Called Up

by Tidia

Beta/Fluffer: (because she added to this to make it so much better, but is too humble to be a co-author): Mog (or mogue): A true friend freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.

Warnings: Swearing. They are men involved in law enforcement. I’m leaving it at that.

Disclaimer: Magnificent 7 does not belong to me and must give credit to MOG for creating the ATF- it is still shiny.

Notes: I will apologize for my lengthy notes and number them.
(1) This is a new fic based on information from AOL’s Home of the Brave series and the book American Sniper.
(2) It was mog’s idea to commemorate 9/11- to those who lost their lives, for their families and for those first responders who are now ill.
(3) Thank you to the US military. Please support our veterans-they need jobs, homes and opportunity.
(4) At one point there is description about the foster care system. This is based on a real case. Think about helping foster kids as they age out of the system.
(5) This is Vin centric, but the others are there and I wrote it because of my nostalgia trip along with wanting a Vin who is not broken, not feminine, not childlike and not uneducated.
(6) If you have not read mog’s (or mogue) fic, The Cutting Demon please do so along with Sin City by slakalot (AJ). These are stories that are not to be missed.
(7) Yes, I made it to seven and had to save it for my friends who I met from this fandom all those years ago. They know they are my true friends and have always had my back. To those I lost touch with-please reach out to me since I loved to hear from you. If you are a past fellow fanfic writer from M7 then I encourage you to archive your works with blackraptor or at fanfiction.net – we do not want to lose the wealth of writing from this fandom.


Part 1:

If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years. Any part of that service not served on active duty must be served in a Reserve Component, unless I am sooner discharged.
- Military Enlistment Contract

The envelope in Vin’s hand made it all real—the U.S. was at war. A very small part of him had even anticipated this. Before Thanksgiving, when he had visited Chanu, his old friend had brought up this possibility. That conversation had stuck in his head. He didn’t have to open the letter—he knew what it said.

In the months following September 11, Vin had felt an unexplainable desire to reconnect with a few of the men he has served with in the Army. He and Chanu had half-joked about how even the Ute Indian—an ex-Ranger released on an honorable discharge for medical reasons—would be brought back for duty in the Middle East. That night they had drunk their beers and remembered mostly-forgotten stories of their military time. And they left some thoughts unspoken.

Now, Vin stood in his living room, staring at the return address of an organization that had not sent him anything in almost five years. He carefully pulled up the flap, trying not to tear it, and slipped the white stiff stationary from the tenacious grasp of the envelope. He gave it a quick review, then folded the pristine letter back into thirds, careful to make the folds crisp, and returned it to the envelope. He placed it on the coffee table, leaning it against the remote control holder where he would see it from every point in the room. His life was about to change again.

Outside, streetlamps filtered the neighboring buildings in an amber glow. It was never truly dark in the city. At that moment, Vin was happy to add to the artificial light source. The Douglas fir standing in the corner seemed to physically warm the room when he plugged in its Christmas lights. Illuminated in blue, red, green and white, the tree offered a gentle light that helped Vin relax.

The tree had gone up right after Thanksgiving, giving the apartment a fragrant scent, bringing a little of the outdoors inside his Purgatorio apartment. Intermittently hung were ornaments made by the kids in the building, which he proudly displayed.

With a soft sigh, he pulled his hair from its ponytail and roughly ran a hand through it. He stood for a moment, staring at the Christmas tree. Then, as if it was just another evening, he traded his work clothes, ATF badge and sidearm for sweats, a t-shirt and leftovers with a Broncos game.

Morning came and he started his normal routine with a run. The workout had a twofold result—keeping up the cardio and assessing the neighborhood. The sun would not officially rise until close to seven a.m. but the early morning revealed things that the night tried to hide.

Back at his apartment he worked with the hanging heavy bag; tomorrow would be free weights. And any workout finished with stretching. Strength and flexibility had saved his ass on the job more than a few times.

He cracked a window to let some cold air into the now-stuffy apartment. He knew he could work out at the gym in the federal building but the kids in his building liked the access to his equipment, so he kept it available for them. He planned on eventually creating a gym in the basement of the building, but it would require time and permission from the idle, absentee landlord.

The letter still sat on the coffee table, deterring Vin from reaching for the remote to turn on the television. He chose the radio for his morning news before taking a quick shower. As the reporter gave numbers on the December job report, Vin made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast. By the time he got to filling his Sigg water bottle, the polite-sounding man offered the latest crime in the Denver area just in time for the holiday season.

Since that Tuesday morning in September, new protocol had been implemented at the Federal Building. The parking garage had a security guard that personally checked who entered the underground lot versus just trusting a swipe card.

“Hey Rob,” Vin said, as he slowed to a stop by the guard, “bit cold this morning.” He mocked a shiver, not hard to do when he had yet to put the hard top on the Jeep. He told people he used just the soft top in the hope of an early spring. His friends said it was simply laziness on his part. He had not put up much of an argument to that reason.

Rob smiled at the old winter joke and recorded Vin’s entrance as the agent scanned his access card through the slot to open the gate. From the lack of certain cars, it was clear that none of his teammates were there yet. Will, from Team 3, however, was in early or had never left, since his car was in its usual parking space.

The break room was silent except for the hum of the refrigerator and the gurgle of the coffee pot. His coffee pot. The boys had given him his own; crowded break room countertop be damned. So he liked strong coffee; he didn’t think it tasted bad. At least Josiah appreciated it. Vin had promised not to touch the other coffee maker. They would just have to make their own.

He stood, watching the dark liquid stream into the glass carafe. Sometimes he would slip the bulbous container out of the way to fill up his mug directly. This morning, however, he wanted to take in every second of this simple ritual. Wanted to ingrain it in his memory.

He closed his eyes and inhaled the pungent-sweet scent. He could feel the cold still clinging to his toes. During the drive in, it had seeped past his boot tips and socks. His skin felt clean and energized from the workout and shower. No matter where he was a month from now, he knew that if he brought this memory back up, a part of him would be transported back to this day, this moment—making coffee in the ATF break room, waiting for his team to arrive on a cold December morning in Denver.

Usually, Vin had about forty-five minutes to himself for relaxing into the workday--organize his agenda, take a concentrated look at whatever case the team was working on. Sometimes he used the quiet to review his reports.

Writing had never been his strong suit. Hell, in his mind it was pretty much just a single card, and a low one at that. His strength was anything mechanical. How good your spelling was didn’t do jack toward helping you estimate the factors that influenced a bullet’s trajectory. He would study up more on sentence structure the day it helped him calculate range to the target, wind direction and velocity, ambient temperature, and his elevation compared to that of his mark. Till then, he would keep his reports short with simple sentences. And try to remember the tips Ezra fed him.

Chris came in first, gave him a morning nod and a, “Hey”, before heading into his office. Their leader had a mountain of paperwork, which Vin didn’t envy. Josiah and Nathan were next, about five minutes apart. Nate headed into the break room to start on the coffee. Josiah took a cup from Vin’s pot. Buck and JD were next, with JD holding a white box with blue lettering that spelled out “Dutch Boy”. And then Ezra would come in, eventually.

Second cup of coffee in hand, Vin made a beeline for the doughnut box now resting on JD’s desk. He opened the box, snatched a blob smeared with gooey pink icing and raised it like a toast to JD. “Perfect timing. I needed this today.”

JD smiled. “ ‘Course, they’re not as good as--”

Buck cut him off while Vin and Nathan rolled their eyes. “Yeah, yeah, not as good as Dunkin’. Don’t you be putting down the Dutch Boy, kid.” He slipped his hand in the box and came out with a powdered sugar doughnut that he knew was filled with jelly. “I’ll take ten past nine,” he stated, starting off the morning pool.

He put a ‘B’ in the corresponding square on the chart that was taped inside his lower desk drawer. The bet was one dollar for a square, and if none of them won, the cash rolled over to the next day.

“Gimme 9:30,” Vin said. “Oh, and Frankie in records said last night that they want in on the action.”

“Too complicated,” JD said around a mouthful of one of Denver’s best applesauce doughnuts. With his free hand he gathered up a few larger crumbs that had fallen on his desk and popped them in his mouth. “I’m going for 10:15,” JD said. “He was looking tired yesterday.”

“He’s better off not coming in at all at that point.” Nate raised his eyebrows at Vin before looking at Buck. “I’ll take 9:35.”

“Quarter to nine,” Josiah said, “because someone has to have some faith.”

“Dream on, Josiah.” JD chuckled. “It’s never going to happen, unless we have an early meeting with Travis.”

Chris did not participate. Standish’s lateness was a sore point; one the rest of team picked at repeatedly even though they all had their own issues.

They each filtered back to their desks after pillaging the Dutch Boy Donuts box. Vin was reviewing angles for Team 3. From time to time the other sharpshooters—Ryan, Conner, Marcus and Jon—got together for second or third opinions. They also spent time on the range, practicing their skills. Plus, they were their own breed, like the undercover operatives that the other agents didn’t fully understand and gave a wide berth too.

Buck’s phone rang, slicing through the other office sounds. Vin looked up at the clock, 9:45.

“No winner,” Buck announced. “Stu says he should be up in a minute.”

Ezra was quiet when he entered; as usual, his sunglasses remained on until he reached the desk that abutted Vin’s. “Mr. Wilmington, was there a winner this morning?”

“Almost. Nate came awful close.”

“Horseshoes and hand grenades, gentlemen,” Ezra replied. “Better luck next time.” He slipped out of his overcoat but paused before heading to the coat rack by the small conference room. “Oh, and I would rather this stay amongst us and not stray to the rest of the building. A little discretion is warranted.”

JD managed a furrowed brow and wide-eyes all at once. “How do you know about that?” Vin had only just told them about the request from Frankie. “You have us bugged?”

The Texan shook his head. “Ez knows everything.”

“Not everything, but I am working on that.” Ezra flashed a smile.

Vin noticed when they had down days in the office Ezra was never at his desk, and he had a handle on what was going on in the Federal building most of the time. “Not everything,” Vin murmured in agreement. He could feel the letter in the back pocket of his jeans. Ezra would know soon enough, but first he had to inform Chris.

Chris glanced at the clock. He was working through lunch to put a dent in his paperwork before an afternoon meeting with Orin. The team was working on their cases with a priority on terrorism at home. It had always been a mandate, but recent events, combined with the lack of departmental cooperation, had left the Federal agencies with a lot to prove.

He had broken away from his desk just long enough to grab something to eat from the cafeteria. He typed with one hand while eating with the other. The tuna fish sandwich was heavy on the onion; he got through half of it before absently patting around his desk for the can of Pepsi One to wash down the tang.

