~~ Foundations ~~

by TJ

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

Clearing the main security gate, Chris and Vin, still wary of the elevators in the Federal Building, headed for the stairwell. Holding the door for his best friend, Tanner took one last glance at the main doors before following. "You reckon he's gonna remember when he gets here?"

Taking each step in stride, Larabee let a huff out, understanding exactly what Tanner was referring to. "Buck's as stubborn as they come, Vin. I appreciate you backing me up back there. I know you're not convinced, but. . ."

The Texan took a deep breath, thinking over the blond's comment as they passed the third floor. "You're convinced, Chris. . . that's all that matters." Raised brows made the man grin as he looked up to see curiosity in familiar green eyes. "No, I ain't lost my edge. . . or my opinions on her..."

"Or what happened?"

Vin dropped his chin, hiding both his pensive breath and his frown. He knew what Larabee was looking for and he could take a pretty good guess at what the man wanted to hear. Trouble was, Tanner prided himself on always being honest with his best friend. . . like it or not. "I'm thinkin' you and Buck went to the same school of stubborn, Chris. The two of you needed a cool head in there. Not someone runnin' on bull and brawn." There was a pause before he continued. "As for Kate. . . whatever school she went to... I'm still bettin' she could teach ya both a lesson or two."

"Guess you were right about a lots of things," Larabee said plainly.

A couple went by them in the stairwell at that moment, giving Chris and Vin a few moments with their thoughts.

"Maybe. . . But maybe I was way off base, too."

The two men exchanged one more look as they cleared another floor.

"Let's face it, Chris. It's taken you gettin' stubborn about somethin' that really matters to ya, ta make me see that. Reckon the least I could do was stand by yer side."

Glancing over his shoulder, Chris studied Vin intently as the man came up beside him. When their eyes met, the blond could only smile. "She does really matter to me, Vin. More than I can say. It's just. . .."

The Texan could see that Larabee's mind was searching for something. . . missing. "I feel it, too, Chris," he said in understanding. Suddenly thankful for that conversation he'd had with JD on Sunday, Vin truly felt that he could sympathize with his friend's plight. A slap to his boss's shoulder sealed that conviction. "When you're ready, it'll come."

Agent Larabee was left with another curious look as his sharpshooter headed up the stairs, in front of him this time. As he followed, probing thoughts crossed his mind. Where would he be without Vin? Where would he be without every member of his team for that matter. . . his family? They were all stubborn in their own special ways. And, rightly so of course, over the years, that 'family' had come to include Kate Lansky.

There was no question in Chris' mind that Kate was part of his makeshift family, with or without the stubborn. He wasn't as sure of how, what had happened, had shaken that standing with the other, but no matter what her reasons were, Chris was determined to hold fast to his beliefs. Nathan had reinforced that yesterday with his information. Vin somehow felt that there was something missing, too. Something else buried in his head that Larabee hadn't quite managed to put together yet. He suspected that whatever it was, it would play a decisive part in bringing his lady back into the fold...

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

Staring down the small hallway that lead to team Seven's conference room, Kate couldn't help but wonder what the boys were up to. It wasn't unusual for them to hold a meeting without her. What had been curious though was the way most of them had stolen glances in her direction as they'd gathered for whatever meeting it was that they were now engaged in. Stranger yet was the fact that all day, not one of these Seven men had confronted her about her attack on their senior agent.

Okay, so she wasn't expecting to end up in jail or anything as remotely conventional as that approach. A shakedown in an interrogation room perhaps. At the very least someone should have had the balls to take a strip off her. . . Instead, nothing! Staring as she was, her mind wandered to another time she had expected dire consequences. . .

"There, Major. . . I knew she could do it. Didn't I tell you?" the General said proudly.

Still in a state of shock, Lansky looked from the gun in her hand to the man she had just shot in cold blood. Was he dead she wondered? Not that it seemed to matter much to this man who was spouting her accomplishment so proudly.

Murder! Execution! Or righteousness? Did it really matter what happened to this type of individual? After all, he had tried to rape her. She had the right to defend herself. His death at her hands was. . . acceptable?

But. . .

Kate Lansky had been barely nineteen years old, and although she was a lot of things, she was not a killer.

Her parents had raised her up better than that.

And so what that she had been training to be a soldier? Maybe they had to kill sometimes, in the line of duty, but that was taking orders for the greater good, in times of war, not. . .

Taking justice into one's own hands. . .

This was never part of that deal. . .

"He tried to. . ." she stuttered out as the weapon fell from her hands. Weeks of hardening were abruptly lost and the reserved, inexperienced young woman that had been brought here months before suddenly made herself known.

"Pick that back up, soldier," Major MacDonald ordered and without thought, Lansky slowly complied.

Watching the cautious dreamlike movements, General Garrett frowned, the doubt he still saw quickly making him angry. "Get a grip on yourself, Lansky," he growled. "That bastard broke protocol once too often and if there is one thing I will not tolerate, it's insubordination."

"Protocol?" Kate still didn't comprehend. For too long she had been isolated and alone. The guards, although sparingly present, never interacted. The 'taskmasters' who appeared more and more, coercing her cooperation in strange, foreign and even offensive assignments, had never once spoke, utilizing instead, paper and pen or a cassette player to convey what was expected, that dull monotone voice repeating over and over and over...

Now, all of sudden, someone was actually addressing her by name and rambling on about some code of behavior she knew nothing about.

"Who are you? Why am I here?"

The General laughed aloud before displaying that horrible smile of his. "You are home, Kate," he answered simply and then turned his back on her.

Talking to his right hand man, Garrett continued, "However well she has performed here today, Major, I can see there is still a lot of work to be done. Move her to the quarters and see that she quickly assumes the normal modus operandi. Training doesn't stop just because she can follow orders in a blind panic. I want instinct to drive her need, not me!"

Lansky listened carefully to the man's words and several stood out in her mind. 'Home' was the biggest one. She'd been kept in this dark cell for who knows how long. She'd been subjected to hell. Stripped of all privileges, including the right to survive, but when she had, they had rewarded her with. . . tasks!

A horrible thought occurred to Kate about then. Had shooting this man in cold blood been some sort of sick test? Had she and her 'victim' been part of some elaborate set-up? What kind of hideous creature did something like that to another human being? "Did you send that man in here to rape me?" she asked, unconsciously bringing her weapon to bear on the General's head. "Did you make me kill him?"

When Mac's expression widened, Brigadier-General Francis Ulysses Garrett knew the question was directed at him. He also knew something was wrong. Slowly, he turned to fully face his accuser, the barrel of her gun finding the space between his eyes.

Time stood still, but only for a moment. . .

Paying little attention to the weapon, Garrett began to softly laugh, answering the query without once taking his eyes from Lansky's. "I would truly love to be able to take credit for orchestrating such a splendid opportunity as this, Kate, but alas, I cannot," he shrugged before pointing down at the man on the ground. "I have, however, had my eye on Randell for months. Since the last time he attacked you in fact. I did that for your protection, you know. You should really thank me."

How could she forget that? Her first week of hell, made worse when a would-be rapist had entered her cell in an attempt to take her greatest dignity. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and yet somehow, not. . . "He's the same man?" Lansky voiced aloud as she remembered. Could what this officer be saying be the truth? Had he really saved her that time, too?

A fleeting glimmer of hope and kinship suddenly appeared in Kate's consciousness, blinding her to the desperation, confusion, anger and doubt she had been experiencing for months, and slowly, she lowered her gun.

"Yesss," Garrett smiled. "The very same. And now you've so splendidly taken care of our problem, as is your right, Kate. What say we go. . . find you a shower and some clean clothes to wear?"

Thinking about the General's words again made Lansky close her eyes. She'd been played so well. . . That day, she'd heard every word he wanted her to hear. It wasn't until much much later though, that she'd learned to question those very same words. Words like, 'perform', 'training', and 'Instinct'.

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

"I hate walkin' on eggshells, Chris!"

Looking across the boardroom table at his oldest friend, Larabee sighed. "Buck, we just have to concentrate on doing this right. You're not walking on eggshells, you're doing your job."

"No eggshells, huh? So what would you call it?" the rogue shot back. "Pretendin'? Pretendin' my best friend didn't get his throat cut five days ago. . . and at his secretary's hand no less."

It was Tanner who broke the sudden tension by mumbling, "I thought we weren't supposed ta call her a 'secretary'."

JD replied, casually continuing the train of thought. "That's right, Vin. Buck said so."

Wilmington's sneer didn't seem to have the desired affect on the other occupants of the boardroom and he quickly became frustrated. "Look, I heard what you said at lunch. Hell, I've been thinkin' on a few things myself these past few hours, but that don't change the facts. Kate tried to kill you, Chris. We should at least arrest her. Put her in jail or something."

"And how would you like me to explain that one to Travis?"

When the rogue pursed his lips tightly, Larabee continued, "Exactly my point. We can't. . . not without letting more than the obvious out of the bag and I am not, I repeat, not, willing to take that ride." His tone lowering, Chris took a deep breath before continuing his speech. "I just can't shake this feeling I have, Buck. . . There is more to this. I don't care what it looks like. And before you say anything more, yes, she did attack me, but. . . Damn it, there's just more to it, okay? She's. . . into something. Something deep. I can't shake the feeling that she needs our help and no matter what, I need to do everything I can to make sure she gets it."

