toe with his friend. His fists clenched at his sides as he restrained himself from physically throwing his injured friend against the nearest wall. "Vin, unless you're wearing tights and a cape under those street clothes, there's no way you could've done any more than what you did. You did everything possible, and probably saved my life and JD's in the process. Nobody says lies about my friends when I'm around, especially if the lies are to or about themselves. You got me?"

Vin slowly nodded.

Chris backed off a step, his temper easing. "Okay, then. Thanks for saving our butts." When Vin remained silent, Chris added, "The proper response is 'You're welcome.'"

Vin shrugged, immediately regretting the action when his broken ribs throbbed painfully in response. "Yeah, okay." He wasn't quite convinced that he'd done all that he could, but he was willing to concede the point.

JD was just as glad that Chris and Vin took a few minutes to have it out. It gave everyone in the room something else to focus on besides him. At the moment, he was more than happy to be left alone.

For his part, Buck was dividing his attention between JD and Chris and Vin. Vin looked more than a little ragged around the edges. Buck decided the atmosphere was getting a little heavy. He commented, "Well, sorry as I am that I got JD as a roommate, I'm glad nobody else got hurt except for Vin."

Ezra was about to make a comment regarding Buck's phrasing concerning the prospect of sharing a room with JD. After a moment's consideration, Ezra held his tongue when he observed the tired looks on every face in the room. He didn't realize that he himself looked equally exhausted. He commented, "And we are extremely grateful that in the process of doing his job Vin was not gravely injured."

Vin downplayed his injury. "Aw, I ain't really hurt." He casually began to brush a stray lock of hair from his face. He winced as his hand came into contact with the tender skin of his brow. "Well, exceptin' I look and feel like I got a bit too much sun."

Nathan's sharp eyes caught Buck in the middle of a jaw-cracking yawn. The medic announced, "I hate to break up this party, but these men could use a little rest. Buck, JD, you all take care and we'll see you tomorrow."

Buck's voice took on a higher-pitched kid-like tone as he asked, "Don't I get a bedtime story?"

Chris responded, "You just got one."

Ezra added, "Yes, the tale of team of six that would be better off as seven."

Buck's eyes closed, he commented, "Damn, I wish I could 'a been there. Maybe if I was . . ."

Chris scolded, "Maybe nothing. I just got through talking to Vin. I gotta talk reality to you, too, now?"

Buck's voice was low and quiet, with more than a hint of regret. "No, you don't." Reality was currently laying all of its heavy weight on Buck. He silently cursed his disability, no matter how temporary.

The friends took their leave, hating the fact that they had to leave two of their number behind.

Once the room was quiet, Buck called worriedly over to his roommate. "JD?"

JD's voice was a combination of pain and annoyance when he answered, "What, Buck?"

Buck kept his question short and simple. "You okay?"

JD could not help the petulant tone of his voice. He felt like hell, and wasn't afraid to admit it to his best friend. "No, I'm not okay. I'm sorry, but I've got a killer headache, and I just want to go to sleep."

Buck's voice was small and apologetic as he whispered, "Okay. Sorry. Goodnight."

JD was in too much pain to offer so much as a 'Night' in return. JD's misery was ongoing the entire night. The few times he managed to get to sleep, it seemed like only minutes later he was being woken up and asked if he knew who he was, where he was, and what day it was. Finally, at about six o'clock in the morning, he snapped, "My name is JD Dunne, today is Thursday, I'm at home safe in my own bed and this is all just some horrible nightmare."

Rather than take offense, the nurse merely patted his arm in sympathy. "I'm sorry, I wish I could say that it was. On a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain in your head?"

JD blinked at the tears that gathered at the unexpected show of compassion. "It's still at about an eight."

The nurse apologized, "I'm sorry, I wish that we could give you something stronger, but . . ."

