Disclaimer: This story is the product of different minds coming together to have some fun. We have ownership over any new characters but the rest belongs to others (such a shame!).

Authors' Note: I hope this is as fun to read as it was to write.

Matches - ATF

By Ladysmiths


"Which one of you went to the Wild Rose?" Chris had found a book of matches on his desk after he'd come back from a late lunch. Seeing as how Team 7 had been having a slow week, hell a slow month, he decided this was something he could investigate.

Nathan looked up from the printer where he had been printing a personal letter to Rain, "The Wild Rose? Why do you ask?"

"Found these in my office," Chris held up the book of matches.

Buck stepped out of his office, "Does it have a phone number written on the inside?"

Chris checked, "No."

"Well then, they ain't mine."

"What's the Wild Rose?" JD asked.

"It is a decrepit establishment on the corner of Jevons and Denman Streets. It is notorious as a haven for cutthroats and reprobates."

"Trust Ezra to know," Nathan quipped.

Chris turned to Ezra and waved the match book under his nose. "Mr Larabee, just because I have heard of the Wild Rose does not mean I frequent it."

All of a sudden they hear Josiah's booming voice coming from the kitchen, "FIRE!"

When they all got to the kitchen they saw Josiah putting out the flames with a towel. "What happened?" Nathan had moved over to where Josiah is to make sure he hadn't been burned.

"As I walked passed I smelled something burning. Sorry about alarming you, I didn't realise it was only a small fire."

Buck whacked JD upside the head, "Hey! What was that for?"

"I told you to turn the stove off."

"I did!"

Josiah shook his head, "It seems someone’s been smoking in here." Josiah indicated the cigarette butt that he believed caused the fire.

"Okay then, no harm done," Buck headed towards the door.

"No harm done? You whacked me in the head." JD followed Buck still rubbing the back of his neck.

"Well, I'm sure you've done somethin' else to deserve it."

When they returned to their section, Josiah noticed the matches Chris had left on one of the desks. He cocked an eyebrow, "The Wild Rose, huh?"

"Yeah, you didn't happen to bring those into the office?"

Josiah shook his head as Chris took the match book from him and flicked the lid. "Very funny guys, who took one of the matches."

"One of the matches?" JD wanted to be part of the joke, why did the guys always do something and not let him in on it.

Chris started musing, “When I first noticed them, I’m sure the match book was full. Yeah, ten matches. Now there’s only nine. I would’ve noticed if one had been torn off." After he'd said it Chris realised he shouldn’t have been speaking out loud.

"You don't have any liquor stashed away in your office, do you Cowboy? I mean usually you can add and subtract fine. Or maybe it’s glasses you need." Chris advanced toward Vin, while the younger man backed away laughing, "Come on Chris, it wasn't me."

Everyone else shook their heads to indicate the they had nothing to do with it either, not daring to goad Chris anymore.

"Did any of you touch this besides me and Josiah?" Chris was starting to get suspicious, someone would have owned up by now.

A chorus of denials followed.

"Well, it's time to go home anyway. I'll take this down to forensics and get it checked out, they should have something for us by tomorrow."

"Don't you think that's overkill?" Buck wanted to know why Chris always insisted on making more work for himself and others.

"I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this," Chris mumbled as he headed towards the elevator.

* * * * * * *

"Has Vin called yet?" Chris was starting to get impatient, Vin was usually in before he was.

"No, but then you know Vin," Josiah knew Vin wouldn't contact them, "One of us should probably try to call him."

"Mr Sanchez is right, I think our Mr Tanner has an aversion to using the telephone," Ezra was glad that it was Vin and not himself for a change.

Just as Chris grabbed hold of the phone, a man in a white lab coat stepped out of the elevator. Still holding the receiver Chris asked, "Did you get anything?"

Agent Holford handed the match book back to Larabee, "No, just your and Agent Sanchez's prints...." he was interrupted by the sound of the elevators.

Vin stepped out wearily. Ezra was about to impart some form of sarcastic comment, but decided not to when he noticed Vin's eyes. They looked terribly painful, red, puffy and they were still watering.

"What the hell happened to you?" Buck was the first one to speak.

"Yeah, you don't look so good," JD stated.

Vin's voice was even more raspy than usual, "You wouldn't either if you'd just spent most of your mornin' putting out a fire."

"What?" Chris yelled, he realised he was still holding the receiver and slammed it down for emphasis.

"Yeah, someone started a fire outside my door, fortunately it didn't spread far. But my door has turned a nice shade of black and I can't lock it."

"You never locked it before anyway," Josiah said.

Nathan moved over to check on Vin, but Vin just tried to brush him away, "I'm fine."

"Did you use one of the matches?" Chris stared accusingly at Agent Holford.

"No, of course not," the other agent wasn't used to Chris' glares.

