Author's notes: No, this isn't 'Charming the Hawk'. Why, you ask? Well, that delves deep into the nature of plot bunnies. You see, I have quite a line up of plot bunnies at any given moment. Most bunnies are polite, willing to hop about patiently until it's their turn. Sometimes they mix with others while they wait to form a bigger bunny(Charming the Hawk is such a bunny). Sometimes they mutate, like the Before Dawn bunnies.

And sometimes, along comes a vicious one that just refuses to wait its turn. Instead, it jumps up, hits you with those big back feet and tackles you to the ground. 'Neutral Party' was such a bunny, as was 'The Haunting of Christmas Past'. However, neither was as wild nor as big as the mutated 'Refuge' bunny. Perhaps due to the cross with The Magnificent Seven, this one acted more like a big, rugged Western jack rabbit than one of those polite, little Eastern bunnies. I couldn't dodge it!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mag 7, it was a recent TV series based on the western movie by the same name (which in turn was based on a Japanese movie called 'The Seven Samurai'). The premise is that seven dissimilar men join together to protect a western frontier town in the late 1800s. It has gained an internet fandom similar to TS in size, enthusiasm, and fanfic.

The series, currently being rerun on TNN, caught my attention due to the fantastic, complex characters and the actors who play them. The group is led by Chris Larabee(played by Michael Biehn, from movies The Terminator, The Abyss, Navy Seals), a gunfighter struggling with the loss of his family; Buck Wilmington is the ladies man, delightfully played by Dale Midkiff (of Time Trax fame); Vin Tanner is the sharpshooter and former bounty hunter played by Eric Close (Dark Skies, Now and Again); Ezra Standish is the gambler and con man played by Anthony Starke; Josiah Sanchez is the missionary son and reluctant preacher played by Ron Perlman (The Beast in Beauty and the Beast); Nathan Jackson is a former slave and self-taught healer from his work during the Civil War (played by Ricky Worthy); and JD Dunne is the kid fresh from Boston who loves dimestore novels (played by Andrew Kavovit).

Along with the rest of the vast Mag 7 fanfiction land, there is a group who is writing a delightful AU fanfic with a twist: they have moved the Seven forward in time and placed them in present day Denver. Chris Larabee is now the leader of a hotshot ATF unit instead of a gunfighter, and the rest of the guys are his team (for instance, Ezra is now an undercover expert with a shady past instead of a con man). Yet they all maintain the same independent natures and complex backgrounds as they did in the original series. With the Seven in the year 2000, I can mix them with my favorite TS guys and thus the vicious plot bunny. Since I had planned to write a story as a thank you to the wonderful gals who have created the Magnificent Seven:ATF AU(where I sneak off to when the BPP's virtual season becomes overwhelming), this story serves that purpose. And perhaps is partly responsible for the title *chuckle*

By the way, I have referenced a few characters and situations from Black Panther Productions Cascade Virutal Tales. In my mind, the BPP Fifth Season is part of the Sentinel universe. Probably because I've been up to my eyeballs in it for so long!

I wish to extend many thanks. First, thanks to Mog for creating the Mag 7:ATF universe , to Cassie for pointing me to it, and to all the other writers who have run with it. Also thanks to Shallan for help with the military aspects and for lending me detective Franchs, to Sealie, Zadra, and Malu for betaing, and to Wolfpup for posting.

Please send any comments to spacecloud@juno.com

Enjoy the ride.

Disclaimer: Most of characters are not mine. I'm borrowing them out of deep reverence, affection and respect. I will accept only personal fulfillment, and no monetary gain. If you do sue, you will not get much and I will send over my Black Lab mix, who will stare at you pathetically for hours and probably con you out of all your food.

Please do not reproduce, copy, or otherwise use any part of this story without permission from the author.

Rated PG-13, mostly for language.



Along a rural highway in Washington State

ATF agent Vin Tanner fought to keep from shivering as he stared at the phone booth behind the gas station. He was in desperate need of help, but he didn't know whom to call. The results had been lacking the last two times he had tried to call Orrin Travis. Not only had he not spoken directly to the tough federal judge, but the hounds were immediately back on his heels. The agent tucked his left arm tighter against his chest, his biceps throbbing from his last encounter with the men who were trying to kill him. Even cold, exhausted, and struggling against a pounding headache, Vin realized there had to be a connection. He didn't dare try the judge again until he was sure he could defend himself.

For an instant, his guard dropped and he thought of Chris, his leader and friend. Vin viciously shoved that thought away. He couldn't afford to think of his teammates now, knowing he could easily lose himself in the huge hole of grief gaping before him. In honor of their memories, Vin had to stay alive until he could figure out what had happened and bring them justice.

Yet the young man was nearing the end of his strength, and he knew it. He glanced up at the sign just off the highway. It declared, 'Luciville, Washington. Pop. 50'. Who on earth would he know in Luciville? Hell, who did he know in Washington State?

"Maybe you should contact him." The remembered voice took Vin back to two weeks earlier.


Two weeks earlier, Coeur D'Alene, ID

Vin stretched his lithe frame as he walked out of a bedroom in a small hotel suite. The sleep had been sorely needed after several hours clinging to a tree doing surveillance on his team's latest assignment. Now he just needed some food and he'd be set to go again. Of course, what he really wished was for it to be over and they could go back home. Coeur D'Alene, Idaho was far from Denver, Colorado, the team's normal base of operations. Vin missed his own bed. Yet the powers that be decided they needed the best on this case, and Vin's team hadn't earned their 'Magnificent Seven' nickname for nothing.

Running a hand through his long, curly light brown hair, he surveyed the room. Out of his six teammates, only the youngest was in the small sitting area. JD Dunne, a slim man in his early twenties, was perched on the couch reading a magazine. He needed to unwind from several hours of pretending to be a forest ranger cleaning bathrooms. Considering how rarely the apartment the young man shared with fellow agent Buck Wilmington was ever cleaned, Vin figured the kid was going nuts with the assignment.

After ordering room service, Vin sprawled out in the chair next to JD. "What ya reading?"

"Law and Order," JD replied, naming a popular journal that reported on various law enforcement activities throughout the country. He had a stack of old issues that someone had given his roommate.

"Didn't get enough excitement cleaning outhouses today?" Vin teased.

JD rolled his eyes. "Are you kidding? I don't think those things have been cleaned in months! I can't believe Chris is making me do it."

"Well, maybe you should remember that next time you attach a noisemaker to his chair." The corner of Vin's mouth twitched as he remembered their esteemed leader bolting out of his seat as it squawked like an outraged goose. The whole team had started to laugh, but soon quit when they were treated to one of Chris Larabee's hard stares.

"But I didn't do it!" JD protested again. He absently brushed back his dark brown bangs out of his eyes as he sat up. "Man, it's so unfair. I bet Cops of the Year, like Rich Hunley or James Ellison, never get accused of something they didn't do."

Vin suddenly shot upright. "Who?"

"Guys who made Policeman of the Year in different cities a couple years ago. Boy, I bet you have to..."

"No, repeat that last name," Vin urged.

JD blinked. "Rich Hunley?"

"No, the other one."

"James Ellison?"

Vin thought that was what he'd said. "Do you still have that article?"

Puzzled, JD flipped back a couple of pages and handed over the magazine. "Why?"

Vin ignored him a minute as he slowly read the name and the accompanying announcement. "Man, it has to be him."

"Who?"

A slow smile stretched across Vin's face as memories flowed over him. "Someone I knew in the Army."

JD's eyes narrowed. "As in, 'If-I-tell-you-I-have-to-kill-you' Army?"

"Yep."

The younger man didn't press for more details, having met that brick wall before. "Are you sure it's him?"

"I think he grew up in Cascade, WA, and that's where this James Ellison got his award. The age is about right, too. It's got to be the Captain."

"Have you seen him since you got out?" JD asked. Vin so rarely talked about his past, JD was eager to soak up any tidbit the sharpshooter was willing to part with.

"No. We were put on different assignments there towards the end, and he wasn't around when I decided not to re-enlist." Vin didn't mention that Ellison and his entire team being MIA in Peru had been a part of that decision. "I haven't seen him since."

"Maybe you should contact him," JD suggested.

Vin shrugged his shoulders. "That was a long time ago. I doubt he'd even remember a skinny little private like me."

JD was about to argue when the door opened. In came Vin's order, along with Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington. JD's tall roommate rubbed his hands together as he checked out the food. "I hope you ordered enough for all of us."

"I dare say that would be a near impossibility," Ezra's southern drawl declared, green eyes twinkling, "Considering the amount of food the three of you consume."

The topic of James Ellison was dropped as Vin protected his meal from his teammates.


The present

"Maybe you should contact him."

The memory of JD's voice was like a good omen, urging him to call his former officer. Heaven knows Vin Tanner could use a good omen. Forcing his wobbly legs to walk, he limped to the booth. After a few minutes of sorting through Information, Vin waited to connect with Jim Ellison, praying his one-time mentor was the miracle he desperately needed.


Major Crimes, Cascade, WA

~brring~

The ring barely penetrated the concentration of the tall, muscular man sitting at the desk. Absently, Detective Jim Ellison picked up his phone as his eyes continued to read through his report. "Ellison."

"C-Cap'n?"

The shaky voice instantly drew the sentinel's attention, stirring a faint memory just outside of his grasp. "This is Detective James Ellison."

"W-were you Captain Ellison of the Ranger's First Battalion?"

"Yes." Jim frowned, trying to place the soft drawl. "Who is this?" Sitting at a nearby desk, Jim's partner Blair Sandburg looked up from his own paperwork.

Jim could hear the pain and desperation, teeth trying not to chatter. "I-I don't know if y-you remember me, Cap'n."

Finally, the voice, the drawl, the shyness, and the deep respect raised the faint memory. Jim could almost picture the skinny kid in his late teens whose aim with a rifle rivaled his own. "Vin Tanner? Is that you?"

Jim could barely hear the faint chuckle. "Yeah." A soft cough interrupted for a moment. "Sir, I need help, and I don't know who to turn to."

Picking up on the dazed quality to the voice, Jim's frown deepened. The Tanner he remembered was pretty damn independent. If the kid was calling for help, he had to be at the end of his rope. "What's wrong, Slick?"

Another long pause. "I'm with ATF now. A couple days ago, my team," Jim's blood pressure rose as the voice cracked. "My team was killed. Now they're trying to kill me, and I don't know what's going on. Except... except I thought I saw Rat Tail just before it all wigged out."

Ah hell. "Okay, Tanner, where are you now?"

"Off 20. The, the sign says Luciville."

"Okay," Jim closed his eyes a moment as he visualized that section of state highway. Then he scribbled a note and handed it to his partner. Blair immediately reached for his own phone. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"Yeah."

The vague non-answer and the hazy tone indicated to Jim that Tanner probably was hurt. That the kid was also cold was evident from the chattering teeth. "Are the men after you close by?"

"Lost 'em couple hours ago."

Remembering the smart, street-wise kid who could disappear just as easily in the forest as he could in the middle of a foreign city, Jim could believe it. However, that didn't mean they wouldn't find him again along the highway. "Okay, Slick, about five miles west on 20 from Luciville is another exit. Do you think you can make it there?"

"Yeah. I've got my motorcycle."

Jim glanced up to see his partner give him a thumbs-up. "Okay, there's a inn called The Redwoods. I want you to find it. I've told them that my brother, Vince Ellison, has run into problems and they're holding a room for you."

"I don't have enough money."

"That's okay, they've got my credit card number. I want you to check in and warm up. I'll be there in about an hour. Can you hold out that long?"

"Yeah." There was another pause as a cough barked in the background. "Thanks."

"No problem. Just get there and stay safe."


Blair hadn't asked if he could go. Considering Jim had been abducted the last time he had gotten an unexpected call from an army buddy, Blair didn't intend to lose sight of him. Besides, it sounded like this friend of Jim's was in a whole lot of trouble, so Jim would probably need backup. Now that he was a full-fledged member of the police force, Jim couldn't tell him to stay in the truck anymore. Even more importantly, Blair was his guide. The sentinel would need him if the rescue required the use of his heightened senses. Thankfully, Jim was too focused on his friend's plight to order Blair to stay in Cascade. Blair could read his partner's worry in his clenched jaw.

By the time they hit the highway, Jim had repeated the phone call to him. Suspecting he was stepping onto Jim's covert ops past, Blair asked cautiously, "Who's Rat Tail?"

Jim sighed, then glanced over. "Michael Rattall. A former Army soldier who was caught selling explosives off base. No morals whatsoever."

Blair grinned. "Let me guess. You were the one who got suspicious and blew the whistle?"

Jim shook his head with a smile. "Part right. Tanner was the one who noticed something suspicious and called me just before Rat Tail caught up with him." Jim chuckled. "Skinny, teenaged Vin gave the bastard one beauty of a black eye, in spite of the fact that Rat Tail had about fifty pounds and six inches on him. Thankfully, the MPs and I arrived before it could get any more serious."

"So Vin was a teenager when you knew him?"

"Yeah. He joined the army right out of high school. Considering the kid had been living on the streets for most of his teen years, the military looked pretty good. He'd be about your age now."

"The streets?" Blair blinked. "How'd he manage school?"

Jim chuckled. "Apparently, he gave them a fake address. His grades were just good enough to pass and get into the military. He's a sharp kid, but reading was tough for him."

"So how do you know him?"

Blair could tell Jim was picking his words carefully. "Let's just say I handled some of his training."

Okay, covert ops stuff. Time to shift topics. "Have you seen him since getting out of the Army?"

Jim shook his head. "He was already out when I got back from Peru. And I wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind to look up old buddies."

Blair nodded, easily understanding that. "How bad do you think Vin's hurt?"

"Don't know. I could hear his teeth chatter, so I know he's cold. Definitely dazed. He's exhausted, because his Texas accent was noticeable. Normally, it's pretty faint."

