The List


Title: The List

Author: MMW

Disclaimer: See parts 1-5




Part 16

His mind rising through the layers of blackness that engulfed him, Vin first became aware of pain. The general feel of pain soon centralized into a white hot spear located just on the outside of his shoulder blade.

Stifling a groan, he opened his eyes and was rewarded with the sight of what was, perhaps, the most lavish bedroom he had ever seen. Early morning light slipped guiltily through the crack of the heavy drapes as if infiltrating the fortress of a dark knight. Vin sighed slightly at that imagery. After what Frederick Fellini had told them last night, he was convinced the man was less a dark knight than a dark nightmare.

The fact that the man had so easily taken Ezra and himself into his confidence puzzled Vin. Yes, they had saved his niece, the same niece who had slipped him the initial information, but that was hardly reason for them to be trusted. Hell, even Tom Rollins and the rest of Team 10 had offered more resistance. Certainly Fellini was arrogant, but something about the man seemed... off. Snorting slightly at the thought, Vin shook his head. Any man who believed that two-thirds of the world's population needed to die couldn't bee all that well balanced to start with, yet something about the man didn't seem right. A man didn't get to be as rich or powerful as Fellini taking virtual strangers into their confidence.

The odd nagging that had been gnawing at his gut at the easy acceptance of Rollins and his boys intensified as Vin thought back on Fellini's quick trust. Working undercover, and even before that when he'd been bounty hunting and even going back to his time on the streets, he had always been suspicious of quick acceptance. It usually didn't bode well.

Shifting slightly, he stifled a groan as pain seared in his back and shot arrows down his arm to his hand. Cursing the bruises on his back, he rolled out of bed. Walking around to the foot of it, he paused when he discovered a new set of clothes waiting for him. His mind traveled back over the previous day and he recalled Fellini saying he would provide a change of clothes. "Guess money does talk," he muttered, slipping on the expensive clothes.

Walking to the door, he stepped into the hall, noting the cameras that scanned its length. Deciding now would not be the time to go exploring, he headed down the hall the way they had come up the previous night. Finding his way to the stairs, he stifled another groan as the remainder of his back protested. He sure would be happy when those bruises faded, though the pain in his shoulder and tingling down the length of his arm had him worried slightly.

Making his way to the foyer, he thought of his pain pills sitting in Ezra's Jag. Hoping they had left a door unlocked, but somehow doubting it, he exited the main door, leaving it open a crack so he could return, and jogged out to the car.

He paused as he reached the car. Looking in the windows his brows furrowed slightly. From the outside everything seemed to be in its normal place, but the left rear door was unlocked. Of all the doors, that one should have remained locked. It appeared to Vin that someone had been checking out the car the previous night and had not been entirely tidy about their excursion.

Cautiously opening the door and reaching around the front to unlock the passenger door, he locked and closed the left rear door. Opening the door to the passenger side, he slipped into the seat and opened the glove compartment, where he had placed his pill bottle the previous afternoon. Glancing at the papers, they appeared neat, but the corner of the registration poked out of the folder Ezra usually kept it in. Someone had definitely been checking out the Jag. 'What could they have been looking for?' Vin wondered as he opened the pill bottle and shook one into his hand.

Swallowing the pill dry, he recapped his bottle and replaced it.

Checking his watch, he noted the time. Raising his eyebrows as he realized it was not yet six-thirty, he stood and looked around. His attention was caught by the beautiful panoramic view to be had from the side and back of the house. Deciding a walk might help him relax and give him a chance to work out whatever was wrong with his arm, he headed around the house.

As he cleared the last corner, his eye was drawn further back into a wooded area. Through the trees, he could just see the outline of a structure. Making his way to the path that lead toward the structure, he scanned the grounds to make sure nothing was in his way. As he got within sight of the structure, he took a deep breath. A smile creased his face. "Horses," he whispered, heading toward the nearby structure.

Approaching the barn, he stopped by the corral next to it and watched as two young colts played. Though to all intents and purposes he appeared to be enjoying the antics of the young horses, his ever vigilant eyes noted three more cameras and the tread of light footsteps approaching behind him.

Waiting for the approaching figure to take up position next to him. He glanced over at Anna. "Mornin' Miss Anna," he greeted.

"Mr. Tanner," she said, tension and concern coloring her voice. "What brings you out at this early hour?"

"Sunshine," he said, not willing to admit to the pain which had awoken him. "Horses are a nice treat, though." A moment of silence fell between the two of them. "Been ridin' long?" he inquired.

"Long enough," Anna replied. "Follow me, I'd like to show you some of our other stock. I think you'll find them rather remarkable."

