~~ Foundations ~~

by TJ

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

Finally finding some companionable agreement in their common task, Buck and JD had been working hard all morning. Seeing Adrian Delaney arriving at Kate's desk however, gave them a reason for a much-needed break.

From their desks, Jackson and Sanchez watched as their two colleagues approached Orin's secretary and then began a conversation. They were curious as to Delaney's arrival, but considering the tension that had been present in their offices for two days, both men found themselves enjoying the interaction. So much so, that Josiah decided to join the trio. Over-exaggerated stretches saw him rise, "Think I'll go see what brings Adrian downstairs," he winked at Nathan.

"Sounds like a plan," the medic responded as he, too, stood. Perhaps this was the opportunity he needed to have that conversation he'd been contemplating all morning. "Gives me a chance to check on Chris while you're busy."

"Good luck with that!" Josiah teased as they ventured towards the back of the bullpen. He stopped and greeted Buck, JD and Adrian, while Nathan approached Larabee's door. . .

"How'd you sleep?" the medic asked as he ventured inside the lion's den without so much as a knock.

Chris was quick to answer, "I'm fine!" but the dark circles under his eyes belied the truth.

Knowingly shaking his head, Jackson persisted as he shut the door. "I need to check your ribs. Let's get that jacket and shirt off."

Sighing heavily, the blond begrudgingly complied, mumbling inaudibly words under his breath. Rolling his shoulders to encourage the clothing from them, Chris did his best to hide the grimace on his face, obscuring it with a weak smile as the medic assisted him in his efforts. Covering up the fact that his right hand still wasn't co-operating well was a little more difficult however, and the disgust on his face was hard to miss as he allowed Nathan to assist in unbuttoning his shirt completely, before slipping it off.

Proceeding to conduct his exam, Jackson continued to talk. "You ever gonna quit lyin' to me, Chris?"

Larabee didn't answer, his eyes staring blankly at the far wall as his friend undid the bandages around his ribcage.

"Ya know. . . This would be easier on all of us if you just let me take some x-rays. I'd know for sure what was going on inside your stubborn body."

"No hospital, Nathan," Chris repeated for what he felt was the hundredth time.

"I know, I know," Jackson sighed in frustration. "I just wanted you to know, I'm not a miracle worker."

"Ahh!" the blond complained as his medic tested the front of his chest. "I. . . know, Nathan," he growled out irritably, rubbing his breastbone.

"Sore, huh?"

Larabee nodded and without thought, added, "Felt like. . .."

Seeing the hesitation in his friend's eyes, Jackson nodded deliberately. "Go on. Door's closed," he motioned to the portal. "If you ain't goin' ta no hospital, you need to tell me what you feel. . . and I don't just mean physically."

Forearm held close to his visibly bruised chest, Chris closed his eyes, his head bowing to one side as he swallowed hard. Slowly looking back into his friend's gentle expression, the blond sighed before once again recalling the events that had played out behind Lansky's closed door. "It all. . . happened so fast, Nathan. . ."

Eyes now glued on his injured hand, Larabee seemed to be fighting for each shred of memory. "I pulled my gun on her," he whispered vacantly, his pale green pools lifting gently to once again stare into the medic's soft brown. "I pulled my gun on the woman I love."

Lips pursing tightly, Jackson allowed his head to lower and rise as he took a breath. "Woman you love, huh? Can't say as either one of you acted like those words mean a lot."

Larabee's left hand carefully massaged his right as his head cocked. "Maybe not," he answered in time. "But it wasn't her fault and. . . I'm still here." Looking back at his friend, the blond scoffed. "I'm still here damn it, and as stupid as that might sound, Nathan. . . I know that's the fact that's most important here."

Jackson nodded his agreement. What Chris was saying might sound ludicrous to some, but he suspected something that no one else did. "Tell me again what she did, Chris," he urged. "And then I'm goin' to tell you what she didn't do."

The statement made Larabee pause, his eyes questioning those of his friend. Curiosity burned deep in both men's hearts, each read that so clearly as the senior agent began to speak. "I pulled my gun, but. . . she deflected my aim before. . . Next thing I know, I was going down. She. . . hit me. Perfect blow, too. Square in the chest."

Nathan frowned a little. "Takes more than a punch to bruise a breastbone like that though."

Inexplicably, Chris smiled. "Damn site more," he agreed almost humorously. "I tripped over her coffee table, remember?"

"You didn't hit your chest on it."

"No," Larabee was quick to respond. "But like I said before, when her fist connected, my legs got tangled up. All happened so fast and I went down so hard."

"That's when you hit your head."

"Yeah," the blond nodded. "Reckon so. . . Anyways, things get real blurry after that. Felt like. . .."

Once again his boss was hesitating and Nathan looked on curiously.

Right hand now curled into his chest, Chris looked sad all of a sudden. His recollection still wasn't clear and the shadows he did remember didn't make much sense. "I had to let go," he mumbled. "She. . . forced my gun away. Tore the air from my lungs as well. . .."

Jackson could count on one hand how many times he'd seen raw, heartfelt emotion in Larabee's eyes. Now was one of them and he was once again reminded of why he'd opted to heal the body, rather than the soul.

"I. . . I was dead, Nathan," Chris whispered. "I was ready to die."

Watching such a strong, intelligent, and confident man, admitting such a heart wrenching truth was almost more than the medic was prepared to handle. He swallowed hard, stifling back his own emotions as he lowered his head and tried to regain his composure. What Josiah had said on Sunday was true. Chris was holding on to some unknown truth, but up until now, Jackson had hesitated in telling what he knew about that truth. He was still unsure of how it fit into the big picture but... "Given your injuries," he finally said. "I'd say it went something like this. . ."

As he worked at re-wrapping Larabee's torso, Jackson reiterated the events the way Chris' injuries told the story. Cracked ribs, bruises and contusions weren't good for the body, but they were perfect forensic tools for piecing together the truth. "You tripped over that table and hit your head hard on the floor, just like you said. From that point, I'd say she stomped on your forearm with those damn boots she wears, and then slid the sole along your wrist and into you palm. Ain't nothin' to be said for lettin' go of your gun, Chris. Nobody I know could put up more of a fight than you did."


The scowl on Larabee's brow made Jackson grin. "Always said you were too stubborn for your own good," he answered as he took up the man's injured hand. "Sure wish you'd let me x-ray this, too," he sighed. "But since you won't, I'm gonna guess you won't find a single finger broken."

Again the blond frowned.

"Not a one," Jackson answered the unspoken query. "She's good, Chris. Good enough to edge that gun from your fingers as hard as you fought to hold onto it. And I know that from these bruises right here."

Studying the line of purple across the underside of his digits, the senior agent suddenly realized what his friend was saying. "The edge of her boot?"

Nathan nodded. "That's my guess. You never had a chance, Chris. That boot, with all her weight behind it. . . Valiant effort... and I'd say that ended when she landed on your chest."

Larabee's breath hitched at that moment, his pained expression was clear.

"Figured as much," Nathan nodded as he helped Chris slip on his shirt. "Like I said. . . was more than a punch that bruised your breastbone that way. I reckon her knee. . . with all the weight her little body could throw at you."

As his medic finished buttoning his shirt, Larabee looked up vacantly into the man's eyes.

"Gun hand useless. . . a concussion and being crushed liked that. I can understand why you thought you were dead, Chris." Jackson took a deep breath before continuing. "Do you remember the knife?"