"Twang or lilt?" Blair joked, recalling a long ago discussion they'd had during a case about Texas accents.

"More of a drawl, actually," Jim replied with a smile.

"So Vin's from Texas?" Blair pried.

"Born there. Orphaned at an early age, though. He got tossed about in some pretty bad foster homes before ending up on the streets of Denver."

Blair glanced out the window, again thankful that he'd had Naomi and her large, extended family. While his mother could be flighty at times, she had always been there for him. Blair didn't want to think what his life would have been like without her.

Forty minutes later, they pulled up to the Inn. Jim parked and they swiftly dashed into the office. Within moments, they were at Vin's room. When there was no answer to Jim's knock, he quietly opened the door with the key. Inside, sprawled face down on the bed with his feet hanging off the end, was Vin Tanner.

Studying him, Jim's first thought was that the skinny teenager he'd known had filled out into a strong, wiry man. Kneeling beside the bed, Jim noted the long, still wet hair trailing down the damp flannel shirt, the dark circles under his eyes, and the two-day's worth of beard on his face. The sentinel registered the deep breathing of an exhausted sleeper, a slight rattle developing in his lungs. Slight shivers still trembled through the body, in spite of the room's warmth. The kid looked like he had been through hell. Gently, Jim touched the back of Vin's head, feeling the stitches there. Damn, Slick, when did this happen? Worried about concussion, Jim rubbed Vin's shoulder. "Vin? I need you to wake up."

"Chrriss," a muffled voice slurred.

"Sorry, Slick. It's Jim."

Meanwhile, Blair had closed the door and picked up the soaking wet mass on the floor that turned out to be a leather jacket. Along the left sleeve were two holes, blood darkening the lining underneath. "Jim," Blair softly called out, displaying the holes for his partner to see.

"Damn." Carefully, Jim shifted the slowly awakening body to find the injury, then glanced across the room at his partner. Blair nodded and left for the truck. A blood-soaked handkerchief was tied around the younger man's arm. Gingerly, Jim removed it. With a soft gasp, Vin woke up and tried to pull away. "Easy, Slick."

"Cap'n?" Dazed blue eyes blinked at him, then closed in pain.

"You can call me Jim now, Slick." Noting both an entry and an exit wound, Jim asked, "When did you get shot?"

"This morning near Wenatchee. I tried to call the judge who backs our team, but there must be a bug or something, 'cuz the men chasing me found me there. They nailed me as I was getting away."

"The stitches?"

"In Coeur D'Alene when our operation went bust. Something exploded behind me." Vin shivered, still remembering the violent explosion erupting near several of his teammates' position. A warm hand squeezed his shoulder. Looking up, Vin drew strength from the concerned blue eyes. He had forgotten how good it felt having Jim Ellison looking out after you. It was almost as good as having Chris Larabee by his side.

"We should get you to a hospital," Jim commented worriedly.

Vin gingerly shook his head. "Rather not. Last time I was in the hospital, people came in shooting at me."

Jim gave him a reassuring grin. "Yeah, but you weren't in a Cascade hospital with the city's finest guarding you."

Beginning to return the grin, Vin jumped when the door opened. A man about his age and JD's size dashed in, arms full and dark curly hair flying. Jim squeezed Vin's shoulder again, sentinel senses already aware of his guide's return. "Vin Tanner, I'd like you to meet my partner, Blair Sandburg."

Blair gave him a friendly smile. "Hi, Vin. Got some dry clothes here for you."

"First aid kit?" Jim requested. Blair handed it to him.

Thirty minutes later, Vin was in a dry pair of Blair's sweats, wrapped in a blanket with his arm bandaged. Blair handed him a cup of coffee. Vin savored the warmth seeping through the Styrofoam to his hand.

Serious, Jim sat on the opposite bed facing the younger man as Blair took a nearby chair. "What happened in Coeur D'Alene?"

Vin closed his eyes for a moment. He had been trying to avoid thinking about the operation. Yet he needed help to figure out what had gone wrong, and Jim was about the only one left besides the judge that he trusted. He took a steadying breath, hoping to get through the ordeal without falling to pieces. "My team out of Denver was asked to check out a lead about a guy in Idaho selling illegal weapons to militias. We set up in Coeur D'Alene, and soon Standish, our undercover agent, was in. He arranged for his Colorado 'Commander' to buy a selection of automatics and a rocket launcher. We were going to bust them at the delivery..."


Two days before, Coeur D'Alene, ID

"In position," Vin spoke softly into his mike. He was sprawled flat on the warehouse roof, rifle resting on the raised border. He peered down into the alleyway where his partners and the militia guys were meeting. As the group's sharpshooter, Vin's job was to keep an eye out for possible problems and protect his guys should things go bad. JD radioed an acknowledgement. He and Nathan Jackson were in a van a half mile away, monitoring the bust. Other ATF agents were getting into position to give Denver's Team 7 backup.

He spotted the large SUV they had obtained for the meeting pulling into the one end of the alley. First, Buck Wilmington stepped out. More serious than normal, the tall ladies man checked his surroundings, playing the part of a second-in-command well. As a white van pulled into the other end, Erza Standish stepped out, ready to greet the other group. He was followed out of the car by Chris Larabee. Dressed all in black, the blond man looked like a tough commander of a band of militia men. Vin knew that their fourth man, Josiah Sanchez, would stay at the wheel of the SUV in case they needed a fast getaway.

Listening in on the deal Ezra was weaving, Vin again surveyed the area. Unexpectedly, he spotted movement in the building across from him. Training his scope, Vin detected a dark figure working on something. For a brief moment, the face was caught in a ray of light. The sharpshooter's gut clenched. It had been years since he had seen Michael Rattall, but there was no way Vin would forget that ugly face. Fearful, Vin focused in on the object of Rat Tail's attention. Focusing harder, he spotted several small wires attached to a remote control. Vin reacted instantly. "Bomb!" he shouted into his mike. "Get outta there, it's a trap!" Vin aimed his rifle on Rattall, who had inconveniently ducked down out of sight.

Below, Buck drew his weapon as Chris grabbed Ezra's arm, jerking him towards the dubious shelter of a dumpster. An explosion erupted close by in the alley. Before Vin could check on his teammates, another explosion blew up behind him.


Present, The Redwoods

Vin slowly shook his head. "Next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital. Alone."

Jim and Blair exchanged puzzled glances. Catching the looks, Vin softly explained, "Any other time I've woken up in a hospital, Chris or one of the others has always been there. You see, none of us has family. Well, except for Ezra, and I rather doubt his mother would be his first pick as a hospital visitor. So we tend to look out after each other. Hell, Ezra's got most of the hospitals in Denver convinced Chris and I are brothers, JD and Buck are brothers, he's Josiah's cousin..." Vin chuckled softly. "I keep wondering what he's going to do if Nathan ever goes in, since I rather doubt anyone's going to buy any of us as his blood relatives." With a twist of his gut, Vin suddenly realized that now that scenario would never occur. Pushing back his grief, he continued, "So when no one was there, I got a really bad feeling, and it wasn't just my headache..."


Two days before, Coeur D'Alene Memorial

The small room was sterile, plain and very lonely from Vin's point of view. Nothing made sense. Seeing Rat Tail, the bombs, being alone, nothing made sense at all. Listening for a familiar voice, Vin focused on the conversation in the hall outside his room.

"...Looking for family, but apparently Mr. Tanner's not local. I understand that the rest of his team died in that commotion down in the warehouse district, so there's no one to ask..."

Vin felt panic rise up inside. Everyone is gone? Dead? Chris? Ezra? Surely not JD or Nathan, since they were away from the blasts. No, they couldn't all leave him. Surely Chris was too tough to die.

Trying to stay calm, Vin woozily sat up. Yanking out the IV, he carefully stood. Once the room stopped spinning, he wobbled over to the closet. Good, his clothes were there. Vin hated the open backed hospital gowns. Nor would it be adequate covering to search for the truth about what happened to his team.

Vin had finished buttoning the flannel shirt over his T and was glaring at his dreaded, ripped up ATF jacket when he heard a gun being cocked in the hall. Instantly, the agent grabbed his backup piece still hidden in his boot, wishing the rest of his weapons hadn't been confuscated by the hospital staff. He slipped to the door and pushed it open a tad, spotting Rat Tail and another man approaching his room.

Without another thought, Vin dashed over to the room's one window. Spotting the fire escape, he frantically pushed up the window and climbed out, wincing as his sore head protested the movements. Agilely, he slipped down the metal ladder, feet touching the ground when he heard someone shooting into his room. Vin turned and ran.

Thirty minutes and numerous city blocks later, Vin had found the hotel they'd been staying at. His head pounding, he leaned against a tree trying to catch his breath. When he lifted his eyes, he spotted several of the gun dealers he had been watching enter the lobby. Walking alongside them was Troy Donner, a local ATF agent who had led one of the backup teams.

"Damn," he whispered to himself. The locals were part of the gun-selling ring? Was there anyone in Coeur D'Alene he could count on? Without dependable backup, there was no way he could handle four men by himself. Especially with his head trying to tear itself apart. He had to get away, go someplace where he could regroup and think.

Then he remembered the rental car. Parked near the back of the lot, the team had left it there after deciding to take the van. The sharpshooter worked his way over, crouching down and slipping in between the other vehicles. With skills Vin had almost forgotten about, he quietly broke into the Buick. He found the spare key where Buck had hid it the day before. The car started, engine running as Vin reached to grab his leather jacket from the back seat. He pulled out his wallet, swearing when he realized he only had twenty dollars. Searching the vehicle, he found a handful of change JD had tossed into the glove compartment. Glancing back at the fuel gauge, Vin halted his movements. The tank was nearly empty. He really didn't have the money to fill the large car up, nor did he want to hang out at a gas station in plain sight until he knew what was going on. He glanced towards the front of the hotel. There was his motorcycle in full view of the lobby with its better mobility and nearly full tank of gas. Did he dare?

A few minutes later, Vin was zipping out of the parking lot. He didn't look back to see who was yelling.


Present, The Redwoods

"...Next thing I knew, I was going west. I tried heading towards Denver, but two black Suburbans started following me. Took forever to lose them." Vin blinked wearily. "I was going to contact the local police in Spokane, but there were a couple of government cars with Idaho plates in the parking lot, so I didn't know if the corruption had spread there, too. Then I tried calling the judge, first in Spokane, then in Wenatchee, but they were on me instantly. I almost didn't get away last time."

Seeing that Vin was nearly asleep again, Jim gently patted his back. "Why don't we get you to Cascade and let a doctor check you out?"

"Don't wanna see a doctor," Vin protested wearily. "Already saw one, I think."

Jim rolled his eyes and was about to comment when Blair, standing by the window, softly asked, "Was the license plate on one of those Suburbans Idaho, WEX-980?"

Vin's head immediately shot up. "Yeah."

"They're just pulling into the parking lot."

Vin was instantly on his feet. "Shit."

"Easy." Jim grabbed the younger man as he wobbled. "Where's your motorcycle?"

"Parked it in the brush behind the sign."

Blair continued to watch the men in the suburban. "I don't think they've noticed it. I think they're just fishing." He exchanged glances with his partner, wondering if the clerk would tell them about Vin.

Jim shrugged his shoulders in reply. He didn't know. However, he didn't want them to get caught in the room. "How many men, Slick?"

"Five."

Jim would try to arrest them, except that he and Blair were well outside their jurisdiction. Plus his main concern was getting Vin someplace safe, preferably within Jim's own territory. "I'll go check it out. You two prepare to make a run for the truck." Pulling out his cell phone, Jim hit the speed dial, causing Blair's phone to ring. The young detective instantly picked it up and punched the 'receive' button. "Keep the line open. I'll tell you when to run if we have to." Blair nodded his agreement as Jim slipped out of the room.

Jim tucked himself into an alcove where he could see the front desk without necessarily being seen himself. He studied the three large men as one questioned the clerk. The sentinel focused his hearing on the conversation.

"...No, haven't seen anyone with a motorcycle. Someone came by to pick up somebody with motor trouble, but I didn't see anyone with a leather jacket..."

Carefully, Jim withdrew. He spotted a fourth man looking around the other side of the lobby and down the hall. Trying to look casual, Jim plucked three quarters into a vending machine. He whispered into his cell as he punched a button at random. "Okay, I've found four in the lobby."

"I see contestant number five still with the vehicle," Blair softly replied.

"On the other side of the hotel from the truck, right?" Jim picked up his can and glanced at the label, which read 'Dr. Pepper'. Damn, he hated Dr. Pepper.

"Yeah, but truck's fairly close to the lobby."

Jim focused his sight on Vin's hunters. "If you two head out now, I don't think they'll see you. I'll make a show of looking at the pool and meet you there." Dialing down his sense of taste, Jim popped the can and wandered towards the swimming pool.

"Got it." Upstairs, Blair looked at Tanner. Pale and exhausted, the man was about to become a puddle on the floor, but determination shone in his eyes. "Let's go."

Walking down the hall, Jim listened as the fourth guy joined his buddies in the lobby. They were debating on whether Tanner had stayed on the highway or taken a back road. He glanced outside. Sandburg and Tanner dashed through the rain to the truck. Blair had draped a blanket over Vin's head, as if to keep the rain off. Jim suspected it was more to keep anyone from recognizing the agent. Draining the can and trying not to grimace, Jim tossed the empty into the recycle bin and walked out to join his friends in his truck.

Blair had already started the engine when Jim climbed in. "Anyone noticing us?"

"Not yet. Just act normal, Chief, and hopefully we won't attract attention." Jim turned away from the window to Vin. "Keep your head down, Slick. If they don't see you, they won't connect us."

Trying to act like driving Jim's truck was an every day occurrence, Blair put it in gear and backed out. Several miles down the rural highway, he glanced at his partner. "Are we being followed?"

