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        Thanks to Shellie and Carolyn for their betas and
        special thanks to Jennie for the beta and the title!

        PART 1

        ĎOf all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.í

        God, how mom had loved "Casablanca". Hell, I could deliver that line with my best Humphrey Bogart impersonation by the time I was 11. And every time I spoke it, momís beautiful smile would light up the room. God, I still miss her.

        I never actually thought how a line like that could be so fitting in real life. Never thought Iíd ever have an opportunity to actually use it. Funny, how appropriate it seems to fit today. Well, Ďfunnyí isnít exactly the right word to describe being beaten, then tied and gagged and locked in a steaming car trunk. Maybe 'desperateí or Ďpanickedí is more like what Iím searching for here.

        Of all the classrooms in all the world, Helen Pearson had to walk into mine. Yep, right in the middle of a case Iíd worked on for over a month. Bam, like that, I was busted by my high school history teacher. Only this time I wasnít caught sleeping during a discussion on Franklin Roosevelt.

        I really thought sheíd retired. Thatís what Iíd heard before I left home, anyway. But apparently full retirement hadnít been in her plans. No, obviously her move somewhere out west to live with her daughter had meant only a semi-retirement. Should have known she couldnít stay away from teaching, even if it was just to substitute a couple of weeks a month.

        Just thinking about how her face had lit up with utter joy, almost like momís, just before sheíd blurted out my name - my Ďrealí name - and enveloped me in a comforting motherly hug makes me want to smile again. If only my face didnít hurt so damn much.

        She had her arms around me before I even knew what hit me, asking me how Iíd ended up being a teacher instead of being a policeman like Iíd talked about since she first took me under her wing. I couldnít push her away, just couldnít be cruel. Not to a part of my past. Not to a part of home.

        Not that it would have mattered at that point anyway. My cover was blown no matter what argument I couldíve come up with. I could see that in Bruce Philmoreís demonic eyes. Hell, not even Ezraís fast-talking couldíve gotten me out of this mess. Just the chance that I Ďmightí be a cop would be enough inspiration for Brucie to commit murder. I think heíd been hoping I was anyway so heíd have a reason to kill me. I figured I might as well let Mrs. Pearson dote on me for a few minutes. . . since I knew I was soon going to be a dead man.

        I can hardly blame her. I probably should have paid more attention to the substitute teacherís list. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. None of that matters now.

        I Ďwasí thrilled to see her. Mrs. Pearson was my all-time favorite teacher. Well, actually sheíd been more than just a teacher back then. Sheíd been a lifeline to a 15-year-old kid with a sick mom and the burden of the whole world on his shoulders. Sheíd gone to bat for me when my grades started slipping and convinced me that failing or dropping out wouldnít do my mom or me any good. Sheís the one who sparked my interest in the old west and eventually law enforcement. She stuck with me, giving me the incentive to not only finish my class work but to excel and go on to college. She was a sweet lady who saw more in me than Iíd ever have dreamed on my own. She was my rock back then. Buck would call her a Ďsaintí for sure if he knew even half of what she did for me. . . me Ďandí my mom.

        And Iíd never dispute it. She was a saint. Still is.

        Even if she may have just gotten her favorite student from the graduating class of Ď95 killed.

        Not that Iím actually dying. Not yet anyway. Sure feels like it, though. Damn, donít think that way, JD. Buck and the others Ďhaveí to be looking for me by now. Buckíll find me. No doubt about it. Just hope the air holds out. If only I had decent air to breathe. And more of it. No, Buckíll get here in time. I can hang on until he gets here.

        Besides, I know Mrs. Pearson sensed something was wrong even before I said anything to her. Probably added two and two together - even if it was a bit too late - and clued in that Iíd actually fulfilled my dream of becoming a cop. Just to be sure though, before I left the classroom with those three gun dealing seniors in hot pursuit, I whispered to her to call the Denver ATF and let them know which agent of theirs was in trouble. And then I told her everything would be all right. I believed it then. . .

        I sure hated that look of doubt and fear on her face. It reminded me of both mom and Buck somehow. Mind you, with those two, youíd have to multiply Helenís expression by at least ten. Only people who really love me could be that horrified for me. But then, only people who love me would move mountains to find me, right?

        Well, I need you to move mountains now, donít I, Buck? I need you to hurry up too, okay, big brother? ĎCause I have a feeling when this car stops itíll be too late.


        I knew this was going to happen. I just knew it. I told Chris to send JD in as a student, not a teacher. Hell, he barely looks 17 and they put him in a classroom full of jocks that were bigger at 12 than he is now. Cocky little runt didnít care. I hated the idea, but I kept my mouth shut, at least to JD. The rest of the boys got an earful, though. This assignment sure didnít phase the kid. Took up the gauntlet just like he always does. I just donít get how JD can be so damn smart and naïve as hell at the same time.

        Chris hasnít said a word except to bark orders into the radio. Wonít even look at me. He knows what Iím thinking. Hell, he should. And I knew what heíd been thinking putting JD in as a teacher. That the school was hell on new students so putting JD in as the new kid was just too risky. Well, obviously banking on the schoolís pattern of hiring only young teachers - suckers either so desperate or still idealistic enough to work there - backfired too, didnít it, Larabee?

        I told Chris I would pose as the teacher, have JD play the student, work his magic - something the kidíll never hear me say because God knows how much I hate when he has to do this shit - and have two agents to watch each othersí backs, not JD in there by himself.

        Damn it, why donít they ever listen to me? Maybe I Ďamí a mother hen, so what? Better than having a panicked little old lady crying on the phone that JD told her to call because he was in a whole mess of trouble. She seemed as shook up as me. Said she knew him when he was in high school, but I didnít ask any more than who, what and when those goons took him. I figure thereíll be time for a reunion after we find JD and Iíve smashed those arrogant junior gunrunners in their Neanderthal faces.