Still stuck on the grave details of the story they were weaving, Larabee's eyes drifted slowly to meet those of his friend. His head shaking negatively, he waited.

"I really want to see that knife," Jackson continued slowly, a sudden anger clear in his tone. "Ya see. . . There was intent here. Clear intent that would lead any man to think he was dead. If fact, you should be."

"But I'm not," Larabee whispered.

"Yeah," Nathan almost laughed. Licking at his lips, he then leaned a little closer to his boss. "I want to see that knife, Chris," he repeated, tempered anger in his voice giving way to a strange excitement. "You know I know knives. This one's got a blade so thin and so sharp. . . it could almost be a surgeon's blade." The medic continued despite the inquisitiveness studying him. "One single stitch. . . that's all I put in your neck."

"And that's significant?" Larabee questioned.

"Very," Nathan smiled. "Remember I told you she didn't try to cut your throat. I said the wound was like a puncture... precision. . . exactly on target. If I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes. . . "

As the medic's voice drifted off, Chris was all of a sudden anxious to hear the rest of his story. "What target, Nathan?" he questioned pointedly.

Their eyes met and Jackson knew it was finally time to give his friend the hope he'd been clinging to. "Your lifeline, Chris," he answered flatly. "Her precision bothered me so much that I had to check to confirm my facts. I wanted to be sure before I told you."

Again Larabee was frowning and Jackson continued, ready to confirm two truths. "The tip of that knife went right for your carotid artery, Chris. At first I thought we we're lucky that she'd only nicked it. Any deeper and you would've bled to death very quickly. As it is, you're lucky you got on the phone when you did."

For three days Larabee had been hanging on to something. Some unknown link, some unexplainable hope. . . he had been eager to force his beliefs on everyone. To force them into believing that Lansky had not tried to kill him. What Nathan was saying now seemed to deny him that last shred of hope though. . . to explain away all those good thoughts. Kate really had wanted him dead. Everything she had boasted and bragged and forewarned, inexplicably, really was true.

Seeing the expression suddenly change on his friend's face sent Nathan into a panic. He'd wanted Chris to know what he did, but he hadn't counted on his friend jumping to conclusions, and the wrong ones at that. The look in Larabee's pale green eyes already said he had and his hope seemed to fade in that same instant. "Wait, Chris," he called out as the other man turned away.

"You said it, Nathan. I would have died if Vin hadn't come."

"No, wait, Chris," Jackson tried again, his hand reaching out to snag his boss's shoulder.

Larabee whirled on his friend as though they were enemies, the anger in his heart suddenly all-consuming. "Get out," he commanded angrily.

"Let me finish," Nathan snapped back.

"Get out!"

"I won't," the medic stood his ground. "I said at first I thought you were lucky, Chris, but you need to understand. You would have been dead a long time before Vin ever got there, if she hadn't done what she did."

A tiny part of Larabee's consciousness twigged and Chris stared at the other man, his anger not gone, but lying in wait below the surface. "What she did? What the hell do you mean? Either way she wanted me dead."

Standing tall, the medic shook his head no. "Nah, I don't believe that, Chris. And I don't think you really do either."

The two men stared at one another for a brief moment before Nathan continued. "I think you're right, Chris. What you said when we found you. . . when you said it was your fault. I know this is gonna sound strange, but whatever it was. . . whatever prompted you to act. . . it was like you awakened something. . . and IT wanted you dead. . . not Kate."

Larabee was silent, a very real part of him needing to hear the deductions medical fact had explained to his friend.

"Understand me, Chris. I ain't, in any way, excusing Kate for her actions, but. . . I don't think she's completely responsible." Seeing the frown, Jackson pressed on, "I don't know what sin creates expertise like that. . ." Almost embarrassed by his thoughts, Nathan's chin dipped. "Kate knows how use that knife, Chris, and whatever she used. . . I'd sure like to get a look at it, because it's a precision tool. . . By all rights, you should be dead right now, but whatever switch you flipped. . . something took over, took control. . . And, eventually she fought it. Kate took back control."

Larabee was still frowning as Jackson continued. "I believe this with all my heart, Chris. As hard as you fought for your life. . . Kate fought for it, too. She managed to stop herself. Ya see. . . I used one tiny stitch on the outside. But no stitch in the world would have helped if she'd gone further than she did. People like Kate don't miss, Chris. . . Somehow, she stopped."

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

"Darlin'. . . I know AD Travis sent you down to get somethin', but is there any particular reason why you need my computer geek to retrieve a simple document?"

Delaney's forehead creased. And there she'd thought Buck and JD were friends. They'd sure had a pleasant enough conversation earlier. One eyebrow rose questioningly, certain objectionable words forming in her mind.

Before the brunette had a chance to put voice to her comments however, Dunne was dragging Wilmington away from Lansky's desk. "Are you nuts?" he asked pointedly. "Adrian's not exactly had an easy time in all this, Buck. Haven't you pissed her off enough lately. . . more than once if I recall?"

"Junior, we have work to do. If she ain't capable of doing what Travis wants. . ."

JD could already hear the tirade of not so pleasant comments that would inevitably be exchanged between Wilmington and Delaney. The scene would erupt, probably bringing Chris out of his office, which would only make things worse. Poor Adrian, completely unaware of anything that had transpired since Saturday afternoon, would more than likely be insulted by more than one thing said. She might go storming off. Making a few observations of her own once she got back onto the AD's floor. Then they'd have Travis down here again, giving everyone more flack over something he was obviously trying to keep quiet.

JD sighed heavily. Not wanting everything he predicted to come to pass, he quickly interrupted his roommate. "I'm. . . not sure I'm capable, Buck," he said simply.

In mid-sentence, Wilmington stopped, the finger that had been pointing at Delaney, slowly came down as his focus shifted to Dunne. "What? How is that possible, JD. You know everything there is to know about computers."

"Computers, yes. Cipher text, no."

"Cipher?" the tall agent frowned.

"Codes, Buck," Tanner answered. The Texan had been back from his psych eval for some time, but going for coffee, Buck and JD's conversation had drawn his attention. Looking at their youngest agent through narrowed eyes, Vin tried to catch up on the exchange, "You sure you found cipher, JD?"

Dunne nodded, the purse of his lips adding weight to his conviction. "You know anything about it, Vin? I know the basics, but nothing like what's on Kate's screen."

Shrugging his reply, the Texan motioned his companions to back further out of the center of the bullpen. "Kate? You're sure?" he asked one more time.

"I may not be an expert, Vin, but I know cipher text when I see it. It's in more than one file, too. It's definitely encryption."

"Wait just a dog gone minute," Buck held his hand up between the two men. Looking at his roommate, he narrowed his eyes. "We all know what cipher is, but. . . why would it be in Kate's machine?"

"Beats me," JD said with a quick shrug.

Information received and processed, Wilmington's mind was already kicking in to high gear. "I think we need to get a closer look at this, boys. Any idea how we can get Delaney out of here without. . .."

For the second time in as many minutes, the tall agent was interrupted. "I already told her I'd see what I could do," JD replied.

"And Ezra seems to be handlin' the rest of yer request," Vin added with a smirk.

The three agents turned to see Standish at Lansky's desk, sincerity in full play as he tried to assist Adrian as she collected several folders. It was unclear as to whether his attentions were helping or hindering, and given the aloof manner in which the brunette was reacting, it was also unclear as to whether they were welcome or not.