"No," Jim replied.

"How's Vin doing?"

Jim glanced down. Vin, in trying to keep out of sight in the cramped truck, had fallen asleep with his head resting on Jim's chest. "Out. Probably has a mild concussion. Catching a cold, too."

"Getting shot and being chased across the whole state of Washington probably didn't help, either." Blair took his eyes off the road long enough to catch Jim's gaze. "Hospital?"

"Hospital," Jim confirmed. Looking down on the wavy hair, Jim could only wish the rest of his old friend's problems were so easily solved.


Present, Coeur D'Alene

The atmosphere was tense in the safehouse where the Denver ATF agents had holed up in after their operation had gone so wrong. A tall, blond man limped as he furiously paced the room. However, the gashed knee was the least of Chris Larabee's concerns. He wanted to know what had happened to his bust. He wanted to know what had happened to the perps they were trying to bust. He wanted to know who planted the explosives that had himself and two other members of his team trapped under building rubble for five hours. But most of all, he wanted to know what had happened to the man who was a younger brother in all but blood.

How could they just lose him like that? While Nathan had taken care of Josiah's gashed forehead, JD had been showing the other agents where Chris, Ezra and Buck were buried. Somehow, the three of them had been sheltered from the crushing debris by the dumpster and a slab of concrete wall. Both JD and Nathan had seen medics load an unconscious Vin into an ambulance. Nathan had wanted to go with him, but between the cramped quarters in the vehicle and worry about Josiah, still trapped in the partially crushed SUV, he had stayed at the scene. All had assumed they would end up at the same hospital. It had been a bad assumption. By the time they had all been sorted out and patched up, no one knew where their seventh man was.

By the time the limping Chris, followed by a battered Ezra and a worried Nathan, arrived at the other hospital, they found the staff in an uproar. Vin's room had been riddled with bullets, but there was no evidence that Vin had been hit. In fact, the opened window and Vin's missing clothes pointed to the fact that the sharpshooter had managed to escape, in spite of his concussion. The only item left was Vin's ATF jacket, his cell phone left behind in the pocket.

However, Vin had simply disappeared. Chris didn't know if whoever had shot up the room had taken the younger agent, though JD's discovering that Vin's bike was missing suggested otherwise. Nor did they know if Vin was more seriously hurt, though Nathan's calls to the surrounding area hospitals hadn't turned up anything. Chris knew from experience that Vin had a hard head. He just worried that sooner or later the younger man would be hit on that hard head one too many times.

Though what really worried Chris was that Vin hadn't called. While Chris' own cell phone had been crushed in the fallout, both JD's and Nathan's still worked. Why hadn't Vin tried to contact them? Buck had even called Vin's handful of friends in Denver, only to find no one had heard from him.

"You know, you can't help him if you make that knee worse." A tall, trim black man had just entered the living room from the kitchen.

Chris glared at Nathan. The former medic simply glared back, used to his teammate's volatile moods. He sat on the arm of a long couch that had seen better days.

Already stretched out on the brown and green monstrosity was Josiah. The big man's broken leg was elevated on some pillows. He softly added his own two cents. "He's good, Chris. They won't catch him."

Continuing to pace Chris finally declared, "Why, Josiah? Why would they go after Vin like that? No one has tried to go after the rest of us."

"Maybe because the rumors have most of us dead," Josiah pointed out. The local paper that morning had declared that several of the ATF agents had died in the rubble, when in fact no one had.

"Perhaps Mr. Tanner observed something that someone doesn't wish for him to report."

Chris stopped pacing and stared at his undercover agent. Ezra stared back, his own worry for their missing teammate shining in his normally well-controlled eyes. "Vin did warn us just before everything went up," Chris mulled.

"Yes, he did. He was also in the ideal position to see everything unfolding below him." Ezra shifted in the chair, his own bruised body complaining. "We are missing an important piece of the puzzle, gentlemen. It may be the one Vin is holding."

"Then why hasn't he called?" Frustrated, Chris ran a hand through his hair.

"Maybe because he thinks we're dead?" Buck suggested as he and JD walked into the room. They had been doing some more digging at the hospital where Vin had been staying.

"Yeah, everyone at the hospital thinks Vin's team is dead," JD added. He plopped into another chair. "Maybe Vin heard them talking before he had to run."

"So Vin hasn't called us because he doesn't think we're alive to contact?" Nathan questioned, feeling his stomach contract. They had come close a few times to losing a member or two of the team, and that had been bad enough. Nathan couldn't even imagine losing everyone.

"Damn!" Chris nearly punched a hole in the wall. The thought of Vin out there alone, grieving and being shot at didn't sit well at all. Everyone in the room was quiet, even more worried about their missing 'brother'.

"So, if that is the situation our Mr. Tanner has found himself in, what would be his next course of action?" Ezra thought out loud.

"What do you mean?" JD asked.

"Contemplate for a moment: Our esteemed colleague was in a hospital, where he was targeted by perpetrators known or unknown. He managed to escape and found his way to the hotel. Why didn't he continue on to our suite?"

"Because whoever shot at him was there," Josiah suggested thoughtfully.

"Considering the place was trashed while we were all at the OTHER hospital, that makes sense," Buck added.

Ezra quietly continued. "So our ever-so-resourceful Mr. Tanner obtains his own motorcycle. Now what does he do? He may believe that his normal source of strength and support, namely us, are well beyond his means to contact."

"Huh?" Buck mumbled, puzzled.

"He thinks we're dead," JD interpreted for him.

"So what does Vin do?" Nathan thought a moment. "Contact the judge?"

"But Travis came here as soon as the bust went bad," Josiah pointed out. "He may not be easy to reach."

"So Vin would take his bike and get out of Dodge, away from flying bullets," Buck suggested.

"He'd go to Denver," JD added

"Yet if that had been his course of action, he would have arrived already," Ezra noted. "However, the perpetrators may well be aware of Mr. Tanner's city of residence. If they are intelligent, and we haven't seen anything to suggest otherwise, all routes to Denver would be either blocked or watched."

"So where would Vin go?" Chris softly entered the discussion. The older man knew Vin's childhood had left more scars than close friendships. Plus Vin rarely mentioned his past, let alone any old friends. The few Chris knew of were in Denver. Since those were mostly the women and the children living in his apartment building, Vin was unlikely to involve them.

Searching his own memory for anyone else Vin might call, JD softly thought out loud, "I wonder if he'd go to that Policeman of the Year guy." Suddenly, the room fell silent. The youngest agent looked up to see everyone staring at him. "What?"

"What 'Policeman of the Year guy'?" Buck asked his roommate in exasperation. "I've never heard of any such guy."

JD blinked as he was hit with the full force of Chris Larabee's stare. "Well, yeah, there was an old Army buddy of Vin's mentioned in those Law and Order magazines. He got 'Policeman of the Year' somewhere."

"Vin knew about this?" Buck prodded.

"Yeah, I mentioned the name and he wanted to read the announcement."

"How well did Vin know him?" Chris questioned. Vin had never mentioned anything about an Army buddy who was now a cop to him.

"Vin kinda insinuated that it was back in covert ops, so I didn't ask. You know how he gets with that 'I can't tell ya' business. He did say he hadn't spoken with him since the Army. I suggested he should try to get in touch with him, but Vin said he doubted he'd remember him. Which seemed kinda strange to me, because Vin even remembered where he was from and everything. You'd think the guy would at least remember Vin a little."

"Where did the man live, JD?" Ezra asked patiently. It was a long shot, but it was the best they had at the moment.

JD's face screwed up a moment. "I can't remember. Somewhere in Washington."

"D.C.?" Buck asked.

"No, the state."

Ezra and Chris exchanged glances. They were close to the Washington State border. Their long shot just got better. "Do you remember the city?" Chris asked.

JD shook his head. "Just that it made me think of dishes."

"Dishes?" Nathan repeated in disbelief. "Like Saucerville or something?"

JD rolled his eyes. "I don't remember, but I don't think it was that dumb."

"What about a name?" Chris inquired.

"Detective..." JD thought hard for a moment. "Either Richard or James. Can't remember the last name. Maybe Hunt?"

"Do you still have the magazine?" Chris asked, trying not to sound as desperate as he felt.

JD shook his head. "Got trashed with the rest of the hotel room."

"Can you remember ANYTHING more?" Chris demanded.

"Back off, Chris," Buck softly warned. He knew that Vin's disappearance had his old friend on edge, but pushing the kid wasn't going to help JD remember.

Chris turned to stomp over to the window. He stared out over the strange city, his thoughts on his missing friend. Be okay, Cowboy. I just need you to be okay.


Cascade General Hospital, Cascade, WA

It didn't take long for Captain Simon Banks to find his youngest detective. Blair was at the third floor's nurses station, flirting with a petite brunette. Simon cleared his throat, then growled, "Sandburg."

Saying goodbye to the nurse, Blair quickly joined him. "Hi, Simon. Have you made the arrangements?"

Sighing to himself over Blair's continuing lack of calling him 'Captain' or even 'sir', Banks replied, "Working on them. The Commissioner himself was very interested. He may be down here in a while."

"Really?" Blair exclaimed in surprise. "How come?"

"It's not every day we can help out the feds. I suspect Commissioner Mathews wants the department to pick up some brownie points."

"But Vin's just a regular agent, right?"

Simon rolled his eyes. "Do you and Ellison EVER get involved in ANYTHING regular?" Before Blair could respond, Simon continued, "Rafe wasn't able to get much info on Tanner, except that he is ATF, works on a team led by a Chris Larabee that does a lot of undercover work, and has commendations up the wazoo."

"That's corresponds to what Vin told us, except he left out the part about the commendations," Blair confirmed.

"Well, apparently Mathews has heard of Larabee."

"He's well known in the federal system for getting the job done and done right," a deep voice explained behind them.

"Hello, sir," Blair greeted the trim blond man nervously. Simon nearly raised an eyebrow. Obviously, the police commissioner rated higher on Sandburg's fearful respect scale than he did.

"Hello, Detective Sandburg."

"Was Tanner able to give you any idea who's after him?" Simon asked after the three fell silent.

Blair quickly reported Vin's story to his superiors, forcing himself not to look at the commissioner apprehensively. "He's tried to contact a Judge Travis, but every time that seems to bring the men after him back on his tail."

"Judge Orrin Travis?" Mathews asked.

"That's right." Jim had quietly approached from the other direction. "Do you know him?"

Mathews nodded. "I met him at a seminar on handling militias. Good man." He studied Ellison. "How's Agent Tanner doing?"

"He's sleeping right now." Jim glanced worriedly down the hall. "He's suffering from exhaustion, blood loss, a mild concussion, and a gunshot wound to the left arm. They want to hold him over for observation."

"I've already arranged for protection tonight," Mathews replied, his expression grim. He slowly shook his head. "It's hard to believe that Larabee's gone. The man was a living legend."

"Are we certain of that?" Everyone turned to Simon. "All Tanner knows is what he overheard at the hospital. The way gossip is, it might not be true."

"The Coeur D'Alene newspaper did report explosions that killed ATF agents," Mathews told them.

"Yeah, but even Vin seemed a little puzzled that his two teammates in the van half a mile away were killed." Blair looked at Jim thoughtfully. "With the perps on his tail at every step, Vin hasn't had time to sort out what happened yet. The concussion probably hasn't helped, either. Maybe that's part of the plan. They don't want him comparing notes with the others, if any of them are alive. Nor would they want Vin to identify the crooked ATF agent."

"And they've effectively separated him from even Judge Travis," Jim nodded along with his partner's thinking. "Perhaps Rattall recognized Vin at some point and doesn't want him to report his involvement."

"Then we'd better track down what your Mr. Rattall has been doing lately," Simon commented. "He may be the key in this mess."

"And I'll see if I can contact Orrin," Mathews added. "They might not be looking for a police commissioner's call, so I may have better success." He turned to Ellison. "Keep our fed safe, and I'll see if I can work out a solution for him."

"I'd appreciate that," Jim replied.

As the commissioner left, Simon turned to his friend. "How are you doing, Jim?"

Jim gave him a faint smile. "It's strange. I haven't seen Slick in years, yet it's like we haven't lost touch at all." He glanced down the hall again. "He's still a good kid trying to do his best."

"By the way," Blair inserted, "What's this 'Slick' business about?"

Jim chuckled. "Tanner looks innocent, but he can be the most devious prankster. He got several people on base without them ever finding out it was he who did it. I caught on after the second one he pulled on me, but I was in the minority. So I started calling him 'Slick'."

"Blair said you trained him in the Army?" Simon asked. Jim confirmed his suspicions with a nod. Simon had noticed that while Jim could present a cold, hard front, he had a tendency to take younger men needing guidance under his wing. Probably trying to recapture the big brother relationship he'd had with Steven until their father got in the way.

The biggest recipient of Jim's brothering piped up, "So what do we do now?"

"Keep Tanner safe until we can sort this mess out," Jim declared grimly.


Next morning, Cascade General Hospital, Cascade, WA

"...So when I realized that Larry had trashed the place, I thought I was a goner in more ways than one." Blair waved one hand wildly as he pushed the wheelchair Vin was in. "I mean, do you have any idea what kind of a neat freak Jim is?"

Vin chuckled, a slight smile sneaking across his face. "That's the Army for you. You can't be anything but neat." He was enjoying Blair's story about how he came to live with Vin's former officer. Especially since Ellison was getting his prescriptions, so Blair could talk without interruption.

"Yeah, but Jim goes beyond just 'neat' to 'anally obsessive'." Blair smiled as he heard Vin chuckle again. The ATF agent had been silent and gloomy when he and Jim arrived to pick him up. Blair could understand that. He could easily remember his own fear and pain when Simon and Megan had been hit by a sniper's bullet a year ago. Just the thought of losing Jim froze his soul. Blair couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose so many close friends all at once. The young detective had vowed that he would help Vin any way he could through this ordeal, even if it was only to make him chuckle.