Playing devil's advocate for a reason, Buck was relentless. "And what if she's in too deep, Chris? You can't help someone who doesn't want your help. And at what price? What if it eventually means she'll take your life. . . all of our lives?"

Despite his uneasiness, Larabee was still determined. "I can't make that choice for you. . . for any of you." Glancing around the table, he sighed heavily again, "But I have to take that risk. I have to. . . whatever it takes."

Another moment of silence was yet again ended by Tanner's words, "Love's a pretty powerful thing ya know."

"Lust more like it," Wilmington huffed. "And I, for one, ain't never met a woman I was willin' to die for."

A scowl knitting his brow, it was Dunne who disputed his best friend's statement. "You're such a liar, Buck."

"Indeed he is," Josiah agreed without hesitation.

Narrowing his focus on the two men, the rogue was about to comment when Nathan cut in. "Buck, every woman you've ever met, you'd die for, no matter what the circumstance. You just don't have it in you to walk away. None of us do." Looking directly at Chris this time, the medic repeated, "None of us do. . .."

Vin reiterated the point. "We're trained ta help. It's what we do." When his voice softened, the Texan had everyone's attention. "Hell, it's just who we are."

As hard as he would have liked to dispel the logic being presented, the rogue couldn't. Like it or not, he was a born champion. . . Some would call their particular brand, heroes. They were all defenders and they fought for a cause on a daily basis. Perhaps, just once in a while, they deserved to fight for one closer to home.

Looking around the room, and with the exception of a decidedly reserved southerner, Chris was beginning to get the feeling that he wasn't alone anymore. It was clear that there was more work to do however, so he tried to steer the conversation back to the afternoon's objective. "So. . . Can we get back to the business at hand?" With a nod, he singled out his profiler. "Josiah, when do you think you'll be ready to give us something to go on?"

"We were able to dig up some intel yesterday, Chris," the big man answered. "Another day and I just might be ready to present a working draft."

"Good enough," Larabee nodded again, content that progress was actually being made. Analyzing his men carefully, he seemed to mellow all of a sudden. "I appreciate everything you're doing, boys. . . really!"

Waving off some of their attempted responses, Chris sighed, "Let's call it a day, shall we? I've had about as much of these four walls as I can handle for now."

"Not to mention your. . . 'secretary'," Buck mumbled as he got to his feet. Sending a knowing glance at Chris, he then added. "I know, I know. . . I'll avoid her as I leave."

"Perhaps we should all do the same," Ezra advised as he, too, got up to depart.

Finding concurrences in that room wasn't hard. . .

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

"Come in, Mac. Come in," the General waved as Major MacDonald entered his office. "You have good news for me I hope."

Word had spread fast and, knowing the General already knew what he had to say, the Major took advantage of his boss's good mood. "Yes, sir."

"Good, good," Garrett headed for his liquor cabinet. Grabbing the whiskey decanter, he motioned his subordinate to come over. "Join me, Mac," he smiled as he poured. "She'll be back where she belongs very soon."

MacDonald hesitated when his boss shoved a glass into his hands.

"Oh come on now, Mac," the General insisted. He then winked when the man accepted his offer. "That's better," he grinned, taking up his own tumbler. "To Kate."

Again MacDonald was hesitant to join in the toast. "What will you do if she doesn't call, sir?" he asked cautiously.

Pausing at half swallow, the General choked a bit on his drink before coughing and laughing off the question. "Nonsense, Mac. She's always followed orders. And if I know Orin, which I do, he would have passed on my request as soon as he could."

"We have visual confirmation of her whereabouts now, sir," Mac was still cautious. "But that doesn't necessarily guarantee her compliance."

Frowning slightly, Garrett thought over what the Major had said before swallowing down the rest of his drink. With a loud thud, he returned the glass to its tray. "You're right, Mac. As you reminded me just two days ago, this is Kate we're talking about here. Orders are orders, but she sometimes has her own way of. . . interpreting them."

"It's been three years, sir."

"Thirty four months and twelve days, Major," Garrett corrected, earning him an incredulous stare. "Oh, Mac. . .You've always had your doubts, I remember. And didn't she prove you wrong every single time?"

Smiling at the General, MacDonald brought the glass to his lips, his mind remembering the day he'd sacrificed Kate Lansky to her fate. . .

"Report, Captain," a much younger Colonel Francis Ulysses Garrett had demanded of his right-hand man.

William J. MacDonald was always attentive to his boss. Never questioning the intent or purpose of his superior, let alone the man's orders. "The cycle looks like a bust this season, sir. None of the candidates we've looked at meets the criteria"

"Not one?" Garrett questioned from behind his big desk. "That's impossible. We can always find at least one."

"Not this cycle, sir," MacDonald repeated. "There was only one potential but that fell through when we found out it was a woman."

"A woman?" the colonel frowned. "Why was she considered at all?"

"There was a mix up on the data, sir. Getting these damn new machines to work properly is frustrating as hell. No one bothered to program in the fact that we only recruit men."

"We do. . . don't we?" Garrett slowly repeated, but then had a thought. "Why is that, Captain?"


"Why do we only recruit men?"

"Sir. . . The job. . . the assignments. . ."

"It might be interesting to see how a woman would react to the training."

"Sir? The re-education alone would have to be modified. . ."

"Why, Captain? What's so different? They all have minds you know. And just like these new fangled computer things, they can all be reprogrammed."

"Sir. They have. . . they are different."

Standing now, the colonel raised an eyebrow. "They have curves, Captain. Other than that, the psychology works exactly the same."

"They also have. . . monthly requirements, sir."

"I didn't realize you knew so much about the female of our species, Captain," Garrett teased.

"I. . . well, I. . ."

"Enough, Mac," the colonel grinned. "Tell me exactly why those new machines put her on your 'A' list, and don't leave anything out."

"She. . . wasn't exactly. . . on the list, sir," Captain MacDonald hesitated. When Garrett crossed his arms however, he continued rather abruptly. "She was actually at the top of the list, sir."

"At the top?" A speculative eyebrow rose this time and the colonel became increasing more interested. "Give me her stats, Captain. Give me her name."

Reaching into his pocket, MacDonald drew out a piece of paper and looked it over before answering the question. "Kate Lansky, sir. Her feasibility came up as a ten and nobody else fit the profile. The resulting aptitude also rated her a ten, but mostly because of her performance, not just the correlation of feasibility results."

"She holding her own then?" Garrett's curiosity increased.

"Apparently, sir, but these computers sort raw data. They give facts, not opinions."

"And what about you, Captain? Do you have an opinion?"

"She's a woman, sir."

"Yes, yes, I know. . . She has curves and a monthly inconvenience, but forget that and tell me about your gut, Mac. If you didn't know she was a she, would you retrain this candidate?"

Emptying the last of his drink, Major MacDonald swallowed it down hard. Not for the first time, he was actually regretting that he'd ever heard the name of Kate Lansky.

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

Lying on her bed, staring at her laptop coldly, Kate couldn't believe how empty she felt. It was almost as if the last three years of her life never existed. No matter how much she wanted to deny it, she was still held tightly in Garrett's talons. She was sick to her stomach and angry as hell all at the same time.

Where had everything gone so horribly wrong? What was she going to do now?

Five short weeks ago her new life had been going so well. Sure, it had taken almost three years to get it that way, but anything worthwhile was supposed to take time. . .

She'd actually found a place to belong again. A real place. . .

As much as she'd always thought of team Seven as a makeshift family, she'd actually started to feel like one of them. Her walls had slowly come down. She'd slowly given up the habit of distrusting every single gesture or questioning every well-meaning attempt they made to bring her into their fold. But all of that was before she could admit to falling in love.

Once again, her life had fallen apart after falling in love. . .

"Come on, Babe! We can quit the service and run away together. Live out our wildest fantasies on some tropical island someplace warm."

It wasn't so much his persistence that bothered Kate, it was simply the fact that he didn't like to be told no. What man did? But their relationship was so much more complicated than her fellow sergeant could know. "Cole, look. . . I'm in for the long haul. I've told you that time and time again. You know my boss wouldn't take it too lightly if I just up and went AWOL on him."

This particular conversation was getting old. All Bryant wanted was to possess the woman he loved, heart and soul, but every time they talked. . . It was like Frank Garrett appeared in the room and stood firmly between them. "I don't like the way that guy looks at you," he replied, the frustration clear in his voice. "Doesn't he know he's old enough to be your father?"

Shaking her head, Lansky took in a deep breath and turned from his angered look. "The General has pulled a lot strings for me, Cole."

Kate constantly defending the man just pissed Bryant off more. "So you stay because you owe him?"

"No!" she protested a little too strongly. Once again staring into his blue eyes, Kate suddenly lowered hers, finding the accusation uncomfortable. "I stay because. . . because I'm afforded a lot of opportunities I wouldn't normally have."

