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Silver Star Bar
Hermosa Beach, California
03:20 hours

Matt Shepherd clutched his coffee cup between his hands and valiantly fought back a yawn. He knew he had about five minutes to wake up properly, then he expected his team to arrive. As their leader, he couldn't well admit to being as dog-tired as the rest of them.

Stupid Trout, he thought. Stupid Trout and his stupid missions. Who the hell arranges a meeting at half past three in the morning? And not even ten hours after the last mission! Moron.

Then the coffee, hot and strong enough to corrode the spoon he used to stir it, hit his system like a battering ram. He straightened abruptly, his whole posture crying: "I'm awake!!" Yes! He still had it. It had taken him years to find the right mixture of different brands, but the result was worth all the wasted tries before. A cup full of the stuff and five minutes later you were as wide awake as it got. He knew his people still hadn't figured out how he did it.

He grinned ruefully to himself. He'd need all the advantage he could get, and he knew it. In about five minutes his team would shuffle down the stairs and spread out through the room, tired and surly and not in a good mood. If they sensed even the slightest weakness in him, the smallest glimpse of unwillingness, they would use it ruthlessly, doing their best to convince him to go back to bed and damn Trout and his 'End of the World' schemes.

"Mornin', Matt."

The major quickly swallowed the last of his coffee to steel himself, then turned around with a cheerful smile on his face.

"Margo! Good morning!"

A pair of green eyes glared at him from under a shock of dark hair, then Margo Vincent padded to the nearest chair and slumped down on it, resting her head on the table.

"Half past three, Matt," she groaned. "I can't believe you made me get out of bed at half past three in the morning!"

"Come on, Margo," he smiled. "I always thought you were an early riser!"

That earned him another glare.

"Not even Benny Ray gets up this early!" she snapped.

"Obviously I do," a rough voice stated dryly. "An' I don't like it."

Benny Ray Riddle nodded in Matt's general direction, then he made a beeline for the coffee machine, grabbing the pot as if his life depended on it.

"Hi, Benny Ray," Matt grinned. "Did you sleep well?"

"I'd jus' like to know how you manage ta be this chipper at three in the freakin' mornin'," the sniper growled, not even bothering to turn around.

"It's half past three, Benny Ray," Matt corrected, surreptitiously washing his cup before the sniper noticed the difference in color of the brew.

Benny Ray didn't miss much, not even when he was half-asleep. Lady Luck was with Matt, though. His friend was too busy filling his own cup than to check his CO's.

"What difference does it make?" came the annoyed question from the direction of the stairs. Chance Walker was not amused by the early call. "Three o'clock, half past three...it's cruel to force a guy to leave his bed at this hour." Margo cleared her throat discreetly. "Same goes for gals," he conceded hastily. "I didn't know it was going to be like this when I volunteered to replace the new guy while he was in New York."

Benny Ray sighed deeply.

"I wish Nick was here," the sniper mumbled, causing Matt to drop his coffee cup and Margo to hit her elbow at the table.

"Who are you and what have you done to Benny Ray?" she demanded, only half-joking. "I thought you hated Nick's guts?"

"I do," Benny Ray answered, eyeing the light brown liquid in his cup suspiciously. "That's why I wish he was here. Chewin' him out would almost make gettin' up worthwhile." He looked at Chance mournfully. "Even C.J. would do in a pinch. Why didn't he come?"

Chance grinned, nudging his friend aside and staring at the coffee machine almost lovingly.

"I don't know what I'd do without coffee," he told the room in general. "And C.J. can't stand the other new guy, as you well know."

"The feeling's mutual, baby," Deke's dark voice rumbled as if on cue.

The tall man stepped down the stairs, ducking habitually, though the ceiling was high enough for him not to hit his head. Benny Ray took one look at the dark circles under Deke's eyes and filled another cup, holding it out to his teammate without comment. Deke accepted the offer gratefully, sinking down beside Margo and glaring at Matt as threateningly as he could manage in his condition.

"How come you're so disgustingly awake?" he growled.

"My cheerful approach towards life?" Matt suggested innocently.

"What does that have to do with it?" Margo asked, suspecting that Matt was pulling some kind of trick but unable to prove it.

Matt knew he had to start a diversion at once, or otherwise the conversation would take a turn that could well lead to disaster. Benny Ray was already looking at him with narrowed eyes, no doubt considering starting up that sharp mind of his. Of all of them the sniper was the person who knew him best, and if anyone was capable of finding out about Matt's little secret it was him. Time to get back to business.