"So did the Cap'n kick you out?" Vin asked, then coughed.

Blair frowned slightly at the evidence of Vin's developing chest cold. He'd have to pull out the Echinacea for him when they got to the loft. "No, I have the one skill that can soothe Jim's savage beast."

"What's that?"

"I can cook." Blair laughed. "Just don't let the female population know, or we'll be swimming in food!" Vin chuckled with him as he mentally imagined the reserved Jim being surrounded by women holding steaming dishes.

"Agent Tanner?"

Blair and Vin looked up to see two men in dark suits and glasses. "That's me," Vin drawled cautiously.

"FBI." The shorter one flipped a badge too fast for either man to see. "We need you to come with us."

"Excuse me," Blair interrupted. "We weren't informed about this." He had a very bad feeling about the situation. Probably because the last time Jim helped out an army buddy, fake feds had tried to shoot him.

"No need for you to know," the taller one replied haughtily. He reached for the wheelchair.

Blair promptly backed Vin away from the dark man. "I'd like to read that badge you just flashed. Yours, too."

"What for, Mr...?" the shorter one asked snidely.

"Detective Sandburg," Blair replied, glaring. "I will also need to call in and check on your orders."

The two men looked at each other and began reaching for their guns. Vin immediately launched out of the chair to tackle the shorter man. After a brief struggle, the gun slid under a piece of hospital equipment

Meanwhile, Blair dodged the wheelchair as it flew backwards. Swiftly sizing up the hall, he grabbed a bedpan off the nearby table to strike the taller man, knocking the gun out of his hand.

"FREEZE! CASCADE PD!" Jim roared, running down the hall as he drew his weapon. The two 'feds' turned and ran. Jim chased them, Vin and Blair on his heels. Soon their prey were pushing carts, beds, and nurses into the hallway in front of the trio chasing them. Dodging the obstacles and frightened medical staff, they fell behind. The feds ducked behind a door. By the time Jim had reached it and twisted the metal knob, they were gone.

"Now I KNOW they weren't FBI," Blair grumbled.

"Agree." Jim nodded, frowning at Vin who was coughing. "Why aren't you still in the wheelchair?"

Vin rolled his eyes. "My legs are fine. Besides, it was me those jerks were after. I just wish I knew why."

Jim squeezed his shoulder. "Let's get you to our place and see if we can figure it out."


Safehouse, Coeur D'Alene

"...So that is our best guess at the moment," Chris summed up for federal Judge Orrin Travis. "Right now, Ezra and JD are going through police records in various Washington cities, checking for any detective names that sound familiar to JD. It's a lot of territory to cover, but at this point we're fresh out of ideas."

Travis frowned thoughtfully. "I haven't been keeping track of my voice mail since I arrived, but my office is under strict orders to page me if any of the Seven call, especially Tanner right now. Let me go through it, though, and make sure nothing was missed."

As the judge picked up a phone, Chris wandered into the living room. JD and Ezra were sitting close to the computer monitor, talking softly as they scrolled through records. He glanced at Buck, sitting in a chair near the computer as he played cards with Josiah and Nathan. Buck met his glance and shook his head, brown eyes filled with worry. Chris sighed. Even if JD did find Vin's old Army buddy, there was no guarantees that Vin had sought him out.

"How'd it go, Brother?" Josiah asked, looking up from the card game.

Chris shrugged. "Judge is checking his messages, but his office is under strict orders to contact him if they hear from Vin."

Ezra lifted his head a moment to examine their leader. While Larabee was protective of all his men, he and Vin were especially close. The fact that there had been no word from Vin was wearing heavily on the older man. As Chris walked to the window, Ezra returned his attention to the screen.

A few minutes later, Travis walked in. Chris turned to look at him expectantly. Travis reported, "I don't have any messages from Tanner." Several faces in the room grew grimmer. None really expected there to be a message, but it would have been nice. "However, I did have one unexpected message that was marked 'Urgent'. It's from a police commissioner I met at a seminar a while back." The Judge turned to look at Dunne. "He's from the city of Cascade, WA."

"Cascade," Buck repeated. "Dishes?" He shot JD a questioning look, more hopeful than he had been since the bust.

A huge grin crossed JD's face. "That's it!"

"The brand name of your dishwasher soap," Josiah commented with a smile.

"Then I'd better return his call," Travis suggested as he began punching numbers into his cell phone.

Ezra leaned forward as his fingers flew to type in the new information. A grim smirk graced his face as he found the information he sought. "Here we go. Police Persons of the Year for the City of Cascade, WA: Homicide Detective Jin Lam, 1999; Patrol officer Mark Jordon, 1998; Major Crimes Detective James Ellison, 1997 "

"Ellison!" JD nearly pounced on Ezra to get a better look at the screen. "That's it!"

"You sure, JD?" Chris asked quietly. He didn't remember Vin mentioning that name. Not that Vin talked about his time in the Army, but it seemed that his friend would have mentioned someone who became a cop.

JD nodded vigorously. "Yeah. Now I remember him being with Major Crimes." Ezra continued to tap on the keyboard, searching for more information.

"Hello, Craig," Travis boomed heartily. Everyone quieted down, expectation filling the room. "...Why, yes, I am missing an agent... You did?" Travis gave the group a rare smile as he continued to listen. JD and Buck silently gave each other high fives. "Is he all right?..." Travis face suddenly turned grim. "Is that so? Can he identify them?... Understand... No, that's not true. Tell him that there were no fatalities... Yes, very good news indeed... There will be a party on their way very shortly." Travis looked at Larabee. "Yes, thank you, Craig. I'm sure we'll be talking again soon."

As he folded up the phone, Chris asked anxiously, "Is he all right?"

Travis nodded. "For someone who was shot at and chased across the state of Washington, he's fine."

Chris ran a hand through his hair. "What happened?"

"Mathews didn't give me any details. Apparently, Vin tried to contact me several times, only to have his hunters find him again." Travis scowled, not liking the implications. "He also said we had rats."

"Rats?" JD questioned.

"Means we have some bad agents, JD," Josiah explained gently.

"Must have been what Vin saw," Nathan suggested. "If he saw a crooked agent, he wouldn't be sure how far the corruption went."

"Where is he now?" Chris softly demanded.

"Hospital..." Travis noted how the mood in the room dropped. "Nothing serious. Just a mild concussion and a flesh wound to his left arm. Craig said they kept him for observation and that he'd be leaving this morning. Also said he had his best team protecting him."

"I dare say that would be Detective Ellison."

Everyone turned to Ezra who was still on the computer. JD leaned over again to view the screen and whistled. "He has an even higher crime-solved rate than we do. No wonder he got Policeman of the Year."

Ezra nodded as he read. "It appears that the entire Major Crimes unit, under a Captain Simon Banks, is extremely proficient. However, Detective Ellison is by far the star of the show."

"Serial killers, bombers, kidnapping, designer drugs, high tech robberies..." JD shook his head in amazement. "The FBI even gave him a commendation for stopping an assassination attempt on a DEA agent. This guy does it all."

"And does it well," Ezra added, impressed in spite of himself. "Our Mr. Tanner should be in good hands."

"He better be," Chris softly growled. He wasn't going to stop worrying until he saw the younger man with his own eyes. He turned to look at Travis. "I'm going to Cascade." The judge nodded, having guessed that would be Chris' next course of action.

"I'm going, too," Buck added. With his friend so wound up with worry, he figured the town of Cascade might need some protection.

"If Buck's going, I'm going," JD chimed in.

"Then I want the rest of you to head back to Denver," Chris ordered.

"Chris..." Nathan started.

"No." Chris shook his head. "Right now, we don't know who is friend or foe. I'd rather have you on our home turf until we get the information from Vin." He also wanted to get the injured Josiah out of the line of fire.

"Take Standish with you to Cascade," the judge inserted.

Ezra looked up in surprise. "Sir?" He knew the judge barely tolerated him.

Travis sighed as he looked at the scowling, pacing Larabee. "Because you may be needed to run interference."

Ezra nodded. Considering the mood Larabee was in, it might be a wise idea to go along as backup. Besides, he'd feel better himself once he saw Vin in person.


Ellison's loft, Cascade

"...Just don't give him any of those leaves like you gave me." Jim opened the door to his loft and entered. He tossed the keys into a basket next to the door, continuing into the room so that the others could follow.

Vin walked behind him, with Blair bringing up the rear. The young detective shook his head at his obstinate partner. "They made you feel better, didn't they? Isn't that what cold remedies are for?"

"Of course they did. They had peyote in them!" Jim gave his roommate a playful glare. Vin's eyes widened as he tried to picture Ellison on a powerful mushroom high.

"No, they didn't. Simon said the analysis found peyote LIKE substances, not peyote itself."

"I can just see myself giving that argument to IA..."

The argument faded into the background for Vin as he looked about the spacious loft. The furnishing were different, and the place was certainly a lot cleaner, but otherwise it was almost the exact duplicate of Buck and JD's place. Without warning, Vin was bombarded with images. He could see Buck trotting down the stairs as he buttoned a wildly colored shirt. JD sitting cross- legged on the couch playing Nintendo. Josiah plugging in a crockpot of his famous chili sitting on the island. Ezra and Nathan arguing over whether Ezra was cheating at poker. Chris sitting by the balcony door, treating them to one of his rare smiles. The dark chasm of loss Vin had been avoiding opened beneath his feet, punching him in the stomach.

Jim broke off his sentence when Vin suddenly raced past him, heading for the bathroom. He and Blair exchanged glances. "Medication?" Blair ventured, wondering how Vin knew where their bathroom was.

Hearing the dry heaves, Jim shrugged worriedly. "Or else the situation finally caught up with him."

Vin, sitting on the cold tile floor, finally laid his head on his crossed arms once his stomach quit heaving. Grief swamped him in darkness. Hot tears trailed down his face, despite his best efforts to rein in his emotions.

Then a warm hand gently squeezed his trembling shoulder. Vin turned back towards Jim, wanting to apologize for his lack of control. Yet he just couldn't do anything more than place his face against Jim's broad shoulder as the tears continued to flow, intermingling with deep coughs. Finally, he managed to croak, "Sorry, Cap'n."

"Nothing to be sorry about, Slick," Jim gently chided him as he continued to rub his shoulder. The memories of Peru, mixed with the remembered terror when the paramedics had pronounced Blair dead two years ago, gave Jim a fairly good idea what the younger man was going through. "And it's just 'Jim' now."

A few minutes later, Vin finally managed to lift his head up. The stubborn character that had survived the worst that life could throw at him was finding his feet to face the new challenge. Wiping away the moisture from his face, Vin met Jim's eyes. "Thanks."

Jim gave his shoulder one last squeeze. "Any time, kid. I've been there." He stood up and gave Vin a hand. Realizing his friend needed a little time alone, Jim gently suggested, "Why don't you take your shower now?" Vin nodded.

Thirty minutes later, Vin walked out of the bathroom clean, shaved, and presentable in new jeans and a T-shirt. Spotting him, Jim pulled out a chair at the dinning table in silent invitation.

Blair turned away from the stove where he worked. "Hey Vin. Do you feel up for some breakfast?"

Though not really hungry, Vin forced himself to nod. If he wanted to nail the bastards who had taken his team, he had to keep up his strength. Another cough rattled up from his chest.

Both Jim and Blair frowned at the sound. "That's it," the younger detective declared. He reached into a cupboard and yanked down a box. "You're getting Uncle Obie's special blend number 3." Jim opened his mouth to comment, but Blair continued, "No Jim, it's not related to the leaves I gave you. Obie swears by it for colds."

"That's suppose to be reassuring?" Jim questioned with a smirk as Blair set the steaming mug of tea in front of Vin. Blair's uncle was good intentioned but highly eccentric, especially when it came to herbs and cooking. The suspicious sentinel sniffed the scents that drifted from the mug with the Jags logo. "Peppermint... Echinacea... lemon balm... licorice?" He looked at Blair, puzzled.

Blair shrugged as he reached for the toast popping up. "Not sure, though that sounds about right."

Inhaling, Vin could feel his muscles loosen. He hadn't really noticed how tight his chest felt before. "Smells good. Thanks, Blair." Stared down at his cup, Vin softly added, "And I'm sorry for earlier."

Blair waved a spatula in the air. "Not a problem. Now, I hope you like scrambled eggs..."

Vin relaxed a fraction more. For some reason, Jim's partner reminded him of a young, short Josiah, when he wasn't bouncing and talking up a storm like JD. Glancing around the loft, Vin felt the grief inch closer.

"Vin?" Blair asked softly, noticing the melancholy stretching across his face.

Closing his eyes, Vin shook his head. "Sorry. Just that..." He took a deep breath, trying to keep himself under control. "This place looks a lot like the CDC, only cleaner."

"CDC?" Jim asked, his eyebrows lifting in puzzlement.

"The Center for Disease Control?" Blair qualified, just as confused.

"Buck and JD's place." A faint twist curved his lips. "Ezra called it the CDC because he was sure there are," Vin shifted his voice into a southern accent, "all sorts of infectious diseases thriving in that abode." With another deep breath, the agent forced the image of Ezra shuffling his cards from his mind, wishing the pain of loss was so easy to handle.

While chuckling, Blair exchanged glances with Jim. No wonder their guest was having such a hard time here. Scooping the eggs onto the plate and dropped some toast on the side, Blair slid the meal in front of Vin. "Here you go."

"Once you're done, we'll head in to headquarters," Jim added. The sooner they got Vin away from the memories and back on the case, the better.

Blair gave Vin a smile, trying to gauge whether the agent needed to talk about his friends. "Guess JD and Buck don't have to live by Jim's house rules like I do."

