~~ Then You Fall… ~~

by TJ


~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Turning the key in his ignition, Chris waved at Buck and pulled out of his parking spot. A few minutes later he cleared the security gate and headed for home.

The man in black was exhausted, both physically and mentally. The last twenty-four hours had supplied him with so much information that his tired brain was having trouble processing the new data. Forty-eight hours without sleep wasn't helping the situation much either.

Rubbing his weary eyes, Larabee rolled down his window and reached for the volume button on his radio. The CD in its player caught his attention and a gentle smirk crept to his lips.

'I don't want anyone to lose sight of the facts on this one. Most importantly… Kate is our friend. And she just happens to be the woman I love.'

Smiling in earnest, Chris popped the disc in and waited for the title track to engage…

Look into my eyes - you will see

What you mean to me

Search your heart - search your soul

And when you find me there, you'll search no more

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

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

Don't tell me, it's not worth fightin' for

I can't help it, there's nothin' I want more

Ya know it's true

Everything I do - I do it for you

There's no love - like your love

And no other - could give more love

There's nowhere - unless you're there

All the time - all the way

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

Ya know it's true

Everything I do - I do it for you

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

The run had been awkward but like anything else in her life, Kate would never let a little injury stop her from doing what needed to be done.

Now, standing in the shower with her eyes closed and the cool water running down her right side, she couldn't help but question that exasperating ‘need’.

What really needed to be done?

She no longer had a taskmaster… hadn’t had one for almost three years now. No one could force her… There was no one coaxing her compliance day after day after day...

Yet, here she was… still meeting those 'ivory-towered' standards her superiors had once set.

Far exceeding their wildest expectations had been a good thing at first, but now it haunted her very existence. Twenty years of ingrained rigorous activity had left Lansky unable to face a day without an outlet for her energy… even when she hurt this much.

Done with her washing fifteen minutes earlier, she'd been allowing the cool water free reign over her burnt skin. It felt so good yet the spare time on her schedule was quickly running out. Left arm against the shower wall and forehead resting on her wrist, the blonde took in a deep breath. Exhaling slowly, she finally reached for the tap, shutting off the chilling jet of liquid.

Extracting herself from the stall, Kate patted her skin dry and then ran the towel roughly through her hair. She winced as the cloth accidentally dragged across her arm. She threw it against the wall with a growl, "Fuck!"

Biting her lip to quiet the anger that still raged inside, she marched back into her bedroom and pulled open the bottom drawer of her dresser. Retrieving the salve, she moved in front of her mirror, sighing heavily at the reflection. "If Nathan could see me now," she muttered, her head shaking softly at the thought.

Reflecting back in the glass, her burns were ugly. Her right side, from just above the hip to below her knee was red and swollen. On her right arm, scalds and scrapes surrounded six self-administered stitches. Shielded by that raised limb as the flaming branches came down around her, her face had been spared the initial blow yet still bore reminders of the ordeal.

Sucking up her courage, Lansky unscrewed the lid of the ointment tin and began to administer a liberal coating over the scorched flesh. The contortions of her face clearly illustrated the pain and discomfort she felt but she refused to let it win. Quitting… giving in to any weakness, just wasn't part of her doctrine.

A half-hour later, Kate carefully pulled her baggy cargo pants over the thin bandages on her legs. She'd given the salve time to soak into her burns and then wrapped her leg, mid-calf to high thigh. Covering her hips and tummy with another dressing, she slipped her underwear and sleeveless T-shirt gingerly into place afterwards. Like yesterday, she had no choice but to forgo the bra, her right arm not co-operating enough to fasten the catches.

Sitting on the bed, she put on her socks and laced her boots, forcing away the complaints from her limb as she did so. One last growl saw her stand, cock her head from side to side several times and then head towards the living room, a full T-shirt, over-shirt and another bandage in her hands.

Stopping at the end of her short hallway, Lansky surveyed the devastation left in the wake of her return home last night. She sighed, disappointed. Good reason or not, she didn't like the fact that her normally controlled anger had unleashed itself so violently.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

From his desk, Chris had watched curiously as his assistant settled at hers. He couldn't help ponder the strange determination he saw in her expression, nor the all-too-brief wince he'd witnessed.

Concern and worry shadowed Larabee's face.

At first, his thoughts automatically revisited the injuries he'd witnessed the day before. The hows and whys had been lost so easily in her defensive responses. Now though, observing the tiny signs perhaps only he would see, the blond was more preoccupied with what was going on inside Lansky's head.

Up until team Seven's meeting yesterday afternoon, Chris was convinced he knew this lady better than anyone alive. Some of the things said in that room had truly surprised him. Others weren't that shocking when he really gave them due consideration. All in all though, he still considered his own revelation the most astonishing statement of all.

Admitting to his men his feelings for Kate had not been part of his original agenda but, ultimately, it had proven a statement of fact not to be left out. Those same emotions now fueled his uneasiness, and his resolve.

Cautiously, yet determined, the senior agent stood and walked a slow path to her desk. Catching Tanner's approach from the corner of his eye, he silently indicated for the sharpshooter to hold position. He then stopped at her workspace and waited to be noticed.

She knew he was there…

Lansky had her back to Chris and wished that she could spend the day in this position, totally ignoring the man.

If she were the type to cry, Kate might have gone home last night, curled into a big comforting pillow and wept over the courage and conviction behind Larabee's declarations of love and determination. But…

There were no doubts left in her mind now…

The senior agent had acknowledged the one-night-stand that she'd had with his undercover man.

The realization that she'd wanted Chris to fight over her was shocking and overwhelming all at the same time.

Deep down, Lansky knew that her desperation to force Larabee away had conjured up her affair. The second Standish had walked into the Saloon a week ago; all the pieces had fallen into place. His choleric mood had just made things so much easier… fire being her emotion of choice.

She'd actually wished them to clash when Chris and Ezra had exchanged such casual greetings yesterday morning. She was in fact, pissed that they were so civil to one another.

Yet, analyzing that reaction, she'd become annoyed at herself. She wasn't some helpless heartbroken woman anxious to see her lover fight for her. Although it had been thrown together carelessly, she had nonetheless orchestrated the whole affair. She didn't want Larabee to forgive her but she certainly didn't want to see any 'macho' displays of testosterone either.

The battered jaw Standish couldn't hope to hide was Lansky's first slap in the face. The second had come from Chris himself. The arrogant, self-serving, insistent manner in which he'd professed his love, and his intention to keep saying it. The powerful, almost threatening way he had declared, in no uncertain terms, that he was not going to be pushed away…


Kate's eyes closed as her heart melted into so much goo.

There it was…

The whispered one-word greeting that had become their lifeline.

The simplicity of the utterance had always meant that everything was okay between them. The single syllable had broken down walls and forged a bond stronger than anything known to man. By conveying this one word now, Larabee was wiping the slate clean and through all the muddled, extreme, and intense thoughts raging a battle in her mind, Kate 's heart was also now declaring its right to be heard.

Lansky wasn't the type to cry, but at that moment, for the first time in too many years, she felt like doing it.

A conversation she'd had with Buck earlier in the month came rushing back...

"Ain't never seen you do that, Kate… Do you ever let it out? Even with Chris?"

She'd focused elsewhere, threatening her friend instead of answering honestly.

"Don't, Buck… Let it be! My business is my own, you got that!"

In one of his few, rare, yet annoyingly perceptive moments, the ladies' man had answered as only he could.

"You got ‘a let him in sometime, Darlin'. Only way you're ever gonna survive lovin' each other."

If only Buck knew…

If only Lansky could admit it to herself.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

A few feet away from his best friend, a cold shiver ran down Tanner's spine.

At first, Vin had sensed relatively normal reactions from Kate. Unreadable by the average person, the set of her shoulders was fairly relaxed. He could see tension there, but nothing like yesterday. She was almost receptive in comparison and perhaps, exhibiting a little doubt.

Yet once Larabee had spoken, a complex chain of events took place.

