Mary Travis stopped by her father-in-law's office for their weekly lunch appointment and found him in a meeting. Telling his assistant where she would be, the blond reporter and her son walked to Team Seven's office to say hello. Billy loved the Agents there and bugged her every chance he got to visit them.
The door opened and they looked up from their respective desks. Her first impression was surprise followed quickly by amazement. She pursed her lips to stifle the urge to laugh aloud.
"Mommy! They're wearing face paint!" her son yelled out. "I want some!"
Barely concealed laughter showed as grown men reluctantly acknowledged the pair in their office. "Hello, Mary," said Josiah.
"Josiah." Mary said, her own amusement just below the surface. "I'm hoping this is for an assignment?"
The big man grinned. "A lesson learned."
"What would that be?"
"Hey, Billy! I don't think your mom will let you paint your face like ours, but I think I have something here for you," called Buck.
Billy ran over and received a smiley face sticker prominently on the right side of his face, with another star sticker on his other cheek. He smiled widely and noticed his idol slouched against the doorframe of his office. "Mr. Chris!" The boy took off and jumped into his friend's arms, caught easily and held there.
"Hey, pard, how are you?"
"You look funny."
Chris smiled. He said, "Out of the mouth of babes. So do you."
"Why's your face black?"
Chris met the amused eyes of Billy's mother, as she neared them and the avidly interested faces of his team. "Because someone thought I should wear black on my face too."
"To match my clothes."
Snorts and chuckles resounded from the bigger kids. Mary's face showed her completely intrigued.
"You know how you and Mr. Buck and Mr. JD play games like hide-and-seek?" The blond curls slowly nodded. "Well, someone wanted to play a game with all of us after we played a game on her."
Mary started giggling. Her friend was a genius; this had Harper written all over it. "And why, Mr. Larabee, would that person feel the need to play a game with your team?"
The rest of said team coughed or fell silent.
Those green eyes struck her dead center around her son's head and narrowed slightly. "Internal matter," he replied.
"I see," she said, but obviously did not; she said it to make them understand she wanted an explanation, but if they chose not to pursue it, that was okay with her as well.
Billy indicated he wanted down having caught sight of the toys strewn across JD and Buck's desk. Chris set him down and the child eagerly went over, asking permission to handle some of the objects. Buck gave it and he happily started pushing the cars across the floor.
"Come on in, Mary." Chris invited her, waving her into his office.
With one final 'behave yourselves' look, Chris shut the door to his office. "What brings you here?"
"Orin, Billy, and I are having lunch. I'm sure he would not mind if you joined us."
Chris smiled. "Sorry, but we've got a class at one. Short lunch today. Thanks for the offer."
"Sure, anytime." Mary grew nervous as she sat there. She wanted to ask this man out or have him ask her out, but she was unsure of his feelings for her. He never showed her anything more than respect and an occasional glance that left her wondering. Right now, she wondered what he was thinking.
Chris sat there as the silence grew and stretched out. He found the blond attractive, but her relationship with Orin kept him from exploring this any farther. That and he did not know how Mary felt. They danced around each other, but he was not going to jeopardize the team because of his personal interest. "How's your work going?"
"Fine." Mary worked as an editor for one of the local newspapers. "Not much going on right now, unless there's something you want to tell me about?" Her smile showed she teased him, knowing he could not discuss anything about his job with her.
"Nope," replied Chris with an answering smile. A knock on the door interrupted them. "Come."
Nathan stuck his head in. "Lab sent up something to help clean up the streaks. Ezra's already started and it's working, just bleaching the skin a little."
The Larabee smirk came into play. "Trust Ezra to go first for this."
"You know it, Chris. We've got your share when you're ready; it's taking a while for it to work though." He left and closed the door behind him.
"Mary, I'm sorry, but we need to get cleaned up."
She stood. "I understand. Appearances and all that. We'll see you another time."
"I'd like that," Chris replied. They shared a look then Mary walked out, collected Billy, and said their goodbyes.
When Chris walked into the men's washroom down the hall, he found JD finishing up and the young man's normally white skin even starker against his dark hair. Josiah already got the worst off his face, but the streaks remained in his hair. Ezra continued working on his face and hair while Nathan scrubbed the orange from his skin. Buck and Chris waited for the others to clear off as much as possible before their turn.
Once the two old friends were alone, Buck started in on Chris. "So, pard, you ask her out?"
Chris sighed. "No."
"Wasn't the time."
The rogue snorted. "Bullshit. You chickened out again."
Larabee tossed water in Buck's face. "Bullshit."
"Hah!" Buck chucked a handful into Larabee's hair. "You know you want to ask her out. Why won't you?"
"I have my reasons." Chris shoved Buck face first into the sink for a few seconds. "Which are none of your business."