JD completed her sentence. "I know the drill. I need to be alert enough for the neuro checks, so you can't give me anything stronger than Tylenol." He sighed, trying to wish away the throbbing pain in his head.

The nurse crossed the room to Buck's bed. "Mr. Wilmington? I've got your pain medication. The respiratory therapist should be here in about half an hour."

Buck's answer was a simple one-word response: "Damn." He'd made it a rule never to have any of his friends present when the respiratory therapist put him through hell every six hours. The procedure was excruciatingly painful, not to mention a tad on the disgusting side as the therapist encouraged him to hack up the contents of his lungs. Buck couldn't exactly ask JD to leave the room. Instead, he did what little he could. When treatment time arrived, the injured man was glad to see that his favorite therapist, Maddie, was on duty this morning. The woman was an amazon, a self-described 'army brat.' "Maddie, would you mind pulling the curtain before we get started?"

JD's curiosity was piqued at Buck's request. Earlier this week, he'd been visiting Buck when the respiratory therapist had arrived. Buck had quickly shooed him out of the room. Although he could not see what was going on, he now could hear. JD shamelessly eavesdropped.

The therapist teased, "What, no Marquis de Sade jokes this morning? I must be losing my touch. Let's get the head of your bed up."

JD heard the hiss of air as Buck began inhaling the aerosolized medication. The therapist stated, "I'll be back in fifteen minutes." When she came back, JD was dismayed to learn what Buck had been hiding.

The therapist instructed, "Okay, Buck, take a deep breath for me; and another one. Come on, deeper, deeper, okay, now cough."

Buck's cough was painfully moist. JD could hear him noisily hacking and spitting. It sounded like he was coughing up a lung. Nevertheless, the therapist encouraged, "Okay, that's a good start. Again."

Buck's voice was a breathy plea as he stated, "I'm sorry, darlin', I can't."

The therapist wasn't about to take 'no' for answer. "Come on, Buck, we both know there's more where that came from. Now that the medication loosened up that crap in your lungs, you can't leave it sitting there. It's much easier to prevent pneumonia than to treat it. Let's go."

The cycle was repeated again. This time, Buck added a little profanity for good measure. The therapist sounded way too cheerful to JD, given the pain that she was causing.

Maddie enthused, "Okay, that's the Buck I know. If you didn't have a roommate, I'd share the new curse words I learned from Mr. Rodriguez yesterday."

His voice reflecting the rawness of his coughing, Buck replied, "That's okay. JD's a friend of mine, always looking to learn something new."

The two cheerfully exchanged curses, and JD couldn't help but admire Buck's means of coping with his pain. After the therapist left and the curtain was withdrawn, JD asked, "You think a few curse words might help my headache?"

Buck, relieved that JD didn't seem to be making a big deal of the painful episode, joined his friend in a light-hearted, albeit profane, discussion. "Yeah, I've found this one particularly helpful . . ."

+ + + + + + +

After a repeat of his CT scan, JD was discharged from the hospital that same day. Buck was allowed to go home three days later. He still had a long way to go before he was fully recovered, but he no longer required IV antibiotics, and his lung was completely reinflated.

+ + + + + + +

Weeks later, when the doctor finally declared Buck fit to return to active duty, the members of Team Seven celebrated with a barbecue at Chris' ranch. Not surprisingly, talk turned to a discussion of the incident that had landed Buck in the hospital in the first place. Josiah shook his head, declaring, "Things certainly have changed from the time that I was a boy. Back then, no one immediately jumped to the conclusion that a man was a pedophile if he happened to be in the company of a boy who was not his own son."

Chris, ever the cynic, replied, "That wasn't necessarily a good thing, back then."

Buck shrugged. "I don't know. It doesn't seem like all that long ago that I was a little one myself. I remember walking a block over to the corner store when I was just a tater tot. The owner would give me free penny candy."

JD interrupted, "Penny candy? What's that?"