He likened his feelings to that of wild animals and the inherent instincts they had for survival… perceptions that sometimes forewarned of pending natural disasters.

Nature's creatures seemed to 'smell' fear and used that attribute to predict when prey was afraid, or was willing to challenge them for the right to live… Then there were the tiny hairs that stood on their backs and cautioned of imminent peril.

All of those factors came into play for the Texan as Lansky turned to face Chris. He felt tension return to her shoulders. He saw the subtle lift of her chin as she silently greeted their boss. But most of all Vin sensed the danger he couldn't explain.

I do not believe I have adequate words to describe what I witnessed for mere seconds. A curtain opening and closing, perhaps…

Ezra's words from yesterday flashed in Tanner's head and he suddenly turned his back on the couple.

To them, his movements might be perceived as affording them privacy. To the sharpshooter however, it was a way to hide his smirk. Tanner had yet to find a way of explaining his gut instincts, but now, coupled with the southerner's statement, Vin realized he finally had a credible description

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Something I can do for you, Mr. Larabee?" Kate inquired as she twirled her chair to face her boss.

Inwardly, Chris sighed at her lack of reaction to their usual greeting. He wasn't however, about to let her see his disappointment. "Any other day, that might be a loaded question," he grinned. Leaning down, he stopped when their eyes met head on. "But today, I just came out to see how you are. Maybe we can get Nathan to look at that arm of yours."

Lansky knew the medic would have a full-blown conniption over her injuries. "I'm fine," she answered calmly.

"Well, good… then you won't mind him taking a look," Larabee straightened, a big smile on his face.

"I'm a little busy right now," the blonde stalled, her indignant huff well concealed. "Maybe later."

"I'm going to hold you to that," the team leader announced with raised expectant eyebrows.

Chris turned and called Vin into his office. Following, he then closed the door behind them.

As she watched, Kate snorted aloud and mumbled, "Over my dead body."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"You mind tellin' me how you knew?"

Lansky glanced at the report the rogue had just dropped on her desk, but didn't stop typing. Staring into his expectant gaze, she knew exactly what he meant yet decided to egg him on a little. "Well…" she sighed heavily, "Perhaps if I knew what you were talking about."

Wilmington sneered and shot back, "Don't give me that! You and I both know you're not what you seem."

"Umm… Well, that certainly explains why I can think, talk, and type, all at the same time," Kate mused. "Good heavens… that rules out any possibility of me being a man in disguise… but then again… most personal assistants aren't, Buck. You do know that, right?"

Leaning on the desk, the ladies' man was a little too confrontational for Lansky's liking. "I didn't say you weren't good."

Finally stopping her transcription on Dunne's notes, the blonde turned her chair, stood, and then watched as Wilmington straightened to tower above her. "I'm very good at a lot of things, Buck," she taunted. "Why don't you go ask Ezra all about it?"

The rogue desperately tried not to blink.

Despite the fact that he'd been ready for one of Lansky's customary witticisms, he hadn't quite expected her to take that particular detour. Clearing his throat quietly, the surveillance man leaned in after a moment and smiled. "Maybe I should ask Chris instead. Ya see, he's got a little more experience and he appreciates what you've got to offer a hell of a lot more."

Kate watched indignantly as a very smug looking rogue, stood back up, grinned from ear to ear, and then walked away.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Putting the last of the sheets together, Kate tapped the pages on her desk to align the holes she'd punched in the document. When they were straight, she fed the binding through, smiling when the job was finally complete.

"That's nice to see," Larabee cooed.

Suspecting he was referring to the ease in her expression, Lansky quickly forced the softness from her face. "It's ready," she announced, handing Chris the bound report. "You figure out how to get it to Travis because I’m not going up there."

The initial amusement died on the blond's lips as he, too, realized that one Adrian Delaney would be between the outer and inner doors. "Thanks," he offered a sarcastic reply as he took the document and tossed it to the crook of his arm.

Lansky wasn't sure why but as she watched Chris walk slowly to the center of the bullpen, she felt somewhat remiss at being so cantankerous. The feeling lasted mere seconds as she shrugged 'oh well' and then went back to work.

Hugging the report he needed to deliver to the AD before noon, the senior agent looked at the clock and realized he had forty-five minutes to find his victim.

'Shouldn't think of it that way' he chastised.

Larabee was instantly reminded of Kate's words… 'Adrian is as competent as I am, Chris. She just needs some slack right now, I'm sure of it.'

Closing his eyes, the man in black sighed, acknowledging to no one but himself that he'd been far too harsh on Travis' assistant.

Licking at his lips nervously, the team leader glanced around at his men.

With Josiah at his Psyche Eval, Nathan would normally be a good man to ask. His friendly disposition was always a plus, not to mention the fact that he was usually eager to help. At the moment though, the medic seemed engrossed in paperwork and with JD close at hand, Larabee assumed they were researching something.

Not wanting to interrupt, Chris turned to the workspace closest to his. What he witnessed made him grin. In their office, Vin and Ezra were talking. The scene, so different from yesterday's distrusting distance, was pleasing, and something the blond had no intentions of disturbing.

"Hey, Stud, what's up?"

Turning to greet his oldest friend, Larabee shrugged, holding the report up for Buck to see. "Don't suppose you'd be interested in…?"

The senior agent wasn't given a chance to finish his request as Wilmington's hands flew up in the air in mock surrender. "Oh, no you don't. I ain't goin' anywhere near that little filly. Bad enough she chewed my hide real good without cause. She was madder than a rattler before you went and stepped on her tail. Oh, no… I ain't goin' close to thirteen unless Travis himself drags me up there." With his objections put out in plain view for all to see and hear, the rogue continued back to the center office and closed the door.

Larabee sighed, rolling his eyes skyward.

Across the room, Kate snickered, turning her back on Chris.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Hi!" Miss Montgomery smiled happily as her boss arrived at the counter. "What's up?"

"Just checking in," Lansky replied as Debbie came closer. As she had the day before, the blonde was looking for any excuse to vacate the seventh floor for a little while. Coming down to check on her immediate subordinate was always a good reason. "Missed you yesterday," Lansky continued. "Wanted to see if everything went okay with that scheduling meeting."

Arriving at the other side of the counter, the Texan couldn't help but notice her boss's face. "What happened to you?"

"Oh, nothing!" Lansky dismissed the query nonchalantly and then changed the subject. "I got clumsy is all. So what happened on Wednesday?"

Never one to question, the Texan let her curiosity go and enthusiastically reported. "Oh, the meeting went fine, no problem. No one's got any major headaches with the rotation you've laid out for the holidays. The rest is minor adjustments I can handle."

"You sure?"

Montgomery grinned, "Yep, I'm sure."

"Well, that's great then!" Kate's cheerful expression turned to curiosity and she cocked her head. "I was here twice in the morning and once in the afternoon… was there a problem?"

Suddenly feigning exasperation, Debbie pouted. "No, of course, not. You know Thursday is a busy day in prep for the weekend... Geez..." she sighed, "I swear you still don't trust me."

"After this long? Well, I'm disappointed. I thought you knew that just isn't true," Lansky appeased. "You're my rock, Deb. You keep me on the straight and narrow."

Pursed lips and raised eyebrows gave way to a coy smile. "I know... and I surely do appreciate the opportunity to learn from a master. Besides, there's nothing to worry about... just Adrian calling in sick yesterday... kind 'a messed up my schedule a little. I had to send a temp up and you know how the AD is… wants things done a certain way."

A frown hiding her reaction, the senior admin advisor inquired with great concern, "Is Delaney alright?" In her head, Kate was snickering; convinced the brunette probably didn't have the guts to face the predicament her mouth had created on Wednesday.

"She had a migraine," Debbie answered matter-of-factly, "but it must be better, she's back today."

"Oh good!" Lansky fabricated a wonderful smile.

Montgomery grinned her reply but then her expression slowly grew serious. "I know you trust me, Kate," she whispered, making sure to turn her face from the security camera. "After all... you didn't report my stupidity at the beginning of the week and I still can't thank you enough."

