Twist Of Fate

by Trekkieb

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be... Okay, fine. All the boys belong to CBS, Mirisch, Trilogy, and MGM. Thanks go to Mog for creating this wonderful ATF alternate universe, where the seven are agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It's so much fun!
Rating: PG-13 Swearing.
Summary: Undercover Vin and Ezra are on a risky operation when Fate decides to mess things up. Will they survive?
Author's Notes: Thanks to my awesome friend Jenn for beta'ing this monster :) Enjoy!

The mid-afternoon sun beat down on the earth, but the air remained cold. Patches of snow were scattered across the ground, evidence of the recent snowfall two days ago. It wasn't unusual for the Colorado winters to be sunny yet frigid at the same time, but that didn't stop Ezra Standish from pulling the collar of his handsome ankle-length overcoat closer around his neck to ward off the chill.

Turning to his right, he noticed that Vin Tanner seemed unaffected by the cold temperature. As usual. Ezra didn't know how the man handled it, wearing only a light leather jacket over a turtleneck. It was times like these, when even his eyebrows felt numb, that Ezra longed for the steaming humidity of Georgia's summers.

The two men were leaning against Ezra's expensive black Jaguar, in an empty parking lot, waiting for Michael Cappicci. Cappicci, their latest case, was to pick up Ezra and Vin, his supposed bodyguard, and take them to his private airstrip. They were then to board Cappicci's Cessna 414 and head to his estate in northern New York to complete their business arrangements.

Ezra remembered Chris Larabee's reaction when he and Vin had told the others of this latest development. It hadn't been pleasant. Larabee had been adamant that they wouldn't go. It was too dangerous, he said. The others agreed with him, as did Ezra. However, as he'd pointed out then, they were at the crucial stage with Cappicci. He obviously considered Ezra trustworthy enough to bring him to his home. It was there that Cappicci had said they would finalize their deal.

So the team had consulted Judge Travis. In the end, it was decided that Ezra and Vin would go to New York with Cappicci. It was the only real way if he was to be caught. The ATF had worked too hard to let him slip out of their grasp. Still, it didn't mean any of them had to like the idea. Also, the rest of Team 7 would go to New York, too, on a commercial flight. That made Ezra feel somewhat better about the whole thing.

Shooting another glance at his partner, Standish asked, annoyed, "Aren't you cold?"

"Nah," Vin smiled. "This is nothin'. Now, you spend a winter in Alaska, you learn the real meanin' of cold."

Vin was saved from more than a scathing glance when a large, dark Rolls Royce pulled up several spaces away from them. The two agents stood up straight and slipped into their roles as Eric Colt and Victor Marcus.

The driver of the Royce got out and opened the passenger side rear door. Out stepped Michael Cappicci. Short and plump, he tried to cover his balding head with a facsimile of real hair. What hair he had left was gray, as were his eyes. Over the two and a half months that he and Vin had been undercover, Ezra had found Cappicci to be even-tempered and intelligent. And the razor-sharp wit that appeared now and then gave proof of the man's sense of humor. In fact, if Cappicci weren't a criminal and he weren't a government agent, Ezra might have enjoyed spending more time in the man's company.

Stepping forward, Ezra greeted the drug lord. "Mr. Cappicci," he said pleasantly. He was stopped from approaching further by the third man that had exited the car. The man ran a silver wand over him, searching for listening devices. Another thing about this case that Chris Larabee did not like: Cappicci had he and Vin searched every time they met, so they were forced to forego wearing wires. The man, Ezra knew him only as Johnny, nodded in approval when Ezra turned up clear. As Johnny turned to Tanner, Ezra smiled at Cappicci. "Come now, Michael. Is this really necessary after all this time?"

Cappicci laughed and smoothed the front of his Brioni jacket down over his ample stomach. "Don't mind Johnny, Eric. He's just doing his job. All part of the business."

Finished with Tanner, Johnny nodded sharply to his boss, indicating they were clean, then went to stand by the Rolls Royce. His menacing pose failed to instill fear in the hearts of the two agents, though he no doubt thought otherwise. The angles of his face seemed etched in a permanent scowl as he glared at anything and everything.

Ezra ignored him. Sighing, he walked up to Cappicci. Vin followed, eyeing Cappicci's personal guard. The two had taken an instant dislike to each other from the start. Maybe it was because Johnny had insulted Vin's hair. "I know, I know," Ezra said. "It's just so exasperating. Me wear a wire? I think not."

Cappicci laughed again. "Are you all set? I have the plane fueled and ready to go."

Ezra nodded. Half turning to Vin, he managed to look down his nose as he said, "Victor get my bag from the car." He smothered the smile on his face resulting from the look Vin shot him on his way past.

A moment later, all five men got into the car. Cappicci sat up front with the driver. Ezra and Vin were stuck with the brooding Johnny. They began the hour-long journey to Cappicci's private airstrip.

Outwardly, Ezra was the picture of calm. But on the inside he was nervous. He and Vin were going to board a plane with a known-but-as-yet-uncaught drug trafficker and his anti-social associate. They were going to fly halfway across the country with no outside communication and no backup. They were going to stay with Cappicci for several days while they worked out a deal, in which Eric Colt would join the business of smuggling drugs into the U.S. from Mexico. And they would have no immediate help from their team if things went to hell.

Ezra looked out the window and fervently hoped that things went according to plan.

Vin secured his safety belt and leaned back. Cappicci's Cessna was surprisingly comfortable. The six roomy seats were upholstered in a plush burgundy fabric, and there was even a miniature bar in the rear.

Cappicci offered them drinks. Vin declined; he didn't want alcohol to cloud his mind.

"How about you, Eric?" the man asked Standish.

Standish nodded his head. "Scotch sounds refreshing right about now," he said. He had removed his overcoat but remained wearing his black suit jacket. "No ice," he added.

Tanner watched as Johnny returned from the cockpit and took a seat near the front. The man aggravated him as no one else could. He tensed up every time Johnny came near. And it wasn't because of the hair remark. The man had an attitude problem, that was for sure, but aside from that, there was just something... off... about him.

Looking at Ezra, who sat in front of him, Standish seemed cool as a cucumber. He paid no attention to the sour Johnny, and concentrated on sipping his drink.

"So, have you ever been to New York before?" Cappicci asked. Vin knew he wasn't talking to him. Cappicci hardly paid him any notice beyond necessary. He was just the bodyguard.

"New York City, yes," Ezra answered. "But I have never had the opportunity to visit the countryside. I am looking forward to remedying that." He and Cappicci started talking about the places to eat and the clubs to go to. Vin admired the way the undercover agent could chitchat so easily. Experience, probably.

As the plane lurched and began to taxi, Vin swallowed and gripped the edge of his seat. If it weren't for the cold that had been going around the ATF building, it would have been Josiah there instead of him. Sanchez only had a cough and runny nose, but that was enough to put him out of the running. Vin was really the only other one who fit the role as Ezra's bodyguard, and who could act well enough to pull it off.

But, God, he hated flying. The airsickness, the turbulence, the knowledge that the engines could fail any minute, and they could plummet thousands of feet to their deaths.... Yes, indeed, he definitely hated flying.

Denver International Airport. Otherwise known as Hell. At least to one Agent Christopher Larabee. People were everywhere, packed into the corridors, jammed into the terminals. The noise was almost deafening. And the smell. God, the smell. Thousands of different perfumes, colognes, soaps, shampoos, not to mention the natural, and more unpleasant, smells of all those people. It was enough to make his eyes water.

Chris pushed his way through the masses to Gate C. Buck, JD, and Nathan fought to stay behind him. Josiah's cold had gotten worse, and, much to his displeasure, he was forced to stay in Denver. Their plane to Albany was scheduled to depart in twenty minutes. It would probably take them that long just to get to the damn plane. He hefted the small duffel on his shoulder and adjusted the strap. All four men carried bags containing a few days' worth of clothes.

Chris' mind was going in warp speed; it had been ever since Travis decreed that Standish and Tanner would go to New York. A hundred different scenarios played out over and over in his mind. All the things that could go wrong, all the awful things that might happen. It was a rarity when agents were completely out of contact with HQ for several days straight. One small part of his brain tried to be logical. They knew what they were doing when they agreed to this, it whispered. That didn't make him feel better. Vin and Ezra had a remarkable knack for finding trouble. Or maybe trouble had a remarkable knack for finding them. Either way, Chris was worried.

"Hey, Chris! Hold up, pard." Chris turned at Buck's voice to find the others caught up in a swirl of bodies in motion. He paused to let them catch up. Once they did, they started on again. They arrived at the correct gate with five minutes to spare. Passengers were already boarding, so the four showed their tickets and stepped onto the plane. They all had seats in the same row, in the center aisle, so they could sit together.

Even though it seemed like forever, it was only thirty minutes before the commercial jet started rolling down the runway. Settling back in his seat, Chris looked over at the others. To his right, JD was listening to a baseball game on his headphones. On the other side of JD, Buck was trying to steal the headphones so he could listen, too. And on the other side of Buck, Nathan sat reading a pocket book.

Chris sighed. He just couldn't shake the feeling that something was going to happen. Something bad. Sighing again, he thought, It's going to be a long flight.

Three hours later, things had quieted down. Cappicci was talking in a low voice into his cell phone. Johnny had gone back up front with the pilot. Vin sat with his head back and his eyes closed. And Ezra gazed out the window.

They were flying just beneath the clouds, but high enough that everything below was a miniscule version of itself. A huge expanse of trees spread out beneath them like a green ocean.

Ezra was trying to figure out exactly where they were in terms of state borders, when he heard two short pops over the noise of the engines. He jerked upright. Was that a...?