“You got a minute?” Vin asked, as he came in and took a seat on the leather couch.

Chris looked up and then glanced to his paperwork. He didn’t have time for a chat; unfortunately, he had been told that his office couch was too comfortable and beckoned the others when they needed a break. Not for the first time he thought about getting rid of the broken-in brown sofa and replacing it with folding metal chairs. The idea was immediately dismissed as he pictured himself or any of the others trying to sleep on those when they pulled a long night.

“I know you’re busy.” Vin shifted on the sofa just enough to pull an envelope from his back pocket. He withdrew a letter, opened it while trying to flatten out the folds, and leaned forward to lay it on Chris’s desk. “I’ve been recalled.”

Chris’s brow wrinkled, he hadn’t heard Vin correctly. “What?”

Vin nodded to the letter. “The Army. They’ve called me up.”

Chris still could not comprehend what he was hearing but edginess crept in when he watched Vin exhale and sink back into the couch. It took him two readings of the letter, his blood pressure going up exponentially with each one, before he could speak.

“This is bullshit.” Chris tossed the letter on his desk. “You still work for Uncle Sam protecting this country.”

“I guess it doesn’t work that way with the Army. I signed up for eight years, left after six.” Vin rested his hand on the arm of the sofa and focused on his fingers, as he stretched them. “I owe them two years and they can recall me anytime if they need me.” His clenched his hand. “They need me.”

“You’re needed here.” Chris stood up; the letter swooped off his desk but he ignored it. “There’s a war going on right here.” He knew the words sounded cliché but it was true.

Vin shrugged. “Can’t be in two places at once.”

Chris came around to the front of the desk, leaning against it. He folded his arms and briefly rubbed his forehead with one hand. “Christ, first the NSA tries courting JD, and I thought I handled that, only to have this come out of nowhere. This is my fucking team.”

“I guess the Army thinks that Osama bin Laden has a higher priority than Chris Larabee’s bad guys,” Vin replied with a tight grin.

“This isn’t funny.” Chris rubbed a hand down his face.

“Didn’t say it was. I just know I was a Ranger before I was an ATF agent and I owe the Army.”

“Don’t get all self-sacrificing. You left the Army the first time.” If Vin wanted back into the service then Chris would have an uphill battle convincing the sharpshooter to stay. Chris didn’t even know if convincing him would be the right thing or the selfish thing.

Vin dropped his head back against the cool leather. “I thought I was going to be lifer, then I changed my mind. I can’t say anything more than that—too many people have made a sacrifice for this country for me to start complainin’ about time served.”

The Texan had never talked much about his time as a Ranger. Chris and Buck didn’t talk about their military days either, but they weren’t heavily involved in special operations either. It was all in the past where it belonged.

“Well, I’m complaining,” Chris countered. “This has got to be some kind of colossal mistake. I’m willing to fight for you to stay, Vin. But, if you feel some misguided sense of duty that you need to go, then I’m not going to stop you.”

“When you put it that way…” Vin shook his head. “Look, Chris, I can make a difference over there. I’m working on some cases now, but nothing that will make an impact like if I go back.”

Chris closed his eyes for a moment. It was the same conversation he had had with JD, all gung-ho to be on the front lines and avenge a friend he had lost when the Towers fell. “This team has been damn successful at keeping guns off the street. There’s been an uptick on the international players—you know that. And those guns, we stop them from getting to kids in places like Purgatorio. That isn’t making a difference?”

Vin raked a hand through his hair in frustration. “So alcohol busts and cigarette sales to minors…You want to tell me how that stops Al Qaeda?”

“Check the ego, Tanner. You think you personally are going to bring them down? One extra gun?” Chris knew enough to know that this war was going to be for the long haul, not just some quick Desert Storm action.

Vin leaned forward to rest his forearms on his knees. He studied his hands. “All I know is I got that letter, and I have a duty. I gave my word.”

“You have a duty to watch my back, and the rest of the team, too.” Chris hoped he was getting through to his friend’s sense of honor. “You have to let me do something.”

Vin looked up, holding Chris’s gaze, and then sighed. “Do what you can as long as you don’t have to sell your soul to make it happen.”

Chris was relieved. He wouldn’t sell his soul, but he would pull as many strings as possible. “I’m going to go talk to Orin.”

 

Part 2

Ezra rode the elevator up after lunch. His time with Lewis from accounting hadn’t generated any useful information but he always enjoyed the man’s company. The southerner had always realized that Chris was the Special Agent-in-Charge, and handled administrative duties such as budgeting, but Agent Larabee lacked finesse.

Ezra had worked hard to engineer that the Federal government paid for a portion of his suits, ties, and shoes. They were needed in his line of work; it was perfectly reasonable. He needed to insure that his expense reports did not get extra scrutiny. If acquaintances around the office could help with that, so be it.

He had made connections throughout the Federal building. Where Buck concentrated on the fairer sex, Ezra paid attention to those in decision-making capacities. He also listened to the office gossip—they all did, since it seemed too often they were at the center of it. Most of the time they had to stop erroneous rumors, but occasionally they had fun fueling them to create a mystique. Mother always said he had a head for public relations.

As the doors opened on the 11th floor he overheard the conversation of two people exiting the second elevator from a higher floor. He recognized the man and woman as employees of the ATF. Their capacity, however, was not one he had ever required, and neither was it one that had influence or bearing on him or his team. Their current conversation, however, secured his attention.

“Larabee just barged into Travis’s office and hung up his phone.” The man explained. “He was talking to the deputy secretary.”

The woman interrupted. “What did Travis do?”

A low whistle was the first answer. “I gotta give the judge credit. He just asked what the problem was.”

“So what was the problem?” The woman clearly lacked patience.

“Door got shut. Whatever it was, it must be big.”

Ezra immediately turned around and punched the button to call an elevator to go up. He had business on the 14th floor.

Orin and Chris were still inside the ex-judge’s office. Luckily for Ezra, Assistant Director Travis enjoyed light and rarely closed the blinds of the office window that faced the rest of the floor.

“How are you, Angela?” Ezra greeted Orin’s longtime secretary. He glanced at her scarf, and its distinctive orange and cream colors. “That is a lovely Hermes. New York?” He knew she had been to Manhattan recently, visiting her son.

“Yes,” she answered. “That is a very dangerous place for people like us.” The two of them shared a love of fine clothes. “Would you like for me to interrupt them, Agent Standish?”

Ezra cast a look to his left, toward the office, and raised his brows. There was a heated exchange going on, and he was not ready to jump in just yet. “I believe I will wait awhile. It isn’t a pressing matter.”

“It never is,” Angela replied and Ezra, not for the first time, wondered what Angela knew.

He took a seat, keeping his focus on the conversation in the office and trying to stay inconspicuous by keeping a magazine on his lap. Ezra was a man of many talents, and one of those was a minor gift for lip reading. He was by no means an expert, but he was good enough to make sense of a conversation.

His focus intensified when he interpreted Chris’s words. Vin is not a tool. Mention of the Rangers and then two words that didn’t seem to go together. “Angela? What does it mean when someone is called up?”

Angela answered without looking away from her monitor. “Some former soldiers are being recalled because there’s a need for personnel.” The woman was a wealth of information.

“Right.” A second later the meaning truly hit home for Ezra. “Oh.” Chris’s behavior became clear.

“You’ll be going in now.” Angela made it a statement, not a question.

Ezra nodded, squared his shoulders and walked the twelve feet with determined steps. He knocked on the door; Orin was behind his desk and seemed to sigh. With one hand, he gestured for Ezra to enter.

“Damn it, Standish,” Chris stated. “This is a private conversation,” The glare sent an all too clear message that said—get the fuck out.

“About Agent Tanner returning to military service….” Ezra revealed the not-so-secret conversation. He relaxed into one of the small, overstuffed chairs. “I believe I can be of assistance.”

Orin replied with a glance to the phone. “We’ve already called the Defense Department to alert them of the error.” The former judge was a patient man, especially when dealing with Team 7. “We’re waiting for confirmation.”

Ezra wanted to tread carefully so as to not alienate Assistant Director Travis. “Yes, well, just in case it’s not a mistake, what is your next course of action?”

“We haven’t gotten that far.” Chris crossed his arms and directed his glare at Orin. Ezra had hit on a nerve.

Ezra directed his next question to Orin. “Sir, do you believe an error has been made?”

The Assistant Director never hid behind subterfuge. “No. I think they knew exactly what they were doing.”

Ezra looked at Chris. “Then, I believe I know someone who may be of assistance.”

Chris deflated somewhat, dropping into the other burgundy-colored chair. “And that would be?”

“My stepfather.”

“Which one?” Chris asked with a smirk. The team begrudgingly found themselves liking Maude, but could not understand her lifestyle with its numerous husbands.

“Well, it’s only the latter ones that I formed an attachment to.” In the beginning, Ezra wanted his stepfathers to be actual fathers, but they never lived up to that potential. He then figured they would never be his father, whoever that may be, and started to see their potential as friends and contacts.

“Bud is a very large contract holder for the Department of Defense. He knows people. I believe he could be helpful.” Ezra kept tabs on his former stepfathers, remembering birthdays and holidays with a good scotch, bourbon or fine wine. Ezra gestured to the phone, and Orin nodded.

“Please, be my guest.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ezra replied and dialed Bud’s direct line. Chris’s patience was clearly running thin, and Ezra hurried through the pleasantries after Chris made a winding gesture with one finger.

In the meantime, Angela delivered a message. Orin had received a phone call back from his contact, who confirmed that no mistake had been made, but he would see what he could do with the situation. Ezra relayed the information from his own call. “He’ll do the best he can and call back as soon as possible.”

Chris didn’t hide his less-than-positive attitude. “We’ll see when, and if, he comes through.”

“Ah, yes, the wet blanket I was expecting,” Ezra muttered. Chris’s irritation with the situation exhibited itself through general impatience. “Perhaps, Director Travis would like his office returned to him?”

Orin rolled back in his office chair. “I believe Angela is holding all my calls until we settle this matter; and hopefully that’s within the next forty-five minutes before both Chris and I are due in a meeting. If not, Agent Standish, you will man the phones, so to speak?”

As soon as the words were out of Orin’s mouth, Ezra pictured himself as Assistant Director. He had never really thought that far in the future, a part of him didn’t even know if he would always remain in law enforcement. But that decision was for later. Right now, he had a home and friends and he was happy with that.

“Ezra?”

“Yes, sir. I would be happy to.” As if on cue, the phone rang. “But, it may not be necessary.”