Vin nodded and followed along beside the young woman. He had been hoping to find time to talk to the young woman ever since he saw her at the rodeo the previous day. He could only hope Anna was bringing him somewhere with less surveillance so he could find out what he really needed to know.

Explaining the workings of the ranch area as they walked, Anna made sure to point out the various security measures in place. Vin nodded, impressed by and grateful for the woman's sharp eyes and quick mind.

"And this," she finished, as they approached a fenced-in area out in the middle of nowhere, "is the only place on the entire estate where no surveillance equipment can overhear us." Looking into the blue eyes of the ATF agent, she continued, "We don't have long here and there's much we need to discuss."

Seeing his nod of agreement, she took a deep breath and launched into her explanation. "I was making my get away when my uncle appeared out of nowhere. He knew I'd been unhappy here, but didn't want me to leave because I know too much about his operation."

"How'd he get you to stay," Vin asked quietly.

A trace of pain wove into Anna's eyes as she turned away from Vin to look over the mountains and unattainable freedom. Releasing a sigh, she explained, "My uncle is not a very stable man, at least not mentally." She smiled a bitter smile. "That much is obvious or he would not be where he is." Turning to look into the sky blue eyes that regarded her, she continued, "He is slowly going mad. His grip on reality is slipping and it is growing worse with each passing month. This would be nothing if he were just a businessman, but his other activities..." A shudder shook her frame. Swallowing before continuing, she lowered her voice, "He grows more dangerous each day. A year ago he never would have invited you here. Six months ago he never would have trusted you with what he truly does and feel. Three months ago, he would have done background checks."

Vin nodded, beginning to understand the decline of the man. The true import of what Fellini's decline would mean to his organization began to form in the Texan's mind. Eyes growing wider in shock and horror, he looked up at the woman before him.

Nodding her head, Anna confirmed his fears. "With his decline, his control over the organization is slipping..." Another shudder ran through her frame. Looking back at the distant mountains, she said quietly, "He threatened to kill my father if I didn't stay."

Vin swallowed and closed his eyes. He'd met some sick people in his day, but Frederick Fellini had to take the cake. Instinctively reaching up to offer comfort, he hissed as the sharp pain seared him once more.

Turning her head quickly, eyes wide with concern, Anna asked, "What's wrong?"

Cursing himself silently, Vin allowed a breath to hiss through his teeth. "Few days ago m'back had a little disagreement with a table," he began, hearing his own accent thicken, a sure sign of his pain. "Yesterday mornin' I woke up with a sharp pain centered just th'outside o' m'shoulder. Then it started shootin' pains down m'arm and makin' m'fingers numb." Biting back the curses he wanted to utter at the pain that still assaulted him, he saw Anna's brow furrow.

"Turn around," she commanded.

Doing as she bid, Vin turned his back to the young woman and waited, not knowing what would happen. He tensed slightly as he felt her hands run down his upper back. He allowed a slight hiss to escape as she applied slight pressure to the center of his pain.

"I think your muscles have tensed to the point where they're pinching a nerve," she declared. "I can do a little work on it now, but you probably need a real massage therapist to work it all out for you."

Turning back to meet her eyes, Vin found himself surprised by the guilt he saw there. "Weren't yer fault," he said quietly.

Anna sighed once more and looked away. "I gave you the diskette. I started this," she declared. Looking him in the eye, she stated softly, "You wouldn't be here at all if not for me."

Vin smiled. "Shoot," he said. "Without you I wouldn't get to feel like a knight in shinin' armor. Ain't ev'ry day I get to rescue a fair maiden from a rearin' horse." Been hangin' around Bucklin too much, he though idly. He saw some of the guilt begin to ease. "Sooner or later somethin' would'a' given and all Hell would'a' broke loose. You just gave us a chance ta control it," Vin said seriously. "Ain't no way I nor Ez nor anyone else c'n ever say thank ya enough."

Anna read the sincerity in the eyes before her and relaxed. She felt a burden lift slightly as she realized the truth of his words as well as the sincerity of them. Offering a small smile she said, "We'd best be getting back. Uncle Frederick will be up soon and looking for us. I'll see if I can have his massage therapist work on you before you leave." She laughed as Vin just blinked at her. "Don't worry," she said, "Uncle Frederick only ever works with the best."

Part 17


With a sigh, Vin turned with Anna to head back to the house. Wincing as he moved his arm, he felt Anna’s hand rest on his shoulder.


