JD walked the main hallways of the Federal Building with a purpose in his step. He already figured out half the blocks Harper installed on their computers, and was very close to understanding it all. Once he did, he planned to show her how to circumvent her work, and maybe convince her to teach him how she installed some of the harder ones. Seeing and finding the complex codes was one thing; deconstructing it and building it was in another ballpark altogether. He started through one of the atriums, still working though a language code problem in his mind.
A large body stepped in his way. "Dunne. You're the hotshot kid that Larabee lets ride his team's coattails." The muscular chest stopped all of JD's forward motion, and one beefy hand splayed flat on Dunne's sternum.
JD looked up. "Godzilla! Long time, no see. How was your trip to Tokyo?"
"He thinks he's funny. Hey Armand, this runt just called me Godzilla."
"Get your hand off my chest." Shorter by at least a foot, JD glared up at the man with his best Larabee imitation, and then moved his gaze to the hand.
Armand came over, adding his six-foot, three hundred pound mass to Godzilla a.k.a. Clint Winslow's side. "I'd break him in one." Armand spit at JD's feet.
"Nah, I'd say about two seconds." Godzilla answered.
JD batted the hand off his chest. He took a step forward, making them lean back. "What's your issue? Couldn't figure out Blue's Clues today?"
The rest of the atrium slowly realized a fight was brewing right under their noses. The Agents stood uneasily, glancing frequently at each other, before closing around the trio.
One spectator came over. "There a problem here?"
"Yeah, I got a problem."
"This pipsqueak's part of the rat pack."
"Meaning?" The spectator forced them further apart, invading all of their personal spaces.
"Everybody knows Mentral got a bad deal from that bitch Harper. Now, Jefferson's in trouble too, and her actions caused two other good men to go down because of her. This pretty boy will help Internal Affairs shit-can all of them."
"Clint, the trial board does not convene for some time. Nobody has been fired yet."
"They're done, out of here, no matter what." Armand glared at JD. "He's helping by testifying against Jefferson. Kid's selling out his own brother Agents for that bitch."
"Nobody likes Harper, Dunne, and there's no Wilmington to save your ass here and now. So, we figured if you want to run with the queen rat, you ought to look like her." Clint made a fist, hitting his other open palm with the fist.
One of Harper's detractors spoke out. "She only got a taste of what she deserved."
"Yeah. Now it's your turn, pipsqueak." Clint made a grab for JD, while Armand shoved the spectator clear.
JD saw the arm coming his way and reacted, just as he recently learned in Harper's self-defense class. He grabbed the arm, twisted it, continued the twist and turned their bodies, until Clint's face struck the cement wall. Dunne kept pressure on Clint's body, pinning him with his arms, while kicking his leg out, nailing Armand in the stomach. Shifting his weight, he planted one foot, yanking Clint off the wall to hit Armand with a vicious head butt.
The youngest (and smallest) member of Team Seven released one hand off Clint to grab Armand by the scruff of the neck. He banged their heads together once, and then let them fall to the floor. They stayed down.
Dunne's eyes swept the atrium. "Anyone else care to take me on?"
A few people looked away.
For some reason, their inaction angered the normally pleasant young man even more. "Look at yourselves. You disgust me. You call yourselves Agents, but when a fellow Agent may be in trouble, like now, you do nothing to help."
He shook his head. "Do you think I deserved to get jumped like this? Huh? What did I ever do to them? I'll tell you. Not a damn thing. But, just because I know someone that did her job, I'm guilty by association. Then look at them. They're almost twice my size! You Agents - I say that loosely - would have watched me get beaten to a pulp, and enjoyed it, I might add. Why? Because Instructor Harper did her job?"
"This isn't the same." One Agent shook his head. "Harper busts our balls for a living. She didn't have to make complaints because Jefferson called her a name."
"Yeah." A different person agreed with the assessment of Harper's behavior.
A few more people agreed. Clint and Armand stayed unconscious.
"So being a bitch entitles her to a four-on-one beating?" JD knew they classified most of the investigation, but the common knowledge rumors already spreading like wildfire were something he could work with. He checked their faces.
The crowd looked a little uncertain, but not swayed.
"Joanie." JD pointed at the second biggest gossip of the building.
"Leave me out of this," she pleaded.
"Why? Everyone here knows you like to gossip. Hell, we expect it from you. How would you feel if four guys, the size of Godzilla Clint, grabbed you off the street and beat you almost to death? All because they didn't like what you said about them?"
"I wouldn't like it, that's for sure."
"Would you think you deserved it? Some might say things like 'That Joanie never knows when to shut up', or 'Figured she pissed off the wrong person with her rumors'. Because that's what they'd be saying."
"I don't deserve that." Joanie looked close to tears.