The phone’s display told Orin what he needed to know and he answered the call by pressing a single button. “David, I hope you don’t mind, I have you on speaker phone.”

“No, that’s fine. Orin, you’re pulling out the big guns. Bud Williams? He has the Secretary’s ear.”

“And what’s the decision? We want Agent Tanner to stay put. He’s needed here as a valuable member of a team that’s making a difference. Is the consensus up there that overseas terrorism is more important than what’s on our shores? This team has its nickname for a reason.” He knew David was aware of the group’s moniker.

“I know how valuable the man is. His record is exemplary, which is why his expertise is needed by the military. However, I do have a counteroffer that may work for all of us.”

Chris retorted with a growl in his voice. “You’re talking about a person, not an asset.”

“That is Chris Larabee,” Orin explained, “Special Agent In Charge and Vin’s superior. You can understand his concern. It’s my concern, too. These are my boys.”

“I’m sorry if I sounded callous, Orin. Let me explain….”

When the conversation ended, it was clear that they got the best deal they could from the Department of Defense. Ezra knew that Vin was a skilled marksman, but evidently as an Army Ranger he was quite the commodity, and missed.

Chris checked his watch and caught Orin’s eye. “Sir, if you don’t mind--”

The AD cut him off. “You should have just enough time to deliver the news to your boys before our meeting.”

The agents said their thank-you’s and made a quick exit. They took the stairwell down the three flights and wound their way past the administrative desks to the Team 7 area. “Conference room,” Chris announced. “Now.”

The team exchanged glances, unsure of what warranted the impromptu meet. Vin raised his brows towards Ezra who responded with a slight nod. They shuffled into the small room, taking their usual seats.

Vin leaned forward on the table and uncharacteristically spoke before Chris. “I reckon this is about me…long story, short, ya’ll should know the Army recalled me to serve out the rest of my contract.”

No one spoke. It was as if they were trying to process what they had just heard.

Nathan shifted forward in his seat. “What does that mean exactly?”

“It means that I go back to the Rangers for two years.”

“I don’t get this,” JD said. “What do you mean ‘go back’? Like, they’re going to send you to Afghanistan? What about the ATF?” He glanced at the other men, as if willing them to speak up. “Does the Judge know about this? Or the directors?”

Ezra looked at Chris who took mercy. “They do now. We came up with something. I think I’ll let Ezra explain since he’s the one who pulled some strings.”

“I called one of my stepfathers,” the southerner said, “he called some people. Vin will still have to serve, but it will be working for the Department of Defense for six months as an agency loan.” Ezra wasn’t completely happy. It was far better than two years, but the team needed Vin. He needed Vin. When he was undercover, it was indescribably reassuring to know he could trust the man in the rafters, as they called it. Vin wouldn’t just do the job, he would go above and beyond it.

“He really worked this one for you,” Chris said, nodding to Ezra. “Got you above the standard for hazard and combat pay and you don’t have to cut your hair.”

Ezra sat up straighter at the praise he had received. People would usually say he had an angle for doing what he did, but this was a case where he was part of a team. It had taken time for him to let down his guard, to allow them in, and appreciate Team 7.

“Above standard and you keep the hair?” Buck asked. “You serious?”

“Well,” Ezra explained, “a certain appearance is needed for Mister Tanner’s undercover work. And going to a warzone is hazardous; he should receive reparations for that.”

He noticed Vin absently run a hand through his hair. When Ezra first started with the ATF, one of his assignments involved him and Vin going undercover for three months. Ezra grew to appreciate the Texan’s laidback personality and “relax, we’ll get it done” attitude. He had also managed to convince Tanner of the benefits of hair product. Since then, it had been a rewarding give-and-take friendship.

“I don’t want ya’ll to think that I wasn’t willing to serve and do my time,” Vin said, looking at Chris and Ezra, “but, I appreciate what you did.”

“Wish we could have done more.” Chris leaned back in his chair.

“Guess Junior’s talents make him popular,” Buck added. “When do you leave?”

“New Year’s Day,” Ezra answered. “It’s a shorter stint, so they claimed he was needed sooner rather than later.”

“Damn,” Buck said, throwing his hands in the air. “That’s while I’m on vacation. Now I’ll have to bump it out.”

“Bucklin, you don’t have to change your plans on my account. I’ll see you in six months.”

“Hell no. You’re going to have a big sendoff and I can’t trust any of them to come through.” Buck motioned to the rest of the team with a vague wave of his hand.

“’Course not,” Ezra commented. “Without you we might actually have a tasteful event…rather than one involving a keg and inflatable women.”

Josiah interrupted the insults. “The deal is iron clad? Not that I don’t trust the U.S. government….”

“Orin’s getting it in writing as we speak.” Chris looked at his watch. “And I have a meeting to get to while you all need to get back to work.”

“Shall I step in for Director Travis while he’s at the meeting?” Ezra asked. He contemplated the changes he could make during the meeting—the first being a larger expense account, which would include an agency BMW so he wouldn’t have to risk his Jaguar.

“I’m sure Angela can manage,” Chris replied. “And I think you should learn to spend some time at your desk instead of kissing up to accounting and finance—what do you think?”

“Desk it is, then,” Ezra said. He wondered how a man who seemed so aloof could be aware of so much.

Buck would miss the quiet sharpshooter, but he thought JD would miss him more. As JD often said, he and Vin were the youngest—there were things the older agents just didn’t understand. JD was engrossed, typing away on his computer, until finally the printer hummed. He bounced from his chair to retrieve his prize and brought the paper to Vin’s desk.

“Hey, I set you up with a Hotmail account. You should have internet access from time to time and it’s a free account, but I was stuck on what you should use as a name because you shouldn’t use yours because of your line of work so I went with vtm7. Cool, right? And short, so it’s easy to remember. I wrote down your password too, L0$Lob0$, it’s Los Lobos but the first and last o’s are zeros…and the s’es are dollar signs…and it’s cap sensitive. But you can change it, you should change it. Definitely change it after a couple of months. And I added in all of our email addys, too. What do you think?”

Vin only blinked several times in response to JD’s fast-paced monologue. Buck had long ago noticed that JD only spoke that fast when he was nervous.

“Kid, I don’t think Vin understood much of what you said, and it has nothing to do with the accent.”

JD rolled his eyes. “Not for nothing, Buck, but I don’t have an accent.”

Buck chuckled. The Boston accent was there, even if JD didn’t want to own up to it. He didn’t sound like a Kennedy, but there were some words that were just off. “Right, that’s why that girl at the coffee shop wanted to know what country you where from.”

Ezra, whose desk was head-to-head with Vin’s, looked up from his computer. “JD, are you going to be like this for six months? Because, if so, I will have to ask Agent Jackson for some tranquilizers.”

“For JD or us?” Josiah asked, looking over his reading glasses.

“I can do both,” Nathan offered.

“Ha,” JD said, flatly. “It’s just that Vin gets to do something.” He still greatly felt the loss of his college friend who had been in the South Tower. After the funeral, he had wondered if he should take a job more on the line, helping the NSA or joining the Army to work Intelligence.

Buck and Chris had independently worked to convince JD that he was needed with the ATF. When the two old friends had talked about it, they knew their motivations were basically selfish—neither wanted to risk losing the young man. They saw a lot of themselves in him; it was for JD’s own good. The team protected him somewhat, allowing him to mature, and he wouldn’t find that in another place. So rather than go for the higher profile position, JD threw himself into being the best ATF agent he could.

Vin tried to combat the look in his friend’s eyes. “I don’t get to do much, JD. I have to follow orders. If it’s to go after Al Qaeda, then that’s what it is. But it might not be. It might not have anything to do with the bombings. At least here with the team you know what’s going on.”

“Plus,” Josiah added. “Vin’s going to need care packages, and you’re the one with the connections to the mail room. How else can we get bottles of whiskey over to him?” He winked at Vin.

The Texan smiled but seemed a little taken aback. “Thanks, Josiah. Was never one to get mail before.”

“Don’t expect it to be all Twinkies and Little Debbies in there,” Nathan interrupted, pointing to the chocolaty snack that was on Vin’s desk, waiting to be eaten.

JD hitched his hip onto the edge of Vin’s desk. “That connection is just because I got Robi a pre-release of a game from a friend at Microsoft.” He laid out the paper with his notes. “Let me show you what I did so you can stay in touch with us.”

Vin took in what JD had arranged for him and the younger man openly appreciated his friend’s willingness to use technology. JD returned to his desk and his gears were still turning. “I wonder if you could hack a satellite link for a BlackBerry?”

Buck grabbed his coffee mug and stood. “I’m not hearing this. Anybody need a refill?”

The only yes came from Vin. “Yeah, but I’ll come with.”

In the break room, Vin poured a cup from his own pot. “Bucklin, you’re gonna miss this when I’m gone.”

“A bad cup of coffee? Hell, Junior, I figure if I get a hankering I’ll just add some turpentine and it’ll be like old times.” Buck made a cross shape with his fore fingers and pointed it at Vin’s carafe before backing away toward the other coffee maker. “Does Nathan have you worried? ‘cause me and JD will make sure you’re kept flush in Twinkies and Little Debbies.” He smiled and shook his head as he refilled his mug. “I can’t turn down a snack that’s named after a woman—Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Fields-”

“Hey,” Vin interrupted, “Mrs. Fields is a married woman.” He leaned a hip against the counter. “You think he’s going to be okay?” It was understood that he meant JD. “You’re going to have to watch over them for me.”

Buck knew he was referring to the others, but especially Chris. “You can count on me. And don’t worry about JD and Chris. You just take care of yourself.” Buck took a sip, looking over his mug. “They won’t be thinking about missing you, what with the bash that I’ll be throwing you…they’ll have a hangover for the six months it takes you to get back.”

Denver International Airport

True to Buck’s word, come New Year’s Day, 2002, Vin was nursing a hangover that he thought would take him six months to recover from. There was not enough black coffee, Tylenol or Sausage McMuffins to take away his misery of the early morning flight to D.C.

Because of the seven a.m. flight it had been an all-night party, ringing in the new year with Chris doing the honors of bringing him to the airport. The only Godsend about a flight that early was having to get to the airport at five a.m., thus avoiding any sunlight.

They sat in Chris’s truck, watching the handful of employees and travelers mill about the sidewalk in front of the United terminal entrance.

“Thanks for the ride.” It took Vin a second before he realized that with that one statement he was thanking Chris for his time at the ATF, too. His friend seemed to understand and they shared a smile.

“I’m planning on seeing you in six months in one piece,” Chris said. The lack of sleep and cigar smoking from the night before made his voice deep and rough. “Don’t make me come over there to get you.”