Apparently, it was.

Johnny came out of the cockpit, gun in hand and a sinister smile on his face. Strapped over his shoulders was a parachute.

Vin reached for his gun, but Johnny stopped him with a shot two inches from his head. Vin froze. The bullet embedded itself harmlessly in the back of Vin's seat. "Don't move," Johnny ordered the three of them. They didn't.

Cappicci had a stunned look on his face. The cell phone was still in his hand, forgotten. "Johnny! What is the meaning of this?"

The man laughed. "You old fool! I'm sure you'll figure it out." He pulled open the hatch, and the interior of the plane was instantly buffeted by ferocious winds; loose items were blown out into the sky. Johnny tucked his gun into the waist of his pants and braced himself against the open hatch. Looking back, he shouted over the winds, "Mr. Cortez sends his regards!" And with that, he jumped.

Vin and Ezra jumped up from their seats at the same time. Vin ran to the hatch and struggled to close it.

Ezra hurried to the cockpit, already knowing what he would find. He was right. A single, small bullet hole was evident on the pilot's right temple. Ezra didn't bother to check; the man was dead. The thing that caught his immediate attention was the fact that they were losing altitude rapidly. He swore colorfully, then pushed the dead man out of the pilot's seat. Sliding into the vacated chair, Ezra hurriedly looked over the controls. "Damnit!" he exclaimed. Johnny had obviously fired that second shot into the controls. They were a mess.

I have to try, he thought. It had been quite some time since he'd last flown anything. Almost ten years, in fact. Let's hope I'm not too rusty. Grabbing the controls, he tried to even out the plane. The aircraft was sluggish, responding slowly to his efforts.

Vin came bursting in. He grabbed onto the back of the co-pilot's seat when the plane started shaking tremendously. He stopped in surprise when he saw Ezra at the helm. "Can you fly this thing?" he yelled as he slid into the vacant chair.

"Yes and no," Ezra shouted back.

"Eric!" Cappicci had appeared up front.

Ezra didn't turn from his fight with the controls. He said over his shoulder in a firm voice, "Michael, go back, sit down, and buckle up." He risked a quick glance at Cappicci. The man's face was ashen. He nodded once before heading back and reclaiming his seat.

Turning back to Vin, Ezra explained his earlier comment. "Technically, I know how to fly, but Johnny shot the controls. I don't know how long I can keep her steady."

Vin nodded in understanding. "If we find a place, can you land us?"

Standish chuckled. This was too ironic. "Unfortunately, Vin, landing was the one part of flying I never quite got the hang of." Vin stared at him in disbelief. "Besides, I don't think we'll have to worry about landing. We're surrounded by trees; there's not an open space for miles around. We'll have to settle for a crash landing!"

Ezra looked down at the control panel. Still losing altitude too rapidly. He adjusted the flaps until they were positioned at half. The small aircraft evened out a little, the wings almost level with the horizon. They were still descending at an incredible speed, but it was an improvement. It was only a matter of minutes, however, before the undercarriage of the fuselage was practically brushing the treetops.

Ezra was concentrating on the gauges when he felt Vin's hand on his shoulder. "Ezra!" He looked up... to see several huge trees--towering up above the rest--directly in their path. Panicking, Ezra tried to pull the nose up, but it was too late.

The right wing collided with the enormous trees. It crumpled under impact and was shorn clean away from the body of the plane, exposing the steel structure underneath. The plane, left wing dragging, nose tilted down, sprayed dirt and uprooted trees like a fountain as it skidded along for a hundred yards or so, turning 180 degrees in the process. It came to a halt, a twisted hunk of metal, plastic, and glass. The forest was unnaturally silent as the sounds of tortured metal faded away into the distance.

In the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, Peter McCay stared at the phone in his hand. Slowly lifting it back to his ear, he listened. Silence. "Michael?" he tried again. "Michael, are you there? Hello?" After a moment, he just as slowly replaced the receiver in its cradle. Leaning back in his genuine Italian leather chair, in his handsomely decorated study, McCay scratched his graying beard and thought over what he'd just heard.

An interesting development indeed, he thought. He knew that Carlos Cortez and Michael Cappicci had been rivals for years. Ever since Michael had moved in on Carlos' territory and practically become the big man in Denver. Carlos had openly declared his resentment and plans for retribution, so it came as no surprise that he'd managed to buy out one of Michael's men. Everybody had a price.

McCay pondered his options. Michael Cappicci, while certainly no great friend, was an important person in the "business." Losing him as a client and business associate would mean a loss in profits. And if there was one thing McCay cared about, it was profit. Besides, the opportunity to foil Carlos Cortez's plans to kill Michael, if he was even still alive, was enough incentive to take action. Never did like that Cortez, McCay thought to himself with a small grin.

With that thought in mind, he picked up the phone again. He dialed a number, and after a moment, a voice came on the line. "It's McCay," he said briskly. He was instantly put through to the private line that he knew was secure. Frankie wouldn't have it any other way. "Frankie. I need your help." He paused and listened. "I know, I know. But it's about Cappicci. Here's what I need...."

"What do you mean, they never arrived?!" Chris Larabee shouted at his cell phone. "They should've gotten there before we did!"

The female whose voice he heard on the other end of the line sounded annoyed. No wonder, the way Chris was screaming at her. "That's exactly what I said, Agent Larabee. We lost the signal over an hour ago, and the plane never showed up. We're attempting to contact the aircraft, but we've been unsuccessful so far."

Chris and the rest of his men were at the Albany ATF field office. They'd arrived there a little over half an hour ago as part of their strategy. They were to join up with several local agents and make their way to the outskirts of Michael Cappicci's estate, where they would stay until Vin and Ezra called them in.

When Larabee had received the call, he'd moved a few steps away from the others, who were looking at maps. Now, they were all staring at him. He didn't care; there was a bigger problem than him losing his cool. "Well, where the hell are they?"

"We're not exactly --"

Chris disconnected the phone in the middle of her sentence. "Goddamnit!" he seethed. "I knew this was a bad idea! Goddamn!" He stood, fists on hips, head lowered, and muttered an array of curses and oaths.

"Chris?" Nathan spoke up tentatively. "What's going on? What happened?"

Chris turned around and stormed back to the conference table Buck, Nathan, JD, and the other two agents, Cook and Goldblum were gathered around. Spitting the words out through clenched teeth, he said, "They lost the damn plane. They lost the signal, and now it hasn't shown up at Cappicci's airstrip."

"Jeezus," Buck said.

"What are we going to do, Chris?" JD asked. Nathan was silent, as were Cook and Goldblum. They all looked to Larabee for an answer.

What do they expect me to do? Chris thought angrily to himself. Make the plane magically appear? I don't have the answers! But he knew that wasn't the reason for his anger. It was the fear. Fear that Vin and Ezra were in trouble. Hurt. Injured. Dead. He roughly shoved that last thought away. It would do no good to go down that road until they were forced to. The others were still looking at him. He had to say something; he was, after all, the leader of their team.

He looked each one in the eye, then turned to the youngest member of the group. "We're going to find them, JD," he promised. His tone made it clear that he wouldn't accept the alternative. He just prayed that he wouldn't have to break that promise.

Ezra awoke to a blinding pain in his skull. God. That must've been one helluva party, he thought to himself. When it all flooded back to him, he wished it were a hangover instead. He opened his eyes, but his vision was blurry, and he was seeing double. Not a good sign, he surmised. Turning his head slightly, he ignored the red-hot needle someone had oh-so mercilessly shoved in his brain and assessed the situation from his limited viewpoint.

He lay on his stomach on the hard floor of the cockpit, squished between the pilot's chair and the control panel. He hurt all over. Ezra really did not want to move, but the thought of Vin lying injured was enough to make him attempt to push himself to his knees. The instant that he tried to move, however, an intense streak of pain shot from the fingertips of his right arm all the way to the center of his chest. Crying out, he slumped back to the floor and squeezed his eyes shut, holding the injured arm against his chest. After a few minutes, the excruciating pain became a little more bearable. Taking a few deep breaths to brace himself, Ezra used his left arm to push himself up. He gripped the chair next to him to keep from falling over. Once he was satisfied that the vertigo that encompassed him would not make him pass out, he looked around.

The front window of the plane was shattered. Branches, leaves, and dirt were everywhere. Ezra shuddered as he saw that a two-inch thick branch had impaled the chair he had been sitting in. If he hadn't been thrown out of it...

He forced his gaze from the branch and spied Vin Tanner lying in the doorway of the cockpit. Ignoring the pain it caused, Standish crawled over to the unconscious man's side. The only blood he saw came from a cut near Vin's hairline, but that didn't mean he wasn't hurt elsewhere. Gently shaking Tanner's shoulder, Ezra called his name. "Vin. Vin! It's time to wake up!" He was rewarded with a groan and a grimace. "Wake up!" he shouted forcefully, with a harder shake.

Another groan, and Vin opened his eyes, squinting. He raised a shaky hand to his head, then looked at the sticky blood on his fingers when he pulled it away. He turned his gaze to the other agent. "Ezra?"

"Good of you to join me, Mr. Tanner. Are you all right?" Ezra inquired, studying his colleague.

"Yeah... I think so. Help me up."

Ezra used his good arm to help Tanner pull himself into a position sitting against the cockpit entryway. The effort left him dizzy and weak, and he sagged back against the wall beside Vin, closing his eyes to hide the spinning world before him.


"Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"You all right?"

"No, not really."

A pause.



"I think you need to brush up on your landing skills."

Ezra couldn't hold back the sharp laugh that escaped his lips. He opened his eyes and looked at Vin, who was grinning at him. He grinned back. "I think you may be right, Vin."