Rolling her eyes, the blonde leaned across the counter and patted her friend on the arm. "Wasn't your fault, Deb… And even if it was, we all have our moments." Her face baring another contrived smile, Lansky recapped the well-executed scenario in her head...

Stealing her assistant's ID badge had been the easy part.

Transposing the photographs had also been relatively effortless once she'd gained access to the Federal equipment dedicated to document fabrication. 'Lucky for me' she mused.

It was also fortunate that she still had a few 'accouterments' left over from her time with Garrett. The complex encrypted algorithm barring her access to the Identification Section had been easily deciphered, thanks to a little handheld 'gadget' affectionately known as 'cracker'. She knew Dunne and Wilmington would kill to get their hands on some of her 'stuff'.

"I know," Montgomery scowled. "But… Well, you should have written me up, you know that, don't you?"

With a raised eyebrow, Kate joked, "Telling your boss how to do her job are we? Could be a sure way of getting yourself fired you know?"

The two women shared mischievous smiles.

"Look, Deb… Leaving your ID in the bathroom is a clear security violation, but you've never had any problems before… so, I'll keep this one under my hat. Next time though, you're toast."

"Crispy," the assistant quipped back.


"Well, no worries. It won't happen again." Fingering the identification she'd put on a long chain around her neck, the Texan glanced around. "This is Debbie and her ID… never the twain shall part."

Lansky laughed and correct, "It's never the twain shall meet, Deb!"

"I know..." Montgomery joined in with her own giggle. "Just customizing for my new image."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Got a minute?"

Looking up into the profiler's blue eyes, Kate offered a genuine smile. "For you, Josiah, always. What's up?"

Cocking his head slightly, Sanchez considered the vulnerable impression he perceived at that moment. He wondered how truly friendly this lady would be if she knew she was being studied like a hawk.

Not wanting to give that information away too readily though, he smiled back. "Getting late in the day," he offered. "Just wanted to check in before you leave and make sure we're still on for tomorrow. No backing out now, hear?"

The expression on Lansky's face waned slightly and she stood, leaning closer to the big man across her desk. "You can't be serious, Josiah. I can't come. I... I...."

"You what?" he grinned. "You promised to help me clean my yard and I promised to feed you for your efforts. What else is there to know?"

Glancing at the desk, Kate considered her options. There weren't a lot available that she determined palatable. After all... Team Seven, every last one of them, would be there. 'Chris... Ezra... and Vin' she silently groaned.

"I don't think that's such a great idea, Josiah." Momentarily meeting his eyes, she briefly locked her bottom lips between her teeth before her chin dipped. "Delaney is your houseguest and…" Looking up again, she swallowed. "I don't exactly think she wants me in her space right now."

Raising an eyebrow, Sanchez studied the expressions he saw. He considered them genuine yet couldn't help wonder. The discussion with the team yesterday had his mind working overtime and Larabee's instructions after the meeting clearly gave his assent to whatever actions the profiler deemed necessary to gather background for a summation.

Pondering the skepticism Vin had adamantly voiced, Josiah queried how quickly this apparent 'regret' might disappear, given adequate provocation. He leaned in this time, wanting to see any possible changes for himself. "Remorse, Kate? That's... not exactly in keeping with the tough, no nonsense image you've been performing lately."

An instant sneer appearing on her lips and the blonde narrowed her eyes. "Performing?" Kate shook her head; partially disbelieving Sanchez would talk to her this way. The other half of her reaction was pure defense. "Don't presume to profile me, Josiah. I promise, you won't get far."

Satisfied that he'd received and catalogued what he was supposed to, the big man decided he'd leave the analyzing for later. "There, isn't that much better..." the big man grinned. Resuming his stance, he moved back slightly. "At least with threats, we all know where we stand."

Disgruntled that Sanchez had clearly incited the exact response he'd been looking for, Lansky growled. "Count me out of your little party, Josiah. I don't feel like playing anymore stupid games."

Considering the blonde carefully as they stared at one another, the profiler understood he now needed a different strategy to crack this particular hard case. "Rain asked after you, you know?"

Seeing no discernable reaction, Josiah continued. "She doesn't know Adrian that well and told Nathan she hoped you'd be there." Relaxing, he added hand motions to his speech. "Personally, I think they'll get along just fine but you know how talkative Rain gets around new people. They've only met once and that was briefly."

With the presumed threat mysteriously gone, Kate automatically adjusted tactics. 'All true' she reasoned, but what did that have to do with her? If she went, she sure as hell wouldn't be in the kitchen sharing 'girl talk'. The very idea made her eyes roll involuntarily.

Seeing the gesture, Sanchez smiled, thinking his chatter was getting to the lady. "So, you'll come then?" he asked, his broad grin on full display.

Lansky sighed silently. "You're the only one here who wants me within ten miles of them," she growled.

"That's not true," the profiler shot back indignantly. It was time to drill home the message Chris had felt most important. "And if you gave yourself half a chance, you'd see that. Quit being so damn stubborn, Kate. You're our friend. For three years now we've had that honor and if you'd get you head out of your ass, you'd see that it takes more than one random drunken indiscretion to ruin lifelong friendships."

She'd been ready for a confrontational attitude, and even a few choice words, but combining them and from Josiah's mouth no less, caught Lansky off guard. She stared at the profiler, one eyebrow rising as her lips pursed ever so slightly. "Well... we'll see," she muttered.

Sanchez chalked one up for himself, offered his big toothy grin, turned, and then headed back to his office. Kate's added, "Don't count on it though," did nothing to deter his good mood.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"You sure about this?" the man in black asked of his best friend. Standing on one side of his closed office door, Larabee tensed slightly knowing Kate was on the other side, completely unsuspecting of what they were about to do.

"Don't see no other way, Chris," the sharpshooter pouted slightly. "Like I said before... them kind 'a reflexes ain't normal."

Vin had tried to explain what he'd felt earlier. All through their private meeting, and lunch, he'd attempted to define the feelings he was only now able to put into words... and still not very good ones at that. Ezra's statements got him thinking and between the two of them, the Texan was now confident Larabee understood.

Lips pursed tightly, the team leader shifted his attention from Tanner's bright blue eyes. Peering carefully through his closed blinds, he surveyed the results of his quick phone call to Buck.

"You ready?"

Glancing back at Vin, Larabee shook his head no! "A caged animal ain't pretty, Vin, especially when it's one you love."

Acknowledging the message, the sharpshooter nodded reassuringly as Chris reached for the doorknob.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Three-thirty on a Friday afternoon normally found Kate shutting down for the week, readying to head home. Today was no different. She put one final formula into a spreadsheet and saved the document, hoping she'd be able to remember where she left off when Monday morning rolled around. Closing out her e-mail, the blonde suddenly became aware that all was not as it seemed.

There was insufficient time to analyze the chill that ran up her spine. Only seconds passed before Larabee and Tanner existed the senior agent's office. Chris came to her desk, while Vin hung back.

Focused intently on her computer screen, Kate inexplicably and instantly felt trapped.

"So..." a smile on his face, the man in black was as casual as he could be. "You ready to have Nathan look at that arm of yours?"

The sharpshooter was employing his above-average vision to track every possible reaction he could observe. More importantly though, he was utilizing the intuition freed in him by his Native American 'brothers'. His time among the tribes had given him peace, but it had also taught him to see beyond normal boundaries. The heightened senses and gut feelings had served him well, continuing to be a life saving asset.

Observing the almost undetectable tilt of Lansky's head, Vin's breath hitched as her eyes closed. Mere seconds passed yet again, but when her blue pools re-opened, Tanner understood that Kate now had the entire scenario mapped out in her mind.

Focused once more on the network icon of her desktop, senior administrator Lansky was now back, yet her deadly counterpart lurked just below the surface. Either way, the blonde knew she was surrounded.

JD was directly behind her; the nervous rubbing together of his fingers confirmed that.

To Dunne's right stood Josiah, seemingly relaxed; yet the heaviness of his breath clearly indicated his presence.