Vin snorted, the sound sharpening his headache. He imagined Chris taking the team on a field trip to the desert. “You may find this hard to believe, but before I met up with y’all I wasn’t so accident prone.”

Chris kept his focus forward but nodded. “I do find that hard to believe.”

Vin patted the pocket containing the cigars that Nathan had given him. The medic had extracted a promise from Vin to hold onto one cigar to smoke when he got back.

Josiah, on the other hand had given him a prayer card with Psalm 23, which Vin was only familiar with from funerals. It was tucked next to the cigars as a counterpoint. His mind played back scenes from the party.

“You tryin’ to tell me somethin’, ‘Siah?” he asked, as he looked at the small laminated card that his friend had just given him.

“You keep this with you. It’s not about death. It’s about God being with you.” Josiah pulled him in for a hug while patting him on the back with increasingly jarring force. A Josiah with a lot of alcohol in him clearly forgot his own strength.

“You know,” Vin wheezed, extricating himself from the tight hug. “I’m not one to say special prayers.” He would admit that he called on God from time to time, but nothing formal. He treated it as a conversation.

“I know. It will make me feel better. And if something happens…do not go towards the light. You stay rooted to this earth. You hear me?” Despite Josiah’s heavy-lidded eyes, he held Vin’s gaze.

“I do.” Vin nodded. “Light is bad.”

“Exactly,” Josiah patted him one last time on the back and grabbed his beer bottle to raise in toast.

Vin thought he may be nursing some bruises from Josiah being overzealous, and rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks. “Any parting words or gifts?”

“I had to listen to JD tell that joke about the hamster,” Chris replied. “Three times.” He popped off his seatbelt. “It’s not funny. The gift you got was no bloodshed at your party.”

“Fair enough,” Vin said. He knew he was stalling. Like so many times over the last few weeks, he wanted to drink in this moment so it would carry him and ground him. Being an ATF agent had become his new normal; he was out of practice with the old Ranger Tanner and didn’t know how Defense Department Tanner would be. More images from the party sprang to mind. “I think we should get Ez drunk more often.”

Chris grinned and shook his head, then winced at the pain even the small movement generated.

A Denver police officer approached the passenger side window and Vin lowered it.

“You’re gonna need to keep moving. No standing.”

Chris cut off any other rules the man might have explained by leaning forward across Vin, flashing his badge, and nodding toward his friend. “It’s all right, Officer. We’re dropping off for overseas.”

The man’s eyes scanned the backseat, where Vin’s old military duffle bag and rifle case were. A second later it was clear that he suddenly understood what Chris meant. His emotion registered with raised brows and he took a quick look up and down the sidewalk. “Take your time.” He looked at Vin. “And thanks. Good luck over there.”

Vin just nodded his own thanks as Chris verbalized. “Appreciate it, Officer.”

They watched the man continue his patrol, and sat in silence for a moment. Chris gave a quick glance to the digital clock in the Ram then looked at his partner. “Six months. No volunteering for extended duty, no taking on any wayward kids. Six months, ya got me, Tanner?”

Vin gave a curt nod. His friend knew him well, but he had something to come back to this time. It hadn’t been like that when he was last in the Rangers. “Left my papers on your desk.” He had given Chris a copy of his health proxy, will and a power of attorney.

“I’ll keep them safe. Can’t guarantee that I can keep an eye on your checkbook though.”

Vin suppressed a smile. He had given Ezra control of his finances. “I trust him. ‘Sides, I told him if he bounced my rent checks I’d be moving in with him.”

Chris smiled at the mental image that produced. A second later, he sobered, looked away and opened the door of the Ram, which prompted a repeated chime until he pulled the keys out of the ignition.

Vin slid out the other side, retrieved his gear and waited until Chris came around. “Thanks for taking me on, Cowboy.” With the rifle case slung across his back and his duffle bag over one shoulder Vin felt like he was doing nothing more than going away for a week camping. He reached out and grasped Chris’s forearm, which was returned.

“You watch yourself,” Chris stated, releasing the grip.

“I’ll see ya.” Vin hitched the duffle higher on his shoulder and made his way into the airport.

 

Part 3
Federal Building
Denver, Colorado

Four months had passed and Vin’s desk remained untouched. JD didn’t think the six-month mark could come soon enough. There was only a four-year age difference between the two youngest members of the team. They had stuck together, and now JD was on his own.

He was working on some research for their current assignment. Chris had left his door open and JD heard his supervisor’s phone ringing from the empty office, then go silent. Buck’s phone rang next, but his fellow agent was down the hall. JD glanced at the caller id screen and saw the call was coming from lobby security so he answered it.

“Agent Dunne,” he announced.

“Agent, we have a visitor for Team 7…Lisa Eckard. She’s a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department and she says she knows Agent Tanner.”

JD looked at Josiah, waving to get his attention. With a hand over the mouthpiece, he explained who was waiting downstairs. They both agreed. “Let her up, Hank.”

“You don’t think it’s bad news?” JD looked to Josiah for confirmation.

Josiah shook his head. Bad news would be delivered differently. “It wouldn’t be the State Department coming for a visit, JD.”

“You know the CIA uses Foreign Service Officer as a cover. She could be an agent,” JD said, keeping an eye on the elevator. He had been gathering information on Vin, some required hacking. But he was not just good at what he did, he was great, and it wasn’t ego talking. At least he knew Vin had made it to Pakistan, after that was a bit of a mystery. Of course, he had ideas.

“Maybe she’s exactly who she says she is,” Josiah replied. “You keep a look out for her and I’ll find Buck and Nathan.”

When the elevator opened, JD was already there. A woman wearing a visitor’s badge stepped out and looked around. She was a brunette, straight hair, petite, wearing a jacket over a skirt and blue shirt. She searched the area, waiting to take a step forward.

“Lisa Eckard?”

She tipped the visitor’s badge clipped to her lapel. “I am. I’m looking for Special Agent Larabee?”

“Chris, uh, Agent Larabee is in a meeting. I’m JD Dunne, a member of Team 7.” He never tired of saying that, he hoped he never did. He did, however, wish he was dressed in something a little more professional than jeans, Nikes, and a Dropkick Murphys t-shirt.

“Security said that you work with Vin.” She offered her hand to shake. “He told me about his team.”

“Oh!” JD exclaimed, suddenly realizing their location probably wasn’t the best for a conversation. “Why don’t you come on back to the bullpen?” He led the way as Lisa continued.

“I helped Vin when he arrived in Pakistan. The DOD asked us to help set-up living accommodations--”

“JD, are you going to introduce our guest?” Buck took long strides toward the couple by his desk.

“Buck, this is Lisa Eckard. She works for the State Department and knows Vin.”

JD was embarrassed when Buck lifted her hand and clasped it gently with both of his. “Well whatever she has to say, we definitely won’t be shooting the messenger.” He winked at her.

The sound of someone clearing their throat interrupted the amorous attention. “I’m Nathan, Ms. Eckard. This is Josiah. We haven’t heard from Vin in a while and would appreciate any news.”

“I saw him a month ago. I just finished six months in Pakistan. When Vin got there he was providing PSD for the State Department. Sorry, personal security detail and I was assigned to find him suitable living accommodations.”

“I’m sure the place you found him was better than his apartment in Purgatorio,” Nathan commented.

“A little better.” Lisa smiled, and then elaborated. “I live in Colorado Springs so I’m home for a bit. I did bring a message from him.”

“What’s the message?” JD asked, wondering what Vin wanted to pass on. His emails were short to let them know he was doing as well as could be expected. He asked questions more about them, and thanked them for the care packages.

“I’m fine.” She smirked. “He’s a man of few words.”

Nathan frowned. “Has he been keeping safe?”

“As far as I know. But, I figured if I was going to come by then I better bring you something more…” With her left hand, she tucked her hair behind her ear.

JD had seen it clearly when she moved her hair. There was a ring on her left finger. “Um…is that an engagement ring?”

“Wait a minute,” Buck was thinking the same thing as JD. “You and Vin? That’s a message! My boy Junior is full of surprises.”

Lisa’s face registered shock. She brought her hand up and studied it a moment before laughing. “Vin’s been working with my fiancÚ’s team. I brought copies of some pictures that Rick sent. I figured you would want them.” She reached into her purse and fished out an envelope.

“Please accept our apologies, Ms. Eckard,” Nathan said, smacking the back of JD’s head. “We usually don’t let these two out in polite company.”

JD rubbed the spot. “Hey, Buck thought it too.”

She pulled the photos from the envelope, handing them to JD. “No worries. I can’t wait to tell Rick. And Junior is Vin’s nickname?”

“On account of him being a younger version of Chris Larabee, in some ways,” Buck offered up.

JD pulled several 5 x 7s from the envelope and his teammates crowded around. The first showed six soldiers in desert fatigues posed around and on a Cougar armored vehicle. All wore sunglasses that wrapped around to shield them from as much of the sun as possible. Some wore scarves tied over their head, or wrapped loose around their necks, others had on baseball hats.

Nathan tipped the photo more his direction. “You can’t even tell which one is him.”

“There,” Josiah said, pointing to a figure with a headscarf who leaned against the Cougar’s hood. His face was further hidden under some facial hair. “That’s his slouch.”

Buck agreed. “Totally Junior’s grin. And let me guess,” he added, pointing to the largest of the six men, “this one’s Rick?”

Lisa nodded enthusiastically. “Yep. He’s going to love this.”

“Uh-oh,” Josiah said.

“What?” JD asked.

Nathan winced. “Not gonna be good.”

JD swiveled his head to look from Josiah to Nathan. “What?”

Buck looked pleadingly at Lisa. “I don’t suppose there’s any way we can stop this from getting back to Vin?”

The woman tried to suppress a laugh. “I like Vin, I really do. And you guys seem really nice…but not a chance in Hell.”

“What?” JD demanded of his friends.

Buck looked defeated. “Teams in the military will rag on you like nobody’s business.”

“The name Junior is just too precious not to share,” Lisa said.

Buck still wore a defeated expression. “I think Vin may take a little revenge at being the entertainment.”

“So it’s like what we do here,” JD replied. He had never been in the service, but realized a while ago that Chris ran the team like a military unit, yet allowed them freedom to be more like the Dirty Dozen.

JD had been tempted to do his bit helping the cause when Toby died in the towers attack, but Buck and Chris had convinced him his place was in Denver. JD knew they were right. He had a good thing going with the ATF, especially with Team 7. He was an expert when it came to computers, and his team respected him for his knowledge and eagerness to learn.