"Well there's only eight left."

"Are you sure that's not how many were in there when you gave it to me?"

"I'm not going through this again," Chris started to advance on the other agent.

"Look, I left it on the bench in the lab this morning when I had to see to something else. Maybe someone thought they were there to use." Agent Holford realised that Chris wasn't looking very convinced, "Um, I've got other work to do." With that the he whirled around and took his leave.

JD wasn't sure exactly what was going on but he knew he didn't like it, "This is getting weird."

"Come on guys, it's just a coincidence," Nathan sounded so calm and practical that everyone started to nod in agreement and relax a little.

The peace didn't last long as one of the secretaries ran to where the seven men were standing. "Agent Wilmington, your truck's on fire."

It didn't take Team 7 long to get to the garage. Other agents had just put out the fire and were holding up what appeared to have been burning in the back of Buck's pick-up.

"My truck!"

"My suit!"

Everyone turned around to stare at Ezra. "That's my spare suit, or what's left of it."

One of the agents that had put out the fire walked up to Buck, "Your truck's fine, just a little patch where the fire was lit. Can't do anything about your suit though," he added as he turned his gaze towards Ezra.

When they reached their offices Buck rushed over and grabbed the matches that were left lying on a desk, while Ezra rushed into his office to check that it actually was his spare suit and had been destroyed.

Buck opened the packet to find another match missing, "This is getting beyond a joke."

"You're telling me," Ezra came out of his office shaking his head forlornly.

"It seems someone doesn't think very highly of us," Josiah stated.

"Who'd you piss off now, Chris?"

Chris ignored Buck, "We need to go back through FBI cases, see if anything else like this has happened before. Also if someone's taking a match every time this happens, or maybe even replacing the packet, it must be someone who can move around quite freely. We'll need to question some people, see if they've noticed anyone on this floor that didn't have reason to be here."

The rest of the team nodded their heads.

"Ezra, seeing as how you know where the Wild Rose is, I want you to go and see if you can find any information."

"Certainly Mr Larabee, however may I request the services of Mr Tanner. I think it would be wise if I arrived with someone that looked as though they belonged."

After having received Chris' approval Vin and Ezra headed over to the elevators and waited.

"Were you talkin' about the fact that I look like I have a hangover, or were you insulting my taste in clothes?"

"Take your pick, Mr Tanner."

Chris shook his head and grinned, it still amazed him that those two usually chose to work together even though they'd never admit to it.

"Well, I'm going to see security. If someone tampered with the matches when they were in the lab, maybe they caught it on camera."

"I'll help JD sift through the cases," Buck added still clutching the match book, "and I'm not leaving these where anyone can get to them." He placed the matches in his jacket pocket and taking JD by the collar and practically dragged the poor kid behind him.

Nathan smiled, "Me and Josiah will started asking around."

* * * * * * *

Late that afternoon Team 7 were all gathered in the conference room. No-one had discovered anything useful.

"I've even checked all the arson cases the FBI have had over the last couple of years, but nothing that could be linked with us." JD stated.

"What do ya mean I? You weren't the only one going through those cases." Buck had an indignant look on his face.

"Yeah, you were a huge help. We really need the phone numbers of the female FBI agents you haven't harassed yet."

"I think there are way too many staff in this building," Nathan complained. "Josiah and I have been asking questions all day, but nobody's noticed anyone acting suspicious."

"The security cameras didn't help much, either." The lab’s security camera hadn’t been trained on where the matches had been left, so Chris had spent the whole afternoon checking the tapes from their floor also to see if any faces doubled up. However, as Nathan had said, there were too many people and it was impossible to tell. "What about you guys?"

"Mr Tanner and I made our inquiries, however were unable to procure the desired information."

Buck looked at Ezra deciphering what had just been said, "So no-one would help, huh?"

"Actually, the people at the Wild Rose were pretty friendly. It's just that we didn't know what we were lookin' for," Vin had taken up the commentary. "We don't know whether this guy's a regular or not. The bartender keeps the matches in large glass at the end of the bar. Anyone could take one, even if you hadn't ordered a drink."

"Wow," JD was impressed, Vin and Ezra always seemed to be able to get people on their side. "After what Ezra said, I didn't think anyone would talk to you guys."

"Well, they were a bit wary of Ezra at first, but once they realised he was with me everything was fine."

"Yes well, next time it would be sufficient for you to just tell them we arrived together instead of holding my hand."

Josiah tried to stifle his laughter, but wasn't very successful, "Are you telling me that the patrons of the Wild Rose actually accepted you when they thought you were a couple?"

"Sure," Vin shrugged. "They thought we looked cute together."

Ezra rolled his eyes, "Mr Tanner, they thought I was cute and that you were lucky."

"Come off it, Ez. I'm definitely better looking, some guys even slipped me their phone numbers."