        I have to keep focused. Keep up the anger so I donít panic and worry about what if we donít find him in time. No, thatís not even an option. Weíll find him. We already know the boys who took him. Already know the license plate number of the hardly inconspicuous brand spanking new candy-apple red Camaro and alerted the whole Denver PD to be on the lookout for him.

        JDíll be fine. I just wish my heart would stop flip-flopping in my throat like a dying catfish. Iím getting too old to take this kind of crap. Damn it, JD, this is the last time you go in alone. Even if I have to kick Chris Larabeeís know-it-all ass into the Sierra Nevadas, youíll have backup from now on. I promise you that.


        Owwww, shit! Can you hit a few more potholes, Brucie boy? Thereís a live body back here, you fucking twit. At least for now. Donít know how much more of this rolling around while my hands are tied in a nice granny knot I can survive. Not that I havenít been trying to untie the damn thing. One of you Boy Scouts sure earned your ĎVictim Hand Tyingí badge, Iíll give you that.

        Great, Iím getting giddy. Must be the bad air because if I had any sense I would sure as hell be panicking right now. I just donít have the energy to fuel a really good case of hysteria though. Nope, I just have these random and incredibly irrelevant thoughts swimming around in my oxygen-starved brain. Like, I never actually realized just how pitch black it is in a car trunk. Whether itís a bad TV movie or a re-run of Starsky & Hutch, nobody ever shows the TV-viewing audience just how dark it really is. Not that it was something I couldíve really prepared myself for.

        Nope, getting the crap beaten out of me by three seniors (who each outweigh me by at least 50 pounds by the way), getting tied up, gagged and stuffed into the small trunk of a Camaro wasnít on any curriculum the Academy offered. Or how, even when youíre trying to break the land-speed record on the streets of Denver, the sun beating down on the metal turns it into an oven. Or, even worse. . . how hard it is to breathe when youíre enclosed in a tight space with a dirty bandana stuck in your mouth. Especially when the trunk reeks like a nauseating combination of motor oil, gasoline, sweat and fear.

        My sweat and fear.

        Damn this gag! Was that really necessary? I mean, theyíve already busted my hand and cracked my ribs and slammed my head against the spare tire rim Iím laying on. Did they think I was going to sing the Star Spangled Banner too? The smell is really starting to get to me and my side is killing me every time I take a breath. It would help if I didnít have to inflate my lungs to capacity to get a decent amount of oxygen. God, Iím so tired. I canít keep this up much longer. Itís too hot and the stench permeates everything. . . my clothes, my hair, my skin. Iíd relish throwing up in Brucieís trunk. A good way to destroy that new car smell, thatís for sure. Then again, Iíd have to suffer through it first, so I guess Iíll just have to hold it.

        My head is actually feeling a bit better though. Kind of swimming instead of throbbing and even though I realize that that might not really be a good thing, I think Iíve come to the conclusion too that Iím powerless to stop it. At least my wrist is completely numb. I canít tell if itís really broken or if the Boy Scout just cut off the circulation, either way itís useless and neither thought is comforting. Hell, passing out isnít really all that bad an option, is it? The time would go a hell of a lot faster between now and when Buck shows up if Iím unconscious, thatís for sure.

        Sure, Iíd still be breathing this toxic air, but at least I wouldnít be aware I was doing it. And I wouldnít be so ridiculously terrified in this dark, steel coffi. . . trunk, either. Now, that wouldnít be so bad, would it?

        Ok, Iím starting to get really worried now. The darkness is starting to get to me almost as bad as the smell and the heat. I guess the shockís wearing off, reality is starting to sink in like when you rub the fog off the bathroom mirror. Yep, Iím staring cold, hard reality in the face right now. Iím hurt, defenseless and locked in a car trunk. Even if they decide to let me out and I donít die of heat stroke, there are still some equally appalling options - like finishing me off with a tire iron or using their brand new .38s for target practice. This is definitely not looking good.

        My heartís beating way too fast for my battered body to keep up with. Shit. Calm down, JD. Think. I could try kicking through the backseat. Iíd be cooler, but thatíd probably piss them off enough to just shoot me. I could wait until they stop and then try to get away. Well, Ďifí they take off the ropes and Ďifí I had enough strength to sprint to cover. ĎIfí there was any cover. Ok, Iím pretty sure Iím screwed.

        Right now would be a good time for some mountain-moving, Buck. Please.

        Of course, if I survive this, Buck is Ďneverí gonna let Chris put me under on my own again. Hell, he may never let me out of the condo on my own again, either, for that matter. I knew Buck was worked up about it, even though he never said anything directly to me. He never does, you know. Despite his well-deserved reputation for being overprotective of me, he never lets on how worried he is before I go in. He doesnít want to make me nervous or scare me.

        Besides, even if he doesnít always approve of me putting myself in harmís way, he knows I know what Iím doing, leastways when I go in as a student. Oh sure, heíll give me hell and a half if I pull what he thinks is a hair-brained stunt in the middle of a bust or if he thinks Iíve been reckless on my bike. But even though I canít help but realize that heís as scared of me going undercover as I am when he does the same, he never lets it show. Never lets it affect Ďmeí.

        Iím sure Chris gets an earful though.

        I know Buckís an old hand at going undercover, so he knows just whatís needed before anyone goes crossing enemy lines, or into the devilís lair, as Josiah calls it. And Buck knows me better than anyone else, so he knows what ĎIí need. . . a dose of easy banter and good natured ribbing, and a whispered Ďbe carefulí before he goes and messes up my hair for the millionth time, giving me a goofy grin, a wink and a not-too-gentle shove and tells me to Ďgo get Ďem, kidí. . . Even though I know heís afraid for me, that he wishes I didnít have to take such risks, he still manages to impart all his confidence and pride in me with just those few simple actions.

        I love him for that, you know.

        Aw, shit. No tears, JD. Damn, that makes my eyes burn. Fucking caustic air. Címon, JD, get it together, now. What would Chris think if he saw you bawling?