Cole was scowling now. Not once had he ever heard Kate say anything about 'loving what she did', or 'wanting to serve her country'. Instead, the 'opportunities' she was talking about now, drove him nuts. He couldn't help but be suspicious of the assignments Lansky seemed to luck into. She was the only clerk he knew of who could pull a liaison stint out of her hat, seemingly at a moment's notice and seemingly, with every foreign embassy they had. "Yeah, right!" he glared. "Pretty good bribes if you ask me. A good way for him to wheedle his way into your pants."

"Oh give it a rest!" Lansky snapped. "You're jealous of your own screwed up imagination, not something that actually exists. Why can't you get that through your thick skull? The General is my boss. You're my lover. . . and if you want to keep it that way, I suggest you keep that big mouth of yours shut!"

Staring at his woman, Cole brought forefinger and thumb to his chin, pawing lightly. "Ya know. . . a lesser man might see that as a threat," he mumbled. "Me. . . I'm beginning to wonder who keeps making that threat. You or him?"

Lansky turned from him at that point, but Cole was quick to assert himself, spinning her back to face him. "Don't turn away from me, Kate. I love you. We should be able to talk about anything, but sometimes. . . Love you or not, I sometimes get the feeling that love isn't enough for you. That there's more than the two of us in this relationship." Shaking his head gently, he lifted her chin and looked directly into her eyes, eventually taking her by the shoulders. "It's like he's holding something over your head. Like you want to run away with me. . . but you're afraid of what he'll do, if you do."

Lansky allowed her eyes to close as she slowly leaning forward, resting her head against the strong chest she had grown so fond of. There was a truth in Cole's words that she would and could never admit.

They had been together more than eight months. She'd gradually opened up to this man but the closer he got, the more 'things' he noticed.

Never in her life had she been in this position.

They'd met in an off-base bar. A common place for her to pick up a quick fix for her occasional frustrations, but Cole wasn't like the rest. He actually seemed to appreciate her moods and sexual appetite, and he didn't mind her being in control. He also had the most alluring way of stripping her of that control, and it was in those moments that he took her to heights unimagined. Something she'd never ever experienced before.

Until Cole, one-night stands had always done the trick. Taking what she wanted was a game, but being possessed, drinking someone into a soul that she didn't know existed, was pure unadulterated pleasure. And for those few brief minutes in her existence, this man actually made her forget who she really was. . .

But in the knowing, allowing him inside her defenses, Lansky had unwittingly created a problem that would need to be fixed. After all, she didn't deserve to be loved. . . she didn't ever deserve to be happy. "You really don't know what you're talking about, Cole," she finally answered. "I wish you'd accept that. I wish you'd stop trying to figure out something that isn't a mystery. Stop trying to make me something I'm not." Looking back up at him, she sighed. She was glad he didn't know what she really was. . .

Seeing the insistence in Lansky's eyes made Bryant sad. He knew Kate wasn't an easy woman to love, let alone know, but once you got her away from the base. . . it was like night and day. He could strip away her defenses and make her loosen up and relax. God, how he loved to make her smile... "Loving you just isn't enough then?" he asked quietly.

These conversations had come and gone over the past couple of months and Kate wasn't liking the pattern. She knew that Cole was being honest with in his feelings, but he could never understand what he was doing to her.

The regular everyday life of her long-ago childhood was like some strange fantasy and facing a world other than the only one she knew now was a very frightening prospect. Even worse, once in, 'employees' didn't leave General Garrett's 'union'. That was the most frightening probability of all. And yet, if she could figure out how, she just might be willing to try and placate them both. "Loving is the easy part," she sighed before regaining her composure. "Look. . . I promised I would think about moving off base with you. That should be enough for now, Cole. I don't like it when you start planning out our future though. I'm not exactly the wife and mother type. . . There shouldn't be anything wrong with a woman wanting a career instead."

A career was one thing. What Lansky called her profession was something completely different...

Cole had been right of course, there really were three people involved in his relationship with Kate Lansky. Neither one of them had a chance from the beginning. . .

"I don't believe you?"

From behind his desk, Garrett raised a questioning brow. "Now, now, Kate. It's not like you to question me. See what he's done... He's a smooth operator. I don't like it one bit."

Lansky had this way of looking at you sometimes. . . Daggers came to mind, but while most people cowered away from the glare, it always made the General laugh. "I do wish you'd just accept it and stop fighting me. I can see the doubt in your eyes you know?" He chuckled openly, all the while knowing that he was planting those seeds. "Think about it. . . He's always asked questions. Blatantly tried to separate you from your service to your country. He's the worst kind of coward as far as I'm concerned. A traitor to everything we stand for."

"I don't believe you," she repeated, frustration clear in her voice.

"I may have initiated the investigation, Kate," Garrett said defensively, "But I wasn't expecting to find a pattern. And I certainly wasn't expecting to uncover a mole."

"He's not!" she insisted, but her words lacked true conviction. The dossier the General had furnished appeared to speak for itself. To a trained eye, the Intel might seem undeniable, but identifying defectors, collaborators, or double agents wasn't part of her repertoire. Maybe it was the reason why she'd missed the signs. Clues that, once pointed out to her, were developing into a much clearer picture.

"Lack of good judgment on your part perhaps," Garrett mumbled before shrugging off the comment and eying Lansky suspiciously.

"There's no way Cole can be the man you're portraying, General. Just. . . no way."

Leaning back in his chair, Garrett could tell that he'd successfully planted enough misgivings and decided he'd back off and see where Lansky's active imagination would take them. "All right, Kate. I'm not going to press the issue. I've given you the skills to decipher the truth. The only thing I ask is that you let me take care of your problem for you. . . when the time comes."

Lansky's eyes slowly shifted from the paperwork in front of her, to the man who was addressing her. She knew that tone. She understood the menace his seemingly innocent words were hiding. "There is no problem, General, and even if there were..."

Hesitation from his people wasn't something Garrett accepted and he quickly reinforced Lansky's training. "You have more than excellent skills in that area, Kate, but. . . sharing never hurt," Garrett smiled before shrugging off the comment. "You should have stuck to just playing with them, Sergeant. You gave this one far too much of your valuable time. Things could get a little. . . untidy, don't you think? And knowing how much pride you take in your work, I. . . wouldn't want one to ruin your reputation. You'll let me take care of the necessities when the time comes."

Pride and fear got jumbled up in Kate's brain about then and for the first time in too many years, she actually had misgivings about 'taking care of business'. Cole wasn't an assignment and he couldn't be the conspirator Garrett was making him out to be. . . could he?

Readying to leave, Lansky presented the General with one last insistent glare. "There is no problem," she said again. "Nothing. . . for you to take care of."

In the weeks that followed, her insistence became distorted.

She knew too well just how the General 'took care of necessities' and surrendering Cole to that fate was something she could never face. The thought of keeping him safe took precedence over any question of guilt or how else she might deal with the issue, should Garrett's dossier ever prove to be fact. But then those facts kept on coming. Each time she'd deny them, and each time the General's apparent concern would grow.

But then along came another necessity that needed taking care of and Lansky was reminded of how well she'd learned her trade from her mentor. Operation Dessert Storm would provide such a perfect veil. Things should have been fine, just like any other time, but then Bryant was just too dedicated and stubborn. . .

"Such a coincidence, don't you think?"

"This is insane!" Lansky argued forcefully. "He just wants to be where I am, General. Cole doesn't know anything."

"Are you sure you haven't let something slip, Kate? Talking in your sleep perhaps?"

Sneering at the man, Lansky couldn't believe the words that came out of her mouth. "You can actually stand there and ask me that? After all that you did to me. . . all the conditioning."

Garrett wasn't used to being questioned, and yet, he did have a soft spot for his protégée. She was everything he'd always hoped for and perhaps. . . just perhaps, she'd earned the right to a little indiscretion once in a while. "You did turn out so perfectly, Kate," he glowed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. No one can top a performance you've mastered so well."

Exasperated with this constant cycle of accusation, justification and praise, Kate threw her arms in the air. "But you still think Cole is using me as a source of information to buy himself a better life someplace. To sell secrets to the highest bidder."

"Our country's secrets. . . and ours," the General reminded her. Too many other government agencies had been exposed to the public and to the government itself. The depth and extent of our surreptitious existence can never be revealed."

"I've said it too often, sir. I'm sick of saying it, but I will - one last time. He has no clue! He has no reason to be digging for, or selling information. He's just another stupidly dedicated, under-appreciated American soldier trying to do a job. Don't condemn him for volunteering, just to be near me, and certainly don't condemn him for volunteering in a time of war."

Garrett didn't hear a word Lansky said. "You're not going soft on me now, are you, Sergeant?" he asked, a brow rising to accent the question before his face steeled, all emotion suddenly gone. "Get a grip, soldier. Fuck the war! You hit the ground running and you take care of your assignment. I won't have some traitorous bastard distracting you because you think you're in love, and I sure as hell won't let his people ambush you when you least expect it. Incarcerated for long enough, they might just get you to talk."

"He would never. . ."

Seeing the frown and puzzlement on Kate's face made the General smile but true satisfaction came more slowly as he watched her expression gradually harden. Perhaps he was winning this little battle. The entire conflict couldn't be too far behind. All he ever wanted was Cole out of her life and it looked as though he would have reason enough to celebrate. The thought of having something to play with again. . . The very evil of that idea so enthralled him that it actually blinded him to what was really going on in Lansky's mind.

