~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Larabee came out of his office, Wilmington at his side.
"Sure, Stud," the surveillance man was saying as he clapped his boss on the shoulder. "I need somethin' to distract me till JD gets back. Don't you worry none, ol' Buck's on the case."
"Appreciate it, Buck," Chris plastered a quick smile on his face as his oldest friend headed for the main doors.
Spying the blond through narrowed suspicious eyes, Lansky sighed. "What are you up to, Chris?"
The smirk on Larabee's face grew as he turned slowly to raise his eyebrows at his assistant. "When you're ready to answer that question, Kate," he shot her a smug glare. "I will be, too." Not waiting for any reply, Chris headed back to his office and promptly closed the door.
Disgusted with the man's response, Lansky pursed her lips and turned back to her computer console. She was readying to resume work when a low voice spoke from behind her.
"He's wisin’ up to ya, Kate."
Instantly guarded against the threatening undertones of the message, Lansky's chin dipped but the woman refused to turn around and face her aggressor. "Best you both back off then, I reckon," she answered in her own insistent tone. "Take my word for it, Vin… knowing me, ain't worth your lives."
As he watched the blonde casually return to the inter-office memorandum she was preparing, Tanner tensed slightly, his ingrained warning system alerting him yet again, to danger unseen.
Vin's instincts were rarely wrong. Born to him as a survival mechanism when he took to the streets as a child, the sharpshooter's intuition had only grown stronger during his time with the tribes who took him in. He'd used those skills wisely in the Army Rangers, honing them to perfection and utilizing those 'gut' feelings to capture many a bounty after he was discharged and then again, after joining the US Marshals.
Now, at that moment, the Texan had the strangest feeling he was taunting a caged beast… a creature that might escape without warning, putting an end to all that he knew…
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"Might I inquire as to your mood, Mr. Tanner?" Standish sat at his desk, fingers locked on the surface in quiet contemplation.
The sharpshooter had returned to their office more than fifteen minutes earlier. Silently sliding into his chair, Vin's eyes had been locked hard on Larabee's closed door ever since.
Ezra knew he'd missed a lot of the office interaction over the passed several weeks. Resulting from Delaney's departure from his abode, his own distraction had clouded his thoughts and the undercover agent was beginning to suspect that he'd missed more than was acceptable.
Tanner was always quiet… unassuming and confident in his own right. Yet, the southerner had spent a lot of time studying his office mate and considered their friendship a unique gift. To Ezra, Vin was the rock that steadied him when he was unsure… a sounding board, as it were.
Of course, neither man would openly admit the bond they felt. Both, however, suspected that others knew how close they really were.
"How do ya hide it all inside when ya go undercover, Ezra?" Only Tanner's head turned as he posed the question to one of the few men he trusted implicitly.
Frowning at the query, Standish was about to request clarification when Wilmington's entrance to the bullpen drew his attention. The rogue was muttering and complaining and the mention of Delaney had Ezra more than curious.
"Last time I do you a favor, Chris," Buck grumbled as he pushed his way into their boss's office.
Larabee's curt reply had Vin and Ezra grinning at one another as they got to their feet and took up comfortable positions in the main work area. The occasional 'show' the two old friends put on was always worth a moment of the team's time.
"Now don't you go actin' like you don't know what the heck I'm talkin' about, Stud."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I don't." The man in black emerged from his office to deposit papers on Kate's desk. "Why don't you explain it to me, Buck? That way we'll all know what's got you riled up."
"Riled?" Wilmington questioned indignantly. "Well, hell… bein' set up by a man's best friend can do that to a fella, ya know?"
"Set up?" Chris narrowed his eyes to glare. "What are you talking about, Buck? I just asked you to do a little checking."
By now, several of the office workers had conveniently left Team Seven's workspace for parts unknown. Vin and Ezra were trying to look inattentive, and Josiah stood at his office door, hands placed firmly on his hips.
"Checkin'… on a certain report?" Nathan queried quietly from behind the profiler. They all knew how badly Chris had been after the Prichard report and the medic came to an obvious conclusion. "Sounds like a set up to me," he snickered.
Sanchez rolled his eyes and returned quickly to his desk, the door closing smartly behind him.
Gazing up at the two men strutting above her workspace, Lansky pursed her lips. "You sent him upstairs to do your dirty work?" her practiced disapproving look was aimed directly at Larabee.
A finger moved to point in the woman's direction. "You stay out of this," Chris replied without looking at his assistant.
"See, they all know I was set up," Wilmington took his cue from Kate's supportive query.
"Funny… you went anyway!"
Both men turned to glare at Lansky.
"Please tell me you didn't try to hit on Miss Delaney, Buck."
Off to one side, Ezra's ears perked up awaiting the rogue's response and the sudden attentiveness didn't escape the sharpshooter's attention.
Chris folded his arms across his chest and waited for the ladies' man to answer Lansky's question.
The men exchanged innocent quizzical glances before the tall agent finally shrugged. "What?" he complained. "I wasn't hittin' on her… I was just… just bein' my, charmin', handsome self is all."
Lansky rolled her eyes as the rogue shot her his infamous smile. Looking from Buck to Chris, she sat up smartly at her desk and sighed. "I don't believe either of you." She continued as the men glanced at each other. "First, you hound Adrian constantly about that damn report," she directed her scorn at Larabee. "Then," she waved a hand at Wilmington. "Then, you continue batting a thousand by sending Mr. Smooth here, up to try and sweet talk the document into your hands."
Standing, Kate shook her head at the two men. "When are you going to learn, Chris? These things don't just appear out of thin air. A report that comprehensive takes time. Especially for someone new to the job."
"Delaney is stalling," Larabee started to reply before the rogue set his hand in the middle of the man's chest.
"I forgot, Chris. She said to give you a message."
Lansky rolled her eyes again as the man in black demanded to hear what Adrian had said.
"Well," Wilmington cleared his throat. "Near as I can recall…." He paused, frowning when Chris glared. "She weren't exactly polite, ya know."
"Spit it out, Buck!"
Swallowing hard, the ladies' man seemed to think for a moment before continuing. "Ain't word for word now, but I reckon she said you'd get the report when it was ready, and… if that was a problem… well, then you could just take it up with her… personally."
Kate cocked her head. "Well, that wasn't exactly rude, Buck," she suggested.
Wilmington forced a smile to his lips. "There was one last little bit."
A heavy sigh signaled Lansky's defeat. She'd tried everything she knew of to keep Larabee off Delaney's back while the brunette tried to get the hang of her new job. However, losing your cool around the Federal Building wasn't exactly a smart thing to do. If Adrian needed to learn that lesson the hard way, then Kate was all but powerless to stop the onslaught that often went by the name of Larabee. "Spit it out," she echoed the blond's words from moments ago.
Once more, Buck cleared his throat. "Well… the last thing she said was that she didn't like being hounded… and that if Chris kept it up…"
Larabee was listening intently; his building anger held a bay beneath a calm exterior. "Buck," he encouraged rather loudly.
Although it was against his better judgment, Wilmington continued. "She said that if you kept it up, Chris… she'd bury the report so far down it would take months to find. She said she didn't care if it ruined the case… and then… something about not liking to be pestered all the time."
Looking hard at his boss, Buck clarified. "Think she may have said… badgered?" he shrugged.
On the other side of the bullpen, Standish glowed with pride and Tanner looked on curiously. Larabee's continued rant no longer interested Vin, his previous mood summarily dismissed. He was now totally absorbed with the southerner's sudden amusement and the delight shining in the man's eyes.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
It took some time, but Lansky finally managed to convince Chris that he shouldn't go to Travis in person and complain about Delaney. She reminded the senior agent of the private telephone number they both had access to for 'urgent matters', and although she didn't think this particular circumstance fit the bill, she stood in silence while Larabee left a scathing message on the AD's answering machine.
The receiver slammed down hard on its seat and Kate shook her head.
"What?" the senior agent barked at his assistant. "You don't expect me to accept that kind of insubordination do you?"
"Only from me," the blonde said matter-of-factly. She sighed heavily in disgust. "Mark my words, Chris. This is gonna come back to bite you. You can't treat regular people like this."
"Regular people?" Larabee sneered. "Delaney is one of us now and she needs to realize that, or find another job."
Heading for the door, Kate paused before opening it. "Adrian is as competent as I am, Chris," she offered. "She just needs some slack right now, I'm sure of it."
Before Lansky could complete her exit, Chris snorted loudly. "We cut our own slack around here, Kate. Sink or swim, we do it as a team… no different than the service. If you can't be part of the team, you don't belong."
“Yeah!" the woman sneered at Larabee. "Maybe you should think about that yourself."
Chris glared as the door slammed behind Kate. For all her stubbornness, he couldn't fault the woman. She was right. He was being too harsh on the newcomer, but he had deadlines to meet and he wasn't too concerned that his mood was rubbing the wrong people the wrong way.
'It's all your fault' he cursed at the closed door. Sure, Lansky was right, but his mood was her fault to begin with. Too often, he'd found himself wondering what was going through his assistant's mind. Too often, she was her regular, everyday Kate… the same woman he'd watched go about her daily business for almost three years now. The same woman he'd shared 'buddy' time with and the same woman he's slowly fallen in love with.
'God!" he cursed aloud, angrily spinning his chair away from the door. "I don't even know who you are anymore."