Buck stood further to the kid's left than Sanchez was to the right. Kate immediately calculated a probable scenario. Obviously the exit was their priority but did they honestly think she'd bolt against seemingly overpowering odds? She could have breached that escape route with little effort of course, if she so chose, but she wasn't interested in taking down amateurs for sport.

Noting Ezra's position to her left, Lansky calculated that he'd probably be within her sight if she chose to look up.

Nathan, medical bag in hand, stood closer to Chris, clearly waiting to perform the examination their boss was hinting at.

Tanner was the exception but the others surrounded her completely. Kate laughed inwardly at their show of force and wondered how much Vin had really managed to figure out... clearly though, they had no real concept of the danger they were facing. As the soft smile curled her lips, she made damn sure the sharpshooter got a good look at the menace in her eyes.

"Oh... I don't think so, Chris," she answered Larabee as casually as he'd spoken to her. Glancing at her computer to complete the shutdown sequence, she stood, staring directly into the blond's gaze. "I've got things to do... and besides... I sincerely doubt you and your six friends want to hold me down while Nathan takes a peek!"

His eyes narrowing, the team leader watched as Lansky picked up and then shouldered her duffel bag. Sliding her chair in, she then casually departed without acknowledging a soul.

A minute passed as the seven men slowly stepped closer together. Eventually, Larabee turned to Tanner. "Well?"

Wishing he had a blade of grass to chew on instead of his bottom lip, Vin took in a deep breath, exhaling forcefully. "She knew it all, Chris," he almost whispered.

"That's impossible," JD blurted out with a scoff. "No way she saw me and Buck. Josiah took up his position a half-hour ago and she never took her eyes off her computer the whole time, right?"

When the kid glanced at him questioningly, Sanchez raised his brows in agreement. "You know what she's like when she gets working on a spreadsheet."

"Dog to a bone," Nathan half-smiled.

Looking from Jackson back to Larabee, Vin nodded ever so slowly. "Well... this dog's got sharp teeth, boys. I reckon we might be needin' every trick in the dogcatcher's handbook to cage her."

Standish swallowed hard listening to the Texan's analogy. His recent close proximity to the subject of their discussion was fresh on his mind. "Well, gentlemen, if Mr. Tanner's supposition is correct, I, for one, believe our libations at the Saloon this evening should be plentiful."

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

It was Saturday and with her run and shower out of the way, Lansky was trying to relax. What a week it had been!

Now partially reclined on the couch with her eyes closed, she was gently massaging her injured forearm. There were too many days with demands on her time and Kate was hoping that today would be different. Across the room the radio played softly yet, she wasn't consciously listening to it. The background noise had been helping her mind to wander, but sudden twinges around her handcrafted stitches painfully jerked her back to reality. She cussed, once more forcing her thoughts back to more pleasant topics…

The past two and a half years were full of so many good times. Despite recent appearances, the 'boys' were the best thing that could have ever happened to her. It brought a rare smile to Lansky’s lips to reminisce about their antics. Recalling downtime they'd steal, or the social events that were never quite the same once they'd arrived. So many good memories, yet lately, they were daunted by unwanted comparison. Team Seven's casual approach to the world around them was so different from what she'd previously walked away from.

These men were a different kind of professional… just as dedicated to their cause and more than capable when the need arose. What was contrary however, was the obvious friendships… that special something they shared. A bond like none Kate had ever encountered before… an underlying, almost spiritual connection that had been so hard to ignore. It had made her leery at first but drew her attention nonetheless. Eventually, Lansky had been enveloped, but unlike her last 'group' experience, there was never anything forced… Just companions, truly wanting to be with one another.

Oh, there had been the typical obstacles to overcome. Annoying little idiosyncrasies, personality traits, and peculiar habits. Arguments about nothing in particular that died a less-than-speedy death... Practical jokes, serious mind-your-own-business struggles, and endless 'buddy' activities. Through it all though, Team Seven had unknowingly reminded Kate what the 'real world' could be like and that she could, despite all that had been drilled into her head, live that existence.

Lansky sighed heavily as her chin dipped. Admit it or not, giving up this life was going to be incredibly difficult and just the thought almost had her second-guessing herself.

She'd spent nearly three years trying to forget her life 'before'. The boys had been there every step of the way but this last month had changed all that. As much as she hated to go there, her past and present were becoming meshed and the haunting images of a long-ago choice dogged her thoughts. Given their history, falling into Larabee's arms had been so easy, and for a time, she'd forgotten her promise to never tread that fine line again. It was a lifetime ago, but that didn't change the fact that it was pledge made when she'd traded her own life for that of another… inevitably exhausting what little had remained of a defective conscience.

Eyes flashing open, Lansky's expression clearly displayed her disdain. "The coward's way out," she growled, sitting up angrily.

But was it really?

It was inescapable torment and confusion that had led to that long-ago choice. A complex web of lies and doubts, and eventually, confused loyalties… ultimately, it all became too much.


There would always be that hesitation. That nagging question in Kate's mind…

The look on Cole's face as he died…

His pleading… silenced by a hand whose twin took his life…

"Damn you, General," Kate cursed at a whisper, her eyes closing again in silent recognition and regret. It was easier to blame another than accept her role in the tragedy.

And yet here she was years later, still angry and mystified about her true motivation for walking away from General Garrett.

Was it conscience?

Or was it simply getting out alive while she still could?

Barely escaping that collapsing building with her own life, her injuries were substantial. A slow recovery helped to mask the physiological scars, yet keeping her anger in check around Garrett had grown increasingly difficult. Camouflaging her deceit was easier but she knew if he ever found out how she'd betrayed him…

Betrayed herself…

But there had been no other way!

Kate had lost count of how many times she'd tried to convince herself of that. In that insane reality, logically, it all made sense. Being trapped was nothing new but it had been literally that last time, not just figuratively. At a complete loss, she could no longer distinguish between friend and foe… between good and evil… right and wrong.

Uninvited feelings had confused and bewildered her to the point where loyalties were questioned and finally, Lansky had retreated to the safety of what she knew best... survival. Whenever she was threatened, an ingrained instinct to survive took control and in the chaos of that moment, a split-second decision had been made.


It was always about survival.

The aftermath had proven that Garrett had trained her well. They all saw exactly what she wanted them to see. Any immediate threat had been eliminated and no one seemed to care about the compromised investigation. No one ever remembered the man who lost his life that day.

"Except me!" Lansky snarled, her coffee table flying halfway across the room. It took only one deep breath to calm herself, sending that burst of anger away as quickly as it had come. An evil glimmer remained however, curling the corners of her mouth ever so slightly.

Kate understood her instant rage. It had allowed her to do a job few others could and it had saved her life more than once. Yet, staring at the upturned table, she was once again torn between its uses and the control it exerted over her. Debating purpose was futile and Lansky knew it. Trying to unlearn a method of survival was like attempting to convince yourself you didn't need air to live; you couldn't do it no matter how hard you tried. And try she had, but such deep-seated intuition and ingrained instinct never went away.

Disdain written all over her face, Lansky stood and walked across the floor. Righting the furniture and dragging it back into place, she forcefully retrieved her bandage, sat, and then began to wrap her injured arm. As she worked, a complex chain of events replayed in her mind...

Kate was an only child, born to parents who had met in the orphanage they grew up in. Except for an obvious lack of family, her childhood and adolescence were pretty normal by most accounts. At eighteen though, life forever changed for the petite blonde. A car crash took the life of both parents, leaving her alone in the world. It was an accident, of that much Lansky was sure. But reflection years later also led her to realize that it was that same cruel twist of fate that forever sealed her destiny.

Six months after that deadly collision and hoping to turn her tragedy into triumph, she had enlisted, following in her father's footsteps. She had no way of knowing then that it was the final step in fate's evil plan…

Being her Dad's tomboy, almost from the moment she could walk, Recruit Training wasn't as hard as she'd expected because 'Females' were treated to an amended program all those years ago. But three days before her normal duties were supposed to begin, they ceased to exist. She was deprived of her Basic Training Graduation and robbed of the customary career that was acknowledged to come with it.