Blinking herself back to reality, Kate looked blankly at her computer screen. Garrett had played her to the ultimate result where Cole was concerned. She'd been caught, saving herself only by exchanging her soul for a poor excuse at redemption. Driven by an insane instinct to survive, she had made such a terrible choice. The guilt was something she had tried hard not to think about on a conscious level. Her solution though, had been far better than handing her lover over to endure god knows what fate. Everything would have been much easier if she'd died in that explosion as well.

It just wasn't to be though. That very same instinct to survive had single-mindedly possessed her to fight her way out of that burning building, forcing her to live her life with such horrible deception until she could escape its source.

And then along came The Seven, with their bold and tenacious team leader. He was strong, bullheaded and determined. . . a protector. Chris reminded her so much of Cole. . . he was a man she couldn't help but fall in love with.

God! How she hated to admit her feelings. By doing so, she was in fact, perpetuating a cycle that had ended so terribly that first time. She would do anything not to relive that nightmare again. No one deserved to die like Cole had. . . least of all, Chris Larabee.

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

Twenty-three hundred hours came and Kate swallowed hard seeing his blue 18 appear on her screen. The symbol welled an odd combination of loathing and fear in her gut. It represented everything she hated about herself, and most significantly, her part in this man's insane world.

If there were a way to unravel time, she would surely do it. So many had died. . . and she couldn't stop thinking about that number increasing by seven. . .

At the other end of the opened transmission circuit, Major MacDonald was organizing some documentation on the far side of General Garrett's office when he clearly heard the Sat Link chime its page. As his boss prepared to receive her answering tone, Mac also heard the contented sigh. He readied to leave, expecting a request for privacy that never came. Instead, he sat and listened intently. . .

"Well, well, well. . . If it isn't Sergeant Lansky. . . How are you doing these days, Kate?" Garrett was clearly enthused by the fact that their old colleague was back to following orders, be they blatant or implied.

A very audible and disgruntled huff came from the computer's speaker however, making it very clear that Lansky wasn't at all pleased about responding to the man's summons, or the attitude reflecting back at her. "Cut the crap, General. I told you last Monday, I don't work for you any more. Stay the hell away from Orin Travis. Stay the hell away from me!"

There was a slight pause and the Major knew Garrett would be smiling. "Things never change, do they, Kate?" a still rather pleased voice cajoled. "Really now. . . You make catching up on old times sound like a crime."

"Oh, like tracking people's movements, you mean? We both know that's a crime."

"And we both know we're both very very good at it," Garrett tempted, completely unfazed by her accusation.

The voice that answered the General was a little less persuasive than MacDonald would have liked to hear. "I don't do that anymore, or have you forgotten? I haven't worked for you in three years and nothing is going to change that."

"Perhaps. . ." a smug man answered, "But you, haven't let your skills lapse, Kate. . . Which is good! Oh, but let's not talk about old times now. Let's. . . yes. . . let's talk about new times. Let's. . . talk about you and your new friends, Kate. I'm told you've integrated yourself well into Orin's operation. And there is. . . one team in particular, right? I understand that they've become an intricate part of your life."

MacDonald winced at every biting word Lansky used in her reply. . .

"You're a bastard, Frank. You'll never be half the man Orin Travis is. He's an honorable man. He doesn't need to hide in the dark and take advantage of people."

There was a long pause and Mac had to wonder what was going on behind him.

"God! I hate these games!" Kate spat out. "I know you've played me, General. Three fucking years of my life, wasted!"

"Thirty four months and twelve days actually but, whose counting?"

Lansky's graveled voice answered. "And you chose now, why?"

Garrett just laughed. "Tell me about team Seven, Kate. Tell me about this Larabee fellow."

In the safety of her apartment, Kate cringed as her mind raced. This was exactly what she was afraid of. She had ignored his first question, hoping beyond hope that Garrett would pick a different topic to talk about. Clearly though, he had an agenda. And if she even breathed the wrong way, the General would have his suspicions confirmed. She knew how his mind worked. He was looking for any sign of concern and she'd be damned if she'd make the same mistake now that she'd made with Cole. "Larabee?" she repeated as candidly as she could. "You mean the guy Orin saddled me with to baby sit? Oh that's a laugh, Frank. Larabee is just another high on himself federal agent who knows squat about paperwork. He's okay at his job mind you. Same goes for the rest of his bunch, but sometimes. . . geez, sometimes they seem to think it's easier to get ahead by pissing people off instead of working."

"Is that so?" Garrett almost cooed. "The way Orin tells it, your integration is nearly complete. You've pretty much assimilated yourself into their operation. See. . . I know you really haven't lost your touch, Kate."

Lansky's voice was calm when she replied. "Integrated? Ha! This isn't some fucking assignment you concocted, Frank. This is my life now... a real life. . . way outside the 'union'. I don't know what you've heard or what you've read into Orin's conversations, but for your information, team Seven are mostly a bunch of misfits who couldn't even write complete sentences when I first got here. Hell, some of them still can't! Orin made a good call by sending me down there and. . . well, I guess I've made progress with them. And, three years is a long time ya know. . . I suppose we've sort 'a become friends but. . . more than that?" With a snickering laugh, she added, "That's rich! Like I said, misfits everyone. . . Mostly, I don't waste my time. You shouldn't either."

"What I've heard. . . what I've heard," Garrett mused aloud. "Oh come now, Kate. . . I know you better than you know yourself. I know how you blow off steam, how you, yearn. . . how you pretend to enjoy. Seven of them? You can't tell me you haven't enjoyed at least, one or two?"

Lansky wasted little time with her reply, "You're a sick man, General!"

Garrett didn't answer immediately and the Major had a burning urge to turn around to watch the man's face. Deciding that continuing to breathe was a better idea however, he stayed still.

In truth, Garrett's patience was wavering. He hadn't been able to pick up on any telltale signs, so he decided he'd try another approach. "Extricate yourself, Sergeant. I'll take care of the clean-up."

For her part, Kate was outwardly amused, "Extricate myself? Oh that's a laugh. . . and for what? So I can come back and play some more. Ha! I don't think so."

Still listening, and knowing her as well as he did, Mac clearly understood how infuriated Kate really was.

Lansky's voice steeled as she continued, "There is no requirement for clean-up or containment and I'll be damned if I'll let you convince me otherwise, General. I have managed to survive out here, despite your dire predictions, and coming back. . . that's just not an option. . . It never was! Moving forward lets me see where I'm going and I've got used to that, I like it. It's time you did the same thing perhaps. Get on with your life and accept the fact that I'm no longer in it! Just. . . leave me alone, Frank! I won't ask next time!"

With that, the Sat Link chimed its disconnect, leaving Major MacDonald listening to his boss growl.

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

It was six thirty am on Thursday morning and Lansky's run had been a hard one. She had purposely pushed herself, unconsciously preparing to do battle. Only once before had she been angry enough to challenge the General at what he knew best. This time though, there was no way she was letting him take away what she cared about... No way in hell he was getting close to Chris!

Dried off and standing in front of her mirror, Kate cursed the newly acquired injuries to her body. Jogging in a heavily wooded area during a thunderstorm was never a good idea, but last Wednesday Adrian Delaney had spilled the beans to Chris about her one-night stand with Ezra and she'd been beyond pissed. So she hadn't been thinking straight. . . it just seemed such an unjust punishment that the stupid tree right besides her being struck by lightening.

Sighing heavily, Lansky set about tending her burns. She'd been doing it all week and they were slowly healing. The marks on her face were fading nicely, too. She had a brief thought about being 'presentable' again, but quickly forced it away. No matter how much she wanted to, she wasn't planning on keeping company, so what did it matter...? There was a job to be done and nothing would prevent her from making sure team Seven would remain safely out of Garrett's reach.

That goal in mind, she dressed and headed for the office.

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

"Some things never change, do they?"

Kate's fingers were busy. The computer screen was full of assorted information, but Lansky's mind was elsewhere. She was so totally pre-occupied with 'plans and possibilities' that Kate hadn't noticed Chris approach. Fifteen minutes earlier, her consciousness had of course registered him come into the office but, just like the rest of them, this man was no threat. Tracking his movements shouldn't be a requirement. . .

But then again, here he was, sneaking up on her. . . blowing all of her determination and resolve straight to hell, with just a few words.

Agitated, she briefly narrowed her eyes. "I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee," Lansky answered as she turned, her face now a blank canvas. "Did you say something?"

As she watched the slow tilt of his head, Kate kept her emotions at bay. Larabee was talking to her. Even yesterday's childish 'silent treatment' was easier to deal with than this. Targets just didn't get back up when Lansky had cause to take them down. Let alone talk to her! But. . . as she'd just reasoned, Chris wasn't supposed to be the threat. He certainly wasn't one of her assignments either. And he had no clue that the real enemy lingered far too close for comfort.