Buck laughed and cleared the water from his face and nose. "Like hell. What's the matter? Harper's right and you're turning yellow?"
At the mention of the Instructor's name, Chris scowled. "Don't go there, Buck."
Both eyebrows nearly cleared his hairline and his mustache turned up toward the sun. "You like Harper?"
"No, I don't like Harper," Chris immediately replied. His green eyes bore into his friend.
"Uh-huh." He whacked Chris a couple times on the head. "Ain't no use in denying it, pard. She gets your goat."
"Getting my goat may be one thing, but this went too far."
"And hanging her likeness on a poster with her mouse balls wasn't?"
"Shut up, Buck."
"How about helping with her car?"
"Shut up, Buck," Chris warned with another flick of water at his friend.
The rogue chuckled. "All right, you don't like Harper."
"She's annoying, rude, and overbearing."
"Reckon she reminds ya of yerself," Vin declared from the entranceway.
"Up yours, Tanner." Another flick and water landed on the sharpshooter.
"Ya ain't that big, Larabee. 'Sides, looking forward ta watching Harper kick yer butt."
Chris snorted. "Cold day in hell. Five seconds, max."
"I don't know about that, Chris. Seems Harper can take care of herself. Had the last team on the run and they didn't challenge her," Buck said, with a sagely nod of his head.
"Must have been a bunch of wusses," replied Chris. "Heard she took you out as well. And Vin, if you don't win in about ten seconds, I'll think you're slipping."
Vin and Buck exchanged glances and Chris' fate was decided. They flanked him and waited for him to reach down to rinse his face again. Two hands grabbed hold of an arm apiece and they dragged him to the toilet, attempting to turn him and give him a proper dunking. He fought them and by the time the battle ended, all three rolled around on the floor of the bathroom, but no one won the war for dominance.
Josiah looked in announcing, "I thought we had to leave in about ten minutes."
Three men glared at him then each took a handful of water and tossed it. Josiah let the door close on his booming laughter, while they picked themselves off the floor and frantically scrubbed themselves. They managed clearing the worst off but still had more streaks than the others, especially in Chris and Vin's lighter hair. Buck had a bluish tint left to his thick, dark, mussed bouffant. They left the men's washroom and gathered the others, heading down for the Training Complex in a loosely knit group. Buck stopped to flirt with the ladies, only to be shoved forward by JD and Nathan. Ezra practically dragged his feet, his presence only assured by Josiah on one side and Vin on the other.
= = 7 = =
Mary left Team Seven and found her father-in-law on the telephone in his office; he silently motioned he would need about twenty minutes. She nodded and Billy climbed onto his grandfather's lap, doodling on the loose pad on the desk. The editor wandered down to Harper's office to visit for a minute or two. She found the Instructor locking up her office. "Bad time?"
Harper looked up and smiled at one of her few friends here in Denver. "Not at all, Mary. I've got a little time."
The blonde's lips turned up in a smile. "Too much time."
Her eyebrow raised. "In reference to what?"
"The lovely face painting on Team Seven."
Hazel eyes widened. "I have no idea to what you are referring. I have not seen most of Team Seven today." But I'm looking forward to it, she thought to herself.
Mary started laughing. "They look good," she admitted. "What did you use?"
"I used nothing. They did it all themselves."
The smile was genuine. "Sure."
"So, what brings you down to my dungeon?"
"Orin has to finish his call, so I thought I'd stop by and congratulate you."
"Quit playing innocent, Harper. It does not suit you."
"Yes, it does, but that's beside the point."
Mary gave her a wry smile. "I'm not going to argue with you. Just tell me why."
"Long or short version?"
"Short; you obviously need to be somewhere."
"Team Seven's refresher. Wish me luck."
"Good luck," the blonde automatically replied.
"Anyway, they took my chocolate, humiliated me, and turned my car into a banana split."
"You're kidding," she exclaimed.
"Nope." Harper changed the subject before she got furious again and furious was not a good state of mind to go into a physical class as an Instructor. "So, how are things going for you?"
"Okay, I guess." Mary shrugged.
"Uh-huh. How did the visit go?"
"No, I didn't do it," she finally confessed.
"Why not?" Harper crossed her arms over her chest.
"I couldn't...what if he said no?"
"This coming from the woman who almost proposed to her husband because he was taking too long to ask her?"
"That was different." Mary refused to meet her eyes.
"It's just asking him over for dinner, not a lifetime commitment or anything like that. Food, drink, company," Harper's hands waved for emphasis, "nothing hard about it."
"Harper, you don't understand. He might not be interested."
"He's not dead, you're beautiful, and he likes Billy, at least from what you've told me. All Chris can say is no."
"Chris? Not Agent Larabee?" asked Mary.