"What about you, Carl?"
"Oh no, man. Don't go there."
"Why not, Carl? Your brother-in-law's IA."
"What if four men jump you because of him?"
"I'd kick his ass for that. Then theirs."
"Not fair, is it? Just because he's doing his job?"
A voice called out, the owner staying hidden behind an ornamental pillar. "She goes way beyond doing her job. Harper enjoys humiliating others."
"Really? Okay, well, what if you lost a case because you made a mistake that could easily be corrected?"
"I'd get written up, maybe suspended." The owner of the voice continued hiding.
"So one comment from Harper, and you remember not to make that mistake again, OR you make the mistake, and cost the ATF, along with the taxpayers and your government, thousands of dollars and hours of hard work. And maybe an undercover Agent's life. One comment doesn't sound so unreasonable now, does it?"
"You're defending her because you have the hots for her, or is it because Wilmington does? Or did he already bang her?" This challenge came from the building's other lothario.
"I'm defending her because it's wrong. No Agent, no matter how bad we like or dislike him or her, deserves what happened to her. I've seen her, and road kill struck at ninety miles per hour looks better. She didn't ask to have her face re-arranged, nor did she ask for a hospital stay, nor did she ask to have me defend her. She definitely did not ask to have four Agents, sworn to uphold the same laws she does, nearly kill her. Nor did she ask for four Agents, who carry the same badge to jump her and grind her face into the pavement. Or four Agents to turn completely against the law enforcement brotherhood and beat her senseless and leave her to die."
JD took a deep breath, tapping the badge hanging on his waist. "I always thought this meant something, stood for something noble and good, and that we, those of us who made it to Agent, could publicly display our accomplishments by wearing the badge. I was taught that everyone else who worked for, and earned their own badges, are entitled to respect, courtesy, and the security of knowing everyone else would, to the last person, defend another Agent from harm. It's an ugly world, people, and our job is to clean it up. Make it safe for everyone. We should not have to worry about our own people taking us down; there's enough baddies out there who want to do that to us. Attacks should come from the outside the badge, not the inside." He glared at everyone, daring them to argue.
Someone clapped. And another person joined in. Then a third, until the atrium rang with applause. The Agents left then, some too ashamed to stay. Others went about their business, renewed in purpose by the idealistic young man.
JD looked down, surprised to see his fists still clenched and he slowly relaxed them. He took several deep breaths in and out, willing himself to calm down. At his feet, Clint and Armand started regaining consciousness. Dunne felt his face stretch into a parody of a smile.
"This isn't over, pipsqueak." Clint shook a fist at JD, getting to his feet and stalking off.
Armand flipped Dunne off, hurrying to catch up to his friend.
"No, it's not. Not by a long shot." Shaking his head, JD flexed his hand muscles again. When he looked up, Josiah stood beside him. Sighing, JD let the profiler put an arm around his shoulders and lead him to the elevators. They entered a car by themselves. Josiah's silence bothered him, so he tried to fill it after the elevator doors shut. "I guess I still have a lot to learn about controlling my temper. I shouldn't of..."
Whatever he said disappeared, his body enveloped in a giant hug, over almost as quickly as it came.
"John Dunne, you just gave the most impassioned speech I have ever heard in a long while. Sometimes, the longer we do this job, we forget our purpose, our reason for taking on this never-ending task. You reminded us, John Dunne, of why we come to work. Of why there is a brotherhood of police, and you stirred up plenty of emotions."
"That's good, right?"
Josiah laughed. "Very good. People will think about what happened to Harper, why it happened, and why confronting you was wrong."
"The whole situation's wrong. I just couldn't let those jerks keep it up."
"You did good."
"If I didn't win, you would have helped out, right? I didn't see you in the crowd."
"Yes, JD, we would have. But you did just fine on your own."
"We? Buck was down there? Were you holding him back?"
"No, son. Buster and I ran into each other. In addition, a few others from different teams would have jumped in to defend you. You weren't alone, no matter how it looked or sounded."
The elevator door opened. JD said, "I felt alone, Josiah, and I didn't like it. It must be how Harper feels most of the time."
"Things are changing, JD. For all of us." Josiah opened the door and gently guided JD ahead of him.
Dunne looked up, meeting the silent faces of every member of his team, sans Nathan. "What?"
"When did he grow up?" Buck asked aloud.
"He's always been grown, Buck. Reckon he just never flew on his own." Vin tipped an imaginary hat in JD's direction.
"One hell of a solo flight. Took on Clint and Armand, whooping up both their tails." Buck's chest puffed with pride for his protégé.
"Mr. Dunne, allow me to congratulate you on the excellent speech you gave. I fear I too found myself touched with unexpected emotion." Ezra winked at him.
"How did you all see it? I mean, it just happened."
