Title: The List
Disclaimer: See parts 1-5
Vin stood, arms resting on the top rail of the corral, chin settled upon his arms and eyes seeing nothing. He’d left the house out of fear and he didn’t know what else. Right now there were so many emotions swirling around inside him, he wasn’t sure there were words for them all. The images from that morning still played in his mind, only this time they were interspersed with images of his time with Team Seven, with his brothers. An overwhelming sense of loss, emptiness, darkness – something - threatened to consume him whole. He’d never been so lost, so alone, so in need. And he had no one to turn to.
Oh, his friends would try, but there’d be that fear, that doubt lurking in the back of their minds, the back of his own mind. What kind of monster are you, Vin Tanner? his thoughts taunted. He felt his throat tighten making it harder to breathe. He closed his eyes to try and calm his rising panic, but that only intensified the images assaulting him. Opening his eyes once more, he allowed them to look out over the land and rest on the mountain. A portion of his heart was screaming at him to go to those mountains, those mountains where everything was simple, where it was only he and nature, where the concerns were simple enough to deal with.
A portion of his mind that was always alert and attentive to his surroundings, informed him of the approach of someone. Given that he didn’t recognize the tread, he could only assume it was Josiah’s friend come to offer his help. Vin scoffed at that. There was no hope, no help for someone like him, for someone who could shoot their best friend. Hell, he was no better than Fellini. In fact, he was worse. Fellini had never killed his own kin.
He stiffened and bristled slightly as the older man stood several feet away, taking up a similar stance along the rail. What had Josiah said his name was, Mark? No, it was Mike. He knew Josiah had great faith in the man, but how could Mike possibly help him when he couldn’t even figure out what was wrong with himself? So he stood in silence and waited.
Mike stood next to the quiet man, clearly reading the body language that informed him he was an unwelcome intruder. Mike took a deep breath and released it. He knew exactly where the young sharpshooter was and understood how lost he felt. Mike only hoped he’d be able to show the young man the path home.
Waiting was something the Psychiatrist had learned to do. He’d gotten good at reading people, at waiting them out. Josiah had warned him that it could be days before Vin would finally be ready to let him in, but Mike doubted that. He knew too well the emotional devastation from which the young man suffered.
As the sky’s color deepened he waited a little longer, thankful the others were inside. He probably had Josiah to thank for that. Of course, this young man, Vin, was only one link in the chain. Right now Vin was the broken one, but all of the men would need his help before the night was through and something inside told him he’d probably be seeing them again. From what Josiah had told him of the current assignment, the emotional fallout could destroy the team or any man on it.
Finally Mike released a heavy sigh. Without looking at the young man, he said, “Beauty of a horse you have.”
Vin grunted. He didn’t want this man here, but he’d been quiet. There seemed to be a peace around him that was slowly seeping through the chaos roiling in Vin.
“They say that a horse frequently reflects its owner.”
“Don’t own Peso any more than he owns me,” Vin grunted. He always hated the idea of owning an animal. Yes, he had purchased Peso and he paid for his upkeep, but Peso provided as much to Vin as Vin ever gave the horse and a free spirit like Peso’s could never be owned, not really.
Mike smiled at the admission. Having watched the horse, he’d been very aware of the animal’s wild spirit and strength. He hadn’t been wrong that the same dwelt within Vin Tanner. “Must be quite a partnership,” he acknowledged. “You ever win an argument?” he asked, a small smile on his face.
The corner of Vin’s mouth twitched upward as his thoughts were drawn away from the day’s trials and onto something more pleasant. “Been known to happen,” Vin admitted. “Though not often.” He smiled a little more at the man’s soft laugh. Maybe Mike wasn’t so bad.
“I can believe it,” Mike replied, turning to face the Sharpshooter. “Takes a lot to break a free spirit and even more to break a proud one.” His face became more serious as he continued. “But it can be done.”
Vin swallowed, shifted on his feet and dipped his head to look at the ground. How much was just talk and how much was this man reading?
Turning to look at the corral once more, Mike continued, “In fact, there is only one thing that could ever tame a spirit like that, love. But there is much that would seek to destroy it.” Pausing a moment, he allowed his words to penetrate. Continuing on in the same soothing voice, he instructed, “Beat a horse with a spirit like that enough and he’ll either stop being what he is or he’ll die. But what would be even more devastating to that horse would be to build a loving, trusting relationship and then turn away and abandon it. A horse with a spirit like that would never survive, would never be the same. He would be broken.”
Vin’s eyes remained fixed on the dirt before him. He knew Mike wasn’t just talking about Peso, not just about horses. But he wasn’t sure he was ready to hear what the man had to say.
“That works both ways, though,” Mike said, shooting a sidelong glance at the Texan. “If the horse were to suddenly turn away from the owner, the partner, and take its trust… would the owner survive?” He waited a few moments in silence. He didn’t expect an answer. He didn’t want an answer. He wanted Vin to start thinking, and from the looks of things, he was.