Vin chuckled as he speared some eggs with his fork. "I don't think either of them would know what a 'rule' was. All of the Seven have this bad tendency of breaking them."

Jim missed Blair's reply as a noise registered on alert sentinel ears. Tilting his head, Jim heard the elevator door open. Wondering if Simon had decided to drop by, Jim stood up from the table. Then he paused as he detected at least four different sets of footfalls. Upon hearing the distinctive click of a cocking gun, he drew his own weapon and exclaimed, "Company! Chief, your room!"

Vin dropped his fork at Jim's sudden order. Before he could figure out how his former captain knew that, Blair was grabbing his arm and rushing him to the bedroom under the stairs. Jim followed behind, shielding the younger men with his body. As they entered the small door, Vin could hear something heavy break down the front door. He quickly yanked his backup gun from the small of his back and slipped off the safety.

"Over here!" Blair raced to the window and threw up the sash. He then quickly scooped up his cell phone and gun off his dresser nearby.

Joining him, Vin noted the fire escape outside. Must be my week for window exits. The sounds of bullets striking wood and Jim's return fire urged him on.

"Oh, man," Blair moaned softly as he swung a leg over the sill. "I hate heights." Yet the slim man slipped out with practiced ease. Cell phone open and tucked under a shoulder, he scaled down the fire escape. Tersely, he called, "Dispatch, officers under fire on Prospect..."

Vin followed him, then ducked when someone fired from below at the end of the alley. Vin returned fired. His target fell in a heap. Then the agent scrambled after Sandburg to the ground. He wobbled a moment when his feet touched the pavement, yet a firm grip steadied him. Blair then guided Vin down the alleyway. Hearing more shots, both young men turned with weapons drawn to see Jim ducking as he scrambled down the ladder. Vin fired another shot at the heads poking out the window as Blair checked the sidewalk, his gun held close to his chest and ready to clear their path. After a couple of brief glances, Blair led Vin and Jim around the corner.

There, pouring out of their vehicles, were four Cascade patrol officers and fellow Major Crimes detective Joel Taggart. Blair led Vin to Joel's car as Jim directed the others to find their attackers.

"Still dizzy?" Blair softly asked once Vin was seated. Blue eyes glanced at him in surprise. Blair chuckled. "I've been conked on the head myself a time or two. I know the symptoms."

Vin gave him a weak smile. "Me, too. And it's getting better."

"And the headache?"

"A little worse," Vin admitted, then coughed.

Blair hid his frown with a shrug. "Not surprising, considering our recent adrenaline burst and the fact you didn't get a chance to eat your breakfast."

"No breakfast?" A huge bear of a man shook his head, pulling off his jacket as he approached. "We need to take care of that soon." He gently draped the large, warm garment around Vin's shoulders.

Seeing the puzzled expression on Vin's face, Blair indicated the man with his hand. "Vin, I'd like you to meet my friend, Joel Taggart. He's with Jim and me in Major Crimes. Joel, this is Vin Tanner."

"Hi, Vin." The young agent was amazed at the large yet gentle hand that shook his. "Any friend of Jim's is a friend of mine."

All three looked up when Jim approached. "The perps?" Blair asked grimly.

"Took off in the suburban, except for the one Vin got. O'Dell is calling in an APB on the vehicle." Jim then gently laid a hand on Vin's shoulder. "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay, Cap'n," Vin answered with a shrug.

Jim sighed. "It's Jim now, remember? We're not in the Army anymore."

Vin gave him a faint smile, a spark of his mischievous nature in its depth. "Sorry. Just that I've always thought of you as 'Captain'. Kinda hard to change." Blair smirked. While his partner was adept at giving others nicknames, it was rare when someone could come up with one for him.

"Well, I'm a detective now, not a captain." Suspecting Vin wasn't as okay as he claimed, Jim gently held Vin's head steady between his hands as he checked his eyes. "Do you remember the plate on the other Suburban chasing you? We might as well put out an alert on it." He noted the pale skin and faint lines indicating a headache, but none of the danger signs for a serious head injury.

Vin gave him an innocence look. "It's out of the picture."

Jim leveled a stare at him. "What did you do?"

Vin shrugged nonchalantly, wincing slightly. "Guess those things aren't meant to chase a bike down a mountainous elk trail."

Both Blair and Joel laughed, picturing the scene in their minds. Jim could only smirk as he carefully eased Vin's injured arm from under Joel's jacket, checking the bandage.

But as much as Blair wanted to hear more details of Vin's escape, he was worried about his new friend. "Why don't we head to the department and see about getting Vin some more protection."

"And pick up some breakfast for him on the way," Joel added.

Jim gently cuffed Vin's head. "Let's go."


Plane between Idaho and Colorado

Josiah glanced at Nathan sitting in the seat next to him. The worried gaze was becoming a bit much. "Nathan."

His friend slightly shook his head and glanced up into the big man's blue eyes. "You feeling okay?"

"I'm fine, Brother. You're the one acting like he's carrying all the burdens of the world."

Nathan sighed. "I wish Chris would have taken me along. I could have checked Vin out. I'm familiar with how he covers up everything with that shrug and misdirection business. In some ways he's worse than JD."

"Chris can read him, too," Josiah reminded as he continued to study his friend. "Sure that's not just guilt talking?"

"No," Nathan denied, then paused. "Okay, yeah, I wish I'd gone with Vin, or had sent JD with him. Maybe none of this would have happened."

"Or we'd have had two of you missing or perhaps dead." Josiah shook his head. "You can't win at the 'What if' game, my brother. You can only deal with what is."

Self blame still evident in his dark eyes, Nathan could only stare at the call button above him. "I keep imaging what Vin must be going through, thinking we're all dead. He'd be alone, hurting both physically and emotionally. Nor do we know anything about this Ellison that he went to for help. Does the guy have any idea how to handle that kind of grief? How to read Vin? You know how Vin is, he won't tell you he has a problem."

Now Josiah sighed. He, too, wondered about the man Vin had sought shelter from. "Vin doesn't go to just anyone for help. Vin has to be pretty desperate just to ask for help at all."

"Exactly," Nathan pounced. "Vin must have been desperate. And when you're desperate, you're not always as choosy as you should be. After all, Vin has never mentioned this guy before, not even to Chris."

"Vin hasn't told us much of anything about his time in the Army." Josiah frowned, wondering if that silence was due solely to classified missions or perhaps something else. He pushed the question to the side. "So it's not so strange Vin hadn't mentioned this guy."

"I still want to do some digging on him. Certainly more than Ezra's peek into his police work."

"I'll do it. You have to work on reports and do some digging for our 'rat'." Josiah waved at his leg. "Besides, I'm technically on sick leave anyway."

Nathan's eyes narrowed. "Which is why you should go home and rest."

Josiah looked at him in surprise. "Do you honestly think I'm going to get any rest until I know Vin is safe? Besides, just because we're in Denver doesn't necessarily mean we're safe, either. I'm going to watch your back, brother."

Nathan could only shake his head in defeat.


Major Crimes, Cascade

Vin took a sip from a dark ceramic mug. He could tell Jim's tall, dark captain was proud of his gourmet coffee. Personally, he didn't think it was strong enough, but Ezra would have loved it. Pushing the pang of grief aside, he studied the office. Filled with African American figurines and other memorabilia, the room felt alive in comparison to the grayness inside the agent. Of course, Captain Banks' strong personality probably had something to do with it, too.

Glancing out the glass panes to the bullpen outside, he spotted Blair talking with a tall detective in a nice suit, handing him a folder. Vin smirked a moment, wondering if Blair ever got a kink in his neck looking up at his colleagues. Only the pretty female inspector from Australia seemed to be under six foot. Yet he noticed that Sandburg received the same tremendous respect that the others held for Ellison. But then, it would take a strong personality to keep up with his former captain. Just as it would take a strong personality like Banks to keep Jim in line. Ellison seemed to have found his place in the world. Vin couldn't help but think that he had lost his.

"Slick?"

The agent looked up to find Jim gazing worriedly at him. "I'm okay. Do we have any information on Rat Tail?"

Jim held back a sigh. He knew exactly what Vin was doing, because that's how HE would handle a similar situation. All he could do was help the young man obtain justice, then be there to pick up the pieces when it didn't bring his friends back. "Blair's getting it now."

As if hearing his name, Blair knocked and walked into his captain's office. "I just caught a glimpse of the Commissioner heading this way."

Simon, trying to hide his smirk at Sandburg's continued uneasiness in Mathew's presence, replied, "Maybe he was able to contact Judge Travis."

Vin struggled to keep his cool as the blond man in his early forties walked in. He so desperately hoped that the man had reached the judge. Standing up, he managed a calm facade as Captain Banks introduced him to Commissioner Mathews.

Mathews gave him a gentle smile. "I have some very good news for you, Agent Tanner. I reached Judge Travis, and he said there were NO fatalities in the raid a few days ago."

"No fatalities?" Vin whispered, eyes wide. It took a moment for the implications to set in. "Everybody's okay?" Jim helped him to sit in the chair behind him as his knees gave way. "Thank God." He ran trembling hands through his hair as his body reacted to his intense relief. He barely noticed the enthusiastic whap on the back Blair gave him, or Jim rubbing his shoulder as coughs intermixed with gasps of air. Then a shaky thought broke through the shock. "Ah, hell, Chris is gonna kill me for not reporting in."

Jim barely held back a chuckle before pinning the commissioner with a direct gaze. "Was Judge Travis able to give you any more information?"

Mathews shook his head. "We didn't say much since we suspect there's a mole somewhere. However, it sounds like they're even more confused than we are."

"Which means you probably have the vital information to crack this case, Tanner," Simon suggested.

Vin looked up, visibly pulling himself together. "Rattall."

Blair opened a folder onto the large table in Simon's office. "We've tracked him down to Idaho. He supposedly owns a small bait and tackle shop near Coeur D'Alene."

"'Supposedly', Chief?" Jim questioned, catching Blair's suspicion.

"Let's just say he'd have to sell truckloads of worms and hooks to account for all the money in his savings account," Blair replied.

"So he must be doing something else to earn his cash." Jim noticed Vin was still coughing, in spite of hanging on every word. "Why don't you do some more digging, Chief, and I'll take Tanner to the safehouse."

"I want to help," Vin protested firmly. "And I do need to contact Chris."

"Travis is taking care of that. It would be better to keep you under wraps for now," Mathews explained gently. "Your testimony will be needed to tie this Rattall to the crime scene."

"There have already been numerous attempts to grab or kill you, Slick," Jim pointed out. "You won't do your team any good abducted or dead."

"And I'll come over later with what I can dig up on Rattall," Blair assured Vin. "Since you worked on the ATF case, you can see if any of it fits in."

Head still spinning with relief, Vin quietly nodded.


Hour later, rental car, Cascade, WA

"Thank you, Josiah. That makes things clearer," Ezra replied into his cell phone, his fingers tapping out a beat on his Armani-clad thigh. "Yes, once we've contacted our missing colleague, we'll set Nathan's plan in motion... Good afternoon, Josiah."

JD was sitting next to him in the back seat of the Ford Taurus, typing away at his laptop. Neither wanted to watch Buck's wild driving through the strange city. Chris sat up front, staring out the window. Ezra suspected his leader wasn't interested in the scenery; he was still worrying about Vin. He could almost feel the tension radiating off the grim man.

Without moving his eyes, Chris softly asked, "What did Josiah say?"

"They are closing in on the informant, but may need more information. Nathan has recommended that once we have ascertained that Vin is indeed well-protected, we have him place another phone call to Judge Travis and see if we can entangle the serpent in our garden."

"Huh?" Buck asked, pulling his attention away from the pretty blonde in the car next to them.

"Use Vin's call to bait the trap for our rat," JD absently translated.

"Or at least the mole in the Judge's office," Chris amended. He caught Ezra's eye in the rearview mirror. "What else did Josiah say?"

"He's done more research into Detective Ellison. He was indeed an Army officer during concurrent times as our Mr. Tanner. They were also in the same division of Rangers. However, Detective Ellison received an honorable discharge from the Army after spending 18 months MIA in the Peruvian jungle."

Buck's brow wrinkled as he turned the corner a bit fast. "I think I remember that. Wasn't he the sole survivor of a helicopter crash and was taken in by the natives?"

"The Chopec, according to Mr. Sanchez," Ezra clarified. He met Chris' eyes again. "Vin would have left the Army while Detective Ellison was missing."

Before Chris could ponder the meaning of that statement, Buck slipped the rental into a parking space. "Here we are, fellas, the Cascade Police Headquarters."

"Finally," Chris muttered as he bolted from the Taurus.

Buck and Ezra exchanged glances. "This could get hairy," Buck commented softly, reading the tremendous stress his long time friend was under. JD looked up from unfastening his seatbelt, catching the undercurrents.

"Indeed it could," Ezra agreed. "We'll need to stay alert."

"Come on, ladies," Chris yelled from outside the car. "We don't have all day."

Buck sighed as he stepped out of the car. Vin was one of the few people Chris had let get close to him since his wife and son had been killed several years ago. That also meant Chris tended to get more on edge when the young sharpshooter was in danger. Ah man, let's just get Vin, have Chris bawl him out, get into a better mood, and get out of here.

Unfortunately, they were to discover that things were never that simple in Cascade.

The first clue was at the front desk. "What is the purpose of your visit?" The dark haired officer asked. There was an air of toughness and danger lingering about the four men that put her on edge. Lucy Snow had been one of the hostages when Kincaid's militia had taken over the building four years ago, which had been a lesson in how vulnerable even the police could be. She had been extra careful ever since.

Buck gave her his most flirtatious smile. "We're here to speak with a Detective James Ellison."

Lucy instantly remembered that there had been a report of shots fired at Jim Ellison's home that morning. Worried about the respected detective and his charming partner, she inquired icily, "And why do you wish to speak with him?"