Despite her manner and tone, Chris found his smile. Despite everything, he had really needed to hear her voice. Kate being in the office at seven thirty in the morning was his way in. The fact that she was so engrossed in. . . something. . . that she'd failed to notice him come close. Well that was just an added bonus. Her inattention didn't happen too often though and a small part of him wondered if she was truly dedicated to her job or whether she had something more interesting to think about this early in the day. The thought quickly disappeared as Chris refocused on the fact that she was back to calling him Mr. Larabee again. It wasn't at all pleasing to the ears but he figured he could live with it if it meant that she was at least talking to him. Where they'd go from here, he didn't know, but he had to keep trying. Briefly holding his mug aloft, Chris offered a smile. "Thankfully, you're a creature of habit, Kate. I can always count on you to save me from Vin's coffee."

Lansky practically rolled her eyes. Small talk was never Larabee's strong point. All day yesterday she had been completely ignored and now, well, his casual manner was beyond annoying. He did remember what she'd done to him five days ago, didn't he?

Inside her mind, Kate heaved a heavy contemptuous sigh. Damn her smug thoughts, but. . . Did Chris remember Saturday night?

No one would ever believe her of course, but she didn't. . .

The actual 'blow by blow' details of what had happened in her apartment were totally gone, presumably blocked-out like so many before them. Denying her consciousness access to the gruesome niceties of her previous life was a defense mechanism and one she had quickly developed. In this particular case though, it bothered her so much. It was after all, a defense mechanism that had gotten her into this situation in the first place. That much she clearly understood. She knew she had reacted, but again, the details escaped her. Damn her instincts! What the hell did Chris do to set in motion such ingrained defenses?

The questions weren't really important anymore though. Filling in details... did that really matter either?

All Kate remembered - the thing she would never get out of her mind - was the realization of waking from some horrible horrible nightmare. She had been terrified in those few seconds, the scene scarier than anything she could have ever imagined. She was poised, her blade piecing flesh and exactly on target, and Larabee - her Chris - was. . . gone?

'Oh, God. . . not again!'

Remembrance of that single thought sent a bone-chilling shiver down Kate's spine.

That night it had only been natural for her flight reflex to kick her into high gear. She could escape clean this time...

Her equipment, always at the ready, had appeared from its hiding places. Water and rations materialized, along and other essential supplies. She was ready to go in minutes, but then. . . she'd stopped.

It. . . He. . . wasn't dead. . .

Larabee was still moving!

He was so 'out-of-it', confused and hurt, but, thankfully, Chris was alive.

There had been instant recognition of failure, but Kate's sudden distress masked that concern so completely. Watching a barely conscious man fighting so hard to stay that way was so overpowering that the memory was hard to control, even now. . . Chris had known he was bleeding. As one hand tried to stem the flow, the other pawed at his head. Disorientation wouldn't be vanquished so easily though and his survival instinct had switched tactics, forcing a badly bruised and unsteady hand to retrieve a cell phone. When it slipped to the floor, Lansky's hopes had been dashed...

She knew who Chris was trying to call. His own personal Calvary. . . they could save him. In that brief instant, Kate understood that fact as much as Chris did. She knew these men. They were the best and they were so much a part of each other's lives that she couldn't just stand by and watch one of them fade from existence. By rights he should have already been gone, but. . . this was her Chris.

Lansky couldn't have stayed if she had wanted to, but there had been one last thing for her to do to hopefully keep this man alive. And she so much needed him alive. . .

"Last thing I need this morning is Vin's coffee," the senior agent added. He'd watched the myriad of expressions on Kate's face and sensed that she wasn't fully with him, but Larabee wanted to keep her talking. Strangely, even though he knew they weren't, he also needed to know that things were okay. "I've got this damn psych eval this morning, Kate. Sure would appreciate a word to the wise. Seemed only natural to ask, since, I'm guessing. . . you could ace one of these things without batting an eye." Appealing to Lansky's conceit often lead to emotion. Sometimes it opened up the fight in her, but sometimes, it forced her hand, opening the real Kate up instead. Larabee never knew what to expect, but he liked it that way. . . most of the time.

This time. . .

Slowly looking up into his pale green eyes, Kate almost lost her composure. The bloody figure on her living room floor gradually faded though and she was somehow gazing beyond the challenge of his final sentence, instead seeing the request in his first. Damn Larabee all to hell. How love and hate balled together so perfectly in her head was a stupefying mystery she didn't have time or patience to deal with anymore. Yeah, she loved him, but that didn't give him the right to just 'play' with her. "Psychologists have no idea how to live in the real world, Chris," she said gruffly. "You. . . you're too familiar with how it all works. Hell, you beat it back once." With a determined shrug, she cocked her head, "Just stick with your gut. . . you'll be fine."

Sucking at his bottom lip, Larabee hesitated. He'd heard the sincerity of her words and believed them true. Kate was actually reaching out, but. . . damn him, he decided to walk the mined path anyway. Blatant truths was the game Lansky was playing these days, wasn't it? "Well, thanks," he said sincerely, and then added, "And I hope you don't mind if I apply that same principle to pursuits of a. . . different nature?"

Again Lansky switched gears without battling an eye. Damn his 'all or nothing' personality. Was he really standing here, pushing her. . . after Saturday night? "I said the real world, Chris," Kate scowled as they locked eyes. "Not mine. Pursuing the unknown into the unknown would be truly. . ."

Larabee didn't hesitate. With raised brows and a smile on his face, he quickly finished Lansky's sentence, "Stupid?"

Although making Kate speechless gave Chris a rather smug sense of satisfaction, it also left him feeling slightly uncomfortable as well. He did want them to talk about their truths though, no matter how unnerving that conversation got, so he did continue his train of thought, even though he still wasn't sure how clear his intentions were. "I learned a hard lesson Saturday night, Kate. I want you to know this though. . . I learned that lesson well. I learned it so well in fact. . . that I know you're telling me the truth. In your own quirky little way, you've probably always been telling me the truth. Maybe even, never lied to me." Taking a breath, Chris chanced a smile. "Stupid. . .? Yep, that's me. All these years, and my gut has kept me alive all that time. But when it comes to you, I've let my heart get in the way. I've thought about switching back to my gut, Kate, but. . . well, I came up with a better idea instead."

Not waiting for an answer or reaction, Larabee stepped away from Lansky's desk. Taking solace in the curious look he had garnered from his lone audience member, he nodded just once as his mug came up in salute, "Thanks for the advice about the shrink, Kate. I'm sure it'll work."

Lansky was indeed speechless and somewhat dumbfounded as she watched Chris leave. He walked across the bullpen floor, stopped long enough to deposit his mug in the break room and then slapped Buck on the shoulder as the two men met in the entranceway. And then he was gone, leaving the rogue to throw a perplexed look in the woman's direction.

In response, Kate turned her back. She had no clue as to why Chris was suddenly so happy but she had the strangest feeling she'd just lost control of the situation. And that just wasn't good at all. . .

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

Six men were sitting around the table nearing the end of lunch break when Larabee came in and dug his coffee cup out of the sink. Rinsing it, he then proceeded to pour himself another serving.

Noticing the time, Wilmington grinned, saying, "Doc Reed kept you late, Chris," as he looked over his shoulder. "Anythin' we should know?"

Joining the others at the table, Larabee raised a brow as he pulled out a chair and sat. "Reed is a pussy cat, Buck," he sneered playfully. "And not that it's any of your business, but I stopped by Orin's office to let him know that team Seven was all done with their evaluations."

"Did you make sure Adrian heard you say that?" JD asked, reminding everyone that the psychological testing they'd all endured in the last two weeks was, most likely, Delaney's idea of payback.

Knowing what the kid was implying, Ezra was quick to counter the comment, "Yes," he smiled. "I still believe she should be commended for her timely discovery. Preserving our field status is always a worthwhile cause."

Grinning knowingly at Standish, Sanchez asked, "May we assume that our boss is pleased?" clearly changing the topic back again.

Larabee paused, allowing his lips to purse as he let out a deep breath. "Honestly, I don't know, Josiah. He's. . . all over the map." Looking from his profiler to the rest of the team, Chris expanded his answer. "Seems the DA has some flunky named Carver all over his ass about the Prichard case. Head office is riding him about incomplete medical and.. . ."

As Larabee's voice faded, Buck frowned, looking around the table. When their leader failed to continue however, he finally asked, "That's a real noisy quiet you got goin' on there, Stud. Can't be good."

Realizing that he'd paused a little too long, the senior agent shook his head, briefly dipping his chin before finishing his sentence. "And. . . Kate's on his mind, too." Sighing heavily again, he shifted in his chair before looking at Sanchez again. "I get the feeling Orin knows more about her than we do, Josiah. Any chance you can stop up there and talk to him? Inconspicuous like. . .."

Always interested in what went on on the thirteenth floor, Standish was quick to ask, "Did the AD say something in particular, Mr. Larabee?"

Glancing at his undercover man, Chris shook his head, "No. . . not really. He did ask me about her resignation again though, only this time. . . it's like his finger wasn't pointing at me anymore. Like there was something else. . .."

"Your gut?"

Letting the profiler's question hang in the air as he sipped at his coffee, Larabee finally affirmed it with a nod. "I just got the feeling. . . like something was eating at him. I know the two of them have a certain. . . rapport but. . . Ah, I don't know," he sighed again. "If I didn't know better. . . I'd say he's worried about her."