"I work with him, Mare. I'm going to be teaching his team over the next month. He asked me to call him Chris, probably because he got sick of me saying Agent Larabee when we're discussing something."
"I know your 'discussing'; you were arguing."
"Matter of perspective and you're changing the subject. Come on, Mare, I know you like him. Why don't you do something about it other than visiting every once in a while and talking occasionally?"
"Because..." she trailed off.
"Because why?" Harper's tone changed to softer one inviting confidence. Mary was one of her few friends in Denver, but they rarely saw each other because of their crazy schedules.
"I'm not sure I'm ready."
Harper leaned against the wall. "Only you can decide that, Mary, and I'm not going to push you. Believe me, I understand." She shook off the memories of her disastrous marriage and how long it took her to consider seeing another male in a romantic light.
"I know. Thanks for listening. Maybe I'll do something next week. I'd better let you get to your class."
"I hate to leave like this, but I have to be there. Someone's got to keep all these difficult men in line." Harper gave her friend a big smile. "And your father-in-law picked me to do it."
They exchanged smiles then said their goodbyes, Mary heading back up into the main part of the building. Harper headed for the multi-purpose room scheduled to host the class.
Team Seven followed Buck to the men's locker rooms adjacent to the gymnasium. They changed quickly into comfortable workout clothes, teasing each other the entire time, before trooping into the main area. The only exception to the shorts and sweats combination was Vin, dressed in traditional gi of white pants, white top, and black belt cinched around his waist. When they arrived in the main area, they found Team Six halfway garbed in heavy padding and grinning maliciously at them.
Warily, Chris addressed Ellen Bishop, the leader of Team Six. "Ellen." She stood about five foot six, with long thin limbs toned to solid muscle. Ellen boasted six-percent body fat, the envy of those cared along those lines.
"Chris." Ellen sized up the leader of Team Seven, wondering to herself for the umpteenth time if she could take this man in a one on one fight. As a ground fighter, no one could touch Larabee, but on his feet, well, Ellen held the advantage with her lesser mass.
"You're our punch dummies?" He asked.
Big toothy smiles emerged on all the Team Six faces. "Oh yeah. This will be fun," Ellen answered. A couple of the men on her team punched their hands and continued smiling evilly.
"Only if we lose, Ellen." Chris sneered. "We don't lose." Privately, he considered the situation and summed it up in one word: hell. He believed Harper planned their loss and cursed her for never having said anything about witnesses.
Ellen figuratively opened the door for her people to harass their sibling team. "You trying out a new hairstyle, Larabee? Black and gold? Or do you always streak your face that way?"
Before Larabee could answer, Joey White, the profiler for Team Six, drowned him out. "Hey, Wilmington, if your hair is blue, does that mean other parts are as well? What was her name, so I don't ask her out?"
Buck's mouth opened, but they never gave him a chance to answer. Cecil jumped in with, "Damn, Tanner, you already know the women in the building love you; you trying to make them think of you as a strawberry topped dessert?"
Tanner took a step in Cecil's direction.
Brian Gilbert, the forensic expert, blatantly cut Tanner off and elbowed him aside, intent on his own target. "Sanchez, what's with all the colors? Trying to make yourself a clown, or improving your looks?"
A low growl escaped Sanchez and he started for the mouthy man. Nathan restrained him.
Kerry Lowe piped up from her seated position. "Man, Dunne, you trying to relive your not-so-distant childhood by mimicking Barney the Dinosaur?" She and Dunne served as computer experts for their teams and fiercely competed with each other.
Dunne narrowed his gaze at his counterpart.
Tony Greene, seeing Nathan holding Josiah back, jumped in the fray. "Jackson, I thought you liked sedate colors. What's up with the bright orange? Trying to be seen as much as you are heard?" Tony worked as Six's undercover Agent and insulted people he liked.
Team Seven simmered with barely restrained hostility.
Team Six found the whole situation hysterical, holding each other up as they indulged in gleeful laughter. In their humor, they discounted the threat percolating in front of them, not one member of Six intimidated by Seven's reputation or attitude.
"You were the ones dumb enough to challenge Harper." Ellen snickered.
'Buster' Burton and Josiah stared at each other. Both bore similar body builds with the only difference in their skin color. For the two large combatants, they never faced each other beyond the football field but could combine their strength and move massive amounts of weight. "You'll lose," Buster told his size counterpart.
"I'm not going against her," Josiah replied. "Unfair advantage."
"Yeah -- to her. Who are the suckers?" Buster snorted.
"Ezra, Vin, and Chris."
"Hey Ellen! The pansy, the twig, and the prick are the morons! The pansy's already green with envy!"
"Shove it, Buster, before I teach you a lesson myself." Chris smirked good-naturedly.