"Come on, people," he scolded. "Trout'll be here any minute now. At least try to look awake."

"Easier said than done...at three thirty in the morning," Chance groused mutinously.

Matt scowled at him, putting all the fire of his cup of special coffee into his gaze and nipping the sprouting rebellion in the bud. Chance burrowed his nose in his own cup and retreated behind Benny Ray, who straightened a little so his friend was shielded from the major's glare.

"We'll do our best, boss," the sniper promised, his soft southern drawl dispensing the tension in the room and prompting Margo to smile sleepily and lay her head back on her arms.

"Let's hope so," Matt grumbled, doing his best to sound strict, but failing. It was nearly impossible to snap at Benny Ray when the Southerner didn't want to fight. Matt sighed. "I don't like being up and about at this ungodly hour any more than you do," he admitted. "But that's part of what we do, so stop complaining and concentrate on the job."

"Talking about the job," Deke interrupted, a little more awake now, but still far from his usual form. "Any idea about what it's going to be this time?"

Benny Ray, Margo, and Chance all looked at him as if he'd suddenly sprouted a second head. They were all quite familiar with Trout's working method.

"A walk in the park," they replied in unison, causing Matt to wince involuntarily.

Anything but this, please.

He didn't have enough coffee to deal with one of Trout's infamous easy missions.

*****

"This one's easy, Matt. It's only a few hours, and you don't even have to leave the country."

Matt grimaced, not daring to look at his team. He knew they were all staring at him reproachfully, holding on to their coffee mugs as if their lives depended on it. They had learned the hard way that each time Trout promised an assignment was going to be especially easy, something terrible happened. Murphy's Law was working wonders on them when it came to this.

"Why us?" Matt demanded, not eager to slide headfirst into some catastrophe again, but already suspecting that this was where they were headed. "Come on, spit it out already. We just came home from our last mission and it's three thirty in the morning. What's so important you have to rouse us under these circumstances?"

He glared at Trout from behind his desk, knowing that the old fox would ignore his less than diplomatic approach. Xavier Trout knew damn well that despite his bad temper and his barking Matt would take the job. He always did. Still they were both so used to the dance that they fell into the routine without really thinking about it.

Trout sighed, leaning back in his chair and rubbing his face with his hands. He was obviously tired, and although he wasn't visibly bothered by Matt's apparent unease, he didn't waste any time with lengthy persuasion either, cutting to the chase with uncharacteristic promptness.

"I need you and your team to protect an important witness."

Matt raised an eyebrow.

"A babysitting job? You know that's not really our field."

"I know, but this is an emergency. Linda Kowalski is the chief witness against Jeff Patterson, the right wing 'patriot leader' who planned to kill the President last year. I'm sure you all remember the case." The team nodded. Trout continued. "She has to testify in court tomorrow at nine o'clock. The problem is that Patterson's son, Daniel, has hired an assassin to get rid of her. We don't know who it is, all we have is his or her code name, 'Mosaic'."

Matt got the distinct feeling that he wasn't going to like what Trout had to say next, but he asked nevertheless.

"So?"

"So he or she slaughtered half of the team that has been protecting Ms. Kowalski until now," Trout informed them. "It was dumb luck that she escaped. One of the agents stumbled and pushed her down, so the first shot missed her, passed through the wall and killed another agent. Somehow she got out alive, but four of her guardians were not so lucky. All this happened not even three hours ago. Ms. Kowalski was relocated immediately, but I need somebody to take care of her until the trial, somebody I can trust."

Matt groaned silently. He hated situations like this. His team was tired, there was no time to prepare, not enough information on their enemy, and a high risk factor, yet they couldn't really refuse. If they didn't take the job, the woman was most likely going to get killed and Patterson would go free.

He glanced at his people, who were gathered around him, still and intent. There was no doubt in his mind that they would follow him into this mess, no matter how dangerous. It made him proud, but at the same time filled him with dread. He didn't want to risk their lives, he couldn't afford to lose any of them. They were more than his team, or his friends. Somewhere along the way, they had become his family. At the same time, though, he knew the choice was already made.

"Do you have anything at all on the assassin?" he queried, trying not to think about the possible consequences of his decision. "Something we can use to avoid - or eliminate - him or her?"

Trout looked pained. He didn't like having to admit that there was something he didn't know.