Vin looked around, then back at Ezra. He raised one eyebrow. "Where's Cappicci?" he asked.

Ezra had completely forgotten about the third passenger. "I don't know." He slowly got to his feet, clutching his right arm against his chest and using the wall to brace himself. "I suppose we should go find out." Vin got to his feet also, and the two of them entered the main cabin.

It was only then that Ezra noticed the whole plane was tilted to one side. He had thought it was just him. Glancing out the broken windows, he could see they were missing a wing. Staring at the empty space where it should have been, he realized how lucky they were to be alive.

Pulling his attention from the windows, he saw that Vin was already by Cappicci's side. The man was just coming to as Ezra approached. He peeled open his gray eyes and looked at Ezra and Vin. "Eric? We're alive?" he said. He sounded surprised. Of course, Ezra couldn't blame him. He was surprised, too.

He grinned at Vin, then said to Cappicci, "Yes, Michael. All three of us are, surprisingly, in one piece." He paused, then added, "More or less."

Cappicci unstrapped himself from his safety belt; he was the only one who had used one. No doubt, he was in better shape than the two who hadn't. Getting up from his seat, he stared at the disaster around him in shock. Finally, he turned his attention to the two undercover agents. "You're hurt!" he exclaimed.

"Yeah," Vin replied. "But at least we ain't dead." He looked around, then turned back. "Listen, I don't think we should stay here too long. There might be a gas leak or something. Let's gather what we can use and get out of here."

Michael and Ezra nodded their agreement.

"While you do that," Standish added, "I'll check the radio." He tottered his way back to the cockpit, gripping seatbacks for balance. It was then that he noticed the body of the dead pilot. Funny, he hadn't even seen him when he woke up.

Turning away, he focused on the radio. He switched it on. A high-pitched squeal came from the instrument, then faded away. "Mayday, mayday. This is... hell I don't know what our call sign is... Hello? We've crashed. Come in!" He tried all the other frequencies but didn't have any luck. To punctuate his growing frustration, Ezra pounded his left fist against the consol. He hissed as the movement jostled his broken arm. "Well, that was extremely stupid of you," he muttered.

Dejectedly, he made his way aft. Vin and Michael had scrounged together an emergency kit, several blankets, Ezra's overcoat, and a few bottles of water. He was a little disappointed that the scotch hadn't survived. He could've really used a drink right about then. "Nothing," he said when they looked at him. "I tried all the frequencies. The radio's broken."

"Damn," Vin uttered.

"So... we're stuck here?" Cappicci asked.

Ezra sighed and nodded. "Unfortunately. At least until someone notices we're missing." He shot Vin a meaningful glance. Vin nodded in understanding; eventually, Chris and the others would find out that they were missing. Ezra just hoped it was sooner rather than later.

"Come on," Vin said. "Let's go." He grabbed some of the gear and headed for the hatch. Trying to open it, he realized it was stuck. The impact of the crash had jammed it firmly into place. "Give me a hand." Cappicci leaned his strength into helping out. With his good arm, Ezra did, too.

It took a few minutes, but the three of them together finally managed to open the hatch. There was about five feet between them and the ground. Vin went first, jumping lightly to the ground. Cappicci went next; he carefully sat down on the edge, then let himself slide off.

It was Ezra's turn. His head was swimming, his arm was a constant source of agony, and the way he felt, those five feet might just as well have been fifty. Can't very well stay in the plane, now, can you? he scolded himself. He sighed and grit his teeth, then sat on the edge like Cappicci had done. Dropping to the ground was just too much; the world was spinning too rapidly for him to maintain his balance. He screamed as he landed on his injured arm. Blackness swiftly overtook him, sending him into oblivion.

Frankie Malone's orders were always carried out. It was an unhealthy move to do otherwise. So, when Frankie ordered a job done, it was done, no matter what. The man who picked up the phone knew all this. And he knew it had to be something important for Frankie to call him personally.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"I want you to do something for me, Nicky," said the gravelly voice on the other end of the line.

"Yeah, sure. What?"

"A plane is missing. There is an important man on it, understand? I want you to find it, and I want to know when you do. This is very important, Nicky. I need to know before anybody else."

"You got it, Mr. Malone."

"Good man." The line went dead.

Nicky snapped shut his cell phone and straightened his tie. He briskly headed out the door of the restroom and stepped into the corridor of a utilitarian building on the Jacobs Radar Airforce Base. He had work to do.

JD Dunne sipped his Coke quietly. He sat in a small breakroom, in the Albany ATF headquarters. He leaned his elbows on the table he sat at and twirled the aluminum can between his fingers.

God, how he hated waiting. The others always said he had the patience equivalent of a five year-old. He'd never really taken it seriously until now, when all there was to do was wait.

It had only been five minutes since he'd left the briefing room. He'd just had to get away from Chris' brooding for a few minutes. The man sure knew how to suck the light out of a room when he was in a bad mood. And he was in a bad mood.

But JD suspected it wasn't really anger the team leader was feeling. More like worry. It didn't come as a surprise. JD knew that Vin was Chris' best friend. Of course he was worried about him. And Ezra, well, Ezra was one of them, no matter how he'd tried to keep his distance.

JD was scared. Scared for Vin and Ezra, and scared of what would happen to the team if the two didn't come back alive. It might continue on. Might still be one of the best. But it wouldn't be the best. Not with two of its members gone. And it would never be the same. They were a family. You don't lose family and have nothing change. JD knew that.

"You okay, JD?"

Dunne looked up, startled, as Buck Wilmington slid into the chair opposite of him. He hadn't even heard him enter the breakroom. Brushing an errant lock of dark hair from his eyes, JD looked at his closest friend. He shrugged, his eyes sliding downward again, and said, "I guess." He pushed his soda over to Buck, who picked it up and took a long draught. He looked up again, his brown eyes filled with worry. "Buck, what if we don't find them? Or what if we find them, but...." He couldn't finish the thought out loud.

Buck jumped in, his face serious. "You can't start thinkin' like that, kid. Y'got to stay positive. We'll find them." Never one to stay somber for too long, Buck's face lightened, and he smiled. "Heck, a little thing like a plane crash ain't enough to stop our boys. You know that!"

JD nodded. The heaviness on his heart had lifted somewhat. That's what was so great about Buck; he could make anyone feel better. "You're right, Buck. They can take care of themselves."

"Darn straight, they can," Buck replied. He shoved his chair back and stood up.

JD did the same. He tossed the soda can over his shoulder--a move Vin had taught him--and it sailed squarely into the metal trashcan in the corner. "Hey, Buck," he said. Wilmington paused and looked at him. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." He grabbed JD in a headlock and maneuvered him out the door. The young man exclaimed loudly in protest, but he was ignored. "Now," Buck continued, "even though Vin and Ez can take care of themselves, let's go see if we can help find 'em before they kill each other!"

Vin lunged forward as he saw Ezra on a collision course with the ground, but was too late. The southerner cried out in pain as he landed on his right side and instantly blacked out. Ouch. Vin winced in sympathy. He'd seen the way Ezra'd been holding his arm, and he knew it was injured.

Vin hurriedly knelt by the fallen man's side and felt for a pulse. Strong and steady, if a little fast. He sighed, then rocked back on his heels and looked around. The sun was on its way down, it's waning light obscured by the canopy of thick foliage that towered above them. They'd have to find shelter soon. And water; they had a few bottles to drink, but they would need more if they hoped to last until rescue came.

He looked back down at Ezra. The man was out for the count. Should he wake him? Part of him knew they should get moving and find someplace to camp, but another part wanted to let Ezra sleep. He didn't look too good. Blood slowly oozed from a nasty cut on his right temple and was caked along the right side of his face. A thin sheen of sweat resided upon his upper lip. And, looking at Ezra's right arm, Vin could see it was beginning to swell against the sleeve of Standish's suit coat.

It seemed that Ezra was the worse off of the three of them. Vin himself had an assortment of bruises and a headache, but he didn't think he had a concussion.

"Is he all right?" Cappicci asked, coming closer. His fancy coat was wrinkled, and his hairpiece had gone askew, making him look somewhat comical. But Vin wasn't in a laughing mood. They had a serious situation here.

"I think so," Vin answered. He was usually very good at reading people, Ezra being an exception, but Vin couldn't quite get a read on this man Michael Cappicci. He was a criminal, a drug trafficker, and a gunrunner. But at the same time, he was friendly, charming; Vin knew Ezra was taken with the man, though he wouldn't admit it. And Cappicci even seemed to care. In short, he was an oxymoron. And Vin wasn't sure how to deal with that. "It'll get dark real soon. And cold, too. We're gonna have to make camp somewhere nearby for tonight, then go huntin' for water tomorrow." He pointed to the bundle of supplies a few feet away. "Get me that emergency kit over there."

Cappicci brought it over to him, and he rummaged inside, taking inventory. One flare gun; two flares; a box of matches; a flashlight with extra batteries; and finally, a first aid kit. He quickly pulled the last item out and opened it. A brief search yielded a small vial of smelling salts. He unscrewed it and waved it under Ezra's nose.

Standish wrinkled his brow and turned his head away, but Vin persisted. Finally, Ezra cracked open his green eyes. "Will you please get that Godawful smell away from me?" he growled. Vin saw that Ezra's eyes were unevenly dilated but was pleased that Ezra was with-it enough to grumble.

"All right," Vin said. He put the smelling salts back in the first-aid kit. "How many fingers am I holdin' up?"

Ezra irritably swatted Vin's hand away. He pushed himself up on his left elbow, grimacing, obviously in pain. But Vin wouldn't let him shrug off the question. It was important to know how severe Ezra's concussion was.