Head hung, the pain clear in his scrunched up eyes, Chris covered them and tried desperately to clear his head.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
The afternoon started out relatively smoothly and for that, Lansky was eternally grateful.
JD had returned from his psyche evaluation apparently unscathed by the event and Kate could only hope that the other appointments went as smoothly. Wilmington was doting over the younger agent as he dragged him off to lunch. Upon their return, they'd disappeared into their shared office, the door closing soundly behind them.
It was just past two when Dunne emerged from the closed room and went to seek company with Sanchez and Jackson. The blonde grinned to herself as the rogue followed the three men to the coffee room. “Maybe Buck is the one we should be worried about" she giggled to herself.
Watching his teammates dispatch themselves to the break room, Standish frowned and glanced at his office companion. "It appears that Mr. Wilmington is attempting to acquire information from Mr. Dunne regarding our appointed rendezvous with the physiatrist," he said quite casually. "Perhaps the information might make you more at ease, as well."
Tanner looked up from the photographs he'd been studying since before lunch. "What makes ya think I need ta be at ease, Ezra?"
"Well," the southerner raised his eyebrows briefly. "If I'm not mistaken, you were inquiring earlier as to how one conceals themselves in the presence of others who supposedly know them."
Vin set down the picture he was holding and got to his feet. He'd forgotten the question he'd posed before Wilmington’s confrontation with Larabee this morning, although he hadn't forgotten his real reason for asking. Standing in the open doorway, his eyes drifted from Lansky to Standish. "Is it hard to be someone else?"
Confused at his companion's low tone, Ezra got to his feet. Frowning, he approached somewhat cautiously. "Come now, Mr. Tanner. You yourself have had more than one occasion to accompany me undercover. You seem quite able to handle the rigors of role-playing."
His eyes glancing their way to the southerner's green pools, the Texan blinked. "Ain't the same as goin' deep… is it?"
Standish frowned, his eyes scowling and then widening, as he comprehended the question completely. "We're… not just talking about deceiving a physiatrist now, are we, Vin?"
The sudden tension in the air was shattered as JD came up to the sharpshooter, "Hey, Vin," he interrupted without realizing he was doing so. "You're not bothered by the shrink, are ya? Tell Buck he's got nothing to worry about. If I can do it and you ain't worried, then he'll be fine."
The kid's disturbance clearly caught Tanner in mid-thought and Ezra interceded on the Texan's behalf. Gauging the two interlopers, Standish responded succinctly. "Mr. Dunne is quite correct, Mr. Wilmington," he smiled at the ladies' man over JD's shoulder. "Clearly our young friend's interview went well. He is displaying no adverse reactions from the encounter and neither Mr. Tanner nor myself are bothered regarding our upcoming appointments."
"I ain't worried none," the tall agent scowled. "I was just tryin' to get JD to spill the beans about what they asked him."
Dunne turned around to face his roommate. "I told you, Buck. There ain't no way he's gonna be asking you the same things he asked me. They have our files. They know we live together and…"
"And they know you will undoubtedly want to compare experiences," Standish interjected.
Glancing at the southerner, JD turned back and slapped Wilmington on the chest. "See, even Ezra knows the tricks."
Eyebrows rising slightly at the commonality of the accusation, the undercover man cleared his throat. "Perhaps you gentleman should elicit more faith in our medical practitioners. They, too, have a job to do and they must fully understand those they service."
"Easy for you to say, Ezra," Wilmington scoffed. "You got 'em eatin' out of your hands before you open your mouth."
Standish was slightly confused at the statement. "I will seek to disillusion no one during my interview, Mr. Wilmington," he protested.
"You don't have to," Buck replied with a smirk. "They wouldn't know the difference anyway."
Throughout the entire exchange Tanner had remained quiet. Now he chose to speak, "Buck's right, Ezra… You can hide whatever you want… whenever you want to." The sharpshooter held Standish in his gaze for a long moment before relinquishing his stare.
The rogue realized he'd missed something in the brief interaction but his thoughts were distracted when Josiah called from the bullpen. Acknowledging the summons, the four men gathered to go over the notes they'd compiled in their effort to assist Chris in trying to tie up the Prichard case. All unrelated conversation was quickly forgotten as the team focused on their task.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Just before three o'clock, Lansky quietly proceeded to the reception area and reminded the three assistants working there about the clerical meeting down on the third floor. Careful not to disturb the six men as they discussed Nathan and Josiah's notes, she called down to Miss Montgomery and gave her the go-ahead to helm the scheduling discussion. Kate was fully confident that Debbie could handle the task. She'd sent out another inter-office memo that morning to make sure everyone attended and was only planning on sitting-in on the last few minutes of the meeting.
Back at her desk, she had another spreadsheet ready to be worked on but glanced at Larabee's closed office door instead. It had been sealed since she'd slammed it during lunch and she was reluctant to disturb the brooding leader.
Closing her eyes, the woman's mind unexpectedly wandered as she suppressed the guilt that reared its ugly head. It had been too long since she'd dealt with these leftover feelings.
More than ten years had passed since Dessert Storm. That was the last time she'd faced a man that professed his love for her. She'd come to terms with his deception, believing that Cole had had no choice, convincing her conscience that the man was a coward, a traitor… She'd done the right thing.
The circumstances were so different, but Chris was unwittingly bringing all of those emotions back… and all the agitation that went with them.
None of this was Larabee's fault.
There would never be a way for her to explain.
Nothing was worth the truth when the lie was so easy to give credence to. Everyone had believed the fabrication… Everyone, most recently Chris, and the ultimate punishment was for Kate to live, alone, with the truth for the rest of her days. After all, she could never let go of… 'God!'
In that instant, Lansky realized that she didn't even have words to describe the manner in which Cole had died.
Completely lost in the horrors of her life, Lansky blinked as she realized Adrian Delaney had just marched through the bullpen, making a beeline straight towards the senior agent's office. With a package held tightly in her grasp, Orin's assistant seemed intent on her task and Kate came back to the present, a growing smile forming as she realized Chris was about to receive his long awaited report… apparently, with attitude.
Larabee's door flew open and Adrian stormed in without regard for the portal or the man who immediately engaged her within.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Lansky heard the man in black yell. She couldn't see clearly into the office, but with the door ajar, the exchange of words was more than enough to paint the scene.
A loud 'thud' preceded Delaney's response. "Delivering your damn report, as ordered, Mr. Larabee."
Sucking in her bottom lip, the blonde tried to hide her smirk.
"Or, should I say, demanded."
Breathing deeply, Lansky glanced up enough to note that all of Team Seven's remaining members had stopped working and were obviously paying as much attention as she was. Maybe even enjoying the confrontation as much as she was. It wasn't as though she hadn't tried to warm Chris…
"You're not a nice man, you know," the brunette continued from the office confines. "You bellow and yell, and generally try to intimidate everyone around you. Well, guess what? You can't intimidate me. I've been yelled at by the best, and you don't even register on the scale."
Lansky was impressed by Adrian's fortitude, not only for putting Larabee in his place, but obviously not letting the man get a word in edgewise either.
"Oh, yes... big, bad, Chris and his all important job... Oh, and let's not forget your all important 'secretary'... "
Kate's eyebrows raised and the smile died on her lips. 'What did I do to you?' she questioned silently.
"You're both too demanding! You make it almost impossible for anyone to live up to your standards. And let's face it, Larabee… neither of you are that indispensable."
In the middle of taking a deep breath, Lansky's cheeks puffed as Delaney's words filtered out.
"Let's not forget that your egos are pretty much identical, though."
Kate's eyebrows rose indignantly.
"You're made for each other... Just... too bad you're not man enough to keep her satisfied…."
A deep frown furrowed the blonde's brow.
"Guess she proved that to the whole world when she went off and fucked Ezra."
Abandoned in the desolate wasteland she'd instantly been plummeted into, Kate watched, mortified, as Delaney storm passed her and disappeared from view. She could feel all eyes glued to her and panic struck for a moment before she regained what little composure she could muster.
For years now she had painstakingly tried to forget the desensitization training she had been subjected to. She'd fought for her freedom and finally convinced 'him' that she could be 'normal'.
Every ounce of her energy in the last few years had been put in to maintaining that façade of normalcy.
All of that… everything… was shattered in an instant. Propelled backward in time, Kate Lansky hardened, and the ‘real’ world she had fought so hard to re-enter, ceased to exist.
Sitting up straight in her chair, the assistant barely registered the familiarity of a voice as it hollered. "Kate, GET YOUR ASS IN HERE, NOW!'
With the calm of any doting secretary, she took up her notepad and pen. Standing, she confidently walked into Larabee's office, smiled, and then took a seat in front of the big desk.
Chris was seething as he watched Lansky come into his office as though nothing had transpired. He glared as she sat, and then sneered as she offered a casual grin.
Several minutes passed as he attempted to gather his thoughts and calm his anger. He tried to remember that this was the woman he loved…
He had finally been able to admit to himself that this was the woman who had made him live again… made him want to be something other than a drunk, vengeful old man lost in the sorrow and despair of tragedy.
As he looked at her, Chris closed his eyes and begged for strength. When, in the last three years, right under his nose, had she had time to entertain his undercover agent? "Is it true?" he finally asked, trying to keep the growl of his voice to a minimum. The uninterested way in which Kate raised her eyebrows incited the venom he was trying desperately to suppress.