"Ya wanna watch a twig break a rock, JD?" The sharpshooter asked this conversationally, studying Buster for weaknesses.
"Nah. Just because they couldn't beat Harper doesn't mean we won't." JD's chest puffed out with pride. Buck grinned wryly behind him, almost acting the part of the protective 'big brother' with his presence.
Buster never heard Standish come up behind him.
The Southerner resented the term 'pansy' and felt significantly inspired to educate Buster in proper etiquette. Ezra kicked out Buster's knees, letting the man fall onto them, then proceeded to twist both arms high behind his head almost level with his head. The undercover Agent placed his foot in the center of the spine, pushing hard.
Josiah said nothing, smiling broadly with his arms crossed.
"I believe you owe us an apology, Mr. Burton."
"Bite me, Standish," Burton muttered, all through clenched teeth.
The foot exerted more pressure while the hands stretched already straining arm joints. "What was that, Mr. Burton?"
Looking up, Ezra saw amusement written on all of his teammate's faces. Every so often, Buster said something provoking to Team Seven out of fun and his co-workers let him suffer the consequences. They were not that stupid or foolish sober and no one consumed any liquid courage today to share Buster's fate.
From nearby, the sharpshooter took a few steps forward. "Cecil, ya make a move, I'll smear ya inta the mat."
"You could try, but I have faith in Buster."
"Now, Ez, remember what I taught ya." Vin drawled.
"I remember, Mr. Tanner. I am wondering how this behemoth can stand the pain." Ezra pulled a little harder, eliciting a grunt.
"All right, pan--Standish. I'm sorry you are a pansy, Tanner's a twig, and Larabee's a prick. I can't help that."
Matching glares from Tanner and Larabee nailed Buster in place. "Ezra, don't let go." Larabee stalked over with Tanner, falling in sync beside him. One warning glance shot from Vin to Cecil, bringing a shrug and a smirk from Nottingham, silently implying Buster deserved his fate.
The rest of Team Six knew Team Seven would get theirs on the mat from Harper, and Buster could take care of himself.
"Shit. Fine, I'm sorry. Let me go." After winking at Chris and Vin, Ezra let go of the hands and finished pushing Buster into the floor.
"Ya done good, Ez."
"Thank you, Mr. Tanner." His smile brightened the entire room.
"Let's see how well he does against me. Who's first?" All present turned and stared at their Instructor. Currently dressed in a gi, with a black belt around her waist and her hair tied tightly to her head, Harper intimidated with her presence. Her current demeanor did not bode well for anyone in the room.
"Hello, Harper. You're lookin' mighty fine today." Buck said, charm oozing from his tone.
The look she gave him clearly expressed her opinion. Refraining from commenting, she instead directed her remarks at Team Six. "Thank you all for coming today. Hopefully, we'll need your services later on."
"We're counting on it, Harper," Buster called out. "Can I have Standish for my sparring partner?"
The disgusted look Standish graced the bigger Agent with decided his fate. "Certainly."
"Only if I lose, Ms. Harper," Ezra replied.
"You will, and it's Instructor Harper." She said this with finality, as if the outcome was already decided, and she was only going through the motions to entertain them. Or herself.
"Hey Instructor Harper, I want Tanner." Cecil called out to her.
"Acceptable," she replied. "That should be an even match." Catching Tanner's look, the instructor qualified, "Once they lose."
She felt avaricious green eyes, attached to an innocent Southern face, staring at her. "Care to make a wager?"
"Wagers are not permitted according to regulations. However, if no one finds them offensive, I might be convinced not to see a betting pool and conveniently forget I have sixty dollars on myself, twenty per match."
The two assembled teams grinned and nodded. Promises of money quickly flew around the room while she finished checking the mats to make sure nothing went wrong with the equipment.
Harper cleared her throat to cease the chatter. "Okay, for everyone's benefit, the agreement is that if Team Seven can defeat me in two out of three one-on-one combats, I will sign them off without making them take the course. If they fail, they will take the refresher. Terms acceptable?"
Team Seven nodded while Team Six laughed from past experience. They challenged and lost spectacularly. When Ellen received the request for them as punch dummies from Harper, probably due to the two teams' close working relationship, Ellen took it to her people in front of the Instructor and they all agreed they wanted this. That and the bonuses they would receive for helping out today.
"Agent Larabee, who are your challengers?"
The smirk Harper gave him only infuriated him more than he already was, especially staring at the cause of his current colored humiliation. "Myself, Tanner and Standish."
"Who's ground fighting?"
"Hand to hand combat?"
Vin raised a hand.
"And Agent Standish, you'll be handling the general?"
"That is correct, Ms. Harper."