Vin’s tongue darted out and moved across his lips as he thought. Was he the horse or the owner? Was he the one who built the loving relationship only to turn away or was he the one from whom someone turned? Was he abandoning his friends because of his fear or was he being abandoned? Would he be able to survive on his own again? Maybe, but he would never be the same.
After several minutes of silence, Mike felt it was time to reveal a little of himself. He had debated when Josiah had called him and explained the situation whether or not he should say anything, but once he saw the lost blue eyes of Vin Tanner drowning in emotions for which he had no name, he knew he’d have to tell this man the truth, or at least as much as he was allowed.
Taking a deep breath and focusing on the mountain in the distance, Mike slowly released it. “I don’t know how much of Josiah’s past you’re familiar with,” he began, “but he wasn’t always a Profiler.” He noted that Vin shot him a look that revealed curiosity and surprise. Mike wasn’t surprised by Josiah’s reluctance to discuss his past, especially this portion of it. “Before either of us went back to college to earn our advanced degrees, we worked together on a team.” A faraway look entered the golden-brown eyes as warm memories replayed in his mind, thoughts from years ago, from another lifetime. The smile and warmth faded, though as the event replayed in his mind. A shudder ran through him and forced his thoughts to focus on the task at hand. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much of what happened, but we, our team, found ourselves having to enact a similar show.” In his peripheral vision he caught sight of the head swiveling in his direction, eyes wide and shocked. A bitter smile appeared on Mike’s face. “It was an event, The Event, that brought about the end of our team.”
Vin looked at the man next to him trying to process what the man had said. Josiah had done this before? Mike had been there? It had destroyed the team? He couldn’t let it destroy his team. There had to be something he could do. He’d have to ask Mike, but he sensed that now was not the time. Mike had more to say, more he, Vin, needed to hear.
Moistening his suddenly dry lips, Mike’s eyes focused on that day in the past. “We set it up and everything was going to plan right up until the target put a bullet in the head of the man I had just supposedly killed.” Mike’s eyes slid shut and his body jerked as he once more saw the bullet enter the head of the very alive agent, of the man who had been his friend, comrade, brother.
Vin’s mouth fell open. Not only did Mike understand, he had lived through worse. Seeing the man jerk, Vin wanted to say something but couldn’t find his voice. Reaching out, he placed his hand on Mike’s upper arm and squeezed, letting the man know he wasn’t alone.
Mike smiled and looked up. Taking a deep breath, he looked into the blue eyes. “I was the team sharpshooter. I lined my teammate up in my sights, set aside my feelings, mortgaged my soul and pulled the trigger.” He paused, unable to continue for several minutes. “After… Afterward I couldn’t process what happened. I don’t actually remember anything from the next three days. I was more or less catatonic. When I finally came out of it, I was too devastated to deal with it. If we hadn’t pretended to kill him, if I hadn’t suggested it, if I hadn’t pulled that trigger, if… if… if…” He reached up and ran his hand through his hair, taking a deep breath. “I couldn’t forgive myself. I couldn’t stop wondering what kind of monster I was, what kind of soulless beast lived within me that could kill someone it considered family.” Turning to stare into the blue eyes he stated, “I was lost. I thought the others would never forgive me, would fear me, would look upon me with disgust. The truth was, they didn’t. They were worried about me, worried about how I was taking it, worried when I pulled away and didn’t get better, worried when I started shutting them out. With Ken gone and me disappearing, the others were lost and hurting. We fell apart and it took a long time to heal on our own. In all my days since then, in all my experiences, I know now if we’d stayed together, worked through it, we could have made it or at least healed much faster. Vin, I don’t know everyone in there, but from what Josiah’s told me, once their initial relief and concern for Chris fades, they’re going to start looking for you. I already know Josiah and Nathan are afraid they’ll lose you.”
Vin swallowed hard and looked into the golden-brown eyes, looking for a lie, looking for the fact it was just a story. How could anyone understand? Yet he found no lie in those eyes. He found only truth, an offer of aid, and an old pain. Maybe, just maybe, Mike could understand, could help him, could save him from the pit into which he was falling, in which he was drowning. “Does it get better?” he asked, praying the answer was yes. He didn’t have it as bad as Mike. Chris was still alive. It had to get better.
Mike smiled. He understood the multitude of questions hidden behind those four words. Blowing out a breath, he offered, “There will be bad days and worse days for the first few weeks. Eventually you’ll have bad days and OK days. But, yeah, with help, friendship and love, there will be good days again too. Do the images ever fade? No. Oh, they become less frequent, but they’re always there. Does the overwhelming emotion fade? It becomes less; it becomes manageable. But it’s always there, hidden away. And there will be days when the clarity of the image and the sharpness of the emotions will take your breath away again. But you will get past this and with your family in there, you can conquer it.” He waited as his words sunk in.
Vin nodded, accepting the words.
Mike smiled and turned to head in.
“Hey, Mike?” Vin’s tentative voice called. He waited for the Psychiatrist to turn, “Ya think we could maybe talk some more?”
Mike smiled and nodded. “Anytime Vin,” he assured.
Looking at his boots, Vin’s voice barely rose above a whisper as he asked, “C’n we talk some now?”