"Apparently!" was her nonchalant answer.
"Yes or No!" he snapped.
The sharp edge of his questioning didn't faze the blonde at all. "Yes," she confirmed without emotion. The lack of feeling was a true reflection of her state of mind.
Clenching his fists, Larabee straightened, took several much-needed deep breaths, and then rounded the desk to position himself directly in front of his assistant. "When?" he growled in a low menacing tone. Chris, too, was reverting to his old ways.
Standing to meet the intimidation head on, Lansky looked up into the green eyes that seemingly towered above her. She wasn't about to give in to him, yet this reaction was too strong, too reminiscent of her normal response to Larabee's bullying. Desperately, she tried to hang on to her uncaring persona. "Why does that matter?" she said quietly. "Years ago… yesterday… it's none of your business."
Chris reacted without thought. As she turned away from him, he grabbed her shoulder and whirled her back to face him. "It matters… it is my business. When?" he repeated. "When did you and… he…?"
More for her own peace of mind than his, Kate refused to meet the torture in the blond's eyes. Focused instead on the hands that held her shoulders firmly, she glanced from one to the other and then, finally, at the man who held her. "You are my employer, Mr. Larabee. I am your assistant, not your personal possession. Please unhand me."
"Cut the crap, Kate," the senior agent sneered as he released his hold. "This isn't a game."
Lansky smiled ever so slightly and then glanced back at him from downcast eyes. "Life is a game, Chris… the rules, however, are subject to interruption." Her answer given, she turned and headed for the door… Chris didn't see the way her expression faltered.
"Don't you walk away from me," Larabee commanded as he followed her into the bullpen. "We're not done."
Trying hard to ignore the dictatorial tone of his voice, Kate went about clearing her desk and preparing to leave. For more reasons than she could count, she desperately needed to get out of there. "Oh, we're done," she answered more confidently than she felt. "We were done before we ever got started."
"You're still running away," Chris countered forcefully as he maintained his claustrophobic presence at her side. He wasn't thinking clearly at that moment but something inside of him refused to let this woman win any more rounds.
Closing her programs and setting the computer to shutdown mode, the blonde glanced up to find the bullpen devoid of life. 'Cowards' she thought. A piece of paper in Larabee's 'in-box' caught her eye and she frowned, knowing she'd cleared it earlier.
"What happened to all of your bravado, Kate?" the man in black pressed on as his assistant retrieved a sheet of paper and read it quickly.
Lansky took a deep breath, her eyes rising to meet the stare of her boss. "It ran away, Chris," she answered sarcastically. "Is that what you wanted to hear? It ran away, along with all the big strong tough men on your team. Did you notice?" she indicated the empty room behind them. "Of course, if you really want, I can hand in my resignation in, too." Shoving the letter into Larabee's hands, the woman pushed her way around him and reached for her duffel bag.
The sudden surge of emotion clearly audible in his assistant's voice hadn't escaped notice, but the senior agent was distracted by the document she'd handed him. Allowing her to leave team Seven's work space, Chris glancing at the words on the page...
Given the unfortunate circumstances that have transpired, I find myself unable to continue my occupation under your employment.
I have no doubt that you will find cause to accept this notification of resignation with great enthusiasm.
Ezra P. Standish
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Sitting in her van in the underground parking garage, Lansky was vibrating from the turmoil whirling inside her. She couldn't figure out when she'd lost control of her life… Had she really ever had control of it? Was that bastard right after all?
Her breathing labored, stopped, and then labored again as countless random thoughts wreaked havoc with her emotions. She seemed to be experiencing them all… all at once. Anger… pain… hatred… sorrow… love… betrayal… fear… rage
Looking around wildly, she growled, expecting to see the General’s smug face reminding her that he was right after all. Her flight instinct kicked in and she violently turned the key in the ignition. Shoving the vehicle into gear, she reversed and then peeled away, heading for the gate.
As the protection grid came down, the young security guard stood frowning at the departing van. He knew Miss Lansky… everyone did… but he'd never seen her in such a dark mood before. She'd practically pinned him to his booth with her sneer and all he'd done was smile and offered his 'have a good night'. The menace in her blue eyes had made him swallow hard.
Allowing the vehicle quick exit, he now stood wondering what the hell he'd just witnessed.
The city blocks were a blur as Kate made her way through the downtown core towards her apartment. She was uneasy at the outset of her journey, but as she progressed, her irritation grew, thoughts drifting to recent events…
Delaney was the first to receive a mental lashing.
'Who the fuck does she think she is? What the hell gave her the right to totally fuck things up like that? Marching in like she owns the place… insulting Chris… squealing about what her boyfriend gets up to when she isn't around to satisfy him.'
"Bitch!" Lansky muttered somewhere along her route.
Slamming on her brakes to stop at a red light, the blonde's anger lapsed for only a moment. "How the fuck did she know anyway?"
A horn from the car behind drew Kate from the disturbing question. Giving the driver the finger before screeching away from the stop line, she cursed aloud to no one, and everyone.
The 'how' brought Standish to mind.
"Fuck!" she voiced as she considered the possibility that the southerner had spilled the beans to his woman and then begged her forgiveness.
A loud huff saw the corners of her mouth sneer in disgust.
'Sniveling coward… Men…! They're all the same. Asses, all of them!'
A sudden thought had her head cocking, the disdain of her expression mellowing slightly as one eyebrow rose.
'Not a bad ass though!'
The softening of her musings quickly disappeared.
'Shit, that's not the point!'
She tried to rationalize.
'If he hadn't waved it in my face…'
The sigh was audible.
'If we hadn't been so fucking drunk!'
Stopping at another light, Kate closed her eyes to push away the memories of last Friday night.
She'd played the scenario out in her head too many times afterwards. Blind intoxication wasn't something she could honestly claim as a defense. Yes, she was pissed… extremely 'happy' as it were… but intense training prevented her from ever being too far gone not to know what she was doing.
And, no… she hadn't gone to the Saloon to seduce Ezra.
'Luck of the draw!'
Pulling away as the light turned green, Lansky held contempt for no one but herself.
No, she hadn't meant to, but now she would acknowledge to no one but herself that any man might have done. If another man had been as drunk or as willing, her bed partner that night wouldn’t have to have been Ezra.
He just happened to fit the bill.
Familiarity was just a bonus.
The anger she felt was still directed inward.
She hadn't set out to do it.
She hadn't meant to do it.
The alcohol certainly made it easier to think on the subject as the night wore on though.
But… in the end… she knew what she was doing…
Kate had taken advantage of the southerner's state. Feeding off the sexual energy he'd offered without thought and nurturing their mood until circumstances brought them to the inevitable conclusion. She'd used him… used him in her bid to push Larabee away… forever.
Slamming on her brakes, Lansky backed into her stall at her apartment complex and threw the van into park. Shutting off the ignition, her eyes closed and her head gradually made its way to the steering column.
Slowly, and with a heavy sigh, the blonde momentarily admitted defeat. This thing with Larabee had her so screwed up!
The plan had been hatched in a drunken stupor, born out of anger, desperation, and finally, lust. And then, it was executed without any forethought or precision.
Was it a wonder the scheme had failed so miserably?
'He would be so disappointed in me…'
Angrily shaking the unwanted thought away, Kate reached back for her pack, got out of her car, and then slammed the door closed behind her. Looking skyward, she cursed aloud as the rain started to fall. "Just fucking perfect!" she stormed into her building.
Again, a door crashed shut behind her and for once, Lansky failed to secure her multitude of latches. Marching to her bedroom, she angrily tossed her bag at the headboard, ignoring the crash as several books went sailing to the floor.
Standing in the middle of the room, the woman seethed. Her breathing labored… her hands clenched and released repeatedly at her sides. Then, arms rising slowly in the air, her fingers outstretched at grotesque angles.
'You don't get to go back' a familiar voice haunted her mind. "You know you can't survive out there."
The growl that emitted from the pit of her stomach was deep and full of hostility, almost inhuman…
The vocalization seemed to shock Kate a little and she swallowed, sluggishly realizing that she couldn't be anywhere civilized right now. Her hands clenched in frustration, knowing her instinct at the moment would have her lash out at anything within reach.
'Stop it… Get a grip, Lansky!' she ordered silently.
Eyes closed tight as she purposely slowed her breathing enough to move.
Temporarily under control, Kate untied and then kicked off her boots. Stripping, she exchanged her work clothes for the sleek one-piece jogging suit she wore for serious runs. Slipping her sneakers on, she cinched them securely.
Now standing at the foot of her bed, she glared down at her key pouch. Contempt held begrudgingly at bay, she obediently retrieved the lifeline to her unwanted past and secured the pouch in its ever-present position in the small of her back.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
The rain was a constant as she ran. The storm grew steadily worse, yet she was oblivious. Each footfall pounded the pavement, purposely trying to grind a screwed up reality into obscurity.
Awash with conflicting images, Kate's mind slowly began to regress, to shut down, blocking out anything and everything that wasn't acceptable. By the time she reached the outer limits of the park, the blonde wasn't thinking at all. All she could see… all she wanted to see was the trail in front of her, and the darkness beyond.
Everything else was too much to deal with. The life she'd fought so hard for, now too painful to acknowledge…
'All because of….'