“I’d be more afraid if she tells her fiancé you hit on her before accusing her of being hooked up with Vin,” JD added, glancing from the picture up to Buck. “I’m just an innocent, naïve kid.”

“So you’re saying you’ll throw me under the bus?” Buck asked, crossing his arms.

JD nodded with a smile. “Yep.”

Josiah snatched the top picture from JD’s hand. The next picture was Vin seated cross-legged on the roof of a building with a slate-like surface. Beside him was Rick, his arm around Vin’s shoulder but his hand was raised up enough to form “bunny ears” behind the sniper’s head. Above them was a white sheet rigged up to be a tent, evidently to provide a bit of relief from the sun. Both men looked at the camera, showing wide smiles. With one hand, Vin pointed at a rifle in his lap, while giving a thumbs-up with his other hand.

“That’s not his Mk,” JD pointed out.

Nathan leaned over the young man’s shoulder. “Looks like a Win Mag.” He took the photo, studying it closer. “Nice.”

The remaining picture was the same setting, but this time Vin was alone. He lay prone, as if positioned for a shot. His right elbow was settled on top of what looked like an errant sofa cushion and his new rifle pointed out, with his concentration, on some distant horizon.

“He looks good,” Josiah said as he studied the picture and passed the first group shot to Nathan.

“Looks thin,” Nathan commented.

“How can you tell?” JD asked. Vin looked the same to him, just dressed a little differently from his black ATF fatigues.

Nathan cocked his head, as if he couldn’t believe his friend didn’t believe him. “I know, JD. I know.”

“You know he only has about eight weeks left,” Buck commented. “He’s looking kinda comfortable.”

The pictures went back to JD, who tucked them into the envelope. Lisa bit her bottom lip and JD saw it as someone who was giving bad news.

“Rick and the others want him to stay.”

“He’s wanted back home,” Buck replied, patting JD on the back.

JD wanted to tell him that he wasn’t going to leave and he didn’t think Vin would either.

“That was the same thing he said,” Lisa confirmed. “I should get going and let you get back to work. Just keep them all in your prayers.”

Josiah reached out and clasped her hand. “They won’t be far from our thoughts.”

“I’ll walk you out, darlin’.” Buck jutted out his elbow for Lisa to take.

She pulled a card from her purse and handed it to JD. “In case you want to get a hold of me.” She then hooked her arm through Buck’s and allowed herself to be escorted to the elevator.

JD studied the card before moving to his desk and dropping into his chair to enter the information into his email Contacts tab. He had just filed the card amongst the handful of important ones he kept in a small business card folder when Buck appeared. He quickly settled into his chair and leaned forward toward JD’s desk.

“Can I see those pictures again?”

JD barely had time to pick up the envelope before his roommate reached across and snatched it from his hand. Buck tipped the envelope upside down and the photos slid out. Josiah was at his shoulder.

“You noticed?” the profiler asked, as he slipped on his glasses.

“Yep,” Buck replied. “Vin’s keeping interesting company.”

“What?” JD looked towards Nathan who shrugged in response. “I don’t get it.”

“No markings on their uniforms, facial hair, and they blend in.” Josiah pointed to the picture.

JD took the photo and studied it. “And that means?”

“Delta Force, kid.” Buck exhaled loudly. “Vin’s hooked up with Delta Force.”

Since Vin had left, JD had done a lot of research on the groups serving in the Middle East. Delta Force was known as one of the U.S.’s secretive counter-terrorism and special mission units. He knew outsiders called it Delta Force, but the soldiers involved called it The Unit, and they worked with the CIA on many missions.

“Thank God,” JD said. “I thought I was losing my touch.” The others looked at him. “I was trying to track him. I got as far as Pakistan, but then it was like he fell off the grid. Now I know why. Getting outmaneuvered by a secret organization is fine by me.”

Josiah patted him on the back. “You were taking a big risk there.”

“Just wanted to make sure he was safe,” JD confirmed, a bit sheepishly.

Buck winked at him. “Watching his back. It’s what a team does.”

And JD didn’t want to be with any other team. He couldn’t wait for Vin to get back.

Ezra’s Townhouse

July was starting off like usual as the hottest month in Denver. Ezra had the local morning news on in the background and listened with half an ear as the weatherman announced that the Fourth of July would reach a high of ninety degrees.

No matter how hot it was outside it never deterred him from hot coffee. He prepared his breakfast doppio with the simple two-cup macchinetta. The others would have been surprised at his lack of a fancy espresso maker. Truth be told, his stovetop coffee maker had been a gift from a girlfriend. He couldn’t imagine ever trading it for anything else.

He was surprised when his home phone rang at 10 a.m. It didn’t exactly ring, since most of the time he kept the ringer off and it went directly to his answering machine. He heard Nathan leave a message.

“I know your home. I already tried your cell and it went right to voicemail so I figure you have it off. Call me when you get this.”

Ezra took a sip of the strong coffee, not allowing his teammate to ruin his morning ritual on his day off—espresso, croissant and sectioned grapefruit with a bottle of Evian.

The answering machine picked up again, indicating that Nathan had called back.

“I need a ride to Chris’s. Rain’s car is in the shop and she needed mine to get to work. I wouldn’t bother you if I didn’t have anyone else to take me--”

Ezra did not know why he took mercy on his friend, but he picked up the phone, interrupting Nathan’s impassioned speech to the answering machine. “Mr. Jackson….”

“Thank God. I knew you were there. I need a ride to the barbeque.”

Ezra rolled his eyes. Yes, he too was attending the Fourth of July picnic at Chris’s but providing a ride to Nathan simply couldn’t be done. Not this time, very bad timing. “Can you ask Buck or Josiah?”

“You’re my last choice.” Nathan paused, then elaborated. “I actually wanted to get there on time. Buck is picking up Nettie. Casey and JD are going on the bike. Josiah is working at the mission before coming over….”

Ezra rubbed a spot over his eyebrow. “You aren’t helping Josiah with his worthy endeavor? I thought that was something you usually enjoyed.” Nathan constantly reminded him about the importance of giving to the community. Ezra preferred monetary donations.

“It’s too hot,” Nathan mumbled.

“Pardon me? Agent Jackson, are you making an excuse?” Ezra smirked in amusement. “And may I add that it isn’t a very good one.”

“The mission doesn’t have air conditioning, and it’s too hot. Now, can I have a ride?”

Ezra had other plans that did not include Nathan. He grabbed for not-so-subtle alternatives. “How about a taxi? I’ll arrange it, even pay for it.” Whatever the cost, it would be worth it.

“A taxi? Are you planning on going to Chris’s today?”

Ezra actually pulled the receiver away from his ear to stare at it for a second before shaking it slightly as if throttling it. Sometimes his teammate’s obtuseness truly baffled him. “Yes, I was planning on going. I did say as much, repeatedly, even though I had been invited to partake in another sensible, indoor affair.”

“Don’t make me beg, Ezra.”

Ezra took a moment. This wasn’t an ideal situation and he really did not want to veer from his Plan A. He sighed. “Very well. But at some time in the future I will ask for a favor in return.”

“This isn’t ‘The Godfather’, Ezra. I’m not going to kill anyone for you or help hide a body.”

If there had been someone to kill or a body to hide, then Ezra would have handled it himself, thank you very much. “Nothing so dramatic. However,” he glanced at the Tag Hauer encircling his wrist. I will have to adjust my plans and pick you up now.” There was only silence. “Nathan?”

“No, that’s good. I’m ready to go now…just surprised that you are.”

“More surprises to come,” Ezra quipped with a longing look at his espresso that he would be unable to fully enjoy.

“What?”

“I’ll be there shortly.”

“Thanks…I think.”

They said final goodbyes and hung up. Ezra erased Nathan’s previous message and checked his watch again. It wouldn’t kill his friend to wait a few minutes longer. He would understand that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

Nathan thought the best thing he could do was to wait outside so he’d be ready when Ezra got to the house. He sensed that the other man was preoccupied, possibly up to something. He wouldn’t put it past the southerner to do little more than slow down and force him to jump in.

So Nathan stood outside in the sun, his fishing hat putting up a gallant attempt to keep him somewhat shaded, but failing. He moved closer to his house, under the tree in the front yard, which he silently thanked Rain for forcing him to plant.

He looked at his watch. If Ezra had left when he said he was going to leave then he should have been there fifteen minutes ago. Nathan took a deep breath, held it to a count of four, then released and repeated it. Josiah would be proud.

On his seventh round of breathing he saw the Jaguar turn the corner, then pull to the curb in front of the house. The brake lights were still on; the passenger side window went down. Ezra tilted his blue-tinged sunglasses down slightly and stared at Nathan.

The window went up and Nathan took that as a sign to move fast to the car. He felt a drop of sweat crawling down the side of his face. He wiped it roughly away as he pulled open the door and slid into the leather passenger seat. He quickly found the seatbelt and latched himself in as Ezra pulled away from the curb. “Thanks for the ride.”

“You gave me no choice,” Ezra replied, looking left and right at the stop sign before continuing.

Nathan wiped a hand down his face. “You exacted a promise from me like a ten-year-old.” He raised a hand to stop Ezra from interrupting. “As long as it doesn’t get me into trouble or you hurt, then you’ll get your favor, but you’re making it sound like I owe you big when all you’re doing is giving me a ride to the same place you’re going…”

“I think I will be the judge of that.” Ezra maneuvered the Jaguar onto the highway.

Nathan frowned, and focused on the route they were on before speaking up. “This isn’t the way to the ranch.”

Ezra gave a noncommittal answer. “I have an errand to run first.”

Nathan shifted in the leather seat. “Are we making a beer run? That last craft brew that you found?”

Ezra shook his head. “No, I believe there are still some of my fine beer and wine choices hidden in Mr. Larabee’s refrigerator.”

Nathan was an agent for the ATF, which meant he had the ability to figure out where they were going. The medic, however, started with the direct approach. “Where are we going?”

Ezra tilted his head. “Nathan, I am an undercover specialist, and if gun runners, capo bosses, Serbians, Russians and all the heathens we have come across have been unable to get information from me, then I doubt you will.”

“Can I at least put on the radio?” Nathan hoped for something more than the silence, and his thoughts of where he was being taken.

“Be my guest.”

Nathan picked a jazz station.

“No, not that one.”

He tried the local independent station.

“Not that one either.”

He stopped on the classic rock station.

“That will do.”

Three songs and ten commercials later, Nathan started to get an idea of where they were heading. “Buckley Air Force Base. We’re heading to Buckley.” Nathan felt his grin grow. “If you’d told me then I would have brought some cigars.”