As if the topic hadn't changed enough times in as many minutes, Tanner couldn't resist his opportunity, "If he knew the truth, maybe he'd be worried about more than just her," Vin said playfully, offering a quick wink to Larabee's exasperated stare.

"What makes you think we know the truth?" Buck asked quietly, stilling the room once more.

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

A question had been nagging at Wilmington for a while now, and driving towards Larabee's ranch several hours later, he figured he'd finally found his opportunity to ask. "Tell me somethin', Chris. . ."

Much to the blond's dismay, Nathan was still insisting he have someone stay overnight and, this evening, his oldest friend was taking his turn. Not exactly a good thing when a certain lack of patience and understanding still stood between the two men. So far though, the trip had been without incident, but something in his gut told Chris that was about to change. Offering a heavy sigh and an even heavier glare, he asked, "What is it, Buck?"

Thinking over his question again, Wilmington strengthened his resolve. This was the right time to ask. After all, they were traveling down the main highway out of town at a good speed. It wasn't like Chris could just up and walk out on him. "This thing with Kate, Chris. . . Tell me it isn't just about the sex," he said plainly, chancing a quick glance at his boss.

The sneer pulling at the corner of Larabee's lip grew until it creased his whole face. His shaking head couldn't believe his instinct had been so horribly right. Was Wilmington really asking this question? "You don't actually expect me to answer that, do you?" he glared. "Jesus, Buck, what the hell. . .?"

Understandably, there was a strangled silence. The rogue ended that though, attempting to clarify his reason for asking. "Look, Chris, I'm sorry, but I've known you for a lot 'a years and. . . well, you ain't been pissed outta your tree in at least the last two of them. There ain't no reason for you to be losin' sight of reality like this. I thought her sleepin' with Ezra was enough of a hint, but, Saturday night?"

When Larabee didn't answer, the rogue figured he might as well press on. "After we found out about Ezra. . . Do you remember what I told you about her?"

In the last few seconds, Chris had considered never talking to Buck again, but this question reminded him of something he had never forgotten, "You said you thought she was scared, Buck. And you weren't the only one. Ezra said it, too."

Frowning at the information, Wilmington thought back. Somewhere in his consciousness, he acknowledged that at least part of the statement was true, however, "That's. . . not exactly what I was referrin' to, but. . ."

"But nothing," Chris interrupted. "You were right on the money then, Buck. I don't get why you're ready to give up on her so easily now? I won't!"

"Oh yeah," Wilmington scoffed, "Like layin' me out and cuttin' my throat wouldn't deter me at all." Looking at his friend again he sighed heavily. "Come on, Stud. . . even I couldn't miss a hint like that. And you. . . Hell, I can't help but remember you've done better."

Running taunt fingers from his temple up through his hair, Chris gradually leaned away, gently banging his head against the side window, trying to think. He knew his reasons. Vin and Nathan seemed to be on his side, and maybe Josiah. Dunne he wasn't sure about yet, and Standish. . . well, the man was being as aloof as Larabee had ever seen him, but as Buck had just pointed out, the southerner had a whole different set of reasons, and Chris wasn't about to push.

That left Wilmington. . . Damn if the man didn't think too much. . .or too little as the case may be. He gave his heart and emotions too much free reign over his relationships. . . and that most definitely applied to certain 'other' parts of his anatomy, too.

As his last thought brought a long-forgotten fact back to Chris, he decided to use some ammunition of his own. . . since they were being so honest. "Ya know. . . there was a time you had designs on Kate yourself, Buck," he remembered as he glanced at his oldest friend over his shoulder.

It took the rogue a moment, but. . . "Ah now that's hittin' below the belt, Chris," he scowled with contempt. "I'm tryin' ta figure out why you're so stuck on her after all she's done to you, and you go throw that back in my face."

"Tell me that's not why you want to know about the sex."

"Noooo," the rogue groused, balling up his nose. "Geez, Chris. Just, forget I asked. Ain't like Kate and Sarah are anythin' alike or anythin' so remotely obvious. Geez, it was just a damn question."

"Yeah," Larabee nodded, "But there's more to it, right?" His own accusation had been as pointed as the very personal question that started this discussion, but his gut was hearing something different now and Larabee was suddenly very curious. Turning fully to look at the man, he asked, "What did you mean, Buck? There's a reason you asked, there always is. What is it?"

Chewing on his bottom lip, Wilmington looked back and forth between his friend and the road. Finally, nodding, he continued, "Alright, Chris," he said resoundingly. "You and I both know that takin' that next step in any relationship means there's supposed to be a level of trust beyond just the. . . well, the courtin' and flirtin' stuff." When Larabee didn't say a word, Buck continued, "The whole closed-door thing with you and Kate. . . before that you had a firtin' stage, but it weren't about havin' fun. You're flirtin' stage. . . Hell, you two have been doin' it practically the whole time you've known each other. All those times you were yellin' and throwin' things. . . but the sex. . . That came on real fast, right? It's like. . . like your whole relationship was foreplay and then you finally took the plunge."

Larabee was wide-eyed but his surprise at Wilmington's forthright words had him thinking, and remembering. Allowing his mind to think back, he was suddenly cognizant of what the rogue had been referring to a few minutes before. . . after the incident with Ezra, and what Buck had said about Kate. . .

"She's never given off those normal female vibes. She started to though. . . about a month ago. . . like she was sizin' you up, thinkin' on relationship things."

"Something changed though?" Chris had asked.

"Yeah. Didn't take long either. . . All of a sudden she was hidin' again. . . like when she first started workin' here. She didn't let anyone close back then. . . you remember? Don't know how to explain it, Chris. It's like she's closin' in on herself. . . almost. . . like she's scared."

The last part of the conversation had meant more to Larabee back then, and it still did. "This whole mess started because I slept with her," he said plainly, chancing a glance at his oldest friend. "But you're right. . . we've never had a normal relationship, have we?"

"That there's a real understatement, Stud," Wilmington sighed, returning his eyes to the road.

Allowing his own focus to drift back to the window again, Larabee watched the scenery go by. His previous annoyance slowly waned as he thought about what Buck was saying and he began to understand the man's point. Kate and Sarah were nothing alike. From the very beginning, Lansky had presented herself as a co-worker and a constant challenge to his authority. And okay, so office relationships were different from those forged completely on a social level, but there was more to it than that.

Kate's position of responsibility within the ATF framework was completely separate from the one Chris had. She was an equal of sorts though, but it had taken him a long time to acknowledge that fact. Instead of seeing her as an equal within her own realm of jobs and tasks, he had treated her as a subordinate. . . someone who he could order around and utilize for his own advantage. The whole 'secretary' facade that Buck and Vin tossed around so jovially now, had been a point of contention when she first arrived. Hell, he'd certainly used the term himself. . . when he wanted to get her going.

Considering his last thought seriously, Chris glanced back, finally continuing the conversation. "No, Buck, Sarah and Kate aren't anything alike at all." Shifting position again, he offered a genuine smile with a glance, and then a heavy sigh as he once more looked out the front window. "But I'm not the same man I used to be either. Truth is. . . I don't think Sarah would approve of the man I am now."

Seven years was a long time. It had been that long since Sarah and Adam were laid to rest. The terrible journey Chris had taken afterwards was something no one liked to dwell on but, thinking back, Buck couldn't deny Kate's strange connection to events she'd never witnessed.

Three years ago, Lansky had shown up on the scene and assumed she could fix everything. Oh, she was dynamite in the office, taking Larabee to task every chance she got. But then the team had warmed up to Kate, and she had eventually followed suit, figuring, too, that she could extend her unique brand of friendship to a long-suffering Chris. Wilmington had tried to warn Larabee's new assistant about the approaching anniversary of that terrible day, but she hadn't listened.

'Lansky never listens. . .'

The brief thought actually made Buck smile. He had formed so many conclusions about Kate over the three years. And Chris was right. He had actually considered the idea of getting to know her a little better in those first few months. Boy, she'd quickly quelled that idea, and now, he was ever so grateful for that fact.

A brief glance at Chris numbed his appreciation though, and Buck grew serious again. "I'm sorry, Chris. I know I shouldn't be commentin' on your business like this, but openin' up that door last weekend. . .seein' you layin' there. . . you're not as invincible as you've always pretended to be, Stud. Oh, but you're stubborn though. Too stubborn to die and. . . too stubborn I guess, to give up on that. . . that lady of yours. That woman brought you to your knees, and so help me. . . I'm just tryin' to understand. . . how, after lovin' Sarah the way you did. . . how on earth Kate Lansky deserves that same kind of devotion."

There was a truth in Buck's words that Chris had considered, and brushed off, and then considered yet again. How many times in the last month had his heart fought that same battle with his brain? Two women, so completely different. . . "Sarah tamed me," he smiled in remembrance. "Taught me the pleasures of home, and family."

"This is just a guess, mind," Buck offered sarcastically, " But I'd bet you're not thinkin' on takin' that kind 'a life up with Kate now, are ya?"

Larabee couldn't stop the sly look and the shake of his head. "Kate ain't exactly the type."

"You noticed that much at least," Buck snickered as they slowed to make their exit.

Chris didn't know whether to be angry or just plain unimpressed with his oldest friend's attitude. It seemed to always be the same with Buck. All these years, through their ups and downs, he could always count on the rogue to confront him with reality. Buck's version of it anyway, and there had been times through the years when he'd needed that reality check. Sometimes, they both did.