It was so easy to judge now. To look back at her abduction and affirm how evil that forced reality truly was. But then, almost twenty-five years ago, she was young and impressionable… not even twenty years old and faced with circumstances that threatened her very existence.

If she had to do it all again… would she?

Angrily tying off the bandage with her teeth and free hand, Lansky's eyes closed as ten fingers scrubbed her face, scalp, and finally, her lids. Resting back on the sofa, she chastised herself silently, wondering where she had gone wrong. Of all the complicated, grim, and dangerous situations she'd been in. Of all the unfriendly, hostile, and even repulsive objectives she'd overcome. Why was she back to this?

"Damn you, Larabee," Kate whispered in answer to that query. The slap of hands to thighs signaled another level of frustration taking hold.

Cursing Chris right along side General Garrett made them both look like the enemy and Lansky knew that wasn't true. What had happened between her and the senior agent over the past month was… was…

Words failed her for just a moment.

If her heart could speak it would say so many wonderful things but, safely buried where no one could reach it, a speech from her inner truth could never emerge.

"Stupid!" Kate growled instead, her blue eyes narrowing menacingly to hide her pain.

Team Seven was comprised of several former servicemen... a Ranger, Army Veteran, and SEALs. All of who had turned cops and finally, Federal Agents. Together, the whole team represented every patriotic, law-abiding, loyal, honest, respectable attribute anyone could ever want to be.

A part of Kate laughed silently at the irony.

They were everything good and righteous yet they were still naïve enough to overlook the evil that hid amongst them.

Describing herself so, quickly made the laughter disappear. Lansky shifted uncomfortably, her tongue darting out to wet suddenly dry lips.

"You can't survive out there, Kate." General Garrett's taunting echoed in her thoughts.

The remembrance was a searing reminder of the day she'd walked out on him. He'd been explicit… telling her in no uncertain terms that she could never live a normal life. That The Cause would always be in her blood and that he would always be on her mind.

On her mind he was, but not for the obvious reason.

Lansky was convinced that the bastard had been watching her. The e-mails she'd received and tried to ignore, the fact that he'd known where she was… and finally, that communication… It all drew her to one horrible conclusion.

How long he'd been keeping surveillance, she didn't know, but her gut was screaming that there was more to it… a lot more than he'd let on during their conversation Monday evening. And after twenty years of familiarization, the blonde understood that there was little in this world more dangerous than Major General Francis Ulysses Garrett with 'a cause'.

Right now, Kate was afraid that his cause might be her.

She was afraid, yes, but not for herself. Nothing the general could ever do to her would be worse than anything she'd already experienced under his thumb. What bothered Lansky now was the danger she knew she was putting her friends in… putting Chris in.

Kate had already accepted that she had little choice left.

The truth was plain, staring her in the face as though it were standing right in front of her. Giving up this existence that she'd worked so hard to build was the right thing to do. That life wasn't as important as losing the men that gave it to her... losing another man who dared to love her.

A knock drew Kate from her thoughts.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

"Aren't you ready yet?" Rain bubbled as Lansky opened the door.

Kate sighed silently, knowing what her friend was talking about but not wanting any part of it. "Ready?" she inquired innocently, hoping The Jacksons would go away.

"The work party and barbecue," the lady replied matter-of-factly. "Josiah said he didn't think you were coming, so we came to prove him wrong. Hurry! Get your stuff. You're ride awaits."

'Josiah, huh?' Lansky accused silently. The conversation she'd had with the profiler yesterday came flooding back and she was instantly suspicious. Folding her arms gingerly across her chest, she pursed her lips, sending a quick glare in Nathan's direction. The medic was the other person she thought she could trust; never believing either would betray her clear desire to stay away from the Sanchez residence today. Cooling the flash of fire in her eyes, she refocused on the man's wife and tried to be pleasant. "I'm not going, Rain. Josiah was right. Sorry you came so far out of your way."

"Always with the dramatics," Rain giggled. "You know it's only a little detour. And besides, Josiah always being right is all the more reason to prove him wrong, don't you think?"

Without a second thought, Lansky silently acknowledged the truth in her friend's words. Sanchez had a way… almost 'an air' about him. It had always been a private little joke between the two women. The profiler liked to be right about everything. He was one of those people who quietly observed, made suppositions, and then drew conclusions. The whole process drove them both crazy and they had even kidded that it was Josiah's way of creating camaraderie between them. They were two completely different women from two ends of the 'female' spectrum, yet strangely enough, they could share commonalties. Creating 'something' for them to talk about behind everyone's back had actually encouraged a bonding of sorts. Knowingly or not, Josiah had made friends out of two ladies who, ordinarily, might not have given each other another glance.

"He'd deserve it," Kate muttered, thoughts of yesterday fading as she unwittingly fell into the easy mood that normally prevailed between her and Rain.

Grinning, Mrs. Jackson was suddenly hopeful. "You'll come then?"

"I didn't say that," was Lansky's quick response.

Feeling stuck between that proverbial 'rock and a hard place' wasn't exactly comfortable and Jackson felt the need to at least try to mediate. Rain knew nothing about what was going on, especially between his teammates and their ladies. She'd taken Josiah's news like the stubborn woman that she was, and then decided to drive over and abduct Lansky, despite his objections. Nathan admired her tenacity but knowing what he did, he just wasn't sure she'd be able to convince their friend that she'd enjoy the day. "Maybe we should go, Rain," he urged. "Kate obviously doesn't feel like going today."

There weren't any ulterior motives to Mrs. Jackson's quest. She simply wanted her friend to attend yet another in a long line of group activities. The boys showed up with the occasional girlfriend now and then but they were rarely steady. Like it or not, over the last two plus years, Rain had gotten used to Lansky's company.

Matching the blonde's stubborn pose, Rain seemed to dig in her heals. "I called Josiah last night to see if there were any last minute things we could pick up on our way over. Do you know what he told me, Kate?"

Raising a marginally attentive eyebrow, the blonde shrugged, all the while guessing she knew what Sanchez had been thinking.

"He told me that he had everything he needed and that he thought Adrian and I could handle the details easily."

"He's probably right," Lansky replied nonchalantly.

"He's always right, Kate, we both now that, but that isn't the point."

Lansky couldn't shake the feeling that they were being set up. Nevertheless, she played along, not wanting to alert Mrs. Jackson that anything was wrong. "Alright, Rain," she sighed, "just what is the point?"

Her friend not recognizing the significance of Josiah's statement made Rain pout. "The point? The point, Kate! The point is, he normally says we can handle it. You and me! We’re the ones that make a good team, remember?"

Never loosing sight of the game she suspected Josiah was playing, Lansky sighed audibly. "Rain, I'm just not in the mood for this one. I… Well… You'd end up doing everything anyway... just like always. I'd spend all my time outside and you know that. Making salad just isn't…." There was a short pause before the blonde continued. "Look… I need some downtime… business to take care of and thinking to do… I've made my decision and that's that!"

Nathan watched as Lansky tried to focus elsewhere while his wife squared her shoulders, readying for her next assault. He wasn't expecting what came next.

"Coward!" Rain threw the word in Kate's face. "Chris is going to be there and you're so giddy in love with the man that you can't face him. You can't fool me, girlfriend. I know something special when I see it. Running won't help you either because inevitability always conquers uncertainty."

Standing behind his wife, Jackson rolled his eyes. The shake of his head was almost undetectable.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Exiting the vehicle, Mrs. Jackson looked through the side window and crossed her arms stubbornly. "Alright," she motioned to Larabee's truck. "He's here. Now's your chance to prove me wrong."

Extracting the hibachi as Lansky emerged, Nathan quickly high-tailed it out of there, going through the side gate into Josiah huge back yard.

Kate shook her head gently. "I have no clue where you get these insane ideas from, lady. I would much rather have stayed home and relaxed but if it'll clear up this ridiculous notion of yours…"

"Nothing ridiculous about it," Rain interrupted. Smirking, she raised her eyebrows, taunting her friend playfully. "Being around Chris makes you hot and you know it. Oh, there's love there, too, and as much as I love my husband, I'm not blind, girl. There isn't one amongst this team that isn't devilishly handsome in his own way. Their boss is no exception."