"How many?" he insisted.

"Four, alright? Are you satisfied?" Ezra ground out through clenched teeth.

Vin was holding up three fingers. Inwardly, he sighed. He said, "Good enough." He turned to Cappicci. "C'mon. Help me get him up." Between the two of them, they managed to get Standish up without jostling his arm too much. Vin steadied him when he swayed on his feet. "You okay? Think you can stand on your own?"

After a moment, Ezra nodded slowly. He released the death grip he had on Vin's arm and remained standing. Vin made sure he'd stay vertical, then went and picked up some of their gear. He motioned for Cappicci to take the rest.

They couldn't camp too close to the downed aircraft, Vin knew. There were undoubtedly jet fuel fumes hanging in the air. If they lit a fire while too near, they'd be just asking for trouble. A spark might send them all to kingdom come. So they started off on their trek to find a suitable camp.

Vin had been right. It had gotten colder as the sun completed its journey to the west. Under the cover of the trees, it was pitch black. Ezra shivered and moved a little closer to the fire, seeking warmth.

By the time they'd set up camp a couple hundred yards from the crash site, it had been too dark to hunt for something to eat. So instead, they'd drunk some of the water and decided to settle in for the night. That was fine by Ezra; he wasn't hungry. The way he felt--his head pounding, his arm on fire--he doubted anything would stay down, anyway.

They had found a small brush-filled hollow surrounded by a ring of imposing trees. Cappicci had eventually laid down, and it appeared he was sleeping.

Ezra turned his head to watch Tanner feed the slowly growing fire, then clenched his eyes shut when things began to tilt dangerously. He'd have to be careful about that. When he opened them again he came face to face with Tanner.

"How're you doing?" A concerned note was evident in Tanner's voice.

"As well as can be expected... under the circumstances," Ezra informed him.

"Let me take a look at your arm, see how bad it is."

Ezra shrugged his coat off his shoulders, wincing when pain lanced throughout his entire arm. He then carefully unbuttoned his formerly pristine black silk shirt and slid his right arm out of it. Clenching his teeth, he didn't make a sound when Vin carefully took the arm in his hands. However, he couldn't hold back a few choice remarks when Tanner poked and prodded the bruised, swollen apendage with his fingers.

"Sorry," Vin said, looking at him with a raised eyebrow. "Be right back." Getting up, he grabbed hold of the first aid kit, then sat back down in front of Ezra. He opened it and took out a roll of Ace bandage. He told Ezra to put his shirt back on, then ripped the sleeve and pushed it up. Ezra silently moaned. The shirt was one of his favorites. Vin found a couple of sturdy sticks for a splint, wrapped the elastic material securely around sticks and the arm, then wound it a couple times beneath the arm and around Ezra's neck. When he was finished, he had splinted Ezra's arm so it stayed straight, and made a sling that would hold the arm somewhat immobile, close to Ezra's chest. Standing back, he surveyed his handywork. "There you go," he said, placing Ezra's suit jacket back over his shoulder.

Ezra was surprised. The sling made a big difference. Now he didn't have to focus all his energy on keeping is arm as still as possible; he had the sling to help. Turning his eyes to Vin, he said, "Thank you." He paused as Vin sat back down and fed some more twigs to the flames before them. "In all that has transpired, I neglected to inquire how well you fared the crash." Blood still caked their faces, making them look ghastly in the fire light. With the limited supply of water they had, they couldn't afford to waste it cleaning themselves up.

Vin leaned back, arms stretched out behind him. "I'm all right. Just got knocked on the head, is all. Not to mention aches in places I didn't even know I had," he joked. Turning serious, he glanced at Cappicci who was still sleeping, then said in a low voice, "Listen, Ezra. We've got to figure out what we're going to do here. It could be days before Chris and the others find us. Tomorrow we're gonna have to go looking for water. And I could probably scare us up a rabbit or somethin' to eat. But there's another matter, too."

"Cappicci," Ezra said.

"Yeah," Vin nodded.

Ezra scratched his chin and looked into the flickering fire. He'd been thinking about that and had come up with only one reasonable solution. "We shall just have to maintain our cover. When help arrives.... Well, to be honest, Vin, I'm not sure what will happen. We still haven't obtained the proof against him, so making an arrest is questionable. However, I think it is in our best interests that he not find out about our status as government agents. Agreed?" He turned to look at his partner.

Vin nodded. "Agreed," he confirmed.

Cappicci listened to the low voices just a couple of yards away, one eye cracked open the tiniest amount. From where he lay, he could see the two men sitting across the fire from him. He had quietly watched as Victor bandaged up Eric's injured arm. Michael hadn't heard everything, but he had heard enough.

Dammit! he thought to himself. Federal agents. I should have known. I should have realized it. Michael Cappicci wasn't a man easily fooled. He had believed that Eric Colt was bona fide. He had wanted to believe, he admitted to himself. He liked the young man. Colt had seemed eager, ambitious, and refreshing in a way that reminded Michael of himself twenty years ago. But Eric was a lie. That wasn't even his name. Hadn't the other man called him Ezra?

So what was he going to do about this? He'd been on the phone with McCay when the disaster had all started. Surely Peter would guess something was wrong. He hoped so. And he hoped Peter sent help before the feds came swooping in. He had no wish to be present when they did. Michael was struck by the sudden thought that no one knew where they were. Pushing that thought aside, he decided that Peter would come through. After all, he was an important person in the world of organized crime. He practically controlled the flow of drugs and guns in and out of Colorado.

And Cortez. When he got back, Cortez would pay for this. Not to mention that two-timing, rat-bastard Johnny Marlowe. He'd known the man for years. He'd given him a job! How dare he turn on him like that? Cappicci was seething.

He turned his mind back to his more immediate problem. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in New York, with two undercover agents. What the hell was he going to do? Well, his mind decided rationally, you can't kill them here. Truth be known, he didn't really want to kill them. True, they'd stabbed him in the back, but he just liked Eric--Ezra--too much to do that. Besides, he intended to save all his anger for Cortez and Marlowe, the ones who really deserved his wrath. So it looks like you'll just have to go along with them. Pretend you don't know who they are.

Still watching the two men, he saw them stretch out near the fire. He waited until they had drifted off before he sat up. He patted his right ankle, feeling the slight bulge of his .22. With the company he kept, he found it best to not conduct business unarmed. Somewhat comforted by the knowledge that he wasn't totally unprotected, he laid back down and thought, Don't leave home without it. He didn't want to have to kill them, but he'd do whatever was necessary to ensure his survival.

Frankie entered his private study and headed straight for the dry bar along one wall. He chose from an assortment of crystal decanters. He then poured a generous amount of the amber liquid into a glass tumbler and swirled it, letting the soft glow of the Tiffany lamps reflect in the liquor. Sipping the drink, he let his mind wander briefly.

He was confident that Nicky would not let him down. He would find the plane before anybody else did. When he did, Frankie would send a team of his men out there to find out whether Cappicci was dead or alive. If alive, he would then bring him back.

He personally had no interest in Cappicci. But, Peter McCay did. And Frankie owed McCay. It was McCay who had warned him of the leak within his group a year ago. If he hadn't, Frankie would most likely be serving a life sentence in the state penn right about now. After this, however, they were even. Frankie smiled at that and finished the last of his drink. He didn't like being in debt to anyone.

It had been six hours since the plane had gone missing, and it still hadn't been found. Not for lack of trying, though. The ATF headquarters was a hive of activity, as were the FBI and the local air force base. Search planes and helicopters were readied to be deployed in a grid pattern to search the area where the signal had been lost. They knew they had to find the missing agents before any of Cappicci's organization did. Nobody was giving up, because to do so was to condemn them to death. The thought that they were already dead was a notion nobody cared to entertain.

Ezra awoke with a start, jerking his head off the ground. At first, he didn't know what had woken him, but then he heard the sound of brush rustling somewhere nearby. He held his breath, searching the darkness for the source of the noise. A few minutes later, after hearing nothing more, he relaxed. "Thank God," he whispered under his breath. The last thing he wanted to deal with was some wild creature searching for a midnight snack.

Looking around, he saw that the fire had died down. Shoving his blanket aside, he pushed himself to a sitting position. He groaned softly as countless aches made themselves known, all the bumps and bruises flaring to life.

Tanner and Cappicci were still asleep, facing the fire, seeking the warmth that was no longer there. The blankets that had been salvaged from the crash were thin and provided a limited amount of protection from the cold. Ezra gathered that they were both deep in slumber, since neither had woken at the earlier ruckus in the brush. He glanced at his watch. Miraculously, it had survived the crash. Almost eleven o' clock. It felt like later.

Scrubbing a weary hand over his face, Ezra's eyes sought out the small pile of wood that had been gathered. He picked up a few pieces and moved to the fire. Discovering that the embers still glowed red, he stirred the ashes with a long stick, hoping to ignite a spark. One ember erupted into a tiny flame, and Ezra blew gently to help it along. His efforts were rewarded when the flame spread to the twig he'd placed on top of it. He quickly built up the fire, adding bark and sticks until it was snapping and crackling quite nicely.

Looking upon his handiwork, Ezra couldn't contain the satisfied smirk that appeared on his face. I didn't even use any of the matches. Not bad for a man who's never been camping before, he thought smugly. Mother would be proud. He almost laughed at that sarcastic thought, but he didn't want to wake his companions.

Sighing, he settled down again, sitting close to the blaze to feel the warmth it emanated. It did little to lift his spirits, however. The group was lost. Stranded. He hurt. He was tired. And for all he knew, some giant bear or mountain lion or whatever the hell it was, was looking at him and licking its lips, preparing to make a meal of him. He chuckled humorlessly. Come on, you bear, come and get me. Put me out of my misery. You'll be doing me a favor.