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

Gathered in the conference room at three pm, the six men waited for the leader. Chris didn't disappoint. He arrived before the clock finished its minute count and then secured the door soundly. Quickly scanning the room as he took up position at the head of the table, he noted various folders and notepads waiting to be used. "Alright, boys, relax. SitRep please."

All eyes went to Buck to provide the requested situation report. He'd clearly taken it upon himself to lead this foray and no one had yet found a serious reason to rein him in.

Clearing his throat, the surveillance man scooted his chair forward a bit, grabbing his paper and pen in the process. He usually had something to play with when he made his reports. "We may have made some headway today, Chris. Josiah and Nathan have compiled the information you gave them with some stuff JD was able to requisition. A little bit came by courier today but the rest is supposed to arrive in the next day or so. JD's still working his contacts for more but we had him looking at something else this afternoon. Something very interesting that we found today."

"Oh?" Larabee beckoned as he finally sat down. "Relevant?"

Handing the floor over with the motion of his hand, Buck indicated JD.

With a brief smile, Dunne quickly focused on his boss. "Yeah, Chris. Travis sent Adrian down to get some Medical stuff from Kate's computer. It's that time of year again. Kind 'a sucks having to do these on top of our Psych evaluations, all within a couple of weeks. . ."

"JD," Chris interrupted trying to get his agent back on track.

Realizing he'd started to babble, Dunne cleared his throat and refocused. "Umm. . . yeah, so Adrian was looking for the files, but when she found them, and opened 'em up, she couldn't read them. She tried a couple of things to get it to work but when she couldn't, she finally asked me for help. That's when I saw it. The cipher text I mean. The entire file was encrypted."

"Personal data," Larabee reasoned. "I don't see anything unusual about having them under our security protocols, especially for Kate."

"That's just it though, Chris," JD was quick to counter. "That type of info may warrant low-level encryption if a person really wanted. . . the kind of stuff where you can see the encryption right on the screen. Not only wasn't it low-level though, but from what I saw. . . it isn't ATF algorithms either. I can't read 'em." Taking a breath, the kid tried to clarify. "I even thought about trying the data port at Kate's desk. It's normally reserved for higher-level stuff. You, know, all you get is a gray screen unless the appropriate Key decryption sequence is used. So you can't read anything."

Looks were exchanged before JD continued. "Okay, so you all know that. . . So, anyway, I ended up going downstairs to check with the Crypto guys to see if they'd installed some kind of special Key for her. They had no idea what I was talking about. I gave them a sample and they're trying ATF decryption protocols right now, but we're not getting any hits. Vin even looked and says it's nothing he knows."

"Personal info I can see," Jackson wondered aloud. "But why would she encrypt something as simple as a medical schedule?"

"Why ain't the point, Nathan," Tanner answered shaking his head slightly. "Maybe there's personal info in them files and maybe there ain't. What'd she used to encrypt the stuff. . . that's what I want to know. It ain't nothin' we use here. How's another really interestin' question."

"Explain," Larabee asked curiously.

Vin motioned for JD to answer.

Licking his lips before he spoke, Dunne decided to start at the beginning and explain how encryption works. "We all know cryptography had been around forever. Heck, Julius Caesar used it to communicate with his troops way back then, but. . . well, things have gotten a little more complex since his time."

There were grins and snickers around the room as JD continued.

"We all know the difference between the Private Key Encryption method and the newer Public Key Encryption system. Algorithms used in both are similar. It's just the Key that is different."

"The Key is the code for decrypting the message. With Private Key Encryption, both parties have the same Key information," Josiah clarified, making sure he understood.

"That's right," JD nodded. "With the Public Key System, there are different Key sequences to encrypt and decrypt. An algorithm is the mathematical code applied to any plaintext information to encrypt it, and any algorithm can be either Public or Private. It's still just a sequenced code. They can be very complex of course. The higher the security requirement, usually the more complex the mathematical code."

"All said and done, JD, the code she's using isn't ours. Why is that such a concern? With twenty years plus in the army, I'm sure she learned a thing or two about cipher."

Nodding at Larabee's point, Dunne sighed. "But ya see, Chris. The ATF now uses its own RC4 Stream Cipher. Stream Ciphers are way faster than Block Ciphers, but with the RC4, you add the benefits of up to 2048-bit KEY encryption."

"Takes a long time to crack one of those puppies," Buck said proudly.

"Unless you have the right equipment, Buck, it's supposed to. Here at the ATF, we use ASIC, or Application Specific Integrated Circuits. They can process up to 200 million Keys per second. Much better than the old Gate Arrays."

Sitting up straighter in his chair, Standish cleared his throat. "If I may, Mr. Dunne. . .. You have sent Miss Lansky's Cipher text through our resources and have not yet succeeded in breaking her code?"

JD sighed again. "Well, it's only been running for. . . just over an hour," he consulted his watch, "but so far, nothing."

"What are the chances?" Nathan inquired.

Pursing his lips, the young agent shrugged. "Depends. Most modern encryption algorithms use proprietary methods to generate their Keys. . . the more complex the mathematics, the longer the Key, and likewise, the stronger the code."

"I still don't get what the problem is, JD?" Chris almost growled. "You said her stuff is low level, so why are we bothering our encryption guys? Different outfit, different codes... what's the big deal?"

"The big deal? How about none of this makes sense, Chris," JD voiced. "Our data ports automatically encrypt documents for us, but if she didn't use ATF algorithms, she didn't use her data port. . . The question is. . . how'd she do it? Even I'd have trouble making this stuff up in my head, and not once have I ever seen her scribbling pages and pages of notes. Is she some kind of genius mathematician, or what?"

Josiah added fuel to the growing fire. "Or what seems to be the pertinent question where Kate is concerned," he looked at Larabee. "And I, for one, am not sure how to explain how a simple army clerk could construct a complex code, seemingly out of thin air."

"And from what I saw, there ain't nothin' conventional in her code," Vin was quick to point out.

"Conventional?" Ezra repeated.

It was Dunne who answered this time. "Vin eh. . . took his own look."

Chris eyed his best friend through a narrowed gaze. "Your Ranger days?"

The Texan shrugged only once before saying what he had to. "I checked out a thing or two. You know I was field Ops mostly. We played with voice more than we had cause to deal with text, but I did learn a basic method or two."

"Proprietary in its own right I imagine?" Josiah said with a smile.

"Yep," Tanner nodded. "But what she's using ain't it."

"But like Chris said, there have to be more than a few departments that utilized this stuff," Nathan affirmed. "What about trying your Pentagon sources, JD?"

Scratching the back of his head, Dunne slowly shook it. "I'm afraid to try," he sighed. "It appears low-level, but what if it's not? And if it is one of theirs, we could be in a world of hurt. We're talking a trickle that starts at the top and rolls down. By the time it gets to us, we'd for sure be in too deep to even tread water."

"And you bet it wouldn't be water we'd be treadin'," Buck scowled as he turned his chair to look at Chris.

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

Sitting on his couch that evening, Larabee's head was full of so many bits and pieces of information that Tanner had brought him two extra strength pills before going out to pick up take-out. The whole day had been one thing after another, starting with his worry over Vin and that damn psych evaluation. Worry had turned to pain after Nathan had left him questioning for the hundredth time since Saturday night, if he had ever really known Kate Lansky, the real Kate Lansky. The whole mess about her utilizing code was icing on the cake.