“Stop,” she commanded. “I can’t take this anymore. I’ve asked so much of you already and I can’t stand the thought of you walking around in pain. Why don’t you lay here on the ground for a moment?”


Turning to look into the face of the self-assured young woman, Vin noted the determination and decided it would be best not to argue. Settling on the ground, he closed his eyes, wondering if it was wise for him to trust this woman.


“I’m not as good as Barb, my uncles Massage Therapist, but I have taken a class or two,” she explained. Taking a deep breath, she began rubbing her hands together to create some heat, well aware that warmth would help relax the tense muscles. Reaching down, she allowed her warm hands to rest over the area in question while speaking in a soothing voice. “I want you to take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Picture the area of your back as a tight knot in the middle of a rope. The knot is red and tense. As you slowly release the breath, I want you to picture the rope straightening and changing from a burning red to a cool, icy blue.”  Surprised by the quick response to her words, she began slowly rubbing the affected area. Visualization seemed to work well with him. “And again…”


Vin could feel the pain lessen. The presence of Anna’s hand brought to his attention the knots of which he had been unaware. Obeying her calm, soothing voice, he soon began to feel the pain lessen.


“What the Hell are you doing?” a voice shouted, startling the duo.


Spinning quickly, Vin managed to dump Anna onto her behind as he took up a defensive crouch in front of her.  “Who’re you?” he asked, menace clearly evident in his voice.


“Hi, Joey!” Anna called out, from behind Vin.


Vin turned to see Anna smiling at the two men. He could feel his ears begin to heat as he realized whoever Joey was, Anna felt he was no threat.


“Joey is one of Uncle Frederick’s guards,” Anna explained to the confused Vin. “Joey,” she said, catching the man’s eye, “ This is Vin. He’s Uncle Frederick’s guest. He has some really nasty knots in his back that are causing problems. I was just trying to work them out a little.”


Joey nodded as he processed the information. “Want me to call back for Barb? Get her ready for him?” he asked.


Anna rewarded the guard with a beaming smile, “That would be great!  But I think we need to eat breakfast first.”  She watched as Joey turned to call back to the house. Once his back was turned she rolled her eyes in exasperation.


Vin smiled and stifled a chuckle. He reached down and helped the woman to her feet. “Reckon we’d best be gettin’ back,” he said loudly enough for Joey to hear. “Sure don’t want ta miss breakfast. It’s one of the three most important meals of the day,” he finished with a wink.


Anna rolled her eyes at his poor joke and took his arm as they headed back to the house.


Leaning his head slightly toward the young woman, he said sincerely, “Thank you. M’arm feels better.” He then gifted her with a smile of his own.


“You’re very welcome,” came Anna’s reply as they approached the steps to the house. Unable to suppress the sigh that the return to the mansion always caused, she walked up the stairs and stepped through the door as Vin opened it for her. “Breakfast is just in here,” she said, indicating a light, airy room.


Stepping into the room he remembered from the previous night, Vin’s eyes widened. Not only was the table set, but also a buffet of sorts had been set up along the sideboard. Included among the offerings were two types of toast, three jams, bacon, eggs, sausages, pancakes, fresh fruit and a choice of juices. “Quite a spread,” Vin observed in appreciation.


“I can’t have my guests walking around hungry,” came the cheerful response from behind the couple.


Turning, Vin saw Frederick Fellini standing in the doorway to the room. Offering his host a smile, Vin waited as Fellini walked up to him before offering his hands. “I’d like ta thank you for yer hospitality, Mr. Fellini,” he began.


“Frederick, please,” the man insisted. “You are a friend and a guest. No need to stand on formality.” Then sweeping his eyes over the form of the young man before him, he observed, “I see we did alright with your clothing as well.”


Vin glanced down at the new clothing, once more feeling his skin crawl at the thought of accepting them from the man. “Yep. Real good fit,” he replied with a small smile.


“Well, let’s dig in,” he said, picking up a plate and beginning to fill it.


Vin and Anna followed suit. As he reached for the serving spoon to dish up some eggs, Vin’s stomach growled, causing a faint blush to appear on his cheeks as he shot a look toward his host; hoping he hadn’t offended the man. He needn’t have worried; Fellini either didn’t hear or was too polite to say anything. Continuing on gathering his food, Vin made his way to the table.


“Sit here next to me, Vin,” Fellini ordered. “We have a few things we need to discuss. Anna will be happy to eat out in the sunroom.”


Vin flicked his eyes toward Anna. He could see her indignation at being dismissed in such an off-hand manner. Still, he was a guest and needed this man to trust him. The opportunity was just too good to pass up. A part of him wished Ezra had chosen today to get up early. While Vin knew he had enough experience to handle the situation, being in the room alone with Fellini didn’t sit well with him.


