ATF Universe (Seven)
Notes: Community Challenge offered by Meg Tipper. Some, one or all of the boys are on the edge -- not figuratively, literally. It can be the edge of a cliff, the roof of a building, the scaffolding on a skyscraper, a ledge on the side of a rock face -- you name it, so long as it is a long way down. They can be standing, dangling, falling, climbing, whatever works. How you get them there, and get them out of it, is entirely up to you. I only have one other little caveat. You must use one, some or all of the following words in the story: birthday, chocolate, shower and fool. It is April after all. Any universe, any style. Good Luck!
Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris looked at the group of men sitting around the table. They were supposed to be a team, and according to Webster’s dictionary, the definition of team was: a number of persons associated in some joint action. HA! Right now, Chris Larabee’s ‘team’ couldn’t locate the back end of a horse. Not that he was upset about it. Hell no!
It was bound to happen…but now!
This…unique…specialized…‘team’ of agents was supposed to clear a warehouse of weapons. It was a regular case, with regular gunrunners, and regular procedures…not quite. Buck and JD had gotten into a fight in the surveillance van, proceeding to trash the equipment with French fries and milk shakes. Every tape was destroyed and the van now smelt like the inside of a child’s playpen. Well…almost….it was missing the ‘refreshing’ smell of diapers…but that was only a matter of time.
Josiah and Nathan had somehow managed to miscalculate the weapons seized. There had been over four hounded guns discovered, but by the time the evidence was placed in storage the number had increased to over eight hundred. And there wasn’t a logical explanation as to why, except for the men’s lack of communication.
Vin and Ezra had been a different story altogether. Between the two of them the rest of the team was bone weary. Vin had come down with a case of bronchitis that almost ended up as pneumonia, and he had refused to visit a doctor. Ezra had come down with a killer migraine, having left him bedridden for a day. When they showed up at the warehouse they had both managed to get plastered on Nyquil. Not a sight Chris wanted to see when he greeted Judge Travis at the take site.
As a result of the ‘teams’ antics they’d been given a choice of activities. Their first choice was spending a week in therapy. Ezra had just laughed. Their second choice was spending ten days away from the city in each other’s company…camping. Ezra had stopped laughing.
“Pack your bags, and make sure you bring your blankies, comfort food, and as much alcohol as you can possibly fit into your backpacks,” Chris said calmly. “I’ll pick you all up in the morning.” He picked up his brief case and stormed out of the room.
“Well, shit!” Buck snapped, having lost his normal jovial behavior.
“Maybe this is the reprieve we need,” Josiah said thoughtfully.
Vin chuckled: “Doubt it,” he sighed.
“Does anyone know what Chris’ plans are?” Nathan asked, getting up out of his chair.
“It’s camping, Mr. Jackson,” Ezra gripped. “We’ll probably be out fishing, hiking, and god forbid…lookin’ like mountain men by the time ten days is up.”
“Pack your portable shower, Brother,” Josiah smirked, getting to his feet. “We’re all goin’ to need it.”
JD grabbed his pen back from Buck. “I ain’t packin’ your shit,” he snapped, moving past the ladies man.
“Didn’t ask you to,” Buck replied.
Nathan sat back and watched. This trip was going to either kill them all or bring them back together.
Chris stepped out of the suburban he’d been given to use by the agency and looked at the men standing outside the bureau doors. None of them looked happy. JD and Buck stood as far apart as humanly possible. Vin munched on some pork rines and Ezra looked like he was ready to shove a carrot in the sharpshooter’s mouth. Nathan and Josiah stood watching the others, more out of disbelief than anything else.
“Might as well get used to the fact that we’re all goin’ on this little excursion,” Chris said, opening the back of the suburban. “Because Buck is an expert fly fisherman he’s going to teach the rest of us how to do it.” He indicated to the stack of equipment on the floor that he was serious. “Vin was a survivalist in the military and he’s going to teach us how to eat grasshoppers and bark…”
“Now hold on,” Ezra interjected.
“Shut up, Ezra,” Chris snapped.