        Chris. . . Yeah, there will be hell to pay over this. Even if I make it out of this in one bruised and battered piece, he and Buck are gonna go at it for sure. Probably going at it now. Well, no, not yet. Theyíll both be real quiet - Chris even more than usual and Buck eerily so - both reining in their tempers and keeping cool heads, keeping control of the situation, for my sake. For me.

        I used to think that between Buck and Chris and the rest of us we were damn near invincible. Even the other Feds call us the 'Magnificent Seven', probably because we always get the job done and none of us have actually gotten killed yet. Of course, not one of us has come through this profession completely unscathed, a lot of close calls and a lot of long nights, but we've always been all right. God, I don't want to break that record. I don't want to be the one who dies and lets everybody down.

        Stop it, JD. They're coming. Just have a little faith and ride it out, they're coming. Buck has never let me down before and I don't think he'll pick now to start. Buck's coming, so just concentrate on breathing and stop thinking about anything but getting the hell out of here.

        Ow, damn it! Tryin' to dislocate my elbows and break my neck now, Philmore? Ever hear of takin' a corner on more than two wheels?! Wait a minute. Is that a siren? Thank God, it 'is' a siren! It really is. No wonder it feels like race day at Daytona in here. Come on, come on. Stay with me, boys. Please, just stay with me.


        "Címon, címon. . ." PDís found the Camaro, thank God. Theyíre still within city limits, just like Chris and I thought. "Damn it, Chris, get us out of here!" Iím yelling now. I know I shouldnít. Too much tension and traffic and chaos and knowing that weíre so damn close and yet still so far away. Too far away. But, next to the cops, we are nearest to the kid. Josiah and Nathan took the south end and Vin and Ezra took the interstate, so itís up to Chris and me.

        And here we are -- the man responsible for putting JD in this position, and the man responsible, well, for just Ďhimí -- stuck in a traffic jam. "Damn it, do something, Chrió" Before I can even finish saying his name, or threaten to take over and drive the Dodge myself, Chris growls "hang on" so thatís what I do. The dash lightís flashing, the siren wailing and Chris is leaning on his horn. And weíre finally moving forward.

        Funny how this big ole black Ram can clear a path the same way its owner can a crowded room. Itís damn near as intimidating as he is.

        Chris is in control now, which is a good thing, because my heartís beating so loud I can barely hear myself think. I was doing okay, considering, until I heard that they were in the middle of a car chase. The elation of hearing that the Camaro had been spotted was quickly swallowed up by the dread of knowing how bad police chases often wind up. It was bad enough just wondering what kind of shape JDís in, whether he can help us help him when we get there Ė and we Ďareí gonna get there in time -- and wondering just how desperate Bruce Philmore and his boys truly are.

        Fugitives from the law, with my kid as their hostage. In a fucking car chase. Damn it, JD. Why does this shit happen to you?

        I can hear Chris telling the cops to back off, to just tail the Camaro, reminding Denverís finest that JDís in there Ė we hope; weíre honestly not sure, but I ainít gonna think otherwise Ė and that a high speed pursuit is Ďnotí at all what we want happening here.

        Then again, it doesnít honestly sound like theyíve got much choice in the matter. Their dispatch is telling Chris that the Camaroís going in excess of 80 and theyíve got to go that fast just to keep an eye on them, at least until a chopper arrives on the scene and can take over surveillance. Wouldnít JD just love this? An all-out police chase, complete with a helicopter. Sounds like a Bruce Willis movie, for Christsakes.

        But this ainít a Hollywood stunt scene. No, this is a nightmare.

        PART 2

        The radio falls completely silent. Only for a few seconds, but then again it feels as if the entire world has stopped for that moment too. Maybe mine has.

        The silence is broken with Chrisí barely whispered "Damn."

        He looks at me and I realize this is the first time we really look each other in the face since this whole mess began. I see such grief and guilt in his eyes. And a silent apology. It isnít enough. Not yet, anyway. Once I know JDís all right, Iíll accept it. I know Chris would sooner die than see JD hurt, we all would, but that isnít enough from him. Iíve got to know JDís ok first. Thatís all that matters and no apology is going to change that fact.

        The kids in the car must have panicked when they heard the chopper, because thatís when all hell breaks loose and the chase picks up even more speed. Itís only gonna be a matter of time before something really bad happens. We can hear it all on the police band and Chris really floors it now. Weíre almost there. Almost there.

        I take over the radio; telling Chris to just concentrate on driving, just get us there, while I keep screaming for the cops to back off, that if they donít, someoneís gonna get hurt. JD is gonna get hurt.

        Too late. Chris and me are too late again. Not five minutes from intercepting the chase, we hear the pursuing officers call it in: "Code 10-53. Suspect vehicle crashed. Repeat, code 10-53. Suspect vehicle crashed. Ambulance response required."


        ĎWaiting, waiting, waiting. I'll never get out of here.í

        Oh, God, we hit something. Something hard enough to stop this speeding piece of crap. I can feel it vibrating through every bone in my body as I bounce off the walls of this trunk like a human pinball. Pain clings to me with razor sharp talons and I scream through the gag. Iím dying for real this time. My prayers asking that I wonít suffocate in this cramped hell are going to be answered. Of course being crushed in a car accident isnít exactly the alternative I was thinking of.

        But Iím not dead yet.

        I can still hear the sirens, at least I think thatís what I hear somewhere beyond the ringing in my ears. Maybe Iím still dreaming. I can hear some muffled shouting coming through the car, but my headís so thick now, Iím not really sure of that either. I know Iím not thinking clearly. Probably because itís getting harder and harder to breathe. The airís too thin and my ribs hurt too much to keep this up. The gagís slicing through the corners of my mouth and I can taste blood mixing with spit and cotton. Iím surprised I havenít lost all dignity and finally puked. Wouldnít that look great in my obituary? Cause of death, asphyxiation from own vomit. What a classy way to go, Dunne.

        Of course, I think suffocation is going to be the way I do go. I canít breathe anymore. Yeah, I know thereís still some air in here, but itís too heavy, settling down on me, on my chest and face, like a toxic blanket thatís going to finish smothering me any second now. That really is whatís happening, isnít it, Buck?