Ezra rubbed his pounding forehead and sighed. He wasn't usually this morose. It was just the stress. And maybe the blow to the head he'd received. He'd been working hard lately, not sleeping well, not to mention worrying over his cases. This one case in particular. What he needed was a vacation. Somewhere peaceful. Somewhere quiet. Somewhere where he didn't have to think about work, or putting away criminals, or the rumors floating around behind his back. He wasn't sure where he would go. Maybe an island somewhere. Or maybe just somewhere warm. But he was sure of where he wouldn't go. He was definitely not going camping.

Vin carefully set the snare he'd fashioned, putting a few berries in the center as bait. With a little luck, they'd have something to eat soon. He knew how to skin a rabbit and cook it over an open fire. And he knew a little about which plants were edible and which were not. So he wasn't worried about the three of them starving anytime soon. And if things did become desperate, there was always Vin's gun. What they now needed was water.

He'd been up for an hour, and the sun was just now starting to filter its meager light through the treetops. He'd left his two companions at the campsite, telling them he'd be back in a little while. He smiled as he remembered Ezra's comment of, "Don't let yourself be eaten by any creatures while you're gone."

Vin's smile faded as he remembered waking up briefly in the middle of the night. He'd seen Ezra sitting up by the fire, staring blankly into space. He'd been about to say something to him when Ezra had glanced over at him. Their eyes had locked, green meeting blue, neither saying a word until Ezra smiled slightly, laid back down, and closed his eyes. Vin had shrugged it off and quickly had fallen back to sleep.

But now, in the light of day, he was curious as to what Ezra had been thinking about, just sitting there. He briefly considered asking but quickly discarded the idea. It wasn't any of his business.

He headed back to the campsite. Soon they could eat and then be on their way.

No one said much of anything as the three picked their way through the dense plant life. There were numerous branching tree roots to look out for; it seemed to Ezra that they purposefully reached up to trip them, making their pace a slow one. Branches scratched their skin and snagged their clothes, leaving them a bedraggled sight indeed. And to make matters worse, what portion of the sky that could be seen was overcast and heavy, threatening to drench the trio without a moment's notice.

They'd only been walking for about two hours, but Ezra felt as if he'd run a marathon. He had been dropping slowly behind the other two, his pace slowing. He was sweating from the exertion, and his breath came in gasps. It was as if he couldn't get enough oxygen into his lungs. Plus, his head hadn't gotten any better, and every step jostled his arm. And they still hadn't found any water. He'd begun to doubt if they ever would.

Another half hour and he couldn't take it any longer. He was light headed; he had to take a break. By now, the others were about ten yards ahead of him, concealed by the thick foliage around them. Not having the breath to call out to them, Ezra just sank down to the moss-covered ground, bracing his back against a tree. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, concentrating on taking slow deep breaths. God, he felt terrible.

It was a few minutes before he heard the others making their way back towards him. Cappicci, being older and not in such good shape, lagged behind Tanner. He felt a hand on his shoulder and raised his head. He was right in assuming it belonged to Vin.

"You okay?" he asked. Ezra carefully shook his head, the slight movement reawakening the piercing pain in his head. Vin reached into the orange emergency duffel and produced their last bottle of water. "Here, drink some of this," he ordered, placing the plastic container in Ezra's hand.

Ezra sipped the cool liquid, relishing the way it soothed his parched mouth. He handed it back, then looked wryly at Vin. "I have come to the unfortunate conclusion... that I am in hell."

Vin quirked a half grin, then said, "Hey, it can't get much worse, now, can it?"

As if to prove him wrong, a loud rumble rolled across the heavens, and a sudden heavy rain began pounding down between the leaves of the treetops. In no time, they were all soaked. Ezra glared accusingly at Tanner, as if it had actually been Tanner's words that had brought the downpour upon them. "You had to go and say that, didn't you? Can't get much worse, now, can it?" He mimicked the last part in a reasonable impression of Vin.

Vin grinned and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry."

Ezra sighed and resigned himself to the fact that he was indeed in hell. Now it couldn't get any worse. It just wasn't possible.

Cappicci trudged along behind the other two men, taking care not to slip on the bed of wet moss and leaves underneath his feet. His expensive leather loafers were not made for walking great distances and did not respond kindly to the type of punishment that had been bestowed upon them. It seemed that this particular leather shrank somewhat when it got wet, and his toes were pinched and uncomfortable.

He had quit praying for a break in the downpour some time ago; it was obvious that it was doing no good. He shivered. But does it have to be a cold rain? he whined mentally. He didn't care that this was New York. He didn't care that he knew it got cold here. He wanted to be dry. The one thing he did care about, however, was the fact that it wasn't snowing. That in itself was unusual, for usually the first snowfall would have occurred a couple of weeks ago. But, hey, who was he to look a gift horse in the mouth?

We'd better find shelter soon, or we're were all going to die of pneumonia, he thought testily. He was definitely not used to this type of hardship. He should be back in Colorado, in his warm house, playing with his grandchildren. Not out here in this Godforsaken forest...

The more miserable he became, the more pleasure he took in imagining ways to make Cortez and Marlowe equally miserable. Which, at least in his mind, wasn't such a bad way to pass the time.

By the time they found shelter from the rain, they were all chilled to the bone. It was pure chance that they found the tiny cave. It wasn't really more than a hole in the side of a ravine, but to the three weary travelers, it was heaven. It was barely big enough for all of them, but they managed to squeeze in, nonetheless. And there was certainly no room for a fire inside, even if their had been any dry wood around.

The blankets, which had been stowed in the emergency kit to stay dry, were passed out. Each pulled his blanket close around his shoulders, striving to gain a little warmth.

Vin sat shivering, his knees drawn up to his chest in the cramped quarters. Most of his long hair had escaped its ponytail and dripped water into his eyes. He sighed and pushed it all back into the elastic band. A quiet chuckle caused him to look up, and he was surprised to discover it came from Ezra. The man had barely spoken a word since it had started raining hours earlier.

"What's so funny?" Vin wanted to know. He didn't see a whole lot of amusement in their current predicament.

"I was just thinking, dehydration is no longer a problem. In fact, I would say that too much water is our enemy at the moment," Ezra explained.

Vin just shook his head. Cappicci looked slightly disgusted at Ezra's statement.

"I think it would be best," Ezra continued, "if we set out the water bottles to capture what rain we can."

"Good idea," Vin agreed. They set the plastic bottles in a good spot to catch as much rainwater as possible. It would at least solve their current lack of drinking water.

The three relaxed as much as their sore, drenched bodies would allow. No one said much. They were all too occupied by their own thoughts. All were wondering if they would ever again be dry, warm, and comfortable.

Ezra was brought out of his light doze by a quietly muttered "Damn." Although he had tried, he hadn't managed to attain a deep slumber. He was freezing, and every time he shivered, daggers of pain shot through his arm. He was so incredibly tired; he vowed that when he got back home he wasn't going to leave his bed for an entire week. Possibly two.

Rubbing his blurry eyes and squinting through the pain of his fierce headache, he saw that Cappicci was awake and looking out the entrance of their small shelter. "Michael?" he questioned, his southern drawl accentuated by fatigue.

"Look," Michael said, shaking his head despondently. He pointed outside.

Ezra followed the outstretched finger. "Oh, wonderful," he moaned. The driving rain had given way to soft, large flakes of snow. Already, the ground was turning white. Ezra's breath plumed out before him when he exhaled, testament to the drop in temperature.

"Shouldn't we do something? Like go find some fire wood?" Cappicci ventured. "I mean, we're going to freeze to death if we don't get warm."

Ezra nodded. Cappicci was right. They would freeze to death if they didn't do something quickly. He glanced over at Vin. The other agent was sleeping, his arms folded on top of his knees, his head resting upon his arms.

"Vin," he called quietly.

Vin's head jerked upright, blinking rapidly to dispel sleep. "Huh, what?" He noticed the snow. "Damn."

"Exactly. We need to find some dry wood. Michael and I will do that. You can find a suitable place for a fire. All right?"

Vin peered at him in the dim light. "Are you sure? I can go with him if you're not up to it."

"I'm sure." Ezra stepped out of their cave and stretched his legs. They were stiff from being in the same position all night long. "Ready?" he asked Michael. Cappicci nodded, and they set out.

After forty minutes of searching, the two headed back with what they had gathered. Which was little more than a handful of dry and semi-dry sticks and twigs. It was all they could find before they started to lose feeling in their fingers.

Ezra regretted not bringing his warm pair of leather gloves. It had been cold back in Colorado, but not that cold. And he hadn't thought of the weather in New York. A terrible oversight on his part.

Then again, he also hadn't thought the plane would crash or they would be stranded in a snow storm. So sue me, he thought.

When they reached the cave, Ezra and Cappicci shook the wet snow from their coats as best as they could, then entered. Vin had dug a small pit outside the cave entrance for the fire. He'd fashioned a cover of tree boughs to stand over it. That, he explained, would keep the snow from putting out the fire.

It took a good while of painstaking effort to get a fire going, the matches kept fizzling out. However, they eventually got a small blaze going. Knowing they needed to conserve what wood they had, they fueled it sparingly.

So they sat there, holding their icy hands over the flames, resigned to the fact that it would be a long, cold day, followed by an even longer and colder night. Each one of them was thinking of someplace warm and wishing they were anywhere but where they actually were.