“So, Vin,” the man began. “Do you have plans for this afternoon?”


Swallowing the delicious food, Vin replied, “Meetin’ a friend at th’ Rockie’s game.”


Fellini nodded, a faint spark of disappointment in his eyes. He really liked this young man. Still, there would be other opportunities, he was sure. “I see,” he said. “Do you have good seats?”


Vin nodded. “He’s got a box on the third base line,” Vin offered. Trying to be as truthful as possible. He noticed the surprise in Fellini’s eyes at the statement.


“I have a box on the third base line,” he stated. “Who is your friend? Perhaps I know him.”


“Fella from Team 10,” Vin said, taking another bite of the delicious food.


“Team 10?” Fellini questioned, brow furrowing. “Ah, yes! I recall. They held a raid at one of my warehouses. I had been unaware of the activities of my employees there. I offered them the box as a means of thanks.”


Vin smiled and nodded, his stomach turning slightly at the information. “Reckon I should thank ya, then,” he offered.


Fellini laughed. “Not at all,” he said waving away the thanks. Then shooting Vin a calculating look, he asked, “So what team are you on?”


“Ez and me are on Team 7,” he replied, wondering how the news would be received. He saw a flash in Fellini’s eyes as he processed the information.


“Larabee’s team,” he said, cautiously. “Best in the West.”


Vin nodded and then forced himself to sigh.


Raising an eyebrow in question, Fellini asked, “Problem?”


Vin sat silently for several minutes, contemplating what to say. He flicked his eyes up to the awaiting man when Ezra’s entrance saved him from a reply.


“My dear, Mr. Fellini,” he beamed. “I can not recall the last time I have spent such a refreshing night of slumber, and your clothing selection is simply superb.”


With a large smile, Fellini replied, “Why thank you Mr. Standish, I’m glad you approve. However, I think we are now beyond formalities, you must call me Frederick, or I will fear I have offended you.”


Swallowing the bile that threatened him at the thought of this monster ever being his friend, he smiled and replied, “Of course, Frederick. And you must call me Ezra.” This response seemed to please Fellini. Walking over to the sideboard, Ezra picked up a cup and filled it with coffee.


“Certainly you’re going to have more than coffee,” Fellini said as Ezra took a seat on his hosts other side, directly across the table from Vin.


Releasing a sigh, Ezra informed Fellini, “I fear my appetite is a late riser and will not show up before noon.”


Laughing, Fellini patted Ezra on the shoulder. “Good enough,” he said. “Vin was just telling me the two of you work on Team 7.”


Ezra shot a quick glance at Vin and noted the pained expression on the younger man’s face. “Indeed we do,” Ezra responded somberly.


A puzzled expression crossed Fellini’s face, an expression whose truth was belied by the calculating glint in the man’s eyes. “You don’t sound too enthused by it all,” he observed.


Ezra released a sigh. “I fear Mr. Tanner and myself have both become somewhat… disillusioned with the wonders of our team,” he informed.


“Not all it’s cracked up to be?” Fellini inquired.


Vin and Ezra stared at each other for several uncomfortable seconds before Vin nodded at Ezra to continue. Carefully choosing his words, Ezra replied, “It really wouldn’t do to discuss our concerns out of school as it were. Let’s just say ours is a demanding job and our co-workers not always the most… understanding of souls.”


Raising his eyebrow in question, Fellini asked. “Problems with the team?”


Shifting uncomfortably in their seats, Ezra replied, “Let’s just say we don’t always see things the same way. And when there is a disagreement, things have a way of escalating quickly.”


Vin let out a snort of disbelief. “Threw me through a table,” he muttered, spearing the last sausage on his plate.


Fellini’s mouth dropped open at the muttered statement. He was shocked, not at Vin’s allowing the slip, but at the action it depicted. “Your teammate threw you through a table!” he cried, indignation evident.


Vin shot Ezra a questioning look and received a slight nod in response. “Weren’t no teammate, were m’ boss,” came his simple reply.


Mouth opening and closing several times, it took Fellini a few minutes to regain his voice. “Your boss, Chris Larabee, threw you through a table because you disagreed with him?”


Ezra raised an eyebrow. He couldn’t remember telling Fellini that Chris was their team leader. That meant the man had been doing some checking on his own, a good thing to know when dealing with the man and figuring out what to tell him.