        Damn it, Buck, where are you? I must be delirious because Iím certain I can hear your voice. Youíre calling for me, but I canít answer. Itís too late. My bodyís finally caught up to my wrist and everythingís gone numb. Thatís kind of a good thing though, I think. Maybe that means Iím going to at least die peacefully. It doesnít hurt anymore so maybe there wonít be any pain or fear on my face when you do find me. I can feel my mind shutting down and Iím not afraid anymore.

        But I really wish I didnít have to die like this. Iím sorry, guys. Iím sorry, Buck.


        My head feels like itís floating off my shoulders as Chris pulls behind one of two police cruisers lining the side of the highway. I can already tell itís bad. The din of traffic going past, sirens still wailing and tires screeching to a halt as more and more cops arrive on the scene is deafening. Orders are being shouted over radios and in the haze around me. Itís a wonder anyone can understand them.

        I leap from the Ram and rush to the edge before the truck even comes to a full stop. The chopper hovers above us, forcing billowing clouds of dust up my nose and in my already stinging eyes, but I have to get to that car. I can hear the newly arriving DPD yelling at me to stop, but apparently Chris flashes them a badge because nobody interferes while I slide down the grassy slope.

        Panic seizes my heart as I look at the carnage. My bet is that Bruce Philmore lost control and flew off the shoulder and landed straight into the unmoving path of a cedar. Apparently that new Camaro was faster than his reflexes or what he might have called a working brain could handle. An officer already stands at the side of the car by the driverís seat and slowly shakes his head at me. My breath catches in my throat and I can feel my legs wobble, but that doesnít stop me. I have to get to that car. To JD.

        I rush to the other side, knowing the cop has to be wrong, maybe he didnít even notice JD, if the kid was in the back seat. But the only body in the car lays unmoving against the steering column; his neck obviously snapped in two on impact, despite the deployed air bag he rests on. It was definitely Philmore. Good for nothing piece of shit. Got what he deserved.

        I yank back the front seat, but thereís no one else in the Chevy. "Whereís JD?"

        I must really look like a crazed lunatic because the cop actually flinches before he answers. "This is the only one left, my partnerís after the two suspects who fled the scene."

        My turn to look at him like heíd just grown a goatís head. I donít give a crap about the three punks, all I want to know is where JD is. And I want to know now. I turn to the woods, desperate and running out of options. "JD! JD! Answer me, son!"

        I can feel Chris at my shoulder, telling me not to panic, that weíll find him, but I canít stop screaming JDís name. Still no answer. I know he would have answered if he could. Everything seems like itís in slow motion. I call out for JD again. Chris and I look at each other and I know we both have the same thought running through our minds. The trunk.

        Iím working on auto pilot right now. Have to be. Otherwise Iíd be a complete and total wreck for sure. In worse shape than the Camaro. I reach across the narrow space and strip the keys from the ignition. I toss them to Chris because I canít stop my hands from shaking long enough to unlock the damn thing. I hate to think of JD in that cramped compartment, but I pray with every bit of strength I have left that heís in there and still alive.

        I can feel my heart beating hard against my ribs while my stomach churns in time. Iím sure somethingís going to give sooner or later, but Iíve got to hold it together. JD needs me to be strong and calm, and I will be. As soon as I find him.

        "JD!" I canít seem to stop shouting his name, just in case he can hear me I guess. I want him to know weíre here and to not give up on us yet. The afternoon sun beats down on my black standard-issue jacket and I shudder to think what being locked in that trunk feels like. Hang on, JD, weíre coming.

        The trunk pops open and my heart catches in my throat. The suffocating stench of hot metal, gasoline and steamy air hits my nostrils and I wonder how in the hell JD could breathe at all in that crypt. Oh God. He looks dead. His body is curled in a tight ball, his arms stretched and tied behind his back. Wet hair clings to his head and his clothes are soaked through with sweat and blood. And a gag. Fucking bastards.

        Black spots dance in my line of vision, blocking out the sight of my partner, my friend, my family and I swallow back the terror that paralyzes me. We canít be too late. God, please, donít let us be too late! I untie the wet bandana cutting into his mouth then reach out to touch his face, my trembling hand stopping just short of the ashen cheeks. Dread makes me want to hesitate. Hope wonít let me. I have to know.

        "Buck! We gotta get him outta here so he can breathe."

        Chrisí panicked voice pierces through the thoughts screaming in my mind and I grab JDís shoulders, my whole body shaking with strain as I help Chris lift him out. JDís head flops against my cheek, so limp and lifeless it rips my heart to shreds. Hold on, kid, please, just stay with us.

        We lay him on his side in the shade of the tree that almost killed him. Chris drops to one knee, his fingers searching the side of JDís neck for his pulse. He nods slightly. "Itís too fast," he says with a mixture of concern and relief. But Iíll take what I can get. Where there is life, there is hope and Iím going to hold onto that with every ounce of faith I have.


        Oh God. I thought I was beyond thinking, beyond panic and pain, but that was before they opened the trunk. Theyíve come back for me. Havenít you depraved mommaís boys done enough? Canít you just let me die in peace?

        Someone removes the saturated gag and I try to yell, try to make my vocal cords work, but they refuse. My mouthís too dry, my energy too drained to force any words out. Iím lifted and I know I should try to fight back. I try desperately to will some strength into my cramped limbs and aching body and at least kick them in the balls. Not like I have a chance in hell of living through this anyway, but at least I wouldnít be going out like a pansy. Except nothing works. It takes every ounce of concentration Iíve got just to keep air flowing in and out. But at least the air is worth struggling for now.

        I can hear them talking, but itís just mumbled voices. They might as well be stuttering in Chinese for all the comprehension Iím getting from it. At least nobodyís hit me with the tire iron yet. Yet.