As Chris frowned, Ezra smoothly put in, "My colleagues and I are federal agents with ATF. We wish to confer on a case with Detective Ellison."

Instead of lessening her suspicions, Lucy almost glared at them. Federal officers in their building were almost never a good sign. "May I see your badges, please?"

Struggling to keep his temper, Chris yanked out his badge and slid it across the desk, his men following suit. After carefully checking them and logging in the numbers, Lucy then requested, "May I see another piece of photo ID from each of you?"

JD's jaw nearly dropped. "Damn, and I thought it was tough getting into our federal building." He pulled out his driver's license, as did his older friends. After Lucy checked each carefully and compared them to the badges and corresponding agent, she returned them.

Then they had to go through the metal detectors, removing all their weapons, then had to show not only their permits but also their badges and driver's licenses again. By the time they had received visitors passes and stepped into the main lobby over a half an hour later, Chris was fuming, Buck was praying they found Vin soon, Ezra was preparing for the explosion, and JD simply tried to look smaller than normal.

There was another man waiting in the elevator as the four ATF agents stepped inside. JD read 'Detective Franchs' on his pass. Chris simply stared straight ahead while Buck gave him a friendly smile. The detective arrogantly ignored Buck as he overtly examined the three team members in jeans and cowboy boots. Chris' black bowler tie with the silver and turquoise clip in particular caught his attention. "What ranch did you cowboys ride in from?" the detective sneered derogatorily.

Buck and Ezra both winced, knowing full well what was coming. JD jumped out of the way as Chris slammed a fist into the detective's eye. "Do NOT call me 'cowboy'," the blond ordered grimly.

Detective Franchs looked up at Larabee from his position on the floor, a hand over his eye. He could see the wrath boiling in the cold green gaze above him. Fear for his life rose into his throat. He had never seen anyone look so dangerous, except maybe Ellison staring at a perp.

A sharp ding broke the silence in the cramped elevator. "Oh look, I believe this is our floor," Ezra declared, trying to sound cheerful. He pushed JD out of the elevator, leaving Chris to Buck.

Buck grabbed his friend's arm warily. "Come on, Chris." He almost had to drag him out of the elevator.

Chris continued to stare daggers at the man until the elevator door closed. Then he turned, read the signs, and stalked towards the Major Crimes department.

"That didn't go well," JD muttered as the three hurried to keep up. For a man with a sore leg, their leader sure could walk fast.

Still fuming, Chris searched the Major Crimes bullpen. Spotting the nameplate that said 'Detective J. Ellison', he marched to the desk.

Seeing the tall blond man approach his partner's desk, Blair saved the screen he was working on and stood up. "May I help you?" he asked politely. He was faintly aware of three other men walking up from behind the first.

Chris turned. "Where's Ellison?" he demanded.

Mindful of the two attempts already that morning to reach Vin, Blair carefully replied, "He's not here right now. Maybe..."

Chris snarled, the continual runaround igniting his way-too-short fuse. He grabbed the long- haired young man and shoved him up against the wall. "WHERE'S ELLISION?" Behind him, his team winced.

Damn, this guy's as much an Alpha male as Jim. Knowing that the first sign of fear would be his death warrant, Blair forced himself to relax. "I won't tell you unless you put me down."

The jaws of Chris' men dropped. Usually Larabee could scare the hell out of anyone, including his team, with just a stare. Yet this lightweight was staring back with the calmest blue eyes they had ever seen. Tentatively, Buck offered, "Chris, this isn't helping."

Blair had barely registered 'Chris', when another voice boomed across the room. "PUT DOWN MY DETECTIVE!" Simon Banks stormed up to the group, his face dark with anger. Taggart, Connor, Brown and Rafe quietly made a semi-circle around their captain, ready to help protect one of their own. Chris quietly let go of Sandburg, but turned to meet the new challenger stare for stare.

Knowing something needed to be done and quickly, Ezra stepped up. "Please excuse us, sir. My fellow ATF agents and I are simply on a mission to recover a missing colleague. However, it has been a trying few days, and I'm afraid we're running a bit short on patience and temper."

"...all sorts of infectious diseases thriving in that abode." The agent's southern accent and precise words closely matched the ones Vin had imitated that morning. Swiftly, Blair sized up the four men. If I'm right, we got four out of the seven. Vin's with Jim, Chris must be the Alpha leader, while the southerner is probably Ezra. Yet chances are good that at least one of the other two could be JD or Buck. Casually, Blair asked, "I don't suppose any of you live at the CDC?"

"What?" Simon exclaimed. Sandburg often came up with weird questions, but this one had to be in the top three. Yet the cold stare of the man in front of him shifted into surprise.

JD and Buck looked at each other. "I guess that would be us," JD slowly answered.

"Buck and JD?" Blair asked. When their heads slowly nodded, Blair decided to try one last test. "Could you describe your place?"

After shooting a nervous glance at his leader, JD softly began. "Well, it's a loft. The stairs to Buck's room in the loft part are on the left, while the kitchen's perpendicular on the right. The island with the stove and such is set in the center of the kitchen area."

"You face the living room as you step in the door," Buck picked up. "On the other side is the glass doors to the balcony, and JD's room is set under the stairs."

Now everyone wore puzzled looks. "Hell, Blair," Joel remarked. "That sounds like yours and Jim's place."

"That's what Vin said," Blair declared with a smirk. "Only ours is cleaner."

"Vin?" Chris turned to the young man he had pushed into the wall. "You know where Vin is?"

"Yeah," Blair answered vaguely, still concerned about Vin's safety. He held out a hand to show he had no hard feelings. "I'm Blair Sandburg, Ellison's partner."

"And I'm their captain, Simon Banks," Simon announced behind them. He was still glaring at the man who had been accosting one of his own. "And you are?"

"Chris Larabee, Vin's boss." Chris shook Blair's hand, then offered his to the man who had to be as tall as Josiah, though not as husky. "I'm sorry, but Standish was right when he said it's been a hard three days."

"Well, considering all the problems this morning, I suspect I can understand," Simon admitted as he took Larabee's hand.

Chris frowned. "What problems? And where's Vin?"

"Ellison currently has Tanner at a safehouse." Simon waved a hand towards his door. "Why don't we all go into my office? You can sample my coffee while Sandburg and I catch you up."

Chris, with Ezra and JD behind him, began to follow. Then the leader stopped and turned.

Buck was chatting with the attractive redhead who had stood with Bank's crew defending Sandburg. "Australia? How did a beautiful woman like you end up fighting crime in America?"

"Buck," Chris ordered, rolling his eyes.

"Oops, got to go." Buck quickly followed his colleagues into the office.


Safehouse, outskirts of Cascade

Eyes closed, Vin soaked up the warmth radiating from the fireplace. Washington's high humidity made the damp cold seem to penetrate even deeper into his aching body. He really missed Denver's dry air and warm sunshine.

Jim sat a steaming mug by the younger man's elbow and sat in the comfortable chair opposite the matching couch Vin was on. Blue eyes examined his friend as he asked, "How you feeling?"

"Tired," Vin admitted.

"Feel like you've just been given the biggest reprieve in the universe, but your body can't keep up?" Jim asked casually.

Vin's eyes blinked open in surprise. "How'd you know?"

A grim expression briefly touched the older man's face. "A couple of years ago, a perp I was after nearly killed me, then went after Sandburg. He was floating face down in a university fountain when we found him." Jim's gaze dropped to his hands, still seeing the gray, lifeless face of his young partner. "Simon and I performed CPR until the paramedics got there. I thought my soul had been torn apart when they pronounced him dead."

"What happened then?" Vin asked softly. He could sense the fear he had recently been fighting still echoing in off Ellison's tense body.

"The Miracle happened." A slight, self-conscious smile cracked the grim face. "Somehow, Blair must have heard me call him, because all of a sudden he was moving and coughing up water." Jim raised his eyes to meet Vin's again. "I have no idea why he was restored to us, but I do know I never want to go through that again."

Vin nodded, understanding the feeling perfectly. It wasn't all that long ago that they had thought they had lost Chris, only to find out it had been a ruse to find a mole. Yet he really wasn't sure he wanted to face what would have happened if all his teammate had truly been dead. Carefully, he changed the subject. "I've been wanting to say something to you since yesterday, but it just never seemed to be the right time." Jim waited while Vin paused, gathering his thoughts. "I wanted to thank you."

"You can always come to me, Slick. I hope you know that." Jim assured him.

"No, not about now, though I really appreciate you and Blair helping me out." Vin took another deep breath, then coughed. Once under control, he looked up, staring deep into his mentor's eyes. "I wanted to thank you for being there for me before. Back in the Army." Jim looked at him, puzzled. "I didn't have any good men to look up to growing up. You were the first to show me what all those fancy words like courage, pride, duty and honor really meant. You also took the time to show a scared kid like me the ropes. For the first time in my entire life, I actually felt like I was worth something. I've always tried to follow your example ever since, and I've always wanted to thank you for that. Otherwise, I don't know how I'd have turned out."

"You would have turned out fine, Slick," Jim assured him sincerely. "You've always been a fighter with a good heart. And from what I've seen, you still are. Though I'd admit I was surprised when they told me you didn't re-enlist."

Vin shrugged. "I knew there was something screwy about what happened to you and the others in Peru, but I hit a brick wall when I went digging. Then there were a few other missions that didn't feel right to me, either. I decided it was time to get out before I ended up MIA."

Remembering Colonel North, the crooked officer who had arranged for his and his team's deaths, Jim could only nodded. "Just as well. Looks like you're in a good outfit now."

Vin smiled. "Yeah, Chris and the guys have been great. I always wanted to go into law enforcement, but thought I couldn't since I didn't go to college. Then one day when I was bounty hunting..."

"Bounty hunting?" Jim interrupted with concern. He knew how dangerous that life was.

"Yeah, bounty hunting. And I was good at it, too." Vin gave Jim the self-assured smile that used to worry the older man after a mission. "But one day I ran into Chris and his team. I ended up saving Nathan's butt, and a few days later, Chris offered me a job."

Jim shook his head and chuckled. "Apparently, Larabee knew a good deal when he saw one."

"Never regretted saying yes," Vin agreed. The younger man shifted on the couch as another cough rose from his chest. "You look like you have a good deal, too. How did you and Sandburg hook up?"

Jim smiled, trying to decide how much he could tell Vin without revealing his sentinel secret. "Sandburg was an anthropology student when I met him. He helped me deal with some stuff I was struggling with after Peru, and I arranged for him to ride with me as an observer so he could do research for his doctorate. He's a great help, since he's got to be one of the smartest men I know and can sweet talk witnesses like you wouldn't believe. Just don't tell him I said that or I'll never get his big head through doors." Vin chuckled, having noticed himself that Blair had a way with words. "So when the University screwed him over last year, Simon gave him an offer to join the PD."

Vin nodded, sensing that the university issue was a sensitive one. So he ventured cautiously in another direction. "I was wondering about something. Both at the hospital and for a while at your place, Blair didn't draw his weapon. How come?"

Jim shrugged as he leaned back into the chair. "Sandburg's gun is always his very last resort. He'll do everything else first before pulling it, and even then he'll use the least amount of force to reach his objective."

Vin frowned, wondering if that was good enough to back up his former captain. "Perhaps he just needs to get used to it?"

"Not really," Jim chuckled. "He made marksmen last summer at the academy. In fact, SWAT tried to recruit him. But Sandburg's mother is a former flower child and peace activist, so all that early training of 'make love not war' is deeply engrained. Besides, with all his talents, he rarely needs the gun."

"But what if he needs to take the shot?"

Jim turned serious. "I have no doubts that Blair would shoot to kill if my life or anyone else's were on the line. He saved my butt dozens of times even before he carried a gun. My only concern is whether he'll take the shot to protect his own life."

Vin's frown grew deeper. He didn't like the idea of Blair getting hurt, either. "How'd he do in hand-to-hand?"

"He passed, barely. But he's a survivor. I know from experience he's pretty handy with things like baseballs and ball bearings."

"Ball bearings?" Vin asked with a sleepy smile, suspecting there was a good story. He coughed again.

"Yeah, he used them to catch a robbery suspect the FBI had been hunting for months." Listening to Vin's hack, Jim quietly suggested, "Perhaps you should get some sleep."

Vin groggily shook his head. "Nah, I'm okay. What happened with the FBI?"

Deciding that Vin would probably fall asleep if he talked long enough, Jim began, "Well, it started with Sandburg's first arrest..."


An hour later

Jim stared out the back window. He liked this particular safehouse on the edge of the city. It was nestled next to a hill, the forest beginning just above it. The quiet calmness of the area was soothing to nerves stressed by potentially volatile situations.

The sentinel tilted his head to the side as he heard a car pull into the front driveway. He smiled as he recognized the engine of his partner's cranky Volvo. A glance told him that his charge was still asleep on the couch, a brightly colored afghan tucked around him. It wasn't until he heard a second, unfamiliar car pull in behind Blair that he became concerned.

Standing up, Jim drew his weapon and slipped to the door leading to the kitchen. Sentinel ears confirmed that the two other police officers on guard had also seen the second car and were checking it out. Focusing, Jim caught his partner's voice.

"It's okay, guys. These are Vin's fellow ATF agents."

Drawing back before a zone could claim him, Jim only allowed himself to relax a fraction. He wanted to check them out himself before allowing them to approach Vin. He stepped into the kitchen as Blair led four men in the side door. Swiftly, Jim sized them up. The youngest one barely looked old enough to be out of high school, though the way he carried himself made Jim suspect he wasn't a rookie. He also suspected there was more to the wiry man who wore the expensive suit. Cunning intelligence showed in the green gaze. The other two were tall and about his age. While the one with the dark mustache was taller, he appeared friendly. However, the main force to be dealt with was definitely the tough looking blond man dressed in black. Jim only needed one guess as to who was the 'living legend'.