Vin was concerned not by the fact he had been checked out by the man, but the deadly glint in Fellini’s eyes. A cold shiver ran down his spine as he realized, his muttered complaint could cause real problems for Chris. With a lifting of his shoulders, Vin tried to shrug the incident off as nothing. “Long week. Too much alcohol,” he explained. “Weren’t nothin’ really.”


Fellini seemed to relax a bit, some of the anger leaving his eyes. “Well, as long as you’re alright,” he said, letting it drop for now. Joey stepped into the room at that moment. “What do you need, Joey?” Fellini demanded.


“I came to get Mr. Tanner. Barb is ready for him,” he said simply.


Fellini raised an eyebrow. “Barb?” Turning to the young agent, he asked, “You’re sure you’re alright?”


Vin smiled to assure him. “Just a bit tense. Anna said you had a massage therapist on site and offered her services.”


Fellini accepted this answer and smiled at the Texan. “She is a wonder,” he said of the masseuse. Then, turning to Ezra, he began asking the Southerner about his team.

Part 18

Chris threw another shovel of manure into the wheelbarrow. At the rate the boys were here working, he would only have the daily chores left. The five determined men had gotten the fences mended far sooner than he would have expected. Unfortunately, the physical exhaustion he’d been hoping for never manifested and he’d spent another restless night.

Finally, around five o’clock in the morning, he’d had enough of pretending to sleep. Dressing, he left his house and headed over to Ezra’s condo. He couldn’t shake the feeling that Ezra and Vin were in trouble. Their being out of contact for so long combined with the knowledge of what they were facing only fed his fears.

As he approached the condo, he realized Ezra’s car was nowhere in sight. With a sigh, he pulled away from the curb, hoping for more success at Vin’s apartment.

Parking his truck across from Vin’s apartment building, he got out and headed toward the door. As he approached, he saw a young girl outside playing hopscotch and searched his memory for a name. "Hi, Christina," he greeted the girl.

Christina looked up from her game and smiled at the blond man who she recognized as Senor Vin’s friend. "Hello, Senor Chris," she replied.

Thinking he might prevent himself a trip up four sets of stairs he asked, "Is Senor Vin at home?"

Christina scrunched up her face in thought. "No," she replied shaking her head, "I have not seen him since he left with Senor Ezra on Friday." Thinking back to the scene, she continued with concern lacing her voice, "Senor Vin looked hurt. He was walking funny."

Concern and guilt lanced through Chris. He had hurt Vin and Vin had hidden it from him. "Walking funny how?" he asked, worry in his own voice.

Christina shrugged slightly, her eight-year-old vocabulary not containing the words she wanted. "He took tiny steps and stood very stiffly. When he sat down, he made a face like he was in pain. Senor Vin said something about a hospital before he closed the door."

Chris paled. How badly had he hurt his best friend? He shook that off. He’d seen Vin later that day in Travis’ office. He had to be fine. Smiling down at the girl, he thanked her before heading toward the apartment. He jogged up the stairs and paused, his hand on Vin’s doorknob. Hadn’t seen him since Friday? It was Sunday now. Where the Hell was he?

Turning the doorknob, he stepped into the apartment. Scanning the room, he could see the evidence of the kids presence - vacuumed floor, dusted furniture, computer left on. Closing the door behind him, he made his way over to the answering machine. He shouldn’t listen to the messages, but he was worried and had lost contact with both Vin and Ezra days ago. Their silence made him nervous.

Finally allowing is concern to overcome his better intentions Chris hit the play button. He listened to Buck’s message then heard the next one begin. "Vin, this is Amy from the hospital, Dr. Murrell asked me to give you a call and see if you could come in for a follow-up on Tuesday. There doesn’t appear to be any damage, but she wants to make sure the swelling has gone down and the deep bruising is healing. Please call us at 555-9696."

Larabee felt his face pale. It’s just bruises, he said to himself. The next message was from him asking Vin to get in touch regarding what he’d discovered. Then he heard another message begin, "Hey Vin! Davey Simms. It’s Saturday and I just wanted to let you know I’ll meet you outside the main gate at 2:30. Sorry I can’t pick you up, but I’m a little tied up. See ya then!"

Chris stared at the machine as the tape rewound. Davey Simms was on the list. How deep had Vin and Ezra gotten? How long had they been working on this? Damn! He needed to talk to those two - he needed Travis.

Turning and stalking out of the apartment he had made his way back to the ranch and began on the chores.

Now, hours later, he was nearly done with the chores and dreading the rest of the day. The team had done all they could on the case without jeopardizing Vin and Ezra. They just had to wait. Chris hated waiting almost as much as JD, but they had no choice.