The single word slipped aimlessly from her lips and Kate felt her life in Denver being stolen further away.
Delaney wasn't a bitch. She was merely a lady who had offered friendship, and was rewarded with betrayal.
Ezra Standish was a friend and certainly, no matter how hard she tried to make him the heavy, wasn't to blame for what had happened.
And as for Larabee…
Chris Larabee was the man she loved!
A single tear joined raindrops on Lansky's cheeks, yet her expression failed miserably at showing her grief as all her years of training took control once more.
Her mentor had been right.
He had warned her that she had no chance for a normal life, even gone to great length to explain why. She had apparently excelled at 're-education', even her first 'task' achieved without difficulty or doubt…
'You don't get to go back' he had tried hard to convince her. 'You accepted that when you joined'
Kate had sneered. 'I didn't join… I was abducted… brainwashed'
Garrett could only smile.
That horribly wicked grin that curled one side of his mouth and signified that he was amused. It only lasted seconds before disappearing, but all of his people knew it well. It meant simply that he was laughing inside, but if you pushed…
Well, the exorbitant privileges they received weren't really worth losing… were they?
But… Kate Lansky had a special place in Frank Garrett's heart. She'd honed her combative nature on the man's patience and the longer they knew each other, the more stoical he became with her insubordination.
'I'm leaving, General…'
There was a long pause as the two just stared at one another.
'You're the one who taught me I could do anything, remember? God! Look what you taught me to do… Living out there… Living a normal life can't be that hard compared to…'
There was that damn subtle grin of his again.
"I don't need your permission and I'm not going to wait around while you think on it. I'm leaving… but if someone wants to try and stop me…." Hands rising at either side, Lansky had offered a perfect imitation of Garrett's smile. Waiting calmly, her eyebrows rose questioningly before she sneered and turned for the door.
"You can't survive out there, Kate."
Stopping, she waited several seconds before turning. "And what makes you so damn sure?"
Garrett laughed quietly but maintained his constant cool façade. Glancing at the floor, he then looked Lansky directly in the eye, cocked his head and licked at his lips. "How long have we known each other, Kate? It's got to be close to twenty years now, isn't it?
"You know damn well how long I've been here," Kate snapped. "Locked away like some fucking puppet on a string."
The General seemed curious at her statement. "Puppet?" Moving a step closer, he seemed genuinely offended by her accusation. "You've always had everything you ever wanted here," his arms rose a little to emphasis their luxurious surroundings.
"Once I was trained, maybe," Kate snapped back. Swallowing her disdain, she proceeded to remind Major General Francis Ulysses Garrett of the circumstances of their first meeting. "Wasn't a pretty sight that first time we came face to face… was I, Frank…?" Squaring her shoulders, the woman's eyebrows rose for a moment. "Of course, you'd seen me before… consented to my… 'Re-education'…."
"It was necessary… you know that."
A clap of thunder drew Lansky from her remembrance. Eyes flaring, she scanned her immediate environment through the wind tossed rain and quickly fixed position. Even with the storm raging those damned ingrained instincts told her exactly where she was and what surrounded her.
The word echoed like some undeniable revelation. The inevitability dictated by survival and the stuff nightmares are made of.
Survival, or the nightmares… which had come first…?
Those first few months were a different kind of living hell, overseen by a different kind of master.
Garrett had told her years later how he'd eagerly watched her 'progress'…
Regaining consciousness in her eight by eight cell, Lansky had taken a lot longer to ascertain her surroundings that first time. One minute she was on final maneuvers with her Basic Training Platoon, the next, presumably hours or days later, she was there…. Groggy as hell, stripped of everything but her army shorts and matching green T-shirt, lying on a cold brick floor.
The wall at the back of the cage had been solid rock. The other three sides were metal bars. She was given no furniture, save the lone bucket that served as her toilet. The adjoining cells were empty, and there was one door leading into the large room with a single window much too far away to provide good light.
Gauging the two days that passed by the sun's motion, she saw no one and was provided no sustenance.
On the third day, the rattling of chains announced the arrival of two men dressed entirely in black. Their faces covered by hoods, they approached, yet did not say a word. One man motioned her to move back and, after several attempts, drew his sidearm to send home the silent command. When she finally complied, Kate's cell door was unlocked, two more buckets were set inside, and the cage again latched.
The process repeated every day or two and it was always the same. One bucket contained a small amount of fresh water. The other was presumably a replacement latrine. Not that she needed that much though. Lack of food and water forced the body to survive in its own ways.
She had tried asking what they wanted at first, but the men never spoke. There were occasions, too, when one of them hung back and seemed to leer. When the other man would catch him, a reprimand ensued, yet still, they never said a word.
Days spent in solitude, and nights in dread, Kate closed in on herself, somehow expecting to die, or worse. She listened to the occasional screams that filtered into her 'room' and yet strangely, felt waning regard for the 'lives' that was apparently being tortured. She ate only the occasional inhabitant that wandered across the floor and drank sparingly of her water, hoarding it for the days when the men supplied little, rather or more.
As near as she could figure, seven, maybe eight days went by before anyone entered fully into her cell. Unsure at first, it soon became evident that the lone man had decided what he wanted from her and intended to act on that need. She fought as best her decaying strength would allow, and had it not been for the other man's intervention, the leering man would have succeeded in taking her final dignity.
Huddled in a corner, she watched curiously as her 'savior' offered yet another atonement, taking away the waste filled buckets, at last clearing the air of their putrid smell.
Week two started out the same as the first, except that only the one man came in those first few days. When the second came back for duty, he appeared to be a little worse for wear.
Losing track of time, Kate vaguely registered the arrival of a third man a day or so later. With the other two off in the background, the new arrival offered bread through the bars and silently coaxed his prisoner to 'come take it'. After several tries, he simply shrugged his shoulders and departed.
It took only another day of him trying before Kate, ever cautious, approached the third stranger and retrieved the morsels. Amazingly, she thought she saw a smile shine in his eyes…
And so it was…
They took everything away from her in those first few weeks. Her strength, her determination, and her will, all became victims in her struggle to survive. She eventually found however, that thirst and hunger were obstacles easily avoided when she did what was expected.
The pattern became clear, and slowly, the food became more plentiful. She 'earned' a cot and blanket, and even the occasional tub of lukewarm water to cleanse herself.
What they demanded of her was simple at first. Copy notes from one piece of paper to another… but they had to be perfect imitations to count.
Standing or lying, perfectly still for hours on end was a trick to learn, especially when they purposely allowed spiders or snakes to roam her cell.
Then came the shock of finally hearing another voice. If she could repeat the words played on an old tape recorder, only with exact reproduction mind you, she would gain reward.
Gradually, the tasks increased in complexity and the challenges became almost life or death struggles. Ultimately, she was left with an almost compulsive need to overcome.
As she gained more strength and more freedoms, a large well-built man took her to a makeshift gym and worked on enhancing her fighting skills. Eventually, what was once defensive 'play' became far too serious, and a different type of survival instinct kicked in. In her heart, the choice was fight or die.
The day she was finally allowed outside was one filled with confusion. She was released into a small grassy area and, after shading her eyes for sometime, she looked around to find no one guarding her.
On one side lay an open glade, a forest beyond… and perhaps freedom.
Her choice was that, or returning to the safety and security of the four walls she had grown to know so well…
Not knowing how long she had been captive, her location, or even why, she painfully accepted guaranteed survival as the only choice she had.
The still silent relationship that Kate shared with her captures grew from that point, eventually to where they almost seemed to trust one another. She was stronger than before, well fed and well kept. And she had access to most facilities whenever she asked.
She was constantly challenged, both physically and mentally, and somehow found comfort and pride in the fact that she could now overcome most of the obstacles presented her.
Yet, unknowingly, her ultimate challenge still lay ahead…
She'd acknowledge before her inability to judge how long she'd been there. Days had rolled into weeks and then months and all Lansky had come to understand was that accomplishing a task meant another day of survival. Asleep in her cot one night, she was roused by the clink of the keys in her door. Immediately alert, she felt the hands reaching out to steal the one yet untouched dignity she still owned exclusively. She fought back with everything she had and the commotion sounded an alarm. Other men appeared to restrain the would-be rapist against the bars of her cell.
From out-of-nowhere he came.
A man in full dress uniform… an American Army uniform, his two-star insignia that of a Major General. Without warning, he drew his sidearm and stared at Kate, showing her the smile that she would one-day come to hate. Looking upon the captive man with great disdain, he handed the weapon to Lansky and ordered her to shoot her attacker.
Still fighting to regain her breath after the altercation, she looked hard at the pistol and then into the General's eyes.
"Shoot him," came the booming voice again.
And without question, she did…
In cold blood, Kate Lansky took a life. The man unworthy, and she, his sole judge, jury, and executioner…
Suddenly finding herself out of breath, Kate's pace slowed and then abruptly stopped. She panted, bending at the waist, fighting for air, and wiping her mouth.
Again the word echoed in her thoughts and she screamed her objection into the swirling night sky.
"No…" she repeated, this time almost at a whimper.
Still struggling to breathe, reality checked back in and she tried desperately to take stock in her surroundings again. The rain, driven by fierce winds, caused her partial blindness. Sheltering her face against the storm, Kate located a small clearing a short distance off the path she had been following. Instinct told her that this was no place to be in such terrible weather. Getting out was priority one!