        I can feel his chest moving against my palm and I thank God heís still alive. He jerks in my grip as Chris cuts the ropes and I hear my oldest and most stoic friend in the world groan in sympathy. As we roll JD onto his back, I see why.

        JDís right wrist is bruised and deformed; obviously broken. Raw rope burns crease the swollen flesh and rage rises up to choke me. Those monsters had obviously tied his hands after theyíd broken his wrist. Too bad Philmore is already dead, because Iíd sure get a hell of a rush killing him with my bare hands. Instead, I sit down hard in the grass and rest JDís head in my lap and keep talking to him as Chris wraps his windbreaker around the kidís broken arm. JDís barely conscious, his eyes are shut tight and heís moaning like he can feel every ache in his battered body. I wipe away the beads of sweat continuing to collect on his forehead and stroke his damp hair. I fight to hold back my grief and rage, needing the contact and needing to at least hope Iím helping to take away his pain. Truth is, I donít know what the hell else to do.


        My body convulses as a wicked pain travels from my hand all the way to the top of my head. So much for still being numb. I brace myself as much as I can for the agony I know is coming. Except Iím rolled over carefully, my wrist wrapped and someone is gently touching my hair and wiping at my face. This canNOT be Philmore or his cronies. I concentrate harder, trying to make out the words being whispered against my ear.

        Buck? Oh, God, please let it be.


        "C'mon, son, wake up, it's Buck. I've got you now, you're safe. Just stay with me, ok, kid?" I canít stop the words flowing from my lips. I keep talking to him, whispering the same words of encouragement over and over.

        Chris pulls off JDís shoes then starts to unbutton his sweat-soaked shirt, spreading it open to let the breeze cool down the kidís burning skin. Iíd been so focused on JDís injuries it hadnít occurred to me that heat exhaustion could be an even greater danger to him. Thank God Chris can be so clear-headed in a crisis. Especially when it comes to one of his men. I wish I could distance myself long enough to think right now, but Chris and I have known each other enough years that we can compensate for each otherís weaknesses. He knows Iím focused on JD, so he takes over the practical part.

        I hear the ambulance. How exactly I can distinguish one siren from another is beyond me, but I know the difference. JD stirs, says something unintelligible and I lean in closer. Again Chris clues in to whatís really going on and rolls JD onto his side just as the kid heaves violently into the grass. Helplessness runs through me like a runaway freight train as JD moans and vomits again. Iím on my knees now, rubbing JDís back in an attempt to ease his visible agony. I see the paramedics descending toward us from the corner of my eye and I know I should move. Step back and let them do their job, but I canít go far. I donít want JD waking up to strangers. I want him to realize heís safe now. That I did find him.


        I try to call his name, needing confirmation that Iím not hallucinating. Instead all the nausea and pain from the past few hours rush to the surface and this time there is no way around the fact that Iím going to be sick. Pain courses through me as Iím rolled to the side and I deposit my guts on the ground.

        At least I know Buckís here. Who else would hover this close, whisper words of faith and support in my ear and gently hold on while I toss a full weekís worth of take-out at his knees? At least the gag is gone and I know heís not going to let me choke to death. Of course that thought is small consolation as my tormented body bellows in agony.


        I position myself out of the way and let JDís head rest in my lap again. Chris and I answer the medicsí questions and watch as they place IVs and an oxygen mask over JDís milky face and begin to pack his over-heated body with cold wraps. Tears slide a dusty trail through my face as they load him onto the stretcher and make their way up the hillside. My legs tremble beneath me as I stand and give Chris a quick look before I start after them.

        "Go," he says resolutely, knowing full well that I can do nothing else. I manage a smile, trying to reassure him as much as myself that everything is going to be ok. With JD and between us.

        As I head for the ambulance, a warm feeling of hope surrounds me and I somehow know JDís going to be all right. Still, Iím not willing to let my kid out of my sight for too long. Not after I almost lost him this time.


        More hands are suddenly all over me, stripping away my drenched shirt and I know from too much experience the paramedics are here. Lovely. As much as I thank God Iím still alive, I really do hate this part. The suffocating heat envelopes me, burning my skin from the inside out. Still I shiver uncontrollably as the contrasting cold packs are placed on my forehead, under my arms and around my legs. Buckís still talking though and I try to focus on his face, hoping he can read the gratitude in my eyes as I silently thank him. For not leaving me, for not giving up on me and for giving me his strength to anchor to because he knows I donít have any left.

        I hear the ambulance doors slam shut and Buck starts up his soothing mantra once again. Pain radiates through my head, begging my body to shut down and Iím ready to listen this time. I know Iím safe now. Buck keeps telling me that over and over, and I believe him. I know itís ok, I can leave everything to him. That trust lets me bridge the gap into the beckoning oblivion and I turn my life over to my best friend, my brother.


        "Mr. Wilmington? You can see your friend now."

        About time is what Iím thinking, but I canít help the wide smile that breaks out at the dark-haired nurse. She smiles back and any other time Iíd have flirted a little harder. Right now Iíve got other things on my mind. She leads me through the ER and I purposely avoid looking behind any of the curtains. Iíve had about all I can handle for one day.

        "The doctor will come check on him again once the IVís finished and heíll probably be released later this evening." Her eyes are brown and compassionate. She smiles again and pulls a chair next to the gurney, telling me to stay as long as I want. That had been my plan all along, but I just tell her thank you.

        Youíd think Iíd get used to this. Hell, weíre here often enough youíd think theyíd have named a wing of this hospital after the seven of us already. As much as I hate seeing these white sterile walls and breathing in the smell of antiseptic, I thank God for this place every day. These doctors and nurses have a habit of keeping all of our fool hides alive and for that I canít help but be grateful.

        And todayís no exception.

        Even though they told me JD looked damn good for what heíd just been through. A broken wrist, mild concussion, bruised back and ribs and a severe case of heat exhaustion. Still, he looks awfully fragile lying there, pale as the pristine white sheets heís sleeping on. My heartís finally starting to settle into a normal rhythm again. I figure someday itís just going to get pissed off and quit on me after one too many of these close calls this boy likes to put me through. But not today. Today JDís going to be fine. Sore and banged up, but ok. Another five minutes and it might have been a different story altogether, but I canít think about that right now. I donít have the strength.