Ezra’s eyebrow cocked up. “For what?”

Nathan almost thought he was wrong, and that Ezra’s errand was not picking up Vin, but Nathan had a feeling and he was going with it. “So this is what it’s like to be included on a plan.” Vin and Ezra seemed to attract trouble when they teamed up, but something about their attitude was admirable. Sometimes Nathan was even jealous.

“You, sir, were not included in this plan.” Ezra’s southern accent was thick. “You’re an interloper.”

“You’re an ass,” Nathan responded, thinking of how Ezra had practically forced him to beg for the ride, all for the sake of a surprise. “How long have you known?”

“About three days. It was confirmed yesterday.” Ezra raked a hand through his hair, then shifted the air conditioning vent up.

“The guys are going to be surprised.” Nathan thought about the reactions of his friends, and glad he would be witness to it. He was feeling the buzz of excitement, too.

“That was the intention.” Ezra sighed.

Nathan lightly bumped Ezra’s arm. “Vin will love that I came along.”

Ezra glanced down to where Nathan had touched him, then back to the medic. “Up until you inquire about his health.”

It was part of his job, which he took seriously. They should be happy that there was somebody who paid attention to such things. “Well someone has to. Ya’ll are liable to walk around shot and falling over instead of going to the hospital.”

“That has never happened.”

“Because of me,” Nathan replied, perhaps a little too smug, but enough that Ezra remained quiet until they reached the security checkpoint. A fence was across the entrance with a guard seen though the window of a small booth.

Ezra pulled the car up and set it in park, leaving it running for the air conditioner. He pressed the button to bring the driver’s side window down. “Hello, I have a friend coming in on the military flight.”

The airman with sidearm at his hip, and clipboard in his hand, nodded to Ezra. “Name, sir, and identification.”

“Ezra Standish.” He was already fishing his ATF ID from the Jag’s center console. He flipped open the badge and handed it to the airman.

“And your passenger?” The soldier looked towards Nathan, then scanned the page on his clipboard.

“He’s not on the list,” Ezra replied, accepting back his badge after the airman had written down his identification information. “I can leave him with you if you’d like.”

“Nathan Jackson. I’m also ATF.” Nathan stretched over Ezra to pass his ID and badge to he airman. “Ignore my friend.”

The man did not reply. He simply took Nathan’s badge, and wrote down the number before making a phone call, which Nathan figured was to confirm his identity. Once that was accomplished, Nathan got his badge back.

“Can you open the trunk, please, sir?”

Ezra complied with the request and then they heard a resounding thud as it was closed.

“Thank you. Do either of you gentlemen have any weapons on you?”

Nathan muttered a reply that only Ezra could hear. “Only his attitude.”

“Shut up,” Ezra replied, in the same low tone, before answering the airmen. “No, sir. On our way to a barbeque after this.”

“That’s a small backseat,” the airman commented, as he glanced in to make sure there was nothing suspicious there.

“It works.”

The airman nodded, then pushed a button so the gate slowly opened. “The strip is about three miles up, park in the lot and check in once you get there.”

“Thank you. Happy Fourth.” Ezra waved as he shut the window and drove through the gate.

Nathan hadn’t thought about it until the airman unintentionally reminded them. He shifted to look at the backseat of the Jaguar. There was a backseat, but it was not ample and there was no legroom. “Shit, shit, shit. I have to sit in the backseat.”

“Yes.” Ezra grinned. “Vin, the guest of honor, should be up front.”

“You should have told me,” Nathan replied, thinking about how cramped he would be.

“I suggested alternative means.”

Nathan gritted his teeth. “I should have gone with Josiah.” He would have had to volunteer at the mission, but at least Josiah’s truck had plenty of room.

“And left me to my good deed.”

He blamed Rain and the idiots that needed a doctor on the Fourth of July because they were shooting off fireworks and losing fingers while doing it, plus being down to one car.

They parked in the lot and walked to the hanger. Air traffic control was in the distance watching over the airstrip. After checking in, again showing their badges, they were pointed to an outdoor waiting area.

Even with his sunglasses, Nathan was squinting as he looked up to the clear blue sky. He watched as the plane got closer in its approach, landed with a shake, then braked until it slowed and taxied towards them. A rolling staircase was brought in, waiting until the plane stopped and chalks were wedged under the wheels so that the plane would move no further.

The pilot gestured to the crew on the ground and the door was opened once the staircase was attached. It was a slow trickle of men. There was not a large group waiting, a few families with kids milling about, stepping forward to greet their military person as they arrived. Nothing like the big welcome homes he had seen on tv

Finally, both he and Ezra perked up as they saw their friend at the aircraft’s door, a large duffle on his left shoulder. In his right hand he carried a rifle case. He was searching.

Ezra raised his hand, and Vin’s focused expression gave way to a huge smile. His face brightened more when he saw Nathan. His gait changed immediately, and he moved with more purpose.

When he reached them, he grabbed Ezra’s outstretched hand. The southerner seemed startled when Vin pulled him in for a strong half hug, pounding his friend’s back with his free hand. “Ez, appreciate you being on time. You bring Nate along to help you with that?”

“No, I was honoring our original plan, but someone insisted he needed a ride to the barbeque and I was his last resort.”

Vin’s eyebrows rose. “You owe Ez a favor? You were that desperate? I would’ve taken a taxi…or stolen a car…hell, hitchhiked.”

Ezra cut in. “Yes, I think he gets the idea.”

“Happy to have you home,” Nathan responded gruffly as he studied Vin and ignored the savvy remark. He, too, received an enthusiastic half hug. Vin’s features were sharper, easily seen since his hair was pulled back tightly. His desert camouflage jacket was loose over him. Nathan suspected weight loss, but his friend still felt solid.

“Good to be home.”

Ezra led the way back to the car and Vin didn’t look back.

“Let me put those in the trunk for you.” Ezra put his hand out for the large duffle and rifle case.

Vin handed over his heavy gear bag, but carefully placed the case in the trunk himself; shifting it so it was secure.

“You should take the backseat,” Nathan suggested due to concern for his friend who looked tired, not because he would be uncomfortable. “You could stretch out and get some rest.”

“Did that backseat get bigger while I was away? ‘Cause, as I recall, Cuervo is about the only thing that could stretch out back there and rest.” Vin glanced at Ezra with a smirk as he made his way to the passenger side. “If I sit back there, Nate, then you would be owing me a favor, and I’m not like Ez. I’d ask you to hide the body, in fact bury it in your backyard. I reckon you may want to quit while you’re ahead.”

Ezra chuckled. “You have been missed, Mister Tanner.”

“You two suck,” Nathan retorted. “And wait until ya’ll are in trouble again with Chris. Don’t come callin’.” He climbed in the back, not caring that he stepped on the car’s leather upholstery before settling in for the long drive to Chris’s.

I will be calling you since you owe me.” Ezra flashed a smile and Nathan groaned.

 

Part 4

Nate wanted him to sit in the fucking backseat? He didn’t fucking think so. Not after being stuck on a goddamn plane so long he’d lost count of the time zones. Nice fucking try. Shit, he had to clean up his language. He hadn’t slipped yet, but Nettie would be at Chris’s house and she would probably be able to read his mind and those fucking curse words going on in his head.

Six months amongst desert rat military personnel dropped Vin into the habit of using too many colorful words not fit for polite company. He stretched out a bit and positioned the air conditioner so he felt the cool breeze. He was used to the heat, but definitely enjoyed the coolness that was being offered.

The scenery was so different from where he had been, and he recognized how much he had missed Colorado. It was now home. He hadn’t been able to afford to be homesick, since he was thrown into the thick almost immediately.

He started in Pakistan because the DOD wanted to get him acclimated, which didn’t take long. From his Ranger days, he learned it was always the same shit, different day no matter where he was. He had been placed with a team, and what came along with that with having to prove himself, along with the bit of hazing he expected as a new addition. It had been good working with them from time to time, but then the DOD would pull him away for other jobs, like training the locals.

He rubbed his chin. He had to shave for the military flight, which he had done yesterday. He had gone from Afghanistan to Germany and then was able to grab a hop to Virginia, and finally to Denver on a military transport. For that, he had been required to wear his BDUs, unmarked as they were.

“I would ask what I missed, but JD covered a shitload in his emails.” Fuck, this was gonna be hard.

“No one knows you’re coming,” Nathan commented. “Ezra kept it quiet.” He shifted in the backseat for what seemed like the tenth time in the last twenty minutes.

Ezra gave a ‘you’re welcome’ in the form of a two-finger salute off his temple.

Vin’s time with the Rangers had showed him the necessity of sleeping when the opportunity was at hand. He had rested on the plane, but was still working a six-month deficit. He trusted these men and could get some sleep knowing they would watch his back, although the highways of Colorado provided safe passage compared to the Khyber Pass.

He awoke when the Jag’s tires hit the gravel of the long drive leading up to Chris’s house. He wiped a hand over his mouth and craved some water. “How you doing there, Nate?”

“I’ll be fine once I get the feeling back in my legs.” When the car finally stopped and Vin shifted the front seat forward, Nathan gingerly got out with as many maneuvers as it took to get in. “That backseat isn’t fit for company.”

Vin stretched and spent a moment taking in the ranch, curling his toes in his boots so he knew he was there. He looked longingly at the barn as he peeled off his BDU jacket, rolled it up and stuffed it into his duffle, since Ezra had the trunk open for him. He was accustomed to 120 degree heat, so while wearing a jacket when it was in the high 80s didn’t bother him much; it felt more freeing to have it off.

“Humans first, then the animals,” Ezra said, gesturing to the house. He sensed that Vin was tempted to check on Peso and his Harley. Ezra took the duffle, while Vin took care of his rifle case. It was his tool of the trade and he was always the one that handled it, especially since he had a new rifle.

As they walked to the house it really hit Vin that this homecoming would include everyone—the team plus Nettie, Casey, Mary, Billy, Judge Travis and his wife, Evie. He stopped mid-stride, literally dragging his feet. Nathan wrapped an arm around his shoulders, prompting Vin to pick up the pace. “They won’t bite.”

He had spent hours on rooftops clearing the streets for soldiers to come in, gone into known places of hostiles, and yet being surrounded by family was overwhelming. He never expected to have that; or perhaps it was because they were family and he didn’t have an agile weapon on him. He smirked.

Two steps up and he was on the porch, greeted by an unlocked screen door and an open front door. He smelled the meat on the barbeque and through the open doors heard that everyone was in the backyard. Ezra and Nathan slipped past him, wordlessly acknowledging that they knew he didn’t want to be the first into the backyard.