Mike walked back over and stood beside Vin. “Of course,” he replied.
Ezra settled back in his chair and watched his brothers as they carried on about him. He drew in the warmth and comfort of their presence, knowing that he would need it to help him overcome the cold chill of loneliness that had invaded his bones at the sight of Chris being shot. He shook his head as he thought about how long he'd fought against their offer of friendship. The truth was that now he couldn't imagine life without them.
From his perch as observer, he found their current antics amusing and at the same time revealing. Chris was rarely alone, showing the concern each man still held and how deeply the fear of loss had affected them. Ezra wondered how long it would be before the team leader lost his temper and snapped to be left alone. Either that or finally went outside to check on Vin.
Buck and JD were displaying their normal joie de vivre, bantering back and forth and entertaining them all. Though Ezra noted neither of them strayed far from Chris, he also noted how their eyes would wander toward the window overlooking the corral every now and then.
Josiah and Nathan switched from watching the antics of Buck and JD, to participating in the fray to looking out the window at their missing Sharpshooter.
After the initial relief expressed by all, an odd undercurrent had come to everyone's attention, caused by their missing seventh. Ezra worried about his partner. He had yet to speak to the young man and that worried him. Earlier, at the office, it appeared to Ezra that Vin was struggling to hold on, but now… He had left immediately after the arrival of the others. Mike, Josiah's friend, had gone after him. Hopefully he would be able to reach the quiet Texan.
Ezra looked over at Chris. The disguise was good, one of his better ones. He had to smile slightly at the sight of Chris in earth tones, but the truth was, they suited him. He shook his head slightly at the sight of Chris rolling his eyes as Buck said something outrageous. Disguised as he was and with that particular characteristic, he almost believed Vin and Chris were related by blood.
His smile faded slightly at that thought. Brothers. How much did these men mean to him? How much more did Chris mean to Vin? Yet Vin had lined him up and shot him. What effect would that have on his young friend? Could he, Ezra Standish, have pulled the trigger? He contemplated that question for several minutes and realized he could not.
Before his contemplations could lead him down a path of self-doubt, he reminded himself that his role was different than that of Vin. His job required him to wake up every morning of a job and lie to himself, their suspects and those closest to him. Ezra knew that the others couldn't live with themselves doing what he did. He'd seen the toll the lies took on each man as he went undercover with Ezra. This added another worry about Vin. Vin had never gone so far under before. He had never been cut off from his support network. It had been a while since Ezra had been this far under. It had been so much easier when there weren't others to worry about, when he didn't have people to worry about him.
He released a sigh as his mind began to turn to the next day and the plans they would have to put in motion. Chris was going undercover as an old friend of Vin's and Anna's new Horse Trainer. That would give them another person on the grounds. Chris would need to become familiar with the layout of the grounds and the inner workings of the buildings. He would be their ace in the hole. Watching their backs.
On the other hand, he and Vin would need to move things along as quickly as possible. He was fairly certain that Fellini could be moved along at a more rapid pace, but would Vin be able to carry through? They needed to be quick because, while the evidence of Chris' death should withstand the quick scrutiny Fellini's people would do, it couldn't withstand any long-term existence. It would be difficult enough to explain Chris' missing body and how he wasn't really dead once all this was over.
Ezra could just feel the beginnings of a tension headache at these thoughts when the outside door opened. Looking up, he met the eyes of a still withdrawn, but much calmer Vin Tanner. He inclined his head slightly at the Sharpshooter's slight nod and felt some tension ease. He didn't know what had been said to Vin outside, but it seemed to have done some good. He would need to speak to the young man on his own about what they would be facing at Fellini's.
Due to the supposed death of Chris, they would have tomorrow more or less off. They had appointments with various people tomorrow, including one with a psychiatrist for Vin per regulations, as well as a few more reports to complete, but after that, nothing. Other than that, they would be expected at Fellini's. Perhaps if he arose at some unholy hour of the morning, he would be able to catch the Texan before they went into the office.
He watched the others. He could see Buck and JD start toward Vin only to be stopped by a look from Chris and a slight movement from Mike. He could see the concern in their eyes. Glancing at the others, he caught the exchange between Mike and Josiah. He noticed Josiah relax fractionally as tension left him. Whatever Mike had communicated had been good news.
Ezra also observed the silent conversation pass between Chris and Vin and knew they would be having a vocal one later. Becoming aware of his own tired muscles, Ezra knew they needed to get the house cleared. They were all tired and needed rest. They also all needed to make sure Vin was fine for themselves. "Gentlemen," he began. "Shall we repair to the table and the fine feast awaiting us?" He smiled as a mad rush began toward the table that was almost up to their usual standards. It was good to have brothers and friends.
Josiah sighed as he sat back. Dinner was over. He felt much more comfortable than he had when he first arrived. He knew, professionally, that they had far to go and would still need to rely heavily on Mike and his skills, but compared to where they were before they arrived, everything seemed almost normal.