Closing his eyes, Chris sat back, scrubbing his hands through dirty blond locks. 'Why me?' he wondered silently.

The images that flashed through his mind in answer to that query were like a maze. . .

A sixteen-year-old Larabee splitting timbers with his Father. . . Mom and Dad watching as Buck completed a pass, allowing Chris to make that final touchdown in his senior year. Basic, and then SEAL training and the things he'd done during his tenure. . .

In the Line of Duty only went so far! The rest was left for his conscience to deal with. . .

And then there was the young brunette who had captured his heart and married him, making everything right with the world once more.

Buck Wilmington was there again, as his best man and then a trusted partner on the police force.

The love of his life had given him Adam Christopher Larabee, his tiny sparkling hazel eyes staring up in wonder as his Daddy held him for the very first time.

The burned out shell of a vehicle and the two grave markers left in its wake. . .

Buck's face again, battered, as he slowly walked away.

Eyes springing open, Chris looked across his living room to the bar in the corner. He could almost taste the whiskey, his tongue darting out to moisten wanton lips. . .

His hands came down at last, slapping away a desire so close to his heart that he couldn't deny the want that burned in his soul. Whenever there was conflict, something wrong with his life, he'd turned to that bottle. He both loved it and hated it, depending on the depth of his hurt. . .

Taking a deep breath, Chris sat forward and unclipped his holster. The sound reverberated in his mind, and inexplicably, he was back in Lansky's apartment. . .

He was mad, more than annoyed with her constant threats and bragging.

He had reached for his gun. . . precipitating the unmistakable sound of a pistol slipping from its leather holster. . .

This morning's conversation with Nathan flashed in his head. . .

"I pulled my gun on her. . . I pulled my gun on the woman I love."

"Woman you love, huh? Can't say as either one of you acted like those words mean a lot to you."

Back to Kate's apartment. . .

She had come at him from the left, long before his barrel had found its mark. Utilizing the energy of the turn, her right forearm had easily intercepted his gun hand while her left fist connected violently with his chest.

He was falling, tumbling backward and following the course of her blow to his torso. He landed flat, his head connecting hard with the floor. He had no time to prepare himself for the knee that landed on his chest.

Her boot in his palm ground, his weapon gone. . . her body poised above him.

That blade appearing from nowhere, flashing quicker than lightening...

And Nathan's voice again...

I believe this with all my heart, Chris. As hard as you fought for your life. . . Kate fought for it, too. She managed to stop herself. Ya see. . . I used one tiny stitch on the outside. But no stitch in the world would have helped if she'd gone further than she did. People like Kate don't miss, Chris. . . Somehow, she stopped.

"You. . . ain't plannin' on usin' that this evenin', are ya, Chris?"

Blinking back to the present, Larabee looked up into the concerned blue eyes of his best friend. The question made him frown at first. Then he looked down at the weapon in his hand, fingers flexing and tensing at the sight. Slowly, as though in a dream, he put the gun on the coffee table before leaning back on the couch again.

Watching the despondency in the blond's face, Vin decided he'd better get some answers, and fast. "What were ya doing, Chris?" he asked as he set the large paper bag down, retrieved the weapon and then flipping the safety back on.

It took a minute for the answer to come. "I drew my weapon on her, Vin," Larabee said softly.

Sighing heavily as his chin dropped, Tanner quickly worked the taut muscles of his neck back and forth. Hurriedly deciding on a course of action, he set the weapon back down on the table. "Ya told us that, Chris. Several times. . . forcefully even. Wantin' ta accept the blame fer what happened is one thing. Beatin' yerself up over it another. . . But whatever you was plannin' on doin' with that there gun, that's somethin' different entirely."

When it suddenly became clear to him what his friend was talking about, the man in black reacted as he always did. "Shit, Vin. . . you don't think. . ." When the Texan shrugged, holding his hands out in surrender, Larabee forced his body up from the couch and headed straight for the bar.

Watching Chris rip the shoulder holster from his body, Vin was suddenly struck with the literacy of the man's actions. He wasn't holding anything back at that moment. A tumbler appeared and slammed on the bar. The whiskey wasn't far behind, swiftly filling the glass to near full. When the bottle came down, the drink went up, quickly finding waiting lips to moisten. There was a fire burning in Larabee's eyes as he swallowed gulp after gulp of the alcohol and Tanner couldn't help but wonder if it was the same fire that had driven Buck away, some four years ago now. . .

"You done?" Vin asked when the glass was finally empty.

There was a sneer on his lip as Chris eyed his best friend. "What if I ain't?" he asked simply.

For a very long minute the two men stood and stared at one another, but it was Tanner who finally broke the silence. "I got the take-out," he said casually. "You share yours. . . I might share mine."

It took a moment, but a wicked little smirk eventually tugged at the corner of Larabee's mouth before he turned to retrieve another tumbler.

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

Waking the next morning, Chris winced. Too many years of indulging had taught him to handle the affects of whiskey, but the sting in his head indicated that his waning concussion didn't appreciate the added influence of the liquid.

Rolling over in hopes of dulling the pain, Larabee paused, his heart saddening as he took in the empty space beside him. Blowing out his sigh, his eyes closed as he reached out to caress the lonely pillow. Five short weeks ago, it hadn't been so lonely. . .

"Sounds like you got everything covered."

In his office, he had been commenting about her plan to deal with the staff shortage that had happened so quickly. It was the morning after the night before and he'd guessed they were both a little distracted.

"Hope so."

It wasn't like Kate to question herself and all Chris had done was show a little concern.

"You all right?"

She'd nodded.

"You sure?"

Okay, so maybe his voice had lowered a little. He had felt close to her for such a long time, and after what had happened between them the previous night, he'd thought it was okay to express that.

Kate had acted like it was a crime!

"Don't do that here!"

Playful or not, their more than two years of constant quarrels had him dropping right back into his usual confrontational mode.

"What was that?"

"Don't show yourself here, Chris. I can't be your assistant if I'm constantly thinking about. . ."

"Thinking about what, Kate? Thinking about me. . . us. . . about what's happened in the last twenty four hours?"

She'd turned to leave, mumbling something about conducting a briefing. He'd called her bluff . . .

"Look at me, will you? You have more than an hour. Talk to me."

"Not here. It isn't appropriate."

"Appropriate? Since when has anything we've ever done in this office been appropriate?"

He'd been trying to lighten the mood by reminding her that their business relationship hadn't exactly ever been normal.

"You mocking me, Larabee?"

Chris could remember smiling and scoring an imaginary point for himself in thin air. It had occurred to him afterwards that he really could be an ass at times. . .

"Is THAT supposed to mean something significant?

"Only that I can get your back up without even trying."

She'd physically pushed him then. The show of strength was brute and menacing but he'd never seen it that way. . .

"Get my back up. . .? You think you can throw any words out at me and expect me to give in anytime, anywhere."

He'd tried to interrupt. . .

"Let me finish. When you came over last night, you. . . you. . . Don't. . . Don't you ever. . . tell me you love me."

"Kate. . . I meant what. . ."

"I don't care what you meant!"

"I was only being honest. . ."


"Why are you mad at me? Was it too much? Did I hurt you?"

"What? Hurt me. . . God! No. . . Why would you think. . .? No, Chris. Last night. . . Last night. . . was the most extraordinary experience of my life. This morning was the most incredibly erotic encounter I have EVER had. God, Chris. . . you could never hurt me."