        I ease my weary body into the plastic chair, but itís too short to actually see JD and sit at the same time so I stand back up and lean on the bed rail. After worrying about him for so long, it doesnít seem right that I canít at least see his face while I wait. I put my hand on the top of his head, gently letting my fingers brush through his hair. I donít want to wake him, I know he needs his sleep as much as I need the contact. Besides, if he woke up the least bit lucid he wouldnít stand for me hovering over him like this.

        Not that I blame him for wanting to be treated like an adult, the kid is 22 years old for Christís sake. A man in age as well as in actions. Itís just, well, I know he had to grow up fast to take care of his momma and I just want to take some of that burden off his shoulders, let me be responsible for him for a change. Still, thereís such an innocence about him, like the way he goes out of his way to do the right thing or help somebody. Even after all heís seen growing up and working at this job, he hasnít lost his optimism, his courage or his heart.

        Not to mention he just looks so damn young.

        Chris calls me a sucker and maybe I am. Course I didnít go looking for some wet-behind-the-ears kid to watch out for, but Chris knew the minute he brought JD into the lionsí den I wouldnít be able to stop myself. Just like I couldnít stop myself from latching onto Adam from the first time I laid eyes on the shriveled little infant in Sarahís arms. Ok, so I am a sucker. A big ole sap too, but Iíve been told by more than a few ladies thatís part of my charm. My own momma taught me that caring about people wasnít a weakness, it was the greatest strength a man could have. And I always thought she knew everything - now I know she did.

        I let out a long sigh and look back at JD. I almost jump out of my skin when I see his big, dark and very blood-shot eyes staring straight at me.

        "Hey, kid!" I try to keep my voice low, but I canít control the elation. "How ya doiní?"

        He smiles faintly and reaches his hand up to rub at his eyes, and I stop him before he conks himself in the face with the heavy cast. I realize Iím stroking his hair vigorously and tone it down before he tells me to stop altogether. Iím just so glad to see him awake, moving - alive. I know how close he came to dying, how close I came to letting him down, and thatís why I canít help the moisture blurring my vision.

        JD smiles wider now, apparently amused at my disheveled state and the tears welling in my eyes. Then again maybe itís the glucose and Demerol cocktail pumping through his veins. Or maybe heís just happy to be alive and out of that damn trunk.

        I donít think he can be any more relieved than I am.

        "The doc says youíre gonna be fine. I think heís even gonna let me take you home after he checks you over again."

        JDís eyelids droop, his dark lashes brushing the tops of his cheeks before they spring open again. He uses his good hand to rub at the tears sliding from his eye and I can tell itís a struggle for him to speak. "Thank you."

        His voice is scratchy, painful sounding, but strong and determined. I move my hand to wipe away the matching trail of moisture on the right side of his face that he canít reach. A slight shudder runs through his body before he relaxes and shuts his eyes.

        "Just donít pull a stunt like that again, ok, kid?"

        I want to tell him heís got to stop scaring the life out of me, to tell him heís not invincible and he canít take on the world with every damn case. I know he doesnít have the strength for my advice right now, and truth is neither do I. He knows exactly what I want to say anyway. Heís heard my whole spiel before at one time or another. Just like Iíve heard his argument. Of course heís not going to change trying to be the hero, just like Iím not going to stop nagging him about it.

        "Mrs. Pearson?" His eyes open again, a little wild and full of concern.

        "Sheís fine, JD. Just got off the phone with her a little while ago to let her know weíd found you in sorta one piece. I even invited her for dinner next week when youíre feeling better." He seems to relax a little, but then he stares at me again and I know heís worried about blowing the case, afraid a month of hard work has gone down the drain.

        "And donít worry about your cover, JD. Philmoreís dead and his little buddies are in so deep for abducting a Fed that theyíll never get free long enough to deal gum to their grandmothers." Of course what I wanted to tell him was ĎYou almost died you little runt and youíre afraid an arrest wonít stick on three punk gun dealers turned kidnappers?í

        "You did good, kid, but weíre gonna have to talk about your unorthodox approach to getting your man."

        JD grins again and I laugh. Heís a hoot when heís high and Iím satisfied from the blissful look on his face that heís feeling no pain.

        "Hey, kid, Iím gonna let you get some sleep while I run out and re-stock the fridge, ok? I think Iíll pick up a few movies too since it looks like youíre gonna be laid up for a few days. Any requests?"

        "Casablanca." He whispers hoarsely.

        "JD, you rent that movie damn near every week - havenít you gotten tired of it yet?"

        He shakes his head, the goofy smile still plastered to his face.

        "Ok, Iíll buy you a copy this time, save us a fortune in rental fees in the long run. Anything else?"

        No answer. JD has drifted off again and I pull the sheet over his bare chest and pat him gently. I feel like Iím abandoning him, especially since Iíve sent Chris and the others home already, but Iíd rather do it now than wait until we get home. Besides, the kid needs something to wear since the clothes he came in with are in a shredded heap in the corner.

        "Iíll be back." I whisper loud enough for him to hear me, but not enough to rouse him. One more swipe at the hair, just to reassure myself he is indeed here and doing fine before I make my way beyond the curtain and back into the real world. One last glance back before I leave.

        ĎHereís looking at you, kid.í


        They found me. I knew they would. Never a doubt in my mind. Ok, so they pushed it pretty damn close, but I knew Buck wouldnít give up. Thank God. I wish I could have managed more than a hoarse Ďthank youí just now. Geez, that sounded so trite, such an understatement for the elation I feel at still being alive. I wanted to tell him then that I owe him my life - not that it would have been the first time. I wanted to cry from the overwhelming relief of being able to breathe fresh air, let out the pent-up panic that had been building since they first closed the lid on what I feared would be my coffin.