No matter who was in need of it now though, Larabee did appreciate the opportunity to try and explain his position, no matter how annoyingly the question had been posed. Taking a breath, he attempted to do just that. "Buck, I love Kate and I'm not giving up on her. I know she's nothing like Sarah. But I'm not the same anymore either. When Sarah died. . . I lost a part of myself that I can't ever get back. Kate - damn her!" Fidgeting as he ordered his thoughts, Chris pursed his lips. "Kate once told me that Sarah would always have my heart. That she's still got it." As Buck's dark blue eyes met his, Chris swallowed hard, "She stood in my kitchen and told me that she'd never begrudge either of us for that. That Sarah had captured my heart and deserved my love. Kate even said. . . she couldn't compete - didn't want to. She said she'd never try."

Buck took a moment before answering. "Pretty damn insightful if you ask me."

Chewing at his bottom lip, Chris once again made eye contact. "No, not really," he shook his head before huffing his laughter. "Kate also tried to tell me that Sarah Larabee would own me till the day I die, Buck, and I listened. I listened, and I believed what she was saying but. . . I know now, that's when it all started. All the time I thought we were getting closer. . . in reality; she was trying to push me away. Almost from the very first time we were, intimate. . . And I keep thinking. . . if I'd realized it, and tried to figure out her reasons back then. . . maybe I could have saved Ezra."

Wilmington could hear the conviction and honesty in Larabee's words. "Do you really believe that?"

Chris nodded, offering a brief smile. "Until recently, Buck. . . I've been blind, to a lot of things. But I know the truth now, and I can finally admit it, too. As much as I loved my wife. . . her death affected me more than I've really ever been able to acknowledge. I changed. . . for the worst. But, Sarah. . . she doesn't own my heart anymore. I'm pretty sure she wouldn't want me the way I am now either. The man she fell in love with, he died when she did. He became a bitter, resentful old man who drank too much and, well, still yells at his friends too much. You're always telling me how much of a stubborn pain-in-the-ass I am. I'm forever getting you guys into hot water because of my moods, and attitude. Hell, there were times. . . that I was ready to step in front of a bullet if it meant getting some wacko off the streets, or saving my friends from some horrible fate. And before Kate. . ." As his voice softened, Chris looked Buck in the eye, "Before Kate, there were days where I would have stepped in front of that bullet, just because. . .."

Glancing out of the passenger window again, Larabee watched as Wilmington pulled off the road and onto the long dirt driveway that lead to his ranch. "Like it or not, Buck. . . I don't think I can ever again be the kind of man Sarah fell in love with," he offered. "I can finally admit that to myself. It was losing her and Adam that really changed me. Not anything Kate has done. She. . . she's just made me realized who I've become. And that I don't have to feel guilty about that fact."

After a moment, Chris continued, "I blamed myself for what happened to my family, Buck. I still do really, but. . . I always thought it was that guilt that made me into what I became. And if I could just come to terms with it somehow, I might change back into the man Sarah loved. Be worthy again of being loved."

"Losing your wife and child would kill any man, Partner," Wilmington consoled. "No one blamed you for that."

"At first maybe," Larabee answered, his gentle smile finally back where it belonged. "Not even you. . . and I'll always owe you for that one."

Without looking Chris in the eye, Buck slowly shook his head.

Still wearing his contented expression, the blond continued without criticism, "I've always known, deep down, that I allowed the guilt to consume me, but. . . it took Kate to make me realize how really convoluted I let it get." When Wilmington glanced back at him, Larabee offered a sigh. "I can't say much for her approach, Buck, but Kate's never given up on me. She. . . it's like she understands somehow. She took every excuse I ever gave her and, hauled them over the coals one by one, yes. But, more than that. . . she made me look myself in the eye and accept what I saw, instead of. . . always looking for who I used to be. And she. . . she's never once asked for anything less than what I saw. . . what she's always seen. And believe me, she does see me for who I am. . . every fault and every weakness."

Ignoring the rogue's snicker, Chris pressed on. "But she accepts me. . . just the way I am, the way I've become. I've been a changed man for a long, long time, Buck. I just never really accepted that until Kate opened my eyes."

With the lights of the house and barn looming in the distance, the rogue listened to his oldest friend finish his thoughts. "Kate's given my life new meaning, my friend. She's made me want to live again and I can't do anything less for her. I do love her. And despite what you might think, I'm not blind. I'm just seeing things a little different is all.". . .

"So. . ." Buck said as he brought the truck to a stop outside the barn. Shifting into park, he turned the ignition off and glanced at Chris. "What you're sayin' is. . . it's really not about the sex."

Larabee's head hung low for a moment, but there was an undeniable smirk on his face as his eyes came back up to meet those of his oldest friend. "The sex, Stud, is mind-boggling," he confirmed as he opened the door and got out. Before he slammed the door closed however, he added, "And I'm soooo happy she picked me over you!"

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

Thursday had ended on a quiet note and Friday morning started much the same. Kate kept vigil on the men. They pretty much did the same, and for all the watching going on, very little conversation happened. For one member of team Seven though, it was all becoming a little too much. . . "You're staring at her again, Buck," JD complained.

His chair turned to face the glass wall overlooking the entire bullpen; Wilmington didn't hear his best friend until. . .


"Huh? What, kid?" Finally sitting back in his chair, the surveillance man cleared his throat as he scooted his chair back to its spot behind his desk.

"You've been staring at Kate all morning, Buck," Dunne scowled. "I know she noticed yesterday. I think the rest of the office has pretty much noticed by now, too."

Looking around the bullpen, Wilmington didn't see anything but people working. "You're exaggeratin', JD," he grumbled playfully. "I'm workin' this case, just like everyone else."

"This isn't a case," Dunne complained again. "And we're supposed to be helping AD Travis with those loose ends on the Prichard bust. You heard what Chris said yesterday about the DA riding him for the last bits of stuff."

"For your information, kid, Josiah took those notes upstairs about an hour ago," the surveillance man said, before winking. "See, I know exactly what's goin' on around here. Includin' the fact that Chris didn't take 'em himself because he thought Josiah could sit and chat with Travis. . . You know, see if he can get anythin' outta him about Kate, also as per our conversation of yesterday."

Dunne wasn't pleased about his best friend apparently knowing so much when all he'd really done was sit and stare at Lansky for hours on end. "You're as annoying as Chris is," he pouted. "I sit here busting my butt digging for information all day long and you. . . you take in the view."

Seeing the frustration welling up in JD's words, Buck took on a sympathetic tone, "Not makin' much headway, huh?"

Finally hearing the compassion he thought he deserved, Dunne sighed. "The Pentagon is a really maddening place, Buck. They have so many roadblocks in place. . . it's a wonder our military isn't more screwed up."

"Hey!" Wilmington scowled, "Watch your mouth, kid."

Pursing his lips, JD shrugged. "Oh, I didn't mean it like that," he reassured. "It just, they have so many departments stepping over one another, and no one can give you a straight answer unless you have super secret clearance. And outside agency requests have to jump through this set of hoops before they can be passed on to this other guy, just so he can get you to jump through a whole lot more hoops, and that's just so someone else can make you dance before they will actually pass you on to anyone who can actually talk to you."

Wilmington's snickered laughter didn't make JD feel any better, "I'm not getting anywhere, Buck, and Chris is expecting me to have a report for the meeting this afternoon."

There was a serious side to what Dunne was saying and the rogue knew it. "Did you hear what Chris said a couple of days ago, JD?"

When hooded brows answered him, Wilmington smiled. "He told you to keep on doin' what you did best, remember? Chris said no one else could do it and he was relying on your expertise."

Recalling the words Larabee had spoken Monday helped JD smile, but that didn't last long, "Fat lot of good my expertise does me if I can't jump through a few hoops."

Laughing, Buck got to his feet. "JD, what you just described is more than a few hoops, but I'm sure you've just about got 'em licked. What say we go celebrate with some lunch? My treat."

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

Wilmington and Dunne came out of their office all smiles and Lansky was more than happy to see them depart. The pair did their rounds, first collecting Nathan and Josiah before leaving for who knows where. Ezra headed for the elevators shortly afterwards, but Vin, after collecting Chris, chose the stairs as their method of departure.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Kate sat back in her chair as she eyed the empty bullpen. These seven idiots were up to something. She couldn't shake the feeling that had been with her since returning on Wednesday. Buck staring at her for hours on end was. . . unnerving, damn it! He was as annoying as Chris. Who the hell did they think they were anyway?

Pawing at the back of her neck, Lansky chastised herself for her thoughts. She was so screwed up. These men were her friends, and like it or not, annoying or not, she needed to protect them from the real threat here. She assumed they thought it was her. But whatever it was they were digging for. . .

Kate couldn't helped but be concerned because, if they found something out. . . just happened to trip over that evidence they were searching for, all hell could break loose very, very quickly. And, fact was fact. . . team Seven had no idea what they were dealing with. Kate Lansky was just the tip of a very menacing and very dangerous iceberg.