"We know we're dealing with a sniper, and a damn good one at that," he said. "The weapon used was a Grizzly 50 Big Boar, the shots were fired from a rooftop more than 3000 meters away. We have no idea how the killer knew where to find Ms. Kowalski, or, in other words, I haven't yet succeeded in finding the leak. I'm working on it, though." His gaze found Matt's and didn't let go. "Five hours, Matt. That's all I'm asking of you. Just keep her alive until nine o'clock and get her safely into the courtroom."

Matt sighed tonelessly, slumping a little in his chair. He had a bad feeling with this one. Something was going to go wrong, he knew it. Every instinct he had yelled at him to lock his team and himself into the basement and stay there until this particular crisis had passed. No chance of this happening, though. They were professionals. Risking their lives was their job. So he straightened and returned Trout's stare, not looking at his friends.

"Benny Ray?"

"I'm with you, Major."

There was no hesitation in the sniper's answer, not even a hint of reluctance. Matt could feel the familiar presence moving almost imperceptibly closer, quietly offering unlimited support. He had to swallow against the sudden lump in his throat. Don't go! Don't go!! a little voice screamed in his mind. There's blood 'n tears before you! Don't go!!

"Margo?" he asked, shutting out the insistent shouting.

"Yes."

"Deke?"

"Well, since I'm up already...count me in."

"Chance? I know you wanted to go back to Hawaii..."

"Of course I'll come with you. I'll just phone C.J. and the airline."

Matt nodded, still concentrating on Trout.

"Looks like you got our help," he stated, surprised by the calmness of his voice. "Give us ten minutes to get our gear, then we're ready to go."

Trout expelled a breath he hadn't realized he'd held.

"Okay. Thank you."

Matt shook his head slowly. He got up and watched his team file out of the room, already shifting into what he secretly called their 'battle-mode'.

"Don't," he said softly. "Don't thank me until this is over."

Without looking at Trout again, he followed his people. He didn't notice the worried expression coming into his old friend's eyes at his comment.

Safehouse
Los Angeles area
04:15 hours

The agents bringing the witness were more than happy to hand her over into the team's care. They knew what had happened to the other team. Trout stayed just long enough to make sure the changing of the guard went without a hitch, then he left, promising to find and stuff the leak.

Linda Kowalski turned out to be a pretty lady of thirty-two, with thick brown hair and frightened gray eyes. Considering the fact the she'd lived through a massacre, she was remarkably steadfast in her decision to testify. Margo talked to her while Chance and Matt secured the perimeter and Benny Ray disappeared into the night, making sure the safehouse wasn't already compromised. If anybody had a chance of spotting a sniper in the dark, it was him.

Usually, Matt wouldn't have thought twice about his friend scouting alone, but this time he nearly stopped Benny Ray. The sense of danger was growing stronger, and Matt experienced the strange urge to tuck all of his team safely under his wing. Or, lacking wings, at least to keep them within reach. He tried to hide it, not wanting to throw his people off-balance, but it wasn't easy.

Nothing was out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood and they returned to the house. Margo had locked the windows and drawn the blinds, and they all settled in the kitchen, the only windowless room except for the bath. Then they waited for time to pass and Benny Ray to return.

After a while Matt just couldn't stand it any longer. Ordering the others to stay behind he left the house in search of his sniper. There was no sign of Benny Ray, so Matt leaned against the wall near the back entrance, staring into the darkness with worried eyes.

"Major?"

He jumped at the sound of Benny Ray's voice directly behind him, his heart doing some sort of salto mortale in his chest and then beating twice as fast as before.

"Dammit, Benny Ray, make some noise when you move, would you?" he hissed.

Benny Ray raised an eyebrow, carefully keeping any hint of amusement off his face.

"Yes, sir."

Matt glared at him, then changed the topic.

"You found anything?"

The sniper shook his head.

"Nope, nada. Not yet. There's a number of perfect sites for a sniper, though. If you don't mind, I'd like ta take up position on the roof over there, just in case th' safehouse isn't as safe as it's supposed ta be. That way I can either spot the killer when he arrives, or pick him off when he starts shooting."

Matt eyed the house in question.

"I don't like it," he said. "What if he finds you first?"

Benny Ray shrugged.

"Postin' a sniper isn't Government SOP, so most likely he won't even look. And if he does, he'll have a hell of a hard time findin' me up there in the dark."

"The sun's coming up in about an hour. I want you down there by then."

His second in command frowned in irritation.