        I thought I was just hallucinating when I first opened my eyes to see Buckís blurry face looming above me. I assumed that I was already dead and my mind was conjuring up an angel who just happened to look like my best friend. I realize I was delirious, but still, Buck would bust a gut laughing over that one. That Iíd mistaken his worried mug for a heavenly being. Perhaps I should keep that little tidbit to myself.

        My head still seems kind of thick, like my limbs are weighted to the bed and Iíd no doubt have to concentrate if I wanted to open my eyes. Iím so tired, but I feel pretty good. Considering. Amazing what being clean, cool and drugged out the wazoo can do for a person. Oh, yeah, and breathing pure oxygen is heaven. Iíd almost want to stay here for a while, except I know that home is going to be 100 times better. A soft couch, full control of the remote while propped on a mound of pillows with enough blankets for an Everest expedition. And Buck in full nursemaid mode. Not that Iíd take advantage of his concern or anything, but he does make some killer meals whenever Iím recuperating. Of course Iíll have to complain a bit, try to act like I donít need his help, but I really donít mind. Truth be told itís kind of nice to know somebody really gives a crap about me, but I sure as hell ainít gonna let him see me get all mushy about it.

        "Agent Dunne? Can you wake up for me?"

        I must have fallen asleep again. I try to open my eyes and after what seems to be a gargantuan effort my lids finally part. Itís Dr., oh, I know who he is, why canít I remember his name? Anyway, heís pressing on my ribs again and I canít help but flinch. Even with the drugs dulling the pain, that still freaking hurts and I wish heíd cut it out already. I let out a pitiful moan, hoping heíll get the hint and stop, but he just moves to a different spot and keeps on poking. I hear myself yelp like a wounded puppy when Dr. Whoever pushes against a sore spot on the side of my head.

        I hear Buckís voice now. Geez, I must have really been out of it for a while if heís already back. Buck sounds impatient and annoyed, and I figure itís for the same reason Iím getting peeved here. Finally the doctor pulls the sheet back over my belly and starts talking to me again.

        "Agent Dunne, Iím Dr. Miller, are you up to a few instructions?"

        Dr. Miller, thatís it, I knew that. I nod my head slightly and try my best to stay focused on his face, but Iím so damn tired. His voice floats over me, telling me I need to take it easy, get lots of rest, keep my arm elevated, yada yada. I let myself drift again. I guess the doctor figures out Iím not listening because heís talking to Buck now. I already know Buck is soaking up every drop of information so he can hold me to it later. Not like Iím going to remember anything Dr., uh, the doctor says anyway. Ok, Buck. ĎYouíll have to think for both of us.í

        I know Iím really going home when the doctor takes the IV out of my hand and tells me he needs to see me again in two days. Iím ready. Now if I could actually sit up and get off this gurney Iíd be good to go. Yep, it would sure help if I could move, but my body is refusing any commands to get up.

        "Come on, son. Letís get you dressed and outta here." I guess Buck realizes my predicament and pats me on the arm before he lifts me into a sitting position on the gurney. He proceeds to pull an oversized sweatshirt over my head and maneuvers my dangling arms into the sleeves. The effort is painful, but over quickly and I let out a sigh of relief, of course thatís before I realize Iím sitting here in my purple and green plaid boxers.

        Buck grins slightly, probably at the flush of color rising on my cheeks, but he doesnít seem fazed about having to dress me. He just threads my legs into a soft pair of sweats and helps me off the bed so he can finish pulling them up. A part of me is ashamed as hell that I canít even focus enough to put on my own pants, but I guess Iím not in any position to do much about it. Besides, Buckís already too full of brotherly guilt to abuse me about this. Well, at least until he knows Iím up to fighting back. Iím using all the strength I can muster just to keep from falling flat on my face. I manage to stand on my ownÖfor probably three seconds, before my body rebels from all the abuse itís been through and my knees buckle.

        "Whoa, hold on there, kid." Buck chuckles as he hooks one arm around my chest, catching me before I sink completely to the floor. Thanks again, Buck. I can always count on him for that. He simply tucks me under his arm, pulling me in tight and holding me steady as he walks us over to where a pretty nurse with an even prettier smile waits by the door. Oh, man, I hope she didn't just witness Buck putting my clothes on for me.

        Buck lifts me by the arms and sets me into the wheelchair and I would have bitten his head off for treating me like an invalid if I werenít so damn tired. Instead, all I manage is a pathetic grunt. Great, the nurse pats my knee as Buck puts on my Nikes and sheís still smiling at me like Iím a sleepy toddler. And from the glowing look of approval she bestows on Buck, I can tell that Casanovaís just managed to score another phone number, and meÖwell, I get another in a long list of surrogate big sisters who only want to mother me.

        Once again I get the crap kicked out of me and Buck winds up with the girl. Yep, everythingís back to normal.


        I let out a huge sigh as I finally pull into my parking space in front of the condo. Weíre home. At last I can start to feel my body relax from the overabundance of adrenaline Iíve experienced since this morning. JD sleeps soundly, his head resting on the doorframe of the truck, and I hate to wake him, but the sooner we get inside, the sooner I can get him settled.

        "Come on, kid. Time to rise and shine."

        He sits up and I wince in sympathy as a groan rattles in his throat. His eyes scan his surroundings in utter confusion before his gaze finally lands on me. Iím beginning to question Dr. Millerís decision to let the kid out of the hospital. His eyes are dilated and he looks too pale and even more out of it than he had earlier. I know itís the drugs as much as the injuries making him this disoriented, but I guess I just canít help but worry.

        "Weíre home, JD." I unbuckle his seatbelt then get out.

        He opens his door and attempts to climb out under his own power. I know heís just trying to help me. Keep me from having to do it for him, but that damn stubborn streak makes me more than a little crazy sometimes. Of course, I have to break into a sprint to reach him before he tumbles onto the pavement.