He looked around the table and smiled. Normal might not be the correct definition for this group, but things were normal for them. Conversations were flying around the table as were teasing, joking, threats, promises and fun. It was good to be home with his brothers. This was how it should be.
Glancing over at Mike, he noticed his long-time friend looking amused and relaxed, observing their actions and interactions. Catching the Psychiatrist's eye, his head tilted to the side. Something in Mike's eyes puzzled him. He would ask on the way out. Fortunately Travis had arranged it so Mike would be the one offering grief counseling to the men of Team Seven.
That move, combined with a two week leave of absence would leave them free to provide what support they could for the three who were undercover. They needed to accelerate the time table in order to bring down Fellini as soon as possible. Now, with the time off, Mike around and Chris on-site, hopefully things could be brought to a successful conclusion. Things would begin tomorrow when Vin and Ezra went to Fellini's. Hopefully whatever electronics JD and Buck had cooked up would be sufficient.
JD had jumped up, eager to help bring in dessert. Things were really heating up and he was excited. The surveillance equipment he and Buck had been working with and would be using the next day and throughout the remainder of the investigation was cutting edge. The joint investigation with the other agencies had opened up new technologies. All sorts of new gadgets and gizmos had been made available to him.
Tomorrow he would get together with Sarah Daniels and Paul Connors, both of whom had been let in on the plan after Larabee's supposed death. They would need those two in the office, not only handling the paperwork that needed to be done, but also to keep an eye, and an ear, out for office gossip.
He could feel the excitement of the coming days building within. The threat of danger offered only an additional rush.
Nathan sat back sipping his coffee. His family was together. Tonight he and Raine would spend some time together and he would tell her what he could. He knew she would be worried, but then, that's just one more reason why he loved her. For all these men meant to him, it only drew into sharper relief how much more Raine and the future they were building together meant to him. His desire to go home increased.
The next two weeks would be a critical time for them as a team and his chances of spending time at home were slim. Glancing at his watch once again, he saw the hour was getting late. He set his coffee cup down and glanced at his brothers around the table. It was Buck who picked up on his glance and stood to stretch. Nathan breathed a sigh of relief at not being the one to have to inform everyone that the night was over.
Following Buck's lead, Nathan stood and stretched as well. Stepping back, away from the table, he watched as the others picked up on their cue. Gathering together his dishes, he walked them out to the kitchen, knowing the others would follow his lead and smiling at the thought of leaving the mess in Chris and Vin's capable hands. It was good to not have to do dishes. Setting his dishes on the sideboard, he headed toward the front hallway.
Buck straggled behind the others, watching them pull out of the driveway. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at the star-cluttered sky. Emotionally exhausted, he wanted little more than to go home and sleep, but there was still much he needed to do. Some of it couldn't wait until tomorrow. Feeling the familiar presence of his oldest friend at his side, he felt a wave of emotion crash over him.
For a moment he was lost in the feelings of over a decade. Friendship, brotherhood, loss, pain, love, joy, happiness, pride, all of these and so many more emotions, all of which he had shared with the man beside him. Today had been difficult, almost impossible. He had lost so much - his mother, Sarah, Adam - and when he'd seen Chris go down... He shook those thoughts off and turned to smile at his friend.
"Been a day, Stud," he commented softly. He felt warmed by the smile the blond returned.
Chris reached up and clapped Buck on the shoulder, wondering what he would do without the mustached agent. "That is has," he responded. They stood in silence for several seconds, absorbing the peace around them. "Pray to God we never have another like it."
"Amen," Buck replied. Then turning, he quickly embraced his friend and headed out to his car. He had paperwork to get organized, Daniels and Connors to update and prepare, electronics to study up on and JD to corral.
It was going to be a busy few hours tonight and a busy few days coming up. He would be filling his own role as well as leading the rest of the team, working with Josiah to liaise with the other agencies, ensuring Chris remained dead and his interests looked after...
He released a sigh as he slid behind the wheel of the car. Perhaps he could use Mike to look after Chris's ranch for a while. It would be a good place for them to meet and could always pass it off as grief counseling sessions. What better place to mourn the loss of Chris than at his house?
Chris sat back in the jeep, allowing the wind to blow through his longer tresses. He sat with his eyes closed trying to remove all evidence of himself and fall into the role they had set up for him. He had to be "on" for this or a whole lot could go wrong very quickly and the ramifications didn't bear thinking. Instead of dwelling on that, Chris tried to relax and allow the warmth of the sun to feed into him. Feeling the penetrating rays, he released a sigh.
Vin heard a sigh escape Chris's lips. He still felt unsettled and jumpy, but he knew he could get through this. He just had to drop off Chris and then head to the office where he'd meet up with Ezra for a while. Because of his supposed shooting of Chris' murderer, he was on leave until the paperwork was done, evaluations had been made and a review passed, but that was fine by him; he wanted to see if he could get any more sleep.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He'd tried to sleep last night and had succeeded in getting some cat-naps in, but it seemed like every time he would begin to drift into a deep sleep, the image of Chris dying at his hand would appear in his mind. Twice he'd been so shaken, he'd made his way down the hall and stood outside Chris' room just to hear him breath and assure himself his brother was fine. Mike had warned Vin that the nightmares would come and that they would be worse than reality, but Vin had still been unprepared for how vivid and real they seemed to him even to the point of including smells. Still he knew he could survive it, after all, Josiah and Mike had.