"No disrespect, sir, but I think it'll be safer if I stay on th' roof until we move. I don't like the idea of bein' cooped up in that house, not able ta see him comin'."

"You're quite sure that he'll find us, aren't you?" Matt asked, not doubting the sniper's instincts, but still a little surprised by the calm conviction in his voice.

Benny Ray shrugged casually, his posture deceptively relaxed. Only his eyes betrayed his tension, ceaselessly searching the night for any sign of their adversary. He didn't say anything.

He didn't have to.

After a few moments of inner struggle, Matt gave in reluctantly, allowing the voice of reason to override the voice of emotion. Benny Ray was right. He was also well able to take care of himself, and he'd be in contact with the team through his headset.

"Okay. Stay. But be careful, alright? I want you to report in every ten minutes."

Benny Ray nodded and disappeared into the darkness, moving as silently as a great cat. Matt watched him go with an uncomfortable feeling in his gut. Five hours, he thought, returning to the rest of his team. Only five hours. We can do this.

Still, the uneasiness remained.

Benny Ray's sniper's nest
Los Angeles area
04:46 hours

Benny Ray Riddle lay patiently on the roof, hidden from view by a surprisingly large chimney, his body -- though perfectly still -- inwardly humming with tension. It wasn't the job or the other sniper that had him rattled, however, it was Matt. The Major was twitchy like a cat caught in a dog kennel, and his uncharacteristic restlessness set the sniper on edge.

Shepherd wasn't fazed easily, so when he was nervous, he usually had good reason to be. It didn't matter that he'd tried to hide his anxiety. He might've been able to fool the others, but Benny Ray was so attuned to the man that he picked up on the slightest mood swings of his CO and reacted to them instinctively. He couldn't help it, it had become second nature to him. Normally this wasn't a problem -- on the contrary, it enabled them to operate the way they did: as a unit -- but this time he almost wished he weren't that perceptive. Matt was worried, radiating so much tension it was a wonder he hadn't snapped yet, and it was affecting Benny Ray badly.

Dammit, Major, what's wrong? he thought, shifting slightly and resisting the desire to stretch. His muscles were starting to cramp, because he was so wired. He was fairly sure Matt didn't know what was bugging him either, otherwise the major would have told him already. What he did know, however, was that he didn't like their situation.

When Trout had told them about the massacre in the first safehouse, a faint alarm had rung in Benny Ray's mind. Something was off with the report, but without further information it had taken the sniper a while to see it. He'd been surprised to hear that the assassin had tried to take out the witness from a distance too great to allow a precise shot, and that he'd continued firing even after the tango had been long gone. It wasn't what a professional would have done. An expert sniper would have moved much closer and killed Linda Kowalski with one shot, then disappeared without a trace.

Now, lying in the darkness and thinking about it, Benny Ray suddenly understood the tactic his opponent had chosen and felt a chill race up his back. It was a variation of an old theme: set fire to one end of the hole and wait what comes out at the other end. If somebody on the inside fed the assassin information, then he could also have pulled some strings in the relocation of the witness. Meaning that the killer most likely already knew where they were...had probably known it even before the transfer. If this was the case, then he'd had more than enough time to prepare.

Benny Ray froze, realization setting in. He hoped he was wrong, but every instinct he had was screaming bloody murder, and he reacted at once, activating his comlink and calling Matt.

"Major, get outta there!" he bellowed. "The house's a trap!"

He didn't wait for Shepherd's clipped "Affirmative", but grabbed his gear and slid down the roof, his mind already racing through all possible scenarios, trying to anticipate what the other was likely to do. Something strange was going on here, that much was sure.

If the place really is wired, why hasn't it blown yet? Why wait?

As if his thoughts had been the cue, the nocturnal silence was broken by the sound of an explosion. He cursed under his breath, stopping his descent at the edge of the roof and jumping down onto the roof of the garage and from there to the ground. His heart was racing, fear for his friends gnawing at his guts.

Too small. That was barely more than a 'bang'. Come on, what's going on in that head of yours? What're you planning, dammit?

Not concerned with stealth anymore, certain that the assassin was focussed entirely on his target now, he cut through the backyards, vaulting over the fences that blocked his way to his team.

He reached the safehouse just as Matt and the others stumbled through the backdoor, coughing and wheezing because of the smoke. Benny Ray took in their familiar forms, noting with relief that none of them seemed injured, then he saw them spread out on their way across the lawn to the car, and suddenly he knew what was going to happen.