        Careful of his cast and bruised ribs, I support his weight against me and we walk up the sidewalk. Well, I walk, he just moves his feet, trying to match my steps, but his gait is really more of a drag. I let him try. I donít want him to feel too helpless, especially after all heís been through today, want to let him try to keep a little dignity, even if heís got the grace of an amateur drunk right now.

        At least heís alive. And back home where I can keep an eye on him, for a while anyway. I reach in my jacket for my keys and instead find the yellow post-it note with Carmen's phone number on it. Yeah, JD's nurse was a sweet lady. I will definitely give her a call, but sheíll have to wait until JD's back on his feet before I can give her the attention she deserves. Then again, maybe I could invite her over for some home-cooking and get her to check on the kid while she's here.

        Now that's not a bad idea at all.

        By the time we get to the front door I can feel JD sagging heavily in my grip. The doctor said heíd be sore and weak for several days, not to get too concerned. Still I feel for him. I know how strong and independent he is, how he hates being doted on and cared for. Treated like a kid. Well, tough. If he wants to put his life on the line then heís going to have to deal with me when he gets hurt. Maybe heíll think twice before he goes and pulls some crazy stunt next time.

        My mother would sure get a kick out of this. Iíd bugged her enough for a baby brother when I was a kid, to which she always told me that I didnít know what I was asking for. Well, Mom, I sure know what you mean now. Iíve found myself one thatís a bigger trouble magnet than I ever dreamed of being. Well, ok, not quite. But you would have loved him, Mom.

        Almost as much as I do.


        You know I really do hate this. Hate being dragged along like a plastic toy with a drained battery. Iím trying to walk, but I swear I canít feel my feet. I know theyíre still there. I see them beneath me, but Iím beginning to think Buck must have substituted a pair of steel-toed boots for my high tops. I never knew I owned any shoes this damn heavy.

        Ok, we made it inside without incident. God knows the neighbors should be used to one of us helping the other to the front door. I can only hope most of them know weíre highly-trained yet accident-prone Feds, not a couple of alcoholic losers with no sense of dignity.

        "Easy, kid." Buck tightens his grip as I force my stiff joints to bend enough so I can sink into the couch.

        Ahhhh, the plush, soft, lovely sofa of my dreams. Ok, so Iím still loopy, sue me. Iíve been looking forward to resting my weary butt and various other body parts on these thick cushions. Granted itís not quite as comfortable as my waterbed, but just the sight of the smooth leather fills me with warm memories of the cozy loft my mom and I shared in New York. Of chicken soup and hot chocolate and old movies she used to watch with me until I fell asleep when I was too sick or too anxious to stay in my own bed.

        Like now.

        "Here, son, time for your happy pills." Only now, itís Buck instead of my mom.

        "Happy, happy, joy, joy." Iím feeling light-headed enough already and start to ask him if more drugs are such a good idea. Of course he is the one who actually listened to the doctorís instructions and I trust his judgement more than my own, even when Iím lucid. He drops the tablets in my hand and guides them toward my mouth, since I seem to be indecisive about what to do. I canít help it, my head feels like itís floating over my shoulders like a party balloon. The tablets leave a bitter trail across my tongue and I gag. Buck supports a glass of water between my palms as I drink, like heís afraid Iíve forgotten how to hold it or something. Then again, Iím not even sure I remember how to swallow, but somehow I do anyway.

        "Thatís it, now letís get you settled, kid." I sigh with relief as Buck supports my head and eases me back into the pillows. As he pulls off my shoes and spreads a blanket over my legs, I silently wonder how two people as different as my mom and Buck can remind me so much of each other. How my childhood home and this bachelor pad can stir such similar feelings. But in reality, I do know.

        Itís something that transcends the obvious physical differences of people, time or place. Itís something that cuts across our very souls. The knowledge that Buck cares as much about my welfare as his own has never been spoken, at least not in words, but I know it as sure as I know the sun rises in the east and that Chris can start fires with his glare.

        Of course, I can understand my mother feeling that way about her son, so maybe knowing Buck would rip out his left kidney if he thought I needed it makes his concern even more special. Itís scary really. And uplifting at the same time. I just wish he knew how damn much I love him too. That I think of us as brothers as surely as if we shared the same DNA. Someday Iíll tell him, even though I suspect he already knows. Like Iíve always known.

        God, these pills are making me a complete and utter sap.

        The steady ache in my ribs and the throbbing agony in my head seem to drain from my body as the drugs push the pain aside. Iím savoring this feeling of safety and contentment before the euphoria wears away and I slip into unconsciousness. I just want to revel in what Iíve still got; not what I almost lost today.

        "Do you want the TV on or off, kid?" Buckís voice is as soft as these cushions and he sounds far away.

        "On. Put the movie in, ok?" I realize that exhaustion is slurring my words, but Iíd really like to fall asleep to Bogieís dialogue and the familiar sounds of home.

        "Which one?" Buck holds out a movie in each hand and I point to the old black and white cover that I recognize despite the fact my vision is going fuzzy.

        "Casablanca, oh, Iím shocked." I can tell by the tone in his voice and the wry grin on his lips that he knows I wonít last five minutes before Iím snoring like a hound after a hunt. Buck doesnít say a word though, only unwraps the new video and pops it into the VCR. I settle back into the pillows and close my eyes as the ominous voice-over drones out the movieís set-up.

        "Just holler if you need me, ok, son?" Buck gently tucks the blanket underneath my legs and his hand brushes that annoying lock of hair off my face. Iím a little surprised he actually did that knowing Iím still conscious enough to protest. Of course Iím not exactly protesting now, am I? Who am I kidding? Buck knows exactly what he can get away with when it comes to me, just like he knows exactly what I need, even sometimes before I do.

        And I know what he needs too.

        I hear him set the water and the remote on the coffee table, both in easy reach if I decide I need either. I let out a contented sigh as I snuggle deeper into the mound of pillows. Iím home. Mom would be happy that Iíve found someone to look out for me - whether I need it or not.

        And Bogie? I know what he'd say. YepÖ

        ĎI think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.í

        THE END

        PenKatt ******* May