Chris noted Vin's uncomfortable shifting in the driver's seat. Usually, he would know how to sooth his friend, but today he was at a loss. He'd been worried by Vin's behavior the previous night, though he couldn't fault the Sharpshooter for that. It was only afterward that Chris had realized what he'd asked of his best friend, his little brother. Now he wished he could undo his decision. Unable to figure out anything else, and, for the first time, unsure if he should do anything else, Chris reached over and rested a hand on Vin's shoulder.
Vin felt the hand come to rest on his shoulder and froze momentarily, his fight or flight instinct kicking in. His mind, however, quickly overruled that instinct as he realized it was Chris. At the thought of that name, at the familiar grip on his shoulder, some of the chaos within him stilled. He inhaled and released a full breath, the first one he could remember taking since this all began with the diskette. He allowed the familiar current that usually ran between them to surround him, in-fill him and create a small seat of harmony and peace he so desperately needed.
Relieved he'd done the right thing, Chris squeezed the shoulder beneath his hand. Leaving his hand where it was, he settled back in his seat and watched the scenery around him. There could only be one word to describe the land - glorious. He breathed deeply of the clean, fresh air. A small smile settled upon his lips at the thought of spending his days outside in the sun working with horses. As assignments went, he couldn't think of a better one. Of course, that didn't lessen the danger any, but at least he'd be comfortable.
As they approached the gates to the residence, Chris straightened in his seat, his hand dropping to his side. Leaning slightly forward, he felt his jaw drop slightly in amazement. He'd heard the descriptions and details Vin and Ezra had given of the house and the acreage surrounding it. He'd studied the plans and knew the layout, knew the dimensions of the house and grounds. None of that prepared him for the impact of seeing it in person.
Vin smiled slightly at the awe and wonder on Chris' face. He'd felt the same way the first time he'd seen it. Over the past weeks and months, though, he'd been to the house often enough that the awe and wonder had faded. His appreciation of the beauty of the house and the grounds surrounding it would never fade, but to him it had become a familiar sight. His smile faded slightly. It worried him that he was now so used to entering and leaving this world, this estate, that it seemed normal. Only when a person was used to something, considered it part of their lives, did they lose the wonder and awe. This couldn't be good. He'd have to talk with Ezra about it later.
Chris felt the jeep slow as it approached a bend in the drive. As they rounded the bend, Chris received his first view of the main house. His eyes widened at the size of it and wondered at the workmanship. Unable to express his disbelief that this palace existed in such a perfect setting, he felt puzzlement enter his mind. Vin seemed unimpressed. For some reason, that bothered Chris. Yes, he knew the young Sharpshooter had been here many times, usually several times a week... But still, he would have expected a different reaction. Hell, any reaction would do, not the quiet acceptance and familiarity the Texan seemed to be showing.
Feeling the green eyes focus on him, Vin knew Chris had picked up on his comfort with the surroundings. Vin knew it bothered his boss, but he needed to be able to portray some comfort in the setting if his role was to be believable. There was no need for Chris to know that Vin was worried about his reactions too. "So, what d' ya think of the house?" Vin asked, a smile twitching at his lips.
Shaking off his concern by telling himself Ezra would let someone know if Vin were in trouble, his voice reflected his disbelief as he asked, "House?"
Vin ignored the little voice in the back of his head that seemed to be asking the same question. Forcing a smile onto his face he said, "House. Let yerself think too much more on it and you'll get lost." He pulled into his parking spot and mentally shook himself. When had this become his parking spot? Shutting off the engine and unfastening his belt, he slid out of the jeep. "Comin'?" he asked.
Still staring at the mansion before him, Chris undid his own belt, grabbed his duffle bag and followed Vin toward the front door. His steps faltered slightly when the door was open by a butler prior to their knocking. He slowed his tread as he entered the hall. Vin still seemed perfectly at ease, but Chris couldn't stop his gawking. His head snapped forward when he heard the butler say, "If you'll follow me, Mr. Tanner. Mr. Fellini will see you now."
Shaking himself briefly, Chris set aside his disbelief and awe, focusing instead on the task at hand. Following the Butler, they were led to a room. Taking in the decorations, the table and the buffet, Chris assumed this was the Breakfast room Vin and Ezra had mentioned. He stopped a few steps behind Vin as they were announced. Stepping more fully into the room, Chris watched as a man who could only be Fellini stood, walked over to Vin and embraced him. Chris managed to suppress his need to dismember Fellini for his presumptuous act, but couldn't quell the nauseous feelings the man inspired.
"Vin!" Fellini boomed, releasing the man he thought of as a son. "You have proven yourself, just as I knew you would." Moving his hand so it rested against Vin's cheek he patted it briefly and praised, "I'm proud of you. We will discuss your future tonight over dinner."