"Instructor Harper, and let's stretch out before we do this." She led both teams through various exercises until she felt them prepared for what she would take out of them.
"Who wants to go first?"
The three challengers looked at each other and Ezra stepped forward. "I believe I will be the first."
Buck walked over to the undercover Agent with a cautious warning. "Ezra, watch yourself. She's a whole lot tougher than she looks."
Her voice interrupted his warning. "Agent Wilmington? Are you going to make this two-on-one?"
An unholy grin split his face. "I didn't know you were into that." He teased her.
She managed a tight smile. "One would have thought you learned your lesson last Thursday."
"That I did, Harper. I'm just sharing the wisdom of that experience."
"Share it from the sideline."
"Might make this easy on you, Harper, and let you lose gracefully first." Chris shrugged.
"Agent Larabee, your turn is coming," she replied. Harper placed Ezra in the center of the forty--by--forty mats and herself on the edge. "Agent Standish, are you ready?"
He inclined his head in a nod. "Whenever you are."
"Your goal, Agent Standish, is to disarm me and place me under arrest. Ground rules: No fractures, no front of the face hits, no permanent damage, and no trips to the ER. Understood?"
"Understood," he replied, as she got within five feet and pulled out a brightly colored toy pistol and pointed it at him.
"Begin," she commanded.
Ezra said, "This feels familiar, staring down the barrel of a gun. However, it's usually not bright pink."
"Hey, Harper!" Josiah called from the sidelines.
"What?" she said, without looking away from Ezra.
"Vescere bracis meis!"
Startled by the content of his words, her head spun around to face Josiah. Ezra took advantage of her momentary distraction, closing the distance and kicking the hand with the gun. He knocked it aside far enough that he no longer stood in the line of fire. She recovered quickly, her left fist coming around and connecting with the side of his head above his ear. Neither wore protective clothing for this match.
The glancing blow only reminding him why he hated boxing without protective gear, but he quickly focused his concentration on disarming her. Now properly inspired to finish it; Ezra invaded her space and latched onto the gun arm, pulling it away from her body, and attempting to force her into submission.
Ezra tried twisting her so he could control her movement, but her right leg kicked out and struck his knee, forcing it to buckle briefly, and enough, that she yanked herself from his grip. The gun fell to the ground between them and she tried flanking him.
Wise to her, he kicked out and managed hitting her in the hip. Turning, he clocked her in the midsection and wrapped his arms around her waist, pinning her arms to her side, while he faced her. Ezra planned on taking them both to the floor and finishing the arrest.
Immediately, she dropped to one knee and brought the other foot up for a blow against his inner thigh. His grip loosened and she freed her hands, reaching up to grab him and yanked him over her head. He landed with a thud on his back.
The Southerner quickly recovered and pounced on her, pulling her arms behind her, using a variation of the same hold Vin taught him, to keep her subdued. What he did not know was that she used to be a gymnast and kept her joints flexible.
Once he passed the point she should have been screaming for mercy, he stared down at her and watched her foot come back up at an odd angle and nail him in the midsection. He held on until the third kick then fell back, losing his hold on her.
She started crawling for the gun, so he tried tackling her to pin her. The crawl was a feint and she easily evaded, rolling over to flip him away. A few more kicks and Ezra fell back.
"Standish, you pansy, you're letting her kick your ass!" Buster laughed from the sideline.
The Southerner, caught off guard by the yell, glared briefly at Buster just before a stream of cold water hit him in the face. He looked over at a crouched Harper pointing the toy water pistol at him. "Bang. You're dead, Agent Standish."
"I do believe I was distracted."
"Distractions are a part of the job. Not every arrest will be in controlled circumstances. You died, Agent Standish. Dead people cannot argue." Harper admonished him to the howling amusement of Team Six.
Team Seven stared in disbelief at the jubilant Team Six and at their flabbergasted, defeated challenger.
"Agent Burton, thank you for your timely assistance." Harper acknowledged the pleased Agent on the sidelines.
"Anything to help, ma'am," replied Buster with a grin.
Ezra instinctively reacted. "Unfair."
Pulling herself to her feet, Harper faced the angry Southerner. "I do believe you took advantage of Agent Sanchez's request to attempt disarming me. How does that differ from my use of Agent Burton's berating?"
Ezra conceded the logic of the argument and felt confident that Vin and Chris would easily defeat her. Yes, he used Josiah to gain the upper hand; how could he deny her the use of Buster's interference? He knew his anger was more with himself for allowing the buffoon to distract him in that way. "Reluctantly, I concede the match. Perhaps I should pay better attention to my opponent and not allow overgrown children to distract me from my purpose." With a nod of his head, he accepted his defeat and headed for the sidelines.
"Kiss my overgrown ass, pansy." Buster turned around and grabbed his butt cheeks.