With thunder almost on top of her, she ventured toward an opening in the trees, hoping to pinpoint her location and a way out of the forested parkland. The trees were tall as she glanced upward, receiving a face full of torrential rain for her trouble.
A clap of thunder, accompanied almost simultaneously by a lightening flash sent Kate once more sprawling backwards into the woods to seek cover. The roar of the storm masked the loud crack and the burning branches were on top of her before she could react…
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Ghosting his fingertips along the edge of the reception desk, Chris looked up to scan the offices of Team Seven. There were no signs left from the night’s storm… at least outside. Instead, the first glimmers of an awakening sun were barely visible outside the windows. Hardly any light to guide his way, yet the man in black didn't need any…
This was his territory.
He was the leader of this group and no one could take that privilege away.
Or could they?
The pain and confusion of the last twelve hours bore into the blond again and meaningful lyrics came to him…
Don't tell me, it's not worth tryin' for
I can't help it; there's nothin' I want more
I would fight for you - I'd lie for you
Walk the wire for you – Ya, I'd die for you
The words replayed over and over in Larabee's head and he finally had to close his eyes, hoping desperately to shut out the song he'd been listening to for hours…
His gaze eventually drifted towards his office and the desk that sat there, just a few feet from his door.
His chin dipped, concealing green pools wrought with emotion. Slowly, he advanced on her little corner of his world.
Don't tell me it's not worth tryin' for
You can't tell me it's not worth dyin' for
You know it's true
Everything I do - I do it for you
Once more, his fingers traced the cold lines of furniture, but this particular piece warmed his heart. He was suddenly smiling; the memories of a certain Monday morning filtering back into his consciousness.
Compliments of an amused Orin Travis, the new desk had arrived, its occupant throwing the Team leader a cocky grin as she made herself at home.
That day, Kate Lansky had become a permanent thorn in Larabee's side, and… a steadfast fixture in his life.
His heartbeat quickening, Chris caressed the desk again. 'My life… my world' he sighed silently, 'but… goddamn it… I need you in it…'
Look into my heart - you will find
There's nothin' there to hide
Take me as I am - take my life
I would give it all - I would sacrifice
Suddenly angry, he turned away to look around the bullpen, his eyes automatically tracking to the far wall and the modest line of office enclosures that housed his men.
He huffed, shaking his head then lowering it. 'I need them, too…'
Slowly, sullen eyes rose to gaze at the furthest space, occupied by best friends Josiah and Nathan.
As the Team's oldest and, often wisest member, Sanchez was a trusted confidante and the man Larabee frequently turned to when he needed a cool head to sort things out. The profiler was damn good at what he did and, despite his dry wit, kept them all happy and on the top of their game.
Jackson… well, the medic was indispensable. He had extensive knowledge of not only medical science, but forensics as well. Both were invaluable, but Larabee also relied on Nathan to recognize things within themselves that the rest of the Team had a tendency to overlook.
Thinking about the most 'mature' members of his team invariably led Chris to the next office…
The blond's oldest friend and the team's youngest member occupied it. This duo never failed to catch his attention on a daily basis. Their antics were enough to break the monotony of a boring stretch in the office, or snap the tension of a serious case.
JD was arguably the most hyperactive computer specialist Larabee had ever encountered, but when teamed with Wilmington's knowledge of electronics, the pair was dynamite together. Their team leader could forgive the rest…
Taking a deep breath, the man in black finally looked at the office closest to his. Surprisingly, the first thought in his mind was Ezra. Chris sincerely hoped that the man would take him seriously and show up for work this morning.
A hand rising quickly to scrape through his hair, Larabee grabbed hold and squeezed, his eyes closing as events of the last twelve hours assaulted him yet again…
Kate making little effort to deny the accusations...
The boys 'vanishing' before he had a chance to do damage control...
Ezra's resignation and then Lansky leaving, but not before offering her own…
His hand relinquished its tenacious hold on his hair, Larabee's arms crossed abruptly across his chest as his eyes rolled. Things had only gotten worse from that point on…
Standing alone in this same empty bullpen, he was inexplicably confused. He'd been torn between going after his so-called 'girlfriend', or the man she'd… slept with.
He'd done the next best thing… gone nowhere.
Marching back to his office, the man in black had slammed and locked his door. Retrieving a bottle of whiskey from the bottom drawer of his desk, he'd sat, poured several shots, and then downed them with violent intent.
The longer he stayed however, the worse things got, much like the growing storm outside his window.
Images came to him and Chris wasn't at all welcoming. The naked flesh entwined with Lansky's wasn't his and all too quickly, the visions chased the team leader from his office.
A compelling need for answers sent Larabee in search of Kate, yet, sitting in the parking lot of her apartment complex, he'd hesitated. Her van was there and several times he'd ventured out into the rain, only to trek his way back to his truck.
"It's none of your business… You are my employer, Mr. Larabee. I am your assistant, not your personal possession."
As he'd remembered her words, they'd stung more painfully than when she'd spoken them to his face. Again, lewd images had come to him and once more, Larabee had chased them away angrily.
With no obvious signs of habitation coming from her apartment, Chris had eventually driven away. The questions that clouded his mind were plentiful but the man in black slowly and angrily accepted that the answers wouldn't come from Lansky… at least, not tonight.
A vehement need for some sort of information gradually guided the blond towards the man that was…
Not being able to even think the words, Larabee backed off and drove around for more than an hour, trying to calm his anger.
That’s when it happened...
He hadn’t been paying attention to the radio, barely noticed it was on in fact. Then, certain words caught his attention… the tune so meaningful when he turned it up to actually listen.
Pulling his truck over, Chris took note of the rest of the song.
He was overwhelmed with a sudden need to hear the tune, completely this time. He drove to his usual music outlet, but it was closed. Then, finding his way to the local twenty-four-hour department store, he'd approached the sales clerk in the small music section and then described what he could remember of the tune.
The lady didn't hesitate. She smiled, wandered off and then came back to hand him a CD. Larabee paid for it quickly, and left.
Sitting in that parking lot, the man in black had played the title track over and over and over. So many times in fact, that he now knew every inflection the artist poured into the piece… every emotion that spoke, so beautifully, the words that burned in his soul.
Realizing how he felt didn't help much though. It made him more determined than ever to confront Standish. Finally, even as the storm grew worse, he'd headed to the man's home.
Chris needed those answers and he was more determined than ever to get them…
The relative calm he'd worked so hard to find seemed to vanish in an instant.
That's all it had taken…
That 'blank canvas' that made Ezra Standish an outstanding undercover agent…
As if his infamous 'poker face' was bad enough… then the southerner had raised an eyebrow. That familiar insolent indignant expression was more than Larabee could take…
Chris winced as he remembered striking the man hard. Unconsciously, he rubbed his fist.
It still hurt.
But, as hard as he'd hit Standish, the man hadn't gone down, and that had just served to piss him off more…
Seems everything Ezra did in that first half-hour just made things worse. For the life of him, the team leader still couldn't figure out how the man went from total despondency one minute, to complete jubilation the next.
Now, standing at the door to the southerner's office, Larabee could see the whole scene play out before his eyes…
"Might I offer you a refreshment, Chris… a pistol perhaps? Oh, hell… take both!"
A hand moved quickly to scrub at his face. The blond still couldn't believe Standish had presented his service revolver and, apparently, expected him to use it.
He still couldn't believe that he'd been angry enough to have actually taken the weapon and… point it at Ezra's head…
"I would appreciate if you aim for my heart… thus affording Maude an open casket funeral. But, more to the point… being already broken, I no long care what happens to that symbol of one’s affection."
The fingers clenched around his lips now found a path to his brow and Larabee rubbed furiously.
He'd been shocked back to reality at that point… able to look beyond his anger. He knew instinctively that something was seriously wrong… that there was more going on around him than he had allowed himself to see.
Ezra had continued to goad him but Chris hadn't let the peripheral situation distract him from his main objective.
The questions came…
The 'whys' and 'hows' seemed simple enough, yet the answers he'd received hadn't been so easy.
“Why did I sleep with your woman, Mr. Larabee? I am appalled to admit that I don’t remember much, but, honestly, from what I can recall… sleep wasn’t a large factor.”
Yes, Standish had continued to push but little things just weren't adding up in the back of Larabee's mind… irritating things… and, contrary to their topic of conversation, the southerner continually referred to his love for Adrian Delaney… the woman he'd cheated on…
The word echoed in his mind as Chris remembered Standish inadvertently answering the question he'd asked Kate right off the mark. The response had truly shocked him… knowing that she'd gone from his bed Thursday night, to Ezra's on Friday…
The amount of booze that Ezra mentioned had been nagging at him as well.
"I consumed near two full bottles of whiskey… her consumption of alcohol was far greater than mine."
Now that he'd had enough time to think on it, the shear volume of hard liquor would easily explain why his undercover agent didn't remember most of what went on…
Unquestionably though, Standish did remember Lansky approaching him at the bar.
Doubts had begun to creep into Larabee's mind at that point… maybe he was judging Ezra without fully understanding the circumstances.
If the man was to be believed, the whole affair was an accident. A single occurrence, precipitated by alcohol abuse, pent up anger and frustration, on both their parts...