Chris' gut twisted again at the pleased blush that tinted Vin's cheeks. A new fear assaulted the Team Leader as he wondered if on some level Vin viewed Fellini as a father figure. Swallowing back the bile that threatened, he pushed that thought out of his mind. Vin never reacted well to praise. Such direct contact and praise would be sure to initiate the Sharpshooter's reaction. Then again, the Texan could be honestly pleased, after all, unlike Chris, Vin hadn't grown up knowing the love of a father, the pride received from such praise. His teeth ground slightly as he clenched his jaw. This assignment had gone on too long and left his team too vulnerable. He had known the dangers to the rest of them and knew of some of the dangers to Vin and Ezra, but seeing his brother interacting with their target only confirmed that they needed to finish this case and finish it soon.
Embarrassed by the praise and the open display, while at the same time sickened by same things, Vin looked at the floor and waited for his emotions to settle. Finally feeling he had himself once more under control, the young man cleared his throat and announce, "I brought over that friend of mine I told you about. The one's gonna be yer new trainer?"
Fellini beamed at his boy and thanked the powers that be for the day they sent Vin Tanner into his life. He didn't really need a new trainer, but he wanted to be there for his son, to show him that the boy could depend on him for whatever he needed, whether direction for his beliefs or a job for a friend. "Wonderful!" he said, still ignoring the man standing several paces behind Vin.
Shifting uncomfortably on his feet, Vin stepped slightly to the side and motioned for Chris to step forward. "This here's Trent Williams. He's the best horse trainer you'll ever meet."
Fellini offered his hand and politely shook Chris'. He barely paid attention as he welcomed the new man. He wouldn't be seeing this man often, perhaps at the rodeos but he was of little concern to Fellini. Signaling to the Butler to come closer he instructed, "Please have Mr. William's bags taken out to the Trainer's house and have Mr. Sharp come and have him fill out all the appropriate paperwork, show him around, et cetera."
"Very good, sir," came the formal reply as the Butler bowed. Turning to Chris he said, "If you will follow me, Mr. Williams, I will show you to the study."
With a nod to Fellini and one last look at Vin, Chris turned and followed the Butler out of the room. As he was leaving he heard Fellini say, "Come, Vin. Sit down and have breakfast with me. We have much to discuss." As the voices faded, a cold chill raced down his spine.
Ezra relaxed back into his chair. Though he knew he wouldn’t keep this house after the case ended, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it now.
Sipping his coffee, he frowned slightly as he thought of the current case. The most difficult part of this case was being unable to fully separate himself from the role he played. His role was bleeding into his life. This worried him, not only because of what it meant to Vin who lacked his experience.
Still, he couldn’t spare the time to worry too much about it just now. Things should begin moving a little faster in the case now that Vin had “proven” himself. Moving faster meant more opportunity for mistakes for both them and Fellini. Hopefully his team, his brothers, would once more pull through this impossible situation and emerge successful because he was quite certain they wouldn’t emerge unscathed.
Right now he needed to focus on what would have to be done at the office. He knew the members of Team 10 would be keeping a close eye on him so he would have to play his role just right. “What would they expect?” Ezra wondered aloud. Should he be sad? Cold? Indifferent? Remorseful? He released a sigh as he realized he would have to wait and see. He had never made a pretense of lessening his friendship with Josiah and Buck, so perhaps remorse? Concern? Anger that one of “theirs” had been killed? A sigh escaped him. If he couldn’t decide how to act, how was he to advise Vin?
And what of the Sharpshooter? Vin would be in and out since he was off active duty until cleared in the shooting, so his response was less of a concern. Today he would be meeting with a Psychiatrist and filling in some paperwork. Most likely he would be on desk-duty for several weeks, but Tom had indicated giving Vin some time off. The Southerner was certain Fellini was behind that time off, but he would have to wait and see. With any luck, he’d be able to be there with Vin for most of what was going on.
Startled out of his contemplations by the ringing of his agency cell phone, he flipped it open. “Standish,” he answered. He sat up straighter as Jeff Corbin’s voice greeted him. After a brief conversation, he hung up and picked up a second cell phone. Opening it, he dialed a number he knew by heart and waited for it to be answered.
“Travis residence,” came the melodic tones of Evie Travis.
Ezra was unable to stop the smile that came to his face. “Mrs. Travis,” he greeted. Normally he would spend several minutes chatting with the lovely lady, but this couldn’t wait. “This is Ezra Standish. Might I speak with your husband?” he inquired.
“Of course,” Evie said, her voice reflecting her understanding that the call was urgent business.
After a few minutes, Ezra heard Orin Travis’ rough greeting. “Director Travis,” Ezra began, moving straight to business. “I received a call from Jeff Corbin. There is to be a gathering at Fellini’s house in two weeks time. Given the excited tones in his voice, I feel they are preparing to increase their activities. I believe that this will provide our best opportunity to accomplish our goal.”
Travis gritted his teeth. He hadn’t been expecting it so quickly. “You’re sure?” he demanded.