"I don't understand. You want to. . . love with me. . . but, not be loved BY me?"

"Physical love, Chris. . . That's all I want. That's. . . I can handle that. . . can you?"

On his back now, Larabee flopped a forearm over his eyes, hiding from the fact that he'd thought about her proposal. She'd been his friend; his 'buddy' for too damn long and he hadn't wanted to screw that up. "Ha!" he blurted out at the thought. . .

"Chris. . ."


He had been angry.

It was two days later and, there she was, of her own accord, standing in his living room. He so wanted her to be there though. He so wanted her, end of story!

But there was something going on inside her head that he hadn't understood... Still didn't for that matter.

"Don't you dare take that tone with me, boy!"

"Boy?" Since when did I become. . .a BOY? You think I'm acting like a child?"

"If the shoe fits. . ."

Her reaction had been instantaneous. . . so Kate! But somewhere in the next few minutes, she had managed to calm herself.

"Damn you! Why does this have to be so complicated?"

"Because it's us!"

He knew she'd quickly seen the same humor and stupidity in their situation that he had.

"Damn you!"

"Truer words were never spoken."

"So, you're a poet now, too?"

"Why not? I can do anything, can't I?"

"Everything. . . except. . ."

"Except, what, Kate?"

"Agree to my terms."

Deep down, he had really known she was hiding something, but...

"That wasn't what you were going to say."

"Well, what else is there? I've given you time to think it over."

"Some terms. Win-win situation for me, as far as I can see."


"Yeah. . . A nice piece of ass whenever I want it and no strings attached."

"Is that right? Does that mean you accept?"

"You're not even gonna question what I said, are you?"

"Why? Sounds good to me. . . Really, I could say the same thing."

"Whenever I want?"

"Within reason, of course. And. . . I'll call in my markers, too. . . whenever I want."

They'd kissed then, but something had made him take hold of her wrists.


"Why no strings, Kate?"

Then Chris had reacted to her attempted escape, that time thwarting her maneuvers.


"Let me go, Chris!".

"Answer my question."

"Sex is easy, Chris."


"And you're not ready for strings."

"Me? You're the one that doesn't want to. . . hear me say I. . . love you."

"Because you don't."

"You doubt me? You don't believe. . ."

"No! I don't doubt what you think you feel."

"I think? Why don't you think I mean it, Kate?"

"I don't think. . .."

Staring at the ceiling, Larabee remembered that moment. He'd been sure she was going to spout off another one of her lines, but for some reason, her tone had changed. Perhaps it was the only time in their three-year history that she had been honest with him. . .

"I don't think I'm ready, Chris. Please, don't say it again. . . not now, maybe not. . ."

"Don't. . ."

When he thought about it now, he'd actually sensed her honesty.

"Don't say anything you may regret later."

And she had taken his olive branch. . . for a time.

"A conversation for another century."


Chris knew that night turned out to be a second beginning for them. They'd talked a lot. . .saying both a lot and a little. He'd acknowledged his own misgivings about loving again but also came to the understanding that she, too, was in the same situation, only she had more than just emotional scars to get over. . .

"What's wrong?"

They'd been sitting together, quietly. It was some time later when she had pulled away for no apparent reason.


"Don't lie to me, Kate. You accuse me of not knowing my feelings. Don't you dare hide yours. . . Not from me."

"You don't know anything about me, Chris Larabee."

Five weeks ago Chris had acknowledged the truth of that statement in less than two seconds. He'd spent almost three years of his life trying to get to know Kate and had been rewarded with precious little information in return. Now, he felt he knew even less.

Glancing at the empty pillow again, the blond sighed, wishing he'd asked for more information that night. . .

"Tell me about the burn."

He hadn't asked about the unsightly disfigurement on her left that first night. He'd felt it for sure, but never having seen it before, it really didn't matter much. Truthfully, in the heat of passion, it had been the last thing on his mind. In the twilight though, somewhere before dawn, he'd recognized the scar tissue as the remnants of a severe burn. It covered a good portion of her side. . .

"Guess you couldn't miss it?"

He had felt how uncomfortable she was with his question.

"Don't turn away from me, Kate. It's not you... it's not important, but you know so much about me. . . my past. . . I don't know anything about you. . . I think I've earned that right, don't you?"

"The right to know me. . .? Knowing me is the easy part. . ."

"Then tell me!"

There had been hesitation in her voice. . .

"Knowing me is the easy part."

"Then tell me!"

She'd grown angry at his persistence.

"Let me finish!"

"And. . ."


"Tell me!"

"Stop it."

"You afraid, Lansky?"

"I'm not afraid of anything. . . you got that, Larabee?"

"Then, tell me."

"Okay, you wanna know how I got this scar. . . I'm gonna tell ya."

"You sure?"

Recognizing the fact that he was pushing yet again, Chris had asked, not wanting to force her to say something she didn't want to.

"What's the matter? You turning tail and running?"

"Never been known to do that!"



"You were ready to take the easy way out after. . ."

He'd instinctively known how that sentence ended. Kate knew far too much about his history, and his whiskey.

"So what's your excuse? I think I had a valid one. What about you?"

"Desert Storm."

Playing this memory over and over in his mind still didn't lessen the impact of her answer. It still surprised him.

"You were over there?"

"You remember. . . the 14th QM Det out of Greensburg?"

He hadn't been prepared for the memories of the ill-fated detachment either.

"You were with them?"

"There were thirty-five filler positions allocated to the Det, for both us active Army and other reserve contingents. I volunteered to go with them. We were waiting for their equipment and supplies to catch up to us. Been 'in theatre' less than a week. . ."

Being anywhere close to a Scud missile when it hit its target. . . Well before she'd answered, Chris had known what had given her that scar.

"You were inside the shacks when it hit?"

"In my rack. I. . . don't remember any of it. . . 'Cept. . . I was one of the lucky ones."

"Never knew you were in combat."

"We'd just gotten there. Spent the next year. . . recovering. . . You weren't supposed to know, Chris. None of this was supposed to happen. We were never supposed to be more than friends."

"I'm glad we're friends... but there's more to it."

Chris had a gut feeling then. It was translating to a gut feeling now. . .

"Has been, long before now. That explains the scar, Kate. . . But not. . . your terms?"

"There. . . used to be someone, Chris. Someone, who. . . told me he loved me. I wasn't ready for what he wanted. A life together. . . a home. . . family. I'm not like that."


He hadn't meant to be so sarcastic, but picturing Kate domesticated. . . a wife, or mother. . .

Of course, exactly what he was expecting out of their relationship, he still wasn't sure.

"I don't know if I can ever be like that, Chris. I don't want to hear your words of dedication. . . is that so hard to accept?"

"What happened to him?"

"I'm told. . . He came in looking for me. Pulled several others out before he found me. . . Assured I was alive. . . he went back in to see if he could get anyone else out. . . That's when the roof finally gave way."

"A true hero."

"Yeah, another dumb-ass American cowboy, ready to lay his life on the line at a moment's notice, without consideration for. . . He's dead, Chris. Wouldn't have even been there if I hadn't volunteered to go. I refused to accept him, to love him and I got him killed."

As he pondered what she'd said, Chris was staring at the empty pillow again.

There were other words that came some time later. . .

"We need to talk about this, Kate. You said. . . knowing you was the easy part. What is the hard part?"

"Sex is easy, too."

She was wet and naked now, clearly trying to sidetrack his interrogation.