"Video cameras. Someone called and told us ta watch. Glad we did." Vin shrugged.
"I'm not sure what to say." JD shifted his gaze from one person to another, finally stopping on his leader. "Chris, um, am I in trouble for what I did?"
"Come in my office, JD. No, Buck. Stay there." Chris held the door for the youngest, closing it once JD passed him.
"Should I apologize?"
"Um, what about..."
JD plopped in one of the chairs. "Okay."
"I don't know how to say this."
"You have to suspend me, right? For hitting them?"
Chris drew back. "No. Absolutely not."
"Whew. That's a relief." Dunne's body visibly slumped.
"I'm proud of you."
"Huh? Did you just say you're proud of me? Nah, no way."
"I did." Chris crossed his arms.
"Pinch me, and make sure I'm not dreaming."
Larabee gave him an amused grin. "You did what you had to, and we're not going to fault you for that."
"Okay. Then why are you proud?"
"You showed considerable maturity and wisdom, far beyond most people your age. You didn't attack the two men physically, even though you wanted to, until they made the first move. That showed restraint. Probably more restraint than I would have shown if it were me. You've grown, JD, and you've matured into a good, decent, honest man I'm proud to have on my team." Chris clapped him on the back, a rare show of emotion for the normally stoic leader.
"I'm not perfect." JD could not look his hero in the eyes right then.
"None of us are. That's why we're a team."
"Thanks." JD shook Chris' outstretched hand. "Thanks for everything."
"You're welcome. I should thank you for giving us the kick in the pants we needed."
JD grinned. "So what happens now?"
"That's up to you."
"Do you want to pursue this? Make a complaint against Clint and Armand for assaulting you?"
"What's the down side?"
"Being called a narc, some people thinking you enjoy taking out other Agents. A reputation as someone who uses the rules to get rid of one of their own."
"Clint and Armand aren't one of mine. They're disgraces to the ATF."
"They don't follow the rules, they bully people, and they use their positions to try to make others bend to their will."
"Same could be said of us."
"Yeah, but we help people. They get off on scaring people. Neither of them deserves the badge."
"They earned it."
"But they lost the right to keep it."
"What if they lose their tempers, or their restraint, in the middle of a raid, or go off on a citizen? I know they're part of the special entry teams - more muscles than brain - and they're highly trained to deal with threats."
Chris shrugged. "They are good at that."
"Right now, I can't stop thinking 'what if'. Could I live with myself if they hurt an innocent civilian?"
"Only you can answer that."
JD fell silent for a few moments. "I can't, Chris. I can't live with that, and I don't want to stay up nights worrying. So, who do I call?"
"Are you sure, JD? I can't make the decision for you, and realize that once I call, you can't change your mind."
Dunne blew out a breath. "Yeah, I'm sure. If I tell people to look at themselves and ask if they deserve the badge, what kind of person am I to let two Agents attack me and get away with it?"
"So, should I call?"
"Yes." A thought occurred to him. "Chris?"
"Yeah?" Chris stopped flipping through his in-house telephone directory.
"Harper makes these decisions every day, doesn't she?"
"It's her job to make sure we know ours." Larabee's tone remained neutral.
"This part sucks. I never considered how hard it is to make the decision. To know that what I do, or she does, may end the career of another person."
"Did you wonder why a lot of Instructors don't make waves? Why they pass people, or recertify them, knowing that person can't do the job? That most of our Instructors, except the specialty units, are Agents that couldn't cut it in the field?"
"That's not right. How can they sleep with that knowledge?" JD shook his head, not understanding the skewed moral code of others.
"They do, JD." Chris sighed. "They just do."
JD came up with a conclusion, one he did not like. "But Harper can't. That sets her apart from everyone else. She makes waves, not because she dislikes a person, but because she's trying to protect a future someone in the field. And she paid for those decisions this weekend."
"I know, JD. I know."
JD stared at Chris. "Make the call. I'm not going to be a hypocrite. I'm going to match my words with my actions."
Chris nodded, calling Internal Affairs and requesting an investigation. "It's done."
"Do you want to tell the others, give them a chance to frantically hide everything not work-related?"
Chris stood, walking beside JD and opened the office door. He rested a comfortable hand on the younger man's shoulder. Larabee checked the faces of his 'family', seeing curiosity along with understanding of the difficult choice JD made. "He decided to file a complaint."
Vin nodded. "Good. Fellers like those two ain't fit ta work here."
"Thanks, Vin." JD's voice barely broke above a whisper.
"Your continued maturity never ceases to surprise me, Mr. Dunne. You, sir, are significantly stronger in character than myself."