Everyone but Harper laughed. She coughed once, glared at Buster in silent rebuke, and he sat down. Changing the topic, she said, "Agent Sanchez, a question if I may?" She dried the mat and placed the gun on the opposite side.
She delivered the question in a flat tone. "Why would I want to eat your shorts?"
Josiah stared at her and then looked at Ezra. Standish smirked with a nod. The rest of the assembled Agents broke into gales of highly amused laughter.
"I wondered that myself, Mr. Sanchez. Is there something you would like to share with the rest of us?"
"I said watch your back." Josiah defended. "At least, I think I said watch your back." His face showed confusion, while they watched him mentally review his Latin.
"You said, and I quote, 'Eat my shorts'."
The big profiler flushed and stuttered. "I...uh...meant...I didn't..." Suddenly at a loss for words, and the subject of serious interest by coworkers and teammates, he swallowed twice, closed his eyes, and shook his head. "Hell," he muttered softly.
Ezra regarded Josiah with a pained expression on his face. "I was going to thank you for assisting me and instead of your timely repartee, you were actually going to cheer her on?"
"I thought to, uh...well, warn her you are tougher than you look...not...uh..." For once, Josiah was having difficulty speaking and kept avoiding Harper's amused glance along with Ezra's wounded visage. Did he really tell her that?
"Okay, Harper. You up for round two?" Chris stood, deflecting attention from the first defeat and Josiah's embarrassment.
As Ezra took a seat, Buster continued to goad the man. "Man, pansy, you couldn't even beat a little woman like that. No wonder you use flowery words and wear expensive clothes."
"Agent Burton, at least he lasted longer than you did. I believe I killed you in the first ten seconds. So if you are calling him a pansy for losing, he's a tougher pansy than you." Harper's voice silenced the larger Team Six Agent.
Team Six whistled and hooted, while Team Seven patted their champion on the back for lasting longer than the much larger, more muscular Burton did.
"You tricked me." Burton defended himself.
"Like any suspect, Agent Burton. However, I did not think you would fall for 'Hey look - over there!'. I must have overestimated your intelligence."
"Ooooooooo," several people called out. Agent Burton flushed.
"At least I'm in good company...Team Seven ain't perfect."
"Never said we were," Chris replied. "But we're going to win. Tanner, you're up." He planned to go second, but at the last second, he decided he wanted to see what Vin could do. The leader saw the sharpshooter watching for weaknesses, and Larabee thought he saw Vin smile at one point.
Vin gave him a sideways look before he stood and faced her on the other side of the mat.
"Ready?" she asked.
"One-on-one unarmed combat. Force me to tap out and you win. The goal: arrest and subdue. Same ground rules."
He nodded his acceptance and they bowed to each other, signaling the start of their combat. She immediately fell into a relaxed stance and waited for him, but he was patient and chose not to make the first move.
Slowly they circled each other, the mythical Harpy and the wolverine, watching for feints and weaknesses. The spectators fell silent, no one willing to distract in this all-important competition. They sensed the power crackling from the pair and contented themselves to watch. Neither team wanted to cost their champion the win.
He feinted first, but she did not fall for it. His blue eyes lit with the knowledge that she earned the black belt around her waist and basic tactics would not fool her. Eyes studied eyes, as they waited for the first one to break.
A full two minutes passed with them staring, slowly circling each other, assessing and waiting for the other to make the first move. Since it was obvious neither one wanted to start, she inclined her head right a centimeter and he bobbed back, a tiny movement barely rustling his hair. They agreed she would make the first move.
With a yell that startled the spectators, she charged him with a flying kick. He ducked and she sailed harmlessly over, landing gracefully on her feet behind him and turning to maximize the advantage. Ready for her, his right arm met her left in a hard block, followed by a block of her own on his left hand coming right to her head.
He dodged the kick aimed at his knee, while keeping her in place with a combination of blows, forcing her to be on the defensive, trying to push her back. She brought up a high kick that connected with his hip, making him twist away and take a shot to the ribcage. He absorbed the pain and dished out a sidekick of his own to her raised knee, causing her to drop it on the mat.
Harper shifted her center of balance with the change and leaned straight back, bent at the knees, as he threw a hard spinning kick right where her midsection was. Her arms came up and grabbed the leg, tossing it hard to the right and knocking him off balance.
A collective "whoa" came from the sidelines, since they saw her bend backwards as far as she did, and then watched her dive left away from him. She rolled over and came up on her feet in time to block a devastating series of blows from his hands and feet, pushing her back to the edge of the mat.
Both understood if she set foot off the mat he won by default, so Harper took the only option open to her. She lunged sideways, took a couple shots, yet cleared the edge and gained a little distance.