“They ain’t bad covered in chocolate,” Vin replied, shoving another piece of fried port skin into his mouth.
“Nathan’s going to give us some lessons on medicinal plants.” Chris motioned for Buck and the others to throw their gear into the back. “JD’s going to make the decisions about the camp sites, and Josiah’s going to delegate chores.”
“What are you and Ezra going to do?” Buck asked.
“We’re going to teach the rest of you how to rock climb,” Chris’ words were strong and unwavering. “Get in and let’s go.”
“Looks like our brother is giving each of us an opportunity to lead,” Josiah said, setting his things in the rear of the vehicle.
Chris parked the suburban and got out, not bothering to tell anyone what to do. He was on a ten-day ‘leader free’ vacation. It was time for his men to learn what it was like to direct. Now, Chris was going to sit back and watch, learning along with the rest of them.
“Is this the place?” JD asked, removing his headphones.
“That’s your decision,” Chris replied with a grin.
JD’s face fell: “I thought I just had to make decisions about camp sites?”
“You do…so decide,” Chris said, grabbing his backpack and gear.
“Might I suggest the hotel up the road?” Ezra asked with a grin.
“Think dirt, Ezra,” Josiah said, handing the Southerner an armload of equipment.
“Well,” JD sighed, “Let’s hike that way.” He pointed in the direction of the river.
Buck was about to say something when Chris sent him a glare. This was JD’s job, and it was his responsibility to take it seriously.
Josiah waited until everyone was loaded up with their gear before following them in the direction that JD led. The smell of fresh air filled his senses, and the mountains looked more glorious than they ever had before. The trees stood tall into the sky, creating shadows of incredible length to cascade across the path. The subtle wind would catch a blade of grass causing it to dance momentarily before returning to a standstill. As feet stepped over logs, and hiking boots dented the rich soil, Josiah smiled. There wasn’t anything like nature to bring men together, and families closer.
Vin stripped off his shirt and stuffed it into his backpack. The heat of the day felt good on his winter light skin, and he intended to fix that problem. He grabbed a bag of M&M’s out of his pack and started munching away as he followed the group. The hair on the back of his neck moved and brushed lightly against his skin as the soft wind picked up. It felt good to be out. This is where he belonged, not in some big city chasing down criminals. Here, nobody cared what he looked like, how he acted, or what he ate. This was life.
Chris brought a smile to his face when he noticed JD pause in mid stride. The kid didn’t know where he was going, and if finally dawned on him. He pulled a map out of the bag Chris had handed him before they left and it was only moments before he was back on task. At least he looked, the ‘team leader’ thought, as he followed the younger man down the path.
“We’ll camp here,” JD said, dropping his backpack. The riverbank was perfect, as the sound of water rushing over rocks filled the air. The tree line was close and the cliffs in the distance would be a perfect place for climbing.
“You sure?” Buck asked.
JD threw the ladies man a glare: “Yes, I’m sure,” he replied confidently.
“Fine,” Buck snapped. “So what are our chores, Preacher?”
Josiah paused and looked at his friends. “Nathan and JD can set up the tent their going to be sharing. Vin and Buck can set up theirs, and Chris and Ezra can do theirs.” The big man smiled. “Seein’ how there are only four tents and seven of us, I’ll set up my own.”
“What about dinner?” Vin asked.
“That’s your and Brother Buck’s decision. Chris and Ezra can chop firewood, while JD and Nathan can have KP duty after dinner.”
“What are you goin’ to do?” Nathan asked, putting his tent stakes together.
“Put up my own tent and watch to make sure ya’ll get along.”
Vin allowed his marshmallow to ignite before he blew it out and placed it between a piece of chocolate and graham cracker. He then shoved the whole thing in his mouth. Ezra stared at him with his mouth open, and JD fell off of his log, laughing.
“I hope there wasn’t a grasshopper in there?” Ezra asked, before taking a long pull from his water jug.
“They ain’t that bad, Ezra,” Vin responded. “They taste kinda like…chicken.”
“Have ya’ll ever noticed that everything tastes like chicken,” Nathan said. “I heard someone talkin’ about alligator and they said it was like chicken, rattlesnake too.”