"No, Ezra. It's because of you - all of you - that I gained so much. I learned courage from Buck, compassion from Nathan, tenacity from Vin, faith and conviction from Josiah, trust from Ezra, and an inner strength of purpose from Chris."
"JD." Buck swallowed, and then cleared his throat. "You ever consider what we learned from you?"
JD replied, "Useless trivia because I talk too much."
"No, but that's true, too."
"JD." Vin swung his legs down off the desk, shifting until he stood in front of the youngest. "Ya teach us that there are still good people in the world, that there's always a bright side, and ta see the things around us with fresh eyes."
"A breath of fresh air around our jaded souls." Josiah nodded. "New perspectives."
"I find myself curious." Ezra tilted his head to one side.
"Why trust? Or more specifically, why me for trust?"
JD smiled. "Ezra, when you joined this team, no matter what we did, you still sat with your back to the walls, and ready to bolt. Slowly, you started changing. You quit fighting for the seat against the wall. You've stopped looking over your shoulder every few seconds. When you walk into a room and see one of us there, your body relaxes. Even if we're watching you on a monitor, you're still relaxed. You trust us to watch your back. It took awhile, but you grew comfortable with your place here. You belong here, with us, and you trust us to keep you safe. Seeing you change taught me that if the person who risks the most undercover can feel safe, then I can feel safe too."
Green eyes blinked rapidly before closing, and stayed closed for a few seconds. "I do not know what to say."
"Mark that on the calendar." Vin reached over to squeeze Ezra's upper arm. "He's right."
Josiah quoted, "Without trust, there's no friendship, no closeness. None of the emotional bonds that makes us who we are."
Buck hazarded a guess. "Robert Frost?"
"No, but the sentiment's there. Actually, it was Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation." When the chuckling stopped, he continued. "We've gotten to know each other pretty well, brothers, and that happened because we trust each other. We pull together in a time of crisis. All of us. If Nate were here, he'd agree. So, John Dunne, you have six at your back as you step forward. That applies for all of you. We never go anywhere alone, my brothers."
"If someone says Group Hug, I'll deck him." Chris shifted his weight from foot to foot.
"So I won't say it." Buck charged Chris, tackling him in a vice grip.
"Get off me, Wilmington, before I shoot you!"
Josiah grabbed JD, pushing him into the grappling pair. Buck snagged an arm, holding on. JD tried freeing himself by tugging on Vin, who tried backing away.
Vin stepped back right into Ezra, and both found themselves shoved forward by a laughing profiler. Josiah's arms pinned most of them together, and Buck latched onto Josiah's forearms from the other side. The two pull the protesting mass closer together.
"Everybody comfy?" Buck shifted his head to the side and avoided a head butt.
"If I reach my gun, someone's getting shot."
"That ain't yer gun, cowboy. That's my ass."
"Mr. Dunne, if you don't remove your lips from my ear, I will inflict great pain."
"Turning you on, Ezra?"
"Shut up, Buck."
"Josiah, this is a little closer than I wanted to be to Ezra. He's got bad breath." JD complained, trying to keep his mouth away from the other man's face.
"Someone's going to die." Chris threatened, still feeling around for his gun.
"Yeah, and his name's Larabee. Ya wanna take yer hand off my package, Cowboy? Ya could at least buy me a meal first 'fore getting friendly."
Josiah kept laughing, looking across at Buck. "Shall we free them?"
"Yeah." Buck's grin only widened when his roommate found a ticklish spot on Wilmington's waist. "They're getting a little frisky."
The two men let go, enjoying it as the four tried disentangling themselves. As they finished, dignity seemingly restored, a knock sounded on their door.
Ezra opened it, straightening his tie, and announced, "Mr. Dunne, it's for you."
Ken Bartlett walked in, his eyes sweeping the room. "Agent Larabee? You requested an investigator?"
"Yes. Come into my office, Ken. JD?"
They entered Larabee's office, Chris motioning Ken to a chair. The leader stood behind the seated Agent Dunne.
"Shall I make this easy?" Ken waited for their nods. "You're reporting the incident that occurred in the atrium, correct?"
"Yes." JD nodded.
"I'll walk you through your first official complaint against another Agent." After doing that, Ken then took a statement from Josiah. By the time he left, everyone felt relieved the hardest part was over.
= = 7 = =
Buck made a quick call before he left for the day. "Hey, darlin', it's your knight."
"Hey, Sir Buck."
"I heard what happened - Jeff called me, so did Ellen. Ellen surprised me, but that's beside the point. Stay with JD."
"Buck, I'm fine. Take care of your best friend."
"I should be thanking you for all you've done."
"It's something, but JD needs you more."
"Behave yourself tonight. No wild parties."
"Yeah, right." Harper laughed then coughed. "See you tomorrow."
