With Sue M
Also with contributions, and edits by Wendymypooh.
Characters: Vin, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah, JD, & Nathan, additional original characters, the Wild Bunch, and MCAT team members. Special appearances by Old West Chris (Cowboy), Vin (Tracker), and Josiah (Preacher).
Rating: Gen; het, violence, and profanity included.
Rating: Gen; het, violence, and profanity included.
Disclaimer: This story is entirely a work of fiction, for entertainment purposes only, based on the characters from "The Magnificent Seven." I don't own 'em, but if I did I would run away with 'em and never be seen again. CBS and Co., Trilogy Entertainment, and MGM had 'em first and do not want to give 'em away. I play at this for fun and do not make any money doing it. No infringement of any copyrights intended. Any references to locations or people are only for story use, and do not intend to depict any real place or person.
Summary, Code of Honor: The latest quest for our seven connects Colorado, to the violence of Mexico drug and gun smuggling, human trafficking, and murder. The 'Legends of the Quest' book, each man previously received, teaches them how their personnel choices affect their futures, and to live with honor. Now, their past and present finally intersect to show them why fate chose them to lead the fight for justice.
The MCAT AU, MCAT (Major Crimes and Acts of Terrorism), are stories are full of mystery, action, humor, and anguish, sprinkled with a touch of fantasy. Also het; all seven are involved in committed relationships. Series #1, Turbulent Transitions, forms the foundation for this AU. Series # 2, Strength & Solidarity, are stories, which center on the Seven's intrinsic bonds of friendship, and brotherhood, forces that have no boundaries. The second series concludes in #6 'Purgatory', and #7 'Winds of Change'. Further background and information about the characters of MCAT, and the Larabee 7 families, is available @ Magnificent Seven Heaven
Acknowledgments: (Sue) Thank you: Sherry, for saving my sanity, and allowing us to bring closure to something that started way back in 'Just Couldn't Wait'. I cherish your friendship, appreciate, and admire your passion for your AU, and for Seven guys who stole my heart too. Our Muses work well together; I've had a blast, thank you. Thanks also, to the Muse girls, you've been awesome.
(Tannertexaslady) Sue, I asked for a lifeline and you threw it. You also made Vin's poetry truly amazing. Bountyhunter'slady, the collage you created for Code of Honor is magnificent. I appreciate the art you have contributed to the MCAT Series. Wendy thanks for the brainstorming sessions, and jump-starting my muse. Also to my beta, Sarai, thank you for your patience with my commas. Ladies of Muse 7, y'all are great, and I appreciate your feedback.
A Special Thank You to MCAT Readers: Code of Honor has been a long time coming. First, Hurricane Ike hit us in September, and then a serious car accident involving two of my family members in January, delayed its completion. To all of you, who sent me supportive emails, and conveyed interest in # 5 Code of Honor. I thank you for your patience.
Notes: Any mistakes are mine. I'm a Texan, born and raised, speak Texan, understand it, and write it, as I know it. The original characters created for this series belong to the authors who created them.
A glossary of Law Enforcement terms used in this series is located @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/Whatdidtheysay.html
Military Time @ http://www.spacearchive.info/military.htm
Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org
The quest for justice; be it triumphant or sorrowful, is an honorable pursuit. ~Legends of the Quest~
South America, Late January, 2100 hours
Jagged shards of quartz torpedoed into the air and angry flames spewed across the cloudless night sky as a series of explosions rocked the mountainside. Josiah yanked hard on the wheel of the battered jeep, swerving to avoid the huge boulders and falling ash raining down upon the narrow winding road. The Guerilla soldiers chasing their vehicle steadily closed the distance between them.
"Faster Josiah," JD yelled. He swiveled around in the passenger seat to return fire at their pursuers, ducking low to avoid bullets as a dozen or more deadly rounds whizzed past his head. "They're gaining on us."
"Any faster and we'll need wings," Josiah shouted as he swerved again, cursing the darkness, and the constricted roadway.
Ezra wiped the blood from his eyes, hefted an assault rifle, and fired behind them. "I do hope our transport arrives in time and we find our comrades waiting for us at the rendezvous point."
"Amen Brother," Josiah said as his foot stomped the accelerator. "Hold on!"
Chris, his expression grim, stood in the middle of the road, watching for any sign of his missing men. The sound of explosions, though miles away, still rang in his ears. He cursed, "Damnit, we should have stayed together."
Buck, with one hand on his bruised ribs, gingerly ambled over to join him. "They'll make it, Chris, the same way we have for more than a millennium."
Casting a confused glance at his battered partner, Chris shook his head, and chose not to comment on Buck's strange statement. "Need I remind you, we almost didn't make it? If Manuel hadn't stepped on that road bomb first, you and I would be history." He glanced at his watch. "We're not out of the woods yet. I hope Vin and Nathan made contact with our pilot."
A whistle alerted the two men to company. "Hawk comin' in," Vin whispered as he and Nathan emerged through the trees and headed toward them. Tanner handed Chris the radio. "Our transportation is en route ETA twenty minutes. Any word yet on Josiah, Ezra, and JD?"
"No, the last contact we had from them was before the explosions. I ." The sound of gunfire interrupted him. "Incoming!"
The four men dove for cover and prepared to defend themselves. A blur of green on four wheels flashed by them and came to a sudden stop as it crashed into a stand of trees. Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Vin opened fire on the soldiers who were chasing their teammates while JD exited the jeep, assisted Ezra to the ground, then ran back to help an injured Josiah.
"Vin, we'll lay cover while Nathan and Buck help JD aid Josiah and Ezra," Chris ordered.
Buck hesitated. "Chris ."
"Move it Wilmington, we're right behind you." Chris never took his eyes off the looming targets as he yelled. The noise of the heavy gunfire was deafening.
After a curt nod, Buck hurried to join the others, who were making their way to the crude landing zone. He threw one arm around Ezra and used the other to protect his injured ribs. "You heard the man, let's move."
Nathan leaned into Josiah to steady him. "JD, I got him, lead the way."
Five men pushed through the vines and brush, heading to the designated area where they prayed their plane would be waiting for them.
Vin and Chris fired round after round and were rapidly running low on ammunition. The Guerilla soldiers apparently had an endless supply of firepower and the determination to use it all. The distant sound of an engine overhead was heaven sent.
"That's our ride." Vin pulled a handful of grenades from his backpack. "Let's send these pricks to hell and go catch it."
"Sounds like a plan to me. Do it on three one two three," Chris said as he released a barrage of bullets to cover Vin's actions.
Vin removed the pins with his teeth and lobbed the mini missiles at their assailants. The two agents made a hasty retreat in the midst of explosions and screams. They ran toward the sound of the aircraft and arrived just as the plane touched down.
Nathan wasted no time pushing Josiah onboard. Ezra and Buck followed in rapid succession. JD held back, firing his rifle at the remaining soldiers pursuing Chris and Vin.
"JD, haul your ass into that plane," Chris screamed at the young agent, "and that is not a suggestion!"
Bullets flew back and forth as Chris and Vin raced toward the aircraft. JD stood firm, ignoring the order to retreat, and continued to lay cover for his teammates. The pilot taxied down the makeshift runway while the bay door remained open. Buck reached out and grabbed JD by the shirt collar, pulling him inside while Nathan reached out to take hold of Chris's hand. The plane picked up speed while the soldiers continued to fire. Chris dropped his rifle and grabbed Vin by the arm, dragging the Texan onboard with him. Nathan and Buck wrestled the door closed as the transport lifted off the ground.
The sounds of heavy breathing filled the cargo bay. "Cut it kinda close, didn't you?" Buck slapped Chris on the back. "I thought for a moment you and Vin wanted to extend this little vacation."
"Fuck you." Chris straightened; concerned green eyes inspected the state of his men. "How bad, Nate?"
Nathan voiced his assessment while tending to injuries. "Josiah has a mild concussion. Ezra's head laceration from his up close and personal encounter with one of the soldiers will need a few stitches. Buck's ribs will take time to heal, and JD appears to have a major headache from the bomb blast. Nothing too serious, but I figure it'll be a week or more before everyone is one hundred percent."
Chris nodded. "Next stop, Panama City to change to the MCAT jet, and then we're going home."
Aboard The MCAT Jet
The private plane dipped a wing as it made the turn to the west. They were on course for Denver and due home within a few hours. After almost a month, in the jungle and mountain terrain of South America, home sounded good about now. Their third shadow operation had ended in near disaster for Alpha team. The fact that they had failed to secure the release of the three American hostages depressed the team, but circumstances forced them to abort their mission. Like it or not...a strategic exit seemed to be the only course of action to follow in order to avoid an international incident.
"I don't understand how their militia obtained information about us." Chris sighed as he stared out the window. The dark clouds shrouded his view and matched his pensive mood.
"Manuel was the only link we had, who had the connections to find out, and he's dead." Vin shook his head. "Don't matter now; the rebels know who we are, which means our work down here is finished."
"Yes it is." Chris turned to observe the rest of his battered team, who were sprawled in the seats behind them. "At least we survived without too much damage."
"Speak for yourself, Chris," Josiah groaned. "My head feels as if the whole damn mountain fell on it."
Buck chuckled, and then winced when his bruised ribs protested. "Fuck that hurts...," he hissed.
"Don't hiss so loud, Buck. Even my hair hurts when you grumble." JD held a hand to his head and glared at Ezra, who appeared to be sleeping comfortably.
"Travis owes us for this one," Chris growled. "Next time he says he has a special assignment for us, he better mean babysitting for the weekend."
"At least this time we'll all make it home." In spite of the seriousness of their situation, Vin grinned as an image of Kelli and their children flashed in his mind. Alpha team received orders to leave only a few days after Christmas, and suddenly he felt an urgent need for this mission to become history. He leaned back in his seat, shut out the noise around him, and closed his eyes.
*This time...what about next time?* Chris's thoughts turned to the future. "When do we say enough is enough?"
The question hung in the air, unanswered.
Preservation of fidelity to our mates, to mentor and protect our children, and commitment to the bonds of unity, are all requisites, which link our past, present and future. ~ Legends of the Quest~
Larabee 7, Friday, 0600 Hours
Walter Andrews was tending to the Tanner horses, musing about the turn of events that changed his lonely life of retirement into a smorgasbord of family, excitement, and love. A Marine for ten years and a law officer for another twenty-five, he had dedicated his life to service, but Chris's offer to head security on the Larabee 7 was the best thing that ever happened to him. Not only did he feel productive again, he found family he never had, and the love of his life, Maxine, who was now his wife.
He heard the familiar sound of the MCAT jet's engines flying low over the ranch, and realized that it meant the men of the Wild Bunch were returning home from their latest clandestine mission. Having seen the men in action more often than he liked to admit, he knew they were the best at what they did. They worked together like a well-oiled machine, instinctively knowing what their individual roles were in any given situation. Walter credited the unique bond the seven men held with one another to their high arrest rates and closed cases stats; however, they were not superheroes.
A brief moment of apprehension engulfed his normally stoic disposition. Fear that one or more of the men who were surrogate sons to him had fallen in the line of duty, sent an involuntary chill down his spine.
Shaking off his unsolicited emotions, he left the barn and headed for the Tanner home, where controlled chaos reigned. Less than twenty-four hours after the team departed, Dottie, caregiver for the Larabee children, had a dizzy spell and fell, breaking her hip. Kelli took charge of her two young siblings, moving them in with her own four children until she could relinquish both children into the arms of their father.
Kelli did as much as humanly possible to make things easier on Max while she was at home, but her responsibilities at MCAT headquarters had more than doubled since Alpha team had taken on their Black Ops assignments. That left him and Max to oversee the daily needs of six children, along with the rest of their responsibilities around the Larabee 7.
When Walter arrived at the house, he found breakfast dishes on the table, and Kelli preparing for work. She would drop Grace off at the Reins of Change daycare, and then take Jason and Andi to school, before she finally headed to MCAT headquarters. His wife was setting up a baby gate in the doorway to the playroom, so she could leave Bren, Trey, and Cody safely within her sight.
"I heard the MCAT plane go over the barn, headin' for Camp Larabee's landin' strip. I wanted to let y'all know I was headin' over there to meet them," he told his wife as he poured coffee into three thermoses.
Max exhaled a sigh of relief. "Thank God they're back. I don't know what they do on these trips, but I do know we need them here. We can't keep on this way much longer."
Walter smiled lovingly at her. "I think you are sellin' the other ladies and yourself short, wife."
"Maybe," Max willingly admitted, "But you know as well as I do that everyone is stretched to their limit with work and home responsibilities. Kelli snapped at the children again today and that's not like her. Jason and Andi are irritable with one another, and with the younger kids. Cody is restless at night, and every time she hears the phone ring, Grace thinks it's her Daddy calling and cries out to talk to him."
"I know." He could not deny things had been tough with Vin and the other men gone, and he was not the only one who was going to be glad to see them. He hoped the seven men were home for an extended stretch of time, instead of another brief layover. There had been too many of those in-between assignments over the past few months. For the sake of everyone involved, some changes were long overdue.
"Call me if you need me." He kissed her good-bye, picked up the thermoses, and left the house. Climbing into his truck, he headed the vehicle in the direction of Camp Larabee. It was time to report the current state of home affairs to his boss. He sincerely hoped Chris and the others were ready to hear it.
Camp Larabee, Denver, Colorado
MCAT pilot, Mike Cole, made a smooth touchdown on the five-month-old private landing strip at Camp Larabee shortly after sunrise. Seven weary men thanked their pilot, emerged from the plane, and six of them headed toward the vehicles they had left there a month earlier.
"Hold on," Chris shouted as he waved them over. "We need to debrief the mission first before we head home."
Amid barely audible mumbles and disgruntled glares, the men changed direction and headed to the entrance of Alpha team's temporary office. When Travis assigned them Shadow missions in late August, Camp Larabee became base of operations for Alpha Team. Granted, Director Travis had paid for a new runway and several upgrades to their temporary headquarters, but it was not the same as being at the original MCAT offices. The secretive nature of their missions made normal interaction with their families, and the MCAT agents not on their team, impossible. Isolation from normal routines and separation from their loved ones increased their stress levels and made home life increasingly difficult to balance with their assignments.
Once they were inside, Chris gave them a few minutes to collect their thoughts before addressing his men. "I realize you are all anxious to get home and are not in the best shape. Nevertheless, you know the drill. I need you to take the time to write down the events, which took place after we separated." He tossed several legal pads on the table, along with some pens. "Make it concise, but thorough. I'll reconcile your notes and process the information for my Monday meeting with Director Travis."
Six men began to write amid groans and muttering. Satisfied that they were complying with his orders, Chris started to compose his own observations about the mission. The pressure of executing a non-stop string of Black Ops was showing on his men. Short tempers, a variety of physical injuries, and the threat of mental fatigue combined to increase their risks of making mistakes. It was time to have a serious discussion with Travis about the direction of Alpha team.
Next on his list was the name JD Dunne, followed by a question mark. Chris acknowledged that the past seven months had been extremely difficult for his agent. JD had been walking a mental tightrope. The physical attack he incurred last June, the demands of being a single parent, and uncertainty about his family's future were major stress factors, all requiring time and patience to overcome. Chris's concerns, however, were immediate. Extended periods away from home, and dangerous missions did not mix well with JD's current situation. Over the course of the last three assignments, Chris witnessed behavior patterns that signaled trouble. His young agent had been slow to follow direct orders, broke cover on several occasions, and exhibited an 'I am indestructible' maverick type attitude. His actions, though heroic and so far, successful, were also reckless, and at times bordered on insubordination. As a friend and brother, it was heartbreaking to see JD take needless risks with his life. As Dunne's' commanding officer, it was Chris's responsibility to officially reprimand the younger man, and if necessary, place him on leave, or recommend mandatory counseling.
Placing his pen on top of his paper, Chris glanced up; green eyes zeroed in on JD and he told him, "We need to talk. See me here, tomorrow morning at eight."
JD nodded as he slid his legal pad toward Chris. "Whatever you say, Boss." He then stood to leave.
Buck, Josiah, and Nathan handed over their notes to Chris and moved to join JD. Ezra and Vin followed suit and prepared to exit as quickly as possible.
The office door swung open allowing a gust of cold air to fill the meeting room. Carrying thermoses of coffee Walter entered, effectively blocking the doorway, and preventing the men from leaving. "Y'all might as well sit a spell, I have a few things to say that need hearin'." Walter set the thermoses on the table, grabbed seven cups, and waited until all the men sat again before he began. "While y'all were gone, several things occurred, which you should be aware of."
Chris interrupted, "Walter we appreciate your concerns, but unless the ranch burned down in our absence, this can wait."
"I reckon it could," Walter shook his head, "but I figured y'all might be interested in your families' welfare." He reached for the cups to return them to the cabinet and was prepared to leave.
A stab of fear coursed through Vin's body as he thought the worst. He jumped up and demanded, "What about our families?"
"Hold your horses' boy." Walter placed his hand on Vin's shoulder. "Nothing traumatic and nobody died, but important matters, nonetheless."
Ezra sighed, his brows furrowing in frustrated lines on his tired face, at the older man's cryptic words. "Would you please be more specific? I have a splitting headache and I loathe the idea of expending anymore time away from Barbara."
"Well, in your case your Mama showed up the day after y'all left. She's been driving Barbara nuts ."
"Maude is here?" Ezra's mind raced through an array of reasons for his mother's presence, none of which promised a good outcome for her visit. "She's been alone with my wife for two weeks? Dear Lord, Barbara may never speak to me again." He dropped his aching head into his hands. Suddenly going home didn't seem as inviting to him. Who knew what sort of torture Barbara had experienced at the hands of his mother.
Josiah grinned. "Ezra, relax. Maude is a wonderful woman. She probably just wants to visit a bit, and then she'll be on her way."
Ezra scowled at him. "Your opinion of my mother is greatly distorted."
"Mister Sanchez," Walter addressed Josiah as he walked around the table. "Your wife dropped Adam off at the daycare before she went to Joanne's school. Mallory had an early conference with the principal. It seems your daughter was involved in a fight yesterday with another student. She's okay, but treadin' deep water with the school."
"Joanne was in a fight?" Josiah was incredulous. "She's a good student. She's not violent, nor has she ever ."
Walter answered, "Ah, but she did when one of her classmates made ugly remarks about you missin' career day after you scheduled ."
"To be there damn I forgot all about it." Josiah sighed and wondered how he was going to make it up to his daughter.
"It couldn't be helped," Nathan assured Josiah. "She'll forgive you."
Taking the opportunity to redirect the conversation, Walter continued, "Nathan, your wife dropped your two off at the daycare and is with Cait today. They have a meetin' with the hospital board concernin' Reins of Change. Rain has been workin' day and night on her presentation and proposal for a new medical alliance."
Nathan shook his head. "They already have a contract."
"Yep, they do have a contract, but they need more cooperation than it requires. Guess you missed the news that the hospital changed ownership a few weeks ago. There's a new administration and they have a ton of questions about the bottom line cost of the hospital continuin' to support Reins." Walter informed him. "Cait and Rain have worried about and worked hard to prevent the loss of their rights at Denver Memorial."
"Hell, what else have we missed?" Buck realized that none of them had much idea about anything going on at home since their new assignments began in late August.
Walter sympathized with these men. Their families had always been a top priority for them, but since they started the new missions, they were not home long enough to see much of what was happening in their own backyards. "Inez took the babies and is helpin' over at the Reins daycare. Sarah and Caleb rode to the school with Mallory." Walter nodded to JD, "Lisa is at Reins too, along with your kids. Miss Nettie has spent the week in a motel close to Casey's hospital. Evidently Casey asked for her, and she dropped everythin' and went, just like that."
"So, my house is empty too. " JD commented, wondering why Casey would see Nettie and not him.
"Yep." He turned to Vin. "Yours isn't though. Dottie took a dizzy spell and fell just a few hours after y'all left. She left by ambulance and is still in the hospital. Kelli took Grace and Cody home with her. Your home is well let's just say with six children, who miss their fathers' actin' out, your cousin Wyatt's ill-timed visit last week, work pilin' up at the office, and Travis sendin' her and Mallory back into the field .your wife is not in the best of moods lately."
Vin disagreed. "Apparently I'm always gone when the shit hits the fan, but Kel is strong enough to handle most anythin'."
"Uh huh," Walter said skeptically. "Just in case you're wrong, you might want to throw your hat in the door before you go inside." He decided to leave the men to think about what he said and closed the door on his way out.
Seven men sat in silence for a few minutes, digesting the information Walter had given them. Granted, their missions were of national importance and they had signed on voluntarily. Yet, one thing resonated loud and clear being gone ninety-five percent of the time was not working on the home front. Perhaps it was time to re-evaluate their options. Finally, Chris stood. "It appears we all have some home work to attend to dismissed."
"Come on Buck." Nathan was beside his friend to assist him to his feet. "Leave your truck here and I'll take you home." He nudged Ezra as he walked by and said, "Mind that head injury. I'll come over later and check on you."
"Trust me; with Maude in the house, my little headache is the least of my concerns." Ezra started out the door, stopped, and turned around. "Thanks anyway."
Josiah threw his arm around JD's shoulders. "Why don't you and I head over to the daycare and see if they need any help?"
JD shrugged. "Nah, you go ahead. I think I'm gonna go home and take a nap before Lisa brings the kids back."
"Call if you want some company later." Josiah was still talking as JD walked out the door.
"Reckon it's just you and me, Cowboy." Vin said as he pulled out his keys. "Time for us to see for ourselves just what sort of chaos has been brewin' on the home front."
"I'm right behind you." Chris locked the door and then climbed into Vin's truck.
Ezra wasted no time once he was out the door. He jumped into his car, mentally reviewing the list of possible reasons Maude was here, as he headed the Silver Bullet toward his home. His mother's unannounced arrival in Denver definitely had him rattled and he had not been joking to the others when he said that Barbara might never speak to him again. Maude's company was hard to put up with even when she was on her best behavior, who knows what mood she had exhibited since she breezed into town.
Barbara had spent very little time with his mother and in spite of his desire to keep them separated; Maude had been here, alone with his wife, for almost a month. Who knew what condition Barbara's state of mind would be once he arrived home? Pulling into the driveway a few moments later, he threw the car into park as he maneuvered himself out of the Jaguar and hurried toward the front door.
Ezra let himself into the house and found it eerily silent. Good God what if Maude had chased Barbara out of the house, or made her resort to violence to stop the misery she had probably endured since his mother had darkened their doorstep.
"Barbara?" he called out as he took off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack in the entryway.
Relief flooded through him at the welcoming lilt in Barbara's voice when she answered his summons. She appeared a moment later and despite the happy note in her voice, her eyes told another story. She stepped willingly into his arms to receive his ready kiss.
When the kiss ended, Barbara took note of the bandage on his forehead. "Honey, you're injured. How bad is it?"
"Nothing to be overly concerned about," he was quick to assure her, "It's just a scratch. I have a slight headache, but that's easy enough to take care of with some aspirin and rest. How are you?"
"Your mother's here." Barbara announced with as much enthusiasm as a funeral director.
"Walter alerted me to her unexpected appearance." He informed her as they moved toward the living room together. "How bad has it been?"
"Let's see, I don't stock the right wine for her tastes, cook meals that are pleasing to her delicate palette, and while she admires how we've decorated the house, she's never seen the color or style combinations we chose for some of the rooms." She related with a grimace on her face.
Ezra winced, "That bad, huh?"
Maude made her presence known in the house before his wife had a chance to reply. "Barbara, where did you run off to? I thought you were going to help me hang the curtains I bought for my room."
The grimace was back on Barbara's face and Ezra did not like seeing it. He called out, "She's busy welcoming her husband home, Mother."
"Ezra, is that you? Oh, my sweet baby boy, welcome home."
The saccharine tone of Maude's voice was obvious, but beneath it, Ezra thought he detected a note of sincerity too. Deep within him, his child heart responded to the thought that she was actually glad he was home, at the same time his brain warned him not to be gullible. Even though his heart reacted to Maude's tone of voice with mixed reviews, he resolved himself not to give in to his boyish whims. His mother never thought of anyone else's feelings or needs above her own, and he was wise to remember that, even if some inner part of him, was secretly glad that she'd come for a visit. He considered again what sort of trouble she had gotten into that had forced her to take refuge in his home while he was away.
When his mother finally made an appearance in the living room, she practically pushed Barbara out of the way so that she could give Ezra a hug. Barbara glared at Maude's back and he sent her an apologetic smile even as he returned his mother's embrace.
"Mother, you look refreshingly well. I assume that your visit isn't of some dire nature?" he asked as he broke off the embrace and headed over to the bar to pour a drink. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
"I'm as fit as a fiddle for a woman of my maturity." Maude moved to settle herself in one of the chairs in the living room.
Barbara sat down on one end of the couch. Their placement in the room and the distance between the two women in his life was another indication to Ezra just how bad things had been on Barbara while he was gone. As he poured amber liquid into a tumbler he said, "Would either of you ladies care to join me in a drink?"
"Yes, please." Barbara shot him a grateful glance across the room and Maude nodded her acceptance.
Ezra picked up the glasses and walked across the room, handing his mother her drink, before joining Barbara on the couch. Placing his arm across his wife's shoulders, Ezra gave her a supported squeeze. "Now perhaps you'd liked to enlighten me about the reason for your visit." He gazed pointedly at his mother over the rim of his tumbler as he took a sip of his brandy.
"Is it necessary to have a reason to visit my child?" Maude answered with a question of her own.
"There usually is, and it almost never has to do with you just wanting to spend time with me." Ezra pointed out. "So why don't we forego the cat and mouse game you enjoy so well, and cut to the chase."
"Ezra, can't you just for once believe that I came to Denver to visit and for no other reason?" Maude's voice held a note of anger. She hastily rose from her chair and stalked out of the living room.
"This wasn't exactly the happy homecoming I expected." Ezra muttered as he watched his mother leave the room.
"I have an idea or two on how to make it a much better one." Barbara said, setting down her drink on the coffee table and cuddling closer to him.
"I hoped that you would." Ezra set down his drink before drawing her into his arms. Determined to enjoy a real welcome home, they were soon lost in the growing fire of a passionate reunion.
"Ezra, may I have a word alone with you, now!" Maude's summons was just the thing to dampen his ardor; their anticipated morning of renewed passion abruptly ended. He leaned his head against Barbara's forehead and waited for their breathing to return to normal.
"She's certainly a mood killer." Barbara muttered after a few moments.
"I regret that in order for us to continue my homecoming in peace, that I best comply with her wishes at present, or we may never have a moment alone for the duration of her visit." Ezra kissed Barbara on the forehead and rose from the couch. He offered his ladylove a hand as she joined him.
"While you talk to Maude I'll fix us something to eat. Cait and Rain weren't in need of my legal services this morning, but I do have a new client coming in later today." She shook her finger at his face. "I promise you, Ezra, that come hell or high water, you, and I are going to have time alone tonight or so help me I'll hurt her." Barbara stalked off toward the kitchen, while Ezra reluctantly headed down the hallway toward the guest bedroom where his mother awaited him.
"Move Tracker," Kelli mumbled and stepped over the dog as she yelled down the hallway, "Jason Cameron Tanner, quit dawdlin', we're gonna be late. Front and center now." She then attempted to assist Andi with her coat.
Their little blonde squealed, "Daddy," and wiggled loose from her mother's hands to run to the door and launch her little body toward her father. Vin caught her in mid-air and she threw her arms around his neck. "You home!"
"That I am, Sugar."
Chaos reigned as Grace caught sight of her father entering behind Vin and ran to meet him. Tracker circled the two men and barked, while three little boys began to bounce in the playpen, their excited gibberish joined the fray. Jason hurried in when he heard his sister's excited squeal, adding his voice to the enthusiastic welcome. Combined, the noise level in the Tanner home rose to somewhere between the sound of a 747 engine on takeoff and the roar of Mile High stadium when the Broncos scored.
Vin lowered Andi to the floor, and gave Jason a brief hug, before he crossed over to the playpen and scooped up his younger boys into his arms. Bren and Trey rewarded him with wet kisses, which warmed their father's heart. Andi and Jason crowded close and continued jabbering to compete with their younger siblings for his attention.
With Grace cradled in one arm, Chris joined Vin by the playpen, picked up an excited Cody, and hugged both of his children tightly, which made them squeal with delight.
Kelli sighed and resigned herself to the fact that she would be not be on time for work and Jason and Andi were going to be late for school. Her eyes slowly scanned her husband's body, looking for any sign of new injuries. "Are you home to stay for a while?"
Vin took notice of her appraisal, the tension in her stance, and the dark shadows beneath her beautiful eyes, which make-up failed to conceal. His redhead was obviously under a great deal of stress, and the sooner he went to work on reducing it the better. "You bet, baby."
He disentangled his sons' hands from his hair and settled them back into the playpen. He ran a hand across the top of Andi's head, patted Jason on the shoulder, and then told them, "Mom needs to leave for work. Finish getting' ready for school and I'll take y'all."
"Dad, can't we stay home with you?" Jason added a whine to his words, which was something he never did.
Vin was already shaking his head. "Not today, Son. You know school comes first, but it's Friday and I promise we'll have plenty of time together this evenin', over the weekend, next week, and the week after that.."
"Ahh Dad," Jason started to argue, but his mother intervened.
"You heard your father, Jason. You are goin' to school. Now collect your books and coat." Kelli turned and held out Andi's jacket. "You too, young lady."
Andi shuffled her feet, and for a moment considered rebellion, but the look on her Mother's face changed her mind. "Yes ma'am."
"Chris, Max will have to fill you in on the details about Dottie. Cody has not been sleepin' well, either. I don't think it's anythin' serious, but you might want to keep an eye on him." Kelli slipped Andi's jacket on her and buttoned it as she spoke, "Tanner, there are some boxes in your office Wyatt sent from Texas filled with your father's old case files, family records, and such. He also hand delivered a copy of your grandfather's journal and a couple of letters the old man wrote especially for you before he died. They're in the top drawer of your nightstand." She glanced at her watch. "I've gotta go. Max "
Max sighed and answered, "I know. Don't hold supper for you, you'll be here when you get here. I'm certain their father will make sure Andi and Jason do their homework."
"Right," Kelli said as she hugged Andi. "I already told the boys' bye and Jason well he's all yours Vin, good luck with Mister Attitude." She grabbed her coat and slipped it on as she headed for the door. "Bye Grace. Dad, I'll see you later."
Much to the amusement of their onlookers, Vin grabbed the back of her coat and said, "Hold on woman." He then pulled her to him for a passionate welcome home kiss that left her breathless, and weak in the knees. He held her until she was steady on her feet and then grinned. "Now we have our priorities back in order."
Kelli cupped her hand to caress his cheek and said, "I missed you, Tanner."
"I missed you too, Baby." He lightly swatted her backside. "Go, before I decide to kidnap you for the day."
"I have a feelin' Travis would send out a search party." Kelli gave him a brief kiss and then waved good-bye to Chris and the children before disappearing out the door.
*Chris, we need more time at home.*
*I know. I see Travis on Monday and plan to make a few changes with our assignments.*
Choices, based on our inherent instincts, determine the paths of our destinies. ~Legends of the Quest ~
Chris's Journal, Saturday, 0530 hours
As a Navy Seal, I believe that I engaged in every form of combat imaginable at one time or another. As an officer of the law, I am certain I have dealt with some of the most difficult humans on earth. However, the past twenty-four hours have tested every fiber of my being. To say that our homecoming was less than we expected is an understatement. Josiah called me last night and withdrew his name from the next mission. Nathan called a few minutes later to remove his too. They said their families needed them at home for a while, and I had to agree. We have been gone too much and things are way off balance around here. It is time to put our houses in order.
Grace has clung to me like superglue and Cody cries every time I am out of his sight. Caitlyn and I managed to talk a whole ten minutes alone, before our respective responsibilities clamored for our attention. I discovered that Dottie's test results uncovered serious heart problems, and it is very unlikely that she will be returning to work as our Nanny anytime in the near future. All this on top of Travis pushing me for a report I have not even started.
In a few minutes, my babies will be awake and another day will begin. I am going to leave them with Kelli and Vin while I meet with JD at Camp Larabee. Truthfully, I am not looking forward to this meeting. It is one of those times that being family and commanding officer clash big-time. From my own experience, I understand where JD is mentally and emotionally, caught somewhere between the real world and hell. With me though, I did not have three children put on hold, waiting for me to 'wake up and smell the coffee'.
Somehow, I need to get JD's attention without pushing him further away. Maybe, he is waiting for me to bring things into the open and this will be easier than I think. I am certain it will take every ounce of patience I have to reach him, but it will be worth it if he listens and responds accordingly. If not well, I do not even want to think about the alternative at this point.
I hear Cody waking, which means Grace won't be far behind. More later
Tanner Home, 0600 hours
Vin lay in bed thinking about the past twenty-four hours. The events, which happened in the jungles of South America over the previous month, seemed light-years away. His home-life was foremost on his mind. After Kelli left for work yesterday, he had sent Max home and told her not to return until Monday morning. She and Walter had been serving double duty lately with Kelli's odd schedule and they both deserved a break. Spending the day with the twins was pure pleasure, and when Jason and Andi arrived home after school, he felt his homecoming was complete. Well almost.
It had been close to ten when she finally arrived home and he was worried about the telltale signs of exhaustion visible on her face. They had not even discussed work, or the information he had discovered in the files Wyatt left for him. As much as he wanted to make sweet love to her, his primary concern was to make certain she rested. He started to ease himself out of bed, determined not to wake his wife. His plan was to let her sleep in while he took on the Tanner and Larabee children.
"Goin' somewhere?" Kelli stretched out her arm in an attempt to reach Vin, before he moved away from the bed. "You belong here with me."
He grinned and returned to bed, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her close and sighed contently. "You shouldn't be awake."
She nestled against his chest, inhaling the masculine scent of her husband that she had sorely missed the past four weeks. "It's Saturday. The kids won't be up for another hour and Dad won't be here until seven-thirty."
Resting his chin on the top of her head, he smiled. "What do you think we should do with that hour?"
"I think," she said as she positioned herself over him, "we should do what we didn't do last night."
Vin fisted his fingers in her hair, drawing her head closer to his. "Sounds like a plan to me," he whispered huskily as he claimed her lips for a long passionate kiss.
Later that morning
"More pancakes please, "Andi said as she offered up her empty plate to her father for a refill.
"You got it, Sugar." He took her dish, stacked three pancakes on it, and then set it back on the table. "You want more too, son?"
Jason nodded as he swallowed the last bite and said, "Yes sir."
The back door swung open and Chris entered. He carried Cody in one arm, while holding on to Grace with his free hand, and greeted everyone with, "Morning all."
Vin reached for Cody and set him into one of the empty highchairs, so Chris could remove Grace's coat. Noting the dusting of white powder on Chris's hat he asked, "More snow?"
"Yep, appears we got at least another two inches overnight and it's still coming down," Chris answered, hung up his daughter's coat, and then helped her to sit at the table. "You sure about this Vin? I know you want to spend time with your own "
"Grace and Cody fit in just fine with our plans." Vin passed Chris two small plates of pancakes for the children. "You want some?"
"Not now," Chris answered as he gave Cody a pancake wrap, "I want to get this over with."
"I'll give you time to talk to JD, but then I'm coming over to help you finish the reports for Travis." He grinned when a giggling Trey ran into the kitchen. Kelli, carrying Bren, was close on his heels.
Vin caught his little escape artist and lifted him off the floor. "Whoa, Pard, your run ends here."
Kelli sighed. "Turned my back for five seconds and he was gone."
Chris chuckled. "You think he's fast now, wait a few years."
"Mornin', Dad," Kelli said as she put Bren in his chair and reached for Trey.
"I got him, "Vin said as he sat Trey in his chair next to Cody. " You sit too, Mom. I'm servin' breakfast," he turned to pour her a steaming mug of brew, "You, enjoy your coffee."
"Keep this up and you'll spoil me." Kelli smiled when he set the mug in front of her and stole a kiss.
Chris glanced at his watch. "I need to leave," he said as he leaned down to kiss his youngest daughter's forehead. "Grace, you mind your sister and Vin, I'll be back in a little while."
Grace started to protest, but Andi drew her attention when she told her, "We have a new movie to see. Daddy says it's all about horses."
Chris took the opportunity to make his exit.
Dunne Home/ Camp Larabee
JD gazed down into JJ's crib and watched the baby sleep. His son seemed to grow an inch every time he was gone. His fine hair was a little longer, he had gained a pound or two since the holidays, and he had developed a dimple in his chin that reminded him of Casey. He swallowed hard as memories of their times together flooded his mind and a wave of pain swept over his heart. He could not even think her name without being overwhelmed with emotion. He ached to hold her in his arms, to have his hands caressing her gentle curves, and feel her body moving in accord with his. JD wrestled with his emotions until he got them under control, and after giving JJ another glance, he left the nursery.
Before JD departed for Camp Larabee, he told Lisa he was heading out and for her to call if the children needed him. As he walked toward his truck, and began to scrape the ice off his windshield, he mentally rehearsed what he planned to say. He knew his Brother Chris was concerned about how he was handling everything that had occurred within the past several months. His Boss Chris probably thought it was affecting his work as a MCAT agent but he did not think he had done anything too controversial, despite his personal chaos. He had acted the way he knew anyone else on his team would under the same circumstances.
When JD arrived at Camp Larabee, Chris was already there waiting for him.
"I made coffee. Why don't you grab yourself a cup?" Chris suggested when Agent Dunne came through the door.
"If it's all the same I'd like to get down to business. I want to be home in time to have breakfast with my kids." JD said crossing over to the table where his CO sat.
"Very well," Chris gestured for him to sit down, but he chose to remain standing instead.
Chris gazed up at him and easily read the defiance in the other MCAT agent's stance. He had hoped to avoid this type of reaction to their meeting. This 'talk' was not so much about scolding his agent for his impulsive and risky actions of late, but an attempt to get through to him that he and the other men on Alpha team were concerned about his emotional state of mind.
"I want to address your conduct in the field lately. You've been reckless, impulsive, and at times your actions have been bordering on insubordination."
"On a few of those occasions, if it wasn't for my 'impulsive' actions we could have lost one of our teammates." JD told him pointedly.
"I never said you didn't do what you thought was needed to cover our asses. What I'm concerned with is you ignoring direct orders and acting as if you are invincible, when you're not." Chris frowned at him.
JD placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. "What have I done that's different than what you or Buck or any of the rest of you does? Tell me, Chris, why are you upset that I make the same sort of risky moves you and the others on Alpha team do in defense of their brothers, their country, and themselves on a regular basis?" His voice rose as his anger steadily increased.
"This is different "
The young agent straightened, and began to pace in front of the table. He shook his head and continued, "I'll tell you the God damn difference. All of you have the stupid notion that I can't take care of myself and need someone to babysit me! Well fuck this crap! I've proven more times than I can count that I've earned this job as much as any of you have, and I won't tolerate everyone thinking they have to handle me with kid gloves anymore! Either you accept the fact that I'm just as entitled to risk my life in the course of a mission as you are, or fire my ass and leave me the hell alone!"
"Firing you isn't an option, Agent Dunne, but kicking your ass is definitely on the list of possibilities," Chris told him sternly as he rose from his chair. "My concern is not about your abilities as an agent, it's about your state of mind, period."
"Right! Well, let me tell you about my state of mind." He leaned in closer. "All of you guys have been riding my ass forever and I'm sick and tired of it. The FBI threw me in jail, Ice tried to murder me twice, and my own wife stuck a knife in my gut. So, if you think you have a chance in hell of intimidating me, you're wrong!"
Images of other scenes similar to this one flashed through Chris's mind giving him a strange feeling of déjà vu. His anger dissipated and he shook his head to return his attention to JD. "Starting today, you are on desk duty and will complete another series of counseling sessions before you are allowed back into the field."
JD huffed, staring at the man for a moment before waving his hand dismissively in the air. "Fine, whatever." He stomped out the door and barely missed a collision with Vin. Stopping for a split second to look back, he almost returned to apologize, but the moment passed and he hurried on to his truck.
Vin closed the door, viewed the expression on Chris's face, and shook his head. "Reckon your talk didn't go so well."
Chris threw his pen on the table and ran a hand over his face. "No, I reckon it didn't."
He hung up his coat and asked, "You want me to try?"
"Give him a little time to think about our discussion." Chris sat down and opened a folder. "We have reports to write, and recommendations to make. Josiah and Nathan have already pulled their names from the list for the next mission, and I put JD on desk duty. At this rate we won't have much of a team for another Shadow operation."
"I wouldn't be upset if we ended this mess," Vin said as he sat down in the chair next to Chris's, and picked up another folder. "As much as I bitch about our damn computers, it beats havin' to write all this information longhand."
Chris shrugged his shoulder. "Shadow ops require that we leave no paper trail to follow our missions. No acknowledgements, no recordings, and no damn computer."
Vin muttered, "Right, and no family life, no time to think, sleep, or crap, either."
"No one said it would be easy, Vin." Chris leaned back in his chair. "I only wish I could truthfully say we've made a difference. We have not accomplished what the powers that be wanted, but as they are so fond of saying, we're only operatives, not policymakers"
"Hell, MCAT has a great track record. They should let us make policy, at least we'd do it right. "
"They're too power hungry for that, besides I'm afraid the entire unit is suffering from our extended absences. We should probably quit while we're ahead."
"Kel and I haven't talked about work, but I get the impression things are damn stressful at the office. From what the Jason and Andi tell me, she's been workin' twelve to fourteen hours every day."
Chris nodded. "Josiah said the same about Mallory."
"Think it's time we pulled the plug on Shadow ops?"
"I think we need to get back to doing the job we signed on for, and not what the higher ups believe is politically correct." Chris began to write and said, "I'll write up our resignations from Shadow ops, you go over the individual reports, and outline the last mission."
Thirty minutes of silence and twenty-two pages later, the door flew open, allowing a cold blast of air to fill the room. Ezra and Buck entered, shook the snow from their shoes, and removed their coats, before closing the door.
Buck elbowed Ezra in the side and said, "Told you we weren't the only ones. Vin and Chris are hiding out too."
"Chris and Vin are here to work. You two are supposed to be home recuperating, but since you're here, are you volunteering to help us?" Chris signed the last page and closed the file in front of him.
"Hell no," Buck answered. "I ran into Ezra on the way over here and we decided that misery needed company."
Vin finished the mission outline and closed his folder. "You're alive, basically in good health, and safe at home. Why are y'all miserable?"
"In my instance I can sum it up in one word, 'Maude'." Ezra pulled up a chair and sat. "Barbara has several new clients and is tied up in her office while my mother's incessant complaining drives me mad."
Buck eased himself into another chair, one hand on his ribs, the other on Ezra's shoulder. "Hate to tell you, Sport, but that's more than one word."
"I stand corrected," Ezra said. "Truth is I needed to get away, or seriously consider matricide."
Chris chuckled. "Thoughts like that make you a very bad boy."
"Laugh, if you want, but my mother can try the patience of a saint. She refuses to discuss the reason for her arrival, is redecorating the guest room to suit her, and, she appears to be settling in for a long stay. Barbara and I have not had an uninterrupted moment to ourselves since I've been home, and my wife is mad at me for Maude's interference."
Buck took over. "My problem is Inez and I have too much alone time. We've been fighting non-stop since last night. She wants to travel to Mexico during spring break and introduce her Aunt to our Isabel. I tried to explain the dangers of a trip south of the border, but I might as well be talking to the wall." Buck shook his head. "She is bound and determined to go and I'm dead set against it."
With his father's case files fresh on his mind, Buck's mention of Mexico drew Vin's attention. "Her aunt lives in Nuevo León, doesn't she?"
"Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León to be exact." Buck sighed. "With all the shit going on down there with kidnappings and murders, I don't want my wife and children in the middle of it."
"Don't blame you at all." Vin agreed. "The violence of the Mexican drug war is gettin' worse every day. Even the mayor of Juárez moved his family across the border to El Paso for their safety."
"Inez is a reasonable woman, Buck. Gather your facts and let her see for herself," Chris advised. "I'm certain once she thinks about it; she'll do the right thing."
"I sure as hell don't want to leave on another assignment, and come home to find her and my babies gone. Under the circumstances, I think I should remove my name from the mission list, at least 'til Inez and I come to an agreement."
"No problem, Buck. I think all of us need to take care of a few things on the home front. I intend to tell Travis on Monday that Alpha team is resigning from Shadow operations." Chris threw the report he had just finished on top of the table. "That's the last one for me today," he said as he rose from his chair, and headed toward the door, "a man cannot survive on work alone. I'm about to rectify that by heading over to Reins of Change and spend some much needed quality time with Cait."
Vin glanced up from the report he was working on and chuckled. "Go ahead. I'm goin' to keep wadin' through the rest of 'em. I might lasso Buck and Ezra into helpin' me too, since they don't have anythin' better to do than to bitch to each other about their women troubles at home."
Chris laughed as he opened the door and stepped through it. "I'll be over to pick up the Grace and Cody later."
After saying his goodbyes to Buck and Ezra, he steered a course for the exit, and maneuvered himself through the building to the front door .When he finally reached the outside, he had a surprise waiting for him. Cait was there, leaning her back against the door of his truck, arms folded over her chest, her denim clad long legs crossed at the ankles. Chris smiled as he approached her, but it faded away when she did not return it.
"How long have you been waiting out here?" he asked as he drew closer.
"Long enough," Cait replied. "Going somewhere?"
"I was headed over to Reins to see you."
"Good answer, Larabee."
Cait's whole demeanor changed at his words and Chris felt relief flood over him. The last thing he wanted to do was fight with this woman. He knew that the past few months of missed moments, brief phone calls, and long periods of unexplained absences had not been any easier on her than it had been on the rest of the Wild Bunch women. Admittedly, Alpha Team's priorities had not been on the home front recently, but with his decision to return the team to MCAT, he believed things were going to take on a more normal routine again.
"I was afraid I was going to have to resort to kidnapping you for us to get any time alone," she told him.
Chris cocked an eyebrow at her. "You do realize the penalties for kidnapping a federal agent are quite serious and would most likely result in you spending a long sentence in prison?"
"A risk I am willing to take if it means having you all to myself," Cait replied. "I've got a basket full of fried chicken, salads, fresh fruit, and a bottle of your favorite wine. Jesse is over at the Tanner's to help entertain Grace and Cody, which gives you and me the afternoon to sit in front of a roaring fire at your house, have an indoor picnic, and," she wrapped her arms around his neck, 'talk'."
When one of our brethren suffers, we all experience the pain. ~Legends of the Quest~
The storm was violent and fast moving. Pellets of rain penetrated bare skin and bolts of lightning hit the ground in rapid succession, illuminating the darkness. Knowledge of what was to come should have given him peace, but even knowing the purpose of nature's display of superiority did little to calm his apprehension. The mysterious man stayed hidden in the shadows, never exposing his face. Suddenly he was aware of their presence, yet could not see them as they approached. The pounding of horses' hooves on the ground as they forged through the rivulets of water grew stronger. It was time for this evolution to end, time to forget, and time to lose the powers gained in this lifetime. Another flash of lightning almost revealed the identity of the soul on the verge of destiny's call.
Chris yelled as he threw back the covers, rolled out of bed, and took a fighter's stance, "Damnit, show yourself." Prepared to face an unseen threat in the darkness, he stood instead in his bedroom, a ray of sunlight peeking through the blind, no sign of rain, no lightning, and no mystery man. He shook his head and then relaxed; it was now obvious he'd had another disturbing dream. They were always the same and left him with the feeling of loss and that he had unfinished business to tend to, but not a clue as to what it was.
What did the strange dreams mean, and why was he having them? Vin was the one who had visions, not Chris 'Mister 'Show Me' Larabee. With no answers forthcoming, he headed to the shower. He would then dress, and tend to his children. Today he would tell Travis that Alpha team was finished with shadow ops and back at MCAT where they belonged.
MCAT Office, Monday, 0750 hours
Mallory poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Kelli. "Here you go, Lady, mojo juice to fortify your soul."
Kelli reached for the mug and grinned. "I reckon we'll need it today with our schedules. I think Travis and Justin have formed a conspiracy to keep us away from our families."
"I know Josiah thinks so."
Kelli nodded as she took a sip. "Vin enjoys time with the children, but he's not happy about the field work and the hours I'm keepin' here. I don't like the hours, but truthfully it feels good to get out of the office and do real police work again. I missed it more than I realized."
Mallory shook her head. "Not me. There was a reason I chose to get out of field work and the sooner we find our smuggler, the sooner I can get back to my CASSIE desk, which is fine with me."
"I do know Chris is due in to talk to Travis this mornin'. I think Alpha team is comin' back, which should reduce the stress on the entire unit."
"Lord, I hope so, for all our sakes."
"Speak of the devil," Kelli nodded toward the door, "here comes Larabee."
Chris walked through the bullpen, nodded to Justin, and then headed for the stairs, which led to Travis's office. He had his reports couriered to Orrin's home yesterday and knew his boss was aware of his intentions. The director was certain to argue about his decision, but Chris believed a change was best for his men, MCAT, and Travis. A quick rap on the door was all the warning Chris gave before he entered the director's office.
Orrin Travis stood facing the window with his back to the door and spoke without turning around, "Close the door Chris, and before you start, I have something to say."
Assistant Director Larabee, shut the door, reined in his response, crossed his arms, and stood as he waited for Travis to say what was on his mind.
"I will accept Alpha team's resignation from Shadow operations." Orrin turned to face Chris, signaled for him to sit, and then joined him. "First Vin, and then you gave me a list of reservations about these covert missions. Both of you shared valid points and in retrospect I should have listened to your objections. Unfortunately, I did not. Now, MCAT is paying for my insistence that we participate."
Chris tried to interrupt, "Orrin, we all make errors in judgment "
Travis waved him off and continued," You and Alpha team have performed admirably under complicated circumstances. If it were possible to acknowledge publically, your participation, I would recommend citations for your honorable service to our country. Unfortunately, that is not an option, but your sacrifices have not gone unnoticed by me." Orrin sighed. "Shadow operations are not a priority for MCAT under the current administration. Our focus is closer to home, and we are returning to our original purpose, which is a specialized task force responsible for investigating major crimes and acts of 'domestic' terrorism. We do however; have some internal clean-up work to accomplish before we can do that."
"What kind of internal mess?"
"One of my own making I'm afraid. With Alpha team indisposed, our caseload piled up. Justin stretched his Bravo unit to their limit, so in addition to putting Kelli and Mallory back into the field I increased our personnel. We have eight new agents, all rookies. Instead of helping to relieve the overload, I fear I only added to it. They need training, and in a few cases, reassignments."
Chris and Orrin had always disagreed about the number of agents needed to make MCAT successful. Larabee always believed that more did not mean better, and now, apparently, Orrin believed it too. "My men need some time to reenter their live. Ezra and Buck will be out until the end of next week, but I will have an action plan on your desk by tomorrow afternoon. Vin and I will review the cases on hold, split them with Bravo unit, and find assignments for the rookies. The remainder of Alpha team will be in next Monday morning, prepared to work."
"The case files are in Kelli's office." Orrin stood and reached out to shake Chris's hand. "Thank you for not saying I told you so, and welcome back."
Chris shook his hand and said, "It's good to be back where we belong, sir."
Tanner Home, Noon
Jason and Andi were in school and the twins were down for a nap. Vin took the opportunity to pull out the information Wyatt left for him and planned to work until it was time to pick up the kids. When Chris called, he informed Max they would be conferencing in his home office and she took over with the boys.
"I thought when you said we had a few files to go over, you meant maybe a dozen. There must be hundreds in these boxes." Vin set the last of the cartons Chris brought home on the table.
"Why do you think I called and told you to meet me outside?" Chris explained, "All of these files were piled on top of Kelli's desk. I understand she hasn't had time to sort through them since she and Mallory are working in the field. Regardless, they're ours now and the sooner we whittle them down the better."
Vin cleared the paperwork he was reviewing when Chris arrived, from his desk. "Reckon the Tanner family records can wait a while longer."
"You find anything interesting yet?" Chris sat in the chair closest to the desk.
"Actually, yeah, I found the records from the case my father was assigned to when he and his partner disappeared. I realize it's been over thirty years, but I'm tryin' to reconstruct what he did and pinpoint where it went wrong." Vin sat opposite Chris. "Right up to the time of his death, my grandfather never believed my father was dead so "
"You want to prove it yourself." Chris finished the sentence.
"Somethin' like that," he acknowledged, "but, I'll work on it when I can. I want Kel back behind a desk as soon as possible, which means our first order of business is to get MCAT back on track."
"Let's get started, we'll stop for the day when the kids come home, and pick up where we leave off tomorrow. I want to at least have a few minutes with Cait before I pick up Grace and Cody at daycare, and I know you want to be free to spend time with Jason and Andi." Chris placed three sheets of paper on the desk and labeled them as he talked, "One pile will be for requests that we refuse, the next is possible assignments for Alpha team and then for Bravo. After we're finished," he set a stack to the side, "We'll begin the review of active cases and personnel files on the new agents."
"Works for me," Vin said as he opened the first file. "By the way, I made the calls you wanted. Josiah and Nathan will be in the office Wednesday mornin', Buck and Ezra a week later, and I left a message for JD on his voice mail."
Chris nodded and said. "I'll call him again later. I need to give him his counseling options." He took a deep breath. "I just wish I could get into JD's head and get a handle on what he's refusing to discuss."
"He'll come through all this, Chris. He just needs more time to work things out."
"Time I'm beginning to hate that word." Chris began to read and sort.
JD weaved in and out of traffic, the phone call he received earlier this morning playing on his mind. Casey's doctor called and told him her new medication was very effective and she was close to a release date. Best of all, after all the months of waiting, she had requested to see her husband. JD sent up a prayer of thanks to Nettie. He was certain that she was in part responsible for Casey's request and he was sorry for the jealous thoughts he entertained about her being the one Casey asked to see first. Once he talked to his wife and arranged to bring her home, he believed their family would finally be back to normal again. The girls missed their mother as much as he did and JJ needed her. He smiled to himself while nodding in approval. Yep, today would mark the first day of the rest of their lives.
Doctor Woodley met him in the hallway with instructions. "Casey is better. Much better than the last time you saw her. She is participating in her counseling sessions, and remembers all the events, which led to her stay here." He placed his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Since we have her medical issues under control, I plan to release her in a few days. She is not fragile by any means and has her mind set about what happens next. I urge you to listen to what she has to say."
"Of course, I'll listen," JD said. "We have a lot of plans to make."
"Her Aunt is in with her now, but she has agreed to step out to allow you and Casey to have a private discussion."
He nodded and entered the room, a bit apprehensive, but with a smile on his face. Nettie rose from her chair and hugged him, before leaving the room. Casey stood by the window and looked more like the young girl he had married than the ill woman he remembered from a few months ago. Suddenly at a loss for the right words, all he could say was, "You look good, Case."
"You too, JD," Casey said as she moved to sit in the chair closest to the bed, and then nodded to the adjacent seat for him. "I need you to sit and listen to what I have to say."
Her failure to make eye contact made him uneasy, but he tried to disguise his surge of apprehension with a smile. "Sure," he said as he sat to face her, "we should catch up on a few things before you come home anyway."
Casey took a deep breath before she spoke, and her voice trembled, "I love you, but , I'm not coming home." She held up her hand to stop his immediate attempt to respond, finally making eye contact. "Hear me out, please."
JD closed his mouth and nodded for her to continue, not at all certain he wanted to hear what she had to say
"I remember everything now. The months of uncertainty, the way I treated you, the girls and JJ, the confusion, my unforgivable behavior with Antonio, and ," she hesitated a moment, "I finally remembered when I attacked you." She fought the urge to cry. "I'm sorry JD, so sorry for everything."
"There's no need to apologize Casey, you were ill." He swallowed hard and scooted forward on his chair. "I love you and forgiving you was never in question."
"I appreciate you saying that, but forgiving and forgetting are two different things. I do not expect you, our children, or our families, to forget the acts I committed. I understand now about my disorder, and yes the medications are working, but you and I cannot turn back the clock and undo all that's happened." Casey shook her head. "Regardless of the reasons, and even though I will always love you...what we had is gone forever."
JD felt strong emotions well up inside him. Fear was at the forefront, but he converted it to anger when he jumped up and shouted, "Damnit Casey, the memories of what we had together are the only thing keeping me sane. I need us again; our children need us to be a family. We can't be over." He threw up his hands and started walking the room.
Casey remained calm throughout his outburst. When JD stopped yelling, and began to pace she tried to explain. "I've had time to think about this, and once you do, I know you'll realize the truth, too."
He stopped and turned to face her, despite knowing he was unable to mask his feelings. "The truth?" he growled, "Just what truth is that Casey?"
"We both deserve a chance. You need to stop hanging on to something we can never be again. I need to start over without the stigma of being a crazy woman who tried to kill her husband. It's the only way either of us can find peace."
"Peace for you maybe but what about our children, Casey? What do they need?"
Casey sighed. "Our children need you, JD, not a mother who can never be fully trusted again. What I did to you the memory of it will hang around our necks like a stone for the rest of our lives if I stay. Through my therapy sessions I've learned that to be free, I need to remove the weight of that guilt to give us all a chance to move on." She wiped away the spontaneous tears, which formed in her eyes. "Nettie has agreed to sign over the ranch to a trust for the children. She said that since I would eventually inherit it anyway, I could decide what to do with it. I want our children to have something from me and I want you to be the conservator. You can keep it, rent it, or sell it and invest the money for their college funds, or whatever you think is best. I don't know if I'll be working so it's all I can offer them for now."
Defensively folding his arms across his chest, he shook his head. "It sounds as if you've been planning this for a while now. What other surprises are you gonna spring on me?"
Anticipating the question, Casey answered faster than he expected her to. "When I'm released, Nettie is moving with me to Arizona, closer to her sister," she hurried the words to get it over, "My lawyer is filing our divorce papers as soon as the doctor hands over my discharge and all you have to do is sign them." Casey looked up at him with a plea in her eyes. "It's the only way we can truly be free. You need to move on, and so do I. Please try and understand."
"Oh...I understand perfectly," he snapped. "While I've been trying to juggle home, work, you and stay sane, you've been here plotting. You know, you're some piece of work. While I've been looking forward to having you home with me, you've been planning to run...from us, from your babies..." he choked back the lump in his throat. "...from me. When all I could see was a future for us...all you saw was...a past." He swallowed to compose himself.
"I always knew you could be self-centered, but you get top marks for this little maneuver." He raised his hands to air quote while mimicking his wife. "'It's for the best ...it's the only way to be free, JD... Bull...shit lady! It just goes to show how wrong I've been about you. You're not strong, you're twisted. There's nothing crazy about you, this is cold and calculated and all behind my back. At least now I know why it's taken so long for you to see me."
He headed for the door, too angry and hurt to care that his 'no longer fragile' wife was in tears. As he put a trembling hand on the doorknob, JD turned back to look at her. "Buck told me he was afraid when he saw me lying on our kitchen floor, because he thought you'd killed me." He swiped at a tear. "I guess he wasn't that far off after all." He smiled as he went to close the door, but there was no warmth in it. "And fuck the divorce papers...I have no intention of signing them. It's time to do what I want for a change."
The sound of Casey crying as he slammed the door cut into his heart, but JD's focus was now on the elderly woman standing in the center of the waiting room. Nettie approached and placed a hand on his arm, but he shook it off.
"How could you let her do this to me...to our children?"
"JD, she..." Nettie began as her tears flowed freely.
"Don't she me...you've both had this planned right down to living in Arizona, so don't insult me by trying to tell me you weren't involved in any of this!" He leaned in to make his point. "I thought you loved me too...guess I'm the stupid one."
Nettie sobbed. "I do son...but..."
"I am not your son! I think you've made that very clear!" With that, JD walked out the door, and then the hospital, to sit behind the wheel of his truck as he tried to compose himself.
His mind reeled while his quaking body fought the nausea attempting to surface. Out of the corner of his eye, JD spotted Doctor Woodley hurrying his way. With a look of disgust for the man, he started the engine, slammed into gear, and with wheels spinning and smoking, he tore away from the hospital parking lot and the waving medic.
Snatching up the brown paper bag from the passenger seat, JD zipped his jacket, climbed out of his truck and up the steep slope to the bluff that he and Casey had often frequented.
Having known how affected Chris was when he gave in to the lure of alcohol, JD promised himself he would never take that route, particularly since Chris had totally cleaned up his act. Today, though, he finally understood the burning need to crawl into a bottle and just leave the big, bad world behind.
Reaching the top, he flopped down to rest against a tree as he looked out over the vista. He loved this place. He and Casey had picnicked here, cried here, laughed here made love here. It was their place. At least it used to be.
Removing the whiskey bottles from the brown wrapper, he stared at one for the longest time. Casey hated the smell of whiskey Casey. That one name was all he needed to break the seal and spin the cap until it shot off to roll somewhere into the grass. 'Bitch puts me in the hospital and now she wants to ditch me?' Making a face, he took a long swig of the fiery liquid, coughing violently after drinking.
'Son of a bitch ' with a shrug he took a longer pull, wiping his hand across his mouth as he finished. He stared across the snow- covered plains below; sorrow filled his heart as he thought of all the happy couples and families out there. *But there's no happily ever after for us . Is there?*
Finally, he allowed the tears to fall, but not for himself. He thought about his babies. How was he going to tell them their mommy didn't want them anymore? He took a drink. "Yeah, Casey " he scolded. " not want them. No matter how you dress it up, girl, that's what you really mean." He pushed up onto his feet, more whiskey passing his lips. "How can a mother do that to her children?" he yelled, vaguely aware of the slight echo but not the slight stagger in his movements.
Gesturing wildly and drinking between outbursts, he continued his tirade, bellowing out his frustrations as the whiskey sloshed in and out of the fast emptying bottle. "I fucking loved you stood up for you when I knew even your own Aunt had doubts about you, as well as my family! This," he raised his hand and moved it across the horizon, "is what I get for it Bullshit! "You fucking bitch you've broken my heart and you don't give a shit! You sit there judging me and and pretend it's the right thing to do."
"Yeah right for you, you self-centered, hard faced, whacko!" Stumbling, he sat down hard on his butt; tears of anger now replaced by tears of sorrow as he took in more whiskey. "I I'm sorry, Case I didn't mean the whacko thing I'm getting a li'l drunk, y'know?" He tipped up the bottle again to find he had drained it. Looking at it with one eye closed as if that would reveal more, he sighed.
"Damn empty 's alright got another one." He stumbled back to the paper bag.
Late afternoon was drawing in, Chris walked toward his desk to answer his phone. Snatching it up, he answered, "Larabee. Oh, hi Nettie okay, you got my attention." He listened. "Thanks, I will. Bye." He stared at the phone for a moment then replaced it and mentally filed Nettie's words, for now.
The next call an hour later however, coupled with Nettie's, prompted him into action. He knew Vin would be useful, and despite his injuries, Buck would want to know, so he asked both men to meet him.
As the two arrived, they looked at Chris.
"What's the problem?" Vin asked.
"Nettie called earlier to say JD had a bad visit with Casey, and thought I should know."
"She finally asked to see him?" Buck asked. "Damn, what's she gone and said now?"
"You can't just assume," Vin said, ignoring the face Buck made. "And?" Vin looked to Chris for an explanation.
"Lisa just called. JD's cell is off and he's overdue by four hours. She said he always calls when he's off mission to let her know what time he'll be home to take over with the children. Today, he didn't."
Vin had already moved to start tracking JD's cell on the computer. He frowned when he finally pinpointed the signal. "Kiowa Bluff?"
Buck crossed to join him. "That's the kid's and Casey's special place." He smiled. "JD reckons the twins were conceived there. He would have proposed to her there, too, but then he got hurt in the bust "
" And proposed to her in the hospital," Chris finished, nodding. "You boys up for a little round-up?"
Both men nodded, Buck looked down at the hand placed on his chest. "You're going to take it easy," Chris warned.
"Sure thing boss," Buck grinned, but it quickly faded as they headed out and his concern for JD's welfare grew. *What are you up to now, kid?*
JD awoke with a start. Sitting propped up against a tree, he couldn't recall falling asleep, and he shivered a little as a cold breeze ruffled his dark hair and the dampness penetrated his jeans. Smacking his lips together to combat the dryness in his mouth, he picked up the second whiskey bottle and opened it, to take a long draw of the contents. Struggling to his feet, he walked unsteadily toward the edge of the bluff.
It was such a great view. Now though, he hated it as he swigged at the whiskey while wondering why it was all moving a bit, like when the ocean rolled. He took a step forward, oblivious to the fact his next step would take him to certain death.
Vin was out and running to JD's Explorer even before Chris had stopped his truck. It was unlocked, the driver's door open with the keys still in the ignition.
"Holy shit!" Vin looked up the slope toward the bluff.
"Up there?" Chris asked.
"You wait here," Chris told Buck. "That's a big climb for a man in your ," he sighed as Wilmington pushed past him. " condition."
After securing both vehicles, JD's trail was easy to follow. The three men made good time to the top, only to freeze in their tracks when they saw their youngest literally teetering on the brink of a very real precipice.
Sensing the unease of the men with him, Chris stayed them with a hand to their arms.
"Chris," Buck hissed out, his terror evident.
With a single look from Vin, Larabee nodded and the Texan moved fast and silently to stop just behind JD in a matter of seconds.
"Hey, kid," Vin said, softly.
Spinning to meet the voice, JD lost his balance. Buck and Chris sucked in a deep breath, relieved instantly when Tanner had a firm grip on him and guided him away from the edge.
Unaware of the danger, he had been in; JD squinted at the man holding onto him, and then widened his eyes in recognition. "Vin! Hey whatcha doing up here, huh?"
"Lookin' for you," The Texan smiled.
"Why?" JD whispered, loudly. "We got a job on?"
"Naw, no job," he replied, glancing at Chris and Buck as they approached.
"Soused," Vin mouthed.
Spotting Chris and Buck, JD grew uneasy and pulled away from Vin to take another drink. "Not going home," he huffed and staggered away.
"No, don't reckon you will be," Chris agreed. "What's going on, son?"
JD's head snapped around. "Son SON! That's twice today I've been called that, and neither of you mean it! Leave me alone," he called, turning away from them. "I'm nobody's anything it's just me I don't need any of you!"
Any other time those words would have cut the three men deeply, but clearly, whatever demon was riding JD was in control of most of his faculties, too.
"Your children " Chris began, surprised at the speed JD turned back to him and the anger in his voice.
"Don't you throw my kids at me I've been there for 'em every day possible." He slapped his chest with the base of the bottle. "Me just me always fucking me!" He took another swig.
The three men exchanged glances. What in hell had happened today?
"You wanna talk about it?" Buck gasped softly at the hurt in the liquid, hazel eyes as JD looked at him.
JD paused. It would be so easy to tell them but then, he'd been hurt and humiliated enough for one day, the last thing he needed was his family to see him as a failure, too.
The misery in that one word tore at the three men's hearts. Chris took a step forward. "How about I take the whiskey?"
JD defiantly took a swig from the bottle. "You found something else to bust my chops about, now? Huh Huh? We'll I'm leaving."
"Get back here, JD," Buck urged him, his voice more pleading than commanding.
"Had enough shit for one day," Dunne called back, taking another drink. "Go 'way!"
"Whiskey don't solve nothin'," Vin said softly as he moved along with him.
JD stopped once more and stared back at them. "Oh, I dunno," he slurred, "looking pretty good from where I'm standing." He started laughing. "Look at you all pretending like you give a fuck." He waved the bottle at them. "Yeah well I know different I know people just say stuff to get others to do what they want keep you waiting hoping then they shit all over you. Now GO 'WAY!"
Turning, he stumbled and fell to the ground. Despite his sore ribs, Buck was there in an instant to help him up. "Of course we care, kid. We love you."
Buck's words and JD's inebriated state caused the younger man's face to crumple. "Shouldn't say love if you don't mean it," he sniffed.
It was clear to the others that whatever JD was struggling with had his emotions all over the place.
Chris said, "We do mean it, now give me the whiskey."
JD looked at the bottle as he shrugged Buck's hands off him. "I don't even like whiskey," he said softly, and suddenly slung the bottle away. Hearing it shatter, the young agent was horrified and hurried to where the fragments lay in the grass, dropping to his knees to examine his handiwork.
"Oh nooo now see what I did. Can't have glass in the grass " he picked up some pieces before the others could get close enough to stop him. "You can't roll around in glass ouch!"
Vin grabbed the hand holding the glass and shook it until JD dropped the pieces. Buck took hold of the bleeding hand, and held it up while Chris produced a handkerchief from his pocket to wrap around the small, but bloody cut.
"Look what I did," JD whispered to Chris before falling into him, completely passed out.
"Thank God," Buck breathed a sigh of relief.
Vin drove JD's truck to Chris's, and made a call as he travelled. "Kel I can't explain now, but go over to JD's an' pick up his kids. Lisa has plans for tonight and they're stayin' with us. Baby I may be real late." he smiled. "Love you too."
Chris glanced in his rear-view mirror. JD lay across the rear seat, his head cradled in Buck's lap, and facing outward in case he vomited. After Buck's call to Inez to tell her he might not make it home, neither man spoke until they reached the ranch house, and got JD inside and into bed.
Nathan walked toward the three men waiting worriedly in Chris's living room. "I've set up a drip of fluids and an anti-emetic, so he shouldn't get sick, and his headache will be a lot less severe when he wakes. His hand's fine, not too deep, and it's stopped bleeding, now."
Chris nodded. "Thanks, Nathan." He gazed at the man. "Let's just keep this to ourselves, for now, okay? I don't think JD's ready to share just yet."
Jackson nodded as he moved to leave. "No problem. Call if you need me."
Chris smiled when he turned back to an empty room, and decided to go make some coffee. He took three mugs into the spare bedroom where Buck and Vin sat with a sleeping JD; the former carded his fingers through sweat-dampened black hair.
"What the fuck went on over there?" Buck hissed as he accepted his coffee.
"I reckon visitin' Casey put him over the edge," Vin offered. "It's been buildin' a long time."
"Over the edge?" Buck asked, nervously.
"Not crazy," Vin explained, "just emotionally screwed."
"You all headed out?" Chris asked, smiling at the non-committed silence. "I'll go check on JD and then make us some food, but after that, you boys go home. I'll handle it from there."
JD slept soundly, not stirring until early evening. Grace and Cody were now with Vin and Kelli so Chris could give him his full attention, whether the kid wanted it or not.
The first thing JD felt was cold and he didn't think it was due to the fact he was naked in the bed. He shivered, and then groaned as it caused his head to pound. He cracked open an eye as warmth covered him, to see Chris lean over from his chair and place a blanket over him.
He frowned. He had no recall of why he was lying naked in he looked around Chris's spare bedroom. His frown deepened. Where were his children? That very thought brought it all crashing back as he attempted to rub his eyes with his bandaged hand.
"Oh God "
"Indeed." Chris's tone was not angry, but JD knew it was serious. "Care to share, now?"
JD opened both eyes to face his hero, shaking his head, no.
JD nodded, and inwardly sighed. Never, was too soon. "Sure."
Before Chris could offer him food or water, the young man fell asleep again. Getting up from the chair he occupied, he headed for the kitchen. Glancing back at JD before exiting the room, he whispered, "Soon, kid soon."
Diligence is necessary to sow harmony, metal strength, stability, and unlock connections. When we allow precarious actions to dominate our lives, we only reap anger, misunderstanding, doubt, and closed minds. ~Legends of the Quest~
MCAT Office, Monday, 0730 hours
After JD left on Friday with an assurance that he would be at work today, Chris spent the remainder of the day completing his plan of action, constructing a list of orders for Gunny, and delivering the new agent files to Josiah for profiling. He looked forward to reclaiming the reins of command at MCAT and thought nothing could dampen his enthusiasm, but he was wrong. A long weekend, bad dreams, and Grace's temper tantrum this morning when he dropped her and Cody off at Reins, had left him in a black mood
Vin sensed Chris's foul mood before the man pushed through the front door. He picked up two cups of coffee and fell in step with Larabee as he passed the break room. * You speakin' this mornin' or just glarin'?*
*Bad night and hectic morning.* He reached out to take one of the cups Vin carried as they walked to Larabee's office.
Chris opened his briefcase and began to remove folders. He stopped, shook his head, and then looked at Vin. "You know, I thought war was hell, but it was nothing compared to trying to balance work and personal life. Grace and Cody demand most of my free time. Cait and I barely see one another and when we do, it's usually less than a few minutes before one of us get a phone call and someone needs our attention."
"I hear you, it's the same at our house for the past week," Vin cocked his head and grinned, "if Kel and I didn't sleep in the same bed, we'd never have time alone."
"At least you have her alone then. Cait and I are more like two ships passing in the night." Chris finally sat in his chair. Now," he threw his notes on the desk. "Travis is counting on me to 'fix' MCAT with this one meeting. With Buck and Ezra injured, Josiah and Nathan having their own challenges at home, and my concern about JD's mental state, I have my doubts."
"We've been battered worse than this, but one way or another we get the job done. " You do your thing for Travis; it's my job to 'fix' Alpha team." Vin turned to leave just as someone knocked on the door.
"Enter," Chris yelled.
Justin Michaels opened the door and stuck his head inside. "Gunny told me you were here, Sir. I believe the message was that you wanted to see me as soon as I arrived."
"I need to speak with you before we gather the teams. Come on in." Chris nodded his head in Vin's direction. "We'll talk about this later, Tanner," he said, "Unit meeting at 0900."
"I'll be there."
Vin stood outside his office door as one by one, agents filed into the office. Most he knew well, but a few were new faces, who came on board while Alpha team was on assignment. He nodded to the members of Bravo team when they entered and smiled when Josiah and Nathan made their way across the room. Both men appeared to be in high spirits, but then he reckoned they all were pleased to be back. Vin breathed a relieved sigh when JD arrived. Thursday, he would have bet it was less than a fifty-fifty chance of whether or not the younger man would be here, but evidently, JD took control of his wild emotions and was ready to work. The CASSIE desk had been a bit bare of agents, but now with the 'boss' back and soon Mallory, things should get back to normal in that department.
A glance at the wall clock showed that it was 0820 hours, which meant Mallory and Kelli would have already dropped off the children at school and were due in at any moment. The door opened, but Vin was surprised to see Buck and Ezra enter the bullpen instead. He greeted them with a frown. "What the hell are y'all doin' here? You're supposed to be at home, healin'."
Ezra sighed and then said, "Maude is set on redecorating our home and Barbara has not been in the best of moods lately. My health issues are in better hands here, I assure you."
"I wanted to come in to support the kid today." Buck looked around and grinned when he located JD. He tried not to grimace at the pain his bruised ribs caused as he attempted to sit at his desk. "Besides, Inez is making my life miserable since I told her she couldn't go to Mexico."
Vin shook his head in disbelief. "You 'told' Inez she couldn't go?" He laughed. "You're a braver man than me."
Ezra decided it was best to focus on Buck's problem than his, "In his case, I believe it is more of a reprisal of Wilmington foot in mouth disease than bravery."
"Ha ha, very funny, Ez," Buck threw back at him. "Besides, I can blame my lapse on my delicate injuries. What's your excuse?"
Vin knew he should send them home, but decided to caution them instead. "Y'all need to take it easy with the barbs; Chris is not in the greatest of moods today. Don't give him," he gave them a stern look, "or me, a reason to send you both packin'" he waited for their nods of agreement and then told them, "Unit meetin' at 0900 hours."
Satisfied that Buck and Ezra understood his warning, Vin moved on to meet Kelli and Mallory as they walked in and he glanced at the clock again. 0845 hours, and everyone accounted for, now the real work could begin.
He fell into step beside Kelli. "Kids get off all right?"
"We had a few grumbles, but they made it in the school door on time."
Vin nodded and then addressed both agents, "I need y'all to gather your notes and files on your case. Bring 'em to my office after the unit meetin'."
"Why?" Mallory asked. "Are you going to give us some support from Alpha team?"
"No, we're goin' to take over the investigation so y'all can return to your duties here in the office."
Kelli stopped walking and angrily faced him. "Take over? We've worked our butts off on this. We conducted dozens of interviews, did all the research, and read hundreds of cold case reports, not to mention the sacrifices we've made at home to follow the leads. Now you expect us to drop it," she snapped her fingers, "just like that."
Expecting a thank you or at least a smile, Kelli's heated response took him by surprise for a moment. "I thought y'all wanted to be out of the field."
"You thought? How would you know what we wanted? Did you even bother to ask? I think this is more about what you want." Kelli shook her head and then looked at Mallory "I reckon, Mal, since the macho warriors have returned to work, us womenfolk should just shut up and do as we're told. "
Vin shifted into professional mode. "Cut the sarcasm, Agent Coulter. Mallory, you're to report to Special Agent Dunne, Kel you're goin' back to work for Director Travis and AD Larabee." He gave the orders and walked off without further discussion.
MCAT War Room, 0900 Hours.
Once everyone settled into his or her chairs, Chris stood to begin the meeting, pausing for a moment when Travis slipped into the room and sat near the door. He scanned the faces, recognizing the varied looks of the apprehension from the new agents, curiosity from Bravo team, and anticipation from members of the Alpha unit.
"For those of you that I have not met yet, I am Assistant Director Chris Larabee, to my right is Captain Vin Tanner of our returning Alpha team and of course you already know Captain Justin Michaels on my left. The purpose of our joint meeting is to announce a few changes, and I'll be brief. With the assistance of Captains Tanner and Michaels, I have reviewed all requests for MCAT assistance from law enforcement agencies around the country. We rejected most, prioritized a few, and kept enough to keep both our teams busy. Alpha team's reassignment to Denver is effective as of today and accordingly, a redistribution of the workload for all agents is necessary. Our first priority, however, is to conclude current assignments as quickly and efficiently as possible. We mapped out a plan, which your Captains will explain at your respective team briefings.
In addition, I feel that a few clarifications about our role as MCAT agents are necessary. MCAT is an independent, elite task force under the authority of Director Orrin Travis, who holds executive jurisdiction for its operations. We handle major crime cases, and assist local police departments on request when possible. Our focus is domestic, our priority is to thwart any acts, which threaten the safety of our citizens, be it terrorism, organized crimes, or domestic instability. We have controlling authority on any case we decide to take. We have at our disposal, state of the art communication systems, our independent crime analysis unit, and a training facility staffed with the most experienced instructors available. We use the best possible equipment available anywhere in the world and are unparalleled by any other agency. We're not the biggest, but we are the best, and will only get better with each passing day.
A hand went up from one of the new agents.
"What about those of us who are new? Do we go to Alpha or Bravo team?"
"Good question, Agent Langley," Chris said as he picked up a stack of papers and passed them to his left. "The simple answer is neither. You all belong to me. The papers coming around the table show current team rosters and a schedule for all the probationary agents to meet with me one on one today."
Chris placed his hands palm down on the table and leaned forward. "In a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen, we are back to doing the basic business of MCAT. No more trial programs and no more long absences by any team, which means no more double shifts, or fourteen plus hour days. We will still be on call status, so never be unreachable without notice, but downtime will be fair to all agents."
Orrin nodded toward Chris and quietly slipped out of the room.
"That's it, dismissed." AD Larabee watched his agents leave.
Josiah made a point to catch JD as he left the room and headed to Com-Sat. "JD, hold up a minute."
JD stopped, but appeared irritated. "Can we talk later? I ."
"This will take only a minute, Josiah interrupted, "I'm aware that Chris gave you a list of qualified counselors to consider. I need to know who you decided to see."
Shaking his head, JD answered, "This is crap. I don't want or need any more sessions."
"That may be, but Chris issued the order, which limits your options."
JD knew Josiah would not let him skate on an answer, and sighing, finally said, "Fine, I guess Father Rafferty will do." He tilted his head, eyes widening. "Now if you're happy, can I go?"
Ignoring the flash of anger in the young agent's eyes, Josiah nodded. "I'll set it up and yes, you can go." He watched as JD hurried off, and then sighed. JD was stressed with due reason, but something else was obviously going on and he sincerely hoped Father Rafferty was the one to find out what it was.
Larabee's Office, mid afternoon
"Most of the hires Travis made are too green for MCAT, but a couple of them did impress me. Chris passed a folder across the desk to Vin as he spoke, "I'm assigning Agent Michael Langley to you. He needs seasoning, but I think he'll work well with Alpha team. He's thirty-six years old, a former marine, rates better than average marksmanship scores, early training was in Tulsa, Oklahoma PD, and he just completed two years with the ATF office in Dallas. I told him he had ninety days to show us what he could do."
Vin nodded and placed the file in his briefcase. "What about the others?"
"Agent Franklin goes to JD for Cassie training, and the rest," Chris sighed, "are out of here." He noticed the glances Vin made toward the door to Kelli's adjoining office. "It's none of my business, but I'll ask anyway. Are you and Kel having problems at home?"
Bringing his hand up to rub his jaw, he said, "I didn't think so, but after this mornin', I'm not so sure." He mentally reviewed the earlier scene with her and Mallory, before continuing. "Her reaction when I told her she was relieved from fieldwork was anger. You'd have thought I hit her instead of makin' her life easier. She railed about all the work they'd done and then turned to sarcasm."
"I take it she was reluctant to turn over their files."
Vin huffed. "Yeah, you could say that. I told them to bring 'em to my office after your meetin." He looked at his watch. "It's after three and I still don't have 'em."
A knock on the door interrupted their discussion.
"Enter," Chris yelled.
The door opened. Ezra came in carrying several boxes, which he set on Chris's desk. "I apologize to you both for interrupting your meeting. However, when Gunny informed me of Captain Tanner's location, I felt compelled to share my discoveries."
Chris peeked over the mountain of cardboard and demanded, "What the hell is all this?"
"Apparently our esteemed Captain," he threw a fleeting glance towards Vin, "requested that two of our respected colleagues produce evidence files from an on-going investigation. Shortly before noon, said colleagues delivered the requested information to me. They indicated their reluctance to have another encounter with our leader and asked for my assistance with the delivery. I took the liberty of perusing the contents and felt it essential to bring certain facts to your attention."
Vin stood and flipped the lid of the top box to peer inside. "All of this pertains to one case?"
"Indeed it does. " Ezra explained. "Considering they only had the case for three months, and worked without assistance, the amount of information collected is impressive. Agents Sanchez and Coulter drew together over a dozen cold cases, including three murders, which they can attribute to the complex smuggling network they uncovered. The base operation is in Colorado, but they compiled detailed accounts of interviews and interrogations conducted, which prove connections not only drugs, but also human trafficking and arms dealers traversing our borders on a regular basis." He set an in depth synopsis on the desk. "I believe after reading this, you will both agree this case has MCAT Task force written all over it."
"Three months," Vin whispered, "I had no idea."
"You didn't know what your wife was working on?" Chris asked as he reviewed the summary. "This is one monster of an operation."
"Hell, since we started our secret ops back in August, Kel, and I haven't talked about work. For the last week, you and I have concentrated on a plan of action for Alpha team. I thought she and Mal were takin' smaller overload cases from Justin, not involved in some big investigation." Vin realized his mistake was not asking before he acted. "I owe both Kel and Mallory an apology. I should have asked and not assumed that their assignment was overflow. They deserve the option to continue workin' on it."
"We both made the same assumption, Vin, so don't take on a load of guilt by yourself." Chris stood. "I'll talk to Mallory and offer her a temporary spot on your team, and you talk to Kelli. That way they can both be part of the conclusion to this case."
Ezra cleared his throat. "Mallory is in Com-Sat, but Kelli left a couple of hours ago."
Vin pulled out his cell and punched number one on his speed dial. The call routed to voice mail and he left a short message, "Call me." Turning to Ezra he asked, "Did she say where she was goin'?"
"No, only that she needed some time to think about things."
"I'm headed to Com-Sat," Chris said as he rounded the desk. "Ezra, you take this stuff to the war room, get the others involved, and put together a case board. I'll arrange for Alpha team to lead an interstate task force on this operation. Captain Tanner, you're off for the remainder of the day. Find Kel, and fix whatever 'things' are going on in her head by tomorrow morning. We have an operation to pull together."
Vin pulled up and parked next to Kelli's Navigator. It had not been difficult for him to figure out where she would go to 'think'. Their cabin was the only location that was close and isolated enough to insure privacy. It was also the logical place he or Kelli, would come to find answers that were elusive. He sat inside his truck for a few moments mentally reviewing the past few months. When he told Chris they had not talked about work, he realized they had barely had time to talk much about anything between assignments. The children's demands for his attention when he was home, along with necessary activities of daily living, had left little time to converse with his spouse. Truth was he had no idea what Kelli was thinking. Before he opened the door and headed up the pathway to the cabin, he vowed to change that.
Kelli heard the familiar sound of Vin's truck as he drove up. She pulled down another mug from the cabinet and poured a second cup of coffee for him. Hers was cold, but she did not bother to refill it, instead she moved back to her cozy space in front of the fireplace, wrapped the warmed blankets around her shoulders, and waited for her husband to come inside and join her.
Once he entered the cabin, the first thing he noticed was Kelli's gun and badge laying on the side table. He was relieved to see that this conversation was going to be between husband and wife, not Captain and Agent. Removing his own weapon and badge, he laid them down next to hers and continued into the room. He smiled briefly when he spotted her sitting on the floor in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by comforters. It was obvious that she expected him. She had created a cozy cocoon for herself, with room for him, changed into one of his old shirts, and her damp hair indicated she had already showered.
"Coffee's hot," Kelli said as she reached over and lifted the mug from its perch on the end table.
Taking the cup from her hand, he sat down beside her. "Good fire."
She stared into the flames. "Before you start in on me, I need to apologize. I was disappointed, but my behavior this mornin' was uncalled for and childish. You certainly didn't deserve my anger or sarcasm and I am sorry. Truthfully, I don't really care who takes down that sleazy bastard as long as he pays for his crimes."
"And I should have asked you about the case before I made a decision." He reached out and pushed back a loose strand of her hair. "If you weren't angry about that, you wanna talk about what did set you off?"
She blew out her breath. "Where do I start?"
"Anywhere you want." He set his cup on the table and shifted his body so he could face her. "You have my full attention for as long as it takes."
After a brief hesitation, she started, "The past few months have been hell. Not knowin' where you were, if you were all right, when you were comin' back, the kids actin' out, and not havin' time to talk when you were home. I've snapped at the children, at Max, and even the dog. When Justin handed over this case to Mallory and me, we had no idea where it would take us. I hated the hours away from our children, but but for the first time in months I felt I was doin' the kind of work I trained for, and it felt good." She shook her head. "I didn't want it to end." she sighed and said, "Now you know, I'm selfish, and a bad mother."
Vin understood her frustration, and wanted to give her a serious answer, but failed. An unsolicited smile broke through, and he laughed instead. "Kel, you are neither selfish or a bad mother, and you couldn't be either if you tried."
"Yes I am. We don't need my paycheck to survive, which means I could quit and stay home with our children. My problem is I don't want to quit and that makes me selfish." She took a ragged breath and continued. "The best thing for our children is for one of us to be home full-time, but I'm not ready to do that. The problem is there's no place for me at MCAT anymore. Since Bravo, and Charlie teams are up and runnin', all the extra work of settin' them up is over. Travis travels to Texas all the time and issued a media blackout when special ops began. Then Chris took over all the case requests when he returned. Consequently, I have nothin' to do and if I apply for a position on Bravo team, you and I will never see each other."
"Whoa," he said as he placed his hands on her shoulders. "It's not selfish for you to want to work anymore than it is for me. Just because you're a woman and the 'mom', you don't have to give up your career. We have great kids, and I don't see them sufferin' because you and I choose to do what we trained for all these years." He drew her closer and wrapped his arm around her. "Furthermore, not one person at MCAT works just for a paycheck. We do what we do because we're good at it and as experienced officers of the law; we help to make our part of the world safer." He rested his chin on the top of her head and softly said, "You don't want to work for Travis and Larabee, then you come back to my team and work with me."
Sitting here, away from the rest of the world made Vin's words sound sensible. However, old doubts attempted to surface. "What if ?"
"No what ifs," he whispered. "We'll be fine, Kel. With the exception of the past few months, we've come a long way on communicatin' to one another about how we feel. I'll always be anxious about your safety no matter what position you take, but I also respect your skills and know you're a good agent. Hell, I worry about Chris, Ezra, Buck, Nathan, Josiah, and JD, too, but we still work together."
"Absolutely," he said with a smile. "Later, I'll tell you about the new task force assignment, but for now I think we have some catchin' up to do. Now, tell me what else I've missed since August."
Kelli snuggled closer. "Only if you tell me first, about the dreams you've been havin'. They have you walkin' the house at night and you're tryin' to keep 'em secret."
"How did you know?"
"I always know when you're not in our bed." She lifted her head and frowned. "They're not as bad as the last time are they?"
"Not bad, different .." he proceeded to tell her about his new visions, which began a couple of months ago. They talked for hours about their children, his father, his grandfather's letters, and the stress the special ops missions heaped on everyone. Their topics of discussion ranged from the here and now to the future. True to his vow, Vin knew everything his wife was thinking before they made it home.
Men of honor seek all truths, good or bad. Confronting the bitter empowers strength, acknowledging the sweetest defeats weakness. ~Legends of the Quest~
Dunne Home, Tuesday, 0720 hours
JD woke with a start, bathed in sweat. He stared around him for a moment to get his bearings, somehow expecting to see himself surrounded by simple furniture and wooden walls, though he had no idea why. Wiping a shaky hand down his face, he realized he must have been having quite a vivid dream, for now though the details eluded him.
Glancing at his clock, he groaned. He forgot to set his alarm and, though not too late, he would now be running behind. He had his first counseling session with Father Albert Rafferty at noon today, and he knew Chris would check to see if he went.
At least the children were covered. He and Lisa had arranged for her to come in and get the kids early. They were going to Buck's for breakfast and then on to Reins day care, to be picked up by Lisa later.
Stripping down, he turned on the shower and stepped in when it started steaming. As he closed his eyes to wash his hair, images of him and Casey, together, in this very shower, slammed into him like punches, his head twisted as if avoiding each invisible blow. His eyes shot open and he cursed profusely when soap found its way into one of them. By the time he finished, he wasn't sure if his tears were from the soap, or the imminent loss of the woman he had vowed to love until "death do us part'.
Since he was only going in to the office for part of the day, he supposed he might as well dress casually. He chose black jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt to match his mood. JD was just tying his sneakers when the phone rang. Allowing it to go to the machine, he froze when Nettie's voice drifted through the empty house.
"JD, are you there, honey? Please please pick up if you are, I need to speak with you. JD?"
Trembling as his hand hovered over the phone, he attempted to calm his rapid heartbeat and quell the tiny glimmer of hope that Casey had changed her mind. He cleared his throat and picked up the receiver. "Nettie?"
"Oh, darlin' thank heavens I caught you."
For a few moments, silence was all she heard
Gruffly, he said, "You said you needed to talk to me." He thought he caught a soft sigh from her end.
"Casey is being released tomorrow. We're all set for our move and I wondered ," there was a pause, during which time his final hopes evaporated. " Could I come to the house to pack some things? I realize it's short notice, but I have a friend who can help me today, and I promise we won't be in your way."
While she was speaking, JD picked up a pencil and mimicked stabbing himself in the heart as she spoke. "Take as long as you need, I'll be out most of the day." With that, he replaced the handset, tossed down the pencil, pushed all thoughts of Casey and Nettie from his mind, and then resumed his preparations to leave.
MCAT Office, 0735 Hours
Kelli rushed through the door, threw her coat on Ezra's empty chair, ran up the stairs, and passed Gunny's desk on her way to Larabee's office. He had insisted on talking to her before he approved her transfer and she was five minutes late. Vin assured her that it was a formality, but she was certain Chris would try to talk her out of making a change. She stopped in front of his office, squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and then knocked.
"Enter." Chris stopped writing, set his pen down on the desk, and leaned back in his chair. Vin's call last night did not really surprise him. He supposed that he had known from the beginning that Kelli was too much like him to be happy in an administrative position for long. "I don't plan on an adversarial conversation Agent Coulter, so stop frowning, and sit down."
She waved two envelopes in the air before laying them on his desk. "Transfer request, one for you, and one for Travis and I already know what you're goin' to say." she pulled out the chair to sit. "You want to be sure that I've given this enough thought, and I'm aware of the possible drawbacks. The answers are yes, and yes."
Chris stared at her for a moment before he spoke. "I was planning on commending you for the work you and Mallory did on the smuggling case." He rose from his chair, rounded his desk, and hitched his hip on the corner beside her. "Your abilities as an agent have never been in question and I presume you and Vin have already discussed how this change could affect your lives." He reached over and placed a finger under her chin, tilting her head to his direction. "I understand the call of field work, but the simple truth is, no matter how much I try I cannot separate Kel, my daughter, from Agent Coulter. I love you and it's difficult for me as a father to order you into dangerous situations. I also recall that you and Vin had a few similar challenges as Captain and Agent."
"You love your brothers too, but you still manage to be 'the boss' when you're workin'." She shook her head. "Vin and I have discussed our 'challenges'. We won't repeat our previous mistakes because we've learned the hard way to avoid the obvious pitfalls."
"True," Chris nodded, "but contrary to previous reports, chauvinism is not dead. I can't promise it won't rear its ugly head once in a while."
Kelli sighed. "I've discovered there are worse things than an occasional misstep of sexism. Havin' you both disappear for weeks, not knowing where or how y'all were, was pure hell."
"Touché," he said as he moved to stand. "All right, you are officially assigned to Alpha team and I'll even update Travis for you, on one condition."
"Condition?" she frowned again.
"When I'm swamped, I reserve the right to call you in to assist me."
"I reckon I can do that."
Chris nodded. "Vin will give you the details, but Alpha team will head a task force, which will include several agencies. The work you and Mallory started is the basis for our joint investigation and you both will take an active role in bringing this organization down." He gave her one of his sternest glares. "Don't make me regret this."
"I won't." She stood, impulsively leaned in, and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Commander Dad."
"Go on, I have tons of work to do." Laughing, Chris shooed her out the door.
Vin watched as Kelli came down the stairs. The smile on her face told him all he needed to know about how the meeting went. She headed toward him and when she was close enough he said, "I delivered Jason and Andi to the front door of the school, safe and sound."
"I bet they enjoyed their 'Dad' time, too."
"Jason only tried four times to talk me into playin' hooky." He opened his office door and steered her inside for a moment of privacy. "I take it your meetin' with Chris went okay."
"Yep, and he's goin' to clear my transfer with Travis. As of today, you're stuck with Agent Coulter again."
Vin rubbed his chin and took a moment to answer, "Hmm reckon if I can handle AD Larabee on his worst days, I can put up with another ill-tempered, often rebellious, and stubborn to the bone agent." The look of indignation on her face was priceless and proved he had succeeded with his effort to move her state of mind from 'wife' mode to Agent. "Take the mornin' to close out your office and transfer your stuff to your old desk. Our task force will meet in the war room at ten, be there." He started for his desk and turned around to say, "Welcome back."
"Thank you, Captain." Kelli opened the door and made an exit before she said something inappropriate. It would not be good to break protocol on her first day back.
War Room, 1000 Hours
Chris scanned the room. With Alpha team accounted for, and Kelli, Mallory, and Justin present; it was time to begin. He took a last look at his notes and then stood to address the agents.
"We are in a unique position as MCAT agents. The technology we have available to us allows us to obtain information quicker than local law enforcement, and uncover patterns that one agency working alone might miss. The case Captain Michaels handed over to Agents Sanchez and Coulter is a good example. Through the course of their research, they uncovered connections, not only to several cold cases, but also to a larger organized criminal activity. As your Assistant Director, I decided that this case merited more investigation. After careful consideration and discussion with Director Travis, we agreed that the formation of a Major Interstate Task Force was necessary. This organization spans from here to Mexico and is responsible for trafficking drugs and humans north and sending cash and guns south.
I'll have commanding authority over the entire task force, and Alpha team, under the direction of Captain Tanner will take the lead on this investigation. As soon as Bravo team clears their caseload, they'll join us, as well as agents from our Charlie unit in San Antonio. Director Travis is in Washington as we speak, securing the cooperation of Homeland Security and acquiring whatever clearance we'll need. His role is to also line up funding, and recruit manpower from Arizona and New Mexico to assist." he nodded toward Vin. "Captain Tanner will give you some background and detail our agenda for the upcoming days."
Chris sat and Vin took over. "Most of y'all are aware of the escalatin' violence and criminal activity south of the border, which includes mass corruption, murder, extortion, brutal torture, and kidnappin'. The Mexican government declared war on five major drug cartels in their country two years ago. Since then, more than eight thousand lives have been lost and they expect this year to produce eight to ten thousand more. Mexican gangs are the number one organized crime threat in our country. They have established roots in more than 230 American cities, and are responsible for bringin' more than 70 tons of drugs into the United States. On the flip side, ninety percent of the grenades, rocket launchers, and assault weapons, the cartels are using in Mexico, and ninety-five percent of the cash to fund their war, come from our country through profit from drug trade, human traffickin', and stolen weapons.
While the Mexican government's main targets are the five largest cartels, several smaller ones are tryin' to take a piece of this thirty-eight billion dollar a year business. Our investigations center around one of these smaller organizations," bringing a picture up on the big screen, "run by this man, who we have identified as Dante Perón. He is the alleged crime boss of a gang we believe bases in Denver. His various operations are located not only here, but also in Texas, and Mexico." He picked up a stack of bulging folders and passed them to his right. "All the information collected by Agents Sanchez and Coulter, is in these files. There's one for each of y'all, take 'em home, read, and memorize the details because this is where we start. Ezra, you study the information, and then give me your best ideas about how to infiltrate this organization. Josiah, I want in-depth profiles of our identified players. After we get more organized, I'll be making specific assignments.
Monday, Captain Sam Cain, MCAT San Antonio, will join us along with a representative from Homeland Security. We don't plan to break any speed record on completin' this one; we're goin' to take these operations down, and build a rock solid case Perón won't be able to beat. We're goin' to plan every detail, work smart, and prepare mentally as well as physically for the job at hand." He grinned when he heard the groans around the room. "Yep, we begin tomorrow, and will continue for the remainder of this week. I expect to see all y'all at the firin' range at 0800 hours. I also have a list of agents, who are overdue with their quarterly qualifications. Check the list posted by the exit door when you leave, find your name, and scheduled times on the trainin' course."
It did not take long for the expected excuses to start.
"Surely, you did not include Agent Wilmington and myself on that list," Ezra stated. "You do recall we were both injured on our last assignment?"
Nathan grinned. "After your examinations this morning, you were both cleared for active duty."
"I think I feel a relapse coming on," Buck moaned.
"Give it up, Buck," Chris said with a smile. "I saw you playing ball with Caleb yesterday evening."
"Nice try Ezra, but I want everyone in top shape on this one. No excuses," Vin told him as he noticed JD watching the clock. "Agent Dunne, take this list of names," he handed the agent a smaller folder, "start your CASSIE team on runnin' 'em, and then you are excused for the day."
"On it, Captain." JD took the file and stood to leave. "See you guys tomorrow," he said to the rest of the team. He stopped by the door long enough to jot down his training assignment and then he was gone.
"The rest of you, take the remainder of today to clear your desks and your minds. We have a lot of work ahead of us and I plan for all of us to be around to talk about it when this is over, dismissed." Vin gathered his notes and walked out with Chris as the others agents talked among themselves before leaving the conference table.
Nathan waited outside the door for Josiah. "You got a few minutes?"
"Always for a friend," Josiah answered.
"Vin told us to clear our minds, and I have something needs talking about. " Nathan sighed. "I've been having some strange dreams."
"Step into my office," Josiah said as he took Nathan by the arm. He was not sure about the why, but Nathan was the third one of his teammates, who had mentioned peculiar dreams or odd experiences occurring lately. His gut told him this was not coincidence.
St. James Catholic Church, Noon
Father Albert Rafferty was a kindly priest. A good friend of Josiah's, he had been happy to talk to JD while the MCAT agent was recovering from the attack by his own wife. During that period, Albert became close to the young man and, though he knew their time together would be a difficult one, he welcomed the opportunity to see him again.
Smiling, he stood as JD entered his small office in the rectory. "John, it's wonderful to see you looking so well."
Despite his reservations toward the new sessions, JD found himself returning the smile, chuckling as the priest pulled him into an embrace.
"I'm here for you, son," the man whispered in his ear.
The younger man pulled back. "I appreciate that, Father, but I'm afraid I'm just wasting your time. Chris has this all wrong "
"Maybe." The man gestured for him to sit, "Let's just talk and see how things go, shall we?" Albert noted his reaction, idly fingering a folder on his desk as he waited for him to speak. When no words were forthcoming, the priest spoke. "How about we start with your last assignment?"
JD frowned. "What of it? It was tough; we got our asses kicked ." He blushed. "Sorry Father. I did my job well. What's Chris's issue with 'that'?"
"I understand you disobeyed several direct orders."
"I saved Ezra's butt is what I did he had a head injury and I hauled him outta there Josiah was too far away. When did I disobey another order?"
"You were told to get into your transport home, and you continued firing on your assailants."
JD made a face. "Did Commander Larabee also mention I was close to those bomb blasts and had a little trouble hearing that day?"
"Chris has told me nothing. All I have to go on are a few points to build on. I'm hoping you'll fill in the details." Father Rafferty did make a notation about the hearing loss.
"Yeah, well Chris and Vin have to be the superheroes. Anyone else showing a smidgeon of initiative gets called a maverick."
"Have you ever told him that's how you feel?"
JD shrugged. "Not in so many words." He sighed. "Look, I know I'm the kid even though we've been together ten years, I guess they'll always see me that way and, I kinda like it, up to a point. I've worked hard to show I'm equal to them."
"Do 'you' think they believe you're equal to them?"
"I'm not sure any more."
"I see well do you think you are?"
There was a long pause. "No."
Albert looked surprised. "No?"
"Well, until recently, I used to."
"When did things change?" He noticed JD's hands white with tension.
JD swallowed. "When I realized I'm not the man I thought I was."
Father Rafferty was genuinely surprised. "Explain." JD stayed silent. "John, whatever you tell me stays with me, you know that. Our aim here is for you to put things into perspective look at how you're dealing with things, life, work, marriage "
The young agent made a barely audible response. Albert filed that reaction away for later.
"When did you become so sure you were not meeting the criteria for Alpha Team?"
JD stood and started pacing. "When I failed to see how Casey was deteriorating failed to see the attack coming I'm a Federal Agent for Christ's sake how could I have been so oblivious?"
"You love her, John, when she was bad, you forgave her. That, and the children, and your workload I'm not the least bit surprised you missed it. As we've previously discussed, Casey worked very hard at hiding her issues. Even Nettie was unaware."
He motioned his hand for JD to sit. "What else is there?"
Sitting, JD rested his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. It took almost a minute for him to speak, the only sound in the room, was from the ticking clock on the wall behind him. "Two women have taken me out in the last couple of years. Ice and Casey things like that don't happen to real men."
Albert's heart ached for the young man before him. He kneeled in front of JD and took the shaking hands in his.
"Oh John they do, son as God is my witness they do."
"Not to the men I run with," he replied.
"So you think breaking cover amidst a hail of bullets, running at armed men to take them down, disobeying direct orders makes you as much of a man as your associates?"
"I never said that," he tried to clarify his words.
Father Rafferty stood, nodding. "No, you're right, John, you didn't." He hoped that by just bringing this out into the open, JD would go away and think about it. He stepped forward. "Okay, what say we call it a day, and we'll meet again next week?"
A little surprised, he stood. "Fine except, I keep telling you, this is all crap. You know what I've been through, nothing's changed, and I'm learning to get on with life as best I can."
"And Casey? Are you sure you're in the right frame of mind to be there for her when she's released?" He watched the youthful face crumple before him causing the priest to hurry forward and place his hands on the young man's shoulders. "Good Lord, boy whatever is it?" He gave JD time to compose himself.
Sorrowful hazel eyes stared back at him. "Not an issue anymore," he whispered. "Casey wants a divorce."
Albert paled. "And you what do you want?"
Dunne sighed, heavily. "I want us to be a family again. I want her home, where I can take care of her. I want her to hold her children and be a mother to them I want to take her in my arms and make love to her so intensely she'd know how much I love her and she'd never want to be away from me again." He took in a deep breath and pulled away from the priest. " but that's never gonna happen 'she' doesn't want 'me'."
Swiping at his eyes, JD held up his hand and moved to leave. "Next week, okay?"
Nodding, Albert watched him go, already piecing things together, and looking forward to their next session.
JD wandered around Denver after his session, and finally ducked into a theater to sit through some awful movie. Feeling drained and depressed, he now sat in his truck a few miles away from Larabee 7. The truth was, he was afraid to go home. It was almost time for the children to come home and the last thing he needed was to come face to face with Nettie. He was about to ignore the ring of his cell when he realized it was Buck. He answered, "Hey."
"Hey, kid, you okay?"
"Yeah, Buck, I'm good, thanks. You?" he lied. He was getting better at lying. JD shuddered. What would his mother think of him now?
"Oh, you know keeping the flak jacket handy for when Inez decides to give me another reason for going to Mexico."
JD laughed and could hear Buck's chuckle in response. "Was thinking how about you and me catch a movie Saturday or maybe eat out? After a week of Vin's training schedule, I figure we'll need some down time."
"Sounds great, but I realized when I got home from our last mission how much JJ has grown. I need to get him some new clothes, or I'm gonna have to dress him in trash bags."
Buck chuckled again. "Need some company? There are a few things I want to pick up at the mall, too."
Chewing his lip JD nodded before answering. "Sure, sounds good. What time?"
"Ten work for you?"
"Ten it is. Shall I pick you up?"
"Nah, I'll come and get you. Saturday then, kid."
"Bye Buck." JD closed his cell. "Thanks big brother," he said softly. Starting his truck, he set off for home. It was time to face his demons.
The first thing he noticed as he walked in was the missing rocking chair, which used to sit in the corner of the living room. The large painting over the mantle was gone, too, leaving a few marks to indicate the shape of the object that had once hung there. Walking through the kitchen he could see several of Nettie's cook books and utensils were gone, but little else.
He was visibly shocked when he entered Nettie's room. It was bare. Fighting his rising emotions, he moved on to the master bedroom. His shaking hand approached Casey's closet and slid it open.
"Oh God!" His knees turned to jello, and he sank to the floor, allowing his battered emotions to take over. As he sat before the empty closet, he knew he didn't need to see the drawers, he was sure everything would be gone. It took some time to muster the energy to go back to the kitchen. There he noticed a note propped against the coffee machine, next to a larger envelope. He emptied the envelope first. Inside were the trust papers. The note read:
I'm sorry I missed you, and I really hate things worked out this way. I wanted us to talk. Casey requested a few things specifically and I found most of them. I understand she will be writing to you soon.I've left you our address in Arizona, and the legal papers concerning the ranch. Have your attorney look them over if you want, but I believe you'll find everything in order. Despite what you may think, we both love you very much we always will. Take care, sweetheart. I will always be available if you need to talk.
With a roar, JD balled up the note and tossed it violently, into the sink. Leaning over the kitchen counter, he rested on his elbows, his fingers knotting in his hair as he rocked. He felt as if he was coming apart. After few minutes, he was calmer and pulled out his cell to dial a familiar number.
Forcing his voice to sound as normal as possible he began his next lie, "Hey Buck. You know the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced I might have a cold coming on. I thought I'd get ahead of it by taking some Nyquil and turning in early. Can you and Inez take the kids tonight?" It only took a moment to get his answer. "Great, thanks."
Calling again, he took a deep breath. "Lisa? The children are going to the Wilmington's tonight. Can you drop them there for me?" Gaining her affirmative answer, he said, Thanks."
JD hated feeling so weak, but he knew it was for the best just for tonight. Tomorrow well maybe tomorrow would present him a new beginning.
Revelations prepare the pathway for our enlightenment. ~Legends of the Quest~
Standish Home, Saturday, 0600 hours
"Ezra," Barbara shook her husband, "Ezra, wake up."
He sat up in bed, and yelled, "Show yourself damnit. What do you want?"
Startled by his reaction, Barbara softened her voice and said, "Honey, it's me, your wife. You were having another bad dream."
Rubbing his hands over his face, Ezra sighed. "Sorry if I woke you."
"I'm the one who should apologize, she shook her head, "You have a lot on your mind, and I haven't made things easy for you at home."
He lay back against the pillows, wrapped his arm around her waist, and pulled her closer. "My mother is the one who has disrupted our home life, darling, not you."
"Your mother is not so bad, I just haven't been myself lately," she hesitated, "and as of yesterday I know why."
"Something you want to share?"
Barbara lifted her head and looked into her husband's beautiful emerald eyes. "I know I've been a bit of a bitch since you've been home and I just haven't felt right, so I made an appointment with my doctor ."
Alarmed by her words, he interrupted, "Doctor? What 's wrong?"
She laughed and placed her hand on his chest. "Nothing's wrong. In fact, everything is wonderful," her eyes misted and her voice broke, "we're having a baby."
"A baby? You and I .we're .you ," Ezra stuttered as the news started to sink in, and then sighed wistfully "a baby Standish." Suddenly he pushed Barbara over to her side of the bed. "You need rest. I'll make breakfast," he threw back the covers and then stopped, slapped his forehead, and yelled, "my mother! I won't have her upsetting you. She has to go "
"Ezra!" Barbara giggled as she watched her normally composed husband become giddy and a bit disoriented about the news of his impending fatherhood. She reached over and pulled on his shoulder. "I'm fine, our baby is fine, and your mother is not a problem for me. Besides, I want our child to know his," she paused, "or her grandmother. Now, before you rush from our bed, don't you think we should celebrate our good news?"
He closed his eyes for a moment to gather his whirling thoughts, *Maude a grandmother'* and then he grinned, turned to his wife and whispered, "Our child," drawing her closer he first stroked her hair, and then her cheek. "I love you Missus Standish."
"I love you too, Mister Standish." Their lips met and their 'celebration' began.
Sanchez Home, 0630 Hours
Josiah looked forward to his quiet time on weekend mornings. Mallory and the children usually slept in, and he liked to sit in his study to meditate. Today his thoughts revolved around his brothers and their apparent wave of bad dreams and strange behavior. Deep in concentration, he was surprised to look up and see Chris Larabee standing in front of him.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you come in." He took a good look at the man, and whispered, "You're not Chris," he sat up straighter and clarified his statement. "I mean you are Chris, but you're "
*Good to see you, Preacher, and Cowboy will do.*
Memories of their previous encounter with 'Cowboy and Tracker' filled Josiah's mind. He nodded. "Of course, 'Cowboy and Tracker', I remember you both very well. To what do I owe the honor of your visit?"
Cowboy ignored the question as he walked along and studied the wall of books Josiah kept in his study. He stopped, reached out, and pulled Josiah's copy of 'Legends of the Quest' from the shelf.
Josiah watched his movement and knew instinctively which book had drawn Cowboy's interest. "I've read it from cover to cover."
*The book tells us 'how' to live, it's time you know 'why'.* Cowboy turned to hand the book to Josiah.
As Josiah reached out to take the book their hands touched, the room darkened and time ceased to exist. Images of other lives and times crossed between them. Memories unlocked and flooded into Josiah's mind as unwritten words revealed their history:
*We come from spiritual people who were poets, musicians, storytellers, seers, scribes, folk healers, and priests. It was a world filled with romance, heroism, vision, and honor. We were all great warriors and brothers by blood. Dark forces of iniquity used the power of sorcery to destroy our physical bonds in the earthly realm, believing it would end our quest for righteousness. They were mistaken.
Fate bestowed the power upon us to transform throughout time and carry on the fight. The undying bonds of fidelity we share permit our souls to reunite in altered incarnations, always with a new quest to serve for the greater good of humanity.
Scenes rushed through his mind of kindred spirits perpetually united. We were there to witness the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. We stood shoulder to shoulder in fierce Viking battles, rode across the mystical lands of Camelot, sailed the seven seas, and fought side by side during the turbulent American Revolution. Once more, we connected in nineteenth century America. The charge of taming the western territories after the civil war, called for men who wielded the heart and strength of warriors who possess an innate sense of right and wrong. We were there, now we are here to guide all of you as others guided us. At the end of each life's quest, our precious recollections of the past recede into the mist of time to await their next call.
Reborn as strangers, we reunite with one another time after time, never again related by blood, or name, but always as brothers of spirit and heart. Each life is distinct, but once we acquire our predestined awareness and hone our inherent skills, 'the book' reveals itself. When these preordained elements of our existence are in place, correlated memories of our past begin to rouse from their slumber in the mists.
The first memories to be unleashed belong to our eldest. Gather our brothers, Preacher. You now have the knowledge to show them the pathway to the truth.*
Light returned and Josiah found himself back in his study with The 'Legend' book, lying on his desk. His precious memories of the past were still with him, but Cowboy had vanished. He smiled though, knowing the role chosen for him was an important one, and a timeless honor.
Josiah wasted no time setting things into motion as he reached for the phone to dial his brother's number. "Chris, I can't explain right now, but it's important that we get the boys together tomorrow."
Chris started to ask why, but decided against it. "I've been thinking we need to go back to our Sunday gatherings. We might as well begin tomorrow, but you know the ladies will want to come."
"Next week we include them, this time it needs to be," Josiah felt a surge of emotion coming on as he thought about 'his brothers', "just the seven of us. It's been too long since we were together away from work."
"It has," he agreed. "Tomorrow then, nine o' clock, my house, we'll eat before noon. You call Nathan and Ezra; I'll call Buck, Vin, and JD." Their conversation ended and he stared thoughtfully at the phone. *Don't know what you're up too, preacher man, but bring it on.*
JD was surprised when Buck agreed to go to the mall with him, but he knew it was likely for moral support, this being JD's first shopping trip for one of the kids as a single parent. The women of Larabee 7 had been more than gracious in that department since Casey's hospitalization. A trip to the store to buy JJ a few new clothes had sounded simple enough, but he had forgotten about all the baby paraphernalia, which accompanied one of these expeditions. He double-checked the diaper bag for the necessities a ten-month-old baby required for the day and sent up a prayer of thanks for Inez. She insisted on keeping the girls last night, saying she was certain it would be easier for JD with just the baby. He looked over at JJ in his crib. "Your Aunt Inez is a smart woman." He lifted his cooing son into his arms and then strapped him into the 'baby snugger' against his chest. Picking up the diaper bag, he took one last look around the bedroom. Assured that he had everything, set the bag in the entryway, and headed toward the kitchen, but had to stop to answer the ringing phone.
Buck's voice boomed across the line, "On my way, kid."
"We're ready and waitin'." JD hung up the phone and started again for the kitchen.
JD's smile came naturally when he heard the doorbell. *Just like Buck to call from the front of the house* he changed direction, walked to the door and threw it open. "Since when ," he halted his words and stared at the stranger on his porch. "Can I help you?"
"John Daniel Dunne?"
"Yes." JD cursed inwardly. How many times had Chris, or Buck, or Vin, warned him about letting his guard down and told him not to identify himself, before he knew who he was talking to?
The stranger reached out, grabbed his hand, and slapped papers on JD's palm. "Consider yourself served, sir." He tipped his hat and said, "Have a good day," as he turned and walked away.
Frowning, JD stood there until the man's Lincoln drove off, and then finally looked at the envelope he was holding. *Served? He wasn't due in court for a case, was he?' * Closing the door and grinning at his baby boy smiling back at him from his chest, he ripped it open and pulled out its contents. The front of the folded paper read: In the matter of Dunne vs. Dunne, you are .
His stomach followed the path of the writ as it slipped from his fingers to the floor. *Divorce papers* he closed his eyes as pictures of his life with the woman he loved flashed through his mind. *Oh God, Casey*
Buck's truck horn sounded outside, snapping him back to the here and now.
Taking a ragged breath, he drew strength from the feel of his child's heartbeat close to his own. He picked up the papers, tossed them into the drawer of the entry table, and then slung the diaper bag over his shoulder.
"Welcome aboard." Buck prattled while JD placed JJ in the child's car seat in back, and then settled into the front seat, "Before I forget to tell you, Chris called as I was walking out the door. I told him I was seeing you in a few minutes and would pass his message on. Larabee's Lion's Den has reopened, and our Sunday gatherings are back on, only we're starting out with just us guys. He's gonna have a morning bull session at his house and I told him we'd contribute on the food. I thought you might come over after we get back and then you and I would fix our old Wilmington-Dunne special ribs. Just like old times, huh?"
"Sure, sounds great." JD hoped that his voice sounded normal.
The journey into town was reasonably subdued. JD, still in shock from the events of the morning was well aware of the glances Buck threw him. The younger man simply smiled, his excuse for his submissiveness being that JJ had been awake through the night.
There it was another lie.
After they parked, Buck reminded JD that he needed to pick up a few things for Inez, so the pair agreed to meet outside McDonald's at noon.
Stroking JJ's soft hair as he walked the mall corridor, JD found several children's stores and finally, zeroing in on one, took the plunge into new territory. Figuring out the right sizes was not easy until one store assistant took pity on him, while she watched his bungling efforts, and offered to help pick appropriate outfits. It only took a few minutes to complete his son's new wardrobe. Pleased to be finished with his shopping ordeal, he frowned when JJ started to fret. After a glance at his watch, he realized the baby was probably hungry again. Relieved to see the familiar 'Golden Arches', he arranged his purchases in the shopping tote the last saleslady had given him, hefted the diaper bag over his shoulder, and headed for McDonalds, where Buck would join him soon.
Reaching the counter, JD smiled. "Hi, uh, a hot chocolate, please and I need to warm a bottle." He nodded his gratitude as the assistant came around with his cup, then guided him to the drinks dispensers and the jugs for hot water.
"Thanks," he grinned. Five minutes later, JJ was happily feeding. Gazing down at his son, he felt an overwhelming sense of love and pride and bent to kiss his boy on the top of the head. He fought back his emotions; the thought that his son would never know the love and bond of his mother's touch, overwhelmed him.
"Ironic, huh, son I had no dad, and you have no mom." He sat JJ up to burp him before offering the baby the last few ounces. Once his belly was satisfied, JJ quickly fell asleep. JD packed the bottle into the diaper bag and started to call Buck when the sound of gunfire, followed by hysterical screams, filled the air.
The gunman yelled, "Get down GET THE FUCK DOWN!"
JD stood, transfixed, as people around him dropped to the floor, while he stared straight at the perpetrator.
"I said get DOWN!" The lunatic aimed his handgun at JJ.
JD's world narrowed and the parent inside him began to fear for the life of his child. He raised one hand as the other protectively cradled his son. "Okay, mister, stay calm I'm doing it see? I'm doing it."
Somehow, the agent managed to get down onto the floor without the baby waking. He looked around him, saw people crying all scared, some clinging to their weeping children. He pulled JJ tighter to him, his own terror building; he licked his lips nervously and jumped when his cell rang.
The nervous man with the gun shouted, "Give it to me!"
JD handed over his ringing cell, sheltering JJ as the man placed it on the floor and fired at it.
"Next time, it'll be you," the man snarled amidst the fresh screams.
Watching the maniac turn away, the agent in JD began to take over and he knew what he had to do. He whispered to the woman under the next table.
"I'm a Federal Agent. Will you take my son so I can deal with this?"
For a moment, she just blinked at him, and then nodded.
"I'll let you know when," he smiled reassuringly, though only the Lord knew how he mustered the courage.
JD eyed the gunman. He was clearly high on something, but so far, gave no clue as to why he was threatening them with a gun. JD sensed that Buck was close by and knew if he couldn't reach JD on his cell, he would head this way in a hurry. Even so, he knew he couldn't wait this was down to him. He smiled to himself as he watched the gunman pace. *You're not the only one packing heat, asshole.*
Further down the mall's main corridor, Buck frowned when JD's cell went to voicemail. *Answer your phone, kid.* Buck tried again, his frown deepening as it went straight to voicemail again. A gunshot sounding in the distance had Buck running before he even realized it had registered. Reaching a line of police officers and mall security, Buck dug out his ID and went through. He approached the Officer in Charge. "What's going on?"
"Gunman in McDonald's and it's full."
Closing his eyes for a moment, Buck nodded. "Thanks." He didn't know why, but he somehow knew JD was in there and with JJ. He pulled out his phone and dialed Chris's number. Giving him no time to say hello, Buck yelled into the phone, "Denver Mall, shots fired, JD possible hostage need you and the guys now."
Twenty minutes later the crowd parted as five MCAT agents dressed in full gear pushed their way through. They, headed toward Buck, and, Larabee assumed, now stood before the officer in charge. "Sit report," Chris ordered while Vin, his Genesis 308 in its case and slung over his shoulder, scanned the area.
Buck answered before the Officer in Charge could. "Suspect is mid-twenties, wearing jeans and red shirt, appears to be high on something, armed, estimate twelve to fifteen potential hostages. No ID on the shooter no demands and no casualties yet."
The team started to mike up. "You sure JD's in there?" Vin asked before he headed for high ground.
"No, but he's not answering his cell. We should've met up by now." Buck swallowed hard, turned to Chris, and hoarsely whispered. " JJ "
"I know " he nodded, the commander part in him tried to remain impartial, but 'Uncle Chris' struggled with his words, " lot of other kids, too."
"I didn't mean "
"We know," Ezra acknowledged, patting the brunet on the arm. "Chris is merely stating facts."
"JD's probably armed," Josiah reminded them.
"I'm counting on it," Chris answered. He turned to the OIC. "Stand down, this is our scene now. Nathan, go with mall security and review the video, get me some eyes in there. Josiah, secure the perimeter. Ezra let's get some communications open. Vin you have a location?"
Within minutes, Vin reached his chosen spot, unzipped his gun case, and made himself comfortable as he adjusted to the weight of the weapon against his shoulder. Looking through the scope, Vin took a sharp breath and spoke into his mike. "Shit we got trouble."
Inside McDonald's and once JJ was in safe hands, a new calm had descended on JD. Truth told, he was a little too calm. He waited patiently for the right moment then stood, drew his gun from the holster at the small of his back, and extended his arm as he aimed at the gunman. "Federal Agent Put your gun on the floor and then place your hands on your head." He tuned out the rumble of frightened voices as he held the man's gaze. "Do it!"
"I'm gonna kill you," the man hissed, as he raised his arm and pointed his gun straight at JD's heart.
"Says you," JD sneered, took a step forward and then cocked the weapon he held in his surprisingly steady hand.
At command base and unaware of JD's action, the tone of Vin's voice alarmed Buck. He looked to his equally anxious teammates, while Chris demanded information. "Vin?"
"JD's holdin' a bead on the guy and he ain't backin' down."
Chris grabbed his binoculars. "I see him, Tanner."
The situation was deteriorating and because of JD's actions, their options were limited. There would be no time for tactical procedures, or negotiations. Chris warned his men, "Shit's about to hit the fan get ready."
The former OIC stepped in. "Anything I can do, sir?"
Larabee gestured to the rubberneckers. "Yeah get these morons the hell away from here before this lunatic goes over the edge."
Vin lined up his shot and prepared for a green light. Through the rifle's scope, he could see JD clearly. "What the fuck are you doin' kid?" He mumbled to himself as he watched JD take a step toward the gunman. Tanner didn't doubt JD's spunk, but without knowing if he had back up, he was on a suicide mission. *Suicide mission* he stiffened as that thought crossed his mind. "I'm in position; ready to engage."
"Green light," Chris ordered, seconds before the sound of gunfire echoed through the mall, and for a split second, time seemed to stand still.
"Subject down, threat neutralized," Vin said as he climbed down from his perch.
Hearing Vin's all clear, Buck was over the barrier in an instant, closely followed by the rest of the team. Leaping over the bloody form of the dead gunman, Buck came to an abrupt stop in front of a still standing and fully armed JD.
Joining them, Chris held out his hand. "Give me the gun, son."
For a moment or two, JD just stayed transfixed to the spot he had last seen the gunman.
"Agent Dunne Your weapon, now!"
JD blinked and suddenly time moved forward again. He stared at Chris. "Did I get him?"
Vin noted the two headshots, one back, one front, and nodded to Chris.
"Yeah you got him." Larabee took the weapon as JD relaxed his hand and the gun spun from the trigger around his index finger.
"Good," JD whispered, now staring at the dead man on the floor.
"Let's sit down," Nathan urged their youngest by taking him by the arm.
JD nodded, not acknowledging his teammates at all.
As Nathan went through a series of checks, Buck frowned at the other four, turning away from JD as he spoke. "This behavior, it's just the effects of the adrenalin, right?"
Chris and Vin glanced at each other. "Probably," Chris acknowledged, fully expecting a deeper discussion with Tanner, later.
Vin nodded, and handed over his and JD's weapons to Ezra for forensics. "You'd better hold these."
While paramedics moved among the other distraught customers, Buck claimed JJ, thanking the woman, who had held him. He then pulled Chris aside. "I'm gonna get him out of here and keep an eye on him. Call me when you finish."
Chris agreed and turned to Nathan. "He cleared to go?"
Jackson smiled as he placed a hand on JD's head. "All good."
"JD, you, and Buck take JJ and get out of here." Chris told him, "We'll talk later."
"He was hungry," JD told them, talking as if the recent incident had not even happened.
Holding on to the baby, Buck retrieved JJ's bags, smiled, took JD by the arm, and said softly, "Best we get this boy home then. "
"Yeah best." Buck, JD, and their tiny charge left the carnage behind as they walked out of the mall.
There would be reports to file, and interviews to conduct, but more importantly, Chris pondered as he watched them leave, was the need to work out just what had happened to JD in there. This was a new development in his deteriorating state of mind, and one Larabee didn't like at all.
"Josiah," Chris motioned for him to come over. "Call Father Rafferty and let him know about this. See if you can set-up an immediate session for JD."
Nodding, Josiah looked over the scene and wondered just where this near tragedy fit into the reason for Cowboy's visit.
"The book tells us how to live," he recalled Cowboy saying. Words from his Legends book rushed back to him. 'To move forward, we accept everything for what it is, a necessary step to fulfill our destiny. Be patient and learn from each experience'. Josiah smiled, as he thought to himself, *John Dunne, your spirit guide must be working overtime.*
When veiled portals are unlocked, our pasts merge and guide us to our future. The key lies within us. ~ Legends of the Quest ~
Wilmington Home, Sunday, 0800 Hours
Buck stopped and stood in the kitchen doorway, taking in the scene before him. Inez sat with her back to him, JJ, in the highchair next to her, bouncing excitedly as the next spoonful of breakfast was closing in on his open mouth, while Bella fed at her breast. The remainder of the Wilmington-Dunne brood sat around the table and Maria, Caleb, and Sarah attempted to assist Lilah, Daisy, and Tannis.
He walked over and bent forward to kiss his wife. "'Morning, beautiful," Buck grinned, planting a soft kiss on his wife's cheek. "JD not up, yet?"
"Good morning, husband," Inez answered. "Did you not hear him? He had a very restless night."
Straightening, Buck moved toward the door. "Well, he's got a full day today I'd better go shake his butt." He looked back at his wife. "Thanks for all that you do, honey."
She looked up at him. "I know how worried you are about him. I am, also. JD needs to be reminded that there are people who love him before he becomes lost to us."
Buck heaved a sigh, nodding. He and Inez had talked about JD's behavior as they lay together in bed last night. He had admitted that he was afraid for the man he had known from a boy. Although he loved all his brothers, he and Chris had been close longer than he could remember with JD, their bond was tight, and deeper than words could convey. He ached for the kid, and feared for him. Although he really wasn't sure how to help him right now, one thing was certain, he would be there for him.
A quick rap on the bedroom door and Buck pushed it open to find JD sprawled across the bed, covers in complete disarray. It was clear to him that the young man had not had the greatest of nights. Buck found himself slipping into an old habit as he leaned against the doorframe and watched the younger man sleeping.
Buck couldn't be sure, but he felt Vin and Chris were holding out on him and knew more than they were telling. *How did they see yesterday's fiasco?* the big man felt his stomach churn at the thought of how close JD had come to getting himself blown away. *Where in hell was that boy's mind?* No amount of bravery could make up for the fact JD hadn't even waited for negotiations to start.
All this uncertainty prompted Buck to want to stick close to his little brother, so he insisted JD and his children stay at the Wilmington home for the night. He had been pleasantly surprised that he hadn't fought him on it and that gave him something else to ponder. *Did JD even want to go home?* They talked a lot, last night, but nothing new came from it except one thing for sure, as long as Buck Wilmington was alive, JD Dunne would never stand alone, no matter what and JD emotionally declared the same vow. A heartening talk, but what Buck needed was to work out how the hell to get the younger man to recognize he needed help now.
As he walked into the room to wake JD, he was grateful all seven of them were meeting this morning, though, Buck wasn't sure why, and that Josiah had successfully arranged for Father Rafferty to speak with JD today not that the young man appreciated the news when Josiah called to tell him last night. He was still angry about it as he turned in for bed, at which point Buck offered to chauffeur JD around for the day another good way to stick close.
Slowly drifting up from sleep to consciousness, JD felt the bed dip and a warm hand on his shoulder. He cracked open an eye. "Buck?"
"It lives!" Buck chuckled. "Breakfast is being served, just need to get your butt outta that bed and come get some coffee. We're due at Chris's in an hour."
"Sure," he yawned. "Kids okay?"
"They're stuffing their little faces as we speak. C'mon, li'l bro up and at 'em."
"Shift your carcass then, big bro unless you want a flash of the family jewels."
Standing, Buck laughed. "Hell no! See you in a few."
JD grinned as he watched the man leave, his smile faded the instant he was alone. With more effort than he would have liked, he headed for the bathroom.
Thirty minutes later, Inez watched as JD lay on the floor of her living room, his twin daughters, and son lying on top of him. A few minutes earlier, all of the children had been rolling around with their father, the noise level slightly less than a 747 jet engine. Now, the Wilmington children were in the den watching a video. Lilah, Daisy, and JJ would follow, but first, JD was having a quiet moment with them before heading out. She pushed back her tears as she heard him tell them they were everything to him and that he loved them very much. Her thoughts drifted to Casey, and about how the little ones must be missing her. She noticed JJ was drifting off as the girls and JD started singing a nursery rhyme.
She stepped into the room. "Let me take them, sweetie," she smiled, bending to pick up JJ. "Buck's waiting for you in the truck."
Struggling to his feet with his girls in his arms, JD did one final twirl before kissing them and putting them down, patting their butts as they headed to the den to join their cousins. He approached Inez, kissing her tenderly on the cheek. "I love you. Thank you for all that you do for me," he whispered, before leaving.
Cuddling JJ, Inez touched her cheek as she watched him go, her beautiful brown eyes brimming with tears. "Te amo también el pequeño," she sent up a prayer for him. Another for the other six men she adored, hopeful that they would find a way to make everything right for their youngest brother.
As they traveled to Chris's, JD glanced at Buck. "Are you sure you're okay to take me to the rectory? I can always pick up my truck and "
"No problem," Buck cut in. "I want to do this for you if you'll let me."
"Thanks," he smiled, albeit a very small one. He held Buck's gaze for a moment as he debated whether to tell him about the divorce papers, deciding against it, for now.
Buck held his breath as he sensed JD was about to tell him something, but swallowed his disappointment when JD turned away and turned on the radio.
Carefully balancing the box he carried, Vin reached down to open the back door, Chris beat him to it. "I heard you coming; your coffee is on the table. What's in the box?"
Vin entered, set the carton on the counter next to several others, and turned around before answering, "Kel talked to Inez, found out Buck and JD were bringing ribs, and figured she'd send over some side dishes." He shook his head. "I reckon a few of the other ladies had the same idea."
Chris chuckled. "Yep, we have contributions from Cait, Barbara, Rain, and Mallory. You'd think we starved before they all came along."
"You know yet why Josiah's so antsy to get us together?" Vin pulled out a chair, sat, and then picked up his cup to take a drink.
"Not sure, but I guess it has something to do with yesterday. Not that I blame him for being concerned." He took a deep breath. "After what you told me, I'm worried about the kid more than ever."
"I admit he surprised me, but we're all here for him and we're not gonna let him slip away." Vin stood, and reached for Chris's cup. "Give me that, I'll get us a refill." When Chris lifted the mug to pass to Vin, their hands touched and a familiar dark vision flashed through Vin's mind. He stopped and whispered, "Damn."
"Vin?" Chris halted when he realized that they shared the identical vision. *You too?*
"What the hell is going on? I can see your dream and it's a damn duplicate of the one I had."
"I don't know," Vin said as he shook his head, "but this has gotta be more than a coincidence."
"Hearing you talk in my head is one thing, but sharing your visions I could do without."
Vin smiled at the thought of Chris experiencing the same type of visions he had refused to believe in before. "What makes you think it's my vision? Maybe it's yours."
"Mine? I don't have those things, you do!" A knock on the door drew his attention and Chris shouted, "What!"
Josiah opened the door, stuck his head inside, and asked, "Safe to enter?"
"Come on in, I haven't shot anyone this morning, if that's what you mean," Chris said. *We'll discuss this later, Tanner.*
*That we will.*
Josiah entered, stood for a moment, and just stared at the two men before him. In all the years they had been together in this lifetime, he never felt closer to them than he did now. These two were his brothers blood brothers. He remembered it all it was forever ago, and yet only a small twinkle in time. His thoughts rushed back through the centuries to the beginning, of them taking their first steps as babies, as boys, to the fierce warriors they became. Chris had always been their protector, and Vin, their huntsman. His thoughts fast-forwarded through the lives they had shared since then, to their last deaths before their present gathering. His heart soared with the knowledge that they had always been and would always be again.
"You all right there, Josiah?" Vin asked as he exchanged a puzzled look with Chris.
"Better than all right," He said with a grin, stepped forward, and threw his arms around the younger man. Picking him up off the floor in a bear hug that almost took Vin's breath, before setting him down, he said, "I've missed you, Brother."
Vin cleared his throat as he stepped back. "Damn, Josiah, you saw me yesterday."
"That I did," Josiah said, turned to Chris and smiled.
Chris wondered if JD was the only brother that should concern him. He raised his hands and said, "Don't even think about it, Sanchez. You saw me too. Just tell me why you wanted us all here?"
Josiah grinned again. *Why we're here is exactly what I want to tell you, but I can't.* He sighed. "It's been too long since we were together outside of work, we need this."
Chris nodded, willing to accept for now, Josiah's explanation. "Well, thanks to the ladies, we have plenty to eat."
Another knock and the door opened to allow Nathan and Ezra to enter.
"Are we too early?" Nathan asked, Ezra closely following.
Josiah got that dazed look in his eyes again. He could see Nathan as he was then, while his outward appearance had changed, his spirit was easy to recognize, he was their healer and his closest confidant. Ezra, rascal brother, mentalist, and master of illusions was the middle child, one Josiah felt never had the right amount of attention, but his heart filled with love for them both. "Not at all, welcome brothers."
"Watch out, Josiah's in a huggin' mood," Vin warned them, but smiled to soften his words.
Chris stood and said, "It's time to move to the den, anyway. We'll bring the food out later." He led, and the other three men followed him to the larger room.
"Not that I am complaining, I believe this was an excellent idea, but does anyone wish to enlighten us as to why we're here? Ezra sat in his favorite 'Larabee' chair.
Before he received an answer, they heard Buck's bellow from the kitchen, "Where is everybody?"
"In the den, leave the food there and join the party," Chris yelled back to him.
It was only a minute before Buck appeared in the doorway, his arm wrapped around JD's shoulders. Josiah rose from his chair to meet them, Buck the guardian of the clan, was thankfully still on duty, and JD their youngest, their communicator, and the inquisitive one of the family, always searching for new experiences .he reached out and drew them both into a group hug. "Now we are complete."
Buck patted the big man on the back and grunted, "We're staying, you can let go now."
Josiah released them and grinned sheepishly. "Right, well, find a chair and we can get started."
For a while, they just talked, about sports, children, horses, and bullshit stories. After an hour or so, Chris stood and addressed them. "Why don't we take a break, lay out all that good food, and eat. Then maybe Josiah will share with us why he requested this gathering."
Another hour passed before they demolished the food, cleaned up, and returned to the den. Once they were resettled and comfortable, Josiah stood. Taking a deep breath and feeling a bit emotional, he scanned the expectant faces of the men he now knew were indeed his brothers. Not that he cared more, he loved them all, but the connection among them that they had always felt took on a completely new meaning.
He chose his words carefully, "I did ask Chris to gather all of you here. For several reasons, which I won't even try to list, we've dropped our Sunday gatherings, and I feel it's time we reinstated them. Next week it will be will all our families, and I'm hopeful we can do this at least once or twice a month. Today though, I felt it was important for us to reaffirm our bonds of brotherhood and talk about the things that may have prevented us from being together."
"Good thinking Josiah, it's about damn time we got back to normal around here," Buck interrupted.
Josiah nodded. "Not sure about normal, Buck, but let's see what we can do to help make it that way. Over the past few weeks, a number of things have transpired. I've heard numerous strange remarks, and several of you have come to me about having disturbing dreams. I thought maybe we could discuss all this, or anything else on your minds."
Chris certainly took interest in Josiah's words, especially after the incident earlier. He looked over to Vin. *Definitely more than coincidence, you think.*
*I reckon Josiah knows more than he's telling.*
Nathan jumped in and said, "I'm one who's been having dreams or nightmares, not sure what to call them. I feel as if I should know something, but can't quite put my finger on what it is."
"Me too," Buck said as he leaned forward. "Mine started a few weeks ago and it's always the same. Not scary, but," he searched his mind for a description, "unsettling is the best I can describe it."
"I have to admit to a few disturbing nocturnal occurrences, but until Saturday, I believed them to be a result of my mother's presence in my home." Ezra said.
"What changed on Saturday?" Josiah asked.
Ezra grinned. "I discovered that Maude is human after all." He sighed. "I suppose I should start at the beginning."
"Is this a long story Ez?" Buck asked.
"Not really we're pregnant, or rather Barbara is " Most of the men jumped up to offer their congratulations and good wishes, which stopped him from continuing. Finally, he raised his hand and waited for everyone to sit back down. "I appreciate it, and will be seeking advice from y'all I'm certain. However, that was only part of my surprise, the best indeed, but not the last. I had a long talk with my mother, making clear that I would not allow her to upset Barbara for any reason. During the course of said discussion, Maude began to cry. Not her fake tears but genuine emotion. I realized at that moment, how lonely her life has been. I always looked at her through my view of the world, not hers. The choices she made were hers and I allowed them to be mine, to dictate the course of my life. Since finding a home here, and learning about what family really means with all of you, I missed seeing what price she paid for making bad decisions in her life. Bottom line, she is delighted to be included in our growing family, and I now view her through different eyes."
Josiah's eyes misted. Ezra was close to finding the key to unlock his memories, by freeing his mind of resentment, and taking charge of his life choices. Also if he read them right, Chris and Vin shared more now than a mental connection, and would soon find the key for their memories to return. Buck and Nathan were close, he was certain. Sadly, though, JD had a ways to go. As he watched his young brother sit quietly by and not join in with the others, he worried about his future. If he could not rid himself of the weight of guilt he carried, how could he ever find his key?
"Ezra, I'm proud of you, and thank you for sharing your discovery with us." Josiah laughed when Standish hurriedly sat to avoid a 'Sanchez' hug. "I have a favor to ask from the rest of you. Take the time to reread your Legend book, open your minds, and search your souls for answers. I promise you, brothers, what you find will be worth the effort."
A silence descended on the room as they listened to Josiah's odd request. No one asked him to explain, but they all felt it was important.
JD glanced around the room. There had been so much to take in, and now he had to leave. His gaze rested on Chris. *Damn him making me see Father Rafferty today, not to mention telling me he wants to talk with me, too at some point in the near future.* As Buck rose to join JD at the door, the younger man spoke. "I uh just so you all know " JD swallowed the bile in his throat as he struggled with his words, the faces of the men he loved, staring back compassionately at him. "Casey filed for divorce I got the papers yesterday morning." Relieved to have said it, he hastily left.
Buck assumed the jaw drops he saw around the room reflected his own shock. An assortment of emotions warred for the gentle man's attention, one finally won out as Buck turned to go.*Bitch!*
As they watched Buck leave, the stunned men looked around at each other. Vin and Chris exchanged glances. A tiny piece of the JD puzzle had just dropped into place.
"Dear God, poor boy." Josiah finally said.
They did not discuss JD or Casey, needing time to think about the repercussions of his announcement. Once Buck and JD left, the five of them had decided to spend the afternoon at the West End Recreation Center. Spending time with those kids soothed their souls, and kept their mind off JD's last minute announcement about his impending divorce. Ezra was the first to leave for home, wanting to spend the remainder of the afternoon with his wife. Shortly after that, Chris and Vin followed. Josiah dropped Nathan off at his home and now had a few moments to reflect on the events of the day.
Josiah felt good about their gathering. The memories of the other times with his brothers still overwhelmed his emotions, and he was anxious for them to join him. Although, he realized he could not rush them, their paths were already set, and they would remember when it was their time, he looked forward to them coming full circle. He was, however, curious to see what was in store for them once it was complete. Regardless of when it all happened, today had been one helluva day, and, tomorrow promised to be even better.
The silence was stifling as Buck drove JD to his counseling appointment; the big man's heart ached as he watched his closest friend and brother fighting his emotions. "Talk to me," Buck pleaded.
"I I can't," JD hiccupped, softly. "Not just yet." A few minutes later, he spoke again, his voice barely a whisper. "I...I just keep asking myself why? I forgave her, loved her, and wanted her home. She knew that."
Sensing JD didn't really want an answer, Buck squeezed his arm. "You've done everything you could to make this right. You have to know this is not about you, or the little ones."
JD nodded, but Buck could tell the younger man was not convinced. He felt a huge shudder travel through JD's body. "I hate feeling so lonely."
His throat tightened and Buck squeezed JD's arm harder. "You got me and the guys and your kids. Don't ever forget that." Noting the nod and thin smile, JD offered, Buck swallowed, knowing full well how he would feel if Inez was not in his life." And we all love you."
Unable to answer, JD patted Buck's arm and turned to look out of the side window, remaining that way until they reached the rectory.
"I'll wait here," Buck assured as JD exited the truck.
JD nodded as he closed the door and went inside the old stone building.
St. James Catholic Church
From his study, Father Rafferty heard his housekeeper answer the door, put down his Bible, and stood to greet his troubled charge. His smile faded as soon as JD entered the room. "John?"
The emotions he had been fighting since yesterday, finally took over. JD stood there with his chin on his chest and leaned into the comforting embrace the priest offered to soothe him.
The Father wished the young man would cry just once and let it all out. "Come sit," he urged. Finally, both seated, he gestured to a tray on the table. "Coffee?"
JD nodded and accepted the cup
Albert started, "I understand you had an eventful day, yesterday?"
"I guess that's one way to put it.
"Are you alright?"
Not expecting the question, he nodded. "Yeah, it wasn't me that got my brains blown out."
"But, you were involved."
"And you had your son with you."
Swallowing hard, his pulse quickened, and he softly whispered, "Yes."
"Can you tell me about it?"
"I don't recall much after handing JJ over. I can't get things straight in my head. I guess I'm just a little muddled."
"I see. All right, what were you thinking before then?"
Frowning, JD sipped his coffee. "I remember feeling a strong desire to get Ezra the hell outta there."
Albert placed down his cup. "Ezra?"
He looked confused. "Huh?"
"You said you wanted to get Ezra out of there."
"No I didn't, I said JJ."
"Sorry, my mistake," The priest said and smiled, knowing it wasn't. "Isn't it procedure to wait for backup on such occasions maybe try to negotiate a peaceful surrender?"
JD huffed out a laugh. "When you're on a mission you have to think on your feet, Father or you die."
"Of course," Albert said, and then decided to change the subject, for now. He made a notation to resume the topic at their next session. They talked a while about the day Nettie moved hers and Casey's things out, the children, and how JD was enjoying his return to a normal work routine. Then the priest decided to tackle something a little more delicate. "Have you thought any more about Casey's request for a divorce?"
Putting down his cup, he sat back, and closed his eyes. "She's already filed. I got the papers yesterday."
"Would you like me to be with you when you sign them?"
Sitting up, JD snapped his reply, "I'm not signing them. Why is it that all women think they can walk all over me? Well, this is one woman, who's not getting her way. I'm not letting her words beat me this time. Damnit! I'm not having another failure in my life."
"John, this is no failure on your part. Sometimes, things run to a natural conclusion "
"There's nothing 'natural' about this, Father," he jumped to his feet, "she sees me as weak, so she's cutting the ties."
"She stabbed me twice! Doesn't exactly make me look strong, does it?"
Father Rafferty couldn't hide his concern. "After you were hurt, and we talked, you never seemed angry about it, just upset. What's changed?"
"I've changed," JD hissed. "I'm taking control I'm not going to be the weakest link any more. I'm just as strong as my brothers are; but somehow, no matter how hard I work, or how much I try, I always end up back at square one, and end up looking like the kid they all think I am. Every woman I've come up against has turned out to be something I wasn't expecting. Why do I never see it?"
It had become clear to him that the young man was not just talking about Casey. Albert really thought they were getting somewhere, but JD looked tired and was getting agitated.
"That's certainly something to think about. John, we've done very well for today. How about we meet again on Wednesday?"
Suddenly feeling drained, JD nodded as he stood. "Sure." He no longer wanted to argue the need for the sessions; he just wanted to go home. As he reached the door, he turned back to the priest. "Just so you know I told the guys today, about being served."
Albert smiled. "Good, I think you did the right thing."
Once JD left, Father Rafferty began making notes. He was beginning to see a picture forming, and, in truth, he did not like what it could imply.
In the parking lot, Buck was on the phone to Chris. "Have to agree with him, what can he tell this guy that he can't talk to me or any of us about? oh, he's here later." Ending his call, Buck grinned at an approaching JD. "Hey kid!"
Climbing into the truck, JD buckled up. "Hey."
Buck started the truck, and then asked, "Your session go okay?"
"Sure, no problem."
Realizing that JD wasn't about to give anything away, Buck pulled out of the parking lot. He turned to his sullen companion. "I'm always here for you don't forget that."
"I know. It's just since Casey asked to see me, everything's happened so fast. Nettie called Friday morning. By that evening, the house looked like she and Casey had never lived there. The next day, I was served and taking my first step to divorce court." His chin wobbled slightly. "I feel as if I'm falling apart, Buck."
Clasping JD's wrist, Buck swallowed his rising emotion. "Talk to Chris , take some time off "
"No!" JD's eyes were pleading with the older man. "No, please, I need work, God, do I need it right now. I will tell Chris, I promise, but not just yet please Buck, you said I could trust you."
"You can, you can," Buck assured him. "Listen, why don't you stay over tonight, too? Inez loves having you and the children over, we'll pick up your stuff "
" No, thanks all the same, but, I need to talk to Lisa about staying on," JD insisted. "I've asked her to stay over tonight so I can get away early tomorrow morning; I've got a lot of catching up to do with CASSIE."
Buck nodded. "Okay, but at least stay for dinner."
JD smiled; his first real one of the day. "That'd be great, thanks."
Unforeseen events provide us with opportunities to change our direction, which often clear the way for fate. ~Legends of the Quest ~
Dunne Home, Monday, 0630 Hours
JD walked into the kitchen to find Lisa preparing breakfast for the Dunne family. He supposed now was as good a time as any to tell her about Casey. Once he had the children's care secured while he worked, he could concentrate on his next step into the world of single parenthood. *How in hell do I explain to Lilah and Daisy, that mama's not coming home?*
"Lisa, we need to talk." He grabbed two cups, filled them with coffee, and sat down at the table. "Stop for a minute, please."
She turned the heat down to simmer, wiped her hands on a dishtowel, and joined him. "If it's about breakfast "
Shaking his head, JD plunged ahead. "Look, I'll cut to the chase. I'm sure you've noticed several things missing from the house. Truth is; Casey wants a divorce, she, and Nettie are moving to Arizona." He paused as a shocked Lisa took in the news. "I was hoping, maybe you'd consider taking on a permanent position here. I'm going to need a full-time nanny and housekeeper. I could fix up Nettie's room; you can pick out a color scheme and furniture. Of course, we'll have to talk about a salary." He frowned as the woman's expression suggested she was not comfortable. "Lisa, did I say something that might be a problem?"
Putting down her mug, Lisa leaned forward and took JD's hands in hers. "I've loved working for you, JD. You're a sweetie, and I adore the children. When you said you were going to see Casey, you seemed hopeful she would be coming home soon. You knew when I first started working here it was temporary. I was willing to stay until Casey came home or you made some other permanent arrangement, but I'm a professional nurse, not a nanny, or a housekeeper. I miss working with my patients." She took a deep breath. "A hospital, close to where my parents live, has made me an offer I would be crazy to turn down. The offer is only good for thirty days, though and then they will hire someone else."
JD paled. "I'll match any offer they make "
Lisa smiled, sadly. "I'm so sorry, but it's not about money. I really want this. I'll work through two weeks' notice, but then I need time to pack everything in my apartment and move. I really am sorry."
Pulling his hands away, JD stood. "No problem," he lied. "Of course I understand. I'm gonna check on the kids before I leave for work." He looked back at Lisa, smiling. "See you tonight."
JD found the girls, in their room, arguing about a favorite dress they both wanted to wear. After settling their dispute, he sent them to the kitchen, and continued on to his room to see JJ, who was still asleep. Leaving his son, with a kiss on his forehead, he grabbed his coat and headed out the door to his truck. Once inside he sat there with his head resting against the steering wheel. He had anticipated Lisa would snatch up his offer, not quit. This was an unexpected turn of events, one he definitely did not need right now. He sighed wearily, sat up, and started the engine. *When am I ever gonna catch a break?*
MCAT Office, 0700 Hours
Vin pulled his Silverado into the MCAT parking area about thirty seconds before Chris parked his Dodge Ram next to it. A new snow was beginning to fall, so they both made a hasty exit and hurried inside to the warmth of the office. Stomping their feet to shake off the slush, it surprised neither of them to find that Gunny was already there.
"You think that woman ever sleeps?" Chris shook his head and grinned as he crossed the bullpen.
Vin laughed and fell in step with him. "She's related to Max, remember? Walter calls her the energizer bunny because she's on the move damn near twenty-four seven." He stopped at Ezra's desk to place a large envelope in his top drawer.
"Nah, I copied off all the names of the websites I searched when Kel was pregnant. Figured Ez might need 'em."
Chris nodded as they moved on toward the break room and the coffee he knew Gunny would have brewing. Vin pulled out the cups and Chris poured. Mugs in hand, they split up and went to their respective offices.
"Your agenda, Sir," Gunny said as she placed the list in front of Chris. "I have prepared everything for the Task Force meeting. There is a folder for each member to reference; one to take notes, and all the material you and Captain Tanner need should be in order. The MCAT jet will land at 1300 hours, and allowing time for transport, your visiting associate from Texas will be inside the office no later than 1315 hours. I have a luncheon buffet scheduled in one of our small conference rooms for all agents, which gives everyone sufficient time to eat, and then move on to the War room by 1400 hours. A memo is already on each desk, allotting time for them to plan accordingly."
"Thanks Gunny," Chris said. He anticipated her next statement. "I'll call you if I need anything." He leaned back in his chair, turned toward the window, and thought about the gathering at his home yesterday. He and Vin discussed it late into the evening, but they failed to find the answers Josiah apparently wanted them to find. *True, their 'communications were stronger, and they could now see certain images in the others mind, but what did it mean? Why did they share the same dream? Were Buck, Nathan, and Ezra's dreams, connected too?*
*It's not that complicated, Son.*
Chris jerked forward, turned his chair around, and came to his feet in one motion. *Not you again!*
Cowboy was sitting with his hip hitched on the corner of Larabee's desk, shaking his head. * I thought we got past your anger issues about me*
Running his hands through his hair, Chris sighed. *Your presence means trouble ahead. I don't need more problems right now.*
*I know.* Cowboy slipped off the desk to face his great grandson. *Let go, resist the urge to fix everything.
*Just like that,* Chris snapped his fingers. *Stop being concerned and let go?*
Cowboy laughed. *You'll never stop completely. Your need to protect is too strong, but you can trust your brothers to work some things out on their own, and that includes the kid.*
*You know what's wrong with JD?*
* He will find his answers, soon enough. You though, must identify and use your shared key. Once you do, the rest will follow.*
*My shared key? I don't understand.*
*You will.* as suddenly as he appeared, Cowboy was gone.
Chris stood there for a minute, perplexed, and frustrated. *Damn, meddlesome, sonofabitch needs to mind his own business.*
The buzz of his intercom demanded his attention; Chris reached over to hit the button. Gunny's voice sounded loud and clear, "Sir, Director Travis would like to see you A.S.A.P. in his office."
Director Travis's Office
Suzanne looked up when Larabee walked in. "He's expecting you."
Chris didn't break his stride, only nodded to Travis's personal assistant, and continued into Orrin's office. His senses went on alert went he saw that Travis was not alone. "You requested to see me, Director?"
Travis gave nothing away when he indicated that Chris should sit in the chair opposite the stranger. "Commander Larabee, this is Kenneth Braswell." He waited for the two men to acknowledge one another.
Braswell, stood, extended his hand to Larabee, and said, "I'm looking forward to working with you, Sir." When Chris did not make a move to reciprocate, he awkwardly returned to his seat.
Orrin cleared his throat. "Washington took an interest in our MCAT Unit and our Task Force. Since the possibility exists that we might cross into international dealings, on this or future investigations, they want a permanent legal liaison assigned to our unit. His purpose is to advise when requested, and insure that we do not cross legal boundaries with foreign countries as set by the current administration. Mister Braswell," he quickly looked over to the man, "is here strictly as a legal advisor, unless you request otherwise."
Chris spoke to the Director. "I won't."
Travis used his intercom, "Suzanne, will you come in here please?" He waited a moment for her, and then told the new Agent, "Miss Mills will show you to your office, and give you a schedule of our planned meetings."
"This way, Mister Braswell," she said, and pointed toward the exit.
Chris waited until the door closed. "Orrin he's no more a legal eagle than I am. What the hell is going on?"
"I'm not sure, but he comes with our funding for this year. I realize his position is unwarranted, but he has the right connections to wrangle this assignment." He tapped his pen against the desk. "Until I know more about his real agenda, we'll keep an eye on him, and all his reports have to be cleared by me. Just do what you do Chris, and let me worry about Washington."
Chris leaned forward his palms on the desk. "You and I both know this is a bullshit assignment, Orrin. Keep him the hell away from my people." With that as his parting remark, he walked out, without even closing the door.
Vin felt Chris's anger long before he burst into his office and slammed the door. "You wanna sit down before you bust a gut?"
"Travis just sandbagged us, and no, I don't wanna sit down. I'd rather shoot the bastard." Chris paced the room.
Tanner grinned. "You want to shoot Travis?"
"What?" he stopped in front of Vin's desk, stared at him for a moment and then sat in the closest chair. "No, I'm not gonna shoot Travis." He took a deep breath, counted to ten, and exhaled, before he continued. "Our Director brought back some excess baggage from Washington. Mister Braswell is allegedly here because we formed a new Task Force, but I smell trouble. He is supposed to be a legal advisor representing the new administration, but I don't like the idea of Washington sending a civilian attorney to observe our teams work."
Vin sat up and paid attention to that. "What interest does Washington have in our investigation?"
"That I don't know, but I sure as hell plan to find out."
"As Assistant Director, you don't need to be connected to any snoopin', especially if he's legit. I'll see what I can track down about Braswell. You got a first name?"
Chris nodded. Vin was right, of course. They would not find the kind of information he wanted by going through proper channels. "Kenneth Braswell." He stood to leave. "Let me know what you find."
"Will do, Boss."
Chris was gone less than five seconds, before Tanner reached for the phone to call one of his most trusted resources, Ezra Standish.
JD stood and watched Agent Spencer Franklin work. He had to admit the man was good at what he did, and his background was perfect for CASSIE programming. Chris made a good choice, but taking on a new trainee right now only added to the list of responsibilities that he was struggling to juggle. Dunne felt the world was closing in on him. On top of his job, he had the counseling sessions, and a new task force forming. Not to mention his personal life in the toilet, he now had to find another caretaker for his children. Glancing toward Larabee's office, JD made a decision. He would probably get his butt chewed out, but like it or not, Chris was the only one he knew in a similar position. He left Agent Spencer to work on his own, and headed up the stairs.
Standing in front of Larabee's door, JD steeled his resolve and knocked, before he had a chance to change his mind.
"Enter," Chris yelled, from inside.
JD opened the door, walked in, and stood at Chris's desk, waiting for his boss to look up and acknowledge his presence.
"You need something Agent Dunne?"
"I ,"receiving such a clipped response, JD was not sure how to proceed. " Chris, you have two young children ."
Chris leaned back in his chair and said," I do. Your point is?"
Sighing deeply JD, charged ahead and said, "When Lisa found out Casey wasn't coming back home, she told me she wasn't staying. She's accepting another job and I need to find a way "
"To balance your work and being a Dad," Chris finished as he nodded. "Been there, and it's not always easy." His expression softened a little, and told JD, "Sit down."
JD sat quickly and asked, "Where do I start looking for Lisa's replacement?"
Chris immediately picked up the phone, and started to dial Cait, then stopped when he recalled Cowboy's words. *trust your brothers to work some things out on their own, and that includes the kid.* Replacing the receiver, he grabbed a pen and wrote her number on a piece of paper, then handed it to JD. "Get in touch with Caitlyn; she helped me with Grace and Cody. I'm sure you two can work out a solution."
"Thanks, Chris," JD bobbed his head, "Guess I'd better get back to training Franklin."
Watching him go, Chris shook his head slowly and smiled. *Okay old man, I let the kid handle his own problem, how about a hint concerning that damn key?*
War Room, 1400 - 1700 Hours
The buzz of conversation ceased when Captain Tanner stood to address the group. "First off, I want to thank y'all for the input I've received since we last met. After reviewin' the information obtained by Agents Sanchez and Coulter, and the files forwarded by Captain Cain from our Texas unit, I'd say we're close to breaking this case. Charlie team has been investigatin' a leg of the same organization we have. Captain," he nodded to Sam," you want to share now?"
Vin's counterpart from the MCAT Unit in Texas stood. "We've been workin' with state law enforcement and local police departments from cities along the US-Mexican border. Evidently, where we lost the trail for Perón's organization in Texas, y'all picked it up and made the connection to Denver. In the green folder, in front of you, y'all should have copies of our reports. After a few discussions with Captain Tanner, I'm convinced we can coordinate our personnel, and bring a quick close to this case. Of course, we only have Perón on smugglin' and human traffickin', and Alpha team has evidence of his connections to three murders in Colorado. Regardless of which state we arrest him in, he will be tried here first." Sam sat down, and turned the reins back over to Tanner.
"We're goin' to spend the next couple of hours plannin' those coordinated efforts. Once Captain Cain is back in Texas, and sets things into motion on his end, we'll be ready to take Perón and his vast criminal network down." He picked up the handful of folders and said, "We have the information we need. Now, let's plan how to make it happen."
The task force worked steadily until five and then, satisfied they had all their details worked out, VIN dismissed the meeting.
Josiah patted Sam on the back. "When you're ready, grab your gear, and I'll give you a ride back to the MCAT jet."
"I'm ready, now," Sam reached out to shake hands with Vin, and then Chris. "I'll be in touch, but I think we can look to make our move by the middle of next week." He picked up his briefcase and nodded his goodbye.
Chris watched him leave and said to Vin, "You handled that well. Anything on our other issue yet?"
"I've put out a few feelers, but nothin' yet. Ezra and I are meetin' for supper," he looked at his watch, "in thirty minutes. I'll see what his sources have to say. Don't worry; you'll know when we do." Vin saw Kelli and signaled for her to wait for him. "I just need to tell my wife I'll be late tonight."
Chris nodded. "I'm headed to the casa. Call me, no matter what you find."
Ezra arrived before Vin, and had a cold beer waiting for him. He nodded to the barmaid, picked up the glasses, and headed toward a back table.
"Thanks," Vin said as he sat down, and took the offered beer. He waited for Ezra to settle in his chair before asking, "You have any luck?"
"Well, I was able to ascertain that our Mister Braswell isn't associated with Homeland Security, the Justice Department, or the FBI." He took a sip of his drink. "His personal background is impeccable. Too damn perfect if you ask me."
"I got the same feelin' about him from my other sources." Vin shook his head. "This whole thing doesn't sit right with me. We'll just have to dig a little deeper." He already planned to 'reach out' to Raven for possible information.
"Most definitely, I will continue to contact my informants, and a few other sources at my disposal."
Their server approached them, and set two heaping platters of food on the table. "Will there be anything else, Mister Standish?"
Ezra glanced at Vin, read his approval, and then said, "We're fine for now."
"This steak is great, Ez. I'm glad I told Kel not to hold supper for me."
"It's the least I could do to repay you for your thoughtfulness. I am in your debt for the information you left me this morning. I fear I have a lot to learn about pregnant women and babies."
Vin grinned, and his eyes took on a gleam of delight. "Goin' through pregnancy with Kel was an experience I wouldn't trade for all the riches in the world. Each new day brought us another amazin' discovery, and to witness our babies takin' their first breaths ." He caught himself and apologized. "Sorry, I get kinda carried away talkin' about it."
"No apology necessary at all, my friend. I'm looking forward to the next few months. Barbara has always been beautiful to me, but now she's more .she's . my words are not sufficient to describe how I feel."
"I know don't think there's a word to describe what your tryin' to say, but I understand how you feel." Vin cut another piece of meat, but asked before he took a bite, "Is Maude adjustin' to being a Grandmother?"
Ezra nodded, and said, "Amazingly, much better than I expected. Although, she never disclosed her reason for coming here, she is leaving for Europe tomorrow, but vowed to return before our baby is born. At least Barbara and I will have alone time to concentrate on our expected arrival."
"Alone time huh?" Vin laughed. "Take advantage while you can, babies change everythin'."
Chris walked in through the front of the house, and could smell the delicious aroma of pot roast cooking. He laid down his briefcase and followed his nose to the kitchen. Standing in the doorway, he saw Grace perched on a chair, helping Cait, Cody banging a spoon excitedly against the tray of his high chair, and Jesse at the table, working on his homework. His heart clenched, and he smiled. The domestic scene he was witnessing completed him in a way his life with Linda never did. "Something smells great."
"Daddy home!" Grace squealed, jumped off the chair, and ran to greet him.
Lifting her into the air, Chris grinned, tickled her, and said, "Hello munchkin." Over Grace's head, his eyes met Cait's, and his heart melted. Damn, he loved this woman, and he figured it was about time she knew how much. Setting Grace on her feet, he walked over, took Cait in his arms, and kissed her. It was a kiss filled with love, passion, and promise, broken only by the sounds of his daughter's giggles. Letting go of Cait, he noticed the smile on Jesse's face and knew at that moment his life was taking another unexpected turn.
Cait stared at Chris for a moment, and then smiled. "I had no idea you liked pot roast so much."
Two hours later, the kitchen was clean, Cody was down for the night, Grace was asleep, and Jesse was watching a movie in the den. Chris and Cait stretched out on the sofa in the living room, and talked.
Cait lay with her head on Chris's chest. "JD called me earlier and said he needed some help with his children. We worked it out for him to bring them to Reins daycare on his way to work, starting tomorrow. I also promised to help him find a full-time nanny." She tilted her head to look at Chris's face. "I think he's going to tell Lisa she can leave immediately. We'll miss her help at Reins, but we'll manage."
"JD's not in a good place right now, I appreciate you helping him."
"He told me about Casey. I understand her reasoning, but I believe she'll come to regret her decision." Cait stroked his face with her fingers. "Nettie is the one who surprised me the most. She packed, and left without saying good-bye to anyone."
"Nettie's taken care of that girl since Casey was six-years old, and probably feels she needs her more than we all do about now. I'm sure we'll hear from her, once they're settled." Chris shifted their positions, to watch her eyes. "Enough about them, I want to talk about us."
"Cait, I love you. Watching you tonight with Cody, Grace, and Jesse, made me realize I'm a fool for waiting for the right moment." Chris took a deep breath. "I want us to be a family, I want to love, laugh, fight, and make-up with you for the rest of my life. Caitlyn Abigail Broderick. Will you marry me?"
For twenty, long, lonely, years, she thought she would never have her own family again. Consequently, she had let her 'Reins kids' fill the void in her life. Now this wonderful man, who she loved beyond reason, offered her what she wanted most in this world. Tears filled Cait's eyes, and her voice failed to work correctly when she tried to speak. "I .Chris .yes yes I'll marry you."
Cradling her head with one hand, and wiping away her tears with the other, Chris smiled. "Good answer, woman." He leaned in and tenderly kissed her, not wanting to let her go even for a moment. The shrill ring of the telephone interrupted the direction of his thoughts. He broke contact with Cait and cursed, "Damn." Grabbing the receiver, he said, "This better be important." Listening for a minute, he nodded. "Yeah, thanks Vin for the update. I'll see you in the morning." Chris replaced the receiver and sighed. "Sorry, now where were we?"
Cait laughed. "We were headed to a place we aren't going tonight, love." The look on his face was one of confusion; she took pity on him and explained. "Guess you forgot Jesse is in the next room."
Resting his head against her forehead, he sighed again. "I hope you don't want a long engagement."
Breathe deeply, slow down your thinking, listen, and draw from the pool of tranquility in your soul. Be still, and know. ~Legends of the Quest ~
Chris's Journal, Tuesday, 0600 Hours
As I look back on my life, I realize every event I've experienced has prepared me for what is to come. The Navy reinforced my confidence, which was the one thing my father failed to destroy. My Seal training taught me to discipline my life, but Sarah taught me to love, and softened 'my edges'. Holding my firstborn son opened another chapter in my life fatherhood. Sarah and Adam's deaths took me to a dark place for a while, but fate sent me a lifeline in the form of Vin Tanner. He, along with my newfound brothers of the heart, dragged me back to the land of the living, and showed me that my heart was only badly bruised, not completely destroyed.
Fate offered me another chance at fatherhood, first with Kelli, and then Grace and Cody. I almost let addiction destroy us all, but again found the will to move on. I faltered after Linda, thinking I was destined to screw up every opportunity fate bestowed upon me. Yet in the failure of our marriage, I discovered the pathway to my future. My children, my brothers, and Cait gave me the courage to try again. Last night I asked Caitlyn to marry me, and she said yes. I love her and I know she loves Grace, Cody and me. Today I feel as if God's been waiting for me to follow my destiny and continue to learn the lessons he has laid before me. Cait and I decided to wait until Sunday to announce our engagement to the Wild bunch, but I should talk to Jesse immediately, after all, they are a packaged deal. I'll make sure he understands that he will be part of our new family, and his future is secure. I plan to talk with him when I drop Grace and Cody off at Reins. Later Cait will meet me for lunch, and we'll break the news to my eldest and Vin. They probably won't be surprised, but Kelli is my child too, and needs to be included. After all, Cait will be her stepmother.
I'm confident about my decision. Between us, Cait and I have weathered some of the worst storms life can offer, and we survived. Our love will carry us through whatever lies ahead. More later
Reins of Change
With Grace and Cody safely in the hands of Sally Reeder, Reins daycare manager, Chris headed to Cait's house to catch Jesse before he left for school. He walked in without knocking, and found Cait in the kitchen having her coffee, and Jesse loading his used breakfast dishes into the dishwasher.
Chris leaned over to kiss his future bride, then said, "Morning, beautiful."
Cait smiled, and returned his words, "Morning handsome." She knew what he was going to do and nodded toward Jesse. "This one is ready for school."
"Jesse," Chris turned to address the young teen, "I need to talk to you, son. How about I give you a lift to school?"
"Sure, just let me grab my books." Jesse reached over beside the chair and picked up his backpack. "Bye, Cait." He headed out the door and walked toward Chris's truck
"I'll call you later, Cait." Chris stole another quick kiss and followed Jesse out the door.
Jesse sat quietly, waiting for Chris to tell him he was going away to a new home. He hated to leave Reins and Cait, but he always knew it was only a matter of time before Cait moved on with Chris. Last night he was certain, that it was going to happen. It was not as if this was his first rejection. More times than he could count, when his other foster families had tired of him, they sent him away. This one though, was going to hurt.
Chris pulled over a block from the school, shut off the ignition, and turned in his seat to face Jesse. "I guess it's no surprise to you that I'm in love with Cait."
Jesse shook his head, but refused to look at Chris.
"I'm over here, son, not on the floorboard." Chris waited until Jesse looked at him. "I do love Cait and last night, I asked her to marry me." It broke his heart to see the boy's shoulders slump; it never crossed his mind that Jesse would object. He hurried with the rest. "Since Cait is your family, and you are the man in her house. I also need to ask your permission." Chris grinned when he saw the confused look on Jesse's face." So, I'm asking. I want to marry her, and have both of you come to live with me. Can I count on your approval?"
"You want both of us?"
"Of course I do." Chris smiled. "It means you'll have two new sisters, Grace and Kelli, and Cody would be your little brother. Vin will be your brother-in-law, and you'll have a passel of Aunts and Uncles in the Wild Bunch. It also means," his voice softened, "I'll have another son."
"You really wanna be my father?" A glimmer of hope shoved its way through his thoughts.
Chris nodded. "I really do. You, Cait, Grace, Cody, and I will be a family. So, what do you say?"
A smile crossed Jesse's face, and his features displayed the relief he felt. "Yes!"
Chris drew the boy into a hug. "I promise you, son, you have a family for life." He let go and grinned. "Now all we have to do is talk Cait into a short engagement, and survive a wedding." Chris started the engine. "First though, I think we should get you to school."
Vin took his usual position to watch the agents as they arrived. He could sense their moods, by observing their entrances, and often avert potential challenges, before they developed into a bigger problem for the unit. Ken Braswell walked in, and headed straight to his new office, the one that had been Kelli's before she moved back to Alpha team. *Bet Chris loves having the legal geek next door to him.*
*No, he does not. The sooner Braswell is gone, the better I'll feel.* Chris made his way across the bullpen to stand beside Tanner.
"You're later than usual."
"I had something important to tend to, everything's fine." Chris looked around, didn't find who he was searching for, and asked, "Kel here yet?"
"She had to make an extra stop at the school this mornin', but she's on her way here."
Vin nodded. "Now he is, since he knows I'm around to stay. Kel has to sign a permission form for him to join little league." He smiled, "here she comes now."
Kelli joined them and answered Vin's unspoken question. "Did and done. You can take him shoppin' for cleats, glove, and whatever else he'll need."
"I want his game schedule as soon as you know it." Chris grinned and patted Vin on the back. "I also want you and Kel to have lunch with me today. Dad's paying."
Vin looked at Kel, and nodded. "I'm workin' with Agent Langley on the firing range this mornin', but I'll be finished by noon."
"I'll meet you two at noon then, right here, well ride together." He squeezed Kelli's arm, smiled, and walked on to his office.
"What do you reckon he's up to now?" Kelli watched until Chris's door closed.
"Don't know, but he's springin' for lunch. Guess we can wait 'til then to find out."
Chris was more than ready to set his schedule, files, and other paperwork aside when the clock hit twelve. He was anticipating this lunch more than he had any other in a long while. While he didn't foresee either Kelli or Vin having any objections to him finally proposing to Cait, he still had a nervous twitch in his stomach. *Get a grip Larabee; you're having lunch with Vin, Kelli, and Cait, not facing a firing squad. Yeah, but if they aren't happy with this, it could cause problems down the line.* He arrived at their designated meeting place, and found his patience growing thin when they weren't there promptly at twelve. Five minutes later, Vin and Kelli arrived.
"You two ready to go?" he asked them and then headed for the door without waiting for an answer.
*Where's the fire, Chris?*
*You'll find out.*
He waited until they were all seated in his Dodge Ram, and the engine was running, before he said, "I hope you two are hungry for Mexican food, because we're going to El Hacienda." Vin and Kelli exchanged glances. Chris was close lipped, cryptic about what was going on, and neither Tanner knew what to make of it. They made the ride to the restaurant in companionable silence. When they pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the already crowded Mexican restaurant, Vin noticed a Navy SUV with vanity plates, which read 'Reins 1', and the missing pieces of Larabee's strange behavior started to fall into place.
The trio exited the Ram and went inside. Chris didn't see Cait waiting at the reservation desk, so he announced himself to the hostess, "Larabee, reservations for four."
"Right this way, Mr. Larabee. The rest of your party has already arrived." The hostess led him into the dining room.
"Party of four?" Kelli whispered to Vin, "Do you know who's meetin' us?"
"Reckon we'll find out in a couple of minutes." Vin, with a hand at her back, steered Kelli through the crowded restaurant behind them but he sensed that it was Cait waiting at their table.
She greeted Chris with a kiss, and smiled at the surprised look that appeared on Kelli's face. "I guess your father didn't tell you, he was meeting me here for lunch?"
"No, he didn't." Kelli shot Chris an accusatory look as Vin held her chair for her.
"I didn't?" Chris tried to look innocent but failed miserably.
"Not that I have anything against the four of us having lunch together," Kelli said, "but what's with all the mystery, Dad?"
"Well, I... ," Chris started, then glanced over at Cait , "or rather we .ah hell, telling Jesse was easier than this."
" Just spit it out." Kelli looked from her father to the woman beside him and waited, impatiently for one of them to say something.
After exchanging a tender look with Chris, Cait decided to take pity on him, and tell them herself. "Your father asked me to marry him."
"And..." Vin prodded...
"Of course, I said yes."
Chris looked across the table at his daughter. "I hope we have your blessing."
"Hell, yes!" The Tanners' said together, and then Vin added, "It's about time."
"Okay, so when's the weddin'?"
Chris let out a groan and rolled his eyes as Cait and Kelli started making plans.
*Looks like your raft weathered the rapids, and made safe landfall.*
*That it did.*
MCAT Office, 1430 Hours
Only Tuesday and, as if his week already hadn't been bad enough, JD received a call from Cait about Daisy; she was fretful and wanted her daddy. JD knew Chris understood when he asked to leave work, but he felt sure he had also seen disappointment, maybe even frustration in his eyes. The same look he saw when he told him that Lisa was quitting and he needed to find a new nanny maybe even a live-in one, now that Casey and Nettie were no longer returning, despite JD assuring him it wouldn't affect work.
*Yeah, like who was he kidding?* He really had no clue as to how he was going to put his house in order, and could feel the tension building inside him as each day dawned. At least Cait offered to screen nanny applicants for his final approval, which would cut down on some time.
Sitting in his yard watching Daisy playing quietly on the jungle gym, JD's heart went out to the little girl. Lilah had been happy to stay at Reins, so JD decided to give his other daughter some quality time. They had played for a good twenty minutes before she started acting up. As he held her and soothed her, it soon dawned on him that his little one was missing her mother. He tried to be a good substitute though, soon had her smiling, and off to play.
Watching Daisy gently swinging, JD mentally cursed his wife, *you bitch. How could you do this to your babies to me?* He stood as he saw Daisy jump off the swing and try to climb up the slide the wrong way. "Careful baby , Daisy , don't do that, sweetie " Even though he was moving quickly toward her, the next few seconds seemed to pass as if in slow motion when Daisy, almost at the top, slipped and tumbled over the side of the equipment. JD was at her side almost as she hit the ground. Terrified, he held his breath, while his daughter lay there, unmoving. Then the piercing, haunting, and heartbreaking screams began.
Daisy reached for her father, and JD swallowed his panic when his eyes fell on the blood pouring from her head. Scooping her up and cradling her to his chest, the young father raced through the yard, and into his house. He wrapped her in a blanket, and grabbed his truck keys before running to the vehicle. Grateful his Explorer was an automatic, JD tore out of his driveway and toward the main gate, his daughter cradled against his side. He flouted every moving traffic offence; his only thought was to get her to a hospital.
Walter watched JD's truck hurtle through the gates and onto the highway. With their lifestyles, seeing any one of them race out of Larabee 7 was nothing unusual; however, something about this departure caused the man concern, and, knowing it was almost time for the rest of the Team to head home from the office, he dialed Chris.
Denver Memorial Hospital
Allowing just enough time to grab his keys from the ignition, JD abandoned his truck and ran into the ER at Denver Memorial, his sobbing daughter clutched tightly to his chest.
"Help somebody help me!"
In seconds, nurses were there to take Daisy, and guided a blood-soaked JD into a treatment room. While the doctor on call examined and irrigated the child's wound, JD attempted to soothe the distraught toddler, but it was hopeless, Daisy just became more and more agitated as she tried to cling to her father. Recognizing JD's presence was not helping in this instance, a nurse gently guided the young man to the waiting room, his nerves frazzled as Daisy's screams intensified when he moved away.
"No No! My daughter needs me."
"We know," Nurse Butcher assured, "but just give us a minute or two." She smiled when she got him to a chair, and nudged him to sit. "I'll bring you back in as quickly as possible."
Distraught, JD rested his elbows on his knees, his fingers knotting in his hair as he sat there, oblivious to the stares at his bloody hands and clothing. Cocooned in misery, he softly wept.
That was how three of his brothers found him, fifteen minutes later. Receiving the heads up from Walter, it only took minutes to track JD's truck GPS signal, and a call to Cait confirmed he had one of his daughters with him. It was three anxious men, who entered the ER, their shock evident as they saw the bloody state of their youngest.
Jerking his head up when he heard Buck's voice, he leapt to his feet, and into the arms, which opened to embrace him. Glancing around at the others, Buck soothed the trembling younger man. "Hey, easy there, boy. What the hell happened?"
Sudden recognition of where he was, and what he was doing, had him pushing away from the welcome comfort, and only now seeing Chris and Vin.
"It's Daisy, she " unable to voice the words, he placed one bloody hand over his face. " Oh God."
Buck regretted gently shaking the distraught man, but his fear was becoming unbearable. "JD what?"
"We know Daisy was taken out of Reins, what happened, son?"
Responding to Chris's voice and taking in a huge gulp of air, Dunne finally spoke a coherent sentence. "She she we were in the yard. One second I was telling her to be careful, the next second " He looked at them, grasping Buck's arms. "I was right there I was right there!"
Understanding, Buck nodded and touched JD's face. "Okay okay. Hell, you ain't the first to go through this. Caleb fell out of the tree house last summer. You remember how much he bled, and then Maria when she learned to ride her bike she fell on the driveway; scraped her up bad. You know Vin's been here at least once or twice, too. We all have at one time or another."
Vin nodded. "How bad?" he asked.
Unable to stop the tremors coursing through him, JD answered, pointing to a spot on his head. "Cut herself they just glued it let me back in until she fell asleep, I just stepped out needed some air. They're gonna keep her for a few hours, just to be sure " He suddenly felt very tired.
Buck squeezed his shoulder. "Look, I'll stay while the guys run you home to change "
"No!" JD took a step away. "No I have to be here Daisy might wake she'll need me." His face suddenly turned angry as he began pacing. "Casey should be here she should be doing this I'm useless why am I kidding myself? I can't do this I can't be a full time dad and a full time agent look what happens when I try " he pointed to the trauma room as he stared at his brothers. "Look what I did!" He ranted on, "She was right I am weak."
Ignoring the stares from others in the waiting room, Chris grabbed JD's arm to stop his pacing, but not before casting a worried glance to the others as they formed a defensive circle.
Chris heard enough. "Stop that right now, JD! Now, here's what we're going to do. Vin will stay with you while Buck and I grab some clothes for you and Daisy."
JD frowned. "Shit where's Lilah and JJ?"
"Cait stayed with them until Kel picked them up," Vin assured him, relieved to see JD relax a little.
"Thanks," the younger man whispered. "I'm so sorry."
"Hush, nothing to be sorry for. Shall we do this?" Buck directed. With a nod and a squeeze to JD's arm, Buck and Chris left him and Vin in the waiting room.
Out of earshot, Chris said, "JD's got a counseling session tomorrow, he needs to attend. I can feel a resignation coming on, and that is unacceptable." They made a vow to do whatever was necessary to insure JD met with Father Rafferty
From his chair in the corner of an observation room, where the nurses moved Daisy, Vin smiled. Now in scrubs, JD was lying on the little one's bed, his arms enfolding her into a protective embrace as the pair slept. Tanner's heart ached for his youngest brother. He was in such a bad place right now. Vin even found himself angry with Casey and Nettie, partly because of how JD and the children hurt over what they were doing, and partly because Nettie hadn't shared her plans with him, either, a point that bothered him deeply. It was not as if the women he had taken to his heart were taking a vacation they were moving away, forever. It caused Vin to consider, if this was how their leaving affected him, Lord only knows where JD's heart and head were right now.
Vin looked up when a noise drew his attention to the door. He rose from his chair and exited the room to join Chris and Buck in the corridor.
"Everything okay?" Chris asked, peeking in through the window.
Tanner nodded. "Daisy's fine, was babblin' on like crazy, until she went back to sleep. JD's just exhausted."
"I'm not surprised," Buck said, his voice soft. "He's been struggling since he came out of the hospital last year." He looked at the others; his voice strained, and said, "I don't want to lose him, Chris."
"Not gonna happen," Larabee answered with confidence. "Albert called me last night, said he felt sure he and JD were on the brink of a breakthrough. I'm convinced this is not just a reaction to Casey and all she's done. I have a feeling this goes way back and " he shook his head. " and his present state may even be connected to our last mission."
Both men stared, Tanner's eyes flashing a hint of comprehension.
"Buck, I assume you're staying?" Chris asked. The brunet nodded. "Vin, would you drive JD's truck home? I'll clean it up in the morning."
"Sure, and don't worry, I'll take care of the clean-up."
With parting handshakes, Vin and Chris headed home. Buck crept into the dimly lit room, set down the bag of clothes, and leaned down to kiss Daisy on the cheek. He ran a hand over JD's head, and then the big man took up residence in the chair Vin had just vacated to kept vigil over the troubled pair. He hoped Father Rafferty was right. God, they needed a breakthrough, and fast or he seriously feared for JD's sanity and the future of all the brothers and that sounded ugly, which would never do. Buck inclined his neck left and right to work out the kinks, he hated ugly.
After the drive home from the hospital, Chris and Vin discussed the possibility of a connection between JD's current mental state to their last mission. They both felt the answer could be in the handwritten reports Josiah, Ezra, and JD turned in on the team's return. Vin called Kelli, gave her an update on Daisy, told her they were at Larabee's, and needed a couple of hours to go over some files. Chris would come over to pick up Grace and Cody when they were through, but don't hold supper, they had grabbed hamburgers at the hospital cafeteria. He now stood and waited for Chris to find the original reports.
Chris pulled out the drawers of his desk, one at a time. "I know it's here somewhere, ahh," he grabbed three folders and laid them on the desk, "Vin, you read Josiah's notes; I've got JD's and Ezra's."
Vin took the file and sat down. "You really think JD's hidin' somethin'?"
"I think hell it's only a gut feeling, but yes. Until now he was struggling, but making progress. I'm certain Casey dealt him a big blow, but that alone, he could work through."
"Maybe," Vin sighed, "I know if it was me and Kel and she said she wanted a divorce, I'd do what I had to make her listen to me, even if it meant followin' her to Arizona. I sure as hell wouldn't give up without a fight."
"Exactly my point. The JD we know would not just accept her decision, he'd exhaust every avenue of communication; until he was convinced she would not change her mind. Unless he felt he deserved her leaving."
Vin nodded, his first thought when he saw JD holding a gun in McDonald's last Saturday was 'suicide mission'. "I reckon maybe there is more to this than Casey." He began to read Josiah's report.
Twenty minutes later, they had combed through all the reports and come to a conclusion. JD was withholding information.
"Josiah said they fought with the rebels, who planted the explosives, before he left to get the jeep. That's when Ezra was injured. He said JD stayed with Ezra, and when he returned there was a dead body on the ground. JD didn't mention it." Chris tossed the files on his desk. "If he doesn't come clean to Father Rafferty tomorrow, I'll have to ask him about it myself."
Vin began to stack the folders and told Chris, "I'll help you straighten up and then I'm ready for home." It took only a few minutes to clear the desk of excess papers. The only thing left on it was Chris's 'Legend book'. Vin picked it up to place on the shelf.
"I'll take it, I want to read more tonight." Chris reached for the book and when he took it, his hand brushed against Vin's.
Suddenly they were in another realm, time stood still, and the same memories Josiah 'saw' flooded their senses. They witnessed the scenes of their shared lives and recognized their life mates, who had joined them time and again to complete their existences. Neither man was certain how long it took, but when the visions stopped, they were again standing in Chris's study.
Chris stared at Vin, and saw his young brother of a different name, remembering the day he was first born, the day he taught him to wield a sword, to fight, and the close bond they shared, even then. Cowboy told him, 'Identify your shared key'. He was looking at that key now. "Vin I "
"I know ," Vin said softly. He now understood the bond he felt the first day he met Chris in this life. He remembered how his big brother taught him to be a warrior, explained how important it was to seek answers, love his brothers, fight for what is right, and stand his ground no matter the odds against him. He smiled when he also remembered the girl who stole his heart when he was sixteen as the same woman who was with him in this life. That explained why he 'knew' Kelli the moment he laid eyes on her. Fate had blessed them all, and rewarded their quest for justice.
Chris pulled his young brother into a hug and Vin returned to a time long ago when 'his hero' was this man, the one who taught him to live honorably. They held on for several minutes, reluctant to let go of the new connection they had discovered. Finally, Chris let him go, grabbed his forearm and formed the 'warrior's grip' they leaned as brothers eons ago. He grinned and said, "I guess we know now why Josiah was hugging everyone Sunday."
"Reckon we do." Vin shook his head, awed by their revelations. "Suppose we have some catchin' up to do, too."
"That we do brother, "Chris agreed, "but if we don't rescue Kel from all those children soon, she might end this lifetime of ours prematurely."
Vin glanced at his watch and realized their two hours had turned into four. "Damn, I forgot she was alone with eight of 'em." He grabbed his jacket. "We probably need to let all this kinda soak in, anyway."
Chris picked up his keys, grinned, bowed slightly, and then with a wave of his hand said, "Our chariot awaits."
Vin and Chris, quietly slipped in the back door of the Tanner home, removed their coats, and went in search of their families. The house was dark, except for one lamp, and the reflection of the flames from the living room fireplace. Vin stood at the doorway for a moment, taking in the sight of his redhead, sitting in the oversized rocker, wrapped in a comforter, with a book in her hands. He visualized her the way he saw for the first time, so many long years ago. She was a girl of sixteen, carrying a bucket of water up a hill, her long tresses blowing in the wind, and when she smiled at him, he felt it touch his soul.
Mentally, he returned to the present, and flipped through his and Kelli's amazing book of memories. The first time he saw her in that restaurant, their first kiss, and the moment they shared a 'Texas sunrise', which was when he realized she was the missing piece in his life. The first time they made love, he knew he was where he belonged. All the love, laughter, tears, and heartaches they'd shared only made them stronger. She was his compass in life, his true north. The only things that really mattered about their past now, was that it had brought them here, to this place and time, and their love endured. He made a silent vow to treasure every precious moment they had together, and never take their love for granted.
"You gonna stand there all night?" Chris nudged him in the back. "I'd like to claim my children, and try to sleep at least a couple of hours tonight."
Kelli looked up when she heard her dad's voice, laid her book on the end table, and smiled at Vin. "You two find what y'all needed?"
Vin glance toward Chris, and they both broke into silly grins. "You could say that," he said as he walked over to join his wife. She threw back the comforter, revealing a flash of her silk nightgown, and then patted the empty space beside her. Laying his arm across her shoulders, he drew her close to his side. "Kids down for the night?"
She noticed the look, but declined to comment. "All of 'em are sound asleep and have been for a couple of hours." She told Chris, "You might as well leave Cody and Grace, and just pick 'em up in the mornin.'"
"Go home, Dad," Kelli said, "get some sleep, we're fine."
Chris leaned down, kissed her on the forehead, and said, "Thanks, Kel, see you in the morning." As he straightened, he teasingly punched Vin on the shoulder. "Her, you can hug all you want. I can see myself out and lockup."
Kelli watched him go, and shook her head when she turned to Vin. "You two are in a strange mood tonight. What did I miss?"
Vin raised his hand to stroke his fingers though her hair and gaze into her eyes. "You woman, have not missed a thing." His hand gently cradled the curve of the neck. "I love you Kel, always have, and always will." He looked deep into her dark blue eyes, losing himself in the love and desire, he saw there. Emitting a low husky growl, he took the softness and hunger of her mouth, filling her with his presence, while his hands sought out her soft curves that he knew by heart. Remembering where they were, and who was in the house, he pulled back. It took every ounce of self-control he possessed to stop.
"Damn," she whispered, and reached up to stroke his jaw. "You do remember that we have eight children in the house."
"Uh huh," Vin whispered huskily, stood up, and tugged at her hand.
It was easy to read the possessive look in his eyes, and although she responded, Kelli was still concerned. "Any one of them could wake up at any moment." She allowed him to pull her to her feet, though.
"Yep," he replied quickly as he lifted her into his arms, "and that, baby, is why we have intercoms, and an automatic lock on our bedroom door.
Kelli ceased resisting. While she did not understand why, she sensed his need for her was more than sexual. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and laid her head against his shoulder.
Vin carried her to their room, kicked the door closed with the toe of his boot, and then set on her feet without breaking their contact. With one hand at her waist, he softly brushed the knuckles of the other across her cheek. Leaning in to her, his lips barely touching hers, his whispered words wrapped around her heart, and would remain etched on her soul forever.
"You are the air I breathe, my sustenance, my cause to live.
Without you, I am but a husk, chaff drifting on a bitter wind. Lost.
You fill my heart and cause my soul to journey far and soar high.
My body aches to be as one with you and worships yours with passion raw.
You are my rock, my life companion, my providence.
In you, I see our past, our present, and our future,
And know that I am truly blessed.
With love eternal, I pledge this vow to you, my love.
To live with you, to die for you, to lay with you, to cherish you.
To offer everything I am to you, until the end of time."
Hypnotized by the love and passion he read in her eyes, he opened a blank page in his mental book of memories, one he planned to fill tonight.
Personal battles may be singular, but none of our brethren ever stands alone. ~Legends of the Quest~
It was after midnight before Buck brought JD and Daisy home from the hospital. Dunne called Chris, as instructed to let him know they arrived safely and give him a report on Daisy. He tried to beg off from his counseling session today, because he desperately wanted to spend time with his children; however Chris, would not hear of it and was there at six-thirty to take him and his daughter to the Tanner home. At least he could see Lilah and JJ for a few minutes, before they headed over to Reins, to stay at the daycare.
Tanner Home, Wednesday, 0640 Hours
The chaotic morning scene they walked in on at the Tanner's was normal for them, but for JD it was only one more painful reminder of Casey's absence. The Dunne house was not this lively at breakfast time anymore. In fact, it amazed him to see Lilah and JJ right in the middle of all the children, and apparently having a grand time.
"Hi y'all," Kelli greeted them when they entered. She went over to see Daisy, knelt down, and kissed her on the cheek. "I love your purple bandage."
"I choosed it," Daisy declared proudly.
'Me see," Lilah said and came running. She touched her sister's 'boo-boo', and turned to her Daddy. "Want one."
JD reached out and hugged her, saying, "I'll get one special, just for you, Pumpkin."
She nodded her head and smiled.
"Vin's in the shower, if y'all want to wait, and talk to him." Kelli turned away from Daisy to pick up JJ, and hand him into his father's waiting arms.
Chris lifted Cody out of his highchair, and corralled Grace, who was running in circles around him. "We need to get moving. Tell Vin, I'll catch up with him later."
"Thanks, Kelli, for watching Lilah and JJ, I appreciate it." JD helped Lilah on with her coat.
"No problem, you know they're welcome anytime." Kelli looked JD in the eye. "You, too. Don't be a stranger."
JD nodded his head and then, he and Chris managed to shepherd five energetic children out the door and into the truck.
Once at Reins, Daisy proudly displayed her 'purple badge of honor' to the other children, while enjoying her temporary 'celebrity' status. JD realized by now that he had no real argument against going to his session with Father Rafferty. He felt an overwhelming sense of despair, as he held his children close, before he placed them gently down with soft kisses, and made a move to leave. Today, Chris was taking him to the rectory, and no amount of protesting from JD would change his mind. He sighed, knowing the big black Ram waited for him, and he walked outside.
Chris was pleased his agent had consented for him to have access to all information obtained in his sessions. With Agent Dunne's permission, Albert had been giving him an update on his progress. Convinced the sessions were a waste of time; JD reasoned that it was no problem for Chris to know what was going on. Absently, JD patted his pocket as he walked to the truck, his heart heavy, but determined to finish today, what his fate had already set in motion.
St. James Catholic Church
At the rectory, the pair were welcomed in, Father Rafferty guided JD into his study while he showed Chris to a small room where he could wait. Albert smiled at the MCAT Commander. "I'm glad someone is with him today, I fear this session may be a rough ride."
"Father, you've been on board all the way on this one. JD's had a rough week so far, and, in truth, his family is worried about him."
"What about his boss?"
Chris swallowed. "His boss needs you to help him because this big brother is afraid for him."
"I'm not a miracle worker," Albert smiled, "that falls in God's department; however, I have had vast experiences counseling troubled souls. We're so close, Chris, I can taste it."
They shook hands. "Good luck," Chris said. He took a seat, prepared for a long wait.
"I have some juice, today, John, would you like a glass?"
JD looked at the priest from the now familiar chair he was seated in. "Sure, thanks."
"John, I want us to talk again about what happened Saturday, but I understand you've had a rough week. Care to fill me in?"
Taking a sip of his drink and replacing his glass on the coaster, JD shrugged. "Par for the course," he sighed, then continued. "On Sunday, I asked Lisa if she'd consider the position of full-time nanny. The way it was working out, she was with us more than not, anyhow."
"A permanent position, more in line with her qualifications, opened at a hospital, closer to her parent's home. Since she thought Casey and Nettie would be coming home, and never intended to stay on past then, she applied. Bottom line, they offered her the job, she took it, and is gonna move."
"When does she leave?"
"She said she'd work another two weeks, but I figured it was pointless to prolong the inevitable, so I paid her for the time, and let her go."
"Hell yeah," JD answered quickly. "Lisa knows us inside out, and the kids like her." His scowl deepened. "She's just another woman in our lives whose own agenda puts us in the shit." He wrung his hands. "So, last night, I made a decision."
"Good, what is it?" the priest asked.
"Something happened yesterday, something awful, and it made me realize how bad a father I am and how I need to be there for my children." He looked at Albert as he slipped an envelope from his jeans pocket. "I'm resigning from MCAT. There are plenty of companies out there in need of my expertise, and pay big bucks. I could freelance from home, which means I could be there with my kids, care for them myself, take 'em places, play with 'em more you know, all the things a good parent should do."
Albert shifted in his seat. "You are a good parent, son. Things have been tough, but you've done a sterling job of taking care of your children. I've seen you with them, they love you very much."
JD huffed. "Yeah, well, a report at Denver Memorial ER says differently."
"That they don't love you?" He watched JD stand and begin to pace.
"No, it says I'm doing a piss-poor job as a dad. You should have seen her, Father, her blood was all over my hands and clothes , and her hair she was so young "
Albert was confused, *was so young?* "One of the girls was hurt?" He quickly realized JD was nodding while his thoughts slowly drifted somewhere else. His pacing intensified and his hands pointed and gestured.
"Ice said I was the weakest of the Seven made me feel all the years I had spent proving myself were a waste of time made me a failure because she was right, I am weak, she proved it when she attacked me. When I recovered, I spent so much time trying to prove her wrong I failed to see my wife falling apart right under my nose. She stabbed me now Casey's gone my marriage is a failure as a husband, I'm a failure, too weak to stop my own wife from deserting me." JD was walking in circles now.
"I spend a few, 'quality' hours with my little girl and she splits her head open." He stared at Albert, but he wasn't seeing him. "You see?" he gestured by throwing his hands out, palms open, and shouted, "Another failure. You sure as hell don't see any of the other guys screwing up like that?"
Recognizing a pattern from the previous session and concerned this one would quickly spiral out of control, Albert tried to restore some order by redirecting JD's focus. "John, if I may, do you recall, when you came in, I said I wanted us to talk about what happened at the mall the other day?"
His eyes snapped into focus. "Yes."
"Did you remember any more about the incident? I'd like to talk about that now, if we could."
JD frowned. "What's to talk about? I got Ezra out and then got my ass chewed out over it."
"No, son, not what happened during a mission. Saturday, at the mall John?" He watched as JD spun left and right, as if looking for something and realized JD was not 'here' anymore.
"Josiah went for the jeep told me to watch over Ezra 'no heroics' he said " JD laughed. "Since when has protecting your teammate counted as heroics?"
Deciding the best course of action was to follow JD's mental detour, Albert answered, "Just doing your job, right?"
"Right! Until ," JD ran his fingers through his hair, still pacing. " I had to shoot, if he took me out, Ezra would die. He was semi-conscious helpless Josiah wasn't back yet you see? I had no choice!"
"Yes, I see," Albert said, not seeing at all, but sensing they were on the brink of whatever started JD off on this round of unpredictable behavior." You had no choice."
JD took in large gulps of air as his pulse accelerated. His index finger tapped at his temple. "But still that little voice nagged away at me what would the others do? I hadn't heard it in a long time until 'she' made me doubt myself." His eyes narrowed. "Then the gun came up and I knew, he was gonna shoot me and everyone in that restaurant and so I fired." JD's head twisted as if seeing the horror. "When I fired, her cap came off the hair the blood how could I do that?" He shuddered out a breath, his voice raw. "I didn't know." JD clenched his fists; his breathing became more rapid and shallow. "I swear, I didn't know but I had to do it don't you see?" Now he was distraught. "Should I have waited? No maybe ."
Father Rafferty stood and reached out in an attempt to calm the young man.
"No!" JD pulled back as he unleashed a roar of anger, "No! I should have waited God help me, I COULDN'T EVEN GET THAT RIGHT!" Clearly unaware of his surroundings, he suddenly lashed out, his left fist going straight through the glass in the bookcase.
"Good Lord!" Albert jumped to his feet and grabbed the bloody appendage.
Suddenly aware of where he was, JD saw the broken glass and began to apologize, "Oh God! Look what I did. I'm sorry."
Chris heard the sound of breaking glass, jumped out of his chair, and ran to Rafferty's office. He opened the door, just as the priest grabbed JD's hand. Immediately, he took the father's place, and ordered, "Towel!"
Nodding, Albert hurried out, returning seconds later with two fresh towels. "Shall I call an ambulance?"
Larabee shook his head. "I have my truck." He threw his arm around JD's waist, to hold his weight and started for the door. "Father, call Vin Tanner at the MCAT office, tell him we'll be at Denver Memorial in ten minutes." He requested as he focused on JD. All the way to the truck, he continued to talk to his youngest brother, his tone soothing, despite the fact he wanted to kick the kid's ass good for this one. Once he had his injured brother buckled in, Chris reached into the back seat, and grabbed a blanket he kept there for the kids. He threw it over JD to keep him warm, jumped into the driver's seat, flipped on the lights and siren, and then raced off to the hospital. JD leaned against the side window, his pallor a ghastly white and an oily sheen to his skin; his dark bangs appeared glued in place on his forehead.
"JD, you will stay with me, and that's an order!"
"Yessssir " JD couldn't feel pain, only cold. He felt so tired, maybe no one would mind if he went to sleep just for a minute.
Chris realized his charge was close to going into shock and didn't have time to decide if it was from blood loss, or whatever happened in that room. "Hang on, we're almost there!" He felt guilty for hoping JD didn't throw up in his truck as he weaved and blared his way through the early afternoon traffic.
Denver Memorial Hospital
The second he pulled the truck into an ambulance bay, Chris slammed on the brakes, turned off the ignition, jumped out of the cab, and raced around to the passenger side. Although JD was still conscious, there was no way he was walking anywhere soon. "Shit, I'm getting too old for this. Hold tight, kid!" Scooping up the smaller man into his arms, he staggered toward the ER double doors, grateful when an orderly appeared with a gurney and a doctor.
He turned his charge into their care after he squeezed his shoulder to assure him of his presence. Then, he followed them in until they disappeared through the trauma room doors. A few minutes later, he was left standing alone in the very waiting room they had been in only yesterday. That was how Buck his brow furrowed with concern, found him, and asked, "What happened?"
Chris shook his head. "I don't know, yet. It all happened so fast. All I could think of was getting him here. There was a lot of blood, and he looked like shit, but I'm not sure that was all down to the injury."
"Holy shit." Buck started to pace.
"Buck," he said, softly. "It's not life threatening; however, he started to go into shock. I think that's what the medics were most concerned about," he sighed, "that, and whether he's done any permanent damage to his hand."
"What the hell did he do to his hand?" Nathan joined them.
"Punched in a glass bookcase," Chris answered while he stared at the doors. "Damn, I hate waiting."
Nathan nodded. "I'll go and see what I can find out." He patted Chris on the back. "Rain's on duty today, she'll tell me something."
Chris and Buck looked toward the door when, ten minutes later, Josiah entered the waiting room with Father Rafferty.
"Vin and Ezra are holding down the office. Albert called me and asked if I would accompany him to the hospital," Josiah explained.
"I hope you don't mind. Any news?" The priest asked.
"You're welcome here, and no, not yet," Chris answered, frowning as Albert moved him to one side.
"I need to speak with you."
Nodding, Chris guided the priest into the corridor. "Go ahead."
"Just before the accident, we were talking about the mall incident, but, John started talking about the mission. It sounded like a similar occurrence, to the point he was confusing the two, slipping between them as he was describing what had happened."
"How could you tell?"
"He kept talking about hauling Ezra out of there, and Josiah coming with a jeep. In the next breath, he was in the restaurant. I may be a little out of touch, but unless he was at a drive through with Ezra and Josiah "
"Point taken," Chris said, but hesitated before continuing, "Father what he did. It 'was' an accident, wasn't it?"
Albert smiled, and answered, "Most definitely." He fished into his jacket pocket, pulled out an envelope, and handed it to Chris. "He did leave this behind."
"I won't accept it, if it's what I think it is."
Albert nodded, and said, "It is." He stopped Chris before he could tear the resignation in two." I think I've worked out what's troubling JD, but you need to talk to him first."
"Oh, I'll talk to him," Larabee promised, waving the envelope. "Thanks Father." He returned to the waiting room, while the priest went to check on another patient from his parish.
Chris paced while he tapped the envelope against his leg. He stared at the swinging ER doors, suddenly consumed with frustration. "Don't think hiding in there's going to save your ass, Agent Dunne! Me and you are gonna have us a little talk!" He paced some more as Buck stared at him, clearly surprised by his outburst. "Are you ready for me? You'd better be, boy. Of all the stupid, dumb-ass, ill thought out " He stopped and stared at the man holding his arm.
"Care to share? Is this about the injury?" Even as he asked, Buck eyed the envelope.
Doctor Gilford joined them. "Yes, please enlighten everyone, seeing as you are having difficulty expressing yourself right now." He glared at Chris and told him, "I thought I heard your dulcet tones Agent Larabee. May I remind you that you are in a hospital?"
"Can I see him?"
"He's doing fine, considering, thank you for asking."
"Can I speak to him?" Chris insisted.
Gilford answered, "Only for a few minutes. His blood pressure is low so we've put him on fluids, as well as antibiotics, and pain meds for the laceration, he'll be asleep soon."
"Is it that bad?" Josiah asked.
The doctor shook his head. "No, he sustained one deep laceration, but there is no evidence of nerve or arterial damage. He should survive his fight with the bookcase just fine."
"But?" Buck asked.
Doc smiled, these men knew him too well. "He arrived here in shock, and that's why we're sedating him. If you're going to chew him out, Chris, you may not get much response." He paused. "Though, right now, a little TLC wouldn't go amiss."
"As long as he can hear and understand me, that'll do for now." With a nod, Chris walked around the doctor and into the ER.
Buck threw a glance to the man in the white coat as he move toward the door. "Seriously, Doc you didn't really think I was gonna wait out here, did you?"
Gilford smiled. "Not really, Buck, no." Shaking his head, the doctor left to see his next patient.
Josiah frowned when Albert walked back into the waiting room. "The envelope," he asked, "is it what I think it is?"
The priest smiled. "I'm sure you'll understand if I don't answer that."
"That's all the answer I need." Josiah settled in to wait for Nathan, and shared more than one prayer with the priest.
Most of Chris's anger dissipated as soon as he saw JD lying in the hospital bed, his body hooked up to an IV on his right arm his left arm elevated, hand and wrist heavily bandaged. Buck couldn't help himself, laying a hand on the dark hair as he spoke softly. "Hey."
Struggling to open his eyes, JD finally managed to look at the men next to him. "Buck I'm sorry." Before he could answer, JD turned to Chris. "Was that you yelling?"
"Damn right." Chris waved the envelope, tearing it in two in front of him. "We'll be talking, soon."
Having no hands to aid him, his tears went unchecked. "I'll just write another one "
"I'll tear that one up, too. Resigning isn't an option, JD first, you and me will talk, then all of us, and somewhere in all that, we'll be starting a new chapter. Got that?"
Dunne sighed deeply before he answered, "Got it."
Realizing JD was fading fast, Chris leaned in. "You should know better than to give up on me, brother I rarely take 'no' for an answer. You're stuck with me, sunshine."
JD made a tiny noise in his throat, the ghost of a smile on his lips. "'Sunshine " he whispered, before drifting off to sleep.
Chris and Buck's eyes met. "I have an 'in', Buck we're gonna beat this."
Buck, eyes shimmering, smiled. "I've always trusted you, I'm not about to stop, now."
Before he entered through his front door, Buck could hear the children's' laughter. He smiled as he thought, *leave it to Inez to keep them all in good spirits*. Quietly, he made his way to the living room. Lilah, Daisy, Tannis, JJ, and Bella, watched as Caleb, Sarah, and Maria kept them entertained with their version of 'American Idol'.
He waited until, the last competitor finished, before making his presence known by applauding. "Can I vote for all of you?"
"Yeah, daddy's home," Sarah and Maria yelled in unison.
Caleb, a bit more reserved, waited for the girls to shut up, and then said. "Hi Dad."
Once Buck untangled himself from his girls, and ruffled Caleb's hair, he kissed JJ and Bella on the cheek, and then knelt to hug Lilah and Daisy.
"Daisy, your Band-Aid probably needs changing, and Lilah, your Daddy sent you something." Buck produced two purple Band-Aids from his pocket, much to the delight of the twins.
"After your baths tonight, we'll put them on," Inez said. "Caleb, Sarah, take the younger girls to the den to play."
Soon, it was only Buck, Inez, JJ, and Bella left in the living room.
"Tell me husband." Inez patted the empty space beside her.
Buck sat on the sofa next to his wife and sighed. "They're gonna keep him for twenty-four hours, just to be sure, but it appears the kid will be all right." He shook his head, and said, "Scared the hell out of me though. I came home to see you and the children, change clothes, and then I'm going back to the hospital. Probably stay the night up there."
"You will eat first, and then you'll go, after we put the babies down for the night. JD is not going anywhere, and his babies need some reassurance."
Buck laid his arm around Inez's shoulders, and drew her closer. "You're right," he laughed and kissed the top of her head, "course you usually are."
Nathan closed his eyes as soon as his head hit the pillow, but it was a restless night. He sat on the edge of the bed, puzzled as he thought about his reoccurring dream. It returned tonight, still the same scene, yet this time, instead of feeling wary and on edge when the shrouded figure appeared, a strange sense of calm settled over him. It seemed to him that he should recognize who the person was, but his identity eluded him. He did understand now that he had no reason to fear whoever it was, but it didn't stop him from wondering why. A glance at the clock on Rain's nightstand told him it was one thirty. He carefully slid off the bed so as not to awaken his wife, slipped on some sweats, pulled the sweater he'd worn the day before over his t-shirt, grabbed his sneakers, and patted out of the bedroom in stocking feet, closing the bedroom door securely behind him.
Next, he checked on the children to make sure they were sleeping comfortably. He found Ronesha sleeping with her little butt up in the air and her blankets scrunched into a ball, at the foot of her bed. Carefully he pulled them up and then left the nursery to head to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of milk. He hoped it would soothe his mind enough for him to be able to go back to sleep, but unfortunately it did not. Deciding he would try to read a while, he put his empty glass in the sink and moved to his den. Nathan studied the titles lining his bookshelf, and for some reason, his hand touched on his Legends of the Quest book. He remembered Josiah's request and pulled it off the shelf. As he read, more questions seemed to form in his mind than answers.
An urgent need to talk to Josiah passed over him. It made no sense for him to go over to the Sanchez's and waking up Mallory and the children, when he was the one who was sleep deprived. If Rain, Terrell, or Ronesha awoke when Josiah arrived, he'd send Rain back to bed and handle the children himself. He hesitated another moment before calling Josiah's cell and waited until his brother's grizzly voice came over the line. "I know it's late, but I need to talk. Can you come over?"
"Be there in a couple of minutes," was Josiah's ready reply.
Nathan poured him and Josiah glasses of milk and cut slices of the chocolate cake Rain had made for dessert. He carried everything over to the table. When he heard the engine of Josiah's vehicle pulling up outside, he went to the door, unlocked it, and held it open for his brother.
"Sorry to get you out of your bed on a cold night like this," he apologized to Josiah as Sanchez stepped onto the porch.
"No worries, brother. You know I'm always available to listen, day or night," Josiah said softly as moved into the house past Nathan.
Nathan waited until they both sat at the table before he explained. "I couldn't sleep, so I ended up reading." He picked up the Legend book and started to hand it to Josiah.
Josiah smiled, he knew when Nathan called him; it was time. He reached out, touched the book, and his brother's hand at the same time.
Suddenly, frozen in realm of time, memories from lifetimes before swept over them. Nathan saw the two of them dressed as warriors wearing armor and wielding broadswords, back to back they fought against their enemies. They were in a great room of a large manse with the rest of their brothers, dressed in finery, with their heads bowed as Josiah led them in prayer. He remembered the sage advice and strong support that Josiah had shared with him all his life as the eldest brother in their family. There were other memories too, of lifetimes spent with one another, fighting at each other's side, of holidays and other family events, of weddings and births, and mourning for one brother or another, before they met up again in the next lifetime. Among these memories were the most recent ones, of good times and bad, and an understanding now the about the feeling he'd had when he first met Josiah and the way they had meshed so well together right off the start.
The flood of memories evaporated. Josiah and Nathan found themselves back in the present, standing in the kitchen of the Jackson home. There was moisture in both men's eyes as they gazed at each other from only a few inches away.
"Welcome home, brother," Josiah, whispered hoarsely as he stood and then wrapped Nathan in a bear hug.
Nathan reciprocated the hold; clinging to the man who he always felt was a brother in spirit, but now understood they were once brothers by blood as well. "Guess that answers some of the questions I was going to ask.
A low rumble of laughter erupted from Josiah when he let go and said, "I know, and I've been waiting for this moment since we gathered last Sunday."
"How did you know Josiah?"
"Cowboy appeared in my study a couple of days ago, took down my Legends of the Quest book, and handed it to me. The moment I touched it, I was flooded with memories of our past lives together, and suddenly everything made sense. The instant connection you and I had when we met, the uncanny way all of us seemed to work together right from the start, me finding Mallory, you and Rain, Chris and Vin's communication, and so much more."
"I've always wondered about a lot of those things too, but never questioned them." He flashed a sheepish grin, "Okay maybe I did question a few times, but finally I accepted it for what it was and felt honored to be a part of something so unique." Nathan said taking a sip of his milk. "Now I know why it seemed like I'd known you all my life when we first met. We were brothers once."
"We are brothers still," Josiah gently corrected him, understanding that it was all a lot for Nathan to process. It had been for him too.
Nathan smiled at him, and Josiah reciprocated with a grin of his own as they talked for a while longer and finished their dessert. Then Josiah headed for home, and Nathan went back to bed. This time when his head hit the pillow, he fell asleep and he didn't dream at all.
Our past is the past. Our future is what we choose to make it. ~ Legends of the Quest ~
Denver Memorial Hospital ~ Thursday, O600 Hours
In the early morning hours before dawn, a sudden movement in the darkened hospital room roused Buck from his twilight sleep. Drawing his weapon was more of a reflex than response. His mind recognized the threat as non- lethal, and he returned his gun to its holster. "Sorry about that." Smiling sheepishly, he sat upright, ran a weary hand over his face, and nodded. "How's he doing?"
"Next time I'll announce myself," Nurse Butcher whispered. "I'm just about to go off-shift, thought I'd check JD's stats before I leave." The BP cuff inflated as she checked the IV, pulse-ox, and fired an infrared thermometer into the sleeping agent's ear. She jotted down the results on the chart before replacing it at the bottom of the bed. The nurse smiled. "Looking good," she assured him. "Agent Larabee called to check on you both. He asked you to call him when you woke."
"Will do, thanks, darlin'," Buck said, quietly. He glanced at JD. "When will he be awake?"
"We reduced his meds, so he should be waking soon." The nurse patted Buck on the shoulder and said, "He is doing well."
Once the door closed, Buck leaned forward and placed a hand on JD's knee. "Rest easy, kid. Everything's gonna be fine now, you'll see." Buck stood, stretched, and then moved from the room into the corridor, then decided he'd grab a coffee after he called Chris.
The brunet easily recognized the raspy, early morning voice of his oldest friend. "You wanted to speak to me?"
"Yeah just a second " Chris switched the phone to his other hand, so he could feed Cody. "I'm gonna need you, today "
"I know, I know, but Father Rafferty's offered to sit with JD until he's discharged." Chris paused. "He is still being released later today?"
"Yeah, it's looking good. Can I at least wait until he's awake? Reckon it won't be long, now."
"Sure. Let me know when JD's back with us. I'll call Albert to let him know he can replace you up there."
"Will do," Buck said as he replaced the receiver. Retrieving his coffee from the machine, Buck headed back to JD's room.
The silence was unnerving. Added to that the semi-dark hospital room, various cables attached to his body, and clouded recollections. *Toto, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore*. Licking his dry lips, he glanced around, surprised to find the room empty. Empty An overwhelming sorrow coursed through him as he tried to recall why he was here again. The heavily bandaged hand brought back some of his memory. Suddenly, he had a strong desire to get the hell out of there. He looked at the door as it opened, and relief washed over him. "Buck!" His voice was barely above a whisper, but it had the desired effect.
Buck heard his name called as he pushed the door open. A huge grin adorned his tired features, and he moved to JD's side. "Hey, kid."
"I thought I was alone," JD whispered, nodding his approval when Buck elevated the head of the bed a little.
Buck placed a hand on JD's head. "No chance," he smiled. "How do you feel?"
"A little spaced out," he answered, gratefully accepting the water Buck offered. "Have I been down long? Why did they keep me here? Is my hand real bad?"
"Whoa, whoa, ease up there, Junior. Your hand's fine, just a little cut up and stitched. You were a bit zoned when Chris brought you in, but it's all good, now."
JD's brow knitted together, and then relaxed. "Oh, yeah I remember." He sighed. "Buck about my resignation "
Taking a seat, Buck shook his head. "Uh uh that's for another day. Just rest, then you can go home, later."
"I can go home?"
Buck grinned, and nodded. "If you behave and rest up."
"No problem," JD yawned. "Buck "
"Thanks you know for being here."
Taking JD's good hand, Buck smiled. "I always will be, you know that just like the other guys want to, except, I'm bigger'n them, so I win every time."
Appreciating the gesture, JD closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
Tanner Home, O600 Hours
Kelli was the first one up, for a change. By the time Vin joined her, the coffee was finished making, and she had a cup waiting for him. She stroked her hand across the stubble on his jaw and asked, "Another rough night?
Vin reached up, took her hand from his face, and squeezed gently. "Not rough, just long." He had spent hours on his computer, using encrypted code, to contact his unique sources for information about Braswell. He and Ezra had followed through on several possible leads, but hit a dead end on all of them. Finally, they concluded that there was nothing to find.
The rest of his late night thoughts had centered on his newly discovered memories. Yes, he remembered from the beginning, his lives with his blood brothers, and their bond of love, trust, and fidelity, stronger now than ever. He also understood that he was to help Ezra find his key, while Chris helped Buck find his. Their linked souls, communal memories, and shared destinies, allowed them to accomplish great things, and balance the scales of justice with honor and dignity.
He also recalled what he believed to be his own personal journey through the ages. Whereas his brothers connected with their life mates frequently, too many times, his was a lonely existence. Since his initial joining with the woman who possessed his soul, they were too often unable to spend their lives together. Worse were the times he found her, only to lose her too soon. He did not want to ever separate from her again. The questions, which kept him awake, were about Kelli and him. Why could he clearly see their past lives, riddled with difficulties, premature partings, or no connections at all? Was it punishment for something, not yet remembered? How could he insure that this time would be 'their' time to make up for all the missed years they had lost? How do you 'fix' fate?
Kelli watched the play of emotions, which crossed his troubled features. "You wanna talk about whatever it is keepin' you in your office 'til all hours?"
For a moment, he considered telling her, but decided the time was not right. There had to be a way to set their destiny on matched courses; however, he needed more time to figure out how. He sat down and pulled her onto his lap. "I was workin' on somethin' for Chris, but I think I've done all I can do," he nuzzled her neck to distract her thoughts, "I promise, no more late nights. As of right now, you have my undivided attention."
She laughed and said, "Right, for all of five minutes, before the children demand our attention, and Max arrives." She turned serious and told him, "Whenever you're ready to talk about it, I'm here."
Vin wrapped his arms tighter around her waist, rested his head against hers, and inhaled deeply, allowing her scent to engulf him. "I know."
Denver Memorial Hospital
Father Albert Rafferty leaned forward in his chair and smiled. "Good morning, John, how are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks. Is Buck gone?"
The priest nodded. "Since I wanted to visit with you, it seemed a perfect opportunity for him to go to the office, and me to see how you were doing."
"I I'm real sorry about your bookcase."
Albert waved a hand. "Already fixed, son, pay it no mind. The only concern now is to see you fit, well, and back home."
"Doc said probably later today."
"I believe that is still the case," the priest nodded. "Can I get you anything?"
"I am kinda hungry."
Albert grinned, and stood. "I'll go see what I can rustle up."
Watching him go, JD couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that none of the guys were here. He knew they were busy at work because Chris wanted to get Alpha team back on track at MCAT this week. JD shuddered, *One of the most difficult weeks of my life.*
He recalled one brief moment during the past few days when he envied Casey her freedom to walk away from all her responsibilities and start afresh. It had only been a fleeting thought, which ended the moment he cast his eyes on his three beautiful children before they headed off to daycare. Still the most overwhelming feeling of all was loneliness. During barbecues, holidays and birthdays, hell, just about any time, conversations of family and happy couples surrounded him. Not a day went by without one of the others talking about his spouse, and that was okay. The last thing he wanted was for others to feel uncomfortable talking about normal things around him However, it didn't help the bone-deep ache he felt when he climbed into an empty king-sized bed every night. The vivid dreams he had of making love with Casey, only left him to wake in a cold sweat, frustrated, and alone. Too often, he would lay awake and wonder why him? Not that he wished his situation on anyone else, so he guessed the real question was why anyone?
*Maybe I should go after Casey, and talk to her.* JD sighed. *Then again, maybe she was right. They would always love each other but that simply wasn't enough anymore. Their bond was broken, and it's obvious, now it's unfixable.*
Father Rafferty interrupted his musing, when he returned, carrying a food tray.
Albert smiled at his charge, after he cleaned his plate. "Good to see you have an appetite."
JD nodded. "Not bad, for hospital food." He paused. "Boy, I must've really been hungry to say that."
Now Albert chuckled, though his heart was heavy. He needed to talk to JD about Wednesday, but hated to kill the happy mood JD seemed to be enjoying. He recalled that Josiah told him Chris wanted to hold another session with JD, Buck, and him, at the Larabee home on Saturday, and made a decision.
"John, when I returned with your food you seemed deep in thought. Is there anything you'd like to discuss?" His heart sank when JD shook his head, and then looked at him, as he pondered for a moment.
"Actually could I run something by you?"
Albert smiled. "Anytime, you know that." He waited patiently for JD to speak.
"Casey " JD smiled, shyly. "I was thinking about Casey. After she stabbed me, and I was recovering, one of the things that kept me going was expecting to see her get well and eventually return home, where she belonged. When she told me that was never gonna happen," he sighed, "it was almost as if she'd stabbed me again." He quickly explained. "It wasn't like the physical pain of the injury, but how I felt at that moment. When I fell to the floor and looked back at her, it was like looking at a complete stranger. I've never felt as alone as I did then. Not until the day Casey told me she wanted out of our marriage of motherhood of our lives." JD took a sip of water. "I really couldn't accept the rejection still can't, but if truth be told I think I get it, now. She's not rejecting what we had but what we could only become. I saw hope, she saw, from her point of view, shame."
The priest nodded. "I agree. So, has this affected how you feel about her decision, now?"
JD smiled, thinly. "If you mean do I believe we could be a couple again " he brushed away a threatening tear. " No, I don't."
"And where does that leave you on the matter?"
"Thinking maybe I need to move forward and make sure my kids are right there with me." JD's smile was a bit wider now, but a solitary tear tracked down his cheek. "Time to take control and let go, all at the same time."
Albert stood to embrace the young man, and JD leaned in, gratefully. Saying a silent prayer, Father Rafferty moved back, but kept his hands on the young man's shoulders. "Faith, is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase."
"Are you quoting the bible to me, Father?" he asked, as he flashed one of his lopsided grins.
"Actually, son, Martin Luther King said that. John, I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of you at this moment."
"Let's see if you still think that six months from now."
Albert tilted his head and gave JD's shoulders a little squeeze. "Be mindful of the days that the heart calls loudest, for they are the days you will truly be enlightened."
"Martin Luther King again?"
The priest touched JD's face. "No, that was pure 'Father Rafferty'."
Ten minutes later, JD was asleep. The priest sat beside him, and uttered a soft prayer of thanks. He also requested just a little more assistance for what was to come for all of them.
MCAT ~ Larabee's Office
Buck was his first visitor, "Hey Chris. The Doc confirmed JD's okay to go home later. You think I can get away to pick him up?"
Chris nodded, "I'll make sure you can. Are you taking him to your house?"
"That's my plan. Your children are already there and we have the extra room." Buck moved toward the door. "I'm gonna go and finish my report for Vin." He pointed and then grabbed the doorknob. "See, going now, I'll let you know when the Doc releases him."
The door shut, Chris smiled, shook his head, and returned to his paperwork.
Five minutes passed, before there was another knock on his door.
"Enter," Chris answered.
Nathan walked in, stood before the desk, and stared at Chris.
"Something I can do for you, Nathan?
He shook his head and grinned like a loon. "I just wanted to see my big brother and tell you I'm sorry for all the times I thought you and Vin were weird with that crazy connection you both share."
Understanding dawned on Chris. *he knows* he stood, moved around his desk, and gripped Nathan's shoulder. "Good to see you too, Brother."
Nathan threw his arms around Chris, gave him a hug, and then walked out without saying another word.
Chris stood there for a moment without moving and then laughed. *Suppose I should be getting used to this by now*, he returned to his desk and picked up his pen.
A short rap at the door interrupted him again. Chris sighed, and said, "Enter"
Kenneth Braswell walked in, and approached Larabee's desk. "Mister Larabee "
Chris scowled. "In this office I am Commander Larabee."
Braswell's voice raised an octave. "Yes Mister Lar . sir uh Commander, I," he cleared his throat, " I understand my presence is not welcome here; however I am a qualified attorney and should you require "
Glaring at the man, Chris stopped him. "I know where you are. Now, if you'll excuse me I have official business to finish."
Braswell nodded and made a hasty exit.
The next knock was a softer one, but irritated Chris all the same. He threw down his pen and barked, "What!"
Kelli eased the door open, stuck her head inside the room, and asked, "Do you have a few minutes?"
Chris immediately relaxed. "For you, yes." He watched as she walked in and meandered around the room. Obviously, whatever was on her mind was difficult to discuss; however, he was willing to wait until she was ready to talk.
She ran her hand along the books on Chris's shelf, twirled the globe that sat on his desk and finally, sighed. "This probably is not the place to talk, but I really could use your advice."
"Sit down, Kel. Tell me first, is this work related advice, or are we off the record as father and daughter?"
"Off the record," she answered. "I hell, I'm not even sure I should say anythin'."
Chris nodded. "If this is about Cait and me, I should know how you feel."
"Oh no," she said quickly as she shook her head. "No, I love Cait, and I'm thrilled for you both." She sat silent for a moment, and then softly said, "I'm worried about Vin."
"Did you two have a fight?
"It's nothin' like that." She stood and began to pace around the room. "I can't explain it, but I 'know' somethin' big is troublin' him. He gave me the excuse that you had him workin' on some project or another," she stopped, and turned back toward her dad, "but he lied to me. I could feel it." Her pacing resumed. "I've never tried to pry about what goes on with you and Vin. I understand y'all have a special bond, and I'm fine with it. It's just Whatever he has on his mind is damn serious."
Chris stood and walked over to his daughter, wrapped his arms around her and said, "I think you are worrying over nothing, but I'll see what I can find out, if you want me to."
Kelli nodded, and then looked up. "You know I wouldn't talk to you behind his back, if I didn't think there was a good reason."
"I know," he said softly as he kissed her on the forehead. "Whatever you say to me stays with me. Now, trust your father. I promise to let you know if you need to be concerned." Chris released her.
"Thank you." She turned to leave.
"I'll see you out, personally." Chris escorted her from his office, and stood on the landing as she walked down the stairs to return to the bullpen.
Scanning the room below, he watched while his agents worked. Vin looked tired, and it was obvious from his snappy tone with a few of the agents, he was irritated about something. It was easy now to sense Vin's inner turmoil. Somehow, Chris 'knew' it connected to their return of memories, but before he could help him, he needed more information. Returning to his office, he closed the door, stood in the middle of the room, and did the unthinkable.*Okay, Cowboy, we need to talk.*
Even expecting to hear him, Chris jumped when Cowboy answered. *This is a switch. You must be desperate.*
*Before I talk to Vin, I need to know what's wrong.*
Cowboy materialized in Chris's empty chair and spun around twice before responding.*Recall and awareness*
*What the hell kind of answer is that?*
* A short one.* Cowboy sighed. *I reckon you want more of an explanation?*
Chris only glared in response.
*We've all been through the process. When certain events fall into place, recollections of our shared past begin to return. It starts with small things, like incomplete dreams, misused words, and flashes of déjà vu, when combined, create a short period of chaos in our lives. Eventually, through that chaos, comes clarity. One by one, we receive our correlated memories; however, those are restrictive to our life as blood brothers, and the subsequent times we were together.*
*I get the memory part.*
* Complete understanding of the gift fate bestowed to us, only comes once all seven find their key, and restores their histories. Until then, there is a restless period.* Cowboy hesitated to tell him more, but when he read the determined look in Chris's eyes, he decided to offer him a few details.* We were blood brother only once. When we retrieve our shared past, we also gained memory of our individual ancestor's lives. In Vin's case, the Tanner line, in yours, the Larabee line, and so on. Their experiences, feelings, and disappointments are not so easy to handle for some.*
Chris nodded. *Let me get this straight. Collectively, we only remember and 'see' events of the lives we participated in together. Vin, or any of us, can remember things the others can't.*
*You think Vin is wrestling with something about one of his ancestors. That he believes it's his personal memories.*
*We all confuse our past at one time or another.* Cowboy spun around in Chris's chair again. *Vin needs answers to find peace. Send him home, Tracker is waiting for him.*
*Got it. Now, get out of my damn chair.*
*You really should work on your anger issues, Son.* Cowboy laughed and then he vanished.
Chris did not knock, before he burst into Vin's office. He walked over to stand in front of Tanner's desk. Close-up, he could see the dark circles under his eyes, and easily read the signs of fatigue from his body language. "You look like hell."
"You're no Miss America, yourself, you know." Vin tossed his pen on the desktop. "What do you need?"
"I need a Captain, who is rested, not snapping at everyone, and has a clear and focused mind. " Right now, you ain't him. I want you to go home, get rid of that burr under your saddle, and get some sleep."
Vin stared at Chris for a moment, and then shook his head. "Too much work to do."
"No more than you've taken on before." Chris hooked a chair with the toe of his boot, pulled it over, and sat down. "What's the problem?"
"Nothin' " Vin started to say and then sighed. "Aw hell, I reckon it's a lot of things. The case, worry about JD, this whole Braswell thing Ezra and I can't find anything to prove he's more than a Washington pain in the ass." he took a deep breath. "I've been going over my father's old files, too, got a lot of questions, but no answers. Then there's what happened the other night with all those memories rushin' back but," He pointedly looked at Chris. "I can still do my job."
Chris heard all the excuses, but knew Vin too well, not to know there was more going on in that Tanner brain. "I'll take care of here. I'm going to send Buck up to the hospital to pick up the kid. Then he can work from home tomorrow, while he stays with JD. Josiah is capable of heading up the case coordination, Nathan's on top of forensics, and Ezra doesn't need you to recon the building schematics."
"Go home Vin, and that is an order. Spend some time with your babies, or argue with Peso, whichever helps you find your balance again."
"You are one hard-headed son of a bitch," Vin growled, grabbed his coat, stalked out the door, and only stopped long enough to tell Kelli he was leaving.
Chris followed him as far as Kelli's desk. She looked after her departing husband with a concerned expression on her face, and then turned to Larabee. He winked at her, nodded, and said, "Trust me. He'll be fine."
Disappointed that the twins were down for their nap when he arrived home, Vin headed for the barn. He picked up a brush and started on Peso. While he gave him a vigorous rubdown, Vin cursed to himself, and railed against anything and everything he could think of. Finally, his anger subsided, he laid his arm over his horse, dropped his head, and thought.*Damn, what is wrong with me?*
Vin looked up to see Tracker leaning on one of the barn posts, his arms crossed, and a grin on his face. *I figured you'd show up eventually.*
*Told you once, I'm always close-by.* He uncrossed his arms and walked over to the other side of Peso.*I wanna help, but you need to talk to me.*
Vin shook his head. *All this Cowboy my brothers, different lives other times I remember it's confusin' as hell. You and I standin' here talking. It's like talkin' to myself my older dead self.*
*We are not the same person. You are my great-great grandson, and you carry the spirit of my soul within you. Our lives are unique to us in each incarnation. Even though our brotherhood, and lineage, connects us, my life was mine , your life is yours.*
*What about before you, why can't I talk to other Tanner men?*
Tracker shrugged. *You could I reckon, although after my experience with my grandfather not sure you'd want to. We all reflect the time in which we live. Things have changed a lot since he was around. Hell, they've evolved since I was here.*
*Yet, you're the one I 'see', not that I mind, but .my grandfather and father are dead too. Why you?*
Tracker took a moment to answer, and chose his words carefully. *You and I carry the same spirit, and we share lives with our brothers, which makes our bond stronger. My son, Christopher, and grandson, Wyatt, your great grandfather and grandfather, were good men, and you have many of their fine qualities, but fate did not call them to be one of seven in their existences. While they do watch over you, there are still things for you to learn, before either 'visits'. As for your father, you need to search for your own answers we don't talk.*
Vin took a few moments to absorb Tracker's words. He made sense, even if he was evasive about some answers, which with him and Cowboy was par for the course. Still, a clearer picture began to form in his mind, but he had to know more *Explain Kelli. Tell me why I feel as if I've lost her so many times?*
Tracker nodded, he understood exactly what his favorite Tanner was seeking. *You're recallin' my memories, and those of our ancestors. With the exception of Wyatt and his Amanda, Tanner men have always seemed destined to push their women away or lose them too early. If you'd asked me why a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have had a clue, but one feisty, and very stubborn, I might add, twenty-first century woman gave me the answer.*
*Kel gave you the answer?*
*Yep, right after I told her she was holdin' up better than I expected for a woman.*
Vin's face broke into a grin *Bet she gave you an earful*
*Boy Howdy did she! Hell, I just said it was my job to protect her, and she clouded up and rained all over me. She called me condescendin', too, whatever that means. Gave me what for about Anne she said, 'You've kept apart from her all these years because you feel guilty about her death. Well let me tell you a little secret. The only thing keepin' you two away from each other is pure Tanner stubbornness ' *Course I told her she didn't know what she was talkin' about then she lit into me again * 'Bull, it's all about control. You've carried the guilt thinkin' you were the one who failed to protect her. You can't accept the truth. Anne made a choice of her own free will to give her life, so you could live. The outcome of that mornin' was never in your hands, it was in hers. It's what she wanted. You do her a disservice to discount her feelin's all this time. You've punished her for lovin' you.' *
Vin felt as if someone punched him in the gut. His mind raced back to a memory of another life, which was his, but at the same time, not his . That Tanner was away, when rival warriors invaded his home, and savagely killed his mate when she would not reveal his whereabouts. Vin visualized the brutal scene that Tanner walked into when he returned, and empathized with the anguish his ancestor experienced. The man never forgave himself for not protecting her. Apparently, nor did many Tanner man since then until now.
Tracker watched the scenes with Vin, once the vision finished, he said softly. *Life, and how we live it, is all about choices. I reckon it took until now for women to get bold enough to tell their men folk off otherwise; I wouldn't have let one hundred and forty years go by without 'my Anne'. Don't let what happened in the past stand between you and your chosen future.* He recognized the light of understanding in his great-grandson's eyes, and added the words he knew Vin needed to hear again. *Your visions are a gift of your heritage. You must rely on your senses to unmask the truth, and discover the path you should take.*
Vin nodded as he recalled the first time Tracker spoke those words when Kelli and Trey went missing. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders.*Thanks.*
*Anytime, Son, I won't be far, when you need me.*
Just like that, Tracker was gone, and Vin headed back to the house. First order of business was to call Chris, and thank him for pissing him off enough to go home.
When JD jumped down from Buck's truck, he felt drained, and silently cursed his weakness for allowing the nurse to force-feed him his meds before he left the hospital. The long wait for his prescriptions did not help matters any either. He wanted desperately to cuddle his babies and hold them until it was their bedtime, but JD knew his body was not going to make it more than a half hour, tops.
Meeting them at the door, Inez embraced the younger man, kissed his cheek, and whispered, "Bueno verle, te, el pequeño."
"Gracias," JD whispered back.
"I hope you won't mind. The children had a busy day at Reins and were tired after their baths, so I put them down for the night."
Despite feeling a little disappointed, JD nodded, not entirely sorry, due to his weariness. "No problem, I'll see them in the morning."
Inez took his hand as she glanced at a grinning Buck. "Come, I have a room ready for you, and I made you some soup."
"Inez." JD stopped them in their tracks. "Please I've been enough of a nuisance for longer than I care to remember, I don't want to be any trouble " He stopped when he saw the glare she gave him, the index finger of her free hand wagging viciously in his face.
"I never want to hear you say that to me again. You have never been any such thing to us, and may I remind you, you started none of what you have endured these last months." Her gaze softened as she touched his face. "We love you. Please allow us to help all we can on this difficult journey."
"Damn." JD cursed as emotion washed over him. He had no idea if it was the medication, exhaustion, or recent events that caused his lack of emotional control, but, one thing he did know, he was powerless to fight it. He hugged Inez with his good arm. "Thank you."
Buck stepped forward and hugged them both; no one spoke for a few moments as they savored the healing embrace. "Come on," the big man urged as he placed a hand on JD's shoulder. "Let's take this inside. We've all had a helluva day, but I have a feeling, tomorrow is gonna be a whole lot better."
From the dark moments of our lives, clarity and understanding emerge. ~ Legends of the Quest ~
Friday, 0600 Hours
When Kelli entered the kitchen, Vin smiled, kissed his wife soundly, and then handed her a steaming mug of coffee. He had been up since dawn, felt great, and welcomed the new day. Thanks to his talk with Tracker, he now, better understood how their collective memory recall worked, and made peace with his past. Last night, with his worry about Kelli gone, he'd been a very attentive lover. Today, he planned to put her mind at ease about his state of mind.
"You're in a good mood this mornin'," Kelli took a sip from her mug, "and this coffee is delicious."
Vin sat down in the chair adjacent to hers, clasped her hand, laced his fingers with hers, and said, "I owe you an apology."
"No no you don't."
"Kel, I should have told you I was trying to work through a personal issue, and for you not to worry."
"Did you work out what was troublin' you?"
"Yes," his eyes met hers, "and it's not somethin' either of us needs to be concerned about."
Kelli nodded. "I'm just glad you worked it out so quickly. You're obviously in a better frame of mind than you were yesterday."
"Plan to stay that way, too." Vin winked at her. "You wanna steal ten minutes and let me show you how great I feel?"
"We'd be lucky to even make it to the bedroom door, before we were missed," Kelli said, just as Max walked in, said good morning, and began breakfast preparations. Sounds on the intercom from the nursery meant the twins were waking, and the bathroom door slammed, which meant either Jason or Andi was up for the day.
Vin pushed back his chair, and said, "I'll check on the twins, but you owe me an extra ten minutes tonight."
Kelli sighed. Her eyes followed her pleasurable view of his backside as he walked out of the kitchen. Whatever was bothering him was over and she damn sure liked the outcome.
Barbara rushed around, grabbing last minute items to pack her overnight bag. "Honey, are you sure you're okay with this?"
Ezra reached out to stop her, placed his hands on her shoulders, and said. "If it were up to me, I'd keep you in my sight twenty-four-seven; however you and I both know life does not allow us that privilege. I understand that you're presence is required in Phoenix to take depositions, for the case you are working on, and I am fine with that. All I require is for you to make certain," he ran his hand across her stomach, "both you, and our child rest, do not get overly stressed, and return safely."
She sighed, raised her hand, and stroked her finger along his cheek. "I promise we'll be back tomorrow evening."
He smiled and nodded. "Now, allow me to assist you with your preparations, and I will deliver you to the airport on my way to work."
"Hey kid, cheer up. The children will be home this afternoon and wear you out before bedtime." Buck set a plate of breakfast in front of JD. "Eat, build up your strength. You're gonna need it with those three little munchkins."
JD picked up his fork and slowly moved the food around his plate. "I was looking forward to spending the day with them. Of course, I guess Inez is right. They need their regular routine of going to Reins to continue."
"Thanks to Chris giving me the day off, you got me." Buck grinned. "We'll watch a movie, maybe order a pizza, and "
"No pizza, Buck," Nathan said from the doorway. "Good thing I came over to check on our patient." He turned to JD. "You, little brother, need nutritious foods, plenty of rest, and time to heal. As soon as I check your bandages, you finish your breakfast, and then we'll talk about a movie."
"Spoilsport," Buck huffed. "You take all the fun out of staying home."
Nathan smiled. "I love you too, Buck."
Larabee's Office, 0800 Hours
Vin walked in the open door, closed it behind him, set a stack of folders on the desk, stretched out in his favorite chair, and waited for Chris to end his phone call. The sappy grin on his face made it obvious he was talking to Cait. "Twelve it is. I'll meet you there." Chris hung up and said, "I'm taking Cait to lunch and then we're going to shop for rings."
"It's about damn time." Vin laughed and said, "Reckon, we're both roped and branded for life."
"We are, but don't tell either of them."
"I won't." Vin tapped the stack of folders and turned to business. "I brought you some readin' material," he pointed to each one as he explained, "my plans for the task force, updated list of those who qualified with the quarterly training exercises, and Sam's latest report. He has it on good authority that Perón will be in Denver next Friday, I included the details for two potential scenarios to bust him, and " He pulled one out, "All the info we could find on your friend next door."
The name on the file read, Braswell. Chris flipped through it and frowned. "Maybe he is harmless, but I catch him watching us all the time and I don't like the feeling I get in my gut."
"Me neither, but until we can prove he has a secret agenda, all we can do is keep an eye on him."
"I noticed the bullpen was kinda empty this morning. Where is everyone?"
"You gave Buck the day off to stay with JD. Ezra is doin' the recon on the buildin' schematics for Perón's known businesses, and Nathan's gonna be late, he stopped to check in on the kid. Bravo team is closin' their last case today; Justin requested backup, so I sent Josiah, Coulter, and Langley along. Mallory is back helpin' Pam, until JD returns; I'm here answerin' too many damn questions, and the rest ."
Chris held up his hand. "I get the picture. I'll read this over the weekend. I have a full day scheduled, and tonight, I plan to talk with Buck it's time."
"Ezra's ready, too. I've arranged some time tomorrow to see him."
"I'm hopeful JD's session tomorrow goes well, and he'll be ready before Sunday. Pray for a little warmer weather so we can spread outside with the children." Chris stood up. "For now though, I'm five minutes late for a boring admin meeting with Travis."
"Better you than me," Vin joined him at the door, "I'm on my way to the firin' range." He raised his hand and waved as he walked away, certain he could feel Larabee's glare drill into his back.
Chris saw her, before she saw him. He moved through the crowded restaurant to their table, leaned down close to her ear and said, "Been waiting long?"
Startled from her deep thoughts, she swatted at him when he sat down. "Give me some warning next time."
"It's no fun that way."
Cait shook her head, smiled and told him, "I ordered for us when you called and said you were running late. I hope you don't mind."
"Don't mind at all," he grinned, "it gives us more time to look for your special ring."
A shadow of worry crossed her beautiful face. "Chris about the engagement ring, I I'm not sure I want one."
Chris sat back and sighed. "You're getting cold feet."
"No, absolutely not," Cait grabbed his hand, "I love you Chris Larabee, and want to spend the rest of my life with you."
"Then I guess I don't understand. I thought you'd want, no expect a diamond."
She squeezed his hand. "You and I have both loved and lost before. We understand that life is unpredictable, and at times can cause terrible pain. It can also give us pleasure beyond our wildest expectations. I don't need a diamond to carry your love in my heart."
Chris swallowed hard; he understood too well, what she meant. He had to remind himself that this woman was not Linda. Cait would never need things to measure her love; she only needed him. With her as his wife, her gentle, nurturing, love would allow Grace, Cody, and Jesse to thrive, and he would finally have the peace he yearned for in his life. He cleared his throat, and asked. "If you don't need an engagement ring, what do you want?" The music of her laughter in response, made him smile.
"Other than you," she smiled back at him, "I want simple matching wedding bands."
Chris nodded, "I think we can manage that."
During lunch, they discussed their future. They talked about her plans for Reins and expanding the daycare. She suggested ways to add on to his home for Jesse to have 'his' space, and room to have the Wild Bunch over more often. Both of them adopting Jesse was a given, but Cait wanted to adopt Grace and Cody, too. He felt that he probably did not deserve a third chance at love, but by the time they finished, and left to shop for wedding bands, he was grateful God granted it to him anyway.
Enjoying coffee on the heated porch, Buck grinned at JD as they waited for their children's return home from daycare. His cell began playing the theme from 'Bad Boys', which told Buck that Chris was trying to reach him. He excused himself, and walked into the house.
"My house, thirty minutes, be there."
Even though Chris couldn't see him, Buck shook his head. "Can it wait? I'd kinda like to stay close to the kid tonight "
"Non-negotiable," he snapped and then softened his response. "It's important, Buck.
Reluctantly, and with a huge sigh, Buck agreed. "I'll be there."
When he returned to the porch, he noted the younger man watching him. "Chris wants me to drop by and go over something, later. I won't be gone long."
JD grinned. "Don't sweat it, bro, you've already been more then generous with your time, today, and I'm real grateful."
Buck returned the grin, gripped his shoulder, and said, "Ain't nothing too much trouble for you."
"Jeeze, Buck, don't start my emotions running wild again." They both laughed. "You go on; I'm going to wait here for my babies."
"Be back soon," he said, pulled his keys from his pocket, and walked to his truck. JD waved, picked up his cup, and settled back to gaze over the surrounding countryside.
Buck shut the door, stomped in through the kitchen, and bellowed, "Okay Chris, I'm here."
Larabee appeared in the doorway. "You don't have to yell. Come on into the den with me."
"Sure," he muttered, but followed behind. Once in the den, Buck found a comfortable chair, sat down and stretched out.
Chris watched the man, who had been a fixture in his life for more than twenty years. Buck was there before, Sarah, before Vin and before the others. He also remembered their first life together and he was looking forward to sharing his newfound knowledge. He knew, even if Buck didn't that JD was his key. First, though, he wanted a report. "Talk to me about the kid," he said as he sat down.
"He's doing all right. Nathan checked his injury, and his hand is not as bad as we thought, so he'll be good to go before you know it."
"I already know about his health, what about his state of mind?"
Buck blew out his breath, and said, "Considering everything that boy's been through this year, I'd say he's better. I mean, he appears more relaxed than I've seen him in a while, and this thing with the bookcase has given him time to think."
Chris nodded. "I want to talk to him alone, before tomorrow's session with Father Rafferty."
"If it's about his resignation, maybe you should wait." Buck sat up straighter and shook his head. "I don't want him to quit."
"I'm not giving him that option; however I do want to clear a few things up with him. Father Rafferty will be here at noon, you have JD here at eleven-thirty."
"Fine, we'll be here." Buck stood up to leave.
"We're not through yet, Buck, sit down."
"I really should get back " he started to protest, but the stubborn look on Larabee's face changed his mind.
Chris pointed to the chair and waited for Buck to sit back down. "Have you thought about Josiah's request?"
"You mean to read that Legend book? No, I haven't had the time. Hell, between doing my job, and worrying about JD, I've barely seen my wife and kids."
"You still have strange dreams?"
Buck shifted in his chair. "Yeah, and they're coming more often lately. Why?"
Chris picked up his Legend book from the end table, and leaned forward. Extending his arm, he held the book out to Buck. "You should really make the time, and here is as good a place as any."
"This is crazy, Chris," Buck said, but something he could not explain compelled him to reach for it. When he did, their hands touched.
As it was with Josiah, Nathan, Chris, and Vin, time stopped. Buck saw his brothers and the many scenes from their lives. Seven souls and spirits, who once were blood, reunited repeatedly in his mind. He understood their bond was more than special; it was destiny's way of fulfilling their heart's desire. Their fight for right was not only by choice, but decreed long ago. Images of Chris, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra danced through his head. He relived the day JD was born, and remembered his vow to protect their youngest. He realized then that his self-appointed role of guardian to JD was nothing new; it was a continuation of a path, he had chosen for himself.
Tears flowed freely from his eyes as their incredible journey ended, and they returned to Chris's den. Awed and humbled, Buck stared at Chris for a long time before he was able to speak. "I don't know where to start that was ."
"I know." Chris wrapped his arm around Buck's shoulder, and said. "Welcome home, Brother."
Buck threw his arms around him and held on for as long as Chris allowed.
Stepping back, Chris grinned. "You probably have a lot of questions."
He sniffed, and said, "Yeah, a few."
"All I can tell you now is that until we all remember, some of those questions have to wait. Vin's talking with Ezra tomorrow. Your task is to bring JD in, but he has to be ready."
"Lord, with the mess he's been lately, how will I know?"
"When it's time you'll feel it, the same way I knew about you, Josiah did with Nathan, and Vin knows about Ezra." Chris went over to the bar and poured both of them a drink. Handing one to his brother, he said, "Let's hope tomorrow's session paves the way for JD. Once he regains his memories, the seven of us should meet and talk this over."
Buck's face broke into a grin. "Reckon that will be one helluva talk."
Chris lifted his glass for a toast, "To the brothers of our blood, heart, and soul."
The two glasses clinked when they touched, and the two brothers talked for another hour before they parted for the evening.
Sitting in Buck's recliner with his three children lying in his arms later that evening, JD realized he hadn't felt this content in a long time. His only apprehension was the session with Chris and Father Rafferty in the morning. For tonight, though, he was determined to push that worry aside, and concentrate on his children. He thought about the reason for his new peace of mind. It came from one solitary moment, which drew utter clarity and understanding for him.
Lilah brought home a picture she drew while at Reins. 'What is it?' he asked, recognizing the picture of himself, with his kids some distance away, but unsure of the large cross in the center, dividing them.
'I'ss the biggest kiss in the world', she had told him, 'for you.'
'Thank you, but why am I way over here?' His stomach clenched when the girls gripped him tighter.
'Cause we knows you's sick like mamma. We no kissed her 'bye 'bye, we wanna kiss you so's you won't f'getted us.'
JD's world narrowed as he stared at the girls, ignoring the pain in his hand when he pulled them into a fierce embrace. He reassured them that not only was he not sick, but that from now on, it would be just them, JJ, and him together for always. JJ was happily oblivious to the emotional turmoil, but JD and the girls cried long and hard before they finally settled, and seemed to accept what he was saying.
It was a harsh reality check for the young agent, and father. His mind replayed events from the past turbulent months while he sat there cuddling his little ones. Guilt about his recent crazy behavior filled him with remorse. He remained blissfully unaware that one suppressed memory would be the key to a new life . and that the moment was imminent.
Chris's Journal, 2320 Hours
For the past twenty minutes, I've sat here and stared at a blank page. I want to record everything that's happen the past week, but don't know where to start, or if I should. The words I need to express how I feel about the incredible events of the last five days are hard to come by. I have discovered answers to questions that I didn't even know I had. Guess that's not entirely true over the years I have had an occasional moment when I wondered how and why the seven of us came together. When I think about the different paths we all took to arrive here, at this specific time and place, it amazes me. The fact we all blended our distinct personalities and bonded is .
*Destiny,* Cowboy supplied the correct word when he suddenly appeared, and tapped Chris on the shoulder.
Chris dropped his pen and swore, *Damnit, you need to knock or ring a bell or something before you do that.*
*It's more fun this way.*
*What do you want now?*
*It's not what I want, it's what you want.* He sat down, stretched out, propped his boots on the edge of Chris's desk, and began his tale, *you're looking for reasons, and you want to put order to what's occurred. Sorry to disappoint you, son, but that's not how it works. The need to talk about these things vanishes, because you will all know without asking. The only thing different about you is that now, you know the why and how. You don't need a big meeting to discuss things because once JD and Ezra remember, the eternal circle of the seven is complete.*
Chris shook his head. *Don't we need some kind of rules for all this?*
*No, you just have to believe, and listen to your hearts. Remembering doesn't change who you are, it only strengthens the solidarity the seven of you have already formed. The others will still look to you to lead them, still fight for the causes they believe, and still live honorable lives.*
*Recall and awareness,* Chris repeated Cowboys earlier words, *is it that simple?*
*Yeah, it is.*
*Change, no, but the skills you all already possess will intensify. Josiah's spiritual quest will bring him more answers. Vin's innate senses will heighten and his visions become stronger, as will his connection to you. Nathan's healing abilities will flourish and Ezra's mental skills become sharper and more precise. Buck will expand his role as guardian to become the guiding energy for you all. JD's natural ability as an inquisitor will light the path to victory in the battles to come between good and evil.* Cowboy stood, walked over to Chris's desk, and closed his journal. *Your mind has already recorded the events you are trying to explain. Quit questioning, and start listening. Your wisdom, Chris, is all they need, and it is you, who will lead 'this' assembly of seven warriors into the future.*
Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he did, the full awareness of all that had transpired filled his mind. He knew without question what he needed to do next. *I'll see JD onto his path.*
*See it is simple. Once you guide JD to his key, I'll take it from there, and then your circle of seven will be complete*
Answers come freely when we listen to our hearts. ~Legends of the Quest ~
Larabee 7 Stables, Saturday, 0830 Hours
Chris dropped Grace and Cody at Cait's, and then he headed for the stables. With his arms crossed against the top rail, he leaned over the stall gate. The newest foal on Larabee 7 now stood on wobbly legs. The colt was proud of his accomplishment and wasted little time before he took his first shaky steps in search of his mother. He heard Vin approach and without turning around said, "Hunter's a daddy again."
Tanner looked over the railing and grinned. "Damn, that's a beautiful colt."
"He's a good addition for us." He straightened and asked, "You on your way to Ezra's?"
"Yeah," he sighed, "course I have no idea what I'll say to him."
"Do what I'm going to do with JD today. Listen to what your heart says, and the rest will follow."
"Reckon that's good advice." He tilted his head toward the other stalls. "I'm goin' to check on the rest of Hunter's brood, and then head over to Ezra's. Good luck with JD."
"Luck's got nothing to do with it. He is going to stay with us and he will get his head straight it's his time."
Ezra opened the door before Vin had a chance to knock and greeted him, "Good morning. Please come in. Would you join me for coffee in my study?" The amused look on Vin's face told him he sounded a little too desperate for company. "Good Lord, Barbara has only been gone twenty-four hours and I'm behaving as if I've never been alone before."
Vin stepped inside, removed his coat, and handed it to Ezra. "You sound like a man, who's missin' his double harness, but you're not the only one. With all the noise at our house, you'd think I'd be pleased when I get time alone there." He shook his head and said, "Truth is, it don't take long before I can't stand the silence. Without the kids or Kel around, it just don't seem right anymore."
The two friends shared a glance, and burst out laughing. Ezra finally said, "Damn, I hoped you would tell me this disquieting condition is temporary."
"Sorry, I think its called bein' a happily married man, and the last time I checked, its permanent."
"In that case I shall consider myself truly blessed."
"Amen, Brother," Vin said, patted him on the back, and then followed Ezra to the study.
"Spread out on my desk, I have building plans for every business that we know is associated with Perón." Ezra said, while he poured two cups of coffee. "I believe we have several options available to us." He handed Vin one of the mugs before he proceeded to show him the detailed schematics of each structure. Thirty minutes later, both men were satisfied that they had the information needed to execute a successful bust.
While Ezra returned the plans to a large folder, Vin studied the books, which lined the shelves along the wall. He reached for the Legend book, pulled it down, and asked, "You thought much about Josiah's request?"
"I assume you're referring to 'the' book? No, I have not." He placed the folder in a plastic sleeve and then laid it aside. "Dare I remind you that it was I, who at the insistence of Cowboy and Tracker transcribed the damn thing? I assure you, I am quite familiar with every recorded word on each page."
"Reckon you are, but," with the leather-bound hardback in hand, Vin walked back to the desk, "Why don't you give it another look over anyway?" He held the book out for Ezra to take.
"I assure you it is not necessary." He glanced up, and easily read the determined look on Vin's face. "Aw hell," he huffed, shook his head, and reached for the book.
When he did, Tanner made certain their hands touched. For the sixth time in as many days, the world changed in an instant. Able to view the passing scenes of their lives, Ezra realized that these men, who had become special to him in this life, were indeed his brothers. At that moment, he understood that instead of being the interloper he believed he was, he had always belonged. He saw them as they were, and now loved them as they are.
Back in the study, Ezra sank into his chair, not even trying to hide his raw emotions. "Damn ," he looked over to Vin, "I you "
"I know," he answered softly. "Welcome home, Brother."
Larabee Home, 1145 Hours
JD was more than a little nervous as he stood outside Chris's study, trying to work up his courage.
Buck's comforting hand rested supportively on his shoulder. "You can do this."
He turned to him, nodded, and said, "I can do this."
"I'll be right here."
Before he could back out, JD knocked on the door. "Come on in." Swallowing hard, he entered, closed the door, and nodded to Chris.
"Take a seat, kid."
Chris sat next to him, their chairs facing each other. Having no desk as a barrier between them told its own tale; this session was to be open, frank, and honest.
"Let's talk about your resignation."
"What choice do I have? I'm worried about my children, and with the frame of mind I've been lately, I'm a liability to you."
"I think that's for me to decide, don't you?"
"Oh come on, give me some credit here. Tell me honestly, if I were someone new coming to you with this kind of baggage, would you take me on?"
Chris stared at him. "No." He watched JD's resigned expression, and then continued. "If you were new, no, but you're not. I took a chance on you more than a dozen years ago. Despite everything, and everyone telling me I needed someone with more experience, I chose you. Why do you think I did that?"
JD bit back the temptation to offer a glib remark, drawing a partial smile from the other man. That alone showed how the young man had tempered himself over the years.
"I saw something in you, son. Something of me something of Buck and yeah, I guess the others, too. We've fought together, laughed together, cried together, and bled together. I've seen you progress from a cocky greenhorn to a man of professional maturity. I know everything about you, your strengths, your weaknesses and you know mine." Chris sat back. "And that's why I'm not prepared to watch you walk out of here, away from us, from MCAT, from all we've achieved." He stared into his young agent's eyes, and said, "Unless, you can look me in the eye and tell me categorically, it's what you want, not feel you should do."
Dunne swallowed, his hands clenched tightly together. "It's not what I want," he mumbled.
"Excuse me, Agent Dunne, I didn't quite catch that."
JD cleared his throat. "It's not what I want but I don't know what else to do."
Chris sat forward and laid his hand on JD's uninjured wrist. "We can work out the details." His expression softened. "We're so much more than a team. We've beaten the odds over the years, more times, than I can remember. You're not about to change that. Are you?"
What started as a slow shake of his head, turned into a broad smile on his face. "I really feel I'm ready to move forward. I just didn't think it was fair to expect you all to carry me while I find the right way to make my life work again."
"Oh don't worry. We won't be carrying you; however, we will help in any way we can. As for the right way," he shook his head, "believe me the only way is to just do it." He released JD's wrist and extended his hand. "Can we put this business of quitting behind us?"
Taking the offered hand, JD nodded. "Yes, please, Commander."
Laughing, Chris tapped him affectionately on the cheek. "Damn right. Can we let Buck and Father Rafferty in, now?"
Both standing, Chris gestured toward a tray of mugs, and a coffee pot sitting on a bureau. "Go pour four coffees, and I'll call them in." he stepped to the door, opened it, and motioned for the anxious men to enter.
Coffee in hand, four men now sat in Chris' study. Cutting into the gentle chatter, Chris addressed JD. "Okay. First, JD, I'd like to thank you for allowing Buck and me to attend this session. There's some leftover business from your previous meeting with Father Rafferty. I believe it needs discussion, and I hoped this would be a little easier for you, after last time."
JD glanced around him. "Don't know about that, Chris, you got a few bookcases yourself."
Buck chuckled along with the other two men. He knew JD was far from back to normal, but hearing him joke around was music to the big-hearted man's ears. Sitting back in his seat, Chris nodded to Father Rafferty and the kindly priest took over.
"John, our conversation at the hospital was enlightening, and, I feel, was a huge step forward. Would you agree?"
JD nodded. "Yeah, nothing like a good old 'wake-up' call. Right, Father?"
"Indeed. Do you feel you've turned a corner in your home life?"
Sipping his coffee, JD nodded. "I think so, yeah. I know things aren't gonna be resolved overnight, but, at least now, I know which direction to take. You've helped me realize that I still have choices and I thank you."
Albert smiled. "If I tell you it's been my pleasure, I hope you'll understand the sentiment behind that comment."
"Sure I do," the young agent grinned. "So, are we done?"
"Almost," the priest silently cautioned Chris and Buck when he saw them straighten a little, "but I wanted to discuss something, which confused me a bit. When we talked about what happened at McDonalds, you seemed to be referring to another incident. It involved Josiah and Ezra, and upon reflection, I believe it happened during your last mission. Do you recall our discussion?"
JD was now on his feet. Placing his mug on Chris' desk, the young agent started slowly pacing, absently running his fingers along the oak desk as he picked up objects and placed them back down. Turning to look at the priest he asked, "We talked about the mission?"
Albert nodded. "The conversation seemed to move between Daisy's accident, the gunman at McDonalds, and something that may have happened when Josiah left you and Ezra to retrieve the jeep."
Closing his eyes, JD swallowed, after a long pause, he said, "Poor girl all that blood "
"Daisy?" The Father asked.
"JD," Chris interrupted, hoping he had the timing right. "I spoke recently to Josiah and Ezra, and felt cause to re-read all of your reports. Ezra couldn't recall events clearly until after Sanchez returned with the jeep. He remembers shooting at the rebels during the wild ride down the mountain road, but not much about when he was initially injured. Josiah's report gave an account of the fight before he left, and stated that when he returned to you, there was a dead body lying in the grass next to you." He leaned forward, rested his arms on the desk, and continued, "Yours didn't mention anything about a body. Was Josiah mistaken?"
Buck looked anxiously between the two-seated men. Not only had JD's breathing and pacing increased, he no longer seemed to be with them either. His gaze focused on the floor, but his thoughts seemed thousands of miles away.
In his mind, JD wasn't pacing, but standing in a mountain meadow, explosions all around him. He could plainly see Ezra, who was leaning back against their backpacks, holding his bleeding head. JD was standing guard over him while Josiah hurried away. "I'll be right back, JD. Be careful, but no heroics."
In the study, JD was narrating the words aloud, his arms gesturing as he seemed to be re-living the whole event. "What was that supposed to mean, Josiah? What's the difference between necessary actions and heroics? When that rebel stepped from out of the trees and pointed a gun at Ezra and me . What was I supposed to do? Ask him to hold on a minute 'cause I'd been told not to do anything stupid?"
Running trembling fingers through his hair, JD turned, paced and turned, all the while, staring at a spot just ahead of him. "I knew as soon as he raised his gun I just knew he was gonna shoot. So I fired first because I couldn't risk him getting a shot off."
Chris stood up and walked around his desk while gesturing for Buck to stay seated. "Was that the body, JD? You killed one of the guerrillas advancing on us?"
JD blinked, clearly not hearing the question, he shook his head, and said, "All that blood. The shot blew his cap right off his head except " his last words were barely a whisper. "Oh God "
Chris now stood in front of Dunne, and prodded him for an answer, "Except what?" He was not prepared to see such deep despair in JD's wide, hazel eyes.
The next words came out in heaving gasps. "It was a girl I killed a girl! She, she looked a lot like Casey when we first dated except her hair was all " JD absently touched his scalp, removing his fingers quickly, as if they touched something disgusting. He looked at Chris, finally seeing him. "The frozen look on her face she knew she was going to die. Should I have waited gone for a shoulder or a knee? Oh God, Chris I blew away a girl she tricked me I thought it was a man, I swear, I didn't know. What have I done?"
Completely involved in the drama, Larabee grasped JD's arm. "What do you mean, 'what have I done'? You did the only thing you could to keep you and Ezra alive. Your instincts were correct, JD. Are you saying, if you knew the man about to blow you away was a woman, you wouldn't have fired?"
Swallowing hard, JD blinked away a fat tear, fully focused now on his commanding officer as he spoke softly. "That's just it I don't know. Chris maybe Ice was right I am a liability to you. That one comment from her has completely fried my brain. I don't know me anymore. A mission , a bust , I could get one of you killed providing I don't get myself killed first." He shuddered out a breath as realization struck him. "I guess resigning wasn't just about juggling my home life."
Chris squeezed the arm in his grip harder as everything became clear.
Father Rafferty beat him to it as the priest approached the two men. "So, John, your building insecurity caused you to execute your duty the only way you could. Subconsciously your training kicked in. In this instance, you chose to protect one of your teammates. At the mall, it was a group of strangers. You always insured that if your course of action was a mistake you alone suffered for it. My son those are not the actions of a weak man. You showed anything but weakness, in the face of adversity, you showed strength. Can you not see that your actions were instinctive?" He smiled at them both when they turned their heads to listen to him, and wished he had a camera at hand to capture JD's expression.
Larabee stared at the man for a moment, understanding crept through him as he flicked a look to Buck and then to JD, back to the priest. Albert's words seemed to hang in the air as if waiting for the final piece of the puzzle to appear. Chris addressed father Rafferty, but had his gaze fixed on JD. "Well now, Father," he began," when you say it like that, it sounds like a normal day at the office for us."
Albert's grin widened. "It does, doesn't it? Except, in John's case," he tilted his head toward Dunne, "one important factor changed. The uncertainty in his life since his wife's attack, added to the disparaging comment of a particularly vicious female adversary, altered his perceptions." He then spoke directly to JD. "You lost the ability to let go and move on. You analyzed everything, just as you've been analyzing you and Casey, and you took those unresolved issues into the next battle."
Chris felt a surge of elation; there it was puzzle complete.
Trembling, JD spoke, his voice raspy with emotion, "You know I've never been real good at shaking off things."
"Yeah," Buck finally interjected, still not quite understanding where this was leading, "but things were never this bad. What's the bottom line with all this psychobabble?"
Father Rafferty looked at Buck, then back to JD. "John, I believe your breakthrough is complete," he declared, placing a gentle hand on the smaller man's shoulder. "Providing that you can look me in the eye and tell me you know now that you do, and always have done everything to your best ability. That you understand you are no different from any one of your teammates you choose to stand with."
JD's features relaxed and he looked at the priest. He felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders. JD nodded, and said, "Yes, I do."
"Do you accept that you have made, and will continue to make occasional mistakes? That it is part of life, and not ordained due to your lack of equality?"
JD's lips twitched into the beginnings of a smile. "If what you just said means sometimes things won't go my way, but shit happens and I gotta learn to suck it up yeah."
They all laughed.
"And " the priest concluded. " that Casey and you parting ways, is not a failure, but providence giving you an opportunity to start again? By now you should realize that what you had was not the reason it had to end it just wasn't a good enough reason to stay together."
JD's shoulders slumped. "I'm starting to think that way, yeah." The haze of the past few months finally clearing, he looked at Chris, then Buck. "I'm so sorry "
The three brothers closed in and each placed a hand on the other as they stood there in silence for a few moments, all lost in their own thoughts.
"Lord, I'm tired." Offering the others a lopsided smile, JD glanced around at the three men. "I feel like I've been tired for way too long."
Albert nodded. "I'm sure you do. I'd like us to meet again, in a month. Is that acceptable?"
JD nodded, wearily, and said, "Yeah, sure."
Chris leaned over and shook the priest's hand, gratitude reflected in his gaze. "Thank you."
"Come on, let's go home," Buck insisted. Pulling JD to his side, liquid eyes telegraphed his thanks to Chris and Albert.
"Don't forget tomorrow's family gathering." Chris reminded them.
"I'm gonna need clothes," JD told Buck, already aware that his children had several outfits with them.
"Maybe while Inez and the kids are still asleep in the morning, you and I will slip over to your house so you can change."
"The weather should be nice for an early barbeque," Chris said, and turned to the priest. "You're welcome to join us, Father."
Albert smiled as he prepared to leave. "Thank you for the offer, but I'm somewhat busy on Sundays."
Chris could hear them laughing over the Father's remark even after the door closed. Thoroughly drained, he returned to his study, slumped down in his chair, thought for a moment and then smiled, *I completed my mission, Cowboy, it's your turn now.*
*The book is in place at Dunne's house. Did you set-up what I told you?*
Tracker paced, still uneasy about Cowboy's plan. *This is new territory for us. Are you sure?*
*Did you or not?*
*Yeah, and they seemed too damn pleased about it.*
* Sarah and Anne will do just fine. Leave it to them, it's one less thing we have to worry about.*
Tracker stopped when the realization hit him that Cowboy had no idea how to complete their tasks. He grinned and said, *you don't know how to handle it do you?*
Cowboy shrugged his shoulders. *I don't have the slightest clue.*
Our greatest responsibilities are to live honorably, love unconditionally and, learn continuously. ~ Legends of the Quest ~
Streaks of gold, pink, and purple across the horizon gave way to a spectacular sunrise. The new day promised clear skies and much warmer temperatures than the cold blast of the past few weeks. Frisky foals ran across the meadows while their mothers kept a watchful eye on their babies. The men of Larabee 7 rose early this Sunday morning to gather at Chris's to wait on news about their youngest brother.
Josiah and Nathan were the first to arrive, both anxious to know the outcome of Ezra and JD's reminiscences. Chris anticipated early guests. He had set-up the coffeemaker, cups, sugar, and creamer on the outdoor table, and was already on the deck with his mug in hand to greet them. "Morning, grab a couple of cups, and join me."
Nathan glanced at Josiah and told him, "You two talk, I'll get them."
"Before you ask, I don't know anything yet. Ezra and Vin are on their way here, and Buck's supposed to bring JD into our circle this morning.
Nathan handed Josiah his coffee. "Don't know about y'all, but the waiting is killing me."
Chris nodded toward the driveway. "Well, you'll have half your answer in a minute. Vin just drove up with Ezra, and the boys." Jesse, Caleb, and Jason piled out of the truck, ran up the steps, and said hello to their uncles. Chris grinned at their enthusiasm. "Hope you boys are ready. We have plenty of work to do today, and you can start in the kitchen. I need someone to eat the bacon, eggs, and biscuits I made."
"Save some for the rest of us," Vin said as he stepped on the deck just in time to see three blurs run into the house. He shook his head and looked at Chris. "Reckon they'll be busy awhile."
Josiah moved to intercept Ezra, grinned, and then wrapped him in a big hug. "Welcome, Brother." He turned him loose and before Ezra could recover, Nathan had hugged him, too.
The stunned expression on Ezra's face clearly showed that he found the boisterous welcome a bit overwhelming. Chris took pity on him, slapped him on the back, and whispered for only him to hear, "Better get used to it."
Buck drove JD to his house, and then followed him inside. He was surprised to see the Legend book sitting on the coffee table. Reaching for it, he sat down on the couch, and waited patiently in the living room, while the kid changed, and rounded up some clothes to take back with him.
JD set his bag down next to the end table and continued into the kitchen, where he stopped to grab two large envelopes. He returned to the living room and told Buck, "Guess I'm ready."
Curiosity prodded him to ask, "What's that?
"I'm " JD paused, "I've been in such a bad place for so long, most of the time not even realizing it. Since yesterday, I've never been so exhausted, while at the same time feeling exhilarated. For the first time in a long time, I can truly see things clearly, now. The guys have been great, actually, more than great. I love them for what they've done for me, JJ and the girls and even Casey and Nettie, despite having all their own crap to deal with. Inez and the ladies " he started to choke up.
Buck patted a spot beside him and said, "Sit down and take your time. We're in no hurry."
JD plopped down, and tried to explain how he felt. "When I got out of the hospital, the other day, Lilah told me she and Daisy thought I was sick like their Mama and was gonna go away, like she did. It really brought home all that's happened since Casey attacked me. It's been such a mess, but," he smiled. "Thanks to good doctors, and people in my life that cared enough to wait it out with me, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel." He grabbed Buck's arm. "God, I can't believe how lucky I am having you all in my life, and you, big brother "
Buck fought his tightening throat. "Lord, boy, you're not gonna tell me you love me, are you?"
Unashamed of his tears, JD whispered, "But, I do." He then took a moment to clear his throat to regain control of his emotions. "These envelopes contain the legal stuff for the trust Nettie set up for the children, and my divorce papers. Before I sign them, I want Ezra to look over them for me."
Prompted by the moment, Buck gripped the book he still held. Smiling, he took JD's hand in his as he placed then against the book.
Both men gasped when their surroundings melted away. Replaced by swirling clusters of images, sounds, and feelings, they watched themselves through time. JD remembered learning from Buck. How to ride a horse, fish, shoot, and fight, too. He recalled the feeling of love, remembered how they forged the bond among them, how Buck and the others mentored and counseled him, time and again.
All his brothers guided him, but Buck was never far from his side. He could clearly see, and understand now, how he fit in. Yes, he was the youngest of seven, but he was no more, or less cherished than the others were. They would always be older, more experienced, extremely protective of him, and one another, but they were family blood brothers equals. As the images faded, both men wept openly.
Buck wrapped his arms around JD and said, "Welcome home, little brother."
JD looked up at the man he had always considered his brother. His heart overflowed with love and joy at the realization that once; blood truly related them. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else." Giggling like little boys, the pair hugged once more before breaking apart.
"We could sit here and talk, but I think we should join our brothers at Chris's. I have a feeling this is going to be one helluva day." Buck stood up, grabbed JD's bag and grinned. "We're burning daylight. Let's go."
Larabee's Home, 1110 Hours
The scene at Chris's, which welcomed Buck and JD, was heartwarming. Smoke curled upward from the grill, the aroma of barbeque filled the air. Cody was asleep in his playpen on the deck, while Grace harassed Jesse, Caleb, and Jason as they set up chairs. Five men, with big grins on their faces, stood shoulder to shoulder at the railing, to welcome their missing brothers.
The moment Buck and JD stepped onto the porch, a strong surge of exhilaration and energy passed among the seven men. Tied by blood in the beginning; separated through the generations by dark forces of evil. They were together once more, perpetually reunited by fate, not by blood, but as brothers of the heart, mind, and soul. This quest was finished; their lives had come full circle.
Naturally, Josiah was the first to move; he stood in front of JD for a moment, and savored his intense feeling of joy, before he embraced their youngest. "Your storm is over, John, welcome back."
The rest followed, though none of them quite certain how to quell the indescribable emotions they were experiencing. JD wasn't sure exactly what drove his emotions either, as he clung to his oldest brother, but the feelings of peace and love sweeping through him were overwhelming. That feeling repeated five times over with his other brothers. Finally, the children brought them back to the here and now. Grace giggled, ran behind her father, and dared the boys to find her, hiding in plain sight. Caleb and Jason rounded the deck, and pretended not to see her. Jesse leaned against the deck wall, watching over his soon to be little sister, and grinned.
Nathan commented, "Some things never change with kids, do they?" Although he was referring to these kids, he scanned the faces of his brothers, and saw flashes of them as children.
Still in awe of this new revelation, a thought stuck JD. Even though he did not have a spouse to consult, the others did. He asked the obvious question," So, what do your women think of all this?"
"Aw hell." Six stunned men uttered a curse and glanced from one to another. JD's innocent question made them realize for the first time, that their newfound connections would affect their families too. They all looked at Josiah.
"Don't look at me," Josiah held up his hands, "Cowboy didn't cover that."
JD began to laugh. "You guys haven't told them, have you?"
"Of course we're going to," Buck said, looking at the others for help, "right?"
After a moment of silence, Chris finally answered, "Yeah we just have to choose the right moment."
"Which is ?" Nathan prodded him for more specifics.
"How the hell should I know?" Chris snapped. "Until two minutes ago, I hadn't even thought about it."
Vin pulled out his cell. "Speakin' of women, mine should be here by now." He called Kelli, only to receive a busy signal.
Chris, Buck, Nathan, and Ezra pulled out their phones, and called their respective significant others, only to hear a busy buzz. Each wondered just what the hell their women were up to now.
While she prepared the twins to go to Chris's, Kelli tried to participate in the conversation going on via her speakerphone at the same time. A knock sounded on the back door and a moment later, it opened; Cait popped her head inside. Kelli gestured for her to come on in and sit down. Cait immediately saw the need for extra hands with the twins. She took Bren and listened to the words exchange on the phone. One of the voices, she recognized as Mallory's said, "So do we all agree that nothing has really changed? It's just that we now have a better understanding of all the weird stuff that goes on among our seven."
A round of 'yeses' were heard over the loud speaker and then Kelli said, "As soon as I wrangle my rug rats into clothes, I'll see ya'll at Larabee's." The moment she hung up the phone, Kelli turned to Cait to update her. "Rain is over at Mallory's. Barbara is at Inez's to help her get the kids ready. We've just spent the past hour discussing a mutual strange occurrence that happened during the night." She paused, sighed, and then continued, "It appears we all received similar nocturnal visits that are difficult to explain."
Surprise colored Cait's features as she gazed back at Kelli over Bren's head. She softly said, "Me, too."
Not ready to share everything Anne told her, Kelli decided to limit what she said, "I know Sarah came to see you last night."
"I thought I dreamed her."
Andi ran into the room and took that moment to ask, "Mama, how many pull-ups do you want in the bag?"
"Count out six of them, Sugar." Kelli watched her daughter happily run off before turning her attention back to Cait. "I know it is hard to comprehend sometimes, but we've all learned to live with some unusual things that involve our husbands. You probably already noticed the tight bond the seven of them share, and on occasion, Vin and Chris have strange conversations."
Cait nodded her head as she took in Kelli's words. "Sarah told me a story about the brothers' past, how they had certain collective memories, and also let me know how special they all were. She then asked me not to let it influence my relationship with Chris, which she apparently approves of, by the way. You could say she gave me her blessing to share my life with him."
"How do you feel about that?"
"I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I can accept she was really there. It felt as if I was talking to a friend, though for the life of me I can't tell you why." She smiled, pulled Bren's jacket over, helped him slip his little arms through the sleeves, and said, "None of what Sarah told me changes how I feel for Chris. He is the same man I fell in love with, regardless of his ...uh unique connections."
Kelli relaxed, Linda had always been jealous of those 'unique' connections. Evidently, Cait felt secure about her relationship with Chris. "Good, that's the same conclusion we all came to. It is what it is. Nothing we learn about the seven should affect how we feel. We love our men and plan to keep 'em."
"You said I probably noticed a special bond among the men I see one with their women as well." Cait set a fully dressed Bren down so he could run a bit before they left. "I'm looking forward to becoming one of the Wild Bunch women."
"You already are, but let me make it official. Welcome to our sisterhood," she laughed and added, " Mom."
Cait hugged her future stepdaughter, and whispered, "Thanks." She then grabbed her keys and said, "I'll put the children's' car seats in my truck and drive us over to Chris's. Andi can help me."
Kelli watched Cait and Andi out the door, and then sent her own silent message to Sarah. * Don't worry, she'll take good care of him.* on her way out the door, with the boys, she swore she heard a woman's voice say, * I know.*
Larabee Home, Noon
Gunny, Walter, and Max had arrived thirty minutes earlier, and the meat on the grill was almost ready. About to go in search of their wives, Ezra and Vin saw Rain's car pull in the driveway, followed by Inez and Barbara's. Six men swarmed down on the three vehicles.
The children, excluding the babies, did not wait for the adults, they climbed out of the cars, and ran ahead to join Caleb, Grace, and Jesse. Mallory hugged her husband, and then started giving orders, "You and Nathan grab the foodstuffs in the back. Buck, you and JD give Inez a hand with those babies. I don't know what possessed you two to leave her with seven little ones to bath and dress. Good thing Barbara decided to go over and assist her."
Buck and JD exchanged glances, knowing it was useless to try to explain. What they experienced was something they could not put into words.
Mallory wagged a finger at Ezra. "You should be pampering your wife in her delicate condition."
Standish looked at Vin and whispered," How did she know?"
"You told us, and then well, word gets around fast with The Wild Bunch Express."
Rain hugged her husband and Josiah before turning to the others. "Chris, you and Vin get the food they brought up to the house, and then hurry back, Kel and Cait should be here any minute."
In no time at all, the women had all the men busy. Chris and Vin exchanged amused glances, grabbed the boxes from Inez's truck, and carried them to the house. A few minutes later, they sighted Cait's SUV pulling in the drive, and started the walk back down to meet their women.
Andi jumped out first, and ran up the driveway to meet her father. "Daddy, we here," she yelled, just before Vin scooped her up into his arms. She looked at him and said, "Mama had a dream I think you in trouble."
"Really, Sugar, what did mama say?'
Andi twirled a strand of his hair, and thought a moment. "Hmm she on the phone a loooooong time with Aunt Mallory .then she tell Cait . you and Uncle Chris strange, and is what is."
Vin kept an eye on his wife while Andi went on to recall other bits and pieces of the conversations she overheard. Her narrative over, he smiled at his daughter and said, "Don't worry; I don't think mama's mad at me. You go on up to the house and find Grace." He kissed her cheek, set her down, and waited until she was on the deck before turning his attention back to his redhead. Although he did not have the slightest idea, how he was certain that she knew about their recently found memories. Hell, judging from all the hugs and smiles all the women had been giving since their arrival, they probably all knew.
*Don't know how Cowboy did it, but they know.*
*Hell, how does he do half of what he does?* Chris joined him to walk down to meet Cait and Kelli.
When Chris opened the truck door for Cait to exit, he was surprised when she reached up to cup his face with her hands, smiled, and then nodded. "I do love you Chris Larabee, no matter what." Before he could question what she meant, she kissed him with enough passion to make him forget to ask.
Kelli handed Bren over to his father, and then reached in the backseat again to lift Trey from his car seat. Baby in hand, she looked at her husband, and said, "Sorry we're late. I had a few things to do before we could leave."
Vin stared into her eyes for a moment, realized she had said all she was willing to for now, and nodded. "We'll talk about those 'things' later." He slipped his arm around her waist, kissed the top of her head, and said, "You do understand that nothin' changes how much I love you?"
"Never believed otherwise, Tanner," she whispered, then cleared her throat. "If you grab the boys' bag and the desserts, I'll take Bren."
Chris and Cait walked around the truck in time to overhear Kelli's last remark, and he said, "We'll bring that stuff. You two go on and join the rest of the family."
Within thirty minutes, the food was on the big table, and the children were busy eating from filled plates. The adults found comfortable chairs and took turns talking about their children, the ranch, and anything but the events of the past week. Once the desserts plates were empty, Chris stood up to make a few announcements.
He whistled to gain everyone's attention. "Okay, I know we haven't done this in a while, but no matter what happens in the future I think we need to continue gathering our families at least once or twice a month." All present agreed and he proceeded, "By now, I think you all know we have a new addition coming. Ezra, Barbara, from all of us may I offer our congratulations." He waited for all the hurrahs, and chattering to subside, and then grasped Cait's hand. "Most of you are already aware about how I feel about this lady. Well, I decided to do something about it, and last week, I asked her to marry me she said yes."
"'Bout damn time, stud," Buck yelled.
"Yeah it was. In addition to having this beautiful woman as my wife, I'm gaining another son Jesse, and . Before you all bombard us for details, I'll tell you all we know for sure. We want a small wedding, with all our family in attendance and it will happen sometime in June." He turned to Cait and asked, "You want to add anything?"
"Only that I understand how unique this wonderful family is. The love, care, and compassion you share with one another is obvious and admirable. Jesse and I will do our best to carry on your traditions, and hold dear the things you value."
Inez nodded and said loud enough for all to hear. "Welcome to the Wild Bunch, Sister."
Most crowded around Chris and Cait to offer their own welcome. JD took the opportunity to pull Ezra aside. "I know this might not be the best time to ask, but I need your legal advice."
Ezra put his arm around JD's shoulder. "How may I assist you, little brother?"
JD reached in his pocket and produced the papers he wanted Ezra to look over. "One is about the trust Nettie set-up for my children; the other...is my divorce agreement." He looked at Ezra in earnest. "You always told me never to sign anything legal without your approval "
He took a quick look at the papers. "On first glance they appear to be in order; however I would like to take time to delve into the details. Allow me to consult with the opposing attorneys and then I will guide you through the procedures."
His relief evident, he smiled and said, "Thanks, I want to be certain I'm doing right by my children."
"That's what you have me for," Ezra folded the papers and placed them in his jacket pocket, "it's one of the advantages of having a lawyer in our family. Now, shall we rejoin the others?"
"Yeah," he chuckled softly, "our family sounds good to me."
Sensing that today was special; everyone was reluctant to call an end to the gathering. Tired, cranky kids decided for them. One by one, the women departed with the children. Each wife promised her spouse an exciting evening at home later. Cait put an exhausted Grace and Cody down for the night before she left Chris with only a kiss, and her regret that they could not share more.
Seven brothers remained to clean up, and discuss the recent change in their lives. They packed up in virtual silence, silly grins, and occasional faraway looks gracing their handsome faces. Finally, all seven were sitting around on the verandah enjoying one last beer. Chris glanced at JD. "You look better, today. I'm glad you didn't find your memory recall too overwhelming after all that's happened."
JD smiled. "Are you kidding? It was like " he glanced around, " like slotting in the final piece of a puzzle."
They all nodded, understanding exactly what he meant.
"My only regret is that Casey will never share it with me." He raised a hand. "It's okay, I'm not gonna dwell on it, but, I'm not gonna deny it, either denial's what got me into trouble in the first place." He leaned gratefully into Buck as his 'big brother' placed an arm around his shoulders and pulled him in.
"Accordin' to what Andi told me, I think our wives already know" Vin held up his hand to ward off questions. "No, I don't know how, but trust me Andi the Informer is rarely wrong."
"Well if they do, and their actions today are any indication, I don't believe it's a problem." Chris reflected on some of the comments he overheard earlier. "I think they accept it just as we do."
"Hard to believe this all started with a simple book, returned to us via translation of men who were once like us."
Josiah nodded at Ezra. "Indeed, it has been a long journey for Tracker and Cowboy, too."
"So do you think it's all over now, you know, with Tracker and Cowboy?" JD asked.
"I doubt that, kid, we're only blazing a new trail," Vin said with confidence. "I reckon they'll never be too far away."
"I'd love to meet my ancestor," Nathan mused aloud.
"I concur," Ezra nodded. "It would be a most fascinating encounter."
JD grinned at Buck.
"When 'the old west Sheriff' came to visit me I couldn't see him, but, the old Buck was right there, too."
Buck chuckled, glancing around the grinning faces as he winked. "Hell yeah, never a bad idea to keep you within spitting distance, boy," he teased, laughing aloud at the face JD made when he attempted a swipe at him.
Chris cleared his throat and they all turned to him. "To be fair, they did try to tell me, but When Cowboy and Tracker first appeared, it never registered with me that their visit would so profoundly tie in to our memories. I think we all remember what they said words we should now fully appreciate.
>" The world needs men like y'all men of honor and principle, to counter the existence of evil, especially now. It's the second reason we came and why you are all together in this time and space. Your greatest challenges still lay ahead. The Seven have always been and will always be Their strength is yours to draw on. Embrace the past, cherish the future, and fight like hell for today. Make a better place for your children, and grandchildren. Their destiny is the same as yours and ours to be allied by the timeless bonds of friendships and brotherhood which tie us all to our past and gifts us with the promise of tomorrow.*<
Chris glanced from one brother to another, and said, "No matter what name you go by, I love you all, always have, and I couldn't be prouder of, or think six men I'd rather ride the river with. We've always been strong, but our unfailing bond, and faith, will invigorate us as we move forward, together."
Eyes glistening, Josiah nodded. "Amen." He took Nathan's and Ezra's hands. "Brothers, shall we pray?" Each man took a hand to complete the circle, and bowed their heads.
"Bless us as a family, oh Lord.
Help us to grow in love, and care for each other,
As we stand together for good in our fight against all evil.
We ask you to comfort and give strength, and peace
To those who have difficult times ahead.
Help us to guide them, as they too guide us.
Chris smiled, stood, and the others joined him. "Our memories give us strength, our Legend books give us a code to live by. I make this solemn promise to you, my brothers, to always do right by you, and our code of honor." He placed his hand out, smiled as each man followed and placed theirs on top of his. "May God protect us, and keep our family safe." He grinned at the six faces smiling back at him. "Now, go home, kiss your babies, and love your wives. I'll see you all, bright and early in the morning.
Caitlyn sighed heavily and walked into her home, surprised to find Willard in her kitchen making tea. Placing two cups on the kitchen table, he gestured for her to sit.
"Hope you don't mind. I thought I'd wait here to see how your new family took the news of your marriage plans."
Cait smiled. "You're always welcome here, you know that." She sipped her tea. "They took it as I expected." She sighed. "I'm lucky and happy. Chris and I are going to adopt Jesse, which means he'll never have to feel 'temporary' again. He also talked to Matt Dubois and told him I wanted to adopt Grace and Cody, once we're married. Matt told him that although he regretted the way his sister treated her children, he was pleased to know they would finally have a mother to love them, and care about their welfare. For the first time since I lost Stephan and our children, I feel as if I've finally come home
The black man nodded. "That you have. Now, waste no time, go back to him, I'll stay with Jesse."
"The boy is exhausted and has already headed to bed. Tell him goodnight," he leaned over, and patted her hand, "then go to your man."
Unable to prevent her grateful smile, Cait stood, kissed his cheek, and then headed for Jesse's room. Once in her bedroom, she threw a few things into an overnight bag, changed out of her clothes, and slipped a coat on over her ensemble, before heading back to Chris's house.
Chris closed up the house after the last of his brothers departed, and glanced around his now silent and lonely home. After checking on Grace and Cody, he decided to spend some time reading before he headed for bed. He had just settled into his comfortable recliner, when someone knocked at the front door. Rolling his eyes, and uttering a soft curse, he laid his book down, and went to answer it.
"What the hell did JD forget now, Buck?" he yelled, before opening the door.
"Well, if it's a guy over six feet tall, with a mustache you'd prefer ." She squealed when Chris pulled her to him, and kissed her hungrily.
"I wanted to talk with, you," She gazed into his desire-filled eyes and realized there were other priorities, which needed addressing first, "but it will have to wait .'till later."
He smiled and lifted her into his arms "Good decision, woman."
Much later, a tired, but happy Chris, watched Cait sleep as she lay in his arms, and he contemplated their relationship. Their love was so much more than lust and sex; it reached deep into their souls. They connected on every level of their being, body, mind, and spirit. Yes, he lusted for her, but he loved and respected her, too. Only one other woman had made him feel this complete. He kissed the top of her head and grinned when hazel eyes gazed sleepily up at him. "Hey you, welcome back."
"Hey yourself," She whispered, reached up and caressed his cheek, "You haven't slept, are you all right"
"Never better," he said with a smile. He took time to claim a long leisurely kiss before he sighed and remembered what she said earlier. "You said when you came in you wanted to talk to me. Was it something important?"
Nodding, the redhead rolled him onto his back and lay on top of him. "Willard stayed over to watch Jesse tonight, and sent me back to you." She kissed his lips. "He knows I love you, and he also knows you love me and Jesse. The first question he asked me when I returned home was how did my new family take the news about our upcoming marriage?" She kissed him again, smiling. "We have his blessing , his, Jesse's, and .Sarah's."
Chris frowned. "Sarah?"
Cait nodded, and her eyes misted. "She came to me last night, I thought in a dream, but after talking with Kel, and the other women . I think she wanted to make certain I understood how extraordinary you are, about your brothers, and some things that happened a long time ago. That, you and I being together is more than just chance , its fate. I love a man who brings me a special family to care about, is a leader of good men, who all believe in living honorable lives. Sarah is special too; she only wants you to be happy, the same as I do. With a blessing like that, what more could I ask for?"
Chris closed his eyes and envisioned Sarah for a moment; she was smiling, and waving good-bye. He realized that he did not need to know what Cait heard about his past. It was enough for him to know that this woman would share his future. He pulled her tight against him, and finally answered her question, "Not a thing. We have all we'll ever need, right here. I love you, Cait, here, now and always."
They would welcome the dawn with very little sleep. Yet, for the first time in a long while, they both felt their lives were complete again, and they were ready to take on their future together.
Awareness of the past empowers the present. ~ Legends of the Quest~
Tanner Home, Monday, 0550 Hours
Vin walked into their bedroom carrying two mugs of coffee. He started to offer Kelli hers, but changed his mind when he heard her muttering soft curses, while she tore through the drawers looking for something. After their early morning lovemaking, he figured she would be in good spirits today, evidently, he was wrong.
He set her cup on the dresser, and then leaned back against it to watch her. "Can I help you find whatever you're lookin' for?"
"What?" She stopped for a moment, and then sighed. "I can't find any hair ties. I swear Andi uses them all."
Spying one on the dresser, he picked it up, and held it out to her. "Is this yours?"
"Yeah, I suppose it is," she took it from his hand, "Thanks." She continued to rush around, preparing for work. "Yesterday was so damn hectic, and last night I thought the children would never unwind enough to go to sleep. We have this task force thing comin' to a head this week and " she didn't finish her thought, but changed direction, "I guess my mind is on overload today. The only bright spot for me was earlier when we finally had a chance to connect."
Relieved to hear her last words, he reached out, grabbed her arm, and pulled her to him for a quick kiss and a hug. Resting her head against his shoulder, Kelli visibly relaxed, and then broke away to resume her morning routine at a less frenetic pace.
Vin picked up her mug, handed it to her, and then asked her the question that had been on his mind since yesterday. "You want to tell me what went on before you came over to Chris's?"
Refusing to meet his eyes, she shrugged her shoulders instead. "The usual stuff I reckon, dressin' kids, rushin' around, and tryin' to make sure I didn't forget anythin' important."
"I know you know what's been goin' on the past week. What I don't know is how?"
Her head shot up, giving him a questioning look.
"Andi the Informer told me," he smiled. "You should realize by now that if she knows she tells."
Kelli debated with herself about telling him all of what transpired with the women, or just the highlights. She stood in front of him, reached up, and touched his face. "Bottom line, yes we all know. None of it matters, though; we love our men and plan to keep y'all. Whatever goes on with the seven is part of who y'all are and what is "
" is. I got that part. What I'm askin' is how you found out?"
"Call it a dream, or a hallucination, or whatever you want, the message came through, and we all decided to accept it."
Vin nodded, and then softly asked, "Who told you?"
After hesitating a few moments, she finally answered, "Anne came to me Saturday night , and we 'talked'. She explained a lot of things, not that any of it made any difference about how I feel. She just wanted me to understand what it took her more than a century to learn." Kelli's eyes misted. "She loved , correction, still loves Tracker as much as I love you."
Kelli paused again. Anne had told her about the seven, and their connections to the past, the same as with the other women. She went further though, and discussed issues that were more personal. Of course, they talked about Tracker and Vin, but also about the terrible period of time when Lady Ice imprisoned her and Trey, and the subsequent loss of their unborn child. Old wounds, too painful to reopen again this morning, but ones she would definitely talk with her husband about later. Anne also warned her, using mysterious allegories, which did not make a lot of sense, about major trials still to come for them. Kelli did not want Vin distracted, until after the Perón case was over, so she decided not to share with him just yet.
He waited, sensing that there was more. Then, in an instant, fleeting visions filled his mind, and he was able to 'see' their conversation. Tracker had reminded him about his using his visionary gift to unmask the truth. Now, Tracker's council took on a new perspective. A brief stab of pain pierced his heart when he realized Anne was discussing their lost child a baby girl. Knowing his wife, he understood that she was not ready to talk to him about it, but when the time was right, he also knew she would. The veiled warnings Anne passed on, he filed in his memory, not willing to force Kelli to open that dialogue with him this morning. Instead, he let her choose how much she was ready to share. "That's all she said?"
She decided to be flippant, and grinned. "Well, we did make comparisons about our men you know which one is sexier .bedroom techniques size "
"Kel " he growled."
She felt the scrutiny of his intense blue eyes, and figured she should start backtracking. "Okay, maybe we didn't talk about y'all that way, but I did tell you the important stuff."
Deciding to let it go for now, Vin didn't ask for more. He reached up to cup her cheek and said, "You're always with me, Baby, and we can discuss anythin' you want to, you know that, right?"
"And I will talk to you about my memories," he grinned, "once I figure them out myself."
"Daaaad, Andi's arguing again." Jason's call from the kitchen ended this conversation, but Vin was determined to hear more soon.
"I think 'm goin' to teach Bren and Trey to always call you first, too." Kelli leaned over to kiss her husband. "In case I haven't told you. I'm glad you're home to stay. We all missed you."
Vin stroked her cheek. "You told me with more than just words." He headed out of their room, and she could hear him repeating as he past the door of the nursery...'Mama Mama Mama.'
MCAT Office, 0700 Hours
Following their usual morning routine, Chris and Vin met in the parking lot and began to walk toward the MCAT offices. Larabee yawned, and shook his head. "Damn, I think I need more sleep." Seeing the amused look on Vin's face, he grumbled, "Don't tell me you didn't have a long night yourself."
"I had an okay night, but a very satisfyin' mornin'." He grinned. "Your daughter is an amazin' woman, who knows how to makes a man glad to be alive."
"Too much information, Tanner," he growled. Nodding to the line of parked cars, he said, "You call an early meeting I don't know about?"
"Not me." He pushed open the door, and when they stepped inside, Josiah, Nathan, Buck, Ezra, and JD were already there.
"Good morning gentlemen," surprisingly, Ezra was the first to speak. "Your coffee and a light repast await you in the conference room." The five of them had all come to this decision independently, or so they thought. It was only when they began to implement their ideas, and called another brother that they realized they were all thinking the same. A month ago, it would have been spooky, but now they mutually accepted that unusual did not mean strange.
Chris raised a brow, and looked at Gunny. "Did you "
She shook her head. "They were here when I arrived, sir."
"The war room is set-up, and the other agents aren't due in for another thirty minutes." Nathan urged them toward the conference room door.
Buck flanked them on the other side. "Might as well give over, old dog, today is the start of something special. I can feel it in my bones."
Once inside, Josiah stepped forward. "Most of us celebrated with our remarkable families last night. We thought it would be fitting to begin the next phase of our brotherly ties together, here."
The energy level in the room was high, and with a smile, Chris nodded. "I suppose for today, but after it's back to business.
"CASSIE is already running our latest info, and she'll have some answers for us before the Task force meets." JD appeared to be in high spirits as they entered the private meeting room.
Nathan looked around, a bit hesitant to say anything, but, looking apologetically at JD, decided to jump in, "Rain and I received a letter from Nettie Saturday it was nice."
"Kel and I got one, too." Vin told them. "It was good to hear from her I thought "
Chris saw the nods from the others. "Guess we all got one, but Nettie did what she had to do and we'll do what we need to." Chris watched JD for his reaction.
Vin placed a hand on JD's shoulder. "You okay with us talkin' about Nettie?"
"Yeah, I'm a new man today. I made a decision yesterday, to move on with my life." He glanced over at Ezra. "My lawyer is handling my legal stuff, I have three beautiful children, and while our surnames have changed, and we may not be blood related I have my brothers in my heart and spirit." He flashed them a smile. "What more could I ask for?"
"Amen," Josiah uttered.
"I have news, too." Buck grinned. "Inez and I have come to a compromise. She's not going to Mexico Barbara is working on changing her Aunt Isabella's visa status to permanent, and we're bringing her here, to live with us."
"That's great. I'm sure Inez will feel better knowing she's safe." Nathan grinned. "It appears things are working out for the best."
While they all talked freely and openly about things, they would have suppressed only a couple of weeks ago, Chris observed the men, who shared his life. Each was unique in their own way, but they all shared the same convictions about right and wrong. These were men he knew he would enter into hell for, and take on the devil himself if necessary to protect. They were...are and would always be. He was looking forward to whatever was waiting for them around the next corner of life.
War Room 0900 Hours
With only five days to go until Perón was supposed to be in Denver, the war room was a busy place. Two case boards, one for Colorado, and one for Texas, stood at the front of the room. While the planning phase for this operation was calm and low-keyed, the closer it got to 'game day', the energy level surrounding the agents moved up a few notches. Travis planned to oversee the Texas part of the operation, and was already on his way to San Antonio, leaving Chris to coordinate things in Denver.
Vin briefed Chris on the latest updates concernin' Perón. "I talked to Captain Cain. Accordin' to his sources, our target will be here a day earlier than we expected. He's supposed to be in the warehouse district Thursday morning. We already know one of his operations fronts as a toy distributorship, which is located there."
Ezra laid out the building schematics on the middle table. "The Cole Mountain Warehouse district is here." He pointed on the map, while the other agents gathered around. "Perón's toy operation is toward the front, but we believe the abandoned buildings in the back are the ones holding illegal weapons, and where he stashes his smuggled drugs, and the women he sells."
JD laid down satellite photos." Using thermal technology, we can see heat activity in these two buildings." With the tip of a pencil, he showed them the differences. "This spot shows only intermittent movement, but over here, it appears there is a large source of stable heat images."
"Probably where they're holding the women he traffics." Buck said with disgust. "He treats them like dogs, and won't hesitate to kill any of them when we move in."
"Then we make them our priority." Nathan voiced, and all agreed.
Josiah placed three pictures on the board. "I want each of you to memorize these women's faces. They're all dead, were under eighteen years of age, and were led to their deaths like sheep to slaughter by this man." He added a picture of Dante Perón to the board. "This, ladies and gentlemen is the face of evil."
Everyone was silent for a moment, and then Vin began issuing orders. "Captain Michaels, I expect you, and your Bravo team to cover the backside of these buildin's." He drew a line on the map. "Discreetly, scout your locations and be in position by 0400 Hours Thursday. I'll have DPD set up as backup to seal off the perimeter once our mark arrives." He turned to Kelli. "Agent Coulter, you'll take position on the top of this buildin'." He marked an X on the map. "Agent Langley, you'll be there, too. Tomorrow mornin' the three of us will go on site and recon the area." Vin looked up. "Standish, I want you to find a way into that toy distributorship. If the big boss is comin' into town, someone there knows it. Get us a confirmation. JD "
"I know," he held up his hand as he started toward the door, "make CASSIE talk and get the latest satellite intel... I'm on it." JD motioned for Mallory to come with him.
"Agents Jackson and Sanchez, take a stroll around a six block radius from our target. Slip a GPS tracker onto any vehicle that sits longer than an hour. We'll see who goes where for the next few days." Tanner rolled up the maps. "Agent Wilmington, double-check these maps with ground measurements. I don't want any surprises when we move in there. Okay people, we're now on countdown, stay in communication with your local snitches. I want call- in briefin's every six hours until Thursday 0700, then we take it down to every two, until Perón is either in custody, confirmed to be out of the country, or on his way to the coroner's office in a body bag."
Chris stood beside Vin as the agents hustled off to work their assignments, and their sources for information. He had noticed Kenneth Braswell taking notes before he made his exit. "Something about that guy just seems off. He's watching, writing, or listening to everything that goes on around here." Chris sighed. "He doesn't send in reports, and as far as I can tell, has damn few law books in his office."
Vin made a mental note to talk to Braswell. Something was nagging at him about the man, too, but until he knew why, all he said was, "Maybe he's like all them Washington politicians job security is worth more than job performance."
Chris shrugged his shoulder. "Maybe, but all the same I don't trust him."
"I know Travis and Cain are on top of the Texas unit. Who's goin' to help you coordinate?"
"JD says Franklin is good. We're going to find out just how good he is. I'll have him in touch with Charlie unit, and the state police, but Pam will oversee what he does."
"Reckon that means you plan for you, and JD to be in the middle of all the action."
Larabee's Office, 1600 Hours
Vin walked in and tossed some folders on Chris's desk. "The GPS units are in place. JD's trackin' the movements through CASSIE. Within twenty-four- hours, we'll have a good picture of who spends time at the same places after workin' hours."
"Good." Chris waited until Tanner sat down to continue, "Is Ezra back yet?"
Tanner nodded. "He was able to confirm that somethin' big is going down. No one mentioned Perón by name, but he surmised by their action, someone important was involved. We'll have to work on the assumption it's Perón, unless we receive proof to the contrary."
"You've probably already thought about it, but let's make sure everyone uses body armor on this one. "
"Yep, Perón never travels alone. I expect him to have a heavily armed escort."
Chris sensed uneasiness in Vin's words. "You want to talk about it?"
He did not deny what he felt. "Reckon I'm just tryin' to sort through a new development. My visions are different not just dreams, but " he sighed. "Hell, I see some of what others are thinkin' now, and it gets damn crowded in my head."
"Cowboy told me all our innate senses would be heightened, once the circle was completed." He studied Vin's face a moment, stood up, walked around the desk, and then reached out to grab his forearm. Suddenly he saw all that Vin felt, as scenes from the morning rushed by. "Damn," Larabee dropped his hold, "I see your dilemma." He stepped back; the fact was he saw a lot more than he wanted to. "I hope to hell we figure out how to control this, or I'll never be able to look my daughter in the eye again." Shaking his head, he muttered, "It's enough that I can read your thoughts, now I can read anyone's you've come in contact with."
Vin cracked a smile. "I didn't invite you to snoop but until we do get a handle on this, you'd best be keepin' your thoughts about Cait hidden deep in your mind."
The two sat there for a minute, while the implications of their new connection sunk in. They both wondered what other surprise talents would surface from their other brothers.
Chris blew out his breath. "I suppose we have to take this one day at a time." He started to place his hand on Vin's shoulder and then stopped. "I don't care how you do it, but figure out a way to channel this new mind reading act of yours. I do not care to share your .private moments with your wife."
"I'm not so happy about that part of it myself," Vin grumbled. "Hell, I'll ask Tracker. He has all the answers; maybe he'll share a few of 'em."
"You do that." Chris walked back around his desk. "Do it a.s.a.p.; or else don't touch my daughter until you do."
"Don't listen then, because that is not an option for me." Vin chuckled as he stood to leave. "Maybe you should talk to Cowboy; find out how to control what you receive."
Chris sat back in his chair. "I just might have to. You work on your end and I'll work on mine. If we can find a way to harness this new whatever it is it could be beneficial in our line of business." He picked up Ezra's report as Vin made his exit.
Standing outside Larabee's door, VIN glanced toward Braswell's office. It crossed his mind that now would be a good time to test his new ability. *Why the hell not?*
Tanner tapped lightly on the door, opened it, and then entered before Braswell could answer. "I was in the neighborhood and decided it was time you and I talked."
Braswell looked up from the paper he was reading, and smiled. "Actually, I've been expecting you. Why don't you sit, so we can become better acquainted?"
Vin declined to sit, but stood in front of the man's desk. He did look the part of a lawyer, but every sense Tanner had, said he was not. "I'm damn sure I should know you, but so far it hasn't come to me ." Then it did. Kenneth Braswell was not a man he had met, but he knew many men like him. Vin's mind replayed several familiar scenes from his past, and suddenly everything fell in place. "Your presence is not needed."
Braswell realized Tanner had figured him out, and nodded. "I've come to that conclusion myself however; you of all people should know an order is an order. Until I'm told otherwise, I'm here for the duration."
Vin leaned in with his palms flat on the desk. "Tell your boss his interference is not welcome here. You tell him word for word . Your kind of right and wrong is not mine. Don't fuck with my life, my work, or my family." Before he turned to leave, he straightened and said, "You'd better make him listen, or next time I'll deliver my message personally."
"I'll make certain he receives your communication." Braswell sighed as Tanner walked out the door. He was not looking forward to delivering Tanner's message. His boss was determined, wanted or not, to run this op, his way. From what he knew about Vin and the men he worked with, they would not be obliging. One thing he was certain about though, this situation would not be ending amicably.
MCAT, 1700 Hours
After looking at the latest reports from their agents, Chris and Vin were ready to leave. Walking into the bullpen, the first thing Vin noticed was Kelli waiting for him. "Damn, I forgot we're supposed to go shopping for Jason's little league gear."
"You two go then, I'll catch up with you later." With the images he had seen in Vin's head fresh on his mind, Chris tried to avoid his daughter, but failed.
"Hey dad," Kelli said before he turned to leave. "I talked to Cait. She's on her way here with Jason and Jesse, so we can take both boys to the sportin' goods store. Since Max and Walter are takin' on our other three tonight, we thought maybe we could all meet up for dinner afterward."
Aware of Chris's discomfort, Vin wrapped his arm around Kelli's waist. "Why don't we take the boys' out, and leave the lovebirds some time alone?"
She shrugged. "Guess we could. You do realize though, it probably means we have to eat at McDonalds?"
"Yeah," he grinned when Chris flashed him a look of gratitude, "but we'll manage."
"I'll meet Cait outside, and send the boys in when she arrives." Chris made a hurried exit.
Kelli looked at Vin. "Somethin' I should know about?"
He saw Jason and Jesse at the door. "I'll explain later. The boys are here." He steered her toward the door, wondering how he could tell her why Chris was uncomfortable around her today.
Tanner Home, 2300 Hours
Kelli knew when Vin left their bed. After they returned home, he headed out to the barn, and stayed there a good hour or more. He had been restless the rest of the evening, and apparently, now he could not sleep. She lay there in their darkened room, and watched him as he stood by the window. Even without knowing what had him on edge, her heart still ached for him. After twenty minutes, she could not stand it any longer and slipped out of their bed to join him.
Walking up behind him, she said softly, "You want some company?"
Vin turned, and smiled. "I always want you." He slipped his arms around her and drew her closer. Resting his chin on her head, he whispered, "If everythin' was as easy as lovin' you, life would be a lot less complicated."
"Are you worried about Perón?"
"Him? No. We'll take him down and end his operations here." He sighed. "Reckon we need to talk." Stepping back, he took her hand and headed over to 'their' rocker. Once they were comfortable, he started. "This is where you and I have made some important decisions, and I guess it's the right place to tell you what's goin' on." He proceeded to explain about his new ability, about reading her thoughts this morning, and, why Chris was acting so strange. "I talked to Tracker about it earlier; he said it takes practice and discipline to control what I see."
Kelli took in his words, and suddenly began to giggle.
Vin was puzzled. "Kel, I just told you I read your thoughts and you're laughin'."
"I'm sorry," she smiled. "I had this picture of dad seeing you think about our mornin' connection and "
"Okay, that might be amusin', but the rest of it isn't." He brushed his hand over her hair. "Your thoughts should be private, until you want to share them."
"You're the most disciplined man I know. I'm sure you'll figure it out, and dad will get over whatever he saw." She laid her head on his shoulder. "As for my thoughts I just didn't want you distracted by what Anne told me."
"I'll study on the riddles she gave you."
"Be my guest, I'm still wrestlin' with the one Tracker left me last year."
He hesitated for a moment. "You want to talk about our baby?" She was silent for so long, he thought she would not answer.
Finally, she answered, "Anne gave me a momentary glimpse of her and promised to care for our daughter until we see her again."
A single tear slid down her cheek; he brushed it away. "You don't have to "
"I'm okay in fact, I've been thinkin' "
Vin closed his eyes and smiled. He saw her thoughts, and although it had taken a long time for her to reach this point, he still waited for her to give voice to them.
"It's been almost eighteen months, and the twins will be two soon. " She lifted her head to gaze into his eyes. "I'm due to see Doctor Weeks next month. If you agree, I'd like tell her to start the fertility treatments again. I know it could take a long time, or might not happen at all, but I want us to try . "
With his hand on the back of her head, he hoarsely whispered, "Sounds like a plan to me." He tenderly kissed her, and then they cuddled in their special chair. They talked well into the night, about the possibilities the future held for them.
Victory demands that all battles, whether they are physical or mental, need thorough preparation. Do not compromise your principles, or abandon your cause. ~Legends of the Quest~
Cole Mountain Warehouse District, Tuesday, 0800 Hours
Tanner walked around the back of the deserted buildings, noting that most would collapse from a good sneeze, and others were in only fair condition, with one exception. The one JD pinpointed as Perón's private warehouse, had covered windows, and was re-enforced with steel plates. He mentally mapped the area of open space his team would have to cross, before they breached the front double doors. Scanning the adjacent buildings, he saw only two possibilities for sniper cover. Stealthily, he made his way back to his truck, where Mike Langley and Kelli waited for him, with their gear.
"Let's make our way to the top of that one." He pointed to a distant warehouse. "Looks like it might not fall down around y'all."
Vin grabbed a bag from the back of his truck, and led the way. Fifteen minutes later, the three of them stood inside the abandoned structure, skeptically viewing the rickety stairs, which led to the roof. Tactical maneuvers were not new for Kelli, but Langley had very little experience with their procedures. Tanner needed to know how long it would take them both to ascend. Looking at the two agents, he checked his watch, and said, "Now, get your butts up there. Begin on my count of three one, two, three."
Coulter retrieved the fifteen-foot, pocket assault ladder from her vest, inserted the attachment rod into her rifle, and shot. The steel hook caught the top beam on her first attempt. She was up the ladder and on the roof in less than a minute. It took Langley a bit longer, but he did pay attention. By the time Vin joined them, she had cautiously moved about the roof of the building they were on, checked distance, and scrutinized where she needed to be, to have the best possible angle to cover the rest of their team.
Sitting on his haunches to stay low, VIN explained her actions to Langley, and then told him, "If you have any questions, now is the time to ask."
Mike nodded. "Okay, obviously, the left corner of the roof is the best position. Why did Agent Coulter choose the right?"
"It's simple. She knows her capabilities, but not yours. For that reason, Agent Coulter took the harder position, and left the closer one for you." Vin knew Kelli was qualified to do the necessary preparation without his help, and elected to assist Langley with his.
Once Kelli found a spot she liked, she finished prepping her gun, and stretched out on the concrete, then shimmied closer to the edge. She set up the mount for her rifle in the triangle of two walls coming together at one corner of the building, which gave her a bird's eye view into the one across from her and the ground below. Kelli then began the meticulous job of lining up her scope until she was satisfied she had the area memorized.
When they packed up to leave an hour later, Tanner was confident his two shooters were ready for Thursday.
MCAT War Room, 1630 Hours
Commander Larabee, and Captains Tanner and Michaels were busy men. Chris was on the phone with Travis in Texas, working out last minute coordination. Vin and Justin double-checked the latest intel on Perón, and then they used the GPS tracker to locate the current whereabouts of vehicles tagged by Nathan and Josiah. However, they spent most of their afternoon reviewing the maps, marking in what they found on the scene that was not on the originals, and discussing their options. After a run through of the assignments, both were satisfied they were in accord, and ready to take down Perón. Given the option, Mallory chose to stay at base Thursday to work with Franklin and Pam. Ezra slipped into the room at the last minute, having taken a break to confer with a couple of attorneys.
Tanner stood and addressed the teams, "Listen up. Study these map, and memorize every detail. Before you leave today,' I want y'all to go over each piece of equipment you'll use and make certain it's all in top order. We'll be off tomorrow, but have your pagers on stand-by. If we have any changes, or decided to abort, it will go out as a red level alert. Otherwise, I expect to see you all here, no later than 0200 Thursday mornin'. We'll depart from base by 0300 then be on scene and set- up by 0400."
He started to dismiss them and then added, "Your down time is the only opportunity you might have to rest for the next forty eight hours I expect y'all to use it. Once we take our assigned positions Thursday, no one makes a move until I give the go ahead. Make sure your radios and headsets are workin' properly, and your vests are in perfect condition. I don't plan on losin' any of y'all out there, so think about your actions, err on the side of caution, and do your jobs they way you've been trained." Vin scanned the room and make eye contact with most of the agents. "You should all know the plan .work it. Now, check your equipment, and then go home."
Chris nodded to Vin. "It all looks good. The report from Texas is equally good, so now we wait."
"Yep, all we need is Perón to do his part and show up on schedule."
Dunne Home, 1800 hours
Even though he expected Ezra, the knock at his door startled JD, and filled him with trepidation. The smile he flashed to welcome his brother didn't fool the southerner for one minute. Before they sat down, JD asked, "Coffee?"
"That would be most welcome, thank you." Glancing around, Ezra decided to set his briefcase down on the dining room table. By the time JD served the coffee, he had the papers he needed to sign spread out, and ready to review.
Staring at the open folders JD handed Ezra his cup. "Oh God "
Standish looked at him, his eyes filled with compassion. "There is no urgency, should you wish "
He shook his head and took a seat at the table. "No best get it over with."
"Would you like Buck, or one of the others, here ?"
The younger man smiled. "Buck already called, he's gonna drop by later to bring the kids home. Is everything in order?"
Ezra nodded. "Most definitely, the attorney, who handled the divorce agreement, is experienced. The one Nettie engaged to arrange the trust was very thorough. He had explicit instructions to give you absolute control over the children's trust as their sole custodian parent. You have the option of keeping or selling the property. All monies derived from a sale would go in trust for the children; accessible at whatever age you decide is appropriate. Casey and Nettie gave you carte blanche to do whatever you see fit with the property, to protect the children's interest." He smiled. "They know you will ensure that your children are provided for." He looked up and asked, "Have you have considered selling an option?"
JD swallowed hard, his voice soft, "To be honest, I haven't really gotten my head past this point, yet."
"Forgive my untimely inquiry, but should you ever consider selling, would you allow Larabee 7 the option of buying? You would of course be involved in such a transaction as part of the conglomerate, anyway."
His eyes fixed on Ezra, and then he nodded. "I'll think on it about selling it, I mean. I won't lie to you. Staying here's gonna be kinda hard for me, but it's where the kids need to be right now, familiarity, you know?"
"Indeed." Standish smiled, understanding the desire for stability in a child's life, whether it be family, or home. He reluctantly held out a pen. "If you're sure you're ready "
Gulping down his sip of coffee, the young man set down his mug and took the pen. Guiding him through the trust papers and pointing out where to sign, Ezra shuffled them into a folder and maneuvered the divorce papers in front of his youngest brother. JD's hand hovered over the paperwork for a long while. Ezra couldn't begin to imagine how his young brother was feeling; his own heart ached for JD as he watched him prepare to affix his signature to the agreement.
JD could barely see the papers for the tears forming in his eyes. His throat ached from the emotion nestled there as he tried to force his hand down. Yeah, he knew now that this was the right thing to do didn't make it any easier though. What could be easy about closing down a part of your life that, until recently, had given him the strength to keep going?
A voice sounded in the recesses of his mind. *Be strong you are loved and never alone.*
As the voice faded, JD was signing. Placing down the pen, he looked up at Ezra, tears falling from brimming hazel eyes. "I guess that's it, then." He swiped at his cheeks, and attempted to laugh and then said, "So much for me putting on a brave face, huh?"
Pulling him up into a strong embrace, Ezra held onto his brother fiercely. "At this moment, you're the bravest man I've ever known. Have courage, brother. You may be alone, but, as long as you have your brothers, you will never be lonely." Feeling JD lean into him, the pair remained close for a while.
Finally, JD pulled back. "Thanks, I needed that." He smiled, shyly. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't share it, though."
Standish grinned, his own cheeks wet. "In truth, so did I. I assume my secret will be equally safe with you?"
Laughing, they hugged briefly once more. Parting, Ezra packed up his briefcase. "I have time, if you'd like some company."
Shaking his head, Dunne smiled. "Thanks, I truly appreciate that, but " he sighed. " I thought I'd call Casey "
"Excellent decision," he nodded, "In that case, I'll take my leave. See you in the morning."
Walking Ezra to the door, he gazed at the man now on his stoop. "Thanks, Ezra for everything." With a small salute, Standish was gone.
Absently walking around his home, JD finally wandered back to the phone. Picking it up off the cradle, he sat on the sofa and placed the cordless handset to his ear, fished out his PDA from his pocket and dialed the retrieved number, his heart thumped against his ribcage as he heard a ring tone, and then a click. Clarity came in an instant; he knew what he needed to say.
"Casey? Hi, it's me." He smiled. "I'm good, thanks. How are you and Nettie? All settled?" He hunkered down, and closed his eyes as he listened to the voice of the woman he loved, letting it carry over him like a comforting blanket. "I called to ask how you are and to tell you " he swallowed the lump in his throat. " You'll soon be a free woman. I signed, today." He cried softly as he heard her telling him thanks. She voiced her hope that he understood why she could not come home. Even though she would always care about him and their children in her heart, she would never fully trust herself not to cause them more pain.
"I understand now," he whispered, "but a part of me will always love you, Case."
By the time their hour-long conversation was over, JD was spent, but happier than he'd been in a long time. He and Casey were on the road back to being at least friendly, and that felt good. The knock at the door came all too quickly. JD loved his kids, but suddenly worried if he was up to their return. The evening's events had completely drained him. The door opened and Buck poked his head around it.
"Hello in the house!"
"Right here, bro," JD grinned, walking from the living room. Looking behind Buck, he frowned. "You forget something?"
Closing the door, Buck chuckled. "Nope, Inez agreed with me that the kids should stay over, just for tonight. I figured my little brother might need some quality time with this big ol' lug who's kinda fond of him."
Eyes glistening, JD nodded. "That'd be neat, thanks. Do you want a beer?"
Buck slipped off his coat. "Is a frog's ass watertight?"
Both laughed, Buck took a seat while JD got the drinks. The pair sat in companionable silence for a few minutes as they sipped their beers.
Buck finally asked, "All done?"
"Pretty much what I expected."
"Uh huh." Buck took another drink.
"I called Casey."
Buck turned to face him. "Wanna talk about it?"
Relaxing back, Buck listened while JD talked well into the wee small hours. Closure was complete, and the two men parted with a huge embrace, and the knowledge that, from here on in, a new phase and better times were the new order.
Ezra was in an emotional, contemplative state of mind as he returned home from JD's. He turned off the Jag's engine and sat back in the seat. His heart ached for JD and he wished there was something that he could do to make all his sorrow and pain disappear, but he knew that was impossible. His youngest brother had to walk this particular journey on his own. He and the others would be there, of course, if he or his children needed them, but JD had to find the strength to deal with the dissolution of his marriage and his new role as a single parent on his own.
If anyone had told him a few years ago, that JD and Casey's marriage would be in shambles, he would have laughed in their faces. The young couple had been together for as long as he had known them, and seemed made for each other. He could still remember the shiny expressions on their faces when they gave the Wild Bunch their happy news that they were going to be parents for the first time. The way they held each other and appeared to speak a secret language of their own was beautiful.
His then married brothers, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan would complain from time to time about the restrictions of matrimony, and tell him he was the lucky one for being single and having no ties. They seemed to think that he had the life, living alone, no strings to tie him down, and dating one beautiful woman or another. They often pleaded with him to divulge how he succeeded in carrying things out, but he knew differently. The moment their wives gave them a certain look, or their kids plagued them with hugs and kisses, his brothers' true feelings about marriage and family were exposed. Then, it was Ezra, who secretly envied them.
He remembered his thoughts, when Kelli was in the hospital, and he overhead her and Vin talking. *Maybe someday, Ezra, you'll find someone to share that kind of love. They all think you know women, Ezra, but maybe Vin could teach you a thing or two about building a solid foundation for a loving relationship. If he can learn to trust that much, surely, you can too. Then you might find someone, less fleeting and more permanent in your life.* .and he did.
Not only was he married, but also he was about to become a father, and he found himself feeling incredibly blessed. Barbara Lindsey had changed his life, and the way he viewed things the moment he first saw her. She stepped into his heart as easily as another appendage, and had no prospects in severing her connection to him any time soon. She taught him what real love was about, broke down his shields, exposed his vulnerability, and wrapped it all in the protection of her love. He was no longer afraid to feel or share his emotions with anyone he cared about, not even Maude.
Exiting his car, he entered his home. There he found Barbara in her office, reviewing paperwork. He stood in the doorway and watched her work for a while, taking in her gentle beauty. They had indeed built a solid foundation, and together they could face anything .even Maude.
She must have sensed him there, because after several moments passed, she glanced up from her work and quietly asked, "Ezra, are you all right?"
He stirred at her voice, and offered her a smile. "I am more than all right, I am wonderful, and it is all because of you."
Ezra strolled over to her desk, kneeled down beside her chair, and hugged her tightly to him. "You complete me in ways I never knew possible, Missus Standish." Gazing into her eyes, he whispered,
My loins ache for you
My heart calls to you
My body worships you
My soul I give to you."
Barbara breathed into his hair, deeply touched by his words. "I love you too."
Taking her hand, he kissed each fingertip before assisting her up. "Tonight is ours, love let's make some memoirs."
Chris's Journal, 2200 Hours
Life has a way of dealing us surprises, which often brings us to our knees, and tricks us into believing that we are weak or not worthy of being happy. These are the times when a man must decide for himself just what kind of stuff he's made of. Some fall by the wayside, while others rise above their obstacles and stand tall.
Fate tested our littlest brother, in such a way. While his physical self recovered, from his injuries, his emotional, mental, and spiritual selves lay dormant in a perpetual state of sorrow, confusion, and loss. He wore his mask well, until it slowly chipped away, to reveal the raw wounds beneath, and it was only then that he began to take a turn for the better. With the support of his friends and family members, as well as Father Rafferty, JD turned a new leaf, and is now firmly in control of his life once again.
His divorce from Casey in is process, and with its end, a new beginning starts for JD. He has certainly come into his own throughout this long ordeal. I know that no matter what life tosses his way from here on out, he'll meet the challenges head on with new strength and determination. With their mother out of the picture, and Nettie gone as well, the twins and JJ need him more than ever.
It surprised us all how easily Nettie could pull up stakes and just leave to be with Casey. Understandably, they are blood kin, but Nettie has been a fixture in all of our lives for such a very long time, it is hard to think of her not being around to seek out advice from, or help out in the time of crisis. She sent all of us letters asking us to forgive her for choosing to be with Casey, instead of staying around to help JD care for the twins and JJ. She thanked us for being a part of her life and reiterated that even though she felt her place was with Casey, she loved us and always would.
I, for one, do not hold any grudges against her. Casey has no one besides Nettie now, while JD and his children have all of the Wild Bunch to love and support them. Nor do I hold a grudge against Casey. Yes, she could have very easily robbed me of one of my brothers, but in all fairness, she was ill at the time, and didn't know what she was doing. Her decision to give JD sole custody of the kids was probably the hardest thing she ever had to do, but it was the right thing nevertheless.
Most important of all, is the knowledge that the six men, who I have shed joys and sorrows with for more years than I can say, have been by my side before. Now that our joint memories are intact, we are in awe of the enormous responsibility destiny handed us. We are all still sorting through the initial consequences of past recall. Vin and I have already discovered new abilities and we want to learn how to use them effectively. I also suspect that new ramifications will reveal themselves to our brothers in the months to come. No matter what life tosses our way from here on out, Fate will have a hand in deciding the outcome.
Thursday morning we go back into action. The next couple of days will be hectic and dangerous for my agents, but I am confident about their abilities. Once we takedown Perón, I hope we all have a short reprieve before our next challenge hits us in the ass. More later
The man known as Kenneth Braswell parked near the edge of a heavily wooded area on the outskirts of Denver, as instructed. He waited with practiced patience for his superior to arrive. No matter how many assignments he carried out for the man, each one was intriguing, none routine. This one was one of the most mysterious yet. Making arraignment to receive the job at MCAT was easy, his unit's connections were superb, and best of all no one asked any questions he could not answer. His cover was solid, and he thought, unbreakable, but yesterday, somehow, Tanner read him for who he was. Of course, everyone told him that 'Hawk" was one of the best, now he believed it.
Suddenly without warning, the passenger door opened and 'he' slipped into the vehicle. "You have a message for me?"
"Yes sir," Braswell answered. Taking a deep breath, he repeated Tanner's words verbatim. "Your kind of right and wrong is not mine. Don't fuck with my life, my work, or my family."
A soft chuckle was his response. "Sounds like him." Taking on a more pensive tone, he said, "That boy always did travel his own road."
"My orders, sir?"
"They haven't changed, lieutenant." He shook his head. "You carry on. ' Hawk' may be pissed, and he'll try to make your life miserable, but until he talks to me face to face, he won't force you out. In fact, it's better that he knows I'm close. He'll have his guard up. "
"Should I be watching for anything in particular or just continue to report his whereabouts?"
"Report any changes in his routine. We're not the only ones keeping tabs on our man. They almost had him hell all of them, in South America, if I hadn't ." He sighed. "It's not important now, but until I can neutralize the threat to him, and his associates, it's imperative that I have eyes on 'Hawk'. His life could depend on it."
"Yes, sir..." The door opened, his commander slipped out into the shadowy night, and vanished. Braswell shook his head and thought, *Don't know what you have on him Tanner, but that man is hell-bent on protecting you, whether you want him to or not.*
Forces of good and evil do exist. The battlefields may change over time, but the hostilities between the two continue. ~ Legends of the Quest ~
MCAT Office, Thursday, 0245 Hours
Bravo team was already on the move, and now it was time for Command ops to go mobile. There were no words. As the senior agents of Alpha team silently geared up, their knowledge of one another, coupled with their recovered memories, brought tranquility to their preparations. They passed equipment around, even before the recipient realized he needed it. Small smiles and looks of absolute confidence of their abilities accompanied each action.
Kelli took it in her stride. Mike found it all a little unnerving. He was relieved when JD finally broke the calm by coordinating with Mallory, Pam, and Franklin to give his final orders before leaving.
Despite already knowing the answer, Chris looked at his young tech; JD answered his unspoken question. "Communications set; all equipment operational." He grinned. "We'll be able to hear a gnat fart."
Soft chuckles reverberated around the office. "I'll be sure to listen for that," Chris stated, biting back his own grin. He sobered. "Do you still think you can link into their security cameras?"
JD nodded. "If they're operating, I can get in."
Chris approved with a nod. "You'll be the eyes and ears for Alpha and Bravo teams, plus the DPD, until we move in."
Dunne nodded. "You can count on me." A bit startled when a collective *we know,* sounded in his head, he released a nervous chuckle. It was going to take some time to get used to all the freaky shit their bonding created.
Chris straightened. "Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, you'll be traveling in the com-sat van with JD and Buck. Vin, Mike, Kelli, you're with me. When we reach the target area, move to your assigned positions. We'll set-up communications with Charlie team, and monitor our coordinated movements from there. Once JD establishes a satellite connection, it's a waiting game until Peron arrives. We ready to do this?"
Chris nodded. "Let's ride!"
Four hours in, the Task force was in hover mode. Joining the wait, and parked down the road a few miles, Bones, Kat, Mark, and the MAU moved into position. Raphael sat nearby with the MCAT chopper ready to move in, should medical transport was necessary. The Denver PD had radio cars and EMS units on standby. The ground teams held at their first location, Kelli and Mike, at their primary on the roof. Charlie team, in San Antonio, confirmed that their targets were a go, and all they were waiting on was for Larabee to give them a green light. Time moved slowly, and boredom set in while the agents waited for Perón to show.
Despite his reputation of a body and mouth in perpetual motion, on a job, JD was all business, his focus unswerving. However, cooped up with Buck for several hours, took its toll, and the silent radios suddenly came to life. A flurry of snorts and laughter, from both teams, broke the quietness of the morning when JD announced, "I swear, Buck. You let one loose in here and I'm gonna stick this mike so far up your ass everyone will hear your lungs inflate."
Buck chuckled deeply. "Making me laugh don't help, kid."
"Burritos, again?" Vin's voice cut in.
"Sour cream would temper the spiciness," Josiah helpfully offered.
"I fear it may not be available by the gallon," Ezra chipped in.
Nathan decided to enter the debate. "I may have something to help you."
"A cork?" JD asked.
"It's a natural bodily function," Buck complained.
"Ain't nothin' natural about your gas, Bucklin," Vin huffed.
"We may have inadvertently stumbled upon the fuel of the future," Ezra deadpanned.
"Ha, fossil fuel fossil fuel get it? ' Cause you're old no?"
"Your jokes still ain't funny, JD," Buck stated.
"Are too, right guys?"
"Now that you mention it "
"Sorry, kid "
"I'm so unappreciated."
"What were we talking about?" Buck asked.
"When you ladies have quite finished discussing bodily functions " Chris cut in amidst the chuckling over the airwaves.
"Satellite in range in 3 2 1 I have visual." JD's urgent report on the imminent thermal images from the warehouses, snapped everyone back to the job at hand.
Already tapped into the warehouse cameras, the Task Force now had a view that surpassed all their expectations. They were able to 'see' the position of the more than dozen men inside, and an area on the right, which presumably held the young women Perón planned to market. Chris didn't know how JD did what he did, but he was glad for it. The thermal images from the satellite would assist in the areas the cameras were not located. They were set.
The feedback from the surveillance van was intermittent. Vin coordinated with Justin, while Chris stayed in communication with Texas. Radio communication was used to confirm what the Task Force already knew, and partly to stop everyone from 'falling asleep' during the long wait.
That interminable wait came to an early end. A sedan with darkened windows entered the forecourt between the target warehouse and the building where Mike and Kelli were located. Perón exited the vehicle and sauntered into the warehouse. Evidently, their sources were correct. He planned to move his guns, drugs, and women today.
From his observation point, Vin keyed his mic. "Hawk to Tech, confirm target sighting."
"Tech two, target confirmed, standby," Buck answered.
"Eagle one, do you read?"
"Eagle one to Hawk, standing by," Kelli answered.
Chris spoke. "Com one to all units, take your positions and await my mark. Tech, confirm when target is in position."
"Tech one, copy that," JD replied.
Chris looked toward Vin, and nodded, then looked across the forecourt. Alpha Team would be vulnerable crossing the open space from their cover to the warehouse doors, even with their 'eagles in the sky'. There was no way to plan for the many variables that they could confront. Chris silently prayed for a little divine intervention or a massive dose of good fortune, when that time came. He was comforted when a soft voice drifted through his mind *Have faith, justice will prevail today.*
Josiah and Nathan remained close in their crouched positions. Despite pulling out of Shadow ops, this work was in their blood, and the adrenaline was kicking in nicely. They pushed any doubts they may have harbored about this mission to the back of their minds, their focus firmly on success. Failure was not an option. Their strength and optimism soared as the voices of their brothers echoed in their ears and in their minds. Their team was, and had always been tight; operating like a well-oiled machine. This day, however, would see a new chapter written in their legendary journey. Their first mission, as the brothers they once were, and they now knew would always be. That knowledge empowered them.
Ezra, while close to Vin's position, stood concealed, alone. From his location, he had a clear view of the com-sat van, Josiah, Nathan, and VIN. Chris was somewhere to the rear of his position, and when they moved, Larabee would be his initial back up, while Kelli and Mike covered all of them. He felt a surge of excitement as their collective awareness peaked when Buck and JD's announcement that Perón had arrived hit the airwaves. He knew, as did all his brothers, their communal thoughts were in sync, and it caused his heart to soar with expectation.
Vin looked up to the roof where he knew his wife was in position. While he was confident about her abilities, the man who loved her allowed himself a few tiny seconds to pray for her safety. He had never felt more connected to her. It was a different kind of link than to his brothers, but no less profound. He took a calming breath, accepting a voice deep in his soul telling him *unconditional love, and steadfast faith, will always triumph over the dark forces of iniquity*, and he never doubted it for a moment. He glanced at Chris; their connection had never been stronger, enhanced by the surging love he had finally been able to convey to Chris and five other men, who he had always felt closest to.
Buck glanced across at the young man he had always cared for, embracing the knowledge that he was, and had always been, JD's self-imposed protector. Drawn to the youth from the moment he laid eyes on him, he never understood why, just simply accepted it until now. Now he knew why they had always felt like more than just friends, and it made him happier than mere words could ever express.
This was the stuff of fiction, yet the knowledge of his, JD's, and their brothers' history was as easy to accept as the air they breathed. It defied analysis, too pure and intense to be anything other than right. The love Buck carried in his heart, and especially for this young man made the professional side to their connection watertight. The team had gone beyond normal capabilities long before the unveiling of their past, and now they would forge ahead with a strength and conviction that was unparalleled and truly magnificent. Buck knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, today would be a good day.
JD knew Buck was watching him, and flashed him a quick grin before continuing to study the activity in the warehouse. The next time the pair talked, after the revelation of their mutual past, JD finally said the things he had always carried in his heart, but found difficult to express in words. Their tactile relationship regularly confirmed their unspoken connection, JD accepted the comfort, protection and yes, he could say it now love, he felt for the man who had taken him under his wing, given him a home, and nurtured him toward being the man he was today. When their bond was shaky some time back, he felt as if a part of his life was missing, and was elated to learn that Buck had felt the same. After a difficult time, they reaffirmed their bond turned a page and had never looked back. Whatever else happened this day, JD could not feel any more secure, happy and loved, than at this moment.
Flicking between monitors, his adrenaline went into overdrive. "Tech one to all units semi entered alleyway. Our target took a call, and is now on the move. Confirm Tech one, out."
Larabee's voice broke into the silence. "I see it. When that truck crosses the courtyard, we'll use it for cover. Eagle one status?"
"Eagles one and two, set," Kelli confirmed.
"Position secure," Vin answered.
"Bravo one, awaiting a go." Justin confirmed.
"Wings one and two, ready." Josiah spoke for himself and Nathan.
"Wing three, awaiting instructions," Ezra said as he took a deep breath.
"Tech one, on your mark," Chris ordered.
"Tech one, understood."
Closing his eyes for a split second, Chris felt the surge of energy from his brothers. Using his open frequency to Charlie team he said, "Task force, standby."
In less than a minute, the huge truck began to back up to the front of the warehouse. JD's voice confirmed that Perón was heading toward the front doors, and pinpointed the position of his bodyguards. Assigning targets, Chris listened to Buck's countdown, finally calling out, "Assault teams, GO!"
JD and Buck exited the van, and joined Chris, Vin, and Ezra as they shadowed the truck's trailer into the yard. Nathan and Josiah ran from their position to take out two guards at a side entrance, but the guards fired a volley of shots and ran into one of the dilapidated warehouses to one side of the target area, the MCAT agents instantly followed. Once inside, the two goons parted, one was going to an upper landing, the other continuing through the rubble and detritus of the lower floor. Pointing for Nathan to follow the first guard, Josiah took the metal staircase to the second landing two steps at a time in pursuit of goon number two.
Nathan ducked three shots as he chased his man down. Seizing an opportunity, he paused, took a position, and fired at the man's legs, watching with satisfaction as the guard went down. In seconds, Nathan was on the man. He kicked away the gun, and pushed him onto his stomach. "Federal Agent, assume the position, asshole, hands behind your head now!"
Josiah was on the second landing in seconds, dropping down to avoid a hail of bullets as his quarry fired back from his position on a narrow landing. About to follow, Josiah stopped dead in his tracks as a man in heavy clothing and a large cross around his neck appeared before him, blocking his way.
"Who ?" Even as he spoke, he instinctively recognized the apparition as Preacher, brother to Cowboy, Tracker, and Sheriff.
*You are not destined to die this day, my brother.* as he spoke, a loud cracking sound echoed through the building. Josiah watched in shock while the man he was chasing disappeared in a cloud of cement dust and shearing metal, his death grisly and instant as he hit the floor below in a tangle of rubble. Eyes glistening, Sanchez looked to the man who had saved his life. "How how did you "
Preacher placed a hand on Josiah's shoulder. *Our brothers never enter into battle alone Vaya con dios.* With a huge grin, Preacher was gone.
Hearing the gunfire, Perón, and his bodyguards unholstered their weapons and prepared to fight. Perón, reached into the group of frightened women waiting to be loaded into the truck. He pulled one to him as a shield. Her terrified struggles prompted the man to slap her face, viciously, tearing at her clothing to expose her breasts. "You are mine, bitch, be still."
Her humiliation and fear complete, she simply sobbed as he fisted her hair and pushed her ahead of him, ordering the other women returned to the tiny holding area that held them before. Perón had no idea what was waiting for him outside, but he wasn't worried, his adversaries were no more aware of what they were up against, either. With one final instruction to his closest bodyguard, he initiated a phone call, which he was certain would guarantee his escape.
Chris, Ezra, Vin, Buck, and JD were following the truck in, its long trailer giving them excellent cover across the courtyard. They concentrated on keeping their presence undetected and breaching the warehouse doors. An unexpected droning noise caused them to look up toward the rooftops, shock evident as a huge, dark gray OH-58 Kiowa helicopter rose above the buildings. Instinct kicked in, they changed course and began firing at Perón's dark clad militia, who rappelled from the chopper
"GET DOWN!" Even as Chris called out, machine gun fire rebounded around the courtyard, the pained cries of his brothers evident as he rolled away to cover, while ignoring the burning pain to his left hip.
Inhaling sharply at the stinging in his upper left arm, Vin rolled under the now stationary truck to regroup and mentally prepare for the next wave of attack. He guessed that the big vehicle was likely missing its driver, though yet to discover whether from desertion, or death. Scanning the area, he visually mapped the positions of his teammates.
Limping heavily, Ezra succeeded in gaining cover in another of the decaying buildings. His guns were primed and he looked for his first target. With the exception of Josiah and Nathan, he could see his brothers, all walking wounded, but alive. He jerked as the former pair suddenly joined him. "Excellent timing," he deadpanned, grateful to feel the presence of Nathan and Josiah at his side and back.
Holding his side, Buck grabbed JD; the younger man's bloody hand clutched a place just above and to the front of his hip. Seeing Buck bleeding, JD's eyes went wide, his own pain forgotten.
"I'm good," Buck answered the unspoken question. He smiled thinly, and dragged JD toward the building Ezra was in, while ignoring the bloody, broken body of the truck driver as he lay sprawled across the steering wheel, glassy eyes no longer seeing the drama unfolding.
The unobstructed view from their vantage point allowed Kelli and Mike to observe Alpha and Bravo teams' progress. They took aim with their M4's, ready to protect their fellow agents, and take out as many of Perón's men as possible. Suddenly, the sound of thundering rotor wash caused them to turn. Instantly they began firing in tandem at an assault team, which rappelled down from the large helicopter, now hovering behind them. Their bullets found their targets, but the pair had to dive for cover when the machine dipped its nose and began firing at the roof, sending up flurries of concrete and shale around them.
Vin's heart was in his throat when he saw the helicopter open fire. With the knowledge that Chris reached the building his brothers were now in, Vin walked backwards to join them. Hoisting his rifle to his shoulder, he took aim at the huge bird bearing down on them. "Come on, you mother fucker, smile ." Tanner fired a volley, and watched with satisfaction as the helicopter wobbled and quickly descended. Before its fatal tailspin, he spotted the smoke trail it emitted, and turned quickly to run to the building his brothers were in, yelling, "GET OUT!"
His warning was lost to the splintering, and grinding sounds of rotor blades crashing against brickwork. The chopper bounced off the building below it to spiral down in a ball of flames and black smoke onto open ground on the other side of the complex. Its discharged missile, however, found its target and entered the decaying building it had aimed for, throwing Vin backwards as it exploded in a mass of flames, rubble, burning wood and lethal projectiles.
Kelli screamed when chunks of rotor blade narrowly passed over her and Mike's prostrate bodies. It hit everything but them, while it took off pieces of the building in its wake, leaving them little room to maneuver. She felt a warm trickle down the back of her neck, and her body ached. Gingerly raising her head, she glanced at Mike as the mayhem slowly decreased, relieved to see him look back at her, cut, and bruised, but alive.
Vin's call of warning was received, but something emanating from him reached his brothers seconds before his voice. As a frantic Tanner began clawing at the fallen brickwork, a hand reached out to him, and he grabbed it and then another. To the day they passed on to their new lives, they would never know how all six men, dusty, bloody, but alive, came out of the destruction. Although cut, bruised, and battered, they walked away from the burning ash, momentarily clinging to one another before they straightened and headed back toward the main warehouse.
Elated by the view of total destruction before him, Perón considered himself safe. He aimed his gun to his captive's head, pushed her away from him, and blew her brains out, but even as her body hit the ground, he stared in horror when he saw, from the smoke and flames, seven armed men appear, and walk straight toward him. He and his men raised their guns, but were dead before they could fire even one round. Seven guns smoked as the bodies of Dante Perón and his men jerked, and crumpled to the ground.
The silence, which followed, was deafening.
Our code of honor binds us. We exist to defend the righteous, and triumph against dark forces of iniquity. In life we are mere mortals, in death, we are as one, awaiting the call to serve again. ~Legends of the Quest~
Nathan immediately began assessing the injuries of his teammates. Although they were wounded, bloody, dirty, and bruised, all were still on their feet. It appeared that once again, the seven of them had beaten the odds against them. The Kevlar did its job, preventing any lethal injuries, but he noted other bullet wounds and shouted, "Ezra, Buck, and JD sit!"
Ignoring his own injuries, the absence of gunfire spurred Chris into commander mode. He barked into his mic, "Sit rep!"
"Warehouse secure, five in custody, team intact," Justin answered first, for Bravo Unit.
"All objectives accomplished, injuries minimal," Sam Cain reported for Charlie Unit.
The silence from Kelli and Mike sent Vin running to the building where they were located. Having witnessed the barrage of firepower unloaded on the rooftop, he forgot his resolve of faith, and feared the worst.
"Eagle one, report," Chris shouted, torn between his responsibility as Commander, and the anxiety he heard Vin silently broadcasting. He repeated, "Eagle one or two, report!"
Josiah grabbed his arm and said, "Everything's under control here, come on."
Amid the sounds of approaching sirens and the renewed activity of agents recovered from the shock of seeing their teammates rise from the ashes of a burning building, Josiah and Chris ran to join Vin. The smell of smoldering wood and burnt gunpowder assaulted their senses. Very little of the structure remained standing, but there was still a partial roof intact. Ignoring the pain from his injured arm, Tanner pulled at the pile of debris in an effort to get closer to the damaged building. He continued to shout non-stop for Coulter and Langley to report.
Two bodies, in the form of brothers, appeared to assist him. Working close to what used to be the stairs; Vin felt something, drop from above and hit his back. Picking it up he realized it was Kelli's headset; it was broken, and evidently thrown with the hope of drawing his attention. He looked up and saw her hand extended over the edge of the roof entrance. Her thumbs up signal eased his anxiety, and yelling as loud as he could, he answered, "Copy that, Eagle one."
Josiah and Chris paused, and exchanged grins, their relief evident. Justice prevailed this day, and another battle in their perilous war against the indomitable forces of evil had ended in victory.
"Throw down your rope ladder, I'm coming up." Vin ordered.
Mike worked his way over to the opening, and although his voice was weak, he attempted to shout, "Head's up." He threw the ladder over the edge after securing it to the one remaining intact post on the roof. Next, he passed down their rifles and told Tanner, "Stay where you are, I'm not sure how much weight this thing can handle. Coulter is coming down, and she'll need some assistance."
Although he was also battered and bruised, Josiah stepped forward, mindful that Tanner took a bullet and still bled from the wound. "Mind your arm Vin, let me."
Vin reluctantly nodded.
Careful not to add extra strain to the ladder, Josiah reached up to grab hold of Kelli as she descended. Successful, he handed her over to Vin before repeating the process for Mike. He was relieved to find Langley's injuries non-lethal, but needing attention all the same.
The sight of his wife covered in blood did not do much for Vin's anxious state of mind. He set her on the ground and began to inspect her for injuries. Removing her vest was his first order of business; fortunately, it did its job. She would have bruises, but no slugs penetrated past the Kevlar. "Damn, woman, where's all this blood comin, from?"
Kelli reached up, touched his worry-ridden face, and whispered, "The back of my head I think. It looks worse than it is though, I'll be all right." She dropped her hand to his bloody arm and threw his words back to him. "Damn Tanner, where's all that blood comin' from?"
"It looks worse than ," he stopped and nodded, "point taken." Helping her to her feet, he wrapped his good arm around her waist. "Nathan is setting up a triage by the big warehouse. Let's get you, Mike, and," he looked at Chris, and his bloody leg, "the old man, over there to get y'all checked out."
"This old man can still kick your butt even with one good leg, Tanner," Chris shot back, now aware Kelli was looking at his injured leg in alarm. "Relax, honey," he soothed, "I've had paper cuts worse than this."
Five walking wounded made their way out of the rubble and headed back toward the warehouse. Bravo team, assisted by the Denver PD had five in custody, and arrangements made to transport ten underage female aliens to the hospital for examination. Raphael brought the MCAT chopper in for Nathan to have access to medical supplies. Bones took charge of the dead bodies, while Greg and Kat inventoried the cache of weapons and drugs. In addition, NTSB authorities were en route to investigate the helicopter crash.
Ignoring his own aches and pains, Nathan had finally managed to line Ezra, JD, and Buck up against the wall of the main warehouse, successfully getting each man to hold a dressing in place as he went from one to the other to clean them up and check their wounds. He crouched in front of Ezra, spending some time cleaning up the dust-covered cuts.
"I assume, by your demeanor, I'll survive."
Nathan nodded to Ezra. "You'll survive your wounds, my wrath, possibly not, if you don't keep a hold of that dressing."
Standish grinned. "You really should consider stand-up comedy, my friend." He sobered. "How bad?"
"Bullet gouged a decent amount of flesh out of your thigh, but it's a clean wound." Nathan grinned. "Couple of stitches, you'll be fine." Squeezing back at the hand gripping his, Nathan moved on to Buck.
Buck glanced down at JD. He was a mess, his hair and face covered in brick dust and streaks of blood mixed with sweat, but he seemed fine. "Lean into me, kid."
"I'm fine, Buck, thanks all the same."
"You've never looked better." Buck smiled, and then chuckled at the indignant look he received.
"Sure, 'cause you look so damn good yourself, bro."
"Fair comment," he answered with a grin. "Okay then, do you mind if I lean against you?"
"Sure, if it helps," JD replied, sighing softly as he felt the warm strength of his brother next to him.
Nathan smiled to himself as he approached the pair, silently commending the big man. He sure did know how to comfort their youngest without it diminishing JD in any way. Gently, Nathan lifted the dressing on Buck's side. "A nasty gash, but nothing a few stitches won't fix." He proceeded to wipe over some of the cuts to Buck's face and neck, reluctant to disturb them too much. The hospital was a better place to cleanse the wounds properly.
Buck turned when JD hissed. Nathan clicked his tongue, and shook his head while inspecting the wound under JD's dressing. "Nathan?"
"It's okay, Buck," the medic assured. "The bullet's still in there, but it's just under the surface, I can actually feel it." He slapped away JD's curious fingers, replacing the blood-soaked bandage with a clean one. "Leave it be, don't want to push it deeper."
"I can do that?" JD asked.
"I'm not sure," he admitted, dabbing at the cuts on his youngest brother's face and neck. "But I sure as hell ain't going to let you find out." Seeing Chris et al coming toward him, Nathan patted the three men's shoulders and motioned for the new arrivals to sit. He sat each agent down, checking them over, but saying little until he was cleaning up the cut to Kelli's head. Sensing Chris's question, he nodded to the man who was their professional and family leader.
"I've seen nothing to overly concern me. I reckon everyone will be home by at least tomorrow. The best professional opinion I can offer is that the wounds are the results of bullets either stopped by our vest, or ricocheting around the courtyard, and the collapse of the building we somehow walked away from."
Josiah, hearing the remark, reflected on his own near-brush with death. He decided he would share his good fortune with his brothers when they were all back on their feet and ready to talk it through in a more personal, rather than work setting.
Relieved when the paramedics received the all clear to approach the scene, Nathan handed over the reins and his notes to them. He slumped down next to his teammates, fully aware of, and ready to concede to, his own medical needs.
Denver Memorial Hospital
When Doctor Gilford heard that nine injured MCAT agents were on their way in, he made a few wise decisions. First, he called his most experienced trauma nurses into the ER. Then, he set up a temporary communal triage area. He knew from experience that it was futile, and frustrating to keep the injured agents separated. Lastly, he conferred with new medical personnel, and made certain they understood that MCAT agents were an entirely different breed from the patients they were used to dealing with.
Raphael flew Chris, JD, Buck, and Ezra, all sustaining bullet injuries, in by helicopter. Vin insisted on riding in with Kelli by ambulance, and Josiah, drove in with Nathan, and Mike. Doctor Gilford started on Chris while Doctor Landers began with JD.
Doctor Gilford prodded and probed the injury to Chris's hip. "All right, Larabee. Were you trying to break a record, or did you think I don't have enough to do around here?"
"Just doing our job, Doc," Chris answered. "A few bad guys took exception to that." He looked over toward the row of beds. "Thanks for keeping us together."
Gilford chuckled. "I figured it would be easier on me this way." He patted Larabee on the shoulder. "You can relax; they're all in fair shape. Now, as for you, a few sutures, a couple of days rest, and you'll be good as new."
Doctor Landers viewed JD's x-rays and nodded. "Nathan was correct. The bullet is just under the skin, but using a local I can remove it here."
"No surgery?" JD grinned. "Go for it. I want to get home to my kids as soon as possible."
Landers picked up a syringe. "This won't take long, but when you do go home, I expect you to take it easy for a few days."
Buck watched while the doctor worked on JD. A couple of stitches, and he knew he'd be going home, too. He glanced around the room, Chris was on the phone, Ezra was in deep discussion with one of Gilford's assistants, Vin was with Kelli, and Josiah, Nathan, and Mike were in the discharge process. Yep, he nodded; it was a good day for Alpha team. A voice echoed in his head, one that sounded strangely familiar, *Yes, it is. Chalk another one up in the win column for us good guys.*
Shaking his head, Buck grinned. *Damn, is that you Old Buck? Can I see you?*
*Yeah, it's me, but don't call me old, Junior. Call me .uh aw hell call me Romeo. In the meantime, you take care of our brothers. You'll see me soon enough.*
*But * Buck realized that whoever it was he heard, was gone, but he looked forward to the next time.
Vin's left arm was in a sling, but he squeezed Kelli's hand with his good one. "I'll be right back." He stood and walked over to Mike Langley. "You did a good job out there today." Extending his hand, he said "Welcome to Alpha team."
Mike shook his hand. "Thank you, sir. You told me MCAT was different, now I know what you meant."
"You'll get used to us." Josiah placed his hand on Langley's back and grinned. "Mallory is on her way here, and when you're ready, we'll give you a ride home."
Using one crutch, Chris joined them. "I talked to Travis. With the information gathered from the records they confiscated, and statements from the women we rescued, we'll take down ninety percent of Perón's operations in Colorado and Texas. They're still tallying the amount of weapons and drugs, but it appears we made a major haul. Justin is clearing the scene, and he'll start the paperwork, the rest can hold off until Monday."
"That's good, because I think we all need a few days to recuperate" Vin glanced over to the others. "The doc is about done with Ezra, JD, and Buck, all I need is clearance to take Kel home."
"Rain is coming to pick me up, so I'm good to go." Nathan added.
Josiah said, "I have my truck here. Mallory and Mark are driving Vin's Silverado and Chris's Ram over, and I'll drop him back at the office when we leave."
Chris nodded. "Inez is on her way to pick up Buck and JD. Cait is riding in with Barbara, and they're bringing clean clothes for everyone, so I guess we're all covered.
Doctor Gilford approached the men. "Vin, I'm going to release Kelli, but if her headache worsens, I want her back in here a.s.a.p."
Chris answered first, "That you can count on, Doc."
The drive from the hospital was quiet, but the pair held hands the whole way. Once home and settled, Rain ordered Nathan to bed. After fussing over him, she collected the kids from Reins, bathed them, allowed them to visit with their father and then put them to bed.
They always slept naked, so, as always, she stripped and climbed in next to Nathan. Mindful of his injuries, she spooned him. "How are you feeling, now?"
"A little sleepy, but good, thanks. I think I'm finally descending from the adrenaline rush."
"From the bust?"
Nathan carefully turned to face her. "Yes but " he hesitated for a moment, but knew she would now understand what he was about to divulge. "When I saw my brothers injured, the usual stuff kicked in, but there was more."
"More, my love?"
He nodded, gazing into her eyes. "More. It was as if my hands weren't my own. I have never felt so confident when treating them there was no real fear, it was as if I *knew* I could deal with it."
"Don't you always feel that way?"
"Sort of, yeah, but, this time " he smiled. " Take JD's injury. I could see there was no exit wound, but it was as if something or someone guided my hand. I could feel the bullet, and was able to reassure him and Buck in an instant."
Rain smiled. She had no doubt that what he said was true, and she loved to see him so excited. She kissed him.
"That's wonderful, darling. We'll talk more tomorrow, but for now sleep. Your body needs to rest."
Rain moved to her back and Nathan laid his head on her chest. Within minutes, he was sleeping, safe in the arms of the woman he loved. She sighed and whispered a soft 'thank you' before joining him in slumber.
Having driven Buck and JD to her home, Inez had insisted JD stay over, not convinced the young man could cope that night with three young children while on painkillers, and injured. Reluctantly, JD agreed. He wanted to be in control of his life, but also needed to accept when he needed help.
Buck had held his children before they went to bed, comforted by their presence, and grateful to know they were safe. As he and Inez lay in bed, he looked at her.
"Have I told you I love you, lately?"
"Si, this morning before you left, but I never tire of it," she smiled.
"Good, because I'm saying it again. I love you, lady."
Inez stroked his face. "And I love you, my husband. I feared for all of you today, but I prayed for your safety and God answered me." She sighed. "You make me so proud."
Buck brushed away a tear from her eye. He thought it best that, though he considered it more than prayer that had helped them this day, he would keep it to himself, for now. "The kid did great I was so proud of him, after all he's been through."
"He has good mentors," she smiled, "and the heart of a lion. I understand he takes after his brothers."
Fighting sleep, Buck kissed her. "Ain't that the truth?" He sighed. "It was a good day."
Watching him fall into sleep, Inez carefully cuddled in. "Every day is a good day with you, my love."
In Buck's spare bed, JD grinned to himself, as he glanced to his right. Daisy and Lilah had insisted on sleeping with him. Thank God, it was a big bed. JJ was in a crib to his left, sleeping peacefully, as was his sisters. He felt surrounded by love as he glanced between the three. He and Casey's impending divorce still weighed heavily on his heart, and he missed the girl that had been at his side seemingly all his adult life, more than words could express. Nevertheless, this night, he was at peace. Of course, he considered that could be the painkillers, but somehow, he knew that wasn't it.
All his brothers and teammates had survived one of the toughest days of their lives. Yeah, they were all injured, but considering a helicopter fired on and exploded over them and a building came down on the rest to then see them walk away practically unscathed this had definitely been a good day.
He had desperately wanted to go home, to endorse his and his children's new lives, but one thing he had learned during his hell on earth, was to accept and/or ask for help when needed. Therefore, when Inez had gone all 'big sister' on him, he had accepted graciously, and counted his blessings.
Sleepily, he touched his aching side, while his other arm moved up to encompass his girls' heads as they slept, his fingers toying with the soft curls. It would be a long time before he would not miss having Casey at times like this, to hold him when he was hurting and reassure him all was well, but at least he didn't break down every time thoughts like that crossed his mind any more. He brushed away a tear. He was just tired right? He took a cleansing breath, nodding his weary head. Right.
Josiah allowed Mallory to assist him from their truck. His injuries were not that serious, even though he would be sore for a few days, but he did it mainly to make her feel better. He did make a half ass protest when she insisted he stretch out on the bed to rest, while she ran over to Reins to pick up the children. She made certain he had something to drink by the bedside, and the television remote nearby.
She leaned over, fluffed his pillows, pulled the quilt up, kissed him, and said, "I love you."
"Love you too, woman. Hurry back."
The truth was that he enjoyed her fussing over him, and it felt good to be home. Home he thought back to earlier. He knew that he did not imagine Preacher being there. His presence was a benefit of the gift they each received when their memories returned. Smiling to himself, he realized that their memory recall was only the beginning of the journey that lay before them. It was going to be a pleasure to see what other surprises he, and his brothers, would find along the way.
Ezra talked non-stop all the way home. He wanted to make certain Barbara understood he was all right, and there was no need for her to worry. Arriving home, he attempted to make it to the door unassisted, but the pain from his leg wound made the short journey from the car to their front door difficult.
"You really shouldn't try so hard to go it alone, honey," Barbara whispered in his ear. She was beside him, and slipping her arm around his waist, before he realized she was close. "I'm pregnant, not useless, and I can still help my husband when he needs it."
Beads of perspiration rolled down his forehead, and panting from pain, he said, "You shouldn't have to over exert yourself for me. I'm fine."
"Poppycock, you are one stubborn man, but " she walked slowly next to him until they reached the bedroom, "I'll forgive you because I know you're only being protective of me and our child."
"I am not stubborn ouch damn that hurts."
She smiled, maneuvered him to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, and then lifted his leg so he could lie down. She removed his shoes, covered him with a quilt, and told him, "You will stay there, until I say you can move."
"I " he sighed, and then, in then the comfort of their bed, he began to relax. The pain medicine took over and as he drifted off to healing state of sleep, he muttered softly, "I love you."
Barbara did know about the dangerous side of her husband's work. Nevertheless, she also knew that he would not do anything else and still be the man she fell in love with, and loved even more today. She would trust his abilities, and his brothers to keep him safe. Leaning down, she kissed his forehead, and replied, "Sweet dreams, love."
Max and Walter met them at the door, both concerned about their 'adopted children'. Max fussed over both Vin and Kel, allowing them only enough time to reassure Jason and Andi that they were indeed, all right, and hugged the twins. Then she shooed them off to their bedroom to rest, promising to let them know when supper was ready.
Vin closed the door, leaned back against it, and sighed. "Damn, I'm glad this business with Perón is over." He watched Kelli move slowly toward the bed, and thought about how it felt to see that helicopter open fire on the rooftop. He supposed he could never completely separate his feelings for her as his wife and life mate, from her role as an agent. However, the thoughts he was picking up from her said he had to try to make her understand it was still okay.
"You did a good job out there today. I'm proud of you."
Kelli sat on the side of the bed, kicked off her shoes, and looked up when he spoke. "You mean that?"
Vin crossed the room and sat next to her. "Of course I do."
"I've been waitin' for either you, or dad to lay into me about the risks of the job and how I "
Vin stopped her when he kissed her bandaged temple. "I know, and considerin' how we've both reacted in the past, understandable." He reached up and lightly touched the dressing on her neck. "We've moved past that me Tarzan, you Jane, mentality, Baby. You did what you're trainin' taught you to do, and damn well, I might add. Yes, it damn near kills me to see you hurt, but then I reckon you feel the same way about me."
She leaned into his good side, and sighed when he wrapped his arm around her. "I'll admit I had my moments today. Watchin' it all go down, and seein how close y'all came I promised myself to never let you out of my sight once I got you home safe and sound."
He chuckled and said, "We'll we're finally alone. Max is runnin' interference to make sure we're not disturbed, and neither of us is in any condition to take advantage of it."
"Maybe we should do as she said, and really rest for a change."
Vin nodded, moved to help her onto the bed, removed his boots, and lay down to cuddle behind his wife. He whispered softly. "I love you, Texas."
"Love you too, Tanner." Both were asleep within five minutes.
Caitlyn helped Chris into the house and into his recliner. "Jesse and Willard are helping Sally with Grace and Cody at the daycare. Do you want me to pick them up and bring them home?"
Chris shook his head and patted the space next to him. "Sit with me a while, first."
She only hesitated for a second, before she sat down, snuggled in close, and leaned into him. "You feel good."
"Cait, about today " he sighed, "I know my job can be dangerous, and I understand if you "
She pressed her fingers to his lips. "Your job is part of who you are. I love you Chris Larabee, all of you, and I'd be lying if I said I won't worry about your safety, but I can deal with whatever you can. You and I, our children, the Wild Bunch, your brothers, Reins, and your job, are all part of the package." She ran her hand across his chest and sighed. "And I do so love the packaging."
Serenity settled into his soul, as he listened to her words. Chris smiled, and whispered, "I love you."
Cait looked up and gazed into his eyes. "How about I pick up our kids, come home, and then we'll all celebrate you being here, together?"
His lips brushed across hers, and he said, "Sounds good to me. You get the kids, I'll order pizza."
Cait eased off the chair, made sure he was comfortable, and placed the phone next to him. "I'll be back before you have a chance to miss me."
"Not likely," he said with a grin as he watched her leave. He made the call to order dinner, closed his eyes, and leaned back to reflect on his life. *You have to be the luckiest S.O.B. in the world, Larabee. You've learned how strong the ties of family really are. We never stop caring and it doesn't matter if the distance is in miles or time. Love of family is what's important, it never ends, or waivers. Finding Cait completed you in a way you never believed possible. Your children are all safe and well, and close by. If that wasn't enough, Fate presented you with memories more precious than gold, and surrounded you with a true family of brothers. Our strength is within us, connected from one generation to another. Our spirits are free-flowing and infinite, linking us to our past, giving us strength in the present, and guiding us to our future.*
Larabee 7, Sunday, five weeks later
The past month had been a busy one. The Perón bust turned out to be huge, and earned another accolade for the MCAT teams. Their caseload at work was now closer to normal, little league started up for the Tanners, and Isabella arrived from Mexico to live with the Wilmingtons. She also agreed to help JD with his children until he found a fulltime Nanny. Ezra turned out to be a worse mother hen about Barbara's pregnancy, than Vin was with Kelli. Nathan rediscovered his love of medicine, and decided he liked being team medic more than forensics. Josiah reveled in each new discovery he made about the seven of them, and their legacy, while Chris and Caitlyn planned for a June wedding.
Six men gathered on Larabee's deck. The weather was beautiful, the grill was hot, tables set out, and in about an hour, their women would be arriving with the children. Although the seven men had always enjoyed one another's company, the past few weeks were even more pleasurable. They were able to share experiences and memories that only they had access to, and their bond, while always close, sealed even tighter.
Vin walked up the steps to join them. He and Kelli had spent most of the night with Jason. Yesterday during his game, he hit what looked like a home run, ran the bases, and then collided with the shortstop, who attempted to tag him out. The run counted, but Jason's arm was broken, and he was now out for the rest of the season.
Chris asked before the others had a chance to, "Hey, Vin, how's Jason?"
"Disappointed about the season, but doing okay with his arm. Andi was drawin' butterflies on his cast when I left."
Buck scrunched his shoulders. "Butterflies? That boy needs horses, swords, or a dragon on his cast not girl stuff."
JD punched him. "You've had swords and dragons on the brain ever since we started our memory shit. You've even got Lilah and Daisy into it now."
Josiah watched the two of them and smiled. "I think we've all had an interesting few weeks. I know I have." He paused for a moment, but knew this was the right time to share. "I've waited to tell you all this but last month during the Perón bust something extraordinary occurred."
Ezra interrupted him. "I daresay having an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter swoop in, and attempt to kill us all is extraordinary."
Josiah chuckled. "It was, but when Nathan and I split up to chase the two guards, I saw the man Cowboy calls Preacher. He stopped me from continuing on just moments before the second story landing collapsed. He told me it was not my day to die, and that none of us go into battle alone."
Six men exchanged glances before Chris said, "I think they will always be with us. I know Cowboy is never far away."
Vin nodded. "Tracker is there any time I need to talk to him."
Nathan took a deep breath. "I've never seen the man they call Healer, but I felt his presence that day, while I was patching you guys up."
"I certainly understand how you felt, Josiah. Tracker and Cowboy directed every move I made on our Legend books." Ezra sighed softly. "I also know that when the time is right, I will see the Gambler. A meeting I am looking forward to."
"The Sheriff came to me when he felt I needed him. Maybe that's when we see them." JD mused.
"I heard Old Buck uh Romeo in the hospital that day," Buck acknowledged. "He said he'd see me soon."
Chris exchanged a glance with Vin. "That's probably a good omen Buck. We know they come to help us. I just wish we had a damn instruction book. Don't know about the rest of you, but Vin and I could sure use one."
JD laughed. "It is kinda spooky to hear you guys talk in my head. I swear I've heard all of you at one time or another."
"Try readin' everyone's thoughts," Vin huffed. "It's more than spooky, it's damn annoyin'." He 'heard' their responses and held up his hand. "Tracker told me I can control it with practice and discipline, and I'm workin' on it. I need to work harder though, before Chris, or Kelli decide enough is enough."
Josiah looked at Chris. "You hear other people's thoughts too?"
"No, only Tanner's and I only 'see' everything he does when we actually touch one another." He shook his head. "Trust me, the sooner he learns to control it, the better. I could do without knowing some of the things he thinks about."
Buck grinned. "I bet "
"I imagine such a talent could have its drawbacks." Ezra said. "Do you know what I'm thinking now?"
Vin nodded. "Yes I do. I've been there and I understand how you feel."
JD looked from Vin, to Ezra, and back to Vin. "You answered him, and he didn't say anything."
"Now you know how I feel, JD." Chris smiled. "It's damn confusing at times."
Vin decided to help Ezra with his dilemma. "Chris, about that Border Security Task Force Buck and I were supposed act as consultants for I know you were sendin' Ezra in my place so I could be here this week for Jason's ballgames. Since that's not an issue anymore, I'll go with Buck, and he can stay home with Barbara. You only have your first child once, and I missed part of that with Kel. They shouldn't have to miss any of it."
Chris nodded. "The MCAT jet leaves at 0430 tomorrow morning. You and Buck should land in El Paso before 0600 Hours."
"Works for me," Buck said. "Inez has Isabella to keep her company, and no offense, Ez, but I know you'll talk nonstop about your impending arrival. I reckon I know firsthand all I need to about pregnant women and babies."
"Vin, I never meant that I " Ezra began to protest.
"I know, but this way you can be with your wife, and not worry about her or your baby." Vin looked at Chris. "After the conference I think I'll stay over a few days, have Kel meet me, and then we'll drop in on the Texas Tanners. I've put it off way too long."
Chris thought that was an excellent idea. Although, he did not know why, he had a nagging feeling in his gut about Vin. He couldn't decide if it was a byproduct of the mind read thing, or if there was a legitimate reason to be concerned. Either way, it would do him and Kelli good to get away together for a few days. "Cait and I will babysit. You take all the time you need." Chris grinned at Ezra. "See everything worked out just fine."
Ezra patted Vin's shoulder. "Then I will say thank you and shut up."
Buck huffed, "That will be the day." He flipped water from his glass in Ezra's direction.
Standish retaliated, but hit JD instead of Buck.
"Hey!" JD's aim was no less off and his efforts hit Vin.
Before long, all seven were involved in a water fight. Cait and Kelli, each carrying one of the twins, walked up the steps, stopped, and grinned.
Kelli leaned close to her and said, "They may be tough, and magnificent, but they're still little boys at heart."
From a distance, seven men on horseback watched the proceedings. "No one'll convince me we were ever like that," Cowboy stated.
Romeo and Sheriff glanced at one another and smirked.
"Standish seems to be an intelligent gentleman. Anyone care to wager how long it takes him to uncover the sex of his unborn child?"
Cowboy looked at Gambler. "Ezra, if I find you giving away any clues "
Gambler grinned. "Perish the thought, Mister Larabee."
Romeo glanced at Sheriff, and back along the line to the others, before gesturing toward the men they were watching. "It's nice to see the kid happy." His demeanor saddened. The knowledge of the modern day seven's forthcoming tribulations was a burden, which weighed heavily on him, as it did the others. "Buck was there when he needed him."
"Courage, brother, have faith," Preacher soothed. "Destiny has ensured they will endure the tests they have yet to face, though the path will be a treacherous one."
"I wish we could do more." Sheriff sighed.
"We've given them the tools, kid, just have to hope they use 'em wisely," Tracker reminded them.
"I feel a lot happier knowing Nathan has embraced his knowledge." Healer smiled, noting his six brother's silent nods of agreement.
Cowboy straightened in his saddle and then glanced at them all "Saloon?"
"Saloon!" they chorused, wheeling their horses to ride side by side, into the amber sunset. Whenever needed, these men, separated by generations, connected by blood, and bound by integrity, would ride this way again. Their Code of Honor ordained it; their love for their brothers ensured it.
For seven men, who share one destiny their battles will continue until evil perishes, and justice prevails.
Next in the MCAT series:
# 6 ~ Purgatory
*Poetry and prayer, written by Sue M
*Special Code of Honor webpage @ http://www.tannertexaslady.com/codeofhonor.html