"Not gonna let you do it. Not that I don't want to. But I'm not allowing you to distract me. . . until you answer my question."

"Fine. . . Told you the easy part was knowing me. The hard part is letting me, be me!"

He knew he'd frowned then. Maybe he was only just now beginning to figure out what she had meant.

"Yeah! Didn't figure you'd understand."

"I just want to talk, Kate. . . I don't want to change you. I lo. . ."

Five weeks ago he had paused, thinking twice about the words he had been intending to say. If he were absolutely honest with himself, Chris would have to admit that he was still thinking. . .


"Alright. I'll meet your terms. . . if you can meet mine."

"Oh, this ought to be good. YOU have terms, now?"

"Fair is fair, right?"

"In love. . . and in war. . . at least, that's what I'm told. . . Okay, lay it on me, Larabee. What are the terms and conditions of your surrender?"

"Presumptuous, aren't we?"

She'd merely cocked her head and grinned.

"No surrender. . . Not by me. . . and not by you."


"Nope. . . I'll meet your terms. We can stay friends. . . and more importantly. . . lovers. And. . . I promise never to say those. . . three little words."


"Not until you say it first."

"Well. . . don't hold your breath."

"But, I need something in return. . . You didn't think it was really going to be that easy, did you?"

"Spit it out, Larabee, before it burns a hole in your tongue."

"I'd never ask you to be anyone but you, Kate. I'll never, consciously, try to change anything."

"There's a but, there. . . I can hear it loud and clear."

"But. . . you have to talk to me, Kate. No topic off limits... Nothing."

"Well. . . You had some time to think on my proposal. . . seems only fitting that I have some time, too. Night, Chris."

Sitting up in bed, an exasperated sigh slipped form Larabee's lips. He knew that they'd never finished that conversation. Five weeks had passed and they'd taken one end of their unendorsed arrangement in stride. They'd consummated their physical relationship many times over, but just as he had asked, they'd rarely talked.

Chris was just now cluing in. . . Kate had gotten everything she had asked for.

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

When Chris and Vin exited the elevator on the seventh floor, they found their junior agent pacing back and forth in the hallway, obviously troubled about something.

Dunne's eyes got wider when he saw them approaching.

Recognizing the penetrating glare their boss was fast developing, the Texan decided he'd best interject. "Hey, JD," Vin said casually. "What's up?"

Coming from the other direction, it was Ezra who answered, far too indifferently, providing the information their young friend had no clue how to relate, "Hell has frozen over, Mr. Tanner, and no one bothered to mention the occurrence."

Looking back and forth from Vin to Ezra and then JD, Larabee sneered. "Something you boys wanna tell us?"

"Yes, actually," the southerner smiled. "I believe we should give thanks that Mr. Wilmington departed for his psychological evaluation long before it happened."

"It?" Chris and Vin said unison; exchanging questioning looks as they did so.

In mere seconds JD filled them in. "She's here!" he blurted out before slapping a hand over his mouth. Obviously the motion was too late though, he'd already spilled the beans.

"Yes," Ezra reiterated their youngest agent's point. "As astonishing as it might seem, Miss Lansky is sitting at her desk performing her duties as though nothing is amiss."

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

You didn't need a trained eye to see that what Dunne and Standish said was true.

Entering through the double glass doors, the foursome could clearly see the petite blonde seated at her desk, apparently re-arranging its contents. Her back was to them as they, as one, moved left towards the break room. Nathan and Josiah were already there when they ducked inside.

"How long?" Larabee asked.

"You're late," Josiah responded.

It was Tanner who offered their excuse. "We, eh. . . found the whiskey last night."

"You what?" Nathan glared at Vin. The look he gave Chris was much worse. "Damn good thing your concussion isn't as bad as it could have been."


The five men all looked at Dunne, varying degrees of exasperation written on their faces.

"What?" he shrugged. "You don't want her to hear us, do you?"

"Most likely already too late for that," Vin mumbled plainly.

Looking at his best friend, Chris pursed his lips. "Well, I'll be damned if I'm going to be caught skulking in here if she's out there loving every minute of it." He was readying to move into the bullpen when a question halted his advance.

"What are you going to say her?"

Larabee stopped, turning slowly to look at Josiah. He was seemingly thoughtless in his answer, "Whatever comes to mind I suppose." Readying to leave their transitory prison once again, it was Ezra who stopped his boss's progress this time.

"And what would you suggest we all do if, or when, Mr. Wilmington follows your example?"

Now maybe at first, Chris hadn't been coherent enough to gage Buck's reaction to this situation, but over the past few days, the man's inflammatory looks couldn't be missed. There was a battle raging inside his oldest friend and Chris knew that, sooner or later, he'd have to put the rogue in his place. . . for his sake, and Kate's. Perhaps, just maybe, it was time to give that dilemma some serious thought.

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

It was nearing noon and the plan was set. Buck would be back any minute and the boys were going to do their utmost to keep him from killing Kate with his bare hands. Not that they wouldn't mind a serious conversation with her themselves mind you, but ignoring her presence was hard enough. Confronting her wasn't something they were quite up to yet.

They had all managed to successfully navigate the office without saying a word to Lansky all morning. It sure made things uncomfortable though. Even the normally 'in-command' Larabee was reserved. After leaving the coffee room, he'd approached his office full of gusto. Kate had casually turned away as he'd got closer, and with her back to him, Chris had somehow lost his momentum. He'd stood and watched, eventually narrowing his eyes in exasperation and disdain, before lowering his head and disappearing into his workspace, the door closing loudly behind him.

As he'd done two mornings earlier, Josiah watched. He was curious at how the pattern developed. The boys obviously found the situation difficult. They kept thoughts and comments to themselves though, quietly going about their business. They said very little and, when a conversation was called for, they disappeared into the privacy of their individual office enclosures to talk.

Hazarding a guess, the profiler felt that Kate was just as uncomfortable. From the get-go she had seemed to purposely present her back when people approached. As the hours passed however, she had become bolder, not attempting to converse, yet almost goading them into making eye contact with her. She'd also found a lot of reasons to be out of the office today, and that's where she was now, off somewhere, tending to something else as though nothing had happened.

Something very, very serious had happened though, and it was in that knowledge that Sanchez felt compelled to ask for the Lord's guidance in order to get through the upcoming afternoon.

"You ready, Josiah?"

Startled, the profiler quickly nodded in answer to Larabee's question. Grabbing his coat, he gestured, "Nathan?"

"I'm ready to leave," the medic smiled. "Don't know if I'll be ready to come back though."

"An understatement, Mr. Jackson," Ezra sighed as he appeared.

It was JD who put voice to the suggestion they had all considered, if just for a moment. "Maybe we should just stay at the Saloon then."

Cocking his head and shaking it as a blatant no, Larabee led the way out, patting Dunne on the shoulder as he passed. "Running never solved a thing, JD."

"Maybe we should tell that to Kate," Vin mumbled as they crossed the bullpen.

"If we can corner her long enough," Josiah smiled, "I just might."

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

Coming back to an empty bullpen, Lansky's eyes searched the recesses of the room, just to be sure. She was good at what she did after all. Being doubly sure had saved her life a time or two.

Finally satisfied that she was by herself; Kate didn't stop at her desk, instead going straight to Larabee's office. If for no other reason than to be alone, she closed the door and drew the blinds. The dark gave her a strange sense of control. . .