"I'll wager I have more telephone numbers than what you do," Ezra pulled out the slips of paper he had in his pocket.

"You mean you kept them, what for?" Vin's hangdog expression was aimed at Ezra.

Chris decided it was time to interrupt, "If you ladies are quite finished? We have an arsonist on our hands remember?" When Chris saw the exact same chastened expressions on Vin and Ezra's faces, it became impossible for him not to grin.

"I think you should all come to the ranch and spend the weekend." Chris had been thinking about this, seeing as it was Friday and whoever this was already knew where Vin lived, he would feel much better if he could keep an eye on everyone.

"You worry too much Cowboy," Vin wanted to go back to his apartment and make sure his neighbors were alright.

"Yeah, Chris. I've had the matches all day and nothin's happened." Buck added.

"Even so, I'll give you all time to get your things together. I plan on working out whose behind this."

Everyone started shuffling towards the door mumbling to themselves. "Just wonderful. Now we're spending weekends together."

"Don't complain, Ez," Buck grinned. "We'll let you and Vin have a room all to yourselves."

* * * * * * *

Nathan was the last to arrive at Chris' ranch. He explained that someone had broken into his apartment and set fire to his couch. His neighbors had called the fire brigade and had tried to reach him, but he must have already been on his way home.

"Good Lord, you cannot be serious."

"Why don't I look serious," Nathan hadn't meant to sound snappish, but he couldn't hide his frustration.

Buck reached for his jacket which he had just thrown over one of Chris' chairs, "Well, I've still got... Hey, where're the matches?"

"Did you take them out?" Josiah asked.

"No, I haven't touched them since I put them in my pocket." Buck was still shaking out his jacket.

"Maybe you dropped them," JD suggested.

"Yeah, maybe," Buck gave up and dropped the jacket back into the chair.

"You know, you could hang that up," Chris smiled as he watched Buck go hang his jacket up, then he looked over at Nathan and sobered. "I think we should have dinner and try to keep our minds off this for tonight. We'll tackle it in the morning."

"Chris is right," Josiah said placing an arm around Nathan's shoulders and leading him into the dining room, "What more could happen tonight?"

* * * * * * *

Chris woke up at around 1.30 am with a sense that something was wrong. He looked out of his bedroom window, "Oh shit!"

Chris rushed out of his room, almost tripping over Vin who as sleeping on the lounge room floor. "What's wrong?" Vin asked as he scrambled out of Chris' way.

"The hay loft's on fire."

No-one spoke they all just jumped up and ran for the door.

Eventually Team 7 had managed to put out the flames, luckily they had gotten to the scene before the fire spread. As they staggered back to the main house, Vin noticed something on the porch, "What's this?" he asked as he reached down to pick it up.

The others groaned simultaneously as Vin held up a match book. When he flicked open the lid two more matches were missing, leaving five.

* * * * * * *

The next morning found seven bleary eyed men sitting around Chris' kitchen table staring at a book of matches placed in the center of the table. They each had a mug in front of them, but only one or two of them would take an occasional sip. They all jumped when the phone rang and as Chris went to answer the phone, he thought that he would have found that rather amusing had he not been so tired.

"That was Agent Crompton. He's got a bust going down this morning and asked if we could help." Chris informed them when he got back.

"Hope you told him no." But by the look on Chris' face Buck knew he'd said yes.

"Vin and Ezra, you're with me. JD feel free to use the computer in the study, see if you guys can't figure out whose behind that." Chris pointed to the match book.

As JD was typing on the computer he started musing, "Agent Crompton? I didn't think he'd ask for our help again."

"That's right," Josiah added, "he accused us of making a fool of him."

"Didn't take much, he doesn't have a clue. Wonder why he'd call Chris for help though?" Buck hadn't liked Crompton from the first time they'd met.

"Don't know," Nathan answered, "especially so soon after the last fiasco. Wasn't that our last case before..."

All four men came to the same conclusion at the same time.

"Did Chris say where they were goin?" Buck asked.

"No, just gave orders," JD was already pulling on his coat.

"Wait a minute," Nathan held up his hand to stop everyone from tearing out of the house, "What if he thought we'd all go and help, and then the ranch would be empty. Asking for assistance could have been a wild goose chase to get us out of the way."

"Nathan has a point, we should probably stay here and keep watch," Josiah said more calmly than he felt.

"What about the others?" JD wanted to know.

Nathan answered, "Call Chris' cell phone, tell them to get back here."

Just as Buck reached for the phone they heard a car pull up. Instead of picking up the phone, Buck moved quietly to where Chris kept his extra guns.

Everybody got down and while JD and Josiah headed towards the back of the house, Buck and Nathan headed towards the front door.