Ezra thought of the quick conversation he’d had. He could only believe Fellini was prepared to move on. “Yes,” Ezra replied, his terse response conveying the seriousness of the situation more than any amount of words. Deciding Travis might want more of an explaination, he continued, “Vin has proven him to Fellini and the others. Now that Fellini has an heir, someone to carry on his dreams and plans, there is no reason for him to hold back his plans. He can take the risk as long as Vin is protected and there continue his dreams.” When he finished, he was met with silence. He knew this information had not made Travis a happy man. He was about to ask what Travis thought when the A. D. replied.
“I’ll see what I can arrange.”
“Very well,” Ezra replied as the line went dead. Folding this second phone, he returned it to its previous location and picked up his now cool coffee, absently taking a sip. The bitter liquid caused a shudder to race through his system. Setting the coffee down quickly, he stood and walked to the window.
Staring out at the land surrounding this house, it brought to mind the expanse surrounding Larabee’s ranch house. The thought of the house that had become a favored gathering place brought to mind Buck and JD. Picking up the phone he’d just used to call Travis, he dialed Buck’s number and waited. Hearing the greeting, he began, “Mr. Willmington. I do believe we need to meet and have a discussion. It would appear our timetable has been accelerated somewhat.”
Buck hung up his cell phone and slipped it back into the carrying case he had clipped to his belt. He couldn’t stop the small curse that escaped his lips at the news Ezra had just shared. Seeing the concerned look on JD’s face he took a deep breath. “We’ve got two weeks,” he said, watching JD’s eyes grow wider. Holding up his hand to stop the protest, he cautioned, “I know. I know. It’s not enough time. We just got Chris under out there and haven’t gotten everything we need. We don’t have a choice.”
“Should I call Josiah and the others?” JD asked.
Buck thought a moment. He and JD had taken the day off supposedly to begin working on wrapping up Chris’ affairs. Really they were out at the ranch learning the borrowed equipment and preparing what they would need for surveillance. Glancing out the window, he saw Mike working with one of the horses. He couldn’t ask the man to participate in any direct action, but he sure could use the extra hands, especially with JD having to go into the office that afternoon. A plan beginning to form in his mind, he turned back to his young friend. “No. Not yet,” he began. “I’ll see if I can use Mike this afternoon. I need you to go into the office and let the others know. Also, we need to have Josiah put his little scene into play today rather than tomorrow.” Seeing the twinkle of amusement in JD’s eyes at the thought of Josiah’s little scene, he couldn’t help the smile that twitched at the corners of his mouth.
JD nodded, accepting the orders he’d been given. “You want me to get Mike now?”
Buck nodded, already lost in the process of reformulating his plans.
Josiah sat at his desk, apparently staring out the window, but in actuality studying the other teams as they came and went. He felt badly about the deception they were perpetrating, but knew they couldn’t help it. He, Nathan, Sarah Daniels and Paul Connors were in the office handling things there. A lot of agents in the ATF and outside were calling and asking what they could do. The four of them had been discouraging people from doing anything, informing them that Chris didn’t want a fuss or a large funeral. In fact, they had managed to convince people that only Buck would be there when he was buried next to his wife and son.
He thought about the two outsiders on the team and the concerns they had expressed. It hadn’t been easy and Sarah had put a stop to more than one well-meaning soul who wanted to gather together money to give to Chris’ favorite charity. She and Paul both dreaded how everyone would react when they learned it was all a hoax. They had been surprised and put off when they had discovered what Team Seven was really doing, though they couldn’t fault the men. She and Paul had also discussed what they could do to help alleviate the backlash that was bound to hit Team Seven when the case finished. They hadn’t come up with much, but they both agreed it wouldn’t be pretty when the truth came out.
Josiah had done what he could to ease her fears and concerns, but knew she was right. For all the detractors Team Seven had had before, what they would face afterward would either bond them more closely or destroy them utterly. He just prayed they were strong enough to survive. He knew they would need time apart from each other and time together to overcome the cost. He knew the accusations would be flying and their testimonies and reports would be the most important part of their part of the case. He also knew that even his fellow agents would never know the full extent of what they were doing, the true threat they would hopefully be stopping. Still, what others thought had never really mattered to Team Seven before and, as long as their makeshift family survived, it probably wouldn’t matter afterward.
He released a sigh as he picked up the phone, knowing it would be another person calling to send their regrets and perhaps gloat a bit that the Magnificent Seven wasn’t as invincible as they seemed.
Travis paced back and forth. Ever since the early morning call from Standish, he’d been trying to get in touch with his counterparts to let them know of the accelerated schedule. So far he’d only been able to reach his contact at the CIA who had exploded and left Travis’ ears burning. They weren’t ready to move yet. Travis had responded that it was time for them to get ready.
It hadn’t gone well.
Now he had three members of his best team undercover in one of the most dangerous organizations he had seen. Not only were they undercover, they were next to the mentally unstable leader of the organization. One of them was practiacally the man's adopted son, another his lieutenant and the third was hiding in plain sight.