Frankie hung up the phone, satisfied. He knew he could count on Nicky. Cappicci's plane had been located. Now all he had to do was send out a chopper to find Cappicci himself. And he had to be quick about it, too. It was only a matter of time before the feds found the plane, as well.

It was dark already, even though Ezra's watch showed it to be only four in the afternoon. The clouds visible through the forest were heavy gray, letting them know it had no intention of stopping its precipitation any time soon.

He sighed. To pass the time, they'd tried playing word games, telling jokes, and they'd even resorted to twenty questions a time or two. But for the moment, they all were quiet.

"Okay," Vin said suddenly, raising his head, "I've got a joke. Why is it that New Jersey got all the toxic waste dumps and California got all the lawyers?" He looked at Ezra and Michael, waiting for them to guess. The two looked at each other, then shrugged. "Because... New Jersey got first choice," Vin finished.

Cappicci chuckled. Ezra just smiled and shook his head slightly. A joke worthy of JD, he thought. Huh. That's probably where he got it.

Vin cocked his head to one side and furrowed his brow. It appeared as if he were concentrating on something far off. Ezra watched, curious. He couldn't hear anything other than the wind, the crackling of the fire, and the sound of their breathing. "What is it?" he asked.

Vin shushed him with a sharp motion of his hand. A second later he said, "Do you hear that?"

Ezra shook his head in negation. "Hear what?"

"Wait! I hear it, too!" Cappicci exclaimed a moment later. "It sounds like... a helicopter!"

And then Ezra heard it, too--a low rumble coming from somewhere above them. Hope surged through him. Help was here. Please let it be Chris and the others, he pleaded silently. For a long second it seemed that time stopped, and they all stared at one another. And then they all scrambled out of the cave in a mad rush. Ezra would have laughed at the comical sight if he wasn't too busy searching the sky already.

They stood in the falling snow, gazes turned upwards, trying to see through the treetops to the helicopter they could hear coming closer. Ezra felt his heart stop when the chopper flew directly overhead, then continued on its path. No. This couldn't happen! It was leaving!

"The flare gun!" Ezra suddenly remembered. Vin dove for the small emergency kit and pulled out the flare gun. He loaded one of the two flares into it, and then he aimed it up through a break in the trees. He pulled the trigger, and Ezra held his breath, hoping it would shoot through the tree boughs. It did.

They waited, straining their ears and eyes while their hands and faces went numb from exposure to the cutting wind. Ezra nearly collapsed with relief when the sound became louder again. The helicopter was returning.

Soon the noise of the engine stopped, and they waited impatiently, pacing to keep warm. What seemed like an eternity--more likely half an hour--passed before they saw anything.

Four men came trudging through the trees towards them. They were warmly dressed in heavy parkas and ski masks. Two of the men carried large weapons.

Cappicci waved them over, running ahead a few steps. Ezra swallowed and looked at Vin. Their eyes met. These were definitely not federal agents. Vin shrugged and said quietly so Cappicci couldn't hear, "I guess we take what we can get. It's not like they know who we are or anything, right?"

Ezra nodded, but he was still uneasy.

The four men finally reached the trio of half-frozen survivors. The tallest one, dressed in a dark green parka, stepped forward. "Mr. Cappicci?" he shouted above the whistling of the wind, his breath coming out in clouds of white fog.

"Yes! Yes, I'm Cappicci."

"Mr. Malone sent us to find you and bring you back," the man continued.

"Malone?" Cappicci wondered out loud. "Frankie Malone?"

The man nodded in affirmation.

Vin and Ezra just looked at each other. They had no idea who Malone was. New York wasn't their normal jurisdiction; they weren't familiar with the local players.

"Come with us, sir," said a second man, one of the two with visible weapons.

Cappicci started to follow them, as did Standish and Tanner. The two agents stopped, however, when the second man with a gun pointed his weapon at them. "Sir?" the man queried. Cappicci turned around. "Mr. Malone was unaware of these two. What about them?"

A peculiar look crossed Michael's face before being replaced with a scowl. "Leave them here."

Ezra started. Had he heard right? "Michael! Surely you don't plan on leaving without us?" Things were taking a rapid nosedive for the worse.

Cappicci just shrugged. "Sorry, Ezra, there's no room on this helicopter for feds," he said as he turned around again and started walking away. The gun remained trained on the two as the group quickly disappeared back into the trees.

Vin and Ezra stared after the retreating forms. There was nothing they could do. Cappicci was leaving them there to freeze to death.

"Son of a bitch!" Ezra shouted. He kicked his foot into the snow, sending a spray of the white stuff into the air. But he lost his balance and fell backwards. He bit back the cry of pain that threatened to escape as his arm banged against his chest, and he clenched his eyes shut. Opening them a minute later, he saw Vin crouched by his side. "Vin, just shoot me now," Ezra groaned, unable to stop a miserable laugh from joining in.

"Can't," Vin stated.

"And why not?" Ezra demanded to know. "The least you could do is put me out of my misery."

"I can't," Vin repeated. "I'd lose my job. There'd be a trial. I'd go to jail. Not to mention, Chris would be pissed 'bout being stuck with extra work. You know how he gets."

Ezra sighed. "I suppose you're right. We wouldn't want to upset poor Mr. Larabee, now, would we? Oh, hell, it was worth a try." He struggled to rise.

Vin chuckled and helped Ezra to his feet. Ezra put a cold hand to his aching head and sighed. The sound of the helicopter taking off interrupted their thoughts, and they looked in the direction the five men had taken. Within moments, it was as quiet as if the group of men had never been there at all.

Vin put his arm over Ezra's shoulder comfortingly and led him back to the small cave. "C'mon, Ez. Let's get that fire going again. Can't have us turning to popsicles before help comes."

Ezra sighed wearily. God, he was so tired, so cold. He just wanted it to be all over. He just wanted to go home.


All eyes had been focused on the man as he spoke into the phone, so when he voiced the joyous shout, they all leaned forward eagerly. "What is it?" Chris Larabee demanded as he stood and walked over to Steven Pierce, Special Agent in Charge of the Albany ATF branch. They were gathered together in a conference room--Nathan, JD, Cook, Chris, and Pierce--studying maps and waiting for reports from the search planes. Buck and Goldblum were out in one of the search planes, it being their turn to ride along with the search and rescue team.

The older agent replaced his cell phone and turned to face them, a relieved smile on his face. "The S & R plane found the wreckage."

The room erupted in a chorus of cheers and high-fives at the good news. Chris allowed the tension in his muscles to ease just a bit and a small smile to cross his face. This was great, but Vin and Ezra weren't out of the woods yet. It had started to snow early yesterday morning, and already nearly a foot of snow covered the city. And Chris knew for a fact that neither was equipped for that type of weather. But he knew they were not dead. It was a feeling in his gut that he couldn't explain. He just hoped they stayed that way until help arrived.

It was night, now, and the two men sat side by side in their shelter. Each had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders; the blanket Cappicci had been using was stretched across the both of them to share body heat. Occasionally, one or the other would feed the fire with their dwindling supply of wood. After Cappicci's departure they had scrounged together another armload of fuel, but they both knew it would not last very long.

Vin's stomach growled, and he regretfully wished for something to eat. If help didn't come soon, they'd have to go hunting. But he wasn't overly optimistic about finding anything decent to eat; the creatures were probably hibernating by now, waiting out the winter in their dens.

He heard Ezra's stomach growl as well, and they shared a rueful smile. They were both hungry.

Vin held his hands over the fire, then placed them on his face, attempting to pass some of that heat to his icy cheeks. He sighed tiredly and closed his eyes.

A moment later, he heard a quiet murmuring from the man next to him and opened his eyes. Ezra was watching the fire flicker, but turned his gaze to Vin when he realized he was being watched. He smiled slightly, the firelight dancing in his green eyes, making them an eerie yellow. "A poem," he explained. "Something I just remembered. Interesting, though, I haven't thought of it in years."

Vin tilted his head. "Why don't you tell it to me?" he suggested. He'd always been interested in poetry. Heck, he'd even tried writing some himself, not that he'd ever told anyone.

Ezra hesitated, then nodded his head in acquiescence. In a low, mellifluous voice he began to recite the poem Annabel Lee.

Vin listened quietly as Ezra finished reciting the last haunting stanza. The poem brought a bittersweet pain to his heart and a small smile to his lips. "I knew a girl named Annabel once," he confided, then instantly wondered why he did. He'd never told anyone about Annabel, not even Chris.

After a pause, however, he continued. "It was five years ago. I was still a bounty hunter. She was a waitress at this little diner. I... I fell in love at first sight." Vin stopped, a flood of emotions and memories surging through him. His beautiful Annabel. "She was sweet, and pretty, and kind, and I knew I didn't deserve her. And lord only knows why, but she seemed to like me, too.

"So we spent time together, doing all sorts of things." He glanced quickly at Ezra and blushed at the memory of some of the things he and Annabel did. Ezra merely smiled.

"But there was this guy," Vin continued. "A tough son of a bitch accused of murder, who skipped out on his trial. There was a five thousand dollar price on him, if he was taken in alive. He found out I was after him and decided he didn't want to go to trial. So he went after Annabel. I got there in time, and I shot the bastard before he could do much more than scare her. But after that, I realized it was too dangerous for Annabel and me to be together, no matter how much I loved her."

"And what did Miss Annabel say about this?" Ezra inquired.

Vin shook his head. He'd been a coward, doing what he did. "I didn't ask her. I left a note explaining things as best I could, and I left. Haven't seen her since."

He looked up to meet Ezra's eyes for the first time since he started his tale. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see, but it wasn't the sympathy and understanding he found there. Ever since he had joined Team Seven, Ezra had kept himself aloof and distant from the others. And Vin was ashamed to admit it, but he'd had the thought a time or two that Ezra just didn't give a damn about any of them. Now he realized how wrong he was.