"Nothing JUST happens where Kate is concerned."
Chris had spoken those words too pointedly, intending to catch Standish in a lie, but instead, the words backfired, leaving him with growing reservations about the woman he loved.
"It just happened, Chris, believe me… We… we were beyond caring. I... I swear to you, I don't remember the whys or hows... but I do know that Kate wasn't the woman we know. There was something so... so purposeful... yet free. She was... she let herself go."
The declaration had started to piss Larabee off again, but thankfully, he'd delayed his pending over-reaction. Somehow, Ezra didn't appear to be gloating any more. Instead, complete honesty echoed in his voice. Chris could hear the hesitation and confusion in his friend's tone.
After that, they had spoken relatively calmly.
In his bewildered chaotic thoughts, Standish had confounded them both by suddenly announcing, quite to his own astonishment, that their respective ladies loved the two men.
It seem improbable, but in that moment of disappointment and failure, the southerner had been pushed to remember… inspired to piece together a portion of what he believed motivated Lansky's life… and their one-night-stand.
Yet again pledging his undying love for Delaney, Ezra had pitted their example against that of Larabee and his lady. His clearing thoughts finally allowed him to decipher a portion of Kate's behavior and he came to an inexplicable conclusion.
"Kate loves you and… for whatever the reason, can't admit it."
Stunned would have been a mild description for the way Chris had felt at that moment.
He'd called Standish on the deduction, but was assured of the validity of his findings.
After that, Larabee didn't have to think about twice about the summation.
He believed every word Ezra said...
For all the reasons, motivations, and conclusions, he'd fought with over the past day… month… year… In those few seconds, the man in black was forced to accept the fact that not only did he love Kate with every fiber of his being… but that she loved him, too.
He'd left Ezra then… flatly refused the man's resignation and told him to be here in the morning.
Now, still staring at the southerner's desk, Chris needed Standish to heed his words. He wasn't sure how the rest of the team would handle all of them being in the same office but he certainly wanted the opportunity to find out.
Swallowing hard, the team leader turned to leave but as he did, his eyes fell on Tanner's desk.
Slowly, Chris pursed his lips after taking a deep breath.
He'd been getting an uneasy feeling from Vin for a couple of weeks now. Yet, each time they tried to talk about whatever was bothering the younger man, something always interrupted.
Shaking his head softly, Larabee cursed the nagging feeling in his gut. Something was up with Tanner and he'd been too distracted to find out what.
Grabbing his hair again in frustration, Chris headed straight for his own private refuge, his hand slapping his thigh angrily.
One last glance around the bullpen had the senior agent sucking at his bottom lip.
This… this incident had everything to do with his men. Nothing happened to one member of this family without the others being involved. And, like it or not, this little catastrophe involved two of their number…
'Three' a part of his brain countered and Chris growled…
Yeah! Kate was part of this family. She'd come on board shortly after the team's formation and had molded close friendships with everyone here. She was their staunchest defender; a constant ally, aide, supporter, and all-around good buddy to every one of his men and they all knew it.
They all knew one other thing, too…
To Larabee, she had become much more…
Leaving the door wide open, the man in black ventured into his office and sat in his chair, rotating it to avail him a perfect view of Lansky's desk.
For a long moment, he remained unmoving, his breath barely registered as he thought about her arrival. 'What should I say?' he silently wondered. 'So many mornings…'
It had started here…
He could still remember the day they'd first met.
Everything had started right here… a little more than two and a half years ago…
He'd been sitting in this exact same spot when AD Travis had walked into his office and acquainted him with the building's newly hired Senior Administrator. The introductions had been immediately edgy, Chris looking the petite woman up and down and, in his none-too-subtle Larabee way, voiced his doubts regarding her ability to do the job.
"Kind 'a little, ain't she? My men will eat her alive."
Travis had only smiled as Lansky cut him down to size with the same 'don't take crap from anybody' speech he'd heard no more than an hour earlier. She'd added a little extra for the man in black, saying that that especially applied to Team Leaders with bad attitudes.
Larabee smiled, despite himself.
Kate had meant every damn word of it, too…
They could be like oil and water but from the very first time she'd lit into him for real, Larabee knew deep down in his gut that he liked this woman. They had a lot in common and beside both being veterans, they had attitudes and moods that could be so similar it drove them, and everyone around them, nuts.
Remembering all too well that first serious verbal confrontation, the man in black smirked. It had not only cleared the bullpen, but most of the floor as well.
Eyes closing in remembrance, Chris took a deep breath.
She had ended that disagreement with a single articulation…
One subtle word, uttered with so many undertones that it had stopped him dead in his tracks. Then, looking beyond her reciprocated glare, their eyes had met in earnest and somehow seemed to convey a strange understanding. In that moment, a bitter, lonely, reclusive man had recognized his own kind and knew instinctively that, come hell or high water, this friend had his back.
Their relationship had taken on a whole new meaning after that. She was slow to let her guard down, but like his team, Kate was always there… always ready to help or support any of them and, sometimes, even bring their leader to his senses, when needed.
She had an uncanny knack for saying so much with an approving smile or a disapproving roll of her eyes. She treated every single one of his men the same, winning over their gruff attitudes in her own way and being rewarded with a place in their makeshift clan… perhaps even the true 'heart' of Team Seven.
Six months went by before the third anniversary of his family's death arrived. And yet again things changed for the Senior Agent. He was understandable upset that day, and except for Buck, none of his new team really understood his true despair. In one of his moment, Chris had managed to returned the favor Lansky had gifted him just weeks after they'd met. He'd lit into her so badly; they'd almost ended up in a physical confrontation.
Knowing too well the emotional strain his oldest friend was under, Wilmington had broken it up, and, taking Larabee aside, he'd been pretty insistent, suggesting that the blond not throw away a good thing when it came calling.
And then she did…
When Kate came knocking at the ranch door hours later, Larabee was pissed in more ways than one.
It really hadn't mattered much what Lansky's excuse was for being there. He knew Buck had 'spilled the beans' and cussed the man out, even as the meddling woman barged her way into his home.
At first, he wanted nothing to do with her offer.
But little did he know how that one evening would forever change life as he knew it.
It didn't happen over night, but Chris slowly took advantage of the keen ear Kate offered and, eventually, her strong shoulder. Their friendship evolved accordingly. Sometimes he hated her, but more often than not, Chris came to realize that he 'loved her'… in his own strange special way.
Scratching the back of his head, the man in black shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
It hadn't been easy… accepting the way he felt about Kate. He remembered the internal struggles he'd fought just a month ago. A part of him had battled to hang on to Sarah's memory… while the other half wanted to explore his growing bond with this new lady.
Chris had run scenarios, comparisons, and even talked himself into waiting a little longer.
But, he couldn't.
It wasn't the… 'soul-searing' love he'd had with Sarah… but Chris had no doubt that it was love, just the same.
His breath suddenly hitching, the team leader growled agonizingly as he sat forward in his chair, his face buried in upturned hands. "God! I lost once…" he stifled the pain welling in his gut as his chin rose high in the air. "I… can't lose… again… not again!" The turmoil of memories and mixed emotions was burning a hole in his heart and he just wanted it all to go away.
"Not… without… a fight!" he ground out stubbornly.
Don't tell me it's not worth fightin' for
I can't help it; there's nothin' I want more
Taking in a long heavy breath, Chris forced out his resolve as he stood so fast that his chair was propelled backward, hard against the wall. For almost three years, Kate had been a part of his life… and, no matter how he tried to deny it… no matter how hard Lansky tried to push him away…
Resolute in his determination, Larabee inhaled strongly again, his nostrils flaring as he embraced a new reality. He'd finally, consciously accepted, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what he'd known in the depths of his healing soul for a very long time.
Kate Lansky was part of his life, and he was not going to live without her…
Several long seconds passed before Chris realized how overwhelming this life-affirming decision was. He blinked a few times, shaking off his stunned gaze before settling back to his chair. His heart was still pounding and his breathing labored from the intensity of the emotions that had suddenly swept over him.
Another minute saw his eyes slowly search around the room. He gradually recognized the fact that there were voices outside his office. Fighting to calm himself, the team leader swallowed hard, taking a moment to straighten his attire before heading out into the bullpen.
"We can't just do nothing," Dunne was insisting to his roommate as he flicked the light switch on in their office.
"We can, JD, and we will. This ain't none of our…" Movement out of the corner of his eye surprised Buck and he turned his head quickly as his voice trailed off. "Oh, hey, Chris… didn't expect to see you so early."
Glancing at the wall clock, Larabee noted the time. "Seems to me, you're the ones who are early. Can't remember the last time I saw you two in here at seven thirty."
"Couldn't sleep," the kid offered without thinking.
Shooting his young friend a disgruntled look, Wilmington refocused on the blond. "That's 'cause you were still home sleepin' when it happened," he tried to distract Chris from JD’s comment. "You, eh… get any last night? Sleep, I mean," Buck clarified uneasily. Moving around JD, he stepped outside their cubicle and forced a smile.
Larabee's guard dropped for a moment. "No," he admitted, knowing all too well that his oldest friend wouldn't believe anything but the truth.
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence. Dunne and Wilmington exchanged puzzled looks before the bigger man nodded covertly for the younger to stay put.
JD acknowledged with his own concealed grin.