Buck hung up the telephone, smiling internally. Chris already invited them over for movies and dinner, so they had a plan. Everyone else, including Josiah, accepted the invitation. Finally, their workday ended.
The telephone rang in Josiah's apartment, a sound that brought the profiler out of his fascinating article on the human psyche. Having had some time before Chris expected him, he tried finishing his reading. He answered it, "Hello?"
He recognized the voice of AD Travis immediately. "Hello, sir. What can I do for you?"
"Do you make house calls?"
"Sorry, bad joke. I have a request to make of you, but I need to know that you will not share this information with anyone else. I don't believe I have a reason to worry, but this entire incident has been classified."
"Go ahead, sir. I won't say a word." Josiah was intrigued.
"I know. As you probably heard, Harper was badly assaulted Friday night."
Josiah drew in a breath. "I'd heard, but not how bad."
"She was released from the hospital Saturday, and someone has been keeping her company, but I would feel better if you talked to her."
"We never should have stopped the surveillance." Anger tinged his tone.
"Don't blame yourself, Josiah. Harper would not have let you continue."
"Then we should have been better at hiding. She never, ever, should have been attacked. Was it Jefferson and Mentral?"
Travis said, "Josiah, I agree with you, but it's done. There's nothing more we can do now except pick up the pieces."
"What more would you like me to do, other than visit with her?" Josiah noticed the dodge to his question, and then heard Travis sigh through the line.
"Harper's had it rough before; this isn't the first time she's been beaten. This time, however, she wasn't on an assignment, or in deep cover. The suspects were who you said they were, along with two other Agents. That fact makes it hard for her to trust others, even more so now than before."
Josiah swallowed. "You think she may not be coping well?"
"No. I don't believe Harper's dealing with this as she should. I just want her to know that there are people that care, especially considering she did not want her family called."
"Where is her family?"
"Ireland. Her father and mother run a pub there, and the rest of her family moved to be with them. She doesn't want to worry them."
"I see. Has she considered professional help?"
"She's already talked to the person she wanted to, but I'd like you to talk to her. She's said some good things about you, and respects your opinion, so I thought maybe you could at least talk to her, or keep her company for a bit."
"I'd be happy to. Do you plan on calling her first, or shall I?"
"Just show up; if you warn her, she'll have time to say no."
"Thanks, Josiah. I appreciate this."
"Don't thank me until I see how well I do."
The AD's laughter came through the telephone. "You'll be fine. Have a good night."
"You too, sir."
"Bye." Josiah hung up, sighed, ran a hand down his face, and then checked his appearance. Figuring it was good as it was going to get, he grabbed his wallet, stuffed it in the rear pocket, and found his keys. He called Chris with his regrets, and for some reason Larabee understood without asking.
Shuffling down to his truck, he started it, said a prayer of thanks for it starting, and drove to the Hampton Inn. By now, he mused, all of Team Seven knew where she was staying. It was part of the information distributed for the protection schedule. Once there, he knocked on the door.
"Yes?" The question came from a distance, as if the owner of the voice was not near the door.
"Harper? It's Josiah."
He knocked again. "I'm not going away."
She opened the door a crack. "What do you want?"
"Thought I'd come by and check on you."
"I'm fine, thanks. Have a good one. Doesn't JD need you now?" She tried to close the door.
He stopped it with his hand. "JD's fine, and AD Travis called me."
"I supposed he asked you to come over and check on me."
"Tangis ulcus," he replied, using Latin to say 'you hit the nail on the head'.
"Stet!" Harper told him to leave it alone in a single word.
"Necessitates effugere no potestis." His response informed her she could not escape necessity.
She sighed. "Sic vivitur. Come in, because that's life." Harper removed the barriers and allowed him in.
"Aliquando bonus Homerus dormitat, or 'you cannot win them all'."
"I didn't win this round, or the one that put me in this condition." She closed the door and slowly moved further into the room. "Can I offer you something to drink?"
"Certainly." She went to bend over and open the small in-room refrigerator, stopping when it started hurting. Part of her face twisted into a grimace.
Josiah noticed the marks on her face, the bruising, the stiffness in her movements, and her pain-filled posture. Outwardly, he did not show how her appearance affected him. "Let me." He reached around her, retrieving his own bottle. "Would you like one?" He saw she knew he stared and her next words caused him to smile.
"Sentio aliquos togatos contra me conspiraro."
The profiler translated aloud, "I think some people in togas are conspiring against me."
"I should have said that when your team started with me."
"True. And yes, I will have some water; I need to take some pills."
He handed her a bottle, watching as she started opening prescription bottles.
"Oh, I'm sorry; please, take a seat. My manners seem to have left me."
Josiah smiled at her. "It's all right; I'm barging in here."