"Hey, Jim, how's Vin doing?" Blair asked, looking around to see if the agent was standing behind his partner.

"Sleeping," Jim replied as he met the blond's eyes stare for stare.

Chris examined the man Vin had gone to for help with a critical eye. The muscular man, his brown hair still in a military cut, looked like he could survive a year and a half in the jungle. The pale blue eyes announced that the toughness was more than skin deep. For a moment, Chris had the impression of a large, strong cat debating on whether to pounce, but he shook off that fanciful thought. Deciding to make an ally for now, Chris held out his hand without breaking eye contact. "Chris Larabee, Vin's boss."

"Jim Ellison."

Blair almost sighed audibly when the two alpha males shook hands. The last thing they needed at this point was a fight for dominance. He didn't think the safehouse would survive.

"How is Vin doing?" Chris asked, trying to keep the worry deep in his gut from coming out in his voice.

However, Jim heard it and understood. "Tired and fighting a chest cold. Still has a bit of the headache from the concussion, too. I think he mostly needs the rest. He's barely had time to sit since this whole thing started."

Fighting the urge to dash into the other room and check on his friend, Chris forced himself to nod. "We'll just let him sleep for now." He turned to the others. "These are the rest of my men. Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, and JD Dunne."

Jim nodded as he shook each man's hand in turn. "Vin's mentioned all of you." He glanced at his own partner, leaning against the counter. "Any more on Rat Tail?"

Blair gave him a wide grin. "A little. We went over everything in Simon's office, then Ezra and I put our heads together. It seems that Rattall is connected with the Liberty Brigade militia operating out of Idaho, perhaps doing more than just demolitions work for them."

Ezra nodded. "There appears to be a link between the bait shop and funds being funneled into the main organization. Our teammates in Denver are following up on some of our leads."

"The man Vin shot this morning was a known member of the Liberty Brigade, plus he once worked for Rattall." Blair added.

Jim nodded thoughtfully. "Any connection to our favorite Washington militias?"

"So far, no," Blair replied thankfully. "I'd rather not deal with the Sun Rise Patriots or the Washington Freedom Fighters, too. As it is, this Idaho bunch looks bigger than both of them put together."

"You guys have gone up against militias before?" JD asked, impressed.

"Yeah, all the crackpots are drawn to Cascade," Jim replied grimly.

"It's not quite that bad," Blair protested.

Jim lifted an eyebrow. "Remember facing down Kincaid your first day at the Department? Or being held hostage in an elevator simply because you were in the building having a good luck statue authenticated?"

Blair paused, then conceded, "Okay, it's that bad."

"Doesn't sound like much of a good luck statue," Buck chuckled.

"It didn't seem so at the time," Blair admitted.

"You know, we didn't get lunch," JD interjected. The young man could hear his stomach growling.

"Then why don't we get the groceries out of the car and fix dinner?" Blair suggested. He, JD and Buck walked out the door to retrieve the food. Ezra sat his laptop on the table and opened it, while Larabee finally gave in and walked to the doorway Ellison was guarding. Jim silently pointed to the couch in front of the fireplace.

Chris sat down in the chair Jim had been using and stared at his young friend. The pale, taut features were indications of Vin's exhaustion. Damn, Cowboy, do you have any idea how much you scared me? And here you are, all tucked in and looking like an innocent, sleeping angel. Good thing I know you better than that. In fact, I'm not letting you out of my sight again until this whole thing is over. Leaning back and getting comfortable, the tough agent prepared to keep watch over his brother.

Observing from the doorway, Jim smiled. Vin was back with his tribe. Now Jim just had to help stop the danger so the kid could go home.


Parking area, sublevel of Cascade police headquarters

"I appreciate you taking me out there, Captain Banks." Orrin Travis unlocked his rental car's doors with his key remote.

"I'm glad to help." Simon replied as he folded his long frame into the passenger's side. "Tanner seems like a good agent, and Larabee seems, well..."

Travis laughed. "Larabee is a tough man who gets the job done. However, he's protective of his men, especially Tanner. You probably saw the very worse side of him..." He slammed shut his door. Within minutes, the Grand Prix was smoothly zooming out of the garage area.

Sitting a block away from the exit, the occupants of a black Suburban watched the car exit from beneath the building. The screen on a hand-held device lit up, beeping a steadying rhythm.


Safehouse, outskirts of Cascade

A loud crash echoed from the kitchen, followed by Buck's swearing. Chris shook awake from his light doze, only to have his attention drawn by Vin's coughing.

For a moment, Vin wasn't sure where he was or what woke him up. Coughs bubbled up from congestion in his chest as his memory caught up. Sitting upright and holding his injured arm tight to his body, Vin leaned over his knees until the hacking had subsided. He felt miserable and alone, wondering if Mathews had been right about his team.

"Damn it, Cowboy, can't leave you alone for two minutes, can I?"

"Chris?" Vin turned to the chair in surprise.

"Yea..." Ready to bawl out the younger man for not even trying to report in, Chris grunted as Vin suddenly threw his arms around him. It finally sank in just how hard the team's reported deaths had hurt his friend.

"God, Chris," Vin whispered so softly into his neck the older man could barely hear him. "I thought you all were gone for good this time." Another cough rumbled through the slim body.

Chris smiled a tight smile, not wanting to think how close it had been for them under the rubble. "Hell, you should know by now we're not that easy to kill." Pulling away, he rubbed Vin's shoulder as he continued to cough. "That's some cold you picked up."

"Could've been worse," Vin replied once he could breathe again.

"I'd say that's debatable." Both men looked up to spy Ezra holding a mug of steaming tea. The undercover agent's eyes were unusually bright as he studied his friend. "However, Mr. Sandburg assures me that this fragrant brew will ease you back to the road of health."

"Uncle Obie's special blend number three," Vin softly quoted, taking the mug with one hand as the other wrapped around Ezra's free arm. "Good to see you, too, Ez."

"Likewise, Vin," Ezra returned as he gently squeezed Vin's elbow in return, avoiding the bandaged biceps. While they had worked on the files, Blair had caught him up on what had happened to his friend. Ezra could tell Vin still needed reassurances that his worst fears were unfounded.

"So you've finally woke up?" Buck declared as he entered the living room, smiling broadly.

"How could he not, after you dropped that bowl?" JD teased his roommate as he walked in behind him. He turned a brilliant smile onto his friend on the couch. "Great to see you, Vin."

"You, too, JD," Vin returned, his eyes shining. Then it hit him who was missing and where they were during the explosions. Worriedly, he turned to Chris. "Josiah?"

Chris squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "Busted leg. I sent him and Nate back to Denver."

Vin let out the last of the air he had been holding. It felt so good to be back with his teammates again.

Then Chris looked at Ezra. "You still got it?" Ezra nodded as he pulled something out of his pocket and gently tossed it to his leader. Chris then slammed it into Vin's hand. Looking down, Vin recognized his cell phone. Practically growling, Chris ordered, "You are to put that in your pocket, clip it to your belt, tucked it under a hat, shove it down your boot, where ever you want. Hell, I don't care if you shove it up your nose. But you are NEVER to be without it again. CLEAR?"

Hiding a smirk, Vin nodded solemnly. "As crystal."

"Well, dinner's almost ready," JD announced, breaking the tension. "It smells good, though I'm still not sure what all Blair put in the stew."

"Then let's go to the kitchen," Chris suggested, standing up. He lent Vin a hand up from the couch.

"Thanks, Cowboy," Vin replied, giving his leader and friend a cheeky grin that was almost up to his normal standard.

Chris gently cuffed the only person in the world who could call him 'cowboy' on the head as they followed Ezra to the kitchen.


Federal Building, Denver, CO

Tina Maddock was shifting impatiently in her chair. "I don't understand why you're keeping me late. I've worked overtime all week and I want to go home."

Josiah gave her a gentle, almost pitying look. "I promise it won't be much longer, Miss Maddock."

"Yes, now that we have everything we need." While Josiah spoke softly, anger honed Nathan's voice to as hard as steel. "These records show that you have consistently made phone calls from your cell to Idaho."

Fear flashed over the young woman's face before she could control it. "My mother lives there."

"You seem to be calling her an awful lot," Nathan informed her as he flipped through the computer printout.

"My mother is ill," Tina replied defiantly.

"Calling Idaho isn't a crime by itself," Josiah gently explained. "However, it seems that many of these calls were made while you were in the office working. Alone, apparently."

"Well, I very well can't call when everyone's around."

"Yeah, but you can right after Agent Tanner calls in an urgent request for help!" Nathan slammed the stack of papers on the table, fuming.

"I, I don't know what you're talking about."

"We believe you do, Miss Maddock," Josiah told her sadly. "You see, we did a little digging into your family tree. It came as quite a surprise that your uncle is David Tower, the second-in- command of the Liberty Brigade militia."

Tina squirmed, trying not to look as scared as she was. "So, you can't pick your relatives."

"Yeah, but you don't have to call them or accept money from them." Nathan tossed another folder of bank account information on top of the phone listings. "I'm afraid we'll have to arrest you."

"What for!"

Nathan's glare should have set the young woman on fire. "For conspiracy. For aiding and abetting on the attempted murder of a federal agent. For..."

"It doesn't matter now, anyway," she told them snidely. "The wet team should have found the problem by now and eliminated it."

Josiah felt his heart drop to his stomach. "You mean Tanner?"

Tina just stared back.

"Oh, shit," Nathan exclaimed as he grabbed the phone.


Safehouse, outskirts of Cascade

Chris actually found himself relaxing during the meal. When Buck and JD weren't horsing around, Sandburg was encouraging the merriment with his questions and stories while Ezra occasionally stirred the pot with comments. The thick, delicious stew reminded the leader of how long it had been since he had paid attention to eating. Best of all, he could look across the table and see his friend. It was so good to see Vin smiling and adding a few words here and there. After the stress of the past few days, his team needed a respite.

Not that everyone was relaxing. There was a tense air about Ellison that indicated the muscular detective was still on duty. Again, the image of a cat perched on a limb while watching for danger came to Chris' mind.

Ezra, too, had noticed Ellison's alertness. He had also noticed how every so often, Blair's eyes would meet his older partner's, pause a moment, then continue on as if the unspoken question had been answered satisfactorily. It reminded the agent of his boss and Vin Tanner's way of silent communication. He briefly wondered if Ellison somehow had taught Tanner the trick, who in turn had taught Larabee.

However, it was Vin who noticed the change first. When Jim paused with his head slightly tilted, the younger man suddenly remembered seeing the exact position before -- at the loft right before Jim yelled at them to head for fire escape. He could also feel Blair next to him stiffen, obviously picking up on his partner's body signal. Vin in turn tensed, sensing their bit of quiet was about to end.

Not realizing he was under observation, Jim casually stood up and walked over to the sink. He caught Blair's eyes, passing on that the sentinel was hearing something. Then he moved the curtain above the sink slightly to the side.

"Company?" Vin's quiet voice cut through the conversation, focusing everyone attention to first Vin then to the man at the window. Under the table, Vin's fingers reached for his backup weapon tucked in his boot.

"Unfamiliar car." Jim watched as it was stopped by one of the guarding officers.

Chris slipped over to another window and peered out into the growing darkness. Buck also stood, prepared to rush Vin to the back of the house if required.

Jim continued his surveillance. "It's Banks with another man. Short, graying black hair, looks to be in his 60s."

"It's Travis," Chris identified. "The federal judge we work for."

The rest of the room relaxed except for the Cascade detectives. When the sentinel slipped out the door to greet the newcomers, his guide was on his heels. Curious, Ezra slowly stood and followed the pair. JD's cell phone rang just before the screen door banged shut.

As they approached the car, Blair whispered to his partner, "What is it?"

"I'm hearing something. A low... well, not quite a hum, maybe a beep?"

Puzzled, Blair glanced at the car a moment. "Hold it. Vin said the hounds found him every time he called the Judge. What if the mole in the home office has a long reach?"

"A tracking device," Jim growled, suddenly recognizing the annoying sound in a flash of anger.

"Hey Jim..." Simon started, only to have his detective rush past him. "Huh?"

Jim knelt by the bumper and pulled off the offending electronic device. "It's a tracker!"

"Damn!" Travis exclaimed as Blair took the device from Jim, clicking it off. Ezra glanced at the detective, wondering how he found the bug so fast. From his long history of reading people, Ezra didn't think it was an accident, yet not something Ellison knew before approaching the car, either.

"Get Tanner out of here," Simon ordered, silently berating himself for leading the perps to their witness.

Jim could hear another vehicle coming down the quiet lane. He raced for the house, Blair and Ezra on his heels. As they reached the door, they nearly collided with JD. "Nate says there's a team on their way to get Vin!" the young man proclaimed.

"They had a tracker on the judge's car," Blair replied grimly as he tossed the device to JD.

Chris and Buck were already grabbing jackets and checking weapons. Vin was pulling on Chris' black trenchcoat and taking a rifle from Buck when he noticed his former officer pause in the middle of the room. Vin's gut clenched when Jim's head tilted again. Remembering how in the service Ellison always had an uncanny sense of what was going on around them, he trusted the man explicitly. Considering Ellison's expression and recent experience, it didn't look good.

As Buck started to shepherd Vin towards the living room and it's back door, Jim suddenly shouted, "No!"

Vin turned from Buck's grasp. "Cap'n?" Blair also paused in picking up his pack, eyes wide.

"There's another vehicle coming up the dirt track in the back."

Simon, who had just ushered the judge inside, felt his own stomach clench tighter. Suddenly, automatic gunfire shattered the kitchen windows. Everyone ducked and dashed into a central hallway in the middle of the house. "Damn it." Simon looked at his best detective. "The hill?" Chris, for once confused, glanced back and forth between the tall Cascade detectives.