"You got the coffee on yet, Stud?" Buck moved off in the direction of the break room.
Following, Chris seemed a little lost. "No," he replied as his oldest friend threw on the lights, grabbed the empty glass decanter, and then started to fill it with water.
"Better get it on before Tanner shows up," Wilmington smirked. "You know Vin and his idea of coffee… sludge as far as I'm concerned."
Larabee watched as Buck retrieved the grounds from the freezer compartment of their upright refrigerator. Setting the canister on the counter, he slid open a drawer, pulled out a coffee filter, and then grabbed the cone-shaped holder from the automatic machine. "How much of this do I put in again?" he asked as he picked up the container.
Staring at the big canister, Chris shook off his daze. "Nathan likes four heaping scoops for the full ten cups."
"Sounds about right," the rogue answered with a smile as his leader turned and walked to the door. "How much you reckon Vin puts in? Got 'a be at least double that," he offered with a snicker.
Chris glanced at his oldest friend still somewhat dazed. "Suppose," he said quietly.
Grounds safely in their filter, Wilmington slipped the cone into its slot and tipped the water into its well. Larabee's 'off' mood hadn't escaped him and the fact that he couldn't easily bring his friend out of it was bothering Buck to no end.
Flipping the coffeemaker to its manual setting, the ladies' man caught up to his boss. "You need an ear, Chris?" he smiled solemnly as they entered the still darkened bullpen. "Got two, ya know."
The team leader offered his friend a quick grin. "Wait on it, Buck… Maybe later."
Wilmington was about to answer when the lights came on.
Seeing Chris and not knowing how best to act, the medic quickly resolved to maintain control. He played on his usual sense of humor. "What's the matter? You all don't like ta see where you're goin'," Jackson smirked and then scowled at the two men before heading for his office.
"Figured it was best not to," Buck shot back. "Ya know Chris ain't the prettiest sight in the mornin'."
Nathan threw a hand up and laughed, shaking his head. He recognized the casual grin on Larabee's lips and settled at his desk, reasonably satisfied that the day might remain somewhat normal.
"I reckon he's got enough time to check his e-mail before heading downstairs for his evaluation, don't you?"
Chris glanced at the wall clock again and then nodded with apprehension. "He, eh… gonna be okay with doing that today?" The senior agent was suddenly a little disturbed with the prospect of his team undergoing psychological analysis after yesterday's events.
Wilmington seemed to think for a moment, his lips pursed and his eyebrows furrowed. "Yeah," he replied slowly as he refocused on Larabee. "You know how Nathan is… Cool under pressure."
The man in black looked at his oldest friend seriously. "Pressure, Buck?" He seemed to think long and hard about the choice of words. "You… feeling pressured?"
About to reply, the rogue stopped short, his eyebrows rising. "Think its time for those ears," as he motioned Chris toward the man's office. "Care to join me?" he walked ahead and waited.
Larabee didn't hesitate to follow. He sauntered across the floor, giving the bigger man a sly look as Buck waited and then closed the door behind them.
With the handle still in his grasp, Wilmington glanced over his shoulder to see his boss taking a seat behind his desk. The rogue sighed knowing Chris always felt safer on that side of his authority.
Buck turned, took a deep breath, and then headed for the chairs that resided in front of the big piece of furniture. "Pressure might be the right word," he offered as he slid into the sleek black cushions. "Then again… it might not?"
Hands slowly rose to form a triangle with the desk surface and Larabee narrowed his eyes above his clasped fingers. "You've never been one for mixing words, Buck…" Chris began in a slow even tone. "Why don't you just say what you need to… and then we can get on with our day."
The rogue sat forward and spied the other man through squinting eyes. He thought for a moment… seemed about to speak, and then hesitated. Finally, licking his lips, he spoke as objectively as he could. "Stud… yesterday started out… it was sort of, fine mostly… until… well, you know." There was a moment of silence where Chris maintained his stare and Buck wet the edge of the mouth again. "Today… this is one hell of a place to hang your hat, don't ya think?"
The quick rise and fall of Wilmington's brows accented the question and Larabee couldn't miss the astute movement. He allowed his tongue to trace his teeth inside his closed mouth, his eyes never leaving the dark blue staring back. "You… got any pearls of wisdom you feel like sharing?" the man in black asked as he relaxed, slumping against the back of his chair.
For a moment, the rogue frowned. "You askin' for my advice, Chris?" he tried to clarify. Seeing the outward hand motion and the slight shrug in Larabee's shoulder, Buck cleared his throat quietly. "Well, I've always got somethin' to say…"
"Always," the blond reiterated quickly.
Wilmington's frown lasted only a second before turning to a grin. "You know me too well, partner," he shuffled forward in his chair, hesitated, tried to form words, and then faltered again. Finally, he was able to speak. "You eh… you think they really… slept together?"
There was only a moment of indecision before the blond answered in a whisper. "I know they did, Buck."
Clearing his throat and sniffing back his reaction, the ladies' man pursed his lips. "So… guess the real question is… where does that leave you and Ezra… the team?"
Chris considered the question for a second and slowly his head cocked. "You're… not asking about Kate, Buck… Don't you mean, where does that leave me and her?"
It was Wilmington's turn to shrug. "Figured… maybe there wasn't gonna be no more you and her."
A long silence ensued.
Glancing at his desk, Larabee wasn't entirely sure his oldest friend could handle his decision right now. He chose to go back to their previous point instead. "Standish better show up for work this morning," he straightened in his chair. "And that goes for the rest of you. This is not going to affect the performance level of this team, do I make myself clear?"
Again, Wilmington pursed his lips and thought long and hard about his response. "We, all heard what Adrian said, Chris… You just confirmed that it's true." The ladies' man cocked his head and frowned at his oldest friend. "Make believin' everythin's normal, ain't gonna make yesterday go away."
It only took a few seconds for the reply. "No make believing, Buck. Nothing has changed. Today is business as usual around here."
Watching the insistence in his leader's face made the rogue frown again. He hadn't had the wool pulled over his eyes yesterday and he sure wasn't going to let the man in black get away with thinking he'd been fooled. "What about Kate, Chris? What are you going to say to her if she comes back?"
"When she comes back," Larabee corrected quickly.
"Alright," the rogue conceded the point. "When she walks in that door, just what are you plannin' on sayin'? Maybe you should be askin' if she's plannin' on sleepin' with anyone else… at least that way you'll be prepared for it."
Larabee cleared his throat trying to stifle the nauseating feeling emanating from his gut. "You, trying to tell me something, Buck?"
Wilmington snickered under his breath. "Oh, yeah, Stud," he nodded. "I'm tryin' ta tell you I love the gal to pieces… I mean… she's so good at so many things. Hell, I imagine I'd be right comfortable with her on my six… but damn it, Chris… ain't you ever wondered about why she's so good… we don't know anythin' about her… nothin' that counts anyway."
Leaning forward in his chair again, Larabee hitched up his chair, cocked his head, and then spoke slowly. "You, eh… you've been wondering all this time, and… you never thought to mention it to me?" he raised an eyebrow. "Why is that?"
Wilmington tried hard not to let the blond's obvious intimidation techniques get to him. He'd seen a lot over the years and it was always worse where women were concerned. The rogue had always told himself that Larabee was just jealous but that didn't defuse the bomb that ticked behind his fists on occasion. "Not, all this time, Chris," he offered cautiously. "Just goin' on a few weeks, I reckon… since the two of you eh… you know, started gettin'… cozy."
Another moment of silence…
"Common knowledge?" the team leader scowled questioningly.
Wilmington's snicker said it all. "We're all Federal Agents, Chris," he cocked his head. "Kind 'a hard to forget the things you're trained to recognize." The rogue's voice softened as he continued. "Then there's the gut feelin' you get when your best friend is headed down a little walked path… without backup."
Larabee frowned slightly and thought long and hard before he spoke, "Thought you said you'd trust on her your six?"
There was a nod and then silence preceding the rogue answered. "Yeah," he almost whispered back. "I would…." Looking Larabee directly in the eye, the corners of his mouth curled slightly. "But that's a whole lot different than trustin' her with my heart…."
Chris seemed genuinely interested in what his oldest friend was saying. He thought about it some as the two men sat in silence and contemplated their conversation. Intrigued, he eventually asked, "Trust her with you life, but not your heart? How come?"
Buck sat up straight and took several seconds to stretch his neck. Finally comfortable, he spoke. "Stud, if there's one thing I know about women, it's what they're expectin' out of relationship. Some of them are just out for a good time," he grinned. "Some just want a little time to size you up before they decide on whether you're any good for bigger and better things… Some, well they want them things right out of the startin' gate and they make no bones about tellin' you so, subtly or otherwise."
Considering the information imparted, the man in black raised an eyebrow. "What does Kate want, Buck?" He'd eventually asked the question but still wasn't entirely sure he wanted an answer.
Wilmington thought for a moment before sighing. Getting to his feet slowly, he headed for the door.
"Buck?" Larabee stood.
Stopping at the closed portal, the rogue turned only partially to look at his oldest friend. He was all too serious when he spoke. "Kate?" he asked with a grin. " She ain't like any woman I ever met, Chris. You know that better than anyone… And you also know that she's as much a buddy to me as any of us. She's never given off those normal female vibes…." He frowned, not quite sure he was explaining himself right. "She started to though… about a month ago… like she was sizin' you up, thinkin' on relationship things."