“About time,” Buck called out when he saw Ezra step through the backdoor. “Chris was getting worried…about Nathan.”

Chris, positioned at the grill with his back to the door, didn’t turn around but gave Buck the middle finger.

“Ezra likes to take the long way to get here,” Nathan replied, coming through the door, while barely holding a poker face.

Vin stepped out, back to the sunlight.

“Holy shit,” JD said with a big grin, which turned into a grimace when Casey elbowed him for his language.

“Uh, Chris, you got another steak?” Buck winked at Vin and started to walk forward.

“Another? What for?” Chris had a long-handled fork in his hand, and turned toward Buck’s voice.

“Medium rare works for me,” Vin answered, stepping closer to his friends. Various yells and several high-pitched female voices echoed through the air. He stretched out his arm to Chris who grabbed it in a forearm grip then pulled him forward into a hug.

“Son of a bitch,” Chris muttered in his ear. “’Bout fucking time you got home.”

Vin accepted the embrace before being tackled by Buck, then Josiah lifting him off his feet in a massive bear hug, and finally a high-five and hug thrown in from JD. He embraced Nettie, who cupped his face with both hands, and accepted warm hugs from the other ladies and a strong handshake from Orin.

Throughout the day, his plate was filled. He didn’t have much of an appetite—too accustomed to eating MREs with a main concern of staying hydrated. He did drink water, and nursed a couple of beers. Half of his steak went to Chris’s dog. He hoarded the corn on the cob because he couldn’t think of the last time he had it. He then snuck a visit to Peso who seemed happy to see him; he wondered if the horse had even missed him.

Vin looked down at his clothes, still in BDUs and hiking boots—where he had spent six months. Then he looked around at his friends—his family—and a little voice from far in his past reminded him that that their lives had gone on without him. He silenced it with an internal curse. Yes, all their lives had continued over the last six months, but they weren’t complete. He had proof of that through their letters, e-mails, and care packages. Shit, during his first go ‘round with the military he hadn’t gotten so much as a postcard.

He suddenly felt the need to be alone, and craved the solitude of a shower. He told Chris where he was going before disappearing.

He turned on the water for it to heat up and stripped, pulling out the elastic in his hair, staring at himself in the mirror. He had been in Germany for a few days, hooking up with a nurse, Hannah, who trimmed his hair for him so that it was at his shoulders once more. He hadn’t touched it in six months, and couldn’t trust the men he was with for fear they would scalp him, “unintentionally--on purpose”.

Hannah had been good company on a chance meeting at the base hospital where he needed to be cleared. Although he hid it from the doctors, his back was bothering him from having to nest in prolonged positions; Hannah had picked up on it and offered to give him a massage. He recalled the awkward few seconds after her proposal when she backpedaled upon realizing how her offer could have been interpreted. The muscles were better, but he would need a run tomorrow to work on the kinks and stiffness.

The shower filled with steam, and he took a step into the warm water. The liquid sluiced down his body and he closed his eyes, feeling the smooth porcelain tub under his feet. More than a few times when he had been in country, when things were especially ugly, he had shut his eyes against everything around him and remembered that morning in the office break room--the smell of the coffee, the hum of the refrigerator. Yep, this time ‘round he definitely had had something to come back to.

Once finished with his shower, he dried his hair with a towel before wrapping the thick cotton around his waist. He was thinner, but more muscular than he had been six month ago. From the small kit bag he had brought from his duffle he pulled out some pilfered hotel toiletries. He used the body lotion sample, and the hair gel, though he would deny it if anyone ever asked him.

His eyes lingered momentarily over the tattoo on his ribs, under his right arm. With his latest stint in the military it had helped garner some respect with the variety of men he served with. They saw him as one of them rather than considering him a DOD lackey. When he became a Ranger he wanted a tattoo, but he couldn’t get a tattoo while he was a Ranger because it would mark him as American, or worse, a soldier. He already had a small tattoo of a yellow rose on the inside of his left arm for his mom, but he really wanted a Ranger emblem. When he finished with the Rangers he decided to commemorate his time there. He decided on a knife, blade pointing up with two arrows crossing in the middle. Scrolled underneath blade forming a semi-circle was RLTW—Rangers Lead The Way.

He still lived by the creed. He went through the words in his mind, each letter of the word starting one of the principles.

Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and "esprit de corps" of the Rangers.

Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move farther, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.

Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be. One-hundred-percent and then some.

Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress, and care for equipment shall set the example for others to follow.

Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.

Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor.

The shower made him feel more normal. He had forgotten what it was like to transition back into normalcy since the last time he was in the military. He would need to take some time for himself before going back to the Bureau. He hadn’t brought a change of clothes into the bathroom, and looking at his BDUs he couldn’t imagine wearing them, or his gilley suit, again for a while.

With the towel secure around him he padded down the hall into the guest room and opened one of the drawers where he suspected he would find a supply of clothes from which he could pilfer. Sure enough, there was a pair of jeans and a t-shirt advertising Absolute. While getting dressed, he became aware that it was quieter; looking out the window he noticed that the guys were clearing the last vestiges of the celebration.

Everyone else was gone. He said silent thanks to his team. They seemed to know his escape to the shower was not simply to get cleaned up. Vin needed some decompression time. They would have convinced the others that goodbyes weren’t necessary—they would see him again soon enough, most likely for another barbeque at Mary’s or Nettie’s.

Vin smiled as he went into the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and made his way to the family room. He dropped onto the sofa and propped his feet on the coffee table, waiting for the team to come inside. He turned on the TV and tried to pay attention to the baseball game. Chris and JD were in first, then Ezra and Buck along with Nathan and Josiah. Eventually, they all joined him.

Nathan paused near Vin’s feet, his hands on his hips. “Should you be drinking that? Aren’t you on antivirals?”

Vin took another drag on his beer. “I think it’s okay, Nate.” Five days ago he was in the Sangin District in a firefight—if that didn’t kill him, then mixing beer with some meds that were supposed to keep him from getting sick probably wasn’t an issue. “So how’re my kids doing?” He had asked in his last email and received a generic response that everyone was doing well and he was missed.

“Good,” JD answered. “I had to fix the computer in your apartment, and while I was there I installed a program so I can access it remotely.” He paused with a dramatic sigh. “I found some porn on it….”

“Figured it would happen eventually with the boys getting older.” Vin wiped a hand down his face. He would have to have a conversation with the boys.

JD nodded. “Whoever it was got around the parental locks, so I fixed that too. Buck said I should just leave it alone and let the kids have at it. I had to remind him that what’s out there now isn’t like the old-school Playboys he remembers.”

Buck shrugged his shoulders adding an unapologetic smile. “Couldn’t send the kid alone so I went as a bodyguard.” He leaned forward. “Your landlord’s spending some money there. New ac units, fresh paint—looks downright livable.”

“Plus a recreation room,” Nathan said, “so I guess the kids won’t be using your apartment anymore.”

“And there are window boxes and an area cleared for a community garden,” Josiah concluded.

Vin was impressed that they had paid a visit to Purgatorio and kept an eye out, but he hadn’t expected the changes. “That so?” He glared at Ezra who had gotten up to fetch a bottle of whiskey from the kitchen.

Ezra ignored him and pulled out seven glasses from a small glass-front cupboard. “And a new penthouse, which should be completed shortly.”

“Penthouse?” Chris turned around to see what Ezra was doing in the kitchen. “Vin’s on the top floor. The only other thing up there is a vacant apartment.”

“Which will now be one large apartment befitting the new owner.” Ezra brought over the glasses, balancing them all on a cutting board-cum-platter.

“New owner?” Buck grabbed a glass.

“Ezra?” Chris cocked his head with suspicion.

“Lord, no. Vin is the new owner of the building.” Ezra picked up a glass for himself.

Chris was sitting on the sofa near him and was taken aback. “Vin? How the hell did that happen?”

Vin had to give Ezra credit, he had kept it quiet, and then gone above and beyond, but Vin figured it was going to cost him his hazard pay and then some. “Ez arranged it. I gave him power of attorney and the son of a bitch went and spent my money.”

“Not all of it. In fact, your mortgage payment is the same amount you were paying for rent,” Ezra explained, being nonchalant.

“How did you manage that?” Nathan sputtered, and Vin was interested too.

Ezra dropped into an overstuffed leather chair and reclined back, clearly enjoying the positive attention. “Our Mister Tanner is a veteran, living in an economically disadvantaged area with a former landlord that owed back taxes. The city, the state and federal government were all willing to pitch in along with the U of D’s agriculture and sociology departments. Apparently, they want to study the effects of gardens on violence.”

“And you did this when you were undercover?” Chris held his glass of whiskey, but had yet to drink it.

Ezra didn’t flinch at the stare directed at him. “I believe that in the end, Douglas Veder did get apprehended.”

“What’s your take?” Nathan asked, his eyebrow rose in skepticism.

“A five-percent property management fee. Inconsequential.” Ezra took a sip of whiskey. “And with Vin’s remaining hazard pay I was able to place a down payment on a few acres of land that he’d been interested in.”

Vin stared at him for a view seconds and Ezra’s brows rose. “You did still want it, didn’t you? The acreage you spoke of while we were on surveillance during the Bluewater case…and the Highline assignment.”

“Uh…yeah, of course.” What did you say to someone who found you a place to call home? “Thanks, Ez. Never thought that would happen.” He had mentioned the land he had admired after finding it, but never thought about actually owning it, or the building in Purgatorio. Never thought much about owning anything. He had lived most of his life with a sense of impermanence. It was something that he knew the undercover operative understood.

“Unfortunately, you don’t have enough money to build a house on said land, but in time it should be possible.”

“Shit, that don’t matter none. I just need a spot clear enough to camp on.” The idea of being able to build something with his own hands overwhelmed him.

Josiah raised his glass in toast and the others followed suit. “Congratulations, Vin, nice to see something good come from all this.”

Chris gave Vin a pat on the back and a nod to Ezra.

“Junior, you’re a regular land baron.” Standing beside Vin, Buck tossed back his shot of alcohol and put out his hand to congratulate his friend.

Vin accepted the hand, but then pulled Buck downward and off balance. “Bucklin, me and you are gonna have to have a chat,” he hissed. “I don’t appreciate being called Junior by a fuckin’ squad. Before your slip up, they were calling me Tex or ATF, suddenly a friggin’ wet-behind-the-ears kid is calling me Junior.” When you were working in teams you wanted a cool nickname, which he had had for a few months. “You wanna explain that to me? And you thought I was engaged, too?”