"Maybe you should give her a call when we get back. Work things out."

Vin thought about it for a while. "Maybe," he finally said, softly. "I wonder if she'd even speak to me."

Neither said a word. A minute later, Ezra started rubbing his right hand with the fingers of his left, brow furrowed. Catching Vin watching, he looked him in the eye. "It seems I've lost all feeling in my right arm," he said as calmly as if he were commenting on the weather.

Vin stared at him in surprise. Even though he was no doctor, he knew this was bad news. And here was Ezra, calm as can be... He'd never figure that man out. "Damn. How long ago?" he finally asked.

"An hour."

Vin sighed and stared out into the dark night. The snow had let up slightly, coming down gently in small flakes. He placed a couple more pieces of wood on the fire, dispassionately watching the flames as they crackled and hissed.

He watched Ezra struggle to keep his eyes open, his head nodding forward every few minutes. "Why don't you get some rest?" Vin suggested. As if there were anything else to do.

Ezra nodded wearily. He brought his legs up, cradled his injured arm between his knees and his chest, and rested his head on his knees. "Sleep tight, Mr. Tanner."

Vin watched Ezra until he knew that he was asleep. Tanner was quite aware they might die. They were weak from lack of food, in poor condition from the crash, and they would probably freeze to death soon, despite their small fire and their blankets. But the fact that Ezra suggested he call Annabel meant the southerner still had hope of rescue. And that was all Vin needed for his own dwindling hope to flare as bright as the small fire before him. Help would come.

At dawn, Chris and Nathan joined the rest of the search team, and they boarded the helicopter. The UH-1 Huey they were using was on loan from the National Guard until the situation was resolved. One way or the other.

Now that the downed plane had been located, search teams were being deployed on the ground to search the surrounding area while several choppers were still employed to search from above.

Nathan had a gut feeling that today would be the day they got some results. He hoped his gut was right.

He strapped in and adjusted his headset. Within minutes, they were in the air and on their way.

Ezra awoke to the sound of a distant rumble. He cracked his eyes open as far as he could, which wasn't very far. His muddled mind tried to identify the noise, but he gave up after a few minutes and let his eyelids slide shut again.

He was so tired. He'd slept all night, according to the faint light filtering through the trees, but he felt as if all his energy had drained away during his slumber. Oddly enough, however, he wasn't cold. Strangely warm, in fact. He didn't try to understand; he just sighed, pulled the blankets closer, and took pleasure in the absence of the numbing cold of only hours earlier.

Something tugged at the back of his mind, demanding attention. He tried to ignore it, but it wouldn't leave him alone. So he struggled to focus his brain on the warning voice inside his head. Don't go to sleep, he thought it said.

Why? he asked silently, somewhat petulantly. Sleep sounded extremely tempting to his exhausted mind.

Because you'll die, the little voice answered back. Because Vin will die.

At that, a spark of alarm flickered through him, and Ezra forced his eyes open once more. He turned his head a fraction--all that he could move it--and saw Vin seated next to him. He was slumped against Ezra's left shoulder, eyes closed; he, too, was ensconced in his blanket and the one the two of them shared.

Ezra swallowed to get moisture in his parched mouth. "Vin?" he croaked out. Vin didn't answer, didn't move. Ezra knew he should try to move, should see if Vin was still alive. But he was just too tired. And truth be known, he didn't know if he could move. He tried, but he couldn't even muster up enough strength to raise his head, let alone a hand to feel for a pulse. A feeling of defeat and sadness overwhelmed him. Vin was probably dead, he was next, and there was nothing he could do about it.

It was getting harder to keep his eyes open, and Ezra gave in to the temptation to close them. He couldn't resist darkness' siren song any longer.

"Vin... sorry," he breathed out in a whisper as he let go of his hold on consciousness.

"There!" Chris shouted into his headset. He pointed out the window. "Did you see that?" He turned to Bob Stiles, who was sitting next to him in the pilot's seat. "Circle back. That looked like smoke to me."

"Where?" Nathan asked from behind him. Chris pointed it out to him. "Wait, I think I see it!" Nathan exclaimed excitedly. Off to their right, a faint gray wisp rose through the treetops below them, dispersing and mixing in with the falling snow. "Chris, you're right. That is smoke!"

Stiles turned the helicopter around and headed back the way they'd come. "There," he said. "That looks big enough for us to land." He pointed to a small clearing about half a mile from where they'd seen the smoke. A shallow dip in the land created walls of rock around the edges, and the clearing was near the center of the dip. He looked at Larabee for instructions.

"Do it," Chris ordered. He looked down at the open area, noticing that the snow appeared churned up. He wondered what had caused that.

Five minutes later, the chopper settled to the ground; it created a wind as its rotors blew snow everywhere. Chris, Nathan, and the two other passengers--medics named Stacy and Jerry--jumped out of the aircraft. Stiles remained with the chopper. Stacy and Jerry grabbed their equipment, ready for anything.

Chris shivered and tugged the collar of his coat up as the cold hit him full force. He turned to the others. "It was this way!" he shouted, pointing. He took off in the lead, anxious to get to the source of the smoke. The other three followed, keeping up with his rapid pace through the snow.

Mixed emotions surged through Larabee. He was ecstatic that they'd actually found some sign of the two missing men. But he was fearful of what they would find if they were too late. His heart skipped a beat at the thought. What would he do if one or both were dead? He didn't have a clue. He hoped he wouldn't have to find out.

Twenty minutes later, they broke through a thick patch of trees into an area more sparsely decorated with green. Up ahead of them, about fifteen meters, rose a rock wall fifteen feet high. The edge of the depression, Chris realized. He could see a small opening in the rockface, the thin gray smoke originating from near there.

"Let's go!" he ordered, taking off in a run. God, don't let us be too late. Not after all this time.

Within moments, they reached the opening to discover it was a small cave. Chris skidded to a halt, and his breath caught in his throat when he took in the scene before them.

Cramped inside the miniscule cave were Vin and Ezra. They sat side by side, wrapped in only a few thin blankets. Both were absolutely still, their eyes closed. A bluish tinge was visible upon their faces.

"Dear lord!" Nathan exclaimed.

Those two words spurred Larabee into action, and he sucked in a deep breath of oxygen. He ducked inside the small shelter, Nathan right behind him. The medics were only a few steps behind.

Chris pressed his fingers firmly against Vin's neck, and his heart sank when he felt nothing. No pulse. He dropped his head and closed his eyes for a moment, then turned to Ezra. Before he could so much as shift towards him, however, Jerry and Stacy burst into the tiny cave.

"Give us some room here!" Stacy ordered as she and her partner started assessing the two frozen men. Both were clearly in command of the situation. Nathan stood close by, ready to lend a hand with his modicum of medical knowledge.

Chris hung back, wanting to be close, but not wanting to get in their way. They'd come too far for Vin and Ezra to die now. Too far.

"No pulse!"

"His body temp's too low."

He closed his eyes tightly shut against the hectic scene before him, his thoughts running in every direction. Finally they focused on one thing, something he had noticed but hadn't paid attention to. Cappicci wasn't there. Where was he? Did he not survive the crash? Did he get away?

"I've got a sinus rythm!"

Chris's head snapped back up at the jubilant words, his eyes wide. All thoughts of Cappicci fled from his head to be replaced with only one. Vin. Vin was alive. He wasn't dead. "Thank God," he murmured. A sense of euphoria overwhelmed him, and his knees felt weak with relief. He forced himself to remain standing despite the strong urge to let himself sink to the snow-covered ground.

Nathan caught his gaze, and Chris could see the relief in his eyes. They smiled at each other.

"They're not going to move on their own," Jerry said over his shoulder, interrupting the moment. "We need the stretchers."

Larabee nodded. "I'll get them!" He hurried back the way they'd come, back to the helicopter, thankful that he was at last doing something helpful. He broke into the clearing and ran for the chopper.

"What's going on?" Stiles asked as Chris jumped in and grabbed the two collapsible emergency stretchers that were stored in the rear.

"We found them," Chris stated succinctly, clapping the beefy pilot on his shoulder. He grinned widely. "We found them!"

Stiles' face lit up with relief, and he grabbed the radio. As Chris jumped back out of the aircraft, he could hear him radioing the search teams with the news.

Larabee ran back to the others as quickly as he could, wishing he could move faster. But the snow, his heavy boots, and the awkwardness of the two backboards he carried slowed his pace.

When he reached his destination, he came to a halt. "I have them!" he said, brandishing his cargo. He placed them on the ground, and then knelt down. Breathlessly, he asked, "How are they? Are they gonna be all right?"

Nathan smiled at him, but his expression was tempered with concern. "They're alive," he said. "But barely. They've both got hypothermia, an' it looks like Ezra's got a busted arm."

Chris took a deep breath to calm his churning emotions. "They will be all right, though, won't they?" He just wanted a straight yes or no answer. He prayed for the former.

Jerry paused to look at him, his bearded face serious. "If, and I mean if we get them to a hospital ASAP they have a chance. A small one, but a chance nonetheless."

"All right, then. Let's get going," Stacy ordered. Within moments, the four of them managed to secure Vin and Ezra to the stretchers. Jerry and Nathan each grabbed an end of Vin's stretcher while Stacy and Chris carried Ezra. They hustled the two injured men back to the chopper with haste.

Once there, they all climbed in, and the aircraft took off. It was a good hour's flight to the nearest hospital with an adequate trauma center, according to Jerry. Chris resisted the urge to tell Stiles to go faster; the pilot was going as fast as was safe in the softly falling snow.