Because of it all, sleep had been far from demanding last night. Over and over again, Kate had played scenario after scenario out in her head, but to no avail. Garrett would have his way in a lot of the plausible situations. She would triumph in a few, but either way. . . the bloody consequences always involved some very important people in her life.

Hell, she'd even considered laying everything out on a silver platter for Chris. It wasn't like she was really afraid to tell Larabee he had been sleeping with the devil. She figured he probably already knew some of that truth by now, but. . . he hadn't abandoned her? He was somehow figuring that some sort of redemption could wash away whatever sin she had committed. . .

That didn't make any sense what so ever! Larabee had witnessed her brand of sin, up-close and personal. Shit! He'd practically lost his life because of it. How could he possibly be willing to forgive, or forget? Did he really think he was the only one? Did he really think he was the first? Of course, if Kate had it her way. . . he certainly wasn't going to be the last. She was reserving that particular honor for a certain bastard she knew...

Scoffing at the ideas of redemption and revenge, Lansky stood and gathered her pack. She needed food. She needed fresh air to clear her head and hopefully help her concentrate.

Headed for the stairway and the roof, Kate admitted once again, she was just so screwed up. . .

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

Wilmington could never hold his curiosity, especially where his teammates and friends were concerned. He was still staring at Kate. . . so hard. JD was right, no one could miss it, but inside the rogue's head, he was now attempting to make the distinction between teammates and friends. All day long though, in Lansky's case, he couldn't really. Oh, she wasn't one of the team. She'd only once gone undercover, and only because of an emergency, and she'd never worked surveillance. And she certainly hadn't ever got 'down and dirty' on a bust. But could she?

The idea fascinated him as he watched her work. . .

Now that he thought about it. . . really thought hard. There were just so many times it had been Kate who had fingered a key piece of information. Her strange affinity for paperwork somehow stood out when it came to those notes and reports they were always required to file. Even the internal stuff occasionally surrendered a pertinent clue. Lansky could pick them out a mile away. Like red flags popping up for her, she could connect two seemingly obscure dots on a page and point out something the team had missed.

But things like that weren't the only skills Lansky possessed. . .

Strange as it might seem, the conversation Buck had engaged Chris in last night had reminded the rogue about his own history with Kate, and his misguided idea of pursuing her as a potential love interest. She'd set him straight on that idea of course, very quickly, but in the process, she'd also revealed a few interesting things about herself that, until now, had been long-forgotten facts. The first time they'd managed to drag her on a camping trip was one such example. . .

"What do you mean, we can't take the horses?"

Larabee looked at Dunne. "Kate doesn't like them, JD. Apparently. . . Oh, I don't know, she fell at some point or something like that. Anyway. . . instead, we'll head for the old cabin this time, up beyond Bueller Ridge. It'll give us a chance to do some four-wheeling as well."

Looking at Buck for support, all the kid got for his trouble was a shrug. "Sure, Chris," he answered rather disappointedly.

"If Miss Lansky's attendance is that important to you, Mr. Larabee, then I, for one, am willing to make the sacrifice."

Chris looked sarcastically at the southerner. "Thanks, Ezra," he answered and then grinned mischievously. "You ride with Vin."

"Now that qualifies as a sacrifice," Josiah chuckled as he slapped Standish on the shoulder.

Corresponding plans had changed accordingly. . . Larabee had happily made them known and then insistently collected Kate the next morning. The two vehicles comfortably held eight people and enough supplies for five days in the middle of nowhere. Nothing new for team Seven. They weren't so sure about Lansky though. Boy, had they been wrong...

"What do you mean, you lost her?"

Buck shrugged. "She's done this before, Chris," he insisted.

"Hide and go Seek isn't exactly becoming at your age, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra snickered.

"I figured it was a good way to get her comfortable with her surroundings," the rogue countered.

"You figured you'd get her alone, disorientated and confused in the wilderness and then you'd swoop in and rescue the fair maiden in her time of need," Nathan suggested.

All Seven men stopped dead in their tracks, each in turn sending disbelieving looks the medic's way. Lansky had only been with them for a few months, but there was one thing they all knew for sure. . .

Thinking better on his choice of words, Jackson corrected, "Well, okay, so to speak."

Chris laughed. "Brings an interesting image to the mind, Nathan. Kate as a damsel in distress."

"Fair maiden is definitely a stretch of the imagination, too," Josiah added with a quirk of his brow.

"Alright, already," Buck huffed. "So maybe my idea wasn't the most well thought out one I ever had. . ."

Ignoring the scrupulous looks, Wilmington continued. "But, she ain't no stranger to the woods, boys. Take my word for it."

Seeing that his oldest friend believed he was telling the truth, Chris had sent Vin to track their wayward guest. Tanner, however, had emerged from the forest more than two hours later, empty handed. . .

In the meantime, however. . .

No sooner had the Texan left to begin his exploration, Kate showed up back at camp without any assistance at all. Coming out of the tree line, all smiles, she had asked the six surprised men, "Are we eating off the land, or did you bring meat?"

The question was met by the wrong conclusion. "You hungry, Kate?" Nathan asked. "Bein' out here can do that, especially when you get lost."

Lansky met Jackson's smile with a raised brow. "Lost?" she asked disbelievingly. "Don't tell me you never did SERE, Nathan?" As though it were the most natural thing in the world, she then extracted her prize from beneath her coat. Looking at the others, she asked again, "So, do we want it, or do I let it go?"

Okay, so, not that they hadn't tried mind you, but the only weakness they had ever found in Lansky's outdoor skills was her unwillingness to ride a horse. She would ride double if you really, really insisted. And there was the time or two that she even rode alone if push came to shove, but she never ever liked it. She never relaxed, that's for sure. As for the rest. . . Kate was so comfortable in the wilderness that it could almost be her second home. Of course, what SERE had to do with it, they had rarely explored. Perhaps it was time. . .

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

"They really make you do this stuff?" JD asked, his eyes still glued to his computer screen.

Buck couldn't hold back his smile, "Kid, SERE is nothin'. It's a steppin' stone to what Chris and I did in work-up for the teams. And hell, even that probably pales in comparison to Vin's ranger trainin'`."

"Really?" Dunne asked again, this time finally looking up. He considered Buck for a minute and then questioned, "Even our field tests weren't anything as extensive as this - Survive, Evade, Resist and Escape training. Why'd you make me look it up, Buck?"

"You get her records yet?"

JD frowned, momentarily glancing back at his screen before refocusing on his friend. "You. . . think Kate did this?" he questioned, his finger pointing at his computer.

Looking just as thoughtful, Wilmington leaned forward in his chair, "Do you remember that first time she came out to Bueller Ridge with us, JD?"

Frowning again, the kid searched for a memory and then nodded when he remembered. "She did say something about SERE, didn't she?" he noted. And then asked curiously, "That's gotta be over two years ago now, Buck. What made you think of that?"

"It's been awhile," the rogue answered, ignoring the other part of Dunne's question. Wilmington shot the kid a smile and then swung his chair around to look out into the bullpen. From where he was sitting, he could see Kate's desk but she wasn't behind it, so he searched the whole area until he located her at their reception area. "Look at her, JD," he said attentively. "Look at the way she carries herself. The way she's talkin' to Laura."

Dunne could see the two women going over something at reception's computer terminal. Kate was obviously pointing something out, probably providing instructions or guidance of some sort. "What, Buck?' he asked curiously. "The Admin Pool is Kate's show. We both know she knows this place inside, out, and backwards. Laura probably needed some help or something. Nothing unusual about that?"

"Maybe not," Buck answered nonchalantly. He really wasn't paying attention to the kid. Instead, his eyes were glued on Lansky. "Her back's so straight. . . rigid even. Look at her shoulders, JD. Held back, commanding, like she's ready for action at a moment's notice."

Dunne narrowed his eyes, "Buck. . . you're creeping me out," he eventually answered, throwing a note pad at Wilmington. "What's gotten into you?" he asked when he got the man's attention. "Wednesday you were ready to kill her. Now. . . now you're creeping me out."

Looking at JD, Buck allowed himself one last glance at Kate before he smiled and completely refocused on his friend. Tossing the note pad back, he answered, "I just got to thinkin', JD. We've all admitted that we have to look at this different than we're used to. . . look at her different than we're used to. And maybe. . . since we're lookin' into her past, we should try and remember the things that she's done with us, that didn't quite fit right at the time."

"Like SERE?"

"Yeah, kid, like SERE. That was our first day out in the bush and after five days. . . I know I was too tired to really think about what she'd said. I remember. . . Chris and I joked about it at some point, but we. . . we didn't take it seriously."

Dunne glanced up to see Lansky walking back to her desk. "We don't exactly have a choice anymore, do we, Buck? About taking her seriously I mean."

Wilmington sighed heavily as he met his friend's eyes. "Nope, JD, we don't." Standing, he tapped the kid on the shoulder as he prepared to leave their office. "I'm gonna go pass the word about rememberin' things," he indicated outside. "See if we can give Josiah some hard facts. . . things from our own memories. . . things that maybe ain't so insignificant after all."

As he watched his best friend leave, Dunne couldn't stop his eyes from wandering back to Kate. There were a few things he could think of right off the top of his head that weren't so insignificant about her. Maybe Buck was on to something.

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

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