“Any of you ever had Rocky Mountain Oysters?” Buck asked with a grin.
“Thought oysters came from the ocean?” JD questioned, poking the fire with his stick.
“They’re sheep testicles, kid,” Buck said, rolling his eyes.
“And you’ve eaten ‘em?”
“Damn straight, an’ they ain’t bad.”
Ezra’s stomach rolled: “Can we please change the subject?” he asked, pulling out his deck of cards.
“I’ve got a joke,” JD said, enthusiastically.
“What’s Irish and is outside all the time?” JD looked around the circle, “Paddy O’Furniture.” He laughed. “How do you tell a blind man in a Nudist colony?” He paused looking for an answer. “It’s not hard!” He squealed and fell over.
Vin chuckled and wiped his mouth free of marshmallow remains.
“Damn, Vin,” Buck sighed, “don’t encourage him.”
Chris stood up shaking his head. “I’m going to bed.” He started to walk toward the tent. “Don’t kill each other before morning, we have a rock to climb.”
Ezra tightened the harness around his waist and waited for the rest of the team to do the same. The long nylon rope was laid out and ready to go, as well as the other equipment. Chris stuffed the rock holds into the small pack he wore around his middle, and quickly showed JD how to use the ascenders. The kid was the only one of them that didn’t have any rock climbing experience. Vin had done quite a lot during his military days, as well as Nathan and Josiah. Chris had taken the sport up with Buck after they’d become friends during their stretch in the seals. However, Buck’s interest soon vanished when he realized the swimming hole had ‘better-looking’ company. And Ezra, had been rock climbing since he was old enough to walk.
“If everything goes well, we should reach the top in three hours,” Chris said, looking up at the rock wall. He was slightly concerned about the large crevasse about forty feet up, but Josiah and Nathan’s strength would help him when it came time to pull the others through it.
“Thought Ezra was leading this adventure with you?” Buck asked, trying to remember which loop the rope went through.
“I’m bringing up the rear, as you would say,” Ezra replied with a grin. “That way I can walk Mr. Dunne through any hazardous steps.”
“So what are we gonna do when we get to the top?” JD asked, not quite sure he wanted to climb.
“We’ll hike back around and be back at camp before nightfall,” Chris replied.
JD sighed, watching as Chris started up the rock face looking like a spider in its natural environment. Josiah followed, his strong arms bulging and calf muscles flexing with each step he took. Nathan soon followed, as always, the medic’s movements were precise as he moved up behind the bigger man. Vin finished his candy bar before following Nathan. The sharpshooter’s slender form cascaded up the rock as though it were second nature. The point of his shoes slipped into toeholds carefully, and his hands slipped into cracks. He even paused a few times, allowing Nathan time to adjust, and he looked out over the land.
“I don’t know if I can do this, Ezra,” JD said, rubbing sweaty palms together, while watching Buck follow Vin.
“You’ll be fine,” Ezra reassured, making sure the kid’s harness was on correctly and his rope laced properly. “Follow your roommate,” he ordered.
JD grabbed hold of the rock face with his hands and pulled himself up. This wasn’t like anything he’d ever done before. Oh he’d done lots of dangerous things when he was a boy. Things like skateboarding, snowboarding, and motor cross racing, but this…this was too damn high, and with only a rope. He could hear Ezra’s voice behind him, telling him that he was doing fine.
Sweat glistened off skin, and muscles burned as the seven men worked their way to the top of the cliff. Chris had led them up through the easiest side of the rock face. However, bypassing the crevasse was out of the question. It took him, Josiah, and Nathan forty-five minutes to get up and over the gaping hole in the mountainside. The strength of Chris, Josiah, and Nathan had Vin pulled up past the large space. Once the sharpshooter was secured above the crevasse Chris started back up the mountain face, leading the rest of his men. Buck was soon hanging freely from the rope using the ascender to work his way up behind Vin.