Agent Crompton obviously wasn't expecting anyone to be there, he went to the boot of his car and pulled out a couple of containers, presumably something flammable. When he turned around he noticed slight movement from behind the door and dropped the containers. Buck jumped out, his gun trained on Crompton, "Freeze!"

Nathan came out from behind Buck ready to cuff Crompton. Startled, Agent Crompton was frozen to the spot, until he noticed Nathan and then ran towards the back of the house. Both Buck and Nathan took off after Crompton.

"Looking for this?" Josiah asked holding Crompton by the scruff of his neck.

Buck smiled at Josiah while Nathan handcuffed him. As he was checking for weapons Nathan pulled out a book of matches from the Wild Rose.

JD had called for back-up and it didn't take long for the police to get there and haul Crompton to lock-up. JD had taken the matches from the table and then grabbed the matches Nathan was holding, "So he was just replacing the packets?"

"Looks that way," Nathan nodded.

"Hey, he's got more matches missing," JD compared the two books of matches.

"That would make sense son," Josiah answered, "he was planning on burning the ranch, that's another match."

"Yeah, but that would leave four, see he's only got three."

"Shit!" Buck exclaimed as they all headed for a vehicle, "Where to?"

In the distance they could hear sirens. "Follow that sound," Josiah stated.

* * * * * * *

They reached the warehouse in time to see Chris being carried out of a burning building and laid onto a stretcher. They wove their way through the fire trucks and ambulance to reach Ezra.

"When we got here everything was quiet. Chris thought that Crompton might be trapped inside so he went in while Vin and I circled round either side." Ezra answered the question before they had a chance to ask it. "Then there was an explosion and the whole warehouse erupted in flames."

Buck, JD, Josiah and Nathan all stood by Ezra and watched as the paramedics loaded Chris into the ambulance with Vin hot on their heels. "It must have been difficult to keep Vin from running into the warehouse," Josiah broke the silence.

"You have no idea," Ezra answered as they headed for their vehicles and the hospital.

* * * * * * *

Chris had drifted in and out of consciousness on the way to the hospital. According to the doctor that was a good sign, Chris only had a slight concussion when he hit his head. The blast had knocked him backwards and most of his right side had taken the impact of the heat. Luckily Chris had been wearing his duster and although the burns were extremely painful, he would heal with only minor scarring.

The doctor had allowed the agents into Chris' room, but warned them that he wouldn't be very good company. The pain was severe and they had Chris on quite heavy medication. Once Buck, JD, Josiah and Nathan had seen for themselves that Chris was going to be okay, and after they explained what had happened with Crompton, they left Ezra and Vin to sit with Chris.

Ezra and Vin had stayed silent through the night, with one or the other occasionally dozing.

When Ezra woke the next morning, he stretched and looked over at Vin. "You look terrible Mr Tanner. I think you should go get something to eat."

Vin looked up and replied in the same hushed tone Ezra had used, "You don't look any better, why don't you go. You can bring me back something."

"Despite how it may appear, I'm quite comfortable."

"Well, I ain't hungry, so if you are get it yourself."

"I've lost my appetite now"

"Yeah right. Besides I thought you didn't like hospitals."

"This coming from the man needs to be tied down to the hospital bed to keep him from absconding."

"If you two don't pipe down, I'll kick both of you out." Neither Ezra nor Vin had noticed the nurse come in. They sat quietly and kept out of the way while the nurse checked Chris' bandages and medication.

After she'd left Vin hissed, "That was your fault."

“My fault? If you weren't so obstinate..."

They were still arguing when the other four stuck their heads around the door. "You guys still here?" Nathan asked.

"How you feelin' there pard?" Buck saw Chris open his eyes.

"Like I've been to hell and back."

Buck chuckled, "Do you want me to get a nurse?"

Chris shook his head and winced.

"Maybe we should leave," JD didn't want to be keeping Chris from his much needed rest.

"No, JD. You, Buck, Josiah and Nathan can stay. It will be nice hearing some sensible voices again."

Ezra and Vin stared at each other, "Well, that's gratitude for you." Ezra mumbled as he and Vin headed for the door.

The people left in the room tried to keep their laughter under control as they listened to their two friends heading down the corridor.

"You can buy me lunch now Ez."

"Buy you lunch? I thought you weren't hungry?"

"I wasn't before, am now though."

"Mr Tanner, I would respectfully suggest that it is you who owes me lunch."

"What for?"

"Has the fact that I saved your life completely slipped your mind?"

"You punched me then tackled me."

"To keep you from running into a burning building. If it hadn't been for me you would be lying next to Mr Larabee."

"Thank you. Are you happy now?"

"It might be nice to receive a gesture of gratitude without having to force it."

"Are you sayin' I don't appreciate you?"

"You never show it."

"Well, what do you expect? When I held your hand you complained...."

THE END



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