'How true is that!' Kate mused before chastising herself for falling into her friend's trap. "I give up," she sighed, heading for the Sanchez residence.

"About time," Mrs. Jackson smirked as she followed.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

All conversation ended as soon as Lansky entered Josiah's kitchen but the brief silence was broken with Rain's arrival. "Morning," she bubbled to everyone, taking quick note of Larabee's eyes glued on Kate. "Yes, I brought her. You didn't think I'd let her miss out on the fun, did you?"

"My wife is good at manipulation," Nathan offered as he entered through the patio door. Kissing Rain on the cheek, he found Josiah at the stove. "Chili?"

Resuming his stirring of the large pot, the profiler nodded. "Lunch… with buns. Should quell the appetite before the hard work begins."

"Mr. Sanchez has once again succeeded in securing adequate reason to experiment with our taste buds," Ezra smiled from his perch between a reluctant Adrian and their host.

Vin's attention was seemingly on the ensuing conversation but from the corner of his eye he watched curiously as Chris approached Kate.

"Glad you could come," the man in black said quietly.

Not meeting his green eyes, Lansky gave an almost imperceptible shrug. "Extra muscle… not that you need it."

There was a pause.

"You… still thinking on my needs, Kate?"

Whether question or statement, it wasn't what the blonde wanted to hear right now... or ever again for that matter, but here and now wasn't the time or place. Finally meeting his stare, Lansky wore a blank expression as she answered, her voice low. "I won't do this with you anymore, Chris. I told you… no more games."

As she headed for the sliding-glass door, Larabee's determination kicked in. Dispelling Tanner's curiosity with a glance, he followed, securing the portal behind him.

With her back to him, Kate was leaning over the railing. Silence reigned briefly but the man in black was unwavering. He intended to make his position clear. "No more games, huh? Does that mean you're ready to tell me what's really going on with you?"

Again, there was no answer…

"It doesn't have to be this hard, Kate. Talk is never cheap where friends are concerned and you've got a hell of a lot more friends than you'd like to admit."

'I'm admitting it, damn it' Lansky thought silently as her eyes closed. Allowing her friends to live, ignorant of her past sins, was a far better choice than confiding, only to watch them die.

"I can't do it, Kate, but… maybe you can. Maybe you can forget us for a minute," Chris continued. "Forget everything we've shared over the past three years. Forget the life that you gave back to me… Forget it all, but don't turn your back on everyone else in that room."

"That's a laugh, Chris!" Turning to face him again, Kate swallowed. "You won't let me. You just said you can't forget. As always, it's the High and Mighty Chris Larabee declaring what he wants, never considering what anyone else needs."

They stared, a stalemate declared for a brief moment.

All confrontation suddenly gone from his voice, the man in black swallowed, cleared his throat and then spoke quietly. "All I want is the truth, Kate. I need to know what it is that you're afraid of… What can scare anyone enough to make them give up everything that they've built… everything that we have together?"

The response was somber, though biting. "We have nothing…."

Larabee huffed. "Oh, I hear the words," he answered slowly. "You keep saying the same thing but there's no conviction. I can hear the hesitation in your voice… and damn it, I see the way you look at me."

Not knowing what else to do, Lansky snickered distastefully as she turned away. Her heart knew every word he spoke was the truth but denying that fact was the only chance any of them had. "The truth… It isn't worth the price, Chris. I won't pay… I can't!"

As she descended the stairs, Larabee had to frown. He'd heard two final words spoken at a whisper and the 'not again' was strangely familiar…

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Larabee’s thoughts had been interrupted as everyone made their way out to the patio and then followed Lansky down the stairs.

"Comin' Stud?" Buck asked with a slap on his best friend's back.

"The last of the cavalry has arrived," Vin commented to his best friend as Wilmington teased JD all the way down to the grass.

As they glanced at one another, the silent exchange told Tanner nothing had changed between Chris and Kate. "Best get organized," he offered a distraction. "Josiah wants the jobs assigned and everyone ready before lunch. Already past ten now."

Larabee looked at his watch as the Texan urged him to follow.

"About time you decided to come to the party," the rogue cracked as Vin and Chris joined the rest of the team.

Clapping his hands together, Josiah spoke, "Alright! These are my thoughts. Feel free to add yours but the way I see it, the more concurrent the activities, the faster we get to the beer and steaks."

"Here, here," Buck offered watching Sanchez pat his belly.

"So… Nathan, if I can put you in charge of the fire. They'll be lots of bush to burn and I have my permit. I thought creating a feeder pile would allow you to add a little at a time after the initial burn."

Jackson nodded, acknowledging both his agreement to the job as well as Josiah's plan of action. "Sounds good to me."

"Good," Sanchez grinned and then continued. "Chris, Vin… if you can take charge of the trees I'd appreciate it. The fallen one needs to be removed from the fence line and cut up. Buck, JD… the wheelbarrows are under the porch. You can stack the wood there as well."

"Sure, Josiah," Dunne agreed quickly. "Me and Buck can handle anything you want." With Wilmington's enthusiastic nod, the kid smiled.

"Well, I'm glad to hear you say that, JD," the big man smiled again. "Because once that tree is out of the way, Chris and Vin may need a hand fixing the fence. The new lumber's all ready to go."

"Sure thing."

Happy that his plans were being well received, the profiler turned to Lansky. "Kate… I figured you’d rather be outside than in, so you can take your pick. You decide if you want to help over there, or over this side of the yard where Ezra, Nathan and I will be hopefully be disposing of all the overgrown plant life."

"What about the other oak?" Wilmington interrupted, purposely ignoring the resigned huff from Standish. "Thought you said it was coming down, too."

"Oh, it is… but the first one needs to be dealt with before the second can be felled."

Throughout Josiah's entire speech, Kate had been standing off to one side listening. A part of her still didn't want to be here, yet another side was compelled to help her friends, just as she had done for almost three years.

Why did things have to be this difficult?

They were all grown ups, weren't they?

Deciding quickly on a compromise that would lend assistance but allow her distance, Kate spoke. "If you don't mind, Josiah, I'll start on the standing oak. The limbs have to come off before it comes down anyway."

Sanchez considered the statement, acknowledging the truth. "Hadn't thought about that… there's a second chain saw in the garage. It's smaller so I left it inside, but it might do nicely on the branches."

"Thanks," Lansky offered a brief smile, "but I… need a workout."

Seven men watched curiously, exchanging glances when Kate didn't wait for an answer. Walking over to the tools lined up on the grass, she studied the four axes available, picking a larger one and a smaller version.

JD's ominous query at the end of yesterday's meeting came instantly to Wilmington's mind and he teased, "Notice how she went straight for the sharp tools, JD?"

As though born to the task, Kate quickly sent the small axe over her shoulders, securing it at the back of her neck by tucking it inside her shirts. With the remaining axe gripped tightly in one hand, the blonde made her way over to the broken fence.

"What's she doing?" JD asked, almost at a whisper.

Vin answered, his equally ominous reply drawing glances from his teammates. "At a guess… I'd say using all available natural resources. Like she was trained to do…."

Unwilling to read more into her obvious display, the southerner offered his version. "Or perhaps, just mimicking observed behavior, Mr. Tanner." When he had everyone's attention, Standish continued. "The lumber jack competition can prove… interesting. This particular event is referred to as the Springboard Chop. By notching the tree and inserting a board, the woodsman ascends, thus allowing him to top the tree."

Buck’s scowl was clear. "And you know that, how?" Of all people, the rogue thought Ezra the last person in the world who would understand so called 'forest' sports.

"How does Kate know that might be a better question?" Nathan interrupted and all eyes refocused on Lansky again.