Setting the shovel on the ground, he placed both hands over the top of the handle, resting his head on them. Taking a deep breath, he tried to calm his fears. Vin and Ezra were survivors. They would be fine - wherever they were.

Part 19

Vin stepped into the indicated room and froze. "Barb?" he asked, blinking at the woman before him. He watched as recognition lit her eyes and a smile brightened her face.

"Vin!" she greeted happily. "You’re the one in need of my magic fingers?" she asked with a wicked grin.

Releasing a soft chuckle, Vin made his way over to the massage chair she had set up. "That’d be me. Last I saw you were headed off to school to prepare for a new career. I take it Massage Therapy is your chosen field?"

"Yep," she replied, brushing a wisp of hair off her cheek. "Graduated top in my class and Anna got me this job."

Though her voice remained cheerful, Vin read the worry in her eyes when she mentioned Anna. Barb and Anna’s friendship explained how Anna had known who he was. Another piece fell into place. He raised an eyebrow in question, hoping his friend would be able to understand what he was really asking. "You and Anna been friends long?"

Barb smiled, sometimes Vin could be too easy to read. In this case, it was a blessing. "Long enough to trust each other with our secrets," came her reply.

Vin smiled at her response. So, Barb had the files, the proof. Knowing his friend she had them hidden someplace safe. That left the only safety concern Anna and her father.

"Take your shirt off," Barb instructed, waving him over to the massage chair. She smiled at the blush that crept across his face. Laughing, she explained, "I can better judge what you need if I can see your back, the muscles, etc."

Nodding his understanding, he pulled off his shirt and sat in the chair. He waited as Barb came over and adjusted the chair to make it more comfortable, before encouraging Vin to rest his head on the face rest. Finally settled, he took a deep breath and released it, looking forward to having some of the tension worked out of his back.

Pulling the curtains closed to dim the room, Barb hit the play button on her cd player. The room was filled with the sound of waves on a beach, the cry of seagulls audible in the distance. The music and the aroma of the candles she had lit ten minutes before should aid in relaxing the man before her. Stepping behind him, she took her first look at his back and gasped. "What happened?" she asked, concern evident in her voice.

With a sigh, Vin replied, "Had a disagreement with a table."

Patting his shoulder in sympathy, Barb ran her hands lightly over his back, trying to gage what was most needed. She felt the tight muscles near his shoulder blade, the ones Anna had mentioned. Those would definitely need some work, she decided. Reaching over for her bottle of scented massage oil, she applied some one her hands and began her work.

Meanwhile, Ezra’s discussion with Frederick Fellini continued in the breakfast room. While he had tried to keep the topic of discussion to art and music, Fellini seemed intent on finding out more about Team Seven and specifically about Chris Larabee. Ezra used his skills of reading people to try and determine the motivation behind Fellini’s questions. It wasn’t actually hard to discern as he listened. Fellini had not only seemed to take a liking to both himself and Vin, but considered them his own men.

"Does Larabee often have problems controlling his temper?" Fellini asked.

Ezra chose his words carefully. He was now playing with Chris’ career and possibly his life. Chris had no idea what was going on and Ezra refused to put his boss - his friend - into such a situation. "Mr. Larabee has a remarkably stressful job. He tends to be direct rather than playing the political games so prevalent in any office situation."

Fellini smiled indulgently. "All those pretty words and you have yet to answer my question," he observed.

Ezra smiled at him. He had honestly thought he could skirt around the question; obviously he was wrong. Nodding his head, he released the sigh that had been building. "Mr. Larabee is a remarkable man," he tried again. "As with many remarkable men, he has certain… idiosyncrasies that require a more flexible interpretation of appropriate behavior."

A feral grin crossed Fellini’s lips. "In other words, yes, he does have trouble controlling his temper."

Ezra allowed a small smile to grace his face. He watched as Fellini leaned back in his chair. Watching the man, he could see Fellini’s mind beginning to work out situations and scenarios. The maliciousness that poured from the man’s eyes made Ezra’s skin crawl, but his years of undercover work allowed him to maintain his composure.

"Does he often hit the men who work for him?" Fellini asked.

"No," Ezra replied simply. "There were some… extenuating circumstances to the incident with Mr. Tanner that lead up to his rather… Neolithic reaction."

Fellini nodded, a smile crept across his face yet again. "I se," he said.

Unfortunately Ezra did as well. Now Travis would have no choice but to involve the whole team, Larabee’s life could be in danger.

"So tell me, do have plans for this evening?" Fellini asked, suddenly changing the subject.

Ezra nodded in response. "I will be meeting a friend at the Art Expo this evening," he replied.