The deeply distressing sigh Kate allowed to escape her lungs expressed the severity of her present situation. It certainly hadn't escaped her, and yet, in stark contrast to the cold-hearted bitch she was sure team Seven all saw, being here was so very hard. She could never deny that the obvious 'silent treatment' she had received all morning was well deserved, but she also couldn't deny how good it felt to see Chris. . . walking around. A much better image for her mind than that of him lying there on her living room floor, bleeding. . .

It was only noon, and the day had already proven troubling. It wasn't her choice to be back here though, and her first stop that morning had been to confront AD Travis. . .

Orin had been more than surprised to find Kate inside his locked office. He'd eyed her suspiciously and then just smiled. "That threat about calling Frank really got to you, didn't it?" The man had been far too cool as he'd thrown his coat and briefcase down, and then leaned back against his desk.

"Would you have?"

Travis cocked his head at the question. He was curious about her interest and still desperately trying to make sense of all the new information that had come his way in the past few days. When push came to shove though, Lansky was still his friend.

"He already beat me to that, Kate. . . And unless I miss my guess, if you haven't answered his summons by today, he'll be doing it again."

"He called you?"

Travis nodded. "Four. . . five hours after I got your resignation. Funny thing that. . . almost as if he knew."

In her head, the next few seconds had been occupied with Kate calling General Garrett every name under the sun. She was both fuming mad, and strangely disturbed. Gaining her feet, she eyed Orin with a rage he didn't deserve. "That bastard give a reason?"

Now Orin really was curious, as well as confused. He'd never heard Lansky use such language in reference to a superior, let alone people she respected, cared about, or had any semblance of a connection with. "He said he. . . had something that, needed resolving. . . That you would remember how to fix it."

The lady's eyes narrowed menacingly and she really wasn't paying much attention to her boss as she turned for the door.

"Are you back, Kate? Can I tear up your resignation?"

Kate stopped, her hand on the doorknob. "Do yourself a favor and keep it, Orin," she advised with a glance. "It'll be a good excuse when I disappear."

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

Knowing she'd left the AD with a bad taste in his mouth didn't make Lansky feel very good. As she stood staring at Larabee's desk, it made her feel much the same way . . .

Closing her eyes, Kate allowed the true depth of her feelings for Chris to settle to her heart. She'd admit it to no one of course, least of all, the man himself. She knew she didn't deserve the love he professed for her. He was better off without her.

Fact was, Larabee was safer without her in his life and Travis had proved her contention this morning. "That bastard!" she growled. The contempt she felt for General Garrett was clear on her face as she recalled the last time she'd seen him face to face. A man she had once considered a mentor and friend had gradually evolved into a man she had grown to hate. . ..

"You wanted to see me, Sergeant?"

From the onset, his tone had sent a not-so-warm tingle down her spine. That was just his way. He had known why she was there and he wanted her to know that he wasn't happy about it. . .

"I didn't want to see you, General. Truth is, I don't ever want to see you again. You know that's why I'm here."

At his desk, Garrett had lazily leaned back in his chair, wearing that same persistent smug smile on his face. "Oh yes. . . all those rumors about you leaving us. . . very funny that. There's only one problem though, Kate."

Everything the General did, he did for appearances. Right then had been no different. He had sat forward, his hands clasped together, his thumbs rotating around one another as he spoke. "You see. . . no one leaves, and certainly you can't leave. It's just not possible. You've been my star pupil for too long. Right from the get go. . . why you excelled at re-education. I still remember how easily you achieved your first task. Marvelous show that was. . . Everyone had their doubts. Me. . . I was so proud."

If it had been anyone else. . .

When Lansky promised you death with her eyes, she usually meant it. But Major-General Francis Ulysses Garrett rarely paid attention to anyone but himself. He simply continued to list off the many reasons why Lansky couldn't leave him.

"I've always been proud of every objective you've ever accomplished, Kate. No matter how difficult. . . you've always found a way. You've never disappointed me. Well. . . except for all that business about Cole. . ."

He'd glanced at her wistfully.

"But we've washed that one under our bridge, haven't we?"

Again he'd looked at her, and this time he'd never looked away.

"If you'd just taken care of it the way you were supposed to. . . Oh I don't think I'd ever been happier than when I was told that you'd crawled out of that building. It just goes to prove my point though. You're special. You weren't meant to live a normal life. You can't. . . I bet you don't even remember how anymore. . . am I right, Kate?"

Standing, the General rounded his desk and came to stand in front of her. A hand rising to take each of her shoulders, he had clapped them reassuringly. "It's alright. . . I know you haven't been yourself lately and I won't hold that against you. Wanting to go back out into the world is something. . . well, it's something recruits dream about before they are fully inducted. But you. . . You see. . . you don't get to go back. You accepted that when you joined."

Lansky had had enough by then. She was wound up tighter than a rattler about to strike and just didn't care anymore. Listening to Garrett drivel on for too many years had grown old. It had cost her everything. Her life, her soul. . . She wasn't planning on listening any more. . . "I didn't join," she had recanted his nonsense. "I was abducted. . . brainwashed." Stepping back from his touch, she had repeated a statement she'd made just days before. " I'm leaving, General. . . 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. . ."

The nightmares rarely went away. . .

"I don't need your permission and I'm not going to wait around while you think about it. I'm leaving, but. . . if someone wants to try and stop me. . .."

She had goaded him then, inviting him to meet her challenge as she raised a hand to either side, sending him a perfect imitation of his horrible smile. She had calmly waited, all the while expecting the worst. When it didn't come however, she figured she had won...

"You can't survive out there, Kate."

Thinking back now, she knew it had been a mistake to stop and listen. Turning back to look into his eyes had just made it worse.

"And what makes you so damn sure?"

She understood now the significance of his quiet laughter. He was rarely without his constant cool façade. He had slowly glanced at the floor and then looked her directly in the eye. Licking his lips, he'd taken a different approach.

"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," she'd snapped. "Locked away like some fucking puppet on a string."


The General had seemed curious at her statement, genuinely offended by the accusation.

"You've always had everything you ever wanted here."

"Once I was trained, maybe. Wasn't a pretty sight that first time we came face to face. . . was I, Frank. . .? Of course, you'd seen me before. . . consented to my. . . 'Re-education'. . .."

Whatever had possessed her to use his first name, Lansky wasn't sure. She was glad now that she'd shocked him enough to make him realize she was serious.

"It was necessary. . . you know that."

"Necessary! Hell, it's the only way you can replenish your stock of puppets. You pull the strings and we do the bidding. Well, I'm not doing it anymore! I'm done playing your games and I'm done living everyone else's life but my own."

She'd made the door this time, fuming inside, and terrified. She was expecting a bullet to the brain more than she had been expecting his next words. . .

"Well. . . if you insist on trying it on your own, Kate. . . Let me at least give you a place to go."

Gently beating a silent fist on Larabee's desk, Lansky once again closed her eyes. She had been such a fool to think that bastard was actually letting her go. The last three years. . . It had all been a joke. . . another part of his sick game. She was still his puppet, no matter how long the strings.

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

"You will tell me now why Senor Buck is locked in my store room. . . Yes?"

Standish looked Inez in the eye and shrugged slightly. It had been hard enough coming back to the Saloon and facing the bar maiden. Breaking the news to Buck about Kate's whereabouts, right in the middle of her lunch patrons. . . well, that had presented a few challenges of its own.

"Maybe Chris and Vin aren't the ones who should be in there trying to calm him down," JD suggested to the three men at the bar.