Shitshitshitshit! Where is he? Where didn't I look?

Then it hit him. Looking up he made out a hunched shape on top of the building, aiming down. In a heartbeat his brain calculated the angle and presented him with a frightening result. Matt was too close to Kowalski, so close in fact that the shot would go right through his head before it hit the intended target. The assassin couldn't care less, from this distance the major's skull wouldn't provide enough resistance to alter the course of the bullet, it would still find its mark.

Safehouse
Los Angeles area
04:50 hours

Margo heard Benny Ray yell a warning and spun around, throwing herself at Linda and pushing her down. A shot rang out, and from the corner of her eye she saw Matt and Benny Ray hit the ground hard. Chance and Deke opened fire, covering their fallen teammates and forcing the assassin to retreat in an undignified hurry.

For second or so Margo thought they'd made it through the attack unscathed, then she heard Matt's frantic voice call out and her heart turned to ice. Keeping Linda safely tucked under her own body she turned and looked up, finding Benny Ray lying on the ground and cursing steadily while Matt was pressing his hand against his shoulder, trying to stop the bleeding.

"Deke, call an ambulance!" the major roared, his hands already covered in blood. "Chance, make sure the bastard's really gone!"

Deke nodded shortly and pulled out his cell phone, punching in a number, while Chance tore his gaze away from the wounded sniper and disappeared from sight. Margo didn't bother to listen to Deke, her concentration on the two men who meant more to her than anything else. Benny Ray looked shaken, but he was conscious and already sitting up, much to Matt's dismay.

"Dammit, Benny Ray, hold still!" their CO hissed, fingers pressing tightly against the sniper's shoulder. "You've just been shot!"

That owed him a dirty look.

"I kinda noticed, boss," Benny Ray grumbled. He was not used to anybody fussing over him, least of all the major. "It's just a scratch, really."

Margo took one look at his pale face and decided not to trust his judgement.

"How bad is it, Matt?" she asked, completely ignoring the soft mewls of terror from underneath her.

The woman was all right, there had been only one shot and Margo had felt the bullet whiz past above their heads. She didn't care whether Linda Kowalski was afraid or simply feeling a little squashed under Margo's weight, all that mattered to her at the moment was her injured teammate. Matt looked up and met her gaze. She breathed a quiet sigh of relief when she saw his eyes. They were swirling with a dozen different emotions, but fear for his friend's life was not one of them.

"I can't really tell, it's too dark, but I'm fairly sure the bullet passed through the muscles of his left shoulder without breaking any bones. He was luckier than he deserved for his stupidity!" He turned on Benny Ray, visibly resisting the urge to shake his second in command. "Were you out of your mind, jumping into the path of that bullet?!?" he growled.

Benny Ray grimaced, partly because of the pain and partly out of embarrassment.

"I wasn't sure I'd distracted 'im enough ta miss you," he mumbled. "It was a reflex."

"Well, that reflex almost got you killed!" Matt snapped, the thought of losing his friend making his voice sound sharper than he'd most likely intended.

Margo lifted herself off the shaking witness, alert for any signs of the assassin returning, then went to kneel beside Matt. She needed to see for herself that Benny Ray wasn't seriously injured. He squirmed a little under the scrutiny of them both, but didn't resist when she moved closer so he could lean against her. She could feel the minute shivers running through his strong body and felt a wave of protectiveness swell.

She barely noticed when Chance returned, mutely shaking his head at the major and reluctantly taking up position with their charge instead of completing the protective circle they'd drawn around the hurt sniper.

"Help's on the way," Deke's dark voice rumbled. The tall man squatted down beside them, taking in the injury and grimacing. "Ouch. I bet that hurts," he observed.

Benny Ray glared at him.

"I'm fine," he insisted, pulling away from Margo's support and trying to get up.

Matt caught him just in time to prevent him from falling facedown to the ground. Muttering a string of chosen expletives under his breath, the major propped his sniper up against his chest, then proceeded to tell him in no uncertain terms what he thought about Benny Ray's stubborn pride and what he was going to do if Benny Ray didn't keep still until that wound of his was taken care of..

Deke grinned and stood up again, gently ushering Linda towards the van.

"Come on, darling, we're gonna go and wait over there till the cavalry arrives. You need anything? Water? Cookies? Whiskey?"

"Whiskey," was the immediate reply.

Margo could hear Deke chuckle softly.

"Thought so."

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