JD grabbed the edge of the gap entrance, more afraid to let go than to stay in that particular spot for the rest of his life. For a moment, everything seemed to tilt, and like a bad dream, he opened his eyes with a jolt only to find himself hanging from an ascender and the edge of the crevasse. “I can’t do this!” he yelled, making sure everyone heard him.
“Yes you can!” Buck yelled down. “Hell, kid, if I can make it up this rock without a woman at the top, you can scamper on up here for a Game Boy!” His face resembled elastic as his cheeks spread into a grin, and his eyes twinkled with mischief.
JD pressed his head on the warm surface and sighed, trying to catch his breath. He was scared…no…terrified.
Ezra reached up and patted JD’s right calf. “You can do it, JD,” he reassured. “Just let go, Buck and the others will pull you up.”
JD nodded. Sweat continued to poor off his face, but he took a deep breath and released it slowly. He felt Ezra pat his calf again, and with the confidence of the others the kid let go of the edge. Just like Buck had promised, they slowly started pulling him up.
“See,” Buck started, realizing JD had grabbed hold of the rock face again, “wasn’t that bad.”
“Speak for yourself,” JD gasped, digging his fingers into the rock wall.
“I’m releasing!” Ezra called up, wanting everyone to know his weight would be felt.
“Ready!” Buck yelled down.
JD secured his position and he felt Ezra’s weight tug slightly on his harness. Slowly and carefully the kid started back up the rock face.
Then his foot slipped.
“BUCK!” JD yelled, trying to find a handhold. He scraped the rock wall with his feet, scraping skin off of his knees and hands. He held onto the ascender, not realizing the small piece of equipment was failing. “BUCK!” he called again.
The ladies man reached down. “Hang on, JD!” he yelled, trying to sound confident.
“I can’t!” he called upward. “It’s slipping!”
Ezra could hear what was happening as he was swung back and forth on the rope. Every movement he made to climb hindered JD’s attempt to get himself secured. The team’s undercover agent looked down and saw nothing but the tops trees.
JD grabbed the rope with his bare hands just in time as the ascender gave way. He could feel his hands burn as he slid downward momentarily.
“EZRA!” Buck yelled, “Can you get a hand grip?”
The Southerner reached out but heard JD scream, and then felt small stones hit his head and shoulders. Every move he made complicated the kid’s situation. Ezra looked down again. It wasn’t that far of a drop, and the trees would be easier to land on by himself than with JD on top of him. The Southerner reached into his pocket and retrieved his pocketknife.
JD felt the weight of the rope give and he sighed in relief when he collided with the rock wall. Buck had worked his way down, after yelling for the others to continue up.
“You okay, JD?” Buck asked out of concern.
The kid nodded, unable to find his voice. His knuckles had turned white, still grasping the rope, despite Buck’s grip on his harness. He tried to keep a calm face, but the tears staining his cheeks gave away his fear. He wasn’t just scared he was petrified. “I’m scared of heights,” JD admitted. “I thought I could do this,” he paused, unsure how to continue.
Buck brotherly rubbed the kid’s shoulder. “You’re doin’ fine,” he said. “You ain’t got much further to go, and once we’re up there we can kill Chris.” He smiled, trying to lighten the moment. He adjusted his position behind JD and then exchanged ascenders. “I’ll keep behind you,” he said softly, “an’ we’ll make it up there together.”
“Thanks, Buck.” JD said, gaining some much needed confidence. “Don’t tell anyone…”
“That you’re scared of heights?”
“I reckon they’ve figured it out,” Buck replied, moving slowly behind the kid. “Did I ever tell you that Chris is terrified of spiders?”
“No,” JD responded, not quite believing it.
“He is,” Buck laughed, “screamed like a girl when Sara brought home a tarantula for a pet.”
“Yep,” Buck sighed, shaking his head.
Trees were not meant for a comfortable landing. Branches slapped his arms, legs, ribs, and face. He continued to fall until the backs of his knees landed on a large branch, temporarily stopping him from hitting the rocky ground. Ezra fell the last few feet, landing hard on his left side. He laid still for a moment, not wanting to breathe, much less move.