Pausing to rub his hands across his aching temples, he made the decision to go down and see who of Team Seven was in their office area. He needed more information about what they were planning. If he couldn't find what he needed down there, he'd call Buck out at Chris' ranch. He'd been avoiding that route since everyone would expect Buck to been in deep mourning and out of touch. The fact that the rogue was preparing wires and other surveillance equipment needed to remain secret.
Releasing a sigh and wishing it was all over and his men were safely back where they belonged, he left the confines of his office and headed toward the elevators.
"Sanchez," Josiah said, picking up his phone. He hadn't gotten much done other than worrying so far and was thankful for the interruption.
"Hey, Josiah!" came Buck's cheerful greeting.
Fighting the smile and trying to maintain his serious demeanor in the face of his cheerful comrade, Josiah frowned slightly. He knew why Buck was calling him, he knew what he would have to do, he just hadn't expected to do so this soon. In deep, sonorous tones he inquired, "No, I'm afraid Agent Wilmington isn't here right now."
In a more serious tone, Buck said, "It's time, Josiah. Just heard. We have two weeks."
Josiah closed his eyes. It was too quick. They needed more time. "What do you mean you lost the body?" he asked, anger vibrating in his voice. Heads of all in the area snapped around. He saw Travis pale as he stopped in his tracks, having just arrive. Turning his back on the others in the room, the Profiler fought a smile as he pitched his voice low and deadly. "I don't care what happened. You will retrieve Chris Larabee's body and you will return it to us for burial. Am I understood?" He had to bit his lip to stop himself from laughing at Buck's response.
Buck couldn't help his laughter. The danger of the operation was real and he understood why Josiah needed to be able to pull off a convincing dress-down, but his stress levels had risen over the past few days to levels that demanded release. Unfortunately, for some reason, his psyche had chosen this moment to release that stress in the form of laughter. Thanking Team Seven's guardian angels for Josiah's acting ability, he gasped out his thanks and hung up.
Josiah slammed the receiver down and closed his eyes, apparently trying to control his temper. In reality, he was saying a short prayer that his act had been convincing. Turning around, he saw everyone in the office staring at him. He was glad to see Tom Rollins from Team 10 in the office, apparently talking to Connors.
"What happened?" Travis demanded, well aware of Rollin's presence and hoping to aid whatever was going on. He decided he really needed to find out and get a better handle on what his team had planned.
Josiah gritted his teeth in a show of frustration. "That," he stated sharply, "was the morgue." Pausing and appearing to collect his patience, he folded his arms across his broad chest and growled, "They lost Chris' body."
Gasps could be heard around the office. Nathan dropped his coffee cup to his desk as he stood, anger flashing in his usually warm brown eyes. "They what?" he exclaimed.
Josiah took a deep breath. "They lost his body," he declared very carefully. After a moment he continued, "Of course, they only called after they found it."
"What happened to him?" Travis demanded.
Turning toward Travis, he looked Orin up and down before explaining. "They confused him with another body in the morgue and sent him to Estonia." He paused as he heard the gasps around the room. "They told me not to worry, that they would return him to us at no charge."
Nathan snorted in disbelief and disgust.
His face grim, Travis demanded, "How long?"
Josiah's blue eyes bore into His boss. "At least two weeks."
Sounds of disgust could be heard from around the office. The Profiler noted that Rollins looked interested and his eyes darted toward the phone. Obviously the Team Leader would be making a call. Josiah only hoped that it didn't cast any doubt on Vin and Ezra. Hopefully the paperwork and testemony of the coroner would be enough to convince all those involved that a mistake had been made.
Chris wandered out of the office in the far barn. He'd spent the morning filling out paperwork and had finally been shown the grounds, the horses and his office. Having checked things out, he determined things were fairly well in hand. He could only hope that Anna would stop by at some point to look in on her horse; it would be best for him to make contact as soon as possible.
Looking out at one of the thoroughbreds in the corral, he could only admire the quality of the animal. Perhaps when he finally had enough of law enforcement he would be able to find a job working with horses or perhaps breed them himself.
Turning to look out at the view, he had to admit, there were few places he'd been more beautiful. It would be so easy to lose himself in this role. He hadn't understood how closely it came to his own desires. Catching sight of movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned and spotted one of the guards that patrolled the land. The guard carried a gun in a shoulder holster. Had it not been for his years of law enforcement, he wouldn't have been able to detect that fact. Seeing the guard had snapped Chris out of his daydream, leaving him once more aware of the underlying evil that pervaded the property. Things just weren't right.
In a well-appointed office across town, the Assistant Mayor hung up his phone and tried to control his anger. Tanner had done it. He had eliminated Larabee and supplanted him in the chain of command of the organization. Tanner had taken the place he'd held for years. After all the sacrifices, all the time and work, to lose to someone so undeserving did little other than create an irrepressible anger. He knew it would be nearly impossible to touch the long-haired man now, not when he was so close to Fellini. But perhaps he could get at Tanner indirectly... Perhaps through Standish and the others on Teams Seven and Ten. Perhaps he could find something to discredit the young man.
As an evil, self-satisfied smile crossed his face, the man picked up the phone and dialed the Coronor's number.