"No, that's not a reason for me to be rude." She waited until he sat down before retaking a position on the bed, her back against the wall. "So what can I do for you?"
"Travis explained what happened; he thought you might like someone to talk to about it."
"Already talked to IA, DPD, Travis, the doctors, the nurses, and everyone else I've been authorized to speak with."
"I've been authorized, if you want to talk."
"You can see I got beat up. Beyond that, there's not much to it."
"I think there is." His pale blue eyes bored into her. "I think you're afraid."
"Afraid of what?" Her tone turned belligerent and scoffing at the same time.
"Sharing. Leaning on someone. Trusting someone with your fears."
"Don't try to psychoanalyze me; someone's paid to do that."
"Yes, Josiah. I have a therapist, courtesy of the ATF. You'll excuse me if I say nothing more about that?"
"Of course. Tell me only what you feel comfortable with."
"And if that's nothing?"
"Then there's going to be plenty of silence. Do you have a Bible?"
Harper lifted her lips slightly in a half-smile, stopping when it hurt. "This is a hotel, Josiah." She reached into the drawer and handed him the Bible.
He flipped through the pages until he found the passage he wanted. "Listen, and learn."
"Isn't that what I'm always saying?"
"We learn by teaching," she translated. "Proceed, Professor."
Josiah only looked at her before his rich voice carried through the silent room. "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Ecclesiastes, 4:9-10."
"You have a wonderful voice."
"And a good message. Know anyone like that?"
Josiah chuckled. "Which one are you referring to?"
She frowned, wondering if she had missed the message.
Seeing her confusion, he continued. "I know a lot of people who could fit either side of this equation."
Realizing his meaning, she smiled. "They make it difficult to choose."
He nodded. "Quite a stubborn lot. You're in good company."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Do you? Like a few others, you don't accept help well, even if you need it . . . and deserve it." He watched her as she absorbed his words, keeping her head down, her hand plucking at the blanket on the bed. "I think I could name a few people willing to help you out, myself at the top of the list."
"Any other words of comfort?"
Sensing she started to listen, he flipped to another passage. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew, 11:28-30."
"With those shoulders, I'm not surprised."
"You use sarcasm often, don't you?"
"It helps you cope."
"What do you do to cope?"
"Read, talk to my friends, and listen to them."
"You listen well."
"A patient man has great understanding, but a quick tempered man displays folly."
He nodded. "Now, let's talk about you."
"I'd rather not."
"Not much to talk about."
"I think there's a lot there, but you have to be willing to share it. Keeping things bottled up does not make it better."
"Trust me, Josiah, I do not keep things bottled up. I am waiting until I'm cleared to reintroduce myself to Mr. Heavy Bag at the gym."
"I think I've met him before. He sure takes a heaping amount of abuse."
"Not as much as the people who deserve it."
"Are we talking about the present, or the past?"
"Neither. Both." Harper blew out a breath, and then winced as the fresh wave of pain reminded her why Josiah was here. "Travis probably told you that I was beaten before, and he also probably said he worries that I am not taking this entire incident well."
"Josiah, I'm okay. At least, I think I'm okay. Before, there were not many options available to me. Now, I have options, and I am finding out I have friends. Took me awhile to realize that you boys don't want anything from me except my company, but having friends is a good thing."
"Pain and foolishness lead to great bliss and complete knowledge, for Eternal Wisdom created nothing under the sun in vain. Kahlil Gibran, 'The Voice of the Poet'."
"You're full of quotes tonight. So what's the meaning of that one?"
"Why don't you tell me?"
"Pain and foolishness, meaning my stupidity at calling off my guard, added to the pain inflicted on me for my foolish act, will lead me to great bliss. Bliss being the medicated state of unconsciousness I slip into when I take my pills."
"Harper." He said her name once, giving her a piercing glare.
"Okay, okay. Great bliss - finding out that people care about me, a whole lot more people than before. What was the rest of it?"
"...great bliss and complete knowledge, for Eternal Wisdom created nothing under the sun in vain."
"Complete knowledge - that would be the learning part of it, right?"
"Is that an answer or a question?"
"Answer, Professor. Nothing was created under the sun in vain, meaning that perhaps I needed to walk this road in this manner, so that I could learn that there are people around me that do actually care?"
"Why would you think people don't care about you?"
"Please, Josiah. I rightfully earned the reputation of a she-devil, and it was not with my looks. I come down hard and fast on everyone, but they do remember their lessons that way. Maybe, they might remember them when the pressure's on and it might save a life. Fair trade-off."
"What about you?"
"Me?" Harper tried to shrug, stopping when the pain worsened. "Does it matter?"
"Tell me why then, Josiah. Enlighten me."
"You make a difference."
"I gave everyone a common enemy to hate."
"No, Harper. Aristotle said, 'Misfortune shows those who are not really friends'."