He could hear the water in the distance, and the birds continued to sing as though they didn’t have a care in the world. Slowly, he sat up, catching his breath when his ribs protested to the movement. He could see welts starting to form on his legs and arms from the whipping he’d received falling through the tree. Blood soaked the right sleeve of his shirt, and when he lifted the sleeve he noticed the long gash across his shoulder.
With an arm tucked up to his chest he slowly got to his feet. Considering the distance he’d fallen, he was fortunate that his injuries were, for the most part, mild. Ezra paused, looking up toward the rock, and not noticing the others, he slowly, and carefully, headed back to camp.
Josiah reached down and grasped JD’s hand and carefully lifted the kid up onto solid ground. “Welcome home, Brother,” he said with a smile.
“Let me look at those cuts, JD,” Nathan said, motioning for the kid to sit down. His legs were smeared with cuts and bruises, and rope burns marred his hands. The medic shook his head, but didn’t say anything when JD couldn’t seem to stop shaking.
Josiah pulled Buck onto the edge of the rock cliff, and then continued to pull up the rope that was considerably lighter than he’d expected it.
“You all right?” Chris asked, kneeling in front of JD.
“Yeah,” the kid said, nodding more to himself than anyone. “But I never want to go rock climbing again.”
“Brothers,” Josiah’s voice sounded defeated and scared.
Everyone turned to where the big man was standing, holding the now frayed end of the rope.
“Shit!” Chris snapped, moving to look over the ledge, as though the Southerner would miraculously be there. “Vin,” he looked toward the sharpshooter, “you and I’ll repel back down while the rest of you hike there as fast as you can.” He made sure his harness was secured. “If he managed to land in one piece, we’ll meet you at the bridge.” He watched as they nodded their heads before tossing his rope over the edge of the cliff. Vin quickly did the same.
Ezra reached camp and immediately seated himself on the ground against one of the logs the team had used for chairs the night before. Embers still glowed, surrounded by white ash in the fire pit and the Southerner tossed in a few pinecones and sticks. It wasn’t long before the items ignited and he tossed in a small log to keep the fire burning.
Despite the warmth of day a chill had settled in Ezra’s bones, more out of disbelief than shock. His shoulder had stopped bleeding, but every muscle on his body began to tighten and complain. He was sure his ribs weren’t broken, but he was positive that he’d bruised them. The thought of getting up on his feet was out of the question, even for the idea of changing.
“Here they come,” Buck said, pointing to where Vin and Chris were walking.
“He must not be hurt too bad,” Vin said, “Looks like he’s makin’ his way back to camp.”
“Lucky bastard!” Nathan griped. Not giving the others a chance to say anything he headed back to camp.
JD sighed in relief: “Thank God.”
Buck smiled: “If Ezra were a cat how many of his lives do you think he’s used up?” he asked.
“Six-fucking-million,” Chris answered, before following the medic.
They reached camp to find Ezra leaning against a log with his feet crossed out in front of him. His arms were across his chest and he seemed to be watching the fire intently.
“You doin’ okay,” Nathan asked, squatting down next to the Southerner.
Ezra nodded: “Although, I feel like I’ve just tried to run the Boston Marathon with a bus on my back.”
Nathan chuckled: “Good, because you should feel like that.” He patted Ezra’s shoulder then stood up to retrieve his medical supplies.
Chris squatted down and looked at his agent seriously. “Do you think you need a doctor?”
“It’s just a few bumps and bruises, Mr. Larabee.”
“Well,” Chris paused, “for a few ‘bumps and bruises’ you look like shit.” He laughed and turned to watch as Buck and JD debated on whether or not jalapeno poppers were better health food than mozzarella sticks.
Nathan’s, “Don’t matter because they’re both fried,” filled the air, causing Vin to disagree.
“It does matter,” Vin gasped, “as long as they’re followed with a Whopper chaser.”
“I should have bought stock in Burger King,” Ezra gasped as Nathan started dabbing wounds.
Josiah laughed as he pulled out a pot of his famous chili.
“Now wait just a damn minute, Preacher,” Vin cried, “I have to share a tent with Buck!”