Buck threw a fake punch at JD's head. The kid easily ducked away from the blow, laughing. Buck snarled, "Don't interrupt, you young whippersnapper. Let's see, where was I?"

JD teased, "Yeah, Buck, they say that memory's the second thing to go for you old guys."

Chris' eyes narrowed as he threatened, "Watch it."

JD raised his hands, a picture of innocence. "Hey, if you're so old all you can do is watch it, that's not my problem."

This time, Buck did not pull his punch short. He smacked JD on the back of the head. JD merely laughed. "Huh. You hit like a girl."

Josiah scolded, "Children should be seen and not heard. Buck, I believe you were sharing a story from your childhood."

Recalled to his previous thought, Buck continued. "Yeah, I was. Anyway, me and my ma had just moved to the big city after livin' in some little town in the middle of nowhere. She didn't think nothing of my wandering around the neighborhood. That is, until one day when I was six years old. This cop car pulls up to her apartment, with me riding in the back seat. The cop asks, 'Ma'am, is that your son?'"

"By this time, my mom's scared out of her mind, tryin' to climb over the cop to get to me. 'Yes, yes he is. You let him go!'"

Now me, I'm sitting in the back of the patrol car, smilin' and wavin', just having the time of my life. I'd been doing my usual walk to the corner store when a patrol car pulls up beside me. One of the officers gets out and asks me if I'm lost. Well, hell, of course I wasn't. So, he asks me questions, all friendly-like, and I tell him my name and address. That's when he tells me we're going for a ride in his car. Quick as you please, I hopped up into his car and we went to see my mom.

Come to find out, he gives her this lecture that scared the shit out of her. He goes on about a cute, friendly little kid like me in a town like Vegas, there was no tellin' who might offer to take me for a ride. Only, next time, I might never come back. So, anyway, after they left my ma tried to make me as scared as they'd made her. I gotta tell you, it didn't work. When you're that little, you don't think anything can hurt you. The one thing I remembered from that day was the kindness of that police officer. That was the day I decided to become a cop.

"So, if I see a little kid that looks like he can use some help, you better believe I'm gonna try to help him."

JD was really and truly touched by Buck's story, and the fact that he'd shared it with them. He wanted to say something like, "See, even when you were little, you wanted to right wrongs, and see the good in things. It's no wonder you grew up to be such a great guy." However, they were a bunch of guys sitting around and drinking beer. He stated, "Damn, Buck, that was sweet. Maybe you ought to sell your story to the Reader's Digest."

Buck shook his head. "Nope. I'm saving it for when I write my life story."

Vin gave a snort of disbelief. "When's that gonna be?"

Chris added, "A better question would be why write something that no one's gonna read?"

"What do you mean, no one's gonna read it? It'll be a best seller, especially the really good stuff about the women in my life."

Another round of teasing began, this time on the subject of women. Josiah leaned back with a sigh of contentment. Like JD, Josiah wished he could be more direct in verbalizing his feelings for these men. He thanked God for the return to complete health of his 'brother,' Buck. He silently thanked Buck for sharing his life with them, as well as the pieces of his past that, like the rare gems that they were, he handed out from time to time.

During a lull in the conversation, Josiah decided to offer a toast. "My friends, we are gathered here today . . ."

Of course, someone had to interrupt. It just so happened to be Buck. "What is this, a damn wedding?"

Josiah snapped, "If you'll shut up for one minute, I'll tell you! I'm trying to offer a toast to your health, you idiot!"

Buck grinned, ignoring the insult. "Well, alright then, you go on ahead."

Josiah shook his head. "I don't think so. I was trying to be spontaneous and heart-warming, and you shot that idea all to hell."

Vin offered his opinion on the matter. "I don't know about you all, but I'm kind of thirsty. Why don't we drink a toast anyway?"

The Seven quickly agreed, as their voices declared, "To Buck!"

Seven glasses clinked together, celebrating the return to full strength of the Magnificent Seven.