She looked away from him for a minute, staring at the wall. Harper whispered,
"Here at last
We shall be free;
the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven."
"John Milton, Paradise Lost." He nodded his understanding.
Josiah considered her very carefully, for he knew his next words could make or break the entire conversation. "The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him, his own, as said by Benjamin Disraeli. You are rich, Harper, and you do not realize it. Tell me, why would seven grown men, each with their own lives and careers, take the time out of their lives to watch over you? We're not getting paid for it. It's not part of our job. Can you tell me why?"
"You need your heads examined."
"No. You are being stubborn."
"I'm injured and medicated. I'm allowed."
"I don't think you want sympathy, Harper."
"I don't want pity, and I don't need a lecture about what I have and don't have in my life."
"You are, Professor."
"Am I?" He moved to sit on the end of the bed. "'One must be truthful with oneself about one's own motives, especially if one is to survive in the world. It takes rigor, and it takes courage.' Alain French."
"Are you saying I don't have courage?"
"You have more courage than you know."
"No, Josiah, you haven't dealt with half the crap that I've dealt with in my life. I know your file, Josiah, almost as well as you know the profile you've built about me. But guess what, there's some nasty things that still go bump in the night."
"I'm willing to stay here until morning, if that helps keep the demons at bay."
"They come, and they come, and they never stop coming. Every day, every night. I hate to sleep, because the dreams take me back where I don't want to go. I can't take sleep medications, or I lose my status as a field Agent. There's plenty of people that would happily take that from me. So it all comes down to fear, Josiah. I'm not afraid of dying; that no longer holds any sway over me. Marcus Aurelius said it best: 'It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.' I don't remember what it's like to live. I exist, I eat, I breathe, I do my job. But there's nothing else there."
"Yes, there is. Look at me, and not the wall." He picked up her hand. "You are alive. If you always think of the rain, it will rain. If you think of the sun, your world will shine bright. The writer of that stays unknown, but the words are true. You are looking at each day as if the skies above will continue to be stormy. Look at the world differently, Harper. Marcus T. Cicero once said, 'It is never too late to become what you might have been. You will be as much value to others as you have been to yourself'."
Harper shook her head. "You don't know what you're asking. You're asking me to hope again. Hope died a painful death a long time ago."
"I'm not asking for miracles, Harper. I'm asking for a chance to show you things can be better."
Her head dropped, and her one eye stared at their clasped hands. "I don't know."
"Not the best start, I'll admit, but it's a start. Think of new worlds, Harper."
"New worlds and new civilizations?"
He felt the tug of a smile. "Something like that. More like as Anais Nin said: 'Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born'."
"And what world am I supposed to explore now, Josiah?"
"Hear me out, answer a few questions, and then think about your answer. I want your word."
"Okay, I will hear you out, and then I will think."
"First, how many people, besides the Travis family and Team Seven came visiting you recently?"
"Do you enjoy living in a hotel?"
"That's not an answer."
"No, but I haven't found time to go apartment hunting."
"Had any offers?"
"Plan to take the people up on that?"
"I don't know. My schedule's rather full right now, and the apartment complexes I called won't have openings for at least a month."
"I have a proposition for you."
"This ought to be good."
"Cut the sarcasm and listen."
"You're hearing, not listening." He gave her a penetrating look.
"Okay, okay." She lifted her hands in mock surrender. "Chip temporarily removed from shoulder, Professor. Go ahead."
"Look, you need a place to stay."
"I'm doing just ducky here."
"Hiding in your room, no kitchen, just a refrigerator and what you can buy out."
"What's your idea?"
"I have a two bedroom place. More like a townhouse, but in an apartment building. The first floor has a guest bedroom." At her look, he stopped and held up a hand. "You said you would hear me out."
"I'm suggesting a temporary move, at least until you find your own place."
"Where? I just told you there aren't many openings, and I can't impose on you."
"I'm looking at buying a house. Nothing fancy, I'll admit. It's listed as a handyman's special."
Harper showed her curiosity with her next question. "You have a picture of it?"
"Yes." Josiah raised up to remove his wallet from his back pocket. Once inside the worn, brown leather, he pulled out a newspaper clipping, carefully unfolding it. He placed it in her hand.
"What do we have here?" Harper read the listing. "One hundred thirty year old four bedroom house, fireplace, numerous baths, spacious dining room. Club basement with bar, one room can be converted to bedroom. Eat-in kitchen. Four car detached garage with two-bedroom apartment upstairs. Ten acres of property, including own private lake." She looked at the price. "That's all they're asking for it?"
"Yup. It's been on the market for months."
"What's wrong with it?"
"The previous owners let it go. It would need a good amount of work."