"Better them than me," Josiah smiled.

"He don't exactly listen well to them though," Nathan countered with a frown.

"When Mr. Wilmington isn't inclined to listen, it rarely matters who is doing the talking, now does it?"

"Good point, Ezra," the three chimed in at once.

Surveying half of team Seven, Inez was becoming less and less inclined to ask. . .

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

Cramped in Ezra's Jaguar, Buck was confused, mad, and considerably uncomfortable, all at the same time.

Forty minutes in Inez' storeroom with Chris and Vin was plenty of their company for one day. Their offer of a ride back to the office in the RAM was out of the question.

Standing by his vehicle, Josiah had just smiled and winked.

That was enough to convince the surveillance man not to take that offer either.

"You spend this kind 'a money on a ride," Buck complained as he tried to get comfortable. "Least you can expect is some decent leg room."

"If you had stopped growing at the appropriate time, Mr. Wilmington, you would not have this problem."

Wilmington glared. "Ain't I pissed enough, Ezra? You gotta go rile me up some more."

The southerner sighed and shook his head. "Your current disposition is highly inflammatory, Mr. Wilmington. Highly inappropriate, too, I might add."

"Inappropriate! That bitch has balls enough to waltz back into our office like nothing happened and you think I'm the one being inappropriate!"

There was a squeal of tires as Standish slid his car to a halt at the curb, threw the car into park and then turned abruptly in his seat. "All that time locked away with them and my compatriots were still unable to get through your thick skull."

Initially shocked by the abrupt stop, Buck now blinked through the unexpected accusation.

"Really, Mr. Wilmington. . . It's time you stop acting out. Admitting your hurt is the only way you can deal with it. Admitting how disappointed you are with Miss Lansky's actions can only lead to better things."

"Acting out? Disappointed? Ezra. . . you got a screw loose somewhere?"

The southerner smiled. "Deny it all you want, Mr. Wilmington, but you cannot con a conman. I know how deeply this incident has wounded you. You were perhaps hoping that Mr. Larabee had at last found love again? You had your heart set on him finally getting over the death of his wife and child?"

Finally confounded into silence, Buck had no answer to give. He watched Ezra smile, patting his leg before righting himself in the driver's seat and once again heading back to the office.

It galled Buck to know that someone had been able to see through his shield. He was wearing his anger outwardly, inwardly protecting himself, exactly as Ezra suggested. Damn, he was mad! Mad at Kate, yes. And maybe not so much for what she had done to Chris, but what she had done to the cozy little ideas he had for her and Chris. . .

Buck and Kate had been sitting on the couches during lunch hour just a couple of weeks ago when he'd heard a familiar inflection in her voice.

"Any idea when it'll go down?"

Wilmington had shifted his body to face Lansky. The worry in her voice was something that had always bothered him. He was sure not everyone picked up on it, but he did. He'd smiled like an idiot before glancing down at her hands. In one frustrated moment, he'd scooped up her closest palm and gazed back into her sparkling blue eyes.

"You'll never admit it, will ya?"

It had been easy to tell that the situation had been uncomfortable for both of them. He'd adjusted his big hand around her tiny fingers, holding the fist tightly between their bodies. Kate had first stared at that bond, and then the serious face beyond. Admittedly, he'd expected her to wind up and sock him one, but she hadn't. Instead, she'd let her seemingly impenetrable shield, down.

"You know I can't."

If Buck knew anything abut Kate, it was to go for it when you manage to get a foot in the door.

"Why, Darlin'? We've been friends for a long time. You know we'll be right there for ya if anythin' ever went down that you can't handle."

His window of opportunity had been short.

"Let go, Buck."

He hadn't. . .

"Let go!"

She'd pulled harder as those walls of hers went up, leaving him little choice but to let her hand free.

Once again adjusting himself in the cramped seat, Buck tried to hide his face from prying eyes. It galled him to know that he'd made suppositions about Kate. Her walls for instance. They were imaginary of course, but he in particular, had learned the signs, giving Larabee credit for the talent. Years of experience as the man's closest friend had taught him well.

When Lansky had come into their lives things hadn't really been that different at first. They were all adjusting to each other and the new team environment anyway. Kate had easily been welcomed as one of their own, and over time they'd formed uncanny bonds. That idea made him uncomfortable now, particularly because the real reasons for their connections were still a mystery to him. . . but there they were just the same.

"You're as stubborn and pigheaded as he is. You know that, don't ya?"

Her only answer had been a glare.

"Yeah, and that, too," he'd pointed to her eyes. "I swear the two of you could set off a nuke just by staring at it. . . Kate. . . Ain't one of us ever. . . EVER gonna abandon you if somethin' goes down."

Remembering those words now, coming out of his own mouth, made Buck very, very uncomfortable.

"Don't talk like that!"

"I will. . . cause shit happens. It's a fact of life, Darlin', especially in this business. You've been here long enough. . . seen it up close. . . But none of that is gonna change the fact that you got friends. Friends who ain't gonna get the wool pulled over their eyes like you've managed to do with so many others."

"Anyone ever tell you you're a pain in the ass, Wilmington?"

"All the time, Darlin'. . . Ain't you lucky?"

"Just cause I, might. . . care, what happens to your saggy behinds, doesn't mean I have to bullshit with you about my feelings. God! I hope you're not expecting me to sit here and blubber like a baby, just 'cause one of you might get hurt."

The memories of that conversation were becoming increasingly more and more difficult for Buck to comprehend.

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

She'd cleared her throat even more loudly that time.

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

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

"Who said anything about loving?"

"I remember what I saw. . . and that kind 'a play. . . well, it takes a lot of trust. . . and love. Some things were just meant to go together, Kate. Bread and butter. . . coffee and donuts. . . pizza and beer. . . You and Chris."

Buck's voice had deepened and softened as he listed off the complimenting pairs, and Lansky had seemingly become incensed.

"I don't really care what you think you know. . . Or what you think you saw, Buck. But I'm telling you here and now, I'm NOT butter for his bread. . . and I won't be spread! You got that?"

"Ooh. . . And there I was thinkin' you'd have to be the butter, Darlin'. Seems ta me. . . Yep. . . I'm sure I saw some spreadin' goin' on."

"Oh, really? And were you, planning on doing any of that, in the near future, Buck? Because, I know of a quick. . . and very painful remedy, that could. . . put an end, to those plans."

In true Lansky fashion, their little heart-to-heart was over right then and there.

"Well, I. . . I."

"I've put my life on the line for lesser men, Buck. I'd do it for you in a heartbeat. . . For any of you. . . but don't push. . . don't."

"He pushed. . .?"

"I beg your pardon," the southerner queried. He'd heard Buck say something but the words were more of a mumble than actual coherent speech.

Almost dumbfounded at his own realization, the rogue repeated his thoughts aloud. "Chris got her wound up and then he pushed just that little bit more."

"That would appear to be the case, Mr. Wilmington, but. . . Why is it that you are only now appeasing yourself with the facts at hand?"

"Just. . . something she said to me a few weeks ago," Buck mumbled again. He'd heard her words back then but hadn't even considered a real meaning. It was just Kate, right? All talk. . .right?

Buck was now wondering what she'd really meant when she'd said, 'I've put my life on the line for lesser men. I'd do it for you in a heartbeat. . . For any of you. . .'

Perhaps they already knew what she'd meant by, 'but don't push. . . don't. . .'

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