Buck tried to pull his hand back, but Vin kept his grip secure. “Uh…sorry? Got a little excited getting word from you, and you sent it with a pretty lady….”

JD interrupted. “Sounds like you’re making it Vin’s fault. It also kinda sounds like you’re heading up shit creek.”

“Kid, you’re not helping.” With the hand that still held the whiskey glass, Buck reached for JD and smacked him in the leg with the tumbler. “And you thought Vin was engaged too!”

“And you’re trying to take me down with you. Leave me out of it,” JD replied.

“That’s okay, JD.” Vin let go and Buck caught himself on the edge of the chair. Vin relaxed back and winked at the younger agent. “Could have been worse, like being called Bogiggles.”

Buck’s face registered total shock. His head whipped toward Chris. “Did you…? You promised never to tell anyone.”

Chris coughed, trying to get gain control from laughing. “Not me. I kept that secret. I was so embarrassed for you that I wouldn’t share that.”

Buck’s focus shot back to Vin. “How did you--?”

Laughter from the others, with a few snorts for good measure, made it clear that they had figured out what was being talked about. Buck took it in stride, but didn’t laugh.

Vin crossed his arms. He would never say how he found out about Buck’s old nickname. Nathan and Josiah began to prod Buck about how he got the moniker, but the mustached agent was not sharing.

Vin caught the frown that Nathan sent him as he sipped the whiskey. DOD contractors and U.S. soldiers could not buy alcohol or drink alcoholic beverages. Thankfully, the rest of the coalition could and was willing to purchase liquor and beer. He wouldn’t press his luck any further with Nathan though. He owed these men. Ezra had gone above and beyond for him, as had Chris. The others had kept him sane with their packages, emails and letters.

His friends knew some of his story like Mama dying when he was five, then in foster care for the rest of the years, but he still had his secrets. He was a runner from the foster care system. Never wanted to stay where he wasn’t wanted—the occasional abuse situations and neglect. He was flirting with a gang by the time he was a teenager and was looking at time in jail or an early death.

At seventeen, he was placed in a foster home, a last ditch effort by his new advocate who had brought birthday cake on that day. He had bitten his lip the whole time she had cut and served the chocolate dessert. He hadn’t been able to remember the last time someone had gotten him a birthday cake.

She told him he had to stick this home out, make it through high school and then decide between community college, vocational school or the military. It was a wake up that he had choices and that someone was in his corner.

He stayed at the last placement, which wasn’t that bad, and finished school. He told his advocate his decision and she took him to sign up to be an Army Ranger. After that, he lived off some of the signing bonus until boot camp. It was during boot camp that he met Chanu, who was also heading towards being a Ranger. Vin’s shooting skills were recognized and he was put through sniper school after Ranger School.

Sniper school was about the science of shooting, about being observant and patient, and stalking. He excelled at it, and then was sent overseas to do his job. He enjoyed doing what he was trained for and protecting his fellow soldiers from those that would do them harm.

When Chanu got out on a medical discharge, Vin felt the loss of a friend, but was still committed to his job. It was when he was on one particular mission that everything changed. He had had to take out a kid who had a grenade. He had to take the close range shot, was ordered to do so, and if he hadn’t then the kid would have killed others. He took the shot.

Although he didn’t have any regrets about his job, he didn’t know if he wanted to be in that situation again, and he knew it would happen again. When it came time to re-enlist he decided it was time to find another direction so he was honorably discharged and went to stay with Chanu and his family in Four Corners in the Ute Nation.

While there, he needed work, and one of Chanu’s friend recommended bounty hunting. He found he was good at it, and was pulling in some money. During his time in the military he had completed his associate’s degree in Criminal Justice. He wanted to go into law enforcement and prepared to take the ATF exam.

While waiting for test results, and possible placement, he had felt he was overstaying his welcome with Chanu and found a cheap apartment in Purgatorio. It fit what he needed—a place to sleep. For some reason, when people needed help in the building they came to him, and he did the best he could for them.

It felt nice when others did their best for him. Vin got up and went to his duffle, which still sat near the front door. He found the package he’d been looking for and opened the box as he walked back. “Cuban cigars from Germany. Figured I had to bring ya’ll a present.”

“This is a fitting present,” Ezra said. “Nathan, I don’t suppose you have a cutter on you?”

“Yep.” Nathan pulled his keychain from his pocket and began snipping the tips from the seven cigars Vin had laid out.

“I just want ya’ll to know that I owe you more than some good smokes,” Vin said. “I figure you probably have questions about the last six months. So if you want, you can ask, and I’ll answer what I can. ‘Cause after tonight, it’s in the past. Ain’t gonna talk about it.”

Nathan took a few starter puffs of his cigar. “I noticed the cuts on your arms. Anything else?”

“This is just from shrapnel. Already scabbed over.” He brushed his hand over some of the marks. “I’m fine. That body armor that Chris arranged did its job.” The Dragon Skin was packed carefully in his duffle along with a Rhodesian rig. The latter vest allowed him to attach pouches and gear. He would be using both in the future.

“Glad to know you used it, and that Chris found the money in the ATF budget,” Nathan toasted Chris with his cigar.

Ezra mirrored the toast. His gaze shifted downward. “Did you want to come back?”

“It was hard to leave when you see the newbies and they ain’t got a clue as to what they signed up for ‘cept they were filled with getting revenge for their country.” Vin raked a hand through his hair. Chris had told him he couldn’t save everyone, and he accepted that at some level. “The DOD wanted me to stay. Would have given you more money to spend.” He showed a tiny grin to Ezra. “But the team I was with said they would get me home and they did.” They knew how important it was to him to return to his team.

“Glad they did because I didn’t want to come get you.” Chris slapped him on the leg.

“Don’t let him fool you, his bags were packed,” Buck interrupted. “So where’s Osama Bin Laden? Thought you would have been the one to take him out.”

Vin shook his head. He expected that was a question he would probably be asked. “Not in Afghanistan. Probably in Pakistan and that’s a whole other problem.” He thought of the times the Pakistani military was supposed to be providing backup and then they would disappear or make an excuse. “Ya feel like ya can’t trust the Afghanis that say they’re our friends, and the Pakistanis are looking the other way.” He took a sip from the whiskey he nursed. “The Afghanis that were supposed to be working with us would disappear and usually within twelve hours our position would be hit.”

“Did you go after Bin Laden, or other members of Al Qaeda?” JD’s drink was finished and he was using the glass as an ashtray.

“Can’t answer that one, JD.” Vin immediately saw that the younger man felt like he had been admonished so he tried to turn the question. “I can tell you that from day to day things changed. One day I was making sure Marines could get through the Khyber Pass and another day I was storming a house ‘cause we heard there were insurgents there. For a time, I was training some Afghanis to be their own security force.” Vin purposely left out the sniper missions. He couldn’t say anything about that. “Can’t describe it so you’d really understand…it’s different from the stuff we do with the ATF—more intense, faster, more people, more variables. I can just give you an idea of what it’s like, ‘kay?”

“Whatever you did, it’s enough that the Army is talking about medals,” JD said, puffing his cigar.

Vin frowned slightly. “Is that so? And how would you know?” There had been talk, but Vin didn’t expect anything, and he wondered what JD had done to find out.

JD shrugged. “I just know.”

“As long as you don’t get caught.” Chris shot his agent a hard stare but only received an innocent look in return.

“What I want to know,” Josiah said, “is what did you learn in a place half a world away?”

Vin gestured to the rifle case with the cigar. “Got myself a new rifle, picked up some words in Farsi and Pashto that could come in useful. Oh, and they’ve got these flatbread pastries called gosh feel—elephant ear kinda things…goddamn. Beats anything I ever had at the fairs in Texas.

“In the downtime, I got to know some good people from the coalition forces. And the locals, they’re just trying to live. Some don’t want any of this stuff. People are the same wherever you go. ‘Course, there are some hateful people too.”

“Everywhere in the world, Brother.” Josiah drained his whiskey. “Glad there are good men in the world to stop them.”

Vin would tell Josiah later that the prayer card his friend had given him was now part of his sniper ritual, in the same pocket as his med kit, which is where it would always be. Snipers were a superstitious lot, and once you had a formula you repeated it for luck.

That left one person who hadn’t asked him anything. “No questions, Cowboy?

Chris answered with a small shake of his head. “Just glad you’re home.” The team leader was relaxed; he had lost the tenseness that Vin had heard during the couple of phone calls he had been able to make home. “I take that back…when are you coming back to work?”

Vin finished his whiskey, put down the glass and started with his cigar, which Nathan had cut for him. “I’d like to check out my penthouse.” He chuckled at the thought and absurdity of having more room. “And my land.”

“So I’ll see you on Monday.” Chris puffed his cigar.

“Expect so,” Vin replied, looking forward to getting back to the ATF and the team.

Eventually, the team went home, but Vin was staying with Chris until his place in Purgatorio was ready. His friend was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher. “You don’t have to do that.”

Vin shrugged. “Have to do something.” He locked the dishwasher and hit the ON button. The washer responded with a whoosh.

Chris sat at the breakfast island. It was late, but seeing his friend return, hanging out with his team, had energized him. He also knew that there was more to Vin. He wasn’t worried about PTSD, although Nathan had reminded him of signs to watch for. “Do you want to talk?”

Vin shook his head, then looked past Chris, out the window. “I may head out early tomorrow, take Peso out for a bit.”

“You want company?” The team had a long weekend with July Fourth being on a Thursday. Chris didn’t have any plans except catch up on paperwork and take care of the horses.

“Not yet,” Vin said with a grin, which said he appreciated the offer. “Is that okay?”

“It’s fine. You take your time.” Chris would be there for Vin if he was needed, and was willing to give the sharpshooter as much space as he needed.

Vin opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. He opened the cap and took a swig. “A lot changed.”

“Not really,” Chris answered. Everything was the same as Vin had left it. His desk hadn’t been touched; his horse and bike were at the farm, his Jeep at the federal building. He still had a job and a team that wanted him back where he belonged.

“I changed.” Vin rubbed his eyes, showing that he was tired, a bit worn around the edges.

“Not really,” Chris answered again. “Still the same man I know, but now you have property.”

Vin gave a quick grin. “Ezra just ran with that one, didn’t he?”

Chris had been surprised at the undercover agent and his actions to help Vin. It showed the markings of a team player. “It’s good. Gives you roots.” It was a guarantee that Vin would remain in Denver, and maybe that had been Ezra’s plan all along too.

“I’m staying,” Vin said, acknowledging that he knew what it all meant. “You need someone to watch your back.”

“Not just anyone, someone I can trust.”

The End

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