Fellini’s eyes lit up. "Indeed? I will be there myself. Perhaps you should stay and we can go together."

Ezra suppressed another shudder at the thought of spending the entire day with this man, but managed a smile. "I fear that Mr. Tanner has an appointment today for the ball game. He will require transportation back to the city if he is to make his appointment in time."

"I can send him back to the city in my car," Fellini dismissed. "I’m sure he would be just as comfortable. In fact, I’ll instruct my driver to drop him off at the stadium." That decided, Fellini began a discussion about the Art Expo.

Ezra listened half-heartedly. Would they never escape this man?

An hour later, a much more relaxed looking Vin Tanner entered the room, a smile on his face. Acknowledging the greeting from the two men, he answered their question. "Barb is amazing, Frederick. I can’t thank you enough for letting her work on my back. It feels a thousand times better." Then, slapping Ezra on the back, he continued, "Ol’ Ez here could probably use some time under her fingers as well."

A smile spread across Fellini’s face. "What a wonderful idea, Vin! Why don’t you go now, I’d like to speak to Vin."

With a barely suppressed sigh of relief, Ezra nodded at his host and stood to leave. He exchanged a look with Vin, warning him of the instability of the man and checking to make sure he’d be all right.

For his part, Vin smiled at Ezra to assure him he would be fine. Not wanting to sit in the chairs, he then turned toward Fellini and asked, "Do you mind if I go for a walk? It’s a gorgeous day out and I hate the thought of wasting it."

Taken by the honesty in the face of the young Texan, Fellini ignored the departing form of Ezra Standish and smiled. "That sounds like a wonderful idea," he replied. "I think I’ll join you."

Smiling at his host, Vin tried not to wince as the man rose and rested a hand on his shoulder. A walk with Fellini hadn’t exactly been what he had in mind, still it would give him an opportunity to try and worm his way into the man’s good graces; he only hoped he wouldn’t put his foot in his mouth.

Though it passed slowly, the day did pass. Vin was taken by Fellini’s chauffeur and to Coors Field where he was dropped off at the main gate. The game itself had been a lackluster affair by both teams, but really, his whole point in being there was to try and find an in with Davey Simms.

Vin thought he was doing a good job of making inroads with the member of Team 10. When he’d arrived and the chauffeur had opened his door, Davey had let out a low whistle and asked what bank he had robbed. Vin had offered a short explanation of the previous day’s events and shrugged off Davey’s admiration.

For his part, Davey made a mental note to let Rollins know about Vin, Ezra and Fellini. The two members of Team Seven had no idea that they’d just gotten an in with the head of the cartel, but if they could be swayed, it could prove beneficial to those members of Team 10 who were in the know. Throwing an arm around Vin’s shoulders, Davey led him in to the seats.

Ezra remained the day at the mansion. He sat through a fitting with Fellini’s taylor and left that night in his Jag, following Fellini to the Review. Had it not been for the betrayal he felt over his actions toward his teammates, Ezra might have been pleased that he and Vin had so quickly worked their way into the good graces of the head of the organization.

Instead, with the thought of losing his hard-won family, Ezra could only sigh and do his best to maintain a jovial mood while he spent the evening with Jeff Corbin and Frederick Fellini.

Part 20

Nathan finished tying his shoe. He could feel the fatigue in his body, the tension that threatened to knot every muscle, and knew he had to run if he were going to keep a level head. ‘Endorphin junkie’ Rain’s teasing voice echoed in his mind. A smile curved his lips. Maybe, he thought.  Running just helped him focus, concentrate, release tension and forget for a while, at least in his conscious mind. If there was one thing he needed right now it was to forget.  Forget that his Team was being torn apart; forget that two of his brothers were operating in unknown and dangerous waters without anyone to watch their back; forget the guilt he saw in Chris’ eyes at the mention of Vin; forget that he felt helpless; just forget.

Setting out at a comfortable pace, Nathan allowed his mind to wander of its own accord as he ran through the still sleeping neighborhood.  He thought back to the first time he had met Ezra and Vin.

Vin had been easy to like, his quiet demeanor, his wry sense of humor, the way he naturally handled Larabee.  Nathan smiled at that. Before Vin Tanner Chris Larabee had been a well respected much feared man. Buck had been the one designated to deal with the dark, threatening specter of their boss. Nathan remembered a few times where Chris had used Buck as a punching bag, both emotionally and physically. Nathan had often wondered why Buck stood by Chris, it wasn’t until Vin Tanner came along that he had understood, that he had seen the man Buck had known so many years ago.