Jim listened, then nodded. "Clear. Let's go!"

Chris opened his mouth to object, only to have Vin shove him towards the side door. "Trust him," the sharpshooter whispered, then coughed.

Damn. Vin was the important one here. Chris would do everything in his power to protect the younger man, even if it meant relying on others who knew the terrain better than he did.

Larabee shielded his friend the best he could with his body as they dashed after Standish and Sandburg up the slope, who in turn were following Banks and Travis. Ellison urged Buck and JD out of the house then checked their enemies' positions. One of the six men from the car in front spotted them, ordering the others to fire. The sharp sounds of bullets surrounded the law officers, sending spurts of dirt into the air about their feet. They had to reach the ruins of an old mining operation at the top of the hill in order to have a chance. Jim sighted the old water tower and forced his feet to run faster to the goal. Shots continued to pierce the night. Everyone made a final push to get up to the crest of the hill.

However, the five men from the second SUV anticipated the move. They ran up from another angle, reaching the top before the police and agents. They ducked into a cement sluiceway under the water tower and opened fire.

"The wall!" Simon shouted as he guided the Judge. Instantly seeing what Banks meant, Chris shoved Vin down behind the rotting woodpile of a crumbling building. Noting the close range, Vin immediately pulled out his backup piece. The rest joined them. Behind the scant shelter, the men began trading gunfire with the group under the tower.

Blair glanced back down the hill, seeing the first group climbing the slope. "JIM! BELOW!" Turning, Jim along with Buck and Simon began firing at the first group, forcing them to duck behind the boulders scattered about the slope. Buck flinched as a bullet grazed his arm.

However, even Blair could see that they were in a really bad position. Gunfire was coming from behind and in front, trapping them in between. Then he glanced at the tower. He could see that water dripped from the hatch under the tank into the cement sluiceway where the second group of enemies had taken cover. The huge tank was probably filled with years of rainwater. The young man smirked when he spotted the lever to the hatch on the side of the tank. Taking careful aim, Blair took a deep breath, let half of it out, and fired.

The bullet hit the lever, setting it to spin crazily. The hatch sprang open, dumping the water on top of the second group. Pushed by the force of the water, the five men were swept down the sluiceway and out from underneath the tower. All but one of the men from Denver felt their jaws drop. "Nice shot, Blair," Vin complimented him as Jim sent his partner a proud smirk.

"Other side of the wall!" Simon commanded. They all scrambled over the cover to shield them from the enemy coming up the hill.

As they exchanged fire, a grim smirk suddenly drew across Jim's mouth. Blair glanced at him. "Backup?" he whispered hopefully. Jim nodded as he continued to fire. Soon everyone could hear the sirens racing up the lane. Once the bad guys were pinned between the two sets of law enforcement, they surrendered.

Chris finally stood up. Now that the danger was over, it was time to start working on their case. "Okay, Wilmington, Standish, Dunne, I want you to check on the guys that were washed down the sluice." He paused, noticing the blood on Buck's arm. "Strike that. Buck, you stay here and get your arm checked out."

"I'm fine. It's just a graze." Buck argued. Jim gently grasped his arm to take a look at the injury.

"Now you sound like JD," Chris scolded him with a roll of his eyes. "Get it checked out."

"Sandburg, you go with the agents," Simon ordered.

Blair grinned widely, feeling like a true detective instead of just Jim's backup.

"Sandburg." Blair looked at Jim before following Ezra. Lifting his head from examining Buck's arm, Jim pointed at a forty-five degree angle from the hill. "That way's North." Blair simply rolled his eyes, taking the jab at his non-existent sense of direction.

Jim then patted Wilmington's back. "He's okay, Larabee." Chris indicated with his head that Buck should follow the others after all. Giving his old friend a grin, Buck trotted to catch up.

"Remind me never to get involved in one of your shootouts again, Chris." Judge Travis brushed the dirt from his jacket. "I'm getting too old for this."

"I know the feeling, sir. You should try riding with Ellison when he's in hot pursuit." Banks then guided the much shorter federal judge back down the hill.

"How are you doing, Vin?" Chris asked. Jim, too, glanced at the younger man.

Tanner was still sitting on a stack of wood huddled in Chris' coat. "I'm okay. Just a little tired."

"Headache? Dizzy?" Chris inquired, not fooled for a minute. Vin shrugged his shoulders, which Chris took to mean 'yes'. "Why don't we..."

A loud boom suddenly thundered behind them. The three men turned to the safehouse. Most of the roof had blown off while flames began to lick up the walls to the sky. "Damn," Jim exclaimed as he began jogging down the hill, worried that some of his fellow officers had been caught in the blast.

"Stay here," Chris commanded Vin as he followed Ellison.

Alone in the growing darkness, Vin sighed. He wanted to follow his friends to help possible victims. However, his adrenaline level was dropping since their mad dash up the hill. His head was spinning just enough to potentially cause a misstep on the rocky hill and possibly twist something. If he did that, the guys and certainly Chris would never let him live it down. After another sigh and a bout of coughing, the agent checked the clip in his backup piece to find it empty. He began patting the pockets of Chris' coat for the extra clips Buck had tossed him earlier. Then the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Turning on the log with his empty gun held in the firing position, Vin found himself face to face with Rat Tail.

Michael Rattall had gained a little weight since the Army, but otherwise the ugly man still looked dangerous. The cruelty Vin remembered in his eyes had grown with additional years of hate. Yet there was a sense of eager anticipation that made shivers run down the young agent's back. Vin could feel his stomach begin to churn. A covert glance showed the rifle lying a yard from his right foot; a close yet impossible-to-cover distance with Rattall's gun trained on him.

"I guess the best way to do a job is to do it yourself." Smirking, the man chuckled. "I just had to wait for your watchdogs to disappear."

Vin continued to aim his gun unwaveringly at the man. His only chance was to hold out long enough for a distraction or for one of his friends to return. He just prayed his friends wouldn't walk into trouble. If only he could bluff like Ezra.

"For that matter, I should have done you back in the Army. You're just a scrawny street rat that doesn't deserve to be taking up space."

Fighting back a cough, Vin grimly asked, "Then why didn't you?"

"With watchdog Ellison around? I'd have had an easier time robbing Fort Knox. But now I have my chance."

"I don't think so." A tight smile stretched across Vin's face as he recognized Ellison's voice. A swift glance located Jim just off to his right.

Rattall smiled even more widely. "Ah, little runt Vinnie still needs big bad Ellison to protect him?"

"No," Jim replied steadily. "Tanner's a better man than you'll ever be, Rat Tail. Even back when he was just a teenager."

Anger flared in Rattall's eyes. "Well, your 'better man' is empty, Ellison. And you can't drop me before I pull this trigger." Vin held steady, even though his secret was apparently out. If he was going down, he'd at least die trying. His muscles tightened in preparation to move. "Say goodbye to your friend, Ellison."

Then a gun barrel was pressed against Rattall's temple. "Who says Tanner only has one friend?" Chris Larabee glared his mostly deadly stare at the man who was at the root of his friend's troubles. "Drop it NOW!" Rattall began to loosen his hold on the gun when Vin noticed a shadow behind Ellison pointing a gun at his friend's head.

"Cap'n!" Vin shouted as he rolled to his rifle. Coming up with the weapon, he shot at the same time as Ellison ducked out of the way. The gunman fell.

"Rattall," Larabee growled again. This time, the militia man dropped his weapon. Vin leaned over to rest his forehead against the ground. It was over.

"Ah, Slick? It's 'Jim', now, remember?"

"Okay, Cap'n."


Five days later, Federal Building, Denver, CO

"...So our lead to the arms dealer selling weapons to the militias was actually a guy WITHIN the Liberty Brigade?" JD asked, incredulous.

Chris grimly nodded. He hated it when they went into a situation not knowing everything they needed to.

"Too bad we couldn't do more than make a dent in that organization," Nathan commented bitterly. They had come too close to losing several members of their team for his comfort. It would have been nice to have a little more to show for it.

"At least we cleared out the mole from the Judge's office and one dirty ATF agent," Buck pointed out, trying to cheer up the rest of his teammates.

"Yeah, but we never found the fake FBI agents from the hospital," Vin inserted.

Josiah nodded. "Too bad we can't get Miss Maddock to talk. And until she, Rattall, or the others start talking, there isn't much else we can do."

"Agree." Chris picked up the folder on the conference table. "Thus we are to consider this case closed. Dismiss."

With grumbles and sighs, the various Team 7 members wandered out of the room. Josiah gently nudged Ezra with one of his crutches as he walked by. "There's something I want you to see."

Before Vin could follow them out, Chris stopped him with a hand on his arm. "How you feeling, Cowboy?" It was the agent's first day back.

"Much better," Vin told him with a smile. "The headache just about gone and so's the cough. I'm going to have to have Sandburg ship me more of his uncle's tea. That stuff really works."

Chris nodded, remembering the nervy, intelligent kid. But Sandburg wasn't the Cascade detective he wanted to know about. "Vin, why haven't you ever mentioned Ellison to me?"

Vin sighed as he sat back down. Chris leaned against the table as he waited for his friend's answer. "Ellison was my first CO in the Rangers, and pretty much the first decent male role model I ever had. I really looked up to him. I was on his team for several assignments, then I was sent somewhere else when he went to Peru. It wasn't until later that I heard about what had happened." As Vin paused, Chris remembered what Ezra had told them about Ellison's time in Peru. "The whole team went MIA when their helicopter crashed into the jungle and were presumed dead. I knew those guys, Chris. I'd worked closely with just about all of them, not just the Captain. If I had gone to Peru, I would've been on that chopper."

Chris felt his stomach tighten. If Vin had been on the helicopter, he would have died before they had met. But he also heard something else in the voice. "You feel guilty about that."

Vin shrugged. "I kept wondering if I could've done something to have prevented it if I'd been with them. Or maybe I should've been the one to die instead of one of the other guys." Chris reached over and rubbed the tense shoulder, wishing he'd been in Vin's life then. He would have liked to have given his friend support through what must have been a very lonely time. "But mostly, it was the start of my disillusionment with the Army. I began to notice things that didn't seem quite right. That's why I didn't re-enlist."

"And when Ellison came back?" Chris asked softly.

Vin shrugged again. "I tried to reach him at first, but the Army pretty much had him under wraps. Then I was afraid he wouldn't want to talk with me anyway. I was still feeling pretty guilty for not being there. After he got out, I didn't even know where he'd gone."

"And now?"

Vin smiled. "Now we have a friend in Cascade if we ever need him." Vin looked up into his friend's eyes. "Jim has found his place just as I have found mine."

Chris gave Vin's shoulder a final squeeze, acknowledging Vin's assurance. "Then why don't you get back to your place and start working on your reports."

With an exaggerated groan, Vin stood up and walked out of the conference room. He casually glanced into the video room as he passed. The wide-eye look on Ezra's face brought him into the room. On the screen was Blair Sandburg facing a horde of reporters. Vin's heart went out to his new friend as the young man declared that his dissertation was a fraud and apologized to anyone he had hurt. "What the hell is this?"

"I knew the name Blair Sandburg sounded familiar," Josiah explained softly.

Ezra was still shaking his head in disbelief. He was usually a fairly good judge of character, and nothing he saw in Sandburg would have suggested this. "Are you sure it was not an undercover assignment?"

Josiah slowly shook his head. "From what I can tell, Mr. Sandburg walked away from years of school and study. He's never taught again, nor has he made any attempt to receive his degree from Rainier or any other school." He looked sympathetically at Vin who was still staring at the screen. "I wanted Ezra's opinion on whether there was more than one mole in the system."

"So when the University screwed him over last year, Simon gave him an offer to join the PD."

Jim felt that the University was at fault. What happened that would have forced Blair to declare his work a fraud? Vin turned to his big friend. "What exactly was Blair's research in?"

"A bit of Burton fantasy." At Vin and Ezra's puzzled stares, Josiah chuckled sadly. "The explorer Richard Burton once wrote about a watchman for primitive tribes that he called 'The Sentinel'. Supposedly, this man had all five of his senses heightened well beyond that of a normal man, giving him an advantage in guarding and aiding his tribe. Sandburg's theory was that such people exist in the modern world."

"You mean, these sentinels would be able to see farther, hearing things from way off, smell faint scents like a dog, and so on?" Vin questioned intently. Josiah nodded.

"Peppermint... Echinacea... lemon balm... licorice?"

"Company! Chief, your room!"

Hell, I'd even bet that's why their place is so clean. The Cap'n can probably see even specks of dirt. Vin gave both Ezra and Josiah a hard stare that would have made Chris proud. "Drop it."

"What?" Josiah asked, confused.

"I concur," Ezra replied, remembering Ellison finding the tracker on the rental car bumper.

Josiah glanced between the two younger men in confusion. "But if this Sandburg committed fraud, how would we know he's not into something else?"

Ezra shrugged as he stood up. "If it was illegal to misinform the media, most law enforcement officers would be incarcerated."

"If it was..." Josiah softly repeated, trying to figure out what he just missed.

Vin patted him on the back as he followed Ezra out the door. "In the words of Jim Croce, 'You don't tug on Superman's cape'."

Josiah watched his colleagues leave with his mouth hanging open, the chorus of the old song ringing in his mind.

You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim.

The End

7/10/00: Whew! There's one plot jack rabbit down! Now onto my next BPP ep and hopefully then Charming the Hawk.

The chorus above was taken from the song, 'You Don't Mess Around With Jim', written and sung by Jim Croce.

Anyone interested in reading more Mag 7:ATF stories, please check out the main archive at: http://www.angelfire.com/ms/atfau/ (all started by Mog's 'A Birthday in the Present') and the virtual season at: http://www.angelfire.com/ms2/atfseason/

Cindy


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