There was an expectant pause in the room and both men knew it.
Almost like he knew what was coming next, Larabee had to ask, "Something changed though?"
Buck turned a little more to face his friend. "Yeah," he nodded. "Didn't take long either… All of a sudden she was hidin' again… like when she first started workin’ here. She didn't let anyone close back then… you remember?"
Larabee nodded his acknowledgement.
"Don't know how to explain it, Chris," Wilmington seemed disappointed in himself. "It's like she's closin' in on herself… almost… like she's scared."
For the second time in less than twelve hours, the man in black heard that word and it jumped out at him with so much fury that he growled.
"Chris?" the rogue frowned at his friend's curious reaction.
Aware of his verbal retort, Larabee tried to make light of it. "It's nothing, Buck… you go on."
The ladies' man hesitated. "You… sure?"
Nodding again, the blond offered his oldest friend a smile. "Go on… business as usual… right?"
It took a moment for the rogue to return the offered smirk. "Got it, boss" he nodded. With one last grin, Wilmington opened the door and then stopped short.
Glancing back, he motioned outside, shot the man in black an uneasy look, and then inched outside quickly and quietly.
Looking beyond his departing friend, Larabee's heart skipped a beat.
The object of his deliberations was now seated at her desk, calmly working on something.
Glancing at his watch, Chris was surprised by the time. He and Buck had talked, on and off, for over an hour. It was approaching eight forty-five and he expected everyone would be at work by now.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, the team leader cautiously ventured to the door, yet refrained from entering the bullpen.
Surveying his domain, Larabee noted Buck had stopped to talk to Vin and then motioned the younger man into his office with JD. Watching Wilmington close the door, the senior agent presumed his surveillance man was passing on 'orders', as per their conversation of minutes ago.
Glancing at Tanner's office, the blond noticed that Ezra's jacket was still conspicuously absent. He bit his lip, again hoping that the southerner was planning to show up this morning... even if he was his normal tardy self.
'Normal?' Chris thought and actually managed a small smile. It would be so like Standish to come in late, thereby keeping to his usual routine.
Stifling his amusement, the team leader's eyes drifted to the far office.
Knowing the medic's psychological evaluation started promptly at eight o'clock, Larabee wasn't expecting to see Nathan. However, Josiah's desk appeared to be untouched, it's normal disarray not yet present, as was typical when the profiler was 'working'. The blond's frown quickly disappeared as Sanchez came through the double doors.
Josiah didn't look up as he made his way to his cubicle. He seemed pre-occupied by something and even across the room Larabee noticed it instantly.
Anxiety evident, Chris decided he'd overlook his current stubborn 'problem' for the moment and investigate what had his profiler so distracted. Walking past Lansky's desk, he pretended not to notice her.
The three team members in the middle office gave Larabee a quick glance as he went by. Chris, in return, offered a nod, raising a hand in greeting as he continued. A few steps later, he stopped at the big man's doorframe and knocked.
The senior agent smiled when Sanchez looked up.
"Morning, Chris," the profiler matched his friend's cautious expression. "You… okay? Need anything?"
Larabee smiled inside. That was always Josiah… more concerned with his teammates than himself.
Sucking in his bottom lip for a second, the blond fought back the desire to request his confidant's help. "Maybe later," he countered instead.
Sanchez nodded. Sliding his jacket onto the back of the chair, he took his seat.
"How about you, Josiah?" the team leader asked quietly. "You seem a little… distracted this morning. Not like you to be late."
It was fairly easy to tell when the big man was contemplating something important. And, as was his telltale mannerism, Sanchez took in a big breath, letting it out slow and steady. Reclining back into the comfort of his cushy chair, he looked at his boss. "Distracted?" he frowned. There was a long moment of silence before he continued. "Troubled… concerned… worried… distressed… all good words, don't you think?"
Larabee huffed, his brows quickly rising and lowering. Dipping his chin momentarily, he fidgeted a little on the doorjamb and then slowly looked back at the profiler, his lips pursed. "Reckon that about says it all," he agreed.
Sanchez could feel the tension in the air but he was determined to let it slide… at least, for now. Tapping his fingers together, Sanchez scowled again. "Two fold for me, my friend," he countered, his mind fixed on his first concern.
Chris frowned again; his eyes darting as he quickly considered Josiah's meaning. "Oh?" his look changed to one of concern. "Explain."
Josiah's lips clamped tight for a second as he sat forward. He turned his chair a little, his elbows meeting the desk surface, his fingers still locked together. "You are aware that Miss Adrian is… staying with me, are you not?"
His eyebrows knitted again as the team leader cocked his head. "Renting your suite, yeah, I knew that," he answered. Chris had been too wrapped up in his own problems in the past several hours to even consider Delaney or how she fit into this whole mess. She'd obviously been disgruntled yesterday… annoyed with someone or something. Enraged enough to blow up the way she had anyway… but beyond that, Larabee hadn't thought about Adrian. Clearing his throat, he looked serious. "Is she… alright?"
Josiah sighed heavily. "Wish I knew," he raised an expectant eyebrow. "She didn't come home last night and I just checked with Travis… she's not here either. Apparently, she called in sick sometime early this morning."
"Can I presume you have already dispatched the authorities, Mr. Sanchez?"
Larabee and his profiler turned to see an obviously worried southerner staring at them, the coloring on his chin, less of a distraction that it should have been.
"When was the last time anyone knew her whereabouts?" The undercover agent continued as he stepped closer. "Gentleman, Miss Delaney's safety must be a priority, I will not allow any harm…."
"Ezra," Chris tried to slow the southerner's over-reaction.
"Mr. Larabee," Standish acknowledged without showing the slightest bit of animosity towards his boss. "Might I suggest we alert…"
The team leader tried to interrupt his agent yet again, "Ezra!"
Halting mid-sentence, the undercover man stood staring, his mouth slightly ajar.
"It's been less than twenty hours since Adrian was last seen, right?" he didn't wait for a reply. "You know the local PD won't act unless there are extenuating circumstances."
Standish raised a curt eyebrow. "I do believe what happened here yesterday, qualifies… don't you think, Mr. Larabee?"
Josiah took in a deep meaningful breath, his eyes refocusing on Ezra’s jaw line. Sitting on the sidelines yesterday… unprepared for Delaney's revelation and helpless to stop the events that played out before his eyes, the profiler was both worried and confused. Sitting here now however, he felt more than qualified to intervene. He wasn't interested in allowing any further repercussions or thoughtlessness to intercede with his current priority. "Gentlemen."
As his companions looked at one another, Sanchez got to his feet and set a strong hand on each of their shoulders. "I've left a note on Adrian's door and I am about to try her telephone. Might I suggest that you remain here," he focused on Ezra, "and allow Chris to return to his caseload."
Straightening his stance, Standish nodded slightly. "That would be acceptable," he agreed with only one further glance at Larabee. Perceiving no objection from his boss, the southerner was only interested in Delaney's safety. "I must insist though, that we contact the appropriate authorities if we are unable to reach Adrian within the specified timeframe."
"Alright," Sanchez agreed before stepping aside to allow his teammate access to his office.
Curious at the older man's reaction yet thankful for his calm manner, the blond acknowledged Josiah's cool hand as their eyes met. "You let me know if you need anything," he insisted.
The profiler offered a brief smile and then watched as Chris turned to leave. Swallowing any concern left in his voice, he let out a deep breath before refocusing on Standish.
Making his way across the bullpen, the man in black appeared focused on his office door but couldn't help notice Tanner watching him. He purposely stopped at the center workstations, pretending to look at the notice board. After a moment though, Chris casually glanced over and offered a somber smile to his friend.
For some unknown reason, the look made Vin antsy.
The Texan had felt an uncomfortable distance between them for days… maybe weeks, and he really didn't know what to think anymore. He couldn't have predicted what happened yesterday. He still wasn't sure of any of his facts, but what he did know, indisputably, was that Kate was not the woman she appeared to be. Beyond that, the sharpshooter was uncertain of his next course of action.
Vin was deeply concerned about his best friend.
He hadn't known Larabee before Sarah's death but he had experienced the fallout and resulting turmoil. The cold, drunken, angry man that Larabee used to be was not something Tanner wanted to see again. He couldn't help the worry in his heart. What would happen to his friend when Chris found out whatever truth it was, that Lansky was hiding? What would happen to their friendship if Vin were the one to expose that truth?
Feeling 'stuck' between that proverbial 'rock and a hard place', the Texan sighed.
Admittedly, his concerns for Chris were far greater than that he held for Lansky but he didn't want to hurt her either. He had a strange connection with this lady and he'd always wondered why. It meant something… just what though; he'd yet to figure out.
The only other thing Tanner knew without question, was that Larabee and Kate were meant for each other… If only there weren't so many doubts… so many secrets.
Unable to explain, and not wanting to endure the team leader's scrutiny any further, Vin casually straightened from his reclined position on the doorframe. Licking at his lips, he slowly turned away and wandered inside his cubicle.
In the middle of the room, the senior agent lowered his chin and sighing heavily. Mentally scolding himself, he again promised to have a serious chat with his best friend, very soon.
With one last look in Tanner's direction, Chris continued towards his office.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
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