He held nothing back in the blows to her arm and sides, and turned sideways to start hounding her, pushing his prey around. Taking the aggressor's role, Vin kept driving her back, landing more blows than he took, all the while getting her closer and closer to the other edge of the mat.
The sheer power of his hits kept drawing strength from her own constitution, pulling more and more from her, as she realized she was losing. The ferocity surprised her and she noted in the back of her mind that she definitely did not want to do this if he was mad at her. He'd kill her. She also knew he was not pulling too much off his punches, and part of her respected him for not discriminating, or underestimating her abilities. Tapping her inner determination, she stopped defending and started fighting back, shifting the tide of battle her way through the surprise momentum of changing tactics on him.
She broke combat first and put some distance between them, giving them both the opportunity to catch their breath, assess the opponent, and plan their next strategy. She needed the break more than he and decided on a last ditch attempt.
Vin felt the combat draining him, not used to extended fights like this. Normally, he could disarm and take out an opponent within the first thirty seconds, but the endurance training in the Rangers made him tougher and able to last longer. Not much, but he was determined he would finish this. And he would win; failure was not an option.
Their eyes met once more, as they assessed the other and he saw the weakness in her hazel depths. A weakness of body but not of mind. She already knew the outcome, but would fight it as hard as she could. He could tell she fought this battle on two fronts --against him and against her own body. The one against her body she was losing faster than the one versus him. Silently he communicated if she gave one last push, he would make it look good for her. He owed her that much, because he did not see the point in physically exhausting her to fight Chris next, when they already knew Vin won.
Harper received the message and felt relieved. Both understood she could possibly inflict more damage on him, but he also had a reputation to protect. She blinked her acceptance and they prepared for the inevitable hard landings on the mat when he rolled her into a pin to make her tap out.
With another yell, she charged him with a flurry of kicks and hits that he barely countered. Finally, she left an opening -- deliberately or accidentally -- that he used to slam them both into the floor. He cushioned the fall with his own weight, her body flattened on his chest, and rolled her quickly and efficiently into a pin that she could not escape. He guessed she had the skill to break it, but she also had one more fight. After two taps, he came out of it and pulled her up. They faced each other and bowed, their eyes promising to keep secrets.
Both teams cheered for the two combatants, knowing what they saw was two well-trained fighters, which without restrictions could have badly injured the other. The outcome was never certain.
Vin walked back over to his team's sideline, grabbed the water bottle from Ezra, and downed it quickly.
"Nice job, Vin." Nathan congratulated him and then advised, "Now you finish that entire bottle."
"I will, Nate." The sharpshooter agreed, breathing harder than he was used to during matches. He did not hold back and nor did she; he knew he would sport some bruises tomorrow.
"I never had a doubt, Mr. Tanner." Ezra grinned, counting the money in his hands supplied by the Team Six members who brought out their wallets from their bags.
Vin eyed the conman counting his money warily. "Ez, did ya bet on your match?"
The undercover Agent did not look up from his task and only offered a light shrug to his shoulders in answer.
"Who did ya bet on?" Tanner knew Ezra would never let them down, but he also knew his friend was as wily as a fox, especially if money was involved.
Ezra grinned broadly. "I assure you Mr. Tanner, I have all contingencies covered, past, present, and future."
Before he could reply Chris came up and patted him on the shoulder. "Good job, cowboy."
"Fer now. Had me questionin' myself fer a minute there." Vin looked over at Harper.
"You still won," his friend told him.
Having downed her own water, Harper used the towel to wipe off her face and dry the mat again. "Larabee, you're up. Guess this will decide whether or not I've wasted Team Six's time."
"Been looking forward to this." Amid pats on the back from his team and boo's from Team Six, Larabee stood in the center of the mat and waited for her.
"For argument's sake, Agent Larabee, let's say I am a female suspect attempting to get free of you. You are armed." She tossed him the toy pistol. "I am not." She held her hands away from her. Harper placed them ten feet apart, him on the edge of the mat and her inside. "Initiate the arrest."
He went with his scenario and nearly laughed at her. This would be too easy. "You're under arrest," he said, pointing the gun at her. "Lay down on the ground with your hands where I can see them."
"No," she replied, taking a step back.
"Make me." Another step back, matched by a forward step by Chris.
"I'll shoot you."
"I am unarmed. You'd shoot an unarmed woman?" Two more steps away and she turned her back on him. "In the back?"
He knew now why he hated her access to his profile. Harper used his sense of honor against him. "Give me a reason." Chris took a couple steps toward her and kept the gun level.
"I don't think you will." That said, she ran.
Hell, he thought, and took off after her. What happened next would always remain a mystery to him. When he got close enough to try grabbing her, her feet came out from under her, her head went down, and the next thing he knew he was flat on his back in front of her.