She proceeded to do exactly as Ezra described, the swing of the big axe sent splinters of wood flying. Two solid chops later, she forced a broken fence board into the gaping hole and jumped up. The height wasn't quite enough though and one more swing of the axe secured it firmly in the tree, allowing the blonde to pull herself into the branches.

Noting the defiant, almost violent attitude in Lansky's actions, Buck turned to Chris. "Just… exactly… what was your conversation about back there?"

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

“Are you coming down from there?” Josiah inquired. “I will be mightily offended if you don’t. Everyone must try my chili.”

High above, Kate's smile was a natural reaction. The statement was true, almost like a commandment actually. When Sanchez cooked everyone had to sample. “I’ll be right there,” she called back. Securing the smaller axe, the blonde climbed down, jumping the final distance to the ground.

Dissecting her with his eyes, the profiler raised one brow. “Working up a sweat I see.”

Down to her undershirt, Lansky had forgotten her shirt in the branches. Following Josiah’s inquiring eyes, she tried to discount the questions she knew he was formulating. “Hard work should be rewarded with a good sweat, don’t you think?”

“And what sort of activity demands that as a reward?”

Eyes locked on his, Kate didn’t need to follow his pointing finger to know what he was referring to. The scratches on her face were healing but the burns on her arm and torso were far worse. Luckily, the bandage below her elbow had been well secured and was still in place. “Out in the sun too long,” she shrugged.

Watching Lansky head towards the porch, Josiah sighed. Nathan’s questions were bound to come next so he wouldn’t press. “Sunburn indeed,” he muttered as he followed.

All eyes were locked on the ensuring argument when Sanchez got up the stairs. As he’d predicted, the medic’s attention had quickly diverted to the blonde when JD exclaimed his shock and surprise.

“I saw a doctor,” Kate lied.

“How come I didn’t get the report?” Jackson shot back.

“You aren’t privy to everything, Nathan. It didn’t happen on the job, and need I remind you, I am not a member of this damn Team?”

“I should have listened to my gut on Thursday,” Larabee voiced. “I knew you were hiding more than a few scratches.”

“I’m fine!” Lansky pulled her arm from the medic’s hand and grabbed a bowl and bun. Sitting down gruffly, she took up a spoon and began to eat.

Lunch was dotted with varied conversation after that. Rain and Adrian joined the men, proudly telling how wonderful their salad, potatoes, and marinated steaks were going to be. “We’re just about done,” Delaney smiled at Josiah. “I want to come down and help in the garden.”

“Yeah,” Mrs. Jackson reiterated the statement. “Kate’s not the only woman around here who can contribute.”

“Hey, my stomach is already drooling over that steak. That’s plenty of contribution in my book!” Buck enthused as he got up for another bun.

Following Wilmington into the kitchen with his empty bowl, Vin had to concur. “I’m lookin' forward to it, ladies… but in the meantime….”

“Your chili is always a hit,” Nathan smiled at Josiah as Tanner disappeared.

Pleased that his slaving was being recognized appropriately, Sanchez acknowledged his best friend before his eyes drifted to Larabee. The man in black had hardly touched his food. “Something wrong with the chili, Chris?”

With preoccupied thoughts, he barely recognized his name, but Larabee did manage to raise a brow in the profiler’s direction. When the question was repeated, the blond smiled. “It’s fine, Josiah. Just… distracted is all.”

“Maybe you should go stare at someone else then,” Lansky snapped. The man’s eyes had been glued to her the whole time and she was becoming annoyed.

“Funny, but a little truth goes a long way, Kate…” Chris didn’t get to finish his statement.

“Oh give it a rest, Larabee!” the woman snapped.

All movement at the table ceased and, walking into the suddenly thick air, Tanner’s return was somewhat uncomfortable.

Glancing around as the Texan settled, Lansky closed her eyes. When she opened them again, her face displayed the regret absent from her voice. “You want truth? Alright, Chris… I’m tired. Tired of having to explain every little thing that goes on in my life. Ever since we… since we got together. It’s like my life isn’t mine anymore. You pry. You’re dreaming up imaginary problems… You won’t leave me alone.”

As she excused herself, Delaney’s loud snort was clear, her mumblings afterward not so. Convert glances in the brunette’s wake indicated just how uncomfortable everyone else now felt. One by one they all offered compliments to the cook and returned to work, Rain finally departing at her husband’s insistence.

Three occupants were left at the table. Vin busily munched on his chili and bun. Kate finished the last spoonful and tossed it into the bowl.

“Happy?” Larabee inquired sarcastically.

One raised brow greeted the blond before her eyes got that far. When they did, she sneered. “If you could take a fucking hint, I might be.” With that, Lansky got up, navigated around the chairs, and then headed back downstairs.

At least a minute passed before Vin's slow drawl sounded. “That went well,” he offered, finishing his last bite.

“Just full of funny today, aren’t we, Tanner?”

Snickering at his best friend’s glare, the Texan stood, gathering his bowl and spoon. “Can’t say she ain’t told ya… done it publicly now, too. Don’t rightly know for sure but I’d say that ain’t a good sign.”

Larabee sighed. “Have I mentioned how much I value your advice?”

“Not lately,” Vin pouted playfully. “Kind ‘a disappointin’.”

Chris had no choice but to smile. The longhaired Texan just had that way about him. He was happy to be distracted by their banter yet, as his friend disappeared inside, Larabee’s attention shifted back to the garden below.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~

Jumping out of the way as Lansky yelled 'Incoming', Wilmington glared at Chris again. Looking up, he saw the woman chopping at yet another branch and quickly moved in to clear the latest debris. “You sure you can’t live without that little filly?”

Knowing the question was directed at him, Larabee sighed, rolling his eyes.

“I wouldn’t want ‘a be in yer shoes if she hears ya callin’ her that,” Tanner mentioned casually as he went by with an armload of lumber.

“Me either,” JD added as he followed Vin over to the fence line.

Buck sent a blunt ‘ha ha’ to the pair and pursed his lips. “You ever see her act like this before, Chris?" he asked. "Makes a man kind 'a glad she's up there and not down here.”

Hammer mid-swing, Chris paused, his eyes drifting upward. Estimating her to be more than halfway up Josiah’s great oak, the man in black scowled. Lansky seemed intent on showing another side of herself today and he didn’t like it too much. He was worried about her and knew Josiah felt the same way.

After lunch, Kate had been even more insistent that she could deal with the tree on her own. Not being able to provide a safety belt or spikes, Sanchez had voiced his displeasure. All of their objections had fallen on deaf ears though. The blonde had made steady progress in her ascent and the trunk was now littered with the three-inch stubs that served as her only support.

“That's coming along beautifully,” the profiler commented about the newly constructed fence. “I know the neighbors will be as appreciative as I am.”

Lansky’s ‘warning’ sounded again and the ladies’ man quickly jumped out of the way. When Josiah raised a questioning brow, Wilmington scowled. “That woman's got a hate on today. She’s out to get me. I just know it.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, Buck, but there is definitely some classic behavior going on here.”

“You… still profiling her, Josiah?” JD asked and was instantly ‘shushed’ by a nervous rogue.

Glancing at the four men and then up into the tree, Sanchez nodded and winked, smiling sheepishly as he walked away.

Wilmington’s eyes tracked the big man suspiciously. “I don’t think I like the way he said that.”

JD frowned, “But….”

Looking into Buck's skeptical blue eyes, Dunne decided it best not to continue his train of thought. Josiah hadn’t said a word, yet questioning that fact didn’t mean that his best friend wasn’t right. Clearly, everyone else seemed to think so. Tanner was grinning as he went back to work and Chris was suddenly putting a lot of effort into nailing those boards together. Wondering if Wilmington's raised brow was good or bad, the kid missed his answer as Buck scrambled out of the way of another warning.