But it wasn’t just Vin’s effect on Chris that had made him a brother. Vin’s ability to sum up any situation, to find humor in the direst of circumstances, his unswerving loyalty to family and right, all of these things combined to make Vin Tanner someone Nathan rejoiced in knowing.

A smile played across Nathan’s face as he thought of the Texan’s influence on the rest of the team as well. Buck had a few misgivings at first, that someone could so easily slip into his spot in Chris’ life, but Buck and Vin had developed their own relationship soon enough and there were days Nathan could do little other than shake his head at their antics.

JD had been having a hard time adjusting. True, Buck had been there to teach him and be the big brother the young agent had needed, but JD had needed a friend. Nathan hadn’t seen it and, quite honestly, hadn’t any idea how to deal with the annoying young man. Vin had just stepped in, treated JD as an equal and been there for him, a confidant, a teacher, a student, Vin, in his own quiet way, was showing JD how to be a man. Nathan let out a short chuff of laughter; of course, he wished those two hadn’t discovered that they both enjoyed practical jokes. It was difficult enough to get through some days without having to worry about what those two pranksters had been up to.

His mind turned from the youngest of their group to the oldest. He and Josiah had been friends for a number of years. The big man had been there for Nathan any number of times, yet Nathan felt something was missing. That something seemed to be filled by Vin Tanner. He couldn’t always follow the stories and parables Josiah told, but somehow their soft-spoken sharpshooter always knew what was going on. He had sat in the Saloon on more than one occasion listening to the two of them discuss some obscure point of philosophy, well, Josiah discussing and Vin listening and summarizing. How the two of them got on, he’d never know.

Ezra, on the other hand… Nathan sighed and picked up his pace. Ezra just rubbed him the wrong way. The Southerner didn’t even have to say anything, just had to be there and he could rub Nathan the wrong way. At first Nathan had put it off to Standish’s supposedly privileged upbringing and aristocratic manners. But even after that misunderstanding had been remedied, the two of them continued to but heads and snipe at each other. Nathan had tried to be more understanding, more patient, but it wasn’t until he and Rain had visited one of Rain’s cousins that he understood. This cousin was one Rain always spoke of, one of whom she was very fond, yet when the two of them got together, they spat and hissed at each other just like he and Ezra did. He began to see that their mode of communication had little to do with the closeness of the two women, they did love each other like sisters, they just showed it in a very different way.

As for Ezra’s effect on the others… Nathan contemplated that. He had never really thought much about how Ezra affected them.  Chris and Ezra butted heads almost as much as Nathan and Ezra, but it seemed to satisfy both men. Maybe confrontation was just Ezra’s way of making friends. If he liked you, he fought with you. That drew a snort of laughter from Nathan. 

But what about his effect on JD?  He puzzled over this for a few minutes. Ezra didn’t seem to judge the young man, in fact, if anything, he seemed to have taken the technology expert under his wing. JD seemed to have little trouble following Ezra’s convoluted speech patterns, though given the boy’s high intelligence, that wasn’t surprising.  Still, Ezra expressed patience with the nearly hyperactive agent that few others seemed to be able to do. In fact, Nathan was pretty sure that he had learned to deal with JD by watching how Ezra interacted with him.

Buck seemed amused by the undercover agent, when he wasn’t flummoxed or flustered by the man. Ezra seemed to take great joy in poking fun at the ladies’ man, but then, Buck gave as good as he got.

As for Ezra and Josiah… He knew his older friend saw something in Ezra that seemed to bring almost fatherly feelings to the surface for the undercover agent. Josiah watched over and protected the young man while enjoying Ezra’s unique perspective. Of course, the fact that Josiah had a crush on Ezra’s mother didn’t hurt either. That thought brought a smile to Nathan’s face.

‘But what about Ezra and Vin?’ Nathan wondered. If there were two any more opposite people on the team, he couldn’t think of them. The quiet Texan and the verbose Southerner surely made an odd pair. One not concerned at all with appearance, the other consumed by it. One simply spoke, the other demonstrating his love of the English language in every sentence. Yet something within the two of them had struck a cord with the other, perhaps too many years alone. 

Nathan began slowing his pace to begin cooling down.

It really didn’t matter what brought them together, what effect they had on the team or the individuals therein. What mattered was getting the two of them back into the team, watching their backs and making sure that when all was said and done the ‘Magnificent Seven’ was exactly that – seven.

Striding up the walkway to his front door, Nathan stopped to do some stretches. Checking his watch, he saw he would have time for a quick shower before heading in to the office. Today they would confront the elusive duo and put things right. Today they would know that family came first.

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