"I hate watching that," Buck commented to Josiah. "Got me with it too."
"Innovative," the profiler commented.
Vin said, "I'm impressed. That forward flip brought her feet into his abdomen, and because he's already movin', his momentum sends him sailin'. Reckon they landed hard, but she's up faster 'cuz she expected it. I've got to learn that."
Harper rolled her recovery first, kicking the gun off the mat -- technically out of bounds where he could not get it -- and tried running for it again. One hand snaked out and yanked her ankle. She twisted with the fall onto her back and when Chris tried covering her to hold her down, he earned himself a knee in the sternum. It stunned him enough that she pushed him clear on her right side, but unable to free herself of his grip on her arms. Her right foot came over and slammed into his left thigh giving him an instant Charley horse.
"That hurt." Nathan winced.
"Shit, yeah," Cecil told him. "Damn near killed me to walk after she fought me."
When Chris tried rolling on top of her for advantage, his eyes watered when her forehead slammed into his already throbbing sternum. His arms involuntarily tightened on her arms, so her feet came around his waist on either side to kidney punch him in the back. His body arched, and the reflex action gave her the leverage she needed to push him free and roll away from him.
Once free, Harper could have made it to the other side of the mat and technically won the match, but she was having too much fun. Her next set of kicks came from her position on all fours, staying in keeping with the ground fighting rules. The hits landed on his back and legs. Her legs pinned him down, and his brain overloaded from the stunning blows coming one right after the other.
Chris had not had his ass kicked this bad since he stopped a drunk and pissed off Josiah, from pummeling a parolee in a bar. The man had made the innocent mistake of taunting the big man, just after his visit with Hannah.
Drawing on his bottomless pit of rage, Chris allowed his hidden anger to take hold and turned offensive. Rolling clear of her legs, he twisted when she went to follow, crouching and tackling her with the skill of the nose guard hitting the quarterback: all force and no finesse.
Chris landed on top of her again and used the momentary stun of the move to pin her legs with his weight. He then tried grabbing her hands to hold her down for the one--two--three.
It lasted long enough for her to get her hands straight and locked behind his neck, the inside of her elbows applying a slow chokehold around his throat. He shifted his arms to hers to break the clasp and her head came up again to nail him in his sternum. Her abdominal muscles protested fiercely, but the move pushed him far enough back that his weight shifted off her legs enough so she snapped them to a ninety-degree angle in a full split.
She pitched herself forward and him backward until she lay on top of him again. Harper then proceeded to use her knees to pin his thigh muscles (more Charley horses), while she broke the chokehold and slammed his arms over his head onto the mat.
"Damn, you'd think there's something a little personal there." Buster joked.
Team Seven refused to comment.
Converting the pain to strength, Chris forced her legs up off his protesting thigh muscles and wrapped said aching muscles around her back, squeezing hard on her unprotected sides. Next he pushed hard with his arms, forcing Harper's arms up and away from the mat, using every ounce of strength to bring her hands under his control. He partially succeeded, but it was enough momentum to roll her over and straddle her.
Now on top, their heaving bodies pressed against each other, Chris used his position to trap her and hold her down. He never realized in the heat of battle the shortness of breath she was experiencing, or the weakness in her limbs. Once he held the upper hand and she was unable to move, he heard two taps on the mat and immediately rolled clear.
Team Seven cheered their leader, while Team Six good-naturedly laughed at seeing the Harpy finally defeated, and commiserated with each other about their lost chance at their rivals.
When the triumphant blond leader went to help her up, he found her already standing.
"Be right back." With that, Harper left the area and escaped into her office. Closing the door and keeping the shades shut, she reached into the drawer and pulled out her inhaler. Dropping into the chair behind the desk, she used it, her hand holding it in an iron grip. As usual, it took a few seconds for the medication to work and she hated every minute of the weakness forced on her because of her past captivity.
Only when she overexerted herself as far as she did today, or when she seriously stressed out, did she need the inhaler. Other than that, she was as healthy as was expected for someone having lived through what she did. Her continuous maintenance on her health was the only reason she remained on active duty. She passed her physicals four times a year, three more than any other Agent was required to take. Just the prolonged physical activity, or dealing with the emotional fallout of that time, like the frequent nightmares, brought about the tightness in her chest.
As the medication worked on regulating her breathing, she pulled out the certificates for Team Seven. They beat her, so true to her word, they did not have to suffer through the class. Today put her through some serious combat, combat that she had not had to endure in a long time. Most challenges lasted no more than five minutes for all three fights combined, because the Agents underestimated her and paid for it dearly. Prolonged combat was not her forte, and now she suffered.
Team Seven did surprise her and Travis was right; they were good and well trained. They earned their tough reputation.
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