"If I'm reading this right, it's twenty minutes outside Denver?"
Josiah nodded. "Toward Chris's ranch."
"What does this have to do with me?"
"See the apartment over the garage?"
He waited for her to make a connection.
"Oh. That's extremely generous..."
"I told you no sympathy. You'd pay me rent."
"I can't say anything until I see it, and the condition of it."
"Wouldn't want you to enter an agreement with me, especially sight unseen."
Harper clicked into accountant mode. "Security deposit?"
"Three months up front."
"I'll want to see the numbers the bank worked out for you."
"I was about to mention that I need a good accountant."
"Can I guess who the handyman will be, along with his assistants?"
"You could." He gave her an innocent smile.
"Do they know yet?" Harper referred to the rest of his teammates.
"Nathan, but he's said nothing. I could not afford it when I first looked, so I've been saving money a little bit at a time. I have almost enough."
"Clever, Josiah. You are very clever. And I don't mean about your finances; about giving me hope."
"Everyone needs hope."
"True. Thank you."
He squeezed her hand. "Anytime."
"So, will I get a reduction in my rent if I join the labor pool?"
"Just so this is absolutely clear, there are no romantic strings attached?"
"No offense, Harper, but I believe your destiny lies elsewhere. Just friends, if you want to be."
"I do. I can live with that, not that it wouldn't be a bad thing, but..."
The big-hearted man shook his head, and a shadow flickered across his distinctive features. "You remind me too much of someone I couldn't help. Let me help you."
"You see me complaining? Pushing you away?"
Josiah smiled. "I think you've stopped shoving, at least for now. What are you planning after your first day tomorrow?"
She tapped the bed. "Home sweet home."
"Come out to the house with me."
"They'll show it on that short notice?" Harper cocked her head quizzically.
"It's been vacant for several months."
"Oh. Yes, that sounds good."
"Do you think I should bring the others? Maybe get their opinions?"
"Why not? The labor force deserves a first glance of their future work site."
"Thank you for not laughing."
"Why would I laugh, Josiah?"
"I keep wondering if I should buy a house. I've managed this long without one."
"You're the one who should have a house, Josiah. You have a sense of permanence, of roots. Besides, everyone comes to you with their troubles. Having a house will give them a place to go to that will give them a sense of security. They can't be kicked out, unless, of course, you throw them out."
"It will feel different to think of it as mine."
"Supposed to feel different, but different in a good kind of way."
He chuckled. "Now you're the one giving advice."
She tried laughing, stopping when her swollen lips started protesting. "Let me give you some more advice, okay?"
"Before you make an offer, let me make some calls tomorrow. I'll have a better grasp of the numbers, and can tell you if you are being hosed anywhere. Do a little research into everything."
"I'd like that. Now, it's getting late. Shall I make myself comfortable in the chair?" The profiler accepted his prize listing back from her, tucking it in his wallet beside Hannah's picture. He wished she could help share in his house hunting, but those cares were far beyond her now.
"No, you don't have to, but thank you for offering. I'm glad you came by; you reminded me about hoping."
After pulling on his coat, Josiah gave her a lopsided grin. "'A friend is one whom you are comfortable, to whom you are loyal, through whom you are blessed, and for whom you are grateful'. William Arthur Ward."
"Remind me not to get into a quote competition with you. I'll lose every time." Harper eased off the bed, accepting his hand for balance, and walked him to the door.
"Lock this behind me." He opened it, and then pointed to the chain.
"I plan to."
"Thanks." Harper reached up to kiss his cheek, and then slid down to her normal height.
He brushed his lips against her uninjured temple. "Whenever you need me, call me." As he left, his hand absently rubbed the spot she kissed. He walked down the hall.
"What?" Josiah stopped, wheeling to face her.
"Never shall I forget the time I spent with you. Please continue to be my friend, as you will always find me yours."
"Ha! Beethoven. Night!" Quickly, Harper closed the door, and he heard the chain latch.
Josiah entered the elevator. "Lord, did you plan this? For her to find her way through me, or for me to find my path through her?" Stepping off the elevator, he walked through the hotel lobby and went out the revolving door of the hotel to his truck.
A large, older wolf, mostly silver, stopped in front of his truck and howled. When he finished howling, Josiah watched as the wolf took off for the nearby woods, joining up with a pack of animals. An injured bird lay inside the center of the pack, and the pack kept circling, making sure the perimeter stayed secure.
"Sir? Are you okay?"
"What?" Josiah shook his head, turning to see one of the valets right beside him.
"You just stopped, sir. Just checking to make sure you were okay."
"I'm fine, just fine." He continued walking to his truck, shaking his head in wonder and staring at the night sky. "You love a good riddle, don't you? Thank you for the sign. Don't know what it means, but thank you."
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