Having wandered back over on the other side of his big yard, Sanchez stood sipping the water Rain had just handed him. Watching his volunteers, he was reminded of what he had just said about classic behavior. Adrian Delaney was busy vigorously hacking away at the dreaded blackberry brambles, and Ezra… Well, the southerner was being as attentive as he could possible be. Every time Standish offered water, the brunette’s machete seemed to swing just a little more forcefully. Every time he suggested she rest, Adrian moved deeper into the patch. Wondering if there was anyone here who was not avoiding something, Josiah was reassured as he turned to see Rain wiping her husband's brow and Nathan taking the drink she offered, giving a kiss in return.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Compared to the commotion at lunchtime, supper had been a relatively quiet affair, the group all too exhausted to bicker much. Instead, conversation was light, with no particular focus, other than the day's activity.

Complementing all involved in the work party, Josiah had proposed a toast, thanking each and every one of his friends for their efforts. His words regarding camaraderie, family, and true closeness had received hesitant approval.

Dispersing, the gathering went about their business, and for the first time, Kate actually felt that her tactics were working. Everyone seemed to be ignoring the blonde and part of her acknowledged that she deserved it. Her efforts throughout the day had been to create a distance between herself and the others, yet achieving that aim didn't feel as good as she'd expected. 'It's all for the best' she told herself as she sauntered down the stairs and headed towards the fire pit. It would be easier to accomplish that final split if feelings were hurt and no one cared anymore.

As the internal struggle waged within Lansky she poked and prodded at the burning coals. When they'd been turned sufficiently, she piled the last of the brambles and, content in her efforts, she lingered for a time, enjoying the warmth as the air cooled about her.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Chris watched curiously as Rain flitted about the kitchen gathering dishes and cutlery for Adrian to load in the dishwasher. Each time Mrs. Jackson went off to collect more however, either she or Nathan would find an excuse for a quick kiss or a teasing pinch or touch.

"Looks like the love birds need to go home and roost," Buck chuckled playfully to Larabee as he went by with a handful of empties.

In no way oblivious to the discernible overtures of the couple's movements, a light suddenly came on in the blond's head. As the idea grew steadily, a cunning grin appeared on his lips and finally Chris stood, knowing he had to act now or risk losing the opportunity. "Why don't you take that wife of yours home, Nathan," the man in black suggested. "She's done a wonderful job keeping us watered and fed today. I think a long soak in the tub is in order, don't you?"

At the table with Rain, Jackson was helping her gather the remaining veggies onto a smaller platter. The couple both looked up as Larabee spoke, the resulting twinkle in their eyes was hard to miss. "Generous offer, Chris," the medic smiled as he straightened.

"Yes," Rain concurred, tearing a strip of wrap to cover the plate. "But we're not finished and we still need to get Kate home."

Taking the prepared platter, Chris shrugged off the objection. "You've done enough and I can take her home. No worries there."

Rain's reaction to the suggestion was coy, her grin telling all. Nathan, however, was wide-eyed, knowing full well that they'd better hightail it home before Lansky got wind of their plan.

Around the room, responses were much the same as the medic's, all but Adrian believing they understood the logic and the risk Chris was taking.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~

Following Lansky up from the parking lot, Chris hadn't said a word. He knew she angry with him for bringing her home, getting her in the truck had been a fight in itself. The underlying cause of her mood still remained a mystery though. He was more convinced than ever that something was seriously wrong and today's attempts to push everyone away had only solidified his resolve to get some answers. All thoughts of getting any however, were dashed when she unlocked her apartment door and sent him a message loud and clear.

"Get out, Chris," Lansky advised menacingly. Sending the door crashing back into Larabee's face hadn't been enough to deter the man's entrance and the warning came naturally. The day had been long and exhausting, not to mention uncomfortable on more than one level and Kate was in no mood for company, least of all, his.

Watching the blonde send her jacket flying onto an armchair, Chris took a deep breath, trying to calm his reactions. His efforts all day hadn't gotten him anywhere. Kate had continued to answer his occasional questions with the same vague responses and he'd had more than enough double-talk for one day. "We need to talk," he announced, purposely stepping in and then closing the door.

Perceiving a challenge, Kate spun around to glare but her eyes could only burn holes in Larabee's back.

He had turned his back, one hand now slowly caressing the locks that secured her portal.

"Get out," she repeated. "I'm not in the mood for company… least of all, yours."

Chris heard the words, yet wasn't really listening. Inexplicably, he was staring at the clasps, deadbolts, and chains that adorned Kate's door. A frowned marred his face, his thoughts suddenly questioning the presence of so many locks. The devices had always been there but it was almost as if he'd failed to notice their significance in the past. Perhaps it was all the bravado and display of her capabilities today; perhaps it was the insistent nature of her subtle threats…

"Why so many?" the man in black asked as he turned around. He pointed back to the locks in answer to Kate's questioning scowl and then re-emphasized his thinking. "All day, Kate… all day you walked around so… pretentiously… so full of yourself. If you're so menacing… so dangerous, then why do you need all of these locks to protect yourself?"

Eyes following the arm that pointed back to her multitude of security devices, Lansky's focus slowly shifted as she studied each of the objects Chris was talking about. Gradually, she began to smile wickedly, a soft snicker eventually joining the smirk. "You're so naïve," she answered matter-of-factly before turning away. "They're not for me. They're for the idiot who dares enter unannounced."

Perceiving the same subtleties he'd been listening to all day, Larabee moved closer to the woman, his chest puffing as much as hers. "Fuck this! It's all talk. That's all you're about, Kate… talk! You're not fooling me with that holier than thou attitude. No one is buying your act. Quit trying to hide, damn it! You're just as human as the next person. You're allowed to make mistakes and you're allowed to feel… Let me help you."

Her eyes had slowly closed while the man made his little speech, but they opened at his quieter plea. She wouldn't face him, couldn't… but the truth needed to be said. Perhaps… just maybe, if she said it enough, this stubborn man would eventually listen. "You can't help me, Chris," she whispered but the soft tone slowly turned to a snicker. "You want the truth? All right, I'll tell you the truth. It's not 'just talk'. Only a fool would come through that door unannounced. Only someone with a death wish would threaten me."

Larabee closed his eyes for a brief second before refocusing on the blonde head that had dipped ever so slightly. Coming from Lansky, the concept she was professing was alien. He had no clue as to why this woman could possibly think he would believe such words. He was certain they were for his benefit. Why, he didn't know, but that didn't seem to matter either. Convincing Kate that he wasn't about to buy into her delusion seemed paramount at that moment in time.

As his eyes wandered, the agent's mind reeled with possibilities. Seconds ticked away like hours but there was only one conclusion to be drawn. Dispelling her superiority complex appeared to be the only certain way of proving his point. Her words churned in his mind - Only a fool would threaten me - threaten me…

Chris didn't think in the moments that followed. Still controlled and always safe, he allowed his determination to guide his actions and even a slow motion replay would never be able to explain to his conscious mind what transpired in the blink of an eye…

The action was more suited to a bust in some dark alley than Kate's living room but right or wrong, Larabee reached for his gun.

The unmistakable sound of a pistol slipping from its leather holster triggered a predetermined course of action that Lansky had absolutely no control over.

The knowledge was instantaneous… her assailant was right handed.

The reaction was instinctive… naturally excluding all consideration of who the attacker was.

Kate spun around to the left before the barrel found its mark. Utilizing the energy of the turn, her right forearm intercepted the man's gun hand while her left fist connected violently with his chest.

If not for the fact that he was standing beside her coffee table, Chris might have been able to stop his fall. His legs got tangled however, betraying his efforts to withstand the blow. He tumbled backward, following the path of the assault to his torso. Completely taken by surprise, he landed flat, his head connecting hard with the floor.

In the second or two that his fall had taken, Lansky had her knife in her hand and advanced on her fallen prey. The force of her booted heel in his palm, ground out the gun still held in his hand. She kicked the weapon away, her left leg still outstretched along his limb as her right knee made full hard contact with the body below.

He had no time to prepare himself for the knee that landed on his chest. A blade flashed quicker than lightening and Larabee's last coherent thought wasn't why, or even how, but that he would be seeing Adam soon...

Eyes locked on the blood, Kate blinked several times, finally becoming conscious of where she was.

The realization of what she had just done came much slower.

~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~






To be continued in 'Foundations'



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