They peeled the damp, cold clothes from Vin and Ezra's bodies, then covered them with layers of blankets. The medics established IV's of saline solution in preparation for reaching the hospital, and kept a close watch on their vital signs.

Chris knelt next to his agents' heads, looking from one to the other. He raised his eyes and met Nathan's gaze. The ATF agent's chocolate brown eyes allowed all he was feeling to show plainly: sympathy, relief, joy, fear, worry. All the same emotions Chris was experiencing at the moment. Especially worry.

Buck, Nathan, Chris, and JD waited impatiently for news of their fellow agents. They took turns pacing the colorful linoleum floors, sitting in the waiting room chairs, or leaning against the walls. In short, doing nothing much at all except driving the nurses and doctors crazy with their constant questions.

Chris and Nathan had arrived at the hospital with Vin and Ezra an hour and a half ago. JD and Buck had burst through the ER doors an hour after them, demanding all their questions be answered. So Larabee and Jackson had filled the two of them in on all that they knew.

Buck had driven as fast as he dared in snowy streets, breaking several traffic laws on the way. But to tell the truth, he didn't give a damn about traffic violations. He only cared that his friends had been found, and they were alive. Hurt, sure. Cold, hell yes. But they were alive!

Now the four were trying to hold onto their sanity while they waited for someone, anyone, to tell them what was going on with their friends. Suddenly, as if hearing their unspoken pleas, a redheaded woman in green scrubs walked up to them. The four men all jumped up from where they were sitting/leaning and gave her their full attentions.

"Are you here for Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish?" she asked. They nodded affirmatively, and Buck introduced them all. "Nice to meet you. I'm Dr. Sarka," she said when he was finished.

Chris nodded brusquely and cut to the chase. "How are they?" he asked. Buck couldn't blame him; he was dying to hear the news as well.

Dr. Sarka smiled and folded her hands in front of her. "They're both going to be fine."

Whoops of joy sounded from the men, all as heartfelt as Buck's. Wilmington whirled around and grabbed JD in bear hug. The kid didn't complain; he was just as ecstatic. Buck then proceeded to hug each and every one of them, including the doctor.

Realizing what he was doing, Buck let her go and blushed slightly. "Sorry," he apologized.

Dr. Sarka laughed. "It's quite all right."

Buck turned back to his friends. Placing a hand on Chris' shoulder, he squeezed tightly, grinning. Chris grinned back. In fact, they were all grinning rather stupidly. But they didn't care. The seven would be whole once more.

Ezra smiled at the elderly woman behind the counter and paid for his caramel macchiato. He pushed open the glass doors to the Starbucks coffeehouse and exited into the fresh morning air. Hi Jag was parked in a space right in front, and he walked the short distance to the sleek vehicle. Placing his coffee on the roof of the car, he fished the keys out of his pocket.

While he unlocked the door, he looked up at the bright blue sky. Just last week there had been snow on the ground, but now it was a breezy sixty-five degrees, and there wasn't a cloud in sight. Colorado's weather--the eighth wonder of the world.

He grabbed his caffeine, slid into the driver's seat, and inserted the key in the ignition. The engine purred quietly to life, and Ezra pulled out into the rush hour traffic. He snorted at the thought. When was it not rush hour in Denver?

With his right arm still in a cast--and likely to remain that way for another month--driving was difficult for him but not impossible. So he maneuvered slowly through the crawling traffic towards the Denver office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, humming along contentedly as his favorite CD filtered through the stereo speakers.

As it occasionally did, Ezra's mind drifted back to a few weeks ago. He couldn't remember much of the first few days spent in the New York hospital; he just remembered feeling cold and extremely tired. The blank spots had been filled in by the rest of the team.

After being rescued, he and Vin had been flown quickly to the hospital, undergoing treatment for severe hypothermia and dehydration. Vin had been released in three days, but Ezra had been forced to remain nearly a week. His broken arm had been quite serious, the lack of feeling he'd experienced caused by pressure on the radial nerve. Surgery had been required to fix the problem and to set the bones. Not to mention the doctors had wanted to keep an eye on him in case his nasty concussion caused any complications.

He and Vin had told the others of the crash and what happened afterwards. To his surprise, Larabee hadn't been as angry about Cappicci's escape than Ezra thought he would be. He seemed more angry that the mob boss had left them their to freeze to death.

Once he'd been released, they'd all flown back to Denver, where they were greeted by an anxious Josiah, who was quite happy to see them alive and whole. Ezra and Vin were immediately ordered, in no uncertain terms, to take two weeks off to rest and heal. Ezra hadn't complained. He'd made good on his promise to sleep for a whole week in his warm, comfortable bed. And the rest of the other week he had spent relaxing around his condo. And hardly ever was he bored. Chris, Josiah, JD, Buck, and Nathan all took turns visiting him, as well as Vin. And Ezra occasionally took a cab to see Tanner, who spent most of his days recuperating in his run down apartment. They spoke of Cappicci, and Annabel, and anything else they happened to think of.

But Ezra was feeling better now. The dizzy spells caused by his head injury were gone, and he was allowed to drive. And he no longer needed the strong painkillers anymore. When his arm started to bother him, he took a common over the counter pain reliever. Not that they could do anything about the infernal itching....

After those two weeks of ordered rest were up, however, Ezra decided he really didn't want to go back to work just yet. So he talked to Larabee and arranged to use half of his annual vacation time now and the other half later.

So here he was, on his way to the office to clear out a few things so he could spend the week in the Caribbean. Just the word Caribbean sent thoughts of a warm, tropical heaven dancing through his head. A place where there was not a chance in hell of a single snow flake interrupting his peaceful days. He'd had enough snow to last him a lifetime. He would lounge on the sun-drenched beaches, drink margaritas and drinks with umbrellas, and maybe, just maybe, meet a lovely, intelligent woman with whom he could spend some time.

Vin sat in his office, feet on his desk, checking his e-mail for the first time that morning. But he paid no attention to the twelve messages in his inbox; his mind was somewhere else. He was thinking about the last moments he remembered in the cave, something he'd done many times since he and Ezra'd been rescued.

He knew he'd stayed awake a few hours longer than Ezra, slowly keeping the fire from going out. He guessed that was the reason why it was still going strong enough for Chris and Nathan to see its smoke. If they hadn't seen it...

Vin shook that thought away and let his mind drift to another subject. Annabel. Bittersweet memories swept through him at the thought of her. He'd spent a good deal of time thinking about her, talking to Ezra about the short time he'd known her. He'd even had a private investigator friend of his find out where she was now. Vin didn't know why. What would he do with that information? Go see her? Would she even want to see him after the way he'd left her?

He was pulled out of his reverie when he saw Ezra walk past his open door. A second later, Standish peeked his head around the corner and knocked on the doorjamb.

Vin smiled and waved him in. "Hey, Ez," he greeted. He grinned at how dressed down Ezra was. He wore khakis and a striped button down shirt, sans tie. The blue and white sling he wore on his right arm stood out against the shirt, and a tan suede jacket thrown over one shoulder completed the outfit. It was definitely a far cry from his customary tailored suits.

"You all set for the Caribbean?" Vin asked, swinging his feet to the floor.

Ezra smiled, his gold tooth and dimples flashing as he did. "Ah, yes, the Caribbean. I am most definitely looking forward to my trip. I just need to retrieve a few items from my office before I depart. Are you sure you don't wish to come along?"

Vin shook his head. "Nah, I'm sure." He'd been surprised and touched at the gesture Ezra made when he'd suggested Vin go with him. Somehow, the experience the two had shared had brought about a stronger friendship than what they'd had before. It wasn't very noticeable to the others, but Vin and Ezra knew it was there. Not that they'd ever actually mentioned it. It was just there, a friendship that would be nearly impossible break. Vin had seriously considered taking the trip, but in the end, he'd decided he just wanted to get back to work, and back to the rest of the team. Besides, he really wasn't one for tropical islands and drinks served in coconut shells.

Ezra wandered over, tossed his coat on a chair, and sat on the edge of Vin's desk. "So," he said, watching Vin intently, "have you made up your mind?"

Vin knew what he meant. They'd talked about it over a bottle of bourbon at Ezra's the night before. Whether he should call her. And the answer was no, he hadn't made up his mind. Vin sighed and ran a hand down his face. "I don't know what to do, Ez."

Ezra nodded slowly, absently brushing wrinkles from his slacks. "You know, Mr. Tanner, every day is a gamble when it comes to what we do." Vin watched as he moved off the desk. "We beat the odds when they were stacked against us. We survived when we shouldn't have." He moved around until he was directly behind Vin. He placed his good hand on Tanner's shoulder and leaned forward until he was speaking directly in Vin's ear. "What I am sayin' is... what have you got to lose? Take a chance. Whatever happens, I know you'll come out all right."

Vin nodded slowly. He looked up at Ezra, who had moved around to the front of the desk again. "Thanks, Ezra." He offered a grateful smile.

Ezra merely smiled in return, picked up his coat, and draped it over his arm. "Anytime, Mr. Tanner. Anytime." He winked, then left.

Vin sat there a few moments, chin in hand. He stared blankly at his computer screen while he pondered Ezra's words. What did he have to lose?

He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled a small piece of paper from amidst the pens and pencils. He settled his feet back on the desk and pulled his phone into his lap. Placing the receiver to his ear, he hesitated, then dialed the number on the slip of paper.

It rang. Once... Twice...

God, what if he was making a hideous mistake? How would she react? What would he say? But it was too late to stop now. Too late to turn back....

A woman's familiar voice answered the phone on the third ring, and all the doubts and fears fled from Vin Tanner's mind.


The End

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