It was Wednesday, and the first day the doctor allowed Harper to return to work. She started the day, like she did the past few, taking care with rising, bathing, and dressing. Today she picked a simple suit, the shell sliding over her neck with little difficulty, the jacket only having two buttons in front near her waist, and matching pants. She left the hotel, driving to work.
Harper eased herself from the rental car very carefully, gently moving her body so not to aggravate any of the multiple bruises. She barely resisted the urge to push her hair out of her face, but she figured she should get used to it.
Hefting her bag with her computer and paperwork in it, Harper made her way to her office. Thankfully, no one saw her. The Instruction only wanted a few minutes alone to readjust to being back, without having to see people or answer questions. Once there, she started her normal routine, walking out to the Center's small break room and starting the coffee. Next, she slowly settled in her chair, using a legal pad to make notes from her voice mail messages. Most were well wishes, with a few exceptions from anonymous voices telling her she deserved what happened to her.
She sighed. Nothing changed; some people still hated her. Harper checked her e-mail, finding nothing new since yesterday when she remotely checked it, and stood. She winced when she straightened; collected the materials needed for today's class, along with the contents of her Inbox, and carried them into the Center.
Harper set up the VCR, brought down the projection screens, and planned on a no-nonsense type of day. Sitting down at the desk in front, she sorted through the memorandums and requests for training that piled up in her Inbox during her time off. Most of the papers required a response by the end of the day, giving her another glimpse into how many people cared about her. No one who cared would send her something with a deadline; especially knowing that she was out sick and only would have one day to respond. Failure to respond to dated material could have her written up and subject to discipline, and everyone knew it.
Sighing, she focused on the items with time stamps, thinking two hours was probably just enough time to reply to the first three requests. She ignored everything else around her, scribbling the outline of her response on the pad beside her.
The soft voice startled her, causing her to jump in her chair, and then wince. One hand flew to the bruised ribs and her face twisted in a grimace. Her body hurt, so she closed her eyes and willed calm breathing.
"Sorry, Harper. Didn't mean ta scare ya. Ya all right?"
"Vin." She took a couple shallow breaths before saying, "Good morning." Harper kept her head lowered, hair covering the right side of her face, pulled down in a modified bob to hide the mass of stitches, bruises, and temporary disfigurement.
"Mornin'. How are ya feelin'?"
"Then ya don't care if I drink my coffee in here, if yer so fine." He stood on the other side of the table, right near her.
"What?" Her face finally rose to look up at him, giving him a quick glimpse of the damage. "You know better; take that out of here."
"Now I know yer not doin' well. How bad does it hurt?"
"Don't ask; I can't talk about it." Her one undamaged eye met his concerned blue ones.
"All right. Just lettin' ya know I'm here if ya decide ya need help. Also brought ya some coffee beans. They're mocha, the closest I could get ta chocolate."
"Thanks, Vin. That's so sweet of you. You really didn't have to do that."
"I wanted ta." He shrugged.
"Again, thank you." She went to smile, but it stretched her swollen lip. "Ow."
"I hate split lips." Vin sipped from his cup.
"Not my favorite either. Now, take that coffee out of here. Can't let anyone think I'm getting soft in my injured state."
He chuckled. "Yes, ma'am." Vin carried his cup outside the doors and leaned against the frame, making sure that he stayed clear of the room but could still talk with her. "Guess I should warn you."
"I take it your fearless leader feels a bit put out with me?"
"That's a polite way of sayin' it, and I agree with him."
"That perhaps I should have listened to his advice, let him continue the guard patrols on me?"
"Maybe. Would've been smart."
Harper put down her pen. "Let me ask you something, Vin."
"Go ahead." He took another sip of his coffee.
"Would you have kept the guard on you? Constantly under surveillance, waiting for someone to make a move, unable to go anywhere or do anything without someone looking over your shoulder and asking you why you are doing that?" She watched him give serious thought to her question.
It took him a minute to answer. "Probably not."
"'Cuz I hate feelin' penned in."
"Exactly. I've been penned in before, and I detest it. I will not put up with that despicable, closed-in, watched over feeling in my life if I can help it. That said, I deal with the consequences, and one of which is this could have been prevented had I not called off your protection. I have to accept it this way; it's over; they've made their move, and I can move on from here."
"Pretty cut and dried way of lookin' at it."
"You would be surprised how many shades of gray there are; this whole incident just happens to be one of the lighter shades."
"How do ya know I haven't seen those shades myself? Hindsight doesn't always make ya smarter." He gave her an intense look.
"No, it does not. As for what you have seen, I feel reasonably confident that it pales in comparison to what I saw."
"As a certain Southerner always tells me, 'don't bet unless you're sure'." Troubled blue eyes met hers.
In those blue depths, she saw his own demons haunted him. Harper took a deep breath, thinking that maybe this was not a pissing match she wanted to go one on one with him. She was not sure who would win, but none of the results or memories looked to be pleasant. "Then let's leave the ghosts at rest, shall we? No need to haunt the living now, especially considering the buzzard that's stalking in here to pick my corpse clean."
The sharpshooter tilted his coffee cup to her in a mock salute and gave her a wink. He tried to convey to her a silent message that she was not alone anymore.
Vin nearly choked on his coffee, when an aggravated Larabee tried moving around him. "Sure, buzzard. Now go play nice, Cowboy."
Chris deliberately shouldered his friend into the doorframe in response to the comment, and then proceeded toward the front of the room. "You all right?"
"That would be a matter of perspective."
"Cut the crap, Harper, and give me a straight answer. Are you okay?"
"Why, are you going to kiss me and make me all better? I'm sure Vin would enjoy the entertainment."
"Would be interestin'." Vin smirked.
Chris rolled his eyes. "You must be feeling better if you're insulting me. Stop laughing, Cowboy."
"Nah. Havin' too much fun watchin' ya get some of yer own attitude back."
"If there was not so much to insult about you, Chris, I would be having a difficult time right now."
"You look bad."
"You look mad. Hey, Vin, did you ever notice that vein that started popping out on his forehead?"
"Ya just noticed it, too? Ya set it ta throbbin' often enough."
"Probably because right now she won't look me in the eye. Harper?" Chris leaned down to examine her face, one hand moving to brush aside the carefully placed hair to survey the damage.
"Is this what you want to see, Larabee?" Harper yanked the covering hair away from her face and tilted the damaged side toward the light. "Nice and pretty, goes well with an 'I-told-you-so'. So say it, because I know you want to so bad you can taste it. I'll say it first. I told you so. I told you going forward with the complaint might cause this."
"No." He tenderly put his thumb under her chin, turning her head so he could see all that they did to her. "It's time we got something straight between us."
Harper barely moved. Uncomfortable now, she lashed back with words. "What's that? More gloating? You were right about the surveillance, and I was wrong? There, I said it."
He opened his hand to cup her chin. "You have a crappy opinion of me if you think I'm going to gloat or say I-told-you-so now. I was asking you how you were feeling, not because I was right - nice of you to say it - but because I do have feelings. Don't admit to them often. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not the raging mad, pissed off, twenty-four/seven asshole, or the mean drunk everyone thinks I am. I'm not good with words, Harper, so I'll say this once. I give a shit about you, and there's not one damn person on my team that wouldn't have taken this for you, myself included."
Shaken, she tried drawing back, but he shook his head ever so slightly. The Harper defense mechanism of provoking a confrontation kicked in. "Because I'm female and you are male. A gender issue, nothing else."
Chris rolled his eyes. "No, because we like you. Don't know why. You have an attitude problem, your people skills suck, and you play the hard ass bitch too damn well. But, once someone takes the time to get to know you, find out about you, they'll see through that armor to a loyal, hardworking person."
He leaned a little closer to her. "Lady, we don't make friends easy, and we don't play well with others, but we protect one of our own. In the course of this madness you and Travis are putting us through, you became ours to protect. I think Travis wanted it this way, and if you don't see his manipulations, then you need to get your other eye examined."
She ignored his first set of remarks. "Travis put me under your protection? Deliberately?"
"You didn't know." He said this with a knowing nod.
"No! That sneaky..."
"Before you get mad at him, we're going to finish this. First, you proved you are a big girl, and you took your knocks for it. Now, you've got seven pissed off brothers. If you don't let us close ranks now, then we know you don't trust us."
"Your making this into a trust issue?" Her hand came up to push his off her face.
He held onto the hand, grabbing it with his free one. His other stayed on her face. "No. You are."
"Close ranks, huh? After the horse already got out."
"We got the horse back, and she's a little battered, but she'll heal. Just needs some space for a while." Chris squeezed her hand. "Let us give you the room to heal, Harper. We'll keep the jackasses at bay. Hell, we'll leave you alone, too, if that's what you want, unless you say so."
Vin came up on her other side. "He's right. We're all pissed, but there's no reason for ya ta take any more abuse from the jerks here."
"Some say I deserved what I got."
Tension and anger rose off each man at her statement.
Larabee gripped her chin and turned her face toward him. He glared at her. "No one deserves this." He hissed, his body throbbing with anger. "Dark alleys and masks are a coward's way out. They didn't have the balls to face you head on."
She searched his face for several long minutes, finally opening her mind to see the truth of his feelings, and the support there. A small smile began to form, as much as her battered face would allow. "We know no one could ever accuse you of having that problem."
Vin snickered at her response, catching a quick version of Larabee's glare.
She noticed it didn't affect him anymore than it did her.
Chris ignored his friend, turning back to her. "Besides, I always took you for a fighter. Didn't think you'd be a whiner."
Harper's remaining eye fashioned into her attempt of a glare. "I'm not whining!"
Larabee smirked. "And you're not going to quit fighting, right? Not going to let the coward's win?"
"Damn can't do that Harper," Vin added. "This wasn't fair 'cuz we all know ya can fight." He rubbed at his ribs, a reminder of their match to both of them.
Harper tilted her head, studying both of the men standing beside her. She smiled wistfully, saying, "You know, you two do this very well."
Chris cocked an eyebrow at her in question.
"Play the big brother roles," she smiled. "I think you might even have one up on my own brothers. "Well, not size, but you definitely have the attitudes down." Harper paused. "Thank you."
"Hell, Harper, we can't let ya hang yer head, letting the rest of the jackasses in this building think they broke ya."
"I never broke." The visible hazel eyes flashed with remembered pain. "Not once, not then, and sure as hell not because of those four."
"That's the spirit." Vin gave her a long, slow, lazy grin.
"And we'll watch your back while you keep your head up."
"Will you catch it if it happens to roll off?"
"Concussions leave real nasty headaches, don't they?" Chris gave her a sympathetic smile, letting her go. His hand slipped into a pocket.
"Probably not as bad for you, Chris, because you've got a harder head."
"She's getting ta know ya pretty well there, Cowboy."
Harper said, "This remark coming from the man with more scars than he has years on this earth."
"Watch it, Harper. I still owe ya fer some pranks, and I aim ta collect." Vin winked at her.
"Can you wait until the men with jackhammers finish their demolition of my brain?"
"Have ya taken yer pills today?"
"The painkiller, no. Antibiotics, yes."
"Why haven't you taken the painkiller?" Larabee's face hardened. "You don't need to suffer, or are you having one those mule-kicked moments?"
"Because in order to come back, the painkillers had to go. Besides, pain can be good thing."
"I didn't know you were into pain, Harper." Chris gave her a disbelieving look.
She lowered her head, and her hands gently touched her temples. "I must be a masochist. I took on the seven of you for your in-service."
"Her wit's comin' back." Vin's lips spread into a smile and blue eyes twinkled.
"Gallows humor from the condemned." Harper looked at them again. "Seriously, a little pain every now and again reminds me that I am still alive, and I can still feel something. Something, gentlemen, ranks a heck of a lot higher than feeling nothing and not caring."
"I'll agree with that." Chris gave her a thoughtful look, slowly sliding into a smile.
Vin just nodded.
"Okay, Harper, let's get you checked out." Nathan stopped just inside the doorframe, his expression showing surprise at seeing Chris and Vin.
"Come on in, Nathan. We were just talking about painkillers." Chris waved Nathan forward.
"Chris, Vin. Morning."
"Mornin', Nate. This will be good; I'll get ta see someone else 'sides me be tended."
"So will I, Vin." Nathan smiled. "She's a whole lot nicer to look at, and probably half as mean."
"Ya saying I'm a bad patient?"
"Hell, yeah." Nathan set his bag on the floor, opening it to find a digital thermometer. He wrapped it in a plastic sleeve, and then shoved it in Harper's mouth. To Chris, he said, "Hold this."
Larabee accepted the unit attached to the thermometer, amused by the entire situation. "Vin, did you notice it wasn't a yeah, but a 'hell, yeah'?"
Nathan ignored them, taking Harper's pulse. When he finished, he glared at Chris. "You're not the best patient, either, so don't run your mouth."
"Told ya." Vin grinned, sticking his tongue out at Larabee.
"See what I put up with?" Nathan shook his head. The thermometer beeped, so he took the box from Chris, reading it while removing the thin tube from her mouth. The sleeve went into the trash. "Perfect."
"Me or my temperature?"
"Temperature, at least for today. Give it a few days, and then ask me again about if you're perfect or not." Nathan replaced the thermometer in the bag, pulling out the blood pressure cuff. "Take off your suit jacket."
"Do I have to?"
"Yes. You've got a shell on underneath, so your modesty will be preserved. You know it's harder to get a good reading over it."
"Okay." Harper winced when she stood, surprised when Chris and Vin both slipped an arm around her waist for support. She swayed for a second, and the grips tightened. "Thanks."
"Can you manage the jacket?" Nathan asked.
"Slowly." She unbuttoned the front of it.
"Let me." Chris slipped it off her shoulders, making it so she did not have to move too much. He held onto the jacket.
Vin left his hand on her side, keeping her balanced.
Nathan reached over to attach the blood pressure cuff, ignoring the scar there.
"What's that?" Chris pointed to the line wrapping around her upper left arm.
"A scar. Haven't you seen a scar before?" Self-consciously, Harper lowered that arm and extended her right.
Jackson wrapped the cuff on it, pressing the stethoscope underneath the cuff, against her skin, and pumped it.
"I realize that, Harper. I'm wondering what kind of device made that pattern."
"A whip." Vin said this monotone, catching her eye movement toward him before staring straight ahead.
"Someone whipped you?" Chris glared at her, demanding answers.
She ignored him.
Nathan removed the cuff, putting it away before standing in front of her. He waved a small penlight in front of her eye, studying the pupil's reaction. "Vitals are good."
"Thanks," said Harper. "Nathan, I'm grateful for your silence."
"It's okay. Just glad to see you moving around."
"You knew about this?" Chris stared at his friend. "And said nothing?"
"He was under orders, Chris." Harper gave a pointed look to the leader.
"That's why you were so quiet Sunday."
"Yeah. Knew what happened, but couldn't tell anyone. Travis told me to stay away until IA met with me and took some statements. The last interview didn't happen until Tuesday."
Chris nodded in acceptance. "All right."
Harper asked, "My jacket, please?"
Larabee helped her put it back on. "You're not going to answer me about the whip mark, probably because you can't talk about it."
"Shades of gray." Vin came around and looked Harper in the face.
"Light or dark?"
"Definitely dark. And no, Chris, I can't tell you about it."
The leader squeezed her arm. "Then I won't press." He helped her sit down.
"That's a first." Tanner gave Chris an incredulous look.
"I can still kick your ass around, Tanner, because I own it."
"In yer dreams."
Ignoring them, Nathan leaned down beside her. "Any headaches? Nausea? Dizziness?"
"Yes, no, a little."
"Okay. Try to stay off your feet. Are you eating?"
"Good. Keep it up, and keep up your fluids." Nathan stood, just in time to hear the end of the bickering between Chris and Vin.
"Because I said so."
"Mr. Larabee, just because you say something, does not make it so." Ezra stood in the doorway, one hand behind his back.
Chris threw up his hands. "Never fails. I should have known."
"That if I am around, I will not allow you to have the last word?"
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I won't try."
Ezra's green eyes lit with amusement. "And there, good sir, is the challenge." He stepped into the room, keeping his hand hidden until he reached Harper's side. "Something sweet for the she-devil. Perhaps it will soften your disposition." He placed a gold foil bag in front of her.
"Godiva(tm) chocolates! My favorite! Ezra, thank you. You did not have to do this."
"No, I did not, and I shouldn't have had to, either. If you had not been stubborn about canceling your protection, we would not be in this situation." As soon as she flushed, he stopped his speech. "But, my dear, I do request a rematch at poker."
"Chocolate goes well with this. Maybe." Nathan dug into his bag, removing a small fruit basket filled with grapes, strawberries, and other small fruits.
"Nathan! I don't know what to say other than thank you." She reached over and squeezed his hand, the best she could do because of the distance between them.
"Are we having a party?" Josiah walked in, a smile tugging at his lips.
"Looks like it, doesn't it?" Nathan surveyed his friends, noting the lightheartedness.
"Welcome back for Harper and Nathan, right? So this giant chocolate chip cookie cake with 'Welcome Back' written on it will do?" Josiah presented it with a flourish. It was indeed a huge cookie, iced and decorated with red flowers along the edges, and 'Welcome Back' written in the same color icing.
"We'll just have to wash it down with this." Buck strolled in, a wine bottle held before him. "Non-alcoholic sparkling cider, as not to break any rules or mess with any medications."
"Us? Break rules? Never," Ezra said with a large grin, accompanied by an innocent expression.
"Man, Buck, when you said you wanted to be early, I didn't know the rest of the team would be here too."
"I didn't know, JD." Buck shrugged. "The more the merrier."
"I brought you something, Harpy." JD carried over a covered object, pulling the handkerchief off and revealing a bottle of applesauce. "Since I couldn't bring an apple in for the teach, I figured this would work."
"Thank you. Thank you all." Harper wiped at her good eye. "All I can say is, 'Wow'!"
"That all you can say, Harper?" Vin held up his now empty coffee cup.
"No. Let's take the food out of here into the break room, and we'll have breakfast. Quick - give me my chocolates before Josiah takes them!" Harper snatched the bag up, holding it close to her chest.
"I'll wait until later." Sanchez winked at her.
"Come on, then. Let's move." Harper accepted Vin's assistance, letting him guide her by the elbow into the break room.
= = 7 = =
Chris looked down for some reason, and spotted the requests for response. While the others migrated, he flipped through them. Larabee counted nine of them, and his anger grew. He knew all of the senders, and most of them worked with, or befriended, Jefferson and Mentral.
"Cowboy? Ya comin'?" Vin stuck his head in the room.
Vin joined him, studying the stack. "Shows us how civilized we are, don't it? No wonder I like the outdoors. At least there the animals try ta kill ya flat out, not this playin' around crap."
"She might get them done if she wasn't training us."
"Yeah, but she's got a deadline fer us too."
"I have an idea." With that statement, Chris strode into the break room. "Harper, I saw on the training schedule list that we need to read and review some manuals?"
"Yes. I was saving that for the last day because it's long and boring."
"Why don't we do that today? We can ease back into the training schedule, and you don't have to do that much."
"You are sure you want to review manuals, newsletters, and journals today?"
"Why not?" Josiah shrugged.
"Sure." JD nodded.
"Gets that out of the way." Buck made a face. "Nothing against you or your teaching, darlin', but the manuals are way too dry for my tastes."
"I understand." Harper bobbed her head.
They agreed, and Harper felt relieved. She honestly did not feel up to teaching today, and it would let her answer those requests for response. "I need to find some new words; all I keep saying today is thank you."
Various responses on the theme of 'you're welcome' came back to her.
"Will you all be busy after class?" Josiah asked them, seemingly unconcerned about their replies.
"What's up, Josiah?" JD popped the last piece of cookie into his mouth from his plate.
"I'm thinking of buying a house."
"What?" Chris stared.
"That's great." Vin grinned.
Nathan mumbled, "About time."
"Where?" asked Ezra.
"It's about twenty minutes from Denver, and off the same highway to Chris's ranch."
"Cool." JD gave Josiah a high-five.
"They call it a handyman special, but I've seen it. It just needs someone to care about restoring it. You want to see the listing?"
"Please, Mr. Sanchez."
Josiah pulled it from his wallet, giving the listing to Ezra, the closest to him.
"It looks charming, and the price adds to the attraction." Standish passed it on to Larabee. "What are the drawbacks?"
"I'd rather you see it." Sanchez shrugged.
"It's got some land, Josiah." Chris gave it to Vin.
"A lake and some woods. Mighty pretty." He gave it to Nathan, who handed it off to Buck.
"All these bedrooms, Josiah. You thinking of opening a harem?" Buck clicked his tongue.
"Let me see!" JD snatched it, going over the clipping. "Nice." He gave the listing to Harper, who read it again, and then handed it to Josiah.
"I've been saving for it, and I almost have enough for the down payment. If you boys wouldn't mind helping me fix it up, I can host some games and take some of the burden off Chris."
"I'd be pleased to help."
"I'll assist with the décor."
"Sounds like a plan."
"No problem, Josiah. I'd love to help."
"Any female neighbors?" Buck jokingly asked.
"One, I hope." Josiah stared directly at Harper.
Harper felt several pairs of eyes on her. "A business arrangement, gentlemen."
"I've offered to rent her the apartment, if it's livable."
"And before any of you say a word, we agreed I would pay rent."
"Good deal." JD nodded.
"So, will you come with us to see it today?"
The rest gave their agreement.
Harper said, "Since everyone showed up early, if we start early and take a short lunch, we can leave sooner than normal. Flex our time."
Chris stood. "Boys, let's hit the books."
= = 7 = =
They filed into the Training Center after cleaning up the mess, and Harper opened the cabinet holding the manuals. Chris took them out, pointing for her to sit down instead of lifting the heavy tomes.
She ignored him, going to a file cabinet, removing the accompanying worksheets and open book examinations. The exams proved that they read the materials.
While they read, Harper worked on her responses, finishing all but two of them before lunch.
During the lunch break, Josiah handed her a thick folder with an explanation of his finances. She put that to the side, planning to finish her last two responses before getting involved in that.
They came back, took their seats, and resumed slugging through the paperwork and dry materials. The quiet felt comfortable.
Harper excused herself at one point. "I'll be right back; I have to have these time stamped and delivered." It did not take her long, having found one of the couriers in the mailroom itching to move around. Delivering nine papers to different sections suited him just fine.
Having returned to the Training Center, she opened the folder, finding all the paperwork neatly arranged. Josiah's ledger of his finances was precise and thorough. The accountant in her admired his attention to detail. She did note he gave a considerable amount of money to charity, but the bulk of his donations went to support a small convent in some town called Vista City. Knowing it was none of her business, Harper moved on, using the calculator to figure out his range of house payment, or the maximum he could spend each month and still have money to live comfortably, without sacrificing too many of his activities.
Once she established that, she went off his tax return and credit report, roughly figuring if he would qualify for a loan. The Instructor established a range. Next, she figured out property taxes, and booted up her laptop computer. She checked the interest rates on the Internet, how much Josiah would need for a down payment, and then projected his closing costs. Like he said, he was a little short to remain financial secure, but if the apartment worked out, she would make up the difference with the security deposit.
Using her computer, she researched the property, checking the title and deed through the Hall of Records. She compared the location of the property against the County's Hazard Mitigation Plan for flooding, tornadoes, or other hazards that could effect the property, finding none.
Harper went to Building and Zoning, pleased to find that no one planned to build around it, nor could a developer come in and build townhouses on the surrounding properties due to the zoning. She plugged the property taxes, now that she had official confirmation, into her earlier calculations. Rechecking the Hall of Records, she did find that the house was a registered historic site, something not on the listing, and printed the rules and regulations governing home improvements at the house in order to keep the lowered tax rates. Harper printed everything she found, making her own neat stack and a copy for Josiah.
Just because she was bored, she ran a check on the Realty Company, discovering it to be a small, family-owned business. Harper guessed this property, if the term 'handyman's special' applied, needed too much work for the price. One of the stipulations on the contract of sale was that the house could not be torn down and a new house be built there. Realistically, she understood that if it needed thousands of dollars of work, some people figured they would be better off buying something more modern and expensive.
Harper glanced at the clock. "Okay, boys, stop where you are. We're done for the day."
"Thank goodness." Ezra stood and stretched. "I would prefer not to see another manual."
They cleaned up, packing up their manuals, handing in their examinations, and met up again in the garage, ready